GRAND JURY

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The grand jury proceedings in the Michael Brown shooting case were highly unusual, to put it mildly.  Prosecutors normally present their best evidence for an indictment to a grand jury, which normally returns the indictment the prosecutor wants.  Though nominally independent, grand juries generally act as a rubber stamp for prosecutorial decisions.

St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch (above) departed radically from precedent by presenting the Michael Brown grand jury with every single bit of evidence in the case, making no prosecutorial recommendation himself and letting the grand jury make its own judgement about it.  When they failed to return an indictment against Officer Wilson, McCulloch then released to the public all the evidence the grand jury had reviewed, again a highly unusual move.

Why would McCulloch handle the case this way?

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My guess is that McCulloch took a look at the evidence and decided in his own mind that it wasn’t sufficient for a successful prosecution of Wilson (above) — didn’t warrant putting Wilson through the ordeal of a trial or justify the expense of a trial to the state.

But this was problematic.  McCulloch didn’t have the trust of the black community in Ferguson, was seen as biased in favor of the police, which is why many in the community had called for a special prosecutor to be appointed.  McCulloch had refused to step aside.  Now, if he exercised his independent judgement not to prosecute Wilson, he would be vilified by many.

So he threw it all into the lap of the grand jury, and ultimately the public, asking them on the basis of the evidence to decide if justice had been done.  It probably seemed like a reasonable course to him.  But it wasn’t.

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If he wasn’t willing to make his own independent judgement about prosecuting Wilson, and take the heat for it personally, he should have recused himself from the case.  Giving the case unusual treatment only reinforced the community’s belief that police shootings always get unusual treatment, that the standards applied to other suspected citizens don’t apply to police officers.

McCulloch tried to have it both ways.  Recusing himself would have implied that he couldn’t deal with the case impartially.  Isolating himself from the ultimate disposition of the case, via the grand jury, implied that he didn’t want to take responsibility for the disposition of the case.

One can feel a certain amount of sympathy for his predicament — but only up to a point.  The vary nature of the predicament suggests that appointing a special prosecutor was from the outset the only reasonable course.  Justice must be done but justice must also be seen to be done, and the oddness of the proceedings in this case insured that this wouldn’t happen.

COMMON SENSE

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I’m someone who believes Obama should be impeached for his crimes against The Constitution — specifically in regards to the Fourth Amendment and habeas corpus.  If I could add his recent executive orders on immigration to the list of such crimes I would happily do so, but a rational case can’t be made for it.

Unless you insist that Obama deport 11 million illegals tomorrow you are conceding his right — and indeed highlighting his obligation as chief executive — to prioritize deportations.  It is not reasonable to suggest that he should create arbitrary priorities — devoting the same resources to deporting working mothers with American children that he devotes to deporting illegals with felony convictions or gang connections.

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It is not reasonable to say that, having created rational priorities, he should keep them secret, when stating them could bring real (though temporary) relief and comfort to those who are low-priority.

It is not reasonable to say that Obama should prevent low-priority illegals from working until their cases are disposed of, since this would create potential burdens for the state which are totally unnecessary.

Finally you can’t argue, based on the record, that Obama is using his recent orders to avoid executing the immigration laws currently on the books.  Deportation is no longer a term used in those laws — the terms “removal” and “return” having replaced it — but if you define deportation as most people do, to mean getting illegals out of the country, Obama has been busy at it, busier than any President in recent history.

He has presided over the “removal” of nearly 2 million illegals and the “return” of about 1.6 million more.  If not The Deporter In Chief, as some have called him, he is certainly The Remover and Returner In Chief.

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The Republican hysteria over Obama’s executive orders is simply irrational — a tempest in a teapot.  Obama’s executive orders, like the Emancipation Proclamation before them, are largely symbolic — articulating enforcement policies that are already in effect and the only enforcement policies that are rational under the circumstances.  They don’t grant citizenship, or a path to citizenship, to anybody, they don’t grant permanent amnesty to anybody, just as The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free a single slave, much less abolish slavery.

Obama and the Democrats will of course exploit the symbolism of the orders for political gain, and this is what is causing Republicans such distress, primarily because of the symbolism that will also be contained in fighting the orders — a symbolism that will drive Hispanics in particular away from The Republican Party for generations to come . . . not all of them, of course, but enough to decide elections in battleground states.

Like The Emancipation Proclamation, Obama’s orders create a moral rallying point without actually changing anything — it is a political masterstroke that is probably unanswerable but hardly a violation of The Constitution.

PZ IN GOTHAM

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If you’re going to be in New York City tomorrow night you can hear Paul Zahl (above in Las Vegas) talk at Calvary-St. George’s Church on this intriguing subject — “An Odd Sighting of the Paranormal: ‘Penrod’ Crosses Over to the Great Beyond”.

He writes:

I think a sure sign of temperamental openness in a person is how open they are to the paranormal.  At times traditional Christians are quite closed to this, and it reflects something about them.  Martial atheists, too, can be tight as a drum when it comes to the “liminal”.  Tight as a drum.  But religion by definition is open to ‘The Borderland” (The Outer Limits 1963).   At least I hope it is.  Come to find out the American novelist Booth Tarkington opened his own door in 1918.  He “resolved” his famous saga of a declining family, The Magnificent Ambersons, by a direct entry, on the part of a lead character, into the Twilight Zone.  It’s an amazing denouement.  Orson Welles couldn’t film it when it came to making his inspired movie of the same.  How can you film what happens to ‘Eugene Morgan’ near the end of the Ambersons?   At the Olmsted Salon November 24th I would like to talk briefly about this little Tarkingtonian detour, and its implications for art as well as faith.

Details here.

ESSENTIAL

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This is one of the greatest of all Hollywood musicals and one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies.  It represents a confluence of virtuosity in a number of different disciplines, principally songwriting, screenwriting, cinematography and directing.

It is not perfect by any means.  The choreography is often merely serviceable, some of the numbers are indifferently staged, some of the acting and singing is acceptable at best.  The brilliance of the other contributions, however, far outweighs the film’s flaws.

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Forget your prejudices, if you have them, against musicals, against Rodgers and Hammerstein, against Julie Andrews, and surrender to their collective genius.  Forget your prejudices, if you have them, against simplicity and implausible redemption, and surrender, at least for a few hours, to hearts that are lighter and brighter than yours is.

The Blu-ray of The Sound Of Music belongs in every civilized home.

THE ELEVEN MILLION

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Republican arguments against Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration are silly and getting sillier.

There are about eleven million people living in America illegally.  We have three choices about how to deal with them.

1) Deport them all immediately.  This could probably be done by mobilizing the armed forces and all state National Guard units and sending them door to door with broad NSA-type search warrants and authority to arrest those who can’t produce proof of citizenship.  They could then be detained in massive camps while we arranged transportation for them out of the country.

2) Deport them on a more relaxed schedule but still indiscriminately, devoting the same resources to expelling working mothers with American children that we devote to expelling illegals with felony arrest records or gang connections.

3) Deport them according to rational and humane priorities, allowing the un-deported to work while waiting for the final disposition of their cases so they don’t place unnecessary burdens on the state.

That’s it, folks.  Any President charged under The Constitution with enforcing the immigration laws must choose one of the above.  If you don’t like choice 3, please state which of the first two you prefer, and why.

Choosing to wait for Congress to express a preference is not a viable alternative — the laws already on the books have to be enforced somehow in the meantime.

GRACIAS

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. . . señor Presidente — on behalf of myself and all my countrymen and countrywomen, documented and undocumented

My forebears arrived in this country, at the James River in the Virginia Colony, in 1690, without papers or permission.  In the intervening years we’ve done all right for ourselves.

May this uniquely American story go on, as long as rivers roll.

Look at the picture of the Rio Bravo above and tell me which side is the “American” and which side is the “Mexican”. The lord of creation didn’t really have the time or the inclination to make it clear.

Click on the image to enlarge.

LA BAIE DES ANGES

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When I first moved to Las Vegas I lived for a few weeks in one of the cheap rooms over the gaming floor of the El Cortez downtown.  I loved it — never wanted to leave.  I played a lot of roulette there — the stakes were so low that you could spin out $20 over a whole evening, getting free drinks in the bargain.

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It was great for people watching, and the people were often sad, many really thinking they were going to win serious money spreading their 25-cent chips over the board, some keeping meticulous records of the numbers that came up, hoping to detect patterns.

Desperate guys who’d busted out would follow me to the men’s room and ask to borrow ten bucks to stay in the game.  A black guy who kept losing, like almost everybody else, told me he thought the odds were stacked against black players in Las Vegas — that blacks simply weren’t allowed to win.

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Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges captures the mood of desperate, addicted roulette players better than any story I know — the self-deception, the occasional exhilaration, the creeping sense of doom, the feeling of becoming unmoored in time.  The film is almost clinical in its depiction of the phenomenon.

One dreams of meeting a stunning dame like Jeanne Moreau at a roulette table, but only if she brings you luck.  If not, she’s just another distraction, just another ironic signpost on the road to disaster.  It’s all very depressing.

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Demy being Demy, of course, there is always redemption of one sort or another waiting in the wings — a moment of grace that may not be plausible or expected according to the cynical standards of this world.  In the case of La Baie des Anges it’s like the moments of grace we find at the climax of many John Ford films — The Informer or Stagecoach or The Searchers.  Grace doesn’t operate by the cynical standards of this world — so Ford and Demy simply say, “Fuck ‘em” . . . and just like that those standards are fucked, and you’re in tears.

Click on the images to enlarge.

MAN OF THE WEST

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Kino Lorber has just released a terrific Blu-ray of Anthony Mann’s terrific Man Of the West, starring Gary Cooper.

Mann started out making low-budget films noirs in the 1940s then became a master filmmaker in the Western genre with the five Westerns he made with Jimmy Stewart in the 1950s.  After he and Stewart had a falling out and parted ways, Mann made a few more Westerns with other stars, including Man Of the West.

Like all of Mann’s Westerns it has a noirish edge to it.  Cooper is a reformed outlaw drawn by chance back into the company of his former gang, led by the psychotic Dock Tobin, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Lee J. Cobb.

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Forced to face up to the crud he used to be and struggling to escape the clutches of the gang once again, he endures a dark night of the soul, of humiliation and shame, before performing the heroic deeds that will set things right again.

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Mann had a terrific eye for composition, for landscapes and for movement within them.  When he started working in CinemaScope, as here, he began to develop the epic style he would one day bring to late-career films like El Cid, one of the greatest of all Hollywood epics, and The Fall Of the Roman Empire, less great but still breathtaking in parts.

The Blu-ray format does justice to Mann’s visual genius and makes this new Kino Lorber edition a must-have for fans of the director’s work and of Westerns.