Sunday, December 25, 2011

Socialist Santa?

Is is really possible that this Jim Morin person really doesn't understand the fundamental, ethical difference between giving away your own stuff and giving away things you've taken from others? Good Heavens! In case you don't either, let me give you a clue: one is generous, the other is not. Santa does the one thing and not the other. 'Nuff said?

Anyhoo, Merry Christmas everybody!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Favorite Christmas Albums

I repost this every year. If I find time, I'll add an update at the end.

Christmas, as Gene Shepherd told is, is the high point of the kid year. It is also one of the high points of the music year, and the food year, a time for comfort food and its musical equivalent. Here are my favorite versions of this musical comfort food.

1. Bobby Darin: The Twentyfifth Day of December Bobby is one of my favorite musicians of all. He was haunted by a fear that a heart condition would take him out relatively early in life (a premonition that turned out to be true). As a result, he tried to make every moment count, and strove to make every artistic project of his something special. This one is no exception. The songs in this collection are from two sources. One is Christmas carols that are essentially hymns (eg., "Adeste Fidelis"), and the other is black spirituals having to do with the Nativity story (like "Go Tell it on the Mountain"). Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph are all conspicuously absent. Though there is nothing "churchy" about it, this is a great album for someone for whom Christmas is not merely a holiday, but a holy day.

2. A Canadian Brass Christmas In purely musical terms, this is probably the finest Christmas album I've heard. The C. B.'s "arranger" (in this album he is very much a composer), Howard Cable, is some kind of genius. His styles range from an eighteenth-century set of theme and variations on "Here We Come A-Wassailing" to a 'forties swing-band version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," all done with great spirit and style. This would be a good album to play at an elegant holiday-season dinner party. Your guests will look at you with respect for your excellent taste.

3. Crash Test Dummies: Jingle All the Way This CD is remarkable for two things: First, a very beautiful version of the haunting native American "Huron Carol." Second, the best version of "Jingle Bells" ever made on planet Earth. It's done for humorous effect and is guaranteed to make you laugh. (Just click on this link and see!)

4. Christmas with the Vienna Choir Boys, Placido Domingo, and Hermann Prey These were some of the greatest musical performers living at the time the recording was made (baritone Prey died in 1998), and this album is as good as it should be. The feeling is very German. There is "O Tannenbaum," of course, but also two hymns by Luther. All very effective.

5. The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album The late, great John Fahey taught a generation of steel string, finger-picking acoustic guitarists what amazing things can be done with that instrument. This is fairly late Fahey, so the musical thinking is very advanced. Most of the entries are really variations on a familiar tune, rather than the tune itself, and the variation is some times so remote that it takes a minute or so to figure out which song Fahey is supposed to be playing. However, the effect is profound and powerful. If you want a more "Christmassy" album, try his first Christmas album, which is much more conventional, but still great.

6. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops: A Christmas Festival I put this one on the list because it contains both Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" and his "A Christmas Festival," both of which were originally written for the Pops. "Festival" is a splendiferous synthesis of five or six familiar tunes worked up in the manner of a nineteenth or early twentieth century symphony. The syncopated triplets leading into the coda (which is based on "Jingle Bells") remind be of Sibelius.

7 &8 Oh Come all Ye Faithful: Christmas Carols at Kings College, Cambridge and A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection from the Sixteen Harry Christophers Two beautifully traditional albums of choral versions. The Cambridge one is sung in a room made of stone at the command of Henry VIII. You can't get more traditional than that!

9. A Hannukah Celebration I'm not putting this on the list to be PC. It really is a wonderful album of concert hall arrangements, mainly in the Romantic tradition, of classic melodies. One of my favorites on this disk is Samuel Adler's piece, "To Celebrate a Miracle," which suggests the influence of Adler's teacher, Aaron Copland.

10. Bob Dylan: Christmas in the Heart Recent critics have called the 67-year-old Dylan's voice "gravelly." Nietzsche might call it ├╝bergravelly. I like this one because the arrangements are so unabashedly retro. Its like a 'forties or 'fifties Christmas album. (The cheesecake picture above is from album art for this recording.)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What is "an Act of God"?

These TV news writers have a bit of fun here with the legal phrase, "act of God," invoked by the city government in order to avoid compensating their victim - who happens to be a minister - for the damage their falling street light did to his car.

Of course, the colorful legal phrase has nothing to do with God. "It was an act of God" doesn't mean "Jesus wrecked your car." It's mainly about forseeability.

More importantly, it seems to my amateur judgement that the City of Forth Worth is misusing the concept as well. As I understand it, an act of God is a natural event that has harmful consequences, which event was a) not forseeable and which b) the plaintiff had no duty to guard against. Nothing like that seems to be going on here.

I think the Rev. should see a lawyer.

A Guilty Pleasure?

I repost this every year, for the obvious reasons. Siskel and Ebert used to have a feature they called "Guilty Pleasures" in which they talked about movies that they loved despite the fact that they are frankly not artistic masterpieces. This is one of mine. I am sure Hallmark with be re-airing it multiple times between now and Christmas - it is one of the best things they have done. I recommend setting your DVR! (It is also available on DVD.)

This must be one of my favorite movies. Deborah says I've seen "The Christmas Card" (Hallmark, 2006) more times than Vertigo, which is true. By a factor of five or six. She thinks my love of it may be an early sign of approaching insanity.

There is I suppose an interesting question here. It would be hard to deny that I am an educated person. I have taught film at the university level many times, and published on it as well. Why have I watched my DVD of this Hallmark made-for-TV movie so many times?

Part of the reason is purely personal and idiosyncratic. It was filmed entirely on location in one of my favorite places on Earth, beautiful Nevada City, California. (Imagine a pristine New England village moved to the foothills of the Alps.) It is odd that NC has seldom been used as a film location, and except for this film has never "portrayed" itself.

Also, it is the last film made by Lois Nettleton, one of my favorite actresses.

In my defense (aside from the fact that I am not the only one who loves this little film): Though it is a Hallmark feel-good show, it is probably the best one ever. It is almost certainly the most watched, and Edward Asner was nominated for an Emmy for his role in it.

More important, for me, is the fact that NC is perfectly cast and very effectively used for its role in the film. Sgt. Cody Cullen (John Newton) is the sort of person who would be happiest in a place where he can put down roots, enjoying friends and family, with little need to ever wander far from home. But his father is killed in Vietnam when he is a child, and his mother, emotionally shattered, dies shortly after he graduates from high school. He joins the army, thinking that it will be the family he has lost. But people keep dying around him. When he receives a Christmas card as part of a church cards-for-service-people program from the home town of a dead comrade, killed in a rocket attack in Afghanistan, he reads it compulsively until it nearly falls apart. Before long, he comes back to the states and meets the woman who wrote the card (Alice Evans), struggling with the question of whether to reveal to her that for a while now he has been obsessed with the thought of her and her town, the perfect putting-down-roots place, Nevada City.


Below is the Joany Kane (right) the writer of "The Chrismas Card" when just this year she visited Nevada City for the first time. For some reason, Hallmark has only produced one more script by Kane though, as she told me in an email exchange, she has submitted a number of others. On the left is the current mayor of NC. Over Herronor's shoulder you can see a picture of NC's historic National Hotel, which appears in the movie. (Hat-tip for picture to the Nevada City Union.)

BTW, here is an article about the lumber company where the work-related scenes of the movie were filmed. Folks who scouted possible locations found that most lumber mills in the area consisted of corrugated metal buildings that were not very photogenic. At last they found this "historic" mill that still does things "the old-fashioned way."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Militarization of the Police

[After writing this, I found this video interview. Warning: violent sequence.]

Here is an excellent article by Radley Balko on a very disturbing trend: More and more, police forces across the US are using military-style weapons, tactics, and body armor in raids on the homes and businesses of citizens suspected of breaking the law. To some extent, this trend is powered by the "war" (note the word choice) on drugs, but ...
[P]aramilitary creep has also spread well beyond the drug war. In recent years, SWAT teams have been used to break up neighborhood poker games, including one at an American Legion Hall in Dallas. In 2006, Virginia optometrist Sal Culosi was killed when the Fairfax County Police Department sent a SWAT team to arrest him for gambling on football games. SWAT teams are also now used to arrest people suspected of downloading child pornography. Last year, an Austin, Texas, SWAT team broke down a man's door because he was suspected of stealing koi fish from a botanical garden.
I grew up thinking that the degree of force used by the police is proportional to the threat posed by the suspect. The cops only "come on like Gang Busters" if they are busting an actual gang. But that, Radley explains, was then, and this as now:

The amount of force the government uses to uphold a given law is no longer determined only by the threat to public safety posed by the suspect. Now, it appears to give an indication of how serious the government is about the law being enforced. The DEA sends SWAT teams barreling into the offices of doctors accused of over-prescribing painkillers not because the doctors pose any real threat of violence, but because prescription drug abuse is a hot issue right now. The feds sent SWAT teams into marijuana dispensaries not because medicinal pot merchants are inherently dangerous people, but because officials believe the dispensaries are openly defying federal law. It is, to put it bluntly, a terror tactic. Sending a couple cops with a clipboard to hand out fines and shut down a dispensary doesn't convey a strong message. Sending a bunch of cops dressed like soldiers to point guns at dispensary owners and their customers certainly does.

There's also little evidence that people who consume child pornography pose much of a violent threat to police officers, yet the federal government now routinely sends SWAT teams to apprehend them. The amount of force, again, isn't dictated by the threat posed by the suspect, but by the disgust the government wants to register at the alleged crime.

If he is right about this, this is a very dangerous trend indeed.

If the police are using such tactics in order to intimidate and terrify the suspect, mainly because they hate the alleged offense, then these tactics are in effect part of the suspect's punishment. That is, what we have here is a case of summary punishment by the police, without due process of law. In some societies, the police apprehent people for (possible) punishment by others, in others, your encounter with the cops is actually part of your punishment. Surely, this one of the sharpest differences between a free society and a police state.

It violates or threatens at least two basic principles of a free society:

1. Procedural rights. In a free society, citizens have a right against the state, not merely that they not be punished more than they deserve, but that the question of their desert be decided in the right way. This generally involves a careful weighing of the evidence, a right to defend oneself, and a heavy burden of proof for the acusers. Obviously, if the police have probable cause to look for marijuana in your house, this standard has not been met.

2. The rule of law. This complex idea means a number of different things. It means that the law does not merely constrain the citizens of the state, it constrains the officers of the state as well. It means that when the state inflicts punishment, it is based on legal considerations and not on political ones. If Radley is right, the police are choosing to use these terror tactics on the basis of political considerations like the fact that the populace hates your alleged crime (eg., downloading child pornography) or that your activities threaten the power of politicians to keep their jobs (eg., the OWS demonstrators).

This would be a very big step in a very bad direction.