Thursday, December 30, 2010

Excuse Me, Did We Read the Same Editorial?

On Christmas Eve, I read a letter in the Los Angeles Times responding to its December 17 editorial “Fox’s Unbalancing Act,” which concluded that the cable-news station isn’t living up to its “fair and balanced” motto. The editorial ended: “Fox should either come clean about [its furthering a conservative agenda] and crack down on such partisanship in its news ranks, or it should stop pretending to be an objective news source.

What prompted the Times to take this stand was an internal Fox News memo by Washinton managing editor Bill Sammon, a memo leaked by the liberal group Media Matters for America, in which Sammon required the station’s “hard-news” reporters (as opposed to its opinionated pundits) to cast doubt on any scientific theories that support global warming.

The responding letter, written by Lea Osborne of Woodland Hills, reads as follows:

I find it ironic that you criticize Fox News for instructing reporters to avoid the phrase “public option” and use “government option” instead during the healthcare debate.

In the very next editorial you state that Gov.-elect Jerry Brown “will probably call for a revenue-raising initiative.” Isn't a revenue-raising initiative the same thing as tax increase? Why don't you call it what it is?

You say that Fox News should come clean and stop pretending to be an objective news source. Perhaps The Times needs to look in the mirror.

While the Times certainly criticized Fox News for its misleading stance on global warming, did the paper also criticize the channel for the latter’s use of the term “government option” instead of “public option,” the crux of Ms. Osborne’s letter? The pertinent passage of the December 17 editorial reads:

The first time Media Matters unveiled a leaked e-mail from Bill Sammon, Fox News’ Washington managing editor, it was hardly worthy of mention. On Dec. 9 the group’s website revealed that Sammon had instructed reporters to avoid the phrase “public option” when referring to a proposed government-sponsored healthcare plan.The memo, sent out on Oct. 27, 2009, when debate over the Democratic healthcare bill was raging in Congress, came two months after Republican pollster Frank Luntz had appeared on [Sean] Hannity’s show and encouraged him to use the phrase “government option” instead, because such terminology decreased public support for the proposal. “Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance’ or, when brevity is a concern, ‘government option’ whenever possible,” Sammon told reporters.

Liberal bloggers were furious, but few mainstream journalists could muster much outrage. Arguments over semantics and perceived bias are commonplace and seldom fruitful. “Government option” is no less valid a descriptor for the proposal than the more commonly used “public option,” and if Fox News was demonstrating bias by using the former, one could accuse mainstream outlets of the same for using the latter.

Clearly, the answer is no. In fact, the Times criticizes those critical of the phrase “government option,” precisely the opposite of what Ms. Osborne said the paper did. Not only that, but the Times makes the same point in its editorial that Ms. Osborne makes in her letter. She premises her highly reprimanding remarks on something that simply isn’t true.

This strikes me as more than an instance of a straw man (misrepresenting an opponent’s position and arguing against the misrepresentation instead of the actual position). I can only conclude that either Ms. Osborne didn’t read the editorial or she did read it and saw something that wasn’t there. And it’s on this something not there that she based her cocksure opinion.

But basing smug and self-righteous opinions on things untrue is an all too common tendency is politics these days. Are you angry that Obama raised taxes? Actually, he lowered them. Are you infuriated that the President tripled government spending and the national debt? He didn’t do that either. Are you apoplectic that a mosque is being built directly at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Well, that’s not an accurate picture of what’s happening. Nevertheless, these phantom outrages have served as grist for the mill of conservative fury throughout much of this past year, yet when it came to actual problems, there was no there there. Now, in this dubious tradition, Ms. Osborne is indignant at the Times for something that it didn’t do.

I guess the really weird thing is that the paper ran her letter without correcting her.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Blame the Democrats First!

It’s enough trouble to defend liberals and Democrats against conservative columnists, but on occasion, I find myself having to defend them from columnists who should know better. Doyle McManus writes both news stories and opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times. Since he gained his pundit credentials from journalism — rather than, say, a think tank — McManus’ columns are consistently well informed and down-to-earth. Plus, they usually propound liberal viewpoints, which I like most of the time.

However, not long ago, MSNBC telepundit Rachel Maddow observed what she called the Washington press corps’s tendency to find fault with the Democrats before they criticize the Republicans. Is Maddow right? I never noticed such a tendency, but then again, I haven’t been following the papers close enough to form an opinion. However, a December 9 Times column by McManus — on President Obama’s then-fresh deal with the Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans — tells me that Maddow may be onto something.

We all (should) know that Obama’s so-called deal with his opposition party came about because all 42 Republican Senators threatened to filibuster any other legislation in the Senate’s lame-duck session, effectively bringing that legislative chamber to a screeching halt. Think about that: legislation with majority — sometimes near-super-majority — support held hostage by the minority. That sounds like something worthy of a newsprint chiding, at the very least. But apparently Doyle McManus disagrees with me. His December 9 column found more fault with the Democrats’ negative reaction to the Obama-GOP deal than he did with the Republicans’ political brinkmanship:

The president cut a deal with the GOP on tax cuts and jobless benefits. Liberals are furious, but as a practical move, it made sense.

by Doyle McManus

For months, anxious Democrats have been asking why Barack Obama couldn’t be more like Bill Clinton, their last successful president. Now Obama has gone and done something Clintonian by striking a compromise with Republicans to extend high-income tax cuts, and his own party’s liberals are furiously accusing him of betraying their ideals. ...

This column prompted my first letter to the editor in ages:

To the Editor:

Doyle McManus places blame for the budget stalemate solely on the shoulders of the Democrats. But why doesn’t he fault — even a little — intransigent Republicans for putting the U.S. economy in such a position in the first place?

McManus says that liberals should “cut [Obama] more slack” for the compromises he made with Republicans. I am a liberal. When Obama couldn’t pull our troops out of Iraq or Afghanistan in a timely way, I cut him some slack. When he couldn’t put a public option in health-care reform, I cut him some slack. When he couldn’t close down [the Guantánamo Bay detention center] by his self-imposed deadline, I cut him some slack. However, the budget battle is different.

Every responsible economist, from the Congressional Budget Office on down, says that we can’t afford to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans, that doing so will blow an even bigger, more dangerous hole in the deficit. More than likely, if Republicans get those tax cuts extended, they will then push to lower the deficit — in other words, pay for the cuts — by privatizing Social Security and Medicare. Liberals like me oppose Obama’s conservative-leaning “deal” with Republicans not because we just “don’t want to compromise,” as McManus would have it, but out of a concern for the future of the American public safety net.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

‘City Lights’: Not a Romantic Comedy

I’m not a member of filmdom’s genre police. I think that genre labels can inhibit our approach to a film as much as they can point you in the direction of a movie you want to see. However, when I’m in the mood to see a particular kind of film, and I see a movie advertised as the kind I’d like to see, but then the picture ends up not being the kind advertised, I can feel as ripped off as a Band-Aid. And I’m not just talking about bad examples of a genre, but movies — sometimes even good movies — whose publicity stokes your appetite for one kind of story, but ends up giving you another, and not in a good way.

For example, when I first went to see Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time (1994), the theatre showing it had advertised the film as a Hong Kong action flick. But the movie turned out to be a chamber drama about the kind of characters who usually appear in Chinese martial-arts movies; they just didn’t do all that much fighting. So, as good as Ashes of Time is (it’s an ambitious art film, but not one of Wong’s better efforts), I wasn’t all that receptive to it because I was put off by the theatre’s bait-and-switch.

One film genre I like is the romantic comedy, or rom-com for short. And by “romantic comedy,” I don’t mean just any boy-meets-girl story with some laughs thrown in. In his excellent — I’m tempted to say “definitive” — how-to book Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit defines the genre this way: “A romantic comedy is a comedy whose central plot is embodied in a romantic relationship” (p. 12). To me, this definition implies that the (broadly speaking) “romantic” relationship must be developed, which logically entails giving the two lead characters more-or-less equal screen time so that the audience can see this deepening of their bond. To me, if the plot only develops one of the romantic characters, leaving the other to develop mostly offscreen or not at all, then the film’s emphasis is not on the development of a co-equal romance. And this would mean, to use Mernit’s phraseology, that the romantic relationship is not the film’s central plot.

And in order to work, the genre must meet “seven basic romantic-comedy beats,” which Mernit describes, involving how the lead characters “meet cute” — encounter each other in a memorable way — lose each other, and ultimately resolve their relationship. Mernit’s name for the last is the characters’ “joyful defeat” — giving themselves over to love’s effect on them — which can result in a happily-ever-after ending or a bittersweet ending of the couple parting.

While it had gestated in various forms over the previous years, the romantic comedy was defined in 1934 by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. And the genre has lit up movie screens ever since, with such outstanding examples as Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953), Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), and the Tom Stoppard-scripted Shakespeare in Love (1998). But sometimes effective examples of the genre don’t advertise themselves as romantic comedies. A case in point is Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996), which, at first glance, seems to be about only one main character, the sports agent of the title, but the story is in fact structured as a romantic comedy, where Jerry’s relationship with the female lead, Dorothy, becomes the main plot, and the sports story is only secondary to it. I also consider the genre to have some elasticity. To me, the amount of laugh-out-loud comedy is negotiable. Technically, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) is a fantastical romantic melodrama, but despite the lack of any real belly laughs, I think of the film as a romantic comedy because its tone is so lighthearted and its supernatural set-up is so fanciful. But what all of these films have in common is, in Mernit’s phrase, “a couple at the core.”

Sometimes, a comedy will feature a romantic couple, but their relationship, and how it develops, is not the film’s main concern. And I wince whenever I hear such a film described as a romantic comedy. Perhaps the movie most often mislabeled a rom-com is My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), which includes a romantic couple, Toula and Ian, but their relationship isn’t the movie’s mainstay; Toula’s relationship with her eccentric family is. You could replace the story element of Toula’s wedding with some other major event, and as long as you kept the characters in her family, you could still have the same basic plot. I also hear Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) frequently described as a romantic comedy, but the only romantic story element in that film, Frances’ love for Marcello, is a mere subplot. The central plot is Frances’ growing sense of self after she buys a house in Italy; only after she “finds herself” at the very end of the movie is she truly ready for romance. My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Under the Tuscan Sun are good movies, but if I went to see them for the first time expecting romantic comedies, I’d be very disappointed. The same goes for City Lights.

And so I finally get around to mentioning the movie I want to talk about. Why bring up Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) at all? Because back in 2006, the American Film Institute ranked the Top Ten Romantic Comedies, and guess which one came in first. That’s right. But while Chaplin’s silent comedy is a modest masterpiece, and there is indeed a love plot involving Chaplin’s Little Tramp and a nameless blind “flower girl” (Virginia Cherill), that story is not the film’s central concern. And that’s just one reason why I don’t consider City Lights a romantic comedy.

No less of an authority than Mernit himself disagrees with me. In Writing the Romantic Comedy, Mernit included a list of “100 Notable” rom-coms for his readers to check out, and City Lights isn’t on the roll call. On his blog devoted to the genre, Mernit says that he left silent comedies off his list thinking that prospective rom-com scribes would only be interested in example films with dialogue. When the AFI voted the Chaplin film #1, Mernit says that he was “blindsided” and “guilt-stricken” that the top spot went to a movie that his book doesn’t mention. Mernit then goes on to make amends by writing a glowing review of the 1931 silent on his blog. As he describes the film:

A near-penniless Tramp falls in love with a beautiful blind flower-seller who mistakes him for a millionaire. This immediately raises all the necessary stakes and complications one would ask for in a romance, posing the central story question, Will the poor pretender be able to help restore her sight? — with a compelling subtextual dilemma attached: What will become of him if he succeeds?

In Writing the Romantic Comedy, Mernit says: “[T]he central question posed by a romantic comedy is: ‘Will these two individuals become a couple?’” (p. 13). Using this standard, I think that Mernit got it right the first time, when he didn’t include City Lights on his list.

In his blog review, Mernit jots down that “the movie hangs a number of episodes and digressions on one bold and sturdy construct; Lights is essentially a collection of ‘things Charlie Chaplin does best’ slung over one archetypal armature.” In other words, City Lights is a series of comedic set pieces built around the story element of the Tramp’s love for the young blind woman. But except for the bit about her unraveling the Tramp’s vest because she mistakes it for loose yarn, the set pieces themselves don’t involve her. In fact, for a female lead, the character of the blind flower-seller has relatively few scenes, especially compared to the Tramp, who is in almost all of them. And because of this unequal screen time, City Lights doesn’t spend many moments exploring their love relationship.

In short, the relationship isn’t developed. On their second meeting, the Tramp gives the blind girl a lift home — in a car borrowed from an inebriated millionaire — drops her off at her door with a gallant kiss on the hand, and the two are in love. The relationship itself idles as the Tramp runs around town getting into one predicament after another. He comes back to the girl a few times, but there is no further evolution of the plot directly involving their romance. Their separation just before the climactic scene (she goes to Europe to have her sight restored, and he goes to jail) isn’t treated by the film as a development in their relationship but as a synapse in the story. And because the blind girl takes up so little screen time, she never emerges as the male lead’s romantic and story-shaping equal (as Dorothy does in Jerry Maguire). In City Lights, the Tramp decides to provide for the blind girl all on his own, without any real input on his decision from her, and the “lose” comes not from a bump in the relationship, but from an external story development: the Tramp locked away in prison. Rather than a tale of well-matched peers whose feelings for each other deepen as the gags fly, City Lights gives us episode after episode of the Tramp’s contretemps, with the flower-seller punctuating them merely as the recurring object of his affections.

Yes, the story does have a “cute-meet” between the Tramp and the girl, one of the best in cinema. As Mernit describes it:

In the cute-meet on the street, where the Tramp is first experiencing the Girl’s blindness and beauty, he sits for a moment to sniff at the flower she’s sold him and to moon over her, unseen — only to have her dump a pot of water on him because she can’t see him. Any time the story threatens to become sappy, Charlie manages to un-sap it with a laugh.

But cute-meets aren’t exclusive to the rom-com. You could describe Charles Foster Kane’s muddy introduction to Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane (1941) or Mr. Chow’s confusing first face-to-face with Mrs. Chan in In the Mood for Love (2000) as cute-meets. Granted, this story element is a prerequisite in romantic comedies and only an option for other genres, but a cute-meet does not a rom-com make.

Just as you could take the wedding out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, replace it with something else, and have the same basic story line, you could also give the Tramp in City Lights a different motivation for his misadventures without damaging the bulk of the plot. True, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a subplot equally emotional, and you would probably end up with a different closing shot than the famous image of the Tramp holding a flower to his face — with a smile that says he’s simultaneously happy for the girl’s restored vision but mourning their lost relationship. However, since Charlie’s set pieces take up the biggest chunks of the story, most of it would stay in place.

Some have said that this haunting final shot is proof that the love between the Tramp and the young woman is City Light’s central concern. I say that this close-up image of the Tramp, the only character in the shot whose face we see, is evidence that the film was more about him individually than about his relationship with the blind girl (or for that matter, with the drunk millionaire). City Light’s fundamental story question isn’t “Will the Tramp and the flower-seller become a couple?” Instead, the fundamental question is “Will Charlie survive his misadventures?” The love story gives these side-splitting shenanigans structure and cohesion, but the romance itself isn’t integral to them.

City Lights is romantic, and it’s a comedy, a great comedy. But it’s not a romantic comedy.

Fanvid tribute to City Lights

Monday, November 29, 2010

Good Reasons for Ending the Bush Tax Cuts

Today, I read an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Why Populism Isn’t Popular” by William Voegeli. In it, Voegeli says, as I understand his words, that the main reason liberals want to discontinue the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy individuals earning more than $200,000 per year, or families earning more than $250,000 per year, is to lessen income inequality among America’s classes. No mention is made of the impact, whatever it might be, of discontinuing the tax breaks upon the economy.

Will the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2% of the country be ended or extended? This question has been on my mind lately. To my non-economist’s eyes, it seems that they should be ended, at least for the time being. Why do I say that? Because ending those tax cuts appears to be the best way to stimulate the economy. You might recall that when the taxes for the wealthy were in place at the end of Bill Clinton’s tenure in the presidency, the economy was booming. With those taxes removed, George W. Bush’s presidency ended with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Of course, that isn’t a foolproof reason for ending those particular tax breaks, but at least, it provides some empirical evidence for how new tax rates might play out. If new revenues earned by the federal government were then to be plowed into refurbishing this country’s dilapidated infrastructure, this could put much-need money into the pockets of working Americans, who would be more apt than others to spend it on necessities. Those providing the necessities would then have money of their own to spend on the things that they need. Once this money is back in circulation, the economy can grow at a much faster clip. Would such a scenario actually work? I don’t know; as I said earlier, I’m not an economist. But this hypothetical situation certainly sounds more than plausible.

Opponents of ending the Bush tax cuts disagree. They say that not extending these tax breaks would inhibit “small businesses” (as they define the term) from creating jobs at a time when they’re desperately needed. And the reason that money from the Bush tax cuts isn’t stimulating the economy right now, conservatives say, is because potential job creators are too “uncertain” about any future increase in their taxes to invest their money. The assumption behind this is that every penny that the richest 2% save in taxes will be reinvested in creating jobs. But if this is true, why weren’t the Bush tax cuts stimulating the economy when it started to falter back in December 2007? Furthermore, a November 24 episode of Countdown with Keith Olbermann reported that the wealthiest Americans do indeed have plenty of money to throw around, but they just aren’t throwing it in the direction of job creation. Other reports say that they are spending it on static investments that don’t create jobs: expensive oil paintings, expensive jewelry, and the like. In other words, the “uncertainty” argument is a myth.

Anyway, this is why I am in favor of ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%: because of plausible positive effects ending them might have on stimulating the economy. There are also various reports, which I don’t have at my fingertips, that say extending tax cuts for the rich would be the worst way to get the economy moving again. I am not in favor of ending them, as Voegeli would have it, for pie-in-the-sky reasons of ending income disparity. And to attribute wanting to end these tax cuts for unrealistic reasons denigrates any realistic reasons we may have for doing so, while Voegeli simultaneously paints us tax-cut opponents as irrational and dogmatic.

Again, since I’m not an economist, I can’t say whether the reports I read are credible or not. And to make matters more confusing, for every report or estimation saying that tax cuts for the wealthy are the worst economic stimulus, you have some other report or estimation gainsaying what the first ones say. This allows Republican politicians to say that they’ve seen no “credible” economic evidence to argue against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Signs from Washington are pointing to President Obama giving up on his principle of ending the cuts. I’m tempted to use some Democratic Party buzzwords like Obama “caving” to Republican demands, but I won’t. I just hope that whatever economic policies that Obama and the Republicans can agree on will result in something that best gets the economy moving. But I’m not optimistic.

Remember the President’s appearance before the Republican representatives at their Baltimore retreat last January 29? He gave a powerful defense of his economic policies and rebutted conservative arguments to the contrary. Obama looked so good at this face-to-face give-and-take that Fox News cut away from live coverage of the event: the channel didn’t want reality to interfere with its predetermined narrative that Obama’s policies didn’t have any good arguments in their favor. How did the Republicans act in response to what the President said? They just went back to spouting the same old conservative dogma, unaffected by Obama’s rebuttals, and doing what they always do as though nothing had happened, as though they learned nothing. That doesn’t bode well for the future of this country’s financial health.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Letter to Bristol

Dear Bristol Palin,

Although you’ll never read this electronic letter, and even though I think that just one post on my blog about your appearance on Dancing with the Stars is more than enough, I feel compelled to write a few extra words.

First of all, you have my sincere condolences for not winning the mirror-ball trophy. Week after week, you brought your best game to the dance floor, and I respect you for that. You started out on the show as an absolute beginner, but by the last episode, you made noticeable improvements, performing some dances that I would have a very difficult time doing with my case of vertigo. In fact, your penultimate dance on the show, your tango, was a cut above your other whirls around the stage with Mark Ballas. Your perseverance on DWTS — along with your bearing the intense scrutiny of your appearance on the show — is an example to many of us. So, you have my condolences for not achieving your goal of coming in first.

You have my condolences, but I’m not sorry that you lost.

What prompts me to write are two statements from you quoted in the press. The first was your pre-finals declaration: “Going out there and winning this would mean a lot. It would be like a big middle finger ... to all the people out there who hate my mom and me.” You seem to be saying that everyone who rooted against you on the show “hated” you. This, of course, isn’t true. Now, you can find haters anywhere and everywhere, and some of the people not in your corner were indeed haters. Whoever sent the show the envelope with white powder (which turned out to be talcum powder)? A hater. The people making death threats? Despicable haters. But these are the fringe. The overwhelming majority of people, including myself, who didn’t want you to win: we don’t “hate” you. We just don’t think that you should have been in the finals when season 11 had so many other celebrities with a better knack for dancing.

We don’t think you should have even made it to the semi-finals.

And this has nothing to do with my negative political opinions about your mother. Your last name could have been Manson, and if you had danced as well as Brandy, I’d at least tip my fedora to you, if not root. You are not your mother, so my Democratic Party politics don’t enter into this.

True, the show is as much about glamor and personal popularity as it is about foot placement and carriage lines. But at the end of the day, Dancing with the Stars should be about ... well ... dancing. And I think that the celebrities with the superior footwork should carry the day. One of my early-in-the-season favorites was Margaret Cho. I like her comedy — I like what she’s all about. I was glad that she wasn’t the first celebrity voted off the dance floor, and I was disappointed that she left after only the second week. But leaving was something that I knew she had to do. She just didn’t have the moves that the more proficient celebrities could pull off. However, if the outspoken Ms. Cho had made it all the way to the finals, I would think that there was something drastically wrong with the show. In such an event, I think that Dancing with the Stars would have lost its integrity as even a semi-serious hoofing contest. You can see where I’m going with this...

You also said that you “deserv[ed]” to win because you and Mark had “been working [your] butts off.” You two were the only ones doing that? Just because several of the celebrities had show-biz backgrounds, their rehearsals were a cakewalk? Jennifer Grey’s nailing her moves while pushing through the pain of a ruptured disc was a breeze? As important as hard work is, on Dancing with the Stars, it’s the results that should count. And your results on the dance floor just weren’t in the same league as Ms. Grey’s or ... ahem ... Brandy’s.

In fact, I was flabbergasted that your jive on the second-to-last episode received such high scores — three nines — from the judges. I don’t have any experience judging dance, but I thought that your footwork was leaden, your moves were sloppy, and your energy level wasn’t up to where it should have been. I got the idea that the judges were grading you on a curve so that if you ended up being the first-place winner, higher scores for you would give the show some cover. You said that with your jive, you wanted to prove that you belonged in the finals. To me (and a number of professional entertainment critics), you proved just the opposite, despite the enthusiastic compliments the judges gave you.

Other observers said that if you had won first place with your lower judges’ scores, Dancing with the Stars would have lost its credibility as any kind of dance competition. I say that the damage has already been done. Your ascension to the finals on such poor performances, when so many of your competitors had performed much better, tells me that dancing isn’t taken as seriously on the show as it ought to be. And while the rumors and Internet postings of more-than-allotted votes by your fans haven’t been proven, they sound very credible and cast a further pall on your longevity on the show. Dancing with the Stars has been one of the few television shows that I’ve been watching recently. But I’m not sure I’m going to watch it again. To me, it’s now become a joke.

Again, none of this is personal. And if my criticism of your dancing sounds harsh, it’s only because I think that the footwork on Dancing with the Stars should be held to a higher standard than the light-fantastic tripping of the average person on the street. The results on the dance floor should be more important to the judges and the audience than the effort to achieve them, however noble that effort might be. I wish you well. I’m not sure what I wish the show.

Rob in L.A.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tripping the Right’s Fantastic

Okay, maybe the controversy about Bristol Palin outlasting better dancers on Dancing with the Stars is being overblown. Maybe it’s just on my mind because DWTS is one of the few T.V. shows I watch. But there does seem to be a political dimension — however inchoate — to her ascension on the show via a dubious voting system.

Everyone reading this probably knows the story by now: The T.V. series Dancing with the Stars is a “reality” show that pairs 12 celebrity contestants with an equal number of professional dancers to perform some particular ballroom dances. For 10 weeks, a combination of professional ballroom-dancing judges and viewer votes eliminates one celebrity dancer per week until three of them (supposedly the three best dancers) are left to compete for the show’s “finals” round, where the ultimate winner claims the grand prize: the mirror-ball trophy. This eleventh season of the show, Bristol Palin, daughter of the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah, has endured the competition, making it all the way to the finals, after consistently landing at or near the bottom of the professional judges’ leader board.

Obviously, the votes from viewers have tipped the scales and allowed Bristol to last so long on the show. Last week, she stunned the show’s audience and professionals alike when she beat out the singer Brandy, an infinitely better dancer and darling of the judges, for a place in the finals. The following days have buzzed with conspiracy theories about electronic voter fraud, including one conservative blogger who boasted about gaming the system.

First, I need to agree with some of those who dismiss the brouhaha: It’s just a T.V. show. The only thing immediately at stake here is a tacky mirror-ball trophy — and perhaps the show’s credibility as a somewhat serious dance competition. There are more important things to be concerned about (Republican obstructionism in the Senate, for example). So, if you don’t like the direction the show is taking, just don’t watch it.

Second, I learned a while back that DWTS isn’t a strict meritocracy. I realized that during season nine, when so-so dancer Kelly Osborne (the reality star) beat out exquisite dancer Joanna Krupa (the supermodel) for a place in the finals. Viewer interest in the contestants is as important as what the professional judges have to say, and that doesn’t always lead to an outcome that reflects the caliber of the dancing.

That said, Bristol Palin is the daughter of a polarizing political figure, and that gives the scion’s staying power political resonance. This is doubled when some of those voting for her profess political motives detached from her dancing, and voting for her in an underhanded way. Indeed, one conservative blogger is reported to have said that he stuffs the ballot in Bristol’s favor as payback for those elections that Democrats allegedly stole. Exactly how voting for a T.V. show offsets the outcome of an election isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that some viewers, some describing themselves as Tea Partiers, have read political implications into the Palin daughter’s appearance on DWTS from the outset. And it seems a bit shortsighted for some above-it-all observers to chide Palin detractors — those who feel that Bristol’s unearned longevity on the show is a politically charged train wreck — as reading too much partisan significance into a trivial non-partisan event.

Now, none of this can be blamed on Bristol Palin herself. She is, by all appearances, an affable young woman who does the best she can as a dancer and has even made some marked improvement in her hoofing abilities since starting the show as a complete neophyte. And I’m sure that some of those who vote for her (a minority, I suspect) are responding to the appeal of her pleasant personality, and not to their own sectarian inclinations. Furthermore, no evidence is apparent that Bristol herself is encouraging her mother’s political base to vote for her for partisan reasons, much less to do so in an unethical way. However, she seems a bit willfully oblivious to the furor she’s causing, insisting that she deserves a place in the finals because she’s come the farthest as a dancer, and this suggests more than a little self-absorption.

But to me, Bristol Palin’s Dancing with the Stars saga (or is it the other way around?) condenses and allegorizes an issue I see on the political right: the triumph of ideology over competence. Bristol has endured as a contender on the show for so long because so many Sarah Palin supporters want to make an implicit political statement, want to cast a vote for a right-wing ideology that has little, if anything, to do with the issue at hand: in this case, dancing. It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly executed or completed the exigency is. What matters is that its undertaking reflect an ideological purity not necessarily connected to concrete realities.

When Democratic President Bill Clinton left office, he had produced a $127 billion budget surplus by his last year. (In an effort to trash the Clinton legacy, conservatives are now disputing this by confusing the national budget with the national debt.) Granted, Clinton’s presidency wasn’t perfect, and deficit reduction was accomplished in concert with a fiscally conservative Republican Congress and with the help of an anomalous economic boom in the dot-com industry. But the bottom line is that Clinton proved that government can be somewhat progressive and pay for itself at the same time. Clinton’s governing and economic policies produced real-world results that added to the nation’s prosperity.

When George W. Bush came into office, he undid Clinton’s surplus with massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, two wars, and an unfunded Medicare mandate. Bush’s trickle-down economic policies were supposed to enhance this nation’s prosperity, but instead, they led to eight years of the lowest job growth in decades and (thanks in part to legislation enacted on Clinton’s watch) the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. You would think that most Americans would look at the achievements of Clinton and those of Bush and conclude that Clinton’s policies and approach were better because they produced the better real-world results. But to a large extent, this isn’t happening.

Many Americans just take it on faith that trickle-down economics work better than other economic policies, despite real-world disproof. Their sentiment seems to be that trickle-down ought to work better because it seems to promise so much, and they are going to keep at it until trickle-down economics produce the anticipated results, whenever that may be. They look at the economic havoc wrought by Bush and just see a hiccup in his policies. (And don’t even get me started on the weapons of mass destruction that ought to have been in Iraq.)

Similarly, most of Bristol Palin’s Dancing with the Stars audience, it seems to me, take it on faith that the young Alaskan ought to be the better dancer because of her mother’s political convictions. They view her inferior footwork differently than they view her rivals’ superior moves. The belief that Republican policies are better than others, despite evidence to the contrary, and the belief that Bristol Palin is the best dancer on this season of Dancing with the Stars, despite evidence to the contrary — both of them embody, to me, the disconnect between what actually is and what conservatives think should be.

Dancing with the Stars: Brandy and Maks Eliminated

Saturday, November 20, 2010

‘Smallville’: A Missed Opportunity

The TV show Smallville, the series about young Clark Kent before he became Superman, has boasted a number of guest stars who have acted in other, earlier projects about the superhero. Examples include Margot Kidder (Superman I-IV), Terrence Stamp (Superman II), Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Linda Slater (Supergirl), among others.

But perhaps Smallville’s most well-know guest star from elsewhere in the Superman universe is Christopher Reeve, who famously played the Man of Steel himself in the eponymous 1978 big-screen adaptation and its three sequels.  What made Reeves’s participation in the show so distinctive was that it came after his paralyzing fall from a horse in 1995.  So, of course, Reeve appeared on Smallville in a wheelchair, immobile from below the neck.  Reeve’s ability to take part in the show signaled both the triumph of a person so terribly disabled to re-enter his profession and the poignancy of seeing a once-vigorous actor in such a state.  All of this made Reeve’s two guest appearances on the series especially memorable.  The character he played — invented by the creators of the show, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar — was named Virgil Swann.

However, the name “Virgil Swann” narrowly missed being another way for Smallville to pay tribute to the Superman mythos.  The character’s surname reminded me of the artist Curt Swan, who drew Superman for the comics from 1948 to 1985.  When I collected Superman comics in the early 1970s, Swan provided the artwork’s pencils.  Swan’s work was then inked by Murphy Anderson.  Together, Swan and Anderson gave Superman a light but solid style, a black-ink buoyancy that served the airborne superhero well.  According to Wikipedia, “the pair’s collaborative artwork came to be called ‘Swanderson’ by the fans.”  Swan and Anderson’s take on Superman became the best-known among comics fans throughout the 1970s.

An example of Swan and Anderson’s Superman from 1971

Curt Swan (left) and Murphy Anderson in the 1990s

So, it’s unfortunate that Christopher Reeves’s character wasn’t named “Anderson Swan” as a tribute to the two artists.  Although Reeve’s appearance on the show was already charged with heritage and nostalgia, naming his character after two distinguished artists from Superman’s past would have added an extra level of homage — at least to readers of the Superman comics.

Christopher Reeve and Tom Welling in ‘Smallville’

Update, May 14, 2011: The Smallville series finale was broadcast last night.  I wonder if the role of the Secretary of Defense in that episode (ultimately played by Todd Thomson) was written for Gene Hackman, the Lex Luthor of Reeve’s Superman films, in an effort to get him to be a Super-alum guest star on the show as well.  If it was, the chances of Hackman coming out of retirement to play the role were slim.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Yellowface Top Ten

This essay originally appeared at in 2003.

The voice of outrage at Angry Asian muses that he will write a list of a “Top 10 Yellowface Roles” “just for kicks.” Sounds like a good idea. So, while the angry guy is working on his roll call, I thought I’d come up with one of my own.

Yellowface, for those who don’t know, means an Asian role played on stage, screen, or TV by a non-Asian actor, often — but not always — using heavy appearance-altering make-up. For decades, the mainstream U.S. entertainment industry has cast non-Asian actors in prominent Asian roles while seldom, if ever, allowing the reverse. As a result, Asian American actors do not have equal opportunities to play prominent roles on Broadway or in Hollywood, and the Asian image has been shaped largely by creators with sometimes misguided notions of who Asian people are.

In a more perfect world, Asian American actors would have equal opportunities to play roles of any race in the media, and in such a parallel universe, yellowface wouldn’t be a big deal. But as long as Asian American actors must struggle to be thought of on the same playing field as their Caucasian colleagues, and as long as limited and ill-informed portrayals of Asians continue to be so pervasive, yellowface will remain a contentious issue. Here is my ranking of some particularly important examples:

10. David Carradine in KUNG FU (1972-75)

As far as yellowface performances go, David Carradine’s Amerasian Shaolin monk, Kwai-Chang Caine, roaming the Wild West on the TV show Kung Fu survives as one of the least objectionable. Rather than affect a heavy Chinese accent and broken speech patterns — which might have been expected in earlier years — Carradine spoke only haltingly and in complete sentences. Moreover, Carradine, whose appearance was believably half-Asian, wore very little make-up to essay the part. Perhaps more than any other work of the early 1970s, Kung Fu brought Chinese culture, an awareness of Asian American history, and the eponymous martial artistry into U.S. living rooms. But Carradine’s casting still leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many because several people say that Kung Fu was originally developed by martial artist extraordinaire Bruce Lee as a starring vehicle for himself. However, according to a documentary on Kung Fu’s DVD, the television project was originated by writer Ed Spielman, and Bruce Lee, who auditioned for the role of Caine, was not involved in the series’ development.  Nevertheless, Carradine is still resented in some quarters for playing a part that many believe should have gone to an Asian actor.

9. Larry Blyden in FLOWER DRUM SONG (1958)

When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song (based on the novel by C.Y. Lee) premiered on Broadway in 1958, the stage exploded with more Asian talent than any mainstream show had likely ever seen. Featured in the cast were actress-singers Miyoshi Umeki, Pat Suzuki (pictured), and Arabella Hong. However, the pivotal lead role of nightclub owner Sammy Fong went to Larry Blyden, a Jewish American actor from Texas. Things could have been worse: at least Blyden played his character as an acculturated American without any exaggerated Asian accent or broken English. But one is left to wonder why — after making such an effort to cast the female roles with Asian actresses — the producers settled on a non-Asian to play such an important male Chinese American character. Fortunately, when Flower Drum Song was turned into a movie in 1961, the role of Sammy Fong was re-cast with Japanese American actor Jack Soo ( Suzuki), who played a smaller role in the Broadway premiere. The film version of Flower Drum Song, with its virtually all-Asian cast, has all but erased memory of Blyden’s yellowface.


A nominee for the Academy Award for Best Make-Up, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins employed impressive facial prosthetics to transform the very Caucasoid thespian Joel Grey into Chiun, the title character's (Fred Ward) Korean martial-arts instructor. Except for a slightly unnatural facial paralysis, Grey’s make-up is extremely realistic, and his affectation of Asian mannerisms is quite convincing to the average audience member. But all of this extraordinary artistry leaves one question ringing in the mind: Why did the filmmakers go to all this trouble when they could have more easily cast an Asian actor in the role? One senses that Remo Williams exemplifies Hollywood’s tendency to show off. “Look at what we (white people) can do,” the movie nudges. Ultimately, Grey’s performance in Remo Williams seems to regard Asian people as a mute object upon which Caucasian exceptionalism is played out. We are supposed to marvel at how “realistically” a white actor can transform himself into an Asian character and at how Hollywood’s make-up artists have mastered their craft. Asian people themselves don't really enter into it.

7. Warner Oland

The Swedish-born, American-raised actor Warner Oland made virtually an entire career out of playing Asian characters — from “Oriental” villains in Pearl White serials to Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan. (He is pictured at left in 1929’s The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu.) But what set him apart from his Asian colleagues in Hollywood was that Oland was also able to play non-Asian roles, such as Cesar Borgia in Don Juan (1926) and Al Jolson’s cantor father in The Jazz Singer (1927). While some admirers still laud Oland for what they see as the integrity and dignity of his Asian characters — particularly the heroic Charlie Chan — others are dismayed by what they see as ignorance and condescension. Still, Oland's busy and lucrative life-work stands as a disturbing reminder that a Caucasian actor could make a career for himself in Hollywood by specializing in Asian roles, while authentically Asian performers at the time had to struggle much harder for acting jobs.

6. Sean Connery in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)

In this fifth entry into the fabled movie cycle, British super spy James Bond is sent to Japan. At one point during his stay on the island nation, 007 must undergo facial surgery in order to pass for Japanese. After a while on the operating table, stitched together by a scantily dressed surgeoness, the secret agent emerges looking like a droopy-eyed white dude who’s had too much to drink. Nevertheless, this laughable look is deemed convincing enough to fool the locals. You Only Live Twice was not the first time that a white hero was surgically transformed into an Asian. The trope can be found at least as far back as First Yank in Tokyo (1945), a World War II-era adventure in which a Euro-American agent undergoes plastic surgery and is sent behind enemy lines. The message is another clear example of white exceptionalism: With minimal effort, whites can master all things Asian — regardless of how laughable such “mastery” might look to Asian people themselves. Critical viewers are left wondering: If these films needed spies to blend in with the Japanese populace, why didn't they simply send agents who were culturally and ethnically Japanese? Ah, but such a question would be churlish.

5. Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan on MAD TV (1997-2002)

The creative forces behind the sketch-comedy series Mad TV must have known that they were treading on volatile ground when they unveiled their slant-eyed, gibberish-speaking, bowl-haired manicurist called Ms. Kwan, played by non-Asian actress Alex Borstein, in 1997. After amply demonstrating her poor ability to speak or understand English in her first sketch — the source of the character’s alleged humor — she was quickly rechristened Ms. Swan. And not long after that, Borstein and the show’s producers went to great lengths to deny that the character was Asian, saying that she was from the fictional country of “Kuvaria.” Borstein publicized that Ms. Swan was based on her European-immigrant grandmother, and that her appearance was inspired by the Icelandic singer Björk. But as others have remarked, it’s difficult to view this character and not think that she’s supposed to be Asian. (After all, how many manicurists in the U.S. are from fictional countries?) Ms. Swan was a sobering reminder that Hollywood still regards Asians as fair game for race-based humor. And Mad TV’s disingenuous handling of Asian American complaints against the character remains instructive. But perhaps the most intriguing thing to arise from the controversy was the ridiculous extent that the creators were willing to go in order to deny the character's Asianness. The moral of the story: Keep practicing yellowface, Hollywood, just don't be honest about what you’re doing.

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

British writer Sax Rohmer (the pen name of Arthur Sarsfield Ward) created his villainous Chinese character Fu Manchu in 1913, at the height of the “yellow peril.” Like many other Westerners, Rohmer saw the Chinese as anathema to his Occidental culture — and perhaps bent on its destruction. A seemingly indestructible criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu became the embodiment of the West’s anti-Asian fears, spawning many imitations and filmed adaptations. A number of Caucasian actors have played Fu, including Warner Oland, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers. But The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff in heavy facial prosthetics — perhaps more than any other film — works to demonize Asian racial features as inherently evil. The film’s first shot of Fu depicts him working in his laboratory next to a distorting mirror. The mirror twists Karloff’s already nefarious-looking cosmetics into a misshapen visage of pure evil. Asian features, the film practically screams, are not to be trusted. Although Fu Manchu himself has not been seen on the big screen since the farcical death gasp The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), Hollywood still hasn’t stopped featuring Asian villains as the racially marked antagonists to non-Asian heroes. Only now, the villains are played by actual Asian actors. Some call this progress.

3. Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1962)

What The Mask of Fu Manchu does to vilify Asian racial features, Breakfast at Tiffany’s does to make them inherently laughable. 
But where The Mask of Fu Manchu’s yellowface inhabits a pulpy, high-adventure atmosphere that need not be taken seriously, Breakfast at Tiffany’s caricature of Asian facial traits occupies an otherwise verisimilitudinous vision of contemporary New York. Donning false buck teeth and eye make-up, Mickey Rooney portrays the Japanese character of Mr. Yunioshi as a funny-looking buffoon whose speech is garbled and actions inept.  While Breakfast at Tiffany’s was very popular in its time — indeed, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly became something of an icon, and the movie’s theme song, “Moon River,” is still a standard for crooners — Rooney’s performance today is very painful to watch for anyone with a modicum of racial sensitivity. It’s clear that the filmmakers see Yunioshi’s exaggerated Asian features as an aberration from the Caucasian norm and as a source of humor in and of themselves. When looking from Mr. Yunioshi to Ms. Swan, one is dismayed to see how little has changed in 40 years.

2. Harold Huber and June Duprez in LITTLE TOKYO, U.S.A. (1942)

The main reason why this movie is not at the top of the list is because it has faded from popular memory. But in its day, Little Tokyo, U.S.A. exemplified yellowface at its most pernicious. While other works had used Asian make-up to ridicule or vilify Asian features, this B movie used yellowface directly to deny a group of Asian Americans their civil rights. The story, set in late 1941, follows tough Los Angeles cop Michael Steele (Preston Foster) as he investigates a series of crimes involving the local Japanese American community. The story gradually reveals that the crimes are to cover up a Japanese American cabal’s efforts to facilitate Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the horrific military attack, the Japanese American community’s demonstrations of pro-U.S. patriotism are portrayed as patently insincere. Policeman Steele tracks the crime trail to an American-born spy for Tokyo, Takimura (played in yellowface by Harold Huber). Takimura is shown to represent that even Japanese Americans who are born in the U.S. can’t be trusted. Takimura tries to throw Steele off the case by enlisting a neighborhood Japanese American vixen, Teru (English actress June Duprez), to seduce him. If Little Tokyo, U.S.A. had been made 20 years later, Teru and Steele might have consummated the seduction. But this being the miscegenation-phobic ’40s, Takimura instead murders Teru and frames Steele for the crime. Nevertheless, Steele ends up proving his innocence and busting the spy ring. The movie ends extolling the necessity for the Japanese American internment. In retrospect, knowing that not a single charge of espionage was ever brought against a Japanese American during wartime, this sensationalistic story reeks of racist propaganda. Granted, the film would not have been any better if Japanese American actors had played these propagandistic roles. But Little Tokyo, U.S.A. stands as a cautionary reminder of just how horribly a community’s image can be distorted when it’s not there to represent itself.

1. Jonathan Pryce in MISS SAIGON (1991)

The rancorous tone of racial debate at the end of the 20th century was set in 1990 with the Miss Saigon casting controversy. Legendary British theatrical impresario Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) first staged this musical, an updating of Madame Butterfly, on London's West End in 1989. Mackintosh and his creative team scoured the world in search of an Asian actress to sing the title character, finally finding Lea Salonga in the Philippines. But when it came to casting the Asian male lead, the Engineer, Mackintosh settled on the Welsh-born actor Jonathan Pryce. No world-scouring search was deemed necessary, and Pryce opened the role of the Engineer wearing heavy eye prosthetics. As Mackintosh was making arrangements the following year to bring Miss Saigon to Broadway, he let it be known that he planned to have Pryce reprise his performance. A white actor was acceptable in the role, Mackintosh said, because the character — despite a lack of evidence in the libretto — was “Eurasian.” When the Asian American creative community found out, they protested to their union, Actors Equity. The Asian American actors — who were hardly ever allowed to play leads of any race on the Great White Way — noted that they were not being seriously considered for this rare Asian male Broadway lead role. After much discussion, Equity vetoed Pryce’s application for a visa to work in the U.S. because Mackintosh had not cast his net wide enough. Although he was aware of the Asian actors’ discontent, and although he had the option to take Equity’s decision to arbitration, Mackintosh canceled the Broadway production — which had already grossed a then-record $25 million in advance ticket sales — indignantly claiming that Equity denied Pryce a job because of his race. The response by the press and the Broadway elites was swift and severe: Equity was being “racist” against Pryce. Little mention was made of Asian American actors routinely denied the opportunities to star on the mainstream stage. All the punditocracy could see was a white man victimized by “reverse discrimination.” Equity eventually backed down. Pryce opened the Engineer on Broadway in 1991 sans prosthetics, and he was awarded the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, perhaps as an apology by the Broadway establishment. More than any other issue, Miss Saigon exemplified the mainstream’s insensitivity to the entertainment industry’s discrimination against its Asian American talent. However, other disputes would also arise within the Asian community. Some questioned whether these arguably stereotypical Asian roles were worth playing in the first place. Some mixed-race Asians bought Mackintosh's “Eurasian” argument and claimed that other Asian Americans were insensitive to hapa issues. But perhaps Miss Saigon’s most enduring legacy are the steady assaults against affirmative action that have followed in its wake.