Friday, December 24, 2010

THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 2008: Yes We Can (Maybe)

I’ve written about the Iowa Caucus and the conventions for both major political parties, so I suppose I should say something about the general election.  However, if I honestly felt I had nothing more to say than what has already been printed in the newspapers and editorials I would hope that I wouldn’t say anything at all.  People speak too freely about politics as if only their side had any relevance.  We see our neighbors stick up their campaign signs or slap political bumper stickers on the back of their cars and we immediately form an opinion of them.  If that opinion is negative, we immediately put up campaign signs of our own as if that sort of statement makes us seem superior.  The other side is always wrong, more biased or engages in more negative campaigning.  This seems obvious, or so we think, because the other side’s media sources are loaded with misinformation.
Close to a quarter of a million people were in Grant Park where Barak Obama made his first public appearance after it was announced that he was elected to be President.  I suppose it was to be expected that there would be a lot of celebration going on.  This was a victory for the black youth in the crowd and for the civil rights’ workers that had sacrificed so much during the 1960s.  These individuals have a right to celebrate.  And then there are the rest.  Outside of telling them to go to hell, I’m not sure how to respond to Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow and Oprah Winfrey for feeling duty bound to tell the rest of us how to vote.  Likewise, to be fair, in Arizona where John McCain gave what was probably the most gracious concession speech I’ve ever heard, celebrity supporters like Patricia Heaton and John Voight can sulk and go home to their million dollar mansions after learning that their candidate lost.  Most of us cannot fully comprehend what we have at stake in such an election to get emotional about the outcome, and the best action we can take is to wait.
There is something to be said about Barak Obama, however.  I was struck by how alone he looked when he walked out on the stage to give his speech.  Unlike his running mate, Joe Biden, he doesn’t seem to enjoy himself when he’s speaking to the crowds.  Certainly, Obama is very good at giving speeches, but I doubt he believes in all of the hype.  I hope he doesn’t anyway or else the slogan for “change” and the chant, “Yes we can!” is going to get old very quickly.   Obama, like many other intelligent men, has probably had to look interested while having to endure the opinions of many individuals convinced of their own genius that have never uttered an original thought in their entire existences.   To be elected, Obama has had to depend on many individuals that he may not like and say things that he may not necessarily believe.  Yet to be a great leader (or so I imagine the politicians all tell themselves) he also must have the confidence to believe that his abilities make all the minor deceptions necessary if that is what it takes to be elected.  Every President from Washington to Lincoln to George W. Bush probably needed to do the same thing.  Such seeming aloofness that Obama happens to exhibit was also characteristic of great and unflappable Presidents like Jefferson and Lincoln.  On the other hand, these qualities were also at least partially responsible for the overreaching of the Wilson and Nixon administrations.  Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon were men with lonely thoughts left unchecked because neither had any real friends to share them with and put matters into perspective.
The election was not a landslide, but it also was not particularly close.  A five percent advantage is somewhat substantial when you consider that neither major candidate was an incumbent.  The Democrats did a better job of blaming the other side for the looming “financial crisis” that we’ve heard so much about since the month of September.  Really, both parties were to blame.  The Republicans have done nothing to keep down government spending and probably have spent too much time bailing out big business no matter what mantras it has repeated concerning the merits of the free market.  Yet while Democrats bemoan what they call “corporate welfare” on the part of the Republican Party, they fail to acknowledge that it’s the very growth of the government that especially occurred between the years of 1932 to 1968 that allowed the government the ability to prop up large corporations and to make determinations as to what industries should succeed and what businesses should fail.  This eventually resulted in more corporate mergers of mega companies occurring than in anytime in history since the 1990s.  We’ve heard recent justifications of the Wall Street bailout that emphasize the point that many banks and businesses are now “too big to fail.”  Yet how these businesses went from big companies to corporate conglomerates was that the corporations received favorable loans while the sole proprietorships and small partnerships disappeared.  These same small businesses were simply unable to compete and had no hopes of ever being bailed out by the government.  (I say this at the risk of sounding too much like Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and third-party candidate that probably would have done no more to absolve the abuses of government than anyone else running for President, and who has now further embarrassed himself by referring to the first African American elected as President as being an “Uncle Tom.”)
Much of the Republican Party establishment has probably failed to appreciate what has just occurred, or understand the role that they have played in the defeat of their chosen candidate.  John McCain was a decent choice that had little chance of winning, no matter who he may have chosen for his running mate.  Yet the choice of Sarah Palin was indicative as to how far the Republican base would go to sabotage his campaign.  Palin, whatever her qualifications to be Vice President truly could be (and the American’ media did everything in its power to tell us that those qualifications were not there), was McCain’s gift to the conservative pundits that would rather sacrifice an election than concede that many of their ideals were politically and socially impalpable.  No emotionally secure individual should ever feel threatened by the personal behavior of others that in no way physically threatens other individuals.  The behavior may irritate us, but there are better ways to deal with irritation than legislation or amendments to constitutions that promise retribution.  And I'm all for decency because there is so little of it in much of our culture, but decency can seldom be created by decree.  If the Republican Party continues to claim they are the supporters of limited government and strong national defense, let them stop looking around the country and the world to pick fights with individuals too conscience stricken to even once in their life have picked up a gun.  To continue claiming we live in a free society, we have to drop a social agenda that does not allow private individuals to do what they want or else the concept of freedom becomes a fiction.  And the Republicans are as guilty of using the tax code for social engineering as any Democrat.  If they truly believe in the use of tax cuts to relieve the burden of the middle class, make the tax cuts universal rather than engineering complicated tax breaks that only individuals with six and seven figure incomes can take advantage of.
Yet the Democratic Party also needs to stop short of showing glee by proclaiming the demise of the Republican Party.   For one, they need to keep in mind that similar pronouncements were made about the Democratic Party after the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004.  For two, a party that has a platform of advancing civil rights and civil liberties (and helping the poor) while at the same time advocating a stronger centralized government may not appreciate how schizophrenic holding such differing objectives can be.  That same strong and centralized government besides bringing us Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy also brought us Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush that used their executive powers contrary to what the liberal establishment may have wanted to achieve.  (Yes, I know that LBJ was a Democrat, but today’s Democrat is not particularly nostalgic about Johnson’s policies concerning the war in Viet Nam.)  Big Government is almost impossible to reign in no matter what well meaning justifications and legislative acts are created by the most tolerant and enlightened of individuals.  Somehow, governmental control eventually gets in the hands of the wrong people.
And then there is the Iraqi’ War.  The latest discussion has been that there may not be any major withdrawal of the troops until 2011.  The dirty and not so well kept secret about the Democratic Party is, despite all of their pious talk of “bringing the troops home,” that the party leadership (Clinton, Kerry and Edwards) has voted to fund the war from the very beginning and have never truly faced George Bush down on the issue.  I know, “Bush lied,” and this is the major justification they can give for caving into a President they claim to have never trusted.  The reason that Obama has escaped scrutiny is because he was not in the United States Senate when the major proposals were voted on in 2002, 2003 and 2004.  When he takes office, Obama will have a Democratic controlled Senate and Congress behind him, so we will see if he truly does move up the timetables for withdrawal.  However, I think that opponents of the war should prepare to be disappointed.
What is an interesting aside to every Presidential election is the lament concerning lack of voter turnout.  Actually, in the last three elections since 2000 voter turnout has increased.  This year’s election showed voter turnout rates nationwide at somewhere around 64 percent, the highest rates we have seen in forty years.  This is actually quite low compared to the rate in many European nations, but I for one am not one of those persons distressed by this fact.  We do have more college educated people today, so it’s not surprising that rates are somewhat growing.  Yet I’m not particularly interested in having my vote cancelled out by a bunch of undecided voters that finally cast their ballot based upon a bunch of drivel that they have recently heard on television.  Now perhaps I am being uncharitable in making such a statement because I sometimes do tend to judge people too harshly.  However, the voter that says they did not decide on whom to vote for until they actually entered the voter booth does not sound like a promising prospect to me.  What motivated them to make their choice?  One candidate’s name was listed further up on the ballot than the others?  One’s name was too difficult to pronounce so they lost a vote?  One candidate’s name sounded like a close relative?  I understand struggling with what candidate to vote for, but I certainly hope that the struggle is over something relevant and had been thought about over the course of many months.  We tend to blame the candidates and the media for not informing us about what is going on.  It’s not their fault.  That information is already out there if we really want to look for it.  The candidates and media by mouthing platitudes are merely providing us with the information being requested by the very most important individuals voting in every election: the undecided voters.  In short, the message is being dumbed down precisely for them.  We don’t need an educated electorate.  What we need is an experienced electorate whose knowledge is derived from a direct connection with the world and senses the direct consequences of what will occur if a certain official is elected.  I heard somewhere that young voters did not turn out to a much greater degree in this election than they did in 2004.  If that’s the case, it is only going to cost them because eventually politicians and everyone else are going to quit caring for what they think.
And in an election that was all about “change,” let’s deeply consider a few things before we try to throw the old items out.  Let’s pause and consider why items like the Electoral College, our method of voter registration, our crazy private institutions (i.e. businesses, churches and the press) that don’t always seem in tune with the wishes of our government, and the cantankerous electorate have functioned so effectively for so long - though no one has every really diagnosed why.  We live in an ungrateful nation if we don’t see that so many traditions have worked better here than almost anywhere else.  (My only wish now is that I will not be beleaguered in 2016 with arguments over the Presidential election of 2008 as we have been beleaguered for the past eight years concerning the election of 2000 and how the outcome could have been different.)
To state the obvious, Barak Obama is our first elected African American President.  That is one thing that should have been made allowable more than 200 years ago, and it shouldn’t have just come allowable at this point in time.  I wish the President–Elect well.  Other than a few Republican hopefuls that are now looking towards the Congressional elections of 2010, it benefits none of us if Obama ends up being a failure as a leader.  However, as with any President that is always a possibility, and we should do our best not to let this destroy our lives if the new President does not live up to our expectations.  When our happiness becomes dependent upon the leadership of one man - that is more indicative of problems than if we mistakenly voted in a buffoon.  We can live with buffoons in the government so long as we don’t become dependent upon that same government.
November 16, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

SUPER BOWL XLII: What Could Have Been “The Perfect Season”

The New England Patriots as a football team are about as loveable as the New York Yankees are as a baseball team.  Almost everyone in America outside of the New England area hoped to see them beat at least once during the regular season (most people preferring the Indianapolis Colts to the Patriots as a team that they would have liked to see go undefeated).  The Patriots scored an NFL record 584 points during the regular season.  They went into the Super Bowl with a record of eighteen and zero.  They’re coached by Bill Belichick, fined early in the season $500,000 for allegedly videotaping defensive signals of the New York Jets during the September 9th Jets-Patriots game.  (Pennsylvania Senator Arlan Specter was so offended that he now feels a Senate investigation is in order.)  Belichick’s response to the allegations was to then run the score up on a number of opponents throughout the first half of the 2007 season.
 
 In addition, during the off-season, the Patriots acquired receiver, Randy Moss.  Moss has made a number of public relations gaffs throughout his career, but none as significant in the fans’ minds as when, while as a Minnesota Viking, he did a mock “mooning” to Packer fans in Lambeau field.  That so many in the football establishment were outraged at Moss’ behavior (in particular, Joe Buck in the announcer’s booth) says they are more worried about image than actual behavior, and that they haven’t been paying enough attention to some other off-field events of football players (including the time that Moss almost ran down a city worker with his car in downtown Minneapolis).  Fortunately for Moss, he will be forgiven almost anything for catching 23 touchdowns and gaining more than fourteen-hundred yards during the season.
 
Much of the pre-game hype involved Patriot’s Quarterback, Tom Brady.  Brady was the AFC’s Most Valuable Player.  More importantly to those who support the paparazzi, Brady formerly dated Bridget Moynahan, who gave birth to a child back in August (and who may or may not be Brady’s son), and Brady is now currently dating “Supermodel” Gisele Bundchen.  After winning the AFC Championship game, Brady was seen leaving Bundchen’s apartment during the morning hours and wearing a walking cast for his injured right ankle.  It’s remarkable what the tabloids made out of all of this.
 
Now Tom Brady only made sixteen million dollars in salary during the 2007, though this does not count residuals from personal promotions.  It must seem heartbreaking to his agent that he didn’t make more considering that Richard Seymour, a defensive tackle for the Patriots, made $24,691,160.  (In fact, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, and Bryant McKinnie and Steve Hutchinson of the Minnesota Vikings all have higher salaries than Brady.)  But let’s stick with Tom Brady for a moment.   Brady’s salary compared to other professional athletes is really not out of line.   A baseball player that bats .330, hits more than forty homeruns or wins close to twenty games during a season has a chance to make a couple hundred million dollars during his career.  So what’s a quarterback who threw a record fifty touchdowns during the season and who won eighteen straight games going to be worth? 
 
Three days before the Super Bowl was played, I heard a radio state his reasons for hoping that the Patriots win the game.  His logic was irrefutable.  To paraphrase what was said: a Patriot victory would be good for the economy.  Now there’s no question that the Super Bowl is a huge economic event to begin with.  It is broadcasted to more than 200 nations and seen by more than a billion viewers; Las Vegas had more than one hundred million dollars change hands in their city (and this is only a small portion of the monies that will be wagered on this game); advertisers paid more than three million dollars for thirty seconds of airtime, and it’s estimated that the value of stocks for those who do advertise rises on average 1.3 percent.  But only a Patriots victory would satisfy the greediest, as millions of dollars of memorabilia was to be sold commemorating the first ever nineteen and zero season.  To the powers that be, a Giants’ victory meant  a great upset, but not an upset that would bring in the profits they desired.*  The Giants only won ten games during the regular season and did not even win their own division.  They won football games mostly through defense, which doesn’t excite the most dilettante of fans.  No player would emerge as a celebrity on the behalf of the Giants.  In particular, their Quarterback Eli Manning (not to be mistaken for his older brother, Peyton) was not “Broadway Joe” Namath and did not make good headlines (like Tom Brady).   Thus, a Giants victory would not generate any real or lasting interest.
 
Alas, the economy will have to suffer because the perfect season was not to be.  The Giants as it turned out had a defense.  This should have been no surprise to those having viewed the NFC playoff games, but on a playing field where weather was not a factor, most of the commentators seemed to feel that the Patriots would have an easy time.  Tom Brady, as pretty as he was, could not keep James Butler and Michael Strahan away from him, and Randy Moss could seldom distance himself from Corey Webster.  And then there was the pass from Eli Manning to David Tyree.  The game was not a fluke.  The Giants outplayed the Patriots, and without question this was one of the best Super Bowls ever played.**
 
Like many other areas of entertainment, professional sports bring in a disproportionate amount of revenues.  Unlike most other high-paid professions, the performance of the athletes who are paid the salaries can be statistically measured to a remarkable degree.  If the same standards of measurements were applied to politicians or CEOs as is applied to the starting lineup of any number of championship teams, we’d eliminate the national debt.  Steroid use, drug use and other off-the-field antics of many professional athletes has brought professional sports into disrepute.  It must be said, however, that their actions are generally transparent because of exposure all over the tabloids, and the consequences of their behavior has often been mild compared to the behind the door decisions of those in power.  With this in mind, a nineteen and zero record certainly would have been an accomplishment of note.  For now we will still have to put up with the 1972 Dolphins team that remain the only unbeaten Super Bowl winner and who are alleged to celebrate anytime a team with a perfect record is beaten – thus making their own perfect record seem all the more impressive.  Maybe next year.
 
*Vegas apparently lost $2.7 million in revenue because of the Giant’s straight-up win, which does not seem like a particularly significant amount.  The figure becomes even less significant when one figures most people probably lost the money they won before even leaving Nevada on liquor, prostitution and other wagers.
 
** Any commentary about the overall spectacle of the Super Bowl requires some dull trivia about viewer enjoyment unrelated to the actual playing of the game.  It’s estimated that more than half of the viewers that tuned into to the Super Bowl did so for reasons other than those related to watching the players play football.  There is for these other viewers the commercials, the halftime show and the National Anthem.  Many of the commercials concerned advertisement of beer, and the most popular ads contained adorable depictions of animals.  The halftime show, which was scheduled to last close to thirty minutes, featured Tom Petty, the fifty-seven year old rock star whose most popular songs were written between the late 1970s and early 1980s.  All four songs that he sang could be heard about any fifteen minutes on a “Classic” Rock station anywhere in America.  There’s nothing like featuring a “contemporary” artist that sounds like a cross between John Mellencamp and a Bob Dylan wannabe.  And the national anthem was sung by a winner of the American Idol contest whose name I can’t remember (with that patriotic touch of having the passing of a formation of F16s over head while the anthem is being concluded).  I’m glad I enjoyed the game.
 
February 9, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

THE 2008 OLYMPICS: XXIX Olympiad in Beijing

Opening Ceremonies in the “Bird’s Nest”
 
As NBC commentator, Bob Costas, reminds us in his conciliatory (and therefore irritating) voice, this is China’s coming-out party.  And indeed, even in China, one would have to be the most na├»ve of ideologues to believe that forty billion dollars spent on the opening ceremony by the Chinese could not buy something spectacular.  Why do the Chinese want to make such a great impression?  In what promised to be the most controversial Olympiad held since 1972, the Chinese have been harshly criticized in other parts of the world for human rights violations, their continued occupation of Tibet, the censorship of internet communications coming out of their nation, ill-treatment of dissidents, the jailing of foreign journalists, the air quality throughout their country, and the relative isolation of the people and culture of China since 1949.  The torch relay leading up the Olympics proved to be particularly embarrassing since pro-Tibetan forces protested the carrying of the torch throughout every major city in the world.  President Hu Jintao, in essence “thumbing his nose” at the critics, seemed to be saying with such a lavish ceremony that China could be as economically advanced and modern as any free market nation while being repressive at the same time.  Yet even he wanted to be careful about one particular period in history.  The chronicling of Chinese history during the opening ceremonies skipped from the Ming Dynasty that ended in 1644 (leaving out the Qing Dynast that ended in 1911) all the way to1978 following the death of Mao Tse Tung and the demise of the infamous “Gang of Four” led by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing.  Even some thirty years later, the Chinese know that Mao would have disapproved of the ceremony.  More importantly, though his portrait continuously is displayed almost everywhere in the country, the Chinese leadership knows that Mao’s reputation in the west precedes him.  It’s a tad bit difficult to justify one’s own human rights record while at the same time revering a man who may have been responsible for more deaths than Stalin and Hitler combined.  So be it.
 
Now critics of Chinese human rights violations like President Nicolas Sarcozy of France and President Bush of the United States could easily have boycotted the opening ceremony.  For President Bush, such a boycott would have been fairly senseless since no President has ever before attended an opening ceremony in any place but the United States.  Such gestures would have been futile in any case since really the idea for having the Olympics in China is in hopes that the country will open up and maybe change some of its practices (such as exporting grain to other nations while letting its own people starve).  Probably, human rights violations will continue whether trade is opened up with China or not.  Boycotts often also have the reverse effect in that it provides unwarranted amount of attention on the Olympic games for other things than for which the modern games were ever intended.
 
The opening ceremonies were to symbolize the “three” great traditions in Chinese thought including I-Ching, Buddhism, and Taoism.  Confucianism was understandably not referenced since the Red Army has long considered the philosophy to be reactionary.  In any case, we had beatings of the drum and dancing in tangent to show-off the cooperative aspects of Chinese culture.  All this notwithstanding, it’s difficult to call the ceremonies an education about Chinese society since so much of what took place in front of our eyes was an illusion.  The fireworks display we now know was enhanced for television by computerization.  There was lip-syncing by a young Chinese girl to a song because the actual singer was considered too homely to appear on international television.  The children dancing with the soldiers came the closest to being a representation of propaganda.  The soldiers we are reminded are the protectors of the state and the Chinese children.
 
A Short History of the Modern Games
 
Baron Pierre de Coubertin is generally credited with reviving the Olympic games in Athens in 1896.  Coubertin held that the games should accord with five principles: (1) with few exceptions (notably, the period of World War II), the Olympic games have been held every four years since that time (recently, the practice of holding winter and summer games during the same year has been discontinued); (2) all sporting events would be modern and would not emulate the ancient Greek games (no mortal combat, etc.); (3) competition would be limited to adults; (4) only amateurs could compete (there should be no “dream” or “redeem” teams); and (5) the games would move from city to city every four years.
 
Some critics decry that the events are no longer limited to just amateurs.  It doesn’t seem fair that a basketball player such as Kobie Bryant, making in excess of $20 million annually, should be allowed to compete in his given sport.  Actually, though, I believe this leads to less hypocrisy.  When amateur status was “strictly” enforced, you had nations “sponsoring” athletes to compete.  The occupation of the players of the famed Soviet hockey teams was to do nothing but train for world competition.  Also, allowing professional athletes to compete opened the games up to all athletes and not just those whose families happened to be rich enough to allow their pampered children to train without engaging in any meaningful employment.
 
The fifth principle has been the one to create the most havoc.  As we are simple-mindedly reminded of again and again, politics and the Olympics often become entangled.  We had Berlin in 1936 where Hitler wanted to put on for display the superiority of the Nordic athletes (too bad Jesse Owens had to step up and win four gold medals).  We had Tommy Smith and John Carlos give the black power salute on the Olympic Medals stand in 1968 in Mexico City.  We had President Carter call for the boycott of the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  We had the Soviet Union retaliate against Carter’s decree four years later by boycotting the Olympics held in Los Angeles.  Most tragically, we had the killing of the Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972.  Possibly, if we held the Olympics every four years in the same location (say Athens), less likely would be the chances that political intrigue would interfere.
 
Pierre de Coubertin imagined a competition where nationalism would play no role and individual accomplishment would be honored for its own sake.  But if this was the imagined goal of the Olympic games, team competition would have to be eliminated and the only flags waved would be that with the Olympic insignia.  Nations love parading around how many gold medals their athletes have won and will even shop around and bid millions and even billions of dollars to recruit potential medal winners to their countries.  And there’s enough flag waving to appease even the most fanatical of nationalist for any nation.  When the United States won the gold medal in hockey during the 1980 winter games, it wasn’t the medal game but the defeat of the Soviet Union utmost in the memory of most American hockey fans.  After the Soviet Union went down, the winning of the gold medal became mostly a footnote.
 
I don’t want to degrade the accomplishments of the athletes, however.  Just getting to the Olympics is a great accomplishment in itself.  The three gold medals won by Johnny Weissmuller, the four won by Owens, and the seven won by Mark Spitz are a testament to the training and discipline of these athletes.  In 1972, Lasse Viren fell down in the 10,000 meter run, but he was able to get up and win the event.  That same year, Kip Keino won the 3,000-meter steeplechase without ever before competing in the event.  Abebe Bekilla of Ethiopia won back-to-back marathons, the first while running barefoot through the streets of Rome.  Women like Mildred “Babe” Didrickson, Florence Griffith-Joyner and Nadia Comenichi came into their own by competing in front of the world.
 
Yet I lost much of my fascination for the Olympics in general when Ben Johnson, after running the 100 meters in 9.72 seconds, was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids.  I honestly don’t know anymore if any Olympic record set since that time has legitimacy.  Naim Suleymanoglu of Turkey lifted twenty-five pounds more than three times his weight over his head in 1988.  Did drugs play a factor?  Jackie Joyner-Kersey won medals in 1988 and 1992.  Was this accomplished without the use of any banned substance?  Or what about Carl Lewis, the man awarded the gold medal after Ben Johnson was disqualified in the event?  Occasionally, a commentator will suggest that such substances do more harm than good for the athlete.  However, I remember 1972 Marathon winner, Frank Shorter, once stating that athletes are almost always ahead of the game when it comes to use of such substances.  Shorter stated that when 1/10th of a second can mean the difference between winning a gold medal and not being on the medal stand, athletes are acutely aware of what will give them that extra fraction of an advantage to defeat their adversaries and are willing to gamble on masking agents shielding them from testing positive on any drug test.  We no longer know if athletes are winning due to dedication or due to technology.
 
Let the Games Begin
 
Within one day of the opening ceremony, an American tourist was murdered on the streets of Beijing and the Russian military inflicted almost 2,000 casualties upon the former Soviet satellite and now sovereign nation of Georgia.  Vladimir Putin left Beijing to return to Russia immediately after the opening ceremonies.  With this as a backdrop, the first Olympic competition I was to witness on television was the historically significant sport of Beach Volleyball.  I should be careful not to complain about this too much, however.  If not for the showing of Beach Volleyball, the NBC coverage of the Olympics would mostly have been confined to gymnastics and swimming.  And so long as no American athlete is prominent among a particular sport, there is little chance it will ever be shown on television.
 
Without question, the highlight for most American viewers was the spectacle of Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals.  Granted, with so many different type of swimming events and with Phelps participation in various relays, an athlete could probably not have accomplished this in any other sport.  Still, what Phelps did was remarkable.  Phelps can now look forward to endorsing whatever product he chooses for much of the remainder of his life.  (Now there have already been complaints about his signing a contract with Kellogg’s to endorse Frosted Flakes because it does not seem conducive with what an Olympic athlete would actually consume and, so the health gurus say, he seems to be setting a bad example for our children.  At the same time, consuming 12,000 calories a day as a part of his training regimen is probably not something we would want most of our children emulating.)
 
But then what about Jamaica’s Usain “Lightning” Bolt?  He set world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash, and in the 4 x 100-meter relay race.  His performance may be in every respect as impressive as the one put in by Michael Phelps.  Should I say that he won the gold medals in a manner reminiscent of the disgraced Ben Johnson?  He ran the 100-meter dash in 9.69 seconds and spent the last ten meters or so beating his chest and looking over his shoulder.  He was criticized by the IOC President for showboating – the President trying to maintain the fiction that all great athletes should be gentlemen.  But we know with great athletes like Ty Cobb, Muhammad Ali or modern athletes like Barry Bonds that great performance is often much more complex than simple dedication combined with good manners.  We’d like all athletes to have that wonderful smile like a Shawn Johnson, the female gold medallist on the balance beam.  But surliness, an amount of gloating and a unique and grating personality may be required to motivate other athletes to one-upmanship.  Every champion wins their battles in their own way.
 
The Chinese won the most gold medals while the United States boasted of winning the most medals.  This was already pretty much predicted.  The controversies surrounding the actual competitions were relatively minor.  The United States dropped a couple of batons, a wrestler felt slighted during a match and tossed down his bronze medal after the flag raising, and an American gymnast whose score equaled that of her Chinese competitor lost her chance for a gold medal in the uneven parallel bars because of a tie-breaking technicality.  The one enduring controversy that will probably outlast the games was the insinuation that some of the female Chinese gymnasts were underage and thus would have been disallowed from competing in the Olympic games.  It’s a bit silly to complain about this too much because the Chinese girls otherwise defeated the American women head-to-head in competition.  The policy behind the rule was intended to protect young girls from the consequences of training at such an early age.  It wasn’t intended to prevent one nation from getting the edge in competition over another.  It’s also a policy that is almost impossible to enforce because I doubt the Chinese will be cooperative or bow in anyway to the wishes of the International Olympic Confederation (IOC).
 
 
The Closing Ceremonies
 
The Olympic ceremonies ended with the passing of the Olympic flag from the Mayor of Beijing to the Mayor of London.  Then we had Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame play a Whole Lot of Love followed by more fireworks (again, probably enhanced for television).  I suppose the Chinese did deliver a quality game in that the Chinese citizens were cordial hosts.  It must be said that the citizens had little choice since any dissent on the streets was immediately quashed by possibly the most expensive security methods ever employed in any Olympic game.
 
But in the end, it was not the Chinese that made these games worth viewing but instead the athletes themselves.  These were the world best athletes, and hopefully every medal winner won their medals while abiding by the rules of the Olympic games.  These athletes worked at their crafts in a way the rest of us can barely fathom, even the Beach Volleyball players Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh who won back-to-back gold medals.  Though sports like boxing, gymnastics and diving are subject to what sometimes seems like arbitrary judging standards, for the most part the results were something that we can truly quantify.  We can’t say that the man elected President is necessarily the most qualified politician, or that the richest businessman is the one with the best business sense.  We can at least with reason suggest that Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest runner and that Phelps is the fastest swimmer.

 
August 29, 2008 
© Robert S. Miller 2008

Friday, December 17, 2010

MY FAVORITE MOVIES: Introduction

On this site, I've published lists of my favorite movies for each decade.  Some of the movies I’ll mention will have been commercial successes and some will be unknown.  It’s impossible not to be occasionally swayed by popular sentiment.  I do not claim that these movies I list will be the best that have ever been made.  With more than 20,000 movies released in America alone since Birth of a Nation was released in 1915 (a personal favorite of Woodrow Wilson), I’m unable to cast judgment on all of those films.  A few reviewers have tried.  Maybe I’d try too if I made their six figure income to do so.  But even then with a large amount of time at my disposal I wouldn’t be able to remember (nor would I want to) all of the movies that are available.
 
With all of the varied critiques, the awards and reports of box office receipts, it is difficult to not be influenced by outside opinion concerning what is good and what is bad.  It’s far too easy to pass off someone else’s judgment as one’s own.  Whether it’s intentional or not, I often hear the same words and phrases used to praise or criticize a particular movie.  On the other hand, it’s incredibly easy to become snobbish about what one is reviewing and forget that every movie at least has potential.  Just because a movie is made in Hollywood, just because it’s lowbrow or appeals to the masses does not mean it lacks merit.  Pauline Kael used to criticize many movies that did not fit her New Yorker readership.  This was the same Pauline Kael so out of touch with the American mainstream that she woke up shocked one morning in November of 1972 to find out that Nixon had defeated McGovern in the Presidential election.  An intelligent observer would have seen that coming.
 
I’d like your comments.  If you would like to know more about any movie that I mention, I will review or at least summarize what I think about it.  I’m also open to recommendations.  As I mentioned, there are still a number of quality movies I haven’t seen.
 
October 27, 2006 
©  Robert S. Miller 2006

MY FAVORITE MOVIES: The Silent Era

I wish I had a better feel for silent films.  I haven’t been exposed to enough silent movies and the fault is my own.  I’ve been complacent as a viewer in a medium where I can still hear human voices, and I’ve wasted many hours trying to convince myself that the dialogue I was hearing in a movie was authentic.  Probably I have not seen the greatest silent films that have been made.  I’ve watched many of the highly recommended silent movies and occasionally have been impressed.  I can’t say I’ve been overwhelmed.  I feel it is in the silent era of film more than any other era in movie history that the critics have misled us the most.  Most of them cannot separate the historical significance of a movie from its emotional punch.
 
There are significant differences between a silent film and one where we hear the character’s voices.  These are two completely different modes of expression.  We can follow along with a movie where we can hear the voices in the same way we follow a novel or short story.  Watching a silent movie is like watching an opera.  More of the drama is left up to the imagination.  I’ve known a few lovers of silent pictures that feel too much talk has destroyed any significance a movie may have had.  This point is valid.  We usually can talk ourselves right out of anything genuine.  A silent picture makes the viewer work to puncture the mystique of what is happening on the screen.  The silent movies I remember most were the horror movies I’d see late at night or on a Saturday afternoon as a child.  Some of these pictures would have been ruined by speech.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) with John Barrymore, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) both starring Lon Chaney, Sr., and a few other silent horror films with the memorable monsters were superior to the remakes.  On the other hand, movies like Ben Hur (1926) - though less than two and a half hours seems to drag, The Ten Commandments (1924) - which brings us Moses and then jumps to two modern day brothers (one destined for heaven and the other for hell), and The Wizard of Oz (1926) are not nearly as memorable as the talky remakes that were made much later. 
 
Many reviewers excuse the weaknesses of silent films because they focus on the timeframes in which the movies were made, but a poor movie should not be forgiven because it was made without modern film techniques.   Capable moviemakers have always taken what they have been given.  There never has been a golden age of movie or movie craftsmanship.  That’s romanticizing of the past.  A genuine movie is good whenever it was made.  (And we forget that some moviemakers have learned from our past mistakes.)  Critics usually throw kudos to any movie made by Chaplin or Buster Keaton, and these two individuals did make some of the best silent pictures I have ever seen.  Chaplin and Keaton were tremendously talented individuals, but movies like The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), The General (1927), or Our Hospitality (1923) can never quite live up to all of the praise.  These movies are charming and filled with comical and farcical shots that are followed by gentle admonitions to the audience.  These movies are more than lighthearted entertainment, but I’d rather see movies like Scarface starring Paul Muni or Public Enemy made in the early 1930s.
 
I have also seen Birth of a Nation (1915), which has many times been listed as the greatest silent film ever made.  It certainly is one of the most important movies ever made.  The story is incredible (meaning completely over the top), and many directors have imitated its film technique and use of plot line.  Unfortunately, it’s a piece of racist propaganda.  What else can one say?  When the Klan saves the day in the end we are reminded of so many later westerns where the cavalry came to the rescue.  Except that this is the Klan and it came to stifle the rebellion of former slaves.  Birth of the Nation’s greatest significance lies in its rewriting of history and its complete acceptance by the moviemaking establishment of its unsavory storyline.  We’ve never forgiven Leni Riefenstahl’s filming of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, so why do we forgive D.W. Griffith? 
 
I’m usually quite good at ranking in order the movies that I like best, but I can’t do it in the case of these silent films.  I have to rely too much on other critics concerning my knowledge of these movies and feel my independence of judgment would be lacking.  I’ll name just a few other movies that I did enjoy.  I remember liking The Battleship Potemkin (1925), though it’s been many years since I’ve seen it.  Greed (1924) and Beau Gest (1926) I also remember liking.  I’d like to see Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), two German films that have been highly recommended by friends that know good movies. 
 
As I mentioned before, I’m sure there are dozens of great silent movies that I’m still unaware of having ever existed.  Maybe I’ll live long enough to see a few of them.

October 27, 2006 
©  Robert S. Miller 2006

MY FAVORITE MOVIES: 1930 - 1939

Probably much could be said of the fact that talking movies first became popular with the American masses during the Great Depression.  But though it was a time when some of the greatest of American writers were having their say in literature, very few movies were recorded during the decade that contained any substantial message.  The talking movie was early in its infancy and most of the movies from the era were designed as escapism.  The Marx Brothers came into their own, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. appeared in a number of horror flicks, and the gangster was for the first time romanticized.  Maybe that’s what the nation needed at the time - but I doubt it.
 
Still, probably the most important movie that was ever made appeared in 1939.  Written by a writer named Margaret Mitchell who seemed to feel that the freeing of the slaves was a tragic event, the book Gone With the Wind was a thousand page mess that has forever distorted the perception of the Old South.   Fortunately, the making of the movie fell into the hands of an insane producer named David O. Selznick and equally daffy director named Victor Fleming.  They hacked off much (though certainly not all) of the unpalatable material contained in the novel, filmed the movie in Technicolor by painting each negative of this long movie separately, and built a set design as large as a city with the sole intention of burning it to the ground.  Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara amounted to perhaps the two most memorable characters ever cast.  The movie has been badly imitated in many so-called epics since that time and has forever damned the male viewer to escorting his dates to the large number of Hollywood romance movies that followed.  Yet there is no question that the acting and the memorable and even realistic war scenes showing the aftermath of the destruction of the south make the filming of this movie a positive experience.  Though not my favorite movie, there probably are no other movies from the decade that have made as great of an impression on me.
 
Here, in order, are a list of my ten favorites and some honorable mentions:
 
(1) Scarface (1932): One of only a handful of movies from this decade still shown that is neither quaint nor outdated.  This fictionalized portrait of Al Capone (made while Capone was still alive) starring Paul Muni and directed by Howard Hawks is stark and frightening.  I think of it as one of the five greatest movies ever made.
 
(2) Public Enemy (1931): This, and not Yankee Doodle Dandy, is the one that James Cagney should be remembered for.  More dated than Scarface, it still is one of the few gangster movies from this era that does not glamorize the villain.  Cagney smashing the grapefruit into the face of his mistress clears up any misconceptions a viewer may have concerning the gangster’s character.
 
(3) Of Mice and Men (1939): Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith (respectively as Lenny and George) give us the best rendition of any Steinbeck novel (even better than The Grapes of Wrath) until East of Eden came along two decades later.  Any overacting in the movie (which does occur) was performed by others than the two main leads.  The movie remains watchable, but probably won’t appeal to those turned off by black and white film (meaning viewers that should go back to watching their television sets).
 
(4) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935): Clark Gable is great, but Charles Laughton is the real star as the highly disciplined and tyrannical Captain Bligh.  It probably deserved the award for Best Picture.
 
(5) Gone With the Wind (1939): A movie so broad that it tries to address everything, this is the model for every epic movie since that time.  And Vivian Leigh shows why she should be considered one of the greatest actresses of all time.  Its glamorization of the south prior to the civil war is of course ridiculous.
 
(6) King Kong (1933): The beast removed from its tropical island comes to New York and carries his girl (Fay Wray) with him to the top of the Empire State Building.  I suppose the gorilla could symbolize the plight of the workingman during the Depression when he falls to his death after being shot down by the establishment.  Who knows?  I think it was meant in good fun.  The special effects are great to watch and obviously don’t compare to the ones made today – for anyone who thinks special effects are what make the movie.
 
(7) Angels With Dirty Faces (1938): James Cagney and Pat O’Brien are two old friends whose lives go in different directions.  Cagney becomes a gangster and O’Brien becomes a Priest.  In that day and age it was not hard to distinguish between the two in a movie (and maybe even in real life).  The youth idolize Cagney, even when he’s on death row, and O’Brien wants this admiration to stop.  O’Brien asks Cagney to breakdown at the time of his execution and humiliate himself.  This, of course, is a very low thing for O’Brien to ask, but Cagney purposely obliges – showing that Cagney actually did have more nobility than the Priest.  This movie would be worth very little if not for Cagney’s performance.
 
(8) Stagecoach (1939): Certainly not the best western ever filmed, but the first one of any quality.  It was John Wayne’s first major role and one of the few where he showed any real acting talent.  The movie directed by John Ford contains a stagecoach, a strange assortment of stagecoach passengers, Indian attacks and various shootouts – in short, one of the most imitated movies of all time.
 
(9) Little Caesar (1930): The first major movie to romanticize the gangster starring Edward G. Robinson.  At first a small time crook, he later becomes one of the biggest underworld mobsters.  Extremely dated, but it gives a viewer an idea where the stereotypical mobster came from.
 
(10) Treasure Island (1934): Starring Wallace Berry as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins, its one of the few movies for children that still holds up from that era.  Adults may want to view it once every ten years or so to escape the fact that they are now working in an office cube.
 
Some honorable mentions include Sons of the Desert (1933), probably the best of the Laurel and Hardy series; All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which contains a powerful ending (though not even close to as powerful as the novel); and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), the first famous prison flick (though it pales in comparison to those to come).
 
Significant omissions from this list include It Happened One Night (1934), which, though I’m a great admirer of the actor, shows Gable pretty much playing a parody of himself.  That Leonard Maltin calls it enchanting (a really wretched adjective) may be one of the reasons that I shun it.  Other movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Gunga Din (1939) don’t age well because Errol Flynn and Cary Grant are more caricature than real in their roles.

 
I’d still like to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) starring Charles Laughton and the various movies in The Thin Man series.  I’d also like to see the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, a movie I have only seen in parts.
 
As an aside, Hollywood was mostly clearing its throat during the 1930s with the exception of a few movies mentioned above (and possibly some movies that I have never seen).  I mention this in the event that the reader does not feel I sufficiently appreciate these older films.  Outside of Scarface and Public Enemy, the more penetrating and greater movies were to come in the following decade.

November 13, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller 2006

MY FAVORITE MOVIES: 1940 – 1949

During the 1940s, powerful movies were finally being consistently released.  Perhaps with the lingering depression, the Second World War and the beginnings of the Cold War, moviegoers were asking questions and expecting more from moviemakers.  And some producers and directors actually came up with some original answers.
 
Here, in order, are my favorite movies of that decade:
 
(1) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): Based on the popular James Cain novel, the movie is much better than the book.  The forgotten John Garfield and unforgettable Lana Turner playing disturbed individuals give powerful and steamy performances.  The boredom and seediness of unhappy working class individuals (a role in which Turner surprisingly fits into) is magnificently portrayed.
 
(2) All the King’s Men (1949): Broderick Crawford is the best at playing the hard hearted villain.  This fictionalized portrait of Huey Long is not meant for admirers of the great populist, but it does show both the good and the bad of the Louisiana governor.  I’ve never cared for the ending in either the book or the movie, however; the moviemakers seem to have only mild regret for an assassination of an elected official.

 
(3) Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948): Based on a novel written by the anarchist, B. Traven, and directed by the great John Huston, this movie shows Bogart going from a tough working man stiff to a paranoid and pathetic loser who has been driven mad by his greed for gold.  The famous line before Bogart is about to meet his end (“Badges?  We don’t need no stinking badges!") has been repeated ad nauseam by people trying to showoff their knowledge of movies.
 
(4) Lifeboat (1944): My favorite Hitchcock movie, it all takes place with a bunch of shipwrecked survivors in a rowboat.  One of the survivors happens to be a Nazi, but we only find out about that later.  It’s based on a Steinbeck story showing his typical emphasis (and perhaps overstatement) on the lousy treatment dished out to the lower classes.  Somehow Tallulah Bankhead never runs out of makeup and keeps looking good, despite the many days of exposure to the elements.
 
(5) Body and Soul: As in most boxing movies, the fight scenes are not convincing.  However, Garfield is believable on the outside of the ring as a gritty fighter who will do what’s needed to become champion (including cheat).  His newly found integrity at the end of the movie also proves to be his undoing.

 
(6) Blood on the Moon: One of my favorite westerns of all time and starring one of my favorite actors, Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum is great as the good guy with integrity who is tough enough to take on all villains.  I’m not much impressed with most fight scenes that take place in the saloons, but the one in this movie is worth watching.
 
(7) The Big Sleep (1946): Again, this is a great movie based on an inferior book.  This first movie matching up Bogart and Bacall is probably their best.  Bogart as the Private Investigator Marlow drives everyone crazy with his insistence on finding out the truth.  The way he disposes of the villain in the end is telling because it sends a clear message that you don’t mess with this man.
 
(8) The Grapes of Wrath (1940): It’s understandable why some people think this movie (and the novel) is overrated because it gets to be pretty damn preachy.  John Ford’s ability to make the dust bowl era seem real and Henry Fonda’s projection of a likeable ex-con make all the difference.
 
(9) The Sea Wolf (1941): Adventure movie of the sea based on the Jack London novel, the strange casting of Edward G. Robinson as Wolf Larsen almost doesn’t work.  Robinson is not believable as someone who is supposed to be so physically strong, but he projects the philosophical musings and the sadistic impulses of the sailor down perfectly.  John Garfield, as the character duped to serve on board with Robinson, is superior to the character in the book because Garfield is believably tough.
 
(10) Out of the Past (1947): A typical 1940s film noir (love, murder, mystery and betrayal) that is only made better because Robert Mitchum plays the lead.

 
There are many honorable mentions.  The Lost Weekend (1945), a Billy Wilder' movie about alcoholism, if somewhat out of date is at least intelligently made.  Sergeant York (1941), if not particularly well acted by Gary Cooper, at least presents an interesting story of a pacifist turned war hero.  Key Largo (1948) is another great teaming of Bogart and Bacall, and contains a memorable scene when Edward G. Robinson slaps Bogart several times across the face.  Twelve O’Clock High (1949) is probably my favorite war movie to come out of the era, and for once I even like the acting of Gregory Peck.  The Wolf Man (1941) is one of my favorite horror movies because I remember it so vividly from when I saw it as a child.  For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) does an excellent job of filming the Hemingway novel (not nearly as good of a novel as The Sun Also Rises or Farewell to Arms, but still worth reading), but Ingrid Bergman as a peasant girl living with a bunch of rebels in a cave that are engaged in gorilla warfare is a bit of a stretch.  Gaslight (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), and The Razor’s Edge (1946) are all worth watching if you are in the mood for a soap opera.
 
An obvious significant omission is Citizen Kane (1941).  The film technique and use of black and white photography, the point of view of the story telling and the symbolism (Rosebud!) are about all you ever hear when reviewers speak of this movie.  The movie reminds me of All the King’s Men except All the King’s Men seems much less self-conscious.  There is a good powerful story being presented, but it is paced so slowly that the viewer thinks of the movie as being much longer than two hours.  Casablanca (1942) is another omission of note.  Bogart plays a decent role as Rick in this movie, but I just don’t believe in Ingrid Bergman as his love interest.  She seems much too brittle and flighty to capture Rick’s imagination.  Nor do I believe in Paul Henried as the great underground leader.  He seems fairly bland.  I do like the role played by Claude Rains as Louie, however.
 
I still would like to see the war movie directed by John Ford, They Were Expendable (1945); Intruder in the Dust (1949), based on the great William Faulkner novel; and try to make my way through the Laurence Olivier Shakespearian roles and see if these movies lived up to all of the hype.

November 20, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller 2006

MY FAVORITE MOVIES: 1950 – 1959

For a decade noted mostly in the American History books for economic good times and paranoia, there actually was much more to talk about.  The end of the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Cold War, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, the invention of the Hydrogen Bomb, the Beat Movement, the introduction of Rock & Roll, Sputnik, the Baby Boom, Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin, the rise of Castro, the execution of the Rosenbergs, Brown v. Board of Education and integration, and the usual problems in the Mid-East took place in the 1950s and were reflected in the kind of movies that we watched.

Whether the most important movie of the decade was Streetcar Named Desire or On the Waterfront, it was a movie directed by Elia Kazan.  Kazan, by the way, testified on behalf of the UnAmerican Activities Commission and pointed the finger at many fellow individuals in the movie industry.  That justification of this act became the impetus for On the Waterfront, a movie that otherwise seemed well made, adds only to the strangeness of the political climate in which these movies were created.

The 1950s was actually a great decade for movie experimentation.  The Sci-Fi thrillers like The Incredible Shrinking Man or the Godzilla movies brought over from Japan, movies aimed squarely at the problems of teens like The Wild One, The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, and hard-hitting murder mysteries with political overtones like Compulsion, Night of the Hunter and Kiss Me Deadly were all excellent movies that introduced new genres and created a series of extremely bad imitations.

Here, in order, are my favorite movies of that decade:

(1) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): Everything comes together to make this one of the greatest movies of all time.  There’s great acting (Marlon Brando in his first starring role and Vivien Leigh in her last great performance), a tremendous story (based on the play by Tennessee Williams), and outstanding direction (Elia Kazan before he sold out).  Brando as the savage Stanley Kowalski and Leigh as the fragile Blanche DuBois share a tenement together when they shouldn’t even remain together in Louisiana.  Don’t watch this if you’re looking for some light entertainment.

(2) Rebel Without a Cause (1955): Though I’ve seen this movie several times, I’m always struck by how bizarre it is.  We see James Dean as a drunken teenager smiling at a flower; a high school class on a field trip watches a simulation of the universe exploding; we have a knife fight outside of a planetarium; a chicken run takes place high up in the Hollywood hills; there’s a shootout in a Beverly Hills mansion; and we have Jim Backus wearing a kitchen apron to symbolize how he’s been neutered.  James Dean completely overacts in this one, but the movie works.


(3) Night of the Hunter (1955): Robert Mitchum as a deranged religious fanatic can never be outdone for creepiness.  (However, Mitchum almost equals this performance a few years later as the ex-con in the original Cape Fear.)  To show how far he can go, Mitchum goes after some orphans for money allegedly stolen by their father – all in the name of God.

(4) East of Eden (1955): While others in the movie industry were out of work, Elia Kazan directed his third great movie of the decade.  It’s extremely ironic that the greatest depiction in movie history of a novel by John Steinbeck (a writer long renowned for his leftist leanings) should be credited to a star witness of Joseph McCarthy.  James Dean plays his greatest role.

(5) Seven Samurai (1954): Probably the most famous movie ever made that required subtitles.  This Japanese movie directed by Kurosawa is like a great western – only the warriors fight with Samurai swords and are more than one-dimensional characters.


(6) Paths of Glory (1957): Stanley Kubrick’s first great film, it’s about three French soldiers tried and executed for refusing to fight for a commander who fired on them to make them advance during World War I.  Kirk Douglas does a marginal job of acting while playing the lawyer who defends the men, but the story is so powerful that it really doesn’t matter.

(7) Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956):  This Rod Serling production was made for television and filmed live in studio on what must have been an extremely small budget. Starring Jack Palance, it is far superior to that of the Hollywood version later released starring Anthony Quinn.  Palance plays a tough boxer who is now a “has been” and who is no longer welcome to fight in the ring.  His trainer played by Ed Wynn (the man who used to appear in the Cracker Jack commercials - and whose acting in this movie is extraordinary) is one of the few people who can see the self-worth hidden behind all of the scars of the ex-boxer.

(8) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958): “Lies and mendacity!”  Burl Ives line in this movie loudly projects what the Tennessee Williams play was all about.  Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor are the pretty couple that spend most of the movie yelling at each other, and they do a good enough job in support to allow Ives to take over the entire show.

(9) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957): This is one of the most remarkably strange science fiction movies ever made, and it’s all about a man who finds himself estranged from the rest of the universe as he shrinks to the size of the atoms around him.  The victim, being of a philosophical bent and strong believer in existentialism, achieves a sense of freedom in the end as he has a whole new universe to explore.

(10) Ben Hur (1959): At times, this movie is grubbily sentimental.  Fortunately, Charleston Heston as Ben Hur, who is often so bellicose in other movies, tones down his desire to overact.  The battle at sea and the chariot race are, of course, probably the best action sequences in any movie ever made.  But the death scene of Stephen Boyd as Messala (in agony, he still receives cruel joy by telling Ben Hur that his sister and mother are alive in a leper colony) is what turned this movie for me from a biblical epic to a great movie.


There are too many honorable mentions to describe in detail.  The Bridge on the River Kwai is worth watching because of the acting of Alec Guiness as the British Colonel gone mad; Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train presents Robert Walker as the most memorable stalker in movie history; Thunder Road is a low budget movie with Robert Mitchum as the small time bootlegger who attempts to defy the mob and the feds; and The Seventh Seal is Ingmar Bergman’s weird apocalyptic drama about the Black Plague during the middle ages, the second coming of Christ, and a knight’s chess game with death.  All About Eve, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets are definitely worth watching for very different reasons.

Significant omissions include From Here to Eternity, Sunset Blvd and Twelve Angry Men.  Perhaps because these movies were so talked up and I knew so much before seeing them, I couldn’t really enjoy them as much as I hoped.  I’ve never thought of Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity) as a great actor; William Holden (Sunset Blvd) I’ve enjoyed in some movies and not in others; and Henry Fonda (Twelve Angry Men) is a much better actor when he’s not so preachy.

Of movies I’ve never seen, I would like to see The Big Heat and The Steel Helmet – just to name a couple.

January 3, 2007
©  Robert S. Miller 2007

MY FAVORITE MOVIES: 1960 – 1969

Almost everything the public thought was of any consequence during the 1960s was put onto film.  This included the Kennedy/Nixon debates, the civil rights marches in the south and in Washington, D.C., the assassinations of the Kennedy’ brothers (and the shooting of Oswald), scenes from Viet Nam shown nightly on the news, rioting and protest, the moon landing and Woodstock.  Unfortunately, we didn’t always learn the right lesson or the lessons learned were somewhat muddled.  From the debates we learned that we never wanted to elect a President who was not clean-shaven.  The Zapruder film left some people thinking that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and others thinking that JFK was killed by approximately three thousand bullets.  Films of war carnage and the burning of draft cards resulted in distrust between the older and younger generations.  Rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago helped convince much of Middle America that Nixon needed to be in the White House.  From the moon landing arose speculation that space travel was a hoax; it also brought about a renewed interest in UFOs.  And not many years after Woodstock came the onslaught of Disco. 
 
On the other hand, the confused climate made interest in some excellent movies possible.  While we had some fluff with movies like My Fair Lady and Oliver, we had some truly disturbing films like Elmer Gantry or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Instead of Ozzie and Harriet for family drama, we had Long Day’s Journey into Night.  Probably the most important movie of the decade was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  This black comedy, with Peter Sellers playing three different parts, reflected the inability of leadership to deal with the kind of insanity produced by two opposing superpowers that had the technology to obliterate each other and the rest of the world.  The otherwise funny lines uttered by the characters came too close to reflecting how many people actually felt.
 
There doesn’t seem much need to talk in detail about the 1960s since much of its history is so well known.  However, some of the movies during this decade are so good that I’m going to dwell on them more than usual (too bad for the reader).  So here, in order, are my favorite movies of that decade:
 
(1) Cool Hand Luke (1967): After cutting the heads off of parking meters in a fit of drunkenness and getting himself sent to a chain gang, Paul Newman as Luke turns around and plays the most unusual sort of Christ like figure in any movie.  An irreverent, uneducated and smart talking southerner who professes to believe in no God, Luke’s inability to follow the rules of the establishment makes him a “natural born world-shaker” to the rest of the prisoners and ends up getting him killed.  Despite all of the tragedy, the dialogue of the cast (especially during the egg eating scene) is both hilarious and extremely quotable.  George Kennedy is unforgettable in playing off his character against Newman’s.  This is my favorite movie of all time.
 
(2) Elmer Gantry (1960): Very loosely based upon the Sinclair Lewis novel, Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) actually ends up being the sanest character in the whole movie.  Jean Simmons is his demented Evangelical partner who literally goes down in apocalyptic flames towards the end of the movie.  Rather than a condemnation of the hucksters within the profession (like the novel), this gives a frightening glimpse into the minds of the followers.  The movie is an actual improvement upon the book.
 

(3) Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Peter O’Toole plays one of the most eccentric and complicated characters ever filmed in this biography.  It would be an understatement from viewing this movie to say that Lawrence did not exhibit both great and pathological qualities.  Even people who know the story about Lawrence would be intrigued by all of the surprises that occur in this movie.  At the time this movie was shown, this was only the fourth or fifth movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture that actually deserved the award.
 
(4) Hud (1963): Even George C. Scott, never impressed with the acting of Paul Newman (nor the acting of anybody else), thought that Newman was brilliant in the character of Hud.  Add Patricia Neal as the maid and Melvyn Douglas as the father of Hud, and you have a remarkable tale of decency and debauchery.  Using Foot and Mouth disease as the subject for a dramatic plotline makes for a unique storyline.  The cattle dying in a pit is merely a sign of the times.
 
(5) The Hustler (1961): Paul Newman plays the small time pool hustler with world championship talent.  Only after the person he cares for the most commits suicide does he develop the sufficient character to shoot his finest game.  Piper Laurie plays his alcoholic girlfriend, George C. Scott plays the villainous and corrupt manager, and Jackie Gleason plays the pool sharp, Minnesota Fats – and all play their roles well.
 

(6) The Wild Bunch (1969): Sam Peckinpah almost brought the genre of westerns to an end by upping the carnage in this strange and ultra violent movie.  The obliteration of the women’s temperance movement by gunfire towards the beginning of the movie is only outdone by the killing of the majority of the cast towards the end of the movie.  Yet only Peckinpah could turn this into a morality tale about the need for honor and loyalty among gatherings of men.
 
(7) Bullitt (1968): Steve McQueen as Bullitt was never better than as the tough and incorruptible cop trying to investigate a murder.  With a United States Senator trying to meddle with the doings of the investigation and other of San Francisco policemen trying to kiss up to this politician, Bullitt appears to be the only one interested in the truth.  The movie contains one of the few car chases worth watching because it actually tells us something about Bullitt and because it shows off almost every attraction in the San Francisco area.
 
(8) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): I mentioned this movie above.  I’d only add that the reasons given in the storyline for beginning the bombing of Russia (a.k.a., a General discovers that he is impotent) make about as much sense as the justifications for major conflict throughout the world over the last two hundred years.
 
(9) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): In many ways, this is a typical Sergio Leone spaghetti western (though all of his westerns are worth watching).  It’s Henry Fonda and his cold and lifeless blue eyes (Fonda does not hesitate to blow away a small child who has learned his identity) that make this movie one of the best.  Charles Bronson plays the tough hombre who gets his revenge in the end (and the reasons why he wants his revenge become very understandable).
 
(10) The Dirty Dozen (1967): My only hesitation in including this movie is that it’s been watched too much (I remember first seeing it on television when I was in sixth grade).  The incredible ruggedness of Lee Marvin and the rest of the cast make this movie pleasing to watch because the viewer does not have to worry about swallowing any syrupy dialogue.  Still, we come to actually care about some of the characters and are sad to see so many of them get killed (especially Jim Brown, who is shot while making his dash across the compound).  We also see another side of the worst kind of convicts who will do anything to get out of their cage.
 

Honorable mentions include Hell is for Heroes (somewhat gritty war movie that at times lags), Midnight Cowboy (our first X-rated Oscar winner that today would be rated PG-13), Cape Fear (Robert Mitchum is perfectly cast as the murderous Max Cady, but the supporting cast is dull), Judgment at Nuremberg (which is just too long), Zorba the Greek (only for the acting of Anthony Quinn) and Days of Wine and Roses (well acted depiction of alcoholism that, however, sometimes feels too tame).  For entertainment watch The Great Escape (which sticks very closely to the actual account of this escape – outside of Steve McQueen riding on his motorcycle, which was too good to leave out), The Cincinnati Kid (good role for Edward G. Robinson as the aging card player), and Planet of the Apes (fun for watching Charleston Heston become indignant over his treatment as a human being).
 
Significant omissions include The Sound of Music (you know going in whether you’re going to like or dislike this movie) and Bonnie and Clyde (sometimes I like the movie, but at other times I’m annoyed that the characters - played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty - could act so stupidly and still be successful at robbing banks).  And as much as I like Dustin Hoffman, I’m probably one of the few people who think that The Graduate is not the significant statement of discontent and nonconformity that it’s made out to be.  In fact, sometimes the movie seems “quaint,” and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
 
Movies I would still like to take a look at include the Beatles’ movies, which I’ve never seen in their entirety.  I’d also like to see Tom Jones and Alice’s Restaurant.

January 10, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007