Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Village Voice Critics' Poll

So the Village Voice Movie Poll is out, and I've got to say, it's a bit of a surprise, perhaps because I've been following film criticism less closely this year than the last five or so years. First, demonlover (a review of which will be out before Miramax releases Hero, I promise!) at #3? I missed the love for that troubling, incoherent and brilliant picture. And even Lost in Translation at #1 was a little strange, considering the terrain the Voice critics generally chart. The participants selected by Voice film editor Dennis Lim run to the high-end of the brow-meter. These are guys that go for the oblique and rigorous -- Beau Travail and Werckmeister Harmonies , and this year, The Son and Unknown Pleasures . I know Sofia's gotten plenty of love from the mainstream crits, but I thought the highbrows met her moving but facile exercise in hipster cool with polite applause, not a thunderous ovation. Lost in Translation is really quite good, but it still stuns me that so many would select that well-crafted if flawed chamber mood piece over the similar but magnificent Friday Night. It's like seeing the Pazz & Jop go for "Pieces of You" instead of "Exile in Guyville." But I digress.

Great to see Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary and Kaurismaki's The Man Without A Past , two relatively unsung but awesome films, get acknowledged. Also, deserved props to Murray and Skarsgaard and Turning Gate and Brown Bunny in the Undistributed Poll.

Lastly, how many attempted bon mots did Jim Ridley and Steve "The Unit" Erickson send in to land that many published blurbs? Good job, though, guys.

/Au hasard, Balthazar/ (Bresson, 1966): A

This movie stars a donkey. In the beginning, the donkey would frolic with the nymphet Marie, and all is joyful. Then shit starts happening to Marie's dad. The donkey gets sold and is treated badly. Marie is also treated badly, especially by a prick named Gerard. Gerard loves to torture the donkey. Also, he steals. Also, he is a punk who wears uncomfortably tight jeans. The donkey gets taken in by a drunk then a miserable miser. Through it all, the donkey remains implacable. His eyes are clear but sad. When Marie caresses him near the end of this donkey picture you feel just like when Kate and Leo reunited in the afterlife. Very bittersweet. Then the donkey eats it. The end.

This donkey picture is considered one of the greatest pictures ever made. I agree with this. Manohla Dargis and J. Hoberman also agree (I think both esteemed critics have this movie on their all-time top ten). First of all, it is true I have never seen a better donkey picture. I especially like the close-up shots of the donkey's eyes, and the shots of Marie's hands. And also the last shot. The movie feels so pure, like nothing has been wasted. The director, the "transcendental" master Robert Bresson, does not lard his movies with a hundred cutaways of ticking clocks or dress up everybody in red. His filmmaking is simple but concise. That is why it is awesome that this frog Bresson has become the fashionable Artiste of the Serious Cinema rather than the dour overrated Swede Bergman and the Russian Tarkovsky, though the Ruskie is making a comeback. (Solaris is awesome, by the way.) If anyone wants to check out more of this frog Bresson, I highly recommend A Man Escapes and Pickpocket, though I also like most of the others too. Still, this donkey movie is Bresson's masterpiece, and it should be seen in this beautiful print rather than a Nth generation PAL dub, which is how I first saw it.

Also, notice how this donkey film is not about the donkey per se but about the cruelty of man's utter indifference (and intentional cruelty) to other beings. Bresson's focus on the donkey speaks to a greater theme, the effect of callous human actions. In that way, this donkey movie is utterly unlike the awful robot movie about the robot kid programmed to love.

Top 5 Karaoke Hits

Okay, I've been in Asia for the last two weeks and haven't had time to blog. In the meantime, some random, 5-minute posts.

The trick in picking out a karaoke repertoire is to sing cheesy, fun songs that aren't also ultra-grating (for that, most of you will be glad that you were never within a five mile radius of my rendition of "Sweet Child O' Mine." For those with awful vocal range, songs preferably with a rich low timbre and low range works best. Also, shtick is good.

Currently, this is my repertoire, with room for random Carpenters or popular alternative rock songs (read: "Wonderwall" and "Creep"). Keep in mind most karaoke joints are not gonna be stocking Neutral Milk Hotel or anything.

1. "Paint It Black", Rolling Stones. The droning verse is so awesome.
2. "Kissing a Fool", George Michael. Should I be copping to this in a public forum?
3. "I've Got You Under My Skin", Frank Sinatra. Or "Fly Me to the Moon", but that's a hard one.
4. "Your Song", Elton John. Cheese city.
5. "Suspicious Minds", Elvis. Though I think "Now or Never" might be the better Elvis choice.

New fave: "Perfect Day", Lou Reed. You can chainsmoke Camel nonfilters and still dust off some Papa Reed no prob.
Clear the room: "Zombie", The Cranberries.

5 Songs I wished those damn K-town noraebahns would stock:

1. "Sexy Sadie", The Beatles. Keeping with the White Album, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" would also be awesome.
2. "Tame", The Pixies. Or "Debaser" or "Here Comes Your Man".
3. "Low", R.E.M. I just want to sing this ridiculous song just once.
4. "Bring the Noise", Public Enemy. Bass, how low can you go?
5. "When I'm with You", Sheriff. Okay, they probably have this insanely awesome Eighties power ballad somewhere, I've just never bothered to look for it.

Also: "New Slang", The Shins; "Stephanie Says"/"Caroline Says"/"Who Loves the Sun", The Velvets; "Dirty Boots", Sonic Youth; "Spanish Bombs", The Clash; "The Blowers Daughter", Damien Rice; "It's a Man's Man's Man's World", James Brown; "Sour Times", Portishead.

I'm sure I'm missing a bunch.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Sartorial Battleplan

A very basic tip on date clothing choices for a buddy (and Pigs and Battleships gadfly) who needs it:

(1) 1st three dates: Do not wear the same shoes or the same jacket. Better still: adjust your style so you'll be rocking the high and the low. For guys, this means sporting maybe some vintage sneakers one day with a t-shirt and a casual leather jacket one day, some polished leather kicks and a dress shirt for a nice dinner on another night. For the ladies, miu mius switched up with colorful, stylish sneakers or wacky red shoes with flowers emblazoned on them, purchased in Chiangmai, Thailand. (Though I prefer dates who resist labels.) Also, try to avoid shoes with velcro straps.

(2) 1st five dates: do not repeat the same articles of clothing. Even if all your outfits involve a plain cotton t-shirt inside an open flannel button down, try to change up on the colors. Don't even repeat the same underwear. You never know if someone snuck a peek at your lower back as you were bending over to tie your shoe laces.

(3) Do not dish out your pet (beat-up Wade Boggs) t-shirt from the 9th grade until you're six months into the relationship, and even then make sure you're wearing that while washing your car or something.

(4) Do not wear imitation name brand goods on an initial date, even for ironic effect.

(5) Do not wear garish "dandy" shirts that cause headaches, or shirts that have seam problems. (Just a tip for myself.)

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Coming Attractions

If anybody's still paying attention...hello!

Updates soon. A sneak preview of the fun that awaits you:

- Girls with disturbing 12 year-old boy jones, and why they target me!

- Why Russell Crowe rules! (Plus a rundown of the last five movies I've seen, all graded "B+"!)

- How the Sox fanatic message board convinced Curt Schilling to come to the Sox! (The first recorded instance of an internet message board having a real-life effect!)

- Bitches loathed by other women but tolerated by men -- what's up with that!

- The long-awaited Lost in Translation/Demonlover review! (Yeah, right.)

- Electoral map discussion!

- Paean to Carole Lombard, currently honored by LACMA with her own series!

- The real dirt on Jacko!

All to be completed before the end of the year! (I'm really doing this entry to give myself some pressure to update this forsaken thing.)

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Quick hits on recent flicks

Elephant (Van Sant): C+

Gawk! at the beautiful Calvin Klein model high school kids doing mundane things.
Revel! in the exquisitely choreographed tracking shots that contain, in the shot, a kid's entire universe.
Behold! the gay outsiders who love guns and watch shows about Nazis.
Grimace! as this lovingly crafted "tone poem" clunkily shifts into exploitative crap.

To Be and to Have (Philibert): B+/B

It takes a village, or maybe it takes the dedication of an attentive soul with the right touch just to keep these adorable French urchins on track. Shapeless yet so in rich in carefully observed cuteness that you gotta be a Grade-A tin man to resist.

The School of Rock (Linklater): B+

Probably the best Kindergarden Cop-type movie ever made. Jack Black is so awesome, but I bet he'd be pretty obnoxious to have around all the time.

Intolerable Cruelty (Coen): B/B-

An homage to the greatest genre of classic Hollywood, the screwball comedy. The problem with the Coens' scenario is that the spy v. spy set up makes the boy gets girl an anticlimax. (In the best screwball comedies, usually one of the two would-be lovers has a heart.) That CZJ is completely overmatched by a pitch-perfect Clooney doesn't help. Many fine scenes, especially those involving Billy Bob Thorton, make it worthwhile.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (Tarantino): B+/B

So fucking cool, except when it's trying too hard to be so fucking cool. Superb use of music, virtuoso filmmaking, and dope references (Lone Wolf and Cub, Tokyo Drifter, Killer Clans, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Zatoichi, Female Scorpion 41, etc. -- basically, ego-tripping for hardcore movie nerds), all adding up to what, exactly? And, yo, QT: Yuen Wo-ping does not do samurai swordplay. Stick with one-on-one stuff like the schoolgirl/Uma showdown. Now that was awesome.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Reagan/Dean 2003

1. CBS pulls its planned "The Reagans" mini-series after right-wingers whine and moan.

Reaction: Liberals are pissing all over CBS right now, and perhaps not without reason. But you know, what the wingnuts did isn't substantially different from minority groups protesting "insensitive" representations. One spat I got into online a while back involved the controversy surrounding F/X's planned scheduling of a Charlie Chan marathon, a plan which got shelved after vehement protests by some Asian groups, which enraged certain wingers. At the time, I argued that while the protests are largely misguided, the outraged responses ("PC police is running wild again!) are just as troubling.

Here's the deal: Ideally, programs should never be pulled. There's no captive audience for TV programming, so if you don't want to watch Charlie Chan or "The Reagans", then don't. These protests are energy ill-spent. Moreover, hypersensitive identity politics on the left and the Cult of Reagan on the right rank among two of the most annoying contemporary political phenomena, which makes it hard to take their side.

Without taking their sides, I can at least see where both groups are coming from. Just as it's crystal clear why Asian groups would find ol' Charlie offensive[1], it's also understandable why conservatives would be upset with this mini-series. You don't have to be a Reagan groupie to see how a seemingly extremely biased biopic of a man a chunk of the population considers a hero should probably not be airing while the guy's nearly on his deathbed. These political wars tend to focus on absolutes, but what's lost are good judgment and taste.

Essentially, what we have here is a kind of market correction by way of political activism. The passions of a well-organized minority can trump the extremely marginal interests of the majority in having those programming choices available. While that's not necessarily an awful thing, the way to check these kinds of controversies is by having different voices heard in programming. I suspect that there were no Asians (and likely no minorities) with input on the Charlie Chan programming decision. Likewise, it's likely that there were no conservatives among the decisionmakers that approved "The Reagans." Nobody talks about this angle, but a diversity of viewpoints and good judgment by programmers -- not whining -- is the best preventive measure.

So yeah, it's always regrettable when distributors cave to political hysteria. But when (1) the work is largely of dubious artistic merit; and more importantly, that (2) there are alternative avenues for consumers to see the product (Showtime will be showing "The Reagans" now), it's hard to cry wolf. What's best is if everybody shut the fuck up.

Bonus: Let's pay close attention to the hypocrisy meter when some liberal interest group applies the pressure. I bet both sides will hit ten on the dial again.[2]

[1] The most hilarious part of the online debate involved a bunch of utterly clueless white dudes trying to convince me why those dumbass, oversensitive Asians are wrong to be offended by Charlie Chan. Check out this idiotic page as well. To this day, it never ceases to amaze me how in the world a certain (laughably arrogant) segment of the White population can come to believe they *know* or understand what constitutes racially offensive depictions better than the group being depicted. "Well, hey, Charlie Chan's a good guy, and a conniving sleuth. Why's that bad?" Um, how 'bout the bucktooth, the exaggerated Asiatic features, the inscrutability, the accent, the sexlessness -- all contributing mightily to the image of the sexless, humorless, inscrutable Oriental male that continues to persist to this day, an image that's probably far more pernicious than any other Asian stereotype out there. And also consider that perhaps Asian males might experience certain situations that shed light how negative stereotypes plays out in real life -- y'know, experience which may elude the grasp of some white guy in Alabama? Just a thought.

[2] Sure, there are differences between Charlie Chan and "The Reagans", but they cut both ways. The former's a historical document and so the stereotyping is easier to contextualize, but "The Reagans" is clearly a work of fiction that need not strictly adhere to known facts. Wingers are trying to make content-changes to a show that hasn't been seen; Asian groups want to suppress a show that's already been widely disseminated. In short, these distinctions don't matter that much, and both sides should stop their fucking whining the next time something like this goes down.

2. Howard Dean gets slammed by other Dems for expressing his desire to appeal to the voter "who flies a confederate flag on his truck".

Reaction: Wake me up when this shit is over. This is exactly the kind of nonsensical controversy that makes presidential politics so frustrating to follow sometimes. Dean's basically suggesting that it's a good idea to broaden their appeal to recapture culturally conservative working class whites. He does it in provocative, colorful and half-serious language, exactly the kind of talk that can be easily distorted by political opponents. Too bad, because this kind of thing is really robbing us of any interesting or provocative political rhetoric.

Anyway, are any of these candidates really arguing that trying to expand your appeal isn't a laudable goal? Are any of these guys gonna pledge to reject votes for them by anybody who flies the Confederate flag? C'mon.

Dean wasn't saying that he's specifically trying to tailor his message to appeal to these guys. That would be extremely problematic, especially for a guy who's supposed to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party". All he's saying, really, is that the Dems should appeal to folks who have fled the party. Doesn't seem all that objectionable to me, though I suppose I'd paint a different stereotype myself. But the more Dean gets beat up about this, the greater the urge I feel to support him.

(How realistic Dean's goal is is another matter entirely. Due to the intractable Red/Blue split, I'd write off most of the South and hone my electoral appeal to Midwestern battleground states, Florida and Dem-trending states like Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia myself, as Dean no doubt will if he wins the nod.)

But it's funny again to see wingers like the WSJ editorial page defend Dean. I wonder how the purists on both sides would react had Steve Forbes mentioned something about appealing to Castro Street drag queens in 1996.

3. Which of the following choices best describes the Bush Administration state of mind in prosecuting the Invasion of Iraq and its aftermath?

(A) Psychopathic.
(B) A vile mendacity that surpasses the worst dissembling of Nixon and Clinton.
(C) Dumb, but probably well-intentioned.
(D) Dangerously delusional.
(E) All of the above.

(E) is probably one right answer, but the more correct answer is (D). And that meme is finally getting the play it deserves. Best line from Kristof: "I wish administration officials were lying, because I would prefer hypocrisy to delusion — at least hypocritical officials make decisions with accurate information."


Oh, lastly, the Brzezinski speech -- probably the most persuasive indictment of Bush's foreign policy that I've seen -- has gotten a lot of play in the blogosphere already, but it deserves all the attention it gets.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Josh Beckett is an asshole

Reporter: "So what kind of adjustments did you make to Derek Jeter tonight, considering he got three hits off of you the last time out?"

World Series MVP, with a look of utter disdain: "I can't even believe we're talking about this, man."

Throughout the post-Game 6 press conference, Beckett treated the entire press corps as if they were tobacco snuff. And that's how the brash 23-year-old treated the Yankees, Cubs, and Giants lineups during the postseason: chewing 'em up and spit 'em out.

Yeah, he's a cocky little prick. But with postseason like that, who can hold that against him? Anyway, I've always dug asshole pitchers. Kevin Brown, possibly the most boorish man on the planet, is a particular favorite, along with widely-despised (though recently revered) Ra-jah Clemens, my childhood sports idol. Add Beckett to that group. Like Wood and Prior, he's got that exploding high nineties fastball and 12-to-6 curve. His stuff is the reason I've made a special effort to snap up Beckett on one of my Fantasy teams two years running (in neither year was he worth the price).

But it's that "I don't really give a fuck you've hit 500 homers, don't fuck wit' me" fearless swagger on the mound that's turned him into a guy I'll now always pay to see. I don't understand the fan mentality about wanting sports figures to be "good guys." Is it to perpetuate some fantasy that one day, Pedro will show up at Gillian's and throw back a few while telling you the inside dope? Sorry, man, I just want to see them dominate on the mound, just like I wanna see Barry at the plate with the bases loaded. If the player's awesome, I really don't give a fuck how often he dicsk over reporters in front of his locker or ignores autograph hounds.

Oh, and the Yankees? Whatever happened to Mr. Clutch in Game 6? Beckett's high cheese getting to his stomach?

Also: Grady Little gets canned. It had to be done because of the following reasons: (1) Red Sox Nation will never forgive him, making his job impossible; (2) his poor in-game managing is ill-suited to a team under such an electron microscope, where a sixth inning pitching change against Tampa Bay in late May is analyzed and argued over on the internet. Grady seemed like a good players' manager, but he's probably not a great fit for an organization as devoted to sabermetrics (stathead-ism) as the Red Sox.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Thursday, October 16, 2003

It's On.

As Rob Neyer shows, taking into account nothing else, the deathmatch between the Red Sox and the Yankees will feature the greatest pitching matchup for a Game 7 in baseball history.

But baseball isn't just numbers. The beauty's in the history and backstory. And Bernard Malamud couldn't have scripted this one any better. The old gunslinger, on his last ride, with one bullet in his six-shooter, coming back with the U.S. Army to take out his old posse, the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Leading that posse is the brash, arrogant, formerly invincible Dominican pitcher, who once boasted that he'd drill the Babe in his behind if the Sultan of Swat were batting today. He now steps to the mound, with the disgrace of his previous start hanging over him, when he pouted and drilled a guy when things didn't go his way and tossed the 72-year-old Yankee bench coach with a metal plate in his head (who was the manager of the Red Sox in the previous Biggest Game in the Most Storied Rivalry in Sports) to the grass. One team is the most successful franchise in American team sports; the heartbreaks suffered by its accursed rival has become part of American lore.

But this year feels different. The teams have played 25 times this year, with the Yankees having taken just one more. It seems fitting that the Sox should even the season score.

This is the biggest sporting event of my adult life. Whatever happens, this game will be talked about for years and years. Step up like you did in Game 5 v. the Indians in 1999, Pedro, strutting out of the bullpen to shut out the Indians for 6 innings while throwing the mid 80s with that frayed shoulder. Write your legend.

On the other side, nobody wanted to see the Marlins in the World Series, and they knew it. But they've just been playing the kind of baseball purists like to see in the playoffs -- clutch hits, solid innings from the bullpen, and excellent, gaffe-free defense. It's a great story to blame the fan and the Cubbies' losing ways, but in the end, the Marlins were the more balanced, athletic, well-rounded team. And they had a better in-game manager. Over the years, nobody has squeezed more out of mediocre teams than Dusty Baker. The Giants last year started four guys who wouldn't make the Yankees playoff roster. Nobody gets more out of his players. But the same "faith in his players" approach doesn't work in big games. Prior should've been taken out after 5 in Game 2. Clement should've pitched yesterday. Zambrano should've pitched yesterday. Gonzalez should've gotten only junk in that at bat in the 7th, with Beckett on deck and nobody warming up for the Fish. And while I hesistate to jump to conclusions, it's hard not to suspect that all those 120+ pitch starts that Prior and Wood made this year didn't take its toll on their young arms.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

No jinxes

I lost my Red Sox cap in Bali. Speeding down on a bumpy road in the middle of nowhere on a moped, looking desperately for help after the jalopy I rented broke down (it's the jeep model issued to GIs during WWII, I'm sure of it), my cap flew off. After finding some help, I got the moped boy to turn back so I can retrieve it on the road, but it was nowhere to be found. A bystander told me that another local happily scooped it up and rode away. So some Balinese rice farmer named Wayan has my cap and during this hour of need, he better tend to it like a newborn child.

The Balinese is my cap's keeper. Though I'm tempted to pick up a replacement cap this week, I just can't do it. Wearing new gear might jinx them. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But at least I wasn't wearing the same shirt three days in a row like the Sports Guy (funniest sportswriting I've read all year -- check it out).

Today, Derek Lowe, he of the shit-eating Lowe face, goes up against Big Game Andy Pettitte. Pettitte is always tough on the Sox, but he also blows up once every five games or so. Let's hope it's Pettitte's bad turn, and Lowe continues to roll.

Oh, for fans of great sportswriting, an exquisitely written piece on the Sox-Yanks matchup by Thomas Boswell.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Ahnold iz Govnuh

If the early exit polls are to believed, the vote wasn't even close. It's at least a ten point spread on the Recall question and a similar margin for Arnold. The race is to see if the "no on recall" vote is higher than Arnold's percentage, which would deprive the Gropenator of a mandate. Reportedly, a higher "no" vote will give various liberal groups a stronger rationale to then start a drive to recall Arnold. Ugh. Will people give it a rest already?!?

The problem is the process. This faux-populist madness needs to stop. This shit makes me wish I hand a billion dollars to bank roll the Initiative to End All Fucking Voter Initiatives Ever in California Ever Forever.

And contra most of my friends, I don't see the Gropenator being nearly as fucked up as Bush. Sure, he's a Republican, with a pathetically simpleminded worldview to boot. But he's inherited a 20 billion dollar problem (the size of the state budget deficit, after all the smoke & mirrors are removed), and he's mandated to balance the budget. Because of the idiotic initiatives that voters have passed, the governor's hands are tied anyway (many budget items are mandatory and he can't run up a deficit to solve all his problems like some people). Undoubtedly, the poor will get jacked by the massive spending cuts that are needed, but it'll be checked somewhat by the Democratic legislature. Plus, he commands no standing army.

Other questions: (1) will Arnold help Bush take the state in 2004? Actually, it'll be funny if the Bush people believe this and start throwing money into California's black hole. Unless things change dramatically, Bush has about a 3% chance to take California. (2) Will Arnold reinvigorate the moribund California Republican Party? Unlikely. I expect Arnold to have a Ventura-like term; lots of publicity and hot air, but his gradiose pronouncements frustrated by the agonizing horse-trading and compromising that goes into governing. Like Ventura, he'll end up not running for re-election. But if he does move the Republican towards the middle and revitalizes it as a viable party, that's only good for California politics. It'll keep the CalDems on their toes, so they don't stock their leadership with Kafkaesque technocrats. How in the world did a bloodless, charisma-free hack like Gray Davis become the Governor of California anyway?

What's worse? Arnold's win (a) starts a new trend of doofus-celeb candidates who run because they think they're entitled to public office, or (b) spawns a cottage industry of "post-modern cultural critiques" about celebrity and politics.

Late-breaking benefit! Mickey Kaus will finally shut the fuck up and go back to pimping welfare reform 24-7. Why I keep reading this knee-jerk contrarian blowhard, I have no clue.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Pins and needles

Oh, man. To be a Red Sox fan is about sitting solemnly in front of your TV in the middle of the 9th telling yourself that no way the Sox would pull this out, even with the team up by a run. To rest the season on the right arm of Williamson, wild the entire year and pushing his luck in his fifth consecutive game, after a 28 pitch outing the day before, was insanity. (Kim's shoulder is allegedly sore, but I think they've just lost all confidence in him. Kinda unfair, and it may come back to bite Little. After all BK was fairly dominant in September.) Another harbinger of doom is the Sox going feebly the last couple of innings, sitting on their lead. But unbelievably, against all expectations, DLowe, whose heart and cajones has been relentlessly questioned by Red Sox Nation, came through. What a fuckin' great series.

You gotta feel for the A's though. A small market team with likeable personalities like Zito and Hudson, and that talent. I would've probably pull for them the rest of the playoffs, had they pulled this out. But it's a moot point.

Bring on the Yanks.

NB: Marlins v. Cubs. Marlins have the superior lineup on paper, and they play sound defense. Their rotation is solid, though obviously less potentially dominant than the Cubs'. If you start lining up the players, the Marlins would have an overall edge. But the Cubbies rotation makes up for a lot of deficiencies. They're kind of like Arizona in 2001, with more starter depth and a less dependable bullpen. But if they can get either Zambrano or Clement to bring their "A" game, they'll be very difficult to beat. Predix: Cubs in 7.

Lost in Translation (Coppola) B+/B Demonlover (Assayas, 2002) B+/B

Sox-A's Game 5

Zito on 3 days rest. Pedro in Game 5. The Big Mo. Everything points to a Sox win. So why am I dreading this game with every fibre of my being? Oh, right, it's because I'm a neurotically fatalistic Sox fan.

Predix: this game will either end in a Sox laugher (9-1) or a tight A's triumph (3-2).

Some fabulous weekend baseball. Pudge was the Man. Ortiz came through as he had done all year. But Game 3 of the Sox series is likely the ugliest game I've ever seen. And those Cubbies -- with Prior and Wood (and the potentially dominating but less consistent Zambrano and Clement) this might finally be their year. Must be tough being a Braves fan come October, eh, Scott? Kinda cool to see the underdogs come out on top in the NL, but nothing in sports beats Bonds at bat or Smoltz's GLADIATOResque glare. Too bad.

Urban Tribes

My buddy Caroline wrote this terrific feature on the supposed social phenomenon of Urban Tribes, an article I had a little hand in. The idea is that due to various factors, including: (1) postponement of marriage due to economic and educational trends; (2) new telecommunications technology which results in easier organizing of groups; (3) disposable income and more cultural distractions; (4) shifting attitudes about institutions, the "tribe" (a group of close-knit friends) has become the central social unit for increasing numbers of late twentysomething/early thirtysomething urban types. The point isn't that this is somehow a new thing, but that "tribes" have expanded in far greater numbers in recent years.

Maybe "urban tribe" is just a fashionable tag for a old hat, maybe it's a real thing. But when folks are coming up with such lame terms as "quirkyalones", it tells you that the race to coin the "post-millennial yuppie" moniker has reached absurd levels.

Glad other folks can say it better...

My two big political betes noire -- Bush's anti-empiricism and California's insane initiative system -- are worked over in the op-ed pages of the big dailies. Neal Gabler's (time to pick up his book) "medieval presidency" piece might be the most rhetorically effective attack on this presidency I've come across. David Kennedy traces the initiative's origins in reformist populism to its use as a device to sabotage effective government today. Interesting thesis, though the disproportionate power of property owners with their libertarian instincts is only a corollary of the central problem with plebiscite rule -- that voters are simply not equipped to make a knowledgeable decision on most of the issues on the ballot.

The nadir of the California initiative system, as far as I'm concerned, is Proposition 211 in 1996, a convoluted securities fraud/attorneys fees initiative that utterly defies the understanding of laypersons. Heck, I took a Sec Reg class in law school, and I barely had a clue what this initiative entails even now. Of course, comprehension wasn't a huge deal for me because I vote "NO" on all initiatives as a matter of principle and have since 1992, but this ended up as a battle of misleading ads between trial lawyers and business groups. Say what you will about corrupt, career politicians, but at least you can expect them to be informed about the bill they're voting on -- it's the foundation of our republican form of government. The California initiative system results in wars of mass manipulation. May the group that puts out the best propoganda win.

Misguided populists on the left and right champion the initiative as "direct democracy" at work. Unless you have a hyper-informed and politically engaged electorate (that does not describe California), direct democracy is a recipe for disaster. Half the state's problems are caused by unintended (but foreseen) consequences of ballot measures that were ratified by the people. Come to think of it, that's probably the best reason to vote against both the Recall and Arnold. Never mind his other problems. The Gropenator insisted that he'll take all of his proposals to "the people" in the form of ballot initiatives if the legislature doesn't go along. Fuck that.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

5 random thoughts +1

1. What Rush Limbaugh said is delusional, wingbat nonsense, but it isn't "racist." Even in their zeal to condemn the Big Fat Idiot, it's good to see that some sportswriters are able to make the correct distinctions. But it's equally gratifying to see ESPN getting burned on their moronic football/Rush synergy plan.

2. Wesley Clark correctly diagnosed the present administration's central problem -- governing entirely by ideological instead of pragmatic considerations -- in a must-read interview with Josh Marshall. This, coupled with the C-SPAN broadcast of a New Hamshire Town Hall meeting during which the General shows almost a Clintonesque smoothness and rapport with the voters, I'm about one step from hopping on the bandwagon. Not only can this guy win, more importantly, he looks like he'd make a damn good prez.

3. Radiohead @ Hollywood Bowl, September 25, 2003. Can anyone think of another "big" band that has moved in such a radically new direction in such a short period? One can argue the Beatles, of course, but I'd say the Fab Four simply "matured" between Help! and Revolver -- underneath their newfound lyrical and musical sophistication were still melodic, verse-chorus-verse "I lost that girl" rock songs. Radiohead's show, which mixes in simple acoustic numbers from their earlier albums with the densely textured, sprawling prog-rock electronica of Kid A and their new album, Hail to the Thief (more melodic and hooky than its immediate predecessors) makes for a strange mix, like a dub tape full of music culled from only two different bands.

Still, a kickass show. Thom Yorke really pours his soul into his wailing tapestries, and their set, with carefully choreographed horizontal light beams, coupled with the band's dark, disembodied, alienating soundscape, evokes the mood you might feel if you're listening to this music in a space ship headed for Pluto with no return ticket. It's a kind of indescribable melancholia that pinches at the edges of genuine emotion. (Okay, so that last part was total bullshit, but gimme credit for trying, okay?) Second encore ends the show on a crowdpleasing high, with crisp renditions of faves "Karma Police" (this song is so awesome) and "Everything in Its Right Place". Bonus: no "Creep".

4. Baseball Playoffs predictions. AL: Red Sox in 4. Yanks in 5. NL: Cubs in 4. Giants in 5.

5. Marc Chagall @ SFMOMA. With fairy tales and the naive-child aesthetic on the pop culture upsurge, it's no wonder Chagall should be making a comeback. His art, with their unfinished crayonesque texture and their fantasy milieu, look like illustrations from children's books, if his willfully unrealistic proportions and sophisticated allegories didn't make much of his art so baffling and difficult to unpack. Most modernists ran away from "meaning" and symbolism. This guy included a bunch of floating goats and roosters in his paintings. What gives?

A concurrent SFMOMA exhibit, Reagan Louie's pics of Asian sex trade workers, is interesting but unfocused. Lighting his subjects in a hyper-real manner and typically framing a prostitute frontally against a garish backdrop, Louie sought to take a detached, unjudgmental view of the Asian prostitutes. It worked in some of his photos, where the toll the sex trade has taken on the subject is without editorial comment. In others, there's an artful stylization that's poorly judged, adding emphasis when none is needed. The worst are shots that look like stills from a Wong Kar-wai film, highly stylized but entirely wrong for the subject.

Lastly, I'm devouring every last detail of this Plame-leak scandal. Track all the tawdry details and spin here and here. An outrageous scandal, and finally one that's seems to have a chance to stick. (The Post is really kicking ass on this one.) It's also the best issue I've seen that tests whether your favorite conservative is principled or just another nakedly partisan hack. This dude shows himself to be among the former. This page, not surprising, belongs in the latter group.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Bush Hating Addendum

Esteemed neocon pundit David Brooks, the NY Times op-ed's newest hire, today blasts Bush Hating, even quoting Jonanthan Chait's column at length to support his idea of virulent Anti-Bushism as the most pernicious kind of liberal self-delusion. Nice try, except Brooks completely missed the point of Chait's column. (See Chait's rebuttal here.) Chait's piece, more than anything, is an honest attempt at self-analysis. The starting point is: "why do I harbor these emotions, and are they justified?" You may disagree with Chait's conclusions, but it's hard to argue that honest self-analysis isn't a good thing -- at least intellectually (politically, liberals' tendency toward self-analysis and self-criticism is one reason why they tend to cannibalize one another). Isn't self-analysis -- or at least reflection -- what Brooks is demanding from liberals? Too bad self-analysis has become a foreign activity for right-wingers, where intellectual honesty has been in very short supply. But a whole cottage industry has sprung up to identify and mock right-wing hypocrisy -- an easy exercise, that -- so let's leave that one alone.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Bush Hating 101

Maybe a year ago, I finally confronted my demons. I admitted to myself that, yes, I *hate* President Bush and his cronies and all that they stand for. Mind you, it wasn't an easy emotion to acknowledge. As something of a secular humanist, I fervently want to believe that "everyone has his reasons." And as something of an intellectual elitist, the notion of politics being driven primarily by emotion is, well, frankly embarrassing. (That's, y'know, for those unwashed masses whom the Svengalis manipulate like puppets.) Lastly, as a political moderate who reads the Economist and mused about voting for McCain over Gore, it's not just extreme partisanship that's boiling my blood. I don't reflexively hate Republicans. Heck, I even kinda liked 41.

But just hearing 43 speak would raise my temperature 10 degrees. His clipped cadence, pausing after each line on the teleprompter, his Manichaean rhetoric, his budgetary sleight-of-hands -- it got to the point where as soon he appears on TV, I'd immediately change the channel, a reflex I normally reserve for such monsters as Ja Rule, Al Bundy, Fran Drescher, and Rush Limbaugh. At some point, I concluded what's most noxious about this administration -- why these guys enrage me so -- isn't that they're evil. Except for Dick Cheney, they're probably (mostly) well-intentioned and sincere (that's the liberal humanist talking). What's most offensive is these guys have no grounding in reality. Like the Soviets, or any number of insanely deluded regimes, these guys ignore facts -- science, economic data, history -- in favor of some fantasy world that they've bought into with a religious fervor. They don't give a shit about the real world that I'm living in, and that's just fucked up.

That angle wasn't touched on by Jonathan Chait in his otherwise invaluable and extremely timely ode to Bush hatred. Chait does an enviable job of articulating why it's legitimate, even logical, to be contemptuous of a man who had the audacity and arrogance to govern as a far-right ideologue after losing the popular vote and campaigning as a "uniter". He also discusses what I've alway thought was the central divide in American politics: culture. Bush is like a liberal elitist nightmare straight out of central casting, an ignoramus chickenhawk fratboy posing as a cowboy, just as ambitious, smarter-than-thou, pot-smoking, womanizing "moral relativist" Clinton is almost a cliched right-wing bogeyman. To the other side, each demonized president represents the apogee of toolitude, what we despise about others (and what that says about what we love about ourselves). It's John Wayne v. Monty Clift. Whichever side you identify with says something about who you are and who you aren't. Too much ink has already been spilled over the culture war, but Chait also tries, without much success, to distinguish Bush hating as far more legitimate than Clinton-hating. To be fair, it's a hard intellectual dance, one I've never truly worked out to any degree of satisfaction.

One key distinction is the aforementioned phobia of facts by the present Administration. I've detected that many Bush haters -- many of my political-engaged friends and all the raging lib columnists and pundits among them -- are driven batty most often when Dubya or his spokeman ignores a widely known or widely supported fact and continues to insist, for example, that no more troops are needed in Iraq, that taxes were cut for "everyone", or that global warming is some wacko fantasy. My favorite line on Bush, that he's not so-much an imperialist as an anti-empiricist, encapsulates his administration's wholesale contempt for knowledge, fact-gathering, data, and any expert advice that dissents from the party line. Clinton was nothing if not a pragmatist and empiricist. His penchant for reciting an exhausting litany of stats in his rambling State of the Union addresses speaks to this. By contrast, Dubya and his cronies intone about vague principles and, when confronted, do little more than to pass off fantasy scenarios ("the tax cuts will grow the economy and shrink the deficit"; "the Iraqi people will welcome Americans as liberators"). Bush's rhetoric reveals the pseudo-religious, black-and-white moral stance that this adminstration and most right-wingers take, a stance that's increasingly proving to be a menace to our country and the world. What's been a tonic to us Bush haters is his rapidly declining poll numbers. We keep telling ourselves (as Clinton has been telling to Democrats as well) that the middle-of-the-road voters will turn on Bush if and when they finally learn what Bush is doing. Of course, if Dubya continues on this course and gets reelected anyway, you'll do well to pick up some stock in Pfizer and Eli Lilly. I know I'll need some.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

TIFF Wrap-up (Revised)

Sat Sep 13

Undead (Evil Aussie Twins) C

Good: Flying zombie fish. Bad: "Quirky" refugees from The Price of Milk who end up not having their brains eaten by zombies like I fervently hoped they would. Awful: Stupid aliens and assorted cinematic incompetence. Colin Geddes really should have just revived the awesome Wild Zero if he was looking for a proper sendoff to the venerable Uptown theater.

PTU (To) B-/C+

As the first Milky Way film (and in all likelihood only the second HK action pic) to screen at the prestigious NYFF, expectations were high going in. Best to lower them considerably. One of those "task that must be completed in a short duration" movies, much-hyped action auteur Johnnie To inexplicably abandons the urgency necessary to this genre and focuses, ever so deliberately, on the police procedural and cool lighting (To made the Handsome Boy Modeling School "gangster" pic The Mission). Except it's nothing that we haven't seen in a hundred corrupt police dramas. A kickass opening and closing plus terrific use of props, especially cellphones, but not enough, especially when his outfit has put out much better shit.

Zatoichi (Kitano) B+/B

[More to come.]

Small Town (Ceylan) w/o

10 minute long shot of a guy walking up a hill cued to an inarticulate diatribe against rural living. An endless scene with alternating close-ups of actors reciting the minutes of a 1983 Santa Monica City Council meeting. There comes a point when shoe-shopping along Yonge Street sounded much more appealing than slogging through this tiresome first feature.

Dallas 362 (Caan) B+

One thing's certain: this modest, familiar tale -- basically it's Good Will Hunting meets Mean Streets -- is in for a second wave of movie nerd backlash after the big boys fell hard for it. (The backlash is already on, in fact.) It's not hard to see why. There's nothing profound or revolutionary or "challenging" here, nothing that stretches boundaries or goes off in bizarre directions. Caan is not the second coming of the Andersons (Wes or PT).

All there is here are smartly directed scenes that invariably undercuts the cliches inherent in the set-up, dialogue sharp enough to be laugh-out-loud funny, but naturalistic enough to be believable, fat-free cutting, and terrific ensemble performances -- the kind of thing that used to be called "good, smart filmmaking." Occasionally stumbles (if we start a letter campaign now, perhaps never again shall The Smashing Pumpkins' "Today" be used as source music for a montage sequence), but it's as accomplished an AmerIndie I've seen since You Can Count On Me. Yeah, you read that right: Sonny Corleone's son made one of the best movies of the festival. Stop scoffing, Stults.

Fri Sep 12

Nine Souls (Toyoda) C+

All over the place, but mostly watchable when it isn't trying to be a zany New Zealand comedy. Or when it isn't trying to be All About Lily Chou-Chou. You get the idea. Why didn't I get a ticket for Purple Butterfly instead, which sounded so fucking awesome?

The Merry Widow (von Stroheim, 1925) A-

Ignore that crack-ho V-Mort: The guy who played the villain was totally awesome.

Distant (Ceylan) B+/B

Beautifully observed, smartly judged film, of the sort you almost take for granted until you realize how rarely they turn up. Caveat: checked out for fifteen minutes (due to sheer exhaustion and poor viewing conditions) so take it for what it's worth.

Thu Sep 11

Gozu (Miike) B-

Remember the climax of Dead or Alive? The whopper of a finale here almost tops Miike's finest moment and really bumped up this wildly uneven Alice in Wonderland-cum-Yakuza flick. And yeah, it's way more fucked up than that description makes it sound.

The Five Obstructions (von Trier & Leth) A-/B+

Liked this cordial deathmatch between men of opposite temperaments quite a bit better after a good night's sleep. What I loathed about von Trier's Dancer in the Dark -- essentially, I resented his meta-gambit of manically trying to jerk your heartstrings while forcing you to see him doing it -- works well here, as von Trier's sadistic, control freak meta-pranksterism is laid out bare, and without the cover and artifice of the overwrought melodrama. As a smarter man than I suggested, Dancer feels like it's about a sadist (von Trier) and his victim (Selma). Here's a movie about a sadist and his sparring partner. The dignified, sympathetic Jorgen Leth makes a terrific foil: Lars wants to forcilbly shape every molecule of his material; Jorgen seeks to just observe and record the right moments. Lars imposes absurd rules; Jorgen dances his way around them. Punch/counter-punch. Moviemaking is simply the instrument of battle between the two wills, the act of filmmaking itself energizing and (possibly) cathartic for one, the impish rulemaking and power trips delighting the other.

My TIFFing pals largely concentrated on other aspects of the film, many of which were fascinating but undercooked (the intervention angle too clever by half to be intelligible and the thesis that "rules can be liberating" is seriously undercut by film's positive assessment of the Figgisian Obstruction 3). Don't listen to those guys. My take on this is way better.

Guest Room, etc. (Halim, etc.)

My pal Skander Halim shows that that he can put his incomparable wit and unassailable good taste in comedies to teriffic use by crafting an incredibly appealing short called THE GUEST ROOM. He takes a sitcom scenario -- a grad student takes up a guest room in a family residence and catches the attention of both the mother and the daughter -- and creates a funny and poignant portrait of a family yearning for connection. Halim displays a deft touch with actors, who undoubtedly relish the opportunity to spit out Halim's biting lines. More stunning is Halim's incisive depiction of teenage emotional confusion. I've yet to see a better film that captures that confusion teenage girls undergo in dealing with their budding sexuality. Halim must've tolled some heavy research hours since he has never expressed much interest (at least to me) in this topic previously. Perhaps it takes a detached observer like Halim to really nail the confusion and temptation of teen sexuality.

Les Sentiments (Lvovsky) B/B-

Romantic comedy with a Greek chorus (think Mighty Aphrodite) makes great use of Jean-Pierre Bacri's classically Gallic pout. Much of it frothy and enjoyable, but takes a tonal lurch into botchy-wotchy land in the third act (turning into The Woman Next Door). (The poor bullpen of this fest lineup (movies floundering from the 7th inning on) is proving to be a worrisome trend.)

Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai) B-

A minor nostalgia piece that pretty much happens in real time; takes Tsai's ardent minimalism to the limit, or perhaps past it, veering into self-parody at times. It's full of ten hour takes of a gimping woman silently shuffling through an empty corridor. But Tsai's always rainy Taipei, with its forbidding greens and blues and its attendant malaise, is, in a strange way, an inviting world to lose yourself in. Helps that Tsai's really pretty funny, the physical jokes now depend almost entirely on the preceeding stillness for their effect. And it ends beautifully. But please, let's try something new next time, eh, Tsai-fly?

Wed Sep 10

Des Plumes dans la tete (Some Frog) C+

Starts off like The Seventh Continent, presenting a series of cryptic yet evocative imagery. Then it becomes a very poor man's Under the Sand.

Histoire de Julien et Marie (Rivette) B+/B

Good then okay then boring then good then totally awesome then what the fuck Rivette.

In the Cut (Campion) B

Remember how awesome it was when Jane Campion took Henry James and imbued his novel with her own concerns (especially how a woman can find a good man) and a strong female subjective viewpoint? No Nicole Kidman here, unfortunately, and Meg's "brave" performance is both laudable and uneven, but Ruffalo once again channels Brando to terrific effect (this time looking just like the man in Viva Zapata!)) and Campion does her thing in the context of a sub-Seven type crappy erotic thriller. In other words, the genre stuff sucks eggs (and Campion's touch is, as is often the case, two touches too heavy), but as a supple, erotically-charged fairy tale about a woman's fear of male malevolence (in its many forms) and male abandonment, it's pretty compelling. (The bad genre stuff often has a thematic purpose. For example: Red herrings = the avarice of men in their many manifestations.)

Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (Roeg, 1980) B+

Roeg's sometimes too arty for his own good, but I always enjoy cautionary tales about some obsessive guy trying to fully possess an elusive woman (perhaps because that theme confirms my smug satisfaction about my own very adamant non-possessiveness in relationships). Art Garfunkel: the most unlikely SkineMax leading man ever.

Twentynine Palms (Dumont) B-/C+

Formally accomplished and pretty engrossing road movie, and with actual characters for a change (though early on I'd pegged them for either sexual archetypes or national allegories, or perhaps both). Then it blindsides you with an aluminum bat and turns into another Bruno zoology exhibit. It's clear Dumont's not interested in human beings as such; he's much more curious about the genus (or perhaps the phylum) to which we belong. Pretty fucked up shit, but still doesn't deserve all the hate thrown at it by the seething, stirred-up audience.

Tue Sep 9

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and...Spring (Kim) B+/B

Premised on the concept of samsara, this simple, surpassingly lovely Korean parable really captures the vital spirit and elegant simplicity of Buddhism like no other film I've ever seen. So what if it happens to be "cute" as well?

Brown Bunny (Gallo) B+

So it's narcissistic and self-indulgent vanity project...but we're talking about Vincent Gallo here. Didn't anyone see Buffalo '66? And besides all that, there's also a Hellmanesque a beautifully monochromatic look and magnificent framing (especially of faces). Felt just like a mournful drive to visit the grave of a deceased loved one. Post screening Q & A a riot. The skinny: Vincent Gallo does not like Buffalo. Or Roger Ebert. Or reporters. Or his crew.

Les Triplettes de Bellville (Some French Animator) B/B-

Imaginative, cute and well-designed French cartoon but lacks the foundation and thus the emotional resonance that makes Miyazaki's flights of fancy so rich. Would've worked better as a 40 minute piece.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Friday Night (Denis, 2002) A+

Back in the summer 2000, I saw Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort at the Roxie in San Francisco. When the movie finished, the experience was so overwhelming that I darted out of the theater, my loyal companion in tow, in a desperate effort to avoid hearing any dumbasses dissing the sublime picture I'd just seen. I failed. Later in 2000, I tried a different tact, preferring to drown out the second-hand noise with my own babbling after the North American premiere of In the Mood for Love. Again, no such luck.

It's not that I'm intolerant of differing opinions on movies in general. But my responses to these two particular movies especially were so intensely personal that I felt the need to create a spatial sanctuary to preserve my rapturous experience. Leave the "Best Movie" debates for someone else. The movie experiences I cherish most aren't necessarily the "greatest movies", but ones that feel like they're made just for me. Those movies are like that girl you fall for, the one whose charms you're especially susceptible to (but whose best qualities are not immediately obviously to others). You're defiantly and staunchly protective of her, perhaps defending her a little too zealously when friends express doubts, forgetting that it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks sometimes. You're the one in love, and they're not.

That's a rather longwinded preamble to a review of a movie, Claire Denis' Friday Night, about which I have almost nothing of substance to say. Oh, I suppose I could say that this is the most sensuous thing I've ever seen. Denis' film is essentially about the sights and sounds of Paris -- the way the rooftops of old Paris look at dusk, the neon shop signs that cuts through the darkness, the coffee shops and downtrodden hotels, and the faces of the passer-bys. It's a film takes delight in observing, but not with a steely stare, but in impressionistic sketches. The amazing Agnes Godard, as she did in Denis' Trouble Every Day, shoots the flesh like David Lean shot the desert: she renders the body beautiful not by prettifying or flattering, but through abstraction. By choosing the exact tight shots of these middle-aged backs and editing those shots together just so, this simple one night encounter between two normal-looking actors appeared on the screen to be the most beautiful lovemaking in the world. Often too opaque for rigorous storytelling and extended character studies, Denis' elliptical, tactile, and highly cinematic style is perfectly suited for a minimalist tone poem, where she can capture those little moments of insight (do not plant a hickie on a hitched woman) and take pleasure in evoking plangent moods through music and images without having to worry about structure or coherence. And I suppose something should be said about the sheer *poetry* of the filmmaking -- the perfect blend of offhanded lyricism and smartly composed shots -- on display here. Perhaps the best description (and compliment) I can give to Friday Night is that it's an entire movie in the style and mood of the glorious "Gary meets Celeste" seduction scene in Out of Sight.

But the gibberish I just wrote is woefully inadequate. Like nearly all of my favorite works, what's most precious about Friday Night can't be put in words (that's why it's a movie), because it's not primarily about ideas. It does what movies do best: convey a specific feeling and mood in a particular place and time. In Paris on a Friday night of the transporation workers' strike, Laure and Jean, lonely and horny, meet and fuck. With a story to fill about a ten minute sketch, Denis composed one of the most beautiful and seductive movies I'd ever laid eyes on.

When I saw Friday Night, the middle-aged Beverly Hills audience was palpably restless. I knew that, like Young Girls and In the Mood, this plotless, nearly silent tone poem -- no matter how beautiful and cinematic -- isn't for everyone. So I tried to bum rush out of the the theater, but once again I failed to avoid hearing tired complaints about "long traffic scenes" and how it's "so slow!" and other such nonsense. For a moment I was simmering with anger at these "Philistines". But after I got in my car and the Tindersticks' somber strings from the soundtrack to Trouble Every Day washed over me, I realized: hey, I fell hard for what I just saw and I don't much care what anyone else thinks.

Friday, August 29, 2003

Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, 1944) B/B- Midnight (Leisen, 1939) A-/B+ Pillow Talk (Gordon, 1959) C

Meet Me in St. Louis has some great moments -- the Halloween sequence, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", Tootie attacking the snowman, a beautiful zoom in to the ball -- so I can see why it's considered a canonical musical. But it's also a sappy celebration of cornball Americana that fills the frame with fussy pastels that seemed to come straight out of a Fragonard painting. Gimme The Band Wagon any day of the week.

Now Midnight I can get behind. The unflappable Claudette Colbert stars as a superhumanly poised Cinderella-type who finds her way into a lavish salon-party thrown by Mary Astor and the mugging John Barrymore. A rather predictable impersonation farce follows, but what distinguishes this underrated screwball comedy is the sparkling aristocratic wit, penned by the remarkable Brackett/Wilder team, and Mitchell Leisen's smooth direction of a terrific cast (including a hilarious Queer Eye turn by the forgotten Rex O'Malley). Is it realistic that a "normal" girl can just waltz into the elegant world of the Parisian aristocracy and trade Wildean zingers with rich layabouts without breaking a sweat? Does it matter when that girl is played with such knowing, playful sophistication by the graceful Miss Colbert?

But how did we get from Colbert to Doris Day as a popular romantic comedy lead? (Answer: Charm, wit, and sass are optional for big female stars by the late Fifties.) In the fluffy romantic comedy Pillow Talk, Day violates the first and second rules of the genre: (1) the audience needs to find the romantic leads attractive, or absent that, (2) we must at least be convinced that the romantic leads would find each other appealing. Bearing my rules in mind, imagine your pal's pinched-up Orange County soccer mom having sex. Not exactly palatable, right? Well, that's what it's like to see Day as the object of Rock Hudson's amourous advances. With Colbert, you always feel like she's in on the joke with you. With Day, you get the feeling that she'll purse her lips and reprimand you once you tell her what the joke is. Day's sexless persona sinks this intermittenly amusing but confused romantic trifle, which is far more interesting when it's viewed as the template for Down with Love, and perhaps for its summation of Eisenhowerian zeitgeist (in the way that Pretty Woman is a summation of the Reagan Era). And as a coup de grace, the rococo set design is downright repellent, ironic considering that Day's supposed to be a top interior designer

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Belle and Sebastian @ Greek Theater, LA Aug 23 2003

A dream collaboration between the bookish chanteuse Belle and Sebastian Bach (formerly of Skid Row), this pairing, surprisingly, does not result in power ballads with a Disneyesque twist, but in arch, rather precious Twee Pop. I own the superduo's If You're Feeling Sinister, an album stuffed with whimsical wit but also a rather fey sensibility that's always kept me from totally succumbing to the their charms. Live, their sound is richer, fuller, and dare I say...more muscular (that's what a five piece string section does for you). If you overlook Sebastian's acerbic prancing Scotsman shtick and Belle's mishaps with the Atkins Diet, their brand of highly melodic, Velvets/Byrds/Pet Sounds-tinged folk pop can be quite seductive. I even think I prefer the live "Like Dylan in the movies" and "Judy and the Dream of Horses" to the recorded versions. Still too fey and insistently pretty for me to fully embrace, but I can understand why they are the most popular band in the survey of my own friendsters.

B & S's drummer spinned at the Derby after the concert, mixing Euro hip-hop and a bit of dancehall. My eyes were directed elsewhere, as it were.

Sadly, perpetual lateness syndrome caused my group to miss the opener, buzz band and Unit-fave Bright Eyes. Too bad.

Scrabbel @ Spaceland, LA Aug 22, 2003

Scrabbel, fronted by Aislers Set member Ben Lee, traffics in dreamy, melancholic pop that, like B & S, is given body by a fine string section. A Bay Area band that often plays APAture events, Scrabbel's fine mellow listening on a Friday night. Cool people to hang with as well, these guys.

Soviet @ Spaceland, LA Aug 24, 2003

As befits a crowd that looks like extras in a Spandau Ballet video, Soviet is pure 80s retro, combining the straight-ahead synth sound of Depeche Mode with the hooks of Disintegration-era Cure and a vocalist who appears to be impersonating the lead singer of Simple Minds (god knows why). I couldn't discern a single post-Nirvana element in their sound, which means your mileage varies depending on how much you dig 80s New Wave to begin with. Me, not so much (yes -- Smiths, New Order, Cure; no -- pretty much everyone else; absolutely loathe Erasure). Fun, but eminently disposable.

The clattering retro punk band Babyland followed, a helpful antidote to the testosterone-draining music I've been privy to the last three nights. Only stayed for three or four songs (and, to honor Asian stereotypes, I was playing Galaga next to the bar half that time), but the big event is I introduced myself to Friendster celeb Tila Tequila, whom I saw at this show. A nice, wholesome girl to take home to Mom, that Tila.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

The Great Dem Hope?

Whether it's the symptom of the media's relentless emphasis on the horse race instead of policy or just another product of our postmodern age, a chunk of the electorate views "electability" as a candidate's most important attribute. (How so very "meta"...) But it's even dawning on some hardcore progressives that ideological purity is far less important than fielding a guy who can beat this maniac who's fucking shit up every which way. Good motto: win first, get politically sanctimonious later. (And given what's happened the last three years, can someone please shut Ralph "no difference between the two parties" Nader's trap? Thank you.)

Nobody whets the appetite of Democratic pragmatists like Gen. Wesley Clark, who may be close to announcing a run for the presidency. Clark, former Supreme NATO Comander, seemingly has the biography and presence that the other announced candidates lack. He's the New Democrat's wet dream: a respected general who led a successful military operation, graduated at the top of his class at West Point, and a forceful and charismatic commentator for CNN during Gulf War II, Clark could singlehandedly neutralize the Dems' achilles' heel -- voters' lack of confidence on national security issues. Here's a guy with the stature to challenge Dubya on security matters, Iraq, the War on Terrorism, etc. and make the criticisms stick.

Being a moderate pragmatist, I can't help but like Clark. He's charismatic and articulate, and at this point, looks to be the strongest Democratic contender in the general election (if he enters the race). But we have no clue how he'd respond to the rigors of campaigning, the inevitable media assault, nor do we know where he stands on most domestic issues. Early money says he'll chart a Clintonian course: taking controversial social issues "off the table" by taking moderate stances while winking to pertinent interest groups (as the Dem candidate will need to do with this year's hot-button Dem-loser issue, gay marriages) and pursuing responsible fiscal policies by minding the budget deficit. He'll fill the Clinton/New Dem vacuum left open by the stalled campaigns of the callow Edwards (who actually has some great things to say) and the unelectable Lieberman (who has nothing of value to say). For pragmatists, the hope is that if Clark pursues a political moderate path, the man won't be saddled with the "too liberal" onus that will give voters a reason to vote against the Democratic candidate, unlike one Howard Dean. The catch-22 is that if he does go this route, with that late start, the General won't excite that activist base that can push his candidacy past South Carolina on the primary calendar.

Prediction: Clark jumps in, grabs loads of media attention (as all the mainstream media outlets will be rooting for a close election), but couldn't excite the Bush-hating base and becomes the "smart choice" for VP on the Dean ticket.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Ball of Fire (Hawks, 1941) A [2nd] Come and Get It (Hawks and Wyler, 1936) B+

Ball of Fire is, quite simply, a strong contender for the title of funniest movie ever made.

Sam Goldwyn replaced Hawks with Wyler during the filming of Come and Get It, assuring its legacy as an auteurist zombie curiosity. Programmed as part of LACMA's divine Hawksian Heroines series (a whole series devoted to my cinematic feminine ideal!), the obviously Hawksian first half is a treat. Frances Farmer's Lotta is an archetypal Hawksian woman, the kinda dame who can tell jokes so dirty it'd make all the boys blush. Tough, sassy, somewhat well-tread but at heart a romantic, the legendary and tragic Farmer, whom I had never seen on screen before, is a knock out, playing dual roles with aplomb (Hawks called her the most talented actress he'd ever worked with). But the raucous first part ends rather abruptly. It gives way to a strange and strangely moving story about a Big Daddy-type (Edward Anrold) trying desperately to replay a choice that'd been made long ago, going so far as to beat down his own son to do it. Much of this part has that stately air and ornate visual style one associates with Wyler, and it's pitched in that Victorian Heiress-like frequency, but Wyler's approach actually suits this melodramatic material (though the father/son rivalry was a riot). Not especially coherent tone-wise and I wish we saw a lot more of the first Lotta, but this is a fine salvage job.

Bonus! Grades for all the Howard Hawks (the greatest American director ever) playing in the LACMA series.

His Girl Friday (1941) A+
Twentieth Century (1934) A
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) A+
To Have and Have Not (1944) A-
Bringing Up Baby (1938) A-/B+
Monkey Business (1952) B+
Rio Bravo (1959) A-
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) B+
I Was a Male War Bride (1949) A-/B+

Seabiscuit (Ross) C

Y'see, time was the Great Depression. Folks were down 'n out. Jus' needed a chance to work to get back on their feet. Then there was this kid, see, Tobey. I mean, Red. Kid's down on his luck. Well-read and a natural with horses, the kid was left to make his own life. But nobody ever gave him a chance, see. And poor Seabiscuit was a tiny stakeshorse trained to lose. They never did give him a chance. Not 'til ol' Horse Whisperer Cooper came along and believed in him. 'Course, it wasn't until saintly Tucker came along and gave all these misfits and losers a chance that the legend of Seabiscuit was written. And in case you didn't hear me right the first, second or third, or even the tenth time I said it, I'll say it again -- it was all 'bout givin' these underdogs 'nother chance. Like FDR did with dem workin' class folk. Thas just how Tucker treated Red, like the son he lost. With dignity. Believed in him, even though he's double the size of the other horse jocks and blind in one eye and nursin' a broken leg. Still gave him 'nother chance. Just like the Horse Whisperer does with poor Seabiscuit, a fine racing specimen that one. Maybe t'wasn't as naturally gifted as that other mean thoroughbred, but it got somethin' more important: horse got plenty o' guts and got folks believin' in him. Just needed a chance was all. Like Red. And Tucker, bless his heart, gave it to 'em. Like FDR did during the Depression. Everyone just needs a second chance. Hey, I'm not repeatin' myself too much, am I?

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Friendster Power Games

As luck would have it, yesterday Salon and SF Weekly both ran lengthy features on Fakesters, fake personae on Friendster that's driving F-founder Jonathan Abrams insane. Both articles pit Abrams' dream of a controlled, clean, rather mainstream site with the rambunctious Wild West free-for-all that Friendster was in its so-called Golden Age, er, 2 months ago. (Yes, the site has lost some of its charm, though it may just be burn-out on my part.)

Of more interest to me were links to a couple of blogs. A Berkeley [Go Bears!] grad student studying digital social networks and urban tribes puts out this obsessive blog devoted to analyzing Friendster and Friendster-like models. And super-blogger The Gothamist proposed some half-serious (yet insightful) tips on how to write an effective Friendster message (NB: after further investigation, it turns out I once forwarded this blogger's profile to another friendster -- small world). Which led me to this unmissable entry about Friendster power games -- or the childish maneuvers many of us engage in when we see an acquaintance on Friendster.

That post, though, didn't cover the bizarre Friendster power games that spill over to real life. Some examples I've seen first hand (Note: the author does not endorse the petty, puerile sentiments expressed herein):

The Guilt Trip

"Hey, I know you're on Friendster. Why haven't you added me yet?"
What it means: I don't want to lower myself to make a request for the likes of you. But I need to pad the numbers, so I'm gonna guilt-trip you into adding me.
What you want to say: "Because your nasty mug soils my profile, you lame fuck."
What you actually say: "Oh, I've been lazy about that. I'll add you the next chance I get."

The Switcheroo

"Hey, thanks for adding me. You did request to add me, right?" [Wrong, she actually made the request.]
What it means: You're an insignificant gnat, so it must've been you who added me. Because if it were me who added you, it would mean that I'm even lower than an insignificant gnat, and that just can't be!
What you want to say: "No, actually you requested to add me, you stinkin' loser. You're lucky I didn't make you sweat it out for ten days before approving you."
What you actually say: "No, actually you requested to add me."

Feigned Ignorance

"Oh, are you on Friendster? Okay. I'll come look for you."
What it means: Take a hint, bud. We have ten mutual friends. I wrote a testimonial for Tammy that sits right atop of yours. Don't you think I know you're on?
What you want to say: "Sure you will, bitch."
What you actually say: "Oh, cool, man. I'll go check out your profile, too."

In the Vicinity of Non-Friendsters

"So, did you see that flirty testimonial Joe tossed to Elyse?" Non-Friendster who overhears: "What are you guys talking about?"
What it means: Uh oh.
What you want to say: "Uh, it's a stupid web site we're all obsessed with, but we didn't want to invite you cuz you won't look good on my profile."
What you actually say: "Um, it's just a dumbass web site. I don't check it much anymore. A total waste of time."

At the heart of all this social politicking and facetiousness is just a dumb dating website. The apocalypse is near, I tell you.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Ninotchka (Lubitsch, 1939) A- [2nd viewing; 1st viewing grade: B-]

Didn't care for the cheesy transformation of dour plutocrat Ninotchka the first time around, back when I was 17 and dumb. As James Harvey points out, Ninotchka actually never transforms into a born-again capitalist, and in fact almost gets thrown out for trying to incite the powder room workers to unionize. But she's less closed-minded to the charms and wonders of the market, which is a start. Likewise glib Count Leon at least attempts to understand socialism -- it's really a romantic comedy about cross-cultural (or cross-political) understanding. But I still much prefer the first half, when Garbo does a hilarious caricature of the ultra-rational New Soviet Woman; I love when Garbo's eyebrows would perk up ever so slightly as she delivers those ridiculous Brackett/Wilder-penned one-liners ("The last mass trials were a great success; there are going to be fewer but better Russians.").

Behind enemy lines

So that's what happened...

This terrific tragicomic peek into Rufus T. Hussein's hapless war command is valuable both in explaining how the regime can collapse so quickly and in giving some voice to those helpless, faceless "elite" Republic Guard that were so quickly steamrolled over. Pull quote:

"Professional soldiers can't fight without orders and inspiration from their leaders," [one Iraqi officer] said. "But we had clowns for leaders. This is our tragedy."

What's coming out about the Saddam regime, besides its ruthlessness, only confirms what we learned during the first Gulf War: the man lives in a cocoon of wishful thinking and self-delusion, and, like a bad movie dictator, will kill off any bearer of bad news (so naturally, no one tells him anything real). Inept decisions are consistently made because the guy has no clue what's really going on. And perhaps congressional medals of honor are due for Ridley Scott and Mark Bowden for creating such effective "defeatist" propoganda?

The other lesson of this story? The virtues of decentralized command. Imagine what would've happened if our own self-deluded cocoon men Rummy and Wolfy were commanding the troops instead of Franks and the generals on the ground...

Monday, August 11, 2003

A brief interruption as we ponder the meaning of the word "tool"...

A debate erupted over e-mail concerning a question of great import to all snarky snipers out there. The question is this: what's the difference between a tool and your run-of-the-mill dork or geek?

From SlangSite:
Tool: One who is useless AND idiotic in all aspects at any given time.

By that definition, the tool is demonstrably a lower form in any taxonomy of losers. The dork may be socially inept, but s/he can be endearingly so and not necessarily useless in other respects. The geek is simply obsessive about uncool things. Not especially offensive in and of itself, it's actually kinda chic to be a geek these days. Or at least it's chic to wear your geekiness on your sleeve, especially if you aren't actually a total dork.

The tool is much more pernicious. Nobody will cop to being a tool. Nobody wants to associate with a tool. But as commonly used (or as used by me), the word tool isn't applied to just any harmless dumbass. For one thing, only guys can be called tools. And there's something actually malevolently off-putting about the tool; he just tries too hard. The tool wears too much gel. He's waving around way too many glowsticks. He smirks in an especially creepy way right after he tells some gauche off-color joke. In short, the tool isn't just useless, he's useless *and* unctious. (Alternatively, the tool is useless and too earnest, like Luke the farmboy at the beginning of Star Wars.)

Peter Gallagher's Real Estate King in American Beauty is a classic tool. Larry from Three's Company is something of a tool. The "devastating" Wallace Shawn from Woody Allen's Manhattan is probably the funniest example. The ultimate tool, though, is Ben Asslick, I mean, Affleck. Pretty much charisma-free and talentless, Asslick's stardom and way with the ladies have flummoxed all right-thinking men and women out there. One can't help but conclude, while watching Boring Ben summon that constipated brow-furrow look on screen, that this stiff frat-boy, this tool, just lucked into it.

That element of incomprehensible success, especially with women, is what makes a tool a tool. He's the witless boyfriend of the co-worker who's always "accidently" brushing her bosom against your arms. He's the neanderthal mate of your best female friend, the asshole about whom she whines for hours on end yet somehow maintains a magnetic hold on her. He's the super-earnest bumbler who your last girlfriend is now dating [ed. no, I'm really not alluding to anyone, J]. In short, he's the other guy. Not the other guy when he's Cary Grant, but the other guy when he's Ralph Bellamy. Sometimes, when confronted with a tool, all you can do is throw your hands up in the air and just declare, "man, that guy is such a tool."

Trust me, it's good therapy.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Spellbound (Blitz, 2002) B+/B

Funny, suspenseful, charming, and emphatically empathetic, Spellbound is deservedly a huge arthouse hit. Who can forget Harry spazzing out as he struggles to spell the word "banns" (and then, in post-game, beats up both himself for making the "worst choice" and the announcer for pronouncing the word "bandz"). Wish Blitz dug deeper, though; he obviously wanted to say something substantial about the American dream through his tapestry of kids from all over America, but the film was too schematic and overdetermined to address it. It's easy to contrast Angela, the spiritual black girl from downtrodden D.C. with polo-playing, self-analytical Emily, who grew up in posh surroundings in New Haven with intellectual parents. Angela, April, the daughter of Mexican ranchhands, and Ted, the laconic heartland kid, aren't afforded the same opportunities as Emily or Neil, he of the psychotically hyper-driven parents. But Blitz doesn't do much with these connections, choosing instead to indulge in easy metaphors. If the spelling bee is some kind of metaphor for equal opportunity, I'm afraid it's only a partial fit. What larger meaning can really be gleaned from a competition where the winner is determined in no small part by the luck of the draw? But you know, on second thought, maybe there is nothing more "American" than coming out on top as a result of a combination of luck, preparation, smarts, and family advantages.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Hipsters in Trucker Hats

Okay. Procrastinated too much on the trucker hat phenomenon (sweeping across NY (as one Turk correspondent tells it), SF, and LA and an urban hipster joint near you). Now Elizabeth Spiers has beaten me to the punch. Well, it's a good thing because she has more than five readers and has something to say about it besides "conformist hipsters and prole appropriators are lame." Now let's fight the fight against Pabst Blue Ribbon and ordering red wine at dives.

Down with Love (Reed) B+

As tasty and airy as an expertly whipped chocolate soufflé, it's never better as when Peyton Reed submits to the garish ridiculousness of it all: the matching checkered costumes, the ridiculously colorful and curvy deco sets, the Austin Powersish double entendres, and cross-cutting the Chairman's cocky, robust "Fly Me to the Moon" rendition with Astrud's wispy, ethereal one*. Does for Hudson/Day movies what Far From Heaven did for Sirk, difference being the original Sirk movies were also amazing, whereas Down with Love pays homage to the cinematic mediocrity of Pillow Talk et al. The absurd farce felt like something out of an Astaire/Rogers musical, except in lieu of ecstatic choreography and dancing you've got the awesome Ewan McGregor and a decent Renée Zellweger trading zingers and comely looks. Effervescent and fun, but this would've made for an excellent French musical, methinks.

*From The Shadow of Your Smile, a beautiful nocturnal album which is getting a lot of play in my car lately.

Mea culpa

I've been told that a certain French word is being abused by this blog. Evidently, it appeared twice in the span of five posts. So I pledge that said word will not make a further appearance this season. Be advised that, in future posts (if any), I'll try to dig up a suitable German word, preferably with lots of Ws and Zs, as a substitute whenever dread, world-weariness, or just plain boredom needs to be conveyed.

Also, this month, French words will be limited to the following: argot, soupçon, chanteuse, soufflé, and pusillanimous.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Capturing the Friedmans(Jarecki) A-

The first must-see of 2003, Capturing the Friedmans would be a great documentary even if it were just a straightforward investigation into the Friedman case. In the late Eighties, at the height of the McMartin hysteria, Arnold Friedman was taken into custody by the Great Neck police after receiving child porn in the mail. A nightmare ensues for Friedman, a nebbish computer teacher, who, along with his youngest son Jessie, was subsequently accused of molesting and sodomizing students who came to his house for computer lessons.

As anyone who read anything on the subject knows (a lengthy piece on McMartin in the New Yorker that I read in the early 90s leaves an impression to this day), just the accusation of ritual child molestation provokes a kind of mass hysteria that tramples all over any honest attempt at fact-gathering and sober evaluations, making defense of the accused well-nigh impossible. And as just an objective case study on Protect the Children hysteria and prosecutorial zeal, Friedmans rivals the superb Paradise Lost. Jerecki deftly balances a perspective (he leaves little doubt where he stands on the Friedmans' guilt and innocence) with balanced reporting; the other side is never made to look like a bunch of Javerts. The viewer couldn't be blamed if she concluded that Arnold did in fact do something wrong, even if it wasn't anything as implausible and outrageous as what had been alleged.

But that "Did they, or didn't they?" aspect is just a small part of what makes the film so compelling. As it turns out, the Friedmans were inveterate videophiles, documenting on tape everything from birthday parties to mundane moments of jostling to Arnold playing on the piano. And when the case hit, cameras were there to capture an extraordinarily tight-knit (at least among the males) family bursting apart at the seams. This footage is incredible. The squabbling and hating is excruciating to behold, but what's even more heartbreaking is seeing the fraying of the deep, committed and unconditional love Arnold and the sons have for one another, like a reality show version of Cassavetes' Love Streams.

As emotionally wrenching as it is, though, what I found most impressive wasn't the family drama or the jawdropping video footage. Jarecki, by expertly manipulating the way information is dispensed, forces the viewer not only to consider and reconsider what is presented, but something even more important: he asks us to reflect how we judge. By revealing a crucial and damning detail concerning Arnold 2/3rds of the way through, the film gives the viewer see the accused not as a monster with "proclivities" but as a devoted family man. When the bombshell is dropped, we're forced to process that unsympathetic trait with the judgment we've already rendered on the guy. For my part, the character revelation created a certain cognitive dissonance that forced me to re-evaluate all of my conclusions and everything I've seen. "How important should this character evidence be? Does an inclination make him likely to be guilty of molestation? Is this man, whom I had believed was fundamentally decent if repressed, now just a another sicko? And what's behind his sickness?"

As my mind raced with questions, Jarecki kept up, detailing the background and elaborating on the nuanced manifestation thereof. He never turns it into The Answer Which Explains Everything. Few films have shown people in all their human glory -- full of love, hate, lust, devotion, fear, self-loathing, guilt -- like this one does with the Friedmans. If you think it's easy to box people in or render easy judgments about someone, Capturing the Friedmans will school you on life, people and their infinite mysteries

Monday, July 28, 2003

Charlotte Sometimes (Byler) B

Passed on many chances to see this flick, mistakenly dismissing it as yet another stale Sundance-slash-Gen-X relationship comedy. It wasn't until my bud Mike started hassling me to see this thing, going so far as to call it the most "visually assured debut [he's] seen in a while" and placing it on his vaunted top ten list before I summoned up the requisite interest to haul ass to the second-run arthouse.

Charlotte Sometimes has been described by another buddy as an "Asian American Hal Hartley movie." Though I can see where he was going with this (it's a chamber drama about alienated loners where essential information about the characters is withheld), Byler veers from Hartley's mannerist stylings for a kind of poetic naturalism that evokes the lyrical passages in Andre Techine's Alice et Martin. The movie's at its best in passages where Byler beautifully evokes that blue mood of ennui. A blanket of shadow intruded by a ray of morose greens or lonely reds. A spare guiltar strums gently. A man glances up at the apartment where the object of his yearning is moaning in ecstasy, then walks into the darkness. There's a languid, understated loveliness to these sequences -- Byler creates such a palpable sense of languor I almost felt like skipping the rest of movie and hopping over to Spaceland myself to sulk in my drink and chain smoke my Spirits.

But that welcoming French sensibility goes beyond atmospherics. Byler, like Techine or my idol Rohmer, isn't afraid of contradictory impulses and ambiguous motives in his characters, which first appear (to my Asian eyes) as extremely familiar types: you've got the introverted Asian dude, the cutesy Asian girl, the acerbic, sexually aggressive dragon lady, and the corporate tool. Michael, played by Michael Idemoto, turns out to be the first Asian-American male character I've seen that rings true; he's a dutiful loner, a sensitive mechanic who is chivalric and sexually frustrated. He's not easily pigeonholed, and Idemoto's sensitive, Tony Leung-like performance gives the character a soulful dignity. But the sparkplug is Jacquline Kim's "Darcy" -- sharp, sexually confident, sassy and just a little vulnerable, Kim's a knockout, wiping the floor with the other actors on screen (the other two players are wholly unremarkable), Idemoto occasionally excepted.

I wish Byler's writing was as assured as his cinematic sense. Much of the deliberately naturalistic dialogue had no improvisational spark -- it felt unwritten without any sense of spontaneity. And the scenario, slight as it is, is realistic without believable -- the escalating "revelations" felt like bricks lugged in by Byler to give his work some heft. The film, sadly, just fizzes out.

Still, there's much to be admired here. Plus there's a startling recognition that if I ever get my act together I'd probably try to make a mood piece full of romantic yearning, though I'd probably revolve the film around more verbally oriented characters. On second thought, somebody please shoot me before I make an Asian Metropolitan. (Not that I don't adore Metropolitan. We just don't need another one.)

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Embryonic Morons

A wise friend who holds very independent political views told me recently that he's looking for Bush supporters who can articulate a rationale for supporting him. He honestly wants understand this viewpoint. I'm far less inquisitive, and as an Angeleno, I can really go by months without so much as breathe the same air as a Bushite. But there's another reason I'm not inquisitive: I've come to terms with the fact that those on the Right are, well, different: they hold a different worldview that's shaped by a different kind of personality and temperament. Do you like dim good ol' boys like Dubya? Uptight bow-tied weasels like George F. Will? Can you imagine hanging out with these guys? Or do you think it'd be more fun to shoot the shit and chase skirts with Bill? What we have deep down is a yawning (and unbridgeable) cultural chasm pitting compolitan, relativistic cultural elitists against square moral absolutists, between the middle-left and the moderates who see the world in varying shades of gray, and the right who fits all problems into black or white boxes. (The Far Left actually shares a lot of similarities with the Right, especially in their moral absolutism, but we'll save that topic for another day.)

Salon's Michelle Goldberg is seemingly on a personal mission to validate my thesis. She gives us yet another disturbing glimpse into the heart of darkness. Romping with a congregration of College Republicans, Goldberg discovers that these guys are nasty Manicheans who think liberals are American-hating whiny fops. Shocking, isn't it?

This is the latest in a recent spate of reports on the Republican Youth movement, many of which have taken on the tone of Margaret Mead's field reports on New Guinea tribesman. Gawk! at a Young Republican 'fessing up to his racism. Smirk! as these Aryan Youth line up to buy Dubya iconography without even the least bit of irony. Furrow your brow! as liberals get tarred as communists and traitors by zealous young (and not-so-young) morons.

A funny cultural reversal is at work here. When the Dems were entrenched in power, publications like the National Review would file reports that lampoon the outrageous excesses of the student activist Left. Young Right-wingers were seen by liberals as harmless Alex P. Keatons -- they're just anal guys with an unfortunate quirk, not unlike the fat kid wearing a perpetual ice cream smudge. As Bush has maintained his poll numbers to the bafflement of many, liberal (and moderate) publications have began taking on the President and his fans with increasing hysteria. Salon, most notably, has waged a relentless two-pronged attack against Dubya on two fronts: (1) virulent anti-Bushism, spearheaded by Conason, Scheer, and reporters on Yellowcake-gate; and (2) easy-swallowing pieces on anti-Bush Republicans that create the sense of fissure in the Republican ranks -- a Goldberg specialty. The first acts as an idea bank for the mainstream media. You hammer at a Bush "misrepresentation" long and hard enough, and maybe somebody will eventually take the baton. So the shrill, monotonous tone can be somewhat forgiven. The second set of reports, which I usually down faster than a kamikaze shot on my 30th birthday (ahem), are really what heartens the soul of all Dubya Hatas, and that's precisely why I'm increasingly skeptical of them. Nothing perpetuates intellectual complacency like having your biases repeatedly affirmed. And Salon keeps telling us that Bush supporters are either (1) Coulter-worshipping rabid ideologues; (2) greedy fat cat bastards; (3) religious freaks; (4) assholes; or (5) sheep. No doubt much of this is true, but there has to be some Bushies who are intellectual respectable and not rabid ideologues. What Salon (and others) have done, though, is assuage our skepticism by telling us that "reasonable Republican" (no, that's not an oxymoron), such as those that supported the Eastern Establishment Republicanism of Poppy, are "harboring doubts" about Junior, if not outright plotting mutiny. "See, the only likeable Republicans are really disgusted by Bush, they're just hiding it" these stories tell us.

Is there a rift between the realpolitik foreign policy establishment and the neocons? Between small government conservatives and the Detax-and-Spend Bushies? Between libertarians and John Ashcroft? Surely some conservatives are distressed about the direction of the country, but a few disagreements, even public ones, does not a fraying presidency make. The pervasiveness of these stories in the last couple of months, with the clear implication that this President is in political trouble, suggest that Dubya Hatas have resorted to wish fulfillment to get through the day. There hasn't been even a whisper about a bomb-throwing primary challenge from either the Buchananite Right or the McCain center. And besides some conservative columnists, no highly visible Republican has been critical of this adminstration on either Iraq or the economy. This is still a highly disciplined, unified front. From the top down, conservatives know the appearance of unity is crucial in seizing and maintaining power. For the Democrats to regain control of at least one branch, they need to not worry about the impossible task of peeling off Republicans and take a page from the opposition's playbook: suck it up and work with the team if you want to regain power. That's a lesson the Hard Left will no doubt dismiss as "selling out."

Jesus, I'm sounding exactly like The New Republic. That's my cue to stop.