Saturday, April 09, 2005

Bad Education

I couldn't get friends to go see this movie with me in theaters. You'd think an internationally known and respected guy like Pedro Almoldovar would have more admirers among the geeky film community of Los Angeles. Most often, it was the gay content that turned my potential movie mates off.

I don't mean to imply that my friends are homophobic. Okay, some of my friends are definitely homophobic. I have one friend in particular for whom "fag" is both a noun and a verb (as in, "why do you keep fagging me like this?")

I like to think jokes such as these highlight the absurdity of homophobia rather than the reality of it, but I may be deluding myself. Anyway, there were no takers for Almoldovar's homosocial psychological thriller Bad Education, so I had to wait to check it out on DVD. And I discovered that it's one of the Spanish icon's more entertaining and accomplished films, if not neccessarily the most amusing, charming or humane. While it's not an emotional masterpiece like the director's Live Flesh, Bad Education ranks among Almoldovar's most innovative and exciting narratives, a Hitchcock homage that covers a lot of territory in its tight hour and 45 minute running time.

As I mentioned, the film clearly echoes Hitchcock's mixture of dark comedy and high tension, and it also incorporates the Master's love of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. With its frank, unabashed sexuality and sensuous, fluid tracking shots, there are echoes of Brian De Palma's great 70's thrillers.

Ignacio and Enrique came of age in a Franco-era religious school full of bullying priests who sexually and physically abused the young boys, and thus formed a tight and enduring bond. One of the preists in particular, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho) fell in love with young Ignacio, setting the tragic paths for all three of these characters lives throughout the next 20 years.

The action begins when a stranger appears at the office of notable Spanish director Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez). The young man (Gael García Bernal) claims to be Enrique's long-lost school chum, Ignacio, even though he looks nothing like the boy he was and doesn't remember key events in their young lives. "Ignacio" has written a story, based in part on the tragic circumstances of his and Enrique's situation, and as the director reads it, we see it enacted.

And it's here that the film gets complicated and far more interesting. In the fantasy/story sequence, Bernal portrays the hero, a coke-addled drag queen named Zahara who confronts a priest who sexually abused him/her as a child. Then, within Zahara's story, we see yet another flashback to actual events in Ignacio and Enrique's life back at the religious school. The various infidelities, double-crosses and reversals get complicated but never confusing.

This all comes together so well because of Almoldovar's mastery of the form. He's been making films long enough to really demonstrate confidence and, yes, balls in organizing a story with this sort of imploding structure. Bad Education as a film is almost entirely backstory - explanations about why certain people behave as they do, and what traumatic events have altered their viewpoint - and yet it feels vital and energetic, like any good noir mystery.

Though the film holds together thematically, and contains many interesting ideas about fate, love and the lingering effects of childhood abuse, I think it works best as an elaborate puzzle. Like other satisfying noir-romance-mysteries about past trauma, works like Hitchcock's Marnie and John Brahm's woefully underseen 1946 masterpiece The Locket, Almoldovar's film glides along, always remianing intriguing without ever fully giving the game away.

One more thought about the central conceit of the film: in the flashbacks, because they are not quite reflections of reality, but rather a fictionalized version of reality, the characters have all morphed or shifted in some vital way. Obviously, Ignacio has turned into a transsexual, but other characters have been altered as well, including Enrique (who has become a drunken barfly who takes Zahara home for a little how's your father).

I'm reminded of the transsexual "South Park" episode of a few weeks back. It also seemed to argue that transsexuals were purposefully creating artifice, pretending to be something they're not and asking us to accept it anyway. I disagreed with this viewpoint and basically found the episode insensitive. But now here's Almoldovar in a way suggesting the same case - that Zahara's artifice (pretending to be a woman) blocks her from confronting the pain of her childhood abuse. The character has become a hiding place for Ignacio.

And, of course, later in the film, when we find out even more secrets about Ignacio's true identity and where he has been in the years since his childhood, the layers of artifice increase. By the end of the film, you've been confronted with a dizzying array of experiences and information, intersecting timelines that link up in a variety of puzzling and troubling ways. It's a lot to take in, and all the actors acquit themselves exceptionally well considering the difficulty of the material.

Bad Education was a film I not only enjoyed, but enjoyed more than I expected. As I said, it's among Almoldovar's most interesting, if not most accessible, work. Surprising that it's his first film strictly in the thriller genre, as he seems to handle its tropes and pace quite well.

Hot for Goddess

I tend to think all religions are ridiculous, but it occurs to me that I reserve blog mockery almost exclusively for Judaism, the religion of my ancestors, and Christianity, the religion of all the stupid Americans. This is unfair, as all religions are pretty equally stupid.

Yes, even Buddhism. Every time I declare all world religions to be stupid, someone has to try and offer Buddhism as a counter-argument, as if it's so perfect and obvious, it's beyond the pale of rational analysis.

A lot of the basic ideas of Buddhism, the "life is suffering" and "extricate yourself from a materialist existance," sure, that stuff is great. But Buddhism's filled with dumb mystical crap too, like fat guy gold statues everywhere and monks scanning the countryside for the latest incarnation of the all-knowing Buddha. And, like all ludicrous religions, it features silly hats. Always, always, with the silly hats.

Plus, that deep chanting gets really annoying really fast.

But the point of this post was not simply to mock Buddhism. Sure, that was part of the idea, but I'd like to move along to Hinduism now. Specifically, this Yahoo article, about a Bengali writer who has been arrested for defiling the goddess of learning, Saraswati.

A police complaint was lodged in the city against Bengali novelist Sunil Gangopadhayay by retired additional director general of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) Bibhutibhusan Nandy.

Nandy has accused the writer of hurting religious sentiments by what he termed as obscene comments on the goddess in an autobiographical account, excerpts of which were carried by a Bengali daily.

Specifically, this novelist indicated that he won a literary award as a gift from Saraswati, in exchange for his physical desire for her. Also, he admitted in an autobiographical article to, ahem, pleasuring himself while fondling a clay statue of the goddess.

So, clearly, this guy has got some issues going on. Have you seen these Hindu goddesses? I mean, sure, some of them are kind of cute, when they don't have eight arms and aren't blue. But this is taking it a bit far.

It also makes me wonder if there are Christians out there anywhere with Virgin Mary fetishes? Surely there's got to be some Madonna porn out there somewhere. (No, not pop star Madonna...we all know there's pop star Madonna porn out there...)

The First Information Report (FIR) was filed under sections 295 and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) pertaining to defilement of sacred objects and insulting religious beliefs.

While police confirmed the news, Sunil Gangopadhayay said he was not aware of the legal proceedings.

"A report published in Bengali daily Ananda Bazar Patrika on March 28 quoted the writer saying that he was aroused by an idol of the goddess and had fondled the clay image for gratification. This is not only depravity and perversion of the person but also amounts to desecration of the goddess of learning," Nandy told IANS.

It's kind of comforting to hear that there's another country filled with loopy religious nuts out there. I sometimes feel so alone in the universe. But this is pretty wacky stuff...It's against the law in India to insult religious beliefs? Can you imagine? In Madras, this blog would be like the Unabomber Manifesto. I'd be the John Dillinger of Dehli.

What a silly law. You're not legally allowed to find an imaginary character...oh, I mean, a "goddess"...attractive? I mean, I agree, it's kind of weird and inappropriate, like falling in love with Bilbo Baggins or Wonder Woman. I'm recalling that scene in the documentary Crumb where R. Crumb admits to, in his formative years, finding Bugs Bunny sexually attractive. In America, that just makes you an oddity; in India, it makes you a felon.

Aloha Oy

My folks left today for a vacation in Hawaii. They've been there several times before, but never without me and my brother tagging along with them. (I want to use "my brother and I" there, but you wouldn't say "without I tagging along with them," so I think "me and my brother" is actually correct in this still looks wrong...)

This is probably for the best. I like Hawaii a lot (what's not to like?), but I always feel a bit out of place there. Let's face it - I'm an overweight bearded Jew. I have about as much business on a tropical beach as Nanook of the North. When in Hawaii, where the population is largely Polynesian and fond of saying "mahalo," I tend to stand out.

I far prefer vacations where I can blend in with the local population. In Hawaii, I'm so clearly a tourist that I don't get to really experience anything. Everywhere I go, it's "let me get you a towel, sir" and "here's another fish entree with a name that includes 20 vowels." Everyone in Waikiki's from Des Plaines or Fresno or Waxahatchie, Texas. It gets kind of weird after a while.

I'm reminded for whatever stream-of-consciousness reason of this one trip to Vegas with my friend and roommate Nathan. We stayed at the Frontier Inn on the Strip and I had to wake up extra early one morning to catch a cab to Henderson airport for a flight back to LA. So, I'm standing there on The Strip, and it's about 9 am, and for the first time, I really see the street for what it is. At night, there's so many people and lights and so much activity and noise and commotion, you get caught up in it, you kind of give yourself over to the illusion.

But in the morning, when the street's bare save for old people and hardcore gamblers, and all the lights are off, and the hot morning-in-the-desert sun is beating down on you, you really see The Strip for what it is: a dank patch of oversized buildings huddled together in the middle of nowhere, packed to the gills with strangers from various states sleeping off their collective hangovers.

So, that's not really like Hawaii, which would be a beautiful tropical paradise even if all the tourists and activity went away. But it's kind of how I feel about Hawaii after several weeks of being waited upon and treated like a visitor. I prefer visitng a culturally enriched major city to which I've never previously been. You get to check out the major urban centers, interesting museums and landmarks, and meet different kinds of people with different backgrounds.

Although Hawaii does have the benefit of those Volcano drinks with the eight different kinds of rum in them. Let's see Chicago try to top that one.

It's also good that my parents are taking this trip because they rarely leave comfortable environs of Southern California. My mother and I share a disaffection for travel, though for me it's more the actual transportation part that's a bummer. I hate long car trips, and I really hate commercial air travel, but once I get where I'm going, I enjoy myself immensely.

My mother, on the other hand, doesn't really relax from the moment she leaves the house until the moment she has returned, and this doesn't even include all the packing, unpacking and pre-arrangements that cause her strain and irritation.

Plus, once we get to the hotel, she always insists that we change rooms for some bizarre reason. Now, granted, sometimes there would actually be a slight problem with the room, such as not having enough beds or a faulty air conditioner or something. But sometimes we'd walk into rooms that seemed perfectly fine to me, and yet we'd still have to switch rooms. Sometimes more than once.

I think the idea was, you always assume that the hotel will want to put you in the cheapest, crummiest room they have available, so if you keep shifting rooms, eventually you'll get to one of the good ones. But it's hard to believe that every time you check in to a hotel, they're trying to foist you into some dismal, dank corner they reserve only for the suckers who accept the first room they're offered.

Part of the problem is, my parents share a strange obsession with having a "view." I don't get the need at all for a view from a hotel room window. I mean, okay, maybe, if you're staying somewhere with one clearly identifiable thing, maybe it'd be nice to see it from your hotel room. Like, if you're in St. Louis and your hotel is right near that Archway thing, you might want to be facing it if possible. Because what the hell else are you going to look at? St. Louis?

But some hotels just don't look out on to anything interesting. And how much time are you really going to spend sitting in your hotel room staring out at the horizon? I suggest that, if it's more than 10 minutes total for the whole vacation, you don't really know how to have a good time. Why not, instead of worrying about the view from your room, you go out and move around in the landscape, three-dimensionally? It kind of enhances the whole experience.

Now that I'm re-reading this post, I realize it could be seen as making fun of my mother, which she clearly would not appreciate. But I'm going to post it anyone because (1) I am something of an inconsiderate son, (2) it's a very gentle ribbing as opposed to a harsh critique and (3) she's off in Hawaii, and the wireless Internet remains a mysterious and futuristic concept to my parents, so I'm betting Moms will be incommunicado, cyberwise, for the next week or more.

Best of the BEST

So I just got back from taking the CBEST exam, the standardized test designed to determine whether or not I'm qualified to teach young children. I'm thinking that I passed, because the exam was for the most part spectacularly easy.

It's divided into three sections: Reading, Mathematics and Writing. You're given a staggering 4 hours to complete the test, which means that, even as I type this here from the comfort of my bedroom, there are people still in the testing room with an hour of spare time yet to go. Yowza.

The Reading section was the easiest. You're given a series of paragraphs and asked painfully obvious questions about them. It goes like this:

Please answer questions 1 through 3 based on the paragraph written below:

Lots of people drive cars. Some cars are bigger than others. It's a common stereotype that people who drive large, expensive cars are compensating for having a small penis, or in the case of female drivers, no penis at all. This stereotype is true.

1. Which of the following can you infer from this selection?
A. Big cars are safer than small cars
B. There are more big cars than small cars
C. More men than women drive big cars
D. The author lives in Los Angeles
E. Women don't have penises

2. What is the main idea of this paragraph?
A. Big cars are better than small cars
B. Small cars are better than big cars
C. Men drive better than women
D. Women drive better than men
E. Because everyone drives huge SUV's everywhere in Los Angeles, it's very difficult to see where you're going when driving a small car, so you will occasionally turn out of a parking lot and directly into a pedestrian, in which case you should probably speed up before the cops arrive

3. In this paragraph, the word stereotype could be replaced by which of the following?
A. archetype
B. phenotype
C. daguerrotype
D. genotype
E. appetite

It goes on and on like that. I don't really know how this determines whether or not you'd be a good teacher. It seems like it mainly tests your patience. Can you wade through these 20 really boring snippets taken out of textbooks and figure out what the hell they're talking about before passing out from boredom?

Then there was a math section. This is blatantly unfair, as I'm at a point in my life where it's been over a decade since I've had to do any of this math. It wasn't even the abstract concepts giving me trouble so much as it was doing the arithmatic in my head. You're not allowed to use a calculator on the CBEST, despite the fact that every math teacher I've ever had uses one. Why do they feel the need to prepare you to teach math without a calculator? In case you wind up with a teaching assignment in the distant past, say Ancient China, and they only have an abacus?

It's dumb, wasting time doing all this long division and stuff in your head. I swear to you, I found myself counting with my fingers more than once! I don't do this stuff...ever! I'm even starting to forget my multiplication tables.

It's true! At one point, I kept getting an answer I knew was wrong. It wasn't even one of the five lettered choices. I went back to discover that I had written the product of 8 and 6 as 46. Yikes. That's powerful stupid. You really shouldn't need a calculator for that one...just a central nervous system.

What can I say? I suck at math. Math was my worst subject in junior high and high school. Worse even than woodshop, and I nearly lost a limb in that class.

The last section on the CBEST is the writing section. So, yeah, I figured it would be a snap. After all, I write crap on this here blog near every day (when Blogger's not experiencing total meltdown, that is). But the writing topics themselves were fairly loopy, and I'm not sure I wrote exactly what they were looking for.

Question #1 asked me what one value I'd like to pass on to future generations. It's a hard question to answer in two handwritten pages, mainly because I don't really have any values. I mean, I've never killed a man, and I guess "don't murder people" is a value. But I didn't want to write that as my response - "I think we should teach the younger generation not to kill each other." It's kind of an obvious choice.

It was almost like the essay topic wanted me to come up with some kind of moral value, like "meat is murder" or "women connected to life support systems and feeding tubes are, like, so totally still alive." So I wrote that I'd like to pass on to our children intellectual curiosity, that I think kids are too complacent and willing to accept what they are told by authority figures and media. It's a truthful response, and I even got in some cutting remarks about Fox News and whatnot, but I'm not sure it's what the Board of Education will be looking for. Even as we speak, my response may be on its way to Porter Goss' office, so he can debrief his staff tomorrow about my traitorous and un-American philosophy of "education" and "media literacy."

So if this blog disappears tomorrow, you'll know the government has finally come in and shut me down.

Question #2 continued the warm, fuzzy essay style. It wanted to know about a goal I have accomplished in my life of which I was proud.

It immediately occured to me that a group full of hopeful teachers was the wrong crowd for this question. No offense to teachers, who have one of our society's most important and least respected jobs, but any room full of people hoping to be substitute teachers most likely includes its share of failures from other industries. I don't isolate myself from this category either, mind you. It just seems kind of insensitive, like asking people in the unemployment line for sound investment strategies.

So, yeah, I finished the test in just over 2 hours. It wasn't a race, but just so you know, that was second out of everyone in my assigned room, and I think the girl who finished first just kind of gave up halfway through. I'll let you know how I did whenever I get the results back, unless I failed the test, in which case I'll never bring this up again.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Fingering a Suspect

Sorry...I couldn't help it...

You've probably heard about the case of the Las Vegas woman who claimed she found a severed human finger in her Wendy's 99 cent cup of chili.

My first response is...they're charging 99 cents for a cup of chili. What did you think you'd fine in there? Beef?

Well, police remain baffled as to the identity of the finger's owner. All the employees of Wendy's have all their fingers, and none of Wendy's suppliers have reported an accident wherein someone lost a digit. There's even talk that the police may suspect the victim, Anna Ayala, of putting the finger in the chili in the first place.

"We are looking into every aspect in this case," San Jose police spokeswoman Gina Tepoorten said. "We are talking to people she knows as well as the finder of the finger. … We want to determine who this finger belongs to how and how it ended up in a bowl of chili."

I'm genuinely intrigued by this one. We know it wasn't a Wendy's employee who lost a finger, and we know it couldn't be the woman who found the finger. So who's left?

To my mind, there's only two reasonable explanations.

(1) Someone at a Wendy's ingredient warehouse lost a finger, and it's being covered up for fear of reprisals or a loss of business. Maybe the company cut a check to some wage slave in exchange for their silence, although once the police are involved, you'd think the victim would speak up anyway.

(2) Ayala convinced someone she knew to cut off their finger for a chance at a share of the winnings in a future lawsuit.

The cops have executed a search warrant for Ayala's home, so they're clearly keeping #2 in mind as a possibility. If this is true, Ayala might be the best saleswoman of her generation.

Think about that...You have to convince someone to actually cut off their finger at the knuckle, so you can plop it into your Wendy's chili and then collect the pay-off. How do you start that conversation?

"Okay, I have this idea. We'll be totally rich. I'm going to find someone's finger in my Wendy's chili!...Are you kidding? They'll pay through the nose! It'll be a national embarassment...No, I can't cut off my own finger. The cops will figure it out!...Well, I'm the only one who knows how to handle the media. Plus, it is my idea...Well, I was thinking maybe you could cut off your finger...I mean, it'll hurt a little...No, you can't reattach it. It will be entered into evidence...We're talking thousands of dollars here. Stop being such a baby...Yeah, you've got 9 more...So, you're in? Great! I'll bring the pruning shears, you get some green nail polish..."

C is for Cookie...

That's good enough for me.

But now, because America is on this anti-obesity kick, the Cookie Monster of "Sesame Street" fame will no longer be allowed a diet of exclusively cookies.

Seriously. They're taking away cookies...from the Cookie Monster.

Even politicians have gotten into the act, filming public service announcements with "Sesame Street" residents. In one taping, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist taught Elmo to exercise -- jumping up and down. In another, Sen. Hillary Clinton and the small red monster discuss the various textures and tastes of foods.

"Even Cookie Monster is learning to control his cookie cravings," Frist told me by e-mail. "His sage advice opened our eyes to the simple joys of a tasty cookie and now reminds us that moderation is the key to healthy living."

Actually, Cookie Monster's sage advice taught us that the word "cookie" begins with the letter C, Senator Bill. I also recall one occasion where old Cook taught us about computers by using a magical device that made cookies magically appear on a monitor.

Surely there are better spokespeople for cookie-eating moderation than a blue, googly-eyed monster whose passion for baked goods is indicated right there in his name. He's a Cookie Monster! That's what he is. Asking him to enjoy cookies in moderation is like asking Dick Cheney to kill foreigners in moderation. That's not how monsters work. They're just not built that way.

I'd quote more from this CNN article about the Cookie Monster's newfound respect for nutirional guidelines and healthy moderation, but it's all written in this cutesy, folksy, first-person style that's really obnoxious. You know, kind of like this blog. To wit:

My beloved blue, furry monster -- who sang "C is for cookie, that's good enough for me" -- is now advocating eating healthy. There's even a new song -- "A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food," where Cookie Monster learns there are "anytime" foods and "sometimes" foods.

"Sacrilege!" I cried. "That's akin to Oscar the Grouch being nice and clean." (Co-workers gave me strange looks. But I didn't care.)

Ugh. Dave Barry, this girl ain't...

Anyway, I like this concept of "anytime" and "sometimes" foods. It's actually kind of, you know, reasonable. (But, for the record, a cookie is always food. Except those imitation cookies with carob or dried fruit bits in them...those are never food.)

When I was a young kid, the concept of eating balanced meals for good nutrition was already well in place, but the core concept was often obscured by the severity and frequency of the message. Sugar wasn't just a "sometimes" food but a silent killer that rots your teeth and gives you pimples and makes you fat and ugly.

And who could forget constant interruptions during Saturday Morning cartoons?

I remember one urging me to eat fish twice a week, another starring a hunk of cheese dressed as a cowboy, another one about how you should drink milk constantly, except when you're pouring water down your gullet, and even one telling me to eat five fruits or vegetables a day. Fucking A, I'm trying to watch "The Great Space Coaster."

As a kid, that "fruits and vegetables" thing seemed particularly bizarre. Could the television really be urging me to eat five whole vegetables a day? I liked some fruits as a kid (particularly bananas, still a favorite...), but not really the veggies.

Not much has changed.

So the thought of trying to force feed myself an entire head of broccoli, of cramming five full servings of green beans into my stomach when they're intended as a side dish...well, I think it might have done more harm to my understanding of nutrition than good.

Personally, if there's one aspect of the Cookie Monster's personality we should alter for the well-being of children, it's his abhorrent butchering of the English language. How many kids have grown up thinking it's proper to use the phrase "me want cookie." Instead of life lessons about the overall deliciousness of celery, how about getting CM a basic understanding of phonics and syntax? Me ask you, is that too much to ask?

Oh, and me want to thank Gorilla Mask for the link.

Mitch Alborn is a Liar

But you already knew that, right?

He's the sports columnist who wrote the treacly, somewhat embarrassing death memoir "Tuesdays with Morrie." It's about an old teacher he reconnected with, a free spirit named Morrie, who was dying. Mitch would visit him every Tuesday and learn valuable life lessons, life lessons that he apparently had never heard before, like "stop and smell the roses" or "how the courage to face the unknown with a smile" or "sometimes, when you get old and you're sick, you can't wipe yourself after doing #2, and someone has to do that for you, and it's kind of embarrassing".

And then Mitch wrote a book capitalizing on his friend's death. And it became a big best-seller, and he wrote some more books, and now this douchebag's a best-selling author. They even made a TV movie out of Tuesdays with Morrie, which would contain the final performance from the legendary Jack Lemmon, who really didn't deserve to go out that way. The basic theme of this story, as best I can recall, is the following: Death's really poignant provided it happens to someone else.

If it happens to you, though, it's less poignant and more, oh yeah, unpleasant and painful.

Alborn wrote another book after Morrie which I haven't read. It's called The Five People You Meet in Heaven. It's about an old man, Eddie, who dies saving a young girl at an amusement park and goes to Heaven. When he gets there, he discovers that Heaven's not really a place with clouds and angels and harps. It looks a lot like where you spent your life, and you meet people you knew when you were alive, and they tell you stuff about yourself.

Sounds like a riveting read, I know. I'm betting the final person Eddie meets in Heaven is the young girl he saved. Either that, or he meets Morrie, in an odd book-crossover technique that will really give the marketing department a much-needed boost. They made a bullshit movie out of this book as well, starring Jon Voight. Alborn's started this kind of TV-movie cottage industry. You find old actors who don't get much work any more and have them elaborately die on screen for two hours. Then you sit back and watch that advertising and DVD money roll in.

So, you might think this is why I've called Alborn a liar. Because he sugarcoats death, inserts deep meaning into situations that lack meaning, and pretends there's a Heaven, which there clearly is not.

But, no, the guy's just a liar.

Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom wrote a bogus basketball column. Based on earlier interviews of two NBA players, he submitted a Friday piece about a Saturday event (as if it happened) for the Sunday edition. The game was up when the two players mentioned in the article failed to show.

Oops. This is why you shouldn't write a column about a basketball game before it has actually happened.

Now, yeah, yeah, I know...Mitch was under time pressure from his editor's and it was for the Sunday edition. And he was, like, super-tired. But come on! Why bother reading the sports page at all, if they're just going to make up what happens before the games are even played? Hell, I could do that. Why doesn't the Detroit Free Press give me some column inches?

This is an egregious ethical lapse. Prophesying the future should be clearly labeled as such. Columnists do not fabricate events or characters and pawn them off as truth. His sports column in question was not satire. Mitch Albom, a long time award winner and best-selling author, should understand these essential ethics better than most.

Mitch, and any professional journalist, should clearly understand why this was not appropriate behavior. I kind of think "ethical lapse" is too kind for this scenario. This is more like being exposed as a fraud.

It also explains why Mitch enjoys writing about the dead so much. They can't voice a rebuttal when he just starts making shit up about them.

Nothing but the Best

Tomorrow I'm taking the CBEST exam. It's a standardized test that doesn't do anything.

Well, okay, if you want to teach in California, you have to pass the CBEST examination. So it does something, but I still kind of can't figure out exactly what happens if you pass. I'd assume that, once you've passed, people will randomly call you and offer you teaching positions, but this apparently isn't the case. You just become licensed to teach. Which is kind of like being licensed to fly an airplane when you don't own one. A nice thing to have in case of airborne emergency but essentially useless.

I'm a little nervous. Generally, I do quite well on standardized exams. I aced the SAT and did well enough on the GRE to get into an (also useless) grad program at USC. So it's not the situation that gets me nervous. It's the fact that I'm being asked to perform algebra.

I'm no good at algebra. It's this collision of language and math, and those are two great tastes that don't neccessarily go great together. I can handle something like 2+2=4. Those are all numbers, so it makes sense. If I have two trampolines and I buy two more trampolines...I have 4 trampolines. Which I should sell, because no one needs four trampolines unless they're one of the Ringling Brothers.

Even the real basic algebra stuff, I can handle. 2+x=4. Okay, you see that, you know x has to be two. Because two twos make a four. Easy so far.

But once you start getting into fractions, or more than one letter in the equation, I get kind of mixed up. And then there are the word problems, where they express a question in paragraph form and you have to come up with the answer, even though it's more like a reading comprehension problem than a math problem.

Stuff like this:

Jim can do X amount of work in an hour. Jane can do that same amount of work in 90 minutes. Bill can do that same amount of work in 15 minutes. If they all work together, how quickly can they get X amount of work done?

To solve this problem, you have to make up a whole lot of fake numbers, like 3x or x-10 or -x/4 or some shit. It's stupid. How should I know how much Jim, Bill and Jane can get done? Maybe they don't work well together. Maybe there isn't any profit sharing at their company, so they don't give a shit how quickly X amount of work can get done. Maybe they've been doing X work for the past several years and are completely fed up with it, and today, instead of getting work done, they're going to march into their bosses office and shove their work directly up his X.

Maybe I'll just write that in on the Scantron.

The other thing that unsettles me about tomorrow's CBEST exam? It's being held at 8:30 in the goddamn morning, across town. This is clearly unfair, because not all of us function at our intellectual best at 8:30 am. Some of our brains don't really activate for a new day until noon, which is likely when the test will end.

What's the goddamn point of starting the test that early anyway? It seems kind of like a test on top of the test - first, they're seeing whether you'll bother to show up at 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday, thus ruining your entire weekend, and then they'll see if you can figure out that Bill/Jane/Jim algebra bullshit.

Also, it's unfair that I have to drive so far out of my way to get to the testing center. This is Los Angeles - that place may only be 5 miles away, but it's a massive drive to do in the morning when you're in a rush to go take a stupid standardized test. They might as well hold it in the Appalachians or Juarez or something.

When I signed up, they have to fill in a blank about where you'd like to take the test. I checked the bubble that said, I swear to you, the following: "West Los Angeles (Santa Monica)"

Which makes sense, because I am Santa Monica-adjacent. But no. We all get funnelled to Los Angeles High School near the corner of Highland and Olympic. So tomorrow, I'm facing a Frodo-like pilgrimage across Los Angeles at 7:30 in the morning. I'll be lucky if I can remember my own name when I get to the testing center. I'll probably miss the practice questions.

I guess the one good thing about having the test so early is I'll have plenty of day left by the time the test is over. Time which I can use for two activities - trying to catch up on all the sleep I'm going to miss in the morning and neurotically second-guessing all of my test answers.

In high school, whenever I'd get out of a test like this, a group of us would stand in a circle outside the testing center and gauge how well each of us did. I don't know how we did this, but my friends and I genuinely would recall almost all the difficult test questions and figure out what the answers were together, all in the course of a few minutes.

Man, I was so much smarter in high school! I could never do that now! When I exit from the test center tomorrow, I'll be totally out of it, in a complete daze. I'll be lucky if I remember what test I just completed, let alone what all the hard questions were and what I answered for them. So I'll have to wait 6-8 weeks to determine whether I'm a potential Los Angeles Unified School District teacher, or just some bum who works at a local video store.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

A Boy Named Jeb

George Herbert Walker Bush sired three children. One of them, George W., is currently serving a second term as the Worst President in American History. Another one, Neil, was a fine young man who became embroiled in that nasty Savings and Loan scandal a few years back which, while it pales in comparison to the nefarious schemes of George W.'s pals at Enron, was still a pretty large embezzled chunk of change.

And, regrettably, George H. W. Bush and his charming, not-at-all-manly wife Barbara didn't merely have two nitwit sons. They had three. They gave the world a boy named Jeb, a sweaty idiot with a face three times too small for his head that Floridians actually elected to run their entire state as governor.

Bear in mind, folks, I'm from California. We've elected a man to our state's highest office whose only prior experience in an executive position was co-ownership of Planet Hollywood. Who has a track record of sound decision-making that includes Junior, The Last Action Hero and Jingle All the Way. Why couldn't we have at least elected one of the villains from a good Batman movie. I could deal with Governor DeVito or Councilman Walken, or dare I even suggest...Mayor Nicholson?

But I digress. The point is, I come from a state with a totally stupid governor, and yet even I can look at Florida and laugh hyena-like at their public representative. First of all, the guy's name is Jeb. It's not like Poppa was mixing up some moonshine down by the creekbed when this kid was born. His father was already King Shit of Fuck Mountain by the time Jeb was in small pants. He couldn't give the kid a more appropriate name? Plus, he named his other sons George and Neil, which don't exactly fly off the tongue, but they're way more appealing than Jeb. It's just a name for a guy wearing overalls and missing, bare minimum, 8 teeth. It's not a Governor name.

He's got worse problems than the Jeb thing. Mainly, that he's a completely clueless and righteously indignant asshole with lame political aspirations that constantly cause him to pander to the worst, most vile, stupid, ignorant citizens of his backwards-ass podunk cesspool of a state.

You probably already know about the majorly dumb, incompetant or downright immoral things Jeb has done during his tenure. About how he and his cohort Katherine Harris oversaw the election results in 2000 for...his brother George! About how he attempted to legally adopt Terri Schiavo as a ward of the state to keep her husband from deciding how and when she could end her life. About how he opposes not only gay marriage, but gay adoption. Then there's that charming case from 2003, when he attempted to prevent a retarded woman who had been raped from getting an abortion.

But the winning Jeb Bush policy of the moment has got to be this unbelievable but true new bill he intends to sign when it reaches his desk.

Get this...The Florida State Legislature has passed a resolution allowing for "self-defense" in public settings. Oh, man, what a great idea. It's been called by the National Rifle Association their #1 highest legislative priority.

Allow me to break this down for you all. When you're in your home or your car, you already have certain rights to self-defense. If I come in to your home uninvited and seem to pose any possible physical threat, you're allowed to incapacitate me with no questions asked. This law would extend that privilege to any gun-carrying citizen no matter where they were, even on a city street.

Think about this...Any time you feel threatened and happen to have a firearm on your person in Florida, just feel free to use that sucker with complete and total abandon.

People attacked in their homes generally don't have to back off. But in public spaces, deadly force can only be used after trying to retreat.

"I'm sorry people, but if I'm attacked I shouldn't have a duty to retreat,'' said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "That's a good way to get shot in the back.''

Baxley said that if people have the clear right to defend themselves without having to worry about the legal consequences, criminals will think twice.

"Some violent rape will not occur because somebody will feel empowered by this bill,'' Baxley said. "Somebody's child will not be abducted ... you're going to prevent a murder.''

Folks, if Rep. Baxley is starting to make sense to you, seek help now!

He's attempting to argue that the only way to make Florida safer is to allow Floridians to kill each other in public without warning. Hmm...

See, self-defense as it applies to your home makes sense to me. If someone's in your home and you don't want them there, they're already kind of breaking the law. Either tresspassing or breaking and entering or whatever. And your home is your property, it's where your family lives, it's where everything in the world you'd need to protect would be kept.

But when you're just out on the street, it's a different ballgame. Maybe you're in a fight, or some other intense situation, and you feel threatened...You can't just kill someone in the heat of the moment. It's clearly obvious the right thing to do if you find yourself in a violent confrontation in a public place is to first try and avoid the use of a weapon. We now want to legislate that you don't have to take this crucial step? The Florida Legislature is adopting an official state policy of "Shoot first and ask questions later. Or don't ask questions. Just shoot. Right now!"

This law gets even more insane, if you can imagine:

But it also extends the right outside the home, saying that "a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be, has no duty to retreat.''

The bill says that person has "the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so, to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.''

To prevent death or great bodily harm to himself...or another? Jesus Christ! What is Jeb trying to do? Start a state full of wannabe Batmans? It's vigilante justice he's after.

Think about how many ways you could apply that law. I'm allowed to kill someone in the street who I fear may cause great bodily harm to someone else? What if it's a guy who's going to drive drunk, and I'm afraid he'll hurt someone on the road? Can I kill that guy?

Remind me to never ever again even think about going to Florida.

One more note: the article makes passing mention of a great hypocracy that's intrinsic to this legislation. Certainly any bill that allows private citizens to dole out death so casually would seem to be the result of bloodthirsty politicians. Or at least politicians who don't mind seeing their citizenry killing one another en masse.

Yet these very same Florida representatives busted their asses not two weeks ago to save the life of a comatose woman who's life was comprised of moving her head around occasionally and sometimes moaning. Terri Schiavo had tried to kill herself, had told her husband she wanted to die instead of ending up like a vegetable, and Rep. Baxley was asking the Governor to kidnap her from a hospital in order to keep her feeding tube jammed down her throat.

So the life of a private citizen who might get gunned down in the street doesn't mean so much to Baxley, but the life of a woman who can't speak, move around on her own or feed herself is precious enough to be worth violating the Constitution and the will of the people he's representing.

Are these guys idiots or what?

Night and the City

I've been watching a lot of these old noirs lately, many of them featuring Richard Widmark. In the past few weeks, I've seen him as a pickpocket in Pickup on South Street, a government health official in Panic in the Streets, and finally a desperate low-level conman with dreams of something larger in Jules Dassin's unbelievably fantastic Night and the City. Turns out I saved the best for last. This isn't just the film with Widmark's finest performance; it's one of the all-time classic noirs, an incredibly dense story of bad luck, shady schemes, double crosses and, um, Greco-Roman Wrestling.

Widmark stars as Harry Fabian. He works part-time drumming up business for the sleazy gentleman's club owned by Francis Sullivan, where his part-time girlfriend (Gene Tierney) works as a singer. But he mostly spends his time running - from debtors, from responsibility, from the affections of his lady friend, from time itself.

Fabian's always in a hurry, and Widmark brings to the role a neurotic, almost unhinged demeanor. Fabian's a guy with a lot of great ideas but he lacks the patience to carry them out properly. He just can't see all the angles, so he's doomed to failure.

But this time, Harry's come up with his greatest scheme ever, a can't-miss proposition. He's befriended an old Greek fighter named Gregorius (real former Greco-Roman wrestling champ Stanislaus Zbyszko) who just happens to be the father of the hood/promoter that runs all the wrestling games in London.

That man is Kristo, and he's played by Herbert Lom years before the actor would gain international fame as Inspector Dreyfus in Blake Edwards' Pink Panther movies. He's absolutely note-perfect here, displaying next to no emotion when dispatching his enemies, but on the verge of tears whenever he speaks to his father.

And for a while, it seems that Harry's plan will work. He swindles Sullivan and his frigid trophy wife Helen (Googie Withers) out of seed money, sets up his own gym and begins promoting his first big-ticket fight, a grudge match between Gregorius' son Nikolas and local wrestling champ The Strangler. But, alas, Harry's success is not meant to be, and events spiral out of control, eventually leaving him destitute, alone and on the run for his life.

In John Huston's brilliant The Asphalt Jungle, the characters meet tragic ends because of some personal vice. For example, Sam Jaffe's Doc Reidenschneider is captured by police after lingering in a diner to watch a young girl do the jitterbug. Dassin's take on this material is decidedly more fatalistic. Harry fails through no real fault of his own. During the brawl that leads to the cancellation of his first and only big-ticket event, he tries to intervene and save everyone's hides, but The Strangler's manager holds him back. "There's no stopping it now," he says.

All through the film, people repeat to Harry his utter inability to alter the future. When he tells his girlfriend about his latest get-rich-quick scheme, she tells him to abandon his dreams. When he travels all around London begging his friends and underworld associates for a loan, they all refuse him. One man, who makes a living by running a ring of panhandlers, offers to set him up in the begging business but not to loan him money for anything else. As Sullivan relates to Harry in the film's most famous monologue, "You've got it all, Harry Fabian, but you're a dead man. You're a dead man, Harry Fabian."

Many other noirs have picked up this sort of nihilistic attitude. Even the currently-playing Sin City dabbles in fatalism, particularly during its final act. Characters at first struggle against the bad lot they've been cast, but eventually come to accept and even start to appreciate their lot in life. I was also reminded of something like Goodfellas or De Palma's Scarface, delighting in showing us the early successes of the lead characters just so their painful fall from grace will be even more cataclysmic and brutal.

And, of course, this sort of character-inundated London crime film has echoes in the work of guys like Guy Ritchie to this day. As in his movies, a vast variety of oddball criminal types are thrust together by chaotic circumstances, forced to ply their trade in some manner of cooperation with one another despite abundant mistrust and disrespect. The only difference is, Dassin doesn't fall back on snappy one-liners or music video trickery to entertain.

And there's just something about Widmark in the final act of Night and the City that outdoes any of its followers...He's sweaty, he's wild-eyed, he's scared but there's also a serenity to him. After a lifetime spent trying however he could to make a fast buck, to get out of the streets and earn a decent living, Harry finally accepts his place in the food chain. A born loser, he only escapes from the cycle of crime and cowardice by embracing it.

Dassin relates this powerful material through a mastery of cinema style rarely seen in 1950, when the film was released, or now. Just as Fabian is endlessly inventive with his plots and manipulations, so Dassin continually finds new and exciting ways to depict the seedy world of London criminals. In one amazing sequence, we follow a car as it motors around the city, informing stool pigeons to keep their eye out for a wanted man. In another, a bare-knuckled fight determines the fate of Harry's entire enterprise. In another, Lom's Kristo watches from a bridge as his henchmen scour London for any sign of Harry Fabian.

Night and the City is a movie filled with memorable imagery and dramatic intensity. It's one of the most engaging and impressive noirs I have ever seen.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Minority Report

I find myself coming to the defense of Minority Report frequently. It's one of those movies like Gangs of New York or Mulholland Drive that proved divisive among film fans, despite clearly being brilliant works by master filmmakers. It's particularly odd that, in terms of Minority Report and its success as an action/science-fiction hybrid, I find myself defending director Steven Spielberg.

Now, I like Spielberg movies, don't get me wrong. The Indiana Jones series, Close Encounters, Jaws, these all rank among my favorite films. And he's made many others, like Catch Me If You Can or A.I. or Empire of the Sun or Jurassic Park which I've greatly enjoyed as well. So, yeah, Spielberg's no slouch. But a lot of his more serious work, like Saving Private Ryan, I've found rather lacking. He's a sentimentalist, and a bombastic sentimentalist at that, and this doesn't really play to my tastes at all.

So how strange that the man finally delivers what I feel to be his best modern film, the best film he's made since Schindler's List and the most fun since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the fanboy nation doesn't appreciate his work! I find myself the lone voice in the wilderness, telling people to let go of their silly qualms and embrace one of the best films from the most popular filmmaker in the world. It's a rough life...

I'll start with the shortcomings, because I'm man enough to admit that Minority Report does have a few. Firstly, the ending...We've probably all heard by now about how the tone of the end was brightened in the editing room. Was started as a harsh and ironic conclusion becomes a glossy, uplifting one. These are Spielberg's worst instincts coming in to play. He can't surpress his overwhelming instinct to entertain and please his audience. You're talking about a guy who, in strictly financial terms, may be the Biggest Director of all Time. He helped introduce American audiences to the idea that a director could be the "star" of a movie. So this is a guy who has honed his ability to "deliver" for his fans. And I feel that this instinct, while it has made him a very rich and powerful man, doesn't always serve his films.

So, okay, it kind of cops out in the end. Another problem that seems to really affect some filmgoers enjoyment of Minority Report - the straight-forward genre narrative. Spielberg and screenwriter Scott Frank have deliberately set out to make a future noir, and that's exactly what they come up with. This is just a pulp story set in a recognizably close future world. Sure, the story itself is based on Philip K. Dick, but it feels more like James M. Cain that Dick, really.

So, just like an old film noir, the movie isn't about the story. Anyone watching Minority Report wanting a surprise twist or an intriguing puzzle to solve won't find it. This isn't a movie about an innocent man on the run, or the details behind a bizarre crime. It's about future technology, how it shapes and influences our lives. In particular, I see it as a film about how gradual changes go unnoticed over time, changes such as infringements on the right to privacy, until they have eventually become large changes while no one was looking.

Okay, real quick plot synopsis to bring you up to speed. Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, a cop working out of a bureau known as the Pre-Crime Division. Through the use of three unconscious pre-cognitive psychic detectives, Anderton and his team can predict when someone will commit a crime and stop them before they get a chance to carry out their nefarious intentions.

Obviously, this sets up a paradox. Can someone be held responsible for an act they have not yet committed? If you believe in free will, surely there's a chance that a person will not commit a crime even if the detectives (known as pre-cogs) predict they will.

The action of the story kicks in when Anderton himself is accused by the pre-cogs of a crime. In a few hours, he will murder a man he has never met before named Leo Crow. So now it's a race against time to discover the circumstances surrounding Crow's death and either clear his name or prevent his crime from ever taking place.

I'm not sure Spielberg really has any interest in exploring the metaphysical ramifications of Dick's story. A filmmaker could make a great deal of challenging material out of this premise, and Spielberg does have some fun playing around with the logic of the situation. The opening sequence in particular, in which Cruise's team locates a potential murderer and prevents a homicide, builds tension on two levels simultaneously: we wonder if (1) the crime actually will be committed and (2) if Cruise and his team will be able to stop it.

But he also passes up many opportunities to explore the philosophical themes at play. Really, Minority Report isn't a thoughtful, realistic piece of sci-fi, but an intense full-throttle action-adventure-mystery set in the future. Spielberg's interest in the material seems two-fold: he gets to create whiz-bang action set pieces on a massive scale, and he explores how cultures shift and move around scientific and technological breakthroughs.

So, okay, first the action. The movie is filled with some of the best, most exciting, most visually breathtaking action sequences of the decade. This stuff is better than either Matrix sequel, better than any silly disaster movie, and better than anything Lucas has yet come up with for his prequels. And when I say action, I don't only meet visceral chase sequences like the one set on the magnetic highway (where cars linked to tracks whiz by Cruise as he escapes capture) or the one in the futuristic car factory (where Colin Ferrell, as a tenacious Internal Affairs officer, pursues murder suspect Cruise).

I also mean extravagantly well-realized ambitious set pieces. One extended sequence in particular comes to mind. Anderton has gone to an old underworld connection (Peter Stormare) for black-market surgery. See, in the future, everyone's identified at all times by retinal scanners, so the only way Cruise can continue to evade detection is by swapping out his eyeballs with someone else's. (More on this stuff later).

While he's waiting for his eyes to heal, cops arrive at the apartment building in which he's resting and send out little spider-like robot probes to search for him. In one unbroken shot, the camera rockets us around the building, looking in on everyone's rooms, watching the droids inspect their retinas. Cruise's only hope is to pour ice into a bathtub and hide beneath it, hoping the cold will cover up his body heat and the robots won't notice him.

The timing, pace and direction for this sequence are nothing short of astounding. It is carried off brilliantly. Spielberg should do movies like this all the time, because this is where his talent truly lies. One can only hope War of the Worlds this summer includes a few scenes as hair-raising.

Okay, now on to the more thoughtful stuff. I think Spielberg kind of shitcanned most of the science-fiction mumbo-jumbo to focus on more pressing social concerns. The future world of Minority Report is one fueled by the routine invasion of privacy, particularly as concerns advertising and marketing. Its world is one in which cereal boxes talk back to you, in which digital displays at department stores address you by your name when you walk inside. In which everyone knows where everyone else is at all times with no exceptions.

Late one night, Cruise ventures to a bad part of town to score some drugs. (He's a noir hero...of course he's tortued by memories that drive him to drug abuse!) His dealer has removed his own eyeballs to avoid being scanned constantly. He's been forced to blind himself to avoid being seen.

And of course this observation drives much of the action of the film. Cruise must save his old used-up eyeballs to gain admittance to his old office. He can't drive on the freeway because the auto-pilot system will redirect him back to the police station. He's not even in control of his own destiny, because psychics can see his future and determine what he will do before he's done it.

In Spielberg's future, what's most distressing isn't this constant, almost-fascistic invasion of privacy. It's the unconcerned attitude of the future citizenry. People aren't up in arms about the use of pre-cognitive detectives, because statistics show that it works to prevent violent crime. And people continue to shop in the stores where the displays read their eyescans and speak to them personally as if nothing strange had happened at all. In the aforementioned scene, where the robot droids scan the eyeballs of everyone in an apartment building, people don't run from the droids. They relent, relax and let the spiders crawl on to their face. They've been trained to find this ordinary, to not expect the government or corporations to leave them alone even in their own homes.

So, it's kind of a grim and dystopian future, even with the feel-good ending. As I said, by the last five minutes, I had so enjoyed Minority Report, no ending could have spoiled the ride. I repeat, this is one of Spielberg's best-ever films, a nuanced and resonant action film with brilliant special effects, unbelievably gorgeous cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, a terrific lead performance by Tom Cruise and great supporting work from Samantha Morton. A must-see.

Funny Man: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Okay, the movie Funny Man doesn't exist at all. It's merely a glimmer in my eye. It's just a script I've written that thus far exists only in script form. That is, there's no musical accompaniment.

But there's one thing I do whenever I'm writing a big project...I design a soundtrack to go with it. I love movies that introduce me to a group of songs I don't otherwise know about, that enhance their various moods with perfectly-chosen background music. Movies like Rushmore, which bases its entire soundscape on the British Invasion garage rock of the 60's, or High Fidelity, that weaves in the indie rock favorites of a generation of hipsters and burnouts.

So, whenever I'm writing a script, I help define the tone in my own head by putting together a collection of songs that I feel would potentially go in the movie once it's finished. Not that they neccessarily line up with the action, or even sound appropriate to some scene I'm imagining. Just that they capture some mood, some feeling that I think I'm going for.

Because I may potentially have a collaborator on this thing, I've burned a copy of the disc. And I figured, as long as I'm at it, I might as well publish the entire thing for you all. Cause why not? I have my own blog, right?

1. Sebadoh - "Vampire"

This is a great Lou Barlow song from Sebadoh's underappreciated "Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock" LP. In the script, it actually lines up thematically with some of the major ideas, but all that really matters is the subdued, blurry, home recording vibe, that I felt perfectly reflected the weary monotony of the early stages of the film.

2. Mike Doughty - "Thank You, Lord, For Sending Me The F Train"

It kind of bugs me that this song so obviously references a public train system, and my script's set in Los Angeles where no one ever takes the train. So it'll seem kind of anachronistic to have it playing over some LA cityscape. But, again, it's the mood that counts here. Former Soul Coughing frontman Doughty has this thin, reedy, nasal kind of voice that's almost frail, and perfectly suited to his laid-back "small rock" style.

3. Heatmiser - "Rest My Head Against the Wall"

This is probably one of my favorite rock songs of all time. Many people don't realize that, prior to his solo career, Elliott Smith fronted an "alternative" grungy rock band named Heatmiser. This is from their final (and best) album "Mic City Sons." It appeared on the soundtrack to another movie, Zero Effect, but it doesn't actually appear in the movie...just the soundtrack. I love that movie (and soundtrack), and mean it no offense, but this song is too darkly comic and melodic to never find its way into an actual film. I'd like to remedy this situation.

4. British Sea Power - "Apologies to Insect Life"

This is a really weird song that's apparently about Dostoyevsky. Which is pretty cool. But it's essential for a movie because of this one part where the lead singer goes..."Oh, Fyodor, you are the most attractive maaaaaaaaaan...." and then the guitars kick in with a squeal and the effect is positively electric, I tell you. I envision it playing behind some guy as he races somewhere at top speed. Which doesn't actually happen in my script, but I'll write an extra scene or something if I have to.

5. The Pixies - "Hey"

This is just a great Pixies song that's never been in a movie. I particularly feel the refrain of "we're chaaaaained" could work well as background.

6. Mazzy Star - "Fade Into You"

I wrote a whole post about how unbelievable it is to me this song hasn't appeared in a movie. Anyone who was in high school during the same years as I (1992-1996) as built-in nostalgia love for this alt-rock hit. And it's just such a perfect, swooning, melancholy love ballad. Seriously, I'm almost afraid to publish this list, because if some Hollywood type ever hears this song, it will be in their next movie.

7. The Rentals - "Friends of P"

A great, bouncy hit, almost from my formative high school 90's alt-radio years. The girl from this band currently plays with the wonderful Decemberists, by the by. Ooooh-woo-hoo-hoo.

8. Fiona Apple - "Oh Sailor"

Alright, I admit it...When I was writing the script, this song didn't actually exist. In fact, it has only been recently leaked on to the Internet and remains unreleased on a proper album. I've illegally downloaded it, I have! So it probably couldn't go in a movie. But it's freaking perfect! My script is partially about tragic, ill-fated romance, so any Fiona Apple song's going to be a little appropriate, but this one in particular. Plus it's such a rich, baroque, beautifully produced song with great lyrics.

9. The Aislers Set - "Catherine Says"

Like the Sebadoh and Doughty song, this is really intimate pop rock, so muffled it could have been recorded from several rooms away. I love this kind of lilting, off-kilter chamber pop, and it's really the primary sound I envision for the movie. Something about music recorded in this lo-fi manner just feels more personal, more private, most special than traditional studio recordings.

10. Bob Dylan - "Outlaw Blues"

Part of the story of Funny Man involves the protagonists "getting away" with a low-level crime, so I thought it would be kind of amusing to play this song, in which Dylan fantasizes about running around with a bad crowd, living off petty crime, off his masterful "Bringing It All Back Home" album.

11. Xiu Xiu - "I Luv the Valley OH!"

I have this on another "mix-tape" list that I made. It's great movie music - creepy, atmospheric, weird but not completely overpowering.

12. Kate Bush - "Wuthering Heights"

This song must be in some 80's romance already, but I don't give a care. I only discovered the song recently, when the Decemberists covered it at the Henry Fonda, and the original kind of blew me away. The first thing that grabs you is Ms. Bush's abnormally high falsetto, but it's just an immensely catchy and emotional song. Plus, the doomed romance of Heathcliff and Catherine plays thematically into the story of Funny Man quite smashingly.

13. Ween - "It's Gonna Be (Alright)"

Sad Ween ballads totally rock! Who's with me? Ween goes all adult contempo on my ass and I love every moment of it. This mini-masterpiece on the "Mollusk" really packs an emotional punch, which I'd like to exploit for my own glory in a major motion picture.

14. Broken Social Scene - "Lover's Spit"

Some argue this song's sarcastic refrain and sweeping orchestral music are over the top. Nuts to that, I say. This is Broken Social Scene at their most bombastic...which is pretty freakin' bombastic. I see it as closing credits music, but it could fit during any emotional climax in a film, really.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Sideways is great. Okay, I'm not going to belabor the point too much. I've seen it a bunch of times by now, I already wrote a bit about it in December as one of my favorites of 2004, and if you were at all interested in it you've probably seen it by now.

So, let's do this as quick and clean as possible. To start, here's my feelings on Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's previous two collaborations:

Election - I love this film. From the first five minutes the first time I saw it, I could tell this was the work of intelligent, sharp satirists. What impressed me and a whole generation of film fans, I think, is how Payne and Taylor refuse to pull any punches that would make the characters relatable and likable. There's no one to root for in Election. Everyone is so self-involved and phony. You're almost rooting for the filmmakers while watching it, hoping they'll continue to peel back more and more layers, to make the situation more ugly, and therefore more satisfying.

About Schmidt - I wasn't so crazy about this one. It's still incisive and occasionally cruel. But it's also judgemental and thin. The movie takes easy potshots at dumb rednecks, sad old people and other simplistic Americana stereotypes. The entire time I was watching it, I felt that Taylor and Payne were better than this. Part of the problem was the film's schizo ambition - to elentlessly mock bogus American values while making us sympathize with a main character who expresses these same values. Many felt the combination worked, I felt that it played against itself.

With Sideways, Payne and Taylor give up on their social critiques and turn their attention to the human frailty side of the equation. Their film still feels sharp-tongued and still dissects the mindset of American males carefully and pointedly. But gone are the easy targets, and softened is the venom. Instead, we have a deeply heartfelt and sympathetic portrait of a sad, lonely man.

Miles (the brilliant Paul Giamatti, who with this film, American Splendor and Private Parts can now be considered chronically overlooked for major acting awards) has no life. Sure, he used to have a life. He used to be married, he used to believe that he'd have a real writing career. He used to enjoy wine as a hobby, an interest, something beautiful to share with his wife.

Now he's divorced, he works as a public school teacher and his wife is getting remarried. So, he's become a sadsack, something of a lush, a neurotic loser. And it's during this dark phase in Miles' life that he takes his friend Jack out on a bachelor party/road trip to Santa Barbara County.

Payne and Taylor use the template of the road movie to really get inside these men and their relationship. They meet a couple of alluring females along the way (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh), they have a few rowdy adventures (including an argument at a golf course and an unexpectedly harrowing run-in with an angry hillbilly and his unfaithful wife), but mostly they drink wine and talk about themselves.

This is by far the most nuanced, sensitive relationship in any Payne film, ever. He's really crafted two memorable guys here. They are flawed, yes, but not like the hokey "types" of Schmidt or the larger-than-life villains of Election. More like, you know, every person on Earth. Though his situation for me was not relatable (I've never been married, I'm a lot younger than he is, I don't really like wine), I found Miles a terribly relatable character. His fear of failure, his shy excesses, his occasional fits of hopeless despair...this is a guy after my own heart.

I even read a review that complained Sideways was overpraised by critics because they personally found the main character so relatable. He's an overweight balding writer-type whose failure with women has turned him to obsess over an activity considered by most as a mindless hobby. That's half the film critics on Earth right there!

This is an amusing analysis, but it's only half-right. Sure, critics may have more in common with Miles than most people, but if you're not at least somewhat emotionally connected to Miles after experiencing two hours through his eyes, you're just not going to be a person I want to know. You may lack depth, or you may be superficial, or something like that...I'm not sure. But this is one of those Ghost World litmus test type movies. Someone that can't appreciate the casual wit and freewheeling charm of a gem like Sideways probably has no business being my friend.

The film's not entirely without its faults. As much as I like the hillbilly couple sub-plot, it does veer more into broad slapsticky comedy than the rest of the proceedings here. As well, I find the last five minutes or so a bit cloying and unearned, but that's quibbling. This is a great, funny, warm and winning human comedy, and remains one of my favorite films of 2004. If you haven't seen it by now, do yourself a favor...

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a Recently Deceased Pontiff!

So, by now I'm sure you've all checked out Issue #1 of Colombia's hottest comic, "The Incredible Popeman." I particularly enjoy...

What's that? You haven't read "Incredible Popeman"? But it's about how John Paul, now that he's dead, meets up with Superman, Batman and other comic book heroes to gain superpowers. Superpowers he can then use to beat up Satan, obviously.


Oh, and the Pope's name in the Colombian comic? Homo Pater.

I could write for ten thousand years and not come up with anything as hilarious as a comc book starring Pope John Paul II as a hero named Father Homo.

And if you're wondering what he's saying in the strip, allow me to translate:

"It's incredible. Now that I'm a cartoon ninja, I'm a lock for sainthood!"

From the MSNBC article:

“The pope was a real-life superhero, of flesh and blood,” said Colombian artist Rodolfo Leon, a non-practicing Catholic who has been working on the comic book for about a year.

I'll give the Pope credit for hero-dom on some level, I guess. There was the whole opposing the Commies thing. And he did more to bring Catholics and Jews together than any other Pope in history - he stated openly "The Jews are our friends," which was kind of nice for the leader of the religion behind that whole Spanish Inquisition thing.

But superhero-dom? I'm not sure...I've never heard of the Pope being pelted with gamma radiation, or inventing a bulletproof suit. I have heard that the Pope owned an invisible jet, but that's just a rumor.

Like any self-respecting superhero, the Incredible Popeman has a battery of special equipment. Along with his yellow cape and green chastity pants, the muscular super-pontiff wields a faith staff with a cross on top and carries holy water and communion wine.

This is on MSNBC, people! I'm not just typing small so you'll think I'm quoting some nonexistant article. And I just want you all to know, when I start my own awesome rock band, we'll be known as the Green Chastity Pants (or, possibly, the Muscular Super Pontiffs). We'll probably be a mix of Sepultura and Neutral Milk Hotel.

But, seriously, Green Chastity Pants? I get that he's the Pope, but he's not even allowed any undead superhero comic book action? That totally sucks. The one good thing about being such an amazingly faithful Christian is that shit gets a lot better when you die.

I may actually have to go find an open-minded, chatty priest now and ask him whether he's looking forward to afterlife nookie. Because if you're not allowed any action in this life and then you go to the next life and you're still expected to act chaste and pious...well, then taking up the cloth is more of a raw deal than even I've been led to believe.

I mean, you and I both know, there's no such thing as an afterlife. I'm just saying, a priest would think there was. And so he's probably expecting something along the lines of the Muslim 72 virgins thing. Or the Neverland Ranch thing, but I'd just as soon not go there.

Leon said he was saddened by the death Saturday of John Paul II, whom he admired. The artist worried some people might be offended by such a revered figure’s becoming a comic book hero, but said the reception so far has been good.

Oh, really, think that might make some people upset? To find their beloved and recently dead spiritual leader depicted as a wacky cartoon character, whizzing around with Superman wearing green chastity pants, trying to rid the world of the evils of Satan?

Cause, you know, it seems fine to me. And that probably doesn't bode well for you. Cause most things that seem fine to me, like legal abortions, stem cell research and birth-control-aided pre-marital sex with multiple partners, really upset Catholics.

Stupid Blogger....

So, Blogger wouldn't let me on to the site at all yesterday. So, I couldn't review Elektra for you (short version: it's unwatchably dull and so cheaply made, it often looks like a re-run of "Days of Our Lives").

And I couldn't link you here for the list of the 100 Worst Porn Titles of All Time. I'm not even going to type #1, for fear my keyboard will never be clean again. But here are some funny ones from the Top 50:

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE VAGINA (what are they talking about...that's a great porn title!)
ANAL CHIROPRACTOR (that's just weird...)

You see what you all missed yesterday? Someone should really write blogger and complain. Not me, though.

Also, I would have probably sent you all over to Practice What You Preach, where they have an amusing video clip of a Republican Congressman giving a dirty speech about Viagra and erections...on the floor of the House. Cause, you know, profanity is wrong, except when it's just us Republicans in the room and we're telling dick jokes.

Oh, and I certainly would have commented a little on the endless Pope Show now playing in media all across the country. See, folks, I have an opinion: I feel that the death of the Pope should be afforded the same level of coverage as the death of other world/religious leaders.

After all, we are not a nation with a majority of Catholic residents, right? And I'm not saying media should pay no attention to the Pope's death, or that newspapers and TV serving a majority Catholic audience wouldn't want to possibly obsess over it a little bit. But every website I go to, every TV show I turn on, they're talking about what a swell guy Karol was, and how everyone who knew him liked him, and how he changed the Church by taking it to the commies or some such thing.

I never knew the guy. Maybe he was swell. I can't say I supported his policies - taking the Church, religion-wise, as far back to Medieval as he could. This is a guy who didn't just oppose abortion but opposed birth control. Um....Not the best combo. This is a guy who didn't just want to keep gays out of the Church, but didn't want any women preists!

Not to mention the Pope coined the term "culture of life," George Bush's #4 favorite meaningless catchphrase to throw out.

#3: Freedom is on the march
#2: We've turned a corner
#1: I want to dip my balls in it

Finally, I would have certainly linked you all to this hilarious article about a man named Rick James. No, not that Rick James.

This is a man named Rick James who is running for the Hattiesburg City Council in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. And the problem is, every time he makes a sign and posts it around town, someone steals it. Because, you know, it says "Vote for Rick James," and any fan of the "Chappelle Show" would think that's funny.

So Rick and his wife Diane did what any reasonable person would do in this situation...They wrote to "Comedy Central" looking for a handout.

"Due to the popularity of the Dave Chappelle show, people keep stealing our 'Vote Rick James' yard signs ... we would appreciate a small campaign donation for more signs, as we are working-class people and financing this campaign out of our own pockets. Each time a sign is stolen, it costs us $4.75! Every time a 'Rick James' piece runs on your show, we stand to lose dozens of signs overnight, which end up decorating people's front yards and dorm rooms ... the yard signs have been spotted at least 100 miles from our home by truckers ... Also, young children on bikes scream, 'I'm Rick James, bitch!' as we drive by in our car with our 'Rick James' car signs ... People even drive by our home and scream, 'Super Freak.'"

Not a sign of a candidate who'd be really good with a budget, is it? First sign of trouble, he hits up a mutlinational media conglomerate for some extra scratch.

Also, he's probably not much of a problem-solver. I mean, couldn't he just start calling himself "Richard James"? Or "Ricky James"? Or, and this one might have its own problems, "Dick James"?

Anyway, I'm torn between hoping Comedy Central has more sense than to pay out to this man, and hoping that Dave Chappelle goes down there to hand-deliver the money and turn it into a bit for "Chappelle Show: Season 3."

And that's what I would have posted yesterday on Crushed by Inertia, had I not been thwarted by the wily I've got to go to work now, but rest assured, I'll return with more silly nonsense this evening, provided the Intarnets don't shut down again.