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Friday, March 30, 2007

Play Ball!

Baseball season starts this weekend, and unlike last year, this year I've much more excited. This is, of course, because the team I follow, the Detroit Tigers, are defending American League champions.

In their pursuit of defending their title, the Tigers didn't change their roster much. The only significant addition is much-traveled slugger Gary Sheffield. I've never been much of a fan of his, as he strikes me as a malcontent and laid a big egg in the playoffs last year while a Yankee. He does hit, though, and when he previously played for manager Jim Leyland, they won a World Series in Florida. If he can be a steady presence in the lineup as DH and hit 40 home runs, that will be a huge addition.

Everywhere else things are status quo. The lineup is solid, but a few problems were not addressed. As good a player as Curtis Granderson is, he is not a good lead-off hitter. Carlos Guillen is probably getting too old to play shortstop, so hopefully he won't be a liability in the field. Fingers must be kept crossed for another healthy season from Magglio Ordonez.

As for the pitching, this is a nervous area. The Tigers success last year was built on a pitching staff that was mostly youth. Whether Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson can build on last season and improve, or whether they are one-year wonders, is the question of the year. Kenny Rogers, the forty-one-year-old who anchored the staff last year and was brilliant in the playoffs, is another year older and starts the season on the disabled list. A Tiger fan can not expect him to repeat his success. Mike Maroth, who missed most of the last year with injury, could be key.

Detroit plays in a tough division, with the Twins, White Sox, and Indians all challengers. I would expect the Tigers to be competitive, but to put together the magic they did last year may be asking for too much. But in early April, all the teams start at 0-0, and hope springs eternal!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Jury Duty

Yesterday I did my civic duty and drove into New Brunswick for jury duty. I hadn't had to do it in almost ten years, and it was a day off work, so I had no problem with it.

Middlesex County, where I live, has a "one-day or one-trial" policy, so if I could get through the day without being chosen for a case, I would be done. I went in with the attitude that I wouldn't mind being chosen for a short case, but it couldn't go longer than next Wednesday, because on Thursday I am flying to Las Vegas.

After watching some videos telling us how important the whole process is, and a judge swearing us in and again telling us how important the process is (and that the United States is the only country that relies so heavily on jury trials) it was time to vegetate. I didn't bring any reading material, and was too tired to read any of the old magazines they had laid out anyway.

At about ten o'clock, I and several other jurors were called up to provide a pool of potential people for a case. It was discrimination suit, brought by a man who was a Vice Principal of a school. He was demoted, and he claims it was because he is gay, and the school board disagrees. That might have been a juicy case to be on, but the judge immediately said that the case would last until through the next week, so it would conflict with my trip. Luckily, I never had to plead my case, because the jury was filled before I was called.

I went back to the jury room. As is my wont, I focused on the cutest girl in the room, a waitress named Rachel who is at least twenty years too young for me. We chatted for a while, and then it was time for lunch, and after that more staring into space. Finally, at three o'clock, they let us go home.

The judge who swore us in mentioned that as American citizens, a lot is not asked of us. We have to pay taxes and perform jury duty. I suppose he's right, it's not much too ask. He mentioned that military service (for men, of course) used to be compulsory, but now it's an all-volunteer army. Given the choice of sitting in a room reading old People magazines and getting shot at by insurgents in Fallujah, I'll take former.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Neon Bible

The hot band these days is Arcade Fire, whose new album is called Neon Bible. I'm here to tell you the hype is correct--this is a terrific record. The music is sophisticated and lush, but with a driving rock beat that occasionally soars into the stratosphere. A lot of the songs are in a minor key, and the lyrics are sprinkled with gloom, so this record may have you questioning the meaning of your existence. You may want to follow up this record with some Herman's Hermits.

As the title may suggest, there's an overall theme of spirituality here, but it seems to be rooted in the book of Revelations. The title track tells us there's no hope for survival, if the Neon Bible is right. In the song "Windowsill,"one of the best tracks on the record, the singer plaintively rejects what he's seeing out his window, and sings, "Don't want to fight in a holy war, don't want salesman knocking at my door, don't want to live in America no more." That's a very pointed statement.

One of the more intriguing songs is "(Antichrist Television Blues)," which is set to a rockabilly beat but is lyrically complex. It seems to be about 9/11, alluding to planes hitting buildings, but then becomes about a man who has a 13-year-old daughter he wants to become a stage performer. I'm not quite sure what it's about, but it got under my skin the first time I listened to it and is still there. Another haunting song is the closing track, "My Body is a Cage."

Musically, Arcade Fire uses everything but the kitchen sink, and the result is a feast for the ear. Befitting the religious theme, they break out a church organ in a couple of songs. In "Ocean of Noise" they even have a little surf guitar.

It's early in the year, but Neon Bible just may hang on to be one of my favorite albums of the year.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Radio Golf

The extraordinary Radio Golf is August Wilson's last play in his epic, ten-cycle dramatic examination of the African-American experience in the United States during the twentieth century. Wilson died much too young of cancer, but we can be thankful that he had time to finish one of the greatest outputs in contemporary drama.

Nine of the plays in Wilson's decalogue (one for each decade) is set in the Hill district of Pittsburgh. Radio Golf concerns the 1990's, when gentrification was in full swing, tearing down the old neighborhoods, that had become swarmed with crime and poverty, and attempting to lure young professionals back.

The main character is Harmond Wilks, played by Harry Lennix, a developer who has plans to run for mayor. He and his partner have bought up a large chunk of land and are putting in an apartment complex and retail area, complete with a Starbucks and a Barnes and Noble. Wilks' wife, played by Tonya Pinkins, is his campaign manager, an ambitious woman who is line for a job with the governor. Things are looking great for all of them.

But then an old man is seen painting one of the houses that are scheduled for demolition. He says it's his house, though it was sold out from under him for tax delinquency. Out of simple decency, Wilks looks into the matter, and finds that the sale was illegal, and that his company really doesn't own the house. He then has to struggle to do what's right.

The play positively crackles with energy and ideas. Golf is a something of a metaphor through the piece. The setting of the play is the construction office, and pinned to the wall are two posters: one of Marting Luther King, Jr., and one of Tiger Woods, and each poster is about the same size. In the program is an article about the history of African-Americans in the golf game, and I was surprised but not shocked to read that the PGA didn't except people of "non-European" heritage until 1961, fourteen years after major league baseball was integrated. Wilks' partner, Roosevelt Hicks, well-played by James A. Williams, is a nut for golf, and it's easy to see that he doesn't just love the game for the game itself, but also for what it signifies: he can play the game of white privilege.

The presence of the old man, Old Joe, brilliantly essayed by Anthony Chisholm, shows a conflict of generations. Old Joe tells Wilks that they'll never let him be mayor. A man born in 1918 still has the emotional scars of prejudice, and has never allowed himself to get caught up in the go-go, new era for black entrepreneur's. But Wilks and Hicks are men of means, and see a place at the table and want to sit down. But Wilks is a man of conscience, and his struggle to do the right thing is electrifying to watch. Lennix's resemblance to Barack Obama adds an unexpected bit of relevance to the proceedings.

The only part of the play I didn't quite buy was the relationship between Wilks and his wife. Although both roles are well acted, it was difficult to see the abiding attraction, even though Wilks has a speech about he met her. Her callous dismissal of his wish to give Old Joe justice was so harsh that it was hard to imagine how they had gotten along this long.

Still, this is a brilliant work, expertly directed by Kenny Leon. It is the perfect capper to Wilson's magnificent cycle.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Sasha Grey


After last week's blast of winter, temperatures are climbing, the snow is melting, and spring is in the air. It's time to talk about porn.

I am an unapologetic aficionado of all things pornographic, particularly adult films, and from time to time I will write about it on this blog, so those easily offended should turn away. Especially today, because I am going to write a valentine to one of the new girls on the block, a ferocious performer who calls herself Sasha Grey.

Grey just turned 19 last week, and has thus far made "only" 38 films. She is also so beautiful it hurts. One of the reasons I like to watch porn is that I am reminded that there are girls like this out there, who are heart-stoppingly fetching while at the same time having a zeal for sex that is, well, equivalent to that of a teenage boy. Sad to say, there are women in porn who are there for the wrong reasons, but it is apparent that Grey loves her job.

In her interviews she comes off as a shy, typical teenager, with a sweet smile and a reserved demeanor. But hoo boy, when she gets into a scene a switch gets thrown, and her Dr. Jekyll erupts into a Ms. Hyde. I have had occasion to see two of her films. In the first, which is simply titled Gang Bang 5, Grey takes on 15 fellas, and well, let's just say they leave no part of her unplumbed. The scene lasts about an hour, and though she is the object of their lust, she gives as good as she gets, barking commands like a drill sergeant. In the behind the scenes footage, she is asked if she is going to go home and have sex with her boyfriend. She smiles and says no, but says that he will "get some head." Atta girl!

Seeking to see more, I purchased a DVD called Sasha Grey Super Slut (no obfuscation in porn titles). These scenes were comparatively tamer, as she doesn't do more than two guys at a time in this one. In another scene she pairs up with another actress who performs like a woman possessed, Hillary Scott. The result is scorching.

If Grey keeps her wits about her and can compartmentalize, she will be a very big star in the adult world. It isn't often that a girl who looks like she could have her own show on the WB is performing sexual acts that would make a hooker blush. More power to her.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mayflower

Just finished Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick, last night. It was a wonderful book about a largely untapped subject in U.S. History. Yes, every second-grader knows about the pilgrims and the Indians and Thanksgiving, but Philbrick goes much deeper, and has written a scholarly but very readable tome on the subject, from the pilgrims' departure for the New World on through the carnage of King Philip's War.

There is lots to chew on in this book, such as that the pilgrims meant to settle on what is now New York harbor, but the captain of the Mayflower didn't want to attempt to go through dangerous shoals, so turned back and landed on Cape Cod. After a skirmish with Indians (and after the pilgrims stole some of their corn and disturbed some graves) they kept on and landed at Plymouth. There was great loss of life, due to disease, and these people had some crazy kind of courage. They were there, of course, for religious freedom, but ironically, when other settlers started arriving that didn't practice their particular Puritanism, they bristled and wanted them gone. When there are news items nowadays about Americans' fundamentalist attitudes toward religion and sexuality, it can be traced back to the simple fact that we were founded by zealots.

After the rocky start with stealing the Indians' corn, the pilgrims forged a good relationship with Massasoit, the sachem of the Pokanokets. Squanto, who is famous today for being a liaison with the Indians and pilgrims, is revealed here to be a schemer who wanted power for himself. He had been to Europe, and was a slippery character. He also died, perhaps murdered by poison, right after the first Thanksgiving. They left that out of my elementary school curriculum.

As more and more English came to New England, things got pricklier with the Indians. There were several tribes in the area, some of whom had long-standing feuds. Eventually Massasoit's son, who called himself Philip, chose to go to war with the English. The key event that started it was some of his men being railroaded in a trial and executed. But what started as a beef with Plymouth plantation led to a full-scale war involving the entire region and every native tribe.

I found this section of the book fascinating, for I had known next to nothing about what came to be called King Philip's War. It plays out like Greek tragedy. Philbrick does a great job of keeping all the tribes and their sachems straight. In the end, Indian turned against Indian, which brought about Philip's downfall (a prophecy said he would never be killed by a Englishman, and that turned out to be true, but horribly true). More than fifty percent of the native peoples of the region were killed or removed during the conflict. Eight percent of the English died (compared to four percent during the Civil War) If the Indians could have seen what would have happened to them, they might have stayed united and driven the English out. Such is history.

There's also a satisfying epilogue, which details how the pilgrims became icons in our history. Thanksgiving wasn't established as a holiday until the Civil War, and Philbrick notes that the pilgrims would have been baffled and horrified by the whole concept.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

New Magnetic Wonder

I've read about the Elephant 6 collective for years, but aside from one Neutral Milk Hotel CD, haven't heard much of their music. A week or so ago I picked up The Apples in Stereo's new disc, called New Magnetic Wonder, and it's terrific. I love sixties pyschedelic music, so the idea that a group of bands are recreating that sound, with updated technology, is something I can sink my teeth into.

New Magnetic Wonder is an incredibly sunny record. It is very reminiscent of ELO, not so much in the instrumentation (Apples in Stereo don't use strings) but in the vocals. In some of the songs the multi-layered background vocals sound as if they were lifted straight from "Out of the Blue." They also sound a bit like Fountains of Wayne, another band that harkens back to the jangly sound of the sixties. This is true particularly on a song called "Radiation," which led me to think of FOW's "Radiation Vibe."

Several of the songs deal with sources of energy. In addition to "Radiation," there is a song called simply, "Energy," plus a multi-part song called "Beautiful Machine." The theme of the record seems to embrace all forms of energy, whether from within or from technology.

Most of the vocals are by Robert Schneider, who has written much of the music. Two songs are written and sung by the drummer, Hilarie Sidney (who I have read has since left the band). I liked both of her songs, especially "Sunndal Song." Schneider's stuff is very catchy, and could pass for Top 40 songs from about 1970. "Same Old Drag" and "7 Stars" are among my favorites. Schneider's voice is bit whiny, but that's a small matter.

New Magnetic Wonder is dedicated to Syd Barrett, the late Pink Floyd co-founder. I think this record serves his legacy well.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

300

It would be easy to completely brush aside with snide remarks the film 300, which is packing them into the multiplexes these past few weeks. But I want to judge the film for what it is, not what it could have been. Based on a historical event, the battle of Thermopylae, 300 is no history lesson. The word Thermopylae is never spoken (it is referred to as its English translation, "The Hot Gates.") There are no title cards at the beginning or end to put the events in a historical perspective. The film is simply a war film, overflowing with testosterone and comic-book fantasy. And, as such, it works.

For those interested in history, in 480 B.C. the Persian empire under King Xerxes was looking to take over Greece, which consisted of city-states. One of those states was Sparta, which was basically a war cult. Boys were bred for their abilities as warriors, as puny babies were disposed of. The Spartan King, Leonidas, didn't take kindly to a Persian emissary sent to ask his submission, and the emissary is booted to the bottom of a very deep well. Leonidas wants to go to war, but some corrupt priests consult an oracle and tell him to wait. He thumbs his nose at them and takes 300 of his best men to team up with other Greeks to hold the Persians off.

This film is being talked about for a number of reasons. First of all, there's the look of the film. Filmed in front of a green-screen, director Zack Snyder has sought to reproduce the source material, a graphic novel by Frank Miller. He has succeeded, but at what cost? This is a good story--Herodotus knew that thousands of years ago. Snyder instead tosses meat to the fan-boys, and doesn't worry about character or subtlety or military strategy or geopolitics. He is only concerned with how cool everything looks. Yes, it looks cool, but after a while you may be yawning. Even beheadings can start to look all the same.

Then there's the political angle. Iranians are protesting this film, because it puts Persians in a bad light. Well, they were trying to conquer another country, and I don't think many of the audience for this film even knows Iran is part of Persia. I found it slightly distasteful that the Spartans all have a distinctly Anglo-Saxon appearance while the Persians are, of course, "ethnics", but I suppose this was inevitable. The Spartans are the heroes of this piece, even though they were a bellicose cult. They keep talking about freedom, but how free was a society that had no literature, no law, and tossed babies to their dooms because they weren't up to snuff?

There are parts of this film that I liked. The screenplay has some nice bits of mordant humor. The makeup and visual effects are award-worthy. I would have liked more insight into the history of the thing, but I'm a pencil-necked geek the Spartans would have killed immediately.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Mutual Appreciation

Mutual Appreciation is the second film from Andrew Bujalski, following Funny Ha Ha, and I've found both of them slyly infectious and enormously winning. Each one is a slightly shapeless rumination on post-college life, peopled with characters who are smart and funny, if a bit aimless. Bujalski works with the bare minimum of expense, and his scripts have an improvisational quality (I wouldn't be surprised if the dialogue is all improvised) but the effect is just as profound as if the films had cost millions to make.

Funny Ha Ha had a female protagonist who was sort of at her wit's end. Mutual Appreciation is a bit more ambitious, dealing with three people. Alan (Justin Rice) has moved to New York from Boston to further his music career. He hangs out with his old buddy Lawrence (Bujalski), a teaching assistant at a local college, and Lawrence's girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift). One of Bujalski's great strengths is coaxing great naturalistic performances out of his actors, many of whom are non-professional. Rice, who is a musician in real life, is great as a somewhat disheveled fellow who looks as though he came straight from a British pop group, circa 1965, complete with Beatles' haircut. He is wooed by a DJ at a college radio station, but over the course of the film, he realizes he's attracted to Ellie, who also returns his affection. But they both realize the impossibility of the situation, and handle it in an adult fashion that is refreshing.

Bujalski's dialogue is witty and charming. The main plot doesn't kick into gear until the last third of the film, so until then it's just enjoyable being around these characters. I liked a scene in which a very drunk Rice turns up at the dying moments of a party, where only three girls are left, all of whom are wearing wigs. He's very drunk, and allow them to talk him into putting on a wig, getting made-up, and then finally putting on a dress. There's also a funny moment when Bujalski is learning how to bake, and wonders whether doubling up regular sugar will compensate for a lack of brown sugar. Rice's double-take is hilarious.

The story also includes some nice moments about what it's like to be a struggling indie rocker, looking for musicians, trying to get gigs, kissing up to music executives. It helps that the songs we hear Rice play are actually pretty good.

Mutual Appreciation was shot in grainy black and white, and every penny of the production costs are on screen. It would be interesting to see what Bujalski could with a higher budget, but he's doing just fine on a shoestring.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Devil's Wind


This book is not about Satanic flatulence. Instead it refers to the Santa Ana winds of California, dangerous literary territory, because those very same winds are the subject of one of Raymond Chandler's most famous passages. Richard Rayner has clearly read his Raymond Chandler, and undaunted, has written a run-of-the-mill noir that is a shadow of the master.

I read this book because I'm headed for Las Vegas next month and I'm going to read a few novels set there to get in the mood. The Devil's Wind is set in Vegas in 1956, a time that I find particularly fascinating. It was the time of the Rat Pack and the A-bomb tests, when Vegas was still a dusty cow town, but starting to evolve into the mega-entertainment complex it is today.

The narrator is an architect, Maurice Valentine, who has designed a few hotels for the mob boss who runs the town. A young woman (a femme fatale, natch) seduces him, and ends up shooting him. But was Valentine the real target? The woman dies in a car wreck shortly thereafter, but Valentine digs into her past and tries to find out the truth.

The main problem I had with this novel was the main character himself. Valentine is neither witty or charming. He tells us he's a rich and famous architect, but he we don't see him doing any work. His father-in-law is a U.S. senator, and Valentine is tapped to replace the ailing senator of Nevada, which struck me as implausible. I haven't done the research, but I'd venture to say there has never been an architect who went directly the Senate. Also, Valentine doesn't suffer enough. The anti-heroes of noir regularly get beaten to a pulp, or have their hearts ripped out, metaphorically speaking. Aside from getting grazed by a bullet that he recovers from rather quickly, Valentine hardly gets mussed.

I'm glad I stuck with the book, though, because the ending packs a nice punch. A subplot involving black jazz musicians is introduced (black musicians played the Vegas hotels, but couldn't stay in them, and had to cross the tracks to the ghetto), and though there are two twists that are easy to see coming, they are still fun to watch unfold.

I'm still waiting for the perfect Vegas book. I'm currently writing one, so maybe I'm following Jean-Luc Godard's advice, when he said that the best way to criticize a film is to make another one.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu/4

Some more foreign films from last year that received accolades. From Romania, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a harrowing black comedy about the inadequacies of the health care system. Directed by Cristi Puiu, the film concerns the hapless and shabby Mr. Lazarescu, played by Ion Fiscuteanu. When the film begins with him feeling unwell, with a headache and stomach upset. He is a sixty-two year-old man in generally poor health to begin with, and drinks to excess. He asks to borrow some medicine from his patient neighbors, and when he starts throwing up blood they call an ambulance. Enter Luminita Gheorghiu as the paramedic who will accompany him for several hours, through visits to four different hospitals, as his condition worsens.

Though this film is set in Bucharest, it seemed universal. I don't know if they have socialized medicine over there, but even in a country like the U.S., which does not, these kind of things happen routinely. The first visit, to an emergency room with a surly doctor who admonishes Lazarescu for drinking, ends with him being sent to a second one for a liver scan. A bus accident with several casualties complicates things, as space is tight. He is sent to a third hospital for emergency surgery (it is discovered he has a hemotoma), finds Gheorghiu sparring with arrogant doctors. By now Lazarescu is delirious, and refuses the surgery. Finally he is sent to a four hospital, but it seems that it's too late.

Though this film depicts a nightmare that none of us would want to experience, it has great moments of humanity. Lazarescu's neighbor provides some laughs, some of the doctors are kind (including the wise-cracking scan operator) and Gheorghiu's doggedness in sticking up for her patient is heroic.

From Russia comes 4, a confounding film by Ilya Khrjanovsky. The film begins reasonably enough, with three strangers meeting in a bar. They talk about what they do for a living: Oleg says he delivers water to the Kremlin. Marina is in advertising, her latest project a Japanese air ionizer, and Volodya tells a wild tale about working for a government cloning experiment. Soon enough we find out that all are lying: Oleg is a meat wholesaler, Marina a prostitute, and Volodya a piano tuner.

They go their separate ways. Volodya is arrested, I think for murdering a prostitute. Oleg has an extremely fussy father, who feeds him nothing but steamed food. Mostly we follow Marina, who learns that someone has died. She takes a train into the country and we discover that she is a quadruplet, and one of her sisters has died. The remaining sisters live and work in a community of old crones who make dolls.

I have no idea what is going on in this film. I do know that the number four makes recurring appearances, justifying the title, and that stray dogs play important roles. Mostly this is just film school dross. I suppose it appeals to cineastes who wear black and smoke imported cigarettes, but I say the czar has no clothes. It's not a bad film, and sometimes has arresting images, but I defy anyone to find something interesting about a five minute scene of a woman walking through the woods where nothing happens to her.

By the way, Russia must be a lousy place to live. Every film I've seen about contemporary Russia paints it as bleak (check out the fine but depressing film Lilya 4-Ever). Does the country have any beautiful landscapes? Do the people have any hope?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Proposition/Three Times

Over the last few days I've been Netflixin' some films that turned up on top ten lists and end-of-year polls that I missed in theaters (or that never arrived in my bucolic corner of New Jersey). Many of these film are from foreign shores. Today I'm writing about films from Australia and Taiwan.

The Proposition is a Western, but set in the west of Australia, not the U.S. Though it has been transplanted to the land down under, it shares many themes and attributes of the American Western. The film's concept is laid out simply in the first five minutes: two outlaws are captured by the law. One of them is told, if you kill your brother (the third, and most evil outlaw in the triumvirate) I will pardon you and your brother.

The lawman, played by Ray Winstone, thinks his plan is a good one. The third brother is a vicious killer, while he reckons the middle brother, Guy Pearce, will do anything to protect the youngest brother, who is a teenager and simple-minded. So off Pearce goes, to search the caves of the Outback for his older brother, Danny Huston. But of course, things never work out simply in the moral ambiguity of Westerns. The townspeople want the young outlaw strung up immediately, and Pearce has other ideas about what to do.

The film was written by musician Nick Cave, and it is a very polished bit of work for a novice scriptwriter, as tight as a snare drum. Either he has great instincts or he read a lot of screenwriting books, because it's all there: there are subplots involving Winstone's wife, Emily Watson, who is too refined for the rugged terrain she has been transplanted to from England, and a poetry-spouting bounty hunter, played by John Hurt, who steals the two scenes he's in.

The heart of this film is the nature of evil. When Pearce finally finds his older brother, we find that he's an intelligent man with a twisted sense of morals. He's a strong believer in family and loyalty, but has no compunction about killing anyone who is not Irish. As the film goes on, the outlaws seem better people than the petty policemen who are chasing them.

The film is directed by John Hillcoat with a wonderful eye for detail and realism. I've always hated Westerns where the actors have great teeth and shiny hair. Not so here--the people are dirty, and there are flies everywhere.

My only quibble is with the motivation of Guy Pearce's character. We're told that he is a vicious outlaw, but he stands as the moral center of the film. It's hard to figure out what makes him tick, and his actions end up serving the plot more than what his character would be likely to do.

From Taiwan comes Three Times, a film by Hsiaso-Hsien Hou. It is a triptych of stories, set in different points in Taiwan's history. The first panel is "A Time for Love," which concerns a young man in 1966 who meets a woman in a pool hall. He leaves to join the army, and months later returns and tries to find her. The second is "A Time For Freedom," set in 1911, when Taiwan was under Japanese rule. There are two aspects of freedom running through this segment--an intellectual longs for freedom for his country, while the woman he visits in a geisha house has her own wish for freedom. Finally, a contemporary story called "A Time for Youth" concerns a Bohemian couple--he's a motorcycling photographer, she's a singer, and their on-again off-again relationship. She's a bit wacky, a bisexual epileptic with a Yen symbol tattooed to her throat (implying she's for sale).
The pace of Three Times is, to put it kindly, leisurely (to be unkind would call it glacial). In the first segment, the soldier goes from poolroom to poolroom to find his girl (apparently Taiwanese poolrooms employ pretty girls as attendants, or at least did back then). There's not much drama involved, he simply asks for a forwarding address, and then drives across the mundane countryside to the next destination. The second segment is shot as a silent film, complete with title cards. I think it's the best of the three, for it subtly intertwines the dual nature of freedom and servitude for both men and women. The third is a bit puzzling. There's lots of email and loud club music, and I'm not precisely sure what the two were up to.

In each segment the pair are played by Chen Chang and Qi Shu. Shu is one of the more beautiful women I've seen in a film in quite a while.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Tempest


The Tempest is very likely the last play Shakespeare wrote without collaboration, first performed in 1611. It is unique among his plays for observing the three unities: time, place and action, and also in that he did not use a source for the story, although it may have been inspired by a shipwreck off the coast of Bermuda in 1609 and Montaigne's essay on cannibals of the Caribbean. It is also the only one of his plays that deals substantially with the concept of the New World.

Princeton's Theater and Dance Department mounted a production of the play, which I saw over the weekend. It was directed by a student, Ronee Penoi. It is the third production of the play I've seen: the George C. Wolfe production by the New York Shakespeare Festival, with Patrick Stewart as Prospero, and a McCarter Theater production, which made Prospero a woman, played by Blair Brown. Many modern productions of The Tempest embrace the concept of the themes of the New World and colonialism, mostly in the depiction of Caliban. This, according to Harold Bloom in his book The Invention of the Human, is a mistake. Caliban, he writes, should not be considered a heroic, indigenous figure, but instead a creature outside of nature, bred by a witch and a sea-devil; half-man, half-fish, a group which has no anti-defamation lobby.

Bloom would have been pleased by Penoi's production, for she does not treat Caliban as an exploited indigenous population, but instead as he is written, a monstrous and sniveling aberration. Unlike Wolfe, Penoi does not endeavor to make the setting Caribbean in flavor, instead the set is almost Beckettian in its minimalism: a rock, a tree branch, and a sun are the only items breaking the bare stage.

For those who are unfamiliar with the play, Prospero is the deposed Duke of Milan, usurped and set adrift with his baby daughter, Miranda, by his conniving brother, Antonio. He raises her on the island, and studies his books to become a very powerful mage. He is served by Caliban, the monster who was dammed by a witch, now dead, and a spirit, Ariel, whom Prospero freed from a spell by the same witch. Both Caliban and Ariel long for their freedom, though Ariel serves his master with unflinching loyalty (at one point he asks his Prospero if he loves him, and cares a great deal to hear the answer) while Caliban is much more rebellious, even going so far as to trying to rape Miranda.

As the play begins, Prospero has divined that his enemy, Antonio, is on a ship passing by, along with the King of Naples, Alonso, his son Ferdinand, and some servants. Prospero, with Ariel's help, whips up a tempest to wreck the ship and bring all ashore unharmed, where Prospero will set in motion a plan to bring them all together and gain his vengeance.

I'm always up for some Shakespeare (I have seen a production of every one of Shakespeare's plays, except for Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, plays he collaborated on with John Fletcher) even if it is amateur, and I was pleasantly surprised by this production. Penoi's greatest strengths are an eye for striking visuals. In addition to the great set, designed by Lee Savage, is a top-notch lighting design, by Bryan Keller. Penoi and her team strike some marvelous tableau.

As someone who was immersed for four years in college theater, I am not surprised by some of the casting choices she made: six characters that were written male by Shakespeare are played by women as women. This is a fact of life in college theater: men are tough to come by, while there are plenty of women vying for roles. I'm sure Penoi wasn't making a feminist statement, she just was playing the cards she was dealt. Ariel being played by a woman is not unusual, even in professional productions, but it was a bit jarring to see Antonio, Alonso, and even Trinculo the jester feminized.

As for the actors, I was impressed overall, particularly by Alex Limpaecher as Ferdinand, who seemed to be channeling David Schwimmer a bit to fine comic effect, and Dominique Salerno, as Ariel, who really can command the stage, although she seems to really want to play Puck. Jon Feyer makes a good Caliban, and Jordan Kisner brings the right amount of innocence and sass to Miranda. Unfortunately, the cast has a gap in the center, as Hans Rinderknecht is a weak Prospero. When I see amateur theatricals, the biggest separation from professionals is the ability to use one's voice to fill a room, and Rinderknecht needs vocal training, as even in row J I had trouble hearing half of what he said. Also, Prospero should be a majestic figure, a powerful wizard who is itching for revenge, but Rinderknecht is more like a youth minister.

As for the play's many themes, as stated before, Penoi doesn't touch the colonialism angle so much. Instead I felt more the forgiveness that Prospero is able to express at the end of the play. Although there is little religion in the words of the text, Prospero is a Christ-like figure, and that comes across in the direction. Many readings of the play consider Prospero to be a stand-in for Shakespeare, as his interplay with Ariel also seems like a director speaking to an actor (or perhaps a writer to a director) and his famous speech at the end of the play:

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book

Is seen by some to be Shakespeare's farewell to his art. Whether this is true or not (there is no evidence to suggest Shakespeare knew it was the end) it is certainly poignant when though of that way.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Lives of Others

One of the surprises from the recent Academy Awards was that the German film, The Lives of Others, won the Best Foreign Language Film over Pan's Labyrinth, the Mexican film. Pan won three other Oscars, but got aced out by Lives. However, those who had seen the film were not surprised, which reminds us that the voting in that category is limited to those who see all five nominees in a theater and pre-arranged screenings. I caught up with Lives on Sunday, and while I may not have voted for it over Pan, it is a worthy victor.

As to why it won, I can only surmise that The Lives of Others tells just as terrifying a story as Pan does, but without any fanciful fairy-tale imagery, which might have turned off the older, more conservative voters who usually dominate this category. The German film, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark (research project for the future--longest name of any Oscar winner?) is similar to Pan in that deals with the horrors of a totalitarian state, but the evils in this film are all human.

The film tells the story of a member of East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, in the early eighties in Berlin. Wiesler is a man who is totally dedicated to his job, which is to capture the enemies of the state, which in East Germany's case was anyone who uttered a peep of dissent. He seems to be so dedicated to his work that he has no family and no other interests, a faceless bureaucrat who has no problem with imprisoning people for minor offenses. One night his boss, the minister of culture, takes him to the theater for the premiere of a play by a popular playwright, played by Sebastian Koch. The playwright is one of the few in the country who is not seen as disloyal, and actually believes in his country. Wiesler gets suspicious, though, and volunteers to monitor Koch and his girlfriend, his lead actress, played by Martina Gedeck.

As Wiesler listens to every conversation that takes place in their apartment, he becomes drawn into their lives, and the film in some ways parallels Coppola's The Conversation. Wiesler undergoes a change, and a cat and mouse game ensues between him, the artists that Koch runs with, and Wiesler's higher ups. I don't want to go any further than that, because this is the kind of film which is difficult to see what is coming next.

Von Donnersmark has written an excellent script and directed to fully maximize the justifiable paranoia of the time period (with the current administration in the U.S., you might leave this film and go home and check to see if there are any microphones behind your light switches). I think the largest kudos are due to Ulrich Muhe as Wiesler, the kind of man who blends into any crowd, which makes him all the more terrifying here. Watching this character grow over the course of the film is quite rewarding.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Death of Captain America

In the inconsequential news department, there's been a lot of buzz about Marvel's decision to kill off Captain American, one of their oldest superheroes. I haven't read comics in quite a while, but this news gives me a nostalgic twang.

As I've posted before, comic books, particularly Marvel, was a mainstay for me for several years. For a couple of periods in my twenties I was a serious buyer of them, hitting Forbidden Planet in NYC once a month to get the latest Marvel superhero titles. I finally gave up, due no doubt to some maturity of taste, but also because I was tired of Marvel's practice of continuing storylines across several different titles, making me chase them down, designed to separate the money from my wallet. I was glad I was done with it when I read that they had started the "Marvel Universe" all over from scratch. In most things I'm a purist, and would have made me quit right then and there.

Captain America was one of the titles I purchased faithfully, and I can see why Marvel has made this decision. First of all, it's less an artistic choice than a marketing one. There's no better way to get people interested in a comic book character than to kill him off. DC learned this with Superman some years ago. Who in the world was even thinking about Captain America until this story broke? Captain America and Superman are similar characters--they are both kind of dull, and there probably isn't much for a writer to do with them. A little death never hurt anyone.

Cap was born in 1941, a jingoistic champion of the United States against enemies like the Nazis and Japanese. After the war his popularity waned, though he did fight the commies. Marvel deep-sixed him, but he came back in 1964. To explain away why he didn't seem to have aged, a story was concocted about how he was frozen in an ice floe. He joined the Avengers, and fought the usual garden variety of supervillains, though he had his own particular nemeses, Red Skull and Dr. Faustus (the doctor it seems, is responsible for his death).

The trouble with Cap is that he didn't have very interesting superpowers. He was super-strong, courtesy of a "super soldier" serum he was given in WWII. He also had a shield that was indestructible. It seems interesting that it took 65 years for a villain to figure out all you had to do was shoot him when he wasn't looking.

His secret identity was Steve Rogers, and I remember Marvel trying to make him interesting. If I remember correctly, he was an architect or graphic artist, and toted around a portfolio briefcase. He was rugged and blond, but seemed to have girlfriend troubles, so much so that the actual shooter in his assassination was his longtime sweetheart Sharon Carter (but she was under Doctor Faustus' mind control, so I'm sure no jury would convict). Compared to neurotics like Peter Parker (Spider-Man), Tony Stark (Iron Man) and other more well-rounded characters in the Marvel Universe, Steve Rogers/Captain America was kind of a square.

The extra spin of this story is what it means for a character that exemplifies American ideals (and American might) to be killed off. I wouldn't read in too much to what a gaggle of geeky comic book writers do, but it is an interesting metaphor. A guy in red, white and blue spandex with a shield couldn't stop al-Qaeda, or whip the insurgents in Iraq any more than an entire intelligence bureau or army could.

I suspect Captain America is not really dead. Steve Rogers may be, but someone else will put on that jumpsuit. I once knew a guy who wrote for Marvel, who said the axiom over there was "No ever dies for ever, except Uncle Ben" (Peter Parker's uncle, whose death inspired him to fight crime).

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Tristram Shandy

I found this film to be a pleasure from the very beginning, when actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are sitting in their makeup chairs, discussing the color of Brydon's teeth. Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom have re-teamed, after their equally enjoyable 24 Hour Party People, to make another film that can be described as a "metafilm." They have chosen as their subject matter a novel that might have been the first work of metafiction or, as Coogan says in the film, a work of post-modernism before there was any modernism.

The book is Stern's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which has confounded readers for 250 years. I am scandalously unread in 18th-century British literature, so haven't even held the book in my hands, but I've read horror stories about it. Roger Ebert has written that he's tried to read it many times, and John Updike lists it as the book he would like to read before dying. So how do you make a film of a book like that? Make a film about making a film.

The result is a consistently humorous ninety minutes relying on the wit of Coogan and Brydon. Probably less than half the film is actually scenes from the novel, in which Coogan plays Shandy, who is trying to tell his life story, but keeps going off on tangents. Coogan also plays Shandy's father, while Brydon is Uncle Toby, who was wounded in a sensitive area during a battle. When the cameras stop rolling we follow the actors and crew members as they try to make sense of what they are doing, while they are being pressured by the money people to include a big battle scene. The verisimilitude is so well established that I couldn't be sure where fiction ended and reality began. Coogan, in the film, plays himself, and there are numerous references to other work he has done, such as his TV character Alan Partridge, but also has a girlfriend and a baby, and the girlfriend is played by Scottish actress Kelly McDonald (though she is called Jenny). I had to do a little research to see if McDonald was actually his girlfriend (she's not).

There's also a funny scene involving actress Gillian Anderson, who is brought on as a big American star, and plays herself to amusing affect. I also loved the character of the production assistant, played by Naomie Harris, as a film geek obsessed with Fassbinder.

This film is the kind of rich, out-of-the-box cinema that reinvigorates the senses. If that weren't enough, as part of the extras actor Stephen Fry (who plays a small part in the film) visits Stern's home and has a chat with a Stern expert. It's the kind of erudite conversation that it seems only the British can get away with. I may have to try to read the book, at least sometime before I die.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Brick

I have to admire writer and director Rian Johnson. He was a film school grad with no connections who had the audacious idea to set a hard-boiled detective story in a high school, and then scraped together the financing so that the movie was made, his vision intact. Therefore it is with no pleasure that I found his film at times painful to watch. It just didn't work for me.

Johnson, inspired by the works (and the film adaptations) of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, set out to make a noir film, but didn't want to set it fifty years ago, with men wearing fedoras and sitting behind desks in private eye offices. As he rightly notes, this has become fodder for parody. So he set his film Brick in a contemporary high school, but he kept the language of noir. This is akin to a modern-dress production of Shakespeare, which can work. The big difference--Shakespeare is timeless poetry, the language of noir (particularly in Johnson's hands) is not, and instantly dated.

I think this film could have worked had the language been updated. Hearing high school kids refer to cops as "bulls," and other cliches from the forties, just made me think of Bogart's line in The Maltese Falcon, "The cheaper the hood the gaudier the patter." He was referring to Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer, a kid acting all grown up, which is what Brick is in spades. Having such young actors spout noir patter, no matter the skill of the actors, is somewhat like watching Bugsy Malone, and is unintentionally funny.

There are some good actors here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is our hero, and coupling this film with Mysterious Skin, he has completely left behind his sit-com roots. Nora Zehetner is the femme fatale in the piece, and she looks like the offspring of Alicia Silverstone and Audrey Tatou, and does her best to keep her role from careening into parody. Less successful is Lukas Haas as The Pin, the local drug dealer, who is forced to wear a cape, carry a cane, and wear orthopedic shoes. Talk about an uphill climb. Emily DeRavin, who is now playing Claire on Lost, is the girl who gets into trouble and sets the plot in motion.

So, great marks for originality for Brick, but the execution was faulty. I will still be interested in whatever Johnson does next.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Once Upon a Time with Sergio Leone

With Ennio Morricone receiving an honorary Oscar last week, it occurred to me that a couple of his scores were for some well-known films that I hadn't seen, so zoom they went up to the top of my Netflix queue. Both of them were directed by Sergio Leone and begin with the same five words, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America.

Once Upon a Time in the West came after the Dollars trilogy, which established the Spaghetti Western genre and made Clint Eastwood a star. This later film, from 1968, seems to be a synthesis of his earlier films, and more heartfelt, with an emotional core the trilogy doesn't have. At the same time, though, it was a bit aloof in its almost fetishistic display of Western visuals.

For example, the opening scene is quite famous. Three hombres show up at dilapidated station, waiting for a train. For about ten minutes they wait, one of them bothered by a fly, another by water dripping on his hat. A windmill creaks as it spins around. It certainly has some virtuoso editing, and does a nice job of building suspense, but it seemed to me to be ultimately an empty exercise. Off the train steps Charles Bronson, who dispatches the three men quickly.

Bronson is the part Eastwood would have played, the man with no name (he is called Harmonica by others due to his proclivity for that particular musical instrument). He is on some sort of a vendetta that isn't explained until the end. In particular he is after a bad guy named Frank, played by Henry Fonda. A third person ends up in this triangle (as with the dollar trilogy, there are always three sides to a Leone western), in the person of Jason Robards as an outlaw called Cheyenne. The lynchpin to the plot is a homesteader who is murdered, along with his family (Fonda shoots a young boy in a particularly chilling scene), leaving a widow behind, an ex-whore from New Orleans played by Claudia Cardinale. Turns out the homesteader was sitting on land that the railroad wanted dearly, and Fonda is the enforcer for the head of that railroad.

There are all sorts of wonderful set pieces, including a shootout in a railroad car and the final showdown between Bronson and Fonda, which are full of the extreme close-ups Leone is famous for. Robards character is effective, as he is a villainous man who is softened to Cardinale's plight. He says she reminds him of his mother, a sentiment that isn't heard in many Westerns, but seems especially poignant in this one.

In 1983 Leone made Once Upon a Time in America, a gangster epic starring Robert DeNiro. The running time was close to four hours, and it was butchered for its U.S. release, leading to confused and negative reviews. I saw the full-length version on DVD. It's hailed by many as a masterpiece, but frankly I don't get it. The problem--the 800-pound gorilla known as The Godfather.

For ever more, when any filmmaker wants to make a film about organized crime and the American dream, they have to be compared to Coppola's films, and Once Upon a Time in America, while a decent film with some interesting visuals, comes up vastly short. DeNiro plays Noodles (that's the first mistake, that name) a Jewish kid from the Lower East Side in about 1920, who teams up with Max (who will grow up to look like James Woods) to create an empire of crime. The film has a complicated structure, beginning with the gang's demise at the end of prohibition, flashing forward to DeNiro in the 1960s, and then back to the beginning. I liked this structure quite a bit, and apparently the re-cut put everything in chronological order, which probably removed what power the film has.

Where this film falls short of The Godfather is mostly in the production values. It seems to have been made on a shoestring. Some parts seemed like actors playing dress-up, and the sets and costumes just didn't look quite right, nor did the cinematography. Also, though DeNiro and Woods are in age makeup to indicate that they would be about sixty years old, actress Elizabeth McGovern is not, which makes for a strange scene at the end of the film. There is also an ambiguous ending, involving a mysterious garbage truck and the final image, DeNiro as a young man in an opium den, which didn't have any emotional impact for me.

Leone was an interesting filmmaker, but I don't think he was on the top tier of directors. His westerns are fun and entertaining, but not as sweeping as say, John Ford, and his gangster film will forever be in the shadow of Coppola.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Zodiac

First, so you know where I'm coming from, I thought Seven was okay, and I did not like Fight Club. That way you can understand that I am not one of those fan-boy legions who seem to worship David Fincher. I think he has an interesting visual style but I don't find him to be an amazing auteur. That being said, I thought Zodiac was a good film, his best so far, and this even when he has a story that is too messy to conform to classic film structure.

The story concerns the investigation into five killings in the San Francisco area in the late sixties. The killer, clearly someone who wanted attention, wrote letters to the area newspapers, including cyphers. A political cartoonist becomes obsessed with the killings and keeps working on the case, long after the police and the public have lost interest.

This film is full of details and red herrings that give it a two-hour and forty-five minute length. That's a little too long, given that there are two lengthy scenes that one thinks involve Zodiac but turn out not to. Fincher seems to have the same obsession for detail that Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist who stuck with the case and wrote two books about it, did.

Some critics have come down hard on this film for the messy structure. This is always a conundrum. Do you stick to the truth, and have the audience walk out without a sense of closure, or do you tidy things up and rewrite history? One solution is not to make a film about a case that has no definitive solution, but then we wouldn't have all those Jack the Ripper films. I'm fine with what Fincher has done here.

The film is basically in three parts. In the first third, three killings are shown, including one that will forever change your reaction to Donovan's "Hurdy-Gurdy Man," and another that is a very creepy attack on a couple of college kids. Letters to the papers are sent, and a crime reporter, Robert Downey, Jr. gets involved, as well as the paper's boyish cartoonist, Jake Gyllenhaal, who has no official role but eventually worms his way into it.

The second third of the film involves the police investigation, and I found this to be the best section. It's classic police procedural, like a Law and Order episode on steroids. The detectives, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, like a guy name Arthur Leigh Allen, but can't get the smoking gun that would lock him up. The intensity of the investigation nearly drives Ruffalo over the brink, and Edwards eventually has to transfer out of homicide. When the killings and letters stop, Ruffalo has to let it go.

The last third of the film brings back Gyllenhaal. He hasn't stopped, and wants to write a book about the killings, and attempts to bring a reluctant Downey and Ruffalo back in. There are few more red herrings, particularly a visit to a film theater owner, but eventually Gyllenhaal thinks he has the answer. Meanwhile, his marriage to Chloe Sevigny suffers.

The acting is interesting in this film, as it involves many different styles. Gyllenhaal is perfect as the Eagle Scout cartoonist, and Ruffalo simmers as the hard-boiled cop. Downey, who is always an interesting actor, may have given his character too many quirks. Each line he says seems to have come from a different part of his brain. Sevigny, stuck in a thankless part, does manage to give the character some life.

Judging by the box office numbers, when a movie like Wild Hogs can out perform Zodiac three-to-one in ticket sales, it may be a bad sign that the public just doesn't want to sit in a theater for three hours watching a film about a serial killer that doesn't have the killer getting justice. That's a shame, because I'm sure that five minutes of this film is far more interesting than John Travolta getting hit in the face with a bird.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Looming Tower


The Looming Tower is a page-turning work that gives an outstanding, overall view of the events and personalities that led to the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda on the U.S. The reporter Lawrence Wright has fashioned, in crisp prose, what is likely to be the authoritative book on the subject. Parts of read it like a novel, but a novel would have ended with the plot being foiled. The reader, armed with the knowledge that the plot will not fail, can't help but read both enthralled and sickened.

Wright begins with the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb, who was so disgusted by the decadence he experienced while a student in the United States called for Muslims to spurn the West, and was hanged by Nasser for treason. Qutb's writings inspired many, primarily Aynman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian medical doctor who founded al-Jihad, and of course the Saudi Osama bin Laden, now the number one bogeyman of the U.S. Wright parallels this story with that of U.S. intelligence, primarily FBI agent John O'Neill, who endeavored to warn, Cassandra-like, of al-Qaeda's dangers.

Wright does many excellent things in this book. First of all, he manages to track all of the characters in a lucid narrative, particularly those of the Arabs, who have very similar names and took pseudonyms. Although clearly considering their views twisted, one can come to an understanding of where they are coming from. It is interesting to read about how Zawahiri and bin Laden were like Philadelphia lawyers getting around certain edicts of the Quran, such a ban on suicide and killing fellow Muslims. It is also fascinating to read about these men as human beings, as they are, no matter how monstrous. For example, bin Laden loved cowboy shows as a child, quizzed his children on their math and science homework, and had a health plan for al-Qaeda members. He may be the most villainous person of this new century, but one has to admit that a man sitting in a cave in Afghanistan and declaring war on the most powerful nation on Earth, and then pulling off the largest attack on our shores, is a man to be reckoned with.

As for U.S. intelligence, Wright doesn't pussyfoot about the missteps taken, particularly by the CIA, which refused to share information with other agencies, especially the FBI. The CIA knew al-Qaeda operatives were in the country, but did not tip the FBI off. Another man who should have been listened to is Richard Clarke, counterterrorism coordinator in the Nation Security Council, who became prominent when he testified to intelligence mistakes during the 9/11 commission hearings. Repeated in Wright's book is Clarke's memory of briefing Condoleezza Rice on al-Qaeda and coming to the realization she had never heard of them.

As for O'Neill, he is also fascinating. A driven FBI agent, O'Neill also led a double, or should I say triple life, carrying on relationships with three different woman, each ignorant of the other, while also being married. In the most ultimate of ironies, took a job after retiring from the Bureau as head of World Trade Center security, and perished there during the attack.

This book was named by the New York Times as one of the ten best of 2006, and it deserves that accolade. It is gripping, clear-eyed and exhaustively researched.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

I felt so out of touch. Sometimes on the weekend I don't get access to the news, so I was way behind the curve on the story of Britney Spears shaving her head, which I suppose was just behind Anna Nicole Smith's decomposing body as far as news value goes. Now that more than a week has gone past, I still don't think much about it, other than she doesn't make a bad-looking bald woman. She may be no Sinead O'Connor, but then again who is?

Britney, who previously exposed a different shaved part of her body, certainly seems to be a woman who is on the edge, checking in and out of rehab. I'm not convinced that shaving one's head is a sign of mental instability--you can walk down the street in any major metropolitan bohemian area and see far more bizarre hairstyles, but I suppose for the red-staters that make up most of her fan-base this was an extreme statement. I've heard that she did so they couldn't test her hair for drug use, but jeez, it will grow back. Will she get electrolysis over her entire body?

Clearly this is a young woman who doesn't handle the pressures of stardom well. She and Lindsay Lohan have become characters in a drama written by our tabloid culture, and become known more for their escapades than any actual work they do. Anna Nicole Smith made the ultimate price playing this role, I do hope Britney doesn't come to the same fate. Perhaps she needs to completely remove herself from the scene. Move to an ashram in Tibet or something, where the paparazzi do not go. Or maybe Scientology is the answer. Something, anything.