Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Whatever your feelings about cell phones and the people who use them to hold intimate or inane conversations in public, you got to admit---they've been a godsend to voyeurs and spies and the voyeurs and spies who call themselves writers.

Really. Before cell phones, you had to go to a bar and hang around all night to be sure you'd get to eavesdrop on a conversation like the one I just eavesdropped on in line at the post office.

Woman was on the phone with her boyfriend telling him about how she'd just got off the phone with her ex-husband who'd threatened to sic his lawyer on her. Apparently the boyfriend knows the ex-husband well enough to doubt that he has a lawyer. The woman assured the boyfriend that the ex-husband really did have a lawyer. She told him the lawyer's name. Tone she used suggested it was a name the boyfriend would know. I'm guessing in their circle people all draw from the same small pool of divorce attorneys. The boyfriend reacted vociferously to the lawyer's name.

The woman listened to him rant for a bit. Then she laughed affectionately and said, "No, don't call him! I don't want you to call him!" She listened again. "And, no, don't go over there either. I'll call him as soon as I'm done here. Ok? Great! Love you! Bye!"

I want to know though.

Was the boyfriend threatening to go beat up the ex-husband?

Or was he going to go beat up the lawyer?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Nancy Pelosi's mother wears combat boots

Involuntarily retired comedian Dennis Miller went on Hannity & Colmes the other night and, sounding like a drunk in a barroom who's behind on his alimony, let loose a rant against Nancy Pelosi, insulting her as if she was his ex-wife and he'd just spent the afternoon with her lawyers.

Miller takes the possibility that Pelosi might become Speaker of the House personally.

Not worth quoting. Boils down to "Nancy Pelosi's stupid and she dresses funny and I don't like her."

Stop me if you've heard this one. The way to kill a joke is try to explain why it's funny. Analyzing humor is like dissecting a live frog to find out how it jumps. As soon as you open it up, all the humor drains out.

Fortunately, that's not a concern when talking about Miller's jokes because there's no humor in them to start with.

As a self-appointed court jester to the Right, Miller has found a bad comedian's dream---an audience that doesn't care if he's funny.

A lot of desperate Republicans and their even more desperate media and blogging apologists have been trying to make Pelosi an issue in the campaign. Possibly they're remembering how much mileage the Party got out of making Tip O'Neill the personification of tax and spend big government.

Pelosi's fair game. If we had Newt and Tom DeLay to kick around, we'd kick them around. Instead we have to make do with George Bush and whatever mangy characters the Republican Scandal of the Week has tossed up.

Those Tip ads were kind of funny. There was a truth to them too. The Democrats at the time were a little too comfortable with their deficits. But the anti-Pelosi stuff is different. The attacks on her are tinged with a peculiar hysteria that's all too easy to explain.

She's a woman with power and she represents San Francisco where everyone, you know, is gay, including the fishermen, dockworkers, Barry Bonds, and the 49ers' entire offensive line. She's Right Wing men's two worst nightmares in one small, convenient package. The idea of a woman with power causes their genitals to retract deep into their abdomens, and when they think about homosexuality they automatically see themselves naked in a prison shower, having just dropped the soap.

I don't know the depth of Miller's own insecurities, but he's a dutiful clown and not above playing to the homophobia and castration anxieties of his audience. Although by now I ought to be used to the shamelessness of people like Miller who should know better, who do know better, I'm disgusted by his shamelessness. Or I'd be disgusted if I wasn't so surprised by how completely unfunny he's become.

Not that Miller was ever a comedic genius. He's never been much more than a smirk and a tone of voice. He must have heard that Jack Benny once said that a comic says funny things and a comedian says things funny and thought that meant comics have to write actual jokes while comedians can get laughs telling people they have cancer if only they say it right and he decided to become a comedian because it was less work.

Good jokes, real jokes, are truth turned sideways. They aren't generally true. They are specifically true. Most people are stupid, and everybody's stupid some of the time, but you don't get a laugh by calling someone stupid---that is, you don't once you've left the cafeteria at your junior high school for the last time---you get the laugh by showing just exactly how they are stupid.

If you want to call Nancy Pelosi stupid, you have to make it clear that she is stupid in a way that is peculiarly Nancy Pelosi stupid. If you want to say she dresses in a funny way that reveals something ridiculous about herself, then just saying she dresses funny won't cut it.

Everything Miller said about Pelosi in his "monologue" another bad comedian could have said word for word about any Republican woman. It applies to Lynne Cheney, Condi Rice, Ann Coulter, or Sue Kelly just as well as it does to Nancy Pelosi---that is, barely at all.

Miller's "satire" is a riff on Your mother wears Army boots!

It's the lowest and dumbest form of insult humor.

Whenever I hear him I ask myself, Does his audience really think this is funny? If they do, where did they get the idea that this is humor?

Then I remember I know the answer. They do think it's funny and they got the idea from being alive and semi-sentient for any part of the last 30 years.

This is what humor has been since the dawn of Saturday Night Live.

Actually, it's what humor has been since the dawn of time. People have always gotten their biggest laughs at watching other people make fools of themselves. Seeing other people get hurt has always made human beings roar.

It's the Mel Brooks axiom. Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.

But since SNL premiered, that's been the hippest form of humor.

Although Second City was a big influence on the original cast and writers of SNL, another big influence was the Harvard/National Lampoon. The Lampoon style took over when the cast began to move into movies. The movie comedies that followed Animal House all accepted its worldview:

There's us, and there's them. We're hip and cool, they're not. They're just a pack of fools---the most foolish thing about them being their refusal to recognize that our being hip and cool makes us better than them---and anything ridiculous that happens to them they deserve and brought down on their own heads.

I love some of these movies, but when you think about them, you see the same dynamic at work. Animal House, Stripes, Caddyshack, you name it---in all of them a small circle of cool is identified. Those within that circle are charmed; those outside it are victims and buffoons and villains and, most importantly, targets.

The plots are the same too. The villains and buffoons oppose the desires of the cool kids, and that's enough justification for the cool kids to do anything to clear the villains and buffoons from their path.

(Of course, there's much more going on in the best of these movies, as MoXmas points out in this comment.)

Humor is simply a weapon. The point of a joke is to knock the other guy down.

It's easy to see how this can appeal to the weak and insecure and how people who already tend to think of everything in terms of winning and losing, power, dominance, and submission would adopt it as their personal favorite brand of humor.

To a mind that thinks that all issues of right and wrong should be decided by Trial by Combat, winning is the same as being right, and when the weapon of choice is comedy you win by making the other guy look ridiculous any way you can.

There's more going on with Rush and Ann Coulter, maybe more going on with Miller, but it's no wonder that their audience thinks that making fun of the sick and disabled and mocking grieving widows and wishing Supreme Court justices would die is funny.

It does what humor is supposed to do, make them feel superior and make their political opponents, the villains and buffoons, appear, in their eyes anyway, ridiculous.

You think Nancy Pelosi would be a good Speaker of the House?

Oh yeah? Well she's stupid!

Har har!

And she dresses funny too!

Har har har!

We win that one, suckers!

The Heretik on the right way to spell Pelosi, the way Aretha would, baby---R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Recommended re-runs: TBogg reviews The Dennis Miller Show. Scott Lemieux puts Miller in context. And Blue Girl was up late one night and flipping through the channels on her TV accidentally caught some of Miller's Vegas act in which Miller tried to get yuks by pointing out that Senator Robert Byrd is old.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blink and you missed it

Obligatory post-World Series post.

First off, the ten year old is happy this morning. Although the Cardinals have a glorious history, since they became his National League team what they've mostly done in the post-season is lose. This year doesn't quite make up for 2004 for him, but he'll take it, and most likely this has sealed him as a fan for life.

But while I was rooting for St Louis, the Tigers let me down. I expected and wanted the Series to go the whole seven games.

There have been a lot of great World Series in the last decade---2002, 2001, and 1997 topping the list---but this year's wasn't one of them. The whole post-season was kind of quiet. The Twins went without a peep against Oakland, Oakland went without a peep against Detroit, and did the Padres actually show up to play against the Cards? The Dodgers put up very little fuss against the Mets, and the Yankees series with the Tigers was exciting for how unexciting it actually was---the Yankees didn't roll over, they were mowed down by great pitching. Happens to the best of teams. But, finally, well-pitched games are only interesting when both teams' pitchers are at the top of their form and both teams' hitters are making the opposing pitcher and fielders work for their money.

Which leaves the NCLS as the saving grace of the post-season.

That's the test of a fan. How much fun did you have watching your team lose?

I don't mean the smug self-loathing that comes over Cubs fans year after year, or the perverse I knew it, I knew it! grim satisfaction Boston fans get every time the Sox fall apart.

I mean the pure, kid-like, what a great game fun that sends you out of the park or has you turning off the TV with almost exactly the same lightness of heart and hope for the future as if your guys had won.

Sometimes it can even be more fun to watch them lose.

The test of this for, say, a Red Sox fan, would be, Which World Series is actually more fun to remember and talk about? 1975, 1986, or 2004?

Now my rooting for the Cardinals was due to a mix of sentimentality and National League loyalty, so take this with a grain of salt, and don't tell the ten year old---I'd rather have watched them lose in seven tough games than win in 5 relatively quiet, if not easy ones. Game 4's back and forth-er was fun, and Kenny Rogers' pitching gem (along with the smudge controversy) made Game 2 exciting, because it met my criteria for exciting well-ptiched games. And the Tigers didn't exactly lay down and die. Still.

The Mets-Cardinals series isn't my favorite lost series. That would be the Dodgers-Mets playoff in '88. But when it was all said and done, Carlos Beltran standing frozen at the plate as strike three passed him by is only the last rueful coda to a good series and a great season.

Our teenager and Tom Watson's 11 year old aren't ready for it yet, but there comes a time when what you really want to see is the Game.

In heaven it is always the middle innings of the final game of a see-sawing seven game series, the score's tied, four to four, your best hitter's coming to the plate, and their best pitcher's on the mound.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Resenting the handicapped parking spaces

Everything Rush Limbaugh says means the same thing.

The actual words he uses are irrelevent. He might as well be talking gibberish (Yeah, I know.) or in code. Whatever he says needs to be translated and is as easy to translate as pig-latin.

No matter what he says this is what he means: "Rich white guys like me should run the country and be allowed to do whatever we want, and anybody or anything that gets in the way of that needs to be steamrollered in a hurry."

This isn't even a forumulated thought with him. People like Limbaugh don't think. Well, most people don't think. They don't put together thoughts. They have feelings that they attach words to without giving much care to what those words are and how accurately they describe the feeling.

Some people say the same words over and over even as the feelings they want the words to describe change. Other people just keep changing the words, usually because they don't remember them from one day to the next. The words were just sounds they gave to the feelings.

That's why it's next to impossible to cause people like Limbaugh to feel ashamed of what they said. You can't hold them to their words. Repeat their words back to them and they don't recognize them. Their own words on paper or said by someone else or even said by themselves on tape or on video aren't attached to the feeling that was behind the words when they said them.

So when Limbaugh makes fun of Michael J. Fox and accuses Fox of going off his meds or exaggerating the effects of his Parkinson's disease or of pretending to how much he even suffers from it---Limbaugh did all of those at once; self-contradiction is a breeze when you don't care what the words you're saying actually mean---and to every decent-hearted and right-thinking person sounds as if he's making fun of Fox for being sick and by extension mocking everyone with Parkinson's and even everyone with an illness or a disability, he wasn't saying anything really.

He wasn't expressing his feelings about Parkinson's, Fox, illness, or disability. He wasn't giving us his true opinion of the morality or efficacy of stem cell research. My guess is that he has no feelings on any of those subjects, one way or another.

Although I'm sure he got a sadistic thrill out of mocking Fox, Fox doesn't matter to him as a person. Fox is just another obstacle to the one thing Limbaugh feels strongly about, which is as I said, that rich white guys like him should run the country and be allowed to do whatever they want.

Fox's offense was making campaign commercials for candidates who will vote to expand and fund stem cell research, but Limbaugh doesn't care about that. What he cares about is that those candidates are Democrats who will also vote to make it harder for rich white guys like Rush to get away with whatever they want to get away with.

Rush's anger and outrage are real; the words he used to express them weren't. This is why if the Republicans find a disabled person to "exploit" his disability in a campaign commercial for them or if they get a bunch of their own celebrities together to make a hysterical ad (and I don't mean funny hysterical, I mean expressive of hysteria) about the evils of stem cell research based on ignorance, superstition, and lies, Rush won't care and you wouldn't be able to get him to feel a twinge of remorse about his hypocrisy and double-standards.

Because the feeling behind his mocking of Fox and his indifference to Republicans doing the things he claims Fox is wrong for doing is the same.

Whatever interferes with the rule of rich white guys is bad, whatever advances it is good.

Inside, Rush feels like a man of integrity and principle.

Within himself he is consistent. He is true to his guiding star.

Now, the difference between someone like Rush and most people who don't think but feel is that he has an inkling that his words and his true feelings don't line up. He covers for this by calling himself a performer and by encouraging his defenders and fans to describe him as if what he's doing is political satire. He's just being funny, folks. Exaggerating for emphasis.

But most of his listeners do not know that they don't think. And they do not know that Limbaugh's words are just sounds carrying an emotion.

The great evil that Limbaugh does is that he gives his listeners words that both help them express their hatreds and resentments and hide from themselves the fact that they hate and resent.

"Rush is a smart guy, he must be, he's famous and he's rich and people I hate hate him, and he uses these words, so if I use these words I'll be saying something smart."

And so now we've got a whole bunch of people who think they're being smart when they mock the disabled and the sick.

But while Limbaugh probably doesn't give people with disabilities a thought when he's not using them to stir up the pot on his show, a lot of his listeners do in fact resent and hate the disabled.

They resent and hate anyone who seems to be getting the kind of respect and consideration they feel screwed out of themselves.

Limbaugh has one "idea" to push, put and keep the rich white guys like me in charge. But most of his listeners are not rich white guys. They are financially struggling white guys.

Putting and keeping the rich white guys in charge is of course the guiding "principle" of that wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business Inc, the national Republican Party, but this has been a problem for the Republicans since William McKinley's time. This is supposedly a democracy. Everybody's in charge. And most everybody is not a rich white guy.

Asking people to vote to put the rich white guys in control is asking them to vote against themselves and their own interests.

So the Republicans have developed a secondary message.

Put us rich white guys in charge and we'll make sure you become a rich guy too.

We'll invite you to join the club.

The rich white guys have been in charge for decades now, though, so how come we're all not rich?

This question was anticipated by the rich white guys. The rich white guys had to anticipate it because they don't really want the people who vote for them in their club.

The reason we haven't been able to make you rich is that Liberals keep us from doing it.

It's because Liberals keep giving everything you've earned and deserve to their special interests.

You're out of a job or you're attending your third choice of colleges because some black guy got your place instead.

You're not getting ahead no matter how hard you work because your company is strapped because of all those environmental regulations it has to meet or all those frivolous lawsuits it's had to fight off or all those rules the corrupt union bosses tricked the guys down on the factory floor into demanding.

Your marriage has gone bust, your son is gay (You're gay!), your daughter's knocked up because of Feminists, special treatment for gays, all that sex in all those movies and TV shows Hollyweird Liberals produce and force you to watch.

Your town's falling apart, your neighbors are moving out, your store's going under because the factory had to close, the company's moving operations to the South because all those brown people the Liberals keep letting in the country will work for slave wages.

The middle manager being escorted out the door by security, his few personal belongings hastily packed in a cardboard box, downsized---rightsized---his boss told him because the company's had to cut back, passes the carpenters at work installing a ramp for that woman in accounting who's in a wheelchair, what's he going to think? That the company has money to make her life easier but not money to see that his kids eat next month? On his way through the parking lot he walks by six empty handicapped spots before he gets to his car which he can no longer afford to make the payments on, what's going through his mind?

The "smart" words he's been handed by Rush and the other peddlers of resentment to attach to his feelings.

Over at Tapped yesterday, Ben Adler was speculating that the Republicans "have it in for the disabled."

I don't think that's true, although for a fact the judges Bush has been appointing are not of a stripe to look kindly on any disabled person's claiming rights that get in the way of Big Business Inc making gobs and gobs of money, as much of it as BBI desires and in any way it wants to make it.

And even though a Republican like Jim Sensenbrenner has worked to restore the civil rights enforcement powers to the Americans With Disabilities Act, George Bush is not going to appoint anyone to his Justice Department to actually go out and enforce it.

Whatever the feelings and intentions of individual Republican Congressmen and Senators might be, they belong to a party that is led by George Bush and controlled by Big Business Inc, and the upshot is that the Republican Party might as well have it in for the disabled for being disabled, because it has it in for pretty much all of us, because we are in the way of BBI making gobs and gobs of money, as much as it desires and any way it wants.

But because the Party has adopted a strategy of exploiting resentments and hatreds in its rank and file, mocking the disabled and giving people the words to do it with it is useful and easy.

And the brilliance of it is that because the words contradict themselves the people adopting them don't even have to know that's what they're doing.

Update: Shakespeare's Sister follows up:

To say that Limbaugh probably isn’t, in real life, the monster he plays on the radio isn’t a particularly nice thing to say about him, though it may seem so. In reality, it’s rather the opposite. I firmly believe he has the capacity to be a decent person (most people do); that he chooses to shed that decency as soon as a microphone is put in front of him speaks to the depth of his lack of character. It’s one thing to be the kind of person who truly hates the disabled by virtue of ignorance or masked fear or plain, old-fashioned intolerance; it’s quite another to affect that hatred in spite of knowing better to make money from the devotion of people who really do, by inflaming their repugnant beliefs.

Hat tips to, Shakes, Lemieux, Maha, and Kuusisto.

Shakes has a link to the video of Rush rubbishing Fox.

Cross-posted at the American Street.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Does your mother know you're a Ramone

I'm beginning to think I'm the only blogger going who spent any time at all at CBGB during its hey-day who didn't have the grime and stale air of the place imprinted into his DNA and part of his brain permanently rewired to play Patti Smith and The Shirts over and over as the soundtrack of his life.

Somehow I wandered in and wandered out without a single permanent, distinct memory of the place sticking to the inside of my head. Since all my other memories from that period of my life are connected with sex and romantic misadventure, it must be that there were no girls involved in any of my visits to the joint.

Just because the night belonged to love, because the night belonged to lust for some people, doesn't mean it did for all of us.

I, for one, really did go there for the music!

And as for the music, Patti Smith meant more to me for her Springsteen connections and I saw a lot of the great bands associated with the place, and with the time, in other venues and, besides, I knew their music better through listening to their albums, which explains why when I think of the Patti Smith I'm driving the back roads of upstate New York at three in the morning trying to stop crying and when I think of the Ramones I'm in an apartment in Boston with the blonde drunkenly blurting out the words I'd so far successfully avoided saying myself and when I think of the Talking Heads...

Hold up! Hold up! (I can hear you all saying.) Lance, you don't really expect us to buy that you listened to the Talking Heads?

Not only did I, I still do.

I was also the first person I knew to own their album.

You're not going to believe me when I tell you about me and Elvis Costello.

At any rate, CBGB should feel like a part of my personal history, but it does not. My heart should have felt a pang when the doors closed last week, but it did not.

My one and only chance to establish myself as a hipster and apparently I was too busy trying to be a different kind of Bohemian, intent on the path that would take me out to Iowa and eventually to this computer, this minute, being Lance Mannion.

Two roads diverged in the Bowery and I took the one less traveled by---unless the usual route is to go from New York to the Midwest---and way led on to way and here I am with nothing to draw on to write a post like this fun one from Neddie Jingo:

Rent-poor, clothes-poor, food-poor, a year out of college and toiling for a four-figure income, your Ned is domiciled in a roach-ridden, rat-infested first-floor sublet on 28th and Eighth, quickly depleting his record collection at the used-record shop, sacrificed on the Altar of Beer-Money. Didn't exactly have much use for my moth-eaten "Thick as a Brick" and my Mexican pressing of "Let It Be" those days anyway.

Bobby Lightfoot comes down from Hampshire College for a visit. Still only a sophomore, he's got Dreams. Big Dreams. Gonna be a Rock-n-Roll Star, yes sir, Casio keyboard always at the ready to regale us with a newly-worked-out arrangement of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out." At great length.

He's not yet formed The Malarians, but the pieces are in place, and it's pretty easy to tell the kid's already in a musical zone way beyond anyplace I've ever been. Ambitous. Very ambitious.

We go downtown. Can't even remember why, now. Our wanderings take us to the Bowery, and when I point out CBGB across the street, his reaction's not dissimilar to mine three years earlier. He wants to check it out.

There's a crowd outside, and we have to squeeze our way through it. I look at Bobby, and almost piss myself laughing. His spine is absolutely straight as me winds around people, his eyes are hooded in the best Punk style, he's pulled himself to his full six feet, and he is actually, swear to God, sucking in his cheeks.

Come on, Bobby! They're just people! You're not going to get discovered in this crowd!

There's more, go read it here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Chris Farley scores a hat trick of romantic failure

Chris Farley began his run on Saturday Night Live at about the time I was giving up the show. That's a coincidence not a case of cause and effect, but Farley's charm did happen to be lost on me. He always struck me as what at bottom he was---a big, goofy fat kid who had figured out a long time ago that the best way to keep his teachers and the bullies off balance was to keep them laughing and then got addicted to their laughter.

Lots of great comics started out in grade school as the class clown, but over time they learned to discipline their wit and their intelligence and their performances. The difference between clowns and great comics is that clowns just want to get a laugh and they really don't care why you laugh or what you're laughing at, while great comics want to make you laugh on their terms.

Any clown can get a laugh by dropping his pants. Only Bill Cosby can tell the story of Noah that way.

Farley was a great clown.

That's the portrait of him Jay Mohr paints in his book Gasping for Airtime. Mohr loved Farley. Thought he was hilarious.

Mohr doesn't really touch on Farley's demons or mention his death.

A somewhat sadder picture gets drawn in Live From New York.

Chris Rock: Two guys named Chris, hired on the same day, sharing an office, okay? One's a black guy from Bed-Stuy, one's a white guy from Madison, Wisconsin. Now---which one is going to OD?

Farley idolized John Belushi. I don't think he became self-destructive to imitate his idol. I think the impulse to self-destruct was something he thought he had in common with Belushi and he looked to Belushi for a key to how to handle his demons or at least enjoy the fight.

From what I've read, though, it seems to me that Belushi was trying to get on top of something. Belushi wasn't a hero. But I think he was taking whatever it was he was fighting head on and at full strength. Farley was either running from something or chasing it. Either way, I see him as a sadder, more desperate character, more of a victim.

It sounds too like he was the more decent and likeable guy.

I'm mentioning all that to tell you this and explain why I find it so touching.

Seems Farley was dating a girl he really liked and she dumped him. Went off with another guy. Farley was shocked. He'd had no clue. And he was crushed.

But he had his pride.

"Ok," he told a friend, "Maybe she can find somebody better looking than me. And she might find somebody with more money than me. But she'll never find anyone funnier than me!"

Guy she dumped him for?

Steve Martin.

Studio 60: Live blogging on the Sunset Strip with Shakespeare's Sister

Updated throughout show.

Mannion: The blonde has yet to see an episode of Studio 60. It's on past her usual bedtime. "What you've written about so far hasn't made me want to stay up to see it," she told me tonight.

Now, because I get lonely here at night and want to share some quality TV time with my loving wife, and we've finished off Season Two of Deadwood and Season Two of House hasn't arrived from Netflix yet, I figure I'd better get some positive things written about Studio 60 pronto.

So I've brought in a ringer. A fan of the show. Someone I'm sure you all know and love, star of stage, screen, and radioactivity, ladies and germs, let's have a big round of applause for...

Shakespeare's Sister, her fans, her parrot, and her all-girl orchestra!

Hello, Mannionites. Shakes here, with many thanks to Mannion for giving me the keys to the Lancemobile for the evening.

As mentioned above, I find myself here only by virtue of having enjoyed Studio 60 so far, because I am otherwise patently unqualified for the job. I am a terrible watcher of TV, typically avoiding any series that forces me to pay attention to it on a weekly basis to retain some sense of what’s going on, that doesn’t have as its primary demographic "nerds," and/or that doesn’t give me at least as much pain as pleasure. Thusly, I admit to watching things like American Idol, mainly because I hate it, only to be told I have terrible taste in television—something I already know because television executives have been telling me for years, by canceling every show I like.

The mere mention of Freaks and Geeks can still bring tears to my eyes.

I’ve also never seen an episode of West Wing (grateful fans of which have applauded my decision to never tune in and thereby ensure its success), so the last time Aaron Sorkin and I were intimate was Sports Night, leaving me with expectations muted by the passage of time. I turned on Studio 60 more for Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford than I did for the man who created their characters.

And I certainly haven’t been disappointed. I believed, quite easily, from its start that Matt and Danny were old friends and loyal partners. Like Mannion, I’ve been less enthusiastic about the relationship between Matt and Harriet, for much the same reason. Harriet, I keep thinking, should be a little less easy to read; she should be…perkier. Every line should leave a question mark hanging in the air: Is she daft, or cunning? I’d prefer not to know whether she’s completely unaware that she’s tying Matt in knots, or glad of it. Her being evidently glad of it, and our nonetheless liking her, is predicated on knowing her better. Last week’s show remedied that a bit.

But forget Matt and Harriet. The real action is the developing relationship (not of the romantic sort) between Danny and Jordan (Amanda Peet). Last week’s subplot in which Jordan won that much more of Danny’s trust, and hence, a big favor, simply by showing a bit of integrity, was superb—and because Whitford and Peet are so fun to watch together, it nearly made me ignore the metawink of the scene, in which a fictional show bemoans the lack of precisely the kind of integrity so rare in television that it can be only be found on a fictional show designed to critique that lack of integrity.

Okay, enough of where we’ve been. Liveblogging where we’re going begins shortly…

9:02 - "Dome of pleasure?" No one thinks the Fortress of Solitude is called the Dome of Pleasure. Superman didn't hang out at a strip joint.

9:15 - "No, I want to put him on retainer." Ha.

I like the idea of being at the cast party, although I'm already bored with Matt and Harriet again. I have high hopes for the addled Sid Caesar fan to warm the cockles of my very heart, though, because I'm a sucker for shit like that.

9:30 - One of the things I like about both Matt and Danny is how they immediately respect anyone who calls them on their shit. The reason I like this is because I can relate. D.L. Hughley is shaping up to be one of my favorite characters in the show.

Jordan needs friends. Oy. I liked the exchange about Harriet's and her juxtaposed gossip nuggets in a celebrity rag, though. "My father was thrilled to read that." "I bet he was." Ah, bonding.

Tom's dad is a prick. And a cardboard prick at that. Just push him over, Tom! In front of a cat. Cats like to chew on cardboard.

9:41 - I got ten smackers that says that baseball has a phone number on it.

Mr. Shakes says, "Simon needs to be a writer!" Gee, ya think?

My cockles are very warm from Scarface.

9:58 - New black writer. Quite a night for this guy.

I would have won ten smackers, if anyone had been foolish enough to take my bet.

Oh...my cockles were getting warmer, warmer...and then...why it's Matt, all growed up! I've been left with cold cockles. Smirking cockles. Sigh.

Why do I like this show? I ask the same question every week, because every week I gripe to Mr. Shakes about all the things I think are too much or too little, and everything seems to be one or the other. It's the characters I like. They're stuck inside this giant pendulum that's swinging way too wide, back and forth. But it's in rhythm...and I think its arc will narrow, and then everything will fit.


Thanks very much to Mannion for allowing me to invade, and thanks muchly to the esteemed Mannionites who kept me laughing with co-live-blogging in comments!

Mannion again: Thanks, Shakes! Wasn't she great, folks? And working without a net too! And let's give it up for our special surprise guest star, James Wolcott, who unfortunately left his accordian at home tonight. Maybe next time he'll remember and favor us with his trademark rendition of Lady of Spain! Thanks for stopping by, Mr W.

Please, kids, remember to tip the coat check girl on your way out.

Folks on the West Coast tuning in late, you can still leave your comments too. Bar's open until 2. The band will be playing all night.

Studio 60: Warm-up act

While we're waiting for her agent to talk our Studio 60 Live Blogging Hostess into leaving her trailer and fulfliling the terms of her contract tonight (My lawyers are standing right here, Shakes.), a bit of Studio 60 backstory trivia.

Episode week before last, one of the plot threads involved a bit that had been stolen word for word from an obscure nightclub comic's routine. DL Hughley's character, Simon Stiles, delivered the monologue during the news. At the end of the broadcast, Bradley Whitford finds out from Christine Lahti who has discovered the rip-off via the wonders of the Internet and YouTube. This sets up a mad scramble to pull the bit from the west coast tape, interrupt their own show with a live broadcast, and cover the now dead airtime with an apology and some new jokes.

This is all very breathtaking and exciting because no one has ever done a live feed before, apparently. (Meanwhile, the network's entire news department's rolling on the floor laughing.) And it turns out not to have been necessary. They find out the material was stolen by the guy they stole it from and he stole it from a guy who used to write for Studio 60. The bit was written for the show but it never aired. This means the network owns the material. Lawsuit averted. Phew.

So. Over the weekend I'm reading Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live by Jay Mohr. Mohr---Last Comic Standing Mohr, Action Mohr, voice of Christopher Walken on an episode of The Simpsons Mohr, Go Mohr, which is my favorite Mohr---was a featured player on SNL for two seasons in the early 90s.

He hated the gig.

It literally made him sick.

The schedule was and is a killer and not everyone's cut out to handle it, which I think is a knock on producer Lorne Michaels' stubborn commitment to tradition not on anyone who can't handle it. As Mohr points out, the schedule for producing the show was set during its first couple of seasons when everybody was coked out of their minds. But what really got to Mohr was that he couldn't get his material, or his face, on the air.

Weeks would go by when he had nothing to do.

Other weeks he would write a sketch that made it over all the hurdles, the pitch, the table read, the first rehearsals, the dress rehearsal, only to see it killed before showtime on Saturday night because there wasn't enough time or someone decided that another sketch worked better or had Chris Farley in it, which in everybody's mind at the time was the same as a sketch that worked better.

Other writers weren't putting Mohr in their sketches, which is how performers get on a particular show. The writer of the sketch casts them. That's why it was good to be a writer/performer...or to be Chris Farley.

At any rate, Mohr was growing desperate, watching himself disappear from the show, watching, he thought, his career disappear. He was frustrated, scared, at his wit's end, and he was beginning to doubt himself to the point that he couldn't follow through on any of his ideas. He couldn't write because he couldn't see the use.

Mohr was still doing stand-up while he was working for SNL. One week, just to have something to say at the pitch, he wrote down word for word a routine he saw another comic do at a nightclub. It wasn't a Weekend Update bit like on Studio 60. It was about an Irish bartender who insulted all his patrons. At the pitch, the meeting with Lorne Michaels at the beginning of the week where all the writers tell Michaels their ideas for the upcoming show, Mohr did the bit.

It killed.

Mohr was shocked. He'd expected it to die like everything else he'd been pitching lately. But he wrote it up and submitted it for the table read on Wednesday. He figured, given his track record, no way the bit would make it out of there.

Guess what.

And it made it through rehearsals and it made it into the final dress and it made it on the air.

In the early 90s there was no World Wide Web so there was no immediate shout of outrage from the comic.

But the comic eventually heard about it and SNL's producers eventually heard from the comic's agent. He was threatening to sue.

I'm not telling tales on Mohr here. This is from Mohr's book. Mohr's telling on himself.

Three weeks later the SNL's supervising producer, Ken Aymong, led Mohr into a meeting.

On top of a cabinet was a television and a VCR. Sitting in front of the television was Lorne Michaels.

Ken asked me if I knew a guy named Rick Shapiro. I told him I did not. Ken then pressed play on the VCR, and in front of me on the monitor was a video of Rick Shapiro doing his act. On the tape in the VCR, he was doing the Irish bartender sketch. He was doing it exactly the way I copied it. Ken let the tape play a while. Finally Lorne asked me, "You've never hear of this guy or seen his act?" I replied that I had not. Lorne nodded his head and Ken Aymong turned off the VCR. Lorne looked at me for a second and said, "Okay." And I walked out of the room.

Mohr wasn't fired. And he still doesn't understand why not. It's doubtful Michaels believed him. Nobody else believed him either.

...the reputation for being a thief followed me for quite a while in the only place I had ever felt comfortable: the comedy clubs.

The comic did sue. There was a settlement. Mohr doesn't know its details.

No point to this. Just found it interesting. I wonder what Mohr thinks about the story of how he stole a routine for Saturday Night Live being stolen by Aaron Sorkin for Studio 60.

And I wonder what the comic he stole the sketch from thinks.

Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their party

Lizzy, guiding spirit and guardian angel of Night Bird's Fountain, has been working her heart out for John Hall, the Democratic challenger for the House of Representatives in New York's 19th District.

Hall's running against longtime Republican incumbent, Sue Kelly, and the campaign's been going very well, getting big boosts over the weekend from endorsements by the New York Times and the big local daily, The Times Herald-Record.

Sue Kelly's been doing her bit to help Hall out too. She seems to be choking under the pressure of having to fight off a serious challenge for her seat. As Tom Watson reports, she's running scared:

What happened today is priceless - watch the video below and see a Republican Member of Congress literally run away - flee in fear - from the cameras of the local public service television show, and the classic "empty chair" scenario unfold at the local League of Women Voters. I suspect Sue Kelly is running from more than the TV camera - she's running away from George W. Bush, from the war, from the Congressional scandals, from incompetent leadership, from the lies. You want local Republican fear in 2006, a sense of what's happening on the ground? Watch Sue Kelly run.

John Hall deserves to win even more than Kelly deserves to lose, but she does deserve to lose. She has never represented her district in Congress with as much energy as she has represented first Newt Gingrich and then Tom DeLay and George Bush.

From the Times Herald-Record's editorial endorsing Hall:

Kelly came into Congress a dozen years ago with the Newt Gingrich-led GOP sweep and its famous "Contract With America" that promised reform of how the House of Representatives was run by Democrats. For her part, Kelly reserved the right to pick and choose on the contract, but pledged to work for "a smaller, smarter government which is more accountable to the American people." The GOP-led federal government may be many things, but smaller, smarter and more accountable are not among them. Kelly's sin is not necessarily that her vision has not been realized, but that she almost unfailingly defends what has been delivered instead...

Sad to say, Kelly sounds like too many other Republican candidates this year, trying to defend the indefensible.

What's been delivered is a culture of corruption and a failed war in Iraq and the indefensible is a President who won't admit his mistakes and set out to fix them and a Republican-controlled Congress who lets him get away with everything.

Lizzy has some more good news for Hall. A poll by Majority Watch shows him leading Kelly by 9 points, 49-40.

The poll was taken before Kelly ran from the cameras.

But there was something very interesting to me in Majority Watch's poll of another House race in New York. Up in my old stomping grounds, NY-25, Democratic challenger Dan Maffei is leading the up till now seemingly Congressman for life Jim Walsh, 51-43!

Kelly came to Washington as part of the Contract for America crowd. However moderate she thought she was herself, she was part of Newt's mob of radicals from the get-go. But Walsh was there long before that and he really was a moderate. In fact, I voted for him in the first three of his re-election bids after we moved to Syracuse.

Then in 1998 he voted to impeach Bill Clinton.

Newt had him by the short ones from then out and he stopped representing his very blue district---it went big for Bill, big for Hill, big for Gore and Kerry---and became another lackey for the radical Republican Right. He should have been fired in 2000, but the Democrats up there have had trouble finding a serious challenger and, a lot of voters have had trouble getting their heads around the idea that this was not their father's Republican Party any more.

Times have changed, apparently.

They've changed in NY-20 too. Republican incumbent John Sweeney trails his Democratic challenger, Kirsten Gillibrand, 41-54. That's a district just north of where I grew up and all my life, except for the first few years after Watergate, it's been represented by a Republican.

And in NY-24, a seat that's falling vacant due to the retirement of long-standing Republican incumbent Sherwood Boehlert, Democrat Michael Arcuri leads Republican Raymond Meier 52-43.

Then there's NY-26. Republican incumbent Jim Reynolds is 17 points behind his Democratic challenger, Jack Davis, 39-56.

There's two weeks to go and things can change, of course, but things look good for the Democrats here in New York.

But think about this. The Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to take control of the House of Representatives and they may get five of those in one state.

I don't know if this means that the Democrats are going to take it all, although it seems that having to find those other 10 seats among the other 49 states makes the odds good in their favor. But what's happening here makes me surer of something I've been predicting for a while.

The Blue States are about to get a lot bluer.

The Southwestern States and some of the Western ones have been trending blue too.

What I see happening is that the Red is going to get more and more confined to one region of the country, the South.

I don't like the idea of the country being divided along lines that divided in 150 years ago, but there's nothing for it.

There's been some mushmouthed punditry advising the Democrats that, if they do win, they should let bygones be bygones and come into town willing to work with the Republicans who, as we all know, have been so willing to work their Democratic colleagues that they have literally locked them out of meetings to craft legislation.

Digby and Tom have said all that needs to be said on this idea.

But any pundit who wants to tell the Democrats how to continue to surrender even when they hold the majority needs to look at what's happening in New York.

Not that they have been all that moderate since the Right took over the Republican Congress* but several temperamentally moderate legislators are about to leave town, one voluntarily, the others with their tickets punched by their constituents.

After November, Republicans in Congress won't have to fear Karl Rove anymore, and I think it's dawned on just about everybody except for Joe Lieberman and a few pundits like David Broder that George Bush is not only not popular, he is closing in on being universally despised. Among the third of the country that still say they approve of the job he's doing there are probably an awful lot of people saying it just because they feel stuck with him.

Without having to worry about Rove's muscle or Bush's standing with their constituents---he has none--- Republican moderates in Congress ought to feel freer to reach across the aisle.

Except that they won't be there to do it.

Unless the Democratic win is of historical proportions, the Republicans left in Washington are going to be looking at 2008, or 2010 anyway, as the year they'll get their own back. They won't be in any mood to roll over and play dead, nor would there be any reason for them to be.

And if the trend we're seeing here in New York is the trend, then the Democrats are going to win by defeating the Republicans they would have had a chance to work with.

The Republicans who'll still hold their seats will be the true believers and the die-hards.

Since Newt the Republicans in Washington have had a code: Don't compromise, don't play "fair," treat anyone who didn't vote for you as if they don't exist, deny or ignore the legitimacy of any Democratic victory, never admit defeat.

Again, nothing to be done. The moderates have to go.

The Right Wingers have to be isolated.

But any pundits who advise the Democrats to go slow, show mercy, offer compromise, and any Democratic legislators who feels like taking that advice need to ask themselves a question.

Just who do you think there's going to be around to compromise with?

* Some moderates. The Drum Major Institute gives Sue Kelly a score of 13 per cent on votes on legislation helping the Middle Class, same score as Sherwood Boehlert. Jim Walsh has a score of ZERO!

My Congressman, one of the last of the great liberal Democrats, Maurice Hinchey, has a score of 100 per cent.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Law and Order makes me want to apologize to Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson, who plays the born-again and inexplicable audience-favorite Harriet Hayes, the too wholesome Beatrice to Matthew Perry's neurotic Benedick, on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, has taken a lot of flak here, from me and most of my commenters.

It's the general feeling that Paulson's too cool, too self-contained, and too "smart" for the character she plays---you can see the wheels turning behind her eyes, and Harriet's charm has to be that she is spontaneous, even impulsive, and just can't help letting her feelings show. If she's at all calculating, then her faith is just an excuse to scold her castmates and bully the writers and her romantic longing for Perry's Matt Albie comes across as manipulation. Both were the case in the first four episodes.

The report from our roving correspondents is that she was marginally less annoying on last week's episode and even managed to be almost as charming and winsome as her character's intended to be.

Part of Paulson's problem has been the way her character's been written. I'm not as big a fan of Aaron Sorkin's writing as a lot of people are, Sorkin himsef included. But I think he is definitely at his weakest when he is writing for women, a weakness he shares with just about every American male writer.

But, finally, I think she's just miscast. If Studio 60 was an opera, it would be as if Sorkin had given a soprano the alto's part. Harriet simply isn't in her range, and she doesn't seem to have any idea how to approach the part except to try to change the key.

What I'm saying is that Paulson is not a bad actress, so watching her play Harriet isn't embarrassing, just frustrating.

Watching Milena Govich as the new detective on Law and Order is embarrassing.

Govich is bad.

Really bad.

She has no control over her voice, she doesn't know what to do with her body, and she has one facial expression, which is half a scowl, half a smirk.

She's not just stiff in front of the camera. She seems terrified of it. You can almost hear her telling herself, Don't look at it, don't look at the camera, pretend it isn't there...OH NO! I looked! Turn away!

It's a rare actress who knows how to play a cop anyway. Kathryn Erbe, who plays Eames on Law and Order:Criminal Intent, has it nailed. She succeeds mostly by underplaying Eames' toughness and by handling Eames' wisecracks with the deadest of deadpans.

It's as if Eames long ago figured out that the way for her to get by in the boys' club is to call as little attention to herself as possible and focus her male colleagues' attention on the case at hand which also focuses them on her detective work.

Eames is something of a tom-boy, but Erbe's method for playing a tom-boy comes from her understanding the secret of tom-boys, which is that tom-boys are not boys stuck inside girl's bodies; they are girls whose natural exuberance and physicality can't be contained within the bounds of traditional girls' play. They don't dislike playing at tea parties. They just get impatinet sitting still that long. A tom-boy doesn't climb a tree to be like the boys. She climbs it because she wants to. She doesn't play a sport like a boy. She plays it as herself, as well as her talent allows.

Tom-boys are attractive to a lot of guys, but not because a tom-boy can be one of the guys. What's beautiful about them is that they are so much themselves, which because their selves are female, often makes them more feminine at the same time they are acting most "masculine."

Erbe doesn't make Eames one of the guys. She makes her a woman doing her job well.

Erbe also does such a good job of downplaying her looks that it's surprising and disconcerting when in an odd moment when she lets her guard down and smiles broadly or when an accidental camera angle reveals that she is in fact beautiful.

S. Epatha Merkerson's Lt Van Buren is another gem of understatement. Merkerson found the key to Van Buren in the fact that Van Buren's a longtime mother and wife and she infuses her with a motherly practicality---I'll kiss your boo-boo after we stop the bleeding and get a Band-aid on it---and a wife's resigned amusement at the ways grown men can act like little boys.

The rest of her cop persona is simply a steady professionalism.

Govich is making the mistake that most young actresses playing cops or soliders or any part that's usually a tough guy role make. She mimics a male actor playing a tough guy, forgetting that most male actors playing tough guys are mimicking Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry or Yul Brenner in The Magnificent Seven. Basing your perfromance on someone else's pale imitation of a caricature is almost never the best approach to a part. But it's definitely a bad idea to play a caricature in a show that's main virtue over the years has been its realism.

Govich doesn't understand this, but I doubt that even if she did she could play the character another way. To talk tough all she can do is bark, and to look tough she just barks louder.

On Studio 60, Sarah Paulson might very well get better and better because she's a good enough actress that she'll find a handle on the part and because Sorkin and his co-writers are smart and will start writing the part of Harriet so that Paulson can play to her strengths.

Ironically, on Law and Order, Govich might seem to get better as the writing and directing continue to get worse and the show descends to her level.

For years now, since even before Jerry Orbach left, Dick Wolf has been hiring writers and directors who don't seem to know what show they're working on.

More and more Law and Order is beginning to remind me of another NBC hit, and it is not one of the other Law and Order franchises.

It's ER.

To be continued.

Important reminder: Live blogging of Studio 60 Monday night at 9 PM EDT with special guest hostess, Shakespeare's Sister!

Friday, October 20, 2006

If the Heartland hearts the heartless Dick Cheney then how much heart does the Heartland really have

Saturday night second-guessing of self update; revised again Sunday afternoon: Mike and MaryC think I totally missed the boat here. They both think the Times article by Mark Leibovich isn't puffery, as I thought, but is actually, although subtly, poking fun at Dick Cheney. I re-read it and I can see how it might be. There's Cheney, reduced to under the media's radar speaking engagements in out of the way places like Wyoming, Michigan, Caspar, Wyoming, and Topeka, Kansas---Topeka isn't that out of the way. I think he should have kept the Wyoming theme going and given a speech in Cheyenne County; there's also a town not too far west of Wichita called Cheney---with no one to come listen to him but Republican stalwarts, their soppy, bible-clutching wives, his boyhood pal, and a little girl with the oddest case of hero worship I've ever heard of.

In other words, Leibovich's story might be what I was criticizing it for not being and might not be what I criticized it for being. Leibovich might not be painting a crowd of boobs and yahoos as a Norman Rockwell illustration, as I suggested; he might be drawing a grim, Hogarthian caricature of an isolated Dick Cheney.

But I can't take the post back without losing Mike's, Mary's, and everybody elses's comments now. So:

This struck me as more of a cute little girl story than anything---"Oh look at that! She's only 6 years old and her hero's the despicable, lying, torture-loving, warmongering, powermad, probable thief Dick Cheney! Isn't that precious?"---but Avedon's right. The piece is annoying.

It's the tone.

The reporter, Mark Leibovich, adopts that phony aw shucks, they's jess folks smarminess that Ivy League elistist apologists for the Right Wing use to remind the rest of us who live where there are people who aren't white, aren't cornfed, don't vote Republican, and don't live off farm subsidies while whining about the evils of big Librul gummint that we aren't real Americans.

Kansas is the Heartland, you know, it's at the Heart of America, the very middle, where the heart would be if the continent was a body, get it?, and therefore this accidental geographic fact resulting in a hokey metpahor must mean that the real heart of America is to be found in anyone who lives in proximity to a Kansas cornfield.

An insurance agent who lives in a subdivision outside of Topeka and commutes to his big box office building next to a strip mall in his SUV is more in the American grain than the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants who is putting herself through college working double shifts at a McDonalds in South Philly simply by having had the luck of having been born in the Heartland, and his vote for Bush and Cheney is somehow more representative and authentic than hers for Kerry and Edwards.

We're talking about Kansas here. The state that has twice decided to deny its children a 21st Century education in science. Not everyone who lives there is a boob or a yahoo. In fact there are enough non-boobs and anti-yahoos to have elected a Democratic governor and vote out the boobs and yahoos on the Board of Education who wanted to erase the name Darwin from the schoolbooks.

But it's a good bet that the crowd who turned out to cheer Dick Cheney included a high proportion of boobs and yahoos.

I don't know though, because Leibovich apparently didn't bother to find out who was in the crowd.

There was at least one farmer there, and a rancher, who happens to be one of Cheney's boyhood friends. The only other people identified and quoted are a Republican Congressman, his wife, and a Republican state senator. But Leibovich writes as if the whole crowd was a Norman Rockwell painting come to life and leaves it at that, apparently unaware that even in Kansas there are people who don't farm for a living---there are corporate executives and suburban-dwelling middle managers in the Heartland, just as there are farmers here in the Blue and soon to be Bluer State of New York.

A crowd of pesticide salesmen cheering Dick Cheney in Kansas shouldn't be treated as being more representative of the true American spirit than a crowd of dockworkers booing him in New York City, not that Cheney would ever show up to be booed by dockworkers.

Not that he ever shows up where he isn't positive he's going to be cheered.

Leibovich must know but he doesn't note it in his article that the crowd cheering was like all the crowds Bush and Cheney appear before---filled with ringers.

Nope. What we get is told that out here the folks went for Bush by a 25 per cent margin in 2004.

What would he get if he ran there today? Leibovich doesn't say.

He does say, "As a rule, people still love Mr. Bush in Cheney Country, at least relative to some locales."

I like that. "Some locales." Can't you hear Sheriff Andy Taylor saying that to refer to locales like New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle, all those strange, furrin places far away from the Heartland?

Leibovich does get around to mentioning the fact that generally, outside of good, God-fearing Cheney Country like Topeka, Dick Cheney is held in lower regard than even used car salesmen and New York Times journalists, with an approval rating below 20 per cent. But then he goes right back to painting his Saturday Evening Post cover illustration of a loveable, affable Dick Cheney telling it straight to the crowd of just plain folks.

Dick Cheney is probably the most odious excuse for a human being to hold the office of Vice President---and remember Aaron Burr had the job once ---but all Leibovich can find to explain why those of us who aren't just plain folks and despise the man despise him is that he told Pat Leahy to get stuffed and shot some poor dope who went and apologized to Cheney for getting in his way.

Otherwise, Cheney's a man admired for his "intellect and steadiness."

Now we know that reporters covering the Bush Leaguers are expected to write these kind of puff pieces or risk being thrown off the plane, and you could almost feel sorry for them, if they weren't so giddily grateful when they're told to bend over and take it.

But there's nothing to be lost by covering the Heartland as if it is what it is, just a place among many places in the United States.

Virtue doesn't adhere to a farmer like manure adheres to his boots. Folks in Kiowa County are less likely to be mugged for the same reason folks in Queens County are less likely to be kicked by a cow.

There a boobs and yahoos in every Manhattan skyscraper, and men and women of wisdom and sophistication driving tractors and milking cows. There are palm readers and fortune tellers on every block in Greenwich Village, and some of the best libraries and universities scattered all over the the reddest states in the Heartland. But still, the farther inland you get from the coasts doesn't mean the closer you are getting to the true heart of America. You are just getting closer to concentrations of people who believe that they were visited by aliens and the end times are near when God is going to rapture them naked into heaven while they are in the middle of flying airplanes, driving school buses, and performing open heart surgery. The just plain folks in Leibovich's Cheney-loving Heartland are as likely as not to be parochial, bigoted, bible-thumping ignoramuses, even, and maybe especially, if they wear suits to work, and lots of them do.

And it just plain insulting to the rest of us to credit them with being the true heirs and representatives of the spirit of a nation founded by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin.

But ain't that little girl who loves Dick Cheney a sweeheart?

Out-pitched and out-managed

No, Link. The quote below doesn't refer to last night's game. I posted it early in the game, even before Scott Rolen's gift let the Mets load the bases with one out in the sixth and Cliff Floyd did not come up.

Too bad. All that worry about starting pitching and the Mets were failed by their bullpen and by bats that went cold at the wrong time.

But the Cardinals are a good team, it's time for LaRussa to win another World Series. It's time for Jim Leyland to win a World Series, and the Tigers are a good team too.

And St Louis has been part of some of the best World Series in my lifetime.

1964. Twlight of the Gods. Cards vs. Yanks. Gibson. Cards in 7.

1967. Cards vs Red Sox. Gibson again. 3 and 0. Cards in 7.

1968. Cards vs Tiger. Mickey Lolich, 3 and 0. Tigers in 7.

1982. Beer town vs beer town. The Cards against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Wizard of Oz. Cards in 7.

1985. Show Me State Series. St Louis vs Kansas City. Saberhagen. Brett. Quiz. The Royals in 7 after being down 3-1!

1987. Cards vs Twins. Frank Viola. Twins in 7.

2004. Well, that one was special for a different reason.

So I'm looking forward to this one. I'm looking forward to hearing the names.

Gibson, Brock, Boyer.

Cash, Kaline, Lolich.





Cards in seven.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Nothing in Middle-earth happens by accident

"There are no accidents in Middle Earth. Frodo's will fails at the last moment, but it was sufficient to bring the Ring as far as Mount Doom. (Aragorn or Gandalf would have gone Dark Lord long before that.) Gollum is around to fall into the Cracks only because Frodo's mercy spared him, when plain straightforward Sam could see that killing him was the smart thing. And not just mercy: empathy as well. Frodo could pity Gollum, because he knew what it was to be tortured by the Ring's power."

That's Mike Schilling commenting on the post below and he's making a good point.

I wrote that Frodo fails. At the last moment he's corrupted by the Ring, and he, and the World of Men, are only saved by the accidents of Gollum's showing up, taking the Ring from Frodo, and falling into the pit with it.

But Mike is right. Gollum is only alive to be there because of Frodo. His arriving to "save" Frodo is in an important way Frodo's own doing. Frodo saves himself on Mount Doom before he even gets there, through his own kindness and decency.

This is Tolkien's take on the old, old theme of Everyman, that in the end all we have to accompany us into heaven, all that will take us there, all that saves us, is our Good Works.

Peter Jackson's movies, great as they are, make much more of Aragorn and the battles than Tolkien himself does. The books are about Frodo and his quest. Tolkien actually does a pretty cursory job on the battle scenes. He's much more interested in what's happening inside and immediately around Frodo than he is in the great world of men. The Lord of the Rings is mainly the story of one soul's journey towards heaven.

Putting it that way, though, makes it sound like an allegory, a 20th Century follow-up to A Pilgrim's Progress.

There are allegorical elements in Lord of the Rings, but it has far more in common with epics and romances. It is a symbolic work, and its symbolism is self-referential. The symbols point us towards the books' own themes and meanings. Characters are meant to be seen as meaning themselves, actions taken at face value. The books are about themselves.

Understanding what Tolkien is up to isn't a matter of finding one to one correspondences between what happens in the story and things in real life.

The battle of Pelennor Fields is not Armageddon and Aragorn is not the second coming of Jesus Christ.

I don't think there was anything wrong with Rick Santorum using a reference to a classic work of fiction to make a point about things going on in real life. Where would great public speakers be without Shakespeare and the Bible to crib from?

Art is about life, after all.

Shakespeare himself was pretty firm on the subject. Well, Hamlet was, anyway.

"Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live."

I think Santorum's allusion was inapt. But I'm more disturbed by the point he was using the eye of Sauron to make---that it's a good thing that all those Iraqis and American soldiers and Marines are getting killed every day, otherwise we might have to worry about getting killed ourselves.

It's better all those people die on our behalf than that we have to think twice about going to the mall.

But the allusion was inapt, in several ways, mainly by being an attempt to draw an allegorical comparison rather than seeing the symbolic point.

Sauron is not Osama or, even more allegorically interpreted, Terror. Bush is not Frodo and he's definitely not Aragorn. But he's not Saruman or the Witch King either. Cheney may act like Grima Wormtongue on Bush, but he's not Grima. The terrorists aren't orcs, and neither are Republicans or Right Wingers or Right Wing bloggers, although some of them sure can be orc-like in their thinking.

I am Grima.

I am Theoden too. I am Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin.

I am Bilbo and Gollum.

I am an orc. And so are you.

The Lord of the Rings is not a political work. It has no political lessons to teach. It's a moral work. It's about the inner lives of individuals, not the public functioning of societies.

A very important way Santorum's allusion was wrong is that it uses Sauron as a stand in for an outside threat.

Sauron is an inner evil. That's why he has no body and no personality. It's why his armies are mostly anonymous.

Evil, in the Lord of the Rings, isn't an Other. It's a destructive force within ourselves that we bring to bear upon ourselves.

The bad guys are kind of a disappointing and unscary lot, just a bunch of fairy tale hobgoblins led by a yet another evil wizard, until they are seen for what they are---mirror images of the good guys.

The orcs used to be elves.

Gollum was a hobbit cousin.

There's Gandalf, and there's Saruman.

There's Theoden and there's Denethor.

Aragorn is mirrored by the Nazgul, all of whom used to be great kings, and by his own ancestor, Isildur. Boromir is his double too. All of them, the Nazgul, Isildur, and Boromir represent choices Aragorn could have made and could still make. They are symbolic of his temptations and weaknesses.

The Armies of Mordor are mustering to destroy the World of Men, but the Armies of Mordor include men. The Easterlings are not literally enemies from the East. They are not Nazis or the Soviets or the Red Chinese or Islamic terrorists. They are the men of the West, the men of Rohan and Gondor, facing themselves in the mirror, the way West and East face each other across the compass dial not in opposition but as two names for the same ideas, "Where we are" and "Where we are going," with either being either. We could be going one way as easily as we could be going the other.

The greatest evil in Middle-earth, the greatest temptation, is the work not of Sauron but of the Ring. That evil is the lust for power and self-aggrandizement or, in the case of hobbits, the craven desire to be left alone, to separate from the world and its troubles, to hide in a cave, secret, self-contained, solitary, with no concern for anybody or anything but our own selfish wants and pleasures. Some life, chewing on raw fish while talking to our own reflections, but it's amazing how alluring it is and how often we all succumb.

Anyway, that's why it almost always seems to work, accusing someone else of being like this character or that from Lord of the Rings.

Because at some point we all are like this or that character or all the characters---except for Aragorn.

That's who we're all supposed to be trying to be.

Even Strider.

All I know about Tolkien I know from reading Tom Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

But Aragorn didn't start the war

I want to know. Who's Frodo in Rick Santorum's misreading of The Lord of the Rings?

While the eye of Sauron is focused on Iraq, who's carrying the Ring up Mount Doom to throw it into the pit and destroy it and end the war?

And is Santorum aware that Frodo fails?

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose now above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and the walls.

"I have come," he said, "But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!" And, suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam's sight.

The Ring gets to him in the end. It's an accident that it's destroyed. Does Santorum expect that Gollum's going to come along at the last minute?

And does he remember that Frodo and Sam, not to mention Aragorn and his company, are saved by Divine Intervention?

There came Gwaihir the Windlord, and Landroval his brother, greatest of all the Eagles of the North, mightiest of the descendents of old Thorondor, who built his eyries in the inaccessible peaks of the Encircling Mountains when Middle-earth was young. Behind them in long swift lines came all their vassals from the northern mountains, speeding on a gathering wind. Straight down upon the Nazgul they bore, stooping suddenly out of the high airs, and the rush of their wide wings as they passed over was like a gale.

Does this mean that Santorum, like Bush, thinks that God is finally going to step in and clean up the whole mess?

Actually, forget the implications of the literary allusion. Let's look at what Santorum's really telling us.

In an interview with the editorial board of the Bucks County Courier Times, embattled Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has equated the war in Iraq with J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." According to the paper, Santorum said that the United States has avoided terrorist attacks at home over the past five years because the "Eye of Mordor" has been focused on Iraq instead.

"As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else," Santorum said. "It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States."

It's the flypaper theory gussied up. He's saying that the point of the War in Iraq is to keep the terrorists fighting over there and not bothering with us over here. The idea is that thousands and thousands and thousands of Iraqis are dying, that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of American troops are dying, so that all of us safe at home don't have to worry about another terrorist attack.

He's admitting it. The war's not about bringing the Iraqis democracy or freedom. It's not even about putting an end to terrorism.

It's about us not having to be scared.

I'd be bothered by the lack of faith this shows in Americans to be strong and brave and and in our ability to face up to the problems and dangers of living in the read world, if I weren't so disgusted by the contempt and callous disregard it shows for the lives of American troops and for the lives of the Iraqis we said we were coming to save.

But if Santorum's been re-reading Tolkien, he should do it while keeping the main theme of the trilogy in mind.

Those who seek power, even to use it to do good, are corrupted and destroyed by it.

`You are wise and fearless and fair, Lady Galadriel,' said Frodo. `I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.'

Galadriel laughed with a sudden clear laugh. `Wise the Lady Galadriel may be,' she said, `yet here she has met her match in courtesy. Gently are you revenged for my testing of your heart at our first meeting. You begin to see with a keen eye. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! It was brought within my grasp. The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls. Would not that have been a noble deed to set credit of his Ring, if I had taken it by force or fear from my guest?

`And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful.

That's how we know who are the best and strongest characters in the story. Galadriel, Gandalf, and Aragorn. They're the ones who when offered the Ring turn it down.

If the war---wars---the real ones in Iraq and Afghanistan and the shadow war against terror---have meant anything to the Bush Administration, they have not meant resisting the temptation to seek power.

Follow-up post: Nothing in Middle-earth happens by accident.

Thanks to Paul and Waveflux.