The Daily Show Fails on IRS—Again

The Daily ShowThe Tuesday night, I was very displeased with The Daily Show. Jon Stewart discussed the IRS non-scandal. I thought it was very typical of his occasional hit jobs on the Democrats, which he does apparently because he feels the need to keep his credibility. Although truly, it wasn’t so much a hit job on the Democrats, but rather the government. It is just that the Democrats are the only party that admits to believing we should have a government. I am so tired of this.

There is bureaucracy in any institution that gets large enough. This means that there are bureaucracies in government, business, religion, even family. I don’t like it when people claim that there is some big problem with the government bureaucracy. Over my lifetime, I have seen the government get better and better at serving its citizenry. At the same time, as we have seen corporations get bigger and bigger, I have seen their bureaucracies get worse and worse. And there is literally nothing that any of us can do, unlike in the case of the government where we actually have representatives.

Last night on The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell saw the segment differently than I did. But then he went on to mention a couple of things that Stewart notably left out. Watch the segment below, because it really is rather good. There was one thing that really annoyed me in The Daily Show segment that O’Donnell didn’t mention. This was Stewart’s offhand comment that conservative groups were more scrutinized. This is not a statement of fact. There were more conservative groups than liberal groups that were scrutinized. I think this was because there were a lot more conservative groups requesting 501(c)4 status. So basically, Jon Stewart was using statistics to lie. O’Donnell added an important point that almost always gets left out: of the groups so wronged by IRS scrutiny, only one actually got denied and it was a liberal group.

But my broader annoyance with The Daily Show segment was the way it was second guessing the IRS. The truth is the 150 MB size of the email in-boxes is not an unreasonable size. I have been using Gmail for roughly eight years now. I have over a dozen email accounts I use it for. I save everything I get that is not spam. And in that time, I’ve only just made it over 1 GB in total storage. It’s easy to point fingers now and say, “Oh, you should have larger in-boxes!” But there will always be these issues.

Stewart also complained that the IRS only keeps email going back six months and then compares that to how long we tax payers have to hold onto records. Now, there is an actual issue here, but it has nothing to do with email or the IRS non-scandal. Once you owe the government money, you always owe it. But if the government owes you a refund and you don’t file for it within three years, well, it’s gone. So imagine the years 1995-1999 where a citizen didn’t file taxes and owed the following to the IRS (parentheses indicate negative values—the IRS owes the citizen): ($5,000), ($6,000), ($7,000), ($5,000), and $3,000. Our citizen paid $20,000 too much in taxes. But he now owes $3,000 in taxes in addition to very large penalties. I actually find that outrageous, but I’m not sure where the humor is.

Regardless, I didn’t find the Stewart segment funny. Complaining about the bureaucracy is more tired than stand-up routines about air travel from the 1970s. But I do think this is all about The Daily Show keeping its “credibility” as an objective arbiter of truth. And that creates a problem. Every time anyone complains that they don’t get their facts right, they point out that they are a comedy show. But if that’s true, why the pretense at objectivity? It’s very clear when Stewart and the gang are just phoning it in. That’s what we saw last week, which is particularly sad, given that the second sequence that made fun of rich Democrats pleading poverty worked quite well. Of course, it is rare that Democrats provide such a rich target as Hillary Clinton claiming the family was broke when they left the White House.

See also: Mainstream Media Freak Out More Than Fox.

“Ticking Bomb” Torture Hypothetical

Conor FriedersdorfFor a long time, I’ve had a problem with the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical used by torture apologists. Basically, it is a way to argue against a categorical ban on torture. The argument goes something like this:

Imagine you have a terrorist in your custody who has knowledge of a nuclear bomb in the center of a major American city. He won’t tell you where the bomb is or how to defuse it. So do you torture him to get the information or just let a million people be killed?

The hypothetical has always bugged me because it isn’t a trivial matter to argue against. At the same time, it is clearly a ridiculous hypothetical. And it is evil because the people are not using it to argue that torture is acceptable in extreme cases, but in pretty much all cases. The logic is: if you are willing to torture one person to definitely save a million people, you aren’t completely against torture; therefore, it’s just a question of where you draw the line; thus you liberals want to draw it way out in a case that would never exist, and we want to use it to maybe gain actionable intelligence (even though we can’t point to a single piece of useful intelligence we got through torture).

Two months ago, Conor Friedersdorf provided what I think is an absolutely fabulous counter response to the hypothetical, Torture, Ticking Time Bombs, and Waterboarding Americans:

There is a categorical ban on broadcasting child pornography in the United States. Is that prudent? Victims of the industry suffer horrifically. On the other hand, what if an al-Qaeda terrorist had a nuclear device in Times Square and credibly threatened to incinerate millions of people unless NBC broadcast an hour of depraved smut? Would the categorical broadcast ban seem prudent in that case?

The thought experiment is no less absurd when applied to “ticking time bombs” that can only be stopped by torturing.

This gets to the very heart of what I think I’ve always known about the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical: it has nothing to do with whether we should torture or not. As Friedersdorf’s example shows, torture is irrelevant to the hypothetical. You could put anything in there. Perhaps a better example would be killing your children. Would you be willing to kill your children to stop a terrorist from murdering a million people? Maybe you would, but that tells us nothing at all about the morality of killing our children.

I highly recommend reading Friedersdorf’s whole article. It isn’t long, but it deals with a couple of other issues that are worth taking note of. One is his discussion of the hypothetical as something straight out of a comic book. As he puts it, “[U]nless Hollywood screenwriters start engaging in murderous acts of performance art, no actual terror plot is ever going to involve a time bomb, a code to defuse it, a collaborator in custody who has that code, FBI or CIA agents who know it, and a waterboarding table on hand.” It’s just sad that the popularity of 24 has made a lot of people think that (1) torture works[1] and (2) such situations are not only possible but common.

[1] I am not saying that torture does not in many cases provide information. I know, for example, that anyone could torture me and I would provide them with any information they wanted. There are two fundamental problems with this meaning that torture “works.” First, it is almost certain that anyone torturing me would be looking for information that I don’t actually have. So I would make up stuff just to have the torturing stop. Thus, there is a big problem of sifting the good information from the bad. Second, there is a huge opportunity cost with torturing me. In general, rapport building has been found to be far more effective than torturing. I know it would be with me. (I still don’t have any secret information anyone would be interested in, but what are you gonna do?) So the cost of torturing is greater than the gain. Thus, torture does not “work.”

Brave Is Kind of a Mess but Enjoyable

Brave 2012Last night I watched the 2012 animated feature Brave. It is what it is. Visually it is stunning. But it’s curious. Much of the background animation could be mistaken for live action. The rendering of a waterfall was absolutely fantastic. But then in that environment exist all the characters who by and large look like they were designed by the people who created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s just interesting.

“Interesting” is the word for this film. It’s representations of men are just terrible, although given men in reality, not exactly undeserved. So the film focuses on women, and indeed, the three primary characters are women: mother, daughter, and the most charming witch, I mean woodcarver, you will ever see. But the narrative itself is a mess. The film is half over before the viewer gets clued in as to what it is about. And that issue—female intergenerational bonding—is a welcome one, especially given the film’s obvious appeal to girls. But it meanders, making seriously tired Scottish jokes that by this time ought to be at least a little blue. And then the mother gets turned into a bear.

That strikes me as just odd. But it does have the advantage of providing what would commonly result in strong dramatic momentum. The daughter is responsible for turning her mother into a bear and they both want to turn the mother back. There is even a ticking clock. Yet the film continues to meander. If you knew that you only had a day to cancel the spell that had turned your mother into a bear, would you really spend it teaching her how to catch fish? Then there is much mindless action. But I was surprised by the ending when the mother stayed a bear for the rest of her life after eating the daughter. Okay, so that was a joke. They all live happily ever after as computer generated quasi-humans.

I used to really like it that animated features tended to be so well scripted. But that is less and less true, as animation studios have learned that they too can just wing it with a bit of action or a musical interlude. What’s more, the scripts—and most definitely the script for Brave—depend upon dialog to explain what’s going on. There is a second bear in the movie (not the mother), and the daughter has to explain that the bear was actually the son of legend who didn’t listen to his father. This was already fairly well established, and it really didn’t require any dialog—just some more information to drive it home.

None of this is to say that the film is bad. It works well enough. And it’s short: only 84 minutes if you don’t count the credits that go on and on and on. Kelly Macdonald voiced the daughter, which is just perfect, because it seems her voice will always sound like she’s 14. Emma Thompson as the mother is good and pleasant as always. But it was Julie Walters who had the fun part as the witch, I mean woodcarver, who really stood out. The two songs in it were as inoffensive as they were uninspired. (Can we all just agree that in the future, all films having anything to do with non-modern Scotland can just use James Horner’s score from Braveheart?) Finally, as I said: it really is beautiful to look at.

From a political standpoint, it’s a mixed bag. How can it no be? It is about a princess. Other than the aristocracy, everyone in the film is either part of the kitchen staff or the army. The one exception is the witch, I mean woodcarver. She is the most interesting character, and she isn’t in the film nearly enough for my tastes. She reminds me of something that Terry Eagleton once wrote, “To any unprejudiced reader—which would seem to exclude Shakespeare himself, his contemporary audiences and almost all literary critics—it is surely clear that positive value in Macbeth lies with the three witches.” In Brave, none of the men are creative (as I indicated before, perhaps an earned representation). Creativity is left to the women (You could have a fine time analyzing that!) which is left to the mother and finally the daughter when they reconcile. But most of all, it is the witch woodcarver who is creative, although her spells do tend to all end in someone turning into a black bear. So there’s your standard fairy tale: the important aristocracy, the happy peasants, and the outcast. I can hardly complain given that most “adult” literature only deals with the first two of those groups. And I was pleased that Brave presented its outcast in a very positive light.

On the DVD of Brave are two short films that are far better than the feature. The first one was directed by Brave story supervisor Brian Larsen, “The Legend of Mor’du.” It tells the backstory of the other bear who disobeyed his father’s wishes. Other than the opening and closing, which are done in the Brave style with the witch, I mean woodcarver, telling the story, it is done in that old fashioned kind of animation with still images. Even today, I find that to be some of the most compelling stuff because the images can be much more interesting. Here it is:

The attributes of the four sons are interesting: wise, compassionate, just, and strong. One of these things is not like the other. What exactly is strong doing in that group? Of course, I suppose the point of the story is that the strong one is not any of wise, compassionate, and just. And he’s the one who screws everything up.

The other short is Enrico Casarosa’s fabulous La Luna. It is about three generations of a single family: grandfather, father, and son. And it is their job each night to… Telling you would not spoil it, but just watch it:

It looks a lot better on the DVD. (Also: it isn’t reversed!) And really, buying the whole DVD just for La Luna is probably a great deal.

We’ll Always Have Peter Lorre

Peter LorreOn this day in 1904, Peter Lorre was born. I once had this boss who had worked in television. I had mentioned Lorre for some reason and she dismissed him out of hand, “Oh, he was married eight times!” I believed her, in part because I’m gullible. But also, it just seemed like Lorre would be the kind of guy who married a lot of women. And there is something to that. He was married three times—staying married most of his adult life.

He started acting on the stage in his late teens and didn’t make his first film until he was 25. But fairly quickly he became a star for his performance as the pedophile serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M. This led to his first English language film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. And since he was on the run from the Nazis (Lorre was nominally Jewish), he ended up settling in the United States in 1935.

Lorre is best known for his acting in films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. These days, I most associate him with all of his Mr Moto films, because a couple of years ago I went through a period where I watched them all. They are rather bad films, but it is fun to watch the Austrian Lorre playing a Japanese character. I had intended to write an article about the racism in the films, but I never got around to it. Other than the casting, I’m not sure the films are that racist. Although they certainly push stereotypes of the cunning oriental. To do it justice, I’d have to go back and watch the films again—I’m not keen on that prospect, even with Lorre.

Sadly, Lorre had health problems for most of his life. These were mostly with his gallbladder, which kept him on morphine for many years. Then later in life, he put on quite a lot of weight. That’s all fine, but in the final films, he really does look sickly. You can see this in two of my favorite of his films at the end of his life: The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. (Both films were written by Richard Matheson and available as a single DVD!) He was only 59 when he died of a stroke. I can’t help but think that modern medicine would have done a better job of treating his health problems.

Nonetheless, he managed to make an enormous number of films. He was a great actor, but his career was based primarily on the fact that there is just something very charming about him. Even when playing villains, his humanity comes through. That was clear enough when he was 27 in M. Here he is in Casablanca. I love the look he gives at the very end when Rick says, “I am a little more impressed with you.” It seems like the first time that Ugarte fully realizes what he’s done. It’s just a shame the character is used as nothing more than a plot device to get Rick the letters of transit. But we’ll always have this scene:

Happy birthday Peter Lorre!

My First, My Last, My Privacy!

What was Samuel Alito Thinking?I hate to write about two judicial case in the same day, but what am I going to do? The Supreme Court did something really good. I have to say, a lot of the time, I figure Samuel Alito listens to a case. Then he meets with his team and says, “How can we view this case so that it hurts the maximum number of people?” But today, David Savage at The Los Angeles Times reported, Supreme Court Rules Police Cannot Search Smartphones Without Warrant. It was a unanimous decision. As Louise might say on Bob’s Burgers, “What is this feeling I’m having? It’s like I’m feeling the most conservative members of the Supreme court actually take their jobs seriously. Is that a thing? Am I going crazy?”

Not really. I know that a great deal of affirmative action has gone on at the Supreme Court where mediocre conservatives are appointed because there are so few capable judges who can deal with the cant that is now required by the Republican Party. But nonetheless, they aren’t complete idiots and bind ideologues. Sometimes even they understand that our police state has gotten out of hand. The truth is that it hasn’t been legal for an officer to pull you over and then demand to look at your cell phone. But that doesn’t mean that officers don’t do it all the time. The biggest career criminals are police officers. But this case is even better!

The Court found that even when an officer arrests someone, it isn’t okay to search his cell phone de rigueur. They must have a search warrant, just as they would if they wanted to search the home of someone they arrested. This is exciting news! I don’t mean this in a personal way because everything I do that is even a little questionable, I do in public (ie, this blog). But this is a great increase in freedom. There has been a very long trend in the United States toward destroying the Fourth Amendment. It really is very simple:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

What’s particularly exciting about this decision is that the Supreme Court has updated this to the modern era. They have equated our cell phones with our computers and our computers with our homes. As the editorial board wrote in The Los Angeles Times wrote, “This is a historic decision because allowing police to sift through the contents of a modern smartphone gives them access to a wealth of information about a person’s most private and personal affairs, from email messages to family photos to bank statements.”

I still have to admit that I’m surprised with the unanimous decision. As regular readers know, I usually find a great deal of common ground with conservatives (as long as we aren’t talking about something that Fox News is actively propagandizing). But on this issue, conservatives (young and old) have this idea that they have nothing to worry about. Let the NSA record their telephone calls; let the local police bug their kitchens; they have nothing to hide! Except that they do. It’s really as simple as this: what I do in my private life is really no one else’s business. Now, I would define this broadly. I would say that if I want to smoke crack alone in my bedroom, that’s my choice. But even if you want to counter that idea in the various ways that the government has since the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, it certainly should be no one’s business if I dance around in my room to the cool sounds of Barry White.

Put together with the No Fly List decision, this is a great day for liberty. And I mean real liberty, not the pretend kind that the right has defined as the liberty of the super rich to pay no taxes. These decisions make every person in the United States freer!

Update (25 June 2014 8:40 pm)

Reading a bit more, I see that Alito actually only concurred. He thought the majority opinion was too broad. So I was right about Alito. What was he thinking? Nothing much. He’s basically a fascist. And what does that say of the political party that appointed him? A lot.

The Spencer Collins Library Controversy

Spencer Collins - Library

Will forwarded me an article I have extremely mixed feeling about, Kansas Boy Forced to Remove Little Free Library From His Yard. Nine-year-old Spencer Collins created a little library in his front year. His grandfather built a small structure to house the books and the policy is: give a book and take a book. Well, it turns out that the city of Leawood, Kansas has a law about free standing structures. The city received two complaints about it so the Collins family was told they had to take it down. Cue outrage.

There is no outrage here. There is a little disappointment that I will get to shortly. But there is no cause for outrage. The city has laws. Citizens complained that someone was violating the laws, and the city had to act. I feel certain that if the Collins family goes to the city and asks for a variance for the structure, they will get one. Problem solved. This is not an issue of “big government destroying out freedom!” In fact, I think the ending of this story will be, “Responsive government acting reasonable.”

What is disappointing are the two complainers. I mean: really?! They had a problem with a charming and totally positive project of a local nine-year-old? I mean, this wasn’t a structure that was going to bring in a “bad element” to town: a bunch of pre-teens hanging out at the library, smoking cigarettes and reading The Phantom Tollbooth, “Dude, you gotta check out this children’s adventure novel and modern fairy tale by Norton Juster; it will blow your mind!”

So what you’ve got here are three factions. First, you have a government that I am certain will do the right thing about the library. Although I have to say, now that it has gotten so much publicity, it could (at least temporarily) bring a lot of unwanted traffic to the neighborhood as people drive by to see it. But given that the library is still open, just sitting inside the Collins’ garage, the neighborhood is probably already getting that. Regardless, cities provide variances all the time and I see no reason for Leawood to deny this one.

Second, you have what I’m sure are some old fuddy-duddies who are part of the “no fun” brigade. These are people with nothing better to do than complain about just about everything. I feel sorry for them. I know the type. They would be so much happier if they used the library rather than complain about it. Literature for people that age is generally quite good—better in general than the stuff people write for adults. But whatever. I’m sure once the library is legal, they will find something else to be angry about. Perhaps birds singing or children skipping down the street.

Third, you have young Spencer Collins who is just the best of what we are. Maybe his generation will save us. Instead of “Make Love Not War!” it will be “Build Libraries Not Investment Banks!” And in my way, I am an optimist. I suspect that even now, young Mr Collins is getting a lot of donations for his library. They may want to design a larger structure.

Image cropped from KMBR.

Who’d a Thought: Due Process in the US!

US District Judge Anna BrownWould you like some good news for a change of pace? Well I got news for you: I provide you with plenty of good news around here, like how Kagemusha is a great film and the meaning of Jade’s Trick in Shakespeare. But if by “news” you mean “political news” or “news of the day,” well, I have some of that that is good too!

Timothy Phelps and Michael Muskal at The Los Angeles Times reported last night, Federal Judge Declares Government No-Fly List Rules Unconstitutional. The ruling by US District Judge Anna Brown found that it was just a matter of due process. Names are put on the list and people with those names have no way of contesting them. And even when the name on the list really does apply to a particular person, the government has no stated reason for the labeling.

According to the article:

She ordered the government to come up with new procedures that protect citizens’ due-process rights without jeopardizing national security. Passengers must be given notice of their inclusion on the list and a rationale for the designation and be allowed to submit evidence to challenge it, Brown said.

The No Fly List was created, like so much that is bad in America, after 9/11. But it is pretty clear that even if we had had a No Fly List with 21,000 names on it on 9/11, it wouldn’t have stopped the attacks. Has it kept us safe since then as Democratic Senator Most In Need of Retiring Dianne Feinstein has said? Who know?! This is one of the reasons that the government likes to run a tight ship information-wise: when we don’t know anything, we can’t challenge their claims.

This is really all about government laziness and hubris: the idea that it’s too much work to deal with a real threat properly mixed with the idea that only the “little people” get hurt. None of Dianne Feinstein’s or George Bush’s friends ever need worry about boarding a plane. So Judge Brown is doing exactly what the courts should have done years ago: tell the other branches of the government that the No Fly List is a No Go.

I tend to think the ruling will stand, although when it first went to District Court, it was thrown out. It was only when appealed to the 9th Circuit Court that it was reversed and the lower court was told to consider it. At the Supreme Court level, I suspect that Thomas and Alito would overturn this ruling, but I feel that Scalia and Roberts would probably uphold it. The case is so clear and unlike similar cases, the No Fly List isn’t a secret list that allows the court to chicken out and claim defendants can’t prove they’ve been harmed. The harm is clear here. And there is no due process.

So life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness wins one for a change! As Kermit the Frog would say:

Image via Oregon Live.

Kagemusha Is a Great Film, Of Course

KagemushaI recently watched Akira Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha. It is one of his films that gets neglected—at least by me. I think I’ve watched it once since seeing it in the theater when it was first released. But as I was watching it, I got really excited. I thought, “This is the best Kurosawa film!” And then I thought that was just silly. The truth is my favorite Kurosawa film is pretty much always the last one I’ve seen.

I know, I know. I hate how much I like Kurosawa. It seems like such a cliche. But it isn’t like he’s the only director I love or that he’s the only Japanese director I watch. I’m pretty fond of Japanese film generally. I’ve written about Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion as well as Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy and Vengeance Is Mine (a modern story about a serial killer). But it is true that Kurosawa does stand out as one of the top couple of directors who tend to make me giddy.

I think that Kagemusha may well be the best film to use to introduce people to Kurosawa. Unlike a lot of his films, the story of Kagemusha is very simple. There are three war lords in Japan, fighting over control of the country. One of them dies due to a fluke, and in order to not allow the entire Takeda clan to be destroyed as the other war lords use the chaos of this power vacuum, the other Takeda leaders use the deceased war lord’s kagemusha (impersonator) to play the part full time. That sounds complicated, but really all the film is about is the kagemusha’s evolution from a petty thief to being in a sense, the lord (not “war lord” because of course he doesn’t act in that capacity except as a symbol). This is ultimately, his downfall. The film ends with a tragically beautiful gesture by the kagemusha.

Here is the trailer, which gives you a small idea of how visually stunning the film is, but not much more. And it is cropped. And it doesn’t include what I think is the most stunning scene. And it doesn’t give you much of an idea about what the film is really all about.

The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as the war lord Takeda Shingen as well as his kagemusha. You may remember him as the villain in Yojimbo, Unosuke who has a pistol. But he is probably best know for his lead role as Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (the King Lear character) in Ran, which was made five years later. I also know him from other non-Kurosawa films like Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion. He’s a great actor, and at 81 years old, he’s still working—a lot! I think he is at his best in Kagemusha because it is a subtle part. Although the film has big and beautiful battle scenes, it is the slow evolution of the kagemusha that we care about.

Despite the film’s epic feel, I noted that there were scenes where Kurosawa was clearly cutting corners. The film had a reasonable budget for the time, but considering the hundreds of extras and the enormous costume and set needs, it’s amazing what he managed to get on film. So if a couple of scene seem notably less inspired, it can be forgiven. And these scenes are only early on, so they probably don’t stick out to a first time viewer. Kurosawa also saved some money by not showing so many battle scenes as just the results of the battles. But I also think this was a choice. After all, the film is not ultimately about the destruction of the Takeda clan, but about how the kagemusha eventually comes to see himself as a member of that clan.

Kagemusha is the only Kurosawa film currently available on Netflix instant watch. And as is quite common, the print is not great and the subtitles are actually on the print and they are of middling quality. I’m looking forward to getting the film on the Criterion Collection DVD, where I’m sure it will look fantastic. Regardless, it is worth checking out. I know that the basic idea of the film is tired—poor man takes the place of the great man, from The Prince and the Pauper to Dave. But Kurosawa does something really different with it. Netflix users gave it an average rating of 3.7 out of 5 stars. But it’s “best guess” for me was 5.0 stars. And it was right, as usual. Kagemusha is a great film.

June Lockhart

June LockhartAnother day, another birthday post. Last year I did George Orwell, although I actually talked more about the composer Francesco Araja. I feel my life adrift except that I have a birthday post to write each morning. I used to hate doing them, now they seem like the easiest part of my day. It’s actually a good bit of advice for new bloggers: pick something concrete to write about every day. Finding something you want to write about is often the hardest part. Anyway, here we go again.

The actor June Lockhart is 89 today. She came from an acting background. Both her parents we professional actors—especially her father Gene Lockhart, who played the idiot sheriff in His Girl Friday. Similarly, June’s eldest daughter Anne is also a successful actor. I’m very interested in these kind of thing. It isn’t primarily that parents can get their children breaks in the industry, just like people with union jobs can get their children union jobs. It is that if your parents are in a particular business, it just seems like the thing you do. And in June Lockhart’s case, she was in a film along with her parents at the age of 13.

For people of my generation, Lockhart is known primarily for the part of Maureen Robinson on Lost in Space. I haven’t seen the show since I was a kid, but it was not one of my favorites. I was more a Gilligan’s Island kind of kid. But I would probably get into it more now, because of the Dr Smith character, who I hated as a kid. Lockhart, of course, played the mother character. This was typical of her. Before Lost in Space, at the age of 34, she played Timmy’s adopted mother in Lassie. And after Lost in Space, she played the mother figure Dr Janet Craig (replacing the deceased actual mother Bea Benaderet) on Petticoat Junction. (I can’t find any DVDs with the later seasons that had Lockhart in them.)

Lockhart also did a lot of work in the theater and in film. Actually, I shouldn’t use the past tense, because she is still working. IMDb has her listed as acting in 167 films and television shows. That’s counting the 207 episodes of Lassie as one show. The same goes for the 84 (including the un-aired pilot) episodes of Lost in Space and 45 episodes to Petticoat Junction and 9 episodes on Robert Montgomery Presents and on and on. And here she is in a Crest commercial:

Happy birthday June Lockhart!

DVD Commentaries as Film Studies

The Criterion CollectionA couple of days ago, I was commenting on The Q Filmcast episode on Ichi the Killer after writing my own review of sorts. In the crew, I think of James Savage as the intellectual. He was, for example, the one who made them watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (Have I mentioned that I’ve made up a song for that?) But during the episode, he mentioned that he just didn’t get Japanese films. This shocked me coming from him of all people.

But I understand the sentiment. There are a lot of problems with enjoying Japanese cinema. Part of it is just the language—I can always tease out a little Italian or German or French, but I don’t know any Japanese. A bigger problem is that the cultures are quite different. But you could say the same thing about just about any country’s films. When I first saw Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (“The Lonely Wife”) I really didn’t get it. It seemed like a whole lot of nothing was going on, but now I consider it riveting. But the biggest problem with Japanese films is our lack of understanding of Japanese history.

The most popular Japanese films are those about samurai. But the samurai class existed in varying incarnation for hundreds of years. At one time it was all about the sword. Later the bow became the symbol of the class. And then during the Sengoku period, the gun becomes a big part of it all. And the issue isn’t just with the samurai pictures. A lot of films were made in the context post-WWII Japan and a lot of modern crime pictures require an understanding of the Yakuza. Clearly, people are not going to study Japanese history to enjoy Japanese films. (But those who do enjoy them may do so.) Luckily, it isn’t necessary.

Movies are wonderful in that you can sit through many of the greatest ones and have an expert explain it to you. I mentioned this to Savage, encouraging him to check out especially the Criterion Collection releases of Japanese films that add enormously to my enjoyment of all Japanese films. You simply don’t get this kind of opportunity if you want to improve your enjoyment of music or art. But this is generally only true for older art films. If Kurosawa were alive today, they would probably have him do the commentaries and he might provide a few insights but it would be nothing compared to what an academic like Stephen Prince provides.

So here is my list of DVD commentary types from worst to best:

Actors have almost no insights into move making. They might be able to give you a little insight into the characters, but that’s good for at most ten minutes. Comedians are the worst because they will just riff during the film, perhaps being amusing but not worth the time.
It depends upon the director, of course, but in general they provide a lot of stories about the production. “Oh, a funny thing happened during the shooting of this scene…” Really, I don’t care. The one thing that I’ve learned from listening to director commentaries, however, is that most directors are fairly unconnected to the film. They are like kings. They say what they want done and it is done. And most of them don’t have much of a reason for why they want things done. There is an exception here for low-budget directors because they do have to be involved in all aspects of the movie making. But they too tend to focus on trivialities. I would add producers to this group, although they are generally a bit better than directors.
Department Heads
Editors especially can provide some interesting insights into not just the filmmaking process but also the story itself. Sometimes cinematographers have interesting things to say. Composers can also be interesting. But these commentaries are rare regardless.
Screenwriters are often very informative, because they understand the context for the story and what at least they were trying to do. But they are so often pushed to the margins of filmmaking, that their eagerness can be downright embarrassing, “You mean you actually want to listen to me?!” And better than screenwriters are the writers of the original source. Sebastian Junger’s commentary for The Perfect Storm is a great example.
In general, I prefer academics—film historians who not only know the film but its full context including everything about the people who made the film. But experts don’t have to be academics. An ex-CIA agent did a very useful commentary for RED; I didn’t learn anything about that comic book film, but I learned a few things about how CIA agents work. Number one asset for an agent: knowing how to steal a car.

That’s more or less how I see it. There are exceptions. Any person can in theory make a good commentary track. Just the same, I don’t always like academics. Michael Jeck, for example, annoys me because of his full embrace of the auteur theory. But I am willing to put up with that because he also says a lot of non-annoying stuff and I’ve learned a lot from him over the years.

I know that a lot of people think that commentaries are just for nerds. And I suppose that is to a large extent true. But pretty much everyone I know who is really into film is a nerd. The non-nerds are out dancing or having sex or whatever it is that non-nerds do, because how would I know? But commentary tracks really can be like attending a lecture in a film history class. If you are interested in understanding film as art, these commentaries are a great addition to your viewing experience.

Obama Is Too Weak for Mercy

Dick CheneyIt is not the case that Dick Cheney has been able to go everywhere in the media and complain about Obama’s policy on Iraq without push back. Most notably, on Fox News, Megyn Kelly said to Cheney, “You said there were no doubts that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. You said we would be greeted as liberators. You said the Iraq insurgency was in its last throes back in 2005. And you said after our intervention, extremists would have to ‘rethink their strategy of jihad.'” Cheney’s response in general has been to deny that he was wrong. But more generally, as Steve Benen noted, Cheney Doesn’t Want to Talk About “What Happened 11 or 12 Years Ago.”

I can hardly blame him. Of course, if you listen to him in full, you will notice that he does want to talk about what happened back then. That’s because he wants to blame Obama for what is going wrong in Iraq now and the subtext (and sometimes the actual text) is that things were great in Iraq a decade ago. So he’s being disingenuous when he claims that he doesn’t want to look back. But I think people like me are on solid ground when we ask why Cheney’s solution for problems in Iraq that worked so badly in the past ought to be considered good now.

Obama Question MarkWhat really bugs me about this is that Cheney actually can get away with saying, “I don’t want to look back.” And the reason that he can get away with it is that Obama and all the elites of the Democratic Party went along with this idea that we had to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” I’ve always been for a truth and reconciliation commission. You could pardon everyone. I don’t care about punishing these people; I really don’t see the good that it would do. But there would be enormous good that would come from the country admitting publicly to its many recent errors.

If that had happened, then there would be no problem with Cheney running everywhere talking about what to do in Iraq. Everyone would know that he was wrong and even criminal before. But he has a right to be heard. None of us are perfect. Make the case. But instead, we get this kind of pseudo argument, “Well, mistakes may have been made in the past but if we had just continued to make those mistakes for longer everything would have been great so Obama is all wrong.” It’s madness.

More and more, I see the United States like a dysfunctional family where mom is plastered all day and in denial about dad raping the daughter. Everyone knows what’s going on but no one talks about it and so it just continues on. And this problem doesn’t stop with Cheney on the Sunday political talk shows. It just continues to fester right through late 2017 when President Ted Cruz stages a preemptive strike against Ghana and local police departments are encouraged to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” against alleged cannabis smokers.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have spent the last six years licking their lips at the prospect of something Obama might do that they can look back on. To them, Obama’s grand gesture to forgiveness without admission of guilt was just seen as the pathetic move of a weak president. Another Jimmy Carter. It reminds me of the “real power” speech in Schindler’s List: power as mercy.

Obama missed an important point in Schindler’s theory. “A man stole something. He’s brought before the emperor. He throws himself down on the ground. He begs for mercy. He knows he’s going to die. And the emperor… pardons him.” Obama didn’t do that. Obama just closed his eyes and covered his ears and pretended that nothing happened. And the Republicans were right to think that was weakness. Mercy is not pretending that a sin was not committed. Mercy is forgiveness for sins committed. All he did was tell the Republicans that Democrats are too weak to look at reality — something that is an established fact among most Republicans anyway.

So why not Cheney on This Week saying, “But if we spend our time debating what happened 11 or 12 years ago, we’re going to miss the threat that is growing and that we do face”? Why not Cheney implicitly accusing President Obama of treason? When it comes to civilians in Afghanistan killed by drone, Obama has plenty of that old fashioned Amon Goeth style power: the power to kill randomly. But when it comes to Oskar Schindler style power as mercy, Obama has no power — at least when it comes to Republicans and Wall Street. He will just ignore new slights and lies the way he ignored old war crimes and financial malfeasance.

The Devil and Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose BierceOn this day in 1842, the great writer Ambrose Bierce was born. Like most writers of most times, he wrote a lot of different stuff. He was especially known in his own time for his short fiction—especially ghost and war stories. Today, he is known for his satire, especially, The Devil’s Dictionary. In contained definitions like this one for “conservative”: “A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” That definition actually makes him quite a lot less cynical than I am.

Fundamentally, however, Bierce was a journalist. And that is what is ultimately most interesting about him. At the age of 71, he traveled with Pancho Villa I assume to report on the Mexican Revolution. But then he just vanishes. It’s not terribly surprising, I suppose. There was a war going on. He was probably just killed. There is a legend that he was killed by firing squad. Although that sounds far fetched, Bierce was known for his biting wit, and maybe the old man made the wrong remark to the wrong man. Or maybe one night he had a heart attack and died. He wasn’t exactly a celebrity in the United States; in Mexico he was doubtless just some old Gringo who was hanging around.

But I like the idea that it was all a final joke. He split off from the army’s advance, went to a peaceful place on the coast and drank wine and enjoyed an anonymous retirement. Regardless, he’s dead now.

Happy birthday Ambrose Bierce!