Friday, May 25, 2007

Bob Dylan - Masters Of War

I'm a day late (and always a dollar short), but yesterday was Bob Dylan's birthday. He's 66 years old.

Though I haven't listened to him as much in the last decade, I can't think of another literary/musical/artisitc figure who's had more impact on my life. And one of the first songs that made an impression on me was this one. I remember thinking, "Wow, I didn't know you could sing about things like that!"

The video is over the top and predictably anti-Bush. Not much nuance. No exploration of others who might be involved in promoting war. But hey, I'll take what YouTube offers.

I'd like to dedicate this to the Democratic National Party. Thanks for nothing.

Masters of War

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reading the Candidates

La pluma es la lengua del alma.
[The pen is the tongue of the soul.]
Miguel de Cervantes

I don't know what got into me, but I just read four books in a row by some of our current presidential candidates. That's not something I've ever done before, or even considered doing. But I'd heard that Barack Obama was a good writer, and I was curious about his candidacy, so I decided to try out The Audacity of Hope. It was interesting enough that when I finished, I thought I'd check out Bill Richardson's book, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life, because I wanted to know more about him, and the media certainly wasn't going to tell me anything. They seem incapable of dealing with more than three candidates in each party, and Obama and Hillary have sucked up the vast majority of the coverage anyway. [I did some research on that several weeks ago and discovered that they were getting about 50% of all media coverage of the 19 presidential candidates from both parties.] So, two books down. I was on a roll. Hell, I thought, I might as well read John Edwards' book, Four Trials, since I was also considering him as a possibility. Finally, I went for broke and decided to try Hillary Clinton's Living History. I'm still not sure if that was out of fairness or self-flagellation. I'm not a Hillary fan. But I realized that I might have to consider her in a general election, so I thought I should give her a chance. Who knows, maybe I'd really grow to like her.

It was an interesting process, and I would recommend picking up a book by one or two of the people you're considering. They don't always answer the questions you may have about them. Richardson, for example, says next to nothing about immigration, and I was curious to see what he of all people had to offer, because he's part Mexican, and because he's had to deal with the issue head-on as Governor of New Mexico. Hillary ends her book with her election to the Senate, so there was nothing about her support (her continued and irritating support) for the war in Iraq. Edwards' book only deals with politics obliquely through the four court cases he talks about, which was both a relief and a disappointment. Whatever. I can continue to read about their policies and ideas in the press, watch debates, etc. But now I feel like I have a better sense of where they're coming from.

All four write about their backgrounds growing up, which I found illuminating. Hillary turns out to have been a Goldwater Girl and President of the Young Republicans at Wellesley her freshman year. Obama and his idealistic white mother move to Indonesia only months after Suharto begins his brutal 30-year dictatorship. Richardson was born in the U.S. but lived in Mexico City until he was 13, when he is shipped off to an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts. It was the 1950s and he was half-Mexican, but he survives and actually thrives in such an environment because he turned out to be an excellent baseball player. In fact, he had a chance to play professionally but was ultimately persuaded to attend college instead.

Most importantly, perhaps, I felt like each candidate had a very distinctive voice. Obama and Richardson don't strike me as being far apart in terms of policy, but there was a profound difference between the two in terms of tone and style. And I think the difference is important. As Cervantes said, "The pen is the tongue of the soul." You can tell a lot by a person's writing, even when they don't do all the writing, as in the case of Richardson and Edwards, who both had co-authors. The figures I only knew about from media soundbites and scattered articles seem much more fleshed out to me now, more human.

So, I offer a few thoughts on these four books, and then I include a series of reviews from Publisher's Weekly as a sort of counter-balance to my own opinions.

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream - Crown (2006) 384 pages.

I started reading these books because of a single question: Is Barack Obama really that good of a writer? The answer is yes. At least for the most part. He does best when talking about his own personal story, and when giving history about something - the Senate or about the African-American experience, etc. He's got a good eye for detail. I particularly liked when he describes his first day in the Senate chambers. When it comes to policies and ideas for the future, however, his writing becomes less interesting. Which also sums up many of the ideas themselves. Publisher's Weekly describes his policies as "tepid Clintonism," which I thought was spot on. His style of politics may be fresh, but I don't think you're going to find much difference, in the end, between Barack and Hillary. Actually, that holds true for Richardson as well. They're all three Clintonites - one is married to Bill, the other worked for and strongly supported Bill, and the new kid on the block ain't gonna rock the boat. Edwards may be a little different, though it's hard to tell from his book, since he doesn't focus on policy at all. I get a sense here and there that he might be a little more Left on globalization and economic issues, for example, and he seems to be positioning himself that way right now, but you can't really judge by his book.

Ultimately, I had mixed feelings about Barack's book. I liked aspects of it very much, but I also found it uneven and somewhat disappointing. In the chapter called Race, for example, he writes a long, eloquent section on the hardships faced by African-Americans. But then he follows it up with a shallow (and questionable) throw-away piece on immigration. He also seems overly cautious, so concerned about his image as a fresh, new face willing to reach out to everybody that he can't stake out any territory. His desire to find "common ground" with others sounds real nice, and, yeah, like most Americans I'm tired of the bitter partisanship of the last 20 years, but I left his book feeling like he could slide around politically and not take stands when stands are needed. Only when he shifts on his politics, it won't be a calculated ploy to get elected - like Hillary gets tarred with - he'll portray it as something noble, a decision reached after searching his conscience in order to find that mystical place where all Americans love one another and want to work together to make the Republic strong. In other words, he'll paint it prettier, but it may still be an old rusted car he's trying to sell you.

Bill Richardson: Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life - Putnam Adult (2005) 384 pages.

Richardson is kind of the anti-Obama. His style is rough and tumble, straight-ahead action. "I went to Iraq. I met Sadaam. I negotiated the release of the prisoners. And then I got the hell out of there. Then I went to North Korea. A helicopter went down with two of our soldiers. I negotiated the release of the prisoners. Then I got the hell out of there. I ran for Congress. One day, the President called and said he had an emergency. So, I went to Afghanistan. I met with the Taliban. I negotiated the release of the prisoners. Then I got the hell out of there." To be honest, after Barack's cautious prose and ideas, I found Richardson's book to be a bit of a relief. And it was in the light of all this action that I realized how precious Obama can sound. So reading the two books helped me understand both men a bit better. Barack's a thinker, Bill's a man of action. He's not going to paint the rusted car all pretty for you. You're going to buy the damn car, and you might as well get used to the rust, because that's all you're gonna get. It just has to be that way in order to get things done. What these things are that need to get done, well, who knows. Probably to get some of our prisoners released.

The problem is that Richardson's book can get a little tiring after a while. Confidence, shall we say, is not his problem. And while I might like his James Bond schtick, I did start to miss Obama's thoughtfulness. What are you going to do? On the other hand, I prefer Richardson's take on finding that elusive common ground. Like Obama, he talks about the importance of working towards agreement, but his vast experience in negotiating with dictators points in another direction. You have to know exactly what you want and be willing to fight for it. Then, you establish a dialog and a bond of trust. And somehow, despite his bluster, people trust Bill Richardson. That's why he keeps going into these hot spots to negotiate with some pretty hardcore people. He's been described as charismatic, and he must be to some degree to sit down with Fidel Castro and smoke cigars and talk baseball in Spanish and then work out a deal to get some prisoners released. He made me think of Lyndon Johnson at times. He's a politician. He knows he's a politician. He likes being a politician. While he thinks it's a noble calling in the end, he sure does love the game. And I can actually appreciate that. It's the ones who want me to think they're all noble and caring who I don't trust.

Richardson's resume is very impressive - important early committee work on Human Rights, 14 years as U.S. Representative, Secretary of Energy, Ambassador to the U.N., two terms as Governor of New Mexico, etc. But I was disappointed in the end by some of his policies. He writes at length on how as Minority Whip he helped get NAFTA pushed through, and he considers it one of his great successes. I was hoping that by 2005, he might look back and talk about the mixed blessing NAFTA has been. Is it just coincidence, for example, that the massive immigration of Mexicans to the U.S. started right after NAFTA was implemented? Personally, I don't think so. The Mexican economy collapsed, especially the longstanding and vital rural agricultural economy, driving millions of people into the big cities and across the border. NAFTA played a role in this. To what degree? But Richardson simply counts it as another notch on his belt and moves on.

My sense after reading the book was that Richardson would be a strong president, but not one I would be happy with at times. But then, when have I ever been happy with a president? At least, I think, he would be somewhat entertaining - I found myself really enjoying writing about his book and had to go back and cut a lot out of this section. That says something.

John Edwards: Four Trials - Simon & Schuster (2003) 256 pages.

Edwards' book is quite different from the others. It definitely affected me the most emotionally, as the four court cases he writes about all involved pretty horrific situations. In one story, a little girl gets caught on the faulty drain of a public wading pool, and literally has her guts sucked out through her rectum. She survives, but has major medical complications, as you can imagine. The company who manufactured the drain disclaims any responsibility for what happened, even though it's eventually brought to light that several other children across the U.S. have died and been seriously injured by the company's product. Edwards is painting himself as the guy fighting on behalf of the little people against the big corporations. And though it's obvious what he's doing, I found the book compelling, especially as he talks about each case in relation to the challenges he's faced in his own life, from growing up poor to losing his son. At one time, I had an idea of Edwards as just some pretty boy trial lawyer, and I think the book definitely challenges that assumption. Of course, Edwards' book may only be the equivalent of one of his well-constructed closing statements that helped him become a millionaire lawyer, but it worked on me. As a juror of sorts, I wound up believing him.

Four Trials reads pretty well. I like books and movies about court cases (though I've never been able to read more than a single page of a John Grisham novel), and I found each of the four trials Edwards talks about to be fascinating. He does a good job of portraying the real people going through incredibly difficult times and how these kinds of court cases affect individuals, communities and big companies. He takes you through the ups and down of each trial and weaves in some good little observations here and there. The downside of all this, is that you don't get much about Edwards' political views. How would he handle the crisis in our educational system? Well, he'd fight on behalf of the little guy. What about Health Care? Well, he'd fight on behalf of the little guy. You get the picture. On the other hand, having just read two books in a row by politicians talking a lot about themselves, I found Four Trials to be a welcome break. I didn't expect it to be so haunting, however. Even now, a month later, thinking of that little girl trapped in the wading pool really upsets me. In the end, the book is really about Edwards' character. It's up to you to decide whether or not he's done a good job of making his case.

Hillary Clinton: Living History - Simon & Schuster (2003) 592 pages

More than anything, Hillary's book needed some serious editing. At 592 pages, it's much longer than the other three, and I don't think the added length means added value in this case. It was a tough slog, and, to be honest, I wound up skimming through a couple of the later chapters when they started sounding like previous ones - mainly detailed accounts of overseas trips she made as First Lady. One gets the feeling that she had copies of her itineraries by her side while writing the book and just included everything she could think of for each stop along the way. The length might not have been such a factor if she didn't spend 90% of the book talking about her eight years in the White House and so little about everything else. Many of the most interesting aspects of the book - her childhood, her time at Wellesley, her meeting Bill, etc. - are given short shrift, while these damn trips she made to Asia take up a zillion pages.

I enjoyed reading about her childhood and her time in college - I thought these gave me some slight glimpse into who she is - but she just doesn't stay with them very long. And I walk away from the book feeling like she barely cracked open the window on her life, despite all those pages. Living History struck me, in the end, as a reserved book, cool in tone. It also feels pretty scripted at times. There were three or four occasions when she mentioned something that didn't quite feel right, kind of a product placement moment. The most genuine and emotional parts of the book are, interestingly, about her meeting Bill Clinton in graduate school and what she went through after he admitted the Monica Lewinsky affair to her. The writing in these sections seemed much more alive and real. I wasn't, admittedly, a big fan of the Clintons, but I did gain a better appreciation for their complex relationship as husband and wife after reading this book. She also has a good collection of photos, including this fun one of her and bearded, hippie Bill in 1970.

In addition to spending too much time on her White House years, though I guess that was the point of the book, Hillary also goes off way too much on the vast right-wing conspiracy. This is her chance to get back at all of the bad guys, and she hammers away at them over and over. It's not that I disbelieve what she has to say, but after a while I found myself thinking, "Christ, let go of it, why don't you? We get the point." She seems pretty seriously bitter about the whole thing. Who can blame her? But the combination of this palpable bitterness and the emotional coolness of the book didn't exactly turn me into a Hillary supporter. She's intelligent. She cares about children. She's concerned about women around the world. She loves Bill. She loves Chelsea. She hates certain conspiring, right-wing Republicans. These things become clear in the book. She would probably make a fine president. But after about 600 pages, I'm not sure I really know much more about her. I found myself thinking of Gertrude Stein's famous quip about Oakland: "The trouble is that when you get there, there isn't any there there."

Publisher's Weekly
Reviews of the Books

Obama's Audacity of Truth

Illinois's Democratic senator illuminates the constraints of mainstream politics all too well in this sonorous manifesto. Obama (Dreams from My Father) castigates divisive partisanship (especially the Republican brand) and calls for a centrist politics based on broad American values. His own cautious liberalism is a model: he's skeptical of big government and of Republican tax cuts for the rich and Social Security privatization; he's prochoice, but respectful of prolifers; supportive of religion, but not of imposing it. The policy result is a tepid Clintonism, featuring tax credits for the poor, a host of small-bore programs to address everything from worker retraining to teen pregnancy, and a health-care program that resembles Clinton's Hillary-care proposals. On Iraq, he floats a phased but open-ended troop withdrawal. His triangulated positions can seem conflicted: he supports free trade, while deploring its effects on American workers (he opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement), in the end hoping halfheartedly that more support for education, science and renewable energy will see the economy through the dilemmas of globalization. Obama writes insightfully, with vivid firsthand observations, about politics and the compromises forced on politicians by fund-raising, interest groups, the media and legislative horse-trading. Alas, his muddled, uninspiring proposals bear the stamp of those compromises.

Richardson's Between Worlds

A charismatic politician with a standout résumé, in 2008 Governor Richardson may become the first Hispanic-American on a presidential ticket—at least if he has anything to say about it. In this campaign pamphlet, er, autobiography, Richardson lays out the highlights of his professional career, documenting how, after gaining a taste for politics in college and finaglinghis way into the international affairs program at the Fletcher School, he worked his way up from Capitol Hill staffer to U.S. congressman, United Nations ambassador, head of the Department of Energy and now governor of New Mexico. Along the way, he developed a knack for negotiating the release of prisoners from some of the world's most notorious dictators, among them Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, work that led him to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times. Richardson prefaces his account of these triumphs with a short chapter on his life in Mexico City, where he lived with his father, a prominent American businessman, and his mother, a Mexican secretary, until he was 12, but the focus of this book is his life in America. Though the autobiography is clearly designed as part of Richardson's long-term campaign for re-election in New Mexico and for national consideration by the DNC, it manages to provide a sense of his most famous characteristics: his blunt, disarming humor; his glad-handing chumminess; and his dogged ambition. "Some politicians say they feel uncomfortable talking about power, as if it's the nasty relation a family wants to keep hidden from public view," he writes. Richardson isn't one of those politicians, and it's his straight talk about how he got the power he has, and how he likes to flex it, that saves this book from being one long commercial.

Edwards' Four Trials

In his campaigns for the U.S. Senate (successful) and the Democratic presidential nomination (struggling), Edwards has defiantly celebrated his earlier career as a trial lawyer. Following that instinct, Edwards has chosen to cast his campaign memoir as an account of four of his courtroom experiences. Four Trials is brimming with Clintonian empathy for regular folks, and Edwards is at his best in his endearing portraits of the victims he represented in medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits. He also displays a keen understanding of the psychology of a jury, which he calls "a microcosm of democracy." Edwards weaves in recollections of his youth as the son of a mill worker, his rise to prominence as a lawyer, his dedicated family life and the death of his son in a car accident. But he mostly sticks to the details of the cases; he omits almost entirely his years in the Senate and his plans for the presidency. Edwards can tell a good yarn, and at times this book works as a courtroom drama. But it suffers from shoddy, platitudinous prose. The book is chiefly of interest for the way it manifests Edwards's strategy to present himself as an advocate for the downtrodden to his new jury, the American electorate.

Clinton's Living History

Whether or not you believe that the Clintons were victims of what Hillary calls a "vast right-wing conspiracy," this memoir has enough information and personality to appeal to people on both sides of the political fence. Most will not be surprised by Clinton's reading style, as it is similar (though not nearly as formal) to the manner in which she has delivered many television addresses. Her Midwestern accent is evenly pitched and pleasant. She easily laughs at herself, and fluctuations in her delivery render her emotions nearly palpable. Indeed, the casual straightforwardness of her delivery will engender a sense of trust and respect in listeners. Though she does not offer much new material, she is adept at disclosing many "backstage" details-from the personal, like her inner feelings about the Lewinsky scandal ("the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience of my life"), to the humorous, like the time a mischievous Boris Yeltsin tried to coax her into sampling moose-lip soup. Her devotion to Chelsea, Bill and to her country feels genuine, as do her hopes for future. All in all, her infectious sense of optimism and unwavering energy shine through in her delivery and will leave listeners with a new respect for the former First Lady.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Bill Richardson Comedy Hour (or Minute)

Posting these ads is not meant as an endorsement. I just thought it was refreshing to see a presidential candidate doing positive campaign ads that highlight his credentials in a humorous way. Nothing nasty aimed at his opponents. No fake-sounding promises. No vomit-inducing sentimentality. Simple, slightly weird, and effective.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Crazy About You, Baby

"When I think of the glory days of American film, at its speediest and most velvety, I think of Barbara Stanwyck." Anthony Lane

Barbara Stanwyck was born in Brooklyn, New York, 100 years ago this July, and Anthony Lane has penned a substantial homage to her in the April 30,2007 issue of The New Yorker: "Lady Be Good: A centenary season of Barbara Stanwyck." I highly recommend the article.

Back in 2001, La Reina and I started an ongoing movie marathon; we've watched over 1,000 films since then, many of them classics from the 1930s to 1950s . The two biggest discoveries for us among the great Hollywood actors have been William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck. They were names we knew, but at the beginning of the 21st century, they just didn't have the same reputation as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, etc. I hope Lane's major article, and the retrospective of Stanwyck's career currently taking place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music cinema, will help return her to the Hollywood Pantheon, because I believe she was something special.

Here's Lane: "To addicts of old Hollywood, as to pining critics, no actress delivered a more accomplished body of work; to the general public, however, her name is fading into the past. All we have of Stanwyck is a collection of films—but what a collection. . . . Was there any other actress who had appeared both in a silent movie—Broadway Nights — and in “Dynasty”? To raise the stakes a little, was there any other actress who encompassed so many chapters of what we take to be the history of Hollywood?"

Lane's central theme of the article deals with Stanwyck's toughness, both on screen and in real life. Here's a bit of biography from the article:

[Stanwyck's] real name was Ruby Katherine Stevens. The last of five children, she was two years old when her mother, Catherine, died after stepping off a streetcar, falling, and cracking her head on the curb. Her father, a bricklayer named Byron, waited a couple of weeks, long enough to see his wife interred, then took off to work on the Panama Canal. With that, he vanished from history.

Ruby and her brother Byron were taken up by an older sister, Mildred, who shunted them from one foster family to the next. So tough was that upbringing, and such was Stanwyck’s determination not to milk it for sympathy, that, of all the major actresses, she is the hardest to imagine as a child. By the time she arrived in movies, she seemed to know more of the world than anyone around her, enough to make audiences take her on trust.

Mildred was a showgirl, and Ruby liked to follow in her slipstream, picking up the moves. She left school at thirteen, and two years later she was earning her keep in the chorus at the Strand Roof, high above Times Square, shifting soon to a production of “Ziegfeld Follies” at the New Amsterdam.
Stanwyck as a Ziegfeld Girl, early 1920s.

My only criticism of Lane's thoughtful homage is that he goes on too much about her toughness and misses something essential about her screen presence. It's not vulnerability, but something else. Her Brooklyn street smarts mixed with a kind of animal warmth. It flares up in her eyes. Unlike a typical Hollywood "goddess," with ethereal good looks and an unreachable star quality, Stanwyck managed to stay real and human on the screen. She was more three-dimensional: A tough - and in her comedies, fun - Irish girl from Brooklyn. No small feat in the Hollywood star machine.

I also can't think of any other actress who had Stanwyck's range. Katherine Hepburn comes to mind, because they both moved easily between comedy and drama, but it's hard to imagine Connecticut girl Hepburn in film noir classics like Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. And she certainly couldn't compare with Stanwyck in westerns. In fact, the Brooklyn showgirl was so good at them, that she was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1973 for "Outstanding Contribution to the West Through Motion Pictures."

Lane talks at length about her variety of roles, and suggests that it may be, ironically, one reason her star has faded: "Stanwyck’s greatest strength, in other words—her range—was also the reason that she is impossible to tie down and tame. No genre was beyond her, and no one movie sums her up."

No, there isn't one movie to sum her up. But I'll offer a few that showcase the special screen presence of one of Hollywood's greatest actresses.

The Essential Stanwyck

The Lady Eve (1941) - Written and Directed by Preston Sturges. With Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, William Demarest and Eric Blore.

Roger Ebert chose this as one of his 100 Great Movies. I suggest reading his entire review, but here's a taste:
If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve," and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda's hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.

Stanwyck plays an adventuress who has lured a rich but unworldly young bachelor to her cabin on an ocean liner, and is skillfully tantalizing him. She reclines on a chaise. He has landed on the floor next to her. "Hold me tight!'' she says, holding him tight -- allegedly because she has been frightened by a snake. Now begins the unbroken shot. Her right arm cradles his head, and as she talks she toys with his earlobe and runs her fingers through his hair. She teases, kids and flirts with him, and he remains almost paralyzed with shyness and self-consciousness. And at some point during this process, she falls for him. . . .

Although the movie would be inconceivable without Fonda, "The Lady Eve'' is all Stanwyck's; the love, the hurt and the anger of her character provide the motivation for nearly every scene, and what is surprising is how much genuine feeling she finds in the comedy. Watch her eyes as she regards Fonda, in all of their quiet scenes together, and you will see a woman who is amused by a man's boyish shyness and yet aroused by his physical presence. At first she loves the game of seduction, and you can sense her enjoyment of her own powers. Then she is somehow caught up in her own seduction. There has rarely been a woman in a movie who more convincingly desired a man.
Brilliantly written and directed by Sturges, this is one of the greatest comedies of all time. Coburn and Stanwyck as father & daughter card sharks. Henry Fonda as the easy mark - a wealthy but nerdy young man sailing back home after studying snakes in the Amazon. Wickedly funny. And the scene that Ebert describes between Stanwyck and Fonda may be one of my all-time favorites.

Double Indemnity (1944) - Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Starring Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and E.G. Robinson.

"I'm crazy about you, baby." Fred MacMurray to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

One of the first and best examples of film noir. Also chosen by Ebert for his 100 Great Movies. Read his review. Even in a horrid blonde wig, Stanwyck is the ultimate femme fatale. Her ankle alone is enough to drive insurance salesman Fred MacMurray to murder for her, and, hell, I probably would've done the same. The two come up with a great plan, but E.G. Robinson, as MacMurray's boss at the insurance firm, smells a rat. Superb filmmaking and a great ride.

Ball of Fire (1941) - Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Starring Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and S.Z. Sakall.

Sugarpuss O'Shea and the studious professors

Okay, this one's not on Ebert's list of 100 Great Movies, but it is on mine. It's also one of American Film Institutes 100 Greatest Comedies, and Anthony Lane talks about it a lot in his article. Several professors have been living a mostly secluded life in a New York townhouse for the past nine years, working on a major encyclopedia. Professor Bertram Potts, played by Gary Cooper, is in charge of language and grammar, and he's discovered that his section on slang has already gone out of date since the project began. He decides to venture out into the city to copy down the new slang he hears, eventually winding up in a nightclub, where he encounters Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). She happens to be engaged to a mobster who's just been arrested. The police are looking for her, so the mob guys need to hide her away. What better place than among a bunch of nerdy old bookworms?! Except, of course, that one of them happens to be Gary Cooper. Especially fun and funny film for people who take their encyclopedias and word usage seriously. This was Billy Wilder's last screenplay before he began directing his own films, and he and Charles Brackett crafted a gem. Howard Hawks also directed Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), an amazing hat trick of screwball comedy that has never been equaled.

Here's a great clip from the movie, the scene that Anthony Lane talks about at the opening of his article.

Some Other Great Stanwycks

Meet John Doe (1941) - The second movie Stanywck and Cooper made in 1941, this one a classic directed by Frank Capra. An excellent film about politics and the media.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) - You don't have to wait until Christmas to watch this delightful comedy. Stanwyck at her most charming. I wrote about it in my Christmas Meme a few months ago.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) - A brooding and underrated film noir. Kirk Douglas makes his film debut, playing an alcoholic D.A. married to the scheming Stanwyck. Van Helfin and Lizabeth Scott round out the cast.
To Please a Lady (1950) - Clark Gable was the King, the He-Man of He-Men. He's plays a struggling race car driver in this one. Stanwyck plays a journalist. Whatever the King dishes out, Stanwyck gives right back. Not a great film, but it's a lot of fun watching these two work together.
Executive Suite (1954) - William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck are reunited in this excellent big business thriller. The all-star cast also includes Fredric March, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Shelly Winter and Paul Douglas. Directed by Robert Wise, written by Ernest Lehman and produced by John Houseman. An unheralded gem.

Stanwyck in 1937.
In her films, she faced down the schemings of weak men, got a laugh, and vented no pity.
The New Yorker

The Republican Debate

"Political experts say that the ten Republican candidates represented all races, creeds, and colors of rich white men." Conan O'Brien

The Republicans held their first presidential debate Thursday night at the Ronald Reagan Library in California. I was curious to know how it went and who conservatives thought had won, so I toured a few right-wing blogs and some other sites. The Democrats are feeling pretty cocky right now and think they might be able to take the White House in 2008, but given their history of running pathetic presidential campaigns (see Gore 2000, Kerry 2004, Dukakis 1988, etc.), voters may want to familiarize themselves with the Republican candidates in case Ron Paul winds up as our next president.

Unlike the Democrats' first debate in South Carolina last week, where no one really stood out or completely blew it, the Republican debate seems to have had some clear winners and losers. It will be interesting to see polling numbers for Republicans in the next couple of weeks. A few surprises may be in store.

The consensus winner of the night was Mitt Romney. He pretty much made a clean sweep of all the blog polls and analytical pieces I read. As one National Review pundit said, he "looked and sounded like a serious presidential candidate." Many others agreed.

The consesus loser on Thursday was "America's Mayor," Rudy Giuliani. If you believe the pundits, his campaign is about to tank over this debate debacle.

Red State: "Rudy Giuliani imploded. . . . Rudy totally and utterly self-destructed tonight. He had many chances to get in good with the core base of Republican voters and ignored every moment."

National Review pundit 1: "[Rudy] lost the debate, beginning with the first question when he seemed nervous and disorganized. At no time did he manage to convey the strength and confidence of America’s mayor."

National Review pundit 2: "Rudy seemed so half-heartedso unwilling to make an effort, to demonstrate that he actually wants to become presidentthat I found myself wondering if he’s having second thoughts about running. I can’t tell you who won, but Rudy for darned sure lost."

New York Post: [Rudy] may not be the front-runner much longer. . . . [H]is debate performance was lousy. . . . Rudy did himself harm last night."
When the New York Post rips its favorite mayor, you know things were bad.

Though perhaps not all is lost for Rudy. A Survey USA poll of 317 debate watchers in California thought he did best, giving him 30% of their vote, more than twice as much as the next candidate, Romney, at 12%. The poll doesn't say, however, whether these debate watchers were Republican voters or not, or if they were even registered voters, or if they were even awake during the debate. But it wouldn't be unlikely to see him score well among a poll of the general public.

Ron Paul. Your next President of the United States.

The big surpise of the night: Ron Paul, Libertarian Congressman from the Galveston, Texas district. Paul came in second in all of the blog polls and even forced the pundits to acknowledge his existence, though most did so grudingly. He was supposed to be the crazy old fringe guy, kind of like Mike Gravel is for the Democrats, except that viewers actually responded well to Dr. Paul, who is an M.D. and - according to Wikipedia - has delivered over 4,000 babies. The Wall Street Journal said, "Paul distinguished himself both by presenting a strong antiwar, anti-interventionist platform and by appearing nervous at times." [He distinguished himself by "appearing nervous"?] Now what do the pundits do? Dr. Paul also did very well in the "YouTube Primary," with 11,000 views of his debate performance, 2nd only to Romney's 16,000 views.

Another winner: Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas. While Ron Paul will [sadly?] never be taken seriously as a candidate, Huckabee might have a chance to start swimming with the big boys if Rudy and McCain start to tumble. Yet another National Review pundit (they had a whole damn panel of them), said of Huckabee: "Smart, pleasant, knowledgeable, and straightforward." Mark Halperin at Time gave him a B+, behind only Romney. If nothing else, Huckabee might be getting a look as a possible VP. Rudy, for example, could use some real help in the south and among the social conservatives. Huckabee is a Baptist minister from Arkansas.

Another loser: John McCain. I thought it was interesting that McCain got okay reviews from the pundits, whereas most conservative blog polls had him 4th or 5th, with about 5% of the vote, and comments on some of the blogs were downright vicious towards him. He really is something of a media darling, it seems. If you're a supposed front-runner, and your potential base doesn't seem to like you and thinks you looked like a doddering old fool in the debate, I don't see how that plays out as an "okay" performance.

So, what are the Republicans going to do? Their main front-runner "implodes" in the debate. The second one gets a lukewarm-to-vicious response. The Mormon flip-flopper from the East Coast does really well. The Libertarian from Texas (via Pittsburgh - another Yankee carpetbagger!) scores big. The Baptist minister - Huckabee - might cause some waves. But I don't get the sense that the Repubicans actually have much of a candidate they can support right now. Which is why so many conservatives want Fred Thompson to run, I guess.

Here are some of the numbers and comments I collected:

Drudge - 85,000 votes
Romney 30%
Rudy 20%
Ron Paul 18%
McCain 6%

Little Green Footballs - 4,440 votes
Romney 34.6%
Rudy 23%
Ron Paul 20.7%
Tancredo 6.1%
McCain 5.2%

Hot Air (Michelle Malkin) - 2,000 votes
Romney 54%
Rudy 16%
Ron Paul 10%
Hunter 6%
McCain / Tancredo 4%

Red State -1,300 votes
Who LOST the debate?
Rudy 38%
McCain 17%
Romney 10%

"John McCain won. . . . Mitt Romney shined, he stood out, he did well. Rudy Giuliani imploded. Rudy totally and utterly self-destructed tonight. He had many chances to get in good with the core base of Republican voters and ignored every moment."

National Review Panel
1) Winners: Romney, McCain, and Huckabee
"It was hard to see why Giuliani is a frontrunner. . . . [He] was tired and off balance."

2) Mitt Romney had the best night. Calm, warm, thoughtful, and engaging, he looked and sounded like a serious presidential candidate. John McCain and Giuliani didn’t do themselves any favors.

3)And the winner is: Mitt the Good, the Perfect, the Gosh-Darned Smartest of Them All. He was substantive, concise, and humorous, if somewhat over-educated.
Runner-up goes to Mike Huckabee. Smart, pleasant, knowledgeable, and straightforward, he was the surprise in the Cracker Jack box.
[Rudy] lost the debate, beginning with the first question when he seemed nervous and disorganized. At no time did he manage to convey the strength and confidence of America’s mayor.

4)Among the big three, Giuliani turned in the most problematic performance.

5)Huckabee and Romney did well.

"Rudy seemed so half-heartedso unwilling to make an effort, to demonstrate that he actually wants to become presidentthat I found myself wondering if he’s having second thoughts about running. I can’t tell you who won, but Rudy for darned sure lost."

Peggy Noonan
Mitt Romney won
Rudy Giuliani lost
John McCain is still in
And there's "the obscure but intellectually serious Ron Paul."

NY POST (Podhoretz)
Rudy "may not be the front-runner much longer. . . . [H]is debate performance was lousy. . . . Rudy did himself harm last night.

Huckabee "did himself the most good" and was "quietly sensational."

Other Views

MSNBC - 48-51,000 votes
Who stood out from the pack?
Ron Paul 31%
Romney 25%
Rudy 19%
McCain 9%
Huckabee 4%

Who showed the most leadership qualities?
Same order as above

Who was the most convincing candidate?
Same order as above

Who had the most rehearsed answers?
McCain 31%
Romney 25%
Rudy 21%
Ron Paul 5.4%
Brownback 4.6%

Who avoided the questions?
Rudy 34%
McCain 18%
Romney 14%
Brownback 6.4%
T. Thompson 6.3%

Who had the best one-liner?
Ron Paul 26%
Romney 17%
McCain 16%
Rudy 15%
Huckabee 8%

Survey USA Poll - 317 debate watchers in California
Rudy 30%
Not sure 16%
Romney 12%
McCain 11%
Gilmore 8%

Time Magazine (Mark Halperin)
Romney A-
Huckabee B+
Rudy B
Ron Paul B
McCain B-

Daily Kos - 9,200 voters
Zombie Reagan 40%
Ron Paul 24%
Romney 11%
Huckabee 4% (440)
Rudy 4% (377)
McCain 3%