Friday, January 30, 2004

More Mellow Gold

My little ditty on '70s soft rock refuses to die. Here's the latest bit of feedback (music, feedback -- get it?!), from my brother Tommy:
As long as you're still discussing weeks-old posts -- and when you think about it, '70s soft rock is, like, decades old, so who cares -- I feel compelled to offer a shout out to 10cc. I dare anyone to hear "The Things We Do for Love" on a car radio and not sing along. I also have a soft spot for Paul Carrack fronting Ace on "How Long." And is Rupert Holmes's "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" too cheesy? It is? Well, I don't care. I like it anyway.

"Too cheesy"? Dude, we're talking about middle-of-the-road, adult-contemporary soft rock. From the 1970s. How would you begin to separate the "too cheesy" from the merely "cheesy"? Go with the flow, brother. These are all good and noble slices of Velveeta, though, of the three, I only keep the radio on for "Escape." But to my original rundown all those weeks ago, I'd add "Sometimes When We Touch," by Dan Hill, "Dust in the Wind," by Kansas, and "Biggest Part of Me," by Ambrosia. In case you were wondering.

Remember the One Where Mindy Married Mork So He Could Stay in the Country?

Earlier this week The Minor Fall, The Major Lift started a great discussion about cliched TV plots:
Two of the recurring scenaria we seem to remember from our early days of television viewing (and it was a looong time ago; those of you who were in grade school when Nevermind came out should probably skip this item entirely) were a) the cop who, pulling over a speeder, discovers that there’s a woman straining to give birth in the back seat and provides a police escort all the way to the hospital, and b) the scene where the young lover places a ladder by the window so that his inamorata may descend and they can run off to elope.

TMFTML invited readers to leave their favorite "hackneyed scenes from your childhood tube watching" in his comments section, but I'll just post mine here. Where to start? There was the convention of having a person drive up on a motorcycle and do something aggressive or otherwise masculine, only to shock the audience by pulling off the motorcycle helmet, shaking out a tangle of long, wavy hair, and revealing herself to be -- a girl! There were the seemingly countless "Most Dangerous Game" homages that placed Our Hero on a remote island or secluded country estate only to become the human prey of a wealthy, mad hunter. There was the sure-fire setup of the boss coming to dinner to discuss the Henderson account. There were wisecracking orphans and mother-in-law jokes; lord, were there mother-in-law jokes. I could go on, but CHiPs is coming on in a minute.

Meet 'Middie Back!'

Things are blogging out all over. The latest eruption is "Middie Back!," a blog my friend Shawn seems to have started yesterday. In his ongoing efforts to disguise how smart he really is, Shawn is spinning "Middie Back!" as "Some rants and ravings from the dumbest guy in his college clique." In fact, I can think of a few people in our college clique who were much dumber than Shawn.

And, anyway, how dumb can a guy be who points out that today's Saturday-morning cartoons "couldn't hold 'Looney Toons' anvil"?

The Rest of The Atlantic

In giving some attention to The Atlantic's state of the union special report last week, I probably shortchanged the rest of the issue. In addition to the usual assortment of thought-provoking book reviews (including Terry Castle on the new translation of Don Quixote and Christopher Hitchens on Proust's Swann's Way), there's a depressing article by James Fallows that debunks some conventional wisdom about the war in Iraq. Specifically, Fallows finds that the popular notion that there was no planning for the occupation is false; the State Department prepared a 13-volume report on the matter that the administration either ignored or discarded, and the results have been predictable. Fallows is not what you'd call an ideologue. His article is meticulously reported, carefully written, and all the more damning. It's not available online yet, but a few days ago the Post's "Magazine Reader," Peter Carlson, wrote about it:
Fallows -- author of several books, including "National Defense" -- won a National Magazine Award last year for an Atlantic article on Iraq. He deserves more honors for this exhaustively researched piece. But let the reader beware: Although Fallows is a sober, just-the-facts-ma'am reporter, reading this piece may leave you sputtering with rage at the arrogance and lethal folly of our leaders.

Here are just a few of Fallows's revelations:

• Twice -- in May of 2002 and January of 2003 -- the CIA held war game exercises designed to plan for postwar problems. Pentagon officials attended the early sessions but then their superiors in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) ordered them to stop going.

"Their displeasure over the CIA exercise," Fallows writes, "was an early illustration of a view that became stronger throughout 2002: that post-war planning was an impediment to war."

• In 2002, Congress appropriated $5 million to fund the "Future of Iraq" project, headed by State Department veteran Thomas Warrick and designed to plan for the aftermath of war. Gathering Iraq experts and Iraqi exiles into 17 working groups, the project issued 13 reports, each addressing a potential postwar problem. But when former general Jay Garner was named to run postwar Iraq, Rumsfeld told him not to bother reading the project's recommendations and ordered him to fire Warrick.

• The Future of Iraq project warned that one potentially devastating postwar problem would be looting. International relief agencies, experienced in Third World wars, agreed. So did the U.S. Army, which recommended sending 400,000 troops to pacify Iraq. Rumsfeld whittled that number down to 200,000.

"We went in with the minimum force," Thomas White, who was the Secretary of the Army until he was fired by Rumsfeld, told Fallows. "And then we immediately found ourselves shorthanded in the aftermath."

The result was unchecked looting that destroyed Iraq's infrastructure: "We sat there," White said, "and watched people dismantle and run off with the country, basically."

• Prewar reports by the Future of Iraq project, by the Army War College and by the Center for Strategic and International Studies all warned against disbanding the Iraqi army, which could, the War College predicted, "lead to the destruction of one of the only forces for unity within the society."

But last May, shortly after the war ended, Paul Bremer, Bush's man in Iraq, ignored that advice and sent the Iraqi soldiers home. That was a "catastrophic error," Fallows writes, because "it created an instant enemy class: hundreds of thousands of men who still had their weapons but no longer had a paycheck or a place to go each day."

Some of those men are using those weapons to kill Americans today.

Fallows pulls double-duty for The Atlantic this month. Online, he offers a wry but penetrating annotated version of last week's State of the Union address. Sample (the italicized portions belong to Fallows):
As we gather tonight, hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women are deployed across the world in the war on terror. By bringing hope to the oppressed, and delivering justice to the violent, they are making America more secure. [Here is a bit of continuity with President Bush's two previous SOTU addresses. In all of them he has stressed early in the speech that the nation's leaders gather at a moment of stormy world events. His first, and best, SOTU address, complete with its trademark "axis of evil" line, led with a litany of all the dangers besetting America four months after the September 11 attacks -- followed by the brave declaration that nonetheless "The state of our union has never been stronger." His second, last year, came as war with Iraq was all but inevitable. In this latest speech, the two sentences in this paragraph qualify as political haiku. That is, they do a lot of work in a relatively small number of syllables. The first sentence positions the President as a wartime commander, by implication on duty along with his troops -- and also classifies the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as fronts in the war on terror. The second sentence touches on what are now the Administration's best arguments for invading Iraq -- freeing its people, removing its tyrant, in a general way making America safer -- while avoiding all mention of the main theme of last year's speech, the imminent danger of Iraq's WMD.]

And, finally, speaking of that Atlantic state of the union special report that started this whole thread, it seems that Slate's Jack Shafer didn't like it as much as I did:
My quarrel isn't with the State of the Union package's ideas, as much as I might disagree with its inventive new proposals to redistribute income and expand the government's role in everyday life. I'm an idea omnivore who reads across the political spectrum. What irks is the package's deadly presentation, the conceit advanced by the editors and writers at the Atlantic and the New America Foundation that they alone have the intellectual courage to confront the country's problems. Writing about rationing health care for the package, Don Peck puffs himself and his piece up with the observation, "These are hard questions with high moral stakes." Nathan Littlefield, agonizing over the deficit, writes, "No one is asking the hard questions about what kind of society we would like to be." No one? Not even the guys in sweater vests at the Brookings Institution? This isn't goo-goo preaching, this is the voice of God.

We report, you decide.

Great Moments in Journalism

Teresa Heinz Kerry, Judith Steinberg Dean, Elizabeth Edwards, Gert Clark -- they're post-Hillarys aiming to be post-Lauras. They're none of them cupcakes, but they don't pretend to bake cupcakes either.

Tina Brown, ladies and gentlemen. For a more thorough evisceration, see Wonkette.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Reader Mail

My readership is taking off -- it must be more than a half-dozen at this point -- and I have the e-mails to prove it. The problem is, some of them go back a week or two, but for whatever stupid reason I didn't post or reply to them at the time, which, now that I think about it, probably means I've driven off those readers.

We'll go in chronological order. First up is my sister-in-law Jen (also known as Mrs. Shallow Center), who threw this monkey wrench into my and Keith's discussion of Star Wars vs. Annie Hall:
Interesting thoughts on the context of movies. One side note on your Star Wars passion, though. Maybe this is simplistic, but I'm wondering if you've considered that your gender may have something to do with your love of Star Wars. I actually saw it in the theater myself, and although I kinda liked it, I doubt I loved it with the passion that you and your male peers did (and do). And, while I loved Grease far more during that era, I'll give you that Star Wars is a better movie. Not sure about Annie Hall, though. Would much rather watch that again than SW.

I don't even know where to start. What makes a girl think she can talk about Star Wars? Oh, wait. I think that's Jen's point. And it's a good one, too, especially because it buttresses, and even deepens, my argument about the context of moviegoing. Take that, Keith!

Right. Okay. So, our next e-mail comes from my younger brother, who in blog circles is now called There It Is, and who has an interesting bit of trivia to contribute to my Young Guns II revelation:
The lawyer Emilio Estevez sees in the beginning of the movie is none other than Bradley Whitford.

While not quite the Satipo expose of weeks past, this is a nice bit of cinematic minutiae. America needs to know that, years before The West Wing, Bradley Whitford was having an interesting career. Myself, I'll always remember his mesmerizing turn as the evil frat ringleader in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise.

And, in our final e-mail, my friend Shawn uses my post on '70s soft rock to announce that he, too, grew up on the songs that make the whole world sing:
I, too, lived in a 70's soft-rock prison from which there was no escape. It reminds me of a classic scene in "That 70's Show" (yes, I watch it occasionally), where the gang is throwing a party, and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) shouts, "Anyone want to listen to my Leo Sayer album?". Almost immediately, another unnamed partygoer jumps into the scene and punches Fez out. Classic!

As if that wasn't bad enough, my mother was "hooked" so to speak, on the lame-a-riffic "Hooked On Classics" cassettes. Have you heard these? They combine classical music with contemporary "rock" -- which is old-person-speak for "muzak". God awful.

Let's leave Hooked on Classics completely alone for now and forever and stick to the bigger question: How could I have forgotten Leo Sayer? I'll tell you how, and why. See, maybe I didn't make this clear in my original post, but I genuinely liked all those songs I named, and I still like them today; to be even more specific, I don't change the station when one of them comes on the car radio, and in fact I usually turn up the volume and sing along with little or no irony. Whereas Leo Sayer -- well, I never loved him more than I could say, and he never made me feel like dancing.

Book Club: Red Gold, Part I

Last spring, as part of my book club, my friend John and I read The World at Night, a World War II thriller by Alan Furst. The book is set in Paris during the Nazi occupation, and its protagonist is Jean Casson, a film producer whose weary, cynical romanticism suggests the Humphrey Bogart of Casablanca; indeed, much like Rick Blaine, Casson does what he can to coexist with the Nazis while also helping their victims on the sly, until he is drawn slowly and not quite unwillingly into the Resistance.

John and I both liked The World at Night -- so much so that recently we read its sequel, Red Gold, which finds Casson still in Paris, still the honorable loner, and still mulling his place in the Resistance. John kicks off our discussion.

John's introductory remarks:
When we last left Jean Casson (the conclusion of "The World at Night"), he had turned down an escape to England, opting instead to stay in Nazi-occupied France in a quixotic attempt to reunite with his lover Citrine.  But -- c'est la guerre -- she's run off with another man, and he's stuck in Paris with no money, just one step ahead of the Gestapo (thanks to his anti-German exploits in the previous book). An opportunity arises for Casson to act as a liaison between Gaullist and communist wings of the nascent Resistance movement -- but is he up for the job?

"Red Gold" was a somewhat more satisfying book than its predecessor, mostly due to the fact that Casson completes his transformation from an amoral, self-interested bystander to a full-fledged freedom fighter. It is, of course, still a lonely occupation in the France during the early part of the occupation ("Red Gold" spans September 1941 to April 1942). This point is driven home in Furst's "Night Soldiers," which is still the best of his books that I've read. That novel's protaganist notes that recruiting for the Resistance is comparatively easy in the months leading up to D-Day -- when the momentum has clearly shifted to the Allies. By contrast, Casson and his cohorts have a considerably harder time finding people willing to rock the boat before Pearl Harbor and Stalingrad.

But Stalingrad, of course, is preceded by the breaking of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Suddenly, the NKVD is twisting arms throughout Western Europe, making sure all loyal communists are doing their part to fight the Germans. And the glimpses into the inner workings of the French communist cells are fascinating. The shotgun marriage between Red militants and the French authorities is tenuous and strained, with both sides as concerned with angling for an upper hand in the post-war world as they are with fighting the Germans.

As you mentioned, this book wasn't terribly "memorable." It doesn't particularly stick with you, and I'm wondering if part of the reason for that is Furst's penchant for writing shorter books. When paired with the events of "The World at Night," the narrative may have been a bit more compelling; as it is, you still get two enjoyable little books, but the breezy reads may lack a certain gravitas, especially with a several month interval between reads. It might be interesting to contrast the two 250-page Casson books with Furst's earlier, 437-page "Dark Star," which I hope to read later this year.

That said, I'll gladly read the inevitable sequel -- it is only April 1942, after all, so Casson's
still got more than two years to fight the good fight.

I couldn't have put it better -- but I'll give it a try anyway when I write my response in the next few days.

About Frickin' Time

Cursed with a humorless City Paper and an impotent "Reliable Source," Washington has long needed an outlet for quality snark. Something like Gawker, but in DC. And now we have it. It's called Wonkette, and it is, in fact, Gawker but in DC. And, best of all, it's edited by snarkmistress Ana Marie Cox, late of Boats Against the Current fave The Antic Muse, who says:
Wonkette provides an appropriately arch and irrepressibly giddy guide to the American political landscape and the Washington metro area social scene (such as it is). We like recall movements, illegitimate children of senators coming forward after 50 years, wrestler-style wild screams of rage and the endorsement of Dennis Kucinich by Grandfather Twilight (Look it up! It's true!). We also want to hear from you. The Palm: Over-rated or just plain bad? James Carville: A toad or the devil incarnate? Katherine Harris's rack: Fabulous, extraordinary or mouth-watering?

Sounds good, sister. Uh, not the rack -- the blog.


St. Joe's remains unjinxed -- or, at least, unbeaten. Victory No. 17 came with the 114-63 flattening of St. Bonaventure on Saturday night. And now I'm getting nervous. Since I'm not what you'd call a "serious" (or "particularly smart") sports fan, my interest in this is fueled mostly by bandwagon enthusiasm, sentimental hometown boosterism, and superstition. So I'm wondering if it wouldn't be better for the Hawks to lose one now, get it out of their system, and head into the Tournament undistracted by any pressure to maintain The Streak. But Shallow Center, whose sports judgment is somewhat more sophisticated than my "I got a bad feeling about this" divinations, tells me this St. Joe's team is only getting better, and might not need to appease fate by taking one on the chin.

We'll see. Meanwhile, it's been 10 years since I moved to DC, and I'm still getting used to opening the Post and seeing the Hawks on the front page of the sports section, as they were today. It's a good story, too, throwing some overdue love to Delonte West:
"I was not a good shooter in high school," West said. "In high school, all I did was go to the basket; I was always a great penetrator. But when I got here, and I started seeing the giants out there on the floor, I realized I had to change my game, and add more to my game."

So he went to work. During the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, West often called assistant coach Monte Ross late at night -- 10 or 11 o'clock, sometimes even 1 a.m. -- and asked him to unlock the gym doors so he could shoot on his own, usually until 2 or 3 a.m.

Sounds like a hard-working kid. Certainly you can't argue with the results.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Book Journal: We Need to Talk About Kevin

The more I read this novel by Lionel Shriver, the less I could shake the feeling that it was the result of a conversation between stoned dorm mates. You know the type: If a tree fell in the forest and no one was around, would it make a sound? Could God make a rock so heavy he couldn't lift it? Could Superman outrun the Flash? And, in a variation on the irresistible-force-vs.-immovable-object conundrum, We Need to Talk About Kevin asks: What would happen if a pathologically unmaternal woman gave birth to a pathologically evil child? And, to follow up, what if the woman's husband -- the child's father -- were pathologically oblivious to his son's evil?

Given the grave subject matter -- the book is a series of letters written by the mother of a teenager who went on a killing spree at his high school, addressed to her presumably estranged husband -- I probably should approach We Need to Talk About Kevin more seriously. But, actually, I'm only half-joking. Shriver invites this sort of gamesmanship because her setup is so extreme; everyone in her book seems to exist in opposition to someone else. Her protagonist, Eva Khatchadourian, the letter writer, is petite, dark, self-contained, mostly contemptuous of her country, liberal, and not really interested in having kids. Eva's husband, Franklin, is big, blond, demanding, deeply patriotic, conservative, and dying to have kids as part of his apple-pie fantasy of home life. Eva and Franklin's children are similarly dichotomous: From birth, when he refuses to clamp onto his mother's nipple, the Kevin of the title is inhumanly disaffected; he hates life, and goes out of his way to hurt everyone around him, and not just emotionally. As an infant, he cries and cries and throws toys from his playpen. As a toddler, he refuses to pottytrain, seemingly to spite Eva. As a little boy, he destroys the walls of the den that Eva carefully papered with maps of the countries she's visited, and then graduates to criminal behavior, loosening the brakes on a neighborhood child's bike. By the time he's a pre-teen and Celia has come along, Kevin is an iceman, a calculating monster who masturbates in front of his mother -- who suspects him of causing the accident that costs his little sister an eye. In contrast, the little sister is a priceless moppet who clings to Eva and plays with each of her toys every day so as not to hurt any of their feelings.

In her letters to Franklin, Eva traces their history together, before and after they had Kevin and Celia. She searches their lives for clues, trying to figure out why Kevin did what he did and whose fault it might have been. She confesses that once she found out she was pregnant with Kevin, she felt "pent up, clogged. I wanted to say: Franklin, I'm not sure this is a good idea" -- a feeling that never went away, not even when Kevin was born, after an ominously prolonged labor, and his small, warm body was laid on her chest. In fact, the feeling only grew, then soured into revulsion and regret as she witnessed the chilling of Kevin's soul. Throughout We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver's execution is technically brilliant; each of Eva's letters is another dab of color on a complex, endlessly layered potrait. And I give Shriver credit simply for exploring, in exhausting detail, twin forbidden notions: that parenthood doesn't change every parent for the better, and that not all kids are born innocent. But the contrivance of Shriver's plot robs the book of its full impact, because, while, yes, Eva doesn't seem to have been wired to be a mother, in the end Kevin is...bad. Really bad. Just a really bad seed. You get the feeling Annie Sullivan could have been his mother and he still would have taken out those nine classmates, his English teacher, and a few others with his bow and arrow. Yes, his bow and arrow. I told you he was evil. The contrivance is only heightened by Franklin's blind adoration for Kevin, which leads him to dismiss even Kevin's nastiest behavior as harmless schoolboy shenanigans; after a while, I thought Franklin's devotion existed only to serve as an ironic, mocking reflection of Eva's disquietude.

These machinations are frustrating, because much of the book works. Shriver is in total control of her plot, moving back and forth in time, treading and retreading months and years, masterfully allowing Eva to pull back the curtain on herself without even realizing it; even Eva's impeccable sense of self-loathing seems to be worn with pride. I think Shriver is suggesting that Eva's biggest problem, the one area in which she went truly wrong, is self-awareness. A globetrotter who created a hugely successful line of bargain travel guides called A Wing and a Prayer, Eva speculates that children are a way for parents to continue the plots and the stories of their own lives. But the reality seems to be that Eva is a tourist everywhere, even in her own life. She holds everything at a distance, parsing, discriminating, haggling, arriving, leaving, not wanting to stay. Even when she follows Kevin as he's taken to the police station after his killing spree -- which, in a nice touch, Eva simply calls "Thursday" throughout the book -- Eva remains impartial and superior, or enough so to take note of the "clumsily wrought bronze frieze memoralizing four Orangetown officers fallen in the line of duty."

But, while Eva is fascinating in her self-absorption and self-regard, like I said, Shriver doesn't leave much doubt as to the real cause of Thursday: a bad boy named Kevin. His nihilism is an irresistible force that splits the immovable object of his mother's indifference right down the middle. On the positive side, that's one dorm-room debate that has been settled. On the negative side, though, I wonder if the book would have been more powerful and downright scary -- more than a 400-page slab of birth control -- had Kevin been more recognizably human.

Friday, January 23, 2004

There He Is

My younger brother has drunk the Kool-Aid. Last night he stepped up to the plate -- or, as is more appropriate for him, onto the ice -- and launched a blog called There It Is. He promises "mostly unedited rambles on sports, pop culture and -- a little -- politics," but if you're interested in getting an immediate sense of his worldview, you'll find everything you need in his first substantive post, in which he explains how to fix professional hockey. And I didn't even know it was broken, except maybe for my local team.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Green Arrow #34

The latest issue of Green Arrow gets four silver bullets (!) from Glenn, who writes:
Sanity is restored with the return of Judd Winick as well as Hester and Parks for the start of a new storyline. And we immediately see why Winick is one of the best Green Arrow writers ever. The story opens narrated by Black Canary. One of the strengths of Winick is that he covers the entire GA extended family so well. Dinah proves to be no exception. Even as her intro to the story, describing Oliver Queen, as she knows him, captures an aspect of GA; it captures her pretty well too. This is one of the best, most realistic relationships in comics, and I hope we see more of it. As the two discuss recent events we see how what happened to Mia, Connor and Roy (see recent issues of the Outsiders) is really weighing on Ollie's mind. And we see that Dinah suspects the death of Joanna Pierce is weighing on his mind more than he'll admit. She knows her man all too well. The artwork here is excellent, all the facial expressions and moods caught so subtlety.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Superman has just come out of a coma and is face-to-face with his evil twin. No, seriously, the most fascinating aspect of this is that the writer Glenn is praising to the emerald heavens, Judd Winick, is in fact that Judd Winick -- nebbishy star of The Real World: San Francisco. Maybe all those years ago he was fantasizing about drilling Puck with a boxing glove arrow.

The Other State of the Union

Now you know why I rarely write about politics. Instead of inflicting last night's whiny, useless post on the State of the Union address on my reader(s), I should have just flogged the January/February issue of The Atlantic, in which the magazine publishes its own "state of the union" special report. As with most of The Atlantic's political writing, the special report isn't so much bipartisan or nonpartisan as it is collectively omnipartisan. Various articles on health insurance, education, the deficit, taxes, and other pressure-point issues are written from points of view that are conservative, liberal, libertarian, and idiosyncratic or otherwise uncategorizable, and the result isn't balance but rather nuance. It's a deliberately messy, complicated look at a messy, complicated country.

I'm still picking through the whole thing, but my favorite piece so far is Michael Lind's "Are We Still a Middle-Class Nation?," in which Lind traces the history of the middle class in the United States. He finds that, contrary to the rugged-individualist, up-by-your-bootstraps mythos in which this demographic is usually steeped, our middle class has always been boosted by government initiatives, whether in the form of free land under the Homestead Act or subsidized college education under the G.I. Bill. And now, Lind says, with the cost of living on the rise and well-paying middle-class jobs on the decline, it's time for the government to step in again:
The most obvious way to share the gains from technological progress is to tax the owners of high-productivity industries at high levels and spend the proceeds on the rest of the population. To varying degrees in different countries -- more so in Sweden, less so in the United States -- this is the system that now exists.

This "social wage" can take different forms. Some Americans prefer that the government provide universal services such as public schools and public health care. Others prefer voucher systems that permit a degree of individual choice. The social wage can likewise be either a supplement to incomes or a subsidy for goods. The earned-income tax credit, which has bipartisan support, supplements the incomes of low-wage workers to lift them out of poverty, and provides an alternative to raising the minimum wage. But there is also bipartisan support for tax breaks for homeowners, and for other subsidies on middle-class consumption.

It sounds dry, but the whole article, and the rest of the special report as well, is actually very interesting. And the headache it gave me is entirely different from the ones I get when I try to tune in to the political discourse these days.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004


Apparently I didn't jinx St. Joe's by writing about them yesterday, as tonight the Hawks beat UMass, and not by a little. If you're counting, that's 16-0. If you're not counting, it's still 16-0.

Movie Journal: Paradise Lost 2

The excellent 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills explored the dubious convictions of three teenagers for the gruesome murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Granted seemingly limitless access to the victims' families, to the defendants and their families, to prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police, and to the court proceedings themselves, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky put together a deliberative, carefully paced inquiry that made it hard to ignore the probability that the West Memphis Three, as they're now called, were railroaded simply because they wore black clothes, listened to Metallica, and dabbled in the occult.

Paradise Lost also touched off a grass-roots campaign that persists to this day, with volunteers from all over the country working to free the three teens, now actually young men, one of them on Death Row. The movie's sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, picks up the story from there, with West Memphis Three advocates descending on Arkansas for the final appeal of alleged ringleader Damien Echols, who at the end of Paradise Lost was sentenced to death. Paradise Lost 2 is also something of a meta-commentary, focusing on the role its predecessor played in shaping public opinion about the case. It seems that not everyone was as fired up as the WM3ers by Paradise Lost. Of the victims' families, only the stepfather of one of the boys talks to Berlinger and Sinofsky this time around; only one defense attorney talks to them, and the judge bans all cameras from Echols' appeal hearings. But the lack of access doesn't hinder the film as much as you'd think, as Berlinger and Sinofsky -- whose previous documentary Brother's Keeper was a closely observed look at another miscarriage of justice -- roam around their story, filling in holes, probing for evidence, and comparing the detached, seemingly amused Damien of the trial with the newly somber, cleanshaven Damien of the appeal.

If anything, Paradise Lost 2 is even more disturbing than Paradise Lost, because, while the first documentary merely hinted at the identity of the real killer, the sequel methodically builds a case against him -- or, actually, lets him build a case against himself. Meanwhile, police and prosecutors seem intent on ignoring new evidence that contradicts testimony presented at the original trials. It's horrifying to watch. I don't profess to know the true facts of this case, but it seems clear that neither did the juries that convicted the West Memphis Three or the judicial system that has kept two of them in jail and one of them on Death Row.

State of the Union

It's a bit late in the day to comment on last night's State of the Union address, but what the hell. I don't think I'll do any worse than the clowns who are actually paid to talk about this stuff and who completely blew the Iowa caucuses two days ago. Mostly, Bush's speech made me tired -- tired of gross partisanship, tired of cheap rhetoric, and, above all, tired of the presidential campaign that has barely begun. If Bush's words last night are any indication, these next 10 months he'll be burrowing even deeper into his conservative support base at a time when his country really needs him to be reaching out for the center. He's always had my support for the war against terrorism. He does not have my support for cutting taxes, extending the Patriot Act, and fighting gay marriage. (I won't even go into his truly bizarre call to combat steroid abuse by professional athletes.) In fact, I'm angry that, at this moment in history during which his adminstration keeps reminding us that we face a grave and constant threat, the president wasted my time with these other notions, which are, respectively, fiscally irresponsible, un-American, and plain wrong. Is it November yet?

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Good Lord

If you remember, last week I ended my review of Lamb with this random comment: "If only my teachers had been that candid about it -- and about Jesus who was called Joshua -- in CCD all those years ago." That drew this response from my mother, the woman who paid for me to attend CCD:
Could be because they didn't have a clue?

Yowza. What do you really think, Mom? Not that she's wrong. I attended CCD during the late-1970s and early-1980s, when the Catholic Church still seemed to be clinging to the guitar-playing-nuns model of religious education. So not only was there no Bible study -- remember, we were Catholic -- there was no instruction in church history, dogma, or anything substantial. Instead, the dim memories I have are of textbooks dominated by rainbows, doves, and a general Jesus Christ, Superstar feel; probably these books were holdovers from the early-'70s, when the church was sacrificing its gravitas on the altar of the groovy. CCD was held on Saturday mornings and conducted by well-meaning but (as my mother pointed out) mostly clueless lay teachers who had no formal educational training and no idea how to control a class. The most telling detail I can remember is that none of the several teachers I asked could even tell me what "CCD" stands for. I wasn't being smart, either; I really wanted to know. It was only years later that I finally looked it up for myself. (If you're interested, it's Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.) The only exception was during eighth grade, the year I made my Confirmation, when my CCD teacher happened to be a family friend -- and a good and thoughtful man who really tried to prepare my class for this looming spiritual milestone. But the rest? Eh.

Lamb generated another great response, this one less succinct, from my friend Erin, who recommended the book to me in the first place:
Saw your review of Lamb -- well-done. (That was a truly inadvertent meat pun.) For me, Lamb is going on my top 10 book list for some of the same reasons that Wicked lives there. I am always so impressed with examples of creativity that I could never think up myself. In this world of constant rehashing and remakes, it is really neat to see someone take old material and put a spin on it that I could never have imagined, thus making it totally fresh and making you want to revisit the source material. (Baz Luhrman's Romeo & Juliet is another example, as is the incredibly great Wicked by Gregory MacGuire.) I actually found myself toying with reading parts of the New Testament after completing Lamb, just to check some stuff out. (I assure you that I have never had an independent urge to read the Bible for fun before.) I completed this book amazed that some young progressive Christian groups (they must exist) haven't been actively encouraging people to read this book, as an efficient means to proselytize. Mostly, it was just so much fun to laugh at something and someone that you were NEVER supposed to laugh at before. (Remember when you laughed in church?)

My only regret is that they didn't have Biff go out into the world and see all of the religions that have sprung up, the lives lost and the nuttiness that exists due to his friend Josh. I would have loved to hear his take on many movements, from Kabbulah to those born again to Scientology.

What I have heard from my book club (we haven't met to discuss it yet officially, although most of us have talked about it one-on-one) is that some have thought it was too crude. I think this is mostly because (especially us lapsed Catholics) we have been taught that Christ would have nothing to do with the physical pleasures -- and this book shows him discussing sex, food, women, etc. This book made me understand why so many religions have been formed around his teachings and actions -- perhaps I am not a believer, but I am now a better understand-er.

The humor in this book is just so well done that all I can do is strong arm folks (like I did you) to read it, because it is hard to do justice to one joke without making the book come off as a jokey parody, rather than a really intelligent book. Including you, I have converted three people to the Gospel of Moore in the past month, with more (another pun) to follow. I am reluctant to read his other stuff -- I am sure it is good, and very funny -- but this material just has to be better than anything else.

All of that is exactly right. Funny as Lamb is, the highest compliments I can pay Christopher Moore are that he made me want to find out more about the historical Jesus and his teachings, and that he had me hoping his story wouldn't end the way it pretty much had to end.

The Hawks Have Landed

It might finally be safe to write about my alma mater. The men's basketball team, the Hawks, is 15-0 and ranked third in the country -- a pretty big deal for a private liberal-arts college with an undergraduate student population of 3,500 or so. Not wanting to jinx the Hawks' best season in decades, I've been holding off on writing about them, waiting for them to lose their first game. But when I opened my Post on Saturday morning to see a piece by John Feinstein about the Hawks -- and their scary-good point guard, Jameer Nelson -- I figured the waters were clear. Why is this season such a huge thing? Feinstein captures it:
Nelson and Saint Joseph's are one of those feel-good stories that pop up occasionally in college basketball. The school is loaded with basketball tradition. It made the NCAA tournament seven times in eight seasons starting in 1959 -- including a Final Four appearance in 1961 -- under the legendary Jack Ramsay and made the NCAA final eight, after an upset of top-seeded DePaul, under Jim Lynam in 1981. In today's college hoops world, though, it is difficult year in and year out for a tiny Jesuit school (3,750 undergrads) with a 3,500-seat gym to keep up with the mega-programs that play on network TV week after week, year after year.

You have to understand, when I was a student at St. Joe's, this wonderfully storied team, whose iron-tough reputation had been fired in the cauldron of Philadelphia college basketball, was just awful. You could usually get into any home game you wanted for free with a student ID, but still the bleachers were more than half-empty. Things are much different now, of course. These last few seasons have been great, and, while I'm trying to keep my expectations in check -- I'm from Philadelphia, after all, where sports fatalism is both curse and birthright -- I can't tell you how excited I am about next month, when I'll finally be seeing my first game at the Palestra, the hallowed home of Big Five basketball, as St. Joe's hosts Temple. The Owls aren't having as good as season as the Hawks, but that probably won't matter at all. No matter what their current records are, the Big Five teams tend to play the hell out of each other. Let's go, St. Joe's!

Books for the Ages

Terry Teachout helps me feel better about my penchant for reviewing outdated books:
Could it be that the interaction of book-oriented blogs and on-line bookstores is starting to have an unforeseen effect on literary criticism? Might the dynamics of what we now think of as "book reviewing" be in the process of evolving away from the books-as-news paradigm that drives the book-review sections of most magazines and newspapers? Ideally, a blog can make an old book news. So can a magazine or newspaper, but do they? Not often. In any case, a blog, at least in theory, is the ideal medium for promoting a book, be it old or new, precisely because linkage facilitates true impulse buying.

Yeah, that's it. The reason I don't review the newest, hottest books is because, uh, I'm trying to break the books-as-news paradigm. It has nothing to do with the glacial pace at which I read and write. No, actually, Teachout makes some sense; among the things I love about the blogosphere are its infinite variation and its theoretically infinite shelf life. So, for example, if you care what some self-important jerk thinks about Everything Is Illuminated more than a year after it was published, or Sister Carrie more than a hundred years after it was published, you can click here or here. No pressure, though.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Sounds of the Seventies

Matt Welch comes out of the closet and confesses to a love that dare not speak its name: mid-1970s soft rock. His comments were prompted by the death of one of the genre's greats:
Randy Vanwarmer, the wussy-throated troubadour who made it to No. 4 with the 1978 moaner "Just When I Needed You Most," died of complications from leukemia Monday night in Seattle. He was 48. Details, discography and songwriting credits (you didn't know that Vanwarmer wrote hits for the Oak Ridge Boys, did you?) over at Jean-Luc Raymond's terrific and possibly insane weblog, West Coast Music, which is the kind of place where you learn stuff about Stephen Bishop's latest car accident.

Jean-Luc, a blogging pioneer in France, has absolutely appalling taste in music, which happens to overlap significantly with my own. Because of my seventies upbringing in Southern California, as the youngest of four children, in a family where the parents split up in 1977, I go absolutely wobbly at the knees at the sound of wussy soft-rock heartbreak songs from 1974-78. Can't tell you the number of times [Ken] Layne's called, heard the music "cranking" in the background ("Wildfire," "If," "We Just Disagree," etc.), and yelled "Ack*#$&!!!! You're fired!! Have some dignity!!"

As it happens, I grew up around the same time as Matt, in a household where the radio was never off -- and more often than not was tuned to one of them middle-of-the-road stations. The early, constant pickling in the dulcet tones of shaggy minstrels long since passed has given me a similar weak spot for ballads like those Matt cites, and also "Bluer Than Blue" by Michael Johnson, "Lady" by the Little River Band, "The Leader of the Band" by Dan Fogelberg, "Please Come to Boston" by Dave Loggins, "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" by Eric Carmen (who in 1977 released an album called...Boats Against the Current!), and many, many others that collectively undermine the credibility of my attacks against my wife's love of Celine Dion. Which makes me bluer than blue, sadder than sad....

Thursday, January 15, 2004

From a Town Known as Wheeling, West Virginia

When it comes to historical events, you can usually count on Hollywood to get everything exactly wrong. But could it be that an insignificant but entertaining Western released 14 years ago inadvertently got it right?

We go to Silver City, New Mexico, where the Associated Press reports there will be a hearing in two weeks on a petition to exhume the remains of Billy the Kid's mother, Catherine Antrim. The purpose of the proposed exhumation: to test Mother the Kid's DNA against that of Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts, who went to his grave in 1950 claiming to be Billy the Kid. History maintains that Billy was killed in 1881 by a former friend, Sheriff Pat Garrett. Not so, says a California man named Homer Overton, whose sworn affidavit is the basis for the exhumation request:
Overton learned this some 63 years ago, at age 9, from the widow of the sheriff, Pat Garrett....

Garrett’s widow, Apolonaria Garrett, told Overton and a buddy that her husband and the Kid shot a drunk passed out in a street. With no face left, the drunk was just a body that could be passed off for Bonney, Overton’s court affidavit says.

This would be quite a bombshell -- except for the fact that it was already dropped in August of 1990, with the release of a little movie called Young Guns II. Riding hard on the heels of 1988's modestly successful Young Guns, YGII tracks the last days of Billy the Kid. Significantly, the plot uses a framing device that has an ancient-looking Brushy Bill -- played by a heavily latexed Emilio Estevez, who also plays Billy -- appearing out of the desert in 1950 to meet up with a lawyer, claim he's Billy the Kid, and ask to be pardoned by the governor of New Mexico for the 21 men he killed. Then he relates the story you see in the movie as a prolonged flashback, culminating in Billy and Garrett (played by William Petersen, with nice muttonchop whiskers) conspiring to fake Billy's death.

Which begs the question: A decade and a half after Young Guns II, why do they need an affidavit from Homer Overton to dig up Billy's mom? Since when is a Brat Pack Western sequel not good enough?

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Book Journal: Lamb

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore, is a very funny novel, but maybe the funniest thing about it is that it is exactly what its subtitle says it is: an account of Jesus Christ's life as told by his best friend, Levi, whom everyone calls Biff. (The often-uttered moniker "Levi who is called Biff" never failed to make me laugh when I was reading.) The two are six years old when they first meet, next to the central well in Nazareth, where Jesus -- or Joshua, as he's called in Hebrew -- is idly resurrecting a lizard whose head his younger brother keeps crushing. From there, Joshua and Biff are inseparable. Together they meet and fall for Mary Magdalene, the beautiful, strong-willed daughter of a blacksmith, and together, as teenagers, they embark on a journey to the East to find the three Wise Men, in the hope that they can tell Joshua more about his destiny. The first Wise Man turns out to be a Taoist magician, the second a Buddhist monk, the third a Hindu yogi. This trip is the true genius of the book, because it allows Moore to speculate, quite credibly, on why Jesus' philosophy had so much in common with the teachings of other world religions.

But the real fun of Lamb is Moore's playful versatility. He uses puns, slapstick, historical conjecture, biblical jokes, and deadpan observation to deflate a topic that's usually swollen with gaseous reverence. Biff has a crush on Mary, Joshua's mother. He invents sarcasm and cappucinos. Joshua decides it's okay for Jews to eat bacon; eventually, "eating bacon" becomes his and Biff's shorthand for being open to new ideas. Speaking of which, Joshua is as obsessed with sex as the next adolescent boy, but, sworn to celibacy, he plies Biff with questions about what it's like. The two friends and the Taoist magician celebrate Joshua's birthday with a feast of Eastern delicacies, which, Biff explains, is the beginning of the tradition of Jews going out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. Angels are at home in the eternal, meaning they're always late for appointments. I spent much of the book laughing out loud, and I don't know that much about Moore's source material; God only knows -- no pun intended -- what I missed.

But, witty and irreverent as Lamb is, it's also quite heartfelt, and decidedly, blessedly un-postmodern, in that Joshua is who he believes he is -- the Son of God made flesh. Like Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, Moore dares to offer a portrait of a Messiah who performs miracles and preaches the Word, but who is very human, very vulnerable, and not at all sure what his father wants of him; curiously, this makes you want to believe in Joshua's divinity all the more. Moore's deft touch is found in Biff's hilarious but not inaccurate summation of Joshua's teaching:
You should be nice to people, even creeps.
And if you:

a) believed that Joshua was the Son of God (and)
b) he had come to save you from sin (and)
c) acknowledged the Holy Spirit within you (became as a little child, he would say) (and)
d) didn't blaspheme the Holy Ghost (see c),
then you would:
e) live forever
f) someplace nice
g) probably heaven.
However, if you:
h) sinned (and/or)
i) were a hypocrite (and/or)
j) valued things over people (and)
k) didn't do a, b, c, and d,
then you were:
l) fucked.

When you put it that way, it really makes a lot of sense. If only my teachers had been that candid about it -- and about Jesus who was called Joshua -- in CCD all those years ago.

Movie Journal: Solaris (2002)

There are those people who think Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 movie Solaris is a masterpiece, a hypnotic meditation on memory, consciousness, and human nature. Then there are the rest of us, who think Solaris is a flabby, somnambulant bore that might have been based on a stoned college freshman's journal entries rather than Stanislaw Lem's classic science-fiction novel (which, repeat after me, I haven't read).

Maybe that's why I thought Steven Soderbergh's recent adaptation was just fine -- especially the running time, which, at a lean 99 minutes, is slightly more than half of the original's endless three hours. I only saw Tarkovsky's version two years ago, but I don't remember many specifics, just vague impressions of a muddy-brown color scheme and long, wordless camera pans along superhighways and across marshlands. What Soderbergh has done, I think, is reduced Solaris to its essence without diminishing the contemplative feel of the material. He directed, wrote, edited, and photographed the movie, and his work is as sure as ever. His shots are beautifully composed, the precision of their framing recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey, but they're suffused with a warmth that Stanley Kubrick never touched, sometimes gold and buttery, other times blue and bright, always suggestive of a dream or a hallucination.

Soderbergh has preserved the basics of the plot: When the crew of a space station orbiting a living planetary body called Solaris cuts off contact with Earth, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), who is still mourning the recent death of his wife, goes up to investigate. There, he finds two crew members alive but haunted by their own interior lives, and soon Kelvin's dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), has appeared, too. But Soderbergh is more economical than Tarkovsky. The fractured chronology and elliptical editing he employed so memorably in The Underneath, Out of Sight, and The Limey are used to equally good effect here; they give the impression that Kelvin is unmoored, his mind drifting between present and past, reality and fantasy. Soderbergh is helped along by Clooney, his producing partner and frequent collaborator, who gives a quiet performance that's the latest stretch of his carefully honed range. The only flat notes come in the writing, during several moments when Soderbergh feels compelled to have the characters spell out the movie's great questions and answers. (Sample: "I don't believe that we are predetermined to relive our past.") They're obvious and unnecessary steps in an otherwise interesting, graceful film.


For a few weeks now, I've been harvesting e-mail from family and friends and threshing them into blog posts. Now it's my turn to be harvested and threshed, as Shallow Center publishes an e-mail I sent him and our younger brother. It was about The West Wing, and how one of the characters was drinking a Yuengling beer, which in Philadelphia is -- oh, hell, just read it yourself.

That reminds me, I've been meaning to shoot Shallow Center some link-love. His posts are always sharp, but there are a few recent ones have been particularly good. In reverse chronological order:

"Stormy Weather," a refreshingly angry attack on Philadelphia Inquirer TV critic Jonathan Storm, who -- as Shallow Center notes -- sounds depressingly like the Post's Tom Shales.

"Losing Hands," a lovely, double-barreled post on Tug McGraw's death and Pete Rose's ongoing disgrace that will be of special interest to anyone who has pledged eternal fealty to the 1980 Phillies.

"Mutants and Madness," which is Shallow Center's much-delayed but welcome entry into the world of movie-reviewing, via X-Men and A Beautiful Mind, about which SC has some perceptive things to say, even if does need to lay off Daredevil.

If you're not already reading Shallow Center, start with these posts, then bookmark him. And see if you can't talk to him about Aaron Sorkin.

Stellaaaaaa! Or, a Matter of Context

A few weeks back, my friend Keith and I were talking about movies, criticism, and awards, and Keith said that, all these years later, he still couldn't believe Annie Hall beat out Star Wars for Best Picture at the 1977 Academy Awards. I managed to stifle the raging 7-year-old inside me that wanted to shout, "Hell, yeah!," and instead said that, while I love Star Wars, I thought Annie Hall was probably a better movie. Needless to say, a discussion ensued. There was no clear resolution, but today Keith and I continued the debate. First came Keith's observation that Star Wars ranks #15 on the AFI's Top 100 -- 16 places higher than Annie Hall. So there! Then came my reply, in which I wondered aloud (via e-mail) if we would have liked Star Wars as much as we do now if we'd been 33 and 34, as we are now, when we'd first seen it. If you get my meaning.

Then came Keith's response:
I know you wonder if you would have loved Star Wars if you weren't seven, but I have an answer for you. And I will be so bold as to call it a definitive answer.

If you had been ANY age in 1977 and seen Star Wars (assuming that you were not of a mindset to think sci-fi was utter drivel), you would have loved it. I remember video taping (when we finally got a Beta VCR) people of all ages telling the camera how many times they had seen Star Wars. But even more than that, I think it reflects the moment when made (not the age of the viewer).

With TiVo, I have been frequently recording classic movies -- I have recently watched such films as Tora, Tora, Tora, The Searchers, High Noon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, To Kill a Mockingbird, The French Connection, and several others. With almost no exceptions, I end up feeling that the movies are flawed when I watch them. But in retrospect I do not think this is a flaw of the movies themselves, but instead a flaw in the decades of movies that have followed. More often than not, the pivotal scene(s) in these movies has been stolen and bastardized by a dozen movies that I have already seen. So when I go back and watch the original, it doesn't seem all that great.

I think Star Wars is the same. Just like I find myself trying to remember when watching the above films, it really matters WHEN the movie was made and what had come before. Frequently a film (like Star Wars) is considered remarkable because nothing like it comes before. In that case, it is practically unfair to judge the movie in light of what comes after.

With some films that use special effects, this is an easy distinction to make (see the original King Kong), but with other films it is more difficult to grasp. See a 1940s murder mystery and the outcome can seem almost ludicrous. However, consider the changes in laws and society, and the fact that almost every conceivable murder scenario has subsequently been put on film, and you have a different mindset.

Compare this to Capote's book In Cold Blood. Part of its revolutionary nature (if not all) is the story angle taken and the gory details. Today, you can get worse in a Playstation video game, so Capote looks tame. Does that mean the book wasn't revolutionary? Absolutely not.

And my reply to Keith:
That's a great point about needing to judge a movie within its own context. Six or seven years ago a friend and I went to see a restored version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in New York City. Like a lot
of the audience, I found it hard not to snicker at the parts that have long been referenced by and mocked in countless other movies and TV shows, especially when Marlon Brando started bellowing "Stellaaaaa!" I'm sure this was a powerful moment when first theater and then movie audiences were first exposed to it, but by the time I got around to seeing "Streetcar," it was part of every class clown's Brando impersonation. Another problem is that the style of movies is so different today, especially the acting, which is (usually) much more subtle, so that even the darkest, most realistic film noir made before
a certain time to me seems almost inherently melodramatic and corny.

As you pointed out, you can get caught up in the same trap with books, too. "In Cold Blood" is a good example; nobody had ever taken exactly that "nonfiction novel" approach before. Along those lines, over the summer I read a novel called "Revolutionary Road," by Richard Yates. It was published in 1961, and it's about a young couple living in New Jersey, outside Manhattan, struggling with infidelity, depression, and other alleged symptoms of suburban anomie. In other words, it's about what every New Yorker short story written in the last 50 years is about. So, on that level, the book felt quite derivative while I was reading it. But it's incredibly well written, light years beyond the cheap satire of these types of stories, and finally I realized that "Revolutionary Road" is the best example I've ever read of this particular genre, or niche, or whatever, and in fact it probably helped create or solidify the whole thing.

Where was I? Right, critical relativism. It's tough to figure out how hard you should be on something from a different era, because the stereotype you see in an old movie showing on TV today might have been an anti-stereotype when the movie was made in 1954.

Of course, I still haven't addressed "Star Wars." And, not to duck the question, but I think it's impossible to figure out if I would like "Star Wars" if I were seeing it for the first time today -- for the reasons I delineated above. Are we talking about me being 33 years old and seeing it in 1977? Or being 33 years old and seeing it today? Either way, there would be many different assumptions, expectations, and experiences at work, impossible to predict, shaping my reaction to the movie. But I do like to think that, no matter what, I'd respond to the goofy charm of "Star Wars."

Hey, wake up! We're almost done. The last word goes to Keith:
I meant that if you saw Star Wars in 1977 as an adult, you would still have loved it. After all, many many adults at the time did, so why wouldn't you? It would have been something totally new, and unlike the current films coming from Lucas, it puts the pieces together the right way.


Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Movie Journal: Red Dragon

When The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, was published in 1988, I was working at a bookstore, and I was still there three years later when the movie came out, and then a year after that, when the movie swept the Oscars. During that four-year period, I watched America's naughty little love affair with Hannibal Lecter grow and grow, to the point where old ladies with Atlantic City sweatshirts and the-devil-made-me-do-it smiles would come to the cash register and ask if we carried "the other Hannibal Lecter books." They never seemed to buy the truth, which at that time was that there was only one other Hannibal Lecter book, Red Dragon, and it wasn't about Hannibal Lecter per se, he was just a supporting character, sort of like in Silence of the Lambs, and.... People didn't want to hear that. They wanted all Hannibal, all the time, and eventually their voices were heard. In 1999, Thomas Harris wrote a book called Hannibal that elevated the serial killer everyone loved to love to leading-man status, and that became a hit movie two years later. And then, fresh out of Hannibal Lecter titles, with nowhere to go but back, Hollywood reached into the past and grabbed Red Dragon, which had already been made into a decent movie called Manhunter in 1986.

Truth be told, the 2002 Red Dragon is more faithful to the book than Manhunter, which was written and directed by Michael Mann, and often plays like a two-hour, R-rated episode of Mann's Miami Vice, right down to the synthesizer music, palm trees, and Dennis Farina and Stephen Lang (both of whom would later turn up on Mann's Crime Story). And, whereas Manhunter confines Hannibal Lecter to a single, crucial scene -- in which he's played with chilling understatement by Brian Cox -- Red Dragon reflects the franchise's renewed focus on Hannibal the Cannibal, giving him a cat-and-mouse relationship with FBI investigator Will Graham that's akin to his toying with Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

But how is it? I'd say that while it's very competent -- somber, sedate, well acted by an unbelievable cast that includes Edward Norton as Graham and Ralph Fiennes as the Red Dragon, plus Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, and, of course, Anthony Hopkins as, well, you know -- the whole project feels rather dutiful. It never gets all that tense, and, for a thriller, it's not very tight. I wonder if the problem isn't undue reverence for the source material. See, I think Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs are both smart, genuinely scary books, and that Silence of the Lambs the movie, while unnerving, is good-but-not-great, and that its reputation has been artificially inflated by the Oscar sweep as well as by the cult of Hannibal Lecter. That, in turn, has led filmmakers to treat Thomas Harris' novels with an excess of seriousness. So, like the book on which it's based, Hannibal the movie is a gross, lugubrious cartoon, and that leadenness also infects Red Dragon the movie.

In the end, since they're jamming Lecter down your throat, you might as well use him to judge Red Dragon in its entirety. It's probably just as well that nobody bothers to explain why Anthony Hopkins looks 10 years older than he did in Silence of the Lambs, even though Red Dragon is set 10 years before, but, still, it's hard not to see this oversight, or whatever you want to call it, as a symptom of the producers' give-them-Hannibal-no-matter-what attitude. And Hopkins' performance in this role keeps getting hammier. His unplaceable drawl is flatter and twangier than ever, and he feels much less threatening, because now Hopkins is playing Hannibal the Personality. It makes you long for the days of the Cannibal.

ROTK in the USA

This Return of the King discussion is growing out of control. My brother-in-law Dave, who like my previous correspondents knows his way around the Shire, if you get my meaning, pulls no punches:

What are you talking about? That bit with Legolas flipping onto the horse is the only truly horrible scene in the entire trilogy (at least, the only one I can think of). It's unnecessary, it's impossible even in the fantasy world that has been developed (like Legolas is suddenly Mr. Horse Man), and it looks really, really fake. You look at it and you say: "Oh, yeah, I'm watching computer animation, this could never happen", whereas you don't in most of the other scenes. Perhaps you just mistyped a y for an e when you wrote that it was an "unbelievably cool scene". I'm sure you meant it as an adjective, not an adverb.

Oh, wait, there is the gratuitous Legolas skating down the steps at Helm's Deep. That's not quite as bad. And the second try at a dwarf-tossing joke.

Oh, and regarding the Shire changing, the explanation is in that scene in the bar with the four hobbits sitting there looking vaguely uncomfortable while the Shire folk are all impressed by a big pumpkin as if it's the most exciting thing that's ever happened in the world. They're like Vietnam vets who come back to a world they longed for only to realize that they don't really fit in anymore. You don't need to scour the Shire for it not to be the same for Frodo (who was, after all, in a small and not entirely un-humble way, looking forward to his hero's story being glorified by local bards, as he and Sam had often fantasized). As you say, I would look to the movie, not the book, for an explanation, but I don't think it's missing.

Sadly, Dave is mistaken. Legolas' horse-flip in The Two Towers is, in fact, unbelievably cool and is not all that out of character -- at least, not to me. I'm sure I'm about to be told that Elves are not a particularly horse-savvy race, and that such a stunt would more accurately be performed by a rohir. But the three movies spend a lot of time establishing Legolas as an all-around warrior, sharp of eye and light of foot and all that, so in this sense his little saddle-hop -- which, let's face it, is a gratuitous nod to the fanboys in the audience -- is not out of character. As for it being obviously computer animated, I don't remember it looking all that bad, whereas Legolas' attack on that war-elephant in Return of the King did strike me as looking like a video game, albeit a damn cool one.

But Dave's comments about the Hobbits' return to the Shire -- especially his comparison of Frodo and Co. to Vietnam vets -- are very interesting. I still think there's a disconnect at the end of Return of the King, however faint, between Frodo's narration and life in the Shire, but Dave has convinced me to look at it a bit differently.

'Sister Christian': A Defense

My friend Amy checks in from Ohio with this fallacious salvo:

If you're not careful you will lose one of your ten readers. Please, let's have no more dissing of "Sister Christian" or the incomparable Nic Cage.

Amy and I used to work together, and, sadly, this hysterical rumormongering is par for the course with her. Where to start? First, I can hardly be said to have 10 readers. Seven is probably more like it. Second, I have never impugned the early-80s power ballad "Sister Christian." In the post to which Amy is referring, I say only that Alfred Molina played "the coked-up producer who jammed to 'Sister Christian' in Boogie Nights" -- which is a slur against neither "Sister Christian" nor Night Ranger. In fact, I can't imagine Amy even owns Night Ranger's Greatest Hits album, like some of us. (No, I'm not kidding.) And, finally, Nic Cage: Yes, it's true I slapped him around in my post about Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean. And, yes, it's true that at one time Amy and I were writing a romantic comedy that ideally would have starred Nic Cage. (No, I'm still not kidding. Deal with it.) But I stand by my comments: Nic Cage is a ham who needs to control himself, lest somebody gets hurt.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Book Club: The Bluest Eye, Part II

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


I also mostly liked The Bluest Eye. For such a slight book -- 206 pages, not including Toni Morrison's afterword -- it covers a lot of ground: childhood, family, poverty, incest, and, in a more oblique way than you'd imagine, racism. I was struck by your comment about the centrality of the "illicit, cataclysmic event" in Southern literature for a few reasons. First, I know exactly what you're talking about, and I've never been a huge fan of this genre, too much of which seems devoted to the fetishization of the bygone grandeur and dark, sadly poetic violence of the South. (Perhaps this impatience of mind is explained by the fact that I'm from New Jersey. Hey, aren't you, too?) Second, I'm not sure The Bluest Eye is Southern literature per se, for the simple reason that it's set in Lorain, Ohio, the Rust Belt town where Morrison was born. But, in some ways, the book does have Southern sensibilities. There are yes'm's and hidings and terrible secrets and distant white families with black housekeepers. But Morrison spares us the humid, tragically heavy scent of magnolias, so call it a Southern-influenced book.

Anyway, to jump right in, I think what Morrison does best is offer a fantastically unsentimental view of childhood. The children in The Bluest Eye are not innocent, but they're not corrupted either. Instead, like the kids I remember growing up, they're ultimately practical -- eager to see what they can get away with, wary of strangers but still open to new friends, and, when need be, totally ruthless. And they're matter of fact about the physical boundaries of their world. Claudia and Frieda's home is Twenty-First Street and Broadway, Pecola's is Broadway and Thirty-Fifth, the rich white people, like Pecola's mother's employers, live on Lake Erie, plus there's Isaley's for ice cream, the sweet shop, the playground, and not too much else. The children are also matter of fact about their place in this world. They circle their parents like mice around an elephant, wary yet dogged, never sure what might cause them to get stepped on. And, bad as some of the parents are, no one is tougher on the kids than they themselves. I'm thinking of the day that Claudia (the narrator) and Frieda (her sister) and Pecola (their poor, outcast friend) are befriended for about five minutes by the school princess, Maureen. When things inevitably blow apart, everyone goes for the kill. Claudia throws a notebook at Maureen, and Maureen screams at the other three: "I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!"

Morrison is less successful at poking into every crevice of her story, which I think is what you were getting at when you said you thought "Morrison wrote far more convincingly from the perspective of some characters than others." Like you, I think Morrison really nailed Claudia, and Pecola, too. And, like you, I was less convinced, or maybe just less interested, when she shifted to Mrs. Breedlove (as Pecola calls her own mother) and Cholly. In the afterword, written more than 20 years after the book was published, Morrison offers a clue as to what she was trying to accomplish by sketching out the Breedlove's history, which includes a horribly memorable incident from Cholly's adolescence when two white men stumbled across him in the bushes where he was having sex with a girl, and forced him to continue. Morrison writes, in strangely academic phrasing: "It is interesting to me now that where I thought I would have the most difficulty subverting the language to a feminine mode, I had the least: connecting Cholly's 'rape' by the whitemen to his own of his daughter." Clearly, Morrison wanted to trace what Cholly does to Pecola back to what the white men did to Cholly; the first violation begets the second. But I think this digression, while seemingly important, is actually quite haphazard, because Morrison doesn't also fill in the backstory for Claudia's parents. Until the Breedlove interval, the comparison between Claudia's and Pecola's families and their experiences has been quite interesting: One is "good," the other "bad"; one is bound by love, the other poisoned by it. (One of Morrison's great accomplishments, I think, is her believable portrayal of Claudia's parents as gruff and harried but fundamentally decent: Claudia's mother takes in Pecola and is instinctively kind to her when she gets her first period, while Claudia's father beats up the family's border, Mr. Henry, when he touches Frieda inappropriately.) Morrison explains how the Breedloves got the way they did. What happened to Claudia's family? Maybe I'm asking for something too neat or too symmetrical, or maybe it's just that good isn't as interesting or as much fun to write about as bad, but by opening up this second front, it seems to me that all Morrison has done is dilute her focus.

A few paragraphs ago I mentioned that I don't think The Bluest Eye is explicitly about race, despite taking its title from a big part of its plot -- a black girl's desire for blue eyes. I'll write more about that next time. But for now, what do you think? And, would a more direct focus on race made for a better or a lesser book? Inquiring minds want to know.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Son of 'Return to Return of the King'

Verily, like a plague of orcs, these usurpers of my critical throne vex me still. A few days ago, Glenn responded to my Return of the King review. Now I've heard from another friend, Keith, who might be an even bigger Tolkienite than Glenn. Okay, to be honest, I invited Keith to send me his thoughts -- but that makes them no less vexing and orc-like. Forsooth, Keith doth say:

First, I'll say that I enjoy the movie reviews on your blog most of all. This may be partially due to my suspicion that you can't read, or to the fact that the only books I read are the type where you have to hide the cover when reading in public. Which, of course, leads me directly to the Lord of the Rings -- while this has changed now, it was definitely NOT a popular thing when I was a teenager to have a member of the opposite sex find you reading these books. So perhaps my affection for the story is rooted somehow in the extra effort I had to go to in order to read the books and still try (vainly) to be cool.

Anyway, I agree with many of the points you made. In particular, the finale does appear to be a somewhat endless procession of stories being tied into neat bows. I think this amounts to some self indulgence on Peter Jackson's part (however, let's recall that George Lucas has been completely self indulgent since about the time of the Ewoks in 1983). Add to this an expectation (and a rather correct one, I think) that the long-time fans will want it all played out. Those of us with several decades of connection to the Lord of the Rings relish the many last looks we get at our fictional 'friends' -- and in all honesty wish that the rest of the parts left out were still in there.

As for the fighting and its redundancy with Helm's Deep, I think I may be one of the few who wasn't blown away by the Helm's Deep scenes. Personally, I think it was a big battle and not much more. Conversely, I feel there were some really stirring moments in the Battle of Pelennor Fields in Return of the King -- the seemingly futile run of the Rohirrim into battle, their subsequent success, the appearance of Aragorn & crew, the showy moment of Legolas' attack on the large elephant-like beast, and especially the moment when Eowyn kills the Witch King (Grrl Power, big time).

Sadly, I think the end of the Ring itself suffers on film since it is difficult to show Frodo simply look more and more weary for 9 hours of a film. The audience gets the point long before that. Plus many of the hardships of trekking across Mordor have been eliminated in order to speed up the ending (if you can believe it). While this works to keep things flowing along, it does somewhat belittle the scale of Mordor and difficulty of the journey.

Obviously my opinion is biased: PJ took the Lord of the Rings and made it more grand than I ever expected. So I love it. It isn't perfect, and my rear-end certainly doesn't love the running times, but I really enjoy the movies. However, when you compare it to the other epic trilogies in modern moviedom -- Star Wars... The Matrix... Does Indiana Jones count? I think not, since they're just three films with the same character -- then you see some striking differences. Unlike the Matrix or Star Wars, this is a three-movie story, not two movies made afterward to cash in on the success of the first. Star Wars and the Matrix told two stories: one in the first film, and then another in the later two, leaving movie number 2 without an ending. The Lord of the Rings triology has no ending for movies 1 or 2, so in 3 you get an awful lot of ending. Not an excuse, just the way I see it.

Anyway, no one should be surprised that I, long-time fan of the story, loved a well-done adaptation on film. They tell a good story (albeit abridged) and are entertaining to watch -- and I do feel Return of the King deserves a Best Picture Oscar, especially as a culmination of such effort. However, in twenty years, I am certain that the books will remain the stronger legacy.

Well, this is an all-around love-in, because while Keith agrees with many of my points, I agree with many of his. Specifically, I agree that:

(1) I can't read;

(2) Peter Jackson deserves an Oscar for Best Director, as a crowning acknowledgement of his accomplishment across the entire trilogy;

(3) there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to tie up every plot thread in a nine-hour epic;

(4) the Battle of Pelennor Fields (who knew it had a name?) had some stirring moments, especially Faramir's suicidal charge, to the accompaniment of Pippin's haunting ballad, and Eowyn's hear-me-roar slaying of the Witch King (who knew he had a name?), which I should have mentioned in my review -- though I still think Helm's Deep was more engrossing, because, even though it was only the midpoint on the march to Gondor, the battle there felt much more desperate to me;

(5) Frodo's struggle and the destruction of the Ring -- the raison d'etre of all three movies, and, really, their soul -- do get shortchanged, because by the time they come to a head, you've already been through an exhausting final battle, and you've also long since grown accustomed to seeing Frodo reduced to a junkie despairing of ever getting this monkey off his back; and

(6) stood against every other modern film trilogy, The Lord of the Rings is without peer, especially when you break down the narrative flow and thematic coherence of the others, as Keith has done.

Final thoughts:
Looking back on the trilogy, one of the things that most interests me is the individual subtheme of each movie. While the entire series is about the need to confront evil directly, I think each movie has something different to say about the nature of evil -- and the good that must vanquish it. Fellowship, for example, says that evil cannot stand against true brotherhood based on loyalty and love; thus, Men, Hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves come together to destroy the Ring. (But, speaking of love, don't get me started on the longing looks and general towel-snapping ardor among the Hobbits.) Two Towers examines the implements of evil, and finds in them a hostility to nature itself; so, Saruman's deforestration of the land around his tower is treated with horror -- and in fact inspires a counterattack by the trees themselves -- while the orcs' use of gunpowder to get into Helm's Deep is similarly despised. And, finally, Return of the King clearly equates the defeat of evil with the defense of Western civilization; how else to explain Aragorn's invocation of "Men of the West" during the final attack on Mordor, or the salvation of Frodo and Sam by giant eagles?

I assume these multivaried thematic facets, or some versions of them, are present in the books, and it's to Peter Jackson's credit that he doesn't shy away from them, given how far removed notions of "good" and "evil" are from the zeitgeist these days. None of these movies is remotely tongue in cheek, and thank Galadriel for that, because, while you can argue that this earnest tone makes them corny in spots, it's not like the material would have been better served by a heaping dose of winking irony.

Indeed, if I didn't say it strongly enough when I reviewed Return of the King, I think The Lord of the Rings is quite an achievement. What other pop epic has invited study from so many different angles, and then encouraged more study and more questions? It may be more about ringing steel than you realize when you're caught up watching it, but there's no denying it gets your blood moving and you're heart singing. Or mine, anyway.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Wal-Mart Gets Pickled

Fast Company isn't the first place you turn for anti-capitalist rabble-rousing, but the December issue has an article on Wal-Mart that's positively communist. Okay, not really. But by the standards of Fast Company -- which never met an innovation, a mission statement, a bottom line, or a tough-talking CEO it didn't like -- it's almost heretical. Writer Charles Fishman digs into Wal-Mart's relationship with its suppliers, and finds that even some big, established companies are troubled by Wal-Mart's oppressive devotion to low prices no matter what. There are a lot of positive asides, too, praising Wal-Mart's efficient business practices and the role the company has played in holding down inflation. But the gist of the article is captured in this anecdote about Vlasic, which used to supply Wal-Mart with gallon jars of pickles:

And so Vlasic's gallon jar of pickles went into every Wal-Mart, some 3,000 stores, at $2.97, a price so low that Vlasic and Wal-Mart were making only a penny or two on a jar, if that. It was showcased on big pallets near the front of stores. It was an abundance of abundance. "It was selling 80 jars a week, on average, in every store," says [Steve] Young [a former Vlasic vice president]. Doesn't sound like much, until you do the math: That's 240,000 gallons of pickles, just in gallon jars, just at Wal-Mart, every week. Whole fields of cucumbers were heading out the door.

For Vlasic, the gallon jar of pickles became what might be called a devastating success. "Quickly, it started cannibalizing our non-Wal-Mart business," says Young. "We saw consumers who used to buy the spears and the chips in supermarkets buying the Wal-Mart gallons. They'd eat a quarter of a jar and throw the thing away when they got moldy. A family can't eat them fast enough."

The gallon jar reshaped Vlasic's pickle business: It chewed up the profit margin of the business with Wal-Mart, and of pickles generally. Procurement had to scramble to find enough pickles to fill the gallons, but the volume gave Vlasic strong sales numbers, strong growth numbers, and a powerful place in the world of pickles at Wal-Mart. Which accounted for 30% of Vlasic's business. But the company's profits from pickles had shriveled 25% or more, Young says -- millions of dollars.

The gallon was hoisting Vlasic and hurting it at the same time.

Young remembers begging Wal-Mart for relief. "They said, 'No way,'" says Young. "We said we'll increase the price" -- even $3.49 would have helped tremendously -- "and they said, 'If you do that, all the other products of yours we buy, we'll stop buying.' It was a clear threat." [Former Vlasic sales executive Pat ] Hunn recalls things a little differently, if just as ominously: "They said, 'We want the $2.97 gallon of pickles. If you don't do it, we'll see if someone else might.' I knew our competitors were saying to Wal-Mart, 'We'll do the $2.97 gallons if you give us your other business.'" Wal-Mart's business was so indispensable to Vlasic, and the gallon so central to the Wal-Mart relationship, that decisions about the future of the gallon were made at the CEO level.

Finally, Wal-Mart let Vlasic up for air. "The Wal-Mart guy's response was classic," Young recalls. "He said, 'Well, we've done to pickles what we did to orange juice. We've killed it. We can back off.'" Vlasic got to take it down to just over half a gallon of pickles, for $2.79. Not long after that, in January 2001, Vlasic filed for bankruptcy -- although the gallon jar of pickles, everyone agrees, wasn't a critical factor.

I know Wal-Mart's tough approach to the free market isn't anything new, but this article made me a bit sick to my stomach. Yes, a retail store has to do whatever it can to get customers through the door, but I get the feeling Wal-Mart was offering these $3 jars of pickles -- which most people couldn't eat before they spoiled -- simply because they could. And people bought them simply because they could. "Conspicuous consumption" doesn't even begin to cover it.

A Sucker Is Born

Adam Begley of the New York Observer weighs in with the first review I've seen of American Sucker, by David Denby. Begley gives Denby props for his sketches of the high-flying investors he befriended during New York's recent gilded age:

The best parts of American Sucker are the vivid portraits of Messrs. Blodget and Waksal. As Mr. Denby gets to know them, so does the reader. They develop complex personalities, they evolve -- like characters in a good novel. First glimpsed onstage at an investors' conference, Henry Blodget is the stock analyst as celebrity: "He smiled nervously as people grabbed his hand. Many wanted to touch, to come close. An interesting face: There was something mysterious in the long plane between his eyes and his jaw, something unfinished." There's room already for the duplicity that would later emerge, and room, too, for an "awkward and charming smile."

Entertaining his A-list friends in his loft on Thompson Street, Sam Waksal is more than just a medical entrepreneur who struck it rich. He's a charismatic host and a kind of Renaissance man: "There was merriment in his eyes, an invitation to the fun of enterprise, and, matched to that, an invitation to talk over an idea -- any idea in the world. His appetite was irresistible." (So, apparently, was the lure of ImClone stock: Like Martha Stewart, Mr. Denby was a shareholder.)

But, finally, Begley finds American Sucker to be unnecessary, sad, and without shame:

The worst parts of American Sucker are about David Denby. Whatever happened to shame? Perhaps we're meant to admire his honesty, the complete candor with which he reveals his foolishness; perhaps we're meant to learn from his mistakes. But in what way is it instructive, or even entertaining, to read that in mid-1999, for a six-week period, Mr. Denby became obsessed with Internet porn? Or that he cured the insomnia brought on by his market anxieties with a cocktail of Xanax and NyQuil? Or that he repeatedly conned himself into believing that he’d found true love with a new woman? ("We greeted each other like long-lost friends who were astonished by their good luck in finding each other after so many missing years. Where have you been all this time? It was as if we had known each other in the past, in some earlier existence.") Or that 9/11 was his personal wake-up call: "I knew I couldn’t be quite as passive as I was before September 11."

Though I haven't read American Sucker, Begley's review seems fair to me, possibly because it lines up with my own prejudices against a certain kind of confessional writing (he says, publicly detailing every opinion he has on his blog). I'm curious to see what other critics think.