The Gritty, Edgy Moodiness of Film Noir: 24 Classic Examples

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If she is rude to the waiter, she will be rude to you.

If your dog dislikes him, walk away.  Slowly.

There is always a price to be paid for crossing the line.

Listen to your intuition.

Navigating through life would be so much easier if one always followed simple rules.   Too frequently, emotion trumps the rational mind, but a diversion away from one’s true course can provide an opportunity to learn valuable lessons — if one should be fortunate enough to survive, that is.
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Cinematic exploration of the triumph of passion over common sense is the domain of Film Noir, an outgrowth of European Expressionism, which flourished in America from the early 1940s through the late 1950s.  The creators of Noir crafted their gripping stories by thrusting realistically flawed characters into morally challenging situations; then, rather than fashioning contrived outcomes, stood at a discreet distance and allowed human nature to take its course.
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Most Noir films are “B” movies, the shorter pictures produced as undercards to the marquee features.  Constrained by small budgets, Noir offers crisp and sharp dialogue and tight plotting.  Short running times permitted none of the directorial self-indulgence endemic in modern-day film.
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The genre’s archetypical black-and-white photography (budget-driven, once again) and the predominance of nighttime or half-lit daytime settings infuse atmospheric moodiness with menace.
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Invariably the setting of a Noir — whether an opulent, hilltop apartment building in San Francisco, an unlit New York warehouse, a lonely desert road, or a dingy block of flats in a bleak Los Angeles neighborhood — is as essential to the story as any character in the film.
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Because the contemporaneous Hays Code governed the messages and images films were permitted to convey, a fortuitous circumstance for lovers of the genre, in Noir films all crimes, all sins, and all errors of judgement are punished.
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Inasmuch as motion pictures were a 20th-century contribution to the age-old tradition of transmitting life lessons through storytelling, Noir offered mid-century movie audiences a chance to engage in thought experiments — What if I were to give in to temptation?  What if I succumbed to the lure of something for nothing?  What if I took the wrong path?  What might happen? — within the safe realm of fiction.
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There are hundreds of films in the Noir anthology.  Today I would like to recommend to you two dozen sparkling gems for your viewing enjoyment.  Accompanying each title you will find a list of stars, the name of the director, the setting, a brief description, and a theatrical trailer.
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Classics of the Genre

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The four films listed here number among not only the best Noir of all time but also the best films of all time.

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Director: John Huston
Setting: San Francisco
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For a newcomer to Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is a must-see.  Boasting a tight, brilliant plot, impeccable dialogue, and several iconic and career-defining performances, gets better with each subsequent viewing.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: New York City
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A stylish, taut, and riveting drama.  As police detective Mark MacPherson (Andrews) gradually falls in love with the brunette (Tierney) whose murder he is called to investigate, he finds he is not alone in his obsession with the stunning Laura.
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Director: Billy Wilder
Setting: Los Angeles
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In this simple and compelling cautionary tale about the perils of passion, insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) finds the lure of illicit financial gain irresistible when his partner in crime is a knockout blonde (Stanwyck).
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Director: Tay Garnett
.Setting: the southern California coast
Drifter Frank Chambers (Garfield) succumbs to the charms of a blonde bombshell (Turner) after a chance stop at her husband’s gas station.  His motive for subsequent criminal acts — avarice, lust, or a desire to save a damsel in distress — becomes moot as a series of irreversible decisions dooms him and his paramour.
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The Element of Chance

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Some of Noir’s most compelling stories place characters in hazardous situations not entirely of their own making.  Three highly recommended masterpieces —

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Director: Rudolph Maté
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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To my mind, this film is a must-see.  It employs a brilliant and innovative premise: after discovering to his horror that he has been poisoned, a very ordinary accountant (O’Brien) devotes his few remaining hours on Earth to identifying his murderer.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: the central California coast
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Having run out of money to pay his fare, drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) stumbles off a bus at an unfamiliar hamlet on the central California coast, where he finds himself drawn into the inhabitants’ rivalries, hatreds, and crimes.  Preminger’s trademark mastery of atmosphere keeps viewers transfixed through the denouement.
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Setting: Los Angeles
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As amnesic U.S. Marine (Hodiak) returning home after World War II finds himself mistaken for a wanted murderer.
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Unwillingness to See or Reluctance to Act

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“If only he had seen her as she really was.”

“If only she had recognized the danger before it was too late.”

“If only he had had the strength of character to take the difficult stand.”

Human frailty provides a treasure trove of source material for Film Noir.  Three to watch —

Impact (1949)

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Stars: Brian Donlevy, Helen Walker, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Director:Arthur Lubin
Settings: San Francisco and Sausalito, California; Larkspur, Idaho

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Businessman Walter Williams (Donlevy) pays dearly for idolizing his glamorous and much younger wife (Walker) and refusing to see her as she is.
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Director: Robert Siodmak
Setting: urban eastern U.S.
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Washed-up boxer Ole Andreson (Lancaster, in his film debut) rejects the offer of a police job and opts instead for a criminal path that ultimately costs him his life.
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Settings: Multiple, including Lake Tahoe, California; Acapulco, Mexico; and New York City
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When an unexpected visitor turns up at the gas station he owns, retired private investigator Jeff Markham (Mitchum) finds to his chagrin that he cannot escape the errors of his past.
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Consequences of a Single Decision

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The knife-edge, yes/no decisions made in a fog of emotion and without sufficient input from the cerebral cortex produce fascinating storylines for Film Noir.  At times a viewer wants to reach through the screen to shake sense into a self-destructive character.  Five of the best —

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Director: Andre De Toth
Setting: Los Angeles
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A classic Film Noir set-up: insurance investigator John Forbes (Powell) is bored with his job and suffocated by the financial responsibility of supporting his loving wife (Wyatt) and exemplary young son in post-War Los Angeles.  When in the course of his work Forbes meets a beautiful gangster’s moll (Scott), he sets his feet on a path sure to destroy his life.
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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Settings: Reno, Nevada; rural Arizona; Los Angeles
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Embittered jazz pianist Al Roberts (Neal) makes a split-second decision to hide the body of a man he did not kill and thereby seals his own fate.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: Rural southern California; Baja California, Mexico.
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Two southern California pals (O’Brien and Lovejoy) tell their wives they are on a fishing trip when in fact they are bound for Mexico in search of extramarital excitement.  A stop to pick up a hitch-hiker upends their plans.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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Lonely San Francisco businessman Harry Graham (O’Brien) pursues a friendship with the attractive and intelligent Phyllis (Lupino) during his frequent work-related trips to Los Angeles.  A one-night tryst puts Phyllis and Harry into a bind that Harry resolves by breaking the law.
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Settings: Rural Wyoming; Los Angeles
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Two friends on a hunting trip (Ray and Albertson) stop to help two stranded motorists who turn out to be bank robbers on the lam.
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Capers and Action Films

Seabiscuit and John "Red" Pollard finally won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940, defeating stablemate Kayak II. It was Seabiscuit's third attempt to win racing's biggest prize at the time. They had been beaten a nose by Rosemont in 1937 and a nose by Stagehand in 1938. Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

By virtue of its taut plotting and crisp dialogue, Noir produced numerous riveting and satisfying films centered upon action and well developed set-piece capers.  Six not to miss —
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
Setting: Los Angeles
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Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) decides to undertake one last heist, a burglary of Santa Anita racetrack, before settling down to marry his girl (Coleen Gray).
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Director: Raoul Walsh
Setting: California, especially Los Angeles
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Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (Raft and Bogart) struggle with loan sharks, hitch-hikers, rough terrain, sleepless nights, and conniving women as they endeavor to scratch out a living in the trucking business.
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Director: Jules Dassin
Setting: California, especially San Francisco
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With the help of other drivers and a local prostitute, wildcat trucker Nick Garcos (Conte) wages war on an unscrupulous produce supplier (Cobb) in order to save his family’s business and preserve his father’s honor.
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Setting: Aboard a train from Chicago to Los Angeles
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A police seargent (McGraw) charged with escorting a gangster’s wife from Chicago to a Los Angeles courtroom, where she will testify against her husband, finds he is sharing the train with the hitmen she is trying to elude.
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Director: Don Siegel
Setting: San Francisco
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A San Francisco dope-smuggling ring that slips packets of drugs into tourists’ luggage is stymied when a drug shipment disappears from the custody of an innocent mother and her little girl.
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Director: Edward Dmytryk
Setting: San Francisco
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A mentally ill man terrorizes San Franciso by killing women with a sniper’s rifle, all the while penning desperate letters to the police in hopes that they will catch him.
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Relationships on the Edge

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The gritty realism of Film Noir produced some fascinating character studies focused on male/female relationships.  Three of the most engaging (and most chilling) —
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Director: Nicholas Ray
Setting: Los Angeles
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A budding romance between tempestuous screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and his new lady neighbor (Grahame) is badly strained when the police suspect Steele of murder.
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Director: Fritz Lang
Setting: Monterey, California
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Restless “black sheep” Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her family home after an ill-fated love affair.  She finds herself torn, with nearly disastrous consequences, between a level-headed man (Douglas) whom she finds boring and a difficult hothead (Ryan) whom she cannot resist.
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Director: David Miller
Settings: A cross-country train; San Francisco
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Successful playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) falls deeply in love with and marries dashing actor Lester Blaine (Palance).  Her discovery that he plans to betray her transforms her passionate love into murderous hatred.
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Living Too Close to the Edge: Remembering the Oakland Hills Firestorm on its 25th Anniversary

For several years in the 1990s, as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the Oakland side of the Bay — or the “East Bay,” as it is colloquially known.

California is by turns breathtakingly beautiful and suffocatingly crowded, serene and self-righteous, chaotic and bucolic.   After only weeks in residence, one can acquire a sense of living “on the edge,” only small steps from disaster.  Calamities in California are as dramatic as they are frequent.

Houses perched precariously in Santa Cruz or elsewhere on the coast occasionally tumble over the cliffs.

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Heavy rains lead to mud slides that in turn cause mansions in Marin County to toboggan downhill and collide with other houses.

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Forest fires scorch huge swaths of Southern California every summer.

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Nearly every year (or so it seems) drought conditions lead to the forced rationing of water, because California’s outdated reservoirs and water supply system cannot support its burgeoning population.

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A burning fuel truck can destroy a stretch of elevated highway and cause traffic snarls for months.

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Major geographic faults running through the state’s population centers – most notably San Francisco and Los Angeles – wreak periodic mayhem and cast a shadow of potential calamity over every day in those metro areas.  (See my first-person account of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.)

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Even the less famous cracks in the earth, such as the East Bay’s Hayward Fault (which bisects the University of California’s football stadium and forced the university to build that structure in two separate sections), are expected to produce major quakes in the near future.

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Much of California’s population, even in metro areas, lives in close proximity to canyons, ravines, arid grasslands, or woodlands.  It is on the interfaces between California’s human habitation and its wilderness, especially among the numerous steep hills, that the state’s disasters are most costly.

One such “interface” disaster occurred 25 years ago today, on the 20th of October, 1991.

It was a Sunday.  I lived in Berkeley at the time.  I remember noticing unusually strong winds rushing through the treetops and blasting away the clouds on that unseasonably warm day. I might even have thought, “This would be a terrible day for a fire,” although it is impossible for me to know now what is memory and what is hindsight.

Late morning, I was nestled in a papasan chair engaged in some mundane task — darning a sock? — when I noticed through a south facing window the sky had turned yellow.  Bizarre as that seemed, I did not pay it much heed.  Only after another quarter-hour or so, finally aware of the fire engines and emergency vehicles screaming southward past my house, did I step outside to see what was going on.

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Billowing over the steep hillsides east of the city of Oakland was a cloud of smoke the size of a small town.  A cacophony of sirens pierced the air.  The East Bay hills, home to numerous wooded residential areas, were burning out of control.

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The East Bay consists, essentially, of a very long hillside and mountain ridge that runs from Richmond in the north to Fremont and the Silicon Valley in the south, with Oakland and Berkeley roughly in the middle.  To the west is the San Francisco Bay.  From the shoreline, gently sloping flats extend eastward, gradually growing steeper and eventually merging with rugged foothills roughly six or seven miles inland.

Lower-income neighborhoods are situated in the flats.  Affluence of the cities’ residents correlates roughly with distance from the Bay, altitude of the neighborhood, and gradient of the local hills.  Many of the area’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and most of the largest houses, are located near the ridgeline and were on that October day most threatened by the ravenous blaze.

The East Bay fire actually started on October 19th, the night before the disaster.  Firefighters were called to a burning grassland high in the Oakland hills.  They believed (incorrectly, alas) that the flames had been quenched and the danger averted.

On the morning of the 20th, the grass fire flared up.  Southwesterly gusts up to 70 miles per hour spread the blaze rapidly from the prairie into adjacent woodlands.  Burning debris took flight on the winds, outpacing and overwhelming local firefighting crews.  Dense groves of Eucalyptus trees, whose oily wood burns at high temperature, crackled and exploded, flinging incendiary fragments onto nearby structures.  By midday, the conflagration had become a firestorm producing its own roaring winds.

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Crews from as far south as Bakersfield, as far north as the Oregon border, and as far east as Nevada fought the blaze as it spread from wood-shingled house to wood-shingled house in hillside neighborhoods.  Within the first hour, 790 structures had been destroyed.  At its peak, the 107-alarm fire consumed a house every 11 seconds.

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Firefighters were hampered throughout the chaotic day by a variety of problems, some preventable.  The neighborhoods’ winding, hilly streets were difficult for firetrucks to navigate, especially in smoke-limited visibility.  Radio communication was difficult, because fire companies used different frequencies.  The blaze knocked out power to 17 pumping stations in Oakland, causing some firefighters to run out of water.  The Oakland hydrants’ hose outlets were of a non-standard size, making them incompatible with hoses from some of the assisting companies.  Many streets were clogged with parked cars, some blocking fire hydrants.

(Don’t ever park in front of a fire hydrant!)

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As my housemates and I alternated between watching TV coverage in horror and gazing out our own front windows, the blaze raged wildly through the late afternoon.  I packed a go-bag and eventually spent the night at a friend’s house downhill.

Only a lessening of the wind speed at about 5 p.m. permitted the crews to begin to attempt containment.  The fire was not declared fully under control until 8 a.m. on October 23.

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My housemates and I were fortunate.  Located downhill and within urbanized south Berkeley, safely away from the flaming dense brush and vegetation, we avoided the fire.

Uphill of us was sheer devastation.  The blaze had consumed 1,520 acres of land and destroyed 2,843 single-family homes and 437 apartment and condominium units.

Twenty-five people were killed. One hundred sixty-three were injured.

In the weeks and months that followed, the devastated area was an eerie scar on the East Bay landscape.  Where once the slopes and canyons had been patched with greenery and dotted at night with street- and house-lights, the hillside was dull gray and perpetually dark.

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Even many months later, a drive through the afflicted neighborhoods found street after street in which all that remained of a household was a chimney and possibly a burnt-out car.

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(As a somewhat bizarre footnote, much the same area of the East Bay hills had burned in September of 1970.  Some families lost their homes in both 1970 and 1991.)

All the blighted neighborhoods have been rebuilt.  Modern homes have supplanted their gutted antecedents.  Trees, shrubs, and flowers have sprouted anew.

The replacement homes, finished in stucco or other fire-resistant siding, are safer than their predecessors, many of which were sheathed in highly flammable cedar shake shingles.

The Oakland and Berkeley fire departments have put in place protocols to ensure radio communication.  Oakland has built a new fire station in the hills and equipped all of its crews with improved wildfire fighting equipment.  Oakland also replaced its fire hydrants to ensure compatibility with standard hoses.

To this day, many residents of the East Bay (and elsewhere in California) continue to live on the interface with the wilderness.

Recent precautions and newly instituted safety measures notwithstanding, it is likely that the East Bay hills will burn again.

 

 

 

 

And They’re Off! Handicapping the 2016 U.S. Presidential Horse Race

Combat

In the heady early-morning hours of last November 5, when most of the 2014 U.S. midterm races had finally been decided and conceded,  weary political commentators sat and closed their eyes for a brief rest.  After only a few seconds, as a unit they rose, refreshed, and launched into speculation about the 2016 Presidential race.

Today, with 15 months until General Election ballots are cast, the 2016 Presidential field is the most crowded in history.  The first order of business is the Primary season, through which individual states, beginning with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, will help the parties to select their Presidential nominees.  Seventeen combatants are vying for the Republican nomination, while five have entered the Democratic race (so far; more on that below).

The race begins in earnest today with the first Republican debates.

I would like to offer some thoughts about what is at stake in this (and every) Presidential election.  I will briefly profile the colorful array of candidates and explain why the most important split in U.S. politics is not between the Democrats and the Republicans.

How Washington Works – A Citizen’s Summary

Capitol

The Federal government is divided into three ostensibly co-equal branches: the Executive, headed by the President and composed of a myriad of departments and agencies led by political appointees; the Legislative, comprised of the House and the Senate, and charged with oversight of and budgeting for the Executive branch; and the Judicial, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is charged with evaluating the Constitutionality of actions taken by the other two branches.

For more about the Founders’ Constitutional design for the Federal government, please see my post of last autumn entitled, “What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections.”

Today, official Washington, D.C., appears to be a den of iniquity fueled by money, avarice, power, and ego.  An incestuous network of consultants, lobbyists, and party leaders – many of whom are former government officials – works hand-in-hand with legislators and agency staff to craft laws and regulations.  Favors are sold to the highest bidder in exchange for campaign contributions, or for loan forgiveness, or for leniency in blackmail plots, or for Heaven knows what else.

Gargantuan Federal departments, many of which fall outside the scope of government as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, endeavor each year to spend or squander every penny of their annual budgets.  Perverse incentives dictate that any department not using its entire budget receives a smaller allocation for the next year.

Additional perverse incentives ensure that almost no Federal employee, regardless of level of incompetence, is ever fired.  Federal managers face mountains of paperwork if they ever wish to prune their dead wood.

Lawmakers and agency staff draft rules that micromanage citizens’ lives as well as industries across the economic spectrum.  In response, businesses, non-profits, and even foreign governments send lobbyists to Washington to represent their interests.  As the laws become more intrusive, lobbying increases, and the financial stakes grow.

Consequently, Washington’s entrenched leadership class, composed of long-term legislators, civil servants, consultants, lobbyists, and heads of non-governmental organizations (and their lawyers), is deeply invested in a system of graft that funnels money into their pockets (or, in some cases, into their campaign coffers) while shackling the citizenry with intrusive rules and regulations.

Ugly, isn’t it?  The stench hovering over Washington arises from more than its history as a swamp.

So what can be done?

The only way to reduce the corruption intrinsic to Washington, D.C., and practiced by both political parties, is to reduce the size and scope of the Federal government.  If regulations were scaled back, if laws were less intrusive, if taxpayer-funded handouts of “pork” were removed from Federal budgets, and if Federal departments and agencies were shrunk to more closely approximate the Founders’ vision, the need for lobbyists and consultants and their slush funds would evaporate.

None of these reforms appeals to the Establishment wing of either political party.

The Party Establishment and the Grassroots Rebels

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The Democratic Party, founded in early 1830s, and the Republican Party, founded in 1854, control the levers of power in the Federal and State governments.  Each party garners roughly half of the vote in any given election.

The “base,” or “grassroots,” of the Democratic party is an alliance of academics, ethnic minorities, highly-educated professionals, women, homosexuals, young voters, and organized labor.  In general, the Democratic base believes that government at all levels can and should be used as a tool to redress what they consider to be social ills.

By contrast, the Republican base, which is generally more Caucasian, more devoutly religious, less highly educated, and more tied to the business community, believes that the most effective solutions to social problems, and the means to prosperity for everyone, lie in the individual liberty and concomitant individual responsibility that have long been central to the American experience.  Individual liberty necessarily requires small government.

The parties’ bases disagree sharply regarding the size and role of government, but there is no such schism between the Establishment wings of the respective parties.  Both favor the type of vast and convoluted government that sustains the Washington graft machine.  Since they serve Washington and not the citizenry, both Establishment wings are increasingly isolated from their grassroots voters.

Although the Democratic Establishment shares with its base a commitment to big government, the Establishment allies itself with Wall Street, large corporations, and deep-pocketed donors to an extent that alienates some in the Democratic base.

The relationship between the Republican Establishment and its base is so frail as to be on life support.  The Republican base has become increasingly disillusioned by candidates who espouse small-government principles on the campaign trail and then drop any such pretensions when they reach Washington.  For its part, the Republican Establishment treats the small-government base and the candidates they prefer as contemptible impediments.  In the 2014 election cycle, the Establishment made its disdain for the base clearer than ever by employing underhanded tactics in several hotly-contested primaries.

Every four years, during the Presidential Primary season, each party’s Establishment and its wealthy donors, who are accustomed to buying what they want in Washington, fight tooth and nail to ensure that the party’s nominee is “one of them,” a candidate who can help to maintain Washington’s status quo.

The most important schism in U.S. politics is not between the Democrats and the Republicans but between the entrenched “leadership class” and the taxpaying citizenry.  Our leaders and their surrogates in the media spew fiery, hot-button rhetoric to divide us from each other, and specifically to make everyone hate the small-government Republican base, while their endgame is the protection of their cozy, gold-plated, communal feeding trough.

Thus are the battle lines drawn for the 2016 Primary election season.

Candidates in the Democratic Field

Donkey

From the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, conventional wisdom has suggested that selection of the Democratic candidate for the General Election would be less a nomination than a coronation.  In spite of four other candidates’ entry into the race, by media consensus the candidacy has until recently belonged to Hillary Clinton.

First Lady from 1992 to 2000, Senator from New York from 2000 to 2008, failed candidate for President in 2008, and Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012, Hillary Clinton has been preparing to assume the mantle of the Presidency for many years.  Perhaps out of determination to prevent surprises from derailing her triumphal run to the 2017 Inauguration, the reflexively secretive Clinton has run a hyper-controlled and almost opaque campaign this year, going as far as to refuse for weeks at a time to take questions from reporters and, later, to cordon reporters into a roped-off sidewalk corral.

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In recent weeks, though, Hillary Clinton’s inevitability has suffered a series of blows from scandals that one might argue have been self-inflicted.  Scandal is not new in Hillary Clinton’s career.  Its rich history dates back to her husband Bill’s days as Governor of Arkansas.  (One can find more by searching in either Google or Wikipedia on “rose law firm,” “whitewater,” “travel gate,” or “Hillary Clinton commodities investment.”)

What has most troubled the Democratic party about Clinton’s difficulties of late is that the scandals are starting to seriously erode Clinton’s poll numbers.  Recent polls have shown Clinton lagging behind Republican candidates in key swing states, rapidly losing her lead over the other Democratic candidates in early primary states, and – most damagingly – underwater (i.e., with more disapproving than approving) in national voter approval and trustworthiness numbers.

Some voters are bothered by Secretary of State Clinton’s failure to foresee or prevent the loss of four American lives on 11 September 2012 in Benghazi, Libya.  Others might be bothered by her having lied to the families of the Benghazi victims while standing in front of the flag-draped caskets recently arrived on U.S. soil.  Still others might be disturbed that as a self-described feminist she proffers nary a word against female genital mutilation, honor killings, child marriage, or other horrendous oppression of women and girls common in countries that just happen to donate to her family’s foundations.  The appearance of other corruption related Clinton foundation donations might alienate still other voters.  In addition, she faces tough questions and possibly a criminal indictment related to the illegal private email server that she maintained in her home during her tenure as Secretary of State.

It is because of Mrs. Clinton’s plummeting approval ratings that the Democratic Establishment, and specifically the party’s non-Clinton faction (which is rumored to hate the Clinton faction), has scrambled in the press in recent days to float other candidacies.  Rumors are flying that Vice President Joe Biden or current Secretary of State (and 2004 Presidential candidate) John Kerry might enter the race. In response, the Clinton campaign is suddenly calling for the party to schedule a debate, which forum Clinton (ever keen to maintain control) had previously resisted.

Four other candidates have entered the race for the Democratic nomination:

  • Lincoln Chafee, 62, former Senator from and current Governor of Rhode Island, a former Republican turned Independent turned Democrat.

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  • Martin O’Malley, 52, a former Governor of Maryland who is running third in most polls.

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  • Jim Webb, 69, former Virginia Governor, a Navy veteran and former college professor.

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  • Bernie Sanders, 73, Vermont Senator and devout socialist who is running second in most Democratic polls.

Sanders_Circle

Bernie Sanders has drawn strong support from the Democratic base with his advocacy for a high minimum wage, taxpayer funding of all university education, single-payer health care, and forced redistribution of wealth.  It is in part Sanders’ strong showing in head-to-head polls against Clinton that have prompted Democratic party leaders to look for a new frontrunner.

The Democratic field might change dramatically in the next two months.  The posturing, gambits, and chess moves promises to be fascinating to watch.

Candidates in the Republican Field

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The Republican Primary race offers the largest, strongest, and arguably most entertaining field in election history.  Among the contenders at the top of the polls are governors and former governors, Senators, and private citizens who have never held public office.  The field is also younger than usual and far more racially diverse than the current Democratic field.

Atop most polls is Donald Trump, outspoken 69-year-old real estate billionaire and TV personality.  Perhaps because he has no need to court campaign donors, Trump has set himself apart from his rivals with a series of brash denunciations of business-as-usual in Washington politics.

Trump_Circle

Trump’s appeal to the Republican base stems from his candor and his willingness to challenge the Republican Establishment.  His rocket-flight to the top of the polls ought to serve as a warning to the Establishment.  If party leaders commit the same error in 2016 as in 1996 (Dole), 2008 (McCain), and 2012 (Romney) – i.e., shoehorning their favorite candidate into the nomination – they will likely see in 2016 the same result: a loss in November.

The fire-from-the-hip impulsiveness that has propelled Trump to prominence may also be his undoing in the Primary race.  In light of his record of impolitic, unfiltered brashness, it is likely that eventually an outlandish statement will knock Trump out of the top tier of candidates.  If (when?) Trump falls, though, his supporters will not move en masse to the Establishment favorite.  This is an important point that seems to have eluded Republican party leadership.

In second or third place in most polls is Jeb Bush, 62, the former Governor of Florida, son of the 41st President, George H. W. Bush, and younger brother to the 43rd President, George W. Bush.  Jeb!, as calls himself publically in an effort to declare that he’s his own man, is the Establishment favorite.  He is unlikely to appeal to the base, because of his history of either hewing to the Establishment line on hot-button policy topics or, in a few recent cases, publically repeating Democratic talking points.  Bland and usually personable (except when name-calling at Donald Trump), he stumbled badly at the first candidates’ forum last weekend in New Hampshire, stammering throughout what one blogger called the worst performance of the evening.

Jeb_circle

Since Americans in general (and, historically, Republicans in particular) hate nepotism, Jeb faces a headwind by virtue of his last name that would persist after the end of Primary season if he were to secure the nomination.  He remains the party leaders’ top pick, though, because he would do their bidding.

Also consistently near the top of the polls is Scott Walker, 47, the current Governor of Wisconsin.  Walker is loathed, despised, and demonized by the media, because at the beginning of his term as Governor he took a stand against organized labor by partially restricting the collective bargaining rights of some public-sector unions in Wisconsin.  The ensuing high political drama saw weeks of protests carried out by teachers who were skipping school and culminated in the spectacle of Democratic state senators fleeing to nearby Illinois in an effort to scuttle the vote.  Walker and his legislative colleagues held firm.  The measure passed.  In the years since, Wisconsin municipalities have had an easier time making their budgets.  None of the dire consequences predicted by the State Capitol protestors has come to pass.

Walker_Circle

Walker is a bête noir to most of the media, but the truth is that he has done a good job as Governor of my home state of Wisconsin.  He took over a state with an ugly budget deficit and returned it to fiscal health.  Unemployment is down, taxes are down, and high school graduation rates are up.

To the Republican base, Walker represents victory for small-government principles.  He took controversial stands, held firm, and won legislative battles.  He has won statewide election three times – his original election in 2010, an attempted 2012 recall heavily funded by out-of-state Democratic interests, and his reelection in 2014.  Easy-going and articulate on the stump, he is said to have “won” the New Hampshire candidates’ forum.

If Trumps falls, Walker is one of the leading contenders to pick up his vote.  That said, Walker has yet to prove himself in national debates and specifically on foreign policy topics.  In my opinion, he would be well served if he were to drop his annoying habit (which he shares with a few other candidates) of referring to himself as “we.”

A candidate who arouses passionate feelings in both the base (admiration) and the Establishment (loathing) is 44-year-old Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Cruz has built a reputation during his two years in the Senate as a serious thorn in the side of the Establishment.  Cruz spearheaded several attempts to modify or overturn legislation especially troublesome to the Republican base, such as the Affordable Care Act.  Each such attempt was ultimately stopped by Republican Establishment leaders in the Senate.

Cruz_Circle

Cruz is a highly articulate advocate for small-government principles.  He comes across as a clear thinker.  Off-the-cuff, he can be a brilliant speaker.

Counting against Cruz is the fact that his admirable verbal agility might turn some in the base, which historically distrusts demagogues, against him.  The fact that his wife is an investment banker might also put off some base voters who are suspicious of the world of high finance.

Cruz has created such a strong brand for himself, though, that if he performs well in debates, “gotcha” media interviews, and campaign events, his base support could carry him to the Republican nomination.

A fifth candidate who is especially intriguing is Dr. Ben Carson, 63, who retired in 2013 after a brilliant career as a pediatric neurosurgeon.

Carson_Circle

Carson grew up in abject poverty in Detroit.  His single mother insisted that Carson and his brother read a library book every week and submit to her a book report, which she proceeded to mark up.  Carson has said that it wasn’t until years later that he had realized his mother had barely been able to read the reports that she had graded.

After allowing his hot temper to steer him badly as a youth, Carson turned his life around and earned high grades in high school.  He turned down an appointment to West Point in favor of a spot at Yale, where he studied psychology, followed by medical school at the University of Michigan.  While on the faculty of The Johns Hopkins University, Carson was renowned as one of the best pediatric neurosurgeons in the world.

Carson rose to political prominence in February 2013, when he delivered a National Prayer Breakfast speech sharply critical of the present government’s priorities.  Since entering the Presidential race, after a few rookie mistakes with hot-button media traps, Carson has presented a consistent message of small government and personal responsibility.

From a pollster’s standpoint, Carson’s greatest strength is his favorability.  According to a recent poll from Quinnipiac University, Carson is the least known of all of the current candidates, but among the poll respondents who do know him, Carson has both the highest favorability and the lowest unfavorability of any candidate in the field.  In short, when voters get to know Carson, they like him and what he stands for.

Carson is articulate, soft-spoke, thoughtful, polite, and better than any candidate I have ever seen at laughing at himself.  If he performs well in the Primary season’s test events, he could be one of the last few candidates standing.

The 12 remaining candidates in the race for the Republican nomination are, in alphabetical order:

  • Chris Christie, 52, the charismatic and bombastic Governor of New Jersey, who can be a riveting speaker but who, because of his behavior in 2012, is viewed by many in the base as self-aggrandizing and/or untrustworthy.

Christie_Circle

  • Carly Fiorina, 60, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who has distinguished herself in media confrontations on the campaign trail.

Fiorina_Circle

  • Jim Gilmore, 65, a U.S. Army veteran and former Governor of Virginia.

Gilmore_Circle

  • Lindsay Graham, 60, U.S. Air Force veteran and Senator from South Carolina, who made his name in the House of Representatives during the 1998 impeachment trial of President Clinton.  During his Senate tenure, though, Graham has taken some puzzling positions, seeming at times rather like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Graham_Circle

  • Mike Huckabee, 59, former Governor of Arkansas, TV host, and failed 2008 Presidential candidate.  Dispenses home-spun populism with unctuous charm.

Huckabee_circle

  • Bobby Jindal, 44, the very successful Governor of Louisiana and one of two southern Republican Governors of Indian descent.

Jindal_Circle

  • John Kasich, 63, Governor of Ohio and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Kasich has worked to shrink the size of government in Ohio, but for 2016 he seems to be trying to sell himself as an Establishment alternative to Jeb Bush.

Kasich_Circle

  • George Pataki, 70, former Governor of New York, who was in office during the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Pataki_Circle

  • Dr. Rand Paul, 62, an ophthalmological surgeon and current Senator from Kentucky, who launched himself from the Libertarian movement built by his father, Dr. (and former Representative) Ron Paul.  Recently Rand Paul’s campaign has faltered, because he is reportedly unwilling to give big donors the face time they require.

Paul_Circle

  • Rick Perry, 65, former Governor of Texas, U.S. Air Force veteran, and failed 2012 Presidential candidate. Perry might be the most genuine and likable candidate in the Republican field, but his proclivity for committing gaffes will probably doom his candidacy early on.

Perry_Circle

  • Marco Rubio, 44, Senator from Florida.  The Cuban-American son of a maid and a bartender, Rubio has parlayed his good looks, intelligence, and strong speaking skills into a leading spot among the Republican Party’s rising stars.  Because of positions he has taken in the Senate on a few hot-button issues, Rubio is not trusted by some in the base.  Also working against him is his susceptibility to stumbling when he is in the spotlight.

Rubio_Circle

  • Rick Santorum, 57, former Senator from Pennsylvania and failed 2012 Presidential candidate.  Santorum is an earnest and articulate advocate of a form of populism that fails to resonate with much of the Republican base.

Santorum_Circle

Tonight in Cleveland, Ohio, the Republican candidates will hold their first debate, which actually had to be divided into two sessions in order to accommodate the bumper crop of candidates.  The top 10 in recent polling will meet this evening at 8 p.m. EDT, while the remaining 7 will face off in an “undercard” debate at 5 p.m.

Predictions

The Democratic Side

As of today there is a Civil War brewing within the Democratic party that makes the Primary race very difficult for an outsider to predict.  If President Obama’s Justice Department proceeds on its current track toward indicting Hillary Clinton for crimes related to her private email server, the Party will probably find its nominee by enlisting someone, such as Joe Biden, who isn’t yet in the race.  If the Justice Department backs off, Hillary Clinton will almost inevitably be the nominee.

The Republican Side

Before considering 2016, a few words about what happened in 2012:

From the beginning of the 2012 Republican Primary season, a “non-Romney” candidate was always ahead of Mitt Romney in the polls: first Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Rick Santorum, the Newt Gingrich.  The fact that Romney never led until he only one opponent remained should have signaled the Establishment that the base didn’t like Romney.

Romney’s 2012 opponents all had attackable weaknesses.  After Rick Perry imploded from a debate gaffe, the Romney camp systematically took out his challengers through vicious ad campaigns and/or loaded debate questions, until Romney was the inevitable nominee.

At that point, the Republican Establishment arrogantly assumed that the pesky hayseeds in the base would do as they were told, swallow the candidate fed to them, and vote for Romney in November.  In this, the Establishment had miscalculated.  One reason Barack Obama won reelection, in spite of garnering fewer votes than he had in 2008, was that much of the Republican base stayed home, believing that the difference between a Romney presidency and an Obama presidency would be negligible.

(I think a Romney administration would have differed sharply from the current Obama administration in the foreign policy arena, but from the standpoint of size of government, the base voters who stayed home may have been right.)

In 2016, the “non-Jeb” field is much stronger than were the 2012 “non-Romneys” – better qualified, more experienced, more articulate, and less vulnerable to scandal.  The Republican Establishment will have a very hard time knocking off all of the “non-Jeb” candidates this time around.  I believe at least one from among Walker, Cruz, Trump, and Carson will finish the Primary season ahead of Jeb Bush.

 

That said, I will make one prediction with confidence: if Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton win their parties’ nominations, the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton.

 

Candidate photographs provided by Wikipedia.

 

Quote for Today

“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” ― Plato (ca. 425 – ca. 347 B.C.)

 

Happy First Birthday, Northwoods Listener!

Cupcake_Pens

A new adventure!  One year ago today, I published my first Northwoods Listener post, “3, 2, 1,…

Since that day, my 38 posts have drawn 8,449 views.  Readers have hailed from six continents and 82 countries, including such disparate lands as St. Vincent & and Grenadines, Moldova, Uganda, French Polynesia, Namibia, Vietnam, Jordan, Belarus, Indonesia, Slovenia, the UAE, Armenia, South Sudan, and Curaçao.

Twitter (1,418) and Facebook (956) have generated most of the traceable hits.  An additional 467 have come from search engines.  Among the 73 sets of search terms visible to me are these intriguing gems:

  • cary grant sunglasses north by northwest
  • russell wilson myers briggs
  • myers briggs russell wilson
  • cary grant puzzle 1000 pices
  • owen teale and final solution drama
  • frank pembleton ‘get out of my blood’
  • anthony quinn thanksgiving movie youtube christmas
  • the personable robin ellis
  • poldark the breathtakingly beautiful robin ellis
  • robin ellis has such a dreamy voice.

For those who are interested, here are the year’s eleven most popular posts, each of which was read more than 200 times:

1. Falling Hard for Captain Poldark (644 views)
A tribute to Robin Ellis, who portrayed the title character in the 1975 production of Poldark.

2. Going it Alone: Character Lessons from the Gladiatorial Combat that is Singles Tennis (576 views)
Gripping drama on the blazing-hot tennis courts of the 2015 Australian Open.

3. What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections (366 views)
A detailed preview of last November’s U.S. elections, written for an international audience.

4. It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog: Russell Wilson Proves the Experts Wrong (338 views)
A salute to the former Wisconsin Badger and current Seattle Seahawk star quarterback Russell Wilson, published four months before his catastrophic failure at the 2015 Superbowl.

5. Ninety Minutes that Changed the World: “Conspiracy” and the Wannsee Conference (290 views)
An historical perspective on the Wannsee Conference, the convocation of evil at which 15 representatives of the Third Reich set in motion the machinery for Hitler’s Final Solution.

6. San Francisco Cataclysm, 17 October 1989: The Day Baseball Saved Lives (222 views)
Memories of the magnitude-7.1 earthquake that rocked the Central California coast during the 1989 World Series.

7. Tennis on the Distaff Side: U.S. Open Preview, Part II of III (220 views)
A preview of the women’s singles competition at the 2014 U.S. Open, including players’ noise ratings.

8. I Was There: Remembering the MS Estonia Twenty Years Later (212 views)
My first-hand account of the horrors of the sinking of the MS Estonia.

9. From Forward Roll to Starring Role: Cary Grant’s Conscious Creation of Himself (210 views)
Archibald Leach’s transformation into Cary Grant.

10. Order out of Chaos: Life Lessons Learned by a Puzzling Aficionado (209 views)
The joys and challenges of assembling jigsaw puzzles, and lessons to be learned along the way.

11. Virtuoso Victor Borge, the Irrepressible “Clown Prince of Denmark” (204 views)
A paean to the always delightful Victor Borge, with excerpts of some of his best performances.

Among my personal favorites:

“Homicide, Sweet Homicide.” – Eight Reasons to Check out the Best Series Ever Produced for Network Television

ENFJ? ISTP? – I C U R YY 4 Me!

The Disco Beat: On the Fly with an Avian Impressionist

and

Close Encounters of No Kind in Particular.

 

To all my readers and followers, thank you!

 

P.S. Stick around.  I will return to full-time writing on the first day of September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revisiting Brideshead, Remembering Love, Recovering Hope

Castle_Howard_and_Fountain Castle Howard in Yorkshire

How does one in middle age recover the lost joy, innocence, and love of youth?  Is this possible?  Where does one start?

Such a quest frames the narrative of Brideshead Revisited (1981), one of the most highly acclaimed British miniseries ever produced.  Adapted from the novel by Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited centers on 40-year-old army officer Charles Ryder as he reflects upon his past in search of meaning.

JI_Soldier  Jeremy Irons as the 40-year-old Charles Ryder

Bored, apathetic, spiritually moribund, and middle-aged in every sense of the term, Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) finds himself unexpectedly billeted in 1944 at the grand country house, Brideshead, where he has known his happiest moments and greatest loves.  Serendipitously reintroduced to Brideshead, Charles embarks upon a voyage of recollection.  Most of the series’ narrative is presented in flashback.

Charles is introduced to Brideshead during the spring term of his first year at Oxford.  Through a series of memorable events ranging from the redolent to the sublime, Charles meets Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), the second son of the aristocratic Roman Catholic Flyte family.  Smitten with Sebastian’s golden-haired beauty and warmth, and overwhelmed by the Flytes’ wealth and sumptuous surroundings, Charles becomes Sebastian’s closest friend and constant companion.  Together they share holidays at Brideshead, where Charles becomes acquainted with Sebastian’s family.

JI_AA_Beautiful Charles and Sebastian at Oxford

The Flytes’ Roman Catholicism affects each member of the family differently and profoundly.  A self-consciously passive observer, Charles nevertheless finds himself embroiled in the family dramas.

Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom), inherited Brideshead as the sole surviving heir.  She is a devout Catholic whose primary concern is the family’s welfare.  Whether Lady Marchmain utterly fails to understand Sebastian’s character, or whether she understands him only too well, is a central question the series leaves unanswered.

CB Claire Bloom as Lady Marchmain

Sebastian’s father, Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), converted to Catholicism in order to marry into the Marchmain family.  When we first meet him, he has fled England and the Catholic church and set up housekeeping in Venice with his beautiful Italian mistress.

LO_2 Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain

Sebastian’s older brother, Lord Brideshead, or “Bridey,” (Simon Jones) is a serious Catholic intellectual who is thoroughly content shaping his life around his Church.  Bridey’s fluency with Catholic principles and his inclination to introduce them into casual conversation are alternately fascinating and frightening to the defiantly Agnostic Charles.

SJ Simon Jones as Bridey

The glamorous Lady Julia Flyte (Diana Quick) is a fallen Catholic.  When we meet her, she has just finished her first London season.  Acutely aware of the limits her Catholicism imposes on her marital prospects and of the restrictions the Church places on women, Julia struggles to reconcile her desire for a modern life with the dictates of her ancient faith.

DQ Diana Quick as Lady Julia Flyte

Lady Cordelia Flyte (Phoebe Nicholls) is a 13-year-old convent school pupil when the series begins.  She is a fervent Catholic who eventually answers the Church’s call to service during Europe’s chaotic 1930s.  Cordelia is also the only character in the story who understands Sebastian and possibly the only one who loves him.

PN_1 Phoebe Nicholls as Lady Cordelia Flyte

Sebastian is the emotional center of Brideshead Revisited even when he is absent from the screen.  Anthony Andrews infuses the character with such beauty, grace, and poignant vulnerability that the viewer falls in love with Sebastian as Charles does.   Sebastian’s burgeoning personal struggles through the series’ first several episodes are devastating to watch.  His absence from later episodes is an inevitably painful void.

AA_Seb_SadAnthony Andrews as Sebastian

The source of Sebastian’s anguish is never made clear.  Having seen the miniseries several times now, I am inclined to agree with the adult Cordelia’s belief that all of Sebastian’s problems stem from his resistance to his true vocation.

Sebastian’s heart is riven by diametrically opposed impulses, one, a longing for the comforts, rules, precepts, and promise of redemption offered by the Catholic church; the other, his rejection of Catholicism and its proponents in his life – most especially his mother – that drives him to destroy the repository of his Catholic impulses, himself.

Because Charles is not a Catholic, and because (as we learn in the series) he is markedly lacking in compassion, he is ill-equipped to understand Sebastian’s behavior.  Sebastian’s gradual alienation from his only friend exacerbates his misery and accelerates his decline.

When we last encounter Sebastian, he has fallen into a perverse living arrangement that enables him to indulge simultaneously his penchant for Catholic service and his impulse for self-destruction.

JG  John Gielgud as Edward Ryder

The Brideshead Revisited miniseries is an artistic masterpiece.  Its writing is outstanding.  The acting is uniformly excellent.  Especially noteworthy are John Gielgud‘s wickedly funny turn as Charles’ passive-aggressive father Edward Ryder and Nickolas Grace‘s portrayal of the flamboyant Anthony Blanche, voluptuary and sage.

NG  Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche

The production spared no expense in presenting a visual cornucopia of settings, costumes, vintage cars, trains, and Art Deco interiors.  Brideshead’s stand-in, the stunning Vanbrugh-designed Castle Howard, is a character unto itself.

Here Sebastian introduces Charles to the Brideshead estate during a magical summer holiday.

 

In this scene set in Venice, Lord Marchmain’s mistress, Cara, tactfully cautions Charles about the Marchmains and Sebastian.

 

At least as indelible in memory as the series’ lavish settings is its plaintive, iconic chamber music score composed by Geoffrey Burgon.  An except of the score is presented here.

 

Brideshead Revisited is somewhat unusual among dramas written in first person in that the narrator is not a completely sympathetic character.  As the story unfolds, the viewer sees that Charles can be cold, selfish, cruel, standoffish, and judgmental to an extent to which he himself is apparently unaware.

As an aside, Charles Ryder is the first in a long line of obsessed characters portrayed on film by Jeremy Irons.  (See The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Damage, M. Butterfly, Die Hard with a Vengance, Lolita, and Longitude.)

The Brideshead Revisited miniseries is available in a new 30th Anniversary DVD or Blu-ray collection.  Complete episodes are also available on YouTube.

Since this snowy winter promises to linger for weeks to come, I strongly recommend Brideshead Revisited as a sumptuous, heartwrenching, and thought-provoking viewing experience.  I promise you will never forget it.

AA_DQ_JI_House

 

Ninety Minutes that Changed the World: “Conspiracy” and the Wannsee Conference

Heil

Seventy-three years ago, on the bitterly cold afternoon of 20 January 1942, 15 men representing a patchwork of National Socialist (Nazi) military and civilian bureaucracies gathered in a villa outside Berlin.  For 90 minutes they met in formal conference and informal discussion.  They drank beer and scotch and enjoyed a buffet luncheon of the finest delicacies available in wartime Germany.  By all surviving accounts, the conversation over food and drinks was convivial and relaxed.

The goal of the meeting – its “deliverable,” in modern business jargon – was approval of a document to be disseminated to the heads of the departments represented around the table.  Before the meeting adjourned, each of the 15 men present had officially endorsed the document.  Each departed the villa with instructions to communicate details to his superiors and to no one else.

An SS officer edited the meeting’s transcript and distributed numbered copies to the attendees with orders that the transcripts be destroyed after reading.  Fortunately for posterity, one attendee disobeyed that order and kept a transcript in his files, where it was discovered by an American investigator in 1947.

That meeting –  the Wannsee Conference – forged the Schutzstaffel (SS) plan for the assembly-line deportation and murder of all of Europe’s Jews.

In addition to a fundamental opposition to Communism, the precepts underlying Nazi ideology were based upon “racial hygiene,” i.e., a belief that Germans were superior to all other races and a belief that Germans were therefore not only entitled but required to conquer neighboring lands and eliminate or enslave “undesirable” races, thereby appropriating Lebensraum (room for living) for their master race.  The Nazis especially hated Jews.  When the Nazis rose to power in January of 1933, the persecution of Jews, which had been widespread and informal in Europe for many centuries, became codified official state policy.

The April 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service and other similar laws barred Jews from serving as lawyers, teachers, musicians, doctors, tax consultants, judges, and civil servants.  The Nuremberg Laws, passed in September of 1935, defined racial Jewishness, outlawed the social mixing of Germans and Jews, and stripped Jews and other non-Germans of citizenship.  Throughout the 1930s, systematic persecution destroyed many Jewish-owned businesses and forced Jews from their homes.

Some Jews chose to remain in Germany, believing that since they and their families had been German for centuries they would be spared.  Others fled.  By the beginning World War II in September of 1939, roughly 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had emigrated.

Some Jews who wanted to leave Germany were unable to do so because of strict immigration quotas, exorbitant fees, and restrictive visa laws in receiving nations, including the United States.  U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Roosevelt’s advisors, and many members of Congress were unwilling to increase quotas on Jewish immigration in spite of horror stories reaching them from across the Atlantic.  Although the U.S. did admit quite a few Jewish actors, film directors, musicians, writers, and scholars fleeing Nazi persecution, Jewish refugees with less impressive curriculum vitae were turned away.  The shameful saga of the MS St. Louis, a ship full of European Jews turned away from the U.S. and sent back, is especially egregious.

During World War II, the Nazis committed against non-Germans atrocities too numerous to list here.  Months before their invasion of Poland, for example, the German leadership ordered the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia and others in the Polish ruling class.  By the end of 1939, approximately 65,000 civilians in Poland had been murdered by specialized Einsatzgruppen.

The Nazis officially planned and carried out mass starvation of Slavic peoples – considered by them to be inferior – in order to secure a steady supply food for themselves.  By the end of the war, an estimated 4.2 million people in portions of the Soviet Union occupied by Germany had died as a result of such deliberate and strategic starvation.

For the Jews, the Nazis planned not population reduction (as for the Slavs) but total annihilation.  Extermination of the Jews was a central goal of Nazi war plans.  Near the end of the War, when the German military badly needed resources and personnel in order to conduct its operations in the field, it was on the evacuation and murder of Jews – and especially of Hungary’s Jews – that the German leadership focused its efforts.

Early in the War, the Nazi approach to eliminating Jews was ad hoc and varied, at times spearheaded by official military Einsatzgruppen and at other times carried out by enthusiastically anti-Semitic natives of conquered lands.

In July of 1941, Reichsminister Hermann Göring ordered Reich Security Chief Reinhard Heydrich to formulate a “total solution to the Jewish question,” an official protocol for the elimination of Jews from German-held territories, which they intended would ultimately encompass all of Europe and the British Isles.

Heydrich’s original plan involved deportation of all Jews to slave labor camps in Siberia, where they would be worked to death.  When the tide of war turned against Germany in late 1941 (as a result of Germany’s declaration of war against the U.S. and a successful Soviet counterattack in Russia),  Heydrich, whom even Hitler described as “the man with the iron heart,” and who was known as “The Butcher of Prague” for his barbaric suppression of Czech resistance movements, shifted his strategy from deportation of the Jews to wholesale slaughter.

Heydrich devised a detailed scheme whereby Jews from all regions under German control would be evacuated to camps in Poland, where they would be exterminated.  The plan was to be overseen and carried out entirely by the SS, which would have jurisdiction for the purposes of Jewish affairs over every agency in Hitler’s complex web of sometimes redundant bureaucracies.

Wannsee Conference invitees were told in advance that at the meeting they would discuss the disposition of “the Jewish question.”  As lawyers, accountants, military commanders, and stake-holding representatives of government departments, the invitees must surely have believed that they would be able to contribute useful ideas to the discussion.

In reality, plans for The Final Solution had already been drawn up in advance of the meeting.  Heydrich’s true purpose was to present the plans to representatives of the most affected agencies, extract acquiescence from each attendee (via threats, if necessary), and assert the supremacy of the SS in all matters related to Jews.

Heydrich’s management of the meeting was menacing and brilliant.  While feigning openness to discussion, he presented his fait accompli, demanding obedience and simultaneously rendering each attendee complicit in mass murder.

The Wannsee Conference has been dramatized twice for the screen.  I have not seen the 1984 German production entitled Die Wannseekonferenz, which is reputed to be excellent.

The 2001 HBO film Conspiracy is outstanding.  I highly recommend it for its historical content and for its top-flight acting, writing, cinematography, and art direction.

As is the case for the German film, the meeting scenes in Conspiracy hew faithfully to the surviving transcript.  The characters’ informal conversations are cleverly written to introduce personalities and to plausibly set up some of the exchanges that take place at the conference table.

Conspiracy features Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich – a role that he described as one of the most difficult of his career.  Branagh delivers a charming and coldly psychopathic Heydrich who anchors the story with soft-spoken menace.

Stanley Tucci portrays a hyper-controlled Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who at the Wannsee Conference was Heydrich’s subordinate but who was to assume control of The Final Solution following Heydrich’s assassination by Czech partisans in June of 1942.

Colin Firth delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Nuremberg Laws co-author Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, who, though a rabid anti-Semite himself, eloquently and vehemently opposes the SS extermination program on legal grounds.

Firth_as_Stucker Firth as Stuckart in Conspiracy.

The great Shakespearean actor David Threlfall portrays Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery, whose impassioned pleading offers the strongest opposition to the meeting’s deadly plans before he finally capitulates in the face of Gestapo threats.

The rest of the cast is a terrific ensemble of some of the decade’s best British actors.  Many have since achieved fame through parts in popular TV series and films: Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey), Ben Daniels (House of Cards), Brian Pettifer (Hamish Macbeth), Nicholas Woodeson (Rome), Ian McNeice (Rome), Kevin McNally (the Pirates of the Caribbean films), Jonathan Coy (Downton Abbey), Owen Teale (Game of Thrones), and Peter Sullivan (The Borgias).  A young Tom Hiddleston appears in a small role as a radio operator.

I have seen Conspiracy several times and derive new lessons from each viewing.  One clear message is that a civilized nation must have founding principles and a written constitution to which all laws must be securely anchored.  Without such principles, law becomes arbitrary, and the civilized and consistent Rule of Law can be replaced by the capricious Rule of Men (which inevitably becomes Rule of the Most Heavily Armed and Most Unscrupulous Men).

The individual characters’ dramas in Conspiracy serve as warnings about “The Banality of Evil” – a term coined by Hannah Arendt to characterize a particular form of human evil resulting from unquestioning conformity, poor quality of thought, formulaic reaction, and other sheep-like behavior.  Like other horrors perpetrated by 20th-century totalitarian states, the Nazis’ Final Solution was carried out by individuals “following orders,” who did not want to “make waves,” and who were unwilling to take principled stands against the evil around them.

In the memorable words attributed to Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), “All that is required for evil to flourish in the world is for good men to do nothing.”

 

Quote for Today

“Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East.  Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes.  The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival.” – SS-Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant-General) Reinhard Heydrich

 

 

 

Virtuoso Victor Borge, the Irrepressible “Clown Prince of Denmark”

VB_Medals

Børge Rosenbaum was born into a musical family in Copenhagen in January of 1909.  A child prodigy, Rosenbaum took his first piano lesson at the age of two, gave his first recital at the age of eight, and embarked upon a brilliant concert career at the age of 17.

In 1933, Rosenbaum began injecting humorous interludes into his concerts, producing a blend of comedy and musical excellence which to this day no one (with the possible exception of Danny Kaye) has been able to match.  Rosenbaum carried his wildly popular act across western Europe in the late 1930s, incorporating anti-Nazi jokes into his topical comedy routines.

Through amazing good fortune, Rosenbaum happened to be on tour in Sweden when Nazi Germany invaded his homeland.  Rosenbaum escaped into Finland and fled Europe on the last available westbound ship out of Petsamo, Finland.  He arrived in the United States in August of 1940 carrying only $20. and knowing almost no English.

Soon after reaching the U.S., Rosenbaum was turned down for a job as a gas station attendant because of the poor quality of his English.  Within a few months, though – having learned English by watching movies – he was performing on the radio as “Victor Borge” and adapting his comedy routines for English-speaking audiences.  In 1942, Borge was named the Best New Radio Performer of the Year.  By 1946, he was the star of his own weekly radio show, in which he honed the musical comedy skits that were to delight audiences for the rest of his life.

In the 1950s, Borge enjoyed a smashing stage success in the longest running one-man show in the history of Broadway.  He appeared in films, thrilled audiences as the vamping guest conductor for symphony orchestras, and was completely at home playing for children on Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and The Muppet Show.

VB_with_a_Muppet

Victor Borge performed on stage until the week before his death at the age of 91 in December of 2000.  His unique blend of warmth, deadpan humor, impeccable comic timing, and piano virtuosity produced gales of laughter and made him a beloved and respected figure around the world.

Much of Victor Borge’s repertoire is now available on YouTube.  Here are some his most famous vignettes:

William Tell Upside-down

This short skit is a typical Borge blend of music and comedy.  (Rossini would flip!)

 

“The History of the Piano”

I vouchsafe that it is impossible to watch this Borgeian history lesson without bursting into laughter.

 

“The Page Turner”

 

“Hands Off”

 

“Dance of the Comedians”

Here Borge makes life difficult for symphony musicians.

 

“Phonetic Punctuation”

One of Borge’s most famous skits!

 

“Inflationary Language”

Borge “inflates” a text by raising the value of every appearance of a number, whether intentional or accidental.  As Wikipedia describes it:

‘”Once upon a time” becomes “twice upon a time,” “wonderful” becomes “twoderful,” “forehead” becomes “fivehead,” “tennis” becomes “elevennis,” [and] “I ate a tenderloin with my fork and so on and so forth” becomes “‘I nine an elevenderloin with my five’k’ and so on and so fifth.””

I feel very fivetunate to be able to see this on YouThreebe.  (Pun inelevended.)

 

 Quote for Today

“Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” – Victor Borge