Daniel Schorr on Bush v Gore

Daniel SchorrIn developing countries such as Pakistan, Chile, and Sierra Leone, a transfer of power is often accomplished by military coup. In our country, it is done by judicial coup.

Admitting to something short of cool dispassion, I marvel at the way the gang of five, led by arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, tried to camouflage their 5-to-4 operation behind a nominal 7-to-2 agreement that there was a problem with the Florida recount. That seemed to leave open the chance of fixing the system. Their fix was in, all right, but a different fix. It suppressed the recount for good.

Any one of these five could have returned the contest to limbo. But none did. Decades of conservative support of states’ rights, by overturning federal statutes from affirmative action to federal review of criminal cases, went out the window in an arrogation of authority to judge voting in Florida.

The tactics were adroit. First, the junta on Saturday halted the vote count. That enabled them to say on Tuesday that there was no more time left for vote-counting.

One thing about Tony Scalia is that he levels with you. Not every justice would say, as he did Saturday, that issuing the voting stay suggested Bush had “a substantial probability of success.” Not every justice would own up to partisanship by saying the recounted votes “threaten irreparable harm to petitioner” — Governor Bush — “and to the country.”

Justice Stevens, for the embattled minority of himself, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter, said on Saturday that halting the vote recount “will inevitably cast a cloud on the legitimacy of the election.” Tuesday he said we may never know who was the winner of the presidential race, but “the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” …

That legitimacy has been endangered by the court’s intervention into the white-hot controversy over the presidency that opened the court to suspicion of partisanship. Before this issue arose there were suggestions of partisanship. Mr. Bush referred to Scalia and Clarence Thomas as models for the kind of justices he would name. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor reportedly said they would like to retire under Bush to ensure being succeeded by conservatives. But now, these five have had a banner day. They have selected a president.

—Daniel Schorr
The Supreme Fix Was In

Blast From the Past: “Patches”

Patches - Clarence CarterIf you are my age, you are most likely very familiar with Clarence Carter‘s hit song “Patches.” It’s a song about a boy growing up on the farm in Alabama (way back in the woods). He is called “Patches” because of all the patches on his clothes. So he’s from a very poor family. One day, his father, who is dying, makes a request of him, “Patches I’m depending on you son—to pull the family through…”

It is a very unique song. It has an ABC structure with the A section spoken. When I was six years old, it sounded kind of like a country tune. Of course it isn’t anything like country. It is Rhythm & Blues through and through. I think it is as distinctive and fresh today as it was 45 years ago:

What I didn’t know is that “Patches” was not written by or for Carter. It was written by the lead singer of Chairmen of the Board, General Johnson, and his songwriting partner Ronald Dunbar. And so Chairmen of the Board first did the song. But it was released as a B-side because the record company thought the talking in the song was too unusual and it wasn’t “hit” material. Of course, that was exactly the reason that the song became a hit for Carter that same year.

Here is the original version of the song by Chairmen of the Board:

That year, Johnson and Dunbar won the Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Song. And there is a recent and very interesting story about this. Dunbar lost control of the Grammy trophy at some point. I don’t know if it was lost or stolen or what. But it ended up on the show Pawn Stars. In January of 2011, Dunbar got it back. That’s good news for Dunbar and good news for the world—the more money taken away from the bottom feeding family on Pawn Stars, the better.

No Real Reason I Liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron MunchausenTwo weeks ago, the guys at The Q-Filmcast released an episode on, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. They are clever guys and I’m always impressed with their insights about films. But their discussion of Baron Munchausen is an especially good example of how it is that all of us who write and talk about films are just a bunch of fakers.

Most of the guys were pretty down on the film. In contrast, I really liked it. But pretty much everything they complained about was valid. The scenes go on too long, for example. I think a half hour could easily have been cut from the film. But because the producers had spent so much money on shooting the film and because Terry Gilliam seems to think that every idea he ever had is a gem, the scenes weren’t cut. There were other problems as well: the script is weak; the characters are not well rendered; and it has little dramatic momentum.

In addition to this, Savage—the one person at The Q-Filmcast who really liked the film—was also in agreement about the problems in the film. And that raises a question, “What does it mean to like a film?” I’m convinced that it doesn’t mean much. I like Baron Munchausen the same way that I like my friends: I’m inclined to focus on what is good and ignore what is bad. And I do the opposite with people and films I don’t like.

This fact makes what the The Q-Filmcast does all the more useful. Because there does seem to be a culturally agreed upon critique of what works in art. It isn’t just anyone’s opinion. So listening to their analysis of the film, one gets a good idea of what’s happening in it. And that’s the kind of stuff that comes across better with the back-and-forth of their format.

What doesn’t work—coming from anyone most definitely including me—is the ultimate conclusion. It reminds me of a great scene from A Late Quartet. In it, Christopher Walken tells a story about Pablo Casals (which I believe is more or less true), and it is something that I think all of us who pontificate about any kind of art should remember: we should take whatever joy we can find.

That’s certainly not a complaint with The Q-Filmcast. They are explicitly ombudsmen. And people want guidance as to whether they should use their time watching a film. In the case of Baron Munchausen, all listeners should come away with a good idea if they are going to like the film. There is great value in that and I think people are infinitely better in their hands than the hands of even critics that I like.

It is more an issue for me. What is it I offer to the reader? I hope that no one comes to me for recommendations. I have the luxury of writing about film from three different perspectives. First, I write about the politics in film. Second, I write about film history. And third, I write about films I admire and why I admire them. Other than when I go to movies with my brother, I am spared having to write about films I hate. And even then, I usually take a political track with them, given that action films tend to extremely (but implicitly) political.

I’m still shocked just about every day regarding how irrational I am. I’m great at rationalizing it, of course. Most people are. But ultimately, I liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen because when I watched it I liked it. I could give you lots of reasons to justify that. There is an enormous amount to like in the film. And there is a good deal to hate. In fact, it has enough of both to effectively be a cinematic Rorschach test. Our experience of it is much more about us than it.

Some Thoughts on To the Lighthouse

To the LighthouseI finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. When I was about fifty pages in, I was extremely close to giving up. Woolf writes the first part of the book in limited third person. But the perspective is constantly shifting, and she provides almost no concessions to the reader. So at the beginning, I was reading along seeing things from Mrs Ramsay’s perspective and suddenly… What? When did William Bankes show up?! And I realized that without warning, Woolf had changed perspective to Lily Briscoe.

But after a while, I was able to just flow with it. A big part of it is just getting used to it. The language is quite beautiful—much of it as exact as poetry. So there is always that to appreciate. But about halfway through the first section, many of the characters come to life. Despite myself, because I knew I was doomed to disappointment, I became very interested in the Bankes and Briscoe characters and their relationship. That kept me reading most of all. But my predicted disappointment was not disappointed. Bankes is not in the rest of the novel and hardly mentioned.

The second section of the book is totally different. It is written in third person omniscient. It is very short and Woolf seems to delight in killing off her characters. In particular, Mrs Ramsay dies, even though she was the main character in the first part of the novel. And this sets up the final section of the novel that goes back to shifting perspectives, but in a much more rigid way. In it, Mrs Ramsay is arguably still the main character, since the memory of her hangs over everyone and everything.

It all goes back to Andrew Ramsay’s explanation to Lily of what his father’s philosophical work was about, “Think of a kitchen table then when you’re not there.” So Mrs Ramsay is the kitchen table: we are with her in the first section and we are not in the last section. What’s interesting about this is that the effect of Mrs Ramsay is only implicit in the remaining members of the Ramsay home. It is only Lily Briscoe for whom Mrs Ramsay is explicit. In fact, Lily seems almost obsessed with her.

The novel ends with the Ramsays finally making their long delayed trip to the lighthouse and Lily finally finishes that painting that has been eluding her since the beginning of the novel. And that’s it. Basically, To the Lighthouse is a novel featuring two days separated by a decade. And it is about how that first day affects the second and all the people experiencing it. As to what it means, that is harder to say.

Woolf seems a bit uncertain about it too. On the one hand, long after her death, we see that Mrs Ramsay still has an enormous impact on life. On the other, Lily’s epiphany is that the purpose of her art is the ephemeral feelings of accomplishment at rendering her vision. I suppose that’s about right. Life is both about now and then. In as much as the novel has an opinion on the future—on hope—it is negative.

Throughout the novel, I was sad. This doesn’t seem to come as the result of anything specific. There is just an overwhelming feeling of dread from beginning to end. It’s like beneath the words, Woolf is whispering to the reader, “Soon you will die and all you will have to show for it is the fun you had along the way. And you aren’t having much fun, are you?” To the Lighthouse is distinctly not fun. But I see why it is considered a great novel. It is edifying. And maybe it will help me to have more fun in my future presents.

Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David - Self Portrait - DetailOn this day in 1748, the great French painter Jacques-Louis David was born. He is one of the greatest of the neoclassical painters. Unfortunately, his reputation has been tarnished because of his involvement with the French Revolution. This attitude is especially strange in the United States. Certainly things got out of hand. I’m not in favor of killing people and certainly killing Louis XVI was counterproductive. But no one today who is concerned about this regicide seems terribly concerned about the low life expectancy of the poor.

What I found most interesting in the Wikipedia discussion of David’s involvement with the revolution was its tone of surprised that David would be involved, “It is uncertain why he did this, as there were many more opportunities for him under the King than the new order…” Really?! Based upon this theory of psychology, people only do what it is in their best economic interests. This sounds like it was written by some economist from the Chicago school. It’s pretty clear David believed in the cause, how ever much it was mismanaged.

Regardless, we should give David credit for even surviving. His two notable revolutionary friends, Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre, both died rather young as a result of their revolutionary acts. He was eventually exiled, although Louis XVIII offered him a royal position as an option because, you know, a great painter is hard to find. Instead, David moved to Brussels. That alone should explain why he was involved in the revolution: because he believed in it. He lived, worked, and taught in Brussels until his death in 1825.

Here is David’s great painting The Death of Marat, done shortly after Marat’s assassination:

The Death of Marat - Jacques-Louis David

And to show you just how great he was throughout his life, here is his last painting, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus, which he completed at the age of 76:

Mars Being Disarmed by Venus - Jacques-Louis David

Happy birthday Jacques-Louis David!