Tuesday, December 21, 2004

'Tis the Season for Whining

The Christian right is at it again. Now, they're frothing at the mouth about the supposed secular assault on Christmas. In fact some of these nutcases have urged people to shop only at stores that display a "Merry Christmas" sign, and not those retailers that wish their shoppers "Happy Holidays". Newsflash! You know why "Happy Holidays" has become more commonplace, overtaking "Merry Christmas"? Why, might it just not be, Mr. Lawrence, because not everyone believes that Jesus is their personal savior?

The Christian right's neck-deep paranoia, a persecution complex so out of touch with reality it'd be laughable if it weren't so dangerous, has reached alarming levels. It's all whine all the time now. Hey, try being an agnostic, motherfuckers, and have "he's a good, God-fearing American"[1], Christmas, "In God We Trust" and all that stuff thrown in our face our entire lives. Y'know, we don't fucking whine when confronted by the sanctimony and self-righteousness of various Christian zealots out there. Maybe that's because we don't have the sense of entitlement that every last fucking soul on earth should share our beliefs. Only that believers not institionalize their belief system on us. Take a hint, suck it up, and shut up. You, too, O'Reilly, you fucking pathetic phone-sex pervert. If whiny, nebbish little liberal pussies can do it, macho, gun-toting, off-road racing Christians can, too.

Well, guess there's a reason why they keep whining -- it works. See Kevin Drum for a useful summary of the Christian right's new media war. Plus, a belatedly link to Frank Rich's must-read salvo in the ongoing culture wars. Rich makes a key point that the media is stoking the flames of the culture war by letting the most shrill and far right elements of the Christian right speak for all Christianity.

[1] Just for the record, what's wrong with idea that someone's a good moral being is if s/he does good deeds for their own sake, not because s/he does such deeds out of mortal fear of damnation and eternal hellfire?

The Idiot Box

Note to would-be electronics product designers and engineers: please do not leave buttons that control essential functions out of the console itself, believing that having such a button on the remote control would suffice. For example, when designing a television set, do not place the TV/Video switch button only on the remote for fear that this extra button would somehow compromise the television's sleek, minimalist design.

Believe it or not, remote controls may malfunction. And break. And sometimes, they may even go missing. This should be noted during times when a guy needs to check out his new DVD of the awesome Irma Vep, if only to freeze frame shots of Maggie in a black leather catsuit, only to find out his TV remote has malfunctioned. He will become incredibly frustrated when he finds out that the TV/Video switch is not located on the TV itself, leaving him no way to watch his DVDs.

Friday, December 17, 2004

"Loving all types of Asian women"

Check out this shameless ad on the D.C. Craig's List. I like how the dude broke it down into ethnic categories, with his rankings largely corresponding to the Asian ethnic totem pole.

Speaking of Craig's List ads, a friend of mine has been posting various personals (including ads seeking out "underfed metrosexual hipster man-children" and Indian intellectuals), and she tells me that one common response is for a prospective date to e-mail a photo of his penis in close-up. I can't imagine that move working, but who knows?

Also, from the same friend, a tip: if you're out eating sushi on a date, do not eat more pieces than you're supposed to. Example: You order four pieces of hamachi to share. Do not horde three. Eat your two and leave the other two for your date, unless you are given permission to take more than your fair share. If you do get greedy, an observant date will note your sense of entitlement and will not want to see you again.

My suggestion in this situation: quickly but inconspicuously wolf down two pieces. Then, during a break in conversation, look anxiously around the restaurant with a vaguely ravenous look, a look that says "where's my fucking food?" Your date will notice and ask, "are you hungry?" You can reply: "Oh, just a little. I had a light lunch, but I can hang on until my soba gets here." If your date is not a bitch, she will offer the last piece to you. That's your cue: take it apologetically but without hesitation, before she changes her mind.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Wacky JA humor

Looks like Jason Overbeck is putting up more content for his movie nerd site Bent Clouds. Be sure to check out the updated links page, with the hilarious photo accompaniment (I especially like the photos that accompany the D'Angelo, Sallitt and Christley links). Appreciate the link, bud, but care to explain why I get the nudie medusa photo?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

On this season of merriment and joy: snarkitude

An unnecessary addendum to the unnecessary awards-post-morphed-into-Sideways-bashing-below:

David Poland and Jeffrey Wells are rival movie gossip mavens, the Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons of the internet. Every two or three years, I'll read them religiously for about a month or so before my tolerance for them wanes and I drop out. Usually, what prompts me to read them is the impending release of some American movie, usually some kind of grand directorial folly/film maudit, that I'm unduly excited about, like The Thin Red Line in 1997 or Gangs of New York in 2002. This year, though, I can't really find an excuse as to why I'm reading them, since no holiday release really has my tongue wagging in anticipation.

Maybe it's the awards season. But there's something about Poland and Wells both that I've always found unbearable in weekly doses. I've always figured it was their tone of insider-y self-congratulation that's the culprit. Recently, after reading them both again for about two weeks, I now understand the nature of their toxicity. You see, they represent that most contemptible of species, the middlebrow snob. How's that? Well, they're the kind of movie enthusiast who take the Oscars seriously but shower contempt on Oscar voters, put together dependably mainstream top 10 lists (that show no effort at a more wideranging cinephilia), and then relentlessly clobber frivolous, obvious targets like Ocean's Twelve, while dismissing both auteur cinema and Asian genre flicks as too obscure and geeky by half. They're the epitome of the arthouse elitist, slobbering over the likes of Hotel Rwanda and The Sea Inside on their way to dissing the high and the low. Beyond taste, they rarely share opinions that qualify as insight; instead, they pass off their middlebrow CW as a form of elevated connoisseurship.[1] This sickens me, yet every two days I'll prowl their sites trolling for "buzz."

My habits might be more sickening, and as you might've guess it, this post is a thinly veiled cry for help. Will someone please get me off this crack?

[1] What folks have got to understand is that the carefully cultivated air of condescending movie snobbery, like the kind practiced on this blog, must be earned -- first by sitting through 8 hour Hungarian opuses, then by wasting away your weekends on retros on the minor works of forgotten Italian auteurs. When you can spell Apitchatpong's full name off the top of your head, then we'll talk. (Wait, that wasn't right, was it? Well, let's just call the guy "Joe.") You're not entitled to adopt the guise just because you know how to ape Peter Travers' top 10 lists.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Awards season

I'm kind of a biased observer. If you asked me to choose between saving the last surviving print of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or saving the last surviving print of every other movie released in North America in the year 2004 except for Eternal Sunshine, I will -- after a two-second close-up wherein I furrow my brow in an expression of deep anguish -- choose to save the former. That might give you an inkling of how much I treasure Eternal Sunshine -- I happen to think it's the most brilliant American film ever made about romantic relationships, about the exhilaration, perils, and banalities experienced by two people trying to make love work.

Of course, not everyone feels the way I do, which is understandable. In fact, if you look at the critical consensus, there are three -- and soon, four -- major releases that have garnered near unanimous acclaim. Besides Eternal Sunshine, they are: Before Sunset, Sideways, and soon, Million Dollar Baby (the rumored heavyweight Oscar favorite). Now awards season is upon us, and you'd expect that given a year with three or four acclaimed releases, you'd see a split among critics groups. Last year, for example, the major critics' groups (LAFCA, NYFCC, and the Nat'l Society of Film Critics) split between American Splendor and Return of the King, with the respected regional critics groups (Chicago, SF, Boston, Southwestern) spreading the wealth further by annointing Lost in Translation or Mystic River the year's best. That pattern should hold, right?

Well, it's not shaping up that way. In unison, the critics have declared Sideways, the American Splendor of 2004, to be tops of the year. In fact, the New York Film Critics Circle vote is reportedly not even close. This is the kind of critical consensus that happens maybe twice a decade. In the 90s, two pictures swept the critics' awards in their respective years, Schindler's List in '93 and LA Confidential in '97. Though I personally favor other films in those years (The Age of Innocence and Short Cuts in '93 and The Sweet Hereafter and Kundun in '97), it's hard to really gripe about the accolades received by the superb, ambitious movies that ended up winning the awards.

Can't hold my tongue here. Granted, I think Sideways is a nice little film, funny in a broad, obvious way, with very good performances. But it's not, by any stretch, a great film. Miles is a self-pitying idealist who needs to overcome his insecurities to take a step forward; Jack is good-natured, selfish, oversexed oaf who will get into trouble time and again. Once those tracks are laid, the movie goes exactly where you expect it to go. Sure, most of the scenes are nicely written and directed, but what I sensed was something like Kabuki theater -- actors going through the preordained paces of "growing" rather than convincing that they've learned from the experience of dealing with one another. So the epiphanies, once they arrive, feel predetermined...a writer's device. In a small-scale miracle like You Can Count On Me, the control freak Laura Linney and flakey Mark Ruffalo wrestle hard with one another and themselves. Like Miles, they take tentative little steps forward. But unlike Miles, those steps feel earned -- Linney and Ruffalo get under each other's skin but learn to grow up a little and accomodate one another, the way anyone grows in a relationship. There are no real relationships in Sideways, just a lot of funny character-based comedy. Wouldn't have griped about it, but when everyone is lauding this unremarkable movie as the best of the year, in a year that saw the release of something as astonishingly creative and moving as Eternal Sunshine, it's hard to resist knocking it down a peg.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Au revoir, Pedro

So the Right Arm of God is gone. Like the last greatest Sox pitcher of all-time, on December 13, Pedro took the money (locked up by a guaranteed 4th year) and will be pitching out the twilight of his career with the Mets.

It's a shrewd business decision by Theo; a frail, high maintenance pitcher who'll give you maybe 180 IP and a 3.50 ERA isn't worth $50 million over 4 years. The Sox will now have better uses for that money, like divvying it up between Renteria and possibly AJ Burnett or Tim Hudson, much younger arms.

Hardheaded though I may sound, what I really wanted was Pedro to take the Sox's 3 year offer and remained in Boston the rest of his career. The guy gave his best years to the Sox, and his best years were better than anyone else's in the history of baseball. Really. Pedro's 1999-2000 were the two greatest consecutive seasons of pitching, factoring in ballpark effects, K/IB ratio, etc., all-time. But stats don't reveal the extent of Pedro's dominance. When he was on, professional hitters look like 5th graders swinging polo mallets. They flailed away, completely overmatched. Grown men were humiliated on national television. There were the legendary games to document his superpowers: 17Ks at Yankee stadium, the 1999 All-Star Game, and in one of the great performances in sports, an injured Pedro strutting to the mound and no-hit the fearsome Indians for 6 innings with a fastball in the high 80s in Game 5 of the ALDS. But what I'll treasure most are those days when I'd rush home to catch Pedro on ESPN and just shake my head in awe as he'll throw four nasty curveballs in a row to whiff A-Rod, followed by an assortment of low changeups and high heat to K Griffey. The man was an once-in-lifetime virtuoso with the baseball, the likes of which we'll probably never see again.

There were days and there were Pedro days. Pedro starts. Pedro hasn't been Pedro this year, and it's likely he ever won't scrape those heights again. Or even come close. Just the same, I wish he stayed. Just like I wish they kept Nomar. Maybe I've got a sentimental streak, but I like to think baseball is a game where continuity matters. If not practically at least emotionally. You give your heart to a team like in no other sport (read Tom Verducci's SI Sportsmen of the Year cover story, if you don't believe me). But it's hard to maintain that bond with a team when the players you've come to love suit up in Royal blue the following year. I know, times change. The Sox won the Series, and Pedro got an offer he can't refuse. Can't blame him for taking the money, and I certainly can't blame Theo for being smart about not overpaying. I just wish, just once, a player will take a discount and stay. Just because.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Dimming star (updated!)

Update! After all this, it turns out maybe Kobe isn't such an asshole after all. This bizarre Lakers saga has taken an even weirder turn when it's revealed that the Kobe-Karl fallout stemmed from the Mexican girl-huntin' Mailman possibly hitting on Mrs. Kobe Bryant. Crazy stuff.

Kobe's lucky to have Ron Artest and Lebron James. But for Artest's blowups, Kobe would be fitted to wear Bill Laimbeer's size 16s right now, taking over the role as the NBA's #1 villain. As for Lebron, that budding superstar has taken the burden and pressure off of Kobe as Jordan's heir apparent so that Kobe can be who he is now, just another talented NBA player with "character" issues. Remember when Kobe was the Air Apparent? Handsome, articulate, and clutch, Kobe once hogged the Jordan legacy like he now hogs the rock. But back then, nobody minded. Post-MJ, the NBA needed a new superstar, and Kobe was straight out of central casting. He had it all: the most exciting game since MJ -- complete with the flying dunks, the fadeaway jumpers, and the wagging tongue -- and talent to spare. He won 3 straight championships while leading the league's marquee franchise.

That seemed like eons ago. Seems every week, Kobe pulls a new dick maneuver. First, he tries to snitch out Shaq to the cops when he was arrested for that little thing in Colorado. Now, today, the story broke that Karl Malone won't return to the Lakers, mainly because Kobe dicked him over. The Mailman is what they call a "throwback"; a stand-up man in an age where players need babysitters. Just when you think Kobe can't sink any lower, he goes out of his way to dis a guy like that. I haven't been a Lakers fan in awhile, and have never really warmed to Bryant. But it was hard not to admire his game a couple of years back. Now, it's impossible not to despise the guy.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Fuck the BCS

The BCS, like the electoral college, is a ridiculous way to choose a champion. It's just as ridiculous in determining who gets in the major bowls. And every year, no matter how many times they tweak the formula, they fuck it up. Case in point: one team has dominated opponents all year, losing to the No. 1 team in the country on the road by about 9 yards. The coach decided not to run up the score in the last game of the season, despite the pressure to "look impressive". The other got shutout at home against the No. 2 team in the country, and barely squeaked out a win against 4-7 Kansas in its last road game of the year. So who gets in the Rose Bowl (along with $14 million in BCS dough)?

Cal has the longest Rose Bowl drought in the Pac 10. This year, at No. 4, they finally had their best chance in decades. They were in the driver's seat, but then they lost out because of some coaches who may be voting for Texas to help put money in their own coffers (the conference gets to split a share of the BCS spoils). The coaches poll is a joke; and the fact that the Texas head coach shamelessly lobbied the coaches to vote Texas above Cal just adds to the absurdity. By contrast, Cal coach Jeff Tedford decided not to run up the score in the last series, despite the pressure to "look impressive". But guess what? Dignity does not pay. As recent history tells us, best to shamelessly try to do everything to win than take the high road.

Let's not even get to the fact that Big East champ Pitt, at No. 20, gets to play in a BCS bowl, or Auburn now has no chance for a title despite going undefeated in the best conference in college football. This system is plain fucked.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Movie Nerds 101

Did you try to convince your girlfriend to watch an African circumcision movie with you your first night back from a vacation? Do you plan on being an hour and a half late to a pal's birthday party so you can squeeze in the rare screening of Ozu's Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family? If so, congratulations! You're a certified movie nerd!

Of course, it's no fun being a movie nerd. You watch a ton of movies all by your lonesome, sacrifice your social life for the sake of completism, compile lists that nobody cares about, and acquire a ton of knowledge too obscure for even Trivial Pursuit and completely off-limits at cocktail parties. (Social no-no: "Funny you should mention Milla Jovovich's bizarre outfits, as Bresson, of all people, made a weird, fascinating movie on Joan of Arc in 1962, during his conventional middle period, which I just saw last Friday evening at the Cinematheque.") It's like being a dorky wonk who knows every detail about East African debt forgiveness programs, except you're not helping anybody and you can't get paid. Worst of all, art connoisseurs (artfags, movie nerds, bookworms, indiegeeks, classic music buffs) have a particularly obnoxious reputation -- just one step above snotty foodies and wine snobs -- so it takes blood, sweat and much tongue-biting to not make yourself a social pest.

Funny thing about the internet: It makes obsessives more obsessive, mainly by connecting you to other strange birds similarly enchanted by celluloid (and listmaking). A cultish cinephilia has flowered online, watered by an endless stream of trivia and reconsiderations, so that "priority" moviegoing never ceases. Just when you thought you've covered the canon, you learn that Walter Reade has just uncovered a hitherto unknown masterpiece by Polish great Andrzej Munk! What?!? How can you dare presume to know anything about postwar Polish cinema without seeing this precursor to Wadja and Polanski? And did you know the Jean-Claude Van-Damme/Rob Schneider turkey Knock Off is some kind of gonzo classic? Have you seen it? Yeah? But have you really seen it?

As you can see, the connoisseurship never ends.

I became a much bigger movie nerd after I joined a group of nerds, selected by Esquire critic Mike D'Angelo from posters to the now-dead rec.arts.movies.current-films, to participate in a movie survey now called the Skandies. I joined in 1997. (Mike has helpfully provided a short history of the group, as well as last year's results, on his blog.) Most Skandies participants take their voting obligations with the utmost seriousness, busy tracking down screeners of Undertow just to make sure they aren't missing out. Call me biased, but I think the Skandies results are more consistently interesting and "correct" than awards from any other group. (Witness deserving Best Picture wins for In the Mood for Love, Yi Yi, Out of Sight, and Being John Malkovich, in their respective years.) Only the Village Voice and Film Comment polls come close, and those polls don't highlight overlooked performances/movies the way the Skandies does.

But really, nobody cares about the results except Skandies voters and a handful of groupies. The more significant thing is the comraderie that's developed between the "regulars." Those of you who browse this blog regularly -- those who are not part of the nerd posse, that is -- surely have detected this. It's weird. In a way these guys are just "movie nerds I know from the nerd discussion group". But I know some things about them -- namely, taste -- that their parents and s.o.'s probably don't know, and they me.

Thus an internet "community" formed. Ours is emblematic, but there are pockets of movie nerd communities all over, from the Kubrick fanboys at alt.movies.kubrick, to the cultists on the Mobius discussion group, to various HK cinema aficionados, to Cinemarati and the Rotten Tomatoes message board, and finally, the Little D'Angelistas and the Auteurist Zombies, who emerged from our wake. With the blog explosion, I've stumbled across a whole another community of movie nerds that exists in parallel to our own, the links of which the Greencine blog collects. This includes greg.org, Like Anna Karina's Sweater (which has some great stuff on Korean cinema), Rashomon and Cynthia Rockwell (both of whom I've linked to), and some others.

There's not enough idle time to keep track of it all, but one thing's sure about the internet: no matter how peculiar your obsessions may be, you'll find likeminded folks just a click away.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Red state superstar

Every year around Christmas, it seems, a new comedy with Tim Allen arrives in the nation's multiplexes. And every Christmas, they invariably go unseen by most everyone I know. It's that time of the year, and, sure enough, Allen's got a movie out, Christmas With something or another...I've already forgotten the title. This new Allen movie is making good money ($22 million over the weekend, higher than the much more highly publicized Alexander), just as other Tim Allen movies (the titles of which I can't begin to remember) have made good money. Most have broken $100 million, and Allen, for his part, is paid at a $20 million a picture clip. In terms of box office clout, Allen's star power blows George Clooney and Jude Law's out of the water. But strangely, you never see his mug gracing the cover of GQ.

So who the heck watches these movies? The Left Behind crowd?

Often, when conservatives mock the liberal-urban blue bubble, they'd trot out Pauline Kael, who was said to have remarked (I'm sure jokingly) that "nobody [she] knew voted for Nixon" in expressing (I'm sure mock) shock at the 1972 election results. In a way, Allen's an even weirder cultural phenomenon: a Hollywood profit machine who is almost completely invisible in Hollywood. His movies are almost completely quarantined from my infoworld: Not only do I not know anyone who've seen his pictures, nobody considers seeing his pictures, and weirdest of all, nobody even talks about them. Not in real life, and not on the internet movie sites I peruse. It's as if they don't exist at all. In his own mundane way, Tim Allen turns out to be the perfect cultural signifier of the great divide. David Brooks, are you taking notes?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

This just in...

...uh, yesterday. Ken Jennings, the Stormin' Mormon, finally lost. He ended up winning an amazing 75 times on Jeopardy, beating such trivia luminaries as movie nerd Adam "Milli" Villani, undisputed master of topography. The guy is officially the Andre the Giant of trivia.

Abercrombie & Fitch forced to add color

Old news, but I've recently learned that Abercrombie & Fitch settled an employment discrimination lawsuit with its workers for $40 million. Interesting case, this one: allegedly, minority Abercrombie employees were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that Abercrombie liked the sales staff to have a certain image, and that they viewed minority employees as fit for the stock room.

From the bare facts, it certainly sounds like the plaintiffs have got a good discrimination case. The settlement called for Abercrombie to implement some diversity and outreach programs as well as payout to the litigants, but please excuse me for not waving my poms poms here. Equity for the victims aside, this seems to me another case of misplaced activism. I mean, think about it: this is Abercrombie & Fitch here, the store of choice of white frat boys and sorority chicks -- classic Orange County apparel. You know that bleach they use for Wonder Bread? That's the stuff A & F uses to clone the interchangeable walking mannequins that ask you if you need help. So what in the world are these colored folks thinking working at Abercrombie when the store has spent tens of millions to market and brand their lilywhite image? Not knowing is no excuse. What did they expect? The studied multiculti-chic of (the United Colors of) Bennetton? Please. And frankly, why can't Abercrombie have the right to brand themselves as the clothes of choice for suburban white tools? (Sorry if I offend any Abercrombie devotees reading this.)

Stepped into an Abercrombie store maybe once. Thought the designs were flat and unremarkable, and the qualitity of its merchandise inferior to a retailer like Banana Republic. Worse is the vibe: place felt as if I walked on the set of Starship Troopers, with aggressive Aryans flashing confident grins everywhere you turn. Very unpleasant, and frankly, you can pick up better threads at Macy's. Last couple of years I've gotten some e-mails asking for a boycott of the store (due to some mock-Chinese outfit they had stocked). Boycotts seem to me the right approach. If you offended by this store's marketing strategy of pandering exclusively to tanned spoiled bluebloods (and those aspiring to be such), don't shop there and kindly tell your pals to not do so as well.

My friend Joanne made a good point, though: folks trying to get hired by retail stores are likely teenagers, and minority teens (Asian teens especially) are prone to wishing they were white. So they might not have the common sense to go seek work at Express or wherever. But you know what? Abercrombie makes a perfect introduction to the world of hard knocks. They might learn that, in the real world: (1) they are not white; (2) there are (some) white people who like to be with only white people; and (3) whiteness sells. It's funny how often you meet Asian people who don't understand those three fundamental precepts.

To spin it another way. During college, my girlfriend-at-the-time Caro...I mean, Sally Yeh once saw a help wanted sign posted by an Indian restaurant and decided to inquire within. She was told there was no opening. But the sign remained out for some time until (presumably) the position filled. By a person of Indian descent. Sally was semi-outraged, but shouldn't the store have the perogative to protect their ethnic image, for their business? I know some of my relatives avoid Chinese restaurants that employ Mexican chefs.

Employment law distinguishes between small and large employers, meaning that little mom and pop restaurants may (implicitly) discriminate in hiring while large companies have to abide by more stringent requirements. Legally, it looks like the plaintiffs may have strong claims. I'm glad they were compensated for enduring this alleged discrimination. But as a matter of politics, I'd have devoted those precious energy and resources elsewhere, like putting up sites that relentlessly mock the lameness of the Abercrombie look.

(This whole thing also reminded me of an article idea I had while dining at used-to-be-trendy fusion spot Slanted Door in SF: trendy fusion restaurant's ethnic division of labor as metaphor for the California workforce: Latinos do the cleaning and dishwashing, Asian cooks behind the scenes, and white maitre d's and wait staff. Of course, I never wrote that article.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Faster Pigs! Faster Battleships!!

Just got rid of some nasty code that's been a drag on visiting browsers. (It's the stats.blogger.com code, which was unnecessary to begin with.) The site should now resume loading at normal speed, so you're already free to continue to your next destination. Thanks for reading.

Short items: This fun blog documenting wacko entertainment pitches has been getting some attention of late. Also, be sure to check out Wonkette, if you haven't lately. She's been on fire. Last, a good contrarian piece on L'affaire d'Artest, which asks the simple question: Was anybody -- even the NBA -- really "damaged" by the Auburn Hills brawl? Besides the suspended Indiana players, that is. Judging from all the high-minded scolding, you might think this were Abu Ghraib redux or something.

[Grammatical question: should I use "were" or "was" in that last sentence -- "you might think this ________..." If it's "were" (as I suspect it is), what's the rule behind it? Any grammarians here to help? Callan? Morton? D'Angelo? Szeto? Or should I just e-mail Papa Safire?]

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (63) (Dir., Wes Anderson) Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum

[Alternate title: THE LIFE CINEMATIC WITH WES ANDERSON. Ultimately about Wes Anderson's oh-so-precious sensibility, this melancholy romp - no oxymoron - is nonetheless consistently dazzling, though not always in a good way. This is the natural extension of Anderson's project, which deals with child-men and their push-pull relationship with adolescent father figures, but also with Anderson's fondness for a twee illustrated children's storybook aesthetic. Moreso than even THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, this movie indulges in design, or more precisely, in the director's overweening sensibility that's reflected in cute, thrift-store-chic retro design. The most visual (and visually distinctive) of the Young Turks, Anderson expends much energy in getting the exact details of production just right, from the charming wood paneling of the submarine's control panel to the cold metallic glean of the decor in the Hennessey yuppified sea compound. Scene of the year: the single shot introducing the Belafonte. His fairy tale aesthetic is actually perfect for the stories he tells - Murray's Zissou, like Hackman's Royal and Murray's Blume, is a perpetual adolescent who must discover adulthood through parenthood. His movies are fairy tales, except charting the growth of deadpan melancholics rather than impressionable girls. Murray, by the way, has never been more hilarious, delivering the absurd dialogue with just the right inflection - "Meet Ned, who is probably my son." Nobody else can play this role.

Again, sensibility: Anderson's most notable directorial trait is not his no-hair-out-of-place symmetrical compositions and frontal tableaux (not as annoying here as it was in TENENBAUMS but still irksome), quirky characterizations, eccentric weirdos banding together (like kids in a playground, with the geeky uniform and assigned "roles" - contrast with Team Hennessey's Aryan uniformity), or the fetish for retro design; it is his eschewing of emphasis, almost unheard of in American filmmaking. Like Tati, but even moreso, Anderson's movies are a model of controlled chaos, with the deadpan acting and the throwaway lines and the random background gags (a simple 3 second continuity shot of Zissou going to Ned's room will have the cabin lights going off in the background and the crew members frenetically attending to the problem) leaving you with the sense that you're always missing something. Five things are happening in any given shot, with as much attention given to random whales peering in from the window in the background as the nonsensical conversations in the foreground. The resistance to emphasis extends to the acting, where emotional high points are - perversely - delivered in throwaway deadpan in carefully composed master shots. Wes doesn't do emotional cues. Farcical "adventure" sequences (especially the storming of the hotel) brilliant - during the exuberant latter half it was inching towards a 75+, but ultimately it never quite hangs together, the central father/possible-son/leader/disciple dynamic never quite gripping (hard to generate tension when two such willfully deadpan performances face off) and the tone isn't right. Too much is sacrificed at the altar of His Wesness - at his insistence on flooring you every millisecond with his Delightfully Quirky Sensibility. Gorgeous submarine scene at the end, though. Blanchett "luminous" as usual but wasted, but who knew Dafoe can do comedy? A second viewing - mandatory - will take this to either a 73 or a 55. On first viewing this one is hilarious, sui generis, but too much; unless you are a Weshead, in which case it is plenty.]

For more 8,000 word thinkpieces condensed to single capsules, see here. For an explanation of the exacting (and niggardly) Greek version of the retarded 100-point scale, where a 78 grade might top that annum's film output, see here. (The 63 translates to a "B"/Recommended in my more clear-eyed letter grade scale.) For a good explanation as to why I chose to confuse my non-movie-nerd blog readers (you know who you are) with this bizarre experiment, do not look here because there is nothing.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Recriminations no more

In the last two weeks, I've probably read about 80,000 words from very smart people explaining what is wrong with the Democrats and where the party must go. Many of these articles make terrific points. But if you must read only one, this is it. Funny thing is, this article actually isn't about recriminations or strategy per se, but about a dude's experience canvassing in Wisconsin and talking to undecided voters. The guy broke down the common complaints/concerns/reasoning offered by "swing voters" and, in the process of breaking down, totally illustrates the failure of the Democratic Party's communication strategy. The chief strategic failure for Democrats, as many others (including myself) have argued, is that they buy into Stanley Greenberg's strategy of running on issues that poll well. (Main problem is when you poll people, they will naturally support policies that sound good. But the vast majority of swing voters aren't forced to thinking about issues in such schematic ways, and aren't necessarily going to do start making issues-based decisions just because a politician keeps spitting out stats. Most voters don't go to those websites that tell you which candidate to support based on your own policy preferences.)

In other words, issues lose out to a compelling narrative every time, something the GOP understands. Hence, repetition, propoganda and narrative are the hallmarks of the Republicans' Madison Avenue-styled campaigns. It works. You see the pervasive effect of Republican propoganda (and Dem haplessness) any time you hear some apathetic, PS2-obsessed twentysomething mention something about politics ("flip flopper" "at least I know where he stands" "tax and spend"). The voters who care about politics and believe in political solutions have already made up their minds; they've split about 35-35. For the large group of Americans who haven't, you gotta win them over with clever propoganda -- with insidious memes that slither their way into their unconscious like soft drink taglines -- not with 5-point plans and newspaper endorsements.

The Democrats need to learn how to brand. To use one trivial example, when Bush started dissing Massachusetts during the debate, why didn't Kerry defend his home state by citing its nation-low divorce rate or its historical status as the flashpoint of the Revolution. In fact, the very notion held by many that Kansas or Texas is somehow "American" than Massachusetts demonstrates the Democrats' failure at branding as well as the GOP's success at same.

But there's a silver lining. Hopefully, the Democrats will shake off the focus-group-centric, "issues" campaigns that they've been running and pay attention to George Lakoff, whose new book on framing issues should be the bible for progressives. Also, I heard this book on political branding, Retro v. Metro, is supposed to be pretty good. The key isn't pandering to know-nothings; it's manipulating the information-deficient to see your party as standing for what they stand for.

Sure, it's fashionable and fun to blame the religious right for the loss. But they're not to blame; those folks are a natural part of the Repug constitutency, just as (the much smaller) secular humanists are a natural part of the Dem constituency. And the data now shows that these guys haven't increased their turnout; they've simply swung further to the GOP camp. Still, it sure is fun to mock their sheep fucking ways. And I'm not going to apologize for pointing out that these folks are intolerant, backwards idiots. If the Repugs can tar "coastal elitists" and liberals with impunity, surely the nutcase right deserves the same kind of slime. (These articles about understanding one another are great, but if there's one thing the Bush campaign proves, it's far more effective to take the low road than the high.)

Plus, it makes no sense for the Democrats to pander to nutcases. The mainstream Christians don't want a theocracy, and there are many more mainstream Christians than there are evangelicals. They're part of the swing vote that the Dems should work at winning over with better explanations, more conviction, and a more clever campaign, instead of trying to pander to the alums of Bob Jones University. Lastly, to Victor: what's more "condescending", "elitist" and "arrogant"? Letting people live their lives based on the moral values they've arrived at, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, or trying to impose your religious tenets regardless of whether people share them or not. Mocking nutcases for intolerance and bad taste, or smugly believing that those who don't buy into your religion are going to burn in eternal misery? Or how about asserting that you're a "real American" while others are not just because you're some white dude with a fat head whose idea of patriotism is sticking a "Support the Troops" sticker on your 10 mpg Escalade?

Oscar watching

Believe it or not, there are people who spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about the Academy Awards. I'm not one of them, but they're out there, and three or four times a year I'll check out their sites to see what they have to say. Today was one of those times. After recalling a conversation with assorted movie nerds in NY during which we decided there are no front-runners, I looked at one of those Oscar predix sites to see what the conventional wisdom is. Lo and behold, there's buzz building for Joel Schumacher! That's right. The most maligned name in the business. His new movie, the trashy-looking Phantom of the Opera, is tabbed by veteran Oscar watchers like Dave Poland as the odds-on fave. Might as well. If we can re-elect a complete fuck-up for POTUS, we can give the notorious auteur of Batman & Robin and A Time to Kill the golden boy.

Other possibilies, already out: Kinsey (the culture war redux); Fahrenheit 9/11 (Hollywood's revenge); Ray (I know, I know); Passion of the Christ (pandering to Red States?); Sideways (the critical fave); Finding Neverland (puts the bait in Oscar-bait); The Incredibles (finally Pixar's year?).

Other possibilities, mostly unseen: Scorsese's The Aviator (looks bad, but what do I know?); Brooks' Spanglish (looks bad, but Brooks is usually solid); Closer (can its artistic integrity recover from Natalie's sabatoge?); Million Dollar Baby (Clint's sixteenth picture in the last 3 years).

Yeah, right: Alexander.

In a universe just like this one, except populated by clear-thinking people rather than Bush voters: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will at least stand a chance.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

No Let Up in 2nd Term

With the nomination of bumbling yes-woman/love slave Condi Rice to the head the State Department and the orders to purge the CIA of career professionals who aren't Dubya aparatchiks, Bush immediately snuffs out any hope that he'll achieve a semblence of competence in his lame duck years. By getting rid of sensible counsel like Powell, Bush is consolidating greater control, which means more disasters on the horizon. There is now no doubt that Bush's tentacles remain firmly unattached to the reality (or reality-based communities) but now to some imagined mandate from heaven.

The only checks on this continuing nightmare are (1) the massive budget deficit and attendant fears of a massive bond sellout (thereby crashing the dollar and spiking up interest rates) might -- might! -- prevent more reckless tax giveaways; (2) the overextension of the military in Iraq means that neocon fantasies will be restricted to what is actually feasible rather than simply the theoretically possible.

A sliver of hope: the death of Arafat might force Bush to seize the moment and push for a Middle East deal in the next two years. Though the Chimp has been neglecting the Israel/Palestinian problem his first four years, concerns about legacy and perhaps a chance to top Clinton might be enough motivation to push for something to get done. Sharon, no doubt, also senses the opportunity; only fear is that whomever emerges as the Palestinian Authority leader (likely Abbas) will not have the power (basically credibility and trust with his own people) to cut a deal that sacrifices the Palestinian demands for a right of return for refugees and contiguous territories in the West Bank, the two terms that hung up the Camp David negotiations in 2000.

And let's hope he doesn't appoint the singularly obnoxious Joe Lieberman to head up the Pentagon as rumored. Btw, check out the most ridiculous bit of punditry in 2004, the increasingly unstable Martin Peretz arguing that the sanctimonious Joe-mentum, with his wrinkly jowls, high pitched whine, unmitigated hawkish rhetoric and I ♥ Repugs persona, would've beaten Bush. (Faced with the choice of a real Republican and a wanna-be, the country would no doubt just choose the real McCoy.) Hang it up, Marty, and check yourself into a clinic until a Mideast deal is signed. Right now you're a complete embarrassment to that fine magazine.

What's worse
: he now owes a debt of gratitude to the 20% of religious nutcases in this country who helped elect him. Bush's Clash of Civilizations project will continue unabated.

But fuck them. Fuck these rightwing nutcases, the American equivalent of Islamo-fascist extremists. Fuck their creationist babble and their sanctimony and their absolutism and their bad sex lives and their fat heads and their hypocrisy and their kitschy Ten Commandment tablets and "Elect Jesus" lawsigns and cousin-fucking and salisbury steaks and the 16th century they want to drive their gas-guzzling, impotence-compensating SUVs back to. Above all, fuck the way they want impose their ass-backwards, retarded worldview on the rest of us. They give my life and my beliefs no respect; why should I then respect these idiots just because there are more of them.

Wait, don't fuck the salisbury steaks. Those actually can be kinda good.

For more, check out Fuck the South. Also cathartic: the Urban Archipelago published in Seattle's The Stranger (hat tip: James Callan).

Monday, November 15, 2004

Movie-related links

* The best movie review of the year -- Vern answers the question you've been dying to know: why the fuck does Garfield hate Mondays?

* Bilge Ebiri, a frequent commenter on this blog, has a movie playing in NY called New Guy. It's even garnered a favorable NY Times review. So when's it coming to LA, bud?

* From the New York Times Magazine's movie issue: Manohla Dargis' thinkpiece on the state of cinephilia. Dargis doesn't say anything I haven't read before, but her observations are mostly spot-on as she gives an optimistic spin to current developments in movie-loving, contra Susan Sontag. I agree that the DVD boom is a great boon for cinephiles (even as it devalues the "religious" rep house experience), but she plays down the ghettoization of world cinema. By turning it into a cult or niche phenomenon, it becomes difficult to envision a foreign filmmaker becoming the kind of familiar cultural icon like Godard or Fellini in this day and age. Almodovar comes closest, but he's basically it. [Add Lars as well. Thanks, Steve.] And that's a shame.

* A.O. Scott's ruminations on recent themes in world cinema is also solid. Written for the non-film buff, it provides a good, brief summary of the developments in recent world cinema and the dilemma facing foreign films in the United States. Only problem is Scott framing his discussion around Jia's new movie The World, which sorta falls prey to the American critic's bias for foreign films that somehow touch on the zeigeist (this decade: globalization and its discontents, namely nationalism and identity). For non-movie buffs looking for a crash course, get Scott's three minute "Contemporary World Cinema for Dummies" lecture in this interactive feature.

* The editor of the NY Times Magazine must be a big fan of In the Mood for Love. On the heels of the mag's mega Wong Kar-wai profile despite his movie not playing in NY this year, this week we get a lengthy profile of Maggie Cheung, whose new movie Clean is also not hitting the Big Apple theaters any time soon. It gives you a glimpse of the sphinx that is the divine Maggie, and it raises the intriguing question, why isn't Maggie a huge star in North America? Well, actually, the article provides the answer in this passage:

American producers do occasionally send Cheung scripts, but the independent films are always about, as she put it, "ABC's," or "American-born Chinese," struggling with their identity, and the Hollywood scripts feature dragon ladies or Chinatown mafia molls or martial artists or mysterious fortunetelling women.

The Asian experience in Hollywood in a nutshell.

* Speaking of Wong, my uncle got me the 2046 DVD from China. The quality is pretty okay from the five minutes I skimmed through. Should I just watch the DVD and catch up to the projected film later? I'm inclined to wait, but it's tempting to just pop the disc in. What to do, what to do?

* Yes. I know, I should be posting some of this stuff to a certain moribund movie nerd discussion group instead of encouraging movie nerd diaspora.

Dots and Loops

You just realized that the movie you pieced together in your head was completely wrong. In fact, you had no clue what happened. Does it matter? The maddening Primer (B+/B) is a good case study. The movie is impossible to fully comprehend on one viewing. For some like Dan Sallitt, impressed by the film's astute observations of engineering geek behavior, or Mike D'Angelo, whose pull-quote addressing the subject is featured here, it hardly matters. Others like V-Mort just checked out because there's nothing that he can hang his hat on.


Strangely enough, my reaction changed radically, though my assessment (read: grade) remained the same after catching up to all the readings of the movie after the viewing. Let me explain: My first pass had Rachel's party as the casus belli for the time-travel. I wrongly thought that somehow in the first timeline, Rachel had been shot at the party, giving rise to Abe recruiting Aaron to prevent the tragedy. The idea has Terminator-like banality, but the time-travel-to-prevent-tragedy trope is a particularly potent brew, and this movie had an eerie, world-off-its-axis vibe that made it work.

My reading, though, was completely off. For those interested, the answer to what the fuck was happening may be found in the Primer message board and these two interviews with Scott Carruth, the film's creator. (Worth a read: Carruth's idea that the film addresses the abortion issue is especially provocative.) The plot actually pivots around Aaron and Abe trying to prevent the original Aaron and Abe from returning to the box, a point I didn't even get on one viewing. But I still wonder: why was Aaron so obsessed with Rachel's party and being the hero?

The best explanation is offered by Mike (whose 24.3 viewings of the film have made him the resident expert), who concludes that, beyond getting rich, Aaron's actually using the time machine to act out utterly mundane fantasies, like punching his boss or playing "hero" in an event that would have ended harmlessly even without intervention. The central observation of Primer isn't just that those with unlimited power will abuse it; it's that many of those with unlimited power won't know what to do with it, get bored, and will eventually marshall that power to fulfill ridiculously banal fantasies instead of, y'know, making life better for humanity and all that jazz. It's a profound observation, though, in the spirit of this month's theme of Showing Off How Well Read I am Even Though I Read Like Two Fiction Books a Year, If That, I think that Nicholson Baker's notorious time-freeze perv-novel The Fermata makes this point in a more provocative and, um, arousing fashion. (What it is a dude uses his time-freezing powers to do stuff like write erotica, bury it next to a woman on the beach, then spy on her as she goes home to masturbate while reading said erotica. Great stuff.)

Also, I can't help but dock points for Carruth's inability to make its points clearly. To be sure, Carruth is to be admired for not explaining every point to the dimwitted, but he takes his approach too far. In Primer, you can't distinguish the doubles from the originals, or figure out which timeline you're actually in. There's no set-up, not enough quick shots that will at least orient the viewer. Some critics deride those devices as "exposition" and applaud Carruth for ditching them, but these devices are part of the grammar of narrative film, and that language is especially necessary to a movie that's based largely on plot. Carruth's like a writer making statements like "I am. House." The reader might eventually be able figure out in context that the guy was in the house, but prepositions exist for a reason: so the statement can make sense without having to troll obscure nerd sites to induce the meaning. Let the viewer do some work, but let's not break your jigsaw puzzle into 1,000 identically-sized squares, okay?

Even more mystifying to some viewers is the sublime Tropical Malady (A-), which seems to me almost entirely comprehensible. Don't have much to add to Theo's orgasmic capsule, except to add that this is one of the best movies ever about the danger of attachment. Also, the way in which Joe sets up scenes by focusing on the faces of extras is so fucking awesome.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Did Bush really win?

Did Kerry actually win the election? It sounds absurd, but check out the topics buzzed about in the blogosphere.

I. Massive Election Fraud?

The tin foil hat brigade is out in full force, pointing to dodgy vote irregularities as signs of possible election fraud. After the raging, year-long conspiracy theories regarding Diebold voting machines, new conspiracy theories are no surprise. But it's also true there's some sketchy stuff out there. First, there's the unexplained disparity between exit polls and vote totals (apparently the exit polls were much more accurate in states that had punch card ballots than touch screen systems). Then there are precincts where Bush won thousands of more votes than there are registered voters. Then there's the systematic elimination of "spoiled ballots" largely in minority-heavy precincts. And now, the blogosphere has dug up the bizarre duplicative vote differences in tallies of different wards in Ohio. Very suspicious, indeed.

I typically dismiss conspiracy theorists, but these guys do mount something of a case. The definitive case is offered by British journalist Greg Palast. Picking up the story, Keith Olbermann became the first mainstream journalist yesterday to come out with a report, which is a helpful summary of the goings-on. A last lengthy summary can be found here. For the obsessives, a very helpful clearinghouse of links to articles addressing alleged voting fraud is here.

II. Exit Poll Meltdown, or...

Even if you don't buy the conspiracy theories -- and I don't, at least not yet -- one must explain the widespread failure of the exit polls this year. Generally, with such gargatuan sample sizes, exit polls just aren't wrong outside the margin of error. The exit polls had it Kerry-51 Bush-48, with Kerry sweeping the battleground states. So what on earth happened? A Princeton professor has a blog devoted to the exit poll/vote total disparity, and it's got some interesting info. Another good discussion can be found on MysteryPollster, but even then, without the actual exit poll data in his hands, MysteryPollster can only speculate. Internet guru Lawrence Lessig has now called for the 2004 exit poll data to be released publicly. That's a start. Getting to the bottom of this isn't just to help Kerry, who has probably a 1 million to 1 shot of overturning the putative election results. It's so shit like the Tuesday afternoon debacle doesn't happen again.

Those fucking exit polls, after all, made all the Dems giddy for 5 hours, when everyone thought Kerry won. Bush's Vegas odds were tanking; Karen Hughes was consoling Dubya; Kerry was set to work on his victory speech. We were so happy! What the fuck happened?

III. Voter Intimidation and Minority Suppression

From the ground in Ohio, it really looked like Kerry was gonna win. Canvassing in Marion, OH, a mid-sized, 50/50 city on October 30, we bumped into ACT people, KE'04 people, even Fingerhut folks working the GOTV. Kerry/Edwards lawnsigns, while outnumbered by BC '04 signs, abound in small towns and rural areas, indicating genuine enthusiasm in Red areas. The Columbus Dispatch poll final poll of 2000+ Ohians showed an eight (8!) vote difference separating the two candidates. GOTV will take it for Kerry, we thought.

Then reality intruded, along with a well directed Rethug suppression operation. But more mundane obstacles also contributed to the loss. Tuesday brought a steady, unforgiving downpour, which likely cost Kerry a good chunk of votes. Long lines in urban (read: Democratic areas) due to poor equipment and understaffing led to potential Kerry voters ditching the polls. I suspect these banal factors caused Kerry to lose at least 25,000 to 50,000 votes over Bush.

But some blame must be placed on under-the-radar suppression efforts. Reports include robo-calls featuring a purported Kerry/Edwards message saying a vote for Kerry is a vote for gay marriage, so support gay marriage by supporting Kerry!, flyers in minority districts saying that the election is on Nov. 3, and especially, bum rushing the polling places with, intimidating darkly-attired "challengers" intimidating minority voters. All of this undoubtedly contributed to a lower vote total for Kerry. Just how much, it's hard to say.

And therein lies Kerry's problem. His most compelling case involves disenfranchised voters, those prevented from voting. It's impossible to determine how many votes should've counted. And in this case, the party can only blame itself. The Dems, as usual, didn't play as hard as the Rethugs, losing ground even with all that money, energy and volunteers in the state. Is it an outrage that Rethugs are always out to suppress voting? Sure. But that's how the game's played, and everyone knows it. If I were running the operation, I'd roll out robocalls to Christian fundamentalists telling them about Bush's eve-of-election support for gay civil unions. Yeah, that's nasty, but you can't fight with boxing gloves if the other guy's trying to bash you with a folding chair.

The biggest mistake Kerry and his allies made in this vein is that, not only did they not play as dirty, they wouldn't call out GOP dirty tricks, which would at least set the groundwork for a public relations campaign to discredit this laughable "mandate" business.

IV. A Recount in Ohio?

The only realistic option is a recount in Ohio. Kerry needs to get the margin down to about 19,000 votes for Ohio's automatic recount provision to set in. The current numbers, taken from the Ohio Democratic Party:
Bush-Kerry margin: 136,483
Estimated number of provisional ballots yet to be counted (likely with heavy Kerry margins): 155,000
Overseas absentee ballots: number of ballots unknown, none yet counted.
Overvotes/Undervotes: ~93,000 ballots for President not counted by machines due to overvotes, undervotes, or no votes.

Given these numbers, Kerry obviously needs a shocking tabulation error discovery to save him. The provisionals and the absentees will not get him to the 19,000 where a recount might reverse things. That's why Kerry conceded so early.

So there's next to no chance for a Kerry presidency in 2004, but it's good to know that some are still keeping hope alive.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Random bits of business, done sideways

I don't have much to say about Sideways (B+/B). Alexander Payne, a native Cornhusker, clearly understands his Blue Staters here much better than the Red Staters in About Schmidt, and the result is a funnier and more heartfelt study of a guy who bears the weight of realizing he's accomplished nothing he wanted in life, and without the kind of condescension that marred Schmidt. It's the difference between a movie about Reds for Blue consumption and a movie about Blues for Blues. One entails a certain Animal Planet approach; the other works on pangs of recognition, which is necessarily more subtle.

As in Schmidt, the production design is especially sharp, full of little details (such as the little blue ceramic mug that Madsen drinks out of) that feel exactly right on. But I found the buddy dynamic and the themes awfully familiar, and Payne's not very good at the old Lubitsch trick of having the audience stay ahead of the characters. The reaction shots (eye-rolling, nudging) are too obviously cued to the audience, whom Payne labors to have clued in to the joke/deception/whathaveyou, rather than the characters observing the reaction. As terrific as Giamatti is (and he's mostly brilliant), he's often too aware of the camera, obviously showing his character's disgust for the audience. The movie's key image is a profile of Giamatti's Miles snarling, with his eyes peering at a spot just off the lens, playing to the viewer. Thomas Haden Church, who plays the frat-boy lummox, is pitch perfect ("ha ha, here I am!", he'll announce with that cackling self-confidence of a man totally unencumbered by self-awareness.) as Miles' foil. Ultimately, it's a fine, beautifully-observed character study of two familiar types, but nothing over which to jump up and cheer. Payne's unable to locate the revelatory in the ordinary, the way Richard Ford did in Independence Day, his excellent road novel of a middle-aged writer treading water. It's the margin between good and great. Perhaps the Rule of the Bandaged Nose comes into play. (The rule is that any movie where a character walks around with his nose bandaged is automatically accorded masterpiece status.)

Back to politics. A week after the election, the future of the Democratic Party isn't nearly as urgent a priority for me. Hence, I'm starting to rethink my plans for a multi-part tract. Okay, I lie. Electoral triumph remains my overriding obsession, even while we wage the ever-so-predictable post-election assault on Fallujah (a necessary move long overdue, but I fear the carnage) and one of the major historical figures of the last fifty years lie dying. So that will still be forthcoming, along with a lengthy review of I ♥ Huckabees, and possibly even some super tardy thing on Eternal Sunshine and Before Sunset. (Announcing potential posts publicly is really for my benefit -- it provides some incentive to get shit done.)

For those of you dizzy from the fast-changing conventional wisdom regarding why the Democrats couldn't beat a failed president (it's values no it's Kerry no it's lack of a party message no it's mass ignorance), you're already aware of Slate's circular firing squad. (Best pieces by Robert Reich and Robert Wright. Most honest assessment courtesy of Jane Smiley. So it's shrill; fuck you, too.) Flying somewhat under the radar, New Donkey provides a nice summary of CW with links, and some good discussion can be found on the, yes, increasingly shrill MyDD. Also, here's a nice summary from Kevin Drum, who's just a bit shrill.

On the nominally non-political end of the blogosphere, Mike D'Angelo finally caved in and started a blog that will focus exclusively on the virtues of magical handwear. Most of you reading this are already aware of the blog, no doubt, but those who aren't are advised to check it out. On the flip side, Mike's Doc Ock, aka Himey, has also turned bloggy. It's worth a look, especially the early, funnier stuff.


Undoubtedly from the same fevered minds who brought you the calculatedly pervy Indiecrap Ripe comes Easy, a tale of a promiscuous woman who evidently learns in the course of the movie that the way to the heart isn't through the loins. Or at least not on the first date. Did our star neglect her Cosmo subscription growing up? What cave did she inhabit in her youth as to cause her to fully miss Rule #1? But maybe there's a less obvious point that the movie is making, one that can't be gathered from the trailer. (Doubtful, but possible.) The selling point, though, isn't the journey, but the image. Just as the salacious Ripe poster made the film an irresistible proposition, so too is this lurid visual pitch hard to turn down:

(Couldn't find the poster on the Web, but it's basically this image with the title "Easy" sitting brazenly in the center.)

Nearly lured by these evil Indiewood marketing geniuses and their provocative one-sheets, the trailer was my salvation, a dreadful sub-If Lucy Fell melange of Sundance cliches. This movie is unbelievably asinine. In fact, I'd urge all aspiring filmmakers should do some detective work and dig up this movie's financiers, so you, too, can con these jackasses into financing your junk. Speaking of junk, the legendary auteur Eric Schaeffer has a new movie out, ingeniously titled Mind the Gap. Mr. Schaeffer, methinks, has a bright future in the gimmick t-shirt business if this movie thing doesn't pan out for him.

Lastly, this is absolutely tragic. Who is this Mike Nichols guy to get in the way of verismilitude, of art, anyway? Fuck him. This is art we're talking about.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Emerging from Despair

So the mighty swing voters struck out. Much ballyhooed, these so-called moderates and independents were thought by many political observers to be the key bloc. It turned out Karl Rove was much smarter. I will now genuflect before King Karl's diabolical genius.

How did he win this election, especially after getting dealt a hand that's maybe at best a 10-7 offsuit? In the battle of election strategies, Rove's base trounced Kerry's swing voters. Rove mobilized his base, big time. And by "base," I don't mean Limbaugh-listening, Fox News-watching, Free Republic-posting wingnuts. No, I mean folks who are generally apathetic about politics, who don't follow the news, and who decide on factors outside of facts. Kerry tried to reason with this group; Bush appealed to the public's non-reasoning faculties (emotional, instinctual, whatever). Guess which one worked better? Kerry lost this election because he couldn't hang on to poor whites in the Midwest, and he couldn't do it because the Democrats haven't found a simple message to speak to these voters for some time now. Bush's campaign has been working, under the radar of most of the national press, to spread the message of Bush as a man of faith who shares their values. That, and not national security, Iraq, or tax policy, ultimately carried the day.

The most interesting poll of the election was this one, about the shocking ignorance of Bush's supporters of current events and Bush's own positions. But positions and facts are quaint concepts, as this election proved.

My friend Ben Konop won Allen County in Ohio, where Lima is located, by 52-48% over Mike Oxley, a powerful incumbent who out-spent Ben by a factor of 13 to 1 or more. Bush beat Kerry there by a 66-33 spread. So Ben outperformed Kerry by a huge margin in a county that Kerry should've done better than Gore in 2000 due to dramatic job losses and a stagnant economy. But he didn't, and in the Battle for Ohio, it's counties like this one, where Kerry need to shrink Bush's advantage, where the war was really lost.

Ben didn't have enough money (or help from the local media) to spread his message to enough other counties to finally beat Oxley, but by pounding on a simple message with conviction (Oxley cares more about taking money from rich contributors than protecting jobs; Ben will represent their interests), Ben overcame the "liberal" label Oxley tried to tag on them and won over a substantial number of pro-life, Christian voters who otherwise voted Republican up and down the ticket. I don't know if Ben's campaign offers a model for the Democrats in red Midwestern counties, but clearly, if the electoral map stays the same in 2008, there has to be a strategy -- and more importantly, a strong, authentic message -- to appeal to folks who live in economically distressed towns like this Lima. John Edwards was supposed to appeal to voters like those in Lima this year, but clearly, it didn't succeed (though anecdotal evidence suggest that they found Edwards more appealing than Kerry).

Democrats have had it backwords for some time now. They campaign on "issues", believing, as Stanley Greenberg does, that Democrats are much popular than Republicans on the issues and so the job is to make the differences clear. The problem is most people don't have time to sort out the issues and identify them with any one particular candidate, as the above poll shows. They look at the candidates themselves. The job really is to find out what your core ideas and principles are, and then find an appealing way to sell that, which will include taking many popular policy positions. But the party has to stand for something that people can understand, something besides the vague "middle class" that Democrats champion. Presently, the Democrats have won over the graduate students, the educated elite, and kept the African-American and dwindling union base. Basically they've become the party of concensus elite opinion -- the Adlai Stevenson party. But by bypassing the common folk on the path to winning over editorial writers, they've lost their way on winning.

So this is yet another post in the tsunami of liberal recrimination articles going around. Liberals, being who we are, will look inward before looking outward. There will be much blame to go around. The danger is twofold: (1) to exaggerate the extent of the loss and make radical changes that betray party constituents (the "base" and Blue State affinities) and party principles, whatever those are; (2) to not take the failure of message seriously enough and simply blame the loss on Kerry's flaws. The Democrats' problem right now isn't that they don't yet have "another Clinton" to lead the Democrats out of the wilderness; their problem is that they do not have core principles, or if they do, they can't translate that into a simple, compelling message that can appeal to the unsophisticated portion of the populace.

On Election Night, I spent a lot of time chatting with two of my most political savvy friends, Brent and Mumon, who are both city dwellers that have spent a lot of time in Red and Swing States, living with the kind of voters the Democrats desperate need to win over. I think we batted around a lot of good ideas. So, in between mourning, self-flagellation, and binge-eating, I will try to sneak in a multi-part series of posts here on what happened, what ails the Democrats, and what must be done, much of which is based on those conversations. I hope it will be at least as thoughtful as many of the post-mortems that have deluged the elite magazines and web sites.

There will, of course, still be posts on the bad poncho fashion trend, obscure movies, and the ilk. But right now, I'm still reeling, and blogging about this, a most devastating result for the US and the world at large, is good for the soul. Well, it beats hiring existential detectives anyway.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

In Ohio

Two of the biggest events in my life, yet no posts, you say? I'm actually on a trip, so this will likely be my only post before November 3rd. Last week, I was in NY, where I saw my beloved Red Sox win the Series. Bit of a relief it came so easy, or else I'd bust a gut. But it's still a bit of an anti-climax. Awesome to come out of the bar and into an impromptu celebration from Red Sox Nation in a street corner in the West Village. 500 or more fans gathered to cheer and chant on a random street corner. Folks giving strangers high fives on the street. Spontaneous outbursts. It felt like V-D Day. In New York. I can only imagine what it's like in Boston.

Now in a deep crimson area of Ohio, where I've been doing some canvassing and other campaign work for Ben Konop. More thoughts on Ohio later. Only thing I'll say now: excellent salt quotient on the Mickey D's fries in Ohio. Also, "sunshine skillet" (gravy over sausage bits in a egg skillet) at Bob Evans. My meals have shortened my life by four years, but fuck the Cali low-sodium, organic fat free diet.

Final thoughts on the POTUS race: pure chaos at this point. Random states -- Hawaii, Arkansas, Michigan -- are coming into play. The Osama tape has caused much hand-wringing. And the polls continue to be conflicted. Some, like Newsweek, moving towards Bush, while Zogby and Wash Post has inched towards Kerry's direction. Nobody knows anything at this point.

Looking at his ads and travel schedule, Kerry's betting his marbles on Ohio and Florida. He only needs one of two, but he's clearly looking for a sweep, leaving himself open in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Southwestern states. Everyone seems to think Kerry will take Ohio. If he does, and he holds on to most of the Gore states (he needs to take Wisconsin or Iowa and New Mexico), he'll win. I think the election will come down to Wisconsin. Recent polls look good there, but it's a toss-up.

In Florida, the early voting has favored the Dems to a surprising degree. But I wouldn't count on Jeb's state going blue. Just too many variables (read: voter suppression and fraud).

So my predix: Kerry squeaks out a 285 - 253 win, with formerly red Ohio, New Hampshire, and (surprise) Arkansas turning blue. New Mexico gets a sunburn. Iowa and Wisconsin will be within one point. Michigan and New Jersey will be by over 5 points, but Hawaii will be close. Florida goes to Bush by 2. Ohio goes to Kerry by 3. This is, of course, all pulled out of my ass. Nobody knows anything at this point.

Sorry no links. All election info can be found at Daily Kos.

Also, America Coming Together is organizing bus trips to Nevada from California (and Ohio from New York), for those of you interested. No vote in my lifetime is more important than getting Bush out of office. It will happen.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

An added benefit to last night's win

By jacking up the cosmic balance, Americans everywhere gain two additional benefits: the worst collapse in baseball history wipes the smirk off of the obnoxious Yankee fans and their sense of smug entitlement. And the amazing comeback should mostly wipe out all those narcissistic pronouncements of romantic suffering from self-obsessed Sox fans. (But you know, you still got to let us Sox fans have our day. If you aren't moved by this thread, expressing all the dashed hopes of generations of Sox fans who didn't live to see this moment, your last name is probably Cheney.)

Are the Yanks now cursed by A-Rod? If I believed in curses, then maybe. I like the line about how the Sox were like Michael Corleone, taking out 86 years of vengeance last night in great final hurrah. Aura and Mystique, slain in one night.

Last navel-gazing suffering Sox fan link: this Peter King column is really good.

Bring on the _______!

Reversing the Curse

I still can't believe it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The burden of history

One team's like Dodi, the dude who's got the billionaire dad, the smooth, practiced charm of a man born to wealth and privilege, and the princess as his date. The other is like the awkward guy on the other side of the tracks who's always making the move just when the girl falls in love with someone else.

It's an old story. The Pinstripes against the Dirt Dogs. The clean-cut, buttoned-down pretty boys led by golden boys A-Fraud (to quote Sports Guy, a guy who'd turn over an 'R' in Scrabble and pretend it's a blank letter) and Captain Intangibles vs. the scruffy, unkempt working class types symbolized by unwashed baseball caps and dreadlocks.

Overblown metaphors and superstitions aside, tonight will see the most intense rivalry in sports, with a new script but the same old actors. On one side you have the Yankees, the most decorated franchise in sports, with a $180 million payroll and a couple of the most fearsome hitters in baseball, a team who, in the course of the season, has made miraculous comebacks seem expected -- routine even. On the other, a team synonomous with snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, for teasing fans with hope only to break their hearts in ways nobody can imagine.

Game 6 saw one of the most heroic performances I've ever seen in sports. Curt Schilling had his skin sutured to his bone to prevent his tendon from popping. With his right sock soaked in his own blood (appropriately, Mr. Red Sock), he pitched 7 crafty innings, locating his pitches to keep the Yankees at bay and give the depleted Sox bullpen a needed breather. It saw calls the Yankees always get -- interference, home-runs that never were -- reversed. Correctly. And in the last three games we've seen those damn Yankees, all those legendary "clutch" players, falter in key situations time and again. Even Captain Intangibles himself, Derek Jeter, choked.

To this point, this series has seen a reversal of roles, with the Yankees on the verge of the biggest collapse in baseball history, and the Sox on the brink of an improbable comeback. No team has ever come back from 3-0 to force a 7 game in baseball history. The Red Sox have done it, in three of the most dramatic games anyone has ever seen. Win this last game, and they can wash away that entire dubious history of missed ground balls, people stealing home, and the 8th inning collapses. They would hang on their hated rivals a scarlet "C" -- the title of the biggest chokers in baseball history. If you believe in curses, this is the "reverse the curse" game, the culmination of the entire rivalry all in one game.

But the baseball gods are cruel. Like television writers, they usually manage a way to get to the same ending in new ways. And this might be the cruelest season yet, coming up with the most dramatic scenario imaginable to tease Sox fans only to see the Sox fumble away their best chance to overcome history.

Dear Baseball Gods: We've seen DerekJeter leap out of the dugout with his right arm raised one too many times. It is tiresome. If you do it again, this program will have jumped the shark. Please do something different, like the time when Tom beat Jerry. That one episode was awesome.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Who said baseball was boring?

What an amazing night of baseball. After that 14 inning marathon between the Sox and the Yanks, I feel like my stomach's been chopped into Chinese sausages. That was epic baseball. Missed opportunities. Botched running plays. Bad calls. A double that bounced into the seat, saving the Sox's season. And above all, a heroic performance from a shot bullpen, with guys bringing absolutely nothing and still getting those vital outs. Timlin, Embree, Foulke, Arroyo, Myers, and above all, Wakefield were the big heroes. As always, the Sports Guy captures the fragile psyche of Red Sox Nation last night.

On the NL side, a well pitched game which ended in dramatic fashion, courtesy of Jeff Kent. But Carlos Beltran is the real difference-maker in that series, making that spectacular catch in CF and distracting Isringhausen on the basepaths that led to the fat pitch to Kent. Beltran is the superstar of the postseason thus far.

As I had been telling everyone over the weekend, I had been trying to emotionally divest myself of the Sox, who looked like they wouldn't even put up a fight. But everyone time I try to get out, they pull me back in. They squeezed two wins out in the most dramatic fashion possible, and I now spent the day pondering relief pitcher availability (the Sox basically need Schilling to go 6 or 7, and hope to scratch together a couple of innings from Mendoza, Lescanic, and possibly Lowe), and scouring every post on Sons of Sam Horn.

This is a special team. It's still likely the Sox will lose this Game 6, with healthy Sox nemesis Jon Lieber on the mound at home against a gimpy Schilling. But if the Sox's long and storied history of heartbreak ends this year, there's no better way to do it than to mount the greatest comeback in postseason history against their hated rivals.

Who knows? Maybe I'll even allow myself to hope. Just a little.

Monday, October 18, 2004

I wish capes would come back in fashion.

When's the last time it was acceptable for a guy to wear a cape? 19th century Italy? Whenever it was, the cape has been unfairly gathering dust in history's Salvation Army pile, treated like the powdered wig or the monacle. In fact, it is among the most dashing and heroic articles of clothing around. Thinking about it, I really wish someone would bring back the cape for men. Donning a cape, you'll feel like a cross between Napolean and Superman. Imagine how cool you'll feel when your cape flows in the wind. Or indulge in the stylistic flair of pulling your cape back, like a modern day Count Dracula.

Consider the other benefits:

* You can discreetly scratch your private areas when the cape drapes down over your body.

* You can chivalrically lay the cape over a puddle of water for your date to walk across.

* It can double as a pancho in case of unexpected rain.

* Tired of being decked out in the same striped button down worn by every other trendoid? No one's gonna mistake you -- a cool cape wearing fool -- for that tool spilling his beer on the dance floor.

* You can use it as a blanket at the movie theater to give your date more freedom to roam his/her hands around your lap.

* Using the bulletproof cloth Batman uses, you can block stray bullets if you're in a war zone or in a dangerous urban environs.

* A burgundy cape will add a dash of Bavarian flamboyance to the standard white shirt dark slacks.

* A teal cape and matching boots -- a Nineteenth century European officer look, if you're looking for military chic -- beats the bejeesus off the idiotic camouflage cap and pants explosion of 2002.

When the cape comes back in fashion, I will be a prime mover.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Win some, lose some

Give John Kerry his due. During the primaries, I thought he was maybe the third or fourth best candidate to run against Bush. And during the mid-September suicide watch, Deaniac fervor returned with a vengeance as Dems watched helplessly while Kerry was tarred and feathered by a ruthless Bush campaign.

Smartly, Kerry changed his strategy and focused on Iraq, bringing in Clintonistas who revamped his floundering communications operation. Then came the debates, where Kerry really reversed the momentum of this race. If Kerry wins -- and I'm confident he will -- observers will largely focus on Bush's inadequacies, his scowls and twitches, and his repetitive, wacky, and largely unpresidential demeanor. In the three debates, Bush conspicuously wore three faces: Bitchy George, Furious George, and Smiley George. As some one put it on the Daily Kos, it seemed as if the Prez were on Ny-Quil the first time, cocaine the second, and prozac the third.

But I have to give big props to Kerry himself. He didn't strike out the side, but he came in and got the three outs he needed by remaining consistent. He made no gaffes and showed himself as a man ready to assume power. In doing so, he evinced a self-confidence in himself that both Bush and Gore (both of whom shifted their styles to mollify criticism of their previous appearances) lacked. In the final debate, he was again authoritative, upright, articulate, with a strong command of facts and policy. The Insta-polls declared Kerry the winner again, and I agree.

Despite the spittle on the side of his mouth, and the "Thank you Sir, may I have another" frat pledge smile pasted on his face the whole night, I did think Bush did pretty well. It was his best debate. He sounded sincere when talking about education and tolerance, and I think the left should lay off the "Bush sez poor people are dumb" line of attack. He's fundamentally correct that worker retraining and adult education are the most effective ways to salve the harsh effects of outsourcing -- a phenomenon that both candidates (to their credit) stated can't be completely reversed.

But Kerry was unflappable, consistent, and forceful. He was at his best when delivering unambiguous, concise answers in support of popular Democratic policies, like a raise in the minimum wage and the assault weapons ban. In those answers, he'll identify the problem in stark terms, say clearly what he'll do about it, and indict Bush's inaction on that issue as symptomatic of his wrong policy preferences. They're clean left jabs to the head. And he doesn't need to pander.

Bob Schieffer helped Kerry, if only because he presented some facts and figures in the question. And Bush's real opponent is not John Kerry but facts. Any question about "the rising cost of health care" or "the increased budget deficit" or "how to stem job losses" implicitly hurt the incumbent. Kerry needed only to amplify the failed record and present a credible plan. The only questions that play to Bush's advantage are the "character" questions, but even then, Kerry showed that, yes, Lurch could be warm and fuzzy, too.

In every debate, Kerry says something that the Bushies seize on for post-debate spin, like his "global test" remark. In this one, it turned out to be a poorly judged reference to Mary Cheney's lesbianism (not-so-subliminal message: "The Vice President has a LEZZZ-BIAN daughter!") On MSNBC's post-debate jab session, Buchanan and Scarborough ran with the Republican talking points, acting indignant that Kerry would deliver such a low blow. It seemed desperate until I saw this piece in the NY Times on folks in a focus group turned off by Kerry's reference. Expect the GOoPers to run with this one for a while, but I can't see it having much traction beyond a day or two of Faux News outrage.

Kerry remains in strong position with 19 days to go. And frankly, I'm beginning to actually want to help elect Kerry rather than just defeat Bush.

The Boston Brahmin was good in the clutch. He seized the moment. The same can't be said for the Boston Red Sox. Maybe it's better that way. If this year brings both a Bush loss and a Sox World Series win, I'd wake up on November 3rd with nothing to live for.

Best to pour your heart out for the Democrats. At least they win from time to time.