Thursday, September 23, 2004

Cat Captions

Vegas Buys Me Doritos

Had to go to Las Vegas for a conference recently. I don't enjoy gambling, particularly when those you're gambling against can fix the odds. Further, the whole "sin city" thing is more annoying than alluring to me. The big public TV screen on downtown mainstreet that displayed an endless loop of women taking off their tops (their breasts were then covered by words like "Holy Cow!" and the like) just made me sad for the few children around who had been dragged to Vegas rather than Disneyland, or Europe, say. What can a 9-year-old boy or girl think when seeing that? I'll bet it made them feel creepy, or confused.

We saw the obligatory show, but luckily picked a good one. He's billed as "Downtown Gordie Brown" and is hilarious as hell. He primarily does impersonations, but he's unique in that he does singing impersonations. He sounded exactly like whom he was supposed to, like Neil Diamond and, amazingly, Roy Orbison. If you find yourself in Vegas and aren't driven to obsessively dump your money in noisy, blinking machines (and more power to ya if you are), check out his show. His site is here:

The big canopy TV over mainstreet is also somewhat cool the first couple times you see it (it flashes screen savers and blasts generic disco for about 5 minutes every hour on the hour after sundown). What impressed me more is how they can coordinate 3 blocks of casinos shutting off their massive lighted signs and then turning them back on quickly after the show. Cycling that much power on and off all night is a feat of engineering prowess, friends and neighbors. The device that does that is a show I'd like to see.

The few times I put money into machines, I quickly noted that most of them paid off within about 5 tries, and typically within the first 3. (My compadre in the know called that "the hook.") If, after that initial win, you continue to play, you almost never hit again. Thereafter, I went no higher than 3 or 4 plays, and every time I got a payoff, I cashed out. I came out roughly even and was probably up a buck or two. On the way back to my room the last night, I passed a vending machine that had Doritos, which I only indulge in for special occasions. I used my winnings for a bag. Thanks Vegas.

My quintessential Vegas experience is this: Once, when I dropped a couple quarters into a one-armed bandit while waiting in line for a buffet, it appeared as though it had taken my money without crediting me so I could play. A couple folks around me tried to help, but to no avail. After messing around with the buttons a bit I got it to go. Before that moment, I was annoyed, thinking, "This damn machine took my money!" Afterward, when it fired up and did its thing, even though I didn't win, I was satisfied ... until it dawned on me a couple seconds later that there was no discernable difference between the prior and latter states.

And that pretty much sums up my feelings about Vegas.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Passion

Finally saw The Passion. I didn't see it in the theatres because I didn't want to go through such a harrowing experience in public, and thus waited for the DVD - which I thought would have extra goodies on it, but it didn't, alas.

As a film, it's directed, acted, photographed, and edited well. But, had I been the director, I would've laid off some of the slo-mo in the last half of the film. It's a nice, effective technique when used sparingly. When it's used for the majority of the shots, you (and least I) fall out of the film's spell and think, "The hell? Are we trapped near a 'Slow Children' sign or something?" I also am not a fan of the current trend - that appears to be dying - of monochromatic filters for set-pieces. By that I mean, a logical grouping of shots that comprise a theme in the movie being all blue, or all sepia. It can be used to help tell the story, as in Traffic (the American version of 2000), where, as stated in the AMG review "shifts in color and film stock indicate place, mood, and time." But other times it's just annoying. I felt here it was overused. Outside of those stylistic quibbles, though, I liked the execution (no pun intended) of the film. For instance, the "tear from heaven" when Jesus expires is masterful.

TLD: However, it occurred to me that it would be fun to construct the ultimate "life of Jesus" film from all the past attempts to capture this story on celluloid. All of them (save for Scorsese's effort, which was based on a fictional reworking of the story and not the Gospels themselves) have something they did really well, such as a scene the actor playing Jesus just nailed, and so on. So, in the spirit of the "Grey Album" where Dangermouse mixed together rapper Jay-Z's "Black Album" and the Beatle's "White Album" to create a whole new work, it would be a blast to construct a complete film of his entire life from those many pieces. If I have the time and the money and the lawyers someday, I just might do it.

As for the story, well, as a Christian, let's just say there weren't any surprises lurking in the plot for me. It was much like watching something fall from a cliff; you watch the arc of descent, merely waiting for the collision at the end. I was disturbed by the artistic choice to include shots of Satan because Mr. Hope You Guessed My Name only appears in the Gospels at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. In my opinion, since I believe the Gospels report historical fact, embellishing them with such things changes a narrative that's already perfect; any deviation from the strict truth of the events as is counterproductive. The dwelling on Mary (as Mel is Catholic) was almost an issue for me, but she was there for the whole terrible time, and certainly a mother's grief is part of the events. However, I can see where someone who's Christian, but not familiar with Catholic perspectives, would begin to wonder why Mary is so prominent in the film. (Fun fact: All the actresses who've played Mary in films have been pregnant at the time of filming.)

As for the hoopla, even though I understand it, I find it some of it annoying and misguided.

Initially I was mystified by the cries of anti-Semitism, because hey, this story's been around for 2000 years now - not to mention the victim himself was Jewish. But then the unstated reason dawned on me (which was never stated in the mainstream media because political correctness does not allow such things anymore): The people in the Jewish community who leveled those accusations are coming from the perspective that Christianity is false. To them, the story is a complete fiction, or if they believe Christ did exist, he committed extreme blasphemy in their eyes by claiming he was God incarnate. Which, by the way, was the reason various Jewish sects at the time wanted him crucified: He claimed things that were as blasphemous as you could get. So, the complaint, which couldn't be said outright, was, in essence: "Why should we have to deal with any fallout from what we view as a fiction (or someone who was properly punished for blasphemy - take your pick)*?"

Plus, it needs to be acknowledged that there has been anti-Semitism in the past that was dubiously justified by blaming all Jews for the death of Christ - an idiocy and direct contradiction to anything Jesus was or had taught. And also, we feel more "empowered" {gag} to whine about things these days, for some reason. A similar example would be the "Godfather" films and "The Sopranos." Italians didn't bat an eye when the films came out, but when the TV show aired, there was some complaining about stereotypes.

Therefore, in my eyes, some of the whining was justified. However, those same folks need to realize that we Christians view this story as fact. And most of us understand that those who had Christ put to death felt justified in doing so. That doesn't mean they were innocent of the act, but it does mean that what happened was understandable - or at least forgivable. Besides, imagine what would happen if someone came along here in American and claimed what Christ did? The Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of our day would want him strung up, too. It's a universal and consistent problem, which was part of the point of it all. And, in the end, because of that, we are all guilty for what happened that day. Anyone pointing the finger at anyone for that act is really pointing at himself or herself.

So, let the Jews kvetch a little on this one, I say.

That aside, it did point out in full bas-relief the animosity that Hollywood in general has towards Christianity. THAT to me was the really disturbing part of it all. In the first "X-Men" movie, the only deleted scenes were those where the character of Storm was teaching Christianity during a lesson. Knowing that those in power in Hollywood overtly suppress any expression of Christianity, I only shook my head and sighed when I saw what was excised. Of course, had it been Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabala, mainstream Judaism, some Native American belief system, or especially witchcraft/Wiccanism, it would still be in the film. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when the second film contained a character who was a devout Catholic, and they didn't mock him because of it (and they couldn't edit him out as he was central to the plot).

I don't have any clear suppositions as to why Hollywood is so anti-Christian. I could speculate that most who go there are forced to do a lot of things to get a toehold in the business that would create friction with Christian beliefs. Or that a lot of slimeballs get into the biz, and like it slimy, thank you very much. Or that the personality type that gets into showbiz typically feels constrained by the morality that is expected. It has been supposed by others that many studio heads and power players are Jewish, and thus suppress the religion they find the most objectionable, but I find that a little specious. After all, one of the most powerful men out there made Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and he's Jewish. So, I can't really put my finger on why it exists. But it's pretty clear that it does.

Anyway, I recommend The Passion for adults. Anyone younger than 14, or even 16 for the more sensitive, should not see this film. Go get one of the older, gentler versions for them. Even though the passion of the Christ is an essential, if not THE essential, part of the story, little ones would be better served by hearing "let the little children come unto me."

Friday, September 03, 2004

All the Rage in Hooterville

Hey, look! You can now give a chocolate breast adorned with candy flowers as a wedding present! Imagine the memories! <--- (Yeah, I spelled it right.)

Good Grief by Lolly Winston

Years ago my mom inadvertently tore the doors off my little red wagon when she said, "Y'know, I just don't really like women writers. They just don't seem to have the same - I don't know - weight. They just don't hold my interest like men writers." I had a freshly minted Literature degree, and the topic of the day was that women writers weren't honored, respected, and taught enough. Luckily, I had largely missed the conversion of English Lit departments from teachers of the classics to purveyors of warmed-over Marxism, Identity Politics, Queer Theory, and (sigh) the evil stepmother (stepchild?) of them all: Postmodernism. Yeah, a couple profs. had brought it up in a "I'm-required-to-mention-this" sort of way, but after they trotted it out they waived it away and got down to real teaching again (with one tragic exception, see below*). Still, even before it became the topic du jour, I had wondered why there (seemingly) weren't more Mary Shelleys, Jane Austens, Bronte sisters, fabulous one-offs like the glorious and timeless To Kill a Mockingbird and (even though I loathed it at the time, I've come to really like it) Wuthering Heights.

This situation was exacerbated by the very thing that brought it to the fore in everyone's mind (meaning the minds of Lit weenies, like myownself): Identity Politics and Postmodern "thinking" (I just can't keep the scare quote off of that one). With most humble apologies, I submit the fact that The Color Purple and Beloved just don't speak to the larger experience, nor do they offer much of an insight into the human condition; they are too bent and narcissistically self-absorbed. They are undoubtedly great genre literature (read "second-tier"), but they just aren't universal or timeless enough. Keep in mind I would put Joyce's Ulysses into this "second-tier" category. Though, I would not include Ralph Ellison's masterpiece The Invisible Man in this genre dismissal; it is truly a work that will speak to the ages and belongs in the major cannon; however, it is written by a man, and so doesn't count towards my point here. My point being that there just didn't seem to be as many towering literary achievements by women at the time. My mom had managed, without the benefit of a Lit degree, to put her finger directly on the possible reason why.

Since that moment, I launched a stealth mission to find really great novels written by women ("stealth" because to even voice the issue in some Lit circles is to call down the harpies on oneself). I'm happy to report my efforts have been rewarded in spades. For a while, I was only able to offer up (weakly) Anne Rice, whom I think is a great stylist, and two of her vampire novels ("Interview" and "Lestat") will remain classics to an extent, but probably "second-tier" as I opine above. But now, there are too many great works to keep up with. Happy day!

I have praised Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones elsewhere and before, so I'll let that suffice as an echo of the raves and respect I have for that novel. It will join the ranks of upper-echelon classics. It will.

The most recent book of that quality is Lolly Winston's Good Grief. Writing a humorous novel is something most are simply not able to do. Some can get a few laughs, some can tell a good story, but usually one is sacrificed in the service of the other. On top of that, writing a humorous story about the first year of grieving from the loss of a spouse expands the effort from a mere high-wire act to the performing the same in the nude, during a monsoon. Humor laced with pathos is often the most moving of all the variants of fiction, but only if it's done right. Having my own recent experience with extreme grief made me cautious about placing myself in the hands of someone who might use it for cheap laughs and/or mishandle it so badly that it would nose dive into the massively offensive, never to recover. (I feared something on the level of horrific miscalculation like John Hughes' Baby's Day Out, where evidently no one on the production had any inkling that seeing a real live baby in constant peril would be less than entertaining to most people - even if it was obvious it had been achieved with special effects.) Well, as my lead-up makes clear, Lolly Winston succeeds magnificently at pulling off this feat of comic tragedy.

This is a laugh-out-loud book, even when the events described are just heart breaking. At one point, our heroine, Sophie, goes to work in her bathrobe, out of her mind from grief. Were this episode penned by a ham-fisted writer, it could have been an embarrassing, harrowing thing to read. But, Winston, narrating through Sophie's perspective actually transmutes this depth of sorrow into comedy gold. When Sophie lays her head down on her desk from sheer overload, we are smiling, not crying or casting the book across the room because some clod tried to touch our heart without our permission.

Winston gets the tone and the feel of grief just right, too. I don't want to know what grief she went through, but she has obviously been on that particular voyage to write about it so realistically. But don't let that keep you from reading the book. In the same way that the movie Forrest Gump manages the topic of his retardation so that you don't ever really feel sorry for him, Good Grief grants Sophie the respect and humanity where you don't have to experience the grief for yourself to follow Sophie on her hilarious voyage.

Oh, and don't wait for the inevitable movie version. This is one of those books that simply will not be the same on the screen. Watching someone in pain simply will not be the same as wobbling along in her very shoes, chuckling all the way at her wondrous undertow of humor and love.

* I got to witness, personal and close-up, the implosion of a very gifted professor, once Identity Politics got ahold of her. She was not only a gifted Shakespeare prof., she was a gifted instructor, period. And she had that quality that most who excel at teachers have, she learned constantly. I met her as a fellow student in a couple of science classes, and I didn't know she was one of our profs. Imagine my surprise when I walked into my first English Lit. Shakespeare class, and she was the prof. Wow. Anyway, that first class, the tragedies, was nothing short of a revelation, of course due to the subject, but partially because of her method of communicating her knowledge. After that, I couldn't wait for the comedies course. Well, about that time she began encountering Identity Politics and Gender Feminism (I'm using Christina Hoff Sommers' definition, which boils down to those feminists who think masculinity itself is an inherent flaw, if not evil incarnate), plus we had a coven in the front row who egged her on, so over a third of the class became an ongoing hen party on how sexist Shakespeare was, for crying out loud. (It may be fun to laugh about how silly 70s or 80s fashions look now, but to get indignant and spend hours gassing on about "why didn't they know better?" just exposes one as an idiot.) She went from a charming, easygoing person to a bitter shrew in the course of one semester. It was tragic to watch. I never took the histories because of that; I just didn't have the heart.

Google knows me!

So, today I go to search up something on my blog (this very one) since Blogger itself doesn't have search (not that I'm complaining about a free service), and I fatfingered my "name," and Google asked me if I meant "yahmdallah" meaning that somewhere in it's little digital heart, it knows me and can suggest the proper spelling if someone muffs it. I've been indexed, baby! A small thing, yes, but it gave me a little ego thrill.