Tuesday, March 24, 2009

AIG Bashing

If there was any doubt about it, the appearance recently of AIG's new CEO before a Congressional committee demonstrated that, Americans in general, are, "mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more". It gave members of the House Financial Services Committee a chance to crow and distance themselves from a debacle for which their constituents are likely to hold them equally accountable. And why not? As we taxpayers are holding 80% of AIG.It's little comfort to anyone recently laid off, facing the prospect of being unemployed or agonizing over the loss of their life's savings, that Edward Liddy, AIG's new chairman, finds, "it's distasteful to have to make these payments", meaning, of course, the $165 million in bonuses paid out to more than 200 AIG executives. All of whom, by the way, had they been managing a major sports franchise, would have been fired mid-season. With AIG the logic seems to work in reverse. While the company says it is contractually obligated to pay the bonuses, it admits that to have denied them might have triggered a mass exodus of talented executives! Talent? And who would want those who proved they were neither the best nor the brightest but otherwise greedy enough to bring AIG to the brink of extinction. Even though it is unlikely Americans will get the revenge they feel entitled to, they are nonetheless determined to get an accounting of who got what and are likewise itching to know who knew what and when. Senate Finance Committee member, Chris Dodd, has nobly offered it was his decision to let the bonus payments go forward but only after being "pressured" by others. Let's hope it's someone who was truly culpable and not just a scapegoat paraded before the cameras to appeal to those wanting blood. It's a new era, says President Obama. Right now Americans are wondering how much longer before it begins.

"Twelve Angry Jurors?"

Reginald Rose is probably rolling over in his grave, again. Shameful use of alliteration, I know but it opens the door to some thoughts prompted by a recent network news report dealing with the new, bi-lingual production of West Side Story.

And, what’s that got to do with Reginald Rose? Well, Rose as you probably know is the author of “Twelve Angry Men”, an intense drama that peels away the layers of bigotry, hatred and machismo as twelve men decide the fate of a teenage boy accused of murdering his father. While it’s believed the “boy” is of Puerto Rican or Hispanic descent, we never know for sure--only that a guilty verdict by the twelve white, middle-aged men will send him to the electric chair.

It is regarded as a “classic” and has been formally honored as such by the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute. West Side Story is likewise regarded as a classic. And yet, 90-year-old,Arthur Laurents, who penned the original story of gang rivalry on New York’s upper west side, is behind the play’s revival, in which the Sharks sing in Spanish and their rivals, the Jets sing in English. Having seen the original stage production, I, like many others, have no problem with this. Because, well, let’s face it, English-Spenglish, Spanish-Manwich, it’s what Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein did with lyrics and music respectively, that made the 20th Century version of Romeo and Juliet what it is. The well-worn plot is secondary.

Not so with Twelve Angry Men, which is why many are likely to bristle at the repeated efforts to modernize it, as was the case recently with the production at the Bethel Park Community Center, under the title, “Twelve Angry Jurors”, to allow for the fact that women were also deciding the boy’s fate. I think it is safe to say that Rose wrote it as he did, not just because the story preceded women’s lib and other aspects of the later Cultural Revolution in the United States, but also because the dynamics in that jury room were only intensified by the tenor of the times. We were in the heat of the Cold War and the McCarthy era, which brought out the worst in millions of Americans. Juror number eight, played by Henry Fonda, was the voice of reason in a room choking with ignorance, men feeling they must live up to what was then a narrow-minded version of what the male role in society was. And some how most of them initially thought, deciding this boy’s fate was a way of getting even for all that was wrong in their lives. Getting over those hurdles, so prevalent at the time, stood in the way of the justice the defendant ultimately received. The dynamics of men, then burdened with so much male baggage, played a key role in the intensity that play brought to the stage and later to film. It seems to me that to attempt a production of it with less than those ingredients serves only to subvert an American Classic that deserves to be left as is.