Hogan's Alley

Friday, December 29, 2006

2006 Movie Top Ten Lists 1.0

'Tis the season for the publication of 10 Best Lists for just about every form of commercial art. As a film junkie, I confess to a peculiar fascination with the End-of-movie-season rituals. As it does each year, the ritual begins with the announcement of the Golden Globe Awards nominations by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

The second rite in the annual sacramental honoring of the humble efforts of the movie industry begins to appear about this time each year. It is the naming of Top Ten lists, and occasionally Worst Ten lists. Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars has a handy set of links to those released so far.

As for my opinion, because of the industry's annual insistence on holding back the best movies until December, I have not yet had the opportunity to see many of the likely candidates, such as Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Dreamgirls, etc. So for now I'll hold off and stick in my two cents worth in a few weeks when I've seen all the candidates.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Peter Boyle, R.I.P.

Among the many great roles Peter Boyle played in his career was the Monster in Young Frankenstein. Enjoy this clip in memory of Boyle's gifts to his audiences. Whatever you do, don't miss the last line of the clip delivered by Gene Hackman.

Sen. Tim Johnson's Stroke

The AP is reporting that Sen. Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, had a stroke today while conducting a phone interview with reporters. AP raises the prospect of Johnson having to step down and So. Dakota's Republican Governor, Mike Rounds, appointing a Republican in his stead, thereby making the Senate split 50-50.

Before anyone on the right starts to celebrate the intervention of God spoiling Chuck Schumer's squeaking victory in November's Senate elections, let's consider the medical possibilities. The AP story reports that Johnson stuttered while on the phone, not the sign of a massive stroke. Presumably he was immediately rushed to the hospital where they would no doubt have administered the superior clot busting drugs now available. Surely he will receive the most up to date treatment and rehabilitation available.

Based on this information, it seems most likely that Johnson will be able to return to his office within a few months. His resignation seems highly unlikely to me.


Friday, December 08, 2006

The Real Lesson Of Iraq

The always intelligent and stimulating Shelby Steele has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on our failure in Iraq. Steele continues to advocate a full victory in Iraq by the application of many more troops. In the end, I fear that although that was the outcome we should have sought, it is now beyond our grasp. The truth is that we now cannot produce several hundred thousand additional troops there, or anywhere else.

Nonetheless, Steele provides an excellent analysis of America's post-Cold War status as a conflicted superpower, the world's only one.

Why don't we know the meaning of this war and our reasons for fighting it? I think the answer begins in the awkward fact that America is now the world's uncontested superpower. If this fate has its advantages, it also brings an unasked-for degree of dominion in the world. This is essentially a passive dominion that has settled on a rather isolationist nation, yet it makes America into something of a sheriff. Whether the problem is Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea or Darfur, America gets the call. Thus our youth are often asked to go to war more out of international responsibility than national necessity. This is a hard fate for a free and prosperous citizenry to accept--the loss of sons and daughters to a kind of magnanimity. Today our antiwar movement is essentially an argument with this fate, a rejection of superpower responsibility.

And this fear of responsibility is what makes us ambivalent toward the idea of victory. Because victory is hegemonic, it mimics colonialism. A complete American victory in Iraq would put that nation--at least for a time--entirely under American power and sovereignty. We would in fact "own" the society as a colony. In today's international moral climate this would both undermine the legitimacy of our war effort and make an ongoing demand on our blood and treasure. If we are already a good ways down this road, complete victory would only take us further.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have failed to completely win this war? Since World War II, American leaders--left and right--have worked out of an impossible double bind: They cannot afford to win the wars they fight. Thus the postmodern American war in which the world's greatest power deconstructs its own motives for fighting until losing becomes a better option than winning.

This may be the central truth about ourselves that will emerge from the Iraq fiasco. We as a nation are unwilling to go to all out war aimed at winning and imposing peace and democracy on third world countries.

Take, for example the mess in Darfur. Imagine us completely out of Iraq and the drumbeat about the awful genocide in Darfur still going on. Let us further assume that the best diplomatic efforts, realpolitik meister Jim Baker for example, proves unable to obtain a unified world view that firm military intervention is appropriate. Would and should the United States unilaterally intervene to stop the genocide? Could we do it in the face of the inevitable comparisons with previous colonial regimes in Africa? Could we successfully stop the slaughter in the long term if we are unable or unwilling to take total control of Sudan for the time it would take (a decade or more?) to transform that state into a peaceful democracy in which ethnic and religious differences are expressed in the political process, not via armed conflict? I seriously doubt it.

Like it or not, this is who we are in America in the 21st Century. Americans were fine with the effort in Afghanistan. We had been struck and were justified in striking back. But interventions that are not the result of direct provocation or attack will be another matter. Beyond all the arguments against the war in Iraq, Americans disliked most the notion of the United States as the bully with the big stick, poking our noses into matters that had not yet directly affected us. We want to be left alone and to intervene abroad only via our intelligence services and economic agents. Not via means that appear on the nightly news.

Future Presidents had better recognize this before decrying any foreign injustices. For most Americans, they will, sadly, be none of our business. It will take genuine leadership, of a kind we have not seen in decades, to make us a nation capable of reaching for the role for good we could be capable of assuming.

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Bugging Out, Good For The Middle East?

Tom Friedman has now come around to the view, stated in today's column, hidden behind the Timesselect firewall, that pulling out of Iraq within ten months will not only be what the people of America apparently want, but will in fact have a salutary effect on Iraq and the entire Middle East.

Key quote:

The only hope of moving the factions inside Iraq, not to mention Syria and Iran, toward reconciliation is if we have leverage over them, which we now lack. The currency of Middle East politics is pain. And right now, all the pain is being inflicted on us and on Iraqi civilians. Only if we tell all the players that we are leaving might we create a different balance of pain and therefore some hope for a diplomatic deal. Trying to do diplomacy without the threat of pain is like trying to play baseball without a bat.

Yes, yes, I know, the conventional wisdom is that if the U.S. sets a date to leave Iraq the whole Middle East will explode in a Shiite-Sunni war. Maybe, but maybe not.

Let’s play this out. What happens if we set a date to leave? The war in Iraq will get worse, but for how long? Right now our troops are providing a floor under the civil war that allows some parties to behave outrageously or make impossible demands — because they know that we won’t let things spin totally out of control. Would they behave more cautiously if they knew they had to pay retail for their madness? I’d like to find out.

Well, that's a hell of a gamble with the lives of Iraqis, who we promised a very different outcome three and a half years ago. Lest we forget, the vast majority in Iraq voted their hopes for a unified democratic nation. The majority do not live lives tied inexorably to their religious or tribal faction. In the large cities they have lived for years often intermarried in mixed neighborhoods. All we can see from this distance is the small percentage who live and die by their tribal connections and who have found, through the application of terror, the means to provoke these ancient hatreds. If we leave, they have no reason to stop the madness. Those criminals do not see it as madness. To them it is a tactic, and one that has produced positive results. These factional madmen have small armies, funding streams, burgeoning bureaucracies and growing institutions they direct. Why give that up once the Americans are gone?

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Why Women Aren't Funny

In a welcome break from our common obsession with things political, our transatlantic agent provocateur, Christopher Hitchens, has spun off a piece in Vanity Fair that pokes a stick at the notion that there is in fact humor inequality between the sexes. In his usual thoughtful, well written manner, Hitchens enlists the aid of a Stanford study, interviews with Fran Leibowitz and Nora Ephron and chapter and verse from Mr. Kipling, to support his analysis.

His central point is:

Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: "He's really quite cute, and he's kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he's so funny … " (If you yourself are a guy, and you know the man in question, you will often have said to yourself, "Funny? He wouldn't know a joke if it came served on a bed of lettuce with sauce béarnaise.") However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: "She's a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make 'em laugh."

Now, why is this? Why is it the case?, I mean. Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.

If that truism has peaked your interest, Hitchens posits that the core of the humor difference between genders lies in the fact that:

Men are overawed, not to say terrified, by the ability of women to produce babies...It gives women an unchallengeable authority. And one of the earliest origins of humor that we know about is its role in the mockery of authority. Irony itself has been called "the glory of slaves." So you could argue that when men get together to be funny and do not expect women to be there, or in on the joke, they are really playing truant and implicitly conceding who is really the boss. The ancient annual festivities of Saturnalia, where the slaves would play master, were a temporary release from bossdom. A whole tranche of subversive male humor likewise depends on the notion that women are not really the boss, but are mere objects and victims...

In other words, for women the question of funniness is essentially a secondary one. They are innately aware of a higher calling that is no laughing matter. Whereas with a man you may freely say of him that he is lousy in the sack, or a bad driver, or an inefficient worker, and still wound him less deeply than you would if you accused him of being deficient in the humor department.

If I am correct about this, which I am, then the explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women. Men have to pretend, to themselves as well as to women, that they are not the servants and supplicants. Women, cunning minxes that they are, have to affect not to be the potentates.

I am struck by the fact that in my personal life I have known only one truly funny woman, my late and much beloved aunt. It is an interesting coda to Hitchens piece that Auntie was unable to bear children. I always took her ability to rise above that tragedy and her life long battle with the pain of arthritis to achieve marvelous flights of humor as a mark of personal greatness.

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