Friday, February 29, 2008

Heavy Metal

Why, yes, I am a comics nerd, why do you ask? Heavy metal is (unfortunately), all over this trailer, just as it was in the teaser, but what really impressed me was the preview's sense of humor: like Tim Burton with Batman, Jon Favreau might be one of those "hmmm" choices that turns out to be inspired, especially if he's channeling the not-nearly-as-smooth-as-they-think manchildren of his first feature, Swingers, who have a lot in common with the character of Tony Stark. It's still a bit hard to get a bead on the narrative, which seems to be coming at us in bits and pieces, like the various parts of Iron Man's armor; still, the cast looks fabulous, Downey is perfect and the special effects appear top-notch. All in all, much better-looking than Catwoman.

Truth, Justice, And A Very Red And Blue Cake

Two of my favorite comics bloggers, Bully and Mark Engblom, remind us that today is Superman's birthday! (Yes, yes-- I know that comic book characters don't have "real" birthdays, but tell me-- when exactly did you lose your soul?). Mark marks the day with a great Dwight Howard clip, while Bully offers a wonderful summary/analysis of a great Alan Moore Superman story, so I thought (being a film guy and all) I'd offer some of my favorite cinematic moments from Superman's long multimedia history (while enjoying the unplanned serendipity of showing the Fleischer Superman cartoons for my comics and animation class this Sunday).

First, the fabulous Fleischers:

Next, a trailer for the little-seen 1948 film serial:

A wonderfully innocent and strange commercial starring TV's first Superman, George Reeves:

A very special Superfriend warns of the health risks of pill-popping:

Christopher Reeve proves himself the best Superman of all time by turning back time! You, sir, are both "bad" and "ass":

On the other hand, Dean Cain wasn't bad either, opposite Teri Hatcher in the underrated, screwball romance version of Superman, Lois and Clark:

Finally, a wonderfully cinephiliac scene from the unfairly maligned Superman Returns:


Wow. For anyone still convinced that either of these jokers is a "straight-talking" solution to the nation's problems, please read this piece. Then watch this hilarious takedown.

Knight Fever

"Knight is ESPN's new college basketball studio analyst. He will join the network March 12 for a 27-day gig that covers championship week and the NCAA tournament. He also will appear on "SportsCenter," ESPN Radio and ESPN News...

""I think ESPN has been real good for college basketball," Knight said in a news release. "And I look forward to working with some of their people who I have known a long time."

King Kaufman sums it up pretty well, but I'll just add that, for all the move's hypocrisy, I actually can't think of a better home for Knight than ESPN; like him, it mines a similar combination of macho bullying, anti-intellectualism, and self-satisfied humor, while blending it with an utterly unearned sense of moral self-righteousness. Like Bonnie and Clyde, Nick and Jessica or Trump and Ivana, they seem made for each other.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Blue Screened

Two interesting posts in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer, analyzing Monday's Democratic debate in Ohio. The first, by PD politics writer Mark Naymik, faults the candidates for not talking more about local and urban issues, for not tailoring their remarks to the needs of the Ohio community. It is especially critical of debate moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams for not focusing on these and other, more substantive issues. The second, by PD television critic Mark Dawidziak, also takes Williams and Russert to task, but less for their failure to focus on specific issues (addressed only at the end of Dawidziak's column), and more for their failure to keep the debate running smoothly, like a boxing match (to use Dawidziak's analogy). The columns offer fascinating contrasts, the former aching for substance, the latter complaining the debates weren't stylish enough. One might read this, in cinematic terms, as the relationship between foreground and background, between stars and setting, dialogue and narratives (or issues). In one passage of Naymik's analysis, he tries to link the two, through the oafish persona of Russert: writing of the failure to address the mortgage crisis, Naymik notes, "Russert should be sensitive to the problem, too. Educated in Cleveland, he is from Buffalo, as he noted during the debate. Buffalo has been ravaged by house-flipping, the sale of abandoned property at inflated prices to unwitting buyers, which ultimately leaves many houses in foreclosure." Naymik is right, of course, but also misses the point: "Buffalo" is not a real place for Russert, but a paradoxical fetish. It means nothing to him in real terms, functioning only as one more signifier of his "blue-collar authenticity" that he can toss off as a rhetorical pose (to paraphrase Kyra Sedgwick's line to Campbell Scott in Singles, "I think you have an act, and your act is not having an act"). In the thirties, MGM boss Irving Thalberg once admonished a director for being too obsessed with the realism and sets and rear projections: "If the audience is too busy looking at your backgrounds, and not at my stars, the film won't work." For Russert, "Buffalo" is the rear projection of his discourse, and no less disconnected from his actual body than the grainy footage we'd see in some Warner Brothers melodrama, coming through the back window of a car; at the same time, it's so crucial to that carefully arranged image (to counter Russert's real status as an insider, which he can only hold by projecting himself as an outsider), that it almost reverses Thalberg's dictum: what matters is less the banal anecdotes or pernicious line of questioning from the star in the foreground than the small-town, jes' folks vibe enabled by the endless loop of grainy footage.

Flashback: You Slay Me

(h/t to Whedonesque for the link).

Boom Shots





And a daughter's tribute:

Happy birthday, Vincente Minnelli!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Game Face

I'm not sure I've ever seen George Clooney be so interesting, doing so little. In Michael Clayton, he gives a stripped-down performance that doesn't ignore his star persona or charisma, but deploys it like a character actor might: as an image to wrestle with, a costume to be turned inside out, a phantom with which he shadow-boxes. His "Oscar moment" comes near the end of the film, in his showdown with Tilda Swinton, but the truly wonderful scenes are at the beginning, when Clayton sits at a seedy backroom poker table and gambles his soul away. Clooney is incredibly still, and very quiet, and he reads his lines with an air both casual (there's nothing "actorly" about it, it almost feels overheard) and weighty (like any good lawyer, Michael is precise in his intonations and timbre, in the meanings his words convey). His voice sounds dipped in Scotch, slightly raspy, and all the more alluring for it: when he stares at his cards and mumbles a studied response to a question about his failed restaurant, Clooney dances across the words like a be-bop pianist, finding places to land his intonations that feel loose, suprising, and just right. Gone is the TV star who was once devastatingly-but-accurately parodied by MST3K as a "nod, smile, head bob" actor (in their review of Batman & Robin), and in his place stands a sharp minimalist who knows what to do with every tiny gesture.

Time and the limited runs of the local Apollo theater meant I didn't catch up with the film until this past Oscar weekend, but it's been on my mind ever since. Glancing at some reviews online, I see that the NY Daily News critic Jack Matthews, writing of Clooney, thought of exactly the same peformances I did: the brilliantly focused and very poignant turns of Paul Newman in Absence of Malice and The Verdict, where remembrances of Newman's youthful humor and virility are essential backdrops for comprehending the sad and broken men he plays in those films. In an interview with Time, Clooney even referenced The Verdict as a model, saying, "I've certainly ripped off Paul Newman three or four times, [though] not as well. Watch him at the end of the monologue in [The Verdict], where he's talking to the jury. Actors usually load up for a monologue. He finishes it and he starts to talk again, and then he walks away." That's not a terrible description of Clooney's own performance, its perfectly calibrated balance of naturalism and artifice, or of Michael Clayton as a whole.

Billed in its intial publicity as a conspiracy thriller along the lines of Klute or 3 Days of the Condor, Michael Clayton feels less like a genre exercise and more like an extended, ensemble-driven meditation on performance. Films about the law often take on this quality, since the genre presents any number of opportunities for big monologues, dramatic twists, and the "look at me!" acting moments that they allow. From The Life of Emile Zola 's Paul Muni to Inherit The Wind's Tracy & March, from Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson facing off in A Few Good Men to Tom Hanks and Jason Robards each munching on the scenery in different ways in Philadelphia, there's nothing like a lawyer to make an actor get his Master Thespian on. Michael Clayton allows for those moments, especially with Tom Wilkinson's role, but the pleasure of the film is its overall avoidance of melodrama. It's there in the narrative's twists and turns, to be sure, but the approach of writer-director Tony Gilroy and his cast is to underplay, to naturalize and make important moments feel eavesdropped on. I haven't seen a mainstream Hollywood drama in awhile that feels so offhand and opaque in its exposition; that tells you what you need to know but does it in mumbles and broken sentences, in fragments and shrugs, looks and gestures; that feels no compunction to fill you in on the backstories of all the characters it's introducing (the last film that had this quality for me was Syriana, which shares not only a star with Clayton, but also cinematographer Robert Elswit, a master of complex surfaces that hide as much as they reveal). From its wrinkled suits to its cluttered offices and hotel rooms, Michael Clayton feels lived-in to its core, which makes its more outrageous turns more palatable: even as cars explode and actors gear up for final monologues, one always feels that the climaxes are less rah-rah high points than pieces cut out of a much larger, more complex narrative cloth.

Clooney is very good, and so is Swinton, in a difficult role that's too often been reduced in reviews to the "villain" of the piece. I think such a reading betrays the spirit of the film-- where everyone, including Michael, is shaded in gray-- but also Swinton's sad, funny and rather sympathetic performance; it's a small part, so Swinton must telegraph everything with her face, her roving eyes and terse mouth filling in the gaps in the script. Wilkinson is fine, too, although it takes awhile for his method to register: he seems like the most obvious and symbolic performer in the movie-- the naive cynic-turned-prophet that was a cliche even when Paddy Chayesfksy offered it in Network-- and some of his early scenes are so loaded with hammy moments that they're hard to watch (and jar up against Clooney's minimalist exasperation). But there's a moment midway through the film, when Clooney confronts Wilkinson in a New York alley, that's striking in the way it turns Wilkinson's character around: you realize that underneath his hippy-dippy exterior, there's a sharp, organized and predatory mind that knows exactly how to use the public image its constructing, and in that moment Wilkinson is as chilling (and mesmerizing) as any of the film's purported villains.

That play of truth and fiction, surface and depth-- or what the tagline, in a wonderful metacommentary on acting, describes as "the truth [that] can be adjusted"-- is Clayton's major theme: not "know thyself" (as a more standard Hollywood or better yet, indie monstrosity might have it) but "which self"? And how will we know it when we find it? With that in mind, the most impressive and interesting performance in the film is not Clooney's or Swinton's or Wilkinson's, as very fine as they all are, but Sydney Pollack's, as Michael's exasperated, unknowable boss. As a director, Pollack can be alternately wonderful and frustrating, but his on-screen appearances are, for me, a source of joy; no one does exhaustion and "what the hell?" attitude quite like Pollack, or has offered so many nice recent turns as powerful-yet-worn-out professional men. Look at him in his first scene, the quiet center amidst the chaos of a late-night boardroom session: we come across him in mid-conversation, and he's so focused that we long to know what was said before the camera reached him, what the rest of the conversation was. His minion tells him a reporter's on the phone; he looks at the minion with an annoyance he can't quite repress, sighs with his eyes and takes the phone. His conversation-- a telling-off of the reporter that in another actor's hands would be player for gotcha-style laughs or mustache-twisting villainy-- is delivered in matter-of-fact, banal tones.

Banality is the key to understanding Pollack's importance: he's so good as the corporate grouch that he gets overlooked, and fades into the background, but the film couldn't work without him: brilliant, precise, and utterly drained, he's what Michael might become, twenty years down the road, and the prospect is both fascinating and a little terrifying. At the same time, he's not, necesarily, a bad guy, and he's ironically more of a straight shooter (even if we don't like his aim) than our titular hero. And finding the banal core within the legal thriller is, paradoxically, Michael Clayton's triumph. In his review of The Verdict, Roger Ebert wrote, ""The Verdict" has a lot of truth in it, right down to a great final scene in which Newman, still drinking, finds that if you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat." Michael Clayton's possibly not even that lucky: his moment of triumph at the end seems to end just as it begins, and feels far more ambiguous: as we fade out on Michael in a cab going nowhere in particular, his face seems poised between a revelation of the self, and reforming into yet another public mask.

Cineville Snow Globe

Firing Lines

There's a sad irony to my blog timing today: just a couple of hours after posting about the ongoing idiocies of Tim Russert, I saw the news that William F. Buckley, Jr. had died. My politics were almost completely opposed to Buckley's (especially on topics like McCarthyism), and the pernicious effects that National Review continues to have on American discourse, as both ongoing journal and model for neo-con obfuscation and arrogance, can't be denied. At the same time, I felt a genuine sadness, as if a graceful family member, a lovably wry uncle or something, had passed away.

That connection is probably not coincidental: much of my family is more conservative than I am, and National Review and Buckley's various novels were often littered around my parents' and grandparents' homes. I remember many ads for the magazine running on daytime TV as a child (including one with Tom Selleck praising the magazine's jokes: "It's a very funny magazine!," Magnum guffawed). And Buckley himself seemed to be a constant televisual presence, his New England accent, playfully snobbish demeanor and crinkly smile making him a real-life Charles Emerson Winchester III.

As a presence, Buckley was a study in contradictions: simultaneously charming and reactionary, welcoming and dismissive, playful and moralistic. He was, until the end of his life, a genuine conservative-- a believer in small government, in national service, and individual rights, and eventually an opponent of the Iraq War and its ballooning follies and fallacies. At the same time, the journal he founded has often housed some of the worst excesses and most idiotic voices (George Will, David Brooks) of the neo-conservative movement that would pervert and eventually destroy conservatism (Buckley himself once penned a strange defense of Joseph McCarthy, a kind of forerunner to today's conservative mea culpas). One could be charmed by Buckley's style, and forget that it acted as a Trojan horse for policies that were often fairly destructive.

I suspect, in a way, that contradiction was the point: more than anything-- agree or disagree with him-- Buckley seemed to relish debate and genuine conversation, to take intellect seriously in a way that looks almost alien today. His sparing with Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky, his provocative magazine pieces or book-length essays, his droll epater le bourgeois (on PBS, no less!) worked to stimulate that discussion, to open up the American political discourse to a battle of ideas. That I disagreed with nearly all of his positions isn't the point: Buckley seemed like someone it would've been genuinely interesting to talk to, about politics, literature, or a Brahms concerto. And in that, he will be missed. R.I.P., William F. Buckley, Jr.

Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before

Despite the fact it was happening just 30 minutes up the road in Cleveland, I didn't watch last night's Democratic debate (I mean, there was a new episode of My Big Redneck Wedding on, and one must have priorities in these treacherously cold times). From this write-up, it sounds like I didn't miss much. What's fascinating is that Russert's faux tough-guy act was happening on the same day that, as Digby reports, his cronies at MSNBC were covering for that other faux tough guy, John McCain. I guess love means never having to say you're sorry.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Odd Couple

Separated at birth: today's birthday boys, Tony Randall and Johnny Cash. Randall was born in Tulsa, OK in 1920, Cash 12 years later in neighboring Arkansas. Both had commercial breakthroughs in 1955 (Randall originating the role of E.K. Hornbeck in the Broadway production of Inherit The Wind, Cash by recording his first single, "Hey Porter" for Sun); both saw career peaks in the sixties and early seventies; both went through a rough 1980s (Cash getting in battles with his record label, Columbia and Randall starring in tripe like the sitcom Love, Sidney); and both found themselves making comebacks in the late 90s and early 00s by trading off their legends (Cash with his series of American Recordings, Randall by spoofing himself in films like Down With Love). In their own ways, they each offered complex riffs on what it meant to be a man in postwar America, and both could be read as playfully manipulating their respective public images of dandyish twit (Randall) and Man In Black (Cash) in order to hide how deeply dedicated they each were to their respective crafts of acting and singing/songwriting. Happy birthday to each!

Snow Daze

It's snowing heavily here (we picked up about six inches last night and this morning), which makes the town look quite beautiful, in a slightly scary, icy way: I keep expecting to see Tilda Swinton drive by in her sleigh. It's also led to this Surreal Moment of the Day: walking through snowy winds to the Decaf for a sandwich, I passed a young woman who vaguely resembled Maria Bello, and who seemed to be talking to herself. At first, I thought she had one of those Bluetooth headsets, but as I got closer, I realized she was singing Justin TImberlake to keep warm; going by, I could hear her mumbling, in a steady rhythm, "Get your sexy on, get your sexy on..."

Sunday, February 24, 2008


So, apparently terrified at the thought of a Democrat winning the White House, Ralph Nader has decided to throw his hat in the ring and run for President again. In 2000, Eric Alterman made this Cassandra-like observation while so many lefty lemmings were happily voting for Nader: "How odd it is to note, therefore, that this nascent leftist movement has virtually no support among African-Americans, Latinos or Asian-Americans. It has no support among organized feminist groups, organized gay rights groups or mainstream environmental groups. To top it all off, it has no support in the national union movement. So Nader and company are building a nonblack, non-Latino, non-Asian, nonfeminist, nonenvironmentalist, nongay, non-working people's left: Now that really would be quite an achievement." Indeed, now that eight years of Bush have passed, and now that the Democratic party has two candidates who are highly motivating their various demographics, Nader's motivation seems even more suspect: like REO Speedwagon at the county fair, he seems intent on giving the people what they don't want, if only to prolong his sad moment in the spotlight a bit further. In doing so, he reminds us of how truly narrow his vision of progressivism was and is.

According to the article, on today's Meet The Press: "Nader, 73, said most people are disenchanted with the Democratic and Republican parties due to a prolonged Iraq war and a shaky economy." That's actually not true: they are disenchanted with the Republican Party, to be sure, but there is record turnout in the Democratic primaries, record voter registration drives, and a recent survey that suggested 84% of Democrats are enthusiastic about their choices. While there is frustration with the Congress's inability to block Republican fillibusters (count me among the frustrated), recent stands against telecom immunity and calls for contempt citations in the U.S. Attorneys scandal suggest that might be changing, and I think many progressive activists realize the best way to function is to work within the primary system (witness the recent win by progressive activist Donna Edwards in the Maryland Dem primary, unseating Bush dog Al Wynn), rather than outside of it. I am not a Kucinich supporter, for instance, but I give him credit for jumping in at the primary level and trying to make his concerns a part of the discussion-- that seems a lot more productive than making a run as a quixotic "outsider," even if it's not as glamorous or romantic.

And that desire for martyred glamour is really the issue, isn't it? "The issue is do they have the moral courage, do they have the fortitude to stand up to corporate powers and get things done for the American people," Nader said. "We have to shift the power from the few to the many." And yet, Nader himself seems to lack the moral courage to really get involved in the nitty-gritty of daily politics, preferring to drop in every four years as a moral scold, but spending the time in-between on the sidelines, as the poltical landscape his disastrous 2000 run shaped only makes things worse for the people he claims to represent.

Nader's remarks today-- their cliched, memorized, moth-worn qualities-- suggest a man less interested in real change than in catechisms, easily memorizable shibboleths that he can whip out as a rhetorical pose (it doesn't matter if they are as stuck-in-2000 as a Ricky Martin song: if anything, that air of nostalgia helps Nader's comeback cause). "What happens when the stereotype moves left?," Roland Barthes wrote in 1975, predicting the rise of cultural studies mechanisms and repetitions that would soon make the Hollywood assembly line system (ironically, one of the mechanism's targets) seem fresh and creative in comparison.That leaning on the familiar trope suggests the tricky line between style and hackwork-- and I would suggest Nader, as another critical fetish object, crossed that line many moons ago. At this point, he's less the daring outsider than the Fat Elvis-- a once-vital cultural force who now squeezes into a gaudy rhinestone suit, and burps out his hits for the bluehairs.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Golden Slumbers

So, the Oscars are here. Can you feel the excitement?

Maybe it's the fact that the presidential primaries seem to have replaced it as a source of melodrama, star power and juicy gossip, but I just can't get too excited about this year's Oscar ceremony. Ever since I was a kid, devastated that E.T. somehow lost to Gandhi (which seemed even more remarkable when I caught up with Richard Attenborough's snoozy epic many years later), I've found myself obsessed with the race. I've watched loyally almost every year (missing a couple of ceremonies in college, when I didn't have a TV), thrown Oscar parties, devoured books on the ceremony's history and even tried to see every best picture winner (the only one I've missed is Around The World in 80 Days, a film which repeatedly puts me to sleep). Like many pop culture bloggers, I can recognize the absurdity of any awards ceremony truly demarcating what's "best" in a year's cinema, but still enjoy the trashy, overly emotional combination of joy, snark and genuine excitement the show seems to annually engender (after all, camp and sincerity are often closer to one another than we want to admit).

But this year? Meh. Again, like the primaries, there was so much early politicking on behalf of certain films (No Country For Old Men, There WIll Be Blood), and so much quick backlash against others (hello, Juno!) that it was easy to think the Oscars had already happened back in late December, and even easier to be turned off by the hyperbolic partisanship of various critics (again, "the Oscars don't matter!...Except when my favorite has a chance to win!"). The writers' strike (which I supported) also played a role, and made the ceremony seem less, well, ceremonial and more a desperate publicity grab (it also introduced an historical irony: the Oscars were originally designed by the studios as an anti-union tactic, an attempt to limit the growing interest in guilds by offering an alternativre "Academy" that would hand out shiny awards as bait for joining. That the "Oscars must be saved!!" tactic seems to have rushed the negotiations between writers and studios is one of those incidents that might have made Louis B. Mayer smile).

Mostly, though, I'm just behind on my moviegoing. It's been a busy year, and I've yet to see any of the Best Picture nominees except Juno (I do have Michael Clayton sitting on my DVD pile, and hope to get to it before the show tomorrow), which means I feel much less of an emotional investment in the winner than I might have in previous years (I don't even feel that animus of "well, as long as Crash doesn't win, I'll be happy" that I've sometimes felt in past seasons). I've held off doing any kind of Oscar predicting because I felt like I was operating from a position of ignorance, knowing more about the media coverage of the race (and the blogosphere's positions) than the films themselves (I guess that makes me the Oscars' Chris Matthews).

Still, it's the Oscars, and the trashy side of me can't resist saying something. So, instread of lengthy predictions, let me guide you to writers far more knowledgeable about this year's movies than I: Dennis Cozzalio has an excellent set of predictions up at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule; Jim Emerson links to witty suggestions about how to throw an Oscar party; Glenn Kenny is exchanging should/will win predictions with critic and journalist Arion Berger; Edward Copeland recently completed a poll of the best and worst "Best Actor" winners of all time; Jonathan Lapper has an epic review of every Oscar ceremony's "Best Picture" winners up through the 1970s in the archives of his site, Cinema Styles; Self-Styled Siren makes me feel better by admitting she hasn't seen any of the Best Picture nominees, and also has some nice Oscar-related links at her superb site; and one of my favorite film bloggers, Kim Morgan, offers her predictions here.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention a superb new, Oscar-related book that I've been reading (devouring, really) the last several days: Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies And the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris. Harris is an editor and columnist for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes the "Final Cut" column at the back of the magazine. It's a good column, but nothing in it prepared me for the breadth and density of Harris's book, or the clear and vigorous way he weaves a dazzling web of connections between Hollywood, Paris, London and New York in the 1960s, in order to trace out the makings and meanings of 1967's five Best Picture nominees: Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, The Graduate, and the year's oddball nom (its Seabiscuit, if you will), Dr. Dolittle. I can hear what you're thinking: "Oh, god, do we really need another book about the New Hollywood?" I had that initial response, too, but by zeroing in on these five films-- some of which get overlooked in the more auteurist-driven histories-according-to-Biskind-- Harris makes the period feel fresh, and the connections he draws between film, theater, fine arts, pop music and commerce are fascinating (as are his anecdotes, like how Warren Beatty was with Stanley Kubrick when John F. Kennedy was shot, trying to convince Kubrick to direct What's New, Pussycat?). I hope to write more about the book soon, but its real triumph is the tonal balance Harris keeps between genuine enthusiasm for the filmmakers' accomplishments (and sympathy for their failings) and a reporter's objectivity: there's none of the macho fannishness that made even the best moments of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls a bit cringe-worthy, but Harris also doesn't condescend to the period, or smugly deploy post-hoc syllogisms that reduce the movies down to easily portable theses about "the sixties." He seems much more interested in tracing out the chance meetings, lucky breaks and sudden reversals that can suddenly convulse the Hollywood landscape, and the thrill of his text is that he makes seemingly long-settled stories and arguments bristle again with mystery, glamour, humor and sex appeal. You know, kind of like the Oscars.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I'm Coming Out

Hi. I'm Brian.

Most of the people who read this blog probably already know that, which is one of the reasons I've decided to give up my "secret identity" of "Cinephile" that I've been posting under for lo, these many months. I initially adopted it for purposes of anonymity (I think, when you begin blogging, there's some comfort in hiding behind a mask and working the kinks out under an assumed name), but also because I liked the idea of a fluid online identity, one which was me-but-not-me, which created new characters, not so much out of fear, as a desire for playfulness.

I still like that idea, and still think it's an interesting creative/theoretical strategy. And, like Spider-Man's secret ID, "Cinephile" may sometimes still pop up here (I think Jeff (forgive me if I'm misremembering, Jeff) once referred to online pseudonyms as a George Clinton-like play with fake names). But for now, since this blog now feels more like "me," anyway, it seemed like a good time to pull the mask off.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pander Bears (Updated)

Like many of his compatriots at The New York TImes, Nicholas Kristof seems determined to revamp RIchard Nixon's old line about Watergate ("Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal") and apply it to the presidential primaries: "Well, when the Republicans do it that means it is not pandering."

Kristof contorts himself like a Cirque de Soleil performer in today's column, which makes the now-absurd claim that John McCain is certainly no panderer! Well, he kind of panders. But he feels awful about it in the morning.

From the first paragraph, it's like slipping down a rabbit hole where it's still 2000:

Even for those of us who shudder at many of John McCain’s positions, there is something refreshing about a man who wins so many votes despite a major political shortcoming: he is abysmal at pandering.

He continues with a tortured, cliched metaphor:

It’s a pleasure to see candidates who don’t just throw red meat to the crowds but try to offer vegetarian options.

Speaking of torture, Kristof uses the front of the column to highlight McCain's opposition to waterboarding, and how poltically brave it was:

Consider torture. There was nary a vote in the Republican primary to be gained by opposing the waterboarding of swarthy Muslim men accused of terrorism. But Mr. McCain led the battle against Dick Cheney on torture, even though it cost him donations, votes and endorsements.

Even more than his time as a prisoner in Hanoi, that marked Mr. McCain’s most heroic moment. He risked his political career to protect Muslim terror suspects who constitute the most despised and voiceless people in America.

Kristof doesn't mention that this, too, might have been a political calculation to woo moderates (remember, it's only pandering when Hillary or Barack do it, and it's certainly not pandering when one panders to white moderates), instead cutting and pasting the legend that Bob Somerby rightly refers to as "St. McCain" into his work (it's Sunday, maybe Kristof wanted to sleep in).

Kristof goes on to map out McCain's brave breaking with GOP orthodoxy on immigration, ethanol subsidies, and the Christian right over the years. It's only at the end of the column that he admits how McCain, in this presidential campaign, has reversed himself on almost all those positions in order, to, well, um...pander.

So how does McCain avoid the tag of "hack" that we might immediately attach to such a craven sensibility? Kristof offers the laughable justification that McCain's pandering is fine, because-- ha!--he's bad at it!:

Granted, his pride in “straight talk” may arise partly because he is an execrable actor. When he does try double-talk, he looks so guilty and uncomfortable that he convinces nobody...

...It is true that Mr. McCain sometimes weaves and bobs. With the arrival of the primaries, he has moved to the right on social issues and pretended to be more conservative than he is. On Wednesday, for example, he retreated on his brave stand on torture by voting against a bill that would block the C.I.A. from using physical force in interrogations.

His most famous pander came in 2000, when, after earlier denouncing the Confederate flag as a “symbol of racism,” he embraced it as “a symbol of heritage.” To his credit, Mr. McCain later acknowledged, “I feared that if I answered honestly I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles."

[Can anyone explain to me how this last response is any different, politically or ethically, from Bill Clinton's answer in 1992 about his draft status-- that he wanted to avoid service but also keep his political options open for the future? Wasn't this a comment that Clinton was attacked for by the GOP that now supports St. McCain?]

Just as he's running out of room, in his second-to-last paragraph, Kristof chokes out some of McCain's less savory moments:

I disagree with Mr. McCain on Iraq, taxes, abortion and almost every other major issue. He has a nasty temper, which isn’t ideal for the hand holding a nuclear trigger. For a man running partly on biography, he treated his first wife, Carol, poorly. And one of the meanest put-downs in modern political history was a savage joke that Mr. McCain publicly related about Chelsea Clinton when she was 18 years old; it was inexcusable.

But Kristof can't leave the Times' shibboleths for long, and he frames these admissions with this:

In short, Mr. McCain truly has principles that he bends or breaks out of desperation and with distaste. That’s preferable to politicians who are congenital invertebrates.

Presumably, Kristof will hand out the tricorders in November, so we can actually distiguish between these two kinds of creatures (I love the idea that it's OK because McCain panders "with distaste." Yes, I'm sure the people fighting in Iraq will really appreciate that distinction). For now, we can assume, according the world according to The New York Times, that the "congenital invertebrates" are the ones with the "D" by their names on the ballot. The whole column gives its headline ("The World's Worst Panderer") an ironic tinge I'm guessing the paper didn't intend.

UPDATE (2:17pm): Just went to Digby's site, and I see that tristero is even angrier about this than I am.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

States of Grace

After my first few sessions with Billy, I made an interesting observation: He never warmed up by singing his own songs-- not even the ones we were currently working on.

Instead, he would start a session by doing impersonations.

"Remember when Otis Redding sang this?" he'd ask, and start singing like Otis Redding. Then he would slide into a Ray Charles song, or even start wailing Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves a Woman." He did the same thing when he overdubbed background vocals.

It was odd: Here I was trying to get Billy Joel to sound like Billy Joel, while he was trying to sound like anyone but.
-- Phil Ramone, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music

There are movies to blog about and Oscars to predict and sports scandals to ponder (by the way, if you're one of those sportswriters waffling over the Roger Clemens testimony, dissembling and obfuscating and generally giving the Rocket some easy cover, please don't ever pontificate again about Spygate, or Barry Bonds, or cheating in sports, or "think of the children, think of the children!").

That will all be gotten to in due time (and man, am I ever behind on my Oscar movies. What would Isaac Mizrahi say?). But first, I feel like I need to confess something.

I really like Billy Joel.

In this, I know I'm ably supported by Chuck Klosterman, who penned a wonderful essay, "Every Dog Must Have His Every Day. Every Drunk Must Have His Drink," in the book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, where he argued for Joel's conflicted cool, circa Glass Houses. He notes why "Joel's songs resonate with so many people: he expresses absolute conviction in moments of wholly misguided affection." And to paraphrase the old Elvis Presley album title, 150 million Billy Joel fans can't be wrong.

Still, at a dinner party last night, we started playing a game: what was the first album you ever bought? Despite the fact that my friends named such potentially mockable titles as ELO's Out of the Blue and Duran Duran's Rio (note the word "potentially" there-- I like those two bands, too), I still felt slightly insecure admitting that mine was a Billy Joel record (I honestly can't remember if it was The Nylon Curtain or An Innocent Man). I flashed on a moment in graduate school when a colleague's Billy Joel/Elton John concert t-shirt led to mockery from a friend of mine, based in part on this colleague's pretentious denial that he'd actually gone to the concert ("someone gave this to me!"), but also acting as a reminder: Billy Joel is not cool (even my favorite TV show found a way to use Joel as a punchline, when a distraught Willow witnessed the emotionally regressed baby boomers carousing around her and proclaimed, "M-maybe there's a Billy Joel concert in town or something!").

What's particularly odd is that Joel falls into a musical line whose progenitors are indistputably cool: Cole Porter, the Gershwins, The Four Seasons, Motown, and most obviously, The Beatles. His hits combine a keen ear for melody with thoughtful lyrics about romance or social issues, and he's generally done a good job of staying up-to-date with changing production techniques. He's contemporaneous with a whole group of singer-songwriters, like Paul Simon, Elton John and James Taylor, who have managed to continually re-invent themselves for ensuing generations; his songs are radio staples, despite the fact that he hasn't recorded a pop album in fifteen years; and the girls leaning their heads against their hands in the James Lipton video above suggests the ability of his older material to still hit an emotional chord.

Is that fifteen-year absence why Joel's reputation isn't necessarily what it was twenty or twenty-five years ago? Or is it his jack-of-all-tunes persona, that the very chameleon-like skills that allow him to easily hopscotch around styles and genres somehow mark him as suspect or 'inauthentic'? Do contemporary ears sometimes hear in Joel a straining to be liked, and more importantly, to be respected? In the late 70s, Joel would famously read and tear up bad reviews on the concert stage, a supposed catharsis that only ended up begging the question about his desire for cultural cachet (in a way, his recent turn from his pop gifts toward classical recording suggests the same thing). Like his hero John Lennon (and later figures like Paul Westerberg), Joel was possesed of composing and vocal gifts that he sometimes fought against in a strange attempt to appear 'hard' (although he'd been recording since 1972, he didn't achieve massive commercial success until 1977-- the same year the Sex Pistols would release Never Mind the Bollocks... and mark another generational/stylistic break in pop music history). At his best, though, this very struggle-- between melody and meaning, between being the sensitive guy and the senseless punk-- would become not only his star persona but the subject and engine of his best music. To tweak Klosterman's equation a bit, Billy Joel is a poet of the noble fool: his protagonists might be absolute in their convictions, but Joel is superb at letting us know how misguided those convictions and affections can be (while still showing them a great deal of affection).

In his recent book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music (written with Charles L. Granata), Joel's longtime producer Phil Ramone talks about working with Joel:

With Billy, the melody came first. He would sit at the piano and start with a riff that caught his ear, and build the melody around that. As he played the basic chords, the band would fall in, improvising a head arrangement; one that came together as they played. After a time we'd play back these attempts, then continue to experiment with the instrumentation... When I listen to a song and imagine how it might be arranged, I listen for melodic lines in the background-- a haunting that's not fully developed-- or another piece of the melody that could benefit from emphasis.

Billy Joel's commercial reputation rests on four albums-- The Stranger (1977), Glass Houses (1980), An Innocent Man (1983), and Storm Front (1989)-- that produced such massive radio hits as "Just The Way You Are," "Always A Woman," "You May Be Right," "Uptown Girl," and "We Didn't Start The Fire." I like those records, but I actually think his most interesting work happened between those big commercial bookmarks. In three collaboration with Ramone-- 52nd Street (1978), The Nylon Curtain (1982), and The Bridge (1986)-- Joel found the perfect balance between matters of the heart and reflecting the times around him, and did so while indulging his love of genre splicing and musical homage. The results are albums that encapsulate their eras while still sounding fresh and fun-- to approach Ramone's remembrance critically, they emphasize the musical and emotional lines that hid behind his earlier work, and benefit from the emphasis.

The opening notes of "Zanzibar," the fourth song on Joel's sixth studio album, create a wonderfully evocative drift through a nightclub; Joel's tense, Spanish-tinged piano riffs (which some have heard as a tribute to Steely Dan)shove us through that club's door, while his lyrics describe the scene:

Ali dances and the audience applauds
Though he's bathed in sweat he hasn't lost his style
Ali don't you go downtown
You gave away another round for free

The next verse takes us to our narrator, as the jazzy drums create complex rhythmic patterns behind Joel's yearning, boyish vocals, the undercurrent to the narrator's bursting adolescence:

Me, I'm just another face at Zanzibar
But the waitress always serves a secret smile
She's waiting out in Shantytown
She's gonna pull the curtains down for me, for me

I've got the old man's car,
I've got a jazz guitar
I've got a tab at Zanzibar
Tonight that's where I'll be

The ensuing lyrics continue this pattern of outside/inside, of vingettes that always circle back to our narrator's frustrating, Doinel-like misadventures. It's kind of like "Piano Man"'s anecdotal structure, but not nearly as doused in melodramatic pathos-- the narrator here is much less self-aware, and therefore a lot more ironic and funny (we know he's a hopeless nerd far before he does, but it doesn't make us love him any less). The musical and lyrical sophistication carries us over into a middle eight whose dreamy textures are suddenly interrupted by Freddie Hubbard's remarkable jazz trumpet, another layer of teasing for our hero-- "You'll never be this cool," Hubbard's incredibly quick riffs mock, coming back to get one last kick in as the song fades out.

The cover of 52nd Street shows Joel in his trademark blue suit, holding a trumpet and leaning up against a building on the famed jazz boulevard; his tie is undone and he looks like a cool jazz cat, except for the sneakers that complete his outfit. That divided image-- wanting to be the cool, mature artist but literally keeping a foot in the youthful world of pop--nicely reflects the consciousness of the record itself, which builds on the propulsive, melodically sophisticated pop-rock of its predecessor, The Stranger, while also embracing a wryer set of lyrics and a more adventurous sonic palette. I particularly like the Jet-like snaps that introduce "Stiletto," nicely wrapped around the rich baritone sax of Richie Cannata; the sopranino recorder sound of "Rosalinda's Eyes" that feels like a warm summer's afternoon; and the taut snap of Liberty DeVitto's cymbals on "Until The Night" (DeVitto was to Joel what bassist Bruce Thomas was to Elvis Costello and the Attractions-- that secret musical weapon that pulled the whole enterprise together). All of this musical stretching mixes nicely with Joel's pop craftmanship, best represented by the synthesized piano and multi-tracked, McCartneyesque vocals of "My Life," a massive hit that would later find infamy as the theme song to Bosom Buddies. In taking a slight left turn following a huge commercial success, 52nd Street would establish a pattern of theme-and-variation for the Joel-Ramone collaboration that would serve them well in the ensuing decade.

2. Despite the commercial success that the risk-taking of 52nd Street had yielded a few years earlier, Columbia Record executives still blanched in 1982, when Joel and Ramone offered them the follow-up to the stadium rock of Glass Houses.

"Where's the 'Movin' Out'-type song?'," Ramone claims one executive asked (what he was really asking, Ramone felt, was "Where's the hit?"). Dubbed The Nylon Schmata by Joel's manager, there were not high commercial hopes for the dark, atmospheric record, a project Joel had envisioned as a "headphones record" in the spirit of Revolver or Sgt. Pepper's.

It is a great headphones record, and thanks to singles like "Allentown" and "Pressure," The Nylon Curtain was also a sizable commercial hit, as well as a critical success. Released two years into Ronald Reagan's first term, the socially conscious lyrics and B&W video of "Allentown" marked a turn in Joel's lyrics from anecdotal narratives and autobiographical explorations of the heart to looking at the wider world around him (a path he followed less successfully on the bathetic, bombastic "Goodnight Saigon," which makes Oliver Stone look subtle, and has the unfortunate effect of turning Vietnam into a drunken singalong), while "Pressure" has a lot of fun with vocal effects and surreal nonsense lyrics (I'm still waiting to find out just what it means to have one's whole life be "Channel 13, Sesame Street, Time Magazine").

The big singles sold the album, but the record's real triumphs are in the lesser-known songs, which manage to embody both the harsh vocals and self-reflective lyrics of John Lennon and the melodic gifts and studio wizardry of Paul McCartney. "Scandinavian Skies" offers "I Am The Walrus"-like musical vertigo, the tricky airplane sound effects zooming from left to right speaker while framing a horror story of airsickness and emotional isolation on tour; "She's Right On Time" is an epic piano ballad made ironic by a lyric about an everyday love affair that seems like it's about to snap; "Laura" is a deceptively pleasant mid-tempo pop song about co-dependency; while the menacing synthesizers of "Surprises" firmly placed the album in the early 80s (it would be a power ballad, too, except the lead instrument ends up being DeVitto's hugely loud drums). Most impressive was the closing tune, the sad/funny "Where's The Orchestra?," whose unique instrumentation (accordian is almost the lead) and deadpan vocal from Joel illuminates a clever lyric about art, loss and self-awareness. It takes a couple of listens to realize that none of the lines rhyme until the bridge (and even then, the rhyme deflates: "I assumed the show would have a song/So, I was wrong"); at that point, the narrator begins to absorb the snytax of the art form he's understanding ("At least I understand/All the innuendo, and the irony"), and the lines pick up another rhyme here and there, as if he's learning to sing; but just as he comes to feel a part of the world he's entered (and the music crescendos), "the curtain falls, on empty stares," and both song and album are finished.

3. The Bridge is the last great Billy Joel record. He'd follow it up with the solid, Mick Jones-produced Storm Front, an album whose metallic, guitar-heavy edges offered a new sonic palette but lacked the textures of the Joel-Ramone collaborations, the way the two men would surprise you with a surprising instrumental choice or musical turn of phrase (startlingly modern in 1989, it has dated more than any other Joel record); this would be followed by his last pop record, the sluggish River of Dreams, whose infectious doo-wop title tune masked a hit-and-miss album overall.

In 1986, though, Joel was in firm control of his musical gifts, and had seemingly hit an upturn in his personal life, marrying Christie Brinkley the year before, and becoming a father when his daughter Alexa was born in the middle of the album's production. I say "seemingly" because many of the lyrics on The Bridge suggest emotional turmoil-- the career pressures of "Running on Ice," the longing and loss of "This Is The Time," the affair at the center of "Temptation." None of this is necessarily autobiographical, but it suggests Joel was still able to tap a darker emotional thread in his songs, which rubs nicely against their shiny pop surfaces. The result is his most intriguing set of songs, and his most underrated.

This is Joel's most musically diverse album, functioning almost as a musical revue (complete with guest stars like Ray Charles and Cyndi Lauper) that hits blues, soul, jazz, synthesized mid-80s pop and straight-up guitar rock (and also includes lovely examples of his most natural register, the ballad). Kicking off the album with the Looney Tunes keyboards of "Running On Ice" (and echoing that big cartoon style with the hit single "Modern Woman") and following it up with the grand piano-driven ballad "This Is The Time" immediately establishes the record's wide parameters, into which falls a sublime pairing with Charles ("Baby Grand"), another of Joel's infectious glimpses at a beautiful loser (the big-band-inspired "Big Man On Mulberry Street"), and his most effective guitar song ("A Matter of Trust"). The Bridge did not sell as well as Joel's past records, and it marked the end of his collaboration with Ramone (neither man would ever find as sympathetic a partner again). But it's arguably the best thing he ever did: gone is the kid-in-adult-clothes of "Piano Man," the gangly rocker of Glass Houses or the slick neo-nostalgist of An Innocent Man. In their place stands a relaxed and mature craftsman whose work explores the joys and compromises of middle-aged life, who has reached (as a later song will put it) a "state of grace": a perfect balance of the personal and the pop.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ball Games

It's snowing. It's dark, football season is over (although the Eli Manning hagiography, a strange and surprisingly anemic phenomenon outside of New York, straggles into its second desperate week), and most of the basketball news these days is about trades as much as games.

And then, a ray of sunshine: as if on cue, to wash away news of Roger Clemens' idiocy, pitchers and catchers report for spring training this week (my Detroit Tigers had their guys report today). This is the year we steal the World Series crown from Jonathan's Red Sox, I'm sure of it.

The Dark Knight Returns?

Sweet reunion, Jamaica and Spain
We're like how we were again
I'm in the tub you on the sink
Lick your lips as I soak my feet

Then you know this little carpet burn
My stomach drop yeah and my guts churn
You shrug and it's the worst
Who truly stuck the knife in first

I cheated myself like I knew I would
I told ya I was trouble, you know that I'm no good
I cheated myself, like I knew I would
I told ya I was trouble, you know that I'm no good
-- Amy Winehouse, "You Know I'm No Good"

Watching Around the Horn today. Heard the news/insane conspiracy theory idea that Bob Knight might be rehired by Indiana University if the school fires Kelvin Sampson, following Sampson's current NCAA woes. My alma mater isn't really that stupid, is it?

Funny Valentines

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Imagine That-- The Whole World Wired To Chris Matthews' Ass

Digby has the ugly details.

Notes on Cultural Studies

The Grateful Dead's continuing influence over people my age and younger reeks of the worst kind of cultural posturing and fraud. Last month, they played Chicago. It would turn out to be the band's final concert with Garcia. I was walking up Michigan Avenue, on my way to the movies, in a throng of baby Dead fans, some of them half my age. They all had that born-too-late, relive the sixties, throwback look-- long-haired, barefoot clones in tye-dye completely oblivious to how naive and anachronistic they really appeared...

But the Grateful Dead, as the fanatic fans always point out, are a way of life: someone else's. Twentieth-century teenagers, especially American ones, have been brilliant at creating their own culture, their own music, clothes, and point (s) of view. It's sad and fraudulent that the kind of wholesale worship of some historical way of life has settled over so many young people, infecting them like a noxious gas.

-- Sarah Vowell, Radio On

A New Definition of Irony

"They will promise to break with the failed politics of the past, but will campaign in ways that seek to minimize their exposure to questions from the press and challenges from voters who ask more from their candidates than an empty promise of 'trust me, I know better.' "
-- John McCain

Monday, February 11, 2008

Showtime (Updated)

Late last night, I saw the report on CNN that Roy Scheider had died at age 75, after an ongoing battle with multiple myeloma. Scheider was an actor who combined a stripped-down, everyman grace with a sly sense of humor: he wouldn't have been out of place in a Howard Hawks western (his professionalism, or what his friend Richard Dreyfuss called being "a knockabout actor" seemed like a throwback to an earlier era), but he also had a coiled sense of danger that would release itself in an offbeat joke, or as a happily deranged grin (some of my favorite examples of this are in his drunk scene with Dreyfuss in Jaws). As others have noted, this blend of professional drive and over-the-top theatricality really came together for him in Bob Fosse's magnificent All That Jazz, a not-so-thinly-veiled self-portrait of the director/choreographer. From the opening scenes of Scheider methodically pill-popping, then looking into the mirror with forced glee ("It's SHOWTIME!"), the actor immediately captures the balance of Joe Gideon's genius, madness and almost wry self-delusion. His hangdog, what-the-hell body language works well for the character: we really slip into his exhaustion, and his desire to transcend it.

Of course, he was equally fine in any number of films: Jaws, Klute, The French Connection, RKO 281 (where he created a sympathetic studio boss opposite Liev Schrieber's charismatic Orson Welles), 52 Pick-Up, Naked Lunch. All should be rented and enjoyed, and you should also check out fine tributes from Jonathan Lapper, Glenn Kenny, Jim Emerson, and Dave Kehr.

UPDATE (4:59 p.m.); There's also a wonderful tribute up at Self-Styled Siren, and she links to a number of other remembrances.

Straight Talk

I'm stealing this from Josh Marshall, who linked it at Talking Points Memo; it is, as he notes, "genuinely hilarious."

Can we please please please baby please baby baby baby please, stop talking about John McCain as a moderate "maverick" now?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Slip Slidin' Away

It's now the second day of Lent, and you know what that means!

Josh Hartnett trailers!

It's really enough to make you give up all movies for 40 days and 40 nights, isn't it?

Speaking of sacrifices of the season, Mitt Romney has joined Rudy Giuliani and dropped out of the Republican presidential primaries. I do not like any of the GOP nominees, and there was something especially odious and calculating about Romney, particularly his desire to "double Guantanamo" and his absurd statement about how his sons were "sacrificing" for the country in wartime by working on his presidential run. He campaigned with all the style and sincerity of a Disney "Hall of Presidents" character, but there was part of me that began to feel for the guy over the last few weeks, as his fellow presidential candidates and nearly all of cable 'news' media started piling on; I'd never want him as President (although, like Josh Marshall, I might want him as a wonderfully incompetent Repub nominee), but the mockery was all too eerily familiar of what happened to Al Gore eight years ago, which begs the question: why do we always let Chris Matthews determine our nominees?

It was particularly fascinating watching his eulogy being written on MSNBC Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, even though he won more states than feted media darling Mike Huckabee (who, as a Romney campaign spokesman fairly noted on CNN the next day, only won states in his home region-- the same joke MSNBC made about Romney, unfairly-- and only won states with heavy evangelical populations, suggesting the narrowness of his Gomer Pyle appeal). I'm no Romney supporter--and his speech today, loaded with race-bating red meat, didn't do him any further favors-- but the larger point for me is the inability of any candidate to get out of pre-approved Mean Girls narratives.

Of course, Tuesday was a "great, great night for John McCain," a man whose media fluffing might only be derailed by a DUI homicide, or by finding a dead prostitute in his bed. But even then, I could imagine Howard Fineman spinning it the Commander's way:

"Chris, this is just another example of John McCain's bravery and honesty. Any other candidate would've hidden the dead body, but McCain is a maverick: he's not afraid to be photographed with dead prostitutes, and he's going to bravely tell America, 'My friends, those prostitutes aren't coming back.' He's a great, great man, and he serves kick-ass coffee on his bus..."

Here, I think, Romney missed a bet: he should've run against the media. He's hated by them anyway, so as the line from The West Wing went, "If everyone's gonna see your guy as arrogant, anyway, you might as well knock some bodies down with it." The party can argue all day about who the "true conservative" is, but the one thing that unites them (and any poltiical party, really), is a hatred for the media. And it's easy enough to paint McCain as the media darling: just take those John King and Chris Matthews clips, make a montage, and end it with, "Piss off the media: Vote Romney." That's worth one or two states, right there.

Or, you could just run this photo that I saw on Digby today, which I like to think came from a Mardi Gras party this week:

On Mardi Eve, the Travel Channel ran Bourdain's trip to New Orleans. It was a very strong episode-- the best in a couple of years, actually, shorn of the hipster tics and goofy stunts that have overtaken much of his recent work-- but a very sad one, as you might expect. Good or bad, most of No Reservations displays a joy in exploring and discovering new places, people and cuisine, but post-Katrina N.O. obviously doesn't allow this. Opening with a haunting shot of a man mowing his lawn, surrounded by destroyed or damaged homes, and moving through the graffiti-covered spaces of city, through the empty massive dining rooms at Antoine's, showing us the sparsely populated barrooms of po' boy joints, the episode gave visual and literal voice to a population that's moved off the radar of much of the media (It's notable that John Edwards opened and closed his presidential campaign in the Ninth Ward-- and that he was the most mocked of the major Dems by the MSNBC dwarfs). At the same time, there was a humor and resiliency to folks who appeared, a community showing tremendous bravery in the face of overwhelming tragedy and negligence (a negligence that might sadly repeat itself in neighboring areas).

The next night, as if by serendipity, my I-pod called up Paul Simon's "Take Me To The Mardi Gras," a song that could still be the city's anthem, a song about dancing and singing and living, in the face of a sacrifice far greater than Mitt Romney's or Josh Hartnett's:

C'mon take me to the Mardi Gras
Where the people sing and play
Where the dancing is elite
And there's music in the street
Both night and day

Hurry take me to the Mardi Gras
In the city of my dreams
You can legalize your lows
You can wear your summer clothes
In the New Orleans

And I will lay my burden down
Rest my head upon that shore
And when I wear that starry crown
I won't be wanting anymore.


The excellent King Kaufman, on yesterday's puzzling Shaq-to-the-Suns trade:

Shaquille O'Neal to the Phoenix Suns for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. It just sounds nuts, doesn't it?

That's because it is nuts. But might it be the good kind of nuts? Is it possible that Suns general manager Steve Kerr is a gambling genius, that by rolling the dice on putting a building right smack in the middle of his team's highflying offense, he might finally bring an NBA championship to the desert?

That would be cool, because it's so off the wall. And speaking of the wall, it moved a 16th of an inch in the last year, which would make it quicker than Shaq right now.

As a Pistons fan, I laugh at the idea of the NBA's quickest team-- and a likely opponent if we meet in the NBA Finals-- mucking up their raison d'etre in order to get an aging, out-of-shape superstar with no mobility, one who will cost them $40 million over the next two years. Miami Heat superfan Jeff has blogged before about the tendency in academia to fetishize the superstar name, no matter what that star has actually done lately, and no matter how detrimental such a fetishizing is to the profession. That's kind of what this trade reminds me of, and I wonder what Jeff thinks of it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Bully Boy

Bobby...Bobby baby...Bobby bubbi...

Man, now I wish I hadn't wasted that Elizabeth Bennet quote on Rudy Giuliani.

So, we'll no longer have Bob Knight to kick around, eh? On the whole, I think this is a good thing. IU was my undergrad institution, and I was there towards the tail end of Knight's reign, graduating in '95. I always loved going to games and supporting the team, but love Knight? Not so much. I could admire the discipline his teams showed, while wondering why he himself could never display a similar self-control. His antics are legendary: the "just lie back and enjoy it" comment, where he compared referees' calls to rape; the chair-tossing; the spitting on a man in a parking lot during the Pan-Am Games in 1979; the "all-in-fun" mock whipping of Calbert Cheney in 1992, courtside during a game; the knocking-over of his son Pat during a game in the same period; and the final confrontation with a student that became the precipitating incident in his 2000 firing.

I was a proud alum that day, when Myles Brand did what so many gutless administrators, alumni, sportswriters and Dick Vitale could not do, and finally called Knight on his endless stream of embarrasing, overbearing, adolescent boy crap. And I remember being amused at how his student supporters disproved Brand's assertion that Knight set a bad example with his violent temper: by marching on Brand's house and threatening his life. It was terrible, and yet the most apt tribute to Knight's off-the-court behavior that I could imagine. Like so many coaches, Knight liked to talk about honor and toughness and responsibility, but for all his considerable talent, he stood as profound example of sports indulgence, of what we let people get away with as long as they win (and put forth a reactionary image that allows us to feel nostalgic for our boomer youth).

I was not, as you might gather, a Knight fan, but I do feel obliged to mention his support of the IU libraries, his relatively high player graduation rates (although those have been contested), his sheer longeivity (he began as a coach in 1965!), and most impressively, his mentorship of coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Steve Alford. (That Krzyzewski, in particular, has had comparable success while avoiding many of Knight's questionable choices and character flaws, only brings the tragedy of Knight's talent into greater focus.) And if you want to read a more glowing remembrance than mine of Knight's legacy, this piece is an interesting one.

I will thank Bob Knight for one thing: his timing. By making his announcement the day after the Super Bowl, he knocked Eli Manning off the front of the sports section, and forced the nation's sportswriters to take a small break from their non-stop Manning Family hagiography. And for that, a grateful nation cheers.