Tuesday, October 31, 2006


All you need to know about 1975's The Devil's Rain, out today on DVD, is that it has Ernie Borgnine, Bill Shatner, Ida Lupino and Keenan Wynn, which means you've got some heavy-duty overacting, and it has a climax during which lots of people melt. That's giving away the ending, but back when this opened, that was the whole selling point: MELTING PEOPLE!! AAIIEE!! (This was before Raiders Of the Lost Ark definitively prooved that melting Nazis are cooler than melting Satanists, a fact which seems self-evident.)

The chief interest in seeing The Devil's Rain today is as a pleasant reminder of the anything-goes state of the horror film back in the seventies. Then as now, the primary audience for horror tended to be young, but back then, the films didn't pander to them. Yeah, there were dead teenager movies back then (like Black Christmas and of course Halloween), but there were also serious big-budget items like The Exorcist, the twisted mindfucks of David Cronenberg, enjoyable PG-rated schlock like Grizzly, regional oddities like The Legend Of Boggy Creek, and...well, whatever target audience wanted to see a melting Ernie Borgnine, they were served as well.

I've said it before, I'll no doubt say it again, but horror movies were one of my first passions, and the current state of the art is depressing to me. A case could be made that Hostel and the Saw series offer mirrors of our bleak, hopeless national spirit, but when I see big-budget, entirely soulless remakes of seventies indie classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the upcoming "reimagining" of Brian DePalma's Sisters, I just don't see the point. The originals had a true outsider quality. The remakes are about as scary as weekend warriors gathering in Sturgis and pretending they're outlaws.

But at least we have the DVDs. Even if you weren't there, The Devil's Rain has the ability to take you back to the mid-seventies, and nothing is scarier than that.

Monday, October 30, 2006


Let me be clear: Clint Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers is an honest-to-God masterpiece, emotionally devastating and technically dazzling. It may be Eastwood's life's work, the summation of everything he's learned about filmmaking in a thirty-five year directing career, and everything he's seen his country go through in seventy-six years of life. This former hardcore Republican clearly still loves his country, but the love is now conditional.

Yet Eastwood has no intention of drawing easy parallels between World War II and the Iraq mess. Clearly, Iwo Jima was a necessary battle. When the government plucked three soldiers off the island to send on a fundraising tour, it was also necessary: The U.S. was broke. There's no suggestion that there was anything sinister, or even dishonest, about the government's motives. But the result was, these guys were scared for life, proclaimed as heroes, yet abandoned when they were no longer needed. Still, that's what happens when you send people to fight: Whether the cause is worthwhile or merely an act of caprice, lives will be destroyed just the same.

One of Eastwood's strengths as a director has always been his use of actors, his preference for character actors over big-name stars. That pays off here, as the biggest name in the cast, Ryan Phillippe, is well past his A-list days, which somehow democratizes the cast: No actor is clearly The Star, no actor is more important than any other. Every actor here, every face, every voice makes an impact, no matter how small the part. (Particular mention should be made of Harve Presnell and George Hearn as elderly Iwo Jima vets, and Judith Ivey as a grieving mother, three superb cameo portraits.)

However large the scale becomes--and let's tale a moment to salute Eastwood's long time production crew, cinematographer Tom Stern, editor Joel Cox and production designer Henry Bumstead, who died during production--this is always a story about people, and the people we meet here will break your heart.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Sometimes you do things you just don't expect. Yesterday I saw Everyone's Hero.

Yes, Everyone's Hero. Bad computer animation. Stupid plotting. Whoopi Goldberg as the voice of a talking baseball bat. Rob Reiner as a talking baseball. A talking baseball, for God's sake. Named Screwy, no less.

Tabbatha's son Paul had been wanting to see this thing, and it had vanished rather quickly from theaters. But it was playing at the cheapo theater up in Ames, so okay, fine.

And well, obviously, not my cup of tea. In fact, at times it was so stupid, it was hard to know how sentient beings could have cobbled together such a script, with its clumsy balancing of "cartoonish" behavior (characters being dragged by trains but walking away uninjured, as opposed to dead, like they'd be in the real world) and sledgehammer sentiment (complete with trite "everyone's a winner if they try" messages). Admittedly, its strongly pro-Yankee, anti-Cubs attitude was kind of heartwarming, and whenever it stopped being about the plot and started being about baseball, it was okay. But, well, still...Screwy the Ball?

That's my take on it, though. I wasn't there for me. I was there for Paul. It was aimed at seven year olds, and to him it was all good. He'd lean forward when our protagonist seemed to be in trouble, and cheer when things went well, and just had a good time watching a movie that seemed to be meant just for him.

So in that sense, I enjoyed it, too.

On the way home, Paul used the various action figures he happened to have with him to recreate scenes from the movie. Somehow the characters from Everyone's Hero started acting out scenes from Star Wars, and everything ended up with a light saber free-for-all (which would have greatly improved the actual movie, come to think of it), and a good time was had by all.

Next weekend Paul and I are going to hole up and watch Star Wars. Real Star Wars, the sacred original trilogy. The kid only knows the prequels. He doesn't even know who han Solo is, for God's sake. So this should be quite an education.

For both of us.

Friday, October 27, 2006


Time was, if there was a new Clint Eastwood movie, by God I was right there. I saw The Rookie on opening night, for God's sake. (In fact, I actually paid to see it again, because I assumed the whole thing was some kind of joke that I just wasn't getting. I'm still open to that idea, but I think it's more likely that it just sucks.)

I'd been looking forward to seeing Flags Of Our Fathers because, well, it's a new Clint Eastwood picture. And when it opened last weekend, I...didn't go. Not because I didn't want to--I hope to catch up with it this weekend--but because there were other things to do.

It used to be so simple. I lived for movies, for music, for all things I deemed artistic. It was easy, too, because there was nothing else going on in my life. Even when I was married, my ex and I lived in a kind of bubble, with no kids, relatively few friends and a whole lot of leisure time. We were, in fact, prone to doing artsy crap, between my writing and her singing. (She found more success than me.) Briefly there was even an involvement in the nightmarish, backstabbing, depressingly insular world of community theater. This is the type of thing we did, the type of thing, it seemed, that I lived for.

But then, divorce. And debt. And other things, what I guess would be called real life, got in the way. Suddenly there were more pressing concerns than seeing a movie as soon as it opened...or even seeing it at all. There was more to life than I had realized, and other things to do. Not always good things, but necessary, and things I'd never dealt with before.

So I'll get around to Clint, and Nellie McKay's new album finally gets released next week, so I'll pick that up. It just may take longer than it used to, is all. To paraphrase the ad copy for Once Upon A Time In The West, it isn't good and it isn't bad. It simply is.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


A few things bumming me out:

1) According to Forbes, Kurt Cobain is America's richest dead celebrity, beating out perenial champ Elvis Presley. Sure, Nirvana's back catalogue continues to sell, but how did his estate get so rich? Courtney Love sold the rights to some of his songs, meaning that Cobain's works can now be used in ways he never would have intended, as background noise for TV shows, or commercial jingles. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl are understanably pissed about this development, but the songs are owned by The Widder Cobain, and she's allowed to do whatever she wants with them. Christ, if I'd been married to her, I'd have killed myself, too.

I hadn't heard it in a long time, but I happened to hear Hole's Doll Parts on the radio the other day, and it reminded me how great Love briefly was before she began her twelve year slide to total irrelevance. In all that time, I'd never quite been able to hate her; by selling out her late husband's legacy, she finally allowed me to turn the corner.

2) As somewhat snidely reported by NPR, far-right Republicans are expected to cruise to easy victory in all the "Old Confederate" states this election day save one, and that would be George Allen in Virginia. It's a depressing reminder of how, in some extremely conservative parts of the country, politicians barely have to code their racism. And in a way, you have to wonder why all the fuss about Allen. After all, as Virginia's governor, he fought the Martin Luther King holiday, reached out to white supremacist groups and flew the confederate flag anywhere he could. So why punish him for calling a dark-skinned guy "macaca"? Why now do we pretend to be surprised that our leaders are straight-up racists?

3) On the other hand, for a glimpse of just how condescending the other side can be, look no further than Aaron Sorkin, the king of feel-smug-about-yourself liberalism. On the most recent episode of his increasingly dreadful Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, one of the stars of the show's fictional SNL knock-off (played amusingly by Nate Corddry) was expecting a visit from his parents. Since they were from Columbus, Ohio, Sorkin naturally depicted them as not only rock-ribbed conservatives but culturally vacant--when Corddry mentions Abbott and Costello to these two, who are apparently in their mid-to-late fifties, they've never even heard of them. I'm sorry, that's just not possible. But to Sorkin, and to far too many of his elitist brethren, the Great Unwashed have no appreciation for anything remotely "cultural", even if that culture comes in the form of a wildly popular comedy team. I'm sure Sorkin is pro-civil rights and believes in raising the minimum wage and thinks all Americans deserve decent health care, but if he was ever locked in a room with one of the people who's rights he claims to support, he'd have no clue what to say. After all, what do you say to someone who is--let's face it--not as good as you?

4) Fox's coverage of the World Series--are they trying to turn viewers away? Ramp up the testosterone, pad time with fake music videos, showcase actively irritating announcers(Tim McCarver looks like Jackie Cooper on a bender, and Joe Buck's scary whiteness makes the Pillsbury Doughboy look like Bootsy Collins)--hey guys, this is baseball, not football. We don't go for that crap around here.

(By the way, I'm rooting for the Cardinals, not because I'm such a fan, but because the Tigers deserve to lose for taking out the Yankees. Actually, the Yankees did a pretty good job of taking themselves out, but hey...)

5) Ah, why the hell not--George Bush. He's a bummer for all seasons.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Yeah, well, I was going to write about...something...Sorry, I'm still scraping bits of this off the wall...Um, where was I? Anyway, I was going to write about, like, cool new DVDs and stuff. I was going to--Ow! This is really painful!--tell you to run out and buy Volume Two of the Astaire-Rogers Collection, and Season Two of Batman Beyond and for crying out loud be sure to get The Sesame Street Nostalgia Collection and SNL: The Best Of TV Funhouse.

I would have said all that, but then this happened. It wasn't Tony Snow announcing that the White House will officially no longer use the phrase "Stay the course" regarding Iraq, or Karl Rove smugly telling NPR's Robert Siegel that he is "certain" the Republicans will take the mid-term elections.

But when I heard Bush stumping on the campaign trail, saying that the Democrat's idea of defense against terror is to wait until we're attacked...Well, my head exploded. No, literally. There's gray matter everywhere.

I mean, we were attacked, right? And Bush was president, right? I mean, are they trying to pretend that didn't happen? Are we supposed to have forgotten? Do they think we're stupid?

Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.


Monday, October 23, 2006


I didn't want to do this, but I'm afraid I must: Time to break out my Star Trek IV rant.

My girlfriend accuses me of being a snob. When it comes to music, movies, TV shows and anything "artistic" (her quote marks, not mine), she says I flaunt my knowledge a little too much, that I'm condescending when I explain things, that I favor the obscure for its own sake, and disdain the popular because I assume the masses have deplorable tastes.

Let's take that last one first: Given that my all-time favorite band is a not-exactly obscure foursome called The Beatles, I just don't think that's true. Yeah, I probably know more about the band than the average person--my friend Howard and I spent at least fifteen minutes the other night riffing on John and Paul's well-known fondness for jam butties--but come on. They're the most famous band in history. There's a lot of information out there about the lads, and if you're a fan, it just makes sense that you'd want to know more. And the knowledge enhances the music: On the surface, Help is an upbeat, catchy song, but if you read it as another song John wrote to try to come to terms with the loss of his mother ("now these days are gone and I'm not so self-assured"), it becomes poignant...and meaningful.

As for the rest of her charges, I plead not guilty. I like what I like, and if that's obscure, hey, so be it. (Though again, given my obsessions with Star Wars and James Bond...obscure?) And if there are a lot of popular things that I hate, well, that's because I think we as audiences deserve better. There's nothing I hate more in popular art than cheap, easy writing.

Which brings me to Star Trek IV.

That would be the one in which the crew of the Enterprise travels back to modern-day San Francisco to save the whales because...Never mind, it's not important. The point is, in order to get our futuristic space folk to the late twentieth century, the film offers up a typical bullshit sci fi explanation. ("If we engage the whatchamacallit drive to maximum as we bank off the sun at a certain angle, we can bend the fabric of time and space and travel backwards...") Okay, fine. The premise of the movie demands this, and at least they made the effort to explain it.

But then the problem arises, once our plucky crew arrives here, how do they stay inconspicuous? Specifically, where do they park this spaceship? Well, they flip on the ship's Cloak Of Invisibilty and set it down in a heavily-used park.

Wha---? I used to complain about the whole Cloak Of Invisibility thing, arguing that asking us to accept another Idiot Premise after that whole banking off the sun bit was too much, but then I had people explain that said cloak is actually a given in the Star Trek universe, a premise that had long ago been established. (Those were the people who actually listened to this rant. Most people smile politely, pat me on the head and walk away as quickly as possible. And Tabbatha thinks I'm condescending...)

Okay, but just because a thing is invsible doesn't mean it ceases to exist. There's a spaceship in the middle of the park! Maybe you can't see it, but it still has mass. Joggers will smack into it, frisbees will bounce off it, birds will crap on it. People will figure out it's there. Yet the filmmakers ignore this, because it's easier for them. This isn't a part of the immediate story they're telling, so they neglect to construct a plausible backstory.

But backstory is everything. I have to believe that the story I'm being told is taking place in a plausible world. This is true whether the story is science fiction or a police procedural. (Don't get me started on C.S.I.) There are rules to storytelling, and if you violate the rules, you'd better have a reason. TV, movies, popular fiction...Storytelling is basically lying. The person telling us the story is basically telling us a series of whoppers. And even a seven-year-old knows that if you're going to tell a lie, it had better be believable.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


It's another gray day, foggy, rainy, dreary. Typical October, in other words, the time of year when thoughts can't help turning wistful.

I'm in a relationship now, and it's serious, and that's good. It's gives me something to focus on, something bigger to be a part of, a place to be that isn't inside my own head. When Mom died in February, this is the time of year I most dreaded facing without her, the dying leaves and overcast skies, autumn turning to winter, and the whole holiday season.

Grateful as I am for having Tabbatha in my life, part of me wishes that I was going through this time of year alone, that I could wallow in my sadness and despair. Maybe I need to feel it as fully as possible to purge it. I feel that there are reservoirs of overwhelming sadness somewhere inside, and I want them to burst forth, to have an overwhelming crying jag, to somehow come to terms with everything I've lost.

Because I feel...I'm not in denial, exactly, but I don't feel my reaction--or more accurately, non-reaction--to Mom's loss is in any way equal to the calamity of the event. Shouldn't I be sad all the time? Nobody ever understood me the way she did, nobody was a better listener, nobody could give better advice. And she's gone. That's the end of the world, right?

My sister Ann thinks that, in a way, Mom's death was her final gift to me: Without her, I was finally forced to take the final steps into adulthood. In a way that's true for my brothers and sisters as well. Mom was the connective tissue that somehow kept us together, that kept this organism called a family functioning. Without her--what?

Without her, seasons change, accidents happen, relationships begin and end and begin again. There are jobs and friendships, music and laughter and sorrow, and at least one good thing for every bad thing. There's a whole life to be lived, and even a chilly fall and dreadful winter can't take away the promise of spring's renewal.

Mom herself said it best: Life will find a way.

Friday, October 20, 2006


Quick! Do something! The approval ratings are in the toilet!

Our Beloved President is finally realizing that the American public does NOT support his little endeavor in Iraq. He's so concerned about blowback from the war having an effect on November's election that he's starting to talk about options other than staying the course. Included among those options? Just getting the hell out.

Wait. Wouldn't that make him a quitter, an appeaser, one of those cut-and-run weenie boys that he was demonizing just a month ago?

Well, yes it would, which is why this new plan of action is a bit baffling. It would make it clear that everything Bush has been saying all this time has been bullshit, that he didn't really care about bringing democracy to the Middle East, and worst of all, that all those thousands of American soldiers died for absolutely no reason. That last part will be a particularly tough sell, I should think.

But you know, I have faith in The Decider's squad of hit men. They'll find some outrageous charge to fling against Democrats at the last minute, and whether it's true or not, it'll work. The Imperial Presidency will continue as it always has, and the citizens of this nation will go on about their business as if nothing has happened.

God bless America.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


I have no idea why the programming geniuses at NBC decided now was the time to air two prime time TV shows about the behind-the-scenes turmoil of fictional shows clearly patterned after Saturday Night Live. After all, NBC insisted SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels slash his budget or face cancellation this season. Is that the kind of exciting backstage drama NBC wants to showcase?

In any event, of these two shows, 30 Rock, exec-produced by Michaels and created by and starring SNL's former head writer, Tina Fey, is so awful it's a wonder it ever got on the air. The premise: Fey plays the producer of a female-centric late night comedy show who is forced by a ruthless network exec to hire a volatile, possibly crazy, black comedian as the new star of her show. The conception of the comedian's character is seemingly based on Martin Lawrence's well-documented crackup of...what? Six, seven years ago? Pretty cutting edge stuff.

NBC's other SNL-based show is, of course, the heavily hyped new Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. I have been watching this one--the pilot was terrific, and it has a great cast. But each subsequent episode has been less interesting than the previous one, and some serious problems are arising.

For instance, we're told repeatedly that the character played by Sarah Paulson, as a cast member of the show-within-a show, is some sort of comic genius, that even with lame material, she can "make it work." But the glimpses we've seen of her performances reveal community theater-level comic chops. It makes you wonder if all the characters on the show are deluded, or just really stupid.

Similarly, the whole premise of the show seems phony to anyone with any knowledge of real-world TV production: Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford play two former scribes for the show who have since gone on to greater things, but circumstances pull them back in, and they're given free reign to do whatever they want. In the space of one week (!), they completely turn the show around, and it's a smash hit both commercially and critically.


First of all, anyone with knowledge of SNL history will remember the dreadful 1980 season, the first season after Lorne Michaels' initial departure. The show was nerly cancelled, but NBC (somewhat inexplicably) brought in certified comedy genius Michael O'Donoghue to run the thing. He was given carte blanche, at least initially, and his writing staff included the likes of Mitch Glazer and Terry Southern. But he was still saddled with a cast that was already in place, and still had to deal with network execs.

And the show still sucked.

In TV, noting gets turned around that fast. Yeah, I know Studio 60 is fiction, but it's fiction based, rather transparently, on a known entity, and I can't imagine why anybody would watch it unless they had some interest in, and knowledge of, the subject matter. Every episode seems to depart farther from any kind of reality, and rather than deepening, the characters seem to become less interesting as we go along. For now, I'm still watching, but I suspect that soon I'll "forget" an episode, and then another, and then...

As for the show that inspired all this, Saturday Night Live is in possibly the worst shape it's ever been in, a guest that refuses to leave, a festering sore, a vague annoyance. Simply put, there's no reason for it to exist anymore; with cable and the internet, there's a world of comedy out there, highbrow, lowbrow and in-between. Back in the seventies, SNL was a revelation to many of us, dispatches from another world, a glimpse at everything TV comedy could be. But it has become the mainstream, an embarrassing collection of stock characters that nobody cares about, and talented cast members who are only allowed to bloom once they leave the show. It's time has long ago passed, and it's impossible to care anymore, about the show or its fictional incarnations. Let it go, NBC.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Peter Bogdanovich's 1981 film They All Laughed comes out on DVD today, a worthy attempt at a modern-day screwball romance, a comedy with more charm than laughs, but a movie you could almost fall in love with, except...

This is a movie with some creepy subtext, all of it inadvertant. It stars Ben Gazzara and John Ritter as private detectives following--and falling for--women played by Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratten. There's a feeling of sadness knowing that, except for Gazzara, the leads are no longer with us. Ritter's loss seems particularly sad here, a gifted farceur who should have gone on to great things, but found himself stranded forever doing mostly awful sitcoms.

But the real downer is Stratten. She's achingly lovely here, if not a particularly adept actress, but her character in the film has a husband obsessed with following her every move. In real life, Stratten had a husband so obsessed with her every move that he couldn't stand it when she left him, and he blew her brains out.

It gets worse. The man Stratten left her husband for was...Peter Bogdanovich. And in the wake of her death, he turned his attention to her (much) younger sister, grooming her to be as much like Dorothy as possible. He wrote a rambling, unreadable book about Stratten, The Killing Of The Unicorn, which probably did much to knock Bogdanovich off of Hollywood's A list.

A shame, really. Bogdanovich came to prominence at the same time as such seventies filmmaking superstars as Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and in some ways, he was the most talented of the bunch. He seemed to be more willing to let the story's content dictate the style, instead of trying to insert his personal obsessions into material unsuited to it. Much of his work--Targets, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon--is great, and though he stumbled badly in the mid-seventies, he made a terrific adaptation of Paul Theroux's novel Saint Jack (also with Ben Gazzara) in 1978, and They All Laughed was supposed to be his comeback.

Too bad it didn't work. If you can put all that aside, though, it is a very enjoyable picture, with a promise of greater things that has yet to be fulfilled. Maybe someday...

Monday, October 16, 2006


I suppose it's appropriate that the fabled New York City club CBGB ended its existence last night with a performance by Patti Smith. She was, of course, one of the performers who flourished at that site, part of an amazing explosion of talent in the mid-to-late seventies who would find their voice at CBGB, a group that included some of the greatest bands of all time, including The Ramones, Suicide, Blondie, Richard Hell And the Voidoids and Television.

A great legacy, undeniably. Suicide's first album officially ranks as one of The Greatest Things In The History Of The World, and The Ramones and Blondie would remain great bands even after punk's heyday had ended. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal gave disaffected (and sometimes only marginally talented) white kids a place where they could discover themselves, and it was happening at pretty much the same time that disaffected black kids first started to set up turntables and create a hip-hop culture of their own.

The punk ethos born at CBGB was a culture, undeniably. The rgulars at that era also included Mink DeVille and Talking Heads, bands that sounded nothing like each other, and absolutely nothing like The Ramones. What they had in common was the fact that they sounded nothing like any music being made then, and these bands made music as a way of life, not as a career optionEven now, hearing The Ramones' first album is like hearing something brand new, the first shot in a revolution that so many others have been reluctant to join.

Still, it's telling that the club closed with a celebration of past glories. CBGB had continued to flourish in the eighties as home to New York's burgeoning hardcore scene, but it had long since ceased being relevant, and existed mostly as a landmark, a place where old vets tried to relive the good old days and young wannabes would come to pay hommage. A past is a good thing to have, but a future would be even better, and that was no longer in the cards for CBGB.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Tower Records will soon be no more.

The entire chain has been sold to a liquidation company. Remaining stock will be burned off cheap, then all the stores will be nothing but a memory.

There were no Tower Records stores in most of the places I've lived. Then in 2002 I began my brief period living in suburban D.C. Tower had several outlets in the metro area, but the only store I consistently visited was located in a nondescript strip mall in Rockville. On my first visit, I immediately fell in love with the place. Yeah, it was a chain store, but amazingly well-stocked: Every kind of magazine, incredibly obscure books, and the main reason I was there, the awesome music and video selection.

You could spend hours browsing through this place, finding treasures you didn't even know existed: It was the only place I ever found that carried copies of the oddball documentary Hands On A Hardbody or had an extensive collection of non-Japanese animation. And the staff was amazingly laid-back for a chain store; there was no "May I help you?", it was perfectly okay if you wanted to hang out for an hour or two and not buy anything.

Tower is disappearing for the same reason Peeple's Records here in Des Moines recently closed, the reason all the music stores in which I spent some of the happiest times of my life are no longer here: People don't buy music in stores anymore. If they do actually buy albums, they're doing it online, at Amazon. Or they're just downloading albums, or more likely just the individual tracks they want.

There are advantages to that, I guess, although none are leaping to my mind at the moment. True, everything I used to do at Tower, the browsing as well as the purchasing, I can do online. But it's not the same. One is a social experience, the other is...well, sitting in front of a screen. It's like watching large groups of people gathered together in bars and restaurants. Yeah, they're all together, but at least half of them will be on cellphones, unable to appreciate the moment, tied forever to their technology, unaware that they are allowing microchips to replace the very things that once made them human.

Friday, October 13, 2006


Sgt. Ricky Clousing is going away for awhile. A judge yesterday sentenced him to eleven months in confinement, although he won't serve the whole term. Clousing's crime? He went AWOL--he ran away from a military that he was convinced was doing more harm than good.

Clousing saw his fellow soldiers smash their Humvees into the vehicles of Iraqi civilians just for shits and grins, saw a teenage boy murdered and looked into his eyes as he died. He interrogated prisoners who had committed no crimes, but who, by their very detainment, Clousing believed would actively support any insurgency against U.S. forces. He became convinced that as long as the U.S. was in Iraq, the world was a more dangerous place.

His story is particularly interesting in the wake of a study from Johns Hopkins University estimating the number of Iraqi casualties to be 655,ooo. Right-wingers, of course, immediately disputed this, claiming these numbers were inflated.

Somehow, that just makes it more terrifying. I know war is terrible and all, but leaving aside the lack of justification for this whole mess, the idea of killing so many people in such a short amount of time that, hey, you just can't keep track of 'em all--Well, the people who started this claim to be hard-core Christians, but I can't think of anything more morally repugnant than this.

And me, I just sit here, and you, whoever you are, do as well. We're not taking to the barricades, we're not making any meaningful change. We're allowing our souls and our flesh and everything we are to be co-opted, to say it's okay, because really, what else can we do?

Ricky Clousing tried to make a change. He did what his conscience told him to do, and he's going to prison for it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Three additional thoughts about The Departed that I failed to mention previously:

1) The music: Remember when Martin Scorsese's ability to pick just the right set of songs to convey the spirit of his films was justly celebrated? Things started to slip in Casino with some way too obvious choices, and his caving in to Harvey Weinstein's demands that Elmer Bernstein's score for Gangs Of New York be replaced by Bono's annoying wails was unfortunate, but Scorsese's instincts totally fail him here. The film opens with the Stones' Gimme Shelter, and it's apparently being used to convey a sense of menace. Uh, Mr. Scorsese, sir, the Stones haven't seemed cutting-edge since...well, maybe since you used them in Mean Streets. Yeah, Wes Anderson has made good use of Brian Jones-era songs in his films, but that's to convey a sense of wistful nostalgia, not to seem edgy. And Comfortably Numb? Pathetic.

2) Bad rear projection: Okay, it's probably inserted digitally, rather than an old-fashioned backdrop, but there are numerous scenes in the movie of characters standing in front of windows (Martin Sheen's office, Matt Damon's apartment) with a view outside that looks about as convincing as the view outside Mary's second apartment on The Mary Tyler Moore Show--which is to say, not very convincing at all. I was spending way too much time during these scenes being distracted by the cheesy, unconvincing visuals, and noticing how the light in the rooms didn't match the light outside. Scorsese would probably argue that this was intentional, that it was some sort of hommage to the cheesy backdrops in Anthony Mann's Eagle-Lion releases or something, but it just looked bad.

3) The final shot: Really? A rat? Did we need the prompting?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Among the wealth of good stuff coming out on DVD today--let me make particular mention of Season Two of Wonder Showzen, Robert Altman's elegiac Prarie Home Companion and the mostly forgotten, somewhat underrated early Eighties Disney feature The Fox And The Hound--by far the most important release is Warner Home Video's Hollywood's Legends Of Horror boxed set.

These are horror movies (or more accurately, thrillers) from the thirties, the golden age of the genre. But these pictures were produced by MGM and Warner Bros., studios that really didn't do this kind of thing. MGM in the thirties mostly stuck to Oscar-baiting prestige pictures, and Warners did brassy musicals and gangster epics. When these studios stepped outside of their comfort zones, things could get...weird.

The two efforts from Warner Bros. included here, Doctor X and the imaginitively titled Return Of Dr. X, at least play to the studio's strengths: Plenty of snappy dialogue, breakneck pacing and great supporting turns by contract players. Doctor X is by far the better picture, shot in two-strip Technicolor and featuring expressionistic sets by Anton Grot, but Return Of... has one great asset: Humphrey Bogart as a skulking henchman, complete with mood hair!

The other pictures in this set come from MGM, a studio that had no concept of how to do this. That inexperience was probably a good thing, since none of these are mired in any kind of formula. Mark Of The Vampire and The Devil Doll unfortunately show the continued decline of the studio's resident weirdo visionairy, Tod Browning: they're well-shot and competently made, but awfully uninspired.

The final two movies in this set are great treats, though. The Mask Of Fu Manchu represents typical thirties "yellow peril" nonsense, and its portrayal of an Asian supervillain with a pathological hatred for white people would be incredibly offensive if the movie wasn't so deliriously entertaining, and if Boris Karloff's performance in the title role wasn't so damn cool.

Finally, the last movie in the set, Mad Love, is frustratingly uneven, with some deeply unnecessary comedy relief, but director Karl Freund creates such a strange, dreamlike atmosphere--even the opening credits are strange--and Peter Lorre is so deeply creepy yet utterly heartbreaking as a scientist who thinks he can force a woman to love him, that it easily ranks as one of the best horror movies of the thirties.

Or any era, come to think of it.

Monday, October 09, 2006


To some extent, the rapturous reviews greeting Martin Scorsese's new picture The Departed are understandable. Like Spike Lee's Inside Man from earlier in the year, it's the work of a filmmaker who usually traffics in grander themes going through the motions with a star-studded crime melodrama. But because Scorsese and Lee are both so talented, they work the materials like the pros they are, and the results are something that is so rare in Hollywood movies these days: They're actually entertaining.

But come on. I've read reviews of The Departed--actual reviews by actual critics who should know better, not the online ramblings of infatuated fanboys--that speak of its "Shakepearian drama" and "Mametesque dialogue." Shakepearean? Well, lots of people die. David Mamet? They say "fuck" a lot. Otherwise, no.

Given Scorsese's participation, it seems a lot of critics are trying to make this be something it's not. It's not deep, emotionally or intellectually. It's a pretty good time-killer, made with an unusually high level of craftsmanship. TV series like The Sopranos or The Wire do crime drama with a far higher level of nuance, and far less contrivance. But The Departed is all artifice--not only are the above-the-title actors--Jack Nicholson (relentlessly hammy), Leonardo DiCaprio (okay but uninteresting) and Matt Damon (terrific)--all Movie Stars, but even the supporting actors, like Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin, are all Familiar Faces. There's no chance to forget that you're watching a movie, and thanks to plot devices that wouldn't pass muster in an old Jimmy Cagney-Pat O'Brien melodrama--would you believe that DiCaprio and Damon, both cops working at cross purposes, would fall for the same girl?--it's not even a movie that tries to hide its theatricality.

Still, if you go in with lowered expectations, it works. It's not deep, it's not profound, it's barely even that interesting. But it's a pretty good time at the movies, and that's not bad.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


Our property wasn't vast, but it was substantial: bean fields and corn fields at the bottom of the hill, the hill itself part of a pasture that had long since stopped serving any purpose, as my family no longer raised cattle. The barn with its stocks and milking machine, the chicken coop, so many things that were still there but no longer used, all part of my private playground. I didn't even know what these buildings were for, but they served my shifting purposes when I was five years old, or six or seven. They could be Nazi hideouts or Old West towns or Al Capone's Chicago. The only limits were my imagination.

Most of my surroundings I could bend to my will, but my favorite place on the farm was a row of evergreen trees that stretched in a perfect straight line west from the back of the barn. Beneath their branches, emerald-dappled sunlight softly touched the ground, and the grass was soft and matted, covered in needles. The branches, delicate but unyielding, also muffled sounds, even the familiar birdcalls and roar of passing autos were faint here, as if the rest of the world could be shut out, as if all the things I thought I knew didn't matter.

This was a place of absolute stillness and calm, a place for meditation and awareness of things more important than myself. Being there was almost like coming face to face with God, an experience both joyous and terrifying, and the feelings it evoked in me were almost more than I could handle. I would only go to this spot when I needed the quiet, but as a little kid, I tended to prefer the noise of the rest of my life.

Well, you can probably guess how the rest of the story goes: We sold off the farm piece by piece. The evergreens were torn down by our neighbor after he bought the adjoining pasture, which my dad okayed, so I'll never again see sunlight slanting through branches in shimmering shades of green. Things change, and good things disappear.

But sometimes, on the rare occasions when I find myself driving in the country, I'll stop at the top of a hill and watch the clouds dart across the sky, their shadows racing across the fields and fences and ditches and streams in the valley below, a reminder of how beautiful the world is, regardless of the people who inhabit it, regardless of whether anyone notices or cares.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


Okay, I don't write about sports, because I really don't know jack about sports, for the most part. But I will admit to being a Yankees fan--a rare thing here in the Heartland--and the fact that they're one game away from being eliminated in the play-offs, failing once again to even make it to The Series, is a bit of a bummer.

They're losing to Detroit, for crying out loud. That's like losing to...to...I dunno, Detroit. The Tigers suck, that's their job, and yet they're this close to handing the mighty Yankees another embarrassing defeat...The Four Horsemen are getting ready to ride, people. We're this close to Apocalypse.

Hopefully, George Steinbrenner won't take this as an excuse to throw out manager Joe Torre, who was pretty much responsible for the team's awesome winning streak in the nineties and early aughts, but it's Steinbrenner, so you never really know. He seems to think every problem can be solved by throwing huge amounts of money at free agents, although this is itself the problem, as even the most casual baseball fan knows. But telling that to Steinbrenner is like telling Bush it was a bad idea to invade Iraq: He just isn't capable of understanding.

Hey, did you notice that? How I suddenly used a seemingly innocuous post about a wholesome topic to take a cheap shot at Our Beloved President? Pretty impressive, eh? But remember kids, don't try this at home. Only trained professionals should attempt such hairpin curves.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Tabbatha unexpectedly pulled a midweek allnighter, so I've very reluctantly crawled out of bed to write this.

She had Paul in tow, so nothing rude or immoral transpired, but still we held each other all night, and that's a very calming feeling. As I snuggle up to her, bad thoughts melt away. Suddenly I am unaware of George Bush's insane imperial presidency, or the fact that he has been using Henry Fucking Kissinger as a consultant. Kissinger, man! Look, forget Vietnam or Cambodia or any of his genocidal tendencies there, I just want to say Chile, taking out Salvadore Allende--democratically elected, mind you--for puppet facist Pinochet, which only means that every citizen of the world with two brain cells to rub together must surely realize that everything Hugo Chavez said about this guy is absolutely right. And Rumsfeld, is there anything this guy could do that would cause Bush to unload this psycho? And...and...and...

...and anyway, all such thoughts melt away.

So I asked Tabbatha to kick in a few thoughts here--mainly to get me off the Bush rant--and so far she's offered, "Hi." Anything else, honey? "Well, I'm really great. Apparently. According to you." Uh-huh. What else? Um, are you sure you want me to write about your boobs and underwear? No? Okay, then, I won't even mention them.

"You're the writer, honey," she said finally. "Write something beautiful."

So I'll just write Tabbatha.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Lots of great stuff new on DVD today, including three must-haves:

1) The Maltese Falcon: John Huston's first film as director, Humphrey Bogart's first lead as a morally ambiguous antihero, the first real film noir, a definitive adaptation of a great American novel, oh, and also one of the most entertaining movies ever made, 1941's Falcon finally gets the release it deserves. In addition to a restored print (which showcases Arthur Edeson's gleaming camerawork to its full advantage), you get the two previous versions of Dashiell Hammett's novel that Warner Bros. had knocked out in the thirties, radio versions (one with the great Laird Cregar), audio commentary and more. Essential in every way--now if someone would just issue Huston's late career masterworks Wise Blood and The Dead on DVD...

2) The Little Mermaid: This 1989 effort from the Disney Empire has been on DVD before, but this is the first time it's been released with all the bells and whistles we've come to expect from even the most routine animated features. Mermaid, however, is far from routine: with a terrific Howard Ashman-Alan Menken score and superb animation by artists eager to prove what they could do, this was largely responsible for the rebirth of the animated feature in the nineties, a trend that today unfortunately continues with stories about poorly-CGI-animated animals making fart noises. Even at Disney, the burst of creativity it started soon turned into formula. But Mermaid remains an effortlessly entertaining evergreen, and a bittersweet reminder of a time when great things seemed possible, even from soulless corporations.

3) Body Double: Brian DePalma's wildly entertaining, deliberately trashy melodrama seemed like a throwaway in 1984, DePalma doing familiar tropes because his bid to be taken seriously as an artist (That would be Scarface!) was a box-office underperformer. These days it's obvious that DePalma is at his best when working in the shadows, that his cheap thrillers (Raising Cain) are so much more interesting than his bids for the mainstream (Bonfire Of The Vanities, Mission To Mars). Body Double absolutely wallows in sleaze, and its backdrop of the early eighties porno industry makes it a fascinating co-feature for Boogie Nights. It has been on DVD before, but again, a spiffed-up transfer and some interesting exras make all the difference.

There are actually a ton of other good things on DVD today, including some more Bogart (your best bet would be They Drive By Night), yet another reissue of DePalma's Scarface and Ganja And Hess, a movie about class divisions in the African-American community disguised as a vampire melodrama. For movie fans, most weeks are famine, so lets be grateful for a feast.

Monday, October 02, 2006


I'm driving around the other day listening to the radio, and what unwanted memory should they play but Paul McCartney's extremely unwise 1979 capitulation to the disco craze, Goodnight Tonight.

Two things immediately struck me upon hearing this thing for the first time in years: 1) I hate it now as much as I did then, and 2) by far the worst thing in a song full of bad things is McCartney's bass work, which tries to sound funky but winds up resembling a bad reaction to Mexican food.

I could use this as a cheap excuse to start ripping McCartney's post-Beatles career, and he'd deserve it, but I should point out that, as a hard-core Beatles fan, I've got the utmost respect for the erstwhile Cute One. Sure, in the Beatle songwriting hierarchy, I'm a John Lennon guy all the way--I mean, check out the name of this site--but seriously, you've got to give it up for Paul.

I mean--I'm Looking Through You. If he'd only written that, his place in the pantheon would be secure. Toss in For No One, Drive My Car, Helter Skelter, Rocky Raccoon and way, way too many more to mention, and the case could be made that McCartney was every bit as stong a songwriter as Lennon. Okay, not that strong a case--if I listed only John's contribution to the White Album alone, I'd feel the need to wax rhapsodic over each and every one. (Particularly Julia, my favorite Lennon song and probably my favorite song of all time.) McCartney had the disadvantage of being a very good songwriter in a group blessed with a great songwriter.

Still, there's no shame in being very good, and post-Beatles, Paul should have thrived. Instead, he turned too often to the sappy ballads and novelty crap that made his contribution to Sgt Pepper so unlistenable. In a way, Goodnight Tonight was commendable on McCartney's part, an attempt to do something different instead of the same old thing. The problem is, it was a transparent attempt to sound current, and a half-hearted attempt at that. Even Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey was better than this crap.

These days, McCartney has no interest in trying to sound current. He releases a lazy album every couple of years and goes on tour, cranking out the old hits because who the hell wants to hear the new stuff, and he's okay with that. Maybe if he actually tried these days, the new stuff would be as worthwhile as the old, but he's a bazillionaire and doesn't need to try. Meanwhile, John Lennon has been dead for twenty-six years, and he's still cooler than Paul.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Random thoughts:

1) Republican Representative Mark Foley resigns after being caught sending sexually suggestive emails to underage guys, and the GOP tries to pretend that well, it's not that big a deal. So let me get this straight: Gay marriage is an abomination in the eyes of God, but trolling for anonymous gay sex with minors, that's okay. Or at least, it's okay if the person doing the looking is a right-wing nutjob that can be counted on to vote the way he's told to vote.

Foley claims he's not gay, but his emails reveal a guy who is, shall we say, bi-curious. Yet he has never had any problem supporting vile legislation designed to keep gays second-class citizens. I've always known you had to be stupid to support the Republican's agenda, but I didn't know you had to be utterly self-loathing to set the agenda.

2) George Bush. Ahhh, no. I don't even want to get started.

3) After dating for, what, two months or so, and marvelling over the fact that we hadn't had a fight, Tabbatha and I finally had a fight. I'm not going to get into specifics--partly for personal reasons, partly because it's just not that interesting--but it did kind of throw both of us for a loop. Obviously, it's irrational to think you're never going to fight when you're in a relationship, but things had been going so well. Everything's fine now, of course, but still...bummer.

4) One area of concern that Tabbatha has--though oddly enough, this isn't what we fought about--is that I spend too much time talking to my ex, Sue Ellen. I only mention this because the last time she and I did talk, she mentioned that Richard Thomas was going to be in a play in D.C., which led to a mention of the obscure 1970 movie Red Sky At Morning, which led to me realizing that not only had I heard of this movie, I knew who directed it.

Which is kind of depressing, because, as my brain chooses to forget bits and pieces of things its aquired over the years, as I forget actual, precious memories of things that have happened to me, why oh why can I still recall James Goldstone's credits as a director? (He also did When Time Ran Out, Rollercoaster and the pilot movie for Ironside.) Why do I even know this stuff in the first place?

5) George Bush...Nah, still don't want to talk about it.