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Interesting article over on The Guardian counterintuitively argues that the reason why the main parties over in the UK are struggling is because both of their leaders aren’t really able to fight against the negative perceptions of their party. It’s well argued. It may explain why Jeb Bush is struggling as a candidate in 2016: while he does have a genuinely multicultural family and outlook, post-Romney, post-no House action on immigration reform, post-near government shutdown on Obama’s executive order on same, the idea that all the Republican Party needs is a friendly pro-immigration president seems remarkably dated. Meanwhile, the Bush candidacy seems to mainly be an exercise in big business influence, which is hardly going to counter perceptions of the Republican Party.

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The announcement of the framework for a nuclear deal with Iran is obviously a cause for celebration for those hoping for peace and cooperation rather than endless conflict. But part of it makes me sad. There are moments–mainly the Iran framework and the work with Cuba–that offer flashes of the foreign policy president Obama could have been. Boldly ignoring the Right and mainstream pundits, rejecting the militarized consensus of today’s foreign policy and the bankrupt assumptions of yesterday’s to push for peace. It is clear that Obama can behave this way, and it’s enormously satisfying when he does, but it’s far less often than than one would have hoped going in and it throws the nonsense into sharp relief. Daniel Larison found perhaps the definitive example of the “I don’t know, just do shit, maybe it will pan out, at least we’re not getting tagged by the hawks about it, underpants gnomes” philosophy that is sadly much more typical of how they often work. The Yemen operation is clearly the work of a global chessmaster novice. And unfortunately, it’s much more typical of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy on a regular basis than the Iran deal.

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The RedLetterMedia guys are right: Boyhood just isn’t very good. I watched it on a plane the other day with modest expectations and found it to be basically no different from the Hallmark movies my mother watched back during my (ahem) boyhood, albeit with the odd bit of drug use or postcoital shot dropped in. Actually, that’s deeply offensive to Hallmark movies, and I apologize. Those movies actually had plots, strong protagonists, and some kind of takeaway (oversimplified, perhaps, but certainly there). That this film wormed its way into the hearts of cynical critics and intelligentsia types might well signal that we’re at a turning of the loop, past the ironic/jaded era where naked sentimentalism is mocked and downplayed and sidelined, to where it rules the roost. The time periods that come immediately to mind where this happened were the hypercynical postwar era giving way to the Eisenhower age, and the similar movement that occurred from the post-Watergate 1970s into the whole Morning in America thing. Perhaps we’ll look back on it as a sign, though I rather hope it isn’t. I’d rather not that history repeat itself.

Just what are the problems here? Well, the look of the film for one, which is shot like a TV movie, quite possibly one that would appear, with minimal changes, on the Hallmark channel (is there a major American director with less visual flair than Richard Linklatter? Kevin Smith may be the only one). That the movie often looks gorgeous is due entirely to generous location shooting and production design: nothing the camera does is particularly interesting. In an era where the lines between TV and movies are breaking down, where shows like Breaking Bad and True Detective are creating genuinely cinematic experiences, mark this down for movies that look more like plain old television. And then there is the problem of the protagonist, who lacks dynamism at every stage of the film, but goes from being essentially pitiable to deeply unlikable. Not exactly the most appealing arc in television; I agree with Jay from RLM that a film focused on either of the kid’s parents would have been vastly more interesting.

But fundamentally, the biggest problem is the misconception (or, more accurately, lack of conception) at the root of this whole enterprise, the rot in the foundation.

Continue reading »

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I remain distinctly unenthused about Hillary Clinton. Her email issues show a level of judgment and attention to political optics that is not what it should be, for sure. That’s really all that can be said for now–we will have to see how she plays it from here on out with respect to transparency and access.

However, I think the greater problem here is not whether she can manage a presidential campaign. There’s really nobody of stature to beat her in the primaries and, as Jonathan Bernstein always reminds us, in the general election–unlike the primaries–the actual candidates are much less important. The fundamentals are of paramount importance, the odd gaffe under those circumstances is meaningless. The question remains: can she actually be an effective president? This I have the following doubts about:

  1. The vast majority of the job of being president is foreign policy, a subject on which she has an abysmal track record. Obviously there was Iraq, and her widely reported hard line on Iran. But her judgment has been awful across the board: from her boosterism of the disastrous Libyan campaign to her involvement in the coup in Honduras, she has strong instincts not only toward the use of force in every conceivable circumstance, but she is strongly concerned with being seen as tough, hence her near-forgotten support of the Lieberman-Kyl Amendment back during the 2008 race, which was essentially a call for Iranian regime change. The combination of hawkish instincts and a fundamental insecurity about being seen as willing to indulge them is not new–Lyndon Johnson also possessed this exact combination. I do think that Clinton is less sophisticated about selling eternal war than Obama is, and because of her past she may engender less trust from the left on these issues–Obama was initially defined by opposing the Iraq War. But still. She seems to value this stuff not just as a political means to an end, but rather as an end in itself.
  2. Staffing. Another major part of the presidency is staffing the judiciary and the White House, as well as many other independent agencies. This is another glaring Clinton weakness. Someone who made Mark Penn her chief strategist in 2008 is not someone who is a great judge of talent and ability. Someone who gives Lanny Davis the time of day is not anyone who is a great judge of character. To be fair, she did pick some competent people as well. But all the ink spilled about how the Clintons split the world into friends and enemies, and something like their freezing out Bill Richardson for endorsing Obama, at least gives a person pause about how she’d handle these tasks. Her second-rater filled campaign lost a near-unloseable race. How much worse could it be were she president?
  3. Administration. Clinton’s style of trusting just a few intimates and proceeding adversarially with the rest is, as always a recipe for disaster, particularly when those intimates are such as referred to in (2). Obvious enough.

Perhaps she’ll exceed my expectations. But I am worried.

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Twin Peaks‘s second season is a complete mess. I wish I could say that’s a good thing. The show’s creators, perhaps figuring that their unexpected hit would run for years, focused their attention elsewhere, and those who remained struggled greatly to fill the void. This led to such gems as James On The Road, that goddamned screaming knob, and an explosion of new characters (along with an inexplicable trend toward making the old ones completely bland) and comic relief subplots that must have seemed a safer bet than writing interesting dramatic stories. It also led to the creation of the worst fictional character of all time.


Where’s Waldo?

Why does the character of John Justice Wheeler (portrayed, as one can see, by Billy Zane) deserve the honor? Many reasons. First off is the name. It’s not a good character name. You expect that name to be riding a horse over the prairie, or busting trusts, or setting legs in the Civil War, not making eyes at Sherilyn Fenn. Secondly, there’s the problem of the character’s role in the series. The show treats him as a character big enough to merit his own theme–a particularly irritating steel guitar phrase–and puts him in 1/6 of the show’s episodes. But he performs almost no functions essential to the plot. He talks to the characters. He takes some meetings. He sits in some meetings. That is it! It’s not like there’s something he has to do that nobody else in the town can do. At no point is he put in a position where he has to act in ways that change anything in the universe of the show. The character long predates usage of the term “Mary Sue,” but Zane is a prototype: a character who breezes into town, interacts with the main characters and “shakes things up” before bedding one of the main characters, and then leaving. It feels like a character that was hastily improvised after landing Zane (undoubtedly a huge get in 1991), ultimately to give Ms. Fenn something to do.

Since there’s essentially nothing to the character you can’t really fault Zane’s acting (predictable as it is here–the man delivers the same performance in Tombstone, say, or the hilariously inept Memory) in the way you can blame Heather Graham for her simultaneous turn in Peaks as Annie. But Annie, at least as written, is potentially an interesting character. Graham had arguably not yet learned how to act, but there are some bits of writing that point toward an interesting character that, with a more capable actress, could have been worth caring about. Zane’s Wheeler, though, is simply relentlessly boring. His relationship with Audrey is entirely superficial and based purely on appearance, his “businessman adventurer” character almost dares you to accept that it could exist, it’s a quirky job non pareil, and the character is so poorly defined–and so dependent on Zane’s charisma to sell it–that virtually every conversation he has is necessarily vague and reliant on nineties-style vague profundity.

But the true shit atop the sundae is his final scene, which shows just how truly the Twin Peaks interlopers misunderstood the nature of the series they were running. I find the phenomenon known as shipping to be more than a little silly, but having said that, I still want out of my fiction some level of internal logic for character relationships, including for romantic ones. The Audrey/Cooper relationship didn’t really make a whole lot of sense, aside from the fact that the actors involved had tremendous chemistry. But on a character level it worked because it expressed bad girl Audrey’s secret desire for an authority figure that she could actually trust, as opposed to her amoral, manipulative father. Cooper was a protector who she could trust to protect her, though in her desire to show her value to him, she wound up getting put in a harrowing situation (and ensuring that Cooper failed to protect her, thus diminishing her attraction to him). This is the sort of depth you get in a well-written show. But what does John Wheeler tell us about Audrey? Literally nothing. He’s an impossible figure, more a Harlequin character than real person, so the thing becomes a low-rent fantasy rather than anything one might find in real life. That she would fall for someone more like her father could have been interesting, but by this point the Horne family had pretty much lost its juice as a driver of dramatic plotlines. At this point we were plagued with boring “nice” Ben, and Audrey as well had essentially become a “nice” character. There was no real conflict between them at this point, so this attraction, aside from being fantasy, tells us nothing about her character. It would have been vastly more interesting if Zane had played someone of a more rebellious nature, who revived Audrey’s anarchic spirit. But we didn’t get that. The whole thing is so free of complication that you almost can’t pay attention to it.

It would be hard to make the case that Wheeler “ruined” Twin Peaks. But he was emblematic of the ruination. Other contemporary storylines involved a “black widow” character who killed the men she slept with, a middle-aged woman with super-strength and amnesia going back to high school and becoming a champion cheerleader (don’t ask), a “who’s the daddy?” love triangle, among other similarly shitty subplots. And by this point, James Hurley had already hit the road with dismal results. But Wheeler was more emblematic of the show’s late period mistakes than anything else. The combination of blandness, silly fantasy and utter uselessness stands out even amidst a sea of same. This is why he’s the worst character of all time: he made a struggling show much, much worse with his presence.

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A few months ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, “USMC Cousin.” Admittedly, some people are really close with their cousins. But what can you say about a person who values military service so much that they need to steal the thunder of a tangential relative to do it, while not actually taking the plunge himself?
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I think that the recently concluded Israeli elections will ultimately be marked as a turning point. Not in terms of Israeli policy so much as how Israel is viewed globally. Netanyahu won by shedding any remaining elements of his reasonable guise and turning into a race-baiting, conspiracy theorizing nationalist who doesn’t give a fig about the rights or dignity of his neighbors. In essence, he turned into the Glenn Beck of Israel, and it got him elected to another term. Think about that. The world certainly was watching and took notice. It’s unsurprising the man is trying a little take-backsies with, basically, everything he said for the past few days. But that’s not how it works. Many people were paying more attention to the election than to the post-election press conference to rehab his ashen reputation. Anyone with even modest political sophistication will recognize a desperate damage control effort when they see it. And while American right-wingers are just loving it all, European and Middle Eastern nations will undoubtedly continue to sever ties with Israel, as will American liberals. Hell, Chait gets off a pretty good zinger by comparing him (reasonably accurately) to Yasser Arafat. Sorry, Bibi, this victory was a bit more pyrrhic than you might have thought. It’s much too late for this.

I’ve often thought that Netanyahu will live long enough for the Israeli people to truly hate him for all he’s done (and, more importantly, not done). Truly, he’s the goat of the state of Israel, the man who more than any other has ignored what needed to be done and pretended it didn’t, pushing fantasies about Iranian nukes just a few Friedman Units away from being operational and annexing the West Bank (with no major downsides, of course). You can’t pin the blame entirely on him, of course–arguably the troops who seized the Palestinians’ land in ’67 bear more–but in terms of major decisionmakers, he certainly has earned his share.

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