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 play on the 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 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.