Friday, June 30, 2006


I wish I believed this actually meant something.

The Supreme Court Thursday ruled that Bush's plan to try Guantanamo detainees before military commissions was illegal, that the commissions weren't authorized by federal law and, additionally, violated international law.

There are two parts of this ruling that help make it a total smackdown of the decider's policies. One is that it makes clear that the administration is obliged to follow the Geneva conventions even if they deem them "quaint." The other is its finding that Bush improperly acted on this plan without congressional authorization, a clear rebuke of this administration's attempt to consolidate all power in the executive branch.

All well and good, and the decision was handed down by a solid majority--Chief Justice John Roberts sat this one out, as he'd already ruled (in Bush's favor) on this case as an appeals court judge, but even if Roberts had ruled, the outcome would have been the same--which is gratifying. But does it matter?

It's not just that the usual ass-kissers and cocksuckers in the senate are already lining up to give Bush the authorization to go ahead with his military tribunals plan for the detainees. (Aside to Bill Frist: Does Bush have mighty tasty semen? Because you seem to be willing to swallow an awful lot of it. Metaphorically speaking, of course. And, metaphorically, do you deep throat or--never mind...)

With or without congressional authority or judicial approval, Bush will do whatever he wants. Given his propensity for "signing statements"--signing something into law, then declaring that he is not beholden to that law--why should we expect him to be beholden to laws enacted by lesser mortals? The Supreme Court's ruling might be a setback, at least for the moment, but if the Bushinistas have proven anything, it's that they don't care what anyone says.

So expect business as usual.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


It's his eightieth birthday, he's one of my heroes and I couldn't let the day pass without a favorite inspirational verse:

Hope for the best
Expect the worst
Life is a play, and
We're unrehearsed.
--Mel Brooks


My sister Ann had a colonoscopy yesterday, and she's doing fine, thanks. Since she's had hers, she asked me when I would schedule one of my own. Obviously, I should do this--both of my parents had colon cancer. And it would be dangerously irresponsible for me both to avoid this procedure and to suggest that it won't do any good, anyway.

And I'm not suggesting that. However, I'm becoming more and more convinced that early detection of cancer is no more likely to save your life than waiting until the last minute. You'll either die or you won't.

Okay, my evidence for this theory is strictly anecdotal. But it's a pretty telling anecdote.

My dad was just short of seventy when it was determined he had colon cancer. It was a pretty easy determination to make, since dad, never a guy to admit physical pain or see a doctor, had waited until his left side swelled to cartoonish proportions, looking like a bladder effect from an early David Cronenberg film. By the time he decided that yeah, maybe he needed to go to the emergency room, he was in such pain he couldn't even move, and needed to be transported by ambulance.

So having waited until literally the last possible minute before even being examined, much less diagnosed, Dad had surgery. And you know what? He was fine. Yeah, he had to wear a colostomy bag, but the cancer was completely removed.

So, summing up: A guy nearly seventy, smoked and drank for most of his life, abused his body through a lifetime of tough physical labor, never saw a doctor. He gets cancer, lets it balloon problem.

True, after awhile dad had the first of a series of strokes that would ultimately incapacitate him, and he died of heart failure, and both of these were almost certainly related to the lifetime of abuse he'd dealt out to his body. But they were in no way related to the cancer...and wouldn't you have thought there would have been some complications from that? There are poor schlubs who eat healthy, exercise, do everything right...but when cancer appears, it spreads quickly and they're dead in no time.

My point is, life is a crap shoot. (And as my sister points out, when you're prepping for a colonoscopy, it's literally a crap shoot.) The comedian Bill Hicks (dead from cancer at thirty-two, unfortunately) liked to justify his hard-living ways by contrasting runner and health nut Jim Fix, who died of a sudden heart attack, with Keith Richards, who has abused his body in every imaginable way and is still going strong. And he's absolutely right. (Of course, Hicks was right about pretty much everything.)

Luck is with you, or not. You fall in love, or you don't. You get the job, or you don't. Good things happen, or bad things happen. You live. Or you die. Though I'm agnostic, I do believe there is a sort of guiding force to things, but I don't think anything but pure happenstance guides individual fates. We live our lives to the patterns of chance.

Still, I should probably schedule that colonoscopy, just to be safe.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


First, a prelude:

In the summer of 1975, at the age of ten, I saw three movies which would literally change my life. The first was Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which demanded active participation on the part of its audience, not passive viewing, and its enigmatic final sequence haunted me, daring me to make sense of it. Later I saw Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, which champions oddballs and outsiders over faceless conformity, and which introduced me to the world of schtick. It also made me laugh harder than anything I'd ever seen in my life, so hard I literally couldn't breathe for long stretches of its running time.

The third movie was the most important of all. Like any ten year old boy, I liked monsters, and the ads for the movie The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad certainly promised plenty of those. I badgered my mom until she agreed to take me, and on a Monday night at the Perry drive-in, with lightning flashes in the distance, my life changed forever.

I didn't know then that the movie was nearly twenty years old, and I wasn't familiar at that time with the name Ray Harryhausen, the stop motion animator responsible for Sinbad's monsters. But in the movie's first five minutes, as Harryhausen's cyclops came bounding across the screen, I knew this was nothing I'd seen before. The cyclops was blatantly unreal, and yet it lived--it shifted its massive weight as though it was awkward to stand still too long, its animated movement--curved back, bent wrists, splayed fingers--had the grace of Fred Astaire. But Astaire was real--what was this?

In some embryonic form, my whole worldview was born that night. In Harryhausen's work, I recognized an element of truth, and it would be my belief that truth is the essential component of all human endeavors--art, politics, relationships--that would come to define me, to accept or reject things according to this belief.

All of this is a long way to go just to say that new on DVD today--and from the good folks at Criterion, the most high-toned of specialty video companies--is Equinox, an amateur horror movie from the late sixties that was later revised and released theatrically by drive-in specialist Jack Harris in 1971. Both versions are included on Criterion's disc, and while neither one of them could really be described as a good (or even watchable) movie, this is still a fascinating release.

In its original form, Equinox was directed by Dennis Muren, a would-be effects guy who was using this partly as a test reel to show what he could do. Within a few years, Muren would be an effects supervisor for Star Wars and one of the founders of Industrial Light and Magic, so it's probably safe to say it worked.

But to what end? The goofy storyline in Equinox is clearly only there to support a few crude but exuberant special effects sequences, most of them clearly riffing on characters from Harryhausen's work. The DVD is hosted, appropriately, by Forrest J. Ackerman, erstwhile editor of Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine, and the man largely responsible for fostering the Monster Kid culture of the fifties and sixties.

Dennis Muren was clearly part of that culture, and he and his compadres spend a lot of time remarking on how much it meant to them, and how significant Ackerman's magazine and Harryhausen's monsters were to their lives. Yet Muren has made a lot of money (and won a shitload of Oscars) working on movies full of visuals that were big, splashy, but utterly empty. He says on this disc that he loves hand-made effects and doesn't care for CGI, yet he was the effects supervisor on Jurassic Park, the movie that pretty much brought old-school effects work to an end. Yeah, the effects in that movie look real, but so what? The spark of originality, of love, of truth, that is present, however primitive the form, in Equinox has largely vanished from the screen.

Criterion's DVD is absolutely essential, if not for the movie itself then for its heartbreaking shadow, the story of kids who could make their dreams come true, but who lost their souls along the way.

Monday, June 26, 2006


Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York, has called for an investigation, and possible prosecution, of the New York Times. "What they've done here is absolutely disgraceful," he said.

The crime? Daring to report on the Bush administration's searches through bank records of U.S. citizens. In other words, when Republicans are caught performing activities that are almost certainly illegal, fellow Republicans respond by accusing the accusers.

Except the Times isn't really accusing the administration of anything. It's just reporting something that is already there. Ah, but by exposing the administration's tactics to the light, the Times is somehow revealing state secrets, is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Does anybody really believe that? Could anybody really be comforted by the fact that shadowy right-wing operatives are going through their bank records and tapping their phones? And do we really believe this has anything to do with the alleged war on terror?

Because if these illegal tools are supposed to be helping us find terrorists, our intelligence people are even more incompetent than previously thought. Zarqawi releases a video of himself wandering around identifiable locations, and it still takes us awhile to track him down. When we do, we don't take him out G. Gordon Liddy-style, with a shoelace or a sharpened pencil. Nah, we drop a big-ass bomb, which--hey, here's a big surprise--also takes out a bunch of civilians, including a little girl.

Or what about the justice department's breathless announcement last week that they'd foiled a terrorist threat to take down the Sears Tower in Chicago. Except that the "terrorists" in question turned out to be a bunch of hapless schmucks who knew a guy who said he knew a guy who could connect them to another guy. The Honeycomb Bunch was as big a threat to national security.

If the administration's war on terror is this incompetently waged, may we assume the phone taps are in fact being used for other purposes? Maybe we'll find out soon, since Senator Arlen Specter has proposed oversights on Bush's wiretap program. But since Specter is a Good Republican, I think when he says oversights for Bush, what he really means are free blowjobs. (Metaphorically speaking, of course. These are good, solid citizens. No homo stuff here.)

While all this is going on, where have the Democrats been? Busy trying to figure out how to have no position about Iraq. Sigh.

Let me just say it again: We're hosed.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


The glory days had certainly passed producer Aaron Spelling by when he died Friday at 83. True, he had producing credits on such current or recent shows as Seventh Heaven and Charmed, both of which helped give The WB its identity, just as he had helped establish Fox with Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.

But however popular those shows were, they were just shows. But back in the seventies, Spelling pretty much owned TV, or at least ABC, which was the network most watched by those of us growing up in that era. Virtually all the shows I think of when I think of the seventies were Spelling's handiwork: The Rookies and Starsky And Hutch, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, Charlie's Angels and The Mod Squad.

In addition, Spelling's liver-spotted hands were all over some of the most delightfully lurid TV movies of the period, including Little Ladies Of The Night, One Of My Wives Is Missing, Death Cruise, The Girl Who Came Gift-Wrapped, and Satan's School For Girls. The nea plus ultra of seventies cheese, The Boy In The Plastic Bubble--yup, that was Spelling.

Keep in mind, none of these things were any good. In fact, you didn't even need to watch them--their contents just sort of took up residence in your system, providing you with glossy images of feathered hair and wide lapels, plus more than your recommended weekly dose of Karen Valentine or Laurette Spang. Spelling was some sort of genius, seemingly able to tailor a show to any conceivable audience segment.

As the decade shifted, he was right there, offering Big Eighties Hair and padded shoulders aplenty with Dynasty, a show which seemed to run forever, spinning ever screwier storylines, and a massive phenom of its time--and yet the magic was fading, cannier producers were using some of Spelling's formulas with greater elan, and his name no longer guaranteed a big hit, or even a decent time slot.

Additionally, Dynasty, like 90210 later, was all too aware of its own camp charm. The joy of prime Spelling, Charlie's Angels or any of his TV movies, was a total lack of irony. They were stupid, yes, but entertaining in a brain-dead way, and they aspired to nothing higher. There was a consistency to his work, a craftsmanship, and we'll not see his like again. He gave us seventies kids some wonderful memories.

For just Satan's School For Girls alone, thanks, Mr. Spelling.

Friday, June 23, 2006


Cel phone conversations in public places are so common these days, it's easy to let them remain ambient noise. So it was today when I went to the bank, and there was a doughy guy sitting in the waiting area, hunched forward, legs frantically bouncing up and down. Late thirties maybe, thinning blond hair, wearing shorts and a knit shirt, an aging frat boy, barking into his phone.

There wasn't much of a line, only three people waiting in front of me, a young woman in a short skirt, a tall guy in a work uniform and a soccer mom type. Two tellers on duty, serving an elderly couple and a portly guy. The wait seems to be taking longer than it should for routine business. I try to ascertain some of what is going on at the counter, but all I can hear is Doughy Guy.

"Yeah, yeah, no...She's just...No, I've heard this, she's pulled this sort of...Amber and I...Amber and I...She's, Amber and I, that just makes her so...No, she can't believe it. She doesn't want to. She thinks...She, look, this is...What did she tell you?"

He stands and begins pacing. "She told you--no. We're not...We're not...As far as I'm concerned, we're not still married. Let her think...I...I don't care...Whatever."

The line moves forward. A line has formed behind me now. Everyone looks down or to the side, quiet. Doughy Guy gets louder.

"It's all about choices. She made hers, I made mine. She's gonna have to deal...No, she's gonna have to deal. Just deal. If she...tell her to just deal. Amber and I...Whatever, that's her, that's her, okay? Amber and I..."

The woman in the short skirt is at the counter. I'm next. The teller asks me my business, then asks me again; I couldn't quite hear her over Doughy Guy. I hand her my deposit slip and wait as she punches in my account number. Over at the next window, I hear the teller ask the short-skirted woman, "How would you like that cash back, Amber?"

Amber says something I can't hear, receives her cash and heads for the waiting area. Doughy Guy sees her coming and turns, barely acknowledging her presence, and marches out with her in tow. The door shuts behind them, and I notice the people waiting behind me relax from their poses of stiff indifference, some of them smiling at each other in silent understanding.

After only a few more seconds, the teller hands me my receipt and I head out myself. A large pickup is backing up, nearly hitting the car--my car--beside it. Doughy Guy has one hand on the wheel, the other still holding the phone to his ear, his mouth still moving, and Amber sits looking out the window, quiet and still.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Seven marines and a navy corpsman are charged with kidnapping and murder. They allegedly pulled an Iraqi man out of his home and shot him, then placed a gun in his hand and claimed self-defense.

Three soldiers are accused of deliberately allowing three Iraqi detainees to escape just so they'd have an excuse to shoot them.

Twenty-four Iraqi civilians dead in Haditha, including children and an old man in a wheelchair, all deliberately and mercilessly murdered by U.S. marines.

Can we please stop the blanket endorsement of "the troops" now?

It diminishes us as a nation. Everytime I see a Democrat or liberal pundit prattling on about how Bush has mismanaged the war, the whole thing is hurting America's image abroad, but constantly pointing out that he or she supports the troops 100%, I want to ask, Does that mean you support this?

I've never served in the military, and I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like in Iraq. Just by serving there, the grunts on the front lines exhibit a bravery I'll never know. But that doesn't make them better than the rest of us, and to hold them up as shining exemplars of all that is good denies them any individuality, or sense of humanity.

The military's like any workplace. Mostly everybody's just trying to do their job. There are cool people, slackers, nutjobs. And the inevitable alpha dog, who surrounds himself with weaklings. Only in this case, the nutjobs and alpha dogs are bored, frustrated, pissed off and scared shitless. And they have guns.

When prisoners are allowed to escape just so soldiers can take pleasure in shooting them, you're looking at bloodsport pure and simple, The Most Dangerous Game brought to life. Actions like this could only be commited by people who have ceased to even view their enemy as human. They're just a bunch of dak-skinned foreigners, sand monkeys, camel jockeys, fuck them and fuck their shitty country.

This attitude isn't just held by the soldiers on the scene. How could the horrors of Abu Ghraib be swept so quickly under the rug, by both the Bushinistas and their useful idiots in the press, unless there was a feeling that hey, it's us against them, and they aren't like us, if you know what we mean. The first rule of war is to dehumanize your enemy, and in Iraq it is learly working all too well.

The president claims the war is morally justified, so I guess the loss of our humanity is a small price to pay for doing the right thing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


I haven't seen Superman Returns, but there is already one aspect of it that troubles me. Or more accurately, two aspects: Its leads.

While it may be true, as publicity stresses, that star Brandon Routh is the same age as Christopher Reeve when he first played Superman, he certainly seems younger, more a WB pretty boy than a Man of Steel. And Kate Bosworth is only twenty-three, for God's sake. It's like watching kids play dress-up.

Casting such young leads would seem to contradict the very premise of Superman Returns: Supes has mysteriously vanished, in self-appointed exile from earth for five years. In his absence, Lois Lane has given birth--and the kid is five years old. Hmmm.

But if we're meant to wonder if Superman was shtupping Lois, well, given Bosworth's youthful appearance, you have to figure he disappeared to avoid charges of statutory rape. And how old were Lois and Clark Kent went they started writing for the Daily Planet? Twelve?

I realize movies are aimed at increasingly younger audiences (and I'm getting older), but this is ridiculous. Take the remake of The Omen. (Please!) The original starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Both were clearly middle aged, which lent its absurd premise--Papa accepts a switcheroo when his newborn dies as birth, only the new baby turns out to be the Antichrist--just a patina of poignancy, as this would clearly be Remick's last shot at giving birth. In the new version, Julia Stiles comes off more as Son O' Satan's cool babysitter than his mom. There's a weird disconnect between what the movie is asking us to believe and what we're seeing. It's like watching a high school production of Death Of A Salesman; even if it's good, you can't believe it for a second. (Also while watching The Omen, you might wonder why actors like Stiles, Liev Schreiber, David Thewlis and Mia Farrow are stuck in something like this, but that's another topic.)

Maybe the problem is that, for the last twenty years or so, Hollywood has been feeding us a steady diet of pretty but bland actors and calling them stars. As they age, they don't mature, they just seem like dissolute teenagers. Put it this way: Charlie Sheen is the same age Humphrey Bogart was when he made Casablanca! Despite his famously bad-boy reputation, Sheen is a massive zero onscreen, whereas Bogart looks like he's been around--he's interesting even before he does anything.

For that matter, Margot Kidder was only six years older than Kate Bosworth when she played Lois Lane is Superman. Yet she seemed...I was going to say older, but maybe I meant more interesting. She had a smoker's voice and a sarcastic manner and her movements were skittery, bird-like. She wasn't a conventional action movie babe, yet she had the lead in a multi-million dollar comic book movie. And she was terrific.

Obviously Bosworth is too young for her role, but age is only part of the issue. Even if they were determined to cast young (so the actors will age well for sequels, claim the producers), they didn't go for a distinctive, interesting performer, like, say, Thora Birch. Nah, they went with the star of...of, um...I'm sorry, what's Kate Bosworth been in?

Maybe that's it. The problem with Hollywood these days isn't its youth fixation, but its determination to make everything bland.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Three movies with hard-core cult followings have finally arrived on DVD, and boy are they swell.

First up is Cemetary Man. Dellamorte, the caretaker at the local graveyard, has an occupational hazard: the corpses reanimate themselves. No problem, usually, a shovel to the head can kill them permanently. But then he goes and falls in love with one of them. And then his reality really unravels.

Director Michele Soavi apprenticed under Italian horror auteurs Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, and Cemetary Man is the work of a dazzling stylist. What starts out as a horror comedy in the Evil Dead vein becomes increasingly dreamlike, with an ending guaranteed to make you want to rewatch the whole movie to see if you missed something. One of the key horror films of the nineties, this should have led to great things, both for Soavi and for the genre itself. Unfortunately, it didn't.

Unlike Soavi, Robert Aldrich was a director with a long and glorious track record--everything from the bizarro noir Kiss Me Deadly to the iconic campfest What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? to guy's guy epic The Dirty Dozen--when he made Emperor Of The North. Here's the setup: It's the Depression, and railroad guy Ernest Borgnine is so determined that no hobo will ever hitch a ride on his train, he'll do anything--anything--to keep them off. Lee Marvin plays a drifter who accepts Borgnine's challenge.

That's pretty much all there is. Marvin hops on the train, Borgnine throws him off, Marvin figures out another way to get on the train, they fight, Marvin gets thrown off, et cetera. It's like a Road Runner cartoon, if Wile E. Coyote had been a hobo and the Road Runner had been a fat, hammer-weilding psycho. In any event, the story here is not so much simple as elemental, and Aldrich's direction is tough as nails. Plus, hey, Lee Marvin--one of the coolest guys ever to step in front of a camera.

Cemetary Man and Emperor Of The North are personal favorites, but no movie has been more desired on DVD by film fanatics everywhere than Russ Meyer's outrageous Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Described by its screenwriter (Roger Ebert!) as "a camp sexploitation horror musical that ends in a quadruple ritual murder and a triple wedding," BVD (as Ebert calls it) is a once-in-a-lifetime occurence, for only in the tumultuous Hollywood of the late sixties could a major studio (Fox) have given a director of soft-core trash like Meyer a large budget and complete artistic freedom.

There's never been anything quite like BVD. For a guy who trained himself in filmmaking by shooting pin-ups and stag reels, Meyer had an absolutely perfect sense of camera placement, and his complex editing rhythms were enormously influential. At the same time, despite Ebert's florid, endlessly quotable dialogue ("Ere this night does wane, you shall drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"), you have to wonder if the campy tone is partly due to the fact that Meyer can't direct actors, because there are fleeting moments here (not many) when you suspect he wants us to take this thing seriously.

You could spend a couple of days exploring Fox's DVD of BVD. And you should: Two seperate commentary tracks (one by Ebert, one by cast members, both worthwhile), a genuinely intersting making-of, a mini-doc on the film's rockin' score, an attempt to put the picture in historical perspective, plus tons more. But above all there's the movie itself, looking and sounding better than it ever has, ready to delight old fans and freak out new ones. To paraphrase one of its characters, who could resist its alabaster charms?

Monday, June 19, 2006


When I first heard Robert Altman was making a movie of the long-running public radio show A Prarie Home Companion, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, Altman is, without doubt, one of the towering figures of world cinema, but you never know what he'll come up with. Sometimes you'll get a masterpiece (The Long Goodbye, Nashville, Short Cuts...this list could go on), sometimes you'll get a mess (O.C. and Stiggs, Fool For Love...this list could go for awhile, too). However, his most recent film, The Company, was, I thought, one of his best and least appreciated, so I had no doubt that Altman, at 81, is still capable of anything.

But A Prarie Home Companion, the radio show, isn't exactly my cup of tea. An excessively cozy, somewhat self-satisfied mix of cornball comedy and old-timey music, its creator, Garrison Keillor, is Altman's exact opposite: you always know what you're going to get with him. He's been doing the exact same thing for decades now.

Keillor scripted A Prarie Home Companion, the movie, and unfortunately couldn't jetison all of his cutesy tendencies (one fake ad for Powermilk Biscuits would have been quite enough, thank you), but the sensibility here is pure Altman. Focusing on the final broadcast of a long-running radio variety show, and how what happens back stage often carries over on-air, it is all about loss--loss of livelihoods, loss of a way of life, loss of life itself. We can only hope this is not Altman's final film, but it seems as though he was aware of the possibility; it has an ache to it, a melancholy that comes close, but never tips into, sentimentality.

There are a lot of terrific performers here--Woody Harrelson, John C. Riley, Maya Rudolph, Kevin Kline and one of my all-time favorites, L.Q. Jones. But the tender heart of the movie is the relationship between Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, playing the only surviving members of a family singing act. As they spin anecdotes about their lives and hard times to Streep's daughter (nicely played by Lindsay Lohan), they begin to realize that this is it, this is all that's left of their lives. They sing the spiritual Softly And Tenderly and embrace, secure that if this is all they have, it's enough.

It's an emotionally devastating scene, but Altman wisely doesn't linger over it too long. Sorrow is part of life, yes, but there's also music and laughter and friendship, and all get their due over the course of this wonderful movie.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


If you claim to love the flag but have nothing but contempt for the republic for which it stands--rejoice! Your time has come! Thanks to Bush's hand-picked Supreme Court, 230 years of civil liberties will soon be nothing more than a memory. Or, as Alberto Gonzales would put it, a "quaint" memory.

The court's latest decision gives cops the right to bust into your house without knocking or even identifying themselves. (It's the same kind of democracy we brought to Iraq!) As of now, they do still need a warrant to enter, but since Bush's contempt for such legal niceties is well-documented, I'm sure we can count on his Renfield-like toadies on the bench to do The Master's evil bidding.

Any idiot could have seen the threat of a Bush court coming, and should have flagged it as THE key issue in the 2004 campaign. But we weren't dealing with any idiots. We were stuck with the Democratic Party, a very rarefied form of idiot. They stumbled throught the campaign thinking that Kerry's service record was somehow going to so impress everyone that they didn't even need a coherent message, and never anticipating that the Republicans would manage to make Vietnam an issue. They apparently thought that Bush was so self-evidently a douchebag that nobody'd vote for him--already a weak strategy--but never gave anyone a specific reason to vote for Kerry.

But what if they'd said to female voters, Look, do you want to control your reproductive rights or do you want a Bush-appointed court to take your choice away? Yeah, that might have alienated a lot of voters--but it would have mobilized millions more. And it would have been a bold reaction to a real threat, a threat that has turned into an assault. It could have been stopped, but by their massive incompetence, the Democrats allowed this to happen.

Forget 9/11. The Bush Supreme Court is already proving to be the most terrifying attack on America we've yet experienced. The utter failure of the Democrats (and the mainstream media) to alert the public to this danger borders on the treasonous. At the time of this country's founding, treason was considered a hanging offense. Of course, I'm absolutely opposed to the death penalty in all cases, so I would never suggest hanging those who let Bush win.

They're Democrats. Surely the embarrassment of that is punishment enough.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Many people search for that elusive perfect relationship, or at least a meaningful bond with another person, or at the very least some sort of grubby, regret-soaked physical encounter. And for many people, that's a fine and noble goal.

But let's say you're a bitter, seething misanthrope. You have no use for other human beings, yet social norms dictate that you at least try to interact with others. How can you guarantee that a relationship will be mercifully killed before it even has a chance to start?

This simple test will help. We've presented a typical, but entirely hypothetical, dating situation, and four possible responses to something your potential mate has said. For purposes of this test, you will play a male interacting with a female.

Here's the situation:

You've only just met this woman, you've only been talking for a few minutes, but it seems to be going reasonably well. She's made a few comments that led you to feel comfortable asking her political views, and without hesitation she said, "Oh, I'm a liberal." Though you would have felt better if she'd said, "I'm a fire-breathing radical lefty," liberal is...something you can handle. Then the conversation turns to literature, also a good sign--at least it isn't turning to reality TV or eighties hair bands. You mention William Burroughs and Hubert Selby, neither of whom strike a responsive chord. Then she says she's currently reading The Fountainhead.

How do you respond? Do you

(a) say, "I've never heard of that. Tell me about it."

(b) say, "What a bold choice for a summer read!"

(c) not say anything and hope she doesn't elaborate.

or (d) snort, "Ayn Rand? What the hell kind of liberal reads that facist?"

You'd be surprised how many people would choose one of the first three responses, and thus could find themselves trapped in the straightjacket of an actual relationship. But if you chose (d), which manages to be simultaneously whiny, judgemental and vaguely hostile, congratulations! You have freed yourself of society's conventions and guaranteed yourself another night of, um, whatever it is bitter, self-satisfied loners do. Frankly, we'd rather not know.

Again, congratulations, enjoy your life of solitude and thanks for taking this quiz.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I just had a dream. No, really, this isn't one of those lame premises in which I pretend to have had a dream, I actually experienced this: I dreamt the long-awaited release of Joe Dante's brilliant combination of social satire and Looney Tunes animation was finally upon us, and it finally secured Dante the acclaim he's always deserved. The reviews were ecstatic, it was a smash hit and he was finally free to make whatever film he wanted.

Well. That was my dream, which probably tells you what my subconscious is like. Anyway, it got me thinking about filmmakers of the seventies and early eighties who did some terrific work, seemed like they were on the verge of greatness, but somehow never quite caught the big brass ring.

Joe Dante would be a perfect example. He really did make a live action-animation hybrid a couple of years ago, Looney Tunes: Back In Action, but it got mostly indifferent reviews and was a colossal flop. (It's actually enjoyable but even, and its failure helped nail shut the coffin of hand-drawn animated films.)

Dante started out as a member of Roger Corman's stable, and his first (modest) hit was the horror semi-spoof Pirahna. It, combined with his satiric werewolf picture The Howling led to his hiring by Steven Spielberg to helm a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Though that picture was mostly dreadful (Dante's contribution was terrific), it was at least high-profile, and Spielberg hired him again, this time to direct Gremlins, which turned out to be that rarest of things: a smash hit that was also a wonderful movie.

The future looked bright, but Dante was at this point stereotyped as a genre director, or worse, as a Spielberg surrogate. He made some science fiction pictures, but they were too loopy to connect with the masses, and tried a mainstream comedy, The 'burbs, that shows amazingly obvious signs of studio tampering. He made what are probably his two best movies, Gremlins 2 and Matinee, in the early nineties. Since then, only two features and a fair amount of TV work. These days he probably finds more employment as a guy who gets interviewed about old movies for documentaries than he does as a director.

Possibly even more curious is the case of Walter Hill. A writer turned director, he already displayed a solid visual sense with his debut, Hard Times, but really hit it big with the cult favorite The Warriors. A major influence on hip-hop culture, it remains a model of how to stage, photograph and edit an action film. Hill's next two pictures remain his best, the elegiac western The Long Riders and the scarifying allegory Southern Comfort. Then, like Dante, he had the hit that both defined and ruined his career: 48 Hrs, the quintessential buddy cop comedy. True, it was a good buddy cop comedy, but it led Hill into the mainstream, with awful stuff like Brewster's Millions, Red Heat and Geronimo. Unlike Dante, Hill's talent started to fail him: even more personal projects like Wild Bill didn't come off, and again, he seems to have safely retreated to television. (He directed the first episode of Deadwood, and so set that show's distinctive style.)

Or consider poor Peter Bogdanovich, who went from great work like Targets and The Last Picture Show to bad eighties Rob Lowe comedies to awful, awful basic cable movies. Or William Friedkin, who made one of my favorites, The Exorcist, and has spent his whole career since chasing commercial, not artistic, success, and has failed dismally.

I don't know why, for instance, Martin Scorsese is treated as a genius and generally given carte blanche to do whatever he wants, while other filmmakers around his age are treated as journeymen at best. I'll take Gremlins over Goodfellas any day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


I clean houses for a living. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of this, only mentioning it because, when you're in a customer's home, you have to play by their rules. If they have the TV on, you can't shut it off. If every TV in the house is on, you leave them all on. If they're all tuned to the same thing, you can't change the channel. And if the thing they're all tuned to is W's press conference, you're forced to listen.

Ordinarily, whenever Bush says or does something that is incredibly stupid and/or a crime against humanity--which is to say, every hour of every day--I find out about it after the fact. His press conferences or speeches I can't watch live, because I have high blood pressure, and it's not like he stops talking in the middle of these things to let people with my condition (or sentient beings in general) go for a walk, scream incoherently or just take a few deep breaths in order to calm down. So I'll read about them later. (I usually go with The New York Times. Despite its reputation as being somehow "liberal," it is if anything excessively deferential to the administration, as the whole Judith Miller fiasco proved. In any event, the Times generally tells me what as said without a lot of interpretation either way, and I can read it in tiny increments, allowing my blood pressure time to settle.)

Anyway, the Decider-In-Chief, just back from his utterly meaningless but PR-riffic trip to Iraq, was doing his usual thing, a question would be asked and he generally sidestepped it, repeating endless variations of "When the Iraqis step up, we will step down," and after a while it just kind of became white noise in the background and I was able to go on about my business.

The someone asked why he hadn't even notified the Iraqi government--the people in whom he claims to have such faith--about his visit until five minutes before he got there. Safety concerns, of course: "I'm a high-profile target," he said. "Iraq is a dangerous place."

No shit? Did you just figure that out? Because you know what, Mr. President? Our troops are getting killed on a damn near daily basis there. You know why? Because any American in that country is a high-profile target. Yeah, you're the president, but on a human level, can you honestly say you deserve a higher level of protection than they get? Because they've got jack shit for protection, with vehicles and body armor in desperate need of upgrades, which your government can't afford because you think tax breaks for rich people are more important than protecting the lives of our soldiers. When the Iraqis step up, we'll step down? When the hell are you going to step up, you worthless fucking douchebag?

But, again, I was in a customer's home, so I couldn't actually explode with rage, much less kick in the TV screen. Breathing deeply and checking my pulse rate seemed to do the trick. Like the entire nation under Bush, I just sort of endured.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


It's been on DVD before, and this so-called Special Edition is mostly nothing special, but Disney's marketeer's have just reissued Dumbo, and that's reason for celebration. Easily the best thing Disney ever did, almost certainly the best animated feature ever made, and just a great movie all-around, Dumbo also offers proof that animation is truly an art form.

You know the story: tiny elephant, big ears, an outcast among his circus peers, finally befriended by Timothy J. Mouse, who helps him discover...he can fly! It's a standard freakish outsider makes good tale, but told well, at a perfectly judged length of only sixty-four minutes. It never feels padded or rushed, as do so many Disney features of its era.

Probably one of the reasons Dumbo is as good as it is comes from the fact that it was knocked out rather quickly, rushed to the marketplace to make some quick cash, since Walt had lost a bundle with Fantasia. There was no time to smooth out the rough edges, to make it a more generic piece of product. As a result, it's obvious even to people who aren't cartoon geeks like me that characters (particularly Timothy) change their appearance and mannerisms slightly depending on who is animating them at any given moment. Thanks to a thorough commentary by John Canemaker (a holdover from a previous DVD issue), it's possible for anyone to appreciate the work of these individual artists as the movie unfolds.

Possibly the greatest animator of all time was Bill Tytla, and it is his rendering of one scene that raises this to the level of greatness. Dumbo's mom has been caged since she tried to protect him, so Timothy takes him to visit her. She's chained, and behind bars; all she can do is unfurl her trunk and wrap it around her child. Tytla's animation here--the emotions flickering across Dumbo's face before he finally collapses into his mother's trunk, and the absolute bliss on his face as he does--is as perfect, as profoundly moving a depiction of pure love as any artist could depict.

As it plays in the context of the movie, set to the aching lullabye Baby Mine, this scene is undeniably sentimental. (It's honest, well-earned sentiment, so it's okay. Plus Baby Mine makes me weep uncontrollably every time I hear it.) So watch it out of context--step through this scene frame by frame, and note Tytla's mastery of movement, how his characters carry their weight, and above all, notice that he never pushes the emotion, that he depicts what he's showing with restraint, and that very restraint makes it all the more powerful.

Dumbo has so much great stuff--hipster crows, the Pink Elephant scene, even a brief hommage to Nosferatu!--and mercifully has none of the qualities we've come to expect from contempoary animated features. There are no would-be hip pop culture references, no big-name star voices, no fart jokes. And above all, no sense of talking down to the audience. This is a movie clearly made by people who loved what they did. I love what they did, too.

Monday, June 12, 2006


This weekend was spent in Nebraska, with my brother John and his family. A pleasant time was had, particularly since they were the inheritors of Mom's dog Rufus, a loveable and dopey critter who seems to have been assembled from spare parts. (He has the body of a sheep, the ears of a jackal and his tail...I think it's a propeller beanie.) It was the first time we'd gotten together without a weird sense of abscence, an unspoken awareness that Mom was no longer around. I din't feel numb, I didn't feel guarded, I didn't feel...that I wasn't feeling. I just relaxed.

Yet since I've gotten home, I keep wondering, why John? He and I have always been close, with similar (though not identical) tastes and senses of humor. And I'm still close to my sister Ann--we talk on the phone, hang out occasionally. But what about my sister Julie and my brother Mike? I haven't seen them or talked to them in months. What about their kids, or the kids of my late brother Keith? I don't know anything about them anymore.

This is my family: We don't talk. We don't communicate. We used to, sort of, in the sense that we used Mom as a sort of message board, knowing that if we told her something that was going on, word would get passed to other family members. (Even if we preceded it with the words, "Don't tell anybody about this, but...") Everybody talked to Mom, it was easy and comfortable. She could be cranky but was generally non-judgemental, and always seemed interested in what you were saying. Even friends of ours would take the time to talk to her, and feel comfortable doing so. She was the Universal Mom.

Without her, what happens? Is this family decaying, collapsing, or merely evolving? Do familial bonds have to be renewed, are they always assumed, do they even exist? One of my first thoughts when Mom passed away was, if I got remarried (which, at this point, seems about as likely as getting struck by a meteor, but...), I wouldn't have to go through the whole introducing-the new-girl-to the-parents bit, and I wondered if a coupling without family blessing was somehow less legit.

Which is silly, of course. Life is what it is. There's no right or wrong way to live. Sooner or later we all say the Big Adios, and bit by bit we're all forgotten. So I should strive to just be in the here and now, to be comfortable in my own space and skin. When my own life is in order, then matters of family can work themselves out.

Or not, and that's okay, too.

Friday, June 09, 2006


My car was in the shop yesterday, and I was waiting for it. Swear to God, that's the only way I would ever have been watching Today. Matt Lauer was, as near as I could tell, jizzing his well-tailored pants, so excited was he about the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. "This couldn't have come at a better time for the Bush administration," he breathlessly informed us, "which in recent days has been reeling from the news of the alleged massacre of civilians by American forces in Haditha."

Say, Matt, you're right. It couldn't have come at a better time. Almost like, I don't know, it was planned that way.

Those dots, Matt--do you see them? Can you connect them? Can you see where they lead?

Do you understand that when you say "alleged" massacre, even though there's no longer any question about what happened, and "of civilians" as opposed to saying "of children and grandparents," you are softening the story, playing into the hands of the administration, doing their work for them? Does this bother you, or are you such a tool that you still are able to convince yourself you're a journalist, even when giving air time (and thus, respectabilty) to Ann Coulter?

Oh, one other thing, Matt--how do you get the jizz stains out of your pants?

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Hey, here's a surprise: The Senate's latest attemp to ban gay marriage failed.

Of course it did. It was just a stunt, designed to inflame the prejudices of the great unwashed, and in that sense, it was a rousing success. It ranks right up there with that plan to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. Neither gay marriage nor undocumented Mexican laborers pose any kind of threat to the members of the senate. They pose no threat to anybody, but boy, it's nice for the Republicans to have convenient boogeymen in their pocket, ready to pop out and say Boo anytime the president's falling poll numbers threaten their own political survival.

The fact that our elected representatives choose to pander to our basest fears and bigotries rather than appealing to the better angels of our nature tells you everything you need to know about America in the new century. The rickety machine of democracy could be fixed, but only if someone's willing to admit it needs to be fixed.

Oh, but nothing's wrong. Our senators are on the job, doing God's own work. Just ask Bill Frist: "Marriage between one man and one woman does a better job protecting children better than any other institution humankind has devised. As such, marriage as an institution should be protected, not redefined."

Aside from that statement's tortured syntax--better at protecting children better?--it is also pure bullshit. What is he claiming? That child abuse doesn't happen within hetero marriages?
That hetero marriages never fail, leaving children abandoned? That gay marriage would automatically put kids at risk by...what? There is no thought behind this statement, and no thought to the actions that it represents.

Republicans are masters at this game, but the Democrats play it, too: Pander on issues that play well to the folks back home, pretend like you're doing something and then at election time, claim that you'll keep fighting the good fight. Meanwhile, the economy stalls, the national debt balloons, wages stagnate, health care becomes less affordable, the war continues and millions of Americans fall through the cracks. These are real world problems. They need real world solutions, not boogeymen and bromides.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


It was announced this week that yet another pointless re make (sorry, the preferred term these days is "reinvention") of a 1970s horror movie is on the way, in this case of John Carpenter's Halloween.

Handling the writing and directing chores this time around will be Rob Zombie, auteur of House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, both of which were among my mother's favorite movies, so I'll refrain from saying anything negative about Mr. Zombie or his intentions.

But seriously, Rob: Why bother? Last year alone we had to endure two soporific remakes of Carpenter movies, Assault On Precinct 13 and The Fog. In both cases, the budgets were much higher than the originals and the levels of imagination, characterization, surprise and style were considerably lower. Zombie may bring more to the party than the creators of these films did, but is it worth it?

To me, the seventies and early eighties were the last great flowering of the horror film. It was a time when young directors, often working with non-existant budgets, created bold new visions, terrifying not just for their blood and thunder, but for what they were about. These movies, under genre disguises, reflected the anxieties of their times. Consider David Cronenberg's Shivers and Rabid, about the unexpected costs of sexual freedom, or George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, which neatly touches on race, class and the hollow values of America's consumer-driven society, or Joe Dante's satire of pop psychology, The Howling, or Carpenter's own The Thing, an unsettling meditation on isolation and despair.

Even movies with no particular thoughts in their heads could deliver the goods, like Don Coscarelli's goofy, exuberant Phantasm or Tobe Hooper's relentless Texas Hainsaw Massacre. These movies were all absolutely unpredictable--their were no rules, no test screenings, no consideration of marketing. They weren't being made for the masses, they were going to be playing at drive-ins and grindhouses. Since they were considered junk, their directors were free to do anything.

Obviously, we don't have drive-ins and grindhouses anymore. Most "independant" films are actually made by subsidiaries of corporations, and either in or out of the horror genre, its getting hard to find movies that seem to truly reflect the singular vision of an inspired director. The careers of Lucky McKee and Larry Fessenden, two contemporary directors who seemed to promise bold new visions in the horror world, seem to have stalled in endless development deals. The great filmmakers of the sevnties don't work as often as they should, though at least recent efforts from Romero and Dante proved they remain as politically aware as ever.

So these days, horror movies (like almost all movies) seem to be aimed exclusively at teenagers, scary on the surface but with nothing underneath, nothing to disturb their sleep or stir their subconscious. Big-budget remakes of Dawn Of The Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are technically proficient but utterly without purpose, except to make money.

And as for Rob Zombie, his movies and music show a real appreciation for seventies horror, and I admit Halloween is probably John Carpenter's least interesting film. Maybe he'll be able to make something of it. But is it too much to ask for something new? Aren't their stories that haven't been told?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


I haven't seen the new Special Edition DVD of John Ford's 1956 Western The Searchers, which is just out today, and I suppose I really should, for the upgraded picture and sound alone. But I doubt that anything will change my opinion that this is one of the most overrated movies ever made.

The Searchers is much beloved by film critics and filmmakers alike. Sergio Leone patterned a scene in Once Upon A Time In The West (which is a masterpiece) after a famous scene from this, Martin Scorsese claimed Taxi Driver (again, one of my favorites) is a partial remake, and directors as varied as John Carpenter, George Lucas and Paul Schrader have cited it as a major influence.

It's easy enough to see what impressed them. Certainly individual sequences are astonishing, thrillingly realized by Ford, and John Wayne's deeply felt performance as man haunted by a past we only learn of in fragments is a thing of real beauty. The movie's supporters claim Wayne's troubled character, and Ford's somewhat ambiguous treatment of him, make The Searchers a movie about the nature of racism.

I say it's just a racist movie. The story involves outsider Wayne's attempts to reconnect with his family, and how the reconciliation is shattered when a group of rogue Commanches attack the homestead, killing many and kidnapping the two youngest daughters. A posse is formed, time drags on, and most of the men turn back. Eventually it's only Wayne and one companion, played stiffly by pretty boy Jeffrey Hunter, still on the trail.

Already we're on shaky ground here. Wayne's sociopathic hatred of Native Americans is, admittedly, presented as a disturbing character trait. But the movie takes the Commanche's bloodlust as a given. They kill because, well, they're Indians. Many critics have claimed Ford gives proper due to the Indians, but this is pure hogwash.

The lowpoint comes when Hunter's character somehow acquires an Apache bride. (Don't ask.) This woman's pathetic pleadings for affection from her new husband are played for laughs, and in one of the ugliest scenes I know of in any movie, Hunter finally responds by kicking her. Hard. Down a hill.

And it's supposed to be funny.

There's a lot to find fault with in The Searchers. There is sloppy direction of extras, a lot of mismatched shots, and some painfully unconvincing sets. There's an overly sentimental score and an overly-glossy Hollywood look. These are flaws, yes, but maybe, maybe I could overlook them.

But when a movie asks you to laugh at a minority woman being brutalized, it's pretty much crossed a line. Ford means for us to find this hilarious because, hey, who could take her feelings seriously, anyway? She's subhuman, right?

At that point any claims of the true believers that The Searchers is an indictment of racism just vanish. And any objective opinion I may try to have about it vanishes, too.

Monday, June 05, 2006


If you're not from around here, Des Moines is like most urban areas, in that its aging infrastructure is collapsing, metaphorically speaking, as more and more people move to the suburbs. Every city has to deal with this situation; there are many reasons, good and bad, why people choose to live in the burbs. If people won't live there, the people in charge of city planning must come up with something to draw them back, a reason to come spend there money here.

The brilliant plan they came up with in Des Moines was a library.

Not just any library, mind you. No, this would be the centerpiece of Des Moines' ambitious Gateway Project, a beautiful Urban Lifestyle Area that would welcome new visitors to the city as they come in from the airport.

So far, it ain't much. The library is a typical glass and steel monstrosity that meanders along for a couple blocks, situated on a flat, grassy area scattered with benches. We were told while this was under construction that this Urban Lifestyle Area would rival Central Park in its simulated natural beauty, but so far they haven't even been able to conjure up a tree, much less anything resembling a park.

And then there's the interior of the library, which has all the welcoming ambience of a Sam's Club. It manages the neat trick of seeming to waste a lot of available space while at the same time feeling claustrophobic.

To me, this new white elephant was best exemplified by its periodicals section. In the old downtown library, the one that this replaced, newspapers and magazines were housed in a room they shared with research materials, a large open room largely lit by natural light, with long wooden tables that invited you to stay for as long as you wanted.

Now the magazines and newspapers are shoved into a corner on the second floor, with only a few (uncomfortable) chairs and small, personal-sized tables. The massive glass windows, which were supposed to offer "commanding views" of the city, in this case overlook a bar, a porno shop and a Chinese restaurant. I guess that could be considered scenic.

I'm no expert on urban planning, but if this is how Des Moines plans to get people to come back downtown, they might as well throw in the towel right now. (Oh, and here's the kicker: This brand new fabulous be-all and end-all is closed on Sundays!) Even if the library was more successful on its own terms, it's just a library. By itself, it won't give people a reason to come in from suburbia.

I live here. I'd rather live in the city than suburbia. But in this case, I'm starting to feel like a maggot living off a corpse.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


This probably doesn't qualify as progress, but when I got an e-mail from my ex telling me she's officially set a date for her wedding, I didn't feel like killing myself.

In fact, there was barely even a twinge of sadness. Bad news is a given these days. Terrible things happen all the time. My ability to react to these things, or even process them, seems to have short-circuited. I'm just numb.

I would say it started when my mom died, but it probably started last summer, when she first became ill. At first it was nausea, which was kind of unusual for her. It got worse. She went to the doctor. She wound up in a hospital, then another, then another. Some kind of intestinal blockage, they decided, and surgery was scheduled.

They removed the blockage in question, but discovered something else: cancer. After the surgeon explained this to us, my sisters and brother all agreed they sort of expected something like this.

Well, I didn't. Yet the news didn't freak me out as it should have. It was at that point that I just stepped back, disengaged from reality and stopped feeling. A coping mechanism, a way to deal with a reality too terrible to accept.

A good thing at the time, and a good thing subsequently. I had a relationship blow up in my face, a health scare of my own, my divorce was finalized. And oh yeah, Mom got better and then, suddenly, got a whole lot worse and died. Plus the usual small things, day to day irritations, the thousand natural shocks all flesh is heir to--all of it rolled off my back. I didn't feel any of it.

But that's no way to live. It's time to start processing all this, to cry, to be angry, to be something. I'm in a permanent semi-bummer state, and I'll never get out of it unless I can start feeling again. Ah, but feelings are dangerous things, they can take you to terrible places and overwhelm your common sense. When my emotions take over they take over completely, sometimes euphoria, sometimes despair. An excess of emotions was largely responsible for blowing my marriage apart. Why would I want that again?

I don't. But I want something.

Or, as a great sage once put it:

Gonna get a running start and hurl myself at the wall
Gonna hurl myself against the wall
'Cause I'd rather feel bad than not fel anything at all...
--Warren Zevon

Saturday, June 03, 2006


I can't believe I let his birthday go by earlier this week without paying tribute to one of my all-time favorite actors, filmmakers and icons Clint Eastwood. Aside from being officially the Coolest Guy On The Planet (since his only serious competition, Miles Davis and Warren Oates, are no longer with us), Eastwood has always been an inspiration as that rarest of Hollywood creatures, the person who makes exactly the movies he wants to make, exactly the way he wants them. As an actor, he's always been underrated. As a director--man, I don't even know where to start: Play Misty For Me, High Plains Drifter, Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, Bird, A Perfect World, Mystic River--all flawed, perhaps, but all very good, with moments of greatness. Plus, Unforgiven, an absolutely magnificent piece of work, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, which is one of the few movies I know that is sheer perfection.

But lately what's been intruiging me about Eastwood are his politics. Or more accurately, how those politics relate to his work.

Clearly, my politics skew far to the left. But in this country, at least, it seems to be nearly impossible to make a left-wing narrative film that isn't 1), hopelessly phony, 2) preaching to the converted, or, most commonly, 3), both.

Take a movie like North Country, the recent Charlize Theron-battles-sexism-in-the-mines epic. The point here is that abusive behavior towards women is bad. Yeah, fine...but who would disagree with that? But aside from the fact that it does nothing to challenge the audience's already-held beliefs, everything about North Country feels wrong, which is to say it feels like a group of well-paid Hollywood types trying their best to pretend like they care about working-class types. It feels patronizing.

That's why two of the Eastwood pictures I find most interesting these days are his stupid redneck comedies, Every Which Way But Loose and its follow-up, Any Which Way You Can. Artistically, these are largely indefensible: they're not funny, and Eastwood's famously fast shooting style betrays him here, since they just look cheap.

Still, the blue collar world these pictures depict--Eastwood plays a truck driver, and he's surrounded by bikers, would-be country singers and a whole lotta drinkin' buddies--is shown without even a hint of condescension. Clearly Eastwood likes all these people, and he shows them warts and all, but he lets them be people, not types. And he uses wonderful actors like Geoffrey Lewis, Bill McKinney and Hank Worden, who look like guys you'd meet in dives.

His politics have shifted somewhat since then, but at the time he made these, Eastwood was a hardcore Republican. There's nothing overtly political in the films themselves (though the bad guys in Any Which Way You Can are rich East coasters), but they have a generosity of spirit thay says, whatever you are, that's okay. These two picture, along with Josey Wales and Bronco Billy, all from the same period, have a kind of utopian feel, almost like they were made by...hippies or something.

So what am I saying? That the left should be more like the right?

Maybe. Or maybe the left just needs to find somebody as cool as Clint Eastwood.

Friday, June 02, 2006


Oh, that John Kerry.

He's out on the trail again, working with an organization that's compiling a dossier that will prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that those swift boat veterans that accused him of inflating his service record are a bunch of liars.

Where to begin?

First of all, of course the swift boat veterans were a bunch of liars. Most of them had, in fact, inflated their own service records, but more to the point, they were clearly just front men for a typical Republican dirty tricks operation. These guys are getting so good at baseless accusations they're starting to make Joe McCarthy look like Barney Fife.

Second of all, I'm sorry...compiling a dossier? Isn't that the sort of thing bitter loners do? Make lists of every slight made against them, so that when their time comes--and oh yes, their time will come--they can prove to the world that they were right? Nice to know Kerry has something in common with the Unabomber.

Finally...Dude, you FUCKING LOST THE ELECTION! Where was this determination to prove the truth when it might have done you some good? Any chimp could have guessed the Bush team was going to attack your service record, and when they did, you stood right by and let it happen. Kinda like when they accused you of being an elitist snob out of touch with the common slob, and you responded by taking a skiing in fucking Aspen, for God's sake. No whiff of privelege there.

Kerry undeniably had the moral high ground--he served, Bush didn't, end of story--yet he let Team Bush paint him as a loser AND DID NOTHING TO FIGHT IT. The way he conducted his campaign seriously called his common sense into question, and made even the most devout Democrat wonder how this clown got the nomination. (As always, of course, the Democratic party had no one to blame but itself.) If he'd won, would it have mattered? Given Kerry's unwillingness to fight for his own integrity, would he have put up much of a fight over, say, a Supreme Court nominee? Or would he have backed off as soon as the right wing attack dogs barked, letting things stay pretty much status quo?

The thing that really sticks in my craw about Kerry trying to repolish his image is the dread feeling that he's going to try to run again. But that could never happen, could it? The Democrats aren't really that stupid, are they?

Are they?

Thursday, June 01, 2006


You'll have to forgive me today. My mind's a bit frazzled, and I'm in kind of a downer mode, and I don't feel much like posting anything original today.

So I thought I'd highlight lyrics to two of my favorite songs, two of the saddest songs I know. Both of them feature music by Kurt Weill, probably my favorite composer of all time. But this is print, so you won't hear the music. Interestingly, the exquisitely downbeat lyrics to both of these were written, not by a well-known lyricist, but by Maxwell Anderson, author of the plays from which these songs were taken. Anderson may have only moonlighted as a songwriter, but these are both wonderful pieces of work.

Let's start with It Never Was You, a love song of uncommon feeling:

I've been following the trails
I've been staring after ships
For a certain pair of eyes
And a certain pair of lips

And I've looked everywhere
You can look without wings
And I've seen a great variety
Of interesting things

But it never was you
It never was, anywhere, you
An occasional sunset reminded me
Or a flower hanging high on a tulip tree
Or one red star hanging low in the west
Or a heartbreak call from a meadowlark's nest
Made me think for a moment, maybe it's true
I've found you in the stars, in the glow, in the blue...
But it never was you

I've been running through the rain
And the wind that follows after
For an uncommon girl
With an unforgotten laughter

Well, I've tried a kiss here
And I've tried a kiss there
For when you're out in company
The boys and girls should pair...
But it never was you...

There are many things to like about these lyrics. I like the plainspoken quality ("the wind that follows after") which lend it an almost casual quality, until a single, perfect detail ("an unforgotten laughter") nails the overwhelming pain of heartbreak and loss.

I'm not sure how well the lyrics to It Never was You stand alone without Weill's wistful melody, but I know these, for Lost In The Stars, are probably as fine as anyone's ever written:

Before Lord God made the sea and the land
He held all the stars in the palm of His hand
And they ran through His fingers like grains of sand
And one little star fell alone

So the Lord God hunted through the wide night air
For the little dark star on the wind down there
And He stated and promised He'd take special care
So it wouldn't get lost again

Now a man don't mind if the sky grows dim
And the clouds roll over and darken him
As long as he knows God's watching over him
Keeping track how it all goes on

But I've been walking through the night and day
Til my eyes are tired and my head's turned gray
And sometimes I think maybe God's gone away
Forgetting the promise we heard Him say

And we're lost out here in the stars
Little stars, big stars,
Blowing through the night
We're lost out here in the stars...

A world without God, a world forgotten and abandoned. This is, without a doubt, one of the most profound expressions of existential despair ever written, even without Weill's mournful music.

Weill's often unusual songs are justly celebrated today, his works covered by opera singers and jazz crooners alike, and pop performers like Dresden Dolls and Nellie McKay have clearly looked to him for inspiration. I'm second to no one in my admiration of Weill, but I wonder why Maxwell Anderson doesn't get more credit for his lyrics.

After all, it's the words that people sing.