Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Get Smart

And here is the first of my three essays posted at Wonders in the Dark - Get Smart! And a bit about The Sitcom, in the 60s at least...



I love 60s sitcoms. Even now, along with a few British shows, and cartoons (Simpsons or Futurama or Bevis and Butthead) they are the sit coms I am most likely to watch when they come on TV, even ahead of great shows like Seinfeld, or All in the Family or Taxi or MASH. Get Smart, Batman, Hogan’s Heroes - even the Beverly Hillbillies - I can always watch those shows.

It’s personal preference, shows I grew up on (though already in syndication; watching them at 4 in the afternoon, between Gunsmoke and Mr. Rogers), but it’s also the style. Sitcoms changed in the 60s - especially in the mid-60s. The culture changed; the technology changed (color TV!) - sitcoms shifted along with these things. The early classics - I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver - were all domestic shows, centered in the home; this was still the case in the early 60s, with shows like My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, though the latter is as much about the town as his home. But around the middle of the 60s, shows started to appear that were more and more set outside the home - Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, Batman, Gilligan’s Island. And shows still built around home and family started to get a bit stranger - Bewitched and its magic, The Munsters and Addams Family, with their monsters, even the Beverly Hillbillies, with it’s over the top farce (it’s Li’l Abner vibe.) The technology changed - most of these shows were in color; most of them used single camera setups rather than multi-camera live shooting. And the tone changed - they were parodic, satiric, they embraced absurdity, camp, surrealism. They stopped trying to be realistic, they stopped pretending to be about people like you and me in naturalistic (if comic and extreme) situations - they embraced genre stories, and made fun of them, usually by combining commonplace situations (going to work, hanging with your friends, or even the old domesticity of sitcoms) with absurd situations - spies, POWs, witches, superheroes. In many ways, they adopted the style and tone of cartoons, comic strips, comic books - directly, when it comes to the Addams Family or Batman, but a lot of these shows share the style.

It didn’t last. Sitcoms in the 70s developed in a different direction - even political and socially aware shows became naturalistic again, treated their characters and situations as real people. All in the Family and Normal Lear’s other shows; Happy Days; and all the (wonderful) workplace comedies of the 70s - The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MASH, Taxi, Barney Miller - did this. Showed real work places, not comic spy headquarters or German POW camps; dropped the genre parodies, the absurdity, the magic and science fiction. The 70s was a great era for sitcoms - but I miss the weirdness of the 60s.

And none of them did it better than Get Smart. It was developed and written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (with Henry staying on as story editor for two years), conceived as a combination of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. It starred Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Ed Platt, plus a mob of character actors, with single or recurring roles. It ran 5 seasons, 4 on NBC and one on CBS, fading a bit through the years, and engaging in more than a few cheap ratings boosts in latter years, though we don’t need to dwell on that. And it was exemplary of the kind of show I am talking about here. It was made right when shows switched to color - the pilot is black and white, but the rest of the show is color; it was a single camera show for it’s whole run; it was a genre parody, and one that let in a lot of genre nonsense - spies and adventure, and funny gadgets, and straight up science fiction; it was never shy about parodying other culture - movies, other TV shows, and so on; it was packed with in-jokes, puns, references outside the show (names and titles and such); and it was a work place comedy, combining the goofy spy stuff with the banalities of an office job, using both to send up the other.

And it was brilliant. The talent was top flight - Brooks and Henry are as good a pair of originators as you could ask, and the rest of the team measured up as well. Leonard Stern and Jay Sandrich, Irving Szathmary’s glorious theme song and scores, a host of fine writers to create the show. It featured a host of outstanding supporting players, but the cast - the three leads were perfect.

Don Adams carried it, of course - he’s ideal, a perfect buffoon, with his weird voice and beady little eyes, his physical flair, the way he walks, the way he could move, the way he wore a suit. It helps that he’s a little guy, looking up to everyone around him (including 99, when he didn’t pull her down to his eye level), vain and silly, his size making him a bit more ridiculous, but also a bit more sympathetic than he could have been. He is great at everything - the broad physical comedy, the little stuff (the way he can smoke or put out a cigarette), the voices, the serious detectiving, the oblivion, the prudishness and occasional bout of lust - he was always great. He had a mile long list of catch phrases, but always seemed to deliver them as though he were thinking of them for the first time ever - except when it was funnier to think he’d used the same line 4 times this month already. He was great.

His two main foils more than hold their own. Barbara Feldon was gorgeous, with a husky, sexy voice - and she was a fine actress, and marvelous comedian. The writers didn’t give her the gags they gave Max and the Chief, but she got all the reactions, and she played them with the precision and timing that Adams played the jokes. She had an infinite supply of eye rolls and head tilts, side eyes and body language, that convey a kind of infinite patience, as though she were managing this idiot until he needed to do something heroic. And Ed Platt embodies sober authority, but with a slow burn, driven to distraction by Max, but never quite breaking, and recovering when he did - he didn’t have 99’s infinite patience, or her understanding that idiot or not, Max was blessed by the gods (or the writers) and would always come out right, so he blew up now and then, but he always recovered - and could sell the idea that he was in control all along, no matter how bad things got, how ridiculous Max's solution was, Platt could make it seem as though that was what the Chief had in mind from the start. With that voice - he could sell anything.



They were a great trio. They could carry all the modes of the show - the spy stuff, but also the workplace stuff and the social stuff. The workplace comedy was obvious from the beginning: in the pilot, Max clocks in when he enters the chief’s office, mentions overtime later - the show always had that element. Office politics, boss/employee dynamics, money - wages, benefits - unions, perks, the competition, part time work, interdepartmental rivalries, regulations, paperwork, anything you could imagine in a workplace comedy. Some of it more than you’d see in actual workplace comedies later - unions and wages and benefits and hours and such, especially. The show plays the workplace jokes against the spy jokes, a pattern that extends across everything in the show. The adventure stuff is constantly deflated with banality: the Job, or things like dialing wrong numbers, the indifference the population seems to have to all their gunplay and brawling, or just the way everyone in Washington seems to know who Control is, where they are located, what their phone number is, sometimes before the spies do. And it goes the other way - the everyday concerns of an office job or apartment life travestied by throwing spies and science fiction machines and gunplay into it. Those marvelous machines - show phones, and all the other places they hid phones; the protective devices in Max's apartment; the Cone of Silence; all the inflato-coats and lipstick guns and radio controlled pool balls and giant arrows and everything else - which parody James Bond, but also mean that the spy stuff is buried deep into their everyday lives. Kind of like the way phones and computers and technology is buried into our lives, now....



There’s more of course. Get Smart was political - a cold war comedy that mocked the cold war from start to finish. A war time comedy that mocked the military, as well as spies, as well as cops - it was a product of its time, maybe, however much it also mocked the counterculture. It was a product of its time in less admirable ways too - ethnic jokes and sexism - but these things weren’t straightforward. It had plenty of ethnic jokes - but they were as often about the people who held stereotypes as they were stereotypes themselves. And sexist jokes - Max got the lines, the action, the story, at 99’s expense; this got really bad in the last year or so, when poor 99 married him, and was confined to the house for most of the last two seasons - but it also made fun of sexism. One of their running gags is 99 coming up with a good idea, an important question, a way out of their predicament, and Max either ignoring her or saying he’d rather do it his way. 99 always defers - and Max always does what she suggested. Shoot - I saw someone making fun of that on Twitter the other day! Max the mansplainer, in 1965. There is a lot of that - with 99 and Max, with the racial and ethnic jokes they make. They play the jokes both ways - it can be complicated.



Of course, a lot of it depends on the fact that nothing, in this show, is taken seriously. I mean - nothing is treated as though it were real. There is no sense that Max or 99 or the Chief, or any of the villains and supporting characters, are real, in the way Mary Richards or Hawkeye or Archie Bunker are treated as though they are real. There is always distance - always a sense of unreality. Characters don’t have to be consistent, in this world: Max can be an idiot for 20 minutes then turn into James Bond himself for the last act. Max can be a prude in one show and a skirt chaser in the next, without missing a beat. He respects 99, he ignores 99, he flirts with 99, he’s oblivious to 99. Situations are ridiculous - machines that vaporize buildings and people without a trace; magnets that can sink a whole fleet; masters of disguise who can turn into anyone (and do - they loved that plot device!); the chief and Larrabee - or even Siegfried, complete with a mustache - dressed up as old ladies, and no one noticing. And all of it completely pliable - half the world might be destroyed, but there they all are at the end back in the office arguing about time off and whether KAOS gets better benefits. It’s not inconsistent - it’s as though the whole world was being made up again in every scene. It’s a cartoon aesthetic - not as explicit as Bugs Bunny or Krazy Kat, but it’s got the same sense that it’s not subject to any of the rules of god or man, except that it should be funny. It’s an aesthetic shared with a lot of sitcoms in the 60s, that then passed out of sitcoms - except for the animated ones. The Simpsons and Futurama, Family Guy and South Park can feel a lot like that era of TV. Though probably not as much as some of those 60s shows felt like Bugs Bunny or Pogo.

In short - it was a good one. Always funny - usually with decent story lines (though they clearly struggled sometimes to find 30 little spy stories every year for the show - a lot of them feel very thin.) Max is an icon, and 99 and the Chief (and Siegfried, especially) are not far behind. They created a host of running gags, that worked almost all the way through the show - I can't list them all  can I? Missed it by that much! I asked you not to tell me that! The old X trick - second time I fell for it this month! I hope you don't mind that crack about the dummy. Sorry about that, Chief. Would you believe.... They created a host of cool and backing parts - Siegfried and Larrabee and a string of scientists to make up the gadgets, The Claw and Harry Hoo and Rupert of Rattskeller and a million lookalikes. (They leaned hard on doubles in this show - Alexi Sebastion, the Chameleon, the league of imposters, as well as Charles, King of Coronia, Connie and Floyd. They might have overdone it - but it's part of the style I think - nothing is real, nothing is permanent, no one is who they necessarily seem to be, and everything works out in the end.) I can watch this show all day and all night - it is as good as they come.


Gunsmoke

Here's another piece I posted last week on Wonders in the Dark, as part of their TV countdown.



Gunsmoke was the first and last - the first (or almost the first) western for grownups on TV; and very nearly the last western of any kind of TV. Lasting 20 years will do that - you're first, you outlast your peers, and sometimes your entire genre. When it came on TV, it led to a flood of similar shows - The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, many others - that shared its grown up approach the western, and its artistic values, and serving, as it did, as a launching ground for many significant actors and directors. It stayed on TV all those years because it was a very fine show - begun as a serious show, and taken seriously, with quality writing, a fantastic cast, solid production values, and consistently fine craft. They brought in first rate guest stars, they brought in first rate directors, they gave them first rate scripts - 635 episodes worth (though I suppose not all 635 were first rate; I can point you to some stinkers) - it changed through the years, but it was always watchable.

I watched it, of course, when I was a kid, both the reruns and the new ones. I didn't care if it had been on forever; I didn't really know it had been on that long until people started talking about it. I never saw any of the black and white shows until a long time after - they weren't the ones in reruns. It didn't matter. It was probably my favorite show when I was a kid, maybe right up to the time it went off the air, maybe beyond. (And not just the show: I read the books too - over and over, in fact; I liked Gunsmoke.) I liked all westerns - Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Big Valley, especially - but even then, I could tell Gunsmoke had an edge on them. I could tell it was more serious - it had action and excitement, good guys and bad guys, but it had characters too, who had depth, and breadth. More than that, maybe (since Bonanza and Big Valley were also strong on character), it had stories that were deeper and smarter than those other shows. I couldn't have described the difference then, and barely can now, but it's there - maybe it had something to do with the stakes - on Gunsmoke things seemed to matter a bit more.

It was designed that way. It was created for radio, and conceived as a hard-boiled western, explicitly reminiscent of Raymond Chandler (inspired by the Philip Marlowe radio show, in fact) - you can hear it in the early shows. Robbery, murder, lynch mobs, venal newspapermen gloating about circulation and Doc Adams angling for more autopsies, Matt accused of having an affair, and an innocent little boy who turns out to be the killer, and William Conrad as Dillon narrating and ruminating (in the best Raymond Chandler style) about how awful human beings really are. And that's just the first episode! (Here it is, on YouTube: "Billy the Kid"). The darkness didn't entirely carry over to the TV version, a couple years later - but there's plenty of it there. The first show has Matt soliloquizing on Boot Hill about the "Gomorrah of the Plains", keeps a good dose of his bitterness and sarcasm, and his strong sense of isolation (walking away alone as he does), in a story with a cold blooded killer, who just wants to be left alone. (You can see it here: "Matt Gets It", complete with John Wayne telling the audience that this show was going to last a while.) Chandler's influence is still there - Matt loses a gun fight in that first show, and when he recovers, has to go back to try again - that's pretty much standard procedure for a Hammett or Chandler character. And Matt has to outsmart the gunslinger - another bit you see in those classic detective stories. Marlowe would be proud.

As the show evolved, some of that fell away. Even on the radio, the characters had softened - Doc Adams, say, is a pretty nasty piece of work in those early shows. The ensemble, the relationships among the characters became more important, and anchored the show through those 20 years - but it still maintained the grown up approach. The material is dark, full of violence and cruelty, but its maturity is also in the complexity of the characters, both good guys and bad guys. Heroes fail - they can be selfish and unpleasant like the doctor sometimes, physically damaged like Chester, morally compromised like Miss Kitty might be. And the villains are seldom simplistic - they have reasons for what they do; they can be charming, some can be plaintive. If someone starts threatening bar girls, you can bet he lost a daughter or granddaughter somewhere along the line. Many episodes work in multiple foils for Matt Dillon, putting him between a couple hard bitten killers, or a couple aggrieved families - everyone with their reasons. And in those early shows, he fails as often as not - at least, fails to stop other people from massacring each other, or ends up killing people he tried very hard not to have to kill. He's there to keep the peace, but there isn't a lot of peace to keep.

This aspect is more pronounced in the early years - by the end, Matt and his friends were pretty well ascended to godhood, the villains tended to be a bit more simplistic, and the guest stars were usually a bit more obviously on the good or evil side. But it never went away completely. It evolved out of the noirish style of the early shows, into something else, though something still rooted in adult problems and complex behavior. The evolotution is reflected in Matt himself - the angry, brooding, tarnished hero of the radio show and early TV gave way to a stoic, strong hero, one who passes through the mire without being soiled. That's not criticism - it's just different, more Gary Cooper, less Bogie, if that makes sense. That element took over pretty quickly, I suppose - looking at James Arness, you couldn't quite picture him as anything other than a strong silent type - if he had stayed bitter and cracked, he would have been terrifying - John Wayne in The Searchers, maybe, something more disturbing than any villain could be. This change didn't hurt the show - it made Matt into a central hub for the rest of the show to revolve around. It made the dynamics of the cast, the strengths of the guest stars, and the stories themselves shine, with Dillon as anchor, and often as a kind of light that illuminates the nature of others.



Gunsmoke lasted a long time, surviving many changes to the technology and form of television. It moved from radio to TV, first as a half hour show, later as an hour. In the mid-60s, it switched to color. It changed through the years, but generally maintained its quality - though it's hard to miss how much better it was earlier. That's something I learned late - the color shows were the ones in syndication, in the early 70s, and onward - that's what I saw when I was 10, what I watched now and then through the 80s and 90s - it's what I knew. They were fine shows - they made me think I had good taste when I was 10... But then I saw the black and white episodes. They were a revelation. The half hour shows are superb - tight, efficient little morality plays that never really preach, great looking, with sharp, memorable characters, and even then, a cool mix of action, drama, comedy. They were great shows - but I think the show really blossomed with the hour long format.

They had room. Even now, watching the half hour shows, they can go by a bit too quickly - they don't get the chance to linger and develop - and it's the lingering and development that made Gunsmoke so good. The hour long episodes have everything: well developed stories, with characters who have time to evolve in the course of the show, to work out multiple relationships. It feels as though every black and white hour long show I remember was some kind of trip - maybe those shows were aired more often; maybe they're the ones I remember best. But there are good reasons why journeys are a staple of story telling (and most definitely of westerns) - a chance to put a number of characters in a situation and let it stew. Those shows end up being some of the best hour long shows ever made for TV.



The black and white episodes have another advantage - they look fantastic. The sets, costumes, props are all very well chosen - and in the black and white episodes,they look right. They look beat up, shabbier, dirtier; cabins and houses and street and fields look like hard places to live - they look real. The color shows lost some of this. Color, I suspect, shows up how clean the sets and clothes are; even artfully mistreated props, like Festus' costumes, look a bit too artfully messed up. Did they get more conventional later? does black and white indicate grime and wear better? Maybe. But part of it, I think, is that the later shows fell out of step with western movies. The early Gunsmokes were contemporary with films like Anthony Mann's westerns, Budd Boetticher's, mature films by Hawks and Ford, classics like Shane and High Noon. TV couldn't match the production values of top of the line films - but they could match their look. (And low budget westerns thrived in those days as well - filmmakers knew how to make westerns look good no matter what the budget.) But western films evolved between 1955 and 1970, evolved as much as any genre did. Content restrictions disappeared - you could show far more, and what seemed dark on TV in 1955 looked old fashioned next to The Wild Bunch or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Films brought in outside influences - Japanese films; European films. The style became more extreme; the look became grittier, grimier. Gunsmoke in the 70s didn't look at all like contemporary westerns (at least not the best of them.) It's a jarring effect: it makes everything, in the later shows, look clean, antiseptic, in ways the older ones never dd. By 1975, it was the last western on TV, maybe not that bad a show, but somehow it felt old, rote, even compared to what you expected to see in a western. And so it went, and that was that.

But it had a magnificent run. It set off a run of serious western shows; it has had an influence beyond. Matt Dillon is an icon - but so are others, particularly Doc. (I offer Star Trek's Bones as evidence; heck - I could offer Brad Dourif, on Deadwood, riffing on Doc, maybe more the early radio Doc, but still.) The cast and characters of the show were, in fact, fantastic. Arness, Stone, Blake and both Dennis Weaver and Ken Curtis - great actors playing fascinating characters, that the writers seemed to understand. Coming off writing about Get Smart, a show that gave in to ratings desperation at the end, do you know how refreshing it is to see a male and female lead not ever get together? At least not marry (though Matt seemed to know where her room was located in the early shows...) - how many long running shows were able to keep that discipline? The main cast is matched by the guests, often as not - what a pleasure it is to watch someone like Warren Oates or Bruce Dern come in and chew up the scenery. Now - this was common enough practice in those days - a good many of those serious westerns did the same thing - brought on special guests; gave up and coming directors the chance to work. But they did it well on Gunsmoke.




Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Columbo

(Despite the lack of posts here, I have been busy lately - this is the third of three posts in about a week for the epic TV countdown at Wonders in the Dark - this one for Columbo.



Somewhere in Los Angeles are two people who hate each other - or at least one of them hates the other one. Maybe we will see them together; maybe we will see them separately; maybe we will just see one of them, going about some strange ritual. Maybe they'll talk - maybe they will be, or act, friendly, but more likely they will quarrel. Either way, one of this is going to kill the other. Maybe we see the killer covering up the crime; maybe we now recognize that their rituals were aimed at hiding the crime. By the time the first commercial comes, it looks like they will get away with it. When we come back, the police are on hand. Among them is a dumpy looking guy in a raincoat, who putters around, and notices things; he sticks his nose into conversations; he looks at the bodies; he talks to the relatives. He probably talks to the killer, and he'll probably notice something when he does. By the end of the first scene we know there's more to this guy than meets the eye. Over the next hour, he'll keep running into the killer, and it's going to take the killer longer to catch on that there's more to him than meets the eye, but he will - but by then it will be too late.

That is Columbo, and for my money, it's the best show ever made on network television in the USA. Columbo ran 7 years in the 1970s, came back for a couple more seasons and string of TV movies in the 80s and 90s, and every episode (except one or two here and there) fit that description above. The shows were a series of little movies, 90-100 minutes long, airing in rotation with a number of other shows (McCloud and McMillan & Wife, later Hec Ramsey too) in its first run - the longer production schedules (a show a month, instead of a show a week) meant episodes were made with a lot more care than the average TV show of the time. They looked it. It starred Peter Falk, and brought in high profile guest stars, writers and directors, as prestige television has always done. Columbo's early years boast Steven Bochco and Steven Spielberg at the start of their careers; later years featured people like Jonathan Demme, and along the way, any number of Hollywood veterans and actors got a shot behind the camera - Richard Quine and Leo Penn; Ben Gazzara and Patrick McGoohan. And of course a parade of guest stars, to kill and be killed, or sometimes to offer dubious advice in the role of lawyers or uncles or ex-hubands and wives.



It originated as a television episode, became a play, then a TV movie, written by Richard Levinson and William Link. They built a detective out of Crime and Punishment and Father Brown, and used the Crime and Punishment plot as their template: we see the crime, know who did it, why, how - the police come in later, most of them all wrong about the killing, but one of them figures it out, and spends the rest of the story trying to make an arrest that will stick by talking to the suspect. Columbo was openly and unapologetically formulaic, but that is where it got its strength. It has the rigid form of a sonnet or blues song, and the almost infinite variability of those forms. The fact that the stories all follow the same structure - killing, investigation/confrontation, solution/arrest - means that all the show's attention goes to the details. The restrictions force the writers to be brilliant - every killing has to be imaginative, every killer has to be interesting, their motives have to be believable, their victims and the survivors - have to be interesting. The process of solving the crime has to be clever, and - most of all - the interactions of the characters have to be completely compelling. It worked - it held up through 9 or 10 sets of shows over 25 plus years, staying watchable right to the end. The mysteries are compelling (far more often than on other long running crime shows); Columbo's work to solve them fascinating, clever, full of quiet demonstrations of his abilities. The killers and those around them make good television - they all seem to think they can talk their way out of anything, because they are Super Geniuses, and it keeps them engaged with Columbo, as he circles them, tracking down the crime, figuring them out.



The shows are not really mysteries (except a few designed for a twist) - the suspense is all in how Columbo figures out the crime, and pins it on the killer. And the substance of the show is in the interactions between Columbo and those killers, and the people around them. (A flock of husbands and wives and children and parents and uncles and aunts and lawyers and secretaries and hangers on who are usually as loathsome and pathetic and sometimes wonderful as the killers and victims.) Columbo lurks, and talks - he tells stories about his wife and nephews and brothers in law and cousins and childhood and he gets to know the killers, he goads or soothes them, and he gets them in the end. For all the show's debt to Dostoevsky, Columbo usually doesn't break the killers down psychologically. He figures them out, alongside the plot of the crime, and usually gets them through some detail, some clue everyone's overlooked that he can get them to plant somewhere. He shows them what looks like a sure fire way out of trouble, but he's always waiting by the door. No, where the show really lives is in the characterizations themselves - Columbo revealing the people he interacts with; and revealing himself, in a way. The plots and such make for a fascinating puzzle show - but those conversations, and the situations around them, are what raise the show to something more.

It's a show with a quiet, but firm social conscience. It was always very class conscious - Columbo is often described as a blue-collar detective, and the contrast between him and the rich, arrogant, privileged set of murderers he runs to ground gives it it's tone. But it uses class and money as more than just a contrast between rich killers and middle class cop. Money is always present in the show, almost always the reason for the crime - but the exact reason for this varies. The killers may all be rich, but don't miss how often the plot depends less on straight greed than on the threat of losing ones position. Over and over: someone who has gotten rich somehow, who was not, in fact, born rich, finds themselves facing a divorce, losing their job or business, being disinherited, being exposed as having stolen it or riding someone else's talents. Columbo was as much about anxiety about money as about the corruption of money - anxiety about money, and status - of being exposed. Though don't miss either how that money corrupts - the killers and their initial victims tend to all be rich; but there are many shows where the killers get someone else, as well. Maybe a witness - sometimes, just a lower class accomplice, who has to die to protect the killer's alibi. These tend to be the killings that bring out Columbo's claws - when he gets really tough with killer (like Leonard Nimoy's doctor, who kills a nurse and a drifter, or Robert Conrad's fitness guru who poisons a woman who might have heard something), it's because they've started killing people below their station.

There's another important piece of working class consciousness: the value of work itself. Columbo himself does this - Levinson and Link say it plain in the pilot: Columbo tells the killer, you do this once, you have one chance to get it right; I do this 100 times a year - I practice what I do, I learn it. Columbo does what he does by putting in the work - you can't deny his genius, but you can't miss his thoroughness, or the way he's willing to teach himself something new to solve a case. Even his patter is usually just cover for doing the grunt work of collecting clues and evidence. But this goes beyond Columbo himself - the show always values talent. The killers who are most sympathetic tend to be the ones who are good at something valuable - Johnny Cash's singer; Donald Pleasance as a vinter; Janet Leigh's actress; Ruth Gordon's mystery writer - are all craftsmen. They are rich, some of them are pretty much evil (Cash plays someone being blackmailed for statutory rape, who murders the both blackmailer and the girl), but they got rich by working for it. Even some of the more unpleasant figures - Patrick McGoohan's parade of psychotic spies and soldiers; John Cassavetes' conductor - are partly redeemed by the fact that they are good at what they do.



That respect for craftmanship - for artistry, through effort - suffuses the show. It features artists often enough - writers, musicians, painters, chess masters, photographers, chefs, scientists - it tends to respect them, even when they are villains. And it is built on the same respect - the quality of the scripts, the filmmaking effort, the parade of character actors, in leads, and tucked into the corners. Among its many delights are the chance to spot Bruce Kirby and Timothy Carey and Val Avery in the cast a couple times a season. It's guests tend to be TV stars (Dick Van Dyke, Robert Culp and McGoohan, Wlliam Shatner), old time movie stars (Ray Milland, Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, Ruth Gordon), and those more independent film types - people from Cassavetes' films (including Falk and Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, behind the camera.) It's not flashy casting, it's casting built on craftsmanship. It's also not above playing it for laughs - William Shatner comes on, and is pilloried, playing a comic version of both himself and Columbo - he's bald, wears lifts, and turns out to be a complete con man, as well as a helpless ham. For every real artist, there is a smug asshole who thinks he matters because he has a TV show; and there are innumerable "business consultant" types who think they are rich because they are brilliant when they are, in fact, glorified con men, preying on real businessmen, who usually act like glorified gangsters. Columbo's creators do not hold a high opinion of American business, I think.

There are other elements of social conscience in the show - it's very sympathetic to women. Lots of women get murdered; more than a few of them are murderers; they are not necessarily any more sympathetic than the men around them. But the show manages to convey their sense of having to fight harder to get anything - men in the show don't take them seriously; they fight off bullies; they are manipulated and ignored. The writers - and Columbo, often enough - notice, and let the women have their say. They aren't condemned when they cheat on their husbands; they are not treated like usurpers for holding jobs men have (though Columbo, in some episodes, seems surprised at their positions). And shows where women kill men who cheat them - well, feel a bit different than shows where men kill. Though the show can still create a female monster - Johnny Cash's wife, in his episode - blackmailing him for statutory rape, though it is strongly hinted that she was providing him with underage girls in the first place - well... villainy knows no gender.

And so: I'll end with a quick little list - 5 of my favorite episodes, since this should let me look a bit at how the theme and variation structure worked...
  1. Negative Reaction: this is the one with Dick Van Dyke as a photographer. It's interesting because while he is an artist, and artists usually get a break on the show, he is one of the most irredeemably evil characters they ever created. He kills his wife, strictly for money; he kills a harmless ex-con who almost worships him for giving him a job, purely to make his own alibi work (framing him for good measure); he takes the usual contempt for Columbo farther most, becoming abusive - only to have it all swept away at the last minute, when he sees how Columbo has set him up. A great show - using Van Dyke's affability to mask his viciousness; and the fact that it is, maybe, a show about failure and self-loathing. He used to be an artist, but he has become a hack: his fall leads him to this. Great show.
  2. Murder by the Book: This is the first regular episode, and features the Stevens, Bochco and Spielberg, and from the first shot is obviously up to something fantastic.  Long shot of the street and a slow zoom back into the room where a man is typing - Spielberg was already capable of virtuosity. The show as a whole is well made, and often rather flashy - usually not this effectively though. The rest of the episode - Jack Cassidy as the untalented half of a writing team that's about to break up, who kills his partner, and then a lonely widow who sees something she couldn't - is first rate as well. It sets up those class tensions, the anxiety about losing status: Cassidy knows he can't continue as he is without his partner to write the books; he kills the witness almost without thinking about it - arrogance of the rich. It's a fine episode, already varying the motivations from the pilots.
  3. Swan Song: This is the Johnny Cash episode. He plays an ex-con country singer, forced to give all his money to his wife (Ida Lupino), who's blackmailing him for sleeping with an underage choir girl - though it's hinted that the wife set them up in the first place. So he kills both of them. The plot doesn't hold up so well in this one - but the interplay between Cash and Falk is superb. Cash's character is a nasty piece of work, other than the singing; he starts out angry and abusive of Columbo - but he changes. This comes as close as any episode to having Columbo literally talk someone into confessing - it's also fascinating to watch Cash's guilt catch up with him. He softens, he fades on screen, and is grateful when he's caught. Worth noting too that in the mid-70s, Johnny Cash was not the hero he was in the 50s and 60s, or would be in the 90s and on - this is a down period for him, but this show could still see him for what he was.
  4. A stitch in Crime: this is the Leonard Nimoy episode - Nimoy can vie with anyone (Van Dyke and Robert Conrad's Milo Janus might be the other finalists) for the most loathsome character in the series. He plans a clever way of killing his mentor, with dissolving sutures in the heart, then kills a nurse who starts to suspect, then kills a drifter to make the cops think the nurse was selling him drugs. This, and Nimoy's mocking contempt, gets Columbo's goat, provoking near violence. All this, by the way, is provoked by resentment over someone else getting his name on a scientific project. He's a piece of work.
  5. The Conspirators: this is a bit of a wild card - this is the last episode from the 7th season, the last one in the 70s, the last one for 10 years or so. It stars Clive Revill as an Irish poet who uses his book tours as cover to raise money to buy guns for the IRA. It's different - the structure of the show is like all the others, but the plot, and Revill, are not. He is almost unique in the series for being a professional criminal, a practiced gun-runner. (As is his victim.) The story is different - professional criminals; political motives; this character. It brings up the show's respect for professionalism - he is something of a mirror of Columbo. A poor kid, ex-con, who became a writer, a poet - though also a terrorist. He's an artist, and a professional. He's Columbo's peer - he's done this before. He poses a different kind of challenge. Their interactions are increasingly cordial in the show - some of it is due to Revill's charm, but there's more than a hint of mutual respect here as well - two men doing their jobs. It's a fascinating episode, a good way for the show to go off the air...

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Real Beginning of Spring

Sure it's been a snowy March, but spring comes early this year - today! March 29! Opening Day! All is well.

Let's just get to it, shall we?

American League East

1. Boston Red Sox - yeah, yeah, I know everyone is anointing the Yankees already - that is a very strange. It's true they have rather awesome power in that lineup, and good players throughout, and a decent starting rotation - but they are going against a team that beat them last year, sometime, it seems, with one hand tied behind their back. The Sox have been half dismissed, but for what? for winning 93 games with a third of a year from David Price? Porcello reverting to Bad Porcello? And most of their offense regressing significantly from the year before? Betts, Bogaerts, Ramirez, Bradley, Pedroia - all dropped significantly (or missed a bunch of time) - you have to expect some reversion to the mean, and now you have JD Martinez and Devers for a whole year and the continued progress of Andrew Benintendi? Compare the down years for the Sox to the number of Yankees coming off career years, and it starts to look good in the Fens... And almost all of the players on the field for the Sox will be defensive contributors (maybe not Devers or Hanley when he's out there, but the rest, including one of the best defensive outfields int he game), not something I'd say for the Yanks. With Sale and Price both looking healthy and happy? adding Stanton got the Yankees to the Sox level last year: how are they not still playing catchup?

2. New York Yankees - yeah yeah; if the shaky parts of the pitching stay healthy and effective, the good parts of the pitching get better - yeah, they're going to be good. On the other hand - can Stanton stay healthy? is Judge the real thing (I suspect so, but still...)? who gets displaced when they have to move Gary Sanchez? (He is one hell of a hitter, but his work behind the plate is not what I would recommend.) None of that is likely to hurt them that much, though - even the pitching, it's what Severino, Gray and Montgomery do that will decide it the most, and they are as likely to be good as not. If both teams show up and stay healthy, it promises a good race.

3. Toronto Blue Jays - I don't have any reason to think they will be even respectable, but why not? I like the Blue Jays. They have some pitchers who could come back - Sanchez, Estrada, Stroman - still have Donaldson - they could be respectable. Probably not playoff respectable, which might be the worst possible result in this day and age - everyone wants to contend for the post-season or bottom out and rebuild, and they are hanging in the middle.

4. Baltimore Orioles - another team in the middle. Bland to ineffective pitching, lots of power, but most of it in decline - they could cause trouble, they could wash out. They could win 83 games and be forgotten, unless they beat the sox or Yankees 3 out of 4 in some September series.

5. Tampa Bay Rays - they've had the weird ability to hang around through years of decay, but that can't last forever. Whither Chris Archer? I keep expecting them to disappear - this is probably when it happens.

AL Central:

1. Cleveland Indians - they have taken over the old role of the Rays, the cheapskates who thrive by developing and acquiring the best players, surrounding them with solid support, and having a management team that runs it all at peak efficiency. They have the luxury of doing it in the central, with no Big Teams around to buy their way into contention - so they should be able to keep inhabiting the post-season for a while to come.

2. Minnesota Twins - they've been on a yo yo the last three years, contending, putrifying, getting to the post-season, but they have a nice young squad, that ought to hang around contention. The AL is wildly stratified, and very thin in the middle - the Twins are in there and should be in a position to contend for the wild card again. If the Indians have some injuries, they might chase the division, as well.

3. Kansas City Royals - they aren't very good, but they have some hitters and if they get any pitching, they might make it to .500 or so. Or not. Probably not.

4. Detroit Tigers - they were awful last year. Time has caught up to Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, and no one else is better than a good squad player. I cant see them getting past the 70s in wins - more likely to lose 90 than win 80 I think.

5. Chicago White Sox - got some ball players, and young guys coming through, and maybe sometime they might get good again. Now, they have James Shields as their top starter.

AL West:

1. Houston Astros - one of those mortal locks who are all set up for an epic fall. Though it's hard to see happening. t's true - Keuchel and McCullers could be hurt again; Verlander might find a calendar; Gerritt Cole might go the way of many NL hurlers coming to the AL before him - they'll still score tons of runs and - would need to lose about 4 guys to not be in contention. Altuve, Correa, Bregman, Springer are studs; Reddick and Gonzalez and the catchers and Gurriel are all solid pros - they are too good. A bad year in 91 wins and the wild card. That kind of stuff happens - look at the Cubs last year - but that's usually the result: 91 wins instead of 108.

2. Los Angeles Angels - (is that what they call themselves these days?). Pitching is thin on the ground out there,but they have some offense - on paper anyway. They were horrible last year... But Trout, Upton, Simmons,Kinsler, etc - there's hope. The west is odd this year - I don't know what to make of any of them, except the Astros - they all look like they could get into the wild card race if things went well; there could be three 90 loss teams if things don't go well. Who knows.

3. Seattle Mariners - I should just keep picking Seattle to win every year until they do. How could they win this year? King Felix does what Verlander did the last couple years? gets healthy, rethinks his approach, and finds his old form - why not? he's 31 - he wouldn't be the first pitcher to have a sag in the middle of his career, and come back. That and good offensive years from their real talent - Cruz and Cano and Seager and Segura and Gordon - why not? It would take many acts of god to get them past the Astros, but they could get the second wild card spot easy enough.

4. Texas Rangers - if they could occasionally hit a ball fair in inside the park, they might do all right. Power abounds; baserunners are in short supply. The pitching is shaky, but not impossible - Hamels and Fister and so on - they are another team that, a couple things go right, they're fighting for the second wild card spot. (The first one is going to be up to Boston/New York to lose, I think.)

5. Oakland A's - they were shockingly not horrible last year. They could be shockingly not horrible this year. Better than that might be s stretch, but it's something.

National League East:

1. Washington Nationals - they are gifted with a very weak division. They have a very good team. It's hard to see them not taking the division, if they stay healthy. Maybe they'll win a playoff series one of these years! It's been a good millennium for breaking droughts - California, Boston, Chicago and Chicago, Houston all won their first, or their first in a Hell of a Long Time - why not the Expos?

2. New York Mets - they have some ballplayers out there; they have real pitching, if it stays on the field. They have been very snake bit lately - will that continue? Probably. They make their own bad luck.

3.Philadelphia Phillies - are they in fact good enough to get in the race for something? Who knows, but points for ambition! They have been working some starting pitchers toward effectiveness; they have some interesting young position players - now they add Arrieta and Santana - an interesting strategy, to bolster a young roster with a couple veterans, who don't have to carry the team, but can guide it to competence - why not? Root for them anyway.

4. Atlanta Braves - I have to keep writing something about all these teams? I want to know what's the big deal with Ronald Acuna - the rest? At least they aren't the Marlins.

5. Miami Marlins - It's easy to mock and abuse,and trash Derek Jeter for continuing to work for the Yankees, but - I don't know. How many times has this team been sold off? I'll give Jeter and company a few years to see if they keep up the old patterns or if they're willing to work to build a team and keep it when they do - right now, enjoy those 100 losses, boys.

NL Central:

1. Chicago Cubs - this might be the tightest, most open division in baseball. Cubs are loaded, to be sure, but the pitching staff, though superb on paper, shows signs of being made of paper... Maybe. They should get all they can out of what they have, and they have plenty, so they are not going to be out of contention for anything. But they have competition in this division, and it could be interesting again.

2. St. Louis Cardinals - this is not a bad looking team, not with Marcel Ozuna in the outfield, not if the pitching stays healthy. They probably need some breaks to beat the Cubs, but they should be in the hunt for the post season.

3. Milwaukee Brewers - an interesting team, with more outfielders and first basemen than they have places to play them. They could be very good - pitching, of course, is the question. It usually is, for everyone. They should score runs, but they probably don't have the margin of error that the Cubs and Cards have.

4. Cincinatti Reds - they were bad last year, worse than the bad Pirates, but they haven't gutted their roster in the offseason, so I'd guess they switch places with the Buccos. There are some nice young players hanging around here - they might get somewhere in the vicinity of respectability one of these years, though it might be a stretch this year.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates - goodbye to Gerritt Cole and Andrew McCutcheon and probably more to come. They do have some talent hanging around - it will be interesting to see if people like Taillon can pick up their games. They may linger in the 70s, though I think it's more likely they sell off the remaining talent - Bell and Harrison and Marte could be laboring for contenders come August...

NL West:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers - any reason to pick against them? Kershaw has been physically vulnerable; Rich Hill is a young Jamie Moyer - they might end up having pitching problems, of all things. The team on the field looks good and deep, though probably not Houston/Cubs quality. But they should win well into the 90s, and be in the post-season.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks - they lost JD Martinez, but they were decent without him; a full year of AJ Pollack might cover most of that - otherwise - there's a lot to like. Pitching, hitting - it's a good team. If the Dodgers have health problems, the snakes could take a run at the division. Even without it, I'd guess they will be in the wild card hunt.

3. Colorado Rockies - a playoff team, mostly because they found a bunch of effective starters somehow. They've piled up the relievers - they still have some prime offensive players - they should be good. I don't think they're likely to challenge for the division, but they are a strong playoff contender.

4. San Francisco Giants - the best team of the 2010s has started ot come apart - can they come back together? Bringing in again stars like Longoria and McCutcheon might not be the most promising means to that end but they're better than anything they had before. They were looking like an interesting dark horse for a while, but them Bumgarner broke his finger and Samardzija hurt himself as well - that's 2 months plus without the one, and a month without the other - that's plenty of time to get 10+ games down on the Dodgers and 6-7 on the other two teams and maybe even a couple down on the Pads....

5. San Diego Padres - there's some talent out there, much of it young, plus a couple nice veterans to stabilize the team - if only they had some ready starters. They seem like a team likely to be getting better through the next few years, but not a team likely to play past September for a while yet. Or even get out of the basement (though Giants' injuries could help there, like they did last year.)

So to add it all up?

AL Post season? Sox - Indians - Astros + Yankees and Twins (same as last year.) Any of the big four could get through,but theAstros are the one team with a clear edge - they look like the best team in baseball by a clear distance. Like the Cubs last year! ha ha ha. Right. Best dark horse? Seattle.

NL Postseason: Nats - Cubs - Dodgers (boring, huh?) + Arizona and St Louis. The rest is a better fight - any of those teams could get through, and none of them seem like strong favorites now. Dodgers have Kershaw, who can swing things; but dominant starters aren't the world beaters they used to be. I'd guess, now? Cubbies get back. Lost to the Astros, or whoever else comes from the AL. Best dark horse? Philly - that's a huge stretch, but hey,it would be fun!

Awards: AL MVP - as always, Trout's to lose. A good collection of runner up candidates, if something weird happens - Altuve and Correa, Betts, Judge, Stanton, Lindor and Ramirez, Machado - but Trout has to miss two months to give them a shot.
Cy Young: Kluber is always a good bet. Sale, Verlander, etc. are real contenders. Maybe David Price bounces back.
Rookie: Willie Calhoun, in Texas, looks like he has a major league job now (of the big prospects) - could be. I'm not as up on these as I could be (or as I am on the NL rookies, for some reason.)
NL:
MVP = I'd have to say Harper is the favorite; he's less consistent than Trout (though usually very good), and there's less separation between him and the other stars- so Bryant or Rizzo, Bellinger, Seager, Goldschmidt, Votto, Blackmun, Arenado, Ozuna, maybe even some out of nowhere types like AJ Pollack or the ghost of some forgotten giant (Posey or McCutcheon or Longoria) might win. Bryant and Seager probably have the inside track,along with Harper, though.
Cy Young: Kershaw if he is healthy, Scherzer if Kershaw misses some time, Strasburg or someone weird if both of them slip. Various Mets, say. But there's a gap there.
Rookie: from the sound of it, once he's done enough time in the minors to stretch out arbitration for a year, Ronald Acuna is ready and raring to go. Sounds good to me.

That's it then. Play Ball!



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

1918 Spring Offensive

Hello! I know I have become a very lazy blogger, and a big casualty of that has been my complete neglect of history blogging. It's a bad time to get so lazy, especially with anniversaries - 100 years ago was the climax of the Great War, the Revolution in Russia - 150 years ago, Reconstruction was in full swing.... I should be doing this. What can I say.

What I can do is come in quickly to get a post up today - 100 years ago, March 21, 1918, the German army launched a huge offensive on the western front, designed to end the war. I am not going to wrte too much about that - I will point instead fo Robert Farley's post at Lawyers, Guns and Money, complete with links about the strategic and tactical elements of the offensive.

So just a quick summary. By the spring of 1918, the Russians were out of the war - the Bolsheviks had sued for peace, and by March, signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, ending Russian participation in the war. Even before that, the Germans had been moving men from the Eastern Front to the Western Front - it gave them a numerical advantage in 1918 in France. However, the Americans were coming - eventually - so the Germans felt they had to move fast. They hoped to defeat the British, particularly, in France, causing them to break with the French. Not sure how like that would have been even if they had been more successful, but that's a topic for another day.

The Germans attacked. They used new tactics, developed through the war - powerful, concentrated, surprise artillery barrages; infiltration tactics by the infantry - moving in squad sized units as deep into the enemy lines as they could go, to avoid presenting the kinds of targets machine guns and artillery could decimate, and to consolidate their gains before the enemy could counterattack or build a new line of defenses. It worked. They broke through the British lines, and drove deep into allied territory - 40 miles in some cases, on a front that hadn't moved more than 4 or 5 miles in 4 years. But it failed. The Germans used up to many resources; the British and French did not break; Americans started to trickle in and take a part in the fighting, and the lines held. And when it was done, the Germans were too spent to resist - in late summer and fall the Allies counterattacked, using their own new tactics and technology (tanks, for instance) to drive the Germans back, and eventually end the war.

Why did the Germans fail? Farley links to a number of articles about WWI tactics - it's important to remember that the war was not as static as it is sometimes portrayed. Everyone tried new methods for breaking trenches, tactical or technological, and they were more successful, sometimes, then we tend to give them credit. New artillery tactics usually did work, the first time they were used; gas worked, the first time it was used, and was terrifying and effective afterwards; infantry tactics worked. Armies found ways to break enemy trenches - they never found ways to do anything about it. Operation Michael was the most successful - but it bogged down as completely as any other battle. My pet theory holds up - that the problem was always that while the technology of killing (guns and bullets and explosives and gas and flamethrowers and all the rest) had advanced unthinkably before the war, and continued to advance throughout the war; and the sheer industrial power of the main forces had advanced to the point that it could sustain this murder for years - transportation technology had not kept pace. It wasn't until tanks started to appear that anyone had any means of moving across the battlefield fast enough to prevent the other side from creating a new impenetrable fortress on the other side. Tanks let you move firepower fast enough to stop the other side from reforming. Tracks let you move across torn up battlefields. As armies became more motorized generally - as air support became decisive - it was possible to move men around on the field, and take advantage of the holes you could make.

That and, in the end, the Germans ran out of men and material before the allies did.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Death Lobby

Well - almost a month since my last post. Looks like every post I make this year is going to have a disclaimer at the top lamenting how lazy I have become. I wish I could do better than post every time someone important dies, but that seems to be a pattern as well.

Two people I know died this week - a woman I knew almost entirely online, though we both lived in Boston, and would see each other around once in a while; and a man who was one of my family's closest friends when I was a kid - both are hard to deal with. And Billy Graham died - almost a hundred years old. (The other two both died too young - that's not a fair distribution of years on this earth; they would have made better use of the extra 30-40 years he got.) I can't get too nasty about Rev. Graham - he was a huge part of the cultural landscape where I grew up, the greatest evangelist, the model for all us white protestant evangelicals.... He was presented as a hero, a completely benign figure - and by the time I got old enough not to care about his religion anymore, the next generation of white protestant evangelicals were running rampant, and by god did they make him look good. He never quite embraced the overt fascism of Swaggart and Falwell and Bakker and Robertson, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, the whole disgusting crowd, including his own vile son Franklin, as bad as any of them. But he never quite did anything against them - and he probably went along with most of their political beliefs.He had no guilt about cozying up to the likes of Tricky Dick. Still - treating religion as primarily a matter between you and your god is not going to destroy the republic - he did that, or did it more effectively than the others; there is nothing in Graham's approach that obliges you to take one side or the other politically. You could get converted and actually go do some good in the world, if you were inclined: publicly at least, for most of his career, maybe when he was actually in charge of his career, he made religion a personal decision (if not a private one, exactly.) Behind it all might have been the same neo-confederate viciousness that animated the next bunch of TV preachers (and of course, the love of money), but you could take the meat and throw the bones away, with old Billy.

That's harder to pull off now. The big news in the world these last two weeks has been the latest mass shooting at a school - another horror show, with the usual reactions in the wake... But a twist - this time the survivors of the attack immediately took to the streets and TV camera and their social media accounts to demand gun control. They've been driving the conversation - they are putting the NRA defenders on their heels a bit. Publicly, I guess you could say: Marco Rubio might look like he's about to cry when he's on stage, but we all know he can comfort himself by counting the 0's on his NRA campaign contributions. The subject is a hard one to say anything new about - there's no real mystery about how to address the problem: gun control. The usual sensible, limited responses - ban assault rifles and military gear; longer waiting periods, stronger background checks, closing loopholes for buying guns, imposing more national laws, so you can't buy a gun off the shelf in one state and drive to the next state to gun down some teenagers. And most of this is very popular, and would pass easily, if it were put to a referendum (and everyone voted.) But that isn't the problem - the problem is that the Republicans control the legislature (and presidency, though that's not where this can be solved), and they are on board all the way with the NRA. And well compensated for it.

It's another instance of the failure of democracy in this country - the public supports gun control, like they support public health insurance - but that will never pass. Or - it will not pass until Democrats control the legislatures again. People skirt around the fact, talk bout "politicians" or "congress" as though the reason nothing gets done is that no legislators support gun control - but that is not true. This is a partisan problem. This problem is caused by the Republican party. Democrats would pass something - by the time they were done, it would be watered down and ineffective, but it would be something, it would save couple thousand lives a year, and Republicans would run against it because it didn't go far enough (pure shamelessness is part of their MO) - but it would pass. But nothing will pass with Republican votes.

So vote. Voting is the key. Voting, voting, voting. Voting and money - the other thing that might move the GOP is if you can get at the source of their cash. The NRA is starting to see sponsors withdrawing - if their money starts to dry up, their contributions might - cut off the cash cows and you can see change. we'll see.

Meanwhile - the NRA and their patsies (including the dumfounded dipshit in the white house) run through a bewildering array of bullshit to steer the conversation into a ditch. Arming teachers? I was flipping through channels on TV last night, and on PBS, some lady was explaining how it might work - I didn't stay long enough to see what side she was on, but it doesn't matter. People are discussing arming teachers as a response to classroom shootings - am I hallucinating? Part of it is clearly just meant to muddy the waters - get people arguing about arming teachers, or compare gun control to deporting illegal immigrants or something and the debate disintegrates into nonsense and trivia and nothing happens.... But you also see price tags: 14 million dollars per school district to buy guns? You don't think the gun lobby sees that and starts drooling?

Argument is pointless. There is no reason to argue with people who would suggest something like arming teachers. There is no point arguing with people who whines about kids eating tide pods, so how can they understand gun control? or who equate voting with mass murder (they support background checks for guns, if you'll support stronger ID laws for voting!) Or who think the answer to gun violence in schools is more prayer or banning baggy pants. Or just arguing ith people who claim that gun control is a terrible attack inindividual freedom, so propose turning the country into a police state to protect us from all those unregulated guns. It's madness. Fuck them all.

Right now, I say just ban them. No more guns. If you have to repeal the second amendment to do it, fine with me, it was a bad idea in 1790, and it's completely pointless now - though it also clearly allows for all the gun regulation you need. That's my argument. It's probably not my position - but I'm not making laws, so it's not on me to find something fair and reasonable. I'll do that when there are actual laws being discussed. The NRA works very hard to frame the debate in cultural terms - guns as fetish objects, as a sign of a kind of toxic masculinity mixed with white resentment - fight that.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Fall

Well, after saying I was going to try to post here once a week - it's been three. Yeah, I know. And what brings me back? The all too constant theme of this blog - another obituary.

A couple, I suppose - last week was Dolores O'Riordan, lead singer from the Cranberries, purveyor of beautiful and moving 90s pop, dying mysteriously in London, aged 46. A sad story - her songs were haunting and powerful, and though I didn't pay much attention to them when they came out, they were work that could hold you. It's a shame.



And then this week - about the only think Mark E Smith had in common with Ms O'Riordan is that they both sang back tot he audience sometimes (she apparently did it early because she as shy.) And they were singers and they died this week, both dying fairly young. Though you'd never know that from Smith - he was 60 - but he looked like he rode those 60 years hard. For a long time, he's looked the part of a dissolute working class British rock star.... Though maybe not always - look at them in 1988, on Tony wilson's show, Brix in ful 80s new wave mode, and Mark - tall, sleek, almost handsome, rocking that purple turtleneck while Wilson pays tribute: "if there was a holy grail, only Mark Smith would be allowed to touch it" -



The years were not kind - but he didn't slack. Working through to the end - this is from last October, confined to a wheelchair, looking very ill, but still raving away like always, compelling and controlling, the center of everything.



The Fall were one of those bands, there were a few, that I heard, when I was young, loved every time I heard them - but didn't, quite, pursue at the time. I don't know why. The Fall, Gang of Four, Wire - post punks all? Maybe. I won't explain it. Tried to make up for it later, but its a daunting proposition with the Fall - lots of records to pick through, and they never really slowed down, putting out new records all through the 00s, always interesting. As it happens, in my dotage, this might be my favorite period/style of music - post-punk, lean, sharp guitars - these bands, PIL, American groups like The Minutemen and Mission of Burma, no wave, early Feelies - which I would expand to include a few groups that pre-date punk (let alone post-punk) - Television, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, or the punk groups that worked this vein, like Joy Division, the Buzzcocks... (And any style that includes Pere Ubu and Television is going to be my favorite, it is true.)

The Fall were as good as any of them. Propulsive, repetitious riffing, a mix of garage, Krautrock, art rock - Smith ranting over all of it, anchoring the sound, playing around it - almost monotonous, but always rhythmic, with bursts of - otherness.... Vocals like the guitars, then. With the relentless propulsion of the drums and bass in the back - they are endlessly great.

Live Set, 1981:



And still great in the 2000s - here's What About Us? at a festival - "he was dealing out drugs to old ladies" -



I admit - it's hard to parse out what he's raving about a lot of the time, but when you get to the lyrics, they are worthy of the rest - clever, funny, weirdly erudite... Especially how funny they are - jokes and wordplay and mockery - they didn't take themselves to seriously, obviously. What more can you say to something like this? Video to "Eat Yourself Fitter" - words, images, their attempts at dancing - "saw the holy ghost on the screen"...



And so on. I suppose ultimately, though, being who I am, utterly in love with the electric guitar, what caught my ear in the 80s and holds my ear now are the guitars - the riffs - the sound - their propulsive fury. And so to leave you with Brix Smith knocking out one of my favorite riffs ever, Cruiser's Creek, live in 1985 or so...


Monday, January 01, 2018

Nothing Changes on New Year's Day

Happy new year, world!

I can't say I will miss this last one. Personally, it was not as bad as the year before - 2016 felt like hell on earth. But objectively - 2017 was a shit show. Trump as president was as bad as anyone could ask, and though his incompetence tended to suppress the enactment of his bad ideas, the year ended with one of the worst ideas - that tax cut - going through. I don't know how long it will take for that thing to wreck the economy - but if it isn't quickly undone, it will. But on the bright side, we haven't had a nuclear war - yay!

But along side Trump, we've had mass shootings; we've had terrorism mostly from the right, but a few from foreign agents. (The left mostly behaves itself, though - as usual.) The right - the hard right, the racist right - has been out in force all year,and show no signs of going anywhere. Why should they? Trump is a fascist, and has spent most of the year testing how far he can push his authoritarianism, racism, and so on - his followers gleefully competing with him in their own fascist ravings. As policy, it is mostly aimed at immigrants - though the continual attacks on the media, education, political protests and other activism, voting, could always bear fruit.

It is easy to be depressed. But there are reasons for hope. The one tool we have to make things better is the vote (well - there are lots of tools, but that is the one that had direct and immediate consequences.) And this year, the Democrats have tended to smoke the Republicans at the ballot box. The most extreme instance being the election of Doug Jones overRoy Moore in Alabama - yes, the GOP had to run a child molesting fascist nutcase to lose, but they did lose. And though Republicans have won a lot of special elections this year too, they have done so in hard-right districts, and the Democrats have run them very close. In Montana, in Georgia - if this continues, it bodes well. The Democrats have to overcome a massive structural disadvantage to win the house - a strange thing, but gerrymandering and other oddball vote distributions makes that body remarkably undemocratic - but they might be able to do it. Might have to win 5 million or so more votes to break even in the house - but that has happened before and might again.

Politics: I have written more about politics than anything else here,this year,and more than I have in a long time - politics is maddening these days,but it's also vital. It feels like life or death for the republic, sometimes. And it is hard to be optimistic - the last two years haven't just shown that white resentment is hanging on in the country, and can still hold a great deal of power; it's also shown that the system itself doesn't work. The constitution itself at its worst is explicitly racist (most of that is gone, thankfully, but the Electoral college remains), and often practically racist (the senate, by helping exaggerate rural votes is practoically racist, at this point in history at least) - but the bigger problem is that the system, with its checks and balances and diffusion of power gives overwhelming power to minority groups, if they are willing to use it. The American system depends on the good faith of all participants: and the Republicans are not operating in good faith. There is nothing to force them to operate in good faith - they took control of the courts,in an act of shocking bad faith - so there is no counter to any ofthis except the vote,and the system currently requires a massive landslide toward the Democrats to overcome the system.Depressing.

But not hopeless. Or - put plainly - in politics, you can't afford to take things for granted,good or bad, because, in the end, what you do determines what politics is. So I guess, keep at it. Vote, argue, work - what else is there to do?

I have to write something about something else. Alright. This was a momentous year - I moved, which has changed my movie watching options for the worst - I compensated with a fair amount of TV, or at least, with some TV - whole first run TV shows, watched first to last! Ken Burns' on Vietnam; and of course Twin Peaks - the latter of which was more or less awe inspiring and brilliant - obviously better than anything else I saw this year, since I barely saw anything else - but as good as anything I've seen on a screen in years. I also watched a good deal of old TV this year,for the TV Countdown at Wonders in the Dark (including the coming Part 2) - but not enough movies.

And so? I suppose the new year is a time for resolutions - and - well: I wish I had some. Or rather, I wish I had some I felt sure of following through on. But I guess the new year is the time for promises, listing the things you hope you do or will regret not doing - I can play that game. So:

1) I hope to post here again, more than once a week (though I suppose that should really be, at least once a week, as I have fallen well short of that unimpressive standard). I know, I know, blogs are old hat - but I am old hat, so, I would rather write for this than for twitter or something like that. Now - I fear if I deliver on this resolution, it will bring a lot of politics - but that is the world we live in, so...

2) I hope I can get back to a more regular film watching regime. Might not be possible to do my habitual 2 new films a week, plus 2-3 older films somewhere - but I need to get in the habit again of watching films. Probably will - I don't lose that habit for long, usually.

3) I hope I write about films, and other subjects - books, TV, music - here - once in a while. It has been a while since I have made a habit of writing longish posts about arts here, and I don't know if that habit will come back (without external stimulus - I get work done for other people, when I can...)

4) I will try to acknowledge the fact that this is 2018. the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, and all the stuff that went on around it - so some Great War blogging might be in order. I hope. Reconstruction blogging, too,if I can - 150 years since 1868 - a vital part of the country's history....

5) Finally, a lot of this depends on my ability to write, in general. f that goes well, then, some of it should end up here.

And so - that's enough for now. Happy New Year!

(And here's a holy shit I'm old moment for you: U2, 35 years ago:)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Good News For Once!

Another week in the books. A good one, I have to say - the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama is a wonderful thing. Doug Jones has been leading for much of the race, since the stories about Moore's adventures at the mall came out, but his lead had been eroding as the election date approached. The Republicans, of course, doubled down on supporting Moore (except a few outliers like Jeff Flake), and Alabama is the heart of evil white men in this country, so I was prepared for a loss....

But we won. Democrats, and especially African American Democrats, showed up, and they won. It's a wonderful thing, even if it is only likely to last until their next election. But it is a reminder that Democrats have run very close in a lot of impossible elections this year - and have won everything they had any chance of winning,and won it clean. Trump is poison, the Republican party is madly overplaying their hand, either because they know they've only got a year to destroy the country, or because they think they are going to be able to keep stealing elections forever.... But they couldn't steal an election in Alabama - that's not likely to stop them from trying,but so far, voting has, in fact, worked against them. So - keep voting!

Meanwhile,Trump and company continue to move closer to the moment of truth, when they have to face the truth about their dealings with Russia or start scrambling for ways out. A continuing procession of men are revealed as serial harassers - this week it's been Dustin Hoffman, Russell Simmons, Morgan Spurlock (who tried to head off trouble by confessing before he was caught), Mario Batali - that's who I remember off the top of my head. One of them, a particularly loathsome Kentucky preacher and legislator named Dan Johnson, shot himself over his misdeeds, which in this case involve raping a 17 year old. It's a depressing litany, but it is better that this stuff comes out - maybe if there are consequences for the kind of routine sexual abuse that has gone on, it will stop. Some of it will stop. You have to hope. And it it doesn't stop, well - at least there should be consequences for it.

Along with the new accusations, there have been more accusation about some of the more notorious abusers. Selma Hayek detailed her experiences with Harvey Weinstein; and a number of Trump's accusers talked about it in TV. Will Donald Trump ever answer for his actions? Probably not directly, not for a while - he's president; he isn't going to resign or shoot himself (since either of those would require at least some small awareness of what a sense of shame would feel like), and congress is obviously not going to do anything about any of his crimes until the Democrats get control. But his actions are already having a very noticeable affect on elections - his presence in the White House certainly helps the Democrats win elections.

As for his supporters - oy. I have cousins who are true believers, and they keep polluting Facebook with their attempts at defense - but man - have I ever seen a more desperate and self-contradicting set of defenses? Posts insulting one of the women for not looking like an eastern European supermodel. Posts saying Trump is a billionaire surrounded by beautiful women - why would he do this? Posts asking - "you were groped by a world famous billionaire and you didn't say anything - why?" And when all else fails, back to trans-bashing, men in the women's room again... It's amazing. Trump himself - it's hard to imagine a more desperately insecure human being than Donald Trump in the best of times - highlighting his insecurity makes a really poor defense. Some of those memes - just put a thought balloon over poor Donnie with "If not for my Daddy's money, none of these woman would look at me once" and be done with it... The rest - answer themselves: do you really have to explain how world famous billionaires get away with sexual assault? (Granted, "billionaire" might be aspirational in Trump's case, but still...) Insulting the looks of the women he groped - changing the subject... It's pathetic. Trump is pathetic,his supporters are pathetic, they make themselves look worse every time they open their mouths....

And al this despite the fact that Trump has admitted to a lot of the things he's accused of - grabbing them by the pussy; parading around backstage at beauty contests - the only defense they really have is that he's such a pathological liar and so desperately insecure, that he would lie about his sexual exploits to impress the likes of Howard Stern and Billy Bush.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Obituary Anniversaries

Well,December 8 - one of those days that the coincidences of bad things sometimes seems too much. 36 years ago, some asshole shot John Lennon in cold blood on the streets of New York; 13 years ago, some asshole shot Dimebag Darrel, guitarist for Pantera, in cold blood on stage in Ohio. I am tempted to make a political remark - what possesses this country not to pass better anti-gun laws? Especially now, when we have routine incidents of mass killings - but tat doesn't seem to have helped. Celebrities dying didn't change gun laws; 27 people shot in a church doesn't change gun laws... We have a problem.

But I'm not going to be able to change it by complaining. Instead - here's Pantera and Dirty Mac, showing what Dimebag and Winston were all about.

Pantera, live:



From the Rock and Roll Circus:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Armistice Day, 2017

I've already managed my World War I post this week, getting the Russians in there along with Third Ypres. But today is Armistice Day and it is good to remember it, and to remember why this day was remembered as a day to bring abut the end of war. The horrors of Passchendaele sum up the horrors of WWI quite succinctly, and those horrors are a distillation of the horrors of all wars. We should keep it in mind, and we should try to stop this stuff from happening.

Here is a documentary about the battle of Passchendaele:



And a bit of Iron Maiden, to mark the time:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Shaking the World

Happy Friday again, the only day I seem to post - but 1 is better than none.

A strange week, this one: November 7-8 marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution - the Soviet Revolution, that brought Lenin to power. I should have posted something, but I am lazy and careless - but what is stranger is that I have seen almost nothing about it anywhere. Maybe it isn't American history; maybe the Soviets are well out of fashion - but this was one of the most important events of the 20th century - top, you know - 2 maybe - and you would think it would be talked about. Maybe it was and I haven't seen it - the news this week has been busy, with another mass shooting, an election that saw decisive Democratic victories around the country, another celebrity caught whacking off in front of strangers, and what might be the least surprising revelation of all time - sometimes judge Roy Moore, right wing, racist, homophobic god bothering scofflaw running for senate in Alabama, turns out to also be a pedophile, dating 17 year olds and making lewd passes as 14 year olds. So poor old Lenin and Trotsky and co. had a lot of competition this week.

That doesn't mean they should get a shout out. The Russian Revolution is, well - difficult. There's no denying the wickedness of the Tsar's regime, or its incompetence; there's no denying that WWI gutted Russia; there's not much likelihood that the government could have changed into something else without a revolution of some kind. But Revolutions never really work out - not in the short term, usually not in the medium term. The February Revolution held some promise, but no one was able to form a stable government, the war gutted the provisional governments as much as it gutted the Tsar's government - and it failed. And the Bolsheviks took over and - weren't willing to accept anything less than total victory, so slowly moved to banning all political opposition, crushing all dissent - which then sparked civil war, foreign invasions, massive and horrible political reprisals, devastating famine....

That is usually the result of revolution: war, death, devastation, famine and disease,and tyranny at the end. But among their horrors, sometimes governments emerge with some breathing room, with the space to get better.Could the Russian Revolution have done so? I am not sure what I think about the Russian revolution - the horrors of the revolution and civil war are horrors of war and revolution; it is more fruitful to ask what they led to. I don't know: there are signs, in the 1920s, that Lenin and some of the others in the government might have been willing to move toward a more just society - there is no denying that the revolution unleashed a torrent of cultural change, artistic change, which was very exciting. But that only lasted a couple years - and Stalin's version of the revolution codified and solidified the absolute worst possible elements of the revolution. He brought out the absolute worst possible outcome for the revolution. (As did Mao, in the 1950s; as did Pol Pot, for example.)

So what is the Russian Revolution? The hope of the overthrow of the Tsar? the promise of the people rising to create a new kind of government in November 1917? (That's what China Mieville emphasizes in October.) Or the fall into civil war and terror in 1918? The tyranny and cruelty of the 20s? or the almost immeasurable sense of possibility it created? Or both? Or the sheer (and wildly self-destructive) horror of Stalinism? The exhilaration of Eisenstein's October is real - the film creates it, of course, but you sense the exhilaration of the moment itself, the hope, the sense of liberation and empowerment. I can see the appeal. Though I am too much a cynic, or maybe a historian, not to know how this stuff ends. How all of them end: in blood and devastation, the guillotine, the ax, in a decade long war with Iraq. Or in retreat - the old guard takes over - or the new guard proves to be just like the old guard, only more racist and more self-righteous. (You thought I forgot the America revolution, didn't you!) I don't want any revolutions around me, thank you very much. I get worried when people start talking about them.

Though I know that most of them, a generation or so down the road, ended up making the world a better place. The world is better for the English Revolution, the French Revolution, certainly the the American Civil War - and it's probably better for the Russian Revolution. Just that - sacrificing a couple generations for the sake of the future seems like a sub-optimal route to a better world...

Meanwhile, today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, aka, the Battle of Passchendaele, another in the gruesome series of pointless bloodbaths that marked that war, especially on the western front. I suppose in the end, it's impossible to say that this one was more or less pointless than any of the others - though by 1917, it's hard to see what anyone had in mind in these exercises. I suppose it is true that one of the things the Allies had in mind was distracting Germans from the eastern front, where Russia's first revolution had cast the war effort into serious doubt. Indeed, Lenin and company mounted their revolution largely on the platform of getting out of the war for good. (Maybe because Lenin was bankrolled by the Germans, but that seems more like opportunism on both sides - the Germans were surely not communists.) In any case, Passchendaele didn't keep the Russians in the war, so...

I can't find any ambiguity in World War I: there is no greater unambiguous disaster in modern history. World War II! you say - but that damned thing continued with barely an interruption the first one. The horrors of the Russian Revolution would not have happened without the Great War - who knows what would have become of that country, but it's probably nothing like the bloodbath it was. And Passchendaele? Individual battles in the first world war are mind-boggling affairs, endless repetitions of what didn't work 6 months ago, tweaked with that one thing that did kind of work for a day or so 6 months ago.... When it changed, it changed because of sheer numbers and some real innovation, first by the Germans, then by the Allies (taking advantage of the German's complete collapse.) Everyone finally got bled out, I guess. Passchendaele contributed to the bleeding, of course, but that doesn't recommend it. It did help establish one of the dominant images of the Great War: if the Somme is the ultimate in the Doomed Charge image, Passchendaele is the ultimate in the Flooded Trench image, fought as it was in the wetlands of Belgium, in a very rainy summer and autumn. But there is nothing else there - heroism, but what good is that, when it's put to no end? There is no hope to be lost at Passchendaele, no missed opportunities - nothing but death, and there was never going to be anything but death there.

World War I is a very depressing subject to care about.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Friday Miscellany and Music

Hello again, Friday. Nice to see that the World Series turned out to be as entertaining as you could hope. I wish they could have finished some of those games a bit quicker - how I long for the days of dueling 7 inning starters! I think the Dodgers might have hurt themselves, over the series - taking out starters before they were really starting to lose meant they wee using most of their pen almost every single day. It started to show. The Astros had some of the same problem, but got around them by putting starters in to relieve, and letting them go for 3 or 4 innings. (Something of a trend: starters pitching better in relief than as starters - from the Red Sox, getting great outings from Price and Sale, to several Astros, to Kershaw and Wood when it was all too late for the Dodgers...) Anyway. This was a good one.

And now? I've been chipping away at Ken Burns' Vietnam war series - almost too depressing to watch more than an episode a week... Interesting to be reminded that yesterday, 11/2, was the 49th anniversary of the day Saigon pulled out of the Paris peace talks at the urging of Tricky Dick and company. 49 years since Nixon committed treason to get elected president. Meanwhile, every day in the news, we're reminded it's been a good deal less than 49 years since Trump committed treason to get elected... That and watching the Democrats continue to try to tear themselves apart - is it 1968? It is horrible watching Democrats continue to try to undo the results of last year's primaries, while the Republicans are trying to undo the results of the Civil War...

But that is all the politics I can stand for today.

So - Friday - some music. Maybe 1968, huh? Kind of cool to hear the Velvet Underground in the middle of the 1968 episode of the Vietnam War - this one, in fact,shown here with some nifty animations:



Meanwhile the Beatles:



And the Stones, taking on the political world of the time: