Notes on how things seem to me from out here in Hollywood... As seen from Just Above Sunset
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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Sunday, 21 May 2006
Hot of the Virtual Press
Topic: Announcements

Hot of the Virtual Press

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The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log, is now online. This is Volume 4, Number 21 for the week of May 21, 2006.

This week, four extended commentaries on where we are now, the first on the raging immigration debate. The second is on the trouble with finding context for the news, with putting things in perspective. That can get quite wild. The third? We seem to be living in a new America, and the array of evidence for that is extensive and a tad distressing. Finally, if you were a master marketing consultant how would you advise the White House as the polls reach new lows with each survey, and everyone, left and right, seems to have a problem with how things are going? The consultant discussed here has some wild ideas.

There are two items from the International Desk - Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, returns with some night photography of the now customary Friday night madness, those thousands of rollerblade folks in the city streets. And there are notes on the Eurovision Song Contest, as there are each year in these pages, but this year there's news NBC is planning an American version of this cheesy thing. By the way, the Goth band from Finland won this year, those guys in the latex Klingon outfits.

In the Hollywood section there's a visit to the famous Hollywood studio no tourist ever sees. It's one of those places where the real work of film and television has been done since 1919, and if you're not in the industry cannot get in. And there are two Ferraris for you consideration, in local context, with photographs.

Southern California Photography this week includes our default Giverny out here. The Orangerie museum in the Paris Tuileries gardens has just reopened with the Monet water lilies, and here you'll find our real life version at the lotus pools at Will Rogers Memorial Park on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, at the north end of Rodeo Drive. It'll do. And there are new nature photos - egrets and more at the shore, in detail. And the botanicals are here again for those who insist, many from a hidden park in the mountains north of Malibu.

Our friend from Texas brings us more of the weird of course, and the quotes this week will get you thinking in new ways about the whole current immigration debate.

Direct links to specific pages -

Extended Observations on Current Events ______________________

Reframing: Pleasing Everyone, Pleasing No One
Context: Spinning Spinoza and Evil Albinos
Notes on the New America
Marketing: What George Bush Could Learn from the Consultant from France

The International Desk ______________________

Our Man in Paris: Friday Night Photographs - La rando du vendredi à Paris...
Pop Culture: A New European Import

Hollywood Matters ______________________

The Old Days: Pink, Blue, Green, Red
The Green Gumball
Wretched Excess: Another Ferrari in Malibu

Southern California Photography ______________________

Impressionism: Hollywood Nymphéas
Egrets in Context
Other Birds
Botanicals: Two Contrasting Settings


The Weird: WEIRD, BIZARRE and UNUSUAL
Quotes for the week of May 14, 2006 - We Are a Land of Immigrants

Posted by Alan at 15:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
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Saturday, 20 May 2006
On the Road Again
Topic: Photos

On the Road Again

No commentary today. Heading south, down San Diego way, for family matters, a birthday party - but will be traveling in the Mini Cooper, not as shown here.

Boat leaving Marina del Rey on a foggy windless morning (Thursday, May 18, 2006)

Posted by Alan at 07:36 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
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Friday, 19 May 2006
Marketing: What George Bush Could Learn from the Consultant from France
Topic: Backgrounder

Marketing: What George Bush Could Learn from the Consultant from France

You know you're in trouble when you see headlines like this one from Knight-Ridder, Friday, May 19, 2006 - Americans don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either. Ouch.

This was the "get out of jail free" card, so to speak, or maybe speaking quite literally. Some days earlier, the president's key advisor and some say political genius, Karl Rove, relieved of his duties as policy advisor and now solely dedicated to political strategy, had famously said of the president's low approval ratings - "People like him. They respect him. He's somebody they feel a connection with. But they're just sour right now on the war. And that's the way it's going to be. And we will fight our way through."

Many looked at the poll numbers and didn't exactly see what "Bush's Brain" saw. And that's what this Knight-Ridden item is about. You look at the poll numbers and, to change the metaphor from Monopoly to poker, this "ace in the hole," his basic likeability that will bring people around, looks more like a three of clubs. Rove, to be clear, said he was using data from private internal Republican polling, and all the other polls didn't matter. He had the real facts (think of the WMD argument here of course). The Republican National Committee wouldn't release a copy of the poll in question (the UN inspectors finding nothing were wrong too, as we had better intelligence - the real facts we couldn't share with anyone). The spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee says it's all in how you ask the questions. Amusing.

Knight-Ridder opens with this -
It's not just the way he's doing his job. Americans apparently don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either.

A drop in his personal popularity, as measured by several public polls, has shadowed the decline in Bush's job-approval ratings and weakened his political armor when he and his party need it most.

Losing that political protection - dubbed "Teflon" when Ronald Reagan had it - is costing Bush what the late political scientist Richard Neustadt called the "leeway" to survive hard times and maintain his grip on the nation's agenda. Without it, Bush is a more tempting target for political enemies. And members of his party in Congress are less inclined to stand with him.
And the quotes from political scientists are there, like this one - "When he loses likeability, the president loses the benefit of the doubt. That makes it much harder for him to steer." And they review data from six major polls. The consensus - "The president's public perception problem is not only about his dismal job performance, but also his striking lack of personal favorability," as one expert puts it.

And about that -
Personal favorability can encompass many things in the minds of voters: character, respect, warmth, kinship, even whether a voter would want to have a beer with a politician. Or in the case of the teetotaling Bush, a soda.

Bush has lost ground on most of those measures.

Gallup, for example, found drops in the number of people who think that Bush is honest and trustworthy, that he shares their values and that he cares about people like them.
Does it matter? The idea is, of course, the "personal popularity can swing elections and affect governing." Al Gore was seen as wooden. He lost. And yes, former California Governor Gray Davis was cool and standoffish politician, and was "recalled" as Arnold Schwarzenegger was white hot (in many senses). Reagan survived the Iran-Contra mess with his bumbling doofus who means well routine - he just didn't seem the kind of guy that did bad things, at least on purpose. Or the Alzheimer's was starting to kick in, so you just couldn't be mad at him.

Bush doesn't have the Teflon that Ronald Reagan had. The persona presented in this case - the happy-go-lucky frat boy who laughs at people with degrees and ideas, who don't like to think or those who do, and who just trusts his instincts - isn't providing the same sort of protection when things go bad, or you and your folks screw up. Reagan's gentle fool bit works better than the scornful frat-boy thing.

What to do? This calls for a consultant!

But who would that be? It could be the chairman of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide.

To explain, this consultant, as noted in April 2004 in these pages here, was helping John Kerry is his attempt to dodge the jibes of Rush Limbaugh and the rest in his presidential run. Pretend you don't speak French and stop seeming intelligent and worldly.

The details were explained by Joshua Kurlantzick in the New Yorker in this -
A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French anthropologist known for identifying the subconscious associations that people from various cultures make in the "reptilian" part of their brains, had offered to become the Senator's Gallic Naomi Wolf, devising ways for him to rid his speaking style of French influences.

Suddenly, Kerry appeared to develop linguistic amnesia. "During a press conference, I asked Kerry a question, on Iraq," de Chalvron recalled. "He didn't answer. In front of the American journalists, he didn't want to take a question that was not in English." Loïck Berrou, the United States bureau chief for de Chalvron's competitor, TF1, has been having similar problems. Berrou chatted in French with Kerry on a commercial flight last year; the Senator reminisced about his family's country house in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, a village in Brittany, where Kerry's cousin is the mayor. "We've pushed hard to get an interview with him, and no answer," Berrou says.

Family members have apparently been put on a leash as well. Kerry's wife, Berrou says, "speaks with us in French with no problem, and her press attaché has to pull her by the shirt to get her away from us."
So the worldliness and language skills just disappeared.

Could G. Clotaire Rapaille help George Bush?

Of course the president, in this case, is already quite good at playing dumb, and more than clumsy with the one language he happens to know (except for a smattering of slang Tex-Mex Spanish words and phrases). The problem is almost the reverse of Kerry's.

For a review of the way Rapaille might approach this Bush problem, see this from October 2004, a discussion of how we are seen by the French, and how we hate them truly. Rapaille comes up there, in this from Elisabeth Eaves in SLATE.COM -
America is a shark. Full of religious zealots. Who are deeply divided against themselves.

These are just a few descriptions of the United States gleaned from just-released French books devoted to deciphering and explaining the other red, white, and blue. Parisian editors are dining out on a new subgenre that includes tirades, serious academic tomes, election-timed quickies by celebrity journalists, and even a novel, Frenchy, about a Parisian living in Texas when the United States invaded Iraq.
Eaves cites Clotaire Rapaille, this French-born marketing consultant based here in the States who specializes in selling across cultures, the one who advised the Danish Lego people that Americans do not read instructions and told French cheese-makers that Americans prefer their cheese "scientifically dead." Back then, Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, had a great deal to say about all this, as did the marketing professor at the famous business school in upstate New York who often adds comments (he knew and had worked with Rapaille and thought Rapaille was almost always spot-on).

Could Rapaille solve this "missing Teflon" problem and make Bush "likeable" now? It's an interesting question. "Selling across cultures" may actually be the real challenge. Can one devise a way to make the squinting and stubborn and not at all curious George likeable again, in the context of the issues at hand these days?

That would be cool, if you could pull it off. You just need the codes that unlock the NASCAR fan in every Boston liberal, and unlock the openness and generosity of spirit in the Minutemen loading their rifles and heading for the border to knock off a few Mexicans sneaking in.

And wouldn't you know, G. Clotaire Rapaille has a new book to be released in June, conveniently titled The Culture Code - "In The Culture Code, internationally revered cultural anthropologist and marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille reveals for the first time the techniques he has used to improve profitability and practices for dozens of Fortune 100 companies. His groundbreaking revelations shed light not just on business but on the way every human being acts and lives around the world."

The site, from Random House Broadway Books, had all the details, a few excerpts, and links to all the press and media on this fellow.

But is he the man for the job?

Laura Miller in the May 20 issue of SALON.COM interviews him here - "In America, seduction is dishonest" - and the opening indicated this guy is not the sort of guy Bush would like -
Clotaire Rapaille is a controversial, often outrageous figure, an anthropologist turned marketing guru and Frenchman turned American. From his flamboyant appearance (he swans around in a cravat and black velvet frock coat, drives a Rolls-Royce, plays polo and lives in a restored industrialist's mansion in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.) to his sweeping pronouncements on the "archetypes" underlying various national cultures, he tends to elicit either rapt attention or dismissive scorn. Academics write him off as both irrational and behind the times, rival market researchers accuse him of being simplistic and a shameless self-promoter - but an impressive roster of Fortune 100 companies have engaged his services and come back for more again and again.

Rapaille's method involves a three-stage focus group process, one that starts with the rational aspect of the participant's experience - the "cortex" as Rapaille calls it - then moves on to a more creative, storytelling portion targeted at the "limbic brain." The final stage, during which the participants are encouraged to lie on comfy cushions and dig down to their earliest memories of "cars" or "coffee" or even "seduction," is the only one that really counts for Rapaille. These sessions allow him to tap into what he calls the "lizard brain," a center of primal impulses, needs and memories that he calls "imprints." When it comes to decision-making, we may offer excuses from the cortex ("I want a car with great safety features"), but what really motivates us are the primitive emotions of the lizard brain ("I want a car that makes me feel free and strong").
This is no Karl Rove, who may himself have a lizard brain, but doesn't do focus groups. Rove plans attacks.

But then, they guy may have some good idea, beyond anything Rove imagines -
Q: You describe America as an adolescent culture, and that idea is not unfamiliar to many of us. What does it mean to you?

A: You have a series of elements and when you look at them all together, they tell you the same thing. For example, we never look at instructions. We never plan. The Iraq war is an example of that. We always want the short-term, quick fix. This is a stereotype, of course, but it's really true in the sense that we have the repetition of this pattern again and again. We are very uncomfortable with sex and have no sex education with our children, just some anatomical education. We have a hard time with our children because how can adolescents raise adolescents? I don't want to know what I'm going to do when I grow up even if I'm 75 because I don't want to grow up. I want to have fun, to be rich and famous now, to play. Now, I choose to be American because I'd rather be part of an adolescent culture than a senile culture.

Q: You feel that France is a senile culture?

A: Oh yes, they're almost committing suicide right now. They're destroying themselves.
The choices are death or perpetual and pointless adolescence? That can't be so.

And note this on doing things right -
Q: You say that a Frenchman says, "I think," while an American says, "I do." How do you reconcile this immediate gratification impulsiveness with the famous American industriousness?

A: For an American, if you think too much something is wrong with you. Yet there is this ability to do things, and that's because we learn by making mistakes. I did a lot of research about quality, comparing Americans with the Japanese. Americans don't want to do it right the first time the way the Japanese do. I don't mean consciously, but if I do it right the first time, then what do I do next? What do I learn? In this attitude, there is a lot of wisdom.
Of course that's all rather general, but it does get more politically specific -
Q: What about partisan politics in America? It seems particularly bitter at the moment.

A: Politics in America has a different code than in Germany, England or France. The Democrats and the Republicans say the same thing. After a while, they just say, for example, "We have to protect the border or deal with immigration and we just have different ideas about how to do that." The main goal is the same. In other parts of the world, you have different parties with completely different goals.

Q: So what do you think the divide in America is about? Because people feel it very strongly.

A: I think we have two parts of the brain fighting it out. The blue people are supposed to be thinkers. But the majority of America, the people who drive a pickup truck with a six-pack in the back and a gun, they see themselves as the ones who are doing and making this country, not just sitting there thinking. They shoot first and ask questions later. The key notion for me is that the blue people think too much, and because they think too much they can't agree on anything.

Q: President Bush seems to be working that kind of shoot-first, no-nonsense code, but the failure of his policies has made him very unpopular all the same. It seems like the ideal opportunity for the Democrats to step in and regain some ground, but hardly anyone seems to have much faith that they can pull it off. What do you think of their chances?

A: Here's one issue: Don't tell people, "Drive a smaller car." That goes against American culture. Say, "I'm going to do everything to make us energy independent." Independence is so American. We don't want to be dependent on all these crazy guys in the outside world. We want to be independent. And then we have to do whatever we have to do to become independent. A theme like that is very powerful, and Thomas Friedman wrote several articles about it but nobody is really listening to him.

We need a cultural leader, not just someone who says I can push a button and send atomic bombs to you. Someone who is proud to be an American and can present an image of America to the world. Not to impose our culture to the world, but we want you to understand it and we want to understand yours and respect each other. George W. Bush has not done that.

Q: But doesn't he embody a lot of codes of American culture?

A: In some ways, yes, he is the cowboy and so on. But my position is that Bush never won an election. I'm not going into the controversy - it's that the other guys lost. Kerry lost, Bush didn't win. Kerry should have won, that was so clear to me, but he did everything wrong. He didn't represent all the American culture and so we are left with President Bush.
And on it goes, with the idea of a can-do spirit as part of the American code, but then you have to go on and actually get things done. Talk is cheap.

And there's this on the rise of Christian fundamentalism -
Religion in America is Disney World. We're not really serious about it the way the Muslims are. We just want some rituals, we have so many different brands of religion. We like the stories about it and talking about what they say and don't say. It's little stories for children. When in Kansas they try to stop the teaching of evolution, it's like at Disney World. If you are in the Mickey Mouse costume, the rule is that you never take off your mask. You're not supposed to show in public that there is a real guy under the mask. That's religion in America; let the people keep their illusions. Don't show the reality.

Now, because we are adolescent, we like to take things to extremes: extreme sports, extreme everything. Moderation is boring - eating in moderation? No way. So we apply that to religion, too, religious extremism.
That's about it - Pat Robertson as giggling adolescent, high on the God idea, while everyone else grew up. Right. It's an interesting observation, but what do you do with it? The man fits in with the culture - he's rich and famous. And he tells the White House what's acceptable to his crowd of similar kids.

So what do you do if Karl Rove is indicted and the White House calls you in as consultant when Rove has to leave? Bush has the "if you think too much something is wrong with you" thing down cold. And telling Bush to curb the impulse to impose our culture to the world and tell everyone we want them to understand our culture and want to understand and respect theirs? Yes, Bush has not done that. And he won't - his whole foreign policy, developed in the late eighties by the neoconservatives with their Project for a New American Century, in firmly in place. There's nothing else, and he can't throw everyone out. As for being inspiring, switching from "be very afraid and be very angry" to "let's work with everyone and get some things done to make things better" is an impossible transition. The president is notorious stubborn, and the raw material for the new approach may just not be there.

It doesn't matter. They won't be hiring this French-born wild man. Things are set for the next nine hundred ninety days, with or without Karl Rove.

Go read the rest of the interview. The stuff on sex and drinking and love is cool.

For example, this is good -
I always say if you want to understand a culture, look at what the people do at 5 o'clock. In England, they drink some kind of hot water with an herb in it: tea time. In Spain, they kill a bull. The Americans have the happy hour, they get drunk. The French have cinq a sept, a very special thing, it's sexual. Men and women, who are married but not to each other, after work they go to a hotel and have sex. It's seen as experiencing pleasure with somebody else. For the French, life is about the refinement of pleasure. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but the cultures do provide very different reference systems.
And this -
American women are uncomfortable with being too sexy. You have to be sexy, but not too sexy. It is very, very difficult. I joke that if I come back one day as a woman, I don't want to be an American woman. It's too difficult.

In America, seduction is dishonest. In America, we say, "What you see is what you get," whereas in French culture it doesn't matter what you have, it's what you do with it.

... Beauty is an art. Red is red and blue is blue. It is not the color of the paint that makes the painting. Americans think a woman should be what she is and not have any intentions behind that. In French culture, the only thing that is sexy is the intentions.
You don't want this guy anywhere NEAR the White House.

Posted by Alan at 23:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006 23:10 PDT home

Thursday, 18 May 2006
Notes on the New America
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Notes on the New America

Some days are slow news days, and some filled with events that seem to reveal a great deal and who we are, or what we're becoming. Thursday, May 18, 2006, was on of the latter. Here's an array of that day's events for you consideration, with commentary.

Chickens Coming Home to Roost, Again

This was supposed to go away. From these pages, March 29, 2006, The game is winding down, the one started on the nursery school playground... -
And if Abu Ghraib and some events at Guantánamo weren't enough now we have Haditha.

Well, it doesn't really count as March madness, as the event happened on 19 November last year. Marines this time. The Pentagon and Naval Criminal Investigative Service have opened an investigation (the Marines are traditionally part of the Navy). Time magazine covers it here - a raid where we captured a bad guy, but fifteen civilians, including six women and children, died. Was it civilians unfortunately in the way? The building just collapsed and that was that?

We say so. The local police say no. It may be that our guys lost one of there own and got angry and things spun out of control. A cameraman working for Reuters in Haditha at the time said bodies were left lying in the street for hours after the attack. One source here has the women and children handcuffed and shot in the head, execution-style. ABC News covers it here with video of the aftermath shot by an Iraqi journalism student - but who did what? That there is now a formal investigation is not a good sign. We've been forced to look into this. Abandoning the usual "sorry, fog of war" line is not a good sign. Ah, maybe it's nothing - things happened just as the guys said.
In the same issue this was also mentioned here to make a different point, and again in the April 16th issue here in another context - "When a culture is as historically clueless and morally desensitized as this one appears to be..."

But then it was time to let it go, and not mention the three Marine officers from that same unit who had been dismissed from command, for the cryptic reason that their superiors had "lost confidence" in their battlefield decisions. It was a local story, from Camp Pendleton, the big Marine base down the coast at Oceanside. And it was Donald Rumsfeld who famously said of the looting of Baghdad and the murders in the streets there, "stuff happens." Democracy is messy and all that. Maybe this was a "stuff happens" thing. Or maybe it's just not true.

But the story resurfaced here on May 17th from NBC -
A Pentagon probe into the death of Iraqi civilians last November in the Iraqi city of Haditha will show that U.S. Marines "killed innocent civilians in cold blood," a U.S. lawmaker said Wednesday.

From the beginning, Iraqis in the town of Haditha said U.S. Marines deliberately killed 15 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including seven women and three children.

One young Iraqi girl said the Marines killed six members of her family, including her parents. "The Americans came into the room where my father was praying," she said, "and shot him."

On Wednesday, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said the accounts are true.

Military officials told NBC News that the Marine Corps' own evidence appears to show Murtha is right.

A videotape taken by an Iraqi showed the aftermath of the alleged attack: a blood-smeared bedroom floor and bits of what appear to be human flesh and bullet holes on the walls.

The video, obtained by Time magazine, was broadcast a day after town residents told The Associated Press that American troops entered homes on Nov. 19 and shot dead 15 members of two families, including a 3-year-old girl, after a roadside bomb killed a U.S. Marine.

On Nov. 20, U.S. Marines spokesman Capt. Jeffrey Pool issued a statement saying that on the previous day a roadside bomb had killed 15 civilians and a Marine. In a later gunbattle, U.S. and Iraqi troops killed eight insurgents, he said.

U.S. military officials later confirmed that the version of events was wrong.
Murtha holds a news conference and says when this is over it will be clear that "there was no firefight, there was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

NBC gets one military official to admit, off the record, "This one is ugly." The Marine Corps issues a statement saying that they won't say anything - an ongoing investigation and can't mess it up by saying anything now.

Now John Murtha called this news conference not to deal with whatever happened at Haditha, but to point out it had been six months to the day since he had upset everyone and called for "redeployment" of American forces from Iraq. As you recall, when he did that the strange little woman from Cincinnati called Murtha a coward on the floor of the House. The Bush side introduced a sham proposal that we withdraw all forces from Iraq immediately, every single person there, and dared the Democrats to vote for that. Murtha and others protested that's not what Murtha had proposed. The Bush side said it was the same thing, really. It was a mess. Six months later Murtha is still saying the same thing, redeploy big blocks of our forces to other sites in the area and stop making things worse - and this Haditha business is one reason why. Our guys are so stressed out and overextended they can really lose it. And when they do it's awful for everyone, so let's help keep these guys from going all crazy and rethink what where doing, with whom and where.

And then he went on NBC's Hardball and said the same thing (video here).

What's going on?

The right exploded with anger calling him a traitor and saying he should be shot and all that. But he's an odd duck, a Marine himself for almost thirty years, extremely pro-military and on the inside with the top command of all the services. Was he relaying a message to the administration from them, one they themselves couldn't force up the chain of command given the personality of the civilian commander of the armed forces, the current Secretary of Defense, the testy and impatient Donald Rumsfeld with his set ideas on how things should be no matter who says what and no matter what happens? Murtha has played this messenger role before. Was this a massage from the field - our troops need some relief here as this is going nowhere? Perhaps.

But that message was lost as it seems the Haditha event, seeming to be just what Murtha said, itself took center stage - some saying it didn't happen, or if it did it should have never been revealed as it hurts America, and others saying it surely did happen and shows something awful about the guys in charge, or the administration, or the whole idea of the war itself, or our whole culture, or whatever.

See Bill Montgomery here -
When the Abu Ghraib horror show first aired on 60 Minutes, I remember wondering whether it would prove to be the Iraq War's version of the My Lai Massacre - with the photo of the hooded man on his box, arms spread in a crucifix, as the enduring image of a military machine run amok, just as a photo of murdered Vietnamese women and children, sprawled in the middle of a muddy road, became the Americal Division's permanent badge of shame.

To a degree, that's what happened - with the hapless sadists of the 184th Infantry Regiment serving as the collective stand-ins for Lt. William Calley, and Colin Powell reprising his earlier role as the bullshit artist telling everybody what they want to hear.

But now it appears that instead of a symbolic My Lai, we have the genuine article...
And as for that office who said "this one is ugly" -
Ugly? That doesn't even begin to cover it. Dick Cheney is ugly. The Pentagon is ugly. An Abrams tank is ugly. Executing helpless women and children while they're huddled on the floor, praying to their God, is a war crime committed by terrorists. It's Lidice and Rwanda and Srebrenica and, of course, My Lai.

... I don't know if it's better or worse that this atrocity seems to have been committed by a military unit completely out of control, instead of one that was following orders, as was clearly the case at Abu Ghraib. On one hand, you can argue that it's simply a reminder that Americans are as capable of being beasts as anyone else: Germans, Japanese, Russians, Serbs, Arabs, Afghans, Israelis, Somalians, Afrikaaners, Salvadorans - the list goes on and on. There's nothing exceptional about us, even in our war crimes.

On the other hand, the fact that U.S. Marines - the few, the proud, etc. - were capable of such bestiality says something ominous about the psychological state of the American military after three years of being stretched to the limit. These weren't draftees or Guardsmen or pathetic losers like Calley. These were professionals, supposedly the best of the best, and yet they threw away their training, their code and their honor, and drenched themselves and their flag in the blood of innocents. They simply snapped, in other words, and it makes me wonder how many more like them are out there - one IED or ambush away from going berserk.

There is a whiff of genocide in the air, and not just in Iraq. While the keyboard warriors still talk in slightly coded terms about waging war with the "ferocity" required to win, some of the real warriors aren't bothering to conceal what those terms really mean.
As for the congressman from Pennsylvania -
I don't know why Murtha went public (just as the right wingers don't know) but I can make my own guess: He did it to try to prevent Rumsfeld's toadies from classifying and then deep-sixing the investigative report, as they tried to bury the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib. And if the past really is prologue, Murtha is probably speaking on behalf of some fairly senior Marine officers who either can't abide a cover up, or who want to pin the blame on the people who created this mess, and left the jarheads in Haditha to deal with it, instead of on their beloved Corps.
As for the reaction on the right see the roundup from Glenn Greenwald here, including - "Frankly, this is the action of a traitor or a sellout. He deserves to be ridiculed, excoriated and frog-marched off Capitol Hill, then remanded to jail. No bail. Doesn't this idiot know the type of damage this inflicts on the Marines?"

Murtha was thinking of the damage already done, and continuing.

And there's this from Greenwald -
Ultimately, do any of these war supporters really care if these allegations are true? Weren't they just recently celebrating Shelby Steele's recommendation that we fight this war with much less precision and sensitivity to civilian deaths, and with much greater and unrestrained "ferocity"? Are they angry at Murtha for violating their oh-so-deeply held beliefs in the need for due process before publicly proclaiming someone's guilt, or are they angry at him for confirming that the U.S. engaged in conduct in Iraq which, yet again, is incalculably harmful to our image and credibility in that region, supposedly the principal purpose of our occupation?

This administration hates nothing more than people who publicize politically harmful information that they want to conceal. Those who have been most viciously attacked, and at whom the most intense calls for imprisonment have been aimed, have been those who have disclosed information that has reflected poorly on the Commander-in-Chief and his administration. That is what explains these sustained attacks on investigative journalism. Investigative journalists, by definition, reveal information which the Bush administration wants to keep secret, and they are therefore one of the prime Enemies.
And he moves on to those attacks on investigative journalism. It's all the same.

Who we are? A large bloc of us thinks about the Marine shooting the three-year-old and her mother in the head as they pray, and feel that this is fine. We need to show these people not to mess with us. And if you blab about it you're a traitor. Interesting.

Tap-Dancing into the CIA

While all that was being discussed, the no-nonsense, blue-collar general from Pittsburgh (profile with photo here) faced the Senate Intelligence Committee, the first step in his confirmation as the new head of the CIA - they say he's okay and the nomination goes to the full senate for the formality of vote that counts for the record. He'll be fine. He's a shoe-in. John Bolton never got the larger vote to be confirmed as our UN Ambassador, but Bolton had a long history of saying the UN should be eliminated as they were all fools and crooks. The president had to use a recess appointment to get him up to the big blue building on the East River, where he could say such things to their faces there. But that's not the case here. Michael V. Hayden, who for six years ran the NSA with all those spy-on-every-American programs of dubious legality and questionable effectiveness, loves the CIA and wants to make it hum. Or that was his line.

The NSA stuff had to come up, even if his confirmation is assured.

Associated Press has the bare bones here -
CIA director nominee Michael Hayden acknowledged concerns about civil liberties even as he vigorously defended the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program as a legal spy tool needed to ensnare terrorists.

Peppered with tough questions at a daylong confirmation hearing Thursday, the four-star Air Force general portrayed himself as an independent thinker, capable of taking over the CIA as it struggles with issues ranging from nuclear threats to its place among 15 other spy agencies.

Hayden spoke of his own concerns about the no-warrant surveillance program and other eavesdropping operations he oversaw as National Security Agency chief from 1999 until last year.

"Clearly, the privacy of American citizens is a concern - constantly," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee. "And it's a concern in this program. It's a concern in everything we've done."

Hayden said he decided to go ahead with the terrorist surveillance program in October 2001 after internal discussions about what more the NSA could do to detect potential attacks. He believed the work to be legal and necessary, an assertion Democrats and civil liberties groups have aggressively questioned.

"The math was pretty straightforward," Hayden said. "I could not not do this."
As a practical man, legal or not, he had to run those programs. And what does it matter now, in this new job as head of the CIA, or more formally the Director of Central Intelligence?

As for the NSA business, Senator Levin - "Is that the whole program?" Hayden - "I'm not at liberty to talk about that in open session."

So thee was a closed-door session in the evening. No one will know what was said there. Whatever.

Hayden - "I also believe it's time to move past what seems to me to be an endless picking apart of the archaeology of every past intelligence success or failure."

Let it go, guys.

One critic, Christy Hardin Smith, won't, as we see here -
... just got off a phone conference call that the ACLU arranged with Bruce Fein regarding the Hayden nomination for DCI and the implications that the hearings might have for the illegal domestic wiretapping without a warrant in which the NSA has been engaged.

One of the things that Bruce Fein said struck me, and I wanted to bring it to everyone's attention here: the Bush Administration is doing everything it can to prevent any of the illegally collected data and information from being used in any courtroom context, because they do not want to have to face the consequences of a constitutional challenge to their failure to obtain a lawful warrant. Think about that for a moment - Bruce Fein is no liberal, he is a very conservative Reagan Republican, having worked in the DoJ as Deputy Attorney General in the Reagan Administration.

And he is saying, out loud, that the Bush White House is avoiding constitutional scrutiny because they know - they KNOW - they will be shown to be what they are. Lawbreakers.
And Congress has been letting them get away with this, because they have put their perceived duty to their party and to partisanship and division ahead of their duty to the nation, to our principles and our Constitution.

This must stop. And that's where all of our readers come in - if you can, today, please take the time to e-mail, FAX or call the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, first, and ask them to place partisanship aside and put the good of the country and our constitutional system of government first in how they evaluate General Hayden and the NSA wiretapping programs in which he was involved.
But Hayden is saying what's done is done. Let's move on.

Smith say no -
I missed another great Bruce Fein point from my notes: that the Hayden hearings have done nothing to dispel - and have, in fact made it more of a concern - that there is no line that Hayden wouldn't cross if the President asked him to do so. Which makes the need for real, meaningful oversight all the more necessary.
Yeah, yeah, he did toe the administration line - no matter what you learned about the constitution in eight-grade civics class, the president is the big guy there to protect us all and can violate any law and ignore any court ruling about any law as that's his job, to deicide how to keep us safe. Article II says so, sort of - he's the daddy here, although the general from Pittsburgh didn't put it quite that way.

A large bloc of Americans is fine with that, saying we're all the silly kids and he's the stern and nasty daddy. Interesting.

English Only Down Mexico Way

What was daddy up to? He was in Yuma talking up his immigration ideas (see this) - he likes fences. They're neat. The problem is no one agrees what sort of neat wall we should have. The House proposes one across the whole border down that way, almost six hundred miles of wall. The president thinks one half that size would be fine, and the rest could be a virtual wall - he sees unmanned spy drones in the sky, and tethered radar blimps, and motion sensors and cool cameras, and wants almost two billion for the big defense contractors who will set it all up. Neat. The Mexicans are offended the we're thinking of building any kind of wall at all.

Yes, it's not very friendly, but the current chat on the right is all about the Mexican "invasion" - and when you put it like that, they are the enemy. The president has proposed sending in the National Guard, six thousand of them to the border. And even if they're just doing logistic and administrative work, it is nicely military in its feel. A character in a satire on Air America said, as the president was in Yuma, that the real answer was landmines - a few poor guys who need work and their women and children get their legs blown off and there'll be no problem. And someone may make that argument for real soon.

In any event, the real action, unlike in cowboy movies, wasn't in Yuma. The action was back in Washington, where the House is angry with the Senate as the Senate gets all mixed-message on the issue, as is the president. Yep, they vote for a guest worker program, and for offering a path to citizenship for a good number of the twelve million or so illegal immigrants already in the country and being normal and rather boring, as in paying taxes and being good - and at the very same time, so the House and the red-meat but-these-folks-aren't-exactly-white angry folks don't get mad, they vote for a wall (the shorter one with the electronic gizmos) and throw in a kicker. The Senate votes to make English the official language of America.

What? That's a new one.

The Los Angeles Times, from the city where every ATM is English-Spanish, covers that here -
The GOP-backed amendment, which passed 63 to 34, would allow the government to continue to offer publications and services - such as bilingual ballots - in languages other than English. It would require all illegal immigrants seeking to legalize their status in the United States to pass English proficiency tests and would offer guidelines to the Department of Homeland Security for a revised citizenship test.

Heated discussions about the measure dominated the Senate's proceedings, as proponents argued that it was needed to unite the country, while opponents insisted that it would leave the nation more divided.

Designating an official language is important to conservatives, who argue that the government should require English proficiency to ensure that the country does not descend into two societies, and that the 11 million to 12 million undocumented workers now in the United States only become citizens if they can speak the language.

Republicans, led by the principal sponsor, Sen. James Inhoffe (R-Okla.), argued that the amendment is needed because a common language is an important step in allowing people to talk to each other.

"It will help unify us as a nation," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

But the amendment also creates questions of fairness, said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), citing the possibility of someone who is legally in the United States but has difficulty with English. Currently, interpreters are provided in many official forums, such as courts. And many states, including California, provide official ballots in different languages.

"Are we going too far?" Durbin asked about the amendment. "What of people who are poor with limited language skills? Are we being fair?"

Republicans insisted that the amendment's language wouldn't prevent needed translations services.

"We are having a great debate on what it means to be an American," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Yep, they're arguing about changing the citizenship test.

See this -
"The reason I'm voting for this is that I think it tries to unite us," Graham said, adding that nothing in the amendment prevents the use of interpreters in courtrooms for those whose English is not strong enough. "It doesn't disturb the legal situation in this country. If I thought it did, I wouldn't vote for it."
He sees no slippery slope. No one will later use the law to stop printing ballots in other languages, to keep down the vote of those who just don't vote Republican. No one will later use the law to get rid of court interpreters, putting some of those folks in jail. You have to trust him on that.

"What of people who are poor with limited language skills? Are we being fair?"

We elected one of them (but not poor) to be our president. No problem. Anyone can grow up to be president, even without language skills - or curiosity, knowledge of the world or any significant or relevant experience or talent. We proved it.

As for the president's mixed-message problem - build an impressive wall to keep people out and, at the same time, welcome people and ask them to stay if they're good - John Dickerson here points out the president has done and odd thing, he's trapped himself in a "nuance box" -
President Bush has built his political career on clarity and simplicity. He's presented himself as the teller of truths sharply stated. He and his administration saw things clearly, made crisp decisions, and were home for dinner. In the post-9/11 uproar, Bush's clarity defined him and won him admirers. His plain-spokenness about "evil" was bracing and just what the country seemed to want. But the president's greatest talent has suddenly become a curse. Lack of clarity bedevils Bush on immigration reform, high gas prices, and Iraq. He's now trying to make nuanced arguments but his presidency rests on an anti-nuance platform. Now he has to actually make a subtle case, but he has neither the tools to do so nor a receptive audience.

Democrats have come to see any Bush attempt at nuance as a bait and switch. "Compassionate conservatism" sounded OK to them in 2000, but then Bush turned out to be just conservative. And conservatives see nuance as a sign of weakness, in part because Bush has taught them to view it as such. During the 2004 campaign, Bush advisers and campaign officials turned "nuance" into a pejorative. They walloped Kerry with it like a mallet. It was a point of pride for the president, who once reportedly told Sen. Joe Lieberman, "I don't do nuance."

Now Bush is nuancing all over the place, trying to explain to his supporters the complicated competing interests that require everyone to compromise by gathering at some "rational middle ground." But polling suggests Bush has lost moderates and independents. The only people left who still even listen to him are the ones least likely to buy the pitch.
Maybe so, but one man's nuance and rational middle ground is another's muddleheaded confusion and mixed-messages. One can be sure Vincente Fox is confused, as confused at the House deport-them-all fanatics.

The conflict defines where we are. We're of two minds, or more. But we'll all be confused in English only.

If You Can't Do Anything Useful Do Something Deeply Symbolic and Pointless

With the war not going that well, and the latest dismal polling, showing that on each and every major issue facing America the public prefers what the Democrats might do to what the Republicans seem to be doing, the Republicans need others issues, so they've dug out the old standby issues - we need two constitutional amendments, one to ban a specific behavior in political protests, burning the flag, and an amendment to clarify what the law means by the word marriage.

But even that didn't go well, as you see here -
A Senate committee approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage Thursday, after a shouting match that ended when one Democrat strode out and the Republican chairman bid him "good riddance."

"I don't need to be lectured by you. You are no more a protector of the Constitution than am I," Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., shouted after Sen. Russ Feingold declared his opposition to the amendment, his affinity for the Constitution and his intention to leave the meeting.

"If you want to leave, good riddance," Specter finished.

"I've enjoyed your lecture, too, Mr. Chairman," replied Feingold, D-Wis., who is considering a run for president in 2008. "See ya."

Amid increasing partisan tension over President Bush's judicial nominees and domestic wiretapping, the panel voted along party lines to send the constitutional amendment - which would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriages - to the full Senate, where it stands little chance of passing.

Democrats complained that bringing up the amendment is a purely political move designed to appeal to the GOP's conservative base in this year of midterm elections. Under the domed ceiling of the ornate and historic President's Room off the Senate floor, senators voted 10-8 to send the measure forward.
It was a bullshit thing, a secret vote in an obscure office, not the regular meeting room. And it was kind of a joke. Feingold just said so. Specter got pissed - courtesy demands that when you do this sort of pandering that will go nowhere at all, the opposition isn't suppose to laugh at you and point it out.

That afternoon, on CNN's Situation Room, Jack Cafferty explains to host Wolf Blitzer the question to which viewers should send email answers (video here) -
Jack Cafferty: Wolf, today's lesson in hypocrisy comes to us courtesy of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They met in a different private room behind closed doors today and approved a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage. at one point the thing got pretty ugly. A shouting match, between the Republican Chairman Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who said he was against the Amendment as well as Specter's decision to hold the vote in a private room out of the public's view.

These guys are shameless. Feingold eventually stormed out telling Specter "I've enjoyed your lecture Mr Chairman. See ya."

Senator Specter in a real show of courage, says that he is "totally opposed to the Amendment", but he voted for it anyway saying that it deserves a debate in the Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist says the full Senate will now debate a Constitutional Amendment which has absolutely no chance of passing. Frist hopes to have a vote by June 5th.

This is all being done by the Republican majority in an effort to appeal to right-wing nuts in the Republican Party ahead of the upcoming mid-term elections. Ignore all of the pressing issues facing the country, and instead go grovel at the feet of the lunatic fringe. Senator Frist should be very proud of himself. That's leadership. Here's the question: Is now the time for the Senate to consider a constitutional amendment on gay marriage?"
Where we are now? Not only is everyone now developing a pretty good bullshit detector, they're laughing at what is clearly nonsense. Times are changing.

Sorry About That

In these pages, December 11, 2005, in a discussion of extraordinary rendition, where we secretly kidnap selected people and make them disappear without a trace to use some rather harsh methods to get them to talk, this - the long and short of it is we grabbed a German citizen in Macedonia, we imprisoned him and beat him up and all that, held him for five months of that sort of thing, and realized he was a nobody. We decided to release him - what was the point of keeping him? But we told the German government no matter what the guy said, they should keep quiet and not reveal we goofed on this one. We didn't need any legal crap, so they needed to lie and maintain our cover. We don't do such things - no kidnapping, no secret prisons, no harsh treatment. Not us. We asked them to back us on this. Deny everything.

That did work out so well. He sued.

But luckily that didn't work so well for him, as noted here -
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by a German man who said he was illegally detained and tortured in overseas prisons run by the CIA, ruling that a lawsuit would improperly expose state secrets.

Thursday's ruling by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III makes no determination on the validity of the claims by Khaled al-Masri, who said he was kidnapped on New Year's Eve 2003 and detained for nearly five months before finally being dumped on an abandoned road in Albania.

The ruling hands a victory to the Bush administration, which intervened in the civil lawsuit to prevent exposure of its tactics in the war on terrorism.

During his detention, al-Masri said he was beaten and sodomized with a foreign object by his captors. He also alleges that a CIA team forced him to wear a diaper and drugged him before a flight to an Afghan prison and refused to contact German authorities about his arrest.

Ellis said he was satisfied after receiving a secret written briefing from the director of central intelligence that allowing al-Masri's lawsuit to proceed would harm national security.

"In the present circumstances, al-Masri's private interests must give way to the national interest in preserving state secrets," Ellis wrote.
That's where we are. Be careful out there.

The guy's lawyer says it's absurd to think al-Masri's lawsuit would expose state secrets because many of the details of al-Masri's detention have been made public and confirmed by government sources in newspaper reports - "There isn't really any dispute about what happened."

The judge says "putting aside all the legal issues, if al-Masri's allegations are true or substantially true, then all fair-minded people ... must also agree that al-Masri has suffered injuries as the result of our country's mistake and deserves a remedy." But he says that's not his job. Congress might do something, or the president's executive branch. You want a remedy to an injustice? These days don't go to court. The courts can be neutered.

And that's where we are on that.

He's Back

There's a whole lot of discussion about the new Al Gore movie, which is this -
From director Davis Guggenheim comes the Sundance Film Festival hit, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, which offers a passionate and inspirational look at one man's fervent crusade to halt global warming's deadly progress in its tracks by exposing the myths and misconceptions that surround it. That man is former Vice President Al Gore, who, in the wake of defeat in the 2000 election, re-set the course of his life to focus on a last-ditch, all-out effort to help save the planet from irrevocable change. In this eye-opening and poignant portrait of Gore and his "traveling global warming show," Gore also proves himself to be one of the most misunderstood characters in modern American public life. Here he is seen as never before in the media - funny, engaging, open and downright on fire about getting the surprisingly stirring truth about what he calls our "planetary emergency" out to ordinary citizens before it's too late.
It's big. The buzz is growing, as in this from Franklin Foer at the National Review -
I found myself walking out in a strange mood. I had just seen a movie featuring a politician ... and there wasn't a trace of snark or cynicism coursing through my body. The film has genuine rhetorical power. It builds an incredibly frightening case without hints of fear-mongering or over-wrought moments. Because Gore is truly self-deprecating, the movie doesn't ever feel like an ego-trip - although it does occasionally look like a giant product placement for Apple. At any rate, I walked out of the movie and decided to sell my car and begin otherwise preparing for our planet's impending doom. I know this praise isn't so unexpected coming from TNR. But I think the movie has the potential to become a seminal political document - a cinematic Silent Spring
Can't have that. Check out the new massive ad campaign by the oil companies, through their PR arm, the Competitive Enterprise Institute here - there is no global warming and carbon dioxide is your friend - "We breathe it out, plants breathe it in." Take THAT, Al. Don't pick on our friend.

Some things never change, but Al's working on it.

Posted by Alan at 23:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006 08:49 PDT home

Wednesday, 17 May 2006
Marketing: A New European Import
Topic: The Culture

Marketing: A New European Import

Who says all pop culture trends start out here in Hollywood? You've heard it all. Los Angeles, the City of Angels, offers something for everyone. Trends start here - some say so does the future. Hollywood creates trends. It determines what is cool. It's the world's cultural capital in some odd way, if the only culture left is large-scale shallow but flashy movies for the world market, popular music of all sorts, and what passes for fashion among fifteen-year-old girls, and celebrity detached from anything like achievement or expertise in anything but posing. And there's television - we gave the world the sit-com, games shows and The Simpsons and all the rest.

One needs to remember that Hollywood is a recent invention, incorporated as a municipality in 1903, with town ordinances prohibiting the sale of liquor except by pharmacists and one outlawing driving cattle through the streets in herds of more than two hundred. In 1904 we got the trolley - Los Angeles to Hollywood up Prospect Avenue. In 1910 Hollywood was annexed into the City of Los Angeles - we needed that water the new Los Angeles Aqueduct was piping down from the Owens Valley. Prospect Avenue was renamed Hollywood Boulevard. The movie industry boomed. Expatriates from Europe showed up in the thirties - Stravinsky, Schonberg, Man Ray - and Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald were writing screenplays, and drinking heavily at Musso and Franks. See this from February 4, 1905 in the Los Angeles Daily Times - "Business of an objectionable character has been discouraged; the saloon and its kindred evils are unknown." Times changed. Hollywood became the center of a certain sort of everything. And we came to know all the kindred evils, every one of them. We turned them into entertainment for the world.

But sometimes trends start elsewhere, and then out here in Hollywood we play catch-up, turning obscure French films into Hollywood blockbusters, and turning the Beatles into the far less odd Monkees. Now it seems to be happening again.

If you're in Paris you can switch from watching The Simpsons in German on Arte to watching Star Academy on TF1, the French take on American Idol. Drop by the local tabac and buy a pack of the most popular chewing gum there, Hollywood. Buy cheap jewelry at Sunset Boulevard on rue des Rennes. But know things sometimes run in the other direction. Earlier this year, NBC announced that it had acquired the rights to develop and screen a US version of the Eurovision Song Contest - instead of forty European nations competing in a cheesy big-budget show for the best bouncy pop song, each of the fifty states of the union will do that. You call in on your touch-tone phone and vote for the winner. Of course you can hardly wait for that.

It may seem peculiar, but the NBC people are no fools. The Eurovision Song Contest is now it its fifty-first year, and draws three hundred million viewers each year. So it didn't start in Hollywood. So what? This could be the next big thing on American television, if you hide the origin. Who remembers "All in the Family" was a version of a UK show, and Archie Bunker had his East End prototype? We're talking big bucks, smash hit potential, with a fine buzz.

Will it work here? Maybe, but this Eurovision Song Contest is very odd, and has come up before here - June 8, 2003, here - "watching the Eurovision Song Contest will either put you in a coma or drive you mad."

And from May 16, 2004, Silly Music -
Does anyone on this side of the pond follow the Eurovision song contest? I doubt it. This contest predates American Idol by many, many years, but like American Idol showcases some awful pop music. All the countries of Europe enter a singer or a group doing an original song - and from this event we were all introduced to Icelandic pop rock. Swedish stuff? Think of ABBA without wit or talent. You get the idea. Perhaps the only thing good that ever came out of the Eurovision song contest was by accident - many years ago an Irish folk dance group performed between contestants and became wildly popular, that was Riverdance and then Michael Flaherty proclaiming himself "Lord of the Dance" and stomping around. Whether this was a good thing depends on your appetite for penny whistles and fast unison clogging by rank upon rank of thin redheaded beauties.
The rest of the item covered that year's contest held in Istanbul. Ukraine won - only the second time the country had taken part in the competition - Ruslana won for her song Wild Dance. Serbia and Montenegro were second, with Greece third.

The item also quoted this in SLATE.COM -
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted one die-hard fan who acknowledged that the contest - with its flamboyant costumes and high camp quotient has "seen better days." Noting that Eurovision enjoys a large gay following, he added, "It's like a gay world cup. Who else would sit here and watch this load of rubbish?"
Who indeed?

The next year was covered here, May 29, 2005 - Greece is the Word. Greek singer Helena won. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko presented her with the prize for her performance of My Number One, "a mid-tempo tune with minor-keyed Balkan flavorings." The surprise runner-up was Malta's Chiara. Romania's Luminita Anghel placed third. Vanilla Ninja, from Estonia but representing Switzerland, and Bosnia-Herzegovina's Feminem, with one of its three singers born in what is now Croatia, didn't do that well. So it was Greece, then Malta, then Romania. Cool.

Obviously the country for the previous winner hosts the contest the following year. That means the contest this year is in Athens, with the semifinal May 18 and the final on May 20, and you can read all about it at the official website here.

The best introduction, or at least the most pointed, can be found in SLATE.COM where UK-based Mike Atkinson offers this:

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest
Nonsense lyrics, frenetic dance routines, and costumes that sprout pterodactyl wings.
Whose Three-Minute Pop Ditty Will Rule the Continent?
Posted Wednesday, May 17, 2006, at 5:30 PM ET

The issue? The Eurovision Song Contest "can stake a legitimate claim to being the world's most watched regular music event. Despite this, the show remains entirely unknown to all but a handful of Americans."

And here's his analysis of what we have not yet encountered -
In theory, Eurovision's aim has always been to discover "the best song in Europe," with the focus on "song." In practice, things don't quite work out so simply. Since the majority of the viewing public will only hear the competing songs once before casting their telephone votes, it is imperative that each performance creates an instant impact to ensure that it stands out from the herd.

So, every trick in the showbiz book is thrown out, in rapid and dizzying succession. Dance routines start from a base level of "frenetic" and escalate upward. (This year, there's an awful lot of break dancing.) Costumes start at "florid" and expand outward - in many cases, quite literally. (The gown worn by the Swedish contestant covers most of the stage space behind her, and the monster costume worn by Finland's lead singer sprouts outsized pterodactyl wings during the final verse.) Mid-song costume changes are not unheard of; mid-song costume removal has become almost common, ever since a 1981 British victory in which the male performers tore off the skirts of the female performers, to a lyrical cue of "And if you wanna see some more!"

... Meanwhile, each country's props department works overtime to create the supreme staging gimmick - with mixed results. The Russians have a ballerina emerging from a grand piano, scattering rose petals. Ukraine has a huge jump-rope. Iceland's Silvia Night slides onto the stage from a giant white stiletto and pulls a telephone receiver from an outsized stick of candy. Finland has the biggest pyrotechnic display; Sweden the biggest wind machine. At Eurovision, size matters. (All of which makes the Latvian effort - a diminutive and decidedly low-tech junior robot - look ill-advised.)
Okay. Think about what each of the fifty states over here could do on the NBC version. Pennsylvania with molten steel and a remix techno-thump version of the Pennsylvania Polka? What will North Dakota do? Delaware? Oregon? It's hard to see how this will work. America has been homogenized in a way Europe has not. It not only that we all speak the same language (more or less), we all lead pretty much identical everyday lives - every mall has its GAP, Restoration Hardware and food court with the usual suspects, and Boston and Tucson and Billings look alike where one runs one's errands and relaxes. NBC may have misjudged this one.

Then Atkinson explains the music -
Due to a restriction dating from the show's genesis in the 1950s, when pop music was obliged to fit the strictures of the 7-inch vinyl format, no song is permitted to exceed three minutes in length. This ensures a tight discipline in their construction, into which a variety of well-worn tricks are squeezed. Each song must grab the listener's attention within the first few seconds, and each song should build to a suitably exhilarating conclusion - usually by means of an upward key change before the final refrain.

When it comes to that all-important chorus - which is reprised in a memory-jogging video montage just before the telephone lines open - the melodic hook should ideally be underpinned by a short, memorable phrase, using lyrics that are simple enough for the international, multilingual audience to grasp. In this respect, nonsense language can be a great boon: Previous winning songs have included "La La La," "Boom Bang a Bang," "Ding Ding-a-Dong," and the splendidly dumb "Diggi Loo Diggi Ley."
Well, we don't have much of a multilingual audience, so the lyrics here may be better, and the three minute rule can be waived, although it could be useful to limit viewer pain from overload. Too much screeching spectacle and the audience switches over to CSI, just for relief.

As for NBC moving forward, Atkinson notes "there is nothing remotely hip about Eurovision, which generally runs at least ten years behind developments in youth-based genres, if not twenty." Hardly any rap and metal - no modern R&B. But then, "this stylistic conservatism does ensure a continuing appeal to the sort of traditional, multigenerational, family-based demographic that is rapidly disappearing in our tightly segmented multichannel age."

Yeah, but will it play in Peoria? NBC has a problem. The whole thing is not remotely hip, nor does it seem to hit that sweet spot for middle America - safely hip in a non-threatening way that still lets the viewer feel "with it." That's an old Hollywood trick. What you give the rubes has to be as daring and controversial as the hot movie of the moment, "The Da Vinci Code" - not very. Think of "Rebel Without a Cause" - in the mid-fifties every fifteen-year-old guy in Ames or Buffalo was really James Dean, going though existential angst. Right. Make people think they're thinking, and let them think they're in on the cool. It sells.

This may not -
Yes, the Eurovision Song Contest is flagrantly camp - that overused and much devalued term - but like all the best camp, it retains a certain innocence and sincerity at its core. So, when the 10th dolled-up pop moppet in a row gushes at her press conference about what a deep and humbling honor it is to be representing her country, and our eyes roll upward in exasperation, we also know that, deep down inside, she actually means it. And I, for one, like that a lot.
Okay, camp just won't do. That's charming for forty seconds, then it's cloying. Americans will shrug and move on.

NBC has to sell the innocence and sincerity thing. People eat that up. And as they say out here in Hollywood, if you can fake sincerity you've got it made.

__

You might want to browse the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest entrants here. The Finnish entry, Lordi is conventionally strange - AC/DC meets the Orcs (or Klingons) - and check out Germany's Texas Lightning in their cowboy outfits. Camp indeed.

__

Will "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, be watching?

Here's what he had to say on the 18th -
Starts Saturday at 21:00 on France-3 TV. What else is on? A variety show on TF1, the 43rd rerun of 'Jean Moulin' on France-2, oooh there's '1631, Massacre à Magdebourg' on Arte - something about Europe's eternal wars of religion I guess - and there's 'Smallville' on M6. Canal+ I don't pay for so forget it.

Being in sort of a transmission shadow - I can't quite see the Tour Eiffel - my TV comes from an antique roof antenna, and then an antenna cable running through the apartment. Arte, luckily for me, gets the best reception. TFI and France-2 are about equal, France-3 is not so good and M6 sticks to black, white and snow. But I can use the tuner in the video recorder; it's better than the TV's.

France-3 has set aside three hours for Eurovision. Oooh, it says Michel Druker is one of the French hosts. He's been on TV since it was invented - the SECAM version - in France. He used to be with RTL, or he invented it too. He's not as old as this sounds and he doesn't look it, so there must be some clever makeup he's got. The way it works the French will comment the Eurovision with a French view. This will get somewhat more ironic after the French entry proves to be embarrassingly inept. The Bulgarian peasants and Albania goatherds will not fare well in the eyes of the French, who invented 'Ye-ye.'

The observation that the Eurovision can be very camp is true. For three hours the only jokes will be in the dulled minds of the viewers because no jokes are allowed on stage. It's a long time to go watching a band of nitwits trying not to offend anybody, from Palestine to the North Pole. In a word, it's Europe.

Last night for example, on Arte of course, there was a documentary about how the Nazis treated homosexuals - with four of the six remaining survivors telling us how it was. in parts It was pretty emotional. At the time, in the 20s and 30s, a lot of people thought the Nazis were a gang of 'schwülen.' There was Röhm for example, head of the SA. Anyhow, not-so-fond memories of stays in Dachau and other Nazi spas. 'Jean Moulin,' mentioned above, was a resistance hero in France, bounced by the Gestapo in Lyon and killed. There's a museum here named after him.

Against a background like this the Eurovision Song Contest better not have any jokes.
And that's the word from Paris.

Posted by Alan at 20:49 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006 19:00 PDT home

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