March 18, 2008

Are you watching HBO's "John Adams"?

Beldar is:
He's shown as a gentleman farmer who can relish teaching young John Quincy the utter necessity and joy of going elbow-deep while hand-mixing the contents of the manure-cart, and yet who immediately thereafter, upon hearing the boy's stated desire to become a farmer, firmly announces that it's to be the schoolbooks and "then the law" for the lad. (Some of you will see this — manure-spreading and lawyering — as entirely uncontradictory, just not in the same way Adams himself would have.)
It's a long slog through these episodes, even as the big events of American history pop up with regularity. Just when you think it's dull — let's palpate poop and pontificate — suddenly there's a famous battle right at their doorstep. Or there's John (Paul Giamatti) hunched over his extremely slow-walking horse, and around the next corner is the Boston Massacre. Watch men sweat and bore each other with tedious orations in the candlelight and — hold on — they'll get around to signing the Declaration of Independence. Then HBO will require you to gaze into the earnest, profound, somber visage of Paul Giamatti for several minutes to make sure you don't forget to think, think, think about what it all means. So it is overbearingly serious, but I can take it. If those little kids could put up with having the juice of a dying man's smallpox pustule jabbed into their arms, I can put up with the televised longueurs. Good will come of all this, one hopes.

Maybe you read David McCullough's book. I did not. I subjected myself to his "Truman," and I did not want to read another tome stuffed with way too many pages depicting what a good relationship some great man had with his wife. (Are McCullough's books the opiate of the married?) But I trust HBO, so I'm watching the mini-series. Still, every time I see tableaux of Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney (John and Abigail) smiling wanly, heads tilted together, fingers entwined — there are many! — I confirm my decision to skip that book. (But the Anchoress loved it.)

Let's look for commentary.

Lawprof Rick Garnett:
There were more than enough stirring "rule of law" and "importance of zealous counsel for the accused" moments [in episode 1] to justify recommending the episode to first-year law students. The episode ended with a dramatic speech on "liberty" by Adams (in a church), and with his departure for (I gather) the First Continental Congress. So far, the show seems to be doing a good job of highlighting Adams's struggle to keep-in-balance his "conservative" (that is, his unease-with-revolution) instincts with his "liberty" commitments.
Garnett seems intent on staying in character as a "prawfsblawger." (He's a law professor and he blogs about law — even if he's watching television.)

Paul Silver "swelled with pride and awe at the courage, tenacity, inspiration and skill of our founding parents." Is it okay for us to feel pride at what they did? I kept thinking that we never go to such trouble for anything today. I was feeling more ashamed, thinking I — and maybe everyone I know — would be on the side of the argument that said the war was a foolish risk and we need to bear with things a lot longer and hope for the best from the king. (By the way, didn't you think of Jeremiah Wright when someone said "God save the King" and one of the patriots responded "God damn the King"?)

The Television Without Pity discussion is good and irreverent, as usual:
Mmm, juicy pustules! (Imagine convincing people it was a good thing--especially when they were barely past believing in witchcraft.) I found it pretty dry, and I admit I was doing the Sunday bill-paying, work prep routine so wasn't wholly focused. But Tom Wilkinson was wonderful (although seemed tall for Ben Franklin, I don't know why). The Declaration reading sequence was pretty darn great, realistic or not, though. Sad but not surprising that the founding of Our Great Republic was so beset with bureaucracy and tit-for-tat....

[Tom] Wilkinson was rather good - I was worried about the scenery chewing, but then [Ben] Franklin was probably a smart alecky scenery chewer in real life so the acting fits. I'm neither here nor there on the fake nose, but [David] Morse [as George Washington] is doing rather well also.... One of my favorite scenes was after the vote to declare independence with the room so quiet - the collective thought of "what the hell did we just do? Yeah we really are doing this" just hanging in the air.
Ha ha. Well put. TWoP is such a refreshing read. There really is way too much pity everywhere else.

Oh, I forgot to check mainstream media. Well, here's Tom Shales for the Washington Post
Dramatizing America's colonial and revolutionary years is full of pitfalls and has resulted in many a leaden movie -- from the cartoon buffoons of the musical "1776" to the British-as-mad-fiends hysteria of Mel Gibson's imbecilic "The Patriot." Mythic historical figures can come across as strutting, one-dimensional impersonations. But shrewdly adapting a book by the dedicated David McCullough, writer Kirk Ellis and director Tom Hooper have created characters who live and breathe and also, on occasion, bleed. They talk in complete sentences -- a charming habit long since abandoned here in the Colonies -- and yet the dialogue never seems stiff and unwieldy, as often happens in historical productions.
And here's Alessandra Stanley for the NYT:
[I]n this historical drama, Mr. Giamatti is a prisoner of a limited range and rubbery, cuddly looks — in 18th-century britches and wigs, he looks like Shrek.

And that leaves the mini-series with a gaping hole at its center. What should be an exhilarating, absorbing ride across history alongside one of the least understood and most intriguing leaders of the American Revolution is instead a struggle....

This series has a “Masterpiece Theater” gravity and takes a more somber, detailed and sepia-tinted look at the dawn of American democracy. It gives viewers a vivid sense of the isolation and physical hardships of the period, as well as the mores, but it does not offer significantly different or deeper insights into the personalities of the men — and at least one woman — who worked so hard for liberty.

34 comments:

rhhardin said...

No hope and change speeches?

rhhardin said...

Did it, by any chance, resemble a John Kerry speech. Kerry affects the speaking for posterity style that might easily be taken up by TV actors.

Donald Douglas said...

Actually, I wish I watching Obama, but I've got to give my 7:30am (PST) lecture.

From the previews, Paul Giamatti looks more jowly than Adams himself.

Have a good day, and don't miss Andrew Sullivan's tender sensitivites on Obama:

The Atlantic

American Power

Anton said...

I think the characters of "1776" are better than "buffoons." When I first saw the film, I came in at a during a long stretch between songs, not realizing it was a musical. Up until that next song I thought it was quite level-headed and did a good job of illustrating the personalities and positions of the delegates.

Original Mike said...

Are you watching HBO's "John Adams"?

I'd love to, but HBO doesn't fit into my budget.

George said...

O, pshaw!

The critics know the value of everything and the price of nothing.

The first two episodes were great.

The McCullough book is also a great read.

It's good stuff.

Check out this letter Abagail wrote her son John Quincy when he was 10 and in Europe with his father. It is heart-rendingly exquisite in both its sentiment and moral character.

MadisonMan said...

No.

But a long time ago I watched The Adams Chronicles on PBS. I wonder how the two shows compare. I suppose HBO's must be a subset, since the Chronicles went through to Charles Francis Adams, at least, IIRC.

Meade said...

"Labels: history, Jeremiah Wright, law, marriage, TV, war"

What? No bodily fluids?

"...the juice of a dying man's smallpox pustule jabbed into their arms."

HelLO?

Trooper York said...

The Adams Chronicles were much better actually. This is a leaden turgid mess. I will watch every moment of it, as I am a history fool. But they should have David Milch of Deadwood fame do this series. That would be great if just to hear John Adams call Rutledge a cocksucker.

Skyler said...

My wife and I enjoyed it, and we're looking forward to next week's offering.

There can be no perfect rendering of history on the big or little screen, but I think this one is accurate enough to tell the story well and fairly.

Pogo said...

I would only watch if it were performed by muppets with Japanese subtitles. Or done completely in mime. Or nude.

History needs the same transgressive deconstructionist approach employed in the artworld and at universities.

At Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art I once watched a video loop of a woman, completely starkers, painted white, against a white backdrop, and wearing a white birdhouse over her head. She was smashing her housed head into the wall on either side of her, over and over again.

I thought that would make a good part for Abigail Adams, as it speaks to the history of women in the US. Or something like that.

Jim Howard said...

I thought it was pretty good.

Trooper York said...

There is a great book by Gore Vidal called Burr which would make an excellent adaptation for a mini-series. It has a nasty bitchy tone that will make the history aspects more palatable to the mass audience. One of the funny offhand comments was how weird it was that General Washington showed up in his uniform at the Continental Congress. The General was always a very subtle man. Its touches like that which would make history fun for the casual viewer.

By the way here’s an interesting historical fact. It was at the Continental Congress that the continental breakfast was born. Ben Franklin always enjoyed his rolls and coffee before spouting off witticism and being hit by lighting.

titusgrandjetewithalaybackintothesplits said...

I read Burr by Gore Vidal and loved it-I devoured it.

I am watching John Adams and think it is ok. Paul Giamatti isn't very good and Laura Linney (diva whom I usually love) is so predictable.

I am hoping for an anal scene where we can see Abigail's tits.

Trooper York said...

The interesting part of this series is how are they going to handle it when Tom Jefferson starts dating a Chinese chick and they keep drinking pinot noir in France.

rightwingprof said...

We're TiVoing it, but haven't watched the episodes yet (seriously, why have TiVO and watch live TV?)

Pogo said...

The best part about TiVo is recording things you know you'll never ever watch. It's like having books you won't read.

Excellent talismans.
It would be even better if you could leave your TiVo queue open for guests to read. My, but he's cultured, they'd say. Be careful of course to delete The Breakfast Club.

Smilin' Jack said...

There were more than enough stirring "rule of law" and "importance of zealous counsel for the accused" moments [in episode 1] to justify recommending the episode to first-year law students.

Good grief, I'm sure they saw enough of that crap watching "To Kill a Mockingbird" when they were, like, twelve. By the time they're plunking down big coin for law school, they want to learn something more down-to-earth...like how to catch those ambulances.

Trooper York said...

The worst part about watching a "serious" show about historical personages is when there are glaring errors in the book or movie that just turn you off. For example, I bought a biography of Frank Nitti in Barnes and Noble yesterday and started reading it on the subway. Six pages in the author said Nitti was a member of the five point’s gang in New York City that was run by an Irishman, Paul Kelly. Now everyone knows that Paul Kelly was really an Italian gangster named Paul Vaccarelli. At this point you could just throw the book in the garbage because if he got this basic fact wrong, you can’t trust anything else he has to say. That’s why historical fiction and adaptations are more accessible and fun and dry historical dramas should be left to historians. John Adams is striving to be both historically accurate and politically correct. Mutually exclusive goals.

titusgrandjetewithalaybackintothesplits said...

If there is a beav shot of Abigail Adams I think it will add more of a historical perspective of what the beav looked like in the 1700's.

This will be able to show us the evolution of the beav from then to now.

For example, did Abigail have an untamed gnarly beav or was there some clipping or trimming going on even back then.

This will be important to know and I am hopeful we will get to see the beav of Abigail.

titusgrandjetewithalaybackintothesplits said...

I would also be curious if John Adams was cut or uncut?

Was there even cutting back them?

If so, how was the cut?

What about little Charles? Was his cut?

Rick Lee said...

I bought the audiobook while in DC and thought it would be the perfect thing to listen to on the drive home. I love history. Honestly I don't know how anybody got through it. I couldn't finish it. My mind kept wandering because it was so deadly dull. I wondered at the time if it was popular with some people (the down-on-America crowd) because they were actually surprised that Adams was incredibly well educated and popular with the other side because it re-inforced their notion that the Founding Fathers were supermen... but all of this came as no surprise to me and the relentless pounding home of these points just bored me to tears. I'd have been much more interested if more foibles, etc., had been mixed in. Perhaps more of that came later in the book, but I never got that far. I had to keep rewinding because I'd realize that I hadn't been paying attention for the last 10 minutes. I finally gave up.

Trooper York said...

The 18th century beaver was always well groomed. In fact they were often collected by beaver hunters to make hats. The beaver hat was a status symbol for all the high society swells who wanted to be in style. The most storied beaver of a first lady was of course that of Dolly Madison who got around quite a bit before her marriage. It was a glimpse of that beaver that made John Jacob Astor decide to get heavily involved in the fur trade and led to his fortune which he reinvested in Manhattan real estate.

Cedarford said...

Alessandra Stanley of the struggling NY Times gets it wrong - What should be an exhilarating, absorbing ride across history alongside one of the least understood and most intriguing leaders of the American Revolution is instead a struggle....

Well, it was a struggle. And a trudge through mud and horse manure for everyone living at the time. None of the men glowed with a sense of their "Greatness". War and Revolution are HARD things, not the exhilarating absorbing ride a frivolous mid-Manhattan female in 2008 imagines them to be. The woman paid too, with isolation and a doubling of their work when the men were away - generally suffering a tough, tough trudge even when no battles were underway.
I believe today's generation, obsessed over very minor sacrifice and near-negligable casualty rates in Iraq, given our vast population size, lack the spines of John and Abigail Adams.

John and Abigail Adams lived with more depravation in their lives than the NOLA scum, which failed the test of intelligent, civilized behavior in Katrina - and in doing so show the lofty edifices and ideals and principles our nation rests on are a product of carefully nurtured and disciplined souls who lived in sparse, harsh conditions compared to today's soft Americans. Marine trainers today say that it takes up to 6 months to "recondition" American kids from their soft lives. Civilization does not rest on the quantity of free goods and services handed to barbarians in the expectation it will transform them into good citizens. NOLA showed that. The Welfare State actually creates dependency and degraded moral values.

For that matter, the one thing we can almost guarantee about Abraham Lincoln is he never heard himself ever described as "revered" while he drew a breath.

Middle Class Guy said...

Trooper York said...
There is a great book by Gore Vidal called Burr which would make an excellent adaptation for a mini-series. It has a nasty bitchy tone that will make the history aspects more palatable to the mass audience.

That is because Gore Vidal was a nasty bitch.

Trooper York said…
The 18th century beaver was always well groomed. In fact they were often collected by beaver hunters to make hats.

My man, you have to put a spew alert in once in awhile. My dog is wondering why I just spit coffee all over him.

Trooper York said...

The most prized beavers were of course those found in the Rocky mountains by the trappers who went into the wilderness after the advent of the Lewis and Clark exploration. Native American beavers were paticularly prized because of their glossy black appearance. Shoshone in paticular. That means tasty beaver in Arapahoe.

Chip Ahoy said...

*looks up longueurs*

John K. said...

"Is it okay for us to feel pride at what they did? I kept thinking that we never go to such trouble for anything today. I was feeling more ashamed, thinking I — and maybe everyone I know — would be on the side of the argument that said the war was a foolish risk and we need to bear with things a lot longer and hope for the best from the king. (By the way, didn't you think of Jeremiah Wright when someone said "God save the King" and one of the patriots responded "God damn the King"?)"

Very good point. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine (though maybe not Alexander Hamilton and George Washington) would roll over in their graves if they could see what America has become. They fought a revolution for this?? I've said it before and I'll say it again -- the present American occupiers are far more oppressive than was Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution. Yet we meekly take it. We are presumptuous indeed to trace our political lineage to the Founding Fathers. They would disown us. In the eighteenth century it was "Give me liberty or give me death." In the nineteenth century it was "Give me liberty." Now, it's just "Give me."

Middle Class Guy said...

Trooper York said...
The Adams Chronicles were much better actually.


I preferred the Addams Family myself.

Cedarford said...

John K - Good post, except that the American Revolutionaries gave not one damn about the "precious liberties" of the enemy.

Ben Franklin's peacetime platitude about trading liberty for security was forgotten as he formed the Committee on Secret Correspondence because regular Congress could not be trusted with secrets, supported the burning of Loyalist printing presses, and confiscation of Loyalist homes and land without trial. Old Ben also believed his son deserved to be arrested and imprisoned in an unheated stone hut w/o trial for two years for Loyalist perfidy.
Washington perfected the art of the military tribunal. And commandeered quarters for his troops and victuals and supplies - leaving worthless Revolutionary script as compensation.
While the Revolutionary War raged, Revolutionaries shot black looters in Baltimore w/o trial and shot up Indian tribe's civilians loyal to the Brits to encourage them to desist from raids.

If they had lived in these days, the soldiers of Abu Ghraib and Marines at Haditha would have been given a pass because "shit happens" in war. 9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have been hanged in 2003 after all the truth was beaten out of him and any "pestiferous, ungodly" Jewish lawyers of an early day ACLU defending him also swung from the gibbet alongside him.

Joe said...

Paul Giamatti bugs the shit out of me and I don't know why.

John K. said...

Cedarford -- Yes, I realize that most of the Founding Fathers were arch-hypocrites and racists. They obviously didn't care very much about the "precious liberties" of their slaves. I also believe that a major motivation of the Revolution was to get in their own hands the very same instruments of government intervention that they had heretofore seen used so effectively by the British against their own mercantile interests for the advantage of British business. The spoils of war would include first and foremost the ability to use government to promote their own business interests, at the expense of their countrymen.

Despite their great hypocrisy, they were willing to risk death in defense of their own liberty, which puts them far above most modern day Americans, who are not only hypocrites but cowards, and who care far more about their luxuries and their "American way of life" than they do about liberty. And as Plato recognized long ago, in the desire for luxury is found the seeds of war.

I don't especially revere the Founding Fathers, but some of them, especially Paine and Jefferson, had some pretty good political ideas, far better than the pernicious politics of today, which fly in the face of the Declaration of Independence. We are not the political heirs of the Founding Fathers.

The saving grace of the Revolution was that it was fought to cast off an oppressive and illegitimate government, whereas "we" prosecute the War in Iraq on behalf of one.

Have you read "War is a Racket," by General Smedley Butler, who was at the time he wrote it the most highly-decorated Marine in U.S. history?

I'm curious about your propensity to justify war atrocities. I assume, based on your comments, that you're a war veteran? Perhaps you participated in things you feel a deep psychological compulsion to try and justify to yourself and others? The veteran I know best, my grandfather, who returned from WWII with a bronze star and purple heart, didn't like to talk about the war. I can't imagine him trying to justify "normal" warfare, let alone war atrocities on the grounds that "shit happens" in war.

Revenant said...

Paul Giamatti bugs the shit out of me and I don't know why.

Maybe you're a fan of Merlot?

Anna said...

I was watching the HBO series John Adams tonight and there was a nod at George Washington's false teeth. It made me laugh because I remembered that those teeth are on display in Baltimore at The National Museum of Dentistry. Not only that, the map that the American delegation in France used to identify the United States of America at the Treaty of Paris, the actual map from George III’s library, is on display at the Maps exhibitions running at The Walters Art Museum. Check it out http://www.visitmybaltimore.com/video/438/