Sunday, July 22, 2012

Olympic Gold

Billy Mills, 1964
The news this week is full of the worst in human nature. Just yesterday two murders in nearby Bridgeport brought the city's total to 13 so far this year. This statistic pales in comparison to the incredible massacre in Colorado in a packed midnight showing of the new Batman movie. The bombings and violence in the Middle East have become so normal these days that they hardly even qualify for the front pages.

At least the Olympic games slated to start next Friday might give us a brief respite from such sad news and allow us to focus on what our nature is capable of achieving. I'm not a pollyanna and I know that the Olympics are not free the effects of human depravity. Hopefully, the London games will be free of violence and the athletes will be able to do their best. I'm sure there will be the usual allegations of doping and cheating. I'm sure there will also be outrageous displays of self-centeredness and crass commercialism.

One of the worst things about the reporting of past Olympics has been the tendency on the part of the TV networks to write their stories even before the events have taken place. Their focus will be on the stars and the favorites in each event. They will be interviewed and profiled ad nauseam while every other participant goes unnoticed. I've noticed often in the past that even when the favorite fails to win and is beaten by some unknown, the TV analysts still interview the beaten hero. Why can't they just focus on the event itself?

One of the greatest and most dramatic upsets in Olympic history was the victory of Billy Mills, a Native American from Kansas, in the 10000 meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Not only did Mills win the race in dramatic fashion but he beat his personal best in the event by an incredible 46 seconds.

Fortunately, the race became one of the highlights of famed Japanese film director Kon Ichikawa's coverage of the games. His film, Tokyo Olympiad, is one of the two great tributes to the Olympic games, ranking right up there with Leni Riefenstahl's coverage of the 1936 Berlin games. The 1964 Olympics marked Japan's recovery from its terrible defeat in WWII. Ichikawa's film is more than that. It is also a paean to peace and human brotherhood.

Below is the video of Ichikawa's coverage of the 10000 meters. You will notice that in 1964 the Olympics were a little less organized, Qualifying times were not required to participate, and lapped runners did not have to get out of the way.###

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ernest Borgnine R.I.P.

The death of film star Ernest Borgnine earlier this week at the age of 95 brought to mind his most memorable performance as Marty, the simple unassuming Italian American butcher from the 1955 film classic of the same name.

Borgnine worked in films and television almost to the end of his long life. He could play "heavies" like the sadistic bully in From Here to Eternity, or comic characters like the lead in the TV series, McHale's Navy, but his best and most famous role was his portrayal of Marty.

This little black and white film was the sleeper hit of the 1955 Academy Awards. It won four Oscars including: Best Film, Best Director for Delbert Mann, Best Screenplay for famed writer, Paddy Chayefsky, and Best Actor for Borgnine.

It was also a milestone in another sense because it marked the first appearance of an Italian-American in a leading role in an American film. Borgnine's breakthrough was as remarkable as Sinatra's and Dimaggio's, especially since he was not portrayed as a gangster or Mafioso.

Borgnine portrayed a second-generation Italian-American who like most of that generation had become largely assimilated into the American way of life. Marty had served in the US Army in World War II, and had taken a job in a butcher shop after the war. He lived at home with his widowed mother who spoke broken English but his own English was strictly New York. "Whadda ya gonna do tonight Marty?" "I don't know Ange, whaddya gonna do?" He was completely at home in the Bronx of the 1950s. He was familiar with the teeming activity on Fordham road but never would have considered going to nearby Fordham University. In the evenings, he and his friends searched for "tomatas" on Manhattan's 72 St. or the famed Stardust ballroom but for the most part they stayed near home in the neighborhood bar. Of course, they would never miss Sunday Mass.

My father and mother were of that generation, as were my wife's father and mother. No one in either family was involved in the mob. Our uncles and aunts were all ordinary people. My father worked in my grandfather's grocery store until he worked in a defense factory after the start of WW II. One uncle was a policeman while another was a civil engineer for an electric utility. My wife's father took over the family fruit and vegetable business along with his two brothers. Most of her other uncles were plumbers. Most of the women were housewives although they usually were employed until the first child arrived.

Most of the children of their generation were ordinary hard working people who managed to make the difficult transition from the Old World to the New. No one ever did a better job of telling their story than playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and no one ever did a better job of portraying them than Ernest Borgnine did in Marty.###

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day


Every July 4 we celebrate Independence Day, the anniversary of the promulgation of our famed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Most of us have heard the famous opening lines of the document,
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
However, few have ever read the entire Declaration and even fewer have any understanding of the nature of the actual grievances that led the colonists to sever their ties with England and seek independence. Most readers don’t get past the following words.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
King George III

Even though King George III of England was one of the nicest, most benevolent rulers that England ever had, the colonists portrayed him as a tyrannical despot. No one was a more determined supporter of representative government than this young King, who though descended from German ancestors prided himself on being an Englishman.

The real conflict between England and her American colonies was not between Monarchy and Democracy but between the rights of the British people represented as they were by their own Parliament, and the rights of the American colonists represented as they were by their own Colonial assemblies. In this conflict no one was a greater supporter of the rights and authority of the British parliament than the King.

For the most part the Declaration of Independence does not complain about violations of individual human rights but concentrates on what it claims has been a systematic attempt on the part of the government in England to violate the rights and privileges of colonial representative assemblies.

The founding fathers believed that these assemblies that represented the leading citizens and property owners in the various colonies were the sole bulwark against monarchical tyranny on the one hand, and democratic anarchy on the other. They claimed that the King and his Colonial governors had repeatedly refused to put into operation laws passed by these assemblies.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operations till his assent should be obtained;

He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature,…

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

In some cases the English government has even gone so far as to dissolve some of these representative assemblies and leave particular colonies without any form of self-government. The legal system, military defense, and tax collection have been taken out of the hands of the colonial representatives.
He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly for opposing with manly firmness his invasions of the rights of the people.
He has refused for a longtime, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected.
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.
•He has made the judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
•He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
•He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.
• He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.
In the end the Declaration claimed that it came down to a contest between their own local representative assemblies and a faraway legislature that did not represent them. Because they had come to deny the authority of the British Parliament, they never used the word Parliament in the document but the following words are unmistakable.

•He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation.
 These acts included the following abuses:

•For quartering large bodies of troops among us:
•For protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment
•For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:
•For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
•For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:
•For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:

There are elements in the Declaration that might seem offensive to modern ears. Jefferson and others in America opposed the efforts of a reforming British government to permit religious toleration of the large Catholic population in newly conquered Canada. For them Catholicism went hand in hand with despotism.
•For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries, so as to render it at once an example…for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.
The Declaration also complained about attempts on the part of the British government to prevent colonization of Indian territory. Indeed, it claimed that England was encouraging the Indians.
•And has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.
Nevertheless, the leaders assembled in Congress insisted on their rights as Englishmen to govern themselves. They wanted government to be as close to home as possible. They would make their own laws, vote their own taxes when necessary, and be responsible for their own legal and military systems. They did not want to be governed by a faraway government that had little concern for their interests or welfare.

It was true that the founders were men of property and status. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin were not common men. Democracy would come later. For the present they wanted to protect their right to self-government. The British government had declared themselves “invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” To resist, they were prepared to risk their property and lives.

“And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” ###