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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Nature Girl

The latest novel by Carl Hiaasen is very familiar to his readers--once again the setting is south Florida (this time it's in the Ten Thousand Islands of the southwest part of the state) and has characters that fall in two categories--the true and good, and the venal, boorish or stupid. The greatest pleasure in his books is that the latter, unlike in life, get punished.

The plot of the book is kicked off when Honey Santana, a resident of Everglades City, gets insulted by a telemarketer. Since she is a woman who has long been on a crusade to try to fight back at those people in the world who are inconsiderate of others, she creates an elaborate scheme to track the man down and lure him to her by promising him a free "ecotour" into the Everglades. Meanwhile, she is being harassed by her ex-boss, who pawed her inappropriately.

Intertwined into this is a second plot involving Sammy Tigertail, a half-Seminole Indian who is hiding out after a passenger on his air boat dies of a heart attack. He ends up hooking up with a college girl and all of the characters, including Honey's ex-husband and son, end up on a place called Dismal Key, where mayhem takes place.

All of this is like snack food to Hiaasen readers, but I must admit that he seemed to be just going through the motions this time. As annoying as telemarketers are, I'm not sure the punishment fits the crime in this case. Regarding the character of Tigertail, he does have some interesting things to say about modern Indians, who are now reaping the benefits of casinos. Tigertail thinks this is selling out, and it's an interesting debate. But the writing is a bit off here, with most of the characters not ringing true (the college girl that latches onto Tigertail seems to be a Penthouse-letter writers' fantasy) and it's very hard to keep track of the comings and goings of everyone during the very long lead up to the climax.

If you are new to Hiaasen, I'd recommend starting more toward the beginning, with Skin Tight, Native Tongue, or Strip Tease. Nature Girl is tepid in comparison, with some mild laughs but not nearly the bite.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Shea Goodbye

The New York baseball season came to a thudding conclusion yesterday, and I was there as a disinterested observer. If I were a die-hard Mets fan, I would still have an upset stomach.

My interest in the Mets is purely vicarious, as two of my best friends are fans. I have rooted for them in the past, but also against them (I had taken the part of the Red Sox in the '86 series and was crushed by the Buckner play like a real New Englander). I have been to Shea Stadium about two dozen times over the years, and agree with the consensus that it wasn't much to shout about, and a new stadium was definitely in order.

My friend Bob bought four tickets back in February, so I was asked to tag along with his wife and daughter. The situation coudn't have been more fraught--the team was tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for the last playoff spot. The Brewers were hosting the Cubs, while the Mets hosted the Marlins in the last scheduled regular season game at Shea Stadium, which opened in 1964. If both the Mets and Brewers won, the Mets would have hosted a one-game playoff on Monday. Turns out it wasn't needed.

Because the game was delayed one hour by rain, it started at roughly the same time as the Brewers-Cubs game. Scoreboard watching was rampant, and when the Cubs got an early one-run lead a huge roar went up as the score was posted. Then the Marlins got two runs and the crowd got uneasy. But in the bottom half of the frame Carlos Beltran tied things up with a home run and there was joy in Mudville.

This wasn't to last long. In the span of about ten minutes, the Marlins got back to back solo home runs off the beleaguered Mets bullpen and the Brewers pulled ahead of the Cubs. The Mets now had only six outs to save their season. In the bottom of the eighth, the Mets put two runners on but Carlos Delgado flied deep to left-center to end the threat. By the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers game was final, so it was do or die. With one man aboard and two outs, Ryan Church hit a deep fly ball for the last out ever at Shea Stadium.

So now there was a full crowd of spectators ready for a celebration that were in no mood to celebrate. Some people, clearly disgusted, left. Most stayed however, and by the time the parade of ex-Mets took the field the crowd was in the spirit of things. The Mets have only been around 47 years, so they don't have a particularly deep history, but they do have some indelibly great heroes and they were all there. There were big ovations for Keith Hernandez, Jerry Koosman, Ed Kranepool, Bud Harrelson, Rusty Staub, and Ron Darling. Even Dave Kingman was there. The last players out were Willie Mays, who played his last two seasons for the Mets, Mike Piazza, and Tom Seaver, who has been the face of the Mets for over forty years. Each of the players touched home plate for the last time, and then Seaver took the mound and threw a pitch to Piazza. Perhaps symbolizing the Mets season, it was in the dirt. The two men then walked out to centerfield as the lights were turned off, and closed the doors in the outfield wall. Fireworks were shot off, and it was time to go home, as Citifield, the new Mets home, loomed above the Shea walls.

The baseball season lingers, though, as my Tigers have a chance to knock the White Sox out of the playoffs today, which would be great (but I'm not counting on it). I'll make the following predictions: I like the Phillies over the Brewers, because C.C. Sabathia can only pitch one game, so I'll take the Phils in four. I like the Cubs over the Dodgers, but I think it will be close, and it will go five. I think the Angels will take care of the Red Sox in four, and Tampa will defeat either the Twins or the White Sox in four.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Lolita


"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to the tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." It was fifty years ago that these words were first published in the United States (three years earlier in Europe). For the occasion I reread the book, and viewed both films that are based on it.

The novel is by Vladimir Nabokov, a native-born Russian who nonetheless wrote the book in English (turns out English was his first language). It is the deceptively simple story of a confession, written by a man in prison awaiting a murder trial, of how he came to be there. He calls himself Humbert Humbert, a sophisticated European who wound up in a New England town where, in a boarding house, he met the twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, who he would name Lolita, and how she became the love of his life.

It isn't a surprise that a novel about a hebephile (not a pedophile--a hebephile is someone who is sexually aroused by pubescent children, pedophilia by pre-pubescents) and his love affair with a twelve-year-old would raise eyebrows, if not earn outright bans. But the book is much greater than the tawdry storyline. Nabokov, in an afterword written in 1956, dispels the common literary theory: "Although everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories...an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part described Lolita as 'Old Europe debauching young America,' while another flipper saw in it 'Young America debauching old Europe.'" Despite Nabokov's objections, it's hard to resist that interpretation, as Humbert's refined yet decadent European thrust into the vulgarities of post-war America create situations that leap off the page. It is established that the long car-trips that Humbert takes with his Lolita were inspired by Nabokov's travels with his wife in the pursuit of butterfly collecting. The life of travelers in the era before the Interstate system is palpable in Nabokov's prose.

And his prose is just so brilliant. Every paragraph is a polished jewel, and there are so many moments when anyone who thinks of themselves as a writer could be forgiven for throwing up one's hands and giving up, as there is no topping the sentences strung together by this master. I can open up the book at random and find portions that take the breath away. Consider this description of a typical Western film: "Finally there was the mahogany landscape, the florid-faced, blue-eyed roughriders, the prim pretty schoolteacher arriving in Roaring Gulch, the rearing horse, the spectacular stampede, the pistol thrust through the shivered windowpane, the stupendous fist fight, the crashing mountain of dusty old-fashioned furniture, the table used as a weapon, the timely somersault, the pinned hand still groping for the dropped bowie knife, the grunt, the sweet crash of fist against chin, the kick in the belly, the flying tackle; and immediately after a plethora of pain that would have hospitalized a Hercules (I should know by now), nothing to show but the rather becoming bruise on the bronzed cheek of the warmed-up hero embracing his frontier bride."

Then there are the games Nabokov plays. Humbert explains his attraction to "nymphets" as stemming from his childhood love of Annabel Leigh, which of course is an homage to Poe. There is also numerous wordplay, such as the reuse of the numeral 342, and a minor character, Vivian Darkbloom, is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov.

While the sexual nature of Humbert and Lolita's relationship is plainly stated, there is nothing pornographic about the book, as there is no Penthouse-letter blow by blow stuff. Lolita is the initial aggressor, and Humbert is startled to learn that he is not her first lover. The first film version, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, couldn't be so frank. Any sexual contact is implied by whispering and fading to black, and there is no numerical reference to Lolita's age at any time. Perhaps this is why the film is so pallid and a poor representation of the story (Nabokov is credited at writing the script, but one wonders how much got changed from his draft).

The novel is both a dark comedy and a romance. Kubrick emphasizes the dark comedy. Though he had many gifts, the sentimental romance is not one of them. There are many long, pointless scenes that are not in the book that really make me scratch my head, such as slapstick involving a hotel porter and a folding cot. The mysterious character of Clare Quilty is played by Peter Sellers, and greatly expanded, which doesn't help the story along. The casting of Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze is brilliant, though. Poor Charlotte Haze--has there ever been a character in fiction who is so pathetic? Vulgar and bovine, Humbert is disgusted by her, but marries her in order to get close to Lolita. Winters is a performer who milks the aspects of the wounded woman so well that it's almost uncomfortable.

I think the best illustration of how Kubrick misses Nabokov's genius is how he handles Humbert and Lolita's last meeting. This is how Nabokov wrote it: "I covered my face with my hand and broke into the hottest tears I have ever shed. I felt them winding through my fingers and down my chin, and burning me, and my nose got clogged, and I could not stop, and then she touched my wrist.

'I'll die if you touch me,' I said, 'You are sure you are not coming with me? Is there no hope of your coming? Tell me only this.'

'No,' she said, 'No, honey, no.'

She had never called me honey before."

In Kubrick's film, Sue Lyon plays the scene (as well as the entire role) without any visible sense of her understanding the nature of the romance, and James Mason, as Humbert, appears to be handling a business transaction. It is for this reason that I voice what sounds like sacrilege--the Adrian Lyne film version of 1997 is a better film. His film is almost completely faithful to the book. Jeremy Irons is Humbert, and his motivation for falling in love with Lolita (Dominique Swain) is much clearer. This film has less of the comedy and more of the romance.

Swain makes a much more believable Dolores. In the book, Nabokov describes her as being a typical teenager, despite Humbert's attentions. She's rude and petulant, and given to chewing gum, comic books, and movie star worship. In this version, Charlotte is played by Melanie Griffith, who is fine though no match for Winters' performance. In this version, she is gone after about twenty minutes, with most of the film encompassing the second half of the novel, with Humbert and Lolita criss-crossing the country. And Frank Langella closer adheres to the Nabokov Clare Quilty, rather than the comical hijinks of Sellers.

There are certain similarities between the two films. Both begin with the end, in which Humbert shoots Quilty, and then flashes back (in Kubrick's film, we see the entire murder, as well a strange game of ping-pong, while in Lyne we see Humbert driving away, blood on his hands). There is also, with both filmmakers, the fetishizing of Lolita's feet. In Kubrick, the opening credits are over a dainty teen foot having it's toenails painted, the male hands handling it as if it were a Faberge egg. With Lyne, he takes every opportunity to focus on Swain's bare feet. Perhaps this is because, since neither film would dare show Lolita in any kind of nudity, they could use the foot instead, which is sexy but not in any way obscene. To quote Nabokov: "She was barefooted; her toenails showed remnants of cherry-red polish and there was a bit of adhesive tape across her big toe; and, God, what would I not have given to kiss then and there those delicate-boned, long-toed, monkeyish feet!"

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Best Years of Our Lives

The 1946 Oscar went to William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, which was a stately melodrama about veterans readjusting to life after the end of World War II. Though couched in the form of a lumbering soap opera, there are moments that are starkly modernistic and make it worthwhile viewing today.

The story begins with three servicemen from the same hometown, who had never met before, get acquainted as they bum a ride home on a B-17. The first half hour of the film is like the ending of some other movie, as each character is reunited with his family. Frederic March is an older man who is long married with two children and a job waiting for him in a bank. At first he is uncomfortable being back home, not sure who his children are and unsure of himself back at the bank. Dana Andrews is a captain in the air corps who was a soda jerk before the war and hopes for something better. He married a girl, Virginia Mayo, after a whirlwind courtship during training, but it soons become apparent that they don't know each other very well. He doesn't want to wear his uniform anymore, but when he wears it she says he "looks like himself." Finally there is Harold Russell, a sailor who has lost his hands in combat, which have been replaced by hooks. He has a girlfriend who is still in love with him, but he pushes her away because he is convinced she wouldn't want to be involved with a cripple.

At times the film veers a little wildly into social message. Russell and Andrews mix it up with a man who represents the anti-communist isolationist view, thinking that the war was a complete waste. And Andrews strikes up a relationship with March's daughter, Teresa Wright, that has too much suds to it. But then there are some magnificently directed scenes. Wyler frequently shows how brilliant he is with the framing of characters, particularly in the reunion scene between March and his wife, Myrna Loy. The cinematographer is Gregg Toland, well known for his deep focus, which is on display often, as is the use of mirrors.

I think the best scene is toward the end, when Andrews, keen to leave town, heads to a local airfield to catch the next flight out. He wanders around a graveyard of military planes, and crawls into the nose of a B-17, where he spent the war as a bombardier. The music and photography work well together in this dialogue-free scene, as Andrews remembers the war and manages to exorcise the demons that have stuck with him.

Wyler, March and Russell won Oscars. Russell, who was a non-professional, was spotted by Wyler in a documentary concerning wounded veterans. He wouldn't act in another movie for another thirty-five years. Since the Academy didn't think he would win the Oscar, they gave him a special award, so he ended up taking home two statuettes for the same performance.

Even for its faults, The Best Years of Our Lives is useful as a reminder that post-traumatic disorders, so often in the news today, are nothing new, and were all too common even after popular wars.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cellar Dwellers

It's been a while since I posted about baseball, and considering my favorite team, the Detroit Tigers, are now currently in last place, perhaps you can understand why. And it wasn't supposed to be this way.

When the Tigers made a series of bold moves over the winter, most specifically the acquisition of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins for a gaggle of prospects, the Tigers looked like a sure bet to win the division and perhaps more, with a lineup that promised runs by the bushel. The starting rotation looked solid, the only question mark was the bullpen.

Well, the pitching staff ended up being a black hole. Injuries and ineffectiveness ruled, and the Tigers bullpen was a monstrosity, blowing as many saves as it earned. The lineup was pretty good, as Magglio Ordonez and Cabrera have put up good numbers, but Edgar Renteria was a bust and Gary Sheffield seems to have once again worn out a welcome by inconsistency and bizarre behavior.

The team looks like it will have to make a lot of changes next year. Ivan Rodriguez is already gone, and all they got for him was a journeyman relief pitcher, Kyle Farnsworth, who stunk up the joint. I'm not sure Brandon Inge is a long-term solution for behind the plate. They need a new shortshop, and several new starting pitchers, as Kenny Rogers will probably retire, Jeremy Bonderman is coming off an injury, and Justin Verlander was strangely ineffective. The Willis pick up looks to be a complete loss, although only monetarily, if taking him was a prerequisite for getting Cabrera, it was worth it. The bullpen is a shambles. Todd Jones has just announced his retirement, Joel Zumaya could be a lost cause, and Fernando Rodney should be run out of town. The only bright spot on the pitching staff this year was rookie Armando Galarraga.

But there is good news in heading into the post-season for this baseball fan: the Yankees won't be there. After thirteen years, Derek Jeter and company will have nothing to do in October but chase Maxim models. This means the playoffs this year will have no tension for me. The eight teams aren't set yet, but I bear no particular animosity for any of them. I suppose I would be happiest with Tampa Bay winning it all, as I have jumped firmly on their bandwagon. I think the best scenario would be the Rays beating the Cubs in the World Series: a team that is only ten years old beating one that hasn't won in 100 years. That would be fucking hilarious.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Oscar, Best Actress: The Usual Suspects

Last year at this time there were two established front-runners in the Best Actress race from films that were already out in theaters: Julie Christie and Marion Cotillard. This year does not afford that luxury, as it seems likely that none of the eventual nominees will come from pictures that have been seen by the general public (meaning me).

Still, based on the festival buzz and other previews of the season, it seems clear that there are a certain group of actresses who are bound to be nominated, and a high percentage are women whose names are inevitably bandied about when it comes to Oscar talk.

We can start with the most nominated woman in the history of the world, Meryl Streep (I’m talking performance nominations–Edith Head had 35 in the Costume category). Streep can forget about Mamma Mia!, instead the nomination is likely to come in the drama Doubt, in which she plays a nun who suspects a teacher of child abuse. Streep has won two Oscars, but has also lost more Oscars (12) than any other performer, so is probably due for at least one more.

The Streep-in-training is Cate Blanchett, and she’s back again this year, after being nominated twice last year, for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There is a lot of aging going on here, so her chances of nomination may go hand in hand with how good her makeup is.

I think the best chances of the inevitably-nominated have to be for Kate Winslet. She’s been nominated five times without a win. This year her stiffest competition may come from herself, as she is in two Oscar-bait roles: as a repressed housewife in Revolutionary Road, and The Reader, a World War II drama (there’s age makeup in this one, too). If Winslet doesn’t split her own votes she has to be considered a good possibility for a win.

Other recognizable names in this category are Angelina Jolie, as a mother of a missing child in Changeling, Anne Hathaway, de-glamming for a role in Rachel Getting Married, Keira Knightley, back in a corset, for The Duchess, and Nicole Kidman, in the epic Australia.

With so many big names in the hunt it seems that the out-of-left-field choices might be minimal this year, but one or two always sneak in. This year’s possibilities include Sally Hawkins as a chipper British girl in Happy-Go-Lucky, Melissa Leo in Frozen River, and the nomination for someone in a foreign language film, which this year may go, strangely enough, to a native English speaker: Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sex and Death 101


Sex and Death 101 came and went without hardly a whisper this spring. I wanted to see it, but I believe it played in one theater in New York for one week and then vanished. Now it's available on DVD, and I saw it last night.

It's notable for the re-teaming of writer-director Daniel Waters and Winona Ryder, who last worked together almost twenty years ago in Heathers. Waters has hardly done anything since then, except writing the script for the second Batman film, and while Ryder's career hit some pretty big heights (two Oscar nominations in back to back years in the mid-nineties) she hit the skids after a shoplifting incident and seems now to be stuck in indy land, as no big studio will use her, perhaps due to insurance issues (that may be changing--I see she has a role in upcoming Star Trek picture).

Sex and Death 101 is kind of like a "Twilight Zone" episode for the Maxim subscriber. A fellow played by Simon Baker receives a mysterious email--a list of 101 names. He realizes the first 29 are women he has slept with, with number 29 being his fiancee. But he comes to understand the rest of the list consists of all the people he will eventually sleep with, starting with a stripper at his bachelor party. He becomes obsessed with the list, and actually hunts some of the women on it, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Meanwhile, Ryder plays a serial killer who is known as "Death Nell." She is something of a vigilante against piggish men, leaving inscrutable messages at the crime scenes. Of course, her name is the last on Baker's list.

I think the best thing I can say about this movie is that it's sexy. There are lots of beautiful women, and some of them are buck naked (including Sophia Monk, who I don't know anything about except she's often featured in Maxim). There's a long, otherwise witless scene in which Baker spends the evening with two lesbians (named Bambi Kidd and Thumper Wint, an obvious allusion to characters in Diamonds Are Forever) that could provide inspiration to porno directors (a swing is prominently featured). Then Leslie Bibb shows up as a woman that Baker really loves, and though Ms. Bibb is not nude in the film, the camera lingers over her like a lecher.

Aside from that, the film is really a throwaway. I mean, Mindy Cohn plays a large role for goodness sake. The production values are pretty shoddy, and it just has a cheap vibe to it. There's a lot of overacting and nothing about it seems genuine.

But I would like to comment on Winona Ryder. Ah, dear Winona! She has been a crush of mine for a long time, ever since she burst on the scene in Heathers. I've been remarkably loyal to her over the years. In looking over her filmography I realize that I've seen almost every one of her films, which include a dizzying array of clunkers that I actually paid good money to see. Consider this list: 1969; Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael; How to Make an American Quilt; Boys; Autumn in New York; Lost Souls; and, Sim10ne. Does she have a bigger fan than me? The only films of hers that have seen general release that I haven't seen are The Darwin Awards, which I promptly have added to my Netflix queue, and The Heart Is Deceitful Among All Things, which doesn't appear to exist on DVD.

I think her of like an old girlfriend that you had to cut loose because to stay with her would cause insanity, but in dark lonely moments you feel the urge to be with her again, because her very witchiness compels you to reconsider and think that perhaps it could work out after all (I think Woody Allen captured this perfectly in his film Celebrity, and so did Nicholas Hytner, more perversely, in the film version of The Crucible). Yet, even though you know she's nothing but trouble, you still defend her when others make jokes, because she has a little piece of your heart, and deep down you wish her well.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Creedence Clearwater Revival

I realize as I get older that the generation gap is hitting me harder every day. Jeopardy can run a category on recent Grammy winners and I won't know one answer. Usually I hear of some musical act after they get arrested or make a home-made sex tape. I try to keep up with the kind of music I like, but it gets tougher and tougher for a guy who doesn't fool with downloading music (I finally have an iPod, but I'm wary of iTunes, instead copying all my favorite songs from my CDs. I know have close to 1,000 songs on it, not one purchased from iTunes).

So I continue to gaze back at the music of my youth. Just the other day I got Creedence Clearwater Revival's greatest hits. Now, when they were big I had no idea who they were, they were the kind of band I caught up with in my teens, after they had acrimoniously broke up. For a couple of years, 1969-1970, they were huge, the most popular American rock band, with hit after hit.

Their sound was antithetic to what most popular music was like those days. They weren't psychedelic by any stretch of the imagination, and except for "Fortunate Son," they weren't particularly political. Founded by the Fogerty brothers, Tom and John, CCR's sound was self-describe as "swamp rock," a mixture of R&B and roots rock. Most of their big hits contained imagery of backwoods romps, with bullfrogs croaking and the moon shining.

There first hits were cover songs--"Suzie Q" and "I Put a Spell on You," but John Fogerty ended up writing some indelible hits. "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising," "Green River," "Lodi," "Looking Out My Back Door," "Up Around the Bend," "Who'll Stop the Rain," "Run Through the Jungle" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," all miniature classics. In the middle of all that they made an eleven-minute cover of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" that almost (but not quite) surpasses the original.

CCR's sound was a muscular one, with heavy guitars, a thumping rhythm section, and Fogerty's howling vocals, which are immediately identifiable. Over the years they have been heard in quite a few films, such as "Suzie Q" playing an important part of Apocalypse Now. Just recently Tropic Thunder used "Run Through the Jungle," which seemed to be both an honest use of the song and a parody of all the films that rely on classic rock soundtracks.

Things seemed to end badly for CCR. The group broke up and for years John Fogerty has been difficult about some things (during their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he refused to play with his old bandmates). Also, as a solo artist, he didn't do CCR songs in his concerts. He was finally persuaded to when someone pointed out that most people thought "Proud Mary" was a Tina Turner song.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Going Places


There are certain films that occupy unique places in our memories. For me, one of those films is Going Places, known in the original French as Les Valseuses (a French term for the testicles). I hadn't seen the film in over thirty years, and it brought back some interesting memories.

When I was a teen back in the seventies, there was no possibility of me seeing an R-rated film. My parents simply wouldn't allow it. They wouldn't even let me see some PG films (this is kind of bizarre of me to remember this, because they weren't blue-noses by any stretch of the imagination--my father had a large collection of Playboys and Penthouses). So I had never seen any films with anything more sexually explicit than kissing. Of course I was well acquainted with my fathers magazines, and I was well along my way to becoming the man I am today, that is to say, completely twisted.

However, when we moved to New Jersey in 1977 I was introduced to a new thing--cable TV. We got HBO! Now I could, when no one else was around, watch anything they showed. I distinctly remember a few of those films, and how they made me feel. One of them was Going Places.

The film was a 1974 release directed by Bertrand Blier, and concerned a couple of drifting miscreants, Gerard Depardieu and Patrick DeWaere, criss-crossing the countryside and amounting to no good. They commit petty crimes and harass people, in what I suppose was meant to be part of the "sticking it to the man" era of social behavior. They are despicable, yes, but also have a measure of charm that makes this film work as entertainment.

But what makes the film a revelation for a sixteen-year-old boy is the sex. There's a lot of it, with full nudity, mostly in the form of Miou-Miou, who plays a young woman that is simply handed from one guy to another. She ends up tagging along with the two guys, even after one of them shoots her in the leg. Though she is completely passive and treated as a sex object, she has a power over them, though, because try as they might, neither one of them can make her orgasm (there is a long scene where both of them try).

This film would not have been reviewed well by Ms. magazine. In fact, it would make an interesting case study in a women's study program beecaus its attitudes toward women. There's a scene in which Depardieu and DeWaere are on a train, and come across a woman nursing her baby. They are alone, and pay her to let DeWaere suckle on her. She is mortified but agrees (fearing for her safety, no doubt) but as he sucks on her she gets turned on. The ugly fantasy of a sexual assault victim getting aroused by her attacker should make anyone angry, but the scene has an innocence about it that alleviates the digust.

Then there's the sequence in which the boys head to a prison town to find a woman, a real woman, they say, not like the girl who can't orgasm. They pick up Jeanne Moreau, who was a legend in French cinema, and after viewing them with suspicion eventually takes them both to bed. She despairs that she has lost the ability to menstruate while in prison, and says that bleeding is what makes a woman. After her tryst she demonstrates that in grisly fashion. At the end of the film they steal the car of a picnicking family, and the teenage daughter (Isabelle Huppert) wants to ditch her bourgeois parents and take off with the criminals. At Miou-Miou's urging, the boys take the girl's virginity.

Despite some of the statements I've made, I think it's important to stress that this film is a comedy, very often laugh out loud funny. Typically, the guys will get in some scrape and Blier will quick-cut to them running for their lives. Therefore it could be assumed that the treatment of women is a satire, but I'm certainly not sure about that. It is god damned sexy, though.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ghost Town


I read somewhere that David Koepp, the writer and director of Ghost Town, was concerned that casting Ricky Gervais was a mistake, because he is basically unknown in the the U.S. Well, David, here's one guy who went to see your movie because of Ricky Gervais, who I think is a genius. And in so much that you let Gervais do this thing, you were smart.

Gervais, to those who don't know, was the creator and star of the British version of The Office, the precursor of the current NBC show. The dozen or so episodes of that show are jewels, with Gervais wickedly effective as the boss. I haven't seen any episodes of his follow-up show, Extras, so I'm glad to have gotten a chance to see him again in this romantic comedy, which is about half sparkling and half flat.

The premise is pretty simple--Gervais is a misanthropic dentist who, while undergoing a colonoscopy, is dead for seven minutes. After he is revived he realizes he can see ghosts, who are delighted, because they want someone to help them settle troubles from their lives. The pushiest of these spirits is Greg Kinnear, a philandering smooth-talker who wants Gervais to break up the engagement of Kinnear's wife, an Egyptologist played by Tea Leoni. Gervais, who is to be kind somewhat toad-like in appearance, decides to try to seduce Leoni. Zaniness ensues.

This plot is a hash of the old Cary Grant picture, Topper, plus a bit of Groundhog Day. There was also a film from last year with Eva Longoria, which I didn't see and I can't even remember the title of, that was about a ghost trying to break up a relationship. But Ghost Town has the advantage of Gervais. His specialty is the humor of embarrassment, the cringe-worthy exchanges of brutal honesty and social cluelessness (such as calling a woman he is trying to seduce an "idiot," or asking his colleague, a Hindu, for torture techniques). He is an absolute delight to watch, and drew a lot of laughs from the audience I was with. The thinness of the material, though, gives us the impression that Gervais is slumming a bit, as if Noel Coward were writing ad copy. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Gervais discusses how he has turned down several Hollywood roles, including a Pirates of the Caribbean and a remake of Arthur, so clearly the man has scruples. I would hope at some point we will see him in a film of his own creation.

Ghost Town also suffers from its director. Koepp, who is written many screenplays for Steven Spielberg, doesn't show much panache as a director of comedy. In several places the pace is all wrong, and it lacks the zip of classic screwball comedy.

I was pleasantly surprised by Tea Leoni, though. After the debacle of her performance in Spanglish, I would have never thought I could stand to watch her again, but she seems real and even desirable in this picture. Kinnear, who is no Cary Grant, is fine in a tough role as a callow asshole. This is where the Groundhog Day comparisons kick in--both Kinnear and Gervais' characters are men who come to realize they must try to be better people. Kinnear just happens to be dead.

If you're not a Ricky Gervais fan there is no particular reason to see this film, but if you are sit back and enjoy.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Custer

A while back I wrote about the film They Died With Their Boots On, a life of George Armstrong Custer that got practically every bit of historical data wrong. That got me interested in what the truth was. I have a few books on my shelf dealing with Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but the one that satisfied my need was a complete biography of his life, simply called Custer, by Jeffrey D. Wert.

Custer, according to some accounts, is second only to Lincoln in the amount of material available on him, and the Little Big Horn is number one as far as battles go, so there's no shortage of words about him. He is also an extremely controversial figure, as he has defenders and detractors. Though Wert's book is workmanlike, it is an even-handed and thorough account of a complicated man.

Custer grew up in Ohio and Michigan, and attended West Point, where he was last in his class (he constantly flirted with expulsion in the demerit system). The outbreak of the war hastened his class's graduation, and he ended up as a cavalry officer, where he distinguished himself as a leader. He was a key part of the battle of Gettysburg, and in Philip Sheridan's campaign to take back the Shenandoah Valley. He was loved by his men because he didn't have them do anything he wouldn't do. He was also vain and glory-seeking.

After the war he was stationed to Kansas, where he battled Indians at the battle of Washita, and ended up getting court-martialed because he left his post to see his wife (evidence suggests he may have been jealous). His courtship and marriage of Libby Bacon was one of the great love stories of the period. She would outlive him by close to sixty years and maintain his legacy.

But of course all of this would have been of interest to hardly anyone without the events at Little Big Horn. What makes that battle so fascinating to people? I remember once attending a class on the Old West and the professor asked--what are the two events that most people think of when they asked about the West? The answer, inevitably, is the Little Big Horn and the Alamo, and both were massacres with no survivors. It seems that we have a macabre fascination with full-scale annihilation. Also, since there were no American survivors in Custer's companies (there were other companies of the Seventh Cavalry that did survive, but were not part of "Custer's Last Stand") his motives remain a mystery. Did he simply underestimate the size and ability of the force of Indians he was about to face? Wert tells us that scouts repeatedly told him it was the largest group of Indians they had ever seen, but Custer either disbelieved them or thought they'd scatter at a charge. Were his battle tactics clouded by an addiction to glory?

Wert closes the book quickly after Custer's death, which makes sense, but I'm further interested in how Custer has been seen through the ages. Wert does say, and I think it's correct, that Custer has a hold on us because he symbolizes the collective guilt of a nation for its treatment of native people during the Western expansion. But he was not necessarily a bad guy. He was not enlightened about Indians, but he didn't seem to have any irrational temperament toward them (not like Sheridan, his commanding officer, who said "The only good Indian is a dead one"). He has been both glorified and villainized in the media, and though extensively written about remains, finally, aloof.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

I'd never seen a Wong Kar Wai film before My Blueberry Nights, so I don't have point of reference here. It is a slight, bluesy, moody film that is periodically interesting but is ultimately elusive and disposable.

The film centers on a young woman, played by singer Norah Jones, who is going through a breakup. She finds herself spending evenings at a local cafe, run by Jude Law, and they talk and eat pie (she eats the blueberry, which he tells her is perfectly good but customers always choose something else) late into the night. She longs to travel, and finally just leaves.

Her first stop is Memphis, where she gets two waitressing jobs--in a luncheonette and in a bar. She ends up befriending a cop who is also a self-pitying drunk, David Strathairn. He can't face the end of his marriage to a floozy, Rachel Weisz.

Jones then hops a bus to Nevada, and is working at casino. She ends up getting entangled with a poker player, Natalie Portman, and stakes her to a game, using Portman's car as a collateral. Portman, who trusts no one, and Jones, who trusts everyone, make a sort of odd couple as they head to Vegas to visit Portman's father.

The film is only about ninety minutes long, but seems longer, even though the plot is so simple (simplistic, really). Wong seems less interested in the plot and characters than the colors, brilliantly photographed by Darius Khondji. There is a lot of neon and fluorescent lights that look candy-coated (I think there only a few minutes that are filmed in outdoor sunlight). The character Jones plays is pretty much a blank slate, and perhaps that is why he cast a non-actor in the role. She's perfectly competent, but isn't asked to do much. Instead she observes those around her. Strathairn and Weisz are both very good, and though Portman is game she is miscast as a sort of hard-bitten card shark.

There are also some holes in the plot. Strathairn, at one point, beats a man senseless in the bar. Not only is he not arrested, he's allowed to keep his sidearm though he's blind drunk. Also, Wong makes a point of showing a clock in the casino. It's well-known that casinos don't have clocks, so I wonder if he does that to suggest this some kind of fantasy or dream, rather than a realistic film. That Wong chose three iconic American cities--New York, Memphis, and Las Vegas--as his locations suggest that he is making some sort of statement about America, but if he did it got lost in translation.

Because the film is so short it's worth a look for the photography and mood it creates, but based on Wong's reputation I would imagine this is one of his lesser works.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Lost Weekend


1945 kicked off a short spurt of socially relevant films to win Oscar's Best Picture. The winner that year was The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder, about one man's dilly of a rye bender. Alcoholism has long been catnip for Oscar, as many performers have won for playing drunks, including Ray Milland in the lead performance here. Before Milland had even been cast, Wilder predicted that whoever played the part would win the Best Actor Oscar.

The genesis of the project was Wilder picking up a book to read on a cross-country train ride. By the time he got to New York he had read Charles Jackson's novel and started making notes about the film version. In the book, the main character, Don Birnam, is a habitual drinker because of a homosexual incident in college. Of course this was completely scrubbed from the film. Instead we're led to believe he's a drinker because he never lived up to early promise as a writer.

This film is fascinating to watch, not always because it's good. It has the look and feel of a sensational B-picture, a kind of dandified Reefer Madness. It was the first film to use the theremin in the musical score, and since that instrument is so identified with sci-fi films from the fifties whenever it's spooky whine intrudes on the action I was tempted to giggle.

But, as with almost any Wilder film, there are some masterful touches. The very opening shot pulls in on Milland's apartment window, where he can be seen packing a suitcase. Noticeable in the frame is a rope hanging out the window with a bottle tied to it. It isn't focused on, just there. There is also a great scene in which Milland searches for a bottle of rye he knows he hid but has forgot where. Finally, lying on the floor, he looks up and sees the light from the chandelier on the ceiling, the shape of the bottle silhouetted.

Also in the cast are Jane Wyman, as Milland's long-suffering girlfriend. Wilder seems to acknowledge that her character is a little too saintly, and there are frequent attempts to make her a bit less spineless, but she's still hard to believe anyway. More nuanced is Milland's brother, Philip Terry, who is at first an enabler but then finally washes his hands of things. Another fine performance is by Howard DaSilva as the local bartender. Milland, of course, gives a tour de force, an intelligent man who realizes he is no match for his demons.

Some scenes do not work, though it is not really Wilder's fault. A scene in which Milland hallucinates a bat attacking a mouse is frightening except for the ridiculously fake bat, which must have been re-used years later in a Munsters episode.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Going My Way

Some films, like Casablanca, remain fresh years later. Others, like Going My Way, are as quaint as your grandmother's antimacassars. It's not hard to imagine why this film was a huge hit and won the Best Picture Oscar of 1944, but today it is a relic of a long bygone era.

The film concerns a young priest, Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) arriving at a New York church to assist it's long-tenured pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Fitzgerald is an old fuddy-duddy, set in his ways, but has the church on the brink of foreclosure. Crosby is more progressive and does things like set the local hoodlums on the straight and narrow by forming them into a choir, or making sure a runaway girl doesn't turn to the seamy side of life by giving her a few tips on how to sing.

There are a few main problems with this film. One is that the parish priest just isn't seen the same way anymore. I'm sorry to say they are not the honored authority figures they once were, due mainly to sexual scandals. There's a scene in which Crosby runs into an old flame (opera singer Rise Stevens) and when she realizes that he's now a priest she gets all glowing and apologetic. Today that seen would be played far differently--she'd probably wonder if he was gay all along.

Secondly, this film is really just a string of vignettes. There's no particular arc to the story, and the conflict, well, I'm not sure what the conflict was. There is really no tension between Crosby and Fitzgerald, for their differences are settled halfway through the film. There's some nonsense about Crosby trying to sell a song to save the church's financial bacon (this leads to best scene in the film, Crosby singing "Swingin' On a Star" with the choir), but that isn't exactly a white-knuckler. And the scenes with the local street kids are laughable. I'd like to see Father O'Malley try the same thing with the Crips and the Bloods (by the way, one of the kids is played by Carl "Alfalfa" Sweitzer). The story just kind of meanders over two hours of twinkly behavior by the two priests.

Crosby and Fitzgerald both won Oscars. Crosby was the biggest star of the time--in films, on radio, and on records. He certainly has some warmth and charisma but this is no brilliant acting job. He more or less hosts the movie. He's never called on to show any particular emotion other than concern.

The film was directed by Leo McCarey, who also won an Oscar. McCarey is an important figure in film history. He started with Hal Roach, and worked on many Our Gang comedies, and is owed a tremendous debt of gratitude for teaming Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy. He also directed the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup and the classic screwball comedy The Awful Truth (for which he won his first Oscar). Going My Way, though, has none of the panache of his earlier work. It feels like penance.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Casablanca


Casablanca was released in New York in November 1942, coinciding with the invasion of Allied troops into Africa near...Casablanca. The film was released in the rest of the country (including Los Angeles) in January, 1943, coinciding with a conference between Churchill and Roosevelt in...Casablanca. This timing meant the film, though often cited as a 1942 release, ended up as the 1943 Best Picture Oscar winner. No one thought that would happen when they were making it.

I was struck by the scholar A. L. Rowse's description of Hamlet as "the most wonderful play ever written." It's the word "wonderful" that I find interesting--not greatest, or most superb, or most brilliant, but wonderful. I think that's what I feel about Casablanca. It's not the greatest film ever made, but it's the one that I have more affection for than almost any other. How many times have I seen it? At least 20, perhaps more, and each time I am completely captivated by it, taken in by the world it invokes, lost in the romance it conveys, stunned by the ending. As Roger Ebert has said, Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made, but Casablanca is more loved.

For those who somehow have not seen it (and you should stop what you are doing and see it now) it is the story of a group of people in the Moroccan city that is termed unoccupied France, meaning that refugees from Europe gather there, hoping to get out to places like America. The best way is to catch the plane to neutral Lisbon, Portugal, but to do so you need permission. As the film begins, two German couriers are murdered, and they were carrying letters of transit signed by DeGaulle that can not be rescinded (forget that DeGaulle was the leader of Free France, not the controlling Vichy government, one of the nagging details that the film gets wrong). A weaselly criminal, played by Peter Lorre, has them, and entrusts them to the owner of the local hot spot, Rick, memorably played by Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart was still trying to shake the label of gangster heavy, which had been alleviated somewhat by The Maltese Falcon. Casablanca would propel him into the stratosphere (for my money, he's the greatest film star of all time). Rick tells everyone that he "sticks his neck out for nobody," and declares that he doesn't care who will win the war (he can't return to America). But of course this cynical man has a sentimental interior, which is brought out when he is reunited with his great love, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). She had left him unexpectedly when they were fleeing the German invasion of Paris, and he's been bitter about it ever since. Now he finds out she's married to a heroic resistance fighter (Paul Henreid).

The stuff between Bogart and Bergman is great, but it's balanced by the equally important character of Captain Renault, breezily played by Claude Rains. He is prefect of the police, and corrupt as the day as long, but filled with so much bonhomie that he is eminently lovable. The scenes between Bogart and Rains are some of the best dialogue you'll ever hear in a film, particularly when Rains asks Bogart how he came to Casablanca:

Rick: I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

Eventually Rick comes to see that the "problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," and does the noble thing, even though he says he's no good at being noble. To me, this is something of a metaphor for the perils of isolationism. Try as you might to cut yourself off from the problems of your fellow man, the good man will always be there to help, and if Rick is quintessentially an American, well, draw your own conclusions.

So why is Casablanca such a wonderful movie? Let us count the ways. The dialogue I think is perhaps the best reason. Six of its lines, more than any other picture, made the AFI list of greatest movie lines, with some of them making it into common lexicon, such as "Here's looking at you, kid," or "We'll always have Paris." And it has the greatest closing line in movie history, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." The story of how the film was pulled together on the fly, with the script being written as they went along, is well known. It was was based on an unproduced play called "Everybody Comes to Rick's."

The romance. Now, admittedly it's a bit schmaltzy. Bergman is shot in extremely flattering fashion (almost always of her left side, with gauzy filters and lighting that brings out a twinkle in her eye) but the feeling is there. The night that Rick sees her again and drunkenly implores Sam, his piano player, to play "As Time Goes By" is like a kick in the gut. And Bergman, who is asked to play a character who loves two men, pulls it off brilliantly.

Speaking of "As Times Goes By," there's the music. Max Steiner wrote the score, but "As Times Goes By" was an old Broadway show tune. He wanted to cut it, but since Bergman had cut her hair for her next role, the scenes couldn't be reshot. Thank goodness for her shorn locks, because, perhaps along with "Over the Rainbow" and "Singin' in the Rain," this song is one of the most indelibly resonant songs in cinema history. Then there's the Marseilles scene, one of the most stirring scenes I know. A group of German soldiers are singing "Watch on the Rhine," a German patriotic song. Henreid leads the house band in the French national anthem (Rick nods his approval) and the populace drown out the Nazis. Some have written this scene is too corny, but I disagree, and it gets a lump in my throat every time. Remember, when this film was made, France was still occupied by the Nazis.

Then there's the little things, like the minor characters, whether they are the employees of the Cafe, such as Carl the fussy headwaiter, or Sasha the gregarious Russian bartender, or Ferrari, the owner of Rick's rival club, The Blue Parrot, played by Sidney Greenstreet. Almost everything comes together in an alchemy that can't be bottled. The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, and the best thing he does is stay out of the way. Andrew Sarris wrote that Casablanca disproved the auteur theory. Curtiz was himself a refugee, a Hungarian by birth. He didn't have quite the full grasp on English language idioms when he accepted the Oscar for Best Director, after having been nominated a few times before without winning: "I am always the bridesmaid, never the mother."

Is it a perfect film? No--the character of Major Strasser, the evil Nazi, is on the cartoonish side, and conversely Henreid's resistance fighter is so heroic that he borders on the laughable--he even stoically forgives that his wife is in love with another man. There's also some egregiously awful rear-projection scenes. But this all easily forgiven.

Though Casablanca won the Oscar, it wasn't a huge success in box office terms. It wasn't until the 1950s, when revival theaters became popular, along with television airings, that cemented it's reputation as a classic (it is the most shown film in television history). It has since become the prime example of the mixture of the cineaste taste with that of popular appeal. I watched it on Saturday night, and I could watch it again right now.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Porn Stars, As Far As the Eye Can See!


Yesterday I spent the afternoon in a kind of glorious haze; I was an attendee at something called eXXXotica New York, a convention of the adult entertainment industry. It wasn't in New York, though, it was in Edison, New Jersey (a hastily chosen replacement for Secaucus, New Jersey, which gave the show the boot after the mayor found out about it).

I've never been to one of these before, though I have worked in the adult industry in some way for over twenty years. I've been to sci-fi and horror movie shows, and the principle is the same: different vendors set up booths peddling their wares, and to hook in the customers they have celebrities of a certain stripe signing autographs and posing for pictures. With this type of show, of course, the talent are porn stars--porn stars as far as the eye can see.

I was there at the opening of the show, before any of the stars had set up shop, so wandered around a bit, soaking it in. It was sort of like James Dobson's vision of Hell (although one organization was handing out booklets titled "Jesus Loves Porn Stars.") Dancers from a nearby strip joint were milling about, either gyrating inside of cages or zipping from station to station on Segways (leave it to the adult industry to make practical use of the latest technology). No nudity was allowed, but some girls pushed the definition by wearing nothing on their breasts but strategically placed stickers over their nipples. And nothing prevented video companies from showing hard-core pornography on video monitors. As some guy I crossed paths in the men's room said, "Fuckin' great!"

The crowd was, of course, almost all male, but there were more women than I would have thought (usually as part of a couple). It was also almost exclusively white, with just a sprinkling of Asians and a few blacks. Sure, there were the kind of guys who don't have enlightened views of women (one guy behind me in one line referred to the girl we were waiting for as a "fine bitch") but mostly the guys who show up at these sort of things, just like the standard customer at a strip club, are meek and easily dazzled by female flesh. This is why the argument that strip clubs bring crime to an area are untrue. Men who go to strip clubs become anesthetized by being so close to naked boobage.

Almost everything connected with the salacious was on sale, from dildos to sexy clothing (one company was called I Love Vagina) to DVDs. But I was there for the stars. I've met some famous people in my day (I once hung out with some of the Detroit Tigers baseball club as they drank in the hotel bar in New York City) but the celebrity face-time I've always valued most has been with those girls who do the yeomen work of fucking for the camera. God bless them.

I used to have much more connection with that world when I worked for Penthouse and I actually interviewed them for the magazine. Now I'm just another chump standing in line, but I still get a rush out of it. This particular show had some of my favorites, two of whom I've written valentines to on this blog: Sasha Grey, who personifies the new direction porn is taking, and Hillary Scott, a tiny bundle of sexual heat (most of these girls are tinier than I could have believed). But I also got the chance to talk to several other favorites, such as Jesse Jane, Lexi Love, Courtney Cummz, Audrey Bitoni, Penny Flame, Sunny Lane, Roxy DeVille, Stoya, and Teagan Presley. But my main target at this show was my new favorite star, Bree Olson (who is pictured). She made the whole thing worthwhile.

What does one say to a porn star? "I think you have a beautiful vagina?" Most of these women, if they want to be successful, make every guy feel like a king. Some do this better than others. When I got up to Sasha Grey I told her I felt like I was meeting a Beatle, and she immediately told me she had just seen Mick Jagger at a club. Wrong band, but I think she knew that and was just making a leap. Grey has a reputation not only for being a woman who performs with an almost scary gusto, she also is something of an intellectual.

For many of the others, I told them what films they had made that I had seen. Some of these girls have made dozens and dozens of movies, but most remember every one they have done, although they haven't necessarily seen them. All of them were nice, but some were more giving of their time than others. Bree Olson, though, really went the extra mile.

Olson, who kind of resembles a Nordic Christina Ricci, burst on the scene last year. She won the AVN Award (the most prestigious of the myriad awards given) for Best New Starlet. I have been spending my summer trying to rapidly assemble a decent collection of her films (I will never have them all, she already has more than 100, and she's only just shy of 22 years old). Her gimmick is the sweet, girl next door type that happens to be filthy during sex, and making that all seem genuine. She's from a small town of Indiana, and has a girlish lilt to her voice, but when she's having sex (much of it of the anal variety) she can let loose a string of obscenities that almost make me blush. She especially has a penchant for referring to herself as a "two-dollar whore." Yowza!

When I got to the head of the line, Bree used her gifts to make me feel like we'd known each other forever. Since I'm a friend on her MySpace account, I knew that her grandmother had recently passed away, so I offered my condolences and she seemed to appreciate that. Then she signed my picture thusly: "You are so cute! I love older men, and wanna fuck you back!" Dear Bree, you have a fan for life!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Burn After Reading


The mixed reviews for Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading just go to show that there's no telling what one person will think is funny and another not. I, for one, laughed often and merrily during this film, which is a souffle compared to the brisket that was No Country for Old Men. And lest you think I'm just a sucker for the Coens, well, not always--I thought Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were dreadful.

As I sat in my seat, at about the halfway mark through the film, I realized, much to my amazement, that I had no idea where it was going, and therefore will reveal as little as possible about the plot. The script, an original by the Coen boys, concerns a disgraced CIA agent (John Malkovich), his harridan wife (Tilda Swinton), a dimwitted personal trainer (Brad Pitt), his colleague, a woman keen on undergoing several thousand dollars worth of plastic surgery (Frances McDormand), and a vain bodyguard with a knack for constructing elaborate sex toys (George Clooney). Watching how these characters end up crossing paths is both a giddy delight and a primer on screenplay construction.

To overuse a phrase, the "McGuffin" in this piece is a disc containing some files that is somehow appropriated from Malkovich and ends up in the hands of Pitt and McDormand. Set in a paranoid Washington, D.C., where everyone seems to be wearing an ear-piece, the resulting cloak and dagger stuff is distinctly in a light-hearted tone, though there is some serioius mayhem that results. But hey, these are the same guys who induced chuckles at having Steve Buscemi put through a wood-chipper.

Manohla Dargis, in her dispirited review, censured this film for having a lack of heart, to which I profoundly disagree. Yes, there is hardly a sympathetic character in sight (I think the only one is Richard Jenkins, the gym manager who has a crush on McDormand) but the zeal of the characters' emotions are palpable. Malkovich is a man who suffers at the hands of fools (at one point he proclaims that he is against a "league of morons" and brandishes the F word as if it were an epee. Pitt clamps onto his character like a dog with a bone, almost to the point where you can smell the brain-smoke as he tries to formulate a plan. I don't remember an actor getting so many laughs just from the simple act of sucking his drink through a straw, a vacant expression on his face. Clooney has some of the best opportunities, and seems to relish playing a complete cad, a man who carries his own foam wedge to sexual assignations (if you don't know what those are, you've clearly never studied the ads in the back of Playboy).

The humor in this film is as black as the ace of spades, and could be mistaken for a novel by Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen, as the stupid and venal are punished with alacrity. Unfortunately, some of this is doled out off-screen, in wickedly humorous briefing scenes with CIA agents played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons. It's as if the Coens had given themselves a time limit and the sand ran out just before the film's end. On the other hand, perhaps it's best that we contemplate these sorry figures dealing with the repercussions in our own imaginations. It's far less bloody that way.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mrs. Miniver

By 1942 World War II was in full force, and it is understandable that the Oscar for that year's films went to a movie that today seems like so much propagandist poppycock. One can watch Mrs. Miniver and have two thoughts simultaneously--it really is shameless, and gosh it's very well made.

The film was directed by William Wyler, who also won for Best Director (he would win twice more, and end up with twelve nominations for his career, as well has steering more actors to Oscars than any other director). It is the story of a supposedly simple English family who endure the Battle of Britain with the characteristic stiff upper lip of those from that island. However, at no time did I believe any of it.

Not that I don't believe that the English were resolute and courageous during what must have been a hellish period in their history. But the events of this film are so tidy and white-washed that it undermines the tension. The film begins with Mr. and Mrs. Miniver, played by Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson, having a sit-com like interlude where each one buys something extravagant. They are supposed to be middle-class, but seem to be pretty well-off to me, with a maid and a cook. They have two small children and another son (Richard Ney), just back from college. He's all full of ideas about the rights of man, and railing against the feudal system that still lingers in the person of Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), the local shred of royalty who looks down her nose at every one. Of course, by the end of the film, he's married into the family and Ney and Whitty are sharing a hymn book, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" in a bombed-out church.

What I didn't believe about Mrs. Miniver is that none of the characters have a meltdown. For example, there's a well-filmed scene in which Garson finds a German flyer in her garden. He's wounded, but pulls a gun on her and has her feed him. The whole thing is ruined when instead of showing us that Germans are people, too, he tells her that they will soon destroy her country and kill them all. So much for understanding your enemy. I contrast that with a film like All Quiet on the Western Front and want to wring my hands. After she gets the upper hand on him and he's captured she goes about her day as normal. Now if I had been held hostage by a Nazi in my kitchen I think I would have had a private moment where I allowed myself to go to pieces. Not Mrs. Miniver, though.

A few notes: Pidgeon, who was from Canada and doesn't even attempt an English accent, starred in two straight Best Picture winners, which wouldn't happen again until Russell Crowe in 2000-2001. The film was the first to earn five nominations for Best Acting (Garson won, as did Teresa Wright, who played her daughter-in-law, Pidgeon, Whitty and Henry Travers were also nommed [Travers is best known as playing Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life]). When Garson won her award, she gave a speech that lasted nearly six minutes, which has since become perhaps the biggest part of her legacy (and for me, her narration of the animated Christmas special The Little Drummer Boy). Sometime later she would end up marrying Ney, the actor who played her son. I thought those scenes when they kissed looked a little more intense than a mother and son should be kissing.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Herringbone

The McCarter Theater in Princeton kicked off its season in austerity mode. A fancy new musical was supposed to be the first offering, but it was scrubbed for cost reasons and replaced with another musical, but a musical with a cast of one (and three musicians).

Herringbone, with a book by Tom Cone, music by Skip Kennon, and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, was brilliantly performed by BD Wong, who many may know as the psychiatrist on one of the myriad Law and Order shows. It's a strange tale, summarized simply as being about an eight-year-old boy who is possessed by the spirit of a dead dwarf vaudevillian.

Wong plays many parts, including the boys' parents, grandmother, a tailor, and a hotel barmaid, in addition to the usurping vaudevillian (known as "The Frog") and his partner, "The Chicken." It's set in 1929, and the opening number, "One of Those Years," is certainly apt, as not only the country but the young boy, George, is certainly having one of those years. After winning a speech contest, George is suddenly able to sing and tap dance, and his father, with dollar signs in his eyes, takes the family on the road. It's then that the Frog makes his presence known.

There's no denying the incredible performance that Wong gives. He's onstage the entire time, and called on to sing, dance, and do many voices, as well as feats of athleticism. The director, Roger Rees, has even chosen to have Wong's dressing room on stage, so he is visible as he prepares, rests during the intermission, and decamps after the show as the crowd is filing out. (I was tempted to linger and see how long he actually stays on stage). This gives the evening a kind of "meta" look. When exactly does the performance begin and end?

As sure as I am about Wong I'm not so sure about the play itself. It is certainly different, that's for sure. The ending turns quite eye-raising, as the Frog, in George's body, mind you, picks up a barmaid and has sex with her (and remember Wong is playing all the parts). Realizing the Frog won't leave him, George climbs onto a window ledge and threatens to jump. I'm not quite sure how it ends--is George telling his story from the afterlife?

There's nothing particularly memorable about the songs, though some of the lyrics are quite clever. This is really an opportunity to watch a gifted actor at work, and for that it was all worth it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How Green Was My Valley

Continuing my look at the Best Picture Oscar winners...

How Green Was My Valley took top honors in 1941, and today that victory is probably best-remembered because it beat out Citizen Kane (and The Maltese Falcon, one of my all-time favorites, to boot). If the film comes up in conversation today it usually is part of wondering how in the world Kane lost. Well, a simple look at the history tells why Kane lost, most of Hollywood hated it, and it was a box-office bust. And it's a shame, because though How Green Was My Valley is no Citizen Kane, it is still a terrific picture.

Valley is the story of a family in a Welsh mining town during the Victorian era, and as such, is a tear-jerker, which the Academy has long valued more than intellectual works of art like Citizen Kane. Directed by John Ford, and based on a best-selling novel, the film is lavish in sentiment and old-fashioned values like loyalty and community. It's easy to be cynical and dismiss these values, but Ford's brilliance as a filmmaker makes this all work.

The Morgan family are headed by Donald Crisp and Sarah Allgood (both Oscar-nominated, Crisp won). They have six sons and one daughter, and all the boys end up working in the coal mine. One of them is quite a bit younger, Roddy McDowall, and his character narrates the story looking back as an adult. The daughter, Maureen O'Hara, loves the town minister, Walter Pidgeon, but marries the mine-owner's son, whom she does not love, because Pidgeon says he won't see her live in poverty. There is also labor-strife, a fall through the ice, a mean schoolmaster, and other assorted episodes, both tragic and comic, throughout the story.

This Twentieth-Century Fox production was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, who originally wanted William Wyler to direct and it to be shot in Technicolor, in an attempt to duplicate the success of Gone With the Wind. It was also hoped to be shot on location in Wales, but after the war broke out, Wales became a target for the German Luftwaffe and instead Malibu had to do. It also ended up in Ford's hands, and in black and white, photographed by Arthur Miller, who won the Oscar (as did Ford, his second in a row as Best Director). It did end up a smash hit, though, the highest-grossest picture of the year.

This is the kind of movie that you can stumble across on a Sunday afternoon or late-night on TV and watch for a while, not necessarily to the end. I had seen parts of it before (I vividly remember the schoolmaster getting his comeuppance for daring to savagely beat poor Roddy McDowall) but I don't think I'd ever seen the whole thing through before this time. It's a very good film and, interestingly enough, John Ford's favorite of his films.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Elegy


A while back I wrote about Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal which has now been made into a film, titled Elegy. It was directed by Isabel Croixet and written by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote an adaptation of another Roth novel, The Human Stain.

The film deals with a man coming to grips with aging, and of course this means having sex with much younger women. Ben Kingsley is David Kepesh, a literature professor and TV intellectual. We first see him on the Charlie Rose show, talking about the Puritan ancestry of America (he mentions that contemporary to Plymouth colony was one called Marymount, where hedonism was rampant, but Miles Standish chopped down their maypole and the new land was covered with a cloak of Puritanism). Kingsley's character is a sexual being, who was married once but calls it a mistake, and he has a sometime lover (Patricia Clarkson) who visits him every few weeks. But he still has roving eyes for his students, whom he seduces after he turns in their grades.

Enter Penelope Cruz as a young Cuban woman (she is made a few years older than she was in the book). She and Kingsley enter into an affair, but he finds himself more entranced by her than his usual conquest. His sounding board is a poet friend, Dennis Hopper, who advises him to break it off before it gets too serious, but Kingsley is too far gone. But he still can't take the normal steps to commitment, such as meeting her parents.

I liked the first part of this film, but by the end it had wriggled off the hook and escaped me. In the book David Kepesh is a complete cad, but Coixet and Meyer humanize him a bit more here, but at the same time make him less interesting. We hear a lot of his thoughts, but not the vile ones in the book. A scene in which Clarkson finds a tampon in his bathroom and accuses him of sleeping with other women, in which Kingsley lies his way out of it like a champ, has a softer fuzzier tone that the ruthlessness of the novel. The last third of the film is simply Kingsley acting the part of an old guy feeling sorry for himself, and that is not particularly compelling.

I did admire a good portion of the film, though. Cruz is almost one-eighty-degrees away from her performance as the batshit crazy femme fatale in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She is reserved, as a girl from a conservative Cuban family would be, but also sexy and with a firm resolve. And her long langourous scenes of nudity don't hurt. Hopper, in a role that is almost purely a plot function, manages to make his scenes sing, and Clarkson is good as well. Peter Sarsgaard has some nice moments as Kingsley's embittered son. The photography by Jean-Claude Larrieu provides some arresting images, particularly of a foggy seacoast and a brief but memorable shot of Bethesda Fountain in a snowstorm.

Ultimately I give his film a thumbs up with some serious reservations.

Monday, September 08, 2008

They Died With Their Boots On

Released in 1942, They Died With Their Boots On is a perfectly fine Western, with some well-shot battle footage and an excellent and sly performance by Errol Flynn. The one thing it fails at, spectacularly, is as history. Flynn plays George Custer, one of the most written-about men in U.S. history, and practically none of the facts are correct. If you have any knowledge of him or the Battle of the Little Big Horn, check it at the door.

The film was directed by Raoul Walsh, as Flynn had had a falling out with Michael Curtiz and demanded a new director. He did have Olivia DeHavilland as his usual co-star, but it would be the last time they would work together. The film covers Custer's life from the time he entered West Point to his death at the hands of Crazy Horse (played by a very young Anthony Quinn), and appears to have been shaped by his wife Libbie's hagiography (she outlived her husband by almost sixty years and built his legend). It's interesting to see how Custer's reputation has changed over the years--by 1970 he would be depicted as a fool by Richard Mulligan in Little Big Man. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.

Custer's West Point years, which constitute almost half of the film, are depicted in a light-hearted, almost comic vein. It starts with him showing up and being hazed in a gag that was seen in a Laurel and Hardy movie, A Chump at Oxford. This hazing earns him a life-long enemy, played by Arthur Kennedy. The college humor ends poignantly, though, when war is declared and the Southern cadets leave to take up arms for the Confederacy.

Custer is then shown winning battles in the Civil War and bedeviling superiors who hate him. There are all sorts of historical inaccuracies, from how he met Libbie to his being appointed as a brevet (or temporary) general during the war. It was not through a clerical error, as the film has it. Nor was he ever out of the army after the war.

Perhaps the most outrageous lie the film tells is that Custer knew exactly what he was getting into when he led the Seventh Cavalry to their last stand, vastly outnumbered, in some kind of noble sacrifice. Custer is also depicted as being sympathetic to the Indian cause (one of the first Hollywood films to take such a tack). But despite these outrages against history, there is an undeniable power to some of the scenes, especially one in which Libbie helps Custer prepare to leave and they both know it will be for the last time (all the more poignant because DeHavilland realized, deep down, that she would never work with Flynn again). When he leaves, Walsh has the camera pull away from DeHavilland, and she faints after Custer has left the room.

My advice: watch They Died With Their Boots On if you like old-fashioned Westerns, but do not watch in place of doing actual research on a paper on George Custer.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Confession

I'm learning, as I read more of the Hard Case Crime series, that they are a hit-and-miss affair. For every outstanding work (most of them seem to be written by Laurence Block), there is a dud. The Confession, a new work by Domenic Stansberry, is the nadir so far. It is an unpleasant, dreary and most unforgivably, boring book.

The novel is a first-person narrative by Jake Danser, a forensic psychologist who hires out to legal teams to testify as to the sanity of criminal defendants. He is a character who is without a redeeming quality, a philanderer and a narcissist (he is vain about his hair, which he wears in a pony-tail). For 218 pages one must endure reading the inner-most thoughts of a guy who most would dismiss as a douchebag.

A book narrated by a prick isn't automatically bad, though. This one has the additional problem of being not very interesting. We learn that Danser is married to an older woman who happens to be rich. He also has a mistress, who ends up getting murdered--strangled with Danser's necktie. The murder doesn't occur until more than half the book is over, but since the jacket copy tells us that it will happen one reads the book and wonders when it will kick into gear.

The book doesn't work as a whodunit, as we never really learn the hard facts of who the killer is, although it suggested in a gimmick that was first used by Agatha Christie decades ago. It also doesn't work as a character study, as Danser is so noxious that it's impossible to raise any empathy for his situation. Stansberry also writes in a misogynistic strain, which was common in pulp mysteries from the old days, but not appropriate for something written in the twenty-first century.

The Confession was so bad that it's enough to make me think twice before reading another Hard Case Crime book.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Rest Is Noise


One of the pleasures of committing to read all ten books chosen by The New York Times Book Review's top books of 2007 is that it compels me to read books about subjects I would have never otherwise broached. The Rest Is Noise, by Alex Ross, is just such a book, as it deals with the history of classical music during the twentieth century. Or more precisely, it could be said to be a history of the twentieth-century through the prism of the music composed. This is a sprawling, entertaining and informative book that deals far more than just with composers and their work.

There are problems with the book for the reader who is not well-versed in musicology. For one thing, it doesn't come with musical accompaniment, so no matter how gifted Ross is in describing music (and he's very good--I've written music criticism in my day and I find it to be very difficult) nothing can match actually listening to the music he's writing about. This would make an awesome documentary, either for television or radio. Also, when he gets into the nuts of bolts of the music, writing about chord changes, atonal music, twelve-tone, etc. he might as well be writing in Klingon for readers like me. Consider this passage: "The first notes on the clarinet are simply a rising scale, but it is split down the middle: the first half belongs to a C-sharp major, the second half to G major. This is an unsettling opening, for several reasons. First, the notes C-sharp and G are separated by the interval known as tritone, and one half-step narrower than the perfect fifth." Now, I know what a clarinet is, but the rest of that is meaningless to me.

Fortunately, that kind of technical writing isn't dominant, and instead we get lots of cultural history. Ross begins the book with the debut of Richard Strauss's opera Salome, attended by his colleague Gustav Mahler. These two men frame the opening chapters, along with Arnold Schoenberg, who experimented with atonality, and Igor Stravinsky, who composed the controversial ballet The Rite of Spring. A revolution was going on in music, and lots of feathers were getting ruffled. Composers learned from each other, and took opposite tracks on the purpose of their work. I loved this quote about Schoenberg and his student, Alban Berg: "Schoenberg envied Berg his successes, while Berg envied Schoenberg his failures."

The book's middle section is a fascinating look at state-sponsored music in three nations: Germany under Hitler, Russia under Stalin, and the U.S. under Roosevelt. Of the three leaders, only Roosevelt couldn't be bothered with music. Hitler and Stalin, it turns out, were passionate music buffs, and spent a lot of time interfering with their composers, kind of like George Steinbrenner making late night calls to his managers. The difference was if you disappointed Hitler or Stalin there could be far graver consequences.

In the post-war era, classical music took on stranger and stranger attributes, perhaps best signified by avant-garde composers like John Cage, who composed something called 4'33", which was nothing more than a performer sitting at a piano for that time period, playing not a single note. Eventually jazz and rock and roll would intermingle with classical. Ross is no snob, he discusses how composers influenced rock artists like The Beatles and vice versa, and spends a few pages discussing in detail The Velvet Underground and Bjork.

Perhaps most interesting is the journey that classical music took over a hundred years. As Ross points out: "At the beginning of the century, composers were cynosures on the world stage, their premieres mobbed by curiosity seekers, their transatlantic progress chronicled by telegraphic bulletins, their deathbed scenes described in exquisite detail...A hundred years on, contemporary classical composers have largely vanished from the radar screen of mainstream culture...From a distance, it might appear that classical music itself is veering toward oblivion...to the cynical onlooker, orchestras and opera houses are stuck in a museum culture, playing to a dwindling cohort of aging subscribers and would-be elitists who take satisfaction from technically expert if soulless renditions of Hitler's favorite works. Magazines that once put Bernstein and Britten on their covers now have time only for Bono and Beyonce. Classical music is widely mocked as a stuck-up, sissified, intrinsically un-American pursuit. The most conspicuous music lover in modern Hollywood film is the fey serial killer Hannibal Lecter, moving his bloody fingers in time to the Goldberg Variations."

But Ross goes on to say the picture is not so bleak, and there are still many interesting and creative things going on in classical music, in countries all over the world. I think Ross's book is a significant entry way into discovering this music. He includes a handy list of essential recordings in an appendix, and I just might set about filling in some gaps in my record collection.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Sea Hawk

1940 saw Errol Flynn in another swashbuckling epic, again directed by Michael Curtiz, and again involving intrigue in the court of Queen Elizabeth. The Sea Hawk was roughly based on the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, who was a privateer (a classy name for a pirate) who also served the interests of England during war with Spain. And though set in 1585, The Sea Hawk can be seen as an allegory for the building conflict between England and Germany.

The beginning of the film shows Philip, the King of Spain, standing before a large map of the world and contemplating the day when it will all be his, which is akin to the floating-globe sequence in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (which was released the same year). Claude Rains is the oily Spanish ambassador, and he accompanies his niece, Brenda Marshall, on a diplomatic trip to England. On the way there, the ship is waylaid by Flynn's ship. The ship is sunk and treasures looted, but Rains and Marshall are treated decorously (Flynn, in a moment of lovesickness, returns Marshall's jewels to her).

This is an outrage to Spain, who demands Flynn's arrest, but the Queen, played by Flora Robson, pays lip service, but realizes she's got a good thing with Flynn. Together they plot a raid on a Spanish town in Panama, and try to keep it secret from Elizabeth's councillor (played by Henry Daniell, in another deliciously wicked performance). Spies intercept the information, though, and Flynn and his men are captured and enslaved in a galley. Can he possibly escape and bring the plans of the construction of the Spanish Armada to Elizabeth's attention?

The Sea Hawk is a remarkably well-constructed and envisioned film. Though shot in black and white, it is not wanting for arresting visuals, particularly in the use of shadow. Though ostensibly a pirate movie, less than half of it takes place at sea, and the opening scene is the only full-scale pirate action. Instead there is much palace shenanigans. Robson, especially contrasted with Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, makes a wonderful sovereign, much more shaded and nuanced. She and Flynn, though not cast as romantically involved, have much better chemistry.

The closing sword fight, between Flynn and Daniell, is rightly regarded as one of the best in cinema history, with Flynn managing to bifurcate candles while dueling. Curtiz is to be commended for this scene, because Daniell could not fence. Instead a body double is used, along with strategically placed closeups of Daniell with a sword in his hand. If I hadn't known that info going on I would have never guessed.

Audiences nervous about German aggression wouldn't miss how the film paints Philip as Hitler-like and Elizabeth as Churchillian, particularly in her final speech, about England being the last great hope for freedom.

The Sea Hawk is a big, glorious spectacle that is a terrific representation of the Hollywood golden era, and present Flynn perhaps at his best, an actor who never got much respect as a thespian, perhaps because he is so self-assured a performer that what he does on screen seems ridiculously easy.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

America's Hottest Governor

A media tsunami struck over the weekend when John McCain tapped little-known governor of Alaska to be his running mate. It's been such a big topic that it overwhelmed coverage of Hurricane Gustav and had reporters researching the city council minutes from the little town of Wasilla, Alaska. Then, as if it wasn't enough that a former beauty queen was asked to be one aneurysm away from the White House, it was revealed that her seventeen-year-old daughter was pregnant. I'm sure it's a great time to be a political reporter.

I had heard of Sarah Palin, which probably puts me in a very small minority, but only because Wonkette, a political web site I read daily with glee, had proclaimed her "America's Hottest Governor," or GILF, upon her election. Who could have dreamed, at the time, that she would be catapulted to national prominence? Maybe John McCain is confusing the presidential election with the Miss America pageant.

I'm not sure what aspect of this fiasco to address first. I guess the primary thing is how this selection reflects McCain's judgement, or lack of it. Clearly this was a gut decision for him, and also a gimmick (can anyone say with a straight face that Palin wasn't selected because she's a woman?). When Barack Obama didn't choose a woman as his running mate, McCain seized upon the chance to make a move for women, specifically white middle-class women, supposedly disaffected because of Hillary Clinton losing. Secondly, if this is how McCain makes his decisions then I think we should be very worried if he becomes president, as the man clearly has no intellectual heft. He's one of those seat-of-the-pants guys who scoff at research and can lead people right into a ditch.

What is the requirement of a vice-president? To break ties in the Senate, which anyone with half a brain can do, and be ready to become president. Sarah Palin is not ready to be president. Less than two years ago she was the mayor of a town with less than 10,000 people. As governor she had less constituents than the population of Fort Worth, Texas. She has absolutely zero foreign policy advice. When she accepted the job, could she name the breakaway republics in Georgia? The president of Afghanistan? No doubt she is cramming this information now in preparation for a debate with Joe Biden. I wonder if flash cards are being used.

To compare her experience, or lack of it, to Barack Obama is absurd. He was president of Harvard Law Review, a professor of constitutional law, and is a U.S. Senator, which means he has been involved in all issues, foreign and domestic. And if managerial experience is so important, than what of John McCain? He and Obama have equal experience as executives. Watching Republican spin doctors drink the Kool-Aid here is pathetic.

As for Palin's daughter, Bristol, I feel sorry for her. What kind of parent, knowing her teenage daughter is going through a difficult time, takes a job that she knows will expose her child's delicate condition to the media? I think if I had a kid in that situation, I would have passed on the job, but that's just me. And is Bristol's pregnancy an issue? Only because Palin is a supporter of abstinence-only sex education and slashed programs for unwed teen mothers in Alaska. Apparently that abstinence-only stuff didn't work in the Palin household. Bristol Palin will get all the best care for her baby, but can the same be said for other unwed teen mothers in Alaska?

Who knows how this will affect the race. I'm still amazed that the U.S. fell for the moron that's now in office (twice!) so I can sit here and fume all I want, that doesn't mean the American people won't be duped. I do know that Palin's positions, where she has them, are extreme--no abortion even in the case of rape or incest, full supporter of the National Rifle Association--two issues that suburban white women are on the other side of, by the way. Republicans are trying to make honest inquiries into her background as sexism in action, which I don't think will work. I'm still pretty sure Obama will hang on and win this thing, but the alternative has me very scared.