Wednesday, December 31, 2003

My top ten films of 2003 (though I have not seen Big Fish or 21 Grams yet):

1. (tie) Lost in Translation
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
3. Kill Bill
4. American Splendor
5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
6. Matchstick Men
7. A Mighty Wind
8. 28 Days Later
9. Bruce Almighty
10. Dirty Pretty Things

Honorable mention to Pirates of the Caribbean and The Last Samurai. Most overrated film was Mystic River.

Monday, December 29, 2003

David Aaronovitch has a great column in today's Guardian about the earthquake in Iran. He makes the telling observation that a similarly powerful quake in California a few days earlier killed exactly two people, as compared with 30-40,000 people in Iran. This implies a couple of things:

1) This is going to be another nail in the coffin of the clerical regime in Iran. They endured another similarly horrible quake in 1990 and seem to have learned nothing from it. As one Iranian observes in the column, the Teheran regime governs by idiotic Orwellian slogans ("Death to America"); the rest of the Middle East does this as well, only not as overtly. Anyway, an atrociously-handled natural disaster can only further reduce the legitimacy of the government, if that is possible.

2) The willingness of the Iranian government to accept American aid in this instance (after pointedly refusing on earlier occasions) is less of an indication of "greater openness" in the regime than it is of its weakness.

3) As Aaronovitch notes, leftists champion "traditional" building methods over "globalized" Western ones. I recall that 9/11 pilot Mohamed Atta wrote his doctoral thesis on how much he hated the Western skyscrapers that were appearing in Syria, supplanting the traditional souks. But the events of the last few days in Iran speak for themselves: There is no excuse for traditional Third World architecture in earthquake zones.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

A busy, eventful Christmas. I saw LotR: RotK two more times, as my sister (who wouldn't stop calling Shelob "Hillary"), then my brother wanted to see it. There were lots of wonderful family moments--I got to meet the very small, week-old Moira for the first time--and the usual reminiscences.

My sister and I tend to have the same memories of our father (the adjectives "drunken" and "cruel" largely sum them up). An example: Being as clueless as I often am about interpersonal matters, I never noticed one of the things that Suzanne pointed out over the weekend, that our father never spoke one word to her husband until the birth of Peter (child # 3) nine years into their marriage. Nine.

That said, I find that my brother supplies a balance to the one-sided, even caricatured picture we have of Edwin senior. While Joe concedes all of our father's faults, he points out the remarkable things about him, a brilliant man with little formal education who could have been a university classics professor, a lifelong factory worker who read Xenophon and Thucydides for pleasure. My brother likes to relate the story of my dad reading the manual for the binding machine that he operated for Curtis Publishing: Memorizing it, advising the bosses on its maintenance, becoming so expert in its function that he was offered a management job, which he turned down because he wanted to continue working with his blue-collar friends (the guys my mother called "the Stretch Cunninghams."). Like my father I am a lifelong underachiever so the story always makes me feel some empathy for him.

My brother had a nice rant about people who insist on homoerotic undertones in Lord of the Rings, and I had to agree with him. For me, the act of people projecting their own sex fantasies onto other people's fictional characters is odd but harmless; but I don't like the societal implications for what seems to be a larger cultural trend.

The trend that I'm talking about is the sexualization of all affection, the idea that strong emotional affection between people is always and only nothing more than transmogrified sexual desire. I have a huge problem with this belief because of what it means for a society when, essentially, Agape love is a lie, when only Eros love is real and honest.

It means that life, at its core, is a porn film. It means that Bill Clinton is the most honest being among us. It also means that the Islamic fundamentalist criticism of Western society has validity. The social assumptions of the jihadist and the Western liberal are highly similar in this one instance:

The jihadist will say (and here I am paraphrasing from the great interview with John Rhys-Davies):
The expression of affection between a woman and a man not married to each other can only be for immoral purposes. Pardon me while we stone you to death.

The Western liberal who denies the existence of Agape love will say: The expression of affection between a woman and a man (or a man and a man) not married to each other can only be for immoral purposes. Go you.

The basic social assumptions are identical. Only the conclusions differ.

But that's only a passing observation. The real societal problem with the sexualization of affection has to do with the group of people for whom humans feel the most affection, that group of people for whom our affection is evolutionarily hard-wired. Children.

When all affection is sexualized, we are then only a hop, skip, and a jump from state-sanctioned pedophilia. When all affection is simply occulted sexual desire, then the pedophile is the most honest being among us.

And that's not a society that I want to live in.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Thanks to Stormy's recommendation and the fact that the local Bangladeshi Gas N'Go stayed open on Christmas Eve, I went to see The Last Samurai.

Before I actually talk about the film, I need to say a couple of things about the way it and other films of its type come to be. These days, when people talk (usually complainingly) about "big studio films" what they really mean are films that are packaged by agents as vehicles for certain talent. The studios pay less of a part in the process than at any time in the past, as the power of the most popular actors is greater now than at any time in the past.

So, as a consequence of a culture that exists to serve the most powerful actors, a large percentage of studio films are simply vehicles to showcase certain actors in safe and predictable ways: In short, they are vanity productions.

Thus we have the career of Tom Cruise. I tend to avoid his movies, as I always feel like I'm contributing to the Scientology 700 Club or something by patronizing them. But lots of people do go to his movies, and he rewards them by supplying safe, predictable product whose primary goal is to safeguard the image of Tom Cruise, Inc. These are the rules, after all.

So the challenge of filmmakers who are entrusted with creating a Tom Cruise vanity production is: How do you make such a movie interesting? How can you be innovative while using a cookie cutter?

Amazingly, the makers of The Last Samurai pull it off. While I still can't take Cruise seriously in anything--for example, a large part of the visual contrast between Cruise's character and the Japanese around him is lost because Cruise is so short that most of the Japanese are actually taller than him--I still found myself tremendously entertained by this film.

How do Edward Zwick and the other filmmakers do it? First, they go with superb, cheese-free costuming and set decoration. Next, they shamelessly quote a variety of Kurosawa films, especially in several driving-rain-on-command scenes right out of The Seven Samurai. And, best of all, they create tremendous action sequences which--in a shocking violation of Standard Vanity Production Rules--do not flinch at all from even the most extreme violence. Though Cruise's smarmy, immensely self-satisfied performance at the heart of the film prevents it from being the triumph it could have been with someone else in the role, The Last Samurai is still involving, even rousing, and I would never have guessed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

These are nice and clean and work-safe, and they make me laugh.

Monday, December 22, 2003

A bit tired. In the past few days we've broken every (admittedly modest) single weekday, single weekend day, and total week sales record at the store. If only the rest of the year was like this.

The conventional wisdom is that it's insane to do B&M retailing in the age of Wal-Mart. But we are doing boutique retailing, so there is a niche for us if we do it well. Our exterior still looks like it was imported from Beirut, and there is a long way to go, but it's nice at least to have that one week a year when you feel like you're wildly successful.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Hee. These Nigerians scammed me and in the process made me look like a total moron which, admittedly, isn't all that hard because, hey, I basically am, but of course the fault isn't mine, I blame it all on...get ready...hey, no fair guessing...aw, you're no fun...America.

Really, it would take a late-model Cray to quantify the stupidities on display in the above link.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Some thoughts on yesterday's surprising announcement that Libya was giving up its nuclear program and allowing total access to international inspectors:

1. Clearly it means that Libya was paying attention to events in Iraq. It's yet another total vindication of Anglo-American policy in the region.

2. It screws Iran, North Korea and other countries who were partnering with the Libyans on nuclear weapon production. It's not just the basic news that's good; the reverberations from this story are even better. It also means, in all likelihood, a quick end to economic sanctions on Libya, an OPEC member.

3. I can't help contrasting the (apparently wildly successful) Anglo-American diplomatic efforts here with the spectacular failure of the Clinton administration's earlier attempt to bribe North Korea into giving up its own nuclear program. The lessons that we can take from this:

a. Multilateralism does work under the right circumstances. The British apparently played "good cop" in the Libya negotiations, in contrast to the scary, dangerous, trigger-happy Americans. In 1994, the Clinton administration didn't need any help from anyone with North Korea. They knew it all.

b. When dealing with the ruthless and amoral, diplomacy without a credible military backup is pointless. The North Koreans immediately set to work on building nukes after taking the food, the oil, and the free power plant because they understood that Clinton and Albright were not serious negotiators. The North Koreans sensed on some level that Bill Clinton was only interested in scoring public relations points.

c. The contrast in form is interesting. The Bush administration has been professional and downright taciturn on the Libya agreement. This was an enormous change of pace from the festival of self-congratulation that was the signing of the North Korean accord. Among the many things I will never forgive the Clintons for is the terrifying sight of Madeleine Albright dancing in front of a crowd of admiring Koreans.

Friday, December 19, 2003

So I am a great-uncle again.

Moira Jane Hill, born at 12:53 AM this morning.

Thursday, December 18, 2003


1. I promised a review of HBO's Angels In America, but it was just so awful I couldn't finish watching it. I switched to the "Dinosaur Planet" show on Discovery, finding the performances of the dinosaurs subtle and understated by comparison.

Watching AiA, I was reminded of that line from Love Actually that everyone quotes about the last moments of the 9/11 victims on the phones with their spouses being moments of love rather than anger and vengeance. I thought of it because apparently Tony Kushner thinks that terminal AIDS patients are different: All they can seem to talk about with their dying breaths is how much they hate Republicans.

Six hours of effected, stilted, devoid-of-wit dialogue and political preaching was too much for me.

2. It's a trend I've noticed lately, here on display in a recent Doonesbury strip:

And then four days later, after the Saddam capture, we heard, from a senior Dean advisor, "The man was found hiding in a hole. He was hardly a threat to the people of Chicago."

The form is to ridicule the Iraq war by pointing out how absurd the idea is that places in the "heartland" could be threatened by Saddam. Two observations about it:

a. It's revealing that the places mentioned are very far away from the port cities that would be the most likely targets of WMDs. To me, if someone insists that the idea of Chicago, IL, and Yankton, SD being threatened by Saddam is laughable, it begs the question of whether New York City or Washington might really have been in danger from him.

b. The point of view also requires that there be no relationship between Saddam's Iraq and the Al-Qaeda terrorists, who have demonstrably killed Americans from all over the country (the 9/11 victims were residents of 33 different states, including Kansas, Wisconsin, and Illinois). In fact, we are seeing more evidence of such connections all the time.
Much more evidence.


Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?


A stern yet benevolent organizer who often knows best, your wits are keenly fixed on aiding efforts you deem worthy.

Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril to Mordor.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


While watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, I kept thinking of the lines from Auden's famous 1955 review of the novel: "Here are beauties that pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart." Tolkien's novel has many, many dimensions, but in his adaptation Peter Jackson has zeroed in on the same one that Auden did, the emotional.

Jackson's trilogy, for all its action sequences--and ROTK is a furious time-machine of a movie that grabs you and, when it's ready, lets you go, drained and amazed that three and a half hours have gone by--is all about emotion. Jackson has been criticized for his screen-filling close-ups of Elijah Wood's face, but they work: Wood's highly-expressive face is the visual emotional center of the films.

This tendency affects the way the third film is told. In the book, the protagonist of the Mordor sequences is not Frodo but Sam; by the third book, Frodo's personality has largely been submerged by the overwhelming force of the One Ring, and we see Mordor through Sam's eyes. But the movie keeps the focus on Wood's Frodo as its visual anchor, so Sam is only a supporting character here. But by and large Jackson's departures from the book work pretty well. I will even risk blasphemy to say that one sequence, the Paths of the Dead episode, is actually an improvement over the book version, which always feels hurried to me when I reread it.

There are far too many highlights to mention. The performances are wonderful, and Miranda Otto especially shines. I imagine that people will quibble about the bad guys being led by The Toxic Orcvenger and Legolas becoming The Amazing Spider-Elf. And parts of the film (the theatrical lease anyway) feel truncated. But I still loved it. ROTK jerks every possible tear out of the audience, but every one is earned. Like Gandalf says in it, "I will not say, 'weep not,' for not all tears are evil."

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

From David Brooks's column in today's New York Times, discussing Howard Dean's foreign policy address:

Judging by his speech yesterday, Dean does not believe the U.S. has an exceptional role to play in world history. Dean did not argue that the U.S. should aggressively promote democracy in the Middle East and around the world.

Instead, he emphasized that the U.S. should strive to strengthen global institutions. He argued that the war on terror would be won when international alliances worked together to choke off funds for terrorists and enforce a global arms control regime to keep nuclear, chemical and biological materials away from terror groups.

Dean is not a modern-day Woodrow Wilson. He is not a mushy idealist who dreams of a world government. Instead, he spoke of international institutions as if they were big versions of the National Governors Association, as places where pragmatic leaders can go to leverage their own resources and solve problems.

The world Dean described is largely devoid of grand conflicts or moral, cultural and ideological divides. It is a world without passionate nationalism, a world in which Europe and the United States are not riven by any serious cultural differences, in which sensible people from around the globe would find common solutions, if only Bush weren't so unilateral.

At first, the Bush worldview seems far more airy-fairy and idealistic. The man talks about God, and good versus evil. But in reality, Dean is the more idealistic and naïve one. Bush at least recognizes the existence of intellectual and cultural conflict. He acknowledges that different value systems are incompatible.

In the world Dean describes, people, other than a few bizarre terrorists, would be working together if not for Bush. In the Dean worldview, all problems are matters of technique and negotiation.

Dean tried yesterday to show how sober and serious he could be. In fact, he has never appeared so much the dreamer, so clueless about the intellectual and cultural divides that really do confront us and with which real presidents have to grapple.

There is another wonderful combat story of one of the newly-deployed Stryker units that came under enemy fire yesterday from jihadists in the vicinity of a school filled with children. The unit couldn't return fire because of the children, so they brought out their sniper, who promptly picked off seven of the monsters with not one civilian casualty. Final total: 11 jihadists dead, no American casualties, no civilian casualties.

Our forces over there amaze me more every day.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Such a sweet, sweet day. I started out driving to Philcon on the final day of the show in a nasty snowstorm, drove home in a nastier rainstorm, didn't sell all that much in between, and I was happy and cheerful the whole time (a scary sight for those who haven't experienced it).

We got Saddam, murderer of millions, today. I am so happy today that I can't process it yet. I am still swimming in the warm, warm waters of the Schadenfreude Sea, listening to the cries of anguish from the folks who were dancing on 9/11:

“I love him so much, I can’t stand watching it while he’s in custody,” Raafat Logman, 23, said as he was shooting pool. “We are surprised. We are so sad,” said Sameh Aloul, 22

"We all started crying because we love Saddam and we hate [US President George W.] Bush and [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.

"It's a black day in the history of the Arabs. It's a humiliation."

And it gets better. The following are not cries of anguish from Baathists or Islamists or Palestinians, but are in fact actual posts from today on DemocraticUnderground.com, the reading of which almost put me into a schadenfreude coma:

Grrr... I just want to hit someone.

Justice has not been served.

...so angry I could punch a wall.

I've already come THIS CLOSE to taking my mother's radio and throwing it at her.

Pardon me, but this cheerleading for the "good" fruits of a criminal action is a f***ing disgrace.

The world is almost always a harsh, shockingly indifferent place. Sometimes--not often, not regularly, not even intermittently, but sometimes--there is real justice in the world. There is a line from C.S. Lewis to the effect that the concept of "justice" would have no meaning if there were no God:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?

That's what I thought of when I heard Saddam had been captured, and that his victims were rejoicing in Baghdad and Basra and Teheran and Dearborn, and that the bitter, hateful people of the world were filled with anger: that today the world saw a little justice, and, with it, a vague, flickering outline of the divine.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

There is so much wrong with the yesterday's ludicrous, borderline fascist Supreme Court campaign finance ruling. Some thoughts:

1. The elephant in the room created by the ruling is the obvious equal protection problem. Boiled down, what the USSC is saying is that the New York Times and Fox News have the right to endorse a political candidate, but the Sierra Club and the Christian Coalition do not. Any way you look at the Fourteenth Amendment, the position the court took yesterday is simply maddening.

2. Sandra Day O'Connor needs to be in an assisted-living facility, not on the nation's highest court. Immediately, please.

3. For once, the usually flawless Bush/Rove political instincts failed. When GWB signed this suppurating pustule of a bill, I suspect he was gambling that the Supreme Court would slap it down, a not unreasonable belief. What I think happened was that there was a determination that nutty John McCain would bolt the party if Bush vetoed the bill, so Karl Rove in his Machiavellian way prevailed on Bush to sign it to have it both ways. What Rove didn't see coming was this bizarre, dictatorial ruling by the Court. So, for the moment, we--those of us who are the end users of the First Amendment--are screwed.

4. The unintended consequences of this law will be legion. There will be all sorts of money streams going and coming all the hell over the place. To use McCain's language, this law will not "get money out of politics." That, to put it gently, will not happen. What will happen is that money will flow, not to parties, but to all sorts of mysterious advocacy groups who will make the use of code words into high art. George Soros saw this coming, as did his Republican counterparts. Politics is only going to get dirtier and more corrupt, if that is possible.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003


This weekend we are doing a show, and it's my least favorite one, Philcon. The show itself is fine, but it has the worst location in the world short of downtown Kandahar: A hotel in the middle of center city Philadelphia. Which means nightmarish parking to start with, and a setup process designed by the Marquis de Sade: The dealer's room is on the second floor, so everything has to be trundled in on handtrucks (Yes, the hotel has its own luggage carts that you can use, but of course you practically have to perform sexual favors on the unionized help to get any of them). I miss the old, incredibly-easy-to-get-to Adam's Mark on City Line Avenue that they used to hold the show in. But at least the management of the con likes us, so we are the only game dealer there, which means decent money to be made there. Trade-offs.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

I am in in awe.

Monday, December 08, 2003



Me: "Hello, Abington Game and Hobby Center."

Caller: "Hi, I would like to talk to Bob, please."

Me: "I'm sorry, but Monday is Bob's only day off."

Caller: "Do you know when I could reach him, then?"

Sunday, December 07, 2003

I ran out of negative superlatives while watching HBO's Angels in America tonight. I only watched it to begin with because I love Emma Thompson, and she is wonderful as always in this, though she seems to be acting in a completely different miniseries, a far less crappy one. I will have a sort of review--if it is possible to review something so despicably bad--after it concludes.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

This has to be hackers. I mean, it has to be, doesn't it?

Can we take over Canada yet, please?

Michael Crichton's site has an essay on environmentalism that says it all:

"In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature."

Friday, December 05, 2003

This, I think, is my all-time favorite quiz:

Which Historical Lunatic Are You?
From the fecund loins of Rum and Monkey.

My sister has added her list, which is much more fun than mine:


Hollywood’s version of one of the great Christian writers of all time. Insulting in the extreme. Imagine an egg. Puncture with a pin. Remove all interior matter. You are left with an empty shell. With a hole in it.

The Shawshank Redemption

Hollywood Left again. Technically decent movie and not badly acted if you can stand watching Susan Sarandon’s toy thingy. Notice that all the “good” guys are murderers and rapists and all the “bad” guys, specifically the warden, are “Christian.” For those of you with a negative IQ, this means Christians are so bad that even murderers and rapists are saintly in comparison

The Usual Suspects

So convoluted that I had to watch the ending several times and the beginning several more times in an attempt to find some sense and/or reason in this time waster and, through it all, I just didn’t CARE


1. The sophisticated spiritual insights of Hollywood liberals again . Perhaps they confused the heavenly, bodiless beings of light (a celestial attendant of God; a messenger of God; a person having qualities attributed to an angel, as beauty, purity or kindliness) with the folks who bankroll theatrical productions?

2. John Travolta

I rest my case


So hideous on so many levels it’s stunning.

Dr. Zhivago

Take a decent book. Subtract all interesting subject matter, conversations, style. Add endless close ups of faces du jour and endless long shots of snow. Add a large bucketful of a particularly annoying theme song. Stir. Bake for several hours. Leave at intermission, at the latest. (I did).

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Lots of people online are making lists of their 10 Worst Movies Of All Time. These are the rules. Basically there are two conditions: You must have actually seen the movie, and you must really, really hate it. Here I go:

Cutthroat Island. I watched this one in Italy with Giovanni, fascinated. It was so rivetingly bad that I couldn't turn away.
Cocktail. The movie that made me long for the subtle plot turns and witty dialogue of Days of Thunder.
Shakespeare in Love. An offense to taste on multiple levels.
Moulin Rouge. Directed by Baz Luhrmann while apparently suffering a grand mal seizure, with choreography by Roger Rabbit.
Year of the Dragon. A stern, endless lecture about the evils of international unilateralism, delivered in the form of the dullest action movie ever made. You have to be Kofi Annan or Maurice Strong to like this movie.
American Beauty. An utterly loathsome, supremely contemptible, virulently anti-American screed.
1900. An unwatchable mess. The only redeeming factor is Donald Sutherland's hilarious scenery-chewing villain.
Caligula. The effect of watching Sir John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, and Helen Mirren in an extremely unpleasant porno film is the most odd sort of embarrassment for them, as if you'd walked in on them while they were using the bathroom.
Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo. It wasn't the Andy Hardy-in-a-crackhouse plot, it wasn't the it wasn't the Kabuki-level acting. I hate this one because it reminds me of the woman I was dating at the time, who actually liked it. *shudder*
Contact. For those who wonder why many of us can't stand Jodie Foster.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Actual Paris Hilton quotes from tonight's episode of my new favorite reality show, The Simple Life:

"What's generic?"

Paris [discovering she doesn't have enough money at the grocery]: "Can't you just, like, give it to us?"
Clerk: "No, this isn't a soup kitchen."
Paris: "What's a soup kitchen?"

"What's a well?"

"What's Wal-Mart? Is it, like, they sell wall stuff?"

Monday, December 01, 2003

Some notes from the last few days of my lost weekend:

1. The Carnivale finale made we want to throw things. It was a great ep, and it did a very good job tying up a lot of things from the season (which meandered quite a bit at times). But how could they end on a cliffhanger like that, with [spoiler] Clea Duvall and her mother trapped in a burning trailer[/spoiler]??? They were my favorite characters in the series, and their scenes were always nicely eerie. ([spoiler] "Mother! Stop that! You're lying!"[/spoiler]) We don't even know for sure if there will be a season two, but there is so much unresoved from this season that there better be.

2. I finally saw the extended TTT DVD at my sister's. (My own DVD player picked this weekend, when I really could have used it, to die). I can't believe that some of this stuff was cut out of TTT, as some of it is vitally important for an understanding of some of the subplots in RotK, especially the scenes with Denethor and his two sons.

3. The Eagles have won seven in a row, and the thing that is really striking to me is the continuity. In the free-agency NFL, where year to year personnel changes make seasonal predictions almost impossible, Andy Reid's team has put together seasons of 11-5, 11-5, 12-4, and the current 9-3, despite a series of unspectacular rookie drafts. The credit must go to a nice bit of husbanding of salary-cap money by the front office, and to the coach himself: Reid, a practicing Mormon, has a well-known character requirement for players. Nitwits with attitude problems *coughKeyshawncough* need not apply here. As a result, the team is stocked with people who are, for lack of a better word, grown-ups. Like Troy Vincent, who owns three businesses in addition to his humanitarian activities, and Darwin Walker, a civil engineer who owns a structural engineering firm.

It seems kind of a paradox that people who are civilized like this should excel at a game that seems to be about violence: but in fact thugs make very poor warriors.

4. My sister was talking about how, in certain voice intonations and mannerisms, her younger daughter Anne reminds her a little of our late sister Mary. Now Anne is poised and cheerful and extremely charismatic--basically everything Mary was not--but I can kind of see it too. She is, as Suzanne says, what Mary could have been, had fate been kinder, and the thought of it makes me happy and sad at the same time.

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