1/31/2006

more on "ooga-ooga"

Is autism the result of having an “extreme male brain," as director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, says here?

superorgasmic turbosexy space-age technewtopia (yawn)

I'm reading an excellent book by the ever-brilliant Roger Shattuck called Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. Early on he's talking about the irony of technology--that for every one problem solved by it, there are ten more created. But we still cling to the essential narrative of modernity, which is that one day, in the not too distant future, we will find that ultimate solution to all of our woes.

No, not death, silly! Don't be so morbid! Someday we'll all live in, I dunno, hermetically-sealed designer homes where germs can't get us. And we'll have self-perpetuating, self-programming, self-cleaning robots do our sexual bidding. And the sky above our germ-free cyberbubbles will always be blue, at least according to our personal-programable weatherpods. And musak of our choosing beamed by satellite straight into our brains providing a suitable soundtrack for each and every minute of the day. And there will be no more strife. And no more hunger, but also fat-free, zero-carb alternatives that are as good as the real thing! And so on. You know it's in the back of your mind somewhere, too. This technewtopia.

I always think of my dad when I think of those little gadgets that are supposed to make life run like clockwork. That man was a sucker for any gadget that promised to free up your time, so you could...what? Play computer-solitaire, watch old World War II documentaries on the History Channel, sigh, fidget, and wait impatiently for your wife to come home from work so you can jump down her throat for being five minutes late, bicker for half an hour, watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and go to bed, get up the next day and do it all again? Well, it's a life.

When I was in Sarasota, I was very impressed by my aunt's cooking. You know I sincerely love my aunt, and I'm not being the least bit facetious here. She served up this great big breakfast, and I was like, "mmm, Aunt, this is wonderful!" She's like, yeah, nephew, and it's all frozen, from concentrate. Just add water, and whoop! Der id iz!

I mean, this is some funky space-age shit going down in the kitchen. It takes all of three seconds to prepare, and the thing of it is, it really is good. Not like when I was a kid, with those rubbery frozen waffles, chalky eggbeaters and grizzly fakin' bacon.

But then, you snarf it all down, and you're sitting there with your thumb up your ass with nothing to do all the rest of the day. Maybe the dishes, you say? Well, they've got this superturbo space-age dishwasher, too. We're talking Hemi-powered. This bad boy could turn Paris Hilton back into a virgin, that's how pristine your dishes come out. And it's got a dashboard like the friggin space shuttle on it. It can do almost anything--it even cleans cups and saucers that you left out on the coffee table via the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) effect (that's what the red "spooky action at a distance" button's for).

All these fantastical time-saving devices are well and good, if you're someone who really needs more time. But what if, as the old Styx song goes, you've got "too much time on your hands?" And it's tick-tick-tick-tickin' away with your sanity? And you just don't know what to do-ooo-oooo?

Sure, theoretically, you would be someone so full of vim and vigor, with such a loaded social calendar that even if you didn’t have to spend a minute of time preparing meals or cleaning the house, putting your face on, getting dressed, whatever, there still would not be enough time in the day to get all that electrifying living done. But the truth is, you finish your super-efficient, turbo breakfast with your ten cups of instant coffee, and then instead of saving the world for democracy, rescuing kittens from trees, painting the Seventeenth Chapel, and delivering Nobel speeches, you sit around watching Elimidate, and then catch Maurie doing his ghetto paternity tests, followed by a little Jerry Springer white-trash smack-down, maybe a Judge Judy screechathon, some Celebrity Justice. All the time waiting, waiting, waiting…for Oprah. I can't go on, I'll go on.

All I know is that mankind was obviously not meant to have so much free-time. I don't know what womankind does when it gets bored (mahjong anyone?) but mankind masturbates.

Sometimes technology is not the answer. Of course, it depends on the question...

1/30/2006

more on the Oprahfication of Auschwitz

I got a comment worthy of comment on the issue of the Oprahfication of Auschwitz this morning. It would not surprise me if it was from an old friend from Indy, who has had some personal dealings with Elie Wiesel over the years.

I anticipated some of the criticism here. I wanted to focus more on the book itself, and its lack of sentimentality. But inevitably its author will come under fire. While there’s a long list of Holocaust writers who’ve committed suicide, Elie Wiesel has gone on living, and has made his living as Shoah spokesman (or "salesman," some would say). Has he been utterly unselfish in this? Should he live in abject poverty to prove a point? And what point would it prove? It’s the Holocaust we're dealing with here, but it’s also his life, and he is entitled to make a living. He is also entitled to a hair-weave. He is entitled to every human foible, as far as I’m concerned.

But the insinuation that there is something unethical in his exploitation of his personal experience for personal gain does deserve serious attention.

Regarding Wiesel's speaking fee. A little cursory research at keyspeakers.com puts it in the range of $42,000. It seems steep, until you consider that it is the same as Phylicia Rashad’s. And it’s not much more than Star Jones’.

To give you some idea of the range for “diversity” speakers: even a nobody like Steadman Graham, whose only claim to fame is his fag hag, Oprah, commands $13,250. Danny Glover makes $30,000. Jesse Jackson’s fee is $50,000. Magic Johnson’s: $85,000. Whoopi Goldberg’s is a whopping $120,000.

The best-known motivational speakers, politicians, and past-presidents usually command well over $100,000 as well.

I don't personally know anything about the speaker's fees for funerals, and have been unable to verify the story, but I believe Wiesel is well within his rights to collect whatever speaker’s fees he can command.

As for the business of the Iraq War. Elie Wiesel has been entangled in Israeli politics for decades. To believe that anyone intimately involved in the fate of Israel could avoid unpalatable compromises and unholy alliances is naïve in the extreme. Nor is it particularly surprising that a supporter of Israel would support President Bush and his campaign in Iraq. I mean, on the one hand, you’ve got the US. On the other Iraq. US. Iraq. US. Iraq. Hmm. It’s a tough choice. Seeing as Iraq has been so kind and helpful towards Israel over the years, and the US has been so hostile. I mean, come on. Wiesel is, after all, a Jew and a Zionist.

Of course, largely because of the success of Night, Wiesel has become a prime target of Holocaust revisionists, who question whether he was even in a concentration camp at all. Impugning his intentions in collecting speaking fees is a step away from accusing him of flat-out fabrication, and from there, questioning whether any of it was true at all.

I think there’s ample evidence out there that the Holocaust happened. I myself don’t think it’s a fabrication of greedy Jews who want to make money by guilt-tripping the anti-Semites and cheating honest and guiltless nations out of billions. But there are plenty of very angry people out there who seem to believe that this is the case. They believe that the Holocaust is the latest in a long line of hoaxes, perpetrated by Jews at the expense of their own for their personal enrichment.

But wouldn’t the Jews have to be really, truly, utterly vile to do such a thing? And isn’t that what the anti-Semites would have us believe of them? And isn’t it strange that they would so willingly conform to such a caricature? And if they are as vile as all that, shouldn’t we draw up plans to round them up, and… hey, wait a minute. Is this the Wannsee Conference or what?

1/28/2006

Six Million Little Pieces?

In one of those strange nexuses so common in the jumble of our pop culture, the brouhaha over the “truthiness” of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces happened to coincide roughly with the 61st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Oprah’s announcement that the next selection from her popular book club would be Elie Wiesel’s Night. I don’t know if the James Frey story, which smoking gun broke on January 10th, prompted the announcement a week later that Night would be her next book club selection. I hope not. But while the two are not in any way comparable or connected but by the magic of Oprah, they have now been linked in nearly every newspaper and media outlet by everyone from New York Times media critic Frank Rich to bubbly anchorblonde Andrea Jackson on “The Morning Buzz”.

MSNBC reported last week that the problem with Wiesel’s book has been opposite the trouble with Frey’s: while A Million Little Pieces is fiction wrongly categorized as memoir, many retailers have erroneously classified Night, a holocaust memoir, as fiction. They are now scrambling to correct the error.

I think Night can survive Oprah, but I’m not sure how it fits in with her plan for world domination. With the Frey flap behind her, she can now point piously to a stark, unadulterated and above all true memoir by the tireless Wiesel, well-deserving recipient of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. But can you imagine Oprah interviewing Wiesel on her show? Questioning him in that mawkish daytime talk show way that she herself pioneered? Flipping her big hair and dabbing away alligator tears as she looks into the camera to say “we’ll be right back after this commercial break.”

The problem with this pop-synergy is that Wiesel’s devastating memoir, unlike Oprah’s circus sideshow, is not only true, but utterly, unrelentingly, brutally true. For a woman who has basically branded, boxed, and sold sentimentality for the bulk of her career, I’m not sure what, aside from cynical face-saving, she hopes to accomplish with Night. We know Oprah chose Frey’s “memoir” because it had the melodrama, the silly hyberbole, and the sugarcoated ending we’ve come to expect from Oprah herself. It was the sentimental version of the survivor’s story, always easily enough identified as fiction. Sentimentality obscures the truth. In fact, sentimentality is an escape from truth.

There is an interesting phenomenon in highly affluent Western societies today, and we can see it in both the ex-communicated Frey and his former high priestess, Oprah. Perhaps because we know, implicitly, that our "standard of living," when compared to developing and third world countries is flat-out obscene, we find ourselves exaggerating our personal plight, however we conceive of it. For Oprah it was her weight problem, and race, and sexual abuse. For Frey it was his variously and wildly exaggerated addictions.

I have met people who have opened up at the least provocation, often without invitation, about all manner of trials and tribulations they have been through. The narrative usually ends the same: I’m a survivor. But it does no good to be a survivor without any particular adversity to have survived. I mean, “I survived being made fun of in high school for wearing braces and headgear”; “I survived not making the cheerleading squad”; “I survived growing up in suburbia”; “I survived a vacation in the third world without my Starbucks”; and “I survived without my cell phone for a weekend” just don’t cut it. Especially in a world where there is real evil, where women are raped en mass and they and their babies are hacked to death with Machetes, people are thrown in jail and left to rot for typing the wrong words “human rights” into their google search, a world of secret prisons and torture. A world where children are bought and sold, and work in sweatshops for pennies a day to make your sneakers. So you snack too much while you sit on your ass in front of the boob tube watching it all. Well, manage it.

We live in a victim culture, for sure. And it’s not just bleeding heart liberals and their minority minions doing the whining. From Catholics to Born-Agains, the right has embraced the culture of victimization, too. Our movie stars all have tales of tribulation. Our politicians routinely play the victim. Bush was a victim of bad intelligence, a victim of the liberal media, a victim of Democratic slander. Hillary sees a vast rightwing conspiracy with working class Americans as its target and her in the bull’s-eye.

While the priest abuse scandal is based in unfortunate fact, you have only to look at the eleventh-hour accusations against Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Bishop of the Episcopal Church, to see how easily abused the idea of “abuse” has become (From the report by Bishop Scruton of Western Massachusetts--the italics are mine:

“Canon Robinson put his left hand on the individual's arm and his right hand on the individual's upper back as he listened to his questions and answered them. This incident was in public view and was brief. The individual said Canon Robinson answered his questions and spoke no inappropriate words…. [L]ater in the convocation, while the two were standing in proximity… the individual turned to Canon Robinson to make a comment. In response, Canon Robinson touched the individual's forearm and back while responding with his own comment.”

I use this example not to downplay the real abuse, but to point out the desperate measures some are driven to take just so they can claim victimization, and, presumably, the righteousness that comes with fighting back. Our survivor narrative is obviously very often tied to our victimization narrative. Oprah’s much publicized weight problem, which she has finally overcome (though he’s still got a hair problem) was tied to sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

But what if your life really wasn’t all that bad? What if, really, all you can complain about is having to drive a beater to high school and not getting all the pussy you thought you deserved? Or that you had a big nose and your folks wouldn't pay for rhinoplasty? Frey kind of falls into this category, and his memoir typifies the desperate, degenerate search for a personal trauma trashy and flashy enough to have survived, and thus beef up the old hardship résumé:

“I want a drink. I want fifty drinks. I want a bottle of the purest, strongest, most destructive, most poisonous alcohol on Earth. I want fifty bottles of it. I want crack, dirty and yellow and filled with formaldehyde. I want a pile of powder meth, five hundred hits of acid, a garbage bag filled with mushrooms, a tube of glue bigger than a truck, a pool of gas large enough to drown in. I want something anything whatever however as much as I can.”

In much of the world people are clawing and scratching to claim their humanity from forces of evil marshaled against them. But here where we have for the time being subdued the urge of men to enslave each other—we live in what Slavoj Zizek has called a “liberal-permissive” society—we’re so busy inventing torments for ourselves we can’t see the reality of the torments others are enduring, sometimes on our account. Instead ofcounting our many blessings and working to eliminate the suffering of others much less fortunate we’re searching in painful earnest for some source of suffering for ourselves.

Now granted, pain is radically subjective. Empathy only goes so far—no one can really feel your pain. I mean, watching someone having their fingernails ripped out is just not the same as having them ripped out yourself. People suffer in free and affluent societies, it’s true, but the things they suffer from are more often objectively bearable than what people suffer in poverty under tyranny. People in western democracies on the whole live lives more bearable than those subject to dictatorial or totalitarian regimes. Of course everyone suffers. That’s the human condition. But those of us who experience less suffering can in the best circumstances transcend our own suffering and actually see that others suffer more.

Instead of doing this—which if we can we must—here we are inventing trials and tribulations in the hopes of at least appearing to have suffered more ourselves (and certainly to have overcome our invented adversities). Partly this is boredom, the fruit of decadence. But it’s probably slightly more complex.

My theory is this tendency to exaggerate to a ludicrous, obscene degree our own misfortunes, and to display a badge of courage for overcoming them is a kind of guilt reaction to the genuine suffering we see every day beamed into our homes via satellite. It is abstract, yes, but it is out there. It’s really happening. We can turn it off, but it’s not going away. I may be mistaken in my belief that human beings are empathic by nature. But I think no matter how much of it we learn to stifle to get by in society, there is always a kernel of empathy, and that’s what’s causing the reaction.

It's like Niebuhr says in The Irony of American History (my poolside reading last week): "There are irresolvable contradictions between prosperity and virtue, and between happiness and the ‘good life’…. The discovery of these contradictions threatens our culture with despair.”

The funny thing is, when you go abroad, and you meet people who have survived real horrors, from state terror to terrorism, from civil war to the gulag, you will find that they don’t bang on about it self-indulgently. And that’s how you know the truth of the tribulations they have survived. Sentimentalism is a substitute for depth of emotion, when there is no depth of experience to refer to. We want to suffer, because we know that suffering is essential to our humanity. But when you are actually suffering—really suffering, particularly at the hands of others, or of circumstances well beyond control or comprehension, the last thing you are doing is wallowing in it.

Elie Wiesel doesn’t emerge from the death camps “a new man”. There was no Auschwitz makeover. He came out a living corpse, his humanity systematically stripped from him. He doesn't glory or wallow in it, as Frey does his invented turmoils. There is no heroic end. There is no Hallmark moment. Nothing is all right. Ever. I’d like to see how Oprah spins that one.

1/26/2006

Cuylenburches, Canalettos, and creepy clowns


It may seem from my notes on the past week that all I did was sit on my ass in a speedo and watch TV with my aunt and uncle, when all of Sarasota was out there waiting to be painted red. Well, that's not entirely how it all went down. I spent the daylight hours poolside, and on the beach, of course. Did a lot of reading (Reinhold Niebuhr's prescient The Irony of American History--more about which later, and People Magazine), and since bedtime was kind of early and I didn't want to hang out in some cheesy Margaritaville bar on St. Armand's Circle chatting up the aging parrotheads, I watched a fair share of TV in my room.

But I did manage to get out on occasion, and, on a tip from a friend, visited the Ringling Museum in Sarasota. What a treasure trove that is. I had no idea. Aside from what you might expect from Ringling (i.e., a lot of circus memorabilia, which was fascinating in its own right, though not exactly my thing) there was a real art museum on the grounds with real art in it, too. There were mostly what I'm sure art-snobs would say were B-rate artists, and a lot of works by students of A-list artists, but there were some indisputably lovely pieces in Ringling's private collection.

Like these two below, for example (Antonio de Belli’s Flaying of Marsyas by Apollo and Frans Snyders’ Still Life with Dead Game) which were among my faves for the day.


It was actually refreshing to see works I had not seen before by artists I didn't know. Jan Flyt’s The Calydonian Boar Hunt (below) was another one I quite liked. This is a great scene of delightful carnage from Greek mythology, that has been done a thousand times, and this depiction definitely does it justice.

I do love scenes of carnage. But naked lads will do as well. And there were plenty here. Among my favorites were William Etty's, of course. He was well-known for his nudes, both male and female. In fact, it seems he never painted anyone fully clothed. His outrageous, flamboyant compositions don't disappoint. The Combat couples carnage and carnality, and you can't beat that combination. Unfortunately, I can't share it with you, because the painting was in an odd place high on the wall, and it was difficult to get a good shot of it without a flash.

Instead, here's the lovely Eros Revealing a Sleeping Venus to a Bashful Satyr, c. 1720, by Giuseppe Chiari. God, I love those bashful satyrs. I've met a few in my time.

But there were plenty of A-list works, too. There was an impressive gallery of enormous Rubens paintings. We're talking 12.5' X 17' here. And, as everyone knows, with Rubens, size mattered.

In the Venetian Renaissance room: Paolo Veronese’s The Rest on the Flight from Egypt had colors worthy of Titian.

The Belle Epoque Gallery was brilliant as well. But then, that was the Belle Epoque. There was not a painting in this room I was not taken with. There was (below, top-to-bottom) Pre-Raphaelite Sir Edward Burne-Jones's dreamlike The Sirens. And the eerie, inexplicable The Mystery of Life by Carl Marr. The stark, haunting French Artillery (An Episode in the Franco-Prussiuan War, 1870-1871) by Jean Baptiste-Edouard Detaille. Rosa Bonheur's gorgeous, simple Ploughing in Nivernais.

The experience of the museums and the grounds was also thoroughly enjoyable. There were docents giving tours, and while I didn’t stay with a group, whenever I found myself in one, I found the docent’s insights worthwhile and interesting. They didn’t have a script they recited by rote, but offered observations of their own. You could see their enthusiasm and it was infectious. There were volunteers (mostly retirees) with personality to spare to taxi you about the grounds in eight-seater golf carts. Everyone was laid-back and friendly, and sharing their knowledge and their stories and their personalities freely. That and the truly impressive collection and gorgeous setting, made for a lovely day. An absolute delight.

1/24/2006

USA TODAY on the trouble with PBS

PBS is getting a new chief, after Kenneth Tomlinson's reign of terror. There was a short piece on the new chief, Paula Kerger, in USA TODAY. I found this passage particularly interesting:

"Kerger takes over as PBS recovers from two controversies: accusations by former Corporation for Public Broadcasting chief Kenneth Tomlinson that PBS is too liberal and a flap over the kids show Postcards from Buster featuring a lesbian couple." [Italics mine.]

Now, we all know all about Buster. It's the interpretation of the Kenneth Tomlinson affair that interests me. The controversy was not in Tomlinson's accusations that PBS is too liberal. The controversy has to do with Tomlinson's stacking the CPB with right-wing political operatives and allowing Karl Rove to dictate PBS internal policy. The controversy has to do with Tomlinson abusing his position at the CPB so brazenly that he came under investigation by the State Department. The controversy is nicely summed up in the Inspector General's report that found he violated federal law to monitor and influence PBS programming, and used "political tests" to hire the president of the agency. The whole sordid, cynical affair is detailed at Timothy Karr's exellent mediacitizen blog.

Tomlinson obviously believed that the CPB was too liberal, but that's not where the scandal is here. And that's what's wrong with Ann Oldenburg's little article in USA TODAY. This kind of flip, distorted, bullshit "reporting" is rife in the so-called mainstream press.

amusing ourselves to death

I forced myself to watch an entire hour of ABC's Good Morning America, from seven to eight. Here's the breakdown:

The big news was what the press is calling Bush’s "PR campaign" in defense of spying. This is a classic case of non-investigative journalism. The press is content to be played, and politicians are content to play them, so everybody wins, but us.

What we get is a rogue's gallery of scoundrels like Alberto Gonzales (is it a surprise that the man who proclaimed torture legal would argue in favor of the president's power to spy on Americans?), Karl Rove (who broke the news that the Demon-crats plan to run Bin Laden in '08, and keeps using the inane line, "if Al Qaeda is calling you we want to know about it"), and bald-headed freak and former head of the NSA, Gen. Michael Hayden, who assures us that had illegal wiretapping been the order of the day prior to September 2001, there would never have been a 9/11 to have to justify it to begin with. Hmm. You've also got a chorus of panicky conservatives saying it was going on under Clinton. You know it's bad when the "blame Clinton" mantra starts up.

This PR blitz is a freakshow, and should be treated as such.

Next came another in an endless line of stories on obesity, with some fat priest telling a reporter that his obesity was his business and he didn't want to have to see a doctor about it. Here's a priest telling other people to mind their own business. Hmm. Apparently there's some debate about whether or not a certain new diet pill should be available over the counter. I'm all for it. Whatever you gotta do, do it, and shut up about it already. You ever go to dinner with someone who's dieting? Spoils your appetite, doesn't it? They’re worse than vegetarians. At least with vegetarians you have the pleasure of eating meat to spite them, but with these diet-nazis, they want to bang on about themselves, and what they can't eat, and then they want your sympathy for ruining your meal!

Weather was next. Lots of it up in Boston. Here on St. Armand’s Isle it’s like paradise. I’m not looking forward to going back tomorrow.

Then, after an epic commercial break there was more on wiretapping. The funny thing is the tone was very casual, as if this was really not a big thing. Just something those crazy ol’ pols in Washington are fussing back and forth over. Charlie Gibson shook his jowls and rolled his eyes introducing his obligatory partisan guests to “discuss” the issue. He had the over-ripe Paul Begala, CNN’s “voice from the left” and dried-up old conservative hack Bay Buchanan, “debating” the legality of the wiretaps and the President’s PR blitz. But these little “debates” are worthless. We know exactly what both parties are going to say, and that neither will be convinced by anything the other has to say, so really it’s a reiteration of the party line, and reinforcement of what the acceptable parameters, the limits of the debate are. It’s a kind of highly stylized liturgical exercise, which shows as much what is proscribed as what is permitted in our theatircal "public debate" on the issue.

What you get out of it is the “talking points”. You can pick up the slogans and sound bites that stand in for real inquiry and debate. And then you’re supposed to recite them sagaciously around the water cooler later in the day. Here’s a nice phrase you can slip into your banter, from Bay Buchanan: we’re dealing with “enemy communications in a time of war” here, gosh darnit! Another good one: “The president’s job is to protect us!” BB also had a great argument for the legality of wiretapping (this is a direct quote, and no, I am not joking): “Clearly if he [President Bush] can bomb people’s homes, he can wiretap.” That one’s good to stun the opponent and then go in for the kill: “Americans are going to support that without question.” Because that’s what good Americans do. You’ll notice, these are not arguments so much as declarations and commands, which are handier than arguments when it comes down to brass tacks, anyway.

If you’re on the other side of the water cooler, you can say, as PB did, citing Senator McCain’s opposition to the president’s newfound omnipotence, that “this is not a partisan issue.” You can then quote chapter and verse of their own Bible to conservatives. Reagan: “trust but verify.” That’s the key. Try not to sound too strident. Try to sound more conservative than the conservatives.

Ford’s big reorganization was the next story. Diane Sawyer needs an eye-lift. There were two sad-eyed female anchors assuring us everything would be OK. It was a human interest story, see. They had some poor slob who’d been laid off mewling, “but we did everything they asked in that plant.” Golly, and that big, nice corporation didn't appreciate you? Well, McDonald's is hiring. And there's a nice clown in charge there!

Then came the Russian spying fracas. With the rock. After which came the obligatory crack: “Rock-n-roll!” snickered Robin Roberts, the token black anchorwoman. Tee heee heee! Laughed the others, as if something clever and funny had been said. Cut to commercial.

Back to Bush. Here we’re dealing with the illegal activities of an amoral administration and all the clowns in the media have to say, after a cursory, irrelevant “debate” is that our wacky prez has gone on “a humor offensive”.

“Bush goes Unscripted!” Big news after nearly six years in office. I mean this is how low our standards have plummeted. Weekly briefings before Congress and unscripted Q+A should be required of our president, as they are of the British PM, for example. I mean, who is this clown? We’re praising him for taking silly questions about Barney and Brokeback Mountain from a screened crowd? “He’s very relaxed, very relaxed” noted Robin. “Yes, very relaxed,” the others concurred. Well, of course he’s relaxed. Why shouldn’t he be? It’s the rest of us who should be nervous.

Then they went to commercial again, and came back with a story on that utter scumbag Scalia, the very personification of judicial hubris. He skipped John Roberts’ swearing in for some junket at a fancy resort paid for by The Federalist Society, a conservative group that often argues cases before the Supreme Court. There may be an Abramoff conection there, too. Not the least bit surprising.

More weather. The GMA weatherman—I don’t know his name, but breaking with morning show tradition, he’s not a jolly fat man—he’s outside the studio chatting with the tourists, and he’s like, “Did you know that January 24th is the official most depressing day of the year?” No one did. He asked a woman what she does when she’s depressed. She said she baked a big batch of cookies and ate ‘em all herself! Then he asked her husband, who sad he put on his speedo and looked at pictures of Hawaii. The meteorologist said something like, “Speedo! Dude, stay away from me!” And scooted away from him, and then laughed like he’d made a funny. (Notice how all these sods are always laughing at their own jokes?)

And can someone please answer me this? Why are Americans so freakin speedophobic? Here you’ve got guys practically in bloomers at the beach. Like I’ve said before, I don’t care if you go naked, but there’s not a thing wrong with speedos.

What I think is interesting is how girls’ fashions these days is getting skimpier and tighter all the time, while boys are wearing these big, clownishly oversized styles. It’s like they’re hiding themselves under their frocks, and frankly I don’t understand it. Is it because the ones who are showing it off actually have something to show off, and it’s shaming the others? Is it because our ideal of male beauty has become at least as exacting as the female version, and if you can’t achieve it, you have to cover up evidence of your “inadequacies”? It could be that it’s just easier to conceal weapons under a cassock. All I’m saying: personally I’m not afraid to don a speedo. And when you come bumbling down the beach in your big, goofy jams, well, who's the bozo?

Then came this twenty–minute human disinterest story on an all-female fire brigade. Hoorah for women firefighters! Um, is this news?

Finally, more on our friendly, folksy president. Awe, come on, he ain’t so bad! He’s jess tryin to protect us, y’all! And he's havin' himself a good ol' time doin' it! And that's what America's all about! And the American People KNOW it, too! In his historic unscripted Q+A “he got 61 laughs!” Charlie informed us. “61!” clapped Diane, her sad-eyes sparkling. “Like a pro!” chimed in Robin. Like a pro what? I mean, is he President of the United States or Dick Cheney's jester?

But hey, so long as Al Qaeda's not calling you (just hope they don't dial a wrong number, har har) and you're not disappeared by the CIA and renditioned off to one of their secret torture prisons, well then, yuck it up! IT'S ALL GOOD!

1/23/2006

Canada feels Bush's wrath, soybeans next

I was watching ABC World News Tonight (a misnomer, as it turns out, unless the world consists of America and the Middle East), and the anchorbimbo mentioned Canadian elections in which Conservatives seem poised to topple Liberals after thirteen years in power. During the blurb, that lasted all of a minute, the only thing ABC saw fit to say about the Liberals? They "angered the Bush administration because of their opposition to the Iraq war."

Why choose that particular (and particularly irrelevant) tidbit of information, of all the possible tidbits out there? They could've mentioned the no-confidence vote. They could've mentioned the ethics scandal that led to it. Instead they made an implicit, and misleading connection between the Liberal's lack of support for Bush's war and their failure in the elections.

Aside from this, why should it matter to us that Mr. Bush was angered? Is this news? I mean, why is ABC reporting the news from Mr. Bush's perspective all the sudden? When they report that, say, soybeans don't lower cholesterol as had been thought, do they say, "and this has irritated the president, who is fond of having his Chex with soy milk"?

slash and yearn

Just got this brilliant comment on a previous post re: Brokeback Mountain.

1/21/2006

just another day in paradise

Celebrity sighting! Saw Sarasota’s most famous resident, Jerry Springer, last night, in the flesh! He walked past our table at the Columbia on St. Armand’s Circle while we were having dinner. I had to be restrained from pumping my fist in the air and chanting “Jer-REE, Jer-REE, Jer-REE!” Seriously, a hostess, two waiters and three busboys had to hold me down. It was a bit embarrassing.

Dinner was light. My uncle, bless him, pointed out a blonde at the next table. I’m not really into blondes, unless they’re very hairy. It's left over from one horrible summer back in college. I had this roommate named Cecil, who was a rugby thug ("a rugger but not a bugger," as he was fond of saying), very philosophical off the pitch (an adherent of moral non-cognitivism and eliminitivism in the philosophy of mind), a big blond (not quite the type Dorothy Parker wrote about), with the most magnificent coarse, thick, curly blond hair on his forearms, the back of his hands, his chest, back, neck, just everywhere. Looking back, he was built a bit like a wild boar, but there was something about him. I know, there’s no accounting for taste.

My Unk's pretty funny. Love him to death, but he's about the hangdoggingest good ol' boy you'll ever meet. We've been having this very deep ongoing discussion about Jen and Brangelina all week. I'm like, Angelina Jolie. Exhibit A: was married to Billie Bob. Exhibit B: tattoo of Billie Bob. Exhibit C: obvious collagen abuser. I mean, come on. People's lips stop growing by the time they're in their thirties, don't they? Hers just keep getting bigger and bigger. Pretty soon she'll be all lips. She probably gives great head, but as every man knows, you don't marry the girl who gives you great head. She's just not a keeper.

Look at Jen on the cover of US Weekly this week. Now, that's a pretty woman. But she's a weeper. You know, when she was on Oprah with the cast of Friends, right before they did their last episode, she was openly weeping. You wanted to smack her and tell her "get ahold of yourself, for the love of God, woman!" I mean, it wasn't anything to weep about. I thought, she can't be serious.

Unk says Brad'll be sorry for adopting those kids, because Brangelina's not gonna last, and then he'll be stuck with the child support for the rest of his life. I told him I didn't think Brad was very bright to begin with, and he probably wasn't thinking too far ahead. My aunt said that he hadn't let Jen pick out any of the furniture in their Malibu Barbie mansion. And Jen said you couldn't sit on any of the furniture. It was like, you had to sit on the floor. Who can live like that?

And I'll tell you something else about Angelina. If Jen's way too earnest for her own good (she's gonna keep getting hurt, poor thing--I mean, Vince Vaughn? Po-leeeze.) Angelina is cynical to the core. All this adopting and these mercy missions? Come on.

And Unk just loves Isaac, which is Isaac Mizrahi’s inexplicable show on the Style Network. Why don’t I have a show yet? Everybody else's got one. Do you have yours? Anyway, of course, I hadn’t seen it until my aunt introduced me to it. They both love it. My aunt and I had watched it earlier in the day for a little while. I didn’t get it. He waved his hands around and had too much product in his hair. And he never stops talking, even--or especially--when his guests are, too.

They're also addicted to this Dancing with the Stars. I don't get that either. Desperate washed-up never-weres learn to dance? And? Thank God they're not into Wife-Swap is all I can say. Celebrity Wife-Swap's next. Mark my words. And the government wants to find out who's looking at porn on the internet? Who isn't? I mean with crap like this on the tube, who wouldn't be? If you're gonna waste your time, why not get a nut in the end?

My aunt and I dropped into Leona Helmsley’s Sand Castle Hotel on the beach for pina coladas earlier and she told me how a year or two ago a couple had scandalized St. Armand’s Island by sunbathing nude right there on the beach in front of the Sand Castle! My aunt, God love 'er, who claims to be a former hippie, says she used to smoke “wacky tobacky” and lived in the Castro, was apparently instrumental in forcing the naturists to cover up. It’s against the law, she told me.

Well, then along comes Unk, a good Christian (and I mean that without irony), who was never a hippie, and thinks it’s a silly law. At dinner he said there used to be a beach—way up north—you had to go through the woods to get there—and you used to be able to sunbathe nude there. He said, there were all kinds of people there. Sure, there were gays, too. He's got nothing against 'em. As long as everybody minds his own business and nobody bothers anybody else. A man after my own heart. “Then a few years back,” Unk says, “there was a black mayor.” He gave me a significant look. “And he passed a law saying you couldn’t go nude, or even wear a thong!”

I am, of course, of my uncle’s opinion that if you want to go nude on the beach, especially a nude beach, well, what the hell? Why not? Whatever ya got, just don't jiggle it in my face unless you ask me first, is all I ask. But while Unk made it a condition that children shouldn’t be present, again I say, what the hell? Why not? Nakedness is natural. It doesn’t have to be this big, scary deal. I think the theoretical sexiness of it is what scares people. But only those who have never been to a nude beach could possibly think there's anything sexy about them. Once you go to a nude beach, you see how unsexy it all really is. Is that what we’re protecting our children from? The knowledge that nudity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be? We wouldn't want them to know that being a flabby, out-of-shape adult with hair everywhere it shouldn't be isn't quite as fab as we make it look with our frock's on, would we?

We Americans like to brag that we live in the free-est nation in the world, but even the Communists can go naked without somebody reporting them to the authorities. It's kind of like my cyberstalker, who feels my very presence on the internet is an affront. Well, don't go to my website, bitch! If people want to go naked on a secluded beach designated for that purpose and you don't, then don't go there! And quit fantasizing about it, because it ain't all it's cracked up to be, and the only reason you want to ban it is because you think there's something more to it than there actually is. People get so exercised over things they know nothing about.

Anyway, my uncle goes out for his morning walk and comes back an hour or so later with the paper. No matter what. He's a good guy, with the patience of a saint, practically. I mean dealing with my aunt. Lovely as she is, she's a bundle of contradictions. This morning we had to drag her away from her computer. She was playing solitaire! I mean, here she's got the two of us. It's sunny and eighty-plus degrees, and the sea's right outside the door, and she’s playing computer-solitaire. Which she could be doing back home, where it’s forty degrees and raining cats and dogs.

That’s how it is here. Every morning you get up, and whether you feel like it or not you’ve got to go outside and frolic, because the weather here is marvelous and it sucks back home.

Still, we were in Sarasota this morning at the farmer’s market, and one of the guys who had a booth there was saying how awfully hot he was, and how if it got any hotter he was gonna move north. So the grass is always greener. It definitely helps you bear the weather anywhere you are knowing what’s going on back home is worse, though.

We went to a place called Yoder’s for lunch. When my uncle suggested it, and I asked what kind of place it was, my aunt was like, "guess." Like I should know. She gave me a hint. "What’s the name remind you of?" She asked. I was like, Hooters? Like is it Swedish for Hooters or something? She said, "no, it's Amish!" I was like, Amish for Hooters?? Can’t wait to see this. But, my luck, it was just Amish for Amish. There was no Amish-on-Amish action anywhere to be seen. I did notice that one of the skinny, buck-toothed Amish beauties bussing tables was wearing a blue dress you could, unfortunately, see right through. Are they the ones who wear the magic underwear? She had her granny-panties on and a bra it looked like you'd have to be Houdini to get out of. Was he Amish?

The food was "homestyle," I guess you’d call it. But if I want homestyle cooking, I stay home. Because somebody else's homestyle is never the same. Especially the potato salad. You're never gonna find potato salad like mom used to make. But check this out: my aunt got a whole plate of fried chicken livers and two potato pancakes! I was all excited because the vegetable of the day was beets. It’s not like I eat beets everyday, but when someone happens to mention they’ve got ‘em, I’m on it. So they bring me my beets slathered in some kind of synthetic polymer disguised as beet-slime. Beets don't have slime in a state of nature and there's a damn good reason for it. If I saw it dripping off something in the state of nature I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole, I can tell you that. It was about as natural as a maraschino cherry. I don't know why the Amish think they can mess with my beets. It was down home cooking from a can is what it was. I could barely down one. Utterly indigestible.

The thing about the Amish is, you always think of Witness when you think of them, don’t you? Living in an idyllic sort of setting outside of space and time. And the men are strong and handsome, and the women are pure, and the kids are cute in their silly little suits and hats. But it's not like that. Do they have a dental plan? No. And that's only the beginning. Basically, they seem to be jumped-up white trash in silly suits straight from the late seventies. What they need is Isaac!

America Sodomized by the Sword of God

I was reading this morning's Sarasota Herald-Tribune. There was a front page story about Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church (which is made up entirely and exclusively of Fred Phelps, his whacked-out wife, and their 13 kids) "protesting" at a US soldier's funeral. The first I heard of Phelps was during the Matthew Shepard memorial. He was responsible for those inspired "God Hates Fags" and "Matthew Rot in Hell" posters.

Now, the logic of these "protests" at soldiers' funerals (over twenty such "protests" have taken place to date) is utterly twisted. None of the soldiers was gay, that we know of, or had anything at all to do with the gay movement or culture or anything gay. Not that if they had the "protests" would be any more justified, but with no connection whatsoever they're just completely off the hook.

But maybe we're all just missing the connection. That's what Phelps is here for, to help us all "connect the dots". According to the article, Phelps claims "the United States is being punished by God for being friendly to homosexuals.... America is 'feeling the sword of God' because it is pro-gay. A disapproving God 'has become America's terrorist' and is sending soldiers home in body bags as proof.... Phelps claims the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States were God's punishment on a 'gay-enabling' nation."

The scary thing about it is it's only a hop, skip and a jump from Westboro Baptist to the 700 Club.

1/20/2006

animatronic talking Bin Laden head?

What's so far-fetched about that? Hmm?

a conspiracy just waiting to happen

I'm not a conspiracy nut, really. I mean, I accept there are mysteries that will never be solved. Like the Kennedy assassination. We'll never know the truth about it. But I have to say, this whole Bin Laden thing right now is so friggin fake it's not true.

Bin Laden is either dead or utterly irrelevant. The timing of this latest audio tape is too convenient for the administration for my taste. I mean, here they're facing all this criticism about illegal wire-tapping (an anchorbimbo on MSNBC this morning referred to them, inexplicably, as "so-called warrantless wiretaps"--they are so called because that's what they are, bitch)--here's the administration getting heat for spying on Americans, so what better to do than resurrect the most salient symbol of 9/11--the bugaboo of Bin Laden?

Now Cheney can crow, "lookit! They're about to attack! Bin Laden himself says so! More wiretaps! More domestic spying! Do you all want to die?!?" If Bin Laden is alive he's on the administration's payroll. I see no reason to trust any of the intelligence organizations charged with authenticating the tape, either.

Scott McClellan, sounding, as usual, like a petulant child, in his press briefing yesterday: "Al-Qaeda started this war and we will end it at a time and place of our choosing."

Yikes. If that doesn't sound like more of this nutty masters of the universe neocon "we create reality" crap, I don't know what does. Still, it's a sort of Freudian slip. I mean, if what he says is true, why haven't they chosen to end this war by now? Does perpetuating it serve some other purpose, I wonder?

Like I said, I'm not a big conspiracy freak, but come on. The last time we heard Bin Laden he gave Bush the little bump that probably won him a second term. This will get him through any "frivolous" investigation of his illegal activities in office. And the press is once again reporting government propaganda as fact.

Just makes you think.

And how does Leif Garrett fit into it all? I mean, the morning news shows spent all this time on that mugshot of him. ABC had a huge segment with Donnie Bonaducci called "When child stars hit bottom." First of all, aside from some scrapes and scratches Leif Garrett doesn't look all that bad. He could use some product, but he's not beyond hope. Get those Queer Eye guys on it. They should do a "fallen child stars" segment. It could be a whole hour long. People would love it!

But my question is, is it merely a coincidence that these two big stories broke on the same day, or is there some deeper connection? Hmm?

1/19/2006

Prisoner of Sarasota "Eee-EEEEEE!"

I'm taking a little vacation from my vacation. My aunt has a place here in Sarasota overlooking the gulf. Sunset front and center every night. It's nice, but there's not much to do but wait for the sunset. I gather that's the point of Sarasota, though.

The flight was good, too. Not too crowded. I whiled away the time from Charlotte looking through the Skymall catalogue. It's brilliant. It's got everything, and more! From Harry Potter's wand and Batman's ninja sword letter opener (both just $29.50) to the magnificent "Mademoiselle Haute Couture" floor lamp (set of two: $750). They've got your necessities, too, of course, like silk dupioni lamp and chandelier cord covers (forty bucks each), the electric-eye trashcan (no germs! no hassle!), hot dog ovens, instant fire escapes, and the ever-popular animatronic talking chimpanzee head (it can be happy: "AH-ahhhhh!", feisty: "Ahoo-ahoo-ahoo!", curious: "Wha-ha-ha-ha!" and fearful: "Eee-EEEEEE!"). And that's just a random sampling, the tip of the iceberg!

I just checked my email. I have a psychotic cyberstalker who's been sending anonymous responses to my Metro op-eds ever since the "holiday tree" fiasco. That really got to him. I replied to his first, and he had what can only be described as a sort of cyberorgasm. Someone had finally paid attention to him!

He sent me a couple more rants, but my policy is not to post anonymous rants, especially ones including childish taunts. I mean, by second grade I had heard every conceivable "joke" based on my surname that you could imagine.

And honestly, first of all, there's not room enough in this blog for any more ranters. Secondly, you know who I am. I don't hide behind anonymity. And finally, mere name-calling isn't all that interesting to anyone, doesn't count as dialogue in my book, and I don't feel obligated to post it.

But here's the latest from my anonymous friend, and you tell me if I should feel bad for hitting the REJECT button on him...

"we all need to stop paying any attention to mr mmennonoonononononono.... The more we ignore him, the more his little internet blog will disappear and we can be rid of him. And Mikey, love the way you continue to cherry pick your responses and comments. You're a coward who hides the fact that 90% of the world disagrees with you."

I'm flattered my friend thinks that 90% of the world is reading my blog. And, by the way, if he is representative of 90% of the world, well, we're in deeper shit than even I had imagined. And what to make of the pathetic fact that he, himself, is obviously unable to ignore me? I sincerely wish he would. I mean, can it be that difficult? It's not like I'm Big Brother. There aren't huge billboards of me on every building. My voice is not being broadcast at top volume from roving minivans at all hours. I don't see the problem.

Here's an idea for my would-be tormentor: Start a blog of your own! ignoremmennonoonononononono.com would be a good name for it. There you could rant all you want, and act out all your repressed homosexual fantasies about me (because we both know that's what this is about, don't we?).

Or here's another idea: think of me as an exclusive, chi-chi, private club. And you as, well, not a member. Don't let the imaginary door smack your ass on your way out!

1/17/2006

George Stephanopoulos was cute as a button on the Colbert Report Monday. Watch it here.

money matters, or does it?

I wrote about money in this morning's Metro. The truth is, I'm nowhere near as obsessed with my income as I might seem in that op-ed piece. I make enough to get by, and live pretty much the way I want to live, so I can't complain. My mother sends me new underwear every Christmas. I darn my own socks. Somehow my needs get met. But then my needs are fairly modest. I'm not particularly ambitious. I never aimed to have a big house and a humvee, or whatever it is you've got to have these days to keep up with the Joneses. And anyway, in my neighborhood, there are no Joneses. And it's not that rough keeping up with the Garcias, if you want to know the truth.

Not that I'm on the verge of Nirvana, or anything. I'm your typical samsarin. I've just learned to tie my expectations to my true earning potential is all. I don't really rely on money, though, to tell me anything about the value of things. I mean, meritocracy's a joke. You think Oprah's really worth a billion dollars? To who? For what? I mean, when a teacher in South Dakota makes $31,383 a year? That tells me what I need to know about the value of money right there, and that's why I don't think of it as anywhere near an accurate measure of the worth of people or things.

And anyway, I think the problem is more greed than money, per se, if that makes any sense. You could argue that a big part of the problem with the income gap is the obsession with the income gap. And it's as much a problem for the poor as for the rich. Fact is, the main difference between them is the money. The propensity for an intensity of greed is not the particular province of one class--it crosses class bounds. What differs is the amount you started out with: the greed factor's basically the same, but since it takes money to make money, the outcome, moneywise, is different depending on where you started out.

Obviously, the thing you've got to work on, if greed's your vice (I prefer lust myself, and sloth--lust first, and then a cigarette, and then sloth for the rest of the afternoon), your version of "enough" is what's got to change. I mean, you have to be clever to outfox your vices. So instead of "that Beemer would be enough" you just say "a bus pass will get me where I'm going." Problem solved. But then you've got to watch out for excessive eco-pride. Don't forget, pride's one of the seven deadly sins, too. If you're going to take the bus, don't be a martyr about it. If you do it even in part so that you can boast about it or chide those who don't, all you're doing is trading one vice for another. And you don't want that.

1/13/2006

brokeback blockbuster

In the falseness-in-advertising department:

Saw an ad this morning for Brokeback Mountain during The Today Show. When the ad's narrator says "...a love story..." it's not Heath and Jake who are on screen, rolling in the hay, but Heath and Michelle Williams, who plays his wife in the movie, rolling around in bed.

Hmm.

press gets an F on Alito hearings

This morning on the morning news/talkshows there was sort of a wrap-up on the Alito hearings. The networks utterly failed to give the hearings any serious coverage. They are the ones who made Alito's wife's outburst the big moment, and in doing so undermined any serious discussion of the issues involved.

This morning the big question was: did the Democrats behave badly? Were they too strident? Were they insensitive? Were they rude? These are Entertainment Tonight type questions, the human-interest angle. But history will not be concerned one whit about Madam Alito's nervous condition and hurt feelings. The real issues had to do with Alito's record, his affable but evasive manner, his views on privacy, executive power, and so on.

The thing that's amazing about it is how brazenly, even proudly reckless and irresponsible the press has been in taking an incident cynically exploited for political gain and publicizing it for Republicans. Soon after the scene, George Stephanopoulos was grinning ear-to-ear reporting it. It was "the defining moment." But the Washington Press is not really all that interested in policy that will influence people's lives outside the beltway. They're on the lookout for intrigue. They're looking to dish. And so a tearful Madam Alito was on the front page of newspapers, and the debate turned to questions of propriety and etiquette rather than jurisprudence and the candidate's qualifications and views. Which was a coup for his sponsors, who don't want a serious discussion of the latter.

It was really a clear case of chasing a trivial aspect of an historical hearing, and forcing it front and center, and playing into the hands of partisan politicians in doing so. The press acts as if it's a tough critic of itself--that was the essence of the flap about the recent mine tragedy--but then when the opportunity to prove it comes, they fail the public every time. There may be mea culpas at some point, a pundit or two may ask, did we do the Alito hearings justice? or were we led down the garden path once again? But it always comes too late.

1/12/2006

haute bourgeois angst

Here.

King Yawn


Went to see King Kong yesterday with my friend Robert. I was going to pass, but he insisted, said he'd heard from reliable sources that it was worth it. I had heard the same from unreliable sources, which is why I was going to wait until it came out on DVD, so I could FF through the plot parts and just go straight to the CGI. Basically, the movie is a three-hour advertisement for the X-Box game (pic, above). Which made the whole thing pretty boring, since they don't give you a joystick at the ticket counter. Nothing worse than watching someone else play video games for three hours.

That's really what Peter Jackson is: a video game director. His Tolkien adaptations were insufferably tedious, too. Not just a little tedious, but through and through. Here he offers up various plots and subplots that go nowhere and mean nothing, but that we are forced to endure before we get to the great ape himself, presumably the reason we've come to the movie in the first place. Jackson has no sense of pacing, and absolutely no sense of restraint.

This has become the single biggest problem in the film biz: mediocre filmmakers (the list is as long and tedious as their films) with budgets bigger than most third-world countries' GDP, who don't know when to say when.

At least half of this film--and that is no exaggeration--should have ended up on the cutting room floor. The interminable video-game-like dinosaur stampede, for example. I mean, Christ, after fifteen minutes we get it. And the CGI effects during those scenes were crap. I mean, it looked like a video game.

Another thing about the movie was its over-all tone, which was unresolved. Jackson seemed to want it both ways. At times it was winkingly ironic, at times it struggled for pathos which inevitably ended in bathos. These latter instances were the most embarrassing.

There was an inexplicable, unnecessary subplot involving a castaway, Jimmy, and a certain Mr. Hayes (the gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous Evan Parke)--the dialogue was so contrived it went well beyond parody--but when Hayes is splattered, I came to believe that the director actually wanted us to take it seriously. Jimmy is given inordinate attention throughout the first third of the film (my ass was numb even before we got to see any action, by the way), he is not treated as expendable, and then--boom--he's dropped. We don't know if he lives or dies when one of the lifeboats capsizes. You know, don't waste our time on a character like that and expect us to engage with him, and then just drop him from the plot without any resolution.

As for the big-name players.

Naomi Watts: cut-rate Nicole Kidman clone without the botox. Would like to have seen more skin.

Adrian Broody (I meant to misspell it there, by the way): what can you say? As he showed in The Jacket, his best assets are his abs. Which, alas, we don't get to see here. Brody is not handsome, though he has classic Hollywood film star magnetism. What dampens this is his seeming obliviousness to how honking big his beak is.

Jack Black: who is this awful little man and what is he doing in the movies? With his big round face, and too-small eyes, nose and mouth? He has no presence. Can't act worth a damn. And here he exemplifies the director's dithering when it comes to the tone of the movie.

Now, Thomas Kretschmann, who played Captain Englehorn, had something. He might even be forgiven for his roles in Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, Blade II. In his defense, he was also in The Piano, with the cadaverous Broody, and Queen Margot.

What I will say is, this Kong was as expressive as they come. But still, I keep bumping up against this whole three-hour thing. However complex an ape might be, unless you're Dian Fossey, you don't want to spend three hours with him. (And that whole time he only learned one word in sign language!)

Jackson was so enamored of his Kong that every scene that set out to plumb the depths of the beast's soul was dragged out an eternity. I'm sorry, but as fascinating as Kong may be, he's not exactly a chinese box. He's jealous. OK, we get it. We don't need a ten minute close-up to figure it out. He's angry. Got it. Let's skip the twenty minute temper tantrum. A minute or two will suffice.

When he's in New York, and we see the whole Skull Island thing mirrored, he's rampaging through the streets, and Jackson apparently wants to make it absolutely clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is desperately seeking Naomi, so he has Kong pick up not one or two, but three screaming blondes off the street (one by one, of course, not all at once). We get it, already. You coulda shaved five minutes off the movie right there. I mean, I can't feel my legs!

It's really the same thing Spielberg does with his endless speechifying or Stone does by bashing us over the head repeatedly with the evidence. Modern movie audiences are a quick study. We understand you want us to admire how deep your Kong is. Point taken. Now can we move on with the plot, what plot there is, at least. I got a life to live, let's get on with it.

Restraint. Just a little restraint is all I ask. Kong showed it toward his little woman. Too bad Jackson couldn't show some toward his Kong.

1/11/2006

who has put this pubic hair on my wife?

Disgusting day in the Alito hearings. The media's loving it, of course. They did not, by and large, report on the substance of today's questioning, but on the "emotional fireworks" courtesy Republicans, and more poignantly by Madam Alito, seated in clear view of the cameras, at her husband's right shoulder.

The definitive moment in these procedings, the "someone has put a pubic hair on my coke"/"high-tech lynching" moment: Mrs. Alito running from the hearing room in tears because the big bad Democrats wanted to know more about Mr. Alito's membership in a club called Concerned Alumni of Princeton, a student group critical of the admission of women and minorities, of which he had bragged to Ed Meese when applying for a job in the Reagan White House. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) used the probe into Alito's CAP membership, which all the sudden Alito doesn't recall at all, as an opportunity to demonize Democrats. He put an effective end to questions on the matter by asking Alito, "are you really a closet bigot?" That's when Madam Alito fled the chamber in tears. Did she know it was a rhetorical question? Did she understand Sen. Graham was mocking Democrats with it? Did she miss her cue?

Cynical seems too mild a word for the whole scene. I mean, here's a man who's undeniably on the ropes when it comes to his record on women's issues. So to deflect criticism here's his wife (she's a woman, isn't she?) breaking down in front of the cameras. That'll show 'em who's the real misogynists, won't it? It's the Democrats, of course!

a queen's English

A friend sent me an email last night I had to share:

"Yesterday when I was reading your piece about your new tv habits, all I could think (while rolling my eyes) was: Dude, knock it off! You're not some bloke in a posh flat in London sipping tea while watching your telly. You're a guy from Indiana living in freakin' Dorchester, MA, watching crappy shows on your tv, just like the rest of us. Yes, reality sucks. Well, at least you're not speaking with a Madonna like British accent."

I'm working on that last part.

Yes, with friends like this... but never mind. I guess "telly" was the straw that broke the camel's back. She didn't seem to notice that in the same entry, I refrained, for her sake, from using "flat" for "apartment," knowing how much it bothers her.

Obviously she doesn't like my little Britishisms and has told me so to my face. But in my own defense, I never use the word "posh," especially to describe my "flat". Personally I like the word "flat" because it's shorter and more to the point than apartment. Plus, apartment sort of sounds expansive, where flat sounds more compact, like my... living quarters are. If I wanted to be really "posh" I'd say "chambers".

It may sound a little pretentious now, but it's actually "apartment" that is the more pretentious word. If "flat" and "apartment" met in a dark alley, "flat" would kick "apartment"'s ass, that's for sure.

Another thing: I have a flat-mate, not a roommate, and no one says apartment-mate. But I share my apartment, not my room with him. And this sometimes causes confusion. I keep finding him in my room. "Well, we're roommates, aren't we?" No, I keep telling him, we're flat-mates. He's like, "what's that?" I'm like, apartment-mates, dude. He's like, "no such word."

It's like not having a phrase for "bon appetit".

So it's true, I would like to see Americans adopt "flat" and a couple other innocent-enough, and widely used Britishisms. Nothing as obscure as "knackered" or as arcane as "kerfuffle." We're importing these obnoxious Brits all the time. Simon Cowell and the Supernanny, and that bird who rearranges your closets. Why not import some Britishisms, too? Enrich the language. It's a kind of cultural exchange.

"Bloke," I like, and it's fundamentally non-pretentious, too. People say it's like "guy," and since we've got "guy" why do we need "bloke"? But "guy" is as flaccid and indescriptive as "nice" (which is why they so often go together). "Guy" rhymes with "why" and sounds whiny. It's nasally. And American English is already way too nasally. British English forces words further back, and makes you open your throat. Whatever you want to make of that.

What it boils down to: "bloke" is ballsier. It sounds "blokey," dunnit? "Guy" goes well with "gay". "He's a gay guy." And that's fine. I mean, if that's what you're going for. But you can't say, "he's a gay bloke." I mean, it's just not done. Doesn't make sense. Because "gay" still retains it's older sense of light, care-free, airy-fairy, none of which mixes well with "bloke." (And in British English a "fag" is a cigarette, so don't even go there.)

Anyway, I need as many words for the male of the species as I can get. The more the merrier.

Just for the record, a bloke would not be sitting in a posh flat sipping tea. He'd be on the pitch or down the pub with his mates having a pint. And that's another thing about "blokes." They have "mates". You can't have the one without the other. "Guy"? Sure, you can say, "he's just one of the guys," but it just means he's even more utterly nondescript and neutral in a crowd than when he's by himself. You unpack "guy" and there's really nothing in it. A "guy" is just a "guy". There is little more than gender implied (and as for that, it might as well be neuter). It implies nothing about class origins, tastes, pastimes, morphology, or propensity for hooliganism. It has no nuance at all. I mean, what do you think of when you think of a guy named Guy?

I understand my friend may have been trying to convey with her absurd sentence ("you're not some bloke in a posh flat in London sipping tea while watching your telly") the absurdity of a Hoosier using highfalutin words like "bloke," "posh," and "flat." All of which are monosyllabic, and none of which have any high-class pretensions in their original form. But, point taken.

As for "dude," Scott Kiesling, a linguist from the University of Pittsburgh, has deconstructed it, and says the word connotes "cool solidarity, an effortless kinship that's not too intimate.
Cool solidarity is especially important to young men who are under social pressure to be close with other young men, but not enough to be suspected as gay." Just compare "hey, guy" and "hey, dude." (You would not say, "hey, bloke.") "Dude" obviously has a nuance all its own.

I will say this: white Americans speak a washed-out English. "Wicked" is about as colorful as it gets in these parts. What makes British English so much more fun (just check out this compilation of English slang and colloquialisms used in the U.K.) is it's coming from a blokier culture. This seems counter-intuitive, because when Americans think of British English, they think of the queen's English. But only queens speak the queen's English.

Region and class play a larger role in British English than in the more standardized American version. There are some slight differences, based on region, in America, but the biggest distinctions are due to race and profession. White America's slang is either lifted from black America, or comes from the washed-out workplace milieu. I think there's a case to be made for Britain's richer store of slang coming from a more compact, more urban society. Because slang is the language of subcultures. It arises from shared experience, like all language. But in America, subcultures are increasingly abstract. Experience increasingly mediated.

Which means we're producing less new language. My friend would probably say, "you go to the inkwell with the language you've got," and she's got a point there, too. I'm importing another culture's slang, but that's because ours seems to be losing its nuance (except in business and politics). And the American subcultures that are producing slang are not subcultures with which I particularly identify.

(Some interesting articles on "language crossing"--from least to most academic: here and here and here and here.)

1/09/2006

a worthy new year's resolution

Go here, and help save the Brattle.

1/08/2006

the joy of terrorvision


I went ahead and bit the bullet, got a little thirteen inch Toshiba. We've got cable in the apartment, so as soon as I got it home, I plugged it in and we were off. It wasn't a big statement, not having a TV, it just was not my first priority. I'd gone without since October. The first couple of weeks were a little rough. I don't watch it a lot, but I missed Judge Judy and Dr. Phil and Katie and Matt. But I knew I'd see them again, which made the separation easier to bear.

The thing you forget when you go without the telly a while is how miserable and pathetic we're all supposed to be out here in TV Land. They don't come right out and say it usually, but it's the underlying assumption, and it's not so terribly subtle. That's how people sell you things you don't want or need, and that's TV's raison d'etre, pretty much.

Lester Holt was on NBC Saturday morning, with his crooked little smile and sad eyes, hawking "happiness makeovers." It was so poignant I almost wanted to cry. I popped 600 mgs of St. John's wort instead, and laughed and laughed. I couldn't have cried if my dog, my cat, and my two birds had all committed mass suicide in my tropical aquarium, taking the clownfish with 'em.

I was all set to have a productive afternoon this afternoon, when I made the fatal mistake of flipping to the Discovery Health channel. That's some riveting shit, let me tell you. Got totally sucked in, for, like, four hours. First it was Switching Sexes: The Aftermath, then The 160 lb tumor (pictured above), then The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off. I finally tore myself away during the opening minutes of Mystery Diagnosis. I was ravenous, had to eat something after all that.

I'm not knockin' Discovery Health, either. Some wild, funky shit, but very educational.

Good to be back, anyway.

hook, line, and sinker

I was reading the Boston Phoenix on the train yesterday, and came across this gem of a ltte:
* * *
COMMAND AND CONQUER

Apparently, Mr. Editor does not yet know that:

1) We are in a global war on terrorism.

2) Iraq and Afghanistan are only two fronts in that war.

3) During wartime sacrifices (needed to keep our nation and you, Mr. Editor, free) must be made when lives are at stake.

There isn’t time to check with a lawyer, a judge, a court, or the ACLU. Immediate action is needed to keep us all alive — even you, Mr. Editor (See "Bush’s High Crimes," December 30, 2005).

If you or anyone else who is afraid of having his privacy invaded, possibly because of "something you want to hide," I can understand your discomfort.

To compare the wiretaps of the Nixon administration, solely for political gain during peacetime, with wiretaps during wartime to prevent another 3000 or more of our lives being lost — remember September 11, 2001, Mr. Editor? — is truly a sign of immaturity.

And if one keeps hearing the same lies about why we are at war "over there," and keeps spreading those lies through columns such as yours, of course all the folks who read it begin to accept it as truth.

Would you rather be free to promote a promiscuous society and see our nation turned into a Sodom and Gomorrah, or, let’s see, remember what happened to the Roman Empire, sir? Or does history not interest you at all?

War is hell, Mr. Editor. Nobody wants it. But it has been a reality since time immemorial. It is not an exact science, and plans and tactics must change with the circumstances. And I would hope you have a dictionary at hand to look up what torture is. Abuse is not torture. Chopping off heads and dragging bodies through the streets for TV cameras, as the enemy — the terrorists — has done is torture for all humankind. How shameful of the press to put us in the same category.

Mr. Bush is doing God’s work and performing the duties of his office that he was sworn to do when he took the oath to be our president and the commander in chief of our armed forces. I support him, as does the entire voluntary military community (not counting the few bad apples you find in any group).

Happy New Year to you and your readers. Thanks to our armed forces, we will have many, many more.

Gordon Brown
Watertown, MA
* * *
It's classic armchair warrior stuff, innit?

The gullibility of the letter writer is almost touching. It would be, in fact, if the taunting, sagacious Mr. Brown's faith weren't so thoroughly toxic, and didn't come at the cost of our civil liberties.

I particularly like the taunt: "If you or anyone else who is afraid of having his privacy invaded, possibly because of 'something you want to hide,' I can understand your discomfort." You all know I spent some time in the old Soviet Bloc, and Mr. Brown is precisely the type who would relish the possibility of going to the Party and informing on his neighbors. And this type was not exactly a minority.

We all know busybodies. Well, when they have the power of the State behind them, they easily become informants. And informants, under such regimes, have to know that for all intents and purposes they're murderers.

The thing to understand is this: the State needs no enticement to become more intrusive. The modern State tends naturally towards totalitarianism. It's just a fact. I know this will surprise you, but our own President once joked the best form of government would be a dictatorship. With him as dictator, of course. Can you imagine? But the truth is, from the State's point of view, dictatorship is certainly easier than democracy. From the ruling class's perspective it would be a lot more convenient if we could dispense with the niceties and just get down to good old fashioned masters and servants.

Keeping the State from overreaching into our private lives is like plugging holes in the dyke (we should use guys like Brown here to plug 'em up with). What I mean is it's always a losing battle, and it's never finished. There's absolutely no precedent to trust the wiley, evil bastards who usually end up in office (I mean, how else would you get there) to respect the limits for which our Constitution was written. Power corrupts. The more power you give 'em, the more corrupt they get.

I understand people want to believe in something. Something powerful, preferably. But Bush? That's a sorry-ass joke. And it's on poor sods like Brown, here.

1/07/2006

No More Fare Hikes!

The MBTA is floating another fare hike. If every time the T is in hock they can raise their fares, we can look forward to paying about a hundred and thirty bucks a trip by 2010. It’s not the answer, Dan.

If anyone reading agrees do two things:

1) write GM Daniel Grabauskas. His email is gm@mbta.com. Doesn’t matter that he doesn’t read his email. Send him a bunch with the subject line: “NO to fare hikes!” and tell him to take his fare hike and stick it up his ass. In so many words, of course. And then…

2) contact your local and state representatives (you can find their email addresses here–or if you do not know your local rep, go here, and once you have filled in the required fields and clicked the “find my election information,” scroll down to the “District Representatives” section, click on the appropriate link, and go from there), and demand that they LEGISLATE A FARE FREEZE, like the one that was in place all those years when we were paying 85¢ for the exact same sucky service(and it was not so long ago–up to 2003, when Governot Romney signed a bill into law allowing fare hikes).

#2 is actually the more important of the two points. Seems to me, this is about the only way to agitate for a cease-and-desist on fare hikes. Riders obviously can’t afford to boycott the T. They’ve got us by the balls, basically. That’s why the legislature should step in. And it is not inconceivable that they could do just that. After all, they have done so in the past.

A legislated fare freeze forces the MBTA to think outside the box instead of dipping into rider’s pockets every time they fuck up.

Feel free to post any other prescriptions you can think of. I’d appreciate hearing them.

1/05/2006

if there is a God...

...he will give Pat Robertson a mutant flesh-eating virus. I mean, for real, people. Pray with me. Pray hard, now!

The latest according to Pat is that Ariel Sharon's stroke is not due to the fact that he's nearly eighty years old and grossly overweight and has one of the most stressful jobs on the planet, it's God's punishment for "dividing Israel". How original, Pat.

"God considers this land to be his," Robertson said on his TV program "The 700 Club." "You read the Bible and he says `This is my land,' and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, `No, this is mine.'" What is God? Like, four years old?

Later in the same broadcast Roberston reminded his audience of what happened to Rabin. "It was a terrible thing that happened, but nevertheless he was dead," he said.

another mining tragedy in the can

A friend of mine from Indiana wanted to know my thoughts on the mining tragedy in West Virginia that's been all over the news.

First off, I should say I've been without a TV since mid-October, when I moved to my new place. It's not a matter of principle, it's just priorities. A TV was not at the top of the list of necessities when I moved in. I didn't have anything of my own when I left the old place, not even a bed. So that was first on my list, then a desk and chair, lamps, and so on. I had my trusty old laptop, and there was a strong wifi signal in the building, so I figured the web would be enough. But it's really not.

I mean, my experience of the mining tragedy is limited to variations on the same wire story that have appeared in the major papers, with two or three pictures of the grieving families. When I went to lunch with Itchy yesterday, to a pub in the Savine Hill (which Itchy calls Stab-n-kill) neighborhood here in Dot, I realized what I'd been missing. It was another media blitz along the lines of the Terri Schiavo thing. And if you didn't have a TV it was easy to ignore it all. Print media just doesn't have the same capacity to envelop and overwhelm.

Katrina would have been much more manageable, as far as the administration was concerned, if it hadn't been beamed live into hundreds of millions of homes. It was an event far away that felt intimate. Our emotions would not have been stirred so if we had been reading about events a day later in the papers. Katrina was fairly unfiltered as it unfolded. Likewise 9/11.

Seeing the way people react in real time is fundamentally different from reading about the reaction in the paper, or on the internet. So, to be honest, I didn't get it. I mean, about the mining tragedy. It's an unfortunate story I read in the paper.

There was another incident back in '02 that some of you may recall. The Quecreek incident had a different outcome, the one that so many were expecting in this one. But ultimately, the outcome of that media orgy was tragedy, too, as you can see from this riveting report on its messy aftermath.

Once the human interest aspect of the story fades, nothing much changes. As the Times reported in today's lead op-ed, "the Sago mine, with more than 270 safety citations in the last two years, is the latest example of how workers' risks are balanced against company profits in an industry with pervasive political clout and patronage inroads in government regulatory agencies. Many of the Sago citations were serious enough to potentially set off accidental explosions and shaft collapses, and more than a dozen involved violations that mine operators knew about but failed to correct, according to government records.

"Sadly, in the way mines are often run, the $24,000 in fines paid by the Sago managers last year constituted little more than the cost of doing business. In the Appalachian routine, miners balking at risky conditions down below can quickly forfeit their livelihood if they have no union protection."

For the media, it's just another mining tragedy in the can. For us, it's an unfortunate form of entertainment. It should be a political outrage, but politics does not favor the powerless.

1/04/2006

evil nieces


One of my evil nieces sent me one of those evil e-cards for New Year's. I didn't bother to "open" it until just now, and as expected it was loud. It was a big smiley face with a party hat, and streamers all around. Very festive. And the first thing she wrote in the message was: "Did u find a girl friend if so whats here name?" She's nine and a half. She also demanded to know what I got for Christmas, of course. I didn't want to admit to the lump of coal (Santa has been reading my Metro op-eds, apparently) so I made something up.

I wrote her back:

"Thanks for the e-card. It sure was LOUD.

"You asked if I had found a girlfriend. Did someone tell you I had lost one? Usually you can go to the girlfriend lost-and-found, and if you have I.D. and can tell them what she looked like (approximately), they can find her in the back somewhere. They file them under hair color, I think. I've just been putting it off, I guess.

"My friend who is a psychologist told me that when someone asks you a question, usually they want you to ask them the same question back, so: did YOU find a girlfriend?..."

This particular niece has been obsessed with my finding a girlfriend since she was four, by the way. It's the first thing we ever had a serious discussion about, in fact. In those days it wasn't "have you found one," it was "where is she?" Like I had her bound and gagged in the trunk of my car.

I recall telling her then that my girlfriend had died in a terrible conflagration on the off-shore oil rig where we had met and consummated our love. But only after having suffered fourth degree burns over 98% of her body. Somehow, though she looked like a giant beggin-strip bacon-flavored dog treat (I mean, after the accident), her beautiful flaxen hair had survived the hellish flames with ne'er a single singed split-end. Oh, how I loved those tresses. I could lose myself forever in her braids.

But because it was the Evil Doctor Hybrid who had destroyed our little off-shore paradise, and I was the only one of the entire crew to escape unscathed, due to my Olympic-grade swimming skills, and my ability to speak dolphin, it was my duty to go after the Evil Doctor, exact my revenge, and save the world for Big Oil. I had to leave my forever love behind, alas, with only a lock of her flaxen hair and my memories of our passionate lovemaking under the stars in the middle of the gulf on our rig to sustain me.

My niece wanted to see the hair, of course.

Well, see, that's the thing, I told her. Later, when I caught up with him, Evil Doctor Hybrid nearly had me skinned, and I escaped with nothing but my skin. Sometimes you have to leave what you love behind.

What was her name? She wanted to know. Kids always ask those nettlesome questions you never expect.

Um, she was called... "She Who Has No Name," I told her. She was Indian, see. Native American, I mean. That's a translation. In her language it was, um, "Steve." But names are really irrelevant, aren't they? I mean, it's just something for people to call you, but what's in a name? We are all ultimately the great "I am," all unnameable, aren't we?

She agreed we were. And it's not like four year olds are easily convinced.

So anyway, she has been pestering me about it ever since.

1/03/2006

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic/Syriana

Finally went to see "Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic" at the Kendall the other day. Not too much to say about it. It would have been a good HBO special, something you're flipping channels and come across, good for a few laughs. The much-touted un-PCness of it amounted to lines like "If God gives you AIDS, make lemonAIDS," and insights on why "chink" is a more acceptable slur than "nigger". Quite rightly, Silverman points out that we make fun of those we aren't afraid of.

Comedy is always about pushing the envelope, somehow. There are a couple of jokes about 9/11, but what would be most offensive to those apt to be offended isn't any punchline of any joke, but the way Silverman mocks the solemnity of the memory of that day. In fact, the last "scene" of the movie has Silverman's awkward "understudy" doing several of her most supposedly offensive jokes while the audience looks on stone-faced. Translation: a lot of the humor is in the delivery. And Silverman is clever about it. When she is at her most daring jokewise she protects herself and her audience by offering up the lines in an obviously put-on persona: basically a brunette variation on the dumb blonde. She makes offensive remarks, but not as Sarah Silverman.

It's postmodern comedy, I guess you could say, because it assumes everyone's in on the big joke, that we all know Silverman's playing a role--we're not only laughing at the jokes, not even primarily at the jokes, but at that clueless character who would tell them. And Silverman, in the meta realm where she is the real Sarah Silverman (this is getting awfully complicated, isn't it?), is saying, look at this spoiled, clueless JAP! So in a sense she's making fun of the clueless JAP who is making fun of the "chinks" and the "niggers".

As a kind of meditation on the nature of political correctness, as it's been marketed, it's not very enlightening. If being irreverent and un-PC simply means you can utter racial slurs with impunity, or reduce whole populations to stereotypes, then being PC isn't all that bad, in my opinion. It's relative, isn't it? It's funny to call someone with Downs Syndrome a retard unless your daughter or your little brother happens to have it. Then it's not all that funny. That's the thing about epithets and slurs.

But people who are obsessed with a PC conspiracy (some call it "soft totalitarianism") are missing the point that, really, in its moderate form, it's just a substitute for civility in modern multiculti Western democracies. So many different cultures and subcultures intermingle in our free market societies that something someone belonging to one of them does is bound to rub you the wrong way. Maybe it's something as innocuous as the food they eat, or that they look different or speak with a funny accent. So you make fun of their food or their faces or their funny accents. Sometimes it's in an innocent way, but sometimes it's malicious. Social censure rightly kicks in when it veers toward the malicious.

A typical comment in an anti-PC chatroom is: "every time someone apologizes, PC has won another one." Or (idiosyncratic syntax intact): "So why dose he have to appoligise? we live too much in a world with their touchy feely stuff and where its consitered wrong to insult anyone except if their a conservative christian who oppses revionist history,evolution,new age paganism and other such stuff" or "I've been watching some of the Twilight Zone Marathon and it hits me more now than ever that what scared us back then has become reality today" (all of which were found here).

PC excesses abound, don't get me wrong, but there's a bigger picture here, of a society in perpetual transition, where demographics are constantly changing, and privileges of race, class and gender are temporary. Understandably, this pisses people off. What I read in anti-PC rants is certainly no better than what they're ranting against. Exceptionalism; the victimization of the majority by minorities; the fear, paranoia, and hatred that attend social change. And so on.

As I've said elsewhere, harping on the excesses of Political Correctness, real or imagined, does have its purposes. It's a way of framing issues, first of all. But mostly it's a way to rail against diversity, affirmative action, sexual harassment suits, gay marriage, even handicap parking, without having to own up to outright bigotry. This doesn't mean that Affirmative Action, for example, was a perfect social program, or that busing was a smashing success. It doesn't mean that it's not irritating when the parking lot is full except for those ten or twelve handicap spots that always seem to be vacant. It doesn't mean that sexual harassment policies have not on occasion been abused by those they were meant to protect. It does not mean that you have to agree with civil unions.

What it does mean is that in civil society, in our public discourse, regardless of whether or not we agree, we make an effort to confer basic respect, acknowledging publicly the dignity afforded every citizen. That means, no name-calling, first of all. And it extends to epithets, like "colored" that have a problematic history, as well as to slurs. Words have weight. We have a duty in democratic discourse to safeguard the dignity of all participants. Do people go overboard? Like I said, it's relative.

But it's clear this is what irks those who harp on PC's excesses. Wider use of gender-neutral terms bugs some people. But the truth is, we live in a society in which gender-neutral terms are often appropriate and accurate. When you scratch the surface, it's really that fact that bugs the people obsessing over it. And about all you can say to those people is: get over it.

Censure has always been a tool of social groups, and there have always been off-limit behaviors, gestures, and words. They reflect the values of the group. You will not be thrown into prison by the PC Gestapo if you use words like "faggot," "nigger" and "kike" but you may find you don't get invited to many dinner parties. Unless you're Sarah Silverman.

Anywho. That was awfully heavy, wasn't it?

But not half as heavy as "Syriana". Yikes. I will admit that one of the main reasons I went to see this one was George Clooney. I'm not a big fan, but when I saw his new look... is it just me or is he not tons sexier with the extra heft, the bearish beard, and that sort of terrified fuck-me look in his eyes he's got all through the film? Even in a torture scene that rivals anything Schlesinger or Tarantino has come up with. I mean, would you rather have your teeth pulled--without anesthetic, duh!--your ear cut off, or all of your fingernails pulled out one by one?

Director Stephen Gaghan takes us through a twisty tale that would have been a thriller if it had had a plot to begin with. It's kind of impressionistic, is the thing. You emerge with the basic idea, though: government is organized crime. Some of the same murky territory Spielberg is interested in exploring in Munich Gaghan explores here. "Bob," the Clooney character, doesn't know who he's working for in the end, just like Avner.

And like in Munich and Paradise Now, we are introduced to terrorists and suicide bombers, and more than cursorily. Here, as in the other films, the terrorists are not exactly unsympathetic. In Munich the Palestinian terrorists are made more understandable by their speechifying, which is echoed almost word for word later in the film by Avner's Zionist mother.

In Paradise Now, the story is told entirely from the Palestinian side, and we are shown the poverty and hopelessness of the suicide bombers' milieu.

Syriana shows us something similar, and ties it in with the evils of big oil. When one oil company is bought by another, a bunch of Pakistani workers are told to amscray. Two of them find their way (don't ask me how) to a kind of radical religious school in the idyllic countryside of Whereverabia, where formerly disaffected youths are being groomed to become suicide bombers. Still, it's a pretty neutral portrayal I would say, until the end, when they blow up an oil tanker instead of a bunch of innocent civilians somewhere. I'm not saying it couldn't or doesn't happen like that, but at least Paradise Now looked its subject matter squarely in the eye. The human cost goes beyond the suicide bombers themselves. Both scenes end in a fade to white, by the way.

There were silly cinematic conceits in Syriana, too. The idea that a Saudi Prince would be as naive and lax in regards to his own security as the Saudi Prince in Syriana is, particularly when he is supposedly some big-ass wannabe reformer. In one of the final scenes, the CIA is satellite-tracking his convoy of identical SUVs--identical except, of course, that His Royal Highness's SUV is the only one with a sun-roof. He wanted the one with the big bulls-eye painted on the roof, but they didn't have it in stock.

There are also needlessly conventional touches. Each of the characters we've followed, none of whom, except maybe Clooney's, we give a rat's ass about, is given a short scene in the film's quiet coda, that we may know their individual fates. The most gratuitous and annoying is the final scene where Jeffrey White's character comes home to find the mysterious personage who has been menacing White's character's home-life throughout the film sitting on his front steps, drunk. The scenes with the two of them have a mock-mysterious feel. Is this his alcoholic father? His leather daddy lover? A stalker? The answer is: WHO CARES. Matt Damon's character's wife is similarly extraneous. To a point, OK, but to see them reconciled in the end didn't give me goosebumps. I wanted him to hook up with Prince Fancy-pants with the bulls-eye on his forehead, personally, but it was not to be. Damn that CIA!

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned thrillers without the domesticating influences, is what I wanna know. A gesture is all it takes to humanize a character. Good acting and writing give characters their depth. Adding superfluous characters in an attempt to do this adds nothing but length to a movie, and Syriana was quite long enough without daddy and wifey along for the ride. In fact, I think White's daddy was thrown in because all of the other characters had a back story, and Gaghan thought, well, what the hell?

But still well worth the trip.

The cinema was not crowded, by the way. My friend Robert and I went to a very early showing. Everyone was middle-aged and looked boring, which was fitting, I suppose. There were two dumpy broads who sat down the row from us. One talked through the previews, and I thought, OK, no problem. But the way she was chattering it was like she had a lot to say. You know how some people are, and it was all very urgent. Probably her friend had suggested the movie, so that they could spend an obligatory couple of hours together but she wouldn't have to listen to her bang on the whole time. No such luck. She yacked through the whole friggin movie. I'm not kidding.

While I was reconciled to suffering in silence, dreaming up violent deaths for them (and substituting the big blonde who was doing all the talking for George Clooney during the torture scene), Robert was not. At one point he turned, snapped his fingers and hissed at them! I almost pissed my pants.

But as is usually the case, this only emboldened them. Try politely asking someone not to smoke, or confronting someone on a cell phone. I guarantee you will get your head bitten off. You will be denounced, degraded, called every dirty name in the book. You and your family will be threatened with bodily harm, or death. And if you are the one on the receiving end of the polite request, nine times out of ten you will be the one biting heads off, denouncing, degrading, and threatening dismemberment and death. Isn't it funny how things that annoy us to no end when someone else does them, when we're caught doing them arouse murderous ire in us, though, truth is, we're the offending party. And it's way beyond mere defensiveness. There must be a name for this specific phenomenon in the DSM-IV. Help me out here, people.

There was a letter in the "Oh, Cruel World!" section of the latest issue of the Weekly Dig that summed it up pretty nicely, I thought:

"To all the chickenshit pussies who get all hot and bothered whenever I talk on my cell phone, take more than two seconds to get money out of my wallet, drive only 20 miles over the speed limit (rather than your preferred 47), or otherwise do anything that wouldn't be such a big fucking deal to any human being who isn't a neurotic loser in desperate need of a swift kick in the ass: Don't roll your eyes at me. Don't sigh. Don't mumble under your breath—or over your breath when I'm too far away for it to be clear that you're actually talking to me. Don't send anonymous letters to local papers that I don't read. Instead, tell me what the fuck I'm doing that's getting your panties wedged so far up your crack that you can taste your own shit. Get the stick out of your ass, the chip off your shoulder and the sand out of your vagina, and grow a backbone."

Hmmm... if I had to choose between the "neurotic losers" and a paranoid, megalomaniacal psychotic loser like the one who wrote this rant... hmmm. Lemme get back to you on that one.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic
Skip it.
3.8 on the film snob-o-meter.
2.1 on the fidgetron.

Syriana
Recommended.
5.5 on the film snob-o-meter.
7.9 on the fidgetron.