Stayin’ Alive

Not as in getting funky, but as in not getting blown up on the subway. You know how every time there’s a terrorist attack, the media tricks some rescue worker or unfortunate bystander into using the phrase “body parts everywhere”, which they can then morbidly quote with relish? The next batch of human soup you can hear about just may well be New York chunky style.

So no movie review this time. A little like HtMT, I usually don’t use this blog to talk about me me me, but some shit is goin’ down in New York City right now that I feel like writing about.

Before afternoon rush hour yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg and the Chief of Police held a press conference to report the feds had uncovered credible evidence (the feds claim otherwise) of a coordinated attack of between 12-20 bombers on the subway system, perhaps as soon as that day (yesterday). Even better, the plot is tied to malcontents in Iraq (duh), and while military forces are carrying out top secret missions in Baghdad to foil the plot, we’re supposed to go on our jolly way riding the subway as normal.

Just like Bloomberg himself pledges to do. Whereas just minutes before, he said “It was more specific as to target, it was more specific as to timing.” Do the math! So naturally he’ll be riding the subway. It’s when he checks his watch and gets off that I’d be worried.

I walk home through Central Park whenever possible during the summer. It’s reason #384 why I heart NY. By early October it’s dark and chilly before I leave work. So before the news broke, I was already debating whether or not I would take the subway home. And then upon walking out the door of my office building, I saw a caravan of black SUV’s rolling through midtown. Not an unusual sight in a city housing the United Nations, but what was strange this time was their haste, the sirens, and the tinted windows actually open. For once I finally got to see who’s inside those things: imposing muscle men in suits scowling out at pedestrians. I decided right then and there that I would definitely walk home. I had a lovely scenic walk through the park at dusk, but this morning opted to ride the train back to work.

As puzzled media outlets have been reporting, New Yorkers have not been staying away in droves. People need the subway; the city doesn’t function without it. Only rich people live in a strata where public transportation is just something that rumbles beneath your feet occasionally.

But the subway is wide open to attack; I don’t care what city officials claim. Frankly, I don’t understand why anyone hasn’t bombed it already. In a London shocked by the first serious bombing in years since the IRA cooled it, more perpetrators pulled off another one just when you’d think the bobbies would have been more alert than ever. Luckily the bombs literally fizzled.

There are cameras all over the city (traffic cams, ATMs, buildings’ security systems… it’s said any New Yorker is photographed at least once every couple of minutes). But unless there’s some more advanced big-brother surveillance system that I don’t know about, the subway is just sitting there, asking for it. NYC has slowly but steadily been phasing out human-staffed entrances to the subway in favor of Metrocard (disposable smartcards you buy from vending machines) turnstyles. Today there’s a cop at every subway station, but there are usually several entrances to each station, and they are typically at least one block long. There are literally dozens of unguarded entrances where you could enter carrying a giant pink polka-dotted nuclear warhead and a placard reading “HEY LOOK AT ME I’M CARRYING A WARHEAD”.

Bloomberg also urges us to be on the lookout. What for? There’s at least one of everything on the subway. I say that with affection, not out of racism, sexism, sexual orientation-ism or any other -ism. This is New York #%$&in’ City, for #%$&’s sake!

Last night I lived through an extended dream, many details of which fled upon waking, but I do recall some large cataclysmic attack. As on 9/11, I was safely dozens of blocks away, but unlike 9/11, people I actually knew died and my guilt was so overpowering I cried in my dream. It’s disturbing that my brain personalized today’s events so much; I never thought my survivor’s guilt from 9/11 was anywhere near in the leagues of people who were actually there and made it out, or personally knew someone who did. A few weeks ago, I watched a movie that included footage of the planes hitting and the towers collapsing. It had probably been years since I had seen it, and even then I only saw it on TV like everyone else in the world (I was about 70 blocks away). I’m not really sure how to describe how it felt to see again, but it’s a little like I do right now.

I Heart Katamari

Best. Game. Ever.

To give that statement a little context: I’m a novice gamer at best. My cruel, heartless, Dickensian parents wouldn’t let me have an Atari growing up (kidding, Mom & Dad! I’m the better for it) so I’m a latecomer to all this beeping, flashing, vibrating analog joysticking stuff. A few years ago, I was engrossed in The Matrix films to a degree that seems silly now. But at the time, I was designing the official shop so I can explain away my obsession as having arisen from spending all day every day Photoshopping distressed metal boxes with glowing green screens. Word was that the Enter the Matrix Playstation game was a veritable revolution in gaming, an unprecedented merging of cinema and interactivity, necessary to understand the upcoming sequels, yadda yadda yadda. Sucker that I am, I actually bought a Playstation 2 on the strength of this hearsay, and… the game sucked. I had never even touched a PS2 before and I could tell that it sucked.

Worse than that, it was unbelievably violent. Before you call me naive for thinking it wouldn’t be: My favorite of the Matrix series is No. 2 (yes I know that’s against popular opinion, but what does Popular know?). If you watch closely, you’ll notice that although our ostensible heroes Neo and Trinity mow down dozens of innocent humans (not, technically, their bodies, but their consciousnesses in the Matrix, resulting in their real-world bodies dying) with machine guns in the first film, not a single living person dies in the second. Unfortunately the game takes after the first film and the player’s very first task is to sneak into a post office and kill as many armed guards as possible.

Where to start? First, is it intentional irony that you’re going postal on poor USPS workers? Second, why in the hell are they all packing heat, as opposed to packing tape? I forgot to mention that you start out the game unarmed, and the included instruction/hint book helpfully suggests a complicated combo move (or whatever gamers call it… you have to move the joystick up and to the left, press a dozen buttons in a complex sequence, turn around three times and toss salt over your shoulder) to sneak up on somebody and break their neck.

Now let me say here that I am against censorship in all forms, and all the talk about banning or even creating a rating system for violent videogames sets off all my liberal alarms. But when a game like this actually encourages the player to sneak up on an innocent human being just doing his job (as opposed to a non-sentient but malicious computer program, as the Matrix mythos call a villain) and break his neck instead of confronting them head-on and potentially costing you health points in a fist-fight… well, I nearly had the urge to call my representatives in Congress.

So my Playstation gathered dust for a good long while. I would occasionally take a stab at other games, but wound up selling most of them back. I did enjoy one quite a lot: The Simpsons Hit & Run, a sort of Grand Theft Auto (or so I’m told) without the hookers and whacking and stuff. Great fun! Seriously, you should try it.

But then I read about Katamari Damacy in Time Magazine, and was intrigued. Partly that the media would focus on a game for any reason other than to decry its poisoning our nation’s children’s precious bodily fluids, but also by it sounding totally unique. And it is, as far as I know. Basically, you roll a big sticky ball around the place and pick things up. The bigger your clump gets, the bigger things you can pick up. Soon it becomes clear that if you play long enough, everything around you is pick-uppable, including people, skyscrapers, and even clouds. It’s insane! Totally weird! Addictive!

I just picked up the sequel We Love Katamari this weekend and have fallen in love all over again. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge conceptual advance over the original, but there are many more worlds to explore, more complex goals, and more general loonyness all around. Yay! I’m a gamer!

Spam Poem No. 2: “250 Ways to Thank You”

The second in a series of found poetry taken from spam subjects. I’m taking a different tack this time, avoiding the more absurdist lines that appear in No. 1 “Here we come!” (there’s plenty more of that waiting for No. 3) and aiming instead for a coherent narrative flow.

250 Ways to Thank You

Don’t tell anyone please
about celebration

Are you ignoring me?
do you care?
is it funny?
It’s not a joke

I’ve Got a solution for you
good idea
if you need it
here you go

The Great Experiment
something unusual
nice gift for everyone
Get what you need

Don’t feel bad
You have been selected
Let’s meet up again soon
one more time

My Eyes Bleed

After an entire summer of no TV at all (Netflix, like Ben & Jerry’s, doesn’t count), I watched three hours in a row tonight and my eyes are still uncrossing. Everybody knows the old saw about television being the opiate of the masses (opium must flourish in vast wastelands). But when exactly did TV’s drug metaphor of choice change to crack?

Lost

Gone are the days of The A-Team, where one could switch on any random episode and know immediately what’s going on. Lost, like kissing-cousin action/dramas Alias and 24, depends at least as much on plot continuity as character development. Not coincidentally, these are the only three shows I watch. I’m passing on 24 this year, because no matter how exciting the plotting, the politics became too unpalatable for me (the overarching theme of the entire last season boils down to the following: torture is a great tool for fighting terrorism. OK… I might listen to such an argument… if our inept intelligence community ever manages to catch a terrorist BEFORE striking! Please, give me a break. And making fun of Amnesty International was just wrong. Can you tell I’m angry?). I’ve yet to decide if I’m going to commit to another whole year of Alias. No matter how sexy Lena Olin is, the show has lost its fun plot-driven nature and converted into a more typical wing-it-week-by-week format. So that leaves Lost, the only one of the three about which I’ve actually been impatient all summer.

Like any good drug, with everything Lost gives, it only demands more. The addictive nature of the show is to eke out information in tiny little dimebags… I mean, pieces. So I’ve waited all summer for the answer to countless questions, at least one of which was “answered” tonight. I put that in scare quotes because all it did was metastasize the number of questions to absurd proportions. But disappointingly, I found it a bit of a cheat to discover the contents of the hatch to be a new character introduced just 5 minutes before. Where’s the suspense in that? Imagine if it had been Jack’s father or fiance instead. Wouldn’t you just have jumped out of your chair? OK, maybe just junkies like me.

To add a little spice to the evening, the local ABC news affiliate broke in repeatedly to keep us informed on a Jet Blue plane making an emergency landing with its landing gear twisted sideways. Would they have been so morbidly enthusiastic about the story if Lost wasn’t about the survivors of a plane crash? And just to top all the breathless action off, we’re treated to a Jet Blue commercial! Oops… awkward! (Aside: my friend Dave helpfully suggested they should simply land sideways. Thanks Dave!)

Invasion

Uh… so? In short, this one did nothing for me. I guess they figured keeping “of the Body Snatchers” in the title added up to too many syllables.

On Neil Gaiman and Becoming an Idiot at Book Signings

Neil Gaiman

I went to the Neil Gaiman reading & signing at Barnes & Noble here in New York City tonight. Even though I knew he’s about as much of a rock star as a writer can get, I naively didn’t get in line until after he finished speaking. Neil heroically pledged to stay as long as it took; B&N likewise promised to stay open (would they do that for, say Salman Rushdie?). A slow realization set in that I would have to hunker down for several hours to get my book signed. Turns out I had the whole night free (which is a subject for another time), so I thought what the heck? I have to sit somewhere to read the book, why not here and now?

And so the first hour passes. The Farts & Ignoble carpeting is somewhat less than plush and my rear is a bit sore. But salvation! An employee offers us wristbands freeing us to leave and return at will. Well, at will until 8:45, that is. So I go have an enormous burger and fries (a craving, what can I say?) and come back.

Neil (he of the superhuman wrist) has already signed a hundred or so copies; I could simply buy one and call it a night. So the whole time I’m thinking, why am I doing this? I’m 31 years old! Not an 18-year-old goth chick or a ponytailed middle-aged book dealer looking to make a killing on eBay. I don’t even have anything clever to say or ask him!

Turns out I’m saved any awkwardness around Neil by the woman in front of me. She had a whole spiel prepared, thanking him for turning her on to several other writers. On one hand, I’m privately embarrassed for not having read a thing by any of those mentioned, but on the other, it frees me from the pressure of striking any kind of rapport with him myself. So as he signed my book and a first-edition Sandman hardcover I had brought along (I’m such a nerd), I simply thanked him for sticking it out. He replied that it’s quite easy when everybody is so nice. Poor fellow looked exhausted, standing just to keep his circulation moving, but he remained pleasant to the end.

I’m inspired to recount a few other signings I’ve attended here in New York:

Sarah Vowell

I have a little bit of a crush on Sarah Vowell. Brains and wit (preferably snarky and tart) always turn me on, and it must be said she looked a bit sexy that evening. At the post-reading signing, I asked for it to be inscribed to “Chad.” She looked a bit curious and asked me to repeat it. So I did and managed to say something about how she had resisted the opportunity to make a dimpled or hanging chad joke. I can’t remember what she said in reply, because she looked me straight in the eye and held it for a moment or two, smiling her little curlicue smile. Whew! Maybe she simply didn’t hear my name the first time, but I’ll certainly remember that look and will continue to entertain the fantasy that she doesn’t look at everybody like that.

Dave Sim & Gerhard

The writer/artists of the comic book Cerebus. This was maybe 1998 or so, and I think I had already stopped reading Cerebus; no matter how brilliant a comics writer/artist Sim may be, I couldn’t deal with his sexual politics (in short, he started using Cerebus to explicate his increasingly paranoid and hostile feelings towards women – yes, all women. Personally, I like women a lot). But I found out he was going to be showing some original art and signing at a gallery in Tribeca, and decided to go. The organizers really laid down the law: Mr. Sim and Mr. Gerhard will sign only, and not do any sketches. Nevertheless, people were being quite rude and demanding multiple sketches on their stacks of Cerebus books anyway, and I recall the general atmosphere being a bit negative. So when I came up, all I had was a single slim issue of Cerebus and didn’t ask for anything. And he sketched a Cerebus head by his name. How about that? The tetchy misogynist drew me a cute little cartoon!

Ray Bradbury

This is a good story. Bradbury is quite a character; imagine a huge red-nosed stone-deaf Santa Claus out of uniform and you’ll get the general idea. Amusingly, an assistant stood by loudly repeating in his ear everything people said to him. A film student at the time, I asked him if he had ever considered publishing his Moby Dick screenplay. After a brief delay as my question was relayed to him at greater volume and proximity, he rose up and bellowed (theatrically outraged) “OF COURSE NOT!!! When I was a BOY in ILLINOIS, I peeked behind the CURTAINS at the CARNIVAL and had my INNOCENCE SULLIED! Movies are MAGIC, and reading a screenplay is like learning how a MAGICIAN does his TRICKS!” (etc… I’m paraphrasing) I stammered something about how I was a screenwriting student and I only wanted to read it. His assistant mercifully repeated me, and then Bradbury just as abruptly changed tack: “OH! That’s DIFFERENT!” and proceeded to say something about how a writer can learn a lot by reading as much as possible. So I can proudly state I’ve been publicly and loudly dressed down by no less than Ray Bradbury, but nonetheless managed to save face.

Tarnation

Tarnation movie poster

 

God, I want to jump out a window. I sandwiched a movie as innocuous as Willy Wonka inbetween this recent run of major movie bummers: Tarnation, Kurt & Courtney, Sid & Nancy, 11’09″01, Downfall… but it didn’t amount to much more than a breather. Let’s see… are there any Care Bear DVDs on Netflix I can use to balance out the movies I’ve been watching recently that feature grief, despair, holocaust, addiction, abuse, and terrorism?

Sid & Nancy

Sid and Nancy movie poster

 

And now to raise the gander of another friend. Sorry, Kevin, but I’m still not much of an Alex Cox fan and found this one a little hard to digest.

But no doubt, Gary Oldman is superb (the degree to which he disappears into roles is actually a bit scary – did anybody besides me not even recognize him in Hannibal and The Contender until the end credits rolled?). And some of the dialogue is choice: “What’s happened to Jonny?” “Johnny got beat up by fascists.”

Maybe like Kurt & Courtney, my Punk Appreciation Deficiency Syndrome colored my response the film.

11’09″01 – September 11

11'09

 

A series of short films inspired by or in reaction to 9/11 made by directors from nearly every continent.

At first, I thought for sure I would be giving this one more than three stars, but the quality of the short films takes a steep dive after the first two. The first in particular, by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, is excellent. It opens on an entire Afghanistan village emptying their well in order to manufacture bricks to build shelters for when the US will bomb them. A female schoolteacher rounds up all the children and attempts to explain to them what happened in New York, and why the Americans are about to kill them. Step one: try to illustrate the concept of a skyscraper.

The short from Egypt is quite bad, and almost laughable (dig the ghost of a buff American Marine killed in Beruit, walking out of the ocean, soaking wet and topless). And unfortunately, Sean Penn’s contribution was over-edited into oblivion. But a late high point is Ken Loach’s documentary about the US-instigated overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected government on… wait for it… September 11, 1973!

And a bit of trivia: Mira Nair’s short was written by an old roommate I had back in film school.