Packaging the Next Big Thing

He soon looked at which band under contract he could develop into a hit-maker the fastest. Judging Coldplay the best bet, he pushed its 2001 debut, “Parachutes,” which eventually sold two million copies. NY Times, March 22, 2004

It’s been a long time since I believed that artists become known because they are talented and interesting. As a child, I thought the process was something like osmosis. The musician writes songs and performs and the talent scout hears the musician play and decides that he or she is singularly remarkable and signs him or her to a contract and then he or she records an album and it is sent to the critics and the radio stations and the best stuff gets promoted and heard on the radio.

No, no, no. It’s Mr. Slater, and people like him. They decide which artist is worthy of development. The artist is “developed” and packaged, and marketed. You hear this artist eventually because Mr. Slater decided you would. Maybe you read about the artist in Rolling Stone or Spin and saw him or her perform on Letterman or Leno or Conan O’Brien.

And then you understand why an artist might become bitter when an album they produced fails. You think, it must have been a bad album. They say, no, it’s because the record company didn’t promote it. You think, surely the record company would have promoted it if it had been any good. Not so. Sometimes they simply decide that even with heavy promotion, a particular album will only sell 500,000 copies. Hardly worth their while, when they might be putting their efforts towards an album that could sell 1 or 2 million copies.

So even artists that produce albums carefully and under budget and consistently make a profit might nevertheless be dropped by their label. That’s tough. That is my understanding of what happened to T-Bone Burnett before he got heavily into the production side of the business.

On the other hand, the label might invest heavily in an artist like Liz Phair, remake her image and promote her all over the place, and still run into a wall of resistance. It’s power is not absolute.

It’s hard to judge at times when the public acclaims somebody and when they are simply manipulated into buying a sham. It’s not nice to think that you bought that Sarah McLachlan album because a pimp like Andrew Slater decided exactly how to manipulate you, but it possible that that is exactly what happened, except that the pimp’s name was actually Terry McBride.

It’s not that her material is not any good.  It is.  But there are many talented artists who you will never hear because they aren’t as physically attractive as McLachlan, or they don’t play ball with the music industry.

This is a stunning fact that you should pay attention to:  there are 4 million tracks on Spotify [updated 2022-05] that nobody has ever streamed.

Spotify claims that 80% of the tracks have been streamed at least once.  Think about that claim:

  • Does Spotify need you to believe that a high percentage of the tracks have been streamed at least once?  Yes, they do.
  • How many of these are streamed to completion?
  • What percentage of tracks by “unknown” artists are streamed?

So, while no album, no matter how good, can be a “huge success” (as defined by numbers of units sold) without massive, coordinated promotion, nor can an album become a “huge success” unless it has some kind appeal to begin with– like Sarah McLachlan’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy”. Was it really all that great? Maybe not. But it was good, and appealing, and McLachlan could be photographed to look sexy, so there it was: a hit.

It is not all that unusual nowadays for an artist to be packaged as “alternative”– someone who can’t be packaged and manipulated. Isn’t that exactly how Avril Levigne is packaged?

Added November 2009:

Nellie McKay pissed off her record label and they dropped her (or she dropped them). She immediately sort of vanished off the radar screens. What is she doing now? I don’t know. I thought she was very promising, but maybe it just didn’t pan out. A lot of young artists have one promising album in them… and then they run out of compelling material.

Another possibility: they just didn’t want to conform to the process of packaging and slicing and dicing their own material to suit the suits.

Grace Slick and the Phantom Microphone

In the mid-1960’s, television realized that it had to acknowledge that there was something going on out there in reality-land that did not conform to the standard paradigm of the way big people do things in America– because there was money in it (which was exactly the way big people did things anyway) and so they deigned to acknowledge rock’n’roll and decided to occasionally allow a rock’n’roll band onto the Ed Sullivan Show or Hootenanny or Hullabaloo.

But what do you do with them? How do you pose them? What do you put in the background? How much do we have to pay them?

They discovered that if you played the recording while the band faked a performance of the song, you didn’t have to pay very much for the performance. It was technically promotion, not a performance. Union rules didn’t apply. So Dick Clark, who I really believe is the king pimp of all television pimps, week after week, on American Bandstand, featured musicians standing in front of real teens from America lip-synching to their own tunes. Did they think we were fooled? I don’t know. I’m not too sure.

Did they think we were stupid?  Without a doubt.

On Ed Sullivan, the bands usually (but not always) really played. You can see cords going from their guitars to their amps– a dead give-away in that era. If there are no cords– it’s lip-synching. Thank you Ed. And it is now time for you to stop introducing Jimmy Morrison and the Doors, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, and Mick Jagger and the Stones, as “something for the youngsters of America”. Weird, wasn’t it? Dean Martin would come out and put all the adults to sleep with songs about pillows that you dream on, and then Mick Jagger would come out for the “youngsters” and tell them he couldn’t get no satisfaction.

The other way you could tell if it was really live was if you heard a mistake. And that’s what gives Grace Slick away in this performance of “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. It’s real. It’s live. Grace misses the beat on “pill” and has to speed up to catch the beat on “one pill makes you small”. That is her smiling, I’m pretty sure, because she just made a mistake in front of 25 million people. She’s cute, isn’t she? It’s endearing. One minute, she is a poised artist, delivering the amazing goods, the number one hit single in America. Then, just for a second, she’s an embarrassed little girl again who turned the wrong way on the dance floor.

There are a lot of great songs from the sixties, and a lot of great performances. There are only a few performances of great songs. And there are even fewer performances that are so monumental that they seem to leap from their era and genre into a kind of stratosphere of transcendental moments in life. There was Hendrix performing “All Along the Watchtower”, and Dylan doing “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” in London, and the Beatles doing “Hey Jude”. There was Jimmy Morrison doing “Light My Fire”.

And there was Grace Slick performing “White Rabbit”. You have to hear Grace Slick’s voice to believe it. It is incredibly big and powerful and you might believe it could be heard above the electric guitars and drums even without amplification. The only other female singers I can think of with a voice of comparable size are Mama Cass Elliot and Janis Joplin. Grace was sexier than those two and the next top twenty female singers combined.

Grace Slick’s voice probably couldn’t have been small if she’d wanted it too. The first lines of “White Rabbit” are delivered with as much restraint as you could possibly muster for a Sherman tank of a voice. Then she builds, with an insinuating vibrato, like a whip being drawn back. She builds and builds until, by the last lines– “remember what the dormouse said…”– her voice is in full bore, a wall of sound coming at you like a freight train, tidal and relentless, slashing guitars just barely able to provide seething rhythmic foundation to this thing of power and explosive fury.

While Grace Slick was singing like this, the Grammys for best female vocal performance went to Barbara Streisand, Eydie Gorme, Bobbie Gentry, Peggy Lee, and Dionne Warwick. That’s why I haven’t paid any attention to the Grammys for about 40 years.

Grace Slick had beautiful blue eyes and long black hair. She was uncompromising— she quit Jefferson Starship when they went commercial. She drank too much. She got married and divorced, married and divorced. She had one daughter, China, who would be about 30 by now.

“White Rabbit” was written by Grace Slick, inspired by the Lewis Carroll book.

Alice discovers that one pill makes her larger and one pill makes her small. But the pills that mother gives her don’t do anything at all. That about sums up the 1960’s.

White Rabbit was used in a movie called “Go Ask Alice” which purported to show you the true experiences of a bad girl who did some drugs and thereby ended up as a teenage prostitute in Los Angeles and eventually died of an overdose.

If I recall correctly, it wasn’t a terrible movie. But we knew that mother made this film.

Grace Slick – Live

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Grace just missed the beat.  Looking at yah with those very intense eyes.

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Grace suddenly looks down.  You wonder why.  She was staring, fetchingly, right at the camera– right at you.  Then she looks away, as if she suddenly saw something important

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Mystery solved– it’s a second camera.  She was coached to look at the camera but someone missed a cue and didn’t switch for about five or six seconds.  Dig the psychedelic background?   Higher consciousness, baby..

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Grace sings to an electrical outlet.  I’m not kidding.  This is from a performance in which the band lip-synched to “Somebody to Love”– there are no cords on the guitars.  So Grace decided to sing to an electrical cord instead of a microphone, and, yes, she’s laughing and making fun of the whole thing.

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From the same performance.  The tambourine player, back row, far left, is holding a cigarette in his left hand.  Notice there are no cords on the guitars.

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One more from “White Rabbit”.  Costuming by Cecil B. De Mille.

Shawshank Redemption

According the esteemed patrons of the Internet Movie Database, “The Shawshank Redemption”, story by Stephen King, directed by Frank Darabont (screenwriter of various Blob, Fly, and Young Indiana Jones sequels or prequels, before this profound “masterpiece”), is the second greatest film of all time. It is better than “Rashomon”, better than “Citizen Kane”, better than “The Third Man”, and even better than “The Seventh Seal”. It is better than “Taxi Driver” and “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate”. It is better than “Ran” and “Kagemusha”. It is better than “Rules of the Game” and “Dr. Strangelove”, and “City Lights” and “The General”.

It has always puzzled me that so many people thought so highly of it. Clearly, it doesn’t belong in the top ten no matter how much you like it. There is simply no way that this film is even nearly in a class with “Citizen Kane”, for example. It’s bizarre to even think so. I really believe that it is possible for reasonable, rational people to eventually reach agreement on that issue.

But is it even any good? A lot of people think so. Clearly, it’s not a terrible movie. In fact, the acting is very good, and the cinematography and editing are all fine. Even the music isn’t bad.

But I find the film annoying. It has this tone of deep understanding and complexity and poetic sensibilities.

I want to understand why I dislike a film that almost everybody else likes. Where did I go wrong? What did I miss? I watched it again and took notes.

Watching it over again did nothing to alter my perception of the film. Except that it is striking to me how well-acted the film is, and generally well-directed.

Herewith, why I think “Shawshank Redemption” is not a good film.

1. The plot is preposterous, right from the moment Dufresne unbelievably admits he sat in front of his wife’s lover’s house with a .38 pistol, drunk, but didn’t murder his wife or her lover. The fact that he might have done that– sit there drunk with a gun on his lap– isn’t the unbelievable part. In fact, that part is strangely believable. He changed his mind. No problem.

The unbelievable part is that he seems to believe the police had no reason to make him a suspect. Really. Why on earth would they think I was up to anything…. But he was clearly thinking of it. He clearly went there with a gun.

It would have been more compelling and believable if, instead of behaving like the righteous victim of an injustice, he behaved more like what he was, unlucky and stupid. And perhaps guilty of wishing his wife and her lover were dead, even if he didn’t actually do it.

And we are supposed to sympathize with this “innocent” man sent to jail unjustly. A man who gets drunk and takes a gun to his wife’s lover’s house, is not completely “innocent”, regardless of whether or not he actually committed the crime. But our arms are twisted: Dufresne is so pure and so fabulously, morally good, we are forced to buy into the movies’ own illusions: it is an outrage that this nice man, who looks like actor Tim Robbins, and who only speaks in a whisper, should be forced to have anal sex with people he doesn’t even know!

Think of all the black men wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn’t even think about doing.  “Shawshank Redemption” is an insult to all those men, and insult to the idea of injustice.

It goes further: Dufresne is not merely morally superior to the other prisoners and the guards– he is luckier. That’s when we know we’re being sold a bill of goods.

2. The district attorney argues in court as if a reasonable person might believe Dufresne’s story– that he didn’t do it, that he preposterously tossed his gun into the river on the way home instead. He feels he really has to convince that jury that this man should be a suspect. In fact, in real life, I think most people would snicker and find Dufresne’s story ridiculously unbelievable without prompting from the prosecutor. He owned a gun of the same type that killed his two-timing wife and he got drunk and he parked in front of the house but he didn’t kill her, and then he happened to toss his gun into the river– all on the same night someone else –with that same type of gun– for incomprehensible reasons– decided to murder his wife? The prosecution is not sure that jury will find this preposterous?

This is stupid writing.  Stephen King should be embarrassed at the preposterousness of this plot sequence.

We need a dose of “Chicago” here to introduce some people to reality. This is a classic Hollywood movie conceit, though: you, the viewer, know what a kind, decent, honest man Dufresne is, because we so many close-ups of his innocent face. Part of the emotional impact is due to the fact that you know he’s innocent. But the director chooses not to let you see Dufresne as the jury might see him: a bland, boring nobody who exploded one night when he caught his wife cheating on him.

But that would make Dufresne less of a victim of injustice, and more a victim of bad fortune and stupidity, so we are asked to believe that the jury was unreasonable in finding him guilty regardless. Why? Why? Why? I thought about this a lot, because this passage of the story is so… obtuse. And then I realized why. Because the audience isn’t going to be allowed to share the jury’s feelings about Dufresne’s explanation. That it’s preposterous. Because then we couldn’t feel quite as good about feeling bad.

3. I find this growing trend of actors whispering their lines really, really annoying. This is an early example. Dufresne is in court, not an elevator. He’s in a prison yard, not a closet. He’s in a bank, not phone booth. But he always whispers. It’s the Marlon Brando school of mannerist seriousness, a cheap effect, and a substitute for intonation, rhythm, and inflection. It’s an actor trying to look like a method actor without understanding that what made method acting so compelling was not the whispering and mumbling: it was the internalization of the character’s feelings. It was the shift away from meaning conveyed by dialogue to meaning conveyed by character, by body language, by personality.

I know actors think that whispering their lines seem to give them more emotional weight, but it always strikes me as phony. It’s an imitation of good actors without any understanding of what made them good (it wasn’t the mumbling).

And it must be difficult for the sound man when Dufresne talks to Red: Morgan Freeman generally talks in a normal tone, but Tim Robbins whispers all of his lines. They couldn’t possibly be in the same aural environment. Did the director ask for this, even though, in real life, we’d generally like to slap Robbins on the side of the head and make him speak up like a normal person would in the same circumstance?

4. Red (Morgan Freeman) can get you anything– even a bottle of brandy to celebrate your kid’s high school graduation. That’s the kind of prisoners that live in Shawshank: they only wish they had some brandy to celebrate their kids’ graduations. It speaks volumes about author Stephen King’s actual prison experience (none) that he believes in this old cliché– the resourceful, cranky, colorful scrounger who can get almost anything– which he probably adopted from “Stalag 17”.

5. One of the prisoners looks at the busload of new prisoners (including Dufresne) and remarks on what a sorry-looking bunch of maggots they are. There is nothing in the physical appearance of these men that explain why he would say that– unless you realize that this is just part of the colourful local ambience of the prison. In fact, the new prisoners look quite solid and strong. But it’s exactly the sort of thing the the film-maker thinks the viewer expects some hardened veteran to say at a bus load of new inmates, so it’s there. That is the heart of the problem of the whole movie: it’s a series of scenes the director and writer imagined the audience would believe. The action doesn’t really flow out of circumstance and character: it’s just a bunch of set pieces. Lord knows it doesn’t flow out of any first-hand experience of prisons or prisoners.  So, instead of revealing something to the audience, it reveals the audience to the story.

6. Red, who provides a good deal of narration to this story, comes off more like a soldier or mountain climber than someone who has spent 30 years among hardened criminals. His wizened, almost gentle description of how someone always cries the first night makes you think that he has the social sensitivities of a camp counselor.

I sometimes rewrite movies in my head to make them more interesting. So instead of that putrid chestnut, I have Red saying, “I love it when they cry. The sound of their wailing makes me feel like there’s some soul to this place, a great blues harmonica.”  Yes, I wrote that.  Stephen King: you’re welcome.

But he has the movie’s funniest line:

Andy: “Why do they call you Red?”
Red: “I don’t know. Must be because I’m Irish.”

It turns out that this line had been written on the assumption that a white, Irish actor would be playing the role of Red. When Morgan Freeman took over the role, they decided to keep it, and he delivers it straight up. So one of the very few examples of wit in the movie happened by accident.

7. At Dufresne’s first breakfast, other than the colorful allusions to sodomy, many of the prisoners come off as charmingly colorful and folksy. It’s a like a day at bible camp, and he’s hanging around with the bad kids who don’t sing along.

Now, it could be that Stephen King believes that we are the kind of society that locks up good people. In a post 9/11 world, yes, we certainly are. And in a culture that believes that 20 years in jail isn’t sufficient for possession of marijuana, yes, a lot of good people do get locked up. But part of the horror of that is the fact that we lock them up with the genuinely bad people. Did you happen to notice that there isn’t a single genuinely bad inmate in this movie? The only really bad person, in fact, is the warden. Now, I totally believe that it is possible that the warden might be a more evil bastard than any of the prisoners. I just have trouble with the idea that there’s not a single really bad person in the prison that might help you understand why the warden believes he has to be a prick.

8. Brooks, the librarian, threatens to kill a fellow inmate to avoid being released from prison. This is kind of absurd. No, not “kind of”– it is ridiculously absurd.

First of all, he wouldn’t just get to stay in prison: he would be charged and tried for the murder and, if convicted, could well end up in a different prison, which, given his sedentary disposition, would be as great a catastrophe as being freed. Brooks is not stupid– he’s gotta know this.

Secondly, it’s an insanely obtuse way to keep yourself in prison. All you have to do is hit a guard, or try to escape, or disobey orders, and you could get years added on to your sentence. But most significantly, it’s just plain dumb for a character like Brooks– another one of those lovable decent inmates– to want to murder someone just so he could stay in prison. The someone he tries to murder is Haywood, who is one of the “good” inmates. Might have had a subplot here if he had decided that he might as well murder one of the bad cons (here I go rewriting again) and do some good while he was achieving his goal of staying in prison. It’s also absurd to believe that if Brooks was serious about murdering the guy– and he must be, or there is no dramatic tension in the scene– that he would grab him, hold a knife to his throat, and then wait for Dufresne to come in from the yard to talk him out of it. Why on earth wouldn’t he just do it, if he was going to do it? Again, that would have been far more interesting. It would have been even more interesting to make it a more subtle mystery as why he did it. Let the wonder for a while. Let him reveal his motivations much later in the movie.

Reminds me of those movies in which the wild animal always rises up and growls before attacking. If any lions or bears actually did that in real life, they’d soon discover that most animals don’t wait around to be eaten.

Anyway, the real explanation for this scene is the same as the explanation for most of the other unbelievable moments in this film: it’s a set piece; it’s an idea that flows from the minds of the writer and director envisioning what the audience might like to see, and has no real basis in character or action.

9. When Red defends Brooks to the other cons, he tells them that in here, the prison, he is an important man. Out there, he’s nothing. But Brooks has been in prison for 50 years, and Red has been in prison for 20. You wonder how he can know anything about what will happen to Brooks on the outside. I’m not saying it’s not possible– just that it is presented stupidly. I wish Red had said something like, “you remember Pete? He was in prison 30 years. Got his parole. Two weeks later, he was back. I asked him why. He said it was too hard to live on the outside. Who do you think is waiting for you to help you start over after 50 years? He’s going to end up on the streets, in a soup kitchen, or worse…” Anything, but the simplistic pap we get in Shawshank.

10. Poor Brooks gets barely five minutes to go from prison librarian to parolee to roomer to grocery-bagger to suicide. That’s a lot of story compressed into a couple of dramatic images, but that’s how this movie works. You don’t need to actually deal with a compelling story line if you just take the shortcut right to suicide. We don’t learn nearly enough about why Brooks is that unhappy. He has a job and a place to stay and his freedom. It’s asking the audience to make a pretty big leap to believe that he is so disconsolate about this change in his circumstances that he would hang himself.

As I watched this sequence, I became frustrated. It was a potentially fascinating development. I wanted to see Brooks try to look up old friends or relatives– or children of relatives. He probably would have discovered they didn’t want much to do with an old man fresh out of a prison. I wanted to see how he got from the prison to the boarding house, how he interacted with people, how he found his way. The fact that he was able to get a job, bagging groceries, right away, is remarkable, and might be the most unrealistic part of the story. I’d like to see him discover that the social skills he learned in prison don’t work very well on the outside. Anything, please. Some development, some insight, some inspiration.

11. One of the phoniest scenes of all– all the inmates and guards stop everything to listen to the opera Dufresne puts out through the prison loud speakers. Every musical artist watching this film would think he had died and gone to heaven if such an event could have happened even at a concert of people who actually paid to come listen.

Now, this scene is very well directed. The over-head shots of the prison yard, the close-ups of the attentive faces, Dufresne with his feet up on a chair, the anxious warden trying to get back into the office. Beautiful. But it’s a fantasy, a dream. It’s phony.

I’m not saying the scene couldn’t have worked. It could have, if handled with even a modicum of respect for reality. The warden might have quickly realized that there is a fuse box somewhere, but maybe he had trouble identifying which fuse it is. More probably, the warden might have realized that the music is no real threat, especially if he played along with it. A more interesting possibility– if he made the inmates believe he was responsible for it and they turned their backs on it.

Instead, the warden starts yelling at Dufresne and pounding the door. Isn’t that exactly what you expected to see? That’s the problem with Shawshank. It gives you exactly what you expect, without any thought as to what it might or might not reveal about character. It is necessary, given the phoniness of the rest of the movie, for the warden to get upset, and angry, that the prisoners have somehow managed to raise their consciousness and improve their minds. That’s the kind of cliché “Shawshank” deals in. As the warden yells, “turn it off”, Dufresne turns it up. Not because that would be a believable thing for him to do (it isn’t- why wouldn’t he have turned it up at the start? He’s not hiding anything) but because it accentuates Dufresne’s defiant willfulness, his determination to be free, even in prison. It’s like one of these Greek masks that tell you if the character is happy or sad.

After serving two weeks in the hold, Andy returns to the lunch room. There is a spot waiting for him between Red and Haywood which is kind of funny because Haywood is surprised to see him. They always sit with one space between them, in case Andy is going to drop by? This kind of thoughtlessness permeates Shawshank.

In the shots of the yard as the prisoners listen to the music, notice how this was the only prison in the country in which blacks and whites seamlessly blended into social groups in the yard.

The inmates, especially Dufresne and Red, remain physically pretty even after years of brutal incarceration. Well, maybe it wasn’t as brutal as we thought.

12. Red listens to Andy discuss the warden’s investments and money-laundering schemes and warns him that all that money “leaves a paper trail”. It’s hard to believe that Red, in prison for 30 years and uneducated, would feel confident or wise making such a statement to an ex-banker. Better line: “My mistake was robbing people with a gun. I should have learned accounting instead.”

Given his background, isn’t it more likely that Red would believe that Andy is so smart, he will never be caught? But then, Red wouldn’t come off as quite so wise, would he?

13. You would think that people who’ve been in prison long enough would learn to stop saying, “he don’t look like a murderer.”

14. It’s tough for a writer. You want a character to be smart, so the reader admires him. But sometimes, you gotta make him damn stupid to advance the plot. So when a new inmate named Tommy hears about Dufresne’s crime and relates how a former room-mate at another prison named Blatch had claimed responsibility for it, Dufresne rushes to the warden to ask for his help in getting a new trial. He doesn’t contact his own lawyer– he goes to the warden. Dufresne–who is supposed to be pretty smart–apparently doesn’t know that the warden doesn’t have anything to do with criminal sentencing or verdicts. Dufresne doesn’t know that only a judge could release him? He doesn’t know how to contact his lawyer and arrange a visit? What on earth would make him think the Warden was the guy to go to with that information?

Then he has to be credulous enough to say he believes that Tommy’s testimony by itself would be enough to get him a new trial. What a quaint little world we are in here.

Then– it gets worse — he clumsily threatens to expose the Warden’s questionable financial activities. This is a man who apparently doesn’t know who has the keys, the guns, and the batons in this prison.

Remarkably, Red also takes the story at face value. You couldn’t find a more trusting group of people at a girl-scout convention. Here’s where we could have used some of Red’s alleged wisdom here: he should have told Dufresne he would have to do better than that to get a retrial. He should have told him the Warden won’t believe him or care.

Tommy passes his high school equivalency. At this point of the film, Dufresne is starting to accumulate messianic powers of healing and suffering.

The warden’s conversation with Tommy outside the prison wall is more than a little bizarre.

Then the warden threatens Dufresne with being taken out of his one-room “Hilton” and put into the regular prison population, the “sodomites”. But instead of doing that, he puts him into solitary for an additional month, then returns him to the same cell. Very convenient, since Andy is digging a tunnel in his cell.

15. Dufresne makes Red promise that, if he ever gets out, he will go to a hay field in Buxton with a long stone wall with an oak tree at the end of it. Sound specific enough for you? Especially when you haven’t been anywhere near that field in 20 years? And in this field, Red is supposed to look for a black volcanic rock. Piece of cake. In all this time, no farmer, or heavy rain, or kids, or animals, will have moved that rock or killed the oak tree.

Right after this conversation, the mother hen society of Shawshank holds a meeting because they are all concerned about Andy, because, Red says, he’s been talking funny. This really is the most amazing prison in the world It’s the kind of prison filled with kind, caring individuals, that you want to live in.

16. Why on earth waste your time trying to convince the viewer that Andy is thinking of hanging himself? It’s a cheap little trick that does nothing to advance anything in the movie. It’s not believable for a second.

17. The movie treats Andy’s escape after 20 years in Shawshank as a moral, physical, and spiritual victory. In real life, I would think 20 years in prison would still suck.

18. Andy uses a rock to crack into the sewer pipe, timing his blows to coincide with the thunder outside. But there is a crack of thunder when the lightening flashes, which isn’t right, of course, and then another crack when he whacks the pipe. What? So there are two thunder bolts– one with the flash, and one a few seconds later, because sound travels more slowly than light.

Andy crawled through 500 yards of sewage pipe to get out of the prison. Sewages produces gases that would probably have readily killed him. The sewage pipe ends up in a shallow creek. Shawshank prison dumped its raw, untreated sewage into an open creek? Okay– that’s probably quite possible. But the tunnel Andy carved through the wall of his cell looks like it’s about 12 feet deep. That is a strange wall. I imagine someone at this prison eventually got a brain and started to execute annual cell-checks, since it would take more than a few years to dig through a wall that thick without a jack-hammer.

19. When Andy comes out, it’s fairly obvious that Tim Robbins is splashing as much as possible for dramatic effect. It’s looks dramatic. And phony. Even phonier when he rips off his shirt and the light is so perfect and it looks so majestic and utterly preposterous and clichéish. He stretches out his arms– I’m free. This is a director that does not trust his audience for one split second. I just can’t help but think that a real person in that situation, free at last after twenty years, would look around very carefully to make sure nobody saw him.

20. It looks like the warden only realizes that he is being investigated for corruption when it appears in a headline of the local newspaper. You can even hear the sirens sound as he throws the paper down on his desk, so I guess the local District Attorney gets all his evidence from the newspapers as well, and this particular newspaper publishes potentially libelous stories without further investigation or giving the subject of the allegations the opportunity to comment.

21. The warden loads his pistol up with several bullets and then points it at the door as the police are trying to get in to arrest him. So, as a viewer, am I supposed to believe that warden had decided to shoot it out with the police? That’s plainly absurd, so the next event, the warden shooting himself, is more logical. But then, why did he put several bullets in? I guess you could argue that he maybe had some thoughts about fighting and then realized it was useless. Hmmm. Or was the director looking for another moment of cheap dramatic tension.

22. Red, after Dufresne’s escape, reminisces with his prison-mates about the stuff “Andy pulled”. They sound like a bunch of former college room-mates discussing some pranks.

23. It would have been endearing of the film-makers to acknowledge the role of exaggeration in these stories they now tell about Andy. But then, these are boy scouts. They never lie.

24. “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.” is unforgivable. Especially when he goes on to point out that the prison is now “..that much more drab and ugly when they’re gone.” The prison wasn’t drab and ugly when Andy was there? It was a fun place, filled with hi-jinks and good humor?

25. Red slams the parole board at his last hearing. He says “rehabilitation” is just a politician’s word, and he doesn’t know what it really means. He tells them to stop wasting his time. In the context of this movie, Red is absolutely right. Given that most of the inmates are portrayed as boy scouts, it’s hard to imagine any of them actually needing any rehabilitation. So Red can sit there and call it “bullshit” and the audience feels a deep surge of hostility for these bad people in suits who are keeping good people like distinguished actor Morgan Freeman in prison and forget about the fact that if he hadn’t asked for the meeting and applied for parole himself it would never have happened.

I think a lot about the fact that the same people who voted for politicians who passed laws that put people into real prisons for 20 or 30 years for relatively minor crimes, could watch this movie and feel really, really good about themselves.

Preemptive Injustice

Charles Krauthammer, in the Washington Post, is a little more transparent than most official government spokesmen when he declares that the U.S. would be foolish to wait for terrorists to actually commit any crimes before going after them.

It would be foolish to wait for a crime to be committed before punishing the offender.

The fact that he actually wrote such a statement is baffling to me, but it must be supposed that he knows or thinks he knows that such a statement would actually make sense to some people, if not the Bush Administration.

I note that he only offers two options: do nothing, or pre-emptive attacks. Among other things, it’s a dishonest statement. There is a large constituency out there for the idea of addressing the root causes of terrorism, like the disenfranchisement of entire ethnic groups, or economic oppression, or neo-colonialism. That would be a third option: address the root causes of terrorists. Krauthammer would probably scoff at such an idea. For one thing, it would require you to be empathetic to the needs of others. Real men don’t do that..

At the most obvious level, of course, the statement makes no sense at all. I feel silly doing this, but if Krauthammer is right that his statement will make sense to a lot of people, then I guess I need to convince myself as well, that I’m not crazy.

1. We don’t know who is going to actually commit a crime (a terrorist act) until the crime is committed. So if we decide that we will go out and arrest people who haven’t committed crimes yet because only a fool would wait until the crime was actually committed, we have indeed entered a brave new world of criminal justice. We are going to start busting people who we think might think about committing crimes in the future.

2. It does indeed sound foolish to wait until someone robs you or assaults you before you assault them. So go out and find the person who is going to do that awful thing to you and assault them first, to deter them. Does that make sense to you? If it does, the Bush administration may have a job for you in the State Department.

3. Okay, so that sounds absurd. What do we do? What we have always done. You try to ensure that people who commit crimes or acts of terrorism are punished. You try to root out the causes of crime and terrorism. Great Britain fought terrorism in Ireland with pretty well nothing but brute force for about 100 years. It was not until they made progress in negotiations with the IRA that the possibility of peace in Northern Ireland became a reality. They’re not there yet. It’s not smooth sailing. It’s hard work. You understand the temptation to just lock them all up. But brutality has been tried and it has failed to stop the terror. If the Catholics in Northern Ireland feel that they are exploited and oppressed by the Protestant majority, there will be two, maybe three replacements for every terrorist you lock up or kill.

You can never bring an end to terrorism with brute force alone, unless you are willing to countenance genocide. And even then, you’ll never get them all. The state of Israel is testimony to that.

4. You can’t possibly know for sure what anyone is going to do in the future, no matter what you think they are thinking or even planning today. For every murder committed, there must be hundreds of murders contemplated. For every member of Al Qaeda, there are dozens of young Moslems who decide that part of their passage into manhood is the experience of a few months at a military training camp in Afghanistan. Most of these men will never become terrorists, but we are now arresting and imprisoning young Moslem men who went to these camps before an act of Congress made them illegal. They are charged with being a member of a terrorist organization.

This is a hideous perversion of justice, but it is countenanced by most people today because of frenzied government warnings about imminent terrorist threats. We are frightened into acquiescence when most of us should know better.

5. This is a self-perpetuating contrivance to justify increasing government authoritarianism and militarism. By labeling Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”, we strengthen the hand of the hard-line reactionaries within Iran and weaken the reform movement. We give credence to the mullahs’ belief that the West is out to get them, like we were in 1953 when we installed the Shah.

6. What is the difference between defending your country and terrorism? Who were the terrorists in Viet Nam? The Viet Cong, who were defending the results of the elections that brought socialists to power in the former French colony? Or the foreigners who entered their country with bombs and grenades and napalm and attempted to prop up a failing, corrupt government? Who were the terrorists in Nicaragua? The Sandinistas who eventually won the first free elections held after the fall of Somoza, or the Contras? Who had legitimacy? Who represented the will of the people?

7. Does Krauthammer sound familiar? A little like Henry Kissinger discussing the coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile? Thousands were tortured or murdered because of the CIA’s pre-emptive support of pro-American forces in the Chilean military. Would Krauthammer be in favor of renewed interventionism in Latin America? Do we need some more dictatorships in Brazil and Argentina to preemptively suppress terrorist movements?

Or would we, perchance, be better off supporting democracies in those countries– and preemptively preventing the kind of oppression that gives rise to terrorist movements in the first place.

When you can’t catch the burglar, simply arrest the paper-boy, so at least you can tell people you’ve done something about crime.

“When dealing with undeterrables (sic) (like al Qaeda) or undetectables (sic) (like an Iraq or an Iran passing WMDs to terrorists) there is no such thing as containment. There is no deterrence, no address for the retaliation. There are two options: do nothing and wait for the next attack, or get them before they acquire the capacity to get you. That is called preemption.” Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post

I know the “sic” is rude, but I can’t help it if the Washington Post decides that their columnists can just make up new words nowadays.

Homeland Insecurity: the Lashkar-i-Taiba

The Lashkar-i-Taiba is a militant Islamic group that has been fighting the occupation of the Kashmir by India.

I don’t really care about the Kashmir at this point. It’s another one of those names like Beirut and Northern Ireland and Jerusalem that evoke, for me, the long tired endurance of vindictive human folly.

The point is that until 9/11, the United States didn’t much care about them either. It was not illegal to belong to the Lashkar-i-Taiba, just as it is not illegal to belong to the Labour Party in Britain, the Green Party in Germany, or to be a personal friend of General Augusto Pinochet.

Just as it is not illegal to own guns, in the enlightened United States of America. The Republicans, in fact, just tried (and failed) to make it illegal to believe that gun companies should ever be liable for anything at all.

But the ever-vigilant Department of Homeland Insecurity found out about 11 Moslem men who like to play paintball. They were arrested. They were questioned. Astonishingly, they turned out to be Moslem! Astonishingly, they had belonged to Lashkar-i-Taiba. They had belonged to Lashkar-i-Taiba before the government decided it was illegal to belong to Lashkar-i-Taiba.

You would think that someone with common sense would say, it wasn’t illegal to belong to Lashkar-i-Taiba at the time they belong to it. Let’s give them a warning about the terrorist nature of this organization and let them go.

Not in your lifetime! And miss the opportunity to let the public know how you, the mighty Bush Administration, are stopping terrorists everywhere, dead in their tracks?

Somehow, one of them was “persuaded” to testify that the 11 were, in fact, thinking about something like something that might be construed as “anti-American” or something, and therefore should go to prison for the rest of their lives. The pattern for these trials is always the same: the only witness gets a much lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony against the others.

Would you tell the truth if you had a choice between being charged with very serious offenses that could result in sentences of up to 100 years, or being charged with less serious crimes that could result in just a few years in a jail? Tough choice.

To be specific, Yong Ki Kwon, 28, and Khwaja Mahmood Hasan, testified that they had wanted to fight for the Taliban against the U.S. Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, where the Taliban was the government, that’s somewhat like taking a couple of German boys from New Jersey in 1944, and putting them on trial for thinking about going home to Germany to join the army. And then sending them to prison for 100 years. Meanwhile, the soldiers that actually did fight against Americans, in Germany, are all released within months of the end of hostilities.

Once again, we have “terrorists” convicted of being terrorists, without the government actually proving– or even claiming to want to prove– that they actually committed any crimes, other than the thought-crimes of being Islamic and foreign.

If Mr. Ashcroft is doing such a fabulous job of rooting out terrorists, how come he has yet to catch a single person actually planning a terrorist attack? Once again, he has nabbed a bunch of Moslems, labeled them “terrorists”, and locked them up, without being able to show that they were actually planning to commit a single crime. In fact, the government admits that it has no evidence that the men were planning any attacks at all in the U.S. Yet, they may well go to prison for 20 – 40 years?!

This is an outrage.

The Men:

Ahmed Abu-Ali (in Saudi Arabia, being sought).
Randall Todd Royer,
Donald Thomas Surratt,
Masoud Ahmad Khan,
Caliph Basha Ibn
Hammad Abdur-Raheem
Ibrahim Ahmed al-Hamdi Mohammed Aatique
Khwaja Mahmood Hasan
Sabri Benkhala

“…one of them, Masoud Ahmad Khan, had a photograph downloaded from the Internet of the FBI headquarters building in Washington.” Along with about 10 million tourists.

You know, the more you read about this case, the more bizarre it appears. The men are charged with training in combat tactics– like about 7 million militia members in the U.S. They heard lectures on the righteousness of “violent jihad” in Kashmir. I’ve probably heard lectures more filled with violent hatred from Christians in North America for Hollywood and liberals.

It is considered sinister that these men had guns. What? Like about 50 million other Americans?

There undoubtedly are real terrorists out there. We can’t catch them. We’re not that smart. We haven’t really succeeded in infiltrating their organizations. So let’s take the people we catch– like these poor 11 schmucks from Virginia– and pin something on them. That’s the truth.

Roy S. Moore

Q. Do you support a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage?
A. I certainly understand that something needs to be done to stop mayors and judges and others who are disregarding the law. Interview in NY Times with Roy S. Moore who defied the law to install the 10 Commandments in his court room in Alabama, March 6, 2004.

Judge Roy S. Moore, you may recall, defied the law by installing the 10 Commandments, in the form of a big tombstone-like granite marker, in his courthouse, where everybody entering could clearly see it.

Most judges in the United States still happen to think that America is a secular democracy, so he was ordered to remove it. He refused. He defied the law. As a result, he was fired. Now he makes up to $10,000 a pop giving speeches on how to make America into a authoritarian state. Well, he doesn’t think it’s “authoritarian”.

In his opinion, the United States was founded upon Christian principles. Therefore, it was “legal” for him to put the 10 Commandments in a prominent place in his court room. I don’t care what he thinks about the founding principles of the United States (he’s wrong there anyway). It doesn’t matter what he thinks. The legal authorities in Alabama ruled that judges in Alabama have to respect the fact that not every citizen of the United States is a Christian, and that non-Christians are still entitled to justice.

It’s not all that uncommon for people to define what is “lawful” as what they do, and what is “unlawful” as what people you don’t like do.

Just like war crimes. What the enemy did was immoral. What we did was justified.

This is just an unusually comical representation of it.

The Fog of McNamara

There is a remarkable moment in “Fog of War” when Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and architect of the Viet Nam War, states that the U.S. should never enter a war without the support and assistance of it’s allies.

Everybody knows that for all the window-dressing applied to the support of Great Britain and Poland and a few other states, the U.S. entered Iraq not only without the active support of most of its allies, but with their active opposition.

It’s a hard lesson to learn.

But then, the point of “Fog of War” is that every assumption has to be re-examined in the light of experience and new information. Robert McNamara has more experience than most. I’m not sure what he’d make of the Iraq war. He might observe that another piece of wisdom America should have learned by now is that when the reasons given for military action prove to be invalid, instead of finding new reasons, find new actions.

If Bush had said right from the beginning that the U.S. would now be the world’s marshal, patrolling countries near and far, saving citizens from the abusive practices of dictators and bullies, and building democracies where none existed before, we might be able to have an honest and interesting debate about how it should be done, and or even whether it should be done. We could talk about whether the United Nations should play a part, or not, and whether the U.S., like Gary Cooper, should walk down Main Street alone at High Noon,

[added 2023-05-16]

Well, screw McNamara, if he thinks that was the problem.  The problem was not that the U.S. did not have a plausible path to victory: the problem was that the U.S. had no business getting into those wars in the first place.  The problem was that the U.S. frequently intervened not on behalf of democratic, liberal political parties and leaders, but on behalf of authoritarian leaders who could be counted on to turn over their economies or raw goods to U.S. corporations.


The Defense of Marriage Act

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times has pointed out that the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”, passed in 1997, was authored by Representative Bob Barr, who has been married three times, and signed into law by Bill Clinton (say no more).

Just thought you should know that.

The Bipartisan Ugly

The ugly side of the issue: Well the issue is plain ugly, like race and gender politics. Bush knows it, and Kerry knows it, but that won’t prevent either of them from playing politics with it.

Watch for the classic Rove-Bush strategy of allowing the president to take the high-road– proclaiming himself a reasonable moderate who respects diversity– while unleashing proxy spokespersons to really sling the mud. Rove knows that if Bush caters too much to the right, he risks losing moderate voters. At the same time, he needs to slyly clue the extreme right in: he doesn’t mean what he says to a national audience– it’s all code

Does the right continue to believe that Bush can actually do something about abortion? Yes. Well, he can. He can appoint sympathetic judges to appeals courts and to the Supreme Court. Will the Supreme Court, then, ever outlaw abortion? In your dreams. .

Kerry will also have to speak in code. Publicly, he will probably oppose same-sex marriage. Privately, he will want his hard-core supporters to know he will be much kinder to gays than Bush.

It’s like a bunch of big, tough school kids standing around. And they see a little thug picking on an even smaller, unpopular kid mercilessly. The Democrat says, they shouldn’t pick on him. The Republican says, “oh– you a friend of his?” The Democrat says, “Who? Me? Are you kidding?”

Both these guys know that America would be much better served by a frank discussion of taxes, military policies, security, and energy, and the environment. But that doesn’t score many votes for Bush, so watch for the gay bashing to enter a fever pitch as the election campaigns reach their strides.

Check here for more information about Bush science.

Same Sex Marriage

I don’t believe that even George Bush really supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Believe it or not– in spite of what I have said about George W. previously– he isn’t that stupid. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that his top advisor, Karl Rove, isn’t really that stupid.

Why? Good question.

It’s not hard to figure out why trying to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is a stupid idea, even if you do believe in the bible. The definition of marriage as a life-long union between one man and one woman is so clearly bound up with a religious doctrine and is so culturally and historically specific that large numbers of lawyers, judges, editorialists, and even some law-makers will eventually come to realize that it simply isn’t viable to enshrine the idea in the constitution. You have to start discussing the origins of that definition of marriage, it’s foundation in religious law (or do you want to try to argue that it is the product of “natural” law?), it’s claims of normativity (when more than 50% of heterosexual marriages fail in the U.S.) and what, exactly, it is that is so valuable about it. Is the purpose of marriage to have children? Explain that to childless couples.

You have to explain why divorce is permitted for trivial reasons, and why couples are allowed to live together common-law, if marriage is so sacred.

You have to explain the difference between common-law marriage and legal marriage. You have to start thinking about how the state tries to treat children from single-parent homes, and why.

I’m not saying that there isn’t anything valuable about the old fashioned heterosexual definition of marriage. Just that it would be very hard to prove that keeping marriage exclusively hetero-sexual would provide something to our society that is indispensable or irreplaceable. Unless you are James Dobson.

But James Dobson might have to come clean in a campaign like this. No, he won’t. You see, if Dobson ran for office, he would actually have to try to persuade a majority of voters that his politics are reasonable and wise. He would actually be accountable for his views. But in his best-selling books and tapes, Dobson can pontificate about all of society’s ills without ever being challenged or disputed.

Will John Kerry ever have an opportunity to ask George Bush if, since he feels that marriage should be the union of one man and one woman for life, he approves of divorce? Get him on the record. Let him explain why being in favor of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman doesn’t mean you don’t recognize that there are situations in which a divorce is desirable or allowable. See if his right-wing evangelical minions agree.

Still, you never know. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Texas legislature came out and declared that the earth was flat one of these days.

The problem is that the constitution is about the set of rules and principles that govern the way we, as individuals, associate with each other. It doesn’t tell you that the purpose of such associations is to seek salvation, or to experience sensual gratification, or some kind of higher consciousness. It leaves that to religion. The constitution wisely leaves to each of us the right to decide what the ultimate purpose of life is.

It is not for the state to define what the pursuit of happiness means. It is not for the state to define love or marriage or family or happiness. The purpose of the constitution is to keep you from being able to prevent me from seeking my own happiness according to my own beliefs, in so far as my pursuit of happiness does not impinge upon your pursuit of happiness.

We aren’t very big on the idea that the state should consciously promote moral virtue in it’s citizens. In other words, we want to promote orderliness and prosperity and justice, and any law that clearly advances those ideals will resonate with our existing laws and institutions. But any law that tries to tell us what happiness is, or should be, goes too far.

There is no constitutional logic that provides a rationale for banning gay marriage. It clearly is no skin off James Dobson’s, or anyone else’s, nose if a couple of guys or girls in New York want to share an apartment and sleep together and make each other beneficiaries of their life insurance policies. It really isn’t, no matter how many stupid things Dobson may say and how often he may say it.

I may not believe that people should be driving around in Hummers, but I can’t stop them. If they can pay for the gas, and if they abide by the rules of the road, they have the right to drive a Hummer. Some guy driving a Hummer does not infringe upon my right to drive a Toyota. (Let’s leave alone, for a moment, the argument that a Hummer uses up more resources belonging to everyone– like air– than most other vehicles.)

George Bush is going to have to try to argue that gay marriage somehow prevents me from driving my Toyota, in a manner of speaking. He’s going to have to argue that gay marriage somehow is going to prevent you from…. well, I can’t even imagine what they will argue gay marriage prevents you from do it. The truth is, he might as well blurt it out– he just doesn’t like it.

The truth is– and I think any in depth discussion of the issue will eventually elucidate it– that gay marriage doesn’t hurt anyone.

Unless. Unless you are going to argue that homosexuality is an unhealthy, abnormal lifestyle. But then, you don’t just need to ban gay marriage. You need to ban homosexuals.

And James Dobson and his cohorts might well say, well, what’s wrong with that idea? “When I grew up, we didn’t have homosexuals. Homosexual acts are still illegal in some states. It ought to stay that way.”

So, why not a constitutional amendment making it illegal to engage in homosexual acts?

Because then you would see how silly and unworkable it is.

Bush may be clueless about the implications of this issue, just as he seems clueless about the implications of just about every policy of this administration. (After Texas implemented an abstinence-only high school sex education system under then governor Bush, it’s rate of teen pregnancy slipped to the highest in the nation). But Karl Rove isn’t. He probably doesn’t care one whit whether the proposed amendment gets passed or not.

The truth is, that he is hoping to make use of some bigotry. He knows the Democrats would prefer not to oppose the amendment, because they know that Americans, by a ratio of 2 – 1 disapprove of gay marriage. And he knows that many Democrats are as ahead of the Republicans on this issue as Johnson, Kennedy, and the Supreme Court were ahead of the country on the issue of race in 1963.

How feeble does it sound, intellectually?  Try this:

“It should be an inalienable right, guaranteed by our Constitution, to live in a marriage-based society,” said Robert Knight, director of the Concerned Women for America’s Culture and Family Institute. “When you create counterfeit marriages and put them into the law, you’re undermining society’s most important safeguard against tyranny.

Actually, that doesn’t just sound feeble.  It sounds downright stupid.   A “marriage-based” society?  Sounds almost like “creationism”.  But you can see how the right is groping for some rationale for why they think their rights are infringed by the idea of same-sex unions, when clearly they are not.

Quote from Salon