Saturday, October 17, 2009

What Will Follow?

The totalitarian left is fascinating to watch -- in a car wreck kind of way. One gazes at the twisted metal and broken glass of the left and wonders if he'll see any dead bodies amid what was once a shiny, functioning machine.

For the last few weeks we have seen the left attack Rush Limbaugh in the only way it knows how anymore: by lies and character assassination. Whatever you might think of Limbaugh, and I have problems with him, he is not a racist. To stop him from being a part-owner of an NFL team, the left fabricated racist quotes. They didn't just take questionable remarks out of context; they made up stuff that he never said.

This is not just the work of activists or partisan media. It goes all the way to the top of the Democrat Party. As NRO writes,

What makes the ongoing assault on Rush disturbing is that the White House is a participant in it. As Time magazine and others have reported, a small group of Democratic operatives and media figures — Stanley Greenberg, Paul Begala, and James Carville — have colluded with members of the Obama administration — Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs — in a campaign to demonize Limbaugh, using him as a proxy target for congressional Republicans.

The message from the left's campaign to destroy Limbaugh is clear: if they can do it to Rush, they can do it to anyone. I suspect there are many opponents of Obama and socialism across America who are wondering if they should stick their neck out, knowing that if they speak out they put themselves at risk to the smears of the left. It's not a reign of terror, but it is a reign of intimidation. The left doesn't answer its enemies, it shuts them up.

In addition to the smearing of Rush Limbaugh, we have seen various leftists bare their fangs and expose their raw hatred of their enemies with some remarkable statements. If the like were uttered by any Republican, it would mean the end of his career.First, from Congressman Alan Grayson:

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) warned Americans that "Republicans want you to die quickly" during an after-hours House floor speech Tuesday night.

His remarks, which drew angry and immediate calls for an apology from Republicans, were highlighted by a sign reading "The Republican Health Care Plan: Die Quickly."

Congressman Grayson has refused to apologize for this statement; his courage in standing by an outrageous insult has made him a hero on the left.

Second Garrison Keillor came up with a mean-spirited quip that any deficit in health care spending could be covered by cutting off health care from the GOP. Not much of a joke, but a glimpse at an old leftist's hatred of the enemy.

Finally, all summer long wise leftists turned their gaze to the town hall meetings and Tea Party protests, and wondered if the Republic will survive. Thomas Friedman fears violence from the right.

I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left. But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.

Friedman cites as an example some idiotic poll that a nobody put on Facebook, and:

...Mr. Obama is now having his legitimacy attacked by a concerted campaign from the right fringe. They are using everything from smears that he is a closet “socialist” to calling him a “liar” in the middle of a joint session of Congress to fabricating doubts about his birth in America and whether he is even a citizen.

These examples are laughable compared to the venom spewed by the left in a propaganda campaign that goes all the way to the White House.

Nancy Pelosi was moved to tears as she contemplated the prospect of violence from the right.

“I have concerns about some of the language that is being used because I saw … I saw this myself in the late '70s in San Francisco,” Pelosi said, choking up and with tears forming in her eyes. “This kind of rhetoric is just, is really frightening and it created a climate in which we, violence took place and … I wish that we would all, again, curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements that are made.”

Remember, at the massive Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C. on September 12, which had 70,000 people or more, depending on whose crowd estimates you believe, not one person was arrested. It was a peaceful assembly of citizens concerned about their burgeoning big government and the loss of freedom. At the G20 summit in Pittsburgh a few weeks later leftist protesters did what they always do:

Anti-G20 protesters rampaged through the city centre of Pittsburgh tonight, smashing up shops and throwing rocks at police, as officers used tear gas and baton-charges in an attempt to bring them under control.

In riots which continued through evening rush hour, about 300 protesters were reported to have remained from an initial crowd of 2,000 in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh’s Little Italy.

Frustrated in their attempts to reach the venue where world leaders are meeting the crowd, many of whom wore face-masks and armed themselves with rocks, broke windows at fast-food restaurants, a BMW dealership and a bank in the area, about a mile from the fenced-off convention centre.

If you want socialism and you riot: yawns all around; if you want liberty and you carry an insulting sign: STOP THE MADNESS BEFORE SOMEONE GETS HURT!


I think we're seeing the death throes of the left here. "Death throes" might be hard to buy, given that the Democrats have control of the executive and legislative branches and are currently toiling to effect Obama's program of "fundamental change" for America. (Ask not for whom those chains clink; they clink for you.)

The left has only ad hominem arguments, lies and smears. That's it. They don't argue the substance of health care, they call the town hall protesters racists, evil-mongers, a mob, and so on. I have to think that Americans outside the Democrat base are noticing. I believe the Democrats are bleeding voters at the margins.

The pollster Alex Bratty says in this PJTV interview that independents are "fleeing" from President Obama. She says a majority of independents want less government intervention in the economy. A Fox News Poll says only 43% would vote today to reelect President Obama.

I would advise the left to ram as many of their programs down America's throat as they can now while they have the power to do it, because that power will not last. Most Americans don't want what the left is selling -- or more properly, what the left is forcing on them.

The $64,000 question: who will replace the left? Yaron Brook in the PJTV interview linked to above says this is an opportunity for the Republican Party to make the case for freedom, individual rights and less government. Will they do it?

It's been observed that great men need the opportunity to rise to greatness. There must be an historical circumstance in which their greatness is wanted. The moment is now for someone in the Republican Party to carry the standard for liberty. Is there anyone out there capable of doing it?

Or will the power vacuum be filled by the religious right? I heard recently from a friend about a career military man who, after decades of duty around the world, retired and returned to Omaha, Nebraska. He said he was stunned at how the place has changed: religious fundamentalism has grown there. The rise of religion, as people turn to mysticism for values they can't find in the radical skepticism of modern philosophy, is transforming America.

They say the chinese character for crisis combines two words, opportunity and danger. We could be at a turning point in America, a point of opportunity and danger.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Secrets and Revelations

When I studied screenwriting at UCLA I was quite dubious about one teacher. I doubted whether he knew what he was talking about. He didn't explain the reasoning behind his principles very well, he just pronounced wisdom as if he were the Oracle of Delphi and we were to accept it on faith. He didn't give you the why behind his pronunciamentos, so they came off as Platonic ideals unconnected to the facts of reality.

One of his rules was "Don't keep secrets from the audience." This baffled me. What about plot twists? Reversals? Surprise endings? Whodunnits? There were enough obvious contradictions to his rule that I dismissed the teacher as a bizarre old coot.

Today I was working on a romantic drama plot that I've been struggling with for months. Part of the plot involves a spy, whose identity is revealed to the audience late in the play. Suddenly it occurred to me how much more interesting it would be to reveal his identity to the audience early and show his struggle with his duel loyalties. The plot twist would come around the end of Act I instead of the end of Act II -- which would give me more substance for those difficult stretches in Act II.

I realized that I was following the old coot's advice! When I kept the secret from the audience, I was creating a coup de theatre: melodrama. Now that I let the audience in on the secret, the spy's story becomes drama, as the audience sees his internal struggle.

I would put the old coot's pearl of wisdom like this: Consider not keeping a secret from the audience. Obviously, there are some secrets that should be kept from an audience, otherwise Agatha Christie would not have had much of a career. However, it is a good exercise to play around in your imagination with those late plot twists and see what happens if you let the audience in on something early.

Ayn Rand makes a fascinating identification in The Art of Fiction. She says suspense is letting the reader in on the author's intention. Little hints of what is to come create expectation -- suspense. You could say suspense comes from not keeping secrets from the audience.

Secrets and revelations tend to be the stuff of melodrama. To dramatize an internal conflict the audience has to be in on the facts and circumstances that create the conflict.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

10 Things You Did Not Know About Me Until Now

1. I was in a mime troupe. Yes, in my youth, I committed mime. I could even moonwalk. I've been haunted with guilt ever since...

2. I once had some 7,000 comic books, including Avengers #1, Fantastic Four #2, so many more. I sold them for peanuts in the 1980's to move to New York City.

3. I once had a pre-CBS Stratocaster. I sold it for peanuts in the 1980's to move to New York City.

4. I once lived in New York City. Was it worth selling everything I had for peanuts to move there? Yes. Yes.

5. The last TV show I watched regularly, not counting late night reruns of "The Honeymooners," was "All In the Family" around 1974.

6. I was a carpenter at Joseph Papp's New York Public Theatre. I was the worst carpenter in the history of the theatre since the day Thespis said, "I'm ready for my close-up."

7. In 1966 in Pomona, California, there was a garage band on our street. Lo, and he heard that Fender amp cranking out the chords to "Gloria," "Wild Thing," and "Satisfaction." And he saw the promised land. And he said, "It is good."

8. One of my odd prejudices is that I think all musicals should be musical comedies. I can't take serious musicals seriously. "A boy like that, he keel your brother." I dunno. I'll take Gershwin and Porter and Berlin any day over the modern musical. Old school? I'm paleolithic, baby.

9. My 10 favorite playwrights, starting at number one, are: Shakespeare, Ibsen, Schiller, Rostand, Sophocles, Rattigan, Shaw, Corneille, Moliere, Chekhov. In a month I might come up with a slightly different list, especially toward the bottom.

10. In my darker moments, I think America is heading toward a civil war. I suspect it is our most likely future. The New Left is totalitarian. When they shut down free speech, as they are now striving to do, there will be no recourse but violence. The libertarian, individualist right will resist. The 21st century will be ugly -- but interesting.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe is a highly entertaining play. Technically it is a tragedy because the central character dies in the end, but that character, the Jew Barabas, is so hilarious as he commits his crimes that it's hard to take any of it seriously. Like Shakespeare's Richard III, Barabas has so much fun being evil that the audience has fun as well. I think of the play as Hamlet meets the Joker: a revenge play with an evil clown as the central character. I would call it a savage satire.

(It makes me wonder if Shakespeare was attempting to write his own tragedy that is also savagely funny with Titus Andronicus. Face it, the scene in which Lavinia, without hands, takes a stick in her mouth to write in the sand is funny in a sick way. Shakespeare soon realized that his was a gentler muse.)

The play is antisemitic, as is The Merchant of Venice. Marlowe and Shakespeare are products of their culture and they reflect the attitudes of their time. The problem goes beyond antisemitism, as Renaissance plays are filled with medieval values we would question today. Shakespeare seems to accept the divine right of kings, and at the end of his tragedies order is always restored with the last line going to the person of highest nobility left alive onstage. A feminist woman once told me that Katherine's last speech in Taming of the Shrew should be played today as if she is lying and manipulating Petruchio in order to survive in a patriarchal society.

The thing to remember is that antisemitism is not the fundamental purpose of either Marlowe or Shakespeare's play, but is a side issue. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare were great artists, who wrote their plays on broader themes. The Jew of Malta is a play about human nature that says man is a cynical egoist. The word cynical is there to distinguish Marlowe's idea of egoism from Ayn Rand's idea of rational egoism. In the traditional, Christian morality, egoists are thought of as monsters -- Nietzche's Blond Beast -- who will climb over a mountain of dead bodies to get what they want. And mass murder is exactly what Barabas does. People talk about all the dead bodies in Hamlet; in Marlowe's play there are too many dead to count -- the antihero poisons all the nuns in a convent and burns down a house with people in it -- but most of the killing happens off stage.

If you're like me and the idea of poisoning all the nuns in a convent makes you laugh, then this play is for you. (No, I'm not being serious here. I don't really support the mass murder of Christians.)

There is a deep strain of cynicism in Jacobean drama. Webster, Marston and Middleton all wrote dark, dark plays. Even Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens is cynical. I think it all started with The Jew of Malta.

What makes this ugly play entertaining is the humor. And there is no question in my mind that Marlowe meant to be funny. For instance, at one point Barabas's daughter Abigail asks the slave Ithamore a question. He answers with the rhetorical question, "Am I Ithamore?" as in, "Is the Pope Catholic?" Abigail replies -- and I imagine the actress pausing a moment first -- "Yes." She is so slow that she answers a rhetorical question. That's funny. Isn't it?

Or take when Barabas first buys his slave Ithamore. When Ithamore learns that Barabas is evil, he worships his master. They get along so well as they commit mayhem that Barabas wishes Ithamore were his son. How else can you play that but for comedy? And the way Barabas manipulates the stupid Christians is just a scream.

And then there is Barabas's death. If you don't want it spoiled, skip to the next paragraph. Barabas dies by accidentally falling into a huge vat of boiling water that he is preparing to cook other people. Please, it's so absurd that you have to play it for comedy.

Is there any good reason to produce this play nowadays? If you want to do an edgy, politically incorrect play with some sick humor, then this is it. It's interesting that a play can still shock after four centuries. You also get a better understanding of the context of later Renaissance drama, as they all wrote in Marlowe's shadow. In Midsummer-Night's Dream, with Pyramus, Shakespeare parodies Barabas's last line, "Die, life: fly, soul; tongue, curse thy fill, and die!" Finally, the part of Barabas is a great part for a comic actor -- and we comic actors are always looking for great parts.

Best of all, Barabas poisons all the nuns in a convent. Come on, admit it: that's entertainment.

After his death Marlowe was accused of atheism. I don't know if that was true or just propaganda, but he made this atheist laugh.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Crow, Served With A Nice Creamy Sauce

In my last post, I quit acting locally. In this post I announce the creation of a local theatre company.

Does this make any sense? Am I confused?

For some time now Steven Sabel, a local director, has been asking me when I will direct. I kept putting him off because it seems like way too much work, and I thought I should concentrate on acting and writing. Then I would think of all the plays I wish I could produce and how I would do them. Maybe Steven knew something about me that I didn't know.

Recently, I thought of how much I would like to play Leontes in The Winter's Tale. As I looked through the script I got a lot of good ideas on staging it. I developed a "vision" of how it should be done. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced I could do it and make a good show of a beautiful play.

Then I thought, "Now all I have to do is find a director, explain to him the concept of the show, what happens in every scene, and give him the cut..." That's when I realized that maybe I am the director.

I still would like to find someone to help direct because I can't see myself on stage. It would be nice to have a director to run the rehearsals so I can focus on acting, especially late in the process.

I went to a local theatre that is supportive of the arts and explained my idea. I got a deal in which I can use the space for free as long as we promote the hell out of the play and they take the box office at least to the point that they cover their "nut." If we sell enough tickets to actually make a profit, then we'll even get some of the money. They help out on the technical side, too. It's a good deal for both parties. They have the space and I have the show to fill it. They don't make any money if their theatre is dark.

The name of the company is Next Renaissance Acting Troop. Or N-RAT, which sounds like something out of a Cordwainer Smith short story. (Science fiction. Never mind.) The word Renaissance looks to the past, and I do want to produce classical plays by such authors as Sophocles, Pierre Corneille, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Carlo Goldoni, Friedrich Schiller, and Victor Hugo. I'm also interested in shows by the early modern playwrights -- Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Schnitzler, Shaw. I considered calling the company Theatre of Lepers because we would only do shows no one else wants to touch. (Polyeucte? What is that, a molecule?) I rejected that idea because I didn't want to put the focus on the negative -- and I can just imagine getting a letter of complaint from some lepers grievance organization.

The word Next looks to the future. I believe drama is not flourishing at the moment, but then, there have been few periods in history when it did flourish. As our culture moves from the black hole of postmodernism to a more rational philosophy, things will change. Someday there will be another Renaissance. I have no delusions that this little company will help bring about cultural change, but looking to a better world keeps my purpose lofty.

I have long desired to have an artistic home where I could produce the plays I write. Being able to gather actors for just a cold reading will help me after a first draft. Nothing like hearing actors struggle with your words to reveal problems.

So now I'm busier than ever and I still have the problem of dealing with actors who are not serious about the art. We'll see if the problem proves itself to be unsolvable.

For now, I want to take on this challenge. I won't live forever. Michael Jackson was younger than I, and he's dead. (But then, I don't use an IV as an alarm clock.) I don't want to enter my old age full of regrets about projects I did not undertake because of fear. Fear is the great destroyer of aspirations. No fear. Let us move into the future with courage.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Art and Purpose

At the end of the month I'll be done with 12th Night, and done with acting, unless I can find a paying gig. I do look forward to writing every day without the enormous time commitment of rehearsal and performance. The time commitment is greater than just the hours spent with the other actors; acting takes over my life at home. I find it hard to write when I have an acting obligation I should be working on to perfect my part.

When I was in college my professors had nothing but contempt for community theatre. When I told one I was working for a local theatre festival in the summer, he said he hoped I didn't come back in the fall a worse actor for working with all those community types. At the time I was leery; his condescension struck me as a bit elitist.

Now I think my professors were right. I've tried to stay away from community theatre and work with companies that at least have the ambition to be professional regional theatres someday. That ambition does make a difference, but even so, those companies have no money and are forced to use actors with a community theatre mentality.

What do I mean by "community theatre mentality"?

It comes down to purpose. Of the three cardinal values defined by Ayn Rand -- reason, self-esteem and purpose -- purpose is the one that has been least explored by Objectivist philosophers (although I think I read that Dr. Tara Smith is writing a book on purpose). Perhaps it has been neglected because Aristotle made such a brilliant start with it.

Purpose is Aristotle's "final causation." It defines what one will do in an action.

In writing, I have come to learn that purpose determines whether or not a writer has a chance of writing something halfway decent. If you set your purpose as writing a comic book or a soap opera, that's what you'll get. If you set out to be a hack, you'll be a hack.

A writer cannot create great art unless he sets that as his purpose. Setting out to write great art does not guarantee one will succeed in meeting that purpose, but setting a lower purpose does guarantee that one will not write great art.

Of course, in our present culture, many writers never consciously define their purpose. They think something like, "I want a career as a screenwriter. I need to write what Hollywood will buy." This purpose pretty much guarantees that one is on the road to hackdom. To see the result, go check out the load of dreck at your neighborhood multiplex.

If a writer does not consciously strive to put art above money, he is doomed to a life as a whore. For many that is fine because they have no conception of any art greater than the whoredom they see in popular culture. To ask them to write something on the level of Friedrich Schiller would be like asking a punk rocker to play a diminished ninth chord.

The tragic cases are the ones who have some conception of what is better, but destroy the best within them in order to put food on the table in a mindless culture that only wants garbage. See Ayn Rand's short story, "The Simplest Thing In the World."

I write this as a defender of capitalism and money. Money is not the root of all evil. Money does not corrupt all it touches, as some Platonist might think. However, there are other values than money. It is the artist's responsibility to be clear in his mind that he does not compromise his art for money. Once you have that understanding, then I say go for the big bucks all you can. There is nothing in the least wrong with getting rich. The best deal is to make money while making great art, as Ayn Rand did. In the 19th century, before naturalism separated thought and plot, it was common for great novels and plays to succeed in the market place.

I should clarify here that there is nothing wrong with writing good popular art without deep ideas. Agatha Christie, P.G Wodehouse, Noël Coward, Harold Lamb and so many others wrote good, entertaining stories that do not rise to the standard of great art. I suspect that they all wrote what pleased them, what they wanted to read. To write a page-turner with suspense and twists is no mean achievement; try it sometime. But even on this level, a writer must be clear about his purpose and avoid any second-hand imitation.

In acting purpose makes all the difference. If an actor sets his purpose as making a career of it, then he strives for professional quality. He must meet the highest standards. Furthermore, he will put in the time needed to act well because acting will be a priority. Among professional actors there are differences. Some are content just mugging in sitcoms, so long the paychecks keep coming in. Others want to be classical actors and undergo more training.

Since I began acting locally four years ago, in every show there have been anywhere from a couple to a handful of actors who don't get their lines memorized until dress rehearsal -- and some never entirely get their lines cold. This is unheard of in professional theatre. Jon Jory in his book says actors should have their lines memorized after they block a scene: never do a scene twice holding a book. Noël Coward thought actors should have their lines memorized before rehearsals begin: don't waste precious rehearsal time fumbling around with lines.

Non-professional actors have day jobs, families and lives outside of theatre; acting is a hobby or a social activity. When you approach it that way, your thinking is different -- it's unprofessional by definition.

Non-professional actors have lower standards. (Many have no conception of standards or how to go about acting. They just get on stage and play make believe like children. Some actors with a little natural talent can get away with this their entire lives.) Non-professional actors are not going to work hard on their lines because they know they don't have to. The director can bitch all he wants, but he won't replace the actors for being late on their lines with someone new -- someone who would have only a week to memorize a part from scratch.

I'm just talking about memorizing lines here. All the other acting work you might read about in Stanislavsky is not a factor here or even for many actors in Hollywood.

I've worked with some fine actors. In every show there are a few who do quality work that could compete professionally if they wanted to. Those people keep the smaller Shakespeare festivals chugging along. My hat is off to those talented people who manage to do it year in and year out without pay. Long may they run.

I can feel myself getting lazy. I know I don't have to work hard. When other matters press, I know acting can be put aside. I feel the rust corroding me at the edges. Rust never sleeps. If I keep acting with non-professionals, then my standards will lower to theirs. It takes a titan of discipline to maintain standards when good enough is good enough. I don't know if I have that discipline.

So it's time for me to move on. From now on I either get paid or I do something else with my time than acting.

When Words Are Weapons

There are, I believe, two factors that explain the Democrat ad hominem strategy against their opponents in the health care debate (not that there's much argumentation of ideas going on). One factor is general, and the other more specific.

The general cause is the decline of reason in modern philosophy, and its effect on the left. The postmodern left does not believe that there is reason, but only subjective narratives determined mainly by ethnicity and sex. Language to the left is not used by reason to persuade, but is a weapon used to gain power. Language is a form of force.

This is why the left hates advertising so much; they think it is the way corporations manipulate the minds of the masses and make them act in ways against their own self-interest (in other words, corporate propaganda turns the innocent into right-wingers). One of Obama's first acts when he took over GM was to cut their advertising budget.

Since words are weapons, the left uses them as such. They tend naturally toward character smears and the "politics of personal destruction." So they're going after their opponents on health care the only way they really know how, by calling them a "mob," "right-wing extremists," "racists," "KKK," and I've probably missed a few choice epithets.

This is why Obama said,

"But I don't want the folks that created the mess -- I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking...I don't mind cleaning up after them, but don't do a lot of talking."

Toleration used to be valued on the left, but those days are over. When words are weapons, then talking is force. You don't want the enemy to "do a lot of talking."

The more specific cause is the Swiftboat advertising campaign against John Kerry in 2004, an event that seems to have traumatized the left. Recently Senator Franken -- no, I can't believe he's a Senator either -- was nasty to Warren Buffet about Buffet's support of the Swiftboaters. The Democrats still remember it well, and it still bothers them.

As the left views words as weapons, it concluded from the Swiftboaters that the mean-spirited right is really good at using words to attack their side. I would say the Swiftboat attack devastated Kerry because it hit home with the truth. I think it was Aquinas who said that the most powerful argument in a debate is the truth. This doesn't even register with the left. There are no absolutes, no reason, no truth.

The left concluded that Kerry's problem was that he let the Swiftboaters sink him without responding. It has become dogma among the Democrats that when the Republicans attack, you attack back hard and fast. Thus Obama aides said they would “punch back twice as hard” against their critics. Now, even though 70% of independents are against the health care bill in the House -- which means a majority of voters -- the Democrats don't care, they're fighting back to avoid John Kerry's failure.

Modern philosophy has corrupted our culture and created this nastiness. The left sees words as weapons, and probably some precincts of the right, who are not altogether immune from the dominant trend in philosophy, also have no confidence in or understanding of reason. When people use words as weapons in the pursuit of power, without regard to the truth, can the use of real weapons be far behind? How long until factions begin shooting at one another?

UPDATE: Corrected a name. Al Franken feuded with T. Boone Pickens, not Warren Buffet, as I first wrote.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul, RIP

We take the electric guitar for granted but somebody had to invent it. That man was Les Paul. Though it might seem obvious to us today, it took ingenuity and creativity to do it right. Les Paul came up with a brilliant innovation:

As ensemble sound levels were growing with amplification, his goal was to improve tone and sustain, while minimizing feedback, so he designed an instrument with a solid body, reducing vibration in the frame and concentrating it in the string.

I own a Les Paul. After more than half a century, the guitar is still the standard of excellence. Jimmy Page got an astonishing range of sounds out of the guitar. For a pure, beautiful Les Paul tone, I would recommend listening to Duane Allman's lyrical lead solos.

Les Paul was a giant. His life is over, but his achievement is eternal.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Joke From My Childhood

There was this monastery where all the monks took a strict vow of silence. They couldn't talk at all, except on Christmas day during dinner at 6pm, when one monk could say one thing.

One Christmas it was Joe's turn to talk. At 6pm, as they were eating dinner, Joe stood, cleared his throat, and said, "I hate the mashed potatoes here."

Then Joe sat down and the monks continued eating in silence.

A year passed in silence. The next Christmas at 6pm it was Sam's turn to talk. Sam stood, cleared his throat, and said, "Well, I like the mashed potatoes!"

A year passed in silence. The next Christmas at 6pm it was Claude's turn to talk. Claude stood, cleared his throat, and said, "I request a transfer to another monastery. I can't stand this constant bickering!"

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty Years Past

Full forty years ago the giants leapt,
And made the moon a place that man can go;
The solemn glory that is science kept
All eyes focused on a black and white glow.

Though I was twelve and must have watched it too,
I can’t remember clearly if I did.
I took it all for granted, nothing new;
“Man on the moon? Of course” -- thus shrugged the kid.

For Asimov and Heinlein had my mind
Already colonized with flying ships,
And flown me to the farthest star to find
The galaxy in hyperspatial trips.

And Bob Kane, Gil Kane, Ditko, Kirby, Lee,
Buscema, Infantino, Gardner Fox,
Roy Thomas, Barry Smith: they gave to me
Imagination far beyond the box.

Now forty years have passed, and some I miss;
I look back at that triumph and I sing,
The man is still the boy except for this:
He nothing takes for granted. Not a thing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I know that I shall never see
A vegetable as poetry.
To see some goddamned tree as art
Is hearing Mozart in a fart.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Shape of Things to Come

I missed the US Postal Service when they knocked on my door yesterday with an important package I've been waiting for impatiently. The postman left a note on my door that I could pick up the package at the post office on Saturday between 9-11am.

So today I went to the post office at 9am today to pick up the package before going to rehearsal at 10am. I waited until 9:30am, but the window that is supposed to be open from 9-11am never opened. I'll have to wait until Monday to get my package.

It says on the sign that the window is open from 9-11am on Saturday, but it takes a human being with initiative and a sense of responsibility to actually open the window and serve the public. This is probably too much to ask of government employees on many Saturdays. They're busy, life is rough, and customers suck, so if they just evade the window long enough, then they can do other things. It's not like they'll be fired for ignoring the public.

My local supermarket is open from 6am-11pm every day except for a few holidays. They always open at exactly 6am. The manager never says to his employees, "Let's open a hour late today. That way we can sit around out back and smoke cigarettes and gossip. Screw the customers!" They open at 6am because they don't want to lose any of their profits.

Government bureaucrats don't pursue profits. They follow regulations. The customer is just a nuisance, one of the many unpleasant obstacles to happiness they must deal with throughout the day. The supermarket manager delights to see more and more customers because it means more and more profits. The postal worker sees more customers as just more work, and he gets paid the same regardless of how many customers he makes happy.

When we socialize medicine in America, going to the doctor will be like a combination of going to the post office and the DMV. We're talking lines, bureaucratic procedures, and little incentive for government workers to give a damn. Imagine: doctors who resent every new patient as just so much more work they are forced by the system to do.

We're destroying our country, and when you ask Obama voters why they voted for him, they don't really know. He made them feel warm and fuzzy. That's good enough, isn't it?

UPDATE: Revision.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Land of Happy Slaves

Community is built around a lie
To shield the meek from looking to the sky.
Religion is a structure of excuse
To have believers tying their own noose.
The modern state’s a king without a throne
To stop free men from standing all alone.
The state’s a wiseguy nudging with his gun,
"You need protection; pay me and it's done."
And politics is nothing but a fog
Of words designed to make each man a cog,
An oiled function in the great machine,
All higher aspirations left unseen.
“Obama!” cry the million mindless slaves,
Their stunted, blighted lives like living graves.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

God Sees the Truth, But Waits

I read a short story by Leo Tolstoy called "God Sees the Truth, But Waits." Ghastly, just ghastly.
I will tell the entire plot. If you want to read it unspoiled, stop reading NOW.
You've been warned.
Ivan Dmitrich Aksyonov decides to travel to Nizhny Fair. His wife begs him not to go because she had a bad dream about this trip. He laughs her off and leaves anyway. Halfway to the Fair he stops overnight at an inn. He is awakened the next morning by the police because there has been a murder at the inn that night and he is a prime suspect. He is not worried as they search his things because he knows he did not not commit the murder. The police find a bloody knife in his bag.
Aksyonov protests that he is innocent, but no one believes him, not even his wife. Aksyonov is condemned to flogging with a knout and life imprisonment in the mines in Siberia.
After 26 years in Siberia Aksyonov's hair is white and his happy spirit is broken. He prays to God a lot and the other prisoners respect him.
A new prisoner, Makar Semyonovich, who comes from Aksyonov's hometown, arrives. After some discussion, Aksyonov suspects that Semyonovich is the real murderer. He finds Semyonovich digging a hole to escape in the night. The next day the authorities ask Akyonov who dug the hole. Aksyonov says he does not know.
That night Semyonovich falls to his knees before Aksyonov and confesses that he committed the murder 26 years ago and hid the knife in Aksyonov's bag. He begs for forgiveness and weeps as only guilty Russians can.
The last three paragraphs I must transcribe completely for them to be believed:
When Aksyonov heard him sobbing he too began to weep.
"God will forgive you!" he said. "Maybe I am a hundred times worse than you." And at these words his heart suddenly grew light and the longing for home left him. He no longer had any desire to leave the prison, but only hoped for his last hour to come.
In spite of what Aksyonov had said, Makar Semyonovich confessed his guilt. But when the order for his release came, Aksyonov was already dead.
Now, that's a Christian short story -- real, medieval Augustinian Christianity, not the watered down American stuff. Justice on earth is meaningless because God knows who is guilty and innocent. We humans should turn the other cheek and leave justice to God in the afterlife.
Tolstoy dramatizes his theme perfectly. It is a powerful story. But what a theme! Tolstoy's is not a philosophy for living on earth, but a philosophy of self-abnegation and renunciation of values and happiness. In every fundamental respect Leo Tolstoy and Ayn Rand are opposites, despite their both being brilliant writers of long novels who were born in Russia.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Great Minds of Western Civilization, Hollywood Series

Proof that one need not have even average intelligence to be a good actor:

"The title of the film is 'Public Enemies,' but I don't see John Dillinger as an enemy of the public," Depp told the Los Angeles Times. He noted that J. Edgar Hoover was the man who sent federal agents after Dillinger, and remarked, "I mean, who's the real criminal?"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lakers Win

After the Lakers blew away the Magic in the first game I wanted to write a post announcing that the series was over. No way the Magic beat the Lakers. I resisted because, as Yogi says, it ain't over till it's over. I also resisted crowing when the Lakers won the second game and went up 2-0. It's hard for a team to come back after losing the first two games.

The fourth game was pivotal. The Lakers went into it with a two games to one edge. If the Magic win that game, the series is tied, 2-2. But the Lakers won in overtime, making it 3-1. The difference between 3-1 and 2-2 is immense. At 2-2, it's a best two out of three series. At 3-1, the team with one win is facing elimination and has to win the next three in a row. But I kept my quiet after game four because of what Yogi says.

Okay, now it's over. Hollywood beat Disneyworld. It took the Lakers five games to beat the Magic. The Magic lived by the three-point shot and died by it.

Dwight Howard, the Magic's center, is the best center in the game, but he has never shown that he deserves to be ranked among the best of all time. Sometimes he disappears in games. He has a million dollar smile -- he really should try acting -- but it's still a question whether he has the toughness and will to be a champion. His Superman dunk in last year's all star game was, as the kids say, sick. At best he might end up basketball's Ted Williams -- a great player whose best moment was in an all star game. (Or in the slam dunk contest on all star game weekend.)

Kobe Bryant proved he has what it takes to be a champion. He will be considered one of the very best that ever played the game when his career is all over. If he stays healthy and productive for another five years, his points total will approach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38,000 and some.

Phil Jackson won his 10th ring as a head coach. Derek Fisher was asked what makes Jackson a great coach. He said something to the effect that he's not a dictator. He leaves you free to be you and make your own choices. Oddly enough, that's exactly what I like in a stage director. I hate the directors who have all my blocking plotted out before the first read-through.

The Lakers got a little lucky this year. Both Yao Ming of Houston and Kevin Garnett of Boston were injured in the playoffs. A healthy Boston is a much harder team to beat than Orlando. It would be great to see the Lakers beat the Celtics for the championship next year.

The Lakers also got a little lucky when they picked up Trevor Ariza. I think they made that trade mostly because they wanted to dump Maurice Evans and Brian Cook. Ariza looked like he would be a guy who comes off the bench in defensive situations. He played so well that he became a starter. He defends well, he can shoot the three as well as drive to the basket and dunk, and he is the most talented thief in the game. I've never seen anyone steal the ball as well as Ariza.

Maybe the Lakers also got a little bit lucky when they picked up Pau Gasol, the most skilled seven-footer in the league, for, like, nothing. But as either Branch Rickey or Winston Churchill once said -- I've seen the quote attributed to both -- luck is the residue of design. Give General Manager Mitch Kupchak his due.

It's amazing where the Lakers are today, considering the disarray they were in just two years ago, with Kobe demanding a trade.

Next year the Lakers are the team to beat. Every place they go on the road will sell out their seating all the way to those nose bleed seats next to the air conditioning ducts. The opposing teams will play at their adrenaline-fueled best against the champs. The 2009-2010 season will be a gauntlet that will leave the Lakers lean and mean for the playoffs.

The dynasty began tonight.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Star Trek

I watched "Star Trek" at the IMAX. It was cleverly written. The actors all look like youthful versions of the original cast, and that's fun. Nice eye candy.

Of course, as with all summer blockbusters, you have to check your brain at the door. (Skydiving from space?) These movies pile improbability on improbability until one stops caring about the people or the plot and just absorbs the special effects and spectacle in a kind of numbness. If my praise sounds faint, it's about as much as I can muster for a Hollywood action-adventure flick.

To think that people used to go to plays by Schiller and Hugo, and now they're happy with sound and fury signifying nothing.

This being Hollywood, the movie had the obligatory "Don't be logical, trust your feelings," line. How original! If they ever made a movie that shows reason as a value, I'd faint. (Actually, I've never fainted. I'd probably say, "Hm. Didn't see that coming.")

I shiver in dread to think how Hollywood will f**k up Atlas Shrugged.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

New York Memories

When I lived in New York City in the '80s, I went to see about a room for rent on the Upper West Side. It was in a beautiful neighborhood just a block from Central Park. As I recall, the room was going for $300. Why was a room in this neighborhood going so cheap, I wondered?

The man who owned the apartment had been drinking when he let me in. He liked me at first sight and wanted me to take the room.

"Before we go any farther," he said,"I need to tell you about my thing."

"Okay. What's your thing?"

"I like to go into Central Park at night and hide in the bushes and give guys blow jobs."

"That's your thing?"


"That's quite a thing."

"Oh, yes! I meet the most interesting people."

"I'm sure."

"I've done priests. I make them hide their cross before I'll do them."


He seemed surprised at the question. "Everything it stands for. I think it's better for them if they put the cross away while I'm doing it. I also did a policeman. He let me ride on the back of his motorcycle."

The fellow shivered in delight at the memory of riding that motorcycle.

"I dunno," I mumbled, "I think I better look elsewhere."

"Why?!" he cried in dismay.

"I just... I'm a little uncomfortable with your thing. Not that there's anything wrong with it, if, you know, that's your thing. I'm conservative."

"So am I!"

"Right. I mean... my mother would disapprove," I said rather lamely.

"Oh, I know! Mine does, too."

I got out of there as fast as I could.

Thus did I end up taking a room in a loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. When I moved to New York in 1984, I took along a book on how to move to New York. Yes, I would buy such a book. It advised against moving to Williamsburg -- too dangerous. By the time I left New York in 1995, Williamsburg had become trendy. You saw lawyers and Wall Street types coming over to the bars.

I liked Williamsburg. There were three main types of people there at that time: Hasidic Jews, Puerto Ricans and young artists. It was a bizarre mix of people that made the place seem exotic and romantic, in a decaying urban sort of way.

I remember quite vividly walking across the Williamsburg Bridge on nice days when the crisp air came down out of Canada and blew away the humid Caribbean air. The buildings of Manhattan shone with clearly defined lines on such a day.

When I would return to California on vacations I was surprised at how big and clean the suburban streets were. I was stunned the first time I saw a supermarket check out counter with an electronic reader beeping as the items were passed over it. The bodegas of Williamsburg had no such science fictional technology. As exciting as New York City was -- nothing like it in my experience -- the quality of life in California was higher. More boring, but easier. I never did get used to the winters back east.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reminiscing On Rock'n'Roll and Sex

I hated Queen in the '70s. I thought they were just a Led Zeppelin wannabe. The idea amuses me now, because the two bands could not be more different. Led Zeppelin is the ultimate heterosexual band. Queen is gay -- campy and gay. ("Fat Bottom Girls" is not how heterosexual men lust. Well, except maybe for Sir Mix-A-Lot.)

Led Zeppelin had no wit, godawful lyrics, and little care for formal tightness. They were the blues on steroids, and they managed to take everything too far. As Eric Clapton said, when he first saw them perform in 1969, "They overstated their point." Their live concert film, The Song Remains the Same, is tedious and unwatchable now, but at the time it was exactly what I wanted. Nobody else compared. I was, and still am, in awe of Jimmy Page's guitar prowess. He got sounds from his guitar that no one else gets to this day. He was also one of the few hard rock guitarists who could play intense jazz chords with distortion and make it sound good. (It's because he sold his soul to the Devil, dude! He lives in Aleister Crowley's house!)

Queen's homosexual sensibility completely eluded me in the '70s. But then, it was not until years later that I realized I was one of the few straight male high school thespians. All those other guys were flaming gays, and I never realized it.

Another thing I never realized was how sexual a lot of lyrics were. I'm stunned now that our parents let us listen to this music and play it in our garage band. For instance, take the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman."

I met a gin soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis,

She tried to take me upstairs for a ride.


I laid a divorcee in New York City

When I was a child it never occurred to me that Jagger was singing about sex.

Or take one of my favorite jamming songs, "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" by Ten Years After.

Good morning little schoolgirl,

Can I come home with you?


Baby, I want to ball you

I want to ball you all night long.

Not only is that blatantly about sex, but it's perverted and sinister. The singer is, I presume, a grown man trying to pick up a schoolgirl. We used to sing this song in our band in high school, and our parents never said a word about it.

Before I went into the Air Force, my mother took me aside and told me not to linger in bus station bathrooms because homosexuals hang out there. I did as she instructed, and went in and out of the bathrooms as quick as possible, without making eye contact for fear that one of these mysterious homosexuals might seduce me with his secret powers. She gets terribly embarrassed when I tell this story now, but I always do tell it at family gatherings because it's just too hilarious.

We're more open about homosexuality now. It's out of the closet. This is probably a good thing: people fear what they don't understand. On the other hand, I suspect that with the rise of religion, parents are not as uncaring about sexual lyrics as they were back then.

I don't know if America is more puritanical now or then.

UPDATE: Slight revision.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Kathleen Parker has stumped me with her latest column. What does this mean?

Tragicomedy, in which gods and men reverse roles, may be an honored dramatic genre, but is this any way to live?

I have no idea what she is saying. Here is the complete paragraph, in case the context helps makes sense of this sentence.

Obama's appearance on Jay Leno's show Thursday night -- joking lamely that his bowling is "like Special Olympics or something" -- is symptomatic of a broader blending of the serious and the comic that makes sane people feel slightly displaced. Infotainment isn't a new topic, but the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. Tragicomedy, in which gods and men reverse roles, may be an honored dramatic genre, but is this any way to live?

Tragicomedy, was first defined by the playwright John Fletcher, whose early plays with Beaumont, such as Philaster, were popular hits that brought tragicomedies in vogue on the London stage.

(Shakespeare's last plays, called romances, follow the tragicomedy fad. This is one of the better reasons that the Earl of Oxford could not have written the plays, as he was dead when all this happened. For us to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays, we would have to accept that he wrote tragicomedies years before anyone else did, and the King's Men did not happen to produce these plays until after 1608, when Beaumont and Fletcher happened to make the genre profitable.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. Tragicomedy. Fletcher's definition:

"A tragicomedy is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants [i.e., lacks] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy; yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy."

I don't what Parker means about men and gods reversing roles. If anyone can explain that, please do. For extra credit, explain what all this has to do with President Obama.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rehearsal Update

I'm doing the Ghost in Hamlet and First Gentleman/Elbow/Friar Peter in Measure For Measure in the 2009 Redlands Shakespeare Festival. Hamlet is a masterpiece of drama that combines a thriller plot with philosophy and poetry. Measure For Measure is a fascinating play of religion and politics that has never been an audience favorite. Me, I would much rather do it than A Midsummer-Night's Dream again.

Last night's rehearsal of Measure For Measure was good. We paraphrased what we were saying in one scene; after that our acting improved greatly. It's funny how something obvious and fundamental like understand what you're saying makes all the difference -- and yet, actors sometimes default on this basic responsibility.

I was in a show by Beaumont and Fletcher once, long ago. B&F were Shakespeare's contemporaries, and for about 100 years they reigned as the most popular playwright in the English Language. Shakespeare regained the throne in the early 18th century and holds it to this day. The B&F body of work, over 50 plays, should be attributed to Fletcher and Friends, as Beaumont was involved in less than 15 of the plays.

Anyway, after a performance of Knight of the Burning Pestle, someone asked the leading man what he was saying in a certain speech. He confessed, "I have no idea what I'm saying."

He was just standing onstage, saying the words. If you know no one in the audience will care and if you don't have much pride of craft, then it's easy to get lazy.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Lakers Update

The Lakers are the best team in the NBA. This is not merely a homer opinion. They just went 6-0 on a six-game road trip in which they lost their star center, Andrew Bynum, in the second game. They finished the trip beating the two best teams in the East, Boston and Cleveland. In Cleveland they ended the Cavaliers' 23-game winning streak at home.

Four years ago the Lakers were Kobe Bryant and the other guys. Beating them was easy: stop Kobe and make "the other guys" beat you. This strategy no longer works. In the Cleveland game on Sunday Kobe had the flu, requiring an IV during halftime; Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and the rest stepped up their game. Their defense kept the great LeBron James on the perimeter most of the game.

A lot of times when teams attempt to "rebuild," they fail. "Rebuilding" is often just a euphemism for lousy. Look at the Clippers; they have been rebuilding for decades. Look at the Dodgers in the 1990's. The Mavericks were perennial basement dwellers until Mark Cuban bought them.

It has been amazing watching the Lakers rebuild after the departure of Shaquille O'Neal and do everything right. Or if they got something wrong at first, such as acquiring Smush Parker, they corrected their mistake fast enough. They drafted Andrew Bynum out of high school and got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to mentor him. It has been a joy watching him develop, and maybe he will join the great Lakers tradition of centers that stretches back to George Mikan. They resigned point guard Derek Fisher, who brings leadership and experience to a young team. They traded Brian Cook and Mo Evans for Trevor Ariza, who has been brilliant; I've never seen a player steal the ball as well as Ariza. They traded Kwame Brown and others for Pau Gasol, a 7-foot power forward who scores and passes and fits perfectly in the triangle offense. (If you just look at the players involved, the trade does not make sense. The Lakers gave Memphis salary cap relief, which is what they wanted most.) You have to give General Manager Mitch Kupchak credit.

In the last week the Lakers traded away Vladimir Radmanovic to the Charlotte Bobcasts for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown. I don't know if those two players will help LA, but like most fans, I'm not mourning the loss of Vlade. The "Space Cadet," as Phil Jackson called him, was a serious problem. He broke his contract last year and went snowboarding and hurt his shoulder, which is a stupid mistake. Then he lied about it, which is inexcusable. The Lakers fined him $500,000, but they should have voided his contract and waved good-bye. Dr. Buss was being kind by just fining the Space Cadet.

Kevin Ding writes,

In his final Lakers practice on Friday, Radmanovic didn’t wear basketball shoes. He wore Vans – the low-top, slip-on kind of sneakers favored by skateboarders and, yes, snowboarders.


Or not seriously … because what undermined Radmanovic, 28, in every attempt to make his mark as a Laker was a lack of seriousness about his profession.

Worst of all, the Serb could not defend Paul Pierce in the finals last year. If nothing else, you can think of the trade as an "adjustment," as the Lakers look to the playoffs in '09.

Now the 41-9 Lakers have many scoring options, a hustling defense and one of the best benches in the league. And they have Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest players of all time, a guy who can make something happen all by himself in crunch time.

Plus they have Phil Jackson's Jedi mind tricks, which seem to freak out the opponents. When Jackson said over the weekend that LeBron James "gets away with murder," he was playing tricks that he learned from Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sure enough, the Lakers held James to 16 points; he did not get away with murder.