E. Haig’s DVDs for a Stay-Home Summer Night

July 11th, 2014

              If you’re a fan of fine cinema, summer, with most theatrical releases easy to ignore, is a good time to catch up on older films you may have missed or might want to view again.  Many films from decades past (or beyond) are joys to see, either for the first time or because it’s been too long since you last viewed them.  So, with the caveat that not all of these are certifiably great films, here are twelve that make our list of “highly recommended” if you haven’t seen them and “worth another viewing” if you have.

              “American Graffiti” (1973) – Now a classic coming-of-age tale, this highly entertaining film marked the debut of Richard Dreyfuss as a major star and George Lucas as a major director.  Set in 1962 in Modesto, the story focuses on one night of cruising the main drag in town as Dreyfuss and Ron Howard work out their teenage angst.  It is full of humor with just a little pathos thrown in for good measure.

              “Children of Heaven (1997-Iranian) – This lovely “small” film tells the tale of an eight-year-old boy desperately trying to replace the single pair of his sister’s shoes that he caused to be lost.  It touches on the values of family and perseverance and integrity and will resonate with anyone who has ever been a child.

              “David and Lisa” (1962) – A film about disturbed teens who want to be freed of their afflictions might not sound like an uplifting experience, but this gem is that and more.  Marked by beautiful portrayals of the two key youths (Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin) and their committed shrink (Howard da Silva), this Frank Perry film will touch you if you have even a very small heart.

              “Dinner at Eight” (1933) – George Cukor directed an all-star cast (including John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke and Wallace Beery) in this delightfully entertaining tale about a hostess’s need to fill out a formal dinner table and the lives of the folks who are potential invitees. 

              “Fargo” (1996) – We haven’t seen the new hit TV series (on the fx network), but if it is anywhere near as good as this masterpiece by the Coen Brothers, it must be terrific.  The film made stars of William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, who play a pair of losers who concoct and try to carry out a lame-brained kidnapping with hilariously disastrous results.  The film is violent and bloody, but you’ll chuckle throughout.

              “Lilies of the Field” (1963) – Another “small” film that is too easy to overlook, this one got Sidney Poitier his well-deserved best acting Oscar.  In it he plays Homer Smith, an itinerant traveling handyman who happens upon a group of nuns (immigrants from Germany) who are intent on building a chapel in the New Mexico desert.  Homer gets drafted as the contractor to get the job done.  Wondrous consequences ensue.

              “Marty” (1954) – This Paddy Chayefsky script gave Ernest Borgnine an Oscar and won the best picture nod as well.  It’s a film for the ordinary people of the world, which is to say, all of us.  In it, Borgnine finds love and then struggles with peer pressure and self-doubt.  In an age of hooking up and e-dating, the film holds up remarkably well.

              “The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) – Anthony Quinn stars as the mayor of a small Italian town that needs to hide its cache of a million bottles of wine from the occupying German army during World War II.  Can the townspeople join forces to outsmart the Nazis?  And where do you hide that much wine?  Anna Magnani is Quinn’s wife, and Virna Lisi is the town’s seductive distraction for the German top brass.

              “Secrets and Lies” (1996) – Mike Leigh’s film offers an upbeat look at how ordinary people can find new outlooks from extraordinary events in their lives.  It’s a film that moves subtly from being emotionally heart-wrenching to being surprisingly funny.  In other words, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry.  Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall lead a fine cast. 

              “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – Contemplate this story: Sherlock Holmes is tricked by Dr. Watson into meeting Sigmund Freud so Freud can cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction.  But Holmes quickly becomes embroiled in a mystery that Freud must help him solve.  A great cast includes Alan Arkin (Freud), Nicol Williamson (Holmes), Robert Duvall (Watson), and Laurence Olivier (Moriarity).  

              “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) – Atom Egoyan’s masterpiece is a dark, haunting tale that focuses on an attorney who seeks clients in a town that has been devastated by a horrific school bus accident that has killed most of the town’s children.  The film touches on many aspects of the human condition and is hard to shake.  This one isn’t for everyone but has rewards for those who like to ponder metaphysical issues.

              “Women in Love” (1969) – Ken Russell’s take on D. H. Lawrence’s novel stars Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed and Jennie Linden as lovers in pre-World War I England.  The film was controversial when it premiered (primarily for the nude wrestling scene between Bates and Reed), but it fully captures the mood of the novel and still resonates today.

              All twelve of these films are readily available through all the usual access channels and on-line centers.  Enjoy!


Baseball 2014: A Mid-Season Summary

July 11th, 2014

              Baseball’s All-Star Game traditionally marks the midway point in its season.  It actually takes place a little past the halfway mark, but the break provides a good opportunity to see what surprises have occurred and what developments have been about as expected.  And by my count, there have been many more of the former than the latter.  Here’s a look at the pennant races in each league.

              In the American League, as expected, the Detroit Tigers broke out to an early lead in the Central Division.  With a strong starting staff (anchored by Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez) and a powerful lineup (led by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez), the Tigers have only been threatened briefly to this point (by the Kansas City Royals, who have slipped since catching Detroit about a month ago).  Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota don’t appear to measure up as real contenders, although the White Sox have a rookie of the year candidate in power hitting first baseman Jose Abreu and a Cy Young-quality ace in Chris Sale.

              Over in the West, the Oakland A’s have carried the best record in both leagues for over a month, and they’ve done it without any standout superstars (although third basemen Josh Donaldson is considered one by astute observers who look beyond his mediocre batting average).  And then, just last week, General Manager Billy Beane (he of “Moneyball” fame) pulled off a legit steal of a trade with the Chicago Cubs, picking up two quality starters (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) in exchange for a few highly regarded prospects. 

              The A’s chief competition in the second half of the season figures to come from the L.A. Angels (of Anaheim), who have the game’s best overall player (Mike Trout, this era’s Willie Mays) along with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.  The Seattle Mariners spent $240 million (for a ten-year contract) for former Yankees’ star Robinson Cano, who, together with ace pitcher King Felix Hernandez, has Seattle fans excited. 

              The East was supposed to be the AL’s strongest division, but it has been anything but that as all five teams have struggled.  The surprise in the first half has been the Toronto Blue Jays, last year’s biggest disappointment after spending a bundle to load up some big names.  This year they have actually produced, to a point.  After surging to first place (behind sluggers Jose Batista and Edwin Encarnacion and pitchers Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey), the Jays have slipped behind the Baltimore Orioles.  But the O’s hold on the lead may not last either.  The division is really ripe for the plucking and the Yankees (old but still capable of scoring runs), Red Sox (underperforming as a team) and the Tampa Bay Rays (trying to crawl back after a horrendous first half) could all contend.

              Over in the National League, the surprise team has been the Milwaukee Brewers, who broke fast and have maintained their hold on first place in the Central Division.  But the other three contenders (forget about the Cubs, who are still building for a run at a title in two or three years – some things never change) figure to make significant runs before the season ends. 

              The Cardinals have been clobbered by injuries to the pitching staff (and, most recently, a devastating one to their all-star catcher, Yadier Molina) and have not hit their stride offensively, but they still have Adam Wainwright (a strong Cy Young contender), along with a rookie who could be another Mike Trout in Oscar Tavares.  The Pittsburgh Pirates also have reasons to be hopeful, starting with last year’s MVP, Andrew McCutchen.  And the Cincinnati Reds may just be getting their act together (although having Joey Votto on the disabled list right now isn’t helping).

              For the second year in a row, everyone is waiting for the Washington Nationals to break away and become the best team in the league.  They have all the ingredients, led by hitters Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Werth and pitchers Stephen Strasberg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, but under rookie manager Matt Williams, they have been hot and cold and are currently in another dog fight with the Atlanta Braves. 

              The Braves were hurt by season-long injuries to top pitchers Kris Medlan and Brandon Beachy, but they are still right there, led by pitcher Julio Teheran, first baseman Freddie Freeman and slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons.  The surprise team in this division is the Miami Marlins who have a group of young studs, led by slugger Giancarlo Stanton.  But the loss (to season-ending elbow surgery) of last year’s rookie of the year, Jose Fernandez, probably keeps them from contending in September.

              In the NL Western Division, the San Francisco Giants had the best record in baseball after 63 games and appeared to be running away with the N.L West (leading the Dodgers by nine and a half games), but, as they say, it’s a long season.  And within the space of three weeks the Dodgers made up the deficit as they won 16 of 24 while the Giants lost 19 of 25. 

              Depending on which tea leaves you read, either the two teams will now engage in a dogfight for the rest of the season or the Dodgers, with a Yankees-like payroll, will pull ahead and win with relative ease.  (The other teams in the division—Colorado, San Diego and Arizona—are headed for spoiler roles at best.)  For their part, the Dodgers boast a pitching staff that could be the strongest in either league (led by all-stars Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke).  And their starting eight isn’t too shabby either (with names like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzales, Hanley Ramirez and a second-year player you may have heard of named Yasiel Puig).

              Predictions are never smart in baseball, and over the years I’ve made a bunch of ridiculously bad ones.  Just this spring, for example, I picked the Cardinals to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.  A mid-season revision is definitely in order, so let’s go with the Dodgers over the A’s in a repeat of the 1988 series.  That sounds about right, but, as they say, they gotta win ‘em on the field. 

Smart-Phones: Constitutionally Protected Today, but What about Tomorrow?

July 5th, 2014

              Here’s a quickie quiz on the U.S. Constitution: Where, exactly, in the document does the right to privacy appear?

              The answer is “nowhere.”  That’s right; one of the assumed cornerstones of American freedom is not inscribed by any express language in the country’s supreme legal document.  It may well be that the Founders thought the right was so obvious that it didn’t need to be specifically stated, but it is more likely that they never thought about it at all.  Their main concern, after all, was to fashion a way for the thirteen states (the original colonies that formed the union in 1776 and ultimately ratified the Constitution) to agree to be bound by a set of basic rules for how they would be governed. 

              It was only in the immediate aftermath of drafting the basic document that it occurred to those wise men (sadly, women weren’t in on the action), to put together a list of individual rights that the government would be required to recognize.  Those rights quickly took the form of the first ten amendments to the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights identified specific rights (especially in the First Amendment) that were a reaction to the English rule from which the colonists had sought to be freed.  And the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures was written into the fourth of the amendments.

              You’d think that the Founders would have stated clearly and unequivocally that being free from general searches (the old right of the monarch to search his or her subjects at will) was a subset of a specific right to privacy in one’s personal affairs, but they didn’t think to specifically so state.  In fact, a specific right to privacy didn’t become a major concern for the Supreme Court until well into the second century of the nation’s existence.

              It wasn’t until the 1960s, the era of the Warren Court, that the idea of a specific right to privacy was seriously considered by the Court.  Until then, most opinions dealing with the Fourth Amendment had turned on whether the searches of personal property were reasonable, as the Amendment’s express wording required.  That wording, “The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures,” precedes a second clause that reads, “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause …”

              Taking the two clauses together, the Court in a series of cases, determined that the language identified an implicit right to privacy.  The years since have been a struggle, however, as Court opinions have wavered between extending the right in favor of individuals and restricting it in favor of police investigations of criminal activity. 

              At the same time, what may need to be recognized as private has changed as technological advances have occurred.  Fifty years ago, the question was whether telephone calls could be intercepted without a warrant.  The answer was a definitive no. 

              On the other hand, one exception allowed the contents of a briefcase to be searched if it was seized during a lawful arrest.  That kind of warrantless search was permitted under a Court-created exception that allowed arresting police officers to search a circumscribed area incident to an arrest. 

              But technology kept putting new issues before the Court.  Two years ago, it decided that placing a GPS tracking device on a car violated the car owner’s right to privacy because it would then allow the police to track wherever the driver of the car went 24/7.  Too invasive of personal privacy, the Court declared.

              The most recent technological advance has to be smart phones, those devices that almost everyone in modern American society has that store all kinds of personal information.  So what if an arrested suspect is found (through a lawful search incident to the arrest) to be carrying a smart phone?  Can the phone be searched without a warrant, as could a briefcase?  Both could well contain personal information that would be private to the individual.

              The Court considered such a case this year, and just last week it issued its decision.  In a unanimous ruling (9-0), it held that such a search, revealing as it could all the information and personal history of the arrestee, would be in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Instead, the police would have to seek a warrant (from a neutral magistrate) by showing that they had probable cause to justify the search.

              And so the Court now recognizes that a right never clearly stated to even exist in the Constitution does indeed exist as to items of personal property in this technologically advanced new millennium in which we live.  Privacy in your smart phone is now constitutionally protected.

              Ah, but don’t feel entirely secure with that last sentence, because if the Court’s “evolution” on the subject of privacy rights and what items are and are not protected by those rights proves anything, it is that the definition of individual privacy is subject to what the society reasonably accepts and expects to be private. 

              So, with that in mind, think about the advances in social media and how they might affect a future Court decision.  What if, for example, Twitter and Facebook postings become so ubiquitous (if they aren’t already) that society’s reasonable expectation is that they are not private?  And what, then, if not only what one posts but what one reads of other’s posts is not considered to be private?  And what of Google searches that are already understood to be available to any company with a Google contract?  Are they private?  Should they be?

              Are your Amazon purchases private?  What about your Netflix orders?  What about your e-mails and your texts?  Yes, the Court has determined that the contents of a smart phone are constitutionally protected, but what if the specific contents themselves are understood to be unprotected?

              What if, in other words, we, as a society, accept the loss of privacy in our personal interactions to such an extent that we no longer reasonably expect them to be private? 

              If it’s a little late for 1984, a dystopian new world may still be in our future.

Back to Iraq: Obama Continues the Lie

June 27th, 2014

              In his press conference last week, President Obama announced that he would be sending 300 “non-combat” military advisors to Iraq to help the Iraqi military quell the incursion of the Sunni insurgency.  Calling the group a terrorist cell, Mr. Obama identified American interest in the maintenance of Iraq’s “democratic government.”

              All reports indicate that ISIL (the Islamic State of Levant, aka ISIS) is creating havoc in Iraq.  With a fighting force of only several thousand, it has taken over large cities like Mosul in the northwestern part of the country and may constitute a threat to Baghdad itself, especially if the Iraqi fighting forces continue to lay down their arms and flee into the general populace.  The group is said to be more ruthless and violent even than al Qaeda, from which it was reportedly expelled, if Western news reports are to be credited.

              President Obama said in his press conference that the threat ISIL presents is to Iraq, the region, and to “U.S. interests.”  He was, typically, less than candid.  A more honest statement would have been something along these lines:

              “The United States cannot let the oil-rich territory in Iraq and elsewhere in the region fall into the hands of an extremist organization because that entity might then deny the oil to the United States, and the United States needs the oil.  Therefore, I’m taking a limited step toward re-militarizing the region in the hope that it will be enough to thwart the threat ISIL presents.  If that step isn’t enough, I’ll do whatever else I need to do to make sure the oil in Iraq and throughout the region remains available to the United States.  In this regard, I am following the same policy approach that every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower has followed.  We cannot allow our economic security to be threatened by political and military actions that jeopardize our access to the considerable energy supplies that exist in that part of the world.”

              That degree of candor would be courageous to be sure, but it would also be edifying for the American people, as it would then require all of us to contemplate the claimed need (for the oil) and the trade-off the policy suggests to secure it.  I doubt that most Americans understand the claim, let alone analyze its real implications.  Let’s take those one at a time.

              The claim: that the United States needs to maintain access to the oil in the region.  In fact, the U.S. doesn’t get all that much of its oil from the Middle East.  The most recent records indicate that less than ten percent of America’s oil supplies come from that region.  What is important is U.S. dependence on oil from any country, even our own.  In a free market system, oil will be priced, irrespective of its source, based on demand.  If the U.S. is reliant on oil as a principal energy source, then the world-wide price of oil will have an impact on America’s economy.

              In other words, it isn’t having Middle East oil available that is important for U.S. interests; it’s whether the U.S. is needful of oil from any country.  So, as to the claim itself, it is simplistic and bogus.  Yes, we need the flow of oil from the Middle East to be available on the world market, but, no, we don’t need it for our domestic economy. 

              The real implications: that if Middle East oil is no longer available to the United States, the U.S. economy will suffer.  In fact, whatever impact a cut-off of Middle East oil would have on the U.S. would be secondary to the impact it would have to the region where the oil comes from.  Sellers only make money when they sell their product.  If a business entity refuses to sell its product, it only hurts itself.  Thus a cut-off of Middle East oil would directly and immediately affect the economy of the region, which means no more fancy yachts and lavish castles for the monarchs and much more political unrest for them as their populaces grow restive with increased impoverishment. 

              In other words, the U.S. and the oil-dependent industrialized nations really have much more leverage than they realize.  But to use that leverage, they must free themselves from being oil-dependent.  Hence the push for alternative energy sources should be a foreign and domestic policy focus, rather than contemplating yet another military incursion into sovereign territory to create ten more terrorists for every one we kill.

              So why is President Obama, who otherwise appears to be an intelligent man, so unwilling or unable to free himself from the failed policies of his predecessors?  The answer is endemic to our democracy: he’s afraid of losing elections.  In this case, they wouldn’t be his own, of course, because we all assume he won’t be running for anything ever again after he completes his current term.  (Only John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson ever re-entered the political arena after completing a presidential term: Adams ran for and served in the House of Representatives from 1830 to 1848; Johnson served in the Senate briefly before his death in 1875.)  But Obama’s fear is that Democrats would lose future elections, thereby putting his legacy (Obamacare and whatever else he ends up accomplishing) at risk were he to reverse course on a foreign policy that has always sold itself easily to the American electorate.

              Think about it:  Isn’t that how we got into Iraq in the first place?  Yes, Bush and Cheney took us there, but didn’t they scare us into it with the kind of demagogic claptrap that started with “U.S. interests,” magnified by 9/11 and the “war on terrorism”?  And isn’t the Obama doctrine, such as it is, just a slightly milder form of the same claptrap, to wit: “U.S. interests in all events must be protected.”

              Obama tries to sound restrained in his speeches, but speeches aren’t policy.  He’d rather not, but if that oil is at risk, he’ll find a way to commit whatever military steps are needed.  They all will, until we tell them not to.