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.