11/11/16

Doctor Strange Shows the Limits of Comic Books as Movies



DOCTOR STRANGE  (2016)
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Marvel Studios, 115 minutes, PG-13
★★

Doctor Strange features fine performances, eye-popping visuals, and wall-to-wall action sequences. It’s also a narrative mess.

Name a great superhero film—not a blockbuster, eye candy, or escapist fluff. Name a superhero movie that wins major awards, is analyzed by serious film scholars, and is studied by film students. Hollywood keeps making superhero movies, but they are little more than comic book diversions that move. I’ve nothing against comics, but as an art form they occupy a liminal space between reality and fantasy. Birdman was a great film because it’s about a man who plays a superhero and becomes unhinged enough to imagine himself one; 2001, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Blade Runner are path-breaking films because they created alternative worlds with their own internal logic. By contrast, most comics dwell partly in the real world and partly in a magical realm and ask you to suspend disbelief. That works fine with teens, who also live in a liminal space: the one between being and becoming. They outgrow it eventually.

Please excuse the detour, but the above phenomenon is exactly why Doctor Strange is a soon-to-be-forgotten flavor of the month. It’s based on a comic book character that debuted in 1963, though director Scott Derrickson takes some liberties with the on/off-again Marvel series. The Doctor is Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon whose brilliance is surpassed only by his ego. That changes in a horrible car crash that leaves him with quaking hands, a shattered sense of purpose, and a refusal to accept his fate. The ego remains intact, though, which means he pushes aside a potential love interest, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and thinks all the world experts are idiots for telling him that he can’t be magically healed.

In fact, magic is just the ticket, but not in the way Stephen thinks. An exchange with a “healed” paraplegic sends Stephen scurrying off to Kathmandu, where he encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Let the clich├ęs, pseudo-science, and recycling begin. Stephen must, of course, move beyond ego and conceit. (Think Arya Stark in Game of Thrones mixed with warmed-over Buddhism.) Stephen can’t be healed, but once you know that life is something of an illusion and that various realities coexist, magic is an energy path one uses to traverse space, time, and the laws of physics. You might recognize elements of the multiverse in this, but don’t expect hard science. Stephen’s training parallels that of movie Zen masters and sword-and-sandal gladiators, with the storyline shifting from science to science fiction and quasi-religious mumbo jumbo. Unless you’re a devotee of Doctor Strange comics, don’t even try to follow the explanation for what will happen next—it’s all pretext for an astral-level showdown between good and evil involving props such as ancient ritual books, altered reality, the Infinity Stone, and the Cloak of Levitation. In short, Stephen must combat an apostate sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his followers, who have tapped into the Dark Dimension and the power of Dormammu. If they bad guys sound a lot like Tolkien’s Saruman and Sauron, who am I to dissuade your rip-off fears? Folklore holds that the creators of the original comic were LSD users. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can say that there are luridly colored sequences in this film that are like being inside a Three-D acid rock poster circa 1967.   

I didn’t hate this film. Cumberbatch is very good in it, as is Swinton, Mikkelsen, and Stephen’s compatriot good guys Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ms. McAdams is always a pleasant treat, though one could certainly renew debates over how even women with important skills (neurosurgeon) are defined by their relationships to men. Sexism isn’t what’s wrong with the film, though. Nor is over-reliance on f/x—most of it is amazing on a technical level. In my estimation, the comic book genre is inherently flawed for filmmakers. Which world do we believe in, the one governed by the laws of physics or the one ruled by magic? Incessantly mixing them ultimately means there is no consistent logic in either realm, so all that’s left is wicked cool visuals. “How was the film?” we are asked. All we can say is, “It was okay.” We’ve just spent two hours experiencing the frisson of excitement, but when we leave the theater, we recall nothing intellectual, consequential, or enduring from the experience. As adults, we know superheroes exist only in flickering lights on a screen that has grown dark.

Rob Weir      

11/10/16

Post-Election: Ranking all Presidents


Ranking Presidents:
One Historian's View

If only all presidents had heeded these words


Finding strengths and weaknesses is pretty easy for historians; after all, it's a profession with the benefit of hindsight. What is much harder is assigning rankings. Below is my assessment of the individuals who have occupied the White House. Some of the rankings are admittedly arbitrary. After all, what is the substantive difference between a #22 and a #23? Refer to the Pairing Presidents series to see what I wrote on each figure.

I am open to reconsideration as new materials come to light. This is also what historians do–evaluate based on available evidence.

Criteria Used:

1. Tangible benefits to the nation, not popularity.
2. Assessment of what was done while president, not overall careers. (Many people in life do well or poorly in one role but not another.)
3. How a presidency changed the nation. Greater weight was given for positive change.
4. The long-term effects of a presidency, not just what was done while in office.
5. Things with which we can actually associate a president, not folklore or conventional wisdom.
6. How doing this project changed my own thinking.

Rankings from Top to Bottom:

Not ranked:  William Henry Harrison or James Garfield. Neither was in office long enough for a definitive judgment. Grover Cleveland is ranked just once, though he was the 22nd and the 24th president

The best. Also the man who spoke the words in the first slide.
 
1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt:  By virtue of being the greatest reformer in history and for having to deal with both the Great Depression and World War Two. How lucky was the USA? The contemporary global alternatives included: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Tojo, Franco, and Salazar! No one has had a greater burden to carry–not even…

2. Abraham Lincoln: He was a better person than FDR and the Civil War was one helluva burden, but his leadership in ending chattel slavery in America is just a tick below FDR's war to destroy global enslavement as embodied in fascism.

3. Thomas Jefferson: Set the template for defining the power of the presidency and often acted against his own beliefs for the good of the nation.

4. George Washington: Setting up a brand new nation? That's a pretty neat accomplishment, as was his ability to rise above partisanship.
5. Theodore Roosevelt: He established the ideal of a POTUS as reforming activist and set the character for the Progressive Era. He was also an imperialist, but few doubted the U.S. as a world power after TR.

6. Woodrow Wilson: He was a prude and a racist, but he's also an effective Progressive reformer and the model of an idealistic president. His principles trumped pragmatism at times, but that's still better than those whom lack principles.

7. Lyndon Johnson: He was the second greatest reformer to sit in the White House and did more for civil rights than anyone since Lincoln. He'd be in the top three were it not for the Vietnam War. Alas, that's a major "were it not."

8. Harry Truman: He was often reviled, but Give-'em-Hell Harry was a tough cookie who followed an impossible-to-replace act (FDR). He gave the go-ahead to drop atomic bombs on Japan–acts that undeniably changed history no matter what one thinks of them. His Fair Deal couldn't match New Deal, but he ranks no lower than 5th among reforming presidents.

9. Andrew Jackson: I have to swallow my extreme dislike of Jackson as a person or policymaker—he's simply too important to ignore. Jackson redefined the Democratic Party, created the model for a negative state presidency, and played hardball politics better than most. Lots of what he did had negative impact—his tragic treatment of Natives, his refusal to discuss slavery, and his economic programs—but he transformed the presidency.

10. Dwight Eisenhower: I reevaluated Ike—along with lots of other scholars these days. In retrospect, his calm leadership during Red Scare II and the Cold War blunted many of their sharp edges. He effectively isolated Neanderthals within his own Republican Party, a lesson sadly forgotten. He kept us out of World War Three and that ain't nothing! 

11. James Monroe: Few rank him this high, but if we measure the future impact of a presidency, Monroe deserves high marks. The Monroe Doctrine simply changed American history–period! It was presumptuous, but in terms of hemispheric dominance, it's the founding document of the American centuries. He was also politically skillful.

12. Bill Clinton: Easily our sleaziest POTUS–but also one of the most politically skillful in American history. He is the last to balance the budget and he (not Reagan) repaired an economy ravaged by recession. The GOP hatred of Clinton is puzzling, as he enacted more of its agenda than did Reagan.

13. John F. Kennedy: Few presidents captured the national zeitgeist as well as he. The debate continues over his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it resolved favorably. He was stronger rhetorically than in actuality, but JFK was the first president to connect with the Baby Boom generation–and the only one it has ever trusted!

14. John Quincy Adams: A presidency in drastic need of reassessment. He was one of the most skillful diplomats ever to hold the office, an advocate of building infrastructure, and an opponent of slavery. All three of these proved wise–but not until long after he left office. Call him a man ahead of his time.

15.   Ronald Reagan: If the USA had a symbolic office akin to the British Crown, Reagan would have been king. It doesn't, hence it's hard to rank Reagan any higher. His deficit spending, harmful social policy, and elitist economics have not weathered well and his ranking will probably go down. But Reagan deserves great credit for improving the national spirit in the wake of dispiriting 1970s.

16. Grover Cleveland: A decent man in office at a difficult time: the corruption-ridden Gilded Age. Cleveland sought reforms–not all of them wise–but with better skill than his contemporaries. His outspoken opposition to imperialism was, in retrospect, prescient. He struggled over racial identities–like most whites of his day–but he was the best of a non-inspiring lot.

17. James Madison: The War of 1812 was idiotic and should have never been fought, but Madison settled it on better terms than could have been expected. He then ushered in the Era of Good Feelings, the last time American politics truly were non-partisan.

18. Barack Obama: Speaking of bad wars…. Obama was, like Cleveland, the most admirable of a lousy generation of leaders–some of whom were vile. He ended one bad war and deescalated another. Health care reform, though rocky in implementation, might prove a turning point in human services--if it survives. Like Reagan, he was more inspirational than substantive, but sometimes presidents get credit for changing the national mood. Like Reagan, though, Obama might drop in the future.

19. William Howard Taft: It was his misfortune to follow into office a living legend (TR), and quarrel with him. Still, he was more of a trustbuster than Roosevelt, and was a reformer in his own right.

20. John Adams: As a Founder, his reputation is safe. His presidency wasn't up to those standards, but as the second president, Adams eased the transition from one administration to another. The Alien and Sedition acts were a mistake, but he appointing John Marshall to the Supreme Court changed the nation.

21. Chester Arthur: deserves to be reconsidered. His before and in the presidency is akin to Jekyll and Hyde. He healed the nation after Garfield's assassination and struck a blow to the spoils system. Arthur sought to deal humanely with Natives—imperfectly, but sincerely.

22. Jimmy Carter: The economy was weak under Carter and several traumas occurred during his time in office, but Carter's presidency is undergoing a rethink. Carter was admired in many parts of the world and did much to repair relations with Latin America. He also brokered a historic Arab-Israeli peace accord. Don't be shocked if future scholars flip Carter and Reagan.

23. Zachary Taylor: His presidency also deserves new light. It was short, but Taylor's opposition to extending slavery into newly acquired territories was admirable. Would it have prevented the Civil War? Maybe not, but Taylor stands out as the least bellicose president in the two decades preceding the conflict.

24. Herbert Hoover: He is generally ranked low, but he neither caused the Wall Street Crash, nor was he heartless. He tried to stem the economic bleeding, but–like most observers–failed to realize how bad things were. Before the Crash, Hoover implemented progressive reforms.

25. Richard Nixon: Nixon is the hardest president to evaluate. His time in office was marked by moments of progressivism punctuated by petulance and nastiness. Vietnam was a disaster, the opening of China a watershed. I am among those who think Nixon was mentally ill.

26. George H. W. Bush: The elder Bush is often more than a blip in discussions of the American presidency, but he did preside over the end of the Cold War. He'd look better were it not for unnecessary ventures such as the first Gulf War.

27. Martin Van Buren:  He is among those presidents who lacked the courage of their convictions. He opposed Jackson's banking policy but didn't reverse it; hence he stumbled over the Panic of 1837. Nor did he stop Jackson's horrific Indian Removal policies, or act on stated opposition to slavery.

28. Calvin Coolidge: The taciturn Coolidge was popular in his day, but historians now see his laissez-faire economic policies as greatly responsible for the 1929 Wall Street Crash. He was also aggressively non-progressive.

29. Gerald Ford: Ford was an accidental president whose sole achievement was to calm the public after Watergate. He then squandered good will with his pardon of Nixon and through his inept handing of the 1970s recession.

30. Benjamin Harrison: is practically the textbook example of a president with decent instincts but unable to convince either opposition Democrats or fellow Republicans to act on his initiatives. As a result, Harrison stumbled over civil service reform, the tariff, African American rights, monetary reform, regulating trusts, and most other initiatives.

31. William McKinley:  This is a presidency in need of a downgrade. McKinley wrote the playbook on reinventing the GOP as a party more interested in catering to Big Business than in paying attention to black rights, farmers, or greenbackers.  This had long-term negative impact in that it eventually ceded working people and farmers to the Democrats (and, after FDR, African-Americans as well). The party of Lincoln became the party of Wall Street.

32. Ulysses S. Grant: Grant cared about civil rights, but he was a terrible civilian leader who struggled with alcohol, details, and his temper. Although he is thought to have been honest, there weren't many within his administration for whom that was true.

33. Millard Fillmore: He was virulently anti-immigrant, prone to belief in conspiracies, and unable to keep either Southern expansionists or rising Northern abolitionists at bay. In all ways he was an unworthy successor to Zachary Taylor.

34. James K. Polk: Polk is often ranked as high as #10, but this is because he was the victorious president during the Mexican War, which brought great territorial gain. One must ask, though, if this war should have been fought, and that answer is a resounding "no." That's especially the case given that the cause of the war was manufactured. Polk blatantly longed for a Western slave empire led by the USA.

35. John Tyler: was as bad as Polk, but with no war victory to his credit. He was obsessed with annexing Texas and expanding slavery. Polk and Tyler put together did much to create many of the tensions that led to the Civil War.

36. Rutherford B. Hayes: Let's start with the fact that he became president through the most crooked election in presidential history. Then he abandoned Reconstruction and sent federal troops to smash a national rail strike. An awful presidency.

37. Andrew Johnson: He took office after the assassination, but Andrew Johnson was no Lincoln! He battled Congress and misread the political winds. His shortcomings probably didn't justify impeachment, but he was not the man to lead Reconstruction and he so discredited it that it failed.

38: Warren G. Harding: He was completely out of his depth and the only thing his advisors didn't steal was the Oval Office desk. Qualifications do matter–it's a bad idea to elect your drinking buddy to the presidency.

39. George W. Bush:  He was a liar, a thief, and a fool. His only redeeming quality was that he reassured the nation after 9/11. He promptly squandered every ounce of global goodwill resulting from 9/11 and domestically played the politics of division on a Nixonian scale. It's hard to imagine there were two presidents worse than he but, alas….

40. James Buchanan: This is basic: when part of the nation secedes and you're in office, you're expected to do something about it. Buchanan was a copperhead at heart and a do-nothing by disposition. His pro-slavery views were the icing on a slime-covered cake.

41. Franklin Pierce:  Some historians rank Pierce above Buchanan, but I reserve the Ignominy Prize for a president whose putrescence was active, not passive. Bleeding Kansas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and acceptance of the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution…. New Hampshire actually named a college for this guy? Why?

Thanks for nothing! Lucky for him, the name "Franklin" was redeemed!

11/9/16

Ten Reasons Why Clinton Lost and Democrats are Losers

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I get no pleasure saying I told you so, but I did.
I originally planned to run a movie review today. Somehow that seems trivial in the wake of last night's electoral disaster. There's no nice way to put this, so I'll just get in your face: Americans are dumber than a pig shit pie and liberals are the dumbest of the dumb. Congratulations! Once again Americans are the world's laughing stock. It would be hilarious were it not for the fact that we've just surrendered the nation to the powers of darkness. Once more the Democratic Party proved itself as useless as a woodpecker at Legoland. Shame on those foolish enough to trust the Dumbocrats, a mistake about which progressives warned you. The party of the New Deal and Great Society has been dead since Jimmy Carter and his Round Table buddies put a stiletto in its heart in the 1970s. Bill Clinton twisted the knife in the 1990s when he enacted Republican economic and social programs. Barack Obama, though a decent person, simply didn't have enough fire in his belly to fight party bigwigs. Make way for the new Il Duce.

The election was lost when the primaries ended with Hillary Clinton atop the ticket instead of Bernie Sanders. Clinton is everything that's wrong with the Democrats. Let me count ten ways:

1. Clinton is an insider chosen because she manipulated machine politics more suitable for the early 20th century, not the early 21st. The word "hack" was often applied and that's not unfair—it's descriptive.

2. If it boggles your mind how a tyrant like Trump could convince wage earners he's a better choice than Clinton, it shouldn't: he at least used the term "working class," even if he didn't mean it. Clinton, like most post-Carter Dumbocrats, wouldn't recognize a blue-collar worker if one bit her in her privileged keister. She's Wall Street and Walmart—and I don't mean Walmart shoppers. Bernie spoke of the 1%; Hillary (like Trump) is part of the 1%.  

3. I predicted over a year ago that the Dumbos were vulnerable on issues of free trade, immigration, terrorism, and being perceived as catering to special interests. I think free trade is the biggest fraud ever foisted upon Americans, so I'm with Trump on that issue. Trump, however, is a Neanderthal on immigration, countering global threats, and social issues like transgender rights, drug interdiction, and race. Still, where the Dumbos needed to show nuance, they doled out sanctimony. It's not enough to be right—one must also be convincing.

4. Hillary seldom rubbed elbows with the hoi polloi. Trump worked the rallies; Clinton worked fundraisers. When she did tried to connect with "ordinary" folks, it was painfully clear she didn't actually know any. Supporters can cry "sexism" until the cows come home, but Clinton simply isn't likable. Unfair? Double standard?  I don't think so. She chose to be a public person—a job that demands you work on something called "people skills." Sorry Hill, but your I-wanna-be-a-player roots were exposed.

5. When Bill Clinton ran for president, the message taped to the bus read, "It's the economy, stupid!" Did Hillary ever read that sign? It's a good idea to have a POTUS with knowledge of world affairs––once that person is actually elected. Look it up, though–winning geopolitical quizzes isn't a vote-getter. Call it parochialism if you'd like, but self-interest rules the ballot box.

6.  Harry Truman once observed that if you give voters a choice between a faux Republican and a real one, they'll choose the real one every time. Liberals should be ashamed of supporting Clinton, a military hawk, an economic free trader, and a social elitist. What, exactly, made you think she was one of you? Her campaign came down to "Vote for me; I'm not Trump." Voters asked, "Who are you?" She tried to rest on very old laurels and it didn't work.

7. Another thing about which I wrote: Clinton became the candidate by winning a bunch of primary states that Democrats were never going to win in the general election. We heard so much about how she resonated with black voters and Sanders didn't. So what did she gain by winning the black vote in South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and other redneck Red states? And where was the vaunted minority vote in North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania?

8. Tim who? I actually forgot Kaine's name several times during the campaign. His impact extended no further than delivering a narrow victory in Virginia, which was already a blue state. Why wasn't there a Latino on the ticket? Oh yea–Clinton doesn't know any.

9. Barack Obama energized young people. Hillary Clinton never made them feel the Bern.

10. Speaking of the young, I knew graying second-wave feminists had a problem when most of my female college students were Sanders supporters. It's time to dump a carton of sour milk; the third- wave feminism of the young finds second-wave feminism ideologically rigid and irrelevant. A few years of Il Duce might cause fourth-wave feminism to look more like second-wave, but that's not the case currently. 

Let me say to the Democratic Party before Trump does: "Losers!" RIP. Time for a new party based on aggressive progressive values, not soft-shell liberalism. There's plenty of time. What happened last night will resonate for an entire lost generation. Look for the following:

·      The Supreme Court is lost. (Blame Obama for not fighting for his nominee.)
·      Roe v. Wade will probably be overturned as national policy.
·      The Affordable Care Act will be repealed. Life expectancy will drop.
·      Immigration restriction is a given. A border wall with Mexico is likely.
·      Black Lives Matter will be eviscerated—perhaps violently.
·      The Social Security system is imperiled. Parts will be privatized.
·      Neoconservatives will complete their conquest of higher education.
·      Worker rights are dead in the water. Plutocracy will supplant democracy.
·      Kiss the living wage goodbye. The wealth gap will widen.
·      Draconian crime bills will become routine. So will more mass shootings.
·      Get used to terms like "honey," "broad," "girl," "babe," and "chick."
·      What global warming?
·      The de facto national slogan will be: "Welcome to America. You're on Your Own."   

I hope Donald Trump does put Hillary Clinton in prison. She should be jailed for the crime of turning the country over to the biggest thug since Robert Mugabe. I'm furious about the election, but my greatest ire is reserved for starry-eyed liberals and Democratic policymakers. I'm not on board with you anymore. Not after last night and not in the future—if we have one.   

11/8/16

John Adams vs. John Quincy Adams: Second Acts Seldom Work Out

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John Adams versus John Quincy Adams:
Pairing Presidents XXII

If, as expected, Hillary Clinton wins today's presidential election, she will be the first spouse to command the White House. She will not, however, be the first all-in-the-family president. In fact, nearly a quarter (10 of 44) of all chief executives have had blood ties. Most recently, of course, the 43rd POTUS George H. W. Bush was the son of the 41st, George W. Bush. Prior to the Bushes, Franklin Roosevelt (32nd) was the fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (#26); Benjamin Harrison (23rd) was the grandson of William Henry Harrison (9th); and Zachary Taylor (12th) was the second cousin of James Madison (4th).

It all began when the second POTUS John Adams (1797-1801) sired a son, John Quincy Adams (1825-1829), who became the sixth president. Neither presidency was among the nation's most memorable, though both individuals led extraordinary lives. With the exception of the Roosevelts, though, none of history's second acts has produced a strong president. (FDR had the distinction of being related to eleven former presidents; five by blood and six by marriage.)

How they are similar:

In addition to inheriting his father's bad hair genes, John Quincy Adams also got his bad temperament. Legend holds that the first Adams convinced Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence because their peers would be too suspicious of one written by Adams. He allegedly told young Jefferson, "I am obnoxious and disliked." As they say, if it wasn't true, it should have been! Here are terms no one ever used to describe either Adams: kind, warm, reasonable, jovial, humorous, or affable. Both were moralistic prigs—highly intelligent men, but the sort who courted controversy as if she were a wealthy dowager.

John Adams
Despite their intelligence, each Adams got suckered into unwise actions. John Adams acted in impolitic fashion in several ways. He clashed with Alexander Hamilton even though he favored Hamilton's economic programs, possibly because he found Hamilton overly ambitious (which he assuredly was). Mainly, though, Adams stumbled over the French Revolution and the resulting European-wide war. There was a significant amount of anti-French spillover from the Washington administration and the XYZ Affair. Adams was pro-English, but he made diplomatic overtures to France that might have succeeded had Napoleon Bonaparte consolidated power earlier. Alas, Adams' diplomacy (when he was Washington's vice president) fell part during a period known as The Terror in which the guillotine worked overtime. By the time Adams became POTUS, his Federalist Party was so frightened of France that it pushed Adams to pass four bills collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. One provision raised the residency requirement to 14 years for immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship and another made non-citizen dissidents easier to deport. The Sedition Act, however, made Adams appear tyrannical as it made it illegal to bring the government into disrepute–even to the degree of 2-4 years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine (today's equivalent of  $92,000). By the end of his first term, Adams was very unpopular and largely without allies. Thomas Jefferson defeated him in 1800. True to his stubborn self, Adams' last days in office were controversial. Because he feared the Democratic-Republican Jefferson, Adams staffed as many offices as he could with Federalists—his so-called midnight appointments.   

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams had albatrosses of his own that made him also a one-term president. He was not the top vote getter in the election of 1824; in fact, he got just 31% of the vote, a full 10% less than Andrew Jackson in a four-way race. Jackson concluded that Adams was POTUS only by virtue of a deal cut with Henry Clay, which happened to be true. Jackson plotted to undermine J.Q. Adams and used the tariff to do so. Adams signed a high tariff denounced in the South as the Tariff of Abominations. This precipitated the nullification crisis when South Carolina argued that states had to right to opt out of federal laws. Although Jackson supported the tariff, he did not do so publicly and trounced the unpopular incumbent in 1828.

Both presidents supported internal improvements. The elder Adams was the first to strengthen the U.S. Navy and the first to build military hospitals. Adams the younger was enamored of Clay's American Plan. He extended the Cumberland Road, began work on the Cumberland & Ohio Canal, and approved other plans to connect the Ohio River with the Great Lakes. He was also an ardent supporter of science. Not only was he the first president to allow a photograph to be taken, he advanced an endowment scheme that eventually resulted in the Smithsonian Institution.

Both had far more successful careers outside of the presidency than within. John Adams was a Founder and was present for all of the drama that led to the creation of the United States: the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre (he defended the Crown troops), the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights… He was an ambassador, vice president under George Washington, and a cofounder of the Federalist Party.

The younger Adams had a glorious career before taking the White House, having been a professor of logic at both Brown and Harvard, as well as serving at a U. S. Senator, an ambassador, and as Secretary of State under James Monroe. Most scholars think he wrote most of the Monroe Doctrine. His greatest glory came after he lost the White House in the 1828 election.

Both were also ardent opponents of slavery. The elder Adams didn't try to get rid of slavery, but he let all know he found the institution barbaric and immoral. His son blamed the slaveocracy for engineering his loss to Andrew Jackson in 1828, and he was probably correct. Instead of licking his wounds in private, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1833 until his death in 1848. From that position, he spearheaded the petition movement, an initiative allowed under the Constitution in which citizens can submit private petitions to Congress to "redress grievances." Adams presented scores of anti-slavery petitions for debate. When President Jackson's congressional allies put into effect a gag rule to declare these "out of order," J. Q. Adams found more ways to introduce them through other means than opponents could devise ways to prevent him from doing so. He was also on the legal team that defended the black mutineers that took over the Amistad in 1839 and in 1841, the SCOTUS agreed with Adams that the defendants had been illegally taken into slavery and were therefore free. He was a constant thorn in the side of all who tried to compromise on slavery, including Stephen A. Douglas, whom he accused of moral cowardice–a charge Douglas was never quite able to shake. Adams even argued that a POTUS could use his executive war powers to abolish slavery, which is precisely what Lincoln did in the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. It should be noted that J.Q. Adams enjoyed a more elevated reputation abroad than at home.

How they were different:

An obvious difference is that the elder Adams cofounded the Federalist Party and his son was a member of the rival Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans when he took office. J. Q. Adams despised Andrew Jackson, though, and abandoned the remade Democratic Party. J. Q. Adams was the Northern leader of the Anti-Jacksonians, a faction that eventually became the Whig Party.

J.Q. Adams clashed with Jackson over Indian policy as well, Adams being favorably disposed to protecting Native rights. His father said very little about Indians, though Federalists were not generally overly concerned with the rights of non-white peoples.

Although John Adams was a cold fish, by most accounts his marriage to Abigail was a rare companfeminist, as that term is understood today. The couple raised six reasonably well-adjusted children. John Quincy and his wife, Louisa, had three of four children survive to adulthood, but two sons were very troubled, one being booted out of Harvard and the other committing suicide.

ionate bond and filled with great affection. It should be noted that their respective views on women's equality has been romanticized and imbued with anachronistic readings. Abigail was a very strong woman, but she was not a

John Adams was greatly affected by deism philosophically, but maintained the usefulness of his Puritan/Congregationalist roots. Although he distrusted dogma and was of independent mind, he doubted that secular-based moral systems had merit. John Quincy was a freethinker, probably an agnostic. He took his oath of office with his hand on a book of constitutional law.

Ranking:

John Adams is currently ranked 12th, an absurdity based on the entire of his career, not his time in the White House. (He was the first actually to live in the White House, by the way, though it was still undone when he left it.) As a Founder, Adams is an American icon, though as a president he was not even as successful as his son, who ranks 21st.  J.Q. Adams deserves to be ranked higher than his father, though neither belongs in the top tier.

John Quincy Adams deserves kudos for his (often lonely) anti-slavery work. Perhaps only Jimmy Carter has led a more exemplary post-presidential life. 

11/7/16

I Saw the Light (and You've Seen This Film Before)

I SAW THE LIGHT  (2015)
Directed by Marc Abraham
Sony Pictures, 123 minutes, R (for little apparent reason)
★★

Neil Young once responded to a critic charging him with redundancy with the tart rejoinder, "It's all the same song." Young's was the last music memoir I read and I don't plan to pick up another. They are, in fact, all the same song. I wish Hollywood would get the message. I recently caught the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light on video and, to invoke a Williams song, my take on this and all future plans for features on famed musicians is: "Why Should We Try Anymore?"

Musician biographies are like Legos: snap out a blue block and stick in a red one. You can write your own by following this oh-so-familiar arc. Begin with a person obsessed by music and add an ambitious alter ego (mother, agent, producer). Cut to how the musician pays his or her dues in rough conditions (road house, honky tonk, sleazy club), contemplates giving up, but catches a break. Cue to the rise to fame, but a path strewn with obstacles (bad relationships, con jobs, physical challenges). Segue to substance abuse (booze, drugs, both), and salt with disillusionment (from others or internal). The last provides the sole opportunity for narrative departure, though there are really just three options: self-destruction, sobriety, or reinvention. End with a funeral, a chastened testimonial, or a triumphant return. 

Hiram "Hank" Williams (1923-53) is certainly one of the most important songwriters in country and western history. He was an Alabama-raised product of the days in which country music was unabashedly corny and heartbreak was a song staple. In a brief career (just 1938 to early 1953), Williams landed an astonishing thrity-five songs on the country Top Ten list, eleven of which went to number one. Who doesn't know songs like "Hey Good Lookin'," "Your Cheatin' Heart," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry?" He was dead at twenty-nine—just missing the infamous 27 Club–after two marriages and as much alcohol and drug abuse as a human body could take. Short lives such as his don't provide a lot of biographical detail, another reason why music biopics are so generic.

I Saw the Light, inexpertly directed by Marc Abraham, adopts a tone that's something Williams never was: flat. British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and did his own singing. He's okay, though his singing is akin to the way a lot of English actors do American accents: precisely, but without emotion or soul. His best effect is using his beanpole frame to embody the physical deterioration of a man in his late twenties who looks like he's on the wrong side of fifty. We might not notice Hiddleston's middle range vocals so much had the script had contained something other than the formula outlined in the second paragraph. Alas, we wtiness young Hiram deciding to become "Hank" because it sounded more authentic whilst being encouraged by his enabling mother Lillie (Cherry Jones). Then on to honky tonk bar fights, play-for-little-pay local radio, and chasing the dream of playing the Grand Ole Opry—which everyone knows he will, or there's no film to be made. Then a rival muse, his first wife Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen), and a downward spiral of booze, divorce, an inappropriate marriage to 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson), tragedy, and posthumous remembrances. Olsen is okay in her role, though she doesn't have much to do except whine, so let's add Hollywood's gender blinders to the list of this film's woes. (For the record, Sheppard was considered a better singer than Abraham would have us believe—not great, but competent.)

I could go on, but by now you've probably seen the light. This film bombed at the box office, gathered tepid reviews, and went to video before it even opened at a mall near me. If you don't remember (or know) Hank Williams, you should (re) educate yourself, but YouTube is a far better bet than this stale slice of cornpone.

Rob Weir