Just Above Sunset Archives

October 5, 2003 Reviews

Home | Odds and Ends | Music Notes | Book Notes | Sidebars | Culture Wars Lost | Culture Wars Won | Gay Marriage | Jesus Flogged Repeatedly | Photography | Quotes | Links and Recommendations | Archives | Daily Commentary (weblog)

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


The case for tolerating your local religious fanatic as mostly harmless - Americans and their Faith(s)

The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, By Alan Wolfe, Free Press, 304 pp., $26

Perhaps because I am not particularly religious books like this appeal to me.  This is a study, not as would be expected, of how religion informs American life, but rather the opposite - how American life has reshaped the most ancient faiths, from Judaism to Buddhism.  Indeed we seem to be, now, a one reviewer put it, a country of multiple ethnicities, multiple opinions, multiple get-rich-quick schemes, multiple marriages, and, for numerous converts, multiple religions that see God as a celestial Stuart Smalley, a benign figure reassuring believers that they're good enough, they're smart enough, and doggone it, people like them.

Only in America could Judaism adopt a new ritual, the adult bar mitzvah, after a character on the old ''Dick Van Dyke Show'' mourned that he'd never had one - one of the anecdotes here.  Wolfe claims that with beliefs becoming more distinctly American, so are believers. ''Whether or not the faithful were ever a people apart, they are so no longer,'' instead resembling their nonfaithful countrymen who proclaim this good news. 
People who prefer a God of love to a God of truth are not going to kill for their beliefs.

The point seems to be we have tamed religion, so to speak.

If most believers are no longer wide-eyed fanatics, of course the "liberal intelligentsia" still clings to that outmoded image, according to Wolfe.   But those who think the religious right are dangerous should not be worried at all about religious fanatics.  There really aren't any. 
There is no need to worry.  As Wolfe claims, True Believers' ''views may be different from yours on abortion or prayer in school, but we expect people in a democracy to have different views on major questions of public policy. As modern Americans with distinctly tolerant sensibilities, you pride yourselves on your willingness to change, yet religious believers, even the most conservative among them, have adopted themselves to modern society far more than you have changed your views about what they are really like. You have made the whole country more sensitive to the inequalities of race and gender. Now it is time to extend the same sympathy to those who are different in the sincerity of their belief.''  
So chill out.  Let them be. 
Yes, Wolfe says, most fundamentalists ''send a chill up my spine'' with their self-certainty, but they ''will always be a minority, even among conservative Christians.''

I guess no one is taking religion all that seriously.  Or at least tolerance, as a principle, seems to have damped down the need to burn witches at the stake.  The culture, and perhaps its constitutional demands for some protection of minority views, moderates religious fervor.   One can believe something deeply, but one after all does live in a society that makes overt claims to protecting free speech and allowing people to have pretty much whatever religion strikes them as best.

There are, of course, fundamentalist true believers, for who science is false, empiricism is false, and independent, inquisitive thought is evil.  But let them be.  To the extent that Americans' historic anti-intellectual streak now extends to religion (Wolfe reports that 10 percent of us think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife), is that really all that bad?  Our society of freedom of speech and freedom of religion has rendered these folks pretty harmless.  Out culture tells us character matters more.  We may not know who said ''Blessed are the clean of heart,'' but we believe it, prizing character above brains. 

There are worse ways to run this country.  Let them be.

Wolfe here is comforting.  The general culture has defanged the specific fanatics - and no witches in Salem will be burned tonight.


Subversive film on your television at home this week: Dr Strangelove

This film has been on American cable this week - four times this weekend alone on Turner Classic Movies.  Is someone trying to tell us something?
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
United Kingdom, 1964
Running Length: 1:33
MPAA Classification: No MPAA Rating (Mature themes, sexual innuendo)
Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, Sterling Hayden, Peter Bull
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: Laurie Johnson
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures

As you might recall, this movie takes place in the early 1960s during the Cold War. Jack Ripper is a US Air Force General. Obsessed with fears of "the communist conspiracy," General Ripper orders the B-52s under his command to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. He is the only person who has the code that will recall the bombers. Once the planes are on their way General Ripper seals off his base and refuses all communication, including telephone calls from the Air Force and from the President of the U.S. The movie is an exploration of the government's efforts to call the planes back.

Yes, Colonel Jack Ripper goes a bit over the edge, and sends his bomber wing to destroy the USSR. He suspects that the communists are conspiring to pollute the "precious bodily fluids" of the American people. The US president meets with his advisors, where the Soviet ambassador tells him that if the USSR is hit by nuclear weapons, it will trigger a "Doomsday Device" which will destroy all plant and animal life on Earth. Peter Sellers portrays the three men who might avert this tragedy: British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, the only person with access to the demented Gen. Ripper; U.S. President Merkin Muffley, whose best attempts to divert disaster depend on placating a drunken Soviet Premier and the former Nazi genius Dr. Strangelove, who concludes that "such a device would not be a practical deterrent for reasons which at this moment must be all too obvious".

From a 1966 interview with Terry Southern:
When Kubrick and George first began to do the script, they were trying to stick to the melodrama in Peter George's book, Red Alert.  There was an outline. They didn't go into a treatment, but went straight into a script. They had a few pages and in fact had started shooting, but in a very tentative way. Kubrick realized that this was not going to work. You can't do the end of the world in a conventionally dramatic way or Boy Meets Girl way. You have to do it in some way that reflects your awareness that it is important and serious. It has to be a totally different treatment and black humor is the way to go. That was Kubrick's decision.

Columbia was embarrassed by the picture and tried to get people to see Carl Foreman's The Victors instead. They would steer ticket buyers away from Strangelove and try to get them to see The Victors. At the time we thought we were going to be totally wiped out. People would call up the box office and be told there were no seats for Strangelove and asked if they would like to see The Victors instead. Gradually, the buzz along the rialto built word of mouth in our favor.
Seems Washington would like us to watch The Victors, which now would be the 9/11 movie showtime produced last month with Timothy Bottoms as an heroic, intelligent, introspective George Bush, or have us watch one of the upcoming movies about the heroic but forgetful Jessica Lynch.
These lines will take you back... or was this in the Pentagon last February?
Ripper: Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenseau once said about war?
Mandrake: No, I don't think I do, sir, no.
Ripper: He said that war was too important to be left up to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right.  But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.
Substitute Halliburton here.
Mandrake: Colonel...that Coca Cola machine. I want you to shoot the lock off it. There may be some change in there.
Guano: That's private property.
Mandrake: Colonel! Can you possibly imagine what is going to happen to you, your frame outlook way of life and everything, when they learn that you have obstructed a telephone call to the President of the United States? Can you imagine?! Shoot it off! Shoot! With a gun! That's what the bullets are for you twit!!
Guano: Okay. I'm gonna get your money for ya. But if you don't get the President of the United States on that phone, you know what's gonna happen to you?
Mandrake: What?!
Guano: You're gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company.
Civilian casualties in Iraq and stirring up things - perhaps provoking another September 11 sort of attack?
General "Buck" Turgidson: I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.
Roger Ebert (1994)
In the days after it first opened in early 1964, Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" took on the enchanted aura of a film that had gotten away with something. Johnson was in the White House, the Republicans were grooming Goldwater, both sides took the Cold War with grim solemnity, and the world was learning to be comfortable with the term "nuclear deterrent," which meant that if you blow me up, I'm gonna blow you up, and then we'll all be dead. "Better dead than Red," some said. Others said the opposite. The choice was not appealing.

The Bomb overshadowed global politics. It was a kind of ultimate hole card in a game where the stakes were life on earth. Then Kubrick's film opened with the force of a bucketful of cold water, right in the face. What Kubrick's Cold War satire showed was not men at the mercy of machines, but machines at the mercy of men - especially the loony Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden).
And this is amusing... 
Warheads and Electric Toothbrushes
Andrew Burden in iafrica.com March 6, 2003

Truth is I don't know if Bush and Blair are fighting for oil, or whether Hussein is in fact the Antichrist, leading the world down a track of crazy paving in order to divide and conquer. To be honest, from where I sit, we're screwed either way. 

Kubricks 1964 black comedy masterpiece is not only relevant to the current situation, but is in fact more relevant than many films made since. In fact Kubrick could be said to sum up the relationship between the US and Britain in the first few minutes of the film, in which two military planes indulge in a little flirtatious coupling, which quickly becomes a sexual encounter of mammoth proportions, to the orchestral strains of 'Try a Little Tenderness.' ...
Few films come closer to accounting for the real political manoeuvring behind the big event than Dr Strangelove. There are exceptions, of course, like the underrated Wag the DogDr Strangelove perfectly captures the essence of the current military threat, distils it and sprays it more gleefully than any Edgars perfume clerk could ever hope to.

In the film (which is ironically black and white, given that nothing is near black and white) we see the bungling British military initially welcoming diplomatic intercourse with the US, only to discover their partner is a raving loon.

The US loses control of a commanding officer (who they've trained to be uncontrollable), who decides it might be a rather nifty idea to destroy Russia, to which end he deploys a fleet of nuclear laden fighters. ...

Simply substitute Merkin Muffley for Bush, Dr Strangelove for Hans Blix and Group Captain Mandrake for Blair and you have the rudiments of what's probably going on in the UN Security Council as we speak.

Dr Strangelove was produced to make sense of the paranoia surrounding the cold war nuclear race and is eloquent and polished. It worked, which is why it's disturbing to me that given an increase in awareness and the world shrinking quicker than a pair of satin boxer shorts in a tumble dryer, we have few films of recent times that even try to say the same thing.

Let's face it, what did we learn about the US incursion into Somalia, with a machismo-disposable slice of disposable cinema like Black Hawk Down?

Perhaps the more we know the less we want to know, and that given the current global conflicts we'd rather all bury our heads in the sand.

That could go some way in establishing why a film like Dr Strangelove still has few contemporaries able to say anything quite as incisive.
And so it goes.


If the Dixie Chicks sang about what they say... Rickie Lee Jones has a new album that turns left.

For the older readers ... you might remember the pop singer Rickie Lee Jones.  Her new album, The Evening of My Best Day, comes out Tuesday, and it will probably be described as "vintage Rickie Lee." 

That would be, according to the Los Angeles Times, the usual ironic voice: "...that unmistakable drawl, hailing from the far side of coolsville Carefree jazzbo, green-eyed soulstress, incurable romantic, bard of the bittersweet lullaby, the terminal hipster whose rendering of "I Won't Grow Up" sounded as if she meant it." 

Well, music critics can get a bit overly vivid.  I do recall that "Chuck E's In Love," from years ago, was pretty cool.  There's a bit of a jazz singer in her.

It seems she's moved back here to Los Angeles from to Tacoma.  The odd thing is she's become political.  Three cuts on the new album are sort of left wing.  No, they're flat out liberal protest.  And well beyond the Dixie Chicks.

"Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act NOW)" contains these lyrics:

Now they want us to just get in line
behind a president,
when you know they spent millions of dollars
condemning and accusing
the last one from the other side.

Tell somebody, tell somebody,
tell somebody
what's happening in the USA.

I want to know how far you will go
to protect our right of free speech?
Because it only took a moment
before it faded out of reach.

And "Ugly Man" (a minor jazz groove) is about George Bush:

He's an ugly man
he always was an ugly man.
He grew up to be just like his father
an ugly man.

And he'll tell you lies.

He'll look at you and tell you lies.

He grew up to be just like his father
ugly inside.

"Little Mysteries" concerns the Florida election:

A trail of lies leads us to Orlando
but we are days too late
And when the boys came over from Texas
they said, We'll take everything we can take.

And while everybody's looking up
in a race too close to call
the election quietly slips into
the third door down the hall.

Jones is quoted in the Times this weekend:

"I have never cared about politics. I have stayed away from it as far as I could. I felt my job was to play music, that if I waved any flags it would drive people away, and I didn't want to do that. But I definitely changed my mind the year that George Bush got elec- ... took the election.

"I'm not trying to provoke, I'm just trying to say, 'Hey, where's our community? Where's our ethical nature? You're on the right, we're on the left, but we both know that being a bully and suppressing free speech is wrong, don't we? There must be some places that we as Americans agree . . . don't let this moment in time sweep that away.' 

"The [2000] election was taken in very dubious circumstances. A righteous man would not have said, 'Thanks, I'll take it. You just step back.' And I didn't understand why the Democrats just went, 'OK, you can have it.' It felt to me, from the very beginning, like people were being threatened or forced to accept this corporation taking over the presidency - everybody get out of their way 'cause they had business they were gonna take care of. In my opinion, the Republican Party is the last on the list to care about the needs of old people and children and poor people.

"These are people who need money, while these people - these George Bushes and the banker-grandfather - these people swim in money. My fury about their policies isn't even as horrible as my damnation of their way of life, and their arrogance, and the way they view this country as their corporation. They'll take any state, any park - it's theirs if they want to drill. I just became filled with How could this be happening in my lifetime?

"And then the Patriot Act started to bring in something new altogether. After the bombing of the World Trade Center, I felt they tried to use it as an opportunity - and to me that was blasphemous. To use the grief and sorrow and fear of a nation as an economic opportunity, as a political opportunity - it was all I could write about."

Laura Ingram has a new book out, Shut Up and Sing, excoriating music and movie folks for speaking out politically, and it is climbing the best seller lists rapidly.  Ingram was on Fox News several times this weekend, mocking Tim Robbins and Barbara Streisand and the like. 

Jones says:

"Too bad. It's OK to not be political unless your country is falling apart. It's like artists have less right to speak out, but I'm a citizen too. It can seem suspect to the audience - 'We don't want you to use this important thing to promote your career.' Probably that happens once in a while, but that's not usually what's going on. People are just saying what they feel."

And is she prepared for the day when Bill O'Reilly berates her on the Fox News Channel?

"As long as I'm not watching it.  You know, if I find my way to Bill O'Reilly, that would be fabulous." She claims she would pull rank as an Irish Catholic: " 'But Bill, I'm an Irish Catholic like you. What are you thinking, lad?'"

Ah, this could be fun.