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Monday, March 31, 2008

No Lead Is Safe

Ah, it's another baseball season, and fans of the Detroit Tigers, of which I am among their legion, have high hopes. The Tigers, after years of languishing in or near the cellar, finally got proactive two years ago and won a pennant, and last year were competitive until near the end. Over the off-season, the Tigers were major players in the trade market, picking up a seasoned shortstop, Edgar Renteria, and then made perhaps the biggest trade of all of baseball, swapping a parcel of prospects to the Marlins for pitcher Dontrelle Willis and third-baseman Miguel Cabrera. The latter player, who hits for high average and power and is only 24, gives the Tigers one of the best lineups in either league.

But I'm not sold, especially after they dropped their opening game today against the Royals, 5-4 in 11 innings. Cabrera hit a home run, as did Carlos Guillen (who has found a new home at first base), and Jason Verlander was strong for six innings, but the glaring weakness of this team is the bullpen, and the Royals, not exactly the '27 Yankees, exploited it.

The Tigers had a shaky bullpen to begin with, but injuries have shelved Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones is old (to his credit, he pitched today and sat down the side in order in his one inning). But Jason Grilli? Aquilino Lopez? Bobby Seay? Danny Bautista? Forgive me if I'm not convinced. As I mentioned to my father yesterday (he's been a Tiger fan for close to sixty years), "No lead is safe."

It's a long season, though, and it's easy to be discouraged after one game, but this team will slug its way to a fair share of victories. But the Indians will be a tough team to beat, and the pitching will have to improve to win the division.

Ah yes, it's the start of another baseball season.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Married Life

At various times throughout this very fine film, one character says to another something to the effect that "one can not build happiness on the unhappiness of someone else. Some can, but not someone with your burden of conscience." Each time this line is said the situation is slightly different, and is indicative of how clever and engaging this story is. This is my favorite release of 2008 so far (not that I've seen very many). I wasn't quite sure where the plot was going next, and I enjoyed the ride.

The film was directed by Ira Sachs, with a script by Sachs and Owen Moverman, based on an old pulp novel from the 1950's. It is set in middle-class America in 1949, and almost everything about it, from the costumes, sets, music, and cast rings true. So often I see period films where the actors look like they are playing dress-up, but the quartet of performers in Married Life are all effective playing people of my grandparent's generation. And unlike other films that use this setting to make a political statement, such as Far From Heaven, Married Life does not. It doesn't judge its characters, merely observes, and finds humanity in all of them.

The story concerns Harry Allen, a successful businessman, and his wife, Pat. Harry is a somewhat mild-mannered fellow who hides behind owlish glasses and the somewhat sentimental longing to be truly loved. His wife has a far less romantic view of life. So Harry has found a younger woman, Kay, who loves him the way he craves. He has decided to leave Pat, and as the film begins Harry tells his plans to his good friend Rich, who is something of a rake who has avoided marriage (he sees it as an illness like chicken pox to which he has immunity).

Rich narrates the story, so we know immediately that upon meeting Kay he wants her to himself. He finds himself in the middle of Harry's mess, even more so when he finds out a secret about Pat. In a Machiavellian mode, he withholds information to enable him to win Kay, but unknown to him at the time is that Harry has decided that he doesn't want to hurt Pat, so instead he will kill her.

Despite this sinister turn of the plot, none of the characters are unsympathetic, even though Harry is a philanderer and plotting murder, and Rich is manipulating others through dishonest methods. I found the characters complex and interesting, and with vulnerabilities that were intriguing. It probably helps that it's a great group of actors. Chris Cooper is Harry, and he's one of the more reliable actors in film today. Patricia Clarkson, an indie veteran, is Pat, and Rachel McAdams, looking as luminescent as a movie star, is Kay. Pierce Brosnan is Rich, and in some ways I was most impressed with his performance, because we know very little about him, but he carries the film in a lot of ways and there is a stretch where he leaves the screen and is sorely missed.

The only film I've seen from Sachs before is 40 Shades of Blue, which I found to be a yawn, but Married Life is consistently interesting. The photography, by Peter Deming, is in those muted pastels associated with color films of the era, and I want to mention the costume designer and art director by name: they are Michael Dennison and Gwendolyn Margetson, respectively. Everyone is associated with this film is to be commended.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stop-Loss


The stop-loss policy is an involuntary extension of the term of service of someone in the armed services. It was instituted as law during the Vietnam War, and received its first legal challenge during the Civil War, but it wasn't used frequently until the Gulf War, which not coincidentally was the first U.S. war in the era of the all-volunteer army. Courts have consistently held that when someone signs up for the military, they are agreeing to accept this condition, but it is a kind of de facto draft, and an incredible "fuck you" to those who have decided to join up and risk their lives for their country.

This is the subject of the appropriately named film Stop-Loss, directed by Kimberly Peirce and written by Peirce with Mark Richard. The film begins with the main characters manning a checkpoint in Tikrit. They are fired upon and pursue the attackers, but are led into an ambush. This scene is a marvel of direction, editing and photography, and reminds me of the description of what war is like--long stretches of boredom relieved by moments of sheer terror. Some of the crew are wounded, some are killed, and they are all sent home on leave. Two of them, Sgts. Brandon King and Steve Shriver, are boyhood friends from Brazos, Texas, and are close to their date of discharge.

Following a welcome-home parade, Brandon (it's interesting to me that Peirce has named her protagonist this name, which was also the name of protagonist in her first film, Boys Don't Cry) finds out that he has been stop-lossed, and is expected to go back to Iraq. He is enraged, and when he goes to see his commanding officer he finds no sympathy. The president has ordered this, he has told. "Fuck the president," Brandon tells him, one of the more satisfying lines of dialogue I've heard in quite a while. Brandon then goes AWOL, and ends with Steve's fiancee, Michelle, on a road trip to Washington to see a senator who may be sympathetic to his cause.

This film is earnest, but what I responded to was its anger. Brandon goes from a good, dutiful soldier to a pissed-off rebel in a few moments, and it seems entirely authentic to me. His character seems to channel what a lot of people I know think, that this war is particularly stupid, and the treatment of the troops is deplorable. Where this film suffers is it's predictable structure. On the road trip Brandon and Michelle make a couple of stops in the obligatory rules of road trip pictures (these stops are coincidentally in the general direction of where they are going). They visit the parents of a fallen comrade, and the veteran's hospital where another is recovering from catastrophic wounds. These scenes are well-written, but feel too contrived.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, another soldier, Tommy, is slowly losing his grip. One of the worst aspects of this conflict is the way the psychological injuries suffered by troops are largely ignored. Tommy is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who gives the best performance in this film and I'm quickly becoming convinced is one of the better young film actors around.

As for the other performances, well, I'm never been much a fan of Ryan Phillippe, who plays Brandon. I've found him to be a center of suckitude in several films. Let me put it this way: his role in Stop-Loss is the one I've hated the least. Channing Tatum is Steve, who is far more gung-ho and he's okay, as is Abbie Cornish as Michelle. It's hard to get past the confounding collection of accents, considering these characters grew up together, they have accents that are all over the map. Cornish, who is Australian, is no Kelly MacDonald, a Scot who nailed a Texas accent in No Country For Old Men.

A lot of the coverage of this film is about its dim box office prospects in a climate where audiences seem to not want to see serious films about the current war. It would be a shame if people don't see this film, either for political reasons (I'm sure Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly hate it) or from some kind of general ennui about the issue. After 4000 American dead and many times that in civilian dead, hiding one's head in the sand is not the answer.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh


Continuing the New York Times Book Review 10 Best of 2007...

The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh is a biography unlike any I have ever read before. I love a good biography, tracing a life from birth (or usually the subject's ancestry) all the way to death (I avoid biographies of living people, because the ending hasn't been written yet). However, this book is quite different, and not satisfying in the way I'm used to. It is a terrific example of research, but I found myself distanced from the subject.

Why? Well, there's not much known about Elizabeth Marsh. She was a woman born in 1735 and ended up extremely well-traveled. She wrote a book called The Female Captive which is pretty much unknown (there's only one copy that exists). The author of this book, Linda Colley, is chasing not so much a ghost as a cypher.

Colley, undeterred, instead creates a biography from the outside in, sketching around her subject through the conditions in which she lived, bringing Marsh to life. It is at times a pretty fascinating life. Marsh was conceived in Jamaica, possibly of mixed race. She was born in England to a seafaring family in Portsmouth, England, and then spent much of her childhood in Menorca, Spain. As a young woman she was captured by a Moroccan corsair and held hostage by the Sultan of Morocco. Later, she married a trader who was also a part-time smuggler and land speculator who at one time owned a large parcel of land in Florida, though they never lived there. Instead they eventually went to India, where she traveled extensively without him.

Colley subtitles this book "A Woman in World History," and this is where the book shines, as it touches on a diverse group of topics that touched Marsh's life, including Moroccan harems, smuggling on the Isle of Man, salt agencies in India and how mastectomies were performed without anesthetic (Marsh died of breast cancer). Colley also ably demonstrates how even in the mid-eighteenth century the world was getting small. The British government's financial difficulties on the Indian subcontinent prompted them to raise taxes in the American colonies, which led to a revolution (which Colley claims was really a world war, involving the French, Spanish and Dutch as well).

For hard-core history buffs, this stuff is fascinating, but I missed the human touch. Colley does her best to let us know what Elizabeth Marsh was like, but it's an uphill climb. There are no images of her, and though she wrote a book and left a diary of her travels in India, she remains pretty much an obscured slate. In a way, the book is touching in a different way, in that someone who was such an independent spirit will always remain an enigma.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court


While I was at the Mark Twain House in Hartford in January I picked up a copy of one his books that I didn't have: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I got around to reading it just now and was surprised on a few different levels. I didn't know much about it--just that a man from contemporary times (for Twain at least) goes back in time to King Arthur's court. I thought it might be a book for children, and in fact, some describe it as such. Believe me, this book is not for children.

Instead, it is a sometimes vicious satire. Edmund Reiss, in the afterword of the Signet Classics edition, puts it better than I could: "Connecticut Yankee demands to be regarded as one of the greatest satires in American literature as well as probably the most sustained and deliberate piece of invective to come from the pen of Mark Twain. Nevertheless, the novel is in many ways baffling, and generations of readers have regarded it as a great attempt but not necessarily as a great finished work of literature."

The book was published in 1889, at the same time Twain was attempting to strike it rich with a new typesetting machine that ended up bankrupting him. The story concerns Hank Morgan, a munitions manufacturer who gets whacked on the head with a crowbar and awakens under an oak tree in England, the year 536. Because of his funny clothes and strange manner he is sentenced to burn at the stake, but his encyclopedic knowledge of total eclipses saves his bacon, and earns him an enemy in Merlin. He then goes further, and with a basic understanding of technology, is able to convince everyone he is a great magician, recalling the quote by the recently deceased Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Over the course of the book, Twain sends up romantic novels about medieval times, painting knights and noblemen as idiots. He also, by way of commenting on the sixth century, wields a poison pen against his own time, mostly by attacking any institution that would withhold freedom, namely religion and the aristocracy. Consider this quote from Morgan: "It being my conviction that any established Church is an established crime, an established slave pen, I had no scruples, but was willing to assail it any way or with any weapon that promised to hurt it." Morgan travels around, doing good deeds such as urging the release of those imprisoned for no good reason, and introducing modern ideas such as one-man, one-vote, and various advancements ranging from the telephone to a stock exchange to baseball.

But Morgan is not a hero, nor is he a mouthpiece for Twain. He revolutionizes Arthurian Britain, but does he improve it? He wants to replace the monarchy with a republic, but admits that he would like to be the first president. He also relishes his position as "The Boss," a kind of demi-god. Finally, when his dreams of a utopia vanish and he is at war with the nobility, he thinks nothing of killing 25,000 knights with an electric fence, and is imprisoned by the wall of dead around him.

At times this book can be a slog to read. Several chapters are uninteresting discussions of economics, such as a three or four page argument Morgan has with a local about the concept of the cost of living versus wages. At other times it brims with comedy, such as the notion of knights riding around the countryside wearing advertisements.

Twain has a large and glorious body of work, and this book is one of his lesser efforts, but occasionally fascinating nonetheless. It's a must for those who want to experience the complete Twain, but casual readers might due better to stick to his masterworks such as Huckleberry Finn.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front

The Best Picture Oscar of 1929-30 went to All Quiet on the Western Front, directed by Lewis Milestone and based on the classic novel by Eric Maria Remarque. I read the book as a teenager and remember that I enjoyed it a great deal. I believe I saw the film many years ago, but I just took another look at it. Unlike The Broadway Melody, this film still has resonance more than seventy-five years later.

The film is about German schoolboys who go off to war during the first World War, but it could be about any young men in any war. At first, they are caught up in patriotic fervor, egged on by their professor, who has no idea what warfare is like. They want to fight--one boy says he wants to be in the infantry, because that's where the fighting is. But after their first taste of bombardment, the ugly reality is apparent. They live in trenches, hungry, side by side with rats, struggling to maintain their sanity and try not to get shot.

The boys learn under the wing of some older soldiers, most notably "Kat," gruff but lovable, who has a knack for finding food. The main character among the young men is Paul Baumer, who hopes to become a great writer. He is played by Lew Ayres, who ironically would one day be jailed during World War II for being a conscientious objector.

The dialogue was written by acclaimed playwrights Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott, and there are some fantastic scenes, particularly one where Paul makes his first kill, stabbing a Frenchman to death, but realizing he's just a man with a wife and child, just a man like anyone on either side. There's also a wonderful scene where the men try to figure out how wars start. One country offends another, Tjaden (Slim Summerville) is told. He doesn't understand that--does a mountain offend a field? Kat says the answer is to rope off a large field and have the country's leaders and generals strip down to their underwear and fight it out, and the winner takes all. Then, when Paul goes home after being wounded, he goes back to his classroom, and tells his professor off, saying dying for one's country isn't what it's cracked up to be. This film should be shown in classrooms all over the world.

The battle scenes are also quite well done. They may not have the realistic bloodflow of later films like Saving Private Ryan, but they are exciting and give one a flavor of what it must be like. The Western Front was actually shot in Irvine, California, but it seems real nonetheless. The very last scene, in which a soldier dies when reaching for a butterfly, still packs a wallop no matter how many times one sees it.

This film also outraged both sides, which must count for something. The American Legion threatened a boycott because it treated Germans sympathetically, while Germany banned it for years (and released rats in the theater when it did play) because it dared question the bravery of the master race. It was voted film #54 in the first AFI Top 100 survey, but for some reason fell off it in the second go-round.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Broadway Melody


A few weeks ago there was a poll on IMDB asking how many Best Picture Oscar winners a person had seen. I realized there are several I haven't seen (about ten or so), plus some I can't be sure I've seen or not (The Lost Weekend? Going My Way? It's possible I saw them on TV thirty or more years ago). So over the next few months I will Netflix those I haven't seen in the recent past. Of the 80 films that have won Best Picture, 78 are available on DVD (Wings, the first winner, and Cavalcade, the fifth. I saw Wings about twenty years on Turner Classic Movies).

Since Wings isn't available right now on DVD, I go to the second winner, from 1928-29, The Broadway Melody. Now, to be fair, some films are timeless and some aren't, and this is not one of them. It's easy to watch this film and roll one's eyes at the sappy melodrama, the acting, and music that hasn't been in style for two generations. So, instead, I tried to view it through the eyes of someone who was going to picture palaces in the era when talkies were new, and by doing it this film fares much better.

The Broadway Melody, from MGM, was the first feature-length sound musical. As the advertising went, it was "100% Talking, 100% Singing, 100% Dancing." It was a sensation, earning an unheard of $4 million at the box office. We can sit back and be amazed at what people considered entertainment in those days, but someday this era will have to answer for Flavor of Love.

The story concerns two sisters, Hank and Queenie, played by Bessie Love and Anita Page. They are a musical act from the sticks who have come to New York to hit it big on Broadway (the film opens with a terrific aerial view of the Big Apple). Hank's boyfriend, Eddie (Charles King) is a songwriter who has a role in the big revue in town, which is run by a man named Zanfield (clearly modeled after Florenz Ziegfeld). Hank is older and smarter, Queenie is young, beautiful and kinda dumb. She attracts the attention of one of the show's backers, who showers her with gifts and turns her head. Hank and Eddie object, far too strenuously if you ask me, but Eddie does so because he secretly is in love with his girl's sister, an uncomfortable position to be in.

Meanwhile, we get lots of musical numbers that now can only be considered bizarre, such as a white guy dressed like a sultan, surrounded by his harem, singing in a tenor voice. Then there's a number called The Wedding of the Painted Doll, which includes a dancing clergyman. If you like women tap-dancing in toe shoes, look no further.

Of course things turn out okay. The backer is revealed as a cad, and Hank sacrifices her love for Eddie in order that her sister will be happy (this means that Queenie gives up her career in order to be Mrs. Eddie, so it's probably not Gloria Steinem's favorite flick). Though it has old-fashioned views of women, there are elements that are a bit racy, as this was a pre-code film. The girls are seen stripping down to their undies in the bathroom (though we don't see a toilet) and the minor character of the costume designer is clearly depicted as gay (and mocked for it).

I learned a few things about Anita Page. She was a teenager when the film was made, and she's still alive today at 97. She quit the business in 1936 because of improper advances by Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer (so she says) but came back sixty years later to make a few films. Talk about a long lay-off! And while she was a star she was second only to Greta Garbo in receiving fan-mail. Hundreds of letters came from an ardent fan from Italy. His name--Benito Mussolini.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Women's College Hockey Season Ends

The 2007-2008 U.S. women's college hockey season wrapped up this past weekend. The University of Minnesota-Duluth won the championship, beating the University of Wisconsin in the final game, ending the Badgers attempt to win their third straight title. Harvard's Sarah Vaillancourt won the Patty Kazmaier Award, which goes to college hockey's best player.

My interest in this sport is almost completely accidental. Over the years I have tried to take a look at the various sports that Princeton participates in, as the campus is a very short drive from where I live. From the first time I saw a women's college hockey game, I was hooked. First of all, the games are free. Secondly, hockey is one of the better games to watch in person, due to almost non-stop action, and in a small venue like Baker Rink you are really close to the action. I also prefer it to men's hockey, in that there is no checking, so the opportunities for relying on speed and creativity are greater, as players can't simply bludgeon their way down the ice.

I root strongly for Princeton, but over the eight years I've followed them I've gotten to know, by osmosis, about the sport in general. There are only 31 teams in Division I, and almost all of them are either in New England, upstate New York, or Minnesota. Since the NCAA has had a championship, all of the winners have been in the Western Conference (Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, and Wisconsin). However, of the eleven Patty Kazmaier Award winners, nine of them have been from the East (with an astonishing six from Harvard).

It's a tough sport to follow in toto, because it's not televised (a lot of schools now have streaming video of the games online) and there's little to no national press coverage. Fortunately there's a web site that carries scores and statistics and keeps someone like me informed, but without being able to see all the teams and players it's tough to speak with a decent amount of authority.

There is a message board on the USCHO web site, and there's a small but devoted fan-base for this sport, with lots of (mostly) friendly rivalries. A good percentage of the players come from Canada, with a sprinkling of Europeans. The three finalists for the Kazmaier Award were Vaillancourt, Meghan Agosta of Mercyhurst, and Kim Martin of Minnesota-Duluth. Vaillancourt and Agosta are from Canada, Martin from Sweden. I've seen two of them in person, and both were incredible to watch. Agosta almost single-handedly defeated Princeton this year, and Vaillancourt was very impressive. She skated rings around the other players on the ice. I watched a video of the award ceremony on the computer today and it was amusing and touching to see these athletic women in mufti, and Vaillancourt shed tears as she accepted the trophy.

Patty Kazmaier, incidentally, was a player for Princeton during the nascent days of women's hockey, the 80s. The daughter of a Princeton Heisman Trophy winner, she was a four-time Ivy League Player of the Year, but sadly died of a rare blood disease at the age of 30. This year Baker Rink was remodeled and a showcase was added displaying her portrait and some artifacts from her playing days. I hope one day that a Princeton player will win the award.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga


I'm catching up with some of the albums that were highly acclaimed last year. One of the most celebrated was Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I'm not that familiar with Spoon, but I had heard a marvelous song called The Underdog on the radio frequently, so I took a small chance and I'm glad I did--I've listened to the record about four times and like it more each time.

Spoon's sound, at least on this disc, can perhaps be summed up by the title of one of the songs: Rhythm and Soul. Though they can be classified as an indie band of white musicians, their is a distinct flavor of funk on this record. The songs don't have much diversity, but that's okay, because each has a terrific beat (anchored by bassist Rob Pope) and a brassy kick. A staccato piano is added to the mix, and thus each song can have you wanting to move your hips.

The Underdog is the best song, as it goes even further and adds a New Orleans-style horn section. I'm also very fond of Finer Feelings and Don't You Evah, in which Pope's bass is almost the lead instrument, and he lays down a sinewy line that is deliriously infectious. The one song that pushes the musical envelope is The Ghost of You Lingers, which is an ethereal audio soup of echoing vocals and that insistent piano, which, as the title suggests, makes for a supernatural sound.

The songs, save for one, are written by the lead vocalist Britt Daniel. The lyrics are, to be kind, circumspect. Another song that gets a lot of airplay, You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb, is certainly open to interpretation. "Brush your teeth for bed, blow out that cherry bomb," Daniel sings. What exactly does cherry bomb represent (if it isn't fireworks)? I have a guess, but I have a dirty mind. Eddie's Ragga has the best writing, and even if I don't know what it means, some of the lines have poetic resonance: "I'm a slut for The New York Times/She made my heart soft, wore an aiguilette on her arm/She never been to Texas, never heard of King Kong/And it'd been so long since I'd been suitably high/So we did an Airborne, settled in for the night."

My days of going to concerts are pretty much over, but I might make an exception for Spoon, because their music would seem to lend itself well to live appearances. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a very strong album.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Enchanted

Speaking of romantic comedies, Enchanted is one of a certain subset that have been popular lately, the supernatural spin on the well-worn formula. Guy meets girl, but there's a problem because he or she is a vampire, a ghost, a zombie, turns into a wolf, etc. In Enchanted the spin is that the main character comes from an animated fairy-tale. It reminds me of Woody Allen's short story, The Kugelmass Episode, in which the main character begins an affair with Madame Bovary. Kugelmass says the only problem is that she is fictional.

In writing about this film, it should be noted that I am not the target audience. I hold no sentimental attachment to the Wonderful World of Disney. That studio has been made some good films and some bad ones, and though Disney and his minions have shaped what we expect of feature animation, I am resistant to looking at them through rose-tinted glasses. Enchanted will really work with those who do, who have deep-seated affection for the classic animated features of the pre-television era and get misty-eyed whenever they see Tinkerbell wave her wand above the Magic Castle.

The creative team of Enchanted steals from Disney, so it is a self-homage rather than simply a rip-off. We begin with about ten minutes of 2-D animation that recalls films like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Giselle is a girl who lives in the forest and converses with the woodland creatures. She longs for a handsome prince. Edward, who fits the bill, hears her singing and they meet and will marry the next day. But Edward's stepmother, Narissa, doesn't want him marrying, for fear that will somehow cost her her crown (I'm not sure how that works) so spirits Gisele away to a land where "there are no happily ever afters"--modern day New York City.

We then go to live-action. Gisele is now Amy Adams, and we get the fish-out-of-water humor that will recall Splash. She is completely at a loss, and is aided by a lawyer, Patrick Dempsey, and his daughter. Why they don't pack Adams off to a nuthouse, I don't know, instead she lives them while assuring them that Edward will come rescue her. He does, along with his aide, Timothy Spall, who is secretly the queen's toady, and a chipmunk. Much hilarity, along with musical numbers, ensues, and over the course of the next hour Dempsey and Adams realize that they are right for each other.

The best part of this film is how hard Adams and James Marsden, as Edward, sell their situations. Adams is so perky and innocent that it's impossible not to root for her. But she's also so good that she overwhelms the inconsistencies of the script. For example, she's amazed at modern plumbing, but also knows what a toilet is. Do animated fairy-tale characters use commodes? The possibilities for culture shock are endless, but the film doesn't really go there. Also, it's kind of routine for the characters to end up in New York. It would have been more interesting had she turned up at, say, Disneyworld. She would have been mistaken for one of those girls that walk around the park pretending they are princesses. I'm sure that would have made more interesting drama, but perhaps too meta for Disney.

The songs, by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, are not bad. The one people will remember is Happy Working Song, which reminds one of Mary Poppins singing A Spoonful of Sugar. Adams has a Tarzan-like effect on animals, and sings the song while vermin clean up Dempsey's apartment. Another big number is How Do I Know, which is set in Central Park and involves a cast of hundreds. On the extras it is revealed that one of the dancers was in Mary Poppins, and he's glad that this kind of film is back again. I respectfully disagree. Mary Poppins was a film for its time, but I really don't want to see it's kind come back again. Enchanted, to be fair, tries to put a post-modern spin on the genre, but it leaves me kind of cold. I will make a point of seeing Amy Adams in just about anything, though.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Welcome, Lauren!

A new arrival in the family debuted on Wednesday night. My brother and his wife had a second baby girl, named Lauren Julia. She joins her sister Lily, making the two of them a tough pair for Tom Brokaw to pronounce.

This brings the total of my nephews and nieces to nine, enough for a baseball team or the Supreme Court. My two sisters have popped out nothing but boys, seven of them all told. Lily was the first girl, the equivalent of Sandra Day O'Connor, and Lauren is the Ruth Ginsberg.

The baby was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where her father, mother and grandmother all operate the bed and breakfast The Brafferton Inn (link is to the right).

Here's hoping little Lauren lives a long and happy life.



Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Romantic Comedy


I just started a subscription to Creative Screenwriting. My first issue arrived the other day and the main feature is about the romantic comedy. Magazines like these are driven by the bottom line: they are in business to help people like me to not only write scripts but to sell them. Therefore, the articles can be a little mercenary, with lots of helpful hints and rules to follow. In some ways this view of the movie business reminds me of the maxim that one shouldn't watch sausage being made. The same goes with movies.

As for the romantic comedy, I think it has taken a beating over recent years. There was a time when they attracted the most creative talents. Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, all made exquisite films that fall into the large bin labeled romantic comedy. Perhaps the pinnacle was George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story, which was based on a play by Philip Barry. Broadway was the genesis of many sparklingly-written light romances and several were made into films. They were marked by sophisticated wit and manic energy.

Nowadays, the term romantic comedy has become something of a bad word, and I would imagine this is because of a couple or reasons--the dumbing down of the audience, and the perception by Hollywood that the audience doesn't want to be challenged. So we get the same film over and over again--boy meets girl, boy and girl have some sort of obstacle, boy ends up with girl after all. Throw in a quirky best friend (possibly gay) and a meddling parent, usually of a kooky, non-Caucasion ethnicity, and stir. Make sure the home furnishings and wardrobes are the kind that women would die for, and then cast someone like Matthew McConnaughey, Jennifer Lopez, or Kate Hudson.

The feature in Creative Screenwriting featured the writers of five upcoming romantic comedies: Leatherheads, The Accidental Husband, Run Fat Boy Run, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Smart People. I couldn't help but feel a slight depression upon reading the geneses and processes involved in writing these films. Leatherheads was written by two sportswriters, who commented that they saw lots of movies. If they were recent films, I hope they watched them to learn what not to do. The author of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, actor Jason Segal, mentions that he loves the execrable Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan films Sleeping in Seattle and You've Got Mail, low points in the recent history of romantic comedies.

The five films would seem to be quite divergent in plot and tone, which indicates the elasticity of the category. The Accidental Husband sounds like a "chick-flick," which just won't die. Films like 27 Dresses, which did well at the box office, indicates that there is an inexhaustive audience for films like this. Clearly they are targeted at women, and one can only imagine that in relationships all over the country trade-offs are being made. "This week we see 27 Dresses, and next week we'll see the Bruce Willis movie."

But romantic comedies can also be for men, Judd Apatow and his kind proved that. The outstanding success of The Wedding Crashers, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up have created a new sub-genre, the "raunchy" romantic comedy. These films also have to adhere to certain rules, though. They can be raunchy, but they also have to be sweet (the ending of Wedding Crashers was so sweet it ruined the whole movie). Apatow is behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall, so we'll see whether this trend has legs.

While romantic comedies these days are nauseatingly predictable (usually it involves the main character realizing they are with the wrong person, and need to be with that other person, and that may then involve a mad dash across town to stop a wedding or someone leaving town on an airplane) it is worth noting that they don't have to be. The best romantic comedies of the past thirty years vary from the template--in Annie Hall and Manhattan, two of Woody Allen's best films, the guy doesn't get the girl. (Well, he might in Manhattan, if he heeds his inamorata's advice and has "a little faith in people." (Sideways has a similar ambiguous ending). The Graduate, which could sort of be considered a romantic comedy, has the guy and girl ending up together, but facing an uncertain future in the back of a bus.

Meanwhile the multiplexes are littered with bad romantic comedies. Entering the phrase into a search engine turned up some notable stinkers like Must Love Dogs and Bewitched. It's getting to be that I'm surprised when a film of this genre is any good--Definitely, Maybe, which I haven't seen, got some strong reviews. From seeing the trailer I have a hard time believing it could be any good at all. I'll have to catch up with it on DVD, because I can't bring myself to going to a theater to see it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Argonautika

Some years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Mary Zimmerman's stage version of Homer's The Odyssey. Now she has returned with another classic of Greek mythology, telling the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their mission to capture the Golden Fleece. The result, called Argonautika, is a sumptuous feast of the senses and is now at the McCarter Theater in Princeton.

As with The Odyssey, Zimmerman pulls out all the stops. After all, it can't be easily apparent to stage an epic story involving a ship, gods and goddesses, sea monsters, dragons, and harpies on a relatively small stage. All sorts of methods are used, such as puppetry and simple tactics like representing the sea monster as a large green cloth and a pair of balls for the eyes (it sort of resembles a melted Cookie Monster). This production is so theatrical that anyone who has ever worked in the theater, or wanted to, will purr at the ingenuity involved.

An athletic cast of about a dozen plays several dozen roles. The main character, of course, is Jason. He is a hero who is favored by the goddesses Hera and Athena. His father should have been king of Thessaly, but has been usurped by the old Pelias. Fearing that Jason will come after him, Pelias sends him on a fool's errand--to recover the Golden Fleece from the kingdom of Colcis, ruled by the bullish Aeetes. Jason is no idiot, but undertakes the voyage anyway, secure that the goddesses will protect him. He recruits an all-star crew, headlined by familiar names such Hercules, Castor and Pollux, Meleager and others.

They encounter adventures along the way, such as an island where all the men are dead and Jason and company are put to good use, another where a giant challenges all to deadly boxing matches, and they also have trouble from gods who aren't in on the plan, such Boreus, god of the winds, who buffets them about until Athena shouts him down.

The Argonauts arrive at Colcis at the intermission, and the second act becomes the story of Medea, Aeetes daughter. Hera and Athena get Aphrodite to enlist her son, Eros, to shoot an arrow into Medea so she falls in love with Jason and helps him steal the fleece. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Greek myth will foresee that this does not turn out well.

Zimmerman has used the text of Appollonius of Rhodes, as well as a Latin text by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, but the overall spirit is that of 21st Century America. This makes the dialogue go down easier, but sometimes it's a bit much, such as having Eros chewing bubblegum and greeting his mother with a catch-phrase from a beer commercial that's already stale. It's not modern-dress, but also not rooted in any particular time period, which can be disorienting. The set is a simple wooden box, the costumes kind of generic toga ensembles.

The cast is uniformly excellent. The outstanding members are Sofia Jean Gomez as a very authoritative Athena, who goes nowhere without her ten-foot spear; Atley Loughridge as the ill-used Medea; and Soren Oliver as Hercules, who plays the role with a dash of Dick Butkus. Jake Suffian is Jason, who has a very difficult role as a somewhat bland hero, but anchors the piece well.

Though his is a wonderful evening of theater, it behooves one to brush up on mythology before attending. I'm not exactly up on it all, so at times it became difficult to tell who was who, as many of the character names are similar and since the performers play several parts it isn't always clear who they are at any one time. Also, this is a big story, and some parts are glided over quickly, while there are other scenes that are played meticulously and slowly, which makes for pacing problems. Medea's filicide, which was the basis of an entire play by Euripides, is summed up in a few lines. I understand that this was not the story here, but it seemed a bit rushed.

That's really a minor quibble, though. I've always wanted to learn more about classical mythology and seeing this play fired up that ambition once again.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Amy Fisher Caught on Tape

I'm not sure a writer of fiction could have possibly invented Amy Fisher. For those who are under, say, thirty, she may be unknown to you, but in 1992 she was well-known to any sentient American. Dubbed the Long Island Lolita, Fisher was a teenager who inexplicably became attached to a middle-aged mechanic, improbably named Joey Buttafuoco, engaging in an affair and, at Buttafuoco's ministrations became a prostitute. She ended up shooting his wife, Mary Jo, in the head. Amy got sent to prison, Joey became the worst kind of Z-list celebrity (and has been in and out of legal trouble of his own), and Mary Jo ended up divorcing his ass and forgiving Fisher.

Though no raving beauty, I could recognize that Fisher had a certain sex appeal. While I was at Penthouse I suggested that we pounce as soon as she was released from prison and offer her money for a pictorial. When she was released in 1999, though, I was gone from that organization, and instead Fisher went down a respectable path, becoming an award-winning newspaper columnist (and even was seen with Buttafuoco again, although that may have been only a tease to get a reality show).

Fisher outdid any Penthouse pictorial, though, with the release of a home-made sex tape, with her husband, Louis Bellera. The genesis of this tape appears to be a familiar story: Bellera sold the tape, unbeknownst to Fisher (apparently they were estranged at the time and he saw dollar signs). She sued, but over the course of a few months settled with the distributor, Red Light District, and has now even done promotional work for it. Of course I had to see it.

The home sex tape phenomenon is truly bizarre. It would appear that almost everyone is taping themselves having sex, even the well-known. In some cases it is used as a way of self-promotion, even while the subject indignantly claims outrage. The roster of those who have been exposed in this way would make quite a season of The Surreal World: Screech from Saved By the Bell, the wrestler Chyna, rockers Fred Durst and Gene Simmons, Survivor contestant Jenna Lewis, British model Keely Hazell (the only one worthy of watching having sex) the well-known simply for being famous Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, and now even Joey Buttafuoco himself.

Perhaps one day this will be the move that is equivalent to what posing in the nude was in years past. Need to have your name mentioned on Entertainment Tonight? Let a tape of you getting boned slip out, sniff that it is without your approval, but meanwhile secretly earn half the profits and enjoy your new found notoriety.

The Fisher tape (or DVD) is one of the better ones I've seen (it doesn't match the one with Janine Lindemulder and Vince Neil, but Janine is a porn star after all). It's not grainy footage shot with a cell-phone camera, it's well lit and composed. You see everything you would want to. Fisher doesn't look bad for a thirty-three-year-old woman who has had two children. She has breast implants, but also a flat stomach and toned legs. She kind of looks like a second-tier Marisa Tomei. Bellera is kind of an odd-looking fellow there, a bit doughy and with off-putting gray hair. Fisher frequently calls him "Daddy," which may be quell any interest.

Fisher is also a bit of a wildcat. I won't go into obscene detail, suffice it to say that Fisher keeps her man happy. It's also fun to listen to her pronounced Long Island accent. When Bellera begins to spank her. she eggs him on, saying, "I've been a bad goil."

I suggest a new game. Instead of a death pool, there should be a pool for who is next to be in a sex tape. Britney Spears would be an obvious choice, but who knows who will be next?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Counterfeiters


I remember quite clearly a review that ran in The New York Times in what must have been spring 1981. Vincent Canby opened his critique of the Soviet film, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears by expressing his incredulity that this trifling comedy would have won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, besting, among other films, Truffaut's The Last Metro and Kurosawa's Kagemusha. The poor little Russian film got caught up in circumstances not of its own making, and made Canby hate the film more than he might have.

It is unfortunate that a film can not exist solely on its own and be judged on those merits, but external events are bound to color our opinions. So it is with The Counterfeiters, which is not a bad film by any means, just a thoroughly mediocre one. It's particular crime is that not only did it win this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film (over four films I have yet to see), but the one that everyone liked, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, wasn't even nominated. So, the first question: is The Counterfeiters better than the snubbed Romanian film? Not even close.

Frequently the Academy is accused of being biased toward films that feature the holocaust as a theme. Though this may be true, it makes me squeamish to raise it, because of the whiff of anti-Semitism that such an accusation carries. But with The Counterfeiters winning the award it must be brought out, as ugly a claim as it may be. There is nothing special about this film, even as holocaust pictures go. We have seen in dozens, perhaps hundreds of films how horrible the Nazis were, especially in high profile English language films like Schindler's List and The Pianist. We have seen it so many times that, dare I say it, it's starting to feel routine. Perhaps it's time to start thinking like Frederick, the artist played by Max Von Sydow in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters: "The question is not how could this happen, but why doesn't it happen more often?"

The story here concerns a master forger named Salomon Sorowitsch, played by Karl Markovics. He is living high in 1936 Berlin, forging documents and counterfeiting money. He is also a Jew, but isn't terribly political. Then he is busted and thrown into a concentration camp. Some time goes by very quickly, and he is treated a little better because of his artistic talent. Another five years flies by before he is enlisted in Operation Bernhard, in which the Nazis attempt to counterfeit the British pound and the U.S. dollar in an attempt to flood the market and disrupt the Allied economies.

That's not a bad wrinkle on the well-worn holocaust front. We get to know some of the other members of Sorowitsch's crew, especially an idealistic Communist, Burger, who wants to sabotage the Nazis efforts even if it costs his and his comrades lives in the process. The S.S. officer in charge of the operation, Herzog, isn't a bad sort, for a Nazi, and tries to be kind to his charges, using the carrot rather than the stick. Of course his second-in-command is a pig who thinks nothing of urinating on a prisoner, or shooting them.

The focal point is the character of Sorowitsch, and it is here that the movie sags. I liked Markovics--if this were a Hollywood film he would have been played by someone far more dashing, but here he is a slump-shouldered fellow who seems to have resigned himself to despair long ago. But we just don't know enough about him to be effected by any change he undergoes. He is not really heroic, he says he adapts to stay alive, and I'm not sure that's profound enough to generate two-hours of interest.

Also, this film is technically a bit of a mess. I don't expect a movie set in a concentration camp to look like the Emerald City, but even when we are in decadent Berlin or post-war Monte Carlo, dinginess is the rule. The editing is also at times slapdash, and the sound mixing seemed off to me (of course that may have been caused by the equipment in the theater). The director, Stefan Ruzowitsky, tells the story in a workmanlike fashion, bracketing the film as a flashback that doesn't really add much to the overall effect.

To echo Vincent Canby's words from over twenty-five years ago, seeing this film tells me more about the Academy's voting practices than it makes for exciting cinema.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

August Rush

This film involved something of a struggle to determine whether I'd see it or not. On the plus side, it stars Keri Russell, who is not only a good actress but also happens to be my number one crush. On the negative, it also stars Robin Williams. Now I've admired Williams in many pictures, especially for his dramatic work, such as Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia and One Hour Photo. But anyone movie that requires him to twinkle is usually poisonous, and the trailer suggests that this is that type of role.

Then the film received an Oscar nomination. Granted, it was for song, but a mild case of OCD compels me to see all nominated films (though I draw the line at Norbit). So I Netflixed it, and it surprised me in some ways.

For one, Williams plays a villain. He's a kind of Fagin and Bill Sykes all in one, a Pied Piper who collects children who are musically talented and gives them a home in an abandoned theater in exchange for taking half of their busker earnings. He enters the story about a third of the way through, when the main character, played by Freddie Highmore, runs away from an orphanage and makes it to New York City. Along the way we have learned the story behind his parentage--his mother, who is played by Russell, is a cellist who has an impetuous one-night fling with a soulful Irish musician, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. In true cinemagic, a pregnancy results. Russell's father, who is determined to have her daughter reach musical greatness, tells her after an accident that she lost the baby.

It turns out that Highmore is a musical prodigy. Williams spots it and attempts to cash in, but Highmore ends up at Julliard and this all leads to a conclusion in which we wonder whether parents and child will be reunited. Of course this isn't really in doubt, and some of the coincidences are so over-the-top as to invite snickers of disbelief. What I did like about this film, though, is that I think it gives an insightful look at what goes through the mind of a musical prodigy, how they hear things differently. I don't know if someone could actually be shown a piano and instantly be able to play and compose on it, but this film isn't really concerned with pesky details like realism.

The director is Kristen Sheridan, the daughter of Jim, and this is her first feature. She directs it as if were a fairy-tale of sorts, and in that perspective she succeeds, but the script is just too overloaded with coincidences to be taken seriously.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Night Gardener

About two years ago I read my first George Pelecanos book, Drama City, a terrific thriller about the mean streets of Washington, D.C. While The Night Gardener isn't as strong as that book, it's a great read nonetheless, with great characterization and lots of details about crime and detection in the nation's capital.

The book opens in 1985, with another victim of a killer called either The Palindrome Killer (all the victims have names spelled the same frontwards and backwards) or The Night Gardener, as the victims are found in community gardens. The detective on the case, T.C. Cook, is obsessed with finding the killer. On the scene are two uniforms, Gus Ramone and Dan "Doc" Holiday.

The palindrome murders stop without the killer being caught, and we flash forward twenty years. Ramone is now a detective, and Holiday is off the force, resigning over an indiscretion and now working as a limo driver, pickling himself in booze and having a string of one-night stands. When one of Ramone's sons schoolfriends, a boy named Asa, turns up dead in a community garden, it looks like the Night Gardener may be at work again. Holiday discovers the body, and looks up Cook, who's now retired, to conduct their own investigation.

This book is not so much concerned with the whodunit aspect as it is with the characters of those involved. Ramone is a family man in an interracial marriage, with a teenage son he hopes to keep on the straight and narrow, which is no easy thing in D.C. Holiday, who knew he was a good police officer, is bitter about his leaving the force, and Cook, who has suffered a stroke, has long been haunted by the unsolved case. Each is depicted with excellent passages that make the men seem like real people.

There's also a parallel story about young black men who seek their fame and fortune in crime, and the dirty cops who profit from them. At first you may be wondering what connects these two story threads, until you realize that it's part of a larger picture that Pelecanos paints about the desperation that exists on the mean streets of Washington.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The World's Oldest Profession

In the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, there has been a lot of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing in the media on the subject of prostitution, especially after the identify of Spitzer's most recent provider has become public. Ashley Dupre, as she calls herself, is the unfortunate woman who has gotten caught in the middle of all this. I have nothing but sympathy for her, and by mentioning her name and posting her picture here I don't wish to add any more distress to her life, but to address what I think are misconceptions about the whole business of prostitution.

I am not a sociologist or psychologist, but I have, in the course of my travels, met sex workers of almost every conceivable stripe. I therefore reject the argument, which I read the other day, that the only people who call prostitution a victimless crime are the johns. Certainly men who frequent prostitutes probably do rationalize in an absurd fashion that the women they are seeing are some kind of feminist icons, but that's not the entire story. There are many, many sex workers who do what they do because they want to, and in some cases even enjoy it.

Of course, it's easy to believe that the vast majority of sex workers do not enjoy what they do, and are doing it only for the money. But, I submit, is that any different from many people who work for a living? Is it different than say, coal miners, who risk their lives everyday in an industry that has lax safety standards? Why would they do such a thing? Many jobs are dangerous or put an individual in an undignified position, but people still do these jobs anyway.

Some would say that many prostitutes are desperate, because they are drug addicted, or have no other options for income. True, true, true, but a person has to accept some level of responsibility for their situation. If it is true that a majority of sex workers have been abused as children, it is beside the point. Whether a woman becomes a sex worker or not doesn't eliminate the history of abuse from her life. If she has ended up down a path that makes her life miserable I would hope there are agencies of change that can help her. Making what she does a crime doesn't seem to me to be the solution to her problem.

The other thread of this moralizing is focused on Spitzer. To be sure, he is a pretty big scumbag, but not because he simply saw prostitutes. His special crime is the shitty way he's treated his wife, as well as being a hypocrite for crusading against corporate criminals on one hand while engaging in illegal activity on the other. But some of the media coverage has been ridiculous. Why do men go to prostitutes? ring the headlines. Well, duh. I would say in most cases it's because men want to have sex with attractive young women, and this is either the only way they can do it (for the socially inept or the unattractive) or, in the case of married men, they aren't getting any at home. There are men who get married and one day their wife just isn't interested in having sex any more. They don't want to cheat or get a divorce, and instead of having an affair turn to the more business-like arrangement of paying for it. As to why Spitzer did it, I have no clue to his home life situation, but I would imagine that he has the typical male urge to have multiple sex partners and he had the money and power to accomplish it.

Prostitution is legal in some counties of Nevada, as well as Amsterdam and parts of Australia. By all accounts this has not led to a breakdown of civilization (although some might disagree). If prostitution were legal, would it lead to more women taking it up? I don't know, it might. But outlawing basic human vices doesn't seem to work very well (see prohibition) and instead thrusts it into the hands of organized crime. In my opinion, brothels and escort services should be legal, while streetwalking should continue to be illegal. That way sex workers would be medically cleared, the businesses would be subjected to all regulations and taxes that any other business is subjected to, and perhaps counseling could be offered to any woman who engages in it. Perhaps the age limit should be higher, too: 21.

I hope I'm not coming off as some sort of typical male pig. No one should have to sell their body out of desperation. But if one chooses that line of work, they should be able to exercise the right to use their body as they see fit. What two consenting adults do in private should never be illegal.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Like

It was James, one of my cohorts on Gone Elsewhere, who first brought The Like to my attention. They are a musical trio, all the daughters of people in the music industry, who formed a band when they were in high school. Their first full-length album, Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking? was available on the Amazon marketplace for eighty-four cents, so it didn't take a huge investment to take a flyer on them and see if I indeed liked The Like.

And I do. I thought they might be a more bubblegum-ish act, especially given that the photos in the CD booklet depict them as if they had traipsed over from a Renaissance Fair. But the music, which was written by guitarist Z. Berg, is surprisingly muscular. The rhythm section, made up of bassist Charlotte Froom and drummer Tennessee Thomas, is mostly upbeat and peppy, but is ladled over dirge-like songs.

The opening track is perhaps most typical. Entitled "June Gloom," the drums beat out a cheery beat, but the guitar drones and the lyrics contain the refrain about the "end of days." (A note on the lyrics: it may be my hearing, my audio equipment, or a poor mixing job, but most of the them were indecipherable. It may also be because the vocals--all three women are listed as vocalists--are breathy and baby-doll-ish.) Many of the songs are in this vein, leading to perhaps the most over-the-top track, "Too Late," in which the vocals veer off into Bjork-like whimpers. So what we basically have here is a kind of catchy solipsism.

Another song, Under the Paving Stones, borrows the opening riff from The Clash's London Calling, but overall I don't sense a heavy punk influence.

According to their web site, which doesn't seem to have been updated recently, they are at work on a second album, which I look forward to. Their music would also seem to lend itself to a live show, so if they are playing in your town I recommend you check them out.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Client 9

As I write this, Eliot Spitzer is still the governor of New York, but I would suspect that this won't be for long. And as liberal-minded as I am about the sort of shenanigans that he was up to, I would add my voice to the chorus: he must resign.

I am one who has known to be drawn to the sexual demimonde, though I certainly won't confess to anything here. But I am unlike Mr. Spitzer in two important aspects: I am single, and I am not a public servant, especially one who made his bones by the vigorous prosecution of the unethical.

Of course prostitution, especially in the rarefied air that The Emperor's Club existed, should be legal. But it currently is not (if Spitzer had hopped a plane to Reno and dipped his wick at the Bunny Ranch, which is a legal brothel, I imagine this would be a different conversation), and the governor of a state can't go breaking laws and expect blanket forgiveness. Adultery, these days, seems to be a forgivable offense for politicians, but I don't think the country is ready to wink and nod at whoremongering. David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana, should have also resigned for his dalliances with a professional (which also involved diapering), as should Larry Craig, who resisted a push off the cliff from members of his own party. For a senator it's easier to lie low and wait a term out. When you're governor of New York, you can't. How can Spitzer possibly ride out another two-plus years with this hanging over his head?

As most commenters on this have pointed out, the saddest figures in these messes are the wives and children. What could Silda Spitzer possibly be thinking as she walked out to face reporters with her errant husband? It's one thing to be loyal, but quite another to look like a Stepford wife while your husband throws himself on the bonfire of public opinion? (Who can forget the way Dina McGreevey stood by with a frozen smile on her face while her husband Jim announced to the world that he was a "gay-American?")

Powerful men have been undone by their gonads since time began, I imagine. Many people will say, "What could he have been thinking?" Well, that's just the point, he wasn't thinking. These kind of urges can be overwhelming and lead one to do things that are preposterously stupid. With most of, though, the fall isn't nearly as far as it is with Spitzer.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons

With the death of Dungeons and Dragon's creator Gary Gygax last week, there has been more acknowledgement of his importance than perhaps I would have expected. Now, I didn't know who he was, but I surely know what D&D is. Yes, I have played it, just a few times. But I have played lots of different role-playing games, and then, after the community of college was gone, play-by-mail games. I was never a hard-core nerd, but I was on the periphery.

The concept of role-playing games is, I suspect, a chance for the more anti-social among us to bond over creating an alternative persona that is much more agreeable than the one we inhabit. Gygax used the kind of fantasy realm that was very similar to J.J.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, and the characters were warriors and wizards. But who could have foreseen what grew out that? Certainly Zelda, Ultima, and all the way up to World of Warcraft and Second Life owe a debt to Gygax's creation, because as the technology progresses, people are still looking for a way to have adventures and be someone else.

To me, though, the best way to enjoy a role-playing game is in someone's basement or dorm room, with a bunch of guys who are into sci-fi (it was almost always guys--women seemed not to be as interested), with the various multi-sided dice, the character sheets, and arguing over things like, "How can a guy only get one hit point if he's just been shot point-blank in the head?" We would play deep into the night until dawn. I played D&D a few times, but the guys I hung with found D&D a bit pedestrian. Instead we played Call of Cthulu, which was based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, or Traveller, which concerned space travel, or Villains and Vigilantes, in which each player created their own unique superhero. Good times.

I wonder if kids still play games that way anymore, or whether it's all remote, with their computers. If so, then they're missing something that I think Gygax probably intended, and that is a kind of socialization that can only come from being face to face with someone.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Wake Me When It's Over

I'm reluctant to write anything about the election this week, because I've been trying to avoid thinking about it. It's just a mess (at least on the Democratic side). Hillary Clinton did well in three out of the four contested states on Tuesday (it's unclear whether she actually "won" Texas), but in the terms of delegate count, she really didn't accomplish much. The media, though, in search of story, declared that she now had "momentum."

These seem to be the facts: Unless she wins something like ninety percent of the vote in the remaining 12 contests, she will not overtake Obama in the pledged delegate count. If he doesn't win seventy-five percent, he will not go over the top. That will leave it to superdelegates, who will be pulled like taffy. Should they vote the way their state went? Or to the overall delegate leader?

And that leaves the mess that is Michigan and Florida. Both states held primaries that don't count because they violated party rules on the date of said primaries (and this was backed up by a court decision, which said the party can make any rules that it likes). Clinton won both states handily, because Obama did not campaign in Florida, and was not even on the ballot in Michigan. Now she wants the delegates to count, which is one of the most disingenuous things to come out of a politician's mouth in a long time. Can she really say something like that, when she knows that if Obama had won those states she'd be arguing the exact opposite? She's a typical politician to the core. At least Obama is saying he's open to whatever the DNC decides.

What should they do? It seems harsh to penalize the voters of those states for the folly of their Democratic committees. A re-vote seems the fairest solution, but those things cost a lot of money. Caucuses are far less, and Clinton doesn't want those, because she doesn't fare well in them (and, to be fair, that's changing the rules as much as moving the dates up). It seems to me that the DNC, to avoid an even nastier fight than, will have to pony up the dough to redo the primaries, and schedule it at a date when full campaigning and advertising time will be available.

I'm also dispirited because it seems like negative campaigning has once again worked. Clinton's ads about answering the phone at 3 AM are disingenuous. Did she ever have to deal with a national security issue as First Lady? Just because she slept in the same bed with a president doesn't mean she has the same experience as one. Obama seems to be stunned by the vitriol, and now has to fight back, although it seems as if it's not in his nature. I think he can fight back, though, while trying to maintain the high road.

What does seem certain is that when the convention in Denver rolls around in August no candidate will have enough pledged delegates to win. If the superdelegates split, it may take more than one ballot to decide the nominee, which hasn't happened since 1952. Al Gore, anyone?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Operation Homecoming/No End in Sight

Over the past couple of weeks I've Netflixed a pair of the films nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards. They both deal with the topic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (as does the winner, Taxi to the Dark Side, which I have yet to see) but take fundamentally different approaches. Both are fine films, but one has the advantage of also being emotionally moving.

No End in Sight, directed by Charles Ferguson, relies on a heavy dose of factual information and interviews with key officials involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The effect is to convey the complete incompetence and arrogance of the top brass in executing this. Much of this information was fresh in my mind due to my recent reading of Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Ferguson and crew get interviews mostly from those who have seen the light on the error of the situation, and rely on news footage for those who still are carrying the administration's water (like Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and L. Paul Bremer, who was the viceroy of the occupation). I have the impression, though, that this film is pretty much preaching to the choir, and would be unlikely to change anyone's mind. I wouldn't be surprised if some right-winger had already made a documentary in response.

While No End in Sight is crisp journalism, well-done but a bit arid, Operation Homecoming is a completely different animal. It doesn't approach the conflict from a political standpoint, except to suggest that all war is a crime (as Ernest Hemingway once said). The film is about soldiers in the conflict who, with the assistance of professional authors, have written about their experiences. As someone who has never been in combat, I will never be able to fully comprehend what they went through, but by watching films like this, as well as reading what they have written, I can have a slightly better perspective.

Basically the film is structured as a series of interviews with the participating soldiers, followed by reenactments of what they have written. Interviews with writers who are veterans, such as Tim O'Brien, Anthony Swofford, and Tobias Wolff, are interspersed. I found all of the segments of some interest, but some are particularly strong, such as a poem called What Every Soldier Should Know, by Brian Turner, and a piece of reportage called Men in Black, by Colby Buzzell. That bit of prose is reenacted through animation which looks like a graphic novel, and is about Buzzell being involved in an ambush in Mosul. It is as thrilling and heart-pounding as any war film.

Other soldiers write about coming to terms with their subtle racism (many of the soldiers refer to all of the Iraqis as "Haji," but one man, after dealing with a father who has lost a son, realizes that "he is not Haji." A doctor who works with a medical evacuation unit writes about the harrowing experience of treating a soldier who has had part of his leg blown away. The most emotionally moving segment, though, is the last one, which is about a man accompanying the remains of a dead soldier back to his hometown in Wyoming. The writing is very spared and to the point, but hearing it read (by Robert Duvall, no less) while seeing the images of his hometown, and finally his grave, choked me up.

As the doctor pointed out, war has been the same since the Romans, and ever since then the participants have been writing about it to deal with the trauma. Operation Homecoming is a terrific view of that creative process.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Out Stealing Horses

Continuing the New York Times Book Review top ten of 2007 is Out Stealing Horses, a novel by Norwegian writer Per Petterson, translated by Ann Born.

Trond Sander is sixty-seven years old. It is on the cusp of the turnover of the new millennium. His wife and sister have both died recently, so he decides to retreat into a solitary existence, fixing up a rustic cabin near the Swedish border. His only constant companion is a dog he got at an animal shelter. He has no TV or telephone, but since he is not exactly a skilled woodsman he worries about whether he will get snowed in or whether he was enough oil for his chainsaw, as he will be using a stove for heat. He seems content enough, though.

Then he meets a man who takes him back to the summer of his boyhood, when he was fifteen and living for a time with his father. They were felling timber. But a tragedy involving his best friend sours the period, and it turns out that it will be the last time he will ever spend with his father, and he's not quite sure why.

The novel moves fluidly back and forth between the Trond's boyhood memories and his current situation. At times it is very dreamlike, and if I went a few days without reading it it took me a while to figure out where I was in the story. At one point another narrative arrived, as his father's friend tells him a story of how his father was involved in the resistance against the Nazis (and gives a double meaning to the title, which is both a childhood prank and a code phrase used by resistance fighters).

The writing is exquisitely detailed, like the model of a ship inside a bottle, but after the description of the tragedy, which occurs in the early chapters, I found the story drifting to an unsure conclusion. Much is made of the character being near the border of Sweden, which I'm sure means more to a Norwegian that it does to an American, who would have trouble telling the citizens of those country apart easily. I did like the atmospheric effort Petterson creates in writing about Trond's isolation in his cabin, and there is a nice scene involving a visit from his daughter.

This book would be a nice companion before a roaring fire in the dead of winter, on the understanding that it is meditative and has little action. I did appreciate the chance to visit a land I know little about.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Graduate


The Graduate is one of my all-time favorite films, in my personal top five. The fortieth anniversary of its release has just passed, and with it much reminiscing by those who participated. I just read two articles, one in Vanity Fair and one in Entertainment Weekly, about the genesis and production of this film. For Christmas I received the 40th-Anniversary DVD (I already owned a previous issue) and popped it in last night to listen to the commentary by director Mike Nichols, who is joined by Steven Soderbergh.

I've seen the film many times, certainly more than twenty, but one thing that someone said on the featurette is true--you can watch this film over and over again and it feels like you're watching it for the first time each time. There is something new to discover on each viewing. One interesting thing I heard in Nichols' commentary was that he envisioned Mrs. Robinson as some sort of jungle beast (hence the leopard-print clothing, and the abundance of tropical plants in the TV room where she first tries to seduce Benjamin). Or just how long some of the takes are--some of them are several minutes long.

The Graduate was a huge hit upon its release, but few could have predicted it. Nichols, along with writer Buck Henry, made some unconventional choices, chiefly the casting of Dustin Hoffman as the lead. In the book by Charles Webb, Benjamin is a tall, blond WASP, and Robert Redford was the first name most people thought of. But Nichols told Redford he wasn't right for the part. "You can't play a loser," Nichols told him. Redford responded that of course he could. Nichols then countered, "Oh yeah, have you ever struck out with a girl?" Redford said, "What do you mean?"

What Nichols did was cast an outsider as an insider who thinks of himself as an outsider. As Soderbergh remarks, that piece of casting changed the way leading men were thought of. Others have written that Nichols, a Jew, cast Hoffman, a Jew, in a role from a family of WASPs to further amplify his outsider-ness. Maybe so.

The Graduate was certainly a product of its times, in its expression of the alienation of youth culture. Though Benjamin doesn't have long hair or burn his draft card, he is nevertheless eager to avoid a future that would involve his parents' way of life. The line early in the film, one of the most famous in all cinema, in which he is advised to enter plastics, is really the whole thing in a nutshell. Benjamin wants nothing of the artificiality of his parents' world, which is really made of plastic.

The film was also groundbreaking in technical areas. Few American films in the mainstream used the kind of cutting that The Graduate did, in particular the montage that finds Benjamin in one quick cut climbing on top of a pool float and then Mrs. Robinson, or the pre-lapping dialogue that begins in one scene before the visual cut takes place. Soderbergh also discusses the use of music--Nichols recalls that it was his brother who gave him a Simon and Garfunkel LP, and that he was listening to it for three months before he realized, "Schmuck! You're listening to the soundtrack for your movie!" It wasn't usual for films to use contemporary hits on the soundtrack of films, and Nichols uses the songs in their entirety--sometimes repeating them.

And then there's the ending. Ben rescues Elaine from her marriage to a clone of her parents and off they go, hopping on a bus, giddy with anticipation. But Nichols let the camera roll, and soon their excitement fades into an expression of uncertainty, a classic "What now?" moment. As Soderbergh points out, it's an ending that makes one rethink what has seen before, and without it it wouldn't have had nearly the impact.

Though The Graduate is a product of sixties' youth rebellion, I think it is fresh today as it was forty years ago. There isn't a bad scene in the picture, and some of the lines zing as if they were written yesterday.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

A friend of mine and I were discussing who might be the most-often portrayed historical figure in movie history. He suggested, and he could very well be correct, that it is Adolph Hitler, but certainly one of the contenders is England's Henry VIII, who has been seen in movies almost since the very beginning. Some great actors, such as Charles Laughton, Robert Shaw, and Richard Burton have all played him to great acclaim. Now we can add Eric Bana to the list, although he is second fiddle to a pair of sisters in The Other Boleyn Girl.

Just what is it about this period of British history that calls for so many films? I suppose it's the palace intrigue, and this intrigue doesn't get much juicier: a king snubs his nose at the Pope and breaks off with the church so he can get in the knickers of a woman, completely changing the face of European religious history. This particular story has been told many times, particularly in 1969's Anne of the Thousand Days, which starred Burton and Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn. The Other Boleyn Girl, though, adds the wrinkle of Anne's sister, Mary.

According to the film, Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, has reached the end of her child-bearing years without producing a male heir. Thomas Boleyn, a social-climber, conspires with his brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk, to introduce Anne to the King in the hopes that he will make her his mistress. Anne, though, is too headstrong for Henry's tastes, and he takes much more to the docile Mary. She is already married, but this presents little problem, as her father, uncle and even her husband have no problem pimping her out to the king. As Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be the king."

Mary bears the king a son, but it is a bastard, and when Anne returns from a brief exile to France, Henry sees her in a whole new light and quickly forgets about Mary. Anne will not lie with the king, though, because she doesn't want to bear an illegitimate child--she wants to be queen. That there already is a queen would seem to be a problem, but Henry ignores the Pope's refusal of an annulment and the Church of England is born. But Anne bears a girl (who will grow up to be Cate Blanchett) and when a second pregnancy ends in a miscarriage, makes a rather foolish decision that will cost her her head.

All of this stuff is great drama, and for the most part the screenplay by Peter Morgan, who wrote a much more contemporary tale of English royalty, The Queen, does a nice job of making it all sing. But the direction by Justin Chadwick is soggy, and frankly the competition between the two sisters is the least interesting part of it. But this was the point of the novel they were adapting, which I have not read. I wonder if the novel, though, completely eradicates the character of Cardinal Wolsey, who was integral to the plot, as this film does.

Most of the acting is fine. Bana, as the young, virile king, as opposed to the corpulent, leg-of-mutton-chomping king of later years, looks and acts the part, and Mark Rylance is effective as the scheming elder Boleyn, while Kristin Scott Thomas, as Mother Boleyn, projects just the right sense of subdued outrage at how her daughters are being used. Natalie Portman has a grand time as the shrewd Anne, manipulating the king to her purposes until she's over her head. But as for Scarlett Johansson, well, I'm still waiting for her to show what she did in one of her first roles, Ghost World. It seems that ever since she's played characters who are either victims or doormats, and she has that pouty, wide-eyed look of supplication that by now seems a parody of itself. I see that she will next play Mary Queen of Scots, which is yet another corseted victim in British history. I am not expecting great things.

For those interested in this period of history, The Other Boleyn Girl provides momentary pleasures, but on the whole is a bit of a slog. I would give it a mild thumbs up, but can understand those who would not.