Thursday, December 28, 2006

War is a Racket-Smedley Butler (book review)

War is a Racket isn't exactly a book as much as it's a tract of about 30 pages written in 1935 by a former Marine general who was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor. Butler is now the most obscure of the four famous 20th century generals involved in the 1932 Bonus March incident in Anacostia Flats in Washington D.C. At the height of the depression, some 20,000 World War 1 veterans, their families, and other supporters came to DC to urge Congress to make early payment on a 1500 dollar bonus to be paid out to them in 1945. With the help of the government, they set up a shantytown near the Capitol to dramatize their commitment. Although many went home after the Congress moved the payment forward slightly, many of the marchers refused to leave and the DC police were unable to evict some of them from a Federal construction site. (William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream
, one of my favorite books of social history btw, opens his narrative with a detailed description of the Bonus Marchers' tragedy.)

Six weeks in, the U.S. Army under the command of Douglas Macarthur was summoned to disperse the marchers. Dwight Eisenhower was on Macarthur's staff. George Patton was a captain who took the lead in the operation. Two bonus marchers were shot dead and hundreds more were wounded. Two infants were also killed. Although he wasn't there that day, Smedley Butler was the lone General who openly supported the marchers' demands. Butler, who grew up as the son of a Republican Congressman and who ran for office as a Republican that year changed his support to FDR. More important, Butler who had a longstanding reputation for standing up for rank and file servicemen, became increasingly and openly critical of war profiteering.

War is a Racket is one of a handful of tracts Butler produced to supplement his public speaking career after the Bonus March incident. The tract remains as provocative today as it was seventy years ago. Butler's argument is simple. He calls 20th century war the ultimate form of gangsterism. He cites a variety of figures to support his contention that America's foreign adventures were allowing defense contractors to make enormous profits while the common soldier was paying the price and taking the risk. In short, Butler identified the dangers of the military-industrial complex exactly twenty five years before Dwight Eisenhower. Although Eisenhower was on Macarthur's staff, he was deeply disturbed by what happened that day in Anacostia flats. The Bonus Army incident may have been the seed for what turned out to be Eisenhower's last major speech.

Butler writes with the kind of directness that one would expect from a lifelong Marine. He's particularly effective when he points to items like the fact that the US Army wound up with five extra pairs of boots for every active soldier at the end of the war and trainloads of wrenches built for a non-existent application. His proposed three part solution is also very direct,

1) Essentially draft corporations along with soldiers. During a war all officers in corporations supplying the defense department should be forced to accept the same salary as an enlisted man fighting at the front.

2) Let those who will actually have to serve on the front lines make the decision to go to war in a limited plebiscite.

3) Don't allow US forces to serve more than 200 miles outside our continental borders. (Butler was an isolationist even in the face of Hitler and Mussolini, something that critics have cited repeatedly as an example that he was both impractical and wrong. Butler died from cancer in 1940 and thus did not live to see Pearl Harbor.

Butler's ideas remain radical and in some ways much more visionary than anything current politicians or military folk have been willing to discuss. I find myself seriously wondering what might have happened had the US imposed laws that took the profit motive out of foreign wars. Are you listening Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld?

Years ago, I used to facilitate a great books group. Often, I found that actual great books didn't make for great discussion. War is a Racket would be a terrific springboard for discussion in a reading group or in any school. It's short, easy to understand, and it re-asks the fundamental question about America's role in the world at a time when it needs to be re-examined. In particular, he points out a finding which came through the Nye Committeein that same year that the US involvement in WW1 may have been largely due to the fact that the allies had huge outstanding loans to the United States. If the British and French had lost the war, the U.S. would have lost 2.3 billion dollars in loan payments. Butler very provocatively argues that U.S. investment forced it to enter a war whose purpose from a U.S. standpoint still gets debated.

While he is featured in a documentary called the Corporation, I'm surprised that there hasn't been a dramatic movie about Butler's extraordinary life. Here's a man who was raised Quaker by a congressman father, dropped out of high school against his parents' wishes at age 16 to serve in both the Spanish American War and the Boxer Rebellion expedition. Butler's military history includes a number of foreign interventions that seldom make contemporary history books. Along the way, he wins two Medals of Honor and a Brevet Award (the equivalent of the CMH for officers pre-1900) and becomes a genuine celebrity. In fact, Lowell Thomas, the American radio man/filmmaker, who made T.E. Lawrence famous(yet another fascinating character from the period whose struggles also have an enormous amount to say about current U.S. foreign policy) also wrote a hagiography of Butler, Old Gimlet Eye that celebrated him as the ultimate Marine.

Butler also served as the controversial public safety commissioner for the city of Philadelphia from 1924-1925 where he took on gambling, alcohol, and prostitution only to get fired after he also raided the upper class venues for such activities. This may have further fueled his later disenchantment with profiteers and the war machine.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, Butler testified in 1934 before the McCormack-Dickstein Committee that he had been recruited by corporate representatives who included J.P Morgan Bank, Goodyear Tires, etc. to lead a military coup to rein in Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. Although the mainstream media of the time derided Butler's testimony, the committee actually found his testimony credible though it deleted the names of the extremely wealthy individuals whom Butler claimed had been involved in the plot. It's not clear how serious or far along the plot was, but the Business Plot along with the Nye Committee have largely disappeared from history texts.

Revisionists have tended to dismiss Butler as

1) simple-minded often by citing the fact that he never went to college.

2) too isolationist and thus not attuned to the 20th century

3) too lacking in nuance and diplomacy

This has essentially been used as a rationale for dismissing his still provocative ideas. In some ways, Socialists and Marxists have have had to keep Butler's memory alive, because his ideas seem to align so well with Marxist critiques of Imperialist-Capitalism. Butler, however, was a strong believer in both civil liberties and the democratic process. He was in fact deeply patriotic- he was just out of step with the Internationalist-interventionist trends that swept through World War 2 and continue into our time.

In the meantime, we live in a culture that glorified George Patton in movie form. I suspect war and U.S. intervention throughout the world remains very much a racket.

Whether one agrees with him or not, Smedley Butler may have been the greatest of the four generals whose careers converged with the Bonus Army. It's a shame that he's now the least remembered and I can't believe that I was well into middle age before I'd even heard of this book.


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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Message with a Bottle (Dickie Post, Jim Beam, and my mother in law)

My mother in law died two and half years ago and my wife’s sister was the one who wound up clearing out her mother’s house and putting everything in storage. My mother in law who died at eighty after raising eight children was the sort of woman who kept everything. She seemed to have every Christmas card, graduation program, and letter sent to her by every member of her very large family in a box somewhere. She also kept more eccentric mementoes like matchbooks and coasters from hotels she had stayed at with her husband who died thirty five years before she did, menus from restaurants where she’d had meals worth remembering, magazines with articles she considered interesting to some family member even if they didn’t mention family members, and a large number of small items no one could identify. My sister in law didn’t feel it was right to throw out what her mother treated as treasures and has spent the last couple years slowly sorting through them all. When we see her, she always brings along a few of her mother’s keepsakes to either pass on to us or just share their significance.

This Christmas my sister in law brought along a sealed fifth of Jim Beam Whiskey that had been stored in a box with a note. My mother in law spent more than forty years of her life as a nurse, mostly on night duty. In between raising eight kids, she had managed to make it through what was then the brand new nursing program at the University of San Diego. There was even an article with a big photo of her surrounded by all of her children in the San Diego newspaper that marveled about the fact that she had somehow managed to move ahead with her career while still having a family. On New Year’s Day 1970, it happened that one of her patients was San Diego Chargers running back Dickie Post.

Post was listed at 5’9” but was probably a couple inches shorter than that but had two pro bowl seasons in a five year career. He led the AFL in rushing with 873 yards (that's right) in 1969. The AFL and NFL had begun playing in what would become the Super Bowl in 1967, but the two leagues remained separate for all other purposes until the year after Joe Namath and the Jets beat the Colts in 1969. By position, playing style, and size, Post was LaDainian Tomlinson’s direct ancestor though he was merely good rather than great. Ironically, the Charger's are having their best season in many years in 2006.

The note accompanying the bottle of Jim Beam which is curved just so to fit into a hip pocket says that the bourbon was a “Christmas Gift” from Dickie Post who made the gift in frustrating and excitable circumstances. For me, this brought up the image of a somewhat drunken young running back (he was 25 at the time) who had found his way to Sharp Hospital at the end of the season. The record shows that Post had steadily improved his yardage totals each of his first three years and then suddenly went into decline in the 1970 season. My wild guess is that he had a knee injury and may have been in the hospital for post-season surgery that didn’t take. This was essentially his last moment as a “star” and he may or may not have known it on New Year’s 1970.

Of course, there are a number of other scenarios that fit the note. He might really have given the fifth of Jim Beam to my mother in law as a “gift”. He also might have been at Sharp Hospital to visit someone else who was staying there only to learn that he couldn’t bring bottles of whiskey into a ward. My mother in law and Dickie Post, if he remembers it at all, are the only two people who would know for sure and my mother in law isn’t around to complete the story for us.

Her note says that she decided to keep the bottle just in case it turned out to be valuable some day. It did turn out to be valuable, but probably not in the sense that my mother in law imagined. She was thinking it would be valuable because it came from the Chargers star running back, fwiw LaDainian Tomlinson is the last person anyone would imagine running around a hospital ward with a fifth of Jim Beam in his hip pocket. Thirty six years later it became valuable because it reminds us that my mother in law was the sort of individual who thought every little memory was worth saving somehow.

My sister in law decided to use the occasion to break the seal and pour herself a sip from the bottle. The bourbon apparently was still good. She was going to put the 9/10s of a fifth that remained back in her car until her husband reminded her that she didn’t want to be driving around on Christmas night with an open container of alcohol in her car, just in case they get stopped. For the moment, the bottle is sitting on a high shelf in a cupboard in our kitchen.

We talked some about finding Dickie Post, who appears to be still alive. He’d be about 61 now. Ultimately, we decided that he might not want to remember having bottles confiscated from him in a San Diego hospital at the very moment his fame faded. Of course, I still remember the guy, but I’m weird that way about sports trivia. I actually even saw Post play once back when the Boston Patriots played at Boston College.

When my wife and her sisters get together, they talk endlessly about every detail of their family history. Usually, the memories stop somewhere around 1970. That was the year my wife’s older sister died at 16 during heart surgery for a congenital condition and just a couple years before her father died. They seem to savor every moment of the years right up to then. It’s strange how that bottle of Dickie Post’s Jim Beam sits right on the boundary line of their memories of their mother and their family. For this one Christmas, it was like their mother was still there laughing with them over this 36 year old message with a bottle.


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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bedtime Stories

Our sixteen year old daughter came into our room after eleven o’clock last night to ask about the war.

“Is it a war on Iraq or a war on terrorism?” she asked.

In general, we have at least ten times more conversation about volleyball with my daughter than about anything political. Apparently she had been talking about it on the phone with her boyfriend (it’s still hard for me to use that phrase) and they’d gotten in an “argument” about how to define the war. Neither of them supports the war, but I’m not sure that they’d talked much about why they don’t support it.

We took a few minutes to go through the list.

1) It’s not a war on Iraq right now because the United States controls the current Iraqi government.

2) It’s not a war on terrorism in the sense that “terrorism” is a way of pursuing political goals through focused acts of violence without an army controlled by a government.

3) There are terrorists in Iraq, but they’re not the same terrorists who carried out 9/11.

4) We originally invaded Iraq because Saddam was supposed to have weapons of mass destruction that he might share with terrorists.

5) The weapons of mass destruction did not turn up.

6) There’s really no way to fight a conventional war against the concept of terror.

7) The President hinted strongly at the time that Iraq was tied to 9/11, but that was largely to convince America to go to war.

8) Even though North Korea really does have WMD, we haven’t invaded there. This might have something to do with oil or their lack of it.

9) One reason we went to Iraq was to spread democracy through the entire region.

As we talked about the differences between the real reason the U.S. is in Iraq and the nominal reasons given at various times, it occurred to me that it’s not easy to explain. It also occurred to me that a number of things have now been revealed and are well established, e.g. the lack of WMD and the lack of ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda that make the whole thing even harder to understand whether you’re an adult or a teenager. This became even clearer to me when my daughter then asked me the question, “Why do we stay there and what is it that we still expect to accomplish?”

We went down that list.

1) Saddam is out of power.
2) There are no WMD there.
3) There still seem to be a lot of terrorists in the world whether we stay in Iraq or withdraw.
4) Democracy is not spreading in Iraq much less the entire Middle East.
5) Gas costs a lot more than it did before the war.
6) The Pentagon just asked for another 100 billion dollars to continue the war.

She changed her question slightly to “What would it mean to win the war now?”

When I was sixteen years old back in 1971, it occurred to me that I had the same questions about Vietnam. We were just starting to learn that the Tonkin Gulf incident had largely been faked and that official statements about that war didn’t match reality. The question had not so subtly shifted from “Can we win or are we doing enough to win?” to “How do we get out?”

When my daughter was young enough not to have a boyfriend, bedtime stories were supposed to have happy endings. I'm left with a few thoughts. First, how in the hell did we let this happen again? Second, why are the people directly responsible for this still doing in office and making the decisions? Third, why is so much of the truth about the reality on the ground suddenly hitting the media and being acknowledged after the election? Doesn't it mean that the president et al. were simply lying for all of 2006 and much earlier about the state of things in Iraq? Finally, where does all of this leave my daughter when she gets to be our age?


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Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Holiday (movie review)

In Nancy Meyer's latest romantic comedy The Holiday, we learn early on that Cameron Diaz's character hasn't cried since she was fifteen years old. This crosscuts with scenes at the offices of a London Newspaper of Kate Winslet being asked to write the wedding notice for the man who jilted her in the midst of the office Christmas party. In a Nancy Meyer's movie (What Women Want, Parent Trap (the Lindsay Lohan remake), Something's Gotta Give), there's never much doubt about what's going to happen eventually. She is not a director who seeks to make cinematic statements or break technical ground with her films. In fact, she more or less revels in making movies that are manipulative, formulaic, and slick.

Basically, the Meyer's movie experience feels more or less like what would happen if a major women's magazine suddenly decided to get into the movie business and executed it with some level of skill and imagination. While Cameron Diaz/Jude Law and Kate Winslet/Jack Black are nominally the stars of this crosscut romance (oddly Holiday is arguably a more mature remake of the Parent Trap with its fascination with London mixing with California) the movie's real stars are its panoply of lifestyle accoutrements. Meyers seems to understand that male porn consists either of people having actual sex on screen or substituting explosions and fights for orgasms and that porn for a certain kind of woman takes the form of romance mixed with consumer fantasy.

The Holiday is thus built around two sets (um, er lives) exchanged over the internet and the Christmas Holiday by two women who have everything but a happy love life.
Diaz is a successful editor of film trailers who normally lives in a west Los Angeles mansion that crosses the Miami Vice school of interior design (Meyers appears to have an obsession with all things white) with a series of state of the art electronic gadgets. Winslet occupies an impossibly charming cottage in Surrey that is more or less Currier and Ives print brought up to date. In this version, it's constantly snowing in Surrey which happens to be a place where it rarely snows in real life, but this goes with Meyers's white obsession and gives the director multiple crosscut opportunities with snowflakes morphing into the white walls of Diaz's mansion. In the meantime, both Diaz and Winslet get to put on a variety of fashionable outfits.
In Diaz's case, this is mostly variations on white pantsuits. I must also comment that for some reason Hollywood seems to persist in the fantasy that newspaper reporters and book editors lead extraordinarily glamorous lives.

I suspect that Nancy Meyers or her fans would at this point stop me to insist that her movies have some sort of feminist subtext about strong independent women who still manage to find romance. In addition, Meyers fills The Holiday, in the person of Eli Wallach as cute old man next door, with multiple suggestions that she's carrying on the tradition of the the romantic comedies of the thirties and forties when screenwriters like Preston Sturges were among the highest paid individuals in Hollywood. The current standard way to do this is to have scenes of the characters watching old movies, something which Winslet gets to do at least a couple times in the movie. Meyers further piles on the homage with various "wise" comments from Wallach's retired screenwriter character about the state of the industry. In her best run at this, Meyers does pull off a scene in a video store with Jack Black's movie composer name-dropping character doing riffs on the scores of various Hollywood classics that's topped with a quick cut to Dustin Hoffman while Black does highlights of the score from the Graduate.

While these sort of Hollywood in jokes are invariably funny and Jack Black now seems to make his living from doing onscreen comic music riffs, Meyers movies aren't in the same class as the Graduate, Tracy and Hepburn, or George Cukor. They also are hardly intellectual fodder for any serious brand of feminism even as seen on the Lifestyle Network. First of all, Meyers's independent-successful female romantic leads always seem to start out the movie as some kind of emotional cripple who eventually gets saved by some sort of romance. That's not "feminist", it's arguably even vaguely misogynist. In The Holiday, Diaz's character ultimately finds redemption by having a one night stand with an attractive but very drunk Jude Law which somehow unleashes her latent desire for family and motherhood. Similarly Winslet gets grounded by discovering her desire to serve as perfect surrogate daughter to Eli Wallach. In the meantime, neither character has anything resembling an emotional compass, i.e. smart women are usually "frigid", not in a sexual sense but they trade off career success for being in touch with the realm of essentially feminine quality of emotional succor.

Meyers vision marries outward feminist rhetoric to a pre-feminist and strangely outdated sensibility that's oddly in harmony with Hepburn's 1942 Woman of the Year which ends with the fiercely independent Hepburn character cooking dinner for Spencer Tracy.

That said, The Holiday is strangely entertaining. One reason is that the lifestyle porn bit of the movie is done genuinely well. Even though it wasn't aimed at me, I rather enjoyed the fantasy of the widescreen tv, swimming pool, and hillside balconies of Diaz's home as they contrasted with the coziness of Winslet's cottage. Second, all the principals really are pretty good actors. Jude Law and Diaz have genuinely good onscreen chemistry which gets a huge boost from Meyers or the cinematographer's strong understanding of how to shoot both actors to best advantage. Diaz in particular looks anywhwere from terrific to dangerously over blonde and skeletal depending on the angle. In Holiday she's made to look glamorous via numerous facial closeups shot from underneath that emphasize her face and eyes. Full body shots are done at a distance. Similarly, Law gets straight on shots of his eyes and facial bone structure. Another bit that works is that the plot clearly plays against the subtext of Law's real life marital turmoil. In this case, he starts out as appearing the playboy while actually hiding the world's most wholesome secret.

Meyers also uses the cross cutting to good effect in picking up the contrast both physically and in acting style between Winslet and Diaz. Diaz is a strong physical comedian and a reasonably good technical actress, which Meyers takes advantage of via the conceit with the tears and Diaz's signature bit in the movie of being able to fluster but not feel. In addition, she gets to slug Ed Burns and fall down on a couple occasions. Winslet has a fuller look and a warmer comedic style. Meyers crosscuts from Diaz's scenes to Winslet's quite skillfully and the segues gives a sense that the movie was sort of what jazz musicians call a "cutting" session in which the soloists exchange eight bar riffs in a kind of friendly competition.

There are also a few touches that work despite their obviousness. Meyers uses the snow and Santa Anna winds in LA to force a kind of Midsummer's Night Dream mystical feel to the "switch" aspects of the movie. Second, there's a forced bit in which Diaz keeps seeing her own life as one of the film trailers she's been editing.

There's a tendency for some reviewers to write about films as if they must break intellectual ground in order to somehow be worthy. The Holiday would never pass this test. I tend to believe that part of the wonder of the cinema is that movies serve a wide variety of purposes. In this case, my sixteen year old daughter and I had an afternoon where we had to find something to do with three hours of our time in Raleigh, North Carolina. It has probably been at least two years since I went to a movie alone with my daughter. We were choosing between Jerry Bruckheimer's Deja Vu and The Holiday. We wanted something we could see together, maybe laugh a little, and not take the risk of feeling challenged in any way. There are days when one reads Proust and there are time when you reach for People Magazine. With the latter, you may not remember what you read, but it'll unquestionably help you pass the time. The Holiday, for whatever reason, meets that test.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Man of the Year (Movie Review)

Whenever we stay in motels, my daughter's always considered it a treat to be able to order one of the pay per view movies from the motel's satellite system. If you don't know the drill, for about ten dollars you can choose to watch a movie that's not quite yet been released on DVD. You select the movie with the arrows on your remote control which invariably has run-down batteries and then spend the rest of your stay worrying that you got charged for too many movies because you pressed the button too many times.

For some reason, two of the staples of hotel movie systems seem to be Hugh Grant and Robin Williams, two actors I've begun to avoid in our rare ventures to the movie theater and even on DVD. As one friend of mine summed it up, "Can you name a Robin Williams movie that was actually unreservedly good?"

There may be, but I couldn't think of one on the spot. fwiw, I think his best role was as the jin in Aladdin with Good Will Hunting being his best role in which he didn't play some variation on a stand up comedian.

Barry Levinson directed one of Robin Williams's more successful movies, Good Morning Vietnam, which not quite seamlessly blended Williams manic stand up style into an earnest "Vietnam was a mess" screenplay. Williams was nominated for a best actor academy award for the role. (He's been nominated 3 times for best actor and won best supporting actor for Good Will Hunting). Man of the Year is their second venture together and attempts a similar mix though this time instead of the military and Vietnam, which would btw have been riper topics, this one takes on the comedification of the news and the perils of voting machines.

Many critics insisted that Levinson worked well with Williams in Good Morning Vietnam because Levinson's own roots are in standup comedy. There's little doubt that the thirty minutes of routines worked into the script work quite well on their own. Williams plays a John Stewart/Bill Maher type political tv comic who jokes about then decides to run for the presidency on a "something must change" platform.

This gives Williams plenty of opportunities to do his manic riff schtick throughout the film which is at its best when Williams gets to do monologues particularly in a "won't stop talking sequence" in the midst of a presidential debate that allegedly makes his candidacy viable.

The tenuous relationship between media and reality is one of Levinson who produced, directed, and wrote the movie's favorite themes. Because of this, it begs comparison to Levinson's other "political-statement" movie Wag the Dog which was something of an inverted version of the Peter Sellers' vehicle The Mouse that Roared. Levinson actually did a subtler take on this theme in Avalon, perhaps his best movie, which traces the degeneration of family life with the increasing prominence of the television as a fixture in the living room. fwiw, Levinson's Baltimore movies starting with Diner tend to be much more personal and heartfelt than his more thematic statement-oriented movies e.g. Rainman-autism, Sleepers-the juvenile system and child abuse, Bugsy-organized crime.

The problem in Levinson's non-Baltimore movies tends to be that the characters too often serve as "ideas" rather than fully-dimensional characters. Man of the Year is no exception. One result is that even in Rainman, the emotional scenes come off as more designed than felt. In Wag the Dog, the cast which included heavyweights like Dustin Hoffman, Rober Deniro, and Bill Macy were totally overshadowed by the plot. Imagine how much flatter it gets when you have a similar formula but trade that cast for Robin Williams, Laura Linney (who I think of as a great actress fwiw), and Christopher Walken. For someone who seldom writes great characters outside Baltimore, Levinson has a knack for assembling A list casts.

It's actually quite possible to make a movie of ideas in which the characters are secondary. Costa Gravas's Z comes to mind as does the Battle of Algiers. Levinson however doesn't manage it for a variety of reasons. Man of the Year has an ADD quality in that it forces two plots together. There's the story of the comedian managing to get elected because Americans now thoroughly can't tell the difference between entertainment and news. If the viewer doesn't happen to get it, Williams and his "crew" are given all sorts of pithy lines to comment on the "State" of things. In particular, Walken plays a wheelchair bound manager/campaign-manager named "Menken" whose main function is to repeatedly compare politics to show business. The dual name drop of H.L. Mencken, the old time political commentator and the mini-homage to Dr. Strangelove don't dignify Levinson's movie as much as they remind the viewer that this movie's insights don't reach those levels. Worse yet Williams dons a wig to play George Washington for his address to Congress and this homage to Mrs. Doubtfire just serves as a reminder that even Williams has been in better movies.

The other plot is built around Laura Linney, as the honest emplolyee of the dishonest voting machine company who does things like watch Frank Capra movies while trying to decide whether she should step forward to save democracy from corporate greed in the form of Jeff Goldblum who for some reason signed on to a role where he has nothing to do but act heartless. Linney is normally excellent, but in this movie she's trapped between a faux thriller and romantic comedy. She thus spends most of the film just looking anxious and frustrated.

I have no idea why Levinson didn't choose to concentrate on one "story", but he attempts to bridge the two with an utterly non-credible and chemistry free relationship between Williams and Linney.

As someone who's actually sympathetic to Levinson's message in this movie, the thing that's most unforgiveable is its lack of political heart. The reason other Politics over character movies work is that Costa Gravas was making a sardonic statement about the destruction of democracy in Greece and Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers still remains the definitive movie statement about terrorism because he was willing to see both sides of the question and had real insights. In both cases, the directors were serious about the political statement made by the movie.

Wtih Levinson, the level of insight is embarrassingly shallow. At one point, Williams asks his audience "Do you think our schools are working?" and I can swear there are lines like "We go to war way too easily." Levinson even avoids taking a side by making Williams character pointedly neither a democrat nor a republican. I'm not sure though that the Platitudacrats have anything to offer either.

This could have been a much better movie if Levinson had shown more political guts and made the political commentary more pointed. If, however, you like Robin Williams's standup rants, this one is at least watchable for those but that's it.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Picking up and Leaving Off

For the last two years, I’ve been playing basketball more or less twice a week at my neighborhood elementary school. Most of us are middle-aged or close to it meaning that many of us are wondering “Just how much longer are we going to try to do this?”

A few years back, I thought I’d run out of places to play. I could actually sort of keep up with the twenty somethings who I’d happen into at the gym I joined just to have a place to play basketball, it was just that they didn’t much want to play with me. It may have been a generational difference, but the parts of the sport I enjoy were really different. Because I was never much of an athlete, I always concentrated on getting other people the ball, switching on defense, setting screens, etc. I’m “Old School”, they weren’t. They were “hip-hop” and I was “no hops”. Their version of the sport was mostly dribble down court by yourself and either pull up and shoot from the three point line or try to drive the lane. If I got a chance to play, I’d pass the ball and then wait to ever see the ball again often going a couple games without even taking a shot.

Anyway, my regular game hasn’t been Red Holzman or Jack Ramsey heaven, even though we look more like those guys physically than we do any current famous basketball players. Still, there’s enough of it that a couple times a night I get the charge that comes from being able to communicate with the basketball instead of words. Probably more important, this several year old game has built a lot of guy camaraderie among the regulars even though occasionally some of the players have been female. The one thing that’s new-fangled about the group is that the teacher who has the key to the gym determines if there are enough of us to play on any given night by sending out an e-mail to which some guys just say “yes, I’ll be there” and others treat as an essay prompt.

Chip Dunbar might have been the most regular of the guys in the regular group. He lived a little more than a block from the school and I’d often see him walking to the game as I rode my bicycle there. Usually, he was listening to his Ipod because the rest of his life was built around music. Chip played bluegrass mandolin (in addition to the violin, the guitar, and having a fine singing voice) and had actually come to California from Atlanta many years ago just because he got an opportunity to study with mandolin god, Mike Marshall. Somewhere in between, Chip got into helping people use Macintosh computers both as a music aide and to help other music types maintain websites, keep fan databases, etc.

He was a fairly big guy, but much of the time he’d hang out around the three point line and wait for his shot which now that I think of it had sort of a musician’s feel to it in that he never rushed it. It didn’t really matter whether you had a hand in his face. He’d make it sometimes six or seven times in a row. If he went inside much at all, he’d usually take this slow developing left-handed hook (he was clearly right-handed) that he also had a way of getting in repeatedly. My wild guess is that over the two years, Chip probably made more baskets shooting over my hand than anyone else’s hand.

It was sometimes frustrating to play with Chip because he had a tendency to hold onto the ball and sometimes didn’t pick up switches on defense. He also liked making calls from the other side of the court from time to time and like most of us would call fouls on plays that hardly anyone thought was a foul. In games when I was younger, this sort of stuff invariably led to fights. I don’t mean fistfights, more like Gorilla-style puffing up and raised voices. Generally, the guys in this game are too old to do that without laughing. I do remember one time that Chip wound up in the middle of one of those things and he walked out of the gym without raising his voice. A day or so later he sent an e-mail apologizing to everyone and saying he just didn’t come out to get into arguments or to play with that kind of intensity.

Over time, I noticed other things about Chip. Even though he shot more than passed, he was always encouraging me to shoot more. Second, he was the guy who often brought new guys to play and made a point of making the new players who showed up feel welcome. In pickup basketball, guys frequently have three personalities. There’s the individual with the ball. There’s the guy as he deals with people on the court and between games. There’s the guy away from basketball. Sometimes, the three have something in common and often they don’t.

Last Sunday, Chip died from a heart attack while out on a walk with his wife. When I got the e-mail through our basketball list, I was surprised by how much it affected me. My own Dad died from a sudden heart attack when he was 50. Chip was 52. I’m 51 (yikes). That’s the obvious part. I think the less obvious bit was that I’d come to admire Chip as I’d gotten to know him. Like many middle-aged people I spend much of my waking life balancing what I would love to do with the things that I have to do in order to make the things I love to do possible. The basketball, my regular writing group, my family, and this blog have been high on the list of things I love to do.

Over time, it occurred to me that Chip was actually one of these guys who’d built his life around doing the things he loved. Whenever we talked, it seemed like he was either giving concerts with his bluegrass (newgrass actually) group Under the Radar,(his other groups were Hijinks, Terra Nova, and Cedar Hill a Georgia-based group with whom he'd just played a reunion concert), teaching music, or playing basketball (apparently he played 4 nights/week).

On Saturday, the day of his memorial service, we had our regular basketball game and put a couple of Chip’s CD’s on a boom box while we played. One of the guys put a copy of the obituary that ran in the local paper on poster board. Just before we started, a guy showed up in street clothes who turned out to be Chip’s younger brother. He looked just him except he didn’t have a beard, which made it a little eerie. After we finished, we hung around and joked about the guy.

They had a memorial service at the same place where I used to go for my meditation group. The room there probably held a hundred and eighty people, but there were about fifty of us out on the deck because we couldn’t all fit inside turning the event into "Chipstock". They started by playing some of Chip’s music. His wife spoke for a few minutes and was remarkably composed for someone who’d lost her husband just days earlier. They then introduced a group of four thirteen year olds whom Chip had been teaching and had temporarily christened the mighty Chiplings.

We'd talked about them a few times because I knew the family and Chip had also once impressed me with his love of his music by telling me how excited he was to hear younger bluegrass musicians at a festival who'd found ways to incorporate punk and rap into the music in much the same way that his contemporaries had fused it with rock and roll. His groups sometimes included songs by the Beatles and the Monkees among others.

The Chiplings were a little hesitant at first though charmingly so. When I saw Chip perform, he served as the spokesperson for Under the Radar and was a bit of a comedian on the stand. The boys did a bit of the same. They then broke into a slightly halting version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

As they played, they got increasingly comfortable and those present sang along. The sun was out and it seemed like everyone started crying. The presence of kids playing the music Chip loved and promising to carry it on, the perfect choice of song, and all these people there who sprang from all the different communities that Chip frequented all seemed to conspire to say that this is one community, it’s just a matter of listening for it.

Ironically, the only time I ever visited Chip at home was a party a month ago to celebrate the remodeling of his house. There were people with stringed instruments everywhere, a pickup group in every room of the house. I walked into the driveway at one point and ran into a stack of guitar and bass cases which found their way out there because there was no room in the house. The atmosphere was so happy and relaxed, I assumed that his wife, who is also a musician, and he had been having these kinds of gatherings forever. At the memorial service, his wife revealed that it was their first such party in fifteen years.

When someone your own age dies, it naturally provokes you. I got the distinct impression that Chip went with few regrets because he’d been doing the things in life he wanted to do. I’ve spent much of the last fifteen years dealing with schools. For the most part, public schools are frustrating even sad places. They’re filled with kids who often don’t want to be there expected to work on things to which they feel minimal connection and adults who often absorb that frustration. Chip was one of these guys who went to some college then moved on with his life.

One time, he told me that he’d left home in New Jersey and wound up literally wandering the streets of Atlanta until he happened to come upon a guy who ran a roadside flower business. For several years, Chip was one of those guys selling flowers at the street corner from a white paint bucket. Apparently he’d play his mandolin sometimes as he waited for customers. He grew the business into a large enterprise in which he apparently had dozens of employees, many of them homeless or disabled. From that, he made enough money to come to California and take time off to do little more than concentrate on the mandolin. During that time, he got into the Mac, at which he was largely self taught, just solving problems as they came along.

One of the longstanding arguments in education is between those who believe that children should be taught to follow their own internal compass and discover what they love about the world. The idea is that if you learn to love things in the world, you become passionate about them and learn better from following your bliss than you ever would have with more externally-imposed discipline. The other pole is that kids have to be literally forced to learn certain kinds of things, because we all need to know how to do things.

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking, maybe erroneously, that Chip was one of these guys that proved that what I’ve always hoped was true about school might be true- learning is an extension of joy and one can build a life around pursuing one’s passions.

I’m sure others would insist that not everyone has the talent to do that and Chip was one of the few people who pursued music who could make any kind of living around it. It’s as rare as being able to make your life around basketball actually. People from the other pole would point out that Chip certainly went through a stretch in life where he was selling flowers on a street corner. He also, apparently went through points in life where he got a little excessive. There were stretches where he had to discipline himself and do things he didn’t absolutely want to do.

Honestly, people’s actual lives make lousy bases for educational theories. You’ll find people will claim that some person’s life exemplifies just about any idea you want to promote. Still, I saw on Saturday that there were a lot of people who wanted to remember this one guy well. I don’t know how many of us have that when we go (fwiw, it happens more often when your friends are still alive). Most were there because they knew Chip through one of his passions.

On the day he died, we played basketball that morning. Usually we play to a slightly higher score in the last game. For whatever reason, Chip proclaimed that we should play win by 2 instead of the usual first one to 7, 9, or 11 baskets. As a result the game went back and forth for about 20 more baskets. I don’t know if he played too much that day or he insisted on playing longer because he knew at some level this was the last time. It was a great game. I remember guarding him and having him shoot over my hand time after time, but I made the winning basket on one of my few shots. One of his habits was to say “short” just as he released the ball, then we’d all laugh as we would watch it invariably go straight through the basket making the sort of sweet string music that only basketball junkies understand.

He was the rare mandolinist who could play fast well, but knew how to play slow even better, something that’s really hard to do with an instrument as bright as the mandolin. Part of me wants to say that the guy played basketball like he played music. He refused to get as frenzied about it as many guys do. Maybe, he refused because of his heart condition, maybe it was just something he’d figured out about life. I think I’d normally be tempted to call a 52 years a “short” time to climb the rope of life. I didn’t think that this weekend though. It seemed like he found the sweetest part of the string and made it swing as best he could.

If I make changes in my life over the next few years, I hope it’ll be to do more of the things I love. If I manage that, it’ll have a little bit to do with playing basketball with a guy who would tell me the “pass first” guard to just go ahead and shoot when I’m open. Maybe he didn’t just mean basketball.

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