Monday, January 14, 2008

Who gets to write the first draft of history?

How the "first draft of history" gets written has changed a lot in my adult lifetime.

It used to be said when I was a lad that journalism was the "first draft of history," and that conceit helped draw me into writing for The Daily Texan in college. There I learned, in fact, that the press release was the first draft of history, but even that has changed. After a while the "first draft" began to show up on blogs, and today, more often than not, it comes in a blog comment.

I'm not sure whether I think that's good or bad, but I think it's true.

It's also been said that winners write the history, but to a large extent, that has changed, too. If there's one thing you can say for the blogosphere, it's that it's definitely given losers a voice!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Note to Wall Street Journal: It's not "historic" when you predict wrong

Here's an example, to me, of the utter failure of the modern media: They've become so reliant on polling and so confident in their own predictions, they now believe it "historic" when THEY are wrong! What hubris! From Justin Wolfers at the Wall Street Journal:

Judging by the pre-vote polls and prediction markets, the Democratic primary in New Hampshire created one of the most surprising upsets in U.S. political history.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was favored in the final pre-election poll of all 12 pollsters who surveyed voters since his surprise victory in Iowa, and was the unanimous favorite among television pundits. The only real question to be resolved appeared to be the size of Mr. Obama's majority.

His loss to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was equally embarrassing for prediction markets, such as the WSJ Political Market. Election-eve trading had suggested that Sen. Obama had a 92% chance to win in New Hampshire, while Sen. Clinton rated only a 7% chance.

Against this background, it is no exaggeration to term the result truly historic. Not that there haven't been more dramatic upsets or come-from-behind wins that carried more significance -- this was just an early primary, albeit a pivotal one. But in terms of unpredictability, or at least the failure of everyone to predict it, it may have no modern match.

The fact that he and his egghead buddies were wrong in their predictions doesn't make this primary result any more "historic" than it would otherwise have been. (It is, after all, the presidential campaign, so in some sense calling it "historic" is definitionally redundant.)

Managing expectations has officially become more important than reality. We've reached a stage when many in the media believe their own pre-election assumptions are actually more important, apparently, than the actual voters themselves. Otherwise, when the voters disagree with the media's and the pollsters' predictions, why is it such a big deal?

That's definitely a bias in media coverage, but it's not a bias toward left or right, it's an expression of narcissism and group think. Results, not expectations, are what matter, but you wouldn't know it from reading most political coverage.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Random Assortment of Movie Reviews

Lately Kathy and I have been on a movie-going spree, seeing five movies since Christmas Day. They were:

Charlie Wilson's War
The acting and script were so good in this movie it was almost possible to forget the frequently glaring historical inaccuracies. Among my beefs, when you say the covert ops received matching funds from the Saudis, how hard would it have been to have added, "from the Bin Laden family"! Another: Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson was a buffoon and a tool, not the compassionate, forward thinking Congressman portrayed in the movie by Tom Hanks.

The movie (as well as, I understand, the eponymous book) downplayed the fairly predictable consequences of climbing into bed with fundamentalist jihadists (a decision which arguably led directly to the creation of Al Qaeda and ultimately 9/11), and it gave Wilson way too much credit. After all, the Reagan administration itself was simultaneously selling arms to fundamentalists in neighboring Iran - do we really think arms sales to Afghanistan weren't part of a broader Reagan administration policy against the Soviets? Was it really this one Democratic Congressman who wanted those weapons? That's certainly not how I remember it.

No Country for Old Men
An iconic drug war tale set in an imaginary Terrell county in southwest Texas, No Country for Old Men also was a tremendously well-acted movie, plus its fictional subject it didn't suffer from comparisons with history that plague Charlie Wilson's War. On the other hand, the movie was also tremendously violent, perhaps unnecessarily so, coupling the already grotesque routine violence associated with the drug war with the actions of a true psychopath whose murders weren't always business related.

The movie opens portraying the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad out in the middle of the desert, both buyers and suppliers gunned down, when a hunter stumbles upon the scene and leaves with the money, launching a blood-drenched chase by a hit man hired by the drug purveyors to get the money back.

Two overarching message from the movie: First, the border region has always been a violent, semi-lawless place, where rational minds struggle to impose reason on the occasionally inhuman actions of its worst inhabitants. In a brilliant scene near the end, a beleaguered and overwhelmed Tommy Lee Jones learns from a relative how his great uncle, a Sheriff, like Jones' character, died in the line of service in 1909, gunned down in a hail of bullets at his home by seven armed riders. The message: Never think what you're seeing is new, it's how humans have always behaved. And it overwhelmed your predecessors, too.

The other theme that arose was how far away law enforcement was from comprehending the scope of the problem from any given incident. Jones' character spent most of his time in a diner reading the newspaper, as though he might find a clue to the murder there! He never really got close to understanding the characters and organized crime infrastructure that confronted him, perhaps typified in his conversation with the El Paso County Sheriff, who blamed the rise in murders as stemming from a degenerate culture that tolerated disrespectful teenagers with purple hair. Jones' character nodded sagely, but of course, none of the killing in the movie - neither the capitalist driven drug cartels nor the psychopathic hit man with a strict if twisted moral code - had a darn thing to do with the high Terrell County body count. As if to drive home the point, Jones at one point found himself knocking at a door where the killer was hiding on the other side, but by the time he entered his foe had vanished. Their paths never crossed, everyone went on about their business, and life goes on, for some of the characters, anyway.

Though it was quite a different movie, the ending reminded me of the denouement of Traffic, with its nonconclusory and anticlamictic result. Nothing will change, the film seems to tell us, this is just how things are, how they always have been.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
This movie had me laughing out loud throughout, which is about the best thing I can say about a comedy. From the opening scene when it's made clear the director would stoop to any level for a laugh ("Where's Cox?," a young man with a clipboard yells while muscling through a crowd, "I need Cox!"), the movie was a joyous musical and historical romp. John C. Reilly created a bigger than life character whose goofy ego and legitimate musical skills (he's got a great tenor voice) rose above the anything goes humor to create a flawed but memorable and lovable persona.

The movie is 100% satire, so to my mind that lets them off the hook for most pedantic complaints, but Kathy perhaps rightly thought that, at times, the movie was too directly satirical of Walk the Line, the recent Johnny Cash biopic, paralleling Cash's story, if indirectly at most of the major plot points. To me, Johnny Cash is bigger than any movie, either this one or his biopic, and not satirization can harm his legacy. But it's certainly true that just drawing story lines from one or two other iconic rock and roll figures into the mix might have made a couple of the jabs seem less mean-spiritedly directed at the Man in Black. That said, the movie overall was smart and funny, well worth the cost of admission and probably better viewed on the big screen.

The Golden Compass
I've not read the books this movie was based on, which I've been told contain an anti-Christian bent. But I couldn't detect such theological undertones from this movie any more than I could see any pro-Christian overtones in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Hollywood apparently must pound those theological elements out of our cultural products before they're deemed safe for viewing by the public.

In any event, the movie itself was visually stunning, the script smartly written, and the plot compelling. The story takes place in a universe parallel to ours, but astonishingly different, where people's souls (their "daemons") take animal form, follow them around, and communicate. A variety of other differences take a great deal of the movie to flesh out so that the plot becomes understandable, but by about 1/3 of the way through they'd sufficiently established their fantasy lexicon to die into a fairly complex plot line.

The acting in this movie wasn't as good as in the others reviewed so far, but let me tell you: Nicole Kidman can play the hell out of the part of an ice princess! And the talking armored "Ice Bears" were terrific animated characters, perhaps the most impressive part of a truly visually stunning movie.

One complaint: The movie's close left many plot threads hanging, nearly insisting that moviegoers return for an inevitable sequel. I understand the financial reasons for doing that, but artistically it just left the movie with a quite abrupt ending, leaving feeling of incompletion in its wake. OTOH, it left you entwined enough with the plot to anticipate the sequel, which I guess was the goal.

National Treasure II
I actually saw this movie way back on Christmas Day with my brother's family, including my niece and nephew, and for a pure comic romp it has a little something for everyone. Like a bizarre, Americanized Da Vinci Code, National Treasure has envisioned a spectacular alternative vision of US history dominated by secret societies and cabals that still secretly haunt the modern political landscape. Nicholas Cage plays a cartoon-character version of Indiana Jones with admirable enthusiasm, and the ensemble cast around him came together with more cohesion, I thought, than in the first rendition. The movie was a fun diversion, and left a pretty wide age range in our party (9-60+) more or less equally satisfied.

That's the most frequent batch of big-screen movie going in which Kathy and I have indulged in quite some time. With the writers strike spurring TV's nightly, hellish descent into reality and game show pablum, there are probably a few more big-screen titles out there I could still go see.

What movies have you seen lately that you'd recommend?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Way of the Fallen is Hard

These lyrics, for whatever reason, have been rattling in my head all day:
Down in Corpus Christi
Always around midnight
You'll find the devil limping along 'cause his shoes are too tight.

His hair's up in pig tails
His whiskers are in braids
He's talking 'bout the promises he said God forgot He made.

The way of the fallen is hard.

-Ray Wylie Hubbard, Brewed in Texas, Vol 2
Truer words were never spoken. Like God, in whose image we're created (or vice versa), we despise no one more than those with whom we're disillusioned, those whom we once put on a pedestal who for whatever reason fall off and no longer seem worthy of the imaginary shrine built to them in our mind's eye. Whether it's a friend who betrayed us or prideful Lucifer, God's Shining Star ... when we're profoundly disappointed, it's easy, isn't it, to succumb to our pain, to demonize our betrayer (and who's more demonized than Lucifer?). But the object of our scorn has a story to tell too, even if he's doomed to tell it sitting by the railroad tracks in Corpus Christi wearing tight shoes.

The way of the fallen is hard.