Friday, June 16, 2006

If This Votes A-Rockin', Don't Bother Knockin'

If you've noticed a downturn in the number of political posts on Crushed by Inertia, you really should get a life beyond reading this blog. But nonetheless, you'd be more or less accurate. I find that I have fewer and fewer sarcastic things to say about the news as it gets increasingly dire and hallucinatory. I know that our political system has always, at least during my lifetime, been teetering on the cusp of total insanity. But I think some time during the last 3.5 years, we went completely over the cliff, shattering every last bone in our bodies on the rocky crags of Lovecraftian horror-madness below.

It started slowly. Weird fringe beliefs - apocalyptic fantasies, long-simmering regional prejudices, eliminationism - were suddenly finding their way into major newspapers and cable TV shows. There was a time, 9 years ago, when Ann Coulter was fired from MSNBC for slandering veterans:

Kurtz also told Extra! that MSNBC had confirmed that Coulter was let go after making such a comment to a disabled Vietnam veteran.

In the MSNBC NewsChat segment, in which Coulter debated Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, her exact words to the paralyzed veteran were: "No wonder you guys lost."

She was interrupting Muller's point about the role that landmines played in the Vietnam War: "In 90 percent of cases that U.S. soldiers got blown up--Ann, are you listening?--they were our own mines."

Today, she says far more offensive things than that, specifically denying the heroic veteran status of guys like John Murtha and Max Cleland and John Kerry, as well as, disgustingly, denying the authenticity of the grief of 9/11 widows.

And not only does she appear on MSNBC, she's Jay Leno's invited guest on The Tonight Show! On regular ol' NBC. Why on Earth would NBC want to have Coulter on a nightly entertainment show? She's about as entertaining as...well, as Jay Leno. I guess they've got me there.

(I, for one, was disappointed that Coulter's fellow guest, George Carlin, didn't say anything to her about her hateful brand of rhetoric. She's exactly the kind of brain-dead sycophantic TV talking head that Carlin attacks frequently in his stand-up. I think the George Carlin of 20 years ago would have said something...But I guess he felt it wasn't an appropriate venue. Maybe she'll come on his next HBO special.)

You see my point. The whole nature of public debate in America has changed. The tenor of the entire thing. When I did team debate in high school, the issues taken up were controversial "public issues of the day." And it was always important stuff - immigration, universal health care, China's Favored Nation Status. But we never debated the sort of issues that come up today. It seemed like, certain things were just understood, certain bedrock American principles respected, and then lets argue about the smaller things about which the Constitution is not fully clear. Like abortion and euthanasia and welfare.

There are some Bush II-era disturbances that have seemingly upset this delicate balance on a more permanent level. That just denigrate our national conversation, remove a lot of the dignity this country has managed to somehow preserve after decades of inept, vicious and greedy foreign policy. Here's a short list:

(1) The "unitary executive" theory: I can't think of a larger threat to American democracy than the President claiming to be above the law and the seat of all governmental power. The President can't create the law single-handedly and can't operate above the law. I shouldn't have to tell anyone that this was the entire point of the country in the first place. It's almost as if no one remembers their Montesquieu!

But it's not only that Bush as King violates everything American about America. It's that he's using this power to undermine the very fabric of our society, and no one seems able to stop him even though the people kind of know what's going on by now.

How, you may ask, is he undermining the very fabric of our society? Well, let me just skip ahead to:

(2) Torture: See, this shouldn't even be on the table. We've kind of agreed, all of us civilized people, that torture is bad. In fact, however hypocritically, the United States has historically spoken out against torture on an international level. We kind of scold other countries, like China and Russia, who still brutalize their own citizenry. The fact that we're now openly torturing people, and a lot of Americans are speaking up in favor of the practice (or at least willingly turning a blind eye), means we've already lost this war. I don't care how many "al-Qaida leaders" you guys want to blow up, the fact that the whole world's seen us dragging around terrified bloody Muslim guys means we lose. We're officially worse than the 9/11 hijackers to the rest of the world. That was one day five years ago. We've been doing this horrible shit ever since.

I think torture's one of those things that makes good people turn away from being politically aware altogether. If our government can just decide to start torturing people, and there's nothing we can do, why bother voting or seeking out real news and information? Doesn't actively participating in the political process make you complicit in some way in these crimes?

But torture isn't the thing that keeps most people away from the polls. I know, that's still laziness and a generally disaffected attitude. Also, this next item:

(3) Rigged elections: If you can't convince people that their vote will be counted fairly, they won't bother to vote. I mean, this makes me want to give up, too. From Skippy the Bush Kangaroo:

the brad blog keeps digging up more and more people who are questioning the results of california 50 race, where francine busby lost by a mere 4000 votes to bilbray. the fact that most of the diebold election machines were taken home and stored in cars and garages overnight before the election might have something to do with people's questions.

Did you just read that? The voting machines were stored in individual's cars and garages? Can you fucking imagine?

I work in a store. I've never once taken the safe home with me for the night, for storage purposes. Do any of you who work with sensitive materials during the day bring them with you at night in your freakin' car? Any engineers taking your work home with you? Hey, it's only top-secret plans for a new radar system. What could go wrong? Just throw it anywhere, I'll deal with it tomorrow!

As Bill Paxton would say, "Game over, man! Game over!" One the elections are just assumed to be fraudulent, you've got yourself a despotic regime, my friend. Have fun with that. If anyone wants me, I'll be sneaking across the Mexican border, to a nation where at least the drug laws make sense.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

President Bush Sinks a Bit Deeper Into Senility

Is this guy a world leader or a cartoon character? I mean, in this exchange with the Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten, we're talking Clouseau-like levels of buffoonery here...

Bush: You gonna ask your question with shades on?
Wallsten: Yes...
Bush: But there's no sun out here.
Wallsten: It depends on your perspective.
Bush: Touché.

Wallsten is blind. Oops.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold

A few years back, I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse play at the Greek Theater here in Los Angeles. I didn't even realize, to be honest, that Neil had a new album coming out. I just saw that they were coming through town and figured that my brother, father and I would probably enjoy going to check them out, as we're all fans of their 70's brand of jammy blues rock as featured on albums like Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

It turns out, Neil did have a new project - the themed Greendale LP - and proceeded to perform the album in its entirety, along with live actors and elaborate sets, as the main set of the concert. My reaction was mixed. Though I think the Greendale songs are overall pretty good, and the band sounds great, and seeing a theme album acted out by Russ Tamblyn (seriously!) and others was kind of a trip...I would have still rather seen a greater variety of Neil Young songs from random albums throughout his extensive and impressive career.

He did do a really ripping encore that included most of the "live" half of the Rust Never Sleeps album, so I didn't go home disappointed. This is just how Neil operates. He assembles a group of musicians he knows, records an album and then takes that same band around the country to play the songs for live audiences. It seems to have worked well enough so far.

Weakened with age and health concerns (he had recently been diagnosed with an operable brain aneurysm), Neil gathered together some of his favorite long-time collaborators to record the wistful, occasionally maudlin country album, Prairie Wind. Jonathan Demme's superior concert film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, combines footage shot over two nights at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, with Neil and his fellow Prairie Wind musicians showcasing the album's songs and dipping into his back catalog. The DVD came out yesterday and is mandatory viewing for any fans of Neil Young or country-rock in general.

Demme previously shot the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, quite possibly my favorite concert film of all time. (Although that's tough to say, because Monterey Pop and The Last Waltz and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars all make a strong case.) As in Stop Making Sense, Demme sacrifices some measure of energy and immediacy to give the viewer a real sense of the meaning and significance of this performance. In his previous film, the idea wasn't so much to make you feel as if you too were in the crowd watching Dave Byrne in his oversized suit as it was to capture the esesence of this band, to document why, at that moment, it was worthwhile to pay attention to "Girlfriend is Better" instead of some other, more radio-friendly number.

Similarly, I wouldn't neccessarily call Heart of Gold a "best seat in the house" kind of experience. It's more focused on Neil Young's personal journey, taking some time off from music before realizing, perhaps to his surprise, that he had something more to say. Demme attempts to use these two concerts as a description of the process of aging, how you hang on to the fascinations of your youth but continually adapt them to fit the preson you've become.

For Neil himself, it seems like the idea of collaborating with his old friends was more enticing than the actual act of making music. He's understandably excited to be back on stage at the venue that hosts the Grand Ole Opry, playing Hank Williams old guitar, with Emmy Lou Harris and his wife Pegi and guys like Grant Boatwright and Spooner Oldham and Larry Cragg, the man with perhaps the most appropriate last name of all time. Sometimes, the chummy good vibes are a bit too much, in fact. I could have done without a few of the mid-song smile exchanges between Neil and wife Pegi, who provides background vocals. I mean, come on, are you guys making a concert film or a wedding video here?

The music itself is pleasant enough, if a bit folksy for my tastes. Prairie Wind the album had some highlights, and they stand up really well in the live format, particularly the dreamily optimistic "It's a Dream." Of course, it's unintentionally ironic that, just as this performance appears on DVD, showing Neil's most laid-back, romantic side, a new album has just been released showcasing his tendency towards bitter, angry hard-rock. So it's nice, while watching something like the treacly empty-nest lament "Here for You," to remember that this guy can still write a blazing arena anthem called "Let's Impeach the President."

After the Prairie Wind segment, the band performs a number of Neil's classic countrified selections, including "Old King" and "Harvest Moon." Though I've grown to appreciate Neil Young over the years, I never liked him as a child when my Dad would put on his music. "Old King" is the one song that I still can't really stand, lo these many years later. It's just so lame and, I'm sorry, really artificial. I usually find Neil's attempts to adopt the cowboy persona kind of charming, but that song just ain't workin' fer me. Plus, the plinkity-plink guitar refrain annoys the crap out of me. For all you songwriters out there, "Old King" has one valuable lesson:

Never begin a song with the line: "I had a dog and his name was King." It makes it sound like your song was written as a 5th grade in-class assignment.

Neil also solos on "Needle and the Damage Done," which is a great song but kind of clashes with the honeyed sentimentality of the rest of the setlist. Regardless, with the surround sound bumping in my living room, it all sounded great.

But what impressed me just as much as the musicianship was the filmmaking. It's just shot and edited so seamlessly and so handsomely realized, full of Demme's patented tight close-ups and strange, akimbo angles. You're forced to pay attention to the melancholy behind the songs rather than focusing on Young's occasionally Hallmark-esque lyricism.

I just have one final concern...What the hell is going on with Emmylou Harris? A few years ago, at like the Johnny Cash funeral and those performances with Elvis Costello, she looked fine. But did she have some bad plastic work done in the interim? Or was she in some kind of car accident? She looks scary. (That's her on Neil's right. To his left is his wife, Pegi Young.)

And here's a better look at her, close-up, just so you all get what I'm talking about here...

When this woman, who appeared to be aging quite gracefully, become The Joker? And why wasn't I informed?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Pit of Ultimate Darkness

A few years ago, I got into a heated argument about the comedian Ray Romano. Not about whether or not he's funny. I think we all can agree that he's not. It was about whether or not it would suck to be Ray Romano. In all honesty, I feel some measure of pity for that guy.

Sure, you have a lot of money, but the rich guy thing gets old pretty quickly. I think. I mean, I wouldn't know from experience...If I have enough money left over at the end of the week to get the double Fatburger instead of just the regular, it's a delightful surprise. Seriously, it's an ugly scene in my checking account. My current financial picture looks like it was painted by Francis Bacon.

But just from observations I've made working and living in some high-class communities, most rich people aren't any more satisfied with life than their middle-to-lower class counterparts. My theory is that, basically, once you have enough money to live with a reasonable level of comfort - in a decent neighborhood without having to work two jobs and never having to seriously worry about putting food on the table - you've topped out at money-related happiness. The extra millions on top tend you make you spoiled, paranoid, miserly and ultimately empty inside unless you're particularly good at remaining level-headed and grounded.

So I doubt Ray Romano's many many millions of dollars give him much comfort. And sure, he's got a lot of fans. But the guy's basically a joke. No one will take him seriously at anything he wants to do ever again. No one wants to see him act any more, that's for certain. He and Kevin James have a movie debuting on DVD this month in which they play traveling meat salesmen. It could be the next Welcome to Mooseport! And Ray was once kind of cool, so it's not like he's just some yokel satisfied with getting famous off a mediocre comedy product. He was on "Dr. Katz" so many times, he was practically a cast member, and some of his old HBO half-hours or whatever were actually kind of funny.

It's a sad story...He still goes around doing stand-up comedy tours, but let's face it, his popularity has already peaked. If I were Ray Romano, I'd sit around and feel sorry for myself. Most people never get a chance to realize their dreams. They get to have that illusion, that unrealized fantasy of fame and wealth and noteriety. But Ray's already lived the dream, he's literally done everything a young comic would ever want to do...and now he's got memories and a nice house and all the time in the world. Yikes.

Like a failed "American Idol" contestant. Most shitty singers go through their whole lives thinking that they didn't make it because they never got that break. It just didn't happen for them. But Ryan Starr doesn't get to feel that way. Sure, she got a few other reality show gigs out of it, a bit part in a Skinemax movie or whatever. She's probably richer than she otherwise would have been. But she knows that she's not famous any more because Americans just don't like her. We had a chance, got to know her personality a bit and then mutually decided that she wasn't good enough to be notable. Yet we continue to obsess over Nicole Ritchie! It can't be a good feeling.

Maybe it's a pessimistic world view, but for a lot of ambitious people, I get the odd feeling that success is a losing proposition. Ray Romano won the game of life, he hit the Hollywood jackpot. Long-running syndicated massively popular sitcom. Seriously, if you ever get a chance to get into some gig on a long-running sitcom...just know the money's really great in that field.

But when I see Ray Romano on television, I don't think, "Oh, there's that delightful Ray Romano. What an inspiration to us all!" I think, "Ugh, this guy sucks, change the channel."

Which brings us to Karl Rove.

Having once again managed to dodge the painful and very public comeuppance that's been chasing him for years, Karl Rove will not suffer legal consequences for the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. How disappointing. I was hoping for swift, severe justice for Mr. Rove, possibly involving a lengthy stay at Guantanamo and definitely involving the participation of TV's "Cops" reality program. (Or, if they are unavailable, the cast and crew of "Reno 911.")

How does he do it? Karl's not just one of the most evil men in America, but unlike his fellow villains, he's defiantly unsubtle about being evil. He kind of reminds me of Kevin McDonald's old character, Sir Simon Milligan, from the old "Kids in the Hall" show, who hosted a talk show devoted to villainy along with his manservant, Hecubus. So, in this scenario, Karl Rove would be Sir Simon and George Bush would be Hecubus, played on TV by the hilarious Dave Foley.

ROVE: Oh, manservant Bush?
BUSH: Yes, master.
ROVE: How many of our secret illegally-detained political prisoners did you kill today?
BUSH: None, master.
ROVE: None! You call yourself an evil manservant?
BUSH: I made sure that three of them killed themselves!
ROVE: Eeeeeeeeeeevil!

Rove just represents a slightly different example of the same Romano phenomenon. Here's a guy who always wanted to be a political operative. And not only did he succeed in rising to the top of the Republican Party, but he has ushered in a new era in American politics based on his own crooked, irredeemable design. Could even the self-aggrandizing Mr. Rove how much success he'd have impugning the characters of political opponents and rigging elections?

So here he is, working with perhaps the most powerful and corrupt political administration in American history, getting off scott-free after publicly smearing a diplomat by leaking secret information about his wife's activities with the CIA...and yet he's a laughing stock, a figure of public disdain and ridicule, and one of the most hated men in America.

Maybe Karl doesn't care about being despised as long as he never has to go to jail, but I sure wouldn't want to swtich places with Karl Rove. Not only because I wouldn't be able to live with myself, knowing that I was directly responsible for the numerous daily crimes of the Bush administration all over the world. But because the combination of extreme fame and a dastardly reputation wouldn't be a lot of fun if you ever wanted to go outside or do anything.

See what I mean? Today he's the big winner, but in another way, every day he wakes up and still has to be Karl Rove. Poor bastard.

The Clod Squad

The only explanation I can come up with for this photo is that Orlando Bloom has slipped Claire Danes a mickey.

Maybe she just had to get really tanked to go out spend an entire evening with Orlando Bloom. I needed to do some heavy drinking just to get through Elizabethtown, and that's only two hours long. An entire social affair must feel like a cryogenic hypersleep voyate to Jupiter.

Why's he looking at the photographer like he's never seen a camera before, by the way? Perhaps he's just wondering how he's going to steal the film, so no one will have evidence that he's drugging popular starlets before taking them home and giving them a right proper rogering?

Running Scared

The quote on the front of the Running Scared DVD reads "It makes Kill Bill look like Sesame Street." As Quentin Tarantino himself might say, that's a bold statement. It's also fairly inaccurate, in that Running Scared and Kill Bill share only the most superficial of qualities - a delight in flamboyant violence and a densely-packed international cast of thugs who cuss like sailors. Wayne Kramer's crime thriller far more closely resembles another Tarantino-scripted genre piece, the Tony Scott-directed True Romance.

In fact, the Scott comparison, overall, is far more accurate. Kramer cribs many of his favored camera tricks and set-ups directly from Scott, particularly the recent T.S. epics Man on Fire and Domino. Add in a touch of Guy Ritchie's gangster riffs and a dash of David Fincher's steely, fluid eye candy and you've good a decent sense for the visuals in Kramer's feature. Like all those movies, Running Scared is a frenetic, adrenaline-fueled journey through a seedy, corrupt circle of sociopathic criminals occupying a crude, nihilistic universe of endless cruelty.

Though it's never as sly or fun as Lock, Stock, I will say that the movie's far more enjoyable than Scott's recent work (or, really, anything he's done since True Romance.) Kramer's aesthetic sense may not extend far beyond what other "hip" directors have already done, but his writing is sharp, occasionally very funny and best of all unexpected. The story of low-level mobster Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) and his overnight search for a hot pistol always manages to find a new spin on this old-fashioned material. The result, at 121 minutes, gets a bit tiring by the end, but always remained watchable and even a bit disarming. An overall more enjoyable experience than I expected by a good measure.

I'll dance around the plot a bit, because most of the fun of the film is slowly realizing just how far Kramer's going to push these dire, grisly scenarios. What begins as a straight-forward chase movie - with Joey's own compatriots, a crooked cop (Chazz Palminteri) and the Russian Mafia all gunning for him after he loses a vital piece of evidence - develops into a crushing, dark night of the soul that comes to seem inescapable.

After a dizzying opening scene, in which Joey and his partners are held up by corrupt cops in ski masks, Kramer takes his time in developing his haunted, miserable characters. Joey and his beautiful but hard wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) are raising their son Nick (Alex Neuberger) in a rough neighborhood. Nick's best friend, Oleg (Cameron Bright, who plays the kid in Birth and X-Men: The Last Stand and every other goddamn movie that doesn't already feature Dakota Fanning) lives right next door with his former Moscow prostitute mother (Ivana Milicevic) and vile, abusive stepfather (Karel Roden).

Roden's character exudes pure malice and tips you off early what kind of scenarios will follow. A maniac who worships John Wayne in between beating his wife and burning his stepson, he will eventually be transformed into a sympathetic character. (You may remember Milicevic, by the way, from her appearance on "Seinfeld," in which she played the beautiful wife of the pro shop clerk who sold Jerry an expensive racket and then turned out to stink at tennis. I kept thinking about this during the movie, which was kind of distracting, but not really Milicevic or Kramer's fault).

Complications arise after Oleg shoots his stepfather with Joey's gun, the same pistol used to murder police officers earlier that day. Oleg takes off, and of course Joey has to find him before anyone else, so he can reclaim the evidence and make this whole unfortunate situation disappear. Otherwise, it's lights out for our anti-hero.

Kramer rides this simple premise for all its worth. I was reminded in an odd way of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, a movie that developed a charming comic universe out of the most straight-forward of scenarios. Running Scared is certainly not the same heedless, silly good time kind of movie, but it does build up an impressive number of strange, beguiling sequences.

A few elements I particularly appreciated:

- Kramer actually gives Joey's wife Teresa some stuff to do. For a while, the movie actually uses them as dual protagonists, cutting back and forth as Joey goes after the missing gun and Teresa hunts down the missing boy. Teresa's adventure in particular kind of steals the whole film, and would work just as well divorced from the larger story as a short film. Farmiga's really terrific in these scenes, turning this woman whom we've previously seen only as a dutiful wife and mother into a ferocious vigilante. She'll next appear in Martin Scorsese's The Departed, so apparently she's already on to bigger and better things.

- None of the characters fall back on obvious cliches. Even the Italian mobsters, possibly the most difficult kinds of characters to provide distinctive personalities at this point, feel a bit more natural and complete than usual. When in doubt, Krmaer just makes someone stand out by being brutally insane, which tends to keep you on your toes.

- Appropriately for its subject matter, the movie is violent. And not just in a "lots of people get shot" way. In a Verhoeven-esque splatterhouse kind of way. Many of the film's primary relationships revolve purely around violence - a guy will walk up to another guy and just start beating the shit out of him. There's so many gushing arterial sprays, the fake blood guy deserves billing above the title. Fortunately, the violent scenes are creative, with Kramer attempting to seek out new ways to crush skulls that haven't already appeared in 100 similar movies. Whether or not he fully succeeds is open to debate, but you've got to give it up to the guy for trying.

I fear we're reaching the breaking point for this whole branch of the crime genre. These quirky hard-edged darkly comic ensemble gangster stories just don't have the shock value or spark of originality they did when Pulp Fiction was playing Cannes. To get the same effect as the 90's incarnations, Kramer has to go way way way over the top. As I said, I appreciate the effort, and he comes up with a film that's really watchable and sporadically really enjoyable. It certainly puts the tired Layer Cake to shame. And I didn't even hate Paul Walker as much as usual, so he's doing something right. But it will take a lot more than some snazzy scene transitions and shotgun blasts to the chest to revitalize this particular strain of movies. Sidelong Tarantino references may not be totally out of line, but I'm not exactly ready to declare this guy next-in-line for the King Geek title just yet.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

You Know Who Else is a Black Star?

In the post immediately below this one, I really let Mos Def have it for his irritating performance in 16 Blocks. As I say in that column, Mos' turn as Eddie Bunker clashes with the rest of the movie. He feels ridiculous, over-the-top and out of place.

After tonight, I may be ready completely reverse my opinion. Now, what you're about to read is a theory, only a theory. But if I'm correct, 16 Blocks might just represent the greatest subversive counter-cultural attack by a mainstream artist in at least a decade. If not more.

But now I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back in time a little bit to the year 1935. Much like in the Hollywood of today, studios banked on popular film franchises to draw audiences to theaters. One such series featured Swedish actor Warner Oland as Chinese detective Charlie Chan, operating out of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Though based entirely around oversized "exotic Chinaman" tropes, wearing silly slant-eye make-up and dispensing faux-Oriental proverbs constantly, Oland's Chan isn't as offensive as you might expect. Chan is always seen as intelligent and capable, and operates on the same level as the aristocratic white characters. This doesn't forgive the lapses into racism, of course, but it does keep the film a bit more palattable and less pernicious than some other examples of 1930's cinematic stereotyping.

Far more unsettling is the performance of Stepin Fetchit as "Snowshoes," an African-American servant who has migrated to Egypt. Yikes. The character fulfills just about every venemous, hateful prejudice held by whites against blacks throughout American history. He's lazy. He's extremely stupid. He's cowardly. He's horny and out of control around women. He's amotivational and inclined to drink and use drugs to excess. And he speaks in a long, slow drawl slurring together all his words, which he explains away as a Mississippi accent but which sounds more like the early stages of a stroke.

There are two ways, I suppose, to see Fetchit's performance in this film, which is almost exactly like his supporting turns in all his 20's and 30's projects. One would be to view the performance directly, calling it as it appears. Fetchit made a lot of money and won his fame by portraying the worst lies about his people, depicting himself as a child-like stooge, helpless without his white masters. (White characters speak to Snowshoes as one would a dog. "Go give this to Miss Arnold! Get out of here, you!")

But there have been other arguments made about Fetchit's turns in these films. Rather than playing a bug-eyed simpleton like other black caricatures in films at the time (as in Raoul Wash's dreadful High Sierra), Fetchit's characters exist in a world of their own. Is this really just slothful idiocy, or is there an intelligence working behind the scenes, using the appearance of idiocy to foil white oppressors? Some have suggested that Fetchit's antics were designed to make him less servile, not more. Whereas a typical submissive black character, an "Uncle Tom," would just do what he's told all the time, a somewhat more wily black character, a "Coon," might feign ignorance bordering on retardation as a way of avoiding the worst kinds of humiliation.

Of course, this is not my theory. It's even included with the guy's IMDB biography, and Kevin Smith played with the notion with his character of Hooper X in Chasing Amy (who, you'll recall, has written a comic book called White Hating Coon.) Plenty hae argued that Stepin Fetchit (real name: Theodore Perry) was quietly subversive and ahead of his time.

But I think I'm the first one to say the same about Mos Def in 16 Blocks. It took watching Charlie Chan in Egypt for me to realize how much of his performance Mos based around Stepin Fetchit. There's the slurred, difficult to understand manner of speech coupled with an inane chattiness. The wide-eyed naivete coupled with cowardice (at least, in comparison to all the macho white men in the movie). The big goofy grin, the child-like sense of hopefulness, the gangly physical comedy. It's all there.

And then I thought about the actual role Eddie Bunker plays within the larger film. He's a prop, a pawn in the midst of an important battle between white men. David Morse leads a team of crooked cops from which Bruce Willis is a defector, and these two fight it out with the actual criminal in question, Mos Def, just kind of awkwardly hanging around. Several scenes feature Willis actually lugging Mos Def along through the movie as one would a duffel bag.

And though he's not a racist caricature in the 1930's style, he does fit the stereotypical contemporary profile of the "American black guy." Eddie's an ex-con, a product of the foster care system with a sister whom he's never met.

Is Mos Def commenting on this role he's been given or just falling into an unfortuante pattern? Is he really so sly, to play the part as a commentary on the shitty, stereotypical supporting roles forced on black actors? Something to consider...We're talking about an intelligent, historically conscious, literate guy here. A guy who's almost assuredly aware of Stepin Fetchict films and has probably watched a few.

Consider, also, this coincidence. Both 16 Blocks and the Charlie Chan Box Set come out on DVD this Tuesday. AND THAT'S NOT ALL Mos Def also appears in the fascinating and exceptionally entertaining documentary, Dave Chappelle's Block Party which also comes to DVD this week! Dante, are you trying to tell us something?

Aside from the scheduling, what makes Block Party particularly interesting are its insights into race and fame, the responsibilities and considerations and decisions forced on black men when they become rich celebrities.

In following around Dave Chappelle in the summer of 2005 (a few months before he wigged out, cancelled his massively popular Comedy Central show and fled the country), Michel Gondry captured not only a fun musical event, but a portrait of a man navigating the awkward and unfamiliar terrain of sudden fame and outsized expectations. He seems to sense that he'll be judged by how he reacts to new found significance and wants to be remembered as something besides the guy who said "I'm Rick James, bitch."

What exactly he wants to be remembered for is uncertain, as the only thing Block Party seems to set out to do is entertain, maybe expose some new people to some great music. At one point, Mos Def brings out Fred Hampton Jr. to discuss the legacy of the Black Panthers that feels odd and out of place in such a feel-good atmosphere.

(As well, I'm not certain as to the effectiveness of shouting the names of random political prisoners you'd like to see released. How about making an impassioned plea on behalf of one prisoner in particular? In the few minutes Hampton Jr. and Mos Def spend chanting, they could be speaking about a prisoner who's been wrongfully jailed. If the movie's a big hit, then potentially millions of people will hear your case!)

Taking what turned out to be an indefinite break from the pressures of creating hilarious television, Dave Chappelle organized a free surprise concert in Brooklyn featuring an all-star line-up of popular, thinking man's hip-hop. In addition to chart-topper Kanye West and a reunion of 90's mainstays The Fugees, the show features Common, Dead Prez, a Black Star reunion with Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Big Daddy Kane and The Roots.

(The Roots are always welcome at these sorts of shows, as far as I'm concerned, because live rap songs just sound better with a band.)

In one scene, Dave invites an older white woman from his neighborhood in Ohio to the concert, even offering to pay her way to New York. She says she doesn't like rap music. "But I like you!" she enthuses. Another lady who works behind the cash register at Dave's local convenience store confesses that she's always wanted to talk with him but has been too shy. Despite his best efforts, only a smattering of white people wind up at the concert, as Dave notes in a comedy bit before adding that there are even fewer Mexicans.

There's a lot of comedy, which is hit-and-miss. A long sequence finds Dave and Mos Def practicing a vaudevillian-style routine with Dave telling extremely old jokes. Some are funny, most aren't, but the whole thing just kind of goes on and on. I was expecting a concert film, but this is really more of a documentary. I would have liked a lot more footage of some of the sets, particularly Common, who is hardly even seen in the film, and Dead Prez, who seemed very interesting and whom I know nothing about. Even with the extended music option on the DVD, you only get to see a few complete songs out of the entire show.

I bring up Block Party at the end of this thing about Mos Def both because he's in the film and because race is constantly on Dave Chappelle's mind throughout the film. It's not neccessarily that he resents his fame or his new fans, but it does seem like he's tired of being shoehorned into one specific joke or show or idea. There's an undercurrent of fear, possibly that he'll be silenced or softened by Hollywood, that he'll lose himself to his Comic Persona. In one sequence, he gets really riled up talking about Dead Prez, and how their lyrics are too controversial and blunt to get on the radio.

"People don't want to hear that the White House is the crack house," he rants to the camera.

So, to offset the encroachment of big business into his comedy, he runs in the opposite direction. Not in terms of the size of the event, perhaps, as this project is not nearly small-time. There are some heavy hitters in attendance, and of course the whole thing is being filmed for a big-screen documentary film by the (white, French) guy who made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Jim Carrey. But it's certainly a personal project, something more about Dave Chappelle and his specific interests and opinions than a half-hour of sketch comedy.

By now, we know that this sort of side project wasn't enough to keep Chappelle satisfied, and he eventually left his post as America's Favorite Funnyman to go to South Africa and convert to some weird religion or something. As of right now, he's back and still doing stand-up comedy, as I understand, so hopefully he's found a way to keep the balance.

And now, we bring it back to 16 Blocks. What if Eddie Bunker is Mos Def's version of the Block Party? (Yes, I know he was at the actual block party, but bear with me here...) What if he's blowing off steam, satisfying himself with taking this nothing stupid role for a paycheck by letting anyone who's paying attention know that it's a ridiculous joke. He's stranded in this brain-dead cop thriller playing the Stepin Fetchit role, the defiant "coon" who refuses to play by the idiot rules of the white guy's genre.

I have no idea, I'd like to repeat, if that's really what he's doing. I'd certainly invite anyone else's thoughts on the subject.