Sunday, August 24, 2014

Track of the Week: Linton Kwesi Johnson, "Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)"

The death of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson have got me thinking about songs that deal with police brutality and injustice.  One of the more powerful comes from Linton Kwesi Johnson, a Jamaican-British poet and singer who more people ought to know.  His song "Sonny's Lettah" takes the point of view of a young black man writing a letter to his mother from prison.  He had seen his brother being beaten by the police in a random stop on "suspicion" of possessing marijuana, the British equivalent of "stop and frisk," which this song is condemning.  Under the "sus law" the police could arrest anyone they felt might be possibly committing or about to commit a crime, and it was predictably applied in a racist fashion.  Sonny steps in to help his brother and in attacking one of the cops, kills him.

The rhythm to the song is supremely groovy and insistent without burying the words.  Johnson reads them off in the sad and world weary voice of a young person who has experienced too much life too soon.  It is a harrowing song and avoids the maudlin preachiness of so much protest music in favor of bringing to life the story of someone trapped by an unjust system.  It's not just an effective approach from an aesthetic viewpoint, since the sus law was repealed in 1981 in response to outcry against it.  It gives me hope that despite all of the horrible miscarriages of justice we see on the streets year after year, that something can be done about it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Star Bands, Cheap Videos

Late at night I often find myself on YouTube watching either old commercials or old music videos from the 1980s.  These are the two cultural artifacts guaranteed to stir up memories of my youth, since both tend to be extremely dated.  I didn't really watch MTV until 1984-1985, by which point it had become such an important channel that record labels and artists were spending large sums of money to make them.

It wasn't always so, and it can be rather informative and funny to look at the earliest music videos from prominent artists.  They were often made for next to nothing, and look totally tossed off.  (David Bowie's video for "Ashes to Ashes" was the most expensive yet when it was made, and it looks like something a film student did on the weekend.)  I love them because the featured artists do not look larger than life, but all too human.  Here's a list of some cheap videos made by star artists:

The Rolling Stones, "She's So Cold"
Endless mugging from Jagger on a plain set whose cheapness is revealed when the camera accidentally moves too far out of frame.  Ron and Keith are game but Bill looks bored and Charlie is smirking the whole time at the silliness of it all.  You would be hard-pressed to see this in 1980 and think you were witnessing the world's most famous rock and roll band at work.  It's still more interesting than most other music videos, which are just trying too damn hard.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Pump It Up"
"Hey Elvis, could you stomp around a plain white backing like a spastic duck with a broken foot?  Okay?  Thanks!"

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "The Waiting"
Tom Petty and co are in front of the same white background, this time with some risers and primary-colored triangles behind them.  Video directors in this era had a fetish for putting electrifying rock bands in the dullest environment they could possibly find.  "Remember boys, lip sync directly into the camera."

David Bowie, "Space Oddity"
The song came out in 1969, but this video is from Bowie's Ziggy period in 1972.  He strums a guitar, there are red filters, and a camera swoops over a recording studio soundboard whenever "ground control" is mentioned.  Cheap and amateurish, but somehow effective.

Genesis, "That's All"
"Let's give Phil Collins a hobo coat and some fingerless gloves and have him grimace while he sings to the camera.  Can't go wrong with that."  The fake hobo colony set at least has some furniture.

Journey, "Separate Ways"
This right here is the holy grail of cheap videos by big bands in the 80s, one that has inspired well-deserved homages.  It starts with the band playing air instruments, then *poof* they get real ones!  The power of their rocking is magical!  I just love it when the director cuts Steve Perry emoting to the camera at three different angles in quick succession.  I also love how that they don't even have a set, and appear to be playing on a wharf.  At least they could afford a tracking shot.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cinematic Subgenres: Star Wars Cash-Ins

I've had Star Wars on the brain a lot this summer.  I recently babysat a friend's son who happens to be a Star Wars fanatic, and we watched the original film together while he played with my old Star Wars toys, which I had dug out of the basement.  I also just saw Guardians of the Galaxy, which some have compared favorably to Star Wars (not I will not call it Episode IV: A New Hope, thank you very much.)  I've also written about it as part of my book project (which relates to the cultural history of the 1970s), and in doing so read some reviews of the film when it came out, as well as articles from the time about the growing Star Wars phenomenon.

It is interesting to view the 1977 film in its historical context, since it is very easy to forget just how new and revolutionary it felt at the time.  If you doubt me, compare it to other sci-fi films that came right before it, like Logan's Run, which looks positively cheap and antiquated by comparison.  (I still get a kick out of it, though.)   It also made a ton of money, and as critics and film historians have noted for decades, helped change the basic structure of how Hollywood works and what kinds of films it makes. A visit to the multiplex today, with its effects-driven and superhero/fantasy/adventure films dominating should make that pretty clear.

Looking back at the late 70s, the first attempts to recreate Star Wars' magic at the box office didn't exactly hit their marks.  Last night I was flipping channels and happened to come across The Black Hole, Disney's 1979 attempt to cash-in on the new interest in space movies sparked by Star Wars.  Watching I realized that I had spent the summer inadvertently watching other attempts to milk that cash cow in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  They were often maladroit, but make for interesting viewing, mostly because they were wild stabs in the dark before the blockbuster formula was established. Here are some essential cash-ins of varying quality:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

I am not trolling Trekkers with this one (bless their hearts) but stating facts.  The old Star Trek series had maintained its cult following in the 1970s, and with the success of Star Wars, Paramount was ready to get in on the action with a proven property.  Unfortunately, STMP was long, slow, and turgid, even if it had some interesting elements.  It felt like the pilot to a TV show stretched too long but with better effects.  It does have Bones initially showing up with a hipster beard sporting a space age disco jumpsuit, so at least there's that.  Luckily for the franchise it would return in 1982 with Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, a much superior film and one I still love to watch.

Alien (1979)

The post-Star Wars boom gave birth to another film franchise with Alien, one of the great all time horror movies.  It benefitted from having a stellar cast and following Star Wars' lead in showing a futuristic world that was battered, dusty, and lived in.  This is by far the best of the sci-fi films that followed Star Wars.

Battlestar Galactica (1978-9)

Some of the sci-fi boom came to TV, too.  Yes, kiddos, once upon a time, in the dark mysterious world known as the 1970s, there was an original Battlestar Galactica, not the one you've seen.  The effects budgets made it the most expensive thing on TV, perhaps why it only lasted one season.  George Lucas, showing early shades of his later control-freak tendencies, even sued the creators, accusing them of copying him.  That's a bit ridiculous, and even though the show is dated, it was a lot more interesting than the most of the rest of television at the time.  (And certainly better than the other TV cash-in, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.)

Flash Gordon (1980)

Words cannot express how much I love this movie.  It is insanely cheesy in ways other films can only dream of approaching, and combines the lavish, over the top look of a Dino DeLaurentis production (which it is) with the cardboard cutout characters and silliness of the old film serials that birthed Flash on screen in the first place.  Where else do you get to see acclaimed actors like Max von Snydow ham it up with full force?  I remember seeing the trailer for this when I saw The Empire Strikes Back in the theater, and was fully aware (despite my young age) that it was a knock-off.  But oh what a knock-off!

The Black Hole (1979)

Watching this last night, I was amazed at how odd this movie is.  In many respects it is incredibly anachronistic Disney fare, with dialogue and characters who seemed ripped out of 1950s Saturday matinee flicks.  At the same time, it's also very dark for a Disney film, with one of the robots looking trashed within an inch of the scrap heap before it dies and a self-destructive captain (played by Maximilian Schell) whose robot straight up murders Anthony Perkins (leading to the first PG rating for a Disney movie.)  The actors, like Schell, Perkins, and Ernest Borgnine, seem to belong to a different time, as do the silly moving camera effects. There are some surprising elements, though, from an overall dark tone to a surging, swirling score that I just found out was composed by the great John Barry.  In many respects, The Black Hole is old Hollywood trying to get hip to the new reality and failing.  That said, I liked it as a kid, mostly for the melancholy robots and the aforementioned score.

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

For some reason in the 1980s one of my local TV stations would run this one a lot on Saturday nights.  Unlike many of these other films here it does not pretend to be anything other than pure exploitation, since it comes from Roger Corman's New World Pictures.  It borrows the plot from The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, as Richard Thomas plays a very Skywalker-esque young man who assembles a rag-tag gang of seven to defend his home planet from destruction.  As a kid I loved the fact that one of the said seven was named Cowboy and played by George Peppard, who also played Hannibal on the A-Team at the time.  I also liked that Thomas' space ship was named Nell and talked with a sassy attitude.  Lame, cheap and cheesy, it'll give you plenty of silly entertainment, which is what I love about Corman films.  No Jedi knights or midochlorians here, just cheap thrills, and written by future auteur John Sayles to boot.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Eliminate Tenure For New York Times Columnists

Former restaurant critic Frank Bruni used his platform as a New York Times columnist today to attack teacher tenure. The whole thing was basically him just repeating stuff that some ex-TFA guy now administrator was saying. It was, I must say, rather lazy journalism in that respect. That seems kind of odd, considering that Bruni thinks that teachers are somehow not hired or retained for "talent" and are encouraged by tenure to be a bunch of lazy layabouts. Now I'm not going to directly refute his arguments right here, partly because they are effing weak, and partly because others have already done it so well.

No, instead I would like to deflate his assumption, oft repeated by anti-tenure ranters, that teaching is the only profession in the world where incompetent people keep their jobs. Here's what Bruni had to say: "There’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about."

So I guess other professionals, like say journalists, are totally accountable and always get fired for poor work, and are never allowed to coast on their past accomplishments. Does that sound like bullshit to you? It sure does to me. I figured I would turn the tables, and be an evaluator of the job performance of Bruni and his colleagues, assigning them grades with commentary.

Charles Blow: A
Blow has gone from a statistics-bound column to a more traditional style, and he writes with passion and intelligence. Unlike many other columnists, he is willing to talk insightfully about racism, poverty, parenthood, and rural life. His column is the only absolute must-read in the bunch.

Gail Collins: A-
Collins is by far the funniest of the columnists, and is often able to translate that wit into hard-nosed critique of Washington. However, she seems to be coasting recently, and has become more bemused than critical of the shenanigans of our political class. She never fails to make me laugh, which is why I always read her.

Timothy Egan: A-
A good writer who wrote a great popular history of the Dust Bowl, Egan often brings in interesting historical backing as well as knowledge gleaned from actually rubbing shoulders with and talking to regular people. He could be more consistent, but his better columns are really worth reading.

Roger Cohen: B
He writes solid and insightful stuff on world affairs. His grade is harmed by a tendency to engage in apologist behavior on behalf of Israel.

Paul Krugman: B
Krugman was once a must-read columnist full of wit and insight on numerous topics, but since the beginning of the recession he has been sounding the same note over and over again. Each of his columns is a repeated argument against austerity economics and for Keynesian stimulus. It is an important thing to be saying, but to properly fulfill his job he needs to be presenting new material.

Joe Nocera: B
Nocera has a maddening tendency to uncritically endorse education "reform" initiatives. However, his quest to call the NCAA to account for exploiting its players is very admirable, as are his columns about regulating the financial system. He's mediocre when talks about what he doesn't know, but great on the stuff that he does.

Frank Bruni: C
Former restaurant critic Bruni is alright with his slice of life columns, but when he writes about broader issues it can be a little embarrassing. His aforementioned piece on tenure just repeats talking points from corporate reformers. Anyone who has a platform like his should be expected to do a lot better.

Nicholas Kristof: C-
Kristof's column has become a regular soapbox for colonial white saviorism.

Ross Douthat: D
Douthat's columns are full of sophistry and scolding. He presumes to critique America's moral failings while supporting free market capitalism, a system whose only value is money. Avoids a failing grade by actually have an occasional original thought, such as his columns on classism in college.

Maureen Dowd: F
She has a tart pen but usually deploys it in a quest to be the queen bee mean girl of Washington. Anything she writes about Obama is meant to emasculate him, and she has a never-ending vendetta against Hilary Clinton. In the midst of the turmoil in Ferguson and Iraq, she still insisted on making an attack on Hillz her biggest priority.

Thomas Friedman: F
Friedman is heroin for middle-aged corporate drones who want to appear educated without actually being so. There is more cant and sophistry per column inch in his work than anything else published these days.

David Brooks: F
Brooks' columns are almost always based on some kind of false dichotomy he uses to oversimplify complex issues. He is a tireless purveyor of Conservatism Lite, completely unaware of the fact that he is a self-parody. If you printed his columns in the Onion, people would think they were a satire on neo-conservatives.

Overall, I would say that except for Krugman, Collins, Nocera, Cohen, Blow, and Egan there are literally hundreds of bloggers who could do just as good or better a job as the other columnists. I don't think the Times has a tenure policy, but it sure as hell isn't "talent" that's keeping these people in their jobs.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Track of the Week: Mudhoney "Overblown"

I am currently reading Mark Yarm's excellent oral history of the late 80s-early 90s Seattle music scene, which has had me revisiting much of the music that came out of it.  The music dubbed "grunge," a deceptive title that dubiously threw together the prog-metal Soundgarden and arena rocking Pearl Jam with the punkier likes of Nirvana, was a life-giving breath of fresh air when I first heard it as a 16 year old.  For the first time I felt like there was rock music being made in my own time that was just as interesting and vital as the Clash or Ramones.  When any of those Seattle bands ever appeared in Rolling Stone or Spin I would buy a copy, and I read some of those articles over and over again.  I tore off the cover of Nirvana on Rolling Stone where Kurt Cobain wears a t-shirt reading "Corporate Rock Magazines Still Suck" and proudly taped it to my bedroom closet door.

One of my favorite albums of the time was the soundtrack to Singles, a Cameron Crowe movie filmed and set in Seattle just right before grunge went global.  I didn't actually see the movie until years later (it's alright.)  My favorite song was by Mudhoney, a band who I'd heard about in all of those magazine articles, and who I learned actually predated Nirvana.  Their contribution to the soundtrack is "Overblown," which I loved both for its sound and for its audacity.  The song is one giant pin deflating the balloon of Seattle rock scene hype, right at the moment that grunge moved out of the indie scene into the mainstream.  Singer Mark Arm, his scream-yelp dripping with maximum snot, starts the song by saying "Everybody loves us/ Everybody loves our town/ Been thinking lately/ Don't believe in it now."  The song itself gallops along dementedly with some typically twisted-sounding guitar and pounding drums from the band and a catchy "hey hey hey HEY!" chorus.  Other lyrics call out an unnamed lead singer as a "macho creep," and all signs point to Soundgarden's Chris Cornell.  ("They gave you your own spotlight/ Just like some real rock and roll star" is particularly cutting.)  It ends with the most audacious line one could utter in the midst of the Great Seattle Record Label Feeding Frenzy of 1992: "It's all over and done."

Back then I had to respect a band that would use their biggest platform to date on a soundtrack for a film romanticizing their city to rip its music scene to shreds.  At the time it just seemed very punk rock contrarian, but in many ways Mudhoney prophesied the long, sad devolution of "grunge" from Candlebox to Silverchair to Creed to Nickelback.  It's been good to go back and listen to the really early Seattle stuff and remember that golden little moment of discovery I had in 1991-1992, since they come along so rarely.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Putting Ferguson In Historical Context

Events in Ferguson have really opened up a public discourse in the mainstream that has usually been left on the margins.  Concerns about the militarization of the police, institutional racism, the violence used by the police against unarmed black men, and restrictions on First Amendment rights are all getting a lot of deserved attention.  It's been particularly interesting for me as a historian to see a lot of talk about historical analogies with the 1960s.

In the more popular discourse, you might see people comparing images of Ferguson in 2014 with those of Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965.  The smarter marks, however, have been thinking about the urban uprisings by African Americans in northern cities during that time, and have returned to the Kerner Commission's report about them.  Northern whites have a tendency to want to blame their Southern counterparts for racism, and thus absolve themselves in the bargain.  One way to dispel this convenient hypocrisy is to make people confront their own history, not just what happened in Alabama, as awful as that was.

If you look at uprisings and riots in northern cities in the 1960s, you'll find more than your share of police brutality a la Bull Connor.  In the first place, as the Kerner Commission report demonstrates, most disturbances came in reaction to incidents of police brutality.  The response to protest and anger over such actions resembles the violent tactics used by police in Ferguson.  In the example of Newark in1967, the brunt of the violence came after state police and the National Guard were called in, who then promptly shot up the place and even targeted black-owned businesses for destruction.  In 1968 during unrest in Chicago after Martin Luther King's assassination, mayor Daley said that police ought to "shoot to kill" potential arsonists and "shoot to maim" looters.

Americans might be the world's foremost historical amnesiacs.  They like to pretend that each person is the master of their own destiny, and thus free from the weight of the past.  That's simply not so, as the events in Ferguson show.  It's good that there are louder discussions of the history of racism, residential segregation, and violent policing in our public discourse.  Until that history is learned, I don't see much hope for those problems to be fixed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Contemplating Bud Selig's Legacy

As followers of baseball know, longtime commissioner Bud Selig is due to retire after this season.  This has prompted speculation about his successor, as well as a surprising push by former Selig buddy and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to reject Selig's hand-picked choice of Rob Manfred.  Instead of speculating on who will win the job, I'd like to think about Selig's legacy as the man who has overseen baseball for 22 years.  I am also doing that now, instead of in October, since this week is twenty years since the strike that helped define his commissionership.

On a fundamental level, above all else, Selig has been a lucky, lucky man.  He can easily tout his accomplishments by showing the high profit levels for major league baseball these days.  Of course, much of that has little to do with him, but with cable providers coveting live sports, one of the few kinds of entertainment that people watch almost exclusively on television rather than streaming.  (You can stream on, but not your local game, that's only on cable.)  The TV money has helped keep the owners and players peaceful with each other and reduced the former friction.  It's also filled Selig's pockets, since he's reportedly paid between $22 million and $30 million a year.  This is the second time that Selig has made a pile of money from dumb luck, the first being his purchase of the Seattle Pilots in 1970 for $10.8 million, which he moved to Milwaukee and named the Brewers.  That team is now valued at $565 million.  While Selig did have some success as an owner, bringing the Brewers to the World Series in 1982, the change in value has more to do with the big money revolution in sports that took place soon after he bought the team.

His luck has not only been financial, since events in the late 90s helped put the strife of the strike behind the game.  It is easy to forget today just how badly the strike of 1994 damaged baseball.  Many fans were disgusted, not only for being robbed of a World Series, but of a chance of seeing Tony Gwynn potentially hit .400 and Matt Williams break Maris' home run record.  Teams like the Indians, Expos, and White Sox, all having waited decades for a title, were all in strong contention when the strike hit.  Once spring training came in 1995, owners tried to fob off replacement players on the public, an insulting gesture.  While the players certainly share some blame for the strike, they were rightfully unwilling to trust owners after teams colluded with each other to not sign free agents, which froze salaries.  (This is not a matter of dispute, and the owners later lost badly in court and paid hundreds of millions in damages.)  Selig shared a tremendous amount of blame in all of this.  He was involved in the collusion of the 1980s, and he pushed a hard line when it came to contract negotiations.  It is hard to understate just how despised he was by the average fan when the season finally started in 1995.

But he was saved.  Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak in 1995 brought a lot of good will, but the home run race between McGwire and Sosa in 1998 made most people forget about the strike pretty quick.  Baseball suddenly mattered in a way it never had in my life.  I remember going to a Nebraska football game early in September, an event that is akin to a religious pilgrimage in my home state, and during the game the PA announcer told the crowd that McGwire had hit another homer.  A massive roar arose from the crowd usually reserved for a Husker touchdown.  In 1998 so many fans alienated in 1994 came back, and many others got drawn into the ballpark to see the longball circus.  Of course, it was all enabled by syringes and injections, but that would not be revealed until years later.  (Expansion and smaller ball parks were also significant factors, with two rounds of expansion coming during Selig's tenure.)  Selig was not the only person who looked away when the steroids problem raged, but his decision to benefit from the homers blasted by those inflated biceps should always be remembered.  Baseball also sat front and center after the tragedy of 9/11.  The singing of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch became one of the most potent nationalist rituals in the aftermath of the event.  When the 21st century arrived, baseball mattered more than it had in years, but little of that had to do with the actions of Bud Selig, apart from him ignoring steroid abuse.

Beyond benefitting from circumstance, Selig also managed to throw in a few wrinkles that seemed fresh at the time, and only went stale later on.  Interleague play is so blase and meaningless today that it is hard to remember a time when inter-league games, especially intracity games, carried the intensity of post-season matches.  Selig also introduced the wild card and the extra round of the playoffs, which have mostly been successful, but which have also meant fewer live-or-die pennant races.  I do have to give him some credit for being creative and willing to change some things to keep the game fresh.  You certainly can't accuse him of complacency, in fact, he has probably brought more significant changes than any other commissioner in history.  (Integration was the most significant change, obviously, but Happy Chandler was not the prime mover in that case.)

Okay, enough of the things that went well under Selig.  Here's a grab-bag of less laudable things he will likely be remembered for:

Above all, he will be remembered as the commissioner that ended any sense that the commissioner's office had any sort of independent existence from the owners.  While the commissioner is indeed picked by the owners, there has always been a notion of sorts that he is supposed to be an independent force primarily concerned about the best interests of baseball, not working directly on behalf of the owners or players.  Bart Giamatti (may he rest in peace) and Fay Vincent, who was ousted by the owners in favor of Selig, certainly acted independently, to the owners' ire.  Selig, a former owner who participated in collusion and helped push Vincent out in a palace coup, has never been credibly seen as an independent force.  He was brought in by the owners to ensure that they would have total control over the sport, and Selig has been more than happy to oblige.  How else do you think he's been able to hold the position for so long?  One of the top candidates under consideration for Selig's job is his right hand man, the other another former owner.  I doubt the next commissioner will be anything else but a shill for the owners.  That might be Selig's ultimate legacy.