Sunday, November 30, 2008

Oh, look: one of the most ubiquitous peddlers of the Bush administration's company line on cable and network channels has ties to a defense contractor. The NYT has the scoop on General Barry McCaffrey, who in his public apperances has always sounded like Mike Huckabee might after his bass guitar was locked in a cupboard overnight. But McCaffrey was doing his employers' biding; NBC News has no excuse. As Glenn Greenwald reminds us, this is not the first time that this story has shamed the networks -- and hardly the first that the corporate behemoth has pretended nothing happened.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


The Visitor

The enthusiasm with which this movie was received shouldn't have surprised me; what did though was how reliable skeptics like Stephanie Zacharek and A.O. Scott willfully chose to forget the candy apple liberal sentiments that it espouses. In the first third, writer-director Thomas McCarthy (who played the Jayson Blair wannabe in "The Wire"'s last season) and lead Richard Jenkins (of "Six Feet Under") remind us of their background in the Corduroy Elbow Pad School of Television Realism, whose values force you to project to thirty million people as if you were John Barrymore at the Old Vic: every miserable thing about depressive Jenkins' life is pinned down with plastic scissors. When he learns to play African drum in time, or gratefully receives his first Fela Kuti album from illegal alien Haaz Sleiman, it could be Jack Nicholson's Midwestern loser Schmidt writing letters to his East African pet pal. But the warmth of Sleiman's performance – his smile defines "infectious" – and some understated writing in the last two-thirds redeem the picture, with big help from Hiam Abbass as Sleiman's mother. A superb camera subject, Abbass pulls the impossible trick of being at once stoic and sexy. I'm once again frustrated by the writer-director's decision to concentrate on the wrong character. How much more vivid The Visitor might have been with Abbass at its center – the tragedy of an educated, mildly Westernized Syrian woman who has to live with the fact that she played a role in fucking her son up for life.

Tropic Thunder

fifteen minutes longer. Down-low jokes (including Lance Bass cameo), expected riffs on "the industry," Tom Cruise "expanding his range," Ben Stiller constricting his, Robert Downey, Jr. deepening his.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

There are worse things than spending a Saturday afternoon watching My Man Godfrey. Terrence Rafferty gives Carole Lombard her due. If I had my druthers, though, I'd ask him to spend more time on Hands Across the Table and To Be Or Not To Be. It occurred to me yesterday: Judd Apatow might be the only director who could do something with Lombard (and she'd certainly curse, which she did, uninhibitedly and gleefully), but I'm not sure her male costars would be up to the task.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Among other things, Barack Obama's most charming bad habit is his smoking. Michael Kinsley, after jumping through too many hoops to convince his audience that he considers smoking a disgusting habit, agrees.
Well, here's something from it's-news-to-me file: Jackson Browne and John McCain wrangling over the fair use of "Running On Empty" during the campaign:
The first is a standard motion to dismiss, claiming that McCain's use of the song was fair use. The campaign's fair use reading is based on the application of the standard four-factor test that includes the purpose and character of the use of the song (McCain argues it was non-commercial and transformative); the nature of the work (McCain derides the song as old, old, old, with a title that's an acknowledged cliche); the amount and substantiality of the use of the song (McCain only used the title phrase, and cites a recent judgment against Yoko Ono, who had sought to prevent the unauthorized use of John Lennon's "Imagine" in a film); and the effect of the use of the song (McCain says that rather than damage the song's commercial potential, his use "will likely increase the popularity of this thirty year-old song"
I can't argue with the last point; I think I saw "Running on Empty" in the iTunes top 20 a few months ago. As for Browne, he's an example of the kind of Angry Liberal that my, shall we say, intemperate colleagues over here claim they work with and make their lives miserable.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On his first (released) solo album since 1999, Q-Tip's burr, halfway between a mumble and a giggle, is as compelling and fluent as ever. "Gettin' Up" is his sexiest love man jive since the underrated "Find A Way" and maybe "Electric Relaxation"; the Raphael Saadiq duet and "Dance On Glass" are the kind of hip-hop elder statesman equivalents of those late eighties/early nineties records by Richard Thompson and Lou Reed that scored well on Pazz & Jopp...and yet, and yet...I have unreal expectations of Q-Tip. I expect more from a self-produced, self-written album like The Renaissance. Now that he's demonstrated he can step back in the game, he should try a little harder to step on Mos Def's thoughtful-polymath toes.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Can Jon Meacham and Ashton Kutcher go on a nationwide tour calling for the repeal of Proposition 8 and Amendment 2?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I watched Only Angels Have Wings last night -- on videocassette. I still own a VCR. Beyond the fact that I don't want to subject myself to the time and expense of replacing some favorites I've owned since the early nineties (Blockbuster's used movie bin was a godsend), the medium's unwieldiness has its own attraction. When I'm at the market and want to listen to King Sunny Ade's Aura, I can't upload it onto my iPod or play it on my car's CD deck -- I have to get home and dig out my vinyl copy; the same goes for His Girl Friday, Tootsie, and a couple of others on VHS (Earrings of Madame De... is no longer an option, alas, thanks to this). Thus, as long as we're not subjected to things like Be Kind, Rewind, the sad death of the VCR is (slightly) exaggerated.

Anyone else still own one?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I've written nasty things about Carrie Brownstein's NPR blog, but the former Sleater Kinney guitarist pens an affectionate tribute to the Go-Betweens. She admits that her writing on The Hot Rock "was inspired completely by their music." Incisive bits of criticism on Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan (he "sounded like the search party and the lost soul at the same time").

If you haven't heard it yet, Forster's The Evangelist is one of my favorite albums of the year.

(H/t to Simon)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Enough mothers behave like Debra Winger in Rachel Getting Married to remind me of how Virginia Woolf might have rewritten the Shakespeare's-sister bit in A Room of One's Own: since mothers have to perform constantly, it's really no stretch for a fiftysomething actress to accrue Oscar buzz for the effort. But Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet show no interest in turning Winger's Abby into a plasticine doll like Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. Although we're never told why she and Bill Irwin divorced, Demme and Lumet are subtle enough to hint at a basic incompatibility, hardened by the consequences of the unexpected horror for which daughter Anne Hathaway is responsible (no spoiler here). But they have enough in common: Irwin's Paul is one of those bumblers with a pathological interest in smoothing over conflict; Abby has remarried a smiling, rather dim George Hamilton type who "goes down to Washington" weekly -- a diplomat or civil servant? Cathy, a Washington hostess? As played by Winger, she's a reformed hippie type who keeps her hair frowzy, drinks tea by the gallons, and might read a Eckhart Tolle tome at the recommendation of a friend. Her smile dazzles; she's still unassumingly, powerfully sexual. A Washington hostess. Cross her, though, and she'll explode...and you'll receive a genuinely apologetic note in the morning.

There's a lot to recommend in Rachel Getting Married: the return of Jonathan Demme from necrophiliac remakes of genre pictures for which he has no affinity; the return too of Winger, who briefly in the early eighties had it in her to be a star and talent to which screenwriters could dedicate careers; the ease with which different races and characters of indeterminate sexuality mingle on screen, sharing wine and jokes; Demme's use of music, which, he seems to say, is the force that binds us even when it's background noise (an appearance by a healthy, warm Robyn Hitchcock strikes one of the movie's few gimmicky notes, though); Tunde Adebimpe serenading bride Rosemarie DeWitt with a non-embarrassing a cappella version of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" at the altar. But I want to praise Demme for capturing the simmer of blood relations. The sense in which, for example, we rarely know whether our parents' kindness conceals hurts and unspoken compromises between how we are and what they expected us to be, unfolds in the way Hathaway, Irwin, Winger, and Dewitt look and talk to each other. Dishwashing contests and nervous toasts to sons-in-law serve as palliatives -- and they're also fun in themselves. The worst part about being thirty-three is forgetting that I can't talk to my parents as adults: they simply don't want to know about certain parts of our lives. Hence the recourse to office gossip, football games, and Christmas presents. Watching Rachel Getting Married, I made fists during a couple of the more episodic sequences; there always lingered the suspicion that anything can happen.

I almost congratulate Demme's daring: the movie should be this self-congratulatory ode to liberal Connecticut inclusiveness, and it is, in places, and more. To say it's better than last year's Margot at the Wedding is like arguing that Charade is superior to The Truth About Charlie.
Oxford University compiles a list of the ten most irritating phrases in public discourse.

I'd add "The fact that," "fairly or unfairly," and "going forward."

The top ten:

1 - At the end of the day

2 - Fairly unique

3 - I personally

4 - At this moment in time

5 - With all due respect

6 - Absolutely

7 - It's a nightmare

8 - Shouldn't of

9 - 24/7

10 - It's not rocket science

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Last Election Day-related post, I swear...

As the stories about Barack Obama's unprecedented cross-country grassroots network metastasize like the members of the grassroots network themselves -- this one about how he won my home state, for example -- I become more disheartened by how abysmally opponents of Florida's Amendment 2 and California's Proposition 8 failed to organize. We needed action like this before the election.

Ahem. Back to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.

Friday, November 7, 2008

One of an Obama adminstration's most pressing jobs is to lift the spirits of a moribund federal bureacracy. Employees have complained about inertia from the Oval Office infecting the morale of workers, The Washington Post reports:
Regulatory agencies -- including the Departments of Interior and Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Consumer Protection and Safety Agency -- have been the hardest hit by morale issues, mainly because of Bush's anti-regulatory posture, workers and union officials said. Hundreds of federally-employed scientists, researchers and agency lawyers have drafted, studied and restudied regulations that went nowhere.

At EPA, a regional staffer who works on wetlands protection said the agency's political appointees have stalled and erected roadblocks on work to clean air, water and soil. Headquarters waited a year to advise staff on how to handle a Supreme Court decision that threw wetlands rules into doubt, then issued vague, "useless" guidance, he said.

"There's been an inability for people to do their jobs and do it well, " said the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous. "The administration's purpose has been to do nothing."
There's a line by Henrik Hertzberg from 2004 (can't find the link) about the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war that still rings true: the administration is forced to staff operations it doesn't believe in.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Remember William Ayres? David Remnick bumps into him on Election Day morning.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change I Can Believe In...Maybe

So there it is. I'm not a reporter, so I can't tell you how "grueling" and "endless" this election cycle has been. I don't have cable news either -- Black Panthers, William Ayres, terrorist fist-tapping, and Neiman Marcus shopping trips didn't worry me so much as it did my parents.

Now it's time for full disclosure: I did not vote for a president of the United States.

As I explained to friends yesterday, Barack Obama had me spellbound from the moment he delivered the keynote address at 2004's Democratic Convention, that dreary affair in which his call for interparty inclusion (he actually said the word "gay" aloud) rendered the hollow man from Massachusetts that my former party nominated even more of a hack. Andrew Sullivan's Atlantic Monthly cover story last year, and reading of Dreams From My Father confirmed what I suspected: this guy is too composed to yield to kitsch, to cheese, to boilerplate. I cheered when he beat the awful Hillary Clinton in primary after primary, and when John McCain became his GOP rival I anticipated a knockout blow that fortunately happened.

But if yesterday I couldn't mark the ballot in his favor, I put the blame entirely on his party of chickenshits, of which he is now its leader. When a right wing asshole on AM radio laments the "loony left Reid/Pelosi wing' of the Democratic Party that will push Obama around as it did President Bush, I want to buy them reading glasses and a Russian bouncer to make sure they read the legislation. Whether it was war authorization or the support of illegal wiretapping, the Democrats in Congress, led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, kowtowed to President Bush. When the country, fed up with six years of chicanery and law breaking, gave them the mandate to change in 2006, implicit in their vote was the order to get more liberal, not less.

So what does the junior senator from Illinois, poised to claim an even bigger mandate for change than his legislative branch colleagues, do when it's time to vote on a craven "compromise" on illegal wiretapping and telecom immunity? He says "aye." During an election cycle in which every pundit on both sides claimed that the Democrats would not just keep their majority in the Congress, but expand them, Obama votes for the compromise, thus immunizing himself from charges in the fall that, in the words of the Beltway media, he's "weak on national security." Besides, as I wrote in June, "why wouldn't he support cool new executive powers allowing him to pursue deeds worthy of his most soaring rhetoric?" What some of his right wing critics write is true: Obama does have a messiah complex, constructed in large part from an unusual (for a politician) self-awareness that's rightly assured him of his superiority to the average pol. American history is littered with failed messiahs: the self-important kind whose rectitude inures them to the gamesmanship of politics (Jimmy Carter) , pompous blowhards who impose their interpretation of American exceptionalism on the rest of the world and the body politic (Woodrow Wilson), and the genial kind who call shit on one kind of evil while supporting others (Ronald Reagan on the Soviet Union, contras, apartheid, and death camps). In this climate, a few more boring Benjamin Harrisons wouldn't hurt.

Then as now, constitutional law expert Glenn Greenwald, whose inquiry into the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act rivaled The New York Times', was on the money:
The excuse that Obama's support for this bill is politically shrewd is -- even if accurate -- neither a defense of what he did nor a reason to refrain from loudly criticizing him for it. Actually, it's the opposite. It's precisely because Obama is calculating that he can -- without real consequence -- trample upon the political values of those who believe in the Constitution and the rule of law that it's necessary to do what one can to change that calculus. Telling Obama that you'll cheer for him no matter what he does, that you'll vest in him Blind Faith that anything he does is done with the purest of motives, ensures that he will continue to ignore you and your political interests."
At the time I was told to "grow up," to "understand that Obama is a politician," that politics "is all about compromise"; but if you didn't think in June that the next president of the United States was being chosen in part to correct the illegalities and clean the incalculable mess that eight years of George W. Bush have bequeathed to generations, then you had no business lecturing anyone. The truth is, Obama caved. Then he chose as his running mate the senior senator from Delaware, the Honorable Joseph "MBNA" Biden, a public servant who can always rely on huge contributions from credit card companies but, goddamn, can he smile like a motherfucker. Maybe Biden did help him win Pennsylvania; maybe Biden will show him "how Washington works" (as if he needed the advice from Biden). We'll see.

But I still teared up last night, especially after I saw the reaction shot of Jesse Jackson listening to Obama's victory speech. I kept mouthing, "President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama" to my friends. It's still somewhat unreal. I like Obama a lot, and wish him all the luck in the world (so does the world). If his deeds match his rhetoric and the hopes of his followers, then I'll be proud to vote for him in 2012.

Finally, while I'm happy the country chose the better candidate, I'm pissed that social conservatives can gloat about, well, this:
California is huge, of course. It proves that when it comes to marriage, there are no blue states/red states. Americans believe unions of husband and wife really are unique and deserve a unique status in our culture and law.

Florida is huge because we had to get to 60 percent — and we surpassed that with 62 percent of the vote.

Arizona is huge because Arizona was the only state ever to reject a marriage amendment in 2006. This year, Arizonans decided to correct that anomaly, bringing to 30 the number of states that protect marriage in their state constitutions.

And also: giving marriage a perfect 30 out of 30 record of victory at the ballot box.

All victories are temporary in a fallen world. But this one is sweet.
This wet kiss is courtesy of one Maggie Gallagher, who drops into The Corner whenever she hears sodomites in her kitchen. Thanks to Gallagher and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, my friend Thomas and new husband Jeb face the possibility of having their marriage annulled. Florida voters also enshrined a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage -- a redundancy when one remembers we already have a law, and, besides, the Defense of Marriage Act (signed by President Bill Clinton) takes care of the rest.

Thank you, America. Our four-year experiment with democracy remains as thrilling, frustrating, and infuriating as ever.

EDIT: One of the grimmer ironies we can tease out of the remarkable turnout this election: all the new black voters might have brought their prejudices to their precincts. Black Americans remain one of the last bastions of homophobia. I hope it's not true.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A final note

See you all on the other side.

A message

Dear Early Voters - 

Thank you for the effort, especially those of you who waited as much as six hours to vote on Sunday. It's thanks to you that I waited 25 minutes today, and received a free Starbucks coffee. 



Monday, November 3, 2008

Listening to T.I.'s Paper Trail, I'm trying to figure out if he's as boring as I suspect; if so, please explain "No Matter What," "Swagger Like Us," and the astonishing "Dead and Gone," on which Justin Timberlake's chorus hook evinces more yearning and fear within the possibilities of melody than I thought possible?

Anyway, return to worrying about tomorrow night's results.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A batshit list of the greatest presidents compiled by the Times Online. The only detectable criteria? Executive authority and imperial ambitions. Thus, the high ranking of Polk, Truman, and Reagan. As usual, the Woodrow Wilson entry cops to the disappointed wail of a hundred boring historians: Wilson was "reluctant to lead the US into the First World War, but was then instrumental in building a multi-lateral post-war consensus which included the League of Nations, even if Congress never allowed America to join it." No mention of the Espionage Act, the Palmer raids, or manipulating us into World War One, the craftiest example of passive-aggressiveness in our political history. Small comfort, I suppose, that our former masters across the Atlantic remain such willing collusionists in the composition of our national mythology.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Welcome, November

What a trip the next few days will be. For distraction, I turn to wishing it was my birthday, and that someone would buy this for me, especially after reading this review.

In the meantime, Robert Lowell's "Waking Early Sunday Morning," hours before Daylight Savings Time ends:

O to break loose, like the chinook
salmon jumping and falling back,
nosing up to the impossible
stone and bone-crushing waterfall –
raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten
steps of the roaring ladder, and then
to clear the top on the last try,
alive enough to spawn and die.

Stop, back off. The salmon breaks
water, and now my body wakes
to feel the unpolluted joy
and criminal leisure of a boy –
no rainbow smashing a dry fly
in the white run is free as I,
here squatting like a dragon on
time's hoard before the day's begun!

Fierce, fireless mind, running downhill.
Look up and see the harbor fill:
business as usual in eclipse
goes down to the sea in ships –
wake of refuse, dacron rope,
bound for Bermuda or Good Hope,
all bright before the morning watch
the wine-dark hulls of yawl and ketch.

I watch a glass of water wet
with a fine fuzz of icy sweat,
silvery colors touched with sky,
serene in their neutrality –
yet if I shift, or change my mood,
I see some object made of wood,
background behind it of brown grain,
to darken it, but not to stain.

O that the spirit could remain
tinged but untarnished by its strain!
Better dressed and stacking birch,
or lost with the Faithful at Church –
anywhere, but somewhere else!
And now the new electric bells,
clearly chiming, "Faith of our fathers,"
and now the congregation gathers.

O Bible chopped and crucified
in hymns we hear but do not read,
none of the milder subtleties
of grace or art will sweeten these
stiff quatrains shoveled out four-square –
they sing of peace, and preach despair;
yet they gave darkness some control,
and left a loophole for the soul.

When will we see Him face to face?
Each day, He shines through darker glass.
In this small town where everything
is known, I see His vanishing
emblems, His white spire and flag-
pole sticking out above the fog,
like old white china doorknobs, sad,
slight, useless things to calm the mad.

Hammering military splendor,
top-heavy Goliath in full armor –
little redemption in the mass
liquidations of their brass,
elephant and phalanx moving
with the times and still improving,
when that kingdom hit the crash:
a million foreskins stacked like trash ...

Sing softer! But what if a new
diminuendo brings no true
tenderness, only restlessness,
excess, the hunger for success,
sanity or self-deception
fixed and kicked by reckless caution,
while we listen to the bells –
anywhere, but somewhere else!

O to break loose. All life's grandeur
is something with a girl in summer ...
elated as the President
girdled by his establishment
this Sunday morning, free to chaff
his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff,
swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick
of his ghost-written rhetoric!

No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance
assassinations, no advance.
Only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life ...

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.