Saturday, October 31, 2009

Weird beyond belief: It's Halloween night and electronic ghosts are playing baseball on my teevee

Halloween Night and Electronic Ghosts Are Playing Baseball on My TV
They say it's the World Series, and that the Yankees and the Phillies are playing in Philadelphia, but I find that hard to believe. This isn't the World Series that I grew up with. The Boys of Summer used to play their encore in the golden light of early October afternoons. Then they added games to the schedule, lights, playoff games, one thing and another, and then this year they start the Series even later than usual, so it runs into November. That's how they found themselves playing Game 3 on Halloween Night and after a rain delay the game ran past midnight EST, into the early morning rain of November 1. Weird.

When A-Rod hits his home run by bouncing his long line drive off a TV camera, it seems the perfect symbol of how our former national pastime has been transformed into a pure television spectacle, torn from its roots in the real world. After all, without the TV cameras, they wouldn't even be here, playing baseball in the cold rain of a Philadelphia night this time of year.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

There was a new greeter in the corner drugstore and he really was sort of strange


Sure, it was nice to be offered an h'ors d'oeuvre on the way in, but the more he talked, the creepier he seemed. Something just didn't seem right. There was something ghoulish about him and the food he was offering. I passed.

A general speaks out on the Afghanistan war

Here's what the highly decorated general told his commander in chief.
“There is no piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers at some time or another,” he said. “Nevertheless much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize.

“Our soldiers are not to blame. They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.”
No, this wasn't Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, although like McChrystal, he requested more troops. This report was given nearly 23 years ago.

It was the seventh year of the Soviet Union's disastrous adventure in Afghanistan, the general's name was Sergei Akhromeyev, the commander of the Soviet armed forces, and he was reporting to the Soviet Union’s Politburo on Nov. 13, 1986.

This is from today's NYT Op-Ed by Victor Sebestyen, author of “Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire.” He explains that the minutes of the meeting with the Politburo were recently found by American and Russian scholars of the cold war, and that these and other materials substantially expand our knowledge of the Soviet Union’s disastrous campaign.

The new information documents in greater detail the reluctance of politicians to face facts and their desire to keep looking for face-saving ways to avoid defeat while more people die. The Brezhnev Politburo stumbled into the war and just dug themselves in more deeply. Michael Gorbachev took office in 1985, saying that ending the conflict was his highest priority. But it was nearly four years before the last Russians left Afghanistan, after nine years of fighting. By then it was way too late, and their leaving was perceived as a humiliating defeat that helped contribute to the loss of the rest of the Soviet empire, and eventually, the fall of the Soviet Union itself.

Unless the U.S. changes direction, we'll soon have been in Afghanistan longer than the Russians, with no certainty of success. Unless something changes soon, we'll just be tragically reinventing a wheel that was broken to begin with.

Ectoplasmic spirit smiles, dreaming of Freakfest

Ectoplasmic Spirit Smiles While Dreaming of Freakfest
The big Halloween blowout on State Street this Saturday night. (Graffiti in the the alley behind Riley's Wines of the World, off Broom near State Street.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brian Williams gets down with an F-15 Eagle at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan

Brian Williams Gets Down with an F-15 Eagle at Bagram Airfield
NBC News anchor Brian Williams did the evening news tonight from Afghanistan -- actually from an airplane hangar at Bagram Airfield. That's one heck of an airplane behind him, the F-15 Eagle. At first glance, I wondered whether this was a product placement spot. Does GE make the plane's powerful twin jet engines that are so strikingly featured in the background? Actually, no. They're one of the few things not made by GE. They're Pratt and Whitneys.

Suicide bombers have had quite a run in Afghanistan and Pakistan the last few days. To his credit, Willims did ask the base commander how you go after an urban suicide bomber with a weapon like the F-15. The commander replied that you don't. That we have special forces and intelligence agencies for that. What a mess.

The echoes of Vietnam are getting louder. As if things weren't bad enough this week, the New York Times reports that the CIA has been shoveling money at Afghan President Hamid Karzai's drug lord brother for eight years. Woo-hoo! Can anyone spell Iron Triangle? It's time for today's "best and the brightest," including President Obama, to show they can get it together and avoid another tragic quagmire.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cinderella story at the UW Cinematheque starred a favorite drinking buddy of Stalin's


Last Saturday night we saw the Soviet Cinderella story that wrapped up the UW Cinematheque's series, Red Hollywood: The Musicals of Grigori Alexandrov and Lubov Orlova. The film was originally going to be titled Cinderella, but Stalin thought Cinderella had to do with the past, and this Stakhanovite musical epic was about the future. He was close to the director Alexandrov and his wife and leading lady, Orlova, who was said to be a favorite drinking companion. Supposedly Stalin gave the couple a list of titles he liked, and they chose the final title, The Shining Path, from the list.

Orlova, who spent her later years on the Moscow stage, remained popular in Russia long after she died in 1975, and it was easy to see why. She was a dazzling, charming star of popular escapist entertainment that also served a propaganda purpose -- basically Soviet versions of the Hollywood musical entertainment of the Thirties, which heavily influenced their Soviet counterparts.

Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune saw Shining Path in Chicago last winter. He described Orlova as a mix of several famous Western actresses.
What sort of performer was Orlova? Like many of her vehicles, her screen persona drew inspiration from the zip and sass of the female characters in early 1930s Warner Bros. vehicles. The singer-actress' second husband, director and screenwriter Grigori Aleksandrov, was sent to Hollywood by Uncle Joe during the Depression. There he soaked up many of the photographic and choreographic techniques favored by such entertainments as "Footlight Parade" or "42nd Street." Leading lady Orlova developed a popular image that was a little bit Ginger Rogers, a little bit Joan Blondell, though in her affinity for broad comedy and pathos she points the way to Fellini's leading lady Giuletta Masina a generation later.

"The Shining Path" (1940), originally titled "Cinderella" until Stalin suggested a change, works in any number of ways. Once you've seen the fervent-eyed Orlova marching against a rear-projection screen, surrounded by textile factory equipment going at full force, as she sings "Labor is our honor/Our honor and our glory," you understand why the actress was Stalin's preferred drinking buddy as well as a beloved screen icon to millions.

The setting is an idyllic Russian village, where Orlova's illiterate maidservant wins the heart of the local textile factory engineer, transforms herself into an ace weaver and mass-production demon at the factory and finally travels to Moscow to receive the Order of Lenin.
More than three decades after her death, people are still putting up Orlova fan sites on the internet. You might want to check out the Lubov Orlova Virtual Museum, where I found the wonderful picture on the right.The "Virtual Museum" is an inadvertent camp classic put up by a devoted Russian fan, Helena. There's an English Version, but there's also a Russian Version with even more pictures, even if you don't read Russian. Here's Helena in English:
Lyubov Orlova was probably the most glamorous and popular actress of Soviet cinema. In possession of bright eyes and shining teeth, high cheekbones and immaculate skin, she was good looking and emanated exuberant health. She was a proficient singer and dancer, her smile was irresistible and her charisma unsurpassed. Her name, Lyubov, meant "Love," and she remained an object of great admiration throughout her lifetime and beyond.
There's more information about her career in Eastern European film scholar Dina Iordanova's Lyubov Orlova: Stalinism's Shining Star.
Lyubov Orlova was probably the most glamorous and popular actress of Soviet cinema. In possession of bright eyes and shining teeth, high cheekbones and immaculate skin, she was good looking and emanated exuberant health. She was a proficient dancer and singer, her smile was irresistible and her charisma unsurpassed. Her name, Lyubov, meant 'Love,' and she remained an object of great admiration throughout her lifetime and beyond.

Lyubov Orlova was born on 29 January 1902 in Zvenigorod, Russia. Descendant from an old Russian aristocratic family (and thus of a background that had little to do with the proletarian heroines she later played), she boasted a pre-revolutionary childhood photograph alongside count Leo Tolstoy at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, and at the age of ten she had had the chance to perform in front of famous Russian opera singer Fyodor Chalyapin. After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory in the mid 1920s, she began an active stage career. Until the end of her life she acted on and off in musicals on the stage of Moscow's Nemirovich-Danchenko operetta theatre. Orlova died shortly before her 73rd birthday, on 26 January 1975.

Even though she appeared in several other films, Orlova is almost exclusively remembered for her roles in the famous Soviet musicals directed at the height of Stalinism by her husband, Grigoriy Aleksandrov (1903-1984). In these films, a singing and dancing Orlova typically represents a girl of humble origins who attains high ranking in Soviet society through the right combination of talent, hard work, assertiveness, politically correct ideas, and an unshakable faith in a bright future. The plots traditionally made use of classical Cinderella and 'ugly duckling' storylines that gave Orlova the opportunity to shine at the end, not unlike Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933).
The movie we saw Saturday night was alternately funny, charming, sometimes touching and often completely over-the-top. Orlova's musical production number in the textile factory that Phillips mentions is truly amazing, regardless of its ideological component. It belong in any history of the musical as a popular art form. I only wish we had seen the other films in the series.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Talking about sunny money on a rainy day


It was raining again this morning, I was taking pictures, and these people were talking about sunny money. Governor Jim Doyle announced Wisconsin is receiving $4.3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to support solar energy technologies, accelerate the adoption of solar energy and develop a solar workforce -- with Milwaukee receiving $650,000, Madison getting $375,000, and $3.3 million going the Midwest renewable Energy Association.

The news conference featured Gov. Doyle, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and Tehri Parker, executive director of MREA, and was held in the Alicia Ashman Branch Library, Madison's solar library. It has solar panels on the roof, a solar awning, and is a site for the city's MadiSUN Solar Energy Program.

The public officials completed their statements and prepared to take questions from the media. That's when I saw something that doesn't happen very often -- a news conference at which the media's attention is completely hijacked by a breaking news story not on the program. There were no questions about solar energy or even the federal grant. Instead, reporters only asked Gov. Doyle and Mayor Barrett to comment on one thing -- the surprise announcement this morning by Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton that she would not be running for governor. Both men answered artfully without saying much. And when Barrett was asked whether he had talked with the Obama administration about running, he said he had talked to a lot of people, including some people in Washington, and will make up his mind soon. Then they were all off to Milwaukee for a second iteration of the news conference.

After the politicians left, so did the print and electronic journalists, taking their cameras and lights with them -- and it was still raining. Suddenly the library seemed almost empty. I took some pictures of the interior, a beautiful space I had never been in before. That's when I found out that there was a cherry picker in the parking lot out back. It was there to lift dignitaries up above the roof for a view of the solar panels, but given the rain, few took advantage of it. With my umbrella to ward off the drizzle, I was able to hitch a ride before the operator drove off and take this photo of the solar panels on the roof. I was so excited about my unconventional camera platform, I completely forgot I'm supposed to be nervous about heights.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

If there's something you don't want the peasants to get riled up about, just dismiss it as old news

Doesn't everyone know about dead peasant insurance? Isn't it old news?

One of the most effective strategies of ruling elites is to downplay the importance of anything that might ruffle the feathers of the peasantry and lead to -- perish the thought -- "class warfare," otherwise known as liberal legislation. Anything outside a tightly defined consensus of acceptable discourse is portrayed as old news that everyone who's anyone already knows, making it a crude social faux pas to even mention it. This sort of condescending dismissal is often directed at Michael Moore and his films by mainstream media.

That was the case with Moore's reference to dead peasant insurance in "Capitalism: A Love Story." Moore used it as a symbol of corporate callousness. Although he didn't go into detail, it turns out to be a (perfectly legal if morally dubious) corporate tax avoidance scheme that dates back to the Reagan years, a mechanism for almost magically transforming taxable income into tax-sheltered investment vehicles and tax-free life insurance death benefits.

I'm a news junkie and even worked for an insurance company for nearly 10 years, but like many people I had never heard of dead peasant insurance until Moore's film came out. But according to the New York Times, I must not really follow the news.
Like many of the stories Mr. Moore pulls together in this movie, dead peasant insurance might not be a revelation to those who follow the news, but it makes for infuriating viewing.
Really? Those who follow the news already know about it? Then the Times must have reported on it, right?

Wrong. I searched the NYT archives, and the paper never used the expression "dead peasant insurance" -- or the synonymous, "dead janitor insurance" -- before Moore's film came out. So it's hard to imagine that "those who follow the news" knew about it. I suspect that even film critic Manohla Dargis never heard of it until she saw the movie or read the press kit.

That's the beauty of the "old news" dismissal. It doesn't really have to be old news for it to work. In fact, it works best when it's not old news at all, and you just hope that those pesky peasants will slink away after they're cowed into admitting they've made another boorish faux pas by even bringing it up.

Saturday may have been the last day to do serious sun worshipping for a long time

Saturday May have Been the Last Day to Do This for a Long Time
Saturday was a near-perfect Indian Summer Day in Madison (OK, it might have been a bit warmer, but it wasn't bad). You take what you can get. Given the weather we've had in recent weeks and the weather they say we're going to have, it looks as if our Indian Summer window narrowed down to a single day this year. Madison was filled with sun worshippers transfixed by the sun, getting their fix while they could. It's a long time until spring.

Taping a Travel Channel Segment at Lake Wingra about boom running and logrolling

Taping a Travel Channel Segment at Lake Wingra Saturday Afternoon
I walked down to down to Lake Wingra Saturday afternoon to see if anything was happening. Something usually is, and yesterday was no exception. The Travel Channel was taping a bunch of Madison polar bears for a segment on boom running and log rolling. The weather certainly cooperated. Here the crew is focusing on host Bert Kreischer, left, with Madison logroller and boom runner Olivia Judd (demonstrating boom running below). Spread out behind them were Lake Wingra and the UW Arboretum in all their autumn glory.

Gayle Worland reported on the taping in the Wisconsin State Journal.
"I can't feel my feet right now," said Olivia Judd, one of about 10 seasoned Wisconsin logrollers, all under age 24, who braved the frigid temperatures of Lake Wingra to demonstrate just how a roller can wade into icy, shin-deep water, climb on to a 400-pound floating log and quickly set it spinning in a fleet-footed jig.

Taping it all were three cameras, one encased in clear plastic and operated by a cameraman in chest-high fishing waders, as producers and comedian/show host Bert Kreischer stood close by. Kreischer also tried his hand - er, feet - at logrolling for the first time, with some slapstick results.
I just stood there, tried to keep out of the way and took a few pictures of the watery mayhem.

They Were Doing a Story on Boom Running and LogrollingBoom running, as the name suggests, consists of running down a long line of slippery logs and trying to avoid falling into the water. Bathed in the golden light of a Madison autumn, flanked on both sides by the chilly waters of Lake Wingra (our smallest lake, it also cools off the fastest and is the first to freeze -- a month from now they could be ice boating here), Olivia tries to avoid taking a bath herself. She gets off to a flying start.

This Boom Running Olivia didn't get very far before things started to get interesting. She's already starting to lose her balance here. As a seasoned competitor, she doesn't throw her arms out in some ungainly fashion to try to regain her balance. No, she doesn't waste time or energy trying to avoid the inevitable. Instead, in the split-second she has before she hits the water, her hands are already reaching for her sweatshirt...

Demonstrated by Olivia Judd of MadisonSo as to raise the shirt before she hits the water and keep her clothes from getting any more soaked than they have to be. What poise. What grace under pressure. This was Olivia's first run, and the next time out she negotiated the entire line of logs without going into the water. She wasn't the only person to get soaked for the Travel Channel, only the one my camera happened to catch.

There's no scheduled airdate yet, but the Madison segment is expected to air next year. More details should become available this winter, according to Travel Channel executive producer Charlie Parsons, who used to cover Big Ten football games here for ESPN.
"On the Travel Channel we like to showcase the unique personalities of locations, both national and international," he said. "Madison is a very outdoorsy town, and it's got a nice energy to it. We had researchers poking around" to find quirky things to highlight in the city. Thus, logrollers.
Lake Wingra on a sunny autumn day. There's no place like it.