Saturday, March 05, 2005

HST, An Oliver Stone Film

The plot keeps thickening on this Hunter Thompson conspiracy.

For those of you not already on top of this breaking news story, I reported it previously in this post. To sum up, not all of the details of Hunter Thompson's apparent suicide work out neatly. There's this issue with the gun, there's inconsistent reports from witnesses, and Hunter was working on a 9/11 conspiracy book at the time of his death.

But all of that's entirely circumstantial evidence. It's far too early to say what all this stuff means.

So, here's some more of it.

This is a quote from Thompson, remembering a first meeting with George W. Bush at a Houston Super Bowl Party in 1974:

He knew who I was, at that time, because I had a reputation as a writer. I knew he was part of the Bush dynasty. But he was nothing, he offered nothing, and he promised nothing. He had no humor. He was insignificant in every way and consequently I didn't pay much attention to him. But when he passed out in my bathtub, then I noticed him. I'd been in another room, talking to the bright people. I had to have him taken away.

Okay, so, Hunter had negative things to say about the President. Fair enough. But check out this story as reported in a real reputable newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail! I'm quoting it from a blog called The Green Lantern, as the Globe and Mail uncooly requires a membership to read their stupid little articles. It's an anonymous friend of Thompson's who remembers a phone conversation with the Good Doctor:

"Hunter telephoned me on Feb. 19, the night before his death. He sounded scared. It wasn't always easy to understand what he said, particularly over the phone, he mumbled, yet when there was something he really wanted you to understand, you did. He'd been working on a story about the World Trade Center attacks and had stumbled across what he felt was hard evidence showing the towers had been brought down not by the airplanes that flew into them but by explosive charges set off in their foundations. Now he thought someone was out to stop him publishing it:

"They're gonna make it look like suicide," he said. "I know how these bastards think . . ."

So, yeah...the next day, it looked like he committed suicide.

I'm not saying this definitely went down, people. I'm just saying that you can't put anything past the creeps who are running things right now. Anything. A few years ago, any reasonable person would have thought that our current situation, with the president squandering our budget surplus, embroiling us in multiple Mid-East wars and dividing our country with a useless culture war, would never come to pass. These are unreasonable wackos we've elected, and I don't think they're neccessarily above killing Hunter Thompson because he found out too much about some nefarious scheme or another.

But clearly, it's too soon to tell. I'll keep you posted on any further developments. Although you could really be reading some news on your own now and again.

Acting skills can improve doctors' empathy

That's an actual Yahoo headline right now.

Isn't that just a nicer way of saying "Doctors just pretending to feel bad for you"?


I've had a lot of arguments about the possibly homosocial content of the Lord of the Rings movies, particularly Return of the King. I personally feel, along with a few other people I've spoken with, that Peter Jackson went a bit too far in expressing the Hobbit's devotion to one another, and winds up making Sam and Frodo's relationship look deeper than just employer and gardener. If you catch my meaning.

The response is generally the same: there's no overt sexuality in any way in the Rings movies, these Hobbit characters are expressing filial love to one another as opposed to romantic love, and it's the dire nature of the circumstances surrounding them on Mt. Doom that causes them to cling to one another, as opposed to mutual physical attraction. It's fair enough, I suppose. There's no way to claim one option or the other as 100% correct or incorrect.

But there's one answer my friend Yancy has provided that I find troubling. He seems to feel that, without any direct expression of romantic desire or physical activity that could be construed as explicitly homosexual, it's inappropriate to label a certain film or film character "gay" or even "homoerotic." I strongly disagree. I think there are gay subtext that can be found in literally thousands of films where there's no explicit sex featured or any romantic exchanges between male characters.

For example, let's take a look at the 1998 Matt Damon poker movie Rounders. I revisited Rounders earlier today with my roommates, as we've been watching a lot of ESPN's new poker soap "Tilt," and it's from the same creative team. Rounders was, for a lot of people, the first introduction to the underground world of No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em, which has now morphed into a bonafide national phenomenon. It's about a respectable law student who has put his career as a card hustler behind him (Matt Damon), and his friend Worm (Ed Norton), a recently-paroled lowlife who relentlessly tries to lure his friend back into the life of a "rounder."

But I'm not interested in speaking about Rounders in terms of its success or lack thereof as a drama. It works alright, hampered at times by a weak, generic script but brightened by the presence of fine actors like Norton, John Malkovich and Martin Landau.

I'm interested in talking about Rounders as a film with strong homosocial undertones, despite not including any overtly gay material whatsoever.

Rounders shows one man's journey from a typical, hard-working law student into a drifter, depending on old men for favors and hustling tourists for cash. If Damon's character, Mike, plied the sex trade instead of poker games, this could be the exact plotline for a much darker movie. But all throughout the film, the poker takes a backseat to the real undercurrent, competitive relationships between young wannabes (Damon and Norton) and the steely old men who control the world of the competition.

Mike's on the outs with his attractive girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) because he lost his entire bankroll to crooked Russian Mafia don Teddy KGB (Malkovich). She's just about ready to forgive him when he turns his back on her once again to help out his recently-paroled ex-con buddy named Worm (Norton), who owes about $25,000 to a twisted loan shark named Grama (Michael Rispoli). So, what we have from the beginning is a lead character who's torn - on one hand, he loves his girlfriend and wants to make this new life work, but on the other, he's devoted to the man whom he's grown up with, and who comes to him in an hour of need.

While most movies would at least try to make the central romantic relationship work out, Rounders winds up dropping the love plot completely, sending the girlfriend off to a successful future in the law so that Mike can pursue his true love - competitive poker-playing with his male friends.

There is one woman who appears at the poker tables, Petra, played by the stunning Famke Janssen. In one scene, she appears at Mike's apartment and practically begs for him to take her to bed. He rejects her and sends her away for reasons unknown. The script ostensibly asks for us to accept that he's still heartbroken over the loss of his girlfriend, but the larger thematic point is clear; there's no time for women. As Worm says earlier in the film, "In the poker game of life, women are the rake." They exist only to take your money, I suppose is the idea, but the bigger notion is that of women as spoilers, as that element which ruins the perfect, male-only world of the poker room.

Late in the film, Mike finds Worm at a gynmasium they both used long ago as a hiding place. The scene, shot in soft light with a sunbeam pouring in from a skylight, is nostalgic but also about as close as the film gets to true tenderness. They reminisce about times spent together in the gym, years ago, away from the rest of the world. In a film without any strong female characters, that abandons its only present heterosexual relationship less than halfway through its running time, it's by far the most believable, complete representation of love.

Okay, so enough of Mike and Worm's mutual love and respect. Let's talk about the other men who fill out the cast. There's John Turturro as Joey Knish, NY poker legend and mentor to young Mike. John's always there offering helpful advice, sometimes stake money, and late in the film, an offer to take Mike in if he ever needs a place to sleep. Then there's Teddy KGB, Mike's gruff nemesis, the father figure who took Mike's money before, and who waits for him to return for another challenge. And then there's Abe Petrovsky, Mike's law professor, who chides him for missing work, patiently sits and discusses his various problems, and steps in at the zero hour to loan Mike $10,000.

Individually, none of these characters carries on anything remotely approaching a gay relationship with Mike. Except for Malkovich, whose constant licking of Oreo cookies could be considered unseemly, none of them even makes advances at the young, attractive Mike. But they all have behavior in common.

In fact, the only actual reference to homosexuality anywhere in the movie comes when Worm and Mike venture to Atlantic City. Worm announces that he must go find a (female) prostitute, to which Mike makes a crude insinuation that Worm has been turned gay by "the boys upstate." You could read some sort of abstract longing built into this sentiment (that Mike's maybe hoping Worm will express homosexual affection for him, or that he's at least fantasized about the possibility of Worm having gay sex), but it could also be dismissed simply as generic tough-guy movie dialogue.

No, rather than sexual objects, these older men represent father figures for Mike, each in their own way, and yet they are none of them related. Additionally, all of their assistance and guidance is one way - Mike has nothing to teach them, he has nothing to give them, his friendship means very little to them in the end. So why do all these old men keep this needy young guy around?

And then let's talk about one more guy, Grama, the loan shark. He dresses like a pimp, and lives in a flophouse surrounded by coke whores and other prostitutes. He's always chasing Mike down and asking for his money. Plus, his name when pronounced sounds like everyone is calling him Grandma. Why is he in the film? He exists only to provide a bridge that gets Mike back into the grips of Teddy KGB, and seems a bit too invested in sticking in (no pun intended) to Mike and Worm. There's no explanation provided for Grama's animosity towards our heroes. It's just another suggestive, thinly sketched male relationship.

Finally, there's Mike's devotion to Johnny Chan, the famed professional poker player. He fetishistically watches Chan's 1988 World Series of Poker win over and over again on VHS. He regales people with the story of the time he met up with Chan in the Taj Mahal poker room, and played against the master.

Finally, when watching a re-enactment of this story (featuring a performance by the actual Johnny Chan as himself), the whole homosocial critique comes together. The game of poker itself represents male competition. If one thinks in the primitive sense of sex as conquest, and of male sexuality as determined by the marking of territory, then these poker games literally represent hot sweaty man-on-man action.

Mike has beaten Chan in a hand of poker. In the real world, this means almost nothing. Despite what they may say, any professional poker player in the world could be beaten by me or anyone else in one hand. If they get dealt zero cards and I get dealt pocket Kings and a King comes up on the flop, they can play however they want and I'll still probably win. Professional poker players are long-term players, they are good enough to win enough money over the course of weeks and months. They don't win every hand. Watch the World Series of Poker next time it's on. Those are all good players, and they lose hands all the time, sometimes on bad beats.

But in the over-heated homosocial world of Rounders, defeating Chan in a hand of cards represents the ultimate sexual conquest. Mike didn't have a strong father figure growing up, and his Freudian impulse to conquer that which belonged to his father extends to all of these older men with whom he plays poker. Except it's not about bedding the woman that belonged to his father - it's too focused on the male relationships to even pay attention to that. There are no women at the poker table. It's just about taking that other guy down.

In the end, Mike turns his back on the responsible world to do what he was born to do - play poker with the professionals. He's lost every relationship close to him in the world at that point. He's fallen out with Joey Knish, his long-term mentor and "the closest thing you get to a friend" in the poker room. He's dropped out of law school, abandoning his girlfriend and the professor who was so devoted to his success. And he's told off Worm, who has skipped town for parts unknown.

But it's still a happy ending because he has his bankroll, the money he's won from the efforts of all of these people. So he will move on, to play cards with that and other money in other cities, racking up other victories, claiming other prizes. He will become the ultimate lone man, wandering around, raping and pillaging, claiming others possessions as his own. He will be a hustler.

But you see where I'm going with this.

Cutter's Way

So, I've got this article in mind. This article about the films of 1981. I had a notion while watching Michael Mann's Thief, and then it blossomed into a full-fledged idea while watching this 1981 drama/thriller starring Jeff Bridges and John Heard. It's a cool little movie about two drifter buddies, one a Vietnam vet and the other a rather unskilled gigolo, who get mixed up in an ongoing murder investigation.

No, I'm not going to tell you the idea for the article. One of you would probably just rip it off, and I gots to get paid! But I will review these 1981 movies for you all as I watch them, starting right now. And that ought to be good enough. After all, Cutter's Way would make a good rental, as it's on DVD and it's obscure enough that there aren't even any useful images from it on the Internet.

So, I'll have to describe Bridges and Heard to you, so youc an picture what I'm talking about here. Bridges is, I swear I'm not making this up, a male prostitute named Richard Bone.

Yes, Dick Bone. That must be intentional, but if so, it's a really bad joke. And it kind of ruins some of the more serious scenes in the movie, in which people will intone to him in a deep, gruff voice, "I understand you're Richard Bone. Won't you come in?"

One night, walking to his car after leaving a client's motel room, he's nearly run off the road by an older man in sunglasses, driving some sort of Jeep. (Remember, this is a pre-SUV 1981 universe we're talking about here). The next day, he's called down to the police station - the guy in the Jeep might be involved in the murder of a young woman, found chopped up in a trash can.

So, Dick Bone mentions all this information to his best friend, the one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed Vietnam Vet Alex Cutter (John Heard, in his best, most physically challenging performance ever). Right away, Cutter's got a theory of his own - he thinks the murderer's none other than JJ Cord, wealthy industrialist and local legend in Santa Barbara, CA. And despite the protests of Bone and his long-suffered alcoholic wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn, beautiful and distant), Cutter's determined to get to the bottom of things.

If this sounds all vaguely familiar, it's probably because the Coen Brothers borrowed a large portion of this set-up for their now-classic 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski. That film as well casts Bridges as a lazy drifter who, along with a Vietnam Vet friend, uncovers a bizarre plot involving a wealthy mogul and a young girl. But more than just plotlines, the Coen film borrows a breezy, LA noir style from Cutter's Way. Along with Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, these films offer a sort of laissez-faire version of the mystery genre. They offer a hero more interested in self-preservation and taking it easy than solving the big crime. Clues drift in and out of the frame as we focus instead of the lifestyles and behaviors of a few quirky central characters.

But while the Coen film uses Vietnam as mainly a side joke, a personality quirk for John Goodman's delightful Walter Sobchek character, the crisis of the shattered veteran stands front and center in Cutter's Way. Alex hasn't been able to readjust to society following his horrific battle injuries and trauma. He fixates on Cord and the mystery of the deal girl as a way to exorcize these demons, to make the world make sense for him again. If evil can be punished, just once, if the little guys can bring down the captain of industry, then maybe the whole world isn't rigged against him. Maybe there's a chance for anyone.

It's really a fascinating character, at turns off-putting and supremely charming. Heard manages to convincingly inhabit the physicality of a body ravaged by war, and even if he's a bit too effusive occasionally when playing drunk, it never takes away from the realism of his portrayal. Alex Cutter's a wacky, over-the-top kind of character, and Heard could have easily taken it way too far, moving the entire film off the rails, but he reigns everything in just enough to keep the film going and retain its bittersweet tone.

By the end, Cutter's Way began to remind me of yet another Bridges film - The Fisher King. There, as in Cutter's Way, he's similarly the sane guide for an unstable companion, Robin Williams' schizophrenic, homeless Perry. As well, both films share the notion that the central quest or mystery, either Cutter's paranoid conspiracy theories or Perry's search for the Holy Grail, may be imaginary. And they both share the same thematic conclusion, that the search that takes up most of the movie's running time isn't what matters, and that the solution will only create more questions.

Whether Cutter figures out how all the pieces fit together hardly matters Bone, or even to himself. What matters is what that information could mean to him, and why he wants it in the first place, and whether or not he'll be okay after he figures out the solution. If a solution even exists.

So, anyway, it's a great overlooked movie, at times strange, dark, wrenching and funny. One of the ideas behind my proposed article is how this era of filmmaking, 1978-1981 or so, is often unfairly ignored when discussing recent film history. Movies like Thief and Cutter's Way provide an interesting look at some really terrific transitional films that came from this time period.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Gunga Din

I find it difficult to watch Gunga Din and not think about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The films are so alike. Westerners accidentally find themselves facing off against the vicious Thuggee Cult of India, worshippers of the goddess Kali who dream of enslaving their entire nation under a spell of endless darkness. Spielberg and Lucas clearly used Din as a primary influence on their sequel, but it's interesting how they didn't bother to improve upon the original's considerable flaws. George Stevens' film, like Spielberg's nearly 50 years later, looks terrific and provides considerable thrills and spectacle, but suffers from occasionally awkward timing, a bloated running time and terribly unfunny comic relief. Also, they're both highly mysogynist and racist to boot.

The racism is one aspect that Spielberg and Lucas tried to improve, though their level of success is debatable. Temple of Doom is still frequently cited as a modern example of Orientalism in cinema, and both Lucas and Spielberg sort of distance themselves from the film in interviews now. But the explicit racism in Gunga Din is undeniable. First off, the incredibly poor decision was made (as it was with all films depicting "exotic" races in 1939) to cast white actors in greasepaint as Indians. Ugh. Sam Jaffe's performance here as the film's namesake Indian water boy was actually praised at the time of the film's release, but it's the same bug-eyed, childlike minstrelsy you see all the time in this sort of film.

Allow me to clarify: many people think that movies like Gunga Din and Temple of Doom are racist because of their portrayal of the Hindu religion as murderous and evil. I disagree. I have no problem with depicting a group of villains based on various folk legends and cultures. When a movie features Nazis, we do not say it is anti-German. It depicts evil people who happened to be German. When a movie features vampires, we don't say it is anti-Christian. It features villains whose background are intertwined with Christian mythology. Likewise, a movie featuring bad guys who use Hinduism to excuse their behavior isn't anti-Indian.

What makes Gunga Din in particular (but also Temple of Doom, to be honest) racist is the portrayal of so-called "good Indians" and Indian society. All the Indian characters are infantilized, rendered as childlike and simple. They need the white people to come in and boss them around and tell them what to do. When he wrote "Orientalism," Edward Said was making the point that all the attempts to exoticize Asian cultures, to emphasize its far-out otherness, was at the root of Western prejudice. So when the characters stand around Gunga Din at the end of the film that bears his name, and talk of how he's the greatest soldier in the British Army, it's offensive because it's condescending. It reduces this character into a mascot.

That's why I think Temple of Doom doesn't do a good enough job of improving on the treatment of this subject matter. Much as I enjoyed it as a child, the "chilled monkey brains" dinner party scene's pretty offensive, asking the viewer to laugh at the mysterious foriegn-ness of this foreign culture. The Indians devouring whole eels are egregious stereotypes.

Okay, enough about that. On to the rest of the movie. Gunga Din, that is. It's legendary director George Stevens' so-so adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling epic poem. Three British officers stumble upon a temple hiding the believed-to-be-extinct murderous Thuggee Cult. One of them, prankster Sgt. Cutter (a miscast Cary Grant), believed the temple to be made of gold (causing him to dance around and whoop in a style that must have inspired Chuck Jones' animations of Daffy Duck), and made his way there along with water boy/servant Gunga Din.

So, once Cutter's buddies MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) show up to rescue him and are themselves kidnapped, the stage is set for a major showdown between the British Imperial troops and the army of the Thuggee.

This description makes the film sound action-packed. If only it were true. Stevens' started his career as a cinematographer, and few filmmakers can match his ability to frame large-scale action set-pieces. The scope of Gunga Din is truly incredible. Stevens had his crew encamp in the California desert for months in order to capture the Khyber Pass at the height of the British Empire. The battle sequences he captured are beautiful and stunning, a tremendous achievement for the time.

Yet when the film isn't hurtling frenetically from incident to incident, it slows down to a near-crawl. Grant's among the greatest movie stars of all time, but he couldn't really save this rotten material. Grant's wit was sly, devious, and mischevious, and this sort of cornpone over-the-top comedy doesn't suit him at all. Asking him to parade around making funny faces, or fake drunk with the likes of Victor McLaglen, is simply put embarrassing. Even he looks tired of his shenanigans by the film's halfway point. And Joan Fontaine appears so briefly in the film, as Ballantine's fiancee, she barely registers at all.

Finally, a word must be said about the atrocious music. Alfred Newman's (seriously, that's the composer's name...) score is so bouncy and upbeat, you'd think you were watching a movie that took place at a circus. This is a war zone. People are dying. Why does it sound like a sideshow? And some of the musical cues make no sense at all. Why does "Aud Lang Syne" play at a funeral? What's up with "God Save the Queen" popping up all the time? How about something with, I don't know, a little bit of an Indian flavor?

So, what you got here is one of them mixed-bag kind of deals. The visual splendor of this film is undeniable. (The cinematography was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland's work on Wuthering Heights). One sequence in particular, in which an elephant threatens to topple the teetering bridge upon which Grant and Gunga Din stand, unfolded with such mastery and timing, it almost made up for the sins of the movie on its own. But let's be honest - the movie's kind of an ordeal to sit through. It's way too long, it's not at all funny, and it's exciting only in infrequent bursts.

But, man, that climactic battle. Truly incredible.

The Truth Is Out There...on Page 6

The New York Post theorizes this morning that Hunter S. Thompson's recent death may not have been a suicide after all. It boils down to this: no one saw the man shoot himself, there are conflicting reports from his family about the nature and chronology of the incident, and Thompson was actively working on a 9/11 conspiracy book in the weeks before his death.

Add all this stuff together, and you get a pretty thin circumstantial case. But I must say, it's very compelling. It did seem to me and a lot of other people that Thompson was still full of life, and not at all the sort of guy prone to acts of violence against himself (unless you consider massive, constant drug use to be violence against oneself). Plus, he was still actively working, was by all accounts happily married, and he was only 67 years old. And that World Trade Center book...

Conspiracy theorists make much of the fact that Thompson had been working on a far-fetched story about the World Trade Center attack at the time of his death.

As Canada's Globe and Mail reported, Thompson had "stumbled across what he felt was hard evidence showing the towers had been brought down not by the airplanes that flew into them but by explosive charges set off in their foundations."

Far-fetched, huh? I'd like to get a look at that manuscript. I wonder how far-fetched it actually sounds? Because if it's way loopy, like Thompson theorized Dick Cheney blew up the Towers using his rarely-glimpsed laser vision, obtained from that gamma radiation accident years ago, then we can discount this entire conspiracy. But if it's fairly sensible, or at least not totally insane, then someone get Jim Garrison on the horn, pronto.

Then there's all this business with the gun HST used.

And in his report, Deputy Ron Ryan noted the semi-automatic Smith & Wesson 645 found next to Thompson's body was in an unusual condition. There was a spent shell casing, but although there were six bullets left in the gun's clip, there was no bullet in the firing chamber, as there should have been under normal circumstances.

I don't know anything about guns, but that sounds weird.

The thing is, if these conspiracies were really as shadowy and dark as people think, then they'd work flawlessly. There wouldn't be any talk afterwards about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Thompson's death, because no evidence of any conspiracy would have been left sitting around. I genuinely feel like the government or other agencies have conducted shocking, alarming, dangerous business right under our noses for years, but that the truly nefarious plans concocted by the real twisted geniuses go totally unnoticed. The BS you hear from conspiracy nuts - like Roswell, N.M. or George Bush arranging for the destruction of the WTC - just distracts us from the real dirty work going on.

Or maybe I'm just being paranoid...

Also, is it weird to anyone else that this information appears on the "Gossip" page of the New York Post? Since when are the gruesome details of a man's alleged suicide "gossip"? Gossip is, "Did you see Lindsay Lohan at the MTV Awards? She has, like, totally had a breast reduction. It's completely obvious. And what's she doing with that Fez guy?" It's not "OMG, did you check out the details of Hunter Thompson's suicide? WTF! The ballsitics, like, totally don't match the accounts of several vital witnesses or whatever."

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Now That's What I Call Indie Rock!

I've started making mix CD's for my car. I used to just listen to whole albums all the way through. I'm a firm believer in the rock album as opposed to the individual song - I like artists that can come up with 10-15 interestingly related songs that work separately or together in equal measure. This is one of the things I respect the most about my favorite band of recent memory, Radiohead. They come up with great singles ("Creep," "Just," "High and Dry," "Karma Police," "Knives Out," "There There" to name just a few) but the songs take on greater meaning when listened to all together.

But I got seriously into listening to music on my mp3 player. Yeah, I know, just the other day I wrote a tirade against mp3 player wearing assholes who ignore everyone and everything around them. I'm not in favor of oblivious mp3 player usage. But it is a handy device for when you have to walk somewhere or have a long plane ride or something. And I used to walk around more when I lived in Hollywood. You can't walk anywher in Culver City. You can grow Bin-Laden-length facial hair faster than you can walk anywhere in West LA.

So, inspired by the very handy "shuffle" item on my mp3 player (it's a Dell, by the way, not the bunch of conformists), I've been making up my own mix CD's to listen to of new music. And I've made one that's, quite honestly, totally freaking awesome. I take a great deal of pride in coming up with an excellent mix of songs, even though all I'm doing is arranging the creative work of others. I had a friend in college who wanted to be a museum curator when she grew up, and this always struck me as odd about that potential job. Your greatest aspiration is to show off other people's work in the best possible light...weird...I guess it's better than being a film critic, where your greatest aspiration is to tear down the painstakingly created work of others.

But I digress. Without further ado, here's the tracklist of my latest mix CD offering, complete with information on where to find the songs should you wish to obtain them (legally, like me!)

1. Xiu Xiu - I Luv the Valley

This was a recommendation from Pitchfork's 50 Best Singles of 2004 List, which inspired several selections on this here list. It's a completely deranged, completely original, thoroughly creepy and terrifically accomplished electronic rock song, something about loving the Valley and something about a pill that you have to take. Anyway, it's pretty much totally psychotic, much like the rest of Xiu Xiu's 2004 full-length "Fabulous Muscles."

2. The Faint - Worked Up So Sexual

I'd like to nominate this song for Stripper National Anthem. Not only would its smooth electronic grooves and 80's synth lines perfectly set off the recently tattooed gyrating ass of a fetching co-ed, but it's also actually about making a career of stripping. "Smaller tits and younger limbs/Can cause a fit of rivalry." From the Faint's delightfully sleazy 1999 album Blank-Wave Arcade.

3. Beck - Hell Yeah

Okay, so you can't actually buy this song yet legally. It's going to be the first single from Beck's newest LP, March's "Guero." But I have obtained it early, because I'm a horrible person. It reminds me of a stripped-down Odelay track. Very catchy, full of new Beckisms ("Fax Machine Anthems!/Get Your Damn Hands Up!") and wacky samples. Good stuff.

4. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - Shake the Sheets

From Ted's recent release of the same name. It's kind of a grab bag for every social/political issue on Ted Leo's mind at the moment, particularly the President and his ill-advised venture into Iraq. But even if you disregard the witty and thoughtful words, it's just a killer pop song, with a really terrific hook and more of Leo's spastic, memorable guitar work.

5. Bloc Party - Banquet

This is a truly wondrous track from South London breakthrough artist Bloc Party, off of their as-yet-unreleased-stateside debut album "Silent Alarm." You may have to wait another month or so to get this album legit-style, but when you do, a return to the glory days of 90's Brit Rock awaits you.

6. Guided by Voices - My Valuable Hunting Knife

Yeah, they're not all new songs. I never said they were! This is a slight little pop gem from GBV's overall phenomenal 1995 full-length Alien Lanes. Like many kooky, memorable Robert Pollard songs, it's got trippy, surreal lyrics tied to a pretty, Beatlesesque melody, recorded in a scratchy lo-fi style that gives it a warm, homemade quality. This is among my favorite Guided by Voices songs, maybe because it's so simple and it all fits together so well.

7. Beck - Asshole

7 tracks and 2 Beck songs. I know what you're thinking...this is a lazy mix-tape. Well, Mr. Hansen's the only repeat artist on this thing, and I just couldn't resist the teaming of GBV's lo-fi wonder "My Valuable Hunting Knife" with Beck's bedroom anthem "Asshole," off of his One Foot in the Grave album. I first heard this song on a Tibetan Freedom Concert box set CD, and I've always liked it. It's gruff, a little weird, a little dark, very folky. A perfect acoustic Beck song.

8. Fiery Furances - One More Time

The Fiery Furnaces are a controversial band at the moment. Some people, like myself, think they're as good as any recording group working today, turning out 2 albums now of innovative, catchy, eccentric indie rock. I didn't hear an album in 2004 as challenging, interesting or fun as their "Blueberry Boat." This is an unreleased cover of The Clash's "One More Time," originally off their "London Calling" follow-up "Sandanista!". The Clash's original's a great song, totally reinvented here by the Furnaces with crashing cymbals and looping production effects. Sounds a lot like all their songs sound when they play live. Exciting and disorienting, organized and chaotic at the same time.

9. Lou Barlow and Friends - Needle in the Hay

A live recording I found from the Elliott Smith Tribute set by Sebadoh and Folk Implosion frontman Lou Barlow. It's from last year's All Tomorrows Parties rock festival. Smith died before the concert of what was ruled to be a self-inflicted stab wound to his chest. Seems an odd way to kill yourself, no? Stabbing yourself in the chest? But then, Smith was a dark cat. I took to his music from a rather early age, back when he was with the post-punk outfit Heatmiser. This was from his second, self-titled solo CD. It's probably best-known for its appearance in The Royal Tenenbaums in the scene where Luke Wilson, um, tries to kill himself. Man, that Wes Anderson...he's a perceptive guy...

10. Pavement - Westie Can Drum

90's college rock legends Pavement famously recorded dozens of awesome B-sides, songs that rocked the house whenever they played them live, but which for some reason never made it on to proper albums. This one's among my favorites. It appeared on the single for "Stereo," off of the band's super-terrific 1997 album "Brighten the Corners." It ends with one of those raucous Pavement repetitive crescendos, with frontman Stephen Malkmus repeatedly insisting "I got a knife" over wailing power chords. Kickass.

11. Camera Obscura - Suspended From Class

This song is basically a direct rip of Belle and Sebastian's songwriting style, a pleasantly old-fashioned piece of twee chamber pop directly influenced by Phil Spector's Wall of Sound work. But who cares? It's so soothing and easy to enjoy, the best track off of the group's charming "Underachievers Please Try Harder" from 2004. I put it here to kind of cleanse the pallatte after the messy shenanigans of Pavement and the Fiery Furnaces, to divide this unruly mix into two neat and tidy halves. Thank you, Scotland, for birthing not one but two bands to supply me with laid-back folk tunes ideal for midsections of mix tapes.

12. TV on the Radio - Freeway

On the original version of this mix disc, I put the Grateful Dead's classic "Cumberland Blues" from their immortal countrified "Workingman's Dead" album. But it's just a touch TOO antiquated...its bluegrass twang threw off the more contemporary sounds on the rest of the album. So I swapped it out for this urban barbershop (?) number from this Brooklyn ensemble's debut (and demo tape, really) "OK Calculator". Urban barbershop's about as good a description as I've heard - these guys can harmonize as well as any rock group I've heard, and the song's nothing but a vocal workout. Weird and fabulous stuff here.

13. The Decemberists - The Soldiering Life

The version I have on my CD is a live cut of the D'Rists playing this tune at Bumbershoot last summer. But you could just as well use the album cut, from their 2003 release "Her Majesty." Like the best Decemberists tunes, it tells a rather intricate story. This one's about the warm filial love a soldier comes to feel for his brothers in arms during the height of WWI. But it's a catchy pop song! And it includes weird antiquated referecnes like "swaddled in our civvies" and "soldiers and the steveadors." You gotta love obscurity like that!

14. Flaming Lips - Lightning Strikes the Postman

Before they were the clown princes of indie pop, amusing the kids on the "Spongebob Squarepants" soundtrack and hosting late-night movies on IFC, the Flaming Lips were a messed up psychedelic punk band, turning out mind-bending, hard-rock spectacles like "Lightning Strikes the Postman," off of their majestic 1995 head trip "Clouds Taste Metallic." Along with "Evil Will Prevail" from that same album, this is one of the highlights of the Lips entire catalog, a shimmering surrealist gem about nothing and everything, in that order. It sounds terrific live as well, as I discovered when they played it at the Pantages during their 2003 tour.

15. Yeah Yeah Yeah's - Maps

One of the few radio cuts on this mix tape (there's another big one later on down the list). I'm not a huge fan of the Yeah's, really. I tend to find Karen O's posturing obnoxious and obvious. She's just not appealing, her voice is nothing much, and so I kind of have to weed through the songs to find the bits that I like. But everything comes together sensationally in this song, an ode to unrequited love off of their debut full-length "Fever to Tell". It builds perfectly, establishing a subtle mood and then demolishing it with a bevy of crunchy guitar noise. To my mind, it's the best song in their catalog thus far.

16. Arcade Fire - No Cars Go

When I checked out The Fire at the Troubadour in January, they played a few amazing songs off of their still-unreleased debut album and some B-sides. It made me immediately want to go and get this CD, until I remembered that no one's gotten around to releasing it Stateside. Despite the fact that Canada's just north of us, and they have it, and it's online anyway in case an unscrupulous people wanted to just log on and obtain it, saving themselves the trouble of waiting around for months for a proper release and then shelling out $14 for it. But this is a thoroughly enjoyable tune, fitting in pretty well with the major themes of the Fire's immaculate, assured proper debut "Funeral." It's mournful yet exuberant, telling a dark, grim tale through the eyes of a child.

17. The Ponys - Sad Eyes

There's a cheesy 70's tune already named "Sad Eyes," from the same whiny douche who did "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Why would The Ponys take the name from such an infamously weak-ass AM turd? I mean, obviously the retro reference is welcome, as The Ponys style borrows heavily from the New Wave bands of the 1980's, The Cure in particular. It's rowdy, dynamic garage rock that's bizarrely being compared in some circles to The Velvet Underground. It doesn't sound like The Velvet Underground at all. But let's not hold that against it.

18. Ladytron - Blue Jeans 2.0

Originally, this slot went to Annie's song "Heartbreak," a Kylie Minogue-derivative pop ballad that bizarrely received the #1 ranking in Pitchfork's Best 50 Singles of 2004. I got bored of that song after a few spins, so I replaced it with this crackling electronic dream pop from Ladytron's sylishly icy 2003 collection "Softcore Jukebox." Cause, you know, they're both techno-ish songs with chick singers. Okay, I'll admit it. I'm running out of good adjectives to describe cool music. This is why I usually stick to movie reviews.

19. Gwen Stefani - What You Waiting For?

I told you there was another radio hit on here. This is the smash first single from Gwen's debut solo outing, the apparell-themed "Love Angel Music Baby." Get it? Her clothing line's name is L.A.M.B.! It's, like, synergistic or something! Anyway, I like the silly 80's vibe on this track a lot. It's essentially just a jumpy update of Cyndi Lauper's sound, but since Cyndi Lauper's no good at making this stuff any more, why not Gwen Stefani? I can't really think of a better use for her specific talents than coming up with a bouncy radio hit like this every couple of months. Plus, I like ending a mix with kind of a goofy song, to let the listener know I'm not taking myself so seriously, you know? If I had even better taste, I'd have closed the thing out with Ashlee Simpson's "La La," but I didn't think of it at the time. That'll be waiting for Now That's What I Call Indie Rock 2, coming soon, maybe, if I ever feel like devoting this much time to a post again.

Anger Mismanagement

You ever just have an angry day?

I'm not typically an angry guy. I get frustrated like anyone, don't get me wrong. Sometimes when I'm sitting in LA traffic, particularly if I have somewhere semi-important to be, I will punch the steering wheel in frustration. I really should stop doing this, not because it has any negative impact on the car, but because each time I nearly shatter each and every one of my hand bones.

Also, sometimes it makes the horn go off, causing all the other frustrated drivers to turn around and glare at me like I just choked a koala to death with my bare hands while quoting "Mein Kampf" from memory.

Zoologists visiting the Inertia should note with some measure of admiration that I correctly used the term "koala" rather than the more pedestrian and misleading "koala bear."

But I mean to say that, under normal circumstances, I am not a particularly angry person. I don't go around punching people, or even threatening to, and even when I'm intoxicated, I don't think of myself as aggressive or violent in any way, really. I knew a guy in college who was the most normal, everyday, likable, friendly kind of person when sober, but when he would drink, he would start fights, throw stuff at people and even, one time, jump on top a stranger's car, denting it, and then attempt to start a fight with them.

Today, on the other hand, all bets were off. I guess it has something to do with my considerable lower back pain, owing to the as-yet-unhealed cyst I discussed in perhaps disturbing detail yesterday. But I also just think this has been brewing for a week or so. I've worked a whole bunch in the past two weeks, and working retail kind of brings with it a natural cycle of anger and relaxation.

Plus, I was having one of those days where it seemed like the physical world existed only to mock my incompetance.

I had to lug a large cumbersome package of Laserdiscs up and down Pico to the post office 3 times. Once because they had not yet opened, once because the post office lady told me I had calculated the postage wrong (I had not), and once more because my boss told me to. I'm kind of hazy on there wherewithals and the whytofor's on that last one. Working at a video store's a lot like being in the army, except we string people up and beat them with electrical wire somewhat less often.

Plus traffic was bad, there was a long line everywhere I went (like the gas station, post office, Boston get where I'm going with this). And did I mention there's a spot on my back that feels as if those scarabs from The Mummy have set up a small but workable residence?

So, I did what every reasonable person does when they have a lot of extra anger built up. I hit my desk really hard, and nearly shattered every bone in my hand. And then I went on my blog and bitched to you fine people for a few minutes. Now, I wonder if there's anything small in here I could break and not miss later...


Maybe the most undervalued movie of the 1980's, Michael Mann's 1981 debut feature introduces the themes that would run through all of his work. It's about a man torn between his work and the woman he loves, who dreams of getting away from it all but finds himself unable to break ties from the criminal underworld that's been the only life he knows. It's a meditation on broken dreams, and how giving up on everything can be the only way to survive.

But like all of Michael Mann's films, above all it's it's a stylish thriller about the criminal life. Entertaining, gripping, fantastically shot and realized.

Thief stars James Caan as a master safecracker called simply "Frank," in what the actor himself has called his favorite role.

Frank spent 11 years in jail, and still goes back all the time to visit his best friend and mentor (Willie Nelson in a small but pivotal role). Since getting out 4 years ago, he's split his time between romancing diner host Jessie (a somewhat flat Tuesday Weld) and pulling diamond heists in tandom with partner Barry (James Belushi, mostly not embarrassing himself in his first film role).

Following a particularly daring heist, Frank's approached by gangster Leo (a wondrous Robert Prosky, in a tough as nails performance) about hooking up for a few big scores. Leo offers Frank a sweet deal - planned heists with plenty of available manpower and security, in exchange for a piece of the profits. But when Leo threatens to mooch out on the deal, the situation quickly escalates and turns violent.

Mann would grow as a filmmaker following Thief. Though it has nice, crisp, dark photography, it lacks the taut grace of later Mann works like Heat or The Insider. What it does boast is some of the best tough-guy dialogue of any film in recent memory. These are criminals, bad guys with dirty mouths, but there's a poetry to their slang. At times, the dialogue reminded me of the best stuff by David Mamet - the cursing and blasphemy takes on a mellifluous tone. And Caan, Prosky and the rest of the cast treat it just right without ever seeming over-the-top or cornball. It's not easy to deliver call someone a "no-good greasy motherfucker" and really sound like you mean it, but Caan pulls it off.

The soundtrack by prog-rockers Tangerine Dream unfortunately dates the film, and threatens to overpower the central action at times during the heist sequence. But these are small complaints when compared to the pleasures of Mann's grimy, sleazy vision.

In a way, Thief feels like a bridge between 70's and 80's crime cinema. It retains the 70's outlook - it's cold, hard, unforgiving, and features an ambiguous, pessimistic ending. It refuses its characters any hint of redemption or hope for the future. But it takes on a lot of features that would become staples of the 80's action film, like the hard rock soundtrack, the quick-cut chase sequences, the formula plot (centered around an ex-con trying to go straight but being pulled back into the life), and the random gory violence.

This isn't terribly surprising when you consider that Thief was one of the first productions spearheaded by Jerry Bruckheimer, who along with partner Don Simpson essentially defined action and crime filmmaking in the 80's and 90's. Thief feels more personal to Mann than Bruckheimer, and certainly doesn't have the expansive scope, the cheesy sentimentality or the elaborate effects pieces that would later come to define Bruckheimer's oeuvre. Instead, it's a meditative, downbeat look at a career criminal trying desperately to take control of his shattered life. An often overlooked but essential 80's film.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Idiocy From Fred Kaplan

Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan's written a stupid article claiming that recent positive events in Iraq and the Middle East bother liberals. Or, to use his words:

A question is haunting the blue states of America: Could George W. Bush be right? Is freedom indeed "on the march"? Did the war in Iraq uncork a white tornado that's whooshing democracy across the region and beyond?

No, that doesn't mean anything, and no.

I'm sure you've heard this senseless argument before: liberals hate George Bush and everything he does. When he does well, and things improve, liberals therefore get upset because they've been proved wrong.

There's a few things wrong with this theory. First off, George W. Bush never does anything "right." If positive things happen as a result of his policies, it's merely accidental, and surely unintentional. He governs by mad whim, like King Lear. Except King Lear only had one Fool traveling with him, and Bush has literally hundreds.

Secondly, I don't think liberals would mind if things got better in the Middle East. I'm not saying that they'd excitedly embrace G Dubs if his policies wound up working for the best. But I don't think opposing the president means wanting America to fail, or wanting more people to die, or praying for civil unrest in a large section of the world. Because it's dumb. Kaplan pretends he's responding to every liberal, every member of the Democratic party. But of course, the only people who think this way are a very narrow group of Washingtonians whose careers depend on George W. Bush's failure.

The rest of Kaplan's article is a far more sane look at the harsh realities facing the Middle East as it struggles towards some kind of stability. So why choose to begin the article with such a stupid sensationalized thesis, one that plays right into the right-wing blogosphere's script? Why not open it with a statement that's, I don't know, true or based in reality? Like "though a lot of people credit Bush's diplomacy with Libya's decision to give up a nuclear weapon's program, it's just a coincidence and he had nothing to do with it. And now, on to an article."

One more thing I've got to add...let's stop using the phrase "freedom is on the march." It's offensive. See, what it does is connect the concept of "freedom," an intangible positive quality that everyone reasonably wants, to a military action. "The March." What does it mean to say that freedom is on the march? It means that our troops are going around the world, marching. But troops don't just march - that's the one non-violent thing they do. Once they get where they're marching to, they blow it up. So, implicit in the phrase "freedom is on the march" is the idea that we will force freedom on the people of the world through violence. Which in itself negates the true idea of freedom (for how can we be free if we are having something forced on us by outsiders?)

It's now obvious to me that the rest of the world doesn't wish to be free in this way. If they are to be free, whether good or bad, it will have to stem from self-determination. That's how it went in this country - a group of American decided they were sick of foreign oppression and fought a violent, bloody war for independance. And we're barely even free! So how can we expect to "gift" freedom to others by attacking their countries? The very notion, like phrase "freedom is on the march," is absurd.

Bullshit: Invented Accusations Aimed At Liberals

"Roosevelt: Wheelchair-Riding America-Hating Terrorist"

That's the winning entry in Campus Progress' very amusing Name Ann Coulter's Next Book Contest.

The last two Coulter books were entitled "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right" and "Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror." So, it's only fitting the next title should follow suit, right?

The winner receives an actual talking Ann Coulter doll, which is not much of a prize at all, when you think about it. I wish I'd heard about this contest while it was still going on even though the award kind of sucks, just because thinking of funny riffs on Ann Coulter titles is an easy way to pass the time. Here's a few of the runner's up:

Pander: How character assassination and name-calling will make you popular and rich
Witchhunt: I Saw Liberals Speaking With The Devil!
Democracy: The Liberal Plot to Feed Your Children to the Poor
Liberals: Liberals, Liberals, Liberals, Liberals, Joe McCarthy
Damn: I can’t believe I get away with this!

And here are some of my own invention:

Paranoia: Liberals Totally Just Told Me They Want to Kick Your Ass
Gossip: I Made Out With Bill Maher
Nonsense: It Doesn't Even Matter What's Printed Here, Because You Drooling Yahoos Will Buy Anything With My Picture On The Cover

Cease and De Cyst

Just returned from the Doctor's office. I have what's known as a polinoidal cyst. It's really disgusting. One of the short, kinky hairs growing on that no-man's-land between the small of my back and my buttcrack decided to rebel, angering the older hair establishment by growing inwards rather than out. That'll show those other conformist hairs! Fight the power!

And, like the AIDS epidemic that stemmed from our parent's generations hedonistic sexual rebellion, my back hair's refusal to follow the status quo has resulted in a hard, angry little red dot of skin that's sore and painful. Granted, it's not sarcoma painful, but it's painful all the same. Basically, it feels like someone's attempted to throw a dart up my ass and missed by a few inches.

I'd describe my wound in more accurate, gruesome detail if I could. But I can't see back there. You ever tried to look at the area on your body between your tailbone and buttcrack? I could've sprouted a third arm back there and not noticed.

I've been thinking about what it would be like to live 200 years ago. Before they understood things like polinoidal cysts, and thought that, when there's a spot on your backside causing you pain, it's the work of demons or witches or bad humours or elves or some stupid mythological crap like that. You'd just walk around hunched over, in pain, for days until someone figured out the problem and punctured the sore spot with a pointed stick or something. (This is still the preferred treatment by some HMO's).

Or even worse, you wouldn't figure out the problem, and the infection would spread, and eventually you'd die, all because some stupid hair grew in the wrong direction.

So, thanks to modern medicine, I have to take a bunch of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication and hope that it goes away before I need to go to work. Or leave the house for any reason. Or, you know, move. Fortunately, I've rented some movies to keep my mind, you know, limber.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Dr. Joyce Bothers

PSoTD has a terrific post about his general contempt for Dr. Joyce Brothers. Read it here. Here's a highlight:

She has spent 40 years branding herself as the face of popular psychology. And as an actress. Where do her lines start, and somebody else's script end? Can anyone who has watched American television over the last 40 years have any idea? How many other panelists from "Match Game PM" should be highlighted on the cover of Parade Magazine with a "cover" article? Where's Charles Nelson Reilly's cover story? Brett Somers? Nipsey Russell?

I'm linking this not just because I enjoy blog posts expressing contempt, but also because he's got a real point here. Brothers and those who follow in her footsteps aren't doing real psychology work. They're acting as publicists for the world of psychology, reminding you that it exists and that it may even be able to solve your problems, sometimes within the course of a single televised encounter!

Dr. Phil is, to my mind, the worst of the bunch. This guy actually did a series of shows last year focusing on America's ongoing struggle with obesity. The guy's, like, way overweight. Not just in that usual American middle-aged guy way, where he's got that belly flap that kind of hangs over his belt, like he's got some sort of a Jell-O mold tucked in the front of his pants. No, he's full-on overweight. It's clear just by looking at him. Why should we trust him on the psychology of losing weight? He clearly doesn't have it figured out. It'd be like asking Courtney Love to counsel drug addicts. Let her get it together herself, then she can teach others.

Is Courtney Love too easy a target? Let me try again.

"Why should we trust Dr. Phil on the psychology of losing weight? It's like asking Lizzie Grubman to teach Driver's Ed."

A little better. I'll work on it.

I really do think these people, particularly Dr. Phil, do a good deal of harm. They present psychology as, essentially, conflict. Dr. Phil has people on his show who have problems, and he then berates, humiliates and harangues them into promising to stop whatever it is that they supposedly do wrong. Ditto Laura Schlessinger, that insufferable bitch. It's always "straighten up, do better, what the hell is wrong with you, solve your problems!"

When that's what people see from supposed mental health professionals, they start believing in that as a problem-solving tool. Are your kids not behaving like you want them to? Just "get real" with them Dr. Phil style and start berating them. It's sure to work.

The truth is, people with problems need to be reasoned with, but they need to figure things out for themselves. The best therapists (and I'll admit, I haven't known many) lead their patients towards a solution rather than instructing them about what to do. It's a long and involved process, which is why Dr. Joyce's pat radio call-in answers don't do any good, and why Dr. Phil's BS "tough love" advice is downright pernicious. Can we please get to a place as a society where we recognize that therapy is a complex life process that may or may not even work at all, and not some party trick to be performed on daytime TV in between the shows where people sue each other and the shows where Maury reveals the baby's true daddy?

Cold Calls

So, I've been sending out nice little professional letters to newspapers, desperately begging for freelance writing work. It hasn't exactly gone swimmingly to date. There's about as much interest in my writing as there is in Saddam Hussein's prison memoirs. I guess I'll just have to face the facts - if Paris Hilton didn't text-message it to someone, most Americans don't want to read it.

But a few people have suggested I actually phone some of these editors I've contacted via mail and supplicate that way. I'm planning on making some of these calls tomorrow. I hate doing this. I did it once before when I was looking for marketing/PR work (don't ask), and it's absolutely the most uncomfortable personal transaction imaginable. I've broken off relationships with people, I've watched people being fired, I've walked in on people having sex, and never once have so awkward as when I'm begging some busy professional for employment.

I'd almost rather be selling stuff than selling myself. Like, if you're cold calling in an attempt to sign people up for a financial planning and investment strategies seminar, it might be a sucky job, but you've got a pitch. Trust me, I know. It goes a little something like this:

"Hi, this is [your name here] calling from Western Financial Planning. I'm just calling to verify that you got your informational package in the mail and that you appreciated receiving it. Are you [customer's name here] of [address here]? And what is your occupation [sir or madam]?"

And then I enter this information into a computer that automatically redistributes your name and address to every bullshit company with a phone list on Earth.

But, anyway, telemarketing's about 100 times easier than cold calling people for jobs. It's impossible for me to call someone and say "Hey, sir, don't suppose you'd like a nice Me hanging around you all day by any chance? I bathe regularly, honest."

I've given out the blog address to all these editors as well, so it's clear I have no shot at working for their papers. These are professional news organizations, they don't want to take on some guy who's amused by Batman repeatedly using the word boner.

And, besides, if they'd taken the time to read what I wrote and checked out the blog, they probably know whether or not they want to hire me anyway. What difference will a phone call make? By the by, if any of you reading right now are actually one of the reporters or editors to whom I've sent my clippings, why not just hire me right now, and save us both an uncomfortable telephone conversation tomorrow?

Greatest Boners of All Time

Hey, dude, check it out:

He said boner.

I got this off a site called Superdickery that swears it's real. It's from an old Batman comic that actually uses the word "boner" amusingly several times. Check out this panel:

Just one time would have been mildly amusing, but this was an entire issue about the Joker trying to force Batman into a boner. Cue Butthead-esque laughter.

What I also like about that second panel is how Batman and Robin are wearing their costumes around the house. They're on the phone, doing household chores, checking out the library, with these spandex tights and capes on. You never saw Michael Keaton do that in the movies!

It does seem like a needless chance to take. I mean, what if someone shows up at the front door while they're in their superhero costumes? They'd have to awkwardly change real quick while telling the visitors to "hold on a sec" through the door or something. Why not just leave that stuff in the Batcave?

My thanks to FARK for the link. Any time you see immature, goofball links like this on The Inertia, there's always a 99% chance they come from FARK.

Monday, February 28, 2005

A Piece of the Rock

Here's a photo of Tim Robbins flipping off Chris Rock from last night's Oscar ceremony:

I was watching the show and didn't notice at the time. This immediately followed a mediocre crack by host Rock about Robbins' public persona. Something along the lines of, "He's either delighting us with his acting or boring us to death with his politics." It was a decent joke, and Robbins seemed to take it well to me. But then again, I only saw what the cameras focused on.

People seemed to be debating Rock's performance as host all day today. I thought he did a good enough job, keeping the show moving and providing some nice little one-liners now and again for comic relief. That's about all you can expect.

But a lot of people I spoke with found his attitude inappropriate. It was also obvious just watching the telecast that the audience wasn't exactly delighting in his antics. He's more mean-spirited and cynical than any other host in Oscar history, really. Oscar audiences are accustomed to Johnny Carson's mild jabs at obvious targets, Bob Hope's insanely tired vaudeville shtick or Billy Crystal's hacky obnoxious singing.

His line about Jude Law even drew the ire of Sean Penn during the actual show. Rock commented, rather inoffensively, I thought, that Law was sort of the Poor Man's Tom Cruise, and was in far too many movies. Though I think Law's a very talented actor, a more natural, believable performer than Cruise himself, actually, I agree he's overexposed. Being in five or six movies a year makes you an easy target for jokes, and Rock told a rather funny one. But still, Penn found it out of place.

It is a bit odd to invite someone to host the Oscars who obviously holds such contempt for celebrity, glamour and even the art of filmmaking. Rock doesn't make good movies, and hasn't, to my knowledge, ever seemed that interested in them from an artistic or creative standpoint. So, even though he's an extremely hilarious comedian, why have him host the show?

I was thinking today about who I'd invite to host the Oscars were I in Gil Cates' uncomfortable, old-man shoes. They're too old now, but my first impulse would be to invite Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Why didn't Mel Brooks ever host the Oscars? He strikes me as a perfect choice; funny guy, great ad-libber, successful filmmaker, beloved in the industry. I also heard people suggest Jon Stewart or Larry David today, and they strike me as terrific choices, even though neither's exactly made a name for themselves in the cinema.

I don't think Rock did a bad job, and I'd rather have him for another year than Billy Crystal or the reprehensible Whoopi Goldberg, whose attempts at zany one-liners thus far have been about as funny as the clips from the nominated Holocaust documentaries. Seriously, watching her host makes you beg for the segment where they show you who won the scientific and technical awards, just for a little levity. It's dull, I tells ya.

Cause and Affectation

When you work retail, you start to notice people's odd quirks. Standing at the front counter of Laser Blazer every day's like mandatory, enforced people-watching. You have to pay attention because they're customers, and they might at any moment have some dumb or annoying request to make of you, so you can't help but notice what weirdos and assholes they all are.

When I worked at an Orange County Barnes & Noble store a few years ago, I was taken aback by how many people have obvious, strange affectations. Little things they do to set themselves apart, to make people notice them or think they're interesting or special, or even just for their own personal edification. There are, of course, the oft-discussed bird people, who would come in with an exotic pet on his/her arm so that someone might actually be inspired to talk to them. Maybe they'd be more popular if one shoulder wasn't littered with tiny parrot turds, but I'm certainly not going to suggest this to them.

My point is, there have always been these sorts of people walking around. But I think the problem's getting worse. I think corporate marketing and constant media influence has convinced people that they're naked without certain expensive accessories, and now we're starting to see the horrifying result.

For example, there's a ton of people milling about the store all day now with iPods or other MP3 players hooked up, listening to their music and zoning the world out. I guess even the relatively interesting, engaging activity of shopping for movies has become a grim, mundane exercize for these folks.

Really think about that. We live in a society where the mere act of going out, walking around, and shopping now requires constant musical accompaniment. Can't someone just exist for a few minutes without a steady stream of new stimuli. Can't the new Nickelback single wait a few minutes until we've conducted a business transaction in a civilized manner?

And that's not even getting into the non-mp3 headphone people. Ugh, I hate this. The people with cell phones strapped to their head 24 hours a day. I hope the theory is correct, and cell phones cause massive brain tumors, but only in people who keep their phones turned on all the time and walk around using those idiotic Time-Life operator style headsets.

And then they start talking and you think they're talking to you, but really they're talking to some guy at their office about some crap they could easily catch up on the next day, so you're left there having a non-existent conversation with some douchebag you didn't even want to talk to in the first place. And all the cell phone people have the same mannerisms as well. When they walk up and they're on the phone, they do that little one-finger-raised "Just gimme a second" look...then when the conversation continues, they do the half-shrug "oh, I just can't get out of this conversation now" thing...Then, when you're finally finished the transaction, made more difficult becuase one half of the thing is being completed by some guy who's thoroughly engrossed in some dumbass phone chit-chat, they give you the mouthed (but silent) "thank you" and go on their merry way.

But the worst affectation I've seen at the store belongs to one customer in particular. He walks around all day with a freaking camera hanging around his neck.

I'm serious. A whole camera. As if he's going to have to urgently take a picture of something inside our video store. What a maroon. It's not like he's a photojournalist, and any moment a war's going to break out on Pico that he'll simply need to capture for posterity. He watches movies for a living. That's it! So what's the camera for? In case someone doesn't believe he really rented movies, and he needs evidence?

Not to mention, there's nothing in our store but DVD boxes and other asshole customers wearing iPods and cameras. You could find more interesting photo subjects just about anywhere. He could give himself a colonoscopy and come up with a more appealing photograph.

Wearing a camera around your neck all the time is about the most ludicrous thing you could do. It speaks to an intense, heated self-loathing. He obviously thinks he's a completely uninteresting individual, and the only reason anyone would take even a passing notice of him is if he seems artistic and mysterious.

But a true artist, someone really creative, doesn't need to let everyone know about their outlet, their art. They don't have that insecurity. You don't see great sculptors walking around all day molding clay, or the great chefs of the world driving down Melrose while whipping up a nice saffron risotto. But you see [unnamed film critic] doing this every day.

Meaningless Milestones

I guessed that by the time I returned from work today, the blog would've received 5000 hits. It happened sooner than I thought. We're well over 5050 already. I'm, frankly, amazed. I knew there were a lot of people out there on the Internet with free time, but I had no idea how many. And how much free time they have! Don't you people have jobs?

Anyway, we may have reached a milestone, but I'm not going to go changing the site just because my mom's reloaded the page 5,000 times. It is, after all, a meaningless milestone, a nice round number with no significance. The blog's no more popular than it was yesterday or the day before. Well, maybe it's a little less popular, as I haven't been updating so often this week, but you get what I mean.

My Own Private Idaho

The Criterion Collection 2-disc special edition of Gus Van Sant's 1992 opus comes out on Tuesday. I borrowed it early from the video store because I wanted to impress you. And because it's been a while since I've seen the movie and was anxious to revisit it to see if it has held up over time.

At the time of its release, most of the attention focused on My Own Private Idaho centered around the homosexual content. Yes, a pre-Neo Keanu and The Late River Phoenix star as gay hustlers drifting around the Pacific Northwest turning tricks and having adventures. But the movie's less about being young and gay than it is about being young and transgressive.

Mike (Phoenix's narcoleptic hero) searches for love wherever he can find it, whether it's with his long-lost mother, "street teacher" Bob (William Richert) or his traveling companion and fellow hustler Scott (Reeves). And Scott sleeps with men only for money, and the giddy thrill of breaking the rules. He's a rich boy, you see, the child of the mayor of Portland, and he's just running away from his responsibilities, trying to enjoy every last moment of his misspent youth until he has to clean up and start to live a responsible life.

The other major focus of critical attention/scorn towards Idaho centered on its appropriation of Shakespeare's "Henry IV." Now, appropriating Shakespeare is about as common in movies as car chases and fart jokes, but in 1992, the anachronism seemed jarring and out of place. Bob the Hustler is quite obviously Falstaff, even going so far as the speak in some of the original Shakespearen iambic pentameter. And Scott, the scion of a noble family "slumming it" on the streets before turning his back on his former associates, is the Prince Hal character.

The problem with focusing too heavily on either the gay themes or the Shakespeare references is that you wind up missing most of the movie. Van Sant's created a road picture, a segmented movie based on Mike's fragmented perspective on the world. Because of Mike's narcolepsy, he's constantly falling asleep and waking up in new environs. So the film starts and stops with his consciousness. We black out in Seattle and find ourselves in Portland. A quick series of stacatto actions moves the setting to Rome, and then quickly back to the United States. So Van Sant divides the movie into distinct sequences, and gives them each a unique style.

What he's getting at is more a feeling than any specific idea. On various features on the DVD, people close to the production suggest that My Own Private Idaho is about conferring some nobility onto Portland street life and those who live it, or that it's about Van Sant refiguring Orson Welles' appropriation of the Falstaff character into a queer icon, or that it's about people who move between socio-economic levels of society. I think it's more about the state of being a drifter, both physically and mentally.

Mike's stuck between childhood and adulthood. As his development's been so stunted by family tragedy, abandonment and his unfortunate condition, he lacks the tools neccessary to progress beyond adolescence. He's stuck in a very adult world, that of the male hustler, and yet he can't relate in an adult fashion to anyone around him. He has a juvenile crush on his traveling partner, who obviously doesn't return the feelings. He's naive and trusting to a fault. And he often sees the world with wild-eyed abandon, with a feeling that anything is possible. Since we in the audience are stuck inside his frame of mind, the film develops a breezy aura of repetition. When Mike wakes up late in the film in the middle of the same road upon which he started 90 minutes before, the movie has come full circle. Despite all he has seen and learned, despite all the ups and downs of his travels, Mike's right back where he started from, on a road staring at the horizon, wondering what comes next and if he'll be awake to see it.

And this is where the Falstaff story comes in. It's a story about the natural progression of man, about the aging process. Prince Hal opens the story as a young rebel, yet he's always keenly aware of his future need to reform his childish ways. He alerts the audience early in the play that one day, when everyone least expects it, he'll put his reckless days behind him and become the man he was born to be. Eventually, he turns his back on everyone, betraying the older man who taught him and trusted him.

Mike can't enact this process, he can't develop on this level. So, while Hal settles down into the life of a wealthy aristocrat, Mike keeps living day to day, hand to mouth, on the streets, searching for the family and the home he'll never have.

I have to say, the release of this film at the opening of George W. Bush's second term feels prescient. I'd never considered this before, but our president's something of a Prince Hal kind of character. Born into decadence, into a powerful family with an influential name, he squandered his youth on drugs and debauchery. Why, even the infamous recording found of Bush years ago swearing to give up marijuana mirrors Hal's prophetic monologue about reforming his life. One of the final scenes of My Own Private Idaho finds Scott gazing from his father's funeral across the graveyard, to the wild, frenzied wake the homeless kids are throwing for their fallen leader Bob. Does our President share this same sort of mixed feeling: thankfulness for being able to escape the depression and unpredictability of a life on the road, or wistfulness for the risk-filled spontaneous days of his youth?

Aside from this political observation, I noticed dozens of film references strewn throughout the movie. Okay, fine, I wasn't just feeling perceptive; many of these are cited by film critics and scholars on the Criterion DVD's many many bonus features and documentaries. One that wasn't mentioned, that I think is quite salient to Van Sant's final product, is 1969 Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy. Most clearly, it's also the story of a male hustler struggling to survive in a big city. And it's also a tale about an odd male friendship, formed of need in a rough, poverty-stricken atmosphere. Finally, it becomes a desperate road movie, as the characters make a mad dash away from their problems, hoping to outrun fate.

Chris Rock's Def Oscar Jam

Got to see the vast majority of the Oscar telecast, as the video store sat empty for basically my entire shift today. The boss said it was alright for us to keep the TV at the front tuned to the show, so I didn't miss a single award.

The show came off pretty well this year. Rock was a great host, getting in a few quips here and there but not taking over the show, as some other hosts have been known to do. Like, oh I don't know, say, Billy Crystal, with his endless mugging, tired Catskills schtick and half-hour song-laden monologues? I say we only go with edgy comedians from now on. Tell me you don't want to hear Dave Attel do his best 15 minutes on drunk midgets with Lauren Bacall in the front row.

And, though it wasn't really that classy hauling all the nominees on stage to get to the speeches faster, it was effective. The show clocked in at a neat n' tidy 3.25 hours, which is the shortest, leanest Oscarcast I can think of. I say we do away with the performances of Best Original Song nominees altogether unless they're sung by a higher caliber of artist. Can you believe this year they nominated a stand-by Andrew Lloyd Webber song?

Let me put this into context. This is a song Webber chose not to include in one of his shows, but reserved for the movie. It wasn't a good enough song to make it into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Any song will do in one of this guy's plays. He's got an entire musical about trains performed by actors on roller skates. Saying your song isn't good enough for an Andrew Lloyd Webber show is like saying your noodles aren't good enough to serve at the Olive Garden.

And what's with having Beyonce perform all the nominated songs? She didn't sing them in the movies. It's not like, halfway through Les Choristes, the kids all leave the stage to bring on Beyonce Knowles. She and Jay-Z didn't do a walk-on in the middle of Polar Express to the best of my knowledge, but there they both are in the front row of the Oscars, like two people who've, I don't know, had an illustrious career in filmmaking or something. They had better seats than Charlie Kaufman, and he had already been nominated twice before!

Speaking of which, that was the highlight of the evening for me. Seeing Kaufman, who has been one of my favorite working screenwriters since the first time I saw Being John Malkovich, pick up an Oscar for writing my favorite film of 2004 was a real thrill. What a great moment. In fact, both of the screenwriting categories went to the most deserving recipients this year, which is both a rarity and a pleasure.

As for the main categories, I can't fault Foxx's performance despite hating the film that spawned it. He didn't do a bad job - Hackford just didn't trust any of his actors enough to simply let them occupy the film. He forced everything into a shrill, obvious narrative and basically eliminated any sense of real humanity from the project. But Foxx did do a remarkable job of suggesting the presence of Charles during many moments of the film, so for that, I'll grant him his award. He's clearly an obvious talent with a great deal of charisma, though I preferred his nominated performance in Collateral this year.

And what's with awarding Scorsese's many longtime collaborators but not the man himself? It's beginning to seem almost vindictive. His editor for his entire career picked up her second Oscar tonight for The Aviator. She's done this before, winning an Oscar when her director goes unheralded (the last time was 1980, when she won for Raging Bull but Best Picture went to the lesser Ordinary People). Not to mention Dante Feretti picking up his Oscar for the sets, Robert Richardson getting the nod for his cinematography and Cate Blanchett winning for Best Supporting Actress. Leaving aside my feelings that The Aviator was the superior of the two films, I can't help but feel sorry for Marty, who obviously wants the recognition of his peers.

He'll have to content himself, I suppose, with the knowledge that most of history's greatest filmmakers are without statuettes. Alfred Hitchcock? 0 Oscars. Stanley Kubrick? 0 Oscars. Orson Welles? 0 Oscars. Now that's an elite group.