“based on a true story” wasn’t enough

The makers of The Life of Emile Zola would like you to know that

This production has its basis in history. The historical basis, however, has been fictionized for the purposes of this picture and the names of many characters, many characters themselves, the story, incidents, and institutions, are fictitious. With the exception of known historical characters, whose actual names are herein used, no identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.

I wonder if their goal was to get certain historically-minded members of the audience time to walk out before they started complaining.

off file

I saw this last year over on Crooked Timber, but I was reminded of it recently and it’s still good, so I’m posting it here. This was one of four short films made using archival content from Getty Images’ Hulton Archive. It’s probably my favorite, but “Perrington Stud” is pretty well done too as a bit of storytelling.

You can see all four of the shorts here; the other two are technically well-done, but didn’t really catch my attention like these two.

you win

Obama has youtube, FDR had the radio, but Calvin Coolidge, whose conversational skills were legendary, was the first president on sound film.
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chance coincidence

When I heard that Blagojevich quoted Kipling in his press conference, I wondered if he quoted the same poem Grandpa Simpson quotes in a casino in the episode where he almost gambles away all the money he inherits. Turns out, he did. Here’s Blagojevich:

Here’s a transcript of the Kipling quotation:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating…

That’s from the start of the poem. Grandpa Simpson picks it up at a later point, quotes a few lines, then skips to the end:

I think Rudyard Kipling said it best: If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss, yours is the earth is [sic] everything that is in it, and, which is more, you’ll be a man, my son.

Homer’s response: “You’ll be a bonehead!”

the long dark knight of the winter

Last summer I didn’t pay attention to most of what was written about The Dark Knight because I hadn’t seen it and was planning to. Well, I never got around to seeing it in the theater and so I didn’t see it until yesterday when I watched it on DVD through Netflix.

Did anyone point out in the early reviews that it’s excrutiatingly awful, sort of a messy draft of a movie that never got around to an editor, at least not the kind of editor who cuts things out? That it lacked the subtlety of some of the not very subtle crime dramas about corruption and racketeering and reform that came out in the 1930s to 1950s (I am the Law, for instance)?

I liked Batman Begins and don’t think I automatically favor older movies over new ones (though it’s quite possible that I do) so I was pretty shocked at how much I disliked this. Netflix probably is too, since it predicted I’d give it 4 out of 5 (probably on the basis of my liking Following and Memento, both also directed by Christopher Nolan). My Netflix predictions are usually more accurate than that.

the fabric of society

It seems like Cory Booker is channeling Randolph Bourne (via):

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From Bourne’s “Trans-National America” (in the July 1916 Atlantic):

The foreign cultures have not been melted down or run together, made into some homogeneous Americanism, but have remained distinct but cooperating to the greater glory and benefit not only of themselves but of all the native ‘Americanism’ around them.

What we emphatically do not want is that these distinctive qualities should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity.

Bourne’s prefers the metaphor of a weave to food; he comes out against gluttony:

Only America, by reason of the unique liberty of opportunity and traditional isolation for which she seems to stand, can lead in this cosmopolitan enterprise. Only the American — and in this category I include the migratory alien who has lived with us and caught the pioneer spirit and a sense of new social vistas — has the chance to become that citizen of the world. America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans- nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision. I do not mean that we shall necessarily glut ourselves with the raw product of humanity. It would be folly to absorb the nations faster than we could weave them. We have no duty either to admit or reject. It is purely a question of expediency. What concerns us is the fact that the strands are here. We must have a policy and an ideal for an actual situation. Our question is, What shall we do with our America?

change you can mimeograph

I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate.

Zachary Hicks is a delegate to the state’s Progressive Party Convention and his feet hurt. The convention has been trying to nominate a candidate for governor, but no one has enough votes. While the party bosses gather in their factions to discuss strategy for the next ballot, Hicks turns to one of his fellow delegates in the convention hall and complains about his shoes. When the delegate asks him why he doesn’t take them off, Hicks replies that he can’t – they’re too tight. When the delegate suggests that he cut them off, Hicks thinks it’s a great idea, and to the surprise of his fellow delegate, he takes out a knife and does just that.

Meanwhile, one of the party factions has decided that the only way to prevent their rivals’ candidate from winning and still break the deadlock is to nominate a dark horse. They arrive at the name of the hitherto obscure Zachary Hicks, about whom even they know very little. Hicks is asleep when his nomination is announced.

I wrote that intro from memory, having seen The Dark Horse – which unfortunately does not seem to be available online or on DVD (but you can see the original trailer) – about a month ago on television, so I might not have the details exactly right. But the premise is clear: Zachary Hicks – described at one point as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge” – is running for Governor and it’s going to take a clever campaign to get him elected.

Kay Russell (played by Bette Davis) knows just the man for the job: Hal S. Blake (played by Warren William), who’s proven himself in the past to be an able campaign manager. There’s only one problem: Blake is currently in jail for failing to pay alimony. Russell convinces the party leaders to take a chance on Blake, and when they arrive at the prison, Blake is giving a speech to the other inmates. The campaign has already started.

If this were a different kind of film, Blake’s cleverness and political skill might have been portrayed as vaguely sinister, but it’s a comedy (with a bit of romance between Russell and Blake) – and a screwball one at that. Blake might be able to convince opposing constituencies like the wets and the drys (this is a film from 1932*, after all) that Hicks supports both sides, but it is his opponents in the Conservative party who stoop to truly dirty politics when they come up with a plan to frame Hicks as having an affair on the eve of the election. It’s hard to watch this movie today without thinking of certain modern strategists**, but Blake – who has his faults, particularly when it comes to relationships – remains generally likable throughout.

When it quickly becomes clear that Hicks isn’t very bright, Blake is undaunted: that just means they’ll present him as a common man of the people (“Hicks from the sticks”). Since Hicks doesn’t know the issues very well – at one point he says he’s against capital punishment, which would great if the state had not already abolished it – Blake instructs him to answer all reporters’ questions by saying “Yes,” then pausing, then saying, “and again, no.”

A bigger challenge is preparing Hicks for a debate. Blake has him memorize the lines quoted at the top of this post. They’re actually Lincoln’s. Hicks has only two problems with this: first, he has a well-off (but politically irrelevant) aunt elsewhere in the state who could be considered a “wealthy relation” – Blake instructs him to ignore that; and second, he struggles to remember to change the word “county”*** to “state.”

There may be a longstanding tradition of politicians incorporating other politicians’ speeches into their own, but this is a fairly clear case of plagiarism. And when the time comes for the debate, it turns out that Hicks’ Conservative opponent, Underwood****, who is first to give an opening statement, arrived with the exact same idea. Recognizing the speech his candidate was supposed to deliver, Blake jumps on to the stage and exposes Underwood as a plagiarist. Underwood is laughed out of the building and Hicks is saved from having to speak at all.


*It’s so old that it’s pre-code, and compared to movies made just a few years later, there’s a surprising amount of suggestiveness.

**It’s true, as TCM’s overview article says, that the decision to “sell” Hicks as a common man is “a round of spin-doctoring that remains depressingly resonant today” but it’s still funny. Just don’t think about the implications for governance.*****

***I believe in the film they actually say “country,” perhaps under the impression that Lincoln said this in a speech while running for President. But a footnote to the text I looked up says that it is actually from a printed message from a campaign for local office from very early in Lincoln’s career – and that he lost.

****I don’t think the movie ever gives his first name.

*****I suppose it’s only appropriate that Guy Kibbee, who plays Hicks, would later play the beleagured Governor of a machine-controlled state in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

the limits of détente

I get the impression that Marshall McLuhan was not impressed with the first Ford-Carter debate (in Philadelphia) (via):

The rebellion of the medium against the message he refers to was the breakdown of the audio part of the broadcast near the end of the debate. When the candidates learned that they could not be heard on tv, they apparently just stood there and waited for the problem to be fixed. For 27 minutes.

Years later, Carter and Ford talked about the experience for a PBS documentary (video here, starting at 3:52):

JIM LEHRER: Everyone in America who was watching, you know, was very – couldn’t figure out – this was unreal. What was it like standing there?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I watched that tape afterwards and it was embarrassing to me that both President Ford and I stood there almost like robots. We didn’t move around, we didn’t walk over and shake hands with each other. We just stood there.

PRESIDENT FORD: I suspect both of us would have liked to sit down and relax while the technicians were fixing the system, but I think both of us were hesitant to make any gesture that might look like we weren’t physically or mentally able to handle a problem like this.

JIM LEHRER: The delay continued for 27 minutes before the technicians were able to trace the problem to a blown transformer and replace it.

PRESIDENT CARTER: So I don’t know who was more ill at ease, me or President Ford.

JIM LEHRER: It looked like a tie to me.

PRESIDENT CARTER: It was a tie. Neither one of us was at ease, there’s no doubt about that. Those events, I think, to some degree let the American public size up the candidates, and I don’t think either one of us made any points on that deal.

If they could not have stood up to the audio, could they have stood up to the Soviets?

safe investments

Those who have seen Boiler Room, which I just watched last night, can see the irony in this:

But systemic corruption—and that is the right word—has been unveiled at lenders across the board. Two of the most revealing stories on the culture that overtook the lending industry were published early—February 4 and March 28, 2005—by the Los Angeles Times. Reporters Mike Hudson and E. Scott Reckard found court records and former employees who described the boiler-room culture that pervaded Ameriquest—hard-sell, scripted sales pitches, complete with the “art department” in Tampa. Ex-employees confirmed, as did Lisa Taylor, the loan agent quoted at the top of this story, that copies of Boiler Room, the movie about ethically challenged stockbrokers, was indeed passed around as an Ameriquest training tape.

[Ex-employees] described 10- and 12-hour days punctuated by ‘power hours’—nonstop cold-calling sessions to lists of prospects burdened with credit card bills; the goal was to persuade these people to roll their debts into new mortgages on their homes.

Power hours. And if the power-hour culture pervaded the market leaders, what of smaller lenders and mortgage brokers? Here is Glen Pizzolorusso, a young sales manager at WMC Mortgage, an upstate New York brokerage, who earned—get this—$75,000 to $100,000 a month:

What is that movie? Boiler Room? That’s what it’s like. I mean, it’s the [coolest] thing ever. Cubicle, cubicle, cubicle for 150,000 square feet. The ceilings were probably 25 or 30 feet high. The elevator had a big graffiti painting. Big open space. And it was awesome. We lived mortgage. That’s all we did. This deal, that deal. How we gonna get it funded? What’s the problem with this one? That’s all everyone’s talking about . . .

We looked at loans. These people didn’t have a pot to piss in. They can barely make car payments and we’re giving them a 300, 400 thousand dollar house.

To business reporters of a certain age, boiler rooms are associated with the notorious stock swindlers of the late nineties—A. R. Baron, Stratton Oakmont—criminal enterprises all. But all the elements of the bucket shops of the past—the cold calling, the hard sell, the bamboozling of over-their-head civilians, not to mention the outright lying, forgery, and fraud in its purest form—were carried out on a massive scale and as a matter of corporate policy by name-brand lenders: IndyMac, Countrywide, Citi, Ameriquest.

I could spoil everything

Many people who know me know that I don’t like the way the idea of the SPOILER affects discussions of movies. They know this because I reveal the ending of every film I’ve ever seen in the least polite way possible. It’s a single speech whose delivery lasts as long as there are people remaining in the room. Actually, no, that’s not what I do.

When I end up talking about SPOILERS it usually happens in one of two ways:

  1. Someone is talking about a movie but doesn’t want to give away the end.
  2. I want to say something about a movie, but I first I ask to make sure I won’t “spoil” it.

I never “spoil” a film if someone doesn’t want me to, but I rarely ask someone not to “spoil” one for me. I’m not sure why I don’t mind. I suppose partly it’s related to my interest in history: I’m used to being interested in things while knowing how they turn out. And partly it’s because for me a really good movie is a movie I still like after seeing it more than once or twice.* Sometimes I miss out on enjoying the unexpected, but I rarely feel like the whole experience has been ruined. And when I do, it’s often because the surprise is the best thing about the film. And that’s the kind of movie I don’t usually watch more than once anyway.

Managing SPOILERS isn’t very difficult in in-person or voice conversation. As long as no one blurts things out, all you have to do is first agree to reveal or not to reveal the SPOILERS before continuing. Online – at least in an open-readership blog and comments format – it’s a different story. You can’t really tell if everyone has seen a particular film, or how much they’ve seen, or how much they’ve heard, or if they mind or don’t mind learning SPOILER information. So you’re left with the choice of leaving things out that you really want to talk about or putting up big SPOILER warnings and trying to hide the discussion while keeping it available for those who want to see it.

This can lead to what I think of as unfortunate outcomes, such as:

  • a posting about reviews of a movie I won’t name in which the author expressed disagreement with one reviewer’s assessment of a particular part of the movie (among other things), and then said they wouldn’t discuss that point because it was a SPOILER and SPOILERS must not be revealed. As it happens, I’d seen that movie and knew that that plot point was a total SPOILER. So I could see why the author left it out. But it was a huge part of the conversation I had with other people who saw the movie with me, and if I were writing about the film, I’d hate to prevent myself or the occasional reader from talking about it at all.
  • In a comment thread, someone recommended a movie whose name I will not reveal but which is a procedural based on a true story in which a famous actor plays a journalist investigating someone’s wrongful conviction. I’ve seen this movie and thought it was known as “that movie in which a famous actor plays [see above description]” – in other words, I thought its outcome was part of what it was known for. But another person strongly objected to the recommendation as being itself a spoiler. This is a film from over 50 years ago.

People who’ve “known” me online for a while are no doubt familiar with my attitude towards SPOILERS, as I’ve brought it up before. I’m repeating it here because I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately – this is where my time previously spent blogging has gone in the last few weeks – and I’m going to start posting about them. I won’t include SPOILERS just for the heck of it, and there might be posts where I purposely leave them out for effect.** But while I’ll provide warnings and use the “below the fold” feature – unfortunately not very effective for those on RSS – I’m not going to leave something out if it’s part of what I want to discuss.


*I once held the view that I need to see something three times before I know how much I like it. The first time it’s as new as it can be to me; the second time I’m under the influence of my expectations from the first time; the third time I have more perspective and am ready to start thinking about it “as it is.”

**But I’ll answer if anyone really wants to know.