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Friday, July 28, 2006

Ghost Wars

Finished Ghost Wars, by Steve Coll, last night. Basically, it's the history of Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion in 1979 until September 10th, 2001. A large part of that history has been the CIA's involvement. It was sometimes a difficult read, as there were many players, but I stuck with it and found parts of it fascinating. For example, after Iraq invated Kuwait, a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden went to the Saudi leadership and offered himself to lead an uprising--against Iraq. Also, after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, the U.S. were initially warm to them, because they weren't communist.

Coll does a good job of making a potentially dry subject lively, though I admit I sometimes would read a page and realize I hadn't absorbed any of it. He is fair in assigning blame to all of the Presidents who were in office during the time period. Bush the first paid no attention to Afghanistan. Clinton came close to ordering strikes to kill bin Laden, but worried about killing civilians, as it was during his impeachment and he didn't need any further bad press. In the summer of 2001, there were warnings all over the place that al Qaeda was going to strike in the U.S., possibly with hijacked planes. Mistakes came from all around.

What most inspired me in reading the book is that it further provoked a budding interest in Middle East history. If I were a kid going into college now, I'd be tempted to study Middle or Near East Studies. I think it's important that the West understand the very complex dynamics of the region and Islam in general. (Shiite or Sunni? What's the difference?) I hope to read more about the subject.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Naomi Watts

Like Turner Classic Movies, I seem to have instituted a “Star of the Month” feature in my Netflix habits. For July, that star was Naomi Watts, who I consider one of the best actresses in the business today. However, there were a lot of her films I had not seen, so I remedied that by Netflixin’.

Watts is older than you might think, 37. She really didn’t make a name for her self until into her thirties. She had a very small part in Flirting, which also starred a young Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton, and that I saw years ago. She also made several other Australian films. My recent festival included Under the Lighthouse Dancing and Strange Planet, both of them romantic comedies of a sort.

If Watts has a film persona, it is as a demure woman who plays her emotions close the vest. She is pretty, but without being va-va-voom gorgeous, with a shy smile and an endearing expression. If I knew someone that looked like her, I would probably make a fool of myself in trying to win her. However, in her performances, you can see something lurking deeper within her persona. This is probably best typified by the role that made her a name, in Mulholland Drive. I saw the film in the theater and rented it again a few years ago, and I marvel at Watts’ performance. If she ever wins an honorary Oscar they will certainly show the clip of her character Betty’s audition with Chad Everett, in which the shy flower off the bus from Wisconsin uncoils in radiating sensuality.

Since then, Watts has made high-awareness pictures, like The Ring pictures, 21 Grams, in which she was nominated for an Oscar, and of course King Kong. The Ring was a decent horror thriller in an age when there is a lot of shoddy product of the genre slapped on the screen to get teenagers in on a Friday night (the sequel was highly unnecessary, though). 21 Grams is gripping and profoundly depressing, and has a confusing non-linear structure that I think I finally figured out on second viewing. I saw King Kong in the theater and have no pressing need to see it again, but I thought Watts rose above the bombast of the spectacle and turned in a terrific performance, considering she probably did most of it against a green screen.

Watts also made a few films I’d never heard of but are available on DVD. A few of them are TV movies—The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer, in which she effectively plays a woman subjected to emotional abuse by a partner, and The Outsider, where she is an Amish woman out West--sort of Shane meets Witness. There was a BBC production of the Wyvern Mystery, which was a gothic novel from the nineteenth century.

And just to prove that even the best actresses can slip up, there is The Shaft. This is perhaps the only film ever made that features an elevator repairman as the hero. An elevator in a high-rise has started killing people, and the repairman teams up with a reporter (Watts) to solve the case. Watts is genuinely bad in this film, tossing off her lines like an amateur. Granted, the material is rock-bottom, but Watts doesn’t help. It was made about the same time as Mulholland Drive. I’m sure she regrets that copies of The Shaft are floating around out there.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Well, it took me over a month, but I finally made it through the 827 pages of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld. I had the book sitting around the apartment, and when it came in second in the poll of Best American fiction of the last 25 years, I figured it was a good time to tackle it.

The book is difficult to summarize it. I suppose the easiest brush-stroke is that it concerns American in the Cold War era, with the fulcrum being October 3, 1951. That is the day that the Giants beat the Dodgers with Bobby Thomsen's home run, and the day the Soviets tested an A-Bomb.

The book begins with a tour-de-force chapter describing the game. It is seen through the eyes of a young black kid who sneaks into the game and ends up grabbing Thomsen's home-run ball. Also at the game are J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, and Jackie Gleason.

Over the course of the book the ball's progress as it changes hands is documented. We also are taken to such wildly diverse places as Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, nightclub appearances by Lenny Bruce during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Bronx pool halls.

While the writing is superb, with several paragraphs polished like gems, I'm not sure it all added up to anything for me. DeLillo seems to lose track of some of his threads. A very minor subplot about a Texas highway killer is dropped, only to be quickly mentioned in the book's closing pages. After a book that long, with that many characters and plots, I expected more of a stunning conclusion.

Incidentally, the cover of the book, which shows the World Trade Center and what looks to be a plane flying nearby, is certainly ominous, considering this book was written some ten years before 9/11/2001.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Welcome, Lily

I finally have a niece. Lily Teresa was born on July 24th to my brother and sister-in-law. It is their first child. I do have seven nephews, ranging in age from almost 12 to twenty months. It will be quite a novelty to deal with a female child in the family. I'm tempted to say that after years of prowling the "boy" aisles at toy stores for cars, trucks, and weapons of mass destruction, I can now enter those aisles that are dominated by Barbie dolls, pink ponies, and lots of sparkle, but that would be reinforcing gender stereotypes. Lily might turn out to be a tomboy.

Of the four of us (my brother and two sisters), I am the only one without kids, and I'm okay with that. I have always taken the attitude that if I ever got married, I would bend to the will of the woman as to whether children would be happening. If she didn't want them, fine, if she did, fine also. I can barely take care of myself, so raising a child is not something I would rush into. Given my age, it is possible I would hook up with a woman who already has children, which would be a whole other kettle of fish. Most likely, though, is that I'm the perpetual bachelor uncle. It's a role I'm entirely comfortable playing.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Cleaning Out My Closet

I had occasion over the weekend to clean out some of my closet. I was looking for something, and ventured into my bedroom closet, where I have boxes of stuff that have been untouched for years. I found things I had no idea I had anymore. Of course, I didn't find what I was looking for.

Since the box I removed fell apart, I decided to go through it and chuck stuff I didn't need. A lot of it was a stack of Barely Legal magazines. I kept the X-Files comic books and the New York Times from the day after Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' record.

I also through out, without too much thought, journals I kept. From the age of seventeen until just a few years ago I dutifully wrote down my adventures in spiral-bound notebooks. Most of it is pretty mundane stuff. I quit doing it because I was going through a bad stretch and I was tired of detailing it. I suppose what I have done is a disaster for any future biographers of me (although, at this age, unless I shoot the president no will be needing to write such a tome), but I've found that I don't particularly care to look back at what my state of mind was during the past. For the most part I was incredibly naive. I did, though, have much better handwriting than I do now.

One of these days I've got to get a storage locker so I can take all the videotapes out of my house. I don't want to throw them away, not just yet, and they take up a lot of space.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Keeping Track of the Tigers

I spent the last three days at a company meeting, which was held off-site at a resort hotel near Atlantic City. These things are always good news/bad news. The good news is that it's three days away from my cubicle, and I get to stay in a nice hotel. The bad news is that I'm trapped with co-workers around the clock. Don't get me wrong--the best part of my job is that my colleagues are almost all very nice people. I just like to keep my work and non-work lives separate. Fortunately, we did have a few hours downtime each day, so I could swim in the pool, etc.

On Wednesday night, as is my custom, I snuck away from our group dinner as early as possible. I remembered that the Tigers/White Sox game was on ESPN. Detroit, hanging on to a slim lead in the A.L. Central over Chicago, had lost the first game of this key series the night before.

On the way to my room I noticed the game was on the bar TV, and I saw the Tigers were down, 2-1, but had the bases loaded with one out. I stayed long enough to see Marcus Thames ground into a force play.

Once up in my room, I turned the game on and Craig Monroe was up to bat. Soon enough Monroe launched the ball into the seats for a grand slam. The Tiger pitching kept the Sox at bay, and Detroit won.

The next day, Thursday, the meeting wrapped up just shy of two o'clock. The Tigers and White Sox were playing the rubber game of the series during the day, so I looked forward to listening to the game as I drove home.

It was a pitcher's duel between Kenny Rogers and Jose Contreras. The Sox picked up an early run, and as I drove through the Pine Barrens Contreras set down the Tigers easily. It wasn't until I reached Hightstown that Ivan Rodriguez's two-out single up the middle tied the game at 1.

I got home and parked the car and went inside and turned the game on TV. I was just in time to see the replay of Chris Shelton's double, which scored Craig Monroe with the go-ahead run. What I didn't see that happened while I was walking from the car to the house, was Marcus Thames' take-out slide, pictured here, which broke up a double-play and kept the inning alive. The Tigers ended up winning 2-1.

The Tigers now have a five-and-half game lead, their largest of the season. They and the White Sox still have ten games against each other before it's over. I hope my heart can take it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is based on a work by Philip K. Dick. As well as I know that name, it occurred to me that I have never read anything by him. I guess that isn't so shocking, because I'm really not a science fiction guy. There have been a number of science-fiction novels that I've started and not finished (including the supposed classic, Stranger in a Strange Land) because I've found them incredibly pretentious.

But what of the film? Well, it was sort of a wash for me. I liked the animation, which I thought might bug me (I can barely sit through those thirty-second commercials for an investment company that use the same technique). I also liked the performances of Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr., who give this somewhat turgid film a boost whenever they're on screen. And Winona Ryder is in it, which for me is an automatic plus. (It includes what could be considered her first nude scene, even though it is animated. I'll take anything I can get).

But for an animated film about a drug that alters consciousness, this film is surprisingly static. There are long scenes of people sittin' around talkin', which are not always scintillating. There's some identity confusion, which I think I understand, but I'm still not sure. (I was able to guess one character's secret identity before it is revealed, so I guess I was paying attention).

At times, this film seems like director Richard Linklater decided to make an animated, sci-fi version of his film Slacker (with a little Dazed and Confused thrown in). And that just doesn't work.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Road Not Taken

I lay awake last night, wondering how my life could have turned out differently.

This is a dangerous thing to do, because inevitably anything I dream up is better than my current situation. I am a middle-aged bachelor without any romantic attachment, and I'm okay with that. It took a long time for me to understand that happiness does not necessarily mean following the typical marriage/children path. At this stage, it would seem highly unlikely that I will ever go that route, given that I have pretty much shut myself off from even attempting to date. Why would I get involved with someone who is only going to try to tell me what to do?

So while I tossed and turned last night, I wondered if I had done things differently, and been less of a rogue, could I have married and had children? It sounds nice in the abstract. Having a partner to share the rollercoaster ride of life would be nice. But then I realize, if I had done that I might be on my second divorce by now. If I had kids at the normal age men procreate, I would have teenagers right now. If they were girls, I would be out of my mind wondering what perverts they were meeting on MySpace, or shuddering as they walked out of the house in sweatpants that have the word "Juicy" scripted on the ass. If they were boys, I'd be worrying that they turn out like Duke lacrosse players. With both genders, I'd be mortified if they rebelled and became part of the Christian coalition.

So I'll take what I've got--freedom of sloth, and the ability to find precious solitude whenever I want it. What would have happened otherwise I'll leave to my imagination.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Ginger Lynn

As a connoisseur of pornography, it would be remiss of me to not discuss my opinions on this subject every once in a while. Just the other night I had occasion to watch a film from my collection called "New Wave Hookers 6," starring Ginger Lynn.

Ginger was one of the first stars of adult films when they went from theaters to home video in the early eighties. Not a classic beauty, she had a girl-next-door, cutesy quality that propelled her to stardom. In addition to looking like a cheerleader, her sexual performances were inspired. This was not a girl who just laid back and collected her paycheck. Is there any higher tribute to a woman's sexual abilities then to be proclaimed by Charlie Sheen the best he ever had?

Her initial career lasted only a few years, and she tried to make it in mainstream films. She did make a few, but that is a trick that is yet to be accomplished. Instead, she has drifted back into the business a few times over the years. In her late thiries, she came back and has made a series of films, including New Wave Hookers 6, that shows that she still has it. I'll admit I'm a sucker for the young'uns, but a forty-ish Ginger still has it what it takes.

I have never met Ginger, but I do have a story about her. In about 1988, I went with a colleague at Penthouse and a friend of his to see her do a striptease act at Show World, a peep-show emporium across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This was a big deal because Ginger had been out of the business for a few years. Despite Show World's tawdry atmosphere, you could tell Ginger wanted this taken seriously. The small theater was packed, and Ginger did her act with steely resolve, ignoring the proferred dollar bill by a clueless patron who clearly did not understand that Ginger was above that sort of thing. She also did a question-and-answer session with the audience.

During her act she wore a sailor's hat. At some point during the show she laid it aside, and my colleague's friend pinched it. I didn't realize he took it until he showes it to us outside. I can only imagine the ruckus Ginger put up when she couldn't find it. Ginger, if you're reading this, a guy named Clark Barlow took it. I have no idea where is now.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Religious Freedom?

We have religious freedom in the United States; it's spelled out in the first amendment to the Constitution. But it doesn't come easy. Catholics and Jews have been discriminated against for years. Muslims are now eyed suspiciously. Perhaps they will someday, due to their growing numbers, be able to hold high office. But there is one religious group that will probably be always excluded from the corridors of power in this country: the atheist.

I am an atheist. I don't believe in God, Allah, Vishnu, Jehovah, Zeus, Odin or Osiris. I don't believe in angels or demons, heaven or hell, the resurrection or the existence of the soul. I came by this view as a teenager. It wasn't really very rebellious of me--as a family, we had stopped going to church after I was about 12. My father is a non-believer as well.

I wouldn't say I'm proud of this fact. It was an intellectual decision. There are times when I wish I could believe. Some of the holy rollers I see praying on TV seem so happy and carefree. The concept of a loving God who has your back must be very comforting. I just can't buy it.

I'm not a particularly militant atheist. When in school I declined to say the Pledge of Allegiance, since it references God (also because there is not "justice for all" in this country), but the idea of a creche in front of a city hall doesn't rankle me too much.

But it does bother me that no self-avowed atheist will ever hold high elective office in this country, or be appointed to a high court. A recent poll showed over half of the people in this country would not vote for someone who is an atheist, a shocking display of religious bigotry in the 21st century. And discrimination and ostracism still exist. For a particularly egregious example, look here.

I've heard some say, what about Pascal's Wager? Blaise Pascal was a French mathemetician, who basically said, given the option between believing in God and not, why not choose belief, since you don't lose anything and that way you won't go to hell. Well, I think that's kind of hypocritical and unprincipled. It did seem to inspire the marketing campaign for lotteries everywhere--"You've got to be in it to win it."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Pink Floyd

With the announcement today of the death of Syd Barrett, one of the founders of the band Pink Floyd, that particular group has been on my mind this afternoon. I haven't heard much of the stuff that Barrett was responsible for (I believe it was just one album or two), but Pink Floyd certainly played a part in my adolescence and young adulthood.

If you were a sentient teen in the 1970s, you couldn't avoid Dark Side of the Moon, which sold a gazillion units and was on the charts for something like two decades. The image on the cover, of a light shining through a prism and turning into a rainbow, was painted on the walls of the senior meeting room at my high school. When I got to college, six years after the release of the album, it was still the music of choice for those who wanted to get stoned. I never partook in the herb known as cannabis, but I certainly listened along with those who did, the music enough to get me high.

My freshman year of college was when The Wall came out, and there was a curious phenomenon as one walked across campus. You could hear "Another Brick in the Wall" from multiple dorm windows. When you got out of earshot of one stereo playing it, you quickly picked it up out of another window. "Comfortably Numb" quickly became the new anthem for stoners.

When I was in high school, one of my friends dated a guy a few years older who was in a band (they even once played CBGBs, and I went to see them there, my only trip to that now defunct club). Since he was older and an honest-to-god musician I thought he was the bee's knees, and one of his heroes was Syd Barrett. Wherever he is now, I'm sure he's saddened at Syd's demise, and is perhaps moved to play the song that the remaining Floyd members recorded as a tribute to him--"Shine on You Crazy Diamond."

Monday, July 10, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest just set the record for biggest opening ever. Experts on movie economics had seen this coming, as it had huge tracking numbers. Apparently this film appealed to demographics across the board, not just to teenage boys or thirtysomething women, but everybody. I'll admit my ass was in the theater on opening weekend as well.

I enjoyed the first film, and I enjoyed this one, too, though not as much. A certain element of surprise was missing in this one, understandably. The creation of the character Captain Jack Sparrow, by Johnny Depp, was such a marvelous discovery in the first film. That couldn't be replicated here, instead we waited to see what else Depp could do with the role. Turns out it was pretty much more of the same, this time emphasizing the cartoon-character aspect. Whenever there is danger nearby, he can be seen slinking out of frame, eager to beat it, with exaggerated movements. All that was missing was for him to say, in a Snagglepuss voice, "Exit, stage right!" Of course, befitting the anti-hero he is, he also has moments of bravery, much to his chagrin.

The criticisms of the film, of which there are many, are mostly do to its length. It is a bit long, but I knew that going in so I had no problem and was engaged throughout. The plot relies heavily on magic and supernatural stuff, and at times you wonder whether the filmmakers have the laws of all this worked out, particularly with the last, cliffhanger shot.

I think the main reason why I enjoy these films compared with other multiplex blockbusters is that there is a wit and joie de vivre that is lacking in some of the other pictures (especially Superman Returns). Also, since these are the only movies about swashbuckling pirates made in the last twenty years or so, there isn't a sense of been there-done that that there is in superhero films or the standard action thriller, with its car chases and explosions.

Friday, July 07, 2006

La Dolce Vita

I have not seen as many of Federico Fellini's films as I would like. I have yet to see I Vitelloni, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, Fellini's Roma, Satyricon, or Amarcord. I did see, in college, probably his two most well-known works, 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita. 8 1/2 is one of my favorite films of all time, but La Dolce Vita remained more elusive. Just a few days I rented the DVD and found a new appreciation for it.

The film follows the activities of a gossip writer, Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni) in the swinging jet-set of Rome in 1959. The film is episodic, covering roughly eight segments, each of which begins during the night, with the promise of romance and adventure, and ends in the gray light of dawn, either in despair, disappointment or tragedy. Marcello would like to be more than just a scribbler, he has hopes of being a real writer, and idolizes an intellectual friend, Steiner. He has a girlfriend who is devoted to him, but he can not love with equal intensity. He lacks the personal courage and strength to better himself, and even when he is offered redemption he shrugs it away.

The film has offered a couple of iconic images and phrases: Anita Ekberg, as an American actress (perhaps modeled on Jayne Mansfield?) cavorting in Trevi Fountain, and the word paparazzo comes directly from this film, as it is the name of Marcello's colleague, who is a celebrity photographer (I believe the word means "buzzing insect" in Italian).

At times La Dolce Vita is not easy to watch, as it is a film about indolence and self-loathing, but it is frequently breath-taking, particularly the black and white photography.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

W.C. Fields

To someone of my generation, if W.C. Fields is mentioned, one thinks of an advertising gimmick for corn chips. To someone younger, the response may be a blank stare. Unlike other comedy film giants of the early sound era, Fields is somewhat forgotten. At least his films are, perhaps his persona still looms large.

Unlike the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy or certainly the Three Stooges, Fields movies didn't play much on television. I Netflixed the features that are available on DVD: It's a Gift, International House, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick. They are a mixed bag, quality-wise, but Fields strength as a performer shines through. But his image, unlike the other comedians of the period, was not warm and cuddly. The characters he played were inevitably irascible drunkards. Unlike, say, Laurel and Hardy, he did not play people you wanted to cozy up to.

In International House, a curious concoction that comes across like a Vaudeville version of Grand Hotel, complete with performances by Burns and Allen and Cab Calloway, Fields plays a force of nature, an aviator who crash lands into a Chinese hotel. He's all id, lusting for either booze or broads, and whenever he's on screen (he doesn't appear until half-way through) he's magnetic. In You Can't Cheat an Honest Man he is a crooked circus operator, but really functions as comic relief behind the romantic story involving Edgar Bergen (!?)

My Little Chickadee is a clunker. In one of those casting hook-ups that sounds good on paper but don't pan out, Fields is teamed with Mae West. Reports were that they did not get along (West wrote most of the script, and hated the way Fields improvised. She also deplored his drinking). The result is a soggy, unfunny dud.

His best films are probably It's a Gift and The Bank Dick. In both of these films Fields is a hen-pecked husband who wants nothing more than a drink and to sit in the sun. It's a Gift has more laughs, with great set-pieces involving a blind man near a table full of light bulbs and Fields trying to get some sleep on his porch. It is in this film that he comes closest to being lovable, but it does have his signature bit: When challenged by one of his children that he doesn't love them, he cocks his fist and says, "Of course I love you!"

In the documentary as part of the Fields collection, a family friend says that he was funnier off screen than on, and that's easy to believe, as his films, at least his features (he made several shorts) are shambling and have stretches where not much happens. Compared to the diagrammed lunacy of the Marx Brothers, Fields comes up short. However, he certainly deserves to be remembered more than just a pitchman for Fritos.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Superman Returns

The beginning of this film uses the familiar theme composed by John Williams for the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film, which tells us that the director this time around, Bryan Singer, is not interested in reinventing Superman, just continuing the story. And I admit, that theme gets the blood pumping. Unfortunately, that may have been the high point of the movie for me.

Superman Returns suffers from too much angst. Now, superhero movies can have lots of angst. Spider-Man and Batman are two of the most neurotic heroes in movies today. But there has to be an element of fun and wonder, and this film lacked that. The action sequences, especially one where Superman rescues a plane, are well done, but what is in between--the pining for Lois Lane, the Superman-as-saviour metaphors, and Lex Luthor's not very well thought out evil plot, weigh his film down like an anchor.

Brandon Routh, who seems to have been selected for his resemblance to Christopher Reeve, is charmless. Kate Bosworth is fine as Lois Lane, but is too youthful looking to play a celebrated journalist who is five years older than the last time we saw her. I liked the colors and movement, but this film just drags in spots.