Saturday, December 20, 2003

My Stupid Awards

This will be my last post for 2003. (Sniffle. Sigh.)

Even though I’ve only been blogging since April, I’ve decided to end the year with My Stupid Awards Show, featuring the best and worst moments from My Stupid Dog. In the spirit of fairness, no entry will receive more than one Stupid Award apiece.

All judgments are, naturally, My Stupid Opinion. And contestants, please remember that no matter who gets what, you’re all winners to me. Except for a few of you friggin' losers ... but we'll save that part for last.

Best post of the year: The Wit and Wisdom of Wesley Clark. This sadly funny compilation of campaign gaffes proves once again that I write best when I write least. It earned me my first citation on, and my only citation (to date) on Instapundit.

Runner-up: On Tony Kushner. This essay also earned a citation on Terry Teachout referred to it as a “Gay dissent” from Kushner's alleged artistry, which struck me as odd since I didn’t see anything homo-centric in my criticism per se.

Best current-events post: Of Quagmires and Liberation: Iraq and the Grands Recits. I wrote this essay only two days after I started the blog. Unlike most current-events pieces, this one is still relevant eight months later.

Runner-up: Take Back the Night, Just Leave Me Alone. Another corker from my first week of blogging. Alas, this one may prove an annual fixture.

Best culture post: Kurosawa: High and Low. This dark-horse contender is probably the best single piece of film criticism I’ve done all year. I wish I had gotten paid for it.

Runner-up (tie): Paul Green, The Lost Colony, and American outdoor drama. Culture fiends should attend more outdoor drama on vacation. Here's an article on some vintage American theater that has yet to receive its critical due.

Runner-up (tie): The Matrix: Revisited. A conservative reader asked me to explain why he hated the second Matrix film so much. I had to drag out all my postmodern theory books out of storage to do it, but I did it.

Best personal post: Gay Pride Days. This post may also become an annual fixture.

Runner-up (tie): Mohandas and Me. I’m not proud of my leftist past, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write about it.

Runner-up (tie): Hostel Takeover. Itching to visit the Outer Banks, I stay in a very funky youth hostel. And I’ve been itching ever since ...

Special award: Remembering Mario. An obituary for the spiritual father of my writing. I still miss him.

Now for a few booby prizes:

Bitchiest post: Kushner: Caroline, or Change. Ka-CHING!

Dumbest post: Santo Santorum. Boy, did I get this story wrong. (My other essays on Santorum's super-gaffe fared somewhat better: Scroll upwards to see them.)

Most pointless post: Matrix: Revulsions. I tried to do for Matrix: Revolutions what I did for Matrix: Reloaded. Unfortunately, nobody really cared about Revolutions, myself included.

Weirdest post: Another September 11. I tried to draw parallels between the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1856 and the terrorist attacks of 2001. It didn’t work.

Worst post of the year: Previews of Coming Attractions. In late August, I promised four essays, none of which I ever wrote. Coming attractions that never came: How ... postmodern. Forgive me, gentle readers.

Let’s Hear It for the Boy

Am I the only one who finds the trailer for Universal's Peter Pan incredibly creepy? When Graham Greene wrote about the perverse sexualization of Shirley Temple, 20th Century Fox sued him; the idea that the studio was placing little girls’ physicality on such public display repelled producers to the core. Yet Temple’s exhibitionism was positively benign compared to today’s pedophile-chic presentation of Jeremy Sumpter. As the titular Pan, Sumpter eschews the traditional green shirt and tights, spending the entire film with torso and legs almost fully exposed. It’s as if he were starring in a Calvin Klein ad campaign: The little boy who won’t grow up becomes a deliberately constructed object of spectators' lust.

The only cinematic precedent I can find for such blatant, extensive pedo-scopophilia is Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice, a great film that nonetheless leaves me unsettled and uncomfortable. Its presentation of the little boy Tadzieu is unmistakably sexualized, but since the story concerns middle-aged composer Gustav von Aschenbach and his growing obsession over a boy, the sexual subtext cannot be regarded as gratuitous. Indeed, considering the subject matter, Visconti is relatively restrained and tasteful; he isn't out to titillate his audiences. The sexualization of Tadzieu is really about Aschenbach's desires, not the boy himself. Ultimately, Death in Venice expects audiences to regard Aschenbach (and the images which represent his point of view) as pathetic and monstrous, and his death provides moral closure to the tale.

From all indications, the makers of Peter Pan lack these flickers of human decency. In this new film, the camera seems as obsessed with Sumter's face and body as Aschenbach is with Tadzieu. But in this case, Visconti's veil of subjectivity has been ripped away, along with the twin fig leaves of chastity and aestheticism. If Death in Venice was about the pedophile, Peter Pan is all about the boy -- or, to be more precise, it's about pedophilic fantasies of The Boy. Closeups abound of prepubescent male nipple and thigh, filmed in gauzy twilight and packaged with romantic music and a bedroom smile. The result is a boy-raper's dream, projected uncritically, thoughtlessly on the wide screen.

J.M. Barrie would be disgusted to find his beloved Pan “sexed up” for the masses, I think. If an actual, convicted pedophile had directed this film, as occurred with Victor Salva of Powder and the Jeepers Creepers series, we might be quicker to perceive its disturbing subtext. We might even see large crowds outside Universal headquarters with pickets -- if not torches and pitchforks -- to protest, possibly even prevent, the film's general release. But since Peter Pan is a PG-rated Christmas film marketed to the entire family, no one seems to mind. Not yet, anyway.

Gentle reader, something is very wrong with this picture.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Christmas Movies: Lost in Translation and Return of the King

I haven't seen a better film this year than Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. (Confession: I missed Clint Eastwood's Mystic River.) This film of few words offers a feast of indelible images: Bill Murray on a golf course with Mt. Fuji in the background; Murray in sweaty close-up, performing an SNL-style karaoke act (to devastating emotional effect), any scene showcasing Scarlett Johannsen's luminous beauty. What impressed me most, however, were the many visual correlatives Coppola found for her characters' sense of isolation: Unexpected low-angle shots, or a slightly distanced perspective, manage to capture emotion more succinctly than any conversation could.

The one shot that convinced me I was watching not just a good film, but a great one, featured Johannsen walking toward the camera, while everyone else around her walked across the frame, either right-to-left or left-to-right. To my mind, the sensation of loneliness in a crowd, as if one were a salmon swimming in the wrong direction, has seldom been so vividly conveyed. Visually, Johannsen is at "cross-purposes" with the crowd.

Lost in Translation could have become a compendium of [Harold] Pinter-esque cliches, were it not for its extraordinary visual sense and its deeply optimistic belief in human connection. Coppola discovers a refreshing (though not entirely new) use for the fabled "Pinter pause": Instead of signaling a failure of communication, it implies communication too deep and subtle for language. It's no accident, then, that we never hear the film's final words; they are whispered between lovers, and not meant for our ears.

I was a bit put off by Coppola's treatment of supporting characters, though. Her attitude toward contemporary celebrities seems more than a bit condescending; one dumb-blonde starlet is simply too cartoonish for the film's delicate tone. A more mature vision would have used these characters as parallels rather than contrasts; they have the same problems, but they address them in a different way. But the bizarre early scene with Murray and a Japanese prostitute feels about right; Coppola's detached camera focuses on this encounter with a deliciously arched eyebrow, and observes the foibles and follies of both parties. The result is neither racist nor anti-racist, merely true to character.

Return of the King may well be the best mainstream film this year. I don't think it's quite as impressive as The Two Towers -- or Fellowship for that matter -- but it's good enough to satisfy all but the most devout Tolkien fans. Director Peter Jackson manages to top his Two Towers battle sequence at Helm's Deep with two epic battles in Return of the King. In terms of purely visual impact, they're as good and as grand as anything ever presented on film. Unfortunately, since most of the major characters remain AWOL, the battles don't possess the same emotional heft as earlier, more personal encounters.

This film is what Manny Farber famously called "white elephant" art; it comes -- as previous films in the trilogy had not -- with a sort of golden-hued, coffee-table, A-list prestige that all but begs Oscar to stand up and cheer. Luckily, Jackson remains a sort of "termite" director; he constantly undercuts his high literary aspirations with sly, subversive humor. (Alas, Return of the King features no dwarf-tossing jokes, a highlight of the first two films.) The film is self-righteous and sincere, as, it seems, a Best Picture contender must be. But Jackson isn't afraid to give the movie a sadistic jab and a tweak (he makes his cameo here as one of the enemy's seagoing mercenaries), and he positively revels in the wanton cruelty of Orcs. I wish more of his perverted sensibility had slipped into these films, but I'll take what I can get.

At three-and-a-half hours, Return can be a wearisome experience. Its main problem, as far as I can tell, involves pacing: Important information is either omitted or glossed over too quickly, and less important material is inflated beyond its worth. Major characters disappear, while minor characters linger. There are obvious continuity errors, such as unexplained clothing changes, actor substitutions, and inconsistencies of scale. Given the source material and the films' unprecedented scope, problems might have been inevitable: Any diamond this large is bound to have a few flaws, and they're bound to become more noticeable over time. That said, the final scene of Return of the King is a perfect grace note, straight out of the book. It makes a solid conclusion.

Purists will be angry at the film, and with good reason: It indicates, in no uncertain terms, that the trilogy is Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and not necessarily J.R.R. Tolkien's. Jackson's vision of Middle Earth is more in keeping with today's neoconservative politics than with Tolkien's eccentric, quasi-Luddite Christian-pagan sensibility. Jackson is also deeply concerned with the power and allure of Evil, and, unlike Tolkien, does not consider any individual immune to its temptation. Compared to Tolkien's novel, Jackson's film trilogy is more taut, more suspenseful, more resonant with current events -- and also far less palatable to left-liberal readers. But it successfully preserves Tolkien's greatest achievement, blending the mythic qualities of medieval narrative with nineteenth-century classical liberalism.

Go see Return of the King, if you haven't already. But be sure to see Lost in Translation first.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

ClarkWatch: Like a (Political) Virgin

Pop star Madonna, following the latest Hollywood trend, has decided to support Wesley Clark for president. Quoth the erstwhile Material Girl: "I think he's good with people, and I think he has a heart and a consciousness. He's interested in spirituality -- I mean, those things mean a lot to me."

By the way, Madonna's endorsement was no accident. Bloated left-wing propagandist Michael Moore has been drumming up support for Clark in every corner of Tinseltown. He set up a cushy celebrity fundraising dinner for the Generalissimo in Madonna's house.

All of which raises the following question: Doesn't Madonna live in Britain now?

Brother Bear

Disney's latest animated cartoon, Brother Bear, is another New-Agey, multicultural, family-oriented affair. In this respect, it resembles Mulan and Lilo and Stitch -- which should come as no surprise, since all three films come from the same Florida animation team.

The traditional 2-D animation is modest though effective; Alaskan landscapes are lovingly if not believably portrayed. But lordy, how this movie does preach. Presumably Brother Bear is concerned with affirming the "brotherhood" between men and animals, and as with most Disney beast fables, it treads a fine line between fantasy and naturalism. However, this particular fantasy was so thoroughly at odds with its naturalistic impulses that I couldn't buy it. Disney's animated bears laugh, romp and play with each other, whereas real bears claw, bite and fight with each other. At several points I found myself thinking that this film would have been much better had animal behavior been less idealized -- in short, had animals displayed the contrarian personalities and dysfunctional behavior attributed to the film's human characters.

Brother Bear feels less sure-footed than the Florida team's previous two efforts. The narrative is strangely diffuse, several characters aren't as well established as they could be, and the final scene is entirely, laughably wrong-headed. Still, the film occasionally transcends its piety and mawkishness, touching primal emotions as (I suspect) only animation can. That's enough, I think, for me to recommend it.

Lord of the Rings: Special Extended Editions in theaters

Over the past two weeks, a few theaters across the country have shown new 35 mm prints of the Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers extended editions. I wish these films would play alongside Return of the King, if only because Jackson's additional scenes work much better with a full-sized movie screen than on a television.

I'll offer the Helm's Deep sequence as an example. After watching Two Towers on DVD, I sensed that the Helm's Deep location wasn't internally cohesive, because I could never figure out the layout of the fortress or the overall geography of the battle. At the time I suspected rapid-fire editing was to blame: Jackson's jittery camera moved from battlefield vignette to battlefield vignette before I could figure out just where everyone was. But on seeing the Extended Edition on the big screen, I had absolutely no trouble figuring out not only where everyone was, but why they were there. The geography of the battle was visible in the film's details, which are lost on a television screen but gloriously evident in a movie theater.

It's refreshing to find a director who insists on the scale of cinema -- whose films aren't waiting to find their audience on home video, but draw on the size of a movie screen and the social dynamics of a live audience. Jackson's movies are the best arguments cinephiles have for the supremacy of film over digital video, as well as for the ritual of public moviegoing over home viewing.

Alas, New Line Cinema is withdrawing the first and second films, now that the trilogy's finale is in wide release. But one can hope the extended cut of Return of the King will get the same 35 mm treatment as the rest of the trilogy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

When the News Doesn't Fit, Change It

I didn't think it could, but the New York Times just stooped to a new low. Skip a few paragraphs to the "Update" section if you want to learn more ...

* * *
Hussein's capture has changed things ...

... at the New York Times, that is. Check out this headline: U.S. Troops Beat Back Ambush in Central Iraq, Leaving 11 Dead. Until now, the only casualties reported in the Times have been American, so you'd suspect that these eleven dead were some of our boys.

You'd be mistaken. The article's first five words sum up the story: "American soldiers killed 11 attackers ...." Coalition forces suffered no casualties whatsoever.

Of course, these lopsided firefights have gone on for several months, as Ba'ath Party loyalists have grown even more desperate and suicidal. American troops have inflicted forty-plus enemy casualties for every casualty of their own, securing and pacifying nearly all of Iraq. By any standard, our coalition forces have won one decisive victory after another. But if you read the Times, you probably thought Iraqi terrorists were winning against American troops. Iraq was a fiasco -- just like Vietnam, right?

With liberal gruel our daily media diet, the news of Hussein's capture took us all by surprise. It seems to have stunned Times editors as well. Naturally, our Paper of Record decided to spin today's story as negatively as possible, stating that "The incident, which occurred Monday, appeared to be a further sign that the insurgency has not slowed after the capture of Saddam Hussein." But for "insurgency," read terrorism: "Since Mr. Hussein was detained, there have been several car bombs and attacks against American forces and the Iraqi police who work with them." Hussein loyalists are obviously in decline; they lose more hearts and minds every day.

But the fact that the media are covering actual military operations, rather than counting US casualties, indicates that mainstream coverage has become ever-so-slightly less biased since Hussein was captured. Evidently the Times was dead wrong: Iraq is not Vietnam, and those Ba'athist remnants were not winning that guerilla war after all.


* * *
Tim's update (12/16/03, 9:30 p.m.): The information in this post was true when I wrote it this afternoon. But since then, editors at the Times have changed the story -- and, in a nicely Orwellian touch, they've erased the earlier, less biased version from their web page. Gone is the coverage of military operations. Gone is the reference to Americans' military success. For that matter, gone is any mention of Ba'athist terrorist activity. As one loyal reader noted, the earlier story mentioned that these terrorists have been using children as human shields. (Old habits die hard.) That's been "erased," too.

Now the Paper of Record is claiming that innocent Iraqi demonstrators, moved to tears by the "humiliating" treatment of their beloved Uncle Saddam, are being slaughtered under "American gunfire." The Times includes a long quote from a man curiously named Mohammad Ali (no relation to Cassius Clay, one presumes), who says: "I curse Bush and the father of Bush. Is this the freedom of the cowboys? O.K., they say Saddam Hussein was captured. So why are they killing people?"

Best of all is this classic hand-wringer: "And while some Iraqis lauded the Americans for finally catching [Hussein], there seemed no palpable increase in support for the American occupation of Iraq."

Saddam Hussein crawls out of one hole, and the New York Times crawls back in another.

Monday, December 15, 2003

More Wit and Wisdom from Wesley Clark

Yes, it's that time again, gentle readers! Let's see what our favorite Generalissimo has been saying. As always, click on the quote and get the source ...

A man who knows where he comes from: I'm a product of that military-industrial complex General Eisenhower warned you about.

A general who loves us like his own troops: I think the greatest message we can give to the American people about that is, if you elect me, based on my experience in the armed forces, I know that government is about ordinary Americans.

A man who loves rednecks enough to crack mean little jokes about them: I think all Americans — and this is a joke! — all Americans, even if they’re from the South and stupid, should be represented.

A man who loves control: When you're the commander in chief, it's your obligation to know, to set the command climate as we would say in the military -- the intensity of your effort. You do your homework. You work the issues.

A man who works the issues, whether the facts support him or not: What you've got to remember is, 125,000 new jobs -- that's almost enough to keep up with new entrants into the labor force.

A man who's not afraid to display his economic expertise: I mean, what you had was a lot of people in this country who really needed money. I talk to a lot of big department store owners dealing with ordinary Americans, they said our people are desperate, so when people got that check in July, you bet.

A man of boundless intellectual curiosity: But they told me there was something, some kind of a memo or something. I never saw it. I said, ‘Stop, I don’t want see anything more.' I just didn’t want to get into it.

A man who loves his daily dish: It’s in my book, you only have to listen to the gossip around Washington and to hear what the neo-conservatives are saying and you will get the flavor of this.

A man who can make schools more gooder: Fundamentally, I dont feel comfortable with competition as a principle in promoting educational excellence.

A man who supports the war in Iraq when he's not against it: The legacy of Vietnam will be put to rest by the legacy of Iraq.

A man who knows what elections are really about: I don't like to talk about endorsements, unless they're for me.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

ClarkWatch: Will the General eat crow?

Saddam Hussein is in US custody, looking more like Charles Manson than a high-and-mighty dictator. Sic semper tyrannis.

Let's move on to the important question: What will this mean for our favorite Generalissimo? Wesley Clark has criticized President Bush for weeks, claiming that postwar Iraq has been a major foreign-policy fiasco. He has even stated that we must "make sure this never happens again."

Today, the General seems at a loss for words. This morning he issued the following comment:

I could not be prouder of the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces for capturing this horrible despot. This is a testament to their courage and determination. I'd also like to congratulate Lt. General Sanchez and the intelligence community for the crucial role they played. We've been due good news from Iraq and the world is a safer and better place now that he is in custody.

Clark is careful not to give Bush any credit, of course. What's more, his comment that "We've been due good news from Iraq" is a backhanded slap at US military leadership. Still, he's right in a way. Good news from Iraq was long overdue, mostly because our media hadn't bothered to report it till now. Over the past few months, mainstream news programs have berated Bush, counted US casualties, and claimed that Iraq has become a quagmire. Had they reported the many US victories over Ba'athist remnants, I doubt Hussein's capture would have taken anyone by surprise.

Today will be known as a great day for freedom -- not just in Iraq, but all over the world. But don't worry, folks. As president, Clark will "make sure this never happens again."

By the way, our Generalissimo delivered his sound bite, tellingly, from The Hague, home of the notoriously anti-American International Criminal Court. (He was testifying against former Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevij.) One can't help but wonder: If Hussein is taken to The Hague for an international trial, will Libya and Syria serve on the jury?

Sunday funnies: Krazy Kat, and a brief aside on middlebrow culture

At my bedside I keep an oversized book of George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strips. To a lowly culture blogger like myself, Herriman's achievement seems phenomenal: Every day, for over thirty years, the man created a new adventure for super-masochistic Krazy Kat, brick-throwing Ignatz Mouse, great-souled Offissa Pup, and other bizarre denizens of Coconino County. His bold graphic style and unconventional layouts paved the way for underground comic books, but his delicate, literate sensibility was strictly sui generis.

Krazy Kat's humor always appealed to a small but loyal audience, including (but not limited to) the intelligentsia. Culture critic Gilbert Seldes penned a famous essay that, more than anything else, may be responsible for Herriman's cultural relevance. In the roaring twenties, American composer John Alden Carpenter even wrote a "jazz pantomime" ballet for Krazy Kat. Carpenter's music shifts moods, seemingly at the drop of a hat (or better yet, the toss of a brick), from demented nineteenth-century waltzes to forward-looking open fifths. At times, Carpenter's Krazy Kat sounds remarkably like Aaron Copland -- except that this ballet found its Copland-esque style nearly a decade before Copland did.

Herriman's epic cat-and-mouse story is a landmark of American culture, an inspiration for artists, composers and writers. Yet if Herriman were alive today, Krazy Kat wouldn't have existed. The strip never acquired a large readership, and in its final years, only a handful of outlets bothered to carry it. The only reason it remained a newspaper fixture for so long was that media mogul William Randolph Hearst was a fan. Acting as a modern-day patron, Hearst bankrolled the comic strip until Herriman's death in 1944.

Arts blogger Terry Teachout has been writing lately on the death of "middlebrow culture." If anything qualifies as middlebrow culture, it's Krazy Kat. This comic strip was simultaneously avant-garde and cornball, intellectual and slapsticky, mystical and earthy, highbrow and lowbrow. What's more, it ran in national circulation for decades: Even if most Americans didn't "get" it, there was a pretty good chance they at least saw it.

Much as we might vilify robber barons and oligarchs like William Hearst, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, these people were responsible for much of America's "middlebrow moment." True, they attempted to foist their idiosyncratic ideas and prejudices on the public. But they also gave money -- lots of it -- to cultural causes they personally believed in, and made sure that everybody had the opportunity to discover them.

Today, the US has more millionaires and billionaires than ever. But the money for financially unprofitable cultural enterprises -- like, for example, placing orchestras on network television, or subsidizing obscure comic-strip artists -- doesn't come from them. Instead, money for the arts comes from elitist universities, impersonal foundations and government bureaucracies. None of these institutions can conceive, let alone sustain, a viable middlebrow culture, because the educators and functionaries who run them don't understand the basic concept. What mass culture needs are eccentric fatcats and hucksters who throw their weight behind the things they love, and shove them into public view.

But enough on why a few rich, vulgar individuals would be better for American culture than a thousand federal grants. Read some of George Herriman's strips instead. They're funny, strange and wonderful -- and if it weren't for Hearst, most of them would never have existed.

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