Friday, August 04, 2006

Game Theory

One of the aspects of TV's "Big Brother" I enjoy most is the opportunity to observe group dynamics in action. Really, high school sets the standard for all future human group interaction, in my opinion. That's the first environment in which you're clumped together with random peers pre-selected only by age and geography. It's the training ground for society at large.

After high school and possibly college, things get more chaotic and function on a larger scale and it's harder to scrutinize the ways in which social networks and interpersonal communication come to rule our lives. But on CBS three times a week, individuals clash and align and strategize as part of an intricate competition. It's really quite telling, about the contestants and their approaches to problem-solving in addition to overall human behavior patterns. A weekly demonstration that life is a popularity contest.

One quick example, because I don't want to bore the non-BB viewers. Plastic surgeon Will came into the game with a slight advantage, being the only contestant on this season (comprised of all-stars who have appeared on other seasons of "Big Brother") to have actually won the game before. This combined with his brash, cocky attitude made him a central figure of the show from the first episode.

He's really obvious about planting ideas into the conversation. He'll say things like "I'm a liar and a master of manipulation," stuff like that. I found it really cheesy and obvious what he was doing, trying to intimidate people into fearing him when in reality he's not particularly skilled at winning the important competitions. Yet it worked. His prophecies thus far have come true - everyone's deferring to him like he's in charge, people seem to genuinely fear him in the game and he's managed to divide the strongest alliance on the show.

So the lesson is that getting a message out there, even if you have to be blaring obvious in doing so, pays off in the long run. I think Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, the Swift Boat Veterans and Bill O'Reilly have all figured this out.

These kinds of comparisons, as well as the academic study of Communications, work because interpersonal dynamics are fairly constant. People are people, and close observation can generally yield a fairly predictable pattern of behavior in most social situations. Cliques form, antagonists are chosen, conflicts over territory and supremacy begin and so on.

This is what's happening on the blogs right now. Years ago, when they first got going, there were two camps - right-wing bloggers who rallied around the President at all times and left-wing bloggers who posted things about 9/11 being an inside job and the 2000 election having been stolen. Now, what has developed is akin to an enormous, virtual high school quad full of self-righteous tribalistic adolescents.

I first started having these feelings a few months ago, when the Daily Kos blog hosted its Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas. During the convention and for the following, I'd say, two weeks, readers who go to blogs for political discussion and analysis were treated to the cyber-equivalent of scrawled messages on the second-to-last-page of a middle school yearbook.

"OMG, the entire crew from TalkLeft r0x0rz1111 They r totally cute and h0t111 YearlyKos 4 life suckaz111"

Honestly. I read posts where bloggers gushed for paragraphs about hanging out with Joe Wilson or attending a panel featuring Atrios. The Atrios. How ridiculous. These guys aren't celebrities. They're bloggers. The entire point is that they're not celebrities or professional pundits. (Well, except the people on Huffington Post, who tend not to be famous except when they are Alec Baldwin).

Of course, whenever a community like this forms, some individuals rise into leadership positions and become the "ruling class" and everyone else divides themselves into supplicants and contrarians. It just hasn't taken that long with the blogs, and it's kind of depressing because, for a moment there, it had started to seem like a more open-ended, amorphous, progressive kind of organization, one that wasn't as focused on inclusion and membership as it was on original thinking, sharp writing and fresh ideas.

I don't mean to say that none of the popular bloggers are any good. In fact, I enjoy reading most of the big, popular liberal blogs from time to time, even if I disagree with the authors more than I agree. Which is often. My point is just that, if I asked someone who reads blogs to name the most popular, influential bloggers, we'd both come up with the same names. That level of consolidation in only a few short years surprises me considering how many blogs there are and how easy they are to start up.

Even more unfortunate, the left-vs-right divide online has, at this point, exploded to a level that may no longer be healthy. I've been voicing my concerns about the tone of American public debate, in reality and online, for the past several months. It's not the level of vitriol or lack of civility or the swearing or any of that stuff that bothers me. That would be hypocritical in the extreme, of course, because I lob all manner of offensive insults at individuals on here every day.

No, what worries me is that political conversation in this country no longer holds reality in any kind of regard. It's all about who comes up with the better rhetorical point. Whose argument sounds better. Right-wing bloggers make up ludicrous nonsense arguing for prolonged war or portraying any and all liberals as America-hating unkempt hippies. Then liberal bloggers stupidly respond to this idiocy, trying to inject rationality into a conversation that has nothing to do with logical reasoning. Then the right-wing bloggers reveal their opponents' identites or make snide remarks about their families or, if they are Jeff Goldstein, threaten to smack them with his penis. It's all so lame and pointless.

That last link goes to a Sadly No thread that's one of the most ridiculous, insane things I have ever read. The article discusses a blogger named Patterico who "outed" the identity of blogger Tbogg (who you'll recall recently gave me a copy of Network on DVD), even though this identity was pretty much already known to anyone who cared. He even signed the note that came with my DVD with his real name. In the comments section, Patterico shows up to defend himself. Then, Deb Fritch, an insane woman who has threatened blogger Jeff Goldstein's family, comes around to throw around some senseless vulgarity. Then, a really nutty guy shows up who says that he has solved the OJ Simpson murder case and that Patterico won't face him "legally," whatever that means. It's a primer about how any discussion, even what appears to be a rational one, will eventually devolve into playground name-calling and off-the-wall accusations.

Lefty blogs are at their best when they ignore whatever line of bullshit Ken Mehlman has excreted this week or whatever their critics have to say about them and go on the attack. And right-wing blogs are at their best when they give free reign to unintentionally hilarious apocalypse-minded religious zealots to inaccurately reference Scripture.

Communications majors will tell you that impressions become reality over time - if someone is presented to people as charming, they will eventually be seen that way. (Will in "Big Brother" proves this perfectly. He tells everyone he has charisma, that he will charm them and win them over, so of course that's exactly what he does. Everyone wants to listen to and obey instructions if they are offered in the right context).

But just because the media has the tools and the knowledge to shape messages and sell them to the public doesn't mean they should use it to start wars or encourage torture. In fact, they probably shouldn't use it at all. I know guys like George Clooney want TV and movies to start radically altering the public's perspective on social issues, but I personally feel like it's just too powerful. That we should just show reality TV, game shows and cartoons on the air and let people make up their own minds about politics and world events.

I'm totally serious. I propose an immediate cease-fire for all television political coverage. Just stop immediately. No more news on TV. If you want to find out what's going on in the world, you have to read a newspaper or go online or ask someone you trust to keep you updated on stuff like the drunken rantings of well-known insane Malibu residnets. We gave TV a shot, and it just can't handle the job. It only knows how to lightly entertain. It means well, but in the end, using television to educate Americans is like using a harpoon as a tampon. Woefully inadequate for the job and likely to do more harm than good.

I'll make an exception for "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" with the acknowledgement that they'll probably go off the air anyway for lack of material. This will be disappointing, but still advantageous in the big picture.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

This is a Warning...I'll Spell it Out For You...

I woke up this morning at about 9 am in horrible, horrible pain. So blinding and disorienting was the discomfort in and around my head, it took a few minutes simply to discern what body part actually hurt. I'm pretty sure I've never had a headache severe enough to classify as a migraine, but this is what I'd imagine one would feel like. The kind of sharp, clenched pain that makes it impossible to think. All you can do is focus on how much you hurt, no matter how hard you try.

It turns out, yet again, we were dealing with tooth pain. This is the goddamndest thing. For years (years!), I never went to the dentist and for years my teeth felt absolutely 100% fine. No complaints. Then, my father starts working in tandem with a Los Angeles dental office, so I have no more excuse for not taking care of my teeth. Suddenly, after going for regular cleanings and getting some cavities filled, I'm having all kinds of crazy tooth problems. It's as if they're making sure to bust up some other part of my mouth every time they go in there to fix something, guaranteeing return business. Oh, man, Koreatown dental office...I am so on to you...

This is the second time one of my wisdom teeth has developed a severe cavity unbeknownst to me. In my experience, when most teeth develop severe cavities, they start to issue forth a piercing, unpleasant sensation. A toothache. It's annoying. You'd want to get to a dentist soon to get it taken care of. But it's a background kind of pain, the sort of thing that will prove bothersome but not life-interruptive. But when a wisdom tooth develops a deep cavity, it feels like they're botching the Big Dig right there is your jaw. I couldn't even move my head.

It felt as if I was using that metal ball from Phantasm as an Everlasting Gobstopper. As if that weren't enough, there were two more problems. (1) The dental office I regularly visit in Koreatown is closed on Wednesdays. (2) I had a ticket to see Hot Chip play at the Troubadour this very night.

For a while, I thought that perhaps I could take some pain medication, grin and bear it for today and then go see the dentist tomorrow morning before work. Sure, it might ruin the vibe of the concert, but the only alternative was to drive down to my father's dental office in Orange County to have him look at my teeth. After a few hours of wincing in pain and trying unsuccessfully to distract myself by watching "Amazing Stories" on DVD, I gave in and took the trip to Costa Mesa.

A brief side note: My dad is a dentist but he has never been my dentist. I'm not quite sure why. He certainly seems competent. To my knowledge, no one has ever sued him for malpractice or anything like that. He certainly seems to share the professional fetish for shiny metal hooks. My parents just thought there would be something weird about the man who raised me also cramming his fingers into my mouth and prodding around in there. But I guess when you think about it in those terms, it's odd anyone has that job.

So this was to be the first time my father would actually perform dentistry on me (or anyone in my immediate family, to the best of my knowledge). The pressure must have been intense. After all, you mess up and accidentally overdose some random patient on nitrous, you can just dump the body somewhere and hope that no one knew they had an appointment with you that day. But this is family.

It took a little work, but he managed to get the wisdom tooth out of there alright. The bedside manner could maybe use a little work. At one point, before injecting the roof of my mouth with novocaine, he told me "you're not going to like this." It did kind of hurt, but I've never had a dentist just come out and tell me he was going to harshly jab me with a needle in such direct terms. Also, he kept pointing out to me that the tooth in question was in the way way back of my mouth, and thus was hard to see.

"Can't hardly get back there," he'd note as I'm gaping wide-eyed at him from the dental chair. "Hope I can see alright! Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's the right tooth. After this, I'll go ahead and sew you up!"

Other than that, it went fine and didn't even take all that long. So I was able to get back to LA in plenty of time to see UK's electronic pop combo Hot Chip tonight. Turned out to be a fairly terrific show.

Hot Chip's latest disc, Mercury Prize nominee The Warning, will almost certainly place among my favorite releases this year. In fact, let me try to list a year-thus-far Top Ten List for your convenience right now, in no particular order:

TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
Hot Chip, The Warning
Tapes n' Tapes, The Loon
Midlake, The Trials of Van Occupanther
Neil Young, Living With War
Destroyer, Rubies
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
Starlight Mints, Drowaton
Thom Yorke, The Eraser
Sunset Rubdown, Shut Up I Am Dreaming

This is shaping up to be a pretty great year for new music. It was really easy to come up with 10 great albums so far, and I had to leave off some other stuff I've enjoyed (like Band of Horses, Silversun Pickups, Jolie Holland, Morrissey and the Raconteurs). Oh, and while we're on the subject, the two biggest disappointments so far this year are the new albums from Built to Spill and the Flaming Lips. Two once-great artists now spinning their respective wheels.

But back to Hot Chip...

I most frequently hear them compared to their DFA labelmates LCD Soundsystem, whose drummer Pat Mahoney played with The Chip tonight, but to me they sound more like Beck or AIR than the post-punk-dance-funk-whatever of LCD or, say, The Rapture. Yes, it's hooky British pop songwriting teamed with sampled beats, but Hot Chip's sound is more about the vocals than the production.

The band sounded great live, which is kind of an uncertainty for a band working so intimately with a DJ. Sometimes, what sounds great mixed on an album comes off as perfunctory or uninspired in a live setting. Not Hot Chip, which really comes alive as a band in its own right on stage. The songs get kind of shuffled around and reinterpreted in the live venue. Sometimes, repeated samples used in the album versions aren't in the live versions, and some of these relatively small switches can totally alter the song.

The addition of drums in the live setting as well added a sharp, propulsive element to the performance. You don't realize how much energetic, adroit drumming adds to a band's live show until you see some guys play without a drummer. I saw Sebadoh a short while back at the Troubadour, and in lieu of a drummer, Lou Barlow would just start a tape of himself playing pre-recorded drum accompaniment. It was kind of adorable in a semi-pathetic, throwback 90's slacker kind of way...but I can't help but think those songs would kick way more ass with a real, in-person drum section.

Likewise, opening "act" (and I use the term loosely) Bobby Birdman went up on stage all by his lonesome and rapped-sung over entire pre-recorded songs. Seriously. He just stood up there, played recorded songs and then did a weird spoken-word thing over them. It was highly comical to me for about two minutes, then it started to get really annoying. Really really annoying.

Then I started thinking about the arrogance of putting on this kind of performance. I mean, he had an okay voice, I guess, from what I could tell on the rare occasions when he'd actually bother to sing a line instead of pseudo-rap it. But what makes you think, "Hey, people will want to watch me jam over a pre-recorded song on a stage! So much so, that they should have to pay me to do it!"

Don't get me wrong...If Russell Simmons ever puts together a "Not Particularly Def White Guy Poetry" pilot for HBO, he should definitely look up Mr. Birdman. (No, not that Mr. Birdman). I just can't see the guy ever selling out arenas. Or showcases in Branson. Or the Troubadour.

The choices of songs played off of The Warning struck me as kind of odd. First single "Over and Over" was saved for the encore, of course, but the equally popular title track from the album wasn't played at all. My favorite song from the album, "Boy from School," thankfully was played (and sounded great, with the harmonizing of Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard reminding me of The Beatles) as well as the hypnotic album closer "No Fit State."

It was a brief show, lasting a bit under an hour with a one-song encore, but that's just as well. The Troub was packed tonight (packed!) and it was a such a fast-moving, lively, bouncy kind of show, I'd have found too much more musical goodness exhausting. After a while, I get kind of claustrophobic at these type of shows, tonight even more so because these two girls were dancing together right in front of me and one kept inadvertedly slamming her purse into my gut and side.

These two girls were clearly in love with one another. They could not take their eyes off one another for a second. I'm not sure they ever even glanced in the direction of the band playing for their amusement not 20 feet away. They just danced together and stared longingly into one another's eyes.

Yet I clearly heard one of them speak more than once about her boyfriend. It made me wonder about the further details of their story. Is the other girl a lesbian who is trying to seduce this heterosexual girl? Are they theoretically "platonic" friends who don't realize what is clear to everyone else? I swear, I wasn't trying to invade on their private lives during the show. I went to go see Hot Chip. I just kept getting distracted by having a purse slammed into me.

And they were more interesting than the losers smushed up against my other side. They were this odd hipster chick who kept doing strange, Madonna/Kaballah hand signals through the whole show, and this bald older guy who desperately wanted to have sex with her. She was pushing through the crowd, trying to find a spot with enough room to do her Kaballah dance while making sure that everyone could see what she was doing. He kept doggedly following her around, nearly knocking me over at one point so he could at least be within 3 people of where she was dancing. Clearly, they had come in together, and she would occasionally look over and acknolwedge his presence, but it was in more of a "isn't this band neat?" way than a "take me home right now for a little ground n' pound" kind of way. If you catch my meaning...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains...And About 8 Minutes of Your Time

All of my years of higher education have, at this point, congealed into one large clump of vaguely-recalled factual information. If you want to save a few tens of thousands of dollars, I recommend you go online and research the definition for as many words ending with -ism as you can find. This is basically a substitute for a graduate-level degree.

You can get through any conversation and sound intelligent if you can throw a few -isms in there. Want to get even more fancy? Throw in an additional adjective modifying the -ism, then follow up by citing an obscure author by only his or her last name. Make up an author if you can't really think of one, but if you're ever in doubt, feel free to use any of the following: Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Zinn or Barthes.

Here's a handy little guide.

BAD: "I didn't like Eyes Wide Shut. I mean, what's with them playing that one piano note for, like, an hour or something? I can't believe I was bored by a movie with this many boobs in it, but there you go."

MEDIOCRE: "I didn't like Eyes Wide Shut, even though I'm usually a fan of Kubrick's films. I found Burgess' tribute to the late director particularly moving."

GOOD: "A fine example of the problems with nihilistic postmodernism, Eyes Wide Shut shows us a side of Kubrick that's both pragmatic and dialectical, giving the film the aesthetic exuberance evident in the work of the early Fauvists."

MULTIPLE PH.D.'S: "Recontextualizing the positivist, authoritarian, antidisestablishmanterian impulse running through his prior work, as well as the writings of Schlondorffenfurffner, Kubrick exterminates any notion of the Real in the Hegelian sense to push the cinema in a bold new direction, what Metz might refer to as the fableux du rigeur collectionneuse blanche."

It's just that simple.

This next YouTube video represents one of the few elements of my USC education I have retained to this day. (That and several tens of thousands of dollars in student loans). A short film called Manifestoon, I watched this little slice of brilliance in a film class and it has stuck with me ever since.

Some genius has his friend read Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto while running textually-appropriate clips from old cartoons. The effect is mesmerizing, mainly because they find such perfect examples of the concepts being discussed in the essay. I'm not sure exactly was it illustrates - perhaps that, even though we pretend that Communism was defeated and the world has moved on, these ideas were in the air back when these cartoons were being made and remain pertinent to this day. Or maybe it's just funny to see Disney cartoons used against themselves, as visual aids describing the exploitation of workers by mega-corporations like the Walt Disney Company.

Here it is. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mel Watch, Day 4

I'll admit it...I'm fascinated by this Mel Gibson thing. Fascinated.

The first thing that's clear: he clearly holds prejudices against the Jews. I've read a few articles and posts around the Web in the past few days implying that, well, he was just drunk and you go nuts when you get drunk and you say stuff you don't mean. Here's Michael Gaynor in a post from Primitive Screwhead Central Renew America, courtesy of the good people at Sadly No! He's taken this opportunity not only to defend Mr. Gibson, but to attack Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League:

I don’t know exactly what Mr. Gibson said and whether press reports embellished or underreported, but the key points do not depend on the details: (1) anti-Semitism is a sin and thus to be avoided, not indulged in, and (2) Mr. Gibson, an alcoholic who admittedly suffered a relapse, does NOT encourage anti-Semitism when he is sober and, as a vile ranting of a drunken man, any anti-Semitic remark he made are not to be taken as divine revelation conveyed through Mr. Gibson.

Mr. Gibson presumably is genuinely remorseful, and God presumably has forgiven Mr. Gibson. BUT, Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, has NOT. Instead of taking the high road and accepting the apology, Mr. Foxman took the low road (and he was sober!).

Gaynor wants to forward this theory that alcohol makes you believe shit you wouldn't otherwise believe. This does apply in some specific cases. For example, I typically believe that urinating on one of the trees lining Washington Blvd. in Culver City is wrong, but I've been known to think otherwise after 7-10 beers. This, however, is not a deeply-held sentiment.

But I don't get drunk and immediately start talking shit on the Argentinians or anything. Because I don't hate them and alcohol doesn't work like that. It might be more fun if it did. If you could just down a couple shots and suddenly have this completely alternative political agenda. "Hey, I never realized it before, but I'd kind of like to bomb a federal building! This sour apple martini is delicious!"

What happens is, you get drunk and all the shit you think all the time but don't say suddenly releases its ugly self upon the world. Think about it. Drunk dialing may be the most pernicious social hazard of our time. Now that everyone has a cell phone, stupid late-night alcohol-fueled phone conversations that wind up radically reconfiguring a personal relationship must be up, like, 200,000,000%. Before, you'd have to think of the mean-spirited or inadvertedly flirtatious thing you were going to say to the person while still at the bar, get all the way home, remember the individual's phone number, dial and then begin speaking. Now, you're only ever two buttons away from making a complete ass out of yourself.

So, okay, Mel hates Jews. I kind of knew this already, but now it has been officially confirmed.

The latest updates on the case are these:

Mel has an ongoing problem with alcohol and has checked himself into a facility in Malibu.

Some reports are saying that Mel Gibson was suicidal on Thursday night and would probably be dead right now if officers had not pulled him over and stopped his rampage. From Nikki Finke:

I'm told by a source intimate with his situation tonight that Mel Gibson "was really on the verge of suicide because he felt he was helpless to alcohol and didn't know what to do about it." Sure, my reaction was: sounds like spin. But the source here is someone I've known closely for years. Make your own judgment -- here's the rest of what he told me about Gibson (mugshot left): "No one's really asking questions about his state of mind. That's why he was driving around 90 miles an hour. This was a death wish. If that cop hadn't stopped him, this guy was going to be wrapped around a pole. This is such a bigger issue than 'Will he work again?' This is about his not wanting to live anymore. I've seen what he's gone through and what he's going through. You have to understand the disease of alcoholism. He was back in it. There's no doubt in my mind he was trying to kill himself that night."

If Mel ever works in this town again, I think he should at least consider taking over Charles Bronson's Death Wish series of films. "They ridiculed his films...They insulted his father...They murdered his savoir...Now, he's gonna but the DIE back in Judaism! Mel Gibson's Death Wish." Oh man...I wanna see that movie so bad...

No, but seriously...I kid Mel Gibson...I kid...

It does sound like spin, I'll admit. But could this be true? It's clear the guy harbors some deep-seated resentment against the Jews. He's all but admitting that. But it's hard not to feel bad for someone who is this out of control. A guy who has everything but who's this tortured inside and demented by rage.

Then there's his latest public statement:

STATEMENT FROM MEL GIBSON August 2, 2006 -- There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of Anti-Semitic remark. I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge. I am a public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena. As a result, I must assume personal responsibility for my words and apologize directly to those who have been hurt and offended by those words. The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life. Every human being is God’s child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honor his children. But please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith. I’m not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one on one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing. I have begun an ongoing program of recovery and what I am now realizing is that I cannot do it alone. I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display, and I am asking the Jewish community, whom I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery. Again, I am reaching out to the Jewish community for its help. I know there will be many in that community who will want nothing to do with me, and that would be understandable. But I pray that that door is not forever closed. This is not about a film. Nor is it about artistic license. This is about real life and recognizing the consequences hurtful words can have. It’s about existing in harmony in a world that seems to have gone mad.

So he's definitely admitting that he has a Jew problem. He says "I am not an anti-Semite" but then he goes right into asking the Jewish community for help with his vaguely-described "problem." I don't see what he thinks these Jewish organizations can really do for him, even if he is an alcoholic. How can a Jew convince someone to not be an anti-Semite?

MEL: Hey, I want to heal myself. Can you help me?

JEW: Okay.

MEL: I just...I just hate Jews.

JEW: Um...please don't.

MEL: But I just do.

JEW: Why?

MEL: Because you start all the wars. And control all the banks. And Hollywood. And you killed Jesus. Plus, my father said something about the Holocaust being made up.

JEW: But that's all just lies and propaganda. We're really nice guys.

MEL: But how do I know this isn't propaganda right now? What if you do control all the banks and Hollywood and you just want me to think you don't?

JEW: It's not.

MEL: I'm so confused. Man, I hate you guys!

And so forth.

Couple of other weird bits.

I am a public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena.

What he said would be just as wrong if he were a private citizen. We all just wouldn't know about it. (Let's not forget, in addition to anti-Semitic slurs, he called a female officer "sugar tits." So it's a case of overall intolerant assholery not limited to just one specific group.)

The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life.

No, you should exercize charity and tolerance as a way of life because that's the proper way to live and the only fair way to treat fellow human beings. Not because the book you worship told you so. It's almost as if he'd love to be intolerant, if only the Bible permitted such behavior.

This is not about a film. Nor is it about artistic license.

Even here, int he middle of his soul-searching SECOND PUBLIC STATEMENT of contrition, he has to defend that stupid Christ movie. Dude, Mel, this is totally about a film. Granted, it's not just about you any more. It's about a large sector of America obsessing over an anti-Semitic screed and then convincing themselves that it's not anti-Semitic. Like it or not, your arrest confirms what some of us have been saying all along about this movie.

Okay, so having raised those issues...I have to say, otherwise, it's hard to read this statement and not feel for the guy. He's troubled. Some might say "insane." But it can't be easy to have been raised by King Batshit of Insania Hutton Gibson and he's clearly an out-of-control drunk.

It's just so hard to turn off the cynicism any more for two seconds. I read this and my first thought is, "Oh, it's just PR. He's got some representative writing all this stuff up for him, making him sound like a good guy who made a mistake." Maybe it's genuine, but I'd say probably not.


Monday, July 31, 2006

90 Year Old Twisted Lonely Perverts and Other Subjects

You all may have noticed that I'm updating the blog less these days. I've been exceptionally busy lately. One of Laser Blazer's trio of managers has been in Europe for the past month, splitting his time between selling hot antique furniture on the Spanish coastline and kicking ornery Ukranians out of condos. Or so I've been told. Plus, I've started tutoring young people around the Southland for the impending October SAT test. Not to mention all that screenwriting I'm supposed to be doing during my free time.

As if working two jobs and writing during off hours weren't enough to keep someone occupied, did I mention the 400 hours of "Big Brother" broadcast weekly on CBS? If you've never seen this show, good. You're one of the lucky ones. Let us never speak of it again. For those of us unfortunate enough to watch the show regularly, following the action requires an incredibly serious, all-consuming level of TV-viewing. I've seen successful marriages run on less commitment and invested time.

CBS airs "Big Brother" thrice weekly (as part of its exciting "We Got Nuthin'" line-up of programming!) Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. I've spent more time this month with Howie, Janelle, the evil Dr. Will than I have with my own roommates.

So little time have I spent in my room, in fact, that the cat has essentially claimed it as his own. When Sasha the Cat first moved in here, along with roommates Joe and Sig, he was tentative about approaching my room. It was uncharted territory and I was unfamiliar.

In the ensuing months, he's grown quite accustomed to life around here. The discovery of a large window at the back of my room, looking out over a fetid alley, an overgrown sap-heavy tree and the wall of an adjacent apartment building proved exciting for the little guy. I feel kind of bad, because Sasha's strictly an indoor cat and never gets to prowl around the neighborhood or chase birds or any other cat-like activities. (This is probably for the best, as he's an anxiety-prone specimen and would probably wind up just curling up in the fetal position and mewling for help if left to his own devices). So as a replacement for the feeling of actually being outside, he like sto climb up on my bed, peer out the window and ocassionally claw at the screen.

Here's the weird part: he'll only go up there if the blinds are closed. If I can see him, he won't bother. It's like he can't bear the idea of me watching him watch the window.

Right after I pulled back the shades and took this picture, Sasha freaked out and jumped down to the ground and ran out of the bedroom. I can't imagine what his problem would be with me seeing him at the window. He could probably escape that way if he really wanted to, but I'm not overly worried about it, and I don't give him shit ever for going up there. It would be tempting to assign some abstract, human psychology reason for this - it calls attention to his own voyeurism when he's being watched while watching others, or some such thing - but he's a cat and cats are stupid. So he must think I'm going to whip him around by his tail or refuse to give him food tonight or something.

Sometimes, I'll come back from work and enter my room and hang out for a few minutes without even realizing he's up there. Then he'll dart out from behind the blinds, race out of the room and I'll have a mild coronary from the shock. It's an odd and altogether new feeling for me to be suddenly and without warning set upon by an energetic feline. I'm still adjusting.

This past month has been a transitional one. I'm not someone who generally enjoys being busy. In fact, quite the opposite. I tend more towards the "lazy fuck" side of the spectrum than the "ambitious young go-getter" side. But I must say, I have kind of enjoyed getting into the tutoring. After years of working in an independent Los Angeles video store specializing in rare and out of print DVD's and Laserdiscs, it's nice to be around people who aren't 90 years old, twisted by loneliness and mental illness, perverts or 90 year old twisted lonely perverts. (Seriously...most days, I feel like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in there..."Would you all please line up to take your medication so we can have nap time? No, Chief, put that DVD down. Put it down and take your medication. It's time for your nap!")

Despite being a nice break from clerking 24-7, the tutoring gig can occasionally be repetitive. There's only so many strategies and methods you need to do well on the SAT verbal, and so I wind up imparting a lot of identical nuggets to all the kids, no matter how much I try to personalize the program. I've only been doing it a short while and already I can feel myself slipping into a pattern during lessons. I'm sure this happens with real, full-time teachers as well. Mr. Sewell's AP U.S. History Class was all new for me, but I can't even imagine how sick to death of the Whiskey Rebellion and the XYZ Affair he must have been before I came along.

Also, I know it has probably been a while since most of you have taken the SAT, but let me assure you, it totally sucks. What a stupid test. It's as if a large group of people sat down and purposefully attempted to devise the most tricky, labyrinthine, convoluted way to test a student's handle on the English language. "Hey, I know, we could make them read a long, boring passage about the early development of the soldering iron, write an essay detailing their specific feelings on the topic of 'creativity' and then ask them trick questions about dangling participles! That'll determine if they're ready to handle 4 years at an overprized private university or my name's not Random College Board Beurocrat!"

Those reading comprehension passages are like punishment. Maybe not Bush Administration-"jab my in the ass with something sharp and electrified" punishment, the kind that approaches but doesn't include organ failure...but punishment all the same.

I know, I know, they purposefully choose dull writing samples to force kids to focus and concentrate...But come on. I've read more interesting, thought-provoking material on tubes of Astroglide. These passages make Kant's Critique of Pure Reason seem approachable and clear by comparison. "Yes, yes, I get it...A posteriori judgements are based on empiricism while a priori judgements derive from the rational progression of ideas as opposed to anecdotal or observed evidence. But why do I give a shit about the habitat of the weasel again?"

Don't we want to instill in our young people a fondness for reading? Should we really make their first exposure to the kinds of writing they'll see in college a passage about Greek Revival architecture written in the mid 40's? Also, I should point out that one of the passages we have the students read in our workbook - a passage and questions that really appeared on the test a few years back - comes off as sexist and offensive.

It's from this book, Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor...The British novelist one). I'm guessing that the overall book is probably not sexist or offensive. But the passage, read out of context, implies that Angel's mother - called Mrs. Deverell - lives only to cook and clean and has no other use in life. Most likely, in the grander scheme of the novel, this sad fate contrasts the fate of the protagonist, who grows up to become a novelist and attempts to live a life of experience and ambition.

But the passage is just about a lonely old woman who misses cooking for her husband and doing his laundry. Why is this on the test? The level of the actual writing must have been the selling point - the prose is careful and expressive but not overly wordy, excessively descriptive, confusing or overflowing with difficult vocabulary. The subject matter, an old lady reminiscing sweetly about how she used to whisk eggs, strikes me as patriarchial to an excessive degree.

Wow, now that's a digression. Hopefully, no student will read this blog as a primer on essay-writing, because this post wouldn't earn a 6 (out of 12). I'm jumping around all over the place, not to mention constantly misusing commas.

I was saying that the tutoring job is occasionally repetitive, but was about to make the point that the good about it far outweighs the not-good.. In particular, tutoring is actually kind of rewarding in an odd way. I've always worked in stores or cubicles, places where the results of a hard days work are intangibles. Sure, the store remained open all day and the company delivered its product to clients on time or whatever, but there's no actual end result I can look at and admire. (Okay, when I wrote subtitles for DVD's, I could then go back and watch the subtitle tracks if I wanted to. That was actually kind of depressing. So many hours of labor and most people will own the DVD and never even use the feature!)

But if I go to a kid's house for a few 90 minute lessons and he starts actually doing better, improving his scores, well that's an actual real-world accomplishment. Which would be a first for me.

Miami Vice

Though it's an adaptation of one of the most iconic American TV shows of the 1980's, and the title "Miami Vice" has become all but synonymous with big hair, pink neon and white suits, Michael Mann's latest cop drama takes place in a gritty, solemn present day Florida. He's chosen to abandon the recognizable trappings that would help sell the idea of a Miami Vice movie, to reuse the original show's central concept and format while updating the look and the style for contemporary audiences. The result works better than could possibly be expected; along with The Fugitive, it represents the very pinnacle of the TV-to-film crossover genre, if only because it's willing to completely alter the sensibility of the show while keeping the essential themes and fetishes intact.

I've read more than one review implying that the movie Miami Vice bears no resemblance whatsoever to the TV show. This is a superficial reading of the movie, focusing only on the fashion and the music and the cinematography. In fact, Mann's film follows the format of an old "Miami Vice" episode exactly. It's not some new, completely fresh take on the notion of narcotics officers in Miami; it's more like a fusion of the old "Miami Vice" show, Mann's previous thriller Collateral and an episode of the "Cops" reality show.

Two cops go undercover and meet several colorful characters from the Florida black market drug scene. Their team makes use of the latest in surveillance, transportation and weapons technology, placing these two on the cutting edge of some of the most dangerous police work in the country. They start to get in over their heads, beginning an affair with one of their underground contacts and making powerful enemies. Finally, decisions and sacrifices and busts are made, some baddies die and some get away, and everything returns to an awkward, uneasy stasis, a tentative truce between the cops and the smugglers. Sounds like "Miami Vice" to me!

Possibly because he's making a single, densely-plotted film, Mann tends to gloss over some of the human details that would be more fleshed out in serialized format. Crockett (Colin Farrell) and his partner Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are established early on in broad strokes - one's the ambitious, girl-crazy hotshot while the other a more calm, tactical and judicious officer with a steady girlfriend (Naomie Harris) and a strong desire to live past the next few days. That's about all we'll get in terms of character development. These are characters designed to take the audience on a whirlwind tour of a fantastical, over-the-top universe of criminality, not to touch us with their deeply-felt human suffering.

In fact, considering that the film's longer-than-average, there's shockingly little standard, generic "filler material." Crockett and Tubbs both have women in their lives, but we're spared the usual cop movie "baby don't go out tonight stay home with me and the children" sequences. Though they get kidnapped somewhat frequently, it's to Mann's credit that the movie is filled with tough no-nonsense women. In addition to Harris' Trudy, a committed member of the narcotics team, there are several other female officers and even a steely female drug kingpin on hand.

Several other cops fill out their team, but Mann doesn't bother with the expected "getting to know the crew" montage. In fact, though they're almost uniformly played by recognizable character actors, most are never named and get only a few random, expositional lines...This is Farrell and Foxx's show all the way. There isn't even an opening credit sequence - the Universal logo appears and suddenly we're plunged into a Miami nightclub, the sounds of Jay Z and Linkin Park's "Numb" mash-up blaring through the surround sound speakers. The action simply begins, sans any kind of exposition or even an announcement that you're about to see Miami Vice.

The plot, as it is, comes together in bits and pieces. Crockett and Tubbs hear from an old informant (John Hawkes), terrified and on the run, who had been working lately with the FBI. Following up on this information, they become involved in a sting operation designed to nab an Aryan prison gang dealing large quantities of cocaine. In order to catch the white supremacists, they must get in good with slimy South American middle man Yero (John Ortiz) and his boss, the exotic and brash Isabella (Gong Li).

It sounds complicated, but the story unfolds in a most straightforward fashion. Crockett and Tubbs movie their way slowly up the ladder, constantly proving themselves to every new criminal they meet. This pared-down narrative, heavy on incident and light on nuance, gives the movie a rare realism and immediacy, highlighted by the sometimes grainy handheld digital photography. In Collateral, Mann and cinematography Dion Beebe used this technique to give Los Angeles an eerie, otherworldly and even menacing beauty. I find the shot of a coyote's eyes reflecting the lights of the city more haunting and memorable than any of the film's actual dialogue or set pieces. Here, they render Miami a good deal brighter and more colorful, giving even the nighttime scenes a lurid, blueish tint.

The handheld shots work in much the same way. Filming from just over an actor's shoulder, or below looking up into their face, Mann gives the film a real you-are-there vibe, one that, as I said before, is occasionally reminiscent of reality TV. In many sequences, it just amps up the film's energy and keeps the pacing brisk. Songs back up directly into one another, running over from one scene to the next, and coupled with a lack of establishing shots or transitions, Mann suggests an entire film as one elongated event.

Other times, Mann and Beebe's experimentation yields even more thrilling results. The audience is placed right in the middle of the final gun battle, in which white supremacist drug dealers face off against a Haitian-based drug ring, the Miami Dade police department and the FBI on the waterfront. Most action sequences are shot from some measure of distance, the purported goal being to give the viewer a sense of the complete picture, allowing for an understanding of the physics and spacing of the stunt or violent conflict. This is more akin to something like Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. It's an immersive feeling.

This sequence, and a few other shootout scenes featuring high-tech weaponry, features the best sound design I have heard in any film this year. Probably for the last few years. The surround sound in that gun fight has a loud, thudding finality to it, a real and tactile sense for the massive amounts of damage these firearms can do to buildings and human bodies. As Beebe's camera whips around, shrapnel clanging off the ground and explosions blaring in the distance, the sensation of being in the center of the action far outstrips any kind of broader understanding of the gunfight that Mann might give us by backing up into an establishing shot.

It strikes me that Mann accomplishes here what Tony Scott tries unsuccessfully for in films like Domino. He tries to increase the tension in a scene by layering shots over one another and cutting quickly between images. Mann will sometimes leave a single shot on screen for three times as long as an average Tony Scott cut, but his camera's constantly in motion, poking around the scene as a human eye might, constantly scanning for salient details and even darting quickly out of harm's way.

Really, it's this philosophy that underpins the entire film. It's more fun to experience the world of Miami Vice from the inside, focusing on specific outlandish and violent incidents while ignoring the big picture, than it would be to see this kind of story unfold in a more straight-ahead, conventional and concise manner. Sure, this makes it easy to get lost in the shuffle, and it makes it difficult to develop any kind of genuine concern for the characters who inhabit this fanciful, dark world. But screw it. That's not what "Miami Vice" was ever about anyway. It's about sexy people shuttling around cocaine on fast boats while shooting at one another. And it would be hard to conceive of a film doing that kind of thing better than this one.