Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Contenders: H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First up last night was the latest episode of The Contenders, the surprisingly addictive show on former Presidential candidates (though the next episode will be a bit of a departure in that it will be about two failed vice-presidential candidates, Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, the only women ever nominated for that position — though it’s been looking more and more like we’ll have a woman President before we have a woman Vice-President!) which this time was about “The Independents,” H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. It was impossible to avoid drawing comparisons between Perot and Donald Trump — both multi-billionaires who ran against what they perceived to be a rigged system and presented themselves as expert businessmen who could bring a fresh perspective to governing the U.S., and both of whom had spectacular mental meltdowns in public that kept them from doing as well as they might otherwise have done in the polls. Of course, there were obvious differences too: when the show played a film clip of Perot saying “diversity is America’s strength” it was impossible not to realize how utterly unlikely it would be for Trump to say those words! Still, there were striking similarities between Perot’s appeal and Trump’s; Perot often said things like, “The party’s over. It’s time for the clean-up crew,” meaning that Democrats and Republicans had made such a mess of the country in general and in particular had ran up such a fearsome level of national debt that it was time to get a new crew in there to clean house and get the country back on a sound financial footing.

That, of course, is yet another difference between Perot, who was genuinely concerned about America’s mounting national debt (and one of the few figures in American politics who seemed aware of the difference between the budget deficit — which is basically the amount by which the national debt increases in any given year — and the debt itself) — so much so that he made it the signature issue of his campaign — and Trump, whose economic policies would blow a hole in the debt and vastly increase it (as well as potentially antagonizing the countries, notably China, to whom we owe the debt) in the interest of tax cuts for the rich. Still, the basic appeal of Perot and Trump was pretty much the same: the nation is in crisis, the two major parties had run out of ideas to get us out of it, and only a fresh face untethered to the political establishments of both Republicans and Democrats could get the country back on track again. Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992 despite the spectacular meltdown in which he got out of the race in July and got back into it in October, giving an interview to 60 Minutes in which he claimed he’d withdrawn in the first place because the re-election campaign of President George H. W. Bush had threatened to smear his daughter as a Lesbian on the eve of her marriage (to a man). Had he stayed in, he could well have carried enough states to deadlock the Electoral College and throw the election into the House of Representatives — though the program featured an interview with a former Perot campaign staff member in which he said actually deadlocking the election and forcing a constitutional crisis was the last thing he wanted and the real reason he withdrew (temporarily, as it turned out, because he found the TV networks wouldn’t sell him half-hour blocks of time for his infomercials about the debt crisis unless he was an active candidate) was he didn’t want to win the presidency — just to promote public attention about the debt crisis and make sure either Bush or Bill Clinton, whoever won, took it seriously.

As things turned out, Clinton won the election and Perot probably was the “spoiler” that made it possible — as a graphic shown the night of the election and reproduced on this program indicated, Clinton carried the state of Texas (a Democrat actually carried Texas in my lifetime!) by 41 to 40 percent, and Texas would almost certainly have gone to Bush if Perot hadn’t siphoned 18 percent of the vote. (One of the things that amused me about the 1992 campaign was that all three candidates came from the same part of the country — Bush from Texas, Clinton from Arkansas and Perot from Texarkana, a city so-named because it was on the Texas-Arkansas border.) At the same time, though he did five percentage points better than George Wallace had in 1968, he didn’t win any electoral votes because he didn’t carry any states (Wallace carried five, all in the Deep South) — proof that the real bias in American politics that prevents alternatives to the Republican and Democratic parties from competing fairly and effectively is the U.S. addiction to winner-take-all electoral systems and the law (not part of the Constitution but passed by Congress in 1842) that requires that the House of Representatives be elected from single-member districts. Certainly both Perot and Nader faced the difficulty of getting on the ballot at all, let alone in all 50 states (this year, of the two principal alternative-party candidates for the Presidency, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party is on the ballot in all 50 states and Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party is on the ballot in 44), and they also had the problem of getting on the Presidential debate stage (ordinarily, under the usual rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates — or, as I call it, the “Commission to Make Sure Americans Don’t Hear from Anyone Other than Republicans or Democrats in Presidential Debates” — Perot wouldn’t have qualified for the debate, but Bush insisted that he be let on because for some reason he thought Perot would hurt Clinton more than he hurt him), but the real factor that keeps American political competition so confined to two big parties is the single-member districts and winner-take-all system that ensure that all you can do by voting for an alternative-party candidate is help the major-party candidate you like least.

That, of course, was Nader’s big problem as well — this program does a good job of telling Nader’s story, from his beginnings to his rise to prominence over the issue of auto safety in general and the sloppy suspension design of the Chevrolet Corvair in particular — and the jihad General Motors, makers of the Corvair (and the Buick Roadmaster, another car Nader singled out for criticism), waged against him, including hiring women to entrap him in a sex scandal and using private detectives to follow him around. It turned out to be one of the most spectacularly counterproductive moves in the history of corporate espionage, since it transformed Nader from a minor irritant to a major gadfly, caused sales of his book Unsafe at Any Speed to zoom up and gave Nader the money he need to start the network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG’s) and other organizations that helped push through laws not only requiring the federal government to regulate auto safety but protect consumers and the environment generally. Nader is shown on this program complaining that such legislative triumphs started becoming more difficult in the early 1980’s when, in order to keep their House of Representatives majority in the face of Ronald Reagan’s political revolution, the Democrats cut deals with major corporate donors and essentially abandoned their pro-consumer, pro-environment agenda in service to their new paymasters — it’s a major oversimplification but basically accurate analysis — and that’s what disillusioned him against politics in general and the two-party system in particular, and led him to a series of Presidential candidates from outside the two major parties. Of course, the most significant of Nader’s five Presidential runs was the one in 2000, in which he won 2.7 percent of the vote and pissed off a lot of his old allies because they were afraid he would take the election from Democratic candidate Al Gore, Jr. and give it to Republican George W. Bush. This show takes the position that Nader did just that — the common perception that Nader was effectively responsible for the Bush Presidency and all that went wrong with America during it (like the squandering of the laboriously achieved budget surpluses of the last two years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency on tax cuts for the rich, and the war in Iraq) has in effect trashed his legacy to the point where if people hear the name “Ralph Nader” they no longer think of the consumer advocate without whom we wouldn’t have the federal regulations protecting auto safety and the air and water, they think of “the man who made George W. Bush President.”

Nader’s own defense against that charge, to the extent he ever made one (during the campaign itself he made the predictable argument that it was a lesser-of-two-evils vote that was the truly “wasted” one and the vote for one’s conscience that was really consequential), was that he thought Gore was so much stronger a candidate than Bush he should have won in a landslide and so a principled vote for Nader wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have hurt the Democrat any. As I’ve argued in these pages before, I’m convinced the real force that elected George W. Bush President was the National Rifle Association, which ran so-called “independent” campaigns for Bush in Tennessee and West Virginia, giving Bush both those states’ electoral votes. The real astonishing fact about the 2000 election was that, in a race that was otherwise razor-close, Gore became the first major-party nominee since George McGovern in 1972 to lose his home state (at least in the other two blowouts in recent history, Barry Goldwater won Arizona in 1964 and Walter Mondale won Minnesota in 1984), thanks to the NRA — and if Gore had carried Tennessee, he would have been President and all the fooforaw about Florida wouldn’t have mattered. What’s more, the Democrats knew it, too; that’s why gun regulation virtually disappeared from the Democratic issue list for well over a decade and how the NRA has successfully intimidated politicians into voting down every attempt at sensible gun legislation ever since. Just as one can’t watch this program in 2016 without reflecting on the similarities between H. Ross Perot and Donald Trump, it’s also hard to watch it and not notice those between Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders: both gadflies whose attacks on giant corporations and their political power were at the heart of their appeal, both candidates whose power base was among young white college students and who never “cracked” the communities of color (the bedrock of support for Gore in the 2000 general election and for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries — there’s a comment on this show from an activist of color who says that white idealists like Nader and Sanders ignore the communities of color except during election time, then suddenly appear and expect to be taken seriously without doing the years of hard work needed to build relationships with community leaders and be taken seriously by them).

The show also argues that Perot had a lasting impact on the political system while Nader, at least as a candidate, did not; the budget deficit became a major concern during Bill Clinton’s administration (even though Perot’s other main concern — opposition to so-called “free trade” agreements that grease the skids on which jobs are moved out of country and laws protecting workers and the environment are systematically trashed — a position shared by Trump, Nader and Sanders — has got exactly nowhere; but then, as I noted in my last Zenger’s blog post about this year’s election, enmeshing the world in so-called “free trade” agreements that basically subcontract the governance of the world economy from nation-states to multinational corporations is such a high priority of the international ruling class they’re not going to let minor little details like democracy or public opinion stand in its way) — though the surprising strength of Sanders’ candidacy within the Democratic Party and its power to move at least Hillary Clinton’s public positions (as opposed to her private ones!) strikingly to the Left indicates that Nader’s issues still have a lot of political resonance. There’s a sense of sadness in this episode of The Contenders, particularly in the acknowledgment that even people drawn to movements as strongly opposed to the shared priorities of the major-party establishments as Perot’s and Nader’s must now fight their battles within the major parties rather than outside of them — the Republican/Democrat duopoly and its determination of who’s allowed to be on the ballot and who’s taken “seriously” by the media (remember the MS-NBC interviewer who asked Bernie Sanders why he was running as a Democrat rather than as an independent, to which Sanders replied, “If I were running as an independent, you wouldn’t be talking to me”) is just too strong to be challenged.

American Experience: Nikola Tesla (WGBH/PBS, October 18, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the PBS American Experience program on Nikola Tesla last night after the Contenders episode, and while I’m still not sure how they decide who’s an “American Experience” and who’s an “American Master,” the Tesla story is interesting enough it deserves to be told. I first heard of Nikola Tesla from reading L. Sprague de Camp’s book The Heroic Age of American Invention in my teens — de Camp, who also wrote a biography of H. P. Lovecraft and helped edit and complete some of Lovecraft’s unfinished manuscripts for posthumous publication, regarded Tesla as the third in a triumvirate of American inventors (though only one of them was actually born in the U.S.) along with Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson who shaped the electrical age as we know it. De Camp hailed Tesla’s one commercially successful invention, the induction motor — a way of using alternating current to power an electric motor without having to convert (“commutate”) it to direct current first — but dismissed him in his later years as a “crank.” The Tesla story as presented here by David Grubin, credited as both writer and director of this episode, is rather bizarre; he was born in modern-day Croatia (though his ethnic heritage was Serbian). His dad was an Orthodox priest and wanted young Nikola to follow him into the priesthood, but instead he took after his mom, an amateur inventor. Since both Serbia and Croatia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when he went to school he was taught in German. He was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army but ran into the wilderness to avoid military service; later he won a military scholarship to Austrian Polytechnic — essentially the Austrian equivalent of MIT — in Graz (coincidentally also the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger) and did well in school until midway through his second year, when he had an argument with one of his professors over whether electric generators needed commutators — the magnetic devices that converted alternating to direct current — and he ended up leaving school, briefly becoming a pool shark, losing most of the money his family had given him to stake him through school, then winning it all back, giving up his gambling addiction and asking to take the final exams anyway, but the extension he asked for to study was denied and he was expelled. He tried again to go to school in Prague, but he didn’t know the required languages, Czech and Greek, and eventually he ended up in Paris working for a subsidiary of Thomas Edison’s company.

Edison’s managers in Paris offered him a letter of recommendation to the Great Man himself, and on that Tesla decided to emigrate to the U.S. Edison actually hired him for about six months, during which he designed (ironically enough) an improved commutator for Edison’s DC generators, but he walked out on his job with Edison over Edison’s insistence that direct current, not alternating, was the future of electricity. (This was probably Edison’s biggest mistake.) Tesla couldn’t find another job in his field and had to resort to digging ditches to make ends meet until a couple of financial backers — what would today be called “venture capitalists” — offered to support his research in alternating-current motors. The advantage of alternating current then — and now — is that it can be “transformed”; you can lower the amperage (the amount of current) and raise the voltage (the force with which it travels through the wires conducting it) so that it can be moved great distances; then another transformer can lower the voltage and raise the amperage so the current can be used to power electric lights and other household devices. With direct current, you had to build a power station every mile or so; with alternating current, you could transmit power over hundreds of miles and build the sort of grid we know today: a handful of giant power generating stations moving high-voltage power over long distances, then transformers to reduce the voltage so the current can be used domestically. Tesla’s VC’s cut a deal between him and George Westinghouse, who was attempting to build a competing power system to Edison’s using alternating current, and Tesla originally got a royalty deal on his successful AC motor which would have made him a multimillionaire — but later Westinghouse went to Tesla and said he couldn’t afford to pay him the agreed-upon royalties, and rather than contact an attorney or renegotiate the deal, he meekly acceded to Westinghouse’s demand that he give up royalties altogether. As presented in the American Experience program, Tesla was a dreamer, literally given to visions, which colored his observations of his own experiments as a scientist. He was also superstitious; he regarded 3 as his lucky number, and when he lived in hotels (which was virtually all the time) he insisted that both the floor number and the number of his room be divisible by 3. Tesla was definitely not the sort of person Edison was — he would never have defined genius as “2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration,” as Edison did — nor would he try to confirm that his gadgets would work by building models of them until they were totally worked out not only in his head but on paper as schematic drawings.

Because he wasn’t the sort of practical researcher Edison or Thomson were (and intriguingly Thomson has become virtually forgotten as a cult has been built up around Tesla, even though, at 700 patents, Thomson is ahead of Tesla on the list of most productive U.S. inventors and behind only Edison, with 1,300), Tesla had a hard time finding financial backers, especially since he was pursuing visionary ideas it would have been hard to, in today’s argot, “monetize.” Among his inventions were fluorescent tubes (which he called “cold light” and tried to illuminate wirelessly) and various means of conducting electricity through the air without wires. In 1900 he got an investment of $150,000 (about $4.25 million in today’s money) from J. P. Morgan to build a giant Tesla coil — a device he invented for creating a sudden burst of released electricity — in Shoreham, New York with the idea of sending electricity through the air so end users could get it for free. Modern physicists say that’s simply not possible — too much of the electricity disperses too quickly for any useful quantity to be received more than a few feet away — but in the process Tesla worked out a way of sending Morse-code messages without wires, thereby essentially inventing radio. Alas, he was frozen out of the credit (and the money) for radio by Guglielmo Marconi — though eventually in 1943, the year Tesla died, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was Tesla who had indeed invented radio and Marconi had, as Tesla charged, infringed on at least 17 of Tesla’s patents. Also, as Tesla’s notoriety increased, so did his craziness; he claimed that exposure to electrical energy could improve human brainpower, he claimed to be in communication with Martians via his electrical gadgets (one wonders if this is where the plot of the movie Red Planet Mars came from), and his later ideas included designs for vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft and electrically powered death rays. Tesla didn’t show any signs of a romantic or relationship life with other people, but according to this documentary he liked to feed the pigeons on New York’s streets and parks, fell in love with one particular female pigeon, and was heartbroken when she died.

Tesla died January 7, 1943 at age 86 in room 3327 (a number divisible by 3) of the New Yorker Hotel, the last survivor of de Camp’s triumvirate of electrical inventors (Edison died in 1931 and Thomson in 1937), and at least partly due to the counter-cultural appeal of some of his wilder speculations (including his claim that, because thoughts were just electrical impulses in the brain, it should be possible to photograph them) and also due to the way his life fits the narrative of brilliant but unworldly genius exploited and done in by capitalism, a cult formed around him years after his death. A heavy-metal band called itself Tesla and on one of their CD’s published copies of the diagrams and patents that documented Tesla as the real inventor of radio. A 1980 Yugoslavian film called The Secret Life of Nikola Tesla was a part-dramatization, part-documentary on Tesla in which an actor named Petar Bozovic played Tesla and J. P. Morgan was played by Orson Welles (returning, in a way, to the sort of Gilded Age tycoon part that had made Welles a star in the first place). There are no fewer than 48 films listed on in which an actor plays Tesla, including a TV series made this year and two feature films listed as “in development” for 2017. And of course the most famous use of Tesla’s name currently is as the name of Elon Musk’s electric-car company, since it’s well known that Musk sees himself as a modern-day visionary on the order of Tesla. (Google News just linked to a Wall Street Journal article showing Tesla the company currently pursuing what could have been one of the madder dreams of Tesla the inventor: cars that can drive themselves across country: The American Experience show about Tesla was only an hour long (they could easily have got two hours out of him) but was fascinating even though the Tesla they depict must have been a handful to be around and one can readily understand why he didn’t achieve the wealth and success he sought in his lifetime — and a modern-day Tesla would probably not have any better luck in ours!

Frontline: “Terror in Europe” (WGBH/PBS, October 18, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Tesla program PBS ran a Frontline special, a sort of follow-up to their previous show on the rise of ISIS, about “Terror in Europe,” how the European Union became vulnerable to radical Islamic terror (a name that for some reason itself has become controversial — as I’m writing this I’ve just watched the third and, blessedly, last Presidential debate this year between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and once again Trump couldn’t resist getting in a blast against Clinton and President Obama for not using the words “radical Islamic terror”) with particular emphasis on the horrific attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 and at the airport in Brussels on March 22, 2016. The show was produced and directed by Ricardo Pollack but largely based on reporting by European journalist Sebastian Rotella, and what seemed odd about the show is that it took a schizoid vision towards how Europe should respond to terrorism. At one point Pollack and Rotella seemed to be faulting Europe for its open borders, which allow terror suspects to move untraced not only from one European Union country to another but to leave for terror hot spots like Syria and Yemen and then come back to Europe with no one the wiser. At other points they seemed to be faulting the various EU countries for not being more united, and in particular for having separate national intelligence services that don’t coordinate with each other. Those who think the U.S. should be even tougher in the “war on terror” and more inclined to forgo civil rights in the hunt against terrorists will fine plenty of ammunition in this program. One thing Pollack and Rotella seemed especially anxious to prove was that the Paris attacks were well coordinated and stemmed from ISIS’s central base in Raqqa, Syria — they weren’t just isolated attacks by individuals inspired by ISIS and recruited online but not connected to the big terror leadership in Raqqa. The show traced the leadership of the Paris attacks to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was a boyishly handsome young man (virtually all these terrorists are boyishly handsome young men) who was for some reason wearing a watchcap with the logo “Thermo Foam” on the stock photo they had of him, but the bizarre networks between him and other suspected terrorists got a bit hard to follow after a while. The main message of this movie appeared to be that the terrorists aren’t going away any time soon and European nations are going to have to do a lot more coordination with each other to stop them — at a time when the fear of terrorism, and particularly the fear that terrorists will take advantage of Europe’s relatively open borders to sneak in and plan and carry out horrific attacks, is one of the main issues that led to the “Brexit” (Britain’s vote to leave the EU) and may encourage other countries to secede from the EU as well.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

American Masters: Carole King (PBS-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a couple of music programs on KPBS. One was an American Masters episode about Carole King, the iconic singer-songwriter who began as a collaborator with her first husband Gerry Goffin (they married when he was 18, she was 17 and he had just got her pregnant), working out of the celebrated Brill Building for a company co-owned by Don Kirschner, the fabled producer and marketer later responsible for the Monkees, the Archies and the TV show Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. The Brill Building in New York City had been the center of the fabled Tin Pan Alley in the 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s, and by the time Goffin and King — along with their lifetime friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote for some of the same artists and were fiercely competitive with Goffin and King in terms of who could place their songs with whom and how successful they’d be — got there the rules of the songwriting business were pretty much the same as when Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and others had tried to crack it decades earlier. The music business was ruled by publishers, who had the songwriters under contract and had them crank out songs in huge buildings, equipped with cubicles, each of which contained a piano and a couple of chairs. The publishers would pay the songwriters a regular salary and in return they would own all their material; then they would send out song pluggers to get musicians to perform and record their songs, and if all went well some of them would be hits and make the publishers huge amounts of money, which they might or (more usually) might not share with the actual songwriters. The standard royalty rules was that songwriter payments went half to the writer and half to the publisher, but there were plenty of ways unscrupulous publishers could get around that, either by putting their own names on as co-writers (as Irving Mills infamously did on most of Duke Ellington’s greatest hits from 1926 to 1939, when Ellington left Mills and set up his own publishing company) or by forcing the writers to accept lower royalties — or none at all, on the basis that they were already being compensated by the regular salaries they were getting from the publishers.

Also, publishers often arranged for the singers or bandleaders to take so-called “cut-in credits,” having their names put on a song as “co-composers” even if they’d had nothing to do with writing it so they’d get a steady income not only from their own record of a song but from anyone else who recorded it as well. Some stars, like Paul Whiteman and Frank Sinatra, found cut-in credits immoral and refused on principle to take them; others, like Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley, were notorious for refusing to record a song unless they got a cut-in. This system began to break down in the 1950’s because most of the early Black rock-’n’-rollers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino wrote or co-wrote their own songs — the Tin Pan Alley old-timers really didn’t understand how to write for Black artists and white songwriters who could “write Black” like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Mann and Weil, and Goffin and King were much in demand — though most of the white rock artists still relied on other people’s songs. (The big exceptions were Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, who not only wrote for themselves but wrote great songs that are still being performed today.) The system was blasted apart by the huge success of the Beatles, who not only wrote most of their own material (though their first, second and fourth albums each adhered to a ratio of eight originals to six covers, and one of their covers from their first album, Please Please Me, was King’s and Goffin’s “Chains”) but were affirmatively promoted by their manager, Brian Epstein, as doing so. The assumption that performers who did their own material did so only because they weren’t strong enough in the business to get the best songs from the publishers went out the window, and instead audiences, record companies, managers and promoters started assuming that performers who wrote their own songs were better, more complete artists than those who didn’t. (In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, thanks largely to the success of Whitney Houston, the pendulum started swinging back the other way and singing and songwriting were once more seen as separate skills — so non-singing songwriters like Diane Warren and Carole Bayer Sager could once again have major careers and make lots of money without having to perform their own material.)

Goffin and King remained together for about a decade and wrote some of the greatest hits and best songs of the period: Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion” (it was a song about a dance but when Goffin wrote the lyric no dance called the Loco-Motion existed; Little Eva, whom Goffin and King met when they hired her to baby-sit, had to invent one in a hurry when she went out on the road to support the record), the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” (which Goffin and King recorded a backing track for, intending it for Little Eva; when she inexplicably turned it down they gave it to the Chiffons, and the Chiffons added their vocals over the original backing track — you can hear this because Carole King had recorded a hammering piano part for the breaks, which she wouldn’t have if the track had been intended for a vocal group instead of a solo singer because the group members could supply the fills vocally, so you hear the Chiffons singing their backups over King’s slam-bang piano chords), the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby” (also covered by the Beatles, though only on their Decca audition tape — this show featured a TV clip of Vee singing it and, not surprisingly, the Beatles’ version is worlds better even though anyone listening to the Decca tape as a whole, which is O.K. but falls far short of what the Beatles did once EMI signed them, will probably think, “Gee, if this is what I’d had to go on, I wouldn’t have signed them either!”), “Halfway to Paradise” for Tony Orlando pre-Dawn (later covered beautifully by Nick Lowe), “I’m Into Something Good” for Herman’s Hermits, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees (the show is an attack on suburban conformity and it was written after Goffin and King had moved to the suburbs, which King loved — she saw them as a much better place than Manhattan to raise their two daughters — and Goffin hated, and made clear his hatred for in his lyric), “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin, and a little-known and quite beautiful song called “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll),” which wasn’t recorded until 1970 by Blood, Sweat and Tears — two years after the marriage of Goffin and King came to an abrupt end. It seems he wanted to see other women and even asked King for permission (it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to go the Joseph Smith, Jr. route and simply found a new religion where polygamy would be permitted), and the two of them moved with their two daughters, Louise and Sherry, to L.A. but bought separate houses there. King took up with some of the singer-songwriters beginning to emerge on the L.A. scene, including James Taylor and Joni Mitchell (both of whom sang uncredited backup parts on her commercial breakthrough as a performer, Tapestry), and started a band called The City with her second husband, bassist Charles Larkey, and Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, long-time collaborator of James Taylor. The City’s one album, Now That Everything’s Been Said (1969) for Lou Adler’s Ode Records, flopped — it didn’t help that the terminally shy King was now willing to perform in the studio but was still petrified at the thought of playing live; it also didn’t help that Adler shifted the distribution of Ode from Columbia to A&M just after The City’s album was released — and so did King’s first solo album, Writer (1970).

Her second album, Tapestry (1971), was a different matter altogether; song after song on it — “I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” “Beautiful,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Where You Lead” — became not only hits but enduring standards, and the album sold nine million copies, the best ever by a woman artist to that time. (The record for sales by a woman King broke had been held by Judy Garland for her Live at Carnegie Hall album.) James Taylor had the hit on “You’ve Got a Friend” but King didn’t mind — they had actually recorded it about the same time and she generously made a deal with him that whoever got their record out first would have the hit — and apparently King made a promotional film performing much of Tapestry in private, because there’s quite a lot of footage of her playing these beautiful songs at her piano at home, with Charles Larkey sitting down with his bass guitar on his lap and providing her only other accompaniment. She made one more great album after Tapestry, Carole King: Music, with the great rocker “Back to California” and a reworking of the Goffin-King song “Some Kind of Wonderful,” but after that her albums became increasingly repetitive as she decided that “mellow” would be her stock in trade — though occasionally she’d return to rock, notably with a Capitol release called Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King (1980), her own versions of the songs she and Goffin had written for other artists in the 1960’s. (King gave an interview with the release of Pearls saying that her working title for that album had been the comment a lot of people had had about those songs: “I Didn’t Know You Wrote … ”.) Along the way she ended up with a third husband, Rick Evers, with whom she moved to rural Idaho in 1977; Idaho stayed with her but Evers didn’t. It seems he beat her on a regular basis and he also took large amounts of drugs, and two days after King had had enough and told Evers she was leaving him, he did a major overdose of cocaine which at the time was announced as a fortuitous accident but on this show was presented as suicide. She stayed in Idaho and worked on a bill to protect much of the state from exploitation for its minerals (Idaho has a reputation as the most Right-wing state in the U.S. — it was home to Randy Weaver and his white-supremacist movement, it was the last state in the country to report a case of AIDS and according to the Human Rights Campaign, the only U.S. state that has no openly Queer elected official — so this has been an uphill battle); she’s also had a reputation for supporting, and doing benefits for, Democratic Presidential candidates from George McGovern to Hillary Clinton (in 2008).

King made her most recent comeback when Douglas McGrath got the idea to write a musical called Beautiful, which would be about the career of King and Gerry Goffin and would use their songs as the soundtrack. The people who first read McGrath’s book were disappointed that he stopped the story when Goffin and King split up and told him to expand the story at least to the recording and release of Tapestry. He did, and ended up with a sensational hit; Jessie Mueller won a Tony Award for her performance as the young Carole King and did a spectacular duet on “Beautiful” at the Tony Awards show with King herself. Carole King’s story is fascinating mostly because her songs are so beautiful and so enduring — though, like Burt Bacharach, King survived as a songwriter despite the poor quality of some of the early recordings of her songs. The show features a TV clip of the Shirelles singing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” and confirms my impression of them as a mediocre group who became successes because whoever was picking their material got them a succession of incredible songs. (When I got the Supremes’ 25th Anniversary Retrospective two-CD set, which featured one disc of their hits and one of obscurities and previously unreleased tracks — including a great record from 1961 called “Those D.J. Shows” which should have made them stars three years before “Where Did Our Love Go?” actually did — one of the surprises was hearing the Supremes try to imitate the Shirelles even though they had much better voices than the Shirelles ever did.) One other aspect of the Carole King documentary is how much her music, like all blues, soul and rock, owes to Black Gospel music: it seems every time she sat at a piano, especially to write or record a mid-tempo or fast song, her fingers went to those same chords that had begun in the Black churches.

Grammy Salutes Music Legends (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences/PBS-TV, October 14, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Carole King tribute KPBS showed a live event put on by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the folks who do the Grammy Awards, a bastard combination of awards show and tribute concert to a number of recipients of NARAS Lifetime Achievement Awards. The show was called “Grammy Salutes Music Legends” and was presented under the rubric of the PBS series Great Performances; it was held at the Dolby (nèe Kodak) Theatre in Los Angeles and featured a marvelously eclectic list of honorees: singer Linda Ronstadt, producer/manager/record company owner Fred Foster (there was a nice segue from Martina McBride singing Ronstadt’s hit “Blue Bayou” to the introduction of Foster as the producer and label owner for the first record of that song by the man who co-wrote it, Roy Orbison), 1950’s R&B queen Ruth Brown (Atlantic Records had so many hits on her it was sometimes referred to as “The House That Ruth Built,” though another Atlantic artist, Ray Charles, was even more important to the label’s success), the 1960’s San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane, avant-garde classical composer and musical rebel John Cage, salsa legend Célia Cruz, the pioneering rap (excuse me, “hip-hop”) group Run-DMC, Arhoolie Records founder and producer Chris Strachwitz, jazz piano legend Herbie Hancock and the 1970’s band Earth, Wind and Fire. The honorees were all presented in pretty much the same way — an M.C. gave an introduction, then there was a film montage about them, followed mostly by modern musicians coming out and playing their songs — sometimes with surviving members of the original groups (two of the “classic” Jefferson Airplane lineup appeared, as did a sort of rump edition of Earth, Wind and Fire led by the brother of the original group’s now-deceased leader, Maurice White, and Herbie Hancock joined the man who introduced him, Wayne Shorter — his colleague in the Miles Davis “Second Great Quintet” of the 1960’s — for a jazz instrumental that, despite the annoying pre-programmed electronic percussion part, was the most interesting music of the evening), mostly not.

Linda Ronstadt was present but unable to sing — she gave her last concerts in 2009 and officially retired in 2011 due to rapidly advancing Parkinson’s disease — and she was introduced by J. D. Souther, who didn’t become as big a star as his Asylum label-mates Ronstadt, The Eagles and Jackson Browne but worked in a similar soft-rock vein and wrote the song “Faithless Love,” which he performed as a tribute to Ronstadt (who’d had the hit on it). A mariachi band then came out and did one of the traditional Mexican songs Ronstadt had recorded on her Latino concept album Canciones de mi Padre (Ronstadt is part-Latino and her brother, Peter Ronstadt, was for a time police chief in their native city, Tucson, Arizona), following which McBride came out for her lovely version of “Blue Bayou.” Then the honoring of Frank Foster began with a film montage of Roy Orbison’s “Sweet Dreams” and “Pretty Woman” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” — all three of those songs were originally recorded for Foster’s label, Monument Records, and Foster apparently co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” with Kristofferson. Kristofferson came out to perform “Bobby McGee” and showed just what the years have done to his voice; he had help from the alt-country singer Shelby Lynne, who stayed on after Kris left the stage for a version of “Pretty Woman” that did not change the words — are we returning to the days of the 1920’s when music publishers didn’t allow singers to rewrite songs to match their genders, so the definitely straight Bing Crosby sang “There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears” with Paul Whiteman, Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke? (Still, the definitive version of “Bobby McGee” remains the one by Janis Joplin.) The tribute to Ruth Brown was a good deal shorter and included only a few film clips and Patty Austin, who introduced her, doing a good version of Brown’s biggest hit, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” — in her interview in Arnold Shaw’s history of rhythm-and-blues, Honkers and Shouters, Brown recalled that that song was so powerful that several times it literally stopped audiences from rioting, and all she had to do to get an audience to quiet down in hushed awe at what was coming was lift a tambourine over her head, since she’d done an introduction on tambourine on her record, and everyone knew she was about to sing “Mama.” (Patty Austin did a good job on it, but she didn’t use a tambourine, and I missed it.) Brown also said that her streak of hits at Atlantic stopped when Rudolph Toombes, the songwriter who wrote “Mama” and most of her other big sellers, died suddenly while still a young man and she couldn’t get the quality of material she’d been used to.

After that David Crosby came out to introduce the Jefferson Airplane — or what’s left of them; while four of the members of the most commercially successful edition of the band (vocalist Grace Slick, vocalist/guitarist Marty Balin, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady) are still alive, only Kaukonen and Casady were there for the tribute; Balin was apparently unavailable (though he sent a letter thanking NARAS for the award) and Slick’s place was taken by a singer named Kathy Richardson, who did “Somebody to Love” decently enough but wore a God-awful costume that looked like it had been designed by someone who had been told one of the slogans of youth culture in the 1960’s was “Flower Power” but had never seen a photo actually taken during the 1960’s. Kaukonen and Casady then took up acoustic instruments for a quite lovely instrumental duet, and they brought back their backing musicians for a song called “One More Time.” John Cage was introduced by a remote pickup from Michael Tilson Thomas, and the Cage pieces that followed were a performance piece done by Anthony Purse (at least I think that’s what his name was) that used various household objects, as well as a phonograph and a radio, to create a live sound montage; and a relatively normal song, called something like “The Wonderful Widow of Silver Springs,” by mezzo-soprano Janae Bridges with an accompanist at a piano — though not playing it normally, but rather beating its closed lid as if it were a hand drum. This was actually a surprising choice for a John Cage tribute because it seemed unusually close to what normal people think of as music — though, as Charles said, that’s probably why it was chosen instead of some of the other things they could have done. So, he said, was the song that opened the tribute to Célia Cruz, “Guantánamera,” composed by Cuban singer-songwriter Joseíto Fernandez to a poem by Cuban rebel leader José Marti, who led the opposition to Spanish rule in the 1890’s only to find that once the Spanish-American War was over Cuba had a new overlord, the United States. The first American recording was by Pete Seeger’s group The Weavers in 1963; three years later an easy-listening group called The Sandpipers had a hit on it for the fledgling A&M Records label, and Cruz grabbed hold of the song and returned it to its Cuban roots. The version performed on the Grammy special had a rewritten lyric in Spanish that appeared to be aimed at turning the song into a tribute to Cruz, and it was followed by a song probably called either “Hey Ma Ma” or “La Rumba” that appeared to have been the source for the melody of Gloria Estefan’s mega-hit “La Conga.”

Next up was the Run-DMC tribute, which as far as I’m concerned could have been left on the cutting-room floor since I simply can’t stand rap (I’m amused at the way this sort of music has two names, depending on whether or not you like it: it’s “hip-hop” if you like it and “rap” if you don’t), and though I liked the fact that the Run-DMC members were paying tribute to the people who were recording rap even before they were (they didn’t cite The Last Poets, and the only names Charles and I recognized were Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — whose record “The Message” staked out a social-comment territory for Rap that Public Enemy and a few other early rap acts followed but which quickly got ignored in favor of paeans to conspicuous consumption, raping women, beating up Queers and killing members of rival gangs; there’s no doubt in my mind that rap, especially the “gangsta” sub-genre that became dominant in the 1990’s after the success of such thoroughly evil creeps as N.W.A., Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., is the most socially irresponsible music that has ever existed), their own presentation was a medley of bits of their old hits that just showed how relentlessly ugly rap is, especially the so-called “classic” kind in which the only musical accompaniment comes from turntables used to make the “scratching” sound and occasionally to rip off (“sample”) a musical lick from one of their artistic betters. The popularity of rap was the final straw in my transition from youth to old age — the confirmation that people considerably younger than I had come up with a popular sound I simply couldn’t stand (and still can’t). It amazes me that within 13 years of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mama” the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while rap is still stuck in the uneasy mixture of braggadocio and meanness with which it started out — though at the last Grammy Awards show they presented the opening number from the musical Hamilton with the Broadway cast, and it showed that in the right hands rap can have an artistic purpose and be beautiful and even moving. Alas, right after that the Grammy Awards brought on Kendrick Lamar, who brought us back to the wretched garbage rap usually is — and the Los Angeles Times pop-music critic, reviewing the show the next day, said Lamar should have won Album of the Year for that crap!

Fortunately, right after Run-DMC was the tribute to Chris Strachwitz, who was honored by veteran guitarist Ry Cooder and even more veteran blues pianist Henry Gray doing a beautiful song probably called “Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Love,” followed by Cooder playing with a Cajun band called the Magnolia Sisters. Then Wayne Shorter joined Herbie Hancock — who played both an old-fashioned piano and a keyboard called a “Korg Kronos Music Workstation,” alternating between the two while using the Korg to set up a mechanical rhythm that was too busy and oppressive for the lovely jazz both Shorter and Hancock were playing, Shorter on soprano saxophone and Hancock on both the piano and the keys of the Korg. Then David Foster introduced the tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire, and a rump version of the group consisting of the survivors of its glory days doing a medley of snippets of their hits. Earth, Wind and Fire were depicted as an all-star band — which hadn’t been my impression of them “in the day,” when they had been presented as the brainchild of their now-deceased founder, Maurice White, and the performance by the rump version on this show did nothing to shake my conviction that the group should have been allowed to die with Maurice White instead of being resurrected. Earth, Wind and Fire were one of those bands I wasn’t all that fond of but didn’t actively dislike; they did at least two songs that struck a chord with me, “Shining Star” (with which they began their medley on the show) and “Serpentine Fire,” but I didn’t rush out and buy their records either. Overall, Grammy Salutes Music Legends was a lumbering extravaganza, though at least it acknowledged the existence of avant-garde classical music and jazz, two genres that have been purged from the Grammy Awards show with the thoroughness of a Soviet secret police official ordering people to the gulag, and at least some of the people to whom it paid tribute were the sorts of genre-benders today’s “narrowcast” music world has little use for — Linda Ronstadt doing everything from country to rock to alternative to standards to operetta to Mexican music to opera; Hancock doing straight-ahead jazz, funk, soul, recordings with African griots, a tribute album to Joni Mitchell and a return to his classical roots (sort of) playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Strachwitz recording just about every sort of American folk music he thought was underexposed (which was virtually all of it); and John Cage exploding the definition of music itself.

Friday, October 14, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse (20th Century-Fox, Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest in the sequence and a quite good movie on its own terms but also oddly disappointing. Directed by Bryan Singer (who made the first two films in the X-Men cycle before turning it over to others, then came back for the immediately previous movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past) from a story by himself, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — though Kinberg gets sole credit for turning the committee-written story into an actual script — X-Men Apocalypse takes about half an hour of its 144-minute running time (including the typically interminable closing credit roll) before its various story threads congeal into an actual plot, but once it does that the script is surprisingly well constructed for a modern superhero film and one doesn’t get the impression, as one often does in the genre, that the “plot” portions are there only to set up the spectacular action scenes. The film opens in ancient Egypt, where En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac, a marvelously “reversible” name), appears to be leading a cult that is aimed at deposing the rightful Pharoah and installing himself as king not just of Egypt but the entire world, and not just for a normal lifespan but forever.

He can do that because he’s built a pyramid that contains a magic technology through which he can make a gold-colored fluid flow upwards, defying gravity (one of the many special effects in this film that couldn’t have been done without CGI) and enabling him, once his body is so old and decrepit it’s about to croak, to transfer his essence into some other body and thereby continue his existence literally indefinitely as long as he does the transfer in time. (This was also the central plot gimmick of that ridiculously slovenly 1959 Columbia “B” horror film The Man Who Turned to Stone, though in that case the apparatus involved was considerably less spectacular, basically a giant bathtub with electrodes through which the baddies could drain the energy out of a young woman and transfer it to themselves; as I wrote when Charles and I watched that one, it’s hard to get excited about a horror film whose big fright gimmick is the Bathtub of Doom.) The scene then flashes forward to 1983, when the bulk of the film takes place — it’s very carefully not presented as a contemporary story; Ronald Reagan is President and East Germany is still a going concern, though the presentation of East Berlin as a wide-open city where a sinister cabaret owner hosts extreme cage-fights between mutants Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smith-McPhee, who has a tail but otherwise sports a bizarre purplish-blue face makeup and overall appearance that makes it look like they dug up Prince and revived him) seems even for a superhero fantasy to fly in the face of everything we know about the real East Berlin. (If East Berlin had really been like this it would have been the West that built the Wall!) We cut again to the school for “gifted children” — i.e., mutants — run by the young Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a long-haired cutie but one already needing a wheelchair (albeit a high-tech powered one of his own invention that apparently moves by sheer thought — at least there aren’t any visible controls like there are in a real power wheelchair); in the first cycle of X-Men films, made earlier but taking place later, he was middle-aged, bald and played (brilliantly) by Patrick Stewart, though he loses his hair in the final confrontation at the end of this one (oh darn, I’ve just spoiled it).

The film is essentially yet another battle between good and bad mutants: the good ones are Xavier, Raven a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, ill-used in this role — in the Hunger Games cycle she was great because she actually got to play a character with some depth, but here she’s just another action heroine who can turn her skin blue at will), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), whose non-mutant identity is Scott Summers and who discovers his power — his eyes can emit red flares that burn up everything in their path — when he’s bullied at high school by a typical asshole jock (who probably went on to become a Republican candidate for President) and, trapped in a restroom, uses his power to melt the hinges of the restroom door and send it hurling through space until it crashes into his tormentor. (Everyone who was ever bullied in school — including me — probably seized on this scene as a sort of ultimate wish-fulfillment.) Scott hopes he’ll find a home at Xavier’s school, especially since his older brother Alex, a.k.a. Havok (William Till), is already there — only Alex gets killed almost immediately when a bomb set off at the school destroys it. Quicksilver, with his power to move so quickly he can literally stop time (director Singer illustrates this by a number of freeze-frames that might have you wondering if your DVD or Blu-Ray player is working properly), rescues the others at the school but Alex was too close to the blast’s epicenter to be saved. The bad mutants are Apocalypse, a.k.a. En Sabah Nur, a.k.a. whoever’s body he’s using this week; Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who’d managed to run away from his mutant lifestyle and settle in Poland as a factory worker with a wife and child until he inadvertently “outs” himself at the factory one day (Charles and I couldn’t help but quote the famous lines in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda? over a stock shot of a steel mill in operation: “Did you hear about the boy mutant who wanted to be a girl mutant?”) and a group of Polish secret police, or something, attempt to take him into custody — Our Anti-Hero fells them by throwing his daughter’s locket at them with such ferocity it cuts off their heads (here, and in a later scene in which someone is almost beheaded,

Singer seems to have been inspired by the real-life beheading videos from ISIS), though alas his wife and daughter are also killed and Magneto is sufficiently embittered he throws in his lot with the baddies; Storm (Alexandra Munroe), who’s discovered by Apocalypse as a thief and shoplifter in Cairo and who, with her lithe body, slender build and magnificent Mohawk hair, is (at least to this Queer boy) the hottest-looking woman in the film; Angel and another mutant he picks up so he can fill out the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (you remember from the Book of Revelation; in the film every manifestation of the Four Horsemen, including the one set down by St. John the Divine, was part of a generations-long campaign by Apocalypse to destroy the world and virtually all its populations so the little bit of humanity that’s left can rebuild a world cleansed of all human corruption). There are also a few non-mutant humans in the dramatis personae, including a CIA agent named Moira MacTaggart with whom Xavier once had an affair, only he used his powers to burn out any memory of it from her brain (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about the last movie I expected to see ripped off in a superhero film!) with the odd result that other mutants at the school recognize her and she can’t fathom how they know her name; and Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman), who’s determined to capture the mutants and doesn’t care that some mutants are good and in fact are needed to stop the bad mutants from wrecking the world. Col. Stryker has also got custody of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, who says he’s going to do a sequel to the Wolverine origin story and then hang up his adamantine claws forever — I still think Jackman got a raw deal when his marvelous film Australia failed and kept him stuck in roles like this), and in any event he appears in just this one scene as a deus ex machina who helps the other good mutants break free from Stryker’s custody, and doesn’t speak.

Apocalypse has the embittered Magneto pull out all magnetic metal from the bowels of the earth, meaning that skyscrapers and bridges crumble and so do ships (though there’s one scene in which Magneto attacks a container vessel and makes the containers do aerobatics while not harming the ship, presumably vulnerable to him because it too would be made of steel; later the good mutants fly into battle on a military plane they’ve stolen from Col. Stryker, and at least one contributor wondered how they could use the plane in the face of Magneto’s power; Charles wondered that, too, but I reasoned that since Magneto’s power is based on magnetism it wouldn’t affect an object made out of a non-magnetic metal like aluminum, which in fact is what most modern-day military aircraft are made of) — director Singer said he wanted within the superhero genre to stage a world-threatening catastrophe like the ones in Michael Bay’s films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Armageddon, and he did. Eventually there’s the expected fight to the death between the good mutants and the bad mutants, though not before Apocalypse has incapacitated Xavier and chosen his body to be his next incarnation — there’s some good, if not great, suspense editing between Apocalypse’s diabolical machine and the efforts of the other good mutants to come and save Xavier, who’s trying to save himself by fighting back against Apocalypse’s mind control (and doing so in sequences in which he still has hair even though the “real” Xavier has gone bald) — and though the overall intrigue ends more or less happily there’s one of Marvel’s trademark post-credits “teaser” sequences in which agents from the Essex Corporation steal a serum vial containing “Weapon X,” the drug that created Wolverine in the first place.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a good film in the modern-day superhero genre, but what I missed in this one that I got in previous episodes in the cycle was the humanity. Marvel head honcho Stan Lee (who not only makes a cameo appearance in this one but brings his wife into it; they’re an elderly couple, he blind, who witnesses the detonation of all the nuclear-armed missiles, flown into space by Apocalypse’s power as part of his effort to cleanse humanity — the idea that a super-powerful being would unilaterally disarm the world by setting off its nukes harmlessly in space was also part of Arthur C. Clarke’s original conception for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but director Stanley Kubrick didn’t use it because he thought it would be too close to the ending of Dr. Strangelove) created X-Men in 1963 largely as a metaphor for the African-American civil rights movement, but later, with the advent of Gay Liberation, it became a favorite comic among Queer people because they, like the mutants, not only had to deal with social hatred and prejudice but also had the dilemma of whether to stay closeted or “come out” in their real identities. Some of the most powerful scenes in the earlier X-Men movies deal with the very real human emotions behind mutant-dom and in particular how they shape the decisions of various mutants either to be closeted or “out,” and whether to fight for humanity or against it. Here there’s very little of that — or of the moral ambiguity of the characters that made the earlier films in the cycle interesting; it’s basically a tale of good-good mutants and bad-bad mutants, and the only good-bad mutant (the Gollum of the tale, as it were) is Magneto, who’s persuaded to switch sides and reverse his assault on human technology because Xavier can offer him what Apocalypse can’t: a family. Other X-Men stories have been strong human dramas while still delivering the super-powered action superhero-film fans crave; this one delivers the action, all right (though most of it looks typically CGI-fake), but not (except intermittently in Scott’s character) the emotions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Contenders: Barry Goldwater & Ronald Reagan (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the next episode of The Contenders, dealing with the Presidential candidates of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — though, in keeping with the show’s overall theme of people who didn’t make it to the White House, the focus was on Reagan’s unsuccessful challenge to Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 rather than his winning bid four years later. The episode was called, inevitably, “The Conservatives,” and their analysis of Goldwater’s election in 1964 was pretty close to mine: not the decisive defeat of the radical Right we thought and hoped it would have been at the time, but merely a major battle the Right lost in a war they ultimately won. One of the commentators noted that never in American history has a losing Presidential candidate — especially one beaten as badly as Goldwater was — reshaped U.S. political history so fundamentally (though one could make a similar case for Al Smith in 1928, since most of his agenda got enacted under Franklin Roosevelt and his Democratic successors), not only putting the Right’s ideas (reversing the welfare state, deregulating business, emphasizing individual liberties over social welfare while simultaneously maintaining a strong military and aggressively challenging the Soviet Union) front and center in the American political debate but bringing about the “flip” between the two major parties’ positions on civil rights in general and African-American equality in particular that led to the switch of the “Solid South” from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. Goldwater carried six states: his own, Arizona (albeit narrowly) and five in the Deep South — and the decisive factor in his Southern victories was his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His position was that the government itself should not discriminate on the basis of race, but it had no business telling private employers and enterprises that they should not discriminate — when Rand Paul was criticized recently for taking a similar position and saying he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act if he’d been in the Senate then, virtually nobody in the punditariat recognized that as the position Goldwater had actually taken in 1964. (Ironically, in his later years — after, in my analysis, the fall of the Soviet Union had liberated Goldwater from the compromise he’d had to make with big government to protect the nation against the Soviet threat and freed him to be the libertarian conservative he’d always been by instinct — Goldwater called for the addition of Queer people as a protected class to the Civil Rights Act he’d voted against originally.) In the history of the American Right, Ronald Reagan is generally considered the person who took Goldwater’s ideas and put a more winning face on them, using all the communications skills he’d learned as an actor under the Hollywood studio system to make Right-wing politics and ideology sound fresh and new.

As much as Reagan has become a secular (or maybe not so secular) saint among Republicans in general and Right-wingers in particular — he is to Republicans their beau ideal of what a President should be, as FDR is to Democrats — watching him in these old clips reinforces that not only has the modern Republican party ceased to be the “party of Lincoln” in any but the most literal historical sense, it’s largely ceased to be the “party of Reagan” as well. That’s not only because modern Republicans routinely violate Reagan’s fabled “Eleventh Commandment,” “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican,” but because Reagan understood that the way to “sell” Right-wing economic policies to people who would actually be hurt by them if they were enacted was to put a happy face on them, to frame them in the context of individual rights and liberties and to evoke the mythic dream of America as a “shining city on a hill” that could be achieved, not by a big leader or a big bureaucracy, but by individuals coming together and maximizing their own well-being and thereby fulfilling Adam Smith’s promise of an “invisible hand” that would make everybody better off. As I noted when I wrote about Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at this year’s Republican convention, he had ripped off Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan — “Let’s Make America Great Again” — only he had dropped the “Let’s,” by which Reagan had meant that making America great again was at once a collective enterprise and one we would fulfill as individuals by making ourselves great again. Michael Reagan, who was interviewed extensively for this program, has said elsewhere that his dad would have been horrified by the Trump phenomenon, and I have no doubt Reagan fils is right: Reagan was an individualistic conservative who believed in the power of each person to shape his or her own destiny, and there’s an incredible clip in this documentary that sounds in the context of 2016 almost like Reagan coming back from the grave to rebuke Trump. Reagan said that if people elected him and expected him to fix everything, they would be wrong; Reagan’s idea of conservatism was individual self-responsibility, not handing everything over to a Great Leader who said, “I alone can fix it.” (In the same article I noted the frightening contrast between the slogan Barack Obama’s supporters had chanted in 2008, “Yes, we can!,” and the one Trump’s backers chanted in 2016: “Yes, he will!”)

I suspect that if Trump loses this year’s Presidential election — and it’s looking more likely every day that that will indeed happen — his supporters will be looking for the person who can be to Trump what Reagan was to Goldwater: the articulate spokesperson who can put the smiling face on Trump’s ideology (to the extent he has one — one of the most scary things about Trump is that he doesn’t seem to have any consistent ideology, taking his positions on impulse and not being too concerned about whether what he’s saying today is consistent with what he said yesterday — Reagan may have done a political 180° from his youth as a New Deal Democrat to the Right-wing Republican he became later, but at least he had a coherent conversion narrative: “This is what I believed then, this is what I believe now, and this is why I changed”) and ultimately lead it to victory. There don’t seem to be any people in the Republican party — or even outside it — who could fill that bill: the idea that their current GOP can find their savior who delivers a last-minute TV appeal for Trump on the order of Reagan’s 1964 election-eve speech “A Time for Choosing” and thereby mark himself (or herself) as the Trump lama is hard to believe. The Republican Right has become so bitter, at least in part because of the contrast between the number of elections they’ve won and the little they’ve actually been able to achieve in terms of lasting social change, it seems the only spokespeople they throw up these days are full of bile and venom (there’s a reason not only why Trump won the Republican nomination this year but the second-place finisher was the equally bilious and hateful Ted Cruz) and there’s little indication that the Republican Right has a “second Reagan” waiting in the wings somewhere — but stranger things have happened.