Sunday, December 27, 2009

Music is worth talking about.

"Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just, and beautiful, of which it is the invisible but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form." —Plato (source and date unknown)

"Music is the healing force of the world / It's understood by every man, woman, boy, and girl" —Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, "I Love Music," 1975, as performed by the O'Jays

"Music is the naked cry of the human heart longing to be with God. Yo!" —Dion, at the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert on October 29, 2009, at Madison Square Garden in New York City

Saturday, December 26, 2009

the generation gap

Earlier tonight my dad was scrolling through his iPhone while my mom sat beside him on the couch and looked at her friends' Facebook postings on her laptop.

I sat opposite them and read newspaper clippings I've collected over the past few months.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

true, but it's fiction

On December 18 of last year I discovered I was being laid off from my job at the Chicago Reader. On December 18 of this year I discovered that my first attempt at (very short) fiction was being published in the Reader's annual fiction issue. Despite the past year being difficult in many ways, I liked the timing of this news.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

decaying masterpieces

If actor Tim DeKay wastes an entire weekend watching the fine programming on USA Network, does that qualify as "time decay"?


It's good that apartheid has ended, not so good that proofreading has gone the same route:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

pretty bloody

An Associated Press story about Katey Sagal (Married ... With Children, Futurama, 8 Simple Rules) and her role on the FX series Sons of Anarchy was reprinted in yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times. I have no idea when the word "not" got deleted from the following paragraph, but I like the result:

Season 2 of the FX drama "Sons of Anarchy" is primed to end with bloody payback. It's likely to be pretty.

Monday, November 23, 2009

in between

On the run from government assassins after a botched attempt on his life, and looking for a place to hide, CIA bookworm Joe Turner (Robert Redford) kidnaps a stranger, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), and forces her to drive him back to her place, in Sydney Pollack's 1975 film Three Days of the Condor.

Later, at Kathy's apartment, Joe uses a rare moment of quiet to look at the black-and-white photographs on her walls.

Joe: Lonely pictures.
Kathy:
So?
Joe: You're funny. You take pictures of empty streets, and trees with no leaves on them.
Kathy:
It's winter.
Joe: Not quite winter. They look like ... November. Not autumn, not winter. In between.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

White Guys in Suits: 1989 vs. 2009

Alessandra Stanley wrote an article in the New York Times earlier this year about Jimmy Fallon taking over for Conan O'Brien on NBC's Late Night that month, and O'Brien getting set to take over for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in June, and Leno taking over for the majority of 10 PM drama series on the network in the fall, and how every other late-night network talk-show host is a white guy in a suit, and why isn't there any diversity?

On November 9, TBS debuted Lopez Tonight, hosted by Mexican-American comedian and former sitcom star George Lopez. (Sorry, ladies—you're still confined to hosting daytime talk shows.)

When The Arsenio Hall Show started its syndication run in January 1989, it garnered a lot of media attention, mainly because its host was the only minority hosting such a show at the time. But it also had much more of a party atmosphere than Johnny Carson and David Letterman's shows on NBC: Hall didn't sit behind a desk when interviewing his guests, he featured many R&B and hip-hop musical acts who weren't getting booked on the NBC shows, and he had a section of audience members he referred to as "the dog pound" because they responded "Woof, woof, woof!" when commanded to do so. (Sadly, Ivan Pavlov's late-night talk show never got off the ground in the late 1800s due to TV not having been invented yet.)

Yo! MTV Raps debuted a few months before Arsenio and helped bring hip-hop into the musical mainstream by exposing white suburban youth (including myself) to the relatively new genre. But 20 years ago MTV was a cable channel that was still expanding its own audience, whereas Arsenio was mostly syndicated on non-NBC network affiliates on "free TV," so its exposure of hip-hop to mainstream audiences helped rap expand even further, and possibly faster, into white America. And similar to The Cosby Show five years earlier, Arsenio didn't need a white sidekick in order for its host to cross over to white audiences. It was broadcasting without the stench of narrow-minded focus-group research or "niche audience" goals.

One problem, though—Hall wasn't funny. I loved Letterman's on-air persona and Late Night's conceptual humor (courtesy of writers like George Meyer, who's something of a legend among his fellow writers on The Simpsons, and Chris Elliott, who later cocreated and starred in his own conceptual-humor masterpiece, the early-'90s sitcom Get a Life) when I was growing up, and reruns of Carson's Comedy Classics prove that the late Tonight Show host's comic timing has stood the test of time, even if ABSCAM references haven't. Hall, on the other hand, laughed at everything he said, which made his jokes even less funny. On top of that, he was a lousy listener during interviews.

I remember Hall's cameo in Eddie Murphy's directorial debut, Harlem Nights (1989), being the only funny thing in that horrible film (Murphy hasn't directed a movie since), but unlike Murphy, Hall didn't have effortless charisma as a performer telling jokes to an audience. (He recently returned to movie acting with a role in the blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite.) His show was a party, but nothing more.

Similarly, I think any actress who's lost an award to Tina Fey since 2006 has every right to roll her eyes and gnash her teeth. (Jimmy Fallon and she continued the irritating trend of laughing at one's own jokes when they anchored Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment in the first half of this decade, though they preferred the self-satisfied smirk above all else.) To her credit, Fey has admitted she's more comfortable as a writer than as an actor, and I'm not saying she's the worst actress on TV by any means, but the fawning admiration this woman gets for her acting is ridiculous. Hollywood and all of my friends have been brainwashed, and it doesn't look like they'll come out of their trance anytime soon.

At least I can take comfort in Nancy Franklin's review of 30 Rock in the December 8, 2008, issue of The New Yorker, where she wrote, "Fey's Liz has become a bit looser over the show's forty episodes, and it may be that winning two Emmys in a row for Best Actress in a Comedy has freed Fey up as a performer; in which case, I'm all for giving out awards before people fully deserve them. (Yoo-hoo, Pulitzer Prize committee, over here!)" Likewise, Franklin can take comfort in knowing that I flattered her by unknowingly stealing that Pulitzer joke of hers last month over at Popdose.

In Fey's defense I'd assumed ever since 30 Rock began in '06 that as the creator and executive producer of the show she was responsible for all the low-cut tops her character, Liz Lemon, wears, even though Liz is a self-described awkward nerd, both socially and sexually. But if that's the case, wouldn't she cover up her breasts in the workplace? I don't think there's a subtle, multilayered joke I'm not getting here.


It turns out 30 Rock costar Alec Baldwin is responsible, at least according to Maureen Dowd's Vanity Fair article about Fey in the magazine's January 2009 issue. "There is Liz Lemon and there is Liz Lemon as portrayed by a leading actress in a TV show," Baldwin said. "It's not a documentary. Tina's a beautiful girl ... Tina always played the cute, nerdy girl. Tina on ['Weekend Update'], the glasses. There was not a big glamour quotient for her. Now there is." So Baldwin wants to exploit Fey even if it doesn't fit her character, which in turn makes the jokes less honest and the show less interesting. But I'm not an Emmy voter, so what do I know?

Getting back to actual late-night programming, instead of the fictional kind portrayed on 30 Rock, right before Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson in the spring of '92, Hall told Entertainment Weekly, "No one put the late-night silver spoon in my mouth. I earned every drop of mine. And I'm gonna treat him like we treated the kid on the high school basketball team who was the coach's son. He was there because he was anointed too. We tried to kick his ass, and that's what I'm going to do—kick Jay's ass."

Hall didn't seem to appreciate Leno telling the press they were "friends." Branford Marsalis didn't look like he wanted to spend any more time than was necessary with Leno when he was The Tonight Show's bandleader, and George Lopez called him "two-faced" in 2007. Then there are the stories about how David Letterman, a former friend, can't stand Leno now. (But he seems so nice. Is it a case of Leno not having any sincerity to back it up?)

Well, Hall didn't kick Leno's ass. In fact, two years after he laid down the gauntlet, his show was gone, due in part to CBS affiliates dropping his show for Late Show With David Letterman once it began airing on the network at 11:30 PM in the fall of '93. "Too much too soon" and a shift in the zeitgeist also factored into the decline of The Arsenio Hall Show's popularity.

I don't think Hall got much respect from fellow comedians in the early '90s the way Letterman and Carson did. Below is part of a Bill Hicks interview from a 1992 issue of The Nose magazine in which the revered stand-up comic tells interviewer Jack Boulware how he really feels about Hall.

(Hicks died in 1994, three months before Arsenio ended its run. Hall can be consoled by the fact that Hicks also had a beef with Leno, who he once considered a mentor of sorts, because he appeared in TV commercials for Doritos; in his stand-up act, Hicks pondered whether Dallas's Patrick Duffy or Blossom's Joey Lawrence would be the celebrity to push Leno over the edge and force him to shoot himself in the head on national television, regretting what his life had become.)

You really piss people off sometimes.

Well, it's funny, but I just have this weird theory. The best kind of comedy, to me, is when you make people laugh at things they've never laughed at, and also take a light into the darkened corners of people's minds and exposing them to the light.

Man, I don't know—I always felt that's what the point of it all was. I don't think it makes you sympathetic to mass murderers so much as maybe ... I thought the whole point of it was to make you feel un-alone. Many thoughts I do have are not my own thoughts, you know what I mean? They're not secret thoughts.

In your act, why do you refer to Dick Clark as the Antichrist?

The only point of that whole thing is just about mediocrity and lowering the standards of the world.

Who else falls into that category?

(pause) Arsenio is the most dangerous one of all. Everyone is going on that show. It is the most amazing thing I've ever seen. Jesus is gonna do that show when he comes back. (as Arsenio's announcer) "Tonight on Arsenio: Paula Abdul, Della Reese, and Jesus of Nazareth. Let's get busy!" (as Hall) "Jesus, tell me the truth now. Mary Magdalene—didja do her?" (as the audience) "Arf, arf, arf, arf." (as Hall again) "We'll be right back."

I can't believe it. I mean, Robert Duvall—I've never seen him do an interview, never seen him do a talk show. Comes out to promote what? Days of Thunder. I'm watchin' him with fuckin' Tom Cruise, and [he's] just, "Tom Cruise. I had to work with this man. Oooh. Well, let me tell you something, Arsenio—Tom Cruise is the young talent of today. Better make sure of it."

What the fuck is happening? Did they all get transfusions from Merv Griffin in the green room? This is fuckin' Duvall, man! De Niro did Arsenio! Do we have some sort of huge white guilt or something? Or do these people—did they all just drink Merv Griffin's blood in some alley? What the fuck is going on here? The guy is the child of fuckin' Merv Griffin and Little Richard, man.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sales & Sons

Cynthia Turner provided a nice memory today of Milton Supman, better known as comedian Soupy Sales, in her daily Cynopsis e-mail digest of media-related news:

"And a nod to Soupy Sales, who passed away at the age of 83 late Thursday night. When I was 10, I was stuck at the JFK Airport in New York with my mother for three days and two nights—a result of a massive snowstorm. We had the good fortune to spend the time in the American Airlines Admiral's Club, in relative comfort, much different than most of the stranded, who were in the main airport areas downstairs. There were two celebrities also staying at the Admiral's Club—Goldie Hawn, TV's current It Girl on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and Soupy Sales. Goldie Hawn didn't speak to anybody, and clearly did not want to be spoken to, either.

"Soupy was wonderfully approachable, for both the adults and me. He stayed awake for most of our 60-hour detention, spending the overnight hours downstairs putting on free stand-up shows for the throngs of people. I liked him on his television show, because I was just a kid. But I liked him better for what he did to make so many people's uncomfortable predicament altogether bearable, memorable, and even fun."

I don't remember Sales much from my own childhood except for an occasional pie hitting his face on Saturday-morning TV. However, I've always found it interesting that his sons, Hunt and Tony, are rock musicians who played drums and bass, respectively, on Iggy Pop's 1977 album Lust for Life and later formed the rhythm section of the David Bowie-fronted Tin Machine in the late '80s.

Before all that, though, the Sales brothers were two-thirds of Runt, Todd Rundgren's first band after he left Nazz. The two Runt albums, 1970's Runt and 1971's Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren (my favorite album of all time), have since been reissued as Rundgren solo albums—he did write, produce, and sing every song on the two albums, and he played most of the instruments, and he's the only member of Runt who gets any face time on the album covers—so perhaps he felt overwhelmed at the time by the prospect of releasing anything under his own name, especially if it were to bomb. Rundgren, after all, was only 21 when he recorded that first album. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, Tony Sales was 18 and Hunt was 16 when they recorded Runt.

Rundgren, it turns out, was the oldest runt in the litter.

Friday, October 23, 2009

serving up a silent birthday wish

The October 3 TV listings in the Chicago Sun-Times offered a preview of that night's episode of Saturday Night Live:

"Saturday Night Live" (10:30 p.m., WMAQ-Channel 5): Ryan Reynolds ("Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story") hosts, with Lady Gaga providing musical and visual entertainment.

Never mind that Reynolds starred in two of the summer's biggest movies, the superhero adventure X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the romantic comedy The Proposal, or that he's signed up to play the Green Lantern in his own big-screen superhero franchise—as far as the Sun-Times is concerned, he'll never be better than he was in a TV movie that aired on NBC in February of '95. The stars of Serving in Silence were Glenn Close and Judy Davis, but an 18-year-old Reynolds really must have impressed someone in the Chicago newspaper's fact-checking department.

Coincidentally, Reynolds turns 33 today, but I refuse to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RYAN REYNOLDS! YOU'RE SO CHARMING AND FUNNY AND IMPOSINGLY MUSCULAR! I MEAN, I GUESS THAT THIRD QUALITY IS WHY YOU GET HIRED TO PLAY SUPERHEROES, BUT I DON'T REMEMBER HEARING STORIES ABOUT MICHAEL KEATON OBSESSIVELY HITTING THE GYM BEFORE HE PLAYED BATMAN 20 YEARS AGO! BUT MAYBE HE DID AND I JUST DON'T REMEMBER! IT WAS A LONG TIME AGO, OBVIOUSLY! WE'RE ALL GETTING OLDER! AND IF IT SOUNDS LIKE I'M SOMEWHAT JEALOUS OF YOUR PHYSIQUE, WELL, SURE, I'M MAN ENOUGH TO ADMIT THAT! YOU KNOW, I PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE TURNED OFF THE CAPS LOCK AND STOPPED USING EXCLAMATION POINTS AFTER THE FIRST SENTENCE OF THIS BIRTHDAY WISH, BUT I'M ALMOST FINISHED, SO BEAR WITH ME FOR A FEW MORE SECONDS, OKAY?! LET ME JUST CONCLUDE BY SAYING YOU'RE SWELL, RYAN REYNOLDS, AND I HOPE YOU HAVE A TERRIFIC BIRTHDAY, AND I ESPECIALLY HOPE YOUR WIFE, THE LOVELY SCARLETT JOHANSSON, TREATS YOU TO SOME ADULT SITUATIONS AND PARTIAL NUDITY!

Yep, I refuse to say any of that. The part about Reynolds's wife is inappropriate, for one thing.

By the way, you can read more about Wolverine and other freaky creatures in a few entries I didn't finish writing on the dates listed below:

4/10: "No, my brother—you've got to buy your own."
7/6: the boomerang of satire
8/20:
sassy cannibals spawning, preaching, living, and loving

Sunday, October 11, 2009

lists

I used to like making lists of things when I was younger: favorite movies, biggest-grossing movies, favorite songs, favorite TV shows, girls I liked. It went on and on.

I don't like making lists of things anymore. Now I waste my time in more mature ways, like endlessly moving stacks of old newspapers and newspaper clippings around my apartment.

I'm proud of myself.

Friday, October 9, 2009

the realistic and the impossible

Back in June I saw a postcard in a bookstore that had Che Guevara's face on the front—one of those painted reprints of Alberto Korda's famous photo of the Cuban revolutionary, to be exact—and the slogan "Let's be realistic: try the impossible!" underneath. Close by was Spain Rodriguez's graphic novel Che: A Graphic Biography (2008); last fall Publishers Weekly deemed it "for the most part unalloyed hagiography, which can seem more like something produced by revolutionary committee than an artist."

Six years ago Lawrence Osborne wrote about Che worship in the New York Observer and attempted to set the record straight:

Of course, it was Che's role in the Cuban Revolution that turned him into the poster boy we all know. But it was a quixotic participation in many ways. Che was known inside the revolution as a strict disciplinarian, ready to sign death warrants and mete out sundry brutalities. And yet, for all that, he was spectacularly ineffective. From 1961 to 1965, Che was Cuba's Minister for Industries; before that, from 1959 to 1961, he was the head of the national bank. Both stints ended in farce. A Cuban expedition to Congo to prop up the anti-Mobutu forces fighting there ended similarly.

Che, in fact, failed at anything requiring real ability and perseverance. He was a charismatic dilettante, like most professional revolutionaries, but in between he lived the activist high life: the Bandung-generation Third World conference circuit, dramatic speeches at the United Nations, clandestine peregrinations from country to country, murky deals, love affairs and connections in high places. None of it amounted to anything, however. In the end, Che had to foment real revolutions or nothing.

While attempting to spur a revolution in Bolivia in 1967, Guevara was captured by that country's military on October 8 and executed the next day.


In January I saw Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour biopic Che, starring Benicio Del Toro. As Soderbergh told the Chicago Sun-Times, he split the story into two films—part one is subtitled "The Argentine," part two is "Guerrilla"—because "one, you didn't understand why [Guevara] thought he would succeed in Bolivia if you didn't see what happened in Cuba. And two, you had to go back to Cuba to answer the question: How did he become the Che that is the guy on the T-shirts?"

Del Toro isn't the only movie star in the film, but he's the only one who has a lead role, and it's interesting to see how Soderbergh, one of the most intelligent and unpredictable filmmakers around, uses other famous faces.

I recognized Julia Ormond in the first part of Che as an American journalist interviewing Guevara, but I’m not sure if that will be the case for every viewer, mostly because it's been over a dozen years since she had a lead role in a high-profile American movie—1995's Sabrina. Besides, you hear Ormond's voice several times in Che before you see her face, but since she’s using an American accent I didn’t recognize her voice. (Ormond also had roles in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008.)

Guevara was a world-famous figure by the time he made his trip to Bolivia. A celebrity, even. When he arrived people wanted to shake his hand; they were awed by his presence as well as the myth that surrounded him. But he was afraid most peasants would be suspicious of a foreigner trying to rally them to revolution, even though he was an Argentinean who was able to rally Cubans to revolt against Batista’s government nine years earlier. (In Bolivia he was worried about being labeled a Cuban, which he was by that point, of course.) He was a stranger in both countries, if not exactly a stranger in a strange land. His fame turned him into an outsider once again.

When Lou Diamond Phillips and Matt Damon show up in part two of Che for brief cameos, it has a jarring effect—you lose focus of what’s happening in the story at those particular moments as you stop and say to yourself, "Is that who I think it is?" just as Guevara’s revolution lost focus in Bolivia due to his celebrity status. It’s a canny move by Soderbergh that parallels the on-screen action.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yes, I do love Die Hard, but I also love my memory.

And what I remember of that 1988 classic doesn't sound anything like the new Jamie Foxx-Gerard Butler movie Law Abiding Citizen, at least not according to this description from an advertisement on Facebook:

Love DIE HARD? Click for Law Abiding Citizen where a man turns raging assassin, avenging the murder of his family.

That sounds more like Death Wish. But since Bonnie Bedelia hasn't appeared in a Die Hard film since the first sequel in 1990, why not kill her off for the fifth installment? It can go into production once Bruce Willis gets bored with his career again or needs a new yacht or needs to prove to himself that he's still in shape.

John McClane has to be tired of saving the world from terrorists by now, even if they do occasionally threaten members of his family. He needs a more, shall we say, personal project to complete next time around.

I'd like to suggest that the Die Hard series return to the template of the first two films, in which all the action takes place in a central location: a skyscraper in the first film, an airport in the second. And to make things topical, how's about Holly McClane (Bedelia) loses her home in a foreclosure and goes to the bank to set things right when an insane lender blows up the place with Holly inside?

Cut to John McClane in ... wherever he's living (we'll figure that out later) as he learns his ex-wife is dead! He goes into a rage! He still loved her, see! It's not fair! Why not him?! Nooooooooo!

So he goes to ... another bank ... where he finds the lender ... lending in a new position ... and ... look, we'll figure all of this out later. The main points are: (1) Holly dies; (2) John seeks revenge; (3) banks blow up so Americans feel better about this miserable recession.

Save a seat for me!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

thirty-four

I turned 34 on Friday. And right before I went to bed that night I noticed something about the "wallpaper" on my computer screen, which changes every 30 minutes at the MacBook's whim.

For those of you without a magnifying glass, the photo on the left features Michael McDonald and the stars of 1986's Running Scared, Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines; it's a still from the music video for McDonald's "Sweet Freedom." That photo's been in the wallpaper rotation for several years now, but I didn't notice the number on Hines's jersey until Friday night. It also happens to be the number worn by Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, who in 1986 led his team to a Super Bowl victory. Running Scared is set in Chicago and was filmed there during the Bears' 1985 season, when they lost only one of their 16 regular-season games.

Shortly after I turned 33, I read a newspaper article that quoted statistics from The Death of the Grownup: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization, including this factoid: "The MacArthur Foundation has funded a research project that argues that the 'transition to adulthood' doesn't end till age 34."

When I read that last year I thought, "Woo-hoo! One more year!" Of course, one year later, with almost nine months of unemployment taking a bite out of my self-esteem, Officially Authorized Adulthood® isn't making a strong first impression. Lucky for it, I believe in second chances.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

We are the invisible people. (Springsteen, write us a song.)

Last week I was leaving the grocery store when a woman approached me and asked if I'd like to buy a copy of StreetWise, the local magazine sold by homeless and at-risk vendors. She said she was trying to get off the street and that selling StreetWise allowed her to not have to panhandle anymore.

I've been volunteering as a proofreader at StreetWise since March. I tried mentioning this to the woman for the sake of small talk, i.e. "Here's something we have in common," but she just looked past me and said, "Uh-huh." As I handed her my two dollars and she gave me a copy of the latest issue, I tried again, thinking maybe I should point to my name on the masthead on the inside cover. "Okay," she said. She wasn't listening.

It's hard being a proofreader. People pretend you don't exist, but the "problem" isn't just going to go away, no matter how many of us you don't employ.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Which movie currently in theaters is a sequel to a remake and a remake of a sequel?

The correct answer is Rob Zombie's Halloween II.

What will you think of next, Hollywood?

"Halloween 3D," as it turns out, because even though Halloween II opened in third place last weekend, far behind The Final Destination (another horror sequel, with the "The" apparently indicating that this is the last installment in the series, i.e. "This is the end for you rubberneckers who love watching teenagers die gruesome yet imaginatively staged deaths"), Hollywood can't have enough sequels or 3-D movies or "reboots" in theaters.

I have a feeling "Halloween 3D" won't be a remake of 1982's Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a sequel that ditched the Michael Myers character from the first two films to tell a story about unrelated characters who have to stop a Halloween-mask manufacturer from killing millions of children with its black-magic-enhanced product. Halloween III wasn't well received by moviegoers or critics, so my script for "Halloween 3A: Season of the Witch 2" never came to pass, with our heroes from the first Witch harassing the neighborhood dry cleaner until he agrees to stop using plastic bags.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

the day Dustin Hoffman met George Clooney's uncle

On Tuesday night I watched Sydney Pollack's Tootsie (1982) at Butler Field in Chicago's Grant Park. It was the final film in this summer's Chicago Outdoor Film Festival (in July I saw Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard), and the first time I'd seen Pollack's best film on a big screen, with an appreciative audience.

Yesterday I discovered the following Late Show With David Letterman clip from December 22, 2008, on YouTube.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

sassy cannibals spawning, preaching, living, and loving

Gospel According to Harry is a 1994 art film by Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski that debuted on DVD last year courtesy of Kino Video. The back of the DVD box says, "Years before the Lord of the Rings trilogy catapulted him to international superstardom, Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) played Wes, a young husband locked in co-dependent discontent with his beautiul and needy wife Karen (Jennifer Rubin — The Doors)."

Once you watch the film, though, Wes comes across as much more needy than Karen, praying to God that she'll return to him after she moves out. In the early scenes he's portrayed as an anger-prone layabout who refuses to buy life or health insurance, so it's not too hard to side with Karen when she leaves. And once she returns, he quickly takes her for granted again. Is she considered needy simply because she needs love?

The Gospel DVD contains audio commentary by Majewski, who doesn't acknowledge Rubin when she first appears on-screen, but once Mortensen shows up a minute or two later, he has plenty to say about the actor and the experience of working with him.

I snagged my copy of Gospel last year at the Chicago Reader, where I used to work. More recently I came into possession of a DVD of C.H.U.D. (1984) and a VHS copy of Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), which delivers the kind of quality you'd expect from the title, even though the Jaws rip-off was directed by Oscar winner James Cameron. (The video box uses a comma in the title instead of a colon. It's the idiosyncrasies I love the most.)

Avatar, which is set for release this December, will be Cameron's first feature film since 1997's Titanic, and it appears to have elements in common with Aliens (1986), the second sequel he directed for which he had nothing to do with the original film. (He did direct 1984's The Terminator and its first sequel, 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but not the subsequent two installments.) Similarly, Piranha II has elements in common with Cameron's The Abyss (1989) and Titanic—namely, scenes where characters explore ships that have sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

I watched my found copies of Piranha II and C.H.U.D. back to back last Saturday. I got a kick out of the fact that the killer flying piranha and the Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers weren't the real bad guys in either film—the good ol' U.S. government was the true source of all evil. (Sorry to ruin it for you.) In Piranha II a military experiment in the Caribbean has gone awry, and in C.H.U.D. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been storing toxic waste below the streets of New York City, turning homeless "mole people" who live in the subway tunnels into CHUDs.

I also watched a Reader-appropriated copy of My Sassy Girl (2008), an American remake of a Korean romantic comedy, starring Elisha Cuthbert of 24 and Jesse Bradford of the upcoming I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which, judging by the trailer, will be shown in hell on a constant loop for eons to come.

In one scene Cuthbert's character, Jordan, whose "sassiness" extends into the realms of complete self-absorption, binge drinking, irrational anger,
mind games, and borderline mental illness, demands that the stationmaster at a New York City Subway stop broadcast an announcement over the station's loudspeakers to Charlie (Bradford), who's on the platform below. The stationmaster begins to make the announcement when Jordan interrupts her to ask, "What kind of diction is that? How could anyone possibly understand you?"

The stationmaster is black. Jordan is white. But it's not a racial insult, alright? This is a bad romantic comedy, after all, where everyone gets along with everyone else unless they're fighting about love. It is a class thing, though, because Jordan is the daughter of a rich doctor and the stationmaster works nights in a loud, smelly pit just to keep food on the table.

The stationmaster sarcastically informs Jordan that she doesn't have to make the announcement at all, at which point Jordan barges into her booth and says, "I would rather if you're going to do something nice for someone that you do it properly—and well." C'mon, be a friend, lady!

The stationmaster replies, "This PA system is 50 years old. If the queen of England made the announcement, you wouldn't understand it." Jordan volleys back with "The queen of England wouldn't step foot in this shithole." But the queen of Sassy would, and she's not happy with what she sees, not to mention the customer service she gets when she makes "nice" requests.

The microphone is left on during this exchange, and director Yann Samuell cuts to the reactions of the people on the platform below. A few look confused, but most of them are heard laughing, with white faces dominating the screen. It's a racially charged scene, if unintentionally so.

Jordan then delivers a drippy personal message over the PA to Charlie, who, instead of cringing and covering his face with his coat, races to the stationmaster's booth to find her. Right before he gets there, Jordan shows her gratitude to the stationmaster by calling her a "rat-faced woman," her voice still ringing out over the PA system.

This scene doesn't take place at the end of the film, when desperate moves are often made by characters in rom-coms to ensure that they end up with the boy or girl of their dreams. It's just another instance of Ms. Sassy wanting what she wants right now and expecting someone to give it to her.

Gospel According to Harry director Lech Majewski might charitably describe Jordan as "needy," but if by the end of My Sassy Girl you're ready for the "rat-faced woman" to turn into a human-size rat and team up with a CHUD to devour her, you're not alone.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

the unfunny father of humor

Every month the management staff of my apartment building slips a bulletin under each tenant's door to let us know about holiday celebrations, shopping excursions for the senior citizens, "movie night," and other community events originating in the building. The bulletin is often padded out with "this date in history" trivia that's always worth reading, including the following factoid:

Aug. 16—The Original Funny Man. By many accounts, English comic actor Joseph (or Josias) Miller of London's Drury Lane Theatre was a popular favorite, known for his boisterous wit. When he died on this date in 1738, leaving his family in poverty, his friend John Mottley decided to collect all the jokes attributed to Miller and publish them. The proceeds from the book were to go to Miller's family. Joe Miller's Jests, first published in 1739, was 70 pages long, contained 247 jokes, and represented the first published professional humor. After numerous revisions and expansions, it contained more than 1,500 jokes that some experts cite as the foundation of all modern movie, television, radio and stage humor. Some are reluctant to give Miller all the credit, however; they say Miller wasn't a true comedian at all, but that he was always credited with everyone else's wit. According to one historian, Miller's friends gave him credit for jokes because he was actually quite grave and humorless.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

America's first daddy-daughter anchor team

There once was a little girl named Sophie, who became the world's youngest news anchor at the tender age of two. Though she was just one half of WGCM's latest anchor team—the other half being her dad, Michael—it was still a lot of pressure for someone who couldn't read yet or even pronounce the last letter of "anchor."

Luckily, Sophie was up to the challenges that lay ahead.


For one thing, she was mighty cute, which always helps on TV. She was also a natural when it came to "happy chat," an essential part of any local newcast. Sophie loved to talk about puppies and trees and twinkling little stars and the sounds barnyard animals make, not to mention her grandparents and her mommy and daddy and her big sister, Olivia, who was four. Olivia was Sophie's biggest influence when it came to being informative, inquisitive, and mighty cute.

Plus, Sophie had an advantage that older news anchors would never have: she could make any piece of bad news seem okay just by smiling or laughing.

Has the economy got you down? Just let WGCM cut to a tight close-up of Sophie telling you the numbers she knows.

Tired of hearing how high school literacy rates keep dropping? Listen to Sophie as she recites her ABCs in her own unique fashion.

Infuriated by stories about crime and punishment being followed by silly "lighter side" items about water-skiing squirrels? Well, at the very least, Sophie is
much more adorable than a squirrel, especially when she's splish-splashing in the tub with her rubber ducky.

When she heard that people were accusing WGCM of putting her on the air as some sort of stunt to boost their ratings—"a shameless attempt to trivialize serious issues," said one newspaper columnist—Sophie laughed. Then she cried. She didn't know what "stunts" or "ratings" or "issues" were.

Sophie was confused!

Were people mad at her? What did she do wrong? She didn't want anyone to be mad—ever—especially not at her. (Besides, she had no idea she was editorializing when she said "I lahhv you" at the end of certain stories. She was just expressing herself.)

Sophie knew what she had to do. After just one six o'clock newscast, she retired from journalism. But in a surprising turn of events (some in the TV news business would even call it "shocking"), a story in the local newspaper implied that she was forced out—not by WGCM, but by her fellow anchor.

Michael defended his actions in a written statement: "I don't know why, but I forgot for a minute that Sophie has to take a bath and go night-night by eight o'clock. I wouldn't be able to look her in the eye again if I kept her up for the eleven o'clock news every night. Besides, she'd probably be pretty crankypants at that hour."


Sophie's mom, Heather, responded in a phone interview: "I finally find time to take a short nap while Michael's watching Sophie, and the next thing you know I'm watching her—on TV!"

And so a brilliant career ended almost as soon as it began, but that was okay. There would be plenty of opportunities for Sophie to shine in the years ahead, just like her big sister, who was well on her way to becoming a prima ballerina.

In fact, Olivia gave Sophie the best compliment of all: "You are the bestest little sister and local news anchor in the whole wide world, and I love you very very much, even if you never win a local Emmy."

That made Sophie very very happy. And then she went night-night.

[The writer would like to make the following correction to the third paragraph: Olivia is four and a half. The writer regrets the error and any inconvenience it may have caused.]

Saturday, August 1, 2009

"51 Going on 15"

I run my own business. I make my own hours. I'm my own boss and my own man.

There's this coffee shop down the street from where I live. I go there when I need to get out of the house for a few hours. Or sometimes I'll stay the entire day. It's great—I'll buy one cup of coffee and stay for eight hours. And sometimes on the weekends I'll come in for a few hours and not order anything at all. Nobody says anything. It's mostly college girls behind the counter, so they're not gonna say anything. Sometimes I put on my sunglasses when I'm there so I can check them out without them knowing. The one with the black hair—I'd definitely fuck her.

The woman who runs the place is this tiny Chinese lady, or Vietnamese or Korean or something. I told her I own my own business, so we have that between us. You can tell she's impressed.

Get this—lately I've been taking my shoes off and propping them up on the couch in the back. I swear to God, nobody says anything. It's great.

There was this one time when a guy behind the counter told me to watch my language when my Mac started fucking up. But that prick was a fucking asshole. Trying to prove himself or something, show me who's boss. Yeah, you're a big man, mister minimum wage plus tips. I go through computers like some people go through underwear. Guess who can't afford a new computer every six months? You, motherfucker. Maybe if you kept your mouth shut, you'd get more tips. What do you think?

When he told me to stop saying "fuck," I left. I didn't have to take that shit. I'm my own man. So I went home.

My wife was out of town again. The house can be kind of lonely without her. When the cat died back in January she was out of town, so she blames me for it. I never liked that cat. But he kept me company.

I make a lot of calls. Not everyone calls me back.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wipe your feet on me. I deserve it.

Back in February I wrote about an alt-weekly called Doormat that used to be published in Charleston, South Carolina. I had run across an issue from the fall of '94 while I was home for Christmas and going through a box of stuff at my parents' house. I was struck by comments in two different columns about technology circa 1994, specifically how the Internet was starting to become a household word. But when I went online to find out what became of Doormat, I found nothing.

The other day I received an e-mail from the writer of one of those columns, whose writing I'd called "mediocre." The column in question was mediocre—I assumed he was still in college when he wrote it—but could I have done any better in my early 20s? No.

I used to think some of the columns in the
Red and Black student paper at my alma mater, the University of Georgia, were pointless exercises in whining about how hard the library is to use when you've waited until the last second to start a research paper, but I know what it's like to be under the pressure of a deadline, and sometimes you come up empty. And even now, at 33, I don't always make my point clear when I write.

The Doormat writer contacted me because he wasn't sure what my point was in writing about his former labor of love. Was I saying I was glad it no longer existed or that it deserved its comeuppance in the digital age since it was wary of new technology? Not at all.

"Or, here in 2009, were you acknowledging that the ever-expanding horizon of modern communications is foreign and undesirable to you," he asked, "and in so doing, were you identifying with our 1994 desire to eschew innovation, in favor of the more comfortable status quo?" Yes and no.

My last paragraph in that February 6 entry was weak, no doubt about it:
But technology seems to have changed so rapidly since '94 that I'd imagine there's a ten-year-old somewhere in the world right now saying, "Now I can program the DVR with my phone? I just learned how to program the DVR period." Then again, probably not—I'm just old. The upside is that I'm thankful it's not November 1994 anymore.

I meant to go back and expand on that paragraph or just fix it in general, but I forgot, which is unfortunate—it's not smart to call someone's writing from their 20s mediocre and then churn out some unfinished mediocrity of my own in my 30s.

In November of '94 I was a freshman in college at the North Carolina School of the Arts. It was a terrible school year for several different reasons, and I ended up transferring to UGA the next fall. That's why I'm glad it's not November of '94 anymore. I should've just said that, but I was trying to avoid whining. Don't get me wrong—I'm great at it—but the first year of this blog is full of self-absorbed bitching and moaning, and I want to avoid that now whenever I can.

I worked for an alt-weekly for five and a half years here in Chicago before being laid off in January. Every newspaper in the world has been hurt badly by profit-draining websites like Craigslist and consumers who now expect news to be free on the Internet. They still read newspapers online, but they don't want to pay for the content in print, and if people don't pick up a paper, advertisers won't want to waste their time placing ads there. Back in 1994, of course, the Internet didn't pose any kind of threat to newspapers.

For the first eight-or-so years after college I didn't feel older, but technology mercilessly dated my memories. How'd we go from blank tapes to "burned" CDs in that amount of time? Technology seems to have advanced so much since the late '90s, when no one I knew owned a cell phone. Now some people have no idea what it feels like to have both hands free while walking down the street.

But maybe in the summer of '69 my parents were still getting used to the idea of commercial air travel right as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Life just speeds up at a certain age even as it simultaneously slows down: we settle into careers, we begin long-term romantic relationships, we raise children. And if we blink, a year has gone by without much having changed, or so it seems.

New technology can make certain things in life more convenient—the remote control, the laptop computer, the cell phone—while making us lazier at the same time and more scattered in our thoughts, e.g., writing e-mail or typing out text messages while watching TV. So yes, I somewhat miss the status quo of 1994, when I was a pretty smart guy because I knew how to program a VCR and make a decent mix tape for a girl. But I also enjoy having an iPod and being able to access the Internet at a coffee shop and improve my writing through a blog that people can see and critique and make me think about the words and thoughts I'm casting out into the world.

After all, if it weren't for new technology, the guy from Doormat never would've found my mediocre blog entry.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Entertainment Tonight, substance tomorrow

Last summer I saw Entertainment Tonight for the first time in years. I'd been wondering for a while who their new Leo is.

See, back in the first half of 1998, as Titanic kept going and going at the box office, Entertainment Tonight somehow found a way to do a story about its male star, Leonardo DiCaprio, every single weeknight. It was quite a feat. By May, as Titanic was finally giving way to the summer-movie onslaught, ET had to resort to starting out a story about UPN's new show The Love Boat: The Next Wave with "They may not have Leo on this boat, but...."

Over the next ten years DiCaprio stayed out of the spotlight and mainly starred in movies directed by Martin Scorsese, not Titanic-sized films. What was poor ET to do? Last August I found out: Brangelina!

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and their 17 kids are always good for a story. Did Brad get a new haircut? Is Angelina pregnant again? Or is one of her adopted kids adopting a kid of his or her own? It's an ET first!

Later that month, however, I passed by Entertainment Tonight This Weekend on a Saturday and saw a story about the top summer romance movies. Number one was no surprise: Titanic.

Tonight I tuned into Entertainment Tonight for the first time since last August. It's now been almost a month since Michael Jackson died, and he's still the top story. When will he no longer be the top story? Once Leonardo DiCaprio gets Brad Pitt pregnant, of course.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Some things are meant to be ignored.

The fortysomething man in the coffee shop with the rock-musician hair and the sandals and the purple T-shirt and the skin tone that suggests a natural tan mixed with natural dirt and dust gets up to go to the bathroom. The sign on the door says "Please knock before entering." He either sees it and chooses to ignore it or doesn't see it at all.

He comes out a few minutes later. A sign on the door inside the bathroom says "Please turn out the light. Thank you!" He either sees it and chooses to ignore it or doesn't see it at all. But he's been here before.


A few minutes later he goes back to the bathroom, this time with a newspaper. The man doesn't read signs asking him to be polite and perform simple tasks in places that aren't his own home, but he does require reading material when performing other everyday tasks.

Before he reaches the bathroom door he does some twists: spine goes left, arms go right, spine goes right, arms go left. He steps toward the door again, then lifts his knees up to his chest one at a time. I see all this, but I pretend to ignore it, as if I didn't see it at all.

A few minutes later he comes out of the bathroom. The newspaper does not. He's left the light on once again. Maybe newspapers are afraid of the dark. Maybe he's the only one who knows this.

The man goes outside and paces around while talking on his cell phone for 20 minutes. In that time I use the bathroom. I turn off the light as I exit. The man with the long hair comes back to the bathroom a third time. No knock before he walks in, no flipping off the light as he leaves. He goes back outside to make another phone call. But now he's left with a burning question: How did the newspaper get up and turn off the light while he was making his phone call?

Some questions are better left unanswered.

As I make my way out of the coffee shop, I notice the man has taken up two entire tables with briefcases, papers, and a computer. He's set up shop. Until he goes home, he is home.

I leave the coffee shop and wait for the light to change so I can cross the street. Even though he isn't planning to cross the street, the man strolls up beside me and says into his phone, "Is this the home of 'Make My Day' Kay?"

Some things are meant to be ignored.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

We are a fat, tattooed nation.

And as I discovered last Monday at the Warren Dunes in Sawyer, Michigan, sometimes we are both. Lots of pain, and still lots of gain.

Monday, July 6, 2009

the boomerang of satire

Last October a Republican women's group in California distributed a newsletter that featured an illustration of then-Senator Barack Obama on a food stamp; the presidential candidate was surrounded by a watermelon, ribs, a bucket of KFC, and the Kool-Aid Man. When Diane Fedele, the group's president, was asked by the Riverside Press-Enterprise about the stereotype-laden imagery, she replied, "It was just food to me. It didn't mean anything else."

Of course it didn't.

Fedele resigned shortly thereafter, but the humdinger is that the illustration was created five months earlier by an anti-right-wing blogger. "This article was complete satire and I wanted to let anyone reading this know that this was not a slight on Obama at all," he wrote in an update to his original May 26 entry. "It was a satirical look at some of the Fox News watching right-wingers out there that are afraid of a government that sponsors welfare type programs. It was intended to poke fun at the unrealistic fears and agenda of racism that a fringe element of Republicans strongly embrace."

If you don't get the joke, the joke's on you. But if you don't carefully construct the joke you're creating in the first place, the joke's on you as well.

All I know is that I really like watermelon. And it's summer now, so I win.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

MAXWELL makes MUSIC for the HEARING IMPAIRED!

Neo-soul singer Maxwell will release his first new album since 2001's Now on Tuesday. It's called BLACKsummers'night, and it's part of a trilogynext year will see the release of blackSUMMERS'night, with blacksummers'NIGHT set for 2011.

How are fans supposed to differentiate between the titles of the three albums? By shouting whatever word is in caps? Sure, the trilogy's name looks good when it's lined up this way ...

BLACKsummers'night
blackSUMMERS'night
blacksummers'NIGHT

... but help us out with some "Part I," "II," "III" suffixes, Maxwell. And please explain to your punctuation-obsessive fans how one night can belong to so many black summers.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson

Last night my girlfriend and I walked past a man on his cell phone who said, "I heard he was dead but they hadn't confirmed it yet. After the autopsy they'll confirm it." He was talking about Michael Jackson, but there wasn't any hint of sarcasm in his voice. There wasn't any hint of craziness in his voice, either, so what exactly did he mean?

One of my favorite man-on-the-street quotes so far about Jackson's death was in an Associated Press story on Thursday, the day he died. "It's like when Kennedy was assassinated. I will always remember being in Times Square when Michael Jackson died," the 36-year-old New Yorker said. One thing this man can't remember, of course, is where he was when President Kennedy died—because he wasn't born yet! Jackson himself was barely five years old in November of '63.

The self-appointed King of Pop's 1979 album Off the Wall is one of my favorites, but his untimely death shouldn't be compared to the assassination of a president. Elvis's death, maybe, but not Kennedy's.

Of course, Kennedy was a democratically elected president. Elvis and Michael, on the other hand—they were kings.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Life is a verb, in case y'all didn't know.

On Monday, at the National Conference on Volunteers and Service in San Francisco, guest speaker Matthew McConaughey discussed his mantra, which sprang from a line of dialogue in one of his first movies, Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993).

"For me, it was a few words that became a sort of a personal mission statement: 'j.k. livin,'" he said. "Where the J is for 'just,' the K is for 'keep,' and there's no G on 'livin,' because life is a verb."

Actually, there's no G because that's the first letter in "good," an adjective that can't be applied to most of the performances McConaughey gives these days. And if he wants to talk about volunteering and giving back, he needs to give me back the 85 minutes I spent watching his performance in Surfer, Dude last December.

In fact, I'd like to propose community-service punishment for movie stars who waste our time on bad performances. Granted, I got to see Surfer, Dude for free because I reviewed it for Popdose, but surely Cameron Diaz should have to pick up trash off the side of the road for 88 hours to make up for the 88 grueling minutes of The Sweetest Thing (2002). But since McConaughey continues to entertain me with the things he says off-camera, I'd only make him complete 42 hours of service, which he could earn by enlightening underprivileged youths about life and how it's not a noun.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Reach out and touch someone.

I was in a sketch show five years ago with a girl named Laura, who said a female friend of hers had sent her the following image in an e-mail. She wondered if this friend expected something more than a long phone conversation the next time she was having a really bad day.

If you're worried about scaring off your same-sex friends with offers of lingerie-clad loyalty, why not try this image instead?

If your friend replies, "I don't think I could fit in a sink with you," you'll know you're on the same wavelength. But if the friend adds "Because you're so fat," you can go ahead and think about what you're going to do with the $20 you were originally going to spend on his or her birthday present.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Letterman vs. Palin

Alaska governor Sarah Palin has accepted David Letterman's apology for a joke he made on Late Show last week about the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez having sex with her 14-year-old daughter, Willow, during the seventh-inning stretch.

However, the joke was about Palin's 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, whose pregnancy was revealed last summer soon after her mother was announced as Senator John McCain's running mate on the Republican presidential ticket. And the joke was about unplanned pregnancy, not rape, as Todd Palin, the governor's husband, suggested. However, it was Willow, not Bristol, who was at the Yankees game Letterman was referring to. And the joke was funny, not "perverted," as Governor Palin said, though it's not difficult at all to understand her reaction or her husband's. (Letterman became a parent himself in 2003.)

Maybe that's why Palin still sounded angry when she accepted the apology "on behalf of all
young women, like my daughters, who hope men who 'joke' about public displays of sexual exploitation of girls will soon evolve," according to the Associated Press. I'm pretty sure all of Letterman's monologue jokes are written by Late Show's writers and he just picks the ones he wants to use, but we'll probably never know who originated the offending zinger. As for Rodriguez, he issued the following statement: "She swore she was 19! But seriously, folks, whatever distracts you from my steroid use is fine by me."

Palin acknowledged that Letterman has the right to make jokes about whomever he chooses, but that it's a two-way street and "we have the right to express our reaction." She added, "This is all thanks to our U.S. military men and women putting their lives on the line for us to secure American's right to free speech. In this case, may that right be used to promote equality and respect."

When told about the joke that started the controversy in the first place, the U.S. military responded, "Hey, that's funny! But we didn't know we were risking our lives for the right to make a mountain out of a molehill—unless there's oil in that mountain, of course."