Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Big Surreality

American politics have become extremely surreal over the past month. On one hand, it seems like my fondest dreams are starting to come true: all these Republican criminals are being indicted, even the hardcore religious assholes are mad at Bush, and all the sensible people of America seem to be waking up from a 5-year stupor to discover that the guy leading them is not just incompetent but also arrogant and pig-headed.

But on the other hand, things seem poised to become worse than ever. Bush's dancing monkey will likely be confirmed to the Supreme Court, thus giving us a decidedly unfortunate douchebag-to-reasonable judge ratio. Iraq is entering, even as I type this, the initial phase of what is sure to be a bloody and drawn-out civil war. A large portion of the Southeastern US is still unlivable and contaminated, requiring over $150 billion to clean it up. And they say more killer storms may be on the way. And in Spring of 2005, Snakes on a Plane will open in a theater near you. [shudder...]

Jaron Lanier over at Huffington Post has come up with a pretty good term for the malaise currently facing the American Left: The Big Surreality. Things have gotten not just bad over the last five years, but ceaselessly strange. So strange, it's hard to even know how to react.

Here's Lanier's example: Five years ago, the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush as President. He brought along with him to The White House a like-minded, super-religious friend and colleague named Harriet Miers, who worked first as his staff secretary and then as his personal lawyer (after he installed his previous personal lawyer as Attorney General). Now, five years later, he's installing this like-minded lawyer to...The Supreme Court. Presumably so that she can then install his successor, or some such thing.

Yeah, it's a little surreal. Here's my personal example of a recent Big Surreal moment. On Bill Maher's HBO show last night, he was interviewing Ann Coulter via satellite. Of course, they were discussing Bill Bennett's shockingly racist comments on his radio show, where he stated that if we aborted all black babies, there would be less overall crime.

Now, a lot of people have focused on this comment as meaning that Bennett sanctions genocide towards black people. Obviosuly, that's not what he's implying. He's implying black people are disproportionately responsible for crime in America, based on well-worn crime statistics. As I see it, whether or not you believe in this claim, there are two possible explanations for why black people would potentially commit more crimes than whites.

(1) Black people are predisposed genetically to crime
(2) The conditions in which blacks live in America, including poor educational resources and cyclical poverty, drives them to commit more crimes

Okay, so back to Bill Maher. He stated to Ann Coulter his belief that the grinding poverty in which much of America's black population lives causes their increased rate of crime. She loudly disagreed. "I'm not sure poverty causes crime, Bill," were her words, as best I can remember.

So...she believes that blacks are predisposed genetically to crime, then, right? I mean, what's the other option. She's not arguing against the statistics, saying that black people don't commit any more crimes per capita than whites. Maher tried to nail her down, and she evaded the rest of the questioning, but that makes it pretty clear where she stands, right? She admitted to her own racism on national television.

That's kind of surreal, isn't it? When a best-selling author and leading voice of the American Right goes on national television and announces that she thinks black people are predisposed to being criminals? In fact, this whole Bill Bennett situation is surreal. I mean, I've known that many many many Republican politicians (and, let's face it, Democratic politicans) are huge racists for years. It's obvious. Some of them initially ran for office on blatantly racist platforms! All of the sudden, ever since that Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond gaffe, the mask is starting to slip. The racism is coming out.

Anyway, I like Lanier's terminology, but his final conclusion is prety weaksauce.

The alternative to falling into the Surreality trap is to be more clear and honest than the competition. Clarity and honesty in the case of abortion mean admitting that there might very well be something to the other side’s morality, that fate and life are beyond all of us, and then hoping that the other side will see that both humility and patriotism require that they not impose their faith on other people.

Call me a crazy idealist, but I have enough faith in the other side to believe they’ll eventually come around, at least enough to keep the country from falling in two.

Okay...Jaron, you're a crazy idealist. Actually, you're batshit insane and not paying attention. All Democrats have been doing for years is trying to counter their ridiculous fantasies with some sort of sense. Remember the debates?

BUSH: We got a grand coalition.
KERRY: No, you don't.
BUSH: It's awesome. Poland's in there, and we got Austramalia and I think the Yukon Territories are sending some folks.
KERRY: The Yuk--that's not even a country.
BUSH: I'm not a hard-hearted person.
KERRY: (exasperated) That's not a grand coalition.
BUSH: After we win in Iraq, we're goin' to Mars.

Over and over again, since these clowns first took office, people have been talking sense at nonsense and it's getting us nowhere. Remember when Alice went to Wonderland, and the more she tried to reason with the inhabitants there, the less rational everything became? That's Washington D.C. right now.

JOHN MCCAIN: Mr. President, we have to stop senselessly torturing people.
BUSH: Can you stand on your head?
ROY NAGIN: Mr. President, everyone in my city is drowning or starving to death.
BUSH: Will you play croquet with Dick Cheney today? No, wait, it's time for tea! Switch places!

I think the lefties should just counter the right's nonsense with even grander nonsense. Like, when they start insiting we teach Intelligent Design in schools, we should counter with demands that they teach kids about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When they call us traitors, we should insist that Sean Hannity is a pedophile.

What? Are you saying you can prove beyond any doubt that Sean Hannity has never touched an 8 year old boy in a bad place? Don't you think the right has been a little quick and forceful in their immediate response to these allegations? I mean, why all the fanfare if it wasn't true? And admit it...the slicked-back hair, the oily charm...he's a classic child molester!

Friday, October 07, 2005

Special Guest Blogger: God

So, James, anyway, as I was saying...

Wait a minute...

This isn't James Dobson's brain...

I'm sorry. You see, I'm supposed to be communing with pastor James Dobson. He begged me, on his radio show the other day, to speak to him and tell him what to think about Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers.

He said "There is so much in the balance [with this nominee], there is no way to put it into words . . . Because of that, Dobson is begging the Lord: "If this is not the person you want on that Supreme Court, all you have to do is tell me so, and do it through any means you want to."

And I was gonna show up in his mind as he slept tonight to tell him that Harriet's just fine with me. I mean, I know how she's gonna vote on every issue that's going to come before the Supreme Court. Cause, I'm God. And nothing in her soul displeases me too badly. She'll be a fine Justice. (And just between you and me, a hellcat in the sack.)

I was also going to tell James that I've given him a colon polyp, but since I seem to have gotten misdirected somewhere, I guess I'll rap at you good folks for a few minutes.

I've got to tell you, first off, I'm really freaked out by this Tom Cruise baby story. I'm pretty sure I made Tom Cruise sterile. Wasn't that why he and Nicole Kidman adopted two kids rather than have any of their own? I mean, the only other explanation for Tom not impregnating his incredibly beautiful wife would be that he' of those. And he better not be, because that homo stuff really cheeses me off. For serious. It's in that book I wrote, look it up.

So if I'm right, and let's face it, I'm never wrong...Tom shouldn't be able to impregnate a chick. Which means it's something of an Immaculate Conception. And it wasn't me, people. I had nothing to do with it. I've been taking the form of an agent's assistant and going with this girl for a few years now, this waitress I met at Barney's Beanery. Anyway, it's getting kind of serious, and I would totally not risk our relationship over a night with Katie Holmes, whom I drunkenly cursed a few years back with fucked up feet. Why did I do that? So stupid when I drink! See?


Anyway, you can all see where I'm going with this. If I didn't impregnate her, and Maverick didn't impregnate her...who impregnated her? Satan? That Scientology guy? You all might have a Rosemary's Baby situation on your hands in a few months, that's all I'm saying. If Katie Holmes gets a short-ass haircut and starts wearing a pendant around her neck with a weird root in it, get the fuck out of Dodge, you know what I mean? Cause I'm not intervening on your behalf any time soon. Not when reality TV is getting this good.

I like that one reality show, where the billions of self-conscious primates dress up in silly outfits and race around spastically, clinging to the delusional notion that their pathetic, insignificant little lives have any kind of larger meaning or significance. I call it "Earth." It's pretty entertaining, but it's not exactly "Making the Band." I love Diddy. You all should put him up for sainthood or something. I know technically you can't do that for someone until they perform 3 miracles and then die, but make an exception...The guy throws awesome parties.

So that's what I'm doing most days, watching my stories while enjoying some fine ambrosia and, you know, trying to get some exercize when I can squeeze it in. And I try to make time to hang out with my son, but he's always out appearing in tortillas and blurry shrouds in South America and whatnot. And, you know, randomly assaulting homosexuals. Cause there's nothing me and the boy hate more than fags. But I said that already, right?

I'm gonna get up out of here in a few minutes. I've got to go set Dobson straight, and then there's my morning meet-and-greet with Nipsey Russell, got to make sure he's comfortable and everything. Of course he's up here! Haven't you ever seen "$10,000 Pyramid"? That guy's hilarious.

But there was one more thing I wanted to say real quick before I go. It's about this "Atheist Manifesto" these assholes are gonna publish online in December. They ran an excerpt in Huffington Post today. What a load of crap.

The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence -- and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy. Our circumstance is abject, indefensible, and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.

Seriously, guys, I know the Old Testament makes me out to be kind of self-conscious, kind of needy. That wasn't what I was going for...those were all Moses' passages. I don't really give a shit if you guys like me or not. Hey, you're alive. YOU'RE WELCOME. Anything else you want, you're gonna have to take care of yourself. I'm just your Creator, I'm not your fucking mommy.

So this asshole thinks that just because I'm not gonna bail him out every time things look bad, it means I don't exist. Deal with it, dude. I can't be everywhere at once. Well, I can, but maybe I don't feel like it, okay? Maybe I get involved in afternoon backgammon games or my DVD collection and forget about your sorry walking-erect asses for a couple of hours. So sue me. I'm only not human.

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is -- and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

I don't actually drown infants in their cribs. That's dumb. All I did was create infants and cribs and water, and then I made it so that when cribs with infants in them get submerged in water, the infant's lungs fill with that water, which the infant can't turn into oxygen, causing the infant to expire. Oh, yeah, and I made a big storm that blew over a house and knocked the crib into the water.

But, I mean, I don't actually do the drowning. Come on, I'm not a monster. Someone could have come and grabbed the kid out of the water and refilled its lungs with air and it would have been okay. I would have allowed it. But no one did. And now it's somehow my fault? Screw you guys. I didn't tell that jerkstick Adam to eat the apple, but he did, so now you're all doomed to suffer for eternity. Don't look at me, man, I didn't create the rules. Well, I did, but that was a long time ago. Well, okay, so time doesn't have meaning for me, and it's always like I'm creating the rules every minute, but for you it would seem like a long time ago, so same thing.

As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different.

I am so totally different from Zeus and Thor. Zeus popped out of a guy's head, whereas I've been here all along. Okay, so that's difference number one. We do both have the thunder fetish thing, I'll admit that. And, as I said, we both have an intense fondness for ambrosia. But we're not really that alike, personality-wise. To be honest, I find him kind of obnoxious sometimes. And Thor? Let's just say, um, he doesn't share my strong views against homosexuality, if you catch my drift.

That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion -- to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources -- is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.

You know what I find totally hilarious? This is a fairly cogent, reasonably well-written article, if a bit trite and obvious, and yet it won't matter one bit at all to anyone who reads it. The disbelievers will read it and shrug and go, "yeah, that's basically how I see it" and go on their way, only to die soon enough and be tortured for all eternity in a flaming pit of sulfur as punishment for their arrogance and lack of faith. And the believers will read it and think it's a load of crap, because their belief in me and my eternal awesomeness trumps any logical argument that anyone can make. It's powerful because it can't be proven, because no one can say anything against it no matter how hard they try. That's what gives religion its meaning, not because it's reasonable or likely to be proved true.

So, so sorry atheists, but you can't win. Write all the little blog posts you want. You guys have been trying this for thousands of years. My PR team is the best in the business, okay, and they have been branding me like a motherfucker for generations. The only people more recognizable than me around the world are Mickey Mouse, Michael Jordan and the Kool Aid Guy. And I'm gaining ground in Africa, so that red-faced pitcher asshole is going down.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

My 101 Favorite Directors, 41-50

We're at the halfway point with these lists. One thing I discovered while putting the whole thing together is that it's not quite as rote as you'd expect. I had always thought that anyone from my generation who put together a Top 50 Directors list would include a lot of the same names. And, of course, some of my Top 10 or 20 is quite predictable for people who know my personality and tastes. Friends have even been making fairly accurate guesses in the Comments section.

But there's a lot of subjectivity to it as well. Just the other day in the store, a co-worker made a crack about Sam Peckinpah, implying that his catalogue of films was overrated. Clearly, I disagree (he's below at #44). And in my entire life, I have never seen the man at #41 on any list of Great Directors, despite the fact that his films are among the most popular, entertaining and influential of anyone's in the entire list. It just demonstrates how varied and eclectic the last 100 years of filmmaking have been. Even people with similar tastes who have seen mostly the same movies can have wildly divergent opinions about what represents the "best" in cinema.

50. Sidney Lumet

I feel like I'm already down to my absolute favorite filmmakers, and I still have 50 more entries to go. Lumet is a pioneer of socially-aware, politically transgressive American filmmaking who has never shied away from controversial subjects. His 1964 film The Pawnbroker was among the first American films to openly deal with the Holocaust, and his classic Network, of course, is all about the rejection of media indoctrination, and was one of the first mainstream films to openly attack America's consumer culture. Plus, his work is just extremely engaging and fun to watch, full of memorable dialogue and great performances.

MY FAVORITES: Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Network, Q&A

49. Peter Weir

Weir's films tend to focus on makeshift communities, formed by neccessity rather than personal choice. The rifts and tensions that arise in these isolated social clusters are always situation-specific, and yet can be easily reapplied to everyday human interactiosn on a global level. A thoughtful and allegorical filmmaker, Weir's movies are nonetheless engaging and easy to watch, suffused with bold, sweeping cinematography and crafty, subtle intelligence.

MY FAVORITES: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Truman Show

48. Howard Hawks

Hawks' catalogue reads like a Film Guide's list of Best American Films. Seriously, the guy produced at least 4 classics per decade, three decades in a row. It has got to be some kind of record. And like Michael Curtiz, they come from a variety of genres and styles. The only thing uniting many of the films is Hawks' impeccable sense of timing, skill with actors and consummate professionalism.

MY FAVORITES: His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Scarface

47. David O. Russell

#47 of all time isn't bad for a guy with only 4 proper fictional movies and one semi-released documentary. All four of those movies, though...they're terrific. Russell's a really funny, intelligent writer, so he begins with these fresh, thoughtful scripts and makes them into dreamy, stylish, frequently hilarious and always idiosyncratic comedies. One movie of his in particular, Three Kings, is a tragically overlooked modern masterpiece, one of the smartest and most insightful of recent American movies, an extremely prescient action-comedy set during the first Gulf War that works on about ten levels at once.

MY FAVORITES: Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, Flirting With Disaster, Spanking the Monkey

46. Robert Zemeckis

Zemeckis over Hawks and Lumet? BLASPHEMY! I can hear myself being discredited by all the cinematic purists out there even as we speak. But what can I say? Spielberg's star pupil hit his stride just when my obsession with movies started officially. He had a string of tremendously entertaining audience-pleasing comedies in the 80's that ideally combined old-fashioned storytelling with cutting-edge effects. (Even the flawed 90's flop Death Becomes Her features tremendous computerized effects technology and a funny turn from Bruce Willis.) Yeah, okay, so Back to the Future III sucks, the right-wing diatribe Forrest Gump is a tragic blight on his record and all his films now have a ponderous, self-important tone. I'm willing to forgive and forget.

MY FAVORITES: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone

45. Mel Brooks

I remember seeing Spaceballs in a movie theater in New Jersey with my dad and a friend of our family's, a neighbor named Neil. I remember being shocked that the film was a PG movie, which had been directly marketed to me, a child, and yet it felt so dirty. Rick Moranis at one point says "fuck," a word I didn't, at the time, realize he even knew. It was more like a movie you'd sneak into than one you'd see with your dad right next to you. So, of course, it became one of my favorite movies, and I found that the same gleeful, and gleefully mild, raunch runs through all of his films. It was only later that I'd discover the real classics of Brooks' oeuvre, his collaborations with Gene Wilder, one of the best matches of performer and director in American movie history.

MY FAVORITES: Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers

44. Sam Peckinpah

As we move along here, it's going to become increasingly obvious this list was created by a man. Not only are there no female directors on the list at all (though I doubt most women with anything less than encyclopedic film knowledge could do all that much better), but it's full of macho action filmmakers like Peckinpah, telling stories about tough guys fighting a losing battle against their personal demons. Women, I suppose, might have trouble relating to some of Peckinpah's films, and in truth, as a young non-alcoholic, sometimes I do, too. But they are, in addition to testosterone-fueled bloodbaths, searing portraits of human weakness and absolutely riveting, dynamic, essential action films.

MY FAVORITES: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Straw Dogs, The Getaway, The Wild Bunch

43. Milos Forman

I want to place Milos higher, if only because I have such respect for his background, the much-needed perpsective he brings to American film and his dark sense of humor. But, hey, we're striving for total 100% accuracy here. Forman made a few delightful comedies in his home nation of Czechoslovakia before emigrating to America in 1968 to escape Communist oppression. Here, he specialized in films about non-conformists pitted against a cruel system attempting to break their delicate spirits. Coincidence? Most of these films, with the possible exceptions of Man on the Moon and Valmont, are rightly considered classics.

MY FAVORITES: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Amadeus, The Loves of a Blonde

42. Paul Verhoeven

I love Paul Verhoeven movies, for sure, but even more than that, I love the idea of Paul Verhoeven. A Dutchman with an anarchistic streak who made serious films, war films, in his own country, and then came to America and found our uptight Puritanical bullshit so amusing, he committed himself to pushing the envelope for sexual and violent content more and more with each new project. I interviewed him at the junket for his brilliant, hilarious sci-fi satire Starship Troopers, and he told me that (1) he hired young actresses based on breast size, (2) he wanted to make an entire film about CG dinosaurs behaving as dinosaurs might have really behaved in the wild (as he said, "eating, shitting and fucking") and (3) he was proud when Total Recall was tagged as "the most violent American film ever made." Awesome.

MY FAVORITES: Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers

41. Chuck Jones

Chuck Jones was one of a number of geniuses and pioneers working out of Warner Brothers famed "Termite Terrace" in the 40's and 50's. Is there anyone out there who doesn't recognize the incredible genius of Looney Tunes? They aren't just the all-time definitive cartoons...they are the bedrock of almost all contemporary "ironic" or post-modern comedy. Without Jones' remarkable contributions to animation, and his self-aware, irreverent and non-sequiteur humor, there would be no "Ren and Stimpy," no "Beavis and Butthead," no "Spongebob Squarepants," no "Simpsons," no "South Park," no "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," no Toy Story or Iron Giant or Shrek or even Evil Dead 2.

MY FAVORITES: Duck Amuck, Rabbit Seasoning, One Froggy Evening, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Billy O Calls Slavery a Great Success

I think this might be it. I think it might be the day. I've been waiting for years now for Bill O'Reilly to say something stupid enough to actually alienate every person in America, to finally make the one clear, concise, declarative statement that informs everyone around of his total lack of perspective, his misplaced arrogance and his, well, complete and total absence of integrity or shame.

I mean, the guy is really dumb and talks shit all fucking day. I mean, he's got that hour-long televised abortion every afternoon on Fox News, and isn't his party against abortion in the first place? That'd be a good question for Harriet Miers during her confirmation hearings...

"Considering your clear stance against abortion rights, how would you rule if Bill O'Reilly's right to air his idiocy on nationwide television came before The Court...Mmm-hmmm...Right...I just mean, considering that his show is a daily televised abortion...Right...Please just answer the question."

As if that weren't enough chance for him spout his dim, generic brand of hate speech and propaganda, O'Reilly's on the radio nationwide every afternoon. Every afternoon. We're not just giving him enough rope to hang himself...We're giving him enough rope to hang himself, sail a frigate across the Atlantic and then construct a tent village once he arrives on the other side.

And, as I said, I think all that yammering might have finally paid off. I give you quite possibly The Dumbest Thing Billy O Has Ever Said:

My people came from County Cavan in Ireland. All right? And the British Crown marched in there with their henchman, Oliver Cromwell, and they seized all of my ancestors' lands, everything. And they threw them into slavery, pretty much indentured servitude on the land. And then the land collapsed, all right? And everybody was starving in Ireland. They had to leave the country, just as Africans had to leave -- African-Americans had to leave Africa and come over on a boat and try to make in the New World with nothing. Nothing. And succeeded, succeeded. As did Italians, as did -- and I'll submit to you, African-Americans are succeeding as well. So all of these things can be overcome I think, [caller]. Go ahead.

Are you yanking full handfuls of hair by the roots from out your scalp yet? You realize that Bill O'Reilly, a pompous, wealthy white man, has said on the radio for a national audience that Africans had to leave Africa because of famine.

Well, I suppose it is possible that there were sporadic famines in Africa in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, but I think the reason all those Africans had less to do with that and more to do with the angry white guys pointing guns at their heads and putting them in shackles. Unless, you know, it was a combination of the two.

"Hey, Kunta, I don't think I'm gonna go with these white guys. I think they mean to put us to work when we get to the New World, possibly without the benefits of a good 401k package."

"Shut the hell up, Mfufe! You'll blow the whole deal! There was a gourd shortage last year! This may be our last chance to propser in America!" quite, Bill. You see, your ancestors, the Irish people, came to America by choice because there wasn't any food left in Ireland and they were living under the oppressive thumb of the British government. The ancestors of all the black people came to America by no choice of their own. They wanted to stay behind. They couldn't bring anything with them, not their families, their language, their culture, their music. NOTHING. They had to create an entire civilization all over again, thousands of miles away, while living under the far more oppressive thumb of racist backwoods white assholes like yourself.

I know Billy O's daily radio audience has got to be a differently-abled bunch. They can't learn new concepts with the rapidity of you or me. It takes a long time for information to sink into their dense, Cro-Magnon-like craniums. But is there any American out there in 2005 that doesn't understand the massive, horrific and utterly destructive legacy of slavery? Really? For real? I don't believe you...

And yet, here's Bill, clearly pretending not to understand this relatively simple fact, one that you'd glean just by observing American demographics and culture. I mean, "Africans had to make it in the New World with nothing?" Is working on some fat fuck's plantation really considered "making it"? I mean, you know, work at it long enough, maybe you'll move up from field to house. But that's about as far as you're going to go.

We didn't let "Africans" vote until the 1960's. How can that be considered bringing them over here to make it? The Irish had a chance to make it, mostly in the police force, albeit suffering from some prejudices themselves once they arrived in America. What can I say? We're an equal-opportunity xenophobe here in the US, and always have been.

It's a Not-So-Bad Day to Be an American

I don't often have positive political news to report here. I don't have positive personal news to report very often either, but that's not important right now...

Anyway, some politicians, in the U.S. Senate of all places, actually voted the correct way yesterday on an important issue. Even Republicans. Yeah, I know, I was shocked, too. But this is for real.

The Senate defied the White House yesterday and voted to set new limits on interrogating detainees in Iraq and elsewhere, underscoring Congress's growing concerns about reports of abuse of suspected terrorists and others in military custody.

Forty-six Republicans joined 43 Democrats and one independent in voting to define and limit interrogation techniques that U.S. troops may use against terrorism suspects, the latest sign that alarm over treatment of prisoners in the Middle East and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is widespread in both parties. The White House had fought to prevent the restrictions, with Vice President Cheney visiting key Republicans in July and a spokesman yesterday repeating President Bush's threat to veto the larger bill that the language is now attached to -- a $440 billion military spending measure.

Our promotion of torture as a viable interrogation tool, and the ghastly, abhorrent images that have come out of places like Abu Gharib, will taint America in the eyes of the world for as long as I'm alive. I'm sure of it. You know how, in documentaries about WWII, when they interview Dutch survivors or French survivors, or even German survivors, they all talk about America in a certain way? If not as heroes, then at least as a benevolent presence, a group of people who came into a situation and tried their best to make it better. That's the kind of PR that billions of dollars can't buy, to positively impact the lives of people in other countries.

Now turn that into negative PR and multiply the effect by 100,000. That's Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib. In fact, worse yet, experts repeatedly confirm that torture isn't even that useful as an interrogation tool because people will say anything to get you to stop torturing them. This isn't the movies, where you can torture a guy to find out where he stashed the briefcase full of money and then immediately go check to make sure he's telling the truth. These detainees (what a horrible euphamism...they're prisoners...) could like to us and theoretically get away with it, because we have no immediate way to even verify their information.

So the torture hinders any attempt we might make at gaining support around the world for our bullshit unilateral policies AND doesn't even provide for better, more accurate intelligence. Not to mention the whole "it's morally wrong to torture people, and America should be better than that" argument, which itself is pretty compelling.

But just when you think all the goodness has been slowly drained out of this country by corporate greed and blind ignorance, some people end up doing the right thing. Yeah, they're only doing it because they can, with the White House weakened by ongoing Iraq turmoil and continual post-Katrina headaches. But, hey, it's something. Our nation's government is so backwards and villainous these days, I keep expecting to read about their "Irish baby eating" and "witch burning" policies.

The Senate's 90 to 9 vote suggested a new boldness among Republicans to challenge the White House on war policy. The amendment by McCain, one of Bush's most significant backers at the outset of the Iraq war, would establish uniform standards for the interrogation of people detained by U.S. military personnel, prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment while they are in U.S. custody.

Okay, I just want to make sure we're all following this...President Bush, the President who did not veto a single bill during his entire first term, has vowed to veto a bill simply for prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment for prisoners detained by the US Military.

I fear most Americans would agree with him. I haven't really seen as much outrage about the fact that we routinely, as part of our routine operating procedure when dealing with those suspected of terrorism, torture, degrade, humiliate and even murder people. Sometimes, innocent people! Hey, that's wrong, folks.

Our country used to stand for something. When I was growing up, sure, I knew our country was kind of full of shit. I knew that the whole "all men are created equal" thing that's in the Declaration of Independence only became the actual law in the 60's, and still isn't really enforced. I basically knew our president (even back then in the 80's) was a wealthy halfwit walking around in a permanent daze, getting advice from twisted old industrialists and slack-jawed ideologues.

But America still stood for something. We were the ones who give everyone a fair trial, who refuse to beat a confession out of people or search their house without cause. We respected a right to privacy, based on the notion that what someone does in their own home, behind closed doors, without hurting anyone else, was no one's business but their own. We were the country that gave everyone a shot, no matter how they started out in life, or who their parents were. And we were the ones who called out the countries that tortured people. Now, we need Senators to remind the Administration of what it's all about, that this "War on Terror" isn't worth fighting if it turns us all into terrorists.

Here is a list of the 9 Senators who voted against McCain's perfectly reasonable anti-torture bill. Hopefully, one day, they will all be captured in some far-flung destination and mercilessly tortured within an inch of their lives. Possibly with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.

Allard (R-CO)
Bond (R-MO)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Roberts (R-KS)
Sessions (R-AL)
Stevens (R-AK)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Unified Theory of Bad Movies

When you watch as many movies as I do, you wind up seeing a lot of sub-par selections. It's just inevitable. Most movies aren't particularly good, which does make the good ones seem a bit better, but also results in a lot of wasted late Thursday evenings. At least, for me.

Normally, I can get some enjoyment from even a bad movie. Like, for example, Swordfish. Now, Swordfish is an extremely stupid movie. It's loud and obnoxious and it makes very little sense and shamelessly derivative. There really isn't a moment in the film that isn't borrowed from some similar, better movie. Also, it's one of those movies where the main character is a computer hacker. Why make that movie? Everyone by now knows computer hacking isn't cinematic!

In Swordfish, director Dominic Sena (also responsible for the masterful Gone in 60 Seconds) tries to liven up the hacking scenes by having Hugh Jackman jump up and down like a mental patient while blaring techno music on the soundtrack and spinning the camera around quickly. It doesn't work.

But it is pretty hilarious. Most of Swordfish is like that. Dim-witted, silly, unrealistic and juvenile enough to have been penned in a few hours by a pre-teen, but glossy and slick and just mindless enough to be inoffensive. That's usually my take on bad Hollywood films. They suck, but hey, they're usually pretty to look at and short. And sometimes Mike Dytka calls a small child "Bing Bong" repeatedly.

But on rare occasions, I see a film so bad, it truly offends my sensibilities. Films that are bad enough to genuinely cause me discomfort in the theater, feelings of frustration and fatigue. Garden State was such a film, a movie that bothered me to the point that I wanted to physically enter the film so as to confront several main characters.

This year's abomination Crash was another, a movie I found deeply offensive. The critical and commercial praise for Crash saddens me and causes me genuine despair about the future of our nation. I'm still hoping most Americans don't actually believe the messages implicit in Crash, ideas about how racism is an inevitable psychological condition permanently lodged in the brain of every human being, recreations of classic stereotypical scenes played as straight-forward realism, over-simplified self-help jargon presented as fact. Maybe they just liked the aesthetic style and performances and didn't really even consider the underlying themes and messages.

I don't hate Joss Whedon's Serenity on quite that level. It doesn't make me fear for the future of our nation. I just found it irritating and a pretty massive disappointment. Yes, a disappointment, for though I was no huge fan of Joss' TV work, I nonetheless had considerable hopes that his beloved (and unseen by me) series "Firefly" would work as an independent sci-fi/action-adventure film. I'm a big fan of the genre and there just aren't enough quality directors making space epics, so I'm always gonna root for the new guy to succeed. I did, after all, go and see the film on opening night.

Alas, it was not to be. After seeing Serenity, I noticed that some bad movies impact me far more than others. Anyone who knows me is keenly aware of the effect Garden State had on my fragile psyche. It was as if I saw a multimedia representation of everything I hate in contemporary culture, a living document of my pet peeves and irritants. Why is it that something phony, dumb and pointless like Braff's Opus makes me so angry, whereas I could watch XXX: State of the Union and Renny Harlin's Mindhunters back-to-back with a grin on my face?

And that's when my friend and co-Cinegeek (more on them later) editor Ari made the connection: a lot of the same people like all three of my most-hated movies! In particular, there are many fans on the Braff-Whedon axis, who feel that, taken together, movies like Garden State and Serenity represent the best that modern Hollywood has to offer.

There is something here aside from mere tastes. Obviously, anyone who loves those two films is going to differ with me on films. But what connects with so many about Braff's, Haggis' and Whedon's work that so repells me? I feel like, if I could pinpoint it exactly, I'd be a long way towards developing a Unified Theory of Bad Movies. And, of course, as someone who wants to write movies, it would be nice to know what specific thing to avoid at all costs.

So far, I've made several hypotheses, but nothing that really works as a singular, unified theory.

I thought, at first, that it might be what I have previously dubbed "phoniness" here on the blog. Basically, I hate when films are obviously based on other films instead of any sort of objective reality. Take, for example, Ron Howard's Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, one of my least-favorite films in recent memory. The movie pretends to be a personal story of one man's struggle with schizophrenia.

Now, I do not have schizophrenia, nor does anyone I know. My experience with and knowledge about the disease are extremely limited, gleaned only from a liberal arts education, media and conversational anecdotes. I'm no expert. But even I know that the disease is much more complicated than the movie-of-the-week eccentricity on display in the film. The afflicted mathematician sees a grand total of 3 hallucinations during the entire course of his life, and once he learns to ignore them, he's well again! Hooray! Saved by an acute memory and, oh yeah, the healing power of love.

What a load of bullshit! How insulting to the millions of real people around the world who struggle with this illness every day! Here's a case where screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and Ron Howard just took a year-long vacation and called it "pre-production and principal photography." A few days of research could have told them enough about schizophrenia to write a halfway decent, somewhat reasonable film.

But phoniness can't really explain my distaste for, say, Serenity. I mean, it's a fantasy set in outer space in the 26th Century. Who knows what that will be like (although, let's face it, nothing like this)?

Serenity is guilty of another, different but similar cinematic crime - it's unimaginative. One thing I keep reading about Whedon's film in all kinds of reviews is praise for his boundless imagination, for his ability to create a complex and dynamic universe from scratch in which to set his spectacle.

Now that's just ridiculous. I don't want to get off on another Serenity rant, but nothing in the entire film isn't borrowed from an old TV show or movie. Nothing. Not one thing. Name a thing from Serenity and I'll tell you where it's borrowed from (or, at least, one of the places).

Characters in a futuristic sci-fi using swords? The Matrix movies and Highlander.

A futuristic yet post-industrial universe that's falling apart slowly? Star Wars.

A sexy chick assassin who acts like a weird mute most of the time? The Fifth Element.

All of humanity being forced into space after the environmental collapse of Earth? Countless sci fi TV shows and films, from Battlestar Galactica to Titan A.E., Don Bluth's animated disaster written by none other than Joss Whedon!

A mutant with weird powers abducted by an evil government organization and turned into a weapon, only to escape, causing a massive manhunt to get him/her back before the secret can get out? X-Men.

I urge people to leave suggestions in the comments below. Remember, we're talking Serenity only, because I've never seen (and will never see) "Firefly."

Even having made all these criticisms, the lack of originality and imagination isn't really enough to cause my visceral level of dislike for Serenity. I really actively was put off by the film. It was more than just disappointment at Whedon's lack of ability to expand his vision.

I keep coming back to an unfortunate realization, though. I think maybe I hate things like Garden State and Serenity more than random bad movies because of their rabid fan bases. Nothing is more annoying than seeing through a shallow, dumb piece of trash and then having scores of fellow film fans wet themselves with excitement over that same shallow, dumb piece of trash.

And Serenity has a TON of fans. Fans of "Firefly," the show upon which the film is based, are called Browncoats. I don't know why...The main character, Mal, I suppose might wear brown coats on occasion, but it's still kind of an odd nickname for a dork culture. More dignified than Trekkie, perhaps, but less dignified than Trekker.

Browncoats take their Whedon pretty seriously. Take former Cinegeek and all-around lame-o Adam. Here's his blog, Neurotrash. (The name is 50% accurate...I'll let you determine which 50%). Here's his most recent post, colorfully titled "Lons from Cinegeeks can kiss my arse."

Is Adam British? Or is he just using the alternative "arse" spelling to be amusing? Who knows? If it's just for comedy's sake, he can rest easy knowing that he and his demi-god, Joss Whedon, share a similarly juvenile, simplistic sense of humor.

Anyway, Adam namechecks yours truly in the headline of his blog post, but doesn't actually have the cojones to take on any of my arguments. He just summarizes the action in the long-winded, aimless way of most amateur film critics. And Adam doesn't just helpfully summarize most of what happens in Serenity for us...He summarizes "Firefly" too!

Rescued by her brother Simon (Sean Maher), a brilliant doctor who squandered his family's entire fortune to find and liberate her, the two ended up on Serenity with no aim except to escape the clutches of the Alliance. The Serenity's captain, Malcom "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) kept them aboard for personal reasons more than anything else. The doc, much as he was skilled at patching up the crew's frequent injuries, never integrated into the familial unit that the rest of the crew comprised. And River served no function except as an occasional threat to their well-being when an Alliance bounty hunter or Operative caught up with them.


Oh, you're still reading. Wow, congratulations. Even I gave up halfway through, and I'm writing this blog post!

It goes on and on like this (and on and on...) Eventually, Adam gets to his central message, which is that Serenity is, like, totally great. He even refers to it as the most "writerly" script Joss has completed. Oh, please. Adam, stop using words like "writerly." You don't know what they mean. If a script is "writerly," that means it's bad. A good script should be more "cinematic" or "aesthetic" than "writerly." A good, meaty, carefully-composed novel is "writerly." Doofus.

But enough beating up on Young Adam. The point here is that guys like him, undiscerning hardcores who embrace these trite films as their own and pounce on anyone who says otherwise, are largely responsible for my particularly hateful, angry reaction to films like Garden State or Serenity. I guess it's not those films fault that they inspire such fevered, lemming-esque devotion in a certain breed of easily-seduced young people. But it is their fault that they suck so bad.

Monday, October 03, 2005

My 101 Favorite Directors, 51-60

Here we go again. A word about omissions...A number of very notable filmmakers are not on the list at all. I don't want to give anything away, in case the suspense is killing any of you, but I'll provide a few examples. Particularly hard hit some of the great European filmmakers. The Germans, for example, have a pretty poor showing. Guys like Wenders, Fassbinder and Murnau are incredibly awesome directors who, for whatever reason, just didn't make it all the way to the Top 101. Also, France...I have a few on here, but no Chabrol, Tavernier, Laconte, Varda or Malle. And Italy! No Rossellini, no Pasolini, no Bertolucci! And this one's going to get me in some real trouble with cineastes...No Fellini. Yes, yes, I know, I'm not worthy of a film-related blog. Whatever.

I'm trying to spread it around a little, I guess. And be honest at the same time. I could put Chabrol on here. I've seen a few movies of his. Enough to write a paragraph on the subject. But I don't like him as much as John Boorman or whoever. What can I say?

Some have been tough choices. Bernardo Bertolucci hung on there until the bitter end. And Nicholas Ray got cut at the very last moment. Joseph Losey, director of Mr. Klein, the movie I'd most like to remake in the whole world, was in the 70's for a while initially. Not to mention Lubitsch, who failed to make the cut only because I haven't seen enough of his films. That same reasoning kept the brilliant Carol Reed off the final list, even though The Third Man is among my favorite films and his Fallen Idol, which isn't even available on DVD, is perhaps the most elegant, amazing film I have seen in 2005. And classic noir directors Siodmak and Dmytryk came within a few slots of inclusion.

But it's only a list of 101. I had to cut it off at some point.

Okay, enough yammering. On to the list!

60. John Woo

Before he came to America, before all of his cliches and trademarks and little asides (like the two gun thing or the slow motion dove thing) became the stuff of parody and cliche, John Woo movies kicked unholy amounts of ass. His Hong Kong action flicks are the essential ones from that entire movement in film, thoughtful and elegant creations of chaotic violence but also quiet beauty. What happened to this guy? Why are his best American films that one with Jean-Claude Van Damme being hunted for sport and that one where Nicholas Cage and John Travolta switch bodies despite their obvious height differential?

MY FAVORITES: The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head

59. Spike Lee

Lately, I've seen a lot of really stupid movies about race, which have only served to remind me that Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing is still the definitive American movie on the subject. Is there no one else making films today who can deal with racial issues with such eloquence, humor and relevance? Or is no one else who wants to tell those sorts of stories maturely permitted his level of access and financial backing? Additionally, it's hard to believe he's the only black filmmaker on this list...but there just aren't enough working black filmmakers. I hate John Singleton and The Hughes Brothers haven't made a good film since Menace II Society.

MY FAVORITES: Do the Right Thing, Clockers, The 25th Hour, Bamboozled

58. Sam Fuller

Fuller worked at a young age as a copy boy at a newspaper, and was always fascinated with journalism. As a result, his masterful, bold and purposeful films evidence a careful attention to detail. At once sharply realistic and hallucinatory, the best Fuller films are exciting, visceral experiences laced with the filmmaker's trademark enthusiasm, humor and verve.

MY FAVORITES: Pickup on South Street, The Big Red One, Shock Corridor, House of Bamboo

57. Michael Powell

During the 40's and 50's, Brit Michael Powell and Hungarian Emeric Pressburger made a series of phenomenal, grandiose and epic films of sweeping emotion and wry humor, shot in the most vibrant Technicolor imaginable. After their partnership dissolved, Powell went on to direct the ingenious, extremely creepy proto-slasher film Peeping Tom, which essentially got him drummed out of the British film industry. What a shame...

MY FAVORITES: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Peeping Tom, The Red Shoes

56. Errol Morris

One of only 2 career documentarians to make the list, Morris is one of the great interviewers in the history of the form. His movies take you inside the perspective of some truly cockeyed individuals, and watching these people open up to the camera can be truly riveting. He begins with the same ingredients as most reality television shows, but, unlike most of those shows, he winds up with an artistic, provocative finished product with significant social relevance, and not just great footage of Ashlee Simpson acting like a snot.

MY FAVORITES: Gates of Heaven, Mr. Death, The Fog of War

55. William Friedkin

He's made way more bad movies than good ones. Even the best of his post-70's movies aren't so much "good" as "campy cheesy fun". Like the unbelievable 1980 film Cruising, about an undercover cop played by Al Pacino infiltrating New York City's gay S&M underworld as part of a search for a serial killer. Weird...that's just weird...But Billy's 2 70's highlights are among the best American films of that incredible decade, diverse masterpieces with more intelligence and intensity than anything being churned out by Hollywood today.

MY FAVORITES: The Exorcist, The French Connection, To Live and Die in LA

54. Terence Fisher

The greatest director from Hammer Studios, the British film company that produced some of the best horror films ever made during the 1950's and 60's. Fisher's take on the classic monsters (like Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and The Mummy) are often the best filmed interpretations of these stories, and made international stars of legendary actors Peter "Grand Moff" Cushing and Christopher "Dooku" Lee. The Gothic, period costumes, sets and designs of Fisher's films are unrivaled in the genre.

MY FAVORITES: The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, The Horror of Dracula

53. Stephen Frears

Most people know many of Stephen Frears' films, even if they can't name the guy who actually made them. He started by making small intimate dramas, like Prick Up Your Ears or My Beautiful Laundrette, but eventually became something of a Hollywood journeyman, taking on a variety of genres with varying degrees of success. But there's a number of gems in his filmography, and even some significantly popular films, like his definitive version of the oft-adapted Dangerous Liasons.

MY FAVORITES: High Fidelity, The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things

52. Walter Hill

In 6 years, from 1978 to 1984, Walter Hill had quite a run. He directed 6 pretty terrific films of his own, and produced another little movie in 1979 by the name of Alien. As well as turning out some of the most taut, gritty action films of his era, and producing the greatest sci-fi horror franchise of all time, he was additionally one of the chief creative minds behind HBO's long-running cult series "Tales from the Crypt."

MY FAVORITES: The Driver, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours, The Warriors

51. David Lean

As a child, I used to dread movies like David Lean's. Long historical epics, I imagined, were full of dull speeches made by guys with monotone British accents, political intrigue I would not fully understand, and, ugh, pointless romantic interludes. It's probably because I saw Ben-Hur at a young age and was bored to tears. (Still am...) Lean's epics are actually so lively and full of personality, I probably would have loved them as much at age 8 as I do now. And his more intimate films and literary adaptations are equally adept, full of subtle humor, beautifully restrained performances and graceful cinematography.

MY FAVORITES: Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Brief Encounter

On Snobbery

I'm often accused of being a snob. Maybe I am a snob...I'm not going to say it's impossible. Today, it happened in a comment in this thread, where I implied that sports are not an artistic pursuit.

To me, this seems an obvious distinction. Athletics are the expression of the full potential of the human body. When we train or compete (and I say "we" as in "human beings," not as in "me personally," because I neither train nor compete), we are working on our bodies, sculpting them into more perfect instruments. Art, on the other hand, is the expression of the full potential of the human mind. When we write or paint or design, we are working on something outside of our bodies, we are exercizing our mental faculties in an attempt to find and describe some larger truth.

Making this distinction, to my mind, doesn't mean sports don't have value or they are a dumb pursuit or that you have to be dumb to be interested in them. It just means that I think sports and the arts are extremely different - opposite, even - and therefore not comparable. I don't think the four hours of movie viewing I may do daily has anything to do with my critique of watching sports all day.

Most do not see it this way. Most of my friends who like sports (and the commentator from the previous article who called me a snob) seem to think that athletic competition is art, and that athletes are artistic, and that my refusal to recognize the artistry inherent in sports is snobbery of the highest order.

Dancing is often brought up as a counter-example. After all, in order to dance professionally, one must be in peak physical condition. And there aren't many people who would argue that ballet isn't art. Obviously, ballet is art. I just think the artistry comes with the combination of movement and music, with the choreography of the dancers that has been considered and practiced long before the actual dancing begins, and with the emotional resonance the dance itself causes in the audience (if done properly).

Basketball has none of those things. It uses skills which are practiced prior to the game, but not in a thoughtful, organized way. It isn't, "you should use your hook shot in the third quarter because it will be emotionally resonant." It's, "use your hook shot if you have a clear opportunity to get the ball in the basket," whenever. Ballet is about expressing an idea through movement; basketball is about winning a game or a series of games.

But the point of this post isn't the old "are sports art" question that has haunted me since my freshman year of college. The point of this post was to explain that I am a snob.

Because, let's face it, I fit all the major criteria. I think most people are really really dumb. I hate at least 90% of the most popular books, music, TV shows and films.

No, seriously. Below, please find a brief list of things that I hate that almost everyone else in Ameirca likes:

  • The book The Da Vinci Code
  • Forrest Gump
  • The Republican Party
  • The Black Eyed Peas (the hip-hop group) (although I don't like the food either)

Just those four rejections alone isolate me from most Americans. Right now, even as we speak, my roommates and their assorted friends are out there watching "Ultimate Fighting Championship" on Spike TV. For thsoe of you unfamiliar with the UFC, it's a league in which a fighters with a variety of different styles (mainly kickboxers) beat the crap out of each other, with much more lenient rules than boxing. Tonight's show isn't even recently-occuring fights. It's a "best of" show in which they highlight the most brutal or exciting knock-outs from the past decade of UFC matches.

So, it's a program in which a number of men quickly knock a number of other men unconscious. Every time a particularly heavy blow connects, I can tell, because there's an excited "OHHHHHHH!!!!!!" coming from the other room, as if someone is performing simultaneous prostate examinations on every male in the immediate vicinity.

The fact is, there are four grown men in my living room who apparently to find this show gripping. I would no more watch it for an hour than I would watch a nude homeless man covered in sores and suffering from the dry heaves for that long. I watched for a moment, just for the sense of communal experience and to be amongst my friends, but I had to stop after a large man got a smaller man into some sort of wrestling hold and proceeded to bash him 8 times in the head (the DVR was rewound in order to count the blows) with his elbow.

Does not wanting to watch that, even though it's entertaining to all of my friends, make me a snob? Or is it just snobbish to write a blog post about how I dislike UFC, when a non-snob would most likely just not watch the program without feeling the need to publicly comment on the causation behind their decision.

Because, I gotta be honest, even though my tastes may sound elitist, I don't really see myself that way. In high school, a close friend read a book by former Time cultural critic William Henry called "In Defense of Elitism." The book appealed to him back then, though I hope my friend would now recognize it as standard neo-conservative trash, the kind of backward-thinking right-wing clap-trap that was almost adorable back when no one was listening during the Clinton years, but which has slowly become the predominant philosophy in our political culture and operating administration.

At the time, I was not educated enough to make proper sense of the book, to see it for what it was, but I knew all along that the notions expressed therein made me incredibly uncomfortable. Henry argues, as best I can recall, that we need a society that respects only competence and intelligence. In other words, that we should do away with affirmative action, feminism or any other program or system of thought that intentionally gives one group a leg up over another.

His main point is that, because everyone in society is dependant on a functioning economy and government, on those at the top making correct decisions, that merit is all that matters in determining the decision-makers. It's a point that made some sense at 17, even though I found it problematic, that doesn't really make a ton of sense to me any more. Because not everyone has the same opportunities to start with, so it's impossible to come up with an even measure that gives everyone the same fair chance to prove their ability.

Anyway, my point is that before I knew the reasons "In Defense of Elitism" was wrong, I knew it was wrong. Because I don't see myself as an elitist. I see myself as the kind of person who wants to give everyone a chance, even when he knows that most people are probably too stupid to make the most of that chance.

But what do I know? Anyone with my kind of contempt for humanity has got to be a snob, right? I mean, I hate people. How could you not? Take today at the store. We had a ton of morons come in or call today, a ton. There's no way you can work in a retail store like The Blazer, catering to a niche community, without developing a certain level of mistanthropy.

Okay, I'll throw you a highlight. We had a guy come in today who had never been in the store before, said he wanted to rent For Your Eyes Only. A second-tier Roger Moore Bond, but no's better than any of the Brosnans, save possibly Goldeneye. We get him the movie, and as he's checking out, he leans in a bit and says..."You guys will never guess why I'm renting this movie."

He's right...We could have tried all day and never guessed. He said he was renting the film because his complexion is exactly the same as Roger Moore's. He has lined up some job interviews and needs to buy some new suits, so he wants to watch the film to see what colors and styles Roger Moore wears.

Even ignoring the fact that this guy had bad, oily skin and was bald, is that not the craziest thing you've ever heard? I mean, even if it were true, would you eagerly offer that information up to the clerks at the video store? And doesn't James Bond mostly wear tuxedos anyway?

So, yeah, that's just one of the 900 types of crazy encountered daily by yours truly. I could go on, believe me...

Okay, one more?

A guy comes in today, he picks out maybe 20 movies. He's asking me all kinds of annoying questions, about whether all sorts of old, forgettable movies are out on DVD, what I think about all kinds of classic films, mainly ones I haven't seen. Even about why certain movies aren't out on DVD, as if I'm going to have a good answer to that question. I'm a guy who works at a video store. I have about as much to do with the major studio's DVD release schedule as I do with the temperature of the Earth's molten core.

But the coup de grace came a bit later, when he asked me where to find Unfaithfully Yours. It's the classic Preston Sturges comedy helpfully reviewed by yours truly right here. As I'm grabbing the film for him (located directly in front of where he was standing, I might add), he said to me, I swear, "You know, my writing is often compared to Sturges, so I thought I'd check him out."

Out of nowhere. I didn't say, "Oh, while I'm grabbing you this DVD, tell me, to which Golden Age Hollywood director is your personal work most frequenlty compared?" I didn't say anything, except maybe, "Here's the movie." I might have also muttered "douchebag" under my breath, but there's no way he could have heard it, so let's pretend I didn't.

He wound up not buying at least half the films he had picked out, just leaving them up at the counter for us to put away. I think he might have been disappointed I didn't take the bait and ask him more about his writing, but I'm not about to go down that road. That's a rookie clerk mistake.

Now, dealing with a guy like that, a pathetic creature so shameless he'll use any opportunity at all to compare himself to one of the greatest writers in film history, how can you not morph into some kind of snob? It's not physically possible.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Dracula A.D. 1972

This movie didn't really live up to my expectations. But then again, I'm not certain any film could live up to my expectations for a movie from Britain's masters of horror, Hammer Studios, called Dracula A.D. 1972, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The very idea of Lee's Count Dracula, reborn in the midst of Swinging London, sounds a bit too delicious to be believed.

And, in truth, it's not really all that it could have been. After an early scene at a "happening," where rock group Stoneground provides surprisingly listenable background music, the movie doesn't really make a lot of usage of its 70's London setting. Soon enough, it settles into a pretty familiar routine, with Cushing playing the grandson of the original vampire hunter, Van Helsing (played by Cushing in earlier films), on the trail of the reborn Count.

In fact, the plot is almost identical to Hammer's earlier (and better) Dracula film, Taste the Blood of Dracula. In that film, Dracula is reincarnated by a perverse group of old aristocratic gentlemen looking for kicks by practicing black magic. In Dracula 1972, it's a gang of teen rebels seeking thrills by trying out a Black Mass.

"Why don't they just get some pot?," you may be thinking. Well, then it wouldn't be a vampire movie, okay? It would be Dazed and Confused.

As you can see, it is, in point of fact, a vampire movie. One of the teenage no-good-nicks is the not so cleverly named Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). Alucard! GET IT? Har!

Anyway, Alucard is a disciple of The Count, and once he's tricked all his goofy cohorts, including a comely young descendant of Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham, whose breasts really should be credited as supporting actresses) into performing a gruesome ritual with him in a church set for demolition, Dracula is reborn.

And he gets right about the business of killing, which for Christopher Lee vampires means walking very slowly up to potential victims while bugging his eyes out and opening his mouth real wide to reveal fangs.

It sounds like I'm being sarcastic, but Lee's is probably my personal favorite on-screen Dracula. Don't get me wrong...Bela Lugosi is a freaking legend, and I'm not trying to fade him at all. Lugosi's performance in Browning's old Universal Dracula, that's the definitive screen version. But Lee's Dracula is so confident and haughty, and yet so vulnerable. It struck me while watching this film that Dracula is something of a Wile E. Coyote family in the Hammer Films, while Cushing's Van Helsing family is the Roadrunner.

Think about it. Dracula is always being born and reborn, comes up with brilliant plans to kill lots of attractive, busty women and then a Van Helsing descendant, only to continually be foiled rather easily and destroyed once more. Then, another sequel, and the whole system starts anew. The movies don't ever get boring, for me anyway, because the performers are so fun to watch, the sets and costumes and production design is always so spot-on, and there's a sufficient amount of blood and gore.

But you kind of start to feel bad for Dracula. Each time, he's resurrected and starts making speeches about how he's going to take over the world and kill him some Van Helsings, but as soon as Van Helsing finds his lair, it's just another stake through the heart again. In this outing, Dracula puts up a more pathetic show than usual. Van Helsing manages to take out Alucard with somewhat insane ease, then just saunters down to the dilapadated church where Dracula's hanging out and dispatches him. It's vampire hunting as routine pest extermination.

I think it's because the Lee films follow all of the available vampire mythology. It makes them vulnerable to sunlight, garlic, Bibles, crosses, holy water, stakes to the heart. You name it, it messes with Count Dracula's mojo. So, I mean, individually that might not be a big deal, but put together it's a lot of Achilles' Heels. It's an entire Achilles Foot.

Compound that with the fact that Lee's Dracula doesn't really get all the nifty powers of other movie vampires. He can't really transform into anything, particularly not fog or vapor like in the original Bram Stoker book. And he's not super strong. He kind of seems like he has the power to mesmerize potential victims. But still, that's only young women. He has no such power over the guy who keeps shoving stakes into his sternum.

It's not really a fair fight. Dracula should get a bazooka or something to even it out.

The movie's still a Hammer film, so it's still a ridiculous amount of fun. The opening action sequence, set in the 19th Century and pitting the initial Abraham Van Helsing against Count Dracula, is one of the best in any of these movies, with the two duking it out on a runaway carriage. And though the young cast can be kind of shrill and obnoxious, they're really only the focus for the first 20 minutes or so, until Cushing enters the story and takes over. I'm just a bit disappointed that director Alan Gibson (who made the superior and more exploitation-minded Satanic Rites of Dracula) made better use of the setting and incredible premise.

Instead, he delivered a solid but only about average Hammer vampire entry.

Donald Sutherland Rules

You don't need me to tell you that. You all know Donald Sutherland, so you know how much he rules already. He just popped up on the BBC to remind us all the other day about the fact that he exists, he's on the new show "Commander in Chief" on ABC, and he's yet another communist liberal leftie limousine pinko red Hollywood latte-drinking traitor who doesn't know anything about "real Americans."

"They were inept. The were inadequate to the task, and they lied," Sutherland charged.

"And they were insulting, and they were vindictive. And they were heartless. They did not care. They do not care. They do not care about Iraqi people. They do not care about the families of dead soldiers. They only care about profit."

All true. And well said. Now, I should point out that the only reason I know about Sutherland's remarks are because the Weasel in a Fedora, Matt Drudge, posted them on his online jizz rag, The Drudge Report.

Oh, I hate linking to the Drudge Report. Just the thought of that guy in his stupid hat sitting behind a keyboard in his apartment pretending to be a journalist...It's times like this that I wish I believed in God, because I would totally pray right now for Matt Drudge to develop painful anal warts. I wouldn't pray for him to die, of course, because that would be wrong. Also, I'm pretty sure that unless you are a vampire or you know how to conduct a Black Mass or something, God pretty much ignores the homicide prayers.

Drudge, of course, paints the story as yet another douchebag Hollywood celebrity with the gall to go overseas and tell them what's happening in this country. I mean, can you imagine? This famous person who is constantly being asked on television to state his opinions about government due to his involvement with a government-themed program actually told an interviewer how he honestly felt? Doesn't he know that this sort of thing simply isn't done by Americans any more?

Choking back tears, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF star Donald Sutherland warned this week: President Bush "will destroy our lives!"

"Choking back tears" is an interesting choice of phrase for the first sentence of the article. Now, if the man was crying, I could see putting that in the lead. "Weeping and emotional, COMMANDER IN CHIEF star Donald Sutherland expressed his concerns this week that the Bush administration will 'destroy our lives.'" That's how I would phrase it, if Sutherland had been crying.

But here, he apparently wasn't crying. He was simply showing some sign of emotion. But Drudge goes out of his way to note the absence of tears (they were choked back) to make Sutherland seem overly emotional, hyperbolic and, dare I say it, effeminite.

Also, I bet Sutherland didn't loudly exclaim "he will destory our lives!" He probably said this soberly, in a matter-of-fact way, as that's how he's spoken almost every time I've ever seen him interviewed. Not a terrifically exciteable guy.

The star of the new ABC drama, which follows the first woman President of the United States, lashed out at the real White House during a dramatic sit down interview with the BBC.

Please, people, I beg of you...Always pay attention to the use of language in these kinds of articles. Remember that the first article or two that comes out about any given story tends to set the tone for all other articles about that story. Journalists always have a "narrative" that they are picking up on when they attack a story as writers, and unfortunately, early-on-the-scene right wing douchebags like Drudge have a hand in constructing that narrative.

Sutherland didn't express his views about his nation's leadership. He "lashed out." Again, emotional, overly-excited. It wasn't just a televised interview. It was a "dramatic sit-down." Over and over, Drudge is trying to convince you that this is a matter of (1) significance, (2) symbolic importance and (3) embarrassment for Hollywood liberals and, by association, the American Left.

At one point during the session, Sutherland started crying: "We stolen our children's future... We have children. We have children. How dare we take their legacy from them. How dare we. It's shameful. What we are doing to our world."

So, here, he was crying. I would really like to see this tape. I can't know for sure if this is an accurate representation of what it as really like. (I also don't know if Sutherland is reponsible for saying 'we stolen' or if it's a trademark Drudge typo). It's just interesting to me that the article so clearly considers this an inappropriate thing to say, when I think it's totally sensible, correct and, really, known by most Americans at this point.

I feel like, unless you're a complete fool, you basically know how it has all gone down at this point, right? I'm not saying everyone hates Bush now. Most of the people who have always liked him still liked him. But now you like him because he's your guy, and it's us vs. them, more than you're actaully a fan of his leadership style. When the politicians to whom you're most frequently compared are LBJ, Nixon and Nero, you've got some problems.

Here we are, it's late 2005. Iraq is on the brink of a complete civil war, a full year and a half after we declared the end of our military operation there. Much of America's Gulf Coast has been destroyed by hurricanes along with local and federal governmental incompetence. Several key House Republicans are being openly implicated in a variety of schemes and corrupt financial endeavors. Terrorism in the Middle East and around the world continues unabated. The defecit spirals out of control, spending and borrowing continue to increase, as the economy remains stagnant. Gas prices have jumped up sharply and show no signs of decreasing. The New York Times reporter possibly responsible for leaking the identity of an undercover CIA agent has agreed to reveal that her source was the Vice President's Chief Advisor. Rappers are going on national television to announce their dislike for the president.

And that's all Sutherland is saying. Isn't that cause for respect and admiration, to stand up and make a statement like that when you know you'll be torn apart for it back home?

Spoiled Sport

I hate sports. This much has been established on the blog previously. I suppose if one was to look at it psychoanalytically, I probably hate sports because I was terrible at them as a child, which caused me significant stress and disappointment at the time and probably played a larger role than I'd like to concede in my social development.

Embarrassment over my poor performance at sports, you see, would cause me to avoid any involvement in them around other children. No one likes to make a spectacle of themselves in front of their peers; even adults tend to avoid having to perform activities in front of others at which they don't excel.

Think about it...We don't question the child with learning disabilities not wanting to do a math problem in front of the class. We don't question the stutterer who doesn't want to participate in an open mic slam poetry event. We don't question the man with abnormally large testicles not wanting to shower in front of other men. So why is the child who shrinks away from team sports such a pariah? It's a perfectly understandable reaction to the verbal abuse that child is likely to receive when they go out there and fail to catch an easy pop fly.

So, I'm introspective enough to at least consider the possible origin of my dislike for organized sports. It doesn't make me actually like them any more, but at least I'm a bit self aware.

And now, what with it being early fall, all of America is becoming obsessed with sports. Two sports in particular - football and baseball.

Now, football I kind of understand. I can't bring myself to actually pay attention to it for more than 3 or 4 minutes at a time, but its appeal is not completely lost on me. A bunch of massively large guys beat the hell out of each other. Done. Okay. Gotcha. May not be the most cerebral exercize, but it's based around some clear, archetypal concepts that appeal to people intrinsically. A football game's all about who is bigger, stronger, tougher, more dedicated and more creative. I can appreciate that, so even though the mechanics of the game itself bore me (as do the mechanics of just about every game, except maybe Minesweeper and Trivial Pursuit), the overall impact of watching a football game makes some sense.

I just don't understand how people can watch it for 6, 7, 8 hours on end. My roommates do nothing on Sundays other than watch football. I think their lungs may actually stop inhaling and expelling air for a few hours, lest the sound of respiration distract them from one moment of exciting gridiron action. They find it not just compelling entertainment, but an event of life-changing importance.

When we were watching live footage of Hurricane Katrina destroying a good portion of New Orleans, I'd rate my roommate's level of interest at around a 4. For last week's "Monday Night Football," let's say 500,000,000,000. Give or take a few points.

Whenever I actually mention this to my sports enthusiast friends, they always come back at me with the same counter-argument. My love of film, and obsessive cinema-viewing habits, mirror exactly their love of sports (in particular, football). Just as I don't find it senseless or dull to watch 3 or even 4 movies in a day (not all that rare), they don't find it dull at all to watch 3 football games in a day. In fact, it's what they like to do .

I have a really hard time with this argument. Because it equates the viewing and appreciation of art with the enjoyment of spectacle. Now, I know, I know...that sounds totally pompous and elitist and lame. Why is the thing I like "art" and the thing they like mere "spectacle." Well, because it is. Not just because I said so, but because it is.

The cinema is a creative human endeavor. It is an act of pure expression, not a fun competitive activity. I'm not trying to say there isn't skill required to be an athlete, or it's not an impressive thing, or that athletics is somehow a lesser pursuit. It's not a judgemental thing. It's more that I don't see watching movies and watching football as similar activities. I don't find it hypocritical to say that it's strange to watch football for 10 hours a day and then turn around and watch a marathon of three films.

That's usually where the argument breaks down and I get shushed because the game has come back on.

Baseball, on the other hand, makes no sense to me at all. It's simply irrational for people to invest any emotion into such a dreary game. Baseball is the slow accumulation of statistics. The only time any individual moment or play in baseball actually matters is when you're up to bat with two outs and two strikes and three balls in the bottom of the ninth inning of the last game of a playoff series. If you strike out, you lose. If you get a home run, you win.

Otherwise, every play only matters in how it adds up to the big picture. If you get a strike, you get two more chances. If you strike out, your team gets two more outs. If you get three outs, there's 8 more innings. If you lose the game, there's still probably 2 or 3 more against the same team that week. If you lose the series, it will repeat during the season. If you lose all the series, you might still make it to the playoffs as a wild card team. And on and on and on and on and on.

So what happens is, all these little factoids about how you did in the game all get added together and then divided and turned into numbers that express your worth as a player (and, therefore, person).

My question is, who gives a shit? Who can focus on actually watching a game of baseball when they know that nothing that happens at any given time will have any significance? I mean, they might as well not play the first few innings, am I right? Of all the people in the Nerdosphere, I'd have to say the baseball statistics nerds may be the most creepy. And there's a whole lot of creepy kinds of nerds. Trust me, I know nerds...I work in an independently owned video store specializing in foreign, classic and rare films.

That's why lots of baseball fans are the sports equivalent of Yom Kippur Jews. They only show up for the playoffs out of a sense of duty or loyalty. (CULTURAL EXPLANATION: A "Yom Kippur Jew" only shows up to services on the two biggest holidays of the year - Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur - to make them feel better about blowing off their religion's traditions the rest of the year. I myself was a Yom Kippur Jew briefly, before giving up on the whole stupid organized religion thing entirely and embracing a healthy loathing for theism).

I mean, how could anyone possibly follow this sport the entire way through a season? Baseball teams play more games in a year than an unemployed 22 year old stoner with an XBox 360, no girlfriend and a bottomless jug of Mountain Dew. And they keep playing the same teams over and over. And the games are all drawn out and go on forever. And 3/4 of them are ejected during the actual game for steroid abuse.

Seriously, over a baseball game, I think I'd rather rewatch Serenity...Well, okay, maybe that's too far...