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RAWHIDE!

In history, television on March 27, 2015 at 12:16 am

Rawhide cattle logoToday maybe this western television series — filmed through its seven-year run (1959-66) in black and white — is best remembered for its theme song, and not even for its classic rendition by Frankie Laine but by nonsingers Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi of The Blues Brothers (1980). It seems a shameful travesty, as seen today — and I’ve been watching the entire run semi-religiously on the Turner Channel daily, sometimes twice a day for the especially good episodes — it easily holds its quality after all these years as the best western rerun, just shading Gunsmoke but utterly destroying the color extravaganzas Bonanza, High Chaparral and The Big Valley; with a nod to The Wild Wild West, very well done but as an interesting foray into a camp, period-set crime show that had more in common with The Man From Uncle, even Star Trek. The series was created by Charles Marquis “Bill” Warren, a writer who had begun in the business with MGM. Warren kept busy with television, turning out three classics among his five western series, the others being Gunsmoke and The Virginian; another not so bad was the later Iron Horse with Dale Robertson. On none of his projects did Warren stay more than one or two seasons, happy to move on to something new once his current series was established. As such, he must rate with Quinn Martin (The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Invaders) as among the most successful independent television producers of the 1960s.

Like virtually all successful American tv series that don’t drag through repetition for a whole season, Rawhide relied on seven or eight regulars to carry the stories as genuine ensemble efforts. Eric Fleming (33 when filming started) and Eastwood (28) dominated as the trail boss and his ramrod respectively, often alternating, though the older man commanded the screen as well as the drovers. The top-billed star’s personal story is a haunting one, from a boyhood filled with vicious physical abuse from his father, to traumatic military service and facial reconstruction surgery, to early accidental death by “drowning” in a raging river (several witnesses swear he was the victim of piranha attack) filming on location in South America. Sheb Wooley as trail scout Pete Nolan was a reliable third wheel with screen presence, almost as tall as the 6ft-3-to-4 Fleming and Eastwood and fit for romantic leads, but leaving in 1962 to further his considerable country & western career — though he had been a recognisable screen face from his role as the third doomed badguy in High Noon (1952) and made most money from disc novelties like “The Purple People Eater”. Steve Raines (as Jim Quince) and Rocky Shahan (as Joe Scarlett) had started as stuntmen and background expert horsemen and wranglers, but Raines shone in an often demanding role and early on performed as central character a number of times, a convincing westerner in the Fordesque mold and a more than competent actor. Even Mushy, the young naive (slow) “cook’s louse”, played appealingly but without mushy sentiment by James Murdock, was treated as an important character, having several stories built around him. A year or so younger than Clint in real life, Murdock was handsome too and over six feet, yet another slimline hunk to ensure covering every possible combination and permutation of demographic. In keeping with the historical veracity of cattle drives held paramount for the theme of the series throughout, little Robert Cabal as “Hey Soos” (Jesus, spelt phonetically) was in charge of the remuda (corral of working horses) and added many a fine coloring of Mexican folklore and trail superstition to the atmosphere. In his eyes, packs of wolves, rogue bulls roaming solo, patent medicine pedlars and travelling entertainment shows of Gypsies were never quite what they seemed, allowing for interpretation by the supernaturally inclined — much to the taste of the drovers but the constant derision of ever tough, level-headed trail boss Gil Favor. Far less conspicuous and never featured was John Hart, a semi-regular over two early seasons but trusted with few lines though yet another who was tall with movie-star looks and not without talent: on the slow road of neglect after having been tv’s fill-in Lone Ranger for two seasons while Clayton Moore ruminated over a pay dispute with the producers, and then again every boy’s small-screen hero in the Canadian-produced Hawkeye/Last of the Mohicans.

Bewhiskered Paul Brinegar (Wishbone the cook), always good value as comedy relief in westerns — seen in the Fifties as a regular sidekick of Hugh O’Brian on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp — and whose avuncular codger appeal a sizable section of Rawhide fans swore by, was a recognised star by 1964 and he and the two established principals toured Japan, where the series was number one in the ratings. In the States it was not as overwhelmingly popular as Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Bonanza (1959-73), ratings toppers in turn for several years and all in color years before Rawhide folded; or a number of lesser western entries for that matter. Rawhide, a mid-season entry in the New Year of 1959, was an instant top 20 hit, peaking at no.6 for 1961, but then on a slow fade in domestic popularity despite a constant year-by-year improvement in overall production standards. And in the face of the fact that it was by far the most authentic western on tv through the Sixties including other vaunted candidates such as Gunsmoke, a revelation as the first adult western in 1955 and darkly noir-stylish in its early years (running till 1975), Wagon Train (1957-64), and Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-60) with Steve McQueen as the bounty hunter.

rawhide_original cast

Repeat guests of the suitably gritty quality of Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Robert Middleton, Simon Oakland, Claude Akins, R. G. Armstrong, Lola Albright, Ted De Corsia and L. Q. Jones had served the series’ long run well, along with bravura character thespians James Whitmore, Burgess Meredith, Mercedes McCambridge, Mickey Rooney, Patricia Medina, Fritz Weaver, Linda Cristal and others. Rawhide‘s production company, Revue-CBS, which in 1962 had finished with Laramie and begun the full-color, 90-minute blockbuster The Virginian/Men of Shiloh as a longrunning flagship project, by the end of 1964 was ploughing more resources into bolstering a failing series that was arguably better than ever. One episode from this period, “Canliss” directed by former sci-fi specialist Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth) features Dean Martin as the titular gunfighter, surrounded by up-and-coming leading lady Laura Devon and prestige character stars Michael Ansara (famous from tv as Cochise), Theodore Bikel and silent-movie veteran Ramon Novarro. The recruitment of Martin — best-selling crooner and moreover bona fide tv star with his own popular variety series having started that September — was a sure sign of status, the first “special guest star” to be featured upfront in the opening titles, though the series was to survive barely a year more till the New Year of 1966, just half a season after the decamp of Eric Fleming with Clint Eastwood left as the sole regular star.

The episode did without Rowdy altogether, Eastwood on hiatus making A Fistful of Dollars with Italian director Sergio Leone. Clint had guested in a pre-Rawhide episode of Maverick, co-starred with other popular tv series stars David Janssen (Richard Diamond, later The Fugitive) and Darren McGavin (Mike Hammer, later The Outsider) in an ill-starred remake of Lafayette Escadrille (1958) from prestigious director William Wellman, and gone on to guest star as himself in Mr Ed — a modest peak in American tv. Starting as a $600-a-week tv “star”, he had probably made it to a couple of thou by the end of the run — and received $15,000 for his first Leone outing; $50,000 for the second, For a Few Dollars More, filmed 1965; $250,000 for the third, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (’66). Eastwood called on Ted Post, a frequent director of Rawhide episodes, to handle his first independent film production, Hang ‘Em High.

Eric Fleming said, leaving after the 1964-65 series, the producers had let him go because he was costing them a million dollars a year — the same, record fee that Elizabeth Taylor had recently earned for Cleopatra, that took two years to film: good indication of Fleming’s centrality and appeal to fans of the show. For as long as he lasted, Gil Favor’s “Head ’em up! [six-beat pause] Move ’em out!” was an icon and probably the widest known feature of the series apart from its evergreen theme written by Dimitri Tiomkin. And when the show finally wound up the unforgettable personification of Favor, Eric Fleming, had just months to live.

While Charles Gray had filled in as scout Clay Forrester with charismatic performances (though on the back foot competing with scout Flint McCullough played by Robert Horton on Wagon Train) for a good while after the departure of Sheb Wooley, only for Wooley to return for a few episodes when it was almost all over, things were never the same when for the season opening of fall 1965 Rawhide recruited John Ireland (previously the gunslinger in Red River and Johnny Ringo in Gunfight at the OK Corral) and Raymond St Jacques for its final series — as fill-ins, as Wagon Train and Bonanza would try too for longevity. Ireland and St Jacques played it macho as badly drawn new characters, with the former bizarrely out of type as an obvious middle-ager nonetheless given to impulsive, foolish moves, previously the province of young Rowdy Yates — with Clint Eastwood now firmly in Sergio Leone mode as the unrelentingly grim, leaden-faced “man with no name” he would continue with in one context or another for the rest of his on-screen career.

Stripped of Hey Soos, “Mushy” Mushgrove III, and Joe Scarlett from its guts, gone were the incidental comedy and confrontations at the chuck wagon, around the camp fire and over the coffee pot that had made the series thoroughly human. Bit characters who had lent a special flavor, like “Teddy” and “Toothless”, were no more. And Wishbone, formerly blustering as lovably cantankerous mostly toward Mushy, was cast adrift as a bully flaying everyone in sight with pointless jibes. Young English supporting actor David Watson, with a full molded Beatle helmet and Peter & Gordon toffee-nosed accent, was introduced in hopes of updating the image to Mod 1965 — to no avail. As a supposed consolation, lost in tv history obscurity, a collective landmark was crossed with St Jacques joining Bill Cosby (I Spy) and Ivan Dixon (Hogan’s Heroes) as the first black actors as regulars in a tv series, all appearing in September 1965, to be followed by Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura a year later starting Star Trek.

Judge Judy & Dr Phil: Egos that know no bounds backed by unbridled power

In ideology, morality, psychology/psychiatry, television on March 7, 2014 at 5:05 am

One of the few benefits of age is, having picked up in middle age the gist of a few patterns in the way life works, your ability at judging character and people’s motives grows more acute. This is never better illustrated than when watching celebrities — such as tv stars Judge Judy and Dr Phil. No matter how well groomed, titivated, glossed over, edited they are to appeal to the masses, the real essence sometimes shows through.

When Oprah Winfrey quit her daily talkshow about everyday people’s problems to concentrate on the world she knows and loves best — celebrities — she anointed “Doctor” — no, he’s only a psychologist — Phil McGraw as her heir apparent. It was the kind of done deal — he working for her tv empire — that told you what she was all about all along: wielding populist power from a position of pseudo-journalism coverage of trendy themes, handled almost solely from the woman’s point of view, and basic ignorance of many things. But he had the letters after his name so, being a simple Mississippi girl after all dependent on her “inner child” to do her thinking for her, she must have assumed he would go down as an expert with the daytime tv-watching public. And, as with all tv dynasties, relatives (Phil’s wife and at least one son) have been taken on board automatically without credentials as ready-made “experts” whether they have anything worthwhile to offer the audience or not.

drphilEven with all the spin, poor Phil often unintentionally shows the cards he was dealt. Some of his pet sayings like “I didn’t come in on a load of turnips” and “Is stupid written here?” (pointing to his forehead) speak vividly of a kid picked on by older siblings and remembering their taunts word for word. He’s begging to be called on them, and I wait for the day when someone with presence of mind who isn’t intimidated by Phil’s defensive bluster when he’s cornered retorts: “I didn’t know it was supposed to be” or “No. Someone must have rubbed it off.” I hesitate to suggest Phil’s vast expanse of forehead was the cruelest cut of all, but this is maybe his one point of modesty. In fact he mentions it so often — even to the point of rudely comparing guests’ with his own hairline — that I can’t help thinking he believes it’s his only imperfection, though a glaring one that’s all the more embarrassing to him: as self-absorbed as any other showbiz diva.

The result is he’s an overblown, self-aggrandising street fighter (or the Oklahoma equivalent) who somehow stumbled into academia to start what became a great “meat-hunters” career in a “carnivores’ world” as he likes to call it. He and his great buddy Donald Trump once got together on the Dr Phil show to carve up a former contestant, a young black woman who had displeased Trump by going public with her complaints against his show The Apprentice, taking slices off her turn and turn about, incessantly grilling her third degree style and talking over each other in their bloodlust to get at her. Funny that in this context one of his favorite aphorisms didn’t occur to him: “This situation needs a hero”, when he’ll invariably turn to the man in any dispute versus a woman and tell him to “Man up!” — a blatant call to chauvinism. But Phil and the Donald were disgustingly lacking in manliness that day. After many years of watching him in action, I can much more easily imagine him as organiser of local dogfights with the goal of shredding people more than he pretends to help them. Watching Dr Phil this very afternoon, he was faced by the nemesis he just cannot stand: an ultimately confident man who is also more intelligent than him (not an unusual circumstance on his show).

This was an elderly widower who had lost his wife in a car crash not his fault, and whose daughters had been on his neck ever since for marrying a younger woman who was getting a share of his resources. A guy who looked seventy should have sought out a woman the same or an older age? The man was dead meat toward the end of the session when McGraw insisted he must apologize to his daughters (whom even their mother hadn’t liked when she was alive) for making them feel sad, and making them angry enough evidently for one of them to threaten him with a hitman. He, in all conscience couldn’t see himself doing this and honestly declined to.

“You’re a right fighter…” came in Dr Phil with one of his favorite put-downs that would be a compliment to anyone with integrity. “You’re going to end up a lonely old man,” he added with relish, almost licking his lips in anticipation at the thought of fruition at the hopeful curse he’d just put on his ‘guest’. The man took it in equable spirit, agreeing it was a possibility. As the show ended good-ol’-boy Phil couldn’t resist one last sly dig as he leaned in and insincerely shook the man’s hand goodbye/good riddance: “You’re gonna feel like a real asshole when you get home and watch this.” Someone on Phil’s staff must be getting heartily sick of him because the epithet (though delivered off-mike) was audible and not blocked in post-production.

judgejudyJudge Judith Sheindlin is praised for her strength by her admirers and even her detractors grant her a certain repellent straightforwardness. But this is only part of the picture, and maybe a misleading one. In the many years I have watched the show off and on (mainly off over recent years) I have seen her grant any degree of deference to just two of her thousands of ‘guests’. One was, maybe surprisingly, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols; the other, Beatrice Arthur, famous for playing essentially the same domineering character in television’s All in the Family, Maude and The Golden Girls. On both occasions, such was the contrast to Judge Sheindlin’s normal, outright disdain, she came across as fawning in her approach to them: maybe a little taken aback in the presence of people with at least a modicum of talent to show for their millions.

She claims to be “a truth machine”, the kind of line that might go down well with any tiny tots unlucky enough to end up surfing her channel. Insisting that she has infallible judgment in people’s veracity, for it to work properly they have to look her direct in the eye without flinching — an act of courage that shouldn’t be underestimated. If they hesitate with an answer, thinking, or look away for a moment, this is a dead giveaway of attempted deceit. She, like Phil, has outlandish overconfidence in her intelligence. When she’s challenged a simple “I’m smarter than you are on your smartest day!” is enough to leave all comers at a loss for words. At first you can’t help laughing out loud at this. But pretty soon you realise it isn’t just a courtroom tactic, and how really dangerous this is that she takes these comic lines so very seriously. It’s too much to hope for Albert Einstein to show up in the dock, but I can’t wait for Stephen Hawkings or Noam Chomsky to be placed in the stocks as her whipping boy and modestly announce who he is to the Grand Know-It-All. Maybe the best place for Judith Scheindlin is a walk-on in that Muppet sketch, the one where Kermit hails, “Call the Royal Smart Person!” Enter Judy, taking bows and totally straight-faced.

Delivering her usual shtick, one of her common refrains is to berate a solo mother or unemployed man on welfare for sponging on her tax dollars. This by itself is deeply pathological coming from a woman who works a total of 52 days a year and receives $47 million for it. Do the arithmetic, and think what unbounded chutzpah and self-love this must take, amounting to an unrecognized diagnosis.

To draw together my few observations, I can’t help but stick my neck out and suggest that both Phil and Judy (is it her Americans mean when they coin the word “Judyism”?) are self-revealing Republican supporters and strong proponents of the ongoing Trickle Down con job in international economics. It shows every time Phil, at the end of his diatribe, graciously offers a downtrodden guest, “I want you to have help — and I’m offering this treatment to you, from me, free of charge”, as if he’s giving it out of his own obscenely bloated paycheck. Both of these tv superstars — and many others — know very well that most of the human tragedies they see every day on their shows, year after year, wouldn’t even arise if the United States followed the United Nations human rights resolutions on health, poverty, employment and education as part of its stance on economic, cultural and social rights. Instead they make themselves feel good by trotting out piecemeal, one-at-a-time charity to people they treat as charity cases, who should be receiving these services as of right.

THE MONK IS ON YOU

In Humor, psychology/psychiatry, television on August 3, 2013 at 10:23 am

The tv series Monk started in July 2002 and is still going (as far as I know — we only get reruns here in New Zealand). But it’s never been the same since actor Bitty Schram (playing the feisty Sharona) left before filming the second half of series three; she appeared in just 38 episodes. Yes, the actor left — so this was not a creative decision as claimed by the producers but a power play, and it SHOWS.

Who knows what the creator of the series, one Andy Breckman, thinks of this. He must have worked out the balance of the characters to the nth degree if he’s gone through what most good tv writers do. Then just have it subject to arbitrary change when the producers, presumably rolling in more millions of profit each year, tell an actor “Take it or leave it.”

Yes, Traylor Howard is blonde and cute. (I admit to a prejudice against the ugly modern trend of females named with two unfeminine surnames.) I’ve seen her in a few teen movies from the early ’90s and she did well enough. But there is no way her character Natalie has “replaced” Sharona — who lent just the right spice to the mix. Ted Levine seems to me a very accomplished comic actor (and otherwise) and Jason Gray-Stanford does well too as the often hapless detective lieutenant. Tony Shaloub is expert in what he does on screen — but part of what he does is executive producer, and he doesn’t seem to be quite as good at this. It obviously creates an unhealthy power imbalance among the cast.

But whether this one event triggered more unfortunate trends I can’t say for sure. The comedy had gotten less clever, more slapstick. The tone is more crassly sentimental, to the point of getting us to feel sorry for geeky Teen Monk in numerous flashbacks. As if anyone’s interested — Yet, he might get his own series one day in a lucrative spinoff, as these things tend to happen. Straining for plots, Monk is put in less and less likely situations until credulity is strained beyond breaking. Knowing just a little about mental health, I’ve known from the start that someone who suffers from anxiety as constantly and intensely as Monk does could never bring himself to focus on a case for more than a few seconds at a time. No way could he function coherently as a detective over a whole case, never mind a genius who solves every case. But for the sake of involvement (which every good drama needs) I was willing to suspend disbelief.

Yet, the producers throw away this one main premise of the character when it suits them. After the umpteenth rerun episode I just started to watch — and felt too insulted to continue — Monk, on the run from the police, had just come out of the ocean to be greeted by his friend Leland Stottelmeyer (Ted Levine). The captain says something like, “That must have been hard since you can’t swim.” And Monk replies, “I was highly motivated.” These injokes are fine if the series wants to descend to the pat, unchallenging level of Murder She Wrote or Love Boat, but don’t expect me to hang around.

EXACTLY HOW SPOILT ARE WESTERN WOMEN?

In anthropology, ideology, television on May 9, 2013 at 10:57 am

The theme of tonight’s ramble came to me as I flicked through a dating site of African women, then another of Asian women — representing most of the adult single women on earth who are searching for male partners. Time after time, in the slots for preferences regarding a prospective partner’s ethnicity, height, weight, occupation, earnings, was written “any, any, any, any…” At the bottom, invariably, was the conclusion that the main, often only qualification, that “he love me and look after our family”. Of course, this contrasts starkly with my other favorite haunts: dating sites featuring New Zealand, Hawaiian and Southern Californian women. Far from the men of the Western world demanding anything very specific from women — as is the subject of popular and politically correct myth — the women demand as their right men of a certain physical size and activity, personality, wallet, philosophy, religion. It’s testimony to how indoctrinated men are in the modern world that they take this in stride until it comes to abominably stupid women showing just how obnoxious they are in their demands; e.g. a woman of say, 5ft-11, insisting on her right to wear her in-fashion seven-inch heels and then specifying a man who stands taller than her, totally oblivious (and indifferent?) to the fact that she has just excluded 99.999 percent of mankind.

My mind went back a week or two to viewing an hour-long episode in the British tv series Tribal Wives. It typically features dissatisfied women from the British Isles who go to live for a month in an African tribal setting to discover… something. On seeing glimpses of it previously I got the impression of idle white women slumming, maybe living out the earth mother fantasy, or reliving a previous life, to great but much-deserved disillusionment. And back they went to having too much time on their hands and finding their true callings in crystal therapy or numerology.

But this time it struck me as one of the few reality shows worth the price of admission on free-to-air tv, usually a very hefty price of switching your mind off to receive some “aimless thrills” to quote Basil Fawlty. It involved an “African” English woman of 36 whose most recent ‘long-term’ relationship had broken up, giving her pause about whether she was suited to relationships at all or had she, even, been missing something in the mix. The Masai women who were her hosts were very concerned about her suitability for such a hard life and at first cosseted her through the hardest parts, including carrying heavy loads for miles every day. She finally adapted fairly well, with the exception of getting used to sleeping in a smoke-filled hut and defecating just outside the front entrance where everyone else did. After all, this, mixed with the mud underfoot, cattle dung and straw, had built the hut in the first place, she realised. I half laughed and half sneered, thinking of an aspiring San Diego dater who actually named the fragrance her man was supposed to wear.

She also had chances to meet and chat with local, eligible single men who were openly complimentary of her beauty and personality. Though their aspirations to have more than one wife jarred at first this was countered in her mind by their alarm expressed at the thought of deserting a female partner and children as she knew young men in the Western world were apt to do. From the point of view of local men, love for a wife was based on her worth as a person, to his and her children, to the tribe, and a much broader feeling of caring; not the narrow definition of so-called love in the Western world, an ego-centric mix of glorified mirror-gazing, enhanced status and passing lust that is dressed up as “romance” and more often than not ends up as two people callously manipulating each other to do the other’s will. Her attitude at the end for all their nurturing and all she had been taught, was one of gratitude and the feeling that she would genuinely miss the place and the people.

Hope there’s a follow-up episode some time.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN

In film, generational/fashion, ideology, sociology, television on May 5, 2013 at 10:22 pm

This is one of those articles you write when you’ve got nothing better to do on a stormy Auckland morning. The subject isn’t of much significance. Or is it? It has nothing to do with the Sc-Fi classic of the same name, c.1957, but maybe everything to do with the age we live in. I’m thinking that the sheer preponderance of shrunken men placed in the limelight these days has something to do with what women want today — females being the biggest force in spending power and determining who is box-office on screen, online, in social networking, in magazines: someone to tower over in image, in achievement, moral superiority as they do already, but finally too in actual physical dominance. Why else would tall women continue queuing up to marry Tom Cruise, perhaps the ‘biggest’ movie star of the past thirty years and by reputation at least, the shortest? Not to mention rather elfin-looking Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio who have been no shirkers in earning power by the lights of woman power.

Once upon a time in the movies — let’s limit it to talkies, so from c.1930 on — a man had to be six feet tall or faking it to be taken seriously as a ‘romantic’ star. It hadn’t been so in the 1920s, when silents were perfected as an art form. The art was in what the filmmaker chose to depict, for example a towering domineering character portrayed by a short actor like Douglas Fairbanks; or a backbiting comedic foil in 5ft-11 Flora Finch. A “tall” leading woman of early talkies, playing straight, was Katharine Hepburn, 5ft seven and a half. Then a decade later came Ingrid Bergman and a generation after, Sophia Loren, both a whole half inch taller. In late silents the dominant male was the Latin lover type, more stocky and lean-muscular, of whom Rudolf Valentino, 5ft-10 or -11, was probably tallest; John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, Antonio Moreno, Ricardo Cortez, Gilbert Roland and lesser stars of the genre were average to short.

In 1931, soon to be the most popular romantic male star of all, was Clark Gable, 6ft-1, his publicity said. Those who knew him whispered that The King was “a short 6ft-1” meaning he slouched an inch or so. There were Gary Cooper, nearing 6ft-3, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott the same; Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller in rather specialised roles, namely one — the reigning Tarzan and nothing else for 15 years. In the mid Thirties arrived smoothies Ray Milland and Fred MacMurray, in the same range; with Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant all 6ft-2, James Stewart 6ft-4. John “Duke” Wayne was 6ft-4 and a half but not a major star until the mid Forties. Sterling Hayden (6ft-5) was supposed to be a major star from the start but the war and left-wing stances derailed his career somewhat; and Rod Cameron at least that tall in westerns, but not much of a star, maybe C-grade, or an actor come to that. Fess Parker was that tall too, enough to play Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone without a stretch. Of course there were big stars supposed to be six foot by publicity but fell just short: Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, William Holden.

Of shrimpish early cowboys I have noticed only G. M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson going back to The Great Train Robbery (1903), and Thirties B-star Bob Steele, not seen for just how challenged he was until up against Forrest Tucker in F Troop on Sixties tv. The big exception to the rule was the studio of the Warner Brothers, who persisted for the first few years of talkies with short (and black-faced) song-and-dance star Al Jolson, squat hero Richard Barthelmess, and overreaching thespian John Barrymore, all ridiculously popular but whose combined salaries — nearly two million simoleons a year — were enough to almost bankrupt the company. Their new stars of the Thirties and Forties specialised in contemporary urban crime movies and still ranged from short to average height — average for a normal man of the time that is, six inches shorter than your average screen hero: Edward G Robinson, John Garfield, James Cagney, Paul Muni, George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, in ascending order but all 5ft-5 to 5ft-8. It was a studio that boasted even shorter character actors to make the pint-sized heroes look heroic: Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy; and perversely consigned all but Errol Flynn of its 6ft-2/3 squad to sub-star level: Basil Rathbone (a constant villain until he became the classic Sherlock Holmes), Patric Knowles (Will Scarlett), James Stephenson, John Ridgely (the commander in Air Force), Paul Henreid (suave continental — type 1), Conrad Veidt (continental villain — type 2), utilitarian heavies Ward Bond and Barton MacLane (The Maltese Falcon), Wayne Morris (promising all-American type cut off by the war), Alan Hale (Little John), Guinn Williams (Flynn’s sidekick in westerns), Bruce Bennett (Treasure of the Sierra Madre)– adding up to an awful lot of very tall men theoretically wasted for their potential physical presence on screen at one studio in one decade.

By the Fifties the crunch was on. Far fewer movies were being made by the big Hollywood studios, suffering competition from television, and new stars magnetic, talented and versatile enough to cover varied roles — and tall too — could be counted on one hand: Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston at 6ft-3 and Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster at 6ft-1. Victor Mature and Cornel Wilde were action men in this height range and popular for 15 years postwar, but gave the impression of filling in for the very top names; at the much lower level of the Saturday matinee, the Lex Barkers and Jock Mahoneys providing bulk product. A-list stars Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark, in typically big-man roles, had to stretch considerably to fill the screen. At a time when even 5ft-10 and a half or so was considered tallish for “the man in the street” (so called to distinguish him from real men on screen), Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Tony Curtis and Steve McQueen played men in the street at an inch or so under this height. But the most popular Western heroes on tv in the late Fifties and early Sixties strove to be six and a half feet tall and look effortless doing it. James Arness of Gunsmoke was said to be 6ft-7. Gunsmoke< His real-life brother, Peter Graves in Fury, was the runt of the family at 6ft-3. Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, was 6ft-6; Chuck Connors in The Rifleman, and Gardner McKay (Adventures in Paradise) 6ft-5; Eric Fleming as trail boss Gil Favor and Clint Eastwood as ramrod Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, both 6ft-4 at peak; ditto John Russell as Lawman and Tom Tryon (Texas John Slaughter). And James Garner, that little old man in the sitcoms, used to be 6ft-3 when he played Maverick. It was 55 years ago after all. And I too can testify to some shrinkage with age.

Strangely, of all tv stars, only Eastwood, Garner and Steve McQueen, arguably Tryon in a very brief stint, and later Burt Reynolds, went on to be movie stars — all coming from western series. Guy Williams (Zorro), 6ft-2, had to go to Italy to be fully appreciated in swashbucklers on the big screen, where the even taller Steve Reeves (Hercules) and Gordon Scott (Tarzan) were already superstar beefcake. The biggest star on the big screen through the late Fifties and early Sixties, Rock Hudson, was 6ft-5. But 5ft-9ers began to predominate: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen; and by late in the decade young up-and-comers (Michael Anderson, James Stacy, Mark Slade) were compact to the point where two 6ft-4 supporting actors were brought in as father figures to tower over everyone else in High Chaparral (Leif Ericson) and Lancer (Andrew Duggan).

In an atmosphere like this no wonder Alan Ladd, a western hero (Shane, 1953) but 5ft-6 and a half, felt such a misfit, so isolated and insecure as to be suicidal — pilloried in the States in contrast to Brit heroes John Mills and Richard Todd were visibly shorter but held aloft rising above their female co-stars on stilts. Ladd complained of Boy on a Dolphin (1957) that playing love scenes with Sophia was like being pummelled with melons. (Poor him!) And poor Richard Widmark, erect and lean — but 5ft-9 will only go so far — was acutely embarrassed and tried to withdraw from John Wayne’s production of The Alamo (1960) when he found out he was playing pioneersman and cutlery craftsman Jim Bowie — built like a brick teahouse and standing 6ft-6 in actuality. Wayne, producing and directing at the same time, was committed to playing the somewhat smaller role of Davy Crockett a lot taller: a sawed-off Crockett, of all icons, was not an option.

In an age of feminism thriving in the early Seventies, Dustin Hoffman (5ft-5) and Al Pacino (5ft-6) started the trend to conspicuously pixie-sized leading men — and let it all hang out up against taller leading women like Marthe Keller and Diane Keaton, though wisely never paired with amazons Sigourney Weaver or Geena Davis: a bridge too far of logistical illusion. Of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, none can be called above the average range, never mind tallish. My impression of Arnie’s height is more mind over matter. Black men, by contrast, were always expected to be of some physical menace, at least of strong implied authority, on the screen (but for comedians — Bert Williams, Flip Wilson, Eddie Murphy). So for Canada Lee, Noble Johnson, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards, Harry Belafonte, Brock Peters, Woody Strode, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Jim Brown, Yaphet Kotto the bar of just standing there 6ft was the lowest of hurdles they had to meet.

Today, of very tall actors I can think of Liam Neeson… and then there’s… Did I mention Liam Neeson? Maybe Daniel Day Lewis — playing Abe Lincoln, after all. Oh, and there’s that other guy who looks taller than average — can never remember his name, good actor — in that remake of Driving Miss Daisy with Shirley MacLaine playing a former president’s widow: Nicholas Cage. On tv, 6ft-3 and a half and 6ft-4, Vincent d’Onofrio and Jeff Goldblum on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, great actors but not all that stellar.

Hard to believe that men’s (perceived) height is still an imperative with many people, one way or the other. There are authoritative, convincing lists of heights of US presidents “proving” that the tallest ones — Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt — 6ft-4 down to 6ft-2 — were the greatest ones. And on dating sites, tall women of 5ft-11 short on brains insist on the inalienable right to wear their seven-inch heels and to still have a man that towers over them — the top 0.00001 percentile of men, that is. I’ve just discovered another secret of life — No wonder butt-ugly basketball players with just enough brains to get by on sports scholarships are so popular as breeding stock!

UGGOS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!: You have nothing to lose but your body image

In celebrity, film, Humor, music, television on November 15, 2012 at 7:46 am

This post is dedicated to the Susan Boyles of the world, and that big fat guy that Simon Cowell also ridiculed until he opened his mouth — then Cowell’s eyes sparkled with dollar signs; the Roy Orbisons, the Ernie Borgnines, Lee Marvins, Pat Hingles, Dennis Franzes, Charles Laughtons, Ed Begleys, Broderick Crawfords, Edward G Robinsons, Van Heflins, William Conrads, Linda Hunts, Kathy Bateses, Daniel Benzalis…

Even Rod Steiger, who was basically a good-looking guy but was told by a Hollywood producer, “Lose 40 pounds and I’ll make you a star.” Well, he made it anyway.

To Alan Ladd, a head shorter than the usual screen hunk, who was told by the director when playing a love scene in Boy on a Dolphin with Sophia Loren, “Ooh, that bruising’s terrible. Here, stand on this box and you won’t be bombarded in the face.”

To Phyllis Diller, who listened to some schmuck who said, “Hey, just get some plastic surgery and you’ll be cute” — and was never heard from again.

To Clark Gable, who pulled through as the hunk among a thousand babes at MGM, where he was at first dismissed with, “He’ll never amount to anything with those sugarbowl ears.”

To Fred Astaire, a human stick insect who made Jiminy Cricket look handsome, and went down in history as the screen’s most graceful male dancer.

To Judy Garland, ridiculed for a face that was anything but chocolate-box standard and a tendency to retain baby fat, and turned out to have more talent than any of them.

To Liza Minnelli, handicapped by being the daughter of Judy Garland mated with gifted but skunk-faced director Vincent Minnelli, and still made a worthwhile career.

To all the beautiful young women, fashion models, who were told by flamboyant men in charge who can’t appreciate their womanly curves, “Just a few more pounds, ducks” — and became junkies and/or died for it.

To those pretty boys Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, who ignored or made little of their own incredible good looks to prove they had talent.

To Michael Jackson who swallowed all the hype about Aryan looks and paid the ultimate price for it.

And to Marilyn Monroe, one of the most vibrant screen presences ever, who to win conventional stardom submitted to casting couches, nose job, chin implant… so life would be perfect.

Special mention must be made of the stars of British television, who can look like the hind quarters of a British bulldog and still win romantic leading roles on the small screen. Just two of the most popular: David Jason, all 5ft-5 of him, bug-eyed, bulbous-nosed, all set off by a David Lloyd George haircut and Sydney spiv hat — and as Detective Inspector Jack Frost of the Denton police, Thames Valley, harassed by multiple lovers from one series to the next. Hugely popular for forty years, he was most believable as comedic secret agent in the slapstick title role of The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs; less as a serious detective still pulling slapstick turns. And Zoe Wanamaker, very successful in the romantic stakes on tv though seemingly hampered by her father Sam’s oversized upturned nose and lacking her father’s large soulful eyes. Congratulations also to Jack Shepherd (Superintendent Wycliffe), overcoming his anteater nose, Kevin Whately (Inspector Lewis), ageing to look like Stan Laurel, Warren Clarke (Dalziel), bulldog by nature and visage, and innumerable other English and Scottish detectives blessed with characterful looks.

Merit Awards for Uggos in American film genres: general purpose misfits Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore; Eli Wallach, Jack Elam, Neville Brand, Bruce Dern, Warren Oates, Strother Martin, L. Q. Jones for bushwhackers and trail scum; so-ugly-they’re-a-thing-of-beauty Lee Marvin, James Coburn, Lee Van Cleef; hoodwinkers, desert rats and down-and-out gentlemen Charles Coburn, Sydney Greenstreet, Fredric March, Dan Duryea, Albert Dekker, Ralph Bellamy and Edmond O’Brien.

TV REVIEW: Invasion of the CSI Snatchers

In film, television on March 17, 2012 at 2:01 am

You never saw Clark Gable and Gary Cooper together in a movie… Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power… It was a surprise even to see two medium sized stars (as they were in 1942) John Wayne and Ray Milland together in Reap the Wild Wind. It was a waste of resources — Only a Cecil B DeMille extravaganza could afford it. Anyway, the big stars in a similar niche were normally at different studios. John Wayne and Henry Fonda got together just once (Fort Apache); John Wayne and James Stewart ditto (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) but when the rules were relaxed in the Sixties — and suddenly you were allowed to have Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark all in the same western, The Way West). In the mid Fifties, after a decade in movies, Burt Lancaster finally had enough cred to appear with a major figure of the older generation in decline: Gary Cooper (in Vera Cruz), then Clark Gable (in Run Silent, Run Deep) — but as the junior partner in both.<p>

There’s a photo that’s always fascinated me, one taken in 1949 by Life magazine visiting the MGM studio, in slowly dimming twilight after a quarter century of unquestioned dominance in movies. All the stars had been ordered to turn up dressed in character costume and here they were lined up in rows like for a school photo — 58 star names of the time with the lovely Lassie front & center. Tracy and Hepburn are at opposite sides looking blase; Sinatra dangerous; Ricardo Montalban and Angela Lansbury to name just two much better known on tv decades later. One’s gaze is drawn to four figures at the center of the second row, directly above Lassie. Of these all-time greats, far right is Judy Garland, then Ava Gardner; next to her Clark Gable, then Errol Flynn. Broad-shouldered Gable, 48, looks his smiling self, as ever. Flynn, about to turn 40, looks dressed for Soames Forsyte, his temples greyed for the occasion and looking conflicted for the character.<p>

Or was it that? What on earth did Gable and Flynn find to say on meeting for the first (and probably only) time as they sat next to each other? — What’s your score? Flip you for a date with Ava? Or purely professional on the finer points of acting the hero on screen, or Tilt your head — your left side is your best. Flynn happened to be there on a one-off loan from Warner Bros, and was earning at least as much as Gable who traded earnings for the minders, personal care and other perks MGM afforded. Had Gable said something belittling to the younger man, turning slightly away and looking somewhat indignant? Gable had been nearly 20 years the hunk of Hollywood, only now starting to make way for Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and still had another dozen years of popular films in him. Both were men’s men, but Flynn, for 15 years already the head Hollywood Pretty Boy along with Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, was fading. He was apparently emotionally damaged: as a child by a cold mother, then ridiculed as a walking penis — “In like Flynn” — taking on teenagers, then for not going off to the war (he had a secret heart condition) despite what his movies said. Vastly underrated in the official popularity polls, he was one of the very few megastars through the second half of the thirties and most of the forties whose studio could spend a massive $2 million “negative cost” on his movies (and more millions on worldwide distribution and promotion), which he usually carried alone (with secondary help from Olivia De Havilland or no help from a minor leading lady) time and again and be certain of coming away with a profit. Taking to drink and drugs, he was nonetheless an icon and his name still meant something substantive on the marquee till his death 10 years later.<p>

Now it wouldn’t be a surprise to see George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Goldblum and Al Pacino all together in a movie — combined summoning about half the star power of Gable alone on the screen. But my beef isn’t primarily with them this time.<p>

It is, in particular, with the performances of Gary Sinise and William Petersen — and those of the entire cast of Criminal Minds (except for the guy who used to be in Dharma & Greg). I’ve always wondered why actors capable of absolutely rivetting, diverse characterisations in their movies are so very, very BORING in their tv shows. It must take one hell of an effort for people so obviously talented to neuter their characters to such a degree. And for why? And now we have Laurence Fishburne, Ted Danson, Tim Roth and that blond young Canadian actor with the constant simper, somehow ‘starring’ in his own series, to add to the list. That makes how many leading actors in movies who, for my money, are absolutely wasted on television. Some of the most vapid leading men of the “Golden Age of Hollywood” — and they know who they are by reputation — John Boles, Walter Pidgeon, George Brent — couldn’t be as wooden if they tried.

Either the writer/creator has written these intelligent, scientific types as cold fish with no visible personalities. Or there is an overriding philosophy in television acting today that says only robots in action movies are allowed to display marked emotion — otherwise tone it down to non-acting, walking through a scene. This was obvious as I watched a scene in Criminal Minds last night — and don’t say, You have to watch more than one scene! Any person with taste and discernment doesn’t have to watch more than that to see what is going on. I’ve always thought the way the group scenes in this series are written is ludicrous. Each one gets one line to say, then they all leave at the same time, like the heroes in Scooby Doo, to take on their tasks. The young walking encyclopedia with the stupid hair (again, he couldn’t get it that wrong by accident — even Einstein had some clues, social nous) sometimes displays more personality than the others, which in itself is very, very scary. I guess he’s based on Shaggy from Scooby Doo just as that scatterbrained girl back at base with the funny face, hair and outlandish wardrobe (there’s one too in one of the CSIs) comes from that little roundish girl in the original cartoon. They haven’t managed a human form of Scooby himself yet in live action, but give them time.

Contrast, say, Monk. It is very well acted and choreographed, and yes, I realise they are going for a light touch and dark humor. This is almost the only genre that American tv gets absolutely right these days (though not as good since Bitty Schram left) and can be seriously ruined, as with many entries in Murder She Wrote. I make exceptions for excellent serial miniseries like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men… each made with more of a feature film sensibility and production values.

TV REVIEW — CELEBRITY COOKS: EGOS BEYOND ENDURING

In celebrity, morality, television on December 31, 2011 at 7:12 am

Since the invention of so-called “reality tv” — talk about The Big Lie — there have been thousands upon thousands of viewing hours under this category on screen that must be admitted are a total waste and actually destructive of the chance to do something useful for an hour. Who ever decided watching someone cook, never mind eat, is entertainment? (Here in New Zealand there are wall-to-wall cooking/dining series on almost every channel, through peak viewing hours and elsewhere.) Cooking shows didn’t start this way. They started in an attempt to make common and desirable dishes more palatable — not, as they revel in today, to explore every square inch of the globe, land and sea, earnestly attempting to turn increasingly rare species into food.

<p>Here in New Zealand there was one local celebrity chef in the early years of television, name of Graham Kerr (1962-66), who later found fame in the States as The Galloping Gourmet — after being unceremoniously dumped from the NZBC for being too fancy. He was replaced by a self-proclaimed cook, who carried on solo for many more years. One half hour a week seemed like plenty to devote to brightening up our home menus a little — Our priorities were focused elsewhere on important things. I’m sure Alison Holst’s, the humble cook’s, heart was in the right place, without ever once attempting to turn the testicles of the Yellow Finned Thailand Octopus into a delicacy the wealthiest among us can’t do without. In the end, eating is something we lucky ones do every day, simply to keep us alive. Anything more is a bonus. And the more superfluous lengths we go to in cookery the more rapacious we humans become — way out on our own as the only species intent on destroying our own and others’ environments, and at an accelerating rate despite all the p.c. hype about conservation. One yearns for someone to finally stand up and shout at the top of their lungs: “IT’S ONLY FOOD — IT GOES IN ONE END AND COMES OUT THE OTHER! IT’S SHIT IN INTERMEDIATE FORM!

<p>Yes, it’s nice if it tastes good, all the better if it’s nutritious and sustains us another day, but who the hell inflated searing animal flesh, garnishing it with aromatic additives to disguise its flavor, and arranging other bits and pieces around a plate into a high art? The program I avoided this evening starred Gordon Ramsay. He is just one of several British cooks on television here in New Zealand who cannot look at an animal without licking his lips and imagining what it would smell and taste like swimming in gravy and infused with an array of spices. To my mind this says it all about how limited they are as people.

Ramsay is travelling around by train to every corner of India to find out its real cuisine. Among the highlights, he is presented with a snake whose heart is still beating to eat. Now you know why I didn’t watch — However it turns out, it’s beyond disgusting to use such a thing as an attraction, no matter how authentic or otherwise it is as a cultural artefact. Don’t get me started on the God-given-rights-in-perpetuity of Japanese and Icelanders to eat whales to their little hearts’ content…

A_Cannibal_Feast_in_Fiji,_1869_(1898)<p>Gordon prides himself on going to the ends of the earth to find authentic dishes. I once witnessed him risking life and limb climbing down a remote cliff face in the Mediterranean to collect the eggs of a rare bird — Yum, yum — irresistible — into the pot is what they’re best for, eh? In the TV Guide article on his latest series he claims that, unlike other chefs he is famous on the back of his work, not the other way round. Come now, Gordon — You seriously believe you’re watched because you can cook something a little better than others, when we can’t taste it, even smell it from where we’re sitting? Please, just cut the celebrity self-delusion.

NEWSFLASH: [PHOTO] “The Shoe on the Other Foot” — Gordon and his crew caught by cannibals on their latest expedition for rare species to endanger.

TV REVIEW: THE MONK IS ON YOU

In Humor, psychology/psychiatry, television on December 24, 2011 at 7:12 pm

BittyschramThe tv series Monk started in July 2002 and is still going (as far as I know — we only get reruns here in New Zealand). But it’s never been the same since actor Bitty Schram (playing the feisty Sharona) left before filming the second half of series three; she appeared in just 38 episodes. Yes, the actor left — so this was not a creative decision as claimed by the producers but a power play, and it SHOWS.

Who knows what the creator of the series, one Andy Breckman, thinks of this. He must have worked out the balance of the characters to the nth degree if he’s gone through what most good tv writers do. Then just have it subject to arbitrary change when the producers, presumably rolling in more millions of profit each year, tell an actor “Take it or leave it.”

Yes, Traylor Howard is blonde and cute. (I admit to a prejudice against the ugly modern trend of females named with two unfeminine surnames.) I’ve seen her in a few teen movies from the early ’90s and she did well enough. But there is no way her character Natalie has “replaced” Sharona — who lent just the right spice to the mix. Ted Levine seems to me a very accomplished comic actor (and otherwise) and Jason Gray-Stanford does well too as the often hapless detective lieutenant. Tony Shaloub is expert in what he does on screen — but part of what he does is executive producer, and he doesn’t seem to be quite as good at this. It obviously creates an unhealthy power imbalance among the cast.

But whether this one event triggered more unfortunate trends I can’t say for sure. The comedy had gotten less clever, more slapstick. The tone is more crassly sentimental, to the point of getting us to feel sorry for geeky Teen Monk in numerous flashbacks. As if anyone’s interested — Yet, he might get his own series one day in a lucrative spinoff, as these things tend to happen. Straining for plots, Monk is put in less and less likely situations until credulity is strained beyond breaking. Knowing just a little about mental health, I’ve known from the start that someone who suffers from anxiety as constantly and intensely as Monk does could never bring himself to focus on a case for more than a few seconds at a time. No way could he function coherently as a detective over a whole case, never mind a genius who solves every case. But for the sake of involvement (which every good drama needs) I was willing to suspend disbelief.

Yet, the producers throw away this one main premise of the character when it suits them. After the umpteenth rerun episode I just started to watch — and felt too insulted to continue — Monk, on the run from the police, had just come out of the ocean to be greeted by his friend Leland Stottelmeyer (Ted Levine). The captain says something like, “That must have been hard since you can’t swim.” And Monk replies, “I was highly motivated.” These injokes are fine if the series wants to descend to the pat, unchallenging level of Murder She Wrote or Love Boat, but don’t expect me to hang around.

MOVIE REVIEW — SCREEN WRITING: SCREWING OVER BETTER WRITERS

In film, literature, television on August 16, 2011 at 11:44 pm

This theme has been brewing in me for a while. How to explain to screen fans what good writing is? It is not George Lucas in Stars Wars

What sticks in my craw most is two worthwhile actors like Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law lending their talents to what is supposedly meant to be a Sherlock Holmes movie. Arthur Conan Doyle is not considered on the highest level of writers, rather among the best of the “nonserious” writers. But he was among the greatest mystery/detective writers and went to a great deal of trouble to create a character who is still the most memorable of all sleuths — Sherlock Holmes. Try looking for him in this latest film, which will corrupt the character for an entire generation of film-watchers wanting to know who Sherlock Holmes is.

Maybe to this and recent generations it doesn’t matter — just like the dumbed-down cardboard-cutout portrayals over the past 20 years of the original 1966-69 Star Trek characters. The original writers were thinking people who came from theatre and the Golden Age of Television in the Fifties and early Sixties. They knew what it was to conceive and create characters and genuine Science Fiction concepts and relate them to reality. The line between Science Fiction and soap opera fantasy is the difference between Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock and whoever it is playing a cutesie nonhuman called “Data” in that more recent series and the banal lines Data is called on to utter and the faces he pulls.

Since I began this piece, so-called writers of the screen have gone far past the point of even trying to maintain a facade of integrity or nodding acquaintance with creative truth. A prime example of this is Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter — which poses that the 16th president of the United States had not nearly enough on his plate and trained himself up to Ninja standard with a silver axe, all the better to slay those pesky vampires that are everywhere these days, and apparently always have been. Worse, this turns out to be merely one of a series that has old Honest Abe concerned with everything but preserving The Union and freeing the slaves.

Marvel Comics and their many modern colleagues must be licking their lips at the trend to breaking all fidelity with character and the coming bonanza in modern art, as a steroid-pumped Albert Einstein travels forward in time to take on and lock biceps with The Terminator; Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela team up to use their native arts to quell the next rise of the zombies; and Stephen Hawking rides forth on his nuclear-powered wheelchair to deal to a werewolf pack — the evil ones not the good ones.

SPORTS REVIEW — ENGLISH FOOTBALL (SOCCER): THE BEAUTIFUL GAME?

In art, sport, television on August 15, 2011 at 10:41 am

After watching last year’s World Cup on tv, I could swear English soccer is a different game. Having just seen several of the opening games of English Premier League (2011-12), featuring its top teams, I am already beginning to regret signing up for Sky Sports (at a steep extra $26 a month). And it’s not all because the first home match of my favorite team was postponed due to the ‘Tottenham’ Riots of August 7th.

I can see why the English Premier League is called the toughest in the world. Any number of brilliant players from overseas are forced to play the English way — faster, more physical, and less skilfull, typically pushing the ball and running in hope. Or lofting the ball far upfield, often to no one in particular as a (low) percentage shot. Of the ones who choose to tone down their skills for the English game, many still never adapt and end up labeled failures — until they are sold back to any one of approximately 200 countries where The Beautiful Game is played.

Of those who stay on and “tough it out”, injuries lasting three to five months through the prime of a nine-month season are becoming more and more the norm. Of course, English players too are more prone to injuries in the modern game. There’s only so much punishment week in, week out, that flesh and bone can stand. Even a moderately successful Premier League side will play the required 38 league games, plus a run of up to half a dozen FA Cup games, the same number of Carling Cup games, and maybe up to ten or a dozen games in European competition.

Under these conditions it is no surprise that, for example, Tottenham Hotspur, that rarely faces European competition, has no less than 22 full international players in its squad of 33, quality players from an array of countries — most of whom will spend months on the bench, loaned out to other teams, or injured, without the fans getting to see them. A sighting of these top-quality international players — Spurs fans can name them from Mexico, Russia, Croatia and Brazil — in a Tottenham jersey is about as rare as a 14-year-old virgin.

So having watched the opening games of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal on the first day, from whom great things are expected this season, there was no beauty on display, rarely even any excitement. It was 31 minutes, as told by the commentators before Chelsea’s $100 million superstar (Torres of Spain) lodged his team’s first serious shot at goal. Manchester Utd’s game, that was at least energetic and worthwhile to watch (thanks mainly to their opponents West Bromwich Albion), though I didn’t manage all of it, was won by a fluke goal that ricocheted in off a defender. This most famous football team in the world has many ways of being favored — and will probably win again this year, just because it’s expected. How powerful in the everyday ways of the world is the devious power of suggestion… Thanks be to the gods of football that when they came up against Barcelona a few months ago to play The Beautiful Game it was outside of England and with a non-British referee. Manchester Utd had no answer, just as the England team never does in the World Cup, all things being equal.

A day later I have watched Manchester City’s opening game, to confirm that this ‘ennui’ is a trend in English football. Sure enough, this most expensive team in Europe — from whom such great things are dreamt — in a home game took an hour to score against Swansea City, in their first first match ever in the Premier League. Highlight of the game — the magnificent performance and cat-like reactions of the young Swansea City goalie!!!

PHOTO: The better to ward off increasingly common season-long injuries. The future of English football with its physicality?

football

Movie Review: ‘The Fugitive’ (1993)

In film, psychology/psychiatry, television on March 15, 2008 at 11:34 am

Last night I watched the movie version of ‘The Fugitive’ on television — and for the first time right through. I’d always thought of it as one of those far-fetched Harrison Ford actioners, if not quite as outlandish as ‘Air Force One’. Now I see it is really Tommy Lee Jones, the Fugitive’s nemesis, who dominates.

It’s inevitable with all these remakes that we compare them to the originals. This one, as with what seems like at least ninety percent of the others, falls short. That’s despite the creator of the tv series, Roy Huggins, being executive producer. I have to admit a bias here, if that’s what it is. I could always identify with David Janssen’s special hurt furtiveness he brought to the role of Dr Richard Kimble, persecuted daily by the justice system and law enforcement officers, reliant on the kindness of strangers, etc… As well as his usual mannerisms — so well known at the time because ‘The Fugitive’ was the second of Janssen’s four distinctive series that I can remember. Each week he was in a different locale, with different guest stars, and a different flavor brought by new writers. There was something involving about his screen magnetism too.

David Janssen: the haunted face of The Fugitive (tv, 1963-67)

David Janssen: the haunted face of The Fugitive (tv, 1963-67)

I suppose this is where Harrison Ford tends to leave me cold. (And not only him — I can only think of three modern star actors who have engaged me to the point where I can’t take my eyes off them: Jessica Lange and Ellen Barkin for their sexual magnetism, and Sean Penn for other abilities.) I once saw an interview where Harrison related a story about starting out at Columbia studio in the mid Sixties. A producer told him about Tony Curtis playing a janitor (or somesuch) but “the instant you saw him on screen you knew you were watching a star”.

The perpetually snarling face of Harrison Ford as The Fugitive (1993)

The perpetually snarling face of Harrison Ford as The Fugitive (1993)

At this point, at least in the story as Harrison tells it, he replies like a wiseass that he thought “you were supposed to believe you’re watching a janitor”. Well, Harrison, that’s the absolute least a capable actor should be able to do. And you’ve been doing it for thirty years now.

As in the original, the Detective Lieutenant Gerard character here played by Tommy Lee Jones is an intensely ego-driven obsessive to say the least. (For some reason his christian name is ‘updated’ from Philip to Sam, maybe as a nod to the supposed true-life model for The Fugitive, the Fifties’ Dr Sam Sheppard.) But unlike the original, in which Barry Morse plays Gerard as a blinkered, determined functionary of a type well known in everyday life, this Gerard is jokesy-cool at the same time as blowing away an offender at point blank range without blinking an eye or twitching a hair. Also, while in the original series Gerard has no reason to believe Kimble is not guilty until almost the very end of a four-season series, Tommy Lee Jones is fed obvious clues all along the way but remains ruthless in his pursuit, including trying to shoot the cornered Kimble in cold blood.

Tommy Lee Jones as psycho-cop

Tommy Lee Jones as psycho-cop

Then in a sudden switch at the end he ludicrously transforms into the firm-but-fair cop with a heart of gold, and repudiates his “I don’t care!” mantra (about Kimble’s guilt or innocence) for an affable mano-a-mano chat with Kimble in the back of a squad car.

This is the kind of thing that must be expected since screenwriters started thirty years ago writing primarily for wookies and other creatures rather than humans — but it doesn’t make it easier to take.

POLITICAL REVIEW: Keeping Score in the War

In morality, politics, television, war on March 12, 2008 at 8:17 pm

Here in New Zealand the local Auckland television channel, Triangle, carries the PBS tv nightly news from Washington DC, with Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff and a number of other expert, veteran journalists.

A 'famous' shot of the Iraq War, but hardly ever seen

A 'famous' shot of the Iraq War, but hardly ever seen

Aside from the usual topics internal to the US, they conscientiously cover the US-Iraq war. A very nice, personal touch, obviously aimed at humanizing what can become just a numbers game, is in collecting the names, ages, ranks and hometowns, with a photo, of all American dead and broadcasting them in lists of about ten at the end of a program after next of kin have been informed.

It’s obviously more than patriotism can stand — giving aid and comfort to the enemy? — to tell the whole truth, say, with a few representative photos of the non-American casualties. They do give the running total whenever a new survey gives a new figure, or rather, range of figures. There are so many foreign dead this is just a number, a very high number — so impersonally presented it is impossible to comprehend the tragedy of a country destroyed.

The trap that PBS has fallen into concerning American losses is to play the politicians’ games by comparing monthly totals like some stock market forecast, so that it appears to be a good thing that ‘only’ 29 servicemen have been killed in February 2008 compared to the 105 in February 2007.

Homeless and 'displaced' refugees: more uncounted statistics

Homeless and 'displaced' refugees: more uncounted statistics

For most other countries, zero servicemen needlessly killed is the only acceptable number. But, sure enough, surveys of the American public seem to show that an increasing number of people are coming round to the conclusion that, say, 25 to 50 a month might be a happy compromise. That must explain why even Democrat representatives overlook the fact that people continued to be killed in a war that was started over nothing and drags on with no stated aim in sight.

ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: SURFIN’ US/K

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music, politics, television on February 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

Excerpt #2 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Musicby G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008


In 1965 the world was looking scary — and not only because the most inane warblings of the British Invasion looked like they were here to stay. Twenty years after the end of WWII it turned out that old tensions and seething enmities between cultures had only been swapped for new ones. The USSR, China, and satellites Eastern Europe, Cuba, North Korea and North Vietnam lined up against The West. In January, Britain’s Winston Churchill, savior of western democracy and hawk of the Cold War, died. Khruschev of the USSR had been deposed for not bringing the West to heel though his USA opposite number John F Kennedy was dead a year. In little more than twelve months the three potent figures of the post-War world were gone.

In February and March two events denied all the brief Kennedy Era stood for. Malcolm X, Black Muslim and leader in the civil rights movement, was murdered, spurring race riots in the Watts district of LA. And President Lyndon B Johnson (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) committed the first combat troops to Vietnam, an undeclared war plaguing the American psyche long past its ten-year duration.

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, Carl Wilson, leader Brian Wilson, middle brother Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, little brother Carl Wilson (lead guitar, vocals), big brother and leader Brian Wilson (bass guitar, keyboards, falsetto harmony and lead vocals), middle brother Dennis Wilson (drums, vocals), cousin Mike Love (lead vocals, occasional saxophone), and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine (rhythm guitar, occasional lead vocals)

The Beach Boys, victims of their idealism, were about to be trapped in a time warp, objects to be vivisected by the fashion police. For a year pop commentators had questioned the reason for being of these stubborn squares who seemed naïvely unaware of all Beatledom had to offer. The Byrds, switching to folk rock and Dylan, still made the effort to look and sound like Beatles; everyone knew they were “America’s answer” to them. It was “in” and “far out” to conform to the new ‘Counterculture’.

Dennis had gone some way toward beatlesque, hair-wise, in summer ’64; a year later the others were looking fluffier too, if not longer, yet. Mike grew a neatly trimmed beard to distract from his thinning hair, lending a ‘Peter, Paul & Mary’ professorial look to the frontman of a group already up against it with ever younger record-buyers. In November 1966 for their Good Vibrations tour of the UK the eldest Beach Boy — months younger than Ringo Starr and John Lennon — would go the whole hog for the Oxford don look, posing for group publicity stills dressed eccentrically in British tweed, country gentleman’s cap and holding a pipe. Brian (to be replaced in spring 1965 by the lean and handsome, if bland, Bruce Johnston for touring) and Carl were unfashionably chubby — and still clean-shaven unlike the bulky turned-on musos of San Francisco psychedelia just emerging, who knew where it was at and let it all hang out: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Bob Hite of Canned Heat…. It was all a clear snub to populism: the Beach Boys would go their own way, in their own time.

FEBRUARY 15TH 1965 BROUGHT A REALISATION THAT irreplaceable figures had died in the past two months: Sam Cooke, murdered; Alan Freed of a failing spirit; now Nat King Cole of lung cancer. For the Beach Boys the year opened with their first ever shows in Canada — good for a dozen big hits so far, their second expedition into the foreign territory of the British Commonwealth (following Australasia a year before). First came a date at Vancouver, the French city of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Brian, hungry for new experiences, plays all but the last, replaced by Glen Campbell. They will take in the same round of cities again in September, with Bruce Johnston and supported by new stars Sonny & Cher.

BBstoday On vinyl, from the completed Beach Boys Today, a new 45 is lifted that fatal February day. On top of a wall of sound but in a flourish of driving, modernized rock, is their rebirth of ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ both spirited and lush — so maybe too American. Dennis’s sole solo hit, it’s the top debut in the Nashville top 40; streaks fifteen places into the St Louis ten to quench a nine-month drought there; L C Cooke, brother of Sam, rushes out an alternative version that hits the St Louis r&b chart. In the Midwest’s Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, Cincinnati, the Southwest’s Dallas, Phoenix, Tulsa and the Eastern Seaboard’s Washington DC, Baltimore, New England, Newark, Hartford, it is top five with West Coast markets Seattle, Portland, San Jose, San Diego — though here sales are split with its B-side (haunting ballad ‘Please let Me Wonder’); #6 in the South’s St Louis, Memphis, Norfolk, Richmond; lower top ten Montreal, San Francisco, Vancouver, Kansas City. Taking off the gloss are below par receptions just outside in Philadelphia, New York (best at WINS, #12-13, its level in the major national hit parades), Miami and Toronto; and languishing lower top 20 on the playlists at influential stations in Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh and hometown LA (where it nonetheless peeks in at #6 at local stations in Van Nuys and San Bernardino). Elevated to no.5 in the ShowTime chart distributed to newspapers nationwide, additionally no.8 by United Press International, and no.9 by Gilbert’s youth survey for the Associated Press, mainstream in the leading trade papers (Billboard, Cash Box, Variety) it is no threat to Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers with their red carpet treatment from the media and squatting pampered in the Brit penthouse hosted by the Yanks. The current WABC-New York sales survey, covering the USA’s biggest market, lists Brit acts taking 11 of the top 16 tunes.

In the UK it wasn’t released (‘All Summer Long’ was — later celebrated by George Lucas at the end credits of his American Graffiti but a joke in terms of the hard tack Brits expected from groups at the time), maybe because EMI feared it could take long-term sales from its Cliff Richard & the Shadows’ 45. Following as it did their recent European tour, ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ should have reinstated them on the Continent, which had given the previous two singles the silent treatment. While it was bought in loyal Scandinavia and played in Italy, it was invisible in Germany, France, Holland and now Australia too, preoccupied with all things Fab.

‘Please Let Me Wonder’ went to #1 as the chosen ‘A’ in San Jose and San Bernardino; #3 in Chicago, Seattle and upstate New York; similarly top five in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Sacramento; top ten Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, San Diego, Milwaukee, Columbus, Hartford, Fresno; Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Vancouver, Buffalo the twenty. It drove to no.9 separately in the Associated Press chart a week before its designated A-side but stalled halfway up the two big charts’ top hundreds, though rising to no.32 in Variety. It is a favorite on compilation albums and retrospective videos.

April 21st they played both sides on Shindig, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ just released and pocket jams of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Long Tall Texan’, demolishing English guests Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders and Cilla Black, producer Jack Good still plugging his countrymen and women though as many would come unstuck as stick; no.1 Italian songstress Rita Pavone also ran. They met up too on set with the Shangri-Las and the Ikettes—from that first bill over three years before.

Both hits were — happily — out of sync with prevailing (lack of) taste, which saw what was already a year-long lapse accelerate into a headlong dive. The public was forcefed the silliest pop ditties yet, Top 40 stations now programmed via remote control by bosses in the biggest cities at network h.q.s, even star DJs straightjacketed from injecting local content or personal favorites. Songs masticated into the new chew for a few weeks, losing what bland flavor they had. Previously this trend was signalled by the Beatles’ superior ‘And I Love Her’ and somewhat lesser ‘If I Fell’, both lapped up by sentimental moviegoers. The Dave Clark Five jumped at the Beatles’ lead, and made them utterly sickening: ‘Because’, ‘Everybody Knows’ — two glutinous-syrupy ballads vying with Brian Poole & the Tremeloes’ ‘Someone, Someone’ for most nauseating weepie of the era.

The Beach Boys sustained their fun-loving, exuberant image, seen in a stocktake-of-things-that-matter Carl wrote for Tiger Beat:

Brian: a Cadillac Eldorado and Mustang

Dennis: a Ferrari and Cobra

Mike, the real collector: a Pontiac MG, Jaguar and Classic MG

Carl: an Aston Martin (James Bond style), Triumph 500 motorbike

Al, ever sensible: a lone T-Bird, as featured in ‘Fun Fun Fun’

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

By now the three Wilson brothers had bought their own homes on the outskirts of Hollywood. Mike and Al stayed close to home at Manhattan Beach. A roll call of Dennis’s pets told much of the elemental Beach Boy: two (wild, freedom-loving) horses, an otter (at home in water), a parakeet named after mother Audree, a power-dog German Shepherd and ever-present underdog for Dennis to look after — a lost puppy run over outside his house, with a broken leg needing healing. Always a mass of contradictions, supposedly least talented when the group started, he was turning himself into a multi-instrumentalist. The most Beach Boy — runner-up in a Hawaiian surfing tourney, an accomplished danger-skier on hair-raising Rocky Mountain slopes — he was also the most un-Beach Boy, developing a husky, cracked blues voice.

It was Dennis in full flight who pulled as much mob appeal as a Beatle. Fans would breach the carefully mounted barricades at concerts, and all of the boys had their clothes torn and were taught tactics to escape girls’ clutches — rolling out of the tackle grid-iron style. Dennis, though, sometimes surrounded despite the best game strategies, had several times been literally k.o.’ed by love. In Louisville, Kentucky, coincidentally the home of Muhammed Ali, he required three stitches to his head. When audience reaction was deemed out of hand local police forces used their ultimate power of censorship, cutting the feed to amplifiers or yanking down the stage curtain mid-performance, much to the group’s disgust. In l.p. liner notes Mike remarked on the Cincinnati fans as champion “cop-dodgers” and “Then there’s the helpless feeling of seeing a girl, who maybe spent her last dollar to see us, crying or something, ’cause the cops wouldn’t let her stay and get a Beach Boys autograph.” Unlike the Beatles, the group never had sealed, womblike limos to duck into to separate them from their public, and for less hysterical crowds would often stay behind for hours to sign autographs and chat.

UNLIKE THEIR HERMETICALLY PROTECTED RIVALS the Beach Boys no doubt felt themselves in the full swim of the Swinging Sixties. Carl named his favorite acts as the Beatles, Four Seasons, Supremes, Manfred Mann and the Animals—in preference over the Rolling Stones. The Stones, he said, showing considerable prescience, would be around as long as they made hits. Brian, in a 1996 interview, said that he and Carl “liked John [Lennon] a lot” — and that he wrote ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ as “a kind of tribute to John.” Said at one time to have been intended for the Beatles to record, it was one of Brian’s favorite songs, written on vacation in Hawaii without a piano or guitar: “And it’s the only song I wrote that way.” He had penned ‘Kiss Me Baby’ months before in a Copenhagen hotel room, also without much in the way of composing aids.

Certain other revelations Brian has made about his lifestyle at this time have shed light on his creative processes: Put simply, take marijuana and sit down at the piano. For The Beach Boys Today!he was experimenting: “The whole second side had been written and arranged while I was high. Compared to previous Beach Boys albums the music was slower, more plaintive, and emotional. The chord patterns were more complex, the production denser, richer in sound, and my thinking in regard to making records was different. Able to break down songs to precise little increments, I began to deal with each instrument individually, stacking sounds one at a time” (BrianWilson.com).

Three months later in April he took a quantum leap into the drug world with his first experience of LSD. He at first justified this by the fact that it led instantly to the composing of ‘California Girls’. Later, he noticed that it was the beginning of auditory hallucinations—voices talking to him, often threatening ones — and an everworsening fragility of mind. It was about this time too he wrote and recorded its flipside ‘Let Him Run Wild’ in hommage to Burt Bacharach’s renowned chord progressions — and that’s as far as any resemblance goes.

TV REVIEW: REALITY TV? — GET REAL!

In morality, psychology/psychiatry, sociology, television on December 29, 2007 at 7:43 pm

So-called ‘reality tv’ in the Survivor format must be the sickest, most degenerate form of entertainment created in the 20th Century for a mainstream audience — that is, short of such obvious moral atrocities as snuff films, and excluding bear baiting, dog fights, bull fights and other wantonly abusive ‘entertainments’ invented in previous centuries but still enjoyed by the morally calloused.

Yesterday I watched the final episode of one of the milder series, produced in Britain, in which eight morbidly obese youths trek 500 miles (800km) in eight weeks, from Land’s End at the southwesternmost tip of England, through some of the mountainous country of Wales and Cumbria to Edinburgh in Scotland. The strict diets they were on doubled the ‘challenge’ and heightened tempers as the natural camaraderie among the young people descended to ruthless rivalry and the stronger picked off the ‘weak’ one by one.

Two fell out relatively early on but another two who walked about 400 miles were still deemed to be losers. One of them, a young man of over 400lb, had lost 65lb (30kg) by his own efforts but, defeated by the ever-increasing daily pace, was still nagged to carry on by the producers and relentlessly berated even by his mother — though he was obviously close to physical and mental breakdown. In my (admittedly limited) experience of watching these shows it struck a new low in exploiting emotionally fragile young people. The narrator concluded at the end that four of the eight had taken control of their lives — obviously the ones who had stuck to the program’s format and succeeded as tv stars, in fact the ones most controlled by the producers.

The vast number of last-man-standing type series are too numerous and too loathesome to go into here, and deserve a condemnatory book of their own — if anyone with common decency could stand wallowing in the filth long enough to do the job justice. It beggars belief (like the inexplicable quarter-century existence of Hip Hop) that such ‘reality’ series — where teams of weak characters are exhorted to sink to the lowest of the low, gnawing at the other and then turning on their own to prove themselves ‘worthy’ to survive and win a million bucks — could themselves survive the endless train of personal destruction taken from one Pacific paradise to the next.

Possibly, being as popular as they are, it is a perverse ‘tribute’ to these Survivor-type programs that they have helped materially to lower the morality of wider society — to the point where the programs themselves seem so mild by now that Internet entrepreneurs and webcam stylists have taken the destruction through the next ‘logical’ steps, to such ‘entertainment’ as “Kick the Wino to Death”, or “Sexually Attack an Innocent for Fun and Humiliation”.

Whatever happened to “No foreign wars!”

In history, ideology, morality, politics, television, war on December 27, 2007 at 10:06 am

Living outside America, as I have since age five — that is, my entire informed life — I have been disadvantaged in one sense in looking at the ‘Homeland’ (a term a little too reminiscent of ‘Fatherland’). That is, not being able to see it intimately, from the inside. I was acculturated as an American but since about sixteen, when I first thought of looking at things with an independent mind, I haven’t experienced the unadulterated pride and satisfaction Americans have in simply being American. (I almost said self-satisfaction but I think that applies more to the British; I’m convinced Americans are, for the most part, unassuming and appreciate things that come their way as gifts rather than rights they deserve.) I’m sure it’s made up of appreciating the many little things. But in a larger sense also, the state of simply living in ‘The Land of the Free’ — or what used to pass for it.

But on the other hand, though seeing America second hand, I don’t run the risk of self-serving delusion. And, standing back from something as big and complex as America — the place and the concept — you can, I think, more often see ‘the big picture’, and little things you often can’t see for standing right on top of them.

Now, I have rich childhood memories of America (1955-60) and am the first to admire American popular culture: the little cowboy outfit I wore riding on my trike; the junior grid iron one I had in USC colors — yellow and blue; the derringer in a belt buckle that would pop out with belly pressure; the rifle with a built-in ricochet; the crystal set in the shape of a rocket ship I used to listen to hit parades from 1958 on. For the past few days over Xmas I have been enjoying back-to-back screenings of B-movies from the Thirties and Forties on DVD. And if old B-movies are still worth watching, how much better was the ‘A product’ with slightly bigger budgets? — before 1975 and the mega-budgets spent on ‘perfecting’ very routine ‘special’ effects through the Spielberg-Lucas-Cameron-Jackson era. But the foreign policy of the United States is another thing entirely, something to be anything but admired, as many Americans have come to feel over recent years.

Though this fatal disconnect between a huge proportion of the population and its ruling elite has only come about recently, it has been in the brewing for decades. The big difference is that now the level of discontent has reached its critical mass. Something big is about to happen — must happen — for the unbearable political stress to be released. Over perhaps the past fifty years, since about the time of the Korean War and the inexorable build-up of what Eisenhower warned against as the self-sustaining power of the military-industrial complex of the United States, foreigners have tried to stretch their minds around how this need for vast military power equates to the generous, unassuming Americans they have met and got to know as individuals.

It is easy to see how the thinking of politicians is corrupted by power — it happens in every country in the world — but how do peace-loving small-town people across America, with their Saturday morning bake-sales, scouts activities, camping vacations and Mom-and-Pop businesses buy into this thinking?

Everyone knows that from the Founding Fathers on, Americans avoided foreign wars on principle, almost at all costs — allowing for the cruel Civil War and occasional imperialistic forays into Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean. Before his nation finally joined in World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to plead with his countrymen not to ignore for too long the fact of the war and that one day they would have to relate up close and nasty with those aggressor countries who had made war on the rest of the world. Then as soon as the war was won there was a popular cry from Americans to “Bring the Boys Home!”

But now the United States is the aggressor and the populist cry is “Let’s support our boys over there!”, as if soldiers should be directing the foreign policy of the United States; and the president should be conducting international relations as a commander-in-chief — he who must be obeyed to the ends of the earth, no matter how bogus the premise for war, no matter how wanton the war or destructive to his own people. Every president from Washington to Eisenhower must be rolling in their graves at the thought of the incumbent. On the other hand one of the popular, ‘liberal’ and seemingly rational Republican presidential candidates, Senator John McCain, is all for “supporting our troops” no matter how many of the troops disagree with him or resent being put in the crossfire for no good reason — repeatedly, as terms of duty are extended and then multiplied, indefinitely. Yet McCain must represent something akin to a mainstream in this warped thinking. He has been welcomed onto tv’s ‘The Daily Show’ and backslapped by hard-hitting satirist John Stewart — at least, hard-hitting when he has something easy to ridicule.

One tiny fraction of the (foreign) price of war: an Iraqi mother clings to her dead child

One tiny fraction of the (foreign) price of war: an Iraqi mother clings to her dead child

Unless Americans come out wholesale to vigorously protest (it might be illegal to incite actual rebellion) they can kiss what is left of their democracy goodbye. But the task looks immense. Already the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates with the largest followings shaping up for the next election in November 2008 have publicly refused to rein themselves in by renouncing the powers the current president has grabbed for himself — happy with the fact that his freefall towards full-blown fascism has set the precedent.

BEING AMERICAN: Letterman — “That’s why the world hates us!”

In ideology, politics, television on December 24, 2007 at 2:16 am

A few weeks before the current television writers’ strike I was watching ‘The Late Show’. David Letterman was presenting his own version of the new tv series ‘America Has Talent’. The first guy he brought on displayed his own spectacular talent — kicking himself in the head thirty times within thirty seconds. He completed the task well within the time limit and with all the aplomb that could be expected of this form of entertainment. Letterman congratulated the man but then after he left said, “That is why the world hates us.” The second guy he brought on had a similarly unique talent that he must have spent hours and hours ‘perfecting’. As the drummer from the CBS band played a suspense-heightening roll on his snare, the young man fired a dart from a blowgun to trip a catapult propelling a marshmallow back in his direction, catching it in his mouth. Such an exacting manoeuvre took three tries before he got it right, first missing the catapult, then failing to catch the marshmallow, but finally completing it to the satisfaction of Letterman and the audience. Letterman remarked, “No, I’m sorry. That is why the world hates us.” The third man seemed to impress even Letterman — by drinking a glass of beer through his nose, sucking it up sip by delicious sip and then down his throat. Though some in the audience were audibly disgusted, Letterman praised this technique for its practical use: enabling you to smoke literally at the same time as enjoying a leisurely drink at the bar. But in another sense, according to Letterman, this feat trumped the others: “I have to apologize to the other two gentlemen: This is why the world hates us.”

From this superficially hilarious satire the obvious implication by Letterman is that Americans are for the most part absorbed in such trivialities: maybe the adult equivalent of playing with your peepee. And he could have added baseball, a national pastime raised to a spiritual observance but a competition largely irrelevant since cheating has been allowed to run rife for the past decade and a half; (American) football, a gladiatorial sport, the physical qualifications for which allow a tiny fraction of one percent of males to ascend to a similar pedestal in society, its attendant violence calling for layers of padding in a sometimes forlorn attempt to escape death; basketball, involving probably even more exacting physical disqualifiers for the general population, and believed to be a meaningful career for abnormally tall young men; and ice hockey, for which the childhood pastime of skating is ‘elevated’ by the additive of unprovoked aggression and other gang behavior to a religious experience observed for several months either side of the winter solstice. Americans are absorbed in these distractions every bit as much as Roman citizens were in gladiatorial circuses, orgies and freak shows through the decline of their empire.

This is not to say that New Zealanders and other nationalities don’t have their own crippling choice of tunnel vision in whiling away their days. They do. But, America being all-powerful and easily the dominant cultural influence around the world, living here in New Zealand as I have since 1960 I am frequently called on in casual conversation to defend the priorities of my original homeland, the United States. This used to be simple, I thought. I was only fourteen when the Sixties ended and America had always been the Good Guy as far as I knew, despite how some Vietnam War protesters had it. From the time I started university at seventeen and under the influence of my elder sisters I became a liberal (and, of course, a feminist), by my mid-twenties highly sceptical of how America functioned as a political unit in the world — diverging so far from the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Under virtually continuous Republican administrations during my adult life — increasingly right-wing ones — it has been easy for scepticism to settle into deep disillusionment. The Clinton administration seemed in comparison an oasis of enlightenment in foreign relations, claiming to actually care about what the rest of the world wanted. Whether this was largely PR I’m not sure, but when the president visited New Zealand he was greeted like the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi: with almost the same moral authority, a comparable charisma quotient, and a lot handsomer to boot. Since then New Zealand has been downgraded from an ally to a ‘friend’ of the United States, mainly because not following Bush automatically into Iraq as Australia did under its conservative leader John Howard, recently voted out in a landslide.

Of course, a lot depends on whether you argue on a moral or on a historical basis:

“Yes, it was illegal, even immoral, for the United States to launch an unprovoked invasion against Iraq and remain as an occupying power — as it did against Hawaii, the Philippines, tried to do against North Vietnam. But, historically, look at the Roman Empire. Examined objectively, given America’s investment in naked power and as the one superpower in the world it has to be ruthless to maintain its power, or otherwise go backwards, relatively speaking”

… and this broad, philosophical argument trails off into intellectual abstractions and rationalisations. Standing back, it is seen this perspective is not objective at all but obtuse self-justification. I get the feeling a lot of Americans wouldn’t be content to think of their country as a historical parallel of the Roman Empire, despite the two societies’ many similarities in lifestyle, political priorities and reliance on military might to get their way.

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