Monthly Archives: February 2005

Clint

Well, the last thing the world needs is more Academy Awards blather. As usual, I’m ready to fill the need. But just to say this:

I confess I don’t know much about the Life of Clint Eastwood. Maybe a little bit about the arc of his career — TV cowboy (“Rawhide”) to spaghetti western idol (“A Fistful of Dollars,” etc.) to lone-wolf cop (“Dirty Harry,” etc.) to more westerns (“High Plains Drifter”) to odd self-directed semi-comedic turns (“Every Which Way But Loose”) to seriously violent and introspective western (“Unforgiven”), concluding with a couple of modern tragedies: “Mystic River” and the one he one an award for tonight, “Million Dollar Baby.” Then there are a couple harder-to-classify roles in there, too — “The Beguiled” and “Play Misty for Me.”

All of which is to say: Who would’ve thought that the same guy who rode his Dirty Harry one-liners for so long (one per movie: “Feel lucky, punk?”; “A man’s got to know his own limitations”; “Go ahead, make my day”) would turn into what he has — some kind of sensitive Hollywood-type master of cinema (yeah, I know about contradictions in terms)?

Now I need to confess: I haven’t seen “Million Dollar Baby.” Or “Mystic River.” From the reviews I’ve read, they both sound extremely wrenching emotionally, and I actually haven’t been able to bring myself to watch them. Yet. (It’s happened with other movies, too; such as “Saving Private Ryan.” It took me about a year to see that.)

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National Boy Crisis

Kate points out that Laura Bush speaks out in Newsweek on the nation’s Boy Crisis. Not the Boy Crisis you might expect her to be an expert on — the one involving the overgrown kid who picks fights, lies about them, brags about them, and utters threats that other boys (and girls) will have to back up. And when he’s not fighting and lying and swaggering, he spends other people’s money like there’s no tomorrow (it’s OK because he’s giving lots of it to his friends). And to top it off, he still hasn’t learned how to chew his food before swallowing. No, not that boy.

No, Laura is worried about all the other boys in America who are suffering from the lack of positive male role models and from males who model tough, empty-headed behavior instead of feeling, empathetic behavior. Translation: It’s OK for boys to be girly-men. They can even cry if they life. How does Laura think we can do to solve the Boy Crisis? Here’s some of her level-headed wisdom:

I know there is something we can really do about it, and part of it is just paying attention to it, for there to be a national focus on what we can do for boys, getting the word out to parents so that they also don’t just act upon the stereotype that we have of boys…

And also, you can teach boys to read. Just like the boy in her life. Thanks heaps, Laura.

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1-800 MARINES

What a week for the Marines Corps: Remembering one of its most storied moments, the Iwo Jima flag raising; trying to figure out why its suicide rate is up; and shelling out big bucks to keep the ranks full.

The New York Times, among others, reports on the Marine Corps offering big re-enlistment bonuses as recruiting gets tougher. The drop in recruitment is due partly to lack of enthusiasm for “Crazyworld,” as some soldiers have been known to call Iraq, and partly to the fact some troops who would normally be doing recruiting have been sent to war zones instead.

In a reflection of the difficult market for Marine recruiters, the service offers bonuses of up to $35,000 to retain combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is unusual about these incentives is that the Marines Corps for the first time is offering re-enlistment bonuses, averaging $20,000, to its most junior infantrymen, rather than relying mainly on inexperienced troops fresh from boot camp to replenish the infantry. About 75 percent of enlisted marines leave the service after their first tour, requiring a steady stream of recruits moving through training centers in San Diego and Parris Island, S.C.

The reports on the bonuses include this priceless quote from Marine Corps commandant General Michael W. Hagee: “We need infantrymen. That’s what we’re using over there on the ground.”

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Yesterday’s News

Remember during November’s big fight in Fallujah when NBC videojournalist/independent blogger Kevin Sites filmed a Marine shooting a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi insurgent? Some denounced the shooting as little more than murder, many more denounced Sites as little more than a traitor, and the military announced … it would investigate. Big controversy.

That was all of three and a half months ago, and the incident has been mostly forgotten. The Marine is reportedly at Camp Pendleton. Kevin Sites left Iraq and covered the tsunami aftermath in Southeast Asia (and won an award earlier this week for his blog). And the military either has or has not come to a conclusion about whether the shooting was justified.

Two days ago, CBS News reported that Navy investigators “believe the situation is ambiguous enough that no prosecutor could get a conviction.” Thus, CBS said, he wouldn’t be charged in the shooting. Thursday, the Marines rushed to deny the report and issued statements that the investigation hasn’t been completed and no decision on charges has been made one way or the other. But the denials aren’t directly contradicting the CBS report if you read them carefully: They emphasize that the inquiry isn’t finished, which the CBS story also acknowledges. And the CBS story adds that regardless of the decision on a homicide or war-crimes prosecution, the Marine could still face some sort of internal sanctions from the Corps.

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‘An Experiment’

Speaking of “crap journalism” and the information-consuming public, here’s the famous passage from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919) in which he proposes the marketplace of ideas :

“… When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country. … Only the emergency that makes it immediately dangerous to leave the correction of evil counsels to time warrants making any exception to the sweeping command, ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.’ ”

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Crap Journalism

Editor & Publisher, which is sort of the house organ for the newspaper industry, covered a lecture that media critic Eric Alterman delivered at Northwestern’s journalism school earlier this week. What E&P distilled from the talk: “Alterman: Journalism Obsessed by ‘Crap’ “:

“Alterman lamented that important stories such as the abuse at the U.S. military’s Abu Gharib [sic] prison in Iraq are ‘one-week stories’ at best, while attention is lavished on sagas such as the Scott Peterson murder trial.

” ‘Journalists are responsible for that, in part because they have become part of the permanent government, and in part because we’ve become so addicted to the spectacle,’ he said. ‘I do think the media are to be blamed for devoting so much of their space to crap.’ ”

It’s not a new complaint, and it’s certainly easy enough to find your own pet examples if you’re so inclined. Here’s one arbitrary (and ultra-unscientific) index: The number of news stories on the following keywords, as captured by Google News since January 31, the day after the vote in Iraq:

Michael Jackson (any story that mentions that exact name): 14,700

Iraq casualties (any story that mentions both Iraq and casualties): 6,760

Iraq election (both terms): 71,200

Social Security (exact phrase): 69,200

Iran nuclear (both terms): 30,700

CBS Survivor (both terms): 661

Grammys: 4,690

NYPD Blue (exact phrase): 473

Pope John Paul (exact phrase): 17,200

oil prices (exact phrase): 21,300

Christo: 1,830

Hunter S. Thompson (exact name): 1,870

Jose Canseco (exact name): 7,520

Barry Bonds (exact name): 5,240

Condoleezza Rice (exact name): 40,500

Paris Hilton (exact name): 2,710

swimsuit issue (exact phrase): 153

tsunami: 72,700

Actually, I have to say that I’m a little surprised. I expected Michael Jackson to win hands down; and I was appalled but not shocked after running the second search, Iraq casualties, and finding it has appeared less than half as frequently as the child-molestation suspect’s name (hundreds of Iraqis and nearly 50 U.S. soldiers have perished this month). Maybe if one factored in broadcast coverage, things would look a little different. But overall, the more serious journalistic subjects seem to outweigh the crap obsessions, at least in the news sources that Google indexes.

Maybe the problem — the problem implicit in comments like Alterman’s is that our schlock-focused media have turned the public into an ill-informed mob — runs a little deeper than journalists being obsessed by crap. We know that all the information that’s out there isn’t of the highest quality. Lots of it is lazy. Lots of it is hurried. Lots of it lacks meaningful context. Lots of it is polluted by spin. But part of the deal in a world awash in information — or in the grander marketplace of ideas that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote about in 1919 — is that news consumers need to do a little bit of independent brain work to put the puzzle of their world together. To the extent that’s not happening, it’s a problem both among the information producers and the consumers. Which shouldn’t be a shock, really, since they’re largely the same people.

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George

What I learned:

Born this day in 1732.

Chopped down a cherry tree and confessed. Turned out he didn’t. Chop it down or confess.

Was a land surveyor. Tried to imagine what that job entailed. Lots of time in the woods, lots of time using mysterious instruments, lots of notebook work.

Fought in the French and Indian War. I can picture this, but lately I think of how bad the bugs and food and toilet realities must have been and how you never see that in the movies.

An important man of Virginia. Leader of the Continental Army. Lost battles around New York. Surprised the Hessians at Trenton. Soldiers walking bloody barefoot in the snow, dozens dying the night before the battle from exposure.

Then Valley Forge. Cold and hungry for two winters.

Yorktown. Washington won after all.

Back to Virginia. Wife: Martha. Owned slaves. Not sure he talked about them.

Then to New York to become president. Sworn in at Federal Hall, looking right down Broad Street from Wall. Thanked god at length.

Didn’t want to be king. “Call me ‘Mr. President.’ ”

Two terms. Valedictory: “Avoid foreign entanglements.”

Back home to Mount Vernon. Low doorways. Bad teeth. Caught cold and died. 1799.

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The Last of Hunter

Two last notes and I think I'm done with Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, unless he comes back to life and kills himself again.

First, the San Francisco Chronicle did a decent obit on him today. Jay Johnson, the former Examiner news editor I mentioned last night, figures in the Chronicle's account of Hunter's work for the San Francisco papers. Here's Jay's part of the story:

Chronicle Executive News Editor Jay Johnson, who also edited Thompson's columns when he wrote for the Examiner, said Thompson could not dictate over the phone, so he filed his stories page by page over the fax, sending multiple revisions as the two spent many hours throughout the night and into the morning "wrestling the column to the ground."

"Nobody was as much his editor as his sounding board. He needed to talk it out and get reaction to it. It was not the average creative process," Johnson said.

One morning as deadline neared and they were still working it out, Thompson, who was known to have an affinity for controlled substances, told Johnson, "Our real drug of choice is adrenaline."

Johnson said Thompson was easiest to work with when he was covering a presidential campaign. But he was often just "riffing," Johnson said.

He fondly recalled one night when Thompson told him how he had tried to cheer up a friend who was scheduled to go in for back surgery. He took a bunch of explosives out to the backyard and stuffed them into his Jeep. As the hood flew into the air and the Jeep exploded into pieces, the two friends realized what they had projected into the sky would soon come back down.

"They are like dancing around with this shrapnel coming down," Johnson said.

Johnson told him to write it down and that became Thompson's next column.

Johnson said it seemed that part of the reason Thompson enjoyed writing his column for the Examiner was that he had a burning desire to be plugged in. In the days before the Internet, Thompson turned to Johnson to give him the latest news.

"By calling in, he could ask what was on the wires. He would ask me to read him stuff. That way he could be involved in the business," Johnson said.

And second: I've been hearing and reading some of the "Hunter went out on his own terms" and "Hunter never wanted to die in a hospital bed" stuff that's out there. I'm not buying the nobility or courage some seem to see in his suicide. God, or who- or whatever, rest his soul. But over the last few years, I've seen several people who were close to me die with what appeared to me to be real strength and forebearance — yes, even when they died in hospital beds. I've watched others go on with their lives despite the kind of loss I could hardly bear. From where I've watched, one thing they all seem to have in common is a belief that every day they got was a gift of some kind, if only a chance to see what would happen next, even when they saw the course their stories were taking. We're surrounded by people going through the same thing every day, really. Nearly silent. Barely seen. Never celebrated. But what courage.

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More Hunter

Just two things:

One, his most recent column at ESPN.com: “Shotgun Golf with Bill Murray.” I didn’t even know he was writing for ESPN.com. It”s actually an entertaining and at times lucid piece.

Two, just checking on Technorati to see how the blog people are taking the news. I’m surprised by how much comment there is, from the outright sappy (“Hunter, we hardly knew ye” — apparently meant seriously) to the self-consciously neo-gonzo (“Too wierd [sic] to live, too rare to die“) to the actually original and humorous (like the blogger who asks, “What kind of God lets Hunter S. Thompson shoot himself, but is cool with allowing Dan Brown [author of “The da Vinci Code”] to go on living?”).

Like I said, surprising. I assumed Thompson’s act was so old, inebriated, and stuck in the glory days of Nixon-McGovern that folks had moved on. Maybe “Doonesbury” and the movies (both the Johnny Depp one and the Bill Murray one) endeared him to the post-me (me, not Me) generation.

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Hunter Thompson

From The New York Times site, where I first saw the news (The Rolling Stone site, which still lists Thompson as “national affairs desk,” doesn’t have an item posted yet):

DENVER (AP) — Hunter S. Thompson, the acerbic counterculture writer who popularized a new form of fictional journalism in books like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” fatally shot himself Sunday night at his Aspen-area home, his son said. He was 67.

“Acerbic counterculture writer who popularized a new form of fictional journalism.” Well, the AP’s got to play it straight. But I don’t think a description like that begins to touch what Thompson did. What do they mean, “books like ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”? Fact is, there’s nothing like it. And what Thompson did wasn’t to popularize a new form of fictional journalism. He invented a new, sort of quasi-journalistic literary genre that challenged readers to figure out just what in it might reflect the writer’s experiences. The exercise was more to distill and intensify the reality he experienced. But no more stabs at explication and criticism from those ill-suited and unqualified to do it, like me.

The person I immediately thought of upon reading this news was Jay Johnson. Jay was one of the news editors at The San Francisco Examiner when Thompson was writing his column for the paper, and it often fell to him to be Hunter’s “editor” (he was just “Hunter” around the newsroom, though he was never there) — the person who would sweat in increasingly unquiet desperation as Hunter’s Sunday night deadline came and went. Hunter often (perhaps always, when it came to The Ex) communicated by fax. Back in the mid-80s, when Hunter’s Ex saga began, fax machines would accept and print out long scrolls, not neat single pages. And Jay would be the one who would get Hunter’s scroll. The column was typewritten, but it was usually preceded or accompanied by a long, scrawled personal note to Jay or maybe just an off-the-cuff diatribe to set the tone. Long after Hunter stopped writing the column, he’d still fax off his late night screeds to Jay. I sure hope he kept them. They’d be a minor (or, who knows in this world? — major) treasure.

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