Sunday, February 29, 2004

LotR:TRotK deserved every one of its Oscars, and I thought the Academy did a better-than-usual job (with the exception of Sean Penn beating out Bill Murray). Even the political screeds of previous years were kept to a minimum.

But I can't figure out why. Normally, the Weinstein brothers are always able to buy their way to the big awards (ref. Shakespeare in Love beating out Saving Private Ryan.), but this year they couldn't even get a Best Picture nomination for Cold Mountain. Tonight it was like the Academy was seized. mostly, by a wave of taste.

But the political stuff is easier to figure out. Last year's Michael Moore onstage antiwar filibuster was an embarrassment that even the staunchest of Hollywood lefties hated (the early-on montage included a shot of Moore being stomped on by a LotR Mumakil to audience applause).

Sold at the GZG-ECC in Lancaster on Saturday, in a big hotel in the center of town that has seen much better days but is still full of wonderful Colonial architecture. The show was pretty good for its tiny size, and the people there were so eager to buy from us I think they can be the foundation of the dedicated online mail-order business that I've wanted to start for some time (Bob and I are going to set it up this week). The only noteworthy thing that happened was that I fell on the ice crossing the street to the hotel and smacked my knee pretty good, though it was fine again today and I ran again.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Busy busy today.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

For the first time in a while I thought today in passing of a once-acclaimed French author named Jacques-Anatole Thibault, who wrote as Anatole France. France is barely remembered today for, out of his entire vast output of novels and plays, one brief, clever little story called "The Procurator of Judea."

"Procurator" is one of those trick-ending stories so beloved to nineteenth-century writers. An online summary reads:

In it we meet Pontius Pilate as a retired civil servant who lives in a health resort and nurses his arthritis. A friend from the time of Pilate?s procuratorship in Judea meets him and reminds him of several incidents of those bygone years. The friend brings up, quite incidentally, the case of Jesus. Pontius Pilate tries hard to remember. But finally the old civil servant, who has had so many legal cases to deal with, admits: "I do not recall him."

The irony within the irony of this most ironic story is France's own: In his day Anatole France was arguably the most acclaimed writer in the world. He won the Nobel Prize in 1921 over Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and Marcel Proust; When he died in 1924, hundreds of thousands of people followed his funeral procession through Paris. Today, he is all but forgotten, known only for a story about reputations and the passage to time.

I thought of "The Procurator of Judea" during the experience of watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. Passion is perhaps the most controversial, most widely-discussed film in the history of cinema. And it very well may deserve to be.

I think that many people who see this movie will share my reaction, which is an inability to process all of it intellectually. It's hard to talk about it, even in the context of other Passion stories. This film has at least some of the elements of the standard retelling of the story: The Faulknerian "human heart in conflict with itself" among almost ever featured character in the film, from Peter to Judas to Pilate to Jesus himself; the essay on power and "power" that Anatole France was alluding to in "The Procurator"; and of course the theological elements which are effectively, soaringly here.

But the most overwhelming thing about this overwhelming film is its meditation on violence. To apply the language of cinema as a context, The Passion is over-the-top violent on a Tarantino level. Cinema violence is always manipulative, and the violence in this movie is as well, though in a different way.

In nearly all movies, violence is a plot device intended to advance a storyline. Here, the violence is the point. Violence in nearly all movies is simply a first shoe, and those of us who are versed in the modern idiom react to it by waiting for the other shoe to drop. But there is no relief here. The camera won't spare us even a second of Jesus's agony. There are obvious theological reasons for this, and Gibson takes the time to lay them out; but beyond the religious symbolism, the violence in The Passion has another message for us.

It's about the nature of violence itself: We live in a world where violence entertains and titillates us, and I think we tend to forget that real violence kills people and breaks things. People who condemn Hollywood for "not showing the actual consequences of violence" can have no argument with The Passion.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Haven't done one of these in a while...

A is for Angel the Series. Sniff.

B is for Monica Bellucci, of whom Mel Gibson says of her role in The Passion: "I told them make her uglier! More dirt, more dirt, mess her hair up, more dirt. And all that happened is she became more beautiful the more we tried!"

C is for Courtney, and also Cry For Help.

D is for Divisive, which is defined as anything you do that I don't like.

E is for Exercise. I have finally started running again, incredibly enough.

F is for Fish, as in sushi, which is what's for dinner tonight.

G is not for Good Charlotte, thank you very much.

H is for Howard Shore, from whom (according to AICN)there is going to be a nine-disc set of all the Lord of the Rings soundtrack music, which will be finding its way into my collection.

I is for Inevitable Distractions, as it always is.

J is for Jingoism, which I think is my favorite-sounding word in the English language.

K is for King Kong. I don't know about you, but I can't wait for Peter Jackson's next. And if they got Naomi Watts in the Fay Wray role, that would complete the perfection. And maybe a cameo by the real Fay Wray, who is still alive.

L is for Lent. Now, I have already given up sweets, so I will be giving up faux low-carb sweets. And Mexican food because I love it so.

M is for Martedi Grasso, the less-familiar Italian name for yesterday.

N is for Nader. Finally someone that Democrats hate more than they hate George Bush. Maybe now we can finally end his chiseling from the college students of America.

O is for Off, which I am today.

P is for Panic, one of the movie cliches I hate most. Every disaster film you can name (think Independence Day, Armageddon) is guaranteed to feature a scene of panicked people trampling their neighbors in a desperate attempt to flee. In reality people really are better than that--recall the images of people calmly descending the World Trade Center on 9/11, or the million people who evacuated Manhattan that day without incident.

Q is for Quills, the loving tribute to the Marquis de Sade that New York Daily News reviewer Jami Bernard raved about. But The Passion of the Christ? It's "a compendium of tortures that would horrify the regulars at an S&M club." William Donohue has a great piece identifying the hypocrisy of film reviewers who are suddenly horrified by violence.

R is for Rights. I really hate debates like the current one on gay marriage because they invariably give a forum to people who know nothing about the Constitution to drone on about the Constitution. The next time I hear a person say "The Constitution gives us the right to..." I will throw things. The Constitution is very clear on this: It does not bestow rights because, as the Declaration makes clear, all rights come from the Creator. That is to say, we have them inherently. What the Constitution does is limit the ability of the government to infringe on rights. This is an extremely important distinction.

S is for Sharpton. "People keep saying the campaign's in disarray. It's not. To be in disarray, you have to be in array first."--Kevin Gray, former Al Sharpton campaign coordinator. The thought of Reverend Al conducting high-level peace negotiations in Haiti is giggle-inducing.

T is for Tehran, and Turnout. A recent Reuters article "Tehranis Hope to Shock Bush with Big Poll Turnout," is fascinating for its insights into...Reuters. You have to read it carefully to notice that almost no one under thirty (70 percent of the population is under 30) voted in the election, and hence the turnout was rather pathetic. But you'd never know it from the headline.

U is for Unions, as in Civil Unions. The unreported story of the marriage amendment proposed by GWB today is that it opens up the possibility of civil unions nationwide, to be determined by the states.

V is for Van Helsing, whose trailer looks very cheesy to me.

W is for Wednesday, as in Ash Wednesday. I?m going to get ashes today for the first time in several years.

X is for X, the Unknown, probably the most underrated horror film of the 1950s.

Y is for Yak, because I felt like typing that.

Z is for Joe Zawinul, whose song "Birdland" I am listening to right now.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

You can tell everything about a culture by what it reviles. And right now Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is absolutely agonizing the culture, which sputters for words to abominate this film even more. Alessandra Staley's article in yesterday's New York Times is instructive.

After a dismissive jibe at the people who have sold out screens a month in advance for this film ("Anyone who cannot beat to wait one more day to hear Aramaic in a movie theater"), Staley gets right down to attacking The Passion.

In discussing a "making of" documentary that's on PAX TV tomorrow night, she charges in: "The word 'Jews'...is not uttered in this documentary." But, she explains, there is a reason:

This is not surprising--promotional behind-the-scenes documentaries rarely look too closely behind the scenes. And in that sense, "The Making" fits in with the elliptical approach the rest of television has taken to L'Affaire Gibson.

Elliptical??? Every single press piece and interview about this movie in the last six months , including the best known and most recent one with Diane Sawyer, has mentioned antisemitism. "Yet television discussion," says Staley, "has remained oddly muted." Muted? Sawyer questioned Gibson over and over about Jews and antisemitism and the Holocaust. And I'm trying and failing to recall any cultural event ever where the views of a parent (in this case Gibson's nutty 85-year-old father) have been pulled out to attack a work. But no, says Staley. Television handles tricky subjects with "timidity."

And soon enough, Staley reveals her real agenda: Gibson is not merely a filmmaker, but "a lobbyist for the fundamentalist religious movement in the United States at a time when its clout is unmistakably on the rise." Here is where I started laughing. Several thousand same-sex couples get married in the last two weeks and we are supposed to be at the mercy of the religious fundamentalists. Right.

Staley's conclusion is predictable, and typical of the Times: "The semi-crazed cop [Gibson] played in 'Lethal Weapon' was not that much of a stretch." And I can only agree, since the Times, the former home of Jayson Blair, knows all about stretches.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Kind of busy this week, but I wanted to excerpt a portion of Richard Wolin's review article from the February 9th New Republic (not available online)entitled "Kant at Ground Zero," which deals with the responses of philosophers to the events of 9/11 and their aftermath. The most interesting parts for me deal with the reaction of the so-called "left Heideggerians"--Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Zizek, and Paul Virilio--to the attacks:

As good Heideggerians, they are simply incapable of naturally appreciating the validity and the worth of democratic political institutions--civil liberties, republican government, and self-determination. For Heidegger, after all, the United States was nothing more than a technological Moloch: the "site of catastrophe," and extreme manifestation of civilizational Untergang or decline. In keeping with this perspective, the pamphlets of Zizek and Baudrillard exude a barely concealed glee about Osama Bin Laden's "divine surprise" in September 2001. For Baudrillard, the attacks represented a glorious, long awaited instance of wish-fulfillment: the Al Qaeda terrorists may have perpetrated the deed, but the act itself was something the entire world had long dreamed of and desired. For the post-modernist sage, criticism of the attacks cannot mask

the prodigious jubilation of seeing this world superpower meet with destruction....In essence, it was [the terrorists] who committed the deed, but it is we who wished for it.

In late 2001, Baudrillard granted an interview to Der Spiegel...When interrogated about whether the spread of human rights and democracy to the Middle East and the Third World was desirable, the postmodernist philosopher replied in the negative. Human rights, he claimed, are merely a cover for superpower global hegemony: "I believe that human rights have already been subsumed by the process of globalization and function as an alibi. They belong to the juridical and moral superstructure--in sum, they are advertising."

Wolin calls this kind of speech "unadulterated nihilistic contempt for democratic norms" of a type not seen since the Nazis. Exactly. (Hermann Rauschning's early book about Hitler, The Revolution of Nihilism. comes to mind). Even though I abhor facile comparisons to the Nazis, I think the comparison is unavoidable here. That the original Heideggerian himself, Martin Heidegger, devoted himself to Hitler more slavishly than any other intellectual, is not a coincidence. The neo-Heideggerians' hero-worship of the Islamists tends to highlight the affinities of Islamic fundamentalism and Nazism.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Entirely unconnected observations on two days at this year's New York Toy Fair:

*Unless, of course, the haranguing is done by Brazilian women.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

I'm away in New York City for a couple of days at Toy Fair.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Now that Pierce is out, I want to see Jason Statham in the role, though no one else does. And he does look like me, dammit.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

This recent Bush-was-AWOL stuff from the media is a new low. This is somehow, suddenly, a life and death issue with the media--in spite of being based on no reportage more recent than four years old.

The whole business comes from one interview (since retracted) with one guy in 2000 who didn't remember seeing GWB in Alabama 28 years earlier. Right.

Now was this vitally important story an issue in the 2000 campaign, with Bill "sure I'll enlist--I promised, didn't I?" Clinton in the White House? No, the media never brought it up.

Was it an issue as recently as a month ago with Howard "thanks for the medical deferment, I'm off to the slopes" Dean as the D frontrunner? No, the media never brought it up.

But with John "By the way, I was in Vietnam" Kerry in the lead, it suddenly becomes a vital issue that the media demands answers on.

A new low. An all-time nadir. Shameless.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004


There are few things more repellent than self-pity. At the first sign of it in others, my usual empathy instinct shuts down immediately and I become grim and cold. I have good childhood reasons for this--I grew up in a house where people competed with each other to see who could feel the sorriest for themselves.

It's as if there is only a finite amount of sympathy available for a given interaction, and if you take it all for yourself there is none left for me to give you.

And self-pity isn't the same thing as sadness (which immediately rouses my deepest empathy). Self-pity is the opposite of sadness.

Sadness is the psyche's honest response to tragedy, while self-pity is fundamentally dishonest: It is cowardice shabbily and transparently disguised as sadness.

Sadness is private, while self-pity demands loudly and aggressively to be noticed.

Sadness is an internal process, while self-pity is a calculation designed to manipulate others.

I could go on for hours like this, but you get the idea.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Which Founding Father Are You?

Christopher Hitchens has a long polemic against Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in the new Vanity Fair (not available online). Hitchens has an odd, love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church, best symbolized by his cheerful willingness to serve as an official Vatican avocatus diavoli during the canonization proceedings for Mother Teresa. Hitchens's MT hate is well-known, but it always seemed to me that his eager cooperation with the Vatican in this matter was only too eager: A disinterested onlooker could be forgiven for concluding that he'd been auditioning for the role for years.

And here is Hitchens in the VF column siding with the Vatican again, if obliquely, by attacking that arch-conservatism that places Gibson to the right of the present-day Church:

Gibson himself is a financial angel to a Catholic splinter group that rejects the Second Vatican Council and employs only the Latin Mass. He has even built a church for this sect, conveniently located for the many sinners near Malibu.

Gibson is an almost irresistible target for Hitchens, combining two of the traits that always get CH's blood up: Religious literalism and Anglophobia (Hitchens mentions in passing Gibson's "anti-English crowd-pleasers, such as Gallipoli and Braveheart and, even lower, The Patriot.") But it's The Passion of the Christ that really gets Hitchens going:

The reaction of a morally normal human being, on witnessing a sadistic episode in progress, is to intervene to stop it. Does Gibson intend us to hope for this, even as he shows us the extremes of anguish? (We use the word "excruciating" for a good reason.) Of course he does not. One has to positively want it to go on and on, all the way, every cut of the lash and every bloody footprint and every rusty nail, until the very bitterest end. At least one has to desire this if one believes in the film's "agenda"--which is a clumsy, melodramatic attempt at the vindication of biblical literalism.

The heart of Hitchens's abomination of the movie is the same charge of antisemitism that the ADL and others on the Left have made: Hitchens makes much of the words Jesus says to Pilate in a scene quoting John 19: 10-11 ("Thou couldest have had no power at all against Me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered Me unto thee hath the greater sin.")

But Hitchens dilutes his argument by reminding us how "highly ambiguous" the passage is. "He that delivered Me" could have any number of interpretations beyond an antisemitic one.

At any rate, all the passion aroused by The Passion only makes me want to see it even more.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

My sister was telling a story about being in court with a woman who was losing custody of her children for near-total negligence. As in, failing to feed or wash them. The woman's excuse: "I would have taken care of them but I was not being serviced." In other words, the government was not changing the diapers or heating up the formula for her. "This was one of those people," my sister said, "who think that government is a big pig and we're all sucklings." I love my sister.

I was at the auction in Port Richmond today buying some Department 56 crap, and I ran into someone I hadn't seen in at least 15 years, my old English professor at West Chester. I had lost track of her over the years, and when I thought of her, it was with that regret you have when you aren't sure if the person is still alive. (She is in her seventies now). Being internet-unsavvy, she hadn't been able to keep track of any of us, her former students: She didn't know that my friend Ian had published books, for example. She still spends several weeks a year in Europe, and still lives, as it turns out, in Society Hill Towers. It was just an odd moment: She was the last person I would have expected to see among the crowd at a gift shop consignment auction in Little Poland, Philadelphia, PA. Small world.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

I'm sick with a cold now, and I am staying home Friday and Saturday. I will be all but bathing in herbal tea the next couple of days.

As so often, Peggy Noonan says everything that I could have wanted to say about the culture right now.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The stories from Saudi Arabia about this year's hajj tramplings are very revealing. The Saudi Interior Minister

said the mostly Asian pilgrims who perished Sunday as they pressed to throw stones at three pillars representing Satan in the valley of Mina near Mecca "met their fate because their place and time of death has been decided the moment they were born."

To me, that statement encapsulates the biggest single problem with Islam: Colossal human failures like these are simply the will of God, as if they were earthquakes. That's problematic because this ethos is absolute; it doesn't allow for alternate interpretations. If you question the Saudi government's crowd-control arrangements, you aren't just a dissenter, you're a blasphemer.

Terry McAuliffe once again manages to be simultaneously sleazy and boneheaded. The story has gotten no national publicity at all, which is not surprising. It's the kind of thing that, had Republicans done it four years ago when the national Democratic Party was openly encouraging Democrats to vote for John McCain in the Republican primaries, would have led the evening news for days. (Peter Jennings, a troubled mien visible in his rakishly handsome features, furrows his brow and intones the lead: "In what critics have called an echo of the dread McCarthy era...")

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Orson Scott Card is angry, and I can't blame him.

Monday, February 02, 2004

One of my favorite antidotes to the world is the late R.A. Lafferty's brilliant 1965 story "Slow Tuesday Night." I reread it as a balm whenever I can't take the culture anymore. It's nominally science fiction--the removal of a mental block speeds up the pace of human activity to an unimaginable degree--but what it really is is a tinglingly cynical allegory of the superficiality of modern culture. The world of "STN" is one in which every commodity, every value, is instantly disposable:

The reviews of the first five minutes were cautious ones; then real enthusiasm was shown. This was truly one of the greatest works of philosophy to appear during the early and medium hours of the night.

Most disposable of all are relationships between people, which are uniformly temporary; they are conducted only for career enhancement and the briefest sexual pleasure, and Lafferty takes his most cynical delight in describing them:

Loving, for Ildefonsa and her paramours, was quick and consuming; and repetition would have been pointless to her. Besides, Ildefonsa and Freddy had taken only the one-hour luxury honeymoon.

I usually prefer parables (with their broader metaphors) to allegories, but "STN" is too perfect a description of the current cultural environment, and it's newly delicious every time I read it.

Sunday, February 01, 2004


I sometimes go back and forth on whether my basic political instincts are libertarian or conservative, but tonight's Super Bowl halftime show was enough to make me want to join the Family Research Council. Watching Justin Timberlake simulate sex onstage with Janet Jackson while male dancers in drag wiggled behind them was about as skeevy a moment as I have seen on network television in memory.

I note that, immediately after airing it, CBS became the first network in history to issue an apology for a Super Bowl halftime show.

What I'm saying is that freedom of expression is a real right, but I think the right of parents not to have their children sexualized at public events is a greater, superceding right.

I finally consented to do the LJ interview thing, courtesy of Gabriel/Gabismo/Comava :

1. Describe yourself in 5 words.

Analytical, curious, empathetic, disorganized, generous.

2. What is your biggest fear?

I have been phobic about a few things in my life, but the only one I still have left is a mild bridge phobia. But of course nothing is more terrifying than rejection, so I will go with that one.

3. What do you think happens after death? Reincarnation or heaven or what?

Some form of judgement, the aspects of which I have no idea, only the hope that God grades on a curve.

4. When were the best and worst parts in your life and why?

I loved living in Italy from 1996-98. No money, but great weather, a servant to make up my room every day, wonderful people and food. But I was lonely and alienated all day there in a way I never am while in the USA. I will still go with that one, though.

Worst was the period from 1986-1990. It was too unpleasant to even begin an inventory of the awfulness.

5. Could you be a vegetarian?

No. To paraphrase my sister, they serve fettucine alfredo in Heaven. With scallops.

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