1941 or Never Let Spielberg Near a Comedy

1941I finally managed to watch the film 1941. Before, I had never made it more than a half hour in because the beginning is so tedious. But now that I’ve seen the whole thing, I can say that in addition to the first half hour of tedium, there is also another two hours of tedium. It doesn’t really matter where you come into the film, you will see exactly the same thing: overcrowded, comedic action sequences that are hard to follow, and almost completely lacking in any wit. And each one of those sequences goes on for at least three to four times as long as anyone could be expected to watch.

What’s interesting about the film is that it is actually well made. It looks great and the acting is wonderful. This makes it all the more bizarre that with such onscreen comedic talent, the film could so consistently avoid being funny. John Belushi spends the whole film doing Bluto from Animal House but without anything to do that is actually funny. In the end, it isn’t clear at all who his character is supposed to be. But the same thing could be said for pretty much all the characters in the film. There are an enormous number of them and mostly, if it weren’t for costumes, it would be impossible to tell them apart. Indeed, Wally goes from zoot suit to navy uniform to army uniform and it takes some time to understand that he is the same character.

It is hard to fault the script, because I doubt it was written to be two and a half hours long. Some of the scenes in between the interminable action sequences are very funny. The best involve Joe Flaherty as the bandleader Raoul Lipschitz. There is a nice joke with the name. A woman asks him what his name is and he answer, “Raoul.” She says, “I knew it!” — apparently excited that he is a hot blooded Latino. Then he finishs, “Lipschitz.” But even better, after a (typically outrageous) brawl destroys the USO club, he signs off his radio broadcast with only a hint of sarcasm:

I’d like to thank all the GIs for helping make tonight’s evening such a… a memorable occasion. Maybe in the future we can have some negroes come in and we’ll stage a race riot… Right here.

But such bits are swamped by the rest of the film. And it isn’t just that the action sequences are long. They are mostly pointless. Much of the destruction that takes places is gratuitous. Army personnel shoot into crowds for no reason — of course no one dies. I’ve often complained about characters acting in odd ways for the sole purpose of furthering a plot. Well, that’s about all that happens in 1941. Things must be destroyed, so the characters act stupidly. Ned Beatty as Ward Douglas shoots a cannon at a submarine through his house rather than, I don’t know, moving the cannon a yard or two to the right.

Ultimately, what most misses in the film is that no one is well enough developed to actually care about. So it is just a bunch of action sequences and stunts that work in a technical sense but fail in any emotional sense. And the tragic thing is that the film could have been a hundred times better with a budget that was one-fifth. If there is a primary narrative in the film it is Wally and Betty’s forbidden love and the evil Corporal Sitarski’s apparent rape efforts. But nothing really comes of any of that, just like nothing comes of the narratives about any of the characters.

It is, however, curious how a film with so much comedic content could be so barren in terms of laughs. I think it is the editing. I think that Spielberg had the film cut as though it were just an action film. But even if there had been real life and death drama to pull the viewer along, I doubt it would have worked. Again, the characters are so poorly rendered I literally didn’t care what happened to anyone other than Betty who I may have only cared about because I have fatherly feelings about young women like her.

I wouldn’t have even written about the film, except that it still bothers me how much I didn’t like it. It isn’t that the film is bad. It is just that there is really nothing to grab onto in it. There is no point to it. But when I saw the filmmakers on a documentary on the DVD talking about how the film did well in Europe and how people like it a lot now, I thought these guys must be deluded. They were going for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. What they made was a cinematic essay about how Steven Spielberg should never be allowed to direct a comedy.

Hazlitt on Political Apostasy

William HazlittThe principles and professions change: the man remains the same. There is the same spirit at the bottom of all this pragmatical fickleness and virulence, whether it runs into one extreme or another: to wit, a confinement of view, a jealousy of others, an impatience of contradiction, a want of liberality in construing the motives of others, either from monkish pedantry, or a conceited overweening reference of everything to our own fancies and feelings. There is something to be said, indeed, for the nature of the political machinery, for the whirling motion of the revolutionary wheel which has of late wrenched men’s understandings almost asunder, and “amazed the very faculties of eyes and ears”; but still this is hardly a sufficient reason, why the adept in the old as well as the new school should take such a prodigious latitude himself, while at the same time he makes so little allowance for others. His whole creed need not be turned topsy-turvy, from the top to the bottom, even in times like these. He need not, in the rage of party spirit, discard the proper attributes of humanity, the common dictates of reason. He need not outrage every former feeling, nor trample on every customary decency, in his zeal for reform, or in his greater zeal against it. If his mind, like his body, has undergone a total change of essence, and purged off the taint of all its early opinions, he need not carry about with him, or be haunted in the persons of others with, the phantoms of his altered principles to loathe and execrate them. He need not (as it were) pass an act of attainder on all his thoughts, hopes, wishes, from youth upwards, to offer them at the shrine of matured servility: he need not become one vile antithesis, a living and ignominious satire on himself.

—William Hazlitt
“On Consistency of Opinion” in Selected Writings

“Independents” and a Failure to Communicate

Aaron BlakeWhat’s we’ve got here is… failure to communicate. I hate it when someone tells me they are a political independent. The truth is, I don’t even really know what that means. Does it mean that you think Keynesian economic policy is good in 2008 and then decide that supply side economics is actually right in 2012, only to change back again in 2016? Do you think that women should have reproductive rights one year and then don’t the next? No, it doesn’t mean these things. People’s ideological convictions stay pretty consistent because they are rarely countered on them. So what does it mean to be politically independent?

It generally means one of two things. It could mean that you don’t pay much attention to politics, don’t care much about politics, and just vote for whichever candidate seems nicest. In the novel A Confederacy of Dunces, Irene Reilly is such a voter; she doesn’t vote for presidents — she votes for their wives. (Admittedly, that isn’t the worst idea in the world.) The second thing it could mean to be politically independent is to be pretentious. Most independents I speak to are of this variety: they want people to think of them as open minded and beyond labels.

A new Gallup Poll is out that shows that the number of people claiming to be “independent” is at an all time high: 43%. It has been rising steadily since 2008. Basically, during that time, three percentage points of people once claiming to be Democrats and two percentage points of their Republican counterparts now call themselves independents. (This does not include the Republican drop of 5 percentage points from 2004 to 2008.)

Political Independents - Gallup Poll (2015)

At The Washington Post, Aaron Blake wrote, A Record Number of Americans Claim to Be Independent. They Are Kidding Themselves. He called this for what it is, “What we have here isn’t so much a rise in political independence as much as a rise in the desire to be labeled ‘independent.'” And he runs down the evidence that there is actually less political independence than there has been in a very long time. It’s worth checking out because it isn’t the usual direct evidence that “independents” still vote as consistently as self-described Republicans and Democrats. Blake shows that the “swing” voters have declined as a percentage of presidential voters since at least the early 1990s.

I noted a year and a half ago what is really going on, Is Michelle Bernard Really an Independent? In that article, I wrote:

I got the feeling she was saying, “I’m not like you ideologues! I’m open minded! I vote for the best person, not for whatever my party has on offer!” There are a couple of problems with this thinking. First, the assumption is that the middle is not an ideological position. This is simply not true. Second, most liberals don’t vote for Democrats because they are Democrats; we vote for them because even though they generally suck, they are far better than what the Republicans have on offer.

And that pretty much sums it up. It is largely in reaction to this kind of thinking that makes me a Democrat. I am much more unhappy with the Democratic Party than most liberal “independents.” Similarly, I’ve known a number of people who called themselves independents because they thought that the Republican Party was too liberal. I’ll bet most of that two percentage point decrease in Republicans are people who are unhappy that the Republicans haven’t shut down the government enough.

Ultimately, Blake’s conclusion is what sums up the rise of the independents, “About the only thing that’s increasing is the self-delusion of independence.” What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate. That’s always the case when people delude themselves. You can’t have an honest conversation with people who aren’t honest with themselves.

Steve King Dishonors the Nation

Steve KingA couple of days ago, Charlie Pierce brought my attention to quite an amazing bit of rhetoric from the estimable Steve King. King was on WorldNetDaily’s Radio America where he claimed that the founding fathers would be “aghast” at Obama. Certainly he’s right. Most of them would never have found an African American president acceptable. But King does not mean that, because of course, conservatives don’t like to face up to the fact that our nation was founded by a bunch of bigots (some worse than others). No, King is talking about the fact that Obama’s “word means nothing.”

You see, the founding fathers were men of honor. And his example? “It’s been 210 years since Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr fought a duel over honor.” Ah, yes: that honorable duel. And what was it over? Burr felt insulted by something that Hamilton had said. This was coming off Burr’s devastating loss to the almost unknown Morgan Lewis to become governor of New York in 1804. Burr thought Hamilton had helped Lewis, and he probably did. Regardless, the whole thing seems more like a squabble between mean girls in a suburban high school. Ah yes, honor!

In addition, there is some contention that Hamilton monkeyed with the trigger mechanism of his pistol to make it fire with less pressure than normal. If he did so, it was the wrong thing to do. Or maybe he did it because he knew that Burr was a far better shot. I don’t know. Nor do I especially care. The two showed all the maturity of, I don’t know, Steve King.

Burr was, shortly after, tried for treason. I don’t think there is anything to that except that Jefferson had a hate-on for him. And as my opinion of Jefferson has greatly declined in recent years, I can’t hold that against Burr. However, after the duel, Burr did run off to Louisiana. And while there he most certainly looked into starting a war between Spain and Mexico — hoping to start his whole little kingdom in the newly independent Mexico.

Now some might consider this this a great thing — like the American Revolutionary War. But I think it rather casts a dimmer light on the founding of our own country. When you look at what many of the proponents wanted out of the separation with England, it was not noble. In fact, a big cause for the separation was the fear of southern slave owners that England was going to outlaw slavery. That wasn’t true of Burr, of course, who was very much against slavery. But his petulant behavior doesn’t speak well of him or any of the founding fathers — except for Thomas Paine who people like Steve King would hate if they had ever read his work or any works about him.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably say that Obama is dishonorable. And the nation as a whole is a lot more honorable now than it was 200 years ago. Having fatal duels over petty insults is a sign of immaturity not nobility. It’s interesting that legislative violence has only really come back in the last few years since the Republicans have become so radicalized and been consigned to the minority.

If anything, a prime act of dishonor is what Steve King does: use the fact that he is a big fish in a little (but for historical reasons, politically important) pond to force policy on the right in extremely damaging directions — both for his party and for the nation. That’s something that Steve King ought to give a little thought to — right after he reads a dozen books about American history.

See also: Jim Mowrer on Steve King.

Elvis Presley and All His Impersonators

Elvis PresleyOn this day in 1935, the King of Rock-n-Roll, Elvis Presley was born. Since I don’t have a lot to say about The King, I’m going to recycle an article I wrote almost two years ago that never got the attention that it deserved, Transubstantiation of Elvis. But let me just add that Elvis would only be 80 years old today. He left us far too young.

In 1992, I went to Hong Kong for the first time. I was sitting in the back of a little Irish pub. And I was pretty drunk. And in walks a Chinese Elvis impersonator in a white jumpsuit studded to the ridiculous extreme that we are all accustom to. Holding an acoustic guitar, he performs “Hound Dog,” collects tips and leaves. You got all that, right? Hong Kong, Irish pub, Elvis. The next day I wasn’t sure myself. I had to ask my colleagues, and they confirmed it: I did in fact see a Chinese Elvis do “Hound Dog” in an Irish pub in Hong Kong. Many people go their entire lives without ever experiencing something as magical.

I love Elvis and even more, I love Elvis Culture. In a sense, Elvis is America: a drug addict who wanted Nixon to make him an undercover DEA agent; a white guy who made millions off the work of poor blacks; and a country rube who somehow connects to a universal audience. In addition to all of this, the music is just fantastic. But it’s the Vegas act silliness that drives the culture. Although I do not particularly like watching Elvis at that stage of his career, I do like what it has spawned. I never would have gone to see one of those shows, but I’d thrill to see Elvis impersonators.

So when I noticed that the film Almost Elvis was available on Netflix, I had to watch it. It isn’t a great film, but it is fascinating. It follows a group of Elvis Impersonators as they compete for the “Images of Elvis” prize for the best Elvis impersonator in the world. It focuses on Irv Cass, a professional from Michigan. Little did I know it, but there is a network of Elvis impersonators throughout the world. If you want one, you call up EEN (Elvis Entertainment Network) and they will send one out. Cass is one them, and seems to make a decent living doing it:

Cass is very free with his opinions of the competition. Since he was one of the most established people in the field at that time, he knows them all. He’s rather good at talking about their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, he nicely systematizes what it is to be an Elvis impersonator. And this brings up probably the most interesting part of the film: race. One of the top people in the field is Robert Washington, who is a black man. Mostly everyone is very respectful of him. But they also admit that he doesn’t look like Elvis because of his race.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think that any of the impersonators looks like Elvis the man. If you take away the hair and the sideburns and the outfits, they just look like random white guys. So really, when we are talking about Elvis, we aren’t really talking about his face. Elvis isn’t a person anymore; he’s an archetype. So to me, it is all about getting up on stage with “the look” (hair, burns, suit) and moving and sounding like Elvis. What’s more, in Washington’s case, he isn’t all that black. Until people started talking about it, I just thought he was really tanned.

All the people said the same thing: I question whether Washington will ever win the title, not because I don’t like him, but because of the judges being, well, racist. This is typical: people generally think their neighbors are more racist than they actually are. At the end of the film, Washington came in second. The good news is he later won the event. Check him out; he’s great:

An academic interviewed for the film referred to the “transubstantiation of Elvis” to explain why people want more than just the music. The music is enough for me. But he’s right: these guys do become The King. And that’s pretty great.

Happy birthday Elvis Presley!


This is probably the guy I saw in Hong Kong. He started in 1992, and I believe I saw him on my 1994 visit.