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

TarnationGod, 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 & NancyAnd 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

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.

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Ever know you’ve seen a movie, but can’t really remember it? So after seeing the Tim Burton remake, I decided to put the original on my Netflix queue because I just couldn’t spark the brain cells that contained my recollections of it.

This is the first of two posts that are bound to upset friends… this one will surely hurt the feelings of H the Mean Teacher. First I come down hard on Nirvana, and now I am ambivalent about one of her favorite movies! For that I’m sorry, but I think I can mitigate the damage by briefly explaining my rating system.

In a word, it’s subjective. I’m not trying to be a film critic (or rather, what a film critic ought to be, in a perfect world), whose job it is to evaluate a film’s quality and achievement in light of a deep knowledge of world cinema and then leaven it with a personal perspective. Rather, my ratings are the inverse: the personal response first, and then a consideration of the movie’s history and general critical consensus. I wouldn’t necessarily give an acknowledged classic a high rating if I personally didn’t care for it.

So, I gave this one 3 stars even though it enjoys a cult following that will no doubt gang up on me on the street and pelt me with Everlasting Gobstoppers while chanting the “Oompa Loompa” theme tune. I did like the bit where Wonka spookily intones “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” I could swear that has been sampled in some electronica track, although can’t for the life of me remember which. Sounds like something The Orb would seize on, but I’m not sure. Anyone? (an aside: The Future Sound of London sampled the movie dialogue “Everybody on line… Lookin’ good,” and for some reason I always mentally associated it with Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. Until one day, I’m watching Aliens… and there it is, out of the mouth of a colonial marine.)

Sorry to add insult to injury, Mean Teacher, but I also must say here that I unexpectedly loved the Tim Burton remake.

A Brief Word on R.E.M.

Being an unapologetic iPod/iTunes addict, I’m not too ashamed to announce I just finished ripping all of my R.E.M. cds. So this is blogworthy exactly how, you ask? Well, I was moved to post here because, all told, it amounts to over 28 hours of music. 28 HOURS! Isn’t that amazing? On second thought, I suppose one could say that a day’s worth of songs isn’t that much considering the band’s recording career is at least 20 years and running. But I’m sure there’s a completist out there with every soundtrack, b-side, and bootleg whose pile o’ R.E.M. MP3s reaches into not days but weeks.

Part of my iTunes obsession involves rating every track (seeing as how I’m constantly ripping more cds, it’s also a sisyphusean Big-Dig-type job). So a quick glance at my track-by-track ratings betrays my favorite albums, in rough order: Document, Life’s Rich Pageant, Up, Monster. Least favorites? The two most recent: Reveal and Around the Sun. What happened after Up? I know that album isn’t well-regarded, but personally I love it for its flaws and honestly, its weirdness. It’s their first album after drummer Bill Berry left the band, and it shows them reaching for a new sound. Perhaps the touches of electronica are a bit dated (Bowie and U2 have also left much of that behind by now), but I like it. Unfortunately, the identity they chose is to follow up on the tone set by the most bland song on Up, Daysleeper. It’s the sort of jangly ballad R.E.M. can dash off in their sleep. It lets the album down, and it’s a real bummer for the next two whole albums to share that feel. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll buy the next one to see if they jump off the cliff again.

Don’t leave Earth without Garth Jennings’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Yes, officer, I’d like to file a report. You see, I’m being threatened. I received word that If I don’t actually start writing stuff in my blog, I’m going to have my virtual pants pulled down in front of at least half a dozen complete strangers with well-tended blogs. Or is that if I DO actually start writing stuff… oh, I’m confused. Wait! Officer, where are you going? Oh well, I’ll just get on with a sentence or two about this DVD I just saw, and hope I remembered to put on presentable underthings this morning.

I’m one of THOSE people, you know the ones… while the rest of my peers obsessed over Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, I had my head stuck in Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would drop my Nerf football or Legos every Saturday afternoon at 3 to run inside and catch Doctor Who on PBS. And for some unscheduled Brit-sci-fi fun, my collection (complete but always far from mint) of Douglas Adams paperbacks always waited for me.

So for me and my ilk, 2005 looked to be a great year — not only was Doctor Who regenerated (seemingly out of nowhere, when there was no hope to be had even by the most blindly optimistic of fans) by none other than the BBC itself, somebody at Disney (Disney?!) finally threw up their hands and actually made that Hitchhiker’s script that had been kicking around Hollywood for decades (not an exaggeration). Surely, some of my geek brethren must have grown up and scored jobs in the entertainment industry.

Not having been broadcast anywhere on this side of the planet, I’ve only managed to see less than half of the new Doctor Who season thanks to the wonders of internet piracy. I’m here to say that it is pure, glorious, totally-different-and-yet-somehow-still-Who. But Hitchhiker’s? It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. As a lifelong fan, it’s a bit surprising to find myself wishing the film was MORE mainstream. It’s hard to imagine anybody who had not read and reread the book (or at least already appreciative of some Monty Python-style humor) not being totally and completely bewildered by the whole production.

Some of the casting is so perfect as to be impossible to imagine otherwise: the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, and wotsisname from The Office was surely born to play the definitive Arthur Dent. But as much as I like Mos Def, it has to be said he’s a mumbler (huh? what’d he say?). The filmmakers had the right idea to go for practical effects as often as possible, including some much-missed old skool puppet work from the Jim Henson Company, but it sometimes just doesn’t sit right paired with off-the-shelf-pow-zoom-blow-your-mind-just-like-the-last-blockbuster-you-saw-this-summer CGI.

I reread the book for the first time in years, and it struck me that the whole thing is actually quite short, focused, and satisfying. It shouldn’t have been too hard to fashion it into a movie, but evidently the producers (and Adams himself, who co-wrote the screenplay) felt otherwise, quickly abandoning the plot specifics of the novel. But if the aim is to create an easily-digested summer blockbuster story, why (just for example) introduce a seemingly significant character who incapacitates a major character, who then promptly drops out of the story and the situation is never resolved? And the whole business about Zaphod’s brain would make no sense at all to anyone who isn’t a Hitchhiker’s expert (I wouldn’t have understood it myself if I hadn’t reread the book so recently).

Anyway, I could go on but it’s late and I need to charge my iPod and myself (i.e. go to sleep). So I’m going to take my pants off anyway! Ha!

Nick Broomfield doesn’t know what to believe about Kurt Cobain in Kurt & Courtney

A documentary by Nick Broomfield about the controversy surrounding the apparent suicide of Kurt Cobain.

Not yet knowing he himself will become part of the story, Broomfield holds his cards pretty close to his chest throughout. It’s not until fairly late in the film that he begins to describe his own feelings. His interviewees cover an entire spectrum of responses to the death: all the way from unambiguous suicide to unambiguous murder. Some on each side are credible, some are… to say the least, not. The only thing that seems clear is that Love is a monster, and the question becomes not “did Cobain commit suicide or was he murdered?” but rather “did Love drive him to suicide or have him murdered?”

A thick soup of inconclusive opinions, recollections and possibly lies leave Broomfield not knowing what to believe (as he reveals in a despairing voiceover). He finally comes across a journalist willing to go on the record with several recorded death threats given by Love and, dishearteningly given that he was apparently a gifted, sweet, and loving person, Cobain himself! At last, some concrete evidence. Even then, Broomfield doesn’t quite reveal his feelings. So it comes as quite a surprise when he makes a guerilla attack upon Love at an ACLU event. Of course it’s an atrocity that she’s even there, given her documented behavior towards journalists (with whom of course Broomfield personally identifies), but his sudden and very public attack is powerful and shocking. Even his cameraperson couldn’t hold the camera still.

Here’s the confessional part: I never really liked Nirvana. An interesting point about the film: unless I missed something, the word “grunge” is never spoken. Instead many individuals confidently describe Nirvana as simply “punk.” And you saw this coming: I never really liked punk. I think I have an intellectual understanding of it: the significance of its arrival and the wide-reaching spread of its influence. All true, but I don’t chose to listen to it.

So I came to the film without a full knowledge of the music and the band’s history, and without the preconceived notions of Cobain and Love fans are likely to have. So for me, the film is not really about any of those things; its larger theme really has to do with how one can lose the big picture (to use a cliche without being able to think of a better term at the moment) the closer you look, and the finer your focus. And not to mention the disturbance your gaze can cause if you press it in too close.

Spam Poem No. 1: “Here we come!”

In recent months I’ve noticed my spam becoming increasingly bizarre. Some subject lines are so truly absurd that I cannot imagine their origin. Are they simply really bad translations of, say, Russian or Portuguese? Are they random machine generations meant to foil spam filters? It’s a mystery.

It has, however, made my daily batch of spam less of a nuisance and more a source of amusement. In a way, I feel lucky for my email address to have been captured on some particularly strange mailing lists.

Sometimes, a line is strangely poignant: “He worry in unabridged volumes.” Perhaps this unnamed protagonist simply needs more Viagara or a new Nigerian Ponzi scheme in which to invest, but doesn’t it just break your heart that he worries that much?

Which brings me to what may be the first in a series of found Spam Poems. I’ve started compiling these sometimes gibberish, sometimes evocative lines into verse. Each line is a complete spam subject line, completely unedited. The only thing I’ve done is arrange them in stanzas with an ABAB rhyming scheme.

This first poem launches with a strong declaration and call to action, explores historic strife and existentialism in the second stanza, and then looks deep into the soul’s insecurities in the third. I hope you like it.

Here We Come!

here we come! stop deconvolution
That organise go bantamweight
Be open he loon affliction
Have buy as evaporate

Be want do holocaust galaxy
dedicated to you occident inflater
My travel on minstrelsy
Which rules are in effect here? devilish calorimeter

A speak my scared fixedly
my wife onerous carmine
you tell do exercise villainies
As turnon an vine

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