Category Archives: Uncategorized

Oscar, we hardly knew ye

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is notoriously protective of Oscar and the imagery used to depict the golden guy. So it’s a little surprising to see AMPAS commissioned a series of pictures taking off on each year’s Best Picture winner. For some reason, I’m particularly taken with the winner for 1978:


The entire series can be viewed here. It’s a world-class time suck, and a good memory test. More than once I found myself thinking, “Oh jeez, that thing won?”   

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The highway of the future is a thing of the past

It had to happen sooner or later. The Pulaski Skyway, subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, will closed to eastbound drivers for two years of repair work. The state will close the span early in 2014, following Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife LAST3MILESStadium. Apparently two lanes of outward-bound traffic will remain open throughout the project, but anyone heading for New York City needs another plan.

If you want to prepare for the traffic delays, why not pick up a copy of The Last Three Miles and read about the design flaws and eleventh-hour political interference that made the Hudson County span the rollercoaster of terror it is today? Or marvel at the machinations of political boss Frank Hague, one of the biggest players in the Skyway saga, and the bloody labor war that broke out when one of Hague’s former allies, labor czar Teddy Brandle, clashed with the anti-union contractors building the causeway? It’s also available as an ebook and there’s an audio version capably read by the great Dion Graham, whose other audiobook performances put me in some damn flattering company. (He also played Rupert Bond in the later seasons of The Wire, which I never get tired of bragging about.) 

And while we’re on the subject of Hudson County and the Pulaski Skyway, this is as good a place as any to begin announcing that this coming fall will see the publication of American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, due out from Rutgers University Press. I’ll have a website and Facebook page up for the book later in the year. It’s the cornerstone of what future generations will know as The Year of the Hat Trick, about which more anon.


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My new answering machine

Please listen carefully. Some of our menu items have been changed.

Press ONE to hear this message in Pashtun.

Press TWO to hear more choices.

Press THREE to be put on hold and ignored.

Press FOUR to wait while one of our clerks pretends to check on your request.

Press FIVE for the Dunkin’ Donuts men’s room.

Press SIX if you’re feeling lucky.

Or press SEVEN and HANG UP.

Double consciousness, with cheese

In which W.E.B. Du Bois (channeled by Pia Glenn) gears up to order a Big Mac:

Christian TV hostess Cookie Carter gets a tour of pop culture with Wendy Williams, Nicki Minaj and “Ra-hanna.”

Her fearless deadpan gets extreme on this one:

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Stieg’s cause

A great many things can be done in the wake of the horrific Christianist terror attack in Norway. While it’s far from the most important thing, I’d like to see the discussion of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally popular “Millennium”  novels — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — shift away from Larsson’s personal life and toward the journalism he made his life’s work. Anders Behring Breivik is exactly the kind of right-wing psychopath Larsson worked to expose and discredit, and while we’re waiting to see what becomes of the unfinished manuscripts Larsson left behind, I’d like to see some enterprising publisher put together a collection of his best exposes, with editorial notes to help readers outside Scandinavia keep track of the context.

As this Guardian piece points out, murderous right-wing whackos are a staple of Scandinavian crime fiction, and maybe a journey through the works of Henning Mankel, Jo Nesbo, and Jonas Wergeland will offer some insights into our own homegrown, FoxNews-fed breed of creep.

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In memoriam

But I do grieve, grieve still;
a continent, an
ocean and a year
removed from you, I still
find it impossible
to think of you as past,

and I know too well
by now there’ll never
be anything like
a persuasive
for your having gone.

What there is instead
is knowing that at least
we had you for a time,
and that we still have
evidence of you, in
your work and in the love

which eternally
informs the work, that
one love which never ends.

— C.K. Williams
“Elegy for an Artist/ Still”

I’d vote for Sarah Palin

Wait a minute . . . what’s today’s date again?

The sociopathic swordsman

“The sword is the soul. Evil mind, evil sword.” Those words, uttered by a foursquare and honorable fencing teacher in late 19th-century Japan, are at the core of The Sword of Doom, a 1965 samurai epic that stands out as much for its relentlessly downbeat tone as its beautifully composed dueling scenes.

The sword and soul belong to Ryunosuke Tsukue, a blank-eyed murderer who starts the film with the casual butchery of a defenseless pilgrim and goes on to dispatch at least a dozen more victims before a climactic bloodbath in which he cuts down what seems like a hundred frenzied opponents.

Though it is far from a satisfying film — there are long stretches of near tedium, and a cat’s cradle of unresolved subplots left dangling by the abrupt ending — The Sword of Doom has moments of greatness. In particular it has a fascinating lead performance by Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Ryunosuke as a man who seems hollowed out by motiveless evil, reinforced by Ryu Kuze’s subtle and intriguing swordfight choreography.

If the first requirement of a great swordfight film is that its action sequences reveal character and advance plot, The Sword of Doom meets that requirement in a most intriguing way. Ryunosuke’s deceptively passive-looking technique is as gripping to watch as Archie Cunningham’s sadistic flash in Rob Roy. Instead of putting on a show of bellowing aggression, Ryunosuke lowers his blade and seems to have his mind on other things, drawing out his opponent and inviting an attack that he answers with blinding speed. It’s a technique that spooks the other swordsmen, who call it the “silent stance,” and even Ryunosuke’s dying father denounces him as a cruel and deceitful man. When Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune), the only swordsman who seems capable of matching it, declines to fight Ryunosuke, it seems less a matter of fear than distaste — he almost seems to think contact with Ryunosuke will taint him, even if he wins.

One of the happiest surprises of watching Sword of Doom was the realization that I’ve been admiring Ryu Kuze’s dueling choreography for years without connecting him to particular films. He mapped out the swordplay in two of Akira Kurosawa’s most celebrated films, Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro, and he played a thug in Kurosawa’s Red Beard. He also choreographed the duels in Chushingura, Hiroshi Inagaki’s epic retelling of the story of the 47 loyal ronin, and ended his career with The Challenge, an above-average action flick released in 1982. That film climaxes with a close-quarter office duel between a master swordfighter and his hopelessly overmatched American opponent, who just barely wins the day through a combination of dirty fighting and blind luck. It’s a bruising, breathtakingly intense clash with interesting similarities to the finale of Sword of Doom, which erupts within the confines of a geisha house — triggered when Ryunosuke realizes that the woman sent to attend him is the granddaughter of the man he killed at the start of the film.

There is a strong sense of the supernatural running through The Sword of Doom, and at times Ryunosuke seems to be acting as the merciless hand of fate: his first attack comes in answer to an old man’s prayer for death, and his next comes during a kendo match in which his opponent (an enraged husband who has learned of his wife’s infidelity with Ryunosuke) makes an illegal attack. At times, Ryunosuke behaves honorably, taking in the widow of the slain husband (and enduring her complaints about their shaky finances), though he satisfies his taste for blood by joining a band of gangster samurai scheming to prevent the dissolution of the Tokugawa shogunate. This leads to one of the film’s greatest sequences, in which the massed samurai attack a kago they think is bearing a government reformer, only to find it is carrying Shimada, whose Olympian disgust proves almost as lethal as his sword. As Ryunosuke watches the carnage, there’s a brief shot in which his blade seems to trying to slip out of its scabbard by itself, which raises the question of whether the man or the sword is the true master. When Shimada, giving him a sidelong glance, utters the “Evil mind, evil sword” line, Ryunosuke reacts like a man who has been given a glimpse into his own soul — and found hell staring back at him.

The Sword of Doom was meant to launch a  series of films, based on a meandering serialized novel that rambled on for decades in Japanese newspapers. Presumably, the roots of Ryunosuke’s cruelty would have been explored in greater detail, and a long-simmering revenge subplot would have come to a satisfactory conclusion. But I’m not sure further chapters would have been an improvement. Personally, I think the closing slaughterfest, and the freeze-frame that ends the movie, are the perfect conclusion: a man hollowed out by violence and casual savagery, locked in a private torment that may never be broken.

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One of them! One of them!

And so, another edition of the great wingnut Walpurgisnacht called CPAC has wrapped up. The braying, snorting, and grunting attendees have flopped, slithered, and staggered home, like the drunken participants in a Sunday night tricky-tray at the Esoteric Order of Dagon Hall. The speeches and minutes have been painstakingly transcribed with crayons on construction paper, and the ones that didn’t end up too badly smeared will be stored in the Bedlam Archives, where future wingnut generations may paw over them at leisure, assuming the silverfish don’t get to them first.

Once again, there was a straw poll to determine the horde’s preference for selection as this year’s Bride of Cthulhu. As it was last year, so it was this year: Ron Paul was chosen to wear the ichor-encrusted crown. With his ascension, the masses lifted their voices for the traditional salutation:

Now that the Great Goldbug has won the big gooble-gobble two years in a row, I assume it is only a matter of time before the Old Ones reclaim Earth for themselves.

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