Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Well, what kind of a know-nothing, knee-jerk blogger would I be if I didn't write to A. decry the witch-hunt spurred on by the cabal of the liberal media and the 'Democrat' party or B. cheer the fall of what I hope will be the first of many dominoes.

But really, who gives a rip? Yeah, yeah, it's nice he's going down, but so what? It's not as if anything will shake Bush out of office. It's not as if the conservative agenda won't continue to be the only game in town--they've still got a lock on the three branches, folks! Democrats are in no position to make any trouble for Bush or his cronies--they're the minority party, and midterm elections are too far off for a scandal at this point to do them any good at the polls. So guess what? It doesn't matter. Bush can get approval ratings into the negatives, and nobody will say 'boo' about it. "The Culture of Life" will continue to march onward. Libby can do hard time in a cell with a muscle-bound guy who treats him like--well, like a pasty white guy in federal prison--and it won't change the fact that the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution is a staggeringly depressing minority. Our religious beliefs are becoming simplistic and fanatical--we're becoming the enemy we're supposed to be fighting overseas. Libby going away won't stop that. Delay goes away? Someone, equally vile, will rise to take his place. I don't mean to get apocalyptic, folks, but we may be past the point of recovery on this. The press is spineless--or worse, owned by people who prefer things the way they're presented by the government--and we know this, and it really does seem to be OK with us. Politicians are caught in lies--caught, mind you--and it doesn't seem to bother us. Katrina leaves the hospitalized to drown in their beds, and we shake our heads a moment, then move on--why hold anyone accountable?

Libby's indictment won't change any of this.

Sorry. I just can't join the celebration. Iraq is and will continue to be a f***ing, endless mess. The tax cuts will continue. Poverty will go up, and social services will be slashed. Natural disasters will continue to be met with lethargic indifference. Things will continue to get worse and worse for more and more. And we can't have another revolution, because out country's too big, and we're too outgunned by the military. Actually, I guess I do mean to get apocalyptic. But I'll lighten up next time, I promise...

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Oh, What The Hell

I made a crack about doing a Top Ten List of Underappreciated Films, and since I'm quite unimaginative these days, let's give it a whirl, shall we?

(Again, this is not a list of the Best Films Ever, just as the previous list was not one of the Worst Films ever. This is a list of films that, for whatever reason, have been ignored or disparaged far beyond their dessert. So if you don't see a film that's taken a whole lot of s*** over the years here, it's probably because it is, in fact, deserving of that extra ration of s***.)

The Top Ten Most Underrated Films of All Time:

10. Heaven's Gate. Of course it had to make this list. To have earned the calumny that got thrown at it for most of the 1980s, this movie would have be twice as awful as Battlefield: Earth, an achievement that Stephen Hawking has proved is impossible under the physical laws of this universe. It's over-long, to be sure, but the cast is top-notch (John Hurt, Sam Waterston really enjoying being evil, Christopher Walken long before he degenerated into self-parody, a baby-faced Jeff Bridges), and there's a whole lot to like about it. Self-indulgent direction doesn't always kill a movie--Chaplin, Welles, Scorsese, Bergman, Fellini et al. were all plenty self-indulgent, and it actually helped their work--and the overall portrait of this aspect of frontier life--the 'pioneering spirit' that this country so prides itself on encouraging in its citizens, and the viciousness of big business that destroyed it make it as relevant today as it ever was. It's a pretty good movie. Though too long, to be sure. But that's its worst sin, and it's not enough to merit the abuse it received.

9. Miller's Crossing. In many ways the best of Coen brothers' films. Yes, I said it. The consistently best dialogue. The best cinematography. The best performances. At the very least, there isn't a single aspect of this movie that doesn't stand up to any of their other films and more than hold its own. But it was a victim of horrible timing--its release coincided with that of the third Godfather film and Goodfellas--and folks were just burnt out on "gangster movies"--which this movie really isn't--it's much more about attempting to walk a tight-rope between brains and loyalty, between desire and commitment, between morality and self-preservation. Plus there are Tommy Guns. So, OK, it is a gangster movie. But it's one of the best ever. And people don't talk about that fact enough. Unfair.

8. Eyes Wide Shut. Given Kubrick's untimely demise prior to its opening and the crushing weight of expectation that consequently landed on the "final work of a master," it would have been damned near impossible for any film to live up to such expectations. Lucas faced a similarly daunting task when he set to work on his new trilogy. But unlike Lucas, Kubrick produced a genuinely fine piece of work here--but it wasn't what anybody was expecting; all the buzz seemed to be about how it was going to focus squarely on Cruise and Kidman going at it left right and sideways, and then it turns out that she's not in much of the film, and they don't even have sex, not really, not that we get to see. And so the backlash machine went into full gear: it was boring, it was stupid, it was a waste of the last great opportunity to see a new Kubrick film--on and on it went. But go back to it, and you might realize something: it's really quite good. No, it's not what you were expecting. And seeing it the first time isn't nearly as much fun as seeing it the second time--unlike other films like Memento and The Usual Suspects, the knowledge of the outcome enhances the film, rather than detracts from it. Cruise's character comes to all the wrong conclusions--and all the same conclusions that we came to. Were we duped? Or did we dupe ourselves? Who knows? Is anything certain? The questions of the movie spiral out of control, and the explanations that come at the end are so neat and facile that we just can't trust them, can we? Does Kidman's rather Epicurean solution to life's uncertanties soothe us? Perhaps. But it can't make them go away. It's a genuinely--in the best sense--disturbing film. No wonder nobody liked it.

7. Spaceballs. An interesting entry: I genuinely don't like this film. Except for the Alien gag with John Hurt in the Diner--that's as close to brilliance as Mel Brooks has come since Young Frankenstein. And yeah, Rick Moranis playing with his action figures is a hoot. But overall, I don't think it's particularly well-conceived, and while Bill Pullman has been good elsewhere, he and Daphe Zuniga are badly miscast and unfunny. So why include it? Because the general reception of the film matched mine, and yet everyone I've ever spoken to about this film really, really likes it. I have to concede, then, that even though I'm not in on the joke, there are enough people who laugh to force me to concede that there's something there. It's never listed among Brooks's best work--and for good reason--yet there are too many smart people out there who like it for me to deny that it's been unjustly neglected.

6. Alien 3. And again, not a movie I'm particularly fond of. And certainly, not what any of us were expecting. I mean, for God's sake, the teaser trailer specifically said that, unlike space, "On Earth, everyone can hear you scream." Which kind of suggested that the movie was gonna take place on, I don't know, Earth??? But no. But the frustration and the disappointment of this film--they're the point; this is a film about those very emotions. The thing is, on its own, it's a cleanly made film--tight plotting, and the dialogue's not bad. It's essentially a rehash of the first movie--single alien, unarmed group of potential victims, dripping industrial setting, etc. But we need to give credit where credit's due: they knew what we wanted, and they did not give it to us. Hicks--the guy we liked so much from that prior movie? Dead. Newt--for God's sake, they killed off a little girl! Ripley's isolation in this movie is so agonizing it's difficult to watch. Everyone she loves or tries to love dies. That alien growing inside her isn't just a parasite--it's a symbol for what she's become: a Jonah--doom to anyone who gets too close. It's a dark, cruel movie, and perhaps the one that takes the loss of death most seriously of the three. It's not particularly scary--that would be the first one--and it's not particularly thrilling--that would be the second. It's not much fun at all. But there's a truth to this movie--a grim sense that, yeah, this is how the story goes--Ripley does not get to live happily ever after. Beowulf kills the dragon, but must die in so doing. Ripley does not get out alive. For the alien--the monstrous manifestation of all that is hostile to man's existence--to end, so must she. She's a carrier, and has to die to kill the disease. Grim. Unpleasant. And oh so very ballsy. This is hands down the bravest sequel ever made, because it gave us nothing that we wanted and dared us to argue that life is fair. For that alone, it needs to be appreciated, revisited, and applauded. But no, you don't have to like it.

5. Zelig. Not so much underrated as ignored, and that's a pity, as it's probably my favorite film of Allen's. He doesn't push the humor, not for an instant, and his beautifully seamless insertion of himself and others into historical footage shows what clumsy, dreadful work was done in that Satanic mess Forrest Gump. But more than that, it's a film that combines the genres of documentary, farce, romantic love, struggle with disease, and half-a-dozen others and produces a movie of genuine poignancy and stunning humor: "I'd never delivered a baby before and I just thought ice-tongs was the way to do it." Unlike most of Allen's other incarnations, Zelig's pathos is genuine, not neurotic, and as a result, he's an enormously sympathetic character--probably the one least like Allen himself (Zelig is sweet, unopinionated, and genuinely self-effacing), and in that respect represents his best work as an actor. This one isn't a heavy-hitter but it's got a weight--a sadness, really, since it's at base the story of an unhappy man who's thrust unwillingly onto the public stage--that his out-and-out comedies lack. It's one that gets overlooked, because, like it's hero, it's a self-effacing movie. And it's one of his best. I'm tempted to go and find a copy of it right now--it's that compulsively watchable.

4. The Tall Guy. Before Richard Curtis starting cranking out mixed bags like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually--movies you can never relax while watching because every time you start to settle in and enjoy them, bam! Andie Macdowell plunges onscreen and wrecks everything and you're so shaken and upset you can't calm down until she's safely gone--he wrote this utter gem of a film starring Jeff Goldblum and a then-unknown Emma Thompson as the most disarmingly wonderful woman in the world--honesty combined with warmth that just floors you every time she opens her mouth and says something completely unexpected and true. Goldblum--apart from his brilliant work in The Fly--is an essentially comic actor, and he's never been better, acting as the straight man to his own life--he keeps getting hit in the face by the miserable existence of being a gangly American actor in London, only to respond endlessly with not-quite-dour wryness and intelligence. The self-loathing seizure he has in the men's room while out on a date with a woman he despises but who he knows will go to bed with him is a marvel. And the evisceration of Andrew Lloyd Weber contained in the rehearsal and performance of Elephant!--a musical based on the life of the Elephant Man, is perfection itself. This is the movie that every gooey dating couple in America should have fallen in love with, long before Hugh Grant's stammering mug hove into view. Go. See it. Now.

3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A toughie. I mean, it's nowhere near as good as the original (almost nothing is.) And yes, Kate Capshaw is possibly the most annoying woman onscreen ever, with the obvious and eternal exception of Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill, a performance that still gives me the occasional fit of night terrors. And as for Short Round--well, either you like him or you don't. (I don't, largely because it makes it seem as if Indiana Jones couldn't find a sidekick whose employment doesn't violate child-labor laws. For God's sake people, the bullets and blades just fly whenever this guy's around, and he's dragging a kid along with him?!) But in stealing wholesale from Gunga Din, Spielberg and Lucas stole from the best. The mysticism and political complexity of colonial India are used quite well here--it is, after all, in response to the English occupation that the Kali worshippers are able to gain the support of the Raj. And the sheer--if perhaps politically incorrect--evil of the villains (though why should all the bad guys in movies be white? if Thuggee worshippers aren't monstrous embodiments of evil, who is, besides the Nazis, of course?) is terrific. Nobody's ever going to forget seeing that guy's heart removed--not violently, but with eerie delicacy--from his chest. There's a fearlessness to the willingness to show genuinely cruelty here--again, one cannot accuse Spielberg of going soft in this follow-up (he'd do that in the dreadful third film--yeah, yeah, Sean Connery was cute, but the rest of film is an insult to a single firing synapse, much less a thinking adult.) The film has the courage not to be a rehash of the first--it's much more static--no globe hopping here--we're trapped in a hostile kingdom of darkness, and only dethroning the monster on the throne will win us release. Not to mention that Ford's acting in this film makes his acting the first film seem better. This Jones--the Jones of this earlier time--is a colder, more mercenary, more careless individual--a bit too cocky and smug--kind of an a**hole, really--I mean, he's willing to threaten to stab Capshaw in that first scene (would that he had followed through on this promise.) But upon encountering the blighted village, on being informed that, much against his will, he must become the man who returns fertility to the wasteland--he becomes a reluctant Arthurian hero, in search of the Grail, only in the form of the Sankara stone. (Much more potent, his need to find the fertility symbol in this film, compared to that "better get it before that other guy gets it" thing of that final film--man that one sucked.) This film's Jones ends the film a different man than when he started--he's much more sober--much more the man who steps out of the jungle shadows in Raiders. Yes, the monkey brains and the eye-ball soup scene is stupid. But on the flip side, the film shows that the Hindu religion is just as potent as the Judeo-Christian one. There's just way more here than most people give it credit for having. It's by far the number 2 film of the trilogy. By far.

2. The Missouri Breaks. Never heard of it? I'm not suprised. Nobody has. Though I can't understand why. Directed by an American great, Arthur Penn, and starring Marlon Brando (at his most entertainingly loony) and Jack Nicholson (who, sensing that he can't beat Brando at overacting, underplays nicely). A band of low-rent horse thieves--the equivalent of guys who steal hubcaps and car stereos, led by a bemused Nicholson and his lieutenant, played by a wonderful Harry Dean Stanton--are targeted by the local cattle baron for extermination. To carry out this murderous agenda, the baron brings in Brando, a renowned bounty hunter who turns out to be a complete psychopath. The good guys become the bad guys, and the bad guys the good guys, and I think it got overshadowed by the similarly-themed Butch Cassidy--sort of viewed now as the final word on 60s-era anti-heroes whose status as outlaws is part of their appeal and their doom at the hands of coldly impersonal forces of business and history. But Missouri Breaks is more about realizing that law isn't what divides the good from the bad--it's the love of life. It's a witty and hellishly entertaining film that nobody's seen and that more people should. Again I say: Unfair.

1. Plan Nine From Outer Space. I know, I know. It seems almost inevitable that it would be here. Lord knows, I'm not going to attempt to claim that this--the all time king of So-Bad-It's-Hilariously-Good movies--is a genuinely fine film. But Ed Wood has one scene here--just one scene--that actually causes one to stop and think, and realize that that crazy cross-dressing bastard may have been onto something. The climax comes on board the flying saucer, when our square-jawed hero and his vapid girlfriend are told by the aliens just why the latter have been plaguing the earth with zombies--it's to prevent, explains the alien Eros, the development of Solarinite--a matter capable of creating a bomb that explodes sunlight. Silly idea? Wood's got your objection covered: One of the earthlings scoffs that "a particle of sunlight can't even be seen or measured." Eros answers: "Can you see or measure an atom? Yet you can explode one. A ray of sunlight is made up of many atoms." He then goes on to explain why mankind must never be allowed to create this substance--it will mean the destruction of all creation:

Take a can of your gasoline. Say this can of gasoline is the sun. Now, you spread a thin line of it to a ball, representing the earth. Now, the gasoline represents the sunlight, the sun particles. Here we saturate the ball with the gasoline, the sunlight. Then we put a flame to the ball. The flame will speedily travel around the earth, back along the line of gasoline to the can, or the sun itself. It will explode this source and spread to every place that gasoline, our sunlight, touches. Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, you explode the universe. Explode the sunlight here and a chain reaction will occur direct to the sun itself and to all the planets that sunlight touches, to every planet in the universe. This is why you must be stopped. This is why any means must be used to stop you. In a friendly manner or as (it seems) you want it.

Still a silly idea, you say? Perhaps. But the reaction of our square-jawed hero has the eerie ring of truth to it: "So what if we do develop this Solaranite bomb? We'd be even a stronger nation than now." Small wonder that Eros responds with the famous line: "You see? You see? Your stupid minds. Stupid. Stupid." At which point our square-jawed hero belts him, rather proving Eros's point. If such a device were possible, oh, you'd better believe George W. Bush and the whole Pentagon would be trying like gangbusters to build one. It would be Number One on their to-do list, and the to-do list of everyone on this planet. Bad as the movie is, Wood tells us something profoundly true about human nature--we're competively violent to the point of self-destructiveness. A point that's been made in better films, but which the absurdity of this film renders oddly...perfect. In the middle of a stupid movie about stupid people saying stupid things, Wood makes the brilliantly situated point that mankind is...stupid. And by God if he isn't right. Our stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid! Indeed. And for that--this movie should be appreciated just a bit more--it's not just a bad joke (or a good one, depending on how much you laugh)--it's a dark one, too, one that mocks the species, and rightly so.

Harriet, We Hardly Knew Ye

But that was kinda the problem, Harriet. We didn't know who you were, and you didn't want to tell us, either out of some reasonable but incredibly awkward loyalty to executive privilege and to the man who holds that privilege at the moment, or because there wasn't anything to tell, and the silence of your answer would be agony for you as much as for us. Regardless, you did the right thing.

One gets the sense, if I may say so, that you never really wanted the job in the first place. I haven't seen a single photograph or news clip from you where you didn't project a sense of self-effacing unhappiness. You really didn't think this was what you should be doing, and you were right. The Supreme Court is not to be taken lightly--and shame on your boss for putting you in a position where you became the source of contempt and scorn, rather than he. Bush did wrong by you, and I hope you see that.

Harriet, he's no good for you. You come across as a nice, largely shy and quiet soul, someone content to follow a path merited by your talents (which are not non-existant, but you're a Triple-A player who will never ever be ready for the majors)--and he shoved you into the spotlight you've avoided all your life because you like privacy and hate scrutiny. I share that trait with you, Harriet. I really do--this blog to the contrary, I'm quite private and I like it that way.

So know that you'll be happier now--know that people will treat you with sympathy and kindness, and then go back to leaving you alone. And that's really all you wanted in the first place, right? Be well, Harriet. Be well.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Yet Another G*d-D**nmed Top Ten List

Hey, I either give quantity of posts, or...no, really, that's pretty much it. Lots of dreck, or none at all. So without further ado:

The Top Ten Most Overrated Films of All Time:

(Editor's Note: This list is not to be confused with a WORST Films of All Time list--many of the films included herein are quite good indeed, and some are even great--but what is being measured here, with scientific exactitude confirmed by labwork at JPL and Caltech, is the disparity between the actual merit of the film itself, and the critical and popular admiration/adulation it has received. Citizen Kane is not on the list, for instance, because the praise it has received is merited; neither is Battlefield: Earth, because every sane person on the planet agreed that it was a piece of s***. The films here are films that have been wildly overpraised, but that is all that unites them. I expect, I will add, to infuriate a lot of people with this list, which is what warms my black little heart in the cold winter night.)

10. Field of Dreams. Oh, now, calm down!!! I know, I know, I just got challenged to half-a-dozen fist-fights. Guys go nuts for this movie, and hell, I'm one of 'em. But guys, admit it--if you popped in the DVD right now, you'd fast-forward through a lot of this movie. Does anybody give a rip about Amy Madigan taking on the harridan at the PTA meeting? No, we do not. We want to get to the end. Frankly, I'd even skip the parts with James Earl Jones, because that stuff ain't about baseball, and that's what this movie is supposed to be about. Face it: we talk about this movie as if every second is sheer gold, as if it's a lost book of the New Testament, and it isn't--the ending is, in fact, the most important emotional experience of every young man's life, and no one can take that away. But that's a scene, and I'm talking about the movie as a whole. Great film that's been endowed with virtues it does not have, is all I'm saying.

9. Fargo. And again, I'm the victim of a lynch mob. Back off with those pitch forks--it's a great movie, I admit! Really! But...but the thing is, appreciation for the film has obscured the fact that there's a lot of the movie that's less than inspired. Buscemi vowing to shut up and continuing to talk is a gag as old as vaudeville. The scene between Marge and the Japanese guy in the hotel lounge is so jarringly out of place that everyone has to justify it in retrospect--which we do, because we love the movie so. But let's face, it doesn't really belong in an otherwise tightly plotted film. But what highlights Fargo's overratedness is the degree to which it's been praised above and beyond the rest of the Coen films, to which it is equal, not superior, in merit: Miller's Crossing, a dark jewel of a film, has been unjustly ignored--Raising Arizona is near-perfect comic gold--Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and, of course, Lebowski (which started out as one of the most underrated films of all time, but has grown to its proper status--though one fears that if it draws still more worship, it may have to find a place on this list.) In short, Fargo's swell--it's just not the non-stop cinematic orgasm that others would claim.

8. Saving Private Ryan. Possibly the most wincingly cliched war-movie ever, from the sharp-shooter who prays to God with each shot, to the battle-shy coward who pulls it together at the last minute to shoot the one Nazi we've met in the whole film. Oh, and we establish that Tom Hanks's hands shake at the beginning, so that when he dies, we can talk about how they've stopped. Boy, sheer screenwriting genius! But I shan't elaborate--William Goldman, with whom I rarely agree, critically speaking--has produced a pitch-perfect evisceration of this wretched heap of illogical banality masquerading as patriotic iconography in The Big Picture, and I urge you to find it and read it. If you admire this film, it will cure you of this illness. Bad movie! Bad! Bad! No biscuit!

7. Dances With Wolves. I can't sneer enough at those who love this simplistic piece of historically revisionist garbage, except to point out that Kevin Costner gets whacked on the head about 953 times during a 3-hour period--including a running gag about his low doorframe!--and apparently suffers nothing more than a bad headache. Were the Native Americans dicked over by Western Expansionism? Of course. But this is not the way to make the case. Never has one man tried so hard to tug so many heartstrings while proposing that he and he alone is a Good White Man---an act of self-loathing racism that renders him One of The Good Ones. Shooting the wolf, a thuggish soldier (is there any other kind?) using the meticulously kept journal as toilet paper--oh, Christ, do I have to go on? I want my money back. It's been over a decade, and I want my money back.

6. A Beautiful Mind. It should go without saying that just because a movie wins Best Picture, that doesn't make it the best movie of the year. If ever there were a film to prove this truism, it'd be this one. A narrative twist clumsily stolen from Fight Club (among other films), a badly miscast Russell Crowe as a math nerd--sorry, but no, I'm not swallowing that--emetic attempts to depict 'genius' as the ability to see imaginary numbers swirl about your head, and basically nothing to recommend it except the fact that Jennifer Connelly is pretty, if already beginning her nightmare descent into emaciation. And yet this ridiculous sack of tripe won Best Picture, presumably because there wasn't a movie about a Holocaust survivor or a historical epic with a catchy theme song that year. No. Go sit in the corner. No.

5. Manhattan. The nice thing about most Woody Allen movies is the degree of consensus they create. It's just so easy to identify the souffles of his early career, his first few stabs at serious film-making, the disastrous faux-Bergman period, the revival of the late 80s and early 90s, and the period we're stuck in now, when he can make nothing but profoundly hollow and generally unfunny "comedies" in which he casts himself opposite young women a third of his age, a revoltingly creepy trend. But it's generally easy to know which are the good ones (Annie Hall, Hannah & Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sleeper, Bananas, and so on) and which are the dogs (Stardust Memories, Interiors, Another Woman, September, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, etc.). But for some bizarre reason, folks think that Manhattan is one of his best. And it's not. At all. It's about a bunch of whiny people leading whiny lives of duplicity and shallow self-absorption, and the thing is, that could be the makings of a great satire, except--I've realized on recent viewing--Allen isn't playing it in that key. He actually thinks that these people and their problems matter. That we're actually supposed to care about, say, Diane Keaton's neuroses--not to mention his own. When he played them for laughs in Annie Hall, that was fine. But here, he's giving it to us straight--asking us to want to know what happens to a bunch of horrible people. But we don't. And yet critics tell us that we do. But we don't. No, no, the critics tell us--see, Allen has captured urban angst and the confusion attendant upon the post-modern era and the difficulty of commitment in a world of too many options--so, see, we do care, because these people are us. A., no, they're not. B, No. We. Don't. Apart from the shot of Meryl Streep emerging from that office building--the most stunning shot of a flawlessly beautiful woman onscreen since Grace Kelley came out of the shadows in Rear Window--and the relief we feel at Mariel Hemingway's escape to Europe at the end, Manhattan sucks. We don't care. We really, really don't.

4. The Piano. OK, I'm going to lay it right out: Jane Campion cannot direct. At all. I don't just mean she's incompetent. I mean that she doesn't get to anymore. I get that we need women behind the camera, and I'm all in favor of that, but even an egomaniac like Streisand, though she can't resist shooting herself in the most flattering light possible, for which I really can't blame her--hell, if I were shooting myself, I'd make sure I was damn gorgeous, which would involve prosthetics, a stand-in, and CGI, but still--even Streisand knows to plant the camera right and step back and let the actors do what they do. But Campion? No, no more movies for her. She has the flaw of the mediocre--she cannot summon the confidence to let a shot speak for itself. No, she's gotta fuzzy up that image, smudge a corner of the screen--shoot through a sea-blue filter, twist and move the camera throughout--she is a loud, empty-headed person at a party trying to tell an anecdote and keeps getting drawn off into tangents and unnecessary details and who you eventually want to scream at--but who cannot--shut the f*** up. But hey, that Holly Hunter sure was mute! Yep, she gestured! And one really never can get enough of Harvey Keitel's penis, am I right? Yet somehow this wound up on every critic's "Must Get Wet While Reviewing" list. I shudder for the world.

3. The Passion of the Christ. Oh, come on, I had to. It's actually not a bad movie, if a little (and inevitably) pro forma--and I've discussed it elsewhere on this blog. But...well...you're not going to get into heaven just because you've seen back-to-back-to-back showings for the last year and a half. Sorry.

2. (I bet you thought that Titanic was going to make the list. But no, I think that a few years has given us the distance we need to recognize that Titanic was what it was--two movies, one designed largely for adults, one for teenage girls. Neither had anything to do with the other, and both fulfilled their function. The worst that can be said about the first is that it essentially stole everything from A Night to Remember and updated it with special effects that were, in fact, wicked slick. The best that can be said about the second is that it gave David Warner work, which is always a good thing. Balance the two out, and you have what everyone now sees Titanic as: a mediocre film that, for reasons we're not sure of, everyone wanted to see.) (On the other hand, that popularity was way, way, way in excess of its virtues. And I'm really eager to get to my Number One pick. And I'm lazy. So, f*** it:) Titanic.

1. Forrest Gump. This movie was the reason I created this list. This movie is evil itself, come in the guise of a spiritual panacea, a cinematic trip to a typhus ward disguised as Lourdes. This movie is Jonestown Koolaid--its sugary sweetness disguising the lethal poison lurking within. The story of the Holy Fool, except instead of being told that he's a fool, we're told that he's a genius in fool's clothing. Except that Gump isn't a genius--he's an idiot. Stupidity is Virtue. That is the lesson of this film. Stupidity is the path to fortune, which is the mark of God's reward--"Stupid is as Stupid does," and therefore, if one never does anything stupid, however randomly, however mindlessly, then one is not stupid. Quite the contrary. Gump succeeds because 'wiser' men wouldn't 'listen to their hearts' and so would end up, I don't know, not going into the shrimping business or being good at ping pong or letting someone invest in Apple for them or something. So fie on those who would think their ways through life--fie on those who respond with reason rather than sentiment. Fie on those who can't just see the world with pure eyes of an 'unspoiled' perspective. ("Unspoiled" defined as "untainted by education or informational comprehension.") Gump sees the Kennedy assassination and the murder of John Lennon as having happened "for no particular reason at all," and that's supposed to be profundity, rather than the complacency of a retarded mind's incompetence to deal with complexities. Gump "loves" Jenny, despite the fact that she does not one lovable thing in the entire film--she is, in fact, a rather horrible b*tch--and is rewarded for his steadfastness because...well, because a smarter man would have figured out that she's a horrible b*tch. Gump runs across the country because the screenwriter has run out of things for this mental midget to do, and collects a group of mindless followers (some of whom manage to get him to give them ideas for marketing idiotic crap!), and reveals to them when he's tired that, no, there is no there there. And we laugh at these poor benighted souls, not getting the fact that that's us--that's us up there staring stupidly at one another. Because if we try to "learn" whatever wisdom Gump has to teach us, then we're just as stupid as he is. Bottom line: Gump explains Reagan's canonization and Bush's re-election. Geniality is more important than brains, and the feeble-minded niceness of an idiot who can't understand the world in any meaningful way is better than the virtue of men of intelligence who must wrestle with its complexities. In the Tarot Deck, the figure of the Fool is about to step off a cliff. Folks back then knew to laugh at him, not follow him. But we followed Gump. Gump was truth--Gump was what we should do and see and think. And off the cliff we go, because "it's such a beautiful, beautiful film." I say it again: When the devil comes, he comes in angel's guise--the kinder he seems, the more harm he can do. And Forrest Gump...is the devil. Here endeth the reading, go in peace.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The WASP Chronicles, Part Three

As an apology for the delay in our reporting, we shall seek to placate our readers by glutting them on the salacious, the sordid, and the perverse. In short, we shall now turn, in our studies, to the sex life of the WASP.

To be sure, the subject sounds like a contradiction in terms. One thinks of WASPs as sexless beings, possessing something akin to the anatomically smooth bodies of the Barbie-and-Ken varieties, who seem to be a lower-class visual parody of WASPs, upon reflection. Creatures known for their inability to dance beyond the simplicity of the box-step, or perhaps the waltz if they actually paid attention during cotillion, creatures who dislike the visceral rhythms of the better forms of rock music, creatures whose ethos depends largely on denying the fact that their own bodies exist save for the head and the hands, such are not the beings one would expect to have sex lives of any sort, much less imaginatively active ones.

And yet, as those who have read Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman cannot wait to tell those who have not, the disparity between the repressed outward appearance of the Victorian era belied the sordid truth that lay underneath. As it was for the Victorians (most of whose leading figures were, needless to say, WASPs), so it is for the WASP of today. He may appear sexless, but he is anything but. To the contrary, there seethes within him the cliched cauldron of sexuality, as atavistically active as the most 'earthy' of other sub-cultures. ('Earthy' is, needless to add, WASP-code for 'those of a duskier hue and lower income, prone to reveal their sexual desires in song, dance, and comments to attractive passers-by of the opposite sex.')

The WASP has sex. He has it far more often than one would imagine. A recent scientific study revealed that married people had more sex and better sex than single people--the obverse of the popular perception of the disparity of the erotic adventures of unattached Casanovas and those trapped within the "dull, stale, tir'd bed" of marital imprisonment. But this study came as no surprise to the WASP. He had known this truth all the while--he had been living it.

The secret to the WASP's sex life--as to so many other aspects of his existence, is his mastery of Privacy. The WASP does not live behind picket fences--they are too easily seen over and through--though their jagged surface, so univiting to those who think to cross the property line, meets with his approval--they are a descendant from the European tradition of broken glass strewn across the high walls of the manor. He lives behind high hedges, carefully positioned trees that obscure any view into the upper floors, and long drives that twist between 7-foot-tall potted plants. If he were to stoop so far as to have a welcome mat, the WASP's would read "Keep Out." The drapes that cover every window of the lower floors of his house--the curtains that hide those above--or better yet, the shutters that cover every single window--these things speak to his view of his home as a place of utter retreat, a bunker of domestic solitude.

There is a similar kind of safety in marriage. Two people who are bound by the laws of God and the even stricter laws of the marital contract know that they are, for all intents and legal purposes, as one, and thus there need be no secrets between them. Total freedom of certain forms of expression are therefore permitted. There is little sexual discussion between husband and wife--it would seem vulgar, not to mention a little ridiculous--but in terms of activity, there is next to no shyness, and no genuine libidinal inhibition whatsoever. When one occasionally hears of young WASPs--the larvae of the breed--being caught committing involuntary acts of hideous perversity and violence upon unwed young women, the WASP community recoils--it takes the young man back into the fold, of course--"loyalty to clan above all"--but he will be an internal pariah for a good time to come, not for the perversity itself, but for his failure to keep it private, and for committing the unforgivably rude act of rape. (The manners of a WASP are not 'moral,' per se, but they product a conduct of mutual respect that in turn yields a gentility of interpersonal behavior that would rival that of a Buddhist monk.) Sex is for married couples, not because the WASP believes in the immorality of pre-marital sex, but because 'people talk,' and privacy is breached. If he must have such sex, it will be with a call-girl of impeccable discretion and multiple good references. (Call-girls who fail to remain discreet risk almost certain extermination, as Vicky Morgan found out when she began to tell the world of Alfred Bloomingdale's proclivities.)

Within such environments as Home and Marriage--"behind closed doors," as they say--perversity flourishes. It is a kind of absolute power, with the absolute corruption that follows. If one knows that one is completely and utterly unobserved, that no one is watching, and never will do so--then there is a complete freedom of behavior. The tendency of WASPs to send their children to soccer practice, ballet lessons, French camp, and extensive tutelage on several musical instruments, or--ideally--to boarding school has nothing to do with encouraging the young ones' growth and enrichment, it has to do with getting them out of the house, and keeping them out.

As for the sex itself:

WASPs are, of course, possessed of a keen awareness of the importance of power and control--they are ideally formed for the leather-and-steel-clad world of sadism and masochism. DeSade himself is widely read--in secret, as everything else erotic--not simply for inspiration, but for the reminder that sexuality, real WASP sexuality--the sexuality of power--exists in transgression, and one must consistently look for ways to push the boundaries of experience. Yet no blood is shed in the master suite, not simply because it would create a mess that would lead to suspicions from the maid--and no WASP will wash his own sheets--and for this same reason 'water sports' and other such practices do not occur in the bedroom. (The bathroom and its easily sprayed surfaces is another matter, but we will not follow them there, except to say that you will find many a WASP bathroom with a drain located discretely in the floor somewhere; they will claim that this exists for overflow from the tub, but this is a convenient fiction.)

There is not much 'role-playing' in the strictest sense of the term--WASPs do not wear costumes, assume bad accents, or refer to one another as "Mistress" and "Slave"--these things are artificial and whimsical, and sex for the WASP is real and serious. There is also, as before, the possibility of the ridiculous in such activities, and though he may do much during sex, the WASP will never, ever laugh. Instead, the roles of sadist and masochist are unfeigned--the WASP is confident enough not to 'play' at being brutal or abusive--or at being brutalized or abused--he damn well does it. This is not a game, this is sex--and the WASP is never more sincere than he is now. There is a similar commitment to his esoteric usage of his partner's body--he is 'experimental' the way Oppenheimer was--both have/had a definite outcome in mind, and will stop at nothing to achieve it.

Yet the WASP is not cruel during sex. He is not the vicious overlord bestride the naked, battered body of a miserable spouse. Sex is quite mutually enjoyed. This is most important--politeness demands that both partners are equally pleasured. And as much as he enjoys domination--and he does--the WASP also enjoys obedience. It is the ultimate 'kink' for the master of the world to be turned into one of his subjects, and WASP husbands in particular enjoy being 'feminized' by being degraded by the same contemptuous means by which he maintains his control over the opposite sex. Similarly, the WASP female enjoys both the empowerment and, more subtlely, the recognition that her spouse is, for all of his decorous position as the pater familias, a little boy at heart. WASP sex is as perversely endearing as it is perverse. There are no menages, a trois or otherwise--there is no bestiality (even the presence of the pets would be considered an invasion of privacy.) It is strictly a pas de deux, man and woman, as Biblically primal as may be. (Gay and lesbian WASPs are likewise monogamous--more so, for their need for privacy is, if anything, even greater than their heterosexual counterparts.)

But within these strictures, such things occur that would stun the imagination. I will not detail these practices, not out of coyness, but because anything I might describe would already be passe' by the time I wrote it here. Use your own imagination, imagine the most desperately fearsome act of jaw-dropping eroticism, then imagine that plus a wry sense of creativity and fearless self-confidence. WASP sexuality is forever forward-looking, part of that impulse of geographical exploration that led them to conquer the world. Technology, from harnesses to computerized devices with various appendages that thrust and vibrate, is ever-present--WASPs recognize that as humanity must adapt or die, so must sex.

But we shall never know the real truth of the practices themselves. Faced with intrusion into this world, the WASP would most likely contemplate murder or suicide rather than risk the knowledge of others as to his sexual being. Which speaks to precisely how dear, how fiercely important it is to the core of his self. The WASP, in short, is a sexual being, and frighteningly so.

Monday, October 17, 2005

This Is Not An Update

I wish to make that clear. I'm still here, but my life is continuing to collapse about my ears (don't ask, I ain't tellin'), and more substantially I've got almost 50 papers to grade, two letters of recommendation to write, a mid-term to design, a rather dense book to read (and absorb, since I've got to teach it in a week), lesson plans to write, multiple applications to throw together for university jobs I won't get, in addition to a full-time teaching schedule and a commute that averages out to about 3 hours a day. Oh, and I did I mention that my life is falling apart? Yeah, so, that. So again, there is no new thing under the sun, and won't be for at least another week. Back off. Go home. Do not tease the animals. Thank you for your patience, we appreciate your business and your call is important to us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


First major paper for my students is due this week, which means I'll be commuting down to Irvine (1 to 1 1/2 hours each way) twice as much, spending much much time in office hours, reviewing drafts, and then, starting Friday, wading into a stack of grading about 50 papers deep. (And for this they pay me the kind of remuneration that used to be called wage-slavery--shouldn't we bring back that term, especially in this age of WalMart?) Anyway, this will leave me no time to think, much less write, so please have patience...Next week, maybe. Maybe.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


My cold goes away, and my depression comes back. If I'd know that was going to be the trade-off, I'd've stuck with the cold. At the drugs for that are fun and inebriating. Sigh. I hate my stupid, stupid brain and its misfiring neurotransmitters. Bastards. Anyway--

More on WASPs later. For right now, let me say this about Harriet Miers:


Did you get that? Let me say it again:


That's really all there is to be said, isn't there? Far as I can tell, she got the nomination because, well, she's a lawyer and George Bush likes her. Those seem to be her primary qualifications. As to what kind of Justice she'll be, I think her record speaks for itself, and it says, in no uncertain terms:


If I weren't depressed already, I'm given daily reasons to rest my head against the keyboard and quietly pray for a gas leak under the house to take the pain away.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Dammit, Dammit, Dammit, DAMMIT!!!

I am sick. Again. AGAIN. This is the second time in as many weeks. One involved a stomach flu with truly spectacular results...but we won't discuss that. Now it's a miserable, ache-to-the-bones cold, which is that particularly annoying kind of illness where you feel like absolute s*** and yet somehow don't feel quite sick enough to miss work. (Or maybe it's just the fact that my psyche has been warped by growing up in a family in which illness is considered a moral weakness.) Regardless, I'll be in no state to blog for a bit. A few days will pass before I resume my examination of the WASP. Patience...