Thursday, April 27, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: I'm Flyin' Cross the Land, Tryin' to Get a Hand

My improv troupe, Whirled News Tonight, sets out tomorrow for its third ever out-of-state appearance, entertaining the kids at Xavier University in Cincinnati. It's part of what we're all calling "Whirled News Week", featuring a very brief appearance on the local news on Sunday (as chronicled in Arnie's blog), and peaking with tonight's performance on the mainstage of the Chicago Improv Festival. Either tonight's show or tomorrow's will probably be the biggest audience we've ever had.

As improvisers, we like to tell ourselves that we can perform anytime, anywhere. Clair's ensemble, Bevy, once had a show in a city park. As you might imagine, this made for a distracted audience. Nevertheless, the show's finest moment came when a toddler happily ran right through the "stage", blissfully ignorant of the show in progress. One of the performers noticed this, and also chose to run around willy-nilly. Soon, the entire group was running carefree. It was a delightful moment. So improvisation can work in any setting.

Still, it's better to have an audience, and better still to have an audience that loves you. The most memorable shows tend to be the ones where the audience is just beside themselves with enjoyment. I still have vivid memories of our 2nd anniversary show last September, where we had a house packed to the rafters that loved everything we did. (I'm so glad we got that on tape.) It's a fact of life: people telling you they love you through laughter and's pretty satisfying.

Our previous out-of-state appearances have been a mixed bag. One was at the annual Del Close Marathon in New York City. As the presence of the world "marathon" would imply, it's an onslaught of improv, with back-to-back shows running for two solid days. Sometimes it can be great (the first time I ever saw the group American Dream was very memorable), sometimes it can be atrocious (something called Southern Fried Cagematch, which is possibly the worst thing I've ever seen on a stage, and that's coming from a guy who saw Juliet Prowse in Mame). So it's into this crucible that we descended, twice. Tough crowd, considering they've been looking at an awful lot of improv. (The people who watch more than four hours in a row are insane.) But we won them over. That felt good, knowing that we'd chamred a very jaded crowd. It's also great to say, "We were a hit in New York."

The other touring experience was a week-long stint at the Piccolo Fringe in Charleston, South Carolina. That was probably the exact opposite of New York, since this audience had hardly watched any improv at all. We hard to revert to our longer introduction, since the very concept of "we're making this all up right now" was a little foreign to them. And we were out of sorts, too. The stage was quite different: it was high above the audience, and much more narrow and shallow than the one to which we were accustomed. It was also decorated with large paintings of meat. (Long story.) Most importantly, it was the first time we had ever attempted shows on multiple consecutive nights. It was an actual run.

One thing that made Charleston a very unique experience was that the group was housed together. In New York, it was every man for himself, but in Charleston, we all shacked up in a hostel in what was not an especially nice part of town. As a result, there was a little more of a sense of unity. We were a unit, marching through town like the opening shot of Reservoir Dogs. Like some sort of comedy platoon, we descended on the theater.

My memory tells me that we got off to a shaky start. The crowds were appreciative, and particularly seemed to enjoy John Glynn's portrayl of Governor Mark Sanford in the guise of Redd Foxx. But they weren't screaming for more, and even a half-full house tended to feel cavernously empty. I think it was our third show of the run when, after an especially unsatisfying show, we went backstage (an alley) and immediately jumped into an aggressive post-mortem. It was the first time I could remember where we'd had what could honestly be called a bad show, and no one liked it.

Fortunately, we didn't wallow. We got better. And the houses got better, really digging our stuff by the end. (A personal highlight for me was getting a huge response for a bar that I'd built on a railroad trestle. It made sense at the time.) I understand the final show, which I missed -- and boy, do I regret that now -- was the best of all. So if the evidence is to be believed, we really can play anywhere, anytime. Maybe not at first, but give is a day or two, and we'll have it nailed.

I don't know what Cincinnati will be like. The audience should be mostly college students, and they seem to like us. And if we can score with them early on, we should roll toward a big finish. We're big on momentum. But I do know that there'll be a little bit of Charleston for this trip, as we're piling into a van for the trek. A road trip. I haven't done one of those since my high school debate days. ("Take it, Hirtzan!") There'll definitely be some camaraderie at the end of this trip.

Either that, or we'll all just kill Matt.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

PAGE TURNER: The Party of the First Part

BookADay has once again seen fit to do me the great honor of publishing one of my book reviews. This time around, it's Love, Groucho, a collection of letters from Groucho Marx to his daughter.

As I mention in the review, I have a standing agreement with my friend Holly that, after I become insanely famous, she has permission to auction off all the letters I've sent her over the years, and use the proceeds to finance her children's education. That agreement still stands, although at present, I am not insanely famous, and she is not currently with child, so that represents a bit of a push. Still, at least we have the agreement. I don't suspect that Groucho made any such deal with his daughter.

Things like that trouble me.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: Lost in the Dark

Aside from being unexpectedly entertaining, our copy of SceneIt! Turner Classic Movies Edition has proven to be quite informative. We received this two Christmases ago, and in the course of playing the game, have been treated to clips from films that we really ought to have seen. The most egregious example of this is the first onscreen collaboration of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not. In a single two-minute clip, the romantic attraction between the couple comes searing through the screen. It's the famous "You know how to whistle" scene, and at the end, Bogie has a look on his face like he just survived the biggest, hottest hurricane ever recorded. It's sensational, and that went right on to the Netflix queue the second we got home.

Being the hopeless completist that I am, I also added the rest of their films together. We already had The Big Sleep in our possession, leaving only Key Largo and our Sunday night feature, Dark Passage. Through all three films so far, the chemistry between Bogie and Bacall is unmistakable. Dark Passage, however, adds a new wrinkle to their oeuvre, in that it is one of the weirdest motion pictures ever made.

Our plot: Vincent Parry, convicted of murdering his wife, makes a dramatic escape from San Quentin, seeking redeption and justice. But with a face easily recognizable as that of a convicted killer, Parry must rely on his wits, the help of a mysterious woman, and some plastic surgery if he's going to find the real killer. Got all that? Good, because it's the last thing that's going to make any sense.

What I'm about to tell you is the kind of thing that might be considered a spoiler, but it amounts to absolutely no surprise whatsoever if you watched the opening credits or even read the movie poster, so I'm going to let it slip. That plastic surgery I mentioned? It makes our hero look like Humphrey Bogart. (Not literally. Rather, Vincent Parry emerges from the surgery with new facial features, as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. The movie doesn't get all Ocean's Twelve on us.) What this means is, until the plastic surgery is performed, Vincent Parry must look like someone else. Not Bogart. So how is this accomplished? Another actor? Extensive makeup. Nope. Instead, director Delmer Daves chooses to shoot most of the first half of the film in first-person. Bogart can be heard in voice-over, but aside from a photo in the newspaper, we don't actually lay eyes on our hero for about an hour. It's a lot like the Christopher Walken sketches on SNL where he plays The Continental. So let me emphasize this point once more, because it's really extraordinary: for the first hour of the film, we don't see Humphrey Bogart. International star of screen Humphrey Bogart. Unseen.

A documentary on the disc indicates that producer Jack Warner was less than pleased that his big box office draw was not getting much screen time in the film in which he was the ostensible star. I'll bet he was.

It gets better. He emerges from plastic surgery covered in bandages. Those unmistakable Bogart eyes are visible, but the rest of his head is swaddled in gauze, so now he can't talk. Incredible. First we couldn't see Bogart. Now we can slightly see him, but we can't hear him. Dark Passage is quickly becoming the greatest tease in movie history. Imagine that they'd cast Brad Pitt is the title character in V for Vendetta, and you get a taste of the sadism being perpetrated by the filmmakers.

Fortunately, there's plenty of confusing and inexplicable plot points to distract you. The biggest has to be the entire part played by Bacall. She's Bogie's rescuer, picking him up off the road after his escape from prison. But it turns out that she has followed his case from the start, moved by similarities with the unjust conviction and execution of her father. (Were this film made today, there might be some discussion of an inept criminal justice system. But here, it's just bad luck.) And yet, we're somehow supposed to just accept it on faith that she basically camped out near San Quentin at the exact moment Bogie is breaking out.

Of course, Bacall's unwavering support for a person convicted of murder is only in keeping with the attitude of the film's San Francisco. Everybody in this town is happy to help out. Parry's best friend happily agrees to put him up. A short-order cook laments asking a question that gives Parry away. Best of all, a cab driver makes all the arrangements for Parry's surgery, unsolicited, purely out of the kindness of his heart, and doesn't expect a dime in payment. Why? Who knows? The point is, Bacall's altruism is one of those things you're just supposed to accept. That's the way we do things in San Francisco.

(By the way, Dark Passage features a lot of location shooting in the City By the Bay, and it's totally worth it. In many respects, San Francisco looks much as it does today, minus some skyscrapers and an unnaturally-tall pyramid. But Bogart's long walks up ridiculous hills are perfect mise-en-scene, and there's not a film in existence that hasn't been helped by the Golden Gate Bridge looming in the background. Vertigo, Magnum Force, Star Trek IV...

What's not so easy to accept is the central role Bacall's character plays in the story. We're told she's a person who has followed Bogie's case. He doesn't know her, and only stumbles back to her apartment because he has nowhere else to go. Again, they don't know each other. But when the woman -- a pre-Endora Agnes Moorehead -- whose testimony sent Bogart to prison goes looking for help, where does she go? To Bacall. And who is Bacall's occasional boyfriend? Why it's Moorehead's ex. In short, WHAT? How the hell do these people know each other? What are they doing together? Let the hair-ripping commence. Dark Passage, when it comes right down to it, doesn't make any sense.

I liked it, though. I laughed out loud at the plot inconsistencies and the really stupid things characters did and the silly machinations of a plot that just does what it's told. And the reason I liked it is pretty simple: Humphrey Bogart. Even in voice alone, the man is the same entertaining icon we know and love. My wife commented during the movie that he's not especially attractive, not in a pretty-boy sense. But he's definitely handsome, alluring in his charisma and demeanor. You like Bogie. In To Have and Have Not, you understand his attraction to Bacall. She's magnetic. In Dark Passage, you get a sense of how it worked the other way. He's accused of murder, he's wrapped in bandages and takes all his food through a straw, he's always trying to look out for her welfare by leaving her behind. And she wants him all the more. So the film's end is really the only direction the film can take.

(About that film's ending, see if you don't find yourself muttering the words, "I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.")

Dark Passage is a tribute to the power of stars. It's a movie that succeeds entirely based on the goodwill engendered by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and their luminiscent on-screen attraction. You don't need to see it. But if you do, Bogie will get you through.

I feel like the cab driver. I'm just happy to help.

Friday, April 21, 2006

MY BONNIE: Chance of Thundershowers

My savagery of public monuments is garnering much acclaim, and I could certainly give the Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial at Constitution Gardens the reaming it so richly deserves, but I'm going to mix things up instead, and continue with the ongoing saga of Dead Men Are a Girl's Best Friend, now checking in with Chapter V.

I'm pretty fond of this chapter, in that it provides some background on how Bonnie got into this line of work in the first place. Eddie's full name is a bit anvilicious, and I thought about changing it here. But I don't feel like it. It's what I wrote and posted the first time around, so that's just what it's gonna be.

What is interesting is that I really take time to attack targets that are pretty harmless and certainly unable to defend themselves. In particular, the Lux Radio Hour takes it on the chin. Hardly seems fair. On the other hand, have you ever heard one of these shows? They're awful. Criterion loves to put them on their DVDs, and they are just atrocious. They made them for years, so people obviously weren't complaining loudly enough. I thought Bonnie should.

As you can see, I'm not afraid to take on the the big targets.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: We Have Nothing to Fear But Bad Memorials

Franklin D. Roosevelt was our longest serving president. The only man elected to four terms, he led our nation through two of its greatest crises, the Great Depression and World War II. He did all this despite having been crippled by polio. A blueblood taken into the hearts of the common man, Roosevelt is certainly a figure who deserves to be memorialized by the nation.

We have chosen to do so with the most rambling, nonsensical monument ever devised by the mind of man.

The marvel of our nation's monuments to men like Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington is that they accomplish so much with so little. Consider the stunning simplicity of the Washington Monument. Here's a person known as the Father of our Country. Leader of the victorious Colonial Army. Shaper of the Constitution. Creator of the Presidency. Namesake of city, state, and countless town squares. Most beloved figure in our nation's history. How do you memorialize all that?

The geniuses who came up with "an enormous unadorned obelisk" are owed a great debt. (In fact, the original design called for a grandiose base with a huge statue of Washington on horseback. That was too expensive. So we also owe a debt to debt.) The Washington Monument is a marvel, and the sheer scope of the building tells you something about the man it's named for: he was really important. It can't get all the details in, so it doesn't try.

The Roosevelt Memorial, on the other hand, is obsessed with the details. At every step of the way, we're being reminded of something he did or something he said or someone he affected, the result being that we can never get a single picture of the man. He's been dissected for our examination.

The very layout of the memorial illustrates the problem. Granite walls and waterfalls -- so many waterfalls -- are arranged to form "rooms" corresponding to each of Roosevelt's four terms. So right from the start, we've decided to break up his life into sections. There is no one consistent theme. If we're lucky, there will be four.

But even that's not so simple. You see, early on in the planning stages, plans for the monument got out, and it became clear that the designers were not focusing heavily on the fact that Roosevelt was paralyzed, crippled by polio. FDR took great pains to conceal his condition from the public, and the creators of his memorial probably thought they were being really clever when it came to a statue of the president, where they snuck in a wheel on the leg of a chair in which Roosevelt sits. That way, they acknowledged his ailment, but also stayed true to the character and desires of the man. Well, activists for the disabled raised holy hell, claiming that there was an effort to whitewash the truth, to hide the handicapped. And the designers capitulated instantly.

So now the memorial begins with a "Prologue". It's a single life-size sculpture of Roosevelt in a wheelchair. A wheelchair, we are told, "similar to one he actually designed and used himself." He's all alone in this plaza, with nothing but a quote from his wife, Eleanor, about how he overcame his handicap. (The quote is adorned with comically large Braille translations under each letter.) It's the most minimizing "tribute" I've ever seen. I'm not saying they shouldn't portray the president's life accurately and completely. But there's no context for this. It has nothing to do with any of the many random stories they plan to tell later on. And more importantly, IT'S BESIDE THE POINT. The Washington Monument doesn't spend time on false teeth. The Jefferson Memorial doesn't have a section about fathering children with slaves. If you plan to write a biography, all this stuff matters. Otherwise, stick to the point. The point here ought to be: Roosevelt was a great man. He saved our nation at its lowest ebb. And this doesn't help us make that point. As it is now, it's the central attraction at Handicappedland in Rooseveltworld, which doesn't help anyone; not the disabled, not Roosevelt, and certainly not the visitor trying to sort all this crap out.

Leaving Handicappedland behind, we enter our first room, Inauguration Square. There's a bronze Presidential seal on one wall, a bas-relief (very hard to make out) of a Roosevelt parade on another. And quotes. The first of so many quotes. Roosevelt was always saying something, evidently. And we're off and running.

Rounding the corner, we hit a whole slew of sculpture. Here's a bare-footed man listening to a radio. (The brochure says he's listening to a fireside chat, but there's no way to know that. And anyway, why does he have no socks? He's clearly supposed to be an unwashed hick.) There's a couple, just, there. (Again, the brochure tells me it's a rural couple. I guess that's because they have a Dutch door.) And right next to them is a group of men standing in a breadline. The breadline is clearly the favorite of tourists, because they get in line for pictures. "Hey, look at me! I'm unemployed and hungry!" Hilarious.

On the other side of the breadline is more discontinuity, as we come upon four round columns with handprints and Braille writing on them. No explanation whatsoever. Is this the original tribute to the disabled? What the hell is it? It's weird. I stood around for several minutes, vainly searching for the explanation. Finally I gave up, and turned around to the waterfall dedicated to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which I know had nothing to do with those handprints.

Water is absolutely all over the place at the Roosevelt Memorial. I racked my brain trying to think why, and the best I could come up with was his many retreats to the recuperative waters at Warm Springs, Georgia. Then again, it was while swimming that he contracted polio in the first place, so this could be kind of a mixed bag for the President. (Imagine a Reagan memorial that had a continuous loop of Bedtime for Bonzo.) Really, though, it's just because water makes for a neat effect. I'm reading more quotes (it's a David Foster Wallace book, this memorial), but I'm really just thinking about the physical plant that must be running all this water. And even better, the Park Service has had to put up signs asking people not to throw coins into the various water elements. Naturally, there are coins everywhere.

Room Three manages to kick to weirdness up yet another notch. This is the War section of the memorial, and right off the bat we get a great big quote from Roosevelt: "I HATE WAR." The layout of the quote is interesting: it's been arranged so that the quote...frames another quote. ENOUGH WITH THE QUOTING!

And my wish is granted, because in the center of this plaza are piles of granite blocks. I think I get it -- the destructiveness of war -- until I look and see that the words "I HATE" are inscribed on some of the blocks. And my brain clouds over once again. I'm guessing it relates to the quote, but it looks like Roosevelt's words have been reduced to rubble. So what does that mean? That he hates war, but went anyway? That his words won't hold up? That we had some extra granite? What? WHAT?!?

Fortunately, we are saved once again by sculpture. It's Roosevelt again, but a lot bigger now. You could stand alongside him in the Prologue, but here, even seated, he's towering. You'll only come up to his lap. So that's heroic. Except that the image they've chosen to replicate is that of Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, where he, Churchill, and Stalin divvied up Europe. At that point in history, Roosevelt is sick, only a few months from death, and is clutching a blanket wrapped around him for warmth. So to portray our heroic, triumphant, world-saving president, we've chosen the image that makes him look the weakest. This is truly the most sadistic memorial ever built.

Just to ensure that your brain never gets solid footing, next to this oversized sick Roosevelt is an equally-scaled representation of his dog, Fala. I'll say that again. There's a bronze statue of his Scottish terrier, cast chest-high to a human. Why? Because he had a dog, I guess, and absolutely everything is going into this memorial bouillabaisse. Sigh.

We're on to the last term, which only lasted three months, so it's time to bring this sucker home now. There's another bas-relief, this time mourners at Roosevelt's funeral. (It looks like the advertising from the musical Ragtime.) And more quotes, including his famous "Four Freedoms", which are not identified as such. And hey, look! It's a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt! Says here she was the first U.S. delegate to the United Nations. That's neat. I'm guessing from the name that she's related to FDR somehow. Maybe he appointed her. It's hard to say, based on the complete and utter lack of context, or any reason whatsoever for Eleanor Roosevelt to get her own statue in the FRICKIN' FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT MEMORIAL! For crying out loud. The wife, the dog, the wheelchair...where the hell is the cigarette holder? We get everything else, but not that? Where's his attempt to pack the Supreme Court? Where's his mistress? How about the time where he led the entire cabinet in singing "Tomorrow"? Let's get it all!

The memorial seems to go on a little further. More granite, more water. So I follow along, and I end restrooms. Yes, the loo has been incorporated seamlessly into the monument, so that you can't actually tell that the memorial has ended. Magnificent. A perfect finish to an utterly ridiculous monument. I'm a little surprised how infuriating I find the whole thing. But it's the perfect example of art-by-committee, and shows how you can throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a blender and come out with puréed crap. It doesn't glorify Roosevelt. It doesn't explain Roosevelt. At best, it belittles him. All told, it's just a little bit of everything, which adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

Franklin Roosevelt himself said he wanted no memorial. If you must, he said, then make it a block of marble the size of my desk with my name on it. And just such a monument was built; it's in front of the National Archives. You should go visit that. It's easier to get to, shorter, and has no water or quotes whatsoever.

Most importantly, it makes sense.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: Tribute By Committee

I went to Washington, DC having watched a bad movie about memorials. I return having seen bad memorials. The fresh air makes visiting the memorials a preferable experience, but their permanence ultimately makes them more infuriating.

To be fair, the subjects of my ire are the three major memorials on and near the Mall that have blossomed since my last visit to our nation's capital two decades ago. The existing monuments, like the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument, still work for me. They create a satisfying, even moving experience. Of course, they're very simple. They have clear objectives, and they accomplish them. For example, Lincoln is enshrined in a temple, and yet his enormous likeness is weary, drained by years of struggle. The message is pretty straightforward: this is a real human being, and we was so great that we honor him as if he were one of the gods. It's very noble, and very powerful.

Contrast that with the trainwreck that is the new National World War II Memorial (or, as my wife insists on calling it, the Tom Hanks Memorial), which has more messages to send than a telegraph operator, tries to be all things to all people, and ends up accomplishing nothing. It's a enormous mollybang of ideas, from the two enormous towers proclaiming the two theaters of the war, to the pillars bearing the names of states and territories (and, curiously, the Phillipines) and enormous bronze wreaths, to the truncated lists of places where American soldiers fought, to the random bas-relief sculpture of generic wartime scenes, to the most idiotic of features: a tiny wall of 400 gold stars crammed close together with a cascading waterfall nearby. It's a triumphant clump; Albert Speer by way of Hollywood executives. You almost imagine that the designers got ten different ideas, and couldn't bear to tell anyone their idea didn't get picked, so they used them all.

And everything has meaning. Every element is about something. Those aren't just wreaths. They're wreaths of wheat. They symbolize the contributions of the American heartland. And those aren't just gold stars. They're our dead heroes. Each star represents 100 dead soldiers. (It isn't explained which star your great-grandfather is represented by.) And the fact that the stars are so close to each other, created a bizarre gold-leaf mishmash, is probably meaningful, too. It symbolizes our closeness, or the camaraderie of men in uniform, or the ineptitude of the designers, most likely. It's like bad poetry.

And worst of all, it never gets across the single most important message of World War II: this was a war for the soul of the human race. I will never forget Bill Clinton's words when he spoke in Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Of the young, fresh-faced troops who stormed the beaches and initiated the liberation of Europe, he said simply, "These men saved the world." And they did. And very little about this memorial gets that point across. All it really does is cater to special interest groups. And that's what we have Tom Brokaw for.

And yet that's still preferable to the Korean War Memorial. While the World War II piece may have tried to say everything but missed the point, the Korean War Memorial somehow manages to be white noise; a long speech that never actually says anything at all. The centerpiece is a collection of 19 sculptures of soldiers on patrol. They wear ponchos, carry gigantic machine guns, and look perpetualy terrified. So perhaps the idea is to remember the emotional toll of war. No, that's not it, because they walk alongside a granite wall with smiling faces of troops etched in the surface, along with random images of battle scenes and ambulances and whatnot. They kind of seem to be trying for the effect of the Vietnam Wall, which reflects the observer back through the names of the lost, but the Korean War designers apparently didn't trust that to work, so they made the reflections for you. You can't see your reflection, because this isn't about you, you selfish bastard. Unlike the Wall, this memorial has nothing to do with you.

So it's about the soldiers, then...except for the list of the nations that participated in the conflict, which are inscribed along the walk. So it's about the UN...except that the reflecting pool takes care to separate out the American dead and wounded from the totals of all forces. As for that pool, it's next to the obligatory flagpole, and once you get to it, you have to turn around and go back to the beginning because there's nowhere else to go. Random elements thrown together because they worked somewhere else, but don't work as a whole. It's a Mad Lib Memorial.

I think what disturbed me most about the Korean War Memorial was the guns. I understand that guns and war are, kind of like, connected and all. And I don't seem to mind the M-1's being carried by the soldiers in the statue near the Wall. But those guns aren't in use. They're at rest. They've been set aside to contemplate the memorial across the way. Here, they're in use, toted by men who evidently are going to get ambushed. This is the one war memorial that actually looks like the war is still going on in front of you. That's a little disconcerting. Imagine the World War II Memorial with a running tank, complete with revolving turret. It's creepy. And nothing kills the mood of a memorial quite like creepy.

There seems little doubt that Maya Lin redefined the whole idea of memorials with her Vietnam Memorial Wall. What no one realized, I think, was that she wasn't leading the way for others, but was in a class all by herself. These new memorials are a bad sort of Lin-lite, taking elements of hers and packaging them into something more palatable for the people in charge. She's Nirvana; they're Candlebox.

It's good to know that the movies aren't the only art form lacking in new ideas.

There is one more memorial to discuss. It's possibly the most irritating of the three. That's the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and it's a disaster. I can' barely contain myself. We'll rip that apart tomorrow.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: The Work Speaks For Itself

My wife is heading off to Washington, D.C. for a few days on business, so I thought it might be fun to tag along. I haven't roamed the streets of our nation's capital for, oh, coming up on 20 years. It's a town I enjoy a lot. There's all those museums, and all those monuments. It's like they built a city just for someone as geeky as me. And then denied it representation in Congress, which for some reason I tend to take personally. I have issues.

In preparation for my trip, I juggled the old Netflix queue and moved Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision to the head of the line. Lin is the woman who, while still an architecture student at Yale, designed the stunning Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which turned out to be one of the signature architectural statements of the 20th century. The movie about her made its own splash when it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This was only a signature event in the sense that it won in a year in which the Documentary Committee failed to nominate the brilliant Hoop Dreams, an oversight that permanently besmirches the credibility of the Academy. Complicating matters was that the film's director, Frieda Lee Mock, was a former leader of that committee. Oops. Basically, Mock was the Katharine Harris of the Academy. Awkward.

But I'm willing to set all that aside. I'm a huge admirer of Lin's work (among her other pieces are a Civil Rights Memorial in Birmingham, Alabama, and a salute to women at Yale), and I'm eager to take a look at the artistic process that informs her creations. I'm also up for any additional insight I can get before I lay eyes on The Wall once more. A film that can provide that will be right up my alley.

I hope somebody makes that film someday.

Architecture is a difficult thing to capture on film. After all, pictures rarely do justice to the sensory experience of being in a place. And architecture is all about place. So how do you get that across? Well, you can take any of the approaches used by Nathaniel Kahn in My Architect, his tribute to the works of his father. Kahn relies heavily upon slow, loving pans across buildings, showing them in their environment. Then, he lets people who use these buildings, or interact with these buildings, to have their say. And for good measure, he brings in some talking heads, other architects and critics to comment on why these buildings are successful. Any of these is a worthwhile approach to conveying the power of architecture in a medium that distances you from an actual place.

Mock opts for a very different approach: Maya Lin talking. Other than a few brief interview clips from people connected with Lin's selection for the Vietnam Memorial project, it's nothing but Lin talking about her work. This doesn't sound like such a bad thing. But Mock seems to think that's what the film is about: Maya Lin's words. And the truth is, Maya Lin has nothing to say. Not with words, anyway. Her works speak volumes, but Mock doesn't care about those. We keep cutting away from visions of a completed Lin work to see her give an entire speech in which she says nothing memorable. In the film, Lin openly admits that she's not good at speeches, and she doesn't have to be, since her designs convey far more than any speech. Maybe, just maybe, a picture could be worth all those words. I'm just speculating.

A lot of documentaries are filled with what you'd call "talking heads". Just expert after expert telling you why you ought to care. That can be very dry and uninteresting. But here's a documentary that shows why some outside perspective can be helpful. For example, we get short snippets from Jan Scruggs, leader of the movement to build a Vietnam memorial, explaining why his idea for a monument was unworkable, and why Lin's vision was so successful. We also get a little bit of her Yale professor, the architecture critic Vincent Scully, commenting on the purity of Lin's work process. In those brief moments, we learn far more about the scope of Lin's achievement than we do from half-an-hour of Lin talking. And we will never hear an outside voice again for the rest of the film. Birmingham, Yale, an art commission in Ohio, an African art museum in New York, all completely without external analysis, all devoid of meaning. Not even a random passerby to say whether she liked it or not. Just Lin, blah blah blah.
We never get to see the subject of all this talking.

And we know that people have opinions. Mock toploads the Vietnam Memorial section of the film with talk of virulent opposition, with idiot bureaucrats like James Watt and ultraconservative blowhards like Pat Buchanan trying to derail the entire project. We get to see this best in the personage of Tom Carhart, a passionately angry veteran, rails against Lin's design, comparing it bluntly to being spat upon by an anti-war protester. Well, that's certainly harsh. I wonder how he feels now, with the thing built and the worldwide consensus being that the memorial is one of the most eloquent representations of loss and honor ever constructed. Evidently, Frieda Lee Mock doesn't wonder. We only have Carhart because of Mock's true guft: finding archival news footage. I'm guessing Carhart never spoke publicly on the issue again, because we don't get one drop of a mea culpa from him or anybody else who thought Lin's vision was inadequate.

In fact, other than the throngs of people who she has filmed milling around Lin's work, we have absolutely no sense of what the public thinks. Lin's Civil Rights Memorial is pointedly in view of the Alabama state capitol, proudly flying the Confederate flag atop its dome. What do the black and white people of Birmingham think about this juxtaposition? No idea. We don't hear from any of them. Only the people who make speeches at the dedication are heard. How about the female students at Yale, to whom Lin's campus fountain is dedicated? Not a clue. The only ones we hear from are the ones in the choir singing at the dedication. In fact, time and time again, all we get from Mock are Lin's words and stock footage of public events. Mock hasn't done a lick of work, hasn't probed an inch into her subject. In her view, the very being of Maya Lin is enough. No further analysis is necessary.

This becomes most damaging when the film turns its attention to works we're not familiar with. Lin says she's very pleased with the Weber house, a structure somewhere in western Massachusetts with a large roof that arcs and slopes gently like rolling fields. Which is great, except, WHAT THE HELL IS THE WEBER HOUSE? Would a little context have killed us? I'm guessing it's a residence. But I'm honestly not sure. With all this talking, you'd think somebody could at least explain what the damn project is.

Or consider her foray into art. Lin evidently likes to work with broken glass (we're not told why), and she makes huge dunes comprised entirely of glass, blended specifically to take on a cool blue tint. We get several minutes of construction workers supervising the delivery, hoisting, and dumping of tons of broken glass. And we see Lin dutifully shoveling piles of glass, shaping it into mounds and plains, like some alien pasture. And how does it look? I couldn't tell you. Mock gives us a five-second shot of one installation, shot from above so that you have no concept of what this must look like to a viewer. Time and time again, the director shows that she doesn't care one little bit about the art. She thinks the story is Maya Lin, and it's not. The story is what Maya Lin makes.

This cannot be the last word on the designs of Maya Lin, because they are too moving, too powerful, too unified with their surroundings, too brilliant to be ignored. And that's why this film really irritated me. The opportunity was there, and the filmmaker didn't even care. I don't like to blame a film for what it's not, so I don't slam A Strong, Clear Vision for failing to be about what I wanted it to be about. However, I can criticize a film for what it is, and this one is useless. Mock has not failed to see the forest for the trees. She's too focused on the ground.

Boy, now I'm really angry about Hoop Dreams.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Now more than ever, they must rely on the skills they have learnt from a lifetime's hunting.
(tense music, as they worm their way forward)
Hank gauges the wind.
(shot of Hank doing complicated wind gauging biz.)
Roy examines the mosquito's spoor.
(shot of Roy examining the ground intently)
Then ...
(Roy fires a bazooka. Hank fires off a machine gun; a series of almighty explosions in the small patch of field; the gunfire stops and the smoke begins to clear)
It's a success. The mosquito now is dead.
(Hank and Roy approach the scorched and blackened patch in the field)
But Roy must make sure.
(Roy points machine gun at head of mosquito and fires off another few rounds)

Monty Python's Flying Circus, Episode Twenty-One
Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones & Michael Palin


I'm having a real problem with the trial that's currently going on in federal court to decide whether to put Zacarias Moussaoui to death. There's a certain element of killing-mice-with-bazookas going on that makes me kind of uncomfortable.

Moussaoui is, of course, one of the many schmucks who Osama bin Laden shipped over to American to learn how to fly airplanes and crash them into American landmarks. Moussaoui, unlike not nearly enough of his colleagues, got arrested in August 2001, and wasn't on hand to wreak havoc on the world a month later. Nevertheless, the federal government has charged him with being part of the September 11 plot, and is seeking the death penalty. A jury has already determined that he's eligible, and now they're debating whether to give it to him.

It's possible, though, that Moussaoui would have had nothing to do with the events of that day. He's changed his story so many times, there's no clear sense of what the truth is. Maybe he was the so-called 20th hijacker, the man who would have been onboard the flight that crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Maybe he was going to take over a later flight, in cahoots with the captured terrorist Richard Reid. Maybe he's a lunatic who would never have been picked for a mission but wants to exaggerate his importance. No one really knows, except Moussaoui, and he's given to screaming things in court like "Next time we will destroy them all!" So other than demonstrating his eligibility for the part of a villain in a Chuck Norris movie, we don't really know what he was capable of.

Prosecutors have adopted an interesting strategy to deal with this uncertainty: they don't care. Here's the charge upon which the United States has marshalled all its resources to end the life of Zacarias Moussaoui: he lied to the FBI about the upcoming hijackings, thereby ensuring that they could not be stopped. Hence, he is directly responsible for the events of September 11, and must die.

I've watched enough Law & Order to know that having any connection to a murder can get you charged with murder. So the link between this man and this mayhem is not as tenuous as it sounds. But are we really saying that the key to stopping September 11 was in the hands of Zacarias Moussaoui? Honestly? That sure makes our government look stupid, then. At least three FBI agents -- Coleen Rowley, Greg Jones, and Harry Samit -- are on record as having repeatedly requested permission to follow up on Moussaoui's connections. They were all turned down. Clearly, alarm bells were sounding, but the higher-ups in the FBI declined to listen. The idea that, if Moussaoui had only said something, three thousand lives would not have been lost is disingenuous at best. Moussaoui was definitely saying something. Not everyone heard.

But we'll set that aside for the moment. After all, a jury has already determined that his actions (or possibly inactions) have earned him a trip to the gallows. Now we're just trying to decide if this particular crime is worthy of the ultimate punishment. Which is plainly ludicrous. As much as any event in my lifetime, the terrorist attacks of September 11 have earned the execution of anyone and everyone responsible. We executed Timothy McVeigh; the horrors of September 11 are unquestionably more heinous.

But...and I say this will all the righteous anger I can summon...we're gonna execute this guy? We're actually going to end the life of a human being because he's a damn liar? Seriously?

Most of the people we really want to kill as bloody revenge for September 11 are already dead. They gave their lives to commit their crime, as well as for the promise of 70 virgins or some such nonsense. The other guy we'd like to get our hands on is the mastermind, and he's managed to elude us for nearly five years, primarily through the clever strategy of not going anywhere near Iraq. So we're throwing everything we've got at this one guy. This idiot. This non-entity. Zacarias Moussaoui must die. And why? As best as I can tell, he must die because he's handy. Someone's gotta pay, and he volunteered. Lucky break for us.

The first part of the word "justice" is the word "just", and the prosecution of this case strikes me as anything but. There's something to be said for punishment meeting the crime, and while Zacarias Moussaoui might like very much to be responsible for September 11, the fact is that he's not. And no matter how many times we play back the awful events of that day, it doesn't get him any closer to being the guy who needs to pay. It's inconvenient, but that's the way it is.

America has long prided itself on being a land of fairness and justice. Having been attacked, we're not going to just turn the other cheek. We want to administer that justice, and do it in a far manner. But in licking our wounds, I fear we've begun to lose sight of those ideals. Now we're using justice as a bludgeon. The most powerful country on earth, bringing the weight of the country down on one very little man.

Like using a bazooka to kill a mosquito.

Monday, April 10, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: Hail to the Chief

I stopped watching The West Wing sometime near the end of the fourth season. I think it was about the time Rob Lowe left the show. I didn't watch The West Wing for Rob Lowe, of course. But his departure sent a very clear signal to me that the show I loved was about the change irrevocably. That the show would be ending this season didn't surprise me. It seemed inevitable.

At its peak -- which I will define as the beginning of Season Two through the departure of Sam Seaborn -- The West Wing was without a doubt my favorite show on television. It's hard to explain the reasons why without sounding pretentious. For a show that aspires to be intelligent, any praise you offer sounds like high-falutin' navel-gazing. And it's not enough to just say, "It's good." Because it's so much better than good. So I'm just going to go for broke and be obnoxious and stuck up. The West Wing was noble. It took a medium not known for being able to stand tall, and it enobled it. It made you proud to watch television.

Most of the credit has to go to Aaron Sorkin. He spent four years churning out neearly every episode of The West Wing, dedicated to the principle that people arguing about civics was interesting, compelling drama, and that these arguments could be conducted with civility and decency. He played with every pitfall a presidential administration might encounter, he put his characters in untenable situations, and he saddled them with dialogue that can only be called politicobabble. And for an hour each week, you actually got a sense for how government works. TV had tried to put shows in the White House before. (Anybody remember Mr. President? George C. Scott? Anyone?) But they never understood: the drama wasn't in the Oval Office. The drama was in getting the issues into the Oval Office. Sorkin got it.

And that cast. My friend Ted and I had a running joke for years: "Name five Martin Sheen movies." He was everywhere, he had those damn kids in our face all the time, and yet...what was he in? (It's still a valid challenge. Give it a try. No cheating. Here, I'll spot you Gettysburg.) The West Wing was a whole cast of people like that, actors who you knew were good, who you'd seen all the time (Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford), and who were just waiting for the right juicy parts to sink their teeth into. They got them on this show. These were actors enjoying their jobs, and that translated into characters who loved their jobs. Think about your favorite TV dramas, and I'll bet you that they featured characters who may have been enduring the greatest traumas imaginable, but secretly, they were loving life. Think about it. Fox Mulder loved fighting aliens and hunting for his sister. Jean-Luc Picard relished confronting the Borg once again. The people on Lost revel in their predicament. Well, that was The West Wing in a nutshell. The Republicans are blocking our bills, terrorists are threatening San Francisco, poll numbers are plummeting...and the Bartlet administration says, "Bring it on." It's Butch and Sundance on the cliff.

And the thing about Lowe and Sheen, the big names in the cast? Maybe there were salary disputees and arguments over billing and not enough Emmys to go around. But on screen, they meshed with that ensemble. It was an organic blend of characters, people who seemed to genuinely like each other. As an improviser, I've been on a number of ensembles. Someteimes they click, sometimes they don't but you work throught it because you're professional, and sometimes they just plain don't work at all. I cherish those groups where everything clicked. That group on The West Wing from 2000-2003 clicked. Pretty lucky, that.

And then Sorkin got caught with the magic mushrooms, and it all started going to hell. He finished out a season and left, the executive producer took over, and things started getting melodramatic. The new people didn't get it. They thought the drama was putting people in situations. They thought the political stuff was seasoning. Clair and I tuned in to an episode in Season Five, and it was just awful. Painful to watch. (The press secretary's now the chief of staff? Really?) I was pressed for time, anyway. I stopped watching.

But you never forget old friends, and when John Spencer passed away last December, I thought about the show again. Things had changed quite a bit. More characters were gone, new characters I wasn't interested in were on board. And there was an intriguing presidential election going on. (A more interesting one than the one Sorkin had engineered for Bartlet's re-election, as it happened.) Spencer's death complicated matters , since his character, Leo McGarry, was a vice-presidential candidate. The word was that the show had improved dramatically, with issues and debate part of the mix again, and writers like Debora Cahn capturing some of the old Sorkin flair.

So I tuned in again.

It's still a little off. With the election here, the emphasis is mostly on the new people, with old favorites pushed to the side. That put a little too much emphasis on the character of Josh Lyman, who was always a little too whiny for his own good. But the frenetic march to Election Day, with plotlines hinging on electoral votes and instructions to lawyers, had a lot of the feel of the show I used to like. It was familiar. And the cruel necessity of incorporating the death of a major character has been handled logically and authentically. The show is definitely going out on an up.

I'm going to spoil the ending of last night's episode: Democrat Matt Santos, as played by Jimmy Smits, wins the election in a squeaker, despite the sudden death of his running mate, McGarry. Supposedly, his opponent, Republican Arnold Vinick (a nicely smarmy-yet-principled Alan Alda) was going to win the election, but Spencer's death forced a change in plans. To have McGarry die and lose the election seemed too cruel. Fair enough. But the result was a single shot that said so much about the greatness of this show. A defeated Vinick, alone in his hotel room, watches on TV as Santos congratulates him on a good race. And Alda, in a masterful piece of expression, smiles through his pain, and you see all the hopes and dreams of his presidency flicker across his eyes in a heartbeat. Politics is cruel, and Alda said more about that cost in an instant than could have been conveyed in a two-hour monologue. It made me love The West Wing one more time.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be president. As I grew up, I discovered how unyielding politicians could be, and I resisted the urge to sell my soul for a vote. But to watch The West Wing, I remember why I thought politics was neat. I feel the urge again. Government seems noble once again.

I will spend my life looking for the chance to make that kind of impact.

Friday, April 07, 2006

PAGE TURNER: Self-Evident Truths

The rebirth of BookADay continues at breakneck speed. Accordingly, my latest review, American Scripture, has already made its appearance.

When I started doing these reviews, I didn't assign a grade. Didn't want to. Really didn't feel like I was in any position to judge. But Brandi insisted, so I agreed. Fortunately, since they're almost all books I've chosen to read, I haven't really hated any of them. In fact, the one I've disliked the most was actually an assignment. I think that's correlative and not causative. I think.

Truth be told, the middle section of this book bugged the crap out of me. I don't know if this came across in the review, but the book really sags in the middle sections. But I couldn't very well judge the book on that alone. Still, it's a tough call. If you like some of a book, but hate the rest of it, does that fact that you hate any part of it drag it down? Or do you split the difference? In this case, I think the fact that I liked some of it pulled the grade up. I try to be forgiving. The book had worth. And if the good sections hadn't been as good as they were, it definitely would have earned a C. Or worse. I think.

This is why I don't like grading.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Amidst all the complaints about the movie Crash was the accusation that it relies on unbelievable coincidences, connecting people who have no business coming anywhere near each other. I'm wondering if any of these people saw Nashville. That film practically invented the unbelievable coincidence, with dozens of characters all coming together at the beginning and never entirely leaving each other's orbits until the end of the film. And it's considered a masterpiece.

Nashville was the last disc remaining from my feeble attempt at an in-house Oscar Film Festival. It made the cut as the signature piece of this year's Honorary Academy Award recipient, director Robert Altman. I'd long resisted Altman, probably because my initial exposure was through films like the turgid Popeye, 3 Women, which I vividly remember as one of the initial offerings when my family first got HBO back in 1977, and which I vividly remember as boring the crap out of me. He had this reputation as being weird and difficult, like some sort of cinematic James Joyce. Still, in my gut I know that's completely unfair, since I've thoroughly enjoyed other films of his, like M*A*S*H and Gosford Park, and especially The Player. So it seemed like the right time to give Nashville a shot.

The best thing I can say about Nashville is that it makes me feel like a complete idiot. Not that I couldn't figure out what was going on. For a story with 24 main characters (the opening credits cleverly spew out the names of the cast like a K-Tel commercial) and at least as many storylines, the movie is very clear and precise in laying out the many events that transpire over five days in the country music capital of the world. Nashville is sprawling, but not confusing. No, what I mean is that the movie is so dense, so rich with ideas and characterization, that I came away from it knowing that I couldn't possibly have absorbed everything the film has to offer. I felt not smart enough to get it.

I need to spend a little time on this point, because there are certainly films that half left me scratching my head. Movies in recent years have relied heavily on a twist, or creating a puzzle that you have to spend time figuring out later. I remember walking out of The Usual Suspects, dazzled at the way the film had just blown my mind. Hits like The Sixth Sense and Memento followed the same path in their own way. These films are highly entertaining, and to be sure, part of their appeal was they way they required viewers to deconstruct the film in their mind to figure out just what they'd seen. I remember running straight to the internet for help in deciphering Memento. And indeed, Hollywood has rushed to churn out "twist" movies left and right, because one hit movie equals a trend. (The result is movies like The Forgotten and The Jacket. But Nashville is not a headscratcher. It's a novel that just happens to be onscreen. A really complicated novel. A Dostoyevsky novel. A lot of films are described as being like a novel, but this is the real deal.

How does one sum up the plot of a film like Nashville? Poorly, I assume. Many people are coming to town, including popular country and folk singers, groupies, aspiring singers, an idiotic British reporter, and supporters of a Perot-esque third-party presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker, who has captivated the American public with his common-sense platform. (He wants to ban lawyers from Congress and change the national anthem. "Nobody knows the words," he complains.) We never see Walker, although his pre-recorded stump speeches are played back for the citizens of Nashville throughout the film. From the time of their arrival at the airport, they weave in and out of each other's lives, finally coming back together at a concert and rally for Walker.

Clocking in at a little over 2 1/2 hours, Nashville covers a lot of ground in a very short time. It takes a lot of memorable scenes to convey so much, and they're here in spades. Blakely's mental breakdown at a concert, the humiliation of Gwen Welles at a fundraiser, every quiet moment where Timothy Brown bits his tongue in the face of subtle racism, they all resonate. But the standout moment of the entire film has to be Keith Carradine's performance of "I'm Easy". He won an Oscar for the song, but let me be clear: the song is not great, and neither is his performance. But it's hard to imagine a better example on film of the power of music. As Carradine sings, four different women in the audience are each clearly under the impression that he is singing the song directly to her. The fact that he isn't -- he's an incurable womanizer -- is a superb example of the power of music to reflect back our own thoughts.

I've mentioned Nashville's huge cast, and it's to Altman's credit that everyone, from Ronee Blakely's fragile country star to David Arkin's disposable chauffeur, comes across as a fully realized character, someone who could easily take over the film if given the opportunity. But I'll single out one from the mass, because his performance so completely surprised me. Fair or not, I always think of Henry Gibson as the childlike, flower-toting poet from Laugh-In. Nothing could have prepared me for the power of his performance as a vain, fading country star. With a ludicrous toupée and a rhinestone-studden jumpsuit, he seems nothing short of absurd. But Gibson has remarkable gravity, conveying a wounded dignity while trying to maintain the appearance of supreme confidence. His appeal to the people in the face of a tragic occurrence is brilliantly realized. Why didn't his acting career develop? Was it because everybody in Hollywood thought like I did?

The best way to describe my feelings about Nashville is to tell you that, when I first sent it back to Netflix, I rated it three stars. I liked it, appreciated all that it accomplished, but didn't love it. I've since raised that rating to four stars, as the film sticks with me, and as I unravel the many plot threads in my mind. And who's to say that, somewhere down the line, I won't bump it up one more star. Nashville is a seven-course meal at a restaurant serving Happy Meals. I'm still figuring it out, and I don't think I'll have it solved anytime soon.

That's a remarkable feeling to get from a movie.

Monday, April 03, 2006

MY BONNIE: Thanksgiving

Feast your eyes on Chapter IV of my slowly-gestating novel, Dead Men Are a Girl's Best Friend. Bonnie's finally getting some hard information about the object of her search. She may not be interpreting it correctly.

I've been trying to tinker with the design of the webpage. The fact that I don't really know HTML is something of an impediment. Also the fact that I really don't have hours and hours to spend tweaking. So it's a little messy right now. But still readable.

Some might argue that my time would be better spent writing than learning web design. I would tend to agree.