Monthly Archives: January 2013

Blue Monday

Maybe like me, you never heard of Adam Fulara. Now, like me, you can say you heard from him.

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The damage

This afternoon I took a drive along part of the Jersey Shore. It wasn’t a long drive — in fact, I spent more time getting there than I did driving through it. I started at Point Pleasant with the idea of heading south, but I only got as far as Bay Head before I encountered a roadblock on Route 35 South.  But I saw plenty of damage and, as far as I could tell, not nearly enough work done to bring things around before summer. At least, not to my untrained amateur eye.

You’ve seen the pictures of the devastation wrought by Sandy. Along Point Pleasant, though, I was struck by the amount of sand covering everything. It sat in heaps along the curbs and covered long stretches of sidewalk. There was a small mountain of bulldozed sand in the municipal parking lot. Again, I’m no expert on these things, but I wonder if that sand isn’t something akin to toxic waste by now. As with the flood water that inundated New Orleans, there must have been chemicals, sewage, and other crud in the water left behind by the storm. Does that sand have to be disposed of instead of being spread along the beach?

Things looked a little better in Bay Head, where people have enough money to start rebuilding on their own. But I glanced down some of the beachside cul-de-sacs and saw badly damaged houses propped up by fresh lumber. Outwardly fine houses had piles of debris at the curbside. I had a camera with me, but I thought about how it would feel to see passersby-by snapping images of what was left of my family home. After that, the camera stayed on the back seat.

I was already disgusted by the Republican politicking over relief funding for survivors of the disaster. As is usually the case with this strain of post-Gingrich wingnuts, there is no such thing as rock bottom — just when you think they can’t get any lower, they find a way to surprise you. I might suggest that Rep. Steve Palazzo, the Mississippi Republican who voted against relief for Sandy’s victims after welcoming such relief for his constituents following Hurricane Isaac, be forced to camp on that hill of sand and explain to all and sundry why this was the time to start — what did he call it? — a discussion on the need for disaster relief reform. But we have enough riffraff of our own without importing any from other states. I’d much rather see the riffraff swept out of Congress entirely.    

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Up where the air is fresh and clean

Tom Waits on the simpsons

Tom Waits will never be immortalized on Mount Rushmore or blessed with a platinum album — probably never — but as of tonight he can always say he was on The Simpsons, so there. I guess it’s only to be expected that he would meet Homer at Moe’s Tavern, but they’ll have to go a long way to beat this scene:

 

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Piety pimps

This morning, the twinkies on the Today show leavened their standard mix of blather — vapid analysis of the “fiscal cliff,” weight-loss advice, celebrity gossip — with a rundown of the movies opening today. Naming Texas Chainsaw 3D, one twinkie said “some are questioning its release so soon after the Newtown shootings.” I don’t know what’s worse: the weasel-word evasiveness of “some are questioning,” or the hypocrisy of someone tut-tutting the fictional violence in a horror movie from his perch at a TV network that spent weeks sucking every last tear off the face of anyone in the vicinity of Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

I get the same sense of exasperation while while listening to Terry Gross’ interview with Quentin Tarantino, in which the filmmaker gets audibly testy when Gross clumsily links the violence in his films to the real-life carnage in Newtown and too many other places where psychos did their bloody work. And while I’m no great fan of Tarantino’s work — Death Proof was dull as dirt, and Inglourious Basterds struck me as juvenile gamesmanship with history — I’m with him when he chides Gross for the offensiveness of her comparison, and describes the differences in the ways violence can be depicted on page and screen. The fact that he’s entirely correct won’t make a bit of difference in this discussion, but I salute him for the effort.

We are a species that searches for patterns and connections everywhere, and this leads to a propensity for magic thinking. In this case, it’s the notion that writing about bad things (or showing them on a screen) will make bad things happen. Piety pimps like Joe Lieberman (now gone from the Senate, praises be, but certain to return as a talking head on the cable shows) build whole careers on this kind of witch doctor talk. Taking away Quentin Tarantino’s fake blood squibs won’t keep real blood from being shed, any more than inflicting parental advisory labels on musicians keeps teenagers from learning cuss words, but it does create a semblance of action for people who are unable or unwilling to deal with the real sources of what’s ailing society. I would venture to say that’s part of what makes Tarantino so testy, and I know exactly how he feels. 

   

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Passages: Robert A. Heinlein

Back in my bright college days, when dinosaurs roamed the quads, a girlfriend gave me a copy of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as a birthday present (I was born on Bastille Day) and once I finished the book I went on a Robert A. Heinlein tear. Round about the fifth or sixth book, I came across this passage, which I still think is the most charming thing the man ever wrote:

One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War, my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. I doubt if it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near-miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper. Even if it is still standing it wouldn’t be a desirable rental because of the fall-out, but we liked it then, Pete and I. The lack of plumbing made the rent low and what had been the dining-room had a good north light for my drafting board. The drawback was that the place had eleven doors to the outside.

The hero goes on to explain that Petronius hated snow, and whenever there had been a snowfall would insist on having every door opened for him in the hopes of finding summer behind one of them.

The Door into Summer is a fun, quick read, but nothing else in the novel lives up to that opening.   

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Joltin’ Joel

One of the surprises of watching the benefit concert for Hurricane Sandy relief was seeing Billy Joel give a polished, thoroughly professional performance of songs that had obviously been chosen with some thought. I’ve never been the world’s biggest Billy Joel fan — not even a medium-sized one — but I thought his set put the wheezy sets by the Rolling Stones and The Who completely in the shade. Though I’d be deeply grateful never to hear “Piano Man”or “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” ever again, I nod along whenever a tune from An Innocent Man comes along on the radio, which happens often enough to keep me from feeling I actually need to buy one of the man’s discs. So what is it about the man’s work that inspires the level of venom in this piece and that piece? I’ve heard detractors call him pretentious and self-important — is there a building big enough to hold all the rock musicians guilty of those sins? He’s sometimes a Dylan manque? Who isn’t? The Tablet writer takes Joel to task for pretending to be a man of the people. Ooooh, snap. Next he’ll be telling us Mick Jagger isn’t a sharecropper’s son, or John Fogerty wasn’t actually born on a bayou. It all seems so out of proportion, So what gives? 

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My movie year

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnSince most of my reading in 2012 was work-related, I can’t talk about most of the books published last year. I can’t even offer a complete rundown of movies for 2012, but the ones I did see left a strong impression, for better or for worse. I write narrative history books, so I guess it’s to be expected that my two favorite movies of 2012 took on much-debated, ideologically contested chapters of the American story.

MY FAVES: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln can be nitpicked on this or that point, but the fact of the matter is that this chamber epic about Lincoln’s last months — and the bare-knuckled fight to win passage of the amendment banning slavery — got more good history on the screen than any other Hollywood film. Tony Kushner’s script was excellent, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln was astonishing, and the supporting cast kept every frame bursting with talent. Argo managed the impressive trick of balancing an exciting story (the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction rescue of several Americans from Tehran during the Iranian revolution) with unblinking acknowledgement of the political blowback that created the situation. A jingo movie this ain’t. Hooray for Canada!

RUNNER-UP FAVE: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Actually, it’s every bit as good as the two top picks: a fascinating companion piece to There Will Be Blood, about the strange relationship between a traumatized WWII veteran and a cut-rate cult leader loosely modeled on L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson is the most original and adventurous filmmaker in America right now.

THE BEST MOVIE NOBODY SAW: Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, not advised for PETA members but highly recommended to anyone interested in a spare, moody survival tale about a man whose inner demons are almost as dangerous as the wolves pursuing a band of survivors through the frigid north. RUNNER UP: The Innkeepers began as a slacker comedy and ended as a gooseflesh-laden ghost story, short on gore but long on atmosphere.

THE WORST MOVIE EVERYBODY SAW: The Dark Knight Rises. Noisy, incoherent junk. Lame writing, indifferently staged action sequences, and a hectic, overstuffed storyline with too many plot twists and two few genuinely interesting setpieces. Bane was never going to be as fascinating as the Joker, one of the greatest pop-culture villains of all time, and Tom Hardy had to deliver his lines through a mask that made him sound like Darth Vader doing a Sean Connery impersonation. But any worthwhile ideas Christopher Nolan had for Batman were used up in The Dark Knight. RUNNER-UP NON-FAVE: Prometheus. Was it a prequel to Alien? A lateral sequel? Geeks who’ve gotten tired of debating whether Rick Deckard was a replicant can muse over the details of this handsomely made, brain-dead movie. There’s gonna be a sequel? Great — I’ll boycott it now and avoid the rush.

MOST OVERRATED: Even though hardly anyone saw Killing Them Softly, many who did praised it in John-the-Baptist terms because of fleeting moments that carried the gritty tang of its source material — Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the great forgotten American crime writer. Unfortunately, writer-director Andrew Domink never saw a thematic point he couldn’t pound with a Thor-sized hammer, and as a director he loved Tarantino not wisely but too well. (People who love to watch glass shattering in slow-motion will cherish the Blu-Ray.) The biggest disappointment of the year, for me at any rate. Because it was a leaden bore from start to finish, it edged out the wildly overpraised Looper, a moderately clever time-travel story that got dumber as it went along, but managed to be pretty entertaining along the way.

BEST MOVIE FOR TEENAGERS: After the twin fiascoes of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom showed Wes Anderson returning from the far frontiers of Tweedom without watering down his beguiling style. A charming movie about a pair of dreamy kids who raise all kinds of hell simply by being their unconventional selves.      

BEST ARGUMENT FOR KICKSTARTER: Absentia, produced with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, was a character-driven indie with a strong Ramsey Campbell flavor, a monster story focused on the psychological wounds inflicted by a menace that remained largely unseen, though the few glimpses we got were plenty hair-raising.   

BEST USE OF 3D: Vanessa Hudgens falling off the giant bee in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Can’t remember what else happened in the flick, though the sprout said she liked it. 

BEST USE OF ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Marvel’s The Avengers would have been unwatchable without his Tony Stark. I’m glad Joss Whedon hit the jackpot, but I liked the story better when it was called the Season Five finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

BEST IN-JOKE: James Bond threatening M with the ejector-seat button of the old school Aston Martin in Skyfall. Judi Dench’s delivery of the comeback line.

BEST PIXAR MOVIE RELEASED UNDER THE DISNEY NAME: Wreck-It Ralph was officially a Disney release, but its creation of a universe for video game characters, and the wit with which it showed them functioning within the rules of that universe, recalled Pixar’s Toy Story movies, even if it didn’t come anywhere near their emotional heft. Meanwhile, Brave, the official Pixar release, played like just another Spunky Princess story from the Disney mill. Since the founder of Pixar, John Lasseter, is head of both animation shops, the distinction may not amount to much. But still.

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE NOT RELEASED BY PIXAR: The Secret World of Arietty. I love Miyazaki movies, even when Miyazaki doesn’t direct them. And ParaNorman had a freaky intensity the trailers never hinted at.

WORST MOVIE I’M GLAD I SAW: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. All the tedium of a Tarkovsky film at only half the length. But I’m still glad I saw it because, after all, who else but Cronenberg would even think of making a film like that?

BEST REUNION: I haven’t seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D, 48 fps, Imax, Smellovision, Feelie-rama, or any of the other formats of the future. The conventional 2D version was overlong, badly paced, too obviously padded, and loaded with too many dwarves that could be distinguished only by their hairstyles. (Tolkien didn’t do much better.) But the film came alive in its second half, and I was happy to be back in the Middle-earth Peter Jackson envisioned in his brilliant Lord of the Rings films. I’ve come to the conclusion that Jackson was put on this earth to show up Ralph Bakshi, Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, the Beatles, and everyone else who took a run at Tolkien’s work and fell flat.          

MUST CATCH UP WITH SOON: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Killer Joe, Rust and Bone, Antiviral, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Samsara, Damsels in Distress.

I’LL GET AROUND TO THEM SOMETIME: Django Unchained goes on the back burner because Death Proof was dull as dirt and Inglourious Basterds pissed me off. So does Zero Dark Thirty, because I don’t like torture porn.   

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