Friday, June 23, 2006

Sean Hannity Blows Goats...I Have Proof...

Every once in a while, for no real good reason at all, I like to suggest that Sean Hannity enjoys sex with farm animals. It's this thing I do...

Obviously, I am joking. (Well, maybe it's not that obvious. With his small beady eyes and greasy hair, Sean Hannity does look like your garden-variety goat-baller.) But within my joke is a kernel of truth, no matter how small, rigid and unpopped. I'm trying, in my own satirical fashion, to suggest that Republicans constantly make baseless accusations against liberals, and it's a trap to get caught actually debating these issues.

Now, T. Rex has posted an incredibly succinct, absolutely essential must-read post on this very topic on Firedoglake. Go there right now and read it (and offer your condolences to head blogger and sometime Crushed by Inertia commenter Jane Hamsher, who lost her mother this week).

Imagine if Hannity were to go on TV tomorrow and, for a half hour, deny fondling hooved beasts for sexual pleasure. He'd look like a maniac. No one really believes that he got caught molesting goats. It's clear he's never been caught. The point is, if he responds to me, then I have the opportunity to set the terms of the discussion. We're talking about whether or not Sean Hannity achieves orgasmic release with the aid of animals.

This is exactly how Republicans make Democrats look all the time. They use this one trick over and over and over again. "Why do you hate the troops?" "How do you respond to attacks that you weren't really a hero in Vietnam?" "Does Michael Moore really hate America?" "Are you, in fact, anti-religion?"

The better way to handle this sort of nonsense isn't to calmly and intelligently respond. That's what I used to think. In high school, I would have told you that a good debater with a solid command of the facts who was on the side of truth and righteousness would wine very time. But that's not really true. Whoever arrives at the subject first wins every time because they force the other side into a defensive position, so long as they're willing to lie and paint the other side as evil and ignorant.

This is where, in my opinion, the Democrats always screw up. They're constantly going for coalitions, for further study to gain an understanding of problems, for investigations, for bi-partisan compromise solutions. That's not how you win any more. Maybe it was, once upon a time. But now, the secret is to stake out an eliminationist position early on.

Gay marriage?

ABSOLUTELY NO gay marriage! Anyone who wants to let gay guys marry wants to undermine the institution of marriage.

A timetable for withdrawl from Iraq?

ABSOLUTELY NO timetable. Anyone who wants to use a timetable wants to let the terrorists win! What, you like terrorists or something?

It doesn't make sense to try and debate on these terms, because they are insane terms. That's how you end up spending years arguing over whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction when there clearly aren't any weapons of mass destruction!

It makes more sense to just go on the attack. Here's TRex:

NEVER defend.

NEVER explain.


We have a reputation as a bunch of weak-kneed cowards because we keep trying to answer the charges against us and failing, because the charges simply aren’t true. You can’t defend yourself against baseless accusations. "Why don’t liberals support the troops?" is a question like, "When did you stop beating your wife?" Unanswerable, because it issues from a set of false precepts, and any attempt to answer it is going to be like, as my brother says, "boxing a turd". And that’s the number one lesson that we can take from the right wingers. They don’t waste their time answering our charges. Don’t dignify their charges with an answer. It’s time to seize the narrative, by force. Stop trying to justify yourself to those people. Treat them with contempt and disgust. Flick their accusations aside and then go for the jugular.

"Reverend Dobson, you’re afraid of homosexuals because of your own secret homosexual tendencies, aren’t you?"

"Ms Malkin, would it be fair to say that you hate immigrants because you yourself are an ‘anchor baby’ of immigrant parents?"

"Mr. Hinderaker, this discussion of the DHS is interesting, but what I really want to know is why your kids aren’t fighting in Iraq and supporting the troops in a meaningful way?"

Yes. Exactly. My only problem with TRex's approach is that all of these questions are based on truth. Ms. Malkin is a virulent critic of immigrants who was parented by immigrants. Mr. Dobson obsessively hates gay people in a very vocal and public way, which is almost always a mask for latent homosexuality.

I'd say the real way to fight back is to do what these loud-mouthed blowhards do, and just make up mean stuff. Who cares if it's discredited? Everything Sean Hannity has said for the past five years has been discredited. It doesn't matter. Truth has been replaced by truthiness.

Hopefully, if each side just continually lobs these sort of grenades at one another, the entire ludicrous farce will implode on itself and someone on television might start making sense again. I don't hold out a lot of hope for this ever happening, but then I'm not really an optimist.


An old Monty Python sketch featured the Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things, who in the course of a few minutes come to realize that their entire reason for existing is very silly and inconsequential. At the end of the sketch, the characters find themselves unable to leave the room.

"I have just discovered, gentlemen," Graham Chapman announces as club president, "that this entire room is surrounded by film."

It's a typical self-referential meta-Python moment. Of course the room is surrounded by film. We in the audience continue to watch them. The only way for the "characters" to be free of their burden is if we in the audience move on to the next piece (which, a moment later, we do via a Terry Gilliam animation segment).

That entire scene lasts maybe five minutes, and that includes a lot of goofy banter about placing things on top of other things. Michel Haneke takes about 2 hours to make essentially the same point, albeit on a grander scale and with a strong sense of 20th Century French History. It's not a bad film by any means, and much about Haneke's subtle technique is quite clever and sly. But in making his most easily accessible film to date, Haneke's definitely sacrificed some of the depth of films like The Piano Teacher and Code Unknown.

First things first...I don't think the central mystery of Caché actually has a solution, at least within the reality of the movie. We are presented some bits and pieces of evidence that, in a conventional film, would add up to some kind of logical pattern, but no matter how you approach them, they just don't fit together properly.

The film opens with a static shot, what looks like a surveillance shot, of a house. We back up to discover that this is not merely the first shot of Haneke's film, but is a videotape being viewed by Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Autiel and Juliette Binoche), the couple who live in the house with their 12 year old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). The only other clue provided is a crudely sketched, vaguely threatening drawing.

Right away, a few things become obvious. The man or woman making these tapes has some kind of supernatural abilities. He or she can sneak around Autiel while he is inspecting his front porch, leaving a tape and drawing for him in the door jamb without making a sound. He or she can stand on the street filming people without ever once being noticed. Finally, the cameraperson knows things about Georges' past, things almost no one else would be in a position to know. (There are many possible reasons for the title Caché, which means "hidden" in French, but I think it probably refers to the camera. It's always present, and its presence comes to dominate the movie, but it's never seen.)

Eventually, the surveillance will cause Georges and Anne to have mini nervous breakdowns. Georges, in the course of investigating the strange tape phenomenon, is forced to confront an ugly situation from his childhood, in which he wronged an orphaned Algerian boy. His paranoia and secrecy leads Anne to question the nature of their marital bond, and possibly even drives her into the arms of a family friend, Pierre (Daniel Duval). And what to make of the son, Pierrot? He runs away one night, seems bitterly angry with his parents for some reason, but never has any of his various issues or concerns resolved in the course of the film.

And then there's that last shot, a tricky little parting shot that seems to throw everything else in the film into question. In yet another static surveillance shot, this time outside a school building,
Haneke places a student front and center in the frame. Out of habit, we focus our eyes on this figure, even though they have no special significance. And all this time, in the upper left hand corner of the frame, odd meetings are taking place between characters who have no business even knowing one another.

I don't neccessarily think that this conversation right at the end changes anything, per se. As I said, the whole thing's too ridciulous to solve conventionally. I don't think there is a rational solution to who's making the tapes. (It's just not even possible, when you get right down to it.) But it gets back to what seems to be Haneke's larger concern, which is picking apart the psychological impulses at play when we watch movies. As in his previous features Funny Games and Benny's Video, Haneke gets at the nature of voyeurism and expectation. We watch films because we want to see things happen, and when they don't happen or they happen in a way we don't expect, our reactions can be extraordinarily telling.

For example, in the film, Georges hosts a weekly TV chat show about books. We cut early on to a shot of him filming the program. He says his farewell speech into the camera and then begins to talk with the other people on the panel with him, in the way all TV hosts do when they sign off at the end of the program. The difference is, we're watching a film, and yet we still don't get to hear the sound of what's being said on stage. Georges says his goodbye, the camera backs up, and we're in the same position as a TV viewer, seeing these people on stage address one another silently (presumably while credits would be rolling for a real TV viewer).

You notice this in watching the film. "Hey, why don't I get to hear what they're saying! I'm not watching this stupid book show, but a movie about Georges!" You feel entitled to this information as a viewer of the film...As a moviegoer, you grow accustomed to omnipotence.

I think it's safe to say that Haneke has inserted himself into this particular movie, that he's the one making the tapes. After all, many of his shots in the film that aren't actually sent to the Laurents as tapes are nonetheless shot in the same fashion. (One, in which we view an unpleasant memory from Georges' past, looks just like the surveillance shots but couldn't have been filmed without a time machine.) Often, it's hard to even tell if you're seeing surveillance video or just an establishing shot leading into the next scene.

But to put the point more poetically...Haneke has created this universe, and he created this issue in Georges' past, and he decided that it needed to be resolved for any of these characters to move forward. So he's then the author of the tapes, if only because, in this world, they needed to exist for these people to get together, for this incident to even be remembered.

When you figure in the French atrocities against the Algerians in a larger context, documented in the amazing and extremely timely film The Battle of Algiers, the movie takes on a strong political subtext. Could this really be more about a director trying to urge a nation towards confronting its past, taking the form of a movie about a mysterious stranger urging a man to face his childhood wrongdoing?

Okay, so that's all solid, thoughtful stuff and it's all in this film. And yet, I'm just not totally blown away. Really, it feels like an interesting synthesis of ideas already played out in the movies of Hitchcock, Lynch and Antonioni.

(David Lynch's Lost Highway was clearly a starting point for Haneke, providing both the starting premise - a couple receiving odd video tapes of their home in the mail - and the name Laurent, which was the name of Robert Loggia's character.)

It does, after a certain point, begin to kind of feel like film school wankery. Yes, it's so sly, implicating us in the audience by toying with our natural curiosity. But it's also kind of annoying. A small part of me, the part that favors relatable human stories as opposed to post-modern narrative experimentation, almost feels like Haneke's using these concepts as a crutch. Rather than have to do the emotional heavy-lifting of showing Anne and Georges' marriage falling apart, rather than exploring the genuine trauma that might have led to Pierrot's sullen attitude and angst, Haneke just dips into the Lacanian bag of tricks and emerges with a self-referential little mindfuck of a movie that seeks to confound and even frustrate as much as enlighten or entertain.

Monty Python managed to do that, plus get in a few boob jokes, make fun of the Scottish, reference Proust and still have time left over for Gilliam animations and guys in suits of armor hitting one another on the head with rubber chickens.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Rodents of Unusual Size? I Don't Think They Exist...

So vile are Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, they kind of steal the spotlight away from other right-wing radio assholes equally deserving of our scorn. For example, this Dennis Prager column from Townhall may just be the stupidest thing I have yet read in 2006.

Before I even get into the column, see if you can wrap your head merely around Prager's thesis:

He wonders aloud why liberals, in general, seem more concerned about global warming than conservatives.

One would think it's pretty easy to answer this question. If you want to know why liberals are concerned about global warming, just ask some of them. Or even go see Al Gore's new movie. Or read a newspaper article. And if you want to know why conservatives aren't concerned about global warming...well, just think about that for yourself, D.P. You're a conservative and you're not concerned about global warming. You must have a reason, right? Other than the fact that you want to hang on to this lucrative writing gig, surely a mere stepping stone on your path Maybe Ben Shapiro's apartment for warm Tang and microwavable taquitos (which we proud native English speakers call "zesty corn chip flavor wraps.")

Once you've considered both sides, simply compare and contrast. BAM! You've got yourself a column.

Unfortunately, this journalistic approach, in which two perspectives have been weighed and then a statement made about their relative validity and logical sense, wouldn't really play too well to the drooling yahoo readers of Townhall.

"I discovered something interesting. Liberals are afraid of global warming because it will create huge shifts in the delicately-balanced ecosystem that could cause a refugee problem, starvation and death on a previously unknown scale, threatening the very survival of our species. Conservatives aren't afraid of global warming because Big Powerful George Bush told them everything would work out alright because he's watching out for them and would never let the bad atmosphere do anything naughty. I mean, he's the Deciderer, so what's Nature going to do if he's already decideded to save America from global warming?"

Instead, Prager produces this piece of mindless dross about the Liberal Deficiencies that make them inherently afraid of global warming. Even though it's, like, totally made up or something.

The usual liberal responses -- to label a conservative position racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic or the like -- obviously don't apply here. So, liberals would have to fall back on the one remaining all-purpose liberal explanation: "big business." They might therefore explain the conservative-liberal divide over global warming thus: Conservatives don't care about global warming because they prefer corporate profits to saving the planet.

But such an explanation could not explain the vast majority of conservatives who are not in any way tied into the corporate world (like this writer, who has no stocks and who, moreover, regards big business as amoral as leftists do).

Before I even get into the real meat of Prager's piece, he makes a few completely bogus assumptions right here in the opening paragraphs that must be cleared up. Issues like global warming can not be simplified into binary oppositions. Politicians may have aligned on this issue according to party lines, but that's because they are nearly all corrupt liars more interested in keeping their jobs than in honesty or the future of their nation. Individual Americans have their own opinions about the environment, near as I can tell, and it's not always as easy as pinpointing their spot on the political spectrum.

I'm sure there are plenty of liberals who find the threat of global warming overblown. Likewise, I'm certain there are conservatives worried about the environment and the future of our species and the threat of carbon dioxide emissions to our habitat. The only reason to transform the diverse American electorate's opinions on this matter into a black-or-white party-line vote is because you want to make this a partisan issue. "If you're a conservative, you don't care about global warming. Okay? Everybody got that? Cause I won't mention it again."

Also, Dennis assumes that people accuse conservatives of being sexist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic (which covers being an Islamaphobe, making Dennis' paragraph redundant) to earn political points. But no politicians or staunch Democratic partisans ever say stuff like this about conservatives. Outspoken progressive writers and activists and bloggers do. And they're not trying to make political hay out of these issues. They genuinely think conservatives are racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic bigots. (I know I do...)

Finally, Dennis assumes that the use of anecdotal evidence in a column about global warming has any meaning at all. "Well, I don't like big companies and I don't believe in global warming. So there!" What an asshole.

No, the usual liberal dismissals of conservatives and their positions just don't explain this particularly illuminating difference between liberals and conservatives.

This is the one line in Dennis' column with which I fully agree. (Well, this and the byline. I have no doubt Dennis Prager really wrote this stupid piece of shit.) I would say this is a particularly illuminating difference between two ways of seeing the world. Those who see what they want to see because the big strong Cowboy in Command told them so and those proud few Americans who continue to embrace reality. It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to ignore the opinions of every scientist and expert in a given field and then to write a column explaining why everyone else is screwed up.

So now Dennis goes into the body of his column, in which he advances The Top Six "Explanations" for Why Liberals are Afraid of Global Warming. From the home office in Sioux City, Iowa. ("Because it's happening," unfortunately, doesn't make the cut, nor do any jokes about Joey Buttafuoco.)

The Left is prone to hysteria. The belief that global warming will destroy the world is but one of many hysterical notions held on the Left.

As Amanda at Pandagon rightfully points out, no one believes global warming will destroy the world. Many believe that it will cause the human race untold amounts of suffering. Big dif.

As noted in a previous column devoted to the Left and hysteria, many on the Left have been hysterical about the dangers of the PATRIOT Act and the NSA surveillance of phone numbers (incipient fascism); secondhand smoke (killing vast numbers of people); drilling in the remotest area of Alaska (major environmental despoliation); and opposition to same-sex marriage (imminent Christian theocracy).

Get this...Prager's writing a series of columns about the "hysterical left" without noting the irony that his enthusiasm for the topic could easily be viewed as its own form of...hysteria. Is enthusiasm among progressives for issues they see as massively important to the future of our nation really so abominable that it requires not one but a series of columns? Who's being hysterical?

I would like to point out, however, that I also think people make too much of second-hand smoke. Because, as I said before, the notion that Americans are divided into two diametrically opposed camps is childish. Everyone knows there is diversity of opinion about all of these topics. That's why we're constantly polling Americans to see what they think. Otherwise, it would just be an even split down the middle on every issue.

How ludicrous, by the way, is it to imply that it's the liberals who are hysterical on the same-sex marriage issue. We just think dudes should be allowed to have weddings. It's the opposition to this rather reasonable request that are constantly invoking the Bible and screeching about family values and attempting to amend the freaking Constitution. How twisted can his logic possibly get?

The Left believes that if The New York Times and other liberal news sources report something, it is true. If the cover of Time magazine says, "Global Warming: Be Worried, Very Worried," liberals get worried, very worried, about global warming.

Yeah, those stupid libruls. Reading newspapers and magazines and digesting the information contained within. When will they learn that you can only trust everything you hear on Fox News and all other forms of media are to be ignored?

Holy shit, I'm only 1/3 of the way through Dennis' list and already I feel drained. Maybe I should start slamming Red Bull or something. Otherwise, I'll never make it. Sorting through all these contorted arguments is like navigating the Fire Swamp. (And now that I think about it, Dennis Prager does kind of look like a Rodent of Unusual Size.)



It is noteworthy that liberals, one of whose mottos is "question authority," so rarely question the authority of the mainstream media.

Dennis, are you high? So-called liberals criticize the media constantly. Like every day. Ever been to Media Matters? Bothered to stop by and read anything on Firedoglake or Eschaton ever? Eric Boehlert has just written an entire BOOK on the subject called Lapdogs that's available now. Jon Stewart's a guy who has regularly been cited as a liberal and he hosts a DAILY SHOW devoted exclusively to skewering the mainstream media.

Also, is he trying to say that people shouldn't question authority? Ever? How does one even go about becomign so firmly entrenched in the bullshit establishment? You hear urban folk tales about The Man, but you never expect to actually see him attempting to keep his brother man down right in front of your face in real time.

The Left believes in experts.

Bear in mind, folks, this list is meant as a collection of The Left's faults. Those more liberal than Prager are wrong to trust people who know what they are talking about. Because there's always a chance they'll tell you something you'd rather not know, and then where are you? Fucked, that's where. This is why we need more Ten Commandments and less Evolutions in our schools, people!

Of course, every rational person, liberal or conservative, trusts the expertise of experts -- such as when experts in biology explain the workings of mitochondria, or when experts in astronomy describe the moons of Jupiter. But for liberals, "expert" has come to mean far more than greater knowledge in a given area.

No, that's still pretty much exactly what that word means. Also, someone who used to be pert and perky but is no longer so.

It now means two additional things: One is that non-experts should defer to experts not only on matters of knowledge, but on matters of policy, as well. The second is that experts possess greater wisdom about life, not merely greater knowledge in their area of expertise.

Okay, the second charge is totally bogus. No smart people on either side think that just because someone is a good accountant or physicist or golfer means they're a better person. That's just stupid. (This is why, by the way, I'm not really swayed by the whole Einstein-believed-in-God argument against atheism. I mean, yeah, he came up with astounding formulas and new ways of seeing the universe, but why should I trust him to know about something like the nature of God? He was just a regular old man who was abnormally great at math and physics.)

As for the first charge, of course you should defer to experts in matters of policy when that policy is in their area of expertise. I don't mean you should just do what scientists say all the time, but if you're facing a question like, "Do we need to prepare for global warming" and all the scientists say "Yes!," you should fucking do it, idiot. That's why we have scientists. If you're just going to ignore all the people who have spent years studying this shit, why make anyone study it at all? Just put all those smart men and women to work in our vast sunscreen factories. Trust me, they'll come in handy.

People who don't confront the greatest evils will confront far lesser ones. Most humans know the world is morally disordered -- and socially conscious humans therefore try to fight what they deem to be most responsible for that disorder. The Right tends to fight human evil such as communism and Islamic totalitarianism. The Left avoids confronting such evils and concentrates its attention instead on socioeconomic inequality, environmental problems and capitalism.

I'm stunned...I'm just stunned to see Prager essentially lay it all out on the table like this, so unaware that he's giving the whole game away. His professed side, the so-called Right, fights invisible boogeymen like evil dirty communists and even eviller, dirtier Mooslims, while his rivals worry about things that are really happening, like inequality, the destruction of our environment and the economy.

I wonder if he showed this column to anyone before publication. I've never been convinced has an actual staff of proofers and editors, because much of the writing that comes out of there resembles the rantings and jabberings of the criminally insane. I just don't think even most conservatives would agree with Prager's points here. Would they want to admit that they're focused solely on these invented monsters? Haven't we all figured out by now that the Russians were never truly an evil empire but just another proud nation trying to hold on to as much power as possible, using our same kind of rhetoric to bully the rest of the world? Is it really so much more important to puff out our chest and frighten the browns than to focus on the health and well-being of our own people?

Like I said, I'm stunned. I read this paragraph with mouth agape. How could he so freely admit to this? Doesn't it make him feel silly to concede that the other guys worry about starving children and racial inequality while he continues to wet his pants about that time five years ago when some unhinged cult members attacked us?

Global warming meets all three of these criteria of evil. By burning fossil fuels, rich countries pollute more, the environment is being despoiled and big business increases its profits.

Again, Dennis doesn't actually argue against any of these things being true. He basically concedes that rich countries like America pollute the rest of the world and that we're willing to spoil the environment for everyone so we can get even richer. He doesn't say these conclusions are wrong. He just insists that liberals are wrong to think this way.

The Left is far more likely to revere, even worship, nature.

I don't worship anything or anybody, so speaking as an impartial non-believer, it's a lot less insane to worship nature than it is to worship a dead Jewish guy. Nature you can see, it's all around us, and we depend upon it for life. A dead Jewish guy is just a dead Jewish guy.

As for revering nature, doesn't everybody? Does Dennis Prager walk around with active contempt for nature. "Fucking trees! Get out of my face! Look at that faggoty potato! Gawsh, all these plants and animals make me want to retch! Why can't we just pave over everything!"

Again, I would guess that most conservatives would disagree with Prager here. I have known several very conservative, very religious Republicans in my day, and all of them loved nature. In fact, some of the most active, outdoorsy people I have ever met are also some of the most conservative. This is why, in order to prevail in the fight against the environment, Prager and his nefarious ilk must try and spin this as a partisan issue. Because the environmental cause appeals, in some way, to everybody. We all share this planet and have a stake in its survival. His only hope is to convince rabid partisans of the Right that they have to reject the future of their species out of party loyalty.

A threat to the environment is regarded by many on the Left as a threat to what is most sacred to them, and therefore deemed to be the greatest threat humanity faces. The cover of Vanity Fair's recent "Special Green Issue" declared: "A Graver Threat Than Terrorism: Global Warming."

Here's that simple reality problem again. A threat to the environment is obviously a threat to something sacred for humans. It's our home. If the Earth can no longer sustain our kind of lifestyle (and it's only a very delicate balance that allows us to survive in the first place), we all die. That's it. Then, even the horrible threat of Islamofascism won't matter, you dunce.

Also, it's clearly a larger threat than terrorism. If scientists are right and the seas are going to begin rising and flooding coastlines around the world, millions will die and be displaced and millions more will starve to death. No amount of terrorism could possibly match these numbers. It's not physically possible.

Conservatives, more concerned with human evil, hold the very opposite view: Islamic terror is a far graver threat than global warming.

Keep repeating that to yourself, man. Maybe it will come true.

Leftists tend to fear dying more.

Now this is just idiotic, that the fear of death could be determined by party affiliation or political outlooks. Everyone's afraid of dying in some way and people deal with the notion of their own mortality in all sorts of different ways. It's one of those extremely personal issues that has nothing to do with how you vote. Man, what a ridiculous fool, to even suggest such a thing.

(I'd also add that it's not the Left that declared 9/11 "changed the world," it's not the Left that insisted we must fight a series of wars to protect ourselves, it's not the Left that's obsessed with buildilng walls across all of our borders, it's not the Left that constantly rattles on about the defense of marriage and it's not the Left that's obsessed with End Times prophesies. But these points aside, I don't feel like a fear of death is something that can be correlated to party affiliation. I'm just saying, even if you did feel that way, a case could be made for either side.)

One day, our grandchildren may ask us what we did when Islamic fascism threatened the free world. Some of us will say we were preoccupied with fighting that threat wherever possible; others will be able to say they fought carbon dioxide emissions. One of us will look bad.

How, exactly, has Islamic fascism threatened the free world? Don't they have to do something to us first? I mean, a small group of them teamed up to kill a few thousand people in the World Trade Centers. (By the by, they didn't kill a few thousand Americans as people often state. They killed a few thousand people from all over the world who happened to be in America at the time. Few of the other countries represented by people in that building have reacted by declaring war on Muslims.)

But all these so-called Islamofascists haven't done anything else to us except defend the country we invaded. It will take some extremely crafty revisionist historians to spin this one into a victory over the pernicious threat of Islamic Fascism. (Not that this won't happen, if the world survives long enough to take stock of this present situation. I'm just saying it will require creativity when it does happen.)

And again, Dennis' own words betray him. "We were preoccupied with fighting that threat wherever possible." Is he admitting that all the other awful stuff happening in America and around the world on Bush's watch is a result of him focusing exclusively on the threat of terrorism? Not sure that's really a case any big time Republicans want to see made, even in a wasteland like Townhall.

Finally, on the off chance I have grandchildren, I'll be proud to say that I tried to do something about the horrible threat of Global Warming, even though now it's too late and we all have to have our skin removed in a painful procedure at the age of 13 to survive in the scorching 200+ degree heat, or else move to that equally hot but somewhat less expensive colony they've got going on Mercury, where a large geodesic dome that blocks out the sun alleviates the need for an epiotomy.

Hell's White House

Does it seem odd to you that, when politicians and journalists and public figures discuss the Iraq War, no one ever suggests actually changes we could make that might improve things? I mean, the Democrats have announced their new plan to end the war and I agree with almost all of it, but it's really just a randomly-chosen deadline as opposed to an actual course of action. Essentially, near as I can tell, Democrats want us to keep doing the stuff we've been doing - the stuff that doesn't work - and then leave in 6 months.

I'm all for leaving, don't get me wrong. Unfortunately, we're not in a position to correct our error, so we should just have the decency to step aside and then try to make it up to Iraq some time in the future when we can actually do something other than make things worse by establishing permanent bases there (which is what upset Osama in the first place!), torturing and slaughtering innocents and getting our fellow citizens killed.

So it's an underwhelming proposal, but it is a proposal. That's more than the White House, the guys who started this thing in the first place, have offered. The Republicans tell us we should calm down because we're being very un-Dude and call it a day. I mean, even Nixon had a fictional secret plan. They could give us that much.

Maybe they send Condi somewhere to pretend like she knows what she's talking about even though her only actual experience in foreign policy consists of studying the Soviet Union as an academic and starting botched wars. Why is this woman considered an expert on Middle Eastern affairs? If I had a book report due on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, she'd be a good source of info. But asking her to speak intelligently about the current conflicts going on simultaneously in Iraq is like asking Dick Cheney to teach a class in gun safety.

I've had no choice but to come up with a plan of my own. I think we should send Hell's Kitchen star, Chef Gordon Ramsay, to the White House to whip those guys into shape. For those of you unfamiliar with Chef Ramsay, here's a file photo in which he's stomping his archrival, Chef Boyardee.

Ramsay's a pretty angry guy, so I think he'd fit in well at the White House. The cruel nature of his bullying and taunting kind of reminds me of our President, who has brought the frat boy shenanigans of National Lampoon to the Oval Office. Bush insults blind men and gives everyone around him demeaning nicknames; Ramsey calls all fat men "big boy" and tells a young man with long curly hair that he looks "like a ponce." These guys could seriously relate to one another in some meaningful ways. (Hell, Bush might even think he's an interesting cat!)

Ramsay would be great in the White House because this is a man who knows how to get people organized and motivated. He just screams at them until he's hoarse, much like a drill instructor or obsessive, alcoholic stage father living vicariously through his daughter. He calls them donkeys, tells them that they're worthless and that they've given up and always, always, reiterates that they are stupid. I think the Bush White House needs this kind of strict discipline.

And of course we should air the entire thing on Fox. "Hell's White House."

"You call this a foreign policy speech, you worthless sack of crap! Tear it up and start again, because I'm not releasing it to the public in this condition. Would you deliver this speech? Would you? You loathsome impudent muppet! I wouldn't trust your policy proposals any more than I'd trust you to guard my liquor cabinet. I heard that, even though you always wear stupid hats and fake being a cowboy, you're actually afraid of horses, which is why there are never pictures of you riding even though you own a blooming ranch! Get the hell out of here right now and make it better or I'll shut down this entire war. We really need a victory tonight, and you're giving me nothing, because you're an idiot. Get out of my face."


Quick, what's the worst film ever released on Criterion DVD?

Did you guess Michael Bay's Armageddon? Well, you were right, until today. Now it's Jack Woods' 1967 creature feature Equinox, a hilariously awful sci-fi spectacle made for less than $7000 by some aspiring special effects designers. Because one of these guys, Dennis Muren, went on to work on George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy, because they clearly influenced Sam Raimi's landmark Evil Dead and because they managed to create Ray Harryhausen-esque stop motion effects on such a low budget, the movie has some historical import. (Yes, I know that Raimi denies having seen Equinox before making Evil Dead, but the similarities in plot and even specific shots is fairly undeniable.)

Anyway, aside from its place in the history books, taken strictly as a movie, the movies' distinctly terrible. Unwatchable, even.

The Criterion set includes two versions of the movie - the 1967 original feature directed by Woods with assistance from Muren and a 1970 version tightened and cleaned up for mainstream release by producer Jack Harris. I watched all of the '70 edition and bits and pieces of the '67, and though both look extremely cheesy, are poorly dubbed and atrociously acted, the later version is clearly the "better" film. At least it seems to make sense and attempt to cohere into some kind of actual narrative.

As they so often do, four young people wander into a mysterious wooded preserve. A creepy park ranger (Woods himself) leers at them. They look for their friend, a certain Dr. Waterman, whose house has apparently been destroyed. They see a weird castle in the distance. They enjoy a nice picnic lunch.

It's around this time that you start to wonder...What the hell are these young people doing in the woods? Why hang around if Dr. Waterman isn't there to greet them? Can't they tell something strange and unpleasant is going on, with the sinister park ranger and the castles appearing from nowhere and the bizarre Book of the Dead calling to them from within dank caverns? Why am I watching this retarded piece of trash? And will he ever get to the freaking point?

We spend what feels like hours listening to these idiots rattle on about where to enjoy their tasty bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It's interminable. I know that 90 minutes of solid effects shots wouldn't be possible with the limited means at Woods' and Muren's disposal, but couldn't they have come up with something more interesting for these people to do than wander around a wooded area arguing about where to eat lunch and whether they should split up into groups? The resulting film is more boring than an amateur production of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" are dead performed entirely in Esperanto.

So, apparently, this Waterman guy read from the Book of the Dead they have found (shades of Evil Dead here, for sure, although most of this stuff can be traced back to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft) and unleashed a demon who then started creating monsters to roam the countryside. I don't know why...Because he's a demon...That's what they do, I suppose. Create monsters. Cackle. Hide books. Then, a bit of lunch. Then, more cackling. It's a pretty full schedule, really.

For $7000, even in 60's money, they did come up with a few really impressive effects shots. There's a lot of great matte work, which has become a lost art in this era of fast-and-cheap CG backdrops. (Is it ironic that the creator of this handmade movie would become associated with the film series which would pioneer the use of digitally-animated backgrounds, the Star Wars prequel trilogy? Or just coincidental?) And some of the monsters (some!) look pretty sweet.

Others look like this:

Remember to avoid the Noid, kids. He wants to ruin your hot, delicious pizza.

The good people at Criterion need to hook up with the fine men and women behind "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Imagine, an entire series of low budget cheesy sci-fi and horror films with optional commentary by Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo...It would really up the Equinox rewatchability factor, I'll tell you that right now.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Hills Have Eyes

Alexandre Aja, whose previous forgettable horror entry was the French hit Haute Tension, updates Wes Craven's forgettable cannibal freak movie without actually bothering to update anything. Save a few additional bits of gory mayhem and a barely-there sub-plot about nuclear blasts in the New Mexico desert, what you have here is a surprisingly straight-ahead, faithful remake of a movie that was itself fairly generic and unimpressive.

The main appeal of the Craven original is the title, anyway, so why not just take that and a bare-bones story outline and reimagine a completely separate movie? It would certainly provide more freedom than the structure adhered to in Aja's film, which spends at least a half hour replicating the opening of every horror film from the last several years. Say it with me now...

A family on vacation, lost on a desert side road, runs into car trouble and finds themselves stranded. As they nervously attempt to find a way out of their predicament, they are set upon by a family of crazed mutant cannibalistic hill-people who hack several of them to bits and kidnap a baby. Then, in a twist similar in many respects to Craven's film before Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, the surviving family members head into the hills themselves to rescue their loved ones and exact revenge.

Aja adds a tiny bit of backstory to this framework but not nearly enough to set his film apart from either the prior movie or any other entries in the recent glut of retro slasher flicks that rip off the set-up of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the new version, the mutants in the hills are not just inbred but the victims of governmental malfeasance. When the military tested nuclear bombs in these hills, this one family of miners refused to move out and thus suffered the consquences of the radioactive fallout.

As an idea, it's not all that bad. Mainly, it enhances the theme of the original film, the cyclical nature of violence. The vacationing family is a peaceful, suburban sort until they are terrorized, and then they too turn into manaical, plotting, bloodthirsty killers, albeit against their will. Aja has indeed made this idea more explicit - we actually see the violent act that created the film's sociopathic villains - and tries to turn the entire climax into a blunt visual metaphor.

Our characters fight to the death in model homes filled with creepy mannequins. It's an extremely obvious metaphor for the violent rage that lies behind the picture-book image of contemporary American life. Too obvious. The entire sequence comes off kind of silly and overblown, particularly the sidelong visual references to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, a movie that really explores the depths of depravity lurking deep within the seemingly-civilized American male.

But this stuff comes late in the film and never really makes much of an impact. By that point, there's been so much frenetic, over-the-top torment and blood spray, so many children have mourned their butchered bretheren, neither the filmmakers nor the viewer has the patience or energy for motif development.

I mean to say that this is not merely a standard run-of-the-mill gore-filed horror movie, the sort of thing where a director could devote a portion of the movie to an activity that doesn't involve vivisection. We meet the cast, headed up by Kathleen Quinlan and Ted Levine as the parents, with a bunch of unknowns playing their children and X-Men 2 and 3 vet Aaron Stanford (he's Pyro!) as their put-upon son in law, and then Aja basically gives upon even trying to tell a story and just presents his audience with well-filmed sequences of beatings, tortures, rapes and gruesome slayings. The make-up effects, by the KNB team responsible for the Kill Bill movies as well as this year's significantly better and more enjoyable Hostel, are extraordinarily detailed and largely effective. I even liked the designs on the mutant family, who despite being played by a variety of film veterans like Billy Drago and Desmond Askew, aren't given any screen time at all to develop as anything but an unseen meance.

I'm left with the same feeling I had after Haute Tension. Aja's pretty good with a camera. Though I'm starting to get tired of this oversatuated/filtered lens bullcrap, I can't deny that this movie looks pretty cool and has its own kind of frenzied, exuberant style. But these films rely on bloodletting exclusively as entertainment, exclusively, and though I enjoy horror films, I just need a little bit more to maintain my interest. 60 minutes or more of sheer uninterrupted cruelty and I start to get numb to it all.

I think I finally understand this recent obsession with 70's horror remakes and updates. Until now, I had been assuming that the studio executives just liked the famous titles of these old movies - Texas Chainsaw Massacre, say, or The Omen - and figured that even if not everyone remembered the actual movies, they knew they were famously great movies and so an update would have some sort of intrinsic appeal.

But that's not really accurate. The target audience for these films are far too young to even remember the original movies. The original Wes Craven Hills Have Eyes came out the year before I was born, in 1977. I've seen it because I'm a fan of these kinds of films, but the primary demographic at which they're aiming these movies isn't 27 year olds like me. It's 16 year olds who are going to sneak into the theater and then buy the unrated version on DVD. Those kids don't know from Hills Have Eyes. Remaking it gives them a way to produce a film that's already been a success once, so unless it gets royally fucked up the second time around, their investment should pay off. As an added bonus, any old farts who fondly remember the original may be more inclined to come check out the new one than they would to shell out $12 on some unknown horror commodity.

Which means that the entire idea for Aja's film would be to tinker as little as possible with the successful formula of the first film. And on that level, it's Mission Accomplished.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

It's Been a Leon Time Comin'

This post is based on actual events. The names have been changed to pronouns to protect the innocent.

I took off early from work on Friday afternoon to pick up my father from his office in Koreatown, so that we could sit in interminable Los Angeles traffic together. Normally, he would take the train home from work at around 4, but we got an earlier start because the entire family was going to see Leon Russell perform in San Juan Capistrano that night.

The entire ride home, my father compared the time we were making in the car to the pace he'd be travelling in the train. Would we possibly beat the train back to Orange County? Or would the train make better time, thus confirming once and for all the absolute correctness of his preferred commuting method? At one point, near the end of the 90 minute, 55 mile sojourn, it seemed as if the train might actually cross right over the freeway while we drove. This was before Dad realized that we had left Los Angeles several hours before the train, thus invalidating the entire experiment and rendering the point moot. That disappointment aside, we still did alright by getting home in 90 minutes. Glaciers move faster than traffic on the 5 freeway on a Friday afternoon. You'd get to your final destination faster riding in a rickshaw pulled by comic legend Dom Delouise than travelling by car.

Anyway, after a brief respite from the road, both of my parents and I piled back in the car to head to the well-hidden Coach House, a building so poorly-identified and difficult to find, I half expected to see Dick Cheney running a shadow government in there. On the plus side, had Dick Cheney really been in there, he could have just shot me in the face, thus sparing me the next 5 hours of discomfort.

But now I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's backtrack. My parents, brother, brother's girlfriend and I found ourselves in the Coach House of San Juan Capistrano because of the recent release of George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh on DVD. We play it a lot at the video store, and I remembered that my parents had the old LP mixed in with their rather sizable collection of Old Fart Rock. So I bought the disc for my Mom on Mother's Day. Right away, she was excited to see Leon Russell, who apparently had been a favorite of hers back in what Leon calls the "Just Say Yes" era.

I had heard of the guy, but mainly via his performance of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in the Concert for Bangladesh. I would later find out that he's primarily famous as a session musician, sitting in for recordings with a large variety of music legends from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones to George Harrison to B.B. King to Eric Clapton to Willie Nelson. I, um, obtained an early Leon album for my folks online and grew to appreciate it myself.

While watching the DVD, I theorized that Leon was dead. I don't know why I thought this...It's just what I thought at the time. Of course, I was wrong, but what's creepy is that Leon's fellow Concert for Bangladesh performer Billy Preston really did die only a few days later. Dum-dum-dum!

Of course, Leon is very much alive and making albums with weird pictures of himself on the cover. Sometimes with tiny dogs.

And when I let my parents know that Leon's latest tour would be coming through Southern California, tickets were purchased with great and immediate haste.

Which brings me back to the Coach House, so called because the seating is as comfortable as the Coach section of a commercial aircraft, and the food's nearly as good.

The Coach House is one of these venues that wants to feed you a meal and drinks when you come to see a show. See, they don't make a lot of money on the actual box office - the performers get most of that scratch. They need you to wolf down overpriced martinis and week-old shrimp cocktails to start turning a profit.

We were told to arrive between 6 and 7 p.m. for dinner, and I filed in with the 'rents at around 6:30. My brother and his girlfriend followed soon after, detained because of some kind of horrific Laguna Beach traffic jam. (That's the sort of mishap that never bedevils those charming kids on "The O.C.," who never have time to sit in traffic with all the unwanted pregnancies and lavish pool parties.) In my case, "dinner" was to consist of a plate of chicken fingers and 5 Heinekens. Someone at my table ordered a plate of vegetables coated in cheese sauce that looked like a leftover prop from a John Carpenter movie.

If I had to choose two words to describe the ambience of The Coach House, I would probably choose "redneck hellscape." Or possibly "shitkicking inferno." The place was so goddamn hot you'd think the opening act was The Human Torch. You could tell the drinks were watered down because they evaporated before they reached your table!

So it's hard to enjoy a conversation and a meal, because the entire time you're sitting there, it's like being locked inside The Wicker Man. But, you know, I like to think of myself as an easygoing sort. I'll sweat bullets and drink my beer for a while waiting for a concert to start, it's cool...

But this was not cool. There were not one, not two but an ungainly three opening bands. The first act was a guy playing an acoustic guitar while his friend played drums. (No, I'm not going to remember any of the opening act's names because they were bad and pissed me off.) The songs weren't so horrible musically. A bit generic, but not horrible. What ruined it was his reliance on the lamest, most trite, cliche "folk rock" lyricism imaginable. The Fiery Furnaces can pull off a song composed of nothing but place names, but I don't want to hear any more scruffy, unkempt singer-songwriter guys telling me they took the 5:14 from Shreveport down to Aberdeen. It's lame, guys, alright? Even if you've been to all those bullshit podunk cities.

The next act was another two guys, one of whom seemed to think he was Frank Black. He'd wail in this inappropriately high registers, sometimes clashing brutally with the song's actual melody. I liked these guys the best out of all the opening acts, cause at least they were peculiar and interesting. By this time, I'd just about had it with the Coach House. It was around 9:30, meaning I'd been there approaching three hours, meaning that I had already sweat through all my body's excess water and was moving on to vital tissues and hemoglobin. When the third opening act took the stage, I would have left if I hadn't arrived in a car with my parents. As it was, I went to the outdoor smoking lounge for some fresh air.

This last band was horrible horrible horrible. It was like watching Big and Rich's weenie younger cousins. Um, Little and Broke. Yeah, that's the ticket. Imagine eight middle-aged guys from Orange County all dressed like Garth Brooks pretending to be the bar band from behind the chain link fence in Roadhouse. Okay, now imagine them sucking even more than that band you just imagined. That was these guys. I've got a great new name for them, if they don't like Little & Broke. Rascal Asshats.

(Bonus CBI points are available for anyone who can name the Roadhouse band in the comments without looking it up.)

One the only band to challenge Black Eyed Peas for the title of Worst Band Alive left the stage, it was finally time for Leon. Which is a good thing too, because I really couldn't handle seeing any more 55 year old wrinkly broads with stretched-out, faded tattoos dancing around with their hastily-sculpted fake boobs hanging out for all to see. 25 in one night is about my limit.

Once Leon and his band actually took the stage, things picked up briefly. Although the vibe didn't actually get any hotter, as this was physically impossible.

I didn't take that photo above. It was too dark inside for my cell phone's camera to work. But it accurately conveys what I saw of Leon Russell, jamming on his keyboard at the side of the stage. Wisely, he doesn't focus exclusively on his own material. Despite the astounding length of his career (starting at age 14 playing backup for bands in his native Oklahoma), Leon's only had a few great albums on a handful of hits of his own. He's far more legendary for his performances in tandem with the biggest names in rock, and accordingly, he plays a lot of covers during his live show.

I think his cover of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" was the evening's highlight (he also took on "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"), but Leon's take on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" and his Ray Charles covers were also pretty terrific. He got to a few of his own songs as well, including the modest hit "Hummingbird." The years have been pretty kind of Leon's voice, which was always really gravelly and deep anyway, and his new band does a pretty good job of reinventing these well-worn classic rock standards. Thanks to the Coach House's crackerjack sound team, the music was distorted and difficult to hear for the first few songs, but this was soon straightened out. And much credit to Mr. Russell, who interrupted the show to inform the cheap bastards to turn on the air conditioning, a request they promptly ignored.

We wound up leaving early, not because of dissatisfaction with Leon's performance, but because it was near midnight and I had to work the next day and my brother was sleepy and my Mom didn't feel well. I think she probably caught malaria or something. I felt kind of bad, considering how much dough the entire experience must have set back Moms and Pops. We all had a pretty good time, but you never want to leave a show early when you've already been sitting there for four hours. Trust me, I know. I've left more shows early than most have attended. I'm a coniesseur of leaving shows early, so you can take my word on this.


So many films tell stories about free spirits crushed by the mundane realities of the modern world, it must be because this is how screenwriters and directors view themselves. The destruction of anything rare and beautiful is, of course, one of the eternal themes in all of the arts, but movies in particular have always lionized Outsider status. Perhaps it's because film, a visual art form based around color, angle and movement, allows for striking metaphorical imagery of alienation. Even the loathed Garden State knows enough about film narrative to play into the concept - the professionally sedated Zach Braff blends into the wallpaper, literally disappearing into his surroundings.

In the 1960's in particular, for obvious socio-political reasons, you got a lot of films waxing nostalgic about the ultimate Non-Conformists bucking "The System" in some kind of deeply-meaningful, even existential, principled stand. It's the idea behind much of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, of course, and Easy Rider and many many many other films. (Even The Trip!)

Richard Lester's 1968 masterpiece Petulia takes the notion a few steps farther. Initially a lightly-entertaining screwball riff about an uptight recent divorcee (George C. Scott) and a kooky young married woman (Julie Christie) who bond over some half-seen, grim circumstances, the movie eventually descends into a cold, vaguely sinister allegory about artificiality and emotional distance. What begins by celebrating the eccentric Outsider archetype becomes a critique on the very notion of a counter-culture. In a world so far gone, so removed from reality and insulated from experience, Lester can't find room for true freedom. It has been innovated out of existence.

There's just a ton going on in this film. I've watched it twice now in one evening (if only to get the taste of Nacho Libre from out my head) and have been attempting to digest it for the past few hours. Lester's compelling, almost unsettling ideas about modernity and the loss of interconnectedness that goes along with it come at a heady clip. In a move reminiscent in some ways of Robert Altman, Lester fills his sonic canvas with background noise and barely-heard conversations.

Often, side discussions between extras will intrude upon the main action, and generally they reflect negatively on the speaker, including barely-masked hostility, bloodlust, schadenfreude and old-fashioned racist bigotry. These small touches within larger scenes create a general sense of mounting aggression; boredom, anger and violence underline every human interaction in this world. (In one sequence, a father tells his sons about prisoners excaping Alcatraz, a story they have already heard before, and Lester cuts immediately to another father telling his sons the same story. It's just a rote speech, given by every parent to every child taking that ferry, told so many times it has lost all actual meaning.)

Lester dices up the story and mixes up the order. By keeping major events clearly defined (including a car accident, the dropping off and returning of a tuba and a violent beating), he keeps the film from getting too confusing while slyly taking advantage of the achronological storytelling. Rather than using the narrative jumps to enhance the suspense or build up a sense of mystery, Lester simply rearranges events according to tone. As the film opens, we get a general sense pretty quickly about what has actually happened with all the main characters. It's just that we first see the relatively happy or benign parts of the story, before peeling back alyers to reveal the lies and betrayals and accidents behind all those initial actions. We begin to discover that these people we've been following and relating to are, in fact, a bunch of frauds incapable of living the lives they've pretended at for a while.

Stuffy physician Archie (Scott) meets the comely Petulia (Christie) at some kind of odd hotel party in San Francisco. The conservative suits hang out in one half of the room while the hippies and long-hairs groove on the other side to Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead (both of whom actually appear in the film). Though she's married, Petunia seduces Archie and convinces him to take her to a bizarre motel embedded in a parking garage, where everything is automated and there don't seem to be any flesh and blood employees.

This meeting, as it turns out, was not the beginning of Archie and Petulia's story, and we'll go back in time to witness how they really came to enter one another's lives as well as going forward to see what impact they will eventually have. Unfortunately, it turns out to be very little. At the end of the film, Petulia will tell Archie first that when she's dying and re-running her life in her head, she won't think of him at all. A moment later, she retracts her statement and issues a Hallmark card sentiment: "I'll never forget you." I think she was being more truthful the first time.

Petulia has decided that Archie needs her desperately and Archie has decided that this affair with a wacky but beautiful free spirit will provide the perfect segue into his newfound bachelorhood. Neither one is being honest with one another, but then again they are never honest with themselves, so perhaps this is too much to ask.

Lester pulls off this barely-controlled chaos with the aid of editor Antony Gibbs and particularly cinematographer Nicholas Roeg. In his own films, Roeg would use the same technique, telling stories out of order and even cutting between different times within the same scene. As in Don't Look Now (which also starred Christie), occasionally we gain insight into character's psychology by zipping back in time to witness their memories, but often Lester and Roeg are creating mini-montages, stringing together seemingly unrelated material in order to create unexpected or ambiguous revelations.

(Why cut, for example, to a prior car accident when Petulia and Archie first leavethe hotel? Is it to imply that Petulia is considering the circumstances that led to their getting together that night, or is it a dark glimpse of unfortunate events to come? And why skip an entire love scene, going right from the exhiliaration of a first kiss to the regret-fueled anxiety after one partner has already fallen asleep? Is Lester sarcastically implying that Archie is a bad lover? Or would Petulia, because of her background and currect emotional state, respond to any affection this way?)

I've barely scratched the surface and this review is already getting pretty long. I haven't talked about the repeated images of individuals touching one another and how Lester visually communicates the roadblocks that technology places between individuals attempting to share any kind of intimacy. (In one brilliant, brief shot, Archie and Petulia try to have a conversation from passing streetcars). I haven't discussed Joseph Cotton's small but tremendous role as Petulia's controlling father or Richard Chamberlain's stark, scary work as her husband David. And as you'd expect from a Lester film, each scene is filled with smart little asides and dashes of dark humor that really highlight all these ideas and more that I didn't get to describe. Like the indoor greenhouse Archie receives as a gift, with little light bulbs the installation man says work better than the sun. Oh, and I didn't talk about the borrowed shots from Vertigo, also filmed in San Francisco, and how Lester plays with a lot of Hitchcock's favorite themes in a sidelong, more cynical fashion.

Petulia i s just that kind of brilliant film, where you could go on talking about its brilliance for hours without ever running out of things to say. I've read a few reviews online declaring the film "dated," and I suppose this is accurate if you consider a dated film to be anything definitively "of its era." Petulia was definitely make in the late 60's, no doubt about it. One look at the outfits will reveal that much. But the concepts don't feel outdated. In fact, the notions of simulation and artificiality and how they relate to violence, both interpersonal violence and aggression between nations, comes up often in Lester's film and couldn't really have more topicality in 2006. The end of the human community not only means that we all exist in our own worlds, unable to truly comprehend where anyone else is coming from, but it also means that we lose a good deal of our compassion and ability to sympathize with others. It makes identifying and eliminating enemies that much easier.

Nacho Libre

In moving beyond the low-low-budget Sundance find Napoleon Dynamite and into the world of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, Jared Hess and his co-writer and wife Jerusha have made a few fatal errors. In retrospect, it's clear that the success of Dynamite stems from its essentially sweet nature and its modest ambition. A movie that defines low-key, idiosyncratic comedy, Dynamite presents a world of freaky weirods that oddly endearing. I felt like leaving the theater after 5 minutes when I first saw it, but then when it was over, I kind of wanted to see it again right away.

Perhaps Hess' childhood friend Jon Heder, who played Napoleon, was really the great comedian behind that particular nation-wide phenomenon, or maybe Hess just can't connect emotionally to the world of Mexican wrestling as he did with a coming-of-age story set in Idaho. Whatever the reason, Nacho Libre is a completely embarrassing mess, the kind of movie people will recall in 10 years when asked if they've ever walked out in the middle of a movie.

"I don't think so, I usually stick around to...Wait, we did leave Nacho Libre. After about 3 scenes. I think we snuck into something else that was playing...Maybe that animated one with the escaped animals...No, the other one...No, the other one..."

Some critics have called Nacho a "children's film." This is being kind. It's not that anything in the movie has been specifically designed with children in mind. (In fact, it's general air of crude misanthropy and reliance on violence for humor is exactly the tone you would want to avoid in a kid's flick). It's just that these kinds of doody and fat jokes only work on 8 year olds. And that's only if you get them all cranked up on Pixy Sticks and extra-large Dr. Peppers.

The entire movie is like a bad, offensive "Saturday Night Live" skit gone horribly awry. Fat, stupid Ignacio (Jack Black) works as the cook in the Mexican monastery/orphangage where he grew up. After a beautiful nun (Ana de la Reguera) comes to stay at the orphanage, Ignacio dreams of impressing her by becoming a Luchador, one of the masked wrestlers who make all the money and get all the girls. To realize his ambitions, he joins forces with a feral idiot (Hector Jimenez) who eats tortilla chips off the ground. Eventualy, he will become the famed Nacho Libre and take on the most famous and evil Luchador in all of Mexico, Ramses (Cesar Gonzalez).
The script, written by the Hesses and Mike White, methodically avoids the charm and carefully-observed humanity of Napoleon Dynamite. Those characters were quirky, but it was clear from the start that they were also meant to be lovable. Napoleon is a liar and an oddball and a whiner, but we also see that he's reacting to a lifetime of frustration and loneliness, and we root for him to come out of his shell and begin to relate to those around him.

No one in Nacho Libre is in the least bit likable. Some characters, like Nacho himself, are downright unpleasant, but most have no personalities at all. Many of them are fat and exist only to be the subject of cruel, bullying humor. (For no good reason, a fat woman is required to crawl through a amkeshift hole in the wall in order to chase a man. Get it? She's horny because no one will touch her because she's so disgustingly fat!)

The fat jokes are constant and eventually hugely unpleasant, particularly when the target is the overweight orphan Chancho (Darius Rose). What kind of a man would make an entire film poking repeated fun at a fat kid? I'm certain there are circumstances in which a shot of a fat child would be funny, but to constantly resort back to such a cutting, mean-spirited ploy for cheap laughs is not only bad filmmaking but kind of makes Jared Hess a bad person.

Where did this judgemental side come from? It's nowhere evident in Napoleon Dynamite, an extremely laid-back and accepting kind of movie. That's a film speaking to the pleasure of discovering the eccentric personalities of your friends and family, of accepting people for who they are and loving the peculiarities that make us human. Napoleon and Kip spar in the beginning, only to come to a mutual fraternal understanding by the end. Napoleon even finds a way to make the school appreciate him, to rise above his classmates abuse and earn their respect through his courageous sacrifice on behalf of a friend.

In Nacho Libre, everyone's poor and fat and gross and ugly and stupid and pompous and full of shit. No one is redeemable. An entire sub-plot concerns Nacho's attempts to forcibly convert his atheist trainer and friend. In fact, an argument in favor of faith is just one of the actually interesting themes Hess brings up only to dismiss in favor of more fat jokes. A case could even be made that the film is racist, depicting Mexico as a large dirt-ridden impoverished slum in which everyone is a sweaty rube with horrible hygeine. If Hess has any real love of the country of Mexico, the Mexican people or Lucha Libre, it's not evident from this film, which comes only to mock these individuals and their culture.

During the film's many unfunny and tedious wrestling matches, there are repeated shots of a grizzled old man with a crazy eye by the side of the ring. Why do we return to him again and again? He says nothing at all except occasionally yelping "Nacho!" He serves no function for the story. He's not involved in any running gags or large ensemble jokes. He's just funny looking. Jared Hess thinks old Mexicans look amusing and he likes showing them in close-ups to get laughs from superior-feeling whites.

I hated Nacho Libre and I don't even really want to talk about it any more. It's unpleasant and dumb and not funny at all and it's sheer desperation made me feel uncomfortabler. Jack Black's a gifted comedian, and he tries his best to lighten things up by flopping around all over the place and singing his patented wacky songs, but I'm not sure 100 Peter Sellers clones would be up to the job of salvaging this wanktastrophe. Is this film worse than Date Movie? That will be one of the chief questions to consider when compiling my Bottom 10 of 2006.