« January 2006 | Main | March 2006 »

Turtles Can Fly

How perilous is your life?

Mine, not so much. I woke up this morning, rolled out of bed. A little over a week ago I pulled a tendon or a muscle or something just below my knee and I still have some soreness there. I might have reinjured myself this morning if I hadn't been careful getting out of bed, but I was, so I didn't.

I might have fallen in the shower, I suppose, but it didn't occur to me that I might. On the way to work, it was blustery and cold. My eyes watered briefly. I might have stepped off the curb into the path of an oncoming car maybe. But I didn't. I'm fairly careful about intersections since I listen to a pocket radio through ear-buds and I do think every so often that I might get distracted by what I'm listening to and mindlessly step into traffic.

But I didn't, of course. Not today anyway.

I rode an elevator up to the office. There is a rumor among the tenants in the building that some years ago an elevator technician was cut in half by one of the elevators. It was stuck partway between floors and the guy was crawling into it when, without warning, it started moving. But it worked just fine today. It stopped at my floor just like it was supposed to and so I didn't give it a second thought. My computer might have exploded in my face, I suppose, but it didn't. It didn't even occur to me that it would.

Later, in the evening, I might have choked to death on a bit of pork chop and no one would have known about it except my cat until tomorrow sometime. But I took small bites and chewed them well and as it turned out I was never in danger of choking to death. The thought of it never even crossed my mind.

There is so much peril in the world, and so little of it is owned by me. This in spite of the fact that I live in a city that has been attacked twice already. I recall the few times I've actually found myself in grave peril as occasions of great drama. And I do worry fairly often, when I'm waiting on the platform for a train, that some maniac will push me under an oncoming train. I always without fail stand away from the edge of the platform and lightly grip an iron column or stairway banister as trains enter and leave the station. But I have never been pushed. Never been mugged. Never come close to being run down by a speeding cab.

It could happen, of course. It could happen any moment. And something will happen to me someday and then it will be curtains. But in the meantime I live a privileged life, relatively free not just of the fear of peril but also of peril itself. I often think it wouldn't be the perilous things that kill you; it would be the constant awareness of being surrounded by peril. All the stress and the tension. But that's the mind of an early 21st century American white guy talking, who has a job and some money in the bank and no actual shooting war going on in his neighborhood. I think, as an actual fact, in other parts of the world, it's actually the perilous things that actually kill you.

Okay, let's be real. Seeing a movie about a group of children living in Iraqi Kurdistan in the days just before the American invasion isn't the same as being one of those children. Because I have seen "Turtles Can Fly" doesn't mean I have the slightest real notion of what the lives of those children might be like. Still, "Turtles" is an amazing treatise on the subject of the day-to-day living of a perilous life, so perhaps there are one or two things I can learn from it. For example, how others are forced to scratch out, literally, a living, inasmuch as these children earn their keep by digging up Genuine First Class American land mines and using them as currency with local merchants. In some instances, bringing home the bacon means bringing home your hands or your arms or your legs or what's left of your best friend in a burlap bag.

Oh, and I forgot to mention this earlier: I brushed my teeth a bit too vigorously this morning and may have bruised a gum. Wouldn't want to short-change myself on my list of perils.

But lest I drive you away from seeing a movie that you really must see: no children were blown up in the making of this film.

Most -- not all -- but most of the violence has already happened before the movie starts, and not all of that violence had to do with munitions. And really, honestly, this is not a movie about violence to children, though some violence does happen to some children.

It's a movie about a kid nick-named "Satellite" who is your classic "operator". He knows more at 14 about running a business than most of New York City's Financial District could ever hope to know, even by the time retirement rolls around. If Satellite's resemblance to a pushy, teen-aged Bill Gates (in baggy, second-hand jeans and thick glasses that may have once belonged to someone else) is not intentional, it's certainly serendipitous.

He is your standard geeky Kurdish kid who has managed to garner an astonishing monopoly on the local satellite dish installation game. As the American invasion looms, the people in Satellite's village/refugee camp are starving for news and are willing to do just about anything to persuade Satellite to do business with them. He's a kid who knows how much power he has, and knows how he ought to use it -- for both good and for evil, it turns out. He is the one, after all, who hires out the village refugee children to dig up land mines from the fields of local farmers. But he is also the one who takes responsibility for the welfare of the refugee kids -- a job the adults of the village can't seem to manage.

But never mind. Satellite is only doing what he has to do to keep himself and the other children alive until the Americans show up. He reveres us, possibly because he feels his business won't really take off until The Mighty Dollar hits town. It's a shame that by the time the Americans do come, all of the promise of their coming doesn't matter so much to young Satellite anymore.

In many ways, this is a very sweet movie but it is also, in the end, a very painful one too, though probably not in the way I might have led you to think. It's wonderful film, but I'm not going to lie to you... it's going to hurt you some before it gets done with you. Rent it and watch it anyway. Not because it's "good for you" or anything. Rent it and watch it for Satellite.

I guarantee you: He's one of those characters you'll want to carry around in your pocket for a while after the movie is over.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

A Pair of Shorts

#1: A friend was telling me about her hair-cutter who is also a long distance healer. Her hair-cutter was complaining the other day about a client in a foreign country whom she had long distance healed but who had failed to pay the negotiated fee. I see a business opportunity here: business schools for faith healers. Lesson #1: all long distance healing should be pre-paid.

#2: If you know Mark Lombardi's work, you might appreciate this. Yesterday, after hearing a segment about him on "Studio 360", I read his Wikipedia article and I noticed something interesting in the last sentence which I quote here: "After two highly successful solo art shows, Mark Lombardi allegedly died of suicide (hanging himself in his Williamsburg, New York studio) in March, 2000." (emphasis added). That in itself was interesting enough if, as I say, you know Mark Lombardi's work. However, when I went back there this morning, the entire article had changed!!! The part about "allegedly" has been removed!!!. Coincidence? You tell me.

Well, gotta go take a shower and put on some clean underwear for my healing at a distance appointment. See ya.

If Only

I dunno, they talk like letting an Ay-rab company manage our ports would be some gross breach of security.

If only.

Everyday I get up and mark another day on the calendar -- one more day without the 32-foot Chris Craft motoring into the marina at Battery Park City and letting go with A Big One.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad this thing has blown up in Bush's face, but only because it brings the issue of port security back onto the front burner.

But Bush is right. It doesn't matter.

The reason it doesn't matter is not the reason he gives for it not mattering, though.

The reason it doesn't matter is because people are behaving like we're putting the local Saturday-Night-Specials dealer in charge of the metal detector at school when there isn't any metal detector. What the hell difference does it make who we put in charge of something that isn't even there?

For six years the "adults" have been in charge. Wow. Am I glad, or what?

Speak, Canvas

The occasion of this entry is my sending off, this past Saturday, a check in the amount of thirty-seven ($37.00) dollars -- made payable to "Readercon" -- for the purpose of acquiring an attending membership in that convention which will be held over the weekend of July 7, 2006. This marks the first ever con I've bought a full membership in. I did attend Philcon a few years ago, but only for one day. Obviously I'm not exactly a con-going guy, though I've long ago accepted the fact that I am in many ways fannish -- oh, why qualify it? I am fannish. However, I am also...

But soft! A memory...

I'm eight or nine years old, I guess. I'm in the back seat of the old light-blue Ford station wagon. My father is driving, but just at this moment we are stopped at the traffic light at 185th Street and Aurora Avenue North. In the front seat with my father is his business partner.

K, the second son of my father's business partner is in the back seat with me. He is about my age, eight or nine, and I think there was another kid in the back seat with us but I can't recall if it was my brother or K's.

My father's business partner is talking about a gastrointestinal difficulty K is having. I can feel K next to me being grimly silent, blushing, fidgeting, but whether he is angry or shamed I can't say. I'm scrupulously minding my own business, watching out my window the traffic approaching the intersection from the left.

My father asks his business partner, "Is he a nervous kid?"

The business partner answers, "No. Hell, no. Next to Mike, K is the calmest kid I know."

I would be the Mike in question here, of course.

Startled, I turned my head and stare at the back of the business partner's head.

Me? Calm?

My mind races, trying to puzzle out this gross misperception of myself. My insides are in constant turmoil. I have difficulty falling asleep at night, I have so many worries on my mind.


I can feel K redirecting his anger toward me. This frightens me, especially since I consider myself perfectly innocent in this transaction. I'm trying desperately to stay out of things, after all. And now here, all of a sudden, K is inexplicably pissed at me. For what??

I face the window again and go back to watching the approaching traffic. From the outside, I appear perfectly...


Hmm, I remember thinking, I'm sitting here appearing to be perfectly calm. Bored, even. Blank.

No wonder my dad's business partner has gotten it so wrong. I'm not the calmest kid he knows. I'm the blankest kid he knows.

I think that was probably the moment I realized I could appear to be one thing while being another simply by preparing myself as a canvas and allowing others to paint on me whatever picture of me they wanted to paint.

Another memory...

I'm in my late teens or early twenties. I don't remember who the woman is, but I can see her face, and I can recall precisely what she said.

She may harbor a crush on me. She's an artist. A painter or sculptor or something. I remember a pause in the conversation. The words surrounding the pause are lost to me. She is studying me and smiling slightly. Finally, she says:

"You have an old soul."

Well. I mean. What self-respecting late-model adolescent wouldn't be willing to buy that one for a nickel?

I don't believe in souls, but I think, "Am I an old soul? Could that possibly explain me?"

I doubt it could, but I nevertheless resolve to keep an open mind. I certainly don't feel like I have the great wisdom that presumably comes with having a soul noticeably older than other people's. Still. Maybe my wisdom simply isn't apparent to me. Maybe it's the kind of wisdom only others can sense.

I finally decide it's not a question I have to answer just then. If I really do have an old soul, it probably knows how to take care of itself and doesn't need any help from me. All of this allows me to cultivate the secret belief that I do have an old soul.

And yet one more memory...

I'm in my mid-to-late twenties. I'm working as a stage manager at a theater. I'm chatting with a lovely and gracious actress of a certain age. She's British, married to some rich guy in town who, I've always thought, is charmed to let his wife appear onstage. She is very good at her work. I believe that at some point in her past she'd been a professional on the London stage.

We're on our lunch break. The rehearsal room is empty except for the two of us. We are chatting amiably. She is asking me increasingly personal questions. Not in an annoying way. Not in a way designed to make me uncomfortable. She is just asking about me, is all.

She studies me a moment and then says, after all this amiable chat, mind you:

"You are rather off-putting, aren't you?"


For heaven's sake. Off-putting??!!

Doesn't this woman understand that I have an old soul??!! That I encounter the world with a preternatural calm??!!

And that may have been the first time I realized there is a price to be paid for offering the world an empty canvas upon which it can paint whatever portrait it wants of you. It's great being a blank canvas when the only paintings they make of you are pretty, admirable, mysterious, attractive. It's less of a great thing when the picture they paint of you is, well... true.

All of that was a long time ago. On the one hand, as a canvas I'm certainly less blank than I used to be. On the other, I think I've become skilled at being something worse than blank. I think if I am pleased by the picture you are trying to paint of me, my frame warps a bit, lifting some of myself closer to you, pulling another part of me away -- all in an attempt to guide you toward the painting you are trying to create of me, a painting that I know will please both of us.

I don't think it was ever my intention to be a blank canvas for others. It just sort of worked out that way because I am so extraordinarily protective of myself. Lots of people have wanted a lot of things from me over the years and I have always had a very hard time saying no to them, even when I know I can't give them the things they want from me. So, I just, you know, let them think I've given them what they want. I let them paint their particular portrait of happiness, at least insofar as it concerns me.

It's all fairly grotesque, now that I think about it, but somehow I can't punish myself over it. I've always been something of a brat -- a gracious, well-mannered brat, but a brat nonetheless -- so it's not particularly difficult for me to forgive myself. This is one of the great advantages of being a brat.

Nevertheless, I don't find any of this behavior particularly attractive about myself and I certainly wish it wasn't so. I can understand why I was so protective of myself when I was younger, but I have a little trouble figuring out why I have to protect myself anymore. It's all just a habit, I guess. I have a lot of bad habits. Maybe I'll make a list sometime.

But here's the point of all this: if you are going to Readercon, you may notice a blank canvas hanging around the bar, or sitting in the back row at some of the panel discussions, or maybe sipping a gluten-free drink at a room party.

Feel free to bring out your brushes and paints. Oil or acrylic is fine with me. Step right up. Start in wherever you want. My upper-left corner is nice and empty. But then... so is the rest of me.

It's all fine by me. I'm easy. I have an old soul.

And after we're done, we can take the tubes of paint and the brushes and the spatulas and all the rest of it and crumple it all up inside the canvas you've been working on. Then we can throw the whole thing in the trash and try it again from the top. This time without all the artwork.

The Dodge Transparent

And so we learn that McDonalds is being sued by some celiacs over the fact that it at first said its french fries were gluten-free, and then it quietly added to its website that they were not.

Okay, I'm a celiac. I don't normally go into McDonalds because there isn't much in there that I feel safe eating, but certainly french fries seemed safe. And, in fact, I have on rare occasions, in emergency "I'm starving" situations, gone in and bought a big old wad of french fries. What could go wrong? They're just potatos, grease, and salt, right?

I've already seen a few blogs out there with the predictable "tort reform" party line which pretty much  derides these lawsuits by deploying the "bitch was too stupid to know the coffee was hot" defense. One blogger even suggests that if people are gluten-intolerant, they should drop out of the gene pool. That last bit is the well-known blog phenomenon of imagining you are being outrageous when in fact you're just recycling the same old shtick.

First, let's get a couple of things straight. Celiac disease is not an allergy to wheat. There is such a thing as wheat allergy, but being allergic to wheat is not the celiac's particular problem.

Celiac disease is an auto-immune disease. You are born with it. When a celiac is exposed to certain proteins, his body's immune system responds by attacking and destroying the lining of the gut. It's not a very intelligent thing for the immune system to do, but there it is. The damage is extensive and long-term and is not solved by going to the emergency room and getting shot up with antihistamines or anything else. The damage drastically reduces the body's ability to absorb nutrition from any and all food that you eat. Eating a ton and at the same time starving to death creates all sorts of problems for you, as I'm sure you can imagine. The only solution to the problem is to assiduously avoid eating anything that has the triggering proteins in it -- that would be anything with wheat, rye, barley, and (maybe) oats in it.

In short, you can't have anything to do with gluten. It has nothing to do with the amount you are exposed to. A very tiny amount of gluten can trigger the body's immune response. It's not like you can have "just a taste" of sonny-boy's birthday cake, or just a sip of your buddy's beer. You can't even lick a god-damned envelope because the glue on it has gluten in it.

Second, the gluten-free diet is not a "healthy eating habits" diet. It is a prescription from your doctor. It's something you have to do to keep your body from destroying itself. I think there is a tendency among celiacs to end up eating healthier diets, but I think that's only because celiacs have to become acutely aware of every little thing they eat. There is nothing in a gluten-free diet that says you can't eat tons of fatty cheese (providing there is no annato in it), or slabs of artery-clogging meat (provided there is no soy sauce in the recipe), or, well, french fries, for heaven's sake -- providing there are no wheat products involved.

There seems to be some notion in the tort-reform blogger's minds that if you are on a gluten-free diet you are, per se, a "health nut" and so what the hell were you doing in McDonalds in the first place? Sorry, no. That's not the way it works.

The only thing that separates a celiac from the rest of you clowns is that a celiac, if he wants to buy processed foods, pretty much has to rent a carrel in the grocery store or local fast-food joint so he can study the ingredient labels of everything he wants to buy. Try it sometime. You'll be surprised how many things have wheat in them, things you'd never imagine would. Keep in mind that while "food starch" is likely corn starch, it isn't necessarily corn starch and so you can't risk eating any product that lists it on its label.

And so the tort-reform blogger's response is, "So don't eat processed foods!" Well, a lot of celiacs don't, which is one of the reasons we end up appearing to eat healthier diets. And, you know, that's fine. But let's just talk about transparency for a minute.

Let's hear from the tort-reformer's hero, the President hisself, speaking on the subject of Health Care Initiatives, in particular health savings accounts:

But the key thing in a health savings account is you actually put a patient in charge of his or her decisions -- which we think is a vital aspect of making sure the health care system is not only modern, but a health care system in which costs are not running out of control. And part of making sure consumers, if they have a decision to make, can make rational decisions is for there to be transparency in pricing. In other words, how can you make a rational decision unless you fully understand the pricing options or the quality options. When you go buy a car, you know, you're able to shop and compare. And, yet, in health care, that's just not happening in America today.

There's a debate here in Washington about who best to make decisions. Some up here believe the federal government should be making decisions on behalf of people. I believe that consumers should be encouraged to make decisions on behalf of themselves. And health savings accounts and transparency go hand-in-hand.
I look forward to working with Congress to strengthen, not weaken, but strengthen these very important products that puts the doctor and the patient in the center of the health care decision.... [W]e will continue to implement transparency.... I predict that when this -- as this society becomes more transparent, as the consumers have more choice to make, you'll see better cost containment.

So let me just ask the tort and healthcare reformers this... Do you really expect us to believe that patients will be able to shop for doctors and other health-care providers through some system of "transparency"? I mean, I might fall for that one if I thought "transparency" was something that was actually valued by the people pushing for these reforms, but it isn't: the tort-reformers have contempt for anybody who sues McDonalds for not being "transparent".

What's wrong with this picture? I'll tell you what's wrong with it: "Transparency" is a dodge.

The irony is rich, but it's also, thankfully, so far as I can make out from the ingredients list, gluten-free.

The World (Shijie)

Some films are so good, so masterful, you can't hardly find a way to start talking about them. Zhang Ke Jia's "The World" is like that, though I should warn you: some people think it's crap.

I suppose if you were trying to find a place to start, you could first talk about the plot. It mostly takes place in a theme park (that actually exists -- in a suburb of Beijing) which features something like 100 scale models of various man-made and natural wonders of the world. Its motto is: "See the world without ever leaving Beijing." The place is called World Park and the film follows the lives of a group of young Chinese boys and girls who have moved to Beijing from the country and found work at the park.

Okay, that's not a very promising start, I guess.

What if I told you the film was gorgeous to look at? That you could watch the film over and over and each time find yourself waiting impatiently to get a glimpse of images that are still with you from previous viewings?

That's a little better, I guess, depending on how strongly you respond to the visual elements of film.

Maybe for all you science-fiction fans out there, I could start with how this movie reminds you that all of those horrific, dystopian worlds of the future aren't really "out there" at all. They are here -- and I mean "here" as in "not just in China" -- and they are now -- and I mean "now" as in, well, "right now".

Try to imagine what it would be like if Orwell hadn't written 1984. Try to imagine if it had been written by Lawrence Welk instead.

Have you ever seen any of those repackaged reruns of his show from the, what, I dunno, 60s or 70s? One of the public stations here in New York broadcasts it every Saturday in the early evening. Occasionally as I'm flipping through the channels, I will come across it and find myself inexplicably unable to avert my remote. Jesus God, what a horror. It's not like watching a car wreck, it's like being in a car wreck. You can feel your human soul being sucked right out of you. You just stare at the screen, slack-jawed, and feel your life-force draining away. Eventually the horror builds to a crescendo, you can't bear it any more, and somehow your fingers find a way to change the channel.

Okay, so imagine the soul-sucking family entertainment horror of all that, add to it the police-state mentality of 1984, and you've pretty much got the world of "The World".

Except it sneaks up on you. At first you think you are just watching a story about these kids who work at an incredibly shlocky theme park, but then the truth of what you are seeing slowly begins to dawn...

"Wait a minute... This world isn't so different from the one I actually live in..."

Fortunately, and this is one of the reasons why the film is so good, it never actually says any of that to you. I just creates the world these people live in and does it so well that you are glad to enter it. But once you are inside it, it all begins to feel way too horribly familiar.

And while it's doing all of that, of course, it's also showing you what life is like in China, or at least in Beijing, as the People's Republic takes its great leap forward into the century of globalization. That in itself makes the movie worth watching, if you are as fascinated as I am by that sort of thing. But as I say, it is way more than just that.

If you are more or less happy with the world you are living in, if you are fond of the world as you presently know it, you probably won't like this movie very much. It will probably bore you, or annoy you with its 137 minute length.

But if something feels a bit off to you about the way things are going, if you feel a little bit like you are living in the world of Welk's 1984, then I think this movie will be just the ticket. It might even help you get some sort of visceral (as opposed to intellectual) grasp of just what it is that's bugging you about life here on Earth in the early days of the 21st Century.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Online Values

So it being an easy and relaxed Saturday morning, I decided to enter into Google the search phrase "size of a suitcase bomb". I came up with six or seven regular hits, but only one over in the "Sponsored Links" column:

Bag Bomb
Great Savings of 10% - 20% Online
Shop Target.com

Lots of discussion lately about how big multinational corporations have to cave in to local ordinances in order to do business inside repressive regimes. Okay, well, that's part of the price of becoming MegaCorp, I guess. Turns out if you want to be big, you can't always not do evil.

But do they really need to offer 10-20% discounts on bag bombs, and throw in the ability to shop for  targets online?

Sheesh. And I thought Wal-Mart was bad.

Eluding the Googleater

It's probably a measure of how resoundingly insignificant this blog is in the great sweep of history, but I am proud to announce that I have managed to elude the scissorhands of the thuggish Chinese Googleater.

According to my logs from a few days ago, somebody stumbled across an old entry of mine, either liked or hated it, not sure which, but in any case emailed the URL to a number of friends or associates who thereupon visited the entry themselves.

About the same time, I was listening to a report on Google in China.

So, inasmuch as the aforementioned entry, The Young Person's Guide to Democracy, seemed the sort of thing the Googleater would fervently disapprove of, I went to www.google.cn, put the title of the piece in, and then punched the button. Just out of curiosity.

And, of course, there it was in all its glory. In fact, my entire dubiously praiseworthy set of leftish / libertarianish entries appears to be findable there.

As I say, it probably just means I am a bug pre-squished under their jack-booted heels, which is to say they couldn't care less what I have to say about anything. Still. It's nice to know the automatic filters aren't all that automatic.

Or, it could simply be that www.google.cn detects that I am googling from the USA rather than mainland China and so lets things through it wouldn't otherwise let through.

It will be fun to see if this entry results in the Googleater eventually swallowing up "The Young Person's Guide... ". Almost as fun as imagining young Chinese democrats reading the Guide and following, or at least musing about following its advice (since actually following it could cause real problems for them, I suppose).

Why Are People Such Idiots?

People drive me nuts.

This Cheney thing. You've got the press all in a tizzy over WHY didn't you notify US??!!

Well, okay, that's a problem, but not much of one. Does anyone seriously believe that somehow this wouldn't have come out? Does anyone seriously believe this could have been covered up?

And then you've got all your conspiracy theories and suggestions of marital infidelity and various other lunacies…

Look, there's only one issue here, and it's an important one, and all this other crap just obscures it.

Here's the problem. One of the reasons you want your cops on the scene as soon as possible after an accident is so that things like possible alcohol consumption can be determined conclusively. Now what we have so far is that Cheney had a beer at lunch. That's fine, that's not a problem, though I'm not sure I would have gone back to the hunting after a beer, but never mind, that's just me. I can see that not being a real problem.

But then you have this hunting accident, no cops on the scene, the guy goes off to the hospital, the group sits down to a big dinner at which (we might wonder) if alcohol was served ("Jesus! I need a drink!"), thus making any possible test for alcohol consumption at the time of the accident useless. And then we finally have the interview with the cops the next morning at 9:00 a.m. Oh, and I guess we also have the hospital spokesman quickly closing up the press conference when a reporter asks inconveniently whether the shooting victim's blood had been tested for alcohol.

Oh, and we also have the peace officer stopping by the evening of the accident, saying he heard there'd been someone injured and wondering if they needed any help. He was told, no, everything's fine, the Veep will be talking to your office in the morning, thanks for stopping by.

What a perfect opportunity for an alcohol test, if anybody felt it would be, you know, smart to get one. But, no, everything's fine here, thanks for stopping by.

Cheney has been a public figure for years. It's very difficult for me to believe that, once the medicals got the poor guy packed into the ambulance and off to the hospital, a public figure wouldn't think, "Jeez, I'd better establish I haven't been drinking." It's not impossible for me to believe a public figure wouldn't think that, but it's very difficult.

Think Cheney was maybe too upset to be interviewed by the cops just then? Well, that's possible.

I guess he wasn't too upset to sit down to a big dinner, though.

WHY are people such IDIOTS? At the moment, the only issue that matters is why did Cheney not arrange to be tested for alcohol consumption as soon as reasonably possible after the accident. If he had alcohol in his system and took steps to make sure it wasn't detected, that would be extremely damaging, and so it is an important question to ask. Can you believe he wouldn't know better? Can you believe he wouldn't have demanded that he be tested?

All the rest of this crap just "damages the case", as the prosecutors say.

I guess this wouldn't bother me so much if this Administration wasn't let off the hook time and again by being handed opportunity after opportunity to point at its critics and say: "Look at them! They are behaving like morons!"

Because, you know, they actually are behaving like morons.

I've always been against Secret Service personnel being interviewed with regard to the behavior of the people they are protecting, but what's sauce for the goose...

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, July 7 [1998] ) -- A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that three Secret Service employees must testify before Independent Counsel Ken Starr's grand jury investigating the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton.

... ought to be sauce for the gander.

The Machinist

There are some DVDs you know you want to rent, but for some reason you just... don't.

They sit there on the shelf every time you go into the store. They don't call out to you. They don't try to buttonhole you as you browse past them. They just sit there watching you, and waiting. You quite consciously move your eyes over the DVD's box, deliberately not seeing it but at the same time telling yourself, "Soon. Maybe next time I come in."

And then one day, you find yourself not caring about whatever it was that has kept you from renting the movie. You come upon it, you pick it up, and you take it home.

Why would I want to see a movie that features a grotesquely emaciated Christian Bale playing a character who has not been able to fall asleep for a year? Certain images we react to viscerally, after all. Beyond everything that you know about the context and effect of the Holocaust, for example, it's just plain hard to look at, in a reptilian brain sort of way, all those newsreels of people who look like walking skeletons. So, yeah, why would I want to rent a movie featuring a main character who looks like a barely-survivor of the Holocaust?

I've had a long string of not very interesting DVD rentals lately. When that happens, I start hungering, you should pardon the expression, for something I can sink my teeth into. I get "grabby". I just start grabbing things off the shelves, anything that looks even vaguely interesting, or anything that I've been hesitant about before.

What a good movie "The Machinist" is. Pretty much in your cinematically interesting, psychological thriller category, but it's not just glitzy-scary. It takes the time and trouble to actually be about a human being, or, at least be about problems human beings have always had to struggle with. Guilt, for example, and the inconvenience of having a conscience no matter how much you try to not have one. Suffice it to say that if you've ever, um, lost sleep over something you did -- even accidentally -- to somebody else, then there's something for you in this movie.

Great danger of spoilers when talking about "The Machinist", so I'm going to shut up about the story and instead talk briefly about something else in the movie I found fascinating.

As you watch the film, you get the feeling that the story is taking place somewhere in America, Los Angeles, I guess, or some other city in southern California, but there's something not quite right about that feeling. All the cars are American cars. The license plates appear to be Californian. The stop-lights are standard issue USA. But somehow you get the feeling that you are looking at an America that's been dreamed up by somebody. You can't really say why you feel that way. You just do. It doesn't look like a dreamed up America, but it sure feels like one.

Well, it turns out, and I didn't find this out until after I'd seen the DVD, the movie was shot in Spain -- Barcelona, to be precise -- made up to look like a southern Californian city. They did a good job of it. Making it look American, I mean. But there was just enough wrong -- and you can't even say precisely what was wrong -- for this Los Angeles to feel somehow dreamed up.

It's astonishing how many details we are picking up on, recording, analyzing, putting in the "something wrong here" category as we watch movies. I probably could go through the movie with my finger on the "Pause" key and make a list of all the details that make this Los Angeles feel not quite right. That would be an academic exercise I'm not particularly interested in.

What I am interested in is how well this effect works in service of the movie. Our main character has, in fact, not been able to sleep for a year. Having the story take place in a city that feels dreamed up reminds me of all those times I, myself, have been awake far too long -- when all the familiar things around me have started to feel foreign and creepy.

Shooting in Spain was the result of the makers shopping the script around in the USA for over two years, not finding the money, and then finding a production company in Spain that was excited about the script and wanted to put up the money. Maybe it was an accident, or maybe it was the director making the best of the situation (I suspect the latter since this guy clearly knows what he is doing), but whatever it was, the effect of it goes a long way toward persuading us to enter the world of the movie.

If you are without conscience, I guess you should probably skip this movie and go find something suitably sociopathic to do this evening. For the rest of us who know what guilt feels like, this movie is an unexpected gift.

A sleeper, you might say.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Cheney And Me

From this morning's Houston Chronicle:

She said Whittington had just shot a quail and went looking for it. "Being a diligent hunter, he stayed behind to find the dead bird while signaling for the others to go on ahead while he looked," said Armstrong.

Cheney and another man located another covey farther away and were flushing it out when Whittington came to join them without "announcing himself," she said.

Cheney was unaware Whittington had walked up behind him when he swung around to fire his .28-gauge shotgun at one of the birds rising from the grass. He was focused on the bird and did not see Whittington, who was wearing a hunter's "blaze orange" vest, she said.

I was about 12 years old, I think. 12 or 13. My dad used to take my brother and me hunting. I liked the shooting part, but the stinkin' cold and early mornings... those I used to hate. Plus being smooshed into cheap motel rooms with a bunch of smelly old men. Hmm. We will set that part of it aside for later review.

So I'm out in the middle of some farmer's wheat field. We were hunting pheasants and that basically involved everybody forming a long line with about, I dunno, 30-40 feet between each of us, and then moving through the field to try to flush up some birds in front of us. My dad's business partner was the hunter immediately to my right.

I remember this like it was yesterday morning...

So we're walking along, I've got my .12 gauge tucked under my right arm, pointing down at the ground, just like I've been taught to do. Suddenly there is the unmistakable staccato thuh-thuh-thuh of a pheasant taking panicked flight. The sound is to my right, and slightly behind me. I turn my head and from the corner of my eye I catch sight of the bird just taking off, heading back the direction we all just came from. Obviously we had walked right past him and now, foolishly, once we were about ten feet past him, he decided it was time to head for the hills.

Well, he was flapping furiously and climbing rapidly into the morning sky so I got busy in a hurry. I swung my gun around and...

Thing is, you don't want to be walking through a field with your safety off. You want to have your finger on the safety ready to flip it and then move your finger to the trigger the moment you raise a bird. The thing you don't want to do is be walking through a field with the safety off and your finger on the trigger.

So I swing my gun around and it goes off.

This image I have burned into my brain. This is years and years ago.

The pattern of pellets from my gun lays down the wheat in front of me just like an invisible giant foot had stepped on it. Just laid it down flat, and the "footprint" was pointed directly at my dad's business partner. I looked up from the footprint into the guy's face. He was just staring at me, widest eyes I've ever seen. After a brief pause, he just said my name -- without any emotion whatsoever. No scolding, no anger, nothing. Just... astonishment, really.

If my gun hadn't still been pointing mostly down, hadn't still been on its way up, I would have totally shot the guy.

I don't know what really happened after that. In my mind, what I remember is that I started crying, put the safety on my gun, walked back to the car and never went hunting again. That's how I finish the story in my memory, but I'm not sure how it really went and it's too late for me to check my facts with the parties involved.

It's a scary god-damned thing to almost shoot somebody with your shotgun. I can't imagine how much scarier it must be to actually shoot them.

I'm sure over the next few days we'll see signs of how upset Cheney is about this. I don't expect him to start bawling like a baby or anything like I did. I was only 12 or 13, after all. But I'm sure we'll see some sort of effect. You don't just accidentally shoot a guy and then say what a careful hunter you are.

I mean, come on. You shot the guy. How careful is that? Unless you are an idiot 12 year old like I was, you don't pull the trigger unless you know exactly what your gun is pointing at. The guy had an orange vest on, fer chrissake.

Okay, it was an accident. That's obvious. Here's another thing that's obvious. Accidents happen when people aren't careful.

The Aristocrats

You probably already know everything you think you need to know about "The Aristocrats". I'll just add my own two cents worth on the off-chance it tilts you one way or the other.

First, let's get this straight. I hate it when people tell me jokes. The minute somebody starts telling me a joke, I can feel myself blushing in embarrassment for them. I look down at the floor. I smile sourly. I do just about everything I can think of to send the message, "Please don't continue telling me this joke." It never works, of course. People can rarely stop themselves once they've started.

Dirty jokes are the worst. I can tell from the third word into it that I'm not going to find the joke funny. By then I'm already trying to think of the least response I can get away with once we get to the punchline. I usually come up with just enough to gracefully get me out of actually having to laugh.

So you can be pretty sure I would hate a movie that is about nothing but the telling of one incredibly filthy joke. Of course I loved it.

The thing about movies is that you always want them to somehow teach you something about yourself. What this movie taught me is that it wasn't that I hated -- for all these years -- people telling me jokes. What I have always hated is that most people, the vast majority of the human race as a matter of fact, are really terrible at telling them.

The people in this movie are the God-Emperors of telling jokes. They are superpowered. They climb the highest building you can imagine, walk out onto the observation deck, leap into space, and then tell a joke to save themselves from splattering on the sidewalk. The difference between most of us and them is that these people actually save themselves. While the rest of us hit the sidewalk and turn into something like tomato puree, these people set down lightly on both feet, then stroll away as if nothing had happened.

There were times during this movie when I literally could not breathe for laughing. It was the kind of laughter where you really can't imagine being able to ever stop laughing -- not huge guffaws of laughter, but that desperate, choking, airless laughter where your diaphragm is locked into a shallow spastic pattern -- guh, guh, guh. I think it must be like what happens when you are choking to death on your flank steak and there is no one around to administer the Heimlich Maneuver.

This movie is probably the most sustained instance of filth and pus and vile and horror laced humor I've ever encountered. I'm not kidding. I'm not exaggerating even slightly. But the filth is not the point. Really, it isn't. The filth becomes (almost immediately) strangely irrelevant. This isn't a movie about a filthy, repellant joke. It's a movie about people who jump off buildings and turn fatal falls into human-powered flight.

This is not a smile movie. This is a laugh-out-loud movie. Wait. Let me rephrase that... that sounds a little too much like a universal recommendation:

This movie is for laugh-out-louders. It is dangerous for smilers-only. Rent it only if life means more to you than an occasional smile.

Finally, on a personal note, and I'm not kidding about this... If you ever meet me, please don't try to tell me a joke unless you are a certified god of joke-telling. If you have any doubts about that -- hell, even if you are absolutely certain of your joke-telling skills -- before you start in with me, please take this simple test:

Go find a tall building. The tallest you can find. Go out onto the observation deck...

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Radiohead Zup

Next Wednesday, February 15, 2006, at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, there will be a slightly edited (to remove silly cacophonous moments) broadcast of a panel discussion held on February 8, 2006 at the Society for Ethical Culture here in New York City. The panel was called "Were We Misled?" (in this instance, on pre-Iraq-war intelligence) and featured David Corn and Bob Graham (guess which side they were on), and Christopher Hitchens and Ruth Wedgewood (guess which side).

You will be able to listen "live" to the taped broadcast at http://www.wnyc.org/, or (a bit later) get an .mp3 of it at http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/archive.html.

First Annual Fucked Up Turkish Roommates Film Festival

I went to Hollywood Video and rented two Turkish movies. I don't know why. I just felt like it, I guess.

Okay, to be perfectly accurate one of the movies is Turkish and the other is German, I think, but the characters are all Turkish.

The first one I watched was about a professional photographer in Istanbul who is somewhat... "Distant". A cold fish, really. Some guy from the village the photographer originally came from comes to stay with him to look for a job.

As roommates, things go poorly between them.

The second one I watched was about a Turkish guy in Hamburg, wrecked on drugs and alcohol, who tries to kill himself by crashing his car... "Head-On"... into the side of the building, and who then meets a Turkish woman in the clinic they are both in. I guess it's a clinic for people who tried to kill themselves because she's there for trying to do herself in as well. She wants him to marry her so she can get away from the abusive men in her family. She wants to LIVE, you see, which turns out to mean drinking, doing drugs, and fucking anything with two legs except her fake husband. Well, he has two legs, but she doesn't want to fuck him. Is what I mean. For some reason I didn't quite grasp at the time, he agrees to marry her. So she moves in with him.

As roommates, things go poorly between them.

Okay, as you can probably tell, I didn't care for these movies all that much. They weren't bad, but they weren't particularly compelling either. However, I did want to say this: Istanbul is a cool looking city. That one mosque on the hill with the four minarets (featured in both films) is truly a science-fictiony looking thing and I liked looking at it very much.

Maybe I get along better with buildings than I do with people. Sounds about right. I get along with buildings better than the guy in "Head-On" does, that's for sure.

But since this is a film festival I guess I should probably announce an award. Hmm. I, the Jury, give the "Golden Whose Turn Is It To Do The Dishes Award" to "Head-On" because the leading man and woman are very hot-looking, and some of the music is pretty good.

"Distant": [Netflix, B & N, ]
"Head-On": [Netflix, B & N, ]

Unwarranted Bugging

As you probably know, the City That Never Sleeps is lying awake at night worrying about bed bugs.

So I was listening to a Leonard Lopate show "Please Explain" segment the other day on the subject of bed bugs (.mp3 here) and I accidentally learned something other people probably already know.

You can get bed bugs from the Laundromat.

That is, if you wash your laundry in a machine that someone with bed bugs has used, you could end up with the little bastards coming home with you. Apparently, a preventative is to wash your clothes in hot water (as opposed to warm or cold, of course).

Obviously you can't wash all your laundry items with hot water -- some pieces won't survive. My small building has one washing machine and one dryer and so what I've decided to do is always start my laundry day with a load I can wash in hot water -- in the hope the machine will be more or less sterilized -- and then do the warms and colds afterward.

And then if I ever have to resort to the Laundromat (it sometimes happens), I will do the same thing, sticking with one "sterilized" machine (or more, if I have more than one "hot" load) rather than loading up a bunch of different machines as I usually do at the Laundromat.

NEWT: My mommy always told me there were no such things as monsters. But there are.

RIPLEY: (brief pause) Yes. There are.

Yes. There are.

Okay, so they aren't the worst monsters in the world. They aren't in the same league as Dick Cheney, for example. Still.

Markers Down, Please

A few years ago, after about 10 years of not having a medical check-up, I decided that it was stupid to have this marvelous (not so much) medical insurance if I never took advantage of the free annual physical that comes with my coverage.

So. I made an appointment and went to see my Primary Care Physician. He took the blood and the pee, felt me up in a number of particularly unerotic ways, so forth and so on, and then a couple of weeks later I returned for my results.

Turns out I had an iron deficiency which was odd because boys aren't supposed to have iron deficiencies on account of they don't generally menstruate. Nobody said anything to me at the time, of course, but I guess the leading theories back then were that I was seriously bleeding somewhere inside, or that I had a horrific tumor, or both.

For two years they crawled down my throat and up my butt, made the molecules of my viscera magnetically dance, sing sonogrammically, and smile coyly for various sorts of cameras.

They found nothing. No tumor. No hematological leaks. Nada. But neither was my iron count getting any better. In fact, it was getting worse despite the fact that I was taking massive doses of the stuff. Refrigerator magnets should have been leaping onto my naked flesh, but they remained indifferent.

I'm a pretty easy-going guy, but after two years of this nonsense, even I was starting to get a little concerned. Actually, I was freaking out.

Finally, they sent me to another gastroenterologist. He listened to my story, thought for a moment, then ordered a simple blood test. He called me at home a couple of days later, I remember it was on a Friday evening, and told me he had the results back from the test and that my problem was that I had celiac disease. He gave me the short version.

"It's an auto-immune disease. Your body produces antibodies when exposed to gluten. These antibodies attack the lining of your gut and that makes it difficult for your body to absorb nutrients from your food, including iron. You are more or less eating plenty but at the same time starving to death. The solution is to stop eating anything with gluten in it and your body will not only stop attacking itself, it will eventually repair the harm it's done to your gut."

And there it was suddenly: safe harbor in view. After two years of increasing frustration and worry, not to mention declining health, my ordeal was over. If you're lost at sea without a map you can't ever tell when, if ever, rescue will hove into view. It was great to finally have that map.


How will we know when the War on Terror is over? Beats me. Nobody's really willing to say, it seems. Everybody says we will be at it for years, and that there will never come a time when the two sides meet in the middle of a bloody field to put their signatures to the peace. Visions of an ongoing, maybe even eternal war haunt us, our liberties leaking away permanently under pressure from all sorts of Special Wartime Measures that may never go away because the war itself will never go away.

Will we ever glimpse land? Will it just someday dawn on us that the war is over? Maybe someday 20 years will have passed without a major terrorist attack and we'll think, "Hey, jeez, I guess it's over." But even that doesn't seem much of a guarantee of anything. Just because there hasn't been a major terrorist attack in a while doesn't mean terrorism has disappeared. That's one of the few things I can agree on with the Bush Administration.

In fact terrorism has always been here. What's-his-name, one of those Mongol thugs, used to mortar together leading citizens of defeated cities, using them as "bricks" to build living (for a while, anyway) commemorative towers marking his great victory over any city that tried to resist him. We can imagine the effect this sort of thing had on cities yet to be attacked. There will always be some people who will find a use, according to their needs, for terrorism.

Which is why some of us are concerned about calling this thing a war. How can this war ever end if we can't ever say for sure we have outgrown terrorism as a species?

We need a marker. Something that will tell us that this particular go-round with terrorism is over. As it happens, it occurs to me that over the last few days, we may have caught a glimpse of such a marker.

This morning I was listening to an interview with Chris Patten, former and final British governor of Hong Kong. Asked about this recent cartoons-of-the-Prophet fiasco, Patten made the unremarkable point that "liberty is not license". At the same time, limits on speech should not be determined by governments, they should be a matter of personal restraint. People should be able to say whatever they want, without government interference, but if they lack restraint or judgment, the penalty should not be beheading, or being burned at the stake, or airplanes flying into buildings. The penalty should be having people look on you with disgust. If you own a newspaper, the penalty should be people refusing to give you money for your crappy rag.

And those are pretty much the only legitimate penalties, at least in the eyes of the West. There are exceptions, of course. As I understand it, it's pretty hard to advocate National Socialism in modern Germany. On the one hand, I think that sort of prior restraint is unfortunate and unnecessary. On the other hand, this prior restraint seems to be the choice of the German people and it's not my place to tell them how they ought to handle their dark and difficult past.

But for the most part, this is a bright line for people in the West. You can't tell us what we can or cannot say. I think at this point, this sort of contrariness is in our blood. The government can try to shut us up a bit, and some of us might even go along for our own reasons, but certainly any religious leader that tries to control our speech... well, you know, you can just forget it.

If it ever comes to pass that some shlocky, low-rent paper somewhere feels the urge to publish insulting cartoons of the Prophet -- just to prove that it can, I guess -- and that event passes with no greater reaction than some grimaces of disgust and cancelled subscriptions, despite the best efforts of some who would like to stir up trouble, I think then we will know this particular war on terror is over.

The lack of any notable response at that point won't be due to Muslims no longer caring about how their Prophet is portrayed. It will be because they have arrived at a means for appropriately and adequately expressing their disgust short of knocking the crap out of Western embassies or local businesses or hapless tourists or what-all. How they arrive at that place is unimportant, as is whether we in the West have had anything to do with helping them get there.

See, because I'm not talking about it in terms of it being a goal. I'm talking about it in terms of it being a marker. Or, one possible marker. Surely there are others.

If they are not going to give us a bloody field with a table in the middle of it upon which a treaty can be signed, then we will have to find other signifiers of the endgame. If we don't look for those signifiers, it seems to me we'll never see them, and then we'll remain trapped in that permanent state of war they tell us is the best they can do for us at the moment.

In The Hands Of

Dear Mr. Corpuscle:

The CAREER PROFESSIONALS here at the National Security Agency send you their warmest greetings!

We are updating our records. Our CAREER PROFESSIONALS have just a few questions for you. You may be sure that our CAREER PROFESSIONALS will keep your answers in strictest confidence.

Many of our CAREER PROFESSIONALS are wondering why you insist on using an anonymous browsing service. In the extensive experience of our dedicated CAREER PROFESSIONALS, people who use anonymous browsing services have something to hide. Do you have something to hide? You may be sure your response will be held in strictest confidence by our CAREER PROFESSIONALS.

Why do you have two checking accounts? Hardly any of our skilled CAREER PROFESSIONALS have two checking accounts. In the opinion of our experienced CAREER PROFESSIONALS, this sort of thing only creates unnecessary paperwork both for you and our overworked CAREER PROFESSIONALS. Our caring CAREER PROFESSIONALS suggest that you consolidate your monies, for your convenience.

Recently, our sharp-eyed CAREER PROFESSIONALS have noticed you are buying briefs with smaller waist sizes. Are you losing weight? Our knowledgeable CAREER PROFESSIONALS suspect you are under some sort of stress. Caring and sensitive CAREER PROFESSIONALS stand by to help. (If we may... Are you a potential suicide-bomber?)

Please feel free to contact one of our helpful CAREER PROFESSIONALS at your earliest opportunity. We are the committed CAREER PROFESSIONALS of the NSA and we're not kidding.




(dictated but not read)

Tropical Malady

Feeling brave?

Well, no matter if you are or you aren't. It's only a movie, after all. Movies can't kill you, though there are some that can return you to some semblance of life.

It's hard for me to know what you might have heard about "Tropical Malady". It's unlikely it came to your local multiplex, but it has played a number of festivals, including here in New York, and at Cannes where it won a jury prize. If you heard anything about it at all, you probably heard it was a strange and experimental film from Thailand that seems to be divided just about in half -- the first part being a more or less conventionally told love story, the second part being a mystical folk-tale. The general consensus seems to be the movie is something between a head-scratcher and a mind-blower.

Me, I had the accidental advantage of having read a while ago a terrific memoir called From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe. It's about a young Burmese man who grew up in the jungle, found his way to the city and university, became a fan of James Joyce, lived through the rise of the Burmese military dictatorship, partially fell victim to it, then at long last escaped to Britain to become the first Burmese tribesman to attend Cambridge.

There's a lot of stuff in the early part of the book about the young man growing up in the jungle, a member of the Kayan Padaung tribe, where ghosts and spirits -- malevolent or simply mischievous -- are pretty much taken for granted. Grandmothers place their faith in them without reservation, but others seem more inclined to take their grandmother's word for it and otherwise avoid dealing with the question of ghosts too carefully -- except when they find themselves in the deep forest after sunset, of course. Who, after all, in the jungle at night, can avoid believing in ghosts?

Anyway, I think the book laid some groundwork in my head for seeing "Tropical Malady" not so much as a head-scratcher/mind-blower, but as a story that simply came out of the jungle and climbed up onto the screen. I don't want to make the typical Round Eye's mistake of thinking that everything that comes out of the East is equally inscrutable. I understand perfectly well that there are differences between Burmese and Thai cultures. Nevertheless, the "ghost belt" does seem to cover a good portion of bejungled Asia. When this movie headed off into the spirit world, I found myself remembering Green Ghosts, recalling how spirits were an accepted part of that young man's world, and so it was relatively easy for me to, what the hell, just head off into the jungle after it.

When you, more or less by luck, experience the movie that way, I think it seems much less of the "divided in half thing" that a lot of people have called it. Of course there is a distinct change in style when the movie goes into the jungle, but I experienced that more as simply a change in the story's location. In our Western terms, it's like a movie that starts out in the city, then moves to a rural location. Of course what you see and experience in the city part of the movie is different from what you see and experience in the country part, but the story is nevertheless continuous. In this case, what you experience in the real world is different from what you experience in the spirit world, but it's the same story. It's just been packed up and moved to a different location.

But I should point out that even the movie's director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, speaks of the movie in terms of "the first section" and "the second section", so I'm not convinced that the way I experienced the movie was the way I was intended to experience it. That's on the one hand. On the other, the director himself, speaking on the DVD's commentary track, never offers authoritative explanations of what's going on. In fact, he takes delight in giving us his theories, and only his theories, of what is happening. Which is to say, I think he is happy to have me experience the movie in whatever manner I experience it. I think you can safely presume he would feel the same way with regard to however you experience it.

Which you should do, by the way. Experience it, I mean. This is a lovely, exciting, spooky, touching, inspiring work. I marvel at it. The tentative romance (between two young men) in the real world part of the film is like a memory of all those times you found yourself getting sweeter and sweeter on somebody, and all those times you felt the thrill of the other person getting sweeter and sweeter on you. There's one scene between the two guys in a quiet spot in the jungle that is like to break your heart with its corniness, but as the director says, the movie is a memory and I don't know how it is for you, but all my memories of getting sweeter and sweeter on somebody are full of corniness. They have very little of the pain I know, intellectually, was involved. What's the use of having a memory of getting sweet on somebody if you can't strip away all the pain of it? We weren't given selective memory systems for nothing, you know.

And the spirit world part of the movie is stunning, assuming you have allowed yourself to go there, of course. There are at least two moments I came upon -- that's the only way to describe how I experienced them -- that will stick with me for a very long time. Both are chilling. There I was looking at the screen, then the meaning of what I was looking at suddenly sank in, and then I quietly gasped.

Sadly, if you are an English Major like I was, this movie may tempt you to look for meaning in all the wrong places. I get the feeling that in the future "Tropical Malady" could be an unending fountain of earnest undergraduate essays on visual meanings and narrative symbolism. We are trained to do it, trained to try to understand or at least explain what this moment and that moment mean.

Resist your training. You are in the jungle now. More precisely, you are in the place where ghosts reside. Here, monkeys give you advice on love and romance. Hand-held radios continue whispering to you long after they've been crushed to bits. Fireflies stand by to assist you, and your heart -- that generally incompetent but sometimes remarkably lucky guide -- wants to take you deeper into this forest.

Go ahead. Trust it. Even though you know you shouldn't.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Upcoming screenings:

  • 2/17-2/18, GSA Cafe Film Series, University Park, PA
  • 3/6-3/17, Belcourt Theater, Nashville, TN
  • 3/20-3/21, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID

Banter Smackdown

This past weekend, on "Book TV", I watched a panel discussion moderated by Francis Fukuyama with Bernard-Henri Levy and William Kristol. Levy was, as always, wonderfully fun to watch. No matter what you think of his views on America (or anything else, for that matter) you have to like the joy he takes in conversation.

So this morning on the "Rachel Maddow Show", Rachel had Levy on and she asked him about the pan Garrison Keillor wrote of . He said, basically, that of course if he writes a book on America, Americans have every right to reply to it. He then said he would be delighted to meet Mr. Keillor to have their discussion face-to-face, presumably regarding the book, but maybe (I hope) about all sorts of stuff.

I'd pay a great deal more than a nickel to see/hear that. It's a match-up made in Talk Heaven. This could be the birth of the Worldwide Conversational Wrestling Network.

I'm going over to Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" site right now and suggest that he have Levy on his show. Just the two of them on stage for a longish, banterish segment. And then maybe afterward, Levy could make a special guest appearance as "The Frenchman" in an episode of Guy Noir, or maybe we could catch a glimpse of the visit Levy made to Lake Woebegone, the basis of the famous "Missing Chapter" the publisher insisted Levy drop from his final draft.

America, Audioshopped

It's a famous moment in American pop/country music history... Johnny Cash on-stage there in the yard at Folsom Prison, singing the words...

I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die...

And then, famously, the yard erupts in hoots of joy from the prisoners.

Well, here's the deal. I was listening to the Brian Lehrer Show this morning. His guest was Michael Streissguth, professor of English at Le Moyne College and author of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece (.mp3 of interview available here). Streissguth says that sometime ago, he was given the privilege of listening to the original tapes of that concert in Folsom, and guess what? That famous cheer?

It was spliced in by the producers.

They thought it would make a big impression. They thought it would really sell the record. And, you know, clearly they were right. America loves that moment: prisoners cheering gleefully when a guy confesses to shooting a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

The only real trouble I'm having with all this is trying to figure who exactly ought to feel insulted.  America? The prisoners? The guy in Reno? Well, he's dead, so I guess his opinion doesn't matter much. Assuming he wasn't just spliced into our reality as well. It's only a song, after all.

I'll let you know if I ever work out the details of who's the asshole here.

Bad Refoos

For anyone who gets interested in my "Film & DVD" section, I should probably announce the policy I've adopted regarding refoos of movies I think are bad.

In short, there won't be any refoos of bad movies.

I had to face this issue the other day because I rented a DVD of a movie that seemed like it might be interesting. I had a vague notion it might be something like "Donnie Darko", a movie I saw a few years ago and admired greatly. Sadly, the movie I rented sucked. So badly sucked, in fact, that I found myself getting angry at it and I started to pound out a vicious pan.

But then I thought...

I'm not some newspaper guy who feels it is his duty to help guide paying readers toward movies that are worth their money, or guide them away from movies that are a waste. I'm interested in creating a list of movies that I think people who share (or suspect they share) my tastes in movies might want to rent and see for themselves.

I really have no desire to protect people from movies I think are really bad. What if somebody actually, you know, listens to me and skips a movie they might otherwise find interesting? It happens, apparently. Even though my tastes are eclectic and wide-ranging -- I may sometimes even see good in a movie that isn't actually there -- it apparently happens that others will see worth in a movie that I think is drek. So, no, I'm resolved to not protect people from their lack of taste. :)

I do see a lot of really execrable movies, though. I guess if somebody wants to ask me if I think a movie they have been tempted by in their video store is worth renting, I guess could express my opinion, if I've seen it. Or, if I haven't seen it... well, I'm always interested in suggestions... so maybe what I'd do then is rent it myself and let you know.

But I'm not going to speak ill of a movie unless prompted to do so. If I have to see some of this crap, I don't see why you shouldn't have to see it as well. :)

And then there are the movies that I think are well worth seeing, but aren't worth a whole lot of verbiage from me. They are, you know, pretty straight-forwardly good and worth spending a few bucks to see, but not worth An Essay.

Into that category, I would place "The Tunnel", a just under three hour movie based on a true story about a tunnel that was dug under the Berlin Wall in the early 1960s. The tunnel was dug by a group of people who had escaped East Berlin but who had left some of their loved ones behind.

It's terrific. The tension at the end borders on the exquisitely unbearable. Great actors, good characters. In German with English subtitles. Yah. Renten der movie.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The Fast Runner (or, The Dream State of My Kinship Nation)

Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.
- Teresa Nielsen Hayden

It isn't merely that I can't stand listening to that man (not to mention having to look at him). It's that the State of the Union address, and American politics in general, have become nearly unwatchable for me lately. I know I'm not supposed to surrender to the impulse to believe "It's all just so much bullshit", but you know what?

It's all just so much bullshit.

There's only one version of the State of the Union address worth giving at the moment. There's only one policy speech worth sitting through. It's one paragraph long, and would take about 45 seconds to deliver.

"I call on Congress and the legislatures of the separate but united States to pass a Constitutional amendment that prohibits any payment to or on behalf of any candidate for, or holder of, any federal office, whether in money or in kind, by any party or entity except the federal government itself, acting on behalf of the citizens of the United States of America."

The American people understand the problem and they understand how to fix it. We are long past the point where mere fiddling can save us. 

Okay, so maybe according to the Supreme Court giving money to candidates is speech. Unfortunately, it is also an excellent source of political and spiritual corruption. As a nation, we know this in our bones. We have over two hundred years of experience living with the problem. I'm sorry if the robber barons and their henchmen feel this is an unjustified intrusion into their rights of free speech. I'm also sorry that not being able to yell "fire" in a crowded theater is an infringement of the free speech rights of raving lunatics.

But really, I'm not all that sorry.

I'm sure this is all too simple-minded of me. I'm sure it offends the sensibilities of the politically subtle and complex. I'm equally sure that I and a great many other Americans don't give a crap what it is, just as long as it gets done.

Will it solve all our problems? No. But it is the first and only truly necessary step we have to take before we can address our other problems. Why the Democrats don't unite and adopt this as their single issue and devote themselves to taking it to the American people, and pushing the thing through to completion, is completely beyond me. And my feeling is that unless and until they do, American politics is, like I said, all just so much soul-deadening bullshit.

So, yeah, I'm happy to admit it: Last night I set out to hatch a very specific plan to guarantee I wouldn't see, even accidentally, one nanosecond of that man's speech. It took quite a bit of thought to finally determine which DVD I should rent. At last I opted for "The Fast Runner". Two hours and fifty-two minutes of some of the best film-making I have ever seen.

Let's take care of this business right now in case you get bored with the rest of this entry and go elsewhere. If you haven't seen this movie, set aside about three hours of your time to sit down and soak this thing in. Turn off the phone. Draw the curtains. Make sure you have all your required snacks and liquid refreshments close at hand before you press the "Play" button. You will be quietly astonished afterward that three hours have gone by. There is, so far as I can recall, no more vivid cinematic verification of Teresa Nielsen Hayden's observation above that "[s]tory is a force of nature."

"Spoilers" follow, though I doubt that my telling you what happens will truly spoil things for you. This movie does not rely on its plot to keep you involved. It relies on a very simple story powerfully told.

Years ago, a stranger came in the night to a small group of Inuits living in the remote and barren (at least to our eyes) wastelands of the Canadian arctic. The group's leader died that night, and the man's son took his place, but an evil seemed to have possessed him, probably the handiwork of the mysterious visitor. Where the group seemed to have had a harmonious existence before, things begin to go wrong.

After many years, a young boy who was present that night, Atanarjuat, "the Fast Runner", has grown into a fine young man. He is in love with Atuat, and she with him, but she has been promised to Oki, the son of the group's leader. Oki is jealous of Atuat's obvious love for Atanarjuat and so he challenges him to fight for the right to claim Atuat as wife. Bless his heart, the Fast Runner actually manages to win his beloved's hand in marriage, and Oki is left even more jealous and resentful than before.

Eventually, things come to such a pass that Oki and two of his henchmen conspire to kill Atanarjuat and his brother while they sleep in their tent. The brother is killed, but Atanarjuat escapes by scrambling out of the collapsed tent and fleeing, stark naked, across the vast expanse of snow and ice. Oki and his two henchmen race after him, but Atanarjuat is not called the Fast Runner for nothing.

Exhausted, Oki and his henchmen are forced to abandon the chase but return to their camp to fetch the dog team and use it to continue the chase.

Miraculously, the Fast Runner survives (barely) his ordeal on the ice and finally comes across a man and his wife and their young daughter. They give him clothes and food, and Atanarjuat begs them to hide him from his pursuers. The man and his wife bravely choose to help the young man. Oki and his henchmen are spotted approaching so the man and his wife hide the young man, and steadfastly deny -- in the face of Oki's threats -- that they have seen Atanarjuat.

The man and his wife nurse the Fast Runner back to health (much damaged by his flight across the ice). Winter comes on hard, and Atanarjuat burns to return to his wife, and to his village where he can take his revenge on Oki.

Suffice it to say that the Fast Runner does return, and through an act of grace manages to restore harmony to the village that had been suffering under the mysterious stranger's evil curse for so long.

So last night, rather than watch further manifestations of the evil curse under which my kinship nation currently suffers, I chose to have the story of the Fast Runner re-told to me. Not so much because I need to believe that there is someone out there, our own Fast Runner, getting ready to return and save us from the evil we suffer under. That sort of wish-dreaming would be childish.

No, it's more that I needed to be reminded that evil is not all-powerful, and that if you just put your head down and keep running, naked and cold and empty of all hope though you may be, you can outlast evil. And that maybe, at the end of it all, you can even pull off an act of grace. And that maybe your single act of grace can in some way save the rest of us, too.

Heh. And all you guys got last night was more partisan bullshit and weird references to something called "switch grass". I'll bet you're sorry you didn't come over to my house.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

In Memory

May 2006

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31      


  • Technorati search