Saturday, December 31, 2005

Hooray for Hollywood

It's the last day of the year, the time when film critics and cultural commentators name their best and worst experiences of the past 12 months.

Since I'm not a professional film critic, I don't get to see every movie that gets released. I see more movies than the average American. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, "The average number of trips to the cinema in 1970 was 4.5 per person. In 2004, the average American went to the movies 5.2 times." I don't keep track, but my guess is that I go to the theatre to see movies at about 8 to 10 times that rate. (I saw 16 films over four days at the Virginia Film Festival in October, so it's not accurate to say I actually saw one movie per week.)

Still, I miss a few movies here and there. I haven't seen critically-praised movies like Crash or Capote yet, nor have I seen the end-of-the-year blockbuster from Peter Jackson, the remake of King Kong. And some films of 2005 simply haven't reached my local cinema yet and won't be viewable until January or February.

My ten-best list is limited to films released during the calendar year, otherwise I would have to say the best movie I saw was Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder or George Cukor's My Fair Lady, two that I saw on the big screen (at, respectively, the Virginia Film Festival and the Paramount Theatre in downtown Charlottesville). In fact, I can list a whole collection of movies I saw in the past few months that are better than the movies that came out this year (All the President's Men, It's a Wonderful Life, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Paths of Glory, to name four) but it's hard for any single year's output to match or exceed the classics that have stood the test of time.

I also exclude movies I saw on television or DVD. (I seldom watch movies on a small screen, anyway.)

So, with those caveats, here is my list of the ten best movies of 2005.

Good Night, and Good Luck
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Ladies in Lavender
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
The Producers
Sophie Scholl: The Last Days
Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Steal Me
I've written about Downfall elsewhere, where I compared it to Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Both are studies of evil -- Downfall of the consequences of evil, Sith of its origins.

Good Night, and Good Luck may be criticized for its politics, though it is hard to defend Joe McCarthy with a straight face. We know now that there were Communist agents who infiltrated the U.S. government in the early days of the Cold War. McCarthy was right about that, to be sure, in the sense that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but his ham-handed, alcohol-soaked methods set back the anti-Communist movement by years.

My reason for putting Good Night, and Good Luck on this list is that director George Clooney has done such a marvelous job at evoking the era of the mid-1950s. Robert Elswit's black-and-white cinematography is virtual sculpture of light, shadow, and -- especially -- cigarette smoke.

If only someone would take on the task of filming the story told in The Lavender Scare, which demonstrates that far more people lost their jobs and had their lives and careers ruined by the government's relentless persecution of gay men and lesbians during the "McCarthy era" than did those pursued as Communists. Young filmmakers, take notice!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
does more than just continue the story of Harry and his friends (and foes) from the first three films in the series. It deepens the characterizations and darkens the plot and atmosphere. Director Mike Newell brings a different sensibility with him as he takes over from Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron. The actors, too -- especially Daniel Radcliffe -- are developing a more profound understanding of their roles. These are no longer merely special-effects-laden action flicks for the pre-teen set; instead, they are beginning (like Downfall and Revenge of the Sith) to reflect on the meaning of evil's presence in our midst and how we must react.

Ladies in Lavender
and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont should be considered in tandem, since both star British actresses of a certain age who would not normally be considered for leading roles in romantic films, yet here they are. Ladies in Lavender may have been released too early in the year for consideration by the awards-givers, but both Maggie Smith and Judi Dench rate special recognition for their work as sisters living in an isolated seaside village in the mid-1930s. And any film with Daniel Brühl is worth seeing -- after making his mark with Good Bye, Lenin!, this German actor will soon become an international sensation. (Having Joshua Bell play Brühl's character's violin solos was a nice touch, too.)

In Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Joan Plowright gives what will probably be the last major performance of her long and distinguished career. Like Ladies in Lavender, Mrs. Palfrey tells the story of an elderly woman's interaction with a young man who suddenly enters her life. It is romantic, but not in the sense one comes to expect from that term. It also introduces a future star in Rupert Friend, who plays Ludovic, Mrs. Palfrey's surrogate grandson. (Mrs. Palfrey also has a great backstory in terms of how it was made, with a script by an 85-year-old first-time screenwriter, Ruth Sacks.) Speaking of nice touches: Millicent Martin, among other Hotel Claremont eccentrics, sings along to "It's Never to Late to Fall in Love," a song she introduced on Broadway in Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend.

Some have criticized the new musical version of The Producers of being too broad, suggesting that Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick failed to tone down their on-stage personas for the hotter medium of film. I think those criticisms are wrong. Lane and Broderick are spot-on in recreating their Broadway roles, and Susan Stroman may have single-handedly revived the tradition of big, broad, colorful film musicals best exemplified by what came out of MGM in the 1940s and '50s. Unlike Rob Marshall (another first-time film director at the time), who reworked Chicago to make it more palatable to the naturalistic eye of movie audiences, Stroman returns to the film-musical conventions of what we thought was a bygone era, and she does it quite satisfactorily.

More than that, under the watchful eye of Mel Brooks, Stroman has, through set decoration as well as direction of her actors, virtually recreated a shot-by-shot replica of the non-musical scenes from the original version of The Producers. Broderick may be less convincingly hysterical than Gene Wilder, but he still comes across in a suitably manic manner.

It was somewhat disappointing to learn the film left out some of the musical numbers (notably "The King of Broadway", and shortening the "Springtime for Hitler" segment) but the overall experience is daffily satisfying.

One of the films I saw at the Virginia Film Festival is Germany's entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2005 Academy Awards, Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage (The Last Days). Based on recently uncovered transcripts of interrogations of White Rose dissident Sophie Magdalena Scholl by a Nazi investigator, this movie has a certain staginess to it that may be offputting to some viewers.

What Sophie Scholl does best is to juxtapose the normalcy of life in Germany in 1943, portrayed in deep colors (thanks to cinematographer Martin Langer), far from the front where the war was going on, while highlighting how the regime could engage in psychological brutality to deny basic human rights to the German people, including the due process rights of the accused in legal proceedings, which we take so much for granted.

The scenes in which Sophie verbally duels with her interrogator are fascinating and compelling. Who could expect that debates about political philosophy could take place in such a setting? Yet they did, far from an audience yet stirring nonetheless because one young woman was willing to stand up for her beliefs, even up to the moment of her certain death.

Sophie Scholl: The Last Days deserves wide distribution and should be seen in high-school classrooms across the country.

What can I say about Revenge of the Sith that has not already been said? In it, George Lucas provides the bridge between the two Star Wars trilogies, and answers all the unanswered questions we have had for nearly 30 years. Revisit my posting about it here for my immediate reaction.

Steal Me and Thumbsucker are unlikely to appear on many other ten-best lists this year, but they do not deserve to be overlooked.

Melissa Painter's Steal Me focuses on a 15-year-old drifter who insinuates himself into the lives of a typical middle-class family in small-town Montana. He's a kleptomaniac but he is also a keen judge of character, far more street-smart than anyone he meets in the family or the town, and oozes sexuality, leading to an affair with an older woman who lives nearby. Steal Me is also the most highly charged example of homoeroticism in filmmaking this year, exceeding even what one may find in the "gay cowboy" movie, Brokeback Mountain. Danny Alexander, in his first leading role, carries the film on his shoulders and succeeds without stumbling. We will be seeing more from him, as well as from Hunter Parrish, who plays his friend-rival-unspoken love interest, Tucker.

Thumbsucker, too, concerns a troubled teenager, this one in a typical middle-class household in Oregon. Tilda Swinton plays the mother, something of a dreamer who gets herself a job in a rehab facility so she can get closer to a soap-opera star she idolizes. Newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci plays Justin, whose life is transformed (for the better) when he begins to treat his ADHD with Ritalin. He hits his target for both the ADHD and post-ADHD Justin, and there's a realism at play when he chooses to stop medicating himself with the prescription drugs so that he can stand on his own two feet.

Thumbsucker also includes performances from Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, and Vincent D'Onofrio as you've never seen them before.

My one quibble with Thumbsucker is with the way it portrays competitive, interscholastic, high school debate. No movie ever gets that right, so I won't complain too loud or too long. I'd rather just recommend this movie and let others judge for themselves.

Some honorable mentions:

The Aristocrats -- More laughs per minute than any other movie of the year. I wrote about it as soon as I saw it.

The Squid and the Whale
-- Jeff Daniels is turning into a fine character actor; his cold, calculating father in the midst of a divorce and custody battle in this film is miles away from his TV executive in Good Night, and Good Luck. But the center of this movie is Jesse Eisenberg, who will probably be able to play teenagers for the next 15 years, but with each turn -- he'll be compared here to his role in Rodger Dodger -- he ratchets up yet contains his emotional velocity. The intimacy and intensity of this movie may be too much to take for someone who has experienced an actual family break-up.

Brokeback Mountain -- The "gay cowboy" movie that's getting so much attention during the last weeks of the year was something of a disappointment to me. Ang Lee's direction and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography are classic. But I had trouble buying the characters portrayed by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. (Gyllenhaal's Jack was easier for me to take than Ledger's Ennis.) Discussion of Brokeback Mountain is not going to end anytime soon, however -- WorldNetDaily calls the film "Rape of the Marlboro Man." (For an opinion that differs from mine, and from WND's, see Tim Hulsey, here.)

Little Manhattan -- A lighthearted companion piece to The Squid and the Whale, I can almost guarantee that you haven't seen this movie, which apparently has appeared on only about three dozen screens nationwide. Like The Squid and the Whale, the premise of this movie has divorcing parents (Bradley Whitford and Cynthia Nixon) and a child coming to terms with the new situation (Josh Hutcherson). Here, however, the focus is on the pre-teen's own first love, with an 11-year-old classmate. The best thing about this movie, though, is the way New York City is not just its setting, but a character all its own.

Kids in America -- This film has its civil libertarian heart in the right place, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. It came and went quickly; the night I saw it, there were just three or four other people in the theatre. Some nice moments, though, and a strong anti-authoritarian message that should resonate well with high school students and others who have had their freedom of expression stifled.

Cry_Wolf -- I shouldn't let the year go by without a mention of this first feature by Charlottesville native Jeff Wadlowand his producing partner, Beau Bauman. Another near miss, this teen slasher flick shows a lot of promise for its creators. Had they had a larger budget -- they were hampered by the terms of the million-dollar Chrysler prize -- they might have achieved a better result. Jon Bon Jovi is terrific in a supporting role that carries some surprises with it. Bauman and Wadlow deserve special kudos for their mentoring of the teams of young filmmakers who compete in the Adrenaline Film Project at the Virginia Film Festival.

One dishonorable mention:

The Fever
, starring Vanessa Redgrave as a neo-Marxist bobblehead doll who romanticizes brutal totalitarian regimes that claim to stand for "the poor" and "the people" even as they put both under the heel of their hobnailed boots.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Everybody Gets a Second Chance

While Creigh Deeds may have missed narrowly in his quest to become Virginia's Attorney General, his performance in the general election last November may earn him a reward from Governor-elect Tim Kaine. The latest rumor in Richmond and Deeds' state Senate district is that Kaine is going to nominate his 2005 ticket-mate as the new Secretary of Transportation in his Cabinet.

This will open things up for a special election to be held in the oddly-shaped 25th Senate District in early or mid-February. Candidates have been lining up for months to replace Deeds, even before he won his party's nomination for Attorney General. (He initially had some opposition from state Senator John Edwards, who dropped out early to give Deeds an open field.)

The name bandied about most profligately is former Charlottesville City Councilor Meredith Richards, who ran for Congress in 2002 against veteran Virgil Goode (R-5CD). Richards might fare better in the safely Democratic 25th District (which was designed to be a sinecure for the late Emily Couric), although a Charlottesville-based liberal candidate might face some trouble in the more conservative western reaches of the district, such as Deeds' base in Bath County. So Richards shouldn't expect a free ride in obtaining the nomination.

On the Republican side, the most commonly mentioned potential candidate is Albemarle GOP unit chair Keith Drake, who has expressed interest in the seat. It is possible that one or more sitting GOP delegates whose districts overlap the 25th could be moved to run, but running for office during the General Assembly session might be seen as abdicating their responsibility toward their constituents in favor of furthering their personal political ambitions.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Another Hundred People

Writing in today's Daily Progress, Liesel Nowak (who usually covers local courts) reports the discovery, by Waldo Jaquith, that there are now at least 100 blogs based in the Charlottesville area.

A list of local blogs that Jaquith has posted at shows the variety of Web logs that are maintained by area residents. The subjects range from politics to computers to cooking.

A blog, as defined by [Merriam-]Webster, is "a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer."

"You'll find Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Greens talking about politics," Jaquith said. "You'll find food bloggers. You'll find people talking about local music. A lot of people are blogging about computer programs. Some are really boring. Some are really fascinating. Some are dedicated to an individual's life. Sometimes you don't know anything about their lives."
Nowak cites an opinion, shared by Waldo and me, that blogs have their greatest impact at the local level in bringing people together in the 21st century version of talking over the back fence, around the general store's wood stove, or at the barber shop.
"Linking in the local community is more important," Jaquith said. "I think blogs are really beneficial to the community because it forces readers to leave their traditional social circle," Jaquith said. "By reading [local] blogs we really see a pretty good cross section of Charlottesville."

Rick Sincere, a local freelance writer and public relations specialist, has been blogging for a year.

His blog, "Rick Sincere News and Thoughts: Political notes and cultural commentary from a gay, libertarian, Catholic, Republican author and theater critic," contains commentary on current events.

"My initial impulse was to use a blog to post articles I'd already written for other publications. It turned out to be very different," Sincere said.

In writing about local political and cultural events, Sincere has supplemented coverage by local media by covering events such as the Virginia Film Festival, and, as a member of the city's electoral board, hosting debates about electronic voting.

"I think that blogging has its greatest impact locally," Sincere said. "Blogs are replacing the cultural and political events that used to be covered by newspapers. We're the people who can go to a Chamber of Commerce breakfast. We are on the spot when [traditional media] can't be there. Blogs are quite valuable in bringing communities together."
Noting Waldo's desire to see many more local businesses with blogs to promote themselves and their products, Nowak quotes Jim Duncan, who runs a blog on real estate issues:
With his blog "Central VA real estate news, trends and opinions," Jim Duncan seems to be taking advantage of the idea that blogging can bring a local business success.

"I post anything that can remotely be related to real estate, land use, taxes, a lot of politics," Duncan said. "I focus as much as possible on local issues. It's where I live and where I can have an impact."
Many of us who write (mostly) about politics suffer from a sort of tunnel-vision that limits our view of the utility of blogging toward exchanges of ideas in the political sphere.

I agree with Waldo that the real potential of the blogosphere will be in transforming the marketplace, especially the local marketplace, by offering a forum that is a combination Yellow Pages-Better Business Bureau-advertising agency. A business firm's blog can offer so much more information than even a full-page ad in the Yellow Pages could. Unlike a traditional web site, a blog is not (or should not be) static. Local blogs, which might offer consumers a chance to offer their opinions about the firms they do business with, could serve the same function as yearly faculty evaluations do for university students -- and, in providing that kind of information to other consumers, give businesses the kind of feedback they need to improve their products and services.

We're in early days, folks. We have a lot to learn and a lot to try that hasn't even been imagined yet.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all my readers and fellow bloggers!

A few of the articles I posted last year with Christmas themes are getting a lot of hits this year. It just goes to show how perennial Christmas themes are.

The most popular articles are these:

Charlottesville Christmas ornaments
Is There an Anti-Christmas Conspiracy?

OK, Perhaps the Anti-Christmas Attitude Has Gone Too Far

Return of Aluminum Christmas Trees?

Worst Christmas Song Ever?


A Moral Case for Christmas Commercialism
That last one seems to get a lot of attention, even a few comments. My point then and now is that complaints about the commercialization and commodification of Christmas are neither new nor warranted, and that we should celebrate the free enterprise system that allows us, in turn, to celebrate Christmas -- or Hanukkah, or Chrismukkah, or even Festivus -- the way each of us wishes to do so.

In any case (even though Neal Boortz says every time someone says this an elf dies), Happy Holidays, one and all!

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Congress has left Washington for a well-deserved recess. Not that they deserved it, but we did.

The irresponsibility and profligacy of the U.S. Congress are boundless. Shameless spenders of other peoples' money, the vast majority of our Representatives -- with a few key exceptions, such as Ron Paul, Jeff Flake, and Mike Pence -- had better find coal in their stockings tomorrow morning. If not, Santa Claus has not been checking his list once, much less twice.

The latest evidence for what Congress has done to us is chronicled by David Boaz in an article for Reason Online. Remember those "bridges to nowhere" in Alaska that were going to cost taxpayers millions of dollars, but that, in the aftermath of Katrina, were tabled? Well, they weren't tabled.

Writes Boaz:

Whether you’ve gotten a card or not, rest assured that Alaska thanks you for the $454 million Christmas present. Remember those “bridges to nowhere” that were finally taken out of the federal budget? Well, they’re back.
When Katrina hit and so many people were displaced, some members of Congress insisted on diverting money from pork-barrel projects to humanitarian assistance. The pressure was especially hard on the Alaska projects, since they were so transparently useless and larcenous.

Boaz continues:

It got so bad that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, roared, “If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state . . . I will resign from this body." Taxpayer advocates could only pray that he would keep his word.

And sure enough, Congress acted. Headlines across the country echoed this one in the New York Times: “Two 'Bridges to Nowhere' Tumble Down in Congress.” The Times story began, “Congressional Republicans decided Wednesday to take a legislative wrecking ball to two Alaskan bridge projects that had demolished the party's reputation for fiscal austerity."

Good news indeed. Except – Ted Stevens didn’t resign from Congress. Why not? Because it was all a show, just smoke and mirrors. Congress removed the requirement that Alaska use the money for the bridges to nowhere. But the state still got the money – a $454 million blank check.

Christmas Eve brings with it Currier-and-Ives images of snowy meadows on chilly nights. As a Christmas gift this year, Congress has given us quite a nice snow job.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Your Dream Is Somebody's Nightmare

Thanks to my one-time boss, Ernest Lefever, for alerting me to the publication of my letter to the editor in today's Washington Times.

I was responding to an opinion article that appeared last week, which called for the creation of a federal "Department of the American Family." No, really, that's what it said. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the article, "In support of marriage," by David Wilkinson and Chris Stevenson:

We suggest that the administration transform the well-meaning but impotent Healthy Marriage Initiative, currently buried in the Department of Health and Human Services, into a new cabinet level department, which could be named the Department of the American Family. Such a move will necessitate a federal definition of marriage. This will bring the issue into the limelight of public debate, where it deserves to be.

What will the department do? First, the fact that there is a Department of the American Family will be highly symbolic of America's belief in the traditional family and will draw a line in the sand. The secretary would advise the president on the status of American families, suggesting ways the president could secure its convalescence and long term health. Additionally, the department could assess the family's response to critical issues or events and the impact of them on the country's families; fund efforts to document the history and influence of the American family; sponsor public advertising campaigns endorsing marriage; and fund university research on the benefits of marriage.
The absurdity of the proposal didn't strike me as much as the irony of a conservative publication, The Washington Times, giving such drivel valuable space on the opinion page. So I wrote a response, which looked like this in this morning's paper:
Regulation, bureaucracy and the family

In their Friday Op-Ed column, "In support of marriage," David Wilkinson and Chris Stevenson offer a the kind of suggestion that usually comes from liberals for addressing a perceived social need: Throw money at it with a new government program.

Their idea of creating a new Department of the American Family smacks of the sort of social liberalism so effectively critiqued by President Reagan when he said, "The government's view of the economy can be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it."

Education did not improve with the creation of the federal Department of Education; it got worse. Massive federal welfare programs did not eliminate poverty but instead created generations of families dependent on the state. Amtrak is not superior to privately owned railways; it is more expensive, less reliable and a drain on taxpayers' pocketbooks.

Do Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Stevenson want to see the American family destroyed through government paternalism?

Turning again to Mr. Reagan, we have to ask ourselves whether we believe "in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."

Creating a new federal bureaucracy to deal with social problems, no matter how real those problems might be, demonstrates a lack of faith in our capacity for self-government. It abandons the values that Mr. Reagan articulated best but that also were held by conservatives such as Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford and others before and since.

The Department of the American Family: liberal dream, conservative nightmare.
The authors of the original article, Wilkinson and Stevenson, probably think of themselves as conservatives. But conservatives, I thought, are people who believe the size and scope of government should be reduced, not expanded.

Unfortunately, it seems that too many self-described "conservatives" have confounded the true conservative legacy of Ronald Reagan in favor of the statist, pro-government faux conservatism of Rick Santorum. That may explain why federal spending has increased more under George W. Bush and a "Republican" Congress than it has at any time since Lyndon Johnson introduced the Great Society.

One, Two, Three

The recount for the Attorney General's race in Charlottesville went as smoothly as expected this morning, ending before 11:00 a.m. after beginning with a brief training session at just past 9:00 o'clock.

There were no changes to the totals announced at the post-election canvass, which did not come as a surprise. (The numbers differed from the unofficial totals of election night, as they should.)

We encountered some difficulty as the two teams of Recount Officials started with the first two precincts, but that was owing entirely to the unfamiliarity everyone had with the forms that needed to be filled out. Once it became clear what was required of us, the next eight precincts were finished up both quickly and thoroughly. (We have eight physical precincts in Charlottesville, plus a central absentee precinct and a provisional vote precinct; the latter two have paper ballots, but only the provisional vote precinct had paper ballots that needed to be recounted by hand, a grand total of 8 ballots -- 5 votes for Deeds, 3 for McDonnell.)

One of the Deeds observers raised a question about the high number of undervotes in Tonsler Precinct. We noted that Tonsler traditionally has a higher percentage of voters who choose not to vote in down-ticket races, and that while the undervote percentage in that precinct may seem out of the ordinary in comparison to other precincts, it was not unusual for Tonsler. That seemed to satisfy the observer, who did not insist that we rerun the totals on the tally computer -- an exercise that would have lengthened the time of the recount substantially only for us to find out that the numbers were the same as those reported in that precinct on Election Day.

Meanwhile, as we were cleaning up and waiting for a state trooper to pick up our results envelope to take to the Circuit Court in Richmond, we heard from Fairfax County that they were already making plans to order dinner, because it looks like they'll be recounting well into the evening. (Fairfax has nearly 25 times as many precincts as Charlottesville has.) And Dickenson County lost power and only had one working telephone line, which might cause some delays in reporting.

Chad Dotson has some scattered results from around the state, indicating that there are only a minuscule number of changes in the totals that have been reported since the election was certified on November 28.

Should there be changes resulting in the nine precincts that are hand-counting their optical scan ballots (one in Lynchburg and eight in Gloucester County), it seems to me that an aggrieved candidate could complain formally that the principle of Bush v. Gore -- that statewide recounts should be conducted with uniform procedures and rules in every voting jurisdiction -- has been violated. (Creigh Deeds would have benefited from a ruling that all optical scan and marksense paper ballots be recounted by hand, since those types of machines often miss votes that are indicated by light pencil or pen marks, or whose marks are somewhat askew.)

My prediction, however, is that because the results of the electronic voting machines are secure and unchanging, and because only a handful of paper ballots are being recounted by hand, Bob McDonnell can be confident that his certified election as Attorney General will remain just that -- certified -- and he can plan on being sworn into office next month.

One surprise about the recount in Charlottesville: Only one media outlet, WVIR-TV (Channel 29) felt this story was important enough to send a reporter to cover it. There was nobody there from the Daily Progress, The Hook, C-VILLE, or WINA radio. (Where was Chris Callahan? This is the sort of thing he revels in.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Anniversary Waltz

Today marks one year since I began writing this blog. How fast 365 days fly by!

It's been fun. It's been a challenge. It's been rewarding. When I go for a few days without blogging (as I have done since last Monday), I feel a bit neglectful, like I've forgotten to feed a puppy.

The fact is, the past ten days have been unusually hectic in regard to my job. (Yes, even bloggers have to pay their bills. We can't sit around all day long in our pajamas with computers set upon our laps.) The coming week promises much more of the same, particular with the recount for the Attorney General's race arriving on Tuesday. (I received a written notice via snail mail from the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Richmond ordering me to be at the court house in Charlottesville that morning -- or else.)

I promise to return to more frequent blogging toward the end of this week. Christmas brings a richness of writing topics, and I have to incorporate my end-of-the-year letter into my postings for the final week of 2005.

I would like to thank all of you readers (we surpassed 40,000 unique visitors about 4 days ago) for keeping this enterprise worthwhile. Most of you are anonymous as well as distributed throughout the United States and Canada and in farflung places across the globe -- Malaysia, Finland, Poland, Japan, the Philippines. And the farther you get from the United States, the more likely you're looking for dish on Dave Moffatt or Aaron Carter.

I would also like to thank all of my fellow bloggers, particularly Virginia bloggers inside and outside the Old Dominion Blog Alliance, who link to things I write and bring new readers here.

Chad Dotson, the elected blogger formerly known as John Behan, has sent more readers my way than any other single source (besides Google). Thanks, Chad! Commonwealth Conservative deserves the praise it gets. With any luck, perhaps four years from now we'll be recounting your votes in the statewide Attorney General's race.

Others who have extraordinarily helpful in the past year include Waldo Jaquith, the father of the Virginia blogosphere; Norm Leahy; Tim Hulsey; Dan Blatt at GayPatriot; and Steve Miller at the Independent Gay Forum.

Thanks, too, to the mainstream media representatives who covered this blog: Bob Gibson at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Coy Barefoot of radio station WINA, Lisa Provence and Courteney Stuart at The Hook, and Linton Weeks at the Washington Post. And the MSM deserves my gratitude for providing so much, so much grist for this mill.

But most of all, I have to thank the aforementioned Dave Moffatt and Aaron Carter. If it weren't for your legions of fans looking for shirtless pictures of you guys, I wouldn't have half the traffic I do now. Thanks, guys! I promise I'll buy -- not download -- your next CDs.

And, remember, please -- comments and tips are always welcome!

Monday, December 12, 2005

All Are Welcome

There has been a new and rapid expansion in the membership of the Old Dominion Blog Alliance, which you can observe in the sidebar to the left.

Spark It Up! has a description of each of the new members.

Meanwhile, liberal blogger Raising Kaine asks the question, "Are Virginia’s Conservative Blogs More Effective?," drawing on an article by Michael Crowley in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. There have already been responses to Raising Kaine from Chad Dotson, Norm Leahy, Jim Bacon, and Shaun Kenney.

Tomorrow, Norm, Shaun, and I will be empaneled to speak to the Tuesday Morning Group Coalition in Richmond about blogs and blogging. (And, Norm, I will be wearing a tie, even if you don't.) The TMG Coalition is promoting the Freedom & Prosperity Agenda for Virginia.

Final note on Virginia blogs: Below the Beltway is hosting this week's Virginia Blog Carnival. Next week it will be hosted at Sons of the Republic.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Where Were You?

Each generation of young adults has its own touchstone moment in which nearly every person, when posed with the question, "Where were you when you heard that [blank] happened?", will be able to answer with vivid and precise detail.

For my grandparents' generation, that moment was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, commemorated yesterday. And for most of that generation, the death of President Franklin Roosevelt nearly four years later is nearly as prominent.

For my parents and their cohort, the date November 22, 1963, is forever embedded in their memories, and not because that was the day C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, died. No, on that day the assassination of President John F. Kennedy became the stuff of legend (and unending theories of paranoid conspiracy).

Today's generation, of course, remembers the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with the same precision. The generation 10 to 15 years older may think back to the Challenger explosion in January 1986.

For my generation, those who were teenagers in the late 1960s or the 1970s, that touchstone moment came on December 8, 1980, that is, 25 years ago tonight. That was when we heard that John Lennon had been murdered in cold blood outside his apartment building, the Dakota, in Manhattan.

I was pulling an all-nighter when I heard the news, typing a research paper for the course "Case Studies in American Diplomacy," taught by Professor Henry Kissinger. (Whatever became of him?) At the time, I was working for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and I was using my boss's IBM Selectric that night because he had a radio in his office. So I was listening to a local D.C. rock station, when the disc jockey (this was before all music stations were totally automated) came on the air to say: "I have grave news. We have just learned that John Lennon was shot and killed earlier this evening in New York. The news just came across the wire. Repeat: Ex-Beatle John Lennon is dead."

Shocked, I paused in my typing and immediately telephoned my friend, David Murphy, in Milwaukee. (David was really the first great crush of my young life, and he was also a devoted fan of the Beatles and all Beatles wannabes, such as The Knack.) I asked, "Did you hear the news?" He had. In his case, he learned it from Don Meredith or Howard Cosell, who reported the news during the ABC Monday Night Football game.

We commiserated but I had to return to my work: I still had to type a paper of nearly 100 pages (including endnotes and appendices) in order to turn it in the next morning. (I did get an "A," by the way.)

The next few days were filled with news of Lennon's murder by disaffected fan, Mark David Chapman. We learned that Yoko Ono witnessed the murder at close range; that Lennon had been returning home from a recording session; that Chapman had stalked him earlier and even got an autograph. It slowly sank in that the long-awaited Beatles reunion would never take place.

When Lennon's "official" memorial service took place at Strawberry Fields in Central Park in New York (a location shown and discussed in the new but sparsely distributed film, Little Manhattan, a sweet treatment of first love and childhood on the Upper West Side), we had our own memorial at Georgetown University's Dahlgren Chapel, led by Father Jerome Hall, S.J., who both sang bass and played the bass cello in the chapel choir. We then drifted to Healy Lawn while people sang "Imagine" and then we had a moment of silence before dispersing.

Lennon's murder was followed quickly on its heels with the attempted assassinations of President Reagan, in March, and Pope John Paul II, in May 1981. But, perhaps because those attempts were unsuccessful, they lack the quality of memory that Lennon's death and similar incidents possess.

Our culture is resilient, however, and it wasn't long before the Lennon murder (combined with the failed Reagan assassination attempt) became fodder for comedy, in the famous Saturday Night Live sequence about the murder of Buckwheat. Who can forget Joe Piscopo's supercilious anchorman saying over and over, "Let's go to the video"? This became a catchphrase: "I repeat: Buckwheat is dead."

Tragic events come and go; in fact, they occur every day, somewhere in the world. Sad things happen to individuals and families, but few of them are shared by the nation. Sometimes the experience can be both intimate and shared more broadly (as it was by those people featured in the AP article, "John Lennon's Death Lingers for Witnesses"). The broadly-shared few are the memorable moments that can be conversation-starters -- not at the time, or soon thereafter, but years later.

So, I ask those of my generation: Where were you when you heard that John Lennon was killed?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas...?

My visit to "Dressing a Galaxy: The Costumes of Star Wars" earlier this week reminded me of the two nights I spent sleeping on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C., in anticipation of Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace. My friend, Justen Bennett-Macubbin, a Star Wars mega-fan, persuaded me to join him and his friends as a placeholder in the middle of the night. I enjoyed both nights immensely, and put together a thick album of photos (which I will someday scan but ...)

Anyway, that experience led to two articles for The Metro Herald, one about the crowds of fans lined up to get tickets and see the movie, the other a review of the film itself.

To my disappointment, I have been unable to unearth copies of those two articles.

I was somewhat relieved to find my review of Star Wars - Episode II: The Attack of the Clones, which I wrote immediately after seeing the movie in May 2002. I decided to reprint it here in an attempt to make up for my tongue-in-cheek comments about "mothers' basements" in my previous post.

So here is that review, as it appeared in The Metro Herald on May 17, 2002:

Star Wars Episode II: Far Exceeding Expectations
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Although 1999's The Phantom Menace was anticipated more eagerly, fans of George Lucas’s Star Wars series will have their best expectations exceeded when they see Episode II: The Attack of the Clones, which opened on thousands of screens nationwide on May 16.

Three years ago, The Metro Herald ran two lengthy reports about the hordes of fans camped out on the sidewalk outside Washington’s Uptown Theatre, awaiting both ticket sales and the first showing of the long-delayed “prequel” to the Star Wars trilogy that debuted in 1977 with Episode IV: A New Hope. That movie – starring Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Alec Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi – was a great risk for its producers and its visionary director, George Lucas.

Science-fiction films had not had much success in the years preceding Star Wars’ initial release. But Lucas wanted to put on the screen his vision of a “space Western” that also conveyed broad ideas of the great myths of human history, as explained by classicist Joseph Campbell. He used archetypal characters and images and came up with a story that resonated with audiences worldwide. It didn’t hurt that the United States was emerging from a dark era that included the Vietnam War, the shame of Watergate, and a faltering economy, and so could use a dose of good old-fashioned optimism.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace was delayed for some 16 years after the release of the third Star Wars film, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, because Lucas felt that filmmaking technology had to catch up to his creative vision. The film, though technically excellent, was greeted by fans and detractors alike with some indifference. Lucas was accused of writing a workaday script for wooden actors. The character of Jar-Jar Binks was widely derided.

It becomes clear with Episode II: The Attack of the Clones that Lucas was not being careless with his talent. With more subtlety than anyone could perceive, Lucas used Episode I to set the stage for the rest of the series. Episode II lets us in on the secret – sort of.

When I returned from Episode II after a midnight show on May 16, I immediately sent this e-mail to friends: “Don’t believe the naysayers: this is a far better movie than many people will give it credit for.”

Among other things, you’ll read the critics’ complaints about George Lucas’s screenplay. This is one of the most tightly scripted movies I’ve seen in recent years, on a par with The Sixth Sense and The Others in that regard. It is as well-written as Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. When film critics accuse Lucas of settling for mediocre performances from his actors – some say he actually ignores his actors completely – they forget that, for Lucas, it’s all about the story. The actors play characters whose lines and actions advance the plot and take the story where it is meant to go. To that extent, they are either expendable or interchangeable. As long as they get their point across, Lucas has achieved his purpose through them.

Episode II continues many of the libertarian themes we saw in Episode I. Lucas uses this picture to paint “all politicians [as] corrupt,” and he tries to show how a Republic degenerates into Empire by way of corruption. (McCain-Feingold fans will enjoy a reference to the corrosive effect of campaign contributions, but I digress.)

Libertarians in particular will enjoy the lengthy debate about whether the Republic should establish a standing army, and the secessionist movement vaguely appears to be based on trade and tax issues. There are references to term limits, the dangers of concentrating too much power in an executive, a judicial system that fails to enforce laws, and the difficulty of maintaining republican government over large geographic (galactic?) regions. Already imbued with The Golden Bough, Lucas now seems to have been reading The Federalist.

Where the second trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and IV) was based on large mythological themes, this first trilogy is showing itself to be based as much on Plato's Republic as on tales of gods and heroes. And I don’t just mean in terms of politics – while Anakin Skywalker expresses support for the concept of a philosopher-king (in a conversation with Senator Amidala), he also demonstrates an inability to balance his passions, appetites, and reason.

Episode II is complex, multilayered, and interwoven with references to the previous and forthcoming episodes. Much of the layering occurs in visual language, but the screenplay itself includes it, too. By the climax of the movie, not only does the audience not know who the good guys and the bad guys are, neither do the good guys and the bad guys. Lucas has laid the foundations for a huge climax in Episode III, something we never would have known from Episode I.

A lot of the critics are selling Lucas short. Their inability to see beyond the surface – the special effects, the stilted language, and apparently two-dimensional characters – blinds them to the deeper complexities of Lucas’s vision.

If you haven’t seen Episode II yet, run, don’t walk, to your nearest cinema.
For those of you interested in my reaction to Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, take a look here, where I compare it to Downfall, the German film about the last days of Adolf Hitler.