Saturday, April 16, 2005

Naked Lunch

A writer lives the sad truth like anybody else; he just files a report on it.

That's about the whole film Naked Lunch summarized right there. People always comment about how strange and surreal the film is, with its combination of William Burroughs headtrip of a novel and David Cronenberg's musings on the details of Burroughs own life. But it's not as if the movie's genuinely difficult to follow. It's just strange and illogical.

But then, the act of writing itself is strange and illogical. So a movie about a man realizing that he is a writer, and what that means for his psyche and his place in the world, should then follow suit.

If there is anything difficult about Naked Lunch, it's trying to meld all of its ideas together into one coherent theme. This is a movie with so much depth, that's so excited with innovation, discovery and the giddy thrill of getting away with soemthing, it's hard to coalesce everything into just one concept (or, let's say, blog post). But I will do my best.

Any straightforward adaptation of Burrough's novel "Naked Lunch" would be impossible. The book has no real story. It's more a collection of smaller, amorphous stories, what Burroughs himself would call "routines." These routines would start with a simple idea, like say a man learning how to speak from his asshole by controlling his farts, and would then build to a shocking or unexpected climax, like the asshole sealing up the man's mouth and taking control of his body.

So you couldn't really make that into a movie. Well, I suppose you could, but I probably wouldn't want to watch it. Instead, Cronenberg made a movie about the writing of the novel "Naked Lunch," and how Burroughs life experiences became intertwined with the crazed fiction he composed during a self-imposed exile in Tangiers.

See, Burroughs had accidentally killed his wife in a bizarre drunken accident, and then he fled the country in horror and shame. He set up shop in Tangiers, did a lot of heroin and wrote letters to his New York friend, the poet Allan Ginsberg. These letters, and the writings that accompanied them in the envelopes, along with other writings of Burroughs from this period, eventually became the novel "Naked Lunch." Cronenberg's film attempts to get inside the author's head, to explore what visions he might have seen while he was composing the book, and how the recent tragedy of his wife's death might have invaded his unconscious mind.

So that's a heady beginning for any story. But it is only the beginning, the outline. The film goes on to consider a variety of themes, from the nature of objective reality, the influence of technology on human creativity and ingenuity, existential paranoia and fear of conspiracy, and homosexual panic. And more, more, many more.

It all goes back to that quote I put at the top - a writer feels the pain that all human beings feel, and for Burroughs, the pain included guilt over his violent past, his drug abuse and his sexual attraction to men. So, in the reality of the film, he experiences these horrible thoughts and feels panic, and then records his feelings in the form of "reports" sent to an underground conspiracy run by cockroaches.

Yeah, cockroaches. Cronenberg's film overflows with icky, unsettling imagery involving bugs. There are overgrown bugs that suck the life fluids from human beings, typewriters that transform into talking cockroaches and centipedes that are ground up into paste and injected as a drug.

It's all intended as an elaborate visual metaphor, presented in the film in the form of hallucinations experienced by the protagonist, ex-exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller). Lee loses his job after he and his wife (Judy Davis) become addicted to powder he uses to kill bugs. After he murders his wife accidentally in an attempt to shoot a glass off her head (in a scene based on the actual death of Joan Burroughs), Lee leaves for Interzone, a North African province under the control of a voodoo preistess (Monique Mercure), a suspicious drug dealer/doctor (Roy Scheider) and the aforementioned cockroach conspirators.

I was reminded for a time of the film Swimming Pool. That's another movie that presents the creative process a novelist undergoes while writing to a kind of alternative reality. We the audience experience the writer's composition as reality, and are unable to separate the finished work they have written from the time they spent actually writing.

But whereas Swimming Pool used this technique to examine the internal sexual life of an aging woman, Cronenberg uses it to explode the themes permeating Burrough's writing, to try and fuse his own slanted world view to Burrough's. Lee's adventures, which include travels amongst the young male hustlers of Interzone, various conversations with a variety of aliens and insects, and an affair with the wife of another writing living in Interzone (Ian Holm), don't add up to any kind of sensible storyline, but they do give an impression of the fevered, half-remembered, hazy process Burroughs underwent as a half-sane junkie composing a novel in fragments he then mailed back to America.

Naked Lunch manages to sustain itself in story form mainly due to the performances of Peter Weller as Lee and Judy Davis, in a dual role as Lee's wife and the woman he falls in love with in Interzone. Neither of the Davis characters appeared in Burroughs original book, but Cronenberg wisely added them. One could argue that he needed a female presence in the work to balance out the overheated homosexual content of Burroughs novel. But he also needed some sort of framework on which to hold to surrealism, from a purely cinematic viewpoint.

Film audiences seem willing to accept surrealism, or at the very least non-linear or illogical story progression. But only to a certain extent, where it can still be explained by some internal logic within the movie. For example, people will go see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a very strange movie that makes sense only from a certain standpoint. But they accept it because Kaufman's script attempts to explain itself through a science-fiction premise - the leaps in time and conveniences of memory occur because there is a device that can erase relationships from your mind. Done and done.

Likewise, think of Donnie Darko. This has become a cult hit on DVD, and it includes many strange flights of fancy, but it is held together by an 80's teen comedy formula. Actually, Darko may not be the best example, because its director Richard Kelly insisted on re-editing the film into a Director's Cut that makes it more straight-ahead science-fiction. The odd ambuguity of the original film was then lost.

But anyway, Naked Lunch hangs its metaphysical exploration into the heart of fear and desperation on a familiar narrative arc. A writer, following a personal tragedy, accepts a strange job in a strange land, where he must follow up a mystery larger than he could have possibly imagined. That could describe a million movies, and it doesn't adequately describe Naked Lunch, but you see my point. Without the nods to what we expect from cinema - romance, intrigue, linear storytelling - would it be possible to maintain audience interest for 2 hours?

Finally, I must speak about the visual effects in the film, which are quite brilliant. The gruesome side of Burroughs imagination mixed wtih the keen eye for gore Cronenberg developed over years of directing horror makes Naked Lunch a delightfully visceral creepshow. The buggy typewriters, which gyrate sexually when someone types on them, are the usual rubbery Cronenberg prototypes. But he's never really been called upon to create full-formed monsters on the level of the aliens in the film, before or since. That's one of them in the photo with Mr. Weller above.

A lot of the effects work reminded me of another great and underseen Cronenberg film, Existenz. In fact, now that I think about it, the fictional video-game world of that film kind of resembles a trippy Burroughs nightmare. All the squishy, bio-waste creatures and animals in both films add a level of unspoken menace. There's just something unsettling about a typewriter that breathes, I can't put my finger on it.

Max Power

The most popular name for dogs in America is once again Max. I guess there's nothing surprising there...I knew a guy with a dog named Max once, and I suppose if everyone else did too, that makes up a lot of dogs.

But the total list still surprised me for a few reasons. Check it out, here's the top 1-30 most popular dog names:

1. MAX
10. JACK
11. TOBY
12. DUKE
14. SAM
20. ZEUS

Okay, here we go.

Weird Thing About the Dog Names List #1

How do they know? How would anyone go about compiling this list? Going door to door to ask people what they call their dog? Because not every dog is registered with, like, the Kennel Club. And even those dogs aren't registered with the names their family calls them, like "Max" or "Toby" or (ugh) "Buster." It's always, like, "Her Royal Fabulous Mathilda Sampson Delilah Marigoldblossom IV." And then the family calls the dog "Sam" or something.

So unless you're going door-to-door and waiting for a dog to run up when you ring the bell, and then crouching down and doing that "what's your name" thing with the animal, it's going to be really hard to actualyl get accurate statistics.

Weird Thing About the Dog Names List #2

#4 is Rocky. I had a dog growing up named Rocky. But we thought we were all original with the name. There was even a good reason for it: we had just moved to California from Philadelphia a few years before, and Philly is the home of Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion. Also, the night we got Rocky from a breeder in La Mirada was the night of the famous Northridge earthquake. So the whole thing seemed rather appropriate.

But now to find out that millions of people were giving their dog that same name, well it's kind of disconcerting. What if all of my thought processes are as typical as my choice of dog name, and I just don't know it? What if every person my age in America is having the same thoughts as me all the time, but since we don't verbalize them, no one is aware of it? Creepy...

Weird Thing About the Dog Names List #3

No Spot or Fido. At some point, those became the "cliche" dog names without anyone ever actually naming their dog one of them. What the hell is "Fido" anyway? It sounds more like a brand of athletic shoe than a dog. Maybe those are the "Ruth" and "Edna" or the dog world, so if you meet a dog with that name, you automatically know they're super old. Cause now all the dogs are saddled with the canine equivalents of "Ashlee" or "Summer."

Weird Thing About the Dog Names List #4

The strength of this 80's nostalgia thing never ceases to amaze me. Already, all the new rock songs sound like The Cars or even freaking Dexy's Midnight Runners (Hot Hot Heat, I'm looking in your direction...), all the movies are about Aliens, Predators, Freddy and Jason and recalling popular 1980's videogames has replaced baseball as the nation's favorite pasttime.

But Rocky and Gizmo both on the same list indicates the fad has now swept the world of dog names too. Can dogs named "Prince," "Crockett," "Tubbs" or "Spicoli" be far behind? (Actually, Spicoli is a pretty great name for a dog).

Weird Thing About the Dog Names List #5

Why are girl dog names so boring? They were so boring, I didn't even bother posting them, but there are a few.


Molly? Maggie? Snore. I find typical human names given to dogs to be kind of, I don't know, dreary. Why should a dog have to go around as Maggie. Why stop there? Why not just call the dog Francine or Patricia or Beatrice?

20. COCO

Chloe the Dog? That just sounds weird.

Also, giving your dog a French name in America...that's questionable. They'll probably get beat up all the time by other dogs.

17. ROXY

No, this was supposed to be a list of dog names! Not stripper names!

Friday, April 15, 2005


How about a double shot of stupid for a Friday evening. I'm talking, of course, about Fox News' resident chimp John Gibson commenting on the Senate's resident dirtbag Bill Frist's comments this week.

For those of you who don't pay attention to obnoxious theocratic bullshit, let me fill you in. Today's New York Times has the following article, linked to me by Americablog, headlined "Frist Set to Use Religious Stage on Judicial Issue." Yikes...

As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's nominees.

Fliers for the telecast, organized by the Family Research Council and scheduled to originate at a Kentucky megachurch the evening of April 24, call the day "Justice Sunday" and depict a young man holding a Bible in one hand and a gavel in the other. The flier does not name participants, but under the heading "the filibuster against people of faith," it reads: "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith."

So, okay, Frist's argument is straightforward enough. He's saying that because Democrats are trying to block Republican judicial nominees, they're anti-Christian.

This argument is incredibly stupid for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, what are Democrats supposed to do? Not object to anything? Allow Republicans to stock the federal courts with judges who go against everything Democrats stand for?

But that's hardly the issue. The issue is that Bush is trying to stack the court with religious judges, judges who want to rule based on the Bible and not on the Constitution. And because Democrats disagree with that, he wants to paint them as anti-Christian instead of what they are, which is pro-American.

Because America isn't about enforcing the laws in the Bible. No country could be, because the Bible's laws are inconsistant and often contradictory or nonsensical. They call for people's hands and tongues to be cut off, for rape and forced marriage to be permissable in certain situations, for slavery to be not only legalized but commonplace and, oh yeah, for people who speak out against any of the principles of the religion to be executed.

So trust don't want to live in a society based on the Bible. But if you go against the concept at all publicly, then Bill Frist thinks you are anti-faith.

This has always been a useful rhetorical device. It's hard to motivate people to work hard for you and volunteer their time and money when it's already clear you control everything. Republicans keep requiring the support of their idiotic, inbred base, so they need to keep convincing them that America is working against them, and that they have to fight and scrap to get their way.

Any impartial person could clearly see that the powers of religion and repression are winning the war for America's hearts and minds right now...It's obvious. Look who won the 2004 election. Look at the outcry over Terri Schiavo, a braindead woman who only wanted to die. Look at the gay marriage issue. Christians have nothing to worry about. They have a wide majority in American demographics, and their interests are being watched over carefully. But still, it's easier to make the case that a vast anti-religion conspiracy is out to get them.

Fox News consistantly makes the same argument about the so-called "mainstream media" (or MSM). They say that the news is all slanted to the Left, so brave pioneers like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh had to speak up to make the voice of the common man heard. Think of Bill O'Reilly's favorite catchphrase: who's looking out for you?

Now think of Bill O'Reilly's audience - middle and upper class middle aged white people. Who's looking out for them? Who isn't?

So, all this would be bad enough. The Senate Majority Leader declaring openly that he's fighting only for Christians against the forces of secular humanism kind of sucks for that whole freedom thing we had going in this country for a few hundred years. But then John Gibson has to go and write one of his signature head-up-his-ass columns and make it just a little bit worse.

However, Frist and others may have a point. And I think what we are seeing here is a pushback from the people of faith against a secularist, humanist, and anti-faith trend over the last, maybe, ten years or so.

Look at the pushback that came in the last election. The Dems were perceived as indifferent or sometimes even hostile to religion and they paid. Even Howard Dean now says so.

Gibson once again bases his entire argument on random, unsubstantiated assumptions and insinuations. For example, if Frist's comments are a "pushback," what are they pushing back against? What strides has secular humanism made in the last "ten years or so"? Howard Dean didn't argue that the Democrats were hostile to religion, he confirmed that anti-gay religious zealots probably had a hand to play in Bush's victory in 2004. That's not something to loudly champion if you're a Republican.

But I'll repeat the point to make it perfectly clear: it's easier to get people mad if you claim that they are pushing back against a hostile force, rather than being the aggressor in a culture war. What we're seeing is an attempt by religious Americans to remake the country as a Christian Nation. But it sounds better to call it a "pushback" against villainous secular humanism, whatever that means.

Look at the last few Christmas seasons, when secularists running city halls and schools have tried to banish any possible religious symbols of the season in what appears to be an anti-Christian movement. Why anti-Christian? Because other, minority religions are celebrated and in most cases, only Christianity is banned.

Now this is just utter nonsense. The only way you'd believe Gibson here is if you never left your house from October to December. Banish symbols of Christianity around Christmastime? What? Are you insane? What about the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center (oh, excuse me...Freedom Plaza...ugh...)? That's in the middle of lefty New York City!

And what minority religions are being celebrated in place of Christianity? Hannukah? Because a menorah in a window doesn't really count for anything much. Ramadan? I'd hardly say that Americans are tripping over themselves to recognize that particular faith. And I can't even think of a Hindu celebration that comes at the end of the year, so it's certainly not that one.

Please, John, illuminate me. Exactly what the hell are you talking about here?

Gibson's just parroting the weak argument forwarded last December by his colleague-in-hate Bill O'Reilly, who blew up a few individual cases of people trying to remove manger scenes from public property into a fictitious nationwide campaign against the holiday of Christmas.

There's no campaign against Christmas. It simply doesn't exist. The fact that Gibson continues to write columns about this reflects not only the fallacy of his argument but the utter vapidity of his entire outlook.

So, the only thing left John has to back up his case about an anti-Christian bias is a minor item about a cross in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave Desert:

Just this week, a federal court in Los Angeles insisted against a cross on a hilltop in the Mojave Desert — federal land — come down and suggested that a solution to keep it up, involving a land swap which would put the piece of land in private hands, was a ruse to keep an unconstitutional cross on government land.

A land-swap exactly like it just occurred in San Diego in order for a landmark cross to remain. It was done in San Francisco, too. But it can't be done in this case in the wide-open Mojave Desert. Why? Ya think just maybe somebody's got some animosity for a cross that's so ingrained there is no permissible solution for the cross to remain?

If it's the wide-open Mojave Desert, and there's no one around who could possibly care, why does a large cross need to be stationed there? To me, symbols like this reflect a sort of proprietary intimidation. It says that this land belongs to Christians, and others aren't welcome.

I drove across the country once, and as soon as you enter Texas from Oklahoma on the I-40, you pass an enormous silver cross. This actually did have some effect on my mental state. I suddenly felt less comfortable, less welcome as a non-Christian, than I did at any other time during the trip (it didn't help that, not 10 minutes later, I received the only speeding ticket of my life to date).

So I think that's really why the cross went up there, and why it should be taken down. But really, isn't this a minor land dispute? Isn't this just a distraction John's hoping to offer on behalf of the Republicans, who use minor issues like this to deflect criticism from their actual policies? Right now, Republicans are fighting an illegal war overseas, are passing a bankruptcy bill that will cripple many lower-class Americans, are planning an overhaul of Social Security that will be more costly while providing fewer benefits and are attempting to trample the civil rights of gay Americans. But they get away with it by distracting everyone with this mindless culture war crap, the Terri Schiavo case and the cross on the mountaintop and the Ten Commandments in the classroom.

Please, I beg of you, don't fall for it.

The Devil Went Down to Oakley

A man has petitioned the US Board of Geographic Names to rename Mount Diablo in Oakley, California. Cause, you know, he doesn't like the Devil.

Me, I don't really have a problem with the Devil. He came first and then God made all these grubby little humans, who aren't really much to speak of, and it pissed the Devil off. And then when he complained about it, God stuck him down in a pit of fiery unpleasantness and forced him to spend all his time tricking people out of their souls and learning to play the fiddle for all eternity.

Sounds like kind of a bum rap to me. The least we can do is name a fucking mountain no one even goes to after the guy.

But, no. Art Mijares thinks it's bad to call the mountain Mt. Diablo.

Art Mijares applied to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for the change and suggests naming the mountain Mount Kawukum, which he believes has American Indian roots.

"Words have power, and when you start mentioning words that come from the dark side, evil thrives," Mijares told the Contra Costa Times. "When I take boys camping on the mountain, I don't even like to say its name. I have to explain what the name means. Why should we have a main feature of our community that celebrates the devil?"

Yeah, gee, good question, Art. Why have a mountain that's named El Diablo...Um, I don't know, because that's what it's already named, and has been named since the early 1800's? It's like asking "Why call it America when you could call it Kickass Freedomland 2000?" I mean, you could change the name, but it's expensive to change the maps, and confusing for everyone. Oh, yeah, and there's no such thing as the Devil so who cares?

Also, I like that he associates the Devil with something called "The Dark Side." That's not really a Bible reference so much as it is...Star Wars. I don't know...maybe the guy's just not so eloquent, but could it be that pop culture mythology and religion really do get blurry in the minds of simpletons?

I mean, equating the naming of a mountain with the spread of evil? Do people really think this way? What must life be like for a guy that thinks saying the spanish word for "devil" will actually cause bad things to happen? I hope he never breaks any mirrors or sees any black cats, or we might be looking at a total mental collapse.

The name Kawukum first surfaced in 1866, when a church group tried to change Mount Diablo's name for reasons nearly identical to Mijares', according to San Francisco Bay area researcher Bev Ortiz.

"We abhor the wicked creature to whom the name is appropriate, and spurn the use of the name for anything noble or good on earth," proclaimed the Congregational Church of San Francisco in its newsletter of the day.

First off, Mt. Diablo is a far cooler name for a mountain than Mt. Kawukum. There are already far too many places in America named after hard-to-pronounce Indian words that no one understands. And Kawukum is just some thing some guy overheard an Indian say in 1866. We have no idea what it means. It might mean "whale vagina." Oh, no, wait, that's San Diego.

Also, do you think this guy is comforted by the fact that he thinks just like a 1866 church group? Over 100 years of progress has passed, after all...

The Man in the White Suit

The old British film industry always struck me as kind of charming. There were all these little production houses, like Ealing Studios or Hammer Films, turning out odd little idiosyncratic movies. Hammer's favored genre was horror, and they had a reliable stable of performers and filmmakers working on literally dozens of films within a span of a few years. And over at Ealing, from the early 1940's through the mid 50's, a remarkable amount of well-crafted, socially conscious comedies were produced, many of them created by the same talents.

One of these actors was Alec Guinness.

Of course, everyone in my generation knows Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi. I certainly did for the vast majority of my life. In fact, I'll readily admit that, despite terrific performances by the man in a wide variety of films, a part of me always thinks of him in a brown cloak waving his hand around to mesmerize Storm Troopers.

So it's a credit to his wonderful performance in 1951's The Man in the White Suit that I could see him as Sidney Stratton, the mad genius behind a controversial invention.

The Man in the White Suit may be the only comedy ever produced about polymerization. Stratton has thought up a process to create a fabric with almost-magical properties. It's virtually indestructable, and will never wear out. Also, it repels dirt, never requiring cleaning. He's been drifting around for years, following expulsion from Cambridge because of his radical ideas, working at various textile mills in an attempt to conduct his dangerous experiments.

When Sidney finally succeeds, thanks to the help of a greedy industrialist (Cecil Parker), his invention doesn't receive the praise and delight he expected. The owners of various textile mills, who run the entire town in which the film is set, fear that the technology will render their investments obsolete. And the workers among whose ranks Sidney once walked fear that, if no one ever needs new clothes, they'll all be out of jobs.

And they're right. What's so remarkable about Man in the White Suit is that we're expected to side with a protagonist whose too self-centered to consider the ramifications of his deeds. I'm not saying that it would be correct to deny the world Sidney's invention, but he seems to chase his dreams not because of some duty to the world, but for his own glory.

Also, the invention itself raises deeper questions. Surely, if Sidney had invented a process that could create something vital to the world's interest, it's morally reprehensible to keep the thing bottled up for profits. But what about Sidney's space-age suit, a suit that glows in the dark and repels dirt, is vital to the world's concerns. It's an intentionally muddled case, an invention that's useful that would likewise cripple a major industrial sector vital to the British economy.

And like all great British comedy, the film considers these weighty issues only as subtext, lightening the mood with clever wordplay and slapstick hijinks. Like the great Monty Python sketches and films that would follow a generation later, Ealing comedies demonstrated a mastery of combining the high and lowbrow. Here is a movie taking on issues of class, technology and labor right alongside pratfalls, comic explosions and puns. It's a dizzying combination, and while the movie is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it is always amusing and very entertaining.

Much of this derives from the wonderful supporting cast of characters. There's Joan Greenwood as the daughter of a capitalist with Sidney's best interests at heart. She's got a lot of presence on screen, but her voice doesn't seem to match her body at all. It's kind of weird, almost like her part was dubbed (although I'm quite certain it was not). Also, comic book movie fans will recognize Alfred from the Batman movies, Michael Gough, as another textile mill owner seeking to keep a lid of Sidney's innovation.

The various farcical hijinks that end the film all come off fairly well, if as I said, they never amount to anything like hilarity. It also ends on an intriguing down note. Without giving too much away, Sidney's invention never reaches the mainstream and the status quo of the textile industry remains. I couldn't quite make out the film's eventual take on Sidney. He remains an enigma as Guinness plays him, obsessive about cloth in an almost psychotic way, so self-assured that he never once really doubts the need to expose his invention to the world.

He has been someone who has been rejected by society. Kicked out of school, banned from every textile mill where he's worked, unable to get funding or support for his successful scientific innovations. Even when he makes friends during the film, like Greenwood's society woman or Vida Hope as a blue collar mill worker, they are quick to turn on him when they don't like his ideas.

Guinness plays the character with a good deal of petulance, and something of an attitude. He has come to feel better than the commoners and simpletons with whom he's forced to mix, and if the world could only see the great things he has done, they would finally give him the respect he deserves. It's a fairly brave choice, so when the movie leaves Sidney's fate uncertain, there's a creepiness to the ambiguity. Sure, it's a happy ending, because the hero walks off into the sunset, but he's a man who controls a very valuable secret that could do considerable damage if released. And he seems more than a bit unstable.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Back on the Block

I have come down with writer's block. Obviously, not blogging writer's block. I never get blogging writer's block. If I can't come up with something good to write, I'll just wait for a Fox News anchor to say something stupid. And that never takes too long.

No, I have screenwriter's block. That is, I have a great idea for a script, and all the characters basically figured out. But I don't have a good ending. It's a crime/con movie, you see, so the ending is kind of really really important. Imagine Usual Suspects if McQuarrie and Singer hadn't figured out the ending. It'd just be some weird direct-to-video release about a gimp on a Hungarian boat.

So I've spent the entire day so far working at the video store, thinking of a good way for my script to end. Maybe it should be a bloody showdown. Or maybe it should be one of those funny endings where there's a twist at the last minute that leaves everything ambiguous. Or maybe I should just have Tobey Maguire admit to Kirsten Dunst that he's Spider-Man and have her not care at all and still want to date him. Unless someone has used that one already.

I've got to go back to work right now, so there's no time to elaborate on my quandry. But just know, I'll be puzzling this one out in my head all day. I guess it makes sense that I can't think of an excellent criminal scheme without any holes. If I could, I'd probably just go ahead and be a criminal. A lack of creativity's the only thing keeping me out of that lucrative field as it is.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Post Secret

Before I get going, let me give big props to the always-entertaining blog Slack LaLane for this link:

This is amazing. Sometimes the Internet can really give you chills.

It's an art project where...well, I'll just let the site explain itself:

PostSecret is an ongoing community art project. People from around the world share their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.

Yeah, it's homemade postcards, mostly with odd or idiosyncratic designs on them, onto which people have written their deepest, darkest secrets.

I recall another site like this, That was a site that encouraged people to anonymously submit personal confessions that would then by anonymously posted. But the problem there was, it was so easy to submit confessions, people starting gaming the system. Sending it fake or jokey confessions just to see them on the website. And the whole thing has kind of imploded.

But Post Secret is so much more promising. Because you have to spend the time to make your own postcard and design it, and because only the most provocative or interesting cards make the website, there's a really tremendous amount of insight into humanity on display. Here are few samples:

I like this artwork a whole lot. It's just realistic enough to be eerie.

As a child, I remember considering this possibility...If I write a postcard to my grandmother, couldn't anyone at the post office just read it and know what I was saying? But then I thought better of myself...I figured there must be some people at the post office whose job it was to watch the employees and make sure they don't read anyone's mail.

Looking back on that now, I'm astonished to realize that, while I was a little naive to assume that no postal employee would read something just because it was in front of them, I had a pretty solid handle on the typical working conditions in the American office. Obnoxious assholes hover around you all day looking over your shoulder, trying to catch you doing something wrong.

I kind of doubt the veracity of this postcard. Could it possibly be true? Wouldn't it be great if it was? I mean, that's a story...A man disappears on 9/11 in New York, everyone assumes he was in the WTC...he gets to just start a new life from scratch! Somewhere in there is, like, the great novel of our times, but I'll probably just keep blogging for right now.

This one hits kind of close to home for me. Not becuase I believe I'm going to Hell. There's obviously not a Hell. At least, there's not a Hell the way we think of Hell, which is a red place filled with fire and trolls and imps and naked bodies rolling around in sulfur and demons and for some weird reason, in a lot of Renaissance art, eggs. I get that it's a symbol of rebirth or something, but still, that's just weird.

But I consider sometimes that my status as an atheist puts me in direct philosophical opposition to, oh, let's say 99.9999% of the country, and a pretty massive slice of the world population as well. I'm not afraid to burning in a lake of fire forever, but if there's any truth at all behind any of the major world religions, it does mean something really bad for me. It means the world as I understand it doesn't exist.

So, that's just a small sample of the dozens of these postcards featured on the site. As a civic art project, it's actually a pretty terrific idea. Certainly more interesting than those performance artists who poop on the American flag or sit in a box for a few days or something. Although, now that I think about it, I wouldn't mind seeing a performance artist poop on an American flag. It would make one hell of a blog post.

UPDATE: Wendy's Chili Finger Debate Continues

Astute readers will remember this post, in which I discussed the odd case of a finger appearing in a woman's 99 cent Wendy's chili. The woman's trying to sue the restaurant chain, which is proclaiming its innocence. Its innocence of serving the woman a human finger. They'll freely admit to serving a woman 99 cent chili.

So, as the finger remained uncooked and no Wendy's staff seems to be missing a digit, it appears possible that the woman merely faked the incident so she could make some money off of Wendy's. Which is a really dumb plan, particularly if you don't bother to make the finger look like it had been cooked inside a bowl of chili. Also, how can you convince your friend to cut off their finger so you can stick it in a cup of chili? Ask real nicely? Remind them about that time you picked them up at the airport even though it was 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday?

So now it seems the finger may have come into the woman's possession by way of a leopard attack. No, really.

San Jose police are investigating a woman who had part of her finger bitten off in late February by a pet leopard.

The woman, who has several exotic animals, reportedly got her finger back in a bag of ice after doctors couldn't reattach it. She lives in a town about 45 miles north of Las Vegas, according to an Associated Press report.

So, see, there you go. A perfectly logical explanation. This woman already knew someone who was missing a finger. Better yet, this person had access to their own amputated digit, and seemed willing enough to part with it for a chance at taking down a major corporation.

Wednesday, Anna Ayala dropped her claim against Wendy's because it "has caused her great emotional distress and continues to be difficult emotionally," said her attorney, Jeffrey Janoff.

Oh, did I say that it's possible she made the whole thing up? I meant, she definitely made the whole thing up. There's no way a person would drop this kind of a lawsuit just because of media attention unless it were fraudulent.

So this leaves only one question...Has Anna Ayala actually done anything illegal? I mean, yeah, there's filing a false police report. But otherwise, I'm pretty sure she's in the clear. How can they really punish you for claiming to have found a finger in your chili that actually belonged to your leopard-fearing friend?

I would have liked to overhear the conversation when Ayala presented her plan to her fingerless friend.

"Anyway, you still have that finger, right? You doing anything with it?...Well, I had an idea. Why don't we put it in my chili at Wendy's?...Cause they'll give me a big cash settlement...I won't actually eat any of the chili...No, I'm sure the finger's perfectly clean, I didn't mean it like that at all...Just it would be kind of gross...Oh, fine, just forget it...I'll call that girl who lost her finger in the leopard attack instead! You're no fun!"

Running On Empty

I was supposed to go see the new Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda this evening at the Arclight. So I'm on my way there, driving up La Brea towards Wilshire, when suddenly the orange "fuel" light on my dashboard flickers to life. Now, I've had this car for a while, so I'm pretty confident in my gasoline level despite this sudden visual warning. Usually, I can get about 30 miles further down the road with my orange fuel light on.

In fact, that little orange alert works so well, I can honestly say I've never once run out of gas before in my life. And that's apparently impressive, judging from some of the conversations I've had this evening. I spoke to not one but two friends who assured me that they run out of gas all the time, that they are even infamous in some circles for doing so.

One friend told me the following story: She ran out of gas and walked to a nearby gas station, where they made her pay $17 for a gas can in addition to the money for the gas itself. Afterwards, in disgust, she throws away the $17 can. Then, later on that same day, she ran out of gas again, and had to buy another $17 can at another gas station.

How could this be possible? How could you run out of gas twice in one day? Only if you failed to put more than a half-day's gas in the tank during your initial fill-up, which seems so illogical, it could not possibly be true.

But you don't know the person who passed along this story. Trust me, it's probably accurate.

Anyway, when we last left my original story, I was lurching ahead limply on La Brea Avenue, about to make a right-hand turn but utterly unable to because my car apparently has no gas left. But the light! It never came on! That Orange Bastard!

Worse yet, La Brea Avenue at this particular intersection isn't exactly a flat street. There's a considerable incline, and my car, depleted of vital resources, began to lurch back down the hill and into traffic.

What was I to do? I leapt out of the car and put the entire force of my body behind the back bumper of the car. Unfortunately, I completely lack even a hint of upper body strength, or any strength at all, really. Probably because I don't ever exercize. Or lift heavy stuff. Or move without being chased by something carniverous. Anything larger or more cumbersome than a 12-pack of soda and I'm hiring movers.

So I'm not really the guy you'd call on to keep a Nissan Altima from bearing down La Brea Avenue at top speed. Yet there I found myself, in the road, late for a movie, pushing my car to the safe haven of Edgewood St. Finally, relying on some heretofore undiscovered and deeply-buried reservoir of fortitude, I got the car to a spot on the side of the road where it could rest comfortably, and where I could collapse on the sidewalk, hyperventilating and exhausted.

When I came to, I called AAA and was informed they'd take 30 to 45 minutes to arrive at the scene, which isn't really the news you're looking for when you're late, stalled out in West Hollywood and quite possibly on the verge of a massive coronary.

Fortunately, they got there a bit sooner than expected, and the driver was kind enough to supply me with $5 worth of gas for the low low price of $5. Now I don't know if you've seen the oil prices recently, but $5 essentially buys you a Dixie Cup full of gasoline. And not even a normal Dixie Cup, but the kind with the little paper handles you use at the dentist's office to rinse.

And for some reason, this neighborhood of Los Angeles has no gas stations. This is a massive city and everyone drives...wouldn't you think it prudent for Chevron and Mobil to set up more gas stations in populated areas? Hollywood has approximately one gas station for every 500,000 cars. Every time you want to fuel up anywhere near Sunset Blvd., it's like the Carter Administration all over again. There are shorter lines to see Episode III than to get gas in my old neighborhood.

So, thanks be to Jah, my $5 worth of gas didn't run out before I could make it to a gas station, and I was able to make it home safely. But my movie plans were ruined. Ruined! Nothing makes me more upset than failing to see a movie I have been wanting to see.

And, yeah, I know this is technically my fault for allowing my car to run so low on gas, but I don't exactly have a lot of money and a gallon of gas costs about as much as I make in a week. I work at an independently-owned video store here, people. It's like one step above an Industrial Revolution-era rendering plant in terms of salary level. And, oddly enough, stench, but that's another article.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

There's Something Wrong with the Federline Baby...

It's Alive!!!!

Seriously, Britney Spears is preggers, folks. I couldn't let that incident slide by without a blog post.

Plus, I just sent an e-mail to the LA Weekly applying for a job as a columnist, so I have to prove that I can amusingly dish about celebrities without sounding like the whiny nerd I so clearly am.

So, in news that comes as no surprise to vapid shallow LA scenesters, Britney Spears has allowed that rodent-looking gentleman she married a while back to fill her womb with his seed. Eeewwwww. This is already more gross than that overturned port-a-potty post I did a few weeks back.

"The time has finally come to share our wonderful news that we are expecting our first child together," the singer said. "There are reports that I was in the hospital this weekend, and Kevin and I just want everyone to know that all is well. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers."

Isn't this really the ultimate proof that money and success won't bring you happiness? These aren't two older people settling down following a wild youth. They're young, they're just married, they've fabulously wealthy...why are Britney and Kev so anxious to settle down and raise a family?

You spend years working your ass off to finally attain a measure of real commercial success, and then right when your fame has crested, you marry some half-bearded hillbilly and get knocked up? The whole enterprise is just so pointless. I don't think I was alone in hoping for some massive Britney Spears implosion, in which she'd either turn into a drunken, Courtney Love-esque burnout of epic proportions, or go the Liza Minelli route and just get increasingly manic and desperate for attention as the years wear on.

Is it too much to hope for that Kevin Federline become a kind of David Gest figure, whom Britney openly beats up in public? Dare I dream?

In an interview with People magazine last fall, she said: "I want to be a young mom. I can see us as parents."

While this will be Spears' first foray into parenthood, Federline, 27, has two children with his ex-girlfriend, actress Shar Jackson. Spears and Federline met last year when he was a backup dancer on her tour — and Jackson was pregnant with their son.

Oh yeah, that's right! I totally forgot that Kev-bo ran out on his last wife when she was pregnant with their second child. She must be feeling great now that he's off starting a new family with the slutty girl from the Pepsi ads! Now, I'm not calling Kevin Federline a scumbag...I don't even know the guy. Maybe, as I said, he's just a hillbilly.

Yet the couple have hardly hid from the limelight — last week, the pair announced they would document their courtship in a new reality series on UPN. The network promised "exclusive, never-before-seen private home videos" of their "personal love story."

Really? The Britney Spears TV show will be featured on UPN? Man, she really has fallen off the radar. Nobody watches UPN. Now that "Enterprise" and "Angel" have been cancelled, they can't even count on that lucrative "morbidly obese dork" demographic any more.

Let me put this into perspective: UPN just renewed "Veronica Mars" for two more seasons. More people have seen this blog in the past week than "Veronica Mars," and I'm not even a sassy crime-solving adolescent.

But really, it's kind of hard for me to believe that Britney can't get on to a major network, or at least MTV. With "Newlyweds" and "Ashlee Simpson" both ending, how will I get my fill of self-obsessed chatty pop idols and the semi-retarded hipsters with whom they socialize and travel? I'm never invited to hang out with those kind of people except through the miracle of television.

Oh, and one more thing: Britney, if by some miracle you've stumbled on to my blog, please, I beg of you, don't give your child some dippy celebrity kid name. It's going to be extremely challenging growing up the daughter or son of Britney Spears anyway, so why saddle them with some baroque handle like Gregorious Terwillinger D'aunte Mikhail Spears Federline.

Gwyneth Paltrow has actually named her daughter Apple. Apple Blythe Alison Martin. Apple! Why not just go with one of George Costanza's "Seinfeld" suggestions, and name the kid Soda?

She's already Gwyneth Paltrow Jr., and now she has to go through life as Apple. And they even made her middle name Blythe (after Gwen's famous momma), so she can't go by that either.

And didn't anyone tell them that non-Mexicans have three names, not four or more? Where the hell did that Alison come from? Why not just make that the first name, and save the poor thing some grief?

A Load of Bullshot

Years ago, my father and I took a trip to New York City. While enjoying a pre-dinner drink at the world famous Harry's Bar, my father ordered a drink he called a "Bullshot." It's essentially a Bloody Mary, but with one added ingredient - beef bouillon. Yeah, for real. Beef broth. In with the vodka and tomato juice. Well, I nearly lost it right there.

It's not only that my father would order such a bizarre and odious concoction that surprised me. It was that here, at this reputable Manhattan drinkery, they'd have beef broth just hanging out behind the bar. How many people are ordering this drink? Do they actually go out and buy fresh beef broth all the time just in case someone is going to wander in and order this obscure cocktail?

Because there's no other reason to have beef bouillon behind a bar except the off-chance that someone would order a Bullshot. Considering that the drink sounds totally disgusting, this can't be too often.

So I remained puzzled, but never really thought on this specific incident again. Until, that is, right now. Generally useless website is running a feature on the 10 Manliest Drinks. It's a pretty standard list, unsurprising for a website with aspirations of one day reaching the pinnacle of artistic blossoming that is Maxim Magazine.

Some of the drinks are pretty good; I've been known to enjoy an Old-Fashioned or a Sidecar on occasion myself, and I'm not even a guy who pays particular attention to which drinks are "manly." I once hung out at a benefit party at the Getty Center, standing right next to Harrison Ford, while drinking a chocolate martini, a drink that's about as manly as Andy Dick's freshman yearbook photo.

But anyone, #9 on the AskMen manly drink list? Something they call a Bloody Bull. It's a freaking Bullshot! Same exact ingredients. (Although, I have to say, Bullshot is the more clever name). I guess it's a manly drink, though I'd probably go a little further and declare it an essentially masochistic drink.

If you want your alcohol to include the maximum amount of hearty cow-like flavor, I'd highly recommend this drink. Otherwise, you might want to steer clear (Ha ha!)

The list also features a drink made by pouring vodka into beer and then adding Tabasco Sauce. Ah, yes, beer and hot sauce. Two great tastes that go great together, provided you consider several days of explosive, white-hot diarrhea to be "great."

Cemetary Man

No, this is not a review of the movie Cemetary Man. In fact, there's no easy way for me to even watch the movie again and review it for you, as the thing's not available on DVD. You believe that? A zombie comedy starring Rupert Everett, and you have to have a Laserdisc player to watch it?

So, that's not what this post is all about. This is about a 17 year old in Vermont who broke into a cemetary and removed a corpse's head.

Nickolas Buckalew, 17, later was arrested and charged with unauthorized removal of a dead body. He pleaded innocent to the crime.

Police believe they have a strong case against Buckalew because remains and evidence were found in a silo near the suspect's home outside the village and 2/10ths of a mile from the cemetery.

"Within minutes we found the duffle bag with the remains in it and tools that were used to enter the tomb and the casket," Keith said.

The corpse was identified as one Mr. Alfredo Garcia...

No, just kidding.

Oh, Nicky, I hope you have a good lawyer. You were found in a silo 1/5 of a mile from the cemetary (not far) with the head and the tools for digging up the head in your duffel bag.

And Johnny Cochran just died! Who will run the Chewbacca defense for you now!

So, clearly, this raises the question...what could a 17 year old kid possibly want with a stranger's head? Is it part of some sick wiccan ritual or something we should all know about? Because, as you all know, wiccans are stupid.

Authorities are not sure of the motive of the crime. Court documents said the suspect allegedly talked of using the man's head as a bong or a pipe for smoking marijuana.

Oh, of course! How silly of me to have even raised the question in the first place. Clearly, this whole unpleasant mess began with the following phrase: "Dude, a dead guy's head would make an excellent bong!"

I don't know what's more sad...The fact that some kid actually thought of this plan, or the fact that, as soon as I read about this plan, my first thought was..."How would you make a dead guy's head into a bong?"

I guess you'd put the weed (or whatever you wanted to smoke...flavored tobacco, perhaps...) in the guy's, um, ear hole...or cut out his eye and put it in his eyehole...and then suck on his mouth? No, that's gross. You'd put the weed in his mouth and suck on his nostril...Um, maybe not...

Wow, this is a really stupid idea. First off, it's probably not going to work, unless you can really master that sinus-echo chamber effect that some of those opera singers use. Second, there's no place you can put your lips on a dead guy's head that's not completely disgusting. Like, disgusting enough to make even smoking pot disturbing. Which ain't easy to do.

Third, if you happen to be in Frank Miller's Sin City universe, you're never positive that head's not going to spin around and start cracking wise to you just when you're about to take a drag off of it.

So, it's really not a good plan no matter how you look at it. On the bright side, here's one young punk we can safely lock up before he takes out all his classmates with a machete or something. One down, only 50 million young American psychos left to go.

Hotel Rwanda

I couldn't believe it when I first looked at the DVD box for Hotel Rwanda. Rated PG-13? It's a movie about genocide, a film set against the backdrop of a massacre that took 1 million lives. I'll type that again, for emphasis. The genocide in Rwanda at the heart of this story took the lives of 1 million people. It's totally unfathomable destruction and cruelty.

And they made a movie about it. A movie that's PG-13.

Don't get me wrong. Hotel Rwanda is a good movie, a worthwhile movie, a film that uses traditional Hollywood techniques to tell an important story. There's nothing original about the filmmaking in Rwanda, but it's well-crafted enough to get the point across. 1 million people died for no good reason, and the wealthy nations of the West stood idly by and allowed it to happen.

For a major Hollywood film to take that kind of stand is significant enough, really. There are always films that come out dealing with tragic events in recent world history. But usually these films focus on the immediate horror of the situation, and they always feature brave Europeans and Americans to offset any potential critique. Think Black Hawk Down, a film that dealt with the Battle of Mogadishu and the surrounding instability in Somalia by focusing entirely on American military tactics and casualties.

But Rwanda gets right in your face about the moral failure of the Western government and press. At one point, Nick Nolte (playing a general for the UN) gets one of his trademark frothing-at-the-mouth monologues, this time decrying Westerners for their racism in choosing to ignore the ongoing violence in Rwanda. Good for writers Terry George and Keir Pearson. Though much of the actual violence itself is muted in the movie, probably to preserve that PG-13 rating, the social commentary is extremely frank for a change.

Like most films about unbearable tragedy, Rwanda chooses to focus on a real event near to but not neccessarily central to the conflict. In this case, it's the story of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a savvy capitalist who has made many important connections in his years running an exclusive Rwanda hotel. By 1994, a conflict that had brewed for years in Rwanda between warring tribes tribes that we learn in the film were created randomly by the Belgians during their colonization of the country. One tribe, the Hutu, are slaughtering the Tutsis by the thousands. Unfortunately for Paul, a Hutu, his wife and extended family are Tutsis, and therefore their lives are in danger. So Paul brings his family and their neighbors to stay within the safety of his hotel.

If this plot sounds familiar, that's probably because it's the exact same story as Schindler's List. A wealthy man with connections in the military and government uses his influence to save the lives of refugees, while making it appear on the surface that he's simply running a business. What's even more amazing is that both of these stories are true. Tragedy, I suppose, tends to breed similar kinds of heroism.

The Spielberg film attempted to understand the heroism of Oskar Schindler, a man who seemed, before the Holocaust, content to live as a war profiteer and social Nazi. What could have suddenly motivated him to come to the rescue of so many strangers? Hotel Rwanda kind of takes its protagonist's sacrifice as a given - faced with the savagery of the Rwandan massacre, what good man could refuse to help his neighbors?

Director Terry George seems more interested in the how's than the why's, in the methods used by Paul to keep himself and his family alive. What George really brings out of this story is the use of language, how the right words at the right time could make all the difference. Paul often finds himself with a gun in his face, and only his mouth can save him, time and again.

Cheadle's always been good at playing verbal characters, people who live by their wits and speak intelligently. This is rare in films, where even intelligent characters don't actually speak very intelligently. But Cheadle has a way of indicating that a lot of thought has gone into every word he's about to say, and as Rusesabagina, he's constantly negotiating.

Most of this material is handled exceptionally well, clear and concise, save for one scene near the end of the film finds Rusesabagina negotiating with a general (Fana Mokoena, in a terrifyingly cold turn) for protection. Rusesabagina actually manages to convince the general to keep him alive so he can later testify at a potential war crimes trial. Would this really work? Wouldn't a general who has faced a good deal of success shrug off this kind of offer, feeling that he was too powerful to be tried in the Hague for war crimes? The whole scene has kind of the feel of a bad "Hogan's Heroes" episode, where Hogan convinces Klink to let him form a softball team in exchange for a favorably worded letter to Der Fuhrer?

But other than that minor misstep, Rwanda is a considerably powerful film. It's probably the most disturbing PG-13 film ever released, but hey, it's about a horrible massacre. Those are the breaks.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Suspect Zero

I'm not going to take too long dismissing this one. I want to watch Hotel Rwanda in a little bit here, so I don't have all day.

There was a time, years ago, when the script for Suspect Zero was kind of a hot commodity in Hollywood. The high concept says it all: a government agent finds himself hunting a serial killer who kills other serial killers.

Bum-dum-dum, da-duuuuuuuuuuuuuuum. What will happen? If you kill serial killers, are you yourself a serial killer? Or a hero? Oh the possibilities!

So, I can only assume the movie has been made much dumber in the translation from script to movie. In screenwriting circles, by the way, I've often heard a theory bounced around that the best scripts don't always make the best movies. Sometimes, a script works so perfectly in its own right, as reading material, it winds up disappointing once it's made into a finished film.

I don't know...Anyway, the movie Suspect Zero really stinks. It's an incredibly unsatisfying formula film without an original or interesting concept to add to its genre. I like serial killer movies, but they have grown incredibly stale. Someone needs to make another Silence of the Lambs or Seven or Man Bites Dog and pump some life into this genre.

For example, here's a conversation I had recently at Laser Blazer...why do serial killer movies always have to approach the material in the same way. Always. Every single one. It's always about the duality of good and evil, about how the cop and killer are mirror images of one another. The evil that the cop dwells in all day begins to rub off on him, to affect his life outside of work, and he becomes haunted. And the killer reminds him all the time about how similar they are, and about how they are inextricably tied.

So the killer keeps baiting the cop, leading to some final confrontation where either (1) the cop is forced to face the truth, that he is no better than the criminals he chases or (2) the cop kills the serial killer, reaffirming his or her place as a societal authority and arbiter of justice. It's usually #2 in Hollywood movies.

Anyway, that's the plot of Suspect Zero. And every other movie in this genre from the past decade. Even the good ones, like Silence of the Lambs, basically adhere to it. As near as I can tell, it comes from all these Hong Kong films from the late 80's and early 90's that so influenced American directors. Guys like John Woo always made films about the dual nature of law enforcement - about how hanging out with criminals and studying their behavior changes the outlook and personality of police officers.

But, seriously guys, enough is enough. Why not make a movie about a cop who loves busting serial killers, and who isn't bothered by the gruesomeness of his profession at all? Or about a guy who busts serial killers, but who otherwise is a charming, affable guy with a great personality. Like if Walter Matthau ever made a serial killer movie...his cop would just be a regular guy with a weird job.

Anyway, back to the movie at hand. Ben Kingsley plays your serial killer. He's methodical, brilliant, disturbed and possibly delusional. He likes to strangle people with wire until their eyes bug out of their head. And he's sending messages and taunting a federal agent (Aaron Eckhart). Then Carrie-Anne Moss shows up as Eckhart's unwilling partner, and the movie limps into auto-pilot.

I think the biggest problem here is that the movie's set-up leaves us waiting for some big reveal, some deeper reason to maintain interest in this flat story. It's pretty obvious from about 15 minutes in that Kinglsey's character is going around killing other serial killers, so when it takes the cops nearly an hour to figure this out, we assume there's a reason. Why give the game away to us so early unless it's a red herring, some misdirection keeping us from seeing the real truth?

But there is no deeper truth that I could detect. The movie basically goes where you expect, leads to the confrontation you expect, and winds up right back where it started. This is a story with absolutely no forward momentum, a collection of events that aren't particularly interesting, nice to look at or even clearly explained. There were several whole chase sequences I found it difficult to follow, several scenes in which I couldn't really tell what the characters were talking about or why it was important, and in particular, the appearance and disappearance of the Carrie-Anne Moss character was jarring. I thought for a while she might be the killer, simply because her presence is never adequately explained.

Oh, and then there's the concept of a "Suspect Zero." This might be considered a "spoiler," I guess, if you want to go in to the movie totally fresh, but it's not the sort of thing that would ruin the experience to know about. Plus, the movie sucks, and I'm very trustworthy, so why would you see it now that you've read this review?

Anyway, Kingsley believes that there is a serial killer who defies any and all categorizations. He avoids any of the behavior we associate with serial killers (no victim patterns, different techniques every time, he moves around a lot, etc.) Therefore, he's impossible to profile. So both the cop and killer wind up searching for Suspect Zero, hoping to encounter each other along the way.

I like the idea of a serial killer who can't be caught because he's too sane. These movies are always about figuring out the lunatic psychopathology of the killer so he can be caught. It might be fun to see a movie where the guy was purposefully random to throw everyone off track. Even make them think there were different killers for each victim.

But the movie refuses to have any fun with the concept. Once it sets up the existance of Suspect Zero, there's no attempt to explore the idea. It's just a name now that's been applied to an unseen antagonist. This is an example of a solid premise completely wasted, along with the talents of a few good actors.

The director is E. Elias Merhige, whose previous film was Shadow of the Vampire. That was a very nice-looking film with a great premise - F. W. Murnau makes his classic vampire film Nosferatu using a real-life vampire as an actor - that utterly failed to entertain, or even amuse. Suspect Zero is similar, except that it lacks the visual grace of Shadow of the Vampire, relying on overly dark photography to distinctly lesser effect.

Viva Maria!

Now here's a weird one. It's a French film directed by the legendary Louis Malle, who was a contemporary of the French New Wave giants like Truffaut and Godard, though his movies aren't usually lumped in with theirs. The Cahiers du Cinema crowd made films for the masses, whereas Malle's family was aristocratic, having made a fortune during Napoleon's reign.

But anyway...Malle usually made very heavy, weighty films, often dealing with deviant sexuality (as in Amats, the 1958 film that made his international reputation, or Damage, his 1992 art house hit starring Jeremy Irons).

But Viva Maria is one of the goofier movies I've seen in some time. It an action-comedy-western telling the story of two vaudeville performers who find themselves leading a Southe American revolution. It's like a sexy French girl version of Woody Allen's Bananas. Or, if you prefer 80's PG comedy references, it's like Three Amigos with subtitles and tits.

The aforementioned tits reside on the chests of Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot, two of the loveliest of French actresses. Their chemistry and charm really makes this film work. When it works, that is. Viva Maria is a movie with a ton of enthusiasm and sparkle, a light comedy realized on a massive scale with charismatic leads, well-staged action sequences and a charming sense of fun.

Unfortunately, it's not actually very funny. Or funny at all.

Which is strange, because the story is kind of darkly amusing. It's a morbidly comic fable about Marie, the daughter of an Irish revolutionary (Bardot) on the run from the law in Central America. Her father taught her everything he knew, you see, so she's grown up as a terrorist-in-training who's also strangely ignorant about the world of everyday, law-abiding adults.

Bardot eventually finds her way into the caravan of Mary (Moreau), a formerly great actress now paying the bills by singing in a touring circus. The two Marys hit it off, and start their own double act following the suicide of Mary's former partner (one of several oddly morbid touches littered throughout the movie).

After they inadvertantly invent the striptease during a cabaret act gone horribly wrong, the Mary's become Central American celebrities, and the real adventure begins. During their travels, they'll encounter a cavalcade of bizarre characters, many of them semi-offensive Latin stereotypes and caricatures, including a bug-eyed, homicidal fat cat, a corrupt clergyman, a handsome revolutionary (played by George Hamilton!), and a cowardly generalisimo who, at one point, runs head-on into the most fake-looking prop cactus I have ever seen.

So you get the idea. It's a rollicking musical comedy with lots going on and an almost spastic level of energy. It essentially just fails to bring the funny. It's corny, confusing and occasionally silly, but just not funny.

Viva Maria is, however, extremely strange, which manages to keep the thing entertaining. (An adorable performance from Bardot, a woman with undeniable magnestism and charisma on screen, doesn't hurt either).

Take the love scene between Moreau and Hamilton. He's been chained up when Mary gets the circus' strongman to break her into his cell. With his hands tied to a pole above his head, Hamilton looks unmistakably like Jesus. And Moreau's crouching down before him, almost in supplication. And she is, after all, playing a woman named "Mary." So the symbolism is obvious.

But what's the point? Why go out of your way to set up a Passion-inspired lovemaking sequence in the middle of your campy adventure movie? When you see that scene, you don't laugh because it's so clever. You laugh that anyone would actually put something like that in a movie.

I don't mean to come down on Viva Maria. It's a zippy little film, a movie that it would be hard to hate. Moreau and Bardot are delightful in their roles, even though the musical numbers they're saddled with during the film's midsection leave something to be desired.

And, as I said, Malle's staging of the action sequences never fails to impress. He used a lot of vintage locomotives in the film to very nice effect. The entire revolution sequence looks great, and I was particularly surprised by the scale of the production. This cannot have been a cheap venture for a French movie in the mid-60's. Which makes a lot of its eccentricities all the more bizarre.

But Who's Countering?

Technical glitches have got me down. You may have noticed The Inertia went completely offline today for a while, due to further difficulties down there at Blogger headquarters. To be honest, I'm always kind of surprised and delighted when Blogger works properly. I mean, think about it...this company (a division of Google, by the way) has charged me absolutely no fee for anything having to do with Crushed by Inertia at all.

So they're giving away web space for free, which most companies don't really like to do. And there's really no strings attached from what I can tell. I don't get annoying spam because of Blogger, they never hit me up for money or attempt to mess with my service...nothing...

So, I guess I shouldn't complain when something goes haywire down at the blogging factory.

But it does mean that today, when I returned home from the video store, I had to completely redo my blog's template. It didn't take too long, but I did lose the use of the hit counter I used to keep in the corner.

I had installed a hit counter at first just for a general idea of how many people visited the site every day, and now I know. On a slow day, around 20-30. On a normal day, around 50. And it's busted 150 before. Surprisingly, the days where I got mass amounts of traffic, over 100 hits lets say, were always on weekends. This goes against what I would have guessed.

I imagined that most people's blog-reading habits mirrored my own. I first got into reading blogs while working a dull office job in Hollywood. I would spend a good deal of my afternoon flitting around from one blog to another, occasionally posting comments if I thought of something appropriately pithy. Or if someone wrote something nice about Garden State, causing bile to rise to the back of my throat.

I figured most of my visitors would do the same.

But instead, I find I get a lot of, like, random Sunday afternoon traffic. This puzzles me. Who is sitting around at home in the middle of the day on a weekend looking at my blog? I mean, aside from my grandmother. It's just hard for me to imagine.

I figured, I've learned about as much from that hit counter as I ever will. In a few months, if I feel I've built up a larger audience, I may insteall another one to check up on my status. Who knows? Maybe people will stop coming to the site, but I'll keep on writing anyway without ever knowing, and this will become a large, wordy Internet echo chamber, where I type reams worth of insights for no one's benefit but my own.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Call Northside 777

Can you believe, I couldn't find a single usable frame from this movie as illustration for this article? It has only happened with one other movie - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. And that one, I almost expected, because it's an old British movie that's remained somewhat obscure for Americans.

But Call Northside 777 is a classic film. It's an American noir from 20th Century Fox, starring James Stewart. Plus it's been released recently on DVD, along with Laura and Panic in the Streets, both of which I've reviewed already.

Anyway, Laura it ain't. While Call Northside moves along briskly and provides a solid amount of entertainment (along with some beautiful shots of old Chicago), it never really gathers sufficient momentum. The movie just didn't ever come alive for me - the ingredients of a good film are there, but it's too repetitive and dry.

Part of the problem arises from its genre. Though Call Northside clearly fits in the category of "film noir," it's also a "true crime" film done in the style of a re-enacted documentary. The action in the film is based on a real Chicago murder case, and Jimmy Stewart's character is based on a real reporter.

In the opening montage, we're given a brief history of Prohibition-Era Chicago, and how quick arrests protected the reputation of the police force. Then we meet Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and his friend Tomek Zaleska (George Tyne), two Polish immigrants arrested falsely for the murder of a police officer in a speakeasy. The police are desperate for a conviction, so they rush the case to trial, and the two friends are sentenced to 99 years in prison each.

10 years later, reporter McNeal (Stewart) stumbles on to the story while working on a fluff piece about Wiecek's mother, who scrubs floors every day hoping to earn enough money to win Frank and appeal. At first, he resists the idea that Wiecek might be innocent, but when Frank passes a lie detector test, he starts to change his mind.

And, of course, by the end he's not only become convinced of Wiecek's innocence, but enraged at a justice system that can allow a man to be railroaded in this way.

At the time, these sort of turnabouts may have seemed fresh and exciting, but today it plays like your average episode of "Law and Order." So many films and TV shows have borrowed this format that it has been run into the ground, and any more, I tend to feel that the best true crime films are actual documentaries. For example, often during Call Northside, I was reminded of Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, a better film about a similar case, in which an overzealous police department accused and incarcerated an innocent man. (Morris' film actually won wrongfully accused Texan Randall Adams his freedom. Adams then turned around and sued Morris for stealing his life story.)

Also, I was reminded of Clint Eastwood's underrated thriller True Crime, which is essentially a remake of the Call Northside 777 story. One interesting divergence between the films: Call Northside implies in a sidelong way that Wiecek's Polish background may have played into the police's decision to declare him the culprit, whereas Eastwood's film focused on racism much more explicitly.

You can't fault Call Northside 777 and films of its ilk for inspiration several generations of filmmakers. That's unfair. But I will say that the format kind of mutes any tension or excitement the movie's story may inspire. Take the scene featuring the lie detector. It's a suspenseful scene, and it's the first time Wiecek's claims of his innocence will be put to the test in any meaningful way.

But director Henry Hathaway obviously worried audiences wouldn't understand how the lie detector worked, so he includes an extended and very full sequence in which the operator explains to McNeal in detail how the machine worked and what it can do. Again, this film was made in 1948, when lie detector technology was not the old cliche it has become today. Now lie detectors figure into probably 40% of all movies, and we don't need any explanation for how they work.

But still, the scene just stops the film dead in its tracks. By the time Wiecek starts actually answering questions, we've had long enough to figure out what's going to happen, and the scene has become completely flat.

As well, Hathaway's unable to establish any interesting relationships. Wiecek at first distrusts McNeail, asking him at one point to stop writing any more articles about him or his family, and then comes around for no apparent reason. McNeal's given an attractive and supportive wife (Helen Walker) who doesn't have any role to play in the film whatsoever. Lee J. Cobb plays his editor, who at first seems like an interesting character before devolving into a placeholder at around the hour mark.

Even Wiecek's mother, the kindly old lady who scrubs floors for the benefit of her son, fails to make much of an impression. We meet her early on in the film and then don't see her again until the end.

One more complaint before I get to the good stuff; Stewart's character isn't really depicted as much of a reporter. For one thing, he writes several stories about Wiecek's case before ever meeting the man or even talking to him. He has to be convinced by his editor to go interview the man's ex-wife. It doesn't occur to him to speak to Wiecek's friend, the man who was arrested along with him, until nearly halfway through the movie.

Also, he's apparently a news writer, but often we see him typing opinionated column-type pieces. At one point, he refers to an old lady who refuses to testify on Wiecek's behalf, as an "evil, heartless woman." Oh, and before he interviews Wiecek or finds out any of the facts of the case, he's already decided about the man's guilt.

See what I mean? Woodward and Bernstein, this guy ain't.

Okay, now on to what's good about Call Northside. Obviously, there's Jimmy Stewart, who provides the film with a solid center without overshadowing the action. There's a lack of actors like Stewart these days. When he wanted to, he was capable of commanding an audience's attention, but he also knew how to hang back and invest himself in the story. There are many films like Call Northside where he doesn't stand out, but you realize only after the movie's over that he's been the backbone, his character's presence has been holding the entire enterprise together.

I'm reminded, as well, of a film like Rope. You think of it, or at least I do, as Hitchcock's film, a tour-de-force of directing. But you need to have Stewart in there to maintain the audience's interest. If Hitchcock is the film's raging id, Stewart is the always self-aware ego, keeping the narrative on an even keel.

Also, no review of Call Northside 777 would be complete without a mention of Joseph MacDonald's wonderful location photography. This was the first film ever to be filmed on location in Chicago. Seriously. And MacDonald managed to capture the city's variety and character brilliantly. There are many, many breathtaking black and white cityscapes, and it's a rare treat to see such expansive location photography in a movie from this era. Chicago itself is practically a star in this movie, and the cinematography was the highlight of my entire experience with the film.

I'm continuing to work my way through Laser Blazer's extensive noir collection, so I'll be featuring many more films like Call Northside 777, many of them likely better. This ranks along with Panic in the Streets as a noble effort with much to recommend, that nevertheless falls short of the genre's real benchmarks.

That Man Bolton

What's that? You want to read a column written by the Internet's dumbest man? A man who makes Bill O'Reilly seem measured and reasonable? A man whose notion of nuanced cultural analysis is Wally George interviewing Ann Coulter? Well, look no further. I give you Fox News' very own John Gibson.

John Bolton isn't a household name yet, but the end of "yet" is just around the corner.

That's his lead-off sentence this week. There's something about Gibson's prose style I can't quite put my finger on...It's clumsy, yes, and indicates a baffling lack of insight. But there's something else. His writing appears to break several rules of grammar and syntax, yet I think his word usage is technically correct. "The end of 'yet' is just around the corner," though...who writes like that?

Now, some might argue that the only thing a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. should do is drop by to deliver our resignation letter and a demand to get out of the United States. But that's not why Bolton is going to the U.N.

He's, of course, going for the world-class buffet.

Please note that Gibson once again uses the old Fox News "some have said" trick. This trick is so old, Robert Greenwald has already made a documentary explaining its usage (the film is Outfoxed), but Gibson hopes we're not savvy enough to have seen the movie. Basically, instead of coming out and offering a dumb, lunatic theory as his own (such as "the US should resign from the UN, an organization it functionally controls), John can make it sound like he's simply reporting news.

"Some have argued..." whatever you want. He still gets to say the fringe, idiot theory that Fox News wants you to know about, but he gets to later backtrack and say he never really believed it in the first place.

Sean Hannity does this all the time. "Senator, some have said that Bill Clinton was actually a zombie working under the control of Communists acting on behalf of George Soros. What do you think of that idea?"

But back to the Gibson article. He's about to tell us what John Bolton does plan to do with his newfound influence in the United Nations.

He's going there to give the 190 other nations in the U.N. a dose of reality that goes like this:

We're sick of this organization operating as an anti-American one-upmanship club.

Sorry, what?

You'd think, from reading that sentence, that the UN had prevented the United States from doing something important. In fact, the United Nations did nothing to stop our invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan. They didn't send their own troops, but it's not like there were UN forces opposing us.

All that happened was that foreign diplomats used the United Nations as a platform to tell the world they thought the United States was wrong. And, folks, the United States was wrong. It's sad but true. Americans fell hook, line and sinker for a massive whopper of a lie, a lie that was funded and propogated by the executive and legislative branches of the government, the mass media and corporations with a financial stake in the war's outcome.

That's what happened.

But John Gibson wants you to think it's wrong for the United Nations or any members therein to say anything negative about the United States. Our country already controls the organization that's supposed to stand for international cooperation. But that isn't enough for J.G. He wants them to grovel and beg for our favor, he wants them to bow down to us and accept our total domination. He wants diplomats and ambassadors to silence themselves when their views don't line up with the power-hungry lunatic in the White House.

We're sick of paying the bills and getting trashed by every tin pot dictator the U.N. can invite into its midst.

It's very useful to follow John's logic carefully here. The United States "pays the bills" for the United Nations. So, he agrees, we control the organization that's supposed to stand for international cooperation. That's good, we're getting somewhere.

Therefore, since the US pays the bills, it's wrong for "tin pot dictators," whatever he means by that bizarre, confused slang, to say bad things about the United States. By extension, since the US pays the bills, they should get to determine who is and who is not a "tin pot dictator."

Because John's not suggesting we kick out every country from the UN that has what could be considered a dictatorship. He's not saying "trashed by every dictator," but "every tin pot dictator." That's hardly an exact term. So, of course, it's up to America to decide which dictators can stay and which can go.

We're sick of the U.N. acting as if the world — or the U.N. — can get along without the U.S.

And we're sick of all of you working against good ideas just because they come from the U.S. or from President Bush.

John is so pleased with America. He's constantly delighting himself with little paragraphs about how great the United States is and how much everyone needs us. I think he relates too personally to the idea of his nation. In other words, I think he's come to actually identify himself with "America," so he sees America's international diplomatic relationships and personal relationships in his own life.

"The world can't get along with me because I am so great. France is so mean for saying mean stuff about me, I hate him. Forget France, they're icky and gross and I'm not their friend any more. Iran just made a face at me!"

To be honest, I think a lot of people, okay a lot of conservatives, have this problem. Particularly hawk-ish kind of people, the kind of people who always think we should go to war. Allow me to explain.

There are certain experiences we have, particularly as children, that shape the way we think about interpersonal relationships. Life lessons, like "never back down when someone threatens you." That's an important lesson, because if you never stand up for yourself, you'll be repeatedly picked on and victimized.

But these principles don't apply to international relations. When you're speaking about countries and their diplomatic negotiations, you're talking about discussions that affect the lives of literally billions of people. So it's horribly irresponsible to apply interpersonal communication rules to diplomacy.

And yet that's what most Americans do when they think about American foreign policy. "Oh, North Korea said some bad shit about us? We should send a battleship there!" "Iraq broke this rule we told them never to break again! Let's bomb them."

That's what you'd do if it was a problem with another person. If you lent Toby $500 and he never paid you back, and then you found it he was telling everybody about how he ripped you off for $500 and about how he totally has the money but he's not going to give it to you ever, you'd be pretty much in the right going to Toby's apartment, roughing him up and taking the money.

But if Norway did that same thing to Finland, Finland might just have to take it to avoid further conflict. I'm not saying the old rules and manners never apply; I'm just saying there are more things to consider than pride.

But back to John Gibson's expert UN analysis:

Somebody has got to tell them. The Brits won't; the French won't because they're the worst offenders; and that vast collection of fat kleptocrats — so-called diplomats — from Third World countries won't either.

Told you..."Ooooooooohhhh, those French....they make-a me so maaaaad!"

I also like that he has to explain the kleptocrats joke. He knows this ain't exactly a New Yorker kind of audience he's reaching...

That latter group includes a huge number of so-called nations — really little more than spots on the map — that would get invaded, taken over, subsumed, eliminated from memory except no one wants to get stuck with their problems of poverty and disease and corruption. So by benefit of their sorry state, they get to maintain their independence and membership in the U.N. and their right to bitch out the U.S.

This man is so ugly inside. He really is. And he's so blissfully unaware of the blackness of his soul. He thinks evil is just common sense.

I mean, seriously, this is a paragraph written by a smarmy American who is reveling in the horror of life in the Third World. He first callously dismisses them as "spots on the map," as if the geographic size of a country had anything to do with the value of the human life therein. That would be like saying "Who cares if everyone in Newport News dies...Rhode Island is, like, totally small."

But that's not mean enough. He goes on to fantasize about how these countries could be vaporized (along with their native population, one can only assume). And as if musing unassumingly about the utter destruction of the Third World weren't enough, he goes on to comment that the only reason this hasn't yet happened is because these countries are so horrible, no one thinks they are worth invading.

John Gibson's telling the people of the Third World that, in his opinion, they are so insignificant, they're not worth destroying. What a sweetie.

And because these countries are fortunate to even exist, they shouldn't be allowed to voice their opinion on America's massive and deadly war machine.

If you're poor, if you're not an American, if you don't like George Bush, John Gibson just plain doesn't like you.