Saturday, June 28, 2003

Reader Mail

A loyal reader weighs in on my recent Supreme Court posts:

Tim, you may say you're conservative but you sound like a closet liberal to me. How can you approve the Supreme Court's endorsement of affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger and the judicial activism of Lawrence v. Texas, and still call yourself a limited-government conservative? You have no principle.

Ah, but I do have a principle -- to wit, "That government is best which governs least." This statement is often attributed to Jefferson, and the sentiment is certainly his. But as far as anyone knows, Henry David Thoreau was the first to express it so memorably.

The Court's decision against sodomy laws got the government out of my bedroom, while its decision in favor of "holistic" admissions kept it out of college applications. Because I believe that our government has no business checking my ass or my high-school transcripts, I'm very glad the Court ruled as it did.

The forces of Big Government suffered a few major setbacks this week. Would this were so every week.

Popeye on DVD

There are two reasons for great directors to make children's films. One is that children are remarkably well-equipped to take a story for what it is rather than what it ought to be. (As long as a film keeps "mushy stuff," outright squalor and offensive material to a minimum, and provides at least something like a happy ending, kids will follow it wherever it takes them, which is more than I can say for many adults.) Another is that many children have never seen a great -- or even a particularly good -- work of art, and don't know what such art can do for them. When they encounter something which takes their meager expectations and reshapes them, children can be confused and delighted at once. They remember these first experiences in great detail, and use them to become more thoughtful, appreciative viewers.

For me, Robert Altman's Popeye was such an experience, and at long last it has arrived on a bare-bones DVD. I suspect it holds up better now than when it was first released. Years of mediocre comic-book adaptations may have made us more appreciative of one with at least some flashes of genius. But mostly I remember Popeye as the first film I liked that wasn't a cartoon, a nature documentary or a puppet show.

I spent most of my childhood in the 1970s, when animated flicks were absymal and live-action kiddie films were dreck. One live-action film I remember involved a Black man who took one bite from a magic candy bar and with a single jump-cut transformed into a giggling fat guy. He rode on amusement park rides with a boy and a girl -- I don't know why. The movie had some songs, too, so that the fat guy and the kids could skip through the amusement park, and this rather creepy threesome outwitted two dimwitted bank robbers -- or maybe they were kidnappers -- by luring them onto the rides and spinning them silly. There was also a boxing kangaroo, I think, or a field-goal kicking mule, which the bad guys had probably kidnapped at some point. Finally, a couple of Mom and Dad characters oversaw the action and had a chaste, perfunctory romance to remind us that even though mushy stuff is kind of gross, marriage and family are good things. (The Dad was probably played by Elliott Gould, Dean Jones or Dick van Dyke, while the Mom was some interchangeable homemaker type.) This is what I had come to expect from live-action movies, and to my eight-year-old mind, it sufficed. Besides, G-rated movies were scarce as hen's teeth, so a trip to the cinema was a rare treat. Frankly, I didn't much care if the film was any good or not.

All of that would change, gentle reader. The first image I saw from Robert Altman's Popeye was in my little Weekly Reader, a pamphlet-like news magazine for third- and fourth-graders. It showed the set of Sweethaven, a dilapidated seaside town where Popeye the Sailor Man makes his appearance. Sweethaven was like nothing I had ever seen on earth or on screen; houses rose at crazy, cockeyed angles above an impossibly blue sea, rather like some Down East village gone completely berzerk. At that time I had never been to Maine, and knew nothing about the jerry-built nature of nineteenth-century fishing towns. Nor had I seen Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, to whose squalid shantytown the village of Sweethaven bore a striking (and not altogether comforting) resemblance.

Still, with one look at that Weekly Reader photo, I knew I had to see this film. I couldn't have put the thought into words, but something about the set bespoke a level of care and craftsmanship that I'd simply never seen in the cinema. These people didn't just rent a cruddy amusement park or throw up a cheap studio backdrop -- they built a set that served as a crazy little world of its own.

What's more, Altman had cast actors who seemed to belong in this oddball, cartoonish world. Their faces were grotesque -- squinty, stretchy, bizarre, yet always delightful to look at -- and their bodies, fat or skinny, were always slightly distorted. I had never heard of Robin Williams at this time, but he looked like a perfect Popeye; Shelley Duvall was all spindly legs and elbows as Olive Oyl. (Olive Oyl isn't sexy by any means: She looks exactly the way a nine-year-old girl looks to a nine-year-old boy.) No one looked glamourous by classic-Hollywood standards, and yet everything felt right.

Linda Hunt played the mother of a fighter, and her sour, sinister face was like nothing I had ever seen. A cadaverous, officious-looking fellow named Donald Moffat played Sweethaven's tax collector, who rode around town on a sputtering tricycle and extorted money from citizens. (Perhaps Moffat helped develop my penchant for low taxes and limited government.) Best of all, to my mind at least, was a fellow who played the village idiot, chasing his hat all over town and kicking it as he ran. He seemed to be made of rubber, and his body squashed, stretched and contorted in ways I didn't know were possible. That was my first exposure to Bill Irwin -- who plays Olive Oyl's ex-boyfriend Ham Gravy. (I suppose we should be grateful she never married him, since "Olive Gravy" doesn't sound like an appetizing dish.)

Altman's Popeye left me with a strange combination of elation and disappointment -- a reaction which I felt for the first time during this film, though I've felt it enough since. The film's first hour was everything I could have hoped for, with quirky characters, oddball songs, memorable images and polished gag-writing. (The chaotic dinner scene at the Oyls' boarding house is a masterpiece of comic timing.) Alas, the plot kicks in during the second half: Bad old Bluto kidnaps baby Swee'Pea, the various characters have to mount a rescue, Popeye discovers spinach, and Bluto's goose is cooked. I had seen that sort of thing too many times before, and realized that the film had set up interesting characters and locations only to put them in service of a pedestrian narrative. It would have been better by far, I thought, if the film could have dispensed with story altogether, and let the characters be. In a few years, I would discover that Altman's best-known films did just that.

Still, I thought the film's good points outweighed the bad. Twenty-odd years after I saw it, I remember some vivid details: A boxing match where Popeye's pipe spins wildly in a cartoonish gesture of frustration; a point-of-view shot in which Bluto "sees red"; the unexpectedly poignant image of an empty picture frame with the words "Me Pappy" scrawled inside (echoed later by another empty picture frame with the words "Me Son"); the wild acrobatic stunts in the fight scenes; the crazy-quilt town of Sweethaven itself. Above all, though, I remember the forlorn opening shot -- the vast sea during a thunderstorm, and in the distance, a lone man in a tiny rowboat.

Not long after I saw this film, I began to ask questions about the people behind the camera -- like the director, for instance. When I became old enough to watch videos by myself, I sought out every Robert Altman movie that I could find, and didn't stop until I had seen his execrable teen comedy O.C. and Stiggs. I learned that the screenwriter for Popeye, Jules Feiffer, had made a name for himself as an urbane humorist, with dramas, cartoons and other film scripts to his credit. I also learned that the film wasn't based on the action-packed 1930s Max Fleischer cartoons (even though it began with a tribute to them). Instead, it drew on Elie Segar's surrealistic Thimble Theater comic strips from the 1920s. With such a gallery of iconoclasts influencing and inspiring Altman's Popeye, it's no wonder the final product confused American audiences. In Europe, however, the film was more widely embraced, and even turned a profit.

I can't quite fathom why Altman made Popeye. It's not one of his better works, and most critics view the film quite correctly as either a curio or a minor artistic lapse. To add insult to injury, its perceived box-office failure drove Altman into the wilderness of arthouse filmmaking throughout the 1980s. Still, I'm glad Altman tried his luck with the one-eyed sailor, because it left a lasting imprint on my fantasy life and my critical consciousness. For many years, my first thought whenever I saw Altman's name was not that he directed M*A*S*H, McCabe or Nashville, but that he was the man behind Popeye, the first "real" movie I saw which was any damn good.

Friday, June 27, 2003

We interrupt the culture blogging for a few political messages:

That Michigan Decision

The general consensus among conservatives and libertarians alike is that when the Supreme Court affirmed the University of Michigan's "holistic" system of affirmative-action admissions, it shredded the Fourteenth Amendment's commitment to "equal protection under the law." It didn't, and here's why:

1. The University of Michigan's admissions policy is not the same as a "race quota" system; it does not automatically grant preferential treatment to certain minority students. The system may be used to that end, but there's nothing in the system itself which mandates such a use. Indeed, we forget that the bureaucrats in university admissions make "holistic" decisions all the time, deciding (for example) that a high-school student with middling test scores but a solid extracurricular record would make a better addition to the university than a student with relatively high test scores but no evidence of school or community involvement. Likewise, admissions officials may decide that a low-income student from a lousy inner-city school who scored well on a standardized test, might show more academic promise than a student from an elite prep school who scored slightly higher on the same test. Deciding who should and should not be admitted to a university involves a value judgment, and cannot be rendered in purely objective terms.

If the people in admissions want to look at an applicant's social background -- well, that's always been part of their job. That's why college applications are so doggoned long, after all. A Supreme Court decision against U of Michigan's admissions system would have given federal courts the authority to micromanage college admissions everywhere, and I don't think anybody really wants that.

2. In order for us to claim that a "holistic" admissions system violates the Fourteenth Amendment, we would have to claim that a university's admission policy is the same as "law." But law always involves at least the threat of physical coercion, and a university doesn't have that kind of policing power. If a university rejects my application, I can choose to apply to another university, or for that matter to none. And if a university accepts me, I am allowed to accept or refuse their offer as I see fit. Either way, I have a choice. Although a rejection from the university I would most like to attend might be disappointing, even inconvenient for me, it won't necessarily "break my arm or pick my pocket," as Jefferson put it.

However, when coercive governmental power is involved, the category of "law" does apply. If I were unjustly and arbitrarily arrested by big, scary policemen with guns, and denied equal protection and due process under the law -- say, under a provision of the recent USA PATRIOT Act -- my liberty to choose my own course of action would be severely curtailed. Such an experience could break my arm (or worse) and pick my pocket, and I could do nothing to prevent it -- for the time, at least. This would be a violation of my Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Yes, many universities are funded with taxpayer money -- though in most cases public funding provides a fairly small portion of the overall budget. Still, under the Court's desegregation rulings they are public facilities, and their application process must therefore be open equally to everyone. This is why the all-male Citadel and Virginia Military Institute had to open the applications process to women, thus transforming these campuses from all-male environments to almost all-male environments. (It turns out, not surprisingly, that most women don't want to go to a military college.) This is also why numerically based race quotas have been ruled unconstitutional; they make the applications process more open to some people and less open to others. But none of these decisions invalidate the U of Michigan's "holistic" admissions system, since its application process maintains at least a convincing facade of equal access for everyone.

For those who may question what kind of conservative I am, let me make one point clear: I do not defend affirmative action. I think affirmative action is fundamentally wrong, not because it places some people at a disadvantage (any policy or non-policy will do that), but because it hurts the very people it is designed to help. When I was a writing teacher, I found that my minority students who seemed to benefit from an affirmative action admissions policy actually suffered the most from it. They occupied a sort of academic limbo, never quite sure if they were full members of the university community. Had they been accepted for their personal and intellectual merits, or was the university just looking for someone -- anyone, really -- with their physiology and skin tone? The football players I taught had the same problem, by the way, and for the same reasons.

Still, just because policies like affirmative action are wrong, racist, harmful, and/or morally reprehensible does not make them unconstitutional. In the Michigan case, our Supreme Court made the right decision, alas.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Lawrence v. Texas

At last, with Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court has recognized that sodomy laws aren't just a violation of privacy, but a real barrier to equal protection under the law. Bowers v. Hardwick, the Plessy v. Ferguson of the twentieth century, has been overturned: The Court, upholding the Framers' function of protecting individual rights against the tyranny of the majority, has stated that states have no business regulating what goes on in private behind closed doors. This will be remembered as one of the great Court decisions, on the order of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

I dare say it's a sign of progress that while Plessy remained law for over half a century, the Court took only a little less than 17 years to overturn Bowers. All praise to the team of lawyers -- on both sides -- who pursued this case to the highest court, and to the six brave judges who rejected the false security of oppression and cast their lots with liberty instead.

All thanks, too, to the Black civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. When we had lost our way, believing that America was dependent on systematic governmental oppression for its very existence, these people reminded us of the shared values of the Framers, and transformed our nation for the better. Mark today's court decision as yet another of the beneficial consequences.

Jefferson wrote that "as long as it neither breaks my arm nor picks my pocket," it doesn't matter what your neighbor believes, or for that matter what he or she does consensually, in private. You may or may not approve, gentle reader, but as long as it doesn't affect you physically or financially, it's none of your concern. That's the gold standard of classical liberalism, and we've come one step closer to achieving it.

Update (4:00 p.m.): Andrew Sullivan spends most of his time attacking Justice Scalia's rather scabrous dissent. To me, Scalia's borderline-theocratic stance just indicates how far out of the mainstream he really is. Even Clarence Thomas, who agrees with Scalia on nearly everything, broke away with a strict-constructionist question of his own. Six judges agree that sodomy laws are unconstitutional, two think sodomy laws are stupid but they don't think the Court should regulate on a matter left to the discretion of the states (a good, intellectually honest question), and one justice resorts to wild-eyed rhetoric about the "homosexual agenda."

So why would Sullivan focus on the lone wolf? Well, first of all, both Sullivan and Scalia are Catholic, and Scalia's desire to make deviant non-procreative sexual practices illegal because he considers them morally wrong, is very much in line with Mother Church's official position. But even more than that, I suspect Sullivan still possesses traces of the "victim complex" common to most Gays and Lesbians (and, ironically enough, the dominant cultural and political attitude among the liberal and radical Left). You can see this same complex at work in any Pride festival, where tens of thousands of Gays, Bis, Lesbians, "Trannies," friends, parents and supporters claim they feel "victimized" and "traumatized" by half a dozen anti-Gay protesters yelling at them from six blocks away.

Not everyone will agree with the Court's decision, but not everyone has to. Consensus is seldom achieved without coercion; a diversity of opinion merely indicates that individual liberty is alive and well. So there's no need to focus on Scalia, who has demonstrated how irrelevant he is. America has won this fight.

Outer Banks

I've been to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the past few days, so My Stupid Dog hasn't been active. Expect a flurry of travel- and beach-related posts over the next few days. Also in the works, I'll review From Justin to Kelly, a pleasantly inane throwback to those Frankie-and-Annette "beach party" movies.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Heritage Repertory Theater: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (review)

Charlottesville's summer theater season usually begins in late June and continues practically without a break through mid-August. First, UVA's Heritage Repertory Theater opens with a lavish musical, which runs for about a week and a half. Then, starting in early July, they mount three or four smaller productions (most of them non-musical) in repertory. Our local theater troupe LiveArts, which seems to specialize in avant-garde drama, offers a more budget-minded summer theater festival all through July, with nine or ten different offerings offered in quick rotation. Theatergoers frequently attend two plays in a single evening, and with individual ticket prices from $7 to $10, LiveArts' festival a great way to sample the cutting edge of contemporary theater without breaking the bank. Meanwhile, from mid-July to mid-August, the Ash Lawn-Highland Opera Festival stages vintage opera and Broadway musicals in a small outdoor amphitheater on the grounds of fifth president James Monroe's home. Ash Lawn productions always feature up-and-coming young singers and a chamber orchestra; more importantly, they offer the sort of intimate experience you can't get in a large opera house.

These production schedules converge from mid-July to early August, when Charlottesville becomes a theater buff's dream. For a three-week span, one can go to a different play every single night of the week and never leave town. It's almost aesthetic gluttony, and I love every minute of it.

This year, Heritage Rep has kicked off the season with a boffo production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. By any standard, this is a major spectacle, featuring twenty-eight cast members and an orchestra of thirteen. This show is based on the 1961 Broadway production, rather than the 1995 Matthew Broderick revival, so most of the political incorrectness has been retained. In deference to contemporary sensibilities, the most offensive song from the original production ("Cinderella, Darling") has been dropped, but several of the remaining musical numbers ("Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," "A Secretary Is Not a Toy," "Paris Original," "Love from a Heart of Gold") are guaranteed to make feminists bristle.

The play presents a baleful picture of corporate America that could have come straight out of the Daily Worker if it weren't so devilishly funny. Company leadership, all male (and all White), is motivated purely by illicit sex and personal greed; they twiddle their thumbs and diddle their mistresses as profits plunge. The underlings are all pathetic yes-men, refusing to voice any ideas of their own. Secretaries, all women, either struggle to keep their lecherous bosses at bay, or scheme to marry them on the sly -- because marriage is their only way to reach the middle class. Amid this chaos, a young man named J. Pierpont Finch duplicitously climbs up the ladder of success, destroying everyone who stands in his way.

The Frank Loesser score isn't one of his best -- the obvious pun is that it's "lesser Loesser" -- though it's seamlessly integrated into the show. The songs "The Company Way," "Been a Long Day" and "I Believe in You" may be standouts, but much of the music feels rather lackluster, especially when compared to Loesser's superlative score for Guys and Dolls. The book, on the other hand, is debatably the best ever written for a musical. Drawing on decades of experience writing for radio and television, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert crafted a masterpiece of stage comedy which holds up remarkably well after more than forty years, and will probably hold up just as well a hundred years from now. Even throwaway gags are side-splitting, and many of them lead to unexpected payoffs much later. What's more, the well-paced, intelligent plot offers genuine surprises, and isn't much concerned with the romantic coupling central to most musical comedy. In short, How to Succeed is an ideal musical for people who may not like musicals but love great comedy.

As played by Andrew Frace, the unscrupulous J. Pierpont Finch is sweet-natured at heart, and his climb to the top seems a matter of incredible luck, not active deceit. Gone is the puckish, wicked style of Robert Morse in the original production; Frace is more exuberant, an instantly likable fellow. Indeed, his incessant boyishness blunts and sugarcoats the satire, making the show much less biting than it might otherwise be. Even so, Frace seems ideally cast. His big second-act number, "I Believe in You" -- a love song Finch sings to himself -- nicely expresses the character's narcissism without compromising his likability, a tricky tightrope for any actor to walk. It's a brilliant turn.

Lindsay Northen fares equally well as Finch's secretary Rosemary. She takes a thankless part -- the love interest, always "happy to keep his dinner warm" -- and invests it with such charm that one almost forgets what a doormat the character is. (I know I'm jeopardizing my conservative credentials for saying this, but the sexual revolution and women's lib arrived not a moment too soon.) As Frump, Ryan Clardy makes a sharp comic villain, and Monica Lijewski steals scene after scene as romantically hapless, middle-aged secretary Smitty. Supporting characters are all spot-on, from Jim Hillgartner as the company president to Natalie Newman as squeaky bimbo Hedy Larue. There's not a weak link in the massive production.

Director Bob Chapel (who serves as Heritage Rep's "Producing Artistic Director") also plays two roles onstage, and I'm happy to report that his singing and acting are every bit as solid as his direction. Special mention must also go to Shaun Paul Evans's astonishing, Art Deco-inspired sets, R. Lee Kennedy's subtle, thoughtful lighting design, and Gweneth West's eye-catching costumes.

If Heritage Rep's opening show indicates the state of Charlottesville's summer theater, we have much to look forward to this year. I dare say this one's worth a special trip, gentle reader. Take an early vacation if you must (after all, we have more to offer than just terrific theater), but by all means see it. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying runs through June 28 at the University of Virginia's Culbreth Theater. For information, click here.

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