Thoreau and the news

The first time I read Thoreau was in 8th or 9th grade English class, and I had no use for the guy. I grew up on a farm, feeling pretty disconnected from the modern world, and was pretty actively trying to connect to it. So I had little patience for some earnest jackass who preached about renouncing it.

But clearly, I had a pretty strong reaction, and he definitely touched a nerve. And I find little bits of Walden coming in to my head from time to time.

Every time I find myself getting a news addiction, I think of this:

After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe” – and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.

… And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter – we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.

…What news! how much more important to know what that is which was never old!

I find this kind of thing comforting when news cycles seem to be heating up, when world events seem to be impossibly dire. And I am occasionally attracted by more contemporary variations of this attitude.

I guess what I ultimately don’t buy is that withdrawal from the world is somehow the answer. I think that it’s better to stay engaged, while keeping it all in perspective. People have been feeling like the world is spinning out of control for thousands of years — O tempora! O mores! — and sometimes it is, but usually it isn’t. A coward dies a thousand times, etc. (which also comes straight to you from 8th grade English class…)

Nothing’s Sacred

TCM played Nothing’s Sacred the other week; I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s a fun 1937 comedy with Carole Lombard and Frederic March, in dazzling 1937 Technicolor.

The plot is that a New York reporter seeking a tear-jerking human interest story finds a young woman in rural Vermont who is supposedly dying of radium poisoning. She isn’t, of course; she was simply misdiagnosed by her alcoholic rural doctor (played by familiar character actor Charles Winninger), but she goes along with it to get a free trip to New York City on the newspaper’s tab. The city relishes mourning her, but hijinks ensue as it grows increasingly hard to fake her incurable fatal illness.

It’s a potentially dumb plot, but as with many potentially dumb plots, it’s all about the excution. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of little touches that are so thematically consistent that it all adds up to a pretty entertaining and smart satire. For example, at a night club event where Hazel, our heroine, is being feted as one of the great women of history (including a stage show with a parade of Catherine the Great, Lady Godiva, Pocohontas– all on horseback), an average film would have cut to shots of other clubgoers looking mournfully at her. But in this, there are little extra touches: one of the “mourners” makes sure her table companions are watching her before she begins weeping; Hazel says “look at how miserable that man in the toupeé looks” (it’s not enough for there to be a miserable man looking at her, he has to have fake hair).  And these individual acts of personal hypocrisy all add directly up to individual acts of public hypocricy. When she’s exposed as a fake to a small group of government officials and “community organizers” they force her to go through with a fake funeral because they have each individually found ways to politically profit from public sympathies to Hazel’s bravery in the face of her illness.

The staging and cinematography are surprisingly avant garde. Several shots where key dialogue is happening are made where the speakers are completely offscreen (or are obscured by some large object, and you only see the speakers’ feet). In the opening montage, there’s a gorgeous rare color shot of Times Square ca. 1937 at night.

The final scene, on a boat, where Hazel and the reporter are in dark glasses, making a getaway after her fake funeral, the reporter is lecturing Hazel on how quickly the public will forget her. Suddenly, from below, a voice is crying out “Hazel! Hazel!”. You see the doctor’s panicky face through a porthole, then you see the ocean as he sees it, and then he’s scrambling to get out of his room. “Hazel, the whole city is drowning!” And then “The End”. Like much of the movie, it’s sort of a cheap gag, “haha, the drunk doctor thinks they’re still in the city”, but with the preceding dialog and the way that it is cut abruptly short, there is more than a little hint that it’s meant as a little commentary as well.

It’s no surprise that writing credits were from Ben Hecht (Scarface, The Front Page (later remade as the fantastic His Girl Friday), and according to the IMDB, Ring Lardner Jr.

Every time you say “Sarah Palin” God kills a kitten

Seriously, I’m going to just stop talking about her (after this post).

She’s completely derailled what was an interesting presidential campaign, made it petty and predictable, and completely polarized the country along the same boring lines we had 4 years ago. Being a subscriber to Hanlon’s Razor, and with no clear Rovian evil genius strategist on the McCain team, I think her appointment was an act of desparation rather than evil genius. Still, just talking about her plays to McCain’s favor, so I’m stopping!

That’s “Palin” with a long “a”

Since I read news more often than I watch or hear it, I have had a hard time knowing whether Sarah Palin’s last name is pronounced with a long “a” or a short “a”.

And then I read that she gave her son the middle name “Van” because “Van Palin” rhymes with “Van Halen”, so now that’s all cleared up for me.

She was governor of a state that’s right near Russia, and she named her kid after a band who had a hit in the 80′s with a song called “Panama”. And you thought she didn’t have foreign policy experience…

Obama, Moon River, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Disclaimer #1: I know I’m about four days late in bothering to write about this; sorry, gang, I do sort of have a Real Life. Disclaimer #2: I’m going to assume you are aware that last week was the Democratic National Convention, that Barak Obama gave a speech, that you watched it, and that if you wanted a full rundown and insightful commentary that you have already gone elsewhere.

OK, here’s the line that caught me most:

Instead, it is that American spirit that American promise that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; That makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

Now, I’m glad I’m not the only one who instantly thought of Moon River at that line.

Two drifters
Off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world
To see…

We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting around the bend
My Huckleberry friend
Moon River and me…

I love this. I think it totally taps into a deep well of What It Means To Be American™, the sense that our hearts desire is somewhere out there just beyond reach…

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…and one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.