March 2006 Archives

I haven't read Harvey Mansfleld's new book, Manliness, and I suspect that when I do, I will have many criticisms of it. But let me register here my disgust at Walter Kirn's "review" of it in today's New York Times. When I write my book on Puerility, I will make a point of quoting "critics" like these. The editors should be embarrassed.

But on to my (speculative) criticism of Mansfield's book, which by all accounts names Achilles as the Homeric hero who best exemplifies manliness. This seems wrong, not least because Mansfield's oft-quoted definition of manliness is presence of mind in the face of danger. If this is so, then the Homeric hero you want is not Achilles but Odysseus. It is Odysseus who exemplifies sophron, that hard-to-translate Greek word that does not just mean wisdom, shrewdness, gutsiness, grace, or persistence, but rather all of these - in essence, knowing how to act in any given situation.

Sophron is not achievable by following a set of rules; anyone can do that. Sophron means doing the right thing, the smart thing, without recourse to rules. It means being able to read the situation and the people involved, to discern the most compelling moral imperative, and to act - and all for a higher purpose than one's own aggrandizement.

Now for the movies. Manliness like this is hard to find in the cineplex these days. But here are two wildly different recommendations on DVD:

First the TV series 24, now in its fifth season on the Fox Network. The title comes from the gimmick of having each hour-long episode “occur in real time,” and except for a few plodding bits about the personal lives of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and his fellow agents at the Los Angeles branch of the fictional U.S. Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), 24 is addictively suspenseful. And despite my misgivings about the show's routinization of extra-legal wiretapping and (especially) torture, I confess to being captivated by the character of Jack, whose alertness, courage, and cunning are positively Odyssean.

Second, the truly wonderful BBC adaptation of the Horatio Hornblower adventure novels by C.S. Forester. I have never read the novels (I do read books, though you might not get that impression from this posting), but I am tempted to do so after watching this series, which was produced between 1998 and 2003 and stars Welsh heartthrob Ioan Gruffud in the title role, not to mention British theater heartthrob Robert Lindsay as his mentor, Captain Sir Edward Pellew.

There is nothing dumbed down, campy, or forced about this vivid evocation of His Majesty's Navy at the turn of the 19th century; just great acting, great ships, and great production values (for TV). Patrick O'Brian fans especially will appreciate it, since in my opinion no one has yet properly adapted O'Brian. (I found Master and Commander painfully hurried and superficial, with no real texture to the characters.) As for manliness, there are plenty of examples to be found, including a duchess (Cheri Lunghi) who turns out to be a London stage actress working as a spy. Of course, instead of "manliness," one could just say sophron.

March 19, 2006 12:32 PM |

It would have to be made by a genius who understands jazz, rock, pop music, American culture, and the history of race relations. It would also have to star an actor combining the talents of Sidney Poitier, Jimi Hendrix, Don Cheadle, and Mos Def. And finally, it would have to be seventeen hours long. Maybe that's why we haven't seen a biopic about Miles Davis ... ?

As for putting Miles in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, see Soundtrax box on right. It's a little like nominating Picasso for the Ink-Doodling Hall of Fame.

March 14, 2006 10:21 AM |

Does Miles Davis belong in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame? Here's my take on his career ...

March 14, 2006 10:11 AM |

With high hype, HBO's hit series, The Sopranos, returns to the airwaves this week. But personally I worry that this time around, the producers will start to believe the cliche that the show's amazing popularity stems from cable TV's ability to "push the envelope" on sex, drugs, profanity, and violence. It's easy to speculate that over 10 million people watch The Sopranos every week because they relish hearing curses, ogling silicone-enhanced breasts on the Bada Bing dance floor, and watching wiseguys get offed. And it's just as easy to condemn The Sopranos on the same grounds, as William F. Buckley Jr. once did, citing its "arrant exploitation of sex, exhibitionism, murder, sadism, cynicism, and hypocrisy."

But such judgments are obtuse. Most people do not love The Sopranos because it pumps vulgarity and venality into their homes any more than they love it because it stereotypes Italian-Americans (pace groups like the American Italian Defense Association). People love the show because it takes something tried and true -- the Mafia drama -- and uses it to explore social class, the ordeal of immigrant assimilation, the ethical compromises of the workplace, and other aspects of contemporary American life barely touched on in film and television, except in the most pious and didactic fashion. More...

March 10, 2006 9:57 AM |

If you are planning to sit through the Oscars tonight, here are some comments based on last year's festivities.

People who love music hate medleys. And people who love movies hate those “Celebrate the Movies” clip reels shown on cable TV to promote movie channels, and in theaters to promote movie-going. Watching the 77th Academy Awards, I really hated the opening clip reel, put there by the movie industry to remind me how much I love movies. Even the most willing cow needs an occasional rest from the milking machine.

If the members of the Academy had wanted to attract more viewers, then perhaps they should not have been so timid about including the two most controversial films of 2004, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. The Passion, which received but did not win three nominations (Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup), deserved one for Best Picture and Best Director. And Fahrenheit, which received no nominations, deserved one for Best Documentary, a category in which fairness and accuracy have never been among the criteria.

Without re-masticating the well masticated debates over these films, I will simply note that both sold a lot of tickets to people who do not ordinarily go to the movies. So if they had not been airbrushed out of the proceedings, then perhaps all those one-time ticket buyers would have tuned in, boosting the ratings and saving us from that tacky clip reel.

It was, of course, entirely appropriate that the clip reel rolled across the ceiling of the Kodak Theater before and after each commercial break. For this is what movies are rapidly becoming: commercials for themselves. Instead of drama, comedy, suspense, or any other recognizable genre, the standard-issue Hollywood flick is now a pastiche of attention-grabbing moments meant to thrill, tickle, tease, and titillate audiences too immature or distracted to care how, or whether, they all fit together. Like music videos, these messes only reinforce the mini-attention span of the average popcorn buyer. Usually they don't survive to a second weekend, but that doesn't really matter. The industry is now structured so that one weekend of suckers is usually enough.

Which returns me to the Oscars. Given the tone of most releases these days, Chris Rock was the perfect MC. His opening monologue was painfully convoluted, making sense only as an attempt to offend the right people (notably President Bush) without offending the wrong people (notably the millions who voted for Bush but might also shell out nine bucks to see Chris Rock movie).

Jon Stewart will probably do better at hitting the Zeitgeist between the eyes. But even more than Rock, he is going to have a major problem cutting through his own thick carapace of irony. Maybe he won't have to; maybe the good people writing his material will drop all pretense that this is a ceremony of artistry, excellence, and achievement (including lifetime achievement). But that would be a mistake, for no other reason than it would lose audience share.

Consider: most movie fans look at the Academy Awards the way the two children in the urban folktale look at the room full of pony manure. Either they can turn away, disgusted by all that you-know-what, or they can start digging, inspired by the idea that there must be a pony in there somewhere. The latter approach is worth keeping, even when the irony mounts to the ad-buzzing ceiling, because somehow this industry keeps turning out a couple of good films a year. Of course, if Munich wins Best Picture, I will be tempted to lay down my shovel.

March 5, 2006 10:48 AM |


Miles the Rock Star? 

Does Miles Davis belong in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame? Here's my take on his career ...

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