Saturday, December 24, 2005

The 6 Types of Annoying Christmas Songs

Merry Whatsis Eve, everyone. I'm about to head out to some non-holiday-themed festivities, and then home to Orange County, so I won't be around for a day or so. You'll live. In my stead, please enjoy this new Christmas-y list, The 5 Types of Annoying Christmas Songs, my little way of saying "thank you" to all those Secular Progressives out there in the trenches, fighting the War on Christmas. And proud we are of all of them.

1. Outdated "Traditional" Christmas Carols

Sold old-school Christmas carols still work. I mean, we don't actually deck the halls with boughs of holly any more...Most people don't have long enough halls in their home to "deck" them with anything, except maybe dust mites. But you still get at least the gist of that song - people are happy, it's Christmas, let's decorate and eat wet, disgusting desserts with names like "Spotted Dick."

But "Good King Wenceles"? It has nothing to do with present-day Christmas. It's something about the Feast of Stephen, whatever the hell that means. And more than just being egregiously out of step, the songs just sound too severe to listen to them all the time. It's like hearing old church music all around town for one whole month out of the year.

Like that one (I don't know the name) where it's like, "Christmas is here/Songs of good cheer/From everywhere/Filling the air" and it's all clipped and serious and sung by a weird boy's choir...I'm trying to enjoy a Hot Dog on a Stick here, people! Your level of humorless piety is at a 12, I'm going to need you at a 3 or 4.

2. Christmas Carols That Make No Sense

In the meadow...we can build a snowman. And pretend that he is Parson Brown. He'll say (the snowman) "Are you married?" We'll say, "No, man...but you can do the job when you're in town."

What the fuck is wrong with Christian people?

And as if that wasn't bad enough, let me ask you this...Have you ever, in fact, had a holly jolly Christmas? Oh, I'm sure some of you have had a jolly Christmas. Probably not most of you, but some of you. But can you honestly say that celebration was holly? How is it even possible to have a holly Christmas, when holly is a noun?

3. Rock Stars Doing Renditions of Popular Christmas Songs

Hearing Bruce Springsteen whine about the plight of the average drunken New Jersey dumbass for hours on end is painful enough, but hearing him belt out "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" 100 times in one month is an experience I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

Seriously. If I were in prison being brutally anally raped as part of a gang initiation, and you asked me if I would like someone to hold my rapist down and play for him Bruce Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," I'd probably think about it for a minute, and then say, "Well, the thing is, he needs to join a gang to survive on the inside, and he had a rough childhood..."

[I include in this category fictional "rock stars" as well, in particular the California Raisins cover of "We Three Kings" from the old Claymation Christmas Special...Holy shit, I'm old.]

4. Christmas-Themed Lounge Music

Yeah, Jose Feliciano singing "Feliz Navidad," I'm looking in your direction. But this also includes those various versions of "Mele Kaliki Maka," or something like that. That Hawaiian Christmas song. You know..."Mele Kaliki Maka is the thing to say/On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day"...I think Dean Martin's verison is in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

Anyway, the mix of skeezy Reno-style lounge acts with a holiday that's supposed to represent love and togetherness earns them a place on the list.

5. Songs That Reduce Christmas To a Bunch of Meaningless Symbols

"Silver Bells," for example. Talk about a nothing song. There's some Silver Bells. It's Christmas time. There's a city...Give me something to goddamn work with! That one Burl Ives sang, that "Silver and Gold" one, that one's just about colors. And they're not even the traditional Christmas colors.

That Nat King Cole Christmas song just cobbles together random Christmas-y images. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...Jack Frost nipping at your nose...Yes, yes? Got anything else for me? Oh, that's it? You're just throwing out winter time stuff to us? And no one roasts chestnuts any more anyway, because that's weird. Planters salted peanuts, Nat, it's called the 20th Century...Look into it.

6. Novelty Christmas Songs

This is the lowest circle of my particular Christmas Song Hell. I hate hate hate hate hate nothing more in this world than novelty Christmas songs. The worst offenders?

3. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer

What, is that supposed to be funny? This is that awful cornpone redneck humor, a type of comedy so reductive and lame that it has remained essentially unchanged for the past 100 years. Only now, the racism is a bit more subtextual, rather than being right there in the open. Most of the time. Don't believe me? Check out Larry the Cable Guy.

2. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

No song should ever make it this easy for the pornography industry. You're just begging one of those perverts to make fun of your title with a softball like this. For shame...

1. Jingle Bell Rock

The single most atrocious Christmas-themed piece of music ever conceived. This is not rock. Who the hell wrote "Jingle Bell Rock"? Are their descendants wealthy to this day because of this mindless, shrill piece of shit? That fills me with whatever is the exact polar opposite of The Christmas Spirit.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, EVERYONE!

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Worst of the Worst

If you're still in favor of the death penalty, I implore you to read this emotional post over at Talk Left. It's a testimonial by a death row inmate named Luis Ramirez, a man executed by the State of Texas in October for a shotgun murder he adamantly denied taking part it until the time of his death.

Luis Ramirez was convicted of a capital murder (remuneration) in San Angelo, Texas in 1998. In this case, the state offered no tangible evidence to support the conviction. They have no DNA evidence, no physical evidence, no scientific evidence, no eyewitnesses no murder weapon and they could not place him at the crime scene. They relied primarily on the hearsay testimony of a paid informant. The informant s a self described daily drug user. He is not someone that Mr. Ramirez knows, nor does he know Mr. Ramirez.

Luis writes about his experiences on his first day on Death Row.

The first person I met there was Napolean Beasley. Back then, death row prisoners still worked . His job at the time was to clean up the wing and help serve during meal times. He was walking around sweeping the pod in these ridiculous looking rubber boots. He came up to the bars on my cell and asked me if I was new.. I told him that I had just arrived on d/r. He asked what my name is. I told him, not seeing any harm in it. He then stepped back where he could see all three tiers. He hollered at everyone, "There's a new man here. He just drove up. His name is Luis Ramirez."

Like anyone, Luis fears the worst. He figures that, now that they all know his name and that he's new, he'll be beaten or harrassed or worse. But that's not quite how it went...

After supper was served. Napolean was once again sweeping the floors. As he passed my cell, He swept a brown paper bag into it. I asked him "What's this"? He said for me to look inside and continued on his way . Man, I didn't know what to expect. I was certain it was something bad. Curiosity did get the best of me though. I carefully opened the bag. What I found was the last thing I ever expected to find on death row, and everything I needed. The bag contained some stamps, envelopes notepad, pen, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, tooth brush, a pastry, a soda, and a couple of Ramen noodles.

The other prisoners pooled their belongings to make a care package for the new guy. I mean, do those sound like actions of soulless monsters? Doesn't an incident like this just destroy the notion of people as "good" or "bad," sinner or sinned against, worthy of redemption or ready to die? Luis would eventually be executed for a crime he may not have committed, and Napoleon was killed for a crime he'd committed as a teenager...But they weren't evil comic-book villains. They were men who may or may not have made a mistake years before. To keep them in jail may be unfair, but to kill them is DEFINITELY inappropriate.

I have not yet seen Munich, but I was just discussing it with a few people, including a friend who caught it at an early (early!) screening this morning. He said that it's pretty balanced, showing both the evils of Palestinian terrorism and the evils of Israeli vengeance. "What kind of Jew is Spielberg anyway?" someone asked..."Isn't he pro-Israel?"

As for me personally, I don't see why being pro-Israel neccessarily means that you are pro-murder. Can't you be in favor of the continued safety of the State of Israel and also opposed to the idea of employing mercenaries to hunt down criminals and kill them? Is it so unbelievable to find state-sponsored killing unsavory?

But, then again, I bristle at the notion that Jews, by definition, have to favor kicking Palestinians off land they have occupied for hundreds of years, treating them like second-class citizens and keeping them in grim camps, doomed to a life of subjugation and cyclical poverty. So I'm just in the minority overall.

Broken Flowers

I failed to see this movie in theaters, but several people commented to me that its slow, laid-back, laconic style of storytelling was not for them. I expected a typical Jim Jarmusch movie - something like Down by Law or Dead Man - heady, existential, distant, indirect. But that's not Broken Flowers at all. Sure, main character Don Johnston isn't exactly what you'd consider a bubbly, animated guy, but this is the director's most accessible, easy to enjoy and warm film to date. It's a perceptive human comedy, one that maybe feels a little deeper than it actually is, because it staunchly refuses to reveal more than it has to.

What could have possibly filled him with such listlessness and fatigue? What are his hobbies, interests or passions? Who is Don Johnston, or more importantly in terms of this story, who was he? Jarmusch never bothers to give you this information, because for his purposes, it doesn't matter. "The past is gone," Johnston tells a young man near the film's close. "And the future is unknown, it hasn't happened yet. So, this is all there is. Just this."



Johnston is played by Bill Murray in yet another brilliant, subtle turn sure to be ignored come Oscar time. It's a performance that draws immediate parallels to Murray's work in Lost in Translation, another film where he played a depressed, out-of-it millionaire dealing with aging and ennui. Johnston is somewhat like Murray's fish-out-of-water celebrity in that film, but without the nattering wife at home to explain his life crisis.

As the film opens, a letter is delivered to Johnston. He's sitting in his house, alone, with the lights off, watching an old movie about Don Juan. We soon come to discover that it's appropriate viewing - in his younger days, Johnston was quite a ladies' man, and he continues to date a bevy of attractive women, including Sherry (Julie Delpy), who has just left him.

The letter is from an old flame who refuses to identify herself. She said that, 19 years earlier, she gave birth to Don's child, a child he knew nothing about. Now, the boy has gone missing, and she believes he's looking for his father. Don decides almost immediately to disregard the letter and go about his life (or lack thereof). But his enthusiastic, nosy amateur detective friend Winston (Jeffrey Wright, in one of the year's most charming performances) won't let the issue die. He sees it as a great mystery, perhaps the Great Mystery that will unlock the secret to Don's depression, and comes up with a plan to solve the riddle.

The plan will provide the film's structure: Don goes to visit all of his girlfriends from 20 years before, in a desperate search for clues as to the Mystery Mother of his Mystery Child. The rest of the film will play as more or less a series of vignettes, with Don showing up at a doorstep and rediscovering the fates of his various ex-loves.

But my favorite material was this opening half-hour. Wright and Murray are a fairly brilliant comic duo here. (Though I've admired him in films before, I've never just enjoyed watching Jeffrey Wright this much). Winston's Ethiopian, and he constantly makes Mix CD's for Don, and this terrific, bouncy Ethiopian jazz music fills the film's soundtrack. And the two stars just have chemistry together. The scene in which Winston lays out his scheme for Don in a coffee shop is one of the funniest this year.

Even after he embarks on his adventure, Don's attitude doesn't change much. He's pretty much an unmovable object, capable of turning on some charm to defuse a situation or get his way, but never displaying any sort of emotion or revealing anything much about himself. Jarmusch uses him sometimes as a straight-man, balancing out some of the more wild supporting performances. One sequence, in which Don reunites with a girlfriend who's now a wacky animal therapist (Jessica Lange), features just exquisite expressions and reaction shots from Murray. Just the smallest gesture from him, a batted eyelid or a wry upturned smirk, is enough to get the humor across.

On other sequences, he takes on an almost pathetic stature. One former love (Tilda Swinton) now lives with some bikers in a remote, mud-covered farmhouse, and reacts to Don by cursing him and heaving him beaten up. Another ex-girlfriend, Dora (Frances Conroy, known to me as Ruth from "Six Feet Under"), now ekes out her own pained existence, married to a real-estate blowhard (the always-excellent Christopher McDonald) in an obsessively-clean McMansion.

This sequence, with Conroy the real estate agent, does kind of bother me. In it, the husband finds an old photo of his wife dressed in 60's hippie gear, and brings it out for Don's amusement. "Didn't I take that photo," Don asks, and Dora nods. But wait...The movie's clearly set in the present, as it references the Internet repeatedly, and even online music downloading and CD burning. So, if Don's son is 19 and he dated these women 20 years ago, that would mean he and Dora were involved in...the mid 80's. Why would she be dressed as a hippie? That's 15 years too late.

Could that be intentional? I mean, there's a difference between refusing to provide your characters with a backstory, and providing them with nonsensical background details that don't quite add up. I spent a few minutes trying to figure that moment out - maybe he and Dora knew each other for years before dating? maybe she just dressed that way as a young person and I'm reading too much of it? maybe Don's meant to symbolize the "flower power" generation aging and taking stock of their lives? - but I didn't come up with anything to excuse such a lapse in logic. It's not enough to distract from the formidable pleasures of Broken Flowers as a film, and I still cared very much about Don's journey despite this moment, but it is kind of a bothersome little detail.

The women from Don's old life always recognize him immediately, they update him on their stories, and always seem to expect him to tell them his own saga. But he never does. Good or bad, they've all changed, had ups and downs, and lived lives of some sort. Don, on the other hand, has nothing much to report. He's had many girlfriends since he knew them, and he made some money "in computers," but all that is past now. As for this moment, well...there's just not that much to say...

By the film's conclusion, Jarmusch refuses to give his narrative a neat conclusion. Or, indeed, to explain himself at all. But he does hint at some of his film's subtext, beyond being a dryly funny lamentation for a lifelong lover and commitmentphobe. One potential mother from Don's past, Michelle Pepe, died a few years back, and as a final stop on his trek, he visits her grave. In that moment, with Don laying down the same pink flowers he has given all his ex-girlfriends during his trip in front of a tombstone, that Broken Flowers really comes together as a story.

Don isn't so much searching for his past as chasing a hopeful present, one he can see on the horizon but constantly fails to grasp. The prospect that he may have a son, something permanent to last beyond his shallow life, has given him a purpose for the first time in a long while. It's something to hold on to, something that might be known about the future, because all the other relationships in his life have evaporated. The movie isn't so much about regretting a life of casual sex, but about the fear of death, oblivion and non-existence. Don's life may be dull and may seem meaningless, but he comes to see it as something that may have value, if only he can play it just right.

Murray's no longer even thought of as exclusively a comedy actor, and that's appropriate given the range of his talents, but he's genuinely funny in this movie. Just not in a Peter Venkman-wisecracking kind of way. In a sardonic, dry kind of way. Jarmusch's films have always had something of a European sensibility (his Ghost Dog is a direct borrow from Melville's French classic Le Samourai, and his previous film, Coffee and Cigarettes shares a good deal of its aesthetic sensibility and language with the films of the French New Wave), and Broken Flowers plays a lot like a classic, sophisticated British social comedy, with Murray as the bemused man in a crisis facing a world of eccentrics and shenanigans. It's one of his best performances, one of the year's best performances, so it's sure to be ignored this awards season in favor of bad impressions of famous musicians or physical transformations into magical retards.

Mr. Pibb + Red Vines = Crazy Delicious

I don't really watch "Saturday Night Live" that much any more. I'm not into the current cast (save Amy Poehler), and the writing is so lax and predictable these days, I don't like any recurring characters...I just can't get that into it. Since Will Ferrell left, there have been maybe 2 or 3 funny sketches.

And one of the things I have hated MOST about the episodes I've seen from the past two seasons are Chris Parnell's annoying whiteboy raps during "Weekend Update." It's this really stale, terrible concept in which he comes on and does a sexually explicit rap song themed after the hot chick guesting on the show that week. (I'm sure there was a Britney Spears one...he did another, but I forget who the girl was...like it matters...Paris Hilton maybe?)

Anyway, you can probably imagine the whole scene just from that description. He speaks "ghetto," he does all the gang banger hand signs, he's wearing a big stupid looking chain around his neck, blah blah blah. So when I heard that a new sketch was making the rounds online - one in which Parnell and a new guy on the show rap about The Chronicles of Narnia - I didn't bother to even look it up. How good could it be?

Well, I watched it today, and it's really funny. I think it's because Parnell stopped doing bad imitations of typical rap songs and started doing comedy-rap from his own perspective (and that of his lanky, frizzy-haired new Jewish friend). This isn't a song about breaking out his nine and inviting Lindsay Lohan to his candy shop. It's about him and a buddy going to a bakery to eat cupcakes before taking in a matinee screening of Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Relatability + Honesty = More Funny Than Schtick.

Oh, and they sneak across the street to load up with candy to sneak into the theater, because snacks there are too expensive.

And the whole video is done in a riff on old Beastie Boys videos and Jay-Z's "99 Problems" video from last year. It's all really clever, like the part where they stop to check MapQuest to find the "dopest route" to the theater. Best SNL skit I've seen in a while. Go check it out...

Thank You For Smoking

Interesting trailer just popped up on Ain't It Cool...A movie I've not heard of this year, set to debut at Sundance in another month or two. Title: Thank You For Smoking. Log Line: The adventures of a wily Tobacco Company PR Executive, struggling to maintain his credibility with his family while lying on behalf of cigarette manufacturers. From the trailer, it looks like The Insider meets Jerry Maguire.

The thing looks pretty good. Some funny jokes. A great cast that includes Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott, David Koechner, Robert Duvall, Maria Bello, J.K. Simmons and everyone's favorite knocked-up Scientologist-in-waiting, Katie Cruise.

But...I don't know...it does seem a little easy making a film about how the tobacco industry is deceitful. Targets don't come much easier than Big Tobacco. I've written before on the blog here about how I think we go at anti-smoking campaigns all wrong. Over and over again, you see adds and press releases heaping scorn and ridicule on tobacco executives. They're depicted as chronic liars, as greedy and corrupt, and as totally unconcerned for the health and well-being of their fellow citizens or the future of their country.

Are these characterizations totally off-track? Of course not. Like all other wealthy, powerful American executives, tobacco industry types are total asshole scumbags. You can't become a powerful tobacco executive without being a lying prick. Can't happen.

But, like I said, that's true of every major American industry. And it's just not a very compelling argument. "Don't smoke cigarettes because that's just what these stereotypical corporate fat-cats want you to do!" There are far better reasons to avoid smoking cigarettes. Lung cancer is a bitch.

Remember the old anti-smoking ads? It wasn't all this anti-globalization, diverse young people in urban areas staging stunts to turn you off to cigarette lobbyists. It used to be people with large holes cut into their throats that they then smoked out of. Now that's an anti-smoking ad! Bring that back!

And now, we've got this movie that tries yet again to villify Big Tobacco and make them look ridiculous. Look, I'm all for fucking with corporate America...It's funny...It's just not very original or challenging. Oh well...Like I said, the movie itself looks pretty good. I'll probably check it out when it comes around next year.

Bush in '08?

No, not that idiot Jeb. I'm thinking that after Florida hurricanes and that Terri Schiavo nonsense, his chances at the presidency have been sufficiently minimized. I'm worried about GWB for four more years. (Or, technically, from this date, 7 more years).

And, yes, I know it's a violation of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to elect a president to three terms in office. But we've seen the President openly disregard the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is a lot higher up than 22. I mean, the 4th was part of the original document! It's like Constitution 1.0! How you gonna violate that shit? It was probably written by Madison or someone important.

Basically, Bush broke the law. And not just some silly little FISA law (although he did break that law). He broke the fourth most important law in the country. And instead of everyone getting upset with him, all the people who hate him anyway are more upset and no one else seems to give two shits.

His supporters are actually lining up to defend domestic spying! Did you hear our Attorney General, ol' Waterboard Gonzales, and his intensely weak, ridiculous defense of their actions? First, he said the president didn't violate the law by secretly wiretapping communications between American citizens...Then, he said that the president essentially has limitless surveillance powers during wartime.

So the president can break any law he wants in the interest of national security, then, right? That's what Bush defenders are arguing at this point. He's preznit, he has to be really powerful...(what Dick Cheney would call "a robust, powerful chief executive")...so he should be freed up to do what he feels need be done, regardless of the laws...

I'm just saying, if that's really how around 50% of the country feels, then we're not facing a typical liberal vs. conservative kind of argument. This is an argument about whether we want a president or a king.

Are there any limitations at all on what the President can do under the guise of national security and, if so, what are they? And, given this theory of the "wartime" President who can violate the laws of Congress and who can ignore the courts in areas of national security, what legal foundation could exist to argue for any such limitations?

Now, I'm not one to bring the Founding Fathers up in arguments. I think they are overused in contemporary debate, have become meaningless patriotic "symbols," because most Americans don't know enough about their own history to make any informed comments about its birth. But George Washington would not have liked the idea of the President continually and secretly spying on his own people, and he would have openly rejected the notion of a president granting himself additional powers not outlined in the Constitution in order to conduct an undeclared war.

But, hey, who cares, right? If that's what Americans want, if they want to be ruled with an iron fist by uncaring demagogues backed financially and through propaganda by massive corporations, then who am I to stand in the way?

So, here's my final question...If you really believe that the president should have limitless wartime powers...what's stopping him from just declaring the 22nd Amendment null and void. Or, forgoing Election 2008 all together and just declaring himself President-for-Life? Seriously. I mean, I can imagine the speech right now...

"My fellow Americans, we are facing a fight for the very soul of our great nation. We must stop these terrorist killers. That must be our top priority. We can't worry about having some...some election right now...just when the Iraqi people need us most. We're building an army over there, and a police force, and they really need me right now. And I promised them that we would stay the course, we would not surrender and leave their country to the Saddamites who want to overtake it and enslave everyone. Freedom is on the march, and that's why we can't have any more elections here in America. At least not for now. So, I am declaring myself President-For-Life, so that we can focus all of our energies on providing the Iraqi people with elections. Are you so selfish? You'd rather have elections here, where we've had them every four years for centuries, than give a few extra elections to the Iraqis, who've never really had one good one?"

Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man is German Master Werner Herzog's documentary on the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a reformed drunk who lived for months at a time in the Alaskan wilderness amongst grizzly bears. Watching this stirring film, surely one of the most beautiful, fascinating and thought-provoking of 2005, is really like watching two amazing films at once.

On one level, you're watching Herzog - a veteran documentarian who has chronicled, over the years, subjects as diverse as childhood autism to desert mirages to the flaming oil fields of Iraq - trying to make sense of a messy, illogical life. Treadwill loved bears, almost to the point of trying to become a bear, before he and his girlfriend were tragically attacked and devoured by a particularly nasty ursine specimen. Herzog, always fascinated by defiant, stubborn and unwinnable crusades, has many fascinating insights into Treadwell's psyche and situation, but leaves the film open-ended and ambiguous enough to allow an audience to draw their on conclusions.

But on an entirely separate level, Grizzly Man works as the culmination of Timothy Treadwell's own artistic ambitions. Bringing along a video camera with him on his expeditions, and filming over 100 hours of grizzly bears, foxes, the Alaskan environment and himself, Treadwell obviously dreamed of reaching a worldwide audience with his message of protecting the environment. Most of Herzog's film is composed of Treadwell's amazing nature and diary-like personal footage (his death occurs, mercifully, off-screen), and the images and scenes captured are astounding in their simplicity and beauty.



A few questions permeate the entire film. What could have driven Treadwell, a peculiar but certainly not insane individual, to remove himself completely from civilization for up to four months at a time? And to put himself so directly in harm's way, living amongst wild animals he knows to be extremely unpredictable and dangerous? Considering his extremely limited experience with other humans in the wild, whence his intense paranoia about poachers and his hatred of the U.S. Park Service? How did he convince his girlfriend to join him on these excursions, despite her professed fear of wild bears? And why, despite her presence on several expeditions, did he pretend in his films to live by himself in the wild?

Though he provides potential solutions to these and other mysteries about Treadwell, and speculates at length as to the nature of Treadwell's demons and personal hang-ups, Herzog never once goes for easy answers.

There is surprisngly divergent opinion about Timothy up in Alaska. Several native Alaskans indicate that he was clearly in violation of local customs, including a helicopter pilot who helped retrieve Timothy's remains and claims that "he got what was coming to him." A descendant of the indiginous Alaskans to the region takes a quasi-spiritual umbrage to Timothy's mission, claiming that his attempts to bond with bears violates thousands of years of tradition. Ecologists chime in to note that Timothy's work actually may have done more harm than good - rather than protecting bears from invisible threats like poachers, what he actually did was make bears more accustomed to living amongst humans, which could provoke an increase in bear attacks.

But others remember him fondly, as a tireless crusader on behalf of the grizzly bear and environmental issues. He would speak for free at schools about his experience, and loved educating young people about the natural world. He started a non-profit group to help protect grizzly bears all around the world. Those who knew him seem to have no doubt that his love for animals was sincere, genuine and selfless. And even Herzog (who narrates the film himself) compliments Treadwell's filmmaking abilities, noting how he managed to capture inspired, unique and totally improvisational nature footage.

And yet...there is genuinely something off about the man we see revealed in Timothy's footage. Herzog, through careful editing and combing through the many hours of footage, has created a complex portrait of a very eccentric, self-aggrandizing and occasionally delusional loner. Timothy never reveals the specific reason for rejecting society and "the human world," but it's clear that he feels a deep-seated sense of alienation. (In fact, at the time of his death in October, he normally wouldn't have still been in the wild at all. He had been driven back into the woods after a heated argument with an overweight airline employee.)

Though his film is meant to showcase bears in their natural habitat, he's unable to keep himself from becoming the center of attention. Despite the fact that he sometimes did have a companion with him to off-set the loneliness and isolation of his surroundings, Tim tends to treat the animals and the camera as friends, speaking aloud to them and using them as confessors. At various intervals in the film, we hear Timothy discuss his intense anger at those who don't respect the environment, his sadness over being unable to maintain a healthy romantic relationship, his problems with crime and drugs, and even his questioning of his own sexuality. Then there's his tendency to cast himself as a romantic hero, the savior of the wilderness from an unseen enemy at great risk to his personal safety and security.

Many commentators during the film note that Timothy seemed to desire an actual physical transformation...that he wanted to actually become a bear. We hear an excerpt from his diary in which he claims to "mutate into a wild animal" when he's living with the bears, and an ecologist claims Timothy would behave in a bear-like fashion when confronted by other humans in the wild. But we don't ever see this sort of behavior in the film. Instead, in the footage of Grizzly Man, Treadwell seems to have such an intense fascination with the bears that he wants to disappear completely into their world. Not so much the act of becoming a bear, but the act of blending into their community so seamlessly, of knowing the animals so intimately, that he could remain there forever, unseen, undetected, just watching and loving the animals invisibly.

In one scene, Treadwell sees a bear defecating, and then runs up to actually feel the "poop" with his fingers. Afterwards, he comments (still giddy from the experience) that he wanted to touch the poop because it had been inside the bear...because it was a part of the bear that was accessible to him. Yes, there's a creepy sexual element to it, but to me, it's simply the action of a profoundly unhappy individual who could not find any satisfaction in the civilized world. There's something that wants to give up on life completely, to blend into this world that, though beautiful and at times serene, was equal parts desolate and dangerous.

"I don't believe there is a Secret World of Bears," Herzog says at the end, denying that Treadwell's fantasy of a utopian natural world even exists in the harsh wilds of Alaska. If not, then what did Timothy Treadwell find up there in Alaska? Why did he remain there for so long, even when his girlfriend wanted to leave and his money ran out and hate mail poured in from environmentalist-hating conservatives every day? Grizzly Man gives us some clues, but it can't provide us with the entire story.

Grizzly Man arrives on DVD this coming Tuesday. I can't recommend this as a film experience enough. A tremendous, challenging artistic achievement from one of the world's greatest living filmmakers.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

It's Alright 'Cause It's All White

Good freaking Lord. Big ups to JC Christian, Patriot, over at Patriotboy for pointing out this unfathomable story...

It seems a Fox network affiliate in South Carolina has run a puff piece on...Stormfront.org. I've written about Stormfront extensively before. In fact, I wrote my Master's Thesis on Stormfront and sites of its ilk. They peddle the ugliest possible form of open racism imaginable. Sure, sure, it's all cloaked in "white racial pride" and all that stuff, but the site all but encourages violence against minorities. (When I was doing my research a few years ago, Stormfront had links to a video game in which you were encouraged to shoot at Mexican immigrants and Jews on the city streets). It even has a special section to indoctrinate young racists by teaching them that Martin Luther King was a womanizing pagan.

These guys are the crazed racist idiots that you kind of hope only exist in cheesy movies. You remember that John Grisham movie, A Time To Kill, when Samuel L. Jackson plays the dad who kills the two racist white guys that raped his daughter? Kurtwood Smith (Red Forman from "That 70's Show") plays this way over the top KKK guy? Remember that? "We got us some good god-fearin' Klan..." When I saw that movie, I thought that was just a stupid stereotype with no basis in contemporary reality. In the last decade or so, I've discovered that it's actually how these backwards-ass redneck idiots think...

Anyway, the Fox channel has since taken down their article, but it's still visible through the magic of Google caching. This is a full-length feature/human interest story on a virulently racist website. Why? Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one?

It's a web site with everything from dating advice and homemaking threads, to discussion boards that focus on news that white activists want to know. Stormfront.org is a web site founded on the belief that the white race is a dying race.

Well, aw shucks.

Can you imagine starting an article about a white power website in this kind of folksy, featury manner? It's offensive. What if they were writing about NAMBLA?

"It's a website with everything from dating advise and Jesus-Juice preparation tips to discussion boards that focus on the news boy-lovers want to know. NAMBLA.org is a web site founded on the belief that there's nothing wrong with grown men dating small children."

Inappropriate.

One member says, "we really are just white folks that deeply care about preserving a future for our progeny."

Why would any self-respecting journalist go to such pains to present the white supremecist perspective so boldly, up front, without question? Are we to simply assume FOX Carolina is an organization dedicated to advancing the causes of the white power movement?

Bob Whitaker is a former Reagan administration cabinet member and an active member of Stormfront. He believes diversity and equal rights are at the center of a conspiracy against the white race. Whitaker says, "I'm worried about the disappearance of the white race."

Whitaker says too much is being done to diversify America and not enough is being done to protect people like him. "I'm worried about 2 things. I'm worried about the disappearance of the white race and I'm worried about the fact that no one is allowed to talk about the disappearance of the white race, which is even worse."

Okay, thus far, I have seen a lot of Stormfront opinions being aired, and no opposing viewpoints. We've heard that they are "white activists," that they are concerned about the future of their children, that their ranks include a Reagan cabinet member, that they are afraid of an encroaching conspiracy against them...but nothing about how they are violent, angry racists. No one at the ADL or the NAACP or the Southern Poverty Law Center was answering their phones that day?

(Also, I'm very amused by Whitaker's dumbass quote. He's saying that there's a problem - the disappearance of the white race - and no one is willing to talk about this problem. But then he says that the fact that no one will talk about the problem is worse than the problem itself. What? I mean, how can no one discussing a problem be worse than that very problem in the first place? Would Whitaker be willing to concede the disapperance of all white people, so long as we all agreed to discuss it openly?)

Okay, this next sentence is the only point that the article will make that could even vaguely be considered anti-Stormfront:

But all Americans are provided equal protection under the law, which means equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion or national origin.

Yes? And?

That's it? Yeah, that's it. So, okay, yeah, the very basis of this organization flies in the face of established U.S. law and custom. Let's move on to the interesting stuff...like the racist's love of Charles Lindbergh!

Jamie Kelso is one of Stormfront's senior moderators. He uses the screen name Charles A. Lindbergh, a well-known aviator who believed in the preservation of the white race. Kelso says, "I admire Charles Lindbergh as someone who throughout his life took pride in the white race and was very concerned about preserving it."

Neat!

Even though Stormfront was created by former Ku Klux Klansman Don Black, Kelso says their message isn't one of hate. "We're called anti-Semitic, we're called neo-Nazi, we're called racist [but] we're none of that." Instead, Stormfront members say their message is much more simple. "We don't hate anybody. The only thing we're concerned with is that 100 years from now, 500 years from now that there will actually be the kind of white neighborhoods and white nations that our parents and ancestors gave to us."

Note how obviously the author takes on Stormfront's perspective as his/her own. "Even though Stormfront was created by former KKK...members say their message is much more simple..." Add that to the fact that every paragraph reads like it could have been taken from a Stormfront PR brochure, and you get a very one-sided, downright offensive article.

And the last paragraph is probably the worst part:

Kelso says Stormfront simply provides a safe forum for people to use without fear of retaliation. "Really the political correctness today, you could even call it vicious. On the Internet you can anonymously talk to other people and open up and say what you want to say. This has really opened up a new chance for people to have free speech."

See, they're not racists. They're First Amendment Martyrs! What's your problem, everyone? The Fox News department just wants everyone to have their say, except pornographers and anyone who dislikes Christmas and anti-war activists!

Me and You and Everyone We Know

There's a scene in Me and You and Everyone We Know, or more accurately a brief moment in one scene, that perfectly recreates an interaction I've had many times over the years with my own father. A Dad (John Hawkes) is watching TV with his two sons. The older child has his feet resting on a coffee table, and is jiggling his leg slightly, a slight sort of a nevous tic. The Dad, without even making eye contact with the boy, rests his foot against the kid's leg to make him stop shaking.

Film comedies, even great film comedies, rarely demonstrate that kind of careful observation of human behavior. And it's this hypersensitivity to the way people live day-to-day that really sets Miranda July's directorial debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know apart from other smart slice-of-life indie movies. In a beautiful film about humans and the way they interrelate, July takes a much-needed step back from irony or satire to simply capture the odd peculiarities of everyday existence in modern America.



Nominally a story about a recently-separated shoe salesman (Hawkes) and a lonely video artist (played by July herself) who meet and slowly fall in love, Me and You and Everyone We Know concerns itself mainly with the fallacy of loneliness in a world that's overflowing with other people. Characters are connected with one another in ways they would never imagine. And not bogus Crash-style inter-connectedness, based on coincidence and lazy, imploding narratives. Connected by boredom, by curiosity, by their fears and hopes. These are people who really have no business communicating in the sane world, except that they all think and behave alike.

Shoe salesman Richard has recently separated from his wife and the mother of his two children (JoNell Kennedy), who has left him for another man. His precocious kids (Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff) live with him part of the time, in a tiny apartment. He meets artist Christine in the department store where he works, and though they seem to connect immediately, it will take the entire running length of the film for them to meet up socially for teh first time.

While those two crazy kids figure it out, we follow around a few of their neighbors. Richard's boys conduct a strange romance with a mysterious woman in an online chat room. July plays the sequence for laughs - particulary at the young Robby's innocent yet unsettling anal fixation - but ends the sub-plot on a tender (and almost romantic?) note that's bizarrely sweet. As well, Richard's neighbor carries on a hesitant courtship with some teenage girls by placing explicit signs in his window. Christine desperately tries to get professional attention for her humorously autobiographical home movies, but earns a living by shuttling the elderly around in her car. In the process, she aids an old man in romancing a dying woman.

But this is not a movie about incident. There are sequences that are highly cinematic - as in a pseudo-chase scene in which a plastic bag containing a goldfish flies between moving cars - but it's more of an exploration of the spaces in between people, the ways in which everyone reconfigures the world to suit their own personal needs.

In one scene, Richard confronts his soon-to-be-ex-wife about her nightgown, which is printed backwards allowing her to read an inspirational message in the mirror each morning. He's offended that the shirt is unreadable to anyone but herself, when other people around her have to look at it. She responds that it's for her benefit, and not his business.

Sometimes, the cognitive dissonance comes down to age. The bratty teenagers (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend) try to seduce a lonely single guy at first as a prank, out of cruelty, but when he actually seems to return their affection, their curiosity gets the better of them. In another side story, a young girl attempts to make sense of the adult world by collecting kitchen appliances and linens - senseless "preparation" for a frighteningly unknown future.

But more often, everyone just feels emotionally isolated and disconnected, drifting around in a bubble of their own creation. Their attempts to cross over, to share their world with one another, tend to end, if not in sorrow, then at least in perplexed confusion.

The film opens with Richard's wife leaving him. He remembers, for whatever reason, his own father lighting his hand on fire momentarily with alcohol, as sort of a magic trick. He tries to repliacte the stunt for his family, either as an attempt to stall the inevitable or as some meaningful event to signify closure, and winds up burning his hand rather severely. His wife and kids don't understand the memory of seeing this stunt years earlier...all they see is a deranged man with his hand aflame.

Hawkes (whom I know as Sol from HBO's "Deadwood") does a wonderful job here. He spends essentially the rest of the movie recovering from this moment, not only in terms of his bandaged hand. The scene comes so early in the film, the audience reaction mirrors that of his family - we don't understand why he has just done such a recklessly stupid and crazy thing. He must just be some nutjob. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Hawkes will manage to take a step back, and show us that our initial impression was formed while this man was at his worst, and that at his best he can be entirely reasonable and even sympathetic.

Only one small section of the film doesn't really work for me. The character of the museum curator who initially dismisses Christine's work (Tracy Wright) is pretty one-dimensional and vapid. She does get one of the film's most funny lines ("There wouldn't even be e-mail if it weren't for AIDS!"), her appearance in the film does feel a bit like the revenge of an artist whose work was overlooked for years. It's a rare false note in a film that's full of shrewdly observed vignettes.

The rest of the cast is entirely solid, particularly the two young actors playing Richard's kids. They are very natural together as brothers, which is crucial for a lot of their early scenes together to work. And Michael Andrews fleet electronic score is pretty terrific. It reminds me of some of Jon Brion's better work in films like I Heart Huckabee's.

This kind of iconoclastic, personal material can go, of course, horribly wrong. Without July's deft touch, clever and tight writing and ensemble of talented actors, a movie like Me and You and Everyone We Know could have been a forced, shrill and ego-manaical chore. You know, like Garden State. Thankfully, the film has been made with a steady hand (surprising from a first-time director), boundless energy and intelligence.

Mix Tape Madness

I've been reading a lot of music/mp3 blogs lately, and have found it a great source for new music. Even though I read websites like Pitchfork (currently featuring its Top 50 Albums of the Year list!) regularly, there are always buzzed about new songs popping up for free download each week that fly under my radar. So, in the past few weeks, I've been listening to mainly bands of whom I've never heard. And I've made a CD of some of my favorite recently-discovered songs (along with a few songs from artists I've liked for a while).

Anyway, here's the CD that has been running over and over again in my stereo this week. When possible, I've provided a link where the song can be downloaded, all free and legal. I repeat, to the best of my knowledge, all these links are to legal free downloads. If you know otherwise, let me know...

1. The Strokes - You Only Live Once

This is the second single from the upcoming new Strokes CD, First Impressions of Earth. I liked the first single, "Juicebox," okay the first time I heard it...but on subsequent listens...well, it got old kind of fast. Even after just three or four spins, I started to get bored of it. It kind of reminds me of Weezer's "Hash Pipe" single, only that song worked a bit better. Sometimes, if a song reminds me of another song, that just keeps me from getting into it at all. Every time I hear it, I just think about how it's like that other song. But this song from the new disc is pretty goddam great. Reminds me a lot of an old 80's Cars song, in the best way possible.

2. Voxtrot - Missing Pieces

I know nothing about this band at all. But this song is in-fucking-fectious pop-punk. It sounds kind of like that Fall Out Boy-My Chemical Romance crap you hear on the radio, except it's really really really good.

3. This Microwave World - Party Line

Some of the best "woo woo" work in any rock song since "Sympathy for the Devil." You have to be careful with the "woo woo." Do it wrong or at the wrong moment, and it blows the whole song...just renders it some kind of ridiculous sing-along. But employed properly, there's a tremendous amount of power in the "woo woo." This Microwave World use it sparingly at first, but the great thing about "Party Line" is how the whole song just builds and builds until it explodes during the chorus, which includes not just a bit of "woo woo," but handclaps as well. These guys mean fucking business.

4. The National - Abel

This is one of those bands I've been hearing about forever, but who I'd never heard. After seeing their album, Alligator, on numerous Best of 2005 lists, I decided to check out the couple of free tracks they had online. Then I went out and bought the thing, because it's sweet. Thus far, after 3 or 4 full listens, this is my favorite track. I love how unabashedly BIG and anthemic the song gets and the harmonizing between the two vocalists.

5. The Rosebuds - Hold Hands and Fight

Pure pop bliss. This song just comes together in a way that's near-mystical, and yet it's all so simple. I haven't heard any other songs by these guys, and I almost don't want to, because how could all of them possibly be this good?

6. The Islands - Flesh

One of only two songs I've heard from this post-Unicorns band, who will apparently release their first LP in 2006. I like the other single, "Abominable Snowman," a bit better, but this is still a great, trippy, catchy, spazzy psychedelic freakout of a song. The old link I had used to grab the song is gone now, but try to find it if you know your way around...

7. The A-Sides - Park Avenue

These guys are from Philadelphia, but they have a real Elephant 6 vibe. Kind of like Apples in Stereo or Sunshine Fix or one of those unabashedly sunny throwback groups that thrived in Athens last decade. There's a PasCal song from earlier this year, called "Summer is Almost Here," that I thought was a surefire bet for "most twee song I'll love in 2005," but we may have a new winner.

8. Jenny Lewis (feat. the Watson Twins) - You Are What You Love

Jenny's the lead singer of Rilo Kiley, a band that moved in a new direction that I wasn't into in 2005. I love their first two albums, which have a real laid-back country-indie kind of feel. But 2005's More Adventurous was more straight-ahead, mainstream stuff with more of a classic rock influence than country. And I found it kind of dull. This song is from her upcoming solo country album, and it sounds a lot like early Rilo Kiley. Yes, it's basically a country song, but it's really good, I swear.

9. Belle and Sebastian - Another Sunny Day

Belle and Sebastian are a shadow of their former selves. Where once Stuart Murdoch composed transcendant pop songs full of wry observation and quirky beauty, now he and his band content themselves with composing radio-friendly, old-fashioned feel-good ditties. What's frustrating is that they're still good songs. I can't fault "Another Sunny Day" for failing to be "Stars of Track and Field" or "I Fought in a War." How can anyone live up to Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister? But it's just strange, how my expectations have become diminished for a new Belle and Sebastian record...

10. Mazarin - Louise

This guy's voice is really terrific. Perfectly matched to the intense, almost creepy folk-indie rock the band plays. It's got a bit of a high-pitched whine to it that just makes it feel more emotive for some reason. Plus, I think this is the only song to use a waves crashing against the shore sound effect well. Usually, I hate shit like that, but it totally works here, expanding the sonic scope of the track.

11. Ohbijou - Misty Eyes

Overall, this is probably my least favorite song on the whole CD. It's a pleasant-enough track, a little dull, but I just like the two female singers and the strings. The piano bit takes on kind of a drone after a while, though, which drags the whole thing down.

12. Sun Kil Moon - Tiny Cities Made of Ashes

This is from the album Tiny Cities, an album made up entirely of Modest Mouse covers, stripped down and rendered as soft singer/songwriter kind of material. Not all the songs work in this new format - "Neverending Math Equation," one of my favorite Modest Mouse songs, loses all of its spark as a mild acoustic ballad. But this song, while it doesn't neccessarily improve on the frenetic original, definitely comes at it from a totally different direction and produces a fascinating, haunting final result. Impressive.

13. The Changes - Her, You and I

I always complain that every indie rock band is compared at some point to The Velvet Underground but...Well, this song really reminds me of The Velvet Underground, particularly their more grandiose Loaded-era songs. It starts off as almost a soul song, really smooth, and it just builds to an intense explosion of rock about halfway through. At 6 minutes, the song really gives you an experience. It starts off somewhere and ends up somewhere totally different. Awesome.

14. Love is All - Make Out Fall Out Make Up

Pitchfork and the mp3 blogs are all over this new act from Sweden, and with good cause. This song is really cool , very 80's synth-heavy fuzz-pop that's just a lot of fun. And they kind of sound like a less serious version of The Arcade Fire, especially at the end when the girls start yelling along with the chorus. I can't tell if Scandanavia does this kind of music so well because they are less ironic than we are about it or more ironic.

15. Feist - Mushaboom

I saw Feist open for Broken Social Scene earlier this year, and she certainly has a powerful voice, but the songs didn't really grab me at the time. A live venue, particularly one as crowded and hectic as the Henry Fonda, isn't the best place to experience all kinds of music for the first time. Anyway, she may very well have performed this song that night, but I don't remember. It's a great traditional, almost roots-music kind of thing, like Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine" from earlier this year, but not so much like a showtune. And the woman has an amazing voice.

16. The Light Footwork - The Art of Everyday Communication Part 1

Like one of my favorite bands, The Fiery Furnaces, The Light Footwork playfully balance a male and female vocalist over intricate, ever-changing rock suites. They're not quite as experimental as The Furnaces, from what I've heard, but it's just as compelling, lyrically clever and even more accessible. Bonus points for writing a song that includes the stanza, "I was all 'woo woo woo,' now what the hell am I going to do?"

17. Birdmonster - All the Holes in the Walls

This country-rock barnburner sounds like Jason Molina might if he finally started taking Zoloft. It has the classic rock flair and bluesy guitar sound of, say, Magnolia Electric Company and builds to this hypnotic conclusion that it's easy to get lost in. Word is these guys are great live, and that their LP will hit early next year.

18. Elbow - Station Approach

The lead singer of this band sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel. A lot. A whole lot. And the song kind of sounds like a good solo Gabriel song, except Pete wishes he could write a pop song that takes off the way this one does at around the 3 minute mark. He doesn't really even try for thos kind of big rock-out moments (except in one of his abortive, failed later attempts at "rocking out," like "Steam" or that horesshit). These guys are another indie rock mainstay that I have never really gotten into until now. Anyone with recommendations as to a good place to start listening to Elbow is encouraged to leave such info in the comments section below.

19. Sufjan Stevens - Chicago (live)

Sufjan just narrowly missed my Top 10 albums of the year. I really dug his album Illinois, the second in a planned series of 50 themed albums about U.S. States (Michigan went first). It just kind of goes on a little long for my taste (71 minutes!) and the last few songs kind of blend together in my mind. On the album, "Chicago" is one of the bigger, more bombastic, orchestral numbers, but this live version (from Denver's Bluebird Theater this past July) is really pared-down and bare-bones. I kind of like the simpler version better (and Sufjan's voice sounds really great live).

Thanks to these music blogs for all the links: My Old Kentucky Blog, Gorilla Vs. Bear, So Much Silence, You Ain't No Picasso

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Is It Over Yet?

The week before Christmas is a week of waiting. All the normal processes of the world come to a halt as people abandon their usual posts. No one is ever in their office. The government is preoccupied with last minute business and tactics to stall legislation over a long holiday break. All the TV schedules get fucked up, and they release like 100 great movies to 2 theaters a piece all at once. It's like we're all preparing for this moment, Christmas Eve -> Christmas morning...and then it comes and goes in a few hours. By the time I wake up on Christmas Day, it's all over. Then there's another week of lounging about, winding down, then there's New Year's, and then everything slowly starts up again.

It's at this point - around December 20th - that I lose interest in the whole thing. Working retail, of course, the holidays are a drag because people get frantic around this time of year. Well, okay, that's not fair. There are two distinct types of reactions I have observed among those celebrating Christmas in the weeks before the actual holiday itself.

(1) Actual Goodwill Towards Men

This week, I have had a variety of people do randomly nice things for me for no good reason whatsoever. I helped a guy who brought in a DVD with a busted case, and he gave me $5 just as a gesture of appreciation. The lady who runs the bakery next door brought us over some cupcakes, because I'd written something nice about her store in this blog post, and another customer brought us in a tin of cookies. And even though everyone who knows me is aware of my curmudgeonly Scrooge-dom, I have still receives holiday cards, gifts and wishes from friends and family alike.

In the interest of being fair and balanced, I thought I would mention some of the positive holiday-themed behavioral modifications I have observed. Unfortunately, it's not quite enough to counterbalance my distaste for the second, and more common, Christmas reaction:

(2) Crazed frenetic Yule-themed insanity

These are the people who go about shopping as if it's equally as stressful and tactical as preparing a nuclear arms treaty. You're just fucking shopping, idiot! Calm the hell down! You can spot these people coming a mile away, because they are clutching long, hastily scribbled lists, lumbering forward with a faraway look in their eye and muttering about gift receipts. Also, many of them wear garish, bright, bespeckled holiday-themed sweaters.

Counter-intuitively, considering the supposed joyfullness of the holiday they are currently engaged in celebrating, these people are often rude and discourteous. Many times, they will interrupt you while you are speaking to someone else, or just yell things to you from across the store.

"Hey, do you guys have any of those Fred Astaire box sets yet?"
"I can't hear you, and I'm helping this other customer. Just give me one moment."
"I need one of those Fred Astaire box sets! Do you have any? It's for my elderly grandmother!"
They also request gift-wrapping services, although why anyone would want me to wrap their presents for them is a complete and total fucking mystery. Better to just go to the City Dump, find an old discarded strip of fiberglass insulation and roll your gift up inside it than give it to me to decorate. When I used to work at Barnes & Noble, where we genuinely were asked to wrap Christmas presents, my handiwork would earn looks of scorn and resentment from most customers. Some were offended. And with good cause. It looked like Take Your Autistic One-Armed Daughter to Work Day at Santa's Workshop.

So we'll say that we don't offer gift-wrapping, or even have a single piece of gift-wrap in the store, and those suffering from Christmas-inspired lunacy will get indignant, as if we are dodging our civic duties to package shit up for their friends merely to be annoying.

Sometimes, they'll even ask for a gift bag, which is an intensely stupid invention. It's a little decorative bag that you can just throw a gift inside. Why add this step at all? Is anyone really delighted by festively-decorated bags? And I know the argument for wrapping gifts in the first place - you're showing that you cared enough to make the present look nice. But, with the gift bag, it's already obvious you were too lazy to get gift wrap, scissors and tape, so you just bought a $2 bag and threw some shit in there. So if it's just going to reveal your laziness anyway, why bother with the bag at all? Just give someone a present and openly dare them to be non-appreciative, that's what I say.

Here's my question: what is the big deal? It's just shopping. Get what you have time for and can afford. If you can't afford to get delicious Luxury Wafers for the dudes at the video store, we will forgive you. We like those cookie wafer things with the cream filling inside, but some of us could stand to skip a few in-between meal snacks anyway, if you know what I mean. I just hate to see so many people walking around in such a stupefied daze for 1/12 of the year. There's already enough batshit insane people in Los Angeles the other 11 months, the last thing we need is more of them.

Oh, and while I'm on the subject of disliking all things Christmas-y, I don't get the fascination with "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Though I dug the animated Peanuts specials as a kid (and still think "Snoopy Come Home" is a pretty solid kid's movie), I never really got into the Christmas show. It's just not very funny and it's incredibly hokey. I mean, as an 8 year old kid, I knew the thing about Charlie Brown buying the weak little twig tree was cheesy and a desperate attempt at poignancy.

Everybody always goes nuts for the jazz music score, which is fine, but I mean...come on, people...The long sequence about catching snowflakes on your tongue...Charlie Brown directing some lame pageant...Linus getting all Jesus-y at the end? How has this thing endured the decades? Are we so desperate for holiday entertainment that we'll just replay this and that stop-motion "Rudolph" and that retarded 70's "Frosty the Snowman" every year, forever, determined to enjoy ourselves? (You'll notice I left out "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," because it's awesome and I fully encourage its re-airing).

Also, no more holiday sitcom episodes or parody movies that riff on A Christmas Carol, okay? We get it...Miserly guy...Jacob Marley...Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present and Future...Biggest goose in all of Londontown...Lessons learned, barriers overcome, Christmas spirit embraced...It's a nice story, and Chuckie "The Dick" Dickens would be very pleased that it has endured the test of time. Now let's move on.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ebert Movieguy

I grew up watching Roger Ebert review movies on television, and have a lot of respect for his body of work, when taken as a whole. So it pains me to say that he has pretty much lost it. But he has pretty much lost it.

The Year-End "Best Of" list is always tricky territory for a film critic. Do you go with a popular favorite in an attempt to show that you are "with it" and have the common touch? Do you highlight a favorite indie or foreign film in an attempt to broaden the movie's audience? And Ebert's had some wacky picks over the years. I recall one year that he picked Dark City as the best film (a very cool move on his part) and his partner Gene Siskel picked, I shit you not, Babe: Pig in the City. What a total mack.

But this year, he choice is totally unforgivable. Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time ever, Ebert's and my own end of the year list are complete and total opposites. My worst film of 2005, Paul Haggis' wretched Crash, is Ebert's pick as the #1 Film of 2005.

What a revolting development this is!

Not many films have the possibility of making their viewers better people; anyone seeing it is likely to leave with a little more sympathy for people not like themselves. The film opened quietly in May and increased its audience week by week, as people told each other they must see it.

That second sentence is dead-on. The movie has mind-bogglingly spread through word of mouth. I have customers tell me that it's a wonderful film I simply must see (I tell people I haven't seen it for obvious reasons) at least once a week. In Los Angeles, where this bogus nonsense is set!

But Roger is actually saying that watching a stupid, oversimplified and inaccurate screed on tolerance will make you a better person. I mean, that's taking it pretty far. I'm not sure watching any single movie can make you a better person, but if so, isn't it more likely to be Seven Samurai or L'Avventura or The Third Man or something? Rather than an ensemble drama with Sandy Bullock and Matt Dillon?

Oh, and he also names another Worst Movie List-maker, Cinderella Man, as a runner-up to his Best-Of list. Yikes!

Crowe's accomplishment is to play Braddock as a good man, even-tempered, loyal to his family above all.

I guess it is really hard for Russell Crowe to make himself appear even-tempered. I never thought about that before...

So, yeah, Roger...No longer trustworthy in any way, shape or form...Not that I actually trust the opinions of film critics, any film critics, ever.

Ebert's making an ass out of himself on the Internet in more than one way this week, regrettably. In addition to naming the odious idiocy of Mr. Haggis as the year's best film, he's gone and offended the gamer community. Roger has claimed that, by definition, video games cannot be considered an art form. And gamers have claimed that, well, that OMFG Roger = teh sux0rz.

These arguments get really lame really quickly. No one has a really good, tight definition for art. It always becomes "the stuff that I understand," exclusively excluding "the stuff you understand but that I don't get." Pointless discussions then ensue. Ebert is essentially saying that, because the outcome is indeterminate and dependant on the user, then the product isn't art. It's just a simulated experience, or a pasttime, or whatever. The gamers are saying that the same amount of creativity and artistry that go into a movie or a painting or a symphony go into a complex video game design, and that the final experience is just as engrossing or enriching as any other art form.

Obviously, the gamers case makes more sense. I mean, I've never had a video game impact me in the same way as a movie, but I'm not a huge video game playing kind of person. And obviously, exceptionally talented and creative people work for years putting these intensely thoughtful, complicated devices together. How could that not be considered an artistic endeavor?

But more importantly, what's the purpose of denying video games status as an art form in print? It's just going to start an argument, and there's no way to declare anyone "correct" or "incorrect." If the guy wants to think out loud, in print, he really should start a blog or something.

Anyway, one e-mailer wrote Roger in making a very good point. He noted that movies are slowly becoming more like video games, requiring some degree of interactivity from the audience. A film like Memento requires not just concentration, but problem-solving, to follow the backwards narrative. And a film like Run Lola Run reflects an interest in various different outcomes for the same inspiring event, just like in a video game.

This kind of film doesn't actually invalidate Ebert's claim that any sort of audience participation invalidates a project as art. I mean, yes, you have to think about Memento, but it's still not interactive. I've seen it more than once, and the movie is identical each time.

Here's what I think serves as a good counter-example. Classical music. We of course consider Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, all those composers to be artists, right? But we don't have any recordings of their playing. We only know them from their compositions. But those compositions have to be interpreted by contemporary musicians in order for us to hear and appreciate them. Sure, there is real content to be evaluated, but the art is in the way the music is played in the present.

If you hear a bad rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus, it doesn't mean Handel sucks.

Isn't that just like video games? They are designed for others to play and interpret, but it's the actual programming, the software, that is the artistic endeavor. Also, as an added bonus similarity, I am equally poor and playing video games and classical music. Total lack of hand-eye coordination. Seriously. It's bad. I should probably be on disability.

King Kong (2005)

In the movies, as in real life, first impressions are hugely important. King Kong does not make a good first impression. I mean Peter Jackson's new giant ape movie King Kong, of course, not the title monkey himself. Although the ape King Kong doesn't make a terribly great first impression either, what with his intense, repulsive simian odor, propensity towards chest-thumping and primal, destructive temper.

Jackson's film takes a little more than double the amount of time of the 1933 original to tell what amounts to the exact same story. In an interview earlier this year, a reporter asked him why he thought that might be, and he didn't have a good answer...That much is obvious from seeing the film. His version doesn't really add a single thing that wasn't in the original version. He just pads the narrative with extra exposition, adds in subplots and secondary characters that don't really go anywhere and draws out sequences to twice their natural length. Counter-intuitively, almost all of Jackson's additions come in the film's front half, before the real action-adventure story can even begin.

What Jackson has done makes very little sense to me - he has taken a film that was a model of efficiency, and turned it into a self-important, navel-gazing snoozefest...

For the first 90 minutes. After that, it rocks.



Once Kong takes over - once Jackson gets over himself and begins to actually tell a story - the movie rights itself. Hidden beneath that first hour and a half, which features the clunkiest filmmaking of Jackson's filmography to date, are some really fantastic effects and sequences of sustained power. So much of the second and third act of King Kong is so good, it almost made me want to let bygones be bygones and just overlook entirely how bad that beginning really was. Almost.

Jackson hasn't changed much structurally from Marion C. Cooper's original 1933 film. Adventurous, fast-talking filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) leads a small crew, including beautiful starlet Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts) and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, whose character was changed from a first mate in the original film) on a mysterious sea voyage to shoot his next picture. Once they arrive at the previously-unexplored Skull Island, they discover it is home to some irritable natives, a shitload of ferocious dinosaurs and one 25-foot surly ape apparently named Kong.

Cooper races through this material in the 1933 movie. He realizes that the set-up is just a way of getting his characters to the island, and that the real attraction are the special effects and the adventure sequences. Merian Cooper had a clear vision of his task as a director - to entertain, dazzle, excite and enthrall audiences. Jackson seems to have a higher purpose in mind, though I'll be damned if I could tell you what exactly he's trying to capture.

He lingers on the (admittedly impressive) period Manhattan sets. He spends time establishing Ann's failed career as a vaudevillian, even giving her a mentor character who will never be seen again. He piles on a number of inconsequential roadblocks to Denham's production, including budgetary problems, scheduling issues and loud conflict with the heads of the studio. He introduces a wealth of uninteresting, unimportant side characters, including the ship's skipper Hayes (Evan Parke), a former stowaway who is Hayes' charge (Jamie Bell) and the ship's cook (Andy Serkis, who posed for the motion capture for the Kong character as well as Gollum in Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies).

None of these changes enhances the movie in any real way. They don't make the action more gripping, they don't raise the stakes on the events of the film, they don't help contemporize the situations or make them more culturally relevant, and it doesn't make the film seem larger or more epic in scope. All it does is drag down the pace of the film to a stand-still, and push the running time to 3 hours and 7 minutes, far too long for the kind of fleet adventure film into which King Kong eventually transforms.

What could have happened? Even though I had my problems with Return of the King, there wasn't anything approaching the overdirection evident in this film. The first hour in particular is filled with unneccessary slow motion, cheesy references to the original movie (including an offensive Asian caricature named Choy who should have been cut from the story) and camera tricks designed only to call attention to themselves. There is about three times as much slo-mo in this film as any movie could ever need. One scene, in which Adrien Brody types out the phrase "Skull Island" is super-super-super-slo-mo, plays as self-parody and elicited a hearty laugh from the sold-out crowd in Century City tonight.

Possibly because of his devotion to the 1933 version, Jackson seems intent on elevating this material into a classic, a masterpiece for all time. But really, it's a giant ape movie. Cooper's film had no pretentions about the story it was trying to tell. It became a classic because of the craft applied in telling its simple story, not because of the immense sense of importance and high-minded artistry with which Cooper approached the story of a monkey loose in the big city. It's an adventure story, not a pretentious end-of-the-year awards grab. And trying to squeeze a thought-provoking, sweeping, romantic period epic out of an adventure story probably just isn't that good of an idea.

Mercifully, once the crew has arrived on Skull Island, and Ann has been kidnapped by the surprisingly gentle beast of the film's title, Jackson finds his footing and the movie comes alive. The film's second half flies by in a flurry of awe-inspiring action sequences, emotional payoffs and massive set pieces.

Much of the credit goes to the Kong creature itself, another wonder of the digital age. I've heard it said that this film's Kong is the most fully-realized CG animated character yet. I'd still give the award to Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films, a creature composed entirely of pixels and yet capable of giving a more lifelike, nuanced and subtle performance than 90% of Young Hollywood. But Kong is certainly the most technically impressive CG effect to date, particularly in terms of integrating the animation with actual filmed footage.

Kong's ability to interact with his environment is totally seamless. In one scene borrowed directly from the classic film, Kong shakes a log holding many humans, hanging on for dear life, over a large ravine. In the original, Kong picks up the log for a moment, and in those shots the log itself is pretty clearly animated. It's still an impressive effect, don't get me wrong. I'm just using it to highlight how far technology has come since 1933. In this version, CG Kong picks up a real log, a log containing Andy Serkis and Adrien Brody and Jack Black, and gives it a good shake, right there, in clear daylight, spilling men down into vines and tree branches, and on to the craggy rock surface below. Amazing.

In a good year for action sequences, a year that has included Batman Begins and Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds, King Kong has perhaps the biggest and best thrill ride moment yet. Denham and Co. get caught up in a brontosaurus stampede, evading a team of kill-crazy raptors, which eventually morphs into what I believe is the first Massive Dinosaur Dog Pile in movie history. This sequence has that same swagger and confidence as the T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park or Cameron's Harrier Jet sequence from True Lies. One of those times when a director clearly knows he has knocked one clear out of the park, and takes an extra moment to revel in his success.



Jackson wisely gives Kong a kind of world-weariness, a fatigue right from the start, that just makes his fast downfall that much more sympathetic. His body and face are scarred from years of battling dinosaurs on Skull Island, he visably winces in pain every time he's hit by stray gunfire (which is pretty often once he starts demolishing wide swatches of 42nd Street) and his tendency to lash out in frustration evidences a lifetime spent in anguished solitude. Just as he was back in the Cooper picture, the monkey is really the star of this movie, and when he's on screen it's impossible to take your eyes off of him.

After all its problems, King Kong still manages to build to a wrenching, emotional conclusion. I wouldn't have thought it possible to win me back after the dismal first hour of this film, but by the time Kong has run amock in the Big Apple, and prepares to meet his end alongside his lady love at the Empire State, it's hard not to feel for the big guy. Jerked around by an entertainment industry type, manipulated by a woman, chronically misunderstood by everyone he meets, left for dead on the streets on Manhattan...We've all been there, right?

One pitch-perfect scene near the end, featuring Kong and Ann frolicking on a frozen-over pond in Central Park, earns crucial last-second points. It builds slowly, it's subtle, it's beautifully shot, the Naomi Watts performance is impressive, James Newton Howard's score hits at just the right moment and it really helps end the movie with a somber, reverent kind of melancholy.

In fact, the only way I could have enjoyed the end of the film more is if it had come about 45 minutes earlier in the evening. 3 hours is just way too long for this story, and it begins to capsize under its own weight. The end has poignancy, but it still does kind of lack immediacy because of the lengthy running time. The fact that Peter Jackson has such outsized ambitions is great, but he needs to find a better way to match the kind of movie he wants to make up with the material he's actually adapting.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Okay...Everyone Just Stay Calm...

Are you sitting down? I have just received some urgent, extremely disturbing news...

It seems...according to US Weekly...Ashlee Simpson may possibly be sick.

WHY MUST IT ALWAYS BE THE GOOD ONES, LORD? WHY?

Ashlee begin to feel sick whilst on stage in Japan! After apologizing to the audience, she left the stage and actually collapsed!

...she told the audience she felt sick and said to them, "I love you guys," Us Weekly reported Friday. She then collapsed in an elevator and was rushed by ambulance to a hospital.

I think, after hearing news of this magnitude, there's only one question on any reasonable person's mind...

Did MTV get this shit on tape? We need Season 3, Ash Simp, like NOW!

Worse yet, Ashlee's had to cancel her performance at the upcoming Radio Music Awards. That does not make me want to la la.

Isn't it amazing that Ashlee Simpson is hugely popular in Japan? Do you think it's possible that there's just some really brilliant English-Japanese translator that has taken Ashlee's simpleton lyrics and crafted them into wonderful poetry in Asia? Like, in Japan, Ashlee is revered as the greatest songwriter of her time, with a mesmerizing soul-penetrating ability to put together memorable phrases and imagery, a la John Lennon or Bob Dylan? Or maybe bland teeny-bopper pop is just universal.

Anyway, the Simpson camp won't say what's behind Ashlee's illness, which almost assuredly means it's hepatitis if you asked me. Hey, you don't know where Ryan Cabrera's been. He clearly hasn't washed his hair in a few months...Here's hoping she's okay, and can go on with her magnificent, trailblazing career of amusing bitter, jaded 20-somethings with her juvenile, corporate-backed shenanigans.

The unknown faint-themed ailment is clearly an attempt to play on the old celebrity "I'm taking a break because of exhaustion" excuse. Which is always a lie. I mean, yes, technically, donig a shitload of heroin is exhausting...but that's an important detail you're leaving out there. Maybe Ashlee's taken up freebasing or something. With those fucked-up parents, you know she's into something bad. I mean, imagine having Pastor Joe as your Dad!



Must get awkward...What with him checking out your rack in public all the time.

My thanks to The Superficial for that awesome photo and the heads-up on Ashlee's illness.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

The movies are perhaps the best cultural indicator in American history. Hollywood studios so carefully calibrates their product to fit American tastes, that despite some natural "lag time" between trends appearing and those trends being reflected in film, the success rate at hitting the national zeitgeist is pretty good overall. So it's only natural that, with the upswing in the prominance of religion in everyday American life and conversation, the movies would get more spiritual.

It's happening. I've noticed it for a little while (Passion of the Christ, anyone?). But The Exorcism of Emily Rose doesn't just hint at a revival in religious-themed movies. It's a mainstream genre film focused squarely on inspiring religious faith. Quite honestly, I haven't seen a movie that's so directly evangelical out of a mainstream studio in a long while.

Now, there's nothing specifically wrong with a movie having a strongly Christian point-of-view. I'm an open-minded enough viewer to enjoy a movie that comes from a different religious perspective. So I can say that, as a hybrid of the Catholic-themed horror genre and the courtroom drama genre, Exorcism of Emily Rose is moderately successful. Laura Linney and Campbell Scott are fun to watch as dueling lawyers, and director Scott Derrickson knows how to put together a reasonably creepy suspense sequence. But I'm surprised that most of the reviews and press the film recieves focuses on this genre mash-up rather than the real story - the film's strident, pious religiousity.



An opening title informs us that the sad tale of Emily Rose is "based on a true story." These titles never elaborate, telling you what parts of the story are real and what parts are totally (and ludicrously) fictionalized. I don't care to do research right now, so I'll assume some collegiate girl really did believe she was possessed, and some priest really did perform an exorcism, and something went awry and the girl died.

In the movie, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter, called on mainly to shriek and yell shit in German) has just gone off to college when she has an intensely disturbing experience early one morning, at exactly 3 am. She becomes paralyzed, and feels arms restraining her on her bed. She feels like some invisible force is trying to violate her, but she fends it off. (The whole scene is rather sexual, and recalls the fantasy/rape sequence from Rosemary's Baby.) A few days later, the force returns, and this time she is unable to repel demons from entering her body.

We see this action in flashback. You see, Emily died after a failed exorcism by her local priest (Tom Wilkinson), and now a big media-frenzied courtroom proceeding is underway to determine whether the priest is culpable for Emily's death. It's one of those science-vs.-religion "let's argue it out" kind of jobs. In this corner, we have Laura Linney, a disbeliever representing the priest to advance her career. And in this corner, we have Campbell Scott, a hard-ass prosecutor who also happens to be a very religious guy.

The rest of the film follows the same basic format as most religious fiction. Supernatural events occur that seem to back up the theory that Emily was possessed by demons, and that Laura Linney's stalwart lawyer may be next on their list. Her disbeliver character will undergo a spiritual reformation, and come around to seeing things from a more enlightened point of view.

The film, regrettably, tries to seem balanced and even-handed. After we're shown a supernatural scenario involving Emily - say, a scene in which she develops stigmata after the exorcism fails to cure her - we see a brief "natural explanation" scene, showing what might have also happened. In the case of the stigmata, we see Emily clasping her hands down on a barbed wire fence, giving her cuts.

But it's clear from frame one where the movie's sympathies lie. The movie only asks the viewer directly to accept the possibility that Emily's story might be true, but that's really just the foot in the door technique. Once you accept that demonic possession might be accurate, it's only a hop skip and a jump away from regular church attendance.

And, like I said, there's nothing wrong with a movie making a blatant appeal for faith. I just wish the film would go for it, full on, and not dither around and pretend to be unbiased and fair-minded.

WARNING: I WILL NOW DISCUSS EVENTS THE OCCUR NEAR THE END OF THE FILM. IT'S NOT EXACTLY A "SPOILER," BECAUSE THE MOVIE DOESN'T REALLY HAVE A "TWIST," BUT IF YOU'D LIKE TO GO IN TO EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE TOTALLY CLEAN, STOP READING AND JUST KNOW I THOUGHT THE MOVIE WAS, OVERALL, A-IGHT.

Okay, so, at the end of the film, we come to discover that Emily wasn't just possessed. She was given a choice to remain possessed or to simply let the demons kill her. She chooses to remain possessed, in horrible suffering in a body she can't control, here on Earth in an attempt to spread the word of God. Somehow...

Now, I thought I understood where the movie was going until this point, but this late-in-the-game development is really difficult to wrap my mind around.

How...exactly...does that sound like a reasonable course of events? Do you want to worship a God that forces young girls to go through the horrors of demonic possession as a form of advertising? Is that really the best that God can do, from a PR standpoint? Letting Lucifer violate virginal freshmen coeds? Somebody get him the number for Bumble Ward or something...

How about this...And I'm just throwing out ideas, I'm no marketing exec. How about, if God's willing to use supernatural means to announce his existence to the world...How about he just comes down and shows himself. Maybe does "Oprah" or Conan or something. Opening sketch on "SNL." I mean, instead of torturing one of his beloved, innocent human children? Just a thought...Might not be too hard getting some attention. Getting booked somewhere. I mean, God, coming down to Earth, kind of big news...I'm sure it would get picked up by most of the...big three networks. Even CNN would probably do a piece. And you know Fox would be there. He's their boy!

I mean...wow...I'll give Derrickson this...That wasn't where I thought the movie would go. I didn't expect that having a demon inside you makes you into a Christ figure. But, well, that's why I'm not writing contemporary religious-themed thrillers.