No Hoorays for Hollywood

Way back in our younger days we used to take the same rooting interest in the Oscar contests as we did in the American League’s eastern division pennant races, but these days we don’t even know who or what the nominees are. There are still great movies being made from to time, we  assume, but it no longer seems worth the effort to sort through all the dreck to find them. One of Wichita’s premier musicians was giving a final jazz concert at Kirby’s Beer Store on Sunday night before heading off to Poland, of all places, so that’s what we did instead of watching the interminable Academy Awards ceremony on television.
Which is sad, as we always have and still truly do love the cinematic arts. We’re the perfect age for a movie buff, having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s when the still elegant movie houses were showing some very memorably innovative films, and all three channels on pre-cable television were broadcasting the best of the ’30s and ’40s Golden Age of Hollywood during the afternoon and late night hours that the networks didn’t fill, and as teenagers we frequented the art houses and university theaters where the arty and international and silent-era stuff was showing, so by now we’re admittedly hard to impress. Even so, and being as generous to the youngsters as we can muster, we have to say the movies these days seem to reflect the same civilizational decline as the rest of American culture.
So far as we can tell from our occasional perusals most of the movies these days are non-stop computer generated fight-scene action adventure flicks featuring mostly comic book super heroes, deliberately rude comedies starring former “Saturday Night Live” performers, and what have come to be called “chicks flicks.” Friends of ours have highly recommended much of it, with some of our geekier friends insisting that the comic superheroes have something serious to say about modern society, other low-brow types talking about how funny some of those supposedly anti-establishment comedies are, and some man-bashing women we know endorsing those “chick flicks.” As much as we like these friends, we think they’re too young and easily-impressed to know what they’re talking about. At this point in our grumpy middle age, we think the same about the Academy of Motion of Picture Arts and Sciences and its gaudy awards show.
One of the “best picture” nominees this year was a comic book superhero flick called “The Black Panther,” and it got such rave reviews from some of our friends and several of the supposedly more serious movie critics that that we gave it a try when it showed up on Netflix. It had some interesting ideas about a spiritual African culture possessed of highly advanced Western scientific knowledge, but it was mostly improbably buff actors and actresses staging prolonged fight scenes with help from computer generated images, and we quit watching about halfway through. We’ve nothing against action-adventure flicks, and can readily name “The Professionals” and “The Great Escape” and the silent-era “Thief of Baghdad”and the Sean Connery era of the James Bonds movies and countless other as masterpieces of the genre, but all those computer generated images can’t quite compensate for the characters and dialogue and plots and often valid points about the human condition that those movies had.
Some of those rude comedies with the “Saturday Night Live” performers do get a few much-appreciated laughs out of us, but we’ve seen “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and enough of the Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers and Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton movies for that to satisfy our comedic tastes. We’ve also read Twain and Swift Perelman Jerome, and know all the most fatalistic jokes, and we’ve come to expect more than occasional laughs.
Back in the ’30s and ’40s Hollywood used to make what was called “women’s pictures,” and when we watched them with our Mom during the afternoon hours of our summer vacation we shared her love of the genre. Some of the of the “women’s pictures” were “screwball comedies,” about dynamic women wooing handsome yet innocent men, and they were the stuff of our earliest romantic fantasies. Other pictures of the genre featured aggressively heroic newspaperwomen and aviatrixes and businesswomen and nurses and nuns, which was also pretty fantastic to our formative selves. Most of the “women’s pictures” were melodramatic dramas about women making selfless sacrifices for themselves and the men and the children they loved, which now renders them politically incorrect, but we still find them more heroic than anything that today’s computer generated images can come up with. We’ll long remember Barbara Stanwyck as the working class single mother watching her daughter marry a nice rich guy from behind the window on a cold and snowy street in “Stella Dallas,” or that ending in “Imitation of Life” where Mahalia Jackson sings the funeral song for the selfless mother whose mixed-race daughter had abounded her selfish reasons, and we defy anyone to watch either flick without teary eyes.
Today’s “chick flicks” — and the term’s undeniably sexist devolution from “women’s picture” should offend our newfangled feminist friends as much as it does old-fashioned selves — seem mostly about women empowering themselves to abandon such inconvenient obligations of the human condition. We’re in no position to judge how any woman should handle the admittedly difficult situations we all find ourselves in our human condition, but we must admit a certain nostalgia for the days when “Casablanca” and other Hollywood movies celebrated both Bogie and Baccall’s selflessness in an even more troubled time in human history.
We stayed up late enough to read that “The Green Book” had won the “best picture” Oscar from the Academy, and as we have’t yet seen it we’ll offer no opinion about that. The entertainment press we still occasionally peruse tell us it’s about a working class white guy driving a talented black musician through the segregation-era south, sort of of the reverse of the the Academy-loved ’80s-era “Driving Miss Daisy,” about a working class black guy driving some rich old white woman around the same area of the human condition at the same time, and as far we can tell both are still controversial in these contentious times of political correctness. We’ll take a look when “The Green Book” eventually shows up on Netflix, but until then we’ll happily have nothing to with Hollywood’s race problems, and regret that Wichita’s most talented black musician is suddenly heading to Poland, and hope for the best for American popular culture.

— Bud Norman

A Kansas Republican’s California Dreamin’

At the risk of revealing our rather advanced age, we admit to remembering a time when the Republican party used to win some significant elections in the populous state of California. The California born-and-bred Richard Nixon won the state’s electoral votes in a failed bid the year after we born, then famously lost a race for the state’s governorship, prematurely taunting the press that they wouldn’t have Nixon to kick to around anymore, but went on to win the state’s presidential electoral votes in both the close call of ’68 and his landslide reelection year of ’72. The quintessentially Republican Ronald Reagan then won two gubernatorial elections in the state, served the state well in both terms, and in our young adulthoods thus won the state’s electoral votes in the 1980 presidential race, and California was among the record 49 states he won in his record landslide reelection in ’84.
Since then the Democrats have kept winning the state’s presidential votes every four years, but the Republican party at least kept a significant foothold among all the the Okies and Arkies in the central part of the state and the well-educated and well-off and over-taxed and over-regulated Republicans in Orange County and other suburban congressional districts. The California Republicans were always outnumbered by the California Democrats, but populous California has such an outsized number of congressional districts that there were usually enough Republicans to bolster the off-and-on Republican republican majorities in the House of Representatives. At the moment California is a big reason that the Republican House majority is once again off, however, with even those suburban districts flipping to the Democrats, and Orange County now entirely blue, and for the foreseeable future the Grand Old Party seems out of business in the Golden State.
A big part of the Republican party’s problem is the changing nature of California, of course. The state is a bit blacker and a whole lot browner than it was back when Nixon and Reagan were winning the state’s electoral votes, a large number of those Central California Okies and Arkies have moved back to Oklahoma and Arkansas, and a bigger chunk of the remaining white folk work in Hollywood or have high-tech jobs in the San Francisco area and are thus obliged to vote Democratic no matter how over-taxed and over-regulated they might be. California’s a crazier state than ever, too, from our old-fashioned conservative and entirely sane Kansas Republican perspective, and we must admit we can’t quite see how the party should accommodate it.
Even so, we must acknowledge that the Republican party has changed in ways that even the craziest Californian can rightly object to. These days the Republicans are openly the party of white inland Americans reasonably terrified by the California-ization of America, and although there’s a compelling argument to be made to those mostly hard-working black and brown Californians that they’re also over-taxed and over-regulated, the party lately seems less interested in making that argument than whipping up the same sort of odious identify politics among the state’s remaining white folks that California’s Democratic party has has long whipped up among its black and brown and guilt-ridden white folk.
Meanwhile, the Republicans have managed to lose almost all of those once reliably California Republican districts in the mostly white white and well-educated and well-off Republican suburbs. Part of that is probably that that big tax cut bill that the Republicans hoped to run on, which capped the tax deductions that high-property tax states such as California could deduct, thus leaving a lot of over-taxed Republicans in California and other high-tax Democratic states with an even higher tax bill. We remember discussing the matter with a Kansas Republican friend who thought that was a good idea, as those damned Californians deserved it for living in a Democratic state, but at the time we thought it was easier for him to say than a Republican congressman running for reelection in California or some other high-tax Democratic state, and after the Republican bloodbath in the past suburban Californian midterms we feel vindicated. We also suspect that the current Republican party’s suddenly unabashed sexual piggishness had something to do with all those well-educated and well-off yet over-taxed and over-regulated Republican women voting for Democrats,and claim vindication about that.
At the moment much of California is on fire, and the fires don’t seem to care much if you’re black or white or brown or male or female or rich or poor or somewhere in between, and we can’t blame any crazy Californian for concluding he Republican party largely seems to believe they had it coming. Republican President Donald Trump’s first “tweets” about the tragedy didn’t mention any sympathy for the victims or support for the first responders, but instead emphasized the state’s poor forest management policies and threatened to further withhold federal funding the emergency. When Trump at last appeared over the weekend at the fire’s edges he had kinder words for the firefighters, and was backing off his threats of withholding federal relief, but he continued to blame the state for its troubles. Trump couldn’t explain how he’d acquired such expertise in forest management during his real estate and reality show career, and all the people with real credentials about it said he didn’t know what he was talking about, and even the Finnish head of state that Trump cited as a consulting expert didn’t back up his claims, but as always he stood his ground.
The Trump-run feds have more jurisdiction over California’s public land than the state does, and according to longstanding Republican principles most of California is still privately held, however, so by now we can’t blame even the craziest Californian for believing that the Republicans in the other 49 states figure they had it coming. As much as we hope that Kansas never gets quite so crazy as California, we only wish that crazy state well. There are more Americans there than in any other state, and they contribute a similarly outsized share of our nation’s economic output, and we have to admit that at least some of those Hollywood movies and high-tech gadgets are beneficial to our lives. We also have some beloved kinfolk remaining in California, and although they’re up-to-date Republicans who probably figure the state had it coming we hope their houses don’t burn down, and we wish them all well. Even so, we can’t blame any of them for worrying and that the Republicans in the other 49 states will pitch in if worse comes to worst.
At the risk of sounding downright ancient, we’re still hopeful for an  eventual post-Trump 49-state Republican majority for low-taxes and light regulations and stick-together national unity that includes even some of those crazy Californians.

— Bud norman

The Ongoing Problem of Prominent Men

The list of prominent men who have lately been plausibly accused of various degrees of sexual harassment continues to grow, to the point that we’d now advise our women friends to avoid any encounter with a prominent man. By now here’s no keeping up with all the recent allegations, which have been hurled against such a remarkably diverse number of men that it’s impossible to pin the blame on any segment of society except prominent men.
This latest spate of stories started with heavyweight Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, and all the A-list actresses who joined a legion of women alleging he had harassed or outright assaulted them, and after all the years of Hollywood’s moralizing the right can hardly be blamed for relishing that. A screenwriter and film director of prominence named James Toback stands accused by some A-list actresses of similar behavior, the head of the newly fledged but already formidable Amazon Studios recently resigned after allegations of sexual harassment, not to mention all the Hollywood scandals going back to the silent days, and although they’re not as prominent as Weinstein or his A-list accusers it further suggests that Hollywood’s relentless critique of sexist America is ridiculous.
The rest of the left’s cultural redoubts now stand accused of similar hypocrisy. The frankly liberal MSNBC news network’s Mark Halperin is accused by five women of harassment and assault when he worked for the American Broadcasting Company, and he’s told the Cable News Network that “I know understand from these accounts that my behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain.” The newfangled Vox Media’s editorial director and a once iconic editor of the formerly venerable New Republic stand similarly accused, and the music biz has its usual scandals. These days academicians aren’t very prominent, but if they were we’re sure the academy would also provide a steady stream of scandals.
Which is not to deny the left it’s glee about all the scandals on the right. There was no more self-righteous a moralizer on the right than Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, so let them have their fun with the recent revelation that he paid $32 million to settle the latest in a series of lawsuits alleging sexual harassment. O’Reilly doesn’t dispute the settlement figure, but insists that he has “shocking proof” that the allegations were baseless. He claims that he chose to write a check for $32 million rather than present that shocking proof in a court of law only because he wanted to spare the embarrassment of a messy trial from his children, who would have surely endured it for the 32 mil and Pop’s vindication. He has lately admitted on his own website that he’s mad at God about it, and all his past moralizing looks ridiculous.
The Fox News network’s longtime head honcho died amidst similar scandals and expensively-settled lawsuits, it renewed O’Reilly’s contract knowing about the $32 million settlement and only fired him when the advertisers bailed, and it routinely fawns on a president who famously bragged about how could he could grab women by their wherevers, and still faces lawsuits by the some of the numerous women alleging he did just that. Creepy behavior by prominent men clearly is not limited to any particular ideology.
Even some of the prominent men who once enjoyed the respect of both the left and right now stand accused of creepy behavior. A respected journalist now claims that Elie Weisel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist, once put his uninvited hand on her buttocks. President George H.W. Bush, who was reviled for his policies by the left but never questioned for his gentlemanly behavior, just recently stands accused of the very same offense in past weeks, with each of the accusers telling the same story about how he made the same joke about his favorite magician being “David Cop-a-Feel,” which his spokespeople do not deny.
Bush’s recent alleged behavior is highly uncharacteristic of his long public life and probably best explained by the creeping dementia of the 93-year-old’s Lewy disease that has also consigned him to a wheelchair, and even if true Weisel’s offense should only slightly taint his otherwise distinguished life. Still, it’s inappropriate behavior, and should not be condoned no matter how prominent the man.
We’re by no means prominent men, and cannot fully appreciate the temptations that such status might entail, but we wish they would all stop with the boorish behavior. It’s giving the rest of us men a bad reputation.

— Bud Norman

Hollywood’s Hypocrisy, and Everyone Else’s

By now you’ve surely heard of Harvey Weinstein, the only name that can lately nudge President Donald Trump out of the news.
Weinstein is the heavyweight Hollywood movie mogul who stands accused of decades of sexual predatory behavior, ranging from mere boorishness to outright rape, and although he’s not yet been charged in a court of law he’s already been convicted in the court of public opinion. The company Weinstein founded has kicked him out, A-List actresses have come forward to corroborate the accounts of countless lesser-known accusers, some very disturbing audio has been leaked from a suspiciously-dropped investigation by a New York City district attorney, he’s issued a statement acknowledging he could have behaved better and is seeking therapy, and no one is denying that he’s long been a very sleazy fellow.
Hollywood’s constant scandals have been big news since the silent days of Fatty Arbuckle and Clara Bow, but this one comes at an especially opportune time for its culture war adversaries on the right. Over the past decades the entertainment industry has manufactured many movies and television shows that delight in the exposing the frequently scandalous behavior of self-appointed guardians of morality on the right, so it’s only fair the right should delight in a scandal that exposes the frequent hypocrisy of Hollywood’s self-appointed exemplars of sexual equality and social justice. Weinstein’s sleaziness was apparently an open secret in Hollywood for years, with only a few brave comics willing to acknowledge it, and despite the recent deluge of A-Listers piling on the entire industry is indeed implicated.
We’ll happily pile on Weinstein, as well, as we have our own instinctive and longstanding disgust for his alleged behavior as well as most of the past few decades of sleazy Hollywood fare in general, but we don’t expect it will help the culture wars come to an end any time soon. There’s yet another juicy scandal that exposes Hollywood’s social justice pretentious are utterly predictable, but we can’t deny that Hollywood’s wags still have plenty of hypocrisy on the right to work with.
A couple of weeks ago a happily little-known Republican congressman who’d run on a staunchly anti-abortion and pro-family-values platform announced he wouldn’t run for re-election after his mistress told reporters he’d urged her to get an abortion during a pregnancy scare, with the text messages to back it up, and there’s no denying this sort of hypocrisy happens all too often on the right. The fair and balanced Fox News Network has kicked out its co-founder and top-rated commentator kicked for Weinstein-like behavior, and the Republican president has been caught on audiotape bragging about how he can grab women by their wherevers because he’s a television star, with numerous women alleging he did just that and countless others testifying to his at least boorish behavior, and Republican party loyalty cannot compel us to deny it.
The real shame of it is that both the left and the right should be able to agree that all such sleazy behavior and outright hypocrisy is unacceptable, no matter which side of the political divide it lands on. The firm hand of our fundamentalist Christian mother taught us to always treat women with a careful respect, which served us well in our relationships with the fundamentalist feminists we always found ourselves drawn to, and it doesn’t seem so much a matter of left and right as one of right and wrong. These days, however, we expect that both sides and all their sleazier members will continue scoring points.
The few brave comics who dared expose Weinstein’s sleaziness included Tina Fey, the insufferably liberal but undeniably funny woman who made his sleaze a running gag on her well worth watching “30 Rock” television show, and we count ourselves among the many commenters on the right who have always acknowledged when our side has been caught in similar scandals, so we’ll hold out hope there’s still a principled middle ground most of us occupy that acknowledges you just don’t treat women with a sexually predatory disrespect.

— Bud Norman

Hollywood Hearts Hillary, Sort of

By now it’s a quadrennial rite of Hollywood for all the most fashionable show biz folks to film one of those commercials where they take turns standing in front of a blank background to finish one another’s sentences about the pressing need to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee. This year’s offering is disappointing even by Hollywood’s recent standards, and suggests that even celebrities are feeling disappointed in this crazy election year.
The standing-in-front-of-a blank-background-extolling-a-Democrat genre began back in the heady “Hope and Change” days of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, and featured a hope-y and change-y hip-hop soundtrack complete with samples of Obama’s soaring oratory and rapturous chants of “Obama, Obama” from some seemingly heavenly choir, and was all about the utopia of economic prosperity and racial harmony and world peace that would surely be realized after a mere eight years of Obama administrations. Even after Obama’s victory, a bunch of celebrities felt compelled to take their turns in front of a blank screen pledging their allegiance to the new leader and promising to support local school banks and volunteer more time to charity and not give the finger to other drivers and buy a hybrid and oppose slavery laugh more and other causes that were fashionable back in those more hopeful days.
Both efforts struck us as downright hilarious at the time, and seem all the more ridiculous in hindsight, and the latest reboot of the series seems to acknowledge that things have not worked out as promised. This time around the message isn’t that another four or perhaps eights of a Democrat in the White House will deliver utopia slightly behind schedule, but that the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate. The video doesn’t mention either of the major party nominees by name, but the celebrities refer to “a racist, abusive coward who could permanently damage the fabric of our society,” and worry about “giving nuclear weapons to a man whose signature move is firing things,” with the word “firing” repeated by several more celebrities, and at that point we assume even the average Hollywood celebrity would know they were talking about the Republican nominee. There weren’t even the vaguest allusions to the Democratic nominee, though, much less any promises of hope and change.
The latest effort is disappointing on purely cinematic levels, as well. It doesn’t have the arty black-and-white look and hip-hop hipness of that ’08 entry, or the star power of that “pledge allegiance to Barack” video in ’09, which at least included a few faces we recognized. Not to mention that annoying finishing-one-another’s-sentences thing, which the “Portlandia” show had already satirically suggested as a way to full employment. There is a slightly endearing self-effacing joke about how nobody’s really that famous anymore, except perhaps for those two unmentioned major party nominees, and whoever these people are we have to admit that some of them are rather good-looking, but we can’t imagine any discerning cinephile falling for it. Today’s young folks didn’t grow up on the afternoon and late-night old movies, though, can’t remember when movie stars where movies stars, and therefore aren’t very discerning, so perhaps they’re the intended audience for this dreck.
We’ve noticed a couple of polls that that show Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton barely topping 30 percent among the under-30 set, but have Republican nominee Donald Trump in third place behind Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and just slightly ahead of Green Party nominee Jill Stein. This demographic cohort might well be spooked by the possibility of a racist and abusive coward with a penchant for firing things getting the nuclear codes, and they probably even know who these celebrities are, so maybe Hollywood will have some effect. We share all their concerns about the nominee Republican, but also have equal concerns about that Democratic nominee that Hollywood doesn’t dare mention, and we guess we’ll have to await the video from Scott “Chachi” Baio and Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent and all the “Celebrity Apprentice” celebrities pledging allegiance to the unmentionable Republican nominee to finally decide why we’re not voting for any of those four.

— Bud Norman

At the Vortex of Politics and Show Biz

In our desperation to find something to read and write about other than that awful presidential race we even looked in on the latest celebrity news the other day, but of course we could find no respite there.
The Los Angeles Times covers Hollywood with the same avid interest that The Detroit Free Press covers the automotive trade and The Wichita Eagle covers the general aviation biz, so its internet front page featured a pleasantly diverting take on the disappointing opening weekend box office take for the latest big-budget “Ben Hur,” which the writer reported was the latest summer dud “in a glut of reboots, sequels, and remakes that audiences don’t want.” That only reminded us that the next four years will be either a sequel to the scandalous Clinton mini-series or a re-boot of “Celebrity Apprentice,” however, and we couldn’t help clicking on another front page headline blaring that “Donald Trump delivers his biggest insult yet, demeaning celebrities for their not-hotness.”
After Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton took in a huge fund-raising haul on her trip to Hollywood, Republican nominee Trump told a presumably less star-studded crowd in Tampa, Florida, that “The only enthusiastic supporters of her campaign are Hollywood celebrities, in many cases celebrities that aren’t very hot anymore.” With the same company town enthusiasm that The Detroit Free Press celebrated the auto bail-outs, and The Wichita Eagle protested President Barack Obama’s rhetoric against “corporate jets,” The Los Angeles Times stood up for its hometown workers by noting that that Clinton’s contributors included such familiar names as Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Anniston, Cher, Jamie Foxx, Kanye West, and George Clooney, while noting that Scott “Chachi” Baio of “Happy Days” fame was “the closest thing to an A-list celebrity at the Republican National Convention Last Month.”
At that point we were just a click away from the paper’s “Celebrity endorsement tracker,” and of course there was no resisting that vortex of show biz and politics. We’ll assume that The Los Angeles Times’ tracking of celebrity endorsements is definitive, and we’re not at all surprised that it shows the usual Democratic advantage. You’ll have to scroll down nearly halfway before you run out of mug shots of Clinton’s big name and big bucks supporters, and then more than halfway down to get through the ones who were supporting self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders back in the day back when that crazy idea seems possible. Both lists include several other people so darned famous that even we’ve heard of them, even if we’ve never seen any of their movies or heard any of their songs, as well as some folks such as Dick Van Dyke and Tony Bennett who aren’t that hot anymore but we well remember from their glory days, along with the same old lineup of usual suspects that we’ve never heard of all and some others that we are only vaguely and unpleasantly aware of.
By now the gold-plated Trump brand has more universal name recognition than any of those actors or rappers or singers or hoofers or leaked-sex-tape stars, however, and even The Los Angeles Times is obliged to report that he has also has some well-known supporters. Along with the aforementioned Baio there’s Gary Busey, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his title role performance in “The Buddy Holly Story” some decades back and is otherwise best known as that crazy guy on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and Jon Voight, who brilliantly played Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” and the guy with the “pretty mouth” who climbed that cliff in “Deliverance” among other great roles, but is now best known as the father of that Angelina Jolie woman, and Kid Rock, whose strange combination of inner-city rap and trailer-park country and past collaboration with a midget were sort of endearing to us. He’s also got the support of such sports figures as former heavyweight champion of the world and convicted rapist and admitted wife-beater and ear-biting thug “Iron” Mike Tyson, Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, the cross-dressing basketball power forward from the ’90s and more recently a good friend of the North Korean dictatorship and contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and basketball coach Bobby Knight, who was fired from Indiana University despite a Hall of Fame-calber career for being an abrasive and insulting and temperamental jerk. The professional wrestling star Hulk Hogan, who recently put the Gawker website out of business by suing them for releasing a leaked sex tape of him and somebody else whose name we should probably know, is also on board with his fellow former World Wrestling Entertainment headliner, as is heavy metal guitarist Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent, who we have to admit laid down a hell of a guitar solo on “Baby Please Don’t Go” way back in The Amboy Dukes days.
The Los Angeles Times has been keeping track of this long enough to note that Republican runner-up Texas Sen. Cruz’ only endorsement was from one of those long-bearded guys on that “Duck Dynasty” show, which we’ve never seen and are not sure is still on the air, and that third-place finisher Ohio Gov. John Kasich never racked up a single celebrity endorsement. This seems to suggest that celebrity endorsements have some worrisome effect, but at this point have no idea what it will be. We care not a whit what any of these celebrities think, the nominees and non-nominees alike, even the ones whose careers we have enjoyed and whose personalities we have found pleasant enough presences on our popular culture, and we can’t discount that possibility that even the worst of them might by happenstance be right about whose more awful in this horrible presidential race.
Lately our tastes in entertainment and culture have run more to the “alternative” offerings, and we’ll also wind up casting a meaningless vote in that direction. Except for the exceptional case of Ronald Reagan we haven’t paid any attention to an actor’s political opinions since John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart died, and we’re not about to start now. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky is said to be a brilliant linguist, but his political opinions are pure idiocy, and the Nobel Prize-winning William Shockley was undeniably sharp about physics but as clearly batty about his white supremacism, and we don’t see how a proficiency for acting or singing or rapping or rebounding, or even such a square jaw as George Clooney posses, is a better indicator of political wisdom.
There used to be something of value to be found in America’s popular culture, back in the days where we mostly seek our alternatives, but that was in the late 19th Century when Lew Wallace had a best-seller of a novel in “Ben Hur: A Story of the Christ,” and then again in the roaring ’20s when Ramon Naverro starred in a state-of-the-silent-movie-art  version, and as recently as the year of our birth, when Charlton Heston had the title role in a remake that had sound and widescreen technicolor and thirty years of other rapid technological advances going for it. Since then all these computer generated images and other high-tech gizmos don’t seem to have improved on story-telling movie-making, and we don’t expect that “Story of the Christ” subtitle has much box-appeal these days, and the celebrities aren’t nearly so intriguing as they used to be back when they mostly kept their political opinions to themselves. That the two most recognized celebrities of the moment are pitching a Clinton mini-series sequel or a “Celebrity Apprentice” reboot suggests that by now pretty much everything is just reboots and sequels and remakes that audiences don’t want.

— Bud Norman

A Typical Day in the Popular Culture

Although we strive to keep a forward looking eye on the latest political and economic developments, when it comes to the broader culture we’re content to live in the past. Most of the authors we read are long gone, our movie watching is mostly limited to the black-and-white fare on Netflix, the television is rarely on and only tunes into the ancient reruns that air on ultra-high frequency, the stereo is constantly blasting vinyl recordings of lush pop standards and twangy honky-tonk tunes and rough garage band rants of more exuberant eras, and on a visit to an art museum we will always rush past the more recent offerings to get another look at the paintings of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent and the rest of the dead white males before the critics have completely deconstructed them. It’s a bad habit, as the latest political and economic developments are so often the dreary result of the broader culture, but our occasional forays into the new stuff are just too disheartening to continue.
Even with the most strenuous effort one cannot avoid some contact with the broader culture, though, and we’re occasionally made aware of the last celebrity contretemps. Our daily examination of the essential Drudge Report is our primary source for the latest tales of Tinseltown and other entertainment capitals, along with the headlines on the tabloid covers that are all there is to look at in a grocery store checkout line other than the tattoos and obscenity-laden t-shirts of the person ahead, so we’re at least au courant enough to know that it’s all as tawdry as ever. Matt Drudge grew up in both Washington, D.C., and Hollywood, and his famously idiosyncratic news judgement recognizes the power that both towns wield, so we’ll often peruse what he finds of interest. On Wednesday he featured a story about the upcoming release of a documentary alleging widespread sexual exploitation of children in the movie industry, some rock stars serenading the crowd at a Veterans’ Day tribute concert with some anti-war agitprop and obscenities, an urban chanteuse we’ve heard of but never heard saying that what she likes best about the president is that he’s black, and some fellow with more money than taste buying one of those kitschy Andy Warhol silk screens of Elvis Presley for $151 million. This is a typically dispiriting day’s worth of entertainment dispatches at the Drudge Report, but with the president off in China for a costume party and the Republican congressional majorities not yet installed we took some interest in the stories.
That documentary about the sexual exploitation of children in Hollywood turns out to rely at least in part on the testimony of a fellow whose lawsuit has been thrown out of court, but we’re inclined to give some credence to the rest of it. The film industry has never been known for its sexual rectitude, after all, and having watched its best and brightest rally to the defense of Roman Polanski after he anally raped a 13-year-old girl leaves us predisposed to believe the worst. Pederasty is of the few sexual behaviors that are still condemned by society, at least for now, so the documentarians have one of the last opportunities to generate a Hollywood scandal. Anything else they allege about Hollywood’s sex life will only generate yawns or envy. No matter how convincing their case they won’t generate the public outrage that followed revelations of sexual exploitation of children in the Catholic church, or even the tale of some protestant evangelist’s extramarital affair, but it would be good if they could make people a little more skeptical of Hollywood’s depictions of villainous corporate executives and repressed homosexual military men and the banality of the suburbs and the rest of the contemporary cinematic cliches.
Those rock stars shocking the squares at a Veterans’ Day are by now a cliche, as well. We’ve never heard of the fellow who let loose with the obscenities, but Bruce Springsteen was the one who unleashed the Vietnam-era protest songs, and he’s been around so long that even we have a copy of his “Born to Run” album, and it’s all too familiar to be shocking. We note that Springsteen, a supposed workingman’s hero who also goes by the name of “The Boss,” chose to entertain the all-volunteer military personnel in attendance with “Fortunate Son,” which is about draftees who didn’t get the reserve gigs that the songwriters did during the Vietnam War and is the only bad song Creedence Clearwater Revival ever did. As for that urban chanteuse who thinks the best thing about the president is that he’s black, we can only say as old white conservative Republican men who prefer Peggy Lee that she’s probably right. The story about somebody shelling out $151 million for one of Warhol’s cliches, even if it did have Elvis, was a reminder that even high culture isn’t holding the bar very high these days.
This is what the masses are taught to aspire to, though, and we’ll keep that in mind as we follow the latest political and economic developments.

— Bud Norman

Race, Ferguson, and the Movies

Hollywood used to love making movies about brave independent thinkers standing up against the mindless passions of the mob. Dipping into a rich tradition of American literature and drama they came up with such motion pictures as “The Ox Bow Incident,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Crucible,” all those “Billy Jack” flicks, and several others that we’ll later kick ourselves for failing to mention. These movies vary widely in quality, but all share an annoying self-congratulatory quality. Hollywood types like to think themselves brave independent thinkers standing up against the mindless passions of the American mob, even as they pander to its basest instincts, so the oh-so-noble protagonists of those movies always seemed to derive in some saccharine way from the filmmaker’s heroic self-image.
That was back when the mobs were still likely to be central casting southern rednecks itching for some ad hoc justice against a black man or an Asian-American or a communist or a hippie freak or a space alien or some other sort of sympathetic “other,” and the consensus of bien pensant opinion was always solidly on the side of the brave independent thinker. These days the mob is invariably of a more politically correct hue, the polite people with the right credentials are therefore obliged to go along with whatever they say, the lone dissenters are such unwashed and un-photogenic right-wing bastards as ourselves, and Hollywood seems to have moved on to zombie movies. We don’t expect to see any big-budget epics about the lynch mob brewing in Ferguson, Missouri, or any of the other recent outburst of mob mentality, and if we do the movies will have to stand the old conventions on their head.
Monday’s funeral for the unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot in Ferguson by a white police officer, as he is invariably described in press reports, was a perfectly cinematic bit of mob mania that will never portrayed as such by any Hollywood director. Among the eulogists was the exaggeratedly buffoonish Rev. Al Sharpton, whose long disgraceful history of whipping up fatal programs against Jews in particular and racial animosities against  peopler another color in general would make him a perfect stock character if only he could have been portrayed by Strother Martin, the mourners included the former filmmaker Spike Lee, who became a Hollywood darling by romanticizing race riots in his breakthrough movie “Do the Right Thing” and such blatantly anti-Semitic fare as “Mo’ Better Blues,” and all were crying out for justice. By “justice” they didn’t mean a dispassionate examination of the facts of the shooting, but rather an immediate execution of the harsh verdict that the mob had already reached based on most dubious sort of hearsay and its pre-existing prejudices.
The facts of the matter are frustratingly unclear, but the intense media coverage has already yielded reports that suggest the mob’s verdict is premature. A popular narrative that the decedent was gunned down for no possible reason other than racial animus while peacefully surrounding himself to the unfairly suspicious police has been disproved by the independent autopsy conducted by his own family, an embarrassing video of the oversized decedent manhandling a diminutive convenience store clerk for a box of Swisher Sweets cigars just before his fatal encounter with the police has effectively undermined the heart-warming tale of a college-bound young exemplar heading to his grandmother’s house, and stories about injuries to the police officer’s face add credence to his apparent explanation that the decedent was going for his gun and it was all a case of self-defense. All these facts of the matter have been muddied by the ham-fisted response of the Ferguson Police Department, which managed to offend even the most law-and-order sorts of Republicans with its heavily militarized presence during the inevitable looting, but there’s still ample reason that at this point in the plot of a movie a brave independent thinking hero might start to harbor doubts about the mob. It would make a compelling scene, especially if interposed with a montage of headlines about the race-baiting Attorney General and all the fashionable media promising to placate the mob, but Hollywood is the fashionable media and is thus unable to get the scene quite right. Nor will they ever make a convincing movie about the fraudulent accusations of rape against the Duke University lacrosse team, which had a disgraceful 88 members of that supposedly august faculty proudly sign on the lynch mob that judged them by the holy trinity of race, class, and gender of the team and its accuser rather than the scientifically incontrovertible and entirely exculpating evidence, or the case of that “white Hispanic” down in Florida who shot a young black man for no reason except that the young black man was banging the “crazy ass crackers'” head against the pavement, or any of the other recent failed attempts at demonstrating the overpowering white racism that the independent thinkers of Hollywood still desire to bravely oppose.
By far the contemporary classic account of these ginned-up racial contretemps is the great Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which somehow grows more classic with every new brouhaha. There are no heroes in that forlorn masterpiece, especially not the unexceptional young black decedent who hilariously becomes an “honor student” in all the frenzied media coverage, a peculiar feature of every racial controversy that has since come up, and the only character willing to defy the mob for principled reasons is a cranky old Jewish man who inadvertently suborns perjury in his court by the tale’s flawed protagonist. Hollywood completely ruined the book, of course, and changed the cranky old Jewish man to a more heroic black woman, but we suppose this is as close as we’ll get to a new take on the old brave independent thinking hero standing up to the mindless passions of the mob genre. It’s a shame, because we always liked those movies for all their self-congratulatory flaws and we need them more than ever.

— Bud Norman

Of Espionage and Press Releases

We’ve watched a lot of cloak-and-dagger movies in our day, and like to think ourselves savvy to all the conventions of the espionage genre, but we’ve never encountered a plot twist where a Central Intelligence Agency operative’s top secret cover was compromised by his name and position being included on a White House press release. Such broad farce is too far-fetched for even most the irreverent spy-movie spoof, and can only occur in real life.
Yes, a White House press release handed out during President Barack Obama’s recent photo-op with the troops in Afghanistan did indeed identify the CIA chief of station who has been running the intelligence-gathering and drone-warfare the enemy has found so vexing. The top-secret spook was apparently among the guests of honor at the photo-op, no doubt conspicuous by his black tie and tuxedo among all the camouflage and the president’s butch bomber jacket, and somebody in the White House thought he therefore deserved mention to the press. A Washington Post reporter thought this odd and potentially dangerous, but only after his story had been filed and quickly published on the internet, and by the time he drew the government’s attention to the matter the name was available to any of the vexed enemy with a working internet connection. Another White House spokesman assured that the White House chief of staff had asked the newly installed White House counsel to look into the matter and make recommendations on “how the administration can improve processes and make sure something like this does not happen again,” and anyone screenwriting yet another spy-movie spoof will be hard-pressed to improve on that.
That Post reporter deserves some credit for his belated realization of his security breach and bringing it to the government’s attention, and his paper redacted the operative’s name from subsequent editions and most American publications have also properly declined to repeat the name, but otherwise most of the media have done their usual dreadful job on the story. Almost none have given it the same outraged attention that was given to the naming of CIA worker Valerie Plame, who wasn’t a covert agent at the time and who was named by an associate of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the only Bush administration official that the media didn’t want to destroy, in an apparently innocent effort to explain why Plame’s husband had been sent off to the Middle East to file a much-publicized and highly-dubious report about his half-assed investigation into charges that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to acquire yellowcake uranium. The press went wild for the story, hoping it would lead instead to the revelation that the administration had deliberately endangered a brave spy’s life in order to discredit a noble whistle-blower, and they kept telling it even after it fell apart. The Washington Post even revived it in the account of the Afghanistan press release, falsely recalling “when former CIA operative Valerie Plame was exposed as officials of the Bush administration sought to discredit her husband, a former ambassador and fierce critic of the decision to invade Iraq.” The Los Angeles Times got it even more wrong, stating that Plame was identified by Scooter Libby, a former assistant to the vice-president who was convicted of a lie about the non-crime during the multi-million dollar investigation of the matter.
A desire to revive even false memories of the bad old Bush days is understandable, though, given how very inept the current administration looks. The naming of the CIA operative ruined the fine optics of the president looking so very Commander in Chiefy in that butch bomber jacket, so the press was almost obliged to throw in some compensatory Bush-bashing, no matter how inaccurate, and we expect the story will fade away before that special counsel fellow makes any recommendations. The bigger story is the president’s latest schedule for bugging out of Afghanistan, which will have the boys back home just in time for the next presidential election, and no one seems especially concerned that it might be handled just as ineptly as the administration’s public relations. Even such friendly publications as the aforementioned Los Angeles Times are starting to a notice a pattern of incompetence by the administration, from shovel ready jobs that aren’t quite shovel ready to crashed web sites to bankrupt solar panel companies to a gun-running operation for Mexican drug gangs to misspelled “reset” buttons that were going to charm the Russians into good global citizenship, not to mention Benghazi and the Veterans Administration and countless other examples, so a suddenly-endangered CIA operative is another embarrassment the press would rather not dwell on.
We wish that compromised CIA spook well, and hope he fares at least as well as Valerie Plame. She got a glamorous Vanity Fair photo spread and a Hollywood movie out of it, but this fellow will be lucky to get a book deal. His story is too far-fetched for a movie, even if you could get Will Ferrell or some other over-the-top comic to star, and it makes the wrong president look bad.

— Bud Norman

Radical Islam and Radical Chic

Radical Islam seems to be losing its radical chic, judging by two stories in the news lately. One story is set in the swankest spot in Beverly Hills, the other deep in the even more treacherous jungles of Nigeria, but both illustrate what it takes to at long last rile the modern world.
The brouhaha in Beverly Hills concerns the famously opulent Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, which is an arm of the Brunei government, which is run by the absolute authority of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who recently imposed sharia in the country. Sharia is the Islamic code of law proscribed by the Koran and Hadith, and although the interpretations vary from country to country it is always a harsh system by contemporary western standards, with the Brunei version featuring fines and jail times for failing to attend Friday prayer services, flogging and the severing of limbs for property crimes, and death by stoning for such crimes as adultery and homosexuality. Those final provisions proved especially offensive to the sensibilities of Hollywood show folk, who have now vowed to boycott the hotel until Brunei changes it laws or the property has a new owner.
We consider it unlikely that the Sultan of Brunei will abandon his apparently ardent faith to curry favor with the infidel celebrities of Tinseltown, but he might be forced to sell the hotel. The hotel’s value derives largely from its reputation as a gathering place for the beautiful people, and they seem genuinely determined to stay away. Famed talk show comedienne and lesbian Ellen DeGeneres, who is is as famous for being a lesbian as she is for being a talk show comedienne, has announced she won’t be back “until this is resolved.” Kim Kardashian, who is famous for some reason or another that we cannot discern, has cancelled a planned wedding reception, although she’ll probably have plenty of others there if new owners are found. Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno even compared the Sultan to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, which is about brutal an insult as a Los Angeleno can muster these days. Such unfavorable publicity is bad for business, and although it won’t do much for the unfortunate folks in Brunei who are late for the call to prayer or shoplift a candy bar or engage in homosexual activities it will no doubt have a soothing effect on the consciences of America’s entertainers.
Radical Islam has been gaining an even more uncool reputation far away in Nigeria, where the Boko Haram terrorist organization has kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls. Boko Haram has been murdering thousands of Christians and other varieties of infidels for many years without arousing the outrage of any well-intentioned westerners, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and various high-minded do-gooder groups even resisted its inclusion on the official list of designated terror organizations until recently, but the kidnappings have so outraged the bien pensant that even Clinton is now sending out indignant “tweets.” First Lady Michelle Obama summed up the disapproval in her Mother’s Day address to the nation, in which she neglected to name the kidnappers or their religious ideology or even their intention to sell the girls into slavery but instead dwelled on the fact that the girls were being denied an education. “And what happened in Nigeria was not an isolated incident,” the First Lady explained, leaving one to wonder if the same sort of thing might be happening right here in America if any more of those Tea Party types with their War on Women get elected to Congress. Her husband has helpfully provided the use of drones and other military assistance in getting the girls released, so her outrage might prove more effective than mere “tweeting,” but it remains to be seen if the Islamic world at large will embrace feminism.
We wish these newly outraged activists well in their efforts, and welcome them to the ongoing struggle against radical Islam, but we’d like to see them broaden their perspective. The treatment of women and homosexuals throughout most of the Muslim world is appalling, and warrants the western world’s condemnation and fierce resistance, but surely the intolerance of Christianity and Judaism and free speech and representative democracy also deserve mention in the casus belli. The modern liberal is ill-placed to condemn assaults on Christianity and Judaism and free speech and representative democracy, and finds it more useful in domestic politics to focus on homosexuality and women’s rights, but now is not the time to jettison the old values. The newly outraged find themselves in a clash of civilizations, and reluctantly on the side of the one they’ve been hoping to undermine, and it can only be defended on the basis of all its virtues and not just its latest enthusiasms.

— Bud Norman