Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Scaramouche, can you do the fandango?

Jim Henson may be dead, but his spirit lives on. As does Freddie Mercury's. Enjoy. And happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Project blogway: fin

And so it ends, not with a bang, but with an endless parade of black clothes in Bryant Park.

I think back to the glory days: Chloe and Daniel V. and Santino; Christian and Jillian and Remi and Chris March. And then, in the wink of Heidi's eye...we're left with this. As the functional member of the household put it: "You don't even want to watch it again. And who would have imagined that?"

Had I had enough orange skin to vote (and what was that facial hair Michael Kors sprouted?), I would have gone with CarolHannahMontanaBanana, simply because she used (shhh!) color! Her thirteenth look was easily the best dress of the evening, and the purples looked good on the Sylvania here. But apparently, consistency triumphs over creativity in the end: MeanaIrina's looks clearly fit together as a collection better than the other two. But who wants fashion that not only looks like but was explicitly designed to be something to be worn on The Road? As for Althea: Meh.

My hope here is that Lifetime and Bunim/Murray caught enough flak from the fans that they can fix the problems. Then again, given the "best collections ever" and "strong designers!" comments prominently featured this week, I may be dealing with the proverbial dream deferred. In any case, it was fun to see Tim Gunn fluskatrated for the first time maybe ever: Now he knows how we feel.


I hope that those of you who check in here once in a while have looked at the list of blogs on the left hand side of the page. I could not be happier with what the students are doing and doing well. Indeed, the blogging seems to have brought with it a greater awareness of clarity and structure than the usual in-class work does. Pick hit of the moment: Truth Bombs' review of the Beatles RockBand game. But there's a lot else that's good in here. Enjoy it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Be seeing you?

I have yet to see the entirety of AMC's remake/remodel of The Prisoner, but thus far, I'm less than impressed. To be fair, my memory of the 1960s British original makes it difficult for me to accept any attempts to recapture that zeitgeist, but even on its own terms, this series comes up short.

What AMC has given us, pure and simple, is less a remake/remodel of The Prisoner than it is Lost II, with The Village standing in for The Island. In the first episode, we even get protagonist Number 6 telling us that he's "lost." All that's missing is the smoke monster. We also get the obligatory reference to Twin Peaks (love that ceiling fan!), and the hyperkinetic editing and reliance on absurd rack focuses that connote Edgy TV.

The second episode opens things up some -- we find out a little more about 6's background, and the connections between past and present become more clear. But that's marred by a cheap nod to star Jim Caviezel's previous career as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, with Pilate showing up on Gesthemane carting a grenade. Pilate in this case is played by Ian McKellen, doing his slimy powerful shtick one too many times -- I can predict already that the mask will fall, revealing the pathetic evil within before it is necessarily destroyed.

That's the show considered without the original. With the original, it's hard to see why this went beyond storyboarding. AMC has, wisely or not, posted the original ITC series online. Just watch the 2 1/2-minute intro of episode one to see all the invention and excitement this version lacks. A meditation on the existential relationship between the individual and the state, the original Prisoner spoke to both right and left, both Brit and Yank, in a bizarre psychedelic lingua franca that was entirely of its time. The AMC version lacks both the philosophic intent and the political urgency of the original. It's simply must-see TV for people who can't think outside of must-see TV -- although they've at least retained The Bubble.

btw, if you want to read a really interesting analysis of the original Prisoner, you might want to check out this book.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Project blogway, part fuenf

So let me get this straight (in every sense of the term): On a network whose target audience is female and that is trying to gain a foothold in younger demographics, and on a show produced by the same people responsible for The Real World, the three finalists are all women between the ages of 23 and 26? Gee, how did that work out?

Granted, the finalists on the Bravo/Magical Elves version of PR always included a flamboyant gay guy (or in Santino and Jeffrey's cases, a flamboyant omnisexual guy). But they were (usually) good! And (always) interesting! The best that can be said for Meana Irina, Blonde Althea, and CarolHannahMontanaBanana as designers is that they are competent, and as personalities is that they all have astonishing overbites. (Maybe we're setting up the new Project Orthodontics series.) Ra'mon and his mysterious apostrophe may have been a bit on the Minnesota Nice side of things, but even the Lizard Queen outfit for which he was aufed was more creative than what the final three have done. And Nicholas, though hardly the talent of Uncle Nick or Daniel V. (to say nothing of Christopher), at least had some drama about him. 

To be fair, one is always amazed that anyone can pull together anything in the day or so the contestants have here, and to say that this year's finalists suck conveniently ignores the fact that the best I could do with scissors, needles and fabric in 24 hours would come down to making a tourniquet to stop the arterial bleeding. But: This is television! Show off! Be interesting! Be funny! Even if Lifetime just wants you to be role models and Bunim/Murray just wants you to be a PG-rated Girls Gone Wild! Make a dress out of SlimJims and crack penis jokes while you're doing it! It's what Andrae would have done!

But I suspect all we're going to get in this year's finale is backstories that are noble and clothes that are wearable and Tim Gunn, looking ever more uncomfortable as he wonders if the old gig back at Parsons might be available again.

Project Runblog

As noted way back, the existence of this blog is due in large part to a course I teach on opinion writing that this year has gone to include blogging. We have now reached that part of the course, so in the next few days, you will find links to sites established by 16 new members of the blogosphere. Their first assignment was a 300-word piece on any topic, the point being to keep things as short as possible. (Usual length is 600-800 words.) What we have learned thus far: Links are incredibly useful tools, especially when going short, and precision and correctness are even more important in online writing than they are in writing for the press. (I know, "perfect" is the enemy of "done," but "sloppy" is also the enemy of "being taken seriously.") I invite you to check out their work as we all proceed here.  

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Project blogway, part fyra

Random notes:

It's becoming increasingly clear that the aufing of Ra'mon and his curious apostrophe a month ago was a terrible mistake. His work was by far the most interesting of anyone this season, and he was a good presence in the workroom. Now we're left with mediocre work at best -- it's hard to imagine anyone left making the final four of any previous season -- and personalities better suited for Project NPRunway. One wouldn't have imagined Bunim/Murray being conservative in casting, but the Lifetime PR has noticeably cut back on the drama and its queens, not to anyone's benefit.

Farewell at last to Nicholas, living proof that our emphasis on self-esteem in childhood leads to a sorry grasp on reality as an adult. One of my colleagues dislikes him less for that than for what she calls his "pumpkin head," a cranium so round it could have been the model for Charlie Brown. She's right, too.

And speaking of orange heads, how good it is to have Michael Kors and Nina Garcia back...although the cheap promo for the "world-famous designer" this week was more than a little vomitorious. To his credit, he didn't look entirely pleased with the setup.

And speaking of world-famous designers, Milla Jovavich seemed to know a good deal more about the trade than her fellow world-famous designers Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, and Christina Aguilera. I'd actually trust her on a shopping trip to Kohl's.

And speaking of shopping trips to Kohl's, when is Christopher going to be sent back to Shakopee? Not since Vincent have we seen such a lengthy run of really bad work...yet the Turk* always seems to find someone who's even worse. It can't last forever.

*The Turk is, in professional sports, the name given to the anonymous spirit who designates the team member who is to be cut. Of course, in Project Runway, perhaps the appropriate designation is the Bavarian.

Double shot of your love

Wired checks in on the vaccination brouhaha. Again, anyone who has had a child in a daycare laid waste by rotavirus just has to ask: Why? And please note: Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy are the leaders of this movement. Context: The star of Dumb and Dumber and a person who has made a career out of being a dumb blonde. Well, I think I'd rather leave the fate of my family to people who know something about anything than to a talking asshole and his girlfriend.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Happiness is a warm vaccine

Of course, why read me when you can watch Jon Stewart?

Vaccination can be fun

As the parent of a seven-year-old diagnosed with asthma, and as an employee of an institution where almost 10 percent of the students are down with H1N1, I am frustrated, nay, infuriated by nothing more at the moment than the ideologues who won't vaccinate their children or themselves because it's either Commie juice or an effort by Pharma to take us all for a ride. (I know representatives of both points of view.) This piece from Slate, while presenting the problem in extremis, nonetheless makes the necessary point that the decision not to vaccinate sets off a whole lot more chaos a whole lot closer to home than the flapping of a butterfly's wings in China. "Responsibility for oneself is in truth responsibility with respect to the man, and that means responsibility with respect to mankind," writes theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And in that light, what could be less responsible than an adult making a choice that deliberately puts children at risk?  

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Light of my life, fire of my loins

As promised, a report on the opinion writing/blogging class' response to Lester Bangs' Humbert-Humbert-on-meth-and-Everclear (banned book Lolita being the source of today's title) devotional to Anne Murray

1) The question, to respond to one comment, was not whether students in 2009 would know who Linda Lovelace was (the question never arose, so to speak) but whether they would know who Anne Murray was/is. For those who had never seen her infomercial or who didn't have parents for whom "Danny's Song" or "Snowbird" was required listening every fracking day, I was able to cross the great divide with the equation Anne Murray:1973 :: Celine Dion:2009. (I should add that I was immediately corrected by one student, who informed us all that Celine Dion was far more "sluttastic" than Anne Murray...a not insignificant point for the review.) (And I do intend to use the word "sluttastic" again.)

2) And, to respond to another comment, the words beginning the discussion were: "Is this a joke?" I'm not sure we ever answered the question to the asker's satisfaction, but the conversation was spirited. As I expected, opinions diverged wildly from those morbidly offended to those who thought it absolutely rocked, and from those who found it a sarcastic joke to those who thought that he reallio trulio liked the album. (Which he did.) (And, in the backatcha category, Murray reportedly loved the review.) 

3) The best comment, though, was from one woman who was less than enchanted with the review: "This couldn't get printed today!" (Hello, Banned Books Week!) And she was right, in a way that went beyond her initial intent. We had spent the previous half-hour looking at reviews from USA TodayRolling Stone, Blender and Spin, the longest of which was 240 words and the most stylistically daring of which didn't use lyrics. We also looked at an online review of M. Ward's latest CD that demonstrated fully the great weakness of online reviews: the lack of an editor. Just in the decade in which I've offered this course, the decline in the quantitative measure of reviews, to say nothing of the qualitative measure, has been like watching the print equivalent of The Biggest Loser. So to have Lester Bangs roll in from 35 years ago, coked to the gills and ready to shoot his wad, figuratively and literally, in a 900-word piece that makes Anne Murray ferchristssake an aural porn goddess was something far more jarring than just his language would suggest. 

4) We followed that review, which was published in Creem in 1973, with a Bangs review of Brian Eno's Before and After Science from the 1978 Village Voice. The response to this Bangs piece was pretty much meh -- an interesting and enlightening comment on the way in which the audience shapes the review and the power of the reviewer. You have to work a lot harder to convince an audience of 19-year-old Pete Townshend wannabes that Anne Murray is the real deal than you do to sell an audience of downtown hipster doofuses on Eno. That might be something those of us turning to the Interwebs as a medium should think about more carefully.  

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Here's some further listage on banned books -- or, to be more exact in these cases, banned prose. (Leaves of Grass and Howl, among other works of poetry, are missing.) A point worth making: One should not assume that the efforts to ban particular works necessarily represent a given political stance. Efforts to ban Native Son (the first line of which is the title of today's post) represent both those who object to its avowedly Marxist perspective on race relations during the 1930s and those who object to Richard Wright's (appropriate) use of the word "nigger." (This doesn't include the objection to the novel's sexual content, which would logically include both ends of the political spectrum.) It's worth remembering that poet John Milton, whose 1644 essay "Areopagitica" was the first and still among the most eloquent defenses of the freedom to publish and read, was a decade later serving as state censor for Oliver Cromwell. That freedom means that sometimes your own ox is going to get gored -- a situation that fewer and fewer people in our own Fox v. CNN world seem willing to countenance.

And so, a test: Today, in the opinion writing and blogging course, I handed out a 1973 Lester Bangs review of Anne Murray's Danny's Song that, were parents of some students in the course to read, would likely be up for banning. (e.g.: "Maybe you're so steeped in sleaze that it takes the sight of Linda Lovelace jacking off 14 braying donkeys with her nostrils while giving head to the entire class of '44 and playing pingpong on Henry Kissinger's nuts with her toes in Todd-AO just to get your attention.") Let's see how it flies. More on Thursday.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Hey -- it's Banned Books Week! Go read a few...preferably aloud, in public. Here are some recommended by Progressive on the Prairie (he's got the link to the original list). It's an astonishing list...one that doesn't include Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, whence the title of this entry. Of course, maybe it's not so astonishing, given that school boards these days keep kids from seeing the president of the United States tell them that going to school and developing responsibility are good things to do. 

I am seeing the best minds of my daughters' generation...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Project blogway, part tres

Since we last visited, Qhristyl departed, after having pronounced black a "warm color" and saying she never designed in it...even though she was wearing black when she said so. Design, meet aesthetic. And Johnny Methtallica was discharged last week after having accomplished what neither Santino, Jeffrey, cheater Keith nor abhorrent Vincent was ever able to do: Visibly piss off Tim Gunn. Don't fib on the runway, lad, especially when said fib also implicates the guy who went out of his way in episode one to comfort and convince you that you were worthy of being there. The look of combined satisfaction and disgust on Tim's face when he told AddictBoy to go clean out his space reminded me of nothing so much as someone having just been awarded a huge alimony and child custody settlement over a boozing, whoring spouse.

Which brings us to this week, and a shocking and sad farewell to Minneapolis' own Ra'mon and his curious apostrophe. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who had him at least in the final five and very likely in the final three -- and he seemed like a pleasant person and decent competitor as well. But...he really did blow the challenge. Badly. And he knew it.

Having said that, though, I would have still voted Louise out first, given the parameters of the challenge. As awful as it might have looked -- and I have to believe that it looked even worse on the runway than it did on TV -- Ra'mon's dress was still recognizable as something from science fiction. The reptile idea was a good one (he obviously remembered the Borg queen from Star Trek: First Contact); he just couldn't pull it off. Louise's dress, though, was both bad and had absolutely nothing to do with film noir. In fact, it had nothing to do with anything anyone might wear in any genre at any time. All three of the noir designers, in fact, did poorly with something they should have excelled at...because they took the road most traveled: It's gotta be dark, you know, noir.

No. What makes the femme fatale the femme fatale is that the male either doesn't recognize or chooses to ignore the danger there. And to put it in fashion terms, what makes the femme fatale the femme fatale isn't her wearing black -- it's her wearing white. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Rita Hayworth in Lady from Shanghai, Jane Greer in Out of the Past: Our/the male's first view of her is in fresh, pristine white...with some accessory -- an anklet, a cigarette lighter -- that suggests something more edgy and far less virginal. Leave the black for the action-adventure folks, both of whom did very right by it, instead of coming up with a take on Natasha Fatale, not the femme fatale...or of coming up with something that looked like a bad costume for a Billy Idol video.

As for Nicholas winning: He's a smug little twirp who won't be there in the final five, but he did do a great job with the concept and execution. I have to believe picking a winner among those three was among the most difficult choices the panel has made in a while -- all three were impressive. (And it was nice to see Epperson's model Matar get her props as well.)

Next week: Michael Kors is back, oranger than ever! (Although Tommy Hilfiger last week had a remarkably tangerine complexion as well.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Magna cartography

Thanks to a faithful follower for this look at the real political skill of Al Franken. I used to wow students in Sweden with my ability to draw the outline of the contiguous 48 states on the chalkboard in a few seconds, but that was kindergarten doodling next to this. (It is not, btw, very difficult to draw the outline of Sweden on the chalkboard -- or on the wall of a public restroom.)

Now, if only Tom Davis could return and recite the state capitals from memory...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lesson learned

Then again, why read me when you can go to Andrew Sullivan and Chuck Jones?

Just you wait, my pretties

I just watched Obama's speech to American schoolchildren that Roo and Lumpy were not able to see because of a "longstanding policy" here in the Teabag School District mandating that stuff from the real world that might interfere with predetermined lesson plans should not be brought into the classroom. (I'm sure Christa McAuliffe would have been proud.) This "longstanding policy," of course, was news to us, although its implementation at the threat of having a black man say something to children about the benefits of education stands in a bold mainstream American tradition dating back to the days of Frederick Douglass.

So, having actually seen and heard what he had to say, I must share my shock: No hammer-and-sickle banners! No brown shirts! No kindergarten death squads! No opening act performing a third trimester abortion! WTF??

In parsing the president's words, I have to conclude that atheistic socialism will corrupt the hearts and minds of our children in the following ways: 
**Having them respect their parents and their teachers;
**Having them be diligent in their studies;
**Having them take responsibility for their work and their learning;
**Having them take what they learn and use it in service to their country and communities.

I felt like Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, watching Pol Pot and his lackeys make Cambodian children praise Angka and march around chanting "Death to the rich! Death to our parents!" Even as I type, I'm pretty sure I hear the screams from the science building as rampaging kids from the campus daycare center impale professors on the plastic knives and forks they stole from lunch. "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!"

To quote the ideological master of the movement that saved my children from seeing this, "What a world! What a world!" Lumpy and Roo come from a place where reports unfavorable to the government are blocked from public view...and move to a place where people who don't like the government can preemptively block the president from public view, in the guise of a "longstanding policy." And this is democracy and civic responsibility -- how? 

If only we could throw buckets of water and make this ugliness melt away. But that can only happen in Oz...a land, it appears, far over a rainbow from our own. 

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Project blogway, part deux

1) My take on "surfwear" was that it involved tight bikinis. As a result, I have no idea what those designs this week had to do with "surfwear." But if Famous Designer Rachel Bilson says they're "surfwear," they must be.

2) Qhristel/Epperson sounds like a Shopko/Walmart cheap ripoff champagne (excuse me, "sparkling wine beverage"). It would go well with their "surfwear" collection.

3) Where is Michael Kors? Assuming he's not on a Qhristel/Epperson bender (he seems more a Moet type), I have to assume he's down at Venice beach oranging with Famous Designers Ashley Tisdale and Vanessa Hudgens. They're all in this together, you know.

4) But seriously: There has never been a worse Runway contestant than Mitchell. Never. More hateable ones, yes, but none with as remarkable a lack of both talent and human decency. Evidently less adroit at needle and thread than I am after a magnum of Qhristel/Epperson, bitchy beyond reason with both his models and his competitors, and with less backbone than the slug I found nibbling on the carrot leaves this afternoon, Mitchell is Page 1 in the Bunim-Murray casting portfolio: The person there only because s/he is a cute troublemaker. Die Ueberfrau herself seemed more than a little pissed at his antics -- not even a faux sympathetic "Auf Wiedersehen" on the way past the scrim. I'm hoping he's the worst we'll see of the Bunim-Murray touch this season, though I fear he may not be.

5) And congratulations to Ramon, whose Minneapolis background obviously gave him the experience in "surfwear" that he needed to win this round. A round of a fine Minnesota sparkling wine beverage for the house!

Out of time

The book I'm using for the opinion writing/blogging class (thanks, Arianna) suggests that if you can't blog every day, you should at least try for twice a week. I do try...but the start of the school year makes time a more precious commodity than the gold I keep selling to the guys in those cable commercials. (I didn't need that back molar, anyway.) In any case, I'll keep trying. The good thing is that the school year is almost here, so I'll have to blog at least once a week for class. And the better thing is that I hope to have some links to far better things than this soon.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Project blogway

An occasional feature of this forum will be comments on the current season of Project Runway, to which my relationship is roughly the same as that of a diaper-clad British cabinet minister to a Soho dominatrix. (But it's a good-looking diaper!)

1) It is remarkable how closely the Bunim-Murray people now producing for Lifetime have kept the look and feel of the Magical Elves/Bravo version, even with the transition from New York to L.A. I notice that a couple of the line producers are the same, which probably accounts for some of that.

2) But the Bunim-Murray Real World touch is there in the casting: the hyperemotional ex-user, the "straight" guy who can't stop talking about being a straight guy, the pixie-ish free spirit, et al. Not that the Magical Elves folks weren't into stunting as well -- I give you Santino as Exhibit A -- but some of the choices seem to be there more for wacky TV purposes than designing.

3) The judges, though, seem like they're not going to put up with egregious stunting. Their prompt and deserved booting of Ari Fish, who apparently strolled in from that Taos hippie orgy in Easy Rider, suggested that they're willing to let Bunim-Murray go only so far.

4) Michael Kors, as orange as ever! Nina Garcia, as pained as ever (even with the move to Marie Claire)! And...Lindsay Lohan? One of the big deals about the L.A. move was the availability of Stars as Celebrity Judges. I guess Lindsay Lohan still counts as a Star, although I had no idea she was a designer, as Fraulein Klum introduced her. And she did utter what seemed like a coherent sentence or two, although it was late and I might have been dozing. But her face looked awful, and I think you could actually watch her pupils dilate and constrict in sequential shots. (All the continuity in the world...) Lumpy and Roo just watched The Parent Trap a couple of weeks ago: That girl is this woman? Object lesson #1.

5) As for the designers: Props to the Minnesota men! Winner and runnerup, deservedly! (Which may well be the last time those words will be uttered by Vikings fans watching the show in the next six months.) And they seemed both reasonably talented and decent. Johnny (the ex-user) pulled himself together, but his dress didn't deserve to be in the final three. I liked Althea's work, though I suspect her role is to be The Cute Blonde who does pretty well but screws up fatally in episode 6 or 7. Mitchell is a twirp, and as bad as Ari's "dress" was -- and it was awful -- his was worse.

6) In the pantheon of Unlikely TV Stars -- Fred Rogers, Oprah, Julia Child, John Madden -- Tim Gunn's spot continues to grow. Smart, kind, attractive, personable, a real mensch: Why would anyone want to have a law keeping a man like that from marrying whomever he wished? 

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Department of Redundancy Department

Yesterday in Roo's second grade class (in which I, along with parents of all the kids, serve as an educational assistant once a week), the teacher asked the class to define the word "tryout," as used in a story about a kid wanting to be on a baseball team.

The class smartypants, who actually is quite bright but sees himself as the sun around which all others must orbit, raised his hand and said, "Tryout means when you want to be on a team, and so you try out for it." The teacher responded that that was the idea, but he needed to use words other than "try out" to explain it. "Oh. Well, it's like, he wants to try...to play on the team...so he goes out to try." Nah. Three or four students later, we finally had a workable definition that didn't involve the words "try" and "out" -- and to be fair to young Mr. Know-It-All, it wasn't the easiest assignment I've ever had. 

Later, in a discussion of the food pyramid, and in particular the "oils and discretionary calories" component thereof, the teacher suggested that students might look up the word "discretionary" at home that night. So, good parent that I sometimes try to be, I went online to prep Roo for the assignment. And here is how the first Google dictionary entry defined it.

Merriam Webster: If you're looking for writers in about 15 years, I have a name for you.

btw: "Oils and discretionary calories"???

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Trouble in Cinema Paradiso

As someone who teaches courses in film and film criticism, I found this post by Roger Ebert to be a must-read. It's evidently caused as much of a firestorm as something about movies can on the Interwebs -- even Sullivan's minions have been drawn into the discussion.

We'll be talking about the piece in the reviewing/blogging class that birthed this Cyclops; I'll share some thoughts as they emerge in a month or so. For now, a few observations:

1) When Roger Ebert speaks, I listen. It's well-known among those who work in the film industry (both production and criticism) that he is one of the few critics who actually knows and cares about what he's discussing. You can always argue with his taste on individual films, but few have been able to make any form of art as understandable to as many as Ebert has. 

2) That being said, I do have some qualms about the generational argument he's making here. The notion that current (i.e., young) movie audiences are responsible for dumbing down the industry could just as easily have been made 20 years ago, and indeed was made 50 years ago: Go look at the mainstream reviews of the Roger Corman et al. schlockfests  that have been (rightly, for the most part) held in reverence by filmmakers from Scorsese to Tarantino since: They make Adorno and Horkheimer look like writers for Rolling Stone.

3) That being said -- and this is where it'll get good with 20-year-old college students -- I do agree that there is a greater general lack of curiosity among current young moviegoers than among previous generations. And a key culprit, it seems to me, goes unmentioned in his argument: DVD commentary tracks. Why bother to see things for yourself and ask questions like "Why this shot and not that one? Why that angle? That closeup?" when McG and Drew Barrymore are there on audio to Explain It All To You? The saying "Trust the tale, not the teller" should, if'n you ask me, be as required a part of the beginning of the DVD as the antipiracy notice.

Any comments you might have about Ebert's piece -- or this rambling -- are more than welcome. 

Innocent abroad

The  Man Who Would Be Twain flies to London:

I am an American and certain things irritate me extremely, such as British flight attendants asking to see your boarding pass as you board. You hold it up and they peer at it and smile and say, "Twenty-six D -- that's straight ahead and on your left," as if you were an utter demented drooling feckless idjit unaware that the low-numbered seats are up front and the higher numbers toward the rear.

Garrison, I too am an American. Guess what irritates me extremely. (Hint: "Feckless idjit" isn't far off.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bring it on

My daughters are cheerleaders.

That is a sentence I never imagined uttering; indeed, it is a sentence that, from my high school years on, I have made a conscious commitment to avoid uttering. And yet, utter it now I must, and with some amount of pride. Actually, calling what Roo and Lumpy have been doing all summer for our local baseball team "cheerleading" pushes the term a lot further down the spectrum than ESPN programmers would have it. Once a game, they run on the field and do some lightly choreographed pom-pom shaking; twice a game they stand on dugouts and lead a couple of rudimentary crowdpleasers of the "You say fire/We say up" variety. No flips, no stunting, no pageant makeup: It's not the Dallas Cowboy Girls Meet Disney. But they do have pom-poms and cute uniforms, and they do know how to smile. 

None of this would matter, at least for this venue, except for the response some of our friends have had. Not one of outright hostility, but one bearing more curiosity than might be expected toward a summer activity for seven- and five-year-old girls. Some parents raise their girls to be Supreme Court justices, goes one joking line. Another comment we've heard more than once suggests that perhaps they should be playing soccer or softball instead, if they want to be active outside.

I am reminded of a great Art Spiegelman cartoon, "Nature vs. Nurture," in which daddy Art tries to convince daughter Nadia that playing with dolls merely reinforces societal gender constructs by introducing her to...a fire truck! Which daddy Art maniacally wheels around the carpet, doing siren sounds, vroom-vrooms, and braking noises. After Art's demonstration, Nadia takes "poor little truckie," covers it with a baby blanket, and gives it a bottle.

Yeah, I'm not really thrilled on an intellectual and political level that the girls like cheerleading -- I usually say that I hope it's a phase. And I do. But, you know, for them it's a good phase: They make friends, they get exercise, and they get to perform for an audience, which will stand them in good stead in other venues. Why this particular activity should be not be considered as significant as soccer and softball -- games based on male professional sports, Mia Hamm and Jennie Finch to the contrary -- seems to come down the fact that it's...for...girls. And that's the kind of thinking, I suspect, that Sonia Sotomayor's parents raised her to dispel, as much as they might have raised her to be on the Supreme Court. (And, btw, Roo and Lumpy tried soccer this summer as well: Not the kick in the grass the organizers promised.)

So, girls: You say fire, I say up!

Phish in a barrel

Just so's you know (because I didn't): Evil people are running computer programs to get Facebook passwords (aka phishing)...which will allow said evil people to use your (read: my) Facebook friendlist to send ads for Nigerian princes/ponzi schemes/penis extenders/all of the above around spam firewalls. Lessons learned: 1) The Facebook admiralty does do a nice job keeping an eye on these things: They shut me down within an hour of the violation. 2) Stay away from unknown apps. Which pretty much means all of them...except for that favorite musicals one. I mean, who would use Mary Poppins to sneak something onto your page? Hmmm...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Boola Boola/Allah Allah

Again, my Progressive friend piques my interest with his commentary on Yale University Press' decision to delete any and all pictorial references to the prophet Muhammad from an upcoming book on the 2005 controversy over Danish political cartoons depicting Muhammad in, um, a less-than-flattering light. The New York Times article about the matter points out that the press' decision was based on the unanimous opinion of two dozen experts, who believed that violating the Islam ban on visual representation of Muhammad would offend Muslims. (Note that Yale didn't just pull the cartoons from the book; it also pulled widely known and disseminated depictions of the prophet. And it made the book's author sign what amounts to a loyalty oath in regards to the decision.)

I tend to be more sympathetic to religion than Progressive, and a little less absolutist on some legal matters. But on this issue, he doesn't go far enough: Yale's actions here are nothing short of shamefully craven. The offensive images are still available all over the Internet, and not including them in a book of which they are the specific topic is, as one critic says, "idiotic." I can't imagine my own book on British television without visuals, no matter how well I might be able to describe Emma Peel (and I can describe her quite well, believe me) and no matter how many Avengers clips you can pull up on YouTube. And to remove other images far less laden with contemporary ideological freight doesn't just shortsell both the author and potential readers -- it insults them. 

What's missing in the reporting and discussion of Yale's self-censorship is at once the most obvious and hypocritical element of it. This isn't about an academic book with a readership in the thousands so offending a group of people that it leads to global rioting; this is about an academic book with a readership in the thousands making some of the corporate and financial patrons of Yale University Press uncomfortable to the point that they apply pressure. And the likelihood of Yale University Press, an arm of an institution that has lost billions of dollars in the past year, having the wherewithal to tell its patrons to take a hike for the sake of free speech is about the same as the likelihood of the Elis playing for the BCS championship next year. So by taking what is really a bottomline business decision and casting it as an ideological cris de couer, Yale gets to have it both ways: We, in our liberal piety, won't publish pictures that might offend hundreds of millions of people (who, in our reactionary world view, might be bloody terrorists who will destroy the interests that allow us to publish anything to begin with.) We're good; they're bad; the people really responsible slip away in the shadows.

Of course, publishing, even academic publishing, is a business, and the bosses at Yale University Press in one sense did their job well: Creating an unnecessary controversy that makes the New York Times moves a lot more copies than just quietly bringing out an academic study of a controversy from four years ago. I just don't think I'll be buying it.   

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Contender, or bum?

Thanks to feast4thought for mentioning this little venture in her latest post, although the fact that she refers to me as a "gentleman" makes me think that she should back away from the Indiana wine soon. She also recommends an interesting article from the New York Times Magazine on the life and death of Budd Schulberg, screenwriter of On the Waterfront and McCarthy era informant. Schulberg died earlier the same day as John Hughes (as the summer of celebrity deaths rolls on), so he was unduly tossed aside. The Times piece, however, makes sure that we don't forget about Schulberg, who turned an act of questionable (at best) morality into great art. Can we separate our feelings about the personal lives of artists from the work they produce (or vice versa)? Should we? Just a couple of comments here:

1) I have long despised Schulberg and Waterfront director Elia Kazan for their testimony, which abetted the destruction of hundreds of careers and lives. Yet On the Waterfront is one of the greatest films Hollywood has ever produced, and for me to deny that would be an act of profound intellectual dishonesty. That tension is part of what makes viewing the movie, which I do at least once a year for various classes, so interesting: How do Schulberg and Kazan take the shit of what they did and produce something so magnificent from it? (Fertilizer and flowers, I suppose.) And how do I/the students try to reconcile the acting visible on screen and the shadow behind it? 

2) I also suspect that the more distance there is between artist and audience, the easier it is to countenance both sides of the question. There are two living American writers whose names I won't use here (as one of them might sue me anyway) who are beloved by many of my colleagues. Beloved, in fact, is too mild a term: Mentioning their names in certain quarters here leads to breathlessness and starry-eyed sighs last experienced when the Brady bunch met Davy Jones. Yet I know, from far too many people in far too many circumstances, that both writers are selfish, cruel, and vindictive beyond all reason. I can't help but view anything they produce with little more than disdain. I also know, however, that William Carlos Williams and F. Scott Fitzgerald, two of My Favorite Modernists (great sitcom idea there, btw), were equally brutal human beings. But I didn't have friends who had been abused by them, so it's easier for me to let their art speak for them, just as it's easier for me to forgive Budd Schulberg...although I will never forget why I have to forgive.

Moving on...

The ghosts in the machine seem to have fled, so we can resume the daily discourse here. Also missing in action, thankfully, is the virus that attacked the biological systems at home: Not in 20 years, appendicitis notwithstanding, have I been as sick as I was Sunday night and Monday. The functional member of the household took less of a hit, but she was supine most of Monday as well. We've been lucky in the past with daycare illnesses, but this thing swept through Lumpy's place like Katrina through the 9th Ward, and the collateral damage was intense. 

Fortunately, AMC was running a Mad Men marathon during my sick day, so I managed to get four more episodes of backstory in. I'll have more to say about the series as a whole soon; the highlight of the day, though, came when a great ad for Canada Dry ginger ale showed up between the Stoli and the Johnnie Walker in an episode about the problems w/ TV ad placements. Did AMC's demographic research indicate that people watching daylong Mad Men marathons would likely be suffering from intense gastrointestinal pain for which Canada Dry ginger ale is the only known palatable relief? Dunno, but we crawled out and bought three bottles of the stuff. God bless Madison Avenue.

Postscript: Ironically, both the season one episode I watched immediately prior to the digestive onslaught and one of the season two episodes on during the marathon concluded with scenes of vomiting. Say what you will about the realism of Mad Men, when it comes to depictions of violent regurgitation: Not realistic. At all. 

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Please stand by

As dictionaries of common usage add all the terms incumbent to our shift from broadcast to cable/satellite to web as our primary information medium, no one seems to be saying much about the words and phrases that are becoming as arcane as "How's tricks, old socks?" Of which today's header is one: Does anyone "stand by" for online news? Texts? Facebook updates? A relic of an era in which someone literally had to stand by a transmitter/receiver or a teletype machine to get a needed bulletin or update, "please stand by" has less relevance now than "Lucky Strike: It's toasted." Same with "Stay tuned" -- although you can still see that imperative clause/cliche tacked on at the end of any number of op-ed pieces in our nation's finest newspapers and magazines...and blogs. (Last I checked, you can't really "tune" a computer, a cell phone, or an iPod.)

All this is just to apologize to the 1 1/2 of you who've checked this since last Wednesday. The computer I usually work on is informing me that someone on the server is jamming Google with queries, which is illegal, or something. And so I am currently without blogspot access there. (This is but the latest technological snafu that has cropped up in the process of setting up this site -- I suspect gremlins.) I do have the fallback computer, which is serving me well now, but the presence of Roo and Lumpy make time here a precious commodity. Hopefully (used correctly here, so don't even start), I'll be able to get the server problem figured out with some help in the next couple of days. Until then, we'll all have to settle for the soul of wit instead of its ponderous, unmanageable body.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Beer's lookin' at you, kid

James Fallows brings together the beer summit and the Birther "controversy" in a delightfully frothy commentary on his atlantic.com page. Props to St. Paul's own (as opposed to St. Pauli Ghurl) in the second link in his last graf.

National Public Readiculous

My friend at A Progressive on the Prairie, who is far more knowledgeable in literary matters than I (the English professor who has no time for reading) and a topflight online book critic, sent me to look at NPR's list of Top 100 Books for the Beach. (NPR, by the way, like the Princeton Review, is in my top 150 Groups That List Things.) As might be expected, there is much to quibble with, most of which goes back to the demographic being courted with the idea. Three things, however, go beyond quibbles and straight to querulousness:

1) The list is supposed to be Books for the Beach...connoting, I suppose, light summer leisure reading. And a fair number of the books on the list match that criterion. But Anna Karenina? Bonfire of the Vanities? Lolita?? Lolita isn't just not a book for the beach -- it's a book that should only be read in a dark unheated basement with flickering candlelight at most. Or in Teheran, which these days seems pretty much the same. 

2) Given my presupposition about the nature of the list, I found it more than a little surprising that the first outright crime/detective novel on the list didn't show up until #70: Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Carl Hiaasen, whose Everglades crime sagas fairly radiate Summer Reading, peeped in at #99, with Sick Puppy. I suspect that Progressive's belief that the survey reflects a higher percentage of women readers than men may have something to do with this -- but the person who introduced me to Hiaasen (feast4thought) is a woman, and having taught film noir and crime fiction courses, I know that appreciation for the genre is far from male exclusive. But, gee, doesn't it just sound more Garrison to say you spent your afternoon on the patio perusing Anna Karenina than something by Denise Mina or Richard Price?

3) The list is called Books for the Beach, not Novels for the Beach. Again, I wasn't in on the list from the start, but it's befuddling how a list of 100 Books for the Beach could include not one single work of nonfiction. None. The first book I picked up after commencement this spring was Krakauer's Into Thin Air; the latest is Sarah Vowell's Partly Cloudy Patriot. No one else reads these things? Tom Wolfe's excremental Bonfire of the Vanities (the most fitting book title ever, since that's precisely where it belongs) is on the list, but The Right Stuff isn't? Given that it's an NPR book list and the entire David Sedaris oeuvre isn't listed in the top 5, perhaps my assumption that it's not restricted to novels is incorrect. But any book list that doesn't acknowledge the most vital genre in current American literature isn't really worth much more than what gets washed up on the beach at high tide, all things considered. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

And so it begins...


One-word ledes and question ledes are anathema to journalists (except when you don't have time to come up with anything better), but in this case, it's appropriate.

Why add one more howl to the Babel already present? Why now, when blogging seems to have peaked? Why now, when I have three other jobs to do in the course of a day? 

Maybe "Why?" isn't the right question. Maybe the better question is "WTF?" (Although that's assuredly not an MSM lede...)

Fortunately, there are a couple of legitimate answers to either question. First, I teach a class on critical and editorial writing. The model has always been newspaper (and, to a lesser degree, magazine) writing, but for obvious reasons, that model may be drying up. So this fall, I'm rechristening the course "Opinion Writing and Blogging" and making this activity a required part of the course. Soon you will see the blogs of my students listed under the "Sites That Are Far More Interesting" head -- and I'm pretty sure that most of them will fit the billing. 

Second, like many who come to this on the novice level, I'm curious as to what this new form will do for my writing. Those who have tried it seriously as a writing exercise have found it liberating, even exhilarating. I'm more skeptical -- I have a feeling I may fall back into my old reviewer voice, which is part of the reason I gave up reviewing. But if this can take what was good about that voice and give it, if not a new range, a new timbre, then I'm willing to see where it goes.