Saturday, March 25, 2006

Our Next President Will Be HilRod

My own sense of the world pretty much tells me that Hillary Clinton's going to be our next President. At long last, Americans have seen the light, finally coming to their senses and seeing BushCo. for the criminal organization it has always been. So I'm not really worried about more trouble from the Rethuglicans in '06 or '08.

Come on...who are they going to nominate? Bill Frist? There are sexually-transmitted diseases with higher favorability ratings than that guy. I'm sorry, but once you start using your status as Senate Majority Leader to make inaccurate medical examinations of unconscious women several states over via video...America's going to have a hard time taking you seriously.

There was a time when I thought Jeb in '08 for sure (if only because Americans, I fear, would genuinely like to vote for a man named "Jeb"). But the whole family name's becoming more and more toxic by the day. I'm not sure a Bush will be able to get elected Pledgemaster of Theta Chi after this doofus has finished up his run.

The only Repugnanticans I can see getting actually elected by the American people are Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, but I don't think they have a real shot of winning the nomination. (Particularly Rudy, who despite appropriately fascist tendencies tends to agree with me on stuff like gay marriage, which isn't going to fly with the old intolerant bastards of the Grand Old Party).

So they're screwed. And I can't see any Democrats genuinely presenting a challenge to HilRod. She's clearly the most famous Democrat in the country who hasn't already been president. Plus, you just know women who have never bothered to vote before will show up to vote for a female president.

And I'm not even saying that's a bad thing! It plays in my favor. Not to mention that she's married to the single most famous, popular Democrat of them all, a man who had significantly higher popularity numbers than the current guy while people were talking 24/7 on TV about how he's a lying pervert! (And don't take my word for it. Read this Walter Shapiro article in Salon about why Hillary's such a massive front-runner).

To be honest, there are a lot of Democrats I'd prefer to vote for than Hillary. As much as I find the guy personally appealing, I didn't think Bill Clinton was a particularly good president. And Hillary's exactly the sort of hedge-your-bets centrist that's always pissing me off, abandoning worthwhile social programs, blathering on like an idiot about violence in video games, even voting to go to Iraq and to ban flag-burning.

Are you fucking kidding me, lady? You think we should be punished for burning up a symbol representing America? What about pictures of Uncle Sam? Can I burn those? What about a piece of paper with the word "America" written on it? What if it's written in red-white-and-blue ink, huh? The only time I think you should be punished for burning a symbol of America is if it happens to be a live bald eagle. Cause, you know, they're endangered.

The other thing that will bother me about voting for Hillary, but will not stop me from voting for Hillary, is the whole dynastic thing. It would mean that our four most recent presidents came from two families. Now, yes, I realize that two of our first six presidents were related as well, but that's hardly the kind of thing the Founders had in mind. (Not to mention that it was a father and son, who have at least a somewhat greater chance of differing perspectives as opposed to a married couple.)

No matter...I'll vote for her anyway, because this other party is, as I said before, an organization composed almost entirely of criminal lunatics. Say what you will about the leaders of the Democratic Party, but last I checked, most of them were sane and willing to obey the Constitution.

Everything aside, the real reason I know for a fact that Hillary will win is that the crazy right-wing goofballs are terrified of her. Speaking of lunatics, you simply must check out fringe whackjob Kaye Grogan's most recent column.

For those of you whom I haven't yet turned on to Ms. Grogan, allow me to explain. (Or check out another post I wrote about her here.) See, she wants to parrot the same Karl Rove-approved talking points that all the other conservative wingnut bloggers follow. But, unbelievably, she's not clever enough. Yes, I know, it's not hard to just reprint what Nutty Blogger Headquarters tells you, but Kaye just can't seem to master it all the same. So the right-wing talking points, that were banal and illogical to begin with, get contorted and mixed-up in Kaye's Infrasturcutre of Stupid, emerging even more dumb than they already were going in.

And this week, despite the fact that her guy's in charge for another 3 years, she's on the attack against...Hillary Clinton. And let me tell you, it's charming.

Has President Bush been a perfect president? No! But I trust his decisions more than I would Democrats who tend to be a bit "flaky" most of the time, and can't seem to find a viable platform without falling off of it head first.

Yeah, I mean...nobody's perfect. Who among us hasn't decimated an entire Middle Eastern nation while simultaneously bankrupting America and turning the entire world against us? And, I mean, it's not like he's flaky. When he embarks on a ruinous course based on half-truths, racism and greed...he sticks to it, consarn it!

We need leaders that will work to solve the problems in America — not add to them. I agree with the wise saying: if you're not part of the solution — you're part of the problem. We certainly need more problem solvers as opposed to problem makers.

Only a Sith speaks in absolutes, Anakin! I have failed you.

From one week to the next, Hillary Clinton changes her mind more than Hedda Hopper changed hats.

Oh, man, that is vintage Grogan. In that other post I linked you to, she made a really antiquated reference to Groucho Marx's cigars. This time, it's freaking Hedda Hopper's hats! Kaye Grogan rules!

(By the way, to those of you who don't get the reference, Hedda Hopper was a Hollywood gossip columnist from the 40's and 50's known for her large, flamboyant hats. A bit of trivia...Hopper became reviled in Hollywood for naming names of "Communists" to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, including many individuals who had absolutely not Communist affiliation).

To me being unstable is certainly not what I would call a viable candidate for the highest office in the country. Besides, she can't keep up with what her husband is doing — much less what is going on in America.

Ugh...Unspeakably vile. The campaign for the '08 Presidency is at least a full year away, and already Grogan can't wait to attack the woman in the single most obvious, despicable and personal way possible. It's not even a sensible argument...Because Hillary's husband was unfaithful, she's not qualified to be President? Because, clearly, if anyone has ever betrayed your trust and cheated on you, you must be an idiot.

According to Senator Clinton, we should secure our borders and in the next breath — we are treating Jesus bad, if we don't allow drug cartels and gang members to come on over to America to push the land of dreams and prosperity right out of the hands of born Americans.

Mmm...that's good racism! Kaye's really bringing the ignorance from all directions. I admire the fact that she's not content to just have stupid, racist opinions, but she likes to awkwardly phrase them using poor grammar and syntax as well. It's just that little something extra you only get with the truly mentally imbalanced columnists.

By the way Ms. Clinton — what would you call supporting killing Jesus' babies in the womb?

Oh my God, someone aborted Jesus' baby! That's horrible. Why didn't I hear about this? This means all that Da Vinci Code stuff is really true!

Hey, wait a minute...Jesus is back, and he's wasting his time knocking up chicks and then getting them abortions? Shouldn't he be bringing about God's Kingdom on Earth, escorting all the good Christians to Heaven on a golden chariot while punishing all us heathens? Color me disappointed.
The way the Democrats support those who are involved with wrongdoing should make the hair stand up on one's body.

At Kaye's suggestion, I just had a look at my body, and none of its hairs are standing up. I think that's probably because this particular body has been dead for a few weeks. Really, it's starting to turn, I should get a new one. I'm just working late all this week, and it's not always easy to get started stalking someone new...

But, okay, all sarcasm aside...This next paragraph is truly, truly ludicrous. It's the most hilarious thing I've read on the ol' Intar-Web in some time...

The only way the poor narrow-minded Democrats are going to get accurate polls is to quit polling themselves. If we are to believe the recent polls that Americans are now favoring and trusting them over the Republicans, we have to accept that their favorable ratings are now hovering in the 60 percentile range. And we will have to believe that overnight all of the red states have now turned to blue. Somebody has to be off their rocker if they expect those of us who know better, to believe these bogus polls.


"Hey, Kaye, if your first assumption upon seeing poll numbers against your side is that the polls must be fraudulent, what would it take for you to believe Americans simply don't agree with your perspective?"

"I'd have to see that all the red states have turned blue."

"Kaye, you realize that 'red states' and 'blue states' aren't really all one color, but are filled with a variety of people who can change their mind about current affairs at any time, right?"




"Kaye, are you still there?"

I really have a problem with people who try to use the Bible to try and point out when they think Christians and conservatives are not acting accordingly to how they think they should act — and then on the other hand trying to have people arrested for "hate" crimes if the scriptures pointing out as plain as Pinocchio's nose, that people are living in sin, is read out loud from pulpits on Sunday mornings.

Oh, okay, lets just change gears, then. Folks, this is all from the same column. And I'm not leaving out a lot of stuff either. She just skips around between hateful rhetoric, at random, like a Chatty Cathy doll that has undergone the Ludovico Treatment.

It's just indescipherable pseudo-fascist ramblings! No sense at all! Who publishes this stuff, and to what end? I'm just going to try, for the sake of argument, in case anyone's still reading, to interpret what the hell Kaye is talking about. Bit by bit.

"I really have a problem with people who try to use the Bible to try and point out..."

Okay, so Kaye wants to be able to condemn people she doesn't know by citing the Bible, but she doesn't want anyone to be able to correct her ignorance of said text.

"and then on the other hand having people arrested for hate crime..."

So, Kaye kind of switches topics in mid-sentence here, but near as I can tell, the argument is as follows: If you want to use the Bible to prove that a conservative is wrong - say, you want to argue that it's inconsistant to care a lot about unborn fetuses but to favor the death penalty for alive people - then you must agree with everything the Bible says. So anyone quoting the Bible in any context must, then, agree that it's wrong for people to "live in sin."

I think, by "live in sin," she means gay...Should someone tell her that it really means any people who aren't married? Don't most Americans think co-habitation outside marriage should be legal? Or am I wrong?

I have two words of advice for Democrats: GET REAL!

And that's just my opinion!

Yeah, no shit it's just your opinion! And guess what...It's useless, because you're an idiot!

Masters of War

A lot of other blogs have been posting anti-war songs all week. Check out some examples here and here and here and here.

As happens frequently, the first few songs I could think of were all written by Bob Dylan. In particular, I've always found his "Masters of War" to be a particularly angry, incisive takedown of the military-industrial complex. And here it is, originally off his legendary 1963 "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" album, which if you haven't already heard 100,000 really should.

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

Can you believe Bob wrote that back in '63, a full 40 years before our latest little adventure in Iraq? It's so prescient! That guy's a fucking genius!

Still, it occurs to me that this song's pretty well-known. An anti-war standard, if you will, and I probably should include a second, less extremely famous entry...You know, just so I don't lose out on valuable hipster points.

So here's my favorite song protesting our current war, TV on the Radio's aptly-titled "Dry Drunk Emperor":

baby boy
dying under hot desert sun,
watch your colours run.

did you believe the lie they told you,
that christ would lead the way
and in a matter of days
hand us victory?

did you buy the bull they sold you,
that the bullets and the bombs
and all the strong arms
would bring home security?

all eyes upon
dry drunk emperor
gold cross jock skull and bones
mocking smile,
he's been standing naked for a while!
get him gone, get him gone, get him gone
and bring all the thieves to trial.

end their promise
end their dream
watch it turn to steam
rising to the nose of some cross legged god
gog of magog
end times sort of thing.
oh unmentionable disgrace
shield the childrens faces
as all the monied apes
display unimaginably poor taste
in a scramble for mastery.

atta' boy get em with your gun
till mr. mega ton
tells us when we've won
or what we're gonna leave undone.

all eyes upon
dry drunk emperor
gold cross jock skull and bones
mocking smile,
he's been
naked for a while.
get him gone, get him gone, get him gone
and bring all his thieves to trial.

what if all the fathers and the sons
went marching with their guns
drawn on washington.
that would seal the deal,
show if it was real,
this supposed freedom.

what if all the bleeding hearts
took it on themselves
to make a brand new start.
organs pumpin on their sleeves,
paint murals on the white house
feed the leaders L.S.D
grab your fife and drum,
grab your gold baton
and let's meet on the lawn,
shut down this hypocrisy.

And as an added plus, download the song (legally!) right here from Touch and Go Records!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Help! Help! I'm Being Repressed!

"I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time." -- Isaac Asimov, Free Inquiry, Spring 1982, vol.2 no.2, p. 9

The list of famous historical atheists always reassures me. Douglas Adams, Ben Franklin, Isaac Asimov, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Carl Sagan, Abraham Lincoln, George Carlin, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, James Madison...Smart guys. I'd much rather be on their team than George W. Bush's and Jerry Falwell's. Not even close.

But I can't say I'm surprised at the revelation that my fellow atheists and I comprise America's most distrusted minority. We only make up about 3% of total Americans, but there's apparently more ill-will and distrust out there for us than even Muslims and gays!

Now, I'm not saying you should all hate Muslims. I certainly don't hate Muslims. But isn't that incredible? I mean, when you think of ignorant, hate-filled Americans, they're usually reserving their venom for Muslims, right? Didn't Ann Coulter want to kill their leaders and convert them not all that long ago? We're at war with those guys, actively torturing them, several of them have flown planes into our buildings, and still Americans are more threatened by guys like me who find the whole "God" thing silly. What did I ever do to you?

American’s increasing acceptance of religious diversity doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in a god, according to a national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

I don't know...Seems to me that, if you felt confident in your beliefs, you wouldn't feel so threatened by someone who merely posits that they might not be true. I mean, Christianity can obviously survive amidst dissent, right? It was conceived as a minority religion initially anyway.

So why can't Americans deal with the fact that some of us think it's kind of dumb? I try to keep that shit to myself, for the most part. I don't spend my weekends driving around the country interrupting baptisms and tainting holy water. And I've only openly laughed at the guys walking around with ash smeared all over their foreheads a few times. So why can't we all just get along?

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Some atheists are formally organized. My cousin Michael's in an antheist's club of sorts, which holds events and meetings and even has a political-activism wing. I get the point, I guess, of opposing the insertion of religion into public life or whatever. But it's true that not believing in God doesn't really spur most of us to "get involved" at a local level. I mean, in a lot of ways, I can accept that my beliefs are the absence of belief. I don't so much get high off of atheism, so much as I find not having to be religious a real load off my mind. So just replacing vehement religiosity with vehement non-religiosity seems kind of equally pointless.

But that's just me. I understand a lot of people...just like having meetings.

Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell.

Well, I'd like to alert Ms. Edgell that Catholics and Jews and Communists all continue to play the same roles in modern American society. I mean, Jews? She doesn't think people mistrust Jews any more? Where you been, Penny? Did you miss out on that whole Passion of the Christ thing?

Also, I'm actually kind of surprised at how much a lot of people continue to hate Communists. It's kind of cute, really. All these neo-McCarthyites who got all upset at Good Night and Good Luck..."Hey, there really were dirty pinko Commies in the government, man! Tailgunner Joe was right all along!"

It's weird that China and Cuba are still Communists, but that we don't really care to villify them any more. What's changed, except that we've shifted our international hate-spewing priorities? If Communism itself was an absolute evil, isn't Communist China still totally evil? And, if so, why don't we still make cool action movies in which muscle-bound Americans kick Commie ass? My theory: all those Chinese guys know kung fu, and our large muscle-bound Americans are scared. Vin Diesel, I'm looking in your direction.

Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

One thing I'd like to address here. This whole idea that religion is useful because it makes people behave morally? That's a ridiculous lie. I've yet to be convinced that religious people behave in any more moral a fashion than non-religious people. The only thing intense, loudly-proclaimed spirituality means, as far as I'm concerned, is that a person has a far-higher probability of being a hypocrite.

One need think only of the number of famous, religious people who have been publicly disgraced. Not to bring up what you can read about on any other blog, but just today everyone's talking about young Ben Domenech, hired and immediately let go from for being a dirty plagiarist. Ben, before he was temporarily a real professional online journalist type, once wrote for the racist right-wing site, where he published screeds against abortionists under the handle "Augustine."

And that whole time, he knew that he was a dirty plagiarist. And even when the truth came out, he hid and lied about it for 24 hours, and let his friends plead his case for him, until it became clear he wouldn't be able to weasel out. And that's a religious guy! Now, you can say that he didn't take his religious to heart, obviously choosing to ignore the parts about not lying and not stealing and not taking mean potshots at your political opponents after it has become clear that you're a stealing liar. But he certainly practiced the religion, and it didn't seem to alter his negative behavior.

So in Ben's case, religion didn't create a more morally sound person. It just magically turned an asshole into a hypocritical asshole. I'd suggest this is among its most common functions.

So don't give me this "atheists are inherently immoral" crap, America, cause it's not going to fly. As for materialism and cultural elitism...that's everybody.

Memoirs of a Geisha

There's always something a bit creepy about movies like Memoirs of a Geisha. Like that 90's non-starter Dangerous Beauty or even the pinnacle of the genre, Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, these films seem to feel that setting a tragic story of forced prostitution in the exoticized past somehow takes the sting out of it. You wouldn't have an overwrought, melodramatic romance set in the present-day about a woman sold into slavery and forced to sell her body to remain alive. But dress it up in fancy costumes, play obscure songs on the mandolin on the soundtrack and put everybody in pancake make-up, and suddenly these films are epic and touching, rather than slightly unsettling. We can enjoy a movie about a woman who accepts viewing her body as currency because this was a long time ago, and it's not like that any more. (Right?)

At least Yimou's film has the self-awareness to consider the story from all angles. It's as much about the long-term trauma these women would have to face as it is anything else. A film like Memoirs of a Geisha flirts with some of these issues, before settling down with the idea that, hey, it may be rough on some of these broads to leave their families, think of themselves as property to be bartered and sold and ruthlessly compete with friends and sisters for male attention, but gawsh, they sure is purty. And nimble. And quiet when men are speaking!

I'm not gonna deny that the film, indeed, is purty. At least, more so than Marshall's garish, primary-color heavy adaptation of Chicago. The film took home 3 technical Oscars, and it's not hard to see why. I'm not certain the costumes, sets and cinematography were the year's most creative, but they are exactly the sort of thing the Academy loves to award. The film is glossy, large-scale, colorful and seems to strive for detailed accuracy.

At least, accuracy in terms of aesthetics. Marshall's not really concerned so much with historical accuracy, in that he has cast many of the roles with Chinese actresses even though the entire film is set in Japan. This is odd, because a lot of Americans (myself included) can, in fact, tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese people by appearance. I understand that there are more well-known Chinese actresses in America than Japanese, for whatever reason, but are Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh really so famous in this country, to make a movie that would otherwise dwindle in obscurity a popular hit? Is it worth sacrificing the believability of the entire film to get the name "Gong Li" on a poster? I'm not saying it definitely isn't, but I'm skeptical.

And then, of course, there's emotional accuracy, which the film doesn't exactly have in spades. I'm not saying that a movie of this type - an old-fashioned mainstream Hollywood period romance - has to neccessarily play by all the realism rules. This is a genre with enough room for Titanic and Gone With the Wind. You almost expect a little bluster.

But the entire film is built around a love story that just doesn't connect. We know the protagonist feels genuine love because she won't shut up about it in the voice-over, not because the performances really communicate any sort of passion behind all the make-up and restrained tea ceremonies.

A smarter movie might ask if Sayuri (Ziyi) is capable of love, after a lifetime of being cruelly jerked around by men and women alike. Doesn't she, in fact, respond to the first person ever to show her genuine kindness, who also happens to be a wealthy Chairman (Ken Watanabe)? Is latching on to the only one who treats you with dignity actually True Love, or is it just self-preservation? An interesting question, and one Marshall and screenwriter Robin Swicord can't dismiss quickly enough. Of course she loves him, they seem to say...He looks nice in that suit, he's played by the only famous Japanese guy for American audiences, and he buys her a goddamn Cherry Ice! What kind of piss-poor sensualist are you?

When she meets The Chairman (a title that clearly implies something other than Frank Sinatra to Japanese people), Sayuri is just a little girl named Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo as a child). She must undergo years of harsh geisha training (like kung fu training, only with more focus on balance and less on kicking) before she can hope to win the Chairman's heart. Unfortunately, even after years of learning at the knee of geisha Mameha (Yeoh) and enduring the abuse of the bitchy Hatsumomo (Li, in the film's only really juicy performance), Sayuri becomes entangled with the scarred businessman Nobu (Koji Yakusho) instead of her beloved Chairman. Dang.

For all its focus on the dark mysteries at the heart of "the geisha," the film hews pretty close to formula at all times. Often, it feels more like getting a sidelong glance at the world of geisha than being plunged right into the thick of things. Genuine filmmakers can introduce a foreign historical environment, and really involve the viewer in the inner workings of the place. In the first 10 minutes of Gangs of New York, to take one random example, Martin Scorsese really brings a totally abstract historical concept for most Americans - the slums of old New York - vibrantly alive. In Robert Altman's Gosford Park, the film's first hour is really spent acclamating the viewer to all the various guests as a turn-of-the-century British manor.

Marshall's film, on the other hand, is like a peek at 30's Japan, not an up-close treatment of the real thing. After nearly 2.5 hours with this film, I could tell you a few things about geisha - their virginity was an auctioned-off commodity, for example, or they often were presented with kimono or jade combs as gifts - but not so much about their lives or experiences, and even less about the time in which they lived. Historical events are occasionally mentioned - fighting in Manchuria, the on-set of WWII - but the film takes place entirely within the sheltered perspective of one character, and spends no time developing a world around her petty squabbles for geisha house dominance.

But even as Sayuri's story, the movie's more about her looks and performances than about her life. Marshall's more interested in the look of a cherry blossom as it floats on a pond than the inner lives of the woman carrying umbrellas around that pond. That's why Sayuri and everyone else essentially remains a blank...How is she supposed to represent the cool mysteries of the exotic East if she's like a regular old real woman? Late in the film, a long-time friend betrays Sayuri, and this decision is surprising not only because of its placement in the story, but because we have had literally no inkling of an idea that this friend might wish Sayuri ill. The choice comes completely out of thin air, determined by the needs of the plot rather than anything that has come earlier in the film.

I suppose, in this way, Marshall's mindset's the perfect match for this material. Just as Japanese businessmen admired geisha for their exterior qualities - their poise, their beauty, their posture - and hoped to forget there was even a dreary real woman beneath all the glamour, Marshall admires his characters for the way they look exclusively. His interest stops with the way they wear make-up and costumes, the way their bodies catch the warm red light he's always throwing on them. (This was true for Chicago as well, but more forgivable considering that film is a musical).

Memoirs of a Geisha is very nice to look at, even when it's totally ludicrous and predictable. There's the gratuitous scene of the woman standing on a mountaintop tossing aside the token of love she's borne with her lo these many sad years, the kind of scene that's in every movie like this, and it's hard not to be a little taken-aback by the sheer scope of the shot. We twirl around a mountainside, waves crash on the craggy rocks belong, the beautiful Zhang Ziyi sheds a single tear as a handkerchief whooshes around her in the wind. It's nice, and probably very expensive to realize.

But it's not really cinematic, in any real sense. We gain no insight into Sayuri from the shot, or from any other. She's a blank, on to which the viewer, like the Japanese businessmen, can project their fantasies. Or, you know, project something or another, because otherwise you'd get bored.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


I must be some kind of crazy basketball good luck charm. I watch maybe one or two UCLA basketball games per season, and we always magically seem to pull out an unlikely victory, every time I tune in. Today's incredible, last-second Sweet 16 victory against Gonzaga was no different.

Dominated for the entire game, down by as much as 17 points, there seemed to be no way The Bruins could pull out a win. They were shooting terribly, playing some of the worst defense of the year, and as always, they seemed incapable of making any important free throws. And yet...during the last few minutes of the game...the Gonzaga team just totally fell apart.

At one point, with about 15 seconds or so left in the game, All-American Gonzaga superstar Adam Morrison began to cry. That's a bit weird, I thought at the time. I've seen lots of players cry after losing the big game, but not a lot of players crying while still in the process of losing the big game.

My friend Brian related a story about his days in Little League. During a Championship match, the left-fielder missed a crucial catch that would have won the game. Brian (who was at Center Field at the time) swears that the boy started crying before he even had a chance to miss the catch. He could feel the loss coming, and instinctively began to cry even while he still had a chance to win.

I wanted to post a photo of Morrison (a very odd-looking, ungainly guy who was kind of bugging me just by his appearance for most of the game) crying here on the blog, but for some reason, it took the Yahoo! page a few minutes to fully load his glorious, glorious sadness.

This was all I was getting at first. It captured the heartbreak for the Gonzaga team, leading the entire time only to wind up defeated as the Bruins all around you cheer and celebrate. But it failed to capture the full joy of Morrison's on-court breakdown.

Yeah, that's the good stuff. The photographer here has captured that exquisite moment when Morrison knows he's about to cry, and tries to have the strength of will to overcome the emotion while on national television. You can see him welling up, his face beginning to contort, but he's holding it together. (At this point, I believe the game is still going on, and it's just not done to begin bawling before one's fate is sealed).

A few moments's all over...

Not to kick a man when he's down...but what is with that bad teenage moustache, dude? Either you can grow a moustache or you can't, but I see no sense in lingering in this limbo, where it's obvious you've tried to grow a moustache but lack the overall swarthiness to really push it to the point where it's recognizable as facial hair.

I accept that it may seem cruel and unsportsmanlike to delight in the tears of a foe...but I never claimed to be a good sportsman. Or a sportsman at all. (At least, not in the Dick Cheney, shooting-at-penned-quail definition of the term).

But what can I say? Actual human emotion showing on the face of the vanquished is one of the only interesting aspects of sports for me, personally. Really, the only interesting aspect. I'm sorry, but I can't get excited about endless odd rules and regulations. I can't get involved in endlessly-expounded statistics or technically well-played games or "smart coaching strategy." But a grown man losing his shit on TV following a closely-fought match? That's drama!

(The same rule applies to athletes hurting themselves or outrageous displays of unsportsmanlike conduct. Really, I prefer odd interruptions of games to any actual game itself.)

I suppose my next step in egregious fair-weather fandom would be to watch the Elite 8 face-off against Memphis, where the Bruins will most likely have their asses handed to them in soul-crushing fashion. Fortunately, I have little emotional investment in the team's future, so it's unlikely my reaction will be as strong as Mr. Mojo Risin' up there...

But Who Will Lobby for the Lobbyists Lobbyist?

Want to know how screwed up our political system has become? Consider this...

Elected representatives would often make big deals and have big meetings at gourmet restaurants around the Washington D.C. area, with lobbyists of course picking up the tab. It's just how business is done, not only in Washington but everywhere. (One of my first tasks during the brief time I spent as a P.R. assistant? Learning all the nice restaurants near the office where I'd be making lunch reservations.)

So now that the hammer has come down on lobbying (to a certain extent) in the wake of the Jack-off Abrahamist scandal, these kinds of lunches are becoming somewhat frowned upon. Which could prove costly in the long-run for Washington D.C.'s gourmet food industry.

Almost as much political business gets done over double-cut lamb chops at the elite watering hole — and at similar establishments throughout the city — as under the Capitol dome. It's no wonder, then, that talk of making it illegal for lobbyists to pick up a lawmaker's tab has the local restaurant community all whipped up.

So, in classic Washington style, restaurateurs have dispatched their lobbyists to lobby against efforts to control lobbying.

Aww...Without political corruption, how ever will wealthy local restauranteurs afford that second boat? It's a goddamn tragedy!

When asked if the proposed meal ban would affect her business, Christianne Ricchi, chef and owner of I Ricchi, said: "Absolutely, yes. It's hard to put a number on it. There are ancillary deals and conversations happening all the time. But when Congress is out of town, business goes down, and Washington turns into this sleepy little town. It's very evident."

As I read this entire LA Times article, I wondered three things:

(1) Why can't Congresspeople continue to eat lunch with lobbyists at nice restaurants, but just go Dutch and split the costs? That way, the lobbyist still gets his message heard, the lawmaker maintains his integrity and freedom from conflict-of-interest accusations, and the purveyors of fine meats and seafoods around Washington continue to reap sizable profits. Win-win-win, right?

(2) Would it be so bad if politicians had to occasionally eat at IHOP like the rest of us?

In fact, if I were ever to run for public office, I would make this into one of the major themes of my campaign. "As long as the people in my district have to occasionally make do with the lukewarm, undercooked, meager breakfasts served regularly at IHOP, then darn it, that's where I'm going to eat as well." The commercial would find me in an IHOP, bemoaning the fact that they give you three fatty, greasy, half-cooked shards of bacon as a side-dish, surrounded by dozens of my constituents.

"Harris in '12: Eating Powdered Eggs With the Powerful"

(3) How can anyone lobby in favor of politicians being bought and sold by lobbyists with a straight face?

Seriously, at what point do you stop being a lobbyist and just become a really bad liar?

"No, see, you should let Congressmen and women be bribed with expensive meals because it helps the restaurant industry. And's good for America. And, you know, freedom, which is on the march. Can I interest you in a second boat?"

Lobbyists and restaurateurs contend that Abramoff's excesses were aberrations that smeared Washington's long-held habit of mixing business with pleasure. Some lobbyists wine and dine more than others, but Abramoff's brazenness painted them all with the same broad brush, they believe.

"What he was doing is unrecognizable compared to what I do on a day-to-day basis," said John Gay, a lobbyist for the National Restaurant Assn.

Checking his calendar for his most recent dining date with a member of Congress or an aide, he went back four weeks before finding one. He said the lawmaker paid that day.

John Gay, clearly, has gone with George W. Bush's old mainstay...The "Don't Listen to Anyone But Me" Defense. Oh, you think it's corrupt for lobbyists to buy votes with lunches and vacations? It's not. Yeah, I know it sounds corrupt, but it isn't. Trust me. I'm some lobbyist you've never even heard of before, and I wouldn't lie to you.

Government watchdog groups generally favor the meal proposal. "I think most of the American people already expected their representatives to pay their own way," said Roberta Baskin, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity.

But Baskin and others see the free lunch as among the least of Washington's influence-peddling problems. They are more concerned that it appears Congress will leave intact what they view as the real source of influence exercised by lobbyists: the sizable campaign contributions they generate. Gay and other dining industry lobbyists have worked to thwart the proposed meal ban, sending letters to every member of Congress opposing it and talking to as many lawmakers and aides as they can reach.

Poor Roberta Baskin. It can't be easy to run a group in George Bush's America called the Center for Public Integrity. She must be awfully busy.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Squid and the Whale

The back of the Squid and the Whale DVD calls the film "autobiographical" for writer/director Noah Baumbach. Hopefully, he means simply that his parents were divorced, or that they were writers. (I recall reading an interview with him years ago, following his impressive debut film Kicking and Screaming, in which he mentions that his father was a novelist, so at least that much is true). Hopefully, Noah Baumbach doesn't have memories of growing up with a man resembling the movie character of Bernard (Jeff Daniels) as a father.

An utterly irredeemable shit, Bernard as played by Daniels is an incessantly petty, pompous, juvnile and egomaniacal novelist. He takes out all of his frustration and anger at failing to get his latest work published on his wife and children. He lusts after his young female students, and brags to his sons that he's had the opportunity to bed numerous such co-eds in his time. He fired his former writing agent, we're told, because the man made a disparaging comment about The Knicks.

A film that's attempting to look, up close, at the dissolution of a family, The Squid and the Whale pretty quickly becomes an examination of a perfectly awful individual and how he ruins the sanity and well-being of all those around him. I've seen Daniel's performance praised in print repeatedly since the film opened last fall, and it's certainly a funny and memorable turn, but I'm not sure Bernard is, in fact, a believable or nuanced character. He's a bit too one-note to really seem like a fit for the rest of Baumbach's carefully-observed and painstakingly-recreated 1980's Brooklyn. Like a cartoon monster trapped in real-life Tokyo, Bernard clashes with his surroundings immediately - a hyperbole of narcissism within a film that's otherwise muted and dry.

For reasons both obvious and well-hidden, Bernard's wife Joan (Laura Linney) has decided to leave him. They move to separate houses and agree to trade off custody of their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, of Roger Dodger) and Frank (Owen Kline, Phoebe Cates' and Kevin Kline's son), on alternating days. The film mainly concerns itself with the fallout of this change in living situations, particularly in how it affects the mental stability and outlooks of Walt and Frank.

At first, the boys choose sides, with Walt placing the fault at the feet of his mother while the more emotional Frank seems almost afraid of Bernard's intensity. To his credit, Baumbach keeps things pretty subtle and realistic, at least as far as the boys reactions go. There aren't a lot of screaming temper tantrums and heart-to-heart mother-child dialogues. Instead, he seems to understand that these Big Problems integrate themselves with the daily business of living, how they pepper the kid's thoughts in the background while they go about their lives at school and home.

It's just...well...I can't help but think the story would have more resonance if Bernard weren't such a monster. The title (which directly references a display at the Natural History museum showing a large whale and squid battling for supremacy) indicates the presence of these TWO giants in the boys' lives - their mother and father - and the tug-of-war that ensues when the family splits up. But the dynamic of a squid in the whale indicates a binary opposition - the boys are pulled between two equal forces, Mom and Dad.

But in reality, Bernard kind of dominates the conversation. Sure, Joan has her faults too. Bernard confesses to Walt early on that his wife cheated on him, a few times, and one of Daniel's few moments in the film that could be considered genuinely human finds him looking hurt while castigating his wife for infidelity. (Of course, rather than tell her how much he cares about her, or how she made him feel, he references how the infidelity was personally "humiliating.") And Joan confesses to Walt that she's aware of her unfortunate tendency to say things in ways that make her son uncomfortable.

But still, this is not a fair fight. Any child would have no choice but to side with Mom on this one, what with Dad dropping the veal cutlets on the ground before serving them, molesting his students in the house and gloating after kicking your ass at ping pong. So what begins as a movie about the effects of divorce on kids - how it makes them question their own identity and their place in the world - becomes a character study about a particularly egregious asshole.

The thing's definitely worth seeing, however, for the highly amusing Daniels performance alone. As well, I really enjoyed Robert Yeoman's cinematography. He shoots all of Wes Anderson's films (Wes is an executive producer on the movie, and Baumbach co-wrote his Life Aquatic in 2004), and his bright, kinetic work here recalls one of the previous highlights in his extensive filmography - Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy.

The performance, the cinematography and even a great classic rock-heavy soundtrack just aren't enough to tip this over into the unequivocal success column. At least, for me. Considering that the movie can't even hit 80 minutes, I don't think I'm out of line calling it a bit slight. Brisk and entertaining, sure, but just a bit thin for a feature. I fully expected an extra 10 or 15 minutes at the end there, possibly an attempt to give Bernard a little more depth. As it is, it's just a nice, occasionally funny movie about an extremely horrible individual wrecking havoc on the lives of his so-called "loved ones."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Derailed comes to us from screenwriter Stuart Beattie, whose last script was the wonderfully crisp and dialouge-heavy Collateral. That film kind of fell apart in the final half-hour, but it was an uncommonly intelligent and character-driven Hollywood thriller, the rare mainstream action film that spends more time worrying about the people who drive the action, rather than how many explosions and car chases they will wind up in.

Here, Beattie tries a number of the same tricks over again. As in Collateral, this is a thriller that opens deceptively with a long, flirty conversation between strangers, establishing a theme and a mood long before gettig into an actual story. As in the previous film, violent mayhem begins by sneaking around the edges of the frame until it comes to dominate all the primary relationships. (Each film, in, fact, has a "shock" moment where one of the good guys is randomly and suddenly killed off on-screen). Finally, in both films, lead characters are forced to turn their tables on their attackers, shifting subtly from reactive civilians into take-charge action heroes.

Michael Mann's Collateral navigates these waters with precision and confidence, turning Beattie's sometimes-goofy script into a taut L.A. noir. Derailed doesn't have a director with Mann's level of talent and experience (the director is Swedish newcomer Mikhail Hafstrom), and also lacks a premise as high-concept and cogent as Mann's film. Instead, it's a fairly limp erotic thriller in the Adrian Lyne vein (particularly similar to that director's overpraised Unfaithful). The opening half-hour is appealing enough, bouyed by the extremely likable leads Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston. But it's clear from just about the exact moment the plot kicks in that this will be a plodding, uninteresting piece of nastiness, a surprisingly dark, grim thriller that's equal parts pedestrian and predictable.

Charles Schine (Owen) rides the train to work every day from the Chicago suburbs to his downtown advertising office. One day, after forgetting to bring enough money for a ticket, he makes the acquaintance of beautiful banking executivre Lucinda Harris (Aniston). They hit it off immediately, and after a few mornings of train-bound banter, they decide to meet up in the city for a one-night stand.

And it's during their tryst in a skeezy hotel room that they encounter Phillippe LaRoche( Vincent Cassel), a psychotic thug who beats Charles into submission, rapes Lucinda and makes off with their personal information so that he can harrass them later on at home.

So this sets up a classic noir kind of dilemma. Charles can't tell the police about Phillippe without letting his wife and Lucinda's husband know about the affair. And Phillippe knows this, so of course he wants to use the edge to blackmail his victims. These conflicts will drive the remainder of the film.

It's a very simple idea, which in a lot of these kinds of films can be a good thing. A simple scenario helps to keep up the level of intensity. A lot of sub-plots and side characters only tend to make these movies more confusing, not more exciting. But I'm tempted to say that Derailed is a bit too simple and straight-forward. The story rarely deviates from its pre-set, routine course (any question as to whether Phillippe will show up at Charles' house and threaten his family?). When it does kind of mix things up, as in a strange sub-plot featuring rapper The RZA as an ex-con who comes to Charles' aid, it's usually an elaborate red herring, pointless in the grand scheme of the story.

An extra word about The RZA, who's actually alright in the small role of Winston, the well-read former jailbird. He's one of two rappers featured in major roles in the film. (Xzibit also appears in a supporting turn as a thug). 2 rappers in the film, and both of them play criminals. Couldn't, just once, a rapper appearing in a mainstream film play some other kind of role? Just once? Snoop Dogg plays these "amusing felon" roles so often, he could teach classes on it at Stella Adler.

Really, all my other problems aside, this entire film is about the final twist. Actually, there are two "final twists," one coming at about the 90 minute mark and the next about 15 minutes later. I'm tempted to say that a viewer's entire opinion on the film will probably work around their impression of these two twists. If, as I did, you saw them coming a mile away, you probably won't think Derailed is a very good film. But if you get caught up enough in the story to overlook its predictability, or if you're unable to guess exactly how Charles is going to work it all out, then maybe you'll have a good time.

It still needs to be sexier, though, to really be successful as an erotic thriller. (Also, and maybe it's just me, but a movie in which the female lead is raped by a thug before she has a chance to get involved with the main character is going to have a hard time actually being a sexy movie.)