Thursday, December 30, 2004

May the Lord comfort their suffering.

I have been unable to put adequate words around the tragedy of the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami that took so many lives, and left so many bereft families. My family's prayers are with you.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Recent Viewings

Over the holiday weekend, I saw some flicks.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was practically required viewing since we have a child of the target audience age. I have to admit I was intrigued, too, since the previews promised at least a visually interesting movie. And while the presence of Jim Carrey is not a promise of greatness, it is a promise of a riveting performance. (Has he ever not given a riveting performance? Even Jim Carrey haters will admit to his overwhelming presence in any movie, which is often the reason for their hate. My wife, I think, put her finger on it when she compared Carrey's charisma to Jack Nicholson's.)

So there we were, in an audience full of hacking and sneezing children - some virus is sweeping the Denver area this Christmas season. And the movie, as most professional critics have warned, is dull. Even though the trailer is striking when viewed against other trailers, the movie itself is monochromatic and gloomy in appearance. The script is monochromatic and gloomy in appearance, too.

I suspect that Lemony Snicket's series of books is one of those literary achievements that will never quite translate to the screen. The written word is unique in that the style of an author can transcend the tone of the events themselves. Which is to say, the dreariness of the "unfortunate" books is overcome by the clever and humorous writing. The same goes for Lolly Winston's Good Grief. It was a hilarious novel, but it will probably make a dreary movie, because we will just observe a widow grieving her dead husband, and we will not be living inside her head as we do in the novel, where her sense of humor never abandons her, even if her sanity does, temporarily.

Thus, outside of Meryl Streep's great performance, the movie was a slog. The wife and I were happy when the credits rolled. And then the most damning review of all, MPC (most precious child) said she liked it, but wouldn't want the DVD. Ouch.

The only truly moving occurrence in the whole of the two hours spent in the theatre was when the credits began to roll. A girl behind us burst out into heart-rending sobs, most probably because the movie is a big downer centered around the most primary of a child's fears: losing his or her parents. The ending is essentially: "so the children survived all these travails, but there are still many bad things to come, and their parents are still dead, the end." The girl's heartbreak seemed about the only appropriate and honest reaction to the movie.

Therefore, I think that parents of children who are sensitive, or at least those who haven't read the books and know of the delight contained within the pages of the books but not found in the frames of the movie, might just opt for a second screening of The Incredibles.

The Manchurian Candidate

I was fortunate enough to see the original Manchurian Candidate cold, knowing nothing about it, in a blissfully uninterrupted, lights-out optimal movie experience. It's a hell of a movie, and I recommend it highly. It's on that short list of older films (pre-70s in my book) that simply does not age, and some of the twists of the plot still shock. (Warning: You'll never be able to view Angela Lansbury in quite the same way again.)

The new version does not have the tremulous dread of the original, and not for lack of excellent casting or new plot contrivances. No, the blame can be laid squarely at the director's feet for managing to make the movie so plodding I ended up glancing at the clock three times within a span of five minutes. Not good.

Denzel Washington is predictably compelling. He's just one of those stars who magnetically pull your eyes across the screen to wherever he is. His acting is top-notch, as always. But you just don't give a damn about his character. No. You care for the Manchurian Candidate himself, played by Liev Schreiber. Liev, like Denzel, is really, really good in practically every movie he's in, but here, he's -- he's Edward Norton as the yokel who's exposed as the evil mastermind in Primal Fear good (and if you don't know what I mean by that, check out the flick, even though I've given it away). He's freaky good.

Here's why: Liev has to convey all the glossy sheen of an American political candidate hand-picked by the powers that be for unquestioned domination and success (think George W. Bush with the intelligence and charisma points ratcheted up a couple notches), with all the inbred comfort with privilege and access to the powerbrokers, yet at the same time someone who's vaguely aware of and tortured by the possibility of being a brainwashed pawn of a star chamber. He's the tragic Howard the Duck (think of the comic, not the movie) who's living in a world he didn't create. When Liev's character is teetering on that razor edge of realization and remorse, while still clinging to stature and his assigned role of greatness, it just gives you Oscar® chills. I recommend the movie for his performance alone. The plot is telegraphed loud enough that you could conceivably fast-forward through the scenes he's not in, watching for the scant clues you need, and drop back into real-time when he reappears. Ok, stick around for Denzel's scenes, too.

Meryl Streep continues the wonderful third act of her career, bringing her massive talents to bear in roles not quite worthy of her. She hits the perfect note of the obsessive mother whose relationship with her charismatic, powerful son is just two quivers past incestuous and wrong. Since all of her best stuff is during scenes with Liev, if you take the fast-forward approach, you'll only need to stop for her scene where she's standing outdoors with two of the heavies from the Manchurian Corporation.

Totally worth a cheapo rental, but not as the full-price centerpiece of the movie night rental.

Expect bigger things in the future from Liev. And, Denzel, dammit, pick better directors.

Around the World in 80 Days

Another Jackie Chan swat-fu fest. Sucks. Out. Loud.

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

I don't know if I have any cachet with my regular readers regarding taste, because I like some pretty silly stuff and don't like some of the supposed media caviar out there. But if I did, I won't after this because, I think Scooby-Doo 2 is the Citizen Kane of sequels to remakes of second-hand, bargain-basement 70s television animation.

Even stranger, I didn't like Scooby-Doo as kid. I've always been an animation aficionado, and the terminally over-looped, blatant mistakes-left-in animation fiasco that was Scooby-Doo always left me mildly pissed off. (I watched it only when there was no other choice.) It had one plot, and, as Likeks pointed out once, approximately 7 overused music queues. The characters where unappealing, with Daphne being a low-rent version of Josie with no Pussycats, Velma evoking all the warm charm of the eternally congested class introvert in second-hand sweaters who smelled like catpoop, and Shaggy being an ugly unshaven stoner who represents the exact kind of adult all policemen told kids to avoid and whose sole talent was being able to consume twice his body weight during an attack of the munchies. Scooby himself was a vapid retread of the Jetson's dog (voiced by the same guy, no doubt), done better and done first. And just what the hell was the point of Fred anyway? He didn't ever solve a mystery, that was always Velma's gig. Perhaps he was merely Daphne's love puppet (or, shudder to think, Velma's), but if so, then what was that kind of character doing in a kid's cartoon?

Anyway, the first movie was only interesting insofar as Matthew Lillard's resurrection of Shaggy was spooky dead-on, and impressive considering the original voice for Shaggy was done by none else than Casey Casem, he of the infamous paint-stripping voice that introduced the weekly top ten on the radio during the Reagan years. I think he still does it, been since we've become Radio Free America through the implosion of the industry via monopoly, I can't be sure.

I didn't expect much of Scooby 2, and got it only at the request of MPC, who was mildly interested in seeing it while recovering from the croup. Even she suspected she'd have the attention span for it only while swacked on Triaminic and children's Motrin.

And then, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, there we were, the whole family, tears of laughter streaming down our faces, backing the DVD up to hear a funny line yet again, or pausing it altogether whilst MPC got a (laugher induced) coughing fit under control. One line that floored us, as the team pulled up to yet another spooky place to search for monsters and clues, was Shaggy warbling: "Like, Scoob, how come we never get to investigate, like, a Burger King?" This line is made all the funnier due to the dubious fact that the movie touts a product placement for Burger King so bald-faced that the laugh line puts a nice spin on the tawdriness of it.

Fearing I might had been under the influence of rogue endorphins, or in some other unexplainable generous mood, during my initial viewing and enjoyed the movie more that it deserved, the MPC and I sat down to watch it again a couple days later. It was still as funny, so it wasn't mood or circumstance. We've slated this one for a purchase when it hits the under $9 mark.

I thought this movie was funny as hell, and, like, so did my family. I bet you will, too.


I don't like Tom Cruise. He's got that mechanical "Scientology has improved my life too much" glare that all the lesser talents in the thrall of that cult do. (Only John Travolta appears to have the chops to be able to suppress it while playing a role, even though it's on full display when he hits the talk-show circuit.) Further, I don't think Cruise is that gifted of an actor. Granted, he pulled Lestat out of some dark hole in his soul, but then Lestat has a lot of the same manic denial of unwanted reality that Scientologists do, so maybe the performance wasn't so much of a stretch after all. Therefore, when Tom Cruise is in a movie, there have to be other damn good reasons for me to see it. (I think the continued partnership between Cruise and Spielberg is one of the more egregious developments in recent movie history. Doesn't someone as perceptive as Spielberg realize most Americans find Cruise sorta creepy?)

But, I needed a movie to watch, and I'd read that Jamie Foxx - the same Jamie Foxx that is currently channeling Ray Charles so brilliantly and Oscar®-worthy in the biopic - essentially carries the movie, so I decided to pop for the rental. (And when I got it free by remembering a promotion code, I was especially smug.)

Not that it's not clear from his performances in Any Given Sunday and Ray, but why not state it for the record: Jamie Foxx is a great actor, and probably has a huge future in front of him. From the first frame of Collateral, he owns and inhabits his role. Were you to leave the credits off of the three movies mentioned in this paragraph, some might not realize the same actor played all three leads. Well, then Tom strolls in and kinda messes up the vibe until it becomes obvious that the movie is really about Max, Jamie's character, and not Vincent, Tom's shadow puppet. With the Cruise relegated to a purposely 2-dimensional supporting role, the movie glides along under its own power, and is a fine piece of entertainment.

Highlights include the soundtrack and the relative consistency of the intelligence of the plot, marred only once by the "psychic bad guy phenomenon" during the final chase sequence. Lowlights (outside of the Tomster) include the cinematography which may have been done in a digital video kind of feel on purpose, but it draws your attention in a bad way, meaning "what the f*ck was that?" and not "ooooo, cool!"

Collateral is a nice, tight little thriller with groovy tunes (have the surround on and the volume up) and the talents of Jamie Foxx to waft you to the credits. Pick it up next time you're in need of some diversion.

Aloha till next time.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Let it snow

Check out this collection of photos of real snowflakes. Happy white Christmas!
Surfin' Bird

Not only because I can't find anything unique or less boring than usual to say, but because once an awhile it doesn't hurt to give credit where credit is due, I submit to you better - or at least other - blogs to read whilst you're all logey on tryptophane, nog, and distant relative overdoses this holiday season.

Don't take this wrong, but if you haven't heard of The Bleat in the blogsphere, you've not only been living under a rock, but under a moonrock, on the dark side of the moon, and said moonrock only recently arrived via a comet from the farthest reaches of space. James was doing a daily post back before the term "blog" was invented, so if you want top-notch writing that winds back for years and years, this is the site to hit. He also has some hilarious galleries of abominable interior design, food recipes that would make even dogs shudder if they could read (keep in mind how they bathe themselves), and unfortunate product mascots, just to name a few. His day gig is a humor column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but since he can go uncensored and follow his whims even further down the rabbit hole his daily bleat is about the best thing out there on the web.

The Poor Man is a hyper-intelligent guy who I believe is still in grad school for a physics degree or something like that (once in a while he'll write about his illudium Q36 explosive space modulator or something like that). He was one of the few blogs that was actually readable during the last election. He is also wildly talented at making the juxtaposition of cute kitten pictures and scathing ironic humor seem natural.

Dooce is new mom who recently moved from LA back to her and her husband's homeland deep in the heart of Mormon Utah, a brave move considering they are ex-Mormons who each had originally fled to LA to get hip careers and escape the pod-people gestalt that is Utah. (I would attempt a tactful mitigation of that characterization of Mormonland, but it would be a blatant lie and would read as such. TLD:During a trip to Zion, a beautiful area in Utah, we stopped at a bar for a beer, and a huge sign on the wall read "23 miles to the United States of America" which, of course, was the distance to the Utah border, so it's not only me.) Dooce, aka Heather Armstrong, is blessed with razor-sharp wit and the writing chops to spin comic sentences of such brilliance, you are often forced to blaugh. A blaugh is a laugh that is in such a hurry to get out that it trips over the laugh in front of it, causing a sound that is onomatopoeia to blaugh.

The 2Blowhards are your one-stop shopping for ruminations on all things artistic: movies, architecture, painting, porn, philosophy, memes, and advertisement copy. It's easy to get lost in all the ideas presented with astounding fecundity on this site. The comments are part of the experience as the regulars of this blog take the ideas as if they were relay race batons and run them out past the bleachers. Once you start reading, the only thing that may pull you back to the real world is the spouse or family screaming "Forrest, Stop!" directly in your ear to get your attention.

Syaffolee is another freaky-intelligent grad student who offers an eclectic and charming smattering of observations about anything under the sun. Or things that orbit it. Or even other suns. I enjoy traipsing around in brains much brighter than mine. You will, too.

Making Light is a very literary blog, which makes sense as the author is an editor for a major publisher. As with all the other blogs mentioned here, Making Light is eclectic to a fault, but manages to go into depth in a way that's never dry and always wry. Another reason I enjoy this blog is Teresa Nielsen Hayden is a Christian; a very informed, learned and (thank God) non-fundamentalist Christian. She doesn't discuss that aspect of her life much, so if religion gives you the fantods, don't be put off in fear yer gonna hear about Jay-sus! too much. Actually, her perspective might be a welcome oasis in that sense. On the web, it seems we Christians who aren't fundies but who really believe Christ was who He said He was (what I think if as mainstream Christians, which includes Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox) are either silent or very quiet about it, so it's nice to hear a calm, steady voice unafraid of speaking (was we believe is) the truth. She also drops the occasional bitchin' recipe.

Redwood Dragon is another blog by a Christian who doesn't pound it down your gullet, out yer arse, straight to China, and into orbit. Dave Trowbridge is also yet another eclectic (notice a theme here?), thoughtful funball. Good reading.

Minute Particulars is an overtly theological blog, and wow, even if you don't have any truck with Christian thinking, this guy explores some ontological corners that might surprise even the most virulent atheist. He makes your brain hurt so good.

Moby (click "moby journal") is the internationally renowned artist and musician whose work you've heard whether you've intended to or not. His album Play was unique in music history in that every single track was licensed for a movie, TV show, or commercial - some many times over. Granted, that is either a dubious distinction (if you're a music purist) or a hell of an accomplishment (if you consider that his tunes are so accessible and evocative that everyone relates to and enjoys them). His song "18" (off of the album of the same title), in my opinion, is one of the prettiest instrumentals ever composed. Anyway, for a big deal music personality, his posts are down-to-earth and very human. It's a unique window into one of the major artists of our day who is just an average guy. It's fun to read him talk casually about schlepping off to do a show the same way you or I would talk about trundling off to work in our cubies.

Have fun! And ya'll come back now, y'hear!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Yes, this is still "Third Level Digression"

Ah, changes were needed. The old template didn't take to the new, indigenous comments functionality, so I had to switch to a new template. I had to dump the old comments system because it lost virtually all of the comments I've ever had. Since I don't get that many comments, the loss of the few I had was not good. So, new comments functionality, new template, off we go!

Oh, and as soon as I figure it out, I'll replace the links to other blogs I usta have.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Dearth of 2004

The yearly "best of" lists are blossoming across the web and entertainment media. Usually, I have my own to offer, but this year was kind of abysmal for entertainment, imnsho, so I don't really have lists so much as an honorable mention or two.

I've noticed that for some reason every year a new Star Wars movie is released, there tends to be a raft of good flicks, as though somehow the anticipated competition with a guaranteed blockbuster somehow raises the bar in the kinds of movies studios produce. I still haven't detected an indicator for the other extreme, though - years like this where movies just weren't all that mindblowing. I'd love to hear any theories, if you've got one.

The only truly memorable, utterly fantastic movies I saw that were made this year were:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Incredibles
50 First Dates

Eternal manages to capture the desperate need and heartbreak of relationships, and is probably the best observation of people in love I've seen. 50 First Dates manages the hat trick of actually being a drama hiding in the costume of a light romantic comedy which is multi-leveled and consistent, never betraying its premise at the service of cheap laughs. The Incredibles is just that, especially the Edith Head-esque superhero costume designer, darling.

I also sorta-kinda liked, some for dubious reasons and others for not-so-dubious reasons:

Ella Enchanted
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Jersey Girl
Kill Bill Vol. 2
Shrek 2
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Spider-Man 2
The Polar Express
The Punisher
Van Helsing

But none on the list are something I'd search out and buy, with the possible exception of Ella Enchanted, because great kids movies that don't become odious with the obligatory repeated viewings are valuable beyond their sticker price.

I greatly anticipated Touching the Void because the raves were unanimous. But, gosh, to me this was just another of the many movies/books about people who have too much time (and money) on their hands who decide to climb a dangerous mountain just because it's there, only to have things go very wrong, leaving the survivors to gravely opine that time with family and friends is more valuable than the supposed glory of gazing upon the rare view of surrounding peaks for the five minutes you have before your genitals freeze solid. I'd love to know what the average Sherpa thinks of these yahoos.

I read a mere two memorable books published this year:

Good Grief by Lolly Winston
Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz (View a small excerpt here.)

Good Grief is brilliant writing, sustaining the reader through the intense grief of a recent widow with humor and honesty. Odd Thomas was funny and charming, with a surprise ending for a Koontz story.

Since commercial radio and the music industry continue their respective death spirals to a massive terrain conflict (that means "a crash" for those of you in the cheap seats), nothing of much interest was offered outside of hits compilations (John Mellencamp for one) and the new one by U2.

My favorite quote from the year is:

"I understand why Bush has such high approval ratings. Hell, he's done everything I expected him to do: The economy's in the toilet, we're at war, and everything's on fire." - Wanda Sykes

The best lesson(s) I learned this year came from Second Innocence by John B. Izzo:

1. Have Courage.
2. Ask, "What does life want from me now?"
3. Just Start...

The Terminal and Chronicles

Saw The Terminal the other night. Y'know, honestly, Stephen Spielberg has never really made a bad movie. He's just made some that you'd never want to watch again. For all of its good intentions, Amistad is one of those movies. Thus, a review of a Spielberg film is more for the longrun view of the film, and not so much a warning to avoid it or to directive to see it. Of course you should see each and every Spielberg film eventually. You will be entertained.

The Terminal is entertaining, and initially moving, but it hits the implausibility barrier quickly which dooms your utter enjoyment of it.


I was gonna lay all of those out before it dawned on me that would just be a string of spoilers, and fellow movie lovers, if they haven't seen it yet, will eventually see it, and I don't wanna ruin it for them. For those of you who just want to know, go to the Movie Spoiler and read up.

Read Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan. At first, I was impressed that he could write decent prose. Most talented people are talented in one specific way, and not others. And, the more immense the talent in the one area, typically the less there is in other areas of expression. Dylan, in particular, has not been much of a revelation when he's ventured away from songwriting and performing. Thus, I was reading more to pierce the enigma than anything else. I expected verbal drudgery.

Well, Dylan can write prose, even if he's given to filling entire paragraphs with listings of authors he's read or other songwriters he admires. And, I simply think he's being cagey when he does that. You learn a lot about someone through what they admire.

My overall impression is that Dylan is pretty much a normal guy, if not somewhat curmudgeonly, who wanted to be a minor star in the folk music world, but got strapped into a rocket ride of fame and admiration that mystifies even him, to some extent. He didn't want to be Jesus, he wanted to be Johnny Cash.

If you're a fan, of course you'll read Chronicles. The rest of you can skip it, as there is nothing here that will change your life. If you want revelation, then give a good listen to Blood on the Tracks, still one of the most beautiful expressions of pain and loss ever committed to the ages.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Batman was plagued by a furless cat, too

I use Google image search as a sort of poor man's instant mind mapping thought unjammer. When stuck on a passage, I pick a word out of the air, or out of a song, or out of what I'm working on, plug it in, and hit enter. The resulting images often reset my thoughts and get me going again.

Oddly, hairless cats keep showing up on frequent occasion, and I haven't decided whether this is cause for alarm or not - or, if I am to be alarmed, is it my word choices leading to these things, or is it that they are somehow inexplicably ubiquitous in the Google imagine link catalogs.

Either way, this baby popped up:

Which I thought was strange enough (and wondered what that freakin' exposed-brain-like thing was on the top of its head), but then found the context for the image, and it was somehow worse. Go to the bottom of this page for details.

No caption contest could result in something stranger than the real story, imho.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Ruminations on Christmas Songs

Big blog daddy James Lileks recently called for opinions on Christmas songs for an upcoming Minneapolis Star Tribune article - his day gig. So I sent him my 2¢. As he may use it (or not) I won't bore you with the whole actual email here; no, I'll bore you will all new thoughts about Christmas songs.

Well, just in case the curiosity is killing you (and bless you if it is - I'm touched), and in case he doesn't include my worthy thoughts in his piece, I said the best ever is the Pretender's "2000 Miles" which hits the perfect note (ha ha) of yearning for a Christmas song, and the worst ever is "The Little Drummer Boy" which has annoyed me since childhood, right down to its kill-me-now "rump pah pum pum" refrain. It took me a while to figure out the whole Santa Claus thang, but I clued in immediately that no mother of a newborn would allow some brat into the nursery with a drum say: "Bang away Fauntleroy!" Especially with a song that sucked as much as that one does. Dear Lord.

Assuming that after the yearly assault mounted by the twin hazards of radio and muzak, you still want to listen to Christmas music on purpose (or simply want to control WHAT you hear to avoid "The Little Drummer Boy"), I have some guidance to offer.

Right off the bat, let's cut to the chase and point out the must-haves for those of you in the cheap seats. The two "Time-Life Treasur[ies] Of Christmas": Original flavor and "Memories," have the sum-total of all the best standards available. If you buy both, you'll get some repeats, but by different singers. The other standard is, of course, Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas. If you have ever been in the proximity of a TV during the holidays, I DARE you to not get an endorphin rush when you put this one on. (Music geek moment: The link is to one of the new hybrid SACDs (Super Audio CD (a moniker which is analogous to "New and Improved Edible Chocolate" in its recursive redundancy)), which sound amazing.)

In my opinion, there is no better vocalist for Christmas songs than John Denver. I know he got overplayed back in the day, but, really, give the guy another chance during the holidays. (Unless you've built up bitter resentment because he created a persona of a simple, poor, dope-smoking country boy but had the gall to pen a song about his estate Starwood, in Aspen, where he hoarded gasoline during the gas shortages of the 70s; you're excused, Earl.) His soulful tenor just lends itself naturally to the soaring melodies of most Christmas songs. But, avoid the Christmas album he did with the Muppets, which of course has Frank Oz and Jim Henson croaking all over John's vocals. Avoid any duet that John Denver did, for that matter. His voice is oil to anyone else's water.

The other classic Christmas crooner is Nat King Cole. Can't praise him enough, so I won't try.

One of my personal favorites is A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector. Thumbnail, slamdance music history lesson: Phil Spector invented the production style which created an immediately recognizable "Wall of Sound," as it was called, by cramming several drummers, pianos, guitarists, horn sections, and singers into a tiny recording studio and letting them thrash away in unison. Bruce Springsteen loved that sound so much, he tried to recreate it when he recorded Born to Run and failed, but famously found his own sound in the process. Anyway, for this album, Spector got together all of the groups he'd formed (Svengali-like) and recorded this as a kind of a vanity project, which most people either love or hate upon first listen. I fall into the prior category, my wife the latter. I strongly recommend a litmus test listening of the samples via the link before you put your money down.

I just dinna know why, lads and lasses, but my favorite Christmas song remains "Do You Hear What I Hear?" I don't know if it's the call and refrain of the lyrics, the melody, or the fact that anyone who attempts this has to have a good enough voice to pull it off (read: neither Mick Jagger nor Bob Dylan would attempt to cover it, though Neil Young might, just to be perverse). I also dig "What Child Is This?" probably because "Greensleeves" is the melody, and that tune is imprinted on the DNA of anyone of European descent.

For it's sheer wink, wink, nudge, nudge, goofiness, I love Buck Owen's "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy." It's almost a retread of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," but way funnier and not nearly as cloying. Plus, gotta love that trademark "Bakersfield Sound," nearly as distinctive as Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound."

I can't help but smile when I hear The Singing Dogs do "Jingle Bells." (Found on Dr. Demento Presents: Greatest Christmas Novelty CD if you've been searching.)

"Blue Christmas" as performed by Elvis Presley is a snort. When he starts out, he sounds like he's trying to keep down a fried banana peanut butter sandwich.

The lyrics to "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch" have been memorized by several generations, for good reason. The invectives hurled are some of the best ever conjured. Oh, and Boris Karloff, who is the narrator and voice of the Grinch is often credited with singing this one, but it's really Thurl Ravenscroft, who also voiced Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame.

"Ding Dong Merrily on High." Song aside, the jokes over the title just write themselves.

"Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano, while mostly innocuous, tends to stick in your head like "The Pink Panther Theme" and the Sesame Street Muppet's "Mah Na Mah Na" song. (Bah bee badeepee!)

But for sheer annoyance factor, I doubt any Christmas song surpasses "The Twelve Days of Christmas." It's even got drummers in it! (TWELVE drummers drumming!) And I didn't detect a theme here until now, but all Christmas songs that mention drumming SUCK! Anyway, who in the hell had the bright idea to model a Christmas song on the conceit of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"? Wasn't the original bad enough? Noooo! Someone had to spread its suckitude all over the holiday spirit as well! At the very least Bob & Doug McKenzie saved things somewhat by recombining both songs into a more palatable version, replete with interjections of "hoser" and other merriment, bless their little Canuck hearts. Ho ho ho.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Captain Trips Gets Ready to Flip the World the Bird

Neil Young put out a CD called "Arc," which is about half an hour of guitar feedback, random drumming and mumbling. I bring that up for two reasons: 1) this post might be just meandering noise, like "Arc," and 2) it may serve as the soundtrack to the possible coming pandemic.

If ever I hoped someone was channeling Chicken Little, it is this time, but - as many AIDs activists don't seem to grasp - our science still isn't very good at managing outbreaks of viruses. We are still limited to using our body's natural defenses against the little bastards. If the virus is lethal enough, or mutable enough (as with the AIDs virus), it's difficult, if not impossible, to create a safe vaccine that will signal our body to produce antigens to provoke an immunity response if we become infected with the live virus. Because the workings of our immune system are partially still a mystery, and the fact that there are so many genetic variations among humans, a safe AIDs (or flu, cold, ebola, avian) vaccine for me might trigger the actual disease in you.

And even though we understand the basic mechanism of a virus - they are little geometric capsules that contain DNA/RNA sequences that they inject into a host cell upon landing on them like a lunar landing module (which they creepily resemble), which then inserts itself into the code of a cell, converting it into a rogue virus factory which eventually bursts like a malignant zit, spraying out billions more of the little virus lunar landers so they can go convert other cells. Some viruses have amazingly clever adaptation schemes, like quick mutation or methods through which they can "hide" from our body's defenses. AIDs, for instance, actually knows how to hide in our connective tissue when the body has detected it and starts eradicating it. Worse, when it goes into hiding, it might mutate just for good measure, and when it reemerges, it's a whole different virus the body hasn't developed a defense against. That's why it's so lethal. It's like Hercules trying to kill the hydra, who grows ever more heads when one is lopped off.

According to the article, this avian flu that might trigger the pandemic is the type that can be controlled with a vaccine, but only after it actually hits and people have died, and even then economics and other factors are going to limit the deployment of the vaccine. Lord help us if it's one that mutates a lot.

So, for most of us, it'll be like a car accident that's already in motion - we really won't be able to change the inevitable; all we can do it wait for the crash to play out and hope our loves ones and ourselves walk away from it. Therefore, there's little use worrying about it. If you've got your seat belt on, and the airbags deploy, you've done all you can.

TLD: By the way, what you can do is this:
1) Wash your hands a lot during the day, especially before meals and after you've touched a lot of doors and other things everyone puts their hands on during the day. This especially includes your computer keyboard and mouse if anyone else touches them; these are the primary means of spreading germs these days. Also if you share a communal ice machine and many of the cretins who use it think it's okay to dig around in there with their bare hands, don't use that ice if anyone in the office is hacking up a lung or retching into their cubicle's trash can (and see #3).
2) Try to train yourself not to touch your face during the day, which is how the majority of these germs are transferred to your system. Your eyes, nose and mouth are all the wondrously moist mucus membranes viruses invade through - fuel for the pyromaniac, if you will.
3) Avoid those who insist on coming to work sick (or have bosses or unspoken company policy that they do) as though they have the plague, because they just might. When these clods insist on sharing the joy, play a game we play with our daughter when we are sitting in a doctor's office, called: "hot lava." Try not to touch anything, as it is hot lava and will burn you. The fewer things you come in contact with, the better. Also, as mentioned, play this game when you see the doctor.

Once you train yourself to view community surfaces as scum-ridden germ factories, and to not touch your face, you will find you get sick much less often. But, don't develop an obsession over it. Just make it a casual reflex, like covering your mouth when you sneeze. "Touch not" and "wash a lot" are pretty easy to do without turning into Felix Unger.

Stephen King's The Stand is a fun read, but he did two things that made his tale of a pandemic convenient in the telling. First, he killed off most of the population, which, believe it or not, made things much easier on the survivors. In reality, a pandemic will leave enough people alive where things will be much more dangerous and unpredictable. King's characters only had to worry about bumping into the odd individual who's also stumbling through the wreckage. If it happens for real, it'll be a lot messier and kind of like the old Wild West with the nutball factor ratcheted up about 27 notches. Also, the world will not revert back to wild plains with rusting cars everywhere. There will be enough survivors to keep the infrastructure going, and we will have to clean up all those houses, cars, and stuff that become ownerless. We will most likely never tumble all the way back to tribal hunter/gatherers, and it would only be possible if something on the level of the catastrophe King puts forth in The Stand occurred.

The second (and really sneaky) thing King did was kill off the horses and the dogs with the same virus. Almost no viruses leap across species boundaries like that (avian flu notwithstanding), and King's did only because it was designed to do so in the evil government lab. Any pandemic caused by avian flu might take out some birds along with us, but the dogs and ponies will be OK. Aside from the humane considerations (their being trapped in barns and stuff), in regards to horses this won't be a big deal. Dogs are another matter entirely. One of the running jokes in Bridget Jones' Diary is she's afraid she will die alone and her dogs will eat her carcass before she's discovered. Well, Bridget, if the pandemic comes, "Be afraid. Be very afraid." On my block alone, 87.5% of the families have at least one dog, and half of those have big dogs, like German Shepards, Labs, and mixes - and I know this is common for the rest of the nation. For those of you who can sit through a movie where hundreds of people are viciously and graphically gunned down and you don't bat an eye, but moan in empathy if a single doggy or kitty is dispatched to the great beyond (as in Jurassic Park II), you may wish to be in the great beyond if those days come. There will be a LOT of hungry, abandoned dogs who will need to be euthanized. Cagey Mr. King probably guessed that, and so he conveniently snuffs them all in the shadows, probably just so the PETA nuts didn't firebomb his house.

Some Jungians and other folks who believe in a larger scheme going on behind the scenes of history (read: intelligent design) feel that some memes telegraph the fears and most likely result of major events that haven't occurred yet, perhaps in order to get us ready for their eventuality, or perhaps because they create a sort of backwards echo that we hear with the unconscious portions of our being. If that is the case - and I'm not saying it is, I'm just playing "let's suppose" - then I think the meme that best describes what a pandemic might feel like is zombie movies. I don't mean that corpses will be up and about, groaning about brains parfait. No, I think it will just have the feel zombie movies: those not afflicted will gather together, gloomy and frightened, mourning loved ones lost, waiting for the tsunami of death to subside. There will be a lot of situational camaraderie that's brought on by such overwhelming events. People will lay aside a lot of their standard pettiness, but at the same time any latent or hidden pathologies will come flaring out of those on the very edge of sanity, so there will be a constant undercurrent of trepidation regarding those quiet people in the corner, until it all sorts out.

Why the rumination on such a dark topic? Well, that's the fun thing about blogs, is we don't really have to have a justification for a post; and I don't for this one. I just read that article I link to above, and it got me thinking about it. Perhaps my mood is influenced by the recent political clusterfandango, worrying - as all the others who feel this last election was a disaster - about such things as the complete end to things I hold dear (though I'm not near as pessimistic about the political world as I am regarding a possible pandemic). Scientists have been warning that we will have another incident like the "Spanish Flu" that swept the world in 1918, and that it will be worse because of the prevalence of easy international travel combined with relative complexity of the viruses that arise now. If this century has any true worldwide catastrophe to face, it won't be terrorists, neocons, fascist regimes, media, or sociopaths that cause it. Nope, it will be because of a funky chicken.

(And for those who know me personally and will "get" it: I still hate T. S. Eliot, even though he's probably right, that effete, vampiric-looking motherf*cker.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Tip of the Domino

An aspect that cartoons and real life have in common are those moments where one encounters the catalyst to an impending tragic-comedic series of events on the quivering edge of kicking off the whole entropic Rube Goldberg clusterfandango. We typically gape in horror as it slowly swings into motion, and we are as helpless against it as we are against the unseen monster we cannot escape in a nightmare as we attempt to flee in slow motion.

Years ago, in the first couple years of our marriage, pre-child, my wife and I were on a shopping adventure. Isn't it always an adventure when you go shopping with your spouse? I don't recall the reason - perhaps I was picking morosely at things on shelves, or just had the aura of needing to be put to use (my wife had the list after all, and therefore was the chief) - but I was dispatched to go procure condoms. Further, I was given strict instruction on the features and qualities that said condoms needed to possess. (Let me stop the pervs right here, and clarify that it had to do with the nature of the spermicide, and not any molded machinations "for her pleasure" - that's my exclusively my responsibility in the endeavor, thank you very much.)

Nonetheless, off I went. We had not been in that store before, so I had to search. Unlike my current grocery store, where they are adjacent to the Hallmark cards and bouquets of flowers (apparently for convenience or for those on a mission), they were in a recessed area in the back of the store. Like most married men, when I've been sent to obtain something specific by the missus, I carry low-level trepidation because too many times the store doesn't stock the very thing requested, and will the manager or the chain bear the brunt of the disappointment and questioning? No, the crosshairs will alight firmly on me. So, it was with relief that I sailed around the corner to probable success - and right into a trio of high school girls buttressed up against the display. While this tableau might make a cute photo for the lead-in to a "Playboy" article, in real life it promises only oblique embarrassment for all.

TLD: Actually, I was hoping for only oblique embarrassment as I had the full goose bozo version stampede across my person when trying to procure birth control for the Senior Prom. I purposely went in the middle of the morning on a weekday to avoid running into anyone I knew, or ANYONE for that matter. I had researched and chosen my product prior to, in order to get in and out like a commando. I had cash ready in all denominations so I could abandon the least amount of change if it came to that, and I had even planned my route through the store as the plastic bags they used were semi-transparent, thus I would require an obscured but direct route back to my car. I had even gone to the trouble to dress in such a way that it was clear I had no ability to shop-lift, because a high school kid, blushing crimson, bee-lining through the store on a weekday morning would certainly pull the attention of the manager, and I didn't want to have to turn out all my pockets on top of everything else.

The initial stage went off without a hitch. Within nanoseconds I had the box at the counter, the money out, and the ancient pharmacy clerk was hunting and pecking out the buttons on the old, manual cash register faster than usual - evidently she was sharper in the morning. Then it happened. She pushed the total button before she noticed she had miskeyed a number. Her little old face scrunched up like a white prune, she mouthed a G-rated curse word, and proceeded, glacially, to pull out the full-page form they had to fill out when they've hauled off and totaled on an error. I offered to pay the overage, but that only produced a lengthy explanation on how she would be grilled on why she'd overcharged a customer. I shut up and let her do her form.

In the five minutes that took, lo and behold, a herd assembled at my back. Worse, she hadn't put the clearly labeled product in a bag and had placed it so anyone behind me could see it. In a case of bad teenage judgment, I thought that if I didn't touch the box to move it out of sight, perhaps I could pretend that the actual item I was purchasing was out of view in front of me, and it was someone else's. But, no, somewhere in those five minutes where I was beginning to grasp what Einstein had posited about time being relative, I heard one of the matronly ladies "tsk, tsk" behind me, obviously gleaning my motives. And, once, when I made the mistake of turning around to shoot a commiseratory glance at my fellow captives, two of the women seemingly instantly memorized my face, perhaps out of fear that their daughter might be my intended paramour.

The ancient clerk finished her homework and reentered the purchase - by now I was so deeply into "fight or flee" alternate reality that I could hear each and every cog shift and grind inside the cash register - and SHE DID IT AGAIN! Again, we had to wait through the paperwork. By the time I had my albatross in its little see-through bag and turned to leave, 13 people were waiting in line behind me, all of them scowling - in the direction of the bag, no less.

My mom hyperventilated from laughter when I told her my tale of woe, later. (My mother was intent on the topic of my brother or my not fathering a child as a teen, so when she intuited that a tryst might be on our horizon, she always cornered us on birth control - thus the topic was not taboo.)

So, I cruised on past the gaggle of girls, because - and this is on my long list of the many proofs of the existence of God that I continually compile - there was a magazine rack just past the love gloves, and as I had not broken my stride I could reasonably fake that I had intended to check out this month's "Macworld."

Either the girls were doing the same thing I was and hadn't reached a consensus on which ones to buy, or this was their little enclave from which they could escape the world of parents and undesired peers. I bet it was little of both, but mostly the prior, because when more than two teenage girls consult each other on a purchase, you'd think you were at an economic summit of the superpowers. And, come to think of it, you sort of are. Watch some shop sometime in one of those costume jewelry stores that offer the gamut of thrifty female adornment and free ear piercings with any purchase, and I promise you will be entertained for well over an hour - and may even come away with a good idea for a blog. ;)

Anyway, my ruse proved to be fortuitous because I discovered that the color classic Mac was due in stores soon, which was the sole object of my gadget lust at the time. Perhaps this is why I didn't see my wife until she appeared on the far side of the condom display. I looked up the moment she arrived. She looked at the condoms with slight annoyance and then spotted me.

Now, dear reader, imagine if you will in your mind's eye, as my eyes widened in pre-shock as things began their egregious course, a single extended finger as it nudges the first domino. I was frozen in place, the proverbial bug in a jar.

"Hon," my wife said in the tone that perfectly embodies a wife's doubts about their husband's ability to do as asked with the implicit commentary chaser on his intelligence, "they're right here!" Her delicate finger pointing so as to remove all doubt, re the subject. In unison, three ponytailed heads swivel to my wife, then make a slight adjustment to glance at the condom rack indicated in classic Vanna White fashion. After the obligatory pause for comprehension to bloom, three fresh teen faces turn to me with eyes gleaming, bejeweled with a collection of lopsided smirks.

"Oh," was all I could manage as a response.

Then, as only teenage girls can do, they dove together as if to do the big team cheer before a game, and burst into giggles. They stole glances at me as I plodded by on numb ghost legs, probably wondering if I would continue to exhibit ever-deeper shades of red and what would be the final shade of crimson I could achieve. Still not even slightly aware that she should hunt for a ticket booth in order to eventually board the clue train, my lovely wife (and I do mean that with all affection) casually chattered away about the selection and which one might we try (even though, for those of you keeping track, she had already told me which ones we were going to buy; but we all know that a foregone decision does not forestall further consideration of a purchase for most of the fair sex). I dutifully nodded in silence, hyperaware of the running commentary from the peanut gallery, who didn't have the graciousness to leave. No, this was waaaay to entertaining to miss on what must have been a slow night. Plus, I've noted in my time here on earth that universally girls tend to find endless glee and amusement in the harmless humiliation of their significant boy others. When the missus finally plucked our intended purchase from the rod, a sarcastic "Oooo, good choice!" drifted from the audience. The final domino comes to its rest.

"Thanks a lot, hon," I mumbled a couple of aisles later.

"What?" she asked, as in: "what did I do?"

When it dawned on her, she laughed through the whole checkout line, all the way out to the car, and half the way home - with intermittent gusts of guffaws throughout the evening. For approximately a year after that, she did not ONCE pass up the opportunity to exclaim, "Look, Honey! The condoms are right here!" when we were restocking.

Yes, I married well.


Saw the IMAX 3-D version of The Polar Express. Hands down, it's the best 3-D movie I have ever seen. When snowflakes are falling, you can practically smell the snow. A train also lends itself to deep 3-D shots that don't evoke memories of John Candy on SCTV poking things at the camera, going "Oooo! Aaaaah!" The kids look less creepy than they do in the flat version, but they're still...wrong. Especially the little black girl - they simply didn't get the motion of her mouth correct. (I'll leave you to ponder your own theories as to why on that one.) As for the movie itself, I think Ebert is right, it will slowly become a Christmas classic for the ages. Even though the plot is thin, there's a lot to the journey itself that makes up for it. Parents should count on the annual viewing of this, along with the classic (animated) Grinch, Charlie Brown, and (if you're doing it right) National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. ("It's nipply out." - ha!)

Enough spunk has been spilt on how incredible The Incredibles is (are?), so I'll just throw in a hearty "hail yeah!" and leave it at that.

Because the coolest and funniest cartoon currently gracing Nickelodeon, that being "The Fairly Odd Parents," did a clever pop reference to it, we rented The Little Shop of Horrors (the musical) in our continuing effort to introduce our daughter to the classics. I recall not being that impressed by it at the time, but thoroughly enjoyed it this time (even though the flesh eating plant was more foul-mouthed than I remembered, so "alert" to fellow parents). Steve Martin's cameo as a sadistic dentist and Bill Murray's as his masochistic patient brought me perilously close to loss of bladder control, and I've been humming, "You'll be a dentist! You have a talent for causing things PAIN!" since. Cliff Claven trivia moment: Alan Menken and the late, lamented Howard Ashman wrote the songs (Ashman even wrote the book for the play), which launched them into that golden period of Disney musicals which include The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. You can hear echoes of the songs from "Shop of Horrors" in all the subsequent Disney flicks, especially the "Gaston" song from Beauty. If you've never seen it, or it's been a while, do yourself a favor and hunt this down. I dare you to not get all goosepimply when the squeak-voiced chanteuse belts "Suddenly Seymour."

U2 just kicked out another instant classic, How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb. It does not achieve the heights of Actung Baby, The Joshua Tree, or All That You Can't Leave Behind, but those kinds of highs are hard to achieve. We only have so many endorphins, you know. In these days of the pop music wasteland, though, it's almost shocking to listen to an album that has great song after great song. If you're a fan, this is a must-have. Actually, in his mini-review of How to..., this guy lays down the third most perfect description I've ever heard from a music critic (a species renowned for nearly always getting it wrong, with the exception of Lester Bangs). (The other two are: 1) one critic described Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" as containing a grove so potent that it directly connects with the small evolutionary leftover lizard portion of our brainstem, causing us to move about helplessly to the beat, and 2) a critic who got a mislabeled album and, expecting Al Jarreau, was shocked when the "nasty rock and roll of Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive snorted out of [his] speakers," inspiring him to remark, "'Gee,' I thought, pulling my socks back up, 'who are these guys?'" Priceless.) Skip the version with the DVD, though; the DVD is lame.

Speaking of lame, I read Breathtaker, by Alice Blanchard. This serial killer knows when tornadoes are going to strike a house, so he goes in and kills everyone with stuff that looks like tornado debris. The writing was stylish enough to drag me to the end, but - folks, we have got to stop beating this serial killer thang into the ground or China's gonna ding us with an import tax. Ed Gein and Ted Bundy set the curve, Ed Harris met it with his fictional Hannibal, but with all the CSIs and Profilers and on and on, it's been done to death, har har.

Segued from implausible pedestrian serial snuffing to an entertaining and informative analysis of personality tests that have been foisted upon us by psychologists, housewives, and hobbyists. The Cult of Personality, by Annie Murphy Paul, is as colorful as the song (and the band) from which the title is borrowed. Guess what! The supposition behind most personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and the Rorschach Inkblot Test - as with most philosophies you'll be assaulted with in any "Philosophy 101" class - were pulled out of a random point in midair. Yes, even though the methodology to produce them was usually thoughtful and careful, the supposed end result, or the information it was supposed to produce about a victim (er, patient) was totally based on what the creator of each test thought best described the human psyche. Short version, they just made it the hell up. And most of these folks were loons themselves. (One guy tried to create a religion based on a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and this religion could only be fulfilled by state enforcement of eugenics on the populace - a view he held until his death in the 80s! Another had a little Marquis de Sade thing going on with his mistress, with his wife's knowledge and coerced blessing, because his hero, Jung, had a mistress and a wife who knew of each other, too. Freaks.) To drive the point home with a poor analogy, they may have done a find job crafting the arrow and the bow, but the freakin' target was whatever the hell their pet theory (or personal quirk) was at the time. Author Annie Paul does a find job of laying out the carcass for all to see, even if her endemic reverence (read: snobbery) for the authority of prestigious eastern colleges occasionally wafts from the page like a beer fart.

And there you have it. Just today I cracked open Jonathan Strange & Mr. Morrell by Susanna Clarke. I mention it only because the jacket blurb starts "The year is 1806." Oy. Period books, like period costume movies, fill me with leaden quarts of inertia (which may be an unintended aftershock of my Lit. degree). But then I read the first page. Dear Lord it's wonderful when an author grabs you by the short ones in the first freakin' sentence! And, when the first page is so good that you immediately flip to the last to see how many await you (782! Yay!), that's a gift, my friends. I'll report back when I'm done, but I plan to savor this one, so it may be a while.

So, have a happy turkey thang! Hope the fun members of the family are joining you! (And not the ones who plant on the couch, drink your booze, and insult your decorating taste because there's not a throw pillow embroidered with a pithy, hopeful yet secular statement.) Cheers! 'Til next time!

Update: Regarding Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, bleh. At first the archaic British English is charming, but then it simply becomes dull. In a bored moment (this book will achieve that state, guaranteed), I went out to Amazon to see what the one and two star reviewers thought (useful if you read past the malcontents). Of those who finished, and there weren't many, all said it was boring all the way through. So, I won't finish this one under the "life's too short" clause.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Heard a good one today...

Bush dies and, of course, goes straight to hell. When he gets there, the devil informs him that hell's full (I don't know if we can assume it's due his administration or not), and so he has to release one soul for everyone he takes in. So, partially due to this and due to the (ex-)President's stature, he'll let Bush pick his own private hell from three choices.

They go to the first door. Inside, Nixon is falling into a swimming pool, swimming desperately to the edge, crawling out, and falling in again. Bush says, "Oh, that looks terrible, and besides I'm not a very good swimmer. I'll pass."

Inside the next door, Reagan is breaking rocks with a sledgehammer. Bush shudders and says, "That looks like waaaay too much work. Besides, I've got a bad shoulder. Pass."

Inside the last door, Clinton is getting a blowjob from Monica. Bush perks up and says, "Hey, that doesn't look like a bad way to spend eternity! How about this one?"

So the devil turns around and says, "Ok, Monica, you're free to go."

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Blow Up

(Note: this is laden with spoilers, but since it's for a movie released in 1966, maybe we can agree that the cat's been out of the bag long enough to not matter.)

I am a complete slut for a good time at the movies. I don't really care how you do it, how you're dressed, if you've brought beer or not - just give me a good time and I'm yours for the night. That said, I approach most acclaimed classics with qualified trepidation. I'm not sure I wanna lay down for you; I know where you've been, after all. Since classics have the stamp of approval, my expectations are a little higher, but at the same time, often the reasons something became an audience's or critic's darling can range from the most noble reasons to the most dubious.

Consider The Rocky Horror Picture Show; imagine encountering it on the library shelf (as you can at my wonderful local library), out of context, wondering why the library would deem it worthy of purchase, and you take it home and flip it on. You might worry about the future of society from that experience. But, if you were introduced like I was - dragged to a midnight showing with all the appropriate accouterments (cards, squirt gun, newspaper, lighter, toilet paper, rice, and so on) and indoctrinated on the spot (and in the proper context) - it's literally thrilling when Dr. Frankenfurter arrives, platform shoe pumping to the beat. Yes, I remember doing the timewarp.

So, when I came across Blow Up, my mind flashed on the little context I had: 1) it was loosely remade by Brian De Palma with John Travolta as a movie sound man who essentially uncovers the Chappaquiddick scandal, a great movie (a point in its favor); 2) to a person, movie critics everywhere practically needed a towel after declaring their love of Blow Up (a point slightly against, as resounding critical darlings can be some of the worse dreck you might encounter). So I picked it up not committed to finding the time to watch it.

Time was found, and with wife and child in bed, I fired it up. First I was stunned by the colors, which were like Technicolor after rehab, bravely facing the reality of each new day. I am not a fan of this current trend of muting the colors, or worse - skewing them all blue (Mel Gibson's movies), green (every "Matrix" film), or sepia. Blaring, alive colors is the way to go baby. If you wanna make a black and white film, just do it, don't fuck around with the monochromatic tinting bullshit, dear God Almighty.

Then, the narrative grabs hold, once you get past the mystifying, annoying mutant hippie mimes (more on them later) who scream and make merry whilst cavorting around in their hippie jalopy, but suddenly get all Shields and Yarnel when they disembark to terrorize citizens trying to get through the day without daddy's (or mommy's) money. We meet a photographer, nay an ARTIST with a camera, whose name we never learn, as he leaves a London homeless shelter where he's been photographing "real people" for an upcoming gig. Then we sashay into a scene that became the central cliche for fashion photography, with our artiste getting an icy supermodel to emote, driving her on with "Yes! Yes! That's it! Yeah, baby!" until we practically expect her to experience the "little death" right there on the studio floor, and when he gets what he wants, he walks away as though she were a spent condom and has a smoke and a little bubbly.

Things that have become rote, or a cliche sometimes lose their power as the media engine assimilates them into the fiber of the language. Citizen Kane is practically boring to watch for the young initiate these days, because s/he has no idea that most of the shots and compositions in that film more or less established modern filmmaking, unless it's demonstrated and explained at length (thus resolutely completing the boredom cycle). Forbidden Planet, from the Theremin music score to the WWII-esque cadence of the astronauts, to Walter Pigeon as the scientist who can explain everything, are now almost (just almost) laughable, but that's because that immediately became the template from which all later sci-fi films were cut, including Star Trek.

But on rare occasion the centerpiece of a classic film holds its charge. The dialogue and plot of The Philadelphia Story haven't aged a day. The Best Years of Our Lives has a tone that I've not seen recreated anywhere. Apocalypse Now just gets better as the years go by. Blow Up is one of these gloriously ageless movies, even though it's drenched in 60s attitudes, clothes, and sensibility (you can almost smell the Hi-Karate). It breaks from that shell and all the icons of the 60s become a charm rather than a liability. The pacing, the way the narrative moves from set-piece to set-piece, was aped by so many films after (most of the more pretentious French films, Easy Rider, even Hitchcock) that you could identify each and every tendril cast forth from this film into its myriad imitators. Yet, it still holds up, entirely, on its own.

It's very sexy as well. I was mildly surprised at the amount of nudity (that would now be considered coy) and overt sexuality. You almost wonder if the room smells like sex after a viewing. (Tip: Crack a window when watching.) The scene with the two "birds" who want Mr. Nameless to photograph them starts kind of scarily. I thought it was going to be a rape scene for a moment, but it quickly slides into "let's stop kidding ourselves about why you're here and get on with it, I'm a busy guy" vibe. It still skitters along on that uncomfortable edge because everyone's so pushy about getting what they want, but in the end, it's just a romp - and a titillating one at that. You could not get away with the audacity of this scene today; picket lines would form a week before the release. This is an adult film, in the real and proper sense of the term, and I would recommend that parents don't allow their kids to see this one until they're at least 16 - and then it's not a family movie event, if you get my drift and I'm sure you do.

As the boorish academic on the commentary track will assure you, the director was a master of his craft. I smiled at such simple touches as the actor's head sliding millimeters under a supporting beam in his loft as he cautiously moves to discover who's in his place. When you know your home that well, you can do things like that. Little details like that can infuse such life into a film, a film being an artificial experience unto itself in the first place, that the walls drop away, and you feel like you're a voyeur rather than someone looking to fill a couple hours with diversion.

As a music geek, I practically stood and clapped (in my vacant living room, which would have unnecessarily alarmed the cat) when Our Hero wanders into a Yardbirds concert, with Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and Jeff Beck on the guitars. Beck clearly looks like he feels silly, especially since he has to do the guitar-destroying thing for a later plot point. Still, it's a thrill seeing these guys so young at the top of their game and in a film of this stature. It'd be like Bruce Springsteen being Jabba the Hut's house band in The Return of the Jedi. I noted something the prof. doing the commentary evidently missed: when Our Hero runs from the show and discards the guitar neck from the smashed guitar (don't ask because, kids, there is no reason), the guy who wanders over to pick it up and examine it before dropping it again is Jeff Beck (who had just destroyed the thing back in the concert hall). Read into that whatever you want. It just made me grin, which may be all the director intended.

Finally, according to Mr. Commentary, "a lot of ink has been spilled" over the noisy, cavorting mimes who swing back around to close the film; you know: what did they represent?, what is the point?, what the fuck?, etc. etc. Well, here's my take. One of the things "the master," Michelangelo Antonioni, most obviously understood was how to tell a story. The nature of the story here is that it has no ending, which is the point, because the mystery is never solved, it evaporates. Well, what the mimes do at the end is a clever (in spite of the fact that it's mimes for crying out loud) narrative trick to drag the mind to the conclusion that sometimes reality is tricky business and who's to say what it really is? As Jane Wagner put it (via Lily Tomlin): "Reality is a collective hunch." So, that's all very nice, but if these goofballs just appeared at the end of the film to make this point, it would feel more artificial than ending the film in mid-sentence, as some misguided auteurs do. Therefore, the director stuck them in at the begging, so when we come back to them, we simply accept their presence. It's just a simple framing device. But it works. So there.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Media Vacation Time

After sitting through a week of pundits on every spectrum of the media rainbow saying, "It's about moral values," re the Bush re-election, I've decided it's time to book a flight to the media vacation planet. Folks, if it had been about moral values, it would have been about anybody else but this draft-dodging fortunate son who has Satan himself for a political advisor (that's Karl Rove for those of you in the cheap seats). It wasn't about moral values. It was about a successful get-out-the-vote effort that roughly aligned along the policy issues that people cared about. Slightly over half the nation believes that what the administration wants to do regarding the economy, Social Security, war, and the definition of when human life begins is also what they want. And there you have it.

Were there some voting irregularities? Yep. Probably a bunch. Maybe, just maybe, the whole election was rigged (though I doubt it). But we won't know that for a while, and we'll only be able to attempt to fix it for the next time. 'Nuff said about that. Movin' on.

I know that within the evangelical crowd in America, they feel their values are reflected by the current administration as they are against abortion and thus stem cell research, against gay marriage, and feel that their religious values will be given greater voice - so they voted for Dubya. No mystery there.

The one residual question that I have left over, though, is how so many minds I like and respect, those I know who have their eyes wide open, could accept the tidal wave of dishonesty and overt oppression of those who disagree with the current administration (I'm speaking here of their allowing only those they approved of attending their rallies, literally locking out any dissenting voice), and still vote for them. Yes, most of those minds I'm speaking of agree with the actual (and initially not-so-well hidden) reason for the war, they like the administration's ideas on taxes, and even if they don't believe in the bullshit of trickle-down economics, they still like what the Republicans offer as an economic plan. I should note that to a person, though, they are all wealthy. But is this a purposeful ignoring of the terrible shortcomings of the administration embraced in order to concentrate on short-term personal gain? Or is it something else? Or am I missing something?

So, for a few days, I wondered if I needed a major recalibration. (Back in the day when I was Quality Assurance for manufactured products, we started each day making sure our measuring devices where accurate via recalibration before we spent the day picking apart probable inaccuracies in the machining process.) I wondered, even though obviously half the voters of the nation apparently feel the way I do, if perhaps I was missing a crucial piece of data, or if somehow I had gotten swept along by a flawed idea and I just haven't seen the flaw yet, and perhaps that would explain why the other half of the nation thinks the way they do. (I think a reasonable bout of self-doubt can really bring some needed perspective, as long as you don't go too far and get lost in the echoes.)

But then I recall that at two public gatherings lately, I witnessed firsthand the two-mindedness of Americans these days. At one party, everyone was resoundingly supporting the Republicans this year, but at the next, the vast majority was admitting they were going to vote Democrat - some for the first time.

And, not acquiescing to the public gestalt is not necessarily an indication that something's wrong with your perspective. For instance, I didn't like Finding Nemo, but it's been continually brought up as the new high-water mark to beat in animated films. I thought the continual theme of mental and physical handicaps presented as hidden strengths mixed with the omnipresence of deeply traumatic events (whole families being wiped out, a child lost, a fish scarred by landing on trays of dental instruments - all very Kafkaesque) was, well, icky. Especially in the context of a children's film.

Thus, I've decided I still understand the policies and desires of the various groups and parties, and I know which ones mine align with. I disagree with the idea that if you give all the advantages to the wealthy and the powerful, they will allow some of their gain to flow out to the peasants - I think they'll just buy another yacht. I still want public education for those who want it, generally accessible health care, and a social safety net. I feel my Christianity informs those values, and they are in line with what Jesus preached.

Oh well.

People like myself who want the government to head in that direction will just have to wait. It's someone else's turn. These people aren't fascists, or communists, or something completely egregious which might necessitate rebellion. But, they have different enough views and goals that, as with someone whom one feels is a bad driver, perhaps for a while it would be good for the soul if one were to concentrate on other things - a good book, say - rather than the road ahead.

So it's time to detach from the great machine, the big media mind, and come back later when there may be something interesting, or at least something less troubling, to spend time on. All the really big stories tend to filter down anyway, so the less meaningless minutia for a while, the better.

Is this a form of denial? Well, is ignoring the neighbors who scream at one another (but don't come to blows) denial, or just judicial placement of your attention and energies on better things?

News fasts are wonderful for the disposition and the constitution (note that's not capitalized); and I heartily recommend them every so often. Thus, for a while, the only Talking Heads I'll be watching totally ROCK (and in three different mixes for us music geeks!).


Someone points out the big white elephant in the room.

(And, no, this is not about politics.)

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Will you look at that?

The sun did come up again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Sign 357 of the Apocalypse?

Hypoallergenic, Genetically Engineered Cats To Be Sold

Cats To Cost $3,500 In U.S., $10,000 In Japan

POSTED: 8:46 am EDT October 27, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- The biotechnology revolution is shaking up the pet world.

You may soon be able to thank genetic engineering for a cat that won't make you sneeze.

Simon Brodie, president of ALLERCA, said his company is developing a British Short Hair breed of cats that will be nearly free of allergy-causing proteins that plague millions of people. Brodie said his company hopes to perfect its engineering technique by 2007.

"The allergen-free cat, will be a significant new alternative to the traditional treatment of cat allergies given that it eliminates the allergen at its source. People who have lived without the companionship of a household pet because of their allergies will now be able to have a pet of their own without the associated risks and costs of allergy treatments," Brodie said. "The allergen-free cats ... will allow consumers to enjoy the love and companionship of a pet without the cost, inconvenience, risk and limited effectiveness of current treatments."

Brodie said the company will use "RNA interference" to "silence" a gene in cats that produces the irritant, which is excreted through saliva and the skin.

People who are allergic to cats experience moderate to severe allergic and asthmatic symptoms when they come into contact with a cat. In severe cases, an allergic reaction to cats can result in respiratory failure and death.

ALLERCA is now accepting $350 deposits for the biotech cats. They'll sell for $3,500 in the United States and $10,000 Japan.

The four-person company has yet to engineer any cats. ALLERCA expects to sell over 200,000 allergen-free cats each year in the United States when they become available in 2008, with a similar number sold internationally.


What if these things breed with non-altered cats? We simply don't understand the genome enough to be releasing organisms into the wild like this. In the same way that a carrier of sickle-cell anemia is immune to malaria, the proteins that cats carry that are allergens to us might have an unforeseen purpose. Geez, people.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Gotta Love Cintra

Cintra Wilson is a wildly talented writer that Salon lets loose to praise and partially eviscerate celebrities of her choosing. I bring this up only to hit you with a quote I found pretty damn funny. In her recent article praising Christian Bale - who assumes the cowl of the caped crusader in the upcoming Batman film - she offers this critique of the made-for-TV movie where Christian played Jesus:

As Jesus, he is surprisingly wild: by turns broody, tortured, savage and ecstatic. He plays it more like a classic John the Baptist, so the John the Baptist had to overcompensate by screaming his entire performance like John Cleese with a loincloth full of scorpions.

I'll probably chuckle over that one into the New Year. I'll probably steal it and work it into a conversation at the next party to impress all within earshot of my wit, too.
Grim Fates - A Reminder

For those of you fearing for the outcome of the election - all of you: a conservative who thinks Kerry is a Frankenstein of a weenie who will transfer the presidency to a corner office in the UN so he can attend to his real goal of getting every third-generation welfare queen back on the public dole; or a liberal who thinks Bush will continue his conversion of American into one of the biggest third world sinkholes of destitution while he sacrifices an entire generation trying to colonize Arabia - keep in mind that that even through some of our darkest times - the Civil War, the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11 - we have persevered and, for the most part, our daily lives have remained what they should be.

Yes, we have or private hopes on what could be better (I still want public education for all through college or trade school, health care for everyone, and a restoration of the civil rights taken because of the drug war and the PATRIOT act, but that's just me).

Yes, the world, which evidently views us as their de facto world government, doesn't really like what we've done for them lately. But, like all nations, we look after our interests first, theirs second. If our interests align, then all the better.

But, overall, our lives won't change - much - from the outcome of this election. We will still have warm houses and meals on the table. Public schools will remain open, and do a decent job of educating our kids; just be vigilant about the propaganda days you are typically warned of in the raft of crap kids have to trek home anymore and make sure you tell your kid how you, the parents, feel about the issue. Hospitals will heal the sick, even when they have to write it off. Commercials will blare from every single pore of the media, from web popups to TV ads before movies you've paid for to endless radio commercials, and the solution - if they bug you - is to simply shut it off.

Regardless of who gets in to office, don't give any information away when you can avoid it. No one but the tax arm of the government and your bank needs your social security number. Rip all junk mail into bits before throwing it out. Encrypt emails if you're going to express your right to free speech in ways that might offend officials, and keep in mind that the subject line can give more away than you intend, so be generic. Tell your doctor only the things he needs to know. Neither the government nor corporations feel you should be protected from their prying eyes, so it's up to you; hide in plain site, and keep your data clean.

Remember to have fun. Be nice as often as possible. Things are fair only when you are fair. Have someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. Go to church if you do, and revel in the fellowship. See only the movies and read only the books and listen to only the songs that you think you'll enjoy; don't let anyone guilt or snob you into consuming something that you think will bore you or make you feel bad. Your most effective vote is to vote with your checkbook. Companies will make what you buy, and stop making things that you don't. If they don't have what you want, make it yourself. You can write and sing and paint and grow gardens, too, you know. Just start.

The cliche is true: the best things in life are free. Love is simply more powerful than the laws or any nation that has ever existed, and it will always transcend the same. Jesus, the Beatles, the Doobie Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Kurt Vonnegut, the Honeymooners, and Star Trek were all onto something, and it has everything to do with love and being good to one another.

"Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry."
- W. B. Yeats

"To be cynical is not the same as avoiding illusion, for cynicism is just another kind of illusion. All formulas for meeting life - even many philosophies - are illusion. Cynicism is a trashy illusion."
- Robertson Davies, from The Manticore

"We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world."
- Helen Keller

"God doesn't require us to succeed, He only asks that you try."
- Mother Teresa

"Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."
- Kurt Vonnegut

"Time flies like the wind, fruit flies like bananas."
- Groucho Marx

Sometimes we all need to remind ourselves of these things. I'll stop now before I hurt myself (and, hopefully, before you puke into your keyboard).

Have a nice day, dammit.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Open Letter

I originally wrote this to a friend after he snarked at me for my "damnable wrong-headed politics!" Upon reading my response, it seemed like it would be a good post. It's been edited for content and to run in the time allotted. We join our letter already in progress...

As for political wrong-headedness: Tell ya what, I would LOVE to hear a damn good reason to vote for Bush this year. So far, all my Republican friends (outside of you and ____) have only touted the party line and haven't given me any good reasons to vote for him, considering Bush's policies, war effort, and tax cuts for the rich. In other words, it's just "liberals are evil" and stuff like that, nothing about policy.

I don't like his administration's attacks on civil rights and the emphasis on privacy on issues that have nothing to do with the war effort. John Ashcroft should be fired and the PATRIOT Act retired (except for the one provision about being able to tap ANY phone owned by an individual or group - that ONE part made sense). I don't like ANY of Bush's monetary policies. I don't like the vilification of Americans who aren't Republican - these attacks on my patriotism and my love for the US are beyond the pale. I'm ambivalent on his record on the environment and the war, with the exception that lives are now being lost for no reason, imo. If we're gonna occupy a nation, we should retaliate against any internal attack with such force that it gives them pause - or get the hell out and let them chew each other up.

I am against the privatization of social security, because I don't think there's enough of a regulatory presence to insure that private companies would be good stewards of those kinds of funds. Think Enron. In my experience, with all of its flaws, the government is the only body that seems capable of not running away to a tax haven with everyone's savings.

I am for public schools, libraries, PBS TV and radio, tax relief for the middle class, an open society - all things opposed by current Republicans. School vouchers are still just a tax scam, which is why every civic vote to allow them has been a landslide defeat.

And, yes, I think health care should be extended so that everyone can get it (with the proviso that exotic procedures that save 10% of those treated just can't be done on the govt. dime - and crap like $1,000-a-day AIDs medications are not included). When I got laid off last year, along with over half the people in my culdesac, there was a space of a few months where none of us had access to any health insurance. And all of us have kids. It is obscene that all these parents and children had no place to go. My unemployment was high enough that I didn't qualify for any other assistance. And COBRA has been so gutted that it's worthless (the original idea and practice was that you could continue on health care at the rates you had when employed - it's been changed so that companies can charge you the full amount paid to the company, which is usually thousands of dollars a month). We have no excuse, given the wealth of our country, to allow that kind of situation.

So, given that, I am serious about getting one good reason to vote for Bush. If you have one, please let me know. If anyone could come up with a cogent reason, you could (or ____ of course).

And, please, don't read any sort of strident or angry tone into the above. There was a time when I was greatly alarmed at this presidency, and I still think it's the worst one we've experienced in my lifetime (with perhaps the exception of Carter, but at least he wasn't a freakin' storm trooper). Now, however, I'm not afraid of Bush being president again - like a lot of liberals are - I just don't like, at all, the direction he will take the nation. So, to me, this is the standard "it's the policies, stupid" kinda discussion, and not "those bastards are EEEEVIL I tell you! EEEEEVIL!" Some of my best friends are Republican, and I don't hold that against them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

It's Not Fascism, but It's Close

A story flying somewhat under the radar in this year's election is the suppression of legal protest. The various GOP voter-suppression efforts are now getting some airtime, or this would be just another dead canary littering the floor of the coalmine. Since things are so bitterly partisan this year, people on the far edge of either side dismiss out of hand anything by press organizations that supposedly are on the other side. (I myself take anything I hear on Fox with a shaker of salt.) So, anything from Salon, a self-admittedly left-leaning web magazine, is typically ignored by anyone from the right. However, facts are facts regardless of who reports them, and what happened to three Republican school teachers in the second article quoted below is beyond the pale for any American political party.

First, though, since I dropped the "F" word, I want to put it in context. James Lileks is constantly metaphorically rolling his eyes on his blog (see link in left bar) about people squealing that the Bush administration is fascist, and I would agree for the most part. True fascism has not yet occurred on our shores, yet. However, we are close enough that it is time to become concerned. The following excerpt from Salon's "War Room" (the page they've established for this election's news) I feel does a pretty good job of describing just where we stand in our proximity to true fascism. After that is the point of this post.

Bush's retreat from reality

Even if you thought you knew all there was to know about this administration's retreat from the Enlightenment, it's hard not to shudder while reading "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," Ron Suskind's New York Times Magazine cover story. It's long been clear that this administration has a hard time acknowledging reality, but Suskind suggests that Bush and his circle have an active and unabashed aversion to it.

Suskind quotes a senior Bush advisor who derides him, along with most journalists, experts and government technocrats, as part of the "reality-based community." As Suskind tells it, the advisor described this group as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality," an approach this administration evidently sneers at.

"I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principals and empiricism," Suskind writes. "He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

It's considered unfashionably shrill to refer to the Bush administration as fascistic, but this is pretty clearly the language of totalitarianism. Indeed, in her seminal 1951 book "The Origins of Totalitarianism," Hannah Arendt wrote, "Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it."

Instead of facts, Suskind shows Bush runs on faith, a faith that demands almost cult-like devotion from his inner circle. "The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party," Suskind writes. "Once he makes a decision -- often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position -- he expects complete faith in its rightness… A writ of infallibility -- a premise beneath the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains -- is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of the White House."

This, too, recalls Arendt's writing on totalitarianism. "The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error," she wrote. Later, she continued, "The stubbornness with which totalitarian dictators have clung to their original lies in the fact of absurdity is more than superstitious gratitude to what turned the trick, and, at least in the case of Stalin, cannot be explained by the psychology of the liar whose very success may make him his own last victim. Once these propaganda slogans are integrated into a 'living organization,' they cannot be safely eliminated without wrecking the whole structure."

The United States, of course, has not gone fascist under Bush, even if it's less free that it was four years ago. But he's not done yet. Besides, in the above quotes, Arendt wasn't writing about totalitarian societies. She was writing about totalitarian movements that were gaining power but had yet to take over. It's important to maintain a sense of proportion when talking about this administration, which, for all its awfulness, is light-years away from Hitlerian. Finishing Suskind's article, though, there's not much reason for those of us in the "reality-based community" to trust that American democracy can survive intact if this man gets another four years to try to bend the world to his illusions.

-- Michelle Goldberg
[13:28 PDT, Oct. 17, 2004]

Ok, so we're not fascist - just to be clear for James - but let's prick up our ears, shall we?

And here's why:

"We didn't think it would be offensive"

Our question is, why does the Bush-Cheney campaign assume people wearing shirts that say "Protect Our Civil Liberties" are opposed to the president's re-election? Would the campaign welcome guests as obvious Bush supporters if they're wearing shirts that say "Civil Liberties, Civil Schmiberties"?

From the AP: Three Medford school teachers were threatened with arrest and escorted from the event after they showed up wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Protect our civil liberties." All three said they applied for and received valid tickets from Republican headquarters in Medford. "The women said they did not intend to protest. "I wanted to see if I would be able to make a statement that I feel is important, but not offensive, in a rally for my president," said Janet Voorhies, 48, a teacher in training.

"We chose this phrase specifically because we didn't think it would be offensive or degrading or obscene," said Tania Tong, 34, a special education teacher. Thursday's event in Oregon sets a new bar for a Bush/Cheney campaign that has taken extraordinary measures to screen the opinions of those who attend Bush and Cheney speeches. For months, the Bush/Cheney campaign has limited event access to those willing to volunteer in Bush/Cheney campaign offices. In recent weeks, the Bush/Cheney campaign has gone so far as to have those who voice dissenting viewpoints at their events arrested and charged as criminals."

-- Geraldine Sealey
[12:49 PDT, Oct. 18, 2004]

Gosh, is defending the Constitution really that controversial? Does anyone, regardless of political affiliation, really want a government that has no desire to protect our civil liberties, and even threatens us with arrest if we simply state civil liberties are a pretty good idea?

This close folks -------> <------- ... this close.

Check out the debate on Slashdot