Archive for June, 2004

Maybe now I'll get some work done…

June 28, 2004

Irritant of the morning: little twits who clog up the half-and-half line by pouring cream into their lattes as if they were handling nitroglycerine.

Happiest fucking man on the whole fucking planet this morning: L. Paul Bremer.

“Glad Tidings”

June 20, 2004

Sign of the times: in the subway an Air New Zealand billboard reading DEFECTORS WELCOME.


Even at this relatively late date it looks like David Chase has left himself one of two choices: unalloyed despair, or a state of despair that’s tempered by some – and this is crucial – convincing note of redemption. After the six or seven years we’ve spent tracing the wintry fortunes of Anthony Soprano, pure despair would appear to be the logical, uncompromised outcome for The Sopranos, but has Chase really drawn his viewers on so long only to leave them with nothing? It seems unlikely, for Chase would seem to be that rare bird, a cynical humanist, who’s tickled and fascinated by human foibles even while he’s certain that they’re only drawing us on to some insupportable outcome. Even if things end up with Tony trundled away to Allenwood or getting plugged while scooping up the morning paper from his driveway, we’ll still take away the same exact things we’ll glean come the end of our own lifetimes: “the little things,” as Tony once described them, all the warm experiences that keep spiking up out of the commonplace happenings that stitch our lives together. That probably doesn’t sound like much but it has to make do for us secular types, and to an unabashed nostalgic like Chase – whose show wouldn’t be the same without its torrent of references to Claude Rains and the Maguire Sisters – memory must be an irresistible comfort. The season opened with a montage of the Soprano backyard that felt beamed in from some time after the series’ eventual conclusion, as if in remembrance of a bygone life that somehow involved a barbecue pit and a duck feeder; as Ezra Pound showed with The Pisan Cantos, living memory may not offer the freedom of actual life but it’s still a lot better than no life at all.

Not to make heavy weather but if The Sopranos has had a single theme, it’s the self-tyranny that drives its characters to maintain appearances – psychological, social, religious – no matter what the cost to their personal integrity. “There’s plenty I’d like to forget,” Uncle Junior says at one crossroads, offering up a bleak world view that pictures everyone frenziedly waving away unbidden thoughts and desires. Our popular narratives mostly focus on people caught in the process of opening up to the world, but Tony Soprano, who seems more likely to have sprung from the mind of Thomas Hardy than the producer of The Rockford Files, has hunkered down in the years that we’ve known him, growing more defensive and violent in direct proportion to the riches he stands to lose. The show may beckon to mind the old cliché of the man who sells his soul to gain the world, but it’s even more concerned with those people so routinely pulverized and enslaved by self-interest – disguised as their understanding of “what’s right” – that they never get to become themselves.

It’s a tragedy that’s endemic in the world. You see it in so many ways nowadays, from the posturing, self-justifying tropes people unthinkingly take up in their everyday conversation through Michael Moore and George W. Bush refusing to address questions which, if bluntly answered, would certainly prove embarrassing to them. We just can’t get enough of our own bullshit, whoever we are. Chase’s savvy shows up in the way he wedges characters we care about into this dilemma, so that the sight of Tony, forced by his intransigence into tramping like a hobo across a snowy New Jersey landscape, becomes painful, even shaming, stuff. (Adriana, of all people, gets the clearest view of things just before her touching escape fantasy is stamped out by the murderous gaze in Silvio’s eye.) But Chase is as big a jokester as he is a Freudian or cynic, and he caps off Tony’s torments with a superb bit of domestic comedy: Carmela, deliciously clueless as to how narrowly her husband has just escaped arrest or murder, cries out at him, “What happened to you! Your shoes are soaking wet!”

However the series ends, this last few months made for one hell of a season, and more than made up for the doldrums the show sometimes fell into during its fourth go-round. Much of its success has always flowed from its psychological consistency (we felt like we’d crawled across every inch of the broken glass in Gloria Trillo’s psyche by the time Patsy Parisi delivered that tender goodbye to her), and as Tony and Carmela’s hand-in-hand trip to oblivion nears its end, their slow unraveling feels ever more binding and right. In the meantime, the Gandolfini-Falco-Imperioli tag-team has formed itself into the gold standard of contemporary acting, and at a point when most shows would be repeating themselves, Chase and his writers-directors are working on fully charged batteries, with their energy spilling into everything from the darkly evocative episode titles (“Irregular Around the Margins,” “Long Term Parking”) to such small touches as the sound of an unseen children’s choir breaking into “Mr. Tambourine Man” at just the right moment. Amazingly enough and against all odds, it really might be what my friend Scott Von Doviak has been tempted to call it: the best season of The Sopranos so far.


And that’s a good thing, for I’ve been shit out of luck with movies this weekend. Yesterday’s disappointments, rented for polar opposite reasons: Master and Commander and Morvern Callar, a pair of wildly different film journeys that carried me away to the same latitude of exasperation. However, I do recommend the re-release of Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner on DVD. Beyond a beautiful transfer that does full justice to Lucien Ballard’s camerawork, the disc also contains a commentary by a quartet of renowned Peckinpavians, including Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons, who sit around gassing about “Sam” as his friends and fans rather than as scholars. At $14.95 it’s a steal; just be prepared for the faux Western motif packaging, which makes it look like it ought to be sold off the back of Curly Bonner’s Rancho Reata parade float.

Sour Jellybeans

June 6, 2004

They can’t get the sonofabitch in the ground fast enough, that’s all I can say. Oh, it’s nothing personal against him – on the contrary, it’d be nice to have a moderate back in the White House again – but Ronald Reagan’s death is apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed the Sunday morning pundits into fullblown gibbering inanity. Did I really just hear Charles Gibson call Robert Taylor “one of the great actors of his day”? (Even Diane Sawyer looked at Gibson like he was off his nut before she concluded “A giant oak has fallen in the forests of our lives.”) There’s a lot of swell talk about how Reagan made us all proud again, but not so much as a nod has been given to the faultlines that his career exposed in the American psyche or the misery that his administration brought forth around the world. (I’m not expecting to hear the phrase “U.S.-funded El Salvadoran death squads” any time soon.) The media has returned to the same state of timid, blank-eyed adoration that was the hallmark of the man’s 1980 coronation, when no one was willing to probe too deeply his references to “bucks” swelling the welfare lines or his moonshine economic schemes. It was the time in which Americans concluded – happily and forever – that there is no greater virtue than shallow optimism. The clips and sound-bites bring back such memories as how Nancy’s electric orange suit and central positioning at the podium made it appear that she was the one that Warren Burger swore into office in 1981, but also of the earnest head bobs and slight stammer that made Reagan such a lovable Big Brother, and of the calming buzzwords and claptrap that would provide a rhetorical template for so many politicians who came after him. What made him insurmountable in the American mind was his ability to fill the role of father figure; it was a superb form of camouflaging which turned a real-life dysfunctional father into our own Mao, whose praise and reassurances made it easy to overlook his foibles. The role looks easy enough, but it’s just embarrassing on lesser men who try to muster his brand of ordinariness and plain-speaking, while a Truman looks like Machiavelli next to him. Anyway, I can’t take the encomiums and gush any longer – they just don’t jibe with my memories of the man, even if the rift between claim and actuality isn’t as dramatic as the one that appeared when Nixon died. I think I’ll put something sensible on, something like Dr. Gene Scott, who by comparison makes me feel at home in the world.

"The beach was not any general's business…"

June 5, 2004

I’m fairly smitten with this David Greenberg piece about D-Day nostalgia, even if it’s written in that breathless first-this-thing-happened-then-that-thing-happened style that also constrains J. Hoberman’s writing. (Hoberman can’t shake it off even when he has the spaciousness of a book to work with. Indeed, his clipped recitation of world events in The Dream Life often sounds like a 1965 issue of Time as read aloud by someone who’s running a 100-yard dash.) But I’d love to see Greenberg  or pretty much anyone other than myself – give his subject the book-length treatment it deserves, and I agreed with pretty much everything he packed into his article.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that the public mind was focused on June 6, 1944 in a way that’d be familiar to us today at least 20 years before 1984, when Greenberg claims that Reagan “kicked off the D-Day mania.” Most obviously, The Longest Day was a hit in both print and celluloid by 1962, with the movie version giving us the earliest incarnation (that I know of) of the day’s most enduring icon: an army helmet lying upside-down on a sandy beach. By 1964 the recurrence of June 6 was officially recognized as An Event, for while struggling with what to buy my mom for her birthday that year, I found a rack in a record store that held nothing but tributes to D-Day that had been specially pressed for the 20th anniversary. Even though I wound up buying the sturdiest, most smartly packaged album I could find – a two-LP set containing speeches, radio addresses, and readings from the works of Churchill, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, et al. – I plainly remember Mom trying to hide her disappointment when she tore off the wrapping. It may have been partly her fault that I’m a confirmed WW II nut (she was a WAAV veteran who sang in a Navy band during the war), but she was clearly hoping to get something a little, well, cooler on her birthday.

That said, I particularly appreciated Greenberg’s closing paragraph, especially its last sentence: “But at a time when the culture’s celebration of the martial has reached levels not seen since after the Civil War, a countervailing gust of Vietnam-era dissent would feel like a fresh summer wind.” Amen, Brother Ben! Hell, I’m even ready for some irresponsible dissent at this point, the kind that, when maintained long enough, made Abbie Hoffman as legitimate a part of the cultural landscape as Ilya Kuryakin or J. Edgar Hoover. Also, the militarism that Greenberg complains of shares an especially decadent symbiosis with much of our visual culture, from obvious examples like videogames and Blackhawk Down to the characters’ clipped cadences and regimented paces on The West Wing and all those lurid forensic cop shows. Even a film like Crimson Tide, whose activity works at grinding down the miltaristic point of view, is so aroused by the con tower’s pressed and urgent jargon (it’s so measured that it must’ve been issued from a manual) and high-tech killing toys that by the end it can only give Gene Hackman’s dangerous, and perhaps homicidally insane, submarine captain a loving slap on the wrist. Not even Herman Wouk asked us to think of Captain Queeg as merely a fucked-up uncle; it’s as if Dr. Strangelove had ended with General Jack D. Ripper telling everyone that it was all just a joke.

The best treatment given D-Day I’ve ever seen is the hour-long documentary about it that Charles Guggenheim put together for American Experience a few years ago. The flipside of Saving Private Ryan, it’s mournful without being maudlin and appreciative without being reverential, and takes a spartan tack towards its subject. (Most of its voiceover narration consists of one- or two-sentence reminiscences – dry as beef jerky – from some of the men who managed to survive that day.) The B&W images are lustrous, pristine, and stitched together with great care by Joseph Wiedenmayer. Check out your listings – PBS may well be airing it in the next day or two. It’s a beaut.

Among the Water-Gazers

June 1, 2004

I’m the first to admit I can be an agoraphobic crank, but occasionally these modern times really do trot out a whole array of reasons to upchuck all over your shoes. Yesterday I made the mistake of getting to the movies too early. It’s not just the movies that are going down the tubes nowadays; it’s the whole moviegoing experience. A few weeks ago self-proclaimed baseball czar Bud Selig tried to sell logo placement spots for Spiderman 2 on the first-base bags of select ballgames, arguing that the ads would be so small as to be invisible, as if a certain number of TV camera and Jumbotron close-ups wouldn’t be written into the contract. The ensuing outcry from fans and sportswriters caused Selig to abandon the idea, but we can be sure he’s only biding his time, like a bass sunk back to the bottom of his pond, until our cultural responsiveness sinks far enough down to meet his ooze. Someday in the not-so-distant future, I think it’s safe to say, we’ll be watching the Yankees play a regular-season game decked out in crimson, web-laced uniforms that celebrate Spiderman 4 or 5.

But if baseball isn’t quite yet ready for that level of promotion, the movies are already more than there. I’ve long been put off by those crappy slideshows many theater franchises run before movies now – the ones with the Coca-Cola logo plastered all over them that ask you to find Mel Gibson’s name in an anagram – but this thing yesterday was something new. It was a relentless monster, a starburst of cheap computer graphics that jumped along at a hyperactive pace and chewed up the whole half-hour before the coming attractions began, played at a volume so loud it was impossible not to give your attention to it. It was television reduced to its purest form – a production utterly stripped of entertainment and information, and containing only spiels for various products. Overblown summer movies, videogames, reality TV shows, theme-park rides, sugary snacks and beverages – all the worst pieces of poop culture – were pitched at Boeing 747 decibel levels that made it impossible to think, much less talk to your neighbor, and all of it gauged at the emotional and intellectual level of a comic-book.

By the time it was done I was so beaten down I just wanted to crawl out of the theater, and not even the previews, when they finally began, made me feel any better. Mostly they advertised a passel of summer blockbusters that harmonized with the earsplitting dreck I’d been sitting through – mostly, but not all. Stuck into the middle of them was, inexplicably, a trailer for some low-key, naturalistic Chinese film about a guy who falls in love with a woman who never appeared in the trailer as far as I could tell. I couldn’t begin to say what the name of the movie was for that just got slaughtered in the uproar; in comparison to the din surrounding it, it was a mouse ranged against an army of dinosaurs. It was a slight but telling experience, indicative of how the business of moviemaking is overwhelming the charm of actually going to the movies. The relentless push to sell through the pictures, to leave no aspect of them unexploited – well, it’s enough to make Bud Selig choke on his own drool.

But the other day I got some needed reassurance that I’m not just a premature coot who’s been left behind by all this gol-durn modern livin’. The area I’m working in is only a block from the San Francisco waterfront, just on the south side of Market Street. Up until a few years ago it was a drab, decaying quadrant of ancient, abandoned industrial buildings and warehouses, but once the decision was made to build the Giants a new ballpark a little farther along the dockside, the investors and city fathers began pouring money into the area, and the result is frankly dazzling.

On my second full day down there I set out at lunchtime, saddled with thoughts of work and crippled by a hangover from the previous night’s pool match. Set a man’s feet a-going and he will infallibly lead you to water, said Melville, and sure enough without my mind having a real say in the matter my feet carried me down to the bay. I was so stuck inside my head I didn’t even look up until after I’d crossed the Muni tracks and was standing on the Embarcadero somewhat to the right of the Ferry Building, staring blankly into the water. Suddenly I happened to glance up and saw a view so beautiful it was like taking a glass of cold water in the face. From over my right shoulder, at about a thirty-five degree angle, the Bay Bridge shot out towards Treasure Island, where I could see the khaki-colored World War II hangars baking under the sun, and turning around I was confronted by the new skyline that’s taken root where the old Rincon Hill sand dunes used to stand. Many of the buildings are old raw brick factories – Hill Brothers and Folger’s – that have been polished into fine red ziggurats climbing into the sky and setting off the green teardrop-shaped lawns that flow along beside the water. The train tracks built for the jaunty ride between the subway exit and Willie Mays Square, what with their modern cobblestone bedding and humorously casual shelters, have a charming Old World feeling that makes them a pleasure to dash across when the vintage trains are coming, and the overall area is studded with palm trees and surmounted by Cupid’s Span, one of those giant art installations that can make public spaces a civic laughingstock but which here seems perfectly right. The air was so clear that day, and the bright sunshine so evenly distributed, and the people moving around so freely and happily, that every detail in the landscape was laid bare. The beauty was so obvious I felt chastised by it.

I went back to the water today with a different kind of hangover. The movie I saw yesterday – after the horror-show had finally ended – was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and thinking back as I (we) do to all the relationships that didn’t work out, it was just the movie to put me back on my heels. A man loves a woman, she breaks up with him and then acts as if she doesn’t know him – and he goes over the edge. What else needs to be said? Charlie Kaufman, who’s become a one-man revolution in Hollywood, goes straight for the emotional meat of all those vignettes that let us plot out where Alvy Singer and Annie Hall were at any given moment of their relationship, and the result is a movie about forgetting that makes you ache with remembrance. Maybe it was the sight of Kirsten Dunst dancing around in her underwear that makes my mind keep churning up the memory of a live-in girlfriend from the mid ’80s, sitting on the floor in her panties and a silver blouse, and happily gabbing on the phone with her sister while our relationship was falling down around our ears. When she hung up the phone I said to her, “You look beautiful,” which she did at that moment – as beautiful as I’d ever seen her. It didn’t have the desired effect, though. Instead she waved her cigarette hand through the air and laughed, “I know,” then trotted into the bathroom to get ready to go out somewhere. I don’t know why that memory – out of the thousands that could’ve been released by the movie – was the one that should come back to haunt me, but maybe putting it down here will finally get rid of the spell.

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