Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Geezer Redux

Oh, sweet lord, how I've waited for this news: A new record from The Streets is due in April.

Three Out of Five Ain't Bad

The Oscar nominees are here.

I reached with King Kong, obviously, but I thought there would be enough leftover love for Peter Jackson that it would get a nomination. I'm a bit more surprised that Walk the Line wasn't nominated. I figured Hoffman would be nominated, but Capote wouldn't. They both were. And Crash is an interesting choice to round out Best Picture.

It's sad but predictable to see comedy undervalued yet again. Catherine Keener gets a nod for Capote, but she was better in -- and more integral to -- The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Amy Adams got recognized for Junebug. Yippee.

What's Your Sign? Come Here Often? What's the Consistency of Your Ear Wax?

Both this post and the one below it come to us via ScienceBlogs, which is actually a pretty great site that collects the best of ... well ... science blogs. So don't allow the fact that I'm making fun of these two links to turn you against the site, which is worth bookmarking.

Anyway, back to making fun of them:

Do you ever feel anxiety when talking to a member of the opposite sex? Or on a job interview? Maybe while trying to make small talk among extended family over the holidays? Next time you find yourself in that position, take a deep breath, and think of what this guy must be talking about wherever he is. Don't you feel calmer already?

The Lickspittle from Delaware Yields the Remainder of His Time

This blogger is pretty upset about the politicians who haven't done more to stop the confirmation of Samuel Alito. To prove it, he comes up with funny names for them. Which would be entirely lame (as it is, it's just 95% lame) if it weren't for some of the names he's tossing around.

Milksop? Ditherer?

Did Mr. Burns start a blog?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Oscar and His Evil Twin, Razzie

Tomorrow morning (probably today, by the time you're reading this), Oscar nominations will be announced. Not to be outdone, the Razzies (short for Raspberries), which take on the increasingly simple task of honoring the worst in Hollywood, announced their nominees a day earlier.

You'll be pleased to see that The Dukes of Hazzard is well represented, though piling on so many nominations for Jenny McCarthy's Dirty Love seems pointless, even by the standards of awarding statuettes of bunched raspberries to terrible movies. Did anyone actually see it? (A quick bit of research shows the box office for that one came up short of $60,000. No, I didn't leave off a zero.)

The woman so many men want to bring home to mom (see post immediately below), Jessica Alba, garnered a worst actress nomination for not one but two wretched performances. (Not that I can confirm; you'd have to give me an extra two weeks of paid vacation from work to get me in front of The Fantastic Four.)

Back to the real Oscars, briefly: They capture my interest a bit less every year, partly because I go to fewer movies in the theater. Enough people have answered their cell phones next to me, or noisily eaten a three-course meal they smuggled in, that I'm happy to do most of my viewing through Netflix. I do think that Junebug and its stunning lynchpin performance by Amy Adams are highly deserving. I'm sure the movie won't be nominated, but she better be. Then again, I already know that Grizzly Man, probably the best movie I saw that was originally released this year, won't be nominated even for Best Documentary.

Here's my guess for the five Best Picture nominees. We'll see how I did in the morning:

Brokeback Mountain; Good Night, and Good Luck; Munich; Walk the Line; King Kong

AP What Crazy Truths Will Polling Unearth Next? Headline of the Day

Poll Finds Men Want Alba As Girlfriend


Sunday, January 29, 2006

Depressingly Funny Thoughts From Mr. Allen

This is a bit old by now, but in the December issue of Vanity Fair, there was a profile of Woody Allen. It covered a lot of old ground, but it featured a new interview with him, and I thought these two excerpts were worth sharing.

This first one comes after Allen has compared himself unfavorably to filmmakers he considers to be geniuses. The interviewer asks him if he's depressed by the thought that his best work won't match that of his idols. What follows is a perfect combination of grim and funny:
No, it's not a depressing thought. What happens is that--let's say I'm in a room with Bergman or Kurosawa, and they have achieved this (greatness), but ultimately they're going to the same place I'm going to. You understand that art doesn't save you. It doesn't save me. So then I think to myself, What's the value? After Kurosawa sits back and says, 'Yes, Rashomon--I did a very fine job there,' what happens? He still has to come home, you know, and eat his bowl of rice, and down the line, they bury him.
I relate to the next one perhaps too strongly, aside from my very minor puffing experience and my substitution of drinking buddies for a shrink:
I remember being with Jack Benny, who was much older than me, and a very staid, Beverly Hills, Jewish comic. And he was saying to me, 'I've got to try marijuana--I'm just dying to try it.' I've never had a puff of marijuana. I've never had cocaine. I've never had speed. I've never had heroin. I've never in my life had a sleeping pill. I don't have drug curiosity. I don't have travel curiosity. I don't have any curiosity. That's part of my symptoms. ... It's kind of like part of or half a depression. ... My shrink said to me, a long time ago, 'When you came here, I thought it was going to be extremely interesting and kind of fascinating, but it's like, you know, listening to an accountant or something.'

Learning Tolerance (of Others' Mistreatment of You)

Two days before the Denver Broncos played the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game, a teenager in Beaver Falls, about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, made the mistake of wearing a John Elway jersey to school.

His teacher forced him to sit on the floor while taking a test, and then encouraged other kids to throw paper at him while he called him a "stinking Denver fan."

This wouldn't qualify as a particularly entertaining story, except for one fact: This was an ethnicity class. When pushed to talk about this very coincidence, the teacher issued this beauty:
"If he felt uncomfortable, then that’s a lesson; that’s what (the class) is designed to do," Kelly told The Denver Post. "It was silly fun. I can’t believe he was upset."
I'd love to see some of this teacher's lesson plans -- Rosa Parks: Couldn't She Take a Joke?, etc.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Archive of the Day

From East Coker by T.S. Eliot:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years--
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres--
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot
To emulate--but there is no competition--
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under condi-
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Learning More About Me Than You Could By Reading the Entire Rest of This Blog

A Barnes & Noble cashier tonight when I placed my fantasy baseball magazine on the counter: "Wow, I think you're the first person to buy this year's."


Ramadan Comes to Springfield

One good friend gave me Season 4 of The Simpsons for my birthday. She tried to decline credit for excessive generosity, saying she was re-gifting it. Who cares? Once you have your hands on that, you hold onto it. It has to be the peak season of what I always argue (with a straight face) is the most impressive American cultural creation of the past 30 years.

It turns out, though, it's not just for America. There's now an Arabic version of the show. If you go to the story, you'll see that near the end a blogger known as The Angry Arab condemns the effort and the actors being used to voice it. I really don't mean to be culturally insensitive, but especially on a day when the Palestinians made quite a statement, I find it pretty bold to single oneself out as The Angry Arab.

Oprah and Frey: The Last Post (One Fervently Hopes)

For those who missed it, Oprah reduced James Frey to a stoic-looking-but-quivering-on-the-inside mass on her show today, even forcing him, in the waning minutes, to say things like, "After today, hopefully I'm a better person." (I'm paraphrasing; I would've written down exactly what he said, but I was too busy zipping up the body bag on Western civilization.)

I only caught the final segment. I'm told that most of the show was devoted to a panel of cultural talking heads taking Frey to task. The schoolmarms included Frank Rich (America’s schoolmarm laureate) and an anonymous geek from the Poynter Institute tying the moment to a larger social trend of dishonesty. As my friend Nick rightfully asked, “What’s new about lying?” Sadly, it seems that what’s new is lying to Oprah. No one will directly say that, of course, but this entire story arc -- from the book’s enormous commercial success to the blow-up about its fabrications to today’s circus of castigation and insincere atonement -- only exists because of O’s orchestration. I’ve always thought her self-righteousness was her least appealing trait, and I had seen signs that it was abating, despite her ever-increasing fame. But today had to be a new low, when she allowed people to say, with a straight face, that discovering the truth of this situation is partly important because of movements like Holocaust denial. Because, you see, a fame-hungry memoirist’s self-aggrandizing is the equivalent of people denying systematic genocide. (And don’t bring up slippery slopes -- to me, this correlation is as absurd as implying that gay marriage will lead to the union of man and cat.)

The more platitudinous and therapeutic the whole thing became, the more the exercise backfired on Oprah, reinforcing her role as the dupe rather than turning her into a healer (more accurately, she sought to become a double-healer today -- first helping save her audience by introducing it to Frey's tale of redemption, and then rushing, if sternly, to FREY'S aid when it turned out he, the pathological liar, was the one who needed her). But anyone who knows anyone with similar ambitions could see that Frey had been triumphant and would remain so, despite what must have been the most humiliating 60 minutes of his life. This was not a member of the parade of everyday Americans who kneel with good intentions before Oprah or Dr. Phil hoping to magically learn how to shed pounds, or save more money, or get along better with their spouse. Frey's a calculating, ego-driven writer who’s been milking his lies in the media since the day the book was published, and his goal was to write something that got him national attention, truckloads of money, and another bestselling book or two. He didn't get much of any of those at first, since the consensus seemed to be that the book, entirely true or not, wasn't particularly good. But thanks to Oprah, he got all of it, and no matter how many times she puts him on the couch, she can’t reverse that. Both of them can only look worse and worse from here on out, and they seem devoted to doing just that.


Meanwhile, Nick and I trawled through some past Oprah transcripts and found that falling prey to famous works of literature is nothing new for her. With the help of our pal PF, we exhumed a few other examples of original titles that somehow became inflated in the editing and publishing process. I think you’ll be shocked:

Forty-five Minutes of Solitude

The Pretty Good Gatsby

Love in the Time of Post-Nasal Drip

The Second Cousins Karamazov

The Middle-Aged Man and the Pond

Duluth According to Garp

Indigestion of a Salesman

To Catch and Release a Mockingbird

Breakfast at Macy’s

Squabble on the Bounty

Gulliver's Armchair

As I Lay Napping

Bright Lights, Philadelphia

Zhivago the Med Student

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Terrible Band Name; Pretty Good Song

I just did a little dorky dance around my living room, and here's why (I'm warning you, it's pathetic). Last week, I noticed that iTunes allows you to request certain songs or albums that aren't available through it yet. Knowing that millions of people probably do this with some significant measure of futility, I went ahead and entered the two things I've been most disappointed not to find, both songs that I used to own on CDs that have mysteriously disappeared over the years -- "Beginning the World" by the Innocence Mission and "Am I Wrong?" by Love Spit Love.

And what do you know -- they posted the Love Spit Love album. Thus, the dancing to the song in the living room. (And no, it's not really a dance song. But then, you could barely call it a dance.) For those unaware, this was the mid-90s band started by Richard Butler, formerly of the Psychedelic Furs. The song is almost prototypical alternative rock from the period -- chiming guitars, crisp production, breathily passionate vocals...in total, just screaming to be played in the background during the climax of a 20-something romantic comedy. And even if it doesn't quite live up to how much I liked it then (for starters, the lyric "sleep comes with a knife, fork, and a spoon" leaves something to be desired), it still sounds pretty good. I'm not going to post the sound file, though, because then I leave myself vulnerable. Go find it for yourself if you want to ridicule me that badly.

On Behalf of Myself and the Entire Blogosphere, Apologies to Arthur and the Rest of You

"There are very many thoughts which have value for him who thinks them, but only a few of them possess the power of engaging the interest of a reader after they have been written down." --Arthur Schopenhauer

To Believe or Not to Believe

In lieu of my own post, still percolating, about the unfortunate philosophical idiocy that keeps us thinking of evolution and intelligent design as perfectly opposed explanatory models, I thought I'd link to this. It's a smart, provocative defense of certain benefits of religious belief by a self-described lifelong atheist. (Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Chuck Norris Threatened to Roundhouse Kick Me if I Didn't Post About Him One More Time

The Chuck Norris posting seemed to be popular with the kids, so like a craven Hollywood executive, I had to figure out a way to extend the franchise. I tried to get Burger King to design a series of souvenir cups, but I don't know anyone at Burger King. So instead, for the second (and final, I'm sure) Norris post, I asked my very funny friends to come up with their own entries. Despite having jobs, wives, children, and nasty, nasty opium habits, they complied. Being an editor, I've taken the liberty of selecting my favorites. Thanks to Brad, Matt, Jason, Nick and Jon (and myself) for these:
Chuck Norris invented fire by staring into a forest until the trees huddled together, shivering from terror. On a related note, Chuck Norris himself is not flammable.

Chuck Norris once won the Tour de France on a Big Wheel. He completed the entire event in 45 minutes.

Einstein theorized that nothing can go faster than the speed of light, which is constant. However, scientists have recently learned that light can travel even faster ... when it's running from Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris' favorite food is HoHos. .. Wait, not "HoHos." I meant "hobos."

Jesus Christ died for everyone’s sins except Chuck Norris. God granted Chuck clemency out of fear.

Chuck Norris never learned to read. He didn't have to; letters rearrange themselves to be understood by him.

You never see the dark side of the moon because it's too frightened of Chuck Norris to show its face.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and Chuck Norris--
Chuck Norris split himself in two
and took both.
And that has made all the difference.

The original opening line of "Anna Karenina": "All happy families are alike, in having never had occasion to meet Chuck Norris. Each unhappy family met Chuck Norris in its own way."

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Monday, January 23, 2006

The Religion of Distant Places

It's a head-spinning cliche to say that New York giveth and New York taketh away. But when something is so true, it's hard not to keep repeating it, even if you feel like a jackass for doing it. It's sort of like whining about how cold it is, not during a wintry week in Chicago, but while doing research in Antarctica. I mean, what else are you going to talk about? Some things are so true that they deserve to be pummeled into the ground, or they at least crowd out the desire to say much else. Plus, New York's dirty little secret is that everything here is far more predictable than whatever's going on in Fargo: Talk about apartments; talk about your jobs (all of which take place in only two industries -- there are countless industries, but everyone you're talking to in your village-within-the-city works in one of two of them); talk about how and when to escape New York, even though most of us have no immediate desire to do so; talk about how we can't imagine living anywhere else; and talk about relationships, because far fewer people are married here than in other places, at least in the age demographic that I’m rapidly exiting (and such talk is only excruciating for all parties involved if you are in or not in a relationship. So.)

But to me, the defining warhorse observation about the city is the impossible bind of the love and hatred it inspires. Like a drug dealer, New York's trick is to give you tons of good stuff up front; beautiful, teeth-rattling, undeniable stuff. And by the time you realize that it might be bad for you, you're in pretty deep. By the time you know for a fact that it's killing you, it's too late. If this sounds harrowing, I don't mean it that way. It's actually kind of fun.

But it’s tiring, and it’s the mundane daily stuff that’s as responsible for it as the careerism, the nightlife, the keeping up with cultural offerings, etc. Last Wednesday night, I bought speakers for my computer at an electronics shop downtown. The box weighed a ton. I know I should have just hailed a cab, but instead I got on the subway, which ended up putting me through the usual rings of fire, all of which are deathly dull and won’t be recounted here. But there are times like this every week -– when, despite loving it here, I would momentarily give a limb to inhabit some exurban city where I . . . drumroll . . . put my recently purchased heavy items IN MY CAR and DRIVE HOME.

I bring this up because I dreamed the other night that I lived in Fort Worth. To make this dream at all palatable, my mind had turned that city, 30 miles due west of Dallas, into an architectural marvel, all jagged postmodern buildings (almost Gehry-like) surrounding a decent-sized body of water. When first recalling the dream, this was inexplicably weird, because a) Fort Worth's skyline is as inspiring as Columbus, Ohio's, which is sleep-inducing, and b) there is no potable water in Fort Worth. It's piped in from Canada.

It made sense as an imaginative leap, though, because a) Fort Worth is home to a relatively new museum of modern art that I’ve visited and that is indeed visually stunning, and I suppose I was extrapolating, and b) I often dream of living somewhere reasonably off the grid like Fort Worth, only, as my subconscious makes clear, I'd need it to be a bit more...griddy. And there’s the rub.

I only made it to FW probably seven or eight times during the 12 years I lived in Texas, but two of my strongest concert memories took place there: Joan Osborne and DJ Spooky. Strange that it would be those two, since I never – literally – listen to their stuff anymore, and barely did then. (Also strange because they’re not exactly musical bedfellows; they’re more likely to be on The Surreal Life together in five years than to share a bill.)

The greatness of the Osborne show was partly dumb luck. She played a club called Caravan of Dreams (now defunct, maybe because people hearing its name kept mistaking it for a new-age cult’s headquarters), and there were about 25 people in attendance, no exaggeration. (This was right before “One Of Us” took over the airwaves -- you know, the song where God’s taking public transportation and whatnot.) The audience was seated at tables, very civilized, and as much as I never really developed a taste for her songs, Joan can belt. She sounded great, and she engaged in a running conversation with one lunatic in the crowd, who kept standing up to talk to her. He was small and seemingly a retiring type (despite the stalker-like qualities he was exhibiting that evening), like a more confident version of the guy in Office Space who’s always muttering about his stapler, and he'd seen Osborne the night before in Missouri. It would be difficult to capture in words how strange it was to watch him clearly address her between songs with everyone's full attention, standing among all the sitters. (In my memory, he's even spotlit, but that couldn't have been the case.) It felt like bad experimental theater. Yet, she was very tolerant of him, even sweet with him, patiently answering him and never once gesturing for a brawny security guy to deposit him on the curb like the pile of recyclable newspapers that he resembled. She closed with a cover of Van Morrison's “Tupelo Honey” that’s still one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen, and then she came out to talk to everybody.

A year or so later, DJ Spooky just put on a great set, and I don’t often go to turntable shows. Plus, there was some girlfriend drama going on at the time that heightened the whole experience. A theme that hasn’t been developed very fully on this blog (probably because it would cause immediate and widespread comatose reaction) is how little it takes for me to develop a fairly deep affection for a place. Part of the trick, not surprisingly, is that I have to do memorable things there and not get back very often. This provides the staggering illusion that the place in question would be full of memorable moments, if I were only to live there full-time. Despite the paper-thin nature of the premise, I believe in it pretty strongly. It’s like my version of religion.

That said, most people in places like New York believe in the converse religion, which is that nothing interesting or memorable could ever happen in Fort Worth. I’ll take my more enthusiastic delusion.

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In Brief

I hope to post a couple of longer thoughts tonight, but for now, here's a quick-hit rundown of some good stuff I've come across recently:

--I posted a new song by Cat Power a while back, and tomorrow the new record hits the stores. It's called The Greatest, and the whole thing is terrific (it was up on iTunes a couple of weeks ago). Recommended.

--The Humorless Feminist ties a ribbon around 2005 with a list of 20 memorable moments/trends/entertainments, including an overdose of NPR and a self-reprimand for not reading Anna Karenina until now. (I haven't read it myself, but I suppose when you call yourself the Humorless Feminist you've got more of an obligation on that count.)

--Two solid New York-related finds: The first is this site of subway photographs by someone who has a commute very similar to mine, though he mostly takes the N, I think, and I'm on the F. He posts a picture a day, and many of them are striking. And then, from a story on the AP wire, I found New York Hack, a blog written by a 30-year-old female cab driver. According to the story, only 197 of New York's 42,000 licensed taxicab drivers are women. (Two questions spring to mind: Is this an issue for the Humorless Feminist?, and How many towns have smaller populations than the number of cab drivers in New York? That second one would be a good stat for the Harper's index, if the answer had an obvious leftist implication.) But mostly "Hack" is noteworthy for the way it perfectly transfers the New York cabbie's mentality to the screen. To wit: "Seen above is yet another Jersey fuck who doesn't know how to drive." Good times.

AP Rigorous Journalism Headline of the Day

NBC's 'Scrubs' Getting Sillier


Office Life as Existential Radiohead Song

Thankfully, I work in an office with many cool people and a less-than-stultifying floor plan, but on a very dreary Monday in New York, without another official day off until Memorial Day, this extraordinary animated video posted on Nerve (I was visiting the site for work reasons, I swear) captures the mood all too well. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Chuck Norris Could Kill This Blog Just By Linking To It

This has probably been around for a while, so apologies if everyone's already seen it, but this list of "facts" about Chuck Norris is hysterically funny. The first page (of three) is the best, but there are gems throughout. Some of my favorites directly below, but check out the whole list.
Chuck Norris' tears cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried. Ever.

Chuck Norris does not hunt because the word hunting implies the probability of failure. Chuck Norris goes killing.

Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.

There is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard. There is only another fist.

When Chuck Norris sends in his taxes, he sends blank forms and includes only a picture of himself, crouched and ready to attack. Chuck Norris has not had to pay taxes, ever.

Chuck Norris once ate an entire bottle of sleeping pills. They made him blink.

We live in an expanding universe. All of it is trying to get away from Chuck Norris.

Ben Franklin and Me

For years, I've been under the impression that the two most notable people who share my birthday are Benjamin Franklin and Muhammad Ali. Turns out that Franklin's case isn't as clear. Damned Gregorian calendar confusion!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Jerry Bailey Announces Retirement

My annual trip to Saratoga this August will be minus one key player. Jerry Bailey, one of the all-time great jockeys, will retire later this month.

You always miss the best jockeys, but I have to say that I won't miss him driving honest 6-1 shots down to 5-2 on the board.

A Disgusting, Charitable Act by Captain Kirk

William Shatner has sold a kidney stone that he passed last year. It went for $25,000 to GoldenPalace.com, collectors of oddities, and the money will go to Habitat for Humanity.

Can't knock a guy for donating money to a charity, but it's hard to imagine reaching a point of fame when auctioning off a kidney stone springs to mind.
The stone was so big, Shatner said, "you'd want to wear it on your finger."
Great line. Best use of jewelry and physical disgust since this exchange between Navin (Steve Martin) and Marie (Bernadette Peters) in The Jerk:
Navin: No! Maybe you've hit bottom, but I haven't hit bottom yet! I got a ways to go. And I'm gonna bounce back, and when I do, I'm going to buy a diamond so big it's going to make you puke!

Marie: I don't wanna puke! I don't want wealth! I just want you like you used to be! What happened to that man?
While we're speaking of Shatner, if you haven't yet, check out this clip of his interpretation of "Rocket Man" at a 1978 awards show. And then try to answer this: Just how freaking weird were the 70s? I was 0-6 during that decade, and I'm starting to worry about what I was subconsciously absorbing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Archive of the Day

Lyrics to "Speak Our Minds," a song by The Innocence Mission:

I'm leaning down, I'm reaching to the lawn.
It is shining, shining with the weather.
Recent sorrows have not touched the sky.
We walk to Mary's, and speak our minds.

We're trying not to say it isn't fair.
We are crossing over to the tree side.
Oh I am not feeling all that tired.
We walk to Mary's, and speak our minds.

This street light says we should go on
through the tall buildings, to the sound.
Oh my own true friend, my friend and I,
we walk to Mary's and speak our minds.
Home, paint the kitchen and speak our minds.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Match Point

I'm a longtime Woody Allen fan, and unfortunately I'm sure many of my existing neuroses were finely tuned by early exposure to his best movies. But of course, like most sentient creatures, I think his last few movies were terrible. I saw Match Point, his much heralded "return to form" last night, and I half-agree. My friend Jason put it best when he said that, sure, "grading on a curve" because of Allen's last several films, this one is very good. I'd give it a B-, even with the curve. It's overlong, it has the same plot skeleton as Allen's Crime and Misdemeanors, and it has three or four ridiculous moments. Still, it does benefit from the fresh London setting, and at certain moments it gathers some steam as a thriller. Plus, no one in it resembles the babbling neurotic who made Allen's early movies so brilliant and his later ones so miserable.

Reaction to it, though, probably hinges most on one's opinion of Scarlett Johansson. It's undeniable that she is -- to use a purely technical term -- super-hot, but I've yet to see any strong evidence that she can act.


New Jersey's Self-Esteem Problem

Last spring, while my friend Jon and I were driving through the Northeast and the appropriately titled Rust Belt, we had a trusty road atlas that included the motto for every state. These ranged from the well-known (New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die") to the blunt (Utah's "Industry"), to sly commentaries on real-estate markets (New York's "Ever Upward"), to the feminist-angering (Maryland's "Manly Deeds, Womanly Words"), to the maddeningly vague (Idaho's "It Is Perpetual"), to mottos that sounded like future Will Oldham album titles (Connecticut's "He Who Transplanted Still Sustains").

After spending time in several states, we came up with new possibilities for a few of them -- replacing Indiana's "The Crossroads of America," for instance, with "Indiana: The Gateway to Ohio," and changing Ohio's "With God All Things Are Possible" to "Ohio."

New Jersey recently wanted a new state slogan (I should note that this differs from the motto, which will remain "Liberty and Prosperity"). A few months ago, the state paid an ad agency $250,000, and the agency came back with "New Jersey: We'll Win You Over." Needless to say, the state wasn't pleased. Like me, NJ officials probably calculated that such a slogan meant the agency still had to account for $249,998.75.

Now, I like New Jersey. When I was growing up on Long Island, we would sometimes visit family friends in truly beautiful areas of the state that most Turnpike drivers never see. But it is battling an image problem, so rejecting the agency's suggestion and taking the time to find something better was wise. Unfortunately, rather than regrouping and coming up with a sensible alternative, officials asked state residents (New Jerseyans? New Jerseyites? New Jerseytonians?) to send in suggestions. Now, they have a winner: "New Jersey: Come See for Yourself."

Huh? How is this better? It seems to me that both the agency's effort and this new one could be translated as: "New Jersey: Don't Believe the Incredible Number of Crappy Things That People Say About Us. Please. Just Don't."

A Song to Hear

My Old Kentucky Blog recently posted this piece about a band called the Guillemots, who are establishing a reputation in the UK right now. Go to the post and follow the link to the song "Trains to Brazil." It quickly turns catchy as hell, and though it seems like a very unlikely union, it sounds to my ears like Big Country and The Cure.

They play the Mercury Lounge in NYC on March 13.

Anderson Cooper, Oprah, the Talese Family, James Frey, JT LeRoy, and the Search for the Truth About Lying

I didn't know how to feel about Oprah when I saw Anderson Cooper on Thursday night sitting with Gay Talese, Nan Talese, and Carole Radziwill to discuss James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and the responsibility of nonfiction authors to stick strictly to the facts. (Gay Talese is a famous journalist and book writer; Nan, his wife, is an esteemed editor with her own imprint at Doubleday, and she published the book in question; and Radziwill, who I was learning of for the first time, is the author of a new memoir, What Remains. Oprah is Oprah, and when she recommended Frey's book to her armies last year, it became an unstoppable bestseller.)

My first reaction was to shout "hallelujah" in Oprah's general direction. Here were bookish issues being batted around on TV -- by respected people, no less, with studied opinions and real-world experience in the business of writing and editing and publishing books. OK, great, but once again it’s all because of Oprah. So then I became angry at her, or what she represents, at least, which is the country's general disregard for books when she’s not in the room, even if it’s irrational to hold that against her. But then I realized, reaching the third stage of what psychologists call the Oprah Reaction Model, that she’s legitimately monopolizing books. How does someone, no matter how beloved, control almost all wider cultural discussion about an entire medium? (And she doesn’t even work in that medium. It’s like allowing LeBron James to determine when and where we eat.) So I went from admiration to anger to just basically being scared. I’m really starting to think she can alter the material world with her mind, and I’m not comfortable with that.

The issue at hand, though, is Frey, and in case you’re one of the dwindling number of Americans who don’t watch Anderson Cooper, or one of the 243 million Americans who wonder what these “books” are, and why Oprah’s so dang excited ‘bout ‘em, here’s the recap from recent days: Frey released this memoir about three years ago, detailing his severe drug addiction, the mess it made of his life, and how he recovered from it. The book had made a small splash in the publishing pool upon its initial publication, mostly because Frey shamelessly bellowed his self-regard, telling every alternative-press interviewer-hack he could find that he was the next great American writer.

Well, not so much, said the critics. Reviews were mixed, and they included a notice from Janet Maslin in the New York Times in which she wrote:
Mr. Frey is reported to have originally presented this material as a novel when he looked for a publisher.
Maslin also wrote:
...although every detail of it may be accurate, it powerfully and sadly resembles pulp fiction.
As it turns out, some passages didn’t just resemble fiction. Frey has copped to stretching the truth past its breaking point in a couple of instances. Among the family Talese, Nan, perhaps understandably since she’s Frey’s publisher, defends the essential truth of the book and downplays the importance of two or three scenes being embellished. Her husband is less forgiving, and Radziwill took his side, at one point saying, “Have we gotten so cynical that we don’t mind if we’re lied to?”

All of this struck me as slightly strange, because questions about factual accuracy in creative nonfiction have been around a while, and I didn't see what they had to do with our current level of cynicism. Gay is considered a pivotal figure in the New Journalism movement that was also represented by writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not accusing either Wolfe or Thompson of being a liar, but Wolfe’s voice so strongly recasts all his reportorial experiences that his take on things overwhelms any sense of him as an objective eye. And Thompson, well, I don’t know if you’d call all hallucinations lies, but let’s just say that it’s hard to focus on getting your facts straight when your blood is 70% airplane glue.

So I did some research, because I was surprised that Talese -- though a more traditional journalist than Wolfe or Thompson -- wouldn’t have a bit more sympathy for someone’s artfully playing with the truth, and I found this interview from a couple of years ago, in which he says:
"New Journalism," to me, came to represent this easy kind of writing. I mean, Tom Wolfe himself is such a unique talent, but he is also a dogged reporter of facts and a researcher. A lot of these so-called "New Journalists," however, were really sloppy people in terms of facts, and I didn't want to be typecast as this. I mean I have boxes and boxes of files and careful recordings and impressions and notes that I jot on shirt-boards about every single thing that I publish. I keep outlines and letters of everything I've done, every little note and event and impression.
That answer clearly establishes Talese’s disrespect for blurring the facts, but when he continues to discuss his own work, it becomes equally clear that anyone aiming for a poetic, “deeper truth” brand of nonfiction is going to take some liberties, no matter how subtle:
I wrote my impressions of people. But I did so with a real sense that I knew what I was talking about, because I spent a long time studying them. And I think I was never so incorrect in this assumption that people got angry with me. ... It's how you write it. I was always very careful with my writing. My turn of phrase was always an understatement; I got my point across without being unnecessarily harsh. I'll give you an example of how to under-write a sentence. I was writing about the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was a notorious womanizer and who was ill at the time. And while I was talking to him an attractive young nurse came in. As she turned to walk away, I saw him looking at her and it immediately struck me that he was probably having an affair with her or whatever. But in my writing, I simply put that "Mr. Sulzberger had an eye for an ankle." It was a small turn of phrase and you got it all.
Now, in the actual piece, Talese turned the moment into Sulzberger just checking out the nurse, but read his inspiration again: “...it immediately struck me that he was probably having an affair with her or whatever.” Does that seem like a firm leap to anyone else? And isn’t that “or whatever” a pretty shady qualifier when you’re accusing someone of something?

In another piece about Talese, we get this:
If the aim of most New Journalism is to write so vividly and report in such intense bursts that a scene leaps from the page, Talese goes in the other direction. He slowly drills down through the mundane subterranean reality of human existence to its "fictional" core. "I believe that if you go deep enough into characters they become so real that their stories feel like make-believe. They feel like fiction. I want to evoke the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of reality," he says.
Again, Frey’s alleged imaginings are more severe than the small intuitive observations used as spackle in much of nonfiction, and Talese is guilty of nothing in the passages I quoted but grappling with the difficult nature of reporting and honestly capturing one’s subjects in print.

Still, I can’t help but think that in both the case of Frey and JT LeRoy –- a writer who had much longer-standing questions about his/her authenticity in the headlines last week –- we wouldn’t care so deeply about the completeness of their honesty if more people loved them as writers and not as cultural symbols. If we discovered that David Foster Wallace didn’t spend as many hours at the lobster festival as he said he did, I don’t think it would cause this kind of stir. If he had stretched the truth, it wouldn’t keep us from the insight and entertainment of his piece, and the central idea of it would remain intact. With LeRoy and Frey, though, the half-truths (or apparent non-truths, in LeRoy's case) are in service of heal-thyself platitudes, and if most of what you’re doing is preaching at us, you better be preaching the Truth.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Disease Journalism: Make It Stop

Just a note from my insensitive curmudgeon self: The New York Times is running what seems like a 587-part series about diabetes this week. I'm sure it's good journalism and all, but constantly seeing the grim headlines and the pictures of people who can't get out of bed is depressing the hell out of me.

Cinematic Crushes, and Ways to End a Movie

I’d been meaning to see Funny Ha Ha for a while, and the recent hype about its auteur, Andrew Bujalski (including a profile in the Times and a review of his follow-up film on Slate), helped me finally take the Netflix envelope off the coffee table and watch the damn thing. It’s a solid, even moving effort, but you do have to give yourself a good stretch to adjust to the initial awkwardness of its amateurish vibe. Bujalski casts himself and his nonprofessional-actor friends in all roles, and you know how that can be -- excruciating. But if the movie’s any good, and this one is, there comes a point when something clicks and you don’t just forgive the aesthetic, you understand its importance to the work’s effectiveness. It’s like hearing Shakespeare and taking a half-hour or so to adjust to the early modern English before everything starts sounding more natural. Same idea here -- watch stammering hipsters for long enough and all of a sudden they seem normal. (Which explains how I’ve accepted my life, come to think of it, as well as how I came to enjoy this movie.)

It stars Kate Dollenmayer as an aimless 23-year-old killing time with friends in Boston and Cambridge, and her performance was the second of its kind (i.e. mopey but bewitching) that I saw this week. I also watched The Girl in the Cafe, which has myriad faults that are almost completely redeemed by the sad-sack charm of its two leads. Bill Nighy is the main reason I rented it -- based on the few performances of his I’d seen, I suspected he might be some kind of mad genius. This confirmed that. He plays a depressive, slouching, unsure, mordantly funny guy who occupies a position of some power in the finance office of the British government. In the opening scene, he meets the titular character, played by Kelly Macdonald, in the titular location (truth in advertising is so refreshing). She’s equally low in the shoulders, but about 25 years younger and beautiful by almost any standard -- except presumably Hollywood’s, since we’re asked to believe that she spends the better part of her days huddled in self-recrimination over a cup of tea wearing what you could generously call an old bathmat for a sweater, and that she would be utterly shocked to be given a second look by any man, even a defeated one who exudes whatever is the opposite of charisma (if whatever it is can be technically "exuded"). They meet to the strains of a melodramatic Damien Rice song, and approximately 90 minutes later they hold hands during a time of crisis to a Sigur Ros ditty. Also, the movie revolves around their attending the G8 summit in Iceland, and the plot requires her to spontaneously and aggressively adopt politics that would make Bono blush for their utopianism.

So, yes, it’s flawed. But Macdonald, it seems, is not. I admit to being smitten. I’m sure women experience the same phenomenon (see: Cusack, John, entire career of). I don’t mean to make too much of movie crushes, but they’re actually more rare than they should be, because beautiful actresses often have the personal appeal of a perfume billboard, which is not much.

I’m mostly interested, though, in noting the final frame of both movies, each of which lingers on a fairly dramatic moment only to abruptly cut to black. Funny Ha Ha does this more effectively; The Girl in the Cafe’s resolution is (too) cleverly concocted, and so its lead-up prepares you for the faux cliffhanger of the last shot. Ha Ha’s final image reminded me of a movie called Fresh, which I saw many years ago, and which ends on a young boy sitting across from someone at a chess table in a public park. He’s crying, and at the crest of one of his ragged intakes of breath, the film stops. It was an arresting moment, partly and obviously because it put you in the position of literally holding your breath.

I'm partial to closing moments of that nature, somewhat ambiguous and quickly taken away, but there are terrific final scenes that don't follow that template. The Passenger, one of Michelangelo Antonioni's later works, starring Jack Nicholson, ends with a very long, painfully unhurried-but-dramatic tracking shot that I can still picture long after I’ve forgotten much of the rest of the movie.

More favorite last scenes, anyone?

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Not-So-Hot Celebrities and the Bloggers Who Look Like Them

Through Andrew Sullivan, I came across a program at MyHeritage.com that allows you to upload a photo of yourself to see which celebrities you most closely resemble. Having only a pretty goofy picture of myself on my computer (not many pictures of me aren’t goofy, but in this one I’m making a silly face on purpose), I went ahead and did it anyway. The results were, to put it lightly, dispiriting. Granted, the program is overly sensitive to things like accessories, and every single celebrity it came up with for me was wearing dark-rimmed glasses. So, it’s possible (in some cases definite, as you'll see) that I don’t resemble these people as much as I share their taste in eyewear. Just be prepared that, in general, the system is a bit zany. One blogger put in a picture of someone who was matched with George Clooney, Art Garfunkel, and Michael Jackson; no lie. With that caveat, here’s my list, in descending order of percentage of similarity.

1. Steven Soderbergh

I have to say that, especially given what follows, this is remarkably accurate. To my amateur eye, this is in fact close to what I might look like if I shaved my head entirely. Style of glasses: check. Fairly large nose: check. Pale complexion: check. That certain rakish twinkle in the eye: check. Even Soderbergh, at number one, only resembled me by about 70%, according to this technology, so there were no great matches, as further evidenced by...

2. Eddie Murphy

This was an awfully early moment at which to lose all faith in this project, but there I was. Needless to say, it would be fairly difficult for anyone to closely resemble both Steven Soderbergh and Eddie Murphy. And while race is not always a conclusive factor in determining whether you could be mistaken for someone, it's particularly salient in my case since I've often been described as "translucent." This match did make the rest of the process much less painful, though, because whenever a homely celebrity popped up on the ensuing list, I could console myself with the fact that MyHeritage’s database had clearly been assembled by a team of crack-addled dolphins.

3. Elvis Costello

Again, the glasses. Don’t get me wrong: Like Elvis, I’m not going to win any beauty contests, but for different reasons, thank the lord.

4. Wim Wenders

It was at this point that I became very wistful for a world in which the computer was matching brains and not faces.

5. Jeff Goldblum

Yes, we’re both a bit lanky and ungainly, but come on. Where are all the milky blond people on this thing? I mean, I’ll take Macaulay Culkin circa Home Alone 2 at this point. Have I just been around defective mirrors all my life?

6. Robin Gibb

Now I’ve shared too much.

7. Gary Oldman

This makes little sense, especially since, whatever else you can say about my visage, it doesn’t radiate the essence of pure evil.

8. Gustav Heinemann

A German politician of some sort.

9. Elton John

A gay balladeer of some sort.

10. Max Horkheimer

According to Wikipedia, Horkheimer was "a Jewish-German philosopher and sociologist, known especially as the founder and guiding thinker of the Frankfurt School of critical theory." Calm down, ladies.

(This was fun; not to mention humbling. I recommend it to everyone. You have to sign up at My Heritage, but that just entails the usual giving them your e-mail and creating a password.)


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Goose Shot Down, Again

Sadly, Rich "Goose" Gossage was not elected into baseball's Hall of Fame today. Fellow relief pitcher Bruce Sutter was, but he's the only one to pass muster this year.

I was really hoping that Gossage would get past the gatekeepers, mostly because he deserves it (disparaging the morons who mind the gate is way too easy, and won't be done here), and also because he saved the first game I ever attended, a Yankees win over the White Sox sometime in the early 80s. Oh, and also because Goose is a great nickname and he looks like a happy walrus.

Unforgivably Bad AP Lead of the Day

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- A federal judge has begun selecting a tribal council -- a jury -- to determine whether "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch should be voted not off the island, but possibly into prison.


Alcoholics and Gold Medal Winners Anonymous

Star U.S. skier Bode Miller has confessed to skiing while hungover, and the coach of the men's squad is worried about what effect his statements will have on the team's ability to raise money. Aren't beer manufacturers frequent sponsors of things, particularly sporting events? And wouldn't they love a piece of this action? Maybe they could give the U.S. ski team a truckload of money on one condition: each skier has to chug a can on camera before each run. From today's Times:
Miller is expected to give a public statement this week before the three World Cup races here at Wengen. According to McNichol, the skier will have to express regret about his words or stand behind them, and will face the possibility of exclusion from the team if he chooses the latter.
The press-conference culture is out of control. He has to express regret about his words? Don't they mean his actions? The bizarre thing is, I don't think they do. Instead of "I shouldn't have skied hungover," they're looking for, "I shouldn't have said that I skied hungover." Great.

Monday, January 09, 2006

A Promise to Keep Up the Pace. And, the Word Bone is Funny

It's been a slow few days on ye olde blogge. Apologies, but life gets in the way sometimes, as you know. Sure, it would be great if everyone could just sit around blogging all day (OK, no, that would be horrific), but that's not nature's plan for us. Speaking of nature, I'm cobbling together a longer post on evolution and intelligent design to post sometime this week. It's part of my promise (to myself; I'm working on getting readers and promising them things) to stretch out a bit in the new year.

For now, Encyclopedia Hanasiana has this report on a funny-looking and even funnier-named sound relic from the late 70s. I suppose it's the equivalent of today's iPod, if the iPod looked like a prop from Olivia Newton-John's video for "Physical."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

AP Grade Inflation Headline of the Day

Queen Latifah Gets Hollywood Star


Songwriters on Parade

Multiple-act music tours tend to be lame. Sure, I went to Lilith Fair with a girlfriend once, but they're mostly a waste of time. There's one on the horizon, though, that might be pretty good -- Mark Eitzel, David Bazan, Vic Chesnutt and Will Johnson are hitting the road, sharing the stage, taking turns playing a couple of songs at a time, and then concluding with a flurry of covers (presumably of each other's songs).

I bought a couple of records by Eitzel's band, American Music Club, back in college, but they -- and my familiarity with them -- got lost somewhere along the way. Bazan is better known as Pedro the Lion and, although I'm pretty sure his songs are gently meant to make me accept Jesus as my savior, he's a talented guy. ("Guy," "false Messiah," whatever.) Vic Chesnutt -- well, I know he's talented, but it's hard for me to judge him dispassionately. Along with a friend, I saw him open for Live in college (comments making fun of me for seeing Live can be made directly below), and it was hard to concentrate on his music. He was lifted onto the stage in his wheelchair, fluttering his arms to simulate flying, and then launched into one of the darkest, most misanthropic, clenched sets I've ever seen. He made the audience want to...what's the opposite of dancing?

The key for me is Johnson, who I've raved about before. He's the leader of my favorite Texas band, Centro-matic, and it's always a treat to see him perform.

On February 13, the tour -- dubbed the "Undertow Orchestra" for some reason -- comes to the best venue in New York City.

It's stopping in Texas for three nights later that month, in Denton, Austin, and Houston -- probably partly because Johnson is a Lone Star resident, but also because Texas has a pretty cool music scene. The point being: Check it out if you can.

A Moment for Me and, More Importantly, Nick Laird

If you'll pardon a self-centered interlude (I know the whole notion of blogging is inherently self-centered, but let's gloss over that for now), I'm ecstatic that a novel I'm publishing, which went on sale just the other day, receives a quite favorable review in today's New York Times from Michiko Kakutani. You can read the review right here, and you can pick up the book at a friendly neighborhood store.

Archive of the Day Redux

Won't make a habit of doubling up like this, but while I'm flipping through my underlined copy of The Risk Pool, thought I'd share an additional short paragraph. It's heavy-hearted in tone, but beautiful, too, I think you'll agree:
And so began the final stage of my boyhood in Mohawk. Later, as an adult, I would return from time to time. As a visitor, though, never again as a true resident. But then I wouldn't be a true resident of any other place either, joining instead the great multitude of wandering Americans, so many of whom have a Mohawk in their past, the memory of which propels us we know not precisely where, so long as it's away. Return we do, but only to gain momentum for our next outward arc, each further than the last, until there is no elasticity left, nothing to draw us home.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Democracy, or Voting For Yourself

I just came across mention of the voting process for this year's Weblog Awards (or, "Bloggies"). I was going to half-jokingly suggest you go and vote for ASWOBA or other friends and lovers, but a quick look at the ballot shows it might be more trouble than it's worth. Categories include Best Australian or New Zealand Weblog and Best Craft Weblog. Hmm.

I don't imagine you have to vote for every category, and you can vote for yourself, so at the very least it's probably worth it for those of us who have blogs to partially fill out a ballot. Now I have to go contemplate what it says about me that I've just spent more time thinking about this than I have about my last five local political elections.

(I wonder if Iraqis are allowed to vote for the Bloggies. Perhaps that should be Christopher Hitchens' next subject on Slate.)

Archive of the Day

From The Risk Pool by Richard Russo:
"Among my entrepreneurial activities that summer, I salvaged golf balls from the narrow pond that served as a hazard on the thirteenth and fourteenth holes of the Mohawk Country Club. To judge from its location, you wouldn't have thought it would come into play on either hole, since each offered a wide fairway and every opportunity to go around the water, but I doubted it could have attracted more balls had it been twice as large and right in front of the green. The more people faced away from the water, stared off into the friendly fairway, the more surely their ball would be destined for the pond. One afternoon before it had occurred to me that I might retrieve the balls that were down there, I sat on my bike for three hours and charted in my mind where the tee shots dropped, growing more and more amazed at the dense concentration of shots that ended up in the small strip of water. It was enough to make you reconsider the wisdom of deciding, on the outset of any human endeavor, that there was this one thing you didn't want to do."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mac (& Cheese) Daddy

This piece in the New York Times seeks the perfect serving of macaroni and cheese. As someone who's renowned for having the palate of an eight-year-old boy from Iowa City, I can't tell you how much I respect this effort.

The article contains this sentence: "The result was stunning: the noodles obediently absorbed the liquid as they cooked, encasing themselves in fluffy cheese and a crust of deep rich brown." That's my very early nominee for Best Spiritual Writing of 2006.

AP Headline of the Day

Scientists May Have Found Mozart's Skull

My Life is Waaay Different From This Dude's Life

Piece of a conversation overheard on the B train tonight:

Thuggish Man #1: "Guy didn't even know he'd been stabbed!"
Thuggish Man #2: "Sometimes you don't feel that shit till you stand up."


Here's Where Leeroy Goes Berserk

Let's just say that years have started better, so when I got home last night in desperate need of a laugh, someone must have been watching over me -- this clip from ifilm is one of the funniest things I've ever seen (and heard). You might have to watch a short ad to see it, and it's almost three minutes long. But trust me, it's worth it. The site succinctly describes it this way: "An overly enthusiastic gamer goes full force and pisses off the rest of his team."

It comes from ifilm's list of the year's best clips, which includes other things worth seeing (including the reimagined trailer for The Shining, which I had heard about but never seen), but nothing near as good as Leeroy here.