Thursday, November 30, 2006


Good news. The Decider finally got together with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for breakfast this morning. (How much you wanna bet Bush talked with his mouth full?) Yesterday, of course, Maliki disinvited Bush from a summit meeting with the king of Jordan, claiming that Bush had no reason to be there.

Bush's camp claimed the snub had nothing to do with a leaked White House memo questioning Maliki's basic competence for his job, and I, um, totally believe that. If I were Maliki, I wouldn't give a rat's ass what Bush thought about me. I'd just be pissed about his attitude.

Since the mid-terms, Bush has elevated his douchebaggery to new heights. His attitude towards Iraq is basically, Why can't you people fix this mess? The United States--oh, I'm sorry, I meant The Coalition Of The Willing--comes in, fucks everything up, then threatens to leave when the victim needs help. Is this any way for civilized people to behave?

Given the shifting rationales for why we're even in Iraq--even the big payday for Halliburton was less than expected--I'm beginning to think that the whole thing was just a Magic Christian-like scheme on the part of the administration. Cheney and Rumsfeld, playing Guy Grand, made a bet with the rest of the Bushinistas that if you invade a nation, decimate its peacekeeping forces and destroy its infrastructure, the whole country will descend into chaos. Turns out, they were right.

And now Bush thinks Maliki should just magically be able to put an end to the civil war the United States--sorry, Coalition Of the Willing; gosh, why do I keep thinking the United States is solely to blame?--has midwifed. Great Googly Moogly, man, the U.S. barely survived its own civil war, and we had Lincoln at the helm then. And even Lincoln didn't have to deal with a much-hated occupying army on top of everything else.

But hey, why am I being so negative? Our Beloved President had himself a nice breakfast, and he says everything is going fine. And he's never, ever been wrong.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Don't believe most of what you've read since Robert Altman died. Trying to be helpful, most of the obits compiled a rather obvious list of the highlights of Altman's career. And they pretty much got everything wrong.

Most of the lists I've read suggest starting with 1970's MASH, a possible mention of McCabe And Mrs. Miller from 1971, then Nashville ('75), of course, followed by the implication that he did nothing worthwhile until The Player in '92.

Trust me, if you're assembling an essential Altman collection--and it's going to be a big collection--you can safely skip MASH. Yes, it was the first movie in his long career to be truly "Altman-esque", but it is at best a blueprint for what was to come. Yeah, by all means add McCabe and Nashville to your collection--they're honest-to-God masterpieces--but not at the expense of the work Altman did between them.

Brewster McCloud (1970) and Thieves Like Us (1974) are unfortunately not available on DVD, but Images (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973) and California Split (1974) are. These are essential stuff, especially California Split, the only time Altman ever devoted an entire film to one of his personal demons, compulsive gambling.

And between Nashville and The Player? Again, some of his best stuff. (Just because a movie wasn't financially successful or laden with awards doesn't mean it's no good.) Start with the astonishing Three Women from 1977, continue with the nexy year's A Wedding, 1980's hugely entertaining Popeye, the intense filmed record of Phillip Baker Hall's magnificent stage performance as Nixon in Secret Honor (1984), and conclude with 1990's Vincent And Theo, one of the most moving and despairing portraits of an artist's existence ever created.

Of course, some of these are difficult to watch. Altman's restless camera and multi-layered sound mixes can frustrate those who want every plot point handed to them, but then again, very few of these films depend much on plot. Things happen in them, but often seemingly at random, and you're either on the director's wavelength or you're not. If you are, you'll find that these titles combine, as Altman himself once said, to form one long movie, an ongoing exploration of life, and all the joys and sorrows and frustrations and interruptions we discover on the journey.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Together for almost a year now, the cats have settled into a state of mutual distrust. If I show the slightest bit of affection for Delmar, Monika immediately appears, preening, purring and all but shoving poor Del out of the way. If I show attention to Monika, Delmar skulks in the background like David Patrick Kelly in The Warriors, desperately wanting to show he deserves some respect, utterly clueless about earning it.

They still get into fights, somewhere between a Japanese monster smackdown and the sweaty grapplings of Italian muscleman epics. I honestly can't tell if these epic clashes are bitter struggles between sworn enemies, or the raucous playtime of good buddies.

If there is a war for my love, the smart money would favor Monika, who is sweet, loving, adorable and equipped with her famous James Coburn-like Zen cool. Delmar, on the other hand, is neurotic, possibly psychotic, and if he didn't have fur, would be perpetually covered in nervous perspiration. He's like Elisha Cook in The Killing, only without the screeching harridan wife--Del's not even that lucky.

So naturally, I prefer Delmar. Monika is a wonderful cat in every way, and I love having her around, but sweet and loving cats are easy to find. So are cats that are bland and uninteresting, or that aren't affectionate in any way. But honest to God nutjob cats like Del--I've been around cats my whole life, and never have I encountered anything like him.

Well, plus I'm just mad at Monika these days. Del will eat anything I give him, but Monika, who's spent her whole life eating whatever cat food was cheapest, has recently decided she will eat only the most expensive food, and yowls at me whenever I feed them. So that's another point for Delmar.

On the other hand, currently Del is pointlessly yowling at the door, while Monika is quietly sleeping. Another few minutes of this and the ranking could get reversed.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Sometimes some kind of thought goes into these posts, and sometimes it's all random weirdness pulled out of the ether. Like today: I was musing on the fact that for the last three days, I've essentially been writing about death. So today, I wanted to write about life.

Unfortunately, the first thought that popped into my head was Life Day, the Wookie holiday celebrated in that notorious 1978 cheesefest The Star Wars Holiday Special. While there are any number of things to say about that monstrosity (though they all boil down to one thought: What were they thinking?), the most interesting thing about it, from my point of view is that it was co-produced and featured songs by that quintessential team of seventies hacks, Ken and Mitzie Welch.

They had a hand in a pretty fair number of things that I can't believe I actually saw, from the smutty sitcom Husbands, Wives and Lovers (my brother and I used to watch this every week, although we'd only get about ten minutes into it before we gave up) to The Hal Linden Special (featuring Hal wandering through NYC and breaking into song at a moment's notice) to Linda Lavin's variety extravaganza Linda In Wonderland (the highlight of which was Ron Liebman recalling his courtship of Linda while accompanying himself on drums).

This led me--or could have led me--to wander through the shadow history of TV, the shows no one remembers but that someone, somewhere, watched. Networks were more willing then to fill their schedules with time-killer shows, programs with no pretensions towards quality whatsoever, which may explain how things like Cade's County ever got on the air.

All fine and dandy, and a worthwhile topic for discussion, but what does that have to do with celebrating life? Nothing at all. So I'll just quote Saundan (who was played by Art Carney, who really, really should have known better) from The Star Wars Holiday Special: Happy Life Day, and I do mean happy Life Day.

Friday, November 24, 2006


200 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the latest attacks on Sadr City, a Shiite stronghold. Residents are vowing revenge against the Sunnis (and, of course, The U.S. invaders), but the news media keeps saying Iraq is "threatening to descend" into civil war.

Almost 4000 people have been killed since October.

If this is merely a prelude to civil war, what will the real thing be like?


I couldn't let the passing of the writer and lyricist Betty Comden pass without a quick note. She was 89, and her active career was pretty much over. Yet she was one of the true survivors, and her career spanned the Golden Ages of both Broadway and Hollywood.

For the stage, she and regular collaborator Adolph Green wrote the book and lyrics for the landmark musical On The Town. Nothing they did after that was quite so memorable, but they wrote Broadway shows for such amazing performers as Phil Silvers, Judy Holliday, Carol Burnett and Madeline Kahn, among many, many others.

They didn't work as often or for as long in Hollywood, but they wrote the screenplays for such wonderful movies as The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather.

But the reason Comden and Green will always be remembered is their script for a little picture called Singin' In The Rain, a source of endless delight. Forget the great performances and amazing musical numbers--lots of movies have those. What makes this movie work is the script, impeccably crafted and laugh-out-loud funny. It's absolute perfection. It's a day late, but if you need a reason to give thanks, thank Betty Comden for helping to give us the greatest movie ever made.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


"Two?" the host asked, not waiting for an answer, instead turning and leading us back, into the bowels of Ryan's Steakhouse. He moved at a pretty good clip, not noticing or caring that Mom, using a walker, couldn't keep up. It was difficult, in this crowded den of hungry suburbanites, for her to make her way through.

Eventually we arrived at the tiny booth. "Is this all right?" the host asked.

Mom snorted. "Do we have a choice?"

He looked surprised by her reaction, and started to say something, but Mom assured him, no, this booth was fine.

This was last Thanksgiving. Mom had been torn, kind of wanting to do something for the holiday, kind of wanting to ignore it. I had suggested the possibility of me coming up and spending the day at her house, though I knew she probably wouldn't be up to fixing much of a meal, and options for dining out in Perry were limited. She went back and forth with that idea, and finally decided that she wanted to go out, get something to eat and maybe go to a movie afterwards.

So she came down to Des Moines and we took off from my place. I was in a foul mood at first, I remember that, but I don't remember why. (Probably related to a woman, but I can't say for sure.) We drove around for awhile, trying to think of a place to eat, nothing coming to mind.

Mom, surprisingly, kept saying she was hungry. Recently, her appetite had noticably diminished, but there were times when she could put food away with the best of them, and clearly, she wanted to eat. We drove past the usual places that offered no-frills Thanksgiving dinners--Village Inn, Baker's Square. We decided on Ryan's because...Well, no real reason, but I'd never been there, and was unprepared for the ambience, people crowded so close together it was almost impossible to breathe.

Surprisingly the food wasn't bad, and after we ate, we drove around trying to decide what movie to see. There really wasn't much choice: We knew we were going to see Walk The Line, because Mom and I were both huge Johnny Cash fans, and because Mom had a weird thing for Joaquin Phoenix. (Best not to think about that.) I had problems with the movie, as I always have problems with cliched biopics, but Mom cried all the way through it.

When it ended, she blew her nose, sighed and pushed her walker silently to the car. We talked about Johnny Cash a little, and how nice it would be if people you admired never died, but when she said, "Oh, and Joaquin Phoenix, he's just so...", I quickly changed the subject. Soon we arrived back at my apartment building. I live on the third floor, and even with an elevator, it was a burden for Mom to come up, so we said our goodbyes and she drove back to Perry. When she got home, she called me, just to gush about her beloved Joaquin some more.

At no point did we talk about the possibility of this being her last Thanksgiving. She was just coming off a terrible summer, during which intestinal blockage led to a discovery of an advanced, inoperable cancer. In November, she still hadn't paid any return visits to the doctors who had sent her home to regain her strength after a lengthy hospital stay. She sensed time was winding down, but she didn't know, or didn't want to know, how sick she was. In December, she would see a doctor to formulate a treatment plan. In January, she started chemo. In February, she died.

Had I known last year that it would be our final holiday together, I guess things would have been different. There would have been a large family gathering, and Mom would have been the guest of honor. But she would have hated that. She prefered to continue her life the way it had always been, free of grand gestures, right up to the end. Murder, She Wrote reruns, a Will Shortz crossword puzzle, a Bootsy Collins song playing while she'd go for an aimless drive--a life marked with small rituals that gave comfort, and quiet pleasures. She needed, and wanted, nothing more. Her life, as she put it, suited her just fine.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Everybody agrees Robert Altman was a great filmmaker. Everyone knows he directed some of the greatest movies ever made, and some of the most self-indulgent, and some of the most boring. But try to figure out which film falls into which category, and you're on a fool's errand. Possibly unique among directors, Altman's films changed every time you watched them.

Take The Long Goodbye, his adaptation of Raymond Chandler's private eye novel. I first saw it years ago, when I was twelve or thirteen. I enjoyed it as a thriller, but even then, I thought it seemed a bit odd, not quite what I expected. Years passed, and I saw it again and again. Sometimes I'd watch it and it seemed like a failed spoof. Sometimes I thought it was a near-miss. Sometimes I thought it was a masterpiece.

The reason my feelings for the film kept shifting, I think, is because Altman wanted you to bring something to his work. Storytelling was never a priority for him, and he never told you what to think or how to feel. "Here are some people and situations I find interesting," he seemed to say. "What you make of them is entirely up to you."

Altman, of course, died Monday at the age of 81. Cancer was what finally did him in, but he'd had a number of health problems over the years, none of which sidelined him for long. He had a heart transplant ten years ago, but kept right on working, and so many of the films he made after that, such as Gosford Park and The Company, reveal surprising new aspects of his talent.

He was a hero of mine, not just for his awesome body of work, but as a model of how to grow old. He kept doing what he wanted to do, all the way to the end. Diagnosed with cancer, he could have sat back and waited to die. Instead, he made his final film, A Prarie Home Companion, and started work on another. His body may have been failing him, but he wasn't going to let that stop him.

There's so much to say about Altman's work, I don't even know where to begin, and I wouldn't know where to stop. His work is astonishingly influential--such movies as The Big Lebowski and Boogie Nights, such TV shows as The Office and Entourage are but a few of his spiritual children--and yet it remains singular. Lots of directors, even a hack like Paul Haggis with Crash, could do "Altmanesque".

But only Altman could do Altman, could surprise and astonish and bore and infuriate you, could make you laugh and cry simultaneously, could show you things you've seen a million times in ways you had never noticed. Only Altman could have made McCabe And Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Three Women, Popeye, Secret Honor, Vincent And Theo or Short Cuts. These are movies I have watched and will watch over and over again, and every viewing will be like a visit with an old friend, familiar yet somehow different.

Interviewed by NPR, old friend and collaborator Elliot Gould said Altman's body of work was about "life taking its course." A wonderful description and an accurate one, and as perfect a way to remember him as any artist could wish.


The biggest new release on DVD today is the boxed set Preston Sturges: The Filmmakers Collection, an awkwardly titled collection of some of the best comedies ever made, including Sullivan's Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero. It unfortunately doesn't include The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek or Unfaithfully Yours, and regrettably does include The Great Moment, an unwise excursion into earnest biopic country, but all in all, essential stuff.

Film historians prattle on about the tragedy of Sturges' career, from hotshot screenwriter in the thirties to acclaimed director in the forties, but his career was surprisingly brief. Did the well of inspiration simply dry up, was he destroyed by the studio system, or did critics not appreciate his savage wit? Probably a combination of all three, but when modern-day critics decry the treatment of Sturges, I think of the treatment contemporary critics gave Woody Allen's Scoop, which is also out today on DVD.

True, this is a minor effort from Allen, and he's largely just doing a riff on themes from his previous picture, Match Point. But when this came out, there was an amazingly level of hostility in many of the reviews, most of it directed at Allen's screen persona, basically angry that he's still doing the nebbishy neurotic Jew routine, or more accurately, angry at the persona itself, as if he should be something other than what he is. Get off the stage, old man, your act is tired.

To me, Scoop felt like the work of an old vaudevillian trying to show the kids how it's done. There's a lot in it that's genuinely funny. But even if there wasn't, hasn't Allen earned the right to do what he wants? Let me put it this way: Take The Money And Run, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Hannah And Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway--an astonishingly long run of some of the finest comedies commited to film. Sure, there are a lot of clunkers along the way--my least favorite would be Alice--but even when Allen makes a movie that doesn't quite work, like Everyone Says I Love You, it's marked by a level of intelligence and craftsmanship that's simply not present in even the best contemporary comedies.

So even though I wouldn't put Scoop up there with Zelig or Broadway Danny Rose, it's a perfectly enjoyable movie. Perhaps film historians of the future will observe the way the critical tide turned against Woody Allen, and it will seem every bit as inexplicable as the treatment Preston Sturges received in his lifetime.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Now that they've been elected by promising sweeping changes to the congressional "culture of corruption", Democrats are apparently deciding that since they're in charge now, hey, maybe things aren't so bad.

Though some in the party are continuing to push for the new ethics rules that they had all promoted during the election season, many more are having second thoughts. "There is an understanding on our side that the Republicans paid a price for a lot of the abuses involved," Massachusetts representative Barney Frank told The New York Times, and Iowa senator Tom Harkin agreed: "That was incestuous from the beginning. We never had anything like that."

In other words, Republicans became corrupt simply because they were Republicans, not because of lax ethic rules and lobbyists with piles of cash, and certainly not because they became giddy and arrogant with power. Well, maybe it was those other things, too, but that can't happen to the Democrats because they're so much better than that.


Here's the thing, folks: You weren't elected because anyone gives a rat's ass about you. You were elected because the people of this country are sick of the war in Iraq, and because they're sick of Washington. You weren't elected to consolidate your (imagined) powers, you were elected to change things. And so far, things are looking pretty much the same as they did before, which means your honeymoon is going to be very short, and the Republicans are going to come roaring back into power. This could very well be what the Bush team was planning all along, and you're following the script to the letter. If you don't make some big changes soon, all is lost. It'll be just like it was, only worse.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


There I was, tapping out a post for today (The gist of which was, Holy crap, Casino Royale is unbelievably great, so for God's sake, go see it!), when a window abruptly popped up telling me that Firefox had detected a bug in the system, and was shutting down.

(By the way, although Firefox is my server of my choice, and I'm pretty happy with it, every time I see the name, I visualize Clint Eastwood stealing a Soviet plane. I'm not the only one that does this, am I?)

So they system shut down so fast, I didn't even have time to save my post as a draft. Perhaps this is a good thing. After all, I just went on and on at great length about James Bond movies yesterday, so perhaps it was fate saving all of you reading this from a second day of the same thing. Hey, at least it spares you two days of Star Wars references!

I was tempted to use this as an excuse to write another anti-technology screed, to point out that when the world is wired, we are all hanging by a wire, and that sort of thing. But I've sung that song before, and like poor Del Shannon being forced to sing Runaway for the umpteenth time, I'm frankly bored with it.

(Another totally off-topic parenthetical aside here: It's long been my opinion that Del Shannon possessed the greatest voice in rock and roll history, and knowing that his life would end with a never explained suicide makes much of his material unbelievably poignant. If you can find a copy of his Tom Petty-produced album Drop Down And Get Me, by all means buy it.)

Instead, I'll just observe how, in modern movies, technology is always benign. Computers never crash, cellphones never drop, everything always works perfectly. Presumably this is a combination of lazy screenwriting and the fact that product placement would never allow the sponsor's handiwork to be shown in a negative light.

(Oh look, more parentheses! Just thought now seemed like a good time to point out that, for a James Bond picture, Casino Royale remarkably light on product placement, and in at least one case, technology gets Bond in trouble. This almost seems progressive.)

By now, it's pretty obvious that this post is just a placeholder, a grab-bag of jumbled ideas that don't really add up to a lot, desperately spiced up with the gimmick of interrupting the main flow of the thing with whole paragraphs of random observations set off by parentheses. Seems kind of lazy, I know, but what do you want on a Saturday morning?

Friday, November 17, 2006


As thrilled as I am about the opening of the new James Bond picture, Casino Royale, today, I'm somewhat baffled by the reviews. Critics are effusive in their praise, but make clear that they think this Bond picture is so much better than its predecesors by clicking off a list of ways in which this one differs from the earlier Bonds.

Most often, this occurs in the praise of new series star Daniel Craig, who, unlike previous Bonds, is vulnerable, capable of being hurt both physically and emotionally. This is nonsense, of course--take a look at On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the high-water mark of the entire series, in which Bond completely loses his heart, and has it broken in a devastating final scene. Or see License To Kill--Bond resigns from MI6 in order to follow his own private vengeance trail. Or hell, take pretty much anything from the Pierce Brosnan era, when he was constantly confronted by demons from his past. (As Sean Bean's superbly played villain in Goldeneye put it, "I might as well ask if all those vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you've killed, or if you've found forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women from the dead ones you failed to protect.")

The producers of the Bond series have always been willing to tinker with the formula, a fact that the reviews of Casino Royale don't acknowledge, as they praise its lack of gimmicks or a villain who wants to take over the world. For lack of gimmicks and human-scaled action, again see On Her Majesty's Secret Service (which, okay, does feature a villain who wants to take over the world), or For Your Eyes Only or either of Timothy Dalton's underrated efforts. Other reviews of Casino Royale praise Eva Green's performance, citing her as a Bond girl who's not an airhead. Not to sound like a broken record, but what about Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service? Or Famke Janssen in Goldeneye? Or Sophie Marceau in The World Is Not Enough? (That last picture, incidentally, gets my vote as Brosnan's best Bond and as one of the best in the whole series. The critical praise for Daniel Craig has also included a lot of bashing of Brosnan's entire run, which admittedly closed on a dreadful note with Die Another Day, but which on the whole was quite good.)

I'm mentioning all this not to show off my knowledge of James Bond arcana, but to decry the current state of film criticism. While writing about the arts has become an increasingly lonely pursuit, it is generally expected that if you are writing about music, say, or literature or painting that you have some sort of knowledge of the subject. No critic would write about one of Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels without having read the previous books, or at the very least without acknowledging having not read the books. No critic would write about Edvard Munch without some knowledge of the artist's life and influences. What would be the point? The critic's job is to illuminate, to introduce the reader to a pont of view he or she may never have considered.

But film criticism--feh. Who cares? If most of the critics writing about Casino Royale had done a half hour's worth of research on the internet (or even--gasp--watched the previous Bonds on DVD), they would have discovered many of the things they're writing are flat-out factually inaccurate. (Don't even get me started on some of the reviews of Happy Feet, which show an appalling lack of familiarity with animation history and basic techniques.) I realize this isn't on a level with, say, The New York Times reporting as fact that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but it is still a case of people who are paid to do a job, and yet are unable to fulfill what would seem to be one of the basic demands of that job. If you're paid for having an opinion, shouldn't that opinion at least be well-informed?

Thursday, November 16, 2006


For those of you wondering if the election results had any effect on The Decider, well, apparently not. The guy just renominated six previously rejected picks for the federal appeals court. One of them, William J. Haynes II, was one of the people responsible for establishing the administration's torture policy on detainees. Another, Michael Wallace, is so lame even the American Bar Association says he's not fit for the job. But extremism in the name of neo-conservative values is no vice, at least to the White House, and so he's offering these sacrificial lambs as an apparent Fuck You to the new Democratic majority.

Speaking of the Democrats, they haven't even taken charge yet and they're already squabbling and jockeying for position. The big battle now is who gets to be majority whip, number two in the House under leader Nancy Pelosi. In and of itself, these machinations are of zero interest to anybody outside Washington. But it doesn't portend well for the future: If these clowns can't even get their act together over crap like this, how will they offer a united front against the Bushinistas? This is going to be too easy for Cheney and Rove: All they'll have to do is plant seeds of distrust among Democratic leaders, and they'll vote against each other out of sheer spite.

Given these depressing developments, the return of noted racist Trent Lott to a position of power in the senate--he's now the Number Two guy for the Republicans--only ranks as an "Eh, what'r ya gonna do?" on my personal Despair Scale. Lott opposed the Martin Luther King holiday and the Voting rights Act, and famously declared that creepy segregationist Strom Thurmond should have been elected president. (He had to do the tour of shame for that last one, and while appearing on BET actually made the claim that he voted against the King holiday because, as a white man, he didn't really know how significant King was!)

Finally, mentioning Trent Lott allows me to mention that Lott Dod, a scummy but minor functionairy in The Phantom Menace was named for him, and thus I fulfill my obligatory Star Wars reference.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


There comes a point when even the most hardcore fan of pop culture must admit that perhaps the wonderful world of DVD is too much of a good thing. There's so much stuff coming out, much of it indispensible, and yet most people (certainly including myself) simply don't have the financial resources to get everything we want, much less time to watch it all.

Today's new releases are a prime example. We could start off with the final season of the original run of Columbo, one of the best (and most endlessly rewatchable) TV shows of all time. Guest stars include William Shatner and Ruth Gordon, directors include Jonathan Demme, and the writing remained first-rate. But as always, the real reason for watching is Peter Falk's career-defining performance. Even knowing the format, even knowing the episode, you can still be surprised by Falk's eccentric line readings. And even though reruns of this show play endlessly on cable, this is the best way to see these episodes uncut and non-time compressed.

Speaking of TV, we also get Volume Two of The Best Of The Electric Company. Like the first volume, this set is a collection of random episodes from this well-loved seventies PBS series. This show lodged in my subconscious when I was a kid and has never left, and I can remember pretty much all the songs, gags, recurring characters, animated bits, everything. As a kid, I didn't recognize the voices of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder or Zero Mostel in the animated bits, or know that much of that animation was directed by the great John Hubley. And despite the fact that it was ostensibly educational, the only thing I really learned from the show was that Morgan Freeman was the coolest guy on earth. I have no idea how modern kids would react to this, but to the aging hipsters of Generation X, this is as essential as food and water.

But not as essential as Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Four. Said it before, I'll say it again: Warner Bros. cartoons were as responsible as anything for making me the person I am. They formed my sense of humor, they developed my aesthetic sense, and probably even my moral sense. Collectively, they are one of the great achievments of the human race--believe me, I mean that--and yet, this set does represent a bit of a comedown. While one whole disc dedicated to the work of director Frank Tashlin is mightily appreciated, one whole disc dedicated to Speedy Gonzales cartoons is not. Aside from the questionable ethnic stereotypes, most of the Speedy cartoons are just plain bad, and the disc actually includes some of the worst of the bunch. On the other hand, we get a whole disc dedicated to cartoons about cats, including one of my favorites, Chuck Jones' Go Fly A Kit, so it's okay. Still as necessary to survival as breathing, but not quite at the level of the first three volumes of this wonderful series.

Still, despite my love for Warner Bros. cartoons, THE most important release today is the Collectors edition of Forbidden Planet, the quintessential fifties sci-fi film.

Everything good and bad about filmmaking (and society in general) in the Eisenhower era is represented by this picture. On one hand, it's disturbing that it can only imagine that the large crew of a spaceship in the far-flung future will be made up of people who are rather dull, frighteningly white and exclusively male. There's a lot of cornball comedy relief, and the attitude it displays toward lone female cast member Anne Francis is purely sexist.

On the other hand, it takes its storyline--a scientist and his daughter are the lone inhabitants of a planet whose previous occupants, a technologically advanced race known as the Krell, were mysteriously wiped out--seriously, the sscipt is intelligent, the visuals are amazing, and as far as Anne Francis--well, yes, the camera does leer at her at times, but Great Googly Moogly, can you blame it? Plus, this is the movie that introduced Robby the Robot, and it introduced me, as a kid, to Freudian psychology. And though Forbidden Planet has been available on DVD since the format was first introduced, this is the remastered version, with eye-popping color, that fans have always dreamed of. Oh, plus Anne Francis. Did I mention her?

Monday, November 13, 2006


Usually I talk about new DVDs on Tuesdays, the day they're released. And, barring extraordinary circumstances, I'll be mentioning a lot of great stuff tomorrow. But today I felt the need to tell you something that must be discouraged.

I'm talking about King Kong: The Extended Edition. That would be Peter Jackson's three-hour ass-killer from last year, which was already pathetically overlong and overindulgent. But now Jackson has engaged in a fanboy's wet dream and included...MORE FUCKING DINOSAURS.

This is a movie full of sound and fury that truly signifies nothing. Clearly Jackson was so in love with all his digital toys, he just couldn't stop playing with them. As a result, what few but genuine virtues the film does possess are lost in all the noise and activity. The tragedy of the title character's downfall is lost, because we spend too much time away from him.

I've been a big fan of Jackson's past work, and I felt his Lord Of The Rings trilogy worked because the filmmaker had a distinct take on his material that made it so much more than just another spectacle. But with King Kong, Jackson fell into the trap of meaningless sensation, trying to overwhelm an audience with an overabundance of overabundance--stuff just keeps happening, long past the point of caring. If Jackson had any sense, he would have trimmed the film down and tried to find its heart. But no, instead he offers more flashy emptiness, and, oh yeah, also generates more income for a movie in which he has major profit points.

Apparently, when an artist dies, a capitalist is born.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Hey, I hate to harsh anyone's buzz, but Mr. President, Democrats--35 people killed today in Iraq by suicide bombers at police recruting stations. 11 people killed in seperate bombings. Five people killed in drive-by shootings, 10 people killed as a bus was seized, the rest taken hostage. This all in the span of two days.

And that whole cease-fire thing between Israel and Palestine? Not working.

And with Daniel Ortega firmly in place in Nicaragua, we have a growing coaltion of governments in Central America that hate the United States, and that hatred, as it turns out, is entirely justified.

And Iran and North Korea, needlessly antagonized by Bush? They still hate us, too.

So yeah, sure, make your little talk about working together and doing things for the good of the nation. Mr. President, stop being such a dick. Democrats, make good on promises like raising the minimun wage, things you could have accomplished a long time ago if you'd actually tried. Do what you have to do to make this country's citizens feel better about things.

But remember, in the bigger world, this election has changed nothing.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


This was the big Star Wars day, when Tabbatha's son Paul and I had our first together time without his mom (or my girlfriend, depending on how you view it...and as Obi-Wan says, many of the truths we cling to depend on our own point of view). Paul is seven, and really too young to have had a prime Star Wars experience. He's too young even to know the prequels. But he knows the basics because everyone knows the basics, and after hearing me repeatedly quote from the damn things (which I apparently do even more often than I realize), he wanted to know more, and has been peppering me with questions for quite some time.

So today we got down to it. Tabbatha and I agreed three movies might be a bit much, so we settled for the '77 original (which I will continue to call Star Wars, thank you very much; yeah, I know, Episode IV: A New Hope and all that, but the movie I fell in love with back then was called Star Wars, and always will be in my world) and its follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back.

Paul seemed distracted and frankly bored during Star Wars. I was heartbroken, but not surprised. It's a product of the seventies, when even flashy, fast-paced entertainment was slower-paced and more cerebral, and at seven, he might be too young anyway. I was twelve when it came out, and that might be the perfect age: Old enough to appreciate its roundabout way of telling the story (it really does take forever before we even meet Luke), but too young to realize how simplistic the story really is. Still, Paul had lots of questions ("Why does Obi-Wan tell Luke that Darth Vader murdered his dad? Darth Vader is his dad!") that I tried to answer vaguely, to see if he could make connections later on.

Moving on to Empire, I had a bit of trepidation: It's easily the best movie of the bunch, but aside from a handful of killer action sequences, it is extremely talky. How interesting would Yoda's Zen koans be to a seven year old?

As it turns out, very. From the very start, he was clearly more interested in this than the previous film, and laughed out loud several times at Han's mock-tough dialogue. He needed clarification on a few plot points, but what he really loved was Yoda.

At first he was confused--"Everyone knows what Yoda looks like, so why doesn't Luke recognize him when they first meet?" Oh, I pointed out, but when this movie came out, we didn't know Yoda. Nobody'd seen him before. And besides, in the story, Luke's never seen him.

He thought about that. "Is that why Yoda doesn't tell him who he is? He keeps saying he'll take him to meet Yoda." Sure, but why would he say that? "Well, he's just messing with Luke." But why? "Well...Oh! Like Obi-Wan telling Luke that Darth Vader killed his dad! Luke thinks he knows stuff that isn't true!" Which means--"Luke thinks he knows everything, and they want to show him he doesn't."

Ah! Congratulations, my young apprentice. Your training is complete.

From that point on, the scenes with Luke were what held Paul. He seemed restless during the action scenes, the stuff you'd expect a kid his age to respond to the most, and he kept screaming at Luke not to do stupid things, to listen to Yoda and the glowing spirit of Obi-Wan. ("Wait, isn't Obi-Wan dead?" he asked, and I lamely responded that it had something to do with The Force.) The words "Luke's kind of dumb" were uttered a lot, by both of us.

When Tabbatha showed up to take him home, she asked how things went. I told her he might have been disappointed, he might have been expecting more light saber battles, but he seemed to like them okay. Oh, she said, but this is the first time he's seen them. It always takes him awhile to put things together. He'll get home and think about it and call you with a bunch of questions.

They left a few hours ago. So far, no phone calls, although I know they had plans for the evening. So maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm wondering if seven is too young to start enjoying James Bond...

Friday, November 10, 2006


Been gone for the last three days (work related) and haven't really had time to post anything, and am frankly too tired to do much right now, but I did want to add a belated comment about Donald Rumsfeld's final bow.

It just Bush waiting until after the election to can the douchebag, instead of before, when it might have staved off some anti-Republican votes? No, there's no way Rove and Cheney could be that far off. Dumping Rummy at that stage has a stink of desperation, and that's one thing you wouldn't expect from these guys.

So are they that desperate? Or do they just want people to think that?

I can't help but believe that these guys have something up their sleeves. The absolute certainty with which they proclaimed the Democrats wouldn't take over congress...they had to know. So maybe their arrogance was just a prelude to feigned surprise, to draw the perpetually clueless Democrats in, and then...

Yeah, there's a certain sense of conspiracy to this line of thinking, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. And in any event, please appreciate that I got through this whole thing without a single Star Wars reference.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


As I write this, the outcome of the Senate race is too close to call, but the Democrats have, at the very least, picked up seats there, and in the House, Democrats have definitely taken control. So the Death Star has been destroyed. Big deal.

That means yet to come we still have Lando selling out his friends, Han frozen in carbonite and Luke losing hand. (You know, metaphorically speaking.) The Republican Empire suffered a minor defeat, but this means Bush's end runs around the constitution will become less blatant and more devious. If I felt the Democrats had the slightest bit of competence in their new role, hey, I'd break out the hats and hooters like Josie's come home. (Wow--I just went from a shameless Star Wars analogy to a pointless Steely Dan reference. Thanks, pop culture, from sparing me some of the pain of the real world.)

After all, what will Democrats actually do? They might be able to put the brakes out some of the Bushinista's more outrageous schemes--and I stress the word "might"--but even if they somehow take the Senate, the White House and Supreme Court are still firmly in the death grip of Cheney and Rove, and power will be more difficult to pry from their hands than a rifle from a dead NRA member. You think they didn't see this coming? You think they weren't prepared?

We can only hope that Democrats find their own band of Ewoks, and somehow bring the whole thing down.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


It's Election Day, so for God's sake, get out there and vote. If we don't take charge of the future, it could turn out to be as bleak as depicted in Ark II, the cheeseball mid-seventies kiddie sci-fi show that's out today on DVD.

Yes, if we don't act now, the world will be devastated by pollution and nuclear war, and by the twenty-fifth century, the entire landscape of the continental U.S. will look suspiciously like Bronson Canyon, and the same rocks and bedraggled trees will reappear no matter where you go.

There'll be bands of survivors, sure--and people will be so desperate for a leader they might actually fall under the Fagin-like spell of Jonathan Harris, who essentially recreates his mincing Dr. Smith character from Lost In Space (another futuristic vision that we can't afford to come true--Vote, People!) in two episodes. Plus Robby The Robot might show up, acting confused, probably because he's stuck with a different head than he had in Forbidden Planet.

If--God forbid--these shadows come to pass, can anyone save us? But of course--the plucky denizens of the titular Ark II are there, and in typical mellow seventies style, they care. There's Jonah, our leader, who has a beard and flies around in a goofy-looking jet pack and, um...well, that's about it for distinctive personality traits. And there's Ruth, who's Asian and sort of hot, in a seventies way. And Adam, a Latino kid, who's job is to provide youthful ethnicity. Plus, of course, Adam, a talking chimp. Oh, and there's the Ark II itself, which is a big RV (but, you know, futuristic) that's stuffed full of the twinkling lights and clunky keyboards that in bad seventies sci-fi shows were used to represent computers.

Things happen on this show, though I watched it every week as a kid, and I can't remember a single storyline. Mostly I just remember watching it hoping that maybe someting would blow up, maybe there'd be monsters, maybe something at least resembling an action sequence would erupt, or somebody'd do something, anything, interesting. But no, it was always just vague conflict easily resolved with a few homilies and good vibes of our heroes.

Again, I can't stress enough, that this could be the future--blandly shot, overly familiar SoCal settings, and the most benevolent presence will be a flying surfer dude. Save us from this horrible fate--Vote!

Monday, November 06, 2006


The movie Jesus Camp finally opened in Des Moines this weekend, and I saw it on the same Sunday that Ted Haggard, who briefly appears in the film, was officially kicked out of the mega-church he ran in Colorado. His appearance is predictably hilarious, smug, condescending, and it makes you wonder how anybody could have fallen under this goofball's power.

Yet if Haggard is clearly a charlatan, the lines aren't quite so clear when it comes to Becky Fischer, the youth minister who is the center of the film. She's dumpy, prim but charismatic, and the Bible camp she runs for kids in a desolate patch of North Dakota is clearly wildly popular. The film explores why.

Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady subtly mock Fischer on occasion--she looks downright foolish and she prays over every part of the bunker in which she stages her sermons, offering the deathless line, "Lord, bless our Power Point presentation"--but she's given plenty of time to talk, to state clearly her beliefs. The fact that these beliefs should terrify anyone with a brain and a soul--her peculiar fundamentalist Christianity will triumph over Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and even mainstream Christianity because, "Excuse me, but what we say is true"--is beside the point, and Fischer likely doesn't care what anyone else thinks. She is clearly sincere in her beliefs, but her methods are unsound.

We see her whipping a crowd of kids, most of them under twelve, into such a quivering mass of fervid belief that you can easily imagine her offering up poisoned Kool-Aid to test their faith, and these followers would down it with pleasure. (Well, no, not pleasure, since pleasure is a feeling of the flesh. I should have said joy, the good feeling that Jesus is okay with.) This is a disturbing spectacle, no doubt, yet the triumph of Jesus Camp is that it clearly shows that the kids could get something out of this, an irrational but still understandable response to a world that seemingly presents them with no other options.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Hey, here's a surprise: Saddam Hussein is sentenced to death.

You'll hear this story repeated a lot today, though you'll hear the whole story less often: How the U.S. intervened to make sure the verdict was announced two days before the U.S. mid-term elections. And you'll hear about how joyous Iraqis are so excited they are literally dancing in the streets, but you won't hear as much about the bitter resentment in the Sunni strongholds of Iraq, or that even Iraqis who lived infear of Saddam recognize Saddam's trial as a cynical U.S. publicity ploy, or that anger towards the Yankee invaders still grows stronger every day.

Why would you even want to hear any of that, when it's so much easier to shout, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

More interesting is that today is Election Day in Nicaragua, and the front-runner is ex-Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. He's talked a lot about trying to forge a good relationship with the U.S., but that hasn't kept the Bushinistas from sending covert operatives down to try to throw the elections. (Our country has a long history of trying to manipulate Central America politics, usually by deliberately usurping democratic processes. This happens under both Republican and Democratic administrations.) The upshot of this meddling is, if he wins, there will probably be anti-U.S. sentiment, and if he loses, there will be the same.

One of Ortega's biggest boosters is Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, himself the survivor of a Bush-sanctioned attempted coup. Why Our Beloved President is so focused on his so-called Axis Of Evil half a world away, while ignoring the seething hatred he's fostering among people loiving just south of us is mystifying. True, these nations are not nuclear powers, but they have the power of truth on their side, and no matter what Bush may think, that is ultimately the greatest weapon of all.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Forgive me if this post is even more disorganized than usual, as I feel a bit like I'm unstuck in time, floating back to my actual youth while at the same time imagining an alternate childhood, trying to determine if the person I've become was somehow inevitable, or if a whole other set of circumstances might have changed my life.

The impetus for all this was, of all things, a story on NPR interviewing average folks in Minnesota about their feelings about the upcoming elections. They mostly spoke with hilariously typical upper midwestern reserve, particularly the lady who caught my attention when she spoke of her ambvilanence about the war: "I just wish they could do something about those darn insurgents."

After laughing uproariously, my mind started riffing on the phrase "Those darn insurgents." It sounds like a really bad early seventies Disney movie. "When Dean Jones and Bob Crane lead the kookiest corps in Kabul, they encounter an uprising of laughter that will declare a fatwa on your funnybone!"

Which got me to thinking about several things, including how all those lame Disney movies of that era held absolutely no interest for me, even though they were among few movies back then that were actually marketed to people in my age group. But I didn't want stuff made for kids, or at least stuff that announced that it was made for kids. I wanted giant monsters, or Clint Eastwood in a poncho shooting guys, or anything that involved blowing up Nazis. But That Darn Cat! or Superdad or Herbie Rides Again? Forget it.

I also started remembering how I'd inexplicably launched into a similar riff back in the early eighties, when I was in high school, drawing a comic strip strictly for my own amusement called Darn That Jack The Ripper! The conceit here was an imagined co-production between Disney and Hammer Films, co-starring Dean Jones and Peter Cushing as wacky, mis-matched investigators wandering through dull static scenes (if Dean Jones was involved) or incredibly lurid, oversexed ones (if Cushing was showcased). This sort of high-concept, low-payoff material is now the stuff of off-Broadway shows (Evil Dead: The Musical just opened this week, and Lord, I wish I was kidding), but if you were a kid in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the late seventies and early eighties, and your heroes were writers and filmmakers not pro athletes, you were isolated by your very nature, and that isolation could start to seem like your defining trait. There was, after all, no internet, and living on a farm, there was no thought of cable TV. There was no way to know I wasn't, in fact, alone.

Which led to try to imagine what it must be like to be a kid now. There are so many more entertainment options, and it's easier to access the wider world, and the things that I loved so much as a kid--Warner Bros. cartoons, monster movies--are both easier and harder than ever to see. Easier, because you can get them on DVD and watch them anytime, anywhere. Harder, because they're just another product now, and the very ease whit which they can be accessed takes something away, since the beauty of a precious jewel glows all the more brightly when viewed only in glimpses.

In other words, sitting down to watch The Floppy Show, the local puppet and cartoon show in central Iowa, was a crap shoot. You knew you'd get three Warner Bros. cartoons, but you might get Speedy Gonzales and a late period Tweety and Sylvester and a middling Bugs Bunny. But you might get a rarely screened Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett masterpiece, and if you did, you watched it like your life depended on it, because who knew if you'd see it again? And that attentiveness paid off with an appreciation for its virtues, and a sense that, in six minute increments, the world could be a perfect place.

But if I didn't have those ritualistic viewings, would the warner Bros. carttons have meant anything to me? In this day and age, irony is the coin of the realm, and even things targeted at the youngest kids are full of "attitude". But there was a time when the entertainment deemed acceptable to youth really was impossibly square and boring, and yet so many of us watched it anyway, because there was nothing else to do. And to say no, there must be something better than this, well, that's when I rebelled and became what I am. But when that very rebellious nature is marketed to kids, what is there to rebel against? How can anyone assert their individuality?

And why will the phrase "those darn insurgents" make me laugh until I die?

Thursday, November 02, 2006


This is basically a follow-up to yesterday's post about how incredibly stupid the Democrats are. Proof arrives in the form of John "I have nothing to apologize for" Kerry's apology for his lame, badly-delivered joke. Yeah, it's totally disingenuous of the Bushinistas to run with this, to accuse him of slandering the soldiers on the front lines in Iraq, since they damn well knew what Kerry was trying to say.

But the fact is, he blew the joke, and what he said did make him sound like a smug, elitist prick. And even if he'd delivered the joke as written, it was just another "Bush is stupid" gag. Clearly, whatever else he is, Bush isn't stupid, and the Sith Lords surrounding him know exactly what they're doing. The fact that the Democrats aren't even trying to build a scrappy Rebel Alliance to take on the Republican Death Star, that they prefer to trot out John Kerry--who, by the way, LOST THE FUCKING ELECTION--to make snide remarks instead of offering even a shred of substance, shows how utterly clueless they are.

I was about to promise to never use any more Star Wars analogies when discussing real-world politics, but I realized that, just like John Kerry, I'd be eating my words in a day or two. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go figure out which contemporary political figures I can compare to Lando Calrissian.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I listen to the phone message from a local Democratic party functionary two or three times, wondering how to respond. They want me to volunteer to help out, working the phones, getting out the message.

My brother Keith was very active in the Democratic party, canvassing, polling, attending all the meetings. At his funeral, a local party rep--a man I'd never met before--told me his memory of Keith as a Democrat was his passionate support for the rights of the working class, that he worked as a sort of conscience for his fellow volunteers.

Keith was pragmatic; he knew the Democrats weren't going to save the world, but he genuinely believed they would at least try to do what was right, and he thought his participation would, on some level, make the country better. He thought it was his duty as a citizen, an act of patriotism.

So when I found this message on my answering machine, I was tempted to volunteer, as a way of honoring my brother's legacy, and to help defeat the Republican machine.

No. I can't do it. Sure, I desperately want the Republicans to go down, but the state of the Democratic party is such that I can't offer them any kind of support. Yes, I'll hold my nose and vote a straight Democratic ticket, because there really is no other choice, but they have offered no reason to believe that they are anything other than the lesser of two evils.

Actually, that may be giving them too much credit. They are offering nothing, absolutely no reason why we should vote for them, other than the fact that, hey, we're not Republicans. Many of them have tried to run on an anti-Iraq war ticket, but that only serves to remind us that the Democrats offered no meaningful opposition to the damned thing in the first place. On issue after issue, as the Bushinistas systematically dismantled the constitution, the Democrats stood by and let it happen. Crocodile tears were shed, but the balls to act on their so-called convictions were in short supply.

A week from today, if the Democrats have won, I'll probably feel a sense of relief, though I know nothing will be fundamentally different. And if they've lost, well, let's just say I won't be surprised. It's the destiny they've made for themselves.