The Inauguration and the Fake String Quartet

I just read that the lovely little quartet that performed “Air and Simple Gifts” at Barack Obama’s inauguration faked it. You watched the lovely musicians, elegant, focused, rising to the occasion– you thought. But the music you heard came from a recording that had been made a few days earlier. They finger-synched. They had ear-pieces so they could hear the recording, and then they put on a performance, but the performance was not musical: it was acting.

I am always amazed at the rationales given for cheating. The Chinese said that the little singer was not pretty enough to dance and the Olympics were too important to allow ugliness into the stadium. The people in charge of the inauguration said it was too cold to play, and too important an event to take a chance something going wrong, and allow any musical ugliness’s into the mall.

Even Pavarotti, at a performance in Italy a few years ago, cheated because he had a cold and didn’t want to disappoint his fans. Never mind the people who were disappointed to find out that even Pavarotti is a fake.

I hope most people immediately see through these lies. When we watch a brilliant musician perform, we are impressed precisely because it is difficult to do, and because of the dynamic connection between performer and audience responding to each other in the moment. So someone who successfully performs, live, deserves our respect. Others only want you to believe that they performed live. They want the same applause and respect. They bow and bow and bow– what’s the matter with you? What do you mean “cheating”? I just didn’t want to disappoint my fans.  I say, fuck you.

If it wasn’t fakery of the highest order, why were they trying to make it look like they were performing live? Why not just stand there and bow?

And why on earth, if they were so concerned about the cold, didn’t they just perform live in the White House — in the Oval Office– and then broadcast it to the huge screens on the mall? At a moment of crisis and change, demanding the highest level of inspiration for the American people, Obama’s people cheated. They pretended they could do something they didn’t believe they could really do.

They put on a show loaded with symbolism meaning nothing.

Well, I refuse to give in to this bullshit that someone it is reasonable and good and fair to cheat in public performances.  It is absolutely possible to perform live or to simply do something else if you don’t want to be honest.

[2022-05-09: they did for music what Obama did for progressive politics — faked it.]

The faked musical performance music wasn’t the only thing about the inauguration I didn’t like. The rows of guards dressed in grey overcoats lining the streets called to mind nothing so much as a police state. Rick Warren was boring. Obama’s speech was disappointing– merely “very good” instead of great. The poet played it entirely, decisively, antiseptically safe.

Diane Feinstein was good. She looked like she was having fun up there. I have never liked patriotic hymns of any sort, so Aretha Franklin’s song didn’t move me. The only other part of the inauguration I really liked was the benediction by Rev. Joseph Lawry, who at least put on a little funk and passion and sounded cheerfully unceremonious.

More Fakes: 2011-04

Did you like the tap-dancing in “Riverdance”? The sound was faked. The producers triumphantly chortled: nobody cares.

Turns out that Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea) is also a fake, according to “60 Minutes”. The stories he tells in his books and repeats in person, about getting lost on K2, and being kidnapped by the Taliban. False.

Bitter Dobsonites

If you check the James Dobson website, you’ll find that there are at least a few patriotic bible-believing Americans who are so bitter and self-serving that they are unwilling to acknowledge, even on inauguration day, the historic importance of America’s first black president.

Dobson’s proxies, instead, attacked Obama for employing several Clinton-era appointees.

Why on earth choose John Williams, most famous for the theme of “Star Wars”, to compose a piece for this historic inauguration? In his favor, he is American, living, and successful. But were the best parts of the composition the pieces he lifted from Aaron Copland? I would have preferred Tom Waits myself, but that’s just me.


I just read an article by Judith Warner in the New York Times that noted how often movies depict the lifestyle of 1950’s suburbia as a hellhole of emotional privation and spiritual desiccation. There are a long list of movies that fit the bill, from “The Hours” and “Far From Heaven” to “Edward Scissorhands” and “Revolutionary Road”, of course. How about “Hairspray”? Andy Warhol’s “Bad”?

She didn’t think it was quite fair. I’m not sure if she actually admired those mythical moms who spent their days cooking and cleaning and plucking their eyebrows and showing up at school “perfectly coiffed” to pick up their children– maybe she should– but she seems to think it’s unfair that we castigate a lifestyle that provided stability, security, and happiness to most people. The movies never tire of ridiculing suburbanites, whether they’re manicuring their hedges or swathing the house with Christmas lights.

The audiences for these films live in suburbs, where they manicure their hedges and put up Christmas lights. And go to movies that ridicule them.

Having acknowledged a measure of hypocrisy in the near-universal (among liberal intellectuals) condemnation of 50’s conformity and materialism, I’m not sure this (Warner’s diatribe) isn’t just another case of the a writer acting as if she had just discovered something that the writers she criticizes had always known and took for granted: that there was indeed a trade-off, and that the material comforts of suburbia are… just what they are: material comforts. Warner acts as if an entire generation has forgotten about how nice it is to have a warm, clean home and meals. Artists, don’t you know, sacrifice these things for the purity of their “art”. But of course, we are only ever shown the successful artist, for whom, we conclude, the sacrifice was worth it. How would it look if, instead, the movies showed us the dismal, depressing lives of the vast majority of wood-be artists, living in poverty and deprivation, for nothing more than the, assumed, personal satisfaction of creating great art?

And she’s right about the note of hypocrisy among the swaths of young, urban professionals who choose to live in the suburbs for the material comforts while entertaining quiet delusions about soulfulness and authenticity being smothered by the spirit of conformity.

Why You Want a War

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Hermann Goring

Why You Don’t Want a War

“The drive-through, which accounts for 60 percent of the chain’s business in the United States, was reconfigured to become more efficient.” NYTimes (January 10, 2008)

I didn’t know McDonald’s does 60% of their business through idling carbon emitters. We have a problem. McDonald’s chief executive (Jim Skinner, who looks like a McDonald’s customer) eats at McDonald’s every day.

Great Acting Performances

What do I consider “good” acting? When an actor has succeeded brilliantly, you will forget the actor altogether and see, instead, a character. And let’s face it: nobody is about to get past Tom Cruise, Madonna, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Jim Carey, or Dustin Hoffman any more. They are celebrities. But I have watched films in which Peter Sellers so completely disappeared into a character that I failed to recognize him. Off hand, here’s a few of my favorite performances by an actor or actress, all-time:

  • Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” (1965)
  • Ellen Burstyn in “Resurrection” (1980)
  • Holly Hunter in “Raising Arizona”
  • Tom Wilkinson in “Normal” (2002)
  • Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” (1972)
  • The entire cast of “Topsy Turvy”
  • Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”
  • Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”
  • Helen Mirren in “The Queen” (200)
  • Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon”
  • Amy Adams in “Junebug”
  • Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights”
  • Buster Keaton in “The General”
  • Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now”
  • Maggie Smith in “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”
  • Max Von Sydow in “The Seventh Seal”
  • Liv Ullman in “Scenes From a Marriage”
  • Emma Thompson in “Wit”.
  • Adrien Brody in “The Pianist”

Method John Adams

I am presently enjoying the mini-series “John Adams” from HBO. Paul Giamatti plays Mr. Adams, and Laura Linney his wife, Abigail. It’s a superb series– I recommend it.

It’s marred, in my mind, by only one thing: Paul Giamatti’s bizarre performance.

Once upon time, actors learned techniques, for voice and gesture, intonation and rhythm, and how to evoke character. This worked very well on the stage, where a large number of people had to not only see you, but hear you. In the movies, however, the excessive embrace of technique sometimes led to ridiculous results–look at “Dr. Zhivago”, for example. The “drama”– especially during scenes that were supposed to be extremely emotional– is, by today’s standards, stiff and constrained. Clearly, the actors are applying technique, not instinct, to their performance. Watch Marlene Dietrich in “Witness for the Prosecution”. It’s hard to believe this performance got past the director and into the final cut. They make the formal gestures, but you can see that there is no intensity or spontaneity in their faces– as there would be in real life. It’s like those stage kisses still often used– the illusion is temporarily shattered.

Along came “the method”, popularized by Lee Strasburg at the Actor’s Studio in New York in the 1930’s, and, later . Strasberg, in turn, picked up the idea from Konstantin Stanislavski, the great Russian actor. In the words of wiki: In Stanislavski’s ‘system’ the actor analyzes deeply the motivations and emotions of the character in order to personify him or her with psychological realism and emotional authenticity. Using the Method, an actor recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed.

Now, I personally can’t remember which is “sense” memory and which is “emotional” memory and what the Meisner technique is, but suffice to say they are all variations on the idea that one should mumble one’s lines so that nobody in the audience can understand what you say and, therefore, will conclude that you are incredibly deep.

This is not all bad. Some of the most compelling performances of the past 30 years have come from method actors. And some of the worst.

The problem is this: Marlon Brando was a method actor. Marlon Brando used the method to arrive at a character, in the movie “On the Waterfront”, who happened to be inarticulate and shy. Brando mumbled. Brando received widespread acclaim and a new era of realism was heralded in. Therefore, great acting consists of mumbling.

So we have Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and– worst of all of them– Ryan Gosling. All mumbling and whispering and looking painfully introverted as they do their best imitation of what they think made Brando successful: mumbling. It’s as if an athlete came to the conclusion that the way to train for a race was to practice ascending the podium. [2011-03: Just saw Ryan Gosling in “Blue Valentine”. No actor of his generation is less fun to watch than he is. I’m not saying he can’t act– it just isn’t fun to watch.]

Even when your character is in a large room full of people to whom he is trying to speak: mumble softly. Even when the character you are speaking to is talking normally because otherwise you couldn’t hear him. Mumble anyway– he’ll know what you said because he has a script.

So we have the spectacle of Paul Giamatti– who is not a bad actor, by the way– whispering to his fellow revolutionaries– and being close-miked in order to be audible. You can actually hear them change over to different miking when he speaks. Why? What has possessed the man to such ridiculous lengths? To make his character more “real” he makes him utterly implausible and, at times, ridiculous. It hurts every scene he’s in… except, when he and his wife are in bed together– the only time his vocal mannerisms make sense.

There are obvious reasons for an actor’s preference for “the Method”, especially for actors who are more talented– at least, more ambitious– than average: the method relies on the actor ransacking his own memories and emotions to evoke the character’s actions and expressions. When an actor takes his “art” seriously, it helps to be able to explain that he or she has tapped into some incredibly deep emotional experiences in order to portray the character required. He’s deep; I’m deep; we’re all deep. You like me? You really like me?

I actually don’t mind the method, when sensibly applied. If you watch enough Leslie Howard and Richard Burton, you might start longing for “the Method”.

But you don’t see Phillip Seymour Hoffman whispering when his character is speaking to a large gathering. The Method has its limits.

The Diminished Ego of Dustin Hoffman

“Dustin [Hoffman] told me that if the director wants you to do something, and it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Do what you want. It was nice to hear it from a vet.” Canadian actress Liane Balaban kindly informing directors everywhere just who will make the final decisions on the set.

Hoffman, whose own career has steadily descended into sustained mediocrity (quick: tell me the last really great film he was in), hasn’t created a memorable character since… well, “Tootsie”. And even that was implausible– they insisted on an actor completely physically unsuited for a transgender role because the actor was famous. The same goes for Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire”.

Is Dustin Hoffman still a good actor? I don’t think so. Watch Phillip Seymour Hoffman for a comparison. You can believe, at times, that Phillip S. Hoffman is the character he is playing. It’s very hard to see Dustin Hoffman without thinking right away, “that’s an actor in the twilight of his career”.

Open Source Books

I do not know what to do with my books. I don’t even know how many I have. Probably over a thousand. They sit on their prefab bookshelves, two layers deep, along my basement wall. They look fine. They testify to my learning and erudition. They show that I am not one of the thoughtless mob who spend hours and hours watching television.

Books have become very, very expensive. I know of a student at the University of Waterloo who recently spent over $900 for her course books. Is there some kind of scam going on with the universities and book publishers? Students are always told they need the latest, newest, revised edition. No effort is made to make new editions compatible with old editions, by retaining a consistent paging sequence, or by publishing addendums, or online updates.

How on earth can a laptop computer cost less than your course books? The computer requires thousands of manufactured parts from all over the globe, carefully assembled and tested, and shipped thousands of miles. Yet you can buy a new laptop for $500 or $600 nowadays. You can buy a lawnmower for $240. You can’t buy five books for less than that?

I think we need a movement. We need a group of intellectual hackers to devise an alternative to the established publishers, to write new text books and publish them on electronic readers like the Kindle. We need students to organize themselves and demand that professors adopt these new electronic books for their courses.

Their objection, of course, will be that they only want this particular book, a printed, published one, for the course. Only this book will do. Just as, in the computer world, first it was “only IBM will do” and then “only Microsoft will do”. Finally today, more and more users, including governments and corporations have discovered Linux.

What would happen if Universities supported this movement and began to require that all books be supplied in digital format and that they cost less than $20 each? Well, what would happen if they told the publishers they were no longer going to buy their inefficient, over-priced, tree-slaying compendiums? The publishers would have no choice. First, they would claim that they would be driven out of business. Then some smaller, more nimble publishers would start filling the gap. Then the big companies would buy them out and double their prices.

If there are enough hackers out there to support Linux– very efficiently, I might add– then there must be enough intellectuals, scientists, and others who would support a new “open source” text book system. In fact, isn’t Wikipedia a demonstration of this exact idea?

The Amazon electronic book reader.

It connects to Amazon through a wireless network– that is not compatible with European standards. Has the publishing industry learned anything from the music industry? Indeed they have: they appear to be just as stupid. A monthly subscription to the New York Times on Kindle– which is free, online– is $13.99. All right, so you buy a Kindle, and you decide to read five or six online news magazines or news papers, a few books, a few reference works… how long before you arrive at over $100.00 a month? And you are paying this for a technology that eliminates the publisher’s need to actually print something, on paper, and transport it to your eager little hands.

Add that to your cable bill, your phone bill, your cell bill, your iTunes bill, your movie rentals, and your CD collection… I think they’ve lost their minds. Why not do what Google, and most online newspapers have learned to do? Discretely sell some advertising in a non-intrusive way and hope to earn back the revenue through volume of hits?


Apparently the State of California is now trying to do just what I describe here: it is creating digital versions of text books for high school and making them available online for free.  Story here.

[2010-08-01 ]

I just read that there is a website devoted to this cause.

“The drive-through, which accounts for 60 percent of the chain’s business in the United States, was reconfigured to become more efficient….” The New York Times in an article on the resurgence of the McDonald’s Restaurant chain, January 11, 2009.