TOPIC OF THE DAY – 2007

January 3, 2007

YAKETY-YAK

Like many people, I see a lot of movies during the holidays. Unlike many people, I actually keep quiet and watch the movie. From hip upper west side audiences in Manhattan seeing Children of Men to megaplex suburban audiences seeing Casino Royale and We Are Marshall to upscale screening room audiences seeing The Queen, the one thing that’s clear is that altogether too many moviegoers have come to believe that when the actors start talking, so should they.

Here’s my wish for the new year: everybody, shut the fuck up. Unless you’ve got a marquee on your porch and a popcorn machine in your living room, and people are handing you $10 to hear your bon mots, just put a cork in it.

Now, it’s true that not every film deserves reverential silence. Some films, like Snakes on a Plane, are in fact improved by an actively participating audience. One does not wish to watch Pam Grier kung fu movies with monks. But in the main, being quiet at a movie actually helps you appreciate the film. If you’re so sure that your comments are so much better than what’s being spoken by the actors, then do us all a favor, and leave the theater, drive to California, and offer your services to the studios. If you are that talented, all the world will soon be at your feet. And if you’re not, you’ll at least be out of my earshot the next time you start jabbering.

 

January 5, 2007

BAD BLOOD

Spare no sympathy for Saddam Hussein, a sadist and a butcher and a tyrant, who went out last week at the hands of a barely contained mob. He may have been cursed and ridiculed as the noose was slipped around his head, but the razzing was gentler than what Curt Schilling faces in the Bronx, and Schilling has had blood only on his ankle, not on his hands. And let’s not hear anything more about how Saddam showed dignity as he went to the gallows. He went complacently, like a lot of bullies ultimately do, and the only shame is that the pain and evil he caused, far from being ameliorated by his death, will throb on for decades.

Still it was a botch, as so much of our Iraqi experience has been. What’s astonishing is that the opportunities for further botching are still being pursued. The president, who has so far proven to be ignorant and inattentive, now wishes to add heedless. Bush wants to add 20,000 troops to the forces in Iraq, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the situation. It’s hard to see what 20,000 more soldiers would be able to accomplish amidst 50 million bitter Iraqis. The president may have been raised on such Pollyannish nostrums as “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” but as Steven Wright once memorably noted, it’s also darkest before it gets really, really dark. Bush should be focusing on a departure that will leave him more missed than Saddam.

JANUARY 12, 2007

BADA BING!

The Sopranos returned on A&E last night. With lots of repeats and HBO On Demand and each season on DVD, it’s not like they were ever far away, but still, there was Season One, Episodes 1 and 2 on the air, somewhat expurgated, but welcome all the same.

It’s interesting to see the origin of these characters, now so well known, from afar. James Gandolfini had not quite yet worked out his north Jersey accent yet, and the hierarchy between Tony (called the Boss of New Jersey), Jackie Aprile (called the acting boss) and Uncle Junior (who will become the boss) seems a little on-the-fly. Dr. Melfi seems a bit less in control of herself in these first sessions, Carmella seems like more of a scourge, and Tony more of a confused and beleaguered homo suburbus than the pathologcal figure he has become in recent seasons.

Indeed, seeing these early episodes, with Tony’s raffish crew and the pop psyche-spewing Christopher and the mewling, diabolical Livia, we are reminded about how much the early success of this series depended on its sense of humor, its richly drawn characters and its satirization of not only the mob genre but suburban living. It’s what has made The Sopranos such a great series: first we were seduced by the laughs, then stayed for the horror.

 

 

 

January 18, 2007

WILL UNITED 93 BE IGNORED?

 

Monday night, America watched as the Golden Globe for Best Picture (as determined by the 85 sycophants who make up one of the great scam organizations in the world, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) was presented to Babel. I have nothing very much against Babel, whose wise and profound message about the interconnectedness of all things probably would have blown my mind had the film been made by a high school sophomore (or, to be fair, if I’d been smoking a great deal of pot). Ignored by the Globes
was United 93, the harrowing film about the events of 9/11,  particularly about the events on the airliner whose passengers seized the plane from the highjackers and prevented it from crashing into Washington, DC.

One hopes that the Academy Awards, which announces its nominations on Tuesday, will not make the same mistake, although several bloggers have reported that a lot of Academy voters have passed up viewing the film because it is so intense and upsetting. Hopefully that’s just not true. The other week I had the good fortune to meet Paul Greengrass, the director of United 93. “It’s important that film be able to confront issues and events like 9/11,” he said, and he’s right. We all think we saw the events of 9/11
on TV, and that we saw them live, as they happened. But what we saw that day was a production produced and staged by Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden, a production that showed only part of the story. It took years for films like United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center to begin to redress the imbalance, and show us things that we couldn’t see on 9/11, show us the scenes of people fighting back. These films are important acts of bearing witness, of helping us understand what is so far the cornerstone event of the 21st century. United 93 is a very good film made by a true artist, and one hopes the Academy voters have given it a fair look.

 

January 29, 2007

SENATOR SCHILLING?

Some Massachusetts Republicans are apparently so desperate to break the stranglehold that the Democrats have on the state’s two Senate seats that they are considering asking the completely inexperienced Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling if he would like to run.

Schilling, aware that his aging arm won’t last forever and that even someone as gabby as he isn’t guaranteed a broadcasting job, didn’t say no. His answer: “I couldn’t rule it out because it’s not something I ever thought about in a serious capacity.” Now there’s a campaign slogan: Schilling for Senator—He Hasn’t Thought About It Seriously.

It wouldn’t matter. He could still win. After the Civil War, all northern politicians had to do to win was remind voters about the sacrifices of the Civil War. It was called Waving the Bloody Shirt. All Schilling needs to do is Wave the Bloody Sock.

February 2, 2007

ARE THE TERRORISTS WINNING?

OK, it’s not good that Boston got shut down yesterday (although you’d think They’d be used to it, what with the Big Dig and all those World Series celebrations they’re always having.) And okay, the Cartoon Network’s guerrilla marketers must have been brain dead to have left unidentified packages under bridges. But let’s not go crazy here. The police saw what in effect looked like a Lite-Brite, and proceeded to call out everything in their arsenal except Paul Revere’s horse. The perpetrators have been arrested, and every official suit in America is going to make them write a hundred times on every black board in America “I must not fool around.”

This is getting out of hand. The 9/11 terrorists killed 3,000 people. They’ve caused this country to spend billions to prevent attacks that didn’t come and weren’t ever coming. We’ve wasted millions of hours in security hours and thrown away millions of nail clippers and bottles of mouthwash preventing the boogeyman from coming after us. And now the terrorists are causing us to lose all sense of proportion. They’re making us look foolish. They’re taking away our sense of humor. A handful of them have the mightiest nation on earth terrorizing itself.

Isn’t it time we stopped being afraid?

February 8, 2007

THE COMPLETE HETEROSEXUAL

Call me curious or call me a perv, but I don’t mind hearing an indiscreet tale about another’s sex life. Still, in the last few months, I learned that the Rev. Ted Haggard, the goofy-grinned founder of the New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs, made monthly visits to a male prostitute in Denver; that he told the male prostitute that he “loved snorting meth before [having] sex with his wife”; that he told the male prostitute that he fantasized about having an orgy with “about six young college guys ranging from 18 to 22 in age”; and that he resigned his position after he acknowledged committing sexually immoral conduct. Then, last month, Pastor Ted showed up in Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO film Friends of God—this was filmed prior to his exposure—saying “You know all the surveys say that evangelicals have the best sex life of any other group.’’ Then, just yesterday, we were told by Tim Ralph, one of a quartet of ministers who oversaw three weeks of intensive counseling for Haggard, that “(Haggard) is completely heterosexual.”

One might point out that the same used to be said about Randolph Scott, but I won’t. I’ve had enough. Put me down as one of those whose interest in the adventures of Pastor Ted’s penis is sated.

February 14, 2007

A GERMAN LESSON IN FREEDOM

The German movie The Lives of Others has been nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, and it would be excellent news if it won–the film really might be the best movie of the year. Set in mid-1980s East Germany, the film is about the terrible grinding pressure that’s caused by living in a police state, and the courage that it takes to avail oneself of the ordinary freedom of speaking frankly, of making a joke, of taking a position—and finally, of being a good man.

The Hollywood studios have made some classic pictures about a little guy who stands up against the system—On the Waterfront, Norma Rae—and when they do, we’re regularly reminded how great not only are the films, but how great they make us feel. If Hollywood had made The Lives of Others, we would be seeing it for years.

February 16, 2007

A FAIR AND BALANCED FLOP

Stealthily slipped onto the schedule not after a hit show but on the flat empty plain of a February three-day weekend, Fox will launch on Sunday night its version of The Daily Show, called (wait, don’t split your sides just yet) The ½ News Hour.

In keeping with the network’s mandate, this will be a fair and balanced comedy show, which means it will have a right-wing slant. A brief taste of the show appeared on YouTube this week, and jeez, if that was the best advertisement for the show that the producers could come up with, then it’s time to load Ma and the kids in the wagon and head for the hills. The producer of the show by the way, is Joel Surnow, co-creator of 24. Now, no show on TV has ever done a better job at fulfilling our fantasies about life in an all-powerful Daddy State, but a yuk-fest it is not. In fact, I don’t remember anyone ever making a joke on 24. I don’t remember anyone even attempting one. (On the other hand, if the jokes they had were no better than those on The ½ News Hour, I’m not sure they would have been recognizable as wit-based dialogue.)

Why is Fox doing this show?  “Almost every comedy show or satire show I see uses the same talking points against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney,” Surnow told Variety in November. “The other side hasn’t been skewered in a fair and balanced way.” Leaving aside the sheer insupportability of that statement—surely the Clintons, John Kerry and Al Gore all have had more than a few painful days at the hands of The Daily Show—one only needs to hear the jokes on The ½ News Hour to recognize that no one is being skewered very much at all.

February 16, 2007

TO CATCH A SPY

If you’re not in a position to allow this weekend’s frigid temperatures to drive you to the Caribbean, but only to, say, your local tenplex, you’re not in such bad shape. Opening this weekend is Breach, the story of Robert Hansen, the high-ranking FBI official who sold American secrets to the Soviets for more than a decade, and of the young, ambitious, very inexperienced FBI clerk who helped bring him down. What’s amazing about the movie is that even though you know how things are going to turn out, the story grips you until the very end. This is due in large measure to the taut direction of Billy Ray (who did such an excellent job on Shattered Glass a couple years back—he seems to have a knack for telling stories about creepy guys who are leading double lives) and the excellent screenplay by Ray, Adam Mazer and William Rotko.

Hansen was an extraordinarily complex individual—smart, smug, caustic deeply religious and sexually furtive—and Chris Cooper does an outstanding job of portraying this complicated man who’s walking a most treacherous high wire. As Erik, the younger agent, Ryan Phillippe continues one of the oddest careers in Hollywood, Phillippe is an actor who seems to possess none of those ingratiating tics that actors use to pull us in, and therefore seems to lack all charisma; yet, in his performances here, in Flags of Our Fathers, and in Crash, he never once loses us. We are totally there with him. The most gripping scenes in the movie come at the end, when Hansen is in custody, and he seems physically to melt, like we were seeing his spirit leave his body. But we would not be into those scenes as much if Phillippe hadn’t help bring us to that point.

February 21, 2007

SAY WHAT?

 

Over the weekend, this odd nugget appeared in an article in The New York Times: a conservative journalist named Chris Ruddy said that he and his boss, the arch right-wing kazillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, no longer have the same low opinion about Bill Clinton that they once did. “Clinton,” said Ruddy, “wasn’t such a bad president. In fact, he was a pretty good president in a lot of ways, and Dick [Scaife] feels that way today.”

In case these names mean little to you, these were the fellows who did more to smear Bill Clinton than Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, or any of the other zealots who couldn’t bring themselves to agree that voters had actually picked Bill Clinton to be president. Not content to merely question Clinton’s policies—or his business dealings—or sexual ethics—moneybags Scaife and his attack dog Ruddy accused Clinton of being complicit in “foul play” in the suicide of Vince Foster, and of having some role in the murder of two teenagers in Arkansas.

Now they think Clinton was a pretty good president. Well, here’s something else for them to think on: if Clinton wasn’t having to spend so much time, energy and political capital fending off Scaife and Ruddy’s attacks, would he have had more time, energy and political to devote to eliminating Osama bin Laden and Al-Queda back when they were only blowing up embassies in 1998?

February 21, 2007

SAY WHAT PART II

According to the AP, “Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Monday the war in Iraq has been mismanaged for years and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will be remembered as one of the worst in history. `We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement—that’s the kindest word I can give you—of Donald Rumsfeld, of this war,’ the Arizona senator told an overflow crowd of more than 800 at a retirement community near Hilton Head Island, SC `The price is very, very heavy and I regret it enormously. Donald Rumsfeld will go down in history as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.'” Anybody remember the name of that fella Rumsfeld worked for?

March 1, 2007

DRIFT AWAY

 

Sometimes the people who run a company will look around and realize that “Good Old Bill” has become a liability, but for whatever reason—too ironclad a contract, too big a parachute, too much history—”Good Old Bill” just can’t be fired. Often when that happens, Bill gets discretely shouldered to the sidelines, and is left there while the rest of the company moves ahead. These days one feels that is exactly what is happening to George W. Bush.

Just look at the headlines. Last week, even as Bush was desperately pushing ahead with its plan to deploy an additional 21,000 American troops in Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush’s strongest ally, said Britain would remove 3,000 of the 7,100 troops it has in Iraq by the end of 2007.

On Monday, groups of people impatient with the White House’s failure to address global warming, started making policy themselves. At the very same time that the governors of five Western states were reaching an agreement to set a regional target for reducing greenhouse gases within the next six months, a private investment group was bidding $45 billion for TXU, a gigantic Texas utility company, and pledged to turn the company green. The investors said that if their bid was accepted, they would cancel plans to build eight of the 11 new coal-fueled power plants that are on the drawing board, and to make significant investments in wind power and other alternative sources of energy..

Yesterday, Bush began to ignore himself. You’ll recall that in  December, the Iraq Study Group said that the US should sit down with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, to try and work out a regional solution to the civil war in Iraq. Bush never liked the idea. On January 11, Secretary of State Rice said “engagement with Syria and Iran” was “not diplomacy [but] extortion.” On February 8, she told the Senate “talking with Syria now about Iraq would have downsides for us.” Just last Sunday, she said that the US  would meet with Iran only if it suspended its nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities.

But yesterday—you guessed it—she told the Senate that the US had happily accepted an Iraqi invitation to a regional peace conference.

The allies are leaving us, the governors are making environmental policy, business is forging ahead, and the next step in our Iraq policy is to follow the recommendations of a group Bush had desperately wanted to ignore. This is what it looks like when a presidency is dead two years too soon.

March 2, 2007

HEY THERE!

 

Next week Random House will publish Heyday, by Kurt Andersen, who has been my friend and frequent colleague for 20 years. Heyday is a rollicking, energetic novel set in the 1840s, a period full of adventure, invention and exploration that has largely been forgotten even by those of us who have an historical bent. We talked to Kurt about his new book:

Q: Your novel is set in the 1840s, one of those murky flyover periods in American history between wars. What drew you to this decade?
A: You’re so right about the murky flyover thing—and the fact that it is sort of a blank space in our popular historical imagination was one of the things that excited me about making up a story set then. It’s fairly virgin territory, which meant I had less competition, fewer existing iconic narratives to deal with. But beyond that, as I started doing the research, I just kept being more and more amazed by what an incredible, topsy-turvy, sexy, exciting, modern-life-being-born moment it was—socially, culturally, technologically, all kinds of ways.

Q: You did a tremendous amount of research into the era, and the way people lived then. What most surprised you—or what will most surprise your readers—about the 1840s?
A: So many things. It’s the beginning of what we call “the Victorian era,” which means we think of it as stuffy and repressed and square. Yet in places like New York City and San Francisco it was a seriously a sex and drugs and rock-and-roll moment: one in ten women in New York was a prostitute, dozens of proto-hippie communes had popped up all over the country, Americans drank ungodly amounts of whiskey, opium was widely used…and Stephen Foster, a 21-year-old hit-making phenom in 1848, was one of the great-great-grandfathers of rock. And I swear the “Bowery boy” phenomenon, which started in 1845, was the first forerunner of hip-hop culture: rowdy, funny, violence-glorifying urban working-class young men and women with their own peculiar, over-the-top fashion style and slang and forms of entertainment.

Q: You told me one of the real pleasures of working on this book was immersing yourself in the vernacular of the times—of learning, essentially, a new (to you) form of English. How did you do that? Did you find yourself using 1840s lingo at the dinner table? Are there any particularly rich expressions of the day that we should revive, or at least, whose disappearance we should regret?
A: I learned the language by reading lots and lots and writing down every phrase from the period  that I didn’t know—and, conversely, every one that seemed surprisingly modern. The latter were especially interesting to me. “OK” and “take the cake” and “millionaire” and “show business” and “celebrity” and “confidence man” were all new or newish  phrases. The Bowery boys called their favorite tavern their “crib,” and probably invented “hi.” People also used “barbecue,” “suburban,” and “picnic.” I found a reference to some guy saying, “Do you know where I can get some?”—meaning sex. As for phrases that would be fun to revive, there’s “gay as a cricket,” and “to smug a dog,” meaning to take a nap.

Q: Where did you go to get yourself photographed in period costume for the cover?
A: You flatterer. (In fact, that’s some unknown period guy, whom we’ve now made posthumously famous a century and a half later. His female counterpart, also cute and young and sort of modern-looking, is on the back jacket.)

Q: You’ve researched and written about this technologically and socially turbulent period, and you’ve lived and worked and ran a business during the Internet boom of the nineties, another technologically and perhaps socially turbulent period. Does this put you in a position to make any useful observations about people, and what they do right or wrong when living in fluctuating times?
A: In so many ways the last decade reminds me of the late 1840s, I guess my main conclusion is that It’s All Happened Before. (Take, as just one of a million examples, the Mexican War, which president James Polk dragged us into on the premises that Mexico was about to invade the U.S., and that it would be a cakewalk; they weren’t, and it wasn’t. In 1848 Congressman Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in the House insisting that the president explain exactly how this messy war had started, to answer “fully, fairly, and candidly. Let him answer with facts, and not with arguments. If he cannot, or will not do this, then I shall be fully convinced that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong, that originally having some strong motive to involve the two countries in a war, and trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory, he plunged into it, and has swept, on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself, he knows not where.”)  Another conclusion from studying the California gold rush and living through the dot.com era is that success or failure are mostly a matter of timing, and that timing is mostly a matter of luck.

 

March 6, 2007

HAS SHE NO SHAME?

Ann Coulter likes to think of herself as outspoken and controversial, but that view is delusional. Coulter is a narcissist, someone who cannot stand to be ignored, and she relies not on her intelligence or rhetorical gifts to stay in the public eye, but in her ability to insult. Coulter does not say things which are politically incorrect, which would be a brave thing to do, or things that are merely rude, which would be an immature thing do, but instead she engages in hate speech, which is low and shameless and cruel.

Over the weekend she coyly called Senator John Edwards “a faggot’’, a bit of rank name-calling which as invective would be regarded as brain dead and punchless even by middle-school standards. Alas, Coulter is not in middle school, but is a woman in her forties who seems to have been given a pass on adhering to standards of accuracy, fairness or manners. Later Coulter tried to pass off her comment as a joke, which it arguably may have been, had it betrayed the slimmest glimmer of wit.

After 9/11, when Coulter called for the United States to invade Muslim countries and convert the inhabitants to Christianity, a number of honorable conservative publications including National Review, recognizing the pathological ugliness of her views, essentially banished Coulter from their pages. Since then she (in one sentence) praised terrorist Timothy McVeigh and called for the bombing of The New York Times building (“My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building“) and sneeringly accused the widows of those who died in the 9/11 attacks of relishing their celebrity (“I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much.”) How much more narcissistic nastiness do we need to hear from Coulter before those people who publish her books and who syndicate her columns and who book her lectures recognize her irresponsibility and tell her, “You can say what you want, but you can’t say it here.”

 

March 13, 2007

SPARTANS RULE!

Although I was at one time a huge fan of comic books, I have never been a fan of comic books movies. For some reason, cinematography and special effects has never been an acceptable substitute for illustration. Somehow the lines drawn by the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko—which, ironically, were so influenced by motion pictures—always contained so much more imagination, emotion and drama than seeing the filmed images in the Batman or Spider-Man movies But yesterday I saw 300 and was blown away. The computer animation technique used by director Zack Snyder–part illustration and part photography—fit perfectly with this ancient story that is by now part history and part legend. The movie managed to occupy some amazing middle space—so realistic as to completely credible and dramatic, so brilliantly imagined as to ceaselessly impress and amaze.

Without a doubt, 300 is the best comic book movie I’ve ever seen.

 

March 14, 2007

DON’T ASK, DON’T RESCUE

 

According to CNN.com, former president George H.W. Bush, the progenitor of what one hopes is a now-dying dynasty, collapsed from dehydration at the home of a friend in Southern California the other day. “The next thing I remember … I fainted and I was on the floor,” he told the crowd at a speaking engagement the following day. “The ugliest part was my dear friend from Las Vegas (a male friend) was giving me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. We had about six beautiful girls there and there he was, doing his part.”

Mr. President, just to clarify, the next time this happens, should we just let you die?

March 21, 2007

IS IT MOLLUSK, OR IS IT TAPEWORM?

From “Taking Sides,” by David Denby, in the March 19 issue of The New Yorker: “The great critic Manny Farber once praised what he called ‘termite art,’ by which he meant the kind of small, stubborn movie that chews its way through a narrow piece of turf. David Fincher’s Zodiac is mollusk art: the movie keeps elaborating itself out of its own discharge, hardening its emotions, anxieties and energies into a shell of obsession.”

From “An American Family: The Story of The Sopranos,” by Peter Biskind, in the April issue of Vanity Fair: “Critic Manny Farber once championed ‘termite art’ against ‘white elephant art.’ In today’s Hollywood, we have ‘tapeworm art.’

March 23, 2007

FUN WITH MALKOVICH

No doubt a lot of actors enjoy their work, but sometimes it seems that nobody has as much pure fun at it as John Malkovich.

A charismatic stage actor (I was lucky to see him in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This years ago), his unconventional looks and somewhat chilly vibe makes him a hard-to-cast leading man. Instead he has fun: chewing up the scenery in paycheck pictures like The Man in the Iron Mask and Con Air, or mocking himself in Being John Malkovich.

In Color Me Kubrick, he seems to be having a pure blast. The movie is based on a true story: in the 1990s, a man named Alan Conway went about London telling people he was Stanley Kubrick, the great director of Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange and other brilliant movies. Conway was a petty con: his game was to scam free drinks and meals and a bit of money here and there, and he was able to pull it off in part because Kubrick was a seldom-photographed recluse. But Conway’s bigger secret was that he pretended to be interested in his marks; the lesson of the film is that few of us would be immune to charms of a famous person who seemed to perceive that we possessed a special talent—just as we always knew we did! Malkovich plays this loose cannon in as loose as possible way, switching accents on a whim and wearing his dollar store wardrobe with dash and flair. The result is that what could have been a sad movie about a pathetic figure is actually kind of a hoot.

April 3, 2007

DUTCH TREAT

Between RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers, director Paul Verhoeven has had one of the most weird, wonderful, original careers in the history of Hollywood. Now, after a hiatus of several years, Verhoeven returns to the screen with Black Book, a World War II movie set in Holland, the setting of one of his early triumphs, Soldier of Orange. Black Book is an excellent popcorn movie, an eventful melodrama full of sex, tragedy, high spirits, deception, good Nazis, not-so-bad Nazis, gallant resistance fighters, traitors—not too deep, and fun, in its way, if you allow yourself to forget that the underlying plot points involve carnage, persecution and genocide.

The hallmark of a Verhoeven film is a sexy leading lady, and Black Book is no exception: the Dutch actress Carice van Houten, a slim, effervescent performer who is reminiscent of a young Shirley MacLaine. Van Houten’s character, a Jewish cabaret singer who is being protected by the resistance and who agrees to go undercover as a secretary in SS headquarters—don’t get all History Channel, just go with it—is cute and plucky and effortlessly sexy. It’s too bad Hollywood has such an aversion to European leading ladies; we’d like to see lots more of her.

April 4, 2007

GOING. . . GOING. .  .

 

A month ago, I wrote about the Incredible Disappearing Bush Presidency. Well, not to pat myself on the back, but it’s smaller than ever. Today Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in Syria to discuss the future of the Mideast. The White House isn’t happy, but Pelosi went anyway, no doubt thinking that if Bush wasn’t going to talk to these people, somebody should. On the other side of the desert, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia—head of the House of Saud, which has long enjoyed the warm support of the Bush family and the Bush-Cheney administation—has called the American presence in Iraq “an illegal occupation.” And yesterday, the Supreme Court repudiated Bush and said the EPA had to start regulating emissions in an effort to combat global warming.

Would all of these things have happened if Bush were still alive? I mean, if Bush had even a flicker of political life? Bush is way past lame duck—he’s well into dead duck. The only thing he’s going to be able to do for the foreseeable future is prosecute his war, simply because no one else wants custody of it. They say Franklin Pierce lost his wife after his inauguration, sank into a deep depression, and never much engaged himself as president. That was in a time when the executive was institutionally much less powerful. Barring unforeseen developments, we will be governed until January 20, 2009, by the weakest president, like, ever.

 

April 4, 2007

HEY, WAIT A MINUTE. . .

 

At a fundraiser in Alabama on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney offered this take on the idea of setting a deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq: “It’s time the self-appointed strategists on Capitol Hill understood a very simple concept: You cannot win a war if you tell the enemy when you’re going to quit.”

Apart from the fact that the folks on Capitol Hill are actually elected, not self-appointed, Cheney’s comments raise the question: if the enemy in Iraq is willing to wait for us to leave in order to step into the vacancy and seize power, why don’t they stop fighting now? If the fighting stopped, we would surely leave, and then they could step into the vacancy and seize power. Following Cheney’s thinking to the logical conclusion, it’s clear the US has only one policy option: Battles rage, we stay; battles cease, we stay.

 

April 12, 2007

IMUS ON THE OUTS

One hardly wishes to join the chorus of blue noses who have suddenly realized that Don Imus is saying nasty things in the morning; it’s ridiculous in Casablanca when Captain Renaud claims to discover that there’s gambling going on in the nightclub, and it’s ridiculous when politicians and journalists who appear on the show claim not to be aware of Imus’s style. (Anyone who might be naïve enough to believe that “nappy-headed hos” was a unique utterance should check out Slate’s compendium of Imus remarks.)

Nor is one keen to side with the Rev. Al Sharpton on this kind of issue, since his own ugly, reckless actions in the Tawana Brawley matter remain a transgression greater than anything Imus is guilty of. But here’s the thing: Imus was not only wrong, he was stupid. One of the first rules of satire is to pick on somebody bigger than yourself, and in picking on a dozen overachieving coeds, he targeted a group manifestly smaller than a multimillionaire entertainer who has a daily microphone that reaches 70 major markets. When you fancy yourself an outlaw humorist but you take the corporate dollar, something’s got to give. With this remark, Imus went so far beyond the line—not fair, not accurate, not on point, and not funny—that he had to pay the price.

April 18, 2007

WELL CHOSEN WORDS

Last Saturday night, 3,500 members of the National Rifle Association dining at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis were treated to a short videotaped message from President Bush in which he thanked them “for your work to make America safer.” Forty hours later, 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, armed with a 9-millimeter Glock handgun and 22-caliber Walther handgun, killed 32 people at Virginia Tech.

05.02.07 5:00 AM CDT • Books • Jamie Malanowski

Alive and Still Kicking

 

Most of us consider ourselves lucky if we walk into a store and find something on sale. Yesterday I walked into a Borders bookstore and found Gore Vidal, the great American man of letters, making a rare personal appearance. Vidal, who most recently wrote for Playboy last December (Three Senators Gore) was in New York to accept the PEN/Borders (ah—that explains that) Literary Service Award. Although a sore back kept Vidal wheelchair-bound, he was in fine form, with sharp witticisms delivered in a mocking patrician voice with a timing that would credit Jerry Seinfeld. Here are some of his best observations:

“I’m getting an award tonight. It’s one of those ‘Still Breathing’ awards. They look around and say ‘Oh look—he’s still breathing.’’”

“This appearance has been advertised as a reading, but it’s not. I find writing books hard enough. I’ll leave the reading to others.”

“I spoke to [Democratic presidential candidate and member of the House] Dennis Kucinich. I liked him. He’d been talking of impeaching the president. I said ‘Don’t do that. Impeach the vice president. We’ve never had one like him before—a rogue vice president.”

“In the old days, when you had a group like this running things, we would have an election and get rid of them. Now we have an election, and Diebold withholds the results. But we need to get this group out. O-U-T, as I say to my dog.”

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist—I’m a conspiracy analyst. But even if I was inclined to suspect that the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks, I’d discount the idea. They’re just not capable. They couldn’t pull it off.”

“From George Washington to George W. Bush—it leads me to believe that Darwin had it wrong.”

“The Bill of Rights has been eviscerated by the Patriot Act. Habeus corpus is the only good thing the British left us, and we gave it up, without a voice raised in protest.”

 

 

May 3, 2007

OFF TO THE ELLIES!

Leaving Playboy’s fluorescently lit offices for the brighter lights of the National Magazine Awards ceremonies are my sophisticated, soigne colleagues A.J. Baime, Chris Napolitano and Amy Grace Loyd, as well as some walking ham on rye. Playboy was honored with a nomination in the Fiction category

 

 

May 8, 2007

THE FRENCH ARE SO VERY. . .FRENCH

On Sunday, France elected a new presIdent. The conservative Nicolas Sarkozy defeated the socialist Segolene Royal by roughly six points. Or, to put it another way, the guy who’s openly having an affair with a journalist for Le Figaro and whose wife is having an affair with a major advertising executive defeated the woman with model-class cheekbones who’s lived with a man for 25 years and had four children with him without the two of them entering the state of holy wedlock.

Will two such candidates ever run for president in America? Given the judgmental attitudes of such a large portion of our electorate, it’s hard to imagine even one getting nominated. So far, though, the thrice-married Rudy Giuliani, whose second marriage collapsed as he began dating the future Mrs. G III, hasn’t seen his personal life preempting him from consideration. Perhaps we are turning a corner.

 

May 5. 2007

HILARIOUS HIGH SCHOOLERS

Larry Doyle is a friend of mine, but quite by coincidence, he happens to be a very funny writer. He has just published a new book called I Love You, Beth Cooper, and it’s very funny. (Indeed, if you believe Vanity Fair, it’s “flagrantly funny.”) The book is about a rather nerdy valedictorian named Denis Cooverman, who, in the course of his graduation speech, acknowledges the torch he has carried for one his classmates (hence the title.) All sorts of funny antics ensue. We thought to ask Larry some questions.

Q. You’ve written movies and for The Simpsons. What made you think that putting words in the mouth of Homer Simpson, Bugs Bunny and Ben Stiller qualifies you to take up the medium of Austen, Balzac and Dostoyevsky?
A. The same thing that made those Hollywood hacks Fitzgerald and Faulkner think they could do it, I guess. You know, if Balzac were alive today (he’s not, right?), I’m sure he’d be writing unfunny French comedies and Dostoyevsky would be cleaning up on Law & Order. At least that’s how I sleep at night.

Q. Your novel takes place on the day and night of a high school graduation. How come? Was your decision driven by some hifalutin’ theory about high school being the only universal American experience, blah blah blah?
A. That’s great. Can I use that? The reason the book is set at graduation is that it started out as a greeting card, and kind of got away from me.

 

May 5, 2007

JERRY FALWELL, R.I.P.

It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, but it’s fine if the dead are speaking for themselves. Here, courtesy of Slate, are some of the most loathsome, divisive and ludicrous utterances of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died today:

On Sept. 11:
“The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”

On AIDS: “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.”

On homosexuality: “I believe that all of us are born heterosexual, physically created with a plumbing that’s heterosexual, and created with the instincts and desires that are basically, fundamentally, heterosexual. But I believe that we have the ability to experiment in every direction. Experimentation can lead to habitual practice, and then to a lifestyle. But I don’t believe anyone begins a homosexual.”

On Martin Luther King Jr.: “I must personally say that I do question the sincerity and nonviolent intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations.”

On Martin Luther King Jr., four decades later: “You know, I supported Martin Luther King Jr., who did practice civil disobedience.”

On public education: “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again, and Christians will be running them.”

On the separation of church and state: “There is no separation of church and state.”

On feminists: “I listen to feminists and all these radical gals. … These women just need a man in the house. That’s all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it and they’re mad at all men. Feminists hate men. They’re sexist. They hate men; that’s their problem.”

On global warming: “I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We’ll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn’t returned. I don’t believe a moment of it. The whole thing is created to destroy America’s free enterprise system and our economic stability.”

On Jews: “In my opinion, the Antichrist will be a counterfeit of the true Christ, which means that he will be male and Jewish, since Jesus was male and Jewish.”

May 10, 2007

YANKS WIN!

10yankees.2.190Sometimes the good guys get very lucky. Thanks to my colleague Rocky Rakovic, who shrewdly maintains good relationships with the advertising guys, I was the very lucky recipient of four box seats to last nights Yankee-Ranger game. How lucky are we! It was a beautiful night, the seats were great, and Ginny, Cara and her friend Brooke had a great time. On top of it all, the Yanks won, 6-2. Okay, so it was sort of a workmanlike effort, but we got to see Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Mussina, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano and Mariano Rivera (but not Jorge Posada and Jason Giambi—boo!) It was the Yanks’ eighth win in the last 11 games; their record is 16-16.

 

 

10.7 NYG 35 NYJ 24

10.15 NYG 31 ATL 10

10.18 Torre, Yanks part ways; season finale of Mad Men

10.20 Splendid shooting at Orvis Sandanona

10.25 Haircut and sushi 10.23 Grace Is Gone; dinner with the distinguished Eric Alterman and Ann of African-American studies at Lehman 10.21 NYG 33 SF 15. Giants start 5-2. Have seen this act before

10.26 Dan in Real Life followed by dinner with the Lindstroms at the Executive Diner

10.27 Bob’s and Stew Leonard’s; Kite Runner at MOMA with Cara

10.28 NYG 13 MIA 10; BUF 13 NYJ 3; Red Sox sweep another series

10.29 Lunch with writer Rebecca LaVoie at Estiadtorio Milos; Yanks hire Joe Girardi, seemingly a very solid choice; GB 19 DEN 13–Unbelievable Favre throws an 82 yard TD pass on the first play of OT

10.30 Lunch at Mangia with writer Will Georgiades.

10.31 A new low–no trick-or-treaters AT ALL

11.3 Day trip to Philly. Nice to visit La Salle, but did it always look so empty on a Saturday twilight? Quite a breakthrough the Tastycake people have achieved, with the double-iced Butterscotch Krimpets. We’re not so impressed by XM radio.

11.4 WAS 23 NYJ 20. NE 24, IND 20. Marvin Harrison would have made a difference.

11.5 Bfast with Ben Cheever. PGH 35, BAL 7 — at the half! Then I fell asleep. Ben Rothlesberger looked like Elway.

11.6 Received the news that AJ Baime is going to Maxim. Too bad for us–he’s a talented, hardworking guy. House helps the CIA–better-than-average episode.

11.7 Met with some very bright graduate students from Pitt who allowed Chris Napolitano and me address them for hours, and beheld the words that came from our mouths as though they were pearls.

11.10 Norman Mailer died. I suppose it’s fair to say that he captured my youthful imagination and made it seem exciting to be a writer. The Armies of the NightMiami and the Siege of Chicago and The Executioner’s Song were my favorites. AndManaging Mailer by Joe Flaherty is a hilarious work. Day One of closet cleaning–heroic work.

11.11 Day Two of closet cleaning. DAL 31 NYG 20 — ugh! The penalties! GB 34 MIN 0, PGH 31 CLE 28. Dallas, Pittsburgh, and the Packers are all exciting teams, well worth rooting for.

11.14 Lunch with Rebecca Lavoie and Kevin Flynn. Here’s to crime, hopefully.

11.15 Lunch with Duane Swierczynski and Ken Smith.

11.16 A.J. Baime’s last day, alas. Lunch with Louann Fernald.

11.17 Briarcliff’s Girls Soccer Team goes undefeated, wins the State Championship.

11.18 NYG 16 DET 10; NYJ 19 PGH 16.

11.21 Saw Young Frankenstein. Ate at Ruby Tuesday’s–horrid.

11.22-23 Thanksgiving at Rose’s. Sad to see the state of things with the Aged Ps.

11.24 Exhausted.

11.25 MIN 41 NYG 17 Fifty games into Eli Manning’s career, and Ernie Accorsi’s judgement seems deeply flawed. Chinese food. Put up the garland. Only a little less exhausted.

11.28 Molly turns 20. Hard to believe . One day Bo Jackson is running all over the Seahawks, and then this happens.

11.29 Went to an ASME presentation on blogging. The future is exciting and terrifying–kids who’ll blog for $17000! How fast will the clock run out? Cara says her audition went well. Math tutor says Cara is `quick.’

11.30 Ken Smith posted our video on The Coup site on Amazon on Monday, and since then, some copies have sold. We’ve been in the middle 5-digits on Amazon. Still pathetic, but much better.

12.2 NYG 21 CHI 16 A tight win on the road. Defense looks terrific.

12.3 Terrific Monday night game between the Pats and the Steelers. The Pats pull out a late 27-24 win with an amazing and fortunate drive, but time runs out with the Ravens on the one. The best the NFL can offer.

12.8 Saw the Second City Traveling Troupe at Westchester Community College. Hilarious! Best were the bagpipers.

12.9 NYG 16 PHL 13 Second game in a row, though, where Eli looked string in the 4th quarter.

12.10 It’s going to be a frantic holiday. That’s all. Frantic.

12.16 Snow, sleet and freezing rain imprison us, forcing us to watch the stupid Giants lose to Washington. Eight drops by receivers. Lousy weather, yeah, but eight drops?

12.17 There is a hard layer of ice atop all the snow, making every yard and field look like an ice skating rink. Hard driving day at work.

12.23 Giants beat Buffalo in a wild one.

12.24 Traditional Christmas party is fun, as usual, but a little pro forma. New vest is a hit!

12.25 Christmas. Kids are happy.

12.28 Dinner with Anni D’Lauro at Mo’s Steakhouse in New Rochelle. Nice to catch up.

12.29 NE 38 NYG 35 Excellent game. Giants give a great team all it can handle. Eli throws 4 TD passes. Will we see that player again?

12.30 Went to MD, saw Mom, Dad and Rose Tough day

12.31 Saw Charlie Wilson’s War. Underwhelmed.

 

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