New Articles: Iran, ‘The Cotton Club’ and Ayn Rand

The new year started with a turn of foreign events, as I wrote last week. Capitalism Magazine’s editor and publisher, without whom this blog, site and many articles would not be possible, asked to reprint it. Read my commentary on the day America’s impeached president of the United States ordered a pre-emptive and proper retaliation against Islamic Iran, the first serious strike against this enemy of Western civilization, here.

Iran attacks America, November 1979

Since the strike that killed a general for Iran’s army of Islamic terrorist proxy gangs and regimented soldiers of Allah, Iran has attacked America and a Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 innocents with missiles. The American president pledged this morning that, while showing restraint by declining to hit back for the moment, he will prevent the state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons. When his predecessor brokered a deal with Iran that returned billions of dollars which were withheld after Iran attacked America and seized our embassy, capturing 66 Americans as prisoners of war in Iran’s jihad (“holy war”) against the West, I called it Obama’s death pact. Horrifically, for the Americans and others, including 63 Canadians on board the Boeing 737 Iran shot down in Teheran, death or its imminent threat became real thanks to Obama’s Iran deal. Barack Obama continued U.S. selflessness in foreign policy which, for decades, appeased Iran.

May appeasement end with military defense ordered and enacted by President Trump.

Thirty-five years after it debuted in theaters, I watched a notorious movie by director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart). Read my new review of a restored version of Mr. Coppola’s 1984 motion picture, The Cotton Club, now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming for its 35th anniversary, here.

Though I never saw the original in either theatrical or home video release, I was not disappointed in The Cotton Club (encore edition). It isn’t perfect, as I write in the review. But its jazz and tap dance scenes offer rare and exquisite entertainment.

The Harlem-themed epic has an unusual history. This is Mr. Coppola’s first movie after a self-financed 1982 musical, One from the Heart, lost money. The Cotton Club was made and financed by a range of contentious principals, such as the late producer Robert Evans, and others, such as Orion Pictures, now owned by MGM, which Lionsgate purchased, acquiring its library years ago.

The nightclub, where in reality only Negroes were allowed to perform for an exclusively white audience, was a swank joint on Manhattan’s upper end. The film features a score by the late composer John Barry, leading performances by Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee (the 1976 original remade with Whitney Houston in Sparkle) and the late Gregory Hines. Also look for Mario Van Peebles, Gwen Verdon, James Remar, Maurice Hines, who appears in a home video segment with Mr. Coppola, Lawrence Fishburne (Boyz N the Hood) as a thug named Bumpy Rhodes, Jackee Harry (227), Jennifer Grey, Nicolas Cage, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne and Woody Strode (Sergeant Rutledge) as a club doorman. Music by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong is fabulous.

“This is the movie I meant you to see”, Mr. Coppola, referring to the additional 20 minutes, tells a New York audience in the Q&A feature in the bonus segments. The panel includes disclosures about lawsuits, attempts to steal the negative and a murder trial surrounding The Cotton Club, which debuted in the fall of 1984. Francis Ford Coppola also remembers reading and being influenced by Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, with a black character and Maurice Hines recalling his late brother, Gregory, and their grandmother being an original Cotton Club showgirl.

Read the article

Finally, my editor informed me this morning that my article about Pittsburgh and its connection to Ayn Rand (1905-1982) for the winter edition of the print publication Pittsburgh Quarterly, is featured on the online version’s cover. Read about Rand, who revered the Industrial Revolution, and the city of bridges, steel and progress, here.

 

TV Review: Golden Globes 2020 (NBC)

The Golden Globes are an awards ceremony which are essentially and primarily a broadcast to promote Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) influence in Hollywood and to make money for HFPA and its designated broadcaster through advertising revenue. In other words, it’s meaningless except as a tool for promotionalism, offering no real value except as advertising for the industry of mass entertainment.

This isn’t saying much, especially now. I watched the awards broadcast this year for one reason: comedian Ricky Gervais. He hosted the show. This far left environmentalist is a passionate spokesman for his pet causes, such as his crusades against hunting, animal cruelty and for various laws aimed at controlling man’s life. But he’s also a biting satirist.

Gervais did not disappoint. The comedian launched into a scathing monologue against Hollywood, pointing out that the raging, pigtailed anti-child touted as a mascot for environmentalism is deprived of knowledge and explicitly naming Hollywood’s — and Silicon Valley’s — hypocrisy.

As Apple boss Tim Cook, a decent man who defied the Obama administration on principle and won, sat stoned-faced, Gervais skewered Apple and other technology companies for breaching while claiming superior business ethics. Above all, he was irreverent without being malicious. His humor was hilarious. I laughed out loud.

Why? Humor, like music, is complicated. One’s responses to humor are, I think, the byproduct of what lies deep inside one’s innermost premises, thoughts and psychology. That said, in this case, I think I laughed — and, apparently, so did many other Americans — because Hollywood deserves the criticism. That it was done with conscious, self-aware, self-mocking vulgarity unmasks the hubris of California’s preachy, leftist technology and entertainment celebrities.

There were finer moments, including for the celebrities, most of whom laughed at the host’s jokes. They did laugh at themselves, though some of them didn’t appear to know whether this was appropriate, an unfortunate sign of suppressive or repressive times.

The best performing artists elegantly or smartly exercised the right to free speech. Stellan Skarsgård, who won an award for his outstanding performance in HBO’s Chernobyl, joked at his own expense in appreciation of a crew member’s ability. Comedienne Kate McKinnon came out as gay in a humorous display of appreciation for comedienne and TV hostess Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian who, in turn, expressed admiration for comedienne Carol Burnett, namesake for the award DeGeneres won.

DeGeneres appeared in a montage in which she was shown telling a post-9/11 audience: “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews”. The comedy succeeds in that clip because, as delivered, hers is a statement, not a question. This goes to what’s good about DeGeneres; her sense of irony.

DeGeneres was shown in various clips dancing through her life, which with her irony taps the essence of her appeal. It was fitting that she won the Carol Burnett Award — Carol Burnett sat with DeGeneres, demonstrating her grace and elegance as always — and she’s a testament to the power of mass media, especially television.

“Live your life with integrity,” DeGeneres told an audience of graduates in a clip, before sending up Hollywood pretentiousness herself in a humorous acceptance speech.

Integrity defines the night’s winner for lifetime achievement. Tom Hanks (SullyPhiladelphiaThe PostA Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodBridge of Spies) displayed honesty during an emotional acceptance of the Cecil B. DeMille award. This was the best moment of the Golden Globes, which aired on NBC. I say this because Mr. Hanks, an impeccable actor of ability, took the opportunity to share his thoughts and insights on his own ability. This alone is a remarkable departure from the usual pandering, bootlicking, sniveling, smearing and ranting that emanates from Hollywood awards podiums.

An old white male — at a time when the old white male is under siege in Hollywood — had the audacity to reject the status quo and imply that today’s industry needs to do better, to be better, to strive to be the best. Hanks made a strong rejection of the Me, Too movement’s proposed codification of egalitarianism, the basis for feminism, multiculturalism and other offshoots of tribalism. He emphasized instead the singular pleasure of doing one’s work, of doing it right, of doing it on deadline (and, by implication, on budget) and of doing it for one’s own sake.

Tom Hanks made this radical breach of altruism and collectivism after a woman of ability, Charlize Theron, thanked the old white male. Theron thanked Mr. Hanks for choosing to be supportive, subtle, decent, kind and deft in hiring her for his movie (That Thing You Do!, innocuous and enjoyable fluff chiefly of value for its Americanism) early in her career.

Showing genuine emotion for his wife, children and family, following an exemplary reel of moments from his greatest performances, Tom Hanks accepted his winning the award for, as he put it, “showing up on time”, which he rightly called liberating — he told Hollywood that “you [should] do it for yourself” — and for his lifetime of achievement.

This, not momentary hilarity of satire by Ricky Gervais, who distinctly, notably, wisely and, to his credit, did not mock or joke after Tom Hanks spoke, displayed man at his best.

Other artists also shined. Quentin Tarantino, winning an award for his overrated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, plainly declared “I did it” rather than parrot the status quo of an artist acting as if he exists at the mercy of the lives of others. Tarantino also acknowledged writer Robert Bolt, who wrote A Man for All Seasons, providing the evening’s most intellectual moment of justice. Laura Dern (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), unfortunately beating Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell) for an acting acknowledgment which Bates deserves, acknowledged the importance of the story — as against merely pictures and effects — to the movie for which she won, The Marriage Story.

Best Picture clips were ads, not scenes, and the Best Song award presentation— an actor singing to promote his upcoming appearance in a musical was granted more musical performance time than the nominated songs, which mostly went unheard — was awful. Even director Sam Mendes was shocked that he won an award for his movie, 1917, which does not qualify for serious consideration of a great, let alone best, movie. Michelle Williams, a talented actress, accepted an award with what amounts to an attack on the virtue of selfishness pushing more of the same collectivism. Unfortunately, she did this under the guise that she was defending rights, i.e., woman’s right to an abortion, which needs (and does not receive) a proper defense.

For his satire, Ricky Gervais is the host of the moment. But the best part of the Golden Globes, heralding egoism, implied if not made explicit by Tom Hanks, came from Elton John, accepting an award for the first time with Bernie Taupin for a song they co-wrote. Elton’s exuberance, enthusiasm and title and meaning of his memoir, Me, and his movie (2019’s best), Rocketman show that art exalts life. Elton spoke, appeared and expressed himself with a style of his own. True to themes of his movie, book and life, he did so for his own sake, neither excoriating nor appeasing, placating or seeking for the approval of others.

That Elton John was acknowledged and recognized for his ability, and that he welcomed the recognition without pleading for altruism or collectivism, happy to bask in his own glory — this, not satire as such — is the mark of progress. This, man’s pride in his own ability, is what is worth celebrating. This is what we ought to strive to regard as golden and make universal.

 

Don Imus

Don Imus died at age 79 this week. What was disturbing about him has only spread in the culture and worsened. What was distinctive and unique about this radio broadcaster has almost disappeared in today’s culture. In either case, his is a career worth knowing and thinking about.

He debuted on New York City radio at the dawn of New Left predominance. The year was 1971. America was in a steep and rapid decline. In retrospect, Imus represents part of the downward slide.

I remember hearing him on the radio in New York City for the first time. The disc jockey was sarcastic, really caustic. He was a complete turn-off. I didn’t become part of his audience. He struck me then as small, petty and cynical, not what I expected from a popular—one of the most influential—radio hosts in America’s greatest city.

I didn’t listen again for another decade which turned out to be the high point of his career. It was the 1990s. President Clinton was being impeached. Imus, with other so-called radio shock jocks, applied his caustic commentary to the news of the day.

This time, something clicked.

Whatever his faults, whatever his errors and flaws, Imus expressed himself with both biting humor and intelligence. I never became a regular listener, let alone fan. But between the early 1970s, when the New Left’s crusade for environmentalism, feminism and multiculturalism appeared to many Americans as odd or innocuous departures from mainstream ideas, and the mid-90s, when Republicans presumably opposing New Left madness did so on the grounds of seeking to remove a president from office for lying about sex, Don Imus became a counterpoint to America’s decline.

Around this time, I worked as a production assistant for Leonard Peikoff who had launched his own talk radio show in LA. It struck me that reducing Imus to sensationalistic radio host wasn’t fair whatever one’s view of his broadcasts. For one thing, his sarcasm was thoughtful (and often right on). Though he could be harsh, he was not malicious. When he went for the joke, it was not at the expense of the thought. Cynical humor had, by then, with South Park, The Simpsons and most modern comedy, consumed American culture. Imus became less a cynic than a curmudgeon rejecting the status quo.

Like showman Rush Limbaugh and philosopher Leonard Peikoff, Imus raised the level of discourse. He didn’t broadcast for the sole purpose of titillation. Imus reported the news, commentating, in this context, as a relatively reliable source.

Imus found humor in the increasingly absurd slogans of the day. Occasionally, I would tune in or watch his morning program on MSNBC in the late 1990s. Typically, I was repelled. Sometimes, he tried too hard to crack the joke. But I grew to appreciate his sincerity. He was self-made. Like me, he was self-educated. He created a charity to let kids with cancer experience the cowboy lifestyle at a ranch he owned. The native Southern Californian who grew up in the Grand Canyon State wore a cowboy hat, speaking freely and authentically. As far as I could tell, Imus was honest and sincere, which is more than I can say for many of today’s broadcasters.

Unlike today’s media hosts, Imus did not pander to others or distort facts or news to fit an agenda. He was relatively detached and objective, as I recall. If biased, he was transparent about it. He criticized conservatives and leftists alike.

Don Imus spoke his mind. He did so freely without overfiltering. He called out New Left irrationalism which worsened with each year. His career stalled from telling a bad joke, for which he repeatedly apologized, and he became a victim of exactly what he opposed. But Imus left his mark on broadcasting. Without him, I can’t think of a single East Coast media host that didn’t hold back, go flat and seek to silence proper discourse.

Like Johnny Carson, Don Imus blended irony with intelligent inquiry in broadcasting. His approach had a major impact and influence for the better on modern mass communication. Talk radio was never the same and led to new media, podcasting, which in my estimation elevates the caliber of debate and improves Americans’ willingness to think and speak freely.

With anti-capitalist frontrunners in the Democratic Party‘s 2020 presidential campaign, a mass surveillance and welfare state and a political circus bordering on dysfunction which has led to paralysis and incompetence in American government, thinking and speaking freely matters more than ever. Don Imus, an addict who made his career out of biting commentary paired with his brand of cowboy individualism, showed the way. May Imus rest in peace.

 

Book Review: Me by Elton John

Every adult who reads can probably gain from reading Me by Elton John. It’s not that what he writes about his music, work and life is especially philosophical, though there’s reflection and insight in what he writes. It’s not that his autobiography is salacious, “juicy” or filled with shocking details, though he writes about show business, being gay and struggling with severe drug and alcohol addiction, so there’s plenty of shock. What moves me about Me is his remarkable ability to express why he finds inner strength in flaws and insecurities — Elton John doesn’t neatly wrap, curl ribbons and package it like that — and come out an egoist.

Buy the Book

Of course, he never uses that word. But, like the movie that his husband David Furnish produced about his life — Rocketman, hands down this year’s best motion picture — expressing selfishness as a virtue is crucial to what makes the audience rapt with attention. Egoism powers every tale of why and how he studies lyrics, thinks about composition, hides from humanity, feels ashamed, dresses up, has another drink, cuts lines of cocaine, jumps on the piano, dazzles thousands at Dodger Stadium and sees in meeting Elvis his dark and lonely future.

I suppose the value of Me depends to a degree on what you know about Elton John and whether you like his music, which spans half a century from the intimacy of “Tiny Dancer” and pop masterpieces “Crocodile Rock” and “Elderberry Wine” to the majestic introspection of “The One” and “Home”. Here is an artist who met, performed or composed with and survived the greatest and most enduring musical artists of our time — Elvis, The Beatles, Whitney, Michael, Prince — and lives to tell.

This should not be taken lightly. If you know or want to know about the culture since the 1960s and how one man who is among the wealthiest, most accomplished and powerful artists of the modern era escaped the self-sacrifice destroying civilization, read Me.

I think you’ll be amazed. I am, even as I write. Having lost loved ones to alcohol, drugs and various means of trying to evade reality, the greatest of whom introduced me to Elton John as a boy, I was already in awe of his courage, heroism and life. Me gives new reasons to look up to Elton John.

I also think you’ll laugh out loud. With help from writer Alexis Petridis, a journalist he acknowledges and thanks, Elton John’s dry wit entertains. His humor never denigrates or detracts. He winks more than he digs, often with cliches and metaphors, which makes his side lines more enjoyable because you know they’re not the point. Each of these lines made me laugh, sometimes while reading to the point that I had to put the iPad down and wipe the tears.

Rarely are there tears of sadness, though the second half of Me is rightly more somber as Elton John delves into details of his fall and rise. This is old hat if you’ve been there — to AA meetings, to interventions, grasping for the phone at three in the morning, stumbling to the toilet the morning after (or an hour after you’ve emptied a bottle into your bloodstream) — and you’ll breeze through Me like a roughened roadie on tour. If not, you’ll know that you’re blessed to not know what you don’t know and you’ll more deeply appreciate who you are knowing who he is and has chosen to be.

Like all great stories, well, my favorites anyway, Me by Elton John is a story of the self-made man. As such, it is riveting. I was never exhausted while reading. I was gripped. Not only for personal reasons and never for curiosity in some lewd or peculiar detail. So, bitchy gossip types need not read this book—Me is not for them—and neither should their flipside doppelgängers, rationalistic bean counters that disdain anything but worshipping at the altar of trivia, statistics (pardon me, “metrics” and “analytics”) and neverending streams of pictures, games and nonsense.

Me, like Rocketman, is for the reader who thinks … for himself.

When Elton John does indulge in celebrity stories, and he covers all the known feuds, snubs and controversies, from Liberace to Madonna, it is never with a snivel or a sneer. He’s never the bitchy queen though he’s the first to admit that, at times, at his worst, he has been. Instead, he writes with ease and a sense of purpose as he looks back with clarity and humor — and he gets to the point. For example, reflecting on his eccentric wardrobe and his career’s catapult in Los Angeles, he writes:

The clothes from Mr Freedom weren’t outrageous because they were sexy or threatening, they were outrageous because they were larger than life, more fun than the world around them. I loved them. Before I went onstage at the Troubadour, I put them all on at once. So instead of an introspective hippy singer-songwriter, the audience were greeted by the sight of a man in bright yellow dungarees, a long-sleeved T-shirt covered in stars and a pair of heavy workman’s boots, also bright yellow, with a large set of blue wings sprouting from them. This was not the way sensitive singer-songwriters in America in 1970 looked.”

That’s certainly true and John’s candor and insight shows a glimpse of the root of his appeal as a showman, as a composer, as a performer. His combination with the brilliant — Elton John at his saltiest might say fuckin’ brilliant — Bernie Taupin often writing lyrics with John’s astute sense of his audience, culture and the world at large, including what it needs in romanticism, is awesome. This is impossible to overstate. 

The above quote subtly shows his disregard for the avant-garde, the pretentious, the chattering dilettante set and their darlings, including their penchant for holding up radical New Left terrorists, hippies and wannabes. Whether he knows it, and Me only barely implies that he does, Elton John the star stands opposed to that ethos. Me reflects this over and over.

Whether he’s adopting rapper Eminem as an AA charge, performing with pride at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding — and being handsomely paid for the endeavor — or refusing to profit from friends John Lennon’s or Princess Diana’s deaths, Elton John in Me writes as a man acting on principle.

This makes his memoir more enjoyable. Aside from learning details about his most indelible songs, concerts and famous friends, partners and meltdowns, John brings a brisk but substantial flair — not flamboyance — to the story of his life until now. Every flaw, every fact, every major chapter — from performing at the Troubadour in LA to suicide attempts and the agonizingly total detachment from his unloving parents — gets its due.

Ultimately, his life also gets his unyielding judgment. As he writes about his notorious shopping and tendency to bestow those he loves with gifts:

Over the years, I’ve had therapists tell me that it’s obsessive, addictive behaviour, or that I’m trying to buy people’s affection by giving them gifts. With the greatest of respect to the members of the psychiatric profession who have said that sort of thing to me, I think that’s a load of old shit. I’m not interested in buying people’s affection. I just get a lot of pleasure out of making people feel included or letting them know I’m thinking about them. I love seeing people’s faces when you treat them to something.”

Accordingly, he concludes with an estimate of his own value to himself:

I earned that money by working hard, and if people think the way I spend it is excessive or ridiculous, then I’m afraid that’s their problem. I don’t feel guilty about it at all. If it’s an addiction, well, I’ve been addicted to far more damaging things over the years than buying tableware and photographs. It makes me happy. You know, I’ve got 1,000 candles in a closet in my home in Atlanta, and I suppose that is excessive. But I’ll tell you what: it’s the best-smelling closet you’ve ever been in in your life.”

Elton John writes about the late Ryan White, who changed his life, and his efforts to eradicate the scourge of AIDS. He acknowledges and, strictly as deserved, pays tribute to his band, the elusive and mythical countryside Englishman-turned-American cowboy Bernie Taupin, his ex-wife, his ex lovers, his family, friends and business partners. He writes about everything you can imagine: “Honky Cat”, Lady Gaga, scoring The Lion King, composing Aida with Tim Rice, touring with an orchestra, playing piano, his sexual voyeurism, “Philadelphia Freedom”, observing Freddie Mercury on his death bed, trying to save George Michael from himself, going live with Aretha, making an album with Leon Russell, how he met the man who’d become his husband, his horrifying mother, his record album triumphs including The Diving Board.

In essence, it is as though Elton John, whether drunk, stoned or sober, grabbed the traditionalism (really, religionism) being shoved down his throat and crushed it with his bare hands, and that he did so at the risk of destroying himself in the process. As an artist, a craftsman, just as he took movies, albums, shows and Bernie Taupin’s poetry, he then proceeded to remake these bad traditions, ideas and practices and repurpose them into a radically new and improved approach to making a life of his own. 

He’s done it—he did it—and this in reading Me is why you begin to realize how he came to be including why he came to be among the only Seventies superstars to make it out alive.

That this alcoholic and drug addict, working man and titan of industry, lifelong soccer spectator and pro sports team owner, husband and father lives to tell this tale is itself a testament to what he calls in the dedication his amazing life. Me is simple, humorous and, fundamentally, because he refuses not to see that  “the sun’s been quite kind”, an absolute joy to read. The book lives up to the glory of its unrepentant and egoistic title, like a song graced by piano sung in his soulful voice, holding on exactly the right notes in perfect harmony.

 

Fall Roundup

This fall, I’m focused on writing new fiction as often as possible while working with my existing customers. I am also researching topics in sports, history and the arts for new magazine assignments, so stay tuned. I recently interviewed literature scholar Shoshana Milgram about Victor Hugo for an article which is coming soon. Also, stand by for a link to an article about Pittsburgh and Ayn Rand in this winter’s edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly.

Meanwhile, I’ve added a couple of movie-themed article links to the site archives. My review of John Ford’s 1960 motion picture about a Negro soldier accused of raping a white woman, Sergeant Rutledge, which is truly heroic unlike the heavily hyped Black Panther, can be read here. This week, the World Series ended, so I’ve included my 70th anniversary review of The Stratton Story, starring June Allyson and James Stewart. This inspiring, romantic movie is a simple and heroic baseball tale; read my review here.

My recent viewing of Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix moved me to finally see Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). While I notice certain similarities, it’s the differences with that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Rocky, that really caught my attention. My analysis found both a flaw and much to appreciate. Look for a new review soon. Meanwhile, read my newest classic movie breakdown of another Academy Award-winning Best Picture, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which I recently watched in Hollywood’s historic Cinerama Dome, on The New Romanticist here and Aurora’s classic movie site, Once Upon a Screen, here. My theme about this exceptional movie is that its value lies in its depiction of one man’s intransigent pursuit of a heroic life.

New movies I’m planning to see and may review include the new Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity) picture about one of my earliest heroes, Harriet Tubman, Harriet, featuring her husband Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope) and son as well as Janelle Monae (Moonlight, Hidden Figures). I’m also planning to see the new movie about Fred Rogers starring Tom Hanks, probably while I’m on assignment in Pittsburgh among fellow Pittsburghers who knew Mr. Rogers best. Time permitting, I also want to see The Current War, Judy and Motherless Brooklyn. Later this year, I plan to preview my writing for the new year, including my adult educational media and writing courses and other new writings. Wishing you a happy Halloween until then.