Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day

A century ago today, at 11am, the guns stopped in Europe.  Between nine and ten million soldiers lay dead.  Empires crumbled; Russian, Ottoman, Hapsburg, and German.  Hateful and dangerous ideologies were unleashed; Bolshevik Communism, the Nazi Party founded in 1920, the Fascists beginning their rule of Italy in 1922.  The "War to End War" did not; a worse conflagration started twenty years later leaving perhaps sixty million dead in its wake. 

I've visited many battlefields over the years, Civil and Revolutionary War in the United States, the D-Day beaches and American Cemetery in Normandy; solemn places, reminding us of the sacrifice of those who fought and died, yet fascinating and instructive and, at times, inspirational.  About twenty five years ago, Mrs THC and I were driving from Paris to Alsace.  Just off the payage was Verdun and we decided to make a visit.  The emotions it invoked were very different from those I'd experienced at other battlefields and we ended our visit earlier than planned.

From February through December of 1916 the Battle of Verdun ground on between the French and German armies.  During those months somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million soldiers became casualties with 300,000 killed (about equal to all U.S. combat deaths in the European and Pacific theatres during WWII).  Weeks were spent by fighting for gains measured in hundreds of feet and tens of thousands of dead and wounded.  At its end the front lines were only a few miles from where they'd been at the start.

We saw a landscape still completely pockmarked by shell holes from the battle's devastating artillery barrages the results of which gave birth to landmarks like (in its English translation), the Forest of Dead Men.  A quarter century after our visit the scene looks the same as you can see from this recent picture by Michael St Maur Sheil (for more of his pictures go here).  A century after the battle sixty five square miles around the town are still prohibited for any use due to the density of unexploded munitions.
world war i battlefields 100 years later michael st maur sheil (6)
The relentless artillery and machine gun fire pounded the bodies of dead soldiers into unrecognizable fragments embedded in the endless mud that covered the entire battlefield.  After the war the Douamont Ossuary was constructed to house the bones recovered from at least 130,000 unidentified combatants of both sides.

The sense of waste, loss and despair at Verdun is overwhelming and we left there depressed.

The Ossuary

During four years of war more than 800,000 British soldiers would die, including Wilfred Owen,  author of Dolce et Decorum Est.  Volunteering for the army in October 1915, he reached the front lines in France in late 1916 seeing extensive combat and enduring horrific experiences culminating in being blown into the air by an exploding shell.  Diagnosed with shell shock, Wilfred was sent to Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh where he was befriended by fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon.  Returning to the front lines in August 1918 Wilfred participated in the final campaigns of the war.  Leading his company in action during October he captured an enemy machine gun which he used to kill several German soldiers, an action for which he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. He wrote frequently to his mother of his life at war; from a letter of October 8, 1918 (quoted by Ferdinand Mount in his review of an Owen biography in the Wall St Journal, March 29, 2014):

"All one day we could not move from a small trench, though hour by hour the wounded were groaning just outside.  Three stretcher-bearers who got up were hit, one after one.  I had to order no one to show himself after that, but remembering my own duty, and remembering also my forefathers the agile Welshmen of the mountains I scrambled out myself & felt an exhilaration in baffling the Machine Guns by quick bounds from cover to cover.  After the shells we had been through and the gas, bullets were like the gentle rain from heaven."

Wilfred was killed on November 4, 1918 while leading his troops in a crossing of the Sambre Canal in Belgium.  He was 25 years old.  Word of his death reached his parents on November 11 while the bells were ringing, celebrating the Armistice and the end of the war.

Dolce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Revisiting Bing

This morning's Wall St Journal contained an interesting assessment of Bing Crosby, of whom I wrote yesterday, commenting that his emotional remoteness limited his appeal to me.  Today's Book Review section of the Journal (which is wonderful every Saturday) contains a review of Bing Crosby: Swinging On A Star: The War Years, 1940-46 by Gary Giddins.  Ted Gioia's review provides a counterpoint to my comment, quoting a 1945 letter from an unnamed U.S. military commander to Bing, in which the officer informs Crosby his music possesses the:
"power to soften the hearts of the man who so shortly after goes back to shoot down his brother man . . .  [yet keeps] our boys from turning into the beasts they are asked to be . . . [because his voice] strikes to the bottom of the hearts of men.  I have watched it happen, often, not just in the rare case but in many many thousands of men - sitting silent, retrospective, thoughts flying back to home and loved ones . . . [as his voice tapped into the] power of music, put into humble, throbbing words, as these fellows want it, need it, bow to it."
Gioia goes on to write:
"Gary Giddens . . .  calls this aspect of his singing 'a zone of emotional safety'  You could even claim that Bing Crosby invented emotional restraint in popular music.  As leader of the first generation of singers to take advantages of the improved microphones of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Crosby grasped better than anyone the potential of conversational delivery."
It was during the war years that Crosby's recording of White Christmas became the best-selling record of all time (and remains so) and won an Oscar for his first serious film role, as a priest in Going My Way.  He also devoted enormous time to traveling and entertaining troops in the U.S. and abroad.  In a public opinion poll, conducted at end of the war, to pick the most admired man alive, Bing easily won, beating President Truman, and Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur.

From 1944, Out Of This World, composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer:

Friday, November 9, 2018

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime? 
I admire Bing Crosby's vocals but they've always struck me as more emotionally remote compared to Sinatra.  And I can't imagine Bing singing a torch song like Frank.

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? is an exception.  With lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney, and recorded in 1932 at the height of the Depression, Bing perfectly captures the pathos of the time, and the personal tragedies. As we progress through verse and chorus the narrator becomes more desperate, transitioning from speaking of his "brother" to the more impersonal "buddy", as friendship shatters in the ruins:
Say, don't you remember, they called me Al
It was Al all the time
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?
Harburg, best known as composer of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and Gorney were songwriting partners for several years until Yip ran off with Gorney's wife.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Hail, Caeser! As Christian Parable

Sometimes a joke is just a joke, sometimes with the Coen Brothers it's also a joke but also something else, and sometimes there's a man . . . now, where was I?

On first seeing Hail, Caesar!, the 2016 film by the Coen Brothers, during its theatrical release, I seriously misunderestimated it.  You can find my initial take here.

Watching it on cable a few months later caused me to reassess and move it up a few notches in the Coen oeuvre.  This time I caught the underlying themes of faith v science and utopianism v practicality.  Here's my second take.

While my reassessment discussed issues of faith I think the film can be more explicitly seen as a parable for Jesus.  Being Jewish I'm out of my theological depth when it comes to Christianity but the Coen Brothers are in the same situation and it didn't stop them, so here goes.

In Hail, Ceasar! Jesus is embodied in Eddie Mannix, the general manager of the studio.  He is shown as devoted to his Catholic faith with frequent visits to his confessor.  In my prior post I wrote of Mannix:
"He's willing to tackle the tough job at the studio enduring constant strain, long hours, and separation from his family, sacrificing himself, rather than take what he sees as a simpler, less stressful role at Lockheed."
But, it's more than that.  Eddie is a man of faith.  Both the screenwriter communist study group and Lockheed represent pure materialism.  For the communists materialism is a matter of Marxist creed; there is no place for spirituality in their world.  Or, as Baird Whitlock, the dimwit actor so well portrayed by George Clooney, who has been temporarily converted to their creed explains to Mannix:
"These guys were pretty interesting, though.  They've actually figured out the laws that dictate, well - everything, history, sociology, politics, morality.  Everything.  It's all in a book called Kapital." 
Here's Professor Marcuse explaining to Baird how it works (sorry for the bad sound synch):


It's a more benign materialism for the Lockheed executive; it's just the world he exists in.

Eddie Mannix is willing to give to Caesar (the studio owner) what is owed but no more.  But in doing so he will drive those driven solely by materialism (the communists) from the studio just as Jesus drove the materialists (moneychangers) from the Temple.  Art and creativity may generate material goods but they have a spiritual aspect too, as does the very act of creating it, which Eddie explains to Baird after slapping him around a bit:
"Shaddup.  You're gonna go out there and you're gonna finish "Hail Caesar!".  You're gonna give that speech at the feet of the penitent thief and you're gonna believe every word you say.  You're gonna do it because you're an actor and that's what you do.  Just like the director does what he does, and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate.  You're gonna do it because the picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture and you're never gonna forget that again."
And, after solving the problems of one day at the studio, Eddie returns to church, still struggling with a job offer from Lockheed that promises wealth, security, normal hours, and more time with his family.  From the confessional booth:
Eddie:   May I ask you something, Father?
Father:  Of course, my son.
Eddie:   If there's something that's easy . . . is that . . .
Father:  Easy?
Eddie:   Easy to do, easy to - an easy job - not a bad job, it's not bad.  But then there's another job, that's . . . that's not so easy.  In fact it's hard.  It's so hard, Father, sometimes I don't know if I can keep doing it.  But it seems right.
[Silence.  Then:]
Father:  God wants us to do what's right.
With that advice, Eddie's decision is made.  He will stay with the studio, bringing art and creativity in the world though it means dealing with misfits, idiots, gossips, incompetents, prima donnas, and, of course, materialists.  He sacrifices his personal happiness, and that of his family, to suffer on our behalf.

Or perhaps he's just a shallow man, afraid of new challenges, comfortable in doing what he does best, perhaps unconsciously avoiding the burden of family duties, all on behalf of creating trifles like Hail, Caesar! to please the public and his boss. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Baseball In Black And White

When I was very young my Dad's favorite ballplayer was Willie Mays, who became my favorite player, and always will be (sorry Big Papi, but you're #2).  He also told me how important the integration of baseball was and that the National League played a superior brand of baseball to the American because it was much more aggressive in signing black ballplayers.  Dad's viewpoint is now generally accepted - the National League had a quality advantage in the 1960s and 70s, before the American League finally caught up.

I thought I'd try to quantify that advantage by looking at AL and NL ballplayers at the end of the 50s, 1959 to be specific, and in the mid-60s (1965).  The method was to identify all American black and dark-skinned Latins on AL and NL rosters in those years who accumulated at least 1.0 WAR.  While WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is a flawed measure it is useful for making comparisons. "White" Latins, like Luis Aparicio, are not included because they had been generally accepted in baseball since at least the 1920s, in contrast to darker skinned Latins like Minnie Minoso.
Image result for luis aparicio baseball cardImage result for minnie minoso baseball card

It turns out differences in numbers and talent were significant in both years.

In 1959 there were 17 black players on National League rosters who accumulated at least 1.0 WAR.  Cumulative WAR was 69.7 or an average of 4.1  Eight were eventually inducted in the Hall of Fame (Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson).

There were only 4 in the American League with a cumulative WAR of 11.2 (2.8 average) of which Minnie Minoso accounted for almost half (5.5).  The other three were Vic Power, Pumpsie Green, and Elston Howard.  None are in the Hall of Fame, though Minoso might have if he'd been able to start his major league career earlier.

By 1965 the National League had 35 black ballplayers meeting the criteria.  Cumulative WAR was 161.7 or an average of 4.6.  Twelve of the 35 have been inducted into the HOF - in addition to those from 1959 we can add Juan Marichal, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and Joe Morgan (Orlando Cepeda was still active but injured, missing most of the season).  Other outstanding black ballplayers active in the NL that year included Dick Allen, Curt Flood, Vada Pinson, Jimmy Wynn, and Felipe Alou.

The number of black ballplayers had substantially increased in the AL to 23 and cumulative WAR to 64.5 but the talent gap remained; average WAR was 2.8, and only three had at least 5.0 WAR compared to 15 in the NL, and none have yet been admitted to the Hall of Fame, though Luis Tiant might eventually make it (I hope), and Tony Oliva might have but for the injuries that shortened his effective career.

In 1965 the talent gap between the leagues extended beyond race.  That year the AL had only nine players with at least 5.0 WAR while 26 NL players reached or surpassed that mark.

Dad was right.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

New Documentary

Just released regarding former CEO Jeff Immelt's catastrophic tenure at General Electric.