Archive for September, 2009

When Moore is Less

September 28, 2009

Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story has just been released. The comments I’ve heard about it have been mostly good. (You can find Louis Proyect’s review here.) I will no doubt go to see it. I must, however, admit to having some feelings of trepidation. Every Michael Moore film, no matter how good, has at least one awful moment in it.

Sicko is a great film. One has to admire the courage that Moore showed in taking on the insurance industry. Yet there’s that horrible moment when Moore starts gushing over Hillary Clinton, as if he has a school boy crush on her. (For all I know, he does.) What makes this insulting is that Clinton helped to kill the single payer movement in the 1990’s.

I know I’m not the only lefty who cringed when Moore started berating Charlton Heston (who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease) in Bowling for Columbine. Heston was a crank, but he was a relatively harmless one in the larger scheme of things. I remember that when this film first came out, I heard an interview with Moore on the KPFK radio station in Los Angeles. The interviewer started things off by asking him to explain what the movie was about. Moore responded with a quote from D. H. Lawrence. I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something to the effect that “every American is essentially a killer.” The only conclusion I could draw from this was that Moore was saying that violence is ingrained in US culture. Interestingly, this was the argument that Heston tried to make in the film, but Moore kept interrupting him.

By the way, does anyone actually know what the main argument of Bowling for Columbine is?

On the thread following Proyect’s review, Renegagde Eye reports: “I saw a screening of this film, with MM in person there. He was asked about a labor party, why he doesn’t split with Dems. He replied he was too old to start a new party. He recommended taking the Dems over.” Moore might as well have argued that we should take over the Roman Catholic Church. In both cases, we have an entrenched institution with a great deal of money and vested interests behind it. The very idea that leftists (even ones who wear baseball caps) can take it over is moonshine. It would actually be easier to start a new party.

Moore is a talented and important filmmaker, but when it comes to trying to find some way for us to move forward, he is clueless.

Update: I went to see Capitalism: A Love Story and I must say that I liked it a lot. I think it is the best of the Moore films that I’ve seen. There wasn’t anything like the horrible moments that I talked about. True, the movie was soft on Obama, and there was a teary-eyed tribute to Franklin Roosevelt that I could have done without. However, the film was powerful because it showed concrete examples of the suffering that capitalism causes, and it also showed examples of people fighting back (though I would have liked to have seen more of the latter.) At the screening that I went to, people applauded at some moments. I strongly urge everyone to see this important film.

The G20 Protests: Getting Back to Where We Were

September 28, 2009

I suppose everyone has seen the disturbing videos of police attacking demonstrators at the G20 protests in PIttsburgh. There are a couple of things we can learn from this. The first is that the cops will start busting heads if they know they have overwhelmingly superior numbers. The attacks were all on gatherings of a few hundred or so people. Clearly, demonstrations need to be as large as possible. Actions by small groups of anarchists just don’t cut the mustard.

The second is that the US Left has greatly weakened itself through its strategy of tailing the Democrats. According to the New York Times, there were between 3,000 and 4,000 people at the main march on Friday. Even if one assumes this was an under-estimate, it’s clear that there were much fewer people than those that showed up for the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. (The only union that took part was the United Steelworkers. So much for the AFL-CIO’s efforts to “revive” the labor movement.) It’s clear that it’s going to take a great deal of work just to get back to where we were ten years ago. This is what comes from making “lesser evil” arguments. The Left demobilizes itself.

Wolf Blitzer Humiliated

September 21, 2009

Wolf Blitzer

According to the Huffington Post, Wolf Blitzer, host of CNN’s The Situation Room completely bombed in a recent episode of Celebrity Jeopardy. He ended up with a total of $-4,600, a rare feat in the history of Jeopardy (I suspect this may be a record in the history of game shows. You can find a video here). He lost out to Andy Richter and Dana Delaney. Does this surprise anyone? Any person who has ever suffered through an episode of Wolf’s program knows that he’s not the brightest bulb. His journalistic skills largely consist of being able to say “situation room” in a melodramatic voice. That’s pretty much it.

It’s interesting to note that Blitzer lost out to Andy Richter, a comedian. According to a recent poll, the most trusted “newsman” in the US is a comedian, Jon Stewart. This may have something to do with the fact that comedians have to figure out how to get people to laugh, which requires thinking. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to be able to say “situation room”.

I remember when I was very young, watching a news program about the relationship between the US and Britain. A woman reporter started the show off by solemnly informing her audience that the US and Britain have been allies “since 1776”. I almost fell off my chair. This was my first inkling that most TV reporters are essentially dumb people. And I know that there are many people who have the same general perception that I have. From Ted Baxter on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show to Kent Brockmann on The Simpsons, the Dumb TV Reporter has become a stock character in American comedy.

I would argue that this is not an accident. Intelligent people who spend all day discussing the news are likely to develop opinions, which may possibly be displeasing to their corporate sponsors. So producers look for people who will swallow whatever nonsense is placed before them. Consider the fact that, during the build-up to the Iraq invasion, no TV reporters questioned the Bush Administration’s absurd claims about “weapons of mass destruction”. (The only exceptions I know of were Bill Moyers and Phil Donahue, both of them marginal figures in the news media.)

With these sorts of people providing us with information, is it any wonder that so many people can’t think clearly about issues such as health care reform?

The Ambassador Hotel

September 17, 2009

As I was writing my recent post on the Kennedys, I was reminded of an experience I once had involving the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. This historic structure in Los Angeles was torn down in 2005, to make room for new schools. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I know that the schools in L.A. are badly overcrowded (and they will be even more so when Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts come into effect). On the other hand, the Ambassador was a striking example of a Spanish/Art Deco style of architecture that I have only ever seen in Southern California. (Union Station near downtown Los Angeles, is a good example of this type of building. If you’re ever planning to visit the Big Orange, I recommend checking this place out.)

The Ambassador was built in 1921. Over the years many famous people stayed there, including Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Anna May Wong, and Frank Sinatra. (The wikipedia article gives a lengthy list of names.) You can find pictures of the place here.

The Ambassador Hotel was closed to guests in 1989. However, during the 1990’s, it was frequently used as a location for film shoots. This is where my story begins. I spent a brief period of my life working as a movie extra. (The politically correct term is “background artist”. This was a weird experience that I will have to write about in more detail in a future post.) My agent instructed me to go to the Ambassador Hotel in the late afternoon to work on a night-time shoot. Now, the building and its grounds occupied a sprawling expanse off Wilshire Boulevard. (I must have driven past there a hundred times previously, without even being aware of the place.) I wandered around for a while, not quite sure that I was even supposed to be there, since the property was surrounded by a chain-link fence with KEEP OUT signs on it. I eventually stumbled across a film crew shooting a movie. I thought this must be the place I was supposed to be. I stood around for a while, with people busily brushing past me, until I managed to get the attention of a production assistant. This woman was unusually polite for a PA. When I told her the instructions that my agent gave me, she told me I was at the wrong shoot, that the one I was supposed to be at was right around the corner of the building. I was a bit incredulous at this, but I followed her directions, walking a path lined by overgrown trellises. Sure enough, right around the corner there was a film crew shooting another movie. I think this experience gave me some idea of what Hollywood must have been like during the 1920’s, when film crews were shooting all over the place, sometimes side by side.

They were making a cop film starring Burt Reynolds. I can’t remember the name of it (I’m not sure anyone bothered to tell it to me), but it probably wasn’t very good if it had BR in it. We were shooting a scene right in front of the main entrance to the hotel, and it was possible to walk into the building when the PA’s weren’t looking. It was dark inside, but there was enough light coming in through the windows that one could make out details. There was an an enormous carpeted hallway that sloped upward. To the left, a large doorway led into what had clearly been a bar. I felt a strong urge to go exploring. However, the PA’s sternly warned me and the other extras – um, I mean background artists – not to go wandering around in the place. They said the structure was in disrepair and therefore possibly dangerous. I figured this was probably true. More importantly, I was afraid of getting fired. (I needed the money.) Nevertheless, I still sometimes feel a twinge of regret that I didn’t give in to my impulse for adventure. To explore the rooms of a huge, dark, abandoned building; what could be more fun? Who knows, I might have been in a room that Marlene Dietrich once stayed in. Oh, well.

One other thing I remember is that there were dozens of feral cats roaming around on the grounds. I wonder what happened to them.

This brings me to the Bobby Kennedy connection. There was a story going around among the extras – er, I mean background artists – that there was a pool of water on the exact spot where Kennedy was shot. I remember people saying this to one another in hushed tones, as if it had some profound significance to it. Since the kitchen where Kennedy was shot was off limits to us, it was impossible to confirm or deny this story. (And who the hell would have have known the exact spot where he was shot?) Supposing this story was true, wouldn’t it have just indicated that the place had leaky pipes?

Myths, legends, folktales, superstitions, etc. have always fascinated me. There seems to be some fundamental human impulse to make these things up. It’s not clear to me why. Perhaps it all starts with somebody bullshitting other people. Once I had a friend who liked to pull other people’s legs. One day he decided, just for the hell of it, that he was going to make people believe that he took part in the invasion of Grenada. He invented this elaborately detailed story. (“There was a body on the ground in front of me. I stepped over it and kept on moving forward…”) I remember hearing him telling this story at parties. Finally, he admitted to me that he had made the whole thing up. For years afterwards, whenever I mentioned his name to people, they would say, “You mean the guy who was in Grenada?”

Ted Kennedy

September 9, 2009

The death of Ted Kennedy has provoked an outpouring of sentimental drivel in the US media. For those looking for some relief from this, I recommend Lance Selfa’s article in Socialist Worker as well as Alec Cockburn’s piece in Counterpunch. They both do a pretty good demolition job on the reputation of the late paladin of Camelot. As for the idea that Kennedy was a champion of health care reform, check out this article by Helen Redmond. She makes it clear that Ted abandoned single payer back in the 1970’s.

I must admit that my background predisposes me to a skeptical attitude towards any member of the Kennedy clan. I spent part of my childhood in Massachusetts, where the Last Kennedy was the senior US Senator. My parents were both New Deal Democrats who worshipped the memory of Franklin Roosevelt. As such, they were deeply unimpressed with Ted Kennedy (my mother referred to him as “Sailboat Boy”). Indeed, my parents were unimpressed with the whole Kennedy family. My father took deep offense at the famous challenge that John Kennedy made in his celebrated inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” my father would say. “We are the country.”

My father needed no lectures about self-sacrifice. He had fought in World War II and had been wounded. He didn’t understand that high-minded calls for self-sacrifice always play well with the media, as well as with dewy-eyed liberals.

As for Teddy, the Chappaquiddick incident would have ended the career of any other politician, but he got a pass simply because he was a Kennedy. Doesn’t that bother anybody? When I was growing up, the media would actually sometimes refer to the Kennedys as “America’s Royal Family”. No one found this outrageous.

I had one brush with Ted Kennedy. Once, when I was living in Boston, I saw him getting into a car. He saw me looking at him. He smiled and waved to me.

I waved back. I’m not sure why I did. I would like to think I did it out of simple politeness. However, I must admit that for a moment I may have given in to the Kennedy “charisma”, which took in so many millions of people.

(I had one other brush with a Kennedy. Once, I almost took part in a touch football game with JFK, Jr. in New York’s Central Park. To me, he was the most sympathetic of the Kennedys. True, he published a boring and vapid magazine, but at least he never dropped bombs on anybody or walked away from the scene of an accident.)

When I lived in New York, I had a friend who would spend his summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where his family owned a house. He would support himself by working as a bartender there. He once told me a sordid story about seeing Ted Kennedy stinking drunk in his bar. When I made a disparaging remark about Kennedy, my friend suddenly became defensive. He said he thought that Kennedy was doing good things in the Senate. I just looked at him, not sure what to say. Had I been more politically astute in those days, I might have pointed out that the “good things” that Kennedy did in the Senate included deregulating the trucking and airlines industries, which contributed to the decline in living standards in this country.

Over the years I’ve listened to numerous people defend Ted Kennedy. According to them, Chappaquiddick was just a fluke. However, I believe it wasn’t a fluke, but was symptomatic of how the Kennedys viewed other people. They would use and exploit them and discard them when they became inconvenient.