Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hypocrite, Thy Name Is Spielberg

In 1993, Spielberg re-conquered the popular cinema and its surrounding sea of media with an extremely high-profile, extremely munificent, and extremely canny double-header: the straightforward pop entertainment Jurassic Park, bowing in June 1993, followed by Schindler's List, his most overt bid for political relevance and cultural seriousness, in December of the same year.

Always one to hope lightning will strike twice (Ray Ferrier's wisdom be damned), Spielberg rather cynically opted for the same trick in 1997, but the law of diminishing returns overtook him. The Lost World: Jurassic Park was a big hit but an instant irrelevance, and Amistad was sloppy, mawkish, and alarmingly willing through story structure, photography, and erratic screenwriting to turn Joseph Cinque into a visual and narrative object rather than a man. You practically needed a machete to hack through all the unnecessary characters and dramatic clutter interceding between the audience and Cinque, whom this whole, confused film was supposed to be about.

Stevie went for a third double-whammy in 2002, with weirder, inconclusive results. Both Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can were sizable hits, but from an aesthetic standpoint, neither of them reversed the growing, damaging strain of inconsistency in his most recent movies. If anything, the "commercial" half of this double-bill did better with critics than the self-consciously larkish Catch, though neither is likely to be the centerpiece of any future Spielberg retrospectives. (They'll probably screen at 9:30pm or 10:00pm on the second half of some double bill that starts with something truly interesting, like Empire of the Sun or A.I. Artificial Intelligence.)

With the coarse and insincere War of the Worlds out to rule the box office this weekend, you can smell in the air that Spielberg, like a boxer with all-too-predictable moves, is about to throw that second punch. Indeed, currently slated for a December 2005 release is his untitled drama about Israeli hitmen who were commanded in 1972 to assassinate the Palestinians who had murdered Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich. I was just belly-aching over at the Cinemarati discussion about War of the Worlds that it's probably the right time for DreamWorks to start farming out the sort of fawning, falsely humble press materials that always seem uncannily well-timed to make Spielberg look media-shy, guileless, and artistically unparalleled just at the moment when he is, in point of fact, saturating the media with a pandering movie replete with aesthetic demerits.

And wouldn't you know it, not an hour after I posted these gripes, I click over to the New York Times and find this article by David M. Halbfinger, which embodies the customary Spielberg PR recipe to a tee. What a cheap manipulator he has become, offscreen as much as on. At the moment, I feel like reviewing (and panning) this absurd article even more than reviewing War of the Worlds itself.

With a straight face, Halbfinger pays tribute to "Mr. Spielberg's preference for secrecy." That's Spielberg, all right, always under the radar, despite the fact that you are reading about his agoraphobia in a lengthy article in the frigging New York Times on the very weekend his name and his movie are plastered onto every available surface in the American entertainment conglomerate... at least, every surface still available now that his primo narcissisto star is gobbling all the headlines.

Spielberg demurely refuses an interview for this article, but wait, the article only exists because he personally mailed his own press-release to the Times and to Israeli and Arab media outlets. How nice that Spielberg's ad copy memo found such a sympathetic ear in Halbfinger. Intent on portraying Spielberg as an ever-braver risk-taker, the article even congratulates him for having "gambled successfully on audiences' tolerance for prolonged and bloody combat scenes" in Saving Private Ryan. Wait, the moviegoing public didn't balk at massive blood and gore? Who'd've thunk?

Seemingly immune to any suggestion that the movie he'll make about Munich and its aftermath might just be a movie, for crying out loud, Spielberg has been hobnobbing with diplomats, government officials, and even Bill Clinton (another who hates to see his name in the papers, as we know) for reassurances and pats on the back. Amidst all the name-dropping, a marvelous sentence combines passive-voice construction with portentous apposite clauses in order to let us know who will really be at fault if the picture sparks World War III or if, like Spielberg's appalling 2004 film, it simply fizzles:

Mr. Spielberg is tackling material delicate enough that he and his advisers are concerned about adverse effects on matters as weighty as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process if his project is mishandled—or misconstrued in the public mind.

Translation: Stevie is losing sleep about the possibility that his movie, which only just began filming, will shake the entire world and impede a peace process that's been well enough fucking impeded by much bigger matters for, depending on how you want to look at it, anywhere from decades to millennia. And he's especially worried in case his project is mishandled (obviously he personally would not mishandle the project) or in case we dumb-asses in the aisles who fail to perceive his lofty intentions and unimprovable technique get the wrong idea and bring on World War III ourselves through our own unfortunate thick-headedness. The article proceeds to hit all the customary touchstones of press coverage on Spielberg, including his philanthropy and activism. Then, apparently having learned nothing from the debacle whereby Amistad's script refused to acknowledge any lineage in Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel, Spielberg seems once again to be filming a project significantly premised in a well-known book that he is attempting to "distance the movie from." In the interest of being fair and balanced, Halbfinger includes some quotes from people who challenge the very premise of ambivalence among the Mossad, but none of them actually have anything remotely agnostic to say about Spielberg himself.

Like Oprah Winfrey, who owes her celebrity to Spielberg, the director compulsively stamps his name on things but still wants to be seen as everyday people, only trying to do what's best for the planet and for all of us. In an even more damning analogy, Spielberg's machine has mastered, and perhaps even prefigured, George W. Bush's PR machine, which has an uncanny knack for circulating leaks, tidbits, and policy trends in which Bush pretends to keep out of the fray while famous names and decoy sources do all the talking on his own behalf. You may have noticed that War of the Worlds is structured much like the speech Bush delivered to the nation on Tuesday evening, the night before War of the Worlds bowed: like the speech, the movie's screenplay and images repeatedly babble out "9/11, terrorists, 9/11, terrorists, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11," in hopes that audiences will succumb to its false grandeur and its cynical attitude of hollow, opportunistic knowing.

The posture of the hypocrite grows increasingly familiar on Spielberg. I recall 1998 and 1999, when I was initially impressed at the director's post-Cannes public comments about the dismaying frivolity and historical unseriousness of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, only to recant later when Life became a big Stateside hit, and Spielberg was invited to share a stage with Benigni on many occasions. Watch the Oscar broadcast from March of '99, and look who's cheering vehemently as Roberto aerobicizes his way to the podium. The day after the same Oscars, our same Stevie, who is in this business for the sakes of truth and art, not for recognition or silliness, pouts to the press (again triumphing over his Emily Dickinson-like reticence) about the unfairness of Shakespeare in Love beating his film for Best Picture.

The inevitable third-act compromises within Spielberg's films need to stop being taken as disappointments or surprises, no matter how much ingenuity is devoted to recuperating them, and especially given how he's barely waiting for the third act of anything anymore to immediately start compromising it. I really would love for the Munich film to be a good one, coming from a director who made at least three early masterpieces (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.) before straying into ever-denser thickets of hyperbole, dispersed thematics, compromised trajectories, and inspired images marooned by vague connections. But the kind of PR that's already being drummed up for this film, at a point when it's barely more than a gleam in Janusz Kaminski's eye, seems designed to turn me against it.

Spielberg has profoundly neocon tendencies, convinced that he's the underdog despite his mountainous fortune and limitless reach, abetted by a network of associates who tacitly lend fuel to articles like Halbfinger's, with its avalanche of name-dropping, its blush of coy bashfulness, and its utter evacuation of any divide between his creative ventures and the wellness of the world. (The celebrity puff piece may soon emerge as the final frontier of anonymous sources.) I realize Halbfinger may be a more immediate and even appropriate target of my irritation than Spielberg, but the longstanding and ever-evolving tradition of Spielberg's false positions re-asserts itself every time he goes and does it again, albeit, as in this case, by proxy. If he'd get back to being a real director, instead of a self-glorifier and self-congratulator, or perhaps if his profilers resisted the reflex of adulation and willing, bare-faced co-optation, I might be feeling more generous.

Photo © 2005 Mike Segar/Reuters, reproduced from the New York Times website.


Out of the Cave

If Batman can bounce back, so too can my website. After all, I've only had a dissertation, a job search, a new 9am-9pm summer teaching schedule, and an imminent move to deal with. Batman had to bounce back from Joel Schumacher. I'd take my lot over his any day.

So, the new review. Next up will probably be either Land of the Dead or the extremely off-putting and frustrating War of the Worlds.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

All Hail

Tickets for the September 2005 Creative Mechanics production of Bertolt Brecht's Edward II just went on sale. This is not even about nepotism, or about plugging my friends by default. This is about an Off-Broadway theater company that the Village Voice, Backstage, and New York Magazine have all singled out for praise, a troupe that specializes in sensual spectacle, now producing a politically trenchant play by an immortal artist in a city that needs to see it, now more than ever.

How you gon' not buy a ticket after I said all that? If you live in New York City, hop on it. If you can get there in a day, like I can, save the date. If you live in another timezone, it ain't no thang. See you there. Just don't buy out all the tickets before my Fall Semester paycheck rolls in, or I'll be mad with you.

"That our lineage may not suffer for these sins,
O God, grant us remission at this time."

Back from the Dead

Summer at the movies is finally, officially alive. Or at least undead. If you even saw the skim epic Kingdom of Heaven, if Batman Begins struck you as a little all-over-the-place, if the increasingly graceless antics of Mr. & Mrs. Smith spoiled its early signs of promise, if Cinderella Man seemed pretty featherweight—if, in other words, you were me—then you'd be as relieved as I am that we finally got a mall movie that really works on its own terms. George Romero's Land of the Dead isn't perfect: a few of the sociological undercurrents are a little obvious, and there's a mammoth African-American zombie hulking around that hews a lot closer to mystical, inchoate Joseph Conrad territory than I wish he (it?) did. The requisite, ambivalent ironies of the conclusion don't fully jell with the film has preceded them.

But that's literally all that's wrong with Land of the Dead. The rest of this movie is sharp, terrifying, visually bold, appropriately disturbing, politically shrewd, frequently and unpredictably funny, and totally of a piece with the landmark series it continues. (For my money, the 1968 Night of the Living Dead is still the high-zombie mark, but Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead easily outclass most of the genre.) Land of the Dead crouches in even thicker darkness than Day of the Dead, which one wouldn't have thought possible; the colors are so grim and the shadows so deep that Million Dollar Baby practically looks like the aurora borealis by comparison.

The propulsive, heavily mechanized, admittedly self-defensive ammo blasts of the survivors are so harsh and so over-the-top that you start pitying the zombies, and the chic, deliriously deluded lifestyle of the know-nothing rich folks in Dennis Hopper's tower is both a great joke and a stingingly honest jab. You imagine that it won't hurt at all when the belly-aching dead eventually hijack the silver-spoon set, but the film's social sympathies are much more complex than rich=bad, powerless=good. As he has managed to do throughout the series, Romero disdains from letting the actors or the performances drive the movie, or dictate your identifications, but he's gotten better at coaxing blank-slate performances that feel more like performances, instead of the shrill place-holding of Dawn and Day. And if you assumed that, after three of his own movies and a tottering horde of imitators, including last year's superb remake of Dawn, that there were no new scares or new images to mine from this kind of material... be afraid. Be very afraid.

Of course, you probably know if you're someone who'll take this dare or not, but if you're even remotely equivocating about seeing this movie, please accept this tiny push in its favor. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds opens later today on nearly twice the number of screens, with big stars, bigger marketing, and around ten times the budget—Land only cost $15 million to produce—it'll still be hard-pressed to have half the kick or a quarter of the conviction. In fact, Stephanie Zacharek suggests that War of the Worlds, not to put too fine a point on it, ain't got shit. I'll find out tomorrow night. Either way, it will inevitably blast Romero's pic out of a lot of 'plexes, so before that happens, rise up and chow down.

Photo © 2005 Universal Pictures

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Not-Quite-Dr. Davis in Print

Okay, so I'm still stuck revising these dissertation chapters after I thought I was done with them, and the mood has been a little bleak around here—sorry for the infrequent postings. But at least the universe threw down a spankin' good consolation prize: my first article, on James Baldwin's wonderful play Blues for Mister Charlie, just appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of the Journal of American Drama and Theatre. Not sure what gives with the JADT webmaster; the last issue and a half, including my article, are currently missing from the site. But, at least this is something to hang my academic hat on for the time being.

Am also halfway through a review of the schizophrenically entertaining yet rather baffling Batman Begins. Y'all will be the first to know when it's written and posted. But first, Chapter 3.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Saving Dr. Davis

Remember when Saving Private Ryan did an eight-month march to the Oscar ceremony, confident of victory before its 11th hour upset by Shakespeare in Love? Remember how regal Lauren Bacall looked in her seat, bizarrely nervous when everyone knew she was going to win Best Supporting Actress at the 1996 ceremony, until Kevin Spacey shook the Shrine Auditorium by calling out "Juliette Binoche"?

There have been bigger upsets. Rosalind Russell was so sure she was going to win Best Actress in 1947 that she actually rose from her seat, even though the name that had just been called was Loretta Young's. Shelley Winters did worse in 1951 – girlfriend starting walking down the aisle, and had to slink back, in front of all of her peers.

I'm not quite Shelley, but hear y'all go: two and a half hours before my exam today, I got a call from my head advisor saying that the conversation would be better and the exam more productive if we put it off a few weeks. It seems that he wasn't fully satisfied with one of the chapters, at least one and maybe two of my other advisors hadn't been able to read the whole dissertation, and the missing section from the end of the conclusion, which I had planned to fill in based on their comments, ruffled a few more feathers than I'd thought. So, an ever so slightly crestfallen Nick's Flick Picks, down but not for the count, postponed but not for long, will be reinstating the countdown and keeping the Dwarf-o-Meter alive for a few more weeks, pending our rescheduled date.

I hope I didn't max out all my good wishes - you have all been so supportive and so kind through these last few days (and weeks!) I'll letcha know where we go from here. We'll be popping the bubbly and doing our Compton Clovers routines soon enough.

Right now I've got my Nicole Kidman '01 face on—that's all right, Halle, you go, etc. But come July, it's Nicole Kidman '02. Fine, it was her all-time least flattering Oscar ensemble, and Julianne Moore obviously deserved it. Surely, there's a better metaphor. It'll come to me.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Dropoff

For better or worse, it's in. All 287 pages, and still minus the unfinished conclusion of the last chapter:

Here's the breakdown:

Sticking with an idiom, this all leaves me somewhere around here:

Though, not literally. I'm not a full convert to red wine. Here's how I binge.

More to follow.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Save NPR and PBS

Even amidst the busiest day of my academic life, there is time for a cause like this: NPR and PBS go on the Congressional chopping block tomorrow. I hope you agree with me that these are absolutely indispensable programs, particularly amidst the increasingly corporatized and meretricious mainstream media culture. Please read here for more news about what's at stake and then, pretty pretty please, sign the Congressional petition here.


Monday, June 13, 2005

'Start a Rumor' Monday

Fecundmellow is out of town, so she's asked her internet entourage to pick up the slack of 'Start a Rumor' Monday, her indispensable feature whereby she kicks off each new week with a fake news story that The Onion wishes it had thought of. My favorites are still W.'s fake news conference on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Jesus' press conference to anoint Kanye West as an apostle, the Congressional edict that Calista Flockhart and Sarah Jessica Parker have their feeding tubes re-inserted along with Terry Schiavo's, and the decimation of Hollywood Squares with all their square-fillers off testifying at the MJ Trial.... and by the way, if you heard that last one on Leno, he totally ripped it off Summer.

Compared to all this gold bullion, this was the best I could do, but I'm new at the game. Be gentle, it's my first time, etc.

Bush, G-8 Organize to Assist Poorest Grad Students

In a surprise move, Tony Blair has announced that an extra day has been tacked onto the G-8 summit beginning July 6, in order to negotiate debt relief for American grad students in the humanities. The ambitious plan comes after weeks of negotiating how to lift 18 of the world's poorest countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, out of their own abject levels of debt and bankruptcy. G-8 Chairman Blair became so excited upon delivering his own news, he made the international hand signal for "keg party."

The biggest surprise in the morning's announcement was that U.S. president George W. Bush, perceived by many as reluctant regarding the African initiative, has led the charge to rehabilitate graduate students, with the support of most, if not quite all, of his administration.

Christened "Operation: Ph.Free," Bush's plan includes innovative strategies for assisting a population widely thought to have fallen off the radar at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Among the first programs leaked to the press this morning, in addition to basic-level stipends and research grants, were new Pell Grants targeted to grads who carpooled to get coffee or beer, as well as special government bonds redeemable for free Xeroxing. Environmental groups, initially excited by the anti-pollution measure, quickly withdrew their support amidst the impending deaths of untold millions of trees.

As it happened, Bush saved his most extreme and controversial programs for the afternoon press conference. With the familiar, shit-eating grin plastered on his face and no discernible iris in either eye, Bush announced a hefty tax incentive for all grad students who agreed to shorten and simplify the titles of papers, articles, and dissertation chapters. "For so long," Bush said, "we have lived under the tyranny of the colon," referring to the habitual academic practice of linking a witty pun or quotation to a long, abstruse explanation of the paper's entire subject matter, all within the title of a piece. "Under that regime, our minds were not free. Our essays were not free. 'Ph.Free' is not just about making grad school less expensive, but allowing anti-Americans graduate students to express themselves simply, and with peace." MLA, quickly deluged with dozens of papers sharing identical titles like "More on Shakespeare" and "I, Too, Have Read Beloved" hastened to find a way to distinguish all of these submissions.

One of Bush's most sweeping proposals was that MasterCard must forgive any and all outstanding charges on graduate student accounts, provided the student can give a concise history of "Master" as a problematic term, starting with Hegel via Kojève. A parallel injunction to the VISA Corporation required representatives of the company as well as officials at the Department of Homeland Security to personally pay the travel expenses and phone bills of all international students who have been treated like horseflies ever since 9/11. Whether these specific plans of action could work without bankrupting America's creditors was unclear, and yet MasterCard CEO Bob Selander testified, "Frankly, I'd do anything to have a break from chasing down the Moms and Pops of Ph.D. students at their permanent addresses, demanding money that we're still never going to see."

Executives at Discover and American Express, long perceived as the Jermaine and Tito of American credit card companies, quietly rejoiced at their sudden lucky break.

Reactions to the Plan
Cabinet members and other Administration higher-ups, expected to echo the surprise felt by journalists and by grad students themselves, shocked the public with their hearty endorsements of the plan. As Dick Cheney told the White House Press Corps, "My daughter, whom I have absolutely no problem identifying to you as a lesbian, would be absolutely nowhere without the brave work of queer theorists and feminists, who spend their lives explaining sexual politics and basic principles of equality to your own 18-year-old sons and daughters, who hopefully are not lesbians like my daughter is."

Donald Rumsfeld was reached for comment while aboard I.S.S. Komodo Dragon, a new, fission-powered, heat-seaking Death Star/Annihilator scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral next week. Rumsfeld entertained journalists with his own jocular confessions. "I didn't even know what 'the Subcontinent' was! I absolutely didn't, until I took a Postcolonial History course by correspondence. The value of these people is tremendous, to society, and to our children and our children's children." Pressed to be clearer about who he meant by "these people," South Asian subalterns or the Western academics who study them, Rumsfeld jumped onto a couch aboard the Death Star/Destroyer, and said, "Whoever! All of them! I don't even know what I'm saying! I'm in love with everybody!" Right then and there, he gave this reporter $50.

Even former Attorney General John Ashcroft, found outside a Travis Tritt concert in Branson, MO, had kind things to say. "Having used the PATRIOT Act to review all the library accounts of every Ph.D. student currently at work in America, I can testify that they are all working on fascinating, important subjects. Especially all those folks who write about 'the phallus,' even though that is definitely not my thing. I mean, so to speak." Current Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez was ominously impossible to locate.

Among the highest-profile members of Bush's inner circle, only the hatchet-faced Condoleezza Rice admitted to reservations. "I was Provost at Stanford, you know," Rice told UPI. "Grad students? I know how they do. We're talking about subsidizing people who buy new copies of books after they have already read the library copy, and who think nothing of doing a credit card balance-transfer with each new moon. These bitches will whine about the paltriness of their stipends, and then they'll buy four pineapple-flavored mojitos and a plate of cheese fries for dinner! I'm concerned that we are merely abetting these putrid habits with all of these new incentives."

Indeed, early enthusiasm for the plan began to dim among some academics as it became clear that Bush never intended to allot more money, but actually wished to rescind the money previously sworn to Africa and divert it back to America's own Ph.D. seekers. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak said from her office at Columbia University, "Please, you just knew that was coming." The White House Press Corps sought reactions from African leaders to this new wrinkle in their own plans for rehabilitation, but were unable to locate the capital of Africa in time to interview anybody.**

Once again stuck doing damage control for the double-dealing U.S. President, Tony Blair struck out wildly, trying to recapture his street cred with financially punked Ph.D.s, who resented any implication that they were any less oppressed than the homeless crowds in Zimbabwe or land-mine victims in Angola. Making the international sign for Death Row Records with his left hand, Blair maladroitly assured the people of Africa as well as iPod-touting grad students everywhere, "I am positive, positive, that President Bush, Bono, the rest of the G-8, and I will be able to work something out in Scotland in July, so that the Ph.D.s everywhere can still party with the Africans, and no one will have to face the bill in the morning. Y'all hear? Now kill it with a skillet. Peace out."

Bush, from a pier in Kennebunkport, swore up and down that he had not meant to be an "Indian giver" to Africa, unwittingly drawing the wild ire of exactly the grad students he had meant to win over to the Dark Side his good graces. The President has since been unreachable for comment, but his wife Laura Bush was overheard saying at one of her Book Club luncheons, "Some people you just can't please."

Ever the iconoclast, Rice also stood by her man the President. Asked how she, as Secretary of State, planned to explain Bush's change of heart to African leaders and citizens, Rice responded with her usual diplomatic finesse. "Basically, I have one sentence for those people, and it begins, 'Hey, you made that bed...'"

Meanwhile, the world awaits the G-8 conference, mere weeks away. In the silent pall after Bush's about-face and Blair's Bulworthian apology, Dan Quayle was reached in Indiana while walking his dog. He told reporters, "You know, 'Ph.D.' and 'philanthropy' both start with 'Ph.' Not a lot of people know that, because, I mean, it's obvious when you say, 'P-H-D,' but 'philanthropy,' if you're just hearing it out loud, that's trickier. It really, really sounds like it starts with an F. Especially if you're a Republican like me, and you aren't used to the word."

** In Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir Living History, she describes a White House Press Corps reporter approaching her on Air Force One, en route to Hillary's historic trip to sub-Saharan Africa, and asking the then-First Lady what the capital of Africa actually was.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

For Six Cents a Day... could be supporting my used-DVD habit, or at least salving the sting. I can't help it. Hollywood Video is both my angel and my ruination. You can't even say "3 for $30" or "One-Year Warranty" around me, with all of last year's Oscar bait and cool foreign releases on the shelf, and think I am going to remember the economic caste I actually belong to.

The only solution is to spread the insanity. Just call me The Tempter: If you were a fan last year of Sideways, Oasis, Ray, Closer, Being Julia, Collateral, Hotel Rwanda, The Bourne Supremacy, Vera Drake, I ♥ Huckabees, Before Sunset, Time of the Wolf, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, the way-underrated Enduring Love, the even better and even more underrated Birth, the way over-rated Springtime in a Small Town, the interesting Undertow, the criminally ignored Assassination of Richard Nixon, the chop-socky two-fer of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, or the Director's Cut of Donnie Darko, The H to the V is where you wanna be. Note: I did not buy all of these. But more of them than I can admit.

I also picked up two movies I haven't actually seen, but look promising: Suspicious River, Lynne Stopkewich's long awaited follow-up to Kissed (where Deadwood's Molly Parker played a budding necrophiliac...and yes, there were love scenes), and Sometimes in April, Raoul Peck's 2½-hour epic about the Rwandan genocide, which played on HBO in the States. Can anyone vouch for these?

P.S. Stay away from the Hollywood Video copy of Bad Education, tempting though it is at $9.99. Hollywood edits NC-17 movies to R, which is an invidious practice at every single level, especially since in this case it can only mean less Gael.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Welcome to Tokelau

So it turns out that Tokelau, a 17 sq. km. Pacific island nation under the sovereignty of New Zealand, will sell you a .tk domain name for $25, no matter who you are, in exchange for which you help to raise the per-capita income of the Tokelauans above the current level of USD $420. In fact, Tokelau will only charge you if your proposed domain is already taken under the umbrellas of .com, .org, .net, what have you, and is thus a hot commodity. Otherwise, mi casa su Tokelau. The country has no international debt, without Tony Blair ever once, I feel sure, breaking a sweat over it.

But before all those sugarplum visions of,,, and start tickling your fancy... just what the hell is going on?

If you fly out to New Zealand, and fly or sail from there to American Samoa, and then catch the twice-monthly boat from there to Tokelau, you can meet the other 1500 residents of the country into which you have cybernaturalized yourself. If you're Catholic—if you are, say, the new Demon Pope—you'll prefer the atoll of Nukunonu, where everyone's Catholic, to those of Atafu (Congregationalist) or Fakaofo (mixed). And here I thought Fakaofo was Pig Latin for something really rude.

Fakaofo also has free high-speed internet connections for all residents, and in that way, it resembles an Ivy League university, except it is prettier, and the food sounds much better. This means you will be able to check your own .tk website while you are in Fakaofo, and it perhaps explains why Tokelau has more of a Web presence than you might think, including this poem. Andrew Marvell is not fearing for his legacy just yet, but she's sure got her market cornered. (Thanks, Jane, for the flag image.)

Oh, and yes, despite all of that taxing travel time and distance, even with 150-year-old craft and navigation, an American did still manage to work his way out to Tokelau and set up a slave plantation in 1856. Anyone not vomiting? Is everyone ill? Is anyone okay?

Class is now over, but here is the extra-credit question? -

So, the fact that Tokelau is farming out its own domain names at $25/pop, and it's clearly generating enough publicity that I learned about this whole phenom by fortuitously landing on a .tk page... is this a new low-point in the forced self-abjection of developing and undeveloped nations, a new peak in paternalistic cultural tourism, or a clever Tokelauan gesture of working with what they've got? Jury is out.

The things you learn.

CD Tag

Given the response to Book Tag, fecundmellow had the typically bright idea of doing a musical follow-up. Y'all know that at this rate, I'll be coming soon with Movie Tag, and then Garden Tool Tag, and then Small Particle Tag. But before we get to those...

Oh, and I should say: I am a completely boring person to talk to about music, because I am basically wedded to the same handful of artists over and over, even though they're spread around several genres. Very few new ideas, nothing outside the mainstream. Just beating you to the punch is all. So, OK:

1. Total Number of CDs/Albums I Own: With CDs and tapes together, almost exactly 500. Not counting mixes and stuff. Though it's awful of me to admit, I regret to this day having donated so many of my old tapes to the Salvation Army in high school, but I still have some pretty hilarious relics from my checkered musical past. Like, did y'all know that Jasmine Guy cut an album? There she is, right next to Appetite for Destruction. (Y'all know I alphabetize.)

2. Last Album I Bought: The Emancipation of Mimi, which might be the only CD I've bought all year. My DVD habit has pretty much slaked the CD and book purchases. I'm into Mimi; Mariah finally gets it that she's a Solid Gold girl, even though her voice is admittedly sounding a little thin. Still, "Say Something" and "Fly Like a Bird" totally work for me. (Speaking of G'n'R, though, my last iTunes purchase was "Don't Cry." A bit of unexplained nostalgia.)

3. Last Album I Listened To: Not counting the dissertation mix CD, I had Lisa Stansfield's Affection spinning recently. I've also been giving Lauryn's Unplugged double-header its fair shake, in anticipation of the forthcoming opus. Let it rip, Lauryn.

4. Currently Listening To: Totally c/o fecundmellow, Janet Jackson's Control has been in heavy rotation all day, giving dissertation chapter #2 that "Pleasure Principle" flavor. This album hasn't lost anything, though after a while, I had to substitute Design of a Decade 'cuz I needed to hear "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" and "Alright." And yes, I Cab Calloway'd around the apartment there for a minute.

5. Lyrics or Beats?: I'm going to have to say beats. At least, I tend to catch on to the music, and if that grabs me, I do like to settle into some lyrical awareness. And music that's just a beat, i.e., techno, tends to pluck my last nerve. But I'm still more likely to go for Kylie Minogue than Tom Waits, etc.

6. First Album You Fell in Love With: When all is said and done, probably Madonna's Like a Virgin. It was my third tape: my first, a gift from my mom, was Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, and then the first one I bought for myself was Dionne Warwick's Friends. (I know, I know...) I was totally into those, but Like a Virgin just didn't stop. Side A, Side B, Side A, Side B, Side A, Side B... Dang, y'all, remember "Side B"?

7. Biggest Impact (tie): Stevie Nicks' Bella Donna sent me all through 9th grade. I think it was the first album I really glommed onto that wasn't contemporary to the moment I heard it. I wrote Stevie a letter, I loved her stuff so much. I got a nice, long response from her assistant, Ginny Kamano, with a brief P.S. from Stevie. Butterflies. These days, I probably prefer The Wild Heart, though, and Rock a Little is also great.

PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love was the first album I ever bought on the strength of reviews alone, something I still don't do more than once every coupla years. I would come home from my all-day janitor job in August '96 and listen to it for hours. I was doing a whole PJ Harvey, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Campion, Sylvia Plath "Bring on the Fierce Women" thing that summer. Actually, I still am, though not so much with Winterson or Plath. Sub in Emily Dickinson, Gayl Jones, and Louise Gluck.

8. Favorite Album: Even though TBYML is unimprovable, my tippy-top favorite is probably 4-Track Demos. An artist who will show you her rough drafts, and who is putting 105% into those rough drafts, is my kinda gal. When the drafts are blowing the top off most of what actually circulates as finished material by the other riff-raff... shoot. PJ is demonstrably greater than the Beatles and at least the equal of Dylan. Done. Said. Don't even bother me.

9. Most Listened To: Probably the Eurythmics' Greatest Hits, which used to be the compulsory soundtrack whenever my Mom and I would drive anywhere, or else Salt 'n' Pepa's Very Necessary. "How many rules am I to break before you understand/ That your double standards don't mean shit to me?// I know exactly what you say/ When I turn and walk away/ But that's okay/ Cuz I don't let it get to me."

10. Sexiest Album: Toss it up: Al Green's Greatest Hits or The Very Best of Aretha Franklin: The 60's. If someone is going to call foul on hits compilations, then either Baduizm or, if we're feeling a little more lively, Neneh Cherry's Raw Like Sushi. (The remix of "Inna City Mamma" shoulda been the album version.)

11. Biggest Disappointment: I have kind of blind love for my favorite artists, so it's rare that I balk at any of their albums. Though Björk's last two, Vespertine and Medulla, haven't done anything for me. (My fave: Homogenic.) I get more disappointed when someone who seems classic-bound just slips into the ether. Like, where did Lisa Fischer go? So Intense was hot. Remember "How Can I Ease the Pain"? "The Last Goodbye"? That was a voice, but then she won a Grammy, wore amazing couture, got a hug from Patti LaBelle, sang the theme for the Whoopi movie, and [[poof]]. No Lisa. Please tell me she is not somewhere married to someone who prefers her not to work. (I'm gonna feel bad if it turns out Lisa Fischer died.)

Also disappointing: people who seem promising but then just trifle. Like Blu Cantrell and Macy Gray. They got me excited at first, and isolated tracks still rotate in the apartment (Blu: "Breathe," Macy: "Caligula"). But their albums are just, blehhh. And what was Blu thinking on that bonus DVD, with the Wendy Williams interview, asking about her pubic hair. Ab. Solutely. Not.

12. Five Albums That Mean the Most to You: In the interest of variety, I'm gonna ditch "the most," (PJPJPJPJPJ), and submit: 1) Da Real World, where Missy Elliott won me completely, esp. on "Dangerous Mouths," "Busa Rhymes," and "Stickin' Chickens"; 2) The Piano Soundtrack, and if you read this blog, you probably know why; 3) Live Through This, Hole's incredible '94 album, where almost every song is about dolls or milk, and they all work; 4) Mahalia Jackson Sings America's Favorite Hymns, since she is like this unstoppable force of nature; and 5) The Astrée recording of Monteverdi's Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi, with Montserrat Figueras, since even Nick's Flick Picks hits the classics now and then.

13. Tag! As Missy says, "Y'all know who y'all are," except in this case, I am asking you to bite the beat.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

P.S. on the Empire Magazine List

In which the news gets worse. Because the list gets longer.

Turns out ol' Ingmar does make the roster after all, down at #36, and Charlie's right above him at #35. Let's not get carried away, though. These pipsqueaks ain't got nothing on Robert Zemeckis (#22), Tony Scott (#28), George Lucas (#31), or Ron Howard (#33), and they're both huffing and puffing to keep ahead of M. Night Shyamalan (#37). Non-Anglophone directors merit a whopping 5 out of 40 berths (Kurosawa, Leone, Truffaut, Lang, and Bergman). Jesus.

It has been pointed out to me that this list is a poll of Empire's readers, not an editorial edict, but I still blame the editors. Remember when people used to read a magazine to learn something, instead of using it as a wicked-queen mirror to reflect whatever it is we already think? Empire can now sell a bunch of copies with a list that's even more wack than I thought, when, at least presumably, they might have had an opportunity to teach their large audience something about film instead of assuring them that they have little or nothing left to learn. (How do I know that Kevin Smith is just bubbling under at #41?)

Anyway, as I suspected, the people at Cinemarati are generating much more interesting alternate ballots.

(Anybody think I got the Dwarf-o-Meter wrong today? Maybe it's 90% Grumpy and 10% Bashful after all.)


Straight Ignorance at Its Finest

I don't know from Empire Magazine, but I don't mind admitting it. Now, how come they can't admit that they don't know from movies? IMDb reports that Empire just published a list of the 10 Greatest Film Directors of all time, and despite the total and instant irrelevance of this list, this is the kind of thing that drives me crazy. Y'all know that Nick's Flick Picks likes nothing better than a good movie list, debatable and unsatisfying as they always are. But what is the point of circulating some nonsense? Here were Empire's anointed:

1. Steven Spielberg
2. Alfred Hitchcock
3. Martin Scorsese
4. Stanley Kubrick
5. Ridley Scott
6. Akira Kurosawa
7. Peter Jackson
8. Quentin Tarantino
9. Orson Welles
10. Woody Allen

Now, let's not even get started on the sentence in the IMDb clip that says, "Surprisingly, acclaimed film-makers such as Star Wars director George Lucas, Charlie Chaplin, and Tim Burton, fell short of inclusion." And let's not even deal with the "Sir" I'm apparently s'posed to affix to Ridley Scott's name. (Surely they'll rescind that in the wake of Kingdom of Heaven?)

What is the point of publishing a list like this? I know I'm up on my high horse, but seriously, this is like me making a list of the 10 Greatest Basketball Players of all time, i.e., the 10 Basketball Players I Have Heard Of, Because Everyone Has Heard of Them. I can only judge based on celebrity, 'cuz I have no sense of basketball history, the finer techniques of the game, or how to discern an excellent player who isn't a spotlighter or a showboater. I have no grasp of subtlety or tradition, much less of women basketball players, or of basketball players outside the USA. What I know about basketball players is about a fraction more than I knew in the delivery room.

As I tell my students often, just because I know how to turn on a light-switch doesn't make me an electrician.

I'm'a take this list over to the Cinemarati Roundtable and see if we can come up with some ballots that are at least a li'l bit respectable. I'm not saying none of the 10 names above should qualify, but for all of them to qualify is just kind of embarrassing, and they fill such obvious quotas (#6 = "Foreign Director We Have Heard Of," #7 = "Man of the Moment," #9 = "He Directed Citizen Kane"...)

I don't know how you make a list like this without factoring in historical importance and factors of influence, but even leaving out the gigantic innovators (Porter, Melies...), the 'experimental' and avant-garde pioneers of different eras (Brakhage, Deren, the Vertov group...), the documentarians (Flaherty, Wiseman, Kopple...), the animators.... since the Empire list doesn't even pretend to cover any of that, I'll stick to the stated parameters and propose:

10 Great(est?) Directors of All Time...
1. Ingmar Bergman
2. Robert Bresson
3. Orson Welles
4. Alfred Hitchcock
5. Charlie Chaplin
6. F.W. Murnau
7. Andrei Tarkovsky
8. Max Ophüls
9. Howard Hawks
10. Luis Buñuel

Runners Up...
Josef von Sternberg, Robert Altman, D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton, Chantal Akerman, Ousmane Sembene, Douglas Sirk, Abbas Kiarostami, Shohei Imamura, Vittorio De Sica, Stanley Kubrick, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Terrence Malick

My Bad That I Haven't Seen Enough...
Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Theo Angelopoulos, Alain Resnais, John Ford, Michael Powell, Victor Erice, Eric Rohmer

Bigger Bad That I Haven't Seen Any...
Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Jacques Rivette

10 Directors Who Still Need To Convince Me...
1. Jean-Luc Godard (though I could change my mind about him)
2. Akira Kurosawa
3. Federico Fellini
4. Martin Scorsese (he's made some masterpieces, but he's too inconsistent)
5. Francis Ford Coppola (ditto)
6. Billy Wilder (ditto again)
7. John Cassavetes (keep on ditto'ing)
8. Hou Hsiao-hsien
9. Krzysztof Kieslowski
49. Um, Sir Ridley Scott (he's an admirable visualist, but c'mon)

10 Working Directors I Am Most Excited About...
(Excluding the living members of above lists)
1. Claire Denis
2. David Lynch
3. Todd Haynes
4. Aleksandr Sokurov
5. Jane Campion
6. David Cronenberg
7. Samira Makhmalbaf
8. Lynne Ramsay
9. Pedro Almodóvar
10. Michael Winterbottom

Obviously, there are second-guessable inclusions and wack omissions all over these lists. Plenty of people know way better than me, but I'm not running scared of Empire magazine. I'd still like to believe I can tell the difference between Andrei Rublev and Amistad, or Persona and Gladiator. Meanwhile, the AFI has got the next affront to good film sense already in the hopper.


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

R.I.P. Anne Bancroft

Who didn't love Anne Bancroft (1931-2005)? Hilarious and classy, but tough enough that you wouldn't really want to cross her. She wasn't afraid to overdo her performances, and though it sometimes counted against her, especially in her late career, it also made her indelible when she was 'on.' And what a joy she was as an interview subject, a personality, and an awards presenter. One classic exchange from Oscar history came in the 1992 ceremony, when Anne and Dustin Hoffman co-presented the Screenplay awards, via satellite from somewhere. Ad libbing, the 55-year-old Hoffman asked, "Are you trying to seduce me?" Ad libbing right back, the 61-year-old Bancroft quipped, "Not anymore."

The obituaries are obliged to prioritize The Graduate, where she played her most iconic role, and The Miracle Worker, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar out of one of the two or three richest lineups that category has ever seen. In 1963, she became the first Mother Courage that Broadway audiences ever saw, missing her big night with Oscar because she was starring in the central role of the greatest play of the 20th century. (Purty good excuse.)

If you head out to savor some Anne this week, by all means re-rent the famous titles, but she was hearty, delicate, and luminous in a second-tier role in David Lynch's The Elephant Man, she makes Harold Pinter and Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater seem much more serious and potent than it is, and she's a frazzled, affecting delight in Jodie Foster's perennially unsung Home for the Holidays. Amongst the wigged-out drag-queen roles she often took in her twilight years, I am still partial to Philip and Belinda Haas' Up at the Villa, though admittedly, I am almost alone in this. Meanwhile, I have my own long-deferred dates with John Ford's 7 Women and Herbert Ross' The Turning Point to look forward to. We'll miss you, Anne Bancroft.


Book Tag

Her majesty fecundmellow just tagged me to answer yet another blogosphere questionnaire, but this is an especially exciting one for me 'cuz it's about books. I'm with fecundmellow on about half of her answers, but to delve into my own library...

1. Total Number of Books You Own I have no idea, but I expect it would take hours to count them. My advisor once paid me to count her books and write down all the titles for her. She had, 2227. I'm not in Hortense's league yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if I had around 750, or maybe 1000.

2. The Last Book I Bought I recently picked up Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the founding critics of queer theory, though her scholarly emphasis isn't really there anymore. Still, she's an incredibly lucid and thought-provoking literary critic, and she takes such obvious pleasure in what she's saying that she's a joy to read. Plus, she visited Cornell recently and was very kind.

3. The Last Book I Read The last full-length book I read was Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine by D.N. Rodowick, which was for my dissertation. Since then, I've read the scripts for 14 plays; if those count, the most recent of them was Mister Roberts by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan.

4. The Book I Am Current Reading As you can see on the sidebar, I am smack in the middle of Dana Polan's book Jane Campion, as well as the fabulous Latin American historical-fiction novel The Divine Husband, which is so good I might just have to start it over when I have more time.

5. Fiction or Non-Fiction? You can't have one without the other, really, but I admit, if I were stranded on a desert island with only one or the other, I'd take the fiction.

6. The First Book I Read As far as I can remember, it was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. After that was a whole mess of kid's stuff, then a tidal wave of Nancy Drew (of which The Clue of the Velvet Mask and The Sign of the Twisted Candles were my faves), then a big Stephen King phase, begun with Carrie and It. Outside the horror genre, the first f'real book I read was The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. I met her once and got to tell her how important this book was to me; she and her husband Ray were really wonderful.

7. Largest Impact 3-Way Tie: The Scarlet Letter I took it upon myself to read this in 7th grade, and even though I missed a lot, I was totally absorbed in the language, the characters, and the story, and it made me want to keep trying books that were too hard for me. I've read it three times since, and I still admire the hell out of it. And fuck, I enjoy it, too. (I know that isn't normal.) The Color Purple I read this book in 11th grade for English class, and the minute I finished the last page, I started over on the first. I have a few misgivings about the book now, but I still adore it, and it raised so many important issues in 1982. Plus, it got me started reading black American women's fiction, which is still my favorite genre of American fiction (Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Octavia Butler, Paule Marshall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, can ya hear me?) Plus, it has the greatest dedication page in modern American lit: "I'd like to thank everyone in this book for coming." Inside Oscar A movie obsession begins. Every two weeks when I was in middle school, I used to walk 2 miles back and forth to the U.S. Army Base Library in Hanau, Germany, to renew this book. I did this for 72 weeks.

8. Favorite Scholarly Book For reach and ambition, maybe Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. For deftness of interpretation, either Lee Edelman's Homographesis or Elin Diamond's Unmaking Mimesis. For inimitable prose and extraordinary personalities, either Elaine Scarry's Resisting Representation or Hortense Spillers' Black, White, and In Color.

9. Most Read Book Inside Oscar wins for repeated dips in and out, but as far as straight-through reads, I have read The Scarlet Letter, The Color Purple, Beloved, and As I Lay Dying four times apiece.

10. Sexiest Book The answer that leapt to mind was James Baldwin's Another Country. Everybody be sleeping with everybody, no matter who what how. And the prose is so beautiful that it's sexy by itself.

11. Biggest Disappointments I love Tennessee Williams' plays dearly, and his first novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was just fine. Still, his next novel, Moise and the World of Reason was heart-stoppingly bad. Similarly disheartening was Loida Maritza Perez's Geographies of Home, which falls somewhere between a bad copy of several good novels and a first draft of something that might feasibly have become something. With much, much revision.

12. Five Books that Mean Something to You Besides all of the above... 1) The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne: Y'all can think what y'all want. 2) Arc d'X by Steve Erickson: Possibly my favorite American novel written during my lifetime. 3) The Healing by Gayl Jones: Her friskiest and most hopeful novel, even though Corregidora is even more stunning. 4) The Queen's Throat by Wayne Koestenbaum: A delicious, hilarious, informative book about opera, even for those of us who know nothing... plus, the first conversation I ever had with my future/current partner was about this book. 5) The Time Out Film Guide Because Derek can take me to opera, but he'll never woo me away from the art I really love.

13. Who You Gon' Tag? I'd love to hear the answers of a bunch of regular visitors to this site, like Dr. S. and Dorian and Amanda. You know any of y'all can talk up your faves among the comments. But among the Bloggers I know, I'm going to hit up Nathaniel, ModFab, Wyatt, Goatdog, and SceneStealer. (Of course, I'd've tagged Safire, but fecundmellow beat me to it.)

I *Knew* I Was Cutting-Edge!

You scored as Postmodernist. Postmodernism is the belief in complete open interpretation. You see the universe as a collection of information with varying ways of putting it together. There is no absolute truth for you; even the most hardened facts are open to interpretation. Meaning relies on context and even the language you use to describe things should be subject to analysis.



Cultural Creative














What is Your World View? (updated)
created with

Thursday, June 02, 2005

My Favorite Nun

I still haven't seen Doubt on Broadway, though I loved the script, and of course the play stars one of my favorite theater actresses, Cherry Jones. Cherry and Christopher Sieber (currently in Monty Python's Spamalot), amdist the build-up to the Tony Awards, answered questions for readers of the New York Times about their parts, their careers, and the actor's life. And wouldja believe, they picked one of my questions? Color me tickled, even though they did quite a bit of editing. My original question was just for Cherry, and the fuller version was this:

"Given how often actresses get asked about parts they can't get after a certain age, I would like to ask the cheerier question: are there any parts you can't wait to play as you get older, or any parts you can't wait to play, period? (Two backgrounds to this question: I personally love reading Chekhov plays with you in mind, and I can't wait to keep watching you act for years and years!)"

I know, a little cheesy, but even if you only know Jones from the movies and from isolated TV clips of her stage work, she really is a stunner. I'm a media-hog, but I'm still so tickled they picked my question! (And the whole article is interesting--in fact, most of the rest of the questions and answers are much more interesting.)