The week (January 19th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the Loden Hut to Jimmy Cannon, New York newspaperman who popularized the phrase: Nobody asked me, but…

IT HAS BEEN A WARM WINTER in Northern Europe, so much so that our taxi driver called it a “second summer for Bavaria,” an observation offered as we zoom-zoom-zoomed (at 180 kilometers per hour) along the autobahn outside Munich earlier this week. Perhaps Al Gore should consider his political prospects in the European Union. (Some cited a major winter storm that hit the day after we left as an example of the weather extremes that climate change has provoked.)

Speaking of European attitudes, while it may be true that opinion polls show a consistent rejection of the Bush Doctrine and the Administration’s decision to wage the Iraq War, the Dutch and Germans we encountered in our brief trip were decidedly not anti-American.

Fears of any long-term divide between the EU and the United States on significant security issues are overblown: while debate over tactics and approach will continue, there’s no denying the challenge of what Christopher Hitchens (among others) has dubbed “Islamofascism,” or the potential for damage by Iranian muscle-flexing in the Middle East.

INTERNATIONAL TRAVELERS IN EUROPE ARE GREETED BY THE “THEATER OF SECURITY,” although the measures employed are meant as much to assuage anxiety as to actually prevent terrorist attacks.

Case in point: our erstwhile Homeland Security watchdogs insist on shoes being x-rayed before boarding one’s plane—not so in the two European airports I passed through this week. So are EU security types less worried about shoe bombs?

At Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, tardy passengers are chastised with the following sort of public announcement in several languages: “Mr. Anderson and Mr. Bergstrom traveling to Copenhagen, Flight 123. You are delaying the flight. Immediately board, please. We will proceed to offload your luggage.” Of course if Mr. A and Mr. B are terrorists who scoff at death they will happily board the plane even if their checked-in luggage—which most likely has not been scanned—contains an explosive.

DUTCH DIRECTOR PAUL VERHOEVEN’S LATEST FILM, ZWARTBOEK (BLACK BOOK) offers a darkly mature look at the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II. The Oscar-nominated film drops the heroic frame of Verhoeven’s earlier treatment of the War, Soldier of Orange. Verhoeven, best known in the U.S. for Stormship Troopers, Basic Instinct, Total Recall (and the execrable Showgirls) plumbs the hard moral choices those confronting totalitarianism are forced to make.

Through the story of Rachel Steinn, a fictional Dutch-Jewish singer who becomes an underground resistance fighter (played by Carice van Houten), we see that some survive by resisting, others by collaborating, some by betrayal, and some by hedging their bets. What Vorhoeven captures so well are those sudden moments of moral decision-making when lives hang in the balance—and the deep emotions these moments provoke.

IF YOU WANT TO ASSESS THE RELATIVE SECURITY of an embattled place, sadly there may be no better measure than the market price of an AK-47, the Russian-designed assault weapon. According to press reports from Baghdad the price has risen in concert with the level of sectarian strife. In Mogadishu, the price of the weapon has risen as residents worry that the recent defeat of the Islamists may herald the return of warlordism.

I’d wager that the “Kalashnikov Index” could prove to be the most accurate gauge of the success of peacekeeping efforts in any hot-spot. (There’s an economics dissertation about this tragic phenomenon begging to be written).

MANY TRADITIONAL MEDIA TYPES will watching with heightened interest (, the new narrow-cast website focused on American politics, due to launch January 23rd.

The site, which is funded by Robert L. Allbritton and staffed by some mainstream journalists (including Jim Vandehei and John Harris of the Washington Post) drawn by the prospects of reinventing their craft in the Internet Age, may become a test case for journalistic entrepreneurship.

Will the economics of this non-partisan effort work? Will the site draw enough eyeballs to attract advertisers? Could it be a way to finance quality journalism in the future?

A RIVETING STORY OF BRITISH MILITARY HEROISM in Afghanistan, vividly portrayed in The Guardian (of all publications, one not one known for cheerleading for the lads in uniform): British marines strapped to the wings of an Apache helicopter, recovering the body of a downed comrade despite heavy fire from a Taliban stronghold.

WHAT HAPPENS THE FIRST TIME a dogged, but not particularly skilled, Major League Soccer defender (say, a journeyman like Rusty Pierce) clobbers the league’s new multi-million dollar Golden Boy, David Beckham? Bet that referees will look to protect Beckham at all costs. (Never thought it would be possible to mention Rusty Pierce and David Beckham in the same sentence.)

Count me among those doubtful that importing Beckham, or other big-name foreign stars, represents the way for MLS to grow and prosper—it’s a strategy the North American Soccer League tried with the Cosmos, and the cost of those aging stars never paid off in TV contracts.

The previous MLS patient approach of internally developing American players (think Clint Dempsey, Brian Ching, Landon Donovan), building cozy soccer-only stadiums, and avoiding huge payrolls seemed to be working, albeit more gradually than some in executive suites would prefer. But for the long haul, it’s a better ticket than importing long-in-the-tooth talent.

WILL SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON’S OPERATIVES now try to cast the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign as “Snow White and the (many) dwarves” as candidates continue to announce? So far, the announced or close-to-announced “dwarves” include Iowa’s Tom Vilsack, Sen. Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Christopher Dodd, and—Clinton supporters would argue—John Kerry, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. Come to think of it, besides Mrs. Clinton that would be seven other candidates…and Al Gore would make eight.

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE comes from German theologian and Resistance figure Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Postapocalypse now: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Cormac McCarthy
The Road (2006)

Dystopian visions appear to be all the rage these days. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s just-released Children of Men, a film set in 2027 London, imagines a dying world where humans can not reproduce; on television, CBS is airing the series Jericho, a futuristic drama about life in a small Kansas town after an atomic attack on Denver; and Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, “The Road,” traces the journey of a father and son through a lawless America in the aftermath of a fiery (nuclear?) apocalypse.

What lies behind these harrowing scenarios? A delayed reaction to 9/11, or to the dangers of genetic engineering, or to global warming? Fears triggered by North Korean nuclear tests, or the threat of terrorists acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction?

While the Doomsday Clock, a measure of the “global level of nuclear danger” kept by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reflects worrisome trends (it reached seven minutes to midnight in 2002, much narrower than 1991’s 17-minute gap), we are relatively safer than we were during the brinkmanship years of the Cold War. In 1953, for example, after the U.S. and Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear devices the clock moved to two minutes from Armageddon; in 1962 the Cuban missile crisis nearly escalated into all-out war.

Perhaps today’s artistic anxiety stems from the greater potential for random acts of destruction. The Cold War superpower standoff was based on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, the assumption that rational leaders would be deterred from using atomic weapons knowing that there could no winners. In contrast, many of today’s terrorists have embraced suicide as a religious act, and Iranian leaders have mused aloud about acceptable population losses in a nuclear exchange with Israel. Rationality is no check. The fear and trepidation that these works of science fiction tap into is very real.

“The Road” captures that anxiety. McCarthy has been in a grim mood of late; his 2005 novel, “No Country for Old Men,” explored the disturbing impact of drugs, easy money and anarchic violence on Texas small towns along the Mexican border. McCarthy (through the character of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a traditionalist) clearly longs for a return to older values and virtues, such as family and faith, which have been challenged by a brutal, criminal amorality.

A Hobbesian America

That longing for a baseline morality again surfaces in “The Road.” McCarthy sketches an anarchic America, still smoldering from the war, where the few survivors confront a Hobbesian nightmare, scavenging for food and shelter in a burned-over landscape, evading the roaming bands of predators who have descended into barbarism.

There are echoes here of Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” with his hero’s Homeric journey through the back-roads of a Civil War South where the social order has collapsed. The protagonist in “The Road” hopes that by travelling south to the coast through a “barren, silent, godless” landscape he and his ten-year-old son can find sanctuary from the coming harsh winter. All the while he fights his own growing “dull despair” and clings to a preapocalyptic morality—telling his son that they are the “good guys” and promising they will never resort to the savagery, including cannibalism, that they see around them.

Fire dominates this book: it has scorched the ruined America the two travelers encounter (“Sketched upon the pall of soot downstream the outline of a burnt city like a black paper scrim”); yet building a fire is also necessary to keep the man and boy alive in a post-nuclear winter climate. And “carrying the fire” is the reason the man gives his son for persevering despite their nearly hopeless situation; that fire is a metaphor for keeping alive the internal spark of humanity.

McCarthy is known for his spare, poetic prose—it is on full display in “The Road.” His stripped down language (with its Hemingwayesque use of conjunctions) matches the stark environment he limns:

It was as long a night as he could remember out of a great plenty of such nights. They lay on the wet ground by the side of the road under the blankets with the rain rattling on the tarp and he held the boy and after a while the boy stopped shaking and after a while he slept.

There are hints of Biblical judgment (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), and of more recent horrific images (the “Highway of Death” from Kuwait to Baghdad where Iraqi solders were incinerated during the first Gulf War). McCarthy couples his description of the radically altered physical landscape with a portrait of a father’s redemptive love for his son and his growing desperation as he realizes that he is dying and may not find a safe harbor in time for his boy.

There is much to admire in “The Road,” and yet McCarthy’s imagery and lyric Celtic prose don’t elevate the novel into something first-rate; in the end the book disappoints. It feels derivative, borrowing (intentionally or not) from the popular-culture dystopias we’ve encountered in the Mad Max and Terminator films (and perhaps even from futuristic clunkers like The Postman and Waterworld). There’s nothing particularly fresh, or different, in McCarthy’s somewhat baroque postapocalytic take. (I would argue that Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” remains the scariest, and most haunting, vision of what might happen after a nuclear war, as the surviving remnants of humanity await the radioactive winds that doom the species, “not with a bang but a whimper.”)

Recognizing the future

The most fascinating science fictions these days—in print and on screen—are those that provide us a glimpse of a plausible, but deeply disturbing future, one that is familiar and that we recognize with a bit of a shudder. Michael Winterbottom’s 2003 film Code 46 does just that, imagining how globalization, environmental stress and genetic engineering might lead to a society divided by wealth and “breeding.” We encounter a pampered, urban technocratic overclass and an impoverished, “genetically inferior” underclass, oppressed and isolated from First World civilization, restricted by a series of codes and laws. The film hits close to home in a way “The Road” does not. (Screenwriter and director Andrew Niccol explored somewhat similar, and uncomfortable, themes of genetic privilege in his 1997 movie Gattaca.)

Storytellers are as much drawn to the future–its mystery, its plasticity, its mythic potential–as they are to the present or the past. Yet innovative science fiction is harder to create than it appears. McCarthy’s comfort with the themes and tropes of the Western—another distinctly American genre–are evident in his “Border Trilogy,” but his foray into science fiction isn’t nearly as successful.

He’s not alone: since George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” the challenge for mainstream writers to imagine the society of the future has proven irresistible and enduring. Sometimes they hit—witness “A Clockwork Orange” (Anthony Burgess), “Planet of the Apes” (Pierre Boule) and “Never Let Me Go” (Kazuo Ishiguro)—and sometimes they miss the mark (vide: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Caleb Carr’s “Killing Time”).

They will—we can safely predict—keeping trying.

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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Diamonds and drugs

Director Edward Zwick’s movie Blood Diamond has raised a host of questions about Western complicity in the “conflict diamond” trade. To what extent has American demand for diamonds been a driving force behind brutal civil strife in Africa? Should Americans feel guilty about buying diamonds?

As with most Hollywood message movies, there’s less concern for the facts, and more interest in identifying villains—in this case, diamond merchants and, by extension, consumers in the U.S., who buy about half of the world’s diamonds.

Of course the notion that Africans fight each other primarily because of corrupting Western influences—such as the diamond trade—is naïve at best, and, at worst, suggests an underlying racism. Tribal and religious warfare existed long before colonization, and much of the unrest in Africa today—whether in Sudan, Chad, the Congo or Somalia—can be traced directly to those causes.

It’s also a stretch to suggest that conflict diamonds are in great supply. The diamond industry says conflict diamonds represent fewer than 1% of the gems on the market today. The Washington Post, in an article entitled “Blood Diamonds: A River or a Droplet?” suggests that Hollywood should have been concerned with the problem back in 2000 and 2001, when it might have mattered, when “rebels in Sierra Leone were hacking off the hands of civilians in a war funded by diamonds” and “activists could barely get Hollywood’s attention.” That war ended in 2002.

Zwick maintains, nonetheless, that his movie will increase public awareness of the problem and help strengthen the Kimberley Process, the international agreement monitoring and certifying that diamonds are “conflict-free.” (Who can argue with that?) Global Witness, the British advocacy group and a leader in the anti-conflict diamond movement, argues that “smuggled diamonds and diamonds mined in abusive labor situations,” along with conflict diamonds add up to some 20% of the total, according to the Post article. That sort of expanded calculation, however, makes the perfect (a completely reformed diamond industry) the enemy of the good (eliminating diamonds as a source of funding for African conflicts).

If Blood Diamond is to have a positive impact, it should be to, in the words of Amnesty International’s Amy O’Meara, “make sure conflict diamonds aren’t being bought in stores,” while not killing demand for the gemstones.

Greg Campbell, author of the book “Blood Diamonds,” told PBS recently that it would be “a disaster if people stopped buying diamonds and turned away from them, because, ironically, now that Sierra Leone is at peace, sales of its diamonds into the global international market is one of the, if not the only, thing that is going to bring the country up to developed standards.”

Campbell noted that the diamond trade has done wonders for Botswana, “a peaceful, democratic country that, in 1999, had the fastest-growing economy in the world.” He added:

So a backlash against diamonds on any type of important or significant scale could certainly impact not just the industry and the wealth of a couple of millionaires scattered around the globe, but also the prosperity of some of the few peaceful nations in Africa.

In short, then, there’s no reason to boycott diamonds, or to feel guilty, or to believe that Americans have some unique responsibility for tribal conflict in Africa.

You have to wonder why Edward Zwick chose the topic of African conflict diamonds for his message movie. There are examples of American complicity in Third World depravity that are much closer to home. How about the link between recreational drug use in the U.S. and the violent drug lords of Latin America? Americans should feel guilty about their role in that multi-billion dollar illicit industry, an industry which causes immense damage to the societies supplying the drugs.

The connection was brilliantly illuminated in the movie Traffic (which was a remake of a British-German collaboration, it should be noted, and not an original American film) and little has changed; American consumption of cocaine and other drugs fuels the drug cartels and the crime, violence and corruption that plagues Mexico, Colombia and other afflicted countries.

That, however, might hit a little too close to home. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood’s party-going elite adopting a position of preachy moral superiority about the use of illicit drugs.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (December 15th): Nobody asked me, but…

To borrow, once again, from Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

I’M SURE THAT SWARTHMORE STUDENTS and their parents feel so much better now that adminstrators at that elite college outside Philadelphia have proclaimed the school a bargain.

Swarthmore’s managers argued that in a story in the New York Times:

“The half of our student body whose families are paying the full sticker price are paying $41,000 for something that costs $73,000,” said Suzanne P. Welsh, the treasurer. “So they’re getting a great discount.”

The real shocker: Swarthmore calculates that, fully loaded, it costs $73,000 to educate one student for an academic year (which is about eight months). Shouldn’t it be possible to house, feed and educate an 18 or 19-year old for less than that?

Yes, I know the arguments about how expensive upkeep on an aging infrastructure can be, how it costs to keep pace with new technology, and how pricey it can be finding and retaining faculty. The reality: institutions of higher education have not used that technology to drive costs down, or increase productivity, as other organizations have. The result: tuition bills, discounted or not, that are out of control.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO IS BRILLIANT IN the newly released “Blood Diamond” as an emotionally damaged soldier-of-fortune smuggling conflict diamonds in Africa; it’s rare that an actor provides two notable performances in one year (DiCaprio offers top-notch work as a troubled undercover cop in “The Departed.”)

WHO CARES WHETHER A POLITICIAN KNOWS the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread? Some do, but we should be more concerned when the new chairman of the House intelligence committee (Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat from Texas) can not describe Hezbollah and thinks al-Qaeda’s followers are Shia Muslims (they’re Sunni). What’s worse: Reyes has served on the committee for more than five years!

New Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is championing combined Congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies—a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission—but if she reposes trust in subordinates not up to the task, then any reform effort will fail.

BOSTON’S MAYOR TOM MENINO has a “wicked” case of Edifice Complex; he called for a signature office tower to be constructed in Beantown earlier in the year, and now is militating for a new waterfront City Hall in South Boston. True, the current City Hall is one of the ugliest public buildings in America, situated in a desolate plaza, but after the Big Dig, you would think Boston politicians would be wary of construction projects. Not Menino.

GIVE ACTOR GEORGE CLOONEY SOME CREDIT—in recent trips he has he focused on those countries, China and Egypt, who could most quickly hasten an end to the atrocities being committed in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Outgoing United Nations head Kofi Annan and, regretably, the Save Darfur organization, have seemed reluctant to confront the Chinese and members of the Arab League over their support for the regime in Sudan, perhaps believing “quiet diplomacy” would work.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK from composer John Cage: “”I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (November 24th): Nobody asked me, but…

To again borrow a turn of phrase from the late, great Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

AN AMAZING CEREMONY IN SOUTH LONDON HONORED MOHEGAN SACHEM Mahomet Weyonomon, who died of smallpox in 1736 while waiting to see King George II with a complaint about British settlers encroaching on Indian land.

Queen Elizabeth II joined a group of American Mohegans, led by Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum, as they gave Weyonomon the Indian burial ceremony he had missed centuries before (a ceremony which included smoking a pipe filled with sweet grass and sage), according to the Associated Press account of the day.

The Queen unveiled a granite rock “carved with grooves symbolizing mountain trails” near the site of Weyonomon’s unmarked grave on the grounds of Southwark Cathedral. The Anglican dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, added: “We cannot right past wrongs, but we can remember them and transform them to inspire better conduct throughout humanity now and in years to come.”

IF CALIFORNIA, FLORIDA AND MICHIGAN move up the dates of their 2008 presidential primaries as close as possible to New Hampshire’s vote, as the Boston Globe reports, the winners will be the frontrunners—those candidates with name recognition and the money to finance expensive campaigns.

Earlier primaries in California and Florida would definitely benefit maverick Republican John McCain—who would be delighted to have the importance of the early South Carolina primary discounted (the state where McCain’s last presidential bid ran into trouble).

WHILE “SEINFELD” COMIC MICHAEL RICHARDS FRANTICALLY APOLOGIZIES for his racial rant at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles—and rightly so—what shouldn’t be lost from the shabby episode is how there’s nothing funny about the N-word, even when it’s used by black comedians and rappers.

In the wake of the the Richards’ incident, author Stanley Crouch has questioned “the ongoing vulgarization of popular culture” and what Crouch calls its’ “minstrel content.”

Crouch adds in his New York Daily News op-ed column:

So what remains before us is the issue of coming to terms with a popular culture in which the N-word, bitches and hos have become no more than condiments in a particularly unappetizing meal. We need not ban their use, but we do need to face the fact that we have been hustled far more often than not.

THE OPENING OF THE MOVIE “BOBBY,” about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 stirred memories of my childhood—being awakened late at night by my mother after my father, who was covering RFK’s presidential campaign, had called from Los Angeles with the horrific news of the killing. Emilio Estevez’s film has been called “ambitious, uneven and deeply affecting“; I’m hoping it captures the sense of hope and purpose that Kennedy brought to his last campaign.

WHEN CONSIDERING NEWS OF THE LATEST SCIENTIFIC TRIUMPH, I think of the words of the 20th century Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a scientist in his own right: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (September 22): Nobody asked me, but…

Echoing the late, great Jimmy Cannon: Nobody asked me, but…

IF RICHARD ARMITAGE, former Undersecretary of State, did threaten Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2001 that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if it didn’t cooperate in the war against terrorism after 9/11, was he consciously drawing on Gen. Curtis E. LeMay’s infamous proposed solution to the Vietnam War (“‘bomb them back into the Stone Age.”)? Not surprisingly, Armitage denies he made the threat.

For his part, LeMay later claimed that the Stone Age suggestion—which appeared in his 1965 autobiography ”Mission With LeMay”—had been inserted by his collaborator, historian MacKinlay Kantor, without LeMay’sknowledge (but never offered any proof of his own innocence). LeMay also ran for Vice President on George Wallace’s American Independent Party ticket in 1968 (where he suggested that nuclear weapons should remain an option in Vietnam). No wonder that the character of General Buck Turgidson of “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” was thought to be based on “Bombs Away” LeMay.

BRENDAN NYHAN WORE OUT his welcome at The American Prospect‘s media criticism blog, he says, because he “slammed two liberal blogs for using an airline employee’s suicide after 9/11 to take a cheap shot at President Bush.” Nyhan adds in a post on Time‘s PoliticalBite that he quit after “Sam Rosenfeld, the magazine’s online editor, asked that I focus my blogging on conservative targets.”

Nyhan asks plaintively: “…isn’t open and honest debate a value that liberals prize?” He quotes from an emailed defense offered by TAP editor Michael Tomasky: “The Prospect has always opposed a ‘pox on both houses’ posture, and that’s what we came to believe you were doing.”

Nyhan suggests that The American Prospect may have been swayed by another consideration—one perhaps more commercial in nature:

One important factor shaping TAP’s decision may have been the popularity of Democratic bloggers like Atrios, who pump out a stream of pre-filtered news and commentary. Before the rise of online competition, opinion magazines had some freedom to be idiosyncratic and less partisan than their readers. The initial incarnation of the Prospect, for example, had a thoughtful, academic tone. But the availability of more points of view online (while laudable in many ways) has paradoxically increased the pressure on ideological publications to pander to readers, who have the option of seeking out exclusively partisan blogs instead.

Right-of-center publications—on or off the Web—aren’t any more welcoming to independent or ideologically suspect views, from what I can see. Many partisans don’t want the facts to get in the way of their deeply held opinions.

Nyhan continues to blog—independently—at

ANDY GARCIA’S DEEPLY PERSONAL film, “The Lost City,” about the trials and tribulations of a Cuban family after the Revolution is now available on DVD and is definitely worth the rental fee (for the wonderful soundtrack music alone!) The movie also features the luminous Inés Sastre as Garcia’s love interest, and two strange performances by Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman. It took Garcia nearly two decades to bring his vision to the screen.

Let’s hope that after Castro’s death and the inevitable return of freedom to Cuba, Gracia follows with a sequel capturing the experience of exiled Cubans returning to their beloved island (and confronting the gap between memory and reality).

IF PETE ROSE AND JOSE CANSECO disappeared from the public eye, they would make an awful lot of baseball fans quite happy. They violate soul singer Bobby Womack’s sage advice: “Leave them wanting more and you know they’ll call you back.”

VOLKSWAGEN CONTINUES TO RUN those television commercials where a peaceful drive in a Jetta or Passat is shockingly interrupted by a violent air-bag-popping accident. Sorry, but the ads are creepy. The shock value wears off, I’m afraid, on second viewing, just as the high school Driver Education class crash videos do—and you wonder whether Volkswagen realizes that lots of viewers (like me) dislike have their emotions manipulated.

PROVING THAT ELECTORAL INCOMPETENCE is bipartisan, the latest reports of uncounted votes, polling machine breakdowns and Election Day chaos come from heavily Democratic Maryland and Massachusetts.

THINK CURRENT DISDAIN FOR CONGRESS is widespread (as the latest opinion surveys show)? Mark Twain once sneered: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Reconsidering “On the Waterfront”

Another figure from post-war New York, from those golden years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, has slipped away: former middleweight prize fighter Roger Donoghue, Marlon Brando’s coach for his role as the washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in the remarkable film On the Waterfront, died this past week at the age of 75.

Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for the 1954 film credited Donoghue for inspiring the now-classic line from Malloy: “I could have been a contender.”

According to the New York Times, Donaghue saw athletic promise in Brando as he tutored the young actor in the sweet science:

To hear Mr. Donoghue tell it, Marlon Brando just might have been a contender himself. “I’ve got him shooting straight jabs, and he’s already learned to hook off the jab,” he said after the first lesson, according to Mr. Schulberg in a widely syndicated article. “I can make a hell of a middleweight out of this kid.”

“Roger,” Mr. Schulberg replied, “just let us get through this movie with him in it. Then you can have him back and take it from there.”

(Had Brando tried his hand at boxing, however, it’s unlikely he would have had the discipline to stay in the middleweight class—at least not judging from his massive weight swings later in his career.)

Donoghue knew his boxing. Before he was hired to train Brando, he had a brief career as a middleweight fighter. His one appearance at Madison Square Garden, in August 1951, ended in tragedy: Donoghue knocked out 20-year-old George Flores (a boxer he had defeated, also by KO, two weeks earlier) in the eighth round—and Flores died some five days later.

Donoghue donated his purse to the Flores family and stopped boxing shortly thereafter. He was promoting Rheingold Beer when he was recruited to coach Brando.

The best of the 20th century?

Director Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is a marvelous film and, it can be argued, the best American motion picture of the 20th century. The film was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series by New York Sun investigative reporter Malcolm Johnson which exposed the control of organized crime over New York’s waterfront. It is a testament to New York’s post-war Golden Age in journalism, literature, music, and theater, an amazing period of creativity and artistic innovation in the decade after the end of World War II.

On the Waterfront tells the story of an average man, Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer and longshoreman who slowly realizes that he must stand up to the corrupt and brutal union bosses who rule the docks through fear, intimidation and violence. Kazan captures Malloy’s struggle of conscience and follows his difficult path to redemption; Malloy knows that telling the truth means not only being branded a “snitch,” but also putting his own life and future at risk. While the movie closes with Malloy publicly defying the mobsters, despite a savage beating, and gaining the support of his fellow dockworkers, there is nothing triumphal about the ending, no sense that Malloy has won a permanent victory.

On the Waterfront‘s themes—of loyalty and betrayal, of courage and of compromise, of the morally ambiguous role of the informer—carried deep personal resonance for its director. In 1952 Kazan had renounced his Communist Party past and “named names,” identifying eight of his colleagues from the Group Theater in the 1930s as Communists, in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Kazan’s decision to testify, rather than plead the Fifth Amendment, outraged many in Hollywood, including playwright Arthur Miller, once a close friend.

It’s been argued that Kazan (and Schulberg, who was also a friendly witness before HUAC) sought to justify their actions in On the Waterfront, to show that an informer could be acting out of integrity, and that it took courage to testify against former friends, to “name names.” That may be so, but what ends up on the screen isn’t much of an advertisement for whistle-blowing, but rather a sobering consideration of the harsh consquences of informing.

Moreover, On the Waterfront deserves to be considered—or reconsidered—on its merits, not as propaganda or polemics, but as an artistic work.

Reconsidering the movie

One reason On the Waterfront remains vital today is because it is film-making at its best: the movie offers a blend of brilliant acting, sensitive cinematography and a complementary score coupled with a restrained direction that allows individual performances to emerge and dazzle.

The collection of talent employed in this low-budget black-and-white film, shot on location in Hoboken over some 36 days, was stunning. Many of the actors were alumni of the legendary New York Actors Studio. Kazan assembled a cast that included Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Pat Henning and James Westerfield (and Fred Gwynne and Martin Balsam in small roles). Three ex-heavyweight boxers, Abe Simon, Tony Galento, and Tami Mauriello played union thugs, and many of the extras were real life dockworkers.

The cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, worked wonders; he used the shabby Hoboken cityscape and the constrast between the cramped apartments and open roof-top skylines to give a sense of place and time. Kaufman proved to be a master at employing the winter afternoon light (helped by the judicious use of trash fires) to soften the look of the film. And composer Leonard Bernstein’s haunting themes, recurring throughout the film, provided additional emotional depth to the story.

Kazan was lucky just to get the movie made—the screenplay was initially turned down by the major studios (Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox dismissed the project with this memorable comment: “All you’ve got is a lot of sweaty longshoremen. Exactly what the American public doesn’t want to see.”) and the financing came from producer Sam Spiegel, a relative Hollywood outsider, who eventually persuaded Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures to take on the project.

Assembling the cast wasn’t easy, either. Brando supposedly balked at working with Kazan because of his HUAC testimony. Frank Sinatra was recruited for the part of Terry Malloy before (with Spiegel’s prodding) Brando relented and joined the project. Lee J. Cobb, who played the thuggish union boss Johnny Friendly, had no such problems—he had also testified before HUAC.

Eva Marie Saint was selected after Grace Kelly passed on the part of Edie Doyle in order to appear in the The Country Girl (for which Kelly won an Oscar). Kazan saw in Eva Marie Saint what audiences did: a beautiful young woman radiating innocence and an appealing gentleness, perfect for the part of the idealistic, yet passionate, Edie.

Rod Steiger was cast as Charlie “the Gent” Malloy, Terry’s older brother, because a better-known actor, Lawrence Tierney, had demanded too much money. Steiger later claimed he would not have participated if he had known about Kazan’s testimony (a claim that is hard to believe), and he proved to be particularly nasty over the years about what he saw as Kazan’s connection (however strained) to the Hollywood blacklist.

Kazan clearly got lucky, I think, with the cast, especially with his two leads. It’s hard to envision On the Waterfront with Frank Sinatra as Terry Malloy and Grace Kelly as Edie Doyle: Sinatra is too sharp, too self-aware for the role, and Kelly seems too elegantly upper-class to be believable as the sheltered Edie. Brando and Eva Marie Saint seem to have been born to play their parts.

Quiet scenes

What makes On the Waterfront such a marvel, I would argue, is not only the acting, but the restraint in Kazan’s direction.

Take the scene where Terry Malloy walks Edie Doyle home through the park. When she drops one of her gloves, Malloy picks it up, and (an action Brando improvised in rehearsal) plays with it, eventually slipping his hand into it. Kazan kept the improvisation in the scene—and it works on several levels: it foreshadows Terry’s sexual interest in Edie, and also, some have argued, his “trying on” Edie’s “white glove” morality.

Kazan also left untouched a risky scene written by Schulberg. When Terry confesses his role in the death of Edie’s brother, he unburdens himself to her by the waterfront. As Terry begins to explain to Edie, we can not hear his words—they are drowned out by the blast of a whistle from a departing ship—and the camera shows us only Edie’s horrified reaction. Instead of being distracted by Terry’s dialog we focus solely on the crushing impact of the news on the sensitive Edie.

These two quiet scenes are part of what gives On the Waterfront some of its lasting power. They connect us to the story in personal, not political, ways.

That is not to say that there isn’t some message-heavy clumsiness in the film. Kazan and Schulberg lay on the Christian symbolism of sacrifice a bit too thick at the end of the film—but they can be forgiven that lapse, for the movie as a whole has a unity rarely found in American film.

Taking stock

On the Waterfront received critical acclaim in its own time—eight Academy Awards including best picture, best actor, best supporting actress, best art directon, best cinematography, directing, film editing, and screenplay for 1954. There were also nominations for Bernstein’s score and for best supporting actor for Cobb, Malden, and Steiger.

Beyond its sheer technical excellence, I think the reason the movie remains compelling more than half-a-century after its initial release is that it deals with questions that time has not (can not) neatly resolve. When is informing the morally correct choice? What are the costs of compromising in the face of wrongdoing? What loyalties must we honor? What sacrifices must we make? (Sometimes overlooked is the moral decision Charlie Malloy makes at the end of On the Waterfront: he can not betray his brother to Johnny Friendly, and that loyalty costs him his life).

To inform, to become a whistleblower, is to challenge often unspoken assumptions. Our uneasiness with the idea is illustrated by the harsh words used to describe an informer: tattle-tell, rat, fink, snitch, pigeon, cheese-eater, stool pigeon, stoolie. Much of the world looks askance at those who “drop a dime” or “sell out” their buddies, their comrades. In On the Waterfront, the dockworkers credo is “D and D”—deaf and dumb.

What culture, corporate or political, doesn’t prize loyalty? The roots of loyalty are tribal; from a time when unquestioning obedience, unity, and “closing the ranks” had life-or-death ramifications. The informer rejects those bonds of comradeship and cohesiveness.

Ideally, the whistleblower answers to individual conscience and the more abstract call of justice for the larger community—which often means justice for strangers—although in practice he or she may also be motivated by baser motives of ambition or revenge, or a desire to avoid prosecution.

Some of our ambivalence may be traced to our suspicions about the mixed motives of informers, especially those who seek anonymity. To recite the names of famous (or infamous) American political whistleblowers—W. Mark Felt, John Dean, Daniel Ellsberg, Whittaker Chambers, Scooter Libby—is to illuminate the problem. They may not be completely free of culpability themselves. They may be plagued by a guilty conscience. They may be out for revenge or vindication.

What gives On the Waterfront its timelessness is that Kazan understood this ambivalence. How could he not? The movie reflects this moral ambiguity—for those who testify against former friends and colleagues, and for those who will judge them—through the awakening of Terry Malloy, a reluctant hero, one with no appetite for what he is driven to do. There is no “cheap grace” (to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term) for those who inform, whatever the reason and no matter how virtuous their cause may seem, a truth that Kazan knew only too well.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.