Friday, October 31, 2003
B is for Bathos. One of my favorite words in English, it's sadly underused today. If you look it up in the dictionary, by the way, you will see someone's picture there.
C is for Chekhov, the great Russian writer, whom I am a little miffed at lately. His famous aphorism about writing, "If the playwright describes a gun on a shelf in Act One, it must be fired by Act Three" was adopted as gospel by Hollywood screenwriters long ago, and it is getting on my nerves. Every kind of improbable plot manipulation is justified because...it's shown or mentioned early on. I watched Eliza Dushku's new show Tru Calling last night and this process is taken to its extreme. It's mentioned early on in passing that she was a track star in school, so of course half the show is taken up with her running around in fast motion between locations, rather than simply cutting between scenes. Painful.
D is for Dude, a word that needs to be surgically removed from the language.
E is for Elmore Leonard, who still writes the best dialogue in English at the age of 72.
F is for Fight. That's the focus-group-tested phrase that you hear more and more in campaign speeches and advertisements, as in "I'll fight for you in Trenton" or "Fighting for more school aid." On the level of national politics, as when Al Gore used the phrase constantly in the 2000 elections, it's more revealing. I'm trying not to generalize too much, but I find that when Democrats use the word they are almost always talking about fighting...other Americans. This, I think, is a bit of a disconnect with most of the public at the moment, as I think that most people would rather our leaders talk about fighting...people who are actively trying to kill us.
G is for ...well, take a look. Yes, that's Klingon.
H is for Halloween, which it's too damn hot to be.
I is for Inevitable Distractions, as it always is.
J is for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Her recent remarks to the effect that American Law should conform to that of other countries were pretty horrifying. Tighten up, Sandy baby.
K is for Mickey Kaus, who makes one of the very best points I've heard regarding the Schiavo case:
How does a) the number of innocent people who will be executed under death penalty procedures compare with b) the number of innocent, live patients who will be killed under a tendentious diagnosis of PVS? I'd guess the ratio is probably one to 100, maybe 1 to 1,000. But the American left makes a huge (and legitimate) fuss about the former while it actually promotes the latter.
L is for Lord of the Rings. The 10-hour showing of all three films together on December 16 sold out in seconds here at the two theaters participating. Grrr.
M is for Mystic River, which I thought was very overrated. For all its gritty realism, Clint's movie is still, I thought, cartoony and not nearly as subtle as it could or should have been. Sean Penn, though, is an amazing actor. Even though I despise him personally, watching him onscreen is like watching that moment in one of those nature shows where a particularly ugly spider is about to devour an unsuspecting beetle, and you can't look away.
N is still for Naomi.
O is for Oscars. Right now I have seen three Best Actor nomination-worthy performances this year: Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Nicolas Cage in Matchstick Men, and Sean Penn. I'm expecting Viggo Mortensen and Benicio Del Toro to fill this category out, but we will see. Best Actress can only be between Scarlett Johansson and Naomi Watts.
P is for Mel Gibson's The Passion. If film distributors can give releases to From Justin to Kelly and The Real Cancun, I can't believe that they can't distribute this one.
Q is for Quart. Yes, I hate the metric system.
R is for Retail. Would you like that gift-wrapped, sir?
S is for Suzanne, my sister, who is not at all a huggy person, but always hugs me when we meet because she knows I am.
T is for Ticket Scalpers. I was amused to find them at the Metropolitan Opera of all places--"tick-etttttts!"--exactly as if it were Yankee Stadium.
U is for U-571, which vies with Windtalkers as the worst of the recent war movies.
V is for Vanity Fair, which for a while there was the best American magazine being published. It sort of went off the rails recently as editor Graydon Carter went on a heavyhanded antiwar crusade prior to the Iraq war, quieted down after the dramatic successes of that conflict, then went back to it in the summer as the fighting began again. That, along with way too many Royal Family stories, a throwback to the hated Tina Brown era, caused a steep drop in the quality of VF. And the absence of Christopher Hitchens hasn't helped.
W is for Lt. Col. Allen B. West, who apparently cannot be forgiven for reminding people that we are in fact at war.
X is for Xenomorph. The Director's Cut of Alien opens this weekend!
Y is for Yo. A perfectly legitimate Philadelphianism hijacked by the larger culture. Grrr.
Z is for Zombies 3.5, the new expansion of the lovely boardgame. It's brains for dinner tonight...
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
I had one of the rare actual adventures of my life with Mike in 1995 when a Teamsters strike stranded our entire order of a new Magic the Gathering product at a terminal in Northeast Philly, with no way to get it out except coming and getting it ourselves.
Mike was so eager to get his order that he took it upon himself to rent a truck to to pick our shipment up. Which of course involved crossing a Teamster picket line. Since the shipment was for us, someone from our company had to go along and sign for it. And of course nobody wanted to, because they were afraid of what would happen in the process of crossing a Teamster picket line.
So I volunteered. If I really thought there was a possibility of violence, I would have been scared to death. But it wasn't an issue of courage, only logic: we would be in a big truck (that we didn't own anyway, so property damage was not an issue) in broad daylight, with police around. So there wasn't any real, logical chance of violence, and I went. And of course there wasn't any. As we crossed the Teamsters' picket line, we received nothing more than a charming variety of colorful language that still makes me smile when I think of it.
Anyway, that was a sort of bonding experience with Mike, and we have been friendly ever since. We made a sweet deal today that we both loved: We gave him 3 boxes of some of our old Magic in return for a huge amount of old RPGs, junky stuff that we can nevertheless ebay for three or four times the trade value that we gave up. Mike gets a nice, quick sale that will impress the hell out of his customers, and we get stuff that we get to make nice margins on for a year. I love great trades.
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
The 1960 John Wayne version, clumsy and overwrought as it was, treated the Mexican attackers of the Alamo with complete dignity (Wayne presumably had nothing against Mexicans, as he kept marrying them). But we live in an age where dignity is not enough: every possible ethnic sensitivity (most Christians excepted, of course) must be massaged and stroked at every opportunity. And when you have a movie about what amounts to an ethnic conflict, the sensitivity requirement ensures that all possible life is drained out of it. The new Alamo was doomed from the start.
And I have to quote a couple of jokes from my favorite current television comedian, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, from last night's Conan:
On Christina Aguilera videos: "It's like watching porn except the music's not as good."
On Eminem: "Hey my mother was a bitch, too, but I don't go writing songs about it."
Monday, October 27, 2003
My brother is, incredibly, 65 years old today (actually tomorrow as I write this, but you get the idea). There are all kinds of reasons why he and I are so different, but that's one of the primary ones, the very large age difference between us. He was born before World War Two and lived through the war, while I was born towards the end of the postwar baby boom. He was from a world so different from the one I grew up in. In his words,
I grew up in Richmond, a section of ethnic northeast Philadelphia located on the Delaware River in a highly industrialized area. In those days the EPA didn't exist, and the factories poured forth each day noxious fumes that clouded the sky, dirtied my fastidious grandmother's curtains and laundry and fouled my nostrils with a penetrating odor that reeked of unnamed poisons. It didn't seem to actually hurt me (or anyone else I knew) in any permanent way, but having to endure the awful smells day after day gave me what perhaps was my first indication that we might be poor. Even as a child I couldn't believe that anyone with more choices would live there willingly. At any rate, I must have had a more delicate nose than was probably good for me, because no one else in my family or our acquaintances ever complained about it.
Now by the time I came around we had moved to the suburbs, and we only went to Richmond on Saturdays. For me, as a sort of tourist to that bizarre place, it was, well, exotic. The cobbled streets that ruined the suspensions on cars, the odd, stinky foods, the same sickening industrial smells that Joe described--the worst was the long-gone Old Hickory whiskey factory on Delaware Avenue, which produced this appalling funk of rotting vegetable matter that made you automatically wince every time you drove by it.
In the fifties, my father had gotten the job at Curtis Publishing and I grew up in a completely different plane of existence, in Delaware County. I am so different from him, in fact, that it took me until much later in my life before I could really appreciate what he's done with his life, and admire him for it.
Friday, October 24, 2003
And not only there.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
In the meantime, all American consumers have been asked to do is to buy Ben & Jerry's One Sweet Whirled ice cream, ensuring that a portion of Unilever's profits go towards "global warming initiatives". Wow!
Hardly worth a wow. The hallmark of modern policymaking is not initiatives that actually do anything, but rather those that serve to make people feel better about themselves. Certainly this is true of the Kyoto treaty, which does nothing to address the enormous amounts of "greenhouse gases" being produced by, for example, China, India, and Mexico. Even the proponents of this treaty cannot point to any measurable climatic benefits that will derive from it. But it will make us feel that we are Doing Something About It. And in this world where feelings are all that matters, that's enough.
"We're waging a war on the environment, a very successful one," says Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford University.
Amazing to see Paul Ehrlich quoted as an authority on anything. Ehrlich is the most consistently wrong predictor in memory, including radio psychics.
"It's a country founded on the idea of no limits. The essence of environmentalism is that there are indeed limits. It's one of the reasons environmentalism is a stronger ethic in Europe than in the US."
Finally something I completely agree with. It is very definitely true that the physical world has limits. But human creativity does not. The freest societies are the best at solving problems, including environmental ones, much better that those that simply impose arbitrary limits. The Kyoto-based limits that France placed on the use of air conditioning, for example, cost the country 15,000 dead this past summer. That's what limits do for you.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
One of the bad things about this time of year is all the damn horny deer running all over the place. Tonight, driving down Butler Pike (the place where I completely destroyed the front end of my Chevy four years ago on a relatively small buck) I had to slam on the brakes to avoid wiping out a stupid doe strolling across the road.
Then her stupid friend runs right into my now-stopped car. Luckily she didn't so any damage. But I have had all I can take of deer this year.
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Monday, October 20, 2003
Bedrolls littered the floor, and two fighters at the rear of the room took aim through windows at other Americans entering the compound. Both swung toward Pryor, Kalashnikovs in their hands. Pryor fired, the rounds striking so dead-center that the men's beards fluttered.
As he reloaded, Pryor felt a foot brush up against his boot. At first, he thought it was another American. It wasn't. An al-Qaeda fighter struck Pryor hard from behind. The blow, possibly from a wooden board, dislocated Pryor's shoulder and broke his collarbone.
The fighter, bearded with his hair in a ponytail, jumped on Pryor's back and clawed at his face, tearing off his night-vision goggles.
"He started sticking his stinking little fingers into my eyeballs," Pryor remembers. [Ed's note: Al-Qaeda hand-to-hand combat training manuals emphasize attacking opponents' eyes as a direct route to the brain.]
His left shoulder felt like it was on fire. He was winded and weary from fighting at an altitude of 8,000 feet. Without night vision, everything was black.
The battle outside raged on, punctuated by AK-47 and rifle fire and the steady boom of a 40mm grenade launcher from a Special Forces Humvee. The air reeked of gunpowder and the copper scent of blood. Inside that first room, the two fighters — al-Qaeda and American — were fighting to the death.
Pryor had only a single thought: You're not going to kill me.
"That's how I attack things," he says later.
With one good arm, Pryor grabbed his enemy by the hair. But the man's weight, combined with the 80 pounds of Army gear that Pryor wore, caused the two to fall. They landed on Pryor's left elbow, and the impact jammed his shoulder back into its socket.
Now he could fight with both hands. In a few desperate seconds, Pryor broke the man's neck and finished him with a 9mm pistol.
Saturday, October 18, 2003
But that's me. Every time I visit New York City there is always at least one new odd impression the city makes on me, and this time, it was the ugly rat dogs.
The occasion of my visit was to meet my brother and go to the Metropolitan Opera. So I drove to Trenton and took a New Jersey Transit train to Penn Station where we met and then walked 30 blocks to the Met. We had a wonderful
lunch at Rosa Mexicano, an upscale Mexican restaurant across from Lincoln Center. They make this great guacamole right at your table in these big mortar and pestles made of heavy lava stone.
Then we went to see La Boheme, my first opera. I loved it, from the amazing Franco Zeffirelli sets to the performance of Hei-Kyung Hong as Mimi. A wonderful day in spite of the ugly rat dogs.
Thursday, October 16, 2003
SENATOR ROBERT BYRD: "This bee-ull gives Mr. Bremer a blank check.
A BLANK CHECK!
A blank check.
A blank check."
LAURA: "I think he's upset about a blank check."
I love Laura.
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
Kill Bill is already one of my top five films of the year. Tarantino shows us nothing particularly new--it's the usual juxtapostion of pop-culture kitsch, hip/camp music, and extreme violence--but I love the formula. Certainly there is nothing profound in KB; the brilliance is in the confidence of the storytelling. As energetic as the fight scenes are, they still don't approach the state-of-the-art established in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, for example (though the final snow-falling-on-cedars fight scene is nearly perfectly shot). But Tarantino makes up for any shortcomings with over-the-top violence and cartoon gore, and with an enthusiasm that pumps through every frame of Kill Bill.
My brother approached it from an almost scientific viewpoint: He came to see how the economics of socialism were a recipe for disaster, for ruin, for starvation.
For me, it was a philosophical thing: I started reading history after I got out of school, and I became fascinated with the origins and growth of the totalitarian impulse. For me it wasn't as much a matter of Right or Left as much as it was a larger issue of Freedom versus Compulsion. And while the extreme compulsive Right had been discredited after World War Two, the idea of Left Socialism still had life, and was still exerting an ever-increasing influence on us. So, after being a Carter voter in 1976 (all three of us were, in fact), I considered myself conservative after that.
But most of all I love to listen to my sister talk about her transformation: It had to do with when she started having children, and that she didn't want her kids to be the subjects of social engineering by people who weren't their parents. She also became a Christian around this time, so her political transformation was informed by a spiritual one. She is so eloquent and quietly passionate on the subject that I can't even begin to summarize and do her justice, but she is inspiring to listen to when she talks about it.
Monday, October 13, 2003
Sunday, October 12, 2003
First of all, I just want to say that sometimes there are news stories that just make you glow inside with the most delicious schadenfreude, eventually making you sense, despite nagging problems here and there, that all's right with the world.
A busy two days with my siblings up at my brother's house in upstate New York. I am normally very soft-spoken at such family gatherings, and I was quieter than ever on the trip for a few reasons.
1. it was so damn beautiful up there that I was kind of in awe. Here in Pennsylvania, the leaves have hardly changed a bit. But up in the area where New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont meet, where we were driving around, the colors were the best I'd ever seen. I will shut up now.
2. My brother has so many obscure family stories and I prefer to let him tell them. I think he is saving them up or something. Anyway, he had a great one about an epiphany my grandfather had eighty-two years ago:
Joseph was visiting Germany in 1921, the first time since the war. He was around 40, and had emigrated to the USA at the turn of the century. He was crossing the street in one of the Rhenish towns he was traveling in, and a German policeman began to hassle him for jaywalking as he would any German who disobeyed the rules. My grandfather turned to the guy and said, in English, "Go to hell." The cop backed off and apologized to the uppity tourist. It was then that my grandfather realized for the first time that he felt like an American, and that he was American.
3. I was sore as hell. I am used to running on these flat athletic tracks around here, and the nasty grades surrounding the lake killed my shins.
4. When the topic of conversation turned to our late sister, I went over and rinsed the dishes. I just don't feel like talking about her anymore. For me it's like rubbing open a sore that's scabbed over more times than I can count.
5. I am not in a chatty mood in general.
The other good thing about the weekend was that I got to miss the Eagles-Dallas game. But it was worth having Donovan McNabb play as if his entire game was choreographed by Rush Limbaugh just to see the highlights of that amazing Chiefs win today. I want to see Dick Vermeil take his third different team to the Super Bowl and I want to see him blubbering after every playoff game. When Dick is crying on a Sunday, you just know, in spite of everything, that all's right with the world.
Thursday, October 09, 2003
I don't mind when, say, a Roger Ebert writes politically-influenced movie reviews from the Left, or a James Bowman from the Right. What I object to is when politics robs people of their common sense. I thought of this today when I read a local reviewer's piece on the recent DVD release of Brian DePalma's Scarface, in which the writer makes himself look silly:
The film's laughable failure to cast any of the lead roles with Latin actors...seems almost unthinkable now.
I guess no one told him that the second male lead in the film, Stephen Bauer, is Cuban-American.
Wednesday, October 08, 2003
Monday, October 06, 2003
The September issue of Commentary had a good piece by Arthur Waldron about the Article 23 demonstrations in Hong Kong on July 1st, a day that annihilated a certain amount of the conventional wisdom about Hong Kong and, ultimately, China. Half a million people--eight percent of the entire population of the city--came out to protest the proposed change in Hong Kong's governing council that would have given more dictatorial control to Beijing. The professionals, the experts, the authorities, both inside and outside China were, as one, shocked--they had expected minor, token demonstrations. And one passage jumped out at me
Speaking of her children, a Hong Kong woman married to an American put it this way: “Three days before American Independence Day, I took them to march with me to show them that the half of their heritage that is Chinese cares as much about liberty and human dignity as the half that is American—and what patriotism and love of country really mean.”
Though this question is seemingly everywhere these days, we see it most dramatically in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq. The other day
Paul Wolfowitz alluded to it:
When I hear people say the Arabs are incapable of democracy; Islam is incapable of democracy; I am reminded of hearing exactly the same things 20 years ago, that the South Koreans are incapable of democracy. They've never had it in their history. Confucian culture exalts authoritarianism. They can't do it.
And of course Wolfowitz's point is that the successful multiparty elections in South Korea belie arguments against democracy. There is something familiar about these arguments. We’ve heard them before—but where? All the sophisticated, nuanced points of view aligned together against a “simplistic” belief in democracy. The idea that it was simply cruel and arrogant to try to push “our” version of human rights on people who were unprepared for it. Where have we heard this before?
I remember. It was during the nineteenth century slavery debate. The most common argument of slaveowners and slavetraders was that African slaves were unsuited for freedom and therefore the most merciful thing was to continue the system of chattel slavery. The best reply was that of the great English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay:
Many politicians lay it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learned to swim.
Today the argument is couched in anti-Western rhetoric rather than in the language of racism as it was in the nineteenth century, but it boils down to essentially the same thing: The concepts of democracy and human rights are cultural constructs proprietary to the Western world. Therefore they shouldn’t be “imposed” on non-Western peoples, who are culturally “unsuited” for them.
So we are left with a more abstract question: what is freedom after all? We have two viewpoints. Is freedom just another Western cultural export like McDonald’s, or is it, as the current American president says, “God’s gift to humanity”? The answer, of course, is yes.
Sunday, October 05, 2003
Friday, October 03, 2003
I remember it was a beautiful sunny day in early June 1993 and I had just nudged my red rental Opel out of the lot at the Frankfurt airport. Across the way the autobahn glittered with the metallic twinkle of cars zipping past at typical NASCAR speeds and I felt two powerful competing emotions goosing my adrenal gland: The nowayIcangetonthatroad grip of fear and the eager Ican'twaittogetonthatroad response.
I got on the road.
I drove laughably slowly at first, but within minutes I was testing the engine of my smallish Opel and finding that the lack of speed governors can be a wonderful thing. Within ten minutes I had it over a hundred mph, and in a straight section of the autobahn on the way to Munich I was over one-fifty and and at some point it was almost a religious experience.
I was thinking about that, and realizing (as I got the hell out of the way of rotten driver after rotten driver on I-476) that unlimited speed on American highways would mean an appalling death toll. It's not that the Germans are smarter or more mature or even better drivers as much as they, being Germans, take rules seriously. On the autobahn, there are really only two rules.
First, no passing on the right, ever. It doesn't sound like such a big deal, but the knowledge that all passing will be to the left lets everyone know how the flow of traffic will go at all times. It removes pretty much all uncertainty from driver interactions.
Second, when someone comes up behind you and flashes highbeams, you must immediately move into the right lane. In America you're sort of supposed to do this already, but half the time the driver being high-beamed takes it as an insult to his masculinity and it's road rage time.
There isn't that much I miss about Germany. The weather is still just as crappy there as it was when Tacitus was complaining about it 2000 years ago, and the food is heavenly for three days, enjoyable for five, but after a week you're screaming for something that isn't meat.
But I do miss the autobahns.
Thursday, October 02, 2003
I would instead like to talk about form: The form that these sorts of racialized kerfuffles always tend to take.
1) They are invariably used as a political weapon against people with the wrong point of view. It goes without saying that a Robert Byrd or a Cruz Bustamante can shout the "n" word from the rooftops without any real consequences, because they are reliably socialist. That's just the way things are. In contemporary America, so much of the time, race is not about race but rather about politics.
2) The psychology at work. It is sickening to watch people use the designated victim as a sort of Judas goat so that they can feel better about themselves. "Thank God *I* am not a racist like *that* guy." In the specific case of Limbaugh, we see the lovely spectacle of the lily-white NFL owners' club putting pressure on ESPN to fire Limbaugh for being racially insensitive.
3) I have a big problem with the appearance of the story on Tuesday. Limbaugh's remarks were made on Sunday morning. Why did the story not break until Tuesday? Why were Limbaugh's remarks "offensive" and "outrageous" on Tuesday but not on Monday?
I will answer my own question: Because the press hadn't built up enough outrage on Sunday. In fact, Limbaugh's remarks were made in front of the black men he worked with at ESPN, and though Tom Jackson disagreed with him on the facts, no one expressed any offense.
A controversy like this is often the result of a sort of media push-poll: Eventually the reporters in question shoved the Limbaugh quotes in enough faces so that enough people were suitably outraged, and we were off and running.
Wednesday, October 01, 2003
But the film is wonderful. It's really made by the amazing lead performances by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. They draw the viewer in and don't let go. Coppola wisely lets them captivate us and doesn't call attention to herself with directorial technique. Nothing is allowed to distract us from the emotional world that the two leads create--even the Japan that the film is set in is less of a locale than it is a recurring phenomenon, bizarre and inexplicable and temporary.
This is Murray's best performance by a factor of millions, especially in two scenes toward the end of the film where his face is uncannily expressive; Johansson, in a star-making performance, is just as good. There is also a hilarious, letter-perfect Cameron Diaz parody by Anna Faris, along with lots of great sight gags. There is just so much to love about this movie, not least the novel and refreshing idea that[spoiler] two people can like each other without having to sleep together. Bad sex scenes in movies have become a kind of prosthetic device for lazy, untalented screenwriters to clue the audience in that, hey, these characters like each other! [/spoiler] Lost in Translation is my favorite film of the year so far.