Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A 'Better Way' Vignette

I was on the subway on my way to work and I was humming "What the world needs love...sweet love...its the only thing...that there's just...too little of."

Behind me the guy and girl in the double seat opposite gave each other a quick kiss.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A piece of me

This blog is really growing on me, Grandtots. It's nice to have a place to get all the words and ideas in my head out and into a format that is lasting and durable. It's nice knowing that we can talk to one another, through time and space. Letters and words, written, allow me to talk to you in a way that could never happen otherwise; who I am now won't be around when we finally meet. This person writing will be a stranger to me - an old friend that I knew so well once but that I'd lost touch with. It's nice knowing something of that optimistic, thoughtful fellow is still around.

It really is a piece of me that I'm leaving here with these words. And the reason why I know is because of how the words make me feel. I was writing an entry here for your consideration a few days ago. I was on a computer that wasn't my own and the browser was unfamiliar to me, so the AutoSave feature of the blog page wasn't working. This I did not know. I'd written about 2,000 or so words when my attention was diverted and I closed the browser window to attend to a more pressing matter. And when I returned to the entry, I returned to a blank page.

I'm trying to put into words what it felt like knowing those words were gone. There were, of course, those few, frantic, futile moments that I spent trying to retrieve what I'd lost and there was eventual acceptance. But between those two points, I felt this debilitating fury -- this anguish slash sadness slash rage slash despair slash balled fist slash mouth dry slash heart beating slash blood red - that gripped me like never before, I've been angry like that maybe 5 times in all my life. I wanted to throw the monitor, I wanted to put my foot through the computer, I wanted to destroy everything nearby, lay waste, wreak havoc, I wanted not to care about anything. I've failed tests, had my heart broken, let myself down, let my parents down. I've experienced so many things in my life that should have angered me more than losing those words, but they didn't.

What if those words were gone forever? What if they really did leave my brain when I wrote them down? What if those combinations of thoughts and phrases and words and letters could never be formed the same way again? It felt like I'd lost a piece of me.

Eventually, I calmed down enough to see things clearly. I was impatient, I took the autosave for granted and I learned a lesson. I slowly tried to retrace the lines of thought -- the turns of phrase -- that made up the entry. It wasn't quite as good as it had been before, when it was fashioned without the frustration and confusion that filled me now, but it was a passing facsimile. And with time it would eventually be as true a piece of me as it had been before.

I was watching an episode of Californication a few weeks earlier. Its protagonist, David Duchovny as the inscrutable Hank Moody, is that irresistible farce: a writer with persistent writer's block. After a series of unlikely events capped off by the death of his father, Hank's writer's block finally lifts and, over the course of two weeks, he produces his first serious piece in years, a novella. He carries the lone unedited manuscript back to Los Angeles to be read first by his sweetheart. But in the course of his travels he's carjacked at gunpoint, with the manuscript resting in the backseat of the vehicle. He makes to reach for it but is thwarted by his assailants and watches as that massive, irreplaceable piece of himself speeds away. They're driving away in his $100,000 Porsche. And all he wants is the 200 or so sheaves of paper sitting on the backseat. He lights a cigarette and walks home.

I feel your pain, Hank. I feel your pain.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Less than meets the Eye: A critique of the reviews of Transformers 2

Transformers...more than meets the eyes...Transformers...robots in disguise!...Transformers...

First off, I'd like to scold and chastise Messrs Bay and Bruckheimer (henceforth to be referred to as BayBruck) for having a 2 hour and 30 minute Transformers film that didn't have the original theme music.

Next I'd like to commend BayBruck for sticking to what they know. They could have very easily taken a cue from Nolan and The Dark Knight or Favreau and Iron Man and try to ground this movie about "Robots that Transform!" into something contemporary and thought-provoking. They could have tried that and they would have failed, monumentally. Transformers is a movie based on a cartoon based on a comic book based on a line of toys from Hasbro. The opening card of "Transformers: Rise of the Fallen" (TROF) reads "Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures in association with HASBRO." Hasbro is not an avant-garde, single-named, postmodern writer. Hasbro is a toy company. So I ask the question: did Hasbro develop Transformers to examine issues of man's uneasy relationship with technology and artificial intelligence? Try again. They made Transformers to sell cheap plastic action figures to adolescent boys in the hopes of making some money and keeping them from driving their parents crazy. 20% RT rating, and its based entirely on the subject matter and the director/producer. They don't like robots in disguise and they don't like movies with the consistency of the popcorn or cotton candy they stuff in their mouths as they watch and they think one day everyone will make movies like BayBruck.

And that's fine. Those are understandable opinions and understandable fears. But it does raise an interesting question: what is the point of your movie review? I reviewed a movie called Star Trek a few weeks back that everybody loves and everybody went to see, because I had a legitimate beef with it: false advertising. I expected to see a Star Trek movie, it has Star Trek on the poster and it wasn't Star Trek. Every review for this Transformers movie, which no reviewer loved and everyone went to see, basically reduces to "BayBruck gave the audience exactly what they wanted and expected and the audience shouldn't want or expect that because it's beneath them." Well what is your review trying to convey? Are you trying to tell people what they should like? Are you trying to establish some invariant criteria for a good movie? Are you trying to make clear your preference for movies that aren't about Robots in Disguise? Or is some part supposed to anticipate the audience that's going to see the movie and speak to whether or not the director was successful in his/her goals?

What exactly were BayBruck trying to accomplish with this movie? And did they succeed?

$700 milllion later I'd say that they did. And nary a voice to acknowledge that fact. This movie was made to entertain and make money. Just like the toys that inspired the movie. And it does that, ergo, it is a movie making travesty. It's the end of the world as we know it.

My definition of a good and great movie is very simple: a good movie entertains while a great movie entertains while it informs. A great movie touches on timeless themes that tie it to stories told by generations past and generations to come and does it in an original way. But a good movie isn't exactly the easiest thing to make either, else every movie would be good. Transformers is crass and low-brow and obvious and entertaining. We have a word for things with those characteristics - populist. And Transformers 2 is populist movie-making at its shameless best. BayBruck try to appeal to an audience aged 4-40. That’s not easy to do. How badly can you review a movie that accomplishes something like that? I sat in a theatre with a child to my right no older that 8 and an adult to my left in his thirties. They laughed at the exact time at the exact same thing they were looking at on screen. And what was it you may ask? John Turturro's butt. Inelegant yes, but effective. Don’t you have to adjust your criteria of judgment considering the movie isn’t trying to impress just you alone?

When BayBruck make the claim that reviewers have the "anti-fun" gene I think there is legitimacy to that criticism - what exactly were they expecting from a movie based on a cartoon based on an action figure line? I can tell you that the vast majority of the people who spent $700 million validating BayBruck were not expecting Shakesperean themes or storytelling. They were there to see a beer commercial. And what did BayBruck give them? A beer commercial. A 150 minute beer commercial: an extended promotional for GM cars and trucks (think 3rd quarter sales) and the United States armed forces (I wonder how much recruitment ticks up after a BayBruck release...military marketers must wait around the phone for BayBruck's call) using obscenely hot women (I'm sold on Megan Fox), exotic locals, shameless butt jokes, massive setpieces and loud explosions. This movie represents the apotheosis of the BayBruck formula. It’s what you get when you make movies like Crimson Tide, The Rock, Armaggeddon, etc long enough and make enough money doing the obvious. BayBruck are masters of the obvious. And despite its formulaic predictability, who doesn't like a beer commercial?

Transformers is the "Sarah Palin" of movies: it smiles, it’s pretty, it says things you like to hear but you largely turn off your brain when it opens its mouth. I mean, appealing to the lowest denominator in us all (sex, fast cars, violence) may be intellectually offensive but that snobbery shouldn't prevents us from acknowledging that even putting the most obvious crowd-pleasing things on a screen doesn’t guarantee financial success (think Showgirls, Fast and Furious, Punisher). BayBruck made a $200 million movie that feels like it cost $250 million. That is to say, a lot of work went into making this flick as big as it is. These reviewers seem to deny any room for "big" or "popular" in moviemaking, and to my mind, what the hell else is a summer blockbuster supposed to be other than a big, loud, obnoxious, color-saturated, CGI-laden thrill ride? JJ Abrams made a big, loud, obnoxious, color-saturated, CGI-laden “thrill ride” (that’s verbatim from basically every reviewer) and called it Star Trek and its 70 percentage points higher than TROF. The difference: Star Trek is supposed to appeal to your brain, and Transformers…is a movie about robots in disguise. TROF’s plot is Sam Witwicky holds the key to the Superweapon that the Fallen plans to use to destroy mankind (who knows why) and Star Trek’s plot is Kirk has to stop Nero from using his Superweapon to destroy mankind (who knows why) and change history (incidentally Star Trek: First Contact was about Picard having to stop the Borg from changing history and destroying mankind...I know, it is a substantive difference).

That people like Star Trek, or at least what passes for Star Trek these days, and not "Robots in Disguise", doesn't seem like enough of a reason to give a movie a good or bad review (I don't like the Holocaust, so I'm going to go ahead and say that Schindler's List is shit). If BayBruck had tried to give TROF an enduring theme -- if they tried to shoehorn-in a critique of the troubled relationship between man and machine -- I would have loved to see how they reviewed that movie. "Who do BayBruck think they are trying to make a movie based on a cartoon based on an action figure line into something intelligible?" – they would have absolutely obliterated that flick. I daresay that movie might have earned BayBruck an RT of 0%.

And I hope it goes without saying that condemning a movie as a complete failure when it made so much money and entertained so many people isn't just arrogant, it’s pretty stupid.

- K

P.S. Joe Morgenstern and the comments of Ed Chiu.

P.P.S. Vagueland blog

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sarah Palin

She was born a day after my birthday in 1964. She was a girl and then a wife and a mother and a councilor, a mayor and a governor of the state of Alaska. By all accounts, her stand against the oil interests in the State of Alaska is as unvarnished a display of political courage as one would find in the history of American politics. Besides that, what do I really know about this woman? Next to nothing. And I always hate talking about things that I don't really know. But the one thing I do know about her, I know with absolute certainty. She is honest. She says what she means, what's in her heart. She says it with little to no consideration of consequence. And this makes her a particularly interesting case study to me in the battle between simplicity and complexity...


We're sitting around the table at a booth in this Toronto restaurant. Prasanna sits next to his lovely girlfriend Kathleen. To her left sits her workmates at the Public Guardian's office -- the darling Aline, and their client "Ben". I sit to his left, completing the circle. The beers on the table have been nursed but they're more empty than full and the company is pleasant. The conversation moves easily as if we were all longtime friends and not new acquaintances...the topics of discussion are the mostly trivial happenings of the entertainment world. And the conversation could move easier still if it weren't for one small detail that seemed ever-present on all of our minds....


Wasilla is a small place. Alaska is pretty far removed from the rest of the world. The Founding Fathers made quite the gamble in putting next to no qualifications for obtaining the most influential office in human history. On the one hand, anyone can be President so we'd better make sure that the person who gets that job is the best person possible. On the other hand, anyone can be President so it can sometimes work out that the person who gets the job was simply the most popular person possible. Warren Harding was popular. Paris Hilton is popular. The Founders gambled that popularity alone would never be enough. No system captures intentions perfectly, and neither does the Electoral College.


"Ben" had just parted our company for his own engagements. It wasn't a sigh of relief or anything so dramatic. He seems like a good guy, obviously intelligent, well-informed. He was also an opera singer. I feel compelled to mention this because I'd never met one before. When he had left, I had a thought in my head but I didn't think to give it voice.

Surprisingly (though not too surprising -- she's pretty bright), it was the lovely Kathleen who expressed what I had been thinking. She said, "You never know how...I mean, whether he was offended or anything we were talking about."

Aline spoke next. "Yeah...well he seemed comfortable. I mean he was participating in the conversation. He wasn't just sitting back and wringing his hands or anything."

They were referring to the occasional topic of gay celebrities that had arisen during our discussion. At one point, I resumed with Kathleen a sometimes heated (and on my part, incredulous) debate over the identity of some closeted gay celebrities (Will Smith!?!). Which, on other occasions, would have taken place without a second's thought save for one small detail in this instance: "Ben" was himself gay.


Sarah Palin announced that she was going to resign as Alaskan Governor effective July 23, 2009 with 18 months left in her mandate.

Adam Nagourney

Some people suggested there was a shrewdness to her gambit. From this view, the announcement, as precipitous as it might have appeared, was part of a considered a grand plan of rehabilitation and preparation that would position her as the strongest possible challenger to
President Obama in 2012.

“This unusual move might be the right move for her to become president of the United States,” said William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard who is a fan of Ms. Palin.


But there is plenty of evidence that argues against the idea that this was done with forethought and planning. The rollout was something of a car crash, as even her fans acknowledged. After a jittery and visually discordant announcement at her home, she was forced over the next 48 hours to clarify what she meant with a series of Twitter and Facebook postings. It reached a point where her lawyer warned news organizations against reporting that she was under investigation for something.

David Frum

Sarah Palin said on Friday that her decision to resign as governor had been in the works "for a while" and "after much consideration." In that case, you might wonder why she had not bothered to write out a speech in advance. Instead, the Alaska governor delivered a rambling, angry, and self-pitying statement praising people who do not give up - and then gave up.

rexx1: When she speaks, she doesn't attempt to convey any rational thought, she just says stuff.

IMPULSIVE: She just does things. She conveys a continual and consistent sense that she acts on whims, on impulse. That press conference is the impetus behind these words -- it was so devoid and bereft of any semblance of pre-thought or contemplation or exposition. It left pundits, those for and against her, breathless - she didn't make any sense. Shouldn't that matter? When someone talks for 30 minutes and you still have no idea what they said, doesn't that mean something?

Sheldon Alberts

While allowing the television crews to shoot footage of two of her children -- eight-year-old Piper and one-year-old Trig -- Ms. Palin renewed her complaints that the media refused to respect her family's privacy.

"Most candidates, most public officials get to look into a camera and say, ‘You know, you better leave your hands off my kids.' Well, I haven't been able to say that," she said, "and that double standard that's been applied, that's been a little bit frustrating. These are political shots."

HYPOCRISY: ...So obvious that it needs no commentary. But, again, she doesn't seem to grasp or care to grasp that media access and privacy are conflicting expectations.

Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg

But at another point she invoked a military quotation, misattributing it to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in what seemed to be an effort to wave aside any suggestion that she was abandoning the fight. “He said, ‘We’re not retreating; we are advancing in another direction,’ ” she said. (The remark was actually said by Maj. Gen. Oliver Prince Smith.)

PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL: Everyone wants to sound smart sometimes, everyone would like to seem brighter than they are (especially me!) but sometimes the smartest thing we can do is to know the limits of our own intelligence. To just attribute a quote to someone because they're a recognizable authority figure isn't just a simple mistake, it's disingenuous and dishonest. She could just have as easily said, "A great man once said..." but she wanted credit for knowing who actually said the quote, when in fact she actually didn't. That's something I would expect from a child (or Rod Blagojevich).

Rebecca Sinderbrand and Shirley Hung

"How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it's about country," Palin said in a statement attributed to her on her Facebook page. "And though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make. But every American understands what it takes to make a decision because it's right for all, including your family."

OVERSIMPLIFICATION: Jeanne d'Arc left her life as a peasant girl to follow God's voice and lead the French Army. Barack Obama left his term in the Senate after only 4 years of a 6 year be President of the United States. She uses an analogy that seems so seductively relevant at first reading and then, after a moment's thought, it occurs that she missed the key point in her analogy entirely. If you're abandoning one commitment for a 'higher calling' the calling has to be demonstrably higher, and perhaps most importantly, immediate. If I resigned my job as a surgeon mid-procedure because 3 1/2 years from now I wanted to be President, would anyone think twice about calling me 'irresponsible', 'irrational', 'mercurial'? Resigning as governor to be unemployed isn't a more reputable way to serve your state as a public servant.


We had all been thinking the same thing: whether we had been offensive without intending to be, and we hoped that we hadn't been. Aline made the important observation that if we had said something untowards the responsibility for remedying it was not ours alone; "Ben" was free to mention if something seemed callous or unfair. But even as she said it, even as we nodded our heads in assent, I felt that again we were thinking the same unspoken thought. As J.K. Rowling put it "It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends." How free would he have felt to speak out, if we had inadvertently crossed a line? How comfortable would he have felt ruining our pleasant vibe with a note of reproach?

It all seemed so remarkable to me, these little details, details both insignificant and garguatuan. Were we over-analyzing or under-analyzing the night's discussion? Both appeared equally likely.

At last the thought that I was looking for finally shook loose and came to the surface and I said it out loud before I could think better of it: "It's strange," I began, looking at the faces around me. "Like, I mean, it's not just that we didn't want to offend him. It's that offending him is the absolute last thing that anyone here wanted to have done. And despite that, despite how much we didn't want to, that has no bearing on whether or not we did. Our intentions had nothing to do with the reality."

It was a disheartening truth, but it was the truth. It would be nice if wanting to do good was enough isn't.


This is definitively last time that I will make mention of Sarah Palin in this chronicle, because I don't think she deserves more than that. I don't think she's done enough in her life to warrant further examination. But she represents such a delightful extreme. There have been presidents who were figureheads, puppets (Harding). There have been presidents who appeared to be figureheads when they actually called most of the shots (Reagan). And there have been presidents who were figureheads and knew that they were figureheads (W). Sarah Palin is positioning herself to be the first figurehead president to actually run the United States. That is to say, she's looking to be both puppet and puppetmaster. She wants to be Bush without Rove, style without substance, populism without vision. And she has the luxury of believing this will work because she has no idea about all the things that she doesn't know, and she doesn't care. And let's be clear: it isn't that she doesn't care about my insignificant opinion of her...she doesn't care whether or not it's true. She doesn't care whether or not she is in fact ignorant, because complexity is her enemy.

Even as I write this I wring my hands at the prospect that I am falling victim to the very fallacy that I decry: that I am oversimplifying this woman. Maybe there is a mind at work behind those fashionable glasses, a mind that's been underestimated and underused because of the mindless, repetitive drivel that has become the rallying cry of her party (honestly, is anyone in opposition to lower taxes and strong national defense? - use your brains and change the goddamn script). Maybe, given the opportunity, there is a mind there that wonders whether gay people should be treated with the same amount of respect as her child with trisomy 21. But if she has those gifts, she's yet to reveal them. Grown-ups should know that know-what, know-why and know-how are no small matter. You can't "gee-gosh-darn" your way out of the problems that demand the attention of the President of the United States. The world is a complicated place and it should be respected as such, treated with nuance. An interesting contrast comes to mind: Sarah Palin says what people want to hear, and she happens to believe every word. Barack Obama says what people need to hear and he happens to say it better than anyone else. Simplicity and complexity -- if nothing else, 2012 represents a clear choice.

She's honest, earnest and she has the best of intentions. That night, we too, had the best of intentions. But sometimes that isn't enough. It isn't enough to want what's best for your country and seize an opportunity to have the power. It isn't enough to want to be polite and considerate of others. You have to have the gumption, the good ol' fashion sense to make it happen. You have to care about the interface between great things and small, between the remarkable and the mundane. You have to respect both the rule and the exception, the interplay between the simple and the complex. You have to put as much thought into your words as you do in your actions. And if you don't, at the very least, you have to recognize and value those abilities in those around you. Does Sarah Palin?

P.S. Frank Rich