Saturday, July 31, 2010


The headline from Michael Barone's column says it all: "House Democrats head for a thumping at the polls." Indeed, many pieces are saying the Dems are in trouble. And I don't doubt that's what the latest numbers are suggesting. Still, it's early. Three months is plenty of time for people to change their minds. All it takes is a shift of a few points.

The question that interests me is how does the widespread notion of an imminent rout affect things. There are arguments for all sides.

#1: No effect. Most people are out of the loop, not paying close attention to the elections (and they shouldn't--they have lives), so the Barones of the world can make predictions to their heart's content without changing anything. And those who keeps up on the races can think for themselves, and aren't going to change their votes based on what Michael Barone or Nate Silver write.

#2: Helps Repubs. The drumbeat of disaster for Dems leads to a defeatist attitude. Voters for the Repubs are energized while the Dems stay home, and those on the edge are happy to jump on the bandwagon. It also helps the money flow toward Repubs, as people want to back winners.

#3: Helps Dems. Repubs start thinking it's a lock and get complacent, while Dems realize they need to get busy. Also, creates unrealistic expectations, so when the Repubs do well, but don't take over, it's a letdown.

Beside Himself

I've always wanted to see a Japanese spider crab molting, but I've never had the patience. Now, thanks to time-lapse photography, you too can enjoy this miracle of nature.

Listen To The Lullaby

It's generally conceded that reviews matter on Broadway. Or really, one review--The New York Times. This galvanizes the audience, deciding for regular theatregoers whether something's an event or a washout.

I'm starting to wonder, though. A review, especially for a non-musical, can get you over the hump. But does it really compare to big-name casting? And it's got to be the right big names, too. People will line up to see James Gandolfini on stage, but when he leaves the show and Dylan Baker or Jimmy Smits sign on, the thrill is gone. Or James Spader and David Alan Grier, who are a more exciting duo than Dennis Haysbert and Eddie Izzard.

Still, it's musicals that are the lifeblood of Broadway. They're the destination of tourist and tired businessman. And here, reviews can make a hit, but so can big names and major properties. Neither The Addams Family nor the Promises, Promises revival were loved by critics, but they've both recently passed the 100 performance mark and are still close to sell-outs. Maybe they won't run much beyond a year (especially after the big names leave), but they've got a great chance of turning a profit without a thumbs up from the Times.

And what about the long runs, the institutions that everyone wants to see? After something's been going for a year, it's no longer because of the original reviews, but word of mouth (or perhaps a hit tune). When Wicked opened seven years ago, Ben Brantley was in love with Kristin Chenoweth, but not much else:

Be grateful, very grateful, that Ms. Chenoweth, who spent a brief exile in the land of sitcoms, has returned to the stage with none of the routinized glibness associated with weekly television. She provides the essential helium in a bloated production that might otherwise spend close to three hours flapping its oversized wings without taking off.

Yet the show managed to find its audience and still sells out every week, with no end in sight.

Better to get good reviews, of course, but if you can figure out some other way to have a long run, that's a good thing. And when it comes down to it, I'd rather have audiences find shows than critics decide the issue for them.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Is He Serious?

At the A.V. Club, in a piece on unexpectedly good third acts in movies (a rarity, to be sure, and the examples given aren't that impressive), we get this from Zack Handlen:

I think most of the movies I love have great endings—I get a huge kick out of a story that sets up all kinds of pieces, then finds a way to fit them together that creates an unexpected, but still organically derived, result. The Coen brothers do terrific third acts, like the finale of No Country For Old Men that refuses to give us what we think we wanted, and shows that what we thought was the main plot was something else entirely. Or how about their last film, A Serious Man? After 100 minutes of what looks like nothing more than a series of semi-related comic sequences, we get a final conversation, and a final shot, that manages to state the central thesis in clear terms without being pedantic. (Miller’s Crossing is also perfect this way.)

Huh? I'd say No Country For Old Men is a classic case of a third act that let's you down, almost ruins the movie. Yes, I get that the Coen's aren't giving us what we expect--indeed, that's why it's no good. They avoid the conventionally dramatic moment (and just because it's conventional doesn't mean it can't be great--most great works of drama lead up to expected scenes of confrontation), and replace it with something far less interesting.

As to A Serious Man, that's his example of an ending "that manages to state the central thesis in clear terms without being pedantic"? Love it or hate it (and I think most hate it), the ending is widely viewed as bewildering. If Handlen believes it's clear, I'd say it's his job to explain what it means right there in the paragraph so those of us who still have no idea can find out.

(As to Miller's Crossing, I don't like it in general. Its popularity among Coen Bros. fans confuses me. Handlen then goes on to say stuff about The Dark Knight I disagree with, but at least it's not going so much against conventional wisdom.)

Are You Sirius?

I was recently listening to Sirius Radio and discovered they have a separate channel each for music of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. At least that's what they say. If you look closer, you see the rules can be bent. After all, a decade isn't years, it's a state of mind.

For instance, "Blue Moon" by the Marcels was a huge hit in 1961, but it's really about the 50s, which is why it's played on the 50s channel.

For that matter, the first song I heard on the 4os channel was Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of "Manhattan." This is a song from the mid-20s recorded in the mid-50s. What does it have to do with the 40s? Nothing, until I figured "40s" is a catch-all that means pre-rock popular music.

Is It Fair?

A fascinating look at world's fairs from my friend Virginia Postrel. She was just in Shanghai to see Expo 2010. Like most Americans, I didn't even know they had a world's fair out there.

That's because, Virginia believes (and I agree), that world's fairs used to represent an exciting look at a bigger world--even a glimpse of the future--to most Westerners. Now the whole concept seems like a nostalgic afterthought.

Thanks to computers, television, cars, cheap air flight, more imports and quite a few other things, the planet has become a lot smaller--at least to countries that have money. In Peggy Sue Got Married, Kathleen Turner returns to her 1960 high school days, where one character feels he has to explain what a "burrito" is. In a Mad Men episode, Betty Draper hosts a dinner party with a "trip around the world" theme, including such exotic fare as Heineken, a "beer from Holland." That's an age that would still be impressed by a world's fair. But as the post-WWII boom continued, the whole concept lost its glamor. By Postrel's account, the last one that really clicked was Montreal's Expo '67.

Which is why the 2010 Exposition has been a big hit with the Chinese. They're coming by the millions. They've only recently liberalized their economy, and still have a closed culture, so the opportunity to see the rest or the world still holds excitement, and hope, for them.

Postrel notes another reason why world's fairs seem like the past. Not because we're cynical about the future, but that we see it differently from how we used to. These fairs used to present a vision of an orderly, top-down, well-planned society:

They came to stand for a controlled and predictable version of progress: the dream of a civilization built from scratch, designed — or at least rearranged — according to an expert ideal of order. Or as the Century of Progress motto put it, “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.”

[....] That vision did give America interstate highways and a trip to the moon. But it also sparked a backlash. In the 1960s, the New Left and the Goldwater Right, hippies and hackers, personal liberation movements and historic preservationists all rebelled against the tyranny of expertise.

[....] Twentieth-century world’s fairs had encouraged visitors to equate progress and technological optimism with the Galbraithian vision of stable, heavily bureaucratic, industrial quasi-monopolies — the corporate version of nation states — working with government to determine the future. All the rage in the first half of the 20th century, this technocratic theory of progress became not only less popular but much less believable in the second half.

So progress can't always be planned. I don't deny, however, that I'd still like to travel by jet pack.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Private Parts

I've seen the original Star Treks so many times I never watch the show any more. Except sometimes I flip through the channels and there it is. Funny thing is, I'll usually watch the weaker episodes because I don't remember them as well.

For instance, I just caught most of "A Private Little War." In it, both Spock and Kirk almost die when attacked on a backward little planet where they should have easily avoided any trouble. It's also a place where Kirk had a mission during his ever-changing but always convenient past.

This is one of those episodes where Kirk tells the Prime Directive to go screw itself. Same for the Federation, I guess, whose orders he defies. See, Kirk knew these simple villagers (or simple planeters) years ago when they were peaceful, so when he sees their weapon technology has advanced too quickly (even though there's a debate about it on the bridge), he smells Klingons.

The story isn't great, but it does have an interesting ending. The Enterprise will beam down more weapons so there can be a balance of power. Plenty of death ahead, but at least both sides in any war will have a fighting chance. So slaughters are okay if they come naturally, but if they're because of undue influence, the Prime Directive no longer applies.

Reading about the episode, I discovered the original script was a commentary on Vietnam. Gene Roddenberry rewrote it and removed most of the parallels. A smart move on his part, since that would have made the episode even worse. The original writer was Don Ingalls, an old friend of Roddenberry--they worked together in the LAPD. He was so annoyed that the screenplay is now credited to "Jud Crucis," which stands for "Jesus Crucified." What a drama queen. Save it for the page, Don.

Private Emails

You gotta watch what you write. This is at least the fourth case this year I can think of where someone got in trouble when private emails were made public.

This time, it was a prof at the University of Illinois who taught courses in Catholic thought. He sent an email to a student discussing how utilitariansim and natural law applied to homosexuality. As you might expect, he had trouble with homosexual acts. This opened him up to charges of hate speech and he was gone.

I don't think this was the right decision. Professors (and students) must be allowed to make controversial, even hateful, arguments. Otherwise, the chilling effect will be so great that it will lead to a mindless consensus on certain issues (a fear even with full academic freedom), and people who know better having to check themselves every time they speak.

Not that the guy's arguments are any good:

This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act.

Gee, when I look at REALITY I see people practicing all sorts of sex acts, all the time, occasionally (but not usually) for procreation. This is people acting according to their NATURE. And guess what? They find that these sex acts are quite easy to accomplish. Their physiology and psychology makes them so that they can create pleasure, and in some cases bond.

Worse, this argument makes the unearned leap that because something is NATURAL it is MORAL (or at least that something unnatural is not moral). So even if people agree to do something they find mutually beneficial, and doesn't hurt anyone else, if this guy feels it's not natural enough, it's no good. It's as if someone said eating apples is moral, because we find that in nature. But combining flour (what is flour?--it's not found in nature), butter (in nature only the young drink milk, and no one has butter), sugar (apples have natural sugar--why should we add some) and apples, and heating the mixture (to temperatures hotter than are found in nature) to make an apple pie, we are committing an immoral act.

Oh Mama

"Mama" Cass Elliot died 36 years ago today. She was only 32. And no, it wasn't from choking on a ham sandwich. It was a heart attack.

Born Ellen Naomi Cohen in 1941, she was part of the folk scene in the early 60s. She sang with Denny Doherty and when they teamed up with John and Michelle Phillips, The Mamas And The Papas was born. The whole story's told pretty well in "Creeque Alley."

They tore up the charts for two years, then moved on. Cass was the most memorable character in the group. Both her voice and girth set them apart.

She went on to a solo career, and scored some minor hits, such as "Dream A Little Dream Of Me." She did a lot of TV, usually appearing as herself, but sometimes playing a character.

One of her best solo numbers was revived by Lost:

Sorry for the interruption. Here's the whole thing:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Let's Be Leon

The Tribeca Film Festival came out to LA and I caught The Trotsky. It's a comedy starring Jay Baruchel about a teenager who believes he's the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. His main activity is trying to unionize his high school class.

The film has a charming cast (I met Emily Hampshire after the showing and told her she did a good job), but the plot doesn't quite work. Why does he believe he's Trotsky? Is he psychotic? And what would it mean, anyway? To this kid, it means stuff like he needs to be exiled and he has to marry an older woman named Alexandra. Really? Does that mean he expects to be assassinated with an ice pick?

But what interested me was the very idea of the plot. The film isn't particularly political, but we're supposed to find the protagonist quirky, even sympathetic. Is someone imitating an architect of the Russian Revolution, an evil that brought forth massive death and destruction, funny? People may not have the same reaction to communism that they do to fascism, but still, shouldn't it be so discredited that a kid who wants to be Trotsky wouldn't be that amusing?

PS The film was set in Montreal (where I was born), and I believe got money from Quebec, so every now and then someone would break out into French.


I was a surprised to hear Maury Chaykin died. It was on his 61st birthday. His name may not be well known, but the guy was one of the busiest character actors around. He often played gruff or slightly off characters, but he had a wide enough range that you can't pin him down to a type.

Some of his more memorable roles were in WarGames, Where The Heart Is, My Cousin Vinny, Whale Music, Unstrung Heroes, The Sweet Hereafter and Love And Death On Long Island. He also did plenty of television, including the memorable Harvey Weingard on Entourage, clearly based on Harvey Weinstein.,

Come Now

I understand when you disagree with someone, his arguments tend to sound bad. But I like to think I can distinguish between reaonable arguments I disagree with and those that don't pass the smell test. (I was about to link to a definition of smell test, but then I read it: "to be morally acceptable Robinson's removal as an independent investigator doesn't pass the smell test, and many believe it was done for political reasons." This is incorrect. Not passing the smell test, as far as I understand, is about making an argument that is simply unbelievable and everyone knows it.)

I recently heard someone on radio arguing against same sex marriage. He said no one's rights are being denied. Why? Because a gay man is in the same situation as a heterosexual man--both are allowed to marry a woman, neither are allowed to marry a man.

This is a good example of something that doesn't pass the smell test. The issue at hand is can men marry men, and can women marry women. To define it away misses the point. While you might argue that there's no sexual discrimination, which is definitely illegal, it's hard to argue there's no sexual orientation discrimination. Heterosexuals are allowed to marry the sex they prefer, something homosexuals are denied.

So it's pointless to say there's no discrimination here. Of course there's discrimination. The argument has to be it's acceptable, even positive, discrimination.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This Year's Jeong

A year ago it seemed Ken Jeong was in every new movie coming out. Now when I go to the movies and there's always a trailer with Zach Galifianakis. Last week I saw two in a row--It's Kind Of A Funny Story and Due Date.

The guy's been around for years as a smart comic, but no one had heard of him. Then he got famous playing stupid, stealing The Hangover (2009)--which also featured Ken Jeong--as the odd man out. Now everyone wants him. Last year, after The Hangover, I saw him in Up In The Air, Youth In Revolt and as a regular on Bored To Death. For 2010, in addition to the films above, he'll be in this week's Dinner For Schmucks. After that, the Hangover sequel. Though if that flops, maybe his brief spring will be over.

I'm Sorry Already

Thomas L. Friedman, who gazes longingly at authoritarian governments since they have the power to force upon the public what he knows must be done, has another column on our government's weak response to global warming. This time he's even saying I Told You So, or at least threatening to.

He doesn't strike me, though, as being serious about dealing with the situation. His arguments are pretty simplistic--pretty much at the level of "we have to do something." Okay, but what? Senate watchers knew cap and trade was DOA, but let's assume we can do whatever we want. Is it that obvious what needs to be done?

On one side, you've got a serious environmental threat, though no one knows with any great precision how serious, and how quickly its effects will get worse. On the other side, you've got a whole spectrum of potential solutions. Most being discussed are likely expensive, yet will only slow down the problem, not stop it. The more extreme solutions are astonishingly expensive, and will cause extreme dislocation (which may include more than a few deaths). We've only got so many trillions to spend, and there are a lot of problems out there--why is Friedman so confident he knows how and where to spend it?

It's a tricky calculus and I don't blame people for asking if we're spending two trillion dollars for one trillion worth of cure. Having good intentions isn't enough--lording your good intentions over others is worse.

Who Is Don Draper?

...those are the first words spoken in the fourth-season premiere of Mad Men (after we see old and new names in the credits), but it could just as easily be the title of the show.

It's late 1964 and Don is being interviewed by Advertising Age. He's caused a stir with cinematic ads for Glo-Coat floor wax (not the actual ad shown below). The interview doesn't go well. Don has always been tight-lipped about his past. That worked when he was head of creative, but now that he's a name partner in a struggling new firm, he needs to do better.

Soon we get the big reveal--the new (and small) offices of Cooper Sterling Draper Pryce. The modern decor puts us firmly in the 60s...finally. The first three seasons of Mad Men went from 1960 to 1963, and were always living in the shadow of the 50s. But now (though they're not mentioned) the Beatles have conquered America and the real 60s has taken over. Maybe some on Mad Men won't cross the divide, but they'll have to reckon with it.

Roger's there, with a ready quip (some things never change). Pete's there. Bert's there. Queen bee Joan is there. Even Lane's there. They seem the same, except they've got to get an agency off the ground.

Then there's Peggy. The schoolgirl bangs are gone, replaced by a new confidence and more hairspray. She's still trying to please Don, but she's also willing to go behind his back with Pete when they promote a product by paying two women fight over it. She's also willing to stand up to Don when he, predictably, calls her out on it.

Harry also shows up, spouting Yiddish. He's the kind of guy who, though not that talented, manages to be in the right place and the right time. TV is the place to be in the 60s, and you get the feeling his career will go just fine.

Who's not there? Paul, Ken and Sal, left behind in season three. Who knows when or if they'll show up.

Don's adrift in a bachelor pad. It's got a dark, conservative look--probably needs some place to escape from his Mondrian-style office. Roger's Jane--yes, they're still together--sets him up with a friend. She's a college girl who brings up Andrew Goodman--guess if she were a high school girl she'd mention Ringo. She and Don sort of hit it off, but he doesn't get all the way. Is that a sign, because I don't recall too much trouble previously in that department? Maybe he was more attractive as a married man.

Speaking of which, what about Betty? We don't see her till halfway in.

I've had trouble with Betty. In the first season, I thought she worked. The trophy wife filled with suburban anomie. Betty and Don came from different backgrounds (she had money, he didn't even have a family), but they did what they thought they were supposed to and got married. Since then though, they've been searching for something else. But her search, while she gets icier and harsher, has been the weakest part of the show.

Well, she wanted Henry Francis and now she's got him. She's still at the old Draper residence. Henry wants out, and Don wants her gone, but she's not ready. Betty and Henry preside over a chilly Thanksgiving dinner. Her mother-in-law doesn't think much of her (understandably), while her kids are scared of her. Sally, especially, is still having a hard time. It's scary to think what will happen when she becomes a teen in the late 60s.

Henry poached Don's wife, but is he wondering if it's worth it? It's hard to imagine this part of the show, which now seems so separate from the rest of Mad Men, can continue as is. But if it does change, it's even harder to believe Betty and Don can get back together.

Meanwhile, Don isn't doing much better. It's Thanksgiving, and he's hiring a hooker (not the first time) to slap him around. He takes the kids the next day, while Henry and Betty go out cavorting. Don works while the kids watch TV. Still, when Betty comes back late, Don becomes the better parent by default.

Peggy's stunt almost blew up in her face, and Don isn't happy. She did it behind his back, and it's the kind of low-class thing he doesn't go for. He tells her she's got to worry about the image of the company. She tells him they're all there because of him, and they all want to please him.

Don goes to his first big pitch of the season--bikini manufacturers. He knows they want modesty, but gives them art that clearly winks. They're horrified, and he tells them off and throws them out. I have to think he didn't give them what they wanted intentionally. Either they accept his ideas, or he'd rather not work with them.

He might have gotten away with this when he was just head of creative in a company with a lot of accounts, but no more. He gets a new interview, this time with the Wall Street Journal, and decides to tell them what they want to hear. But he's also going to reshape his agency into the image he wants. Make the story about him, a visionary who made a brave exit from his old job and is ready to change the industry.

And the first hour is over.

It looks like the arc of the season will be about whether the agency makes it or not. But where the characters as individuals are going, I have no idea.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Are You Satisfied Yet?

Happy Birthday, Mick Jagger. A rich, distinguished British gentleman who used to scare the world.

He hasn't done much that interested me in the past 30 years, but he did so much good stuff earlier, he gets a lifetime pass.

There are rumors the Stones will go on a "farewell" tour. That would be fun. I remember seeing them on a farewell tour twenty years ago.

Post Time

Just saw this street poster based on the famous photo of Che Guevara. Except it's got Obama's face. And at the bottom is written "Peace?".

I have no idea what to make of this. Is it praise or criticism? And if it's the latter, is the criticism coming from the right or left. I don't even know if the poster's widespread or if this is a one-off.

Whiner's Half Dozen

Woody Allen's always been good at kvetching. As he's made clear in his movies, life at its best isn't great, so there's plenty to complain about. He also regularly feels let down by his films. This might be a defensive posture, but he's been keeping it up so long I'm inclined to believe him. (Maybe they'd be better if he took two years to make them rather than one.) In a recent interview, he says:

Out of 40 films I should have 30 masterpieces, eight noble failures and two embarrassments, but it hasn't worked out that way.

This is kind of silly. Leaving aside the quality of his work (which has been uneven but includes some fine stuff) no one makes masterpieces 75% of the time, not even his idol, Ingmar Bergman.

Many of the films are enjoyable by the mean standards of movies, but look at what has been accomplished by people who have done beautiful things - Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Truffaut - and then look at my films. I have squandered my opportunities and I have nobody to blame but myself.

I like how he compliments himself in passing. Actually, Woody, quite a few of your films aren't not that good, even by the "mean standards" of movies. But don't worry, Woody, we still love you.

There are a few better than others, half a dozen, but it's a surprising paucity of worthwhile celluloid.

What are these six? The Purple Rose of Cairo, Match Point, Bullets Over Broadway, Zelig, Husbands and Wives and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

I don't think any of these six should make that list. Woody is a better filmmaker than judge of his own work. Maybe that's why he hasn't made more masterpieces.

PS The interview was done overseas. They claim Woody said

I've always been able to work freely, to play my clarinet and enjoy women and sport...


...I'm claustrophobic; who wants to be stuck in a lift for three hours?

Now maybe he expressed himself this way to accommodate his interviewer, but more likely the interviewer Briticized Woody's language, which should have been left alone.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Listen To Her Jive

Wow. Annie Ross, of vocalese giants Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, turns 80 today. Happy birthday, Annie!

I Don't Buy It

Whenever I read about gun buy back programs, I have to wonder what's the point? They're trying to "get guns of the streets," but what sort of person returns a gun? That's not rhetorical, I honestly don't know. Is there a profile for the kind of person who's involved? Are there people ready to commit crimes that give back their guns? And do they offer enough to make it worthwhile, or would it be better to try a pawnshop? Is this a chance for people to go around "finding" stray guns so they can make some quick cash, like a bigger version of returning empties?

And is there any evidence, shaky or otherwise, that these programs effect local crime in any way?


The fourth season of Mad Men starts tonight. About time. There's been a drought of good hourlongs since Lost and Breaking Bad ended.

I've avoided most spoilers, but have heard (and it's not much of a spoiler) this season starts about six months beyond where last season ended. I guess we'll see. When the show started, creator Matt Weiner planned, or so I've heard, for each season to skip two years. Certainly that happened between season one and two. But perhaps he saw what a goldmine the show was--both in terms of money and writing. Why not work your way more slowly through the 60s and make a career of it? (And you get to keep the same kid to play Sally Draper.)

My guess is he may have an idea where Don Draper ends up, but for the most part he's taking it as it comes.

Over the past week I've seen Jon Hamm, January Jones and Christina Hendricks promoting the drama on talk shows. I don't think I'm the only one who feels they look a lot better in their 60s clothes and hair. Makes you wonder why more people don't try to look that way all the time.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Opus Duo

While watching Mr. Holland's Opus I hit the info button and see it gets two stars. Really?

The film came out in 1995, rather unheralded. It was a small (if lengthy) film following the career of a high school music teacher. Lead Richard Dreyfuss wasn't the star he'd been. Yet the word of mouth was solid, and it turned into a sleeper hit.

It's a bit too sentimental, perhaps. And it's episodic structure sometimes works against it. But I though overall it was pretty effective. I think three stars would be fair.

Sing It, Roy

It's the National Day Of The American Cowboy. Already?

And I don't think any songwriter ever captured the feeling of being a cowboy better than Cole Porter:

Could Be, Who Knows?

Here's an explanation of the Lost finale that I kind of like, even if it may seem unlikely. Since the show left a lot open, we're allowed to believe what works best for us.

It's from a talkback at AICN:

My theory
by pjdon May 28th, 2010
07:58:27 AM

Whoa, it's been about 3 years since I came onto this talkback. Had a child and all since series 3 so forgive my absence and don’t worry I’ve been keeping up with LOST

Hear we go again...

People seem to be inferring that the ending was spiritual. In fact people have stated in this TB that they actually confirmed it is not a flash sideways but a construct of their minds. As if a giant voice-over suddenly stated so at the end of the episode. To me the writers have left it so either a scientific or spiritual explanation is possible. And my money would be on the scientific.

There is a tendency for people to assume that because something is stated by a character who is old or mysterious that it is gospel. We assume because Jacob sees the island as spiritual, because there where letters carved into the stone ‘cork’; that it means the island is a spiritual power.

Jacob only based his knowledge on what his mother told him. The original inhabitants who built the light house, statue, temple and cork did not do so because they understood the islands spiritual power, it was their version of the Dharma experiments. The cork is just a primitive version of the hatch computer.

I believe the light is just one of many pin holes on the island and throughout the world which tap directly into an electromagnetic field which holds the molten core of the earth in place and stable.

Ancient people probably saw these outlets as something mystical whereas modern observers would have a more scientific and accurate understanding.

To ask why the show never explains the science if it exists is missing the point. The only source of information we have is what the characters know and reveal to us. By the end all the scientific explorers of the island i.e. Dharma and Faraday are dead so naturally we are left with Jacobs explanation.

If Jacob had of had access to scientific training and equipment when he was a boy he probably would have come up with similar conclusions to Faradays. But he was influenced by ancient thinking. When Jacob was born no one even knew what electromagnetism was.

So maybe the flash sideways literally still are flash sideways.

Christian tells Jack that everything that is happening or has happened is real.

Juliet told Sawyer ‘it worked’ before she died, Lock told Jack ‘it worked’ when he woke up in hospital.

These all point to the fact that the flash sideways is a direct consequence of Jacks actions at the end of season 5. He created a alternative world where the island was destroyed in the 70’s.

But the human mind is only supposed to exist in one reality at a time which is why they have to all accept their death in the original timeline before they move on.

When Christian told Jack that there was no ‘time’ in this world he meant that it was not affected by ‘when’ people died in the original universe.

So he is just stating the age old scientific fact that ‘time is relative’.

Even though both realities are technically running side by side it does not mean a person at an early point in one could not remember a later point in the other.

Christian never outright states that it is heaven or a construct of the mind. The fact that whole characters like Jacks son exist in this world and have secrets like playing the piano means it must be a tangible reality.

To have all the drama that happened in the flash sideways be pointless and metaphorical seems like a bit too much of a copout considering the writers knew how much viewers had invested.

The show has clearly been left so either answer is possible.

The only hole in my ‘scientific’ explanation is Christian.

Did he fake his death in this world to get Jack on the plane and bring them all together? Why would he even know about the alternative reality before them?

Maybe MiB Lock meant for Jack to kill him after Desmond had released the cork. Maybe that was his way off the island.

Wait till all the trapped souls on the island where released by Desmond's actions, let yourself be killed and then escape to the alternative reality by entering Christians body once again.

Any thoughts?

Thanks. I have a few thoughts to add. The most compelling evidence that the altaworld is "real" is right from the start we see a submerged island. This is the world that happened in a timeline where Jack's plan worked and destroyed the Island (though perhaps not immediately--many or most were allowed to get off in time).

So two timelines were created by the Incident. But in either, it was possible to get flashes of the other. Perhaps letting go and moving on meant returning to the original timeline, even if it means going to your death.

Here's another similar explanation from a fan responding to a nasty review at TV Squad:

Why are people so stuck on this idiotic purgatory idea? Two words - TIME LOOP.

I think the writers went out of their way to leave the ending ambiguous and open to interpretation. While I am somewhat disappointed (I SO wanted to see Jack come out of the cave as a white smoke monster), I think I can be satisfied with the ending, even though I DO want to smack those writers upside the head. You set it up PERFECTLY and then blow it right at the end? Dips!

The quasi-religious ending doesn't fit at all with what LOST has been about, with time traveling, electromagnetic energy, and I still believe the "flash sideways" are an alternate reality created by the island's destruction by the bomb in the 1970s. Without Jacob molding their lives, their lives went in different directions.

However, that timeline was never meant to exist, and as Farraday's mother said long ago, "You can't change the timeline, it will correct itself," you could see the island pulling at them, trying to merge the timelines, to get them to remember the island, and draw them back to it.

Wasn't the church they were sitting in the same church where momma Farraday had the pendulum swinging finding the island? And wasn't that church built over a pocket of the same electromagnetic energy found at the island? I don't believe for a second that white light was taking them to "heaven." It was the merging of the timelines, and setting in motion the time loop. Whether or not the characters would start the new loop with the memories they had newly gained I can't say, although if they did, and went back to the correct timeline with the knowledge they needed to "do it right this time" (ala Groundhog Day) that would be an unbelievably satisfying ending for me.

As far as them all dying? Yes, in the real timeline they had all lived out their lives. Charlie drowned, Sun and Jin drowned (and remembered it in their flashes), Jack died where he did, and Hurley and Ben died much later. The Hurley and Ben conversation where "You were a good number were a good number 1" would be ludicrous if they hadn't continued their lives there together, a part of the story that we never got to see. That would make Christian's statement, "Some died before you, some long after" make perfect sense. They received all the memories of their entire lives in the alternate reality, and realized that they needed to go back to the correct timeline.

And don't forget that Christian WAS dead in both realities. Only in the electromagnetic energy the church was built over could he have come back to life and speak to Jack. I believe very much that, as has happened very often on Lost, Christian was a manifestation of the island, the island speaking directly to Jack, and how appropriate that the "island" open the doors to the white light, to merge and thereby correct the timeline.

I believe this idea fits the facts, and also the feel, that the show has given us. If the ending is open for interpretation, and I don't find anything that openly disagrees with this, I think I can come to my own interpretation of the ending and be very satisfied with it.

Further elements to support my theory: When Desmond was forced into the machine by Widmore's people and he was hit with that blast of electromagnetism, he was able to see into the other timeline, how much better it was for everyone, and agreed to help Widmore.

He also believed that when he pulled the cork out of the island, they would all disappear and go somewhere...the alternate timeline. This makes sense with his role of being "The Constant" It would make no sense that he was looking into Purgatory.

Also, Juliette's final words as read by Miles, "It worked."

Also, the shot of the island being under water. If this was a purgatory reality, and not an alternate timeline or temporal disturbance created by the bomb going off, then this scene was useless and should not have been included.

Not bad. Lost always tried to have it both ways, and even when it's over, it continues to be open to scientific and spiritual interpretations.

I do prefer this explanation to the more common purgatory concept. This means that the bomb accomplished a certain goal--it allowed all the Losties, many of whom gave up their life to the Island--to meet one more time and work out their issues. And the energy unleashed is related to the Island--thus Sayid connects with Shannon, not Nadia. The bomb also did what it was supposed to do in the regular timeline--create the Incident, but also get the Losties back to where they belonged because they had work to do. And what they did was great. It may have been Jacob's plan, but they operated with free will and through great sacrifice saved the Island and (perhaps) saved the world. It all ties together, rather than the purgatory seeming like a post script.

Friday, July 23, 2010

We've Had Our Phil

A week ago I missed the birthday of Phil Hellmuth. I hope that didn't make him mad.

The guy's actually a pretty big jerk. But to be fair, he really can't help himself. He's got so much passion it just boils over. He is a great player, but he seems to think that means no one is allowed to outplay him, or even be luckier.

Even people who hate him have to admit he makes a poker tournament a lot more exciting.


After saying a lot of moderate things to get his health care bill passed, President Obama slipped in Donald Berwick, a man who idolizes socialized medicine, to be in charge of Medicare. He's hardly the first person far from the center that Obama has lifted to a place of prominence. The only surprise is that so many people are surprised.

Now that Congress has passed a financial reform bill, there's talk of appointing Elizabeth Warren to be in charge of consumer protection. I think the reform is bad enough. It's hard to say the effect it'll have, but I'd guess in the name of helping us, it'll make a lot of things more expensive. But if we're to have government watchdogs, I'd rather have people whose analysis of the economic situation is more trustworthy.

Warren is a law professor who's written about the economic crunch that average people are in today. It seemed to me her work on this perennially popular subject was full of questionable conclusions. More recently she's written about the relation of medical bills to bankruptcy with even more questionable conclusions. So I'm glad to see Megan McCardle, who's written on Warren before, go into Warren's methodology. Some of the problems: improper parameters, self-reporting in surveys, mistaken causality. (Though I seem to recall Megan was one of the people back in 2008 who had some confidence in Obama's economic team.)

Warren seems to be from the Good Will Hunting school of analysis. Her message is "it's not your fault," which she repeats over and over. See, it's the system's fault, and as she hugs you, she increases government's scope to make sure no one ever hurts you again. And if it's free market medical care that's destroying you, well, the only solution is...see Berwick above.

Hitting Out

Speaking of The Sopranos, Todd VanDerWerff has been re-viewing every episode. He's still in the first season, and for a while he's been warning about "A Hit Is A Hit." He finally got to it and explained what's wrong--and I couldn't disagree more.

I've always liked this episode. One reason is that it goes in a different direction--which is what Todd (I'll call him Todd because I don't want to spell his surname again) has trouble with. It explores Hesh's character and goes into the music business (thus the punny title). I find the stuff with Hesh explaining what makes a hit a lot of fun. And the subplot where the rapper (who's presented in an uncliched manner which for some reason Todd considers cliched) tries to get royalties for an old act that he thinks Hesh cheated is also fascinating.

But one thing that prevents me from loving the hour is a cringe-inducing scene where the white collar guys take Tony out golfing. They think it's cool to hang out with a gangster, and I was intrigued to see how the scene would play. Instead of being a little different (having them connect in some way with Tony, for instance), it's exactly what you'd expect. They treat him like an object, ask him gauche questions, and he feels embarrassed and out of place. I literally can't watch this scene, it's so cliched and obvious. Needless to say, this is what Todd thinks almost saves the episode.

One of the things I like so much about the show is how it's able to capture other voices. Not just gangsters, but academics, students, politicians, analysts, cops, kids, etc. In this episode, they have people in the music business sounding real, but fall down in the clash of cultures. (It's not as bad as the excruciating gay stuff in New Hampshire we'll get Vito, but it's an early indication sometimes they take the easy way out.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Give The People What They Don't Want

The first McDonald's was in San Bernardino, about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. But I wonder if a more important spot isn't Baldwin Park, about half as far, where LA saw its first drive-through in the late 40s, an In-N-Out Burger.

Baldwin Park, however, is not so thrilled. The city planners just banned new drive-throughs. What do these petty tyrants expect to achieve through their command economy? These things only exist because customers want them.

Some complain the drive-throughs are so popular that they back up street traffic. That sounds like a separate issue that can be dealt with in other ways. Only using government logic do you try to fight something that's so popular it's causing overcrowding by ensuring there's less of it.

As far as fighting fast food, it's not as if you can't get just as bad stuff in sit-down restaurants. (I should watch what I say or they'll ban those next.) In any case, fast food restaurants are, at worst, a symptom, not a cause--no one's forcing them on an unwilling public.

BTW, Baldwin Park should be proud to be the homeplace of In-N-Out. It's regularly voted the best fast food burger by locals. Also, the company treats its employees better than other such places, and I think you can see that by the esprit de corps.

Never Too Late

It's been three years since The Sopranos had its controversial ending (which New England Guy spoiled for me). Maybe no one cares any more, but I just stumbled across this explanation of what happened. The guy claims Tony was hit by the guy wearing the Members Only jacket. I pretty much agree.

If anything, the link goes into way too much detail. I think the evidence is simple but convincing. Earlier in the season a character said you probably don't notice when you die in a hit, it's just over. That's what happened to Tony. There's all this tension in the room and then the show suddenly goes to black. In addition, we'd just seen his daugther enter the restaurant, and the next shot we'd expect is Tony's POV of her. The sudden blackness is Tony's POV. All the other detail, some of it symbolic, isn't even necessary.

There are some who claim that David Chase meant for Tony to die, but he left it open enough for a potential movie. I can buy that, too.

Analyze This

From Reuters--"Analysis: Race issues beset Obama's 'post-racial' presidency" by Patricia Zengerle.

It's hard to believe anyone thought Obama would be post-racial. I sure didn't. The problem is, I suppose, like the old cartoon--where the bride and groom are walking down the aisle happily thinking about married life, but with diametrically opposed beliefs (it's dirtier than that, but I try to keep this blog clean)--those on different sides of the divide saw the Obama era differently. To blacks maybe it meant "finally we can openly and honestly air our grievances" and to whites "finally blacks will stop complaining so much."

But forget that, I want to talk about how incredibly weak the Reuters "analysis" is. Let me count the ways:

Last July -- in the heat of the White House fight for its healthcare overhaul -- when Obama was subjected to scathing criticism for saying police had "acted stupidly" when they arrested Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, who is black, on charges he was breaking into his own home.

I believe Gates was arrested because he would not follow the officer's instructions, and was unruly. (At least that's what the officer claimed.)

It may not be important to the main thesis, but for a think piece this is incredibly sloppy. Next, Zengerle quotes an odd source:

"When the right-wing noise machine starts promoting another alleged scandal, you shouldn't suspect that it's fake -- you should presume that it's fake, until further evidence becomes available," columnist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times.

This intemperate statement is apropos of nothing. It's not counter-balanced by a quote from a conservative saying the same about the left. I can't believe we're meant to take it seriously.

Blacks account for 13 percent of the U.S. population and on average earn less and are more likely to be unemployed than other racial groups. They are also more likely to be arrested and are given harsher sentences.

"More likely to be arrested" means nothing by itself. Are they more likely to be arrested because they're black, or because they commit more crimes? In context, the former seems to be implied, but no evidence is given either way.

Both the right and left accuse each other of injecting race into the political discourse. Experts say that's inevitable given Obama's position as the first non-white U.S. president.

Now she tells us. This piece began by noting many hoped Obama would herald a post-racial era.

This week, Shirley Sherrod, a black official at the Agriculture Department, said her bosses pushed her to quit after conservative media repeatedly broadcast a tape that seemed to show her saying she had discriminated against a white farmer because of his race.

Seemed? There's a lot more to the story, but on this point didn't she admit she discriminated?

Whether intended or not, the furor over the Sherrod case distracted media attention on Wednesday from one of Obama's biggest achievements -- his signing of a historic reform of financial regulation that was opposed by conservatives.

It's an "achievement" in the sense that he got it done, but in the more common sense that he did something great? It looked like another controversial bill Obama was able to force through on a party-line vote. I doubt the "distraction" hurt or helped him much politically. (I might add Obama should get almost anything passed considering the huge lead he has in Congress. The troubles he's had suggests how unpopular much of what he wants is.)

Conservatives had linked the tape to the NAACP asking the conservative "Tea Party" political movement to denounce racism by some of its members. Images such as Obama with a bone through his nose and the White House with a lawn full of watermelons are often displayed at Tea Party rallies.

Now it's getting ugly.

First, anyone reading this "analysis" who knows nothing of the situation wouldn't have any idea that calling the Tea Party movement especially racist (or even indifferent to racism) is highly controversial. (I'm surprised it's controversial--at its essence the Tea Party is not about race, but about the place of government. This might put them in opposition to Obama, but not for racial reasons.) There should at least be some recognition that one side sees the NAACP decision to single out the Tea Party for attack this way as a particularly despicable tactic.

The second sentence is much worse, accepting the idea that racist images are commonplace at rallies, when they're actually rare. Zengerle could have gone on to explain how some of the evidence showing Tea Party racism is manufactured or taken out of context, as badly as anything relating to Shirley Sherrod. I guess we should just be happy she didn't call them Teabaggers.

Tea party leaders say the movement is not racist but concede there are racist fringe elements in its membership.

This is the nicest thing she's capable of saying about them. They've got tens of millions of supporters, I doubt there's a fringe view you can't find somewhere in the movement. Would she care to go into the fringes of NAACP supporters?

Gillespie said the stakes are higher for Obama because his presidential campaign sought to emphasize that it was would not be bogged down in racial disputes.

That'll teach them for defying the experts she quoted above.

Looking at the piece as a whole, I'd say people would be better-informed if it hadn't been written.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two Years After

I hate to do this, but whenever there are predictions on this blog, we follow through, and not just for the correct ones.

I stumbled across this comment from AAGuy. It was regarding a post from April 2008 about how Obama is overrated as a campaigner, since it's just as much luck as anything. My main example was Bill Clinton, thought a political genius in the 90s, considered a political moron when he spoke out against Obama a decade later. AAGuy's comment:

Prediction: 2 years from now it will be announced that Bill Jeff clinton has been diagnosed with Alzheimers. (Longer if he is First Gentleman)

I'll give you to the end of the year, but let's face it, the guy was just arguing his case as always, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Teach Your Children

Someone sent me the video below. I assume it's part of a bigger documentary. It shows a high school teacher and kids who are creationists grappling in a public school with evolution, which is part of the curriculum. I understand documentaries don't show everything, but just based on the snippets here, the situation is pretty distressing.

We see three students speak in the clip. One girl says there's no way we could have evolved from simple organisms and we had to be put here by a supernatural being (she touches on abiogenesis, but I don't think that's her main problem). One boy claims we were put here by a supernatural being, and that plants and animals are here to help us survive. A second boy says we didn't evolve from anything, and to prove it, he asks how could a black person evolve from a white person.

The students seem to be making what Richard Dawkins calls the Argument From Personal Incredulity. They can't imagine how nature could accomplish certain things so they don't believe it's possible. I can't entirely blame them. They were taught specific religious beliefs and they've never (as far as I can tell) been taught about evolution.

Which is why we need good science teachers. Unfortunately, the teacher here seems worse than the students. We see him lecturing for a second, saying something about how creationists are "lumpers" and evolutionists are "splitters." Even if this made sense (and I'd think the opposite is true), what is it doing in a science class? His job is to teach evolution, not compare a scientific theory with competing non-scientific theories. He believes he gives both views "equal time"--taking him at his word, he's doing bad job, not to mention defying the law. And this is assuming he's able to give evolution a "fair shake," as he puts it, which seems doubtful.

He says he can't tell the students their ideas are "trash." Well, he doesn't have to be cruel, but his job is to explain to them what the present-day understanding of science is. If he can't explain evolution properly, he shouldn't be teaching biology.

PS Watching the clip, I tried to remember what I was taught in high school. Oddly, my teacher wasn't much better in that we spent a whole year on biology and less than a day on evolution. This is like teaching American law and spending less than a day on the Constitution. He basically said he understood evolution was controversial with some people, but it was the accepted scientific theory, and that was that. Hardly sufficient.

I had an English teacher who would occasionally insert his religious views into class, even though they had nothing to do with the subject at hand. He was actually a great English teacher, but he just couldn't help bringing up the occasional religious story in spare moments--he even told our class the notorious tale of the "missing day."

Aaron Shouldn't Speak For Him

Aaron Sorkin has optioned a tell-all book on the John Edwards scandal. While Sorkin's best known for writing political drama (A Few Good Men, West Wing, The American President, Charlie Wilson's War), this seems wrong for him. He likes writing about glorious liberals who get caught up in minor scandals hyped by their evil enemies. Edwards wasn't that glorious (kind of slimy, actually--and I mean as a politician) and was involved in an ugly scandal that he lied about, and kept lying about.

Furthermore, the scandal only came out after he was already finished as a candidate for President. Before then, it was only covered by the National Enquirer, who had the truth out there for some time while the mainstream press acted insulted that they should be required to look into it.

If Sorkin tries to blow up Edwards as a major figure brought down by his own hubris, or worse, by a swarming press, it'll be ridiculous. If he wants to tell the actual sleazy story, it'd have to be written as farce.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Four On The Floor

Watching Gran Torino on TV, I pressed the info button to see how it's rated. Four stars. Really? It's not a bad film, and was a huge surprise hit, but come on. The acting is so-so (some would call it bad once you get beyond Clint), the plot pretty basic, and Eastwood himself just doing a retread.

It got a decent reception from critics, but even three stars seems charitable.

Second Substitute

I've been watching reruns of Lost, season six. As always, rewatching Lost after you know what's going on is an interesting experience. The new mysteries of season six may not be as deep as earlier mysteries, but knowing what Smokey is doing makes a lot of things clearer.

I just watched "The Substitute," the Locke-centric fourth hour. In the altaworld, purgaLocke is married to Helen and loses his job for trying the Walkabout on company time. He meets Hugo who hooks him up with a new job as a teacher (where he meets Ben) and decides to give up trying to walk again. It's a good story, though it's odd to watch realizing it's not "real," but rather Locke trying to work out his problems.

In a later episode Jack meets Bernard, who seems to be awake. However, in this episode, Locke meets Rose and she seems to still be fully party of altaWorld. She brings up her termial disease (though purgatory presumably wouldn't let her die?), and I guess that's what she's got to work her way through. She better find Bernard soon.

The Island stuff is good, too. Jacob is dead and now Flocke is looking for new recruits. He flies around as Smokey before assuming Locke shape. He asks Richard to join him but even scared out of his wits, Richard won't come along. Locke starts talking about Candidates and Richard doesn't get it, and Locke feels bad that Jacob kept everyone in the dark. (He did tell Ilana about the Candidates, but also said once she she rounds them up to ask Richard what to do next.)

Flocke seems to honestly be bothered by Jacob's management style. In fact, that's what intrigued me most about the show. The main action on the island is Flocke meeting Sawyer and leading him to the Candidate Cave. Along the way, he tells Sawyer a lot of stuff, and it's all true. He claims he has the answer to why Sawyer et al are there, and darned if he doesn't. He explains he used to be a man with regular feelings. True enough. He says he's trapped now. Check. Says he doesn't know if "Kwon" on the wall means Sun or Jin. I don't know if we ever found that out. (Ilana didn't know either.)

His big speech is about how Jacob pulled the strings all along. And he explains to James that he's a Candidate who can replace Jacob, and has three choices: do nothing and see how it works out (and maybe die), accept the job and protect the island (from nothing, Flocke claims), or they can all leave the island. It's true, this is how Flocke sees things.

So he's a pretty honest guy, and much more ready to explain things than Jacob. Of course, he doesn't explain that "leaving the island" means him making sure all the Candidates die, just like he
had Jacob killed.

We also know now when he sees the blonde-haired kid (along with Sawyer--I guess these appearances work for Candidates as well) that it's young Jacob who warns him he can't kill Candidates. Don't tell me what I can't do.

Another story has Ilana finding out the awful truth in the aftermath of Jacob's death. (Though Ben lies about that a bit--the truth will come out later on that.) We discover Ilana knows a lot, but she's still limited in that Jacob, who sent her on this mission, only operates on a need-to-know basis.

On the way back to the Temple, Ilana's gang (Sun, Ben, Lapidus) bury Locke. In his eulogy, Ben apologizes for murdering him. It's the second of three apologies he'll make. The earlier was just as he left Locke's room after killing him, and the third is outside the purgatory church, where Locke forgives him. Surprisingly, this moment works each time.

Dream A Little Dream

I enjoyed Inception, and I'm glad to see Hollywood trying something a little different (though it took a major star and a top-grossing director to get the green light). So I hate to spend time criticizing it, but that's what I'm going to do. (Spoilers ahead.)

The main problem is the film's lack of emotional involvement. The only character with enough depth to create empathy is Cobb, but with all the twists and turns, it was hard for me to care that much about his journey to get back to his kids, or deal with his wife's death. The rest of the story is pretty much all action. The MacGuffin is so uninspiring--convincing a guy to break up a company so another company has a chance to compete--that they dispense with it quickly so no one has time to think about it. (I guess that's the point of the MacGuffin, but if what everyone's after seems silly, I think it can affect the quality of the action.)

But that's the danger of Christopher Nolan's approach. Big set pieces and multi-tiered plot can make for a smartly done movie, but if there's no human heart beating underneath, the experience doesn't register as strongly. And from Memento to The Prestige to Inception, with each step Nolan seems to get bigger but colder.

Some are saying the film will go over the heads of the general audience. I doubt it. They may not get every little point, but the general story is easy enough to follow. This is because the exposition comes out in huge dollops. It probably has to--the rules are arbitrary and so must be explained. People afraid the film is too smart have confused intricacy with depth.

Most of the rules I could go with. They don't really make much sense (a problem I also had with The Matrix) but I'll give them the basic premise that you can design and go inside dreams (and even that dreams look like what Nolan puts up on screen). But once they're in the dream, how can they use the same methods and apparatus to go inside another dream? They're no longer in the real world--physical methods should no longer apply, even if they "believe" in what they're doing. Much worse is how things speed up on each level. Once again, though it doesn't make too much sense, I'll accept that dream time is 20 times faster than real time. But why shoud this effect apply on each new level? All levels are still going on inside the same real-world brains--are we to believe that on the fourth level (limbo) people are imagining a world that operates 8000 times faster?

The climax works, but not as well as a more concentrated story might. Cutting back and forth between the different levels is intriguing, but the effect isn't quite cumulative. The first dream level isn't that much--it's necessary for the plot, but the chase is more irritating than exciting. The weightlessness on level two is fun, though I never felt that much was at stake--maybe because it was too far removed from the main action. (Maybe that's my fault, since this section seems to get near-universal approval.) The antics in the snow on the third level seemed like a second-rate action film for the most part. (And since Fischer is an undeveloped character, when he meets his dad the moment has little power.) In general, all the "bad guys" on these various levels (except for Mal) were faceless and unknown.

Then there's the ending. The final twist annoyed me. We're left in a limbo of our own, not sure if Cobb is in the real world or a dream world. There are clues that point either way, but the point is this final ambiguity adds nothing to the film. It would have been just as easy (and probably more satisyfing) for Nolan to have shown us the totem do one thing or another and settle the issue. Ambiguity for its own sake doesn't impress me.

I might add when I first heard about the film, it sounded like Dreamscape. But knowing how films are today (with excess twists as if that makes them better rather than ludicrous), I was afraid they'd go for the cliche and have a "surprise" ending where it's a dream. Or where there's always one more level up to go (e.g. ExistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor). But the ending where we have to wonder if they hero isn't dreaming has also been done (Total Recall, Minority Report). I suppose Nolan's film earns it, but would it have been so much to ask to see the totem drop? (Someone told me if the cinema is quiet, you can hear it drop after the cut to black, but I'm not ready to pay to see it again.)

PS On the radio I heard someone describe Inception's solid grosses by saying "the film is anything but a sleeper." I understand the pun they want, but "sleeper" should (or at least used to) mean a success that no one saw coming, which was not what they meant.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Me Fail English? That's Unpossible!"

Sarah Palin believes that "English is a living language."
The US Constitution is a document written in English.
Sarah Palin believes that the Constitution is a living document.

Sarah Palin: crypto-liberal.


Atom Egoyan turns 50 today. He's a Canadian director with an Egyptian-Armenian background.

His films are not big budget, and generally not what would be called crowdpleasers. In fact, they tend to be dark meditations, told in a non-linear fashion, about alienated individuals. They'll never get big audiences, but they have a certain power that can't be denied.

His best known film is probably The Sweet Hereafter, a 1997 work based on a Russell Banks' novel about a horrible school bus accident in a small town. (That description alone would keep most people away.)

There's a lot of good work in the film, from Ian Holm, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus and others, but, for some reason, when I think back on it, I'm most reminded of the sad, yearning song--Jane Siberry's "One More Color"--that Sarah Polley sings near the beginning.

Suicide Chump

Just the other day, a half mile from where I live, there were a ton of cop cars and fire trucks, closing down an entire block. I stopped and asked what was happening.

Turns out some guy had climbed to the top of a building and was threatening to commit suicide. You know, like in the movies. Except the building was a car wash building. A self-serve car wash--that's even less impressive. What's that, two stories at best? I say let him jump. The worst he's gonna do is break a leg and then you got him.

F And G

I didn't catch Freaks And Geeks the first time around. It was easy to miss. Though critically lauded, no one watched and it was canceled after twelve episodes (though six more were later aired). It's being rerun on the Independent Film Channel and I'm catching up.

I'm not sure, ten years on, if it's possible to watch the show the same way I could have watched it then. Now, you simply marvel at all the big names who came out of this flop.

For instance, the three main "freaks" are James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, all of whom have become leading men in movies. You've also got many other names now well known in TV or movies--Shia LeBeouf, Ben Foster, Linda Cardinelli and Busy Philipps, among others. (Maybe the most fun for me is seeing Martin Starr playing one of the geeks--he's essentially playing the same character grown up on my favorite new canceled sitcom Party Down--and his co-star Lizzy Caplan also appears on the show).

In addition, the show runner was Judd Apatow, who's since become one of Hollywood's top writer-directors. And it was created by Paul Feig, now one of TV's top directors.

I've met Feig a few times. Once we had a nice talk about what it was like to grow up in Detroit. In Clinton Township, to be exact. The difference is he got to do a TV show about it.

PS It's a weird sensation to hear local references from my childhood on a TV show. The person in charge of closed captioning must have it rough. On a recent episode, someone mentioned Cobo Hall in passing--a reference anyone from Detroit would get--but the CC had it "Coble" Hall.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stray Thoughts

You hear an awful lot about trophy wives. They're a mainstay in TV and movies (and real life?). But it occurred to me, how come we never hear about trophy husbands? I don't mean cougars chasing young guys. I mean where some woman, dissatisfied with her husband, dumps him for a richer guy. I've certainly seen it happen in real life.

P.S. I'm reminded of Steven Wright's line: "A friend of mine has a trophy wife, but apparently it wasn't first place."


Fox has been rerunning Glee, which gave me a chance to catch up with this TV phenomenon. I watched a few episodes when it first came on because it seemed like the kind of show I'd like, but I didn't go for it.

Unfortunately, after giving it a another shot, I haven't seen anything to make me change my original opinion. The writing isn't sharp enough, the characters aren't interesting enough and the musical numbers aren't enjoyable enough. I think I see what they're going for, but it doesn't have the wit, or touch, to pull it off. It's an interesting idea trapped in so-so execution.

Stag Films Are Back

Like many First Amendment fans, I've been following the prosecution of John A. Stagliano. He's a producer of pornography, and the government thought a good way to spend our money was take a guy who's making this product for consenting adults and put him behind bars. As I always say, all I ask of the government is they don't actively try to make things worse, and they still disappoint me.

Stagliano didn't just face a fine, or an injunction. He faced up to 32 years in jail. Happily, the case has been dismissed. Unfortunately, it was on technical grounds--the prosecutors did such a poor job that they failed to link Stagliano and associates to production and distribution of the porn in question. I have a better idea for the prosecutors. Start prosecuting real criminals.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

MT Words

Finally, after a hundred years, the entire, unexpurgated autobiography of Mark Twain, which he dictated in 1910, will be released.

Fans of Twain know he could be, especially in later years, very dark and bitter. (It didn't help that he'd lost all his money in bad investments.) Apparently, he let go so harshly that much of what he said wasn't or couldn't be published in the previous four editions.

Twain may be America's greatest writer, and I certainly believe he's our greatest humorist. Even this Twain, as negative as he may be, should be worth reading.

A Man's Man

In a short piece on Cary Grant at The House Nex Door, Aaron Cutler believes that the key to the famous moment in Bringing Up Baby where he exclaims "I just went gay all of a sudden!" isn't the word "gay," but "sudden." An interesting take on the line.

But critic David Ehrenstein, who left a comment, is having none of it: "Uh, no. The point of the line (which was an ad lib) IS gay."

Ehrenstein goes on to explain that Grant was gay (or bi). Grant would sue you if you said this while he was alive. Since his death you'd think people wouldn't care much any more, but the controversy continues.

It makes no difference to me either way, but I do note whenever I hear the evidence, it's always from someone who knows about Grant having sex with a man. It'd be more solid evidence if a disinterested party who actually had sex with him came forward.

Ehrenstein goes on to say Grant was the greatest of all male stars, and on that we agree.

Same Old Same Sex

Down below there's a bit of a discussion on gay marriage. Thought I'd bring it up here.

Reader Larry King notes he asks those in favor of SSM if they'd think it's okay to have polygamy and incestuous marriage. I note when they hear this it sounds like a smokescreen argument because denying gays the right to marry seems to them deeply unjust, while the other examples are stuff no one is interested in doing; in other words, Larry's argument is a slippery slope claim balanced against a denial of a basic right, and in such cases you usually go with the right.

Larry responds he doesn't see it as slippery slope. If gay marriage is a right, then you have no place to stand to claim the other things (particularly incestuous marriage) aren't. That the arguments used against something like incest (religious objection, genetics) no longer apply.

So here's my response:

Let's deal with the slippery slope argument first. Slippery slope arguments aren't hopeless, but they're much less likely to be accepted when balanced against a basic right.

Are you making a slippery slope argument? Yes. The courts declare (and we're talking about courts here--the popular vote argument is even harder for your side) it's sexual discrimination to not allow you to marry a person of whatever sex you want. After that, you go to court and say "I want to marry my brother, and you can't stop me because I can marry whoever I want." The court will say you couldn't marry your sister before, and now let us note you can't marry your brother either, because the anti-incest laws are still in effect and aren't based in same sex marriage justifications. We still have marriage as a basic right, and have made sure there's no sexual discrimination or sexual orientation discrimination, but what's that got to do with stopping incest?

As for the particular arguments about what will come next if we have SSM, are you claiming religious people believe incest is bad only because that's what their particular scriptures tell them? Because those scriptures say a lot of things that majorities of those people don't believe any more or won't enforce in law.

The state (for better or worse) has always had a strong interest in how families run and has regularly treated relatives differently from strangers. I'm not even saying this is how the law should be, it's just what is. Recognizing this status is part of having a smooth running society, they'd claim (and the right to have a family as a distinct thing might be just as much a right as the right to marry). Allowing siblings to marry, leaving aside the genetic arguments (which may or may not have been important in the past) could rip apart families and other associated relationships. Even if you then ban sex for underage siblings (and how do you do it?--people can get married in their mid-teens) you'd have a situation where sexually active teens are living under the same roof for years. I doubt you could stop them from having sex, and it would presumably put more stress on the situation if you tell them just hold on till you're 18 and anything goes. Also, you have the problem of parents having "affairs" with their kids, now that they know they can eventually marry them. The courts and most people recognize the family unit as a special thing, and allowing incestuous relations could help blow that apart.

I might add that the disgust factor you've mentioned is, indeed, considered by some judges (on both right and left) to be sufficient to base laws upon. (I remember a case--I think it was about First Amendment protection for nude dancing--where Justice Scalia said if we allow this, then we'd have to allow tens of thousands of adults renting a baseball stadium so they could cavort naked--apparently the specter of a bunch of adults with their things hanging out was so self-evidently horrible that he didn't need to explain why this was a bad thing.)

The arguments against polygamy are even stronger, I'd say. It would allow the rich and powerful--especially men, since that's how it usually works--to get many wives and leave plenty of poor and otherwise troubled men out in the cold, leading to an unjust and unstable arrangement. (Gay marriage arguably has this threat, except that they're a small minority, and male and female homosexuals will somewhat balance each other out, and presumably are less likely to want serious heterosexual marriages to begin with.) Furthermore, society's interest in marriage is in having two people in a close relationship, not having a guy get one girl pregnant and then seeing how many more he can rack up.

I'm not saying everyone has to accept these arguments. I'm saying they're serious arguments, or at least arguments that are taken seriously, and not ones that'll be overturned just because SSM is made legal. Why was homosexual marriage illegal? At least in part because for a long time there was a tradition that found homosexuality itself evil and repulsive. Once that changed, and homosexuality was normalized, the disgust factor against homosexual marriage disappeared (or started to) and the arguments against it started to sound to many like bigotry. I suppose it's possible the same will happen for incest, or polygamy. But the response to that is we'll worry about that in the future--right now let's be more inclusive in allowing this blessing known as marriage.

Friday, July 16, 2010

I Before E

At the A.V. Club David Sims is re-viewing Seinfeld. Discussing "The Phone Message," we get this:

The episode was scripted by Seinfeld and Larry David, both stories based on their own personal experiences, and it shows the inherent differences in their personalities and yet why they compliment each other so very well.

I can see this. When you're close friends, you know so much about the other guys, and you obviously like him, so you can probably compliment him quite well.

Later I read Nathan Rabin's review of Louie at the same website. It featured this:

The episode’s first seven minutes or so found C.K playing the put-upon straight man to guest star Ricky Gervais, who was given free reign—very, very, very free reign—to do a wild and wooly wacky doctor routine...

They really need to step up on the editing there.


A few days ago I wrote a bit on Marion Meade's The Unruly Life Of Woody Allen. The book was disappointing in that so much time was spent on his personal life, especially his relationships with Mia Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn. I suppose the title should have given it away. It's probably the raison d'etre of the book, but that stuff holds little interest for me. (It was interesting, though, how she discussed other Woody books and said they were whitewashes.) I read her bio of Buster Keaton, Cut To The Chase, years ago, and it has a similar problem, so I guess that's what she does.

At least she goes through Woody's entire show biz career (up to the 2000 publication date) with behind-the-scenes explanations of how he got to various points in his career. (And this is a guy who was making a living writing comedy as a teenager. By the way, she also spends equal amounts of time on all of Keaton's even longer show biz life, but that doesn't work, since he had one decade where almost he did almost all his best work.)

It was interesting to read her straightforward judgments of Woody's work, but she'd often make claims that gave me pause. For instance, in discussing Woody's famous monologue "The Moose," she's convinced the Berkowitzes are dressed in separate moose suits, when it's quite clear (and comically correct) that the couple are in one moose suit. Or discussing the TV version of Don't Drink The Water, she says Michael J. Fox plays Woody's son, when a glance at the cast list will tell you his character is not related. Or she'll claim John Cusack, though "a strapping six feet two inches [who bears] no resemblance to Woody" pulled off "an amazing transformation" in his "convincing impersonation of Woody" in Bullets Over Broadway. Anyone who knows Cusack knows that playing comic underdogs is practically his specialty.

PS Throughout the book Meade presents the reaction to Woody's work and his private life. When it comes to the Soon-Yi story, we get this:

In comparison to the sick, racist jokes that were posted on the Internet ("What do Woody Allen and Kodak Film have in common?"), the gags of late-night television monologists sounded tame.

I don't care if it's sick and racist, you can't just quote the set-up. Quote the whole thing and let the reader decide. (The punchline is they both come in a little yellow box.)

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