Fanfare for a Death Scene

Fanfare for a Death SceneAndrea mentioned watching the beginning of a film in which Telly Savalas played a Chinese man, Fanfare for a Death Scene. Well, I had to see that! To me, Savalas will always been the Tootsie Pop sucking, “Who loves ya, baby?” spouting police detective in Kojak. I’ve seen him in other things, so I knew he could act. But I was expecting that his role in this film would be a racist outrage that was good kitschy fun.

The film itself was made for television in 1964. It’s a Cold War artifact where the main character, Stryker (played by Richard Egan), is convinced that all our concern about the Soviet Union and Red China is misplaced. There is actually a Mongol leader who is, “The smartest, most dangerous, most vicious man in the world today.” His name is Elchidai Khan. Cue the dramatic music. Khan, of course, is played by Telly Savalas. And other than giving him an outrageous Genghis Khan mustache, they don’t do much to make him look Mongolian. Overall, it’s a downright positive portrayal.

Khan is presented as a demigod. He has video cameras planted seemingly everywhere, including Stryker’s palatial home. So he is always a half dozen steps ahead of Stryker and the American government. Most of the time we see Khan is as he watches what is going on in the plot via video. He manages to be defeated at the end, but only in his efforts to get the schizophrenic nuclear scientist (played with one-note intensity by Burgess Meredith). Khan, of course, is miles, if not nations, away.

And given this ending, I wonder whether Fanfare for a Death Scene wasn’t intended to be the pilot for a series. I can well see why it wasn’t picked up. The good guys are all dull as dishwater. Today, they might make the show focusing on the bad guys. That would be pretty interesting. Khan spends pretty much all of his time laughing to himself about the chess game that he is clearly winning against the west. He has two beautiful and dangerous women around him too. One of them is played by Tina Louise, Ginger Grant on Gilligan’s Island. And it wasn’t until seeing this movie that I realized just how beautiful she was.

The Stryker character works well enough. But I was especially struck with how the writers decided to make the audience realize he was a good guy. In addition to being a secret agent, he is the head of a company. And speaking to his managers, he said, “Four new plants means 4,000 new jobs… Gentlemen, our job is to provide more jobs for more people… You take care of the working men and they take care of production.” (As you can see, much of the dialog in the film is weak.) Can you imagine that kind of pandering to the working class today? Now it would just be assumed that a rich man was good—as long as he didn’t do something like kick a dog.[1] Hell, corporate raider Gordon Gekko was meant to be a villain in 1987, yet most Americans saw him as a hero.

But the film is otherwise hopeless. The only reason to watch it is to see Telly Savalas’ Mongol lord. And you can see an almost nine minute long scene if you you skip to 47:15. It is quite charming. As for the remaining hour: don’t waste your time.

An intelligent enemy is better than a foolish friend —Elchidai Khan

Update (16 April 2014 7:24 pm)

I first started writing about the film because the trumpet has a central part in it. And there is a famous trumpet player in it who I immediately recognized as Al Hirt. It’s actually surprising that I recognized him, because I’m not a huge fan. But he was great:


[1] My understanding is that this would make him a “dog villain.” The idea is that the alpha villain comes into town and kills the sheriff. The beta villain comes into town and kills the deputy. The third villain (more or less representative of the rest of the gang), comes into town and kicks a dog. To most people, that would make the dog villain the worst of the three.

Why Republicans Are Against Voting Rights Today

GOP Still Against DemocracyAri Berman is an excellent political writer over at The Nation. And on Monday, he asked a really good question, Republicans Used to Support Voting Rights—What Happened? He looked at at a new book by Todd Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come. And he provided a little rundown of the Republican Party. He noted that in the past a number of prominent Republicans were big advocates for civil and voting rights. But aggravatingly, he never answers his own question, “What happened?”

Luckily, I already know the answer. I addressed it last year, I Love Democracy. Conservatives of all stripes have always had deep unease with the idea of democracy. This is due to the fact that conservatism is an elite political philosophy. And as such, the philosophy is deeply unpopular. Have you ever looked at those two-dimensional graphs of political ideology? The opposite of “libertarian” is “populism.” The conservative approach to this unpleasant fact is first to manipulate popular opinion. (See: What’s the Matter With Kansas?) And their second approach is to stop the poor from voting.

I Love Democracy

Last year, Corey Robin noticed a very telling bit of conservative apologetics, I Am Not a Racist. I Just Hate Democracy. In The New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus wrote, Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to be the Party of White People. In it, he argued that the modern conservative movement had borrowed liberally from the arguments of the 19th century slavery apologists, most especially John C Calhoun. Unsurprisingly, modern conservatives were not too keen on this being pointed out.

So Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru took to National Review to defend themselves. Now, you know how I feel: the conservative movement is deeply committed to racism. It is about all they’ve got. But I understand that actual conservatives (especially smart ones like Ramesh Ponnuru) have to avoid seeing that. But in their response they provide what Robin calls “a fascinating moment of right-wing self-revelation.” In arguing that they really aren’t racist, they take it as given that being against democracy is no big deal:

Now Tanenhaus doesn’t want you to think he is saying that today’s conservatives are just a bunch of racists. Certainly not. He is up to something much more subtle than that. “This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.” With that to-be-sure throat-clearing out of the way, Tanenhaus continues with an essay that makes sense only as an attempt to identify racism as the core of conservatism.

They are saying that they would have no problem with Tanenhaus if he simply called them elitist who are against democracy. They don’t see the criticism in saying that they “resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.” That’s astounding.

The reason that the 1960s had some prominent Republicans who supported civil and voting rights is very simple: there were liberals in the Republican Party. The conservatives in both parties at that time were not keen on voting rights. And all those conservatives are now in the Republican Party. They aren’t for expansive civil rights because they were never for them. Party labels don’t always matter. But today, “Republican” and “conservative” are synonymous.

Libertarians and Economics

Libertarian Pets

Over at Daily Kos last month, gjohnsit wrote, Libertarianism and What Adam Smith Actually Said. It doesn’t actually have that much to say about Adam Smith other than that libertarians have turned him into a kind of demigod who can’t be questioned. As I wrote before, “If Marx is the opium of the socialist, Smith is the opium of the capitalist.” There isn’t much grappling with the thinking of the old master, just acceptance as though God had been whispering in his ear.

The biggest problem with the modern day Adam Smith worshipers is that they don’t know what he actually wrote. In particular, the libertarians claim that markets are perfect when Smith never said they were. But even if he had, The Wealth of Nations was written almost 250 years ago. It represented an important advance on the state of economic knowledge. But here’s the key: the state of economic knowledge was abysmal at that time. Libertarians are very much like people who think that knowledge of mechanics stopped with Newton. Oh, wait: some libertarians do think that!

But I was struck with one thing that gjohnsit wrote:

American libertarians generally believe that if you work hard you will succeed, and if you don’t work hard then you will fail and deserve to fail. Simple enough, right?

However, if you run into bad luck and something happens to you, American libertarians will also be the first to tell you the truism of “life isn’t fair.”

Now, this is not really a contradiction. But it does get to the heart of libertarian demographics. The philosophy is one that is only embraced by the winners of society who see almost no chance of their becoming losers. They are very much third-basers: people who are blind to their own privilege. So in their minds, they are submitting to the same kind of social Darwinism as everyone else.

What they don’t realize is that even if the society were perfectly equitable in opportunity distribution, they have already tipped the playing field in their own favor. Libertarians tend to be young, (reasonably) intelligent, and energetic people. Libertarianism is not a philosophy that calls out to people with muscular dystrophy. So libertarians skirt John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.” The question is: would you pick libertarianism as your philosophy if you didn’t know how smart and healthy you would be? My guess is: no.

The reason I guess that is because libertarianism is the philosophy of the winners. Look who embraces it: people who are already rich and people who think they are certain to be rich (or at least comfortable). Gjohnsit was quite correct when he wrote, “[Libertarianism] isn’t a political philosophy, it’s a personal one.” So the question is never, “What is best for everyone?” It is, “What is best for me?” And in this case, “me” is one of society’s winners who will be doing well regardless.

And just look at what happens to the libertarian champions when they become losers. During the 2008 financial crisis, the Masters of the Universe went begging to the government for a handout. I don’t blame them. Theory is all well and good, but when practical matters are going to bankrupt you, something needs to be done. But what is blameworthy is turning on the government the moment you get bailed out. And they use the same logic to do so, “I was just using the financial tools that were available to me. If there hadn’t been a government, there would have been some other way because I’m a smart guy. I’m a Master of the Universe!”

Economics is by its very nature a practical science. But libertarians aren’t interested in practical results except in as much as they affect the specific libertarian. This is why it is so aggravating to talk to libertarians. They will make all kinds of claims about the utopia that society would be if only everyone became a libertarian. But when you demonstrate that their ideas don’t work in practice, they retreat into theory. Not having a minimum wage would make life worse for everyone except the wealthy? Well, we should still do it because anyone should be allowed to make any contract they wish! And on and on.

So it doesn’t matter than libertarians don’t actually read Adam Smith. It isn’t about economics. It isn’t about politics. It is about freeing themselves from any limitations. And they don’t realize that their own status in life is dependent upon all kinds of limitations put on other people.

Henry Mancini

Henry ManciniOn this day in 1924, the great arranger-composer Henry Mancini was born. In some ways, he was a hack like all movie composers. He pumped out work at a furious pace. He recorder over 90 albums. He was nominated for 18 Academy Awards, four of which he won. And he was nominated for 72 Grammy Awards, twenty of which he won. Compositionally, he was known for his clever melodies. And that says something for a profession that has moved steadily away from a focus on that aspect of music.

What I most admire him for is his arranging. All professional arrangers do a good job with creating interesting harmonies and effective counterpoint. But what separates the professionals from the masters is how they combine the timbres of the various instruments. Mancini was particularly good in his use of woodwinds. The flute is especially prominent here. As an instrument, it is kind of boring—lacking a great deal of character. Maybe because he played the flute, he just tried harder. But the extensive use of the woodwinds gives his arrangements more style than the standard saxophone and brass section provides.

Because of the breadth of his work, we can’t really appreciate Mancini with just a single song. So here is a playlist of fifteen pieces. They aren’t all by him, but they are all his arrangements. The list does not include the “Pink Panther Theme” or the “Baby Elephant Walk.” But you’ve probably heard them more than enough for a lifetime. Or maybe not.

Happy birthday Henry Mancini!