Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Versace is back / Women in tech / The history of life after death / The reality of Jack Ruby / Trump and Castro’s Cuba / Puerto Rico still crippled after Maria

This week: Versace is back / Women in tech / The history of life after death / The reality of Jack Ruby / Trump and Castro’s Cuba / Puerto Rico still crippled after Maria

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. Easter Island Is Eroding
By Nicholas Casey and Josh Haner | The New York Times | March 2018
“Centuries ago, Easter Island’s civilization collapsed, but the statues left behind here are a reminder of how powerful it must have been. And now, many of the remains of that civilization may be erased, the United Nations warns, by the rising sea levels rapidly eroding Easter Island’s coasts.”

2. How women got squeezed out of tech
By Manuela Saragosa | BBC World Service | March 2018
“Women dominated the early days of programming — so how did men take over, and what can be done to balance things out again?”

3. Versace: the resurrection
By Luke Leitch | 1843 :: The Economist | April/May 2018
“Twenty-one years after her brother’s murder, Donatella Versace has revived the family brand. She tells Luke Leitch about her journey from the darkness to the light”

4. The Last Days of Jerry Brown
By Andy Kroll | California Sunday Magazine | March 2018
“After more than 40 years in public life, 15 as governor of California, he is as combative and contradictory as ever – and still trying to save the world from itself.”

5. Fine Specimens
By David S. Reynolds | The New York Review of Books | March 2018
“Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century had no sure prospect of resting in peace after death. If their bodies weren’t embalmed for public viewing or dug up for medical dissection, their bones were liable to be displayed in a museum. In some cases, their skin was used as book covers by bibliophiles and surgeons with a taste for human-hide binding.”

6. What 11 Female Authors Read When They’re Fed Up
By Madison Feller | Shondaland | March 2018
“Tayari Jones, Terese Marie Mailhot, and nine other women writers share the books that keep them keepin’ on.”

7. Who Was Jack Ruby?
By Gary Cartwright | Texas Monthly | November 1975
“How a small-time joint operator ushering in America’s age of violence.”

8. Up in smoke: should an author’s dying wishes be obeyed?
By Blake Morrison | The Guardian | March 2018
“Harper Lee never wanted Go Set a Watchman brought out, Sylvia Plath’s diary was burned by Ted Hughes — the controversial world of literary legacies.”

9. As Castro prepares to leave office, Trump’s Cuba policy is a road to nowhere
By Jon Lee Anderson | The New Yorker | March 2018
“Trump’s use of the bully pulpit to upbraid the island for its failings seems as hypocritical as it is counterproductive.”

10. 6 months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico pleads for help
By Danica Coto | Associated Press | March 2018
“As the six-month anniversary of the Category 4 storm approaches, only a fraction of the $23 billion in congressionally approved funds has actually been spent in Puerto Rico. In February, a $4.7 billion loan approved last year for Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico was reduced by the U.S. Treasury Department to $2 billion for Puerto Rico, none of which has been disbursed.”

Amerikan Rambler: Podcast 39: James I. Robertson

From Feb. 2017: “Bud talks with Colin about studying at Emory, being in the White House when JFK died, and his relationship with Robert Duvall.”

Bud talks with Colin about studying at Emory, being in the White House when JFK died, and his relationship with Robert Duvall.

via Podcast 39: James I. Robertson — Amerikan Rambler: Everybody Has a Story

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Prince and Beyonce / Tubman on the $20 / QEII turns 90 / Abigail Adams / Shakespeare, the American

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Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. Boston cheers Tubman going on the $20 bill
By Eric Moskowitz | The Boston Globe | April 21
“Although Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland and spent most of her free life in upstate New York, she has deep ties to Massachusetts, the center of the abolitionist movement.”

2. Tubman’s In. Jackson’s Out. What’s It Mean?
By Jennifer Schuessler, Binyamin Appelbaum, and Wesley Morris | The New York Times | April 20
“Does having her on the bill make a real difference — either to how we think about our history, or how we think about our money?”

3. What Prince Taught Me About Love. And Sex. And Time.
By Dave Holmes | Esquire | April 21
“Thirty-five years ago, I heard Prince’s voice. Eighteen years later, I was in his presence.”

4. The Best Tweets By People Losing Their Sh*t Thinking Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Was a Divorce Announcement
Cosmopolitan and Esquire | April 24
“Some people think she’s writing about her dad’s infidelity, not Jay Z’s, but it seems unlikely he is totally innocent here.”

5. Veep’s most profane, brutal and brilliant burns
By Janet Upadhye | Salon | April 24
“The result is 160 seconds of hilarity. Enjoy.”

6. Trump terrifies world leaders
By Edward-Isaac Dovere and Bryan Bender | Politico | April 21
“And Obama’s reassurances aren’t calming them down.”

7. William Shakespeare: a quintessentially American author
By Robert McCrum | The Guardian | April 9
“From Abraham Lincoln’s White House readings to Hollywood westerns and West Side Story, Shakespeare’s plays are an integral part of the American dream. So how did this icon of Englishness become a U.S. phenomenon?”

8. ‘Remember the Ladies’: Edith Gelles on the incomparable letters of Abigail Adams
Library of America | April 18
“Abigail Adams’s letters are the best record we have of the American Revolution from a woman’s point of view. No other Founding family has left such a trove of family letters as the Adamses.”

9. A Busy Queen Elizabeth II Pencils In a 90th Birthday
By Dan Bilefsky | The New York Times | April 20
“Through seven decades, she has remained gloriously and relentlessly enigmatic in one of her signature pastel outfits and colorful hats, chosen, royal experts say, so onlookers can spot her in a crowd.”

10. Kennedy, L.B.J. and a Disputed Deer Hunt
By Michael Beschloss | HistorySource :: The New York Times | August 2014
“Someone present thought the president-elect looked ‘like a football fan.’ Another felt that in the rural Texas setting, Kennedy looked as if he were ‘on Mars.’ ”

Kings are killed. Politics is power, nothing more.

In January 2011, David D. Robbins Jr., and Fernando Ortiz Jr., discussed three presidential quasi-biopics by film director Oliver Stone: “J.F.K.,” “Nixon,” and W.” The ideas and issues still resonate throughout our current conversations about film, history, politics, and culture.

25th anniversary of Nixon resignation

In January 2011, David D. Robbins Jr., author of the blog The Fade-Out, and Fernando Ortiz Jr., author of this blog, Stillness of Heart, shared their thoughts about three presidential quasi-biopics by film director Oliver Stone: “J.F.K.,” “Nixon,” and W.” They discussed the films and the politics surrounding them. They also considered what the films show us about ourselves and about American politics in general. This is a recently re-edited version of that conversation and is republished — with special permission — on Stillness of Heart. Its ideas and issues still resonate throughout our current conversations about film, history, politics, and culture.

*****

(Letter No. 1): From David D. Robbins Jr. to Fernando Ortiz Jr.:

“Karl, in Texas we call that walkin’.”

Hey Fernando, let me first say, I’m so glad to be talking about these films with you. I can think of no better and more knowledgeable partner. Taken in totality, these are such crucial films to the American movie canon. It seems we’re forever minted by them. I want to start off talking with you about the lesser of the three films, “W.” Much like you, I’ve seen each of these films more times than I can count. I re-watched “W.” a couple of days ago to see if I felt any different than I did the first time I watched it. I saw it at the theater when it came out, and enjoyed it — but it felt trite — something I never felt while watching “J.F.K.” and “Nixon.” I thought I remembered reading somewhere that director Oliver Stone said he purposefully made it trite, because then-President George W. Bush wasn’t really worth a serious look.

The first thing that struck me about this film was just how closely it stayed to the script. The near-death pretzel episode. Bush getting his cabinet lost at Crawford. They were all stories we’re familiar with, and the film’s scenes felt a bit like parody or vignettes stitched together. When I saw the film at the theater, it received a ton of laughs, especially during scenes where Bush Jr. mispronounced words, or got tangled in common phrases. I chuckled a bit, but didn’t find it all that funny because here was a man whose decisions resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen and more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians. Much like what he did in “Nixon,” Stone made Bush sympathetic in “W.” (Unlike what conservative critics, who probably never even watched the film, characterized Stone’s portrayal to be.) And that rubbed me the wrong way.

Stone put some very delicious lines in Bush’s mouth, like that scene where he and political strategist Karl Rove are discussing him taking a run at the presidency. Rove lists a few things Bush needs to change about himself to get votes on a national level. He asks Bush Jr. about his cocky swagger. Bush replies, “Karl, in Texas we call that walkin’.” It’s a fantastic line. Or when Bush, in the Situation Room, says, “I’m not Bill Clinton. I’m not gonna use a $2 million missile to destroy a $10 tent and hit a donkey in the ass.” Granted, I have to give some respect to Stone for not making Bush Jr. into a completely one-dimensional character just to fit a popular conception. But it must have been tempting. There are stories told by many historians that are even more ridiculous than the ones presented by Stone. Bob Woodward tells a story in “Plan of Attack” about Bush Jr. the first day he was briefed by the Joint Chiefs. Vice President Dick Cheney was falling asleep. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld kept asking the group to “speak up” because he was so hard of hearing. Apparently, they were describing the two no-fly zones over Iraq, with a map on the table. To outline the areas on the map, they used three mints. Bush Jr. grabbed a mint and ate it. A few minutes later he asked if anyone wanted the second mint. By the end of the meeting, he eyed the third mint and a JCS staffer, spotting his gaze, quickly grabbed up the mint and handed it to Bush — who popped it in his mouth. It doesn’t get any funnier (or sadder) than that.

At first I didn’t like Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice accent. It threw me off. But I suppose it didn’t much matter — because much like her role as Bush Jr.’s National Security Advisor — she remained relatively mute during the movie too. I don’t think there’s ever been a head of the NSA so befuddled by the job — so much so, she simply was a Bush Jr. lapdog. Fernando, imagine Brent Scowcroft or McGeorge Bundy acquiescing to the president’s whims without much interjection or give and take.

Let it be said, I’ve never been a fan of Bush Jr., but I don’t hate the man either. Being president is the most difficult, thankless, life-sapping job on the planet. Tough decisions are made everyday that would crush a normal person. But I do dislike Cheney and Rumsfeld. Thousands have lost their lives and limbs for the egos of those two men. Note how often Stone frames Cheney just at the edge of the picture, or barely within the periphery, lurking in the darkness. Right at all the crucial moments, he jumps in with his point of view. It’s accurate from all the books I’ve read of the man, including the brilliant “Angler” written by Washington Post writer Barton Gellman. Cheney isn’t a complicated person to understand. He’s been in politics for 42 years, and according to Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” he even held a meeting about “schooling” the new president on Iraq with departing Secretary of Defense William Cohen before Bush Jr.’s inauguration. In other words, Cheney had his eye on Iraq, Saddam Hussein and Iran before he was even officially vice president. He was such a runaway train that even his colleagues said he was “obsessive” about Iraq. We only need to read Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side” to get an even larger picture of his paranoia. Add this to the calculated opportunism of Rumsfeld (who clearly suffers from the ‘Smartest Man in the Room’ syndrome), a dysfunctional intelligence apparatus headed by a clueless Rice, the tragedy of 9/11, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s memo, and you’ve got a perfect storm.

History is messy, and often it’s a meeting of perfect storms. We don’t make history as much as history sweeps us up. What happens if JFK doesn’t go to Dallas? What if the often-brilliant Nixon stopped thinking it was his administration against the world? What if Bush Jr. didn’t have Cheney whispering into his ear like some evil Lady MacBeth? What if 9/11 never occurred to push Bush Jr. away from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s thinking and into the realm of war-machine stalwarts like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz? Just today, I opened up my newspaper to read Cheney daring to talk about current president Barack Obama’s character and his chances for a second term. If I was Obama, it would be hard to swallow lectures from an unapologetic liar, who from day one camped out at Langley trying to force the intelligence to fit his script — turning 9/11 into a phony search for WMDs he knew didn’t exist, and later inventing a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam in order to push his vision. Cheney is still at it. Still desperately trying to re-write history. Rumsfeld, who had been in politics even longer than Cheney, has quietly and thankfully fallen away into silence. It’s funny how in the movie, whenever ‘Rummy’ speaks, Bush Jr. just rolls his eyes and goes on to the next person. Rumsfeld’s complicated verbiage, or “known unknowns,” impressed Bush about as much as it did the press corps — which is to say not at all. He was shown in the film and in books like “By His Own Rules” (by Bradley Graham) to be a guy who liked to keep insulated. No one would get to know the real Rumsfeld, if that person even exists. He’d give points of view, but rarely let those around him know exactly why he gave them. Ultimately, this administration’s decision to go into Iraq was disastrous in battling terrorism. It refueled a jihadist mentality in Muslims around the world and made Osama bin Laden’s prediction that the U.S.’s long-range goal really was occupation, control of the region and command over oil wells seem all the more correct.

I’m sorry I’ve veered so far away from the movie. But I felt like starting off the conversation with a seriousness the movie lacked. The scenes with Bush Jr. dreaming of baseball came off like a tedious metaphor. Bush Jr.’s ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment was treated fairly by Stone, but it too felt stale and obligatory. Perhaps the one question answered by this movie was how in the world a beer-guzzling, doltish, young Bush could land the bookish Laura Welch. The film presents Bush as a bumbling charmer at a barbecue, where he meets his future wife. Talking with his mouth full, spittle flying, he proceeds to sweep her off her feet. The movie never touches the topic of Welch killing a friend in a car accident, which is fine because it’s not a movie about her. But I suspect that had a major effect on the type of person she became. An accident like that makes one very slow to judge the faults of others. I could see her being very forgiving about Bush Jr.’s defects. It’s a life perspective that transformed her into one of America’s most beloved first ladies. I enjoyed this film. But for me it doesn’t come close to what Stone did in “Nixon” or “JFK”.

 

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(Letter No. 2): From Fernando Ortiz Jr. to David D. Robbins Jr.:

“You’re a Bush! Act like one!”

David, it’s a dream come true to have this virtual conversation with you. Over the last decade, so many of Oliver Stone’s films have made it into our best conversations and casual analyses of the insane world around us. It only seems right to take a moment to focus directly on some of Stone’s best work.

Beginning this series with “W.” is quite timely. Recent days saw Tony Blair’s second appearance before the Chilcot committee, which is investigating British involvement in the 2003 Iraq war. Deadly bombings shattered the notion of a tense peace returning to Baghdad. And at a symposium in College Station, Texas, George H.W. Bush led the architects of the 1991 Persian Gulf War in a re-examination of their strategic decisions, including the decision not to topple Saddam Hussein’s government after Allied forces ejected the Iraqis from Kuwait.

I mention the 1991 war because I sometimes consider the 1991 and 2003 Iraq conflicts as two pieces of a larger whole, a larger era bookmarked by the two Bush presidencies, with the latter war a grand symptom of the bitter relationship the disappointed father shared with his defiant son. As a budding novelist, that relationship has fascinated me for so many years, and Stone’s illustration of that relationship is what, for me, elevates “W.” from the otherwise broad and shallow strokes brushed across a rather cheap canvas. For nuanced explorations of the fascinating power plays throughout the second Bush administration, the intellectual and psuedo-intellectual fires fueling the drive toward a second Iraq war and the catastrophic consequences of so many astoundingly shortsighted decisions, one needs to look no further than the brilliant PBS series “Frontline.”

To me, aside from the exploration of the fragmented father-son connection, the value of “W.” lies in how it challenges us, like all decent biopics, to sympathize with George W. Bush as a person. I agree with you that Stone succeeded at that. We see W. daydreaming during meetings, make terrible jokes, sit on the toilet as he talks to his wife, dance on bars, yearn for parental approval, demand respect, and dream of a happy future. Who among us can’t feel the same tinge of regret, loneliness or hope as we wander through our mediocre days, seemingly locked into our orbits around the men and women who dominate our emotional lives? Like some of the smartest reporting on W., the film warns us to never make the mistake of underestimating him, as so many of his opponents did, and as his father did. It’s a daring approach for Stone, Josh Brolin, and many of the film’s other actors who spoke out against the Iraq war and against the men and women they portray. I wish they received more credit for that artistic decision and a bigger audience to savor it.

It’s a tribute to Stone and his team that they managed to assemble a film of such breezy intelligence and mischievousness so quickly. A small project like this could have been so easily relegated to TNT or Showtime, never to be seen again, except in the $3 DVD bin at Wal-Mart. The director was blessed with an incredible ensemble, and that also is one of the aspects that elevates this film. In the DVD commentary Stone said it was his best ensemble ever. As you know, I still insist “Nixon” had the best cast, followed by “JFK.” But we’ll save that issue for another day.

I thought Condi Rice deserved a deeper, complex portrayal, far from the one Thandie Newton gave her. I don’t even know why they wasted her time as an actress. The role was nothing. As I watched her, I kept picturing in my mind those classic Oliphant editorial cartoons of Rice as a bird, squawking and repeating everything W. said. Rice deserved better, and I hope that a future, more serious film of this era takes a closer look at her. Yes, she was ineffectual as national security adviser, and certainly she was overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by Cheney and Rumsfeld. I suppose I just want a film that will show that with patience, intelligence and layered dramatic force, even if it shows her frustration, her private insecurities, and her determination to hit back when she becomes secretary of state. Take a moment to make her human too, Oliver. I was also unmoved by Jeremy Wright as Colin Powell. I love Wright as an actor, and he did his usual fine job here, but he just didn’t project Powell in a full-bodied way. Powell too deserves a major examination on film.

I want to say the same for Rumsfeld, but Scott Glenn’s smarmy, sneering portrayal wins me over every time. It’s a little bit of his drug-dealer from “Training Day” and a little bit of his Jack Crawford from “Silence of the Lambs.” Then he’ll smile, settle back into his slime and let the audience’s memory do the rest. Naturally, thanks to the real Rummy and his mutated Churchillian acrobatics with the English language, Glenn gets one of the best lines of the movie, a classic: “Sir, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” I still laugh every time I hear that. Maybe we’ll get a better view of Rumsfeld after his sure-to-be moronic but deliciously controversial memoir, “Known and Unknown,” is published on Feb. 8.

As for Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, I can’t think of anyone who could’ve done a better job portraying the vice president. I can only imagine what must have been going through Cheney’s mind as he watched a subservient, intellectually listless president follow his lead in shattering the spotlights of democratic accountability and moral decency, thereby creating that dark side to this war on terror. Bush didn’t just unlock the doors to the gun rack of executive war powers. He threw the keys to Cheney and told his neocon barbarians to lock up when they were done. The look Dreyfuss almost always seems to have on his face in “W.,” that particular gleam in the eye, exclaims, “I can’t believe my luck! I can’t believe this is happening! How many moments had to align in the universe for him to be president and me to be his co-president?!?!” Dreyfuss has always been brilliant at playing complete bastards. Just look at two of my favorite bastards, Bill Babowski in “Tin Men” and Alexander Haig in “The Day Reagan Was Shot.” Both films were the blackest of black comedies, perfectly attuned to some of the best moments in “W.”

My favorite performance — I won’t say it was the best performance — was James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush. “What do you think you are?” he bellows to his screw-up son, “A Kennedy? You’re a Bush! Act like one!” I loved that line. It represents the seismic faultline between father and son, fracturing that relationship I found so interesting, as I said earlier, and perhaps exposing lifelong vulnerabilities in W. that Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld exploited to drive forward their own agenda. “Don’t act like that other Bush,” they seemed to hiss like serpents from a tree branch. “Don’t deliberate. Don’t draw on the experience from a vast diplomatic career. Ignore history’s lessons. Act with your gut instinct. Act with your heart.” Stone’s W. heard them well, and he agreed with their tempting reassurances that everything was going to be OK.

George H.W. Bush could only look on helplessly as he saw the catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan consume his son’s presidency. The Beast, as Stone’s Nixon would have seen it, turned on its master for one final bloody meal. Cromwell’s performance, somehow both cold and loving, distant and supportive, reminded me of how much still remains to learn about H.W. Bush, how unappreciated he still is, and how amazing his career truly was, long before he was vice president to Ronald Reagan, long before Dana Carvey portrayed him as a befuddled, brainless wimp. H.W. Bush was everything Reagan pretended to be.

And therein lies the last elevating value of “W.” It drives me to learn more about W.’s father, the post-Cold War era he inaugurated, and how his Democratic and Republican successors shaped what he left behind. It drives me more to learn about his family, and about the sons who looked up to him for approval, support and guidance. And it drives me to learn more about that one son who thought that rejecting his father’s example would earn his father’s respect, even at the cost thousands of lives and the guarantee of a prominent place in the blood-stained catalog of American infamy.

 

1864

(Letter No. 3): From Fernando Ortiz Jr. to David D. Robbins Jr.:

“We’re just a patsy!”

By 1991, I was aware of Oliver Stone as a film director, particularly for his films “Platoon” and “Wall Street,” but he wasn’t someone I considered a role model. I was 17, and as I looked forward to finally graduating from high school and moving on to college, I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. Perhaps join the military, like my grandfather. Perhaps study history and, like narrative historian David McCullough, write about it. Perhaps simply write, like novelist James Michener.

I briefly considered studying film, perhaps even becoming a film director someday, like Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese. Now those were role models. Stone hadn’t yet earned a place in my pantheon. And yet he was the one who came along with a film that year that electrified all of my passions. “JFK” was like a meteor strike, driving right into the core of my imagination and intellect, changing forever my understanding of how powerful a bold, historical film could truly be.

OK, “historical” may not be an appropriate word to describe what Stone throws at you. Rolling Stone called the film “a dishonest search for the truth.” But many other reviews used the word “riveting.” Roger Ebert called it “a masterpiece.” The Washington Post said it best: “It’s not journalism. It’s not history. It is not legal evidence. Much of it is ludicrous. It’s a piece of art or entertainment.”

I couldn’t tie my own shoelaces when I was 17, but I knew enough not to take the film seriously, no matter how dazzling it was. I staggered from the theater and into humid Christmas-time Texas Gulf Coast seabreeze, and for weeks I remained dazed and tingling and inspired by such a creative imagination. I was disappointed by how many people despised the film because they took it all too seriously. It’s too bad Stone never prefaced the film with a note like, “This is not to be taken as a sincere exploration of what happened and why, but simply a playfully creative summary of all of the crazy theories out there. Do your own damn research like a normal, intelligent American and decide for yourself.”

As an aspiring filmmaker — or so I thought myself to be at that tender age — “JFK” was the master class on bold, controversial filmmaking. But it also served as the supreme cautionary example. I saw Stone irresponsibly promoting his work as a credible thesis worthy of defense, worthy of consideration among the bitter ranks of men and women committed to exposing the supposed conspiracy behind the assassination. It wasn’t enough for him to accept the laurels from critics who loved his vision, who were moved by his fearless confrontation of the “story that won’t go away,” as the film was subtitled. It wasn’t enough to create a striking, ingenious kaleidoscopic freefall through the caverns of distrust and insecurity looming under the sense of American pride. He had to take the film as seriously as his critics did.

What I loved then and still love now about “JFK” is how it plays with history, the way Picasso played with the bombing of Guernica, the way HBO played with the fall of the Roman Republic and the Ptolemaic dynasty. Everyone sees everything differently. How boring would life be if everyone saw everything the same, and in some sense the film understands that. The film’s beauty and power comes from the depth of its distortions, from the way the filmmakers mopped up all of the paranoia, ignorance and fear pouring from the wounds fired into the American identity, strained it through their own mutated agendas and beliefs, and served us this putrid, blood-red broth, daring us to drink it. History was merely the paint. Our own imaginations were the canvas, and what amazing work did those deranged painters produce.

I later savored the descendants of that pop culture on-screen paranoia in “The X-Files” and in “Millennium,” where FBI Agents Fox Mulder, Dana Scully and Frank Black battled shadowy quasi-governmental conspiracies, and in the epileptic corpse that was “24,” where no season was complete without some ridiculous presidential coup d’etat or paramilitary operation. “JFK’s” older, smarter, and more insanely brilliant sibling, “Nixon,” took it all to a whole new level — it was the greatest of Stone’s imaginings — and it still inspires me. Any high-minded musings about why Kennedy was killed came from Robert Stone and “Frontline.”

Throughout the subsequent years and decades, almost none of those descendants affected me as deeply as “JFK.” It was for Stone definitely a big step forward into a new phase of chaotic, energetic filmmaking and film editing, so different from the somber elegant styles used to illustrate the lush, deadly Vietnamese jungle, the strained loneliness in “Talk Radio” or the cold Wall Street boardrooms. Perhaps there were hints of the flashy, fever-dream experience in “Born on the Fourth of July.” Certainly “The Doors” sent the fame-drunk and drug-addled characters careening through spectacular reels of Stone’s twisted vision.

But “JFK” achieved a new level of surreal imaginings for me. I saw not simply a vision induced by drugs or tropical heat or lust for power. It was a story of murder, one of the greatest of all murders, deconstructed not just moment by moment, but sensation by sensation. How many shots were heard? What did people see? How did they feel? Layered in between comprehension of those sensations are flashes of what they think they heard, blurred images of what they think they saw, how they absorbed what had happened and what warped those absorptions. Half-shrouded faces in the dark, puffs of smoke, black streaks of malice snaking along sunny motorcade routes, rifles aimed, machetes gleaming in the humid night, breaths frozen in time, bodies wheeled away, heartstopping nightmares, hot flashes of rage, blood turned cold, screams, silence — Stone’s cameras imagined it all for us. History and myths were somehow splintered — some conspiracy fanatics would say “shattered” — and then re-assembled to resemble the mutated American monster he argues we became after Nov. 22, 1963.

Like everyone else, I can’t help but wonder what life would have been like had Kennedy not been killed. He may have dropped Johnson as running mate in the 1964 presidential election. Would Kennedy have picked someone more liberal? What would have happened to his civil rights legislation, which needed at least some southern Democrats to vote for it? Johnson at least was one of their own, who wielded his own mighty arsenal of determination and tactical brilliance when faced with a raucous legislative process. Are we so sure Kennedy would have pulled out all American forces from Vietnam? Certainly we can all think of a more recent Democrat in the White House who has not only reversed his position on pulling out of an unpopular, pointless war, but has escalated and prolonged it. How would Kennedy’s deteriorating health affected his second term? His back was always a major issue. In “Unfinished Life,” historian Robert Dallek said Kennedy wore a back brace during his ride through Dallas, holding him upright. Oswald fired three shots at Kennedy. “Were it not for the back brace, which held him erect,” Dallek writes, “a third and fatal shot to the back of the head would not have found its mark.” What about Kennedy’s reckless behavior? Bobby Kennedy worked tirelessly to quash news stories about Kennedy’s womanizing, as J. Edgar Hoover’s intelligence file on Kennedy’s extracurricular activities grew thicker every month. No matter how polite the mainstream media remained in the mid-1960’s, the shadows of some looming scandal or potential blackmail was always darkening the skies over the administration’s future.

The dreamy musings about a world caressed by two-term Kennedy presidency (we can all agree he would have defeated Barry Goldwater) always make me smile, reminding me of how perversely (and politically) lucky Lincoln was to die when he did. You don’t ever see people sitting around wondering what great things James Garfield or William McKinley would have done in the world had they not been killed. No one is accusing Chester Arthur of masterminding a government takeover. You don’t hear whispers of how Theodore Roosevelt managed a conspiracy to not only take down McKinley in Buffalo, N.Y., but also to frame Leon Czolgosz as the patsy. Even for those presidents who died of natural causes, you don’t see movies speculating about a devious John Tyler leading a coup d’etat to take down Old Tippecanoe. “Naw, man. You don’t need a coat. You’re Old Tipp! You can handle two hours in the cold and rain! Take your time reading that inaugural address.”

I suppose it comes down to public image, something Kennedy always had in his favor, especially in an age without HD television or a media that would have breathlessly told us about the rivers of steroids, painkillers and other drugs swimming through his bloodstream, his back braces, crutches, past surgeries and other health problems. Added to the tragedy is what he left behind: a young, unhappy wife and two small children oblivious to their parents’ emotional distance. Americans love youth and vigor, even if it’s manufactured, and especially when it’s lost. When it comes to McKinley’s assassination, historians seem to be more excited about the rise of young Theodore Roosevelt, the perfect man for the new century, a young leader for a young country, blah, blah, blah. Rest assured, if it had been President Johnson murdered and Vice President Kennedy who stepped in to take over, we would have heard the exact same sentiments. “Lyndon Who? Oh, yeah, the guy who finally got out of JFK’s way.”

Over the years, Stone’s hopefulness planted in me the seeds of cynicism as I studied more of American history, learned the cycles of how power is distributed in an American democracy, and bitterly accepted the limits of what can actually be accomplished within the system of checks and balances. But sometimes I will set all of that aside, relax and remember not to take it all so seriously, certainly not as seriously as Stone does. So I’ll reach into my DVD library and pull out “JFK” for yet another viewing. It still remains one of my all-time favorite films, where, ironically, I can set aside all of that grumpiness and sadness, reach for some popcorn, and savor yet again my favorite line: “Kings are killed, Mr. Garrison. Politics is power. Nothing more.”

Indeed.

Listen to This Chilling Audio as Crowd at Boston Symphony Learns President Kennedy Is Dead

I had heard this recording years ago, but I didn’t know the backstory until now.

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Her affair with JFK / Female sex drive / Style on the campaign trail / Artist faces Facebook millions / Jupiter’s moon / Miscarriage lawsuit after Costa Concordia

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism.

1. Woman recounts her affair with JFK when she was 19
By Cynthia R. Fagen | The New York Post | Feb. 5
“Their sex was ‘varied and fun.’ He could be seductive and playful and sometimes ‘acted like he had all the time in the world. Other times, he was in no mood to linger.’ ”

2. Female Sex Drive Decline Tied To Hormones, Evolution
By Jennifer Abbasi | The Huffington Post | Feb. 1
“[R]elationship duration was a better predictor of sexual desire in women than both relationship and sexual satisfaction.”

3. Why Are We So Obsessed With the Presidential Candidates’ Style?
By Noreen Malone | The Cut :: New York Magazine | January 2012
“Middle-aged and older white men in business-formal attire don’t tend to be the objects of sartorial fascination.”

4. Graffiti artist David Choe set for Facebook windfall
BBC News | Feb. 3
“A U.S. graffiti artist who painted Facebook’s offices is set to become a multi-millionaire when the social network begins trading as a public company.”

5. Latino voters favor protecting the environment
By Sara Ines Calderon | NewsTaco | Feb. 2
Among the findings, “76% of Latino voters voiced support for maintaining environmental protections.”

6. Tiny volcanic moon controls Jupiter’s auroras
By Lisa Grossman | New Scientist | Feb. 3
“Sometimes the puppets control the puppeteer. It seems volcanic outbursts on Jupiter’s moon Io control brilliant auroras on its parent planet.”

7. Lana Del Rey and the new culture of failure
By Stephen Deusner | Salon | Feb. 2
“The controversial pop sensation is somehow more interesting for her spectacular flameouts than her music”

8. Costa Concordia Lawsuit: Passenger Sues Cruise Line Over Miscarriage
The Huffington Post | Feb. 5
“[H]er doctors claim the ‘intense psychological stress suffered both during the night-time evacuation and when her lifeboat smashed up against rocks as it headed for the nearby shore’ is to blame.”

9. The Virgin Father
By Benjamin Wallace | New York Magazine | Feb. 5
“Trent Arsenault has never had sex, but he’s the father of fifteen children — and counting. The more he antagonizes the FDA, and unnerves television audiences across America, the more his in-box is flooded with requests for his sperm.”

10. Top five regrets of the dying
By Susie Steiner | The Guardian | Feb. 1
“A nurse has recorded the most common regrets of the dying, and among the top ones is ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. What would your biggest regret be if this was your last day of life?”

**************

TUNES

My soundtrack for today included:
1. PUSH Sarah McLachlan
2. PURPLE RAIN Prince
4. NO ORDINARY LOVE Sade
5. TAKE MY BREATH AWAY Berlin
6. PERFECT GIRL Sarah McLachlan
7. MELTDOWN Lisa Gerrard & Pieter Bourke
8. CANDY PERFUME GIRL Madonna
9. #1 CRUSH Garbage
10. BABY DID A BAD, BAD THING Chris Isaak

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Romney’s tax returns / Why we love Picasso / Appreciate the introvert / Love and Islam / Final JFK tapes unveiled

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism. Read past recommendations from this series here.

1. Mitt Romney’s tax returns shed some light on his investment wealth
By Lori Montgomery | PostPolitics :: The Washington Post | Jan. 23
“Mitt Romney offered a partial snapshot of his vast personal fortune late Monday, disclosing income of $21.7 million in 2010 and $20.9 million last year — virtually all of it profits, dividends or interest from investments.”

2. The Rude Welcome That Awaits Rick Perry Back in Texas
By Erica Grieder | The New Republic | Jan. 21
“According to Public Policy Polling, his approval rating in the state now stands at 42 percent. Surprisingly, that is lower than Barack Obama’s, at 44 percent.”

3. JFK library to release last of his secret tapes
By Bridget Murphy | Associated Press | Jan. 24
“The tapes include discussions of conflict in Vietnam, Soviet relations and the race to space, plans for the 1964 Democratic Convention and re-election strategy. There also are moments with his children.”

4. Nerve Endings: Female, 19, New York
Nerve | Jan. 24
“He was taking it well, until he showed up at my door, drunk and sobbing into the buzzer …”

5. Obama can win big with FDR formula
By Robert S. McElvaine | Politico | Jan. 23
“No president for more than 70 years has been reelected with unemployment above 7.5 percent — as it is likely to be in November. If we go a little further back, however, unemployment was at 16.9 percent in 1936.”

6. Lifting Veil on Love and Islam
Ny Neil MacFarquhar | The International Herald Tribune | Jan. 23
“Even as the editors, both American-born daughters of immigrants, sought to fight society’s tendency to consider all Muslims extremists, they also struggled with the cultural proscription against describing private lives in public.”

7. Time for introverts to get some appreciation
By Sharon Jayson | USA Today | Jan. 23
“Because introverts tend to be more socially aloof … introversion is related to certain types of disorders, such as social anxiety or depression.”

8. Why we love Picasso
By Blake Gopnik | Newsweek | Jan. 23
“Pablo Picasso was the most inventive artist the West has ever known, and his drawings let us watch him inventing.”

9. This much I know: Kazuo Ishiguro
By Chris Sullivan | The Observer | February 2011
“As the film adaptation of his bestselling novel Never Let Me Go hits the screens, the author reflects on past passions, fatherhood and critical abuse”

10. What Makes Teeth Chatter
By C. Claiborne Ray | Q&A :: The New York Times | July 2011
“What might cause teeth to chatter other than the cold?”