Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday Reading

Pales In Comparison — Carl Hiaasen sums up the Florida legislative session by looking at the two chamber leaders who drew the fire for Gov. Scott.

Having a radical wingnut for governor has proven to be a blessing for other top Florida Republicans. No matter what kind of reckless mischief they devise, they still appear almost sane and levelheaded compared to Rick Scott.

The new $68 billion state budget is a good example of them pretending to be responsible while inflicting damage on the average Florida taxpayer.

Governor Spaceman wanted $2.4 billion in property tax cuts and giveaways to big business, a sum no one took seriously because it would have financially crippled not just the state, but many cities and counties as well.

Lawmakers came back with a figure of $308 million. It’s still an outrage, because Florida can’t afford to lose $308 million right now, but it’s not a catastrophe on the scale of Scott’s goofball scheme.

The two Republicans benefiting most from the distraction of the governor’s glassy-eyed extremism are House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Both are ambitious and trying hard to look like grownups, though in fact they’re not all that different from Scott — just more polished.

Haridopolos is gunning for the U.S. Senate seat held by Bill Nelson, so he’s been more careful than Cannon about letting his true colors show. It was Haridopolos who publicly balked at Scott’s screwball proposal to slash Florida’s corporate income taxes by $458 million, which would have shifted a devastating burden to the public sector.

Budget negotiators eventually settled on corporate tax cuts of about $30 million. It doesn’t sound like that much money unless you’re trying to run a school system or a public hospital, or clean up pollution in the Everglades.

Scott’s headline-grabbing antics have provided a measure of cover for lawmakers whose agenda is no less dangerous for the state’s future, and whose allegiance to wealthy special interests is no less devout. What happened in Tallahassee this spring virtually guarantees higher taxes and fewer services for ordinary Floridians.

More below the fold.

Mr. Cool — Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker on President Obama during the raid on Osama bin Laden.

The ether of the world has been filled, since Sunday night, with the predictable mix of exultation, grim regret, pointless speculation, moral point-scoring, counter-moral-counter-point scoring—and also, let it be said, with various bits of story and dialogue that several thousand hopeful screenwriters, struggling to get there first with the screenplay of “SealSix,” the action-movie version of the raid, are seizing upon. (It’s a movie bound to star, well, Matt Damon, as the sensitive Seal with an enduring love for a Pakistani girl; Jamie Foxx, as his hard-boiled leader boss; and Annette Bening, as the world-weary C.I.A. official who was a junior analyst in Iran back in 1980.)

As it happens, I got to see, and for the first time in the flesh, not on film, President Obama, the night before he did the big deed. It was at the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Dinner, which I was attending at a friend’s urging, on the sound grounds Voltaire invoked when he went to the male brothel: “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.”

The White House Correspondents’ dinner is a bizarre event, with journalists, movie stars, and in-betweeners crowded together (really crowded; the security wait is worse than that at LAX) and, before getting to the President’s performance, it demands a little unpacking of its own. Anthropologists (or me, pretending to be one) make a distinction between “renewal” feasts and “reversal” feasts: renewal feasts are the ones that reassure everyone that the social basis of the community is secure; reversal feasts are times when the social order is turned upside down for one escapist night. Thanksgiving, the model renewal feast; Halloween is the perfect reversal feast.

Well, the annual PEN dinner, which is the New York equivalent of the W.H.C.A.’s dinner, an occasion for New York authors and publishers and agents, is a renewal feast, designed to show a community that has no sense of itself as one that the same people are doing the same things and thinking exactly the same thoughts, year after year after year. There are never any surprises, and that’s the point: the writers, out of their scowls and hoodies and sweats for one night, make sheepish dinner-jacket and ball-gown jokes; their spouses pretend to be glad to see each other; solemn entreaties are made to totalitarian governments to release their poets from prison—it never changes, and no one wants it to. We want it always the same, to renew our belief that we are.

The dinner in D.C., on the other hand, strikes me on one viewing as a perfect instance of a reversal feast: for one night, the zinged (the President) gets to be the zinger, while highly educated but badly underpaid journalists get to dress up like Fred Astaire, while Fred Astaire, so to speak (the guy from “Mad Men,” in this case, or whatever movie star is willing) dances attendance on the hacks. The point of a renewal feast is to enforce the illusion of community where it doesn’t exist (among writers, or disparate relatives at a Thanksgiving table); the point of a reversal feast is to endow the illusion of power where it doesn’t really exist (among children at Halloween, or journalists).

Within that reversal feast, the President has to be the leader, the Lord of Misrule. And this President doing so, with what looked like admirable ease, on a night like that now looks, in retrospect, like alarmingly accomplished cool. His pulse was low, his timing sound, his laughter deep; his extremely adept zinging of the Donald made all the papers and video blogs, of course, but what was perhaps less visible outside the hall was how delightedly relaxed he seemed as Seth Meyers zinged him. Trump’s head was locked in place, a varnished fixture, like the figurehead on the prow of a sailing ship at a pirate ride; Obama laughed and ducked and shook his (surprisingly whitened) hair with pleasure. And now we know, all the while, he knew that the very chancy order he had already given could very well spell the end of his Presidency. (And let us not lose sight of the reality that it nearly did all go wrong; that helicopter going down is a touch the screenwriter would have been reluctant to add on his own.)

Doubtless any President would have managed to more or less pull through—Presidents get to be Presidents by not showing much stress under pressure, save Richard Nixon, who showed enough for all the rest of them together—but this was super-cool, blood cool, true cool. Whatever else one can say (and he can trust his detractors to say it all) this President does have the right temperament for the thing. If he was acting, he’s a damn good actor—almost good enough to play himself in “SealSix.”

Shakespeare vs. The Norse Gods — Kenneth Branagh directs his first action film.

Do we actually want Shakespearean drama, or a simulacrum thereof, in comic-book movies? I think the only reasonable answer is “sort of,” and that’s exactly what Kenneth Branagh delivers in the massive but middling “Thor,” an edge-of-summer tentpole production that delivers the goods, albeit in laborious fashion and at enormous expense. A whole lot of “sort of,” dressed up in faintly fascistic regalia. I’ve got no problem with the continuing viability of the classic Marvel and DC Comics heroes, per se, although it’s a little surprising. But their hegemonic control over the many-branched Yggdrasil of pop entertainment is starting to bug me.

A movie like “Thor” isn’t just trying to be a popcorn flick for teenagers; in an era where “youth culture” reaches deep into middle age, that’s not good enough anymore. It has to evoke the Pop Art colors and muscle-bound iconography of 1960s comics its younger viewers have never seen, incorporate a few plausible pop-science theories and suggest a passing familiarity with both the genuine Norse legends behind the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby comics and the design history of fantasy cinema stretching back to “Metropolis.” Its cast features a plural number of Oscar winners and an elevated Anglo-drama sheen; even Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth, whose resemblance to the ‘roid-rage Aryan Thunder God is startling, turns out to be a decent actor. It’s supposed to have mind-blowing action scenes, a heart-rending father-son story, a compelling love affair and a Cain vs. Abel fraternal standoff.

Branagh’s “Thor” does most of those things fairly well, in fact, and a few of them better than that. I’ve never felt sure that Branagh was a natural filmmaker, although he’s been doing it for quite a while now, but all his projects, on stage or on screen, have a natural bravado about them that’s endearing. It simply wouldn’t occur to him to treat a fundamentally goofy movie about a Norse god filtered through half a century’s worth of American comic books with condescension, any more than he would treat “Coriolanus” that way. But all the brio and high spirits in the world can’t conceal the fact that “Thor” is an archetypal Hollywood-franchise mishmash, an “up-converted” 3-D monstrosity with five credited screenwriters and an unbridled ambition to move us along from one episode of the Marvel-Paramount multiverse to the next, siphoning cash from our pockets along the way. (There’s still a “Captain America” movie, God help us, before we get to the grand reunion of “The Avengers.”) I never felt swept up in “Thor,” or lost sight of the fact that I was watching a prepackaged entertainment product meant to be all things to all people. “Iron Man” this ain’t.

Doonesbury — The ransom of Red Chief 2.0.