Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"You Think You Can Steal The Emperor's Clothes That Way?"

Ouch! Democratic Representative Alan Grayson rips Republicans and their media sycophants a new one here:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My First WaPo Editorial

So, it turns out that the Washington Post is having a contest to find a new pundit for its editorial page. Yes, you read that correctly.

Here's the description Yglesias pulls from the ad for "America's Next Great Pundit" (which I think they should've called "So You Think You Can Bleat"):

Here’s your chance to put your opinions to the test — and win the opportunity to write a weekly column and a launching pad for your opinionating career!

Start making your case.
Use the entry form to send us a short opinion essay (400 words or less) pegged to a topic in the news and an additional paragraph (100 words or less) on yourself and why you should win. Entries will be judged on the basis of style, intelligence and freshness of argument, but not on whether Post editors agree or disagree with your point of view. Entry deadline: Oct. 21, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Kudos for the groovy, just-in-time-for-the-'80s computer graphic, and the nice use of bold on the word heard. But I am sure I can be as thoughtful as Charles Krauthammer or William Kristol, so here is the entry I'm submitting:

So like, right now for example. The Haitians need to come to America. But some people are all, "What about the strain on our resources?" Well it's like when I had this garden party for my father's birthday, right? I put R.S.V.P. 'cause it was a sit-down dinner. But some people came that like did not R.S.V.P. I was like totally buggin'. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, and squish in extra place settings. But by the end of the day it was, like, the more the merrier. And so if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians. And in conclusion may I please remind you it does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty. Thank you very much.

I can't wait to debate Cokie and George on ABC this Sunday!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Chosen Ones

If you were trying to convince a Joss Whedon virgin of the writer-producer-director's televisual genius, you could do a lot worse than this list of the "25 Best Whedonverse Episodes" assembled by EW. I could quibble with the ordering-- as good as it is, I suspect Firefly's "Our Mrs. Reynolds" benefits more from its Mad Men connection than its own inherent quality--but there wasn't one episode listed that I could disagree with, and that's a rarity when it comes to the intense passions cult shows like Whedon's tend to inspire. Every show is represented (even Dr. Horrible!), and reading through the list made me want to break out the DVD sets again, which is really what these kinds of exercises should, in the end, inspire.

Oh, and their number one choice? It wouldn't be mine-- I'd go with their #2-- but it's certainly a brilliant episode, and a reminder that Whedon's greatest contribution to television is remembering that the scariest demons we face are also the most human.

Bossa Nirvana

I watched the rather hit-and-miss adaptation of John Grogan's charming memoir Marley & Me last weekend, and while there were some strange choices made throughout (starting with the casting of Owen Wilson, who I like but who feels a bit too somnambulant for the role), one thing I did enjoy was the movie's use of pop music. In telling the story of a Gen X couple's progression from courtship to large family, the film deploys some clever remakes of alternative pop hits to suggest both the giddiness of that shift and also how disorienting it can be-- your new self is layered onto your old self, without the old self entirely fading away.

That notion of the cover-song-as-lost-identity is best captured in the above cover of Nirvana's "Lithium," here performed by Chicago alt-folk artist Bruce Lash. Its bossa nova groove, reminiscent of Nouvelle Vague, is mellow in a way that enhances the song's lethargy and instability, rather than flattening it out; it takes the gorgeous, fragile melody that's buried in the original and releases it, reminding us that beauty and anxiety are always doing a tentative dance in Cobain's work.


Oh, in case you were wondering (and I'd be hurt if you weren't)-- blogging has been light lately for a bunch of reasons. Most recently, I've been laid low with the flu (and temporary, utterly wrong-- and completely predictable, given my hypochondriac tendencies--worries that it was something worse). School always ramps up much faster than I think it will. Facebook tempts me more often these days, with its pithy little status updates that require much less effort than a blog post. And finally, I'm running blogs for each of my classes this semester (which are great, by the way-- I'm learning a lot from my students), so a lot of my blog energy is being re-channeled into other spaces.

Also-- I created a blog cloud, down in the corner there, deciding that after a couple of years (!!) of doing this, it might be useful to have tags on posts. So I went back and re-tagged everything, and now have to remind myself to tag new posts. It was an interesting experience, coming up with categories for entries that were often written much more in a mode of moving across categories, written to weave together points that might initially seem quite disparate. And it was interesting to see which categories ballooned like Rush Limbaugh at an OxyContin convention, to realize just how many times I mentioned Joss Whedon, or Obama, or The OC. And I guess after that sort of look back, I just wanted to blog a little less, feeling a bit burnt out and worrying about redundancy. But I enjoy this too much (and like staring at clouds, imagining their shapes to come) to stop doing it entirely. So please forgive me if posting is a bit less frequent than it was at this point last year-- I'm still here, I'm still reading you all, and I promise to check in from time to time.

Mixed Tapes

Imagine a movie is like a mix tape, infinitely reworkable, and we're able to rewind and reconfigure scenes with the push of a pause or play button (I actually just did this exercise with my students, so I have the pop of cinema on the brain). What would you cut, and what would you save? How would you re-mix the colors and tones, the dialogue and the music, so the flash of flare that brushes against a rear car window could cast our lovers in an even prettier amber glow?

These were the questions I kept thinking about watching Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the 2008 indy-rom that veers between enchanting and interminable. There were so many things I enjoyed about the movie-- the lead performances by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, the texture of a midnight New York as seen through the eyes of precocious teens, a soundtrack that included Band Of Horses, The Submarines and Vampire Weekend--that it made me even more frustrated by those elements (like Peter Sollet's schizo directing and an occasionally overly twee script) that didn't flow. Sollet also directed the 2003 Sundance favorite Raising Victor Vargas, another film that felt caught between a love of gifted actors and a tiresome desire to squeeze them into misshapen narratives that feel soaked in an obsession with a mythical "authenticity" (one very nice scene in Playlist, set in a music studio, has its charms extinguished by a lengthy exchange about life and meaning whose adolescent meandering wouldn't have passed muster with Angela Chase).

There's a clear joy of performance generated between the actors in Playlist, and I kept wishing Sollet (working from a screenplay by Lorene Scafaria that in turn was adapted from a novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan) would let them cut loose a bit more, to follow what often feel like improvised bits. There are some lovely moments of observation, as when Nora's drunken friend Caroline (a charming Ari Graynor, wasted in an extraneous and grating subplot) can't quite unlock a car door, and a crowd gathers on the sidewalk to cheer her on. Cera is especially good in those scenes, as they allow his emo mumbling to have a real purpose-- he's voicing his thoughts as he's working them out, then using his comments as a jokey cover for his insecurities. I really enjoyed the scene that followed, too, as Nick and Norah discuss pop music, and the conversation awkwardly veers from geeky enthusiasm about bands to sudden questions about past lovers, to awkward silences and failed attempts to re-start the chit-chat. There's a delicate, verite quality to those moments, and the movie is at its best when it emphasizes the connections between love and pop, and how the latter (often painfully) shapes our notions about the former.

It makes you want to cut the songs about the goofy best friend and the jealous ex-girlfriend, and to tweak and re-order the songs about the gay bandmates (which are sweet even as the totter on the edge of stereotype, and deserve to be fleshed out a bit more). There's a great cinematic mix tape hidden in the hiss and the stop-and-start structure of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist; it just needs a clever DJ to release its fairy-tale vision of New York, and make it dance.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Snakes On A Plain Dealer

You can always count on a Cleveland sports section to offer the best mixed metaphors:

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A minute ago, manager Eric Wedge and his brave little band of Indians were putting together a surprising August in the face of a fire sale that is still smoldering.

Today, they have an anaconda of a 10-game losing streak wrapped around their neck and are going down for the third time in the Amazon River like one of those old Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom shows.

The Plain Dealer denied that their new editor is Yogi Berra.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Baggin' It

Mad Men
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

The editing and the play with voice-over in the first minute of this segment is brilliant. But goodness-- what would Christopher Hitchens say?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Patrick Swayze, R.I.P. (Updated)

EW is reporting that the Dirty Dancing star died of pancreatic cancer at 57.

(UPDATE: 9/15, 12:11 A.M.)

The thing about Patrick Swayze is that he had that kind-hearted, open face. His broad forehead and bright eyes always seemed matched to the smile of a southern gentleman. It's the kind of appearance that could lead one to be cast in a lot of "bland doofus" roles (which, indeed, he was) or cause an actor to be stereotyped as a himbo (a persona he winningly mocked on Saturday Night Live). Swayze's best roles were those where he could give himself over to that almost naive big-heartedness, while suggesting a slightly darker, more searching sensibility underneath the bright facade.

He was born in Texas, to an engineer father and a mother whose dance studio provided him with his earliest lessons. After training at the Joffrey Ballet school, he got his professional start as a dancer for Disney, before appearing on Broadway in Grease. Small roles in shows like M*A*S*H and a few TV movies led to him being cast in a small part in The Outsiders, and larger roles in Red Dawn and the TV miniseries North and South.

But it was Dirty Dancing that finally made him a star, at the relatively old age (for Hollywood) of 35. He carries that age with him as a bulwark against the film's potential silliness, allowing his experience and size and dancer's grace to suggest a slightly darker past for his character that the film is only briefly willing to admit. And make no mistake-- in the wrong hands, this sweet, unstable mixture of teen romance and 50s social problem film could've been a disaster. But everyone in the cast, from relative newcomer Jennifer Grey to musical veterans Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop, gives themselves over to the material whole-heartedly, and really works to sell the melodrama. The part of Johnny Castle-- his name a literal embodiment of the movie's fairy tale structure--allowed Swayze to blend the rough-yet-romantic persona he'd developed in films and television with his dance training, and the result was what might be called chaste sensuality. When Johnny dances he exhibits a raw physicality, but the kindness in his eyes and his stammering, inarticulate expressions of love balance it out, allowing Swayze to be onscreen what he played in his very first Disney stage show: Prince Charming. It was the manner in which Swayze (in tandem with a very good, wonderfully awkward Grey) symbolized a certain romantic ideal that would make Dirty Dancing a Gen X touchstone.

Is the movie hokey? Sure, especially in the absurd final number, where a supposedly "spontaneous" uprising of dancers in the Catskills dining room writhes and spins to Kenny Ortega's super-stylized choreography. If one was truly obsessed with 'realism,' such a scene would be rejected out of hand; but musicals have always relied on leaps of faith (in Swayze's case, quite literally, as his body jumps across the screen), and I think it takes a certain kind of courage as a performer to allow yourself the open-faced vulnerability Swayze shows in the final number. I mean it as no slam on his acting when I say that the creasing of his forehead and the darting hopefulness of his eyes conveys as much in these scenes as any of his line readings.

Swayze would display that vulnerability once more in Ghost, a very flawed and very dated romance, but one which simply wouldn't work at all if Swayze didn't tackle his character's disembodiment with gusto (it's all in the eyes, which look at Demi Moore with such passion that they transform her into what she never was again-- a credible object of cinematic affection). But most of his post-Dirty Dancing career would be a cinematic mixed bag: the camp pleasures of Road House couldn't quite make up for the wretched trucker thriller Black Dog, the well-intentioned but underwhelming City of Joy, or the sentiment-meets-guns awkwardness of Father Hood. He was very funny on Saturday Night Live, stretched in Donnie Darko (which I've still never seen) and made a recent attempt at a comeback in the dark cop show The Beast. But much of his post-Baby career would rarely take advantage of his quiet charm, his innate sweetness on screen (you really do wonder why no one thought to cast him in an Evening Shade-like, set-in-the-South sitcom), and that ability he'd displayed (that very cinephilic ability) to move.

The one movie that seems to pick up on the Johnny Castle thread and take it somewhere else is Kathryn Bigelow's deeply underrated surf-and-crime fantasia, Point Break. The film is a brilliant action movie, but also works as both a metacommentary on the genre (how one stages a crime-- complete with costumes and choreography-- being akin to how one stages a shot), and a hauntingly beautiful, water-drenched dreamscape. Maybe Swayze needed more fantasy-driven spaces--60s dance-halls and romantic after-lifes and surfer communes beneath the crashing waves-- in order for his down-to-earth charm to be more apparent. The two leads are a fascinating study in contrasts. Keanu Reeves is the strait-laced FBI agent who needs to loosen up, but Reeves has such an ethereal, otherworldly persona that he seems much more in tune with the rhythm of the water than any of his cast mates (that's not an insult-- that quality works really well in the film); Swayze is the koan-driven surfing guru, but Swayze's presence is so much earthier than his co-stars, a feeling enhanced by the long hair and scruffy beard that partially cover that angelic face. The surfing allows Swayze to move within a different kind of choreography, more controlled but no less sensual or alluring.

Covering his key asset with long hair and a beard is a nice signal of Bodhi's underlying nefariousness, and Swayze makes a pretty charming villain. But even in this role, that open-heartedness slips through like a surfer through a curl. In fact, Dirty Dancing and Point Break have very similar narrative structures: a working-class bad boy meets up with a bourgeois kid intrigued by this seemingly seamy new underworld, and the bad boy seduces and initiates the naif into the group (the homosocial bonding is very strong in the film). In the end, the naif stands up for the bad boy against the father figure that wants him arrested/thrown out; but where Dirty Dancing ends in stylized triumph, Point Break's crime narrative demands a darker closure. Bodhi sacrifices himself to the ocean, but Swayze's open-hearted performing style dovetails with Bigelow's compulsive aestheticizing, making those final images of Bodhi consumed by the waves something rich and gray and sublime: like Swayze's character they seem both open and dark, foreboding and appealing all at once.

R.I.P., Patrick Swayze.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

You're A Good Man...

He's back! The elusive blogger known as That Little Round-Headed Boy has returned from a lengthy sabbatical, and it's lovely to hear his critical voice again. Right now, Good Ol' Charlie Brown is contributing to the ongoing Brian De Palma blog-a-thon that Tony Dayhoub is sponsoring, as well as offering a well-deserved tribute to Gordon Willis; he even finds time to throw in a quote from You've Got Mail, thus reminding us that a good cinephile is an omnivorous cinephile. Who knows when the Boy will be shipped off to summer camp again, or laid up in the hospital with long-term, football-kicking-related back injuries? I suggest hustling over to his site as soon as you can, because a voice like this is worth experiencing, even for brief moments in time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Larry Gelbart, R.I.P.

Larry Gelbart, the writer and producer who adapted M*A*S*H for television, and guided it through its first four, funniest seasons, died from cancer Friday at the age of 81.

In addition to his work on M*A*S*H-- and pause for a moment to think about how successful a career you had to have had in order to "add on" to something as important as that show--Gelbart also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Tootsie, was co-librettist on Stephen Sondheim's first musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and was part of a celebrated writing staff for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows that included Neil Simon and Carl Reiner (Gelbart would later collaborate with the latter on the George Burns comedy, Oh, God).

But it's probably M*A*S*H for which he will be best-remembered. Gelbart had the unenviable task of translating to TV a film that was not only a huge commercial success, but a politically sharp cult favorite. The dark humor and innovative visual style of Ring Lardner, Jr.'s script and Robert Altman's direction were not qualities seen in a lot American television comedy up to 1972 (All In the Family probably comes the closest, but its deliberately flat, video-taped mise-en-scene didn't go in for Altmanian zooms, cuts and overlapping voices). In the wrong hands, M*A*S*H could've been a disaster, but somehow, Gelbart and his writing staff found a way to maintain the visual style within the small, then-square confines of a TV screen, and more importantly, transformed the movie's voice while subtly altering it. They kept the gonzo humor of the movie, and its cynical view on war, politics and the military, but also recognized that the go-for-broke cruelty (if cruelty with a point) that the movie used to its advantage in a two-hour space simply couldn't sustain itself over the course of a multi-season show. The characters would have to develop, and become more three-dimensional.

To that end, they cast actors with remarkable range (and gave them a degree of freedom in the collaboration-- encouraging them to write and direct as well as toss around story ideas-- that wasn't always common in the 1970s), filled in characters' backstories, and let the surrealism of certain images or narrative threads-- such as Klinger's desperate attempts at cross-dressing himself out of the military-- stand in for more extended speechifying. They also solicited stories and technical advice from doctors and nurses who served in Korea, and many M*A*S*H writers have said that what wound up on screen was often a toned-down version of some of the tales they were told (in this regard, I always think of my grandfather, whose politics were very much to the right of the program, but who loved it, anyway. He had served as a surgeon in a M*A*S*H unit in Korea, and while he never said this, I sometimes wonder if he saw a bit of his own experience, however exaggerated, in the hi-jinks on the screen).

Most importantly, they refused to reduce the characters to either heroes or villains, making them neither perfect nor evil. Hawkeye was at once a witty conscience and a sexist jerk, a talented surgeon and a self-righteous, alcoholic egotist. Margaret was a stuck-up scold, but also a dedicated nurse. Henry was an absent-minded goofball, but also a fierce defender of the men and women under his command. That blend of genres and self-aware roundedness of character is a legacy that lives on in shows as diverse as Gilmore Girls, Hill Street Blues, The West Wing (Sorkin has always cited M*A*S*H as a big influence) The Office, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. That dash of humanism-- crucially balanced by the slapstick, anarchic spirit Gelbart learned under Caesar-- was the secret of M*A*S*H's success, and the balancing act seemed to mostly be Gelbart's: when he left, the show slowly slid into a more cloyingly sincere moralism, as the characters became more and more "likable" until there was no conflict left in them off which to spark drama. The later years of M*A*S*H are certainly enjoyable, but they never again captured the mix that Gelbart helped facilitate.

Like I said above, it was a long and spectacular career, and I haven't even said much about his Tony-winning musical, City of Angels, or Tootsie, a film I adore. But Bob Westal covers that film beautifully in his piece at "Forward To Yesterday," and TV writer Ken Levine-- who worked with Gelbart on M*A*S*H-- has posted several times about his friend and mentor. Meanwhile, it seems appropriate to let Gelbart himself have the last word:

Firing Line

So, all Joe Thomas has done since he came to Cleveland in 2007 is play hard, make the Pro Bowl two years in a row, work through injuries, and anchor a resurgent offensive line, something the Browns hadn't had in a decade. To say nothing of his charitable work in the community, his quiet demeanor, and the humble way he represents himself on and off the field. And what does he get in return?

An anonymous, passive-aggressive, debatable slam in his local paper.

There's nothing wrong with Adrian Peterson-- he's a spectacular player, and the Vikings are lucky to have him. But I really question the point of this article, which gives space to the venting of an ex-employee, two years after the fact, who doesn't even have the character to go on the record with his bitterness.

But I guess if the Plain Dealer wants to be the sports equivalent of Politico, that's its business. You stay classy, Mary Kay Cabot!

Saturday Music Break: House Music

Crowded House perform acoustic versions of three songs from Temple of Low Men, 1988.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Just Sayin'...

If anyone has a spare $230 lying around, and wants to purchase this in mono format for me on Amazon, I would certainly not complain.


Aside from the Vertigo line and a handful of ongoing capes-and-tights titles, I don't read a lot of DC comics. So the news that longtime DC publisher Paul Levitz is stepping down from that position doesn't have the same impact on me as last week's bombshell that the Mouse put in a bid to buy Marvel. But the superb blogger, writer and comics historian Mark Evanier knew Levitz well, and writes a lovely tribute to him here; it also functions as a compressed overview of the last 40 years of comics publishing, and the shifting ways in which the business treats its talent. Evanier also has thoughts about what this transition means for the medium's future.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Paging Sandy Cohen

People have suggested that The OC was a bit outrageous and melodramatic in some of its plot twists, but it's clear now that their writers were amateurs when it comes to the real thing.

(Warning: the video clip embedded in that link is NSFW).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Notes On Blogging Aesthetics XXI

In the beginning, the idea of wearing sunglasses in an interview seemed...kind of stupid. Now, we realize that, in fact, it's not whether you're wearing sunglasses that's important-- it's what kind of sunglasses you're wearing.
--The Edge, 1992

The Bertram Coles Moment

Saxby Chambliss unironically channels The West Wing.

I mean, seriously-- they're not even trying to hide it anymore.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Achtung Babies

MInimalist animation meets maximum anthem in this intriguing, video-game-like new piece for the U2 single "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Checking In

This... what...

...the first week...

...of classes...


...feels like!

Hectic, dizzying, trying to find balance while falling through a sky of cinematic images: must be the first week back in Cineville!

Sorry for the lack of posts recently-- this has been a rewarding week with great new students, but a far too busy one to really be posting anything new. But don't worry, dear readers! I'll be back soon with my inimitable takes on movies, tv, comics and whatever else floats through my head. In the meantime, please visit some of the blogs on the roll to the right-- they're all in, hip, mod and peachy!