The Last Blog Post of 2009

This is the last blog post of 2009. If this post were written by another blogger, I would probably be telling you about how 2009 was the worst year in recent memory or I would probably be arguing in very persuasive language about how the noughts were the worst decade since the beginning of the Judeo-Christian calendar — a charge that I cannot guarantee for sure, since I was not alive when we started keeping tabs on the years. But I cannot do this. Because 2009 raped me. And as a rape victim, I am too ashamed to chronicle the specific details of 2009’s violent actions. This would be a classic he said/she said situation, were 2009 able to respond to my allegations. But because 2009 is not a person, and merely a year, it cannot defend itself from my rape charge.

The major ethical question here is whether I am (a) lying about 2009 raping me, (b) a bit too influenced by other excitable, finger-waving, end-of-the-year posts, essays, and articles, or (c) attempting, through some foolish and over-the-top catharsis, to find a disingenuous manner with which to accuse 2009 of rape. It may very well be a combination of two or three of these elements. Were I interested in attaching some end-of-the-year list to justify my rape allegation against the year (and the decade), you might more ably believe in my convictions.

But I prefer to operate in the present and learn from past mistakes. If 2009 did rape me, I will certainly do my best to ensure that future years will not violate me. But were any of us really violated? And why do we all insist on putting the blame on any one year? Wikipedia informs me that “projection is always seen as a defense mechanism that occurs when a person’s own unacceptable or threatening feelings are repressed and then attributed to someone else.” Is it fair to project our more difficult emotions onto a single year?

There are a few absolute projections that I can make right now. But I can say that the next post I write will be in 2010. I am not sure if 2010 will rape me. It’s just too early to tell. Now that I have begun to ruminate upon 2009, I am not sure if the year actually raped me. Yes, there was a struggle. But it’s not as if 2009 was some strange year who picked me up in a bar. We knew 2009. And it is said that most rape victims suffer not from the despicable actions of strangers, but from people they know. But 2009 is not a person. It is a year. And we have something that 2009 does not, which is the ability to exist longer than 365 days. So is all this negative self-reflection (or, this post’s reflection of other self-reflections from other blogs) the result of not being able to confront the glorious prospects of the present?

Perhaps. But irrespective of these difficult questions and inside one earnest sentence devoid of satirical intentions, I do wish everyone a very happy new year!

Either Rush Limbaugh Had Chest Pains Or He’s Acting

Now this is Rush Limbaugh. He’s got chest pains. And in the news reports, he is exaggerating the effects of the disease. He is moving all around and shaking as the paramedics take him in. And it’s purely an act. This is the only time I have ever seen Rush Limbaugh portray any of the symptoms of the disease he has. I know he’s got it and he’s raising awareness for it, but when I’ve seen him in public, I’ve never seen him betray any of the symptoms. But these news reports, he — he’s just all over the place. He can barely control himself. He can control himself enough to stay within the frame of the ambulance, and he can control himself enough to keep his fat ass right on the gurney. But his head and shoulders are moving all around the place, and he is acting like his disease is deteriorating because some liberal news organization claims that he is suffering chest pains. Rush Limbaugh, get cured. The liberals do not oppose research into heart disease, they oppose heartless reactionary yahoos who will be angling for Rush to get well. And this is really shameless of Rush Limbaugh. Either he didn’t keep his heart in decent condition or he’s acting, one of the two.

All right. Now people are telling me that they have seen Rush Limbaugh in interviews and he does not appear the same way in the interviews as he does in the ambulance in Hawaii. All right, then. I stand corrected. I have never seen — I’ve seen him on those Pizza Hut commercials and he was scarfing down slices of that crappy cholesterol-inducing pizza like they were crackers or something. I’ve seen him on a number of television appearances. I’ve never seen the evidence he’s got — I know he’s got it. It’s pitiable that he has the disease. It’s a debilitating disease, and I understand that fully. Now just stick with me on this.

All I’m saying is that I’ve never seen him this way he appears in this ambulance heading away from the Kahala Hotel and Resort. So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Rush Limbaugh if I am wrong for characterizing his behavior in the ambulance as an act, especially since people are telling me that they have seen him this way on other interviews and in other television appearances.

But let me just say this about it. Mr. Limbaugh is using his illness as another tactic to try to secure the rise of Republican zealots by implying that with his fake illness and possible death, he will be some martyr for the right. But he’s faking it. All I’m saying is that I’ve never seen Rush Limbaugh have chest pains before. There is something fishy here.

segundo316

The Bat Segundo Show: Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #316. Mr. Haneke is most recently the director of The White Ribbon, which opens in theaters on December 30th.

The Bat Segundo Show expresses profuse gratitude and thanks to translator Robert Gray for assisting in this conversation, which is presented here in German and English.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Tying a white ribbon ’round the old oak tree.

Guest: Michael Haneke

Subjects Discussed: The roots of human behavior within Haneke’s films, the film as a ski jump, the relationship between the cinematic spectator and semiotics, the spectator’s lack of freedom, the director as god and Martin’s spared death on the bridge, the baroness’s moral choice, truth and the denial of inherent human nature, Anna Karenina, social status and imprisonment, terrorist acts that are tied to specific occupations, the mistreatment of young children, planning a film for open-ended interpretation, whether or not a film can be entirely calculated for the spectator, the use of the Z-axis to accentuate a prewar setting, the perception of daily life, the role of the police in Haneke’s films, the trouble with dramaturgical constructs, and the impracticalities of theory in everyday situations.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In Funny Games, you have a scenario in which we don’t actually understand the motivations of the two killers. Cache, same thing. The actual motivation behind the videotapes is not entirely spelled out. And, of course, in The White Ribbon, we have a similar situation in which its more about the consequences than it is about the origins. And I’m curious why your films tend to not dwell upon the origins of terrible acts, as opposed to the consequences. Do you think that looking for the root cause of human behavior is a folly? At least with these particular characters in your film?

Haneke: (through translator) Mainstream cinema raises questions, only then to provide immediate answers so that the spectator can go home feeling reassured. But I think if film is to take itself seriously as an art form, then, like every other art form, it has to allow the spectators a certain freedom of possibility — of investing themselves, of grappling with the issues that are involved, of bringing their own feelings and explanations to the work that they are receiving. I always say that not only film, but every art form should provoke the spectator so that they feel motivated. The work has to be constructed in such a way that the spectator is led to investing himself in search for his own answers. I always say that not only film, but books too, are like ski jumps. They have to be built in such a way that people can jump properly. But the film is the ski jump and it’s up to the spectator to jump.

BSS #316: Michael Haneke (Download MP3)

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morgans

Review: Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009)

morgans

Sometime ago, I attended a screening for Did You Hear About the Morgans? I apologize for the lateness of this review. I have been occupied with more important things, such as clipping my toenails. I wish I could review this film properly, but that would be a bit like putting together a 4,000 word essay devoted to one man’s case of athlete’s foot. The upshot is that there is truly not much to recommend about this film, although I have seen worse films and this braindead offering served as a diversion between deadlines. It was possessed of nothing and permitted my mind and spirit to become actuated, seeking fun and greater things.

I should probably note that Susan E. Morse, fired by Woody Allen sometime after The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (possibly one of the key reasons why Allen’s more recent films have been less than stellar), edited the film. But aside from this, I leave the readers to do the detective work and track down the cast and crew. They are, for the most part, not worthy of having their names repeated here. But I do feel bad about what happened to Susan E. Morse, even though Woody Allen needs her more than Morse needs Woody Allen. What follows are some of my random notes taken throughout the film. This is what is known as a lazy review. But since the filmmakers have been extraordinarily lazy in putting this film together, it makes considerable sense for me to afford it the same level of disrespect. The collected notes will provide content for this site while I do interesting things (such as clipping my toenails) and it may be of some use to those who, for whatever reason, are still on the fence about seeing this movie:

Phone call against black. Long-winded. Premiere boutique. Real estate firm in this economy? Nonsense. Ice sculpture disaster.

“The perfect combination of classic architecture and understated elegance.” — some statement explaining this film?

Speaks French. Pregnant. Skyline shots. A black hole. Park Avenue? Really? 1991 fantasy. Not the New York I know. Not the New York Woody Allen knows. Hugh Grant tired. Sarah Jessica Parker tired, but peppy. Jackie and Andy. Assistants. Two assistants. More interesting than leads. Needless class warfare. Columbus Circle. “There is now a galaxy named Meryl.” — she’s still interested in this guy? He’s an attorney? Really? “Can you please stop being so agreeable.” Why not just punch someone?

He slept with someone else. A little less love for a while. Many years. Preposterous murder subplot. Really, this kind of crime in the East Side? Did the writer even visit here?

Keeping safe. Big black guy. Scrawny white guy. Unfunny racist joke. Real estate. T-shirt. Sent a police officer up. Shot. Shouting. I long for Preston Sturges.

Couple across the street looking through window. Liked this the first time in Ghostbusters, possibly before. “There’s an emergency.” Gay subtext in shower. Attorney with loads of free time in New York? Yeah, right. “I’ve had bagels in other parts of the country. I don’t even like Connecticut.” Such appeal! Will the killer shoot these snobs?

“If you want to lie, you’re out of options.” Manichean approach. Couple acts like they are in their twenties. Was that original script before getting Hugh and SJP?

A week at most. Sam Elliott kicks ass. Mary Steenburgen kicks ass. But why is there no chemistry between SE and MS? Wyoming. Cliches. City Slickers-style music.

Taxidermy. Encounter with a grizzly bear. Shouldn’t he be writing this down? Bargain Barn. “It’s huge. I had no idea.” But New York has Costco! Big guns. PETA. People for Eating Tasty Animals. Heard that joke in redneck bowling alley in early 1990s. Stilted blocking. Trapped.

One room. One witness at a time. Ten years ago. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood mostly. Cliched DVD selection. A computer. Make a quick call. There’s a code.

“Look, Paul, I know how hard you’re trying.” Not hard enough.

“And I don’t trust you anymore.” Paul or screenwriter?

Rodeo Round-Up magazine. All meat in the fridge. Who plays the assistant? “I’ve never turned my oven off.” “I thought I could actually keep my cells dividing.”

“I feel my organs shutting down.” “I can’t breathe. The air’s too clear.” Grizzly bear. Spraying him in the eyes. “I’ve always dreamed about Chicago.” “Laughter really is the best medicine.” Thank you, but I’m waiting to laugh.

307-179-9048. No 555 in telephone number?

Fertility experts. Stuttering Hugh. He’s in his forties and he’s still stuttering? Four Decades and a Funeral? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Apology to audience?

“Without him, I’m superfluous.” Oh please. Someone get bell hooks on her ass.

Shooting at the audience. “This is nothing. You should see how long it takes for her to order dinner.” Quicker than this movie?

“I think I have a welt.” Too much typing, Mr. Screenwriter?

Chair — moving inside the house.

“I am told that it is the only place.” Remington 270. “I called around and got a table near the mayonnaise.” New York neurotics. Wilford Brimley smoking. Cast as a badass! Beat them up, Wilford! Liberals in town: “Thirteen, not fourteen, and we know who they are.” People take trucks in this town? Truck return policy? “I Googled her.” — one of several modern references placed in at last minute, if script sitting in drawer.

Smells like a burrito. Need a will. Stun gun. “It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Which Shakespeare sonnet is this again?

Wait a minute, he’s British and been in New York all this time? Google Maps. Google paid someone?

“Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Hypocrisy. Second big rock as landmark. Joke now told four times, still not funny.

“You risked your life for me. That’s so nice.” Barf.

253delta

Delta Flight 253: We Love to Freak and It Shows

The thwarted Flight 253 attack (followed soon after by a man thwarted from relieving himself) has led to sustained outrage from numerous individuals. Some sensible souls have observed that secure cockpits and the wisdom of passengers have proven more reliable than draconian TSA measures and that, irrespective of any security measures in place, the more determined terrorists will go out of their way to affix explosive tools to their scrotums. (Funny how none of the authoritarians seem to remember United Airlines Flight 93, in which passengers prevented the plane from hitting its intended target. Did not Paul Greengrass’s Oscar-nominated agitprop beat this American know-how into our “never forget” ethos? Three years later, apparently not.) Other presumed experts, welcoming new opportunities for angry veins to pop out of their reactionary necks, have suggested that these Motor City airport shakedowns confirm American naïveté. And we are reminded, with the new threat of TSA officials questioning anybody who appears suspicious, that sacrificing our civil liberties without protest, in a manner more befitting of a passive demoiselle tied to the railroad tracks, is what present travel and “good” citizenship is all about.

Fortunately, Nate Silver has run some numbers that are too frequently overlooked when discussing American sacrifice, computing that one terrorist incident occurs for every 16,553,385 commercial airline departures. During the past decade, Silver concludes, your chances of being on a departure subjected to a terrorist incident has been 1 in 10,408,947.

But why stop there? Let’s put this present hysteria into additional perspective.

Chances that you will be struck by lightning in any given year: 1 in 750,000. (National Weather Service)

Chances that you will be killed by an asteroid: 1 in 700,000. (From astronomer Alan Harris, as reported at Discover)

Chances that you will be killed by excessive heat or cold of manmade origin: 1 in 639,989 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed by the ignition or melting of nightwear: 1 in 767,987 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed by contact with a venomous spider: 1 in 959,984 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed in a legal execution (e.g., the injection of thiopental after a hearty last meal): 1 in 79,999 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed in a fireworks discharge: 1 in 479,992 (National Safety Council)

In other words, you have a better chance of killing yourself by intentional self-harm (1 in 115, even if you don’t possess suicidal tendencies) or drowning in a water transport accident (1 in 10,940, even if you have no intention of ever stepping aboard a boat) than having your guts congeal into a fiery mess on a domestic flight. You are more likely to be killed by an asteroid or struck down by lightning than to get placed in a scenario in which you must take down an incompetent terrorist with a faulty detonator.

It seems that the Federal Aviation Association didn’t just abandon Common Strategy, the hijacking protocol devoted to preserving lives during skyjacking incidents. With the collusion of incompetent governmental bodies and politicians, it abandoned common sense.

Fearmongers like Rep. Peter King were happy to sample this limitless supply of Spanish fly only yesterday: “It’s important for the president or the secretary to be more out there and reminding people just how real this threat was and how deadly it is. For the first three months of this administration, they refused to use the word terrorism.”

One can only presume that the President was too busy fending off the grave national threat of death by venomous spider.

Let’s not permit any of the actual stats to deter us from ripping blankets from those pesky passengers who “claim to be sick” (shall we have designated sky doctors on flights debunking any and all future claims?) or from violating armpits to locate explosives that have a 1 in 16 million chance of existing. (The waning powers of underarm deodorant are another matter. I shall let more dutiful experts examine whether the TSA’s overeager armpit probing will bear some impact on the odds of dying from intentional self-harm. But I think it’s safe to say, without bothering to dip into the probability larder, that the chances of a passenger killing herself after being humiliated by a thoughtless goon are more likely than being killed in an MD-11 conflagration.)

We cannot, of course, return to the Time Before. Zero tolerance policies make us feel safer, even when such policies involve trying to expel a teenager from carrying a birth control pill or strip-searching a 13-year-old girl for having the temerity to carry ibuprofen. Passengers, however, can be trusted to be enforcers in ways that have eluded the TSA. Passengers proved especially creative in using seatbelts and medical kits to stop Richard Reid in 2002. But we still take off our shoes in airports to accommodate TSA guards on the ground. It’s the only way to be sure.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is presently being impugned by conservatives for declaring that “the system worked” on CNN. But these understandably angry reactions ignore the more troubling aspect contained within Napolitano’s remarks: Everybody reacted as they should. Fliers, both frequent and occasional, are now being asked to react to uncommon threats through an unclear TSA playbook designed around “predictable” human response. The DHS isn’t considering the possibility that improvised human reaction to a mostly improbable threat may present better results than any ineffectual security policy on the ground. What if all the wasteful pork devoted to these “Heck of a job” shenanigans were devoted instead to keeping passengers calm and dignified? If passengers were encouraged to look out after their fellow travelers, instead of clinging to their armrests alone and in fear, perhaps they would be encouraged to take creative risks when contending with future perps. Passengers can be just as creative as the bad guys. It’s rather amazing that we forget this. So why not devote resources to encourage these impulses?

Well, the possibilities of that happening are less likely than being killed by excessive heat or cold of manmade origin.

Control Your Emotions

“Well, that’s a rather simplified suggestion of a complex mental process. But you get the idea. Cause, effect. Nature endows us at first with three general patterns of emotional response: rage is the response to the primary stimulus of thwarting, something interfering with our….behavior. Our actions. Fear is the response to loud noises or loss of support. And the emotional response to love is usually the result of a show of affection or favorite. And these seem to be the emotions with which we start life. Then as we grow up, many everyday things and social situations become associated with these primary stimuli — partly by a process called conditioning. And so many things and people cause us to respond emotionally. And in general, that’s good. But there are many factors involved in a personality and a balance of emotion is important to a well-rounded personality. But emotions out of control….well, let’s take a look at a slice of everyday life to understand how some stimuli can bring about various emotional responses. What might happen to you or to me?”

LA Times Books Section Gutted

L.A. Observed reports the terrible news that Orli Low and Susan Salter Reynolds have been let go from The Los Angeles Times. This leaves a skeleton crew of three manning what remains of the books section.

I haven’t met Reynolds. But I am particularly devastated to learn that Orli Low, one of the finest editors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, is no longer around. Let me tell you how good Orli was. Orli caught on to nearly all of my writing tricks very fast, constantly challenging me to find new phrasings and trusting me to clarify my arguments. Rather than dismissing my frequently oddball perspective, Orli always took the time to figure out where I was coming from, wanting to know the precise comparison I was making (even if she wasn’t always familiar with some of my more oblique references) and doing everything to preserve the spirit of a piece — even when we were facing a last-minute cut. Orli would often tell me over the phone to cut twelve or so words to make a piece fit. She learned very quick that I was a word units guy. This would be followed by our collaborative drowning of babies. Then there would be many unexpected discoveries as the piece transformed into something else.

What I admired so much about Orli’s editing was the way that she never gave up on a piece, even when she was facing crushing deadlines or needless space cuts, and even when there were guys like me who were perhaps a tad too attentive to the sentences.

I certainly did my best to make Orli’s job as easy as possible. But because Orli was so good, she always found the time to make a piece better. She had a great bullshit detector. And I responded very well to her combination of honesty and encouragement. Knowing something of what was going on inside the Los Angeles Times, I did my best to crack a few jokes and cheer her up over the phone. And if I learned that Orli was working on one of my pieces, I’d try to sneak in a few funny asides that I knew wouldn’t make the cut. To my surprise, a few of these bawdy subtleties found their way into the paper.

Orli helped to make me a better writer. And I know that other freelancers who worked with her felt the same way. Because of this, The Los Angeles Times‘s decision to fire her goes well beyond senseless and into the territory of “What in the hell were you thinking?” It is absolutely disgraceful and insulting for a newspaper to have fired an editor with so much talent and experience right before the holidays. The Los Angeles Times‘s books section simply won’t be the same without Orli. And I hope with all my heart that some outlet will have the smarts to snap Orli’s mad chops up, permitting her to continue what she did so well.

Permanently Deleted

I have installed WordPress 2.9. In negotiating the new features, I find myself troubled by the phrase “delete permanently,” which has replaced the more reliable and more permanent “delete.” Posts intended to disappear now reappear in a Trash folder. This is clearly a carryover from Trash and Recycled Bin, features that are found, respectively, on Mac and Windows operating systems. These are both technological concepts that we have all come to know and love. But I am more troubled by “delete permanently” suddenly appearing on WordPress. I did not want this feature and I can’t seem to disable it. “Delete” was perfectly sensible and straightforward. “Trash” implies that my silly and often foolish typing in the WordPress window is now comparable to managing battered driftwood polluting an ecosystem that is beyond my control. WordPress has turned into Max Brod defying Kafka’s wishes. I presently have 407 draft posts in WordPress. During some incarnations of this blog, there have been more. There have often been less. I liked having the nuclear option. I knew that there was some sense of finality whenever I hit the delete button. My posts were like Roman babies left a rockface, but without any actual infants dying or an internal moral dilemma. But now I have to make two decisions about whether something I delete is worth deleting.

Now I’m a fairly decisive guy. When I want to delete something, I want it gone. Even if my impulsive decision to delete something may be wrong or misguided, it’s my decision to make. But if I know that some half-assed thing I write is going to pop up somewhere else, then I’m going to revisit it. I’m going to be forced to go through the same internal questioning that came with the initial decision. And perhaps the decision will be more agonizing. I’ll have more stray bits to manage. I cannot simply kill something and accept the consequences. The timing is rather funny in light of the recent Senate vote on the healthcare bill, which, should it make its way to the end, will make it mandatory for everyone above the 133% poverty rate to give their hard-earned cash to private corporations for healthcare. I feel that my relationship with the good people at WordPress has altered along similar lines. Permanently altered. Except that I am not obligated to give them money. So perhaps this is a rather incongruous metaphor.

Anyway, while there are those who will find this feature useful and who will jump up and down knowing that the memorialization and destruction of thoughts and feelings, seemingly permanent, are now not so permanent, I find myself troubled by the downside. If data is lost, if some essay is willfully destroyed or misplaced, is there not something divine in reconstructing or revisiting it again? Is there not wisdom or strength that comes from the second or third approach? If our primordial thoughts are accessible in the Trash, then are they really permanently deleted? Yes, one can find the inner strength not to explore the Trash folder. But human curiosity being what it is….

The upshot is that I don’t like the new feature, that my blogging has permanently altered, and that I may have to rethink how I go about this silly business. I was surprised to learn on Friday night that a very amicable writer I know still uses a typewriter. But I can see why. The WordPress people, as good as they are, don’t seem to ken why this “convenient” and possibly life-saving feature creates repercussions and consequences. Like the Senate, it’s all a game to them. And I wonder if altering relationships along these lines, without having a say in the manner, is now an ineluctable part of American existence.

snlmurphy1

Brittany Murphy: Thoughts on the Saturday Night Live, December 5, 2009 Sketch

In response to Brittany Murphy’s recent death, NBC has pulled a clip from Hulu depicting Brittany Murphy (as played by Abby Elliott), appearing on the Weekend Update section of the December 5, 2009 broadcast of Saturday Night Live. What follows is the sketch presented in a manner that transforms it from its original medium (video) and therefore permits this to fall under the fair use principle. I have appended commentary near the end of this post to ensure that it will not be confused as a replica of the original material and I invite readers to cut and paste this transformative representation to any and all blogs and news organizations, so that people can be informed of what NBC is attempting to hide from the public. This representation is presented for noncommercial and educational purposes.

snlmurphy1TITLE CARD: BRITTANY MURPHY

SETH MEYERS: It was reported this week that actress Brittany Murphy was fired from her upcoming film, The Collar, from being a detriment to production and…oh no.

BRITTANY MURPHY: Seeeeeeeeeth.

SETH MEYERS: Brittany Murphy.

snlmurphy2BRITTANY MURPHY: Seth, I’m really honored to be here, hosting Saturday Night Live.

[It is worth observing that Abby Elliott's performance of Murphy involves keeping her lower jaw down and moving her head left to right, as if Brittany Murphy is mentally handicapped. Her two palms remain flat against the newsdesk.]

SETH MEYERS: No, no, Brittany, you’re not hosting.

BRITTANY MURPHY: [idiotic laugh] Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

SETH MEYERS: I thought you were shooting a movie right now.

BRITTANY MURPHY: Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh. They fired me. [idiotic laugh] Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

snlmurphy3[More head bobbing left and right from Slate. This is, as one would expect, your typically stupid one-note SNL sketch.]

SETH MEYERS: Brittany, that’s really too bad.

BRITTANY MURPHY: It’s not bad, Seth. I got a plan. When the movie comes out, I’m going to go to the theater and say, “Booooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!” (small idiotic laugh) And then the audience will join in and say, “Booooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!” And the director will say, “Awwwwwwwwww dag!” And then I’ll be all, “Told you!” Best plan ever. (idiotic laugh) Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

SETH MEYERS: I wouldn’t call that the best plan ever.

BRITTANY MURPHY: (shouting) Ladies and gentlemen, Blink 182.

SETH MEYERS: (slamming his desk) You are not the host, Brittany Murphy.

BRITTANY MURPHY: Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

SETH MEYERS: (sarcastically) Yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

BRITTANY MURPHY: I’ll never tell.

snlmurphy4[Elliott then slides on her chair stage right and off camera.]

SETH MEYERS: Brittany Murphy everybody! (raises eyebrow in dubious belief)

* * *

COMMENTARY: Aside from the sketch’s bad timing, there are numerous problems with the concept. Beyond the sketch’s failure to establish a legitimate reason as to why Brittany Murphy should be the target of satire (presumably the sketch writer simply believed Murphy to be idiotic), and beyond the sophomoric reliance upon “Yeaaaaaaaaahhh!” and the news that she gets kicked off of film sets, it is simply not funny. If the audience is presented with a character and the character exists solely to be offered for an audience’s scorn, then we are not dealing with a character, but a flat and one-dimensional archetype. We certainly need more than junior high school verbal tics in order to either (a) relate to the character or (b) have some reason to scorn the character. We must understand the character’s motivations. And those motivations need to be presented without judgment. (In this case, Meyers exists to confirm the audience response, leaving no room for thought on the part of the audience member.) These qualities are what makes memorable comedy. What are the motivations here? Confusion and apparent stupidity. Nothing more. Not even stupidity combined with arrogance, which makes for a ripe satirical target. What made Tina Fey’s performance as Sarah Palin so memorable was that she presented us with merely a replica of the genuine article. This may say more about the failure of SNL writers to come up with original material or it may demonstrate the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction.

Aside from these conceptual logistics, the sketch is poorly executed. Abby Elliott’s performance of Murphy is exceptionally poor. Bobbing your head left and right and keeping your palms flat upon the table is the stuff of forgettable community theater. It is not the stuff of major television comedy. Granted, Elliott has been given some pretty terrible material to work from. But this does not excuse her staggering incompetence as a performer in relation to this sketch.

Finally, NBC needs to be taken to task for failing to preserve this sketch on Hulu, which will surely increase interest in the base material. The idea that NBC is above making a mistake (uh, Jay Leno?), and the failure of NBC to issue a public apology while presenting the sketch or the episode in its original form, demonstrates that it is not interested in preserving history, much less letting the people determine whether the sketch is funny. NBC’s instant and avaricious decision, together with its draconian attempt to prevent the clip from surfacing upon YouTube, shares distressing similarities to Stalinist revisionism and should be roundly rejected by anybody who values civil liberties and the freedom of expression.

underthedome

Cultural Name Dropping in Stephen King’s Under the Dome

For the purposes of this list, some of the more oblique cultural references have not been included, nor have references to networks (CBS or CNN), newspapers (The New York Times), institutions (King’s fictitious Shawshank State Prison is frequently referenced), brand names (Slurpees), or the Bible. I have also done my best not to reveal character names, except when absolutely explicit (Ploughshares, for example) or references in relation to plot reveals.

underthedomeAlas, Babylon: “Yep, see you that and raise you Alas, Babylon.” (155)

American Family Physician: “thumb through the latest issue of American Family Physician.” (285)

America’s Most Wanted: “I saw that on America’s Most Wanted.” (619)

Bernstein, Leonard: “He was halfway through the third daddy and still conducting like Leonard Bernstein….” (790)

Blitzer, Wolf: “Wolf Blitzer took Anderson Cooper’s place,” “she called him ‘my Wolfie,'” and various lines from Blitzer. (89) “expected either Anderson Cooper or her beloved Wolfie” (760) “Better be Wolfie from CNN, that’s all I can say.” (763) “Lookin good, Wolfie! You can eat crackers in my bed anytime you want.” (765) “Reynolds Wolf (no relation to Rose Twitchell’s Wolfie)” (801) Also p. 961.

Blunt, James: “He struck the barrier at fifteen miles an hour, while listening to James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful.'” (34) (This is my personal favorite.)

Bradbury, Ray: “That’s from Ray Bradbury. You ever read Ray Bradbury?” (671)

Braver, Rita: Appears on p. 766.

Brown, Sandra: “‘Nora Roberts? Sandra Brown? Stephenie Meyer? You read this stuff? Don’t you know Harry Potter rules?'” (282)

Bush, George W.: “His hair looked as if it had last been cut while Bush II was riding high in the polls.” (187) “Big Dubya’s fuck-a-monkey show.” (340)

Car and Driver: “was deep in an issue of Car and Driver, reading a comparison of the 2012 BMW H-car and the 2011 Ford Vesper R/T.” (706)

The Cat in the Hat: “The hat was like the one the cat wore in the Dr. Seuss story.” (733)

Clark Sisters: “This town needs some Mavis Staples. Also some Clark Sisters.” (798)

Clinton, Hillary: “remembered getting drunk the night Hillary Clinton cried in New Hampshire” (893)

Como, Perry: “playing ‘Good Night, Sweet Jesus’ as interpreted by that noted soul singer Perry Como.” (315) “Perry Como had given way to something instrumental.” (316)

Cooper, Anderson: “Wolf Blitzer took Anderson Cooper’s place.” (89) “Anderson Cooper, almost life-sized, looked like he was doing his standup on Castle Rock’s Main Street.” (316) “expected either Anderson Cooper or her beloved Wolfie” (760) (He is also the CNN anchor whose reporting is halted by the military.)

Creedence Clearwater Revival: “I fucked her until she sang ‘Hail to the Chief’ and ‘Bad Moon Rising.'” (875)

Dancing with the Stars: “sometimes watching shows like The Hunted Ones (a clever sequel to Lost) and Dancing with the Stars” (694)

The Dead Milkmen: “bearing the logos of long-gone punk bands like Stalag 17 and the Dead Milkmen.” (836)

Die Hard: “Yippee-ki-yi-yay, motherfucker.” (306)

Earnhardt, Dale: “And although the autographs people noticed when they were invited into his home study were inevitably those of Tiger Woods, Dale Earnhardt, and Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee…” (445)

50 Cent: “one was a stocky young fellow wearing baggy shorts and a faded 50 Cent tee-shirt.” (328)

Ford, John: “against the smudged skyline like Indians in a John Ford Western.” (961)

G.I. Joe: “Almighty GI Joe” (501)

Girls Gone Wild: “most of em probably watching Girls Gone Wild on pay-per-view.” (432)

“Hansel and Gretel”: “Hansel and Gretel minus the happy ending.” (309)

Harry Potter: “‘Nora Roberts? Sandra Brown? Stephenie Meyer? You read this stuff? Don’t you know Harry Potter rules?'” (282) “she had settled for Harry Potter’s chum, Hermione.” (858)

Holt, Lester: “Lester Holt from NBC shot to his feet.” (766)

Howlin’ Wolf: “He had given up on the blues music that had been so important to him in his Phil Bushey stage of life — B.B. King, Koko, and Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf, even the immortal Little Walter.” (320)

Iron Butterfly: “sounded suspiciously like the organ solo from ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” (316)

The Invisible Man: “Barbie’s fist, blurred impression was that he was about to be attacked by the Invisible Man.” (532)

Jett, Joan: “she looked like the middle-school version of Joan Jett; she wouldn’t know who he was talking about.” (329)

Jolie, Angelina: “Great mouth. Angelina lips.” (303) “with her head in the cover of a People magazine — Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie frolicking in the surf on some horny little island where waiters brought you drinks with little paper parasols stuck in them.” (672)

The Jordanaires: “Thurston turned it on and got nothing but Elvis Presley and the Jordanaires, trudging through ‘How Great Thou Art.'” (305)

Kennedy, Bobby: “the paisley headband Thurse had worn to the candlelight memorial service for Bobby Kennedy.” (627)

Kenne Highland & The Vatican Sex Kittens: “the memorable New Year’s Eve show in 2009 featuring the Vatican Sex Kittens.” (337)

King, B.B.: “He had given up on the blues music that had been so important to him in his Phil Bushey stage of life — B.B. King, Koko, and Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf, even the immortal Little Walter.” (320)

LCD Soundsystem: “LCD Soundsystem was playing — ‘North American Scum’ — and Jack was singing along when a small voice spoke his name from behind him.” (35)

Led Zeppelin: “He was wearing filthy chinos, a Led Zeppelin tee-shirt, and old slippers with busted backs.” (187)

Lee, Bill: “And although the autographs people noticed when they were invited into his home study were inevitably those of Tiger Woods, Dale Earnhardt, and Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee…” (445)

The Little Mermaid: “so it could hold an entire town prisoner as well as broadcast The Little Mermaid to your television via Wi-Fi and in HD.” (734) “hadn’t been able to persuade Jackie with an Ariel mask” (857)

Little Walter: “He had given up on the blues music that had been so important to him in his Phil Bushey stage of life — B.B. King, Koko, and Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf, even the immortal Little Walter.” (320) (There is also a character named Little Walter.)

The Lord of the Rings: “What was it Gollum had said of Bilbo Baggins?” (890)

Lost:What did the Scottish guy say on Lost? ‘Don’t mistake coincidence for fate?’ Maybe that had been it. Maybe it had. But Lost had been a long time ago. The Scottish guy could have said Don’t mistake fate for coincidence.” (285) “sometimes watching shows like The Hunted Ones (a clever sequel to Lost) and Dancing with the Stars” (694)

Lovecraft, H.P.: “the pony in this case was not terrorists, invaders from space, or Great Cthulhu” (179)

Lynyrd Skynyrd: The song “Sweet Home Alabama” factors into the plot.

Mantovani: “He could hear the swooping violins of Mantovani coming through” (780)

Masters of the Universe: “also known as King of the Geeks and Skeletor” (177)

McGruff the Crime Dog: “Big Jim listened to McGruff the Crime Dog for a while.” (512)

McKinley: “He might not know that there was a president as well as a mountain named McKinley…” (909)

McMurtry, James: Epigraph. “It was from an old James McMurtry song…” (93) “What he remembered most clearly about last summer was the James McMurtry song that seemed to be playing everywhere — ‘Talkin’ at the Texaco,’ it was called.” (242) “it was probably why the James McMurtry song had been so popular.” (543)

Mellencamp, John Cougar: “Accompanying the idea came the title of Phil’s old record albums: Nothing Matters and What If It Did.” (35)

Meyer, Stephenie: “‘Nora Roberts? Sandra Brown? Stephenie Meyer? You read this stuff? Don’t you know Harry Potter rules?'” (282)

Mighty Clouds of Joy: “He turned on the radio, got the MIghty Clouds of Joy on WCIK…” (729)

The Mist: “‘Exactly like in that movie The Mist,’ one blogger wrote.” (179)

“Moon River”: “Twitch had juggled half a dozen Indian clubs while singing ‘Moon River.'” (178)

Mr. Sardonicus:Mr. Sardonicus, a movie that had scared him as a kid.” (727)

Nightly News with Brian Williams: “Rory saw his smiling (but of course modest) face on the cover of USA Today; being interviewed on Nightly News with Brian Williams…” (208)

Night of the Living Dead: “In the Bible, people sometimes returned to life like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead.” (104)

1984: “revoked tenure, 1984, thought-police” (301)

Noriega, Manuel: “A kind of Downeast Manuel Noriega?” (613)

Oasis: “yanking her beloved Oasis poster off the wall and tearing it up.” (385)

Obama, Barack: Never named, but referenced throughout the book.

On the Beach: “‘On the Beach,’ Barbie said.” (155)

O’Reilly, Bill: “that half-bald no-spin yapper from FOX News” (762)

Penthouse Forum:Menagerie a trois, as they said in the Penthouse Forum.” (273)

People: “with her head in the cover of a People magazine — Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie frolicking in the surf on some horny little island where waiters brought you drinks with little paper parasols stuck in them.” (672)

Pitt, Brad: “with her head in the cover of a People magazine — Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie frolicking in the surf on some horny little island where waiters brought you drinks with little paper parasols stuck in them.” (672)

Plath, Sylvia: “Maybe meeting a few interesting men and discussing Sylvia Plath in bed.” (850)

Ploughshares: “and guest editor for the current issue of Ploughshares” (299) “‘I edited the current issue of Ploughshares,’ he said. His voice quivered with indignation and sorrow. ‘That is a very good literary magazine, one of the best in the country.'” (366) “I edited the current issue of Ploughshares.” (409)

Pol Pot: “It’s the progression to Pol Pot I’m worried about.” (613)

Presley, Elvis: “Thurston turned it on and got nothing but Elvis Presley and the Jordanaires, trudging through ‘How Great Thou Art.'” (305)

Reader’s Digest: “although certain offshoot sects — and The Reader’s Digest, I believe — disagree.” (563)

The Road Runner: “The noise was similar to the one Roadrunner [sic] makes before speeding away from Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust.” (728)

Roberts, John: “unless you counted CNN’s John Roberts” (778)

Roberts, Nora: “‘Nora Roberts? Sandra Brown? Stephenie Meyer? You read this stuff? Don’t you know Harry Potter rules?'” (282) “The words kept squirming around on the page, sometimes even changing places with each other, and Nora Roberts’s prose, ordinarily crystal clear, made absolutely no sense.” (427)

Serling, Rod: “They’d hear the Rod Serling voice-over anytime now.” (305)

Sherlock Holmes: “It’s the Sherlock Rule: When you eliminate the impossible, the answer, no matter how improbable, is what remains.” (442)

Song of the South: “Did Br’er Bear maybe die of rabies too?” (720)

SpongeBob Square Pants: “long enough to plaster three SpongeBob Band-Aids along the gash.” (356)

Stalag 17: “bearing the logos of long-gone punk bands like Stalag 17 and the Dead Milkmen.” (836)

Staples, Mavis: “This town needs some Mavis Staples. Also some Clark Sisters.” (798)

The Staple Singers: “the Staples Singers [sic], kicking holy ass with ‘Get Right Church.'” (821)

Starr, Barbara: “but it was Barbara Starr, the network’s Pentagon correspondent.” (760)

Star Trek: “‘Just like on Star Trek,’ Barbie said. ‘Beam me up, Scotty.'” (152) “If I can put it in Star Trek terms, help us make it so.” (765)

Star Wars: A file containing dirt on Big Jim is named VADER. “In a galaxy far far away, Clover.” (413) “Darth Vader mask was behind the seat” (858) “in a galaxy far, far away” (898)

The Situation Room: “Rose had a crush on Blitzer and would not allow the TV to be tuned to anything but The Situation Room on weekday afternoons….” (89)

Suarez, Ray: Appears on p. 766.

Sullivan, John L.: “his fists held up like John L. Sullivan.” (244)

Taylor, Hound Dog: “He had given up on the blues music that had been so important to him in his Phil Bushey stage of life — B.B. King, Koko, and Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf, even the immortal Little Walter.” (320)

Taylor, Koko: “He had given up on the blues music that had been so important to him in his Phil Bushey stage of life — B.B. King, Koko, and Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf, even the immortal Little Walter.” (320)

The Twilight Zone: “The whole world had turned sideways and slipped into a Twilight Zone episode while she was asleep.” (305)

The Upper Room: “One was a devotional, The Upper Room.” (314)

Vaughan, Brian K.: “He was addicted to computers, the graphic novels of Brian K. Vaughan, and skateboarding.” (504)

Warhammer: “I still haven’t been able to beat Warhammer.” (543)

Waters, Muddy: “He had given up on the blues music that had been so important to him in his Phil Bushey stage of life — B.B. King, Koko, and Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf, even the immortal Little Walter.” (320) “He went his rounds humming ‘Big Leg Woman’ very softly under his breath.” (627)

Wayne, John: “said in a passable John Wayne drawl” (977)

When Harry Met Sally: “‘Check it out, Junes,’ Frankie DeLesseps said. ‘It’s When Horny Met Slutty.” (301)

Wile E. Coyote: “The noise was similar to the one Roadrunner [sic] makes before speeding away from Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust.” (728)

Winslet, Kate: “Not that I’ll ever be mistaken for Kate Winslet.” (785)

The Wiz: “Dr. Ron Haskell — The Wiz…” (198)

The Wizard of Oz: “…Dr. Ron Haskell, whom Rusty often thought of as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” (77)

Wolf, Reynolds: “Reynolds Wolf (no relation to Rose Twitchell’s Wolfie)” (801)

Wonder Woman: “I pray to Wonder Woman.” (500)

Woods, Tiger: “And although the autographs people noticed when they were invited into his home study were inevitably those of Tiger Woods, Dale Earnhardt, and Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee…” (445)

Zevon, Warren: “He’s wearing an old tee-shirt of mine with a Warren Zevon quote on it—” (904)

nordwand

Review: Nordwand (2008)

nordwand

It’s safe to say that Nordwand (known as North Face in the States and presently hitting the film festival circuit, to be followed by a rolled out release) is a better movie than Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction. Yes, the 1975 film has a few decent mountain climbing scenes. But it also has such preposterous moments as George Kennedy convincing Eastwood to carry beer in his backpack as they climb a mountain, so that he might guzzle the cans at the top. Eastwood’s climb up the treacherous north face of the Eiger mountain is, oddly enough, not too dissimilar from the one chronicled in Nordwand, although Nordwand is based on real-life efforts. And you could look up the names. But then you’d know the ending. And that wouldn’t be very fun.

Harsh snow, wintry weather, avalanches, attempted rescue by railroad station. The perfect ingredients for mountain cinema and a regrettable reminder that you can step inside the theater in the winter, but you won’t shake yourself of the snow. So much for escapism. But Nordwand proves to be considerably more engaging than The Eiger Sanction, K2 (which featured a whiny Michael Biehn), and Vertical Limit (which featured a whiny Chris O’Donnell)– in large part because there is a race between Austrians and Germans at the heart of the storyline, thereby making this climb — at least on the German front — one of national pride (and considerable stupidity). But since the two main mountaineers we root for don’t whine, as their American counterparts do, we are all too happy to cheer them on.

The events, of course, are set during Nazi Germany. It is May 1936 — the year of Leni Rifenstahl’s Olympia and the beginning of Nazification. Rifenstahl, as we know, got her start with mountain films. And we certainly know that it’s 1936, because one German offers this mood-killing explanation for why the Germans wish to climb the North Face before a festive crowd: “The pride of facing a challenge, whether it be sports or politics.” Jews have been stripped of their civil rights, but you wouldn’t know it watching this film. The newspapermen sent to cover the spectacle are more interested in “the spirit of the German conqueror in battle with the mountain. That’s what makes a story.”

Nordwand does make a good story, in part because many of the mountaineers die and we even get to enjoy fingers freezing up and people shrieking in agony. I don’t know how much of the mountain climbing in this film is real and how much of it is fake. Frankly, I am presently too lazy to check. But it seemed convincing enough for me. One admires the spirit of the sensible and experienced Austrians, the film’s protagonists. They offer some pretty nifty side swinging moves that I can’t imagine any whiny American trying on a indoor rock wall. The Germans are determined to commit folly in the name of the Fuhrer. While this is certainly their right (as characters, that is), I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more nationalism drenching through clinched teeth. But my desires were somewhat placated by a rather splendid mountain cake wheeled into a banquet room.

Overall, I enjoyed Nordwand and can recommend it to those who like German mountain films, which are less whiny and more interesting than the ones that come from America.

Liu Xiaobo Indicted

Some important news. PEN America has informed me that dissident writer Liu Xiaobo has been formally indicted by the Chinese government. Here’s the press release:

Liu Xiaobo Formally Indicted
PEN American Center Denounces Move, Pledges Solidarity

New York City, December 11, 2009— PEN American Center denounced the formal indictment today in Beijing of renowned literary critic and PEN member Liu Xiaobo, calling the move “extremely troubling” and urging supporters and governments around the world to step up the pressure on Beijing to free him immediately.

Liu Xiaobo, a leading intellectual who played a critical role in the 1989 Tiananmen protests and who was one of the main architects of the Charter 08 petition last year, was formally indicted by the Beijing Municipal Procuratorate today, just three days after his case was handed over by investigators and more than a year after he was detained. Liu is charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” a provision regularly used to silence writers in China. If convicted, Liu Xiaobo could face up to 15 years in prison. The case will be heard by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, reportedly within the next four to six weeks.

“We are deeply disappointed at this new development in Liu Xiaobo’s case,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, President of PEN American Center. “We are extremely troubled that the indictment seems to follow the assertion of the Beijing Public Security Bureau that Liu committed a ‘major crime’ in drafting Charter 08 with others, and that he should be convicted of ‘inciting subversion.’ Words are not a crime, and the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by international law and China’s own constitution. We stand in solidarity with Liu Xiaobo, and call on the Procuratorate to drop all charges and release him immediately and unconditionally.”

A past president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, Liu Xiaobo was detained on December 8, 2008, on the eve of the release of Charter 08, a groundbreaking manifesto and petition calling for greater human rights and democracy and an end to one-party rule in China. It has been signed by more than 10,000 Chinese citizens across the country, many of whom have been questioned, harassed, or briefly detained by authorities.

Yesterday, at great personal risk, many of those who joined Liu Xiaobo in signing and promoting Charter 08 released an open letter supporting him. The letter, entitled “We Are Willing to Share Responsibility with Liu Xiaobo,” challenges authorities to release Liu or punish them all equally. As of this morning, 318 people had signed, 240 of whom live in China.

PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center, which works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled, has been working to end China’s imprisonment, harassment, and surveillance of writers and journalists and curtail Internet censorship and other restrictions on the freedom to write in that country. For more information, please visit www.pen.org/china.

asingleman

Review: A Single Man (2009)

asingleman

Colin Firth’s swooning fan base has long accepted the unlikely heartthrob as an endearing bumbler. Firth has often played the sensitive (and quietly sensible) romantic populating both mainstream romantic fare (the Bridget Jones films and Love Actually) and projects that are considered highbrow by way of artistic association (Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy or Girl with a Pearl Earring‘s Vermeer). Atom Egoyan was one of the few filmmakers to scrape away at Firth’s squeaky clean archetype in the underrated Where the Truth Lies, giving Firth a raw and dark character suggesting a grittier and seedier version of The Importance of Being Earnest‘s Jack Worthing.

But none of these performances — as good as they are — has quite permitted Firth to summon up the totality of his talent. Market forces, content to give the people what they want, have consigned Firth to a curious upper middle-class ghetto. Firth’s characters often cling to a steady yet shaky authority, largely because they have occupied some station for too many years. Firth has atoned for these limitations with a smooth vocal command and an almost Mitchum-like commitment to movement, counterbalanced by a somewhat uncertain gaze. (The “I like you very much just as you are” moment in Bridget Jones’s Diary comes immediately to mind as an example of Firth doing his best to defy cliche.) But this pigeonholing hasn’t always allowed an interior glimpse. Firth has perfected the nice guy. But nice guys often have more internal demons than they’re willing to impart. It’s too bad that so many screenwriters, paid very well to adhere to formulaic conventions, fail to express this in their labor.

I have quietly hoped that some talented filmmaker would figure Firth out, or that Firth might obtain enough clout to headline some pet project, permitting those delayed demons to roil in a more complicated role. Indelible British actors often find Hollywood at some point in their careers, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are completely understood. (Exhibit A: Malcolm McDowell.) The people in charge are, after all, more concerned about the coffers than with human complexities. And I never would have imagined that fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford would be the guy to push Firth to the limit.

A Single Man is one of the year’s best films. And it’s not just because Ford has given Firth a perfectly attuned role, permitting Firth to stockpile Professor George Falconer’s grief behind restrained grimaces and meticulous domestic action within a quite literal glass house. For A Single Man is also cinematically committed to George’s isolation. George’s heartbeat drowns out the soundtrack. He never quite sees a person head on. The secretary with the bobcut who gives one of George’s students his home address is filmed in slivers, and George replies, “You have such a lovely smile.”

It helps immeasurably that Ford’s working from very good source material (Christopher Isherwood’s fine novel) and that Ford is smart enough to make this his own. When George addresses his students in class, he sits before them on the desk, with three cameras cutting left, center, and right — as if George is some kind of fashion model being photographed on a platform. But to some degree, he is. His academic role is the only thing he has left after losing his partner, whose funeral he isn’t even permitted to attend (“family only”). Ford’s dramatic tactic is an eccentric yet effective perspective, reminiscent of the way that the vanilla-minded Steven Spielberg found a way to channel drug addiction through fatherhood in Minority Report

It also helps that we have been given a vision of the early 1960s that, for once, doesn’t call attention to its time period. Sam Mendes’s disgraceful adaptation of Revolutioanry Road didn’t understand that real people lived and wrestled with serious decisions. (It’s possible that Ford may have had Mendes’s American Beauty in mind with one of his other interesting visual tics. Whenever George feels something close to happiness, the gray visuals brighten up a bit. This isn’t as distracting as it sounds, and it’s more understated than Mendes’s now dated CG flowers.) The much acclaimed Mad Men understands this better, but feels the need to cram some “shocking” measure of its characters against contemporary standards. Can the characters really be defiling women like that? The more important issue is why Matthew Weiner cannot simply let these flawed characters act without the enforcement of moral judgment.

But Ford lets George live without such constructive qualms. We feel his loss. We feel his sadness. George is often kind, as we expect a Colin Firth character to be. But with grief comes a mess of forgivable solipsism in his willingness to light a man’s cigarette, bring over a bottle of liquor, or swim in the ocean to prove that youth hasn’t entirely expired. If George died right now, would he be okay? It’s a question echoing from happier days in the past, but one that the audience remains constantly aware of. The film’s commitment to George’s perspective causes us to be deeply locked within his being, but it also pulls off the difficult trick of making us sympathetic to those trying to get George back into the land of the living. This group includes a Spanish stranger and George’s best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), who has also negotiated the line. We know this by seeing the way she lives now: aging, smoking, drinking, applying makeup, bombarding George with calls.

The film’s willingness to celebrate life, and the connective failings of single people of all stripes, propels it well beyond a one-note exercise and inures it from Weiner-style judgment. It is to Ford’s credit that he injects some humor into the morbid mix, for grief is never entirely tragic. There’s an overeager gun store owner, and some physical comedy involving a suicide and a sleeping bag. Life isn’t some “I wish I knew how to quit you” melodrama that makes us feel tolerant, liberal, and morally superior. It’s a little girl who doesn’t understand what her father means by “light in his loafers,” but who sees the possibility in a sad man sitting in a bank. A Single Man invites us to see that possibility too, both within its mise-en-scene and in the more important world before our eyes.

keirgraff

Interview with Keir Graff

In the wake of Kirkus Reviews‘s folding, I asked Booklist senior editor Keir Graff a few questions on the future of book review publications. He was very gracious and offered considerable answers.

Do you foresee Kirkus‘s closing having any editorial impact on present Booklist editorial policies? Will you be expanding your reviews? Changing the tone? Attempting to fill in any gaps left by Kirkus?

keirgraffInteresting question. Ron Charles eulogized “the last reliable source of negative reviews.” And, accurately or inaccurately, there is a definite perception of Booklist reviews as being “positive.” This is because of our recommend-only policy, which, briefly, means that we only review books we can recommend. Our core audience is librarians who use our reviews to buy books. And when the policy was implemented, the thinking was that, by publishing reviews that ended with a “do not buy,” we were wasting librarians’ valuable time.

Of course, the uses of Booklist reviews have evolved, and they are now used by readers’ advisors, licensed to Amazon, etc. And, as those uses have evolved, the concept of “recommend-only” has evolved, as anyone who reads our Upfront reviews knows: there are books we recommend because there will be patron demand, but that we think are horrible, and we say that — hopefully helping larger libraries know how many copies to buy.

But the short answer is that we won’t suddenly be doing more negative reviews. Despite the economic downturn, we have been able to review more books with each passing year, in part by reviewing more of them online. And while Kirkus‘s demise certainly leaves the whole industry poorer, I imagine there may be an opportunity in trying to fill the gap for Kirkus‘s subscribers. Our format is different, but for the harried Hollywood development exec, the volume and breadth of our review coverage could help fill a void, I’m sure.

(For more on our reviewing policy, you can go here.)

What is Booklist‘s present prognosis? Do you feel the worst has come to pass? Is there a timetable in place concerning Booklist‘s commitment to the future? Do you plan to maintain the present levels of compensation to reviewers?

Our fiscal year runs September to August, and the last fiscal year was, as you might guess, pretty awful. We’re doing better this year, especially in terms of new initiatives such as e-newsletters and webinars. And by using the word “initiatives” I have just sounded I work in marketing. But, yes, the worst has come to pass — at least for the foreseeable future. There is no timetable, but as we draw up next year’s budget, we’re going to have some big-picture talks about the future. The online environment is pretty key to all of that. Our compensation to reviewers has always been very modest, almost an honorarium, but we have no plans to cut it. (And we do pay our bloggers!)

You have reached out to the online world with your blog and through Twitter. Have these had any unique effect on Booklist? Do you see Booklist stretching out more of its review coverage into online waters? Concerning the balance between news and reviews, do you feel that Booklist needs to work more on the breaking news front to attract eyeballs and readers? If so, why?

Yes, we now have five blogs and two twitter feeds. That, and the free content on Booklist Online, have both helped us reach a wider audience and helped that audience reach us. We’ve always felt that Booklist reviews, though written for working librarians, could appeal more to the general public, simply because they’re written by smart book lovers who use rich language to make their points. But because Booklist is not available on newstands, we had a hard time reaching that public during the print era. Online, there have been great opportunities to broaden our reach without commensurate cost. Perhaps ironically, though, our biggest successes haven’t had to do with social media, but have come through plain, old e-newsletters.

Earlier I said that we’re reviewing more and more books, and this has been possible through our Booklist Online Exclusive reviews. In 2006, we published 32 of them; in 2007, 185; in 2008, 669; this year, 1,205. We’re able to quickly turn around embargoed and hot-topic books but also to flesh out coverage of the kind of meat-and-potatoes titles that libraries need to know about but that we might not have room for in the print magazine (for example, a brief mention of book 7 in a long-running hardcore sf/fantasy series). (All of our web-exclusive reviews, by the way, are made available for free via our Booklist Online Exclusives newsletter.)

Covering breaking news has never been our primary mission. But, yes, once you’re online, you need to keep current, and book reviews and author interviews will only get you so far. Our bloggers do use other peoples’ reporting as a way to link to our content. For example, when awards are announced, we often publish the list with book titles linked to our reviews. But because our web presence is only one part of our publishing program, we’re not in a desperate race for eyeballs the way, say, Gawker Media is.

How important are reviews to Booklist’s long-term strategy? Have we reached a point in which prepub reviews have less of a valid position in the marketplace? Or do the present financial hits upon book-related publications have more to do with other economic developments? If so, can you identify these and explain your position.

Book reviews remain central to our long-term strategy. Given our mission, helping librarians decide which books to purchase, any radical change of direction would be like breaking a contract. Librarians need and use our reviews, as we’re reminded every time we go to a conference.

As you know, the topic of print vs. online, of The Man vs. The Bloggers, has been talked to death, often in terms as unfortunately oversimplified as those I’ve just used. And in defending the importance of what we do, I’m leery of getting drawn into that unwinnable argument. I believe that coexistence is not only desirable but essential to a healthy literary ecosystem. Publishers can get excited about the immediacy of much of the blog coverage they get: they send out books, and all of a sudden reviews start popping up. Some of them are thoughtful and well written, like yours, and some of them are excited summaries by fans. All great. We can’t compete with that because we receive them, assign them to reviewers, send them, edit them, lay them out in print, format them carefully for online, etc. — but by the time they’re published, they’ve passed through many hands and received the benefit of a great deal of collective experience and perspective. Old-school crowd-sourcing, if you will.

I think, too, that journals such as Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, all in some way perform the kind of function that newspapers do, or should, or used to, which is to offer readers a selection that they wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. Much is made of the web’s ability to give people exactly the experience they’re looking for, and that’s exactly why people should be wary of it. So it’s my belief that niche or specialist or genre blogs are terrific but should be balanced by some more general-interest reading, which, at least in terms of book reviews, is what we offer.

But back to your original question, which was about the marketplace: many people have questioned of late whether a New York Times review can actually sell books, and many people have said it cannot. But because prepublication reviews are written expressly for people who buy books, they do sell books. Maybe one starred Booklist review only sells a few thousand books (anecdotally, I have heard this is the case); taken altogether, that becomes a significant amount for any midlist title, while also providing the early buzz that can help a book gain momentum. But maybe the true relevance of prepublication reviews will only be known once they disappear from the landscape, and, at that point, I suspect that many publishers would be desperate to get them back. After all, they can send one book to Booklist and reach tens of thousands of readers (both via print and online). They often send books to blogs whose regular readers number in the hundreds.

I’m no financial expert, but it appears to me that Kirkus‘s immediate failure, and the troubles of any other prepub journals, can’t help but be tied to the fact that it’s a precarious climate for business in general, a precarious business climate for magazine publishing, and a precarious climate for book publishing as well. Add that to publishers’ fears of missing the boat with new technologies, new business models, etc. — even when they’re not sure where the boat is going — and it’s no wonder that advertising support for print publications has suffered. Although, as I said, this year has been better for us than last.

At Booklist, while we’re somewhat insulated from the full, Darwinian reality of corporate ownership, we do need to earn a profit to help fund the activities of the American Library Association. Like everyone, we’re working harder and have had to do more with fewer resources.

Five years from now, what will the environment of magazines and publications, mostly devoted to book reviews, look like?

Boy, do I wish I knew. It’s going to be a lot leaner, and using a lot less paper. But Booklist will still be here, reading and reviewing away.

(Our motto: “We read everything so you don’t have to.”)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #315. Auletta is most recently the author of Googled and writes the “Annals of Communication” column for The New Yorker.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his Chinese food takeout history can be Googled.

Author: Ken Auletta

Subjects Discussed: Clarifying Auletta’s theory of Sergey Brin and Larry Page as “cold engineers,” responding to Nicholson Baker’s review, whether an engineer’s viewpoint is applicable to business, the efficiency of newspapers, Talking Points Memo, journalism that is translatable to the online medium, addressing the Gray Lady’s deficiencies, the McSweeney’s answer to the newspaper, Coach Bill Campbell, Eric Schmidt, Brin and Page’s apparent insensitivity to the book industry, Al Gore’s observations about Google’s eccentricities, the Google Chrome EULA controversy, user trust, the moral dilemma of Google Book Search, whether Google should be recused to some degree because the world has become increasingly privatized, the CIA and outsourcing, whether or not Google Book Search’s threat to an author’s livelihood has been overstated, Google’s obsession with 150, comparisons between Itek and Google, collapsing computers, Auletta’s affinity for control, Eric Schmidt’s views on promotional value, Rupert Murdoch’s recent dealings with Bing, CBS’s early involvement in YouTube, traditional media and online advertising, when Google is efficient, and investigating the semantics of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

aulettaCorrespondent: There’s one question that is presented in the book, but never actually quite answered. It’s probably something I just observed. And that is Google’s fixation with the number 150. They have 150 projects. They have cafeterias and conference rooms that are max 150. Did you ever get an answer as to why they were obsessed with this number? Numerologists?

Auletta: (laughs) I don’t think they’re obsessed with the 150 products. In fact, now they’re probably below 150 projects. The 150 — Larry [Page] actually did a search. Larry’s fixated on 150. It’s the size of cafeterias. To have people collaborate and talk to each other and not pull back and engage. And he did a Google search and came up with that answer to confirm his instinct. Now have I done that search to check that he’s right? No, I have not. But he, in his scientific way, came up with that answer. And he goes around the cafeterias. And he’ll say, “This is too big. This is the right size.” You know, each of them have little fetishes that they’re passionate about. And they’re insistent on. And that’s one of Larry Page’s. And who’s to say he’s wrong? They’ve done pretty good.

Correspondent: Let’s go back to the three horses you were talking about earlier. Google is developing anywhere from 150 projects to less, as we’ve just established. Search revenue is starting to dwindle. I’m curious if some of the more recent products — like, for example, Chrome OS, which is an open-source scenario, and Google Wave — these are a little bit different from the norm. Because the learning curve is a little bit more. It’s something that’s more designed for geeks than for regular people. Do you see this as a way of them anticipating that more regular people, more lay people, will become power users? Or are they just essentially carrying on with the same instinct that drove their company in the first place? Which was, “Let’s go ahead and do this and the revenue will come later.”

Auletta: Everything’s a jump all. Everything is “Let’s experiment. Let’s try this.” And that’s part of the genius of Google and the genius of the two founders. Their willingness to try things. To basically ask uncomfortable questions. And the why question: “Why not?” They come into every meeting and they say, Why not? So why not do Chrome? Why not do Wave? Why not have cloud computing? We have this computer capacity? Why don’t we utilize it? And why do people have to spend three hundred some odd dollars for Microsoft packaged software? Why not have it in the cloud which will follow you wherever you go on any device you’re on? So they’re asking those questions and they’re trying those things. And I think it’s much more the latter point. It’s basically: Let’s take some risks. We have the resources to do it. And wouldn’t this really be cool?

Correspondent: Or maybe it’s just a natural expansion. For some reason, reading your book, I was struck very much by the history of Itek in the ’60s. You know, Itek, where they were the people behind Project CORONA. And they just gobbled up companies left and right. Similar to what Microsoft did two, three decades later. But Google is a little bit different in the sense that everything is essentially developed in-house. Does this ensure that they won’t implode like Itek and, to some degree, Microsoft?

Auletta: But Google buys. They bought Android.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Auletta: They didn’t invent that. They bought it and took the guy who invented it. And he’s there running Android for them. Mobile device business. One of the dangers they have — and, for instance, the argument is that they don’t have a social network engine. So they’ve been slower in that area. So you noticed yesterday, what they did, they announced that search would extend to social networks in real time. And it’s a weakness they have. And it’s a weakness that any company, if you rely just internally. It can be a weakness if you just go out and acquire, and outsource everything. They’re trying to do both. Will they succeed? I don’t know. No one knows. The game continues and there’s no end in sight. But at some point, we’ll find out. Other great companies failed and then came back. Apple failed and then came back. So I take a long view of this stuff. They are trying things, but they’re getting large. And as you get large, you start losing creative people.

(Image: JD Lasica)

BSS #315: Ken Auletta (Download MP3)

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kirkus

Kirkus Reviews (1933-2009)

kirkusRomenesko has published an email from Nielsen Business Media President Greg Farrar, revealing that both Kirkus Reviews and Editor & Publisher, unable to find a buyer, have folded. The move comes five years after a controversial attempt to raise revenue through the online-based Kirkus Discoveries and failed efforts to sell advertising. Kirkus never really had much of a sizable circulation, but, as Washington Post books editor Ron Charles put it shortly after the announcement, Kirkus was “the last reliable source of negative reviews.” (Interestingly, during his days at the Christian Science Monitor, Charles pondered whether authors could get an honest review under the failed Kirkus Discoveries venture.)

What will Kirkus Reviews‘s folding mean for the book industry? Kirkus Reviews was one of the four major all-purpose review publications that libraries and booksellers relied upon to anticipate future titles. The other three pubs still remain — Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. But with Publishers Weekly recently cutting its freelance rates, firing editor Sara Nelson, and facing shaky revenue, its future remains uncertain. It may fall to Booklist and Library Journal to pick up the slack. But with Kirkus‘s opinionated style obliterated by the ongoing financial apocalypse, it’s very doubtful that will be seeing Kirkus‘s helpful and often gloves-off approach reproduced anytime soon.

This is a major hit. With newspapers scaling back their review sections, it has become even more necessary for any outlet — whether print or online — to subsist in one of the toughest business climates seen in decades.

UPDATE: Ross Rojek, editor of the Sacramento Book Review and the San Francisco Book Review writes in:

In your final paragraph, you mention that it is necessary for any book outlet to survive. Well we’ve been publishing the Sacramento Book Review since September 2008, and just started the San Francisco Book Review this last September. We review about 250 books a month between both publications and even more that end up only online. We cover about 40 categories of books, from Romance to Science & Nature; big expensive coffee table books and mass market paperbacks.

Sure we’re not Kirkus or PW, but we do reach about 40,000 active readers and buyers each month in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas. And more importantly, we’re starting to license our concept in other cities. San Antonio just started up, and we have 3 more cities we’re about to announce. Each of these licensees will be developing their own local edition of the paper, covering national, regional and local authors and books and promoting local events.

Just thought you should know. We’ve found a niche for print book reviews, and it seems to work.

The Top Ten Years of the Decade

1. 2005 — This year demonstrated its commitment to the decade’s center. It was clear by March that it was no longer 2004. Audiences became aware that they were now living in a decade that was no longer the 1990s, and there was something special and poignant about that. Critics have been discussing this overlooked year for the past four, and with good reason. Few recent years seemed as driven by pure, organic intuition.

2. 2007 — Set amidst a backdrop somewhere between 2006 and 2008, this was a year that didn’t quite live up to 2005. Initially, 2007 was overlooked by the critics, until J. Hoberman’s 4,000 word essay on 2007 set the matter straight. Other tastemakers followed Hoberman’s lead and the year became strongly appreciated.

3. 2006 — Armond White’s infamous takedown caused many of the year’s boosters to reconsider it, largely because they were skeptical of White’s tendency to hate what people liked. Its reputation was momentarily diminished, until 2006 experienced renewed interest upon its DVD release.

4. 2009 — The decade’s last year was a gritty, low-budget offering that came saddled with a different director. But it was helped by a special pullout section that appeared in The New York Times. Voted Best Year to Lose Your Job by Time Out New York, 2009 proved to be nowhere nearly as bad as it should have been. It is presently being distributed in IMAX.

5. 2000 — Ten years later, nobody really remembers this neglected year, although there was something about dot coms. This was the year Before Everything Changed. Criterion is scheduled to issue a special DVD set.

6. 2008 — Produced by Bono, 2008 proved to be an underperforming point in the decade. Widely derided upon its release, 2008 has earned a quiet cult following and is still talked about by record store clerks. What is especially surprising is that there are pro-2008 record store clerks who still have jobs and that there are a few record stores that still exist.

7. 2003 — This poignant year touched the hearts of audiences while garnering the wrath of critics. It was, in many ways, a populist year, marked by a sense that there were still six years left to go. But this dreamy tapestry of misery, regret, and joy stands as a flawed reinvention of 2002 that isn’t without its moments.

8. 2002 — Despite being a palindrome, this year was largely overpraised by the population. There was a sense that this year could prove to be an underperformer like 1991. Pitchfork continues to shit on this year, but we think it’s worth a second look.

9. 2004 — The more often you revisit it, the better this year looks. 2004, the directorial debut of 2003, attempted to take years to a new artistic level. But it was sullied by the November story arc in the third act.

10. 2001 — There was no space odyssey and certainly no flying car. It was one of the decade’s most troublesome years, marred by planes colliding into buildings. But 2001 proved to be an unusual milestone, a year that helped you find some context within a difficult decade. Cautiously recommended.

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The Dining Experience

restaurantdiningWhen one investigates the impermanent practice of occupying a restaurant table, distressing logistics begin to emerge.

Let us assume that the customer waits four months for a reservation at a fancy restaurant. Let us also assume that the dining experience extends to a generous two hours. The customer waits 120 days, or 2,880 hours, to lodge at a table for one twelfth of a day. The hotel offers free towels. The restaurant offers free napkins, with the waiter sometimes placing the napkin upon the customer’s lap. (One wonders whether some innovator in the hotel industry will extend this practice to those emerging out of a foggy hotel room bathroom in the buff.) The hotel may offer a mint under a pillow, thereby associating the breath cleanser with sleep. The restaurant may offer a mint with the bill, thereby associating the breath cleanser with money. Depending upon your ideological position, one might be said to be inferior to the other. But the restaurant customer isn’t presented with the option of lingering for additional hours or, in the most generous cases, staying over for a few days — as he sometimes is when having dinner at a friend’s house.

Thus, long-term hospitality is compartmentalized into these strange slivers of time, and the process of waiting for a restaurant table is incommensurate with other proud American activities. Compared against the restaurant reservation, a gun would arrive swifter even after the most rigorous background check. Government bureaucracy, with its slow and circuitous crawl, can handily defeat the restaurant in a race to the finish. One could read an author’s complete works faster. And if one were to adopt the combined qualities of ambition and charisma, one might make love with enough souls to pack three restaurants.

These observations are not intended to impugn either the customer or the good people who work at restaurants. All are victims of a rather silly system. What remains so interesting about all this is that nobody has thought to present an alternative.

Compared to the small-time bribery of tipping a barista and buying a beverage every few hours to secure a rented perch at a wi-fi cafe, the fancy restaurant, in most cases, wants to evict the customer and make the customer wait in the reservation queue for a second appearance. But if the restaurant is extraordinary, should not this experience extend beyond this narrow limit? Or is the experience “extraordinary” because the customer is happily parting with his money? Is it “extraordinary” because the cook is tight-lipped about his recipe? Because the kitchen is cordoned off from the dining room? Because the customer does not bring a side dish or a bottle of wine to a friend’s dining room table?

Even if the restaurant is not fancy, the customer, should he wish to pay the bill and retire, may stay suspended in the post-meal sitting state for quite some time. And there is the additional ethical problem of the customer viewing the waiter as a second-class citizen. The waiter, presenting the customer with an illusion that he is agreeable and nonjudgmental, performs any number of gestures and utters any number of false flatteries to earn his tip. The waiter is addressed not because he is a lively and interesting soul (although many waiters are), but because he is there in obeisance to the customer’s wishes. Small wonder that the fancy restaurant reservation has become a pain in the ass, for so many customers are asses to these needlessly overlooked soldiers.

How did such an experience emerge? Rebecca L. Spang’s The Invention of the Restaurant informs us quite helpfully that restaurants emerged after the French Revolution, the byproduct of breaking catering guilds. The restaurant was happily promulgated through free trade propaganda. An entrepreneur named Mathurian Roze de Chantoiseau, running an information office, thought to tap into the gustatory instinct. He made the need to celebrate social occasions and human togetherness with meals more flexible, tying this burgeoning luxury into an expansive market. Critics complained about the restaurant’s assaults on person-to-person generosity, but Roze de Chantoiseau declared himself a “friend of the world.” Indeed, the restaurant service sector, which has continued to flourish for so many centuries, has proven to be a vocational boon for many. Eaters were “restored” through the practice of sitting at a table. But with “restoration” aligned so closely with the transaction of money, one wonders why more people have welcomed the the restaurant’s rigid class system rather than an uptick in more egalitarian dinner parties. Surely, the restaurant should be rightly renamed bourgeoisant.

The time has come for reform. Let those who cannot find the impulse to cook wait upon the waiters. Since the restaurant initially provided services for travelers, let us return to the original intent. Restaurant regulars have been identified as wispy-eyed figures who live just around the block, but these indolent customers cannot be said to have truly traveled. Thus, restaurants must be enlisted to ask for IDs, verifying the number of miles that the customer has traveled to get to the restaurant. This suggestion may also solve certain insular qualities of Americans. (Just 20% of Americans have passports. Let faraway restaurants encourage these isolationists to spread their wings!) Let us adjust restaurants so that they more resemble their hotel cousins. Red zodiac booths might be transformed into strange beds. The head, encountering Formica rather than a fluffy pillow, would adjust to the instant discomfort.

These remedies will likely be identified by some reactionary minds as madness. But it’s more than a little mad to contend with the dining experience’s needless complications when one might have a more effective restoration among friends at a dining room table.

penniest

Pennies Saved

penniest

There are more than a hundred pennies crammed into a corrugated tumbler on my desk. I am not particularly interested in imbibing this elliptical manifest, but the thought of putting my money where my mouth is might allow for a strange and stomach-destroying hobby.

The pennies share this impromptu open-air housing with a few random dimes and several Canadian coins left by the person who used to live in this room. I can only assume that this ex-roommate experienced a moral dilemma similar to my own, but I’ve been too polite to ask. It’s worth pointing out that, with the present exchange rate, the Canadian dollar is worth slightly more than the American dollar. There’s no easy way to trade in this small-time currency.

My problem is hardly unique. This isn’t some drastic situation comparable to a Weimar Republic citizen rolling in a wheelbarrow of hyperinflated marks for a loaf of bread. Should I collect two or three more tumblers and bide my time, the currency, if accepted by a kind clerk, may very well depart from my hands. But I don’t wish to burden someone else with this problem. I’ve done my best to get rid of these Lincolns, offering two extra pennies on a $9.27 purchase, a gesture I’ve seen increasingly rejoined with confusion. I can’t very well put these into a tip jar or give it to someone on the streets. Beyond the insult, it presents again this needless problem of transference. I’ve tried shoving off these pennies one at a time, but prices have become more increasingly aligned with even sums.

I don’t blame designer Victor D. Brenner, who surely could not have foreseen a day when his beloved penny would be both ubiquitous and relatively useless. (Brenner, interestingly, was born in Lithuania. It was he who included the phrase IN GOD WE TRUST, which President Theodore Roosevelt believed to be in poor taste. But the penny’s religiosity was secured by William Taft, Roosevelt’s successor. It was the first coin to depict a U.S. President, replacing the Indianheads that had been in circulation for fifty years. Brenner, incidentally enough, is buried in Mount Judah Cemetery in Queens. I will make a future reconnaissance mission to determine if his considerable impact upon American life is being properly respected.)

Somehow I like the penny, perhaps due to pleasant memories of now extinct gumball machines or the contraptions that flattened a penny into an ovoid souvenir. Nostalgia is a silly reason for holding onto anything, but somehow I can’t resist. I don’t support any of the half-hearted penny abolition movements in recent years.

I regret that the pennies have accumulated, and take personal responsibility. About five years ago, I used to keep change in a small pouch within a unisex wallet. When I discovered that ATM cards, IDs, and stray bits of paper were escaping into my pocket, their journey hastened by a leather seam intended to contain, I was forced to conclude that the wallet had reached the end of its life span. I purchased a new wallet in haste, but it did not contain a pouch. I accepted this, and I began carrying change in my pockets, throwing the elliptical remainders into a porcelain mug.

This tactic proved effective for nickels, dimes, and quarters. But the pennies continued to accrue. Because there were so many pennies, it was difficult to name them, but I was impressed by the deeper grooves contained within the 1960s and 1970s pennies (although the Lincoln Memorial sometimes loses detail, even when you can make out the Lincoln Statue between the two pilasters). It became easy to line them up by year and imagine the picaresque paths that had led them to me. Some of these pennies have been puttering around longer than I have. No doubt that many who have owned these pennies have not always appreciated them, or have kept them fleetingly. Perhaps a penny might be likened to a book checked out from a library. It is a coin more public and less inclined to be picked off a sidewalk. The penny’s value is too small to be of any serious capitalist threat. Maybe they’re now meant to be revered in moderation.

Scott McLemee: A Wildly Weak and Untrained Mind

In 1998, a Salon byline revealed that Scott McLemee was “at work on a book, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: Conspiracy Theory in American Culture.” Eleven years later, that book has not materialized. Indeed, not a single book has emerged from the McLemee Easy-Bake Oven, save for two books he edited: 1994’s C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James 1939-1940 and 1996’s C.L.R. James on the Negro Question. So what has McLemee, a man who doesn’t even possess a bachelor’s degree, been doing on the book front over the past two decades? Well, nothing. He’s your garden-variety freelancer hacking into the fallow with a small shovel, lacking the courage to plant even a grand gardenia. He’s the kind of sad middle-aged loser you see shuffling around the philosophy section at a Barnes & Noble, hoping that some local notable will observe him buying a Josiah Royce volume as a tenuous gesture to phony erudition.

All that time to think and not a single tome to show for it! Well, these professional deficiencies haven’t hindered McLemee from bleating his tendentious little heart out at Inside Higher Ed and in newspapers, where his crude and lifeless essays have proven so soporific that, in 2004, the National Book Critics Circle awarded him the dubious Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing for his unadventurous pursuits. It was a questionable distinction, enervated by the fact that only a handful of out-of-touch elitists actually care about this dubious accolade. But as McLemee put it in his victory speech, “In the ordinary course of things, people do not grow up thinking that they would like to publish book reviews someday. But I did. ” It was the apotheosis of an undistinguished and unambitious career.

Now in an anemic attempt at a Cornel West takedown, this underachieving pot has called the kettle black. McLemee has avoided engaging directly with West’s book, which is not academic, thereby violating Updike’s first rule of reviewing: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” He bemoans three academic works in progress that West has not yet finished, as if West were operating solely to placate McLemee’s childish gimme gimme disposition. He expresses his disenchantment with West producing hip-hop albums and appearing in a Matrix movie. (Why not badmouth Marshall McLuhan for appearing in Annie Hall? Or Susan Sontag in Zelig? Or Neil deGrasse Tyson for his goofy appearances on The Colbert Report? West isn’t the only prof with a musical hobby. Bruce Bartlett reported that Russ Roberts was shooting a rap video in October.) He is annoyed that West has written a popular book rather than a formidable academic text. West has set out to write a book in a “conversational voice” (in a line quoted by McLemee). McLemee chides West for not enlightening. But West has clearly set out to dive into raw and visceral waters with this volume. In an interview with Amy Goodman, West states that he “just wanted to lay bare the truth in my life, the ways in which I’ve tried to bear witness to love, truth, justice.” Not the stuff of scholarly exegesis, to be sure, but then McLemee prefers to pursue clumsy dichotomies between amour propre and self-knowledge without textual excavation.

McLemee insists that “West’s work has grown less substantial over time,” but fails to cite any examples from West’s recent academic work to prove this hypothesis. With a dated Run DMC references confirming his unfamiliarity with crunk and glitch, McLemee is more energized by foolish armchair speculations into West’s personal life rather than a full-scale analysis of West as scholar. While it’s true that many are waiting for West to deliver more academic books, McLemee confirms his crass commitment to Perez Hilton-style gossip by reading a personal passage to his wife, obtaining her simplistic analysis, and then belittling West for getting divorced for a fourth time. It’s a superficial conclusion distressingly reminiscent of a teabagger’s uninformed protest. What does West’s personal life have to do with his academic life? What indeed does any of this have to do with West’s academic work? If West is truly finished, should not such a bold argument be presented in response to his scholarly papers? Should not McLemee be sifting through the large gap between the early 1980s and the present day? Well, yes, but our dopey man in Washington refuses to tackle this. Why, for example, is McLemee so silent on Race Matters? He quotes West’s future projects from The Cornel West Reader. Could it be that McLemee has merely skimmed this greatest hits collection with all the éclat of a dutiful CliffsNotes acolyte rather than tackling the West oeuvre? Judging by McLemee’s failure to write or publish a book and this deficient article, this appears to be the case.

McLemee fails to understand that Lawrence Summers’s request for fortnightly meetings, as related in West’s book, emerged after Summers called West’s hip-hop album “an embarrassment” — an affront extending beyond West’s academic role and into the territory of black identity. Summers also claimed that West allegedly missed numerous classes. West responded to Summers by stating that he could not “tolerate the disrespect you show me by attacking me without a shred of evidence” and by pointing out that he only missed one class in twenty-six years, when West was scheduled to deliver a keynote lecture at an AIDS conference. McLemee also conveniently elides West’s remarks before the “miscreant graduate student” line. Here is the full passage:

“Professor Summers, I am glad to meet with you whenever you like. You’re the president of Harvard and, as such, you’re surely entitled to meet a faculty member whenever you like. But if you think that I’m going to trot in here every two weeks to be monitored like a miscreant graduate student, I’m afraid, my brother, that you’ve messed with the wrong brother.” (221)

While it certainly takes two egos to tango, when one factors in Summers’s infamous remarks about believing that “under-populated countries in Africa [being] vastly UNDER-polluted,” one uncovers a distressing pattern. Since scholarly work was at the center of the Summers-West imbroglio, is it really much of a surprise that West is disinclined to do more of it at Princeton?

We have in Scott McLemee a failed and unaccredited critic with a potentially interesting thesis, completely undermined by his country bumpkin approach to scholarship. As W.E.B. Du Bois once put it, “To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires; to flout their striving idly is to welcome a harvest of brutish crime and shameless lethargy in our very laps.” With McLemee, we have more than shameless lethargy. We have a sad and vitiated charlatan desperately striving for relevance with agonous and unconsidered tactics.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Terry Teachout

Terry Teachout appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #314. He is most recently the author of Pops.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Playing for handy water closets.

Author: Terry Teachout

Subjects Discussed: Managing professional duties, the exigencies of sifting through 650 reels of Louis Armstrong’s tapes, Armstrong’s encounters with the mob, Armstrong’s relationship with manager Joe Glaser, the aborted Duke Ellington collaborative album, Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie’s rough tour management, Frenchy as company spy, the effect of Armstrong’s star status on his musicians, the disparity between the net worth of Armstrong’s estate and Glaser’s estate, Armstrong’s remarks on the Little Rock Nine, FBI files and FOIA requests, condemnations Armstrong received in later years, rivalry between Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, James Baldwin, Armstrong’s aversion to bebop, why Armstrong didn’t break from his popular style, whether or not an artist has a responsibility to push past a middlebrow reception, floundering artists, disbanding the All Stars and improving the musical dynamic with the All Stars’s second iteration, Armstrong’s unexpected late career collaboration with Dave Brubeck, Armstrong’s ability to sell records during the Great Administration, popular tunes and mainstream accessibility in the 1920s, the dangers of critical consensus, Armstrong’s in-performance improvisation within “Stardust,” Armstrong’s unwavering affinity for the Swiss Kriss herbal laxative, the 1953 conflict between Armstrong and Benny Goodman, the question of artistic ego, the entertainer’s instinct, Armstrong’s conflict with Earl Hines’s showboating, Duke Ellington’s insistence on top billing, Armstrong’s tour of England and racist critics, the mistaken notion of Europe as an Eden for jazz musicians, exploring reception histories, Armstrong’s lawsuit with OKeh Records, the difficulty of collating Armstrong’s correspondence, Armstrong as writer, and self-awareness.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

teachouttCorrespondent: In light of Armstrong’s remarks about the Little Rock Nine, and of course his infamous remarks about Eisenhower, did the guy have an FBI file? Were you able to…?

Teachout: He did. It was mostly innocuous.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Teachout: There just isn’t anything of interest in it. I know this because I’ve seen it, but also because I FOIAed Joe Glaser. He doesn’t have a file.

Correspondent: None?

Teachout: None.

Correspondent: Despite his mob connections?

Teachout: I appealed the decision to make sure. And they told me that there was no file in Glaser. And this is a guy whose business was taken over by Sidney Korshak, who has an FBI file the size of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. So I can only assume that the FBI saw Glaser as too small-time in terms of their interests to start a file on him.

Correspondent: Unless, of course, it was expunged in some capacity.

Teachout: It could have been. I don’t have any reason to think that it was and, since Korshak’s file wasn’t, I assumed that there simply wasn’t anything there. Armstrong’s file contains nothing of any interest because he didn’t play at political benefits. I mean, the FBI was aware of the fact that he used marijuana. Because he was vetted by the State Department. But other than that, there wasn’t anything that was even worth passing on in the book. I mention actually in one of the endnotes that he had a file and that its contents were of no interest. But Glaser — we were all on pins. I had actually alerted the Armstrong Archive that I FOIAed Glaser. Because no one had ever thought to do this before.

Correspondent: Wow.

Teachout: And it took me a year and a half from end to end, from the original Freedom of Information request to wrapping up the appeal and concluding that there just wasn’t anything there.

BSS #314: Terry Teachout (Download MP3)

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