Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘West Wing’

I admit it: I’m a West Wing junkie. I made the mistake, when I was staying with some friends one holiday, of watching the first two episodes of Season Two, the two-parter when the President has just… Oh dear, I’m about to reveal some plot; and if there is just the slightest chance that you haven’t seen the cliffhanger at the end of Season One, then I’d better leave you to that moment of TV heaven without spoiling it.

I know, some of the haircuts from the first few years are already dating, and we have had plenty of great TV since then. But it’s still, to my mind, one of the most dazzling and thought-provoking shows of all time. My heart still hasn’t healed from trauma of discovering that they were not carrying on into Season Eight.

So it was a relief to get my hands on Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, which covers the Primaries leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, and the election itself. They take you inside the conference rooms, the conversations, and even inside the heads of the leading protagonists, claiming to base every quotation and italicised inner thought on the testimony of those who were there and those who experienced it.

How did Obama come from nowhere? How did McCain win the Republican nomination with no money and little heavyweight Republican support? How did someone with Edwards’ manifest failings stay in the race for so long? How did Palin really get picked as McCain’s Vice-Presidential candidate? How could someone as experienced as Clinton allow her campaign to fall into such dysfunction? How, in the end, did he win?

It’s all here. And it’s exhilarating. If there is any hint of West Wing addiction in your bloodstream, this will keep the craving at bay for a few glorious hours. Then, all over again, you’ll start missing Josh, CJ, Toby, Donna, Sam, and all the crew, and having to remind yourself that they aren’t, really, your personal friends…

Read Full Post »

No-one doubts, after Egypt, that you can organise a revolution on Facebook. The question for those of us not presently caught up in this kind of political activism is: can you truly socialise there? 

Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing and scriptwriter of The Social Network, was asked in a recent interview what he thought of the way Facebook is changing the nature of our relationships.

I’ve copied the full answer below, but let me highlight the thought-provoking analogy he makes, which is reason for a post in itself:

Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality.

Here’s the context:

Q: How to you feel about the way Facebook is changing how people relate?

A: I have a 10-year-old daughter who has never really known a world without Facebook, but we’re going to have to wait a generation or two to find out the results of this experiment. I’m very pessimistic. There’s an insincerity to it. Socialising on the internet is to socialising what reality TV is to reality. We’re kind of acting for an audience: we’re creating a pretend version of ourselves. We’re counting the number of friends that we have instead of cultivating the depth of a relationship. I don’t find it appealing. [Playlist, 12-18 Feb, p12]

But aren’t we always acting for an audience? (If you want some thoughts on this go and read Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) And what if the distinctions between reality TV and ‘non-reality’ TV (whatever that was/is) and non-TV reality were lost a long time ago?

Read Full Post »

I’ve just seen the Facebook film, The Social Network. It works. It shouldn’t, because we all know the story: guy invents Facebook, transforms human self-understanding, and makes a few billion in the process. But it does. Partly because the lesser known sub-plot is turned into the main narrative arc: did he steal the idea and dump on his friends? And partly because the heart of the story, the genesis of Facebook, is such a significant moment for our culture (and perhaps for human history), that it would mesmerise a cinema audience no matter how badly filmed.

It’s Stanley Kubrick trying to film the emergence of human consciousness at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s more a screenplay than a film. I had to concentrate so hard on the dialogue and the ideas that I hardly took in the visuals. This is classic Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing scripts have more words per minute and ideas per episode than anything else on TV in recent years.

I’m also a fan of Ben Mezrich, who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based. I read his Bringing Down the House a few years ago, a great holiday read about how a team of MIT geeks took their card-counting skills to Vegas and beat the casinos. And it’s true.

Anyway. Go and see the film. It’s a great story and a great cast, directed with unobtrusive style by David Fincher. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it captures one of those rare historical moments, that we have actually lived through, when our understanding of what it is to be human shifts quite significantly.

It’s too easy to talk about geography (“First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities; now we live on the internet”). We could have ‘lived on the internet’, even with the interactivity of Web 2.0, without it changing our understanding of ourselves. The same people, but with more information and quicker methods of exchanging it. Facebook has turned us inside out. We used to learn and think and search in order to be more authentically or more happily ourselves. We learnt in order to live. Now we create semi-virtual selves which can exist in a semi-virtual world where others are learning and thinking and searching. We live in order to connect.

But even this doesn’t capture it properly, because people have been connecting for millennia, and at least since EM Forster’s Howards End. With Facebook we don’t just want to connect, we want to actually become that connectivity. We want to become the sum total of those friends, messages, events, applications, requests, reminders, notifications and feeds. Personhood has changed.

Two thousand years ago, through the incarnation, the Word became flesh. In our time, through the internet, the flesh became Facebook.

Time to switch off the computer.

Read Full Post »

One of the few novels that I read again and again (every two or three years) is Don DeLillo’s magnificent Underworld. I won’t give too much plot away, but there is one section where a teenager is wasting his life away in a young offenders’ institution. He’s got no worldly prospects, not desire to put things right or move forward, no personal ambition at all. And the path to his redemption begins when one of his mentors, an elderly Jesuit, asks him to name the holes through which the laces are threaded in his shoes.

The Jesuit has a thing about shoes, and before too long he has given him an education in every aspect of the shoe, and the technical word for every single piece of leather and string and metal and cloth that goes to make up this triumph of human civilisation. (It reminds me, by the way, of that scene in the West Wing Series 6 when Josh first meets Senator Vinick, who gives him a lecture in the art of polishing shoes.) It’s the first time that the teenager has ever really paid attention to the world, and seen that there is a truth out there waiting to be discovered. A truth that is bigger than his narrow emotional connection with his environment that has defined his life up to this point. Even if it is just the truth of the humble shoe.

I say all this because I had one of those ‘vocabulary’ moments yesterday. I was visiting a friend with an outside staircase up to his first floor flat. I kept scuffing my shoes on the front of the steps, and I said that the stairs were very ‘narrow’. My friend said that this wasn’t the right word – narrow would be the width of the stairs from one side to the other. I wanted to describe the horizontal distance from the front edge of one step to the front edge of the next step; the space, in other words, that you have to step into before your foot falls over the edge.

My friend happened to do a carpentry course thirty years ago, went to an old bookshelf and pulled out a dusty file of handwritten notes about the construction of staircases. And there it was. The height of one step above the other is ‘the rise’. And the horizontal distance from the front of one step to the front of the next is ‘the going’. Isn’t that beautiful! A word that describes exactly what I wanted to describe. That people use every day. That was there all the time without me knowing it. The joy of language. And found without Wikipedia — although you can see the Wiki definitions here.

A final connected aside/recommendation: A great track on a great album, Aimee Mann’s ‘I know there’s a word for this’ on her masterpiece Whatever.

Whatever

Read Full Post »

The first grown-up book I ever read as a teenager (you can’t say ‘adult book’ anymore) was All the President’s Men. Since then, like many Brits, I’ve had a fascination with American politics, and an obsession with The West Wing. I spent most of January ploughing through Richard Ben Cramer’s gigantic What it Takes, an enthralling look at the personalities and politics of the 1988 presidential campaign (and of the primaries that preceded it).

It’s good to look at things in reverse, and to see how a US journalist sees British politics, and especially how our election campaign strikes the eyes of someone from across the Atlantic. You can read Jacob Weisberg’s take on the three main candidates here, but these are his more general comments on our strangely muted electoral process:

Since arriving in London last week for a hack’s holiday, I have been asked several times: do Americans care about the British election? The truthful answer is that no, we don’t, mainly because we haven’t developed a relationship with any of the candidates. Unlike during the Blair-Clinton years, there is no fraternal bond between New Labour and the Democrats. Unlike during the Blair-Bush years, there’s no prayerful union between PM and president.

What’s more, it’s difficult to argue that America should care who wins. To one who lived here in the late Thatcher era, the range of policies proposed by the three parties is surprisingly narrow. What differences exist have few implications for the United States. It might give pause in Washington that Nick Clegg failed in the debates to respond to Gordon Brown’s charge of anti-Americanism, but no one has yet registered a meaningful threat to the special relationship.

Nonetheless, the British election compels American attention, for two reasons. The first is simply as sport. However small the stakes for us, this has turned into a fine drama, with an uncertain outcome on 6 May and the uncharted possibility of a hung parliament thereafter. The second is what we have to learn from the way elections are still conducted here. Our American campaigns have gone decadent, becoming spectacles of horrifying length and expense, characterised by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals and a running media freakshow.

Yours feel, by contrast, pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

Read Full Post »

I’m a great fan of the novelist Robert Harris. I got hooked when I read the first three pages of Archangel, and then devoured Fatherland and Pompeii. I’ve only just got round to reading his magnificent Imperium. It’s the story of Marcus Cicero, set in the last years of the Roman Republic, told by his secretary Tiro. And – for the most part – it is true.

Cicero by tonynetone.

Even though I lived in the city for five years, when I was training for the priesthood, I can honestly say that this is the first time ancient Rome has ever come alive for me. Cicero leaps out of the page – a brilliant, ambitious lawyer, full of insecurities and foibles, who longs to climb to the top of Roman politics. There are sublime moments when he comes to the defence of the weaker man against some monstrous injustice. And there are other times when it is clear he will sell almost his soul in order to gain his heart’s desire.

Ancient Rome (Detail) by Alun Salt.

The political campaigns feel as contemporary as the debates in an episode of The West Wing. And all the while – this is a thriller, remember – you are desperate to know what happens next. I had coffee with a friend just after I had finished the book, and he started to tell me what happens in Part II (in the recently published Lustrum), casually recounting a bit of supposedly well-known history. I cut him off quickly, grateful for my ignorance, in case he spoiled the pleasure of reading the next installment.

It’s about power, as it’s title proclaims. And how political power – even with all the idealism and public-spiritedness – will always be inseparable from ambition, money, friendship, vanity, jealousy, favours given, favours expected. This is not cynical – just realistic. The question is how to make this messy and ambiguous reality work – as far as possible – for the common good, and not against it; how to make it serve the cause of justice even as it serves the inevitable ambitions of those involved. There are so many contemporary parallels.

It’s also about writing and making speeches and the agony of facing a deadline with a blank sheet of paper before you. Here is one lovely quotation to end with:

No-one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often – usually an hour or two after midnight – there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, just as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory. [Arrow Books, 2007, p. 132]

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: