Ashton Kutcher Works Hard for the Money

Ashton KutcherMy colleague Richard Barry over at The Reaction brought my attention to a little speech that Ashton Kutcher gave last week at the Teen Choice Awards. He told the teens (and all of us, really, because Kutcher is just that kind of a guy), “I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a steppingstone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job.” I’m so inspired that I want to drop an anvil on my foot.

Richard brings up the speech because the conservative media are all a twitter that Kutcher is making a “conservative” statement. As he notes, it is anything but. Hard work is not a partisan issue. But I would go further than that. If anything, hard work is a liberal issue. The conservative movement may talk the talk but it doesn’t walk the walk. It is all about depriving opportunity from the poor and giving huge handouts to the rich who are never allowed to fail. See, for example, TARP.

But I see Kutcher’s statement in a less positive light. He had advantages that many others do not—and I’m not even talking about his boyish good looks. He was brought up in a middle class household when that meant something. It certainly wasn’t a perfect childhood, but I suspect that Kutcher has put the most negative light on it. His brother did have health problems and his parents did finally divorce when he was in his late teens. But it wasn’t a dysfunctional household by any means. What’s more, he did not suffer economically.

During his senior year of high school, Kutcher burglarized that high school with the express intention of stealing money. He was caught. But the authorities didn’t exactly throw the book at him. He was given probation. I generally think that a young black man would have gotten something more. Regardless, it did not stop Kutcher from being able to go off to college. Although he claimed that the burglary straightened him out, once in college he was back to his wild ways. The only job we can see that he did was some summer work that it looks like his mother got him. He then didn’t go on to graduate college. Instead, he won a modeling competition and went pro.

What exactly it is that Mr. Kutcher has to teach teens about the value of hard work is not clear to me. Did he not quit some temp waiting job until he got his modeling contract? It is not surprising when stars think their lives have been solely the result of hard work. But in his specific case, it seems odd. After all, he paternal twin brother Michael had a heart transplant when he was just 13 years old. That ought to make it pretty clear that he’s at least lucky in that way. And that ought to make him realize that he was born with that face. And if it hadn’t been for that, he’d be lucky to be working at some Procter & Gamble factory right now.

Long Before Your Mother Was Born: the Songs of Leon Redbone

Leon RedboneOn this day in 1728, the Swiss mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert was born. He proved that Pi was an irrational number. Joseph-Michel, the older of the Montgolfier Brothers was born in 1740. They invented the hot air balloon. The “Father of Modern Chemistry” Antoine Lavoisier was born in 1743. Playwright Zona Gale was born in 1874. The great painter Rufino Tamayo was born in 1899. It is hard to describe his style, but his work reminds me of Paul Klee—only better.

Novelist Christopher Isherwood was born in 1904. Mother Teresa was born in 1910. Cartoonist Brant Parker was born in 1920. He created and drew The Wizard of Id—which wasn’t bad. Film director Pyotr Todorovsky was born in 1925. Jazz musician Peter Appleyard was born in 1928 and only died last month. Here he is doing “Tangerine” (it’s really good):

Politician Geraldine Ferraro was born in 1935. The voice of movie trailers, the man who brought you, “In a world where…” Don LaFontaine was born in 1940.

Maureen Tucker of the Velvet Underground is 63 today. The less I say about her, the better. I’ve already gotten a lot of grief when I wrote about her before. Puzzle master Will Shortz is 61.

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis is 53. I remember hearing that when Jay Leno first asked him to be the house band for the Tonight Show, Marsalis turned him down. When he told the band about it, they made him go back and take the offer. I can see how this was. Marsalis was the star of the show; for him, the touring was probably nice. But the guys in the band liked the idea of a good paying gig where they could go home every night. Anyway, Marsalis didn’t last long. I don’t think he liked Leno much. I can’t blame him.

Very funny actor Melissa McCarthy is 43. And both Macaulay Culkin and the new Jame T Kirk, Chris Pine, are 33.

The day, however, belongs to the great singer and guitarist Leon Redbone who is 64 today. Look, I don’t have any particular reason for giving the day to him. I just really like his work. His voice is great, but mostly I like the old songs that he sings. Here he is doing “Lazy River” and “Mr. Jelly Roll Baker”:

Happy birthday Leon Redbone!

Continued Iraq War Apologia

Lawrence WilkersonSpeaking of how presidents and pundits keep spinning us into war, I just fond this from February: Norman Solomon had a debate with Lawrence Wilkerson on the tenth anniversary of Colin Powell’s infamous UN speech on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. I knew it would be good. Wilkerson is some kind of liberal hero now because he admits that he and Powell totally screwed up on that speech and more generally in the Bush White House. My position is different. I’m glad that both men admit that they were wrong, but that is hardly enough to turn them into heroes.

In the debate, Solomon is ruthless. And frankly, Wilkerson deserves it. Most of his apology really comes down to, “We were wrong, but who could have known?! No one knew!” Well, that’s not true. I, for one, knew. And then he claims that he didn’t know at the time that Bush and Cheney were hell bent on going to war. I don’t buy that for a second. A person would have to be clueless to not know what his superiors were doing. What’s more, in Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke makes clear that Powell knew what the administration was all about even on 9/11.

Of course, Wilkerson couldn’t justify the worst thing he and Powell did if he didn’t claim that they had no idea that Bush was determined to go to war. Right before the speech, CIA director George Tenet shows up with the smoking gun: a senior al-Qaeda member admitted that Iraq was training the group in the use of chemical weapons. Even under the best of circumstances, you’d have to say, “Really?!” Outside of a movie, any reasonable person would be skeptical. But not Wilkerson-Powell! They just slammed that bit of “evidence” into the speech and ran with it.

Solomon didn’t even talk about any of this. His main point was that lots of people thought the case for war was trumped up. And Wilkerson is either disingenuous or stupid. Regardless, he isn’t a person we should be celebrating.

The debate descended into a lot of them shouting at each other. But it is nice to see someone in the military called on his shit for once. And Wilkerson’s response was fairly weak. Basically, he claimed that no one on the inside could have known anything. At one point he complained that Solomon is in the wrong because his group never met with Powell’s staff. Solomon seemed taken aback by this. It doesn’t seem credible that Powell’s office would have met with Solomon’s group; they would have dismissed it as a knee-jerk anti-war group. Regardless, just look at all the good that was done by the groups they did listen to.

We Must Act in Syria Just Like Always

Syrian FighterSo John Kerry wants to get medieval on Syria’s ass. Isn’t this the guy who was so prominent in Vietnam Veterans Against the War after he came home from Vietnam? Look: I’m not accusing him of hypocrisy. No. I’m accusing him of being a human. And an American human at that.

According to the Washington Post, “Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is ‘undeniable,’ and that ‘this international norm cannot be violated without consequences.'”

Where have I heard this kind of thing before? Oh, I know: during the lead up to the Iraq War! Remember when Colin Power told the United Nations, “We know that Saddam’s son, Qusay, ordered the removal of all prohibited weapons from Saddam’s numerous palace complexes”? You see: we knew that Saddam had WMD! Because we always know whatever is convenient to justify doing what we want to do.

But here’s the thing about Kerry: I’m sure he believes what he’s saying just like he believed that Vietnam was a bad idea 43 years ago. Because wars always sound like a great idea going in. And they always ends as at best a mixed blessing. Mostly, people look back on wars and wonder why we got into them in the first place.

None of this is to take away from the human tragedy that is going on in Syria. But my problem is we don’t act with any idea of improving the situation. What it seems like to me is that there are certain powerful people in the government who really want to go to war in Syria. They’ve been pushing a long time. And now that there is some indication that Syria has used chemical weapons, the rush is on.

The problem, of course, is what Digby just published, The Crying Wolf Syndrome. We are not so good at making decisions during stressful times like this. So the facts don’t matter. We follow the path that is being pushed hardest. And those who are pushing the hardest are those who want to go to war.

It may turn out that Syria is using chemical weapons against its people. It may turn out that they aren’t. But I feel we will almost certainly decide before we know. And then we will be attacking to be attacking—with little thought to what the final resolution will be. Except, of course, for everyone saying, “Why did we even go to war there?”

Isabelle Eberhardt

Isabelle EberhardtMy friend Bob introduced me to a 1991 film Isabelle Eberhardt. It is kind of like “Isabelle of Arabia.” It tells the story of the real life title character and the end of her life as a journalist and advocate for the people of Algeria during the French occupation at the beginning of the 20th century. Eberhardt was an amazing woman. Her mother was an aristocrat and her father was the older children’s tutor. By the time the film starts, Eberhardt has long been a convert to Islam and most of the time after that involves her fighting with the French occupation forces.

Fundamentally, the film is about the disintegration of innocence. At the beginning of the film, her father tells her, “Never lose your innocence.” But it isn’t like Eberhadrt ever compromises hers ideals. It is just that self-knowledge is the opposite of innocence. And by the end of her short life (she died at 27), Eberhardt seems more resigned to the tragedy that is unfolding in Algeria than anything else.

Still, the film is not a downer. Eberhardt maintains her plucky exterior throughout, even as she seems to be dying on the inside. She is the kind of person who we all wish we would be in that situation but know that we would not. So if you are the kind of person who thinks that only results matter, then the film is ultimately depressing—even though Eberhardt does win important battles. But if you think that the struggle is what matters—what makes us human beings—then the film is inspiring. I am in the latter camp and I just ordered a book of her writing.

The production of the film is interesting. For this kind of film, it was made for almost nothing: a couple million dollars. And it shows. It looks like it was shot on 16 mm (maybe Super-16). It doesn’t look like they had more than a basic Lowel lighting kit for any of the indoor shoots. But what the production lacked in equipment, they made up for in personnel. The camera work and direction, for example, are all great. The art department did a good job of using locations. And the acting is without exception fantastic. The film doesn’t bother with accents, which may bother some. I don’t see the problem myself. The actors squeeze every drop of drama from every scene.

I do have a bit of a problem with the screenplay. As it stands, it is just fine. My problem is with the decision to dramatize the last 5 years of Eberhardt’s life. As a result of this, it is necessarily episodic. Of the other hand, I don’t see how the arc of her life could be shown. A more entertaining film could have been made by focusing on a full blown war she prevented. But it wouldn’t have told us much about her. But there is definitely room to make other films about this fascinating woman.

The film ends with Eberhardt’s death due to a flash flood that destroys her home. Right before the walls crumble, she says, “I want to live!” It is a movie cliche, of course. But in the context of her life, it is a fitting epithet of her. Because there is little doubt that in her 27 years, she lived a great deal more than those of us pushing twice that age.


The film does not appear to be available on DVD or even VHS. But it is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.