Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Dystopian Looking Glass

By Drew

The online issue of The New Criterion has a very interesting article by Anthony Daniels, "Blood and Smashed Glass," on dystopian (end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic, what have you) novels. As Daniels notes, the best of these dystopian novels tend to be from Britain, and back in February I wrote about one of the best and most affecting, On the Beach.

Of the recent novels in the genre, Daniels focuses on J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come. (You might recognize Ballard as the author of Empire of the Sun, which was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg.) In Kingdom Come, Ballard writes of a bleak, spiritually empty Britain, where “the ‘spiritual’ focus of life here is the shopping mall, the airport, and the filling station.” In many ways more terrifying than the regressive, post-nuclear worlds we often read about, Ballard describes the not-too-distant future:

They [the inhabitants] lived in an eternal retail present, where the deepest moral decisions concerned the purchase of a refrigerator or a washing machine.

Parking was well on the way to becoming the British population’s greatest spiritual need.

Here, a filling station beside a dual carriageway enshrined a deeper sense of community than any church or chapel, a greater awareness of a shared culture than a library or municipal gallery could offer.

Consumerism dominated the lives of the people, who looked as if they were shopping whatever they were doing.

As Daniels notes, such a life can be deeply unsatisfying. Nationalism (or Balkanization of the culture, if you will), aggressiveness, and violence work to fill the gap, but so does the Oprafied, emotions-on-the-sleeve sentimental mush we seem to crave. In Britain, these contradictory elements are symbolized by the teddy bear for the sentimentality, the English flag for the brutality, both of which, Daniels says, “[serve] to make the country an increasingly civilization-free zone.”

Whenever there is a fatal accident, or a fatal stabbing or shooting, in an English city, teddy bears soon appear at the site, often strapped to the nearest lamppost. They are the lightning conductors of disturbing thoughts and emotions, discharging them harmlessly into the ground. They serve the purposes of shallowness and intensity at the same time; they are the tribute that egotism pays to sympathy. That is why, as Ballard so acutely perceives, they play so large a part in modern English life.

As for the flag, which only a handful of years ago was scarcely ever seen, and then only in the hands of people with the crudest xenophobic sentiments, it is now to be found everywhere. One of Mr. Blair’s greatest achievements, so far unheralded, is the near certain destruction of the 300-year-old union of Scotland and England, with the very real possibility of the emergence once again of destructive hostility. English nationalists will soon find real reasons to hate the Scots, for example because of the vast subsidies they have so thanklessly received for decades; the Scots, suddenly deprived of those subsidies, will find one more reason to loathe the English.

I don’t imagine we recognize much of our own culture in this, do we? Anyway, if you have a strong stomach and some antidepressants nearby, you might want to check this out.

If I haven’t already gotten you down by now, let me mention one additional element form Daniels’ article. In fact, it was the piece that fairly leapt off the page when I read it, for in it I saw the greatest parallel to our own time and culture. Oddly enough, it comes from one of the older of the dystopian novels, E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, published in 1909. The Machine Stops tells of a world where “mankind has become entirely subterranean, living isolated lives in temperature-controlled cells where everything is available at the push of a button and all human contact is second-hand, via electronic communication apparatus. First-hand experience of anything except the cell in which one lives is feared and avoided by everyone.”

I read this and I thought, “Internet. Email. MySpace. Virtual reality. Avatars. Self-absorption, the elimination of risk, the decay of neighborhoods. It’s all there, isn’t it. And he wrote this 100 years ago.”

If it’s uncomfortable having a mirror held up to us, if we squirm at the image we see reflected in its glass, we should also be grateful that we’ve been given this looking glass in which we can get a glimpse of what life has become. Of course, the hard part is to do something about it, as we must, before the looking glass turns into the picture of Dorian Gray.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Maybe the Minnesota Opera Should Read This

By Mitchell

Well, we haven’t written much about the Minnesota Opera lately, the 2006-07 season having recently come to a close. The new season has been announced, however, featuring Rossini's classic comedy L’Italiana in Algeri, or as the Minnesota Opera insists on billing it, “The Italian Girl in Algiers.” As the title implies, the story takes place in Algeria. Rossini wrote this piece in 1813, so it’s a fairly safe bet that the setting of L’Italiana in Algeri takes place somewhere in that time frame.

Except, of course, for the Minnesota Opera. Their description of the staging is as follows: “Rossini’s madcap romantic comedy is imaginatively set inside a colorful 1930s pop-up book.”


Keep in mind that this is the same Minnesota Opera that staged Orazi e Curiazi, which the composer set in the year 650 BC, as an American Civil War epic.

Now, read the following from this week’s print edition of The Onion:

Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended

In an innovative, tradition-defying rethinking of one of the greatest comedies in the English language, Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles announced Monday his bold intention to set his theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in 16th-Century Venice.

“I know when most people hear The Merchant of Venice, they think 1960s Las Vegas, a high-powered Manhattan stock brokerage, or an 18th-century Georgia slave plantation, but I think it’s high time to shake things up a bit,” Hiles said.


The Community Players’ 1999 production of Othello was set during the first Gulf War, 2001’s The Tempest took place on a canoe near the Bermuda Triangle, and last year’s “stripped-down,” post-apocalyptic version of Hamlet presented the tragedy in the year 3057.

[Hiles] had been planning to center [The Merchant of Venice] around an al-Qaeda terrorist cell before going with an avant-garde take [of setting the story in its original time and place].

Admit it. If I hadn’t told you which story was from The Onion, you’d have had a hard time telling the two apart, wouldn’t you?

I could ask why directors insist on doing this, taking perfectly good stories and tricking them up for no apparent reason other than to draw attention to their own self-conscious cleverness, but let’s have one of the “singers” from The Onion have the last word:

“I guess it’s the director’s dramatic license to put his own personal spin on the play he is directing, but this is a little over-the-top,” said Stacey Silverman, who played Nurse Brutus in Hiles’ 2003 all-female version of Julius Caesar. “I just think Portia not being an aviatrix does a tremendous disservice to the playwright.”

Now, What Was That About TV and Sports, Again?

By Mitchell

Am I the only one who noticed this irony?

Just past the halfway point of the Indy 500 on Sunday, a rainstorm caused a three-hour delay. The race finally resumed, but was again cut short by rain and finally halted before the full 500 miles were run. It made for an exciting race, with the additional element of time adding a layer of drama to an unusually competitive race, but it also left many with a somewhat empty feeling, being cheated out of the thrill of a down-to-the-wire finish.

Now, the irony. A couple of years ago, in an effort by ABC to boost TV ratings, the start of the race was moved back an hour, from 11:00 a.m. to noon, Central time. (The fact that Indianapolis is now on Daylight Savings time has nothing to do with this particular equation.) Understanding that heavy rain early on Sunday morning made it fortunate that the race was even able to start on time, the fact remains that had the race begun at its customary 11:00 starting time, it would almost certainly have been possible to run the entire 500 miles, at least if you include the restart after the first delay.

Changing the starting time of a sporting event in order to accommodate TV is nothing new, of course. As far as racing goes (and you can correct me on this, Bobby or Cathy), I believe the start of the Daytona 500 was also pushed back a couple of years ago for TV. The difference here is that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is, unlike Daytona and many other race tracks, totally dependant on natural light for the running of a race. Starting the race even one hour late, especially an event as prone to weather interruptions as Indy can be, purely in order to capture the crowd that might otherwise be at church or Sunday brunch, seems to be – what, unfortunate? Besides, most non-racing fans would insist that you don’t need to see the beginning of the race (unless it’s Formula 1, with its traditional first-lap pileup), when it’s only the last hour or so that really matters. True racing aficionados, I suspect, would make sure they were able to see the start of the race if they really wanted to.

Again, it may not have been possible on Sunday due to the early rain, but that doesn’t change the essence of what we’re talking about. Thanks once again to television, the outcome of a major sporting event might have been affected. I certainly hope the money that ABC pays Indianapolis was worth it!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

This Would Explain a Lot About Why the Blogosphere Isn't Better

By Mitchell

Via the Onion.

Why do I feel as if I know most of those people?

UPDATE: Drew wonders if that last comment of mine was intended to suggest the existence of something such as P.J. O'Rourke's Enemies List, and whether or not any of our fellow bloggers should take umbrage at it. Well, we're far too genteel around here to have something such as an enemies list; and no, if you're listed on the sidebar, you have nothing to fear. However, there certainly have been cases in the past when a blog has disappeared from the sidebar - were they part of the 38%? We report - you decide.

Music Soothes the Savage Beast?

By Drew

Last month I noted the fight that broke out at a Boston Pops concert. Well, today is the anniversary of perhaps the most famous riot in the history of classical music, the mêlée that broke out at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Here is a You Tube link to a BBC video reenactment of the premiere performance. Part One A particularly highlights the acrimonious reception which greated the work:

Part One A and B
Part Two A and B

So much for the idea that classical music is dull and bloodless!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Car Wash Christianity

By Bobby

With the Religious Left's leaders being Warren, Hybels, and others in The Emergent Church movement, note how many churches have fallen to the trap ofthe Emergent Church. This column has great commentary on it:

All the sermons on Sunday became geared at healing relationships, or how to be a better you, and 10 steps to something I am told I am missing in my life, or the gospel according to the barbecue grill or some other funny little sermon, never about the Holiness, Mercy, Grace, Wrath, Judgement, or Justice of God or the Deity of Christ and I can't tell you the last time I heard the word HELL on a Sunday morning.

The concerns expressed by this author are mirrored in other articles, such as this one.

In a subsequent article, the author of the initial post elaborates on his concerns:

What are some of the lasting effects from the seeker movement on the church when the focus is on contemporary worship, and modernizing every thing in the church? Well it seems that it creates a contempt for church history to the point that it separates the modern church from her past with no connection to history of the Faith, and most today seem to wear it as a badge of honor. Christians today just don't have any connection or respect to the great hymns, their writers, theology, great preachers, and sound doctrine. So there is this dumbing down of the importance of church, a diminishing of the importance of worship, and the diminishing of the importance of the exalted charter of it. Now this appears to be a concentrated effort to systematically cut all ties with the whole history of the church, and in the process we have trained a generation of church goers to have contempt for historical Christianity, and the theology that is at the heart of historical Christianity, and all that is left is a man-centered theology and an emotional entertainment." [NOTE: Excerpt compiled after listening to GTY90 from Grace To You. An interview with John MacArthur and Phil Johnson titled "Straight Talk About the Seeker Church Movement".]

As the author says in the initial post, after talking about the "worship minister with rock star like credentials" who says things like "God is not concerned with putting his stamp of approval on your worship" and the invitational hymn being "Desperado" by the Eagles, "And they have the gall to call this church?"

Thursday, May 24, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

GAO Recommends Downsizing of U.S. Senate
Study reveals Senate "getting along just fine" despite 1/3 of members being away on full-time campaign trail

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a move bound to send shock-waves through all three branches of the federal government, the Government Accounting Office has issued a report recommending that the number of U.S. Senators should be sharply reduced, perhaps by as much as 50%.

(Left) Senator John McCain reacts with shock and outrage to the GAO's move to downsize his job.

"This may sound radical, but in the light of the current situation, it's really a no brainer," says GAO head Marvin Brickheader. "We've got nearly a dozen sitting senators running for president or thinking of running for president. People like McCain, Clinton, Obama, Dodd, Biden. A presidential campaign is obviously a full-time job for these people. They're rarely in Washington during a campaign that is now stretching to two years or more in length. That's a full third of their six year term.

"And yet, even without them, the Senate is getting along just fine. Apparently we can downsize, still get the work done, and save taxpayers some money. What's wrong with that?"

The report is receiving negative reaction from the senators themselves. "This is a dumb idea," said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who met briefly with reporters after his breakfast meeting at the Rotary Club in Mill Pond, New Hampshire. "I'm keeping up just fine with Senate business. I have a cell phone and a Blackberry. I'm in touch. As much as I need to be." McCain promised to give more detail on his reaction to the GAO report after a luncheon in Dubuque, Iowa and a fund-raising dinner in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

"Let's be realistic," Brickheader countered. "How many working people in America could say to their bosses, 'You know, for the next two years, I won't be in the office much because I've pretty much taken on a second full-time job. But thanks for continuing to pay me a salary and cover all my medical benefits.' Who's going to get away with that? And yet, that's exactly what these senators are doing."

Under the GAO plan, the number of senators would be reduced to 50, one per state. In addition, a senator announcing that he or she is a candidate for higher office would automatically be removed from their senate seat and a special election held to find a replacement. "It could even make some people think twice about running," added Brickheader, "and that might not necessarily be a bad thing."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Cultural Archaeologist

By Mitchell

We should have seen it coming.

In the February 17, 1968 issue of TV Guide, buried in the yellow "TV Teletype" section at the back of the magazine, was the following brief notation:

NBC's "Heidi" special, which was filmed in Europe, will be shown in the two-hour form instead of the originally planned 90 minutes.

There were more tantalizing clues - the color photo spread of the Heidi cast shooting in the Swiss Alps in the November 9 issue (ironically, an issue including an article entitled, "Inside Story of a Football Telecast"), although it probably didn't attract much notice at the time. And then in the November 16 issue there's the show itself: Heidi, on Sunday, November 17, 1968 at 6:00 Central on NBC, starring Michael Redgrave, Maximillian Schell and Jean Simmons in "Johanna Spyri's story classic." Almost unnoticed – printed with virtually no fanfare – was the game itself.

3:00 Pro Football. New York Jets vs. Raiders at Oakland. Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis report. (Live)

The rest of the Heidi Game, as it came to be known, is history. And so was television sports as we knew it.

The Heidi Game, by itself, didn’t spell the end. Mike Celizic’s wonderful book The Biggest Game of Them All illustrates how the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State #1 vs. #2 showdown profoundly changed the way in which television looked at sports. This game, created a demand for media credentials unsurpassed in sports to that time (it took the Super Bowl years before it became as big a media sensation), caused Catholic churches throughout the nation to change confession times so as not to conflict with the game, and became the first sporting event telecast live via satellite in Hawaii.

It may be hard to believe now, but through the 60s and early 70s the televising of college football was a closely regulated business. Teams were limited to the number of appearances they could make on TV each season, and even the biggest games were frequently seen on a regional, rather than national, basis. The Notre Dame-Michigan State game, which was hyped to a level that would be remarkable even today, threatened to change everything.

It was seen as a single-handed threat to small or underperforming college teams. (Why would anyone go to watch such a team when they could stay at home and watch the big boys duke it out?) It created fears that Notre Dame might run off and get their own TV network. (As indeed they did, although it took almost 30 years for it to happen.) By bowing to the demands of the viewing audience and showing the top teams week after week (regardless of how many times they appeared), major schools were certain to gain a recruiting advantage in what was rapidly becoming a national, rather than regional, playing field.

In the end, the two teams settled nothing, playing to a 10-10 tie. But as far as television was concerned, the game had taken it to the brink. It would take perhaps one more event to push it over the edge.

Enter Heidi.

The uproar over the game was immense, not only in the immediate aftermath but in the days to follow. It was a featured story on NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley report. It made the front page of the New York Times. For the American Football League, still fighting for respectability and acceptance, it was a public relations bonanza – seldom before had the league gotten the kind of attention it now basked in. (And things would get even better less than two months later, with Joe Namath leading the aforementioned Jets to their shocking Super Bowl victory over the Colts.)

The message to TV from the public came through loud and clear – don’t mess with our sports.

The results were mixed. TV did indeed learn the power and popularity (not to mention profitability) of sports, with the result that they started messing with it more than ever – games starting at the break of dawn or the middle of the night, summer sports in the winter and winter sports in the summer, endless commercial breaks, stadiums constructed around TV sightlines – even leagues created in partnership with networks (the XFL) or partially owned by networks (Arena Football). Entire networks were devoted entirely to the telecasting of sporting events. Leagues started their own television networks. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to suggest that sports became, to a great extent, a wholly owned subsidiary of Corporate America (see Rollerball for further details).

Oh, there was never a repeat of the Heidi Game – at least not exactly. For while an NFL game would never again be cut off before its completion (unless your home team was playing in the second half of a doubleheader, but that’s another story), other sports aren't necessarily as fortunate, as the NHL found out last Saturday afternoon. The NHL learned this lesson the hard way, when the fifth game of the Ottawa-Buffalo series was unceremoniously dumped by NBC (yes, the same network of Heidi) to make way for the Preakness pre-race show. The game was headed for overtime, you see, and as any fan of the NHL can tell you, a playoff overtime game can last five minutes or five hours. For those die-hard fans who wanted to see just how this game wound up, they had to hightail it over to Versus, the NHL’s cable home. If they had access to Versus, that is. Moral of the story: money talks. The NFL has it. The NHL doesn’t. (The NHL hasn't been the only victim of this kind of programming, as this Wikipedia entry shows.)

Now, it may be a stretch to accuse one little girl of causing all this, but then again it might not be such a stretch after all. What is safe to say is that the Heidi Game changed the way television perceived sports, and in some fundamental way sports has never been the same.

And nobody could possibly have guessed it at the time, reading the pages of TV Guide.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Once Again, Truth Stranger Than Fiction

By Drew

You know, we really can't make this stuff up: (H/T Jonah Goldberg at NRO)

Man's Plot to Kill Girlfriend Ends With His Death

A California man who tried to kill his girlfriend by leaving her in a car parked across railway lines was himself killed when an oncoming train hurled the car into him as he fled.

His girlfriend survived, the Associated Press reported.

The man drove the car to the head of a line of traffic stopped at a level crossing in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Sunland on Monday, police spokesman Mike Lopez said.

The man, who was seen arguing with the woman, then parked the car on the tracks and jumped out, leaving her behind, Mr Lopez said.

A 450-ton commuter train hit the rear of the car, launching it into the man.

The girlfriend, who was injured , was taken to hospital in a stable condition.

Nothing more need be said. Except, be careful.

The Vision Thing

By Mitchell

My friend Hadleyblogger Gary was complaining about George Bush yesterday. Now, this is nothing new for Gary. As I’ve commented before, Gary would only be completely satisfied belong to a political party named after himself.

What I think is worth mentioning about Gary, and the reason I bring this up, is that until a few years ago most people would have called Gary a staunch Republican type (he eschewed party affiliations himself, but it would have been one of those “if the shoe fits” cases), and he remains a staunch conservative. He supported George Bush in 2000 - he was truly convinced that the younger Bush was different, more conservative, than his father. Perhaps even the heir to Ronald Reagan.

This feeling had, for the most part, dissipated by 2004. I can’t remember if he voted for Bush then, but the ardor had clearly worn off. Today, it’s totally gone – replaced by a withering contempt. In his mind, and in the minds of many like Gary, George Bush has betrayed not only the principles of the Republican party, but those of conservatism as well – the growing federal bureaucracy, the runaway spending, the increasing intrusiveness of the government, the continual erosion of national sovereignty, the war.

Gary is by no means a lone voice in this. What makes it so difficult for many in the conservative movement is that George Bush’s presidency has created such a distorted image, a totally inaccurate picture of what conservatives stand for. Bush isn’t a conservative – at best, he’s a moderate Republican, a return to the party’s pre-Reagan country club roots – but many people, trained over time to link “Republican” and “conservative” are presented with a grossly unfair depiction of what many would think of a “conservative” presidency. The best one can do when discussing politics with others is to stress to them that George Bush isn’t a conservative at all, that he’s not representative of how many conservatives really feel. Don’t judge us by what you see in him, we plead. There is an intelligent, comprehensive, logical ideology out there called “conservatism.” Trust us. We aren’t that bad, we aren’t that stupid.

George Bush has done incalculable damage to the conservative movement, creating stress points, confusion, co-opting the Republican party in the process by forcing many conservative Republicans to choose between party loyalty and ideological belief. Perhaps the worst aspect of this is the seeming tin-ear with which Bush and his administration have gone about alienating the very people to whom they should be looking for support.

The latest fiasco, the immigration “compromise,” just adds fuel to the fire, and in fact it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Many wonder if Bush really cares about this country at all, about its history, its heritage, its common culture – all of which have been diminished during the past 6+ years. David Frum, at NRO, makes the following prediction as to the battle:

As we have seen in both the Harriet Miers fight and the Dubai ports deal, this White House's first instinct when faced with dissent in the ranks is to insult and abuse its strongest supporters. "Sexist"; "elitist"; "registered bigots" were some of the terms cast during the previous fights. Brace yourselves for much, much worse. This is no way to win friends and influence people. And triggering an internecine party conflict on the eve of a difficult and dangerous election is no way to re-elect a damaged incumbent party.
When I spoke with Gary about this, he threatened to become unintelligible altogether, so choked with fury was he. Gary sees in this president a man who has sold out his party, conservative principles, and ultimately his country – and from here, it’s hard to say anything other than that Gary has 20/20 vision.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Check Your Collars!

By Bobby

Women have it easy when it comes to fashion over men when they are singing, and that showed when I found myself wearing a shirt that was a little too tight on the collar, because it interferes with my singing, especially when I am wearing a tie!

Of course, the difference probably is now that I am more generous in collars. While I am officially a 15 1/2 collar for my shirts, I now prefer wearing at least 16 to allow for more leeway in the neck so I have more room to sing without the collar "tightening" the pipes when I sing.

The menswear person said I was a 15 1/2 collar, but it was a little uncomfortable for me, and I prefer the 16 when I sing.

Of course, when you have both 15 1/2 and 16 collar shirts, you find yourself preferring the 16's because they don't interfere with the neck, especially when you're singing. All recent shirts I have purchased are 16 because I prefer that size, but I found an old 15 1/2 yesterday but somehow I forgot that was the tighter size when I wore it to sing, and I could see where I was having problems!

"I'm not so sure I like what it tells us about ourselves"

By Mitchell

Terry Teachout, in a post from today, stretches back to a January 2004 piece about the Golden Age of Television. Lileks thinks that Golden Age is today. Teachout comments:

For the most part--with some exceptions--I think he's right. But the exceptions are important, and worth remembering. It's true that the Golden Age of Television was mostly Milton Berle and low-budget westerns and mysteries. But it was also Ernie Kovacs, An Evening With Fred Astaire, Noel Coward and Mary Martin, Your Show of Shows, my beloved What's My Line?, The Sound of Jazz, New York City Ballet's Nutcracker on Playhouse 90, Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, and Toscanini and the NBC Symphony--not every night, but often enough.

And he's right. (Pericles' Golden Age wasn't exactly golden either.) If you pick up any edition of TV Guide from the 50s and 60s, you'll see plenty of stuff that doesn't exactly make the highlight reel. But the point, I think, is not whether everything in the Golden Age was golden - it's to ask whether or not we're even capable of producing something that approximates the best the Golden Age had to offer.

Teachout concludes: "What we do have is an unprecedentedly candid style of TV comedy and drama that reflects the brutal knowingness of our postmodern age with startling, even alarming clarity. I like it. I'm not so sure I like what it tells us about ourselves."

I don’t share Teachout’s enthusiasm about most of today’s shows, by and large. (Although some might question the value of that statement, since I don’t watch most of them, either.) But as to Teachout's concluding thought, I’m in complete agreement. Do we even want to know what it tells us about ourselves? I wonder.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Forgotten Catholic

By Mitchell

Most famously, there were the bookends from Massachusetts, John Kennedy and John Kerry; the former (according to some sources) a questionable Catholic, the latter perhaps even more so. Before them there was Al Smith, whose Catholicism nobody doubted (which might have cost him the Presidency). There was Ed Muskie and Tom Eagleton (for about ten minutes) and Sarge Shriver, and somewhere in there was Geraldine Ferraro, who was known more for her gender than her religion.

And then there was William E. Miller.

Bill Miller did an American Express card commercial once, one of the "Do you know me?" versions. He was a District Attorney and a U.S. Representative from New York State and a chairman of the Republican National Committee, and in the midst of all that, he somehow managed to squeeze in an appearance as Barry Goldwater's running mate on the 1964 Republican ticket - the first and only Catholic ever nominated for national office by the Republicans.

It is perhaps an indication of JFK's success at putting the religion issue to rest that only four years after his election, a Catholic could appear on a national party ticket without it becoming an issue. (It could also be a measure of the futility of Goldwater's campaign, the idea that it really didn't matter who ran with him.) Hubert Humphrey, who in 1960 benefitted from the anti-Catholic vote in West Virginia against Kennedy (which, it must be noted, he did nothing to encourage) in 1968 chose Edmund Muskie, a Catholic, as his running mate; in 1972 both of George McGovern's running mates - Tom Eagleton and Sargent Shriver - were Catholics. (It must have seemed for a while there as if the number-two post was becoming a designated "Catholic seat.")

According to Theodore White's Making of the President 1964, Miller wasn't Goldwater's first choice for running mate; Goldwater had actually planned to choose the moderate Bill Scranton, governor of Pennsylvania, before Nelson Rockefeller talked Scranton into opposing Goldwater for the nomination. Once Scranton's challenge had been beaten back, Barry turned to Miller, an astute debater with a sharp tongue, in hopes that he could serve as the stalking horse against LBJ in the fall campaign. It never happened, of course - LBJ played it cool, and Miller was too clean a campaigner to launch the personal attacks that might be seen today. His amiable manner won him friends on the campaign trail including the reporters who covered him, with whom he would play endless hands of bridge. (One story has it that a reporter asked Miller, who won consistently, if he would give the reporter a chance to regain his losses by betting on the outcome of the election; Miller was said to have replied that even he wasn't crazy enough to bet on the Republican ticket to win this one.)

Vice Presidential candidates seldom attract lasting fame, and when they do it's usually for the wrong reasons. (Eagleton, Dan Quayle, James Stockdale anyone?) Candidates from the losing ticket have even less chance of being remembered, and to that end William E. Miller's story isn't so uncommon.

But it's worth noting that he was one of only eight Catholics to ever be nominated for national office by a major party, and the only one of the eight from the Republican party. He appeared in a transitory period in American politics, when the issue of a candidate's religion was momentarily less of a factor. (We can thank Roe v. Wade for changing that.) But while the particular faith of many candidates has been forgotten, Bill Miller, who died in 1983, faded almost totally into the background.

At a time when the Catholicism of some of today's candidates is questioned, when the "struggle" between private faith and public policy is stark, it's not a bad idea to take a moment and remember the forgotten Catholic - a trailblazer in his own right, a man who still holds a singular distinction in his party, a man whose greatest pride, other than his family, was in being a graduate of Notre Dame. Not a bad life, one might say.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

"Makeover" Star Issues “Apology” for Bad Behavior
Pennington Tells Fans, “You Don’t Pick on My Faults, I Won’t Pick On Yours.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA – The star of the popular TV reality series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," issued a strongly worded “apology” to his fans following his arrest on suspicion of being under the influence of alcohol while driving.

“I screwed up, I’m sorry - get over it,” said Ty Pennington, who was arrested early last Saturday morning in Los Angeles. “Like none of you have ever done something wrong. Yeah, right.”

He went on, “Despite what I’m accused of having done Friday night, I’m still better than 95% of you out there, and more talented than all of you.”

Pennington, who rose to TV popularity as host of the cable show "Trading Spaces,” acknowledged he shouldn't have been drinking and driving, but was clearly irritated by what he called the "hypocrisy" of his fans.

“I suppose none of you have ever done anything to embarrass me, right?" he asked. "I mean, c'mon, you want me to make a list? Where were you last Saturday night? I'm just the one who happened to get caught. And yet you don’t hear me complaining about what you’ve done, do you?

Obviously warming to the subject, Pennington continued in the same vein. “While we’re at it, what about that horrible kitchen makeover you tried to do on your own, before you wound up spending twice as much to have it done right? It’s people like you who give amateur home makeovers a bad name. Tell you what – you don’t pick on my faults, I won’t pick on yours. OK?”

Pennington was released two hours after his arrest on his own design recognizance and after agreeing to provide free redecorating consultation to the LAPD.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wish I'd Written That...

By Mitchell

"Whom do you call a Communist? [Wolfe asked.] A liberal? A pink intellectual? A member of the party? How far left do you start?"

Sperling smiled. "It depends on where I am and who I'm talking to. There are occasions when it may be expedient to apply the term to anyone left of center."

Rex Stout, The Second Confession

Short Notes

By Drew

  • Nuns with Manicures? The title of an interesting post by Greg Sandow, with his perspectives on the Met's theater operacasts. He brings up some points that I, frankly, hadn't considered before. Check out the comments section for a nice comment by our very own Mitchell!
  • Terry Teachout mentioned last week that he's writing the libretto for a new opera commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's "The Letter" with music by Paul Moravec. I know the libretto will be good, and based on Terry's recommendation I'm sure Paul Moravec will do a good job as well - but it still doesn't stop me from questioning whether we really need more new operas out there, when there are so many underperformed ones. I know, I know, we've been over this ground before...
  • Speaking of Maugham, Michael at 2Blowhards has a very good piece on movie adaptations of two Maugham stories, "Up at the Villa" and "The Painted Veil." Michael's piece serves the purpose of all good reviews - it makes you curious about the films (and books) and helps you decide whether or not you want to see (or read) them.
  • I saw this earlier at NRO, but the classical music blog Comparing Notes has this humorous bit on Anna Netrebko and her guns. No, really! I've mentioned how I think she's a great singer, haven't I? I wouldn't dare say anything else...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Changing Role of the Media, Circa 1975

By Mitchell

“The objective of the ‘scandalous revelations’ filling the airwaves and news columns ought to be reform, but ‘thus far have brought little but cynicism and disillusion.’ "

Talking about O’Reilly, perhaps, or maybe CNN or MSNBC? Think again. It’s Pat Buchanan, quoting U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, in November 1975.

I wanted to get back to that November 1975 TV Guide I mentioned earlier this week. In it, there were two stories that tell us much about the evolution of the media’s role in news coverage – and that nothing really is new.

The first is Pat Buchanan’s News Watch column (yes, TV Guide actually had a column like that back then), the source of the initial quote. Buchanan is talking about the change in media coverage since Watergate, a change that has brought on an “excessively mistrustful and even hostile” atmosphere.

In pointing this out, we certainly don’t neglect the blame that belongs to Richard Nixon and his crew for creating the problem in the first place. But Buchanan looks at something more, at the natural evolution of such an atmosphere, asking “what will be the ultimate impact upon the democratic system, which itself guarantees freedom of the press?”

The problem, according to Buchanan, is that the media now has a vested interest in scandal – for ratings, for dollars, for prestige. (Little-remembered fact: NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley nightly news used to be presented without commercial interruption, in order to eliminate potential conflicts of interest and signify that the news division was not driven by profit margin.) What happens when that self-interest conflicts with a larger interest – the national interest, for example? Granting that the exact nature of the national interest is often a subject up for debate, Buchanan nevertheless points to the “declining confidence in leaders and institutions” and speculates on the ultimate consequence this will have for the nation.

Buchanan again quotes Fulbright (a Democrat, by the way, never a natural ally of Pat’s), who had recently authored the article "Fulbright on the Press" in the Columbia Journalism Review: “That Puritian self-righteousness which is never far below the surface of American life has broken through the frail barriers of civility and restraint, and the press has been in the vanguard of the new aggressiveness.”

What has changed is not the nature nor the inclination of those in the media to go after their subjects with every weapon at their disposal. What is new now is the very definition of media, which in this sense has come to include every blog, every web page, every podcast – in short, everyone with an opinion, which is just about everyone. As new types of media and new modes of communication have come about, this instinct of which Fulbright speaks has become more invasive, more insidious. Indeed, isn’t this what some here have spoken about, the increasing incivility of the blogosphere? Well, looking at this issue is like seeing the seeds of that harvest being planted.

A lot of people fall back on the “freedom of speech” argument, defending their right to say what they want whenever they want. And this is not an argument that should be taken lightly, because it’s a slippery slope at best. But Fulbright contends that the social contract requires “a measure of voluntary restraint, an implicit agreement among the major groups and interests in our society that none will apply their powers to the fullest.” A measure of responsibility, in other words, which is a commodity that can really be in short supply nowadays.

Now, I mention this not merely because of Pat Buchanan’s words, but because of the echo which the subject matter receives in another article from this issue, Edwin Newman’s “People are Generally Skeptical of Us…and Indeed They Should Be.”

Ed Newman, for you whippersnappers out there, was a respected and literate newsman at NBC in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and the author of several clever, humorous books on language.

Newman shares the concern with the increasing intrusiveness of the media. Asked what was wrong with endless investigation and revelation of public figures by the media, Newman replied, “It degrades public life. If purity tests are to become an accepted part of American life before anybody can go into politics, politics is going to be intolerable. It’s very nearly intolerable now.”

Remember, he said this over 20 years ago.

As for “advocacy journalism,” which was very much in vogue following Watergate (and remains so today – how many young people go to journalism school to “make a difference”?), Newman remains wary: “Advocacy journalism, so-called, cheats the public, which is entitled to make up its own mind.” In other words, as Fox News says, “We report, you decide.” Whether you think they’ve been accurate or not with that promise, one has to appreciate the perceptiveness of the marketing gurus who developed that slogan.

Newman adds, “Anybody in our business should avoid taking on false importance. We should certainly not pretend to be infallible.” Now that’s a novel idea today.

Newman also sounds a cautionary note on something which Buchanan alludes to, the amount of faith (or lack thereof) that people put in their leaders. Buchanan quotes Fulbright: “Bitter disillusionment with our leaders is the other side of the coin of worshiping them.” Such idolatry, says Newman, “leads to all kinds of lunatic expectations about what can be accomplished by politicians and so leads to irrational and disproportionate disappointment…it misleads Presidents about Presidents, so that they are tempted to do foolish things. And I think the press contributes to this for reasons of its own.”

This is a warning we should carefully consider. There’s a pronounced tendency nowadays to put an inordinate amount of faith in human institutions, which always seems to wind up badly. We create institutions, we tear them down, we rebuild them again. It keeps everyone busy, I suppose.

One has only to look at the disappointment felt by many conservative Catholics, for instance, impatient and discouraged that Benedict XVI hasn’t started a new Inquisition. Or politically conservative Christians, so eager to win a place at the political table, now disillusioned by the experience, realizing they should have stuck to Christ’s table at the Last Supper.

In many ways, the sins of the 60s culture were starting to be felt in the 70s, and would continue to be felt in subsequent decades. So one can see, as far back as 1975, a growing concern with cynicism in society, a disregard for institutions, a press displaying an “anything for a story” attitude. Again, there’s nothing new here, as it was not new then. But as communication expanded beyond the newspaper to radio, beyond radio to television, and beyond broadcast television to cable and satellite; as letters gave way to email and the internet, and as information once taking hours or days to transmit is now given instant analysis and parsing through the blogosphere, so also the consequences of such concerns are magnified, enlarged, and become even more troublesome.

There really isn’t anything new out there, only new ways of expressing it. And, it seems, new ways of ignoring old truths and concerns.

See what you can learn from old TV Guides, Cathy?


On that topic, a big shout-out to Billy Ingram at TVParty for his kind link to our site and his nice words about us. Keep up the great work, Billy, and we look forward to staying in touch!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

So I Went to the Symphony the Other Night and a Hockey Game Broke Out...

By Drew

Fight Breaks Out at Boston Pops Concert

I don't think I could add anything more. Except...

Steve, are you sure you didn't write this?

UPDATE: Of course, this isn't exactly unprecedented. However, in the past the riot had to do more with the music, which somehow we don't think was the point of the one in Boston last night...

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Wish I'd Written That...

By Mitchell

"I stayed up last night and watched the Republican Convention all night long. I watched all of them talk, and listened to them and seen them and I'm not interested in politics. If you watch them and listen to them you can find out why you're not."

Casey Stengel

(Insert your favorite political party above.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

This Just In

By Steve

Oh, My! Sadaharu Slams Single as Comeback Continues

(Sapporo, Japan) - Legendary Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh continued his comeback effort with a single in four at-bats as his Fukuoka Softbank Hawks defeated the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters 4-1 in Japanese Pacific League action Monday night.

The single came in the third inning off Fighters pitcher Felix Diaz when catcher Shinji Takahashi and third baseman Kuniyuki Kimoto collided while going after Oh’s nubber, which traveled about 15 feet down the third base line. Despite the efforts of Makoto Kaneko , who had to run in from shortshop to field the ball, Oh was still able to beat out the throw by a step. The single raised Oh’s batting average to .027 in fifteen games.

The 67-year-old Oh, who also manages the Hawks, stunned the baseball world with his comeback announcement last winter after a 27 year retirement. Although Oh was silent about his motives, speaking only of his "love for the game," many have speculated that Oh is determined to add to his international baseball record of 868 home runs in an attempt to preserve his record from San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds, currently in third place on the all-time list with 744. Bonds, who trails American home run champ Hank Aaron by 11, is expected to lay claim to that record some time in the next two months.

Oh has fueled the speculation over the years, drawing comparisons between himself and Bonds, who has been constantly dogged by rumors of steroids use. Oh recently said that he had never played under the effects of "anything stronger than saki."

"I realize I am older now," Oh continued. "My athletic skills may no longer match those of the younger American players, say for example, Julio Franco, Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson. But there is still spring in step and snap in bat."

Despite the slow start, Hawks shortstop Munenori Kawasaki has no doubt Oh will eventually round into shape. "We all know Skipper-san has a lot to deal with," Kawasaki said. "His managerial duties add a heavy burden to his comeback effort. We will try to help him out as much as possible by being cooperative with his strategic suggestions. I expect he will be rounding into mid-season form any time."

ESPN baseball analyst Peter Gammons shares Kawasaki’s optimism. "Let’s face it, with [Daisuke] Matsuzaka and [Kei] Igawa now in America, Japanese pitching isn’t what it used to be. With the smaller dimensions in Japanese ballparks, I don’t see why Oh couldn’t finish with at least 30 home runs this season. That could put the record out of reach forever."

Oh’s comeback continues tonight with the opening of a three-game series against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Sendai. Eagles manager Katsuya Nomura said his pitchers would be careful in pitching to Oh, and did not rule out intentionally walking the slugger with runners in scoring position. "Sadaharu is still a dangerous hitter," Nomura said. "We know he has been out of the game for a long time, but you can never really get baseball out of your system. That is a blood test that Sadaharu will always fail."

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Cultural Archaeologist

By Mitchell

Yes, it's time once again for everyone's favorite feature, The Cultural Archaeologist. Let's get started.

A couple of weeks ago, we mentioned the passing of the entertainment and game show icon Kitty Carlisle. Well, in the November 29, 1975 edition of TV Guide there's an article about Kitty written by Peter Funt, son of the legendary TV host Allen Funt. (If you're old enough to remember Candid Camera, you'll know who we mean.) "The only way to see Kitty Carlisle in the same dress twice," the article proclaims, "is to watch reruns of 'To Tell the Truth.' " Funt's story is a charming portrait of an entertainer who takes her job seriously, as well as her responsibility to her fans, and radiates class all the way. "She is one actress who still refuses to appear in public without beautiful clothes, ornate jewelry and a carefully styled coiffure." Particularly humorous is her description of her "pit crew," the wardrobe people responsible for helping her change in the ten minutes between shows (the five-a-week show was taped in a single afternoon). "Every once in a while, I feel like I'm a car in the pits at Indianapolis. Somebody changes the oil, kicks the tires - you know, pats the hair and shoves me back out on the stage."

In the same issue we read about the latest presentation of Hallmark Hall of Fame, an adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's play Valley Forge, starring Richard Basehart as George Washington, leading his troops through the incredibly harsh winter of 1777, trying to hold his struggling new country together. Now, this is in the days before Hall of Fame became a lacrymose, diabetes-inducing disease-of-the-week picture, oozing sentimentality for it's Oprahfied audience. Back then, the Hallmark Hall of Fame was synonymous with quality. Remember their motto - "When you care enough to send the very best"? Can't say the same nowadays, either in their cards or their TV programs.

At 10:30 p.m. Central time on Saturday, November 29, NBC pre-empts Saturday Night Live for a basketball game - but not just any game. It's one of the biggest regular-season college basketball games in many years, defending national champion UCLA playing undefeated, top-ranked Indiana at St. Louis (supposedly a neutral site, but in reality swarming with Hoosier fans cheering their team on). Note the starting time - way out of prime time. Television hadn't quite figured out prime time sports yet, and although everyone realized how big this game was, they still thought it might be a drag on ratings, which is why they stuck it on in such a strange time spot. (The game was telecast live, which means tip-off was at 10:30 local time in St. Louis.) I have extremely bitter personal memories of this game; not because of the result - I was an Indiana fan, and they crushed UCLA 84-64 - but because the local NBC affiliate where I lived didn't show the game. They had a movie on instead, Bridge on the River Kwai, but this had nothing to do with substituting a quality movie for televised sports. It had everything to do with a parochial attitude toward their programming, and a desire to retain as much advertising revenue as possible. When we moved out of that area in 1978, they still had yet to show an episode of Saturday Night Live, never showed the second half of Sunday NFL doubleheaders, and preempted NBC programming with pernicious distain. The FCC should have yanked their license. They're owned by a larger media conglomerate now, and while I would probably regret the loss of local programming, I can't say it'd be a big loss.

Of course this issue marked the start of the Christmas programming season (as it was still called back then), so both Rudolph and Bing Crosby (with special guest Fred Astaire) make appearances, along with a host of lesser Christmas cartoons. Ah, with Thanksgiving just concluded, you could just feel the holiday spirit in the air.

There are other things of note in this issue - some quite interesting bits on the media by Pat Buchanan (who, amazingly enough, has a column in TV Guide at this point) and Edwin Newman. Since this has been a pretty lighthearted piece, I think we'll reserve those thoughts for their own space, and we'll come back to it later this week.

And, by the way, the cover story of this issue features Tony Curtis, star of a new TV series. Does anyone out there still recall that series, McCoy?

Friday, May 4, 2007

"Stranger Than Fiction" Part II

By Drew

I find it hard to believe that anyone took this story seriously, but apparently some did. Gentlemen, what are we doing wrong that this doesn’t happen to any of our stories? Perhaps (in the spirit of Mitchell’s “truth is stranger than fiction”) they need to be more outrageous before people will start believing them? Steve, get to work!

Not Exactly "Dancing With the Stars"

By Drew

The movie Salome, starring Rita Hayworth, was on TCM the other night. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but it got me to thinking. We don’t really know much about Salome. Most of us think we know her from the Bible, but there she isn’t even mentioned by name, referred to only as the Daughter of Herodias. She’s starred in books, movies, opera – and yet, she was a real person.

Most of what we know of Salome, or think we know, comes from Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. It is here that Wilde creates the most familiar iconic images of Salome, elaborating on the scene from Mark’s Gospel in which, as a reward for her dancing, Herod offers to grant her any desire. It is from Wilde that we get the image of Salome as the teenage temptress with the sexually charged dance, leaving Herod drunk with lust (as well as wine). It’s this version of Salome that most people probably think of, and the version that appears in movies such as King of Kings (which actually uses bits of Wilde’s dialogue).

The best-known fictional portrayal of Salome is probably Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, which was based on Wilde’s play. The role of Salome is a particularly challenging one, insofar as it requires the soprano to demonstrate great vocal prowess while at the same time acting like a nubile teen, particularly in the famed Dance of the Seven Veils (usually performed by the singer, occasionally by a stand-in dancer). It’s a great role, and some of the greatest singers in opera have played it, with varying degrees of success (and believability).

There are other versions of Salome as well, but so much of our iconography comes back to Wilde, which makes the ending of Wilde’s play (and Strauss’ opera) all the more interesting. Wilde fleshes out Salome’s character (no pun intended), but adds a detail that is completely at odds with the historical record: her death.

The climax of Salome (again, no pun intended) features the dancer holding before her the severed head of John the Baptist on the silver platter, after which she proceeds to fondle and caress the head, finally delivering a passionate kiss to the dead head’s lips. Herod, who is terrified and repulsed by this act, orders his soldiers to kill Salome, which they do by crushing her under the weight of their shields.

Now, one is curious as to why Wilde chose to end his play in this fashion. It’s certainly consistent with Herod’s superstitious character – he does, after all, believe for a time that Jesus is John come back to life. But the real Salome actually lived into her 40s or 50s (depending on the account), dying between 62 and 71 AD.

So what might Wilde’s motives have been for introducing such a radical change into his play? There’s no doubt it makes for a great dramatic ending, as anyone who’s seen either the play or the opera can testify. And in a creative sense it does provide closure to a plot which otherwise wouldn’t have much of an ending.

Still, one is tempted to wonder if Wilde was trying to pronounce some kind of a moral statement at the end, with judgment being delivered on Salome for her heresy. We think often of Wilde as the sexual libertine, but in truth the ending of Salome seems much more in line with Joseph Pearce’s portrait of Wilde as a man with a constant fascination with Catholicism and its teachings. As Pearce says in his book, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, "Once again, Wilde emerges in Salome as a Christian moralist par excellence." And certainly there does seem to be Old Testament justice being meted out in the end.

Heather Marcovitch, in Princess, Persona and Subjective Desire, offers that “Wilde saw Salome as the representation of all the unspoken impulses and desires in Donan Gray.” She suggests that Salome, seen primarily by Herod and his court as an object of desire, uses “power gotten from her persona to destroy the very system that imbued her with this power.”

Other scholars point to Wilde’s use of imagery of the kind favored by Israel's kingly poets “and that the moon is meant to suggest the terrible pagan goddess Cybele, who, like Salomé, was obsessed with preserving her virginity and thus took perverse pleasure in destroying male sexuality.”

There’s often a temptation to read either too much or too little into the thought process of artists, resulting in explanations that are either far too simple or exceedingly complex. And yet sometimes it is the simple or the complex that tells the true story of the author’s mind. Pearce suggests that Wilde’s term in Reading Prison, starting in 1895, was what broke him and forced him to come to terms with his life, and Salome predates that, in 1891. It’s frequently true that, prior to a conversion of any time, hints can always be seen in retrospect, and so it may well be with Salome. Whatever the reason for Wilde’s choice, Salome remains one of his most intriguing works, and the character he created one of the most intriguing in art.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Wally Schirra, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

Wally Schirra had the Right Stuff.

He was one of the seven original Mercury astronauts, but more than that he had the reputation of being a troubleshooter. After Scott Carpenter’s troubled Aurora 7 flight, in which he ran short on fuel, failed to complete his entire flight checklist, and overshot his landing spot (resulting in a delay of hours in being picked up), it was Wally Schirra who authored the textbook mission with his Sigma 7 (named after an engineering symbol) flight. As command pilot of Gemini 6, he had the icy cool to remain atop the fuel-laden rocket instead of ejecting after an engine shutdown stopped the launch, making it possible to relaunch days later. When NASA was recovering from the tragic Apollo 1 fire, it was Wally Schirra who captained the successful Apollo 7 flight that put the space program back on track. Had he still been in the space program after the disastrous Challenger and Columbia fights, he most certainly would have been the astronaut you would have wanted flying the shuttle on its comeback missions.

He was one of my favorite astronauts growing up, along with Gordon Cooper, and I’ve had a fondness and admiration for him ever since. He was the first astronaut to fly in all three of the initial NASA programs – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo – and he became known to millions of television viewers as Walter Cronkite’s partner on CBS’s manned space coverage. (Who can forget Schirra, choked with emotion, watching the first moon landing with Cronkite?)

In fact, walking on the moon was just about all that Wally Schirra failed to accomplish in his distinguished career. He was an American hero, a pillar of the space program, a true embodiment of the stuff that legends are made of – perhaps not the larger-than-life figure that some cut, but no less heroic for that. He died today in California, the fifth of the Original Seven astronauts to die, and with him dies yet another piece of American history. As their time moves farther and farther from ours, it becomes more of a challenge to keep them and their accomplishments in our memory. A challenge, perhaps, but well worth the effort. R.I.P.

This Just In

By Steve

Banter Gets Ballplayer Bounced
Rolen Run After Ragging on Reds

(St. Louis, MO) -- Third-baseman Scott Rolen of the St. Louis Cardinals was ejected in the third inning of yesterday's Major League baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds for allegedly refusing to stop loud comments he was making on the field and from the Cards dugout between innings.

"We told Rolen he was causing a distraction and that he needed to basically shut up," said Third Base Umpire Harvey Wendelstadt. "Before every pitch in the top of the second inning he was screaming in this loud, whiney voice, 'Hey batter, batter, hey batter, swing, batter--sweeeeeeng!" It was distracting to the hitter, and I'm not sure even his own pitcher liked it. So we told him to knock it off."

Rolen did discontinue that call, but from his own dugout in the bottom of the inning, he again began to loudly chant at the opposing pitcher. "It was something about wanting a pitcher, not a belly itcher, or something stupid like that," said Wendelstadt. " It made no sense, it was loud, obnoxious and irritating. Rolen was getting on everyone's nerves. So again we told him to shut up."

When Rolen returned to his position at the top of the third and immediately began yelling at the opposing batter, "you're gonna miss it! you're gonna miss it!," the umpire crew had had enough and promptly ejected the All-Star third sacker.

From his New York office, Commissioner Bud Selig supported the umpires' decision.

"The eradication of performance-distracting commentary from all of professional baseball is my top priority," Selig said. "Moreover, I can assure you that this is a priority that is shared by the owners of all 30 Major League Clubs. In fact, just last week at a Major League meeting in New York, all 30 owners endorsed a resolution supporting my on-going efforts to rid our game of taunting, mocking, and other performance-distracting comments.

"We have an obligation to our fans, especially youngsters," Selig continued. "Our players need to set a positive example in their behavior, both on and off the field. Major League baseball players are known as exemplary role models off the field; now, it's time to behave that way between the lines and in the dugout as well." Selig then excused himself to attend a planning session on Major League Baseball's upcoming commeration of Barry Bonds' home run record.

"I'm not sure what they were all upset about," said Rolen in the clubhouse after the game. "I was just playing the game the way I was taught to play." Cardinals management refused to confirm the rumor that they had called Rolen's mother to come pick him up after she gets off work.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Final Curtain

By Mitchell

The curtain fell Saturday on the Metropolitan Opera’s inaugural season of high-definition theater telecasts, with the live performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico (The Tryptich), three one-act operas consisting of the tragic Il Tabarro, the heart-wrenching Suor Angelica, and the hilarious Gianni Schicchi, all conducted by the Met’s music director James Levine. It was, as I said, the final telecast of the season, and a fitting end to a remarkable innovation by the Met.

Much had been made of the sheer scope of Il Trittico - the largest production ever staged at the Met. However bit it was, it was worth it - each raised curtain revealed lavishly designed, realistic sets - no symbolism or minimalism here - and each revealed set was warmly greeted by the audience. When even your sets get applause, you know you're doing something right - as long as it's not at the expense of the singers!

As for the performance itself, Trittico featured a little something for everyone. Il Tabarro (The Cloak), as director Jack O’Brien mentioned in the introduction to the broadcast, is a story where everyone’s secrets are hidden in open sight. It’s the story of a couple drifted irrevocably apart following the death of their child, an event which occurs prior to the start of the opera and is only gradually revealed to the audience. The woman, Giorgetta (Maria Guleghina) has grown dissatisfied with her life as a ship captain’s wife, yearning for the Paris of her youth, and finding as a substitute for the romance of the city of light an actual romance with the handsome stevedore Luigi (Salvatore Licitra). Her husband Michele (Juan Pons) is in denial, yearning for the way things used to be, seemingly unable to comprehend the heartache of his wife or the reasons for her sudden distance from him. As we all know, these things never turn out well in the operatic world. Suffice it to say that “the cloak” of the title comes to have a significant meaning in the end.

Some have suggested that Guleghina lacked the smoldering sexuality needed for a convincing Giorgetta, and this is true; however, her Giorgetta is a weary, almost pathetic figure, desperate to find an exit from an existence that as become a prison, a life that traps her in painful memories form which there can be no escape. Giorgetta remains alive at the end of Il Tabarro, which for her is not necessarily a good thing. Pons, ever steady and reliable, manages to squeeze more than an ounce of humanity and sympathy from a role that could easily remain irritating, if not maddening. Whatever is faults (and by the end there’s at least one major fault on display), his Michele is a man who clearly was a good and decent man once upon a time, before life finished with him. As for Licitra, he’s clearly the real deal, one of the tenors (Juan Diego Flores and Ramon Vargas being two others) that should hold the opera world in good stead over the next few years. Luigi may be a cuckolder, but it’s impossible not to feel for him nonetheless. Which is a key element of tragedy, having characters with whom one can sympathize. Otherwise, there’s little to be tragic about.

Tragic doesn’t begin to describe Suor Angelica, part two of Trittico, but heart-rending, as I suggested, comes close. It, too, is a story of secrets, of Sister Angelica (Barbara Frittoli), the young woman living a life of penance in the convent, and the secret that comes to light in the fading sunlight of the day. (One of the characteristics shared by Tabarro and Angelica is a single-day storyline that gradually transforms the set from faint daylight to the darkness of night, mirroring the increasing darkness of the plot. In the case of Angelica, this is accompanied by luminescent nun’s habits reflecting the starlight; bringing, as it were, the heavens to the convent.)

As Angelica, Frittoli brings a wrenching performance, displaying the heartbreak of this young woman, a princess exiled to the convent for a sin that has produced a small son. Her constant dream over the seven years of her cloistered life has been for news of her family, but when it comes (in the form of her aunt, the Princess, wonderfully played by Stephanie Blyth, who appears in all three operas), it shatters what little peace Angelica may have left. It is an emotionally draining finale, although not without hope, and both Frittoli and the audience are wiped out by the end. Beverly Sills, the guest commentator on the telecast, mentioned her own efforts at playing the three lead female roles in Trittico, and how Angelica can take everything from you, leaving you with an empty tank for the finale.

After two acts consisting of tragedy and heartbreak, there’s a desperate need for lightness, which is delivered in the form on Puccini’s only comedy, one of the most beloved in opera, Gianni Schicchi. This story also takes place over the course of a single day, and what a day it is, full of scheming and greedy family members looking as if they’d walked out of an episode of the old Nero Wolfe TV series, surrounding the deathbed of their rich relative, each trying to outdo the other in terms of pious mourning, each thinking of the inheritance they stand to gain with the reading of the will. There are no secrets in this story – everything’s laid out in the open.

No secrets, that is, except in the mind of the title character, Gianni Schicchi (Alessandro Corbelli), one of the peasant class made good, a clever man with a deft way of handling “problems.” The problem, in this case, is the discovery of a will that leaves everything to a monastery of local monks. What, the devastated relatives ask Schicchi, can be done to reverse such an obvious injustice? The scheme Schicchi hatches – to impersonate the dead man, suddenly brought to life and calling for the notary to make out his final will – sets the stage for a hilarious climax that, as Schicchi promises, gives everyone “what they deserve.”

The centerpiece of Schicchi is the aria “O mio babbino caro,” one of the most famous in opera, and if you’re going to be singing it you’d better be on, because half the audience is going to be singing along with you. In this performace, the responsibility fell to Olga Mykytenko, playing Schicchi’s niece Lauretta. Was she up to it? Technically, yes – but there was just something lacking. The emotional impact wasn’t there; perhaps, after Tabarro and Angelica, there simply wasn’t any emotion left for the audience. (For the audience in the theater, the emotional impact of the Angelica finale was further blunted by a quick cut to a documentary feature on the Met's audition process. Interesting, certainly, but after being wrung out like that, the audience needed time to breathe a little.) The applause was there, but it wasn’t the showstopper that it can and deserves to be.

(And on that point, a note about the telecast, and the increasingly annoying tendency of the director, following applause lines, to cut to a long shot of the stage encompassing a panoramic view of the Met theater. Yes, it’s a way for the movie theater audience to feel more a part of the Met, but is it really necessary? Far better, in my opinion, to focus on the set and the singers, and the glow that comes when you’ve nailed it and you know it.)

As Schicchi gleefully asks the audience’s forgiveness for having pulled one over on the family, the curtain falls, and Il Trittico comes to a triumphant end; and with it, the HD season as well. So what are we to make of the Met’s foray into video? Well, if the audience numbers are any indication, it’s been a rousing success. The Met has already announced next year’s schedule, featuring an increase in telecasts from six to eight. Theaters have been sold out worldwide (the theater we attended added an extra screen for the final three telecasts). Thousands of people have been introduced to the world of the Met, people for whom a trip to New York and pricey tickets were pretty much out of reach. (As a side note, the audience for Saturday’s telecast was – well, put it this way: a person of about 40, entering the theater, would have lowered the average age by at least twenty years. This was a change from previous broadcasts, which featured a younger, more varied audience. If overheard conversation was any indication, many of these theatergoers were first-timers to the broadcast. I’m not sure why this was the case; perhaps the nice weekend weather sent younger fans to the beach and the lake?)

More than a few have expressed reservations about the telecasts, chief among which the fear that, as their grows, so also will the tendency to cast based on HD appearance (say, Anna Netrebko) rather than vox ability. And this may indeed be a concern at some point in the future. But for now, if this season is any indication, the fears appear to be unfounded. Many of those I’ve talked with who’ve listened only to the broadcasts on radio have excitedly asked how the experience was in the theater; the excitement of the event was palpable even over the radio dial. That’s not to say that every broadcast has been or will be that way, but if the thrill is still there for those who can’t see it, that’s a good sign.

As for the telecasts themselves, the production quality was impressive. To be sure, there were shaky moments, as there would be in any live telecast (a tendency for extreme close-up at the expense of context during the ensemble scenes, for example); but for the most part the angles were illuminating, the choices intelligent, the innovations provocative – shots from behind the singers, for instance, allowing us to glimpse both the conductor and the audience beyond the footlights. But for Trittico these innovations were mostly absent (save one shot in Tabarro that gave the theater audience an angle unknown to anyone in the live audience); the focus was on the singers, and the story. The singers were very good (as was the Met orchestra, superb as usual for Levine), and the story – well, the story was pure Puccini, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

By Mitchell

We don't blog often on personal experiences at this site, but on occasion something comes along that's so distinctive, it begs to be shared.

This is one of those occasions.

So a friend of ours and her husband are in New York on business. Currently, they're at a sidewalk cafe sharing a drink with an acquaintance. They've just concluded a discussion on the war, in which they agree that although the war may have been a disasterous idea, it would be equally disasterous (not to mention impossible) to simply pull up stakes now and leave. As the acquaintance puts it, it's a sure bet that as soon as our troops leave, some thug would come in and take over.

At this point they gradually became aware that, not 10 feet from where they're sitting, there's a mugging in progress. This goes on for some time before the acquaintance, who our friend thought was about 70, could stand it no longer. He gets up and accousts the mugger. “Stop it! Stop what you’re doing!”

The mugger appeared too startled by what was happening to retaliate.

When the acquaintance could see that this level of intervention was doing no good, he turned, grabbed his cane and started whacking the mugger across his body and legs, all the while yelling at him, “Stop! Stop this right now!”

By this time both the mugger and the victim are starting to look a bit uneasy about the direction things have taken. It's as if the acquaintance's intervention is disrupting the social contract, so to speak.

It should also be noted that the fracas is causing no apparent disruption in the business as usual of the café.

Finally the mugger, weighing his options, decided to beat it, followed quickly (and in the opposite direction) by the prospective victim. Whereupon the Good Samaritan returned to his table, and his astonished companions.

The ensuing conversation went approximately like this:

Them: “What were you doing?! How could you do something like that?!”

Him: “What he was doing was wrong.”

Them: “Well, have you ever done anything like that before?”

Him: “No, never.”

Them: “Then why did you do take a chance like that? You could have gotten yourself hurt!”

Him: “Would that have made what he was doing any less wrong?”

And with that the conversation returned to the original topic.

It's at times like this that the novelist is tempted to simply throw his hands up in dismay, because you just can't make this stuff up. Real life is always better than fiction, no matter what you try to do to prove otherwise.

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