Saturday, November 10, 2018

Today's Tune: Hard Working Americans (w/ Jason Isbell) - Straight to Hell (Live)

Finally: The Case Against 'Hamilton'

The hit Broadway musical was all that was wrong with 2016, and likely will be wrong with 2017, too.

By Nicholas Pell
January 14, 2017

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I don't think there's a slight bit of hyperbole or exaggeration involved when I say that Hamilton, the awful musical that millionaire New Yorkers are required by law to throw away thousands watching, represents everything that was wrong with America in 2016. Allow me to make the case.
First, there's the music. I'm admittedly not much of a hip-hop aficionado, but I know shit from Shinola. From my perspective the art form has more or less been going downhill since Strictly Business (the EPMD record, not the Tommy Davidson vehicle), but there have been some highlights worth mentioning, mostly thanks to Ice Cube and an army of Wu bangers.
The point I'm trying to make is that, even to untrained ears such as mine, Hamilton is particularly bad. On first take, I thought it sounded a bit like a University of Iowa freshman—the kind who only listens to "real hip-hop"—attempting his first mixtape. One of my Twitter followers corrected me, however. It's closer to a Braintree elementary school making a rap song for parents' night. The latter description hints not merely at the simple, formulaic quality of the material, but also the cloying, bourgeois quality of it all. From the reference to "ten-dollar Founding Father without a father" to "when the British taxed our tea we got frisky," the whole affair sounds more like something made by precocious children than a professional composer.
We have Lin-Manuel Miranda to blame for this cultural atrocity, a scion of a psychologist and an advisor to New York mayor Ed Koch, who attended the same elementary and high school as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Sure, he got bullied by Immortal Technique in school, but how much street cred is that really worth? After this he attended Wesleyan University, a top-10-ranked school that costs $65,000 a year, according to Forbes, before making his mark writing jingles for noted prostitute-enthusiast Eliot Spitzer's 2006 campaign. The original version of Hamilton debuted at a Vassar College workshop. All this is, of course, an attempt to firmly establish Miranda's street cred, which is unassailable.
Some are irritated about the people who aren't white playing white people, but I'm not. The whole production plays so fast and loose with the truth that it's hard to pick any particular piece to criticize, there's a reality correlation approximating that of the Weekly World News. At the top of the list, though, has to be casting Alexander Hamilton as some sort of proto-multicultural progressive. That's either stupidity or mendacity, take your pick. Hamilton was, if anything, the most aristocratic of the Founding Fathers, the closest thing to a Colonial Tory. You know that electoral college you've been gnashing your teeth over for the last couple months? Guess whose idea that was?
Of course, shit music and feels-over-reals weren't the whole problem with America in 2016—and they aren't the biggest deal facing us in 2017, either. No, the worst thing about this present moment in time is the smugness with which zillionaires and their sycophants on the coasts piss all over anyone who does actual work for a living.
That's not just one of the main reasons that Trump won the election. That attitude makes for garbage art.
Historically speaking, you've got high art and folk art, each with their own set of aesthetic guidelines and measuring sticks. What's historically anomalous is commercial art—art that exists not due to the patronage of cultured elites or through the unrewarded efforts of the hoi polloi. It's art that exists to make money.
Art that exists to make money isn't a bad thing. A lot of the best music of the 20th century was commercial art. The Beatles are probably one of a handful of things anyone will remember about the 20th century in 500 years, a stunning example of commercial art as inspired genius. What's irritating, though, is when well-connected millionaires make art for the sake of signaling their moral superiority over the masses on the basis of their correct beliefs. Hamilton has become a sort of avatar of the Lena Dunham Democratic Party against the rest of the world, perhaps best displayed by the cast lecturing Vice President Elect Mike Pence (the closest thing to a Wal-Mart greeter they'll ever be in the same room as) about tolerance.
Tickets for Hamilton start between $179 and $199, with high-end tickets going for $849. Once they hit the secondary market (A.K.A. scalpers) you're looking at between $650 and $1500 on Stubhub. Is this because it's the best musical on Broadway? Or is it becauseHamilton is this season's most fashionable way to signal liberal respectability and status among the One Percenters?
This isn't speaking truth to power. This is power telling the rest of us what truth is. There's nary a hint of self-awareness as those only vaguely aware of poverty and toil through a sociology textbook deign to lecture us little people about America's 'real values.' That's what's wrong with America in the current year.
The election of Donald Trump and the leave vote in the United Kingdom aren't just political decisions. They're a cultural revolt against the pomposity of upper-crust liberals who don't have to live with the consequences of their own values. Hamilton is where the modern day Marie Antoinettes tell unemployed forklift drivers to eat cake.
Off in the distance, the sans cullotes are sharpening the guillotine. The aloof nobles catching the latest performance of Hamilton have no idea they're about to be cast—much against their will—in a bit part in Les Miserables.

Who’s Afraid of Sir Roger Scruton?

By Madeleine Kearns
November 9, 2018
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Interesting thinkers, of whom there are few, tend to express themselves in more than 280 characters. Take Sir Roger Scruton, for example, the British philosopher and writer who has written over 50 books on philosophy, aesthetics, and politics and who was knighted two years ago for “services to philosophy, teaching, and public education.”
Scruton is also a conservative and an old, straight, white male. In modern-day Britain, Scruton’s politics are considered to be a pathology — or, rather, multiple pathologies. This week, the appointment of Sir Roger as unpaid chairman of a government housing commission, Building Better, Building Beautiful, was met with a campaign to get him sacked.
Why? Apparently because the “news and gossip” website The Red Roar revealed that he had made allegedly anti-Semitic comments and voiced other opinions that “some view as outright prejudice.” The Labour party, which is only just recovering from an actual anti-Semitism scandal, has been spearheading the attack. One obscure MP told BuzzFeed:
Nobody holding those views has a place in modern democracy. The prime minister needs to finally show some leadership and sack Scruton with an investigation into how he was appointed in the first place.
But what are “those views,” exactly? Scruton has written hundreds of thousands of words over the course of his career. So where to start? A good place would be Critical Thinking 101 — identify the thesis.
First, Red Roar objected to this sentence uttered by Scruton in a 2014 lecture: “Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire.”
Awkward declarative clauses . . . followed by an argument opposing anti-Semitism:
Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire. People in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century, and do not distinguish nationalism from the kind of national loyalty that I have defended in this talk. Moreover, as the world knows, indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews.
Scruton argued that Jews in Eastern Europe have legitimate grievances against nationalism and that anti-Semitism continues to pose a serious problem to Hungarian society. Red Roar also claimed that Scruton is cozy with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, which the Guido Fawkes blog rebuts:
In fact Scruton only knows Orban because he helped him and a few other Hungarian students set up an independent law school in the late 1980s in Communist Czechoslovakia. Scruton lectured in that law school, as part of his drive to get young people to work for their country’s freedom. Attacking Scruton for this is pathetic …
Scruton actually took on Orban and lobbied hard against his move to close down the Central European University in Budapest last year. The university founded by George Soros. … Attempting to force Scruton out of a non-political government appointment on the basis of quotations taken out of context and a highly selective use of historical facts is dishonest. The only people guilty of illiberalism are the ones pursuing student union-style attempts to purge the ranks of civil society of any vestiges of conservative thought. …
Next, some have taken issue with the following extract from Scruton’s 2005 lecture “Sexual Morality for Heathens”:
Whole new crimes have come into existence, like this supposed crime of “date rape.” What that means is — of course there is no such crime — but nevertheless, when a woman cries “date rape,” what she means is “the whole thing went too quickly,” you know, “I was not prepared,” and so consent is withdrawn, as it were, in retrospect.
Before introducing this argument, however, Scruton spent nearly 30 minutes framing the incoherency of “consent” as a moral stand-alone: Part of which is the severity of the crime of rape. In other words, the premise that “sex is merely a pleasurable sensation” contradicts the intuitive belief that rape is among the worst violations possible. Throughout his lecture, Scruton argued that interpersonal relationships are an essential facet of sexual morality, which is why “date rape” as a separate category misses the point. He was not negating consent but adding to it. As he said in the same talk: “The victim of rape has not just been abused and taken advantage of, but her being has somehow been destroyed. She’s been desecrated.”
Scruton also faces the charge of “homophobia,” apparently because of a 2007 article for the Telegraph in which he wrote of homosexuality: “it is not normal.” (For his views on this topic in more than four words, see his book Sexual Desire.) And accusations of “Islamophobia” for describing “Islamophobia” as a “propaganda-word.” (For more on this, see his book The West and the Rest. Or read my interview with him from earlier this year.)

As Scruton himself has pointed out, reputational destruction is now a bully tactic to drive conservatives from public life. But unlike those punished for historic dumb-joke tweets (such as Toby Young, who was fired from the Office for Students), Scruton is being attacked for a serious contribution to modern philosophy. It’s the very same contribution that earned him the title of knight, fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature and which — when explored even slightly — exposes the idiocy of his detractors.
That such a witch hunt has taken off in the first place is really only explainable by sheer ignorance or prejudice, neither of which bodes well for public discourse. Nor for interesting thought.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Film Reviews: 'A Star is Born'

The Real Subject of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” Is the Star Power of Bradley Cooper

By Richard Brody
October 5, 2018

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The main love story in the new version of “A Star Is Born” is the one between Bradley Cooper the director and Bradley Cooper the actor. Few recent movies come to mind in which filmmakers give themselves as many lingering, emotion-milking closeups. At times, the film plays nearly like a feature-length sample reel sent to the Academy for a Best Actor award. Fortunately, there’s much more to this remake, which is more engaging and affecting over all than it is at its most self-regarding moments. But it’s hard to shake the sense of a shift in Cooper’s version of this classic Hollywood story of a man’s star falling while a woman’s ascends, one that emphasizes the self-punishing, self-sacrificing aspects of the male side of the equation. In its depiction of the musician’s self-scourging for the public’s good, it edges into turf occupied lately by “Whiplash.”

Cooper (who co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) plays Jackson Maine, a singer-songwriter-guitar hero who plays hard-edged, country-inflected rock in stage shows of an unadorned, down-home openness. He’s also an alcoholic and drug addict (he abuses prescription medication) who, after a show, empties his last bottle in the back of his limo and has his driver, Phil (Greg Grunberg), deliver him to the first bar they find. It turns out to be a drag bar, where a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga) takes her turn onstage. Where the drag performers do lip-synch numbers, Ally sings; Jackson (who goes by Jack) is captivated.

He takes her to another bar—his kind of bar, a “cop bar”—and, after a fight breaks out and Ally punches a man, gets her to an all-night supermarket for a bag of frozen vegetables to ice her bruised knuckles. After a rapturously romantic chat session in the supermarket’s parking lot, Ally sings, first softly, then beltingly. When, at his next show, Jack pulls her onstage with him, they sing a duet of a song that she wrote. The audience goes mad, the video goes viral, and the movie’s title is realized with a suddenness that’s exemplary of the digital age.

Though the movie is filled with detail and runs more than two hours, it’s a drama in a hurry; it packs its dose of emotion and rushes on, leaving a viewer to feel less stoked than milked. The instant connection shared by Jack and Ally (if she has a last name, it doesn’t register) quickly turns romantic. Jack is seen to be newly happy; he drinks less, hardly at all, and his road manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott), who’s also his older brother, says that he hasn’t played so well in a long time.

But there’s trouble in musical paradise: as Ally goes backstage after a triumphant concert appearance with Jack, a prominent producer named Rez (Rafi Gavron) pulls her aside and tells her that he can help her make her wildest career dreams come true. She says that she has to talk to Jack—but if she does, that conversation isn’t seen. Ally signs (also offscreen) with Rez—there are no lawyers, no negotiations, no contracts, and, above all, nothing about that great taboo, money—and Rez starts making decisions about her career. He puts her face on a minimalist billboard with the sole legend “Ally,” gets her to change her hair color, saddles her with backup dancers and a choreographed stage routine, for which she spends much time rehearsing, and puts her voice in front of slickly produced tracks that, at first, seem to cramp her style.

There’s an artistic manifesto embedded in Cooper’s version of “A Star Is Born,” and Jack both delivers it and embodies it: the cult of the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist. What Ally sings in the drag club is Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” and, though Jack is captivated by her voice and presence, he soon asks her whether she writes her own songs. She responds that she lacks confidence to do so. In their parking-lot conversation, Jack art-splains that all that matters is having “something to say” and “saying it so people will want to hear” what one has to say. Then she sings her song for him, the one with which he makes her a star.

This is a resolutely retro vision, even if Cooper fills his remake with contemporary touches. The first version of “A Star Is Born,” starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, about an aspiring actress (not a singer), dates from 1937. The next two were synchronized with the musical worlds of their times, and spaced roughly twenty years apart. The one starring Judy Garland, as a jazz-and-standards singer who finds movie stardom in musicals, and James Mason, is from 1954; the next, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, set in the world of rock and pop, is from 1976. At that pace, the next remake should have come in the nineteen-nineties, when the big change in the music business was the rise of hip-hop. But Hollywood wasn’t ready to make that movie—and apparently still isn’t.

Instead, Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” has the throwback air of a feature-length “disco sucks” rally, which ends with the grudging and grim resignation to the fact that it’s here to stay. There’s a recurring riff involving Ally’s father (Andrew Dice Clay), a livery driver and formerly aspiring singer whose idol and role model is Frank Sinatra—and who locates the source of Sinatra’s power not in his pipes but in his personality, in taking the stage and becoming Frank Sinatra. That’s exactly the opposite of what Cooper, in the voice of Jackson, is driving at—and, to make sure that nobody misses it, he delivers the riff frequently, in a variety of forms, as when Jack warns Ally, before an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” “They won’t be listening forever, so just tell them what you want to say.”

In this and other ways, “A Star Is Born” drives home a fantasy version of unfiltered artistic authenticity. Jack has no producer; though he has made some recordings, he doesn’t record in the course of the film, doesn’t discuss it. There are no reporters, no publicity, no interview. Jackson Maine is, in effect, a high-level independent whose relationship to his music and his public is immediate, unmediated—an exposed position that leaves him open to his inspirations, unprotected before his weaknesses and impulses. Jack’s substance-abuse issues are aptly described and presented as a disease, but his willingness and ability to cope with them is viewed as inseparable from his artistic identity and fortunes; so, for that matter, is the impaired hearing and tinnitus from which he suffers. (His unwillingness to take steps to protect his hearing is depicted as a creative decision.)

What Cooper persuasively depicts is the fear factor of stardom—the sense of vulnerability, of a position that’s both powerful and fragile. In a recent profile of him, in the Times, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Cooper expresses his reticence about being profiled, and his guardedness is a mark of wisdom about the process—an awareness that an unguarded phrase can suddenly become the big story in lieu of the movie itself. His direction of “A Star Is Born” is similarly both expressive and retentive; he displays much emotion, but it’s constricted and context-deprived, cut off from ambiguity, resonance, and presence—he’s giving, but only so much and no more, and only exactly what he wants to give. (For instance, concert scenes are done in looming closeups, and one moment, when the stage is seen from behind and overhead, with the whole band and the crowd, is a liberation of the eye and the mind, but it lasts a mere second or so.)

The film’s emotional shorthand works to Cooper’s onscreen advantage and Lady Gaga’s disadvantage. Her singing is dominant, her performance fascinatingly elusive and full of life—she doesn’t so much deliver a single feeling on cue as command the screen and gradually unfold a complex range of emotions. But Cooper’s impatient direction never gives her the screen time to flourish, and the camera seems to cut away from her just as her moments of performance are beginning.

This, too, is in keeping with what Cooper appears to be saying. His subject is the pursuit of self-expression, the sharing of a space of performance in an inherently collaborative art form with a new and reinvigorating artistic collaborator. There’s a moment in which, in her first flush of success, Ally provokes Jack, calling him “jealous.” But the film is made in such a way as to spare Cooper any fear of jealousy: its vision of self-expression is, above all, the expression of one self.

Bradley Cooper Is Too Handsome to Play a Coke-Snorting Has-Been

By Rex Reed
October 5, 2018

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First things first. Lady Gaga can act. For his first time out of the chute as a director, Bradley Cooper knows where to position the camera. And in spite of the fact that the fifth slog around the track for A Star is Born is not in the same class with—and nowhere near the same monumental motion achievement as—George Cukor’s 1954 masterpiece, written by Moss Hart with a spectacular score by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin and starring Judy Garland and James Mason at the zenith of their careers, this re-hash proves that a threadbare story can still thrill a new generation if treated with style and passion. So it is far from perfect, but the entertainment value is undeniable.

That being said, I must also add that the fawning critical slobber being dumped on this film, while not exactly misguided, is still very much out of synch with reality. One moron in Chicago {Richard Roeper} even calls it “the greatest Star is Born of all time,” which is not only ridiculous but a bald-faced lie.

Switching the love story between a girl on the rise and a star on the decline to the world of rock and roll has been done already, with disastrous results, in the unconvincing 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. As a writer trying a new approach, Bradley Cooper is no Moss Hart, but his screenplay, written with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, has its moments.
As an actor, Cooper is still too handsome and too young to play a hairy, coke-snorting has-been on the road to alcoholic ruin. Even when he’s passed out cold on the side of the road, he looks ready for a closeup. But, as anyone lucky enough to have seen him on Broadway in The Elephant Man already knows, this boy can act. Playing a worn-out rock star named Jackson Maine, he also proves he can play the guitar and scream out a tsunami of acid rock with unexpected volume and hysterical abandon.
As the ingenue with potential he grooms and marries, Lady Gaga makes stars as a singing waitress and ambitious amateur named Ally whom he accidentally discovers singing “La Vie en Rose” in a gay bar that features drag queens. Noisy and somewhat creepy, she works diligently on her way up the ladder of success with Cooper as her mentor, the fading rock legend on his way down.
Cooper the director gives her all the best angles and favors her in almost every scene, while Cooper the actor stays out of the center spot. The music is indescribably horrible; anyone who knows anything about real music—or cares—is advised to return immediately to the lush soundtrack of the Judy Garland version and listen to historic vocal on “The Man That Got Away.” Then you get the true understanding of how an unknown can become a star through sheer supersonic talent.
The high-voltage ghost of Judy Garland haunts every frame and illuminates every shadow in the film, and Lady Gaga seems to know it. In an early scene, she is walking down a dark alley to the street. Out of nowhere, she starts singing a set of lyrics her fan base ignores, considering the scene superfluous and baffling. What they don’t realize is that she’s singing the verse to Judy Garland’s most durable theme song, a little ditty called “Over the Rainbow.”
Updated with orange hair and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, Lady Gaga (is it OK to call her “Miss Gaga”?) achieves the epitome of fame in 2018, which includes three Grammy nominations and a guest appearance with “the ubiquitous Alec Baldwin,” while Cooper plots his own suicide. Despite obvious parallels, the script never achieves the insight, scope, of richness of detail in the Moss Hart script from 1954. Oddly, the best scene in the film is the truthful, long-awaited explosion between the rock star at rock bottom and his long-suffering older brother and manager, played with electrifying appeal by Sam Elliott, and Lady Gaga isn’t even it.
The biggest shock to me is not her voice, but the backbreaking toil that has gone into concealing every trace of her voluminous tattoos by slathering her with tons of body makeup. There’s nary a tattoo, even in her nude scenes. But even if, in my opinion, she’s not a real movie star, it’s nice to watch her performance develop from beginning to end and grow, highlighting a timeless movie with renewed elements of tragedy and love.
This review originally stated that ‘A Star Is Born’ was Lady Gaga’s acting debut, which is not the case. Whether or not Rex liked her in ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ remains unclear.
Lady Gaga Tips the Scales in Bradley Cooper's 'A Star is Born'

By Anthony Lane
October 8th Issue

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In the beginning was George Cukor. In 1932, he made “What Price Hollywood?,” in which Constance Bennett plays a waitress who hungers to be a movie queen. She gets her break, thanks to Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), a decent director and a lousy drunk. Fortune functions like a pair of scales: as she rises, he must fall. The same process affected Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in William Wellman’s “A Star Is Born” (1937), the title that has stuck ever since. Next up was Judy Garland, in 1954, with Cukor back in charge, and James Mason on the alcoholic skids. By now, the fable had become a musical, and so it was again in 1976, when Kris Kristofferson was defeated by Barbra Streisand’s vast voice and the untamable majesty of her perm. Here, in short, is a story that never dies.

Now it’s back. “A Star Is Born” has undergone yet another rebirth, and the midwife is Bradley Cooper. He wrote the film, with Eric Roth and Will Fetters; he directed it; he takes the leading role of Jackson Maine; he sings the tunes and plays guitar; and it’s more than likely that he did the makeup, the animal wrangling, and the on-set catering. If he wasn’t up at 4 a.m. to make scrambled eggs for the crew, I want to know why.

At the start, we see Jackson onstage, in the open air, facing a mighty throng that sways like the sea. In consort with an expert bunch of musicians (played by Neil Young’s backing band, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real), Jackson gives his devotees the gnarly, hairy, hard-driving sound for which they yearn. His songs are beefed up with old-school earnestness, except when they’re tender with old-school regret. Leaving the premises after the gig, he lowers his head, beneath the brim of his hat, as if in shame. Celebrities tend to seek refuge from their fans, but this guy looks like he’s fleeing himself.

Ducking into his limo, Jackson reaches for a bottle of gin. It’s not enough, though, and he asks his driver to hunt for a late-night bar. Anywhere will do. They find a drag bar, where Jackson settles down and drinks in the entertainment. The high spot is a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga), who, refusing to be cowed by a mere cliché, belts out “La Vie en Rose.” So far, so camp. Then, at the climax, she lies back, close to Jackson, and slowly turns her face to his. She fills the frame; their eyes meet and greet; boom. Whatever it is, she’s got it. In that vertiginous instant, Jackson falls for her, and we foresee, with a shiver of premonition, that the world will follow suit.

Ideally, Cooper’s film would end after the first hour—after this first night, in fact, that Jackson and Ally spend together. They don’t have sex; they just hang out. She gets into a fight, and he buys frozen peas to soothe her swollen hand. He listens to her sing in a parking lot, then drops her off at home, where she lives with her father (Andrew Dice Clay). All that’s good about the film is in these scenes, with their clash of the coarse and the delicate, and you can sense the scales beginning to tip. Everything hereafter feels hokey by comparison, not least the swiftness of the heroine’s ascent. Like her counterpart in “What Price Hollywood?,” Ally used to wait tables, but within a day or two she has flown on a private jet and made her début in concert, hauled into the spotlight by her adoring superstar beau and fêted on social media. Before long, she has a recording deal and three Grammy nominations, while Jackson’s contribution to the Grammys is a bit part in a Roy Orbison tribute. Worse, and more ignominious, is to come.

“A Star Is Born” is very much a product of our times. Jackson Maine’s problems date back to a wretched childhood, guaranteeing our pity and love, whereas Fredric March and James Mason gave the hero a nasty and dangerous edge. Cooper’s camera crowds the characters, getting in their faces, and the dialogue is determinedly foul with oaths: “If you don’t dig deep into your fucking soul, you won’t have legs.” What? In striving to make the whole thing rough and rooted, Cooper slakes our need for the apparently authentic, and yet the story he tells, with its sudden shock of fame, is little more than a fairy tale. The result is pure Saturday-night moviegoing: it gives you one hell of a wallop, then you wake up on Sunday morning without a scratch. (By contrast, the emotional nakedness of the Judy Garland version, poised within formal compositions, can still reduce me to rubble.) To be fair, what does linger, from this latest effort, is Lady Gaga. Alone among pop royalty, she could walk down the street without being recognized, such is her reliance on costumes and confected personas. Here, early on, in T-shirt and jeans, she could be anyone; hence, of course, the thrill of her blooming into a somebody. A star is born.

Democrats and the Press vs. Collegiality

By Roger Kimball
November 8, 2018
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Jim Acosta at Wednesday's press conference.
The world is divided into two classes of people: those who think that CNN’s Jim Acosta is “rude” and a “terrible person” and Jim Acosta.
Supporting the former opinion are episodes like Wednesday’s press conference at the White House at which Acosta once again played his version of charades, acting out the word “obnoxious.” He does it well, even if the routine has become tiresome through ceaseless repetition. It wasn’t all tedium, however, since Acosta this time earned himself a suspension of his White House press credentials by pushing away a female staffer who endeavored to take the microphone away from him after the president attempted to move on to another reporter. Your time was up, Jim. You should have sat down and behaved yourself.
I should explain that in the latter group, small but vocal, I include not just the excitable Jim Acosta himself but also that moist band of preening scribes who believe that by being rude and editorializing at press conferences they are somehow reporting the news. Let’s call that whole group “Jim Acosta” in scare quotes.
To be frank, I would have preferred that the Republicans had held the House on Tuesday. But the president was right: Tuesday was a great victory, not for Republicans, exactly, but for Donald Trump and his robust vision of a vibrant, free, and prosperous America. This election was a referendum on the “principled realism” that the president has articulated as the pivot of his approach to both foreign and domestic policy.
As the president observed, Tuesday’s vote, with a net gain in the Senate of three or four seats (as I write, the good people of Arizona are still doing their sums) was the largest Senate gain in a first midterm election since 1962. The losses in the House—currently 28—were, by historical standards, very modest, giving the Democrats only a slim majority of five. This is what that unhappy professional NeverTrumper Gabe Schoenfeld described as a “drubbing.” I am thinking of getting Gabe an English dictionary for his birthday.
Donald Trump famously likes making “deals.” In the world of diplomacy, the word “negotiation” is preferred, not least because it has five syllables rather than just one.
What it boils down to is this: Donald Trump likes agreeing with all parties to an issue on arrangements that will benefit everyone. Hence his cheeriness about the fact that the Democrats narrowly took the House on Tuesday. (His pleasure depended on both elements, the victory and its narrowness.) There are a lot of issues that the country faces which require bipartisan participation to solve. Serious infrastructure problems, for example, as well as health care, immigration, and taxes.
But here’s the thing. A democratic republic works best when every legitimate interest has a place at the table. “Collegiality” should be the name of the game. The president offered a large olive branch at his press conference, slathering praise on Nancy Pelosi, for example (“hardworking,” “effective,” “loves our country”). The press reacted with reflexive hostility: “Do you regret some of the things you said during the campaign?” “Do you regret the ad that you did that was branded as racist ad and even Fox News wouldn’t air it?” Etc.
Meanwhile, incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that he was planning to go “all-in” on pushing the Russian collusion investigation (remember that?) and impeaching Brett Kavanaugh for perjury.
Good luck with all that, Jerry.
What’s just happened with the midterm elections is that the Democrats (and NeverTrump Republicans) have been pushed from the sodden, marshy ground over which they have been driven for the last couple of years onto a tiny spit of dry land. Donald Trump has offered them a bridge to sunlit, upland meadows. He is in a very strong position now. His first 21 months have been extraordinarily successful. The economy is on fire. Unemployment is at historic lows. Consumer confidence is high. The litany of success is long and impressive.
Meanwhile, with perhaps 53 or 54 seats in the Senate, the president is in a position to have his judicial and other nominations approved without unnecessary angst. With Jeff “I recuse myself” Sessions out as attorney general, more rational oversight of Robert Mueller’s seemingly interminable investigation is likely to materialize. It will be interesting to see whether people like John Brennan, the Guss-Hall-voting, Trump-hating former head of the CIA, and James Comey, the self-righteous, Trump-hating former head of the FBI, are called to account for their lies and leaking of classified information.
Here’s what I think will happen. There will continue to be some embarrassing media folks like Jim Acosta who mistake rudeness and incivility for the pursuit of truth, just as there will be a few politicians like Jerrold Nadler who want to upend the government. But if Nadler really tries to frame articles of impeachment against Justice Kavanaugh, you should listen to the cringe-making sounds of silence that greet the effort. The idea that Kavanaugh, the most monstrously abused Supreme Court nominee in history, committed perjury during his testimony is grotesque. And the idea that Nadler could get any meaningful support for the effort is absurd.
There is good reason to suspect that the hideous treatment of Kavanaugh, his family, and his friends during the show trial that was his confirmation hearing turned the public decisively against the Democrats. It’s a fun fact that every single Democrat Senator who voted against Kavanaugh and who was up for election lost. All of them. Joe Manchin, the sole Democrat who voted for Kavanaugh, won. There’s a moral there that Senators Spartacus Booker and Kamala Harris could profit from, though I hope they will not.
It is possible that the Democrats and their megaphones in the media will continue to be rude, minatory, and obstructionist. In that case, nothing much will get done in Congress and we will have a spectacle of snarling conflict ahead of us. The difference going forward is that Donald Trump is increasingly popular, has behind him a long list of accomplishments, and, more to the point, he has a generous margin of support in the Senate and an acting attorney general who is not mortally handicapped by his self-imposed rustication.
It is more likely, I think, that more sober heads will prevail. There is a lot that the Congress and the president can accomplish for the good of the country. It’s time to take our eyes off the distracting freak show on offer from people like Jim Acosta, Jerrold Nadler, and Maxine Waters and turn our attention to solving the nation’s problems. This is what Donald Trump has on offer. It’s what the vast majority of people in the country want, too. The returns from the midterms were barely tabulated before the histrionics from the Left seemed somehow more distant and less relevant to issues of the day. The president’s press conference Wednesday confirmed that reality. As that old Arab proverb put it, the dogs are barking but the caravan moves on.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Revenge of the Nerds

By Michael Walsh
November 7, 2018

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy during a news conference on Capitol Hill, November 15, 2016. (Yuri Gripas, AFP Getty)
It was not the best of times, nor was it the worst of times. Tuesday’s epic nothingburger of an off-year election was like Game Three of any given World Series, worth spilling oceans of ink over by paid-shill sportswriters eager to exhibit their chicken-entrail-reading skills, only to have their prognosticative prose instantly rendered fishwrap and birdcage lining by events the next day. So let’s all take a deep breath and, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, reflect upon the epochal results of Midterm 2018.
Jeff Sessions was fired. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the play was a snooze.
Our collective obsession with transient election results—and our cocksure belief in the their predictive value—is akin to the novice Rotisserie Baseball player’s classic error in thinking that what happens in April is likely to obtain through September and right into the Fall Classic: the Hall of Fame is littered with the corpses of flash-in-the-pan flameouts. For statistics, and election results, can only be evaluated over time; it doesn’t matter when they happen as long as they do happen, and can be put into the proper statistical context at the end of a finite period. In baseball, that’s a season. In politics, it’s a lifetime, and even beyond.
Which means that Tuesday either was the Most Important Election of Our Lifetime, or just another day when Ted Williams went 0-for-3 on his way to hitting .406 in 1941. Right now, in the middle of the season, we don’t know. We can’t know. Over time, you can see the 0-fers as part of the overall record, and understand that failure is part of winning. Only a churl can argue the counter-factual alternative—that Williams might have hit .410 or higher with a few lucky dinks, dunks, and drops. As the old Yiddish proverb has it: Az di bobe volt gehat beytsim volt zi geven mayn zeyde. And as Casey Stengel said, you can look it up.

But are the media sportswriters or umpires? Fox News’ egregious error in calling the House for the Democrats before California poured itself its first glass of Chardonnay was reminiscent of the bad old days of the Carter-Reagan election, but for today’s media it’s more important to affect the course of an election than it is simply to report on it. Best to treat CNN and the rest as the shamans they are, and move on.
In other words, here we are. For Trump, who claimed victory Wednesday morning, the outcome was practically an alloyed triumph: the GOP increased its lead in the Senate  and eliminated a host of RINOs in the House, whether through self-inflicted, “retirement” or outright defeat—including, crucially, Speaker Paul Ryan, but also including ineffectual cowards like California’s Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, as well as embarrassing clowns like soon-to-be-former Nevada senator Dean Heller. It’s too bad that House Freedom Caucus stalwarts like Dave Brat of Virginia can be caught in the prop wash, but he, like other conservative candidates who were defeated in the primaries by more centrist Republicans, were poorly served by their chiefs of staff and campaign advisers.
For make no mistake: it was Ryan, California’s Kevin McCarthy, and other nerd members of the widely loathed House “leadership” who just gifted a quivering, virginal nation with Maerose Prizzi as the once and future Speaker of House, wielding her outsized gavel with all the enthusiasm of one of the Marquis de Sade’s priapic bishops. Ryan’s wonkish ineptitude and passive-aggressive malevolence also delivered his home state, Wisconsin, to the tender mercies of the Democrat Party, and while the pride of Janesville may well return home to his first love—delivering copies of the Milwaukee Sentinel door-to-door along his paper route—he more than likely will stay plopped on the doorstep of the K Street banditos, there to feather his nest with tales of derring-do during his heroic first two years of #Resistance against the ogre Trump.

So the loss of the House is, from Trump’s point of view, addition by subtraction: he gets rid of Ryan et al. as “friends,” adds Pelosi and her rum crew—including the ineffable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!—as cartoon enemies; enhances his majority in the Senate (through which the next generation of two of federal judges will now pass); and positions himself over the next two years for 2020. For now he knows who his friends are and, even more important, his enemies: better to be attacked from the front than stabbed in the back.
The results of Election 2018 have made the 2020 battlefield less like the court of the Borgias than the plains of Phillipi, where Octavian and Antony destroyed the plotters Brutus and Cassius, avenged Caesar, and set the Roman Empire on course and in motion. For, absent the RINOs, Trump can turn his attention toward the decisive battle two years hence, between the country as founded, and the new Socialist-Justice Republic the Democrats now so openly desire.
Which brings us back Jeff Sessions. The hapless former senator from Alabama is one of Washington’s nice guys, but in his case the truth of Leo Durocher’s famous maxim was never more evident. By resigning from the Senate to take the attorney general’s job, Sessions opened the path for the election of Doug Jones, when the spectacularly ill-advised candidacy of Roy Moore crashed and burned. By immediately and groundlessly recusing himself from the bogus “Russian collusion” investigation, Sessions nullified whatever value he might have brought to the incoming administration. And by remaining obdurately in place—despite having been manifestly manipulated out of his job by Rod “All Roads Lead To” Rosenstein, his malicious deputy—he became a cancer on the presidency.
So, bottom line: GOP increases its majority in the Senate. Trump gets the increasingly incoherent Pelosi as a punching bag. Nothing the House does for the next two years will amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world; legislation will die in the Senate and should anything escape to the Resolute Desk, it immediately will be vetoed by the president. Thanks to Harry Reid’s hubris, the next couple of Supreme Court appointments will sail through the upper chamber.
And in 2020, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or some other superannuated Boomer fossil will lose to Donald J. Trump. The president should send Ryan a case of champagne, appoint a new attorney general forthwith, get on with the business of governing, and leave the rest to the electorate 24 months from now.