The Birdcage Two Decades On

The BirdcageI just watched The Birdcage after having not seen it since it was in the movie theaters back in 1996. It is probably not quite as good as I had remembered it. But it has a great script by Elaine May. It is especially good in that May managed to take what is basically a filmed play in La Cage aux Folles and turned it into a movie. What’s more, Mike Nichols gets every bit of comedy out of the material. And he gets great performances out of everyone — especially Robin Williams, who is often just unwatchable.

But there are problems. One is that Nichols does tend to get a little film-craft crazy — and this really doesn’t mesh well with what is otherwise a very direct style. For example, there is a really amazing long helicopter shot that seamlessly dissolves into a steadicam shot that walks across the street, inside the club, and all the way to back. I appreciate that kind of thing because I marvel at the technique. I also think that it is narcissistic and unnecessary. It was also an incredibly trendy thing to do. As I remember it, pretty much every film in the mid-90s did it. Regardless, for people who know film, such tricks are simply a distraction. And for everyone else, they are just a waste.

The bigger problem is that The Birdcage is still a faithful remake of La Cage aux Folles. And so the plot is entirely dependent upon upon the kids behaving foolishly. Regardless of how well this one dinner goes, the story will never play all the way to the wedding — much less after it when the daughter’s last name will be Goldman and not Coleman. But that would be okay, if the adults had some possible reason for not noticing this. And so, even when I first saw the film, I thought the kids behaved terribly right up through the denouement. But that strikes me as picky. May dealt with the problem as well as I can possibly imagine it being done.

Another thing about the film is that I had remembered it as being more toned down than La Cage aux Folles. I don’t think that’s true. It’s very much the Looney Tunes of portrayals of gay culture. This is exactly what conservatives must be thinking when they talk about the “homosexual lifestyle.” What’s remarkable is just how much more authentic the portrayal of gay people has become over the two decades since then. The Birdcage probably was state of the art for Hollywood at that time. We seem now to be at the point where a homosexual relationship is hardly worth noting. I suppose this is something that should cheer us up when we look at so many other areas where we are regressing.

Otherwise, the film is delightful. It has some of the best movie lines ever written. I had remembered some of them like, “Oh I see, so you’re going to a cemetery with your toothbrush. How Egyptian.” But one line I had totally forgotten that busted me up was, “I’m very maternal. And Albert’s practically a breast.” But what most stood out to me were two short speeches by Armand (Robin Williams). The first is the defense of his life, when his son really is asking the unacceptable:

Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.

And the other is after Albert has announced that he is going to the Los Copa cemetery — implying suicide:

My cemetery’s in Key Biscayne. It’s one of the prettiest in the world. The sky is blue, palm trees, rolling hills. The one in Los Copa’s really shit. What a pain in the ass you are. And it’s true: you’re not young, you’re not new, and you do make people laugh. And me? I’m still with you because you make me laugh. So you know what I’ve got to do? I’ve got to sell my plot in Key Biscayne so I can get one next to you in that shithole Los Copa, so I never miss a laugh.

Like all great comedy, The Birdcage is at heart sentimental. If you haven’t seen it in a while (or ever), you should really check it out. And you can also remember Mike Nichols and Robin Williams, who both died this year.

Why the Republicans Need a Good Shutdown

Ted CruzI’ve long wondered about the conservative addiction to shutting down the government. I get the fact that they hate the government, even though they are actually for bigger government than liberals. (They are remarkably good at defining as “government” only those things — usually the least expensive things — that they don’t like.) But given that shutting down the government always goes poorly for them, I’ve wondered why they continue to do it. In general, I’ve been of the opinion that they do it because they just can’t help themselves. It’s a form of irrational exuberance for them.

Jonathan Bernstein has a much more plausible theory, Ted Cruz’s Shutdown Trap — for Republicans. It’s brilliantly simple: the Republicans need to shut down the government in order to differentiate themselves. This folds perfectly into something I talk about a lot: the fact that the Republican Party at the Federal level is pretty much monolithic. The range of beliefs among Republican elites is extremely limited. So in order to differentiate themselves, they have to have events like a government shutdown where people like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner will be shown to be RINOs just because they aren’t crazy.

Howard BealeMost of the Very Serious Pundits would have us believe that the Republican “establishment” beat the Tea Party elements into submission during this electoral cycle and that’s why the party did so well. But it has been apparent for a very long time that there really is no substantive difference between the two factions. In fact, that was always the hilarious (and terrifying) thing about the Tea Party. It was made up of a bunch of middle class people who were “mad as hell!” And their solution just happened to integrate perfectly with the interests of the elites. This is, interestingly, exactly what happened to Howard Beale in the film Network: the corporate elites were able to funnel his progressive rage into sad acquiescence about the fact that money is now God.

But just because the pundit class has been tricked into thinking that there is some huge divide in the Republican Party doesn’t mean that the party itself is fooled. Greg Sargent wrote about the plan yesterday morning, Ted Cruz’s Brilliant Strategy to Help Ted Cruz. Basically, there is no strategy and not even any thought as to what the end game will be. But Bernstein explained why this works out well for more than just Ted Cruz:

This, however, is perfect for the radicals, too. For them, it’s not about policy gains; it’s about being True Conservatives, which means constantly needing to differentiate themselves from the RINOs and squishes that make up the bulk of the Republican Party. The problem? There are no Rockefeller moderates or liberal Republicans remaining, and very few moderate conservatives, either. On ideal policy preferences, there just isn’t much separating Cruz from, say, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker or John Kasich or Bobby Jindal or even Mike Pence. So to maintain that True Conservative distinction, Cruz and other radicals must constantly find new and more difficult hoops for regular normal conservatives to fail to leap through.

I’m developing a new theory. As you may know, my Grand Unified Theory of How Everything Got So Messed Up is that the New Democrats pushed to the right and the Republicans had no place to go but crazy-town. But a corollary of this may be that when all the Republicans got bunched up at the “as extreme as you can get without being a Nazi” edge, the Republicans had to break out into areas beyond policy. Hence shooting copies of Obamacare. Hence national debt as slavery. Hence suing the president, impeaching the president, and shutting down the government.

This would all be funny as hell if there weren’t real impacts on millions of real lives. And what’s terrible is that although these kinds of stunts don’t necessarily work to help Republicans (although they often do), they never hurt them in the long run. People were angry about the Republicans shutting down the government a year ago. But by this November, they had forgotten about it and didn’t even show up to vote. Somehow, I’ve got to get past all this and just enjoy the show. Because it is coming. And soon.

How Baseball Players Should Be Judged

Buster OlneyI think all players should be judged within the context of the era in which they played, and during McGwire’s career, the sport was saturated with performance-enhancing drugs, largely because over the period of about 15 years, no one within the institution of baseball — not the union leaders, not MLB owners, not the commissioner, not the clean players, nor the media that covered the sport — aggressively addressed the growing problem. Through that inaction, what evolved was a chemical Frankenstein of a game. Like it or not, that’s what the sport was in that time: no drug testing, lots of drug use, lots of drug users, lots of money being made by everybody. (And by the way, no team, baseball executive or player has offered to give back the money made in that time.)

The idea of retroactive morality is ridiculous…

—Buster Olney
Quoted in Buster Olney Is Fed Up With Hall of Fame Voting

Rick Santorum’s Authoritarian Plan for US

Rick SantorumSteve Benen brought my attention to the fact that Rick Santorum is back with his own charming form of right wing populism. He’s pushing a standard conservative Christian line that “separation of church and state” is not in the US Constitution. And he offers up a twist, “But it was in the constitution of the former Soviet Union.” Get it?! People who don’t want their government mixed with a healthy dose of church are dirty, stinking commies!

This line of reasoning has things exactly backwards. In the 1950s, the United States went Christian crazy because the Soviet Union was our enemy. The Soviet Union was nominally atheistic, but that wasn’t why they were our enemy. Regardless, that’s how we got “under God” crammed into the Pledge of Allegiance. (Here’s an experiment to try: check out the rhythm of the pledge with and without “under God” and see if you don’t think the extra words make it more clumsy.) The communist government could have been just as awful with religion. In fact, it could have been worse. Just look at our “friend” Saudi Arabia.

Another aspect of this is the childish assumption that if we don’t like a particular country, we must hate everything about it. For example, it’s not enough to hate North Korea for its oppressive slave-labor approach to its people, we must hate its flag as well. (For the record, the North Korean flag is not great, but no worse than the flags of most countries.) The truth is that the Soviety Union had a great constitution — better than our own. But as we’ve seen throughout our own history, a constitution is only as good as the government that upholds it. Regardless, it was not the Soviet constitution that was the problem with that country.

Benen pointed out the obvious fact that the phrase “separation of church and state” was a convenient condensation of an idea in the Constitution. Leo Pfeffer put it well, “[I]t was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so widely held by the American people…” But people like Rick Santorum really are childish and silly. They want to point at the Constitution and yell, “See: that phrase is nowhere to be found!” The more rigorous of them will claim that the phrase came from a letter by Jefferson, which is true. But regardless, everything they know about the subject they learned from disgraced “historian” David Barton. These are not serious people.

The real problem with Santorum is that he thinks there are certain things that everybody agrees on. This is the assurance of a Christian who lives in a country that is nearly 80% Christian. I’m sure that Santorum would quickly change his mind if there was a Muslim awakening and the religion that would be allowed to mix so liberally with government was Islam. Benen asked what religion Santorum would use. After all, Santorum is a Catholic. But I’m sure that he would just want some kind of generic Christianity — not a specific denomination. And if that doesn’t show the total lack of a theological basis to American Christianity, I don’t know what does.

It reminds me of the attempt earlier this year to make the Bible the official state book of Louisiana. The legislators wanted it to be “any copy” at the same time they claimed it wasn’t a religious statement. There are dozens of English translations of the Bible. And that doesn’t even consider that there is no consensus as to what should constitute the Bible in its original languages. And the Orthodox Tewahedo Bible contains books that aren’t even in the traditional Bible. But efforts like this are designed to carve out a generic Christian identity.

When Rick Santorum and so many others like him try to push their religion on the rest of us, it really isn’t even about religion. They are just trying to oppress us with rules about how we ought to live our secular lives. It’s a great irony that he would bring up the Soviet constitution. He’s an authoritarian. Like Stalin before him, he wants to ignore our Constitution and its traditions to push his own limited view of what other people can think and do. But it isn’t surprising. Authoritarians have always hated other authoritarians who didn’t share their particular plan of oppression.

Steven Wright

Steven WrightToday, the great comedian Steven Wright is 59 years old, which makes me feel very old. He is known for his surreal one-liners. But he is a lot more than that, as I will discuss in a moment. First, however, I want to discuss one of his jokes.

The joke is this: “If you were in a vehicle traveling at the speed of light and you turned your lights on, would they do anything?” This is a better description of Special Relativity than you are ever likely to hear. To begin with, nothing would happen. And that should explain why it is that you couldn’t have a vehicle that is traveling at the speed of light.

If we change the joke so that the vehicle is traveling at just under the speed of light, then the answer would be: yes. The light would emit at the speed of light. And the crux of the matter is that regardless of who was watching your vehicle, they would see the light moving at the same speed. That is why I spent years during my twenties obsessed with Special Relativity. But eventually, I learned as we all must, that since I have no actually experience of riding around in spaceships, I had no “common sense” about the way the world works when different objects were moving very fast relatively to each other. Regardless, I think you can learn a whole lot more from that one joke than you can from a single physics course.

At this point, I’m much more interested in Wright as a filmmaker than a comedian. He’s made a couple of half hour films. The most recent is One Soldier. It is very good and even kind of profound, if a bit too much like a Bergman parody. The first is The Appointments of Dennis Jennings. It’s very funny, with a brilliant ending:

Happy birthday Steven Wright!