Wednesday, August 26, 2009


As a lefty in America, I guess I have to say something about the passing of Edward M. Kennedy at the age of 77, but really, does anyone want to wander down the sainted paths of the Kennedy Myth again?

We all know the legend of JFK, tragically struck down in his prime, and Bobby, killed by an assassin's bullet before he even had a chance to bloom. And so poor Teddy, the Kennedy who lived, whose memory could not be preserved in amber and revered as a symbol of something that might have been, had to deal with the consequences of living in the real world.

Where, not surprisingly, people are less forgiving. JFK's presidency was largely undistinguished, and sometimes regressive, and the True Believers who speak in hushed tones when they conjure visions of Bobby's imaginary presidency conveniently ignore his erratic youth and shadowy associations. (How a guy who went Commie hunting with Roy Cohn could ever become a liberal icon is beyond me.) But they died young, and nobody had to watch them compromise their supposed ideals, or come to terms with what awful people they were.

Because that, sadly, is Edward Kennedy's true legacy: All the progressive legislation in the world couldn't erase the fact that he was a horrible human being, who took privilege as his birthright and never felt the need to play by the rules enforced on lesser mortals. Mary Jo Kopechne's watery grave is but one of many reminders that Kennedy may have dearly wanted to fight the good fight, but he ran like a coward when the fight involved him personally.

So yeah, it's sad in a political sense that Kennedy's vote will no longer be cast in an increasingly conservative senate, but the death of this American aristocracy does not deserve the inevitable mourning it will receive.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Despite my hyper-ironic hipster tendencies, I try not to be the type of douchebag who denigrates the tastes of others. If people want to enjoy the likes of Transformers 2, hey, fine, whatever. My life-long love for the art of film kicked into place during a pre-teen viewing of Where Eagles Dare on The ABC Sunday Night Movie, about as meat-and-potatoes a movie as you can get, and not dissimilar to a typical Hollywood blockbuster of today. (Guns! Explosions! A third-billed actress with nothing to do!) My tastes expanded and deepened, but I don't believe that I myself am a better, smarter person than somebody who has never even heard of Cutter And Bone.

It's an attitude I sometimes see in others much like me, an attitude perhaps latent in myself, to view those with different tastes or beliefs as somehow inferior, less enlightened. And I hate that attitude; all points of view are valid, and if someone sincerely laughs at a Sandra Bullock romantic comedy or finds some comfort in Sarah Palin's public persona, why question the sincerity of their response? I may disagree, but I can certainly appreciate the legitimcay of their reaction.

Having said that, I'm from Iowa, and this is August, so the question most frequently asked around here is, "Are you going to the fair?"

By which they mean the storied Iowa State Fair, a source of inexplicable pride for the Hawkeye State since 1854. Pretty much everything in Des Moines comes to a screeching halt while this thing goes on, and everyone attends, people from all over the state and all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum. Hell, many folks plan their entire years around the damned thing.

And as open-minded and accepting as I try to be, I've got to say, I don't get it.

I mean, it's a fair. There are rides on the midway, there's livestock on display, there are games of chance and tons of overpriced food. And really, that's about it. Sure, there are more rides on the midway than your average parking mall carnival, but it's the same basic thing. And the livestock competitions showcase the finest overstuffed pigs from the entire state instead of just, you know, one or two counties. But why should I care?

Again, different strokes and all, and I realize that people who receive blue ribbons for growing enormous eggplants are sincerely thrilled by the prize, but isn't that a relatively small subset of humanity? It's like my Mystery Science Theater 3000 obsession; if Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu were in town for some reason, I'd be bouncing off the walls with excitement, but I'd still recognize that my reaction would not likely be shared by everyone I meet. I wouldn't ask casual acquaintances if they were attending, or reroute traffic on the freeway for it, or showcase endless tedious coverage in the local media.

And so, since I can't imagine the vast majority of attendees at the State Fair genuinely care about the winners of the Tall Corn Contest, or even know a guernsey from a holstein, the only conclusion that can be reached is that most people go to this thing ironically.

Not that they are consciously doing this, necessarily. But the thing most fairgoers tend to claim they enjoy most is "people-watching," and considering the mulletted, badly sunburned and regrettably-garbed masses of humanity passing through the gates, "people-watching" is essentially a euphimism for "watching the freaks," an excuse to feel superior to those of lesser tastes and, most likely, fewer brain cells. It's like half of the state has somehow transformed into overly sarcastic poseurs, the essence of hipster douchebaggery.

Sometimes it seems like the whole damned thing is a Magic Christian-like scheme dreamed up by some cornfed Guy Grand, designed to showcase just how gullible the rubes really are. Big ticket shows at the grandstand this year include performances by not only the likes of Brooks And Dunn and Kelly Clarkson--not my taste, but whatever--but Peter Frampton and, God help us, Journey. That would be the current incarnation of Journey, of course, showcasing That Guy Who Isn't Steve Perry alongside a bunch of other guys who may or may not have played on all those hit songs no one ever really liked. If they were performing on a free stage--alongside graduates of local dance schools, fifties cover bands and State Fair perenials Head East (apparently The Lamont Cranston Band was booked elsewhere this year)--I could maybe understand the appeal (again, in an ironic way), but asking people to pay money for this shit? And the kicker is: This show sold out! In these fragile economic times, people shelled out good money to see a hastily-cobbled-together assemblage of musicians churning out the songs of a band that was faceless and bland in the first place.

No matter how much I try to accept and respect the tastes of others, I can't help it: Anyone who would pay to see Journey is an idiot. And when I think about so many other things associated with the fair, such as deep-fried Twinkies on a stick, or that one of the livestock prizes is awarded to something called "Beef Of Merit", I can't help but chuckle derisively. As somebody who tries to appreciate the human race at its best, I avoid the Iowa State Fair like a plague, for it seems like nothing so much as a showcase for humanity at its worst.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Just a few quick words to express how utterly gaga I am over Hayao Miyazaki's stunningly beautiful animated children's film Ponyo, just released in the United States in a somewhat shaky English dub. If nothing else, it is a crash course in all that we've been missing since hand-drawn animation has largely been replaced on screens by blandly representational CGI. Miyazaki is an artist--he's famous for retouching his films drawing by drawing until he's completely satisfied--and his preferred medium is pen and ink, handpainted cels and, oh, those gorgeous backgrounds, largely remdered with charcoal crayons. As much as I love Pixar's work--and I do--they can't do anything like this:

That was a French trailer for a Japanese movie newly released in American theaters, but of all the publicity material I could find, it was the one that best showcased another of Ponyo's formidable assets, its gorgeous score by Joe Hisaishi, which perfectly complements the wondrous visuals conjured by the wizards at Studio Ghibli.

But to concentrate solely on the visual and aural beauties is to sell short Miyazaki's magnificent script, which is the most successful attempt I've ever seen at putting a child's view of the world on screen. The story in Ponyo doesn't just revolve around a five-year-old; it seems to have been written by one. It has a naive simplicity, a belief that wondrous things can happen all the time, that magic is everywhere, that brewing tea and receiving a hug from your mom are just as amazing and wonderful as prehistoric creatures casually swimming below your feet, or the moon coming closer to earth. Miyazaki knows that the very young are able to view the entire world with a sense of awe, and he captures that fleeting innocence with a heartbreaking precision.

A great movie, is what I'm saying.

Friday, August 14, 2009


1) And with yet another pointless Larry King quote as title--this one a typical over-the-top blurb for a deeply uninteresting movie (Larry was waxing rhapsodic over You, Me And Dupree, in case you're interested)--we see the return of everyone's favorite placeholder, the Random Thoughts post. Or, to put it more accurately, Things I Wanted To Mention But Didn't Feel Like Actually Researching And Writing About In Detail. But that doesn't sound as snappy, does it?

2) The supposedly liberal press that Republicans so endlessly decry only briefly mentioned the revelation that former Bush administration scumwad Karl Rove was indeed one of the driving forces behind the firing of nine U.S. attorneys whose politics didn't square with the Bushinista's views of the world. All along, Rove has denied involvement; other former Bush/Cheney lickspittles like Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales also proclaimed Rove's innocence. That they were all lying--sometimes under oath--should, in any fair world, lead to federal perjury charges.

Instead, Rove gets hired to do a cameo on Family Guy. In the immortal words of El Brendel, it's a vacky vorld.

3. Speaking of evil machinations cooked up by insane Hollywood types, word is Blair Witch Project directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez are contemplating a sequel. In other words, the creators of a well-known but widely-reviled movie that was notable more for its marketing than its content have done nothing of consequence in the last ten years, and are desperately making a quick grab for some easy green. Way to keep following your muse, guys.

4) This week's latest adventures in rib displacement led to a prescription to Soma, the U.S. brand name for carisoprodol. According to Wikipedia--which, of course, is never wrong--carisoprodol is similar to (but in a different family than) hydrocodone, which was the dangerously unstable drug I was prescribed last time I was in excrutiating pain. Apparently, carisoprodol has been taken off the market in Sweden because it easily leads to addiction and abuse, and though my Swedish heritage usually leads me to assume anything the emotionally distant, sex-crazed inhabitants of my forefather's homeland decide is for the best, I've got to say, this stuff hasn't been making me bounce off the walls the way hydrocodone did.

Of course, I've had unusually vivid dreams lately. But hey, who hasn't sat bolt upright in bed, covered in cold sweat, after dreaming of receiving a severe beating from Bill Cosby?

5) What's the only thing sweeter than yet another Yankees win? Knowing that the Red Sox lost! Not to gloat too much: Though they seem to be a mighty, unstoppable force, much as God intended, it's almost time for the Yankees' inevitable late-season period of suckage to kick in. Sure, they'll make the play-offs--and without resorting to any wild card shenanigans like those dicks up in Boston--but will they make it to the Series? And how will the Steinbrenner clan gouge the fans if they do?

6) Beloved kitty Monika was flopped in front of the door yesterday, on her back with her feet sticking straight up in the air, looking for all the world as if she'd found a quiet spot to expire. I was alarmed, and ran over to make sure she was okay. She seemed confused by my attention, and responded by following me around for the rest of the day, always watching me, always at my feet. It was weird, and seemed to suggest Monika has neurotic tendencies I'd never previously suspected.

Still, she has a long way to go before becoming a full-fledged Psychokitty. That's Delmar's job, and he performs it quite well, thank you very much.

7) While assembling yesterday's piece on Les Paul, I did a YouTube search for How High The Moon, and while Paul and Mary Ford's version was the first one that popped up, there were also covers from Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Diane Reeves and many, many other people blessed with voices that don't make me want to stick my head in an oven.

And there was a version from Toni Tennille.

Naturally, I felt the urge to post that here. After all, that could be as awful as any Lynda Carter clip! But honestly, even I couldn't bring myself to sit through it...and I paid money to see Glitter. There's a fine line between laughable, unintended camp and sheer, unbearable pain, and I think we can all agree, Toni Tennille crossed it long ago.

This clip, though, is on the right side of that line--Joey Heatherton singin' and dancin' her heart out, accompanied by two useless tambourine-wielding appendages having what Crow T. Robot once referred to as a mince-off. Enjoy! Or whatever!

Thursday, August 13, 2009


While driving down a crowded street, the news was blandly announced over the radio: Les Paul has died at the age of 94. Suddenly, I found it necessary to pull over and have a bit of a cry.

Not that tears are necessary, I guess. After all, 94 is a pretty good age, and he remained active until the end. And no once could have lived a more productive life--single-handedly changing the soundscape of the twentieth century is, after all, no small achievement.

It's not just that Paul's invention of the solid body electric guitar made the very existence of rock and roll possible, or his development of multi-tracked recording, without which (to name only one example) The Beatles' brilliant studio albums would never have been possible, or his discovery of how feedback, delay and reverb could be musical techniques in and of themselves--well, okay, it was all these things. But more, it was how in Paul's hands the guitar became a primary instrument, the primary instrument, of the coming musical revolution. Sure, there were great guitar players before him, but nobody else could coax the range of sounds Paul could from his Gibson. Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, George Harrison and Eric Clapton, Richard Thompson and Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa and Pat Metheny, Thurston Moore and Tom Morello--hell, everybody who ever picked up an electric guitar owes a debt to Les Paul that they can only pay back by making it sing like he could.

Here's one of Paul's most famous recordings, How High The Moon, which shows his astonishing technique on his chosen instrument, but it's also a great showcase for his brilliant production techniques. He didn't just multi-track the vocals of his wife, Mary Ford, but experimented with putting the microphones in different spots while recording her, transforming her voice--good, but not great--into the sound of angels. (I particularly like the wordless "Aahh-aahh-aahh" in the middle of Paul's solo, ringing like a force of nature.) This is, essentially, the same process used to make contemporary pop tarts like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus sound better through amplifiers than they do in real life. Which means Les Paul's legacy lives on in not so good ways as well, but let's not blame him for that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


So I started feeling back pain again, similar to but less severe than the stabbing sensations that led me to an Emergency Room visit a few months ago. A visit to the doctor led to mostly similar results, a diagnosis of a displaced rib and a prescription for a muscle relaxer. (But a different muscle relaxer this time around, Soma, and, by the way, Big Pharmaceutical: Really? You're naming a drug after the fictional narcotic of choice in Brave New World? Is that, um, a good idea?)

Since I was seeing my regular doctor instead of an anonymous ER functionary, he suggested a further course of treatment: "I could try manipulating your back." He led me to a separate room, where I flopped down on a massage table, but as soon as he laid his hands on my back, the doc realized there was nothing he could do. "There's too much tension here," he announced. "Your muscles feel as if they never relax."

Me? Tense? Just because I live by the motto A Day Without Flying Into An Apoplectic Rage Is Like A Day Without Sunshine? Just because I've never relaxed a day in my life? What fun would that be? Without tension, my life would have no meaning. Or so I must assume, since I've never been free of it.

Look, it's not that I don't want to be happy, calm and relaxed. Honest! I just...don't know how.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Walking back from Quik Trip, Paul begins musing on the nature of our relationship. "It's weird. I never used to have grown-up friends. My friends were other kids. Now I spend more time with grown-ups. It's weird that we're still friends."

Yeah. Especially if you remember how we started out.

"What do you mean? Didn't we like each other when we met?"

No, I didn't mean it like that--

"I remember my mom didn't even introduce us at first--"

Yeah, but she got around to it eventually. And I'd kind of figured out who you were. But what I meant was, we didn't start out as friends so much as...I mean, I was dating your mom. Remember the second time we met? We barely knew each other at that point, but you still talked me into buying you a root beer and kept asking me when I was going to marry your mom.

"I don't remember doing that. Did I say that in front of her?"

Yeah, she was right there.

"What did she say?"

She just laughed. And I told you you'd have to ask her about the whole marriage thing.

"And what did she say to that?"

She still just laughed.

"It might have been nice if it had worked out with you guys."

Yeah, well.

"Was I the first kid...I mean, were there other kids...I mean--"

Had I dated other women with kids?


Sure, but either the kids were older or I never even got to meet them because the relationship never lasted that long. But with your mom, it was different, because we--

"--Talked about getting married?"

Talked, yes.

"And did you know about me? When you first started dating her?"

Oh yeah. Of course. She talked about you quite a bit. She loves you and she's very proud of you.

"She yells at me a lot."

That's because you never help her clean up.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. you didn't care that she had a kid?"

Evidently not, since I kept seeing her. But it's weird. I'd never...gotten as far into a relationship with someone with kids as I did with her. We's weird.

"You already said that."

Yeah, I know. What I mean is, we were calling each other 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend' before I'd even met you. If I'd met you and hated you...Who knows?

"It's a good thing you didn't hate me. You didn't, right?"

Are you kidding? I couldn't stand you. As a matter of fact, I don't like you now.

"Yeah, right. You just don't like me because I hate the Yankees."

That's as good a reason as any. At least you're not a Red Sox fan. Then I'd have to kill you.

"No, you couldn't."

Why not?

"Because I'm going to kill you first!"

(Suddenly we grab sticks off the ground and begin zapping each other with magic spells, chasing each other down the sidewalk, screaming with manic enthusiasm, not caring if we wake the neighbors. After all, they should be awake, and enjoying this lovely Sunday morning right along with us.)

Friday, August 07, 2009


If you are of a certain age, the very name John Hughes meant something to you once. Hughes, who died Thursday at the age of 59, later became the hack writer-producer of indefensible comedies like Home Alone and (shudder) The Great Outdoors, and directed treacly crap like Curly Sue. But for a three-year run in the mid-eighties, he was the go-to guy for teen angst, a trusted brand name for the Clearasil set.

He achieved this primarily with three movies he wrote and directed--Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as well as Pretty In Pink, which he wrote and produced and essentially ghost directed. Taking their characters and their all-too-common travails seriously, whether they were going through first love, negotiating high school cliques or dealing with parental pressure, Hughes elevated teenage life to the stuff of high tragedy; his films were especially notable since most depictions of teenagers on screen at the time either depicted them as the noxious horndogs of the Porky's series or fodder for masked killers in slasher epics.

The Hughes formula was hugely successful and amazingly influential--spiritually, he helped father everything from My So-Called Life to Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Superbad. The thing is, though, all three of those things are so much better than anything Hughes ever did. However significant his work seemed at the time, it wasn't really very good.

Oh, Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller are still watchable, though they have many wince-inducing moments. But my God, has anyone actually watched The Breakfast Club lately? It's painfully bad, with scattered moments of insight undermined by an embarrassing sense of self-importance. One of the genuinely admirable qualities of Sixteen Candles was Hughes' insistence on casting real, gawky teenagers like Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, a virtually unheard of tactic in American movies at the time. Ringwald and Hall returned for The Breakfast Club, but the other actors had clearly passed their high school days, especially Judd Nelson, whose hilariously overwrought performance (the finest actor since Elmo Lincoln!) is unfortunately showcased by Hughes--Nelson gets all the big dramatic moments and the final iconic freeze-frame.

I have a certain fondness for Hughes' teen ouevre because, well, I was the right age for it. But today's teenagers would most likely sneer at the whole shebang, wondering why anybody bothered. And they'd be right to do so. For somebody who once burned so brightly, Hughes disappeared fast. He hadn't directed a movie since 1991, and honestly, had anybody even noticed he was gone?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

5, 6, 7, 8

It would be way too obvious to point out that the wonderful new documentary Every Little Step, which follows the audition process of the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, eerily reflects the very theme of that musical theater landmark. So obvious, in fact, that directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo feel no need to stress it. They know they've got great material and need do nothing more than stand back and watch.

Yes, they do focus too much at times on one blandly pretty semi-professional dancer just starting to make her way with a lot of pluck and moxey, and its thumbnail description of A Chorus Line's genesis is a bit too well-scrubbed. (Director-choreographer-genius Michael Bennet is presented as a genial good guy, when pretty much all of his collaborators would describe him as an egotistical, credit-grabbing monster, though they'd undoubtedly agree about the genius part.) But mostly they just let the cameras roll as the grueling process of making a show grinds along, with a lot of pain and a lot of joy along the way.

The pain is there in the bodies of dancers who can't quite make their limbs do what they need to do, in the voices of singers who can't quite hit the notes. It's in the faces of the show's director, Bob Avian, and choreographer, Baayork Lee--two former Bennet who didn't come to hate his guts--as they relive some painful memories watching fresh-faced talent recreate moments from their own lives. And mostly it's in the reactions of actors who don't get the job, who feel as if they've been cut for entirely arbitrary reasons, as if their professional careers, their very lives, have been judged and found wanting.

The joy, of course, comes when the bodies and voices do exactly what they're supposed to do, when everything snaps into place with clockwork precision. (One of Every Little Step's highlights is when auditionee Jason Tam reduces the entire casting staff to tears with a recitation of a monologue they've all heard a thousand times. The film doesn't even bother trying to milk suspense over whether Tam would get the gig; it's just assumed we'll understand he had it then and there.) But even that joy is bittersweet and fleeting; all these people working so hard for something that is, after all, ephemeral. In that sense, perhaps it is appropriate that the revival of A Chorus Line had already closed by the time the film opened--nothing lasts forever.

Of course, we know that, don't we? A soon as the movie ended, I felt the overwhelming urge to share my enthusiasm for it with the one person in the world who would most appreciate it--Mom, of course. For one brief moment, I forgot that I can't do that anymore, and when the realization that such a conversation will never, ever be possible again passed over me, I hurried from the theater to the privacy of my car, where the tears began to fall.

Mom's life--like all of our lives, or like a dancer's movement or a first, awe-struck viewing of a profoundly moving work of art--was temporary, here and gone, never to return. Yet without her, I never would have seen Every Little Step, because I would have had no interest in the subject matter. But I do care, of course, because throughout my life, she introduced me to things she must have instinctively known I'd love. (She pointed me toward tomorrow, you might say.) Movie musicals, the novels of Ross MacDonald, the music of Roger Miller and Spike Jones, even the comic books she picked out for me when I was a kid were all perfect, were all ideally suited to me, the person I was, the person I'd become, the person I have yet to be.

A Chorus Line may have closed, but its original run is still legendary, and it is still revered by dancers and actors everywhere. Mom may be dead, but every time I reflect on her, when I remember everything she did for me, she is still somehow here. Nothing lasts forever, but maybe everything lasts long enough.