Follow by Email

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Echoing Green


This is the second book this year I've read about the home run hit by Bobby Thomsen off of Ralph Branca on October 3, 1951, to vault the Giants over the Dodgers for the National League pennant. This past summer I read Underworld, which was Don DeLillo' fictional meditation on the iconic moment in American sports history. Now I have read The Echoing Green, a point-by-point history of that moment and the aftermath, by Joshua Prager. The new twist is that the Giants remarkable run that season was aided by them stealing signs from a telescope in centerfield.

You certainly will get everything you wanted to know, and more so. At times the reader is bogged down in details, everything from a history of signals dating back to the dawn of man, to an entire chapter that is a biography of the electrician who installed the wire and buzzer that the Giants used to tip their batters to what pitch was coming.

Essentially, though, this is a dual biography of Thomsen and Branca, who both come off as decent men who where interwined in a lightning bolt of history, and never were able to shake that moment to this day (both men are still living). It's always interesting to me to read about the everyday lives of baseball players from the old days, and you get that here in spades. There are interesting stories about Giant manager Leo Durocher, backup catcher Sal Yvars (who relayed the stolen signals to Giant batters), and that Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason were at the ultimate game, and Gleason ralphed on Sinatra's shoes (a detail that is also in DeLillo's book).

Weighing this book down, though, is that, like many books about baseball, the author beats us over the head with his erudition. Baseball is a game that appeals to intellectuals, so there is a tendency in baseball writing for the highfalutin. The title of the book is from a poem by William Blake, and chapter epigraphs come from quotations ranging from Homer to Herman Melville. Most annoying is Prager's tortured syntax, which appears to have been translated from another language by Yoda. Several reviews on Amazon also point this out, and one reader wonders where the editor was, but it's clear to me this was intentional. Prager is trying to capture the grandiloquence of the baseball pressbox from the golden age of newspapers. In a book written in 2006, though, this style comes across as clumsy and pretentious.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Behold the Ladyflower of Britney Spears


I must admit to a fascination with Britney Spears. Ever since she burst on the scene as a teen pop idol as sixteen-year-old, I have lusted in my heart after this wide-eyed Louisiana girl. I can't tell you too much about her music--Oops, I Did It Again was a catchy number, but I can't name any of her other songs, but she perfectly captured the jailbait fantasies of perverts such as myself.

Now that she's in her mid-twenties and a mother of two, and she's musically irrelevant, she seems to exist only to provide a soap opera that is fully covered by the large and monstrous celebrity press. And she never seems to disappoint. Whether it's her diet of Red Bull and Cheetos, running into a gas station restroom barefoot, her dubious parenting skills, her constant chewing of gum, even while giving out an award on television, and her now two failed marriages, she's in that circle of people who make tabloid editors smile with satisfaction.

So when I saw that there were photos of Britney flashing her pudenda, I had to look. Now that she's single again she seems to have redoubled her efforts to be a scandal, and who better to associate with than Paris Hilton, the queen of tabloid escapades. The two were out on the town, and Britney conveniently lost her underwear. There are so many fakes of this sort, but this appears to be the genuine article, unless a wizard with Photoshop was able to work in the faint hint of razor stubble and a Caesarean scar.

Thank you, Britney, for being the trashy girl of my heart. Until your inevitable photo shoot for Playboy, I will treasure this moment.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bobby


The title character of Bobby appears fleetingly, in news clips, and from the back as he is ushered into the Ambassador Hotel, and then into the hotel's kitchen after his victory speech after the 1968 California primary. But his spirit leaves fingerprints all over this film, written and directed by Emilio Estevez, who clearly clings to a romantic notion that Senator Robert F. Kennedy, were he not killed, would have been elected and led the United States on a better path.

Not a bad notion, and when we do see those news clips, or hear his speeches, it's easy to get caught up in nostalgia. But to support this notion, Estevez has made a clumsy, amateurish film. It is an homage to Grand Hotel (Estevez even has the audacity to have one of his characters quote that film early on). Several different characters, employees or guests of the hotel the night of Kennedy's victory speech and then assassination, meander through the film. Some of the stories resonate, some are merely window-dressing. A busboy is forced to work a double shift, even though he has tickets for the Dodger game that night. A young woman is marrying a soldier to make sure he doesn't go to Vietnam. The general manager of the hotel is fooling around with a switchboard operator, his hair stylist wife unknowing. A boozy chanteuse is performing at the Cocoanut Grove, while her handler husband struggles to keep her sober. Two young Kennedy volunteers score some acid.

Each of these threads is pretty insignificant, and don't really add to much of a tapestry, either. Mostly it's because of the script, which is something you might hear in a college creating writing class. Early on I was checking my watch, wondering how many more important speeches I would have to hear these characters make. The worst was probably by Laurence Fishburne, as the hotel's sagacious chef. When the busboy does him a good deed, he scrawls "Once and Future King" on the wall of the kitchen, and tells him about King Arthur. Hello, awkward Camelot reference! The acid trip scene was also an unintentional hoot, with Ashton Kutcher as the most stereotypical hippie you've ever seen.

A few things work--Anthony Hopkins is good as a retired doorman who still spends all of his time at the hotel, thinking about the old days, and Sharon Stone, as the cuckolded stylist, brings a nice dignity to her role. And just when I was ready to relegate this film to my worst list, it was almost saved by the last ten minutes--the assassination, in which all the characters converge, while a Kennedy speech about violence plays on the soundtrack. To anyone who harbors romance about the Kennedys, this is very moving.

What this film really is is a disaster movie, liked the old Ronald Neame films of the 70s. We are introduced to characters who are all strangers to each other, learn a bit about them, and then watch as they are united in tragedy. Unlike those films, though, there is no third act of a struggle for survival. The film stops and lets us the audience carry on that struggle. Unfortunately, this film isn't strong enough to get us there.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction


I enjoyed Stranger Than Fiction, while recognizing its weaknesses. As many others have noted, this film is strongly reminiscent of the work of Charlie Kaufman, who freely intermingles reality with the existential into a mind-bending Moebius Strip. While this film isn't as profound as Kaufman's film, it is a breezy entertainment that also tickles the writer within me.

The story concerns a meek IRS agent, played by Will Ferrell. One day, as he's brushing his teeth, he hears a female voice narrating everything he does. He slowly comes to discover that he is the character in the new book by reclusive author Emma Thompson. He also discovers, through her use of the third-person omniscient, that he is about to die.

There are a number of things to enjoy here. I think my favorite parts are when Ferrell visits an English professor played by Dustin Hoffman. That Hoffman's character just assumes Ferrell is telling the truth is funny, as it is when Hoffman tries to narrow down the type of story Ferrell is in by asking him questions like, "Are you king of anything?" and "Do you have magic powers?"

The film's message--that one should live their life at full tilt, is a bit trite, and the romance that Ferrell strikes up with a rebellious baker, Maggie Gyllenhaal, is forced. But I was caught up in the film's overall sense of wonder and went along with it willingly. I think Thompson is a strong candidate for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, for she excellently captures the misery of being a writer, and the moment when she learns that her character may be real is quite moving.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Babel


I just finished seeing Babel, and it's quite an extraordinary film. Certainly not a cuddly movie, or a movie to go to on your first date, but a great piece of cinema. The third film by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, it is very similar in structure to his first two, Amores Perros and 21 Grams. A single incident (in the first two films it was a car accident, in this film it is a gunshot) effect a wide range of people. His films are also non-linear in nature, although Babel is much easier to follow that 21 Grams, which really jumbles the timeline.

The title comes from the biblical tale of man's attempt to build the Tower of Babel, in order to reach God. To punish man's hubris, God makes it so man has several languages instead of one, so they couldn't understand each other. Inability to communicate is at the core of this film.

To start, a pair of boys, goatherds in the mountains of Morocco, have a new rifle they have been given to keep jackals away from their herd. To show off, one of boys shoots at a bus, and hits an American tourist, Cate Blanchett. Her husband, Brad Pitt, is desperate to get her medical attention, but he is in the heart of the third world and amidst a pissing match between two governments. Meanwhile, his two children are cared for by a Mexican domestic. He phones her and tells her she must watch the children, as they can not leave Morocco while the wife is injured. The domestic, though, wants to go to her son's wedding in Mexico. She decides to take them with her, which in retrospect turns out to be a bad decision.

The third story concerns a young deaf Japanese girl. She is connected to the incident of Morocco only by the slenderest thread, but her lack of ability to communicate with the outside world makes her isolated and lonely, and given to impulsive acts of sexuality.

I particularly like the way this film was edited. Each story is grippingly suspenseful, and we are bounced from one to the other at just the right time, I think. The performances are all good--Pitt is sure to be a nominee for Supporting Actor, and Adriana Barazza, as the Mexican domestic, and Rinko Kikuchi, as the Japanese girl, are also possible nominees.

The film takes a few shots at U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the area of immigration, which I found perfectly acceptable, if not a little simplistic. Immigration is such a complicated issue in this country that could stand a whole film festival worth of films to sort out.

Playboy of the Western World




In conjunction with the semester-long celebration of Irish drama by the Princeton department of Creative Arts, the Theater and Dance department mounted a production of John Millington Synge's play, Playboy of the Western World, which I saw on Friday night. It's been a long time since I've seen a student production in academia, and it brought back memories, some good, some not so good.

This play, first produced in 1907 at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, presents problems for both an American cast and audience, and that is the language. The dialogue makes heavy use of vernacular, and accordingly, accurate accents must be used. All of this at times can make it sound as if a foreign language is being spoken by the actors. This is further intensified when an actor can not articulate what they are saying properly, or unable to project to the back of the theater. Some of the students in this production did well, others did not. It helps to have read the play beforehand.

The story concerns the arrival of a stranger, one Christy Mahon, to a public house on the coast of County Mayo. He has a wild story to tell--he has killed his father. Instead of marching him off to the police, the locals treat him like a hero. Pegeen Mike, who is the daughter of the owner and basically runs the place, falls in love with him, and is ready to push aside her wishy-washy fiance and marry this knight errant. A neighbor widow also has her eyes on him, and he ends up winning an athletic contest, and is proclaimed "Playboy of the Western World" (the Western world referring to the West coast of Ireland, which was quite a wild and woolly place). It is only when Christy's father shows up, quite alive, that things start to go wrong for Christy.

At the play's opening, the crowd rioted. There are two reasons given for this. The simplest one is that a line of dialogue referred to women's undergarments, a huge no-no in 1907 (Ireland, for all its charms, is very slow in the sexual revolution department). The more complicated reason is that the Irish audience didn't particularly care to see the peasantry depicted as such slippery moral characters. The play survived the tumult, and is now recognized as a classic of modern drama.

With all this Irishness going on, I've also set up my Netflix queue to get a taste of Erin. I started with The Quiet Man and Man of Aran, two seemingly quite different but in some ways similar looks at the Emerald Isle. The Quiet Man was director John Ford's affectionate portrayal of his homeland. Ford, who became famous directing Westerns, always wanted to make this tale, based on a short story, and owned the rights for years before he could finally get financing. It tells the story of an American, Sean Thornton, played by John Wayne, who was born in Ireland and left as a young boy. He comes back and buys the cottage he was born in, and sets about wooing his head-strong and beautiful neighbor, played by Maureen O'Hara. The most famous scene has him kissing O'Hara as the wind blows open the door of the cottage.

The Quiet Man hits on all the romantic, touristy notions of Ireland--the beautiful green countryside, the quaint customs (the film really is about a clash of customs--American vs. Irish, in such matters as asking a woman's hand in marriage and then in collecting a dowry), and the twinkly countryfolk, best exemplified by Barry Fitzgerald, the tippling marriage broker with the leprechaun accent.

Man of Aran is a quasi-documentary by Robert Flaherty, the first great documentarian. He spent two years living with the inhabitants of one of the Aran Islands, rocky isles off the West coast of Ireland. These people lived a particularly harsh existence, as the islands have very little soil for growing crops (they are shown making their own soil, by hauling seaweed up from the beach to use as fertilizer). Fishing is their primary industry, and the sea their great provider and nemesis, as when fishermen went out in their rickety canvas-lined boats, chances were they would never come back again. (Synge wrote beautifully about this in a play called Riders to the Sea).

The film has its detractors--though Flaherty used locals as his actors, all the scenes were staged, including a shark hunt, which the Aran islanders had stopped doing fifty years before. There is no mention of the Catholic church, which was a huge part of their lives, or of the landlord system. Flaherty was simply interested in the man vs. nature aspect, which also was the theme of his other documentaries, particulary Nanook of the North.

Both films, then, are the same in that they emphasize the romantic notion of Ireland, the one tourists want to see when they get off the motor coach. Whether it's colorful people who sound like Barry Fitzgerald, or rugged men in their Aran sweaters, Ireland has a reputation to live up to that is in reality far more complicated, as I'm sure John Millington Synge could tell you.

Bo Schembechler


I simply must say a few words about Bo Schembechler, the former coach of the University of Michigan football team, who died on Friday at the age of 77. He is a tie to my childhood in many ways. I was born on the campus of that University, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when my father was a student there. And it has always been a constant that my father has been a huge fan of their sports teams, particularly the football team. That rooting interest has also followed to me. As a kid during the seventies, while Schembechler was coach, Michigan always had good teams, and every year the conference championship came down to the season-ending game against Ohio State, coached by Woody Hayes, who Schembechler was a player and then assistant coach for. The rivalry, as it is today, is intense, to say the least. Schembechler and Hayes coached against each other ten times, in what is now known as the "ten-year war."

Those games were watched raptly by everyone in my family. Since becoming an adult I haven't seen every game, but if I'm around a TV set I'll be sure to tune in, because it doesn't matter what records the two teams have, the rivalry is always there. I even went to one, back in 1995. Over the years I've been to a few games at Michigan Stadium, known as the Big House, for it seats well over 100,000 fans. That was quite a day, when the favored Ohio State Buckeyes and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George fell to the Wolverines of Michigan, buoyed by over 300 rushing yards by Tim Biakabatuka. Being amidst over 100,000 people is an eletric feeling.

Schembechler retired almost twenty years ago, but his legacy continued up to until the day of his death. Almost cinematically, he died the very day before the latest Michigan-Ohio State game, the first time the two teams met while ranked number 1 and number 2 in the nation. The script didn't have a Hollywood ending, though, as Ohio State outlasted Michigan in a wild game, 42-39. It was a shame, as it would have been great to see a win for Bo.

I haven't had a chance to talk to my father, who still lives in Michigan and lives and dies with the Wolverines. I'm sure Bo's passing is the talk of everyone in the state.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Video Games


I see that Sony has now come out with Playstation 3, and that there are people camping out in lines at stores to get their copy, even though Sony may have fucked up because some of their older games are not compatible with the new system. And to that, I happily say, I don’t care. I’m so glad I’m not caught up in that world. The only video game system I own is a Super Nintendo that is somewhere in the back of my closet, and four games, which I haven’t played in close to ten years.

Now I’m not immune to the seductive power of video games. I was around, kids, when they were invented, and we had a Pong in our house (I’m sure this sounds to younger people like it did to me when an older person said they had nothing to play with as a child but a hoop and a stick). In college, I used to go to the video arcade with a pocket full of quarters to blow off steam. I usually played Mousetrap or Berserker (“intruder alert!”). And while I worked at Penthouse, and had long afternoons of having no work to do, I would play Quake or Centipede on the computer, or LinksPro (Which I now play at home, the only computer game I own).

But I refuse to get caught up in the world of home video game systems. I don’t give a fiddler’s fart whether Playstation is better than Xbox, and even if I stumble into a fortune, I still won’t, because if I had the means to piss away money it would be traveling to far-off exotic places and having sex with shallow women, not spending my days in a darkened room maneuvering a joystick.

It’s an interesting thing, aging. Just as my grandmother has never used an ATM, and never will, I’ve reached the point where I kind of shrug and realize that there are certain technologies I probably will go to my grave without using. Video game systems are one, and the various methods of playing entertainment are another. I don’t own a TiVo, an I-Pod, an MP3 player, or a cell phone that takes video or pictures. I think it will send a text message, if I read the manual and figure out how, but I have no interest in that. Am I so starved for entertainment that I need to watch a TV show on a handheld device? I think I’d rather just daydream.

There are many who defend video games as art-forms, and I won’t quibble with that. Some of them sound interesting, and I guess they have carefully crafted worlds and actually, in their own way, tell a story. But there are only so many hours in the day, and frankly I’d rather be reading, watching a film, listening to music, or enjoying the outdoors rather than killing zombies or racing motorcycles or whatever it is people do when the play these things.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Traitor to Memory


Every once in a while I like to read a good old-fashioned mystery, in between the "literary" fiction I usually read. The novels of Elizabeth George I've enjoyed because they are more literary than most--her detectives have, over the course of her novels, grown and experienced life. I've read about a half-dozen of her books, from the first one to A Traitor to Memory (I think she's had one or two come out since this one), and I've been keen on seeing what happens next with her British sleuths--Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers of Scotland Yard.

One thing to note about Elizabeth George--she doesn't skimp. Most of her books are lengthy for mysteries, but this one was really daunting--1,007 pages! That certainly must be a record for the mystery genre, and is usually reserved for the books of James Michener, who is writing about thousands of years of history. No matter how compelling, I think that's egregiously long for the mystery or thriller--who wants to take over a month, like I did, to read it?

I did finish it, though, over six weeks of reading. The story concerns a woman who is killed by a hit and run driver. Her estranged son is a concert violinist who has recently lost the ability to play, and he keeps a diary in the form of a conversation with his therapist. We soon learn that he had a sister who was murdered years earlier, and a German nanny went to prison for the crime. That earlier murder, of course, ties in to the present one, and Lynley and Havers, along with their colleague Winston Nkata, are on the case.

In addition to the length, the structure is very frustrating. It is typical of George to begin the book with a prologue involving a character you don't come across again for scads of pages. It's as if she wants you to have that moment where you say to yourself, "Ah, I remember her!" Also, her detectives don't make an appearance until about page sixty, and just when the action gets going, she cuts back to the violinist's diary entries. I would wager a lot of people started this book but didn't finish.

George is a woman who lives in California but sets her novels in England, an Anglophile for sure, and for that reason she appeals to the Anglophile in her reader. Unlike most of her books, this one does not take place in the countryside, so there is a distinct lack of feeling like one wants to hop a plane to London after reading it.

As for the mystery itself, well, it was okay. What makes up most of those 1,007 pages are copious details about the lives of the suspects and peripheral characters, some of them leading down alleys in an attempt at misdirection, I suppose. Also, instead of learning who the killer is in the last few pages, George wraps up the mystery with about thirty page to go, and uses her remaining time for more character work. Before I read her next book, I will cross my fingers that she has had the supervision of a strong editor.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Modern Times


We continue to live in an era of renaissance for Bob Dylan, who arguably is the most important American poet of the second half of the twentieth century (I know many snobbish poetry professors will sniff that lyrics are not poetry, but the hell with them). After the mid-seventies, just when I was becoming aware of him, Dylan went into a long period of irrelevancy, but came back into prominence in the late nineties with the first of a trio of records that has put him back on the charts and won him critical accolades and even Grammys. Modern Times, released this fall, is the third record in this trio, and I picked it up a week or two ago.

While the days of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are long gone, this record is still a pleasure to listen to. It begins with a shit-kicking roadhouse number called Thunder on the Mountain, which inexplicably references Alicia Keys:

I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line
I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

There are also some bluesy ballads and forgettable love songs, but the transcendant Dylan kicks in on the eighth track, Nettie Moore. The song has a drum beat that practically winks at the listener, letting us know we're in for one of his wry, whimsical songs that contains his usual cryptic non-sequitors that still manage to say something profound:

I'm the oldest son of a crazy man,
I'm in a cowboy band
Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain't got time to hide
I'd walk through a blazing fire, baby, if I knew you was on the other side

The album ends with an eight-minute plus dirge called Ain't Talkin', which could scare you if you listen with the lights out. In some ways it's reminiscent of A Hard Rain's Gone A-Fall, but instead of dazzling displays of language, this one is about silences:

As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine
I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain
Someone hit me from behind

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
No one on earth would ever know

With this trilogy (the first two records are Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft) and Martin Scorsese's brilliant documentary about Dylan's early years, No Direction Home, Dylan is one again front and center on the music scene, where he belongs, and I hope he's attracting a whole new generation of fans.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Marie Antoinette


There was much talk of this film when it played in Cannes, as it got booed by the French audience. I don't think this film is boo-worthy, my response was more of a yawn, as I found very little about it compelling.

The story of a teenage duchess from Austria who is married off to the dauphin of France, Marie Antoinette has lived through history as an example of decadence run amuck. Director Sofia Coppola takes a look at how tricky a spot this young woman was in. First off, her husband, the future Louis XVI (wickedly played by Jason Schwartzmann) has no interest in deflowering her, and everyone around her urges to get knocked up or she may be shipped back to Austria. Then there are all the weird rules of protocol, like standing in the cold morning air naked waiting for the highest ranking lady in waiting to slip on your petticoat. Some of this is nice, droll humor, but this film is not a comedy. After the dauphin finally does his duty and gives her a daughter, she seeks to withdraw from the court life and has an idyll in the country, where she romps with lambs and goats. I'm sure that was very nice, but hardly riveting.

In the final act history catches up with our girl. We see it all from inside Versailles (aside from a few quick glances of torches and pitchforks). The audience can neither sympathize with the plight of the royals or condemn them for it (Schwartzmann, now as King, simply gives his approval to everything his advisors suggest). Marie denies saying "Let them eat cake," but she's no Eleanor Roosevelt, either. We are spared a guillotine scene, so instead we file out of the theater mumbling, "What was that all about?"

Of course the costumes and sets are dreamy. Coppola also uses anachronistic music, with songs from the eighties. I suppose this is why many critics saw the film as a representation of tabloid divas from today such as Paris Hilton--the lonely little rich girl syndrome. Parallels can certainly be drawn, but I think what this film is mostly about is what a drag it is too live such an insular life, which even someone like Hilton doesn't suffer from (she was busted for DWI, after all). I imagine the closest parallel may have been Princess Diana, but even she busted out of the palace shell and took her kids to Disneyland. Pity Euro Disney wasn't open back in Marie's day.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Adios, Senator Macaca!


The dust has settled from the 2006 mid-term elections, and the Democrats have control of both houses of Congress, as George Allen conceded the Virginia senatorial election to his opponent James Webb yesterday. The freefall by Allen was quite shocking, given that earlier this year he was on a short list of favorites for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, and now he is in the political wilderness. His fall, and the Republicans loss of the Senate, can be traced to one moment--when Allen spotted a Webb operative at one of his rallies, an operative who happened to a dark-skinned man of Indian heritage, and called him "macaca." Such are the vagaries of history.

Allen, it should be pointed out, has a history of racial insensitivity. Several of his ex-teammates from the University of Virginia football team have said that Allen was a frequent user of the "N" word, and Allen has not hidden a bizarre fascination with the Confederate flag. He saw himself as an heir to the George W. Bush mantle--the good 'ol boy who wasn't too bright but was a natural at campaign events like picnics, where he could show off his cowboy boots and football skills. Hopefully the pendulum will swing the other way and Americans will actually want someone with above average intelligence to occupy the White House.

It's also been interesting to read the Republican reaction to this bloodbath. Of course there is a lot spin. Ann Coulter has dug into the numbers and says that since this isn't as big a loss for Republicans as some of the mid-term elections during the Roosevelt and Clinton presidencies, then Americans really must be for the war. Others have pointed out that many of the Democrats are conservative, which is real denial. Some of them may be against gun control, and a few are pro-life, but they are a lot better than those they replaced. The most consistent statement seems to be that this Republican majority wasn't true to conservatism, and this will be a wakeup call to the party. I think this is a truer-to-the-mark attitude, for this Congress did inflate the government and spending(best typied by Ted Stevens pushing for a 220 million dollar bridge in Alaska that would be used by fewer than 100 people). We Democrats should keep an eye on Republicans now--they will head up into the hills and regroup, and come back with zealous fire in their eyes.

As for what the Democrats should do, one thing they should not do is talk about impeachment. Look, no one would like to see Bush and Cheney on a chain gang breaking rocks more than me, but it would be a mistake to take this course, and Nancy Pelosi is right to say it is off the table. The mistake the Republicans made after the 1994 revolution was to go too far, culminating in the bizarre and wasteful attempt to remove Bill Clinton from office because of a blowjob. The Democrats should let W. wither on the vine, and go about making lives better for Americans, and concentrating on taking the White House in '08.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

School Daze


Last weekend I made one of my hockey trips, this time visiting Brown and Yale University. This was my second trip to Brown, and I must say that the Providence neighborhood where Brown resides is a very nice one. The campus is tucked into an urban area, but unlike say, an NYU, the campus is not flung over several areas. So, a student gets both the self-contained campus but also is footsteps away from a thriving commercial neighborhood (very similar to Princeton). If I were a prospective student, Brown would attract me for that very reason.

The college I went to, SUNY-Stony Brook, did not have this. As much as I enjoyed college (in some ways I peaked during those years), I missed out on this aspect. The campus there is entirely self-contained, an unless one had a car, there was little of the community to see. Even if you did have a car, there were only malls, aside from a nice area in Port Jefferson.

The main drag of the neighborhood is Thayer Street, which is full of eclectic shops and restaurants. I had lunch at a Middle-Eastern place, and when I went back for dinner I looked at a lot of menus in windows but ended up eating at Johnny Rockets, which is one of those chain restaurants meant to evoke nostalgia. The place is decked out like a burger stand from the forties or fifties, with the help wearing those paper hats, the place lit as a bright as an operating theater, and oldies on the jukebox. I enjoyed it, but I looked around and wondered about the nature of nostalgia. I was certainly the oldest person in the place, the rest mostly college age. Now, I'm creeping toward AARP eligibility, but even I barely remember restaurants of this kind. There was a place called Parker's in Dearborn, Michigan that my grandfather took me to, with a counter and stools, and the distinctive white exterior, but that was the last of a dying breed. So what Johnny Rockets is doing is creating an era that its customers have no memory of.

My lodging was a bed and breakfast, and the breakfast was communal. I ended up dining with a couple who were taking their daughter on college trips. She is an artist, and had just visited the Rhode Island School of Design, after also visiting New York schools. Also at my table was a teacher of art, so the girl picked his brain on all sorts of art school questions. Her parents were very supportive, even though art school is not exactly a fast-track to financial security. I couldn't help but get caught up in her enthusiasm. The time when a kid is choosing their college is a pretty heady time, and is one of those decisions that really has a major effect on the course of your life.

Oh, and Princeton won both hockey games!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Morning in America


The forecast this morning in America is sunny, with a few clouds. Or, as George Bush might put it, it's a partial victory for the terrorists. He had said that if the voters gave legistlative control to the Democrats, it would be a victory for the terrorists. This morning, half of that is accomplished, and the other half is in limbo.

What we do know is that the Democrats come January will have control of the House, picking up many formerly Republican seats throughout the Northeast and Rust Belt. Nancy Pelosi is in line to becone the first women Speaker of the House in U.S. history, and thus will become the highest female ever in line for the U.S. presidency. She's no namby-pamby feel-good liberal, this woman takes no prisoners, and is likely to get a lot of things done.

In the Senate, it's a dead-heat right now, 49-49. Two races are too close to call: Montana and Virginia. Because the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, casts the tie-breaking vote, the Dems need to win both of these to gain control of the Senate. Both of them may have recounts, so this may be up in the air until Christmas.

A few things that make my step a little lighter this morning: Rick Santorum, the Senator from Pennsylvania who once equated homosexuality with bestiality, will now be looking for another job, as he lost quite badly to Democrat Robert Casey, and in my own home state, Tom Kean, Jr. found out you need more than just your father's name to get elected. Also, in the five states where Michael J. Fox made campaign ads, the candidate he pitched for has one four of them, the fifth being Virginia, which is undecided.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Prestige


In the opening moments of The Prestige, Michael Caine explains the meaning of the title--a magic trick has three acts: the Pledge, when a magician shows the audience a common object, The Turn, when something extraordinary is done to that object, and The Prestige, when the object is returned to its normal state. Any savvy viewer will immediately be alerted that this film is going to follow the same structure, and we will be misdirected and there will be a surprise ending. I think that this ultimately hurts the film. Like someone watching a magician to try to figure out "how they do it," instead of just enjoying the show, I spent my time watching The Prestige wondering what the twist at the end would be.

This is still a good film. It chronicles the rivalry between two magicians at the end of the nineteenth century, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. One of them does irreparable harm to the other when they are both working as assistants to another magician, and they spend the rest of their lives exacting revenge. In this way it kind of reminded me of the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons in Mad Magazine. There are a lot of disguises and coded diaries and duplicity on the part of assistants, but what I found lacking was a heart. Unlike The Illusionist, which I have to compare this film to because of its subject matter and the close proximity of release, I didn't think The Prestige had a powerful emotional center.

One of the more enjoyable aspects was the casting of David Bowie as electricity pioneer Nicola Tesla. I recognized him immediately, mainly because I could see that he had two different color eyes. Scarlett Johansson played an assistant who is drawn into the rivalry. It's the third film I've seen her in this year, and the third time I've wondered what's happened to her since she was so good in Ghost World and Lost in Translation. There is an attempt at an English accent, but it comes and goes. The two leads are fine but not extraordinary.

I am fascinated by pre-television era magic, and this film scratched that itch, I just didn't think it was a top-tier film.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Mystic Pizza

This weekend I'm off on another hockey road trip, this time to Brown University in Providence and Yale University in New Haven. The Brown game is on Saturday, so I'll be staying at a B&B a few blocks from the school. The neighborhood Brown is in is a very nice one, so this way I'll be able to hang out in the area rather than decamping to a motel off the Interstate.

For the few hours I have to kill on Sunday before the Yale game I thought I'd stop by Mystic, Connecticut, which I've never been to before. It seems like a nice place to walk around (let's hope it doesn't rain) and of course, I'll have to have lunch at Mystic Pizza, which is a real place that inspired a film that launched the career of Julia Roberts (though I always thought Annabeth Gish was prettier).



As for the team, the Princeton Tigers are doing well. Last weekend they had a homestand against the teams from the North Country, St. Lawrence and Clarkson. They hadn't beaten St. Lawrence, ranked No. 3, at home since 1999, but a scoring barrage led to a 6-5 win. Goalie Kristen Young had 46 saves, and hung on for dear life during the third period, with a 6-3 lead. Penalty after penalty was called against the Tigers, and the Saints scored two goals, but when all was said and done the victory was Princeton's.

The next day against Clarkson the story was defense, as it ended in a 1-1 tie. Neither team could get much of an offense going. Again, Young was terrific in goal. Coming into this season, the goaltending was the big question mark, as senior Roxanne Gaudiel, who had started almost every game for the last two years, graduated. Young has done quite well for someone with very little experience, and I only expect her to get better.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Election Preview


Certainly the Republicans' Halloween nightmare was the idea of Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. But that appears to be on its way to fruition. If the polls are to be believed, the country will awake on November 8 to find the Democrats in control of the house. According to the New York Times analysis, there are 17 races that are too close to call. If the Democrats win three of them, they have the majority.

The Senate is much dicier. It's all coming down to four states: New Jersey, Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee. The Democrats need to win three of these to take the Senate (that's provided solid leads against Republican incumbents in places like Montana, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Ohio don't get blown, which is entirely possible. The Democrats are like the Chicago Cubs of politics). I feel pretty comfortable about New Jersey, which hasn't elected a Republican senator in over thirty years. Robert Menendez has widened his lead in the polls to about five points over the Republican challenger, Tom Kean, Jr., who seems to be running only because his father was governor. Smart move making your son a junior, Tom Senior.

In Virginia, the incumbent is George Allen, a California-born man who has a fetish for the Confederacy. At one time he was considered a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, but now is fighting for his political life following gaffes such as calling his opponent's dark-skinned operative "Macaca," and other displays of dubious intelligence. The opponent is James Webb, who once was a Republican (and Reagan's Secretary of the Navy). You can tell the GOP is desperate, because they have poured over Webb's novels and found racy bits.

Tennessee is a state I'm most concerned about. The seat has no incumbent. The Democrat is Harold Ford, an African-American congressman from Memphis. A controversy erupted when the Republican National Committee ran an ad that mentioned Ford once attended a party at the Playboy Mansion, and then insinuated he likes white women, raising the specter of jungle fever to frighten the constituents who pine for the good old days of Emmett Till. To his credit, the Republican candidate Bob Corker repudiated the ad.

In Missouri, the candidates are Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Jim Talent, but the main focus is on actor Michael J. Fox and radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, cut an ad for McCaskill, urging people to vote for her if they cared about embryonic stell-cem usage, which could provide cures for diseases like Parkison. Limbaugh attacked Fox, claiming he was faking the shaking that Parkinson's causes. I'm sure this was a very calculated move on Limbaugh's part, as the right-wing specializes in bomb-throwing without any factual basis. Turns out Fox was not faking, and had taken his medicine--in fact, the medicine makes him shake, but without it he can not speak. Hopefully this will turn out to backfire for the right wing.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers


Flags of Our Fathers was a big disappointment. Coming off of Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, I was starting to get the impression that Clint Eastwood could no wrong in his golden years. Well, even the great ones have duds. This film is unfocused, confusing, and unrelentingly reverent. Yes, our servicemen were brave in World War II. Do we really need a two-hour plus film to tell us that?

The core of the problem is in the script. It feels like someone handed the writers the best-seller and said, "make a movie of this," despite the inherent storytelling problems. The story is, of course, about the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima and had their picture snapped. The picture was one of the most famous taken in the twentieth-century, and gave them a brief and surreal period of fame, which quickly faded. Sounds like a good story, but this film doesn't tell it. Instead, we get shifting points of view and jumps in time. For example, the film begins with narration by actor Harve Presnell, who then appears from time to time, telling the story to the son of one of the flag-raisers (and the man who would write the book). At no time are we told who Presnell is. I had to look it up on IMDB, and found that he played an officer who had about two minutes of screen time during the Iwo Jima sequences. Also, it's difficult to tell the soldiers apart. Which one was Harlan Block, who was mistakenly not identified as one of the men in the picture? We don't know until he is killed, because a buddy yells, "Harlan!" after he is gunned down. This is very amateurish writing.

The battle sequences are well done, but this sort of thing now always makes me think of Saving Private Ryan, so it doesn't tread new ground. None of the performances stand out, except for Adam Beach as Ira Hayes, who was a Pima Indian. Hayes led a sad life following the picture, and ended up dying of exposure probably brought on by alcohol.

I would be surprised if this film gets a Best Picture nomination at this point.