Thursday, March 12, 2015

Catching Up

I've been very inattentive to keeping up this little communication. Some of the blame goes to my having gone off to the Philippines in late January for almost a month. I was working on an assessment of judicial reform there for the Asian Development Bank. This was a project on which I was pleased to work because I spent a total of about four months there about a decade ago involved in developing a plan to improve judicial operations.

I hadn't been in the Philippines for about eight years or so. Biggest change is that the economy is booming. They have finally caught up with the rest of Asia. Growth last year was seven percent. Still lots of political scandal in the press, at least in the half dozen or so English-language daily papers in Manila. There's a presidential election next year and of course, the current president, Benigno (P-Noy) Aquino III, cannot run again because the limit is one six-year term. There were rumors that they might try to change the constitution but by the time I left his image was not so great after a radical Muslim group in Mindinao managed to ensnare and shoot 44 Philippine National Police officers.

All the buildings in Ortigas--the part of Manila where I was working--that had been left unfinished ten years ago have been completed and other gleaming skyscrapers have gone up.  The truly prime business district--Makati--is also booming. Downtown Manila--Ermita and Malate--looks less prosperous, but it can be hard to discern how well exactly it is doing because of the crowds. Traffic is awful as it was then but not necessarily any worse. If you haven't been in traffic in Asian cities like Manila or Jakarta or Bangkok, you don't know traffic.

The day before I left was Liberation Day. This was the 70th anniversary of the day in 1945 when MacArthur led the U.S. forces to take back Manila from the Japanese. At least there they remember how bad the Japanese were: luckily, MacArthur for once got ahead of schedule and arrived in Manila before he was expected. Japanese soldiers were shooting everyone they could see and burning everything they could. This was the kind of war crime that General Yamashita was put on trial for in a ballroom I was shown on this trip in the American Embassy, which still is located at a prime spot on Manila Bay. 

Judicial reform is happening in the Philippines but it has been a slow process and much resistance remains. The Supreme Court still runs the whole system from Manila--it approves all personnel actions and all procurements for the entire country. And there is corruption at all levels. Yet progress has been made in Quezon City where cases are actually being processed efficiently. A really exciting Judicial Sector Coordination Committee made up of the top-level of the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Local Government and Interior is making change happen, too.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner does not disappoint you by trivializing its subject but it does not try to penetrate beneath the surface of the last third of his life very deeply. Frederick Spall turns in a nice performance as the often grunting, mumbling painter who to my mind was the most direct precursor of impressionism. The strongest feature of the film is its rendition of fabulous scenery that looks as it had emerged directly from a Turner painting.

The mid-19th century setting--in London and the seaside at Margate--realizes the still-primitive life even reasonably well-off people like Turner lived then. Turner was apparently regarded as acceptably skilled and thus admitted to the Royal Academy, where he was treated as eccentric by even great realistic painters such as Constable. The young John Ruskin, seen in the picture as a critical prodigy, seems to realize Turner's excellence.

Turner's marine paintings often highlight the flash of sunlight against water. As he grew older, the paintings became more and more akin to the impressionist works that would soon follow from the likes of Monet as the light and sea almost merge in gauzy colors. The film makes it clear that he knew what he was about although he never expounds on his art or his intentions.

This is not a film for action-picture fans but I thought it presented a rewarding view into the life of one of the most important painters. By framing it scenes in Turner seascapes, it extends its impact by drawing you even more totally into his world.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Intense Theatre

The last wonderful drama I saw that ran 90 minutes straight without an intermission was David Mamet's superb Glengarry Glen Ross, which starred Joe Mantegna and the late Robert Prosky on Broadway. Mamet's conniving salesmen were incredibly alive and emblematic of a society but it was the intensity of the play that drew you in and held you for the hour and a half that seemed even shorter. 

Last week we saw another 90-minute fest of fast talkers--Bad Jews, a play by a new playwright, Joshua Harmon, at the Studio in DC after it's debut last year at New York's Roundabout.  Washington's City Paper informs me that it "has already become one of the top three most-produced plays in America this year."

The play raised all the long-argued issues of assimilation and meaning of religion in the context of a family elder's passing. In one dimension it even conjured up memories of Arthur Miller's amazing late work, The Price, in which two brothers debate the value of their lives in the context of disposing of their late father's worldly possessions. But here, you have the classic dramatic design of four characters--think of Streetcar Named Desire, for example--with two leads: one cousin who overwhelms almost everyone with her seeming passion for tradition and incredibly overbearing air that hides a hungering for respect and affection, and another who is almost too cool in his comfort with becoming completely ensconced in a world shorn of ethnicity.

There's even a MacGuffin they struggle over--even physically--and two quieter characters who surprise everyone when they play major roles in the outcome. The play, however, raised more penetrating questions that go well beyond the charge of phoniness so beloved by Holden Caulfield: here, both leading characters have degrees of insincerity so you find yourself caught in this maelstrom of always-heated argument.

So the dialogue is quick, piercing, screamingly funny, and penetrating, but beneath the absolutely roaring sound and fury, there's a gradually discernible reality of the essence of these mostly unlikeable but most definitely realistically-drawn characters. The playwright apparently is fresh out of Juilliard and the actors look just right for their ages and lend support to the desirability of casting Equity members by the professional performances they deliver.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Skylark from National Theatre

Courtesy of Washington's Shakespeare Theater Company, we saw a broadcast of the Royal National Theatre's production of David Hare's play, Skylight, at Sidney Harman Hall Monday night.  The performance was in London this past July, so this was a tape delay, ostensibly broadcast in HD. The play is scheduled to open on Broadway in a few months.

Carey Mulligan starred, opposite Bill Nighy. I've liked both of them in the past and Miss Mulligan definitely rose to the occasion. She plays a teacher living in a scruffy part of London, having fled after six years' service as caretaker for the son of a successful restaurant entrepreneur. Now she is visited, for different reasons, by both the son, and his father, with whom she had an affair.

Carey Mulligan makes the part of the thirtyish teacher come alive. You sense her bright mind and her need for independence that drove her away from the restaurateur, even though her departure was ostensibly brought on by the discovery of the affair by his dying wife. Bill Nighy, a good actor, whom I first saw in the movie Love, Actually and then on Broadway in Hare's The Vertical Box, seemed miscast in the first act but grew into the part in the second. The original Tom in 995, when the play debuted, was Michael Gambon, whom I would have loved to have seen in it.

One big problem with the show was the lighting. We did have seats in the gallery, where I hadn't previously sat, which may have affected our perception of light, but the stage seemed so dark at the start that I couldn't even make the faces out. I'm accustomed to the excellent production values of the Metropolitan Opera's movie house broadcasts in HD; this lighting may have suffered from being in an old London playhouse, even older, of course, than the Broadway legit houses, and unlike the relatively modern National Theatre complex.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Always a Friend

It's starting to get too close, people I know well, and now someone my age, starting to fall. Word came today that my law school roommate and later the best man at my wedding, Guy Blynn, collapsed of what turned out to be a pulmonary embolism and never regained consciousness. We had stayed in touch the way old friends and comrades do, but it had often been a year or so between get-togethers.  Nevertheless, it was like old times when we did see each other.

In recent years, the occasion usually was sitting as judges on a moot court for Guy's son Dan's legal writing class at George Washington Univ. law school, where my wife also continues to teach as an adjunct.  Guy was his old self on this bench, only mildly terrorizing first-year law students during oral argument, for their own good, as it always was broadcast to us from our own law school days.

Guy really was cut out to be a lawyer.  He became interested in trademark law right out of law school, when starting out at a big New York firm. His moving to Winston-Salem and going to work for RJR made seeing him less frequent but he became well-known in the trademark bar. He was a Stephen Colbert before his time, often taking a conservative position on anything for the sake of argument and yes, at the time, he probably even believed some of it.

When I heard of his death, I started googling him and so much more emerged. His enthusiasm for sports I of course knew--going back to his days as sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian and wrestling manager at Penn. I'm a sucker for most sports--at least once--and he dragged me to wrestling meets at Harvard and left me with an appreciation for the fine points and those who love the sport, such as author John Irving. He also put up with my mediocrity on the squash court when we meet at prime time--lunch hour--only because he had bothered to give the desk guys a bottle of scotch at Christmas so we got on as Harvard Law professors stood by and wondered how those guys rated.

But now I learned that he had contributed a major collection of Holocaust materials to Forsyth Technical Community College where the Blynn Holocaust Collection resides. He chaired a committee that apparently was formed by the mayor of Winston-Salem to examine the fairness of a criminal proceeding and recommended that the defendant, convicted by a jury, be set free after 15 years in prison despite the local judge's having denied habeas based on untimely filing of the motion.

He was a benefactor of the arts in Winston-Salem and I recall his telling me he had acquired half of a season's ticket to Arsenal, the football club in north London to which I have always been partial. I once told him I'd meet him over there for a match and regret that we never got to do that. His three sons have all turned out fine. 

Many people who knew him or knew me would ask how he could represent tobacco, or as Guy inimitably put it, "I'm the guy (Guy?) who keeps the world safe for Joe Camel." That was part of Guy--and if you accept the view that everyone is entitled to be represented, which I generally do, that was his choice to live with.  Guy used to come up and see us and tell everyone that they hadn't proven that smoking was harmful--but then he had stopped smoking himself.

He had a real zest for life. I think I liked him partly because I could put up with his needling--which was amazingly similar to the same trait practiced by my father.  I met his dad once, and he was the same way. What was even more amazing was that we first met when I was in high school in Mt. Vernon, attending the New York State Key Club convention where Guy was running for the highest office, Governor. He didn't win, despite the efforts of the mighty Long Island bloc, which was overwhelmed by the mightier Upstaters. But as always, he made a lasting impression.

His last e-mail to me was about a month ago, asking the derivation of  Fenno, a humor column in the Harvard Law Record I had inherited from who knows how many predecessors (going back to the ancient days of 1946, I believe). "I'm doing well for someone almost 70 (yikes!!!!)   travelling a bunch since the kids are in good places to visit:  denver, miami and...d.c.," he related. 

Good-bye, Blynner--you were truly one of a kind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Signs of Incipient Curmudgeonly Tendency

We like to think that we don't fall into the trap of thinking and saying how good things used to be and how so much that occurs today is terrible.  Here's a quick rundown of some stuff in our 24/7-oriented media that aroused my ire recently:

1. LeBron James criticized for touching Kate Middleton. Since when do royalty have any right to expect that this country accepts the ridiculous protocols prevailing in their home nation which derive from the days when the royals asserted divine rights? We fought a Revolutionary War against the Brits following our issuance of the Declaration of Independence specifying the many offenses committed by the then-king, George III. It's bad enough that our media and the UK media assume that Americans are enamoured of the British royals and share the regard that some Brits have for them. These people are spongers who deserve very little respect much less deference. They have done nothing to deserve any special treatment.

2. Columbia Law School students demand and receive exam postponement because of the effect on their concentration of the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury results.  This egregious catering to law students ostensibly upset by the failure of grand juries to indict -- it should be noted that the facts of the two cases are very different -- is yet another instance of our academic institutions promulgating policies that accept the idea that students have a right not to be made to feel "uncomfortable"--whatever that means, in the phrase of my recently-retired criminal law professor.  Too often, this ersatz "principle" is used to justify restricting freedom of speech on college campuses. We need more recognition of the precept advanced by both Voltaire ("I may disagree with everything you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.") and Thomas Paine ("He that would make his own liberty secure must guarantee rights even to his enemy, for if he fails to do so, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself.").

3. Universities need to get out of the adjudication business. College panels of amateurs--when it comes to determining matters by any legal standard--have no place today in acting on charges of serious offenses such as rape. The criminal justice system surely is far from perfect, but we have devised a series of procedures that seek to guarantee the rights of both complainant and defendant.

4. Journalism needs to re-emphasize a focus on facts before and separate from opinion.  Rolling Stone discredited itself by only looking for one side of a story at the University of Virginia. Yet our media today are filled with simplistic opinions and refusals to pursue the underlying facts. We should not assume it was better in previous times--the vicious tone of journalism in the 1790s, for example, has not yet been equaled, fortunately. 

5. The recognition of the dangers in football presented by the long-term effects of concussions will have more impact over time in changing the sport and perhaps ending it than the issue of the Redskins' name.  The concussion reports and analysis remind me of the barring of the dangerous "flying wedge" play after President Theodore Roosevelt summoned the major football powers to the White House in 1905 and told them that change was required.  It's almost humorous to recall that Harvard and Yale were those major football powerhouses in those days. Eventually, it may well turn out that the frequency with which players' careers and lives are shortened by head hits will cause the demise of the sport. As for the local gridiron eleven, the appropriate new name might be the Deadskins, based on their now-standard haplessness on the field and off.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rolling Stone Comes a Cropper at UVa

The Rolling Stone fraternity gang rape story at the University of Virginia has exposed many of the faults of the current trends in American popular journalism, garnished with an unhealthy helping of political correctness. First, the journalism part: the writer and the editors failed to follow the most basic rules of the trade, which have long mandated that reporters seek out all sides of a story and never rely on merely one involved party for a full picture.

Now it turns out that the woman may not have been assaulted by multiple men, nor that she was so attacked at the particular fraternity house she told the writer that it was where this all occurred, and that she may not have had the date correct.  Yes, the whole event may well have occurred but her credibility has been damaged severely, largely because the writer failed to check the facts.  That Rolling Stone said that fact-checking had occurred makes its role in this sorry process even less sympathetic.

Now, some will say we are missing the point.  They urge us to focus on sexual assault as a problem on college campuses and forget about the specifics. Not so fast, I would suggest. It has been said that rape is easy to allege and hard to disprove.  All the more reason why such allegations should be tested in a court where the rules of evidence are in full force. And all the more reason for the U.S. Department of Education's sorry campaign to lower the burden of proof should be resisted and ended.

Fraternities remain a malignant influence on American higher education. They inhibit students from associating with fellow students who may not share the same cultural background.  This is also true of ethnic-based living arrangements in Latino, African American, Jewish, Catholic, evangelical, or Muslim-oriented houses, whether these are secret societies, like fraternities, or not. It is also clear that fraternities are generally anti-intellectual and at best, neutral in their attitude toward learning. They encourage irresponsible drinking, which leads to worse behavior.

Nevertheless, the current attitude among bien-pensant types assumes that all fraternity men are guilty of sexual assault until proven otherwise. So writers clearly without experience in adhering to long-established standards of good journalism are encouraged to tell merely one side of a story when it comes to sexual assault. This--as we now have seen from the UVa case--serves neither victims nor defendants nor the institutions themselves.