Bob Kerrey’s Burden

If you haven’t already read Bob Kerrey’s “confessions” to the New York Times and CBS’ 60 Minutes by now, you owe it to yourself. It is a stirring, compelling story.

It seems unfair to summarize this riveting account, but the basic facts are important. In February 1969, Bob Kerrey, a Lieutenant, the commander of a Navy Seals Squad, led his men into the village of Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta. Shots were fired. “Thirteen to twenty” unarmed women and children were dead.

That’s really all there is. Well, you know, there is of course a long story with it. No one can live with himself having murdered twenty women and children without have a long story about it. And I don’t necessarily mean that Kerrey excuses his actions. But I do mean that when you add a long story and you admit that you are confessing a terrible secret and the secret is that you murdered twenty women and children, the truth is that you believe that what you did was different in some way from what a cold-blooded murderer does but very, very awful, but different, but awful… well, how far back can you step, from the basic facts? On my first reading of the account published in the New York Times, it certainly struck me that Bob Kerrey was confessing to a very serious crime. Just above his confession is a link to a story about attempts to prosecute the men who set a bomb off at a church in 1963 in Alabama which killed four children. You understand: we are trying to prosecute these men. And I had to wonder, of course, if anyone is going to try to prosecute Bob Kerrey.

Kerrey tells us that the women and children were killed because someone fired upon them and his men returned fire, and when they examined the bodies, they found only women and children. But he admits that before they returned fire, and before someone allegedly fired upon them, they had already murdered an old man and an old woman and three children in a hut on the outskirts of the village. If there is ambiguity about what happened to the people in the village proper, there is no ambiguity about the actions of the men earlier. They were afraid that these villagers would reveal their presence to the others.  They were not soldiers: they were civilians.  They had to be silenced. They were murdered.

Gerhard Klann, who was with Kerrey that night, doesn’t agree with Kerrey’s version. Neither does Mike Ambrose, who was also there, nor a Viet Namese woman who claimed to have witnessed the incident. Pham Tri Lahn.

Klann says they were never fired upon. Instead, they rounded up the women and children and when they realized that the man they were looking for, a Viet Cong officer, was not present, they decided to kill the villagers. They did not want to leave witnesses to the earlier murder of the grandparents and three children, and they did not want any enemy in the area to know they were there. Of course, as the Times points out, firing your weapons would certainly give away some information about yourself.

Now, there are a lot of people out there who will immediately object to my use of the word “murder”. I would expect they would argue all or any of the following:

1. “civilians”– women and children included– were known to operate as part of the Viet Cong and sometimes killed unsuspecting U.S. soldiers, therefore, Kerrey was justified in treating them as a threat to their lives.

2. This was war, after all, so you have to accept civilian casualties. The normal rules don’t apply.

3. It was all a regrettable mistake, but not something you could compare to a deliberate act under entirely different circumstances. The men were justifiably frightened.

The trouble is that all Western nations agree that, even in hostile territory, the deliberate murder of unarmed civilians is not permitted. This is the military speaking– not some pie-in-the-sky liberal pacifist. This is the standard that German officers were held to at Nuremberg. This is the standard that the U.S. has publicly agreed to in treaties and protocols signed and ratified by the government. This is the standard we are holding above the thugs and murderers of Kosovo and Serbia.

The trouble is, the civilians were unarmed. They did not attack the soldiers. They did not call out for help from hiding Viet Cong commandos. They did as they were told. They waited for the men to complete their search. Then they were shot in cold blood.

The trouble is that even if Kerrey’s account is to be believed– that they were fired upon first and that they returned fire in self-defense– they still murdered the old couple and three children in the first “hooch” in cold blood. That is a war crime. That is cold-blooded murder.

And Kerrey’s account is troubling. If they were fired upon first and returned fire in a random, panicked spree of self-defense… why were all of the civilians killed? Were none wounded?

In the movie, “The Great Escape”, a German officer informs an American commander that a group of the escapees were killed while fleeing their pursuers. “How many,” asks the American, “were wounded”. The German officer, whom we are given to understand is a honorable man fighting for the wrong side (a typical myth of militarists everywhere: that honorable men can fight for evil causes and still be “honorable”) painfully admits, “none”.

We know exactly what he means. And we know why it is so troubling that Kerrey tells us that none of the unarmed villagers were “wounded”. This is the part of the evening that Kerrey, while claiming to have made a damning confession, refuses to discuss.

There are strange ambiguities in the world. We still prosecute Nazi war criminals when we find them. We’re trying to prosecute the murderers of those four black girls in Alabama in 1963. An international tribunal in Holland is trying to bring Milosevic and his cronies to justice for similar crimes.

We throw children and young adults into brutal prisons for long terms for smoking a harmless weed. We try to impeach presidents for having sex with women they are not married to. We ruin the lives of athletes and politicians and business executives who lie or cheat or harass.

In Viet Nam, on a dark night thirty years ago, a group of American men entered a village and murdered 20 civilians. I think Kerrey is genuinely sorry it happened. But so is everybody.


Why did Kerrey do it? Why is he talking about this now?

His given reason is the usual rationale for salacious talk-shows: to advance healing. To bring closure, of course. Peace of mind. You know. And prevent if from ever happening again. But one has to consider that Kerrey ran for the Democratic nomination for President once upon a time and, with Bush not doing anything to dispel the notion that he is the country’s luckiest bozo, might run again. Suppose he was considering running in 2004. Suppose he was worried about the scrutiny his war record would have received had he become the Democratic nominee. Suppose he thought it might be smarter to get it all out now. It’s never a scandal if it’s already public knowledge (Clinton’s stupid mistake was, of course, lying about Lewinski– not the sex itself). Heck, it might even help him. He would have his war record credentials (he served, didn’t defer, didn’t dodge) front and centre, and the confessional aspect of it all might have endeared him to the public I don’t know if that’s what Kerrey is thinking, but you’d be a fool to not tuck this possibility into the back of your mind somewhere and save it for 2004..

In an eerie echo of Viet Nam era propaganda battles, Kerrey now accuses CBS and the New York Times with “collaboration” with the enemy. Uh, Bob, this is 2001…. And Bob, it doesn’t dignify you to sling mud no matter how much you disagree with the information posted in the New York Times or on “60 Minutes”


Has the story taken an even uglier turn? Kerrey met with six of the seven members of his commando team on April 27th for a long, evening meeting. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to get their stories straight. The six emerged from the meeting all agreeing that they had been fired upon first by the enemy before returning fire. They all denied that villagers had been rounded up and shot.

What is kind of strange here is this: Kerrey has admitted to an act that certainly should raise questions about criminal prosecution. Then he held a meeting with all the American witnesses– except for Gerhard Klann, who denies that shots were fired at the commandos– to coordinate their stories. If Kerrey had been charged, it would be illegal, of course, for witnesses to gather together to “get their story straight”.

Kerrey and the six commandos then issued a press release insisting that they had been fired upon first. Why should we believe this account? To contradict this story would be to admit to cold-blooded murder, and the six ex-commandos would not likely embrace any other alternative. I’m not saying that we know their statement is false. But no court of law in America would accept or even allow the testimony of six witnesses who met together prior to giving testimony in order to coordinate their stories.

It should be noted that there are problems with this story in any case. First of all, none of Kerrey’s men were wounded. Secondly, all of the villagers died in the first hail of bullets, according to Kerrey. They all died? Not a single survivor? Not a single wounded? This strains credulity.

Kerrey also initially denied that he had anything to do with the murder of an old man at a “hooch” (hut) at the outskirts of the village. Now he admits, “we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected”. Oh the euphemisms! This one smells. Try “we killed several villagers at the outskirts of Thanh Phong so they wouldn’t give us away.”

“The unanimous view of the six was that we were young men and we did what was right and what was necessary”. The defendants have spoken: they’re not guilty. Think about it. He can’t have it both ways. Either the civilians were killed in cold blood or you were shot at and there is no need for the “we were young” and the “right and necessary”. No need at all.

What has being “young” to do with it? What is he trying to excuse, for which we would be less forgiving if they had been “old”? 2008-05

One last note: Kerrey received a medal for this action. Think about that. No Viet Cong were killed. No military objectives were achieved. The raid was not even successful in any sense at all. But, by golly, you get medals for failure in the army.

The “High-Quality” TV Show

The networks argue that there have been fewer and fewer local programs and that viewers much prefer to watch what the networks have to offer anyway. The networks, also noting the continued loss of their audience to cable TV, say they need to accrue more control to be able to afford the high-quality shows the viewing public expects of them. NY Times, April 23, 2001

I love that last line: “The high-quality shows”… like the Bette Midler Show? Two Guys and Girl? The Geena Davis Show? Donny and Marie? “Veronica’s Closet”? Mr. Ed? “Family Law”? “Survivor”? “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire”? Reminds me of Eli Lilly’s claims that women and physicians simply demanded that they repackage Prozac as pastel-coloured “Sarafem”, as a treatment for a mythical disorder called PMDD (PreMenstrual Dyphoric Dysfunction).

What people want? Or what insiders demand? What friends and cronies can arrange?

“What About Raymond” is produced by a company owned by David Letterman. “Veronica’s Closet” is owned by the makers of “Friends”. Disney, which owns ABC, also owns Touchstone Television, which produced “Once and Again”. All of these shows might well have been cancelled had it not been for the connections to the right people. What about all the children’s shows with tie-ins to toy manufacturers and fast-food outlets and record companies? What about idiotic “reality” shows that are simply extremely cheap to produce?

It’s one thing to be a greedy corporation. It’s one thing to be greedy and dishonest. But when corporations try to tell us that we really want the tackiest, most exploitive, and stupid products– nay, that we demand these idiocies… It reminds me of when I complained to the post office about the crap they stick in my mail box every day. They actually tried, with a straight face, to tell me that most people actually want the information in those fliers.

My response is always this: if you really believe that, would you agree to abide by the results of a poll of what people really want?

The question is, should people have a choice about the crap that gets stuffed into their mailboxes, or on their tv screen, or their computer desktops?

Satirical Misappropriation: Gone With the Wind

Randall said she did not know about any of that. “It was just my simple understanding that I thought you were allowed to write parodies in America,” she said, “I have read parodies, and I wanted to write one.” NY Times, April 26, 2001

Alice Randall, a black country and western song-writer, has written a novel called “The Wind Done Gone” which sounds like it might be a wonderful parody of “Gone With the Wind”. But the soul-less Scarlet police who guard the “legacy” (ha ha ha) of Margaret Mitchell’s ridiculous novel have taken Randall to court to prevent her novel from being published by Houghton-Mifflin (preview copies now fetch $250 each on eBay). They have argued that the novel is an infringement of copyright because she uses characters and settings from the original Mitchell novel.

Well, duh.

Exactly how would you do a parody without referencing the subject of the parody?

A Federal District Court in Atlanta decided that Randall would just have to do her parody without the subject. It ruled that Houghton-Mifflin could not publish and sell her book. The ruling is being appealed.

And it should be. It’s a dumb ruling.


Update – May 25, 2001: A higher court has just ruled that publication of the book can proceed, because the lower court’s ruling makes too great an infringement on the right of free speech, because it is “prior restraint”.

Interesting note: Microsoft, Dow Jones & Company, and AOL Time Warner have filed briefs in support of Ms. Randall. I’m not sure why, but it’s curious.

Three Bad Stories

The four officers were found to be defending themselves when they fired 41 shots at the West African immigrant, striking him 19 times, two police sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press.

The four officers — Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy — encountered Diallo in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building on Feb. 4, 1999, while searching for a rape suspect. They opened fire when they saw what they thought was a gun; it turned out to be his wallet. All four were acquitted of criminal charges last year. New York Times, Thursday, April 26, 2001

Sometimes a story hardly needs comment. The seeds of it’s own outrageous absurdity are already planted, in all their imminent glory, in the very words that tell the tale. In this case– “41 shots”. The only thing left to comment on is the bizarre distortion applied to an issue like the Diallo case because the bar of absurdity has been raised so high. Those who defend the police argue that because Diallo was reaching for his wallet– which some reasonable people might regard as a rather foolish thing to do with a number of New York’s finest closing in aggressively– the police are justified in applying lethal force. The argument appears to be that the police, given their dangerous occupation, can’t afford to wait to see if it really is a wallet. Thus if they win the point that the officers thought it might have been a gun, which is the only point they have a chance of winning, they would seem to prevail and the officers would get off scot free.

But the real issue is the 41 shots. There were four officers. If they had each fired once or twice, you could argue that they were jittery and too quick and maybe even incompetent. If that had been the case, they should simply have been fired. In a dream world, good heavens, they might even have been charged with criminal negligence. But the fact that each officer fired and fired and continued to fire can only be explained by one thing, and that is that they wanted to make sure that nobody was going to survive to go to court and testify that four big, mighty, manly New York police officers went ballistic and fired their guns at him for no good reason at all.

In reality, even if Diallo had been reaching for a gun, the officers, by any reasonable standard, should still have been charged with murder, because there were four of them, and because they obviously had no intention of arresting or disabling or wounding Diallo: they fully intended to kill him.

As it turns out, they may have correctly surmised that a dead Diallo would be easier to deal with than a living witness to their actions, since Diallo, of course, is not available to deny that he even reached for his wallet.

 

Cabaret (Pantages Theatre Toronto, 2001; Theatre Kent 1992)

Pantages Theatre, Toronto, April 23, 2001

“Cabaret”, after all, is still a musical.

You know– those dippy concoctions in which impossibly handsome lumberjacks sing schmaltzy love songs to dainty girls with kerchiefs in their hair while throwing them over hay stacks and pitch-forking in unison. Absurdities, in other words. Something which, in the right context, could be mistaken for a parody of something that is stupid it couldn’t possible exist in an original form.

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The author with two members of the “Cabaret” cast, Theatre Kent, Chatham, Ontario (1992).
(Photos from 1992 Theatre Kent production of Cabaret, Chatham, On.)

Yes, you heard it here first: the musical is no more of an “art form” than ceramics or collectible dolls or the can-can.

So Cabaret is still a musical, and so, at some point, Sally Bowles sings a dippy love song about this man (Cliff) just maybe being the one who will turn out to be “different” from all the other one-night stands, and might be that one special person with whom she can build an enduring relationship and it’s obviously a showpiece number, and the audience is expected to applaud at the end of the song even though it occurs in the middle of what is supposed to be a play, a story, a narrative, and even though the guy is gay.

By the way– I have to rant about this for a moment– the theatrical tradition of applauding at the end of a musical number within a theatrical performance is absolutely disgusting, contemptible, idiotic, annoying, and stupid. I hate it. If the drama is worth watching, the last thing in the world you want is for the audience to suddenly break out into applause. The drama is supposed to flow from scene to scene. Contrasts and ironies are developed and intensified. Emotions are pitched. Characters are illuminated. But, suddenly: hey, great singing there Alphonso! Bravo! What a show-stopper! Now, what was the girl doing with the rope around her neck?

And so it was in Cabaret. The audience applauded after every song.

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Now, in all fairness, most of the singing in Cabaret takes place in the Kit-Kat club, so the applause is not as disruptive as it is for, say, “The Sound of Music”, wherein we all applaud the children going to their bedrooms, or a nun dancing on what is supposed to be a hillside.

Now, for most musicals– a phony art form if ever there was one– the applause at the end of each song is not really a problem because I never hear it because I rarely go to musicals. Do I really want to see “Oklahoma”? No. Do I think “The Sound of Music” really illuminates the nature of the Nazi terror? Not a chance. Does “Oliver” move me to some kind of state of contemplative bliss? Oh, please…

For the record, I have seen some musicals, live, on-stage, as well as a few on film. Here’s a list that I can remember off-hand:

  • Oklahoma (so very weird)
  • The Producers (delicious and funny, because it mocks the musical)
  • The Sound of Music (compared to “Cabaret”)
  • Fiddler on the Roof (least bad of this lot)
  • Cabaret (a twisted work of dark genius)
  • Hair (a musical with pseudo-rock songs in it.  The Milos Forman movie version is interesting.)
  • Oliver (can’t remember)
  • Showboat (boring, sorry.)
  • Camelot (awful)
  • West Side Story (Natalie Wood’s vocals were recorded by Marni Nixon– need I say anything more about phoniness?)
  • South Pacific (dumb, dumb, dumb)
  • My Fair Lady (who cares)

I have also seen and enjoyed “Jesus Christ Superstar” live and on film, and “Evita” on film, but neither of these are really musicals. They are operas. The word “opera” is death at the box office, so they are advertised as “musicals”. Get it straight: “Jesus Christ Superstar” is an opera, in form and style and design. It has arias and recitatives and the entire narrative is contained in the songs. It is an OPERA. And so is “Evita”.

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(Backstage)

Anyway, back to “Cabaret”. “Cabaret” is loosely based on a book by Christopher Isherwood that is a fictionalization of his life in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. It’s really not a very good book. It’s interesting, and it’s not awful, but it’s not great literature. But he did create some memorable characters and we don’t really have very much good English writing on Berlin in the 1920’s or 30’s so it stands out. In 1951, a guy named John Van Druten thought so too and wrote a drama (not a musical) based on the stories and it was produced on Broadway with Julie Harris and it was deemed a success. In the 1960’s, Hal Prince decided to develop it into a musical and recruited a couple of guys named John Kander and Fred Ebb to create the songs. Joel Grey created an absolutely unforgettable “Emcee”, and in 1966 the Broadway production won 8 Tony awards including “Best Musical”. In 1972, Bob Fosse made it into an exceptionally good film– except for the awful casting of Peter York as “Cliff” and Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles– which won numerous Oscars including “Best Director”. Joel Grey indispensably reprised his role as the Emcee.

The production I saw live at the Pantages was “directed” by Sam Mendes, who directed the film “American Beauty”. Did Sam Mendes actually direct this version? I doubt it. More likely, this staging of Cabaret was based on his original staging, but directed by Rob Marshall.

Now, odd things happen to brilliant talents in our culture. We live in a democratic, free society. The powers that be do not censor our literature or movies or theatre. That means, in theory, that you can say anything you want in a play or movie or book, and no one will arrest you and prevent people from seeing or reading what you have to say.

No. But we go one better: when someone presents a disagreeable message to us, a message that might imply that there are faults or sins or crimes in the way we– the collective “we”, the audience– act, we simply appropriate the message, repackage it, and make it into a cultural artifact.

Consider, if you will, the title song of “Cabaret”.

What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play,
Life is a cabaret, old chum,
Come to the cabaret

A line from this song– “What good is sitting alone in your room”– has been appropriated by SFX productions for the advertising of the touring version of “Cabaret”. Obviously it means, in this context, don’t stay home watching television or playing cards or staring discontentedly at your spouse! Get up off your fat duff, whip out your credit card, and fork over $80 for a crummy seat at a large theatre and watch our packaged presentation of a musical that collected amazing critical reviews and therefore must be artistic and telling your friends you saw it will confirm your good taste. Get out! Have a great time! Make it dinner and a show, and stay overnight at the Ramada with the pool and sauna and calypso bar! Enjoy yourself! Live!

The trouble is, that’s not what the song means at all. In the context of the play, Sally is announcing her refusal to accept reality, or any kind of responsibility for the monumental evil that is closing in around her. When Cliff announces his disgust with the Nazis, Sally says, “but what has politics to do with us?” Cliff tells her that she is blind. And the play tells us that this diseased society– Berlin of the 1930’s– has opened itself to the infusion of Nazi ideals. And Sally blithely sings on, “life is a cabaret, old chum…” Is this the sentiment the audience wishes to identify with?

I grant you– the advertising itself might be playing with irony. But I doubt it.

In the original production by Hal Prince, another line did cause consternation. The Emcee does a little dance with a gorilla, while singing to the audience that, if they could only see her through his eyes, they would realize how beautiful and desirable she was. At the end of the song, he sings,

if you could see her through my eyes/
she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.

It’s a terrific line. It’s a fabulous line. It’s the entire heart and soul of the play’s anti-nazi sentiment. And it was rejected by the original producers and deleted from the production! Why? Because they thought it would imply that the play’s producers thought that Jews resembled gorillas? Yes. They thought Jewish Theatre-goers would be offended by it!

I am sometimes filled with wonder at this crazy world of ours.

Cabaret is a “concept musical”. That is, instead of lumberjacks singing to virginal maidens while dancing through the fields, the trees themselves sing. Just kidding. I mean that there is never any pretense that the music pops out of real-life situations into a tiny set-piece before the drama resumes. In “Cabaret”, the music is organically and symbolically linked to the drama, and becomes a metaphorical part of the narrative. The Emcee, for example, often intrudes on the action, singing a line, or, through facial expression, passing ironic judgment on the characters.

Ah… but in this new production, the Emcee has also changed.

In the original, Joel Grey was a magnetic, ambiguous personality. He invites you in to the Kit-Kat Klub, to leave your troubles outside and live for the moment. He urges you to enjoy life to it’s fullest without inhibition or hesitation. The ambiguity in this part is critical: he is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. He glowers and caresses, cajoles and demands. He is sexually ambiguous too– androgynous, asexual, an object of fantasy or domination. One minute he is rhapsodizing about the pleasures of a ménage a trois, the next he is a menacing storm trooper, winking to the audience– this is a game we all can play. The swastikas, the leather, the boots mean nothing. It is just another fetish. Grey’s performance is the richest, most entrancing element of the movie version, precisely because he doesn’t offer the viewer any shortcuts or simplified perspectives. While the owners of the club are beaten to a pulp by Nazi thugs, the camera cuts back to Grey, leering, laughing, chasing the cabaret girls in their lacey underwear. We’re all part of it…

In the current touring stage version of Cabaret, the Emcee looks more like Edward Scissorshands. He is pale, intoxicated, and diminished. He is, in the words of Joe Masteroff (author of the book of the original version), a “figure of doom”. During the first performance of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, the sinister anthem to the rising power of the disciplined Nazis, the Emcee bares his ass: it has a swastika painted on it.

The audience can relax: evil has been conspicuously labeled and we are inoculated against the seductiveness of it all.

Which brings to me a certain ambiguity at the heart of “Cabaret”. You have a number of likeable characters at the center of the story who indulge in various degrees of licentious behavior and then you have the big bad Nazis trampling through the scenery hauling everyone off, presumably, to concentration camps. I’m not sure we want to draw a moral from the story, but if we did, what would it be? Isherwood was gay, so surely he wouldn’t want to have suggested that sexual immorality– defined in the broad strokes of the KitKat Klub– leads, as a consequence, to repressive, authoritarian governments? Cliff (or Brian, in the movie) leaves Berlin because he sees the Nazis as a genuine threat while Sally is blind to them. So he has “come to his senses”. So he goes back to America where he could be arrested for having sex with another man, and where plays like “Cabaret” have to conceal the homosexuality of one of it’s lead characters in order to find an audience on Broadway.

It’s a neat ambiguity. But then, Isherwood always insisted that his perspective was that of a camera– recording, but not judging.

Conversely, the orchestra is now comprised of beautiful women. In the original, the orchestra consisted of lumpy middle-aged men garishly dressed as women. Why the change? I don’t know. The first view of the orchestra in the film version is quite shocking, disturbing. How far will people go in this place? What is this Emcee leading us into? Is there any sanity in this place?

The Toronto production is smooth and efficient and even somewhat elegant. The orchestra is extremely tight and well-mannered, though the New York Times reported that the original revival production tried to sound more “authentic” and raw, as a real orchestra in the real original clubs would have sounded.


Christopher Isherwood lived in Berlin between 1930 and 1933. He wrote, of course, but paid the bills with English lessons. It was here that he met Jean Ross and the other persons who inspired the character sketches of “I am a Camera”. Isherwood later moved to the United States and taught English and wrote screenplays in California. “I am a Camera” was not a great success until the dramatization by John Van Druten made it’s mark in the 1950’s. In this version, as in the later movie, Cliff Bradshaw’s homosexuality was downplayed.

A book inscribed to “Jean Ross”, from Christopher Isherwood himself, was recently offered for auction at $12,500 by James S. Jaffe Rare Books.

Hal Prince on the movie version of Evita:

I must say I think that’s where the movie failed for me. They didn’t take that into account. They didn’t bother to figure out what was behind its underpinnings in the first place – and JUST told the story.

Did you like “The Money Song”? I did too. One of the highlights of the show. But it wasn’t written for the original “Cabaret”. It was created for the film version. But wait– you saw it in a live production?! Dang right. The movies rule! After the success of the Bob Fosse film, the stage version incorporated “The Money Song” too. Cross fertilization? Or homogenization?

Movies rule? Bill, check yourself. According to Hal Prince, the returns on “Phantom” are far greater than the total returns on the movie “Titanic”. Why? Because “Phantom” has played to sold-out houses for 11 years at, like, $45 a pop, whereas “Titanic” played to sold-out houses for three months at about $8 a pop. Hal Prince reports meeting people who have seen “Phantom” 75 times. He thinks that’s great. I’m not sure I don’t think it’s sick. What kind of person, do you think, sees “Phantom” 75 times? Think about it.

In it’s first incarnation, the German officers in “The Sound of Music” did not wear swastikas.

We now believe, in fact, that it is one of the great terrible illusions that we create an automatic redemption in such events as the Nazi era. Dr. James Young, Professor of English and Judaic Studies, University of Mass.

Standard of Living

So you have this athlete.

He’s born with a gift: he can hit baseballs really, really well, and he can run and jump and catch. And when he gets to be about 18, he is descended upon by agents, lawyers, scouts, recruiters, and everyone imaginable– who might want one of the golden eggs.

And he signs a contract and buys his mother a Buick and takes his friends out to party does some drugs and hires a couple of body guards. And the babes flow like ripened orchids spraying down a verdant valley…

Who knows why he chose Lisa. He saw her at a Lakers’ game. They met. They did who knows what. Somehow she, alone of all the babes, persuaded him to make a commitment, though anyone who knows anything about professional athletes and money and waste can hardly conceive of the phrase in such a context. But that’s what they say, made a commitment.

They marry. Where does she come from? Nowhere, really. She’s not an athlete. She’s not rich. She’s not the daughter of the head of a multi-billion dollar corporation. She is Lisa Strawberry and that’s enough, thank you.

And we know about Darryl. In one of the Simpsons’ most prescient episodes, Mr. Burns hires bunch of professional ball players to be ringers on the plant team so he can beat a hated rival. As “Darryl Strawberry” stands in the outfield, the crowd, as they did in real life, mockingly chants “Dar—-ryl, Dar—ryl”. Bart joins in. Lisa says, Bart, it’s not nice to make fun of a ball-player and Bart replies that professional athletes are used to it, it’s no big deal. And then a close-up of Darryl Strawberry’s face as a big, fat tear drops from his eye.

From the news:

To back up her petition of $50,000 per month in spousal support, which was granted, Lisa filed papers with the Superior Court of California saying that she had been spending $20,000 a month for clothes, $5,000 a month for shoes and an average of $7,000 for each purchase of jewelry, “which I have been free to indulge myself in as desired.”

“How am I the culprit?” she asks at breakfast. “They wanted to know what was my standard of living. And that’s what it was.”

Well, if she doesn’t get it, we know where it’s going to go instead. Strawberry was arrested last year for trying to buy drugs and propositioning an undercover police officer. Is Lisa’s $20,000 a month on clothes different, really? He’s addicted to cocaine, she’s addicted to clothes. He’s a fool and she’s an idiot. They deserve each other.

The judge should order them to remain married for as long as they both are fools.

MicroMp3

Well, this story gets rather tiring after a while, right? Same old, same old.

This time, Microsoft is going to IE MP3. That is, they will do to MP3 what Internet Explorer did to Netscape.

In the new version of Windows, XP, the built-in Microsoft MP3 ripper will create murky, low-quality, bloated .mp3 files. Whoa! You don’t want that do you? Do you think most people are smart enough to just download and install a good CD Ripper like Music Match? Or might they just use the new built-in Microsoft music ripper, which creates proprietary Microsoft files (WMA – Windows Media Player format)? These files sound fine.

If Microsoft is at all worried about the Department of Justice’s anti-trust action, still pending, it doesn’t act like it. It continues to try to muscle in everywhere using the formidable clout of it’s monopoly on desktop operating systems to screw you, me, everybody.

But if people are dumb enough to adopt the new Microsoft standard and the Department of Justice doesn’t do it’s job, we will have no choice.

AAUAKAKGJAAAAGGGUUGGAUKKKKKK!!!

The sound of something being shoved down your throat. Like it?

Demonstrations

Some editorialists– including the Globe and Mail– are complaining that these demonstrators at these big trade conferences are a) wrong and b) undemocratic. Naomi Klein went on the CBC to set the record straight. Unfortunately, she stunk. So I’ll have to do it.

There is some legitimacy to the point of view that demonstrators try to short-cut democracy. We have elections here. The people voted for Al Gore and Jean Chretien in the U.S. and Canada, respectively, and they got their wishes: George Bush Jr. and Jean Chretien. So what right do these demonstrators have to try to change the law by short-circuiting the democratic process and trying to get their way by bullying and shouting?

Naomi argued that, well, what these big corporations are planning is so awful, well, somebody just has to do something. Of course, that begs the question of who gets to decide when something is so awful that undemocratic means must be used to change the law. Like abortion.

What she should have pointed out is that while “nobody elected the demonstrators” nor did they elect the lobbyists for those multi-national corporations. And under the Bush administration, those lobbyists often actually write the law, and they certainly play a powerful role– behind closed doors– in influencing legislators on how to write the law.

One example. When Tom Delay ran for election to the U.S. Congress, he did not campaign thusly: if you vote for me, I will hold expensive breakfast meetings with highly paid lobbyists for the biggest corporations on the planet so they can tell me what they would like to see in the next round of legislation governing mergers and environmental regulations and minimum wages and so on, while you, you working taxpayer dependent on your wages, why, you’d be lucky to smell a fart from my executive assistant. No sir. Mr. Delay tells everyone that he will represent their interests and do what’s right, regardless of “the special interests” and lobbyists. He campaigns on his sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the majority of his voters. Then he turns around and spends all of his time– and I mean, all of his time– with corporate hacks, and meaningless totemic symbols like the boy-scouts and baseball players.

Does anyone seriously believe that corporations donate millions of dollars to election campaigns for nothing? Because they are civic minded??? Because they really think that what is good for America is good for IBM?

Those lobbyists see to it that Mr. Delay receives big fat contributions come election time, so he can run big fat television ads that show what a sensitive, caring, unimpeachable character he is, and get re-elected, so he can continue to serve his corporate masters.

As long as the election laws in the U.S. continue to permit this entrenched system of corruption and distortion, demonstrators can certainly make a case for the fact that they are trying to restore a balance to this democracy. Since they can’t get in those $300-a-plate fundraisers and since they can’t offer Mr. Delay a weekend at an exclusive private Hawaiian resort, and since they can’t send a couple of lawyers over to actually help Mr. Delay write the legislation– they have no choice but to take their issues to the streets.

Why don’t the leaders get smart: they should have initiated talks with Greenpeace and other issue-oriented groups– who do legitimately represent various interests– and brought them to the table. They should have invited them in. And they should have listened seriously to their concerns.

Ha ha ha! Had you going, didn’t I? You thought for one minute that I seriously believed that George Bush Jr. might want to meet with people who care about the environment!

Ha ha ha!

April Fools!

Canadian Writers

Is the long, harsh winters, that keep us indoors and introspective? Is it the expanse of the land, the magnificence of our geography, our rippling rivers, the magical light of the prairies, the stern might of the mountains? Is it the multi-cultureless, the duality of French-English?

Who knows. For whatever reason, Canada produces a lot of very good writers. In fact, compared to our giant neighbors to the south, we produce a veritable plethora of first rate scribes, whose impressive achievements tower over the best America has to offer right now. Dom Delillo? Vastly over-rated. Thomas Pynchon? Which of his books would you read twice? Toni Morrison? If it wasn’t for Oprah, who would care? Anne Tyler? Don’t make me laugh.

The truth is that America does not have a single first-rate writer right now that is of the literary stature of any of the top Canadian writers.

For the record, the Great Canadian writers (best book):

Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient)
Margaret Atwood (Wilderness Tales)
Alice Munro (Who do you Think you are?)
Jane Urquhart (The Stone Carver)
Leonard Cohen (Beautiful Losers)
Rohan Mistry (A Fine Balance)
Mordecai Richler (Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz)
Margaret Laurence (A Jest of God)
Robertson Davies (Fifth Business)
Guy Vanderhaeghe (The Englishman’s Boy)
Carol Shields (Stone Diaries)
Mavis Gallant (Collected Stories)

Best new Canadian writer: Yann Martel, author of “Life of Pi”.

How Wars Start

Suppose for a minute that the Chinese regularly sent a spy aircraft down the coast of California about fifty miles from land. Suppose there was a collision between this plane and a couple of American fighter jets and an American crashed into the sea and the Chinese spy plane was forced to make an emergency landing in San Francisco.

The Americans, of course, would return the plane and the crew immediately, and apologize for accidentally colliding with the Chinese plane.

!

Obviously not. When a Russian pilot defected with his rare Mig-25 back in the 1980’s, the U.S. held onto the plane for a couple of years, until they had exhaustively analyzed it, and then politely returned it… with the wings on backwards.

The truth is that the Americans were spying on China and the truth is that the Chinese jet probably crashed into the Americans in an idiotic demonstration of bravado that Americans usually adore, as in movies like “Top Gun”. If only the Chinese pilot had been Tom Cruise, with lovely, horny Kelly McGillis waiting breathlessly for him back on the aircraft carrier…. all would have been well. We would have admired the macho, testosterone-soaked will of the groovy little spunky powerhouse pilot.

Are we sorry? No. I mean, we feel really, really, really, really bad, but we’re not officially, legally, diplomatically guilty of anything, so, no, we’re not sorry. Please give us our spies back.

The whole thing is really rather boring except as a demonstration of how macho politics can sometimes– not this time, but sometimes– lead to increased tensions and anger and shorter fuses and more macho pilots making bravado gestures and submarines playing chicken and diplomats issuing warnings and gestures and assholes like Jesse Helms calling for holy retribution and eventually war, and then you have to wonder if the baby sitting in the charred ruins of the bombed-out village really cares about whether George Bush Jr.’s weenie was really all that frighteningly big.

Back off, big boy, the missiles are on the way.