Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Liz, Woody, Paul, and More

I promised three posts today, so if i don't get up at least this second, I'll have trouble sleeping. (That's not true. I'll sleep like a baby either way.)

The last few days I've been watching several old clips from What's My Line?, the identity-guessing game show that originally ran from 1950 to 1967 on CBS. On each episode, the panel would try to guess the occupation of an average person by asking yes-or-no questions. But they would also occasionally don blindfolds and be asked to guess the identity of a mystery celebrity guest. YouTube has a treasure trove of this stuff. Most notable is a bizarre and entertaining appearance by Salvador Dali. (I linked to that a long time ago, and I highly recommend you watch it, either again or for the first time.)

Below I'm embedding a few more of the clips I've most enjoyed over the past few days, with just a line or two of introduction. As you can see from this complete list of the guests, there's plenty more to search for if you're in the mood.

Elizabeth Taylor, gorgeous, of course, and charming in her efforts to disguise:



A very young Woody Allen leads with a strong joke, written down, and then does a blunt job of disguising his unmistakable voice and stumping the panel:



Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who finish with a funny anecdote that would not fly in today's more uptight times. (Well, today we're more uptight and yet not uptight enough. That's a subject for another time, or times.) Paul Newman: Coolest man to ever walk the planet? Discuss.



And lastly, mostly for my friend Dez, a future president really hamming it up:



Like I said, there's a lot more out there. Others I enjoyed include Ed Sullivan, Wilt Chamberlain, Alfred Hitchcock, and Paul Newman (again, solo this time).

A Case Study: The Importance of Lyrics

A friend texted me the other day, and I’m paraphrasing: “I wonder if the Hold Steady would suck without their lyrics.”

I haven’t spoken to him to clarify what he meant by this, partly because making the argument more precise would keep me from speculating about it here, and I’ve felt somewhat desperate for material the last few days.

I’ll deal with the argument he’s less likely making first. If Craig Finn didn’t write great lyrics, he’d be in trouble. He has plenty of geeky charisma, so he can sell things, but he’s not a singer. He’s a shouter. If he were shouting the lyrics of, say, Def Leppard, I don’t think he’d have much of an audience.

I guess the more serious question concerns the band’s music. On the first couple of records, the music doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it aside from conviction. There’s an unimaginative kind of chugging going on behind some songs, like “Hornets! Hornets!” or the first half of “Stevie Nix.” But the latter isn’t just a good example of the lyrics being more important (“you came into the ER / drinking gin from a jam jar / and the nurses making jokes about the ER being like an after bar” and the ur-rock lyrics “lord, to be seventeen forever”), its second half is an example of the more subtle music that, I think, the band started using to increasingly good effect.

The gentle opening of “First Night” on Boys and Girls in America (still my favorite record of theirs) could be used by Bruce Hornsby, which some might see as an insult. I don’t mean it that way, even though I'm hardly a devoted Hornsby fan. (I know I’ve mentioned this before, a long time ago, but the best idea for a cover I’ve heard in years remains my friend S.D.’s suggestion that the Hold Steady cover Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.” That’s genius. Though how the band fares with covers is an open question. I like their version of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” once it starts kicking up dust, but their version of Springsteen’s admittedly unimprovable “Atlantic City” is best left undiscussed.) Anyway, the Hornsby reference makes me realize something: There are undoubtedly fans who think the band’s first two records are far better than the slightly softer dynamics of the stuff since. That’s fine, but I think Finn’s brutish affect has to be offset by something, and the keyboards and harmonicas and more melodic numbers are completely OK with me.

All that said, the musical pleasures in even the band’s best numbers tend to be guilty ones (think "The Boys Are Back in Town," for one), and sure, those always benefit from strong vocals, strong lyrics, or both. And Finn’s great at various forms, from the quick character sketch (“She looks shallow but she’s neck-deep in the steamy dreams of the guys along the harbor bars”) to the aphoristic (“started recreational / ended kinda medical”). He’s also funny (“Chillout Tent”) and solemn (“Citrus”), and often both simultaneously, which is no mean trick. If the question is, would the Hold Steady be a less serious band without their lyrics, I think the answer to that is an obvious, even resounding yes. But with the right voice at the front, and some semblance of passable lyrics, I think the friend mentioned above and I would still listen to them with the windows down.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Foiled

I'm essentially breaking the streak tonight. Though given how I post things after midnight, you might not be able to tell. If I post something at a reasonable hour Friday, you might be fooled into thinking the streak is technically still alive. Over the weekend I'll have time to post a few things, so we can all look forward to that. In the meantime, you can visit my friends ANCIANT and Dez, who are on their own streaks and doing a bang-up job of it.

Laughter on the R Train

I'm so deliriously tired right now that I can't even pretend I'm concerned that this revitalized blogging experiment has recently lacked a certain joie de vivre. (That's French for "good blogging.") One reason I'm not concerned is that I can make up for it in the coming days and nights, which promise to be less busy. Another reason is that I'm so tired that I could convince myself this blog, and even my material existence, is just a figment of some distant god's imagination.

Riding home on the subway tonight, around 11:15, after meeting a friend for a drink after work, I was reading Out of Sheer Rage by Dyer (see previous posts). I have about 20 pages left now. I was trying not to laugh out loud, because laughing out loud alone in public — even if you're reading, so the source of the laughter is relatively clear — is goofy, and perhaps even easily confused for psychotic. (Why I should be self-conscious about this when so many of my compatriots in this city are obviously, even flamboyantly psychotic is an issue for another time.) I was trying not to laugh during several different passages, one of which described the way everyone in London exaggerates their cold symptoms. ("If people have a cold they say they have flu; if they say they have a cold it means there's nothing wrong with them.") In another, he tried to convey the satisfaction he took and the time he saved by not caring about one of the arts. ("Not being interested in the theatre provides me with more happiness than all the things I am interested in put together.")

The 23 pages I have left could be a retelling of an episode of Mr. Belvedere in the voice of Katie Couric, and I still think the book would be among my favorites.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Uncapturable

My good friend who blogs at A New Career in a New Town has been reading some uninspiring books lately. I can't say the same. Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage is almost too good, the kind of thing that could easily keep me from trying to write something of my own. I'm trying to use it, instead, as inspiration. Dyer's approach in the book is not unlike filmmaker Ross McElwee's approach in the documentary Sherman's March. Each of them sets out to understand a subject and ends up talking mostly about himself. Dyer gets much closer to his ostensible subject, D.H. Lawrence, than McElwee does to Sherman, but both works posit life as inscrutable, terrifyingly (and exhilaratingly) subjective, essentially uncapturable but worth trying to capture. I've been working on and off on my own idea for a nonfiction book (working on the idea, not the book, alas), and perhaps there's something to learn about the possibilities for it from Dyer and McElwee. Well, of course there is.

Another question is whether Dyer will inspire me to read Lawrence. I'm torn. On the one hand, I remember reading stories of his in college and not being particularly interested. One of my smartest friends thinks The Rainbow is awful. There's so much to read, and Lawrence wasn't very high on my list. Should Dyer's own wonderfulness bump him up? It helps that Dyer argues most for the value of the letters and travel diaries, which I might be more drawn to at this particular time than, say, Sons and Lovers. I've put a few of his books in my Amazon cart, tentatively. Whether I end up ordering them or deleting them, only time will tell. It's a tenuous position Dyer would understand very well.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Vintage Shots of the Great Game

My friend Miles, who blogs at It's Gone, recently linked to a terrific set of old baseball photos by Leslie Jones, a cameraman who worked for the Boston Herald-Traveler from 1915 to 1956. The Boston Public Library is digitizing tens of thousands of Jones' photos. Three are below (click to enlarge). A few dozen more can be found here.



Working on Worthwhileness

I'm glad to be blogging again here. It's different than what I do at The Second Pass, on more than one level, and it's satisfying to keep something going that has no practical reason to continue going. I'm also frustrated. I get up in the morning and attend to a few basic things. I eat breakfast. I shower. I run an errand or two, when the errands are urgent enough to shock me from stasis. (I'm hoping to join a gym again soon, which has never worked out all that well for me, but which is becoming more and more imperative. So that will add something to the routine some mornings, for at least a little, optimistic while.) I try to do something — and sometimes more than one somethings — related to my books site. I leave for my job, which starts at 1:00, a little after noon. I stay there until 9:00 or so, and then come home to do things that include spending time with my girlfriend, more work on the books site/other writing, reading for pleasure/the books site, spending time (drinking/eating/etc.) with friends/family, watching TV, checking my e-mail, checking the box scores, and all the other things that range from wasteful to necessary and, taken together, constitute life. I now end up blogging, on most weekdays, sometime after midnight, and this doesn't leave me the time I'd like to make the posts as worthwhile as they might be. (Realizing that even eminently worthwhile is relative in this scenario.) I do feel reconnected to the blog, and I think this 30-day experiment will last past the month, but my circumstances are also much different than they were in the ASWOBA heyday (you know, the years covered in Ken Burns' nine-part documentary about the blog), and my intentions are sometimes outmuscled by reality. Tonight's Monday. One of my goals this week is to make it so that posting one thing each night, by the end of the week, results in efforts far more satisfying and less process-referential than this one. I make no promises. But I thank you for reading, as always.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Placeholder

Just back from 36 hours or so spent on the southern tip of New Jersey in a town called Cape May, where we were put up by a good friend, whose parents live there. I had never been to Cape May, and it was an eye-opener. It's a beautiful place, and today the weather was almost ideal (save for a pretty wicked wind, especially near the water). I'm going to write more about it, and maybe share a picture or two (I don't know how they turned out yet; haven't looked), and explain why my friend Dez might be particularly interested in it. But for now, this post is just a cheap way to keep up my 30-day pace. I've been on the road for more than three hours and I need to get up early to take care of a couple of things. So it's off to bed. More of substance soon.

In the meantime, the Mavericks won the opening game of their series, so things are off to a good start. I'm thrilled to see the Spurs and Lakers lose today. I don't expect either to lose their series, but let's just say I wouldn't mind at all having my predictions sunk if they did.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

NBA Crystal Ball

A quick post here, and then another late tomorrow night, and I'll still be on track to fulfill my 30-day promise even though I'm going away for the weekend in a few minutes and won't have my computer with me.

I thought I would offer up my predictions for the first round of the NBA playoffs, partly because I can't imagine anything the world wants or needs more and partly because I like being publicly wrong. Actually, the first round offers some lopsided match-ups on paper, so I'm not going out on a limb with these picks:

In the East, I like the Bulls to beat the Pacers soundly, the Heat to trounce Philly, the Magic to beat the Hawks, and the Celtics to beat the Knicks. (Though, of course, I would love if the Knicks could make that a series, or even win it.)

In the West, just about every so-called expert I've listened to or read in the past few days is picking Portland to beat Dallas, which means that Dallas over Portland is an easy pick for me. When a 6 seed over a 3 seed becomes something like consensus, a pick has become way too trendy to be trustworthy. Suddenly Portland is a world-beater because it traded for Gerald Wallace? Really? I think not. I'm also a Mavs fan, but I feel like I'm using the logical part of my brain here anyway. Spurs over the Grizzlies, Lakers to beat the Hornets. Potentially the most entertaining first-round series is the Thunder against the Nuggets. I haven't seen them play, so I have no idea how the Nuggets became seemingly so much better after trading Carmelo Anthony, but I still think that Durant and Westbrook are too tough with a season of playoff experience under their belt. I like the Thunder to win, and to be a tough out whoever they play next. In fact, unless the Lakers regain their form fast, I think OKC has a legitimate chance to win the West. Not saying it will be easy.

Invest accordingly.

The Stupidest Things Ever

At some point several years back, the magazine Entertainment Weekly shook off the second word in the phrase "guilty pleasure." Still, if I'm going to be on a train for 45 minutes and have been staring at text all week and don't feel up to reading my Geoff Dyer book or the draft of a friend's novel or even a magazine that doesn't feature pictures of Ryan Reynolds, it will do. Especially if it's a "preview issue." I'm a sucker for preview issues. Sports Illustrated could put out an issue with a well-designed cover and the tagline "Australian Cricket Preview 2011," and I would think about it for five or six seconds before deciding not to buy it, research how cricket is played, and then read it.

Tonight, I went to Long Island to visit my mom, and I picked up the EW summer movie preview issue at Penn Station. As in any summer, there are movies I'd be interested to see peppered among the movies for people who were born without a sense of shame or aesthetic judgment. I'm curious about the new Woody Allen movie; not because I've invented time travel and landed in 1978, but because it stars Owen Wilson, who I think is great with grown-up material, and Rachel McAdams, who I love beyond reason. I'll also see Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. The guy's a genius, even though I fear after seeing the preview that he's a genius whose voiceovers are increasingly written to appeal to Deepak Chopra. I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda, so I'll see the sequel. I'll even see Super 8, J.J. Abrams' movie about young kids making a sci-fi movie in the 1980s. It looks like it would be at least pleasingly nostalgic, and at most very good. Those are just the bolder names that caught my attention; I'm sure other things will pop up.

In the meantime, what I really wanted to do was share eight quotes from throughout the magazine, all from people involved with various summer movies. Taken out of context, I think they provide quite a bit of context for how the season at the cineplex can feel. Here you go:
"Everyone is going to her lake house to have fun and party and, uh, die, I guess."

"I get to get my Lara Croft on."

"This ain't no regular peacock. He's got a crazy look in his eyes, and he's got Gary Oldman's brain, which is terrifying in and of itself."

"They'd put a sticker where each Smurf would be so that your eye line would match, and there were literally hundreds of stickers all around the room. I thought I was going crazy."

"But they don't know that they're aliens. In the 1800s, nobody knows what aliens are."

"It's 9 to 5 meets The Hangover."

"Because effects have gotten so good, it's like working opposite an actual chimp, but with all the best instincts of an actor."

"It's preposterous. It's just the stupidest thing ever, but it's all in the execution."

Friday, April 15, 2011

McCoy, with a Marv Digression

A few weeks ago, my friend John invited me to the Blue Note jazz club to see the McCoy Tyner Trio. I had never been to Blue Note before, and in this instance, as in others, I was glad that John urged me to take advantage of the city, something that’s all too easy to be lazy about. Tyner has had a long career, though he’s probably most famous for being the pianist in the John Coltrane Quartet in the early 1960s.

While I waited for John outside the club, I started talking to a friendly guy who was selling his own CDs. I was holding a couple of books in my hand, and one time as I paced past him (I’m not very talented at standing still), he said, “Hello, writer.” I thought that was funny, so I gave him a chance to sell me on his music. He was slow to do it, happy to talk about other things — like growing up in upstate New York, or the music event he organized each month at the Bowery Poetry Club. He introduced himself as Marv, short for Marvalous. Eventually, he showed me two CDs he had for sale. I asked him if he preferred one over the other. “Oh, I can’t say,” he said. “These are my children.” He did point out, though, that the first was like his independent film, scrappily put together and very dear to him. The second was his bigger-budget movie, more effects, more “pow,” as he put it. Maybe he said more “bang.” They looked equally scrappy to me, and I chose one. After we talked for a few more minutes, he said, “Here, take both of them for that price.” I said no — that I knew where to find him, and if I liked the one I had, I would gladly come back to buy the other one. I keep meaning to listen to the record, but haven't yet. Sorry, Marv. I’ll have to do that, and blog about it. More material!

OK, this is blogging as it happens: I just found a post by another musician who also met Marv on the street, and ended up asking him a few questions over e-mail. In the interview, Marv says he puts in many 12-hour days pushing his music, and he reveals some of the simple but effective methods he uses — like those he used on me — to get people talking. (“I genuinely love people, and that helps I’m sure. Especially in NYC people are many times apprehensive and guarded. So I smile, and ask open-ended questions or make a remark based on an observation, it could be a shirt or a brand that they’re wearing or a sports team, etc.”) I also found this video for a song of his online.

The show inside didn’t disappoint. Tyner is 72 now, gaunt and frail. But his hands can still fly. And the rest of his band, particularly bassist Gerald Cannon and a fierce drummer named Francisco Mela, was strong, joined by a vocalist whose name I don’t recall for a few songs. The clip below is of Tyner in huskier days, in Hamburg in 1996, blazing through Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball

I hate to sort-of-cheat two days in a row, but if I'm going to maintain my streak today, it's necessary. Besides, there are no rules here. Who's even reading this? I got up this morning and took a 50-minute train ride to Long Island, where I met with a tax consultant for 20 minutes, then turned around and took a 50-minute train ride to Manhattan and went to work. It's been a long day.

I've just posted at The Second Pass a brief piece about a baseball pitcher named Dock Ellis. Here's the beginning of it:
Donald Hall has been U.S. Poet Laureate, was educated at Exeter, Harvard, and Oxford, and is generally associated with contemplative life in New Hampshire and poetry collections with titles like Kicking the Leaves and The Purpose of a Chair.

Dock Ellis was a voluble baseball pitcher in the 1970s who once purchased a Cadillac custom-designed for a pimp who could no longer afford it. He christened it the Dockmobile. He also pitched a no-hitter while under the lingering influence of LSD, and said of the achievement: “I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, and once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate.”

Needless to say, when I discovered, while reading Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods, that Hall had written a book called Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, I felt a strong urge to find a copy.
Please feel free to read the whole thing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Waiting for the Sunset

I'm finally taking care of my taxes tomorrow morning, and given that fact, it's miraculous I'm blogging tonight and keeping this streak alive. But given my state of distraction, I'm going to let someone else do at least some of the lifting for me. Geoff Dyer is a writer I've been meaning to read for a while. I've read essays and reviews of his here and there, always impressed, but hadn't yet gotten around to his books. That's changing, and quickly.

I recently talked to a friend of mine about an essay I'm fiddling with off and on about my lack of traveling experience. This wise friend asked if I had read Dyer's Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. I finished it tonight. In a series of linked pieces that shuttle back and forth through time, Dyer visits New Orleans, Rome, Indonesia, Amsterdam, Detroit, Libya, the Burning Man festival, and other spots, and alternately gains and loses a sense of himself. Dyer is witty, erudite, rakish, and fond of marijuana. His adventures are of the very low-key variety, but it's what he does with them that matters.

I might have more to say about him over at The Second Pass sometime, but I need to read more of him first. Next up is Out of Sheer Rage, perhaps his most famous book, which he describes in this short video here. For now, I thought I'd share a bit from Yoga. This passage occurs when he and a female companion take in a Cambodian sunset:
Sunsets impose a heavy burden on the sightseer. A spot acquires such a reputation as the place from which "to watch the sunset" that you are virtually obliged to go there. Phnom Bakheng was just such a spot. It was a punishing walk, hauling ourselves up the slope, but my Tevas, the Tevas I had bought years earlier in New Orleans, were able to take the strain. As we walked up that punishing hill I thought of writing to Teva and suggesting a couple of slogans: "Tevas Can Take It" was one. Perhaps there was only the one. [. . .]

Serious photographers had their cameras on tripods. One such photographer turned to his wife and said, "Fifteen minutes to go," as though they were colleagues at Mission Control at NASA. Everyone else simply waited. For the sunset. Except for a few all-important details, the scene was reminiscent of Hampi, in India, where we had also flocked to watch the sunset. Pessoa was right: there's no point going to Constantinople to see a sunset; they're the same the world over. But you do it anyway; you go to Constantinople and Phnom Bakheng and everywhere else, and while you're there you catch the sunset. While travelling, in fact, watching the sunset gives the day a purpose and meaning it can otherwise lack. Even so, few things seem more idiotic than waiting on a sunset. Waiting for the sunset becomes an activity, an exercise in abeyance. Idleness, doing nothing, is raised to the level of sharply focused purpose. Expectation becomes a form of sustained exertion. You wait for it to happen even though it's going to happen anyway. Or not happen. Frank O'Hara was right, "the sun doesn't necessarily set, sometimes it just disappears."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Five Songs, Chapter Twenty-Nine

Remember this little exercise? (If you do, you’ve been reading this blog for far too long.) I abandoned it for a while because I went through the whole favorite 100 albums project, and that more than satisfied my music-writing itch. But that’s been over for a while, and the five songs conceit has been shelved since almost three years ago. So back to it...

“I’m Sober Now” by Danny O’Keefe

My friend Strath introduced me to this song a few years ago, and he’s written about O’Keefe at slightly greater length over at his fine blog. He’s a singer and songwriter from the Pacific Northwest (Strath’s native stomping grounds) who was most active in the 1970s and had his music covered by a number of higher-profile artists. “I’m Sober Now” is all unapologetically maudlin slide guitar and a great tear-filled beer lyric that includes lines like, “they say some folks can make it / livin’ on their own / but the only ones I’ve heard of / was either saints or stones.”

“This Is Why We Fight” by The Decemberists

R.E.M. recently released another pretty desultory effort, but that’s OK, because The Decemberists’ The King is Dead, released in January, already had a lock on the best R.E.M. album of the year. Peter Buck plays on a few songs — one in particular, “Calamity Song,” begins with a guitar figure so reminiscent of Reckoning that it’s ridiculous. "Why We Fight," the album’s penultimate song, has been the one I’ve most compulsively listened to. There have been times I’ve just played it 10 times in a row, and I’m still not sick of it. Its music sounds more Smiths than R.E.M., and the lyric is very much an early Son Volt (or R.E.M., but it’s nice to shake up the references) type of effort, with satisfyingly vague emotion and portent. (“Come the war / come the avarice / come the war / come hell.”)

"We're Not Alone" by Dinosaur Jr.

This is off Beyond, which was released in 2007 and thus has no right to sound as good as it does. This song is both catchy and, to my ears, very moving. "I wanted you to say / 'be around'" goes one recurring lyric. The song shifts less than halfway into a slightly different guitar movement, no less catchy, and a repetition of "If you say we're not alone." Well, if you like guitar rock, and the bands that influenced Dinosaur Jr. (The Replacements) and the bands Dinosaur Jr. then influenced (Buffalo Tom), I think you'll like this song quite a bit.

"The Modern Leper" by Frightened Rabbit

This installment of Five Songs is becoming, with this song, at least 60% about various forms of guitar-driven relationship angst. (80% if you count The Decemberists, which we probably should, because whatever the hell he's singing about, it's probably a metaphor for a girl.) This band isn't everybody's cup of tea. Even I can only take a few songs at a time. The singer's voice, though his Scottish accent has to count for something, can fall on the wrong side of the emo-ish/mewling divide (aren't both sides of that divide the wrong side? you ask, and you are right to).

"Pannonica" by Thelonious Monk

A song I've been listening to a bit lately, and you should, too. You can't just listen to that rock music all the time, you know. It'll rot your brain. (Oh, and I listen to the Alone in San Francisco version more often, but the full version on Brilliant Corners is also good.)

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sated

Now that I'm on a little bit of a roll, with this at-least-30-posts-in-30-days project, I really felt like I would have the next installment of my favorite 100 movies list up tonight. Remember that list? It began in February 1963.

Well, it isn't going to continue tonight, but will soon.

Tonight my brother-in-law very kindly took me and another gentleman out to Peter Luger for some high-quality artery clogging. Peter Luger is a steakhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and it was my first time there. Zagat Survey has voted it the best steakhouse in New York for 26 years running, and this paragraph from Wikipedia gives a sense of its power to draw:
Among the current owners of the restaurant is Amy Rubenstein, wife of Howard Rubenstein, the legendary PR man whose clients have included George Steinbrenner, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump. [Ed. note: Really, all I thought while reading this paragraph was, my God, that's a PR man who likes a challenge.] Famous guests have included James Cagney, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert De Niro, Henry Kissinger, Johnny Carson, and Jerry Seinfeld. [Ed. note: I removed Chuck Schumer from that previous sentence, because come on.] Tennis champion Pete Sampras also liked to celebrate wins at the U.S. Open by feasting at Peter Luger's.
Part of the reason I couldn't muster a stronger blog showing this evening was because I had enough porterhouse steak, German fried potatoes, and cheesecake to kill a lesser man. Perhaps even to kill myself — we'll see how the night progresses. Or doesn't.

ffearless, ffatal, and ffantastic

A few weeks ago, I was invited by my friend Eric to a screening of ffolkes, a 1979 thriller about terrorists threatening to blow up two oil rigs in the North Sea. (The movie was released in Britain as North Sea Hijack.) It was being shown for its comic value by a group of young film enthusiasts, and it didn’t disappoint.

Roger Moore, between James Bond movies at the time, stars as Rufus Excalibur ffolkes, aptly described by Wikipedia as a “misogynist freelance marine counter-terrorism consultant.” (David Plotz says, “About that double, lower-case F — a few snooty British names have it, apparently because of a misreading of the Old English capital F.”)

One of the film’s official taglines called him “the man who loved cats, ignored women and is about to save the world.” Also apt. It’s hard to imagine that Wes Anderson and/or Owen Wilson didn’t see this at some point in their younger years. Moore starts the movie wearing a Where’s Waldo? hat and matching sweater and scarf that would have made him perfectly at home on Steve Zissou’s vessel. And his ragtag collection of underlings wear matching black wetsuits that say “ffolkes’ ffusiliers” on the back, a sartorial sameness that isn’t the only thing they share with Dignan’s group of amateur criminals in Bottle Rocket or Zissou’s crew in The Life Aquatic. (The scene that made me laugh hardest features the men training on a makeshift boat on the grounds of a castle. Their pudginess, and lack of precise timing — Moore blows a whistle to signal them to abruptly freeze; the result is a series of faltering stops — slayed me. It might have been meant to; it’s very difficult to tell where the movie is earnest and where it’s intentionally campy.)

Wait, I lied. The biggest laugh for me and everyone else in the room came when ffolkes solemnly told someone, “Both my parents died tragically in childbirth.”

What? Someone at imdb explains how the line made sense (more or less) in the movie’s source material, a novel by Jack Davies, but really, it’s much, much better dropped in here without context.

Another UK tagline for the movie read: “When the next 12 hours could cost you 1,000 million pounds and 600 lives, you need a man who lives second by second.” (The “thousand million” formulation is also good for several laughs throughout the movie, as if the characters are children trying to make a number sound large.) Anyway, it’s true — if you need a man who lives second by second, you need ffolkes. Just be warned that for some of those seconds, he is swigging whiskey from a bottle and/or intently doing needlework that features the image of a kitten.

Here, enjoy the trailer:

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Programming Note

Just a quick note for the three people who I think care at this point. (And no, this doesn't count as today's post.)

I'm in the midst of posting at least once here for 30 consecutive days. This has nothing to do with a midnight-to-midnight sense of days. What I'm doing, more precisely, is blogging once for each prolonged amount of time I'm awake for the next 30 days. I often go to bed well after midnight, so sometimes posts are going to show up then. If you visit the blog first thing each morning, there will be something new there. Perhaps a few things. Spread the word.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Acolyte Maker

A co-worker of mine is currently slogging through Atlas Shrugged and hating life. I think she lost a bet. No, she promised a family member she would read it. In any case, she feels obligated to finish it now. She’s constantly telling us she’s nearly a third or half or two-thirds of the way through it, and we keep reminding her that each of those milestones only means she still has thousands of pages to go.

I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 18, I would estimate. I’m not entirely sure. It was after I read The Fountainhead, which was definitely in high school, and I don’t think I read it in college, so 18 sounds right. Around that time, I also read Anthem, a very short novel by Rand, and a decent amount of her philosophical writing (though the novels are really just cudgels for her philosophy anyway). There were several reasons for this: I was a debate nerd, and was reading a bunch of philosophy of different sorts; my dad had read and liked The Fountainhead at some point in his life; one of my best friends in high school was a fairly avid Randian; and maybe most important of all, I was a highly opinionated teenage male who thought, among other things, that religion was patently absurd.

The Fountainhead is fun for stretches. Rand’s insane character names and soapy melodrama would be guilty-pleasure page-turners of a certain stripe if it weren’t for the frequent insertion of multiple-page screeds that say in 10,000 leaden words what could be comfortably conveyed in seven. The Fountainhead has fewer of those screeds than Atlas Shrugged does. (The famous climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged runs to more than 70 pages, though it feels like hundreds, and I can only guess that I made it through it because I was young and had a natural stamina I now lack.)

I was never a Rand acolyte, so it’s not even accurate to say I disavowed her. But like many people, I grew up and realized that her philosophy was, in a nutshell, insane. This is not to say it entirely lacks truth. In fact, it might be fair to say it features too much of one truth. Or to say that its every inch is composed of just one part of truth, leaving no room for any of its other components.

I was motivated to write about this because Salon recently ran an essay by a woman named Alyssa Bereznak, who writes about how her father follows Rand’s dictates to the exclusion of all others. You realize reading the piece that her father is likely a pretty bad person to start with, and that Objectivism didn’t make him that way — like most religions or hyper-strict political philosophies, Rand’s lends itself to chicken-egg arguments: Was the person this way before, or did the belief make them that way?

Bereznak writes:
I don't know exactly why he sparked to Rand. He claimed the philosophy appealed to him because it's based solely on logic. It also conveniently quenched his lawyer's thirst to always be right. It's not uncommon for people to seek out belief systems, whether political or spiritual, that make them feel good about how they already live their lives. Ultimately, I suspect Dad was drawn to Objectivism because, unlike so many altruistic faiths, it made him feel good about being selfish.
Rand had her own reasons for believing what she did. She spent her childhood in Russia, and when she was still a young girl, she saw her father’s business, a pharmacy, taken away from him by the Red Army. In many ways, Rand’s work is a cartoonish morality play about the starkest form of individualism vs. collectivism, and her biography makes that perfectly understandable. It’s also true that individualism is a damn fine -ism, trumpeted by many of the great thinkers throughout history. But Rand made it a hard virtue to defend, draining it of any and all relationship to other people.

In a way, the silent assumption behind Rand's philosophy is that we are always in the position of watching a conquering army take away an innocent individual's livelihood; that this is the core relationship of men. But it's incredibly easy, philosophically, to side with the individual in that scenario. What about every other scenario? The vast majority of humanity (all of it, by any reasonable standard) depends to varying extents on other people. Rand had no use for that fact.

Even genius of the type that floats at the center of Rand's work, to think of it, operates within systems, and those systems can just as easily encourage, nurture, and reward that genius as they can discourage, fear, or extinguish it, as is always the case in Rand’s work.

Rand does for the individual what utopians do for the group — she turns it into something so pure that it’s completely unrealistic, winning a following of zealots but losing anyone who thinks the world is an even slightly complicated place.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

AP Headline of the Day

Colorado Police Pepper-Spray Misbehaving Boy, 8

At first blush, this just appears to be another incident in the decline of collective sanity. But then you read the story, and the kid sounds like a seriously holy terror. And self-aware:
When asked about the pepper spray and what he did, Aidan said: "I kind of deserved it."
The story end this way, with mom agreeing:
Paramedics were treating his red, irritated face with cool water when his mother arrived.

According to the report, Mandy Elliott asked her son what he did.

When he told her he had been hit with pepper spray, she is quoted as saying, "Well, you probably deserved it."

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Forget the Hearse 'Cause I'll Never Die

Before today, there were four posts on this blog since Thanksgiving, which means, more or less, that the blog had died. In an effort to revive it, I’ve promised a friend of mine, who blogs at A New Career in a New Town, that I will post at least once for each of the next 30 days. It’s something he just did himself, and he’s going to continue his streak through the next month as well. (I’ve just now discovered that my friend “Dez” is also taking part in this motivational exercise.)

Why has the blog been so silent? I’ve had a full-time job since September, which wasn’t true for a significant chunk of time before that. And I spend a good portion of my free hours attending to The Second Pass. I recently participated as a judge in this year’s Tournament of Books at The Morning News. (Here’s my quarterfinal round decision. Here’s the final round, in which I was one of 17 judges on a panel.) I spend time thinking about (too much time thinking; not nearly enough doing) other writing projects.

But not much has changed. Some of the things I’ll write about over the next 30 days will be the usual: a vague to not-so-vague sense of dissatisfaction and/or restlessness; music I’ve been listening to; fantasy baseball concerns; what to read next, and how systematic to be about it. It’s thrilling, I know. I’m going to resuscitate a couple of old regular features, and might even get around to finishing my list of 100 favorite movies before we all die and the sun burns down to the size of a charcoal briquette.

For tonight, I’m just saying hi. I’m hoping to finish a piece for The Second Pass before I go to bed, about baseball pitcher Dock Ellis. If I excerpt it and link to it here once it’s up, I won’t count that against my post-a-day promise.

More soon: for real this time.