Monday, June 30, 2008

Food Network: Swerving Toward Excellence?

Chef Anne Burrell's instructional show, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, premiered yesterday.

I'm hoping it is part of a trend of some sort. When it was founded in 1993, with Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay on board, the Food Network spent several years producing instructional cooking shows. The intended audience was food hobbyists and the aim was to show them how to cook the sort of fancy food you get in a good restaurant. The point of view was what used to be called "gourmet" (a word that is now fast disappearing from the language). Then they were bought by media conglomerate E. W. Scripps in 1997. I have no way of fact-checking this, but it seems that around that time things changed fundamentally. Today the intended audience of the network is women who cook for their families and want to do it better, a much bigger and more lucrative audience than "gourmets." Today FN is a very Rachel Ray kind of place. Bobby, Emeril, and Mario no longer have instructional shows.* Everything is quick 'n' easy, all the ingredients can be found in any supermarket. Bobby has a new show that will begin soon. In it, he travels around the country cooking with ordinary folk in their back yards.

And then, yesterday, Anne somehow slipped under the door. The very title of the show gives away that it's about restaurant food. The FN website reassures us that she will be showing us how to turn restaurant methods into easy home cooking. This is clearly not true, as anyone who saw her making the bolognese sauce yesterday can tell you. The fact that FN publicity is trying to position her show as typical neo-FN fare makes me worry, because it means that their incredibly rigid policy of quick-'n'-easy-everything has not really changed.

So I've got an open letter to Bob Tuschman, Programming Vice President of the Food Network. Here goes.

Dear Bob,

Please, please, please don't cancel Anne's show! I know it's good, and that it treats food as if it were an artform, but is that really so terrible?

Now, I know that a giant corporation needs a lot of customers, and that this means aiming their product mainly at the average person. It's democracy in the market place.

I'm not saying go back to the old programming policy, but would it really hurt to allow one show that teaches fancy cooking skills to survive?

And besides, would you really lose viewers by permitting one or two of these shows? Sure, some of your main audience would avoid it, but you would pick up new viewers, people who now feel that your daytime lineup offers them nothing. People like me.

A year from now, I hope I will still be able to tune in and see Anne, still winking at the camera, shouting, throwing handfuls of salt into the sauce, and flailing her plump but shapely arms.

And, in the meantime, could you please move her out of that 8:30 on Sunday morning time slot?

Yours truly,

* Correction: As I point out in the comments section, Emeril does have a new instructional show on the Food Network, one with a much lower profile that "Emeril Live" had.

News Flash: I just got a message from Sienna Farris, who apparently is a public relations representative of the Fine Living Newtork, with the excellent news that a new "Emeril Live" will soon premiere on the Fine Living Network. She had this to say:
Fine Living has created a show page for Emeril Live which includes
special preview videos (embeddable), original recipes, a blog by Emeril's
culinary crew, and 30 fun facts you never new about Emeril (including where
the famous "BAM!" came from, among other things):

You can catch all new episodes of Emeril Live on Fine Living Network 7
days a week @7pm, starting 7/7.
Here is an article by food writer Juliette Rossant about these developments. Note that she says some of the same things I have said above, but without the anger and the whining. She gives more details here.

I see that FLN is also running Mario Batali's Molto Mario (= "Extreme Mario"). It's interesting to note that like FLN, FN, is owned by Scripps. Maybe Scripps is considering using the smaller (half of FN's audience-size) FLN to appeal to some of the audience that was gradually squeezed out by FN's creeping RachelRayism. So that's another glimmering ray of hope.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Against Cell Phone Prohibition

Whenever there is no absolute necessity, whenever legislation may fail to intervene without society being overthrown, whenever, finally it is a question merely of some hypothetical improvement, the law must abstain, leave things alone, and keep quiet.
-- Benjamin Constant

An interesting issue came up un 2 Blowhards lately. Starting Tuesday, all cell phone use while driving will be prohibited in the state of Washington (except in emergencies). As explained here, there are now five states that have such prohibitions: including, in addition to Washington, California (of course!), Connecticut (no surprise there!), New Jersey (ha!), and New York (need I say more?). [In case one of these states might want to change its official nickname to "The Busybody State," I hereby offer the idea as a gift.]

As Donald Pittenger Blowhard asks, is talking on the cell phone that much more dangerous than talking to a person in the car? Should that be prohibited too? More generally, are we prohibiting this driving practice while permitting others that are equally or more hazardous to others?

The answer to the last question is surely "yes." In 1965 my mother's parked Corvair Monza was totaled by a passing driver who at the time was tuning her radio. Which of course was perfectly legal. Okay, that's one anecdote, but it says here that an NHTSA study indicated that manually dialing a cell phone (presumably much more dangerous than talking on one) is about as hazardous as eating or grooming. (Grooming would presumably include, eg., combing one's hair, brushing one's teeth, and shaving with a battery razor, all of which activities I have observed on the road.) What's most remarkable is that all three of these activities were found to be less hazardous than changing CDs in the car CD player. The NHTSA apparently classifies CD-changing, in degree of distractingness, with reading. (I once had a friend who would read novels while driving long boring stretches of South Dakota freeway, but I suppose they mean things like reading written directions or looking at a map.)

It is very obvious that talking on the cell phone while driving (excluding manually dialing it yourself) is less dangerous than an abundance of other activities that are at least as hazardous to others but are legally permitted. These likely include such things as eating, shaving, brushing one's teeth, reading, and CD changing. Surely, the only reason it is being banned is a combination of three factors: 1) it is easy to see people talking on the phone, and partly for this reason 2) it constantly pisses people off, and 3) pissed-off people vote.

An enormous number of things we do are hazardous in one way or another. Yes, it is legitimate to prohibit activities that are excessively hazardous. But there is no really reliable method for figuring what is excessive and what is not. Consequently, a sort of moral black hole opens ahead of us. Political reactions to risk are often over-reactions, resulting in resentment from people who want to do the risky activities. And resentment leads to retaliation. Alright, then I'll just prohibit your risky activity, Killjoy!

Partial solution: call it the "live and let live rule."* Tolerate marginally risky activities when this is part of a pattern of tolerance from which you benefit.

Such tolerance is a public good. That is why there is so little of it.
With apologies to Richard Epstein.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Great Day for Individual Freedom

The U. S. Constitution is not perfect, but it's a lot better than what we have now.
-- Durk Pearson

Today the Supreme Court, in the historic decision in D. C. et al v. Heller, explicitly held that the Second Amendment grants the right to own a gun to individual human beings.

Of particular interest: The District of Columbia ordinance was struck down because it a) made it virtually impossible to own a gun and b) because it required that the few guns that were allowed have trigger locks or be disassembled. The Court specifically said that this is wrong because it renders the guns useless for purposes of self-defense. In other words, you have a constitutional right to self-defense. The D. C. ordinance disarmed its citizens against violent attack, and was meant to do so. This they may not do.

The Amendment reads (in the copies originally circulated to the states for ratification):

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

For many years those of us who thought that this language does grant an individual right felt as if we were required, in defending our interpretation, to prove that water really does run downhill, and that black is not white. How could anyone seriously think that "You have right R because it serves purpose P" means "You have a right to serve purpose P"? How could they have thought that "This right is important because militias are important" means "This right belongs to you as a member of a militia?"

That, as you probably know, is the interpretation used in anti-gun jurisprudence. I have been reading Scalia's majority decision in this case and the attack he launches against this interpretation seems devastating to me. (Of course, I am on his side on this one, so you can take that with a grain of salt I suppose. )* I don't always agree with Scalia, God knows, but when this guy is good, he's great.

Added later:

Among the arguments Scalia gives that I had not thought of: "Virtually all interpreters of the Second Amendment during the century after its enactment interpreted the amendment as we do" (p. 32). The collective right interpretation took root long after the document was written.

Here's another historical argument. It's one I've never seen presented in quite this way, but it has always made sense to me.

I have always thought that the fact that the amendment mentions the militias is actually evidence for the individual rights interpretation. What after all were the militias? They were not government bureaus, like a modern police force. They were private citizens, banded together for common defense and the maintenance of order. Daniel Boorstin, in The Americans: The Colonial Experience [(New York: Vintage, 1958), pp. 352-72], tells the interesting tale of this -- to us -- curious institution. The most curious thing about it, on Boorstin's telling, was how popular the idea of a militia was to the founders: they even mention it in the constitution. The thing is that militias were never very effective. They were poorly disciplined and difficult to coordinate, and desertion rates were astronomical. A modern police force or the regular army makes much more sense in military or administrative terms.

So why did the founders like them so much? The answer, Boorstin says, can be found, not in the realm practical military considerations, but in that of ethical and political ideals. To the people who founded this country, the idea that security and order should be a gift of the state, that the individual should be the passive recipient of state-provided protection, was a very troubling one. They favored the inefficient and impractical militia system because they wanted private citizens to possess lethal force and be ready to use it against their fellow human beings. They wanted the individual to have real power.

The collective right interpretation of the second amendment assumes that individual gun ownership was a mere means and the militias were the end. In fact, virtually the reverse is true: the militias were a means, and individual possession of lethal force was the end. More exactly, individual gun ownership was an end in relation to the militias. And it was an end because it served the deeper end of the dignity, power, and independence of the individual citizen.

According to the collective right view, the second amendment is a sort of legal ghost town: since the militias no longer exist, there is no possible point to a right to have a gun. I say that, when we see the real point, it is one that is applicable today, just as it was then, though in a different institutional environment.

To put it another way: even if the founders had only meant to guarantee us a right to belong to a militia then, given that the militias no longer exist, the right ought to "evolve" as part of "the living Constitution," into an individual right. That would be far more in the spirit of what the document meant than to allow the disarming of the citizenry.
* I realized several days after writing this that I am probably one of the signers of one of the amicus briefs in this case, the one submitted by Academics for the Second Amendment. I should have mentioned that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin 1937-2008

George Carlin liked to tell audiences, "If God exists, may he strike me with lightning right now! [Pause.]"

When he died yesterday apparently no lightning was involved, only a simple, naturalistically-explicable heart attack.

Here are bits from his last interview.

He was one of my heroes and I will miss him.

GC quotes for today:

"I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it."

"I'm completely in favor of the separation of church and state. My idea is that these two institutions screwed us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death."

"When fascism comes to this country, it won't be wearing jackboots; it'll be wearing sneakers with lights in them."

"The only good thing ever to come out of religion was the music."

"I love people, I hate groups. People are smart, groups are stupid."

I like to think of him as a "standup philosopher." (Hat-tip on that one to Butler Shaffer.)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Multiple Choice

This one should be easy.

The Republican Party is in serious political trouble today because:

1. The Democrats have suddenly become very good at selling socialized medicine to the voters.

2. The Republicans pursued traditional conservative policies -- reducing the size of government, balancing the budget, and protecting the value of the dollar -- and the voters did not like the results of these austere measures.

3. The Republicans kept their promise to avoid unnecessary nation-building, but the voters prefer a more interventionist foreign policy.

4. None of the above.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Last Week's Flooding: Blame It on Global Warming!

This is amazing. It's an article by a Wisconsin Environmentalist, and activist named Keith Reopelle, that appeared in today's Wisconsin State Journal. As you may know, we had horrific flooding here in the Midwest last week. The news has been carrying pictures of detached houses piled up against bridges, and many other horrors. In the article, this guy blames your flooding on [insert sinister music from Jaws here] global warming.

This article is the most perfect tissue of informal fallacies that I have ever seen, in print, in my life.

He asserts, as weighty reasons to accept his conclusions, that the floods have caused hardship and suffering. "We have all witnessed the devastation floods can wreak on Wisconsin 's towns, landscape and economy. One has hardly been able to escape the images of homes sliding into a torrent of water, city streets submerged and Lake Delton drained." This is the argumentum ad misericordiam, or appeal to pity. This is awful -- therefore accept my solution (or you're a hard-hearted bastard!!!).

Then there is the appeal to authority, or argumentum ad verecundiam. "For years, climatologists, researchers and scientists have predicted that ..." "Leading U.S. scientists are now telling us that..."

Alright, I admit that this is only two fallacies, but these are the only things in the piece that could be called argumentation. There is nothing in it that even remotely approaches the status of evidence for his explanation of the flooding.

Worst of all, he never says word one about the most obvious problem for his thesis. As everyone knows, there has been no global warming for a while now, as is pointed out in this contrasting opinion piece in today's State Journal.

I have heard of actio en distans (action at a distance, aka. magic) but this is nuts.

Global warming is indeed a magical thing. Not only does it predict both droughts and flooding (so that it is confirmed almost whatever happens -- goodbye Karl Popper!) but it can cause these awful events without even raising the temperature.

Like I said, amazing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

AIDS: The Pandemic that Never Was

Dr. Kevin De Cock, head of the WHO's AIDS Bureau (or whatever it is called) tossed a fossilized bombshell last week when he announced that "the threat" of a world pandemic of heterosexual AIDS "is over" (such is the wording used in reporting the announcement by the UK's left-of-center The Independent). Unless you are a gay man, a needle-sharing drug user, a sex worker, or live in sub-Saharan Africa, your chances of getting the disease are virtually zip.* What really bothers me about this is that, as pointed out by Brendan O'Neill (hat-tip to Arts and Letters Daily), this was known long ago. Science journalist Michael Fumento published The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS in 1990. O'Neill mentions a friend of his, a doctor, who had written to the same effect two years before. Twenty years ago!

Some people are saying how odd it is that the truth was there in plain sight for so long and we just didn't see it. Nonsense. As the comments on the O'Neill piece indicate, some people did see it, but were subjected to threats and character assassination for saying what they saw. This is not a case of passive ignorance, but of active suppression of the truth.

Why did such a big lie last for so long? I think the main reason was that it was a lie upon which the interests of three main factions of those who rule us converged. Some conservatives had a reason to like it because it encouraged people to see their own sexuality as a destructive force, which was the traditional, orthodox Christian view for two millennia. Environmentalists had reason to like it because it encouraged people to wear condoms, thus reducing the rate at which they produce new people. And ditto for left-liberals, at least the ones who assume that people will not spend enough money fighting AIDS unless they think it is a dire threat to themselves. ... and who assume, in leftie fashion, that it is their job to decide what "enough money" means, the actual owners of the money existing as mere means to their noble ends.

The only "threat" of heterosexual AIDS that ever existed was the reign of fear that was inflicted on us by people in positions like that of Dr. De Cock himself -- that is, by activists, officials in governmental and quasi-governmental bureaus, and other so-called authority figures.

So what was wrong with that, as long as it was for a noble end, you may ask? Well, aside from the fact that it was cynical, arrogant, and cruel, it probably resulted in the misallocation of charitable donations. As mentioned in the Independent article, it meant spending millions to teach London school children who are not at risk that they should use condoms, while people are dying by thousands upon thousands in Africa.

This sort of lying is a power-trip on the part of people who feel invulnerable. They think their actions will only have the consequences that they themselves intend. Of course, they won't.

But isn't that always true? Why not just tell the noblest lie you can, and hope for the best? "Where's the scandal?" as Dr. De Cock asks in a related context.

Here's the scandal, Dr. De Cock, and all you other would-be World-Manipulators: if you tell a lie to manipulate people to your own ends, and your lie causes people to die who would have lived, then you are to blame for their deaths. If you tell the truth and people die anyway, that is a tragedy, but at least you are not morally responsible for it. You are at least not a murderer.

In case this conception of moral responsibility is too abstruse for you, here is a utilitarian argument inspired by John Stuart Mill: If you feed false information into the public debate on an issue, you will in the long run bias the mechanism of debate in the direction of wrong results. Garbage in, garbage out. You may think you know how the mechanism works, so that you can manipulate it like a mere tool, but you can't. The mechanism is a truth-discovery device, and to manipulate it as if you already know the truth is a fundamental mistake. If you really care about justice and humanity, you should take the most scrupulous pains to be truthful.
*Added Later: Since then, Dr. De Cock has backpedalled somewhat on this statement. Fossilized or not, it seems the bombshell must have detonated and someone read him the riot act. ... Finally, let me point out that I got all the way through this post without making any jokes about Dr. De Cock's name. Whew! But my hands are still shaking from the strain. I think I need a drink.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Dad's Day to All!

This is the first Father's Day I've spent without my dad. It is sad, as I knew it would be.

Doesn't the sadness itself have value, in a way? I wouldn't want to live in a world where people "get over" the deaths of loved ones in a hurry, so that nothing can get in the way of their happiness. There is some danger that America itself will become such a world. We put too great a weight on avoiding negative emotions.

I would usually get in touch with Dad on this day. It had one great advantage over his birthday, for me: it is plainly marked in the calendar, every year. I am terrible at remembering dates of any sort and I would often be late for his birthday. I hope he realized that this was just a disability from which I suffered (and suffered, quite literally, more than anyone), that it was really nothing personal. Of course, now I will never know for sure.

Take it from me folks, don't miss out on any of the Dad's Days you have left. Eventually, sad to say, you'll have nothing left of him but memories.
In the above photo, we are about to begin a 29 mile trip to the old Gold Rush mining town of Jenny Lind, a distance of 29 miles. I am on the far left. Yes, that is a lit cigarette in Dad's left hand. Yyyyyep.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Forcing "Liberty" on People: That French Annulment Case

This story is a real clash of cultures. Most commentators are seeing it as a clash between Islamic values and liberal European ones. I see it as an example of a more vicious and intractable sort of clash: the eternal conflict between people who want to cram their values down the throats of others, and the rest of us. It might not be so obvious that this is what is going on because the value being thus crammed is currently mislabeled "liberty."

A man and a woman (henceforth Mr. X and Ms. Y) sought a marriage annulment in a French court. The desire was mutual. They also agreed on the grounds: before the marriage, Y had assured X that she was a virgin, but on the wedding night she admitted that she had lied. (X and Y are both Muslims, he an engineer and she a university student.) The judge granted the annulment on the grounds given: misrepresentation. Thus he was treating the marriage like any other contract: a mutual, conditional, agreement between free individuals.

The decision, as you may know, has enraged a stampeding herd of talking heads. "Ironically," conservatives and feminists are united in their rage at this brave judge. (I'm just kidding about the irony of course. That kind of conservative and that kind of feminist are often working the same side of the street.)

[Disclaimer: I have never had sex with a virgin and intend to avoid doing so for the rest of my life. Why someone would want to have sex with a completely inexperienced partner is literally beyond my comprehension. Obviously, the distance between Mr. X's values and mine is to be measured in light years. In a way, that is my point: how can such different people live together in peace in the same legal system? To see part of the answer, read on!]

What are the talking heads so mad about? The main idea was expressed by the French bureaucrat who said that the court decision "is a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women."

This is a very different view of liberty from mine. Clearly what the bureaucrat is thinking is that Ms. Y's liberty should be preserved, though at the expense of Mr. X. Sure, he doesn't want to be stuck in a relationship he entered under false pretenses. He want's the easy exit of annulment rather than the messy one of divorce. But that's just too bad. Ms. Y needs to be protected against the patriarchal double standard value system that says that a bride must be a virgin while a husband need not be.

I would argue that these conservatives and pseudo-feminists are threatening to coerce both Mr. X and Ms. Y. After all, she wants the annulment too. She does not want the slower, more public, and thus more humiliating process of a divorce. And she has said so, eloquently.

More importantly, if the law does not allow annulment on these grounds, it is not treating Ms. Y as a free and responsible adult. Presumably, these "feminists" would not mind allowing an annulment if Mr. X had misrepresented himself in some way that was important to Y. Oh, but that's different. After all, he's a man, and doesn't have to be protected against oppressive value systems that he foolishly has bought into -- that is the position of Ms. Y. Isn't it obvious how this sort of feminism shows contempt for the promises, commitments, and therefore the choices of the woman in this case? She's a woman, so when she promises something, it doesn't count. This is the sort of feminism that women can really do without. Further, Ms. Y has made it clear she does not want the "help" these people. As she told an interviewer, "I don't know who's trying to think in my place. I didn't ask for anything."

The killer premise that underlies this contempt is the idea that true freedom, at least for women, means being protected against oppressive value systems, especially value systems that they accept. To this end, the institution of marriage has to have certain values -- the right values -- built into it. Values like equality.

That of course is the conservative view of marriage as well, but with different values built in. Marriage is between a man and a woman. ... marriage must be egalitarian and non-oppressive ... and in both cases, whether you want it or not.

I say that in a truly free society, marriage would simply be a contract. This would make it infinitely adaptable to different value systems. If you want gay marriage, you can have it. If you want a marriage based on strange, kinky preferences like virginity and chastity, you can build an institution to suit yourself. The possibilities, of course, are considerably wider than that. When we are strong enough to grant such freedom to each other, we will have it ourselves.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Godfather: Overrated

I just saw the movie again, this time with my son Nat. He had not seen it before and I suppose this is why I saw it rather differently this time. It seemed better crafted but also shallower than ever before. As I suggest in my title, it seems obviously overrated to me.

This is hardly the most original thought I have had so far today. After all, how on earth could it not be overrated? It is consistently at the top of lists of the top ten or top one hundred greatest films of all time. Maybe this shouldn't bother me. After all, I remember a time when every guy's favorite movie was "High Noon" or "Casablanca" (and his wife's favorite was "The Red Shoes"). That was when "Gone with the Wind" was often regarded at the ultimate in Filmkunst. But this was before there was such an academic discipline as film studies. These people were plain folks, not intellectuals. I don't mind it a bit if they watch "Gone with the Wind" until their eyeballs roll down their cheeks like big gelatinous tears.

But The Godfather's inflated reputation does bother me. There are people whose judgment I respect who take it seriously as a work of art, or claim they do. It is now #2 on the loathsome AFI list. This seems really, really silly to me. The Godfather doesn't even belong in the same league as "High Noon" or "Casablanca," let alone that of "Citizen Kane" or "Vertigo" (and would it be a cheap shot to mention "The Rules of the Game,""Tokyo Story," or "M" here?). The reason is that, unlike all these other films, this one lacks a center.

I'll explain this in a minute, but first I might as well make some admissions. Yes, it has one of the greatest casts ever assembled, and all the thespians in it are doing a great job. It also is persistently watchable. No boring parts at all. Really reaches out and grabs you by the short hairs.

Also, Nino Rota's score is of course excellent, considered simply as music. But as a contribution to the film? Here the problems begin. This Italian opera based score has the very regrettable effect of romanticizing these brutally nasty characters. This is one of several ways in which this film, which is about morally compromised characters, is itself guilty of the same sort of opportunism and hypocrisy. (In The Sopranos there are many joking hints that this is the real-life gangster's favorite movie. I bet it is. Nothing in the world is more flattering to them than this film.) Here is a detail that has bothered me for a long time. In the climactic baptism scene, you can hear very clearly, as part of the diegetic church music, Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. There is something wrong with this. And I don't mean that Bach was a Lutheran and there is nothing remotely liturgical or religious about this piece, so that one could not have heard it in a Catholic church at the time at which the scene is set. Okay, I admit those things do bother me a little, but that's not my point. It's that the minor mode tonality of the piece adds a distinctly Dracula-like creepiness to the scene in the church. The problem with this is that it undercuts the whole point of the scene, which is the ironic* contrast between the holy events in the church and the half-dozen gory murders, from here to Las Vegas and back, that we keep cutting to. Why did they choose this piece for this scene? I suppose the answer is that, dude, it just sounds cool. And it does! It's rather obvious, somewhat cheap, and thematically pointless, but undeniably it does sound cool. And, emotionally, it works. Not that it results in thematically meaningful emotion -- it actually fails where that is concerned -- but it does result in more emotion.

That's this movie in a nutshell. All this obvious shlockiness really does work. Never lets go of those short hairs. There is nothing wrong with liking a movie like this. Heck, I happen to love Viennese operetta myself. But I don't claim that Lehar and Kalman are Wagner. And I don't list Zigeunerliebe as the second greatest musical drama of all time. I just let it sweep me me off my feet, that's all. Isn't that enough?

Again, I admit that the film has many images that stick in the memory, which I ordinarily would take as a sign of movie greatness. But what sorts of images are they? Moe Green's eyeglass lens suddenly going white as he is shot in the eye with a 22 pistol. Capt. McClusky's fingers quivering over his throat because he has been shot there by Michael. Paulie Gatto's head resting on the steering wheel as blood drips down his nose. You don't have to be a great artist to make such things memorable. The art is in managing to forget them. (Note that Godfather, Part II, generally a better film, is entirely lacking in such going-for-the-easy-effect shots. As I recall, the murder of Fredo is depicted at long distance. You just hear a single hollow report. Now that's how you do a hit! In a movie, I mean.)

So what did I mean by lacking a center? In 1952, Manny Farber published a classic essay, "The Gimp." In it, he introduced a critical concept that should have caught on but never did. The gimp was a device supposedly used by lady golfers during the Victorian period. In involved a hidden string running from the hemline to the waistband of her skirt. At a crucial moment (to distract her male adversaries?) she would flick the gimp, revealing briefly a some lawn and high-buttoned shoes -- but suggesting so much more! The male would get the impression he had really seen something (an inch of living, human ankle?) but in fact he had been shown nothing.

Movie gimps are details that suggest profundity without delivering it. "He chomps on his cigar that way because he has a father complex," the viewer thinks, giving the artist an undeserved free ride.

The Godfather has the biggest, most effective gimp of them all. Sprinkled throughout it are hints that it is really about the true nature of America. The first line is "I believe in America." Then there is the Statue of Liberty in the background of the "leave the gun, take the cannoli" scene. My favorite by far is of course Kay's line: "Oh, Michael, do you realize how naive you sound? Senators and Presidents don't have people killed." (In 1972, this was a laugh line.) But what is this movie actually saying about America? That the American government is a gangsterish organization? That the heads of American business corporations are no better than Mafia Dons? That the American state is gangsterish? That Americans themselves are a marauding mob of thugs, imposing their protection racket on the rest of the world? That the American cult of success inevitably involves gangsterish methods? Or are they merely saying that the mafia was a part of the process by which poor immigrants became integrated into American society, so that it is part of the story of how America became what it is?

Of course, it's not saying any of these things. It combines the gimpy hint that it is somehow about such things with obvious-effect images, schmaltzy music and other highly effective devices to ravishing effect, creating the illusion that the powerful feelings it arouses are deep, whereas they are merely powerful. Pauline Kael once said that Ingmar Bergman is the favorite director of people who don't like movies -- in other words, of intellectuals. The Godfather is the favorite movie of the opposite sort of person. It brilliantly appeals to the dumbass in all of us.
* I can't resist the obvious point that this is very heavy-handed irony. There are no subtle touches in this movie. If there were, it wouldn't have the particular sort of emotional power that it actually has.