Friday, November 30, 2007


Trying to decide which topic I'd rather pursue here--the death of hypocritical jackhole Henry Hyde (the Republican congressman who led the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton for the crime of lying about a blow job, even though Hyde himself cheated on his wife) or Our Beloved President's insistence that congress hand over as much money as he wants for Iraq, no questions asked--I spent too much time thinking about both of these, and some sort of chain reaction started in my brain and paralyzed my entire body, making me unable to write anything other than wearying, paragraph-long sentences...and who needs that?

So instead of dealing with that, let's just sit back and enjoy Peter Sellers on The Muppet Show, shall we?

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Arriving at work yesterday, I was handed a Performance Review to fill out.

How have you displayed the company's core values in your job, how have you treated your co-workers, how have you displayed ethics at work, blah blah, the usual bullshit.

Then, inevitably, a space to describe Next Year's Goals.

Part of me thinks honesty is the way to go here. Though I'll no doubt scribble something about trying to "meet expectations," I want to say I'm lowering my expectations, that instead of giving a rat's ass and railing against the blatant inefficiency and obvious favoritism I encounter everyday, I should just put my brain in neutral and coast. I should cease caring and simply wander the hallways, blandly performing whatever Sisyphean tasks are assigned me.

Hey, it's what I do in my real life.

Was it only a year ago I filled this space with shiny happy posts about the new life I was about to embark on with Tabbatha? Co-habitation, probable marriage, with a kid already in place and hell, maybe even another in the future. A ready-made family, a life I'd never known. It seems so recent, and so long ago.

Since Tabbatha and I ceased to be, what has become of me? I've gone around with a couple of women, but expectations were low, and even then, weren't met. Mostly, I just hang out, go to work, zone. I'm only forty-two, but there's already a sense my life is winding down.

Things can change, of course. I remain open to that possibility. But my life is a testament to my inability to maintain a relationship, to hold down a job without getting bored, an unstable mix of restlessness and stasis. This may be all there will ever be.

Most nights as I settle into bed, music plays. Classical, usually, sometimes jazz, sometimes Marshall Crenshaw or Steely Dan. Monika burrows under my side, her head snuggled into my armpit, her purring so loud the whole bed shakes. Delmar wraps his front legs around one of my feet, occasionally gnawing on a toe until he drifts off to sleep. I can feel their breathing, and my own, as the music fades and darkness swallows me, and a strange sense of contentment rises.

Maybe if this is all there is, it's enough.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


A bit late, but I wanted to note the passing of comedy writer Mel Tolkin at age 94.

He was born Shmuel Tolchincky in the Ukraine, and when he became a professional in the entertainment industry, he changed his name--shades of The Jazz Singer!--to hide his occupation from his family. He became a tummler in the Poconos, which led to a gig writing for Sid Caesar. When Caesar landed You Show Of Shows, Tolkin became its head writer, and a comedy legend.

On Show Of Shows and the subsequent Caesar's Hour, Tolkin preside over a staff that included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil and Danny Simon, Sheldon Keller and Woody Allen, irascible, fast-talking New York Jews determined to out-guilt, out-shout and out-funny each other. It was a heady atmosphere, a mixture of terror (mostly over Caesar's legendary anger), flop sweat and pure inspiration. These guys (and one woman, Lucille Kallen) were some of the best comedy writers ever, and the writing room as Tolkin ran it is still the model used for sketch comedies today. The atmosphere can never be quite the same, because the stakes will never be quite as high--for today's writers, sketch comedy is just a pit stop on the way to a lucrative movie career. For Tolkin and company, it was their lives.

Surprisingly little from Show Of Shows is out there on the Interweb, but here's a classic bit with Caesar and Nanette Fabray. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Kelly Masterson's script for Before The Devil Knows You're Dead too often underlines its points, telegraphs its surprises and features some unbelievable plot points. If it had been filmed by a typical post-Tarentino tyro, I'd be sitting here complaining.

Instead, 83-year-old Sidney Lumet directed, apparently reworking the script along the way. (Making the thieving, squabbling protagonists brothers was, apparently, Lumet's contribution, and a major one.) Though Before The Devil deals with a heist gone wrong, it's not a caper film. Lumet's done that to death. (The Anderson Tapes, most notably.) And though there's guns and bloodshed, it's not a crime thriller, either. (Though, again, Lumet has plenty of those on his resume.)

Genre elements are played down, as Lumet and his superb cast--Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney--find the absolutely real, breathing characters inhabiting this script. These people are all desperate--brothers Hoffman and Hawke need money, Tomei needs love and Finney's overwhelming grief turns into a desperate, pathetic need for revenge. Lumet never excuses their actions, but never condescends to them, either. We know all too well why they're doing what they're doing.

It's hard to entirely evaluate a movie like Before The Devil based on an initial viewing. Sometimes a film you know is flawed can linger in your memory to the point where its flaws cease to matter. Sometimes a first view produces great admiration, but leaves little further impression. It may be that as I think about certain plot points, Before The Devil will become a lesser film in my mind.

But then I'll remember the extraordinary moments, such as Hoffman's quiet, pathetic rage after his wife leaves him, emotionlessly tearing the sheets off the bed, tossing a plant in the closet, curling up on the mattress, the camera craning over him, finally reaching a godlike, judgmental position.

That scene also shows Lumet's absolute mastery of his material. He's never been a director with a recognizable style; he's always tried to fit the form to the material. In that sense, he's often been underrated, dismissed in many quarters as an "actor's director," as though he doesn't know what to do with a camera.

Oh, but he does. In Before The Devil, Lumet lets each individual scene dictate its own rhythm, its own coverage. Some scenes are furiously cut together, jangled and raw. Some are shot in long takes, or only in master shots. Sometimes the camera is handheld and prying, sometimes it backs away. Most shots make use of naturalistic lighting, but the scene in which Finney's grief reaches its ultimate state features dark, carefully composed colors out of Rembrandt.

This sounds like a clumsy jumble, but Lumet's approach allows every scene to find its own truth, which all add up to one larger truth. The plot mechanics of Before The Devil Knows You're Dead may creak at times, but that emotional truth, its portrait of the slow, sad collapse of one family's American dream, make it one of the most vital and exciting movies I've seen in a long, long time.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Still haven't seen No Country For Old Men, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead or I'm Not There yet...but I have seen Enchanted.

Naturally, there was a kid involved. But I'd actually grown curious the more I'd read about Enchanted. The initial trailer looked kinda dopey, but the reviews were surprisingly strong, and director Kevin Lima is a veteran Disney animator, so if anybody could handle a spoof of Disney's "Princess" tradition, while still maintaining respect for Uncle Walt's very real accomplishments, Lima would probably be the guy.

And, you know, it', it's okay. Parts of it work beautifully--the opening animated sequence sets a perfect tone, there's a wonderful production number set in Central Park, the climax nicely pays tribute to one of my favorite Disney epics, Sleeping Beauty. The performances are all terrific, with Amy Adams note-perfect as our poor, bewildered heroine, trapped in a world she doesn't understand.

But there's a distasteful gag involving a chipmunk turd--when did defecation become acceptable gag material in family films?--and one elaborately staged sequence, clearly designed to make us swoon, is unfortunately set to a song burdened by a cheesy eighties lite-pop arrangement.

There's one other thing that bugged me and wouldn't let go. The film's premise, of course, is that an animated fairy tale character somehow finds herself in the "real world" of New York, and is absolutely clueless about everything around her. She's unfamiliar with cars, money or the concept of sarcasm.

Okay. I'll accept that, although somehow I always assumed every imaginary kingdom had some kind of monetary system, and all these stories tend to have at least one character making sarcastic asides. But okay, I'll play along.

Until the point where our heroine, finding herself in a stranger's apartment, decides to tidy up the place. In true Disney heroine fashion, she calls on all her animal friends to help as she sings a Happy Working Song. It's a pretty funny concept (this being New York, the only available animals are rats, pigeons and mosquitoes), well-staged...and then, her song makes reference to a vacuum cleaner.

Well, no. She wouldn't have any idea what a vacuum cleaner is. You can't establish a premise, then casually betray it, and ask us to go along any more. Enchanted is precisely the kind of movie that requires a light, delicate touch. One false move and the whole thing collapses like a castle built on sand.

Of course, if you ask anyone else, they'll tell you I overthink these things, and it didn't ruin the movie for me, but dammit, I'm right about this. No, seriously, I am. No, really...

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Flipping channels early in the morning, I noticed the local CW affiliate graced us with a broadcast of that timeless classic, Con Air.

This movie represents everything wrong with filmmaking today.

Consider its trio of above-the-title stars: Nicholas Cage, John Cusack and John Malkovich. At the time of its release, it was still possible to wonder what the hell these guys were doing in a crappy movie like this. Sure, Cage was fresh off The Rock, his previous mind-numbing Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza, but at the time, it was possible to think it was just a one-off. The guy'd recently won an Oscar, he'd worked with the Coen Brothers and David Lynch, surely he wasn't going to make a career out of this sort of thing.


The same with Cusack and Malkovich. This was pre-Must Love Dogs Cusack, pre-Beowulf Malkovich, when their names still meant something. Sure, they'd done bad movies before this, but nothing extravagantly bad, not the types of things you'd know would be bad before signing on.

And let's face it, they all had to know going in how bad this would be. The title alone should have told them, or a casual perusal of the unbearably arch script, or the fact that director Simon West's most noteworthy previous credit was a Rick Astley video.

Mostly, of course, they knew it would be bad because Jerry Bruckheimer produced. Sure, Bruckheimer's movies have pushed many a star into the mega-star category. But at what price?

What if Eddie Murphy hadn't been in Beverly Hills Cop, what if Tom Cruise hadn't done Top Gun, if Ben Affleck had steered clear of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, if Johnny Depp had avoided the whole Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise? Mightn't their subsequent careers have been more interesting without the burden of superstardom? Was compels a man (and let's face it, with Bruckheimer it's always men...unless you count Coyote Ugly, and if I spent any time considering that, I'd never stop vomiting) to surrender their integrity and sign on with Bruckheimer?

Money, obviously, but it's not like any of these guys needed it. Their careers seemed just fine--Cusack had just finished the very fine Grosse Point Blank when he signed on for Con Air--but they craved something more. They wanted the Big Score, the Blockbuster.

Careful what you wish for.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Oh, it's easy to make fun of this.

Wow, a Realistic brand 8-track player? The perfect complement to your seventies lifestyle--cruising down the smog-choked freeway, reeking of Hai Karate, cursing stagflation as you enjoy the mellow magic of Vicki Lawrence and Maureen McGovern as they were meant to be heard, using Realistic's patented Distort-O technology!

Yet, somehow, this just makes me kind of sad.

The Big New Now being sold here, the amazing world of car stereo, seems so achingly antiquated now...but won't the products of our own time seem embarrassingly outdated twenty or thirty years from now? Isn't everything ultimately obsolete? Doesn't the bloom of the new eventually fade from everything, leaving only dispassionate acceptance or bitter ennui? Isn't our entire civilization, everything we've ever known or cared about, destined to be a cosmic curio, of no greater final significance than a K-Tel Power Hits 8-track?

Friday, November 23, 2007


Tabbatha invited me to Thanksgiving dinner with her family. I agreed to come--her mother's home-made, oven-baked macaroni and cheese would be enough to get me there--but admit some trepidation.

After all, it had been quite awhile since I'd seen these people, and the last time I did, I was Tabbatha's boyfriend. Now I'm...whatever I am. Ex-boyfriend but still friend, the guy who takes her kid on outings, I don't know.

All doubts and concerns vanished as soon as I arrived, just in time for the food. Everyone was gracious and kind, and seemed genuinely happy to see me. I felt very comfortable there, as I had on previous occasions. But then, I was a potential in-law, a possible part of the family. Now...well, it didn't matter; I was still welcome.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I was going to prattle on about more weird pop culture ephemera from the seventies--commercials, talk shows, TV movies--and who knows, I still might. But not today, or tomorrow, either, I suspect, since what with working the holiday and the day after and whatnot, I'm not anticipating having much time to write.

(And yes, even when I'm just posting old Twinkie and Hamburger Helper ads, I put more thought into these things than may be readily apparent. Which is just kind of sad, I know, but hey...)

Anyway, I felt like starting my day with some Cheap Trick, and hope you do, too. First, from their first album (which ranks very high on the list of Greatest Things In The World), He's A Whore.

And a live version of one of the highlights of the second album (which also ranks pretty high on The Greatest Things fact, if you ignore much of their eighties output, Cheap Trick could damn near own that list), Downed. Enjoy your turkey and stuffing, if you do that sort of thing. If you don't, have a good day anyhow.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Planned to use my day off before my work-jammed holiday weekend to see No Country For Old Men, finally playing here in Des Moines. Unfortunately, snow blanketed the area, much to the apparent surprise of local weather prognosticators, and while it wasn't a storm by any means, road crews were caught unawares and the streets remained untreated and slick, making a trip out to suburbland to hole up in darkness for two hours a dicey proposition.

So instead I stayed home and watched old Sgt. Bilko episodes, which come to think of it is probably better than anything else I could have done. Before that, though, I wound up yet again at my neighborhood Chinese restaurant--I seem to have a regular seat--and enjoyed my usual meal.

This time, however, I was struck by the odd mix of music playing in the background. Usually this place features the standard mix of generic oldies and gen pop-friendly contemporary hits. But it seemed to be weepy balladeer day--two Gene Pitney songs (Only Love Can Break A Heart and Town Without Pity), plus Without You (Mariah Carey's version, unfortunately, but still...) and Rufus Wainwright's Barcelona.

(That last one makes me wonder how outre a song can be and still get played in bland corporate settings. Once as I grocery shopped, in between the standard Hall & Oates and Billy Joel tunes, I heard a familiar synth riff. It couldn't be, I thought, but soon Alan Vega's mumbling, keening vocals kicked in--Suicide's Cheree as background music for buying milk! That's just...wrong.)

I ate more quickly than usual, afraid the music was going to become too depressing, even for me. What if they started playing Lost In The Stars, or some Nick Cave or Jim Carroll. I like pineapple chicken as much as anyone, but not when its served with a side of emotional arsenic.


Whiny, puffy ex-Bush spokesman Scott McClellan claims in his upcoming book he was ordered to deliberately lie about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, and that Bush and Cheney were the very people behind it.

YAY! HOORAY! McClellan no longer works for the White House, so the administration can't claim executive immunity when the Democrats subpoena him and--

What? The Democrats aren't doing anything? Yeah, I know congress is on break and all, but come on. This is the smoking gun, proof positive that the rulers of our nation knowingly lied to the American people, and deliberately compromised national security by exposing a covert operative. This is an impeachable offense, folks. This is a big deal.

But not as big a deal as kicking back for the holidays, and after that it back to campaign mode, and all that talk of impeachment just harshes the national buzz.

Okay, Democrats, fuck yourselves. If you can't do something with this, you don't deserve even my reluctant support. I'm sitting out this election. I'm not voting. You can't be trusted any more than the Republicans.

And as Han Solo once said, I'll see you in Hell.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I hadn't planned to spend this week noting the strange undercurrents of seemingly dull seventies TV commercials, but the actor Dick Wilson has died at the age of 91, and his lasting fame came from one role.

Gee, that's..., uh..."a whole inch," that's kind of...

...well, that's just creepy. From the sledgehammer innuendos to the portrait of a network of suburban squeezing fetishists to Mr. Whipple's chilling, shameful inability to admit his own addiction, these commercials could only have been produced and accepted by a nation desperately trying to keep its collective id closeted.

It's weird. I grew up with these things, and never really paid any attention to them. Looking at them now, the only reaction is, What the hell were they thinking? But what were we all thinking? These ads manage to be monumentally stupid in concept, bland and uninteresting in execution...and breathtakingly perverse in subtext. Were we all too repressed in the seventies to notice how weird this stuff was, or too busy ingesting massive amounts of coke at key parties to pay attention?

Monday, November 19, 2007


Oh, the seventies. Were we really so bland, so naive, so lacking in irony? Would we just accept any stupid commercial pitchman that ambled down the pike?

I love how utterly whitebread the housewife is (no career outside the home for this proper suburban gal!), and how calmly she accepts the Lovecraftian manifestation of sinister forces from worlds beyond casually appearing in her kitchen.

Mostly, I love imagining the animation tests that must have been done to get out cheerful li'l hand guy to do that finger snap. There must have been footage of him smashing in his face with his own fingers. Couldn't have been any more disturbing than what we got, though.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Dreary, rainy, cold. Mid-afternoon and I head as I do too often for my neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I sit in the car for a bit, watching people enter and leave, listening to the wind roar, aware of my solitude.

The first time I ate here, my mom was with me. My brother and I ate here the day of her funeral.

I've brought friends here, and unexpectedly run into friends here. Mostly, I eat by myself, alone in a corner with that day's New York Times, the same food, the same drink, the same tip.

I've had dinner here with almost every woman I've known in the last five years, the casual dates and the long-term relationships. None of these ever worked out.

When Tabbatha and I planned on moving in together, it would have been someplace else, a different neighborhood, another part of town. That didn't happen, of course. I still miss her, still wonder what happened, and know that I should move on, get out of this place, this rut, this part of my life.

Yet I'm still here. The sky is gray and the wind is bitter. The whole day feels numb, and so do I.


So I saw Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, and before I say anything about that, take a look at this:


First of all--David Cross is in this? One of the greatest stand-up comedians in history, a brilliant writer ("The Legend Of T.J. O'Pootertoot's" from The Ben Stiller Show), co-creator of one of the greatest things in TV history, Mr. Show--and now this? I figured the cast members of Arrested Development would eventually do embarrassing things after the show's cancellation, but I didn't figure Cross would be the first to soil our fond memories. (My money was on Jason Bateman.)

But aside from that--Jeebus, what a depressing spectacle. Just what you want in a movie aimed at kids: fart gags, porno references and the apparent underlying message that life isn't worth living unless you're a "success"--that is, famous. I can't think of anything, anything more noxious to put out there for a kiddie audience.

The script is credited to Jon Vitti, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi. Vitti wrote for The Simpsons back when that really meant something. McRobb and Viscardi created The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, a kid's show so awesome it attracted guest stars like Steve Buscemi, Syd Straw and Marshall Crenshaw. Now the three of them get together and decide a CGI chipmunk trying to get Jason Lee laid is perfect kiddie fodder. This isn't just stupid and insulting, it's morally bankrupt.

Happily--a word I never thought I'd use in reference to a movie featuring Dustin Hoffman channeling Ed Wynn--Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium has none of that. It's not a great movie, but it isn't bad at all, and has a genuine sweetness and sense of modesty. It isn't smugly self-satisfied (like Tim Burton's dreadful Charlie And The Chocolate Factory), and is blissfully free of pop culture references meant to amuse adults. True, there's a Mourning Becomes Electra pun, and a shout-out to Istanbul (Not Constantinople), but these are obscure enough it's unlikely most parents would get them. This is a rare movie made for kids that actually seems to like them, that isn't embarrassed about what it is, that doesn't smirk or talk down. Plus, Kermit The Frog has a cameo!

The thing is, Kermit's bit actually got a huge response from the packed audience of kids. Let that be a lesson, Hollywood: If you want to make entertainment for kids, get out those Muppet Show DVDs and see how it's done.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Having spent so much time making fun of the very title of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium--as so many have pointed out, it sounds like something Troy McClure once starred in, which means soon Dustin Hoffman may be hosting the instructional film Alice's Adventures Through The Windshield Glass--you can imagine my surprise to discover I'll be seeing it today.

Well, Paul wants to see it, and for one very good reason: It has Natalie Portman. Or, as he thinks of her, Padme. He found a Star Wars connection where I hadn't. Well played, sir.

Of course, Paul's eight, and is into the prequels much more than me. He doesn't even share my inexplicable Admiral Ackbar obsession, which manifests itself mostly by repeatedly muttering

which is, of course, just sad.

Friday, November 16, 2007


If you waste time at various entertainment-based websites, you'll find there's not a lot of sympathy out there for the Writer's Guild strike. The attitude seems to be, Hey these people are hacks and don't deserve what they're already making, and besides, now i can't watch new episodes of the shows I claim to hate.

But the studios, bless their poisoned hearts, appear to be unwittingly drumming up support for the writers by going out of their way to appear dickish.

Universal has not only suspended production on all scripted shows--perfectly understandable, with no scripts available--but has invoked the force majeure clause in the actors' contracts, suspending them on half pay for now, threatening to terminate them altogether if the strike continues. Universal is said to be considering taking similar actions against the writers of their shows.

Uh, excuse me, but...why? Whenever the strike is settled, don't you want to resume production of your shows? If you piss off the cast and writers, aren't they likely to go elsewhere? What is the plan here? Surely the shows you are producing have some value, and if they do, isn't it because the audience has some emotional investment in the characters? And if suddenly those characters are played by different actors, do you really think audiences won't notice?

Even dumber is the action taken by Sony, which has told castmembers of two of its sitcoms they're being put on unpaid hiatus--but are still contractually bound to the studio.

The Screen Actor's Guild is claiming this is an outright violation of the terms of the actors' contracts. Since SAG is mulling the possibility of its own strike next year, pissing off the most visible of Hollywood players doesn't seem like a wise move.

Yes, many actors are grotesquely overpaid--Nicholas Cage makes twenty million per picture? Seriously?--but the fact is, most people go to movies because they want to see movie stars. The studios (or more accurately, their controlling conglomerates) must realize this, right?


Thursday, November 15, 2007


A musical mixed bag for you today, starting with one of my all-time favorite covers, Ry Cooder's take on an old Jim reeves classic. That's Flaco Jiminez on accordian.

Here's one of Cooder's regular compadres, ace guitarist and fashion plate David Lindley:

Speaking of great guitarists, here's Joe Pass with some obscure vocalist named Ella Fitzgerald:

Finally, a pair of twangy redheads. Let's start with Neko Case:

And finish with Jenny Lewis. Even when she blows a note, she's great:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


More Random Thoughts? Sure, why not:

1) I'm not going to pretend I've ever read any of Ira Levin's books, because I haven't. However, his passing at the age of 78 reminds me of something we've been missing out on lately: Classy horror movies with a literary pedigree.

I'm thinking of the adaptations of three of Levin's novels: Rosemary's Baby, directed by Roman Polanski and featuring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes; The Stepford Wives, directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Katherine Ross; and The Boys From Brazil, directed by Franklin Schaffner and starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. Forbes and Schaffner may not have been auteurs of Polanski's stature, but they were solid craftsmen, and even the worst of these movies (that would be Boys, with hilariously hambone performances from its two aging stars) have a solid level of professionalism and respect for the audience's intelligence sadly missing from today's horror fare.

The Stepford Wives in particular has a nice feel of everyday life going slightly wrong. Yeah, it has a cheesy seventies look, and if the story's ultimate destination seems kind of obvious these days, it's because we've seen it ripped off so many times since. It's not a great movie, but it's pretty good, and when was the last time you could say that about any major studio suspense thriller? Levin's novel and Forbes' film were popular enough for the title to have slipped into the lexicon, and can be used to identify anyone or anything that doesn't feel wholly natural. For instance, calling Hillary Clinton The Stepford Candidate...

2) Speaking of Clinton, I'm stunned there hasn't been more coverage and outcry over a stunt she pulled at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines this weekend. At a forum in which all the major candidates were given speech time, it's customary for the other candidates to sit quietly and let their rivals talk. However, as Barack Obama spoke from the stage, Clinton took the opportunity--on the floor, in plain view of the stage--to pose for a photo op with Quincy Jones!

This calculated bit of racial back-stabbing conjures ugly visions of Lee Atwater or Karl Rove at their worst. That it's the Democratic front-runner pulling this shit is utterly contemptible. But not surprising.

3) OK, Mariano Rivera is coming off a pretty good season, but seriously--45 million bucks to get him to stay? If the Yankees can cough up that much for a relief pitcher, why can't they shell out a few bucks to pay for the war in Iraq?

4) Ingmar Bergman's film Monika has been reissued, at least in New York, and hopefully elsewhere. (Note to local exhibitors: HINT!) I mention this only because my cat is named after this very movie. The photo accompanying Manohla Dargis' review in The New York Times shows why: Harriet Andersson has a lovely but off-kilter, wide face with a prominent nose. Just like Monika!

5) If I'm not mistaken, I've gone a whole week without mentioning Star Wars. You're welcome!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


The New Frontier casino in Las Vegas vanished in a cloud of dust earlier this morning, to be replaced by yet another bazillion-dollar Steve Wynn monstrosity. "We see fewer people playing the quarter slots since the New Frontier and Stardust closed," said Wynn, referring to two of the very few hotels on the Strip that actually catered to budget-minded visitors.

Used to be, Vegas offered the siren call of cheap food and lodging as an incentive, knowing damn well they'd get the money out of you in other ways. Even nickel slots could be addictive, and you could be down a hundred or more before you knew it.

These days, they don't bother. Sometime in the nineties, the major players in Sin City discovered just how stupid people can be: People no longer needed to be lured into gambling, they'd do it willingly. Hell, they'd pay top dollar for a room and food just for the privilege of throwing their money away. It's so much easier to fleece the suckers when they come willingly into your arms.

Which brings us to the Democrats.

The Jefferson-Jackson Dinner is a major blowout for the party faithful here in the caucus state of Iowa, and all of the major candidates would be there. Being one of the faithful, my sister Ann attempted to buy a ticket, or maybe two: Her companion was interested in attending, so Ann asked the party rep selling tickets about handicapped access.

Well, she was told, it was an old building and blah blah blah, but if he can walk at all--

No, Ann interrupted, he can't.

Well, then, the rep continued, we really can't--

Fine, whatever. She bought only one ticket.

Things got worse for Ann when she attempted to attend the event. Her ticket guaranteed her entrance to a specific section, but shortly after being admitted, she was told Secret Service agents had ordered that section closed for security reasons. She asked person after person where she should go, but nobody knew anything. Finally, disgusted, she left.

Aside from the woeful disorganization--or had the party deliberately overbooked the venue?--what's most interesting is how blind the party's organizers were to Ann's concerns. Why should they accommodate a guy in a wheelchair--even though Federal law says they must--when to do so might take away precious room on the main floor? People paid big money to sit down there and mingle with the candidates, and those people are simply more important than one handicapped guy.

Similarly, who cares about the troubles of one person--or dozens of people--who only paid for general admission seats? They don't contribute the big money that makes the machine run, so the hell with them. What are they gonna do, vote Republican?

No...but maybe they won't vote at all. The Democrats have for so long assumed a support base they no longer feel the need to seek that support. They have always been the party that cares about minorities and the downtrodden and basic human rights, and once upon a time, they showed that concern: The New Deal, the Great Society. Now empty words are the best you can hope for, and more often, you don't even get that. All the Democrats have going for them is the fact they're not Republicans, but is that enough? Not when their contempt for their base is so transparent.

The Democratic party is Steve Wynn, and most of us play quarter slots.

Monday, November 12, 2007


I was going to go on and on about my sister Ann's adventures at a major Democratic blow-out over the weekend, and probably will later, but I don't have a lot of time for writing this morning.

Still, I'd be remiss if I did not mention one of the most noteworthy events of said blow-out: the unveiling of Hillary Clinton's new slogan: Turn Up The Heat.


The turning up of heat, apparently, is what she and her Democratic rivals should be doing to the Republicans, but it's also a whining protest against mounting criticism of her. "Hey," she's moaning, "why attack me, just because I'm a ruthless political animal who will say or do anything necessary to get elected? Let's attack the Republicans because, hey, they're ruthless political animals who...well...Turn Up The Heat!"

I've never refused to vote in a presidential election, but I'm thinking this might be the one to sit out.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Given the literary pretensions I once harbored, I suppose I should say something about Norman Mailer's passing.

(Crickets chirping, lonely wind howling, tumbleweeds blowing across the floor.)

Okay, here's my thought about Mailer: Eh.

To be honest, I never understood the man's reputation. All right, the only books of his I actually finished were An American Dream (again: eh)and The Executioner's Song (pretty damn good, but unimaginable without the template of In Cold Blood), but from my samplings of his other work, I found...nothing, really.

Armies Of The Night is forever credited as one of the most influential works of New Journalism, but compared to the contemporaneous work of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, it just doesn't hold up. Wolfe's prose may have been self-consciously flashy, but it was born of a genuine attempt to convey an experience. Thompson tended to write about himself as much as his ostensible subject matter, but that's okay, since he was a truly fascinating individual. Also, both of these guys could really write, whereas Mailer just cranked out words.

Oh, Lordy, did he crank out words. Every few years, he'd knock out yet another 500-page doorstop, making the inevitable claim that this one was really, no shit, really, the greatest thing he'd ever written; upon its release, the world would shrug and he'd go back to feuding with Gore Vidal. Tellingly, his squabbles with other authors seem to get more notice in his obits than anything he wrote. After all, how can you make a case for greatness from the guy who wrote Ancient Evenings, or that godawful Marilyn Monroe bio, or that pathetic thing about Jesus? Outside of the rarefied New York literary world, Mailer never really had much of a reputation because he simply wasn't that good.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


As a kid, I never noticed how much Twinkie The Kid resembled a huge walking dick. References to "creamy filling" of the fact that nothing can beat him never made me chuckle or cringe.

Maybe I was unusually naive, or maybe we all were. True, Twinkies are a truly noxious product, but this commercial is charming in its utter simplicity. You could argue that selling crap to children is inherently evil, but hey, the li'l squabs love crap that's bad for them. At least this commercial treats kids as kids, not as wised-up, hyper-ironic little poseurs. The seventies may have been a last gasp of innocence, when things targeted to kids could be good or bad or profoundly stoopid, but never self-conscious.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


In honor of the fact that Alan Dershowitz defends waterboarding in today's Wall Street Journal because, hey, it worked for the Nazis...

And since a form of this torture (under the wonderfully lurid name tortura del agua) dates back to the Spanish Inquisition...

And because Mel Brooks' new musical opens tonight on Broadway...

Ladies and Germs--The Inquisition!


Geez, sorry the last couple posts have been depressing. Here's a certifiable classic from the Chuck Jones-Mike Maltese genius factory:


A depressing story on the rise of homelessness among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns in today's New York Times.

According to the Veterans's Affairs Department, over 400 vets have turned up in homeless shelters. These are the numbers of people who have gone looking for help; God knows how many are suffering in silence.

11% of these veterans are women, the highest number in U.S. history. 40% of them were sexually assaulted by male soldiers overseas.

All these numbers are unusual, experts claim. Homelessness is not uncommon among veterans of foreign wars, but the downward spiral usually takes awhile. These days, it's immediate.

They come back to their world, some of them physically battered, most with their psyches turned inside out. Government agencies meant to help them ignore them, put them on waiting lists, let them twist in the wind. Some look for comfort or at least release in crack and meth, but with housing costs so high and their pay so low, it's easy to fall.

Our Beloved President, in an act of caprice, shattered these people's lives. He and his enablers knowingly used bogus claims and fake evidence to lead us into this foreign policy cul-de-sac, knowing but not caring what would happen. People continue to die every day, and hell, maybe the dead are the lucky ones, they won't have to see the continuing indifference of those in power.

Yes, we all say we're tired of this war, but what are we doing. How many seeds must be planted before we reap this terrible harvest, how much blood can we sponge from our hands, how many homeless bodies must we step over?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Oh, hey, here's a surprise: The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday recommended Michael Mukasey's confirmation as Attorney General.

Mukasey, of course, is the guy who maintained a straight face as he told the senate he was unfamiliar with the practice of water-boarding. Given the post-Abu Ghraib heightened awareness of torture in all its forms, Mukasey's claim is simply unbelievable.

Or, to put it more succinctly, he's lying.

The guy needed to bring a sense of, well, justice to the Justice Department has already failed the only conceivable test of his worth. Yet somehow he gets a big okey-doke, and his confirmation by the full senate is pretty much a lock.

Two influential Democrats helped Mukasey along, Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein. Schumer's from New York, Feinstein from California--supposedly hard-core Blue States, yet their top senators have no problem blowing a big wet kiss to the Bushinistas. (Incidentally, please not my substitution of "big wet kiss" for the usual oral sex metaphor I would normally deploy here. I'm trying to learn restraint...) Nobody would expect otherwise from Feinstein (on the San Francisco political scene, she used to run with George Moscone and Harvey Milk; once she became a career politician, her views more closely resembled Dan White's), but Schumer was the first senator to call for Alberto Gonzales' resignation; you'd think he'd demand better from Gonzales' replacement.

You would think that, if you honestly believed the Democratic party actually stood for something, had any kind of spine, offered something other than mild, token opposition to the most anti-humanistic presidency imaginable. Such thoughts might have been possible once.

Things have changed.


Apparently, I am Weird Al.

Aside from the obsessing over Marshall Crenshaw--this before his killer turn in La Bamba!--I happened to be eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (on white bread, no less!) as I watched this. While wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Plus, Al is a well-known Star Wars fanatic. Scary...

Monday, November 05, 2007


Look, I promise the rest of the post won't be as depressing as the title. (He said, fingers crossed.)

Maybe it was the not-unattractive women both in front of and behind me in the checkout line, both of whom noticed what I had laid out on the counter, both smirking Funky Winkerbean-style as they perused my purchases.

As I noted the sum total of my trip to the grocery store, I wept for my spirit: Cat food, peanut butter, chocolate chip cookies and sandwich bags.

It looked so...pathetic. The combination of sandwich bags and peanut butter, like I'm stowing away the same pathetic foodstuff every day. Store-bought chocolate chip cookies, because I'm too paralyzed with stasis to even make my own. Cat food, because I'm turning into a crazy cat person. (Friskies Select cat food...not exactly the best of the best, but fairly top of the line for mass market stuff, thus suggesting the cats are eating better than me.)

I could probably defend my purchases if I absolutely had to, but seeing them on display like that made me feel so vulnerable, made me question whether I am in fact living, or have accepted the rest of my life as a long winding-down to death.

But hey, the woman ahead of me may have been judging my purchases, but how much moral authority did she carry? She bought a pack of Camels, a case of Bud Light and a bottle of Absolut--not enough for a party, but way more than one person should consume.

Besides, just because I'm in limbo now doesn't mean I'll be staying here. Sometimes--okay, most of the time--it feels like my life is in a holding pattern, but it was only a year ago I realized I felt as much love for the son of the woman I was dating as I did for her, that I was capable of being part of a family, something I had never previously considered possible. It didn't work out--for reasons I still don't understand--but Tabbatha and I still are friendly, and Paul and I still hang out together. That right there shows surprises are still possible in my life.

But such miracles won't happen on a regular basis, and there's still the drudgery of everyday existence: Peanut butter. Sandwich bags. Chocolate chip cookies. Cat food. Sometimes the comfort of the familiar isn't so comforting at all.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


First, a warning: Enjoy this while you can, since the Disney legal gremlins could remove it at any time.

That said, here is one of the greatest animated shorts ever made. The animation, as you'd expect from Disney, is outstanding, Jack Kinney's staging is exemplary, and Oliver Wallace's title song will be lodged in your head for the rest of the day, possibly longer.

Some questions to ponder:

1) Do you think Mel Brooks saw this?

2) Is the Japanese caricature any more offensive than, oh, Rob Schneider's buck-toothed Asian character in I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry?

3) While it's supposed to be rah-rah patriotic bullshit, how chilling is that finale? Was the fact that the shadow of the Statue Of Liberty seemed to be giving a Nazi salute considered ironic? And what about that "New World Order" line?

Ah, enough of that. Here's the cartoon:

Saturday, November 03, 2007


It's Saturday night, burn-off evening on network TV. NBC shows reruns of shows from its weekly schedule, and I'm sitting home bored off my ass, so I figured it was a good time to try out the redo of Bionic Woman.

As I tune in, two improbably attractive, tight-shirted brunettes are arguing. I'm assuming one of them is the titular bionic woman (and pardon my juvenile giggle at the use of the word "titular" in this context), and as the scene continues, it becomes an argument over their respective abandonment issues.

Cut to another scene. A college lecture, the professor showing slides, the first picture, in his words, "A victim of a car bombing in Baghdad..."

Well, that's enough of that.

Hey, I'm all for a certain amount of depth in my lightweight entertainment, I appreciate characters with some history, I get the idea of science fiction as metaphor for current issues. But come on. Anybody settling in for a show called Bionic Woman has a certain set of expectations, and none of which involve souls in torment or the war in Iraq. They involve seeing the titular (giggle) babe going undercover as beauty contestant or lifeguard or mud wrestler, and punching out vaguely foreign but unspecified bad guys, and running fast and leaping high. This show should be about fluff, not angst. If you want to do a crappy knock-off of Heroes, fine, but why the hell call it Bionic Woman?

If it brings a halt to production of this crap, that writer's strike can't come soon enough.

Friday, November 02, 2007


Apparently, the Writer's Guild Strike will happen, and most, if not all, TV and movie production will be shut down. The reasons for the strike are primarily financial, and not unreasonable, but there is one additional demand they should make: Dignity.

When your average stoopid Hollywood blockbuster is criticized, it's often over the inanities of plot and dialogue, and the writer is duly chastised. But is it the writer's fault? If you're the fifth, or fifteenth, scribe assigned to a Bruckheimer-esque adaptation of a seventies TV show or eighties toy line, and you're dealing with twentysomething studio executives giving you notes on the nuances of your characters, are you even going to bother trying? Or will you just grind out some shit that makes these pinheads happy, and pray for the day you can work on something you care about? And if that day never arrives, and your salvage job on Manimal: The Motion Picture landed you a seven-figure payday for Strawberry Shortcake 2: The Reckoning, will you even remember you sold out your dream?

I'm looking at writing credits for recent Big Hollywood movies. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have become the go-to guys for Michael Bay, but they used to write for Hercules and Xena. Those were enjoyably silly shows, often with genuinely clever scripts, but who knew they'd turn out to be a career highlight?

Or consider Alvin Sargent, one of numerous credited writers on Spider-man 3. His career dates all the way back to TV shows like Route 66 and Run For Your Life. He wrote Paper Moon, for God's sake. Do you think the idiotic plot complications and ridiculous coincidences in Spider-man 3 were his doing, or the result of some minor studio functionary demanding more "character arcs" while simultaneously requesting more explosions?

This is why screenwriters need to frame their demands differently. Striking over pay won't win you many supporters here in flyover land--it's impossible to sympathize with millionaires asking for more money. But if you demand the right to never again be forced to write an unwarranted sequel or needless remake, the good wishes of the entire nation will be behind you.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Sorry, folks, another lazy day. Hey, it's no longer National Blog Writing Month, so I don't even have to pretend to come up with original content. Just some video clips today, and if it seems as though they've been chosen at random, it's because they have been.

First, the late Sandy Denny, singing with her much-underrated post-Fairport Convention band, Fotheringay:

The pure dada joy of the Max Fleischer studio. Wanna be a member, wanna be a member?

Finally, Joe Jackson, from 2003: