Saturday, August 16, 2014

This Is the End: James Gray on 'Apocalypse Now'

By James Gray
August 11, 2014

August is upon us, which invariably means withering heat and a hell of a lot of bad cinema. Worn out by the time the dog days hit, the studios enter hibernation mode, concerned mostly with counting their early summer blockbuster returns (or licking their wounds). There's hope around the corner — the fall festivals loom — but that moment isn't here yet. The last month of summer is usually barren. 

Except when it isn't.

It certainly wasn't 35 years ago — August 15, 1979, to be exact, when Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now premiered for American audiences. I was quite young at the time, but I still remember how high the stakes seemed. It had been five long years since Mr. Coppola had directed three monumental triumphs in a row: The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather: Part II.  He had made himself the King of the New Hollywood, and his talent and ambition appeared limitless. Naturally, many in the press couldn't wait for him to crash: "Apocalypse Never" repeatedly crowed one gossip columnist, and you can bet Coppola and his team at American Zoetrope heard all the snickering, loud and clear. It's easy for us now to forget the amount of shit Coppola had to take, but it was brutal. Rumors flew about how calamitously wrong the production had gone, and the unending editing process more than hinted at the possibility of artistic disaster. So when the lights came down inside the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York that August day, it's fair to say the moment was fraught.

And let's be honest here: The pre-release reviews were mixed. A slightly different version had screened the previous May at the Cannes Film Festival, and it had won the prestigious Palme d'Or prize. But controversy and doubt remained. Maybe it was the war — or should I say The War?  Vietnam gave the movie a political charge, and people had their expectations. They hoped, perhaps, for some kind of explanation. They hoped for pat condemnations. They hoped for answers.

There were none. For Apocalypse Now poses questions without any attempt to provide definitive answers, and the film's profound ambiguities are integral to its enduring magic. In fact, the very sensuousness of the movie, its immersive and visceral impact, seduced me before I could recoil from its horrors. Think, for a moment, of that majestic opening: Initially, there is nothing but that strange, frabjous, now-famous, noise.  Thuk thuk thuk thuk thuk…  Next, the shot: palm trees, blue sky, orange smoke — and a helicopter, in slow motion, drifting wasp-like across the frame. Cue the music.; when Jim Morrison pronounced this to be "The End," an enormous explosion (bigger than any we'd seen before) lit up the theater. By the time the flames had settled, that shot had declared itself one of the greatest opening images in cinema history. Amazingly, the film that followed proved no less remarkable.

We went upriver with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) as he pursued Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), and somehow, we felt as if we were going along with him, deeper and deeper, so far that turning back would be impossible. The images were crepuscular, lush — IMAX before there was IMAX. Verdant greens, ferocious oranges, scum-bled blues, the darkest of blacks, all captured by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro with surpassing brilliance. How frightening it all was, how invigorating!   

Yet the film is more than a visceral experience. Its core narrative idea, based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, provided Coppola and co-screenwriter John Milius with a true dramatic spine. And setting the adaptation amidst the terrors of the Vietnam War allowed them to explore the idea that our civilization had pursued its own catastrophe. The film introduces us to American might in all its mechanized glory, then methodically reduces that power to nothing. Our violence had rebounded against us. Apocalypse Now, like so many national myths, showcases the intimate connection between the establishment of order and the violence upon which that order is founded.

The film is indeed self-consciously mythic, and with its transcendent imagery, it enters the cosmic realm. Captain Willard is an enigmatic hero, and we need the narration (written by Dispatches author Michael Herr) to help us know him. Surely the man has his dark side: he kills a wounded Vietnamese woman and hacks Colonel Kurtz to death. But by the end, Willard retains enough of his soul to protect the innocent, childlike Lance (Sam Bottoms), and here we see that the human connection endures. The film's experience expands in this moment, becoming vast and uncanny — yet familiar. Apocalypse Now does not alienate us or deconstruct itself. In fact, it welcomes us in. We all but participate in the strange water skiing and surfing obsessions and the hallucinatory Playboy Bunny show.  We take macabre pleasure at witnessing the chaos at Do Long bridge. And of course, we are utterly thrilled by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his amoral attack on the village — a justly famous set-piece, scored to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," that compels us even as we shrink from it. We become complicit in darkness, and this is perhaps the film's greatest coup.  

The epic scale of the picture (pre-CGI, of course) does not cease to astound. That much, at least, was celebrated back in 1979, but to me this is damning with faint praise. Too often a logistical achievement is confused with artistic excellence. Great art doesn't demand great scale (A Woman Under the Influence, anyone?), but there's no denying that Apocalypse Now dreams big, and it matters. So when the last act came, some considered it a letdown.

Critics called the final 30 minutes, dedicated almost exclusively to Marlon Brando's improvised ruminations, pretentious and muddled. I don't agree. Coppola chose to show Kurtz as a god who has cast himself into the underworld, wrestling with the gravest of ethical dilemmas. Once again, we're in Willard's shoes, bearing witness to the Colonel's disintegration in the face of the tragic choices his country has made. Our torturous passage through Kurtz's struggle is precisely what makes us aware of our own complicity. True, the sequence risks exceeding the boundaries of traditional formal neatness, but I don't care. "Perfection" can be its own limitation, and sometimes a "flaw" may contribute mightily to a work's ultimate power. (A work without flaws is a work without ambition.) The Roman poet Horace often inserted lines in his poetry that stuck out like a sore thumbs, forcing the reader to confront the established pattern; Horace's aims were different, and more profound, than the reader initially thought they were. Apocalypse Now functions in the same way, its makers committed to a rare and glorious vision. 

Take a look at the landscape since this film was released: How many have even tried something this monumental? It may well be the last of its breed, and for this reason, among many others, I regard Francis Ford Coppola as a national treasure. "There is no art without risk," he has said, and it's all we can do to hope that we follow this courageous ideal. I might well go to the jungle to make a movie soon, and I've often joked that given the difficulties of such an enterprise, any advice from Mr. Coppola likely would be a simple "don't go." But in truth, this is a dumb joke, because no one is more inspiring and encouraging in both word and deed. There are many pretenders. Francis Ford Coppola went out and did it. He gave us a work that lives and breathes still, its vitality an enduring force. And whenever we question our own reach, we need only look to this magnificent movie, in all its untidy and coruscating beauty, as the ultimate example.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

On Obama’s foreign policy, Clinton got it right

August 14, 2014
Political Cartoons by Steve Kelley

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
     – Hillary Clinton, The Atlantic, August 10

Leave it to Barack Obama’s own former secretary of state to acknowledge the fatal flaw of his foreign policy: a total absence of strategic thinking.

Mind you, Obama does deploy grand words proclaiming grand ideas: the “new beginning” with Islam declared in Cairo, the reset with Russia announced in Geneva, global nuclear disarmament proclaimed in Prague (and playacted in a Washington summit). Untethered from reality, they all disappeared without a trace.

When carrying out policies in the real world, however, it’s nothing but tactics and reactive improvisation. The only consistency is the president’s inability (unwillingness?) to see the big picture. Consider:

1. Russia

Vladimir Putin has 45,000 troops on the Ukraine border. A convoy of 262 unwanted, unrequested, uninspected Russian trucks with allegedly humanitarian aid is headed to Ukraine to relieve the pro-Russian separatists now reduced to the encircled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine threatens to stop it.

Obama’s concern? He blithely tells the New York Times that Putin “could invade” Ukraine at any time. And if he does, says Obama, “trying to find our way back to a cooperative functioning relationship with Russia during the remainder of my term will be much more difficult.”

Is this what Obama worries about? A Russian invasion would be a singular violation of the post–Cold War order, a humiliating demonstration of American helplessness and a shock to the Baltic republics, Poland, and other vulnerable U.S. allies. And Obama is concerned about his post-invasion relations with Putin?

2. Syria

To this day, Obama seems not to understand the damage he did to American credibility everywhere by slinking away from his own self-proclaimed red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons.

He seems equally unaware of the message sent by his refusal to arm the secular opposition (over the objections of Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and CIA director David Petraeus) when it was still doable. He ridicules the idea as “fantasy” because we’d be arming amateurs up against a well-armed government “backed by Russia, backed by Iran [and] a battle-hardened Hezbollah.”

He thus admits that Russian and other outside support was crucial to tilting the outcome of this civil war to Bashar Assad. Yet he dismisses countervailing U.S. support as useless. He thus tells the world of his disdain for the traditional U.S. role of protecting friends by deterring and counterbalancing adversarial outside powers.

3. Gaza

Every moderate U.S. ally in the Middle East welcomed the original (week 1) Egyptian cease-fire offer. They were stunned when the U.S. then met with Qatar and Turkey, Hamas’ lawyers, promoting its demands. Did Obama not understand he was stymieing a tacit and remarkable pan-Arab-Israeli alliance to bring down Hamas (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) — itself an important U.S. strategic objective?

The definitive evidence of Obama’s lack of vision is his own current policy reversals — a clear admission of failure. He backed the next Egyptian cease-fire. He’s finally arming the Syrian rebels. And he’s returning American military power to Iraq. (On Russia, however, he appears unmovably unmoved.)

Tragically, his proposed $500 million package for secular Syrian rebels is too late. Assad has Aleppo, their last major redoubt, nearly surrounded. If and when it falls, the revolution may be over.

The result? The worst possible outcome: A land divided between the Islamic State and Assad, now wholly owned by Iran and Russia.

Iraq is also very little, very late. Why did Obama wait seven months after the Islamic State’s takeover of Fallujah and nine weeks after the capture of Mosul before beginning to supply the Kurds with desperately needed weapons?

And why just small arms supplied supposedly clandestinely through the CIA? The Kurds are totally outgunned. Their bullets are bouncing off the captured armored Humvees the Islamic State has deployed against them. The Pentagon should be conducting a massive airlift to provide the peshmerga with armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles, and other heavier weaponry.

And why the pinprick airstrikes? The Islamic State–Kurdish front is 600 miles long, more than the distance between Boston and Washington. The Pentagon admits that the current tactics — hitting an artillery piece here, a truck there — will not affect the momentum of IS or the course of the war.

But then again, altering the course of a war would be a strategic objective. That seems not to be in Obama’s portfolio.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon talks new album, authoring his band's next chapter

August 10, 2014

The Gaslight Anthem performs a free concert at the John Varvatos store—former site of the famed venue CBGB's—to celebrate their upcoming album, "Get Hurt." New York, NY 8/7/14 9:56:08 PM (Alex Remnick/The Star-Ledger)

As far as Brian Fallon is concerned, ignorance is sin.

Life will challenge us all, the singer says, and those painfully defining moments of heartache, depression and death cannot be bypassed or simply smoothed over — they must be felt completely.

“Give me the whole thing,” he says. “Don’t hold back anything — let me feel what I need to feel and learn the real lesson without avoiding it.”

In “Get Hurt,” the title track from his band The Gaslight Anthem’s new album, his decree rings out as he sings “I came here to get hurt/Might as well do your worst to me.”
His comment on the lyric: “I’m already here and if this is gonna be bad, it might as well be really bad.”

Fallon has always seemed to follow this fatalistic outlook. A lengthy list of songs on his New Brunswick-based rock four-piece’s previous records have delved heavily into the torturous side of romance and loss of all kinds.

But the frontman of one of New Jersey’s most popular rock acts will see his peaks and valleys through. Fallon’s moxie is felt in earnest throughout the band’s latest — and boldest — work, which stretches the group’s sound in ways previously unexplored. The dynamic spectrum was broadened this time to bolster the record’s tougher, more punk-driven tunes and polish the sweeter, more delicate ballads. And the group’s nostalgia gimmick — with all its reminiscent references to vinyl, radio and the ’50s “greaser” subculture — has been chopped for the first time.

The need for some tailoring was unavoidable.

“We had to do it,” Fallon says of the album, which will be released Tuesday. “I said, ‘This is an itch I really need to scratch and I don’t think I’m gonna get to the other side without doing this.’ Fans might get upset, or they might not like it, but it’s a necessary thing to do. ... It’s scary, though.”

Last year, when Fallon was ready to write his band’s fifth LP, he knew he couldn’t begin the process as he had before — sitting alone with his guitar and wondering, “I haven’t written a song in a while, what am I thinking about?”

“It’s very hard to do that,” Fallon says. “I end up with a lot of writer’s block doing that.”


Instead, the 34-year-old Red Bank native took a ride down to Asbury Park and stopped in at Russo Music on Lake Avenue, where he intended to begin his experimentation.

He met with the store’s head guitar tech Scott Engel in search of effects pedals to warp and distort the sound of his six-string like he hadn’t attempted before.

“I was handed an armful of pedals and I took them all home, and turned them all on, and was like, ‘What does this do?’” Fallon says. “I started experimenting with sounds, and out of the sound came a rhythm, and out of a rhythm came a chord progression, and then came a feeling, and (the song writing) was really dependant on that.”

The band recorded in Nashville, for a new label (Island Records) and with a new producer, Mike Crossey, best known for his work with popular British groups Arctic Monkeys and The 1975. Crossey forced Fallon out of his comfort zone, Fallon says, and took a different approach to the band’s music than Brendan O’Brien, who produced Gaslight’s more by-the-book “Handwritten” in 2012.

Crossey “has a totally different set of tricks ... but we were trying to do something different, so we had to go with a guy who was totally different,” Fallon says.

That push to tinker with and expand Gaslight’s sound kicks in immediately on “Get Hurt,” with the uncharacteristically brooding guitar of the album’s opening track, “Stay Vicious.” The riff is arguably the heaviest few seconds of the band’s recorded career, up there with a few punkish tracks from the its 2007 debut “Sink or Swim.”

But the influence of punk is easily outweighed by blues on this record, particularly the Rolling Stones’ legendary “Exile on Main St.” album, which Fallon says is essentially “just the Stones doing blues.” Fallon also named the album’s first single, “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’ ” after the blues classic of that name, in hopes that fans would Google the song and gain a quick lesson in the genre that birthed rock ’n’ roll.

“I tried to get people to go back,” Fallon says. “I thought it would be cool.”


Over the years, Gaslight has been criticized for going a little too far back, living too closely to the line where Bruce Springsteen ends and imitators begin. The similarities have been difficult to deny — two Shore-loving Jersey rock bands with similar vocals singing about their home state, pretty girls and hotrods. “Get Hurt” seems to pull the guys further from Springsteen’s reach and into their own spotlight. But even so, Fallon no longer cringes at the resemblance.

The Gaslight AnthemWhere: PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel
When: Sept. 13 at 7 p.m., with Jimmy Eat World and Against Me! opening.
How much: $20 to $74.50; call (800) 745-3000 or visit
“We were big fans, then everyone started comparing us to Bruce and we were like, ‘Why are they doing this? We’re not just that,’ ” he says. “But I’ve grown to deeply appreciate that comparison now. Now I’m really cool with it and I’m proud of those moments.”

Gaslight played to a packed house in New York on Thursday, auditioning most of their new songs for "secret show" fans at the old CBGB turned John Varvatos rock club.

"Stay Vicious" was potent in a live setting, and Fallon's voice conquered "Get Hurt" with flawless grit. But the guys are clearly still working out a few kinks. "Rollin' and Tumblin'" was botched in the beginning and required a stop and restart. They all had a good laugh.
Gaslight kicks off its three-month tour of the United States, Canada and Europe next month and will headline the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel for the first time Sept. 13. Well-traveled Arizona rockers Jimmy Eat World and Against Me!, a punk band from Florida, will open.

PNC, which holds about 18,000 people, will easily be the largest concert the band has ever played in New Jersey.

“I’ve always watched that billboard on the Parkway that flashes what upcoming shows
there are (at PNC), so to be playing there — it’s crazy,” Fallon says. “I saw our ad up there and it’s one of the coolest feelings, but then you think, ‘Am I really supposed to be there? Did I just get invited to the party through the backdoor?’ ”

The Crazy World of Public Schools

By Heather Wilhelm - August 14, 2014

Are America’s vast, sprawling, powerful government agencies really all that bad? Left-leaning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in a recent series of columns and blog posts, has passionately leapt to their defense.
“Libertarians are living in a fantasy world,” Krugman wrote over the weekend, arguing that our nation’s major welfare-state programs are “fairly efficient, with low administrative costs.” Even his experiences at the much-maligned New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, Krugman insists, “have generally been fairly good.” (My last visit to the local DMV involved a bored-looking lady who insisted on putting the wrong town on my driver’s license, but, hey, who even uses maps anymore?)
So, given that it’s mid-August, let’s discuss another sprawling government program, due to pull in waves of children across the country over the next few weeks. I’m talking about you, public schools. You might be the craziest government program of all.
Here’s the thing: People love public schools, or at least they love the idea of them.
But when you grow up with something crazy—your dad fires your cat out of a cannon every night; your brother plays the bagpipes in the bathtub; your mom wears a T-shirt with Jimmy Carter on it—you tend to think it’s normal. If you were to explain our country’s educational system to a moderately bright space alien, however, they would look at you as if you had three heads.
With so many oddities in the public school system, it’s hard to know where to start. Across the country, arbitrarily drawn school district lines radically distort real estate markets. Anyone who has shopped for a house in the United States knows one sad truth: Better school districts command a steep premium. (The other truth, it seems, is that you probably won’t like the kitchen.) Despite our government’s lofty rhetoric of free and equal public education, the fact remains that better-off families can buy their way into better schools.
It gets even crazier, because despite this disparity, public school funding doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. The average American public school spends $11,455 per pupil, and that’s is just the average: Washington, D.C., the home of legendarily horrible government schools—among eighth-graders, only 17 percent are proficient in reading and 19 percent proficient in math—spends upward of $18,000 per student. That’s from the U.S. Census Bureau, by the way; after examining the numbers, the Cato Institute estimated that D.C. might spend closer to $25,000 per pupil. Across the board, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending has tripled since 1970. Test scores have not gone up.
Where does that money go? Well, in 2012, D.C. teachers made an average of $90,681 in salary and benefits. But the real growth in school spending can be found outside the classroom. According to a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “The Hidden Half: School Employees That Don’t Teach,” non-teaching staff in American public schools spiked 130 percent between 1970 and 2010. Student enrollment for that time period, they note, grew only 8.6 percent. Since 1950, school employees in general—many in “administrative” positions—grew by almost 500 percent.
This week, Morgan Smith, a Texas Tribune reporter, lit up Twitter by posting a sadly revealing photo of a response to her Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) from the Department of Education, signed by an official “FOIA Denial Officer.” Someone’s entire taxpayer-funded job title, in turns out, is devoted to shutting down taxpayer requests for information. Digging from journalist Lachlan Markay soon revealed that our friendly Department of Education “FOIA Denial Officer” makes $155,000 a year. (Whether Paul Krugman would include this in his “low administrative costs” is unclear.)
I haven’t even mentioned the cultural problems endemic in broad-based, broad-brush, one-size-fits-all government schools: fierce battles over curriculum and the Common Core; the fear that your sixth-grader might come home with a lunch box stuffed with condoms helpfully provided by the school nurse; or, even worse, the fear that your child, stuck in a school wracked with gang violence, might not come home at all—all because you can’t afford to leave your ZIP code.
According to the Council for American Private Education, average private school tuition in America is $8,549—thousands less than per-pupil spending at your average struggling public school. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that private schools also consistently outperform public schools on national achievement tests.
School choice, it seems, should be a no-brainer. Why not give families vouchers, allowing them to make free choices for their children’s education? There’s a reason increasing numbers of inner-city activists in places like Chicago and Washington, D.C., are fighting for charter schools and voucher programs. They know choice would be better for their kids. They know the government has failed them.
Ardent defenders of America’s sprawling, failing government school system insist that they want “social justice.” Occasionally, these people are sincere. Sometimes, they’re just lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with “good” public schools. Most often, they’re somehow on the payroll of our vast and growing government-educational complex—like Karen Lewis, the notorious head of the Chicago Teachers Union. She makes $200,000 a year. Let the buyer beware. 
Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas.

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Use of force against Islamic State could create a new void Into a new void?

August 13, 2014
Sailors guide an F/A-18C Hornet assigned to the Valions of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 15 on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) in the Gulf, in this handout image taken and released on August 8, 2014. Two F/A-18 aircraft from the squadron conducted an airstrike on Friday against Islamic State artillery used against Kurdish forces defending the city of Arbil in northern Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said. (Handout/Reuters)
This far into the human story, only the historically uninstructed are startled by what they think are new permutations of evil. So, when Russia sliced Crimea off Ukraine, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was nonplussed: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” If, however, Vladimir Putin is out of step with the march of progress, where exactly on history’s inevitably ascending path (as progressives like Kerry evidently think) does Kerry, our innocent abroad, locate the Islamic State?
The Islamic State uses crucifixions to express piety and decapitations to encourage cooperation. These are some of the “folks” — to adopt the locution Barack Obama frequently uses to express his all-encompassing diffidence — Obama was referring to when talking to the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. “That’s exactly right,” Obama said when Friedman suggested that Obama believes all Middle East factions must agree to a politics of “no victor, no vanquished.” It will be interesting watching Obama try to convince the crucifiers and the crucified to split their differences.
Exactly 70 years ago, the United States grappled with a humanitarian dilemma. On Aug. 9, 1944, A. Leon Kubowitzki of the World Jewish Congress wrote to Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, quoting a Czech official’s opinion that the “destruction of gas chambers and crematoria in Oswiecim [Auschwitz] by bombing would have a certain effect now.” On Aug. 14, McCloy rejected the request, noting that it would require “the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere,” a defensible argument. But then McCloy added that such bombing “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.” That is, bombing an extermination camp might make the operators of the crematoria really cross.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed implementation legislation for the Genocide Convention, the parties to which agreed to “undertake to prevent and to punish” the kind of crimes the Islamic State vows to commit. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today says, “It takes an army to defeat an army.” Is she, too, so very 19th century? Obama seems to agree with her, telling Friedman, “We can run [the Islamic State] off for a certain period of time, but as soon as our planes are gone, they’re coming right back in.” So air power is insufficient. He also said, “We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.” We will not “let” something happen — unless air power alone cannot prevent it and no “partners” fill the void beneath our bombers. About that void:
The United States has fought its longest war — more than three times longer than U.S. involvement in World War II — lest Afghanistan become a state unable or unwilling to prevent terrorists operating with impunity in a substantial area. Since this war began, U.S. policies have created two such voids by shattering two states, those of Iraq and Libya.
Friedman reports that Obama says his regret about Libya is not that he waged an utterly optional war of regime change. Rather, Obama regrets not getting busy “on the ground” to “manage” Libya’s transition to democracy. So, even after 13 years in Afghanistan and nearly a decade in Iraq, Obama wishes the United States had gone into Libya for more of the excitements and satisfactions of nation-building.
Two questions must be distinguished. First, is it an important U.S. interest or duty to protect, as much as air power can, Kurds and Yazidis from the Islamic State, and to (in Obama’s words) “push back” (back to where?) this group? Even if the answer is yes, there is another question: Is it wise to support the use of force by this president? He is properly cautious about today’s awful dilemma, which is not primarily of his making. But caution can be reckless.
One of Napoleon’s aphorisms — “If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna” — means: In military matters, tentativeness is ruinous. Are F-18s going to be used for a foreign policy of rightminded gestures — remember#BringBackOurGirls? — the success of which is in making the gesturers feel virtuous? “Success,” said T.S. Eliot, “is relative: It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.” There is much material — rubble, actually — to work with as we seek success.
Read more from George F. Will’s archive or follow him on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The West’s Gaza

No one in the West wants a long struggle with jihadism. The problem is the enemy always gets a vote. 

Lauren Bacall Dies at 89; in a Bygone Hollywood, She Purred Every Word

August 12, 2014
Lauren Bacall, the actress whose provocative glamour elevated her to stardom in Hollywood’s golden age and whose lasting mystique put her on a plateau in American culture that few stars reach, died on Tuesday in New York. She was 89.
Her death was confirmed by her son Stephen Bogart. “Her life speaks for itself,” Mr. Bogart said. “She lived a wonderful life, a magical life.”
With an insinuating pose and a seductive, throaty voice — her simplest remark sounded like a jungle mating call, one critic said — Ms. Bacall shot to fame in 1944 with her first movie, Howard Hawks’s adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel “To Have and Have Not,” playing opposite Humphrey Bogart, who became her lover on the set and later her husband.
It was a smashing debut sealed with a handful of lines now engraved in Hollywood history.
“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve,” her character says to Bogart’s in the movie’s most memorable scene. “You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
The film was the first of more than 40 for Ms. Bacall, among them “The Big Sleep” and “Key Largo” with Bogart, “How to Marry a Millionaire” with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, “Designing Woman” with Gregory Peck, the all-star “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) and, later in her career, Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” (2003) and “Manderlay” (2005) and Robert Altman’s “Prêt-à-Porter” (1994).
But few if any of her movies had the impact of her first — or of that one scene. Indeed, her film career was a story of ups, downs and long periods of inactivity. Though she received an honorary Academy Award in 2009 “in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures,” she was not nominated for an Oscar until 1997.
The theater was kinder to her. She won Tonys for her starring roles in two musicals adapted from classic films: “Applause” (1970), based on “All About Eve,” and “Woman of the Year” (1981), based on the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie of the same name. Earlier she starred on Broadway in the comedies “Goodbye, Charlie” (1959) and “Cactus Flower” (1965).
She also won a National Book Award in 1980 for the first of her two autobiographies, “Lauren Bacall: By Myself.”
Though often called a legend, she did not care for the word. “It’s a title and category I am less than fond of,” she wrote in 1994 in “Now,” her second autobiography. “Aren’t legends dead?”
Forever Tied to Bogart
She also expressed impatience, especially in her later years, with the public’s continuing fascination with her romance with Bogart, even though she frequently said that their 12-year marriage was the happiest period of her life.
“I think I’ve damn well earned the right to be judged on my own,” she said ina 1970 interview with The New York Times. “It’s time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of as a person, as me.”
Years later, however, she seemed resigned to being forever tied to Bogart and expressed annoyance that her later marriage to another leading actor, Jason Robards Jr., was often overlooked.
“My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she told Vanity Fair magazine in a profile of her in March 2011, adding: “I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way, that’s the way it is.”
Ms. Bacall was an 18-year-old model in New York when her face on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar caught the eye of Slim Hawks, Howard Hawks’s wife. Brought to Hollywood and taken under the Hawkses’ wing, she won the role in “To Have and Have Not,” loosely based on the novel of the same name.
She played Marie Browning, known as Slim, an American femme fatale who becomes romantically involved with Bogart’s jaded fishing-boat captain, Harry Morgan, known as Steve, in wartime Martinique. Her deep voice and the seductive way she looked at Bogart in the film attracted attention.
Their on-screen chemistry hadn’t come naturally, however. In one of the first scenes she filmed, she asked if anyone had a match. Bogart threw her a box of matches; she lit her cigarette and then threw the box back to him.
“My hand was shaking, my head was shaking, the cigarette was shaking, I was mortified,” she wrote in “By Myself.” “The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. ... I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked and turned out to be the beginning of The Look.”
Ms. Bacall’s naturally low voice was further deepened in her early months in Hollywood. Hawks wanted her voice to remain low even during emotional scenes and suggested she find some quiet spot and read aloud. She drove to Mulholland Drive and began reading “The Robe,” making her voice lower and louder than usual.
“Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons?” she later wrote. “I did.”
During her romance with Bogart, she asked him if it mattered to him that she was Jewish. His answer, she later wrote, was “Hell, no — what mattered to him was me, how I thought, how I felt, what kind of person I was, not my religion, he couldn’t care less — why did I even ask?”
An Impulsive Kiss
Ms. Bacall’s love affair with Bogart began with an impulsive kiss. While filming “To Have and Have Not,” he had stopped at her trailer to say good night when he suddenly leaned over, lifted her chin and kissed her. He was 25 years her senior and married at the time to Mayo Methot, his third wife, but to Ms. Bacall, “he was the man who meant everything in the world to me; I couldn’t believe my luck.”
As her fame grew in the ensuing months — she attracted wide publicity in February 1945 when she was photographed on top of a piano, legs draped over the side, with Vice President Harry S. Truman at the keyboard — so did the romance, particularly as she and Bogart filmed “The Big Sleep,” based on a Raymond Chandler whodunit.
But her happiness alternated with despair. Bogart returned to his wife several times before he accepted that the marriage could not be saved. He and Ms. Bacall were married on May 21, 1945, at Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio, the home of Bogart’s close friend the writer Louis Bromfield. Bogart was 45; Ms. Bacall was 20.
Returning to work, she soon suffered a setback, when the critics savaged her performance in “Confidential Agent,” a 1945 thriller with Charles Boyer set during the Spanish Civil War. The director was Herman Shumlin, who, unlike Hawks and Bogart on her first two movies, offered her no guidance. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” she recalled. “I was a novice.”
“After ‘Confidential Agent,’ it took me years to prove that I was capable of doing anything at all worthwhile,” she wrote. “I would never reach the ‘To Have and Have Not’ heights again — on film, anyway — and it would take much clawing and scratching to pull myself even halfway back up that damn ladder.”
“Dark Passage,” her third movie with Bogart, came after several years of concentrating on her marriage. Had she not married Bogart, she told The Times in 1996, her career would probably have flourished, but she did not regret the marriage.
“I would not have had a better life, but a better career,” she said. “Howard Hawks was like a Svengali; he was molding me the way he wanted. I was his creation, and I would have had a great career had he been in control of it. But the minute Bogie was around, Hawks knew he couldn’t control me, so he sold my contract to Warner Bros. And that was the end.”
She was eventually suspended 12 times by the studio for rejecting scripts.
‘And We Made a Noise’
In 1947, as the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Americans suspected of Communism, Ms. Bacall and Bogart were among 500 Hollywood personalities to sign a petition protesting what they called the committee’s attempt “to smear the motion picture industry.” Investigating individual political beliefs, the petition said, violated the basic principles of American democracy.
The couple flew to Washington as part of a group known as the Committee for the First Amendment, which also included Danny Kaye, John Garfield, Gene Kelly, John Huston, Ira Gershwin and Jane Wyatt. “I am an outraged and angry citizen who feels that my basic civil liberties are being taken away from me,” Bogart said in a statement.
Three decades later, Ms. Bacall would express doubts about “whether the trip to Washington ultimately helped anyone.” But, she added: “It helped those of us at the time who wanted to fight for what we thought was right and against what we knew was wrong. And we made a noise — in Hollywood, a community which should be courageous but which is surprisingly timid and easily intimidated.”
Nevertheless, bowing to studio pressure, Bogart later said publicly he believed the trip to Washington was “ill advised,” and Ms. Bacall went along with him.
A year after that trip she had what she termed “one of my happiest movie experiences” starring with Bogart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor in John Huston’s thriller “Key Largo.” It was Bogart’s and Ms. Bacall’s last film together. “Young Man With a Horn” (1950), with Kirk Douglas and Doris Day, in which she played a student married to a jazz trumpeter, was less successful.
Ms. Bacall’s first son, Stephen H. Bogart (named after Bogart’s character in “To Have and Have Not”), was born in 1949. A daughter, Leslie Bogart (named after the actor Leslie Howard), was born in 1952. In a 1995 memoir, Stephen wrote, “My mother was a lapsed Jew, and my father was a lapsed Episcopalian,” adding that he and his sister, Leslie, were raised Episcopalian “because my mother felt that would make life easier for Leslie and me during those post-World War II years.”
Rat Pack Den Mother
Ms. Bacall, however, wrote that she felt “totally Jewish and always would” and that it was Bogart who thought the children should be christened in an Episcopal church because “with discrimination still rampant in the world, it would give them one less hurdle to jump in life’s Olympics.”
She was, she said, happy being a wife and mother. She was also “den mother” to the so-called Hollywood Rat Pack, whose members included Bogart, Frank Sinatra, David Niven, Judy Garland and others. (It would evolve into the better-known Rat Pack whose members included Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.)
In 1952 she campaigned for Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president, and persuaded Bogart, who had originally supported the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, to join her. The two accompanied Stevenson on motorcades and flew east to help in the final lap of his campaign in New York and Chicago.
Her film career at this point appeared to be going nowhere, but she had no intention of allowing Lauren Bacall the actress to slide into oblivion. In 1953 her fortunes revived with what she called “the best part I’d had in years,” in “How to Marry a Millionaire,” playing alongside Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable as New York models with sights set on finding rich husbands.
In the early 1950s the Bogarts dabbled in radio and the growing medium of television. They starred in the radio adventure series “Bold Venture” and, with Henry Fonda, in a live television version of “The Petrified Forest,” the 1936 film that starred Bogart, Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. In 1956 Ms. Bacall appeared in a television production of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” in which Coward himself also starred. She would occasionally return to the small screen for the rest of her career, making guest appearances on shows like “The Rockford Files” and “Chicago Hope” and starring in TV movies.
Bogart was found to have cancer of the esophagus in 1956. Although an operation was successful — his esophagus and two lymph nodes were removed — after some months the cancer returned. He died in January 1957 at the age of 57.
Romance With Sinatra
Shortly after Bogart’s death, Ms. Bacall, by then 32, had a widely publicized but brief romance with Sinatra, who had been a close friend of the Bogarts. She moved to New York in 1958 and, three years later, married Mr. Robards, settling in a spacious apartment in the Dakota, on Central Park West, where she continued to live until her death. They had a son, the actor Sam Robards, and were divorced in 1969. She is survived by her sons, Stephen Bogart and Sam Robards; her daughter, Leslie Bogart; and six grandchildren.
Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in Brooklyn on Sept. 16, 1924, the daughter of William and Natalie Perske, Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania. Her parents were divorced when she was 6 years old, and her mother moved to Manhattan and adopted the second half of her maiden name, Weinstein-Bacal.
“I didn’t really have any love in my growing-up life, except for my mother and grandmother,” Ms. Bacall said in the Vanity Fair interview. Her father, she said, “did not treat my mother well.”
From then until her move to Hollywood, Ms. Bacall was known as Betty Bacal; she added an “l” to her name because, she said, the single “l” caused “too much irregularity of pronunciation.” The name Lauren was given her by Howard Hawks before the release of her first film, but family and old friends called her Betty throughout her life, and to Bogart she was always Baby.
Although finances were a problem as she was growing up — “Nothing came easy, everything was worked for” — her mother’s family was close-knit, and through an uncle’s generosity she attended the Highland Manor school for girls in Tarrytown, N.Y., where she graduated from grade school at 11. She went on to Julia Richman High School in Manhattan and also studied acting at the New York School of the Theater and ballet with Mikhail Mordkin, who had on occasion been Pavlova’s partner.
After graduation in 1940, Ms. Bacall became a full-time student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts but left after the first year; her family could no longer subsidize her, and the academy at the time did not offer scholarships to women.
So she turned to modeling, and in 1941, at 16, she landed jobs with David Crystal, a Seventh Avenue dress manufacturer, and Sam Friedlander, who made evening gowns. During lunch hours she would stand outside Sardi’s selling copies of Actor’s Cue, a casting tip sheet, hoping to catch the attention of producers. She also became an usher at Broadway theaters and a hostess at the newly opened Stage Door Canteen.
Her first theater role was a walk-on in a Broadway play called “Johnny 2 x 4.” It paid $15 a week and closed in eight weeks, but she looked back on the experience as “magical.” Another stab at modeling, with the Walter Thornton agency, proved disappointing, but her morale soared in July 1942, with a sentence by George Jean Nathan in Esquire: “The prettiest theater usher — the tall slender blonde in the St. James Theater right aisle, during the Gilbert & Sullivan engagement — by general rapt agreement among the critics, but the bums are too dignified to admit it.”
Watching ‘Casablanca’
Later that year she was cast by the producer Max Gordon in “Franklin Street,” a comedy directed by George S. Kaufman, which closed out of town. It was her last time onstage for 17 years.
It was about this time that she saw Bogart in “Casablanca.” She later recalled that she could not understand the reaction of a friend who was “mad” about him. “So much for my judgment at that time,” she said.
In 1942, she met Nicolas de Gunzburg, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, who took her to meet Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor. After a thorough inspection, Vreeland asked her to return the next day to meet the photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Test shots were taken, and a few days later she was called.
A full-page color picture of her standing in front of a window with the words “American Red Cross Blood Donor Service” on it led to inquiries from David O. Selznick, Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks, among others. The Hawks offer was accepted, and Betty Bacall, 18 years old, left for the West Coast by train with her mother. She returned to New York less than two years later as Lauren Bacall, star.
In her 70s, Ms. Bacall began lending her distinctive voice to television commercials and cartoons, and her movie career again picked up steam. Between 1995 and 2012 she was featured in more than a dozen pictures, most notably “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1996), in which she played Barbra Streisand’s monstrous, vain mother.
The role brought her an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress; the smart money was on her to win. But the Oscar went to Juliette Binoche for her part in “The English Patient,” to the astonishment of almost everyone, including Ms. Binoche.
Ms. Bacall — who received a consolation prize of sorts when she was named a Kennedy Center Honors winner a few months later — was perhaps prepared for the Oscar rebuff. Shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony, she told an interviewer that she hadn’t been happy for years. “Contented, yes; pleased and proud, yes. But happy, no.”
Still, she said, she had been lucky: “I had one great marriage, I have three great children and four grandchildren. I am still alive. I still can function. I still can work.”
As she said in 1996: “You just learn to cope with whatever you have to cope with. I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you’re a New Yorker? The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”