Thursday, December 25, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sheepish Lord (2001)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Dec. 22 - Last week's protest at the New School University reminded me of this piece below, which appeared on vermiform.com back in May 2001. It's been interesting for me to note my own attitude shifts during the last seven years. Two wars have imparted me with this decade's sensitivity towards veterans; if I'd written about Bob Kerrey now, I would probably err, rightly or wrongly, towards conciliation. Likewise, my tolerance of hippie bullshit has entirely evaporated since '01. After three days of the protesters' self-important proclamations, grandiose declarations of "autonomy" and the self-parodying Major Victory text (item one being amnesty for the protestors themselves), it was a bit of a letdown that the 6th precinct didn't swoop in and pull a Tiananmen Square on all involved.

THE SHEEPISH LORD OF CHAOS
May 14, 2001

By now, the Bob Kerrey dilemma has been heard by all; distinguished ex-Senator is hired as president of prestigious university in February, distinguished ex-Senator is outed as mass murderer in April. But isn't this what the NY's New School University wanted? The responsibility of any academic president is, first and foremost, to generate publicity. When the New York Times accused Kerrey of ordering the deaths of 13 unarmed civilians in Vietnam three decades ago... well, hey, that's publicity! And when Bob "Sheepish Lord Of Chaos" (as the Wu-Tang name generator waggishly calls him) Kerrey continued to agonize publicly about his role in the massacre, his own tortured admissions of guilt thrashing through repentance to defensiveness to hostility, well, that's just more fuel for the old PR machine. Not many administrators out there can command attention from America's political cartoonists for two weeks straight.

me in '88

War, atrocity, generational anguish... where the hell was this guy when I needed him? For the record, I attended the New School a dozen years ago, as an undergrad at Eugene Lang College. Lang is a cozy West Village enclave of 500 or so students nestled snugly in the New School's crush of 32,000. Kerrey calls the tiny college "enormously important to our being a university." 'Twas also the scene of the Outrageously Racist Painting Protests of 1990. Can't seem to recall the uproar? Let me refresh your memory. That was the year a touring Japanese art exhibition had the sorry misfortune to turn up in the lobby of Parson's School Of Design, a nearby member of the New School campus. One of the paintings reworked a Japanese soda can label image of a cartoon "black Sambo" in full minstrel awfulness. Was it postmodern appropriation? Social commentary? Didn't matter: Lang professor Sekou Sundiata discovered the painting and scrawled "this is racist bullshit" across the work with a sharpie.

photo by Jason O'toole

I was taking one of Sekou's classes at the time, and it's safe to say the guy was the most beloved man on campus. Normal class size caps - 15 students max - were waived by popular demand, so that twice a week Mr. Sundiata would orate to a packed room of breathless college kids (Ani Difranco was a fellow student in '90 and may have met Sekou in this very class... last year she released his second LP on Righteous Babe Records). The man's magic drew the majority of the black campus population and these gatherings produced some painful exchanges across the racial divide. Sample;

White Student to Black Student: We're here to learn about YOU.

Black Student to White Student: ?????????

Me: (silently drawing cartoon mushroom clouds in notebook)

By the time the Japanese painting had been defaced, the atmosphere was ripe for campus revolt. Word got out that Sundiata was due for mild rebuke from the administration - he had, after all, destroyed a presumably expensive piece of fine art - and the campus revolted. Classes were skipped. Hallways were commandeered. Speeches were made in Sekou's defense. If it seems kinda oafish that this was the worst thing students in Manhattan could find to protest, let me tell you - it was even stupider in person. I can't say these silly doings were the sole reason I left the school, but they certainly didn't help.

So how do Bob's mass atrocities stack up against an ambiguous Japanese painting? Some newspapers report campus "unease". Kerrey himself held a schoolwide meeting described by the Village Voice as "crucial". Supposedly 40% of the students are inclined to contemplate Bob's removal. Meanwhile, the guy has deftly pulled a full Oprah Cheese Attack to the 14th degree of new age introspection. Pinned an old man to the floor of a hut with your knees, did you? The better to help a fellow Navy SEAL slit the man's throat? What matters is that you express a "desire to be reincarnated as a Vietnamese". The story has already been shunted under layers of plastic empathy. "I have chosen to talk about it because it helps me heal." Imagine (as the US News & World Report pointed out) any of the Diallo shooting cops trying to pass this line. No one is interviewing the families of the 13 killed. But where the hell are the rioting Lang students??

Friday, December 5, 2008

Tuesday @ Knott's Berry Farm theme park

BUENA PARK, Dec. 2 - It was a gray cold Tuesday, and we had free tickets to Knott's Berry Farm. The last of Monday's deep fog (strong enough to elicit a freeway advisory) still lingered over Orange County, so when the sun briefly came out, it lit up the mist and made the drive feel like a road trip to Heaven. At some point near the 57/91 junction, we passed through a region of hills and gullies all scorched bare by last month's Yorba Linda-Corona Fire. That part was more like a trip through The Lorax.


To get to Knott's Berry Farm from inland, you have to pass the Movieland Wax Museum. Even though the place closed in '06, the entire structure remains intact, including edifice, neon marquee and the beautiful road sign. The only difference is that you can't go inside, and someone parked a Starbucks on the front lawn.


The glitzy Hollywood lights over the front doors still blinked. A piece of paper taped to one of the doors angrily told me that the museum "is CLOSED & will NOT RE-OPEN". I tried to peer into the darkness beyond but couldn't make out anything. Then I thought of all those wax statues, still posed in the shadows, whispering about the electric bill and hey, who's that guy standing by the front door let's nab him, and I got creeped out and left to buy a latté.


If I had my druthers, the first building you'd see past the KBF entrance would be Knott's Fairy Barn. Maybe it's a delightful place to take your daughter. Maybe it's an anything-goes men's bathhouse. Only way to find out is to step under the big picture of Mr. Furley and actually find out.


I'm not sure what kind of barbaric war crimes this middle-aged woman committed in a past life, but now she has to guard the teepees under the Silver Bullet coaster supports for all eternity. For the entire time I sat with my $9 mini pizza, she slowly paced back and forth and back again. It was like something out of Dante. Only as I was leaving did her 12-year old supervisor materialize to chew her out for not pacing the Knotts Berry Farm way.


We rode the Boomerang coaster. I screamed like comedian Steve Agee, meaning like an overweight grown man screaming like a small girl.


In his superb biography Born Standing Up, Steve Martin talks about his early days performing magic at KBF's Bird Cage Theater. Strangely, there's no mention of his name anywhere in the park (in contrast to Disneyland, which recently replaced the talking Lincoln robot with an entire film congratulating Steve Martin for his minimum wage work in their own park in the 50's and 60's). Towards the end of the book (p. 201) Martin describes returning to the park years later and breaking into the theater through an unlocked employee door. This was another bit of contrast between Knott and Disney; if anybody tried the same stunt in the Magic Kingdom, they'd have about 2.4 seconds to enjoy their accomplishment before getting slapped in plastic handcuffs and tossed into Disney jail. Does Knott's Berry Farm even have a jail?


Something bugged me all afternoon. I didn't figure it out until we left. Where were the punk rockers? This was my first visit to a theme park in the last twenty five years where I didn't see a single mohawk. Come to think of it, I haven't seen many punks at all recently. I know they're out there, but where?

In Dreams Of My Father, Barack Obama talks about hanging out with "punk rock performance poets" in college (p. 98). Incoming Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice will be the first cabinet-level figure in American history to come of age in Dischord-era DC (lady was 16 when "Legless Bull" came out). Gens X-Z: this new administration will understand your subculture far better than your parents ever did. Meaning this may be a good time to pick a more offensive subculture.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Exit Notes: Video Paradiso

CLAREMONT, CA Nov 25 - Video Paradiso, the eclectic Claremont video store where I worked from February until earlier this month, is quickly becoming the only game in town. Two local chain rentals have gone belly up in the last year, and the surviving Hollywood Video of nearby Laverne has been forced to cannibalize more and more floor space with video games that have no meaning for people older than 12. Netflix and TiVo are winning the war, but our local video store continues to ace the skirmishes.

The store dates to 1938 and was built in the Streamline Moderne style of late art deco. Set back from the high-traffic corner of Yale and Bonita, the building housed a Bentley's Market for almost six decades, a fact many local old-timer seem reluctant to let go. I found myself subject to The Grocery Store Speech many times during my nine month tour of duty.

"This used to be a grocery store," one of the old timers would tell me angrily.
"Yes sir," I would say.
"Groceries."
"Absolutely sir," I would say.

The store's northern front, once open to the street and adorned with bushels of produce, is now walled, and frames a long picture window. Where other video stores have cramped back rooms or well-thumbed binders for their adult sections, VP has only this front wall. The relatively small erotica section sits below the window - eye level for any sorry toddler who strays from the main aisle - next to a slightly larger gay and lesbian section that I'd put at 10% serious drama and 90% sexy time. Those cruising for smut must stand before the great window, exposed to all.

More than one bored conversation with coworkers centered around the hygiene of this section. The germiness of video stores is something you don't really think about until you're trapped in one. No blacklight can detect the filth that children pollinate from object to object, so there was no scientific way to gauge which section - kids' or adult - was dirtier. But I did encounter stains, on used product, where the best case prognosis was blood, and more than once had to convince myself that the substance smeared on a returned DVD case was peanut butter. Although my coworkers took these assaults to public health seriously (and with great amounts of Windex), the threat of accidentally rubbing my face - and thus contracting gonorrhea of the eyes - lingered over every shift.

Customers would say the darndest things. "Do Blu-Ray discs require special TV sets?" "Is [film with the word 'blue' in the title] one of those new Blu-Ray discs?" "Do you have 'Chee'?" [in reference, I painfully deciphered, to a new Che Guevara documentary]. Then there was the pink haired, 13-year old girl whose father had to rent her "Decline Of Western Civilization". As we exchanged case for disc, she glanced across the counter at my button down shirt and ridiculous glasses and said, with her eyes, old man, you'll never understand my world.

Being on the far eastern rim of L.A. county, the store saw its share of celebrities. I managed to miss actor Tim Roth, one of the "Menace II Society" directors, and - most upsettingly - Mort Sahl, the pioneering standup who inspired Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen to become comedians (Sahl, it turns out, is not deceased, but merely a visiting professor at one of the local colleges). One night a rumpled gentleman came in during the mid-evening rush, saw a Twilight Zone episode on the overhead monitors, and walked around the store "doing" Rod Serling. It wasn't a bad impression, and the staff and customers seemed divided on whether to laugh or groan. I chose to groan. As the rumpled gentleman departed, a coworker at next door's Rhino Records came over to deliver a box of DVD cases.

"That's Charles Fleischer," he said.
"So," I said, unimpressed.
"Dude," the coworker dropped to a whisper. "That's the voice of Roger Rabbit."

I slumped, certain I'd blown my only chance to mingle with greatness. So certain, in fact, that coworker Rick C. and I were completely unprepared when Fleischer returned the next month.

"What do we do?" Rick whispered as the fantastic man approached the counter.
"Don't panic," I said, heart racing. "Stall him. Be charming, but don't let on you know who he is. The only way we're going to get him to befriend us is if he thinks we're trustworthy." I ran to the back room computer and frantically scanned IMDB. Playing "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" on the overhead monitors would have been vulgar. We needed something subtle, but not too subtle. I found 2004's "The Polar Express", in which Fleischer voices "Elf Captain", pulled the disc and popped it into the DVD player as nonchalantly as possible. Rick and I pulled off a reasonable semblance of conversation for less than five minutes before Fleischer noticed the TV.

"Really?" he said, smiling suspiciously. "Polar Express. Playing just this moment? That's quite a coincidence"
"Coincidence, sir?"
"Yesss." He studied the TV for a long moment. "I'm in this movie, you know."
"In this movie, sir?" I blinked in mock confusion.

Here's where I give myself credit: a younger video store employee would've referenced TV's "Punk'd" in a moment like this - hey guys, ok, I get it... when's Aston Kutcher gonna pop out! That clearly would not work with the Roger Rabbit generation. I waited a beat, finally smiling broadly.

"OK, guys," I said with showy amusement. "Where's Allen Funt hiding?"

My plan worked. I could see it in his eyes. We would soon be fast friends. I could almost hear his droll impersonations and cartoon quips as we sat poolside someplace far away and far more elegant than this store. Without warning, Rick exploded. "Awwwwwwwwwwww, YOU'RE ROGER RABBIT!!!" I slumped again. Fleischer laughed, but not in the friendly way of Toontown.

On a different afternoon last April, a somber fellow with swept-back hair and wire-frame glasses walked in, browsed a bit and then handed me a title from the shelves. I looked up his account and asked for ID. The computer listed no middle name, so when I matched this identity against his driver's license, I did a genuine double take.

"Are you David Foster Wallace the author?" I asked with undisguised disbelief. Just hours earlier, I'd set out for Borders to examine a particular passage in his Infinite Jest, only to run out of time and instead drive angrily to work. He seemed thinner than his photographed self, and a little startled at my tiny incursion into his personal space.

"Oh. Yeah. I am." he said, surprised.
"I'm a big fan," I said. I'd never made it through one of his books, but this seemed the easiest way to summarize the improbable coincidence that had just gone down.
"Thanks," he said flatly. "No. I appreciate it. I don't get many people recognizing me." He paid and left with the haste of discomfort.

I learned Wallace lived in Claremont as well, another visiting professor at a local college. He rented regularly. I was careful, on later encounters, not to make eye contact or further small talk or glance at any of his rental titles. Still, the interactions seemed awkward; he finessing a possible stalker, me suppressing several thousand questions on how one could find a life as a professional writer and escape retail servitude at age 39.

This word - retail - was a hard thing to get around. However I spun the situation to myself, I always reached the same conclusion. I had committed myself to stand under fluorescent lights, day after beautiful southern California day, surrounded by the fruits of other people's successes. My only consolation was that I'd chosen an industry with a guaranteed expiration. Movies will soon zap on and off tiny hard drives, each no larger than a pencil eraser and each holding many Video Paradisos worth of delightful cinema. In ten years tops, 330 W. Bonita Avenue in Claremont will be a store where old ladies can come to buy decorative ceramic vegetables. The Grocery Store Speech will evolve into the Video Store Speech. "This place used to be a video store," old-timers will lecture the sales staff. But the minimum wage employees will only smile politely. They'll have no idea what the words "video" and "store" meant together, and, what's more, they will not care.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Problem: Resemblance To Antichrist

THE ZONE OF UNEASE, Nov. 16 - What are one's options upon discovery that one's 13 year old self is startlingly similar - in attitude, bowl cut, and ID crisis - to the adolescent Son Of Satan as depicted by Jonathan Scott-Taylor in 1978's "Omen II"?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Corrections

CORRECTIONS DEPT., Nov 11 - A letter arrived last week from Laura Mac Donald, author of Curse Of The Narrows, regarding my book review from last June:

Sam,

Thanks for the great review. Could you clarify something for me? I do not assign thoughts etc. to characters. All of it, including thoughts, is researched and footnoted. If there is anything added - and it's not often, I used the conditional ie. 'He must have thought...' [apostrophes added]

It's hard work getting it right. I don't want your review to mislead readers.

All my best, Laura

(Also no hyphen in Mont Blanc)

Thanks.

I'll take the rap for the needless hyphen. There is no excuse for slapdash reviewermanship. But I'm confused about this 'assign' business. When I told Tara I'd gotten a letter from the Curse author, she was excited, and then when I explained what the letter was about she said, 'oh no'.

Does this warrant a letter and an "oh no"? At the risk of taking the Bill Clinton defense, I must defer to the judgment of Merriam-Webster (hyphen confirmed). In the various synonyms of "ascribe", we are told that;

ascribe suggests an inferring or conjecturing of cause... attribute suggests less tentativeness than ascribe... assign implies ascribing with certainty or after deliberation

In this instance, I feel that my "assign" was mistaken for "attribute". I certainly meant the word positively, like the way a triage doctor can assign a patient to a particular wing of a hospital. History is a hard thing to engage, and I salute anyone who can thrillingly ascribe, with certainty or after deliberation, the inner workings of actors long dead. I meant no offense to Ms. Mac Donald.

A quick search tells me that I used this word combo ("assigning motives") once before, two years ago, in an article I wrote about the band Gossip. I'd probably read the phrase earlier, in someone else's copy, and unconsciously absorbed it into my writing, the same way little kids mimic adult conversation patterns. It's an easy thing to do. I've caught lots of repeated phrasings and words in my own writing before, and I have every confidence that I will continue to do so for as long as I write.

My usage in the Gossip article is pretty unambiguous, however, and it doesn't bode well for my Curse Of The Narrows defense. If I'd intended the more magnanimous version of "assign" last June, that means I used the wrong word in 2006. This is called a lose-lose situation. Although if I had to choose one article to be the wrong one, I'd go with the Gossip piece; I doubt they'll ever write me a friendly / chiding / maybe angry letter, and even if they do I doubt it'll be on stationary as classy as Ms. Mac Donald's.

ALSO - I'd like to take this opportunity to correct the resume I handed the staff of the Scripps women's college mailroom during my job interview last month. That meeting went so well - was, indeed, hands down the best job interview I've ever been part of - that I have a hard time accepting the letter I received telling me that I was "not chosen for the position". I don't want to entertain any thoughts of gender-bias (especially for a job with the word "male" in its title), so I can only assume that my interviewers Googled me, found this blog, and made it to the rather misanthropic end of the 8/20 entry. If the hiring staff at Scripps still read this blog, I'd like to state for the record that my real name is Jefferson Nopplebauer, there was a mix-up at Kinkos, I mistakenly handed you the wrong resume, and I would still very much like the job.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Review: National Black President Special Christmas Day

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Nov. 5 - A vibrating cell phone woke me at 7:21. It was Rick, my friend and former coworker at the Claremont video store where I work part time. Rick texted feels great today, like in Star Wars 3 when Luke Skywalker defeated the Republic and the entire galaxy was celebrating. It took a moment to figure out that I wasn't irritated at being roused, another moment to remember that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States. The closest emotional template for this feeling would have to be waking on Christmas morning. For those of us not running for First Lady, it seems safe to call it for what it is: Late Onset Patriotism. For the first time in my adult life, I'm actually proud of my country.

There are auxiliary lumps of relief. The end of the victory speech was almost as satisfying as the victory itself; as soon as Obama stepped off the stage at Grant Park, he entered the invisible, vast cloud of presidential protection that makes him exponentially more bullet-proof. He has four more years before having to plunge back into another Dawn Of The Dead crowd of outstretched arms. The two Tennessee skinheads who plotted a shoot-out in tuxedos and top hats will have to content themselves with writing angry letters to the Memphis Daily News. It's over.

This win is doubled by its matching defeat, that harmonious property of zero-sum two-party politics that has a blue line rise as a red line falls, as perfectly symmetrical as trees reflected on a shoreline. Just as important as what we get is what we have been spared; four more years of sadistic fast-food incompetence, grumpy and perky flavored. We will not have to listen to Sarah Palin's voice any more. As the morning wore on, I realized I was in my own cloud, perhaps what sports writer Roger Angell calls the "cloud of smugness" (although he was referring to November 4's direct democratic participation, and not November 5's glorious, sanctimonious gloating).

I tried to remember what I had done four years ago. 11/3/04 was rough, but details are fuzzy. I know I gave myself only twenty-four hours to sulk, that I spent the day frowning at children and giving the thumbs-down to old people, and that at one point I mooned a photo booth as a souvenir for my future self. Should I give myself only one day to feel ecstatic as well? I tried to remember my objections to Obama only a year ago. "Too young", was one. "Younger than Henry Rollins", was another. Hillary Clinton, I felt, was far smarter. That past misjudgment should inform my present euphoria. President Obama (!!) will disappoint all of us. Everyone knows this. But so what?

At one, I drove to Claremont Toyota for a scheduled oil change. I swapped my keys for a pager, similar to those given to waiting customers at Olive Garden, and found an empty table amidst the shiny new Corollas and Tacomas. CT's showroom was large and quiet, like a well-funded library. People sat reading and drinking free coffee. A grand piano rested unused in one corner. Overhead flat screens displayed silent, soothing montages of the previous night's events. I was careful not to glance up for more than a few seconds, lest I get goofy-faced and misty-eyed all over again.

It's a complete coincidence that I started reading Fritz Hirschfeld's George Washington and Slavery right before the election. If 1780's sensibilities seemed barbaric before November 4, they'd lost all meaning on this day. Washington's slaves didn't really have much to say on their own behalf in this book - being slaves, they wrote nothing and left only names, duly noted in GW's prodigious ledgers, and the impressions made on a few visiting notables (Washington's own cloud of presidential protection could be pierced with a simple letter of introduction). At several points, George and Martha complained bitterly at the ingratitude of their runaways, like parents of wayward hippies. It was both a fascinating read and, paradoxically, the kind of thing my southern friend Kelly would call a Snorey Snack. When the showroom chairs grew uncomfortable, I retired to one of the plush sofas hidden in the financing alcove, cracked open my book and promptly fell asleep.

I woke to a vibration. It took a moment to figure out it wasn't the store's pager letting me know my car was ready, but instead someone calling the phone in my pants, waking me for the second time in one day. It was Dennis, my boss at the video store. "It's the economy," Dennis said grimly. "We just can't afford to keep you on." I smiled serenely, remembering that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States. "Come on in, and we'll cut you a final check," Dennis said. I agreed cheerfully. President Obama!

Early on in this campaign, several cynical Republicans noted that a new terrorist attack would benefit the perceived foreign policy strengths of their candidate. Just this summer, I noted cynically that Hurricane Gustav had the potential to be the opposite of a new terrorist attack, an unforeseen catastrophe with the potential to inflict maximum political damage on the McCain side. Now I understand my faulty math. Yesterday was the opposite of 9/11, almost surely the only such day anyone alive will ever experience. For one night, people across the planet covered their mouths in raw shock - a gesture eerily familiar from 9/11, but tracking to the extreme opposite end of the emotional spectrum. It was as if the Earth team had just won an intergalactic futbol championship. We're in unknown territory. Star Wars 3 ended without showing us who took over the reigns of the empire, much less how they governed.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Highlights of 2,053rd week on Earth

Tuesday: Driving north on Garey Ave, I saw a group of giggling young women holding cardboard signs on two different street corners. I assumed it was for a car wash, until I passed and read DONATION FOR FUNERAL. I thought about pulling over, donating whatever change I could find in the car's ashtray and getting a good photo, but this seemed exploitative, so I kept driving. Later that afternoon, at the thrift store, the universe rewarded my good behavior with this;


Long Beach Aquarium: are the seals a graceful affirmation of all that is precious and wondrous with life on Earth? Or does their carefree swooping simply mock our failing economy and tedious human existence?


And why are all the rocks in their tank shaped like human breasts?


I discovered this pile of human hair - a surprisingly hard subject to photograph with a cell phone - last February, in front of a business called "Robert Michael's Salon" in Claremont, just a few doors down from my mail place. If I'd still lived in Jersey City, I'd have assumed this was Santería-related. Being the west coast, it was probably just an innocent error at the end of a long day saloning hair. There were bits of cat litter mixed in with the furry lump, so I'm guessing someone swept up, got distracted, and somehow left the sweepings on the low brick wall directly by the front door, as if to greet passers by.

On Wednesday, I was walking down the street to get my mail when I saw a middle aged man emerge from this same salon. It could only have been Mr. Michael. He seemed to take in the beautiful autumn afternoon with real pleasure. As I passed, I realized it was a little creepy that I knew one small disturbing detail about his business that even he was unaware of.


Remember the old days, when the guys with the crazy signs and upside down flags on their cars weren't Republicans?

postscript: 5 months later, I finally saw this car's owner. But instead of the balding, white-knuckle accounts-receivable type I'd pictured, it was a 6' 5" black dude with Afrika Bambaataa glasses and the whackadoodle air of a machete assassin. Ultimate letdown.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Review; 'What We Do Is Secret' (2007)

Disclaimer; halfway into "What We Do Is Secret" - Rodger Grossman's 2007 biopic of LA punk band The Germs - I had to use the john something fierce, so this review reflects a viewing gap. It is possible, however unlikely, that the five minutes I missed covered the vast range of subjects otherwise conspicuously lacking. Perhaps this segment addressed singer Darby Crash posing with a fake girlfriend in "The Decline Of Western Civilization" - Penelope Spheeris's flawless and starkly contrasting 1981 documentary of the early Los Angeles punk scene - supposedly to avoid gay-bashing by fellow band Fear. Or maybe the unseen segment examined the LA scene's descent into jock-fueled megabrawls. Perhaps there was time to examine the period's casual racism, or the casual scientology of Crash and his buddies. I wasn't present. It would be presumptuous of me to assume otherwise.

When I did return to my seat, I discovered that the movie had taken a reckless new turn. A present day rock band ("The Bronx", said the credits) portrayed 1980 Black Flag in unapologetically 21st century garb and presentation; they roared and stomp-danced and sported Hot Topic gear and looked and sounded like every other post nu-metal KROQ flim-flam that plays over the credits of a 2008 horror flick. It seemed a bold attempt to jumpstart a lost cause - a "game changer" in this season's lingo - by reconfiguring the entire shitty premise midstream. For a few wonderful moments, I held out hope for a meatier, weirder, funnier, more postmoderny movie to emerge triumphant from the first hour. Would it have been too much to ask for the late-inning additions of Kevin James as Darby Crash, Martin Lawrence as both Pat Smear and Rodney Bingenheimer, and an award-winning cameo by Abigail Breslin as Penelope Spheeris?

It would. Nothing exciting actually transpired, and the movie puttered and sputtered and eventually limped to its hero's inevitable suicide. It's hard to recall any other (non-sequel) film so deeply overshadowed by another film. Shots and events from "Decline" were referenced with all the vigor of an "America's Most Wanted" reenactment. It was bad, but not funny bad. Local band The Mae-Shi played The Screamers, and they seemed unhappy. So did many of the extras.


To be fair, no movie could survive a star like Shane West, better known as one of the interchangeable young doctors on TV's "E.R.". West filtered out the hapless, flabby, blotto pathos of "Decline's" Darby - in other words, all the interesting bits - and what we were left with was a sort of wise-alecky street poet. This alt-universe Germs frontman dropped preposterous thought bombs to his ecstatic buddies, who gushed lines like, "Darby, these lyrics are genius!" In trying to recast Crash as a rock prophet in the Jim Morrison mold, the filmmakers ignored the obvious; The Germs weren't that interesting a band. Without the allure of suicide, their memory would today flicker dimly alongside China White and The Urinals. At one point there was a brief glimpse of the actual Darby Crash, leering out from his iconic Slash Magazine cover photo, and the cognitive dissonance gave the movie an unwelcome jolt (again, to be fair, there was a moment of inverse but equal disconnect in HBO's recent "John Adams", which reworked the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington in the lumpy likeness of David Morse, better known as one of the interchangeable young doctors on TV's "St. Elsewhere").

Last year I'd corresponded briefly with the film's producers, hoping to catch an advance screening for an article I was writing on the year's musical biopic films. The screening never materialized, and the article eventually ran in the OC Weekly without their movie. Darby Crash would have indeed fit nicely with the year's theme of young death: Ian Curtis (suicide), Hector Lavoe (AIDS), Edith Piaf (suicide by booze and crummy men), and Bob Dylan (whom many purists still wish had bought it in his '66 motorcycle crash) all received their due from 2007 Hollywood. (Obviously, I'm glad now the screening didn't work out; having incurred more than enough bad times from zine days over antagonistic record reviews, I don't feel any need to get off on a similar foot with movie producers).

It's kind of sad watching a bad movie about a historical figure who yearned for mass fame. It's sadder to see this movie in the only theater it played in anywhere, on account of the bad movie never received national distribution and instead runs one theater at a time throughout L.A. county. This situation can still be corrected. Shane West and the surviving Germs have reunited and are playing shows again. If that's not a great hook for a fictionalized making-of-What-We-Do-Is-Secret type drama, I really don't know what is. Jeremy Irons can star as the ghost of Darby. Start writing your congressmen. Make it happen.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Peking Acrobats @ The Hollywood Bowl

HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 7 - The Peking Acrobats came to town. From the $14 seats, the whole thing felt like watching the Olympics on a very small 3D TV set. The event ran a little heavy on the orchestras - the L.A. Phil and a Chinese ensemble - and a little light on the acrobatics, but when things got going it was great spectacle. All fifteen thousand of us seemed to tense and shudder when a smiling middle aged woman built a 5 story tower out of Ikea Börje chairs and proceeded to balance herself on top of that by her left pinkie, endangering her own welfare and half the musicians. Through some opera glasses, I caught her blank, unwavering smile, and recognized it as the same expression sported by most Chinese athletes I have seen in the media - the carefully controlled public emotions designed to seal over childhoods lost to practice and unimaginable discipline. That part was a little creepy.

During intermission, Tara and I discovered David Liebe Hart selling CDs by the entrance to the Bowl complex. Hart is a regular on "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" a sometimes funny, sometimes disgusting and lazy sketch comedy show that features a variety of "outsider art" types (and which makes me uncomfortable about the disgusting and lazy nature of some of my own past artistic offerings).

DL Hart wore his trademark bluetooth and performed with his trademark puppets, and asked Tara if she could fix him up with any of her friends. He also said she looked like Betty White, which would have been a great compliment if this was 2032. Then he drew our caricature for $3.

This drawing took him 45 seconds and looks nothing like either of us. Afterwards, trudging out in the slow throng of Angelinos, we had to pass under the oversized scowl of Nick Cave, who will be playing the Bowl on the 17th and has almost completed his own transformation into Neil Diamond. No sale.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Driving Solo Through North CA

THE GOLDEN STATE, Aug. 23 - I don't seem to remember, back when I lived in Rhode Island, ever having to drive an entire goddamn day within my own state just to reach a major city. But after a wildly successful tour, followed by my wife's departure from Seattle airport, I was confronted with the prospect of crossing the gas giant of western states all on my own. It was a long, boring drive. Here are all the highlights I can think of.

LUNCH IN WEED, CA
This adorable little mountain town, set in the crook of CA-97 and I-5, has long ago embraced the countercultural types that flock to its gift shops for I Heart Weed bumper stickers and t-shirts. The nearby towns of Fart, Munchies, and Arrgh should take note.

ROLLING HILLS CASINO
I went into this upscale Nomlaki tribe casino to use the john, and walked out a richer man, having won $1.25 off a $1 slot pull. Imagine if that'd been a $10,000 bill.

POLK BIOGRAPHY
I only made it through disc five of Walter Borneman's POLK; THE MAN WHO TRANSFORMED THE PRESIDENCY AND AMERICA, which got me just into Polk's inauguration and was still many CDs away from the Mexican American war. President Polk was responsible for annexing (among other states) Washington, Oregon, and California; the very territory I had to traverse. If history had gone slightly differently - if, for example, James Birney hadn't pulled a Ralph Nader on Henry Clay in the 1844 election - a different and potentially more technologically advanced nation might today control this territory, meaning I could have roared home at 120 MPH on some sort of non-American autobahn superhighway.

Still, it's hard to bear our eleventh president a grudge. His biography is filled with delightful Disneyesque characters like Francis B. Fogg, Gideon J. Pillow, and Lean Jimmy Jones. There is a good deal of dueling in this book, and much Whig treachery. When 1840's politicians wanted to insult each other they would use words like "dastard" or "calumniator". I'd always assumed that I was somehow related to president Polk through my great, great, great grandfather, Trusten Polk, but some harrowing surgery for kidney stones (using brandy as both antiseptic and anesthesia) probably left young President Polk sterile, and he died without children.


The library sticker for this box set covers half of Polk's face. I have no idea what he looked like.


RELATED
Like everyone else, I was greatly disappointed to read that Barack Obama did not pick Wesley Snipes as his running mate. But there's still time for John McCain to do the right thing. If he wants to cement his reputation as a maverick, while simultaneously placating the conservative wing of his party, only one name will do for the GOP VP spot; Dick Cheney. Not to state the obvious.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

August 2008 Tour Highlights

THE ROAD, Aug. 20 – This five-city trip was the first tour I’d done in three and a half years, and my first tour performing without a band. Tara played music on the Chinese hammer dulcimer, and showed her short film, “Music Of China”. I will probably do more speaking tours in the future. It was a real treat not having to worry about hauling amps or cajoling soundmen or enduring that fluttery lower GI tract stage fright feeling. And it was refreshing to leave each venue neither drenched in my own sweat nor hoarse and ashamed. From now on, I’ll save that kind of behavior for jury duty.

Thanks to Erika Anderson, Needles & Pens, Sarah Utter, James Squeaky, and Spencer Moody for booking these shows.

1. BAY AREA


After two successful shows in San Francisco and Oakland, we spent the morning driving around Berkeley. I tried, hard, to keep my mouth shut RE: The Hippie Problem. Then we went to a health food eatery with this sign out front:


Apparently the staff asks the question of the day to all of their patrons, although there were sufficient bad vibes coming from our table to excuse us from this part of the process. I found the opposite of this sign in San Francisco;

Stan or Stav either owns this truck or decided to spray paint on it. Either way, it makes a bold political statement where other vehicle doors are strangely silent.

2. POLITICAL RALLY

In Klamath Falls, OR, we attended a sidewalk political rally for Democratic senatorial candidate Jeff Merkley. Before the rally could get underway, a sullen young man – a bona fide Klamath Falls punk rocker – parked himself at a table in front of the proceedings, buried his head in apparent despair, and treated us all to the crack of his ass. Merkley is a pro; you’d simply never have guessed that anything was amiss.


This was the first small town political rally I’d ever attended. Merkley addressed the modest crowd in much the same manner I found myself addressing my own slightly more modest crowds later in the trip, and he delivered on the politician mannerisms. He did the Clintonesque thumb point, and rolled his sleeves at mid-forearm, not elbow. His overly caffeinated Michael J Foxish personal assistant actually did clutch a clipboard and sport a canvas, shoulder-slung briefcase, oblivious to cultural stereotypes. Merkley said a lot of good stuff about renewable energy and ending the war. Occasionally, surprised citizens would pass on the sidewalk and give a funny sort of sideways-glancing smile, unsure if they were witnessing a sales demonstration or street performance.

3. PORTLAND

I have rocky relations with this city. We ate an enjoyable lunch with Sam Ott and Joe Preston, and former Alarmist frontman James Squeaky hosted a first-class speaking and dulcimer concert in his living room. But all of this citywide good will had already been squandered earlier in the trip, by the SE Powell Blvd. Motel 6, where two different dudes elected to piss off the balcony directly above us. Another draw.

4. SEATTLE

I’d convinced myself, on the drive north, that I’d gotten the day wrong and screwed up the show. Since I’ve been trying hard to not punch myself in the face whenever Tara’s in the car, I had to do a lot of serious thinking about the mistakes I’ve made and what possible extreme corrective remedies might help me get my shit together this late in the game. Consequently, I don’t remember much about my set, being high on serotonin or whatever chemicals the brains squirts into itself when one is told that they have not screwed up the show and that everything is fine.

5. OLYMPIA

In Olympia, we pulled up in front of the venue to find the words “poop butt” scrawled under my name on one of Sarah Utter’s flyers.

Come to think of it, this made me kind of sad and doesn’t really count as a highlight.

Later, we stayed at Sarah & Justin’s house in the woods. It was an obscenity of rural splendor. Here’s the view from their back deck.

Later, driving home, it dawned on me that I kind of preferred walking around in nature to slogging through a 1,100 mile corridor of interchangeable KFCs, Dennys, and Jiffy Lubes. Like Stan or Stav's truck says, F.U. to all of us.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Review: Sleep Buddies

THE REALM OF SLUMBER, July 14 -
I vaguely remember a time in my life when going to sleep meant nothing more than going to sleep. Now going to sleep requires preparation, and gadgets, and investment. Add to all that the threat of sleep apnea - the creeping, invisible killer that chips away at the minutes and hours of REM I get each night, weakening my heart muscle, chipping away at my oxygen levels, pushing me, in undetectably teensy increments, towards congestive heart failure and sleep-deprived insanity - and you begin to understand the importance of these little tools listed below.

1. EAR PLUGS
Earplugs come in many guises. You want the ones shaped like little tin cans (E.A.R. Classic, $22.76 for a box of 100). Be sure they're rated NRR 29dB. Don't buy wax stopples (Flents, $2.77 for 6). Stuffing wax putty in your ears is for rubes and suckers and people living in the 1700's. Foam cones (Milwaukee, $23.50 for a box of 200 ) are permissible in emergency situations, but really; if they're smaller on one side, doesn't it follow that they'd be less effective on that side?

Before I used ear plugs to induce unconsciousness, I spent years relying on them to perform live with bands. Once or twice my earplugs fell out mid-performance, and I found myself submerged in a paralyzing, disorienting roar, like standing directly behind a jet engine. I occasionally catch myself reflexively checking my earplugs at night to make sure they're snug.

Earplugs can only do so much. If indifferent neighbors blast DMX or neglect their car alarm, for example, you may find yourself trapped in an anger loop - too tired to take action, too angry to sleep - and no amount of squishy foam will save you. Even nonhuman proxies can trip the switch; my own earplugs are basically useless against the dogs in the next yard. I hear that yalping, yipping, simpering canine bullshit and I'm instantly awake and seething for another hour. In moments like this, it is important to remember that bad dogs wind up in animal Hell, which is much, much worse than human Hell.

2. EAR THINGS
Most stores and catalogs refer to these as "ear defenders". Not caring for that name, I pointed and grunted when I bought mine (Peltor, $14.99) at Home Depot. These are the same basic heavy plastic headphones worn on firing ranges and airport tarmacs. I don't know enough about the weird world of logarithmic scales to understand why defenders of the ear only rank NRR 23dB (6 decibels less than ear plugs?). But these are indeed the heavy duty mothers. Combine these with earplugs and you will find yourself immersed in a total, spooky silence not unlike being buried alive. That's good news if you like to sleep. It's not such good news if you get creeped out by the sound of every insistent heartbeat softly marching you closer and closer to your eventual death.

3. EYE PILLOW
This is another item I don't know the proper name of. Airport gift shops call them "eye masks", "sleep masks", or "sleep masters". I used to associate these with priggish old ladies on overnight flights. Now I can't sleep without one, even in total darkness. Mine, a pair of luscious black cloth lips that fit tight over my slumbering eyes (Lewis N. Clark, 2 for $16.99), must be washed once a month, lest it stink of sloughed off face skin and eyebrow sweat. Combined with the ear plugs and ear defender things, the entire getup can best be described - in that crummy way terms of atrocity quietly seep into everyday usage - as "Guantanamo Bayish".

4. NOSE STRIPS
My alleged snoring has brought tension into my life. A former guitarist, forced to share hotel rooms with me and my alleged problem, once described my alleged snores as "angry and sexual". Without admitting guilt, I have sought help. I've taken pills (SnoreStop, $12.74 for a box of 80), slept on experimental pillows (Sona Pillow, $129, received as gift), and spritzed minty medicine down the back of my throat (SnoreStop Extinguisher, $16.99, plus $175 for a trip to the E.R. after my windpipe swelled shut). Nothing worked.

The jury is still out on nose strips. These springy, elongated butterfly-bandages (Breathe Right, $12.99 for a box of 30) adhere to the nose just below the bridge, flaring the nostrils and increasing air flow. The packaging features photos of slumbering spouses, so the company could be shooting for some sort of placebo effect. In both design and planned obsolescence, however, this is the product to beat. The nose is the greasiest part of the body, and a Breathe Right strip, once used, can never re-anchor itself to this same surface (although it will have no problem clinging to dirty laundry).

43 cents a night is a lot to pay for sleep. I save these for special occasions. My wife claims that Breathe Rights actually facilitate snoring, so it turns out the happily sleeping spouse is me. By my logic, she hasn't woken to find herself a widow due to sleep apnea, so everybody wins. The only real risk is in not paying attention to the mirror in the morning and then the next thing you know you're driving around town with a Breathe Right strip on your nose like a dumb guy. I may have done this.

5. SLEEP WIZARD
Discussions of elective snoring surgery (San Dimas Surgical, $3,495) had been taking on an alarmingly urgent tone when I read of the Sleep Wizard. If anyone could help, I thought with deep gratitude, it'd be the Wizard Of Sleep. I would beseech him directly.

Turns out the Sleep Wizard ($74.99 from sleepwizard.com) is not a kindly old man holding a staff of wisdom. The real world Sleep Wizard is a tailored lycra strap secured by Velcro. It fits over the head and secures the chin like a restraining head bra. I admired this common sense approach - don't want to snore? Then shut your mouth! - but when I tried the thing on it hurt. A lot. The thought of trying to sleep through the pain put me in a wide awake anger loop. It had the feel of a scam.

And a scam it was. The manufacturer, sleepwizard.com of West Palm Beach, has been assigned an "F" rating by the Better Business Bureau, and the impotent rage of past customers reverberates throughout consumer rights message boards. The toll free phone number for sleepwizard.com now runs a message for some sort of phone chat dating service. I see my own Sleep Wizard every now and then under different pieces of furniture, covered in cat hair and unloved, and I think up yours, sleep wizard.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sunday, July 6, 2008

LD50 1986

FROM THE ARCHIVES, July 6 - Here's my LD50 chart from 11th grade science class;

Friday, July 4, 2008

Review: "Last Best Chance" (2005)

originally posted 10/9/07 on sammcpheeters.com

The disappointment of Fred Thompson flows in two directions. The actor, former senator, and presidential candidate recently scolded an Iowa audience for not applauding him. Our disappointment in him is neatly mirrored by his own disappointment in all of us. Thompson lacks the humor and charm of his ideological ancestor, Ronald Reagan. He resembles a melted Kelsey Grammar, and his strong suit seems to be unyielding, unrelenting disappointment. If he wins the presidency next year, we can expect him to sigh and shake his head silently.

But Thompson's candidacy does offer something unique in the history of American politics: he has already played the commander in chief. In HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", he bravely channels the spirit-gum beard of Ulysses Grant, regularly ranked among the worst ten presidents. That performance evokes a melted, disappointed Unabomber in an undertaker's suit (although a brief conversation about bringing democracy to the Indians may prove instructive for a future Thompson cabinet). Far more illuminating is Thompson's turn as President Charles B. Ross in 2005's "Last Best Chance". President Ross is a hands-on guy, engaged, decisive, and hungry for facts. The disappointment is there, but held in check, harnessed for the greater good. In 2007, the film plays out like an extended campaign ad.

It was born of loftier ambitions. The movie was produced by former senator Sam Nunn through his Nuclear Threat Initiative. Nunn is better known for sponsoring the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, an ambitious attempt to secure and destroy old Soviet nuclear weapons. The NTI is a less ambitious attempt to send out free DVDs of "Last Best Chance" to anyone who wants one. The movie presents itself as a political thriller with an agenda, distant cousin to "The Day After", and "The Day After Tomorrow". It aims to scare.

For most of "Last Best Chance", it does seem as if something terrible is just around the corner. President Ross's team frets over intelligence while we follow the progress of stolen bomb materials up the rungs of the third and second world, nations afflicted by jittery handicam and fretful ambience that swells and fades, like wind whistling down a long hall. With al-Qaeda as the villain, the whole project has a distinctly postmodern odor to it, so I'm curious why the producers didn't just cast Fred Thompson as a first term President Fred Thompson (he played himself in his debut film - 1985's "Marie" - just as real flight controllers were coerced into reliving their worst day for "United 93"). Ross makes references to 9/11 and the terror attacks in Bali and Madrid, so the distinct implication is that we are watching # 44 in action, the first post-W presidency.

An interesting little mystery involves a change in personnel. One of the bombs, passed up the terrorist food chain by corrupt Russians and menacing Africans, winds up in the hands of a young white college boy. "It'll make a real impression in New York," the youngster tells a disinterested Canadian customs officer. The young white college boy reemerges a little later, driving a van across a remote border checkpoint with a young white college girl. Who are these two? John Walker Lindh types? Manchurian Candidate types? Two small Yemeni men in latex Caucasian masks? We never find out. The final shot shows the minivan driving away into the bucolic distance. With different theme music it could be a happy ending to a teen romance. Nothing explodes.

At only 45 minutes, LBC is odd propaganda. The film's appeal to fear is similar to 1983's "The Day After", only minus the fear. I actually stumbled upon the last 20 minutes of "The Day After" while channel surfing just last month, and instantly regressed into a terrified fourteen year old. Even now, two decades of bad Steve Guttenberg comedies can't erase the horror of young Steve Guttenberg's grimy, hobo-clown face as he shambles through a gymnasium of dying Kansans. The most memorable face in "Last Best Chance" is Thompson's, and although it was nice to see an adult in charge in the oval office, his big melty mug of disappointment simply isn't that terrifying. "I don't want us sitting on our butts if something's about to happen," Thompson tells a staffer who has disappointed him. Something never materializes.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative is not much help with the scares. The DVD refers us to their website, and the website wants to send us more free DVDs. NTI offers a selection of interesting policy stories (like May's "Nuclear Experts Urge Return to Bomb Shelters", or June's news that U.S. Homeland Security has started recruiting science fiction authors), but nothing in the way of shock value.

Chaos and destruction were beyond NTI's $1 million budget, but it wouldn't have been that hard to make a completely unnerving movie instead of just a movie about an unnerving subject. The consequences of even one exploded U.S. city could be depicted as overheard broadcasts. The recently released "Right At Your Door" accomplishes something like this on a similar shoestring budget, portraying a dirty bomb attack on Los Angeles largely through the anguish of radio anchors. It's a very scary movie. Even scarier is a scene in last year's "Children Of Men", a film depicting a post-post-"Last Best Chance" world, when Clive Owen simply asks Juliana Moore, "Were your parents in New York when it happened?" Behind them, a wall of faded newspaper clippings hints at mushroom clouds and WWII-sized headlines. The props couldn't have cost more than Fred Thompson's suit.

"Last Best Chance" raises another novel possibility. If Moscow got whacked by one of its own suitcase bombs, the deteriorating Soviet early warning system might think it was being attacked by America. Could a terrorist attack on Russia result in the end of the world? Tellingly, there is no mention of "Last Best Chance" in Thompson's campaign bio. There is no mention of Nunn-Lugar, or securing nuclear weapons, in his national security platform. It's probably an emasculating idea, for Thompson, that the Russians and Africans and turncoat college sophomores in our midst could have more sway over the fate of the world than the guy in the White House. Or at least it is a terribly disappointing idea.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Review: "Valley Of The Wolves Iraq" (2006)

Here's how I like my anti-American / anti-Semitic Turkish action films; Insane Style. If a 21st century movie is actually going to present Jews as the villains, it should have the balls to put forth the most grotesque spectacle ever committed to film. The bad guys should be hook-nosed Nosferatus, closer to HR Pufnstuf creatures than actual humans. And if currently engaged U.S. forces are actually going to be portrayed as villains, the filmmakers should have the backbone to depict Americans as soulless Terminator centurion warriors who snack on orphan cuticles. There's no halfway about it. We would have killed everyone on Earth if it hadn't of been for you meddling Turks!

Almost none of these things happen in "Valley Of The Wolves Iraq". The controversial 2006 movie is known at home as "Kurtlar Vadisi Irak", and owes its clumsy title to the hit Turkish TV series "Kurtlar Vadisi". The series hero, Polat Almedar, is a secret agent who specializes in infiltration (in the original "Kurtlar Vadisi", he undergoes plastic surgery and slips into the Turkish mob). Almedar is played, with smoldering inscrutability, by a young Turkish actor named Necati Sasmaz. Mr. Sasmaz's boyish good looks seem to undercut his authority; he resembles a European pop star who has been charged with avenging the deaths of his backup band.

Vengeance is indeed the prime motivator for Almedar in this feature-length installment of "Valley Of The Wolves". A close friend of his in the Turkish military has hanged himself in shame, having been marched about with a hood over his head by American forces. Almedar and his two assistants sneak across the border into Iraq, where they wire a hotel to explode, forcing a meeting with the American overseer, Sam Marshall. Turk offers American a deal; the hotel's freedom in return for Marshall marching around with a hood over his own head. Almedar however, has severely overestimated Marshall's humanity. The villainous American overseer has brought an entire children's choir with him as human shields, and the Turkish heroes, outbluffed, must flee into the night. For the rest of the film the two men hunt each other down through small town Iraq. There are lots of narrow escapes and exploding shenanigans, and at one point a booby-trapped piano is thrown into the mix. I won't spoil the ending for you, except to say that Almedar eventually kills Marshall and then the movie ends.


Sam Marshall is played by the American actor Billy Zane, and his exact title and rank are never made clear. Zane plays the part as a Paul Bremmer caricature in a safari hat, strutting around occupied Iraq like a weary pimp. In a private moment, Marshall beseeches Jesus to allow him to resolve the conflict in Babylon. He's kind of a nut. The role almost seems a continuation of his turn as preppy psychopath Hughie Warner in 1989's "Dead Calm".

It is a little startling to see Americans depicted as villains in a film with the stagnant sheen of a late night Cinemax titty movie. Several U.S. soldiers are portrayed as menacing lunks with conspicuous Turkish accents, although one virtuous American is played by Ultimate Fighting Champion Tito Ortiz. When Ortiz confronts his superior after the indiscriminate shooting of detainees, he is simply shot and left for dead by the side of the road. Marshal snare drums herald a wide range of American wrongdoings, many pulled straight from the headlines. The Lynndie England human pigpile is here, as is the Mukaradeeb wedding massacre of 2004, and the alleged November 2001 massacre of Taliban prisoners, as transplanted from Afghanistan to Iraq (perhaps to defuse bias accusations, one strange scene shows a group of insurgents preparing to behead an American journalist, only to be halted by a wise Islamic elder who delivers a monologue on tolerance that would be comfortable in any Spike Lee movie).

The anti-Semitism charges seem fuzzier. Yes, Garey Busey does play a Jewish American surgeon working in the bowels of Abu Ghraib, and yes, he does harvest organs from condemned prisoners to sell on the black market. For all the hubbub, this is a fairly minor role. Human vivisection aside, "Doctor" is one of the more reasonable characters in the film. It's not until the included "making of" featurette that Busey really lets loose. As he angrily explains; This movie shows what's going on, to stop that from happening. To stop the unity of one. [sic?] The warfare, the killing, the greed, the fear, the anger. All of those emotions that come into play don't have anything to do with the bottom line. Of truth. And reality. And this movie is a surprise movie.

Most surprising about this surprise movie is the event that precipitated it. U.S. forces did march a group of Turkish military personnel in hoods, at the start of the current war. The event was less than a blip in America, but in Turkey it is remembered as "the hood event", a grave, gross insult marking rock bottom in Turkish-US relations. Seen across the divide of a half-decade trail of American abuse, fraud, torture, and waste, the charge seems almost quaint. I just machine-gunned an orphanage, and you're getting bent out of shape because I stole your garden hose? Billy Zane more or less uses this line of defense several times in the movie, and it's disorienting to identify with the bad guy.

Unseen stateside, this film was a big hit in Turkey. Turkish audiences aren't any less sophisticated than other audiences. I'm sure they're fully aware that this - their nation's most expensive film - suffers from abysmal sound editing and dreadful acting and confusing plot points. What they wanted was an acknowledgement that there is such a thing as national honor, and that this honor is real and indivisible. If this was a questionable premise to Americans before 2003, it certainly has no translation now. Our own honor, quite divisible, now comes festooned with asterisk after asterisk; waterboarding, rendition, nude pigpiles. There's no looking back. It's all Insane Style from here on.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Final Phone Call

END OF AN ERA DEPT, June 30 -
Today was the last day to legally use a cell phone while driving in California. An enduring image of Los Angeles highlife - driving while deal-making - has come to a quiet end. Starting tomorrow, a first offense will cost $20 and a second $50, although the addition of something called "penalty assessments" boost the fines to $76 and $190. I'm opting out of the Bluetooth option because I can't think of anything more monstrous than having a telephone installed in my frigging ear. This is it. I'm done.

Unlike lots of other nanny state proclamations popping up left and right in Schwartzeneggar / Bloomberg America, I support this law. It'll make my own life more tranquil. I don't have to worry about calling anybody anymore. My car can now join the ranks of "Excusing Myself To Go To The Bathroom At Parties" and "Standing Quietly In The Shower" as an oasis of solitude. The law says it'll still be legal to text message while driving, so I'm assuming it'll be ok for me to continue my other hobbies like cell phone photography and playing tetris.

And yet I am sad that I missed doing a few things when I still had the chance;

1) Talking on the phone while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, the wind whipping through my awesome blond mane of hair.

2) Taunting cops as they try to shoot out my tires but just aren't fast enough, which I guess means I would have had to call 911 dispatch and convince them to put me through to the individual officers' cell phones.

3) Using my cell phone to save the life of an animal, child, or elderly person in the kind of crazy circumstances that'd get me on the local news. I guess technically this last one is still legal, but somehow it won't be the same.

Questions: Will it be legal to use my cell phone to call the cops to report another driver using a cell phone while driving? Will I be able to mock other drivers by only pretending to be on my cell phone? What if I just want to call someone in the back seat?


The cell phone ban comes at a weird juncture. Traffic has noticeably thinned since gas hit $4.50 a gallon. I haven't gotten angry at the sight of a Hummer in weeks because I haven't seen a Hummer in weeks. It's been months since I sat in a traffic jam. This afternoon the San Gabriel mountains were shockingly clear, every distant, stubbly tree and craggy gorge clearly outlined. This is something of a rarity this time of year. Generally the mountains wink out behind an opaque wall of haze for six months starting in March. It seems like there's less smog now. In some barely measurable way, life may have improved.

I used my final car call at dusk. It was one of those nice backlit Southern California sunsets, the palm trees rendered as swaying silhouettes, and I decided to ring up the Sherman Oaks casting agency that has so far netted me nones of jobs as an extra. The perky lady on their voicemail said they were looking for an African American of college age who "can do his hair in a big afro", and is "totally 80's". For a moment I thought about trying to Tootsie it, but I'm simply not that good. Click.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Worst Food Experiences

REGRETS DEPT, June 27 - Learn from my mistakes.

1. ENTIRE POT OF COFFEE

Virginia, 1993
I'd never tasted coffee until I was 24, and it took a few months of trial and error to learn the physics of caffeine. One night fairly soon into this lifestyle change, I drank six cups in one sitting. I remember the next half hour as one of the best periods of my life. All powerful and omniscient, the only hard decision I faced was if I should write the great American novel in one shot or fly down to the interstate and kickbox big rigs.

Then there was a scene cut and I was on the floor of my bedroom in my underwear, rocking and weeping because I'd broken my mind. I pulled myself together enough to ask a roommate for one of his valiums, on the theory that a depressant might save one or two of my heart valves from exploding. When I eventually projectile vomited, the little blue pill hit the back of the toilet like a bb pellet, and I crawled off to bed and slept for 19 hours.

2. BURNT COOKIE MASS
Virginia, 1995
My plan to bake everyone Christmas cookies hit one small snag this particular year, being my ignorance that not all foods are left in the oven for 40 minutes at 450 degrees simply because that is how long potatoes are baked. The first round of cookies emerged a shiny strip of asphalt, which I broke into chunks and ate, angrily, over the course of the next two months. Several times I tried to convince myself that I could distinguish which bits of charcoal had once been chocolate. I have a feeling I'll be sharing a laugh with my oncologist about this one someday.

3. BOILED PEANUTS
North Carolina, 1996
This regional delicacy single-handedly ended my love affair with the American south. Grits are a charming and quaint southern dish. Boiled peanuts are small and soft and brown and slimy. And tapered. I'm not a psychotic or a coprophiliac, so I didn't enjoy the one second this was in my mouth.

4. ENTIRE BAG OF MARSHMALLOWS
Maine, 1999
I must have been terribly upset to eat an entire bag of Campfire marshmallows in one session, standing over a trash can in an empty kitchen. When I came to, clutching an empty plastic wrapper, I felt lightheaded and strangely euphoric, and was reminded of a classmate from Vermont who once swallowed a mouthful of gas while siphoning a snowmobile and wandered off into the woods to die. This marshmallow experience is now the yardstick by which I measure other personal failures by.

5. MEGAPIZZA
Oklahoma, 2004
After my band spent a pleasant autumn day getting to know OK City, visiting the bombing memorial and playing a ho-hum punk show, we retired to the dumpy but welcoming house of our promoter and ordered an XXL party pizza. We watched all of "Eurotrip" - a surprisingly well crafted film - and by 2AM gave up hope of seeing any food.

Sometime close to 3, the doorbell rang. It was the pizza! And not just any pizza! A 52", thirty-piece jalapeno and feta monster pizza, with many, many slices for each man! This felt like an event, some important turning point in all our lives, and I took a photo to mark the occasion;


I ate five or six slices and passed out on the couch. Sometime before dawn, a strange noise roused me. I opened my eyes to find thousands of baby spiders pouring over the back of the couch, engulfing me. I was up and in the kitchen, screaming and stomping, before realizing it had been some sort of psychoactive pizza night terror. Later that night, our guitarist Andy found himself in this same kitchen with a terrible thirst. He placed his head under the sink faucet, but when he turned the spigot all that came out was human hair.

If our rhythm section experienced any hallucinations, they kept mum. Although Andy and I both remember a birdlike wail of terror coming from one of their sleeping bags in the middle of the night.

6. FRIED TWINKIE
Nevada, 2006
I probably lucked out on this one; when most people go to Las Vegas and decide that the rules of human conduct have been suspended, they usually wind up with dumpster stains and strange sex diseases. Instead, I went to Old Town and decided that eating a one-dollar deep-fried twinkie was somehow within the parameters of acceptable behavior. Here's how deep-fried twinkies are advertised;

What they actually look like is a nerf product that has been dunked in the toilet and then tempura battered. What they taste like is this:


Later, wandering Freemont street in clinical shock, I noticed my dandruff had worsened tenfold.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Review: Curse Of The Narrows

CURSE OF THE NARROWS: by Laura M. Mac Donald, 356 pp., Walker Books, 2005.

In hindsight, the blowing up of Halifax, Nova Scotia, seems to owe a slight debt to cartoonist Chuck Jones. On the morning of December 6, 1917, the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc slipped into Halifax Harbor packed with every implement of a grand Wile E. Coyote routine: gunpowder mix, two old-timey explosives called picric acid and benzol, and 250 tons of TNT. All the ship needed was a large ACME stenciled on its side.

1917 Halifax, as portrayed in Laura M. MacDonald's lively 2005 account of the disaster, was not a friendly town. Prostitutes and sailors swapped syphilis and TB, and goons and drunks roamed the back alleys. It was also a city suffering from war jitters. WWI seemed certain to jump the ocean, either by sabotage or U-Boat, and as the northernmost center of commerce and military activity on the East coast, the city's residents had steeled themselves for a surprise visit by the Kaiser. Munitions traffic was shrugged off as a necessary risk. Even when the Mont-Blanc sideswiped a smaller ship and, burning, careened towards the docks, no one understood the danger. As its lesser munitions ignited on the deck, hundreds of people lined the shore to watch a spectacular fireworks display of green and pink.

At 9:04, the fire reached the TNT and the ship detonated. It was the largest non-nuclear explosion to hit any civilian population in history, sending a mile-high mushroom cloud soaring over a one mile impact crater. A tsunami the size of the Hollywood sign roared through flattened neighborhoods, dragging shrieking survivors back down into the harbor. White hot shrapnel rained down on the rubble, followed by ten minutes of thick black fallout. That night temperatures plunged, a massive blizzard rolled in, and by the next morning the city was twenty degrees below zero and buried under a foot and a half of snow. First responders reported that Halifax had vanished. At least two thousand people died.


Of many calamities to befall the city, the exploding Mont Blanc executed one trick later revived by Al Qaeda in east Africa; get everyone looking in one direction and then shower them in flying glass. History records 5,923 eyes destroyed in the seconds after the explosion. In chapter 5, MacDonald returns to the cartoon world with a description of a woman whose eyeballs have been blown out of their sockets, like an "Itchy and Scratchy" gag. Later, the reader follows the esteemed ocular surgeon George Cox as he tries to bring relief to this netherworld, and in one gruesome passage we join him at a makeshift operating table, thirty hours into his shift, plopping eyeballs into a surgical bucket that eventually overflows.

Large parts of the book are like this. Some of the post-explosion chapters read like George Romero scripts. The author writes of streets strewn with fingers and feet and heads. Rescue workers had to traverse exploding stoves, dangling live wires, burning trees and dogs gone insane. Corpses clutched squalling children, and refugees tried to eat food contaminated with glass chards, oblivious to their own septic face wounds. A newspaper editor, lifting debris, had an anonymous human brain tumble to his feet.

Mac Donald is an engaging historian, unafraid to crawl into people's heads and assign them motives and memories. When faced with the presumably staggering job of sifting through the historical data, she shows a nice instinct for the cinematic. A young man dashes home to find his house eerily deserted. In the kitchen, "a skin of black soot floated on the pitcher of milk, and blood was smeared across the table." Rescuers find two mutilated horse corpses frozen in pose, reminding one of "equestrian statues gone wrong." Of a makeshift basement embalming room, an eyewitness complains that "through the mist loom up the indistinct contours of nude corpses above which ghoul-like figures bend with eerie implements and vessels." It's not hard to picture the trailer for this movie.

Other historians have not done such a good sales job with Halifax. The Titanic remains the sexy disaster of the nineteen-teens, despite the smaller death toll. From our vantage point, the first fifth of the twentieth century is a dim sinkhole. WWI remains in memory; the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, twice as fatal as the Great War, does not. My hardbound copy of The New York Times Page One starts the 20th century in 1920. President McKinley's shooting and slow death, occurring exactly a century before 9/11, have been relegated to the old timey museum. The implied irrelevance for our era is hard to face. A hundred years from now, will this decade's travails - all our wars and flooded cities and exploding skyscrapers - rank as even a footnote in anyone's anthology?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Announcement

If you live in Los Angeles, I'll be reading aloud some short fiction at Hope Gallery in Silverlake this Thursday. Chicago music writer Jessica Hopper will also be reading. The full announcement can be viewed here. It's no big deal if you want to come but cannot - I'll do more of these things. But this one is free, and if I become a big shot at some point in the future and my shows cost $80 a seat, then you may be upset with yourself and I cannot take responsibility for that.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: "The Incredible Hulk" (2008)

Almost all of us share this moment from childhood; one of your parents has just read to you before bedtime, the story ends with a soft little clap of the bookcover and mom or dad is smiling because now they get an hour or two to themselves before they have to go to sleep. Except you're sitting there with a frustrated furrow on your little brow and you're just mad. "No, no, no, you got it all wrong," you say. "You should've had the wizard marry the princess. Tell it again!" And your mom or dad sighs, does some quick mental calculus and deduces that the path of least resistance is actually to cave in and just tell the frigging story over with the alternate ending. The wizard winds up marrying the princess after all, you fall asleep, everyone's happy.

That's the film industry. "The Hulk" came out in 2003, and millions of people sat in darkened theaters with frustrated furrows on their little brows. "No, no, no, you got it all wrong," America said to Hollywood. "You should have the Hulk be awesome, and you should have him fight a giant gray Hulk, and there shouldn't be any Nick Nolte. Tell it again!"
The new, new "Hulk" is indeed awesome. I could have done without all the exposition, and dialogue, and actors, but once it gets going it's one of the best American films to ever deal with the subject of a guy who goes around destroying shit. This new Hulk punches out banks and dropkicks airports and uses two halves of a cop car for boxing gloves. At one point I think he eats a child. My only complaint is the sequel teaser at the end of the movie. They should have ended the film honorably, King Kong style, by killing the green beast in the streets. I guarantee everyone in my theater would've wept.

But if there must be a sequel, here's my pitch, in the grand spirit of storytime. We all know that if you kick Bruce Banner in the groin you're going to get the Hulk. But what does the Hulk turn into when you get him mad? Answer: Mega Hulk. The poster for "Mega Hulk" is just a wall of throbbing meat with a tiny eye peeking out in the middle. The tagline reads HOW MUCH ANGRIER CAN HE GET? In Europe maybe the tagline could be something a little racier, like HOW MUCH MORE CAN HIS PANTS STRETCH? Although, obviously, it'd have to be in German or whatever.