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September 21, 2003 Reviews

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Some notes on what seems to be out there, and what some of us have sampled....


LBJ guilty of murder?  The colorful folks currently in Washington.

Barr McClellan has a book coming out soon.  Blood, Money & Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K. (Hardcover: 480 pages, Publisher: Hannover House USA. Copyright: October 2003).  This will be listed as nonfiction of course.  In "pre-sales" the book is already listed at 175 on the Amazon bestsellers list. 

Barr McClellan is charging that a previous President from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, ordered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In a telephone interview last week with Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, Barr McClellan stressed that his theory is based not just on a decade's worth of research - but also on his experience, during the sixties, as a young lawyer at Clark, Mathews, Thomas & Harris, the Austin law firm that handled Johnson's business affairs.
McClellan's employment at the firm, he acknowledged, ended in a dispute over ethics and fruitless litigation over money.  But by the time he left, he said, "I knew LBJ well.  He was very brutal.  I'd seen him in person.  I'd been in Austin many years, and I knew a good bit about him."  McClellan contends that when Kennedy was killed "everyone suspected there was a conspiracy, but they didn't know how it worked. This is the inside story."

McClellan said that when he joined the law firm, in 1966, another young lawyer at the firm told him that one of the senior partners, Edward Clark, had "arranged" the assassination. The motive, McClellan says, was money and power.  After the assassination, he claims, Clark collected millions of dollars from oil and gas companies in Texas whose businesses were supposedly benefiting from having Johnson in the White House.  Clark died in 1992, with a reputation as Johnson's closest and most indispensable ally in the state.

The New Yorker researcher checked with G. Robert Blakey, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, who served as the chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations (and who believes that there was probably a second gunman).   Blakey dismissed the LBJ scenario as "highly implausible."  He pointed out that Johnson was in the motorcade that day. "You'd have to believe he paid someone to fire at a car in front of him, knowing the potentiality for a gunfight. What rational person would draw gunfire down upon himself?"

Eric Parkinson, the president of Hannover House, the book's publisher, in Arkansas, said that he was "squeamish at first" about McClellan's findings.  "It was a difficult decision to go forward, but it was too important a piece of history not to publish.  In comparison, everything else seems like fluff."

Well, perhaps so.  Of course, Parkinson needs to sell books.
As I've said, I have never been fond of conspiracy theory.

But what about this?  Barr McClellan has a son.  He's Scott McClellan, the thirty-five-year-old Texas fellow who took over from Ari Fleischer as White House spokesman in July.  Does this mean something?  Spin your own theory.

Scott McClellan's mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is divorced from his father, is a also political figure in Texas, where she is now the state's comptroller.  Before that, she was the mayor of Austin.   Mayer in the New Yorker suggests "her longtime political alliance with the Bushes undoubtedly helped her son land a job as the spokesman for George W. when he was governor of Texas."  And Scott McClellan's brother Mark is the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, in Washington. The father, Barr, is now just a writer and business consultant now living in Gulfport, Mississippi, but he loves Texas politics, and he sometimes produces mystery dramas at local theaters.

What to make of all this?  The White House press secretary's father is publishing a blockbuster about Texans ganging up and assassinating the president.  He claims the thirty-sixth President of the United States (Johnson) had the thirty-fifth (Kennedy) assassinated because of the thirty-sixth's lust for power and money.  The writer's ex-wife is the Texas state comptroller.  The writer's other son runs the Food and Drug Administration.  And there is Scott giving daily briefings on what the current president is doing and why he's doing it.

The Texan folks now in Washington are an interesting group.


Collective guilt as a theological concept, and Hollywood marketing tool: Mel Gibson and the ADL

The buzz out here, and in the entertainment pages in general, has been about Mel Gibson's new film The Passion, and it won't be released for another seven months.  The film chronicles the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus.  Gibson plans on Easter as the release date for the movie, but not everyone is okay with this film.  After screening an early version of the film with Mel Gibson, the Anti-Defamation League's national headquarters began to voice concern.
The ADL, whose mission is to "stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all people alike," argues that the film is theologically and historically irresponsible in regards to the crucifixion.
"We are concerned about the historical inaccuracies and the depiction of the Jewish people as the central force behind the crucifixion, implying that they bear full responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ," said Evan Zucherman, Associate Director of the one regional office of the ADL.  "We fear that the representation of a blood-thirsty crowd will lead to violence against Jews."  Zucherman also commented that she sees no benefits to the film being released, and that a disparaging representation of Jews does not help anybody.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, the Anti-Defamation League's Director of Interfaith Affairs suggests the film could, "undermine Christian-Jewish dialogue and could turn back the clock on decades of positive progress in interfaith relations."
Well, Gibson and his father belong to a break-way group of Catholics who think many previous Pope's got it all wrong.  The Jews do bear a collective guilt for the death of Jesus that can never be forgiven.  But Gibson says that's not his point.  The ADL and others are wary.
This week the Vatican endorsed the film, and the current Pope is one of the modern Pope's who think going around screaming "You Jews killed Jesus!" at investment bankers is kind of stupid.  Heck, for all you know that investment banker you think killed Jesus might be a Lutheran raised in Minnesota.  What's the point?

The head of the Anti-Defamation League on Friday accused Mel Gibson of holding anti-Semitic beliefs based on the actor's response to criticism the film.

Abraham Foxman, national director of ADL, insisted he was not calling Gibson an anti-Semite.  But Foxman said the actor "entertains views that can only be described as anti-Semitic."

Many conservative Christians who have attended private screenings of The Passion have called it "the most powerful depiction" they have seen of Jesus' final hours.  But Foxman has argued for months that the portrayal of Jews in the events leading to the crucifixion will promote anti-Semitism.

Until now, he has directed his criticism mainly toward the movie, while accusing Gibson of being "insensitive." 
However, Foxman said his view of the actor changed after reading an article about the debate in the Sepember 15 issue of The New Yorker.   In The New Yorker, Gibson discussed how some Catholic theologians have been criticized for their depiction of Jews.   "Modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church. And it's a lie. And it's revisionism. And they've been working on that one for a while," Gibson said.

Foxman called the comment "classical conspiracy that the Jews out there are plotting in conspiratorial ways on all sorts of things."

Gibson also expressed regret about editing out of the movie a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that reads, "His blood be on us, and on our children." That passage is among the sources for the belief that Jews are collectively guilty for Christ's death.

Gibson, referring to his critics, told the magazine: "If I included that in there, they'd be coming after me at my house, they'd come kill me."
Foxman said the comment was more evidence that Gibson believed in Jewish conspiracies.  "That's classic anti-Semitism," Foxman said.

Asked to explain the difference between an anti-Semite and someone who holds anti-Semitic beliefs, Foxman said an anti-Semite was "someone who gets up in the morning and says, 'I'm going to get a Jew.' "

"I'm not ready to say he's an anti-Semite," Foxman said.

Gibson, who is Catholic, has repeatedly denied his movie maligns Jews. A senior Vatican official said this week that criticism of the film appeared unfounded since it was based directly on biblical accounts of the crucifixion.

The Catholic League, an anti-defamation group, defended Gibson on Friday and said Foxman was "seeking to poison relations between Catholics and Jews."

Oh my. 

And of course Bill O'Reilly has had Gibson on his Fox News "The O'Reilly Factor" to counter Jewish criticism of the film.  The "conservative Christian right" is rallying around Gibson. 
Frank Rich, the media critic for the New York Times is ticked off about the film.  And that provides and opportunity for the right to fulminate about the evil, liberal, Jewish New York press of course.  You know, those guys who hate us harmelss Christians and like Hilary Clinton.
In the New Yorker piece Gibson says Rich's comments made him quite angry, or as Gibson put it - "I want his intestines on a stick... I want to kill his dog." 

The film isn't even out yet and the "whining" Jews and "self-righteous Christian" folks on the right are going at it.

As someone who is not particularly religious, this is all quite odd.  But politically, when many, many people in the media, on the right, start grumbling about the evil, overly-sensitive Jews, I get a little nervous.  But maybe that's my problem and no one else's.

In the September 21 Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan, our film critic out here, recommends that if you want to see a movie about the last days of Jesus, perhaps you should rent Paolo Pasolini's 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew.  Of course Pier Paolo Pasolini was a Catholic turned atheist and a committed Marxist who got into trouble with both the party and the church for his unapologetic homosexuality.  And that his death at age 53 came at the hands of a 17-year-old boy he'd picked up in a bar doesn't help much.  Bill O'Reilly wouldn't approve.

Turan does a fine analysis of the Pasolini film and it might be worth checking out.  Turan ends thus:
Pasolini may not have believed, but the dynamic power of belief is behind the lasting work he does here. Unwilling to be pigeonholed either aesthetically or philosophically, Pasolini had a thoughtful response when asked how a Marxist could make a film like "The Gospel According to St. Matthew." He called it "a reaction against the conformity of Marxism. The mystery of life and death and of suffering - and particularly of religion is something that Marxists do not want to consider. But these are and always have been questions of great importance for human beings."
Hey, that sounds like my kind of Bible film. 


Beethoven, skinny and popping speed...

Jan Swafford had column in Slate earlier this month that hit home with me.  And the title was cool... Speed Freaks Do Bach - Please, stop turning sublime classical works into dance music.  This was posted Friday, September 5, 2003 - see http://slate.msn.com/id/2087887/

My friends who like, and some who play classical music notice how things really have changed.  Swafford does a detailed review of the "authentic music" movement that's been going on since the sixties.  This has to do with using original instruments and smaller, less "lush sounding" orchestras.  Some call it "early music."  Few now have a problem with that.  The results are sometimes awful, but usually interesting - and pretty good music.  The problem now is tempos.

As Swafford says -

... in the '90s, in the midst of its triumph, for a lot of us early music and its influences went sour.  Lean and clean turned mean.

Sometimes textures got so slimmed down they became anorexic, as with the conductors who started doing big Bach choral works with one singer on each part.  The more obvious extremes, though, have to do with tempo.  Clock the last 40 years and you'll find the beat getting relentlessly faster. The scholarly rationalizations are more sophisticated now, but somehow what they invariably add up to is: You can't be skinny enough or fast enough.

There's a speed sweepstakes going on. Six years ago in Boston I heard a Bach "B Minor Mass" from which slow tempos had been essentially banished.  No more grandeur, no more sublimity, no more sweetness, no more tragedy - all qualities in which the "B Minor" is incomparably rich.  Or used to be.  In this performance the speeds were brisk, brisker, breakneck.  In the "Crucifixus" movement, Christ trotted all the way to Golgotha, pumping his cross.

I thought that was the last freaking straw, everything fast as possible, until two years ago I heard a conductor take movements of the "B Minor" faster than possible, chorus and orchestra scrambling desperately to catch up.  In the crowd after the performance I heard one guy exclaim, "I didn't know Bach was so bouncy!"; another, an organist no less, wondered, "I don't get it. What's the big deal about that piece?"  The most trenchant comment was from an older composer, who sighed as I passed, "Too bad. It really is the greatest music in the world."

There's incompetent bad, which as in my old Handel recording can be highly entertaining.  And there's sophisticated bad, which is just depressing.  There's no way to say to what degree those Bach tempos were "authentic."  The main basis for those tempos is fashion, not hard evidence.  What can be confidently said is that a two-hour religious work of often tragic import containing little or no slow music is inexpressive, unmusical, and silly.

As a giggle I pulled out a boxed set of Bruno Walter conducting the Beethoven Symphonies.  This is the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, recorded out here on Los Angeles between 1958 and 1963 down at the American Legion Hall.  I bought the set (Columbia SX6X 48099) because back in high school I listened to these on vinyl discs over and over.  I thought they were great.  Now they seem to drag. 

I suspect any version I hear of, say, The Pastoral (Number 6, Opus 68) would run a full eight minutes shorter than Walter's version.  I have a Bernstein recording with the New York Philharmonic somewhere or other that isn't that new, but sounds just too damned fast.  It hurts to listen to it.  But what I hear on the radio is almost as painful.

The problem is I'm getting used to the faster tempos.  My ear expects them.

My ear has changed.  I wonder if I can relax, slow down, and like these slow, stately recordings again.  Perhaps I'll have to give up coffee.