Monday, October 28, 2002

Paul Wellstone, 1944-2002. I haven't said anything about Sen. Wellstone before now because, frankly, I didn't know what to say. I still don't, but I figure I should at least pay the man some kind of feeble tribute. I didn't hear about his tragic death until early Saturday morning. I was with my friends Lima Beanz and Ovid at the latter's apartment in Collingswood, having a couple of drinks. I mentioned that I was getting more and more confident about the Dems' midterm prospects. That's when they told me.

I was stunned. I've spent a lot of the past weekend, time permitting, reading about this remarkable Senator. I really didn't know much about his life, or about him personally. I knew that he was a man I respected as being willing to stand up for his principles, even in the face of intense political pressure. His daring vote against the Iraq war resolution, whether you agree with it or not, has got to be the strongest example of sheer political courage in a long, long time. Remember, this was a Democratic Senator from Minnesota who was on top of the White House target list literally from day one. He was locked in a very tight race for reelection that could break either way, and he still voted his conscience, to his own possible detriment. He put his political career on the line for that vote, at his most vulnerable possible moment. It's not every day you see a politician take a stand like that, and I wonder when I'll ever get to see it again.

A man who can make that vote under those conditions at that time is a man who deserves the respect and admiration of all of us, whether Republican or Democrat. I'm delighted that so many of Wellstone's colleagues in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, have given up their own tributes to the man.

I've been interested in politics a long time, but I've only gotten serious recently. It can't be much more than a year since I first became aware of Paul Wellstone, but in that time, I have come to consider him the standard-bearer for what the Democratic Party should be. He will be greatly missed. Even if the Democrats hold his seat next week, even if he's replaced by Walter Mondale (an ideal candidate, in my view), the state of Minnesota, the Senate, and the nation will still have lost an irreplaceable man.
Pre-Election Chills. Just over a week to go, and I'm getting pretty excited. This election is by far the most important midterm election I've ever seen. With both houses of Congress so closely divided between the major parties, there is a tremendous amount at stake. There is no question to me that control of each house matters, and control of both houses matters tremendously. Two years of a Republican White House coupled with a Republican House and Senate would be dramatically different from two years with the same White House and a Democratic House and Senate. Unrecognizeably different. Even if neither house switches leadership (which is where the good money is at the moment), even minor pickups by either party will have some noticeable effects. Right now, the Republicans in the House are disciplined enough to control that chamber even with such a slim majority, but if that majority slims further, it will put a lot of pressure on Republicans anticipating tight races in 2004. Coupled with the fact that Democrats have gained House seats in every election since the Republicans took over in 1994, a pick up of 3 or four seats by the Democrats (which would not shift control) would be enough to strike fear into the hearts of vulnerable Republicans. On the other side of the aisle, even picking up 2 or 3 seats in the Senate would give the Democrats a bit more wiggle room, and would help them protect themselves from maverick conservative Democrats like Zell Miller in Georgia. It would give them a bit more clout in the committees, which is where a lot of the Senate's business gets decided, under-the-radar.

The various governor's elections taking place around the country are also a big deal. In 2001, the Democrats picked up two governorships in off-off-year elections (in New Jersey and Virginia) to give them a total of 21 nationwide. In this election, some prognosticators are predicting a pick up of as many as ten for the Democrats next week. Why do we care? If you're running for president, a same-party governor helps you win that state. In 2000, the Democrats had fewer then 20 governorships. In 2004, they might have 30 or more. That's a big swing, and you'll all remember that it wouldn't have taken a big swing to shift the 2000 election. It's even possible that the Democrats could win governorships in Texas and Florida, the importance of which (at least in the latter case) doesn't have to be mentioned. Of course, with so many races at every level being so tight, we'll have to see how the dust settles next Wednesday, but there is a lot a stake.

Anyway, in that spirit, check out this article by Peter Beinart in The New Republic Online. He's arguing against the conventional wisdom, saying that the Iraq issue is actually helping Democrats, while the economy issue is not. It's food for thought, and it's a well-supported contention, backed up by an analysis of recent polling data in certain key races. Beinart concludes with what I've also lately come to believe, that support for war with Iraq is widespread but soft, while opposition is limited but intense. In a midterm election where voting is typically much lower than in presidential election years, I'd always rather have a few people of conviction on my side than vast hordes of the disinterested.
The Bond Project: You Only Live Twice. It's been a while since my last Bond Project update, I know. But I haven't forgotten about it. I've just been mad busy with the law school thing. But I'm back and pressing on with ferocity.

Make of this what you will, but my favorite thing about You Only Live Twice is the theme song. The rest of the film doesn't quite match up to expectations. This film represents a serious slip in the franchise, an awkward move into the direction of silliness. For the first time, the mysterious head of SPECTRE is shown, named, and made the principle villain of the piece. It has to be said, it doesn't come off very well. Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld does a passable job bringing the role to life, but the character inevitably loses a great deal of his menace through being seen directly. Also, his voice is just not up to scratch. Watch the early scenes of Thunderball again and see how Blofeld, though never seen, simply oozes menace through his voice. That's gone now, and it hurts.

Story-wise, I quite like this one. SPECTRE has a very bold and audacious plan to abduct US and Russian spacecraft, thus prompting a war between the superpowers, presumably leading to Japan's ascendency on the world stage. The involvement of Japan as SPECTRE's "client" is a pretty weak aspect of the story, and it's not developed at all. As far as the viewer need be concerned, the whole thing may as well be SPECTRE's own project (which, honestly, makes a bit more sense).

What this film has going for it is a terrific production, including the amazing Ken Adam set for Blofeld's volcano-lair. Seriously, you won't see much even in big budget event pictures of today to rival that awe-inspiring set (although, Adam will up the ante a couple years later when Lewis Gilbert decides to make this film again with Roger Moore, changing the title to The Spy Who Loved Me). The cinematography by Freddie Young is very impressive, and is used to bring out the full evocativeness of the location (which is a key element to any Bond film). It's the direction and the script that really weigh this picture down, not to mention the lackluster performance of Sean Connery.

The script by Roald Dahl is a thin framework to which a number of stand-alone sequences are precariously attached. The film never gels, never picks up any momentum, and never seems to be going anywhere until it gets there. Looking closely at what actually happens (an inadvisable activity when watching Bond), our hero once again doesn't really accomplish much. If it weren't for a couple of lucky breaks and off-screen investigations by Tanaka's people, Bond never would have found Blofeld's base. On the other hand, how was it that no one ever saw a great rocket launching out of a nearby volcano? Then, of course, you've got leads that go nowhere, simply to allow Bond the opportunity to escape from some exciting situation or another. Some of the leads don't even do that. What, for instance, is actually accomplished by Bond's visit to Osato Chemicals? It introduces the audience to two ineffectual and unmemorable characters, Helga Brandt and Osato. Much is made, obviously, about this film's principle gadget, Little Nellie, and it is well-loved by Bond fans for a reason, but one has to wonder why Bond didn't just use one of Tanaka's helicopters as suggested. The answer, of course, is that the Little Nellie sequence was the only way to shoehorn Q into a script that didn't need him, and (despite Q's protestations) to show off the film's featured toy.

The worst part of the script was the wedding. First of all, let me say that Sean Connery can pass for Japanese about as well as Strom Thurmond could pass for a college student. Second of all, accepting that it is necessary for Bond to pose as a married man, why was it necessary for him to (virtually) get married. This whole sequence ground the film to complete halt, and added nothing. Moreover, the character of his "wife" was tragically underwritten for a part that should have propelled the entire second half of the film.

As for direction, it was very disappointing coming from the man who had recently helmed Alfie. If you haven't seen that picture, do so as quickly as possible. But I felt especially detached while watching this film. None of it ever really connected. Certainly, the fire had gone out of the series, and this film really suggested to me that the franchise was getting tired (which is exactly what bringing in Gilbert, Young, and Dahl was designed to prevent). Whose idea was it to film a hand-tohand combat sequence in a longshot? Interesting idea, but it failed miserably, adding immensely to the feeling of detachment.

From a Bond formula point of view, this film adheres to it only on a grand scale, and many of the familiar details are underplayed or ignored. Interestingly, Bond never drives a car in this film (and its the only one). The femme fatale character seems to have been thrown in out of obligation, but clearly no one thought she was important enough to bother with.

Bottom-line: a noticeable downturn in quality, but far from the worst the series has to offer.

Ed Hill's take on this film can be found here. The Bond Project will continue with On Her Majesty's Secret Service.