Saturday, February 19, 2005

DVD Review: 6ixtynin9

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

I find myself ambivalent about 6ixtynin9, or A Funny Story About 6 and 9 as the film is also known. This film was made by a celebrated Thai director, Pen-Ek Tatanaruang, who also made Last Life in the Universe.

It's as though this movie is trying to be two, or even three, kinds of film at once but not really melding things into a proper alloy. The DVD box bills it as a comic thriller, but I found it dangerously indecisive. Sometimes it's a comedy, and a funny one; sometimes it's a gangster film, and a fair one; sometimes it's a horror movie, and not a particularly distinguished one. You can feel that this movie was supposed to be darkly comic, but it just doesn't gel. If I had to pin it down, I'd call it a gangster thriller, with comedy shoehorned in.

The movie is the story of Tum (pronounced like "doom"), who as the movie opens is laid off from her job. She faces money problems now and she's suicidal. The next morning, she finds a noodle box full of cash ($25,000!) at her front door. It's the answer to a prayer until the gangsters who left it there by mistake -- the number 9 on her door keeps slipping down to look like a 6, hence the movie's title -- want it back. They muscle into her apartment and try to rough her up. Tum displays the usual movie pluck, and kills them both.

After that, it's a long train of mistaken identities, incompetent thugs, crossed purposes and a growing pile of bodies in her tiny apartment as two rival gangs, the police, friends and her nosy neighbors get involved. Through it all, Tum keeps dealing with it, coping and trying to get ahead. The situation builds and builds until one death too many pushes her to the edge and then a massive Mexican standoff makes her ultimate decision for her.

Remember: if you are in the middle of a multi-party Mexican standoff, make sure the phone is turned off.

Had this been played as a dark thriller with horror overtones, it would have been a movie like Audition or The Eye, films with cool surfaces and calm characters riding a rising tide of fear and horror until the climactic violence interrupts. Had the violence and death been downplayed and the comic side frenzied up, this would have been a caper comedy like any number of films Hollywood churns out. But the film's languid pacing and deliberately unfurled, refolding narrative keep the comedy from building a momentum necessary to comic success. The opposite applies: the comic interludes keep the movie from sustaining the horrific mood a thriller needs.

I may be over-examining this. Certainly a lot of the reviews I saw while getting the above links like the movie as a comic thriller. To me, this is two movies chopped up and tumbled together.

That said, the parts where Tum must deal with the gangsters out to get her do have a constantly building tension. Her face-offs with the individual thugs display her cool pragmatism. No matter what happens, she deals with it. That drive helps to propel the movie even as new complications arise.

And the comedy is really funny, prompting me to guffaw many times. Not to ruin things, but the thug who sees a cop hidden behind a door, not realising he's a corpse, leaps into a hilarious parody of Hong Kong gun ballet. The nosy neighbors are three chattery women who have an obsession with Tum's (supposed) sex life that includes graphic demonstrations of what they think she's doing. They were surprising considering how chaste Asian mainstream cinema usually is.

Technically, this is a well-done film. Varied locations around Bangkok are used to great effect, showing us the everyday lower-middle class side of this exotic Western holiday city. The lighting scheme in Tum's apartment helps make the small space interesting no matter the angle. The locations and sets are numerous, which I enjoyed for some reason. There's no question the director is in charge of his movie and most of his materials. He occasionally takes us into a few character daydreams as though they are part of the real action, an effective device.

There's also a lot of blood. It's not gory, but plentiful. This being an Asian comedy, it's bright red. But if blood is a problem, beware.

I keep coming back to the uncomfortable fit between the comedy and the thriller halves of the movie. I would recommend this movie to anyone who can be tolerant of faults. It is both tense and funny by turns. Around the hour mark, I reconciled myself to the dichotomous nature of this movie, settled in to see how it played out and had a good time. But if your tolerance level isn't there, you will likely find this movie disorienting or tiring.

One word about the star, Lalita Panyopas. She is, to borrow a phrase from the gang at Ain't It Cool News, a tomboy beanpole. She resembles a tall Karen Mok; cute, thin and muscular. But she seems to have only one expression: pained confusion. For most of the movie it works well enough in its small variations, but the few times we see her smile, it's a sudden surprise.

Another warning: Thai women's voices tend to be high and nasal, at least in this film. When the characters get angry or agitated it makes for an ear-scraping experience with the vowel-inflecting Thai language. Two scenes came close to painful for me.

I have to caution possible viewers about the subtitles. The movie has a lot of dialogue in spots, and sometimes the subtitles come thick and fast. It may be difficult for people not used to them. A combination of bad spelling and sometimes weird mistranslations doesn't help. Also, one character is deaf. When he uses sign language to communicate, there's a black bar that appears on the screen where, apparently, Thai script was inserted. That's not on the American DVD.

There are no extras on the disk, save some previews of other Lion's Gate films and this movie's Thai trailer. That trailer includes a few scenes and shots either deleted from the American version of the movie or not used at all.

As you can guess by now, I'll recommend this movie to fans of gangster or plucky-heroine movies, or those who just enjoy Asian films in general. I did enjoy it once I "got" it. More mass audiences may be put off by the inconsistent tone of the movie. If you're not sure -- give it a chance anyway. The parts are good even if the whole may not be.

Friday, February 18, 2005

DVD Review: Saw

I was rather amazed to see Saw in Midtown Video only a few months after its theatrical run. That's highly unusual. Normally it would be a sign of a true stinker of a film. Not in this case. Saw is a stylish, tense and surprising horror/thriller.

The movie depends on surprises, so I'm not going to spoil anything in my review. Nothing discussed should ruin your experience with it.

It was written and made by a pair of Melbourne Australians in Los Angeles. The director, James Wan, doesn't look like he's been out of high school long. The film was made with a microscopic budget that sometimes betrays them. The whole film looks like it was made in different parts of the same set, and a car scene late in the movie is patently fake. On the other hand, the set design, lighting design, and attention to detail is impressive for a small film. The film's central set, a rusted-out, filthy industrial bathroom, especially works.

The same goes for the cast: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Dina Meyer, Monica Potter, Shawnee Smith (who takes a small role and runs with it) and Tobin Bell are all higher-budget stars. Everyone is superb, with the slight exception of a beefy-looking Elwes, who strains believability in some of the weepy moments. He's off just enough at those moments that you can see him acting. But that doesn't throw off the film.

The movie opens with a man -- Adam (scriptwriter Leigh Whannell) -- coming to in a tub of water, in the afore-mentioned bathroom. He finds himself shackled to a pipe. Then he learns he's not alone. There's another man, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes), shackled to another pipe across the room. Between them lies a body in a growing pool of blood, its head blown open in apparent suicide; one hand holds a gun, the other a small tape recorder. That's the set-up: two men locked in a room. Everything proceeds from here.

This is one of the only two problems I have with the film: its structure. Too much depends on events outside of the central trap. It's a lot like being inside the movie Se7en from the point of view of the victims; the important detective information has to be shoe-horned in, disrupting us. (This movie really is a child of Se7en in a lot of ways.) We are dropped into a dilemma with absolutely no knowledge of the characters, situation or motivations. At first, everything we learn we must be told by one of the characters in flashbacks. We don't know the trustworthiness of the character, so we don't know if we can believe what he tells us. Unfortunately, the director cuts to scenes the character wasn't in, breaking that mood and revealing the cheat. It quickly becomes obvious the movie is just using the trick of breaking up the narrative, and the sense of time, to keep certain information from us until the plot calls for it. It was effective in Memento, less so here. This also reminds me of Cube, which had a very similar construction and theme -- testing humans to destruction under bizarre, extreme physical and psychological circumstances -- but successfully never left its single claustrophobic set until the final moments of the film.

Because of the way we learn of the other characters in the film, it leads to what was, for me, a massive misunderstanding about one of them that, for nearly fifteen minutes, had me totally thinking one character was the bad guy manipulating several other characters, when in fact he was exactly who we were introduced to. Sorry I'm not more specific. It's just that a specific short scene was put in the wrong place, completely putting one character's motivations in the wrong light. One very important scene was ruined for me, because I misunderstood what was happening.

Also, the movie sticks with its structure and originality until late in what seems like the last act, when it collapses into some conventional good guy / bad guy struggles right out of a thousand previous films. After effectively keeping the characters relying on their wits and determination, sticking with its brutal and extreme set-up, I thought we were headed for an undeserved, easy wrap-up. Happily it turns out that this is only prologue to a truly surprising and horrific ending, one that's like something out of Edgar Allen Poe, and that's all I'll say here. You think the movie is about to lose its convictions, then it rallies and shocks you. Really shocks you.

So far, I've made the film sound less than enjoyable, but I guess that the inventiveness of the production design, which makes decrepit a pervading atmosphere, and the nastily Darwinian puzzle at the center of the movie, with its coldly evil options for survival, create such an unrelenting tension in the viewer that the few elements that disrupt that really stand out. The central dilemma is truly horrifying and seemingly inescapable. When the filmmakers stick to it, they have a distrubingly winning movie, one that grips with icy hands. The director has an eye for composition, light and texture. He also has a willingness to try out camera tricks that often pays off in surprising ways. Given more time for shooting (this production was made in an Asian-fast eighteen days) and a bit more money, I think James Wan will make some great movies.

It's grisly, bhe gore level isn't as extreme as what many other films this edgy usually assault you with, but neither is it an easy film to watch. The emphasis is on the thriller and psychological aspects, not on the blood'n'guts.

The lapses I mentioned above keep me from giving my highest recommendation, but this is definitely a must-see for modern horror fans or folks who like to watch characters fight their way out of impossible situations. The director and crew make the most of the limitations of their budget, with few misfires. Some reviewers have been much more harsh, but I always like to favor movies that reach high but don't quite grasp the ring. This is a nail-biter and a cringe inducer. Almost, but not quite, highly recommended.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Tailgate Time

The latest Volunteer Tailgate Party is up! Thomas also has a "Best of 2004" theme for another post, both roundups of the Rocky Top Brigade. Go, read!
Interpol, Again

I watched the "Late, Late Show" Wednesday night because the musical guest was Interpol. Man, were they awesome. Austere but insistent. They sound a bit like Joy Division crossed with Television, with a splash of "Rescue"-era Echo and the Bunnymen. Where Joy Division confronted you with alienation, revelling in its harshness, Interpol embrace you with it, share it and transmute it into majestic grandeur. A smokin' performance.

Blogging will be light or not at all today. I've got some personal stuff to take care of.
Rumor of the Week

I'm reading another blog (Can't link to it; it's a secret... ON THE INTERNET.) and they rather casually mention that the reason for Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton's extended public absence last summer was that he was in rehab? Can anyone add to that? Any media people want to tell us it was widely known but they couldn't report it for one reason or another? Was it something else, equally unreported but much less salacious?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The New Harold Ford, Jr.?

Ford has some new, West Coast image consultants:

'Sup dog.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Thought For The Day

Via Neal Stephenson:
The twentieth century was one in which limits on state power were removed in order to let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abattoir. . . . We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and value systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Clever Euphemisms

Hat tip to Abby for posting this item on the woman found dead in Overton Park. The news item, in full:
Memphis police said Tuesday that a woman found dead in Overton Park last week is Teresa Durene Oursler.

Oursler, 47, was found beside a seldom-used path near the golf course in the park Thursday evening.

Police found clothes and blankets by her body, indicating Oursler had been camping out. Police said they found no signs of a struggle in the heavily wooded area.

They are still awaiting a ruling on the cause of death from the Shelby County Medical Examiner's Office.
Scattered clothes and blankets equals "camping out?" It's a clever bit of misdirection so as not to remind nervous Midtowners that Overton Park has a population of homeless folks living there full time. Gotta protect that image and placate those easily spooked taxpayers. They might start asking questions again about what's going on in the Park.
Son of Let's Review

I had said in comments to another post that the Tom Jones / Coletta and Company hook-up hadn't been reported in the media. I was wrong. Stephanie Scurlock (whom I've met a couple of times in real life; very nice and a cutie) covered it back in January, with detail.

So let's review:

* Tom Jones, senior administrative assistant of long standing, convicted of misusing County credit cards for personal gain, a felon, and later embroiled in a sweetheart retirement pension enhancement deal, is now working for a company that has numerous business ties with both the City and County in advocacy roles. In other words, a man who abused his office out of an unrepentant sense of entitlement is now helping to shape policies and directions in a for-profit way connected to that same governemnt.

* Susan Adler Thorp, communications director for Shelby County's Mayor, found to have behaved improperly in that same pension deal and forced to resign, is now a "consultant" for WMC/5. Her job is amorphous, but apparently she facilitates introductions and connections between WMC news reporters and various government or political figures. In other words, she will be guiding a news organisation charged with watchdogging the government she abused for personal reasons.

* Bobby Lanier, another long-time administrative assistant forced to resign in the Jones pension deal, has been hired by the man who turned him out. Lanier is now the campaign finance officer of the AC Wharton campaign. In other words, he's not honest enough to work for the Mayor of Shelby County, AC Wharton, but he's honest enough to trust with the money of AC Wharton's political campaign and the murky world of campaign donations.

* The Shelby County Retirement Board, reviewing the Jones pension case, which the Mayor and his official investigation found improper, and which resulted in the surprise resignation of two top, well-regarded, assistants, unanimously decided to ignore the provenance of Jones' pension increase and to treat it as a fait accompli. In other words, Jones gets a pass from his former coworkers yet again, and he basically gets away with it.

Jones did a mere five months in prison. He's presently in a half-way house, which in his case is unnecessary. He now has a cushy, well-connected job working with all the same folks he worked with before. He got his retirement pension bonanza: a doubled pension and excellent medical benefits at public expense. He, in essence, got away with it.

And what the local news and print "journalists" want to focus on is who has how many babies with who. Is there no sense of scale and importance operating here? No outrage on the public behalf for fair, honest and open government? At least Marc Perrusquia of the Commercial Appeal is tracking down the tangled public/private finances of John Ford. That has gotten the attention of the State Senate, though I'll be surprised if they ever act against Ford.

Helping to assure clean government operating for the benefit of the public that pays for it used to be a core mission of news reporting. Not tabloid sleaze. Herenton and Ford get cameras jammed in their faces. Where's Jones' camera ambush?
More on the Nashville Blog Meetup

I saw some traffic from Bill Hobbs' site this morning and hoped that maybe he'd linked to my HfordJ, Libertarian party opportunities or Marsha Blackburn posts. Well, no. He linked instead to my bitterish post on the Nashville blog meetup Saturday morning at a local television station.

Bill's posts are here and here. Some more reports, with pictures, from Terry Heaton, Rex Hammock and DocB. Huge write-up from Mr. Roboto of the Thursday Night Fever crew. One more: Pink Kitty. All have links to more reports, of course.

Some further thoughts: Who was the red-headed blogger with the black glasses and the black top, sipping from her cup in one Terry Heaton photo? Yow. A hottie. (BTW, don't ID her if she's not cool with that. OK?)

I was dispirited, but after reading the reports I'm floored. Check this out:
I did have the please of speaking with Mike Sechrist who is the General Manager of WKRN and was pleasantly surprised at his vision in interactive journalism. He seems to have a great grasp of the power of blogs in that most bloggers are engaged in the news rather than being passive listeners through someone who reports it. Bloggers want to dig deeper into the story, find the details and not accept things for face value. Its a new era in journalism and Mike seems to be ahead of the curve in taking WKRN 2 through it by embracing them.
Like I said down below, WMC/5 has a station full of bloggers. WREG/3 has blogs now. WPTY/24's Cameron Harper is a self-confessed fan of blogs. The Commercial Appeal has known about the Memphis blogging scene for at least a year; they have their own blog stable. And yet no story, no acknowledgement, no nothing. I don't get it.

I'm sure this sounds jealous, but I'm really not. I'm amazed. It's not that I think Memphis bloggers ought to all hook up and be friends and hug each other, then plot corporate domination and massive profits. Our bashes have all been tremendous fun; I've enjoyed meeting and hanging out with everyone who has come. But I'm also impressed at how one meetup brought so many together for a morning and seems to be spawning all kinds of ancillary ideas. Good job, Nashville.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Language Lesson

I ran across the inappropriate use of a term today that always bothers me. It was "bully pulpit," in its usual use of "The President should use his bully pulpit to argue for more...." That's not at all what the term really means. As the link shows, Roosevelt used the word "bully" in the same way we'd say "excellent" or "wonderful." As in "President Bush said that being president offered him an excellent pulpit from which to talk about the nation's problems." You really have to hear a recording of Teddy to appreciate the way he said "bully." Huge, robust, forceful, full of energy and optimism.

Why the term has slipped in its meaning is, to me, a study in the deformation of language reflecting both the mishearing of history and the motives of those using it. It says a lot about human nature that it sounds so natural to expect that presidents would use the "power" of their office to browbeat opponents. Or anyone with a pulpit, or podium from which to speak.

Presidents were never intended to have the kind of imperial power they have today. Washington fought hard to stop those of his day who wanted to infuse the office of the President with kingly majesty. It's the inherent heirarchical nature of humans, the urge to look for leaders, for alpha males and females, that must always be fought against in a democratic society. In our representative democratic society, there are no kings; every man and woman is equal in opportunity and rises to the level of their character and determination. Always? No. Mostly? Yes.

But there will be those who succumb, who want to give some of their power to another. Who want bullies and pulpits for the good of us all.

Why do we play "Hail to the Chief" when the President enters the room? Because a fretful wife of a mid-19th century president feared her husband wouldn't be noticed when he walked in. She wanted the room to quiet and all attention to focus on her husband. So she requested that a fanfare be played. Like they did in Europe when the monarch entered the room.
Spicing Up the Ford Image

Down in comments to another post below, I thought up a quick nickname for Representative Harold Ford, Jr. I mean Harold Ford, Jr. is a mouth and keyboard full. Besides, he needs a bit of the "street cred," don't ya think? He may be from Memphis, but he just oozes that Al Gorean "raised in the halls of privilege" vibe. He's too stiff and formal; he needs the greasy funk. He needs to connect with all those young, internet-savvy Democrats that Howard Dean will be scaring (hah!) up.

So, let's call him HfordJ. Types quickly, sounds a bit rapperish. He can even small-cap it, hfordj, like the chat-room kiddies do! Aitch-ford-jay. It sounds like something while not sounding like anything at all! How very market-savvy. And it matches his political style, too.

HfordJ. Yo.

You can even throw a hand-sign for it! Make a peace sign with your right hand. Now make a gun with your left, index finger pointing and thumb out. Palms facing you. Tip the peace sign over to the left about 45 degrees. Now lay the "barrel" of your gun across the peace sign like the bars of an "H", across the knuckles. Peace sign out front if you're a DeanDem; gun up front if your a DLC centrist. There you go. H-F-J. Hfordj.

Damn, I'm onto something. Remember where you saw this first, G.

MONDAY UPDATEChris at Signifying Nothing offers some ideas of his own. I think, in fecund Memphis, that "F-Unit" has promise.

I feel a graphic coming on....
The Liberta-whovians?

Let's face it. Third parties got shellacked in the past election. Combined, third parties (Libertarians, Constitutionalists, Greens, etc.) made just barely one percent of the total vote. Compare that to Reform's high water mark of 19% in 1992. Something has gone seriously out of whack when a nation searching for new political answers keeps coming back to the same old Democratic and Republican solutions.

The fear-mongering of the Big Two in the 2004 elections played a huge role in that. "Don't waste your vote!" was tinged by the fear of death -- either from a political terrorist in a foreign country or from a political terrorist here at home.

But let's be honest. The Libertarians had a nutball for a candidate this time, even by our own standards. I've lost the link to a great writeup of the Libertarian nominating convention in Knoxville last summer, but it shed some disturbing light on our candidate, Michael Badnarik. He was a true dark horse behind the two front runners, Aaron Russo and Gary Nolan. Either of them would have made fine, fine candidates. But a convention stalemate led to a surprise opening for Badnarik that saw him win the nomination.

As it became clear he would win, several of the Party's organisational people went to Badnarik to ask him if there was anything that they should know, skeletons in the closet-wise. He said no. But afterwards, when he sealed the nomination, as conventioneers began to leave, word got out that Badnarik hadn't paid Federal income taxes in several years! He was also the guy who promised, in his platform, to call a special session of Congress to re-teach the Constitution to Senators and Representaties and to get them to swear a new oath to it, a wild misreading of the separation of powers. And he was the nominee. That's why I did almost no campaigning for Badnarik on this blog, even though he was who I ultimately voted for.

So, in a way, we dodged a bullet. No media attention meant no uncomfortable questions. But we've also gone from getting five percent of the vote just a decade ago, and having a promising future, to being unknowns all over again in the Us vs. Them (Republicans vs. Democrats) political sphere. The 2008 Presidential cycle doesn't seem to be shaping up to favor us either, unless we act hard and fast.

I suspect the Dems will drift further to the Left. Anti-war, isolationist and Internationalist at the same time, higher taxes for bigger programs; more and more divisive, identity-group politics, etc. The Republicans will have to face up, sooner or later, to their out-of-control spending and hazy domestic agenda that doesn't sound at all Republican.

It's an opportunity for a well-spoken, calm Libertarian candidate to jump in. I lean towards Russo myself. He's a former Hollywood producer who understands marketing. If he can draft talk-radio experienced Gary Nolan to join him in promoting the Libertarians, it's a powerful combination.

We also need someone who can promote what I call a "gradualist" approach. Democrats have always stood for a fully Statist government, one that has law, regulations, agencies and bureaucrats reaching into every area of your life for your own good. But they know when to mute that core truth and when to accept small, short-term defeats that clear the way for larger, longer-term wins. Republicans in '94 came out with the Contract With America, which was very far-reaching. But it was broken up into achievable steps and platforms that could move at individual paces. It was slowly strangled in the Congress, but parts of it are still with us a decade later and its architect, Newt Gingrich, is making a political comeback.

So it should be for Libertarians. Over and over and over again, our candidates talk about how, THE DAY AFTER THE ELECTION, we will transform this nation into a libertarian paradise. Old government programs will be thrown out the window by Inauguration Day Executive Order; the Drug War and drug laws will cease immediately; we will recall our military from all over the world that day, etc. It is both scary and flies in the face of common sense. No one votes for revolution. They vote for change.

The Libertarians should advocate small steps for change in our national direction. We should ally with House Speaker Dennis Hastert in income tax reform. Even getting a simple, one-rate / no deductions plan would be a major step in the libertarian direction! We should stand behind privatisation of Social Security via individual accounts, which appeals to young Republicans. It's a step towards a fully privatised retirement system, the work of decades not Presidential fiat. We should be clear to the American people that defense of the nation is a core Libertarian principle, as is the volunteer army, but that we are over-reaching. We should advocate the continuance and furtherance of base closings around the world.

We should recognise that President Bush has finally started America down the path of disengagement with the United Nations and onto the path of ad-hoc alliances for specific purposes, as in the "six-nations talks" with Korea. We should pledge to continue down that path, by reducing funding and by reducing our involvement in the UN and in NATO. What we shouldn't do is to threaten to pull out of the UN entirely and blow up its headquarters. We should also recognise that the European Union now has the responsibility of the defense of Europe.

We should ally with those Dems who advocate the medicalisation of the "drug problem." We must strenthen our border defense with Mexico, while ridding drug dealers of the incredible profits the Drug War gives them. Reduce the amount of police effort we waste on nickel'n'dime users and divert it into the gangs and serious crimes of assault and property.

Libertarians should be front and center on civil unions for gays. It serves a triple purpose. We gain support from like-minded Dems who want full marital recognition, but are willing to accept this short-term step. We gain support from Republicans who want to give gay unions something like a marriage imprimatur, but cannot accept the whole hog just yet. We Libertarians get America to try out and eventually accept the idea that marriage shouldn't be a government issue, but a personal, contractual and religious one.

And on and on. I think you get the idea here.

The Reform Party tapped into a powerful impulse in the American people for more and different answers and approaches to the political ills we face. George Bush43 was able to tap into that and ride it, but now the skepticism is rising again as the Republicans turn out to be no different in their office-holding behavior than the Democrats were. There are a lot of disillusioned Republicans who wonder what happened to the "small government" claims of their party. There are a lot of Democrats who want genuine personal freedoms, not government-granted and monitored ones; who are opposed to American militarism abroad, but not a strong military defending the nation at home and where necessary. It's a pool to be tapped, nurtured and grown.

America can and should be at least a three-party nation. Look to Britain, where it's worked quite well for thirty years. Over there, after decades of a similar back and forth between their two major parties (Labor and Conservative), the growth of a viable third party actually led to the severe retrenchment and rebirth of both parties. Labor first until the early Nineties and now the Conservatives, who find themselves in the same woodshed the Democrats in America are marching towards. And their government continues to function quite well.

Personally, I think America is large enough -- geographically, socially and politically -- to support five parties. One day I'll list them and explain my thinking. But for now, I can settle on three. Let's start there. That's the gradualist approach.
The Howard Dean Fun Machine Roll On

There are a several points not being addressed in the stories I've seen on Howard Dean becoming the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

First and foremost is that former chairman Terry McAuliffe went quietly. Yes, he's been steadily and roundly criticised all through the Democratic Party for his leadership, but he's also been seen as the critical compenent of a Hillary in '08 run. She's the candidate, Bill's the advisor, Terry's the moneyman and coordinator. The fact that acquiesed with such aplomb should be looked at. As the putative front-runner, Hillary had to both sign off on his leaving and encourage Terry to do so. What's the story in that?

Then there's the fact that Dean didn't win a vote against competing candidates, but was merely the "last man standing" at the end of the process. He wasn't so much selected as defaulted to. Every other candidate, and there were seven at one point, withdrew. For all that the Dems are trying to point ahead, it sure sounds like what happened in the last campaign. After Kerry gained solid front-runner status in the primaries, his opponents disappeared and all ideological and strategic disagreements were buried or suppressed straight through Election Day.

I would really love to hear the story of the back room deals that made Dean's non-opposition possible. This makes Dean look stronger than he may in fact be. It also pre-empted the still-necessary discussion between the shrill anti-war, anti-Bush Leftist wing of the party that dominated this past year, and the more traditional pro-defense, pro-worker liberal voices like Lieberman that have been shouted down.

Dean may bring "new excitement and new energy" to the party, but that's just marketing speak. To me, he sounds like his flag is firmly planted in the anti-war Left. Don't forget how he alienated much of the South with his primary rhetoric. I suspect he's part of the broader movement in the Democratic Party to sharply define themselves by sharply drawing a line between themselves and the Republicans. It's what Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. just went through with his talk about Social Security privatisation. Dean seems less interested in building bridges to Reagan Democrats, blue dog Dems and red-state minded voters than in making the chasm deeper, wider and easier to fall over. I think that approach will solidy the Democrats, sure, but as a much smaller party with an even harder row to hoe in future elections.

Throw in Dean's temper and explosiveness. That alone will make him fun to watch.

One more thing I haven't seen addressed is the question of style. Dean is widely hailed as the inventor of Internet campaigning (shades of Al Gore!), of using all the sparkly, new, gee-whiz advances of the Internet to raise funds, build bases and spread the word. As successful as that may have been for the Dems, the Republicans went back to an older model that seems to have worked better. They used the "word of mouth" neighbor to neighbor approach.

Republican fundraising relied on identifying communtiy leaders and movers, then signing them up to find and motivate the next level. Those folks went out to recruit more at fund-raisers or other get-togethers, and so the process spread at the personal level. It's kind of a pyramid, or maybe a bush with endless branches. (Pardon the pun.) It was all done by face to face talk, one on one conversation. It's the oldest way of doing things.

This campaign may shape up (depending on who takes over for Karl Rove and how much his successor uses his lessons) as a head to head matchup between the viral Internet and the backfence. I think that this next Presidential election will be as heated as the past two. We no longer have an incumbent, nor will we have a returning challenger in Kerry. The Democrats will be fighting to stay relevant; the Republicans will be trying out a post-Bush image. It will be labelled in the media as a "fight for the future of the country's direction." So how these two organising methods play against, or borrow from, each other will be interesting to watch.