Sunday, October 30, 2005

Finding another Anakin

With the DVD due out Tuesday, my thoughts wander back to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

I have previously written that after writing episodes 1-3, George Lucas made at least two irretrievable errors: choosing the director of Episode I, and casting the older version of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Actually, perhaps the error was choosing the director for all three episodes, and perhaps Hayden Christensen could have handled the character with a better director than Lucas, but for the sake of this discussion let's assume it was a casting problem.

I've recently had a chance to view the extremely terrific movies Equilibrium and Batman Begins, and I think I've found the guy who should have played Anakin Skywalker: Christian Bale.

The thought clicked as I watched Bale, as Bruce Wayne, being trained in the ninja arts by Liam Neeson, in a scene ("Mind your surroundings") that was very reminiscent of Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was easy to imagine Bale as the impatient Jedi padawan of Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi. Bale also did well handling the evolution of Bruce Wayne into the Batman, just as he had handled the man with a secret in Equilibrium.

I could see Christian Bale as the tormented teenager who becomes the confident but conflicted Jedi warrior descending toward the dark side. Christensen got the teenage angst down all right, but he never sold me as the confident warrior. Again, maybe that's Lucas the director, but maybe a different actor could have sold the character better.

Episode III is still in the same league as Episodes IV and V, but not as good as those earlier films. I still think hiring someone like Spielberg to direct Episode I and child actor Jake Lloyd would have gotten the second trilogy off to a much better start. And maybe Christian Bale as Anakin Skywalker could have rescued Episode II and propelled Revenge of the Sith to the very top of the list, where the climax of a six-film arc belongs.

Between Sith and Serenity, though, it's been a great year for science-fiction films with liberty as a theme. And that's a gorram fact.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bush should nominate Janice Rogers Brown

You really only need to ask one question of a U.S. Supreme Court nominee: Does the Constitution mean what it says? If the answer is "yes," the nominee should be approved.

People For the American Way has a page called "Janice Rogers Brown: In Her Own Words" that purports to be a list of quotes proving that Judge Brown was unqualified for the federal appeals court. To me it's a litany of reasons why she should be elevated to the Supreme Court as soon as possible. Maybe I'm missing something. Or maybe People For the American Way is.

"Some things are apparent. Where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates and our ability to control our own destiny atrophies. The result is: families under siege; war in the streets; unapologetic expropriation of property; the precipitous decline of the rule of law; the rapid rise of corruption; the loss of civility and the triumph of deceit."

"Where government advances – and it advances relentlessly – freedom is imperiled; community impoverished; religion marginalized and civilization itself jeopardized. ...When did government cease to be a necessary evil and become a goody bag to solve our private problems?"

"[W]e no longer find slavery abhorrent. We embrace it. We demand more. Big government is not just the opiate of the masses. It is the opiate. The drug of choice for multinational corporations and single moms; for regulated industries and rugged Midwestern farmers and militant senior citizens."

"Protection of property was a major casualty of the Revolution of 1937…Rights were reordered and property acquired a second class status...It thus became government’s job not to protect property but, rather, to regulate and redistribute it. And, the epic proportions of the disaster which has befallen millions of people during the ensuing decades has not altered our fervent commitment to statism."

And one gem that PFTW missed: "Government is the only enterprise in the world which expands in size when its failures increase." This sounds like my kind of Supreme Court justice!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Who's making all this up?

United States intelligence will be operated by a mysterious operative known only as Jose ...

The White House warns The Onion about improper use of the presidential seal ...

Has reality taken a break only to be replaced by the writers of Saturday Night Live? You gotta wonder ...

Meanwhile, consumer confidence has taken an "unexpected" dip? I don't know, gas prices went to $3 a gallon, three killer hurricanes caused billions of dollars of damage, and we're all gonna die from bird flu ... and it's "unexpected" that people are leary about buying more stuff?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Constitution in Plain English - Part 5 of 10

Halfway through the Bill of Rights, it has become plain that if the Constitution is written in plain English, judges and justices who don't like what it says have obfuscated our rights down the toilet, and a long time ago. But let's slog through the exercise just for the halibut.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb, nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.

Notice the first two words are "no person," not "no citizen." These words apply to anyone who appears as a defendant in U.S. courts, not just any U.S. citizen who's arrested. You can't say the rules of U.S. law don't apply to illegal immigrants or not-POW "enemy combatants," because this Amendment doesn't allow for exceptions (except "except in cases arising in the land or naval forces ... in time of war or public danger"). Argue otherwise and you risk having a cliche in your face: "What part of 'no' don't you understand?"

You can't hold a suspect unless a grand jury has reviewed the evidence and issued an indictment. This is not because the Founders liked bad guys; it is because they didn't trust the tyrannical government whose shackles they had recently broken. They perceived that one day some American tyrant might deign to hold an innocent person for the "infamous crime" of, say, criticizing the U.S. government, and so they emphasized that you need to convince a jury that a real crime was committed.

This is one of the plainest amendments - they seem to get even plainer as we go along, until the 10th Amendment is plain as the nose on your face (oops, getting ahead of myself there) - but the obfuscators have had a field day with it.

You can't be put on trial twice for the same offense, but somehow O.J. Simpson and other alleged murderers have found themselves subject to a "wrongful death" lawsuit even if they've been found innocent of the death, and "sexual predators" have been found to be a special breed of evil people who can and should be held in prison after their terms have expired - not for any crime they have committed, but for the crimes they "might" commit.

You can't be compelled to testify against yourself - "You have the right to remain silent" - but we have seen so many fictional bad guys invoke this right that we "know" the only reason to remain silent is to hide your crime.

You can't be deprived of life, liberty and property without due process of law - but the obfuscators have seized cash, cars and houses from suspects in drug cases on grounds they were "illegally obtained," even though the crime has not yet been proven in court. Japanese-Americans were tossed into detention camps after Pearl Harbor, and "enemy combatants" (who are "not prisoners of war") are being held in detention camps today, and the USAPATRIOT Act allows for "terrorists" to be held indefinitely without being charged.

And they can't take your property for public uses without just compensation - but now, this year, we learn that every use of property is public. In the infamous New Haven, Conn., case, the government can take your land (err, that is, buy your land) if someone of greater means can improve the property and bring in higher tax revenues. Yes, your property has a public use: The "public" uses it to raise tax dollars - and if MegaCondos Inc. or BigBox Stores can make better use of it, the government can seize it from you and give it to them.

A guy at a now-defunct Midwest newspaper recently wrote that the U.S. Constitution effectively doesn't apply anymore, that we basically have a new Constitution that says "all lives and property belong to the president, Congress and courts, which can do anything they damn well please with them." At the halfway point of these ruminations about whether the Bill of Rights means what it says, it's hard to deny that reality. (That guy's column is now off-line; I should see if I have a copy of it around here somewhere.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005


The United States and Saudi Arabia have both hired new intelligence chiefs, but the government from the "free and open" society is withholding the person's identity.

From the BBC and Associated Press: "The chief of the new service will supervise the CIA's espionage operations and co-ordinate all overseas spying, including those of the FBI and the Pentagon. The director of the new agency, whose identity will remain secret and is simply known as 'Jose,' will report directly to the head of the CIA, Porter Goss."

Also from the AP: "King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appointed his half-brother on Saturday to head his Gulf country's general intelligence forces, the official Saudi Press Agency reported ... The new intelligence chief, Prince Mogrin bin Abdel Aziz, 60, has served as a Saudi Air Force pilot and governor of the holy city of Medina."

Now who's waging war on whom because they hate the other's freedom? and who's accountable for hiring Jose?

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Who forged our chains?

My mind keeps drifting back to the scene I used to illustrate my thoughts about "V for Vendetta" last month, and the awesome power of that scene. Without giving away the context, the character's realization that he is the one who's "controlling and constraining" his life immediately sets him truly free.

Tired of lugging all those chains around? Take a second look and see how many of the shackles are of your own making. And of the shackles you forged for yourself, how many of them are imaginary? Sometimes, when you're convinced you're up against a brick wall, the solution is to try walking through the wall to see if it's really there.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The threat of martial law

In a column called "Giving Democracy The Bird," Ted Rall explains why some of us are so alarmed at President Bush's suggestion that the military could be called out to enforce quarantines in the unlikely event that avian flu becomes a human pandemic. Bush wants to alter the Posse Comitatus law to allow the use of the U.S. military for domestic policing.

"Overturning Posse Comitatus would allow troops to break into houses and apartments and sweep the streets for flu victims, and forcibly contain them in Guantánamo-style camps," Rall writes. "They could seal off cities or whole states. These extreme measures could also be deployed against U.S. citizens after hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, or even election disputes - whenever and wherever a president decides they are necessary."

What's the problem with using Team America, the World Police Force, against Americans?

"Civilian cops may be rude or even abusive, but they're not supposed to shoot you without a good reason. You're their boss, or at least they work for the mayor you elected. Not so with soldiers. Military troops are responsible only to their chain of command, which is likely to end thousands of miles away in Washington. They shoot sooner and quicker than cops, and they have much bigger guns. Regimes that use the military to maintain order tell their citizens: do what we tell you, or else. They rely upon violence rather than tacit consensus to stay in charge.

"Rule under the point of a gun is not democracy."

This is my first exposure to Rall, whom I fear is a simple Democratic Party partisan - his latest column opines "No matter who wins in 2008, we'll be better off than we are now," something many people believed about 2000 and have since been bitterly disillusioned. But he's right on the subject of the Posse Comitatus law, and if Congress actually goes along with Bush, we're in a heap of trouble.

The ever reliable Walter Williams also checks in on this outrage.

"Enacted during Reconstruction, the purpose of the Posse Comitatus Act was to severely limit the powers of the federal government to use the military for local law enforcement. Would Americans tolerate such a gigantic leap in the federalization of law enforcement? I'm guessing the answer is yes. In the name of safety, we've undergone decades of softening up to accept just about any government edict that our predecessors would have found offensive."

Will Americans wake up and listen to reason? I'm afraid it's 50-50 optimistically, and probably something like 10-90 realistically. In case you haven't gotten the gist after four installments of my Bill of Rights ramblings, our liberties have been cheerfully jettisoned a long time ago.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Top Ten Lines in Serenity

Two things amaze me: The number of writers I have seen declaring Serenity the best science fiction film to come along in years, and the number of people who aren't flocking to theaters to see it.

As of Sunday night, the great great Joss Whedon flick was No. 12 at the box office, having pulled in $22.3 million in 17 days. Even in this anemic year for Hollywood, far lesser science fiction films have made twice that much money in their opening weekends. What's up with this? I can only pray that the international box office and DVD sales justify continuing the fabulous story that began with the "Firefly" TV show.

I still can't talk to Sweetie about the movie because she still hasn't seen it, and I've promised not to post spoilers here. But, so that I can share my joy of this movie, I hereby offer my favorite 10 lines from Serenity, taken out of context so they are pretty much meaningless unless you've seen the film. These are the goosebumps, the tear-jerkers, and the laugh-out-louds, sometimes a combination of two or all three.

10. She always did love to dance.

9. (Every gorram word out of Shepherd Book's mouth.)

8. Shepherd Book used to tell me: If you can't do something smart, do something right.

7. My turn.

6. "Oh god! I can't know that!" "I could stand to hear a little more ..."

5. I aim to misbehave.

4. What was that?

3. I am a leaf on the wind - watch how I soar.

2. Hell with this. I'm gonna live.

1. She's tore up plenty. But she'll fly true.

No. 1 is No. 1 because it takes a moment to realize they're not just talking about the ship, they're also (perhaps mostly) talking about the character who speaks that line. I love that line because of how the emotions wash over and through us as that realization sinks in.

How many great lines flash past you in one hour, 59 minutes? I had to cull this top 10 list from a pile of about two dozen great lines - and if I do it again tomorrow, I'll probably have a dramatically different top 10. What a great film!

I have only three more nights to see it before it leaves my neighborhood screens - after Friday it's a day trip to find a theater - so I hope to get there at least a fourth time before then, maybe a fifth if I get in a lunatic mood. Then it's wait for the DVD, which reliable sources say will be released Dec. 20. Guess what's the only thing on my Christmas list?

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Constitution in Plain English - Part 4 of 10

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the people or things to be seized.

Bill Clinton had a point when he said, "It all depends on what the meaning of the word is is." Shade the meaning of one word, and you've changed everything. In this case, the word is unreasonable.

I would hazard a very strong guess that when the Fourth Amendment was written, it would be considered unreasonable to search the person, papers and effects of every soul entering a public building or means of transportation, and seize anything that might by any stretch of the imagination be used as a weapon, such as a nail file. But nowadays, when I pointedly suggest that it is unreasonable to conduct such a search of white-haired non-terrorists, even the white-haired non-terrorists say, "But it makes me feel safer."

As for houses, anyone who understands plain English can figure out that this amendment makes it illegal and improper to conduct a search of someone's home without their knowledge, but this illegal and improper act has been sanctioned by the USAPATRIOT Act. The poor fools who voted for it no doubt rationalized their treason by saying "sneak-peek searches can only be performed with a search warrant, and there's nothing in the Fourth Amendment that says the home owner has to be notified about the warrant." But they also had to make a leap of faith that the owner's right to be secure in his house remains intact when Big Brother takes a look into that home without the owner's knowledge.

I don't try to board airplanes or enter arenas where being mugged by government searchers is a requirement for entry. I value the ability to move about freely, and I know that freedom would be severely limited if I demanded that the searchers first produce a warrant specifying probable cause and a list of the targets of the search. But the plain language of the Fourth Amendment says they need such a warrant before they can pat me down, ask me to take off my shoes, or conduct a strip search. A better man than I might fight for the right to enter a plane secure in my person, papers, and effects, but it's easier - and safer - simply to avoid the plane altogether.

And if enough people stop flying to the point where airlines begin to go bankrupt and ground their planes, well, that's the price of freedom. But that won't happen, because a majority of Americans apparently believes it's OK to feel up little old ladies because they might be hiding land mines in their sagging bras.

We have entered an era that is just plain frightening and, well, unreasonable. How hard is it to understand that the Fourth Amendment forbids government agents from violating the sanctity of a person's body, house, papers or effects?

B.W.'s Book Report: Bradbury Speaks

Seven years ago I wrote about unexpectedly finding a new Ray Bradbury book in the store, on a day that was painfully discouraging for reasons I can no longer remember. I've been a Bradbury fan since high school, and such is the power of his words on me that whatever depressed me that day was chased away forever.

He always finds a turn of the phrase to enchant me, ever since the opening words of the opening story in "R is for Rocket," the paperback collection I purchased after hearing that this Bradbury fella was pretty good: "There was this fence where we pressed our faces and felt the wind turn warm and held to the fence and forgot who we were or where we came from but dreamed of who we might be and where we might go ..."

Bradbury wrote my favorite book about writing, "Zen in the Art of Writing," which is not so much about the mechanics of telling a ripping story - although some of that is in there - but unleashing the part of you that understands how much fun writing is: "Every day I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it's your turn: "Jump!"

The new collection of essays, "Bradbury Speaks," is not quite as great as "Zen" but it's full of the same prose poetry that puts a spell on the reader: "Do things, then find out what you've done ... jump off cliffs as I do and build your wings on the way down. No blueprints, no plans. Just jump."

The book I found on that discouraging day was "Driving Blind," and Bradbury has written a half-dozen books since I wrote how sad that he was 78 and not going to "Live forever!" - the exhortation he wrote to his grandchildren in the dedication. Now that he's 85, I wonder if he just might - and of course, as long as people are enchanted by space travel and dandelion wine and things that go bump in the night, he will anyway.


Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Constitution in Plain English - Part 3 of 10

I was pleased to receive an e-mail from Simon wondering wazzup with Part 3 of this irregular series. Part of the delay was an obstinate desire to make it "irregular" - and part of it was the plain fact that the Third Amendment does not have an obvious immediate relevance to life in America 2005.

No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Well, duh! The military can't just move into a neighborhood, declare it a base and house personnel, right? Why would you waste an amendment to the Constitution on this one? I have some vague recollection that the British did just that, which is why there was a revolution, but wasn't sure how to write about it. Guessing that I was in such a bind, Simon sent me a few paragraphs from "Hope," a novel by L. Neil Smith and Aaron Zelman.

The excerpt has the added bonus of including a passage similar to the obligatory introduction to this series for newcomers who haven't yet scrolled down to Parts 1 and 2:

A lot of individuals these days both in academia and politics, pretend to have difficulty understand what the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights.

It seems to me that you have to be desperate to advance your political agenda—pathetically desperate—if you’re willing to appear so dull-witted and ignorant that you’re unable to comprehend the clearest thinking and the cleanest writing ever, in the history of the English language.

So for the benefit of the mental malingerers like that, as well as our own, for just one minute, let’s put ourselves where the Founders found themselves after the Revolution and see if we can’t figure out for ourselves just what they were getting at.

Now then, here's what I would have written if I'd thought the Third Amendment through as thoroughly as our two visiting scholars:

Let’s give it a try: following a 20 year cold war, and a shooting war that lasted for nine years, you’ve just completely flabbergasted yourself and everybody else in the world, by humiliating the regular military and the mercenary forces of the most powerful and ruthless empire the world has ever witnessed, a culture that has pretended for centuries to be the most refined and genteel civilization known to mankind, but which has raped and pillaged and enslaved its way across the face of this poor, suffering planet since Henry Cabot rediscovered Newfoundland in 1497.

Now, Founding Fathers and Mothers, you find yourself writing a document—the basic legal foundation for your new country—hoping to make sure that the abuses of power that caused you to fight the Revolution to begin with can never happen again.

Let’s start with what’s often regarded as the most outdated and least important of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, the Third Amendment, which forbids the quartering of troops in people’s homes in times of peace, or in times of war ‘but in a manner to be prescribed by law’—which necessarily implies just compensation; considering the nature of the 18th century practice, that pretty much precludes quartering of any kind under any circumstances.

If you’re the “beneficiary” of this kind of government attention, you can bet that your livestock will be slaughtered first, to feed the troops you’re quartering, or herded off to grace some officer’s estate, along with any rolling stock—wagons or carriages—you have. At the same time, your crops will be pulled from the ground—even if they’re not ready it will deny them to the enemy—and your orchards cut down for firewood.

Of course all of your furniture and personal property will meet similar fates, the smaller items—the gold locket with hand-cut silhouettes of your mother and father—vanishing into the voluminous bulk of the military uniforms of the time, the larger items hauled away to that officer’s estate, on your own wagons, pulled by the oxen you’ll never see again.

But that’s not the least of it. You can pretty much expect your daughters, your sisters, your aunts, your wife, and even your mother to be bringing more English babies into the world in a few months—that is if they aren’t simply beaten to death, or gutted from crotch to sternum by British bayonets, once they’ve been used by the officers and thrown to the troops afterward.

Remember, we’re not speaking of Nazis, here, or of Cossacks, or even of the Mongol Horde. We’re talking about the “kindest, gentlest” empire in the world. Does the Third Amendment seem so obsolete and insignificant now?

So maybe no one's moving troops into the house next door - but given that the American Empire proclaims itself to be the bastion of freedom while trampling on the freedoms supposedly protected in the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights, it would be prudent to assume that someday someone might. And if that happens, that will be unconstitutional, too.

Why are they trying to frighten us?

This morning's news has the most hysterical story I've seen yet in the ongoing bird flu pandemic scare. That's hysterical as in unreasoned panic, not hysterical as in ha-ha.

"WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is scrambling to prepare the nation for a possible global rampage by a new flu germ that it fears could kill nearly 2 million Americans, sicken tens of millions more and shatter the economy.

"The key question is how much preparation can be done before a calamity strikes that, in a worst-case scenario, could make the health system collapse; overwhelm morgues; close schools, airports and harbors; end public gatherings; require strict quarantines; and cripple businesses and vital public services by mass absenteeism.

"'You're looking at a nation-busting event,' warned Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center."

After setting up this sky-is-falling scenario, the writer finally admits:

"To be sure, it may not happen. But scientists warn that it's frighteningly possible and that governments at all levels must prepare for the worst.

"Whether such a catastrophe occurs depends upon whether the H5N1 influenza virus now slaughtering birds across Asia and parts of Europe mutates into a form that retains lethal virulence and passes easily among humans. So far it hasn't, and the virus has been around since 1997. But viruses mutate constantly, and most experts agree that the world is statistically overdue for a pandemic." (My italics)

Now, I don't want to die in a pandemic any more than the next fella, and maybe there's evidence that this bug might mutate this winter even though it has not in eight years of killing birds. but as of this morning THERE'S NO DANGER TO HUMANS! Why are they trying to frighten us like this?

This reminds me of right after 9-11 when "terrorists could strike again at any moment so we need a big new federal agency that will invade our lives, make a mockery of our freedom, and spend billions and billions of tax dollars." It reminds me of just before 2000 when computers were going to stop working and people were stockpiling food and cash to help cope with the inevitable chaos.

Our masters have figured out we're easier to manipulate when we're terrified. Don't be afraid.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Constitution in Plain English - Part 2 of 10

What if the Constitution means what it says? This is the second in an irregular series of musings that compare the words of the Bill of Rights to what the politicians and lawyers and flacks have interpreted the words to mean, drawing conclusions based on the theory that the plain English of the original document as opposed to the modern translation. I am eschewing painstaking research and writing from the gut, the whole idea being to focus on the actual words.

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

A militia was any group of armed citizens who could be called upon when the state was in trouble. (This was back when the former English colonies were considered "free and independent states.") The reason it might be necessary to raise militias was in Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution: "No state shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty of tonnage, keep troops, or ships of war in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power, or engage in war, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay." (And you thought these were pinko commie left-wing concepts! Ya dere hey, ol' Tom Jefferson was quite the pinko.) With no standing armies, you might need to get a bunch of folks together to repel invaders on short notice, and protecting the freedom to own weapons ensured that such folks would be available.

Let's remember: The new republics were less than five years removed from an armed conflict with an occupying power, so the founders were familiar with the tyranny even a well-meaning government could impose - and they had written a declaration of independence that began with an asserton that when a government starts to destroy the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, "it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

With vivid memories of that conflict, the framers of the Constitution made sure to add a clause that said "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," on the off chance that some day even their brave new government may need to be altered or abolished. The people - anyone who chooses. Keep - maintain in their possession and homes. Bear - carry around as they deem necessary. Shall not be infringed - this is an absolute right.

As I read this amendment, part of me thinks the state might be justified in assembling a list of who owns arms, so those people can be contacted and asked to volunteer their help if the state is threatened. Another part of me thinks such a registry would be foolhardy, for an invading enemy or emerging despot could use the list to confront and disarm gun owners. But in any case, it is clear to me that it would be completely inappropriate, under the Constitution, to license guns or require gun owners to pay a fee to get their names and possessions into such a registry. If you can't afford the gun registration fee and nonregistered guns are considered illegal, then government would be infringing on your right to keep and bear arms by requiring a fee and/or a permit.

Given the context, it's clear the writers were talking about making sure the people were in a position to protect themselves should tyranny or invading armies ever raise their ugly heads again. This is 230 years since the revolution, but the world remains dangerous and tryanny has not been eradicated from its face. This amendment is not about deer hunting.

Well, Richardson you lunatic, surely you're not saying people have the right to own cannons and machine guns and tanks? Why would private individuals need to have such firepower? Strictly speaking, that's exactly what I'm saying. Why would anyone need them? I don't know - as long as they don't use them against me or any other peaceful law-abiding individual, it's none of my business. The amendment says "arms." It doesn't say handguns or deer rifles or Rambo knives or baseball bats. It doesn't exclude any particular weapon. It just says "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" to "protect the security of a free state."

Permits, licenses, fees, bans, limitations of any sort on the right to keep and bear arms - they're all unconstitutional. Laws that require gun wielders to have taken safety courses before they can keep and bear arms? Learning how to use weapons safely and responsibly are simple common sense, but laws? and required courses? I'm not so sure.

Don't we need regulations on guns to control street gangs and other bad guys more easily? No, we don't. That's the kind of police-state mentality that leads to searching for terrorists by stripping down innocent people and rifling through their personal effects before they can enter airplanes or public buildings. The bad guys by definition will break the law to get their hands on weapons; the only people such regulations control are the innocent.

Laws and regulations that infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms are simply unconstitutional. The Second Amendment couldn't be more clear: "shall not be infringed."

This all assumes, of course, that the Constitution means what it says in plain English.

The more things change ...

I put an old chestnut in the DVD player last night: Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe," starring Barbara Stanwyck as the desperate-for-work reporter who invents a guy so disillusioned by the injustice in the world that he plans to jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve, and Gary Cooper as the hard-luck case who is hired to be John Doe after Stanwyck's stories about him sell newspapers.

It's not one of Capra's more well-known works - after all, the guy also did "It Happened One Night," "Lost Horizon," "You Can't Take It With You," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's A Wonderful Life" - but it's an outstanding entry in the Capra canon, with a sharp screenplay by longtime collaborator Robert Riskin.

And some of the issues it addresses are still surprisingly timely 64 (!) years after it was filmed - beginning with the opening scene.

The camera closes in on the sign etched in granite at the front of an office building: "The Bulletin: A free press means a free people." Suddenly the tip of a jackhammer enters the picture, and the name and slogan are slowly obliterated from the building's face.

A snazzy new sign is bolted over the remains of the old: "The New Bulletin: A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era." Yep, the paper has been purchased by a brazillionaire, whose first act is to lay off a bunch of the long-standing employees for efficiency purposes.

And you thought sacrificing journalism on the altar of the bottom line was a recent problem! Nope, it's just that the brazillionaires are selling out to mega-corporations that own dozens and scores of newspapers, who have efficiency practices the brazillionaires could only dream of.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Constitution in Plain English - Part 1 of 10

We have the Supreme Court, and lawyers and politicians and flacks by the thousands, to interpret the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights for us. But what if it doesn't need all this nuanced interpretation? What if it means just what it says in plain English?

If the Bill of Rights means what it says, then the Supreme Court and those thousands of lawyers and politicians and flacks have a lot of explaining to do about how they have violated those simple rules. Just for fun, I'm going to start an irregular series and go through each of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and, without resorting to books and Web sites full of constitutional research that tells me what it means, I'll just assume it means what it says - and go from there.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Wow! There's a lot of stuff in the First Amendment. First off, it says Congress can't establish a national church like the Church of England, and everyone shall be free to exercise whatever religious practices they like. Methodists, Catholics, Evangelists, Shiites, Sunnis, Buddhists, Hindus, Satanists, Wiccans, Druids, Native American shamans - they're all free to exercise their religious beliefs. And atheists have the right to believe in none of it. It doesn't say that religious beliefs are banned from public discourse in any fashion or in any place; it does say that we are free to believe and worship any way we want. It doesn't say we have a right not to be exposed to other people's beliefs; in fact, quite the opposite - we have the right to disagree, but other people have the freedom to exercise their religious beliefs, period. P.S. Government employees are people.

Next it says Congress can't pass a law abridging the freedom of speech. That seems easy enough to figure out. That means especially that anyone can criticize politicians anytime, any place - I say "especially" because, as you might recall, this stuff was written by people who had just engaged in the ultimate criticism of their government: They overthrew it and were starting over.

So it means you can't confiscate banners at political rallies or assign protestors to a specific "zone" far away from the podium. It means that the speaker can't be shouted down - because the speaker has freedom of speech, too - but the time and place to exercise freedom of speech is now and everywhere. Just as with freedom of religion, it doesn't say we have a right not to be exposed to other people's beliefs; in fact, quite the opposite - we have the right to disagree, but other people have the freedom to speak their mind, period.

I'm skipping ahead, but these so-called "First Amendment zones" also violate the right of people "peaceably to assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of their grievances." "Peaceably" is a key word - can't throw rocks or heckle the speaker into submission - but you sure can assemble and criticize the government, whenever and wherever you darn well please. As better writers than I have declared, the whole country is a First Amendment zone.

"Freedom of the press" means we have the right to publish stuff, free of government interference. Again, this was written by revolutionaries who were mainly concerned about political opinions, so their concern was clearly about protecting the right to question the government (Think "Common Sense"). Pass a law saying you can't take out an ad criticizing a politician within 60 days of an election? Are you crazy? What part of "no abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" do you not understand?

Freedom of the press also means you can't tell a business it can't advertise its legal products. Sure, my newspaper or TV station can decide it won't accept ads for cigarettes or whiskey, but the government can't pass an all-inclusive ban on those ads. It also means you can't toss a reporter in jail for doing her job.

I mentioned the right to assemble above - it means people who don't like the president are free to sit in the front row at his speeches and groan in disgust (if they can score a seat there) as long as they're peaceable about it - it means Nazis have a right to hold a parade in a Jewish neighborhood, just as the neighbors have the freedom either not to come to the parade or to stand on the curb peaceably saying unpleasant things about Nazi thugs.

The freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances means, for example, a woman whose son was killed in a war and her supporters have the right to petition the government to end that war. Again, people who think the war's a nifty idea have the right to peaceably sit in the front row at her speeches. I'm thinking she doesn't have a right to a personal visit with the president, but she sure has the freedom to ask for one, and anyone who says she doesn't is wrong - although that person has the freedom to say something that makes it obvious he hasn't read the First Amendment.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list, just a thought-starter and conversation-starter intended to show how if the First Amendment means what it says, it seems to me there's a whole lot of violatin' the First Amendment going on at multiple levels - and the Second Amendment, all the way to the 10th. That's the problem with plain English - if you believe in it, cans of worms start opening everywhere you look.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Farther along than I thought

Well, here's a kick in the pants from the guy who's been trying to find a way to write more prolifically: I already did.

I got a tad nervous about the little tiff between Level 3 and Cogent that led to some communications breakdowns last week. I realized that if some unthinkable mess occurred and I couldn't access the Web, I had no record of these online musings - not a great catastrophe in the history of literature, but a bit alarming personally.

As the aging process marches on, I don't always remember everything I'm thinking, so I have to write it down. I also don't always remember everything I've written down - that's why I write it down, so I don't have to remember - so it's nice to have a reliable place where I can retrieve what I wrote.

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon cutting and pasting the entries from my brief blogging life onto my hard drive, and then printing out a hard copy - and resolving to make it a habit, not an afterthought. I was surprised to discover I have nearly 70 pages of thoughts and ideas that I've been tossing around cyberspace for the past three months.

The blog has fulfilled my original goal of giving me a motivation to sit at the keyboard and start typing. Goal No. 1, accomplished. On to Goal No. 2!

Preparing for the autonomous life

My masters have generously provided me with three weeks of vacation this year, and with one week left in the bank I was suffering severe burnout and an itch to escape, so I pencilled this week in with thoughts of exploring the concepts in Claire Wolfe's remarkable treatise How to Kill the Job Culture Before It Kills You. Unfortunately today's "Nancy" strip reminded me too much of how Day One went in my "Week to Test-Run My Life of Autonomy in a Wage-Slave Society." Today we get serious ... I hope and pray ...

No doubt by week's end, I will have a clearer idea whether I have what it takes to work for myself rather than the Big Corporation. The advantages are obvious, especially dropping the commute with gas prices at unpleasant levels: It is such a pleasure to type with a sleepy kitten draped over my left forearm, purring, instead of a corporate memo-writer looking over my shoulder, for example.

By the way, I continue to be impressed by what Guy and Brad Gilchrist have done with a comic strip that had run out of gas 40 years ago. Nancy and Sluggo and especially Aunt Fritzi never looked better - or maybe this is a return to what made them memorable in the first place. And am I nuts or are Blondie and Dagwood a little edgier in recent years?

Monday, October 10, 2005

Baseball, shmaseball

It's really hard to get into baseball when you hate the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves. George Steinbrenner and Ted Turner turned America's pastime into a game for brazillionaires, and I lost interest.

I grew up as a Mets fan, so of course I hated Steinbrenner and the Yankees. It's just expected. Nobody in Chicago is a Cubs and White Sox fan, either. And if you didn't already hate the Braves for screwing Milwaukee over, along came Turner who thinks the government hasn't seized enough of your money for social engineering purposes, and of course there was the obnoxious tomahawk chop and war chant.

So I hate the Yankees and Braves. And thanks to George and Ted using Major League Baseball as their playpen, you can't get to the post-season without the Yankees and Braves hanging around. So who cares, sez I. Who cares?

Funny, I started losing interest in baseball right about the time that Hollywood started churning out the greatest baseball movies ever. "Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham," "A League of Their Own" and "Major League" were valentines to America's love affair with baseball. Then the baseball owners and players flipped America the bird and canceled the 1994 World Series because they couldn't agree how to divvy up our dwindling discretionary income. Many folks came back when they juiced up the players and the ball and the magical 61* barrier fell. I didn't.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Maybe pigs have learned to fly

A fascinating discovery from John Newman, one of our regular visitors, who e-mails that he has discovered a 1997 interview with Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger, who according to Red Nova "spent nearly a decade carefully extracting and piecing together the viral genes, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle" in an attempt to understand the avian flu menace looming just around the corner.

Problem is, according to Taubenberger in 1997, the big 1918 epidemic was caused by a strain of swine flu: "... what we find is that it's a virus that does not match any strain of influenza virus isolated since, but it is most related to the kind of influenzas that infect swine, suggesting that this influenza entered the human population after being passaged through pigs."

I'm willing to allow that maybe over eight years and more research, scientists have moved away from the swine flu theory and decided the 1918 virus was more likely related to avian flu. But I'm also willing to allow that the Powers That Be will use any means to keep us frightened and kowtowed, and if that involves changing a few facts to fit their scenario more conveniently, so be it.

Thanks, John, for the link (and the great subject line)!


It starts when you're always afraid ... Part III

A blast from the past about how one community coped with 800 cases of flu and 80 deaths back in 1918 ...

"Don't lose your head," was the advice physicians gave in a Daily Record story published on Oct 4, 1918. "There is no danger of a widespread epidemic."

Three days later, those words would seem foolish.

Thankfully, this is 2005, when we have modern medicine and a president willing to put troops on the streets to protect us ...

Saturday, October 08, 2005

It starts when you're always afraid ... continued

Can't miss this New York Times article plastered across the top of Drudge's banner this evening: "Bush Plan Shows U.S. Is Not Ready for Deadly Flu."

"A draft of the final plan, which has been years in the making and is expected to be released later this month, says a large outbreak that began in Asia would be likely, because of modern travel patterns, to reach the United States within 'a few months or even weeks.' If such an outbreak occurred, hospitals would become overwhelmed, riots would engulf vaccination clinics, and even power and food would be in short supply, according to the plan, which was obtained by The New York Times."

The fear mongers are hard at work. The question is: What freedoms will they ask us to give up this time?

"The plan's 10 supplements suggest specific ways that local and state governments should prepare now for an eventual pandemic by, for instance, drafting legal documents that would justify quarantines. Written by health officials, the plan does yet address responses by the military or other governmental departments."

In case you're not worried yet, they're reporting cases of bird flu in Turkey and Romania to make you uneasy - hoping you still haven't noticed only birds are dying and that in the Times story Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt " emphasized that the chances that the virus now killing birds in Asia would become a human pandemic were unknown but probably low." (My emphasis.)

But put your tin-foil hat on: Scientists "have resurrected the 1918 influenza virus, the cause of one of history's most deadly epidemics, and have found that, unlike the viruses that caused more recent flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968, it was actually a bird flu that jumped directly to humans." Why would you regenerate a virus that killed millions? For research? For biological weaponry? While it's true that "the new work was immensely important, leading the way to identifying dangerous viruses before it is too late and to finding ways to disable them," now that this horrifying malady is back in the world, albeit in a lab so far, all sorts of tragic mistakes could happen - or the disease could even be unleashed by terrorists or rogue governments.

Scared enough now? Good; they like it that way. Now you'll be more pliant when they unveil the latest assault on our liberty, whatever that may be. They like a frightened populace because it opens opportunities for Big Brother to come to rescue, as it did with Y2K, after 9-11, after the hurricanes ... and the answer always translates to: To save our freedom we have to kill it - but only for a little while, until the fear passes.

Stay tuned for the latest on the avian flu scare - and remember, if you step out of line, the man will come and take you away.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Too mellow to rant

It has been an extraordinarily good couple of weeks in popular entertainment. My favorite contemporary Christian singer-songwriter, Sara Groves, has released a beautiful new album full of insights and lovely music, "Add to the Beauty." I have been playing it constantly in my car while driving between work, home and the movie theater, where last night I took in "Serenity" for the third time. Sweetie still hasn't seen it, so I expect a fourth viewing, and perhaps a fifth or sixth while I take a break from my full-time job in the next week. A good film to me is like a roller coaster ride: "Can we go again, Ma? Please, please?"

Add to that the Brian Wilson concert I attended in August, where he performed my new favorite piece of music, "Smile," and it's been an astonishingly great couple of months. It's hard to work up a good rant against the burgeoning police state when you're distracted by so much beauty - OK, "Serenity" is a brutal, violent flick in spots, but "beauty" describes its wonderful structure, its heart, its terrific actors doing justice to a terrific story and script.

And finally, add this insidiously addictive Web site where James Leroy Wilson sent us the other day. I'm too sedated to work up a good rant over evil corporate and governmental empires and the trashing of the Constitution - you don't suppose "they" intended this?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The blog of Henry David Thoreau

I really enjoy this blog, which posts a different entry from Thoreau's journals every day, from the same day of the year only a few odd years later. This is what was posted from Oct. 5, 1857:

"It is well to find your employment and amusement in simple and homely things. These wear best and yield most. I think I would rather watch the motions of these cows in their pasture for a day, which I see now headed all one way and slowly advancing,—watch them and project their course carefully on a chart, and report all their behavior faithfully,—than wander to Europe or Asia and watch other motions there; for it is only ourselves that we report in either case, and perchance we shall report a more restless and worthless self in the latter case than in the first."

I love the thought that no matter what we report, we are reporting ourselves. A very good insight to remember when reading anything written by anyone!


It starts when you're always afraid

We've come a long way from "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Turns out Franklin Roosevelt, who was so wrong about so many things, had that one thing right: Nothing can stop us as dead in the water as cold, stark fear.

From the amount of fear flying through the air on a daily basis, it seems a lot of people have figured out what a great motivator fear can be. Every action our government takes seems to be based on making you afraid and then giving you a false sense of security by tightening your chains. Many businesses thrive on making you afraid of something, then selling you escape or protection.

We are constantly reminded that terrorists would like to do worse things to us than simply fly airliners into crowded buildings - they have suitcase bombs, poison gas and all sorts of other horrors waiting in store for us. And once we're good and scared, we don't mind having cameras everywhere and screeners feeling us up when we want to enter public places.

After this summer, we are afraid of hurricanes, but never fear, Homeland Security and FEMA have been given billions of dollars to shield us from the impact of the next big wind. Storm troopers on every corner in New Orleans made people feel so safe that now there's talk of sending in the military to enforce quarantines on the odd chance that avian flu mutates into a strain that affects humans, not just birds.

We're afraid that children will be molested, so we repeal the double-jeopardy law for "sexual predators" and keep them locked up after their prison terms expire. We're afraid of pain, so we put warning labels on everything that could possibly hurt us. We're afraid of cancer, so we verbally abuse anyone who smokes near us and get the city council, the state legislature and anyone who'll listen to ban smoking.

Fear sells, and if paranoia strikes deep enough, fear enslaves. That might not be heartburn, it might be acid reflux disease, but don't worry, here's a pill. Good Lord, what if something terrible happens to you while you're driving? Never fear, we have global positioning equipment and people standing by to find you wherever you may stray. What if the next terrorist, the next hurricane, or the next flu bug were to attack you? Never fear, we have troops at the ready to disarm you, oops, that is to say, ready to protect you.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. We are afraid of dying, but you know what? Everybody does it. Nobody wants to die before "our time," But there are fates worse than death. One such fate is being afraid to live. Another is making security a higher priority than freedom. You have no guarantee that you'll take another breath, no guarantee that when you woke up this morning you would see the sunset tonight. Don't be afraid; instead, let that thought liberate you and motivate you to live as fully as you can - and don't surrender your liberty for a false sense of safety.

Would you rather be safe or free? Too many today would rather be safe, and wily people understand that, tempting us to give up just a little more freedom to be safe. As Ben Franklin said so long ago, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The New Hampshire license plate says it all: Live free or die. Without freedom, we are the living dead anyway.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Avian flu: Excuse for martial law?

WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush said Tuesday that he was working to prepare the United States for a possible deadly outbreak of avian flu.

If an epidemic appears, he said, he has weighed whether to quarantine parts of the country and whether to employ the military to enforce such a quarantine. "I am concerned about what an avian flu outbreak could mean for the United States and the world," he said.

Read the rest and weep here.

Our benevolent dictators are considering using the military against Americans for their own good, ostensibly out of fear of a disease the International Herald Tribune says has killed - horrors! - 65 people since 2003. It's not even a danger yet, but it might be, so we should have government troops standing by: "The virus has not thus far mutated into a strain capable of transmission from one human to another. If it did, scientists say, it could kill millions of people worldwide, like the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, which claimed more lives than World War I."

Oh, and in case you're counting on the loyal opposition to balk at this shocking pending abuse of presidential power - sorry, the loyal opposition thinks Bush hasn't gone far enough:

"Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, said the vote and Bush's comment reflected 'some agreement that the United States is behind in getting prepared for avian flu and that the time to try to make that gap up is now.' More than 30 Democratic senators, including Obama, sent Bush a letter Tuesday asking him to release the administration's final plan for dealing with a pandemic influenza. The group expressed its 'grave concern that the nation is dangerously unprepared.'"

Dangerously unprepared for what? The Centers for Disease Control says in its FAQ about avian flu: "The risk from bird flu is generally low to most people because the viruses occur mainly among birds and do not usually infect humans. However, during an outbreak of bird flu among poultry (domesticated chicken, ducks, turkeys), there is a possible risk to people who have contact with infected birds or surfaces that have been contaminated with excretions from infected birds."

So yep, you heard right: The president is weighing whether to use the military against Americans to enforce a quarantine over a disease that doesn't usually affect humans, but did kill a whole lot of people in 1918.

And folks who point out the horrifying danger to our basic liberties are called extremists. Well, as a great American once said, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.


Fanboy here, signing out

I really should get on with talking about Supreme Court nominees and the Constitution and reporters being held as political prisoners in America fer chrissakes ... but I've spotted one interesting phenomenon connected with (I'm sorry) the movie "Serenity." So I'm going to make this one last observation and try to move on. Oops, one caveat: There are themes in "Serenity" that are intertwined with the themes of this blog, so let there be no doubt, the movie will be referenced again. But this is my last golly-gee-whiz fanboy-type comment.

While I was disappointed that the film grossed "only" $10 million its first weekend, I noticed this: A few weeks ago I checked the top seller's list and was pleased to see the "Firefly" box set was No. 7 on Amazon's science fiction DVD top seller list. The amazing news is that as of this morning, "Firefly" is No. 2 on the OVERALL DVD list. Not just in the science fiction genre, but overall. Only Disney's "Cinderella Special Platinum Edition" is selling more DVDs for Amazon.

What does this mean? My guess is that people who saw "Serenity" over the weekend loved it enough to shell out 35 bucks and learn more about this 'verse and these characters. And that, to me, bodes very well for the future of this vision of the future.

I will continue to monitor the box office and the sales charts, just because I'm a fanboy and want to see what happens next to the crew of Serenity. It'll be interesting to see if word of mouth keeps bringing people into the theater. Looks like a cultural phenomenon - or at least a cult phenomenon - in the making.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Oh no, Jodie Foster beats up Malcolm Reynolds

I'm afraid the news is a little disappointing, as the weekend box office figures show "Serenity" at No. 2, pulling in $10.1 million. Nothing's ever easy for Mal Reynolds' crew. Still, that is the best showing by a new release this week, and the buzz seems to be extremely positive. Maybe word of mouth will give the show some momentum and some more audience.

I just want the thing to gross enough to justify the sequels! I'm not ready to let go of these marvelous characters and this great story. Doing my part - I expect to be back in the theater Monday night for my third viewing. When I was younger, I'd see a favorite movie 4-8 times, but I haven't gone more than twice since the 1980s. Yep, "Serenity" is that great.

The choices that sank Star Wars

Before I completely let go of movie week ... and I'm certain I will always find my way back to talking about movies ...

I expect I'm probably too old to expect to be there when someone in Hollywood decides to remake "Star Wars" - and maybe that day will never come. But I think someday someone will try again at least to tell the story of how Darth Vader came to be. More precisely, I think someone, someday, will recognize that Episodes 1-3 comprise a brilliant story that was badly executed on multiple levels.

In some ways George Lucas left us with good enough movies that they could be salvaged as is with one massive job of redubbing: If the dialogue of Jar-Jar Binks and the other Gungons, and the ambassadors of the Trade Federation, were redone without those clever but almost unintelligible alien accents.

Lucas did such a realistic job of making the aliens alien that on first viewing we can't understand what they're saying. (That, and Jar-Jar's voice is grating on the nerves.) Try to watch "The Phantom Menace" and imagine not working so hard to hear the words - and with, say, a deeper voice on Jar-Jar. It's a pretty good flick if you use your imagination.

I believe Lucas completely botched the character of Anakin Skywalker, but again, if you imagine different choices, you can hear that it's not the words of the script that betray the future Darth Vader (OK, except for the love scenes with Padme) - it's the actors and director. I think Jake Lloyd had the moxie to pull off 10-year-old Anakin, but I think Lucas was the wrong director and as a result Jake had too many moments where he was just saying his lines instead of acting. If Lucas had had the insight to hire, say, Steven Spielberg, who has had enormous success directing children in big movies (think "E.T."), I think Jake's performance would have been a lot better.

Lucas and Hayden Christensen also made plenty of wrong choices with the late-teen and mature Anakin. When we meet Anakin the Jedi in "Attack of the Clones," he seems to be seriously stuck in adolescence. He whines about not getting his chance to be a full Jedi, he whines about not being able to make it with Padme, he whines about everything. When the Jedi Council denies him his rightful place as the greatest Jedi of all time, we the audience should be able to feel the injustice of it - but the arrested development of his personality is so obvious that all we feel is, "Good for the council, who does this jerk think he is anyway?"

To fully experience the tragedy of Anakin's descent to the Dark Side, we needed to feel the glory of his ascent. Lucas and Christensen didn't do it for us. Again, I fault Lucas the director more than Lucas the writer - the words are there, especially in "Revenge of the Sith," which despite this major shortcoming is still the first Star Wars film since "The Empire Strikes Back" that's in the same league as the original "Star Wars." (To me the series "jumped the shark" at the first appearance of an Ewok.)

"Sith," in fact, may be the best-written film of the six (except for the aforementioned love scenes). Its themes are certainly the most interesting: The danger of handing too much power to one individual, the chancellor aka emperor - but also the danger of placing too much power in the hands of a small group of individuals. The emperor actually makes a compelling case to be wary of the Jedi Council. The movie is a triumph for Lucas the writer and Lucas the effects-blockbuster movie maker; if he had done a better job of directing his cast (or perhaps, perhaps, a better job of casting), it could have been the best movie in the whole series and perhaps the best science fiction adventure movie ever made.

But he fell short, and as a result it's not even the best science fiction adventure movie of the year. That title, of course, goes to "Serenity."

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Can't stop the signal

I laughed, harder than I have in a long time. I cried, but I often do at good movies. I gasped - gasped! - caught completely off guard by something I never saw coming. I don't think I've ever gasped at the movies before.

In short, "Serenity" was everything I hoped it would be, a worthy addition to the "Firefly" saga and one of the best science fiction/adventure movies ever made. And as I predicted a few days ago, my all-time favorite list has been shaken up. I will have to watch "Serenity" a few more times to see where it fits; in terms of the emotional wallop of the first-time screening, this ranks right up there with the way I reacted to "It's a Wonderful Life" and "E.T." and "Casablanca."

There's been much discussion of how "Serenity" will be met by those who have never seen "Firefly," and I'm going to defer that question because I have devoured the DVD set. My feeling, though, is while you might be able to enjoy the film, you really can't fully appreciate "Serenity" out of context with "Firefly." I was blown away by the film in large part because of how it extended the story told in the previous 15 hours of the saga. I realize in hindsight that none of the three "Lord of the Rings" movies or the two "Star Wars" trilogies were on my list of 25 favorite movies - but taken as a whole, of course, those are great films that I have viewed repeatedly, more so than many on my list of 25. Similarly, the emotional wallop of "Serenity" is informed by the previous adventures where I grew to know and love these characters.

But some grumbling has emerged; some fans of the TV show are saying to writer/director Joss Whedon, "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal." They don't like some of the sacrifices and shortcuts Whedon made in condensing what he had envisioned as a two-TV-season story arc into a two-hour movie. It would have been fun to see this story unfold over 30-40 episodes, but Fox TV stole that opportunity, and this is a light-years-beyond-adequate alternative.

Claire Wolfe mentions a key battle strategy that is reminiscent of another science fiction adventure. My companions and I immediately noticed that, too, but we were gleeful about the reference. Others complain that the emergence of River's character has echoes of Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Has Whedon gone to the kick-ass-teenage-girl well once too often? I can't say, I don't know "Buffy" and "Angel" very well, but in the context of this 17-hour saga - especially recalling the famous TV scene where River saves Kaylee from three assailants - what happens in the film makes sense.

And I am tickled that the underlying themes of the TV show are more in-your-face than ever. In a flashback a younger version of River argues with her teacher about whether it's such a good idea to have a central government that monitors and seeks to control the lives of its citizens. And in fact the plot turns on one of that central government's key initiatives gone terribly wrong.

In the end, though, "Serenity" is shiny because these nine actors were born to play these characters, and together they are one of the great ensemble casts in television and now cinema history. In the Sci Fi Channel preview show last week,
a fan at an advance screening said, "I wish it went on for five hours." Amen! And I hope and pray Whedon finds a way to keep this story going. Even if it's not to be, I am confident that "Firefly" and "Serenity" are well on their way to finding an honored place in the history of science fiction. Captain Nemo, John Carter, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, James T. Kirk, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jean-Luc Picard, meet Malcolm Reynolds.

I think reporter, neighbor missed the point

A life lesson? or just a curmudgeonly Scrooge? I could see this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story either way.

Irv Terchak was tight with his money, but I think one of his irritated neighbors may have missed the point. And it seems to have gone over the head of the writer, too.

"... Terchak lived frugally. He traveled some but kept a tight hold on his wallet. That predilection irritated his neighbors, who tried to help him early on but later distanced themselves.

"Nancy and Richard Hanley, who lived across the street, joined the ranks of the disenchanted after Terchak borrowed their light timer before one of his trips to California.

"'When he came back, he said, "I bought you something," Nancy Hanley said.

"'He brought me a seed from an avocado,' she said, still dumbfounded by the gesture. 'He said, "You can plant it, and it will grow."'"

Terchak, who recently died at 85, is in the news because he shocked his neighbors and everyone by leaving $1.3 million to the Milwaukee County Library system. Seems he was such a tightwad because he had planted some seeds and was letting them grow.

I can understand why the lady may have been confused at the time - but after this revelation, it's a shame that she is "still dumbfounded by the gesture."