erik lundegaard

Sunday August 31, 2008

“F**k it. We're going in.”

Sometimes you come across a disconnect so profound it almost gives you whiplash.

The cover story in this morning’s New York Times Magazine, by Peter Baker, presumably an excerpt from his upcoming book, concerns Bush’s final days in office, and the beginning of the article focuses on the McCain campaign’s attempt to distance itself from this most unpopular president. At the end of the first section, Mark Salter, McCain’s campaign advisor, says this about the President: “You feel bad for the guy if you think about it.” This leads to the first line of the second section:

George Bush does not want anyone feeling bad for him.

Allow me to back up for a second. Yesterday I came across the money portion of Ron Suskind’s The Way of the World. Suskind is writing about all the end-arounds the Bush administration performed in the lead-up to the Iraq war: ignoring George Tenet and the CIA to get the 16 words into the State of the Union address; using the CIA chief of station for Germany to muzzle German fears about the unreliability of Rafid Ahmed, or “Curveball,” who was feeding the administration misinformation about Saddam’s biological weapons operation; and, finally, not just ignoring but actually reversing the findings of the CIA Paris chief, who was told, in a clandestine meeting with Naji Sabri, Saddam’s last foreign minister, that Saddam didn’t possess WMD.

Then Suskind gets to the big one. In a casual conversation with an American intelligence officer in a Washington restaurant, and subsequently confirmed in face-to-face meetings with the former director and current assistant director of MI6, Suskind discovers that the Bush administration knew Saddam didn’t possess WMD before they went to war. They didn’t suspect. They knew.

In the months before the war, it seems a British agent, Michael Shipster, met with the head of Iraqi intelligence, Tahir Jalil Habbush, who confirmed everything we subsequently found to be true: Not just that Saddam didn’t have WMD but why he was unwilling to say so publicly. And it all made sense. Here’s Suskind talking with the unnamed American intelligence officer:

I ask if the intelligence was passed to CIA and the White House.
“Of course. Passed instantly, at the very highest levels.”
“And what did we say,” I ask. “Or, I guess, what did Bush say?”
“He said, Fuck it. We’re going in.”

Don’t know if that’s a direct quote or not. Either way, it’s probably a good thing George Bush doesn’t want anyone feeling bad for him.

Posted at 10:52 AM on Sunday August 31, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 30, 2008

38.4 Million Obama Fans Can't Be Wrong

Apparently John McCain doesn’t take this presidency business seriously. First he injected Paris Hilton and Britney Spears into the race, and now’s he’s injected Sarah Palin. Gail Collins has a good piece on his decision and her qualifications, but a friend of mine had the better line: “It shows his respect for the office has been subordinated to his desire for the office.”

Meanwhile, Barack’s acceptance speech, before 38.4 million people Thursday night, was about nothing but the serious business of getting us out of the serious mess we’re in. I had friends call me from California and Minnesota to talk about the speech. They were pumped.

Here’s the part that got me:

    We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.
    The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.
    I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.
    You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.

Amazing. He talked about bridging our divisions and then gave concrete examples. And not just any concrete examples. He gave examples involving four of the most volatile issues in our country: abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage and immigration. And I agreed with every one, every comment. This is a serious, common-sense response to the absolutism that has infected our country, not just over the last eight years, but over the past several decades.

For my brother-in-law, Eric, who is deeply involved in community projects, this was the big moment:

What the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me; it's about you. It's about you. ... You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.

Both excerpts hearken back to why Obama originally (and immediately) appealed to me. Unlike 99.9 percent of the politicians out there, including John McCain, he’s not saying, “Here’s what I’ll do for you.” He’s saying, “Here’s what we can do together.” I think that’s hugely appealing. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want their life to have more meaning, and Barack is offering a path to that. He’s all about unity, no matter how divisive the issue. He’s all about what we can do when we work together. He’s a serious man for a serious time.

John McCain? I’m sorry, but he feels like a clown in comparison. Trotting out the same old divisive B.S. Sputtering the same old catchphrases. Injecting the same old fears. Focusing on everything that doesn’t matter: Britney, Paris, Sarah.

There’s no doubt who’s taking this presidency business seriously. The big question is: How serious are the rest of us?

Posted at 07:47 AM on Saturday August 30, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Friday August 29, 2008

If It's “Thrusday,” McCain Must Be Speaking

My colleague, Garth, pointed out this error on the Republican Web site. I'm sure it'll be fixed soon, if not already, and obviously it doesn't have much to do with McCain himself since he barely knows about the Internet let alone how to write for it. But if there's a perception out there that you're the “dumb” candidate, and “dumb” isn't as heartwarming as it was in, say, 2000, before we saw the kinds of shit “dumb” could get us in, then this isn't the kind of error you want to make. As Garth says, maybe he opted for “Thrusday” because Thursday is the start of football season and he knew his acceptance speech couldn't compete.

UPDATE: Saturday, 8:00 a.m.: Still not fixed.

UPDATE: Sunday, 9:00 a.m.: Still not fixed.

UPDATE: Monday, 7:20 a.m. Still not fixed. Is no one going to the GOP site? Can't anyone in the GOP spell? I don't think William F. Buckley is rolling over in his grave over this, but he's definitely rolling his eyes. 

UPDATE: Monday, 10:21 a.m.: Fixed! And it only took 72 hours since Garth first noticed it. It's this kind of attention to detail, this kind of speedy, tech-savvy recovery, that makes the GOP the party that it is.

Posted at 10:47 AM on Friday August 29, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 28, 2008

“We're Amazingly Incompetent or We Lied”

Related to the post below, here's a quote I read over lunch from Ron Suskind's The Way of the World. The speaker is an FBI man and a conservative Republican. He's talking to the author in June 2007:

“People don't realize in America how little underlying credibility the United States now has in the world, espcially on this matter of WMD, which, of course, has been driving everything. We went to war—the most important thing a country does—based on WMD, and we were wrong. That means either we're amazingly incompetent or we lied. Take your pick. Now, I think we lied, most people do, because no one could be that incompetent. But until we come clean—and here we are years later and we don't even care enough as a country to figure out what really happened—we're sunk.”

Pages 169-70. We get to the lying later.

Posted at 01:31 PM on Thursday August 28, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 28, 2008

The Power of Our Example

I’ve been an Obama supporter from the get-go — from the day I heard him speak at a Minnesota DFL (Democratic-Farm-Labor) Party gathering in April 2006. Listening to him I thought what most other people have thought whenever they heard him speak: “You know, this guy could be president.”

But, I admit, I’ve been blown away by both Bill and Hillary Clinton at the DNC this week. Listening to her, I thought, “If she’d been this good during the campaign, she might’ve been the nominee.” Listening to him, I thought, “I’d vote for him again in a second.”

Her speech was good, but this bit put her over the top:

    This is the story of America. Of women and men who defy the odds and never give up. How do we give this country back to them?
    By following the example of a brave New Yorker, a woman who risked her life to shepherd slaves along the Underground Railroad. And on that path to freedom, Harriett Tubman had one piece of advice.
    If you hear the dogs, keep going.
    If you see the torches in the woods, keep going.
    If they're shouting after you, keep going.
    Don't ever stop. Keep going.
    If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
    Even in the darkest of moments, ordinary Americans have found the faith to keep going.

The electricity that infused the convention center at that moment was overwhelming. I could feel it through the TV set and into my home in Seattle. I got shivers. My friend, Jim, another Obama supporter, called it “Obamaesque.”

Bill, meanwhile, did what every good writer, and every good lawyer, does: He boiled his case down to the specifics and presented them with charm. But, from all that, this was the line. Whoever came up with it deserves a raise:

Barack Obama knows that America cannot be strong abroad unless we are strong at home. People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.

That’s it, isn’t it? The U.S. has spent most of its history, from “Shining City on a Hill” through the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps, relying on the power of our example. There’s a lot of grime beneath that myth but it’s a myth worth adhering to. We do what we do; if others follow, that’s up to them. Since 9/11 we've acted the opposite, and those seven years have shown us the limits of our power. We’re exhausted, deeply entrenched, trapped. We’ve made more enemies than ever before. The more we use the example of our power, the more we have to use it. And the world’s a big place.

The power of our example? That’s an unlimited power source.

Posted at 11:45 AM on Thursday August 28, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday August 26, 2008

One-sentence Review of 'The Edge of Heaven'

We're all connected, but we keep missing the connections; but if we're patient, and open, we connect on a deeper level. 

Posted at 09:55 AM on Tuesday August 26, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Monday August 25, 2008

“The Lundegaards”

Speaking of Fargo, I came across Kirk Demarais' site, and paintings, via Jeffrey Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere column. Kirk has a few other cinematic family portraits — the Torrances, the Freelings — but for obvious reasons this one hit home:


Thoughts on other cinematic family portraits Demarais should do? I like the happy family portrait before the tragedy, which is why the Griswolds doesn't work for me. The family should also be middle-class, because such paintings are (or were) middle-class staples, which lets out, say, the Corleones.

The Jarretts from Ordinary People maybe? The Burnhams from American Beauty? The Hoovers of Little Miss Sunshine?

Posted at 09:50 AM on Monday August 25, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Sunday August 24, 2008

Is Ron Suskind a Coen Brothers Fan?

Continuing to read Ron Suskind's book, now on part II (The Armageddon Test), and I've come across a few references to the word “abide” — such as how Pres. Ford's funeral in January 2007, according to Suskind, “prompts reflection about what abides and what is lost with the passage of time.” It's a common Biblical word but pop-culturally I couldn't help but think of Jeff Bridges' character in the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski: “The Dude abides,” etc.

A few minutes later I came across this line: “But that thought is like a seed that can find no purchase...” Again, Biblical, but, again, Coen brothers, this time Raising Arizona: “Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.”

So have both Suskind and the Coens studied their Bibles (likely) or is Suskind simply a huge Coens' fan? Either way: kind of funny in a book that is anything but.

Posted at 01:50 PM on Sunday August 24, 2008 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Sunday August 24, 2008

Fassbinder Tried

After seeing Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven last night (recommended), I looked up one of its stars, Hanna Schygulla, on IMDb, to confirm that, yes, she was the star of  Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, which led me to this plot synopsis of the film:

This movie follows the life of a young German woman, married to a soldier in the waning days of WWII. Fassbinder has tried to show the gritty life after the end of WWII and the turmoil of the people trapped in its wake.

Tried? Really?

That was the thing about Fassbinder. He tried and tried but always failed. So glad IMDb had the courage to point this out.

Posted at 10:34 AM on Sunday August 24, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 23, 2008

Why you can't take toothpaste on an airplane

The first chapter of Ron Suskind’s The Way of the World juxtaposes a day in the life of Pres. Bush with Usman Khosa, a Pakistani immigrant living in D.C. and working at Barnes Richardson, an international consulting firm.

The day is July 27, 2006, when, in a move calculated to win some iota of support from African-Americans for the upcoming mid-term elections, Pres. Bush signs the Voting Rights Act reauthorization a year early in a ceremony on the White House lawn. It’s also the day Khosa is taken into custody by the Secret Service for fiddling with his iPod while waiting for a car to pass through the White House gates. He’s dragged into an interrogation room inside the White House, made to give up the names of friends and acquaintances, then let go with warnings. His friends and acquaintances will all be checked out. So will he. “We know everything about you and where to find you,” one Secret Service agent tells him. His crime? Fiddling with his iPod while Pakistani.

But the bigger issue, in the first two chapters, involves the backstory to the British government’s capture of a major terror cell in the suburbs of London, which was plotting to hijack airplanes and head for the U.S. East Coast. “The second wave,” Bush and Cheney had been warning us about.

MI-6 was cautious. Suskind writes: “The Brits, after their experience in Northern Ireland, were starting to believe that the key was to treat this not as a titanic ideological struggle, but rather as a law enforcement issue. This required being patient enough to get the actual evidence —usually once a plot had matured — with which to build a viable case in open court.”

Bush? Not so open. Not so cautious. Suskind implies that when Tony Blair refused to speed up arrests to suit Bush’s timetable — that is, the August before midterms — Bush nodded to Cheney, who dispatched the fourth-ranking CIA officer to Pakistan to alert the authorities there to Rashid Rauf, the Pakistani contact for the terror cell. Once Rauf was arrested, the terror cell panicked, and the Brits, who were apoplectic that their carefully constructed strategy had been knocked over, had no choice but to round them up... before they had enough evidence to put them away forever. And The White House got to say how they had been right all along “about everything.”

Suskind gets us into the heads of both Bush and Cheney, which is a little odd, you wonder which sources could possibly get us there. But these early chapters make you realize both a) how real the terrorist threat is, and b) how politically motivated and short-sighted the Bush administration response has been. It’s a scary world, but all the scarier for who we elected to protect us.

Posted at 10:20 AM on Saturday August 23, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Friday August 22, 2008

“Bush II” by William Shakespeare

Ron Suskind’s book, The Way of the World, received some (but not nearly enough) attention recently for the revelation that the Bush administration knew, as early as January 2003, via “a top-drawer intelligence-gathering mission,” that there were no WMDs in Iraq and thus no reason to go to war with Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

That’s not the main reason I bought his book, though. I bought it because Ron Suskind is the guy who wrote the 2004 New York Times Magazine article that, through a smug Bush aide, introduced the phrase “the reality-based community” to the world. I remember how the article stunned me. I remember how it made me better aware of what we were up against. That certain Republicans were willing to overthrow centuries of rational thinking to keep winning elections. The money quote:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” ... “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Gotta be Rove, right?

So far, I’ve only read the prologue of The Way of the World but I’m already glad I bought it. In the first pages Suskind gives a better reading of the presidential failures of George W. Bush than I’ve read anywhere else. And I’ve read a lot about the presidential failures of George W. Bush.

Bush came to power, Suskind says, relying on his gut, his instinct. “What he does,” Suskind writes, “is size up people, swiftly — he trusts his eyes, his ears, his touch — and acts… Once he landed in the Oval Office, however, he discovered that every relationship is altered, corrupted by the gravitational incongruities between the leader of the free world and everyone else.”

Other presidents have fought against this corruption, this alteration. Ford arranged Oval Office arguments between top aides. Nixon ordered subordinates to tell him something their superiors didn’t want him to hear. There was good old-fashioned eavesdropping and wire-tapping and polling. But W. continued to rely on his instinct, making him, to Suskind, a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare: “A man who trusts only what he can touch placed in a realm where nothing he touches is authentic.” Or more brusquely: “ can’t run the world on instinct from inside a bubble.”

Posted at 10:38 AM on Friday August 22, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 21, 2008

Dillinger lives

So I saw this article about the filming of Michael Mann’s new movie, Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, while reading the article that led to yesterday’s post, which I originally saw while researching a Wisconsin lawyer. I guess that’s why they call it the Web.

Anyone who knows how I feel about Mann, and Depp, and Christian Bale, knows  I’m kind of stoked over this. July ’09 release date.

Posted at 07:51 AM on Thursday August 21, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 20, 2008

Cyclist “doored,” ticketed

While doing research for my day job, which just had this nice (or, to be precise, extremely factual) write-up in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, I came across this article in Ismthus, the alt-weekly of Madison, Wisconsin.

It seems that recently a Madison cyclist got “doored” (biking along, car door opens, splat), went to the hospital with multiple contusions and a fractured vertebra, and was then given a $10 ticket for violating — to quote the article — “a little-known state law that requires bicyclists passing a parked or standing vehicle to allow ‘a minimum of three feet’ between themselves and the car.”


Of course, allow the minimum three feet and you’re in the entire lane and you’ll hear it from the cars behind you. I just got into a rather acidic back-and-forth with an acquaintance who, responding to my earlier post about cyclists vs. motorists, made this exact point. He said he was sick of cyclists taking up lanes and slowing traffic. I said traffic slows traffic: the reason why cars go slowly, most of the time, is because there are too many cars. I also said that, in downtown Seattle anyway, cars slow me up. It’s not even close. I zip, they clog. Then he made the argument — so odd for a lawyer — that cars own the road and cyclists should just bike on the sidewalk where they belong. Nice. And illegal.

But the article and the back-and-forth do clarify the larger issue. Sidewalks are built for pedestrians. Roads are built for cars. Nothing is built for cyclists. Occasionally you get the bike lane, which, as I’ve said, is yours until someone bigger wants it, and it often just ends after a few blocks. Complain, and you’re made to feel like Oliver Twist: “MORE? You want MORE? That painted bike lane that ran two blocks ain’t good enough for the likes a’ you, is it? You wif your fancy ways.”

The solution, for me, lies in creating more roads specifically for bikes, and I would do it on existing roads, possibly with a concrete barrier between bikes and cars. Let’s face it: The safer you make it, the more people will use it. The more they use it, the fitter they’ll be, and the less oil they’ll burn, and the less pollution they’ll create. All of which are good things. The other side? Gas, pollution, fat. Bad things.

It’s not even an argument. You burn fat (and become stronger) or burn gas (and make the country weaker).

Let’s get on this. Because this shit in Madison? That’s gotta stop.

Posted at 10:11 AM on Wednesday August 20, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday August 19, 2008

Entertainment Weekly's Summer Box Office Predictions: Reporting the Forecast

Entertainment Weekly’s Fall Movie Preview issue hit the stands (or my mailbox) recently and there’s a lot of guffawing since their cover boy, Harry Potter, won’t be seen until summer now. Happens. Part of the difficulty of forecasting the news rather than reporting it.

These types of issues are generally fun in foresight and depressing in hindsight. Fun because you can imagine just how good these movies will be. Depressing because they’re often not. I still have EW’s Summer Movie Preview issue, which includes extensive write-ups of films like Speed Racer (for May), The Happening and The Love Guru (for June), and X-Files and Meet Dave (for July). X-Files is their big July write-up; it gets four pages. Hancock is second with two pages. In third place is that Batman sequel with one page. Happens.

Don’t know if EW attempts a box office prediction for autumn or if box office is irrelevant in autumn, but they did for the summer. Here it is, with actual rankings and actual box office (thus far) included:

EW Pred.  Movie  Pred. BO  Actual  Actual BO 
 1 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom...  $355.9M  3 $315M 
 2 Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian  $310.8M  9 $141M 
 3 Hancock   $280.4M  4 $225M 
 4 Wall-E  $280.3M  5 $214M 
 5 Iron Man  $262.7M  2 $317M 
 6 The Dark Knight  $255.0M  1 $471M 
 7 Kung Fu Panda  $224.6M  6 $211M 
 8 The Mummy: Tomb of...  $176.5M  18 $86M 
 9 The Incredible Hulk  $147.2M  10 $134M 
 10 Tropic Thunder  $142.6M  47 $36M

It's still early, of course, and films like Tropic Thunder and The Mummy will move up. But enough? I know, it's a game, and EW didn't play too badly. Their big error, besides the DK one, was thinking Chronicles of Narnia would do so well. Their rationale? “The first movie made $292 million, and that was without a hottie prince in the lead role.” More interesting is what they left off the summer's top 10: Sex and the City, which is no. 7 with $152M, and Wanted at no. 10 with $133M. I.e., the two films with female leads. Oop.

Again: I know. It's not like my own box office predictions — when I’m asked to make them — stand up, either. I just think in general the media is too fascinated with this kind of thing. It’s hard enough to figure out what has happened or is happening without figuring out what’s gonna happen.

Posted at 08:12 AM on Tuesday August 19, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Monday August 18, 2008

How Owen Gleiberman gets ‘Vicki Christina Barcelona’ wrong

Have you seen what Entertainment Weekly is doing with their movie reviews? Instead of giving us the money sentence as a pull quote, they simply bold the money sentence within the review. Your eye is immediately drawn to it. I’m not sure how this differs from a pull quote but it does. The pull quote feels like a highlight reel: here’s the most important at-bat in the game today. Bolding a sentence within the review is like showing the highlight reel as the game is just starting. It’s like making one sentence Albert Pujols within the St. Louis Cardinals line-up: Here’s the important one. These others? Hacks. Don’t pay them any mind.

That said, the money or bolded sentence in Owen Gleiberman’s review of Woody Allen’s Vicki Christina Barcelona — “To Allen, commitment is a conspiracy of society. It’s a drag, man.” — did make me read the others. Because it made me think: “WTF is he talking about?

In the film, Allen gives us two ways of being, embodies them in two American tourists in Spain for the summer, and lets them go.

Vicki (Rebecca Hall) is a Catalan scholar who is engaged to be married to a New York businessman. She knows what she wants. Her friend Christina (Scarlett Johansson) is unmoored. She’s just spent months acting in a 12-minute experimental film that she now disowns. She doesn’t know what she wants.

Thus when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a Spanish artist, at a late-night restaurant, and he proposes taking them away for the weekend (taking both of them away, at the same time, and into the same bed), Christina is intrigued while Vicki is repulsed. Promising nothing, they go, Vicki to protect Christina. Of course, through a series of mishaps, it’s Vicki who winds up sleeping with the artist, and that night of passion becomes the pebble in what were once comfortable walking shoes. She’s bothered, unsure. She no longer knows what she wants.

Back in Barcelona, Christina hooks up with Juan, and gets involved in his artistic life with his artistic friends, including his volatile ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, the best thing in the film), and the twosome becomes a threesome, and Christina, who knows no artistic outlet, finds one, via photography. Meanwhile, Vicki, whose fiancé flies to Barcelona to join her, keeps walking around with that pebble in her shoe.

This is the source of Gleiberman’s sentence and review. He feels Allen is recommending the wild, artistic European life over the dullness of American business-as-usual. But while aspects of the artistic life are clearly intriguing (Bardem and Cruz, for starters), that’s not what the film is about. How do you deal with the emptiness? That’s what the film is about. Both characters have it. Vicki fortifies herself against it — only to find her fortifications aren’t enough. Christina allows herself to drift from intrigue to intrigue, from acting to photography, from this bed to that one, but always finds the solace temporary. Then she moves on. Neither has the answer because there is no answer. It’s just two ways of being. In the end, neither is happy.

The narration in the film moves the story along, but — and here’s my criticism — it’s a bit like Vicki, isn’t it? Tightly controlling the story, when the story, and the characters, should be allowed to move more freely. Gleiberman makes the same point when he writes that Vicki and Christina “never quite transcend the schematic.” Exactly. The narration (i.e., Allen), doesn’t allow them to. The turning point is when Christina, having found an artistic outlet, a man and a free-spirited life, gives it all up. Why? The narrator tells us that her gnawing emptiness returns. She looks off into the distance and she’s gone. But the scene feels externally controlled rather than internally motivated…because it is. The narration, as zippy as it allows the film to be, becomes a puppet master, moving the characters about to serve its own purposes.

Doesn’t mean VCB isn’t worth seeing. Cruz deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance. She’s so spookily direct that you don’t want to be with her — even though she looks like Penelope Cruz. Now that’s acting.

More, for all the film’s soft lighting and long, wine-filled lunches and dinners, for all its lightness, the theme of how to deal with life’s emptiness remains and is reflected back upon the viewer. You leave wondering which character you’re more like. Do you determine your spot and wall yourself up? Or do you flit from spot to spot, undefined? Some combination of the two? You examine the choices you’ve made. In what ways have I settled? In what ways am I unfulfilled? How do the two relate? It’s not that the film becomes a pebble in your shoe; it just reminds you that the pebble’s already there, and probably always will be.

Posted at 10:12 AM on Monday August 18, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 14, 2008

“Dear Fellow Republican”

The Republican National Committee sent me a census the other day addressed to a “fellow Republican.”

I know. I assume they sent it to as many people as possible. Maybe they even want people to fulminate against the enclosed “Republican Party Census Document” and its leading questions. It’s not a census, after all, but a push poll, so the goal is to get the words repeated, to get them out there, so they can reside in the brains of unsuspecting passersby.

Here’s my version. Has the same basic gist with half the calories:

1. Should Republicans do everything in their power to make you so scared of the world that you’re willing to give up your most basic rights?
2. Do you support the use of force against any country chickenhawk Republicans say shit about? Shit to include: WMDs, smoking guns, underage gymnasts.
3. Should guffawing Republicans continue to make you scared of Mexicans? And Negroes? And the Irish?

1. Should greedy Republicans continue to use the phrase “massive tax hikes” when referring to taxes on the wealthiest of the wealthy (i.e., Republicans)?
2. President Bush’s idiotic tax cuts for rich bastards (known as the “Idiotic Tax Cuts for Rich Bastards” law) is set to expire. Should we make it permanent? Should we put in the Constitution? Should we make it the 11th Commandment?
3. Shouldn’t we balance the budget already? And by “we” I mean “your great great grand-children.” Ha!

1. Are you still scared of Mexicans? Good!
2. Do you still hate trial lawyers? Yes!
3. Red tape? The other side likes it! You and I know better. Here’s a beer.

1. Homos? The worst!
2. What if we implied the other guys wanted to serve partial-birth aborted fetuses in government-run school lunch programs? Would it make you rent Soylent Green again?
3. You know what those other guys want to do? Ban God. But look at this muscle. Me stop them.

1. Hey, isn’t that a Mexican right outside your house? Vote now!
2. The United Nations? Losers!
3. The seeds of democracy? Yum!
4. Yes or no: All countries not the U.S. are alike. (Answer: Who gives a shit?)

1. Look at this penis. Should we pass a law that says it's the best one ever?
2. I can run faster than you. Yes, I can. I already ran around the world, you just didn’t see me.
3. Would you join the Republican National Committee by making a contribution today? Like, a zillion dollars. OK, $35. OK, Other.
4. Look at this muscle. No, wait. No, look from this side.

The questionnaire includes a business reply envelope with the following printed on the outside: “By using your own first class stamp to return this envelope, you will be helping us save much needed funds.”

So if you get one of these, do what I did. Mail it back. Without the stamp. Empty.

Posted at 08:33 AM on Thursday August 14, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday August 12, 2008

Cyclists vs. Motorists: How The New York Times Ain't Helping

One thing you can say about Jan Hoffman’s nearly 2000-word piece in the Sunday New York Times on the growing battle between motorists and cyclists: It probably won’t lessen any tensions.

I’ve been biking to work for 15 years now and couldn’t find myself in it at all. Talk about reporting. Or as Hoffman might write: Talk about reporting!

I guess most articles are compiled this way: Several anecdotes, glued together by a few stats, with quotes from vested interests. Add some flowery language. Add a death threat for the finale. Voila! Everyone’s happy. Or angry. Which is the same thing if you’re trying to sell newspapers.

This is the money quote for me. It comes about halfway through the article and lit me up:

There’s a whiff of class warfare in the simmering hostility, too. During morning rush, the teeth-gritting of drivers is almost audible, as superbly fit cyclists, wearing Sharpie-toned spandex and riding $3,000 bikes, cockily dart through the swampy, stolid traffic to offices with bike racks and showers.

So cyclists are the rich ones now? Where’s the stats to back that one up? But you gotta love the flowery language. We cockily dart? Through swampy stolid? In Sharpie-toned? On our $3,000? Pity the poor souls who can only afford SUVs.

The next graph, in true journalistic fashion, gives us “the opposite end of the class spectrum”: Migrant workers cycling in pre-dawn hours without headlights. So both extremes are represented. Another job well done.

I’m among the unrepresented between these two groups: commuting on my $350 bike, without the spandex and no waiting shower. But there is a bike rack in a nearby garage. I’m living large. No wonder I’m hated.

This hatred for cyclists is the big unanswered (possibly unaddressed) question of the article. Most of the anti-motorist anecdotes end with cyclists bloodied or dead, while most of the anti-cycling anecdotes end with pedestrians and motorists “startled” or with a “pounding heart.” Yet motorists are the ones who are “white-hot” with anger? What’s up with that? Maybe this discrepancy should’ve been pointed out. Maybe further investigation was needed instead of, you know, flowery language. But who am I to say? I’m not a professional journalist.

How about this graph on biking irresponsibility?:

A pandemic of obliviousness — earbuds, texting — further ramps up the tension. Recently, Scott Diamond, ride coordinator for the Morris Area Freewheelers, a New Jersey cycling club, saw what he called a trifecta of irresponsible cycling: “A guy riding his bike without a helmet, talking on his cellphone, with his kid in the bike attachment behind him.”

Oddly, for a he said/she said article, there’s no correlating graph on the distractions for motorists: radios, CDs, DVDs; coffee, make-up, kids. Those texting cyclists — what percentage are we talking about? As opposed to, say, cellphone-talking drivers? I don’t want to make excuses for an idiot who bikes without a helmet but with a cellphone, but that trifecta of irresponsible cycling? That’s a normal driver.

Listen, there are assholes everywhere, and I’m often one of them (both on a bike and in a car), but everyone knows the entire system is set up for cars. Bike paths are rare, and even when you get one it’s like the weakest kid’s lunch money: Yours until someone bigger wants it. And someone bigger always wants it.

I have my own anecdote to add to Hoffman’s bunch, and it’s not about the number of drivers who have yelled at me over the years — sometimes with reason, most of the time insanely out of nowhere — and it’s not about the overwhelming obtuseness of most drivers (the powerful can afford to be stupid), and I won’t even bring up the whole gas/oil thing.

Here it is: Over the last three years, about a dozen people have asked me, almost shyly, about cycling to work, and I tell them it’s fun and easy and I feel better afterwards. I tell them they should do it. And every one has backed off. They think it’s too dangerous. They’re too worried about being hit by a car.

Now does anyone know one person who has quit driving because they’re worried about being hit by a bicycle?

There is no he said/she said here. There is just “startled” vs. “dead.”

Posted at 10:04 AM on Tuesday August 12, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 09, 2008

Reagan v. Founding Fathers

Another good observation from Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter:

As John Patrick Diggins, a Reagan biographer, astutely observes, the Founding Fathers believed that “The people are the problem and the government the solution” while Reagan convinced us that the people are virtuous and that government's the problem. “It worked,” Diggins notes. “Reagan never lost an election.”

Posted at 09:02 AM on Saturday August 09, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Friday August 08, 2008

G.O.P.: The Party of Stupid

Everyone needs to read Paul Krugman's column today, particularly this graf:

What I mean, instead, is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”

Posted at 08:21 AM on Friday August 08, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 07, 2008

“Coup de Torchon” (1982)

This is one of the more interesting “worm turns” films I’ve seen. In most, the put-upon hero is still brave in his passivity—although his antagonists don’t realize it—but even if he isn't, even if he is a coward, he certainly feels brave once he finally gives back what’s due. That’s the cinematic moment we wait for. That’s our wish fulfillment. Take that, bullies of the world! You could say the entire superhero genre is built upon this moment.

Philippe Noiret, who later played the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso and Pablo Nerudain Il Postino, here plays Lucien Cordier, the lone police officer in a sleepy West African village in the 1930s: Population 1285. He’s a lazy man who wants food and sex and the world to turn right; when it doesn’t, and despite his position, he's not much interested in righting it. He shrugs. His wife, Hugette, keeps her lover, her “brother” Nono, in their same cramped apartment. The local pimps mock him and push him around. The local businessman ignores him. His lover, Rose (a young, full-faced Isabelle Huppert), is beaten by her husband and Lucien does nothing to stop him. In all of this he feels less cowardly than extremely passive, and the worst elements in town, and in people, simply feed upon his passivity.

But there’s gotta be a “one day,” right? So one day he goes to a neighboring town and receives advice — including two humiliating kicks in the pants — from the constable there, and he takes this advice back to the village, where, next to the river in which the locals bury their dead, and whose corpses the pimps use for target practice, Lucien confronts the two pimps, makes them sing a song, and then kills them in cold blood. It’s a stunning turn of events because you don’t see why the worm turns; he just does. Lucien goes from passive to active but his core personality feels the same. If anything he feels more cowardly in taking his revenge.

In this way, all the wrongs in his life are righted. He kills Rose’s husband, Marcaillou, in cold blood, and then literally kicks him after he’s dead. He arranges for the businessman to fall into the slop of his own outhouse. He kills a local, Vendredi, who knows he killed Marcaillou. The innocent are being rounded up, too, but he sees no innocence. His philosophy — this is a French movie, after all — grows heavier and colder. “Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal,” he tells Vendredi. “Know who the joker is? It's everybody.” Or so his experience has shown him.

Christ themes are introduced. “I'm not a policeman, George,” he tells the brother of one of the deceased pimps. “I'm Jesus Christ in person, sent here with a load of crosses, each bigger than the next.” He sets things up so that Rose kills Hugette and Nono, and when Rose asks him why, if he was just outside, he didn’t stop her, he replies, his calm, matter-of-factness accentuating his insanity, “If I put temptation in front of you, it's not a reason to use it. I just help folks reveal their true character.” Most fail the test. All fail the test. It’s Judgment Day and it’s not pretty.

“Coup de Torchon” is translated as either “Clean Slate” or “Clean Up” but there’s nothing clean here. Even its lines aren’t clean. Just how cowardly is Lucien in the beginning? Just how insane is he in the end? We don't really know. It's a philosophically bleak but intellectually engaging film. It uses the wish-fulfillment genre to tell us what we don’t wish to know.

Posted at 09:20 AM on Thursday August 07, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Tuesday August 05, 2008

Le Pays de Cons

I‘ve been hip-deep in idiocy lately. And not just my own.

Sunday evening Patricia and I watched Le Diner de Cons, a 1998 French comedy from Francis Veber (La Cage Aux Folles, Le Placard), whom I met last spring at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis for an Alliance Francaise-backed showing of his fun, lightweight, La Doublure (The Valet). Very tan man. Le Diner de Cons, The Dinner Game, literally “The Dinner of Idiots,” is a better film. Most of the action takes place in one room, so it feels like it could be a play. Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a well-off intellectual who participates in a weekly Wednesday night dinner game with friends. The goal is the intellectuals’ version of Dogfight: Who can bring the biggest idiot?

So Wednesday’s approaching and poor Pierre is without a good idiot to bring...until, on the TGV, his friend sits next to Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a well-meaning bore who regales him with pictures of his matchstick-built landmarks (Eiffel Tower, etc.). Unfortunately, the day of the dinner, Pierre wrenches his back playing golf and can’t make it...but Francois still shows up at his house. It will be a while before he leaves.

What’s great about the film is that we’re initially horrified by this dinner, by such bastards who would make fun of dim sweethearts like Francois Pignon, and any Hollywood version would surely lapse into the sentimentality of lessons learned — Francois demonstrating smarts, Pierre his heart — and there are intimations of this in Le Diner de Cons. But ultimately Veber is made of sturdier, funnier stuff. In the end, as horrified as we initially were by the game, we have to admit that it’s Francois Pignon’s very idiocy that allows some karmic balance into the universe.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Rick Shenkman’s book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, in which he argues that the problem with our political system is less the politicians and their marketers, who dumb down the message, or the media, who sensationalize the contest, than us, the mythical, Capra-esque people, i.e., “The People,” for whom the message is dumbed down and the contest sensationalized. It’s not a bad argument at not a bad time. The sad part? Unlike the ending of Le Diner de Cons, our idiocy isn’t exactly bringing any kind of balance, karmic or otherwise, into the universe.

Posted at 08:26 AM on Tuesday August 05, 2008 in category Movies - Foreign   |   Permalink  

Monday August 04, 2008

Why Titanic is unsinkable

I’ve got a piece on MSNBC today about The Dark Knight’s box office and why it probably won’t pass Titanic’s domestic record of $600 million and why it definitely won’t pass Titanic’s worldwide gross of $1.8 billion. The latter prediction is a no-brainer and the former prediction is the result of finding a similar film (blockbuster, summer, PG-13), with similar percentage drop-offs (daily, weekly) and plugging in The Dark Knight’s original weekly total. That film is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (the second one) and here’s how its percentages calculate with The Dark Knight’s original numbers: 

Week    Box Office       % change   
 1  $238 million  
 2 $110 million  -53.7%
 3  $62 million  -43.5%
 4  $37 million  -39.8%
 5  $20 million  -46.5%
 6  $13 million  -34.2%
 7  $9 million  -30.6%
 8  $6.7 million  -26.5%
 9  $6.7 million  -0.6%
 10  $3 million  -53.7%
 11  $2 million  -35.3%
 12  $1 million  -34.3%
 13  $737, 903  -44.1%
 14  $492,181  -33.3%
 15  $306,137  -37.8%
 16  $196,540  -35.8%
 17  $187,892  -4.4%
 18  $201,984  +7.5%
 19  $759,460  +276%
 20  $603,771  -20.5%
 21  $454,035  -24.8%
 22  $273,329  -39.8%

The total? $515 million.

How accurate is this formula? It predicts $110 million for Dark Knight’s second week; the film wound up making $112 million. So not bad so far.

The Dark Knight might do better than this, of course. For one, its percentage drop-offs, thus far, aren’t quite as high as Pirates'. Plus it’s a better film, and so should have longer legs, etc., and there’s Oscar buzz. But Titanic looks safe.

Of course that's what they said in 1912

Posted at 07:35 AM on Monday August 04, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Monday August 04, 2008

Philippe Petit becomes a bird

Last week I hoped Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit's 45-minute walk, or dance, across the expanse between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, would make it to Seattle soon. It‘ll be here Friday. I won’t be able to see it then — family coming to town — but next week for sure. Here's Moira Macdonald's interview with Petit in yesterday's Seattle Times. A nice graf:

“I remember absolutely everything,” said Petit of the walk. “I did stop a few times, and I even sat down and observed down. The plaza was empty because it was still under construction. I saw some people looking up; after a while, a gigantic crowd.” He remembers a seagull that hovered quite close to him for a few minutes, “gliding about me, looking at me as if to say, ‘What is this guy doing here? What is this false bird invading my territory?’ ”

And I never get tired of this picture:

Posted at 06:43 AM on Monday August 04, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Sunday August 03, 2008

The New Ministers of Propaganda

Some recent New York Times headlines:


Oh, sorry. That last one I came across while researching another topic a couple of months back on the Times Web site. It’s from May 29, 1940, and it merely confirmed what I already knew: If you accuse somebody of what you yourself are guilty of, it makes it doubly difficult for them to respond. Also the accusation, regardless of its truth, becomes the story.

So it didn’t matter the way the Nazis mistreated its prisoners and citizens. It didn’t matter that McCain is the one who is playing the race (or racist) card. It didn’t matter that McCain, who’s never used a computer, and has never held a non-government job, is the one who’s out of touch. Accusation becomes story. End of story.

When will the mainstream media wise up? When will they refuse to let a political campaign’s talking points become the headline?

And after The New York Times did McCain’s bidding on its front page, day after day after day, what does McCain do? He attacks The New York Times. For its editorials. Accusing him of, you know, taking the low road and playing politics with race.

Those should have been the headlines.

Posted at 01:48 PM on Sunday August 03, 2008 in category General   |   Permalink  

Saturday August 02, 2008

No on Ferrell, yes on Gould

Let me temporarily interrupt this diatribe about the way the mainstream media allows itself to be used as a pawn in political elections to say this: Patricia and I went to see the new Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly movie Step Brothers last night. Patricia loves these type of movies, and I think Ferrell is one of the funniest men around. I even liked Semi-Pro, which most critics did not. Well, both of us hated Step Brothers. We laughed — my hardest laughs were at the very end (the fight with the schoolkids) — but most of the movie is merely unpleasant and obvious. It’s not even worth the DVD rental.

A worthwhile read, in the meantime, is this New York Times piece on Elliot Gould, who is being honored with a retrospective of his films at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. I remember about 15 years ago when “The Simpsons” did a flashback episode to when Homer and Marge meet in the early ‘70s, and one girl turns down, I believe, Barney, for a date, with the line, “Who do you think you are — Elliott Gould?” That cracked me up. Growing up, I didn’t think much about Gould one way or the other; he just seemed like a guy whose time had passed. But recently I was watching California Split for this MSNBC piece and I was stunned by just how charismatic he was. The retrospective gets its name from a 1970 Time magazine cover story called “Elliott Gould: Star for an Uptight Age,” but Alan Arkin, in the smartest line in the Times piece, says the emblem of uptightness is misleading. “I’ve always thought he had a looseness about him,” he says. Exactly. In California Split he’s so much fun to watch. He is the film's energy.

Posted at 01:20 PM on Saturday August 02, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Friday August 01, 2008

Lundegaard Camp Says NY Times Plays Sap

UPDATE on the post below: Here's today's New York Times headline: “McCain Camp Says Obama Plays 'Race Card.'”

Live and don't learn, that's the New York Times' motto. They give major play, and huge quotes up front, to idiotic charges. Why idiotic? Obama warned that Republicans would try to scare voters by various nefarious means, including the fact that he “doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” Then the Republicans do exactly as he says, using the quote as an example. But the story is the Republicans charge. Why?

Let's face it: The Republicans have been playing the race card, and playing it well, since 1964. Apparently they plan on doing it again. Apparently the New York Times will let them.

Posted at 11:22 AM on Friday August 01, 2008 in category General   |   Permalink  

Friday August 01, 2008

That McCain Rumor

Here’s the headline in yesterday’s New York Times: “McCain Is Trying to Define Obama as Out of Touch.” Here’s the unspoken subhed: “And we let him.”

Not that I don’t sympathize. It’s a tough gig being objective these days. The Republicans learned long ago how to use the mainstream media, always striving for objectivity, to their advantage: Pin what you want on your opponent and that becomes the talking point.

If I wrote, for example, that John McCain has no genitalia, merely a ball of fluff between his legs, and this rumor gained enough momentum, then that would become the story. Refutations, denials, headlines. “McCain: ‘I Have Genitalia’: But Refuses to Drop Pants for Media.” News cameras would focus on his crotch and news anchors, with resident experts, would analyze what we saw. “I believe there’s something there, Paula. Now whether it's actually genitalia...” The late night comedians would have a field day. Op-Ed columnists would opine that, even if the rumor were true, how does that relate to the act of governing? We’d get the European reaction, the Chinese reaction, and analysis of what this might mean for the War on Terror. Can we fight al Qaeda if our president literally has no balls? And no matter how many times the rumor was denied, and no matter from how many angles it was refuted, still, on election day, many voters would vote against him with this reasoning: Well, that McCain feller, he’s just got a ball of fluff between his legs.

So how do you fight this? How do you write about the process of the campaign without playing into one side’s strategy? How silly does it have to get before you throw up your hands and refuse to let the candidates dictate talking points?

At the least, Obama’s response to the lastest McCain attacks is exactly right: “Is that the best they got?” Hopefully, when Paris and Britney are mentioned during the rest of this campaign, most of us will simply be reminded of how trivial McCain and the Republicans want to make it all while the world burns.

Posted at 07:30 AM on Friday August 01, 2008 in category General   |   Permalink  

Twitter: @ErikLundegaard