Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Six Songs

Not as dramatic as Margo Stilley and Kieran O'Brien, admittedly, but some thoughts about some recent videos I've been seeing

Weezer's "Beverly Hills": The video is shot at the Playboy Mansion. Which is actually in Holmby Hills. In other words, in plebian Los Angeles. Oops.

Gwen Stefani's "Cool": The best song of 1982 meets the best picture of 1957. One expects Tab Hunter or Troy Donahue to ride up on a scooter to sweep Gwen away.

The Black Eyed Peas's "Don't Phunk With My Heart": Wonderful re-creation of a 1970's gameshow. But where's Charles Nelson Reilly? Hee haw!

Kanye West's"Gold Digger": Wonderful Varga-style pinups come with Jaime Foxx doing backup. Hopefully the video world will not make a trend of featuring Best Actor Oscar winners. I don't want to see Ernest Borgnine and F. Murray Abraham bopping with Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent. Well, I would like to see Abraham in a cover of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus".

Natasha Bedingfield's "These Words": How could anyone resist a song which rhyms "Keats" with "hip hop beat"?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Hail to the Supremes!

Henry Regnery used to be the thinking conservative's publisher, issuing serious books about conservative philosopy, e.g. Russell Kirk. But in recent years the company decamped from the Windy City to the Sodom-on-the-Potomac and has issued a series of best-selling books that make even dyed-in-the-wool troglodyte conservatives blanch, books such as Barbara Olson's posthumous best-seller The Final Days or Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access. The latest of these screeds intended to preach to the choir rather than convince an audience is Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America by Mark R. Levin, who has a radio show on WABC-AM in New York City and is president of the Landmark Legal Foundation in Northern Virginia.

There are a number of little mistakes that grated. He misspells the name of Justice Brandeis, for example. And in the Pledge of Allegiance case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, he writes of the Supremes that "the Court bent its own rules and gave Newdow permission to argue the case himself." Well, Newdow did go to law school but even if he didn't that's irrelevant. The United States Code, specfically section 1654 of title 28 (the text is here) gives everyone the right to argue his own case in all Federal courts. That Levin is a lawyer and be oblivious to this is suprising. It has only been law since 1911. He also wrongly states Ex parte Merryman was a Supreme Court case. I also saw a case citation that was clearly wrong.

The chief problem is how deeply schizophrenic this book is. Levin denounces Marbury v. Madison, the 1803 case in which the Court declared the right to declare laws unconstitutional. Similar scorn is directed at Roe v. Wade, the abortion case, and Wickard v. Filburn, in which the Court upheld the interstate commerce clause as giving Congress unlimited power to regulate anything and everything. But yet he's delighted when the "activist" Court does things he agrees with, e.g. the 1935 decisions declaring unconstitutional various parts of the New Deal. He approves of the rulings in the "sick chicken" case, Schechter Poultry v. United States; Carter v. Carter Coal; and the Railroad Retirement case. "In these rulings," Levin writes, "the Supreme Court was merely upholding the Constitution and preserving the Constitutional balance between the federal government and the states." Isn't it unprincipled to object to judicial activism but support it when the Court supports your own side.

But essentially, Levin is a defender of the Bush regime, not principle. How else to account for his chapter eight, "Al Qaeda Gets a Lawyer", where he objects to the Supreme Court's rulings in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Rasul v. Bush, two cases concerning the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, comparing Bush favorably to Abraham Lincoln's mass arrests and suppression of opposition newspapers. "Indeed, he hasn't taken any actions to silence his critics." There are a lot of people who would disagree with Levin's characterization, to start with the North Carolina college student who the Secret Service called upon for having an anti-Bush poster. (See the story here.) What the Bush administration tried to do was declare that Guantanamo was outside the reach of law, a twilight zone where the government could do anything it liked. Wasn't the whole point of fighting the Revolution to end such tyranny? When President Truman tried to take over the steel industry under his power as "commander-in-chief", the Supreme Court said in Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer that he was commander only of the military, not the whole country. Assuming Youngstown is still good law in the eyes of the present government, then the Bush administration position is the government could take away the life and liberty of anyone it liked, but not their property.

Levin also tried to make a distinction between "persons" and "citizens", trying to say that foreigners don't have rights under the Constitution. Just look at the plain text of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, notably the Fifth Amendment with its guarantees for the accused, talks of "persons" and not "citizens". The Fourteenth Amendment, which he also cites, speaks of both "citizens" and "persons" in such a way that it is clear "persons" have rights too. One rule of interpreting laws is that the authors knew how to draft statutory language and it is clear that his claims about foreigners are bunk.

Certainly there is material that both conservatives and liberals can agree with, notably his chapter ten, "Silencing Political Speech", about the First Amendment Repeal Act of 2002, which the Supremes upheld in McConnell v. Federal Elections Commission. But you know that Levin would have loudly cheered had the Court not deferred to Congress and struck down the campaign finance law. Levin's book is about getting what his side wants from the courts (as evidenced my the long section, including copies of Democratic strategy documents, on appointing right-minded judges to the Federal bench.

It is most decidedly not, as its title implies, a call for judicial restraint. But it is doubtful any but the converted will be reading this volume in the first place. No harm, no foul.

When Will They Ever Learn?

"This too shall pass" applies to so many things. Infatuation. Grief. Incarceration. But one exception is that the old folks never tire of talking about how awful the young generation is. How they're dumb, lazy, sex-crazed, and what not. Rich Karlgaard, editor of Forbes Magazine, had a piece in the April 11 issue, titled "Real-World Advice for the Young", which is more of the same nonsense:

Apart from the blue-collar kids who are fighting in Iraq, most American kids today are soft. That's a harsh statement, isn't it? But cultural anecdotes back it up. Kids weigh too much. Fitness is dropping. Three American high schoolers ran the mile in under four minutes in the 1960s. It's been done by one person since. Parents sue coaches when Johnny is cut from the team. Students sue for time extensions on tests. New college dorms resemble luxury hotels. College grads, unable to face the world, move back in with their parents and stay for years. Does this sound like a work force you'd send into combat against the Chinese? I don't know the answer here. But the trend is bad, and we can do better. For our kids we must do better.

The Times of London reports that Japanese youth are terribly rude here.

Talk to someone older than yourself and you'll find his parents and grandparents said the same thing about his generation, that they just weren't worth a damn. And undoubtedly his parents and grandparents heard the same thing from their forebears. You doubt me? Jeff Greenfield on NewsNight on May 12 had this to say:

How far back does our discontent with the young go? Well, here's how Socrates described the young Athenians of his day. Quote, "The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority. They show disrespect for elders. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs and tyrannize their teachers."

I'd bet Socrates heard the same thing from his parents. It just shows you that, even after two and a half millennia, human nature never changes. To continue quoting Greenfield:

In the 1920s, parents wondered what was going on when young people's courting moved from the front parlor to the backseat of an automobile.

In the 1950s, now seen as the golden age of innocence, violent comic books, drag racing and sexually provocative rock n' roll were the culprits.

In the '60s, sex, drugs and rock n' roll became the axis of evil, and enough of the baby boomers were out in the streets to make the generation gap page one news.

Today, the same fears are fed by different sources. What are they getting from MTV, from rap, from video games, from the Internet? Well, a good deal of it is the basic impulse of young people to begin staking out emotional territory of their own.

Here are a couple of things you might want to ask yourself. First, how would your parents have reacted if they learned all about your teenage conversations, fantasies, desires, inner feelings about your life or your family back then? Today, while the language, the music, the dress may all seem to be coming from another planet, is it really all that different?

The times, they are a changin', but the kids are alright.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Cover Girls

You can judge a book by its cover. One with a black and white photo of its author, especially one with has the ruffled edges of a 1950's snapshot, is going to be a heartwarming yet bittersweet tale of how great the author's youth was in Lower Armhole, South Dakota, or some such place. A cover that is a bold or metallic color and has the author's name in Second Coming type is an author who has written a baker's dozen previous novels practically indistinguishable from this one, all of which had sales in the six figures and not one of which was reviewed in The New York Review of Books.

And the Gossip Girl novels--there are now seven of them, all by Cecily von Ziegesar--are exactly what you'd expect from their cover art: catty novels about the sort of people who will be the first to go before the firing squad when the dictatorship of the proletariat comes to power, people who deserve a Digby Baltzell or Thorstein Veblen to chronicle their extravagance. Von Ziegesar chronicles the type who never leave their Upper East Side pads, with monthly rents of six figures, unless clad tip to toe in the sort of garments pictured in the hundred pages of advertisements before Graydon Carter's editor's letter.

These characters are young, they're in love, but so far they have not followed Bonnie and Clyde's lead by killing anyone--but it's only a matter of time. Prep school types, like those seen in the film Cruel Intentions, they have those oh so tough decisions to make. Princeton or Yale? Aspen or Sun Valley? Prada or Gucci? Sephora or Bloomingdale's? Jimmy Choos or Manolos? You know, the questions that are the bane of human existance, the sort of issues the existentialists are eaten up by.

Our heroine is Blair Waldorf, the first fictional Blair I've encounted since the days of the similarly situated character played by Lisa Whelchel. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend is the stoner Nate Archibald, who she's been trying to bed but because of various complications her best laid plans . . . well, only the plans are getting laid. Nate, however, has hooked up with Serena van der Woodsen, Blair's ex-best friend whose name puts me in mind of the late Mauritian Prime Minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Serena, a glamazon who naturally struts into a big modeling career and winds up on the runways in Bryant Park during Fashion Week, even gets a perfume named for her: Serena's Tears. (As Dave Barry likes to put it, sounds like a good name for a rock band.)

Blair and Serena go to school with Jenny Humphrey, a ninth grader with an endowment bigger than Harvard's, who is horribly insecure about her figure, a fact we are reminded of every time she appears, the type of girl who writes those anxious letters to Seventeen about "My Most Embarrassing Moment". Her brother Dan is a poet whose work is the kind Robert Frost had in mind when he said "writing blank verse is like playing tennis with the net down." But the tiny mummies of The New Yorker publish one of his poems, one with the soigne title "Sluts". How did this happen? Well, in this alternative universe his girlfriend Vanessa (I love that name) picks a name off the masthead and sends it in and it is plucked from the slush pile. Or maybe slush piles don't exist in this Manhattan. After all, there The New Yorker has a masthead. (Or is that an "oops!" by the author.)

Vanessa is the most interesting character here and not merely for the Swiftian name. With her shaved head and filmmaking dreams, she's different and realizes the vacuity of the other characters. (Unlike fellow fictional teenage filmmaker Dawson Leery, she's interested in artsy films that'll only play at the Angelika and be reviewed by Stanley Kauffman rather than Speilbergian popular entertainments.

I could go on with the characters, but they're all pretty much the same facing the same poor little rich kid problems. That Mad TV sendup of The WB's lineup, "Pretty White Kids With Problems," sums it up. Is any of this believable? Not for a moment. But I read five of these novels in a weekend. So what if they're chewing gum for the mind--I'm waiting for the next one coming this October. "You know you love me," writes Gossip Girl and she's right, even if some of us are more inclined to break into a Yip Harburg lyric, you know

Down with love,
Let's liquidate all its friends,
The moons, the Junes,
The roses and rainbows' ends,
Songs that talk about night and day,
Down with love
Yes take it away,

Note to self: remember to abide by own rules about book covers in making selections.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Is That All There Is?

Random House told readers to "Open the door to first fiction" in its three page ad in the Library Journal for March 15th. It's no wonder most of us can't get an agent let alone a book deal because all these books seem the same. They profiled thirty books and fully half of them are chick lit:
*Whores on the Hill by Colleen Curran. "A sensual evocation of sexual awakening played out against a backdrop of adolscent angst . . . as three adolescent girls run wild through the last all girl parochial school in Milwaukee." So except for Milwaukee, it's a new Gossip Girl novel?
*Emily Ever After by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt in which a girl gets a job at a New York publisher. Hasn't this already been written half a dozen times?
*Exclusive by Barbara Fischkin. About two sparring reporters. Anyone heard of Hildy Johnson?
*Soapsuds by Finola Highes and Digby Diehl. A book about an actress on a soap opera by an actress on a soap opera. Better I suppose than the character herself supposedly being an author as AMC's Erica Kane supposedly was. And I doubt it could be as good as The Confessions of Phoebe Tyler. Say, wasn't there a movie like this with Teri Hatcher and Sally Field?
*The Perfect Manhattan by Leann Shear and Tracey Toomey. Cassie, a name I love, is the lead in "a novel about the bartending life and uppercrust society in New York City." Hopefully, it comes with a coupon for booze to distract oneself from the novel.
*The J.A.P. Chronicles by Isabel Rose. "Sex and the City meets Jane Austen." A description which speaks for itself.
*Pounding the Pavement by Jennifer van der Kwast. "Twenty-something living in New York City". Noticing a pattern?
*They're Not Your Friends by Irene Zutell. Three reporters (again?) in, guess where? That title is the quintessential chick-lit caption.
*FAB by Kieran Batts Morrow and three others. "A chick lit-side splitter" about four girls in Gotham and Lalaland. Nothing wrong with southern California that a rise in the Pacific couldn't fix, right?
*Man Camp by Adrienne Brodeur. Two women from the Big Apple don't like the guys they date so they send them to re-education camp. Can you imagine the fury from the NOW-crowd if a man wrote a book about doing this to women?
*The Butcher of Beverly Hills by Jennifer Colt. Two crime-fighting redheads "out to rid L.A. of various criminals." Including the people who decided to put this sort of thing between two covers?
*Alternate Beauty by Andrea Rains Waggener. In an alternative universe, the Reubenesque is in. So Roseanne would be more attractive than Paris Hilton? Talk about a Hobson's choice.
*Making It Up As I Go Along by Maria Lennon. "Wanting to save the world in Africa, Saffron Roch finds herself pregnant and in love with a cheating doctor." Quick, do Finola Hughes's writers at GH or AMC or whichever program she's on now know about this plot?
*Fashion Victim by Sam Baker. Yet another reporter, this writer doing the Jessica Fletcher bit by tracking down the killer of a fashion designer and a gang of trademark infringers. Oh. My. God.
*Passing Roscoe by Debra Borden (not listed in Amazon so I can't link to it). Kitchen-sink drama about the travails of a mother dealing with her kids and her mother. Random comes up with exactly one book about a real person with a real life and even that doesn't sound appealling.

Gentle Reader, this post is far too long already, so I'll save the remaining first fiction for another time. I'm also working on another review for you: the Gossip Girl series. So stay tuned.

Friday, May 13, 2005

We Don't Need No Stinking Congress!

Mark Twain, to whom all good quotes of uncertain provenance are attributed, is supposed to have said that "no man's life, liberty, or property is secure while the legislature is in session." On March 3, 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 814 (see information on it here), which would direct the states to swiftly hold special elections in the event one-hundred or more members are dead or missing.

This bill, similar to one passed in the 108th Congress, is a product of fears following the September 11th attacks, Congress worried it would be put out of business as was hypothesized some years ago in one of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels. Norman Ornstein, the public-policy guru who is a fixture on the television news, organized at the American Enterprise Institute the Continuity of Government Commission, which put out an informative report on the subject. Certainly, I feel that special elections take too long--look at the long delay in South Dakota last year following Bill Janklow's conviction. Yes, something needs to be done, but I'm of mixed feelings about Congress taking action like this rather than the states.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Oh, Really?

Sarah Glazer's piece "How to Be Your Own Publisher" in The New York Times Sunday Book Review on April 24th claims that The Times will not review books issued by vanity publishers. Well, how does she explain the review in the Book Review for Decembert 20, 1998, of Andrew Heiskell's book Outsider, Insider, issued by something called the Marian-Darien Press? Perhaps Glazer's claim is only applicable to those not married to members of the Sulzberger clan? Marian of Darien is the former Marian Sulzberger, sister of former publisher Punch and aunt of current publisher Pinch Sulzberger.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Less Than Nine-tenths of the Law

After seeing Neil LaBute's excellent cinematic adaptation of A.S. Byatt's Booker-prize winning novel Possession, I was eager to read the underlying book as its themes were similar to the stories that captivated me in Richard Altick's The Scholar Adventurers (how's that for a title!) and Nicholas Basbanes's volumes on bibliomania. Having slogged through Byatt's five-hundred page tome, I regret my eagerness.

The plot's summation (unlike its execution) is simply put. Roland Michell, a literary scholar employed by the British Library, finds a letter by a great Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, to a mystery woman and he decides to chase down the elusive romance. Alas, Byatt is so caught up in concocting Nineteenth Century letters, diaries, and poems--which undoubtedly was great fun--that the novel sinks under the weight of all this spurious material. It is not unlike how Boswell's Life of Johnson is simply unreadable because the author insists on giving us endless verbatim letters to, from, and about people we don't know or don't care to, often in untranslated Greek and Latin.

One diary, that of Mrs. Ash, seemed all too precious and deliberate, not resembling diaries I've read, such as Quincy Adams's or Pepys's. It reads very much like she had an eye to the press, not unlike Evelyn who rewrote his "diaries" for publication. Real diaries reflect the extemporaneous nature of their composition.

This artificial tone infects the characters' dialogue as well. While they all sprang, Athena-like, from Byatt's head, she herself lacks any affection for her brainchildren. Michell is penurious, messy, and cold, saddled with a Xanthippic girlfriend who is always in a sulk. Maud Bailey is an undersexed feminist academician. Mortimer Cropper, apparently modeled on the University of Texas's Harry Ransom, is a crude American acquisitor always waving his checkbook about. Leonora Stern is a vulgar, oversexed American academician who tries to seduce Maud. Beatrice Nest, a self-loathing woman, is lost in her own erudition, having spent two decades editing Mrs. Ash's journal for publication and is nowhere near completing her task. James Blackadder, Michell's boss, is a typical cold, stoic Scotsman. And Ash's modern-day heir is a money-grubbing twit.

Byatt describes Cropper as engaging in a "reverse hagiography", determined to bring his subjects down to earth. Byatt as a biographer would have the same affliction. Undoubtedly, she would do it quite colorfully. Byatt is learned, having no qualms of showing her knowledge of literature, geology, mythology, art history, and countless other fields, so much so one wishes Dr. Nest could supply us with explanatory footnotes. Lorraine Adams, reviewing A Whistling Woman, one of Byatt's more recent books, correctly tags the author as "a melodramatic pedant" whose allusions are in "a kind of endless mitosis."

Which is a shame, as from Michell's discovery in the London Library we are taken on a wild Gothic adventure. Hikes in Yorkshire, lectures on biography, seances, lost children, adultery, family secrets, family feuds, suicide, penurious heirs to a home they cannot afford to maintain, musty archives, and even grave robbing! All elements the creator of the detective story, a contemporary of Ash, would have loved. Think what a novel Edgar Allan Poe could have made of this.

As for the film, hardly anyone saw it, despite it starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Aaron Eckhart. It's quite good and terribly unlike the pieces LaBute usually does. Get the movie, not the book.