Friday, February 18, 2005

The Apprentice 3.5

Last night Trump had what I'd call his first true impulse firing. Whereas in previous weeks he went for the obvious (and proper) choice, kicking out the losing team's project leader, this time he axed a non-leader. Granted, it was the lazy, irritating Michael, who two weeks ago used his immunity badge to blatantly slack off, and who last night did little but whine about feeling uncomfortable selling massages to men. But still, Trump seemingly fired him because he found him personally annoying -- even while Book Smarts's project leader, Bren, was making a good case that Stephanie's pathological negativity had a far more toxic effect on the team. Meanwhile, stereotypical behavior continued to flourish, as Street Smarts came up with a risky idea and scrambled to make it happen, while Book Smarts took a more deliberate, conservative approach and seemed a bit shy about pushing it. So far, so much for fancy book learnin'.

Movie Journal: Constantine

Certain things will always happen in movies like Constantine: It will rain, ominously and pointedly. The hero will see dead people. He will sidestep plot holes. He will watch his sidekicks die. The girl he tells to wait in the car won't wait in the car. The girl to whom he gives a protective amulet will forget to wear the protective amulet. Understand that this is just that kind of movie, and you'll be fine. I haven't read much of Hellblazer, the comic on which Constantine is based, and maybe because I'm not part of its cultish fanbase (or because I was expecting the worst), I thought the movie was decent, or decent enough. Not exactly high praise, but for all its paint-by-numbers elements, I appreciated the action-horror cliches it managed to avoid -- e.g., a wall-to-wall thrash-metal soundtrack, triphammer editing, romance blossoming amid the carnage, and martial arts. Instead, it sticks to the dark side of the greatest story ever told, offering a view of the afterlife that's strictly Catholic -- suicides go to Hell, Lucifer has all the fun, demons can't abide holy water, and God has a plan for everyone. Add to that an appropriately portentous tone and some witty throwaway bits -- Hell has its own Bible, with a few extra books we don't know about; cats are great for establishing a connection with Hell because they're half there and half here; etc. -- and you've got a good time. You've also got, in the title role, Keanu Reeves, whose idea of playing cynical, self-amused, misanthropic John Constantine is to furrow his brow and never smile, but he's sort of balanced out by pretty, practical Rachel Weisz as a devout cop who wants to be more hardboiled than she is; Peter Stormare, whose whose low-funk weirdness is perfectly matched for Lucifer; and, as a condescendingly empathetic archangel named Gabriel, the ever-androgynous Tilda Swinton.

Book Club: The Plague, Part II

[To read Part I of this book club, go here.]

John's response:
It took my a good long time to get through The Plague as well. The first half went down easily enough, but as the story got bogged down in the pervasive ennui and resignation of months-long quarantine, it stalled. Reading became an uphill slog; procrastinating any return to the plight of Oran became the order of the day for me. Even while wedged into my aisle seat during a transconinental flight ("I'm sure I'll finish The Plague by the time we hit Nebraska"), I defected to an easily digested pageturner (Dan Brown's Digital Fortress) rather than finish off Camus.

Part of the problem, as you mentioned, is the surprising meatiness of the plot in the opening chapters. The initial stages of the infestation are described with a mix of clinical exactitude and ominous foreshadowing that wouldn't seem out of place in a Crichton potboiler. In fact, I couldn't shake the feeling that the long, drawn-out, and "boring" middle acts of The Plague were, in fact, the missing early scenes from one of those pulpy apocalyptic stories (take your pick: The Stand, 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, 12 Monkeys). Of course, such stories often concentrate on the before and after of The End. The Plague concentrates on the more interesting and emotional middle act: What would you really do if it looked like the end of the world were upon us? If death was in the air, and there was no escape?

Of course, Camus isn't killing off the bulk of the population to set up a last-man-on-earth-versus-army-of-zombies narrative (thank you, I Am Legend/The Omega Man). Nor is he using the plague to expound on the nature of death. Instead, he's using the pervasive threat of "certain" death to examine the nature of life. As the months of quarantine wear on and the casualties mount, each of the characters must confront his own mortality, and make a choice as to how to spend his "final" days. Do you sequester yourself at home and close the shutters? Party with wild abandon? Plan an illegal escape? Do your best to alleviate the suffering of others, despite the futility (for them) and danger of infection (for you)? Or continue to go about your business as usual, as if bodies aren't piling up faster than they can be buried?

Of the interpretations you've offered, both the Occupied France and "stages of grief" allegories resonate strongly. In fact, the book deserves a second, more considered reading from me with both in mind. And I first dismissed the satirical take--"a cosmic puppet show of sorts, meant to satirize man's only logical reaction to a hostile universe"--as somewhat trite, but on reflection, it gains ground. What do you do the day after the terrorist attack? The war starting? The tsunami's devastation? For better or worse, like the residents of Oran, you go about your business, trying to maintain some degree of normalcy.

Since The Stranger is the only other Camus I've read, I can't make sweeping authoritative statements on recurring themes in his work (though both books share a North African locale and a laid-back narrative that slowly percolates almost lacadaisically). It was, however, easy to see that a book we'd previously read, Jose Saramago's Blindness, was strongly influenced by The Plague. I'm wondering if you see any specific parallels between the two. And whether or not it's worth even watching the 1992 movie.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller, 1915-2005

Like a lot of American high-school students, my introduction to drama came from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman -- a play that's sturdy and classic, but subversive in its own way, breaking down its rigid plotting with mildly fantastic, even postmodern elements. It's part of the canon now, meaning if we remember it at all now it's to take it for granted. But I thought of Death of a Salesman for a long while this afternoon when I heard the news that Miller had died. The era he represented -- the golden age of naturalism, you might call it, though I'm sure I'm using the term incorrectly -- passed long before he did, and took with it all those creaky, well-meaning plays set in all those creaky New York tenements. And now it will be buried. Some day I'll read Death of a Salesman again, or see it performed, and maybe I'll be able to evaluate it more clearly, but for now I'm still a 17-year-old experiencing it for the first time, and thinking for the first time about success and failure, and fathers and sons, and all the other things that score the surface of Arthur Miller's American tragedy. And attention must be paid.

The Apprentice 3.4

Missed last week's episode, but it turns out Verna quit (for real this time, making good on her threat from the week before) and Trump fired wacky Danny. This week, it was even more fun, as both teams, invited to film a 30-second commercial for a new body wash, flamed out -- Book Smarts with a queasy bit that managed to be homoerotic and homophobic, and Street Smarts with a leaden joke that looked like an early-'80s music video. The guest judge, self-branded ad guru Donny Deutsch, tore both commercials to shreds, and Trump, disgusted, declared there would be no winner and convened a double-sized boardroom -- instead of the losing project leader coming in, both project leaders were summoned. (As Trump likes to say: "Nothing like this has ever happened before.") And, yet again, the right person -- Street Smarts's Kristen -- got fired. In addition to treating her teammates terribly, she bulldozed her way into the project-leader spot by saying, repeatedly, "My boyfriend's a director in Hollywood, so I've spent a lot of time on sets," then clearly demonstrated she had no idea what she was doing.

In previous weeks, I noted how the two teams seemed to be playing to the stereotypical strengths and weaknesses of their designated roles (Book vs. Street), but last night I was more aware of a general sense of dysfunction. Yes, it was a hard task, especially for people who aren't used to performing in an environment that's so literally creative, but even taking that into account, these aren't terribly impressive candidates. It's the Real World Paradigm -- the latest candidates watched the first two seasons of The Apprentice and as a result seem very aware of the roles they're playing and extremely unwilling to work together. Season 1's crew was by no means stocked with Nobel Prize winners, but most of them understood the (relatively) finer points of compromise, negotiation, and saying please. This time out, it's death by megalomania.

Out in Left Field

Late Wednesday night I got an e-mail from the Nationals, inviting me to buy a partial season-ticket plan before they went on sale to the general public on Monday. So yesterday afternoon I did just that. My brother-in-law Josh and I are splitting Plan A, which seems to be a good 20-game cross-section of the Nationals's inaugural season in DC. We'll be in Section 445, way out in left field. Decent enough seats, and it's only RFK, after all. The idea is to support the team and have a foot in the door when the new (and hopefully beautiful) stadium debuts in a few years. For now, I'm just looking forward to beer, hot dogs, warm summer nights, and a home team that's not a minimum hour's drive north of where I live. Let's play some ball.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

'The Circle Is Now Complete'

My younger brother has also weighed in on the Super Bowl that was (and might have been). Like my older brother, he brings actual knowledge of, you know, football to his post-game analysis -- which, like me, he uses as a springboard to ruminate on bigger things vis-a-vis Philadelphia and professional sports.

And, if you're at all interested in the NHL, the younger brother has also been posting regular updates on the labor talks. Older readers of Boats Against the Current will remember the NHL as a professional sports league that regularly staged paid exhibitions of an athletic contest called "hockey" throughout the 20th century and into the early 21st century. Younger readers, not so much.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Fortress Around His Heart

During a chat on Washingtonpost.com this afternoon, a reader called Jonathan Lethem on the "forced" and "unnecessary" second half of The Fortress of Solitude. Lethem's reply:
I always sympathize with people who have trouble with the second section. The material is so troubling, and Dylan is so much less pleasant a character to spend time with... it's like the whole book has suffered a loss after Mingus' violent act (I'll help preserve the secrets too), and a golden bubble of childhood has been ruptured.

But -- to end it there would have been radically incomplete, and I doubt you'd have been satisfied. I always knew that however painful and even awkward, I would have to follow the trajectories of those characters out of their magical childhood, into the prosaic and disappointing adult lives that result.

I also found the second half of Fortress problematic, and while I respect Lethem's explanation here, it just doesn't work for me. It's not that "the material is so troubling," or that it stands in such disturbing contrast to the idyllism of the first half. (Though it is interesting to hear Lethem describe the first half as the "golden bubble of childhood," because that's not how I saw it at all. Dylan and Mingus's shared childhood, while literally magical, is uncertain, stressful, and dappled with the threat of violence. It's one of Lethem's true accomplishments here -- capturing the minefield of growing up, in Brooklyn or anywhere else.) No, the real problem with Fortress is that the second half feels (as the Washingtonpost.com questioner says) forced, in the same way that The Godfather Part III feels forced. It's not bad per se, just inorganic and strangely inert, for reasons I detailed in an e-mail I sent my brother last year, after he got 150 pages into Fortress and gave up. On the bright side, now he (my brother, that is) can read this great chat on Washingtonpost.com and feel all caught up.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Movie Journal: Sideways

The best movies are about a lot of different things, and Sideways, a very good one indeed, is hard to pin down. It's a road trip, a buddy movie, a mid-life crisis, a romantic comedy, a dreamy travelogue, and, if you want it, a philosophical meditation on the limitations of being a connoisseur. It's also -- there's no getting around this -- a male fantasy, turning on the idea that Miles (a note-perfect Paul Giamatti), a frequently insufferable potato sack of a failing writer who loves wine and is still bleeding from his divorce two years before, could not only find Maya (Virginia Madsen, also very fine), a smart, gracious, beautiful waitress who is appropriately reverential in the presence of a Richebourg and wants nothing more than to read Miles's latest unpublished novel, but not send her screaming through the grape fields. Tune up the language a bit, and it could be a Penthouse letter. ("I never believed those letters I read until this happened to me: I'm a modestly well-endowed English teacher in a large Southern California city....") It's a testament to director and cowriter Alexander Payne's craft that the movie floats free of the sour entitlement at its core. It's jazzy and langurous, hopeful and bleak, swollen with bravado and crushed with defeat -- in other words, it echoes the rhythms of a week-long bender in Northern California wine country, which is what Miles treats his friend Jack (Thomas Hadden Church) to as a last-fling sort of wedding present. Sideways isn't all that deep, but it's thoughtful in its way, or at least it made me think, more than anything about when your life really starts. When are you who you're going to be? Through Giametti's performance, you can see that question make its way from Miles's gut, awash in an acid flux of pinot noir, up through his hammering heart, into his head, where it leaks and spurts from his eyes. Church was recently nominated for an Academy Award, and why not -- his Jack isn't the total cartoon he might have been -- but good lord, what were they thinking passing over Giamatti? It's his movie, and he's dark and light and bold and delicate, with a hint of this and overtones of that, and altogether drinkable. (For another rave, see my brother, who got to Sideways a month ago.)

24-21, TO, and Brotherly Love

Today I'm one box of Tastykakes poorer because Tom Brady's (and my brother-in-law Dave's) Patriots are flat-out better than Donovan McNabb's (and my) Eagles. Dave is from New England, I'm from South Jersey, and this year's Super Bowl lent itself quite nicely to an intrafamilial bet -- the aforementioned Tastykakes vs. a bottle of Vermont maple syrup. My brother already wrote up the game with more heart and more technical precision than I ever could, so if you're looking for pragmatically wistful reflections by someone who knows what he's talking about, head over there. As for me, while my pancakes will be lacking in the coming months, mostly I'm okay with last night's game, because the Eagles, while erratic in places, more than held their own against the best team in the NFL.

If nothing else, I hope Terrell Owens's magnificent performance -- on what six weeks ago was a busted-up ankle/leg -- gives the rest of the world a key to unlocking the Philadelphia sports fan. You know Philadelphia -- the town that booed Santa Claus! Ha! Very funny! (Best rejoinder ever, delivered by my dad the weekend before last, while we were working on my house: "They didn't boo him. They threw snowballs at him. I was at that game.") There's no doubt Philadelphia fans expect a lot from their athletes, but they also admire the hell out of guys who throw their bodies into a game and never slack off. Lenny Dykstra was hated -- he was a Met, for Christ's sake -- until he put on the red pinstripes and started busting his hump for the Phillies, and kept busting it, all the way to a home run in the seventh inning of Game 6 in 1993. (Deep breath. Deep deep breath.) No doubt Owens is a head case, but he started making touchdowns the minute he showed up in Philadelphia, and when he got injured he spent the playoffs on the sidelines, flapping his arms and cheering like mad, and he probably came back before he should have, and last night he had nine catches.

Anyway. Philadelphia is a tough city, and people here in DC tell me the fans are completely obnoxious when the Eagles or the Flyers come to town. Maybe. But if folks in Philadelphia ever think about what everyone else thinks of them I'd be surprised. Everyone's a wise guy, and they expect you to be able to give as good as you get, or as least as good as they give. If you don't, no offense or anything, but that's your problem. So, congratulations to the Patriots, and go Eagles.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Feels Like the First Time

Last night AMC was showing The Towering Inferno, and I watched the first half-hour or so, looking carefully for signs of my lost youth. None were to be found, which is odd, because this -- the greatest of all the disaster epics of the 1970s -- is the first movie I have a conscious memory of seeing in the theater. (And I'm pretty sure it is in fact the first movie I saw in the theater.) I expected it to feel dated and hokey, but except for the craptacular clothing, shagadelic furniture, and telegraphed plot points (including one of those Hollywood-disaster supply closets where turpentine-soaked rags are piled high around a fusebox), it's really pretty sturdy. It introduces a ton of characters, the movie stars exploding like popcorn all over the screen -- William Holden! Paul Newman! Faye Dunaway! O.J. Simpson! Fred Astaire! Robert Wagner! Richard Chamberlain! Steve McQueen -- and then intertwines their stories with a lean, old-school efficiency. Hard to believe it had been 30 years since I last saw any significant chunk of it. Of course, the only image I remember, at all, is a guy catching on fire and plunging down the 135-story elevator shaft. Cheesy, maybe, but something like that leaves an impression when you're four or five years old. Nope, you never forget your first time.

The Apprentice 3.2

Donald Trump fires the right person for the second time in a row! Last week he booted Todd, the terminally hands-off project manager who led Magna (sorry -- "Book Smarts") to defeat, and this week he heaved Brian, the project manager for Net Worth (aka "Street Smarts"), whose raging Napoleon complex led to a unilateral executive decision to squander $14,000 of his team's $20,000 budget on 14 toilets. And such drama on both sides! Each team had 48 hours to renovate and start running a mildewed motel on the Jersey Shore. The first morning after guests arrived, Magna's customer-service leader, Verna imploded, then quit for about an hour; she packed her bags and wandered the streets until no-nonsense Carolyn chased her down and convinced her to return. Things were even worse for Net Worth, with John advising Brian to tone down his self-described "up close and personal" (read: ravingly paranoid) management style, Brian accusing John of playing mindgames, John calling Brian a "silly little man," Kristen getting into a shouting match with Brian in front of their motel guests, and Angie telling Kristen to "shut the [bleep] up" in front of their teammates. In the board room, after Trump learned that Book beat Street (and rather handily), he asked Brian if he should be fired; when Brian said yes, Trump fired him without bothering to dismiss everyone else.

Last week I thought both teams hewed spookily close to their stereotypes (not that stereotypes are accurate or fair), and this time they did, too. Street Smarts displayed an across-the-board lack of polish and professionalism, while Book Smarts's biggest problem was an entitled princess who felt she was being worked too hard. For next week, I'd say the biggest lesson everyone has to learn -- Book and Street -- is to stop taking themselves so seriously.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Thanks, Tina!

Curious about Donald Trump's latest wedding? Wonder no more:
There seems to have been a ruthless excision from the guest list of all the canape swipers and celebrity hangers-on you usually see on Manhattan nights when fashion and commerce collide. Except for a few anomalies, like some strategic press and the guy who whitens Donald's teeth, the definition was you had to be Big -- literally, as in the case of Shaquille O'Neal, whose ski-size feet could not fit under the table at dinner, or figuratively, as in the size of the bank balance.

I could get all huffy about Tina Brown's miraculously ongoing train wreck of a column. Or I could refer you here, where I first got all huffy about Tina Brown's train wreck of a column. Or here, where I next got all huffy about Tina Brown's train wreck of a column. Really, the important thing is the consistency, if not the quality, of my huffiness.