October 27, 2011

The Play’s the Thing, But History Still Matters

Hello. I'm Leonard Nimoy. The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is: No.
- The Simpsons, “The Springfield Files”

This past weekend, K and I were out at the West Virginia Book Festival, where we ran into my sister-in-law and my niece plowing through the used book sale. My niece, who’s in high school, already had two armfuls of books. Among them were a boatload of Shakespeare. She got them not to fulfill some requirement for English class, but because Shakespeare references were popping up lots of places and she wanted to know more about them (in contrast to her lunkhead classmates, as I understand it).

Yes, I was one proud uncle.

Perhaps inevitably, discussion slid towards Anonymous, the latest Roland Emmerich opus to hit the silver screen (opening tomorrow). It’s about how Shakespeare really didn’t write the stuff that’s attributed to him, giving the honor instead to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (who, in the movie, is also the son and lover of Queen Elizabeth I). It sounds like riveting, entertaining, popcorn scarfing fun. It’s also complete fiction.

Which, you know, is fine when it comes to drama. The parallel that immediately came to my mind when I heard about Anonymous was Amadeus, which tells the fictional tale of how Mozart was offed by a jealous rival.* It’s fantastic drama, but it ain’t history. Which is fine, as long as that’s all it presents itself as.

If only Anonymous was doing that. Instead, Emmerich and Sony “have produced a documentary and classroom study guide”  to go along with the film. Which is why Shakespeare scholars and boosters are pissed.

One scholar laid out the case against Anonymous in the New York Times last week. The de Vere theory has some history behind it, at least:
The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, dates from 1920, when J. Thomas Looney, an English writer who loathed democracy and modernity, argued that only a worldly nobleman could have created such works of genius; Shakespeare, a glover’s son and money-lender, could never have done so. Looney also showed that episodes in de Vere’s life closely matched events in the plays.
Historian Simon Schama did a similarly caustic putdown here (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/10/16/film-anonymous-doubts-shakespeare.html).

But what’s so wrong with a theory that’s famous believers include Freud, Antonin Scalia, and John Paul Stevens?
[P]romoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems. As for the argument that the plays rehearse the story of de Vere’s life: since the 1850s, when Shakespeare’s authorship was first questioned, the lives of 70 or so other candidates have also confidently been identified in them. Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere’s supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written.
Supporters of the Looney theory get around the lack of evidence in a way well known to modern political observers – a conspiracy theory! Thus, the absence of evidence is, in fact, evidence itself. The usual caveats about such things apply, of course, from the traditional problem of how all those conspirators kept the secret for so long to the equally prevalent issue of why would anyone care to put up and maintain such a fa├žade?

Shakespeare supporters are striking back, too. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is:
is protesting the release of “Anonymous,” . . . by covering Shakespeare’s name on several signs in Warwickshire, the British county that was the playwright’s home.

BBC News reported that the trust had taped over Shakespeare’s name on nine local road signs to coincide with the London Film Festival premiere of “Anonymous.” It said the group would also cover up signs on 10 pubs and drape a sheet over a Shakespeare memorial in the playwright’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.
I guess the idea is to protest the writing of Shakespeare out of history by . . . writing him out of history, albeit temporarily. It’s not the most clever protest, but it will do.

Although I wonder if the Shakespearians doth protest too much. After all, the Bard himself is well known for his “histories,” most of which have little to do with actual history. They are sublime dramas, but anyone really wanting to know about the fate of Julius Caesar or King Macbeth of Scotland should dive into actual history. Given Shakespeare’s own loose relationship with history, maybe Anonymous is a certain kind of karmic payback?

Or maybe not. A.O. Scott’s review is less than kind:
“Anonymous,” a costume spectacle directed by Roland Emmerich, from a script by John Orloff, is a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination. Apart from that, it’s not bad.

Unless the point of the film is to undermine what Scott calls “a hoary form of literary birtherism” by exposing just how absurd the whole theory is. I suppose you’ll have to buy a ticket and see, which is the best thing for Emmerich’s bottom line, regardless.

And in the end, does any of this matter, anyway? Times theater critic Ben Brantley argues that it doesn’t. After all, the play’s the thing, as somebody or another once said. Nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with standing up to conspiracy theories that upend the settled historical record. Truth is its own reward. Or at least it should be.

* To be completely fair to Amadeus, it’s told as a series of flashbacks by a man in an asylum, so there’s an obvious unreliable narrator problem staring you right in the face.  I have no idea if Anonymous uses the same trick to ensure some plausible deniability.

October 25, 2011

Evil, But Not Criminal

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr writes about one of those cases where the law doesn’t really catch up with the wickedness of the world.

It involves a fact pattern straight out of a Hollywood movie. A group of drug enforcement officers go about their usual routine – investigate tips of drug activity, make controlled buys of drugs from dealers, arrest them, etc. Everything is on the up and up, with one exception. Instead of sending the dealers into the criminal justice system, the cops let them go. Then the cops take the drugs they seized from the dealers, sell them, and pocket the cash for themselves.

Now, surely the cops committed a crime, right? Well, yeah, but which one? How about violation of the dealers’ civil rights (their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, in this case) under color of law, pursuant to 18 USC 242? The Sixth Circuit said, “yes” and affirmed convictions (and life plus 255 year sentence) under that statute. Kerr makes a pretty compelling argument that the Sixth Circuit got it wrong.

The problem that Kerr correctly identifies is a long line of Supreme Court cases interpreting the Fourth Amendment holding that the proper way to analyze those claims is by using an objective, rather than subjective, approach. The only issue is whether there was probable cause to search/arrest, not whether the cop doing the searching/arresting for some other reason.

It’s an outgrowth of a case called Whren, in which a motorist argued that a cop violated the Fourth Amendment by pulling him over because he was black, rather than because he committed a minor traffic violation. The Supreme Court wouldn’t bite and held that as long as there was a legit basis to make the stop, it doesn’t matter if the cop had an ulterior motive in making it. One the one hand, that holding makes sense – to hold otherwise would require some real mind reading on the part of courts. On the other hand, it’s pretty much given cops carte blanche to stop folks for any reason they want, as long as they can gin up some objective “facts” to support it.

At any rate, as Kerr points out, under Whren and subsequent cases, so long as the cops in this case had probable cause when they stopped and searched these dealers (everybody agrees that they did), there was no violation of a “clearly established right.” You have no right to be free from reasonable searches and seizures, after all. That the cops never had any intention on following through with the normal procedure afterwards is irrelevant.

The Sixth Circuit gets around Whren two ways, although the meat off their analysis is that the defendant’s conduct was “thoroughly and objectively illegal from start to finish.” Whren doesn’t apply because the cops weren’t acting as cops (“bona fide law enforcement purposes”), they were acting as criminals. The Sixth Circuit also argues that Whren was all about excluding otherwise valid evidence in a criminal trial, and thus was distinguishable from what went on here.

Kerr isn’t convinced and I’m not sure I am either. He notes that Whren doesn’t mention “bona fide law enforcement purposes” nor really provide any support for that qualification on Fourth Amendment analyses. However, the Fourth Circuit relied on a similar rationale in a case decided last year, although in a very different context. In US v. Taylor (click here for a fuller discussion), the court held that an officer who entered a home while trying to locate the parent of a lost child (and, in the course of doing so, found contraband) didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. Along the way, it noted that a warrant was not required because the officer was not involved in a law enforcement investigation when he entered the house. In other words, he wasn’t acting for “bona fide law enforcement purposes.”

Obviously, the Fourth Circuit isn’t the Supreme Court and Taylor is very different from the case Kerr is discussing. However, it does show that the Sixth Circuit might not be as far out on a limb as Kerr makes it out to be.

Although this appears to be a case were the court is attempting to ensure that crooked cops don’t get away, the fact is there are lots of other crimes for which these guys were convicted. Among others, there’s garden variety drug trafficking. There’s no need to stretch the law to cover every evil thing these guys did. The garden variety tools are just as effective. Just ask Al Capone.

October 21, 2011

Friday Review: The Destiny of the Republic

Everything I learned about presidential assassinations I learned from musical theater.

OK, that’s not entirely true. The details of the Lincoln assassination are so prevalent in the culture that you sort of soak those up during your life. As for JFK’s killing, well, there’s always Oliver Stone (kidding!). But as for our two lesser know victims, James Garfield and William McKinley, my knowledge base really comes from Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant, macabre take on the whole political killing business, his 1990 musical Assassins. Such are the benefits of having a college roommate with both a deep appreciation of musical theater and a skewed view of the world that resembles my own.

Thus, my prior knowledge of the Garfield assassination was pretty much limited to the fact that he was shot by a crazed office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau claimed that he was only doing God’s will, but (as the song says) “God was acquitted, and Charlie committed until he could hang.” Turns out, of course, that the situation had a lot more factors going into it than can be distilled into one song (even a really good one).

Those factors come to life in The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, a detailed examination of the whole incident by Candice Millard. Millard makes a compelling case that Garfield’s eventual death – he lingered for almost three months after shot by Guiteau – was due at least as much to the medical care he received as it was to an assassin’s bullet. American doctors, who at the time were still fighting back Joseph Lister’s theories on antiseptic medicine, poked and prodded the president with numerous unsterile instruments (including their unwashed fingers), triggering infections that eventually led to his death.

While Millard spends a great amount of time (particularly in the book’s second half) on Garfield’s lingering death, the first half of the book is spent setting up not only the lives of Garfield and Guiteau up to that point, but the world in which they lived. It’s a fascinating snapshot, showing both how different the United States of the 1870s-1880s is compared to today, and how disappointingly similar the two eras are.

Both men had formative events that would not happen in the modern era. Guiteau had a long spell as a member of a utopian socialist commune in New York, becoming part of a vibrant movement in the 19th Century that knows no real analog today. Meanwhile, Garfield managed to become President of the United States without ever seeking out the office. Not only did he enter the 1880 Republic convention in Chicago without being a candidate, his role at the convention was to make the nominating speech of a fellow Ohioan, John Sherman (brother of General William Tecuhmsa Sherman). But his speech, part of a back and forth between entrenched spoils-system Republicans and reformers, was so well received (and made, in part, on the behalf of some oppressed delegates from West Virginia), that he began to receive votes during the numerous rounds of ballots. After two days of voting, he was the GOP nominee. Imagine Chris Christie getting drafted in that way today!

The politics of the day, however, would be depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the way the game is played today. While Garfield holed up on his Ohio farm (it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to actually campaign in that era – outgoing President Hayes suggested to Garfield that he sit on his porch and “look wise”), his surrogates engaged in the kind of negative campaigning we find today. His opponent, former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock (at one point, it seems like every pol in the book can be called “General”), is bashed not only on his lack of a record (printing up blank pamphlets titled “Hancock’s Achievements”), but for being a Democrat and, therefore, quite possibly a Confederate sympathizer (in spite of, you know, being a Union general and all). Undaunted, Hancock’s forces lobbed corruption allegations at Garfield, scrawling “329,” the amount of money he allegedly gained from an insider trading scandal, all over the place – even including inside the homes of prominent Republicans. The result was a comfortable Garfield victory, although the popular vote margin was on 1898 votes (out of nearly 9 million cast).

Guiteau, meanwhile, leads a life that would be familiar to anyone who deals with mental illness and the criminal justice system. There’s little doubt that Guiteau is insane. He was also a crafty con man, managing to repeatedly run up various debts and then simply slip away under cover of darkness. He could be violent, threatening his sister with an axe and tormenting his wife during their short-lived marriage. However, given that he was a pauper and his family had few assets, they couldn’t afford to have him committed. Even his purchase of the gun has a ring of Dirty Harry to it – he knows nothing of firearms, so he goes in an buys the biggest damn pistol he can find.

Even the nation’s reaction to the shooting seems familiar. In spite of popular conceptions of 19th-century America as being a collection of isolated parochial places, fact is the nation was uniting as it never had before, thanks to railroads, telegraphs, and the recent introduction of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (more of him later). Word of the shooting spread across the wires immediately after it happened. Some papers printed rushed incorrect information that Garfield had already died. Letters of support and advice poured in to the White House from all over.

Sadly, the reaction to Guiteau’s act was also something that would not look out of place today. He was locked up immediately, more for his own protection than because he was charged with anything. One of his jailors took a shot at him. Crowds gathered and called for Guiteau to be lynched (Millard even quotes newspaper editorials in favor of it). Once Garfield died and Guiteau’s legal defense hinged on insanity, it was clear that nothing other than a guilty verdict and the death penalty would do. And, of course, political points were scored, with civil service reformers linking Guiteau’s acts to the politicians most associated with the spoils system (including Chester A. Arthur, who became president when Garfield died).

All of this lends rich context to the basic story Millard tells of the President, the assassin, and incident that linked them in history forever. That being said, the book tends to drag a bit in that second half, partly because the story of Garfield’s slow death is redundant and partly because of an odd shift in focus.

Guiteau slinks to the shadows for much of the second half (at least until his trial), while Bell comes to the fore, feverishly working on an invention that would allow Garfield’s doctors to find the bullet lodged within him. While fascinating that the inventor was involved in the situation at all, there’s really no payoff. For one thing, it’s never clear what the doctors would have down had they known where the bullet was (their guesses, it turned out, were way off). Millard even mentions that many gunshot victims and Civil War vets walked around with bullets still inside them with no ill effects, so it’s an odd thing to focus on. But, more importantly, Bell’s gizmo doesn’t work in the end, so the whole tangent seems a bit pointless. In this interview, Millard explains that she came to the Garfield assassination while doing research on Bell, so maybe she was just reluctant to let that research go to waste.

Instead of leaning on Bell’s story, I wish Millard would have focused more on Guiteau and what happened to him after the shooting. As I said, he was in jail the whole time, but it doesn’t appear he was charged with anything until Garfield died. Did anybody suspect that might be a problem? And we learn that the only lawyer willing to represent Guiteau is his own brother, who practiced patent law, not criminal law. Surely they searched for someone else, the era’s version of Clarence Darrow or Gerry Spence, who would have reveled in the challenge. Did they all say “no”? Did nobody even look into the possibility? Yes, I admit, I’m a criminal procedure geek, but c’mon!

Millard also falls a little short of her title, Destiny of the Republic. Although there is some discussion of the political calculus in when to bring the vice president into the mix, there is no sense of urgency about the matter. Garfield, while dying, was fully lucid and conscious to the end. There was nothing like, say, Ronald Reagan’s unconsciousness following his assassination attempt (or an equivalent to Alexander Haig’s “I am in control here” declaration). And once Garfield was dead, Arthur stepped in and performed admirably. However traumatic Garfield’s lingering death was to the national psyche, it’s hardly a turning point in the nation’s history.

In the end, where the book really shines is in the contrast of Garfield and Guiteau, two men swept into their fatal confrontation by things beyond their control. It’s ironic that Garfield, who never really wanted to be president, is the kind of person who we should want to become president – educated and inquisitive, a voracious reader, and apparently a genuinely decent guy. And yet, even as part of a very select club of assassinated presidents, he’s pretty much forgotten these days. Of course, Guiteau is not exactly a household name, either.

Unless you’ve been to the theater.

The Details
The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard
First published in 2011

October 19, 2011

Talk About Bad Timing

As the Major League Soccer regular season comes to a conclusion, things in DC United land just took another unexpected turn. The team’s been in a skid for the past few weeks, in spite of the lure of the playoffs dangling right in front of them. Nothing exemplifies that more than Saturday’s home game against Chicago, where DC appeared to salvage a late win on a Dwayne de Rosario penalty kick, only to concede two goals to the Fire in stoppage time.

So the club’s playoff hopes hang by the slenderest of threads (win the last two games and appeal to the fates for help), when this happens.

Two years ago, Charlie Davies was a rising star with the US National Team. A skilled forward with blazing speed scoring goals in a top European league (France’s Ligue 1, with Souchoux), he appeared to be the answer to the perpetual American quest for a true finisher up front. Then, before a World Cup Qualifier against Costa Rica in DC, Davies broke curfew, went to a party, and wound up involved in a horrific car wreck. Davies was severely injured, another passenger was killed, and the driver, who was drunk, was later convicted of manslaughter.

One of the feel good stories at the beginning of the season was Davies’s return, playing for DC United on loan from Souchoux, after recovering from his injuries.. Although he’s not back to his prior form (and has developed a reputation as a bit of a diver), Davies’s 11 goals have helped keep DC in the hunt all season. It’s still a pretty good story.

Save for this latest complication. Davies has sued, for $20 million, both the club at which the party was held and, ironically, Red Bull (which, of course, owns the hated rivals from New York) which organized it. DC, apparently, has a version of a statute commonly called a Dram Shop Act, which allows people injured by someone to sue the providers of the alcohol they consumed, if it was obvious the person was drunk and should have been cut off. The theory, then, would be that the club (and vicariously Red Bull) should not have continued to serve alcohol to the driver because she was visibly intoxicated.

It sounds to me (with the caveat that I have no experience with this kind of litigation – to quote Herman Cain, “I don’t have any facts to back this up, but . . .”) that this will be a tough sell. For one thing, it seems to me that Dram Shop Acts were designed to protect wholly innocent third parties, not others associated with the drunk driver. In other words, to compensate the driver of the other car, not the passengers who rode with the drunk driver. I imagine a jury will want to know how, if the driver was so obviously intoxicated, Davies didn’t see that as well. His lawyer’s already out in front on that question:
We believe the facts will show, among other things, that Mr. Davies had no interaction with the driver at the Shadow Room and was in a separate room. Without getting into detail, as he was leaving, the driver asked if she and her friend could give him a ride to his hotel. In the hustle and bustle of the lobby as he was walking out -- a split-second decision — he said yes. There was no meaningful time in which Mr. Davies had an opportunity to ‘observe’ the driver; he had no knowledge what she had been drinking or whether she had been drinking.
We’ll see how that goes (see Update below). More problematic, at least to the extent that Davies’s suit is looking for compensation due to his missing out on the World Cup last year and his career generally coming to a halt, he’s really go nobody to blame for that but himself. Had he heeded the instructions of his coach, he never would have been out in that situation at all. I don’t know if Dram Shop Act cases deal with contributory/compensatory negligence, but I’ll bet a good defense attorney makes sure that information gets in front of a jury, regardless.

But, above all, what shitty timing. Davies has been a spotlight player for DCU and the league this year. He was in the mix for the Gold Cup squad this summer before he picked up a knock. I understand that the timing is down to the statute of limitations (most states have a 2-year statute of limitation on tort suits), but still. To anyone predisposed to see any lawsuit as a bad thing, Davies looks like a guy who made a bad decision trying to fob it off on someone else, at a time when his team is in desperate need of cohesion. It’s going to leave a bad taste in the mouth of not just DC fans, but many USMNT fans as well.

Davies may very well win his suit, one way or the other. But I wouldn’t count on being welcomed back into the good graces of the American soccer faithful anytime soon.

UPDATE:  Of course, he told Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl something different earlier this year:
Davies says he didn't drink any alcohol that night, and Roberta and Espinoza, in his words, 'seemed completely normal. There wasn't even a second where I thought they might have had too much to drink.'

October 18, 2011

Wrong and Happy About It

Let it never be said that I won’t fess up when I get something wrong.

Back in August I blogged about a fascinating case up in Rhode Island, where the state’s governor, Lincoln Chafee, refused a request from the federal government to turn over an inmate in state custody to face trial on federal charges that could carry the death penalty. Invoking a little-known clause of the Interstate Agreement on Detainers, Chafee exercised his right to refuse based on Rhode Island’s long stance against capital punishment. The Feds didn’t like is, so they filed a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum to drag the defendant to federal court. Chafee and the defendant sought to have the writ quashed.

At the end of my blog post, I wrote:
In the end, I expect the First Circuit (and maybe the Supremes afterwards) to hold that Chafee has to turn [the defendant] over. But I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised if it turns out otherwise.
Guess what? I’m pleasantly surprised. Last week the First Circuit affirmed Chafee’s ability to refuse to comply with the writ, on the grounds that once the Feds invoke the IAD, they are bound by its terms, including the provision allowing the governor of the state in possession of the inmate to refuse to turn him over. It was a split 2-1 decision, although I did not find the dissent compelling. However, that fact could be a springboard for the Feds to seek en banc review from the entire court or take it to the Supreme Court.

Which, sadly, I expect they will do. The case has an issue that probably should be settled by the Supreme Court, but one would think that in this time of runaway deficits that the Feds could find something better to do with limited resources than spend (potentially) millions of dollars to try, convict, and execute a guy who will die in a Rhode Island prison anyway.

Sure, there are state sovereignty issues at play, too, but as demonstrated by the latest crackdown on state licensed medical marijuana operations, the Obama administration doesn’t give a shit about that. Still, money talks and bullshit walks, right? Yeah, but not when the blood lust runs high and an execution is in the offing.

What will the en banc First Circuit or the Supreme Court do with the case, if the Feds push it further? I don’t know. The majority’s opinion is in depth and compelling, but I still find it hard to believe that it will end up being the last word on things. So I’ll keep my original prediction in play, of the Feds seek further review – this defendant will eventually get turned over to them for trial. Either I’ll be right or, again, pleasantly surprised. I’ll take those odds.

October 17, 2011

Behind the Scribbling: “The Last Ereph”

Over the weekend, the final edition of The Absent Willow Review went live, which includes my short story, “The Last Ereph.” You can read my story here. Be sure and check out the rest, too. Some of them look pretty good. Thanks again to the AWR folks for publishing my story, and my condolences on going out of business.

That said, I thought I’d provide a little bit of background on that story.

I actually started this story out the old fashioned way, longhand. I took a pen and notebook with me to ProgDay in 2010, figuring that the rustic setting and downtime between sets would provide some good inspiration. Why I didn’t think to take my netbook, I have no idea. My handwriting is legendary in its awfulness and my hand cramps up after a few lines. Regardless, it jotted down about the first half of things in the shade at Storybook Farm, appropriately enough. The rest came together at home, with invaluable editorial assistance from K. Any particularly brilliant turn of phrase is probably due to her. Thanks, honey!

The inspiration for the story came, oddly enough for an atheist, from some sympathy for a dying religion. I read an article a while back in the New York Times about Zoroastrianism and how it was on the verge of dying out. Now, the Zoroastrians were monotheists way before it was hip, worshiping one god in Persia before even the Jews came on the scene, must less the late arriving Christians and Muslims. That being said, they should be legion, yes? Not anymore. From what I remember from the article (caveat – I could have it completely wrong), Zoroastrians don’t prosthyletize, don’t claim an exclusive in to the truths of the universe, and don’t frown on things like intermarriage with folks from other faiths.

What I took away from the article was that the Zoroastrians were disappearing because they were open minded and non-confrontational, which really struck me as kind of a shitty fate. So I decided to write about it. In the universe of “The Last Ereph,” people belong to “cult houses” like people today belong the churches. They’re more philosophical than religious, although there are those about (I guess – maybe we’ll find out sometime later?). The semi-hero, Kol, stumbles into a decrepit house of a cult with only one remaining member. Will it stay that way? You’ll have to read it to find out.

As for the perhaps most critical question, asked by my parents: “how do you pronounce ‘ereph’?” I have no idea. That’s one of the beauties of writing fantasy – I get to make up words and not give a damn what they sound like out loud. I’ll leave the film/television/audiobook adapters to worry about that.  And individual readers, of course.

That's it.  Enjoy!

October 12, 2011

A Musical Interlude

Apparently, the long holiday weekend has drained my blog-fu for this week. So here's a quick ditty I whipped up a couple weeks ago to tide you over until next week.

Friday Night (and My Baby's In Another State) Blues by Infinity Ranch

October 7, 2011

Friday Review: Contagion

I’ve seen multiple reviewers quip that watching Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s meditation on a global pandemic, in a movie theater is a bit like watching Jaws in a rowboat. That’s true. Even before Gwyneth Paltrow’s face gets peeled off during an autopsy, the way Soderbergh’s camera lingers on every bit of human contact makes you hyperaware of any cough, sniffle, or wheeze emanating from your fellow moviegoers. In that sense, Contagion is frightening as hell. Shame it’s not a very good movie.

The problem isn’t with what is on the screen. Soderbergh’s a great director with well developed visual chops, which he puts to great use in the beginning of the film as we trace the spread of the disease out of Hong Kong via a handful of people unfortunate enough to have interacted with the aforementioned Paltrow at a casino. We get quickly introduced to a broad range of characters, from public health officials and scientists tracking the disease, to those impacted by the spread, to even a crazed altmed blogger who sees the thing through the lens of conspiracy theories.

A good start. Problem is the movie plows on through the spread of the disease and the eventual development of a vaccine to stop it in a way that is almost completely devoid of the characteristics of engaging drama. The characters are barely fleshed out. Some disappear for long stretches of time for no good reason. The world’s going to hell in the background, we’re told, but it hardly ever shows (electricity flows, the water works, and everybody looks pretty well fed). There’s no real conflict, at least one that’s more concrete than the metaphysical “man v. nature” theme. Yes, obstacles are overcome and (in the end) someone saves the day, but it’s done with all the power of a midlevel documentary produced for high school students.

A part of the problem might be something for which Soderbergh and his collaborators should otherwise be praised. Everything I’ve read suggests that the science in Contagion is spot on. It’s rare enough for Hollywood to get it kind of right, but to get it really right is an achievement in and of itself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily lead you anywhere, dramatically. Years ago I blogged about a German film, Sophie Sholl - The Final Days, that was so true to the historical record that some scenes had entire stretches of dialogue taken directly from transcripts of the heroine’s interrogation session. Historically interesting? Certainly. Compelling drama? Not so much. Same with Contagion. The process of how things worked out is interesting in its own right, but it’s not particularly enthralling.

To the extent that Contagion goes looking for conflict, it finds it in the contrast between the diligent and persevering scientists/public health types and the nutty blogger mentioned above, played by Jude Law. There’s actually a lot there you could go into – click the link for Respectful Insolence at the right for a blog devoted to that kind of conflict – but Contagion stacks the deck too heavily on the side of the scientists for it to be a fair fight. Not only are the scientists all diligent, competent, and generally good at their jobs, they are also selfless altruists who make grand gestures for the benefit of their fellow human.

Perhaps the best example is Kate Winslet’s character, sent by the CDC to Minneapolis (where poor Gwyneth returns to lose her face) to get a handle on the situation and work with the local public health apparatus. Of course, she gets the disease and dies. With her dying action, she tries to give her coat to the guy in the cot next to hers in the ward where the dying have been stockpiled. On its own, it would be a touching human moment. Combined with a CDC director who gives his dose of the vaccine to the child of one of the facility’s janitors, a researcher who tests the successful vaccine first on herself, and a World Health Organization researcher who develops a quick case of Stockholm Syndrome (off screen, natch’), it’s just one more repetitive beat on the nature of the good guys.

In the face of that, Law’s nutty blogger never really stands a chance. It’s not enough that he floats the idea that the virus is the result of a biological weapons program gone amok (it’s not). It’s not enough that he revels in the standard anti-vax conspiracy theory that drug companies ramp up fear to get people to buy their products. It’s not enough that he promotes a bullshit herbal treatment for the disease that may lure in the gullible (although, to be fair, there’s no other treatment at the time). No, on top of all that, it turns out that he’s actually making a huge payday off the sales of said herbal remedy and, in fact, is arrested for (of all things) insider trading.

I’m not saying that Soderbergh gets it wrong in this conflict when he assigns the white hats and black hats. It’s just that the good guys are so good they border on saintly. Meanwhile, the antagonist is not only a loudmouth of questionable influence, but is a shitty money grubber, too. It’s hard to make compelling drama out of a conflict when you put your thumb on the scales like that.  Hell, even movies with Nazis as bad guys try to make them a little more complex than the mustache-twiddling baddies from 1930s serials.

Which is a real shame, because Contagion lays out how something like this would really go. With some tweaking, it could be educational and gripping. As it is, it just comes off as stilted and cold. One thing’s for certain – you’ll never look at a hand shake the same way again. Or Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.

The Details

Released 2011
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, et. al.

October 5, 2011

In Praise of Profanity

My thoughts on profanity, and the use of “dirty” words, are neatly summarized by this observation from Henry Drummond (aka Spencer Tracy) in Inherit the Wind:
I don’t swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We’ve got to use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands.
There’s a time and a place for everything, of course. I try not to drop F-bombs around my niece and nephews. Nor would I respond to a question from a judge like, say, “are you suggesting that this statute is unconstitutional?”, with “fuck yes!” There's a time and a place for everything. But, generally, I think that people who get overly up tight about that kind of stuff need to lighten up a bit.

Which is a long winded way of introducing some wisdom from George Carlin, passed on via Ed at Dispatches (and Paul Provenza’s book Sataristas), from an interview he gave just before he died. He's addressing the oft-repeated argument that people who are profane are compensating for a lack of intellect:
Yeah, that ‘You don’t need to; you’re a funny man, you don’t need that stuff’ thing. Well, my argument is that you don’t need paprika or oregano or a few other things to make a stew, technically, either — but you make a better stew. If you’re inclined to make a stew of that type, ‘seasoning’ helps.

* * *

Why should I deprive myself of a small but important part of language that my fellow humans have developed? Why not use all of what we’ve developed to communicate with?

* * *

I think the folks who choose to deny that part of our language have limited themselves. And that’s fine; that’s good. Good choice over there…but I’m just fine over here.
That being said, simply being filthy isn’t a sure fire way of being funny. Carlin cites Bill Cosby as a guy who never worked ‘blue” but was (at one point) really funny. I've got another example.

There's a classic Monty Python sketch where John Cleese plays a hungry reader who leaves the local library to buy some cheese. Cheese shop owner Michael Palin stymies him at every turn due to his lack of inventory (the shop is “certainly uncontaminated by cheese,” Cleese quips). Finally, after rolling through dozens of different varieties, they come to one Palin actually has:
Wenslydale: Ah! We have Camenbert, yessir.

Customer: (surprised) You do! Excellent.

Wenslydale: Yessir. It's..ah,.....it's a bit runny...

Customer: Oh, I like it runny.

Wenslydale: Well,.. It's very runny, actually, sir.

Customer: No matter. Fetch hither the fromage de la Belle France! Mmmwah!

Wenslydale: I...think it's a bit runnier than you'll like it, sir.
Now, in the version that aired on British TV (a curse-free zone), the next line was, “I don’t care how excrementally runny it is. Hand it over with all speed.” The way Cleese lands on each syllable of “excrementally,” combined with the barely contained anger that’s been building, is brilliantly funny.

By contrast, other versions in free-fire zones (Live at the Hollywood Bowl, for instance), the line is “I don’t care how fucking runny it is.” Maybe it’s because I heard the TV version first, but I just don’t think that’s as funny. There’s something about needing a creative way to work around the censor that can be very inspirational.

Which is not to say that censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, is the way to go. As Carlin points out, if you don’t want to work “blue,” then don’t. The rest of us will continue to use every color Crayon in the box. Put away the profanity?  Fuck that shit.

October 4, 2011

Note: David James Is English

I mention that right at the outset, because if an American had proposed some of the things James does in this column in The Guardian he would be set upon by defenders of the footy faith, persecuted as another heretic from across the pond, just like the ones who brought us multiple-point goals and artificial turf. Besides, that fact gives some cover to this American, who thinks James might be onto something, at least with most of the five things he identifies as things soccer could learn from its “egg-shaped cousin,” rugby.

The five things James identifies are (1) increased substitution flexibility; (2) making yellow cards more meaningful; (3) using technology to deal with disputed goal calls; (4) doing away with the transfer window; and (5) someone other than the ref keeping time. I’ve got no position one way or the other on transfer windows. And while goal line tech would no doubt help out in some cases, technology does not ensure correct calls (ask Toledo’s football team), so I’ll leave that to the side for now. As for the others, James has a point, if not a particularly good idea for addressing it.

Take substitutions. The sub rules in soccer look barbaric compares to most other modern sports – you get 3 per game, that’s it. If you use all three subs and then somebody else gets hurt or abducted by aliens during a corner kick, tough shit – you’re down to 10 versus 11. It was not always thus. In the good ole’ days no substitutions were allowed at all. As I understand it, substitutions were initially allowed only for injuries, but that rule was quickly abused, so it morphed into its current form.

Is “three” the correct answer for “how many substitutes should be allowed in soccer?” I dunno. I’ve seen plenty of matches where the last 10 or 15 minutes get pretty dire as 16 tired guys or gals just huff the ball around because nobody can actually run anymore. The three subs on each end run around like children gone off their Ritalin, but often with less interesting results. Maybe more subs would be better. Where James completely goes off the rails is his idea of “specialist” subs, with which we are all too familiar with in our own version of football, thank you very much. But there’s a happy medium somewhere, one that allows for a more up-tempo and offensive match during the whole 90 minutes, without turning it into the NFL.

I also agree that making yellow cards more meaningful would be a good thing, although not for the reasons James lays out. He’s concerned that the effects of accumulated yellows only pile up after several matches and the penalty ultimately served does little to benefit the “wronged” parties along the way. My concern is that a yellow card is really no deterrent for the kind of attack killing tackles that squelch interesting soccer. I’m thinking of the “professional foul” committed in the middle of the park during a counter attack simply to bring proceedings to a halt. It happens so often that defenders clearly aren’t troubled by the yellow (unless they’ve already got one). I’m not sure that the “sin bin” (that’s “penalty box” to you frozen pond types) would really work, as teams playing a man up for long stretches of time already rarely make the most of it. Five minute bursts of 11-on-10 action may not really add much to the game.

Where I think James is most correct is the issue of timekeeping. Soccer games are ruled with an iron fist by a single official who is responsible for all discipline, major decisions about things like goals, and the rather mundane job of signaling the end of the half or game. The clock runs continuously through each half, with a discretionary amount of “added time” at the end to make up for stoppages (allegedly). Thus, unlike most sports where the players, coaches, and fans all know precisely how much time is left in a game, soccer keeps everyone but the ref in the dark.

What I’ve seen of rugby timekeeping makes much more sense. Rugby halves run continuously, just like soccer halves (though they are five minutes shorter). The clock doesn’t stop for routine dead ball situations – line outs, scrums, what have you. But it does stop for longer stoppages, such as injuries or after a score. The ref signals the stoppage, the clock stops. It’s that simple. There is no added time at the end of the half or game because there’s no need for it. The half or game ends once the clock hits zero and the next dead ball occurs. Everybody knows what’s going on and what’s at stake.

Truth be told, Major League Soccer was on the right track with its timekeeping when it started, which involve the time being kept on the stadium clock and not by the ref. The mistake in the MLS plan was now allowing for any stoppages, so time wasting was pathetically easy. That being said, I can remember at least one last minute finish that simply wouldn’t have been as dramatic had we been playing the game the way the rest of the world did.

I don’t think anybody who is a soccer fan wants to fundamentally change the sport into something it’s not. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t evolve as technology and the experiences of other sports show ways that little tweaks might enhance the game. Even an Englishman can recognize that.