Saturday, November 25, 2006

Clerks II

The original Clerks works because it doesn't really work. The performances are largely atrocious. There is no artistry whatsoever to the filmmaking. That's not even an insult. Writer/director Kevin Smith was compelled to put these characters and this situation and this dialogue to film, but he wasn't really trying to do anything with the visuals. You sense, if he could have gotten exposure by publishing the screenplay, he might just as well have gone that route.

Looking back, Clerks stands as one of the best encapsulations of the whole '90s indie Sundance aesthetic. An unknown guy from New Jersey, armed with relatively inexpensive equipment, tells an extremely simple story with deliriously funny, filthy dialogue about a pair of hapless, amotivational losers who work numbing retail jobs. The style perfectly matches the content - lazy, tossed off, novice but also deeply personal and genuine. The actors are Smith's friends, the sets are real locations in his hometown and the experiences are based on his own years working dumb, mindless jobs, and this stark honesty comes through in every scene and every joke.

What's remarkable about the film is how little Smith gets away with actually showing on-screen. Certainly, if even half of the activities discussed in the film were visualized, Clerks would be banned in this and every other country. But pretty much all the action in the film is merely discussed, not presented. Part of this is necessity. Smith couldn't afford the time or the money to set up and execute sequences in multiple locations. So people come into the convenience store and inform the audience as to what was happening, to spare us the trouble of travelling around.

The writing is just so entertaining, the dialogue so spry and descriptive, Smith manages to get away with the logic and cinematic gaps on charm alone.

Bearing all this in mind, it's clear that Clerks II was doomed from the start.

(1) It's no longer based on real experiences.

Smith hasn't spent his 30's working a stupid job at a fast food restaurant like hsi characters. He's spent his 30's having a successful career as a film director and Geek Hero, building a legion of obsessive fans, marrying an attractive blonde (Jennifer Schwalbach, who appears in the film as clerk Dante's fiancee) and starting a family. The guy's busy, like an industry unto himself. (Let's not forget, in addition to making films, he writes comic books, he produces other people's films, he owns a comic book store in Westwood, he acts and pops up in documentaries and TV shows and he blogs. He even has a popular DVD featuring him having a Question and Answer session. It's so popular, there's a sequel coming out next week! A Q&A sequel!) It seems hard for him to really connect to the mindset of a bunch of slackers like Dante and Randal, so when it comes time at the end for him to resolve their deep personal issues, he's left to reach for generalizations and platitudes.

(2) Dante and Randal are no longer relatable.

These guys are too smart and resourceful to work at a fast food joint at their age, and Kevin Smith knows it. He clearly now sees his heroes, Dante and Randal, as somewhat pathetic. He's not wrong about that but he's written himself into a corner. In order for this story to work, they have to still be clerking after a decade, and for him, this means they are overgrown man-children who are constantly stigmatized, dejected and depressed.

(3) Smith's budget and resources now clash with the story.

As I said, the first film ideally matched grainy, on-the-cheap black-and-white cinematography to a story about guys who can't get their shit together. Now we're seeing a movie about those same guys, played by the same two amateurs (Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson), but on a Hollywood set in glossy, flourescent color cinematography surrounded by a few capable, professional actors. The shit clashes. You begin to notice the shortcomings that didn't matter so much in such a casual, outsider oddity like the first movie.

(4) Smith has really been making this movie over and over again for 12 years.

In the time since Clerks, Smith has never once stepped away from this exact kind of story and film. Mallrats simply melded the dialogue of Clerks with cheesy '80s teen comedy (with disastrous results). Chasing Amy melded the dialogue and outlook of Clerks with a painful sub-Cameron Crowe relationship drama. Dogma melded Clerks-style dialogue (and two of the main characters from Clerks) with heavy-handed Catholic overtones. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was another Clerks-style road movie, also with the Clerks drug-dealing duo Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith). And Jersey Girl abandoned the indie pretensions and the smut and infamously went for mainstream romantic comedy.

He's never strayed from this world, so Clerks II doesn't feel fresh or momentous or exciting for fans. It's just more of the same.

Okay, so those are the reasons this sequel was doomed from the start. As for why it doesn't work as an actual film...Well, how much time do you guys have? I'll try to keep this as brief as possible.

It's really really ugly. Smith has never been much of a visionary as a director, but he's been making films since the early '90s. Is it too much to ask that he try to improve a little? This is his worst looking film yet, a garish mixture of eye-melting yellows and purples that's lit like it was filmed entirely inside a colorblind dentist's office.

Dante and Randal are supposed to be in their early 30's but this harsh lighting makes it look like twice that. It's actually kind of gross. Their faces look all pockmarked and scarred, like they go to Seal's dermatologist.

Lighting aside, Smith's bumbling camera doesn't do anyone any favors. In one of the many scenes in which Dante and Randal have a circular argument, Smith swings the camera around them in tight, swift little ovals, all the while cutting between different angles. The effect is actually nauseating.

Still, no one expects sumptuous eye candy from this guy. If the script were half as good as the original, I wouldn't even bring it up. But unfortunately, the writing feels 10 different kinds of desperate. Like "random buttcheesk in the background" desperate. Characters breaking into song desperate. Silly facial hair desperate. Cake-throwing desperate. And nothing kills off comedy quicker than flopsweat.

I posited above the theory that Smith can't relate to Dante and Randal any more, so he can't figure out how to give their story any resonance all these years later. But that doesn't explain why he can't give them more funny shit to talk about and say. Clerks is fucking quotable:

"Hey, I'm a firm believer in the philosophy of a ruling class. Especially since I rule."

"Empire had the better ending. Luke gets his hand cut off by Boba Fett, Han gets frozen in carbonite. It's a bunch of downers. That's what life is. A serious of down endings. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets."

Smith always gives himself one line of dialogue as Silent Bob per movie, generally summing up the main character's key dilemma and providing a possible shot at redemption. In this film, when his big moment arrives, Smith says, "I've got nuthin'." Is that an actual admission, a sly moment of candor in the midst of a sarcasm fest?

Dante and Randal were losers in the first movie, forced to bear harrassment by customers and indignities at the hands of employers, but they nevertheless seemed like fun guys to be around. Spending 90 minutes with them was an enjoyable diversion. But without the zippy dialogue and sheer enthusiasm of the first go-around, they seem like two sad bastards.

Randal's previous antics, which included ditching work to play hockey and rent movies, knocking over a casket during a funeral and renting hermaphrodite porn, were just outrageous enough to be surprising and funny. Now, he's more creepy weirdo than lovable slob. He boasts about seducing underage girls, works overtime to break up his best friend's relationship, cruelly taunts a religious teenaged co-worker (Trevor Fehrman) and organizes a gay donkey show. He seems less and less like a snarky friend and more and more like a potential felon.

Smith revisits his Chasing Amy idea about close male friendships eventually morphing into a powerful but latent homosexual affair. Just as Ben Affleck's and Jason Lee's characters in Amy love one another, with Affleck eventually concluding that they should share a woman in order to feel closer, Clerks II focuses on the damage Dante's love life introduces to Randal's already tentative grip on reality. Basically, Randal's existence only makes sense if Dante's around. Without a best friend to make sarcastic quips to, Randal realizes that he's just a pathetic loner.

So we get a scene with the guys ditching work to ride around on a go-kart track while "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" plays on the soundtrack, and it's obvious that Smith intends to make the semi-romantic love connection clear. But why? It's not funny and the film only directly references the longing of the two leads in one brief moment (when Jay suggests that they have sex and get it over with). I think, if he wants to introduce the idea that Dante and Randal secretly want to fuck, he should have them fuck. Really. Why not? You brought up the idea, Kev, so let's have a little follow-through. To throw it out there and then back down immediately after you've spent 5 or 6 movies exploring it as a formal theme strikes me as cowardly.

Instead of a budding man-on-man love story, Smith spends the bulk of Clerks II exploring the nuances of Dante's once-again-complicated web of heterosexual relationships. He's become engaged to rich girl Emma (Schwalbach, Smith's wife) and plans to move with her to Florida to run her father's car wash. He's also become entangled with Becky (Rosario Dawson), the adorable tomboy who manages the Mooby's restaurant where he works. As in the first Clerks, when he was torn between the flighty but hot Caitlin and the committed but bossy Veronica, Dante must choose between maturing in an adult relationship with Emma or having fun with the girl he really and truly likes the best.

Putting Rosario Dawson in his movie was, hands down, the best decision Kevin made this time out. In the scene pictured above, Becky teaches an awkward Dante how to dance in anticipation of his wedding day. It's a really blatant, obvious way to get Rosario to move around and jiggle on camera, plus it lets Kevin revisit the "closing the store to hang out on the roof" idea from the first film.

But I'm not complaining. Dawson looks amazing in this scene. Unfortunately, it segues into an atrocious, pathetically half-assed "musical number" in which random extras show up and do kind of a Broadway softshoe to the Jackson 5. Oh, and we also get some random fat guy's buttcheeks sashaying around at a urinal in time to the music. Yikes.

The thing that irritates me the most about Smith is that he's been given this opportunity to make these films, and he doesn't really seem to try hard to improve as a filmmaker. He's got this extremely self-effacing thing instead. When challenged, he falls back on the fact that his movies are cheap, disposable entertainments that aren't designed to be brilliant visionary masterpieces. (In fact, the documentary on Disc 2 of the Clerks II DVD is titled "Back to the Well.")

I'm just not sure that admitting you're doing a half-assed job quite gets you off the hook. How many people could have taken the budget of Clerks II and churned out something far more worthwhile, something they really believed in rather than some lackadaisical trip back to the proverbial well? It's just a waste to keep making movies if your heart's not in it, and Kevin Smith's heart doesn't seem to be in this stuff any more. Even the crass sex jokes are phoned in this time around. The big "donkey show" joke that finishes out the movie is totally telescoped and obvious from the beginning of the film. I'll admit that Smith gets a few laughs out of the concept, but he also overplays his hand with the Jesus freak kid and ends the sequence on a grim, unfunny note, like an episode of "Ren and Stimpy" that morphs at the last second into "Wonder Showzen."

I kind of felt bummed out when the film was through. It's like a multimedia demonstration of the relentless passage of time, the tragedy of never being able to go back and recapture a fleeting moment from the past. Clerks, like the other highlights from that First Sundance Generation, has its place secured in pop culture history. But no amount of Roman numerals can resurrect that initial creative spark.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Water Water Everywhere...

Hey, fellow Americans? Want to see your military disgracing themselves on video? Care to see what the real American presence in Iraq looks like? Here's a video of some American troops taunting an Iraqi youth with a bottle of water. Hope you haven't eaten anything today...

"Thanks" to my friend Vineet for sending me this horrorshow. I can't decide which part I like best...The GI's laughing at the kid as he chases their truck, desperate for a small bottle of water, the soldier yelling "are you getting this? are you getting this?" to his friend, obviously hoping to watch the video later and laugh some more, or the fact that they don't even give the kid the water in the end.

What the hell are we doing over there again? Schoolyard taunts? Maybe this is an American training video for the new Iraqi Army. "How to be huge, thoughtless dicks that dehumanize everyone who doesn't look like you. Just like us! USA! USA!"

Look, it's not possible to win, okay? When Henry Kissinger says it's not possible to win, that means it's not fucking possible to win. He's a goddamn war criminal! (Did you know that H. Kissinger has to phone ahead to other countries he intends to visit, to make sure they're not planning to arrest him at the airport?) That would be like Bush hiring Idi Amin as an advisor, and then that guy telling him, "Look, I think you should back off on the killing. Self-control, dude! It's getting out of hand."

I think we're facing the distinct possibility that Iraq is gone and will never exist again. It was already a tentative coalition when we arrived there and plunged the place into chaos. What made us think we could rearrange all the pieces properly in a matter of weeks again? Oh yeah, severe mental retardation, I forgot.

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That...

The Michael Richards racism scandal has pretty much its course during the past 24 hour news cycle. Everyone's heard about it, seen that video and moved on with their lives. I'll admit, it gets less and less shocking each time you watch it. The first time, you're like, "Whoa, Kramer's a psycho." But you rewatch it and it starts to look like a very angry, desperate man trying to say the single most insulting think he can think of, hoping for a reaction, which then spirals out of control.

I'm bringing it up again only because John Derbyshire at the National Review has an initially interesting yet ass-backwards theory about the whole debacle.

The n-word rant by Michael Richards ("Kramer" in the Seinfeld show) was freaky enough in its own way, but it is the reporting and commenting on it that is more revealing of our current collective state of mind. I just note in passing the following two points:

(1) The language in which we discuss these things is as ritual and formulaic as a Papal anathema**. Richards didn't say, speak, or utter the offending words, he spewed them. Those words weren't insults or crudities, they were epithets. (I discovered by chance a year or so ago that my son believed "epithet" to be a synonym for the n-word.) People didn't find them obnoxious, annoying, outrageous, or insulting, but repugnant ... Etc., etc. You could program a computer to come up with commentary on events like this.

Okay, nothing too shocking here, although his first "point" is pretty thin. I'd say all the words he goofs on here are pretty appropriate to the situation. (I myself used one or two...) Screeching "nigger" to a crowd of people who have come to see a comedy show is, in fact, repugnant. Rejecting the word "repugnant" to describe a loud, hostile racist screed is like rejecting "Pasta Primavera" as a title for a zesty Italian noodle dish. Sure, I could have used other words, but why?

And "nigger" is a racial epithet. That's just a well-chosen noun. To call it a "crudity" is less accurate. Nigger has fallen out of use because it is a racial slur, not a dirty word. If he had called everyone "felching assgobblers" or "cockfucklers," that would have been crudity.

As for his final insult, mean to degrade all commentators who are not so wise and careful as The Derb in their assessments of pop culture moments, I suppose you probably could program a computer to concoct generic statements in response to racist outbursts. So what? You could also program a computer to concoct generic NRO columns.

Everything Bush does makes sense; you're just not high-level enough to understand it. He reminds me of a miracle baby created in a lab by combining the DNA of Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Jesus and a massive, bloodthirsty grizzly bear. Only more manly.

See? How hard was that?

Here's the part where John's argument actually started to make sense, causing me to panic and dial 9-1-1, certain I was having a stroke:

(2) There is much discussion about Richards' essential nature—is he or isn't he a racist? This is supposed to be a binary attribute, like being Armenian, homosexual, or club-footed: you either are, or you aren't, a racist. That seems to me all wrong. Every normal person harbors some identification with his race, as he does with his family, his nation, his mother-language group, his bowling league, etc. Group identification is a perfectly ordinary facet of human nature—though, like others, more intensely felt in some, less so in others, and possibly absent in a very few.

You know what? He's absolutely 100% right. (Well, okay, 95% right. I don't think being a homosexual is necessarily a binary attribute. Lots of people are somewhere in the undecided center on that issue. Actually, being Armenian isn't a black-or-white clear-cut proposition either. What if you're 1/2 Armenian? Or 1/4? So, fuck his analogies, but the rest is right.)

I'm just as guilty as anyone on this count. I commonly label people "racists" based on their behavior and/or language towards minorities, but this isn't entirely accurate. Most people are not strict "racists" or "non-racists." It's just a bunch of people who are at different points on a Tolerance Spectrum. When I call them "racists," I do not mean it as a 100% fool-proof, always accurate barometer of their attitudes towards every group of people. I just mean people like Michael Richards, Mel Gibson and John Derbyshire fall far more towards the Intolerant Asshat end of the spectrum than I feel is acceptable for a modern human being.

(Check out the handy euphamism "group identification." Like all insidiously perfect euphamisms, it takes something negative and turns it into a positive. You're not a terrified racist or xenophobe - you just really really love your own group! White Power Pride!)

Of course, as with other innate qualities—the urge to help oneself to other people's property, or to be intimate with attractive members of the opposite sex—this one is, among civilized people, circumscribed with rules and restraints. Under the system of manners prevailing in current American society, white people may express feelings about their whiteness, or about other folks' non-whiteness, only under a few extremely restricted circumstances, and are in fact taught from an early age to feel that white group identity is an unsavory and antisocial matter. (Non-white people have considerably more latitude in expressing their group identities. Try googling "association of black..." and see how many hits you get. Now change "black" to "white.")

And, just like that, we go completely off the fucking cliff.

Referring to racial sensitivity as manners strikes me as inappropriate. Not acting out on your deeply-felt bigotry isn't just proper etiquette, like eating your salad with the tiny fork or pulling out a chair for a lady. It's your duty as an American citizen to treat everyone else with dignity and respect. You have to, whether you like it or not.

Also, I hate this goddamn idiotic "white people aren't allowed to express their whiteness" nonsense. People have even left this stuff in comments on my blog posts before. "How come every culture gets to celebrate its traditions and heritage and white people don't...Minorities have it so good in this country...I want to start a Christian Club at my school..."

See, the thing is, white people don't need special secret groups to celebrate their Caucasiocity. This entire nation is a celebration of whiteness. Every day is National White Motherfucker Awareness Day!

There is definitely an Association of White Businessmen, Derb! It's called Every Fucking Industry in America! Jesus Christ, you want a group photo? Take a look at a list of the richest CEO's sometime. There's no way John Derbyshire is this dumb. He's just making up this bullshit to boost the spirits of his readers, whom he obviously knows via state-of-the-art demographic-focused market research are bitter, elderly white people upset that the Negro is taking over this country with his jive talking and his inflatable sneakers.

This nonsense about a lack of whtie group identity. Aren't we all sick of this idiocy by now?

I think white people have fully expressed an open desire to stick together and protect their own, thank you very much. Been to Central Orange County lately? Go to any major street in Irvine during the Power Walking Hour on any Saturday and you'll think you've stumbled into the Pale Whitey Pride Parade. Why do you think black people had to make up their own professional associations? Because they had nothing better to do with their evenings? It was so they could band together to try and get a toehold in a white-dominated society. THIS IS SO FUCKING OBVIOUS!

Michael Richards committed a gross breach of those customary rules and restraints—a severe etiquette malfunction, just as much as it he'd started fondling a female audience member. The inner Kramer—the one kept in rein by all those internalized restraints that make civilized life tolerable—just broke out for a moment. To assert that this proves him to be different from you and me in some fundamental, essential way—he is a "racist" and I am not—is just an absurd kind of moral preening. Richards may be a bit shorter on self-control than you or me (and that's deplorable enough, in a highly-paid stage performer)... but that's a continuous variable, too, not a binary quality.

Wow, there's so much pigshit ignorant stuff up there, I could write 20 blog posts and not pick through it. The guy's a marvel of modern bigotry. If only there were a Nobel Prize in the subject, he'd be on the shortlist...

Let's start with severe etiquette malfunction. Um, no. In fact, I never want to hear Democrats or liberals tarred with the "politically correct" label again after this. Calling an act like Michael Richard's a "severe etiquette malfunction" is way more silly than calling a mailman a mail carrier or changing the spelling of women to "womyn." Way more silly. I'd think he's trying to make fun of the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" line, but John Derbyshire's doesn't typically reference pop culture more recent than Safety Last.

As I said above, this has nothing to do with being polite. The Derb intimates that if you got up on a stage and heard a few black guys heckling you, any reasonable person would think, "Hey, I should totally yell out to everyone here that these guys are niggers" and then catch themselves. That, of course, is ridiculous. These men attempted to irritate Richards, possibly even tried to ruin his stand-up performance. That's rude. Insulting them repeatedly in front of a room full of people on the basis of their race is not rude, it is disgusting. (Why? To call someone a tardpuss is to have a laugh at their expense. To call someone an asshole is to insult them. To call a black person a nigger is to demean that person. All are inappropriate, but isn't calling them all equally upsetting just moral relativism?)

I also disagree with Derbyshire that it's similar to molesting a woman. Each situation robs the victim of their dignity, but in the case of the woman, the violation is more flagrant because of the physical and invasive nature of the attack. Richards' insulted these guys, but did not assault them. But the fact that his prevailing argument centers on personal restraint - that in a consequence-free world, most people would respond like Richards, but hold back to maintain a certain level of decorum - makes this a puzzling metaphor. Is he likewise implying that most men would molest women in front of a room full of people, were they not so well-mannered?

Then, as if he hadn't done enough already, he compares the vile, invective-spewing Richards performance to the Kramer character from "Seinfeld," saying Richards' "inner Kramer" came flying out. Ridiculous. Kramer said whatever was on his mind, true, but he was an open-minded and easy-going guy. There were rarely black people on "Seinfeld," so it's hard to say if he would have thought to call anyone a nigger, but I kind of doubt it. Should one's inner Kramer come out, they'd unlikely engage in loud shouting matches over lynching jokes. More likely, they'd be sharing some fine Dominican cigars with Japanese tourists, possibly while enjoying fresh plantains and collaborating on a coffee table book about coffee tables.

Derbyshire apparentlky thinks posts like mine of the other day, in which I chided Richards for his "racism," was just so much self-aggrandizement, elevating myself because I would never speak aloud that which Richards dared to mention.

I think he's about 1/3 right. I agree that there's no such thing as a pure "racist" vs. a pure "non-racist." It's unfair to say Richards is solidly in one category and I am in another. There have been times in my life when I have harbored unkind thoughts about other races.

I will be perfectly honest: A roommate (who will remain nameless) and I, while living in a very noisy Los Angeles apartment complex, came to refer to all loud Latinos in our immediate area using the moniker "Fernando Beans." For example, if a small child whom we believed to be Mexican happened to be sitting on the stairs loudly bawling, we might say, "Sounds like Fernando Beans is having a bad morning." Sometimes, we might even take it to the next logical step - "Sounds like we should get Fernando some more beans."

This is racist. I apologize to anyone who is offended. Obviously, it's a variation on the racial epithet "beaner" referring to a Mexican, with the added insult of directly implying that Mexicans eat an inordinate amount of beans or rely on beans for proper nutrition, or even prefer beans to any and all other foods. You see what I'm saying.

I mention it not to insult anyone but to point out that I recognize Derbyshire's overall point. We all have the capacity for racism, whether or not we openly act upon it in daily life.

However, he glosses the most important facet of this entire case. He argues that we are wrong to castigate Richards for his racism because we all sometimes harbor racist thoughts or feelings. But Richards is not in trouble for having racist feelings, and that is not why I or anyone else derided him in print. He's in trouble because he maniacally insulted a crowd of people who had paid to see him perform stand-up comedy. And he did so in such a passionate and emotional way as to imply that these outrageous statements reflected his actual feelings and perspectives about race relations.

(Also, I mocked him largely for his response to the matter, which was cryptic and convoluted.)

The comparison would be if I found myself bombing at stand-up comedy in front of a largely Latin crowd. I've bombed in front of a few audiences, so this could theoretically have happened. It's extremely unlikely I would have done my best 2 minutes on Fernando Beans. In fact, I wouldn't. No matter how badly I was doing. I'd probably fall back on more jokes about going bald or being a Jew or being a fat bald Jew. Those seemed to go over well.

The only difference between my jokes about Fernando Beans and Richards' jokes about sticking forks in the asses of black hecklers is the degree of hostility, granted. I don't feel hatred towards Mexicans. I just kind of felt frustrated with my neighbors sometimes and making up a silly, albeit racist, name for them made me feel better. The difference in our behavior and attitude could not be more clear, I think. (I hope!) And that's why I feel justified in condemning his actions. I do not think anyone should be censored or prohibited from speaking their mind, but I reserve my right to be repulsed by what I hear.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

R.I.P. Robert Altman

[UPDATE: I wrote this in a real hurry this morning, before work, so it has now been cleaned up considerably. Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere noted our efforts at the video store to keep up with current events.

I feel kind of morbid setting up DVD displays for the recently deceased, but it's pretty much a necessity. Otherwise, we'd all just be running around the store grabbing Bob Altman films for people for 8 hours straight. Seeing a director's name in the newspaper alone on any occasion inspires people to seek out that person's films. Believe me, I see it every day. But when they die it's an entirely different phenomenon. Even relatively obscure directors get this treatment once the obit appears. We had a run on The Eel and The Pornographer the week Shohei Imamura passed...It was weird.

Today, a guy came in and derided us for setting up an Altman display so soon after the guy's death. Apparently, he felt it was insensitive to not allow a few days to pass before making money on the guy's memory. Even though we're a video store and renting Altman movies is how we make money 365 days a year. This guy, not 10 minutes later, came up to the front counter to rent McCabe & Mrs. Miller, totally unaware of the hypocracy of his situation. What an idiot.]

Legendary American director Robert Altman has died today, here in Los Angeles, at the age of 81. His IMDB biography includes this sentence, pretty much the best sentence I've ever read in anyone's biography ever.

"After a brief fling as publicity director with a company in the business of tattooing dogs, Altman finally gave up and returned to his hometown of Kansas City, where he decided he wanted to do some serious work in filmmaking."

Tattooing dogs? That seems kind of cruel. Either way, you just know it's difficult to publicize. "Hey, is this the Kansas City Star? I represent a company that draws decorative, yet searingly painful, designs on people's pets and we were hoping...Hello? Hello?"

Anyway, he eventually did get to start making movies (amazingly, at first he worked out of Kansas City, which apparently served as kind of a small Midwestern Hollywood at the time). Once he got to Hollywood, he worked a lot in television, on shows like "Bonanza," "Surfside 6," "The Millionaire" (one of the weirdest shows ever) and "Combat!" His first big hit was MASH in 1970, but many many many more successes followed. I mean, look at the other highlights on this resume:

The Long Goodbye
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (among the greatest Westerns ever filmed!)
California Split
3 Women
Thieves Like Us
The Player
Short Cuts
Gosford Park

That's a really tremendous, important collection of films. Altman and Martin Scorsese are probably the two most influential American directors of the 1970's. California Split and Long Goodbye in particular strike me as overlooked gems. Split is that rare, perfect combination of comedy and drama, an ultimately depressing story about two degenerate gamblers that's somehow funny all the way through. Elliott Gould and Peter Segal are ridiculously charismatic here, making their downfall almost unbearable to watch. In fact, this is probably my favorite Segal performance. My favorite Gould performance might well be his take on Phillip Marlowe in Long Goodbye, a reimagining of film noir that's ceaselessly, and effortlessly, brilliant. This film features one of the great final scenes/shots of all time.

No career overview, of course, would be complete without mentioning the duds. Altman directed perhaps more bad movies than any other filmmaker of his esteemed generation. It's rare that such a key artistic talent would have bombs like OC and Stiggs, The Gingerbread Man or Dr. T and the Women littering his CV.

Some of the "lesser" Altman films aren't as bad as everyone says. Quintet moves slowly but is actually quite watchable, and some of the sets are really impressive in their detail. Brewster McCloud has enjoyable moments (though it's getting more and more difficult to even find a copy to watch, what with no DVD available). Some are just as bad as people say, if not worse. Popeye, I'm looking in your direction.

Altman faltered so often not only because he was a cagey risktaker, but because he refused to be restricted to certain genres or types of stories. His style is immediately recognizable (an Altman film announces itself as an Altman film typically by the first scene), yet Altman worked in such a wide variety of genres and forms. Period pieces, comedies, science-fiction, domestic dramas, thrillers, they're all up there. He would tell many of these stories in the same fashion, and with his trademark sarcasm, but that's about all they would really share. (Though I suppose his old school Lefty politics tended to play a role in some of his films, particularly the satires...)

Altman pioneered a type of filmmaking that's become increasingly prevalent in today's Hollywood. These ensemble character studies - films like Crash, Babel and Magnolia - share a lot in common with Altman classics, particularly Nashville and Short Cuts. Except none of them come even close to Altman's mastery of the form. The man had an extrasensory ability to juggle narratives. Gosford Park manages to keep dozens of characters engaged in involving, complex stories all going on simultaneously in a few shared rooms. And it's funny!

Altman's technique for placing microphones around the set and filming multiple conversations and interactions simultaneously, creating a lived-in natural environment, works perfectly in these sorts of ensemble films. We get a sense not only common themes and ideas running through these stories, but the context of the larger community in which they're set. Movies about nebulous connections between people are obviously buoyed by a roving camera that takes in as many conversations and meetings and, yes, connections as possible.

Anyway, the guy will be missed. His was a restless creativity; he continued working right up until the time of his death, always bucking the Hollywood system and carving out his own path. At 81!

His last film was released earlier this year - Prairie Home Companion - and regrettably, it's not among his best work. It's an example of Altman turning over his considerable gifts to a different artist's work, in this case, using his film to showcase the writing (and, oddly, singing) of Garrison Keillor. He'd done this sort of thing before - his ballet film The Company focused mainly on the dancing, his Secret Honor is an acting showcase for Phillip Baker Hall - and the success or failure of the enterprise is really up to the other artists whose performances are the centerpieces.

But the guy will be remembered not for his handful of misfires, but for the amazing wealth of quality cinema he gave the world.

Casino Royale

Movies about James Bond sell well on DVD, they do well at the box office and the character has become one of the most iconic and recognizable in the history of cinema. So it's surprising that the vast majority of them are horrible, bordering on unwatchable. These films are not bad in a mild, mediocre kind of way. Moonraker is many things, but it's not mediocre. More like dreadful.

Even Sean Connery, the most famous and beloved of all Bonds, has a few duds on his 007 filmography. (Diamonds are Forever? Never Say Never Again?) Certainly, some of this has to do with the difficulty of adapting Ian Fleming's gritty, unkind novels, with their cumbersome plotlines, overlapping webs of intrigue and hard-nosed cruelty. But it's not just the source material that's held these films back for so long. There's something of an addict's desperation to the post-Connery Bonds (really, post-Thunderball Bonds), always chasing that carefree, unstudied Goldfinger high.

It's impossible to top Dr. No and Goldfinger at their own game. They are pop culture moments unto themselves, unrepeatable. Back then, the series wasn't about fulfilling everyone's expectations about how James Bond should behave and what kind of things he should do. He was a largely unknown property (at least, to cinema fans and the less well-read). For the last time ever, the audience was discovering Bond's impeccable tastes, his odd little quirks and his swift bursts of casual violence, not waiting for them to once more make a gratuitous appearance.

From that moment on, every actor portraying the character has nipped at Connery's heels. You sense they're hoping, through strength of will, to out-Connery Connery. But of course, that's a fools errand, particularly if you happen to be a lumbering oaf by the name of Roger Moore.

Moore's not even the worst bond. George Lazenby, who portrayed the secret agent in only one nearly-unwatchable film - On Her Majesty's Secret Service - would be my pick, although Timothy Dalton likewise failed to fill out the tuxedo. Talk about studied. His quips went over about as well as Michael Richards hosting the NAACP Image Awards. (Too soon?)

I'd say Brosnan comes the closest to the old school Connery vibe (though he wound up featuring in some of the series' lamest entries), but that's the whole point I'm trying to make right there. The later films always try to come close to the old school Connery vibe. Why?

Honestly, this hadn't even occured to me before. I think I, like most people, always think of James Bond in terms of Goldfinger. So when I hear they are casting a new James Bond, I think they should go for the guy who could be the most like Sean Connery. And when they are making a new Bond film, I always think they should go back in time and set it during the Cold War, back when a British Secret Agent doing cool spy shit had a worthwhile, equally iconic enemy to fight against. (Evil though terrorists may be, they're not Reds.)

Martin Campbell (who directed Brosnan's debut, the better-than-average Goldeneye) dared to pose this question. He has refashioned James Bond into a totally different character, one who mirrors the Connery version without ever really resembling him. The signposts of Bondness are all here, and in fact the film takes great delight in showing us the origin of many of the spy's favorite catch phrases and ephemera. But Daniel Craig, Campbell and a trio of screenwriters (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis) never once fall back on tradition when they can try something new.

For the first time in decades, a James Bond film is the year's most fresh, daring, original and entertaining action movie. In a year full of big disappointments and let-downs, finally here's a pleasant surprise.

I usually hate being wrong, but this is one occasion where I don't mind it so much. I saw the mookish Daniel Craig, the same guy who directed the last middling "reinvention" of James Bond and Paul Haggis, creator of my Least Favorite Film of 2005, working together on the project and merely assumed all was lost. (Plus, years of grinding Brosnan refuse and Clive Owen absolutely refusing to take part in the franchise in any way had caused the prospect of new Bonds to lose some of their luster.) So I had essentially written this movie off. Then I started reading overwhelmingly positive reviews from English critics. Then English bloggers and audiences. Then American critics. Then people I knew. And they were all right.

Restarting the franchise in the present day (and with Judi Dench continuing on as M from the previous films) seems like it won't make any sense, but it's never really an issue in the film. The opening scene, generally showing Bond on some sort of outrageous, death-defying assignment, instead shows him making his first two kills, the mandatory pre-requisite for obtaining MI:6's elite double-0 status.

These are not typical James Bond murders, which tend to be sleek and neat and followed by some sort of devilishly clever quip. Craig bashes a guy's face in with a urinal in grimy black and white, then shoots a different unarmed man at point blank range. This is just the first upheaval of the Bond formula, which has long since been due for some refurbishing.

In lieu of an extensive "assignment" sequence which would normally find James being briefed by M and armed by Q (who doesn't appear at all), Campbell rejoins Bond already on his first assignment as a double-0, tailing a bombmaker in Madagascar. The film's first and best action sequence comes immediately, when Bond's cover is mysteriously blown and his target takes off on foot through a construction site.

This scene is, quite simply, brilliant. Bond and his quarry bounce around girders and through half-completed walls, improvising weapons and barely evading death at least a dozen times each. It's easy to forget, watching bloated, flat, hyperactive Brett Ratner set pieces designed wholly inside a computer, how much fun simple things like creative stuntwork and shootouts can be. The only problem with this sequence is that it's so great, and ends on such a perfect moment of half-mad defiance, there's pretty much no way for the rest of the movie to top it.

Campbell tries anyway. The trail left by the bombmaker leads to the scarred Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker for terrorists who invests blood money in the stock market. Having lost the bulk of his client's money in unwise investments, Le Chiffre has no choice but to win it back by holding an elite $150 million Texas Hold 'Em Style poker game at the Casino Royale in Monte Carlo. And to make sure he doesn't win the money, and has to turn himself in to MI:6, M sends Bond to beat him in the game.

It's simple and straight-forward, a welcome relief from the cartoonish supervillainy of most Bond films. The film contains a lot of incident, but doesn't require too much exposition. The pieces are set in motion and then the drama becomes largely about shifts in loyalty or buried agendas. The filmmakers actually bothered to include interpersonal conflict between characters this time around, rather than the cardboard artifice of, say, Tomorrow Never Dies.

Obviously, this allows Campbell to make use of his terrific ensemble cast. For the first time, Judi Dench actually has a reason to appear in the film aside from the sizable paycheck. M has things to do and a personality in Casino Royale, growing irritated with this overzealous, self-centered new agent even as she admires his chutzpah. Jeffrey Wright turns in yet another in an ongoing string of memorable supporting performances as another player in Le Chiffre's tournament. And Eva Green, playing an MI:6 accountant watching over Bond's initial $10 million stake, ranks among the all-time great Bond girls, right up there with Pussy Galore.

Usually, Bond movies will pretend that their featured women are intelligent. (Denise Richards was, after all, playing a nuclear scientist.) But they're really just arm candy. They often have nothing to do with the actual storyline, so sometimes the movies have them stand around or get kidnapped often. And Green's Vesper Lynd does, indeed, get kidnapped during the movie. But, hey, so does James Bond. He even bleeds and gets tortured. It's just that kind of realistic environment with actual stakes.

But Lynd is actually intelligent. You can tell because she says things that aren't totally vapid and dumb. She and Craig exhibit actual chemistry during some of their scenes together, particularly in their first flirtatious meeting on a train. This may be one of the best-written scenes in Bond history, reminding me at times of the mysterious train banter in The Manchurian Candidate. Vesper and James are showing off their remarkable intuitive abilities, Sherlock Holmesing personal information about one another based solely on mannerisms and appearance.
It's a trick James will likewise put to use during the actual poker game. I wasn't a big fan of the idea of replacing baccarat with poker in this entry, but once again, I was proved wrong by Casino Royale. The poker perfectly reflects the central concept of the movie. In cards, a player must hide his or her tells at all cost, must never reveal the truth about his or her hand to anyone. To reveal any hint of information at all gives your opponent an unbeatable advantage.

Similarly, a double-0 agent can't trust anyone, ever, for any reason. Bond, in other words, does not become a cold, uncaring womanizer who uses people because that's his essential nature. He had no choice but to develop this way. It's the nature of who he is and who he must be. Yeah, it's not exactly the most thrilling, original concept in the world, but this is a James Bond movie. The fact that there's subtext at all besides "watches are cool!" is fucking amazing.

Campbell and his screenwriters have put some geniune thought into who James Bond is and why he does what he does, and it shows in the script. Rather than just assuring us he's a badass by giving him a martini and putting him into GQ poses, Campbell attempts to show us the traits that make James Bond such an unstoppable force for good. I mentioned his intuitive abilites. There's, of course, his complete physical dominance of all adversaries. Then there's his remarkably adaptive nature. (During action scenes, Campbell will frequently shift to Bond's perspective, scanning his environment, MacGyver style, for something he can grab and use against his foe). But most importantly, there's Bond's resilience.

Time and again, Casino Royale pivots on Bond's ability to pick himself up and keep fighting. He can take a harsh beating standing up and then go back to running at full speed. When he's being sadistically tortured, he'll wince for a moment before laughing off the pain. Connery's James Bond always won because he was invincible. Even staring down a death laser, he never had to worry about actually getting hurt. Bullets bounced off the guy like whiffle balls.

Conversely, Craig's Bond will always win because he can take any amount of punishment, physical or otherwise. Love of your life dies before your eyes? Walk it off. Best friend savagely massacred to get your attention? Tell them to leave a message. Broken neck? Well, that's just a minor setback.

The film's not perfect. It's long and a late sequence featuring Vesper and James in love could have been trimmed and had the same exact effect. (In fact, the film begins to drift right when it should really be gathering up steam for a big finish.) Some of the allusions to James Bond-isms come off kind of forced and awkward. I get that they were doing a prequel and wanted to tie in as much of the later stuff as possible, but you don't need to work in every single cliche into the first movie. Maybe he starts drinking shaken not stirred martinis and driving an Aston Martin, but he can devise the "moneypenny" nickname next time? A little bit can sometimes be too much of that sort of cutesy self-referential humor.

But, still, these are minor issues. Overall, this is a hugely satisfying success merely in terms of tight action filmmaking. It starts the Bond series off anew in an intriguing direction and makes me actually excited to see where things will go next. This crow tastes delicious!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Good Luck With All That!

Cosmo Kramer, Jerry's unemployable neighbor on "Seinfeld," ranks among the most beloved, iconic television characters in the history of the form. That character, and everything else about "Seinfeld," will remain popular so long as there are monitors on which TV can be viewed. I don't think we have to worry about cementing Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld's creative legacy.

But I think Michael Richards, the potentially insane but definitely demented actor responsible for playing Cosmo Kramer, is over. Finished. Done. He has committed career suicide, harakiri-style. This guy is the Sylvia Plath of sitcom burnouts.

It's not like he was working anyway. A go-nowhere movie career (Trial and Error, anyone?) and a couple of failed post-"Seinfeld" aberrations had already caused Richard's stock to plummet, long before this week. But...oh my Lord...

A video posted on shows that the tirade apparently began after two black audience members started shouting at him that he wasn’t funny.

Richards retorted: “Shut up! Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a f—— fork up your a–.”

He then paced across the stage taunting the men for interrupting his show, peppering his speech with racial slurs and profanities.

“You can talk, you can talk, you’re brave now mother——. Throw his a– out. He’s a n—–!” Richards shouts before repeating the racial epithet over and over again.

I've discussed some pernicious racism before on the blog, but I have to say that Richards takes the cake. This is some skinhead rhetoric right here, making light of lynching among other things. I'm shocked and appalled.

Watch the video at TMZ. It's not like he used the n-bomb in the pursuit of comedy, even lame unfunny comedy. This is not a joke gone horribly awry. This is not some Andy Kaufman, messin' with the audience shit. That's how the crowd responds at first...Nervous laughter obviously awaiting an actual punchline. Then, when none arrives, people start to get actively upset. (In a rather mature, measured way. Guys are yelling out "that's uncalled for" at Richards, which is not exactly an incitement to mob violence or anything. I think the worst insult hurled his way is "cracker.")

There's a big difference between being a bad comedian trying for "edge" and letting your deeply-held racist ideology to break through to the surface in a moment of stress.

Artie Lange does a rather humiliating routine about accidentally saying "nigger" during a pick-up basketball game with some black guys, and it's not funny, but I also don't think he's a virulent racist. (Probably). He's just a messy drunk and a merely adequate stand-up comedian with some great heroin stories to liven things up along the way.

I'd like to stress this point because I love offensive comedy and think that pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable through humor is one of the most important things we, as active and vocal citizens, can do for our country. (Just look at the impact Stephen Colbert and John Stewart have had on our national discussion this year.)

But this is not that. This is not brave or subversive or satirical. This video is just a frightening lunatic getting angry at some black dude for interrupting him and then calling the guy a nigger. The rage on display here, from a successful, respected multi-millionaire no less, is really unsettling. Where did that come from? I mean, yeah, he's a guy with a lot of talent who was massively typecast by a single, really goofy role that, though granting him fame and wealth, will essentially trap him for the rest of his days in the persona of a goony idiot. (Or "hipster doofus," to use the Seinfeld term.)

But come on. That's still not such a horrible fate. I think Michael Richards must have mental problems or something, because hostility like this isn't natural. (Full disclosure: I've met him before and see seemed aloof and reserved but hardly maniacal.)

Amazingly, when a black guy in the crowd yells out the "cracker" retort, Richards gets all offended. As if that's worse! And the manic behavior didn't even end at the performance. Here's Richards today in an apology that will air tonight on "The Late Show With David Letterman":

"…You know, I’m really busted up over this and I’m very, very sorry to those people in the audience, the blacks, the Hispanics, whites – everyone that was there that took the brunt of that anger and hate and rage and how it came through, and I’m concerned about more hate and more rage and more anger coming through, not just towards me but towards a black/white conflict.

There’s a great deal of disturbance in this country and how blacks feel about what happened in Katrina, and, you know, many of the comics, many of performers are in Las Vegas and New Orleans trying to raise money for what happened there, and for this to happen, for me to be in a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, you know, I’m deeply, deeply sorry. And I’ll get to the force field of this hostility, why it’s there, why the rage is in any of us, why the trash takes place, whether or not it’s between me and a couple of hecklers in the audience or between this country and another nation, the rage –"

Guh? What the fuck is he talking about? Is he saying that, in the aftermath of Katrina, his comments were even more offensive than they would have been otherwise? Of is he trying to say that the anger about Katrina fueled his tirade? Or is he trying to say that black people are particularly angry with him because they are angry at White America? I don't follow...but I don't think that this is a reflection of black and white people being angry with one another. This is about everyone being angry at Michael Richards for being fucking retarded. And I don't see how any national event, no matter how tragic, could possibly inspire someone to chant "nigger nigger nigger" loudly in public for comic effect.

You know you've done something bad when Jerry Seinfeld has to come out of seclusion to condemn your behavior.

"I'm sure Michael is also sick over this horrible, horrible mistake. It is so extremely offensive. I feel terrible for all the people who have been hurt," Seinfeld said of Richards, 57, who played eccentric Kramer on the hit 1989-98 sitcom and whose major credit since was the failed 2000 comedy series, "The Michael Richards Show."

The sentiment is appreciated by all sane people, but Seinfeld grossly mischaracterizes this incident as a "mistake" which indvertedly "hurt" people. It doesn't seem like anyone is all that hurt. Upset, sure, but I don't think anyone in the crowd's self-esteem was such that the rantings of this unstable loon could really do their egos serious damage. What's upsetting isn't that we found out some people think "niggers" deserve to be strung up. What's upsetting is that a man who has brought laughter to millions has secretly been a vile racist all this time.

It doesn't necessarily invalidate the genius of "Seinfeld" or even the character of Kramer, whose delightful antics remain hilarious, but it's just unpleasant to think about. This will occur to me forever now when I watch the show. But I guess Jerry Seinfeld can't make a statement to that effect - "sorry for employing this guy for years and making him famous...who knew, all this time, he really was the Ass Man?"

Here's a sentence I never thought I'd type: Comedian George Lopez has, to my mind, the most sensible reaction.

Comedian George Lopez told Los Angeles television station KTLA that he thought Richards' lack of stand-up experience may have been a factor.

"The question is you have an actor who is trying to be a comedian who doesn't know what to do when an audience is disruptive," Lopez said. "He's an actor whose show has been off the air, he shouldn't ever be on a stand-up gig."

I'm not actually certain that Lopez is correct. I seem to recall Richards having a background in stand-up from the years prior to "Seinfeld," and his gift for improvisation is legendary. (He famously participated in an Andy Kaufman prank as part of the old sketch comedy show "Fridays" and made up all of his monologues in the film UHF on the spot.) So it's not like he would necessarily freeze in front of an audience.

But there does seem to be something wild and desperate about Richards' behavior on stage, as if he's been caught off guard somehow by the hecklers. I'm not saying he doesn't most likely believe the shit he said, which is why he deserves the coming infamy, but I've never heard the guy say anything like this before, so he must know that it's unacceptable. What about the mild disruption of a heckler or two could possibly set him off like this?

Oh, also, Paul Rodriguez (who hosted the event at the Laugh Factory) said some stupid shit that, while not racist, makes absolutely no sense.

"Once the word comes out of your mouth and you don't happen to be African-American, then you have a whole lot of explaining," Rodriguez told CNN. "Freedom of speech has its limitations and I think Michael Richards found those limitations."

Yes, Paul, free speech does have limitations. You're not allowed to endanger the lives of others, say by yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. And you're not allowed to ask someone to murder your spouse or call a friend to arrange a kidnapping/drug deal. But you are perfectly within your rights as an American citizen to get up in front of a large crowd at a popular comedy club and start yelling "nigger" at the black people. You would (and should) get your ass kicked, but you would not be in violation of the law. And that's a good thing.

(Also, there's nothing wrong with just saying the word if you are a white person, depending on your context. If I am quoting a rap lyric or, say, discussing its use by another individual in a news story, that's not at all racist and would require no further explanation. I have typed it at least 4 or 5 times in this article, but that's just because I don't like saying "the n-word," because that gives the word more power and mystery than it deserves.)

This is not a free speech issue. It is a career-ending racist fuckwit issue, Paul. You're simply confused.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Hopefully, Al Gore's compelling lecture/documentary An Inconvenient Truth can finally end the debate about the existence of global warming and move our national discussion to a more productive phase. That's the one where we figure out what, if anything, can actually be done about climate change before it's too late. (More sober and realistic countries than mine have been in this phase for years now.)

Practically guaranteed an Oscar nomination by virtue of its box office gross alone, Truth mainly consists of Gore's traveling slideshow, in segments filmed all over the world. In between sequences of Gore lecturing various crowds about the nature of the coming climate crisis (alliteration!), we get little interstitial bits about his political and family background and the teacher who first inspired him to study global warming back in his collegiate days.

It's all well-directed by David Guggenheim and surprisingly entertaining. Despite the media's incessant, juvenile focus on Gore's stiffness and monotone style of speech, he's actually kind of a funny, self-effacing guy. It's interesting how professional politicians like Bob Dole and Al Gore hide their real personalities on the campaign trail, because most Americans who aren't blind partisans choose their candidate based on likability, confidence and charisma. If Gore had spoken with the dynamism, passion and confidence he exhibits here back in 2000, he'd have been elected. By an even wider margin, I mean.

But despite Gore's best efforts to keep things positive and optimistic, this is a bleak horrorshow for those of us who already believe in the reality of global warming. Back in the '90s, before there was a lot of real-world evidence to clearly demonstrate the effects of greenhouse gases, I already believed in global warming. You see, I read news articles in which scientists predicted it based on studies and calculations. And, though they're not omniscient, those guys tend to know what they're talking about.

In 1996, almost exactly midway through Gore's tenure as Vice President, I was a freshman at UCLA. First-year undergrads at UCLA always have to take two "paired" science classes in the same discipline. I chose "atmospheric science." Ugh. The lectures and reading were, to me, hugely boring, save for the one particular session when the guy sitting in the row in front of me asked the professor if your face would really explode on the surface of Mars "like in Total Recall." That was awesome.

Anyway, this Atmo. Sci. 2 lecturer convinced this layman that the greenhouse effect and global warming were real. I believed him then and still do. The difference is, now it's 2006 and we can already see the empirical changes on a worldwide scale.

And I don't just mean Hurricane Katrina. I mean inexplicable heat waves in Europe, Asia and North America. I mean a record number of tornados recorded in the U.S. last year. I mean increased levels of species extinction, floods, tsunamis and glacial destruction. We are emitting gases that are destroying our habitat, and rather than getting down to the business of solving the problem (as we did years ago with that hole in the Ozone layer), we have to spend our time debunking right-wing assholes who insist that there's no problem. Becausethey'd prefer to be rich today, even if it means their progeny die off in 50 years.

But, hey, SUV's are the bomb! Tony Soprano drives one! You get to be all high up on the road, so you can feel momentarily bigger and more important than everyone else! And buying a hybrid car just makes you a smug goody-goody...Boo!

Appropriately, Gore doesn't spend too much time either explaining or proving global warming. It's real, okay? It's real...He points out the overwhelming scientific consensus about its reality, despite the overhyped, fictional "argument" presented by the media, and then focuses his presentation on the likely effects of increased global temperatures. ( never believed the hype because of my Atmo. Sci. 2 professor, who was very smart and an expert on this particular subject and who presented global warming as confirmed factual information.)

The remaining hour of film makes you want to lock yourself in a leak-proof basement with 100 years supply of rations. Obviously, as we saw in New Orleans, warmer oceans can contribute to larger and more turbulent storm systems, but this is only the beginning of our troubles.

I had, previous to watching the film, considered the coming famines and refugee crises to be the most dire environmental threats to our success as a species. A change in temperature can put crops and fresh water supplies at risk. Coastal flooding in areas like Florida, the Netherlands, China and India could create hundreds of millions of homeless people. Hundreds of millions!

Unbelievably, Gore sees the stakes as even more extreme. He's direct in his conclusions - this is a threat to human life on Earth. If we cannot solve this problem very soon, we may not live out the century. I, that's heavy.

Delicate ecosystems cannot maintain stability if the climate is thrown off, even a minute amount. Already, we're seeing some species being threatened by the disappearance of glaciers and the change in seasons, both of which are directly attributable to human pollution and industry. I had not even considered the idea that global warming may lead to more exotic viral diseases, but the connection is clear enough. Warmer temperatures allow carriers like mosquitos to thrive, so naturally more viruses are spread. And more viruses means more mutations.

Rich or poor, First World or Third, tis kind of tumult in our living space may not be survivable at all. If Greenland melts, a process that has already begun and can be measured, global ocean levels will rise 20 feet. I'm pretty sure Palms, CA would be completely submerged, but I'd at least be getting my feet wet. Gore, in a clever bit of oratorical showmanship, points out that Ground Zero in Manhattan would be underwater. The implication is clear - this is a much more significant threat than that of terrorism, but it has been criminally ignored.

Despite this overwhelming pile of dramatic footage and harsh, gloomy charts and graphs, Gore tries his best to end An Inconvenient Truth with some hope for the future. His purpose is not to fill the viewer with suicidal despair so much as shock him or her into action. He confronts this problem directly at the close of the slideshow, urging his audience not to move directly from "denial to despair," but to pause for a moment and consider the possibility that our generation can save the entire human race.

Gore notes that we already possess the tools and technology needed to hold off and potentially even reverse global warming's effects. New energy-conservating technologies, more old-fashioned conservation efforts like recycling and heightened fuel emissions standards all play into Gore's "solution," but I can't say I was sold on our chances of evading tragedy here. Yes, of course, we know potentially how to save ourselves.

But will we actually do anything about it?

Gore says that the only thing America lacks is political will, as if that's something easy to come by. It's not. The American people have wanted out of Iraq for years now and still no one seems to have the political will to bring our troops home. (Nancy Pelosi, we're all fucking counting on you. Don't let us down.) We were arguing the pros and cons of universal health care in high school debate tournaments in the early 1990's and we can't even get a workable heath and prescription drug program going for senior citizens! Do I think that, in less than a decade, we can start really working towards staving off carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere? Um...can I get back to you on that? I've got to go load up on canned food and ammunition.