erik lundegaard

Friday October 31, 2008

Inanity, Insanity

“Idiot Wind” is a startlingly good song for the way the McCain camp has attacked Obama this fall. Line after line hits home:

Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they'd cut it out but when they will I can only guess...
I haven't known peace and quiet for so long I can't remember what it's like...
I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can't remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
don't look into mine...

The awful thing about the attacks is that you don't need to know anything about Obama, or about McCain, to know they're bullshit. You just have to know something about the world. A communist...and a Muslim? How is that possible? A secret socialist, who wants to make government all-powerful...and a secret terrorist, who wants to destroy government from within? How is that possible? The inanity (Sean or otherwise) is overwhelming.

Posted at 08:50 AM on Oct 31, 2008 in category Politics, Music
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“Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan

Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they'd cut it out but when they will I can only guess.
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy,
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me.
I can't help it if I'm lucky.

People see me all the time and they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.
Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn't believe after all these years, you didn't know me better than that
Sweet lady.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth,
Blowing down the backroads headin' south.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven't known peace and quiet for so long I can't remember what it's like.
There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin' out of a boxcar door,
You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin' every battle.

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin' 'bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin' me see stars.
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies.
One day you'll be in the ditch, flies buzzin' around your eyes,
Blood on your saddle.

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb,
Blowing through the curtains in your room.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

It was gravity which pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart
You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn't enough to change my heart.
Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom.

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can't remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
don't look into mine.
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building
burned.
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime
turned Slowly into autumn.

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin' I was somebody else instead.
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy,
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin' glory.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,
Blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves,
We're idiots, babe.
It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

Posted at 07:59 AM on Oct 31, 2008 in category Culture
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Unafraid to Listen

An editorial in The Washington Post today condemns the latest guilt-by-association attack by John McCain and his campaign. The latest version involves an Arab-American scholar and Columbia professor, Raschid Kalidi, who holds, the Post says, complex views of the Middle East situation, and who was the subject of a toast at a dinner party by Barack Obama in 2003. Barack apparently said that Mr. Kalidi “offers constant reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.” 

By the end of the editorial, the Post quotes Mr. Kalidi saying he's waiting for this latest McCain-inspired “idiot wind” to blow over, and the Post agrees. But first they write this:

It's fair to question why Mr. Obama felt as comfortable as he apparently did during his Chicago days in the company of men whose views diverge sharply from what the presidential candidate espouses. Our sense is that Mr. Obama is a man of considerable intellectual curiosity who can hear out a smart, if militant, advocate for the Palestinians without compromising his own position.

I'm not a fan of “Duh” but... Duh! Seriously are we that pathetic? Are our own points of view so fragile that they can't bear the scrutiny that listening to someone else's views requires? I'm reminding of something James Baldwin said about living in France and Turkey: “Whenever you live in another civilization you are foced to examine your own.” This examination is good and necessary if you are ever to improve your own society. The people who do not engage in it — fellow non-travelers like George Bush and Sarah Palin — have limited, absolutist world views that are not only dispiriting, but, in world leaders, positively dangerous. Both Palin and Bush don't have the intellect, or intellectual curiosity, or humility about one's intellect that true intellectual curiosity fosters, to be world leaders. We've already seen what happens when they get into positions of power. John McCain isn't much better. Plus he's got a dangerous temperament. Plus he's obviously sold his soul to the devil with this campaign. He's leaving behind a stink that we may never get out. And that's if he loses. If he wins, every campaign, at every level, will be flinging the same shit. We'll be covered in it.

Here's my point. This latest McCain-inspired controversy is actually one of the best reasons to vote for Barack Obama.

John McCain, like Sarah Palin and George Bush, is rarely the smartest person in any room he walks into — and he doesn't need to hear what you have to say. 

Barack Obama is almost always the smartest person in any room he walks into — and he still wants to hear what you have to say. My god. How refreshing.

Posted at 07:56 AM on Oct 31, 2008 in category Politics
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Thursday October 30, 2008

Obama Quote of the Day - II

“Like water finding its level, you will arrive at a career that suits you.”

—Barack Obama's father, in a letter to a teenaged Obama, in Dreams From My Father, pg. 76.

Posted at 08:48 AM on Oct 30, 2008 in category Quote of the Day, Books
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Obama Quote of the Day - I

“Let's get out of here. Your shit's getting way too complicated for me.”

Barack's friend, Ray, after Barack articulated the nuances of high school race relations in  Dreams From My Father, pg. 74.

Posted at 08:45 AM on Oct 30, 2008 in category Quote of the Day, Books
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Wednesday October 29, 2008

Dark Knight + Oscar

I missed this article about the Academy Awards and box office when it came out two days ago — distracted, as ever, by the presidential campaign and the World Series — but it’s certainly in my wheelhouse. Last January I wrote an article (or articles) on the subject for HuffPost, and throughout the year I’ve certainly blogged enough about Times’ writers Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, and the two tag-team on this one.

Here's the point: In the past, popular but lightweight movies were nominated best picture (Three Coins in a Fountain; Love Story; Raiders of the Lost Ark), while weighty Oscar nominees could be huge box office hits (Bridge Over the River Kwai; The Graduate; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). But for the past 30 years, and particularly this decade, we've seen a split: Box office hits rarely get nom’ed and weighty best picture nominees rarely become box office hits. Last January I wrote:

How rare is it when at least one of the best picture nominees isn't among the year's top 10 box office hits? Since 1944, it's happened only five times: 1947, 1984...and the last three years in a row: 2004, 2005, 2006. What was once a rarity has now become routine.

Make that the last four years in a row. The biggest box office hit among last year's best picture nominees, Juno, topped out at 15th for 2007, $25 million behind Wild Hogs.

Now, according to Cieply and Barnes, the studios, who have been busy closing their prestige divisions, are hyping their box office hits, including The Dark Knight and Wall-E, for best picture. Good for them. Unfortunately, Cieply’s and Barnes’ article is also filled with the conventional wisdom of Hollywood insiders. No sentence screamed at me more than this one:

However, several [Oscar campaigners] noted a belief that audiences — weary of economic crisis and political strife — are ready for a dose of fun from the entertainment industry.

It screamed because last May, in Cieply’s article about how Hollywood insiders were worried about their gloomy, sequel-shy summer box office, we got this graf:

The [summer movie] mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive who is now an adjunct professor…

What movies, included in this “mix,” did Cieply specifically mention that the audience might not be in the mood for? The comedy Tropic Thunder, which quietly made $110M, and, of course, The Dark Knight, which noisily grossed $527M. Internationally, it's approaching $1 billion.

You’d think a journalist might be shy about quoting Hollywood insiders in the exact same way after dropping a bomb like that. Not here. Seriously, I encourage everyone to read Cieply’s May article. It’s instructive. Hell, it’s downright Goldmanesque. Nobody may know anything but some of us really don’t know anything.

In the end, and depending on what gets released in the next few months, I wouldn’t mind seeing Dark Knight get nom’ed. It shouldn’t win, of course (Three Coins, Love Story and Raiders didn’t win either), but it was a hugely popular, critically acclaimed film and in the past that’s been enough for the Academy.

But that’s only one part of the equation: a box-office hit will have gotten nom’ed. The other part — a weighty best picture nominee that becomes a box-office hit — will take more work. Work, I should add, the studios don’t appear interested in doing.

Posted at 01:02 PM on Oct 29, 2008 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies, Superheroes, Movies - Box Office
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Tuesday October 28, 2008

Country Last

Good Talking Points Memo feature here on the number of conservatives who have dismissed McCain and/or endorsed Obama, and the number of newspapers who have done the same, specifically because of McCain's VP pick. You have a favorite? Mine's still Colin Powell, although I give Chris Hitchens props.

Posted at 03:50 PM on Oct 28, 2008 in category Politics
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An Open Letter to Bud Selig

Dear Bud:

My friend Jim came over to watch Game 5 of the World Series last night. We were both hoping for a Rays’ win. We were both hoping for at least six games. We haven’t seen that in a while.

The game started at 5:30 p.m. for us, 8:30 p.m. on the east coast, standard fare under your watch. Bad enough the 162-game schedule and three tiers of post-season play have pushed the most important games of the year into late October, when cold weather becomes more and more of a factor; but, for the sake of TV revenue, which is to say MLB revenue, you make them play at night, when there’s no hope an autumn sun will warm things up a bit. Hell, because of Saturday night’s rain delay, you made them play into the darkest part of the morning. The nine-inning game ended at 1:47 a.m. No wonder you got your lowest ratings ever. You warp the game to get it into prime time and then Mother Nature pushes you into a timeslot reserved for infomercials for the lonely and pathetic. Nice irony.

Jim and I talked about this last night. We talked about the weather — even before the rains came. Gametime temps were in the low 40s, and there was a fierce wind blowing in from left field, and I said, for the thousandth time: “This isn’t baseball. This isn’t fun. It’s not fun to watch guys freezing their asses off in the most important games of the year.”

Then the heavens opened up. In the regular season the game would’ve been called, or postponed, by the 5th inning if not sooner. But these guys, playing the most important game of the year, were forced to keep playing. You could see them wondering about it. Looking up, shaking their heads, getting drenched. It was a joke.

The Fox broadcasters seemed oblivious, or muzzled, for a time. While Jim and I were yelling at the TV set, they blathered on about everything but the need to suspend the game.

When they did talk about it, they, or at least Joe Buck, implied that the power to call or suspend a game belonged to the umps during the regular season but to someone else during the World Series. Is that right? Does it belong to you, Bud? If so, what took you so long? Why did you wait for the infield to become a swamp? Did B.J. Upton really need to tie the game, as many have implied, before you acted? And if he hadn’t, would you have kept playing? In that cold swamp? It seems unimaginable.

You want to know what else Jim and I were talking about before the rains came? How long it’s been since we’ve seen a decent World Series. Sweeps in three of the last four years, no sixth game since ’03, no seventh game since ’02.

If this Series doesn’t go to Game 7, that’ll be a record. Since the Series became a best-of-seven affair in 1922, the longest Game 7-drought has been five years, 1935 through 1939, and we’ve already tied that.

We’ve already had four years without a Game 6. That’s a record. The previous record was three years, set several times.

In a way, we’re spoiled. In the 21 years from 1955 through 1975, the World Series went to seven games 14 times. Glory years: Amoros’ catch, Mazeroski’s homer, Gibson and Brock, Fisk waving the ball fair, “Why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher!”

In the last 20 years? We’ve watched a Game 7 only four times: ’91, ’97, ’01 and ’02.

In the last 10 years, we’ve watched five sweeps.

I know. This is beyond your control, beyond anyone’s control. But it seems indicative that something is wrong with the game.

Baseball is a sport where, during the regular season, the worst team wins and the best team loses a third of their games. For the World Series that would mean, in general, a Game 6. October happenstance occasionally takes you to Game 7. So where is it? Why aren’t we getting it? At all?

Is it the extra tier of playoffs? Are teams getting too many off-days? Is the problem playing until late October, and often past midnight, in weather conditions meant for football?

Is this fun?

In the past I always thought it out-of-the-question to ask you guys to give up short-term revenue to think of the long-term interests (and revenue) of the game, but that’s what I’m doing now.

Start off, yes, by taking us back to a 154-game schedule. Then end the season sooner. The last week of September should be the first week of the post-season. The Series should be over by October 20, not beginning on October 22. Late October turns nasty. By scheduling the most important (and potentially, the most-watched) games of the year during this stretch, you’re just inviting the disasters of Monday night.

Then, at some point, whenever you work out your next contract with the next network to cover the post-season, schedule some World Series games during the day. Let’s see the boys of summer play in the sun. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe a day game will be postponed right into prime time on the east coast. Maybe some kids will be able to watch it. Maybe they’ll become fans. Nothing’s impossible.

Do this soon. Please.

Next season, I see, you have Game 7 (if we ever make it there again) scheduled for late night on Nov. 5. November!

This isn’t baseball. This isn’t fun.

Best,

Erik
Posted at 02:26 PM on Oct 28, 2008 in category Baseball
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“Entourage” Prediction

This season, following the disaster of Medellin, in which, in fat suit and moustaches, Vinnie Chase played (or overplayed) Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar, our movie star's career is in free-fall. He's out of money. He can't get a lead. He's resorted to sweet 16s and modeling gigs to make ends meet. He considered, for a time, starring in a “Benji” movie, then had to fight his ass off to get a supporting role in Smoke Jumpers, a movie about firefighters, when everyone knows movies about firefighters never do well at the box office.

My quick-and-easy prediction? No matter how well Smoke Jumpers does at the box office, Vinnie is nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor — as creator/producer Mark Wahlberg was for The Departed. Then we get all that hoopla. That's my hope anyway. As soon as Walhberg was nom'ed, I hoped they would translate it into the “Entourage” world.

Question: Did Mark Wahlberg ever have a Medellin? Doesn't seem so. Some of his movies may have underperformed, and he's taken hits (OK, pings) from critics (myself included) who thought he didn't bring much to good-guy lead roles, but he's never had a gigantic bomb that prevented him from getting leads. Or so it seems from the outside.

Posted at 08:32 AM on Oct 28, 2008 in category TV
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Monday October 27, 2008

The Six Narratives of John McCain

Interesting piece by Robert Draper in yesterday's NY Times Magazine on the various narratives of the McCain campaign. The subhed says it all: “When a campaign can't settle on a central narrative, does it imperil its protagonist?”

In this way it's easy to blame McCain's chief campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, who encouraged John McCain to get away from “straight talk” in favor of “talking points,” and who encouraged him to use (or exploit) his P.O.W. status, and who favored picking Sarah Palin for VEEP and who pushed for suspending the campaign on Wednesday, Sept. 24 in the wake of the financial crisis, and who was, after all, the author of all of these various narratives, in which they tried to remake Obama as a “celebrity” or a “non-partisan pretender” or “a Washington insider” and then suffered the misfortune of not having Obama play along. So, yes, it's easy to blame Schmidt. But of course the bigger fault lies with John McCain. In the parlance of this low, dishonest decade, he's the decider, and he decided to take this path, or these paths, and so he is where he is. I believe conservatives used to call this kind of thing “accountability.”

Reading, in fact, my main thought was this: Who wants a president of the United States who can be pushed around by the  likes of Steve Schmidt?

Posted at 08:51 AM on Oct 27, 2008 in category Politics
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Sunday October 26, 2008

Jamie Moyer: Class Act

A shout-out to Jamie Moyer, 46 years old next month, whom so many people, including myself, have underestimated. He was thought to be washed up in the early 1990s — some suggested a coaching position for him back then — and now it’s 15 years later and he just started Game 3 of the World Series. Probably would’ve won the thing, too, if not for a bum call on a great play. In the top of the 7th, Carl Crawford dribbled a ball down the first base line that Moyer reached for, gloved, and, as he dove, tossed, with his gloved hand, into the bare hand of first baseman Ryan Howard, barely beating Crawford to the bag. Beautiful bang-bang play. But the ump called him safe. A subsequent double meant second and third with nobody out rather than a man on second and one out. Big difference. Both of those Rays’ runs scored — the second after Moyer left to an ovation from the normally boo-happy Philly crowd — and, an inning later, after B.J’s Upton showed what speed can do (infield base hit, stealing second, stealing third and scoring when the throw bounced off his foot) the game was tied and Moyer was no longer the pitcher of record. Still, and even though I’m rooting for the Rays, I’m glad the Phillies went on to win the thing in the bottom of the 9th. That “W” is yours, Jamie. Hope to see you on that stage again soon. Game 7 maybe?

Game 3 was an exciting one but, because of the late start required by Fox, plus those longer half-inning breaks required by Fox so they can squeeze in an extra commercial or three, not to mention the hour-and-a-half rain delay, the game didn’t end in Philly until 1:47 a.m. Brutal. That’s not baseball. At least it wasn’t too cold there. In the ALCS, a friend of mine, who didn’t care between BoSox and Rays, rooted for stadiums, and thus chose classic Fenway over the Tampa Dome. But the Dome, in Florida, is merely an extra reason (as if I needed it) to root for the Rays. I’m tired of watching the best players in baseball play the most important games of the season past midnight in 40-degree weather. I mean, seriously. Get your head out of your ass, Bud. Fix this.

I know: Lotsa luck. It’ll be even worse next year. Game 7 is scheduled for Nov. 5, 2009, which means “The Simpsons” Halloween special will probably air on Nov. 8. Another tradition effed up because of the demands of the marketplace.

Moyer, by the way, as he always does, tipped his cap to the ump after he left the mound in the 7th, saying, “Nice job.” Class act. Someone to emulate.
Posted at 10:20 AM on Oct 26, 2008 in category Baseball
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Saturday October 25, 2008

New Yorker Quote of the Day - III

“Marlon’s going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”

—Fellow-student Elaine Strich on Marlon Brando in Claudia Roth Pierpont's article, "Method Man," in the Oct. 27th New Yorker

This is a great issue of the New Yorker but this may be the best article in it. I've read about method acting for years but this is the first time I really got it. The piece begins with an incredible performance by Brando in a failed play, "Truckline Cafe" in 1946. A young Pauline Kael saw the play and near the end had to turn away because one of the actors appeared to be having a seizure on stage; then her companion grabbed her arm and said "Watch this guy!" Kael: That's when "I realized he was acting."

Or wasn't acting. Brando says of his teacher, Stella Adler, "She taught me to be real, and not to try to act out an emotion I didn't personally experience during a performance." That's when I understood — as much, I suppose, as a non-actor can understand. He's got to actually feel what he's saying or it doesn't work. It accounts for the unevenness of his work. The subtitle of the piece is "How the greatest American actor lost his way," but the article is also about how the greatest American actor found his way. Everyone loses their way — everyone — but not everyone finds their way in the first place. There's a My god, what might have been? quality to the article, but, again, and maybe this is the Minnesotan in me, there's also, in the article, a sense that: My god, what WAS. The author ticks off the five or six great performances that Brando gave us in great movies, and, because of the ferociousness of his talent, that's a lament. For me, that's the pinnacle. I go back to David Mamet's Bambi vs. Godzilla: "Mike Nichols told me long ago that there is no such thing as a career—that if a person has done five great things over three decades of work he is indeed blessed." Brando was more than blessed; he blessed us.

Posted at 10:08 AM on Oct 25, 2008 in category Quote of the Day, Movies
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New Yorker Quote of the Day - II

"To put [undecided voters] in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked."

David Sedaris in the June 27th New Yorker

Posted at 09:46 AM on Oct 25, 2008 in category Quote of the Day
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New Yorker Quote of the Day - I

"Kristol was out there shaking the pom-poms."

—from Jane Mayer's article on how John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in the Oct. 27th New Yorker.

More precise, it's a piece on how she wound up on everyone's radar. Blame those National Review/Weekly Standard luxury cruises that stopped off in Juneau in 2007. "The Governor was more than happy to meet with these guys," her aide said, and they were more than happy to meet with her. Starbursts followed. William Kristol was particularly smitten, to the point where, in a Fox News discussion on possible VEEPs this June, Chris Wallace told Kristol, "Can we please get off Sarah Palin?" Others beat the drums, and some beat those drums right next to John McCain. I suppose the real money quote is near the end: "By the time he announced her as his choice, the next day, he had spent less than three hours in her company." Yikes.

Posted at 09:43 AM on Oct 25, 2008 in category Quote of the Day, Politics
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Friday October 24, 2008

McCain Endorses Obama?

More Obama stuff. Nicholas Kristof writes what everyone who thinks two feet beyond their face has known from the start (but it’s still nice to read) and The New York Times endorses Obama for president. They’ve also included this nifty little gadget on every Times presidential endorsement since Lincoln. From Lincoln to Obama. Talk about framing the issue.

The Times’ endorsement is hardly a surprise — they haven’t endorsed a Republican since Ike in ’56, and this hardly seems the year to break tradition. Tradition's breaking the other way: Not just Colin Powell but former Republican governors Arne Carlson and William Weld and former Bush press spokesperson Scott McClellan. Not to mention National Review scion Christopher Buckley and 40 newspapers that backed Bush and all of these people. Not sure how Rush Limbaugh bloviates against these.

Despite the polls, I’m assuming nothing. I know the Republicans will be throwing everything they can at Obama and hope something sticks. In recent weeks, the two biggest charges against him are that he’s a) a terrorist, and b) a socialist. We know why these words are chosen — both are pejorative in the minds of Americans — but they are, in the sense that the McCain camp uses them, mutually exclusive. In general, I suppose, one can be a terrorist-socialist (tearing down to build up?), but the McCain camp is implying that Obama will both destroy our government from within (leaving it in ashes) and build it up from within (leaving it stronger than ever). Jesus, dudes, pick one. You can’t have both.

Eleven days.

Posted at 09:45 AM on Oct 24, 2008 in category Politics
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Thursday October 23, 2008

Oh. My. God.

I don't know why I'm voting for this man. He keeps making me cry.

Posted at 03:24 PM on Oct 23, 2008 in category Politics
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Curbing Enthusiasm

My Jewish doppelganger (OK, one of my many Jewish doppelgangers) has just articulated why it’s been so hard to live with me for the past two months. And it wasn’t exactly a breeze before this. So next time you see Patricia give her encouraging words and count your lucky stars.

I’d also recommend this Ron Howard video. I grew up on “Andy Griffith” and “Happy Days” so appreciate what he went through to go back there. I await the sequel, in which he re-sings "Gary, Indiana" and gets us all to eat his dust.
Posted at 02:53 PM on Oct 23, 2008 in category Politics
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Wednesday October 22, 2008

British Quote of the Day

"Democracy and capitalism are the two great pillars of the American idea. To have rocked one of those pillars may be regarded as a misfortune. To have damaged the reputation of both, at home and abroad, is a pretty stunning achievement for an American president."

—Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the conservative mayor of London, channeling Oscar Wilde in his Daily Telegraph endorsement of Barack Obama for president of the United States.

Posted at 12:18 PM on Oct 22, 2008 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Quote of the Day

"Tonight we got Hayfield. Like all the other schools in this conference they're all white. They don't have to worry about race. We do. But we're better for it."

—Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) in Remember the Titans. It's not a good movie — there are very dishonest parts — but these lines, part of the "big game" speech, resonate beyond the film. They articulate my hopes about our country. Other countries, in Asia, in Europe, haven't really been dealing with racial matters for as long as we have, and haven't gone as far as we have. And I like to think we're better for it. 

Posted at 11:00 AM on Oct 22, 2008 in category Quote of the Day, Movies, Culture
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Tuesday October 21, 2008

Jim Walsh and the Wellstone World Music Weekend

The following column was written by my friend Jim Walsh a year after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in Oct. 2002. It was a bad time. Our country gave into fear, it gave into lies, it set us on the path we're currently on. How does that path feel now? In two weeks, we may be able to begin to get off this path. We may be able to elect a leader who offers smarts,and hope, and unity; a leader who can make friends out of our enemies rather than enemies out of our friends. But it's still two weeks away. The McCain camp is stirring up old fears, promulgating new fears, disseminating misrepresentations and outright lies. They're throwing whatever shit they can against the wall and hoping some of it sticks. 

Here's to not giving into fear and lies. Here's to hope, and smarts, and unity. And here's to Joe Henry, Vic Chesnutt, Dan Wilson, the Tropicals, Prince, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Green Day, Jenny Owen Young, Leonard Cohen, Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, Joan Armatrading, Randy Newman, Loudon Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright, Jonathan Richman, Teddy Thompson, Antony, Iron & Wine, R.E.M., The Beatles, Paul Simon, A3 and Nina Simone. And here's to the Mad Ripple.

An E-Proposal From Me to You
By Jim Walsh

I am standing in the northwest corner of Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, in front of a silver monument that looks like a heart, a broken heart really, and I am thinking about how wrong the world has gone, how Minnesota Mean it all feels. I’m thinking about how much everyone I know misses the man I’ve come to visit, how sick I am of sitting around waiting for change, and about what might happen if I ask you to do something, which is what I’ll do in a minute.

Like most Minnesotans, I met Paul Wellstone once. It was at the Loring Playhouse after the opening night of a friend’s play. He and Sheila were there, offering encouragement to the show’s director, Casey Stangl, and quietly validating the post-production festivities with his presence: The Junior Senator from Minnesota and his wife are here; we must be doing something right.

The year before (1990), I’d written a column for City Pages encouraging all local musicians and local music fans to go vote for this mad professor the following Tuesday. He won, and, as many have said since, for the first time in my life I felt like we were part of something that had roots in Stuff The Suits Don’t Give A Shit About. That is, we felt like we had a voice, like were getting somewhere, or like Janeane Garofalo’s villain-whupping character in “Mystery Men,” who memorably proclaimed, “I would like to dedicate my victory to the supporters of local music and those who seek out independent films.”

After the election, Wellstone’s aide Bill Hillsman told me he believed my column had reached a segment of the voting populace that they were having trouble reaching, and that it may have helped put him over the top. I put aside my bullshit detector for the moment and chose to believe him, just as I choose at this moment to believe that music and the written word can still help change the world.

When I introduced myself to Wellstone that night as “Jim Walsh from City Pages,” he broke into that sexy gap-toothed grin, clasped my hand and forearm and said, with a warm laugh, “Jiiiiim,” like we were a couple of thieves getting together for the first time since the big haul. I can still feel his hand squeezing my forearm. I can still feel his fighter’s strength.

For those of you who never had the pleasure, that is what Paul Wellstone was--a fighter—despite the fact that the first president Bush said upon their first encounter, “who is this chickenshit?” He fought corporate America, the FCC, injustice, his own government. He fought for the voiceless, the homeless, the poor, the little guy—in this country and beyond. He was a politician but not a robot; an idealist, but not a sap, and if his legacy has already morphed into myth, it’s because there were/are so few like him. He was passionate, and compassionate. He had a huge heart, a rigorous mind, a steely soul and conscience, and now he is dead and buried in a plot that looks out over the joggers, bikers, rollerbladers, and motorists who parade around Lake Calhoun daily.

Paul and Sheila Wellstone and six others, including their daughter Marcia, were killed in a plane crash on October 25, 2002. I remember where I was that day, just as you do, and I don’t want to forget it, but what I want to remember even more is October 25, 2003. So here’s what we’re going to do.

We’re going to start something right here, right now, and we’re going to call it Paul and Sheila Wellstone World Music Day. It will happen on Saturday, Oct. 25th. On that day, every piece of music, from orchestras to shower singers, superstars to buskers, will be an expression of that loss and a celebration of that life. It will be one day, where music—which, to my way of thinking, is still the best way to fill in the gray areas that the blacks and whites of everyday life leave us with—rises up in all sorts of clubs, cars, concerts, and living rooms, all in the name of peace and love and joy and all that good stuff that gets snickered at by Them.

Now. This is no corporate flim-flam or media boondoggle. This is me talking to you, and you and I deciding to do something about the place we live in when it feels like all the exits are blocked. So: First of all, clip or forward this to anyone you know who still cares about grass roots, community, music, reading, writing, love, the world, and how the world sees America. If you’ve got a blog or web site, post it.

If you’re a musician, book a gig now for Oct. 25th. Tell them you want it to be advertised as part of Paul and Sheila Wellstone World Music Day. If you’re a shower singer, lift your voice that day and tell yourself the same thing. If you’re a club owner, promoter, or scene fiend, put together a multi-act benefit for Wellstone Action! <http://www.wellstone.org> . If you’re a newspaper person, tell your readers. If you’re a radio person, tell your listeners. Everybody talk about what you remember about Wellstone, what he tried to do, what you plan to do for Wellstone World Music Day. Then tell me at the email address below, and I’ll write another column like this the week of Oct. 25th, with your and others’ comments and plans.

This isn’t exactly an original idea. Earlier this year, I sat in a room at Stanford University with Judea and Michelle Pearl, the father and daughter of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by members of a radical Islamic group in Pakistan in February of last year. After much talk about their son and brother’s life and murder, I asked them about Danny’s love of music. He was a big music fan, and an accomplished violinist who played with all sorts of bands all over the world. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Pearl was also a member of the Atlanta band the Ottoman Empire, and his fiddle levitates one of my all-time favorite Irish jigs, “This Is It,” which I found myself singing one night last fall in a Sonoma Valley bar with a bunch of journalists from Paraguay, Texas, Mexico, Jerusalem, Italy, and Korea.

The Pearls talked with amazement about the first Daniel Pearl World Music Day <http://www.danielpearl.org> , the second of which happens this October 10th, which would have been Pearl’s 40th birthday. I told them about attending one of the first Daniel Pearl World Music Day activities at Stanford Memorial Church, where a lone violinist silently strolled away from her chamber group at the end, signaling to me and my gathered colleagues that we were to remember that moment and continue to ask questions, continue to push for the dialogue that their son and brother lived for. I vowed that day to tell anybody within earshot about Daniel Pearl World Music Day, and later figured he wouldn’t mind a similar elegy for Wellstone, who shared Pearl’s battle against hate and cynicism.

Wellstone didn’t lead any bands, but he led as musical a life as they come. He lived to bring people together, to mend fences: Music. When he died, musicians and artists were some of the most devastated, as Leslie Ball’s crest-fallen-but-somehow-still-beaming face on CSPAN from Williams Arena illustrated. Everyone from Mason Jennings to Larry Long wrote Wellstone tribute songs in the aftermath, and everyone had a story, including the one Wendy Lewis told me about the genuine exuberance with which Wellstone once introduced her band, Rhea Valentine, to a crowd at the Lyn-Lake Festival. Imagine that, today.

So ignore this or do whatever you do when your “We Are The World” hackles go up. I’d be disappointed, and I suppose I wouldn’t blame you; in these times of terror alerts and media celebrity, I’m suspicious of everything, too. But I freely admit that the idea of a Wellstone World Music Day is selfish. That day was beyond dark, and to have another like it, a litany of hang-dog tributes and rehashes of The Partisan Speech and How It All Went Wrong, would be painful, not to mention disrespectful to everything those lives stood for and against.

No, I don’t want anyone telling me what to think or feel that day, or any day, anymore. I want music that day. I want to wake up hearing it, go to bed singing it. I want banners, church choirs, live feeds, hip-hop, headlines, punk rock, field reports, arias, laughter. I want to remember October 25, 2002 as the day the music died, and October 25, 2003 as the day when people who’ve spent their lives attending anti-war rallies and teaching kids and championing local music and independent films got together via the great big antennae of music and took another shot.

I am standing in the northwest corner of Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. In front of the silver broken heart, three workers stab the fresh sod with shovels and fumble with a tape measurer. Flowers dot the dirt surrounding the statue base. I pick up a rock and put it in my pocket.

The sprinklers are on, hissing impatiently at the still-stunned-by-last-autumn citizens who work and hope and wait and watch beyond the cemetery gates. The sprinklers shoot horizontal water geysers this way and that. They are replenishing patches of grass that have been browned by the sun. They are telling every burned-out blade to keep growing, and trying to coax life out of death.

Posted at 12:15 PM on Oct 21, 2008 in category Music, Politics
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TV Quote of the Day

"I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it."

—Don Draper (Jon Hamm) on this week's episode of "Mad Men." 

Posted at 08:18 AM on Oct 21, 2008 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday October 20, 2008

Tampa Bay Rays: Champions of the American League

A quick shout-out to all the Tampa Bay Rays fans out there — particularly those who’ve been following the team, and its many futilities, for years. More than owner Stuart Sternberg (who didn’t own the team until 2004), general manager Andrew Friedman (who didn’t GM it until 2005) or even the players (who did the heavy lifting, but whose senior member, Carl Crawford, has been with the club all of six years), this pennant’s for you. You supported a crappy club. You went to a crappy stadium when there was no hope. You cheered on a team that was last place in its division every year but one of its existence, that never had a record above .500, that never fielded a superstar. Seriously, drink up.

I’ve been rooting for the Rays all year, certainly more than I have for the Mariners, and only slightly less than I have for the Twins. Didn’t know how much I cared for the Rays until the collapse in Game 5, the finger pulling in Game 6, the twisting into pretzels in the 8th inning of Game 7.

I think I was rooting for the Rays not merely because they were the underdog of underdogs but out of some measure of schadenfreude as well. The freude I felt wasn’t so much for the schaden done to the Red Sox (whom I like), or even the Yankees (whom, everyone knows, I despise) but to the Mariners, who were once my team but whose front office effed things up beyond measure throughout the ‘90s and into this decade, until the M’s, who were the Rays of the ‘80s, are now the Rays once again: the worst team in baseball.

But how does the Rays’ success hurt the Mariners? The subhed here says it all. Now that the Rays are World Series-bound, the three teams who have never won a pennant are the Senators/Rangers, founded in 1961; the Expos/Nationals, founded in 1969; and your Seattle Mariners, founded in 1977. And the Mariners are the most embarrassing of the bunch.

Why most embarrassing? After all, haven’t the M’s been around the least amount of time? And haven’t they done the best of the three? Going to the ALCS three times? Fielding future Hall of Famers like Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson? As well as superstars like Edgar Martinez (who should go to the Hall), Jay Buhner and Jamie Moyer?

And that’s the very reason the Mariners should be most embarrassed. This team should’ve gone to the Fall Classic at least once. Hell, they should’ve owned the damned thing. Because every one of those players mentioned above was on the team at the same time. Future baseball historians are going to look back at the mid-to-late ‘90s Mariners, at the talent stuffing that team, and at how little they accomplished, and go: WTF?

Every team gets a shot. The Mariners had two: the Griffey-led team in the ‘90s, and the Ichiro-led team in the early ‘00s. Neither took. Now look. The M’s are in a hole it’ll take years of smart moves to dig out of; and I don’t know that they have the guys to make those smart moves. I think, despite all the firings, they have the opposite.

Enough of that. Here’s to a team that did the most with its shot. And here’s to seven games.
Posted at 05:01 PM on Oct 20, 2008 in category Baseball
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Friday October 17, 2008

The Final Debate — Who Disappointed

A day late and a couple of billion dollars short, but here’s my thoughts on who disappointed during that final debate and why:

Bob Schieffer. Particularly the moral equivalency implicit in this question:

“Both of you pledged to take the high road in this campaign yet it has turned very nasty. Senator Obama, your campaign has used words like ‘erratic,’ ‘out of touch,’ ‘lie,’ ‘angry,’ ‘losing his bearings’ to describe Senator McCain. Senator McCain, your commercials have included words like ‘disrespectful,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘dishonorable,’ ‘he lied.’ Your running mate said he ‘palled around with terrorists’...”

Please. Barack Obama’s negative ads focus on what’s wrong with John McCain’s proposed policies, and are mostly truthful. John McCain’s negative ads (and stump speeches) focus on what's wrong with Barack Obama, and they are mostly outright lies and innuendo. There is no equivalency. Everyone with an open mind knows who’s muddying the waters. McCain’s camp has even admitted that that’s their strategy. Why should journalists pretend otherwise?

I’ve said it time and again: Objectivity is not stupidity. This should be a journalistic mantra. Wake the fuck up.

The answers to the “running mate” question. Overall, of course, Barack's my guy, the smartest, most inspiring presidential candidate I’ve seen during my lifetime. And I know he’s preternaturally calm, and that’s part of the reason he is where he is. But when Schieffer lobbed that softball to him about running mates, and why his was better than the other, he should’ve smacked it out of the park. I mean out of the park. Instead, he turned even more factual, more logical. Drove me crazy. I mean, c’mon. At least bring up the fact that Sarah Palin doesn’t even do press conferences, that we’re in the unprecedented situation of possibly electing someone to the second-highest office in the land who hasn’t talked to the press yet. He doesn’t have to say it’s fascist, which it is. He just has to say it’s undemocratic, which it is.

I was also a little disappointed that he didn’t take John McCain more to task for McCain’s response to Schieffer’s above question. Which brings me to...

John McCain. Yep. After everything we’ve seen from his campaign, how could he disappoint me more? Yet he managed to do it. Kudos. The first time was here:

One of [those negative attacks] happened just the other day, when a man I admire and respect — I've written about him — Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful.... I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis, very unfair and totally inappropriate.

OK. McCain’s campaign implies that Barack Obama is a Muslim, a terrorist, “evil,” and when John Lewis calls him on it, McCain has the nerve to be affronted?

But it’s more. If you’d asked me five years, 10 years ago, to name someone who was a hero to me, someone alive and whom I didn’t know personally, I would’ve named John Lewis. He grew up poor in Mississippi. He wanted to be a minister and used to preach to the chickens as he was feeding them in the morning. He wound up going to college in Nashville and became one of the leaders of the 1960 Nashville sit-ins, which was the first protracted, organized effort at direct action — confronting an unjust law rather than simply ignoring it — of the civil rights movement. He was one of the leaders of the Freedom Rides, and was among those attacked in Montgomery, Ala., by a white mob who objected to the integrated Greyhound bus in their midst. (There’s a famous photo of him, with Jim Zwerg, a white student from, I believe, Wisconsin: Zwerg has his bloody fingers in his mouth (checking his teeth?), while Lewis looks, well, preternaturally calm, despite the blood splattered on his suit and tie.) He was the first president of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and he was among the speakers during the March on Washington in August 1963. If memory serves, he even argued with the March’s founders because he wanted to use the term “black” rather than “Negro” but the founder’s thought that too radical. For the past 30 years, he’s represented his district in Georgia in the U.S. Congress.

So when John McCain began dragging John Lewis’ name through the mud on national television, I had to restrain myself from battering my own television in anger.

Sen. McCain: There’s a reason John Lewis has equated you with some of the worst aspects of the civil rights movement. Look to yourself.

Then there was that moment, near the end, during the abortion back-and-forth, when McCain used air quotes around “health of the mother.” I’m not a woman but even I was offended. Can’t imagine how women felt.

The mainstream (corporate, idiotic) media. To me the debate was no contest. One guy was cranky, the other was calm. One guy was petty, the other guy had a largeness of spirit. One guy tried to keep us divided, the other tried to bring us together. (Check out, for example, Barack’s answer to the abortion question.) Even on a superficial level: One guy was red-eyed, blinking, with an unnatural smile, the other guy was handsome, cool, with a natural smile. No contest.

The polls afterwards indicated it was no contest. Voters preferred Barack Obama overwhelmingly, by the biggest margins in any of their three debates.

And yet the pundits. Ah, the pundits.

Are they in some kind of vacuum of stupidity? Are they straining for objectivity? Do they want to make more of a contest out of this presidential race? Do they want to give one to poor John McCain? Because they didn’t see it. Either they missed it, or they pretended reality was something other than what it was.

So much of the press, even a day later, was about how John McCain “went on the attack,” and “made the debate about...” blah blah blah. They couldn’t get enough of “Joe the Plumber,” yet another ignoramus John McCain has dragged onto the national stage. Here’s a guy, not even a licensed plumber, who owes back taxes, and who, in every interview I’ve heard, reiterates Republican talking points. He almost feels like a plant. He complains that Barack Obama’s tax plan would raise his taxes. It won’t. In fact, he’ll probably get a tax break. And yet “Joe” still won’t admit it. He says Barack tap-danced around the issue “almost as good as Sammy Davis, Jr.” He said this to Katie Couric when she called him Thursday morning. He said it on national TV. People at CBS laughed when he said it.

Jesus Christ. How much more stupid can we get?

But for all that disappointment, it was still the debate I wanted. Barack looked good, McCain looked bad, and we’ve got less than three weeks to go.

Posted at 09:13 AM on Oct 17, 2008 in category Politics
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Wednesday October 15, 2008

U.S. Presidents on Film

I’ve got a piece up on MSNBC today about portrayals of U.S. presidents on film — to coincide with the release of Oliver Stone’s W. Here’s a quick synopsis of some of the films I had to watch for the piece.

Worth the time:

1.    Thirteen Days (2000): Focuses on the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), special assistant to the president, whose biggest worry, at the story begins, is his son’s report card and Jackie’s party list. Then the world nearly ends. Watch the film and you can count the ways it nearly ends: If JFK had listened to the Joint Chiefs or if he had listened to Dean Acheson or if Bob McNamara hadn’t come up with the quarantine alternative or if General LeMay had gotten his way (“The big red dog is diggin’ in our backyard and we are justified in shooting him!”) or if the Russian ships hadn’t turned back or if the administration hadn’t come up with the plan to ignore Khrushchev’s second letter in favor of his first…well, then you might not be reading this. These days, almost everyone on the right, and a few on the left, invoke Neville Chamberlain as the diplomatic bogeyman. Get bullied and World War II results. JFK and his team repeatedly invoke The Guns of August: the book about how misunderstandings between countries led to WWI. Presidents reading. Imagine that.

2.    Path to War (2002): John Frankenheimer’s last film, about how, step by step, LBJ got us involved in Vietnam. What’s intriguing about this version of history is how early the designers of the Vietnam War, particularly Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin, shining), realized a victory wasn’t a sure thing. There’s a powerful scene, just after McNamara talks with his aides about how many losses we’ll probably sustain for such-and-such a period, when a Quaker, Norman Morrison, sets himself on fire outside McNamara’s Pentagon office to remind everyone what a loss of a life is. Ultimately the film is a semi-sympathetic portrayal of Johnson. He listened to the wrong advice, probably against his gut instinct, and stuck us there for 10 years and lost his (and our) Great Society along with 50,000 American lives. It’s another example of the U.S., the most powerful country in the world, getting involved where they shouldn’t, and against their own better instincts, because of a combination of hubris and the fear of appearing weak. Helluva cast: Baldwin, Michael Gambon (as LBJ), Donald Sutherland, Philip Baker Hall (who played Nixon in Secret Honor), Frederic Forrest and one of my favorite character actors, Bruce McGill, who plays CIA Chief George Tenet in W.

3.    The Day Reagan was Shot (2001): A surprisingly good Showtime film from the early 2000s. Actors who have to play well-known figures should study Richard Crenna here. He merely suggests Reagan, he doesn’t imitate him. The film is sympathetic to Haig, too, who is played by Richard Dreyfuss, who would go on to play Dick Cheney in W. What I learned: Reagan came close to dying that day in 1981; and the federal government was more or less in chaos; and the White House was unable to even secure outside lines when they needed to. The usual bureaucratic pissing matches are fun to watch: FBI vs. Treasury; Haig vs. Weinberger. The film is both comic and scary. At one point, for example, the “football,” or the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes, goes missing.

4.    Secret Honor (1984): I first saw this when it came out, or at least when it came to the University of Minnesota in January 1985, and I wondered if it would hold up. Does. It’s a one-man show, all Phillip Baker Hall, bless him. Nixon, drinking in exile, lurches between defending himself and attacking, vituperatively, profanely, his many enemies. “I was just an unindicted co-conspirator like everyone else in the United State of America,” he rails at one point. As for that secret honor? According to Altman’s Nixon, the people that put him in charge, the Committee of 100, wanted him to continue the Vietnam War, to nab a third term, and to use China against the Soviets and then “carve up the markets of the rest of the goddamned world.” Nixon fell on his sword rather than let this to happen. So Altman’s take was similar to Stone’s later take. Both imply that while Nixon may have been a bastard, the people behind him? Man, you don’t want to go there.

5.    Nixon (1995): I got stuck with the director’s cut. Interestingly, the reinstated scenes on an HDTV show up blurry, or blurrier, so let you know exactly what was cut. And why. Because most of these scenes focus on that Oliver Stone paranoia of “the system” being like a “beast.” They deserved the cutting room floor. That said, the theatrical version is quite good and fairly sympathetic to Nixon. So interesting. Hollywood gives us sympathetic Nixons and LBJs but coldhearted Thomas Jeffersons. Love Anthony Hopkins in the title role, but Joan Allen (sorry, darling) is way too sexy to play Pat Nixon. Money quote: “People vote not out of love but fear.”

6.    The Crossing (1999): An A&E film. A little slow but a fascinating look at the low point of the American Revolution. It’s the moment when, out of desperation, we went on the attack, the surprise attack, and salvaged our last chance at independence.

And not:

1.    Truman (1995): Gary Sinese is great but it’s a dull, conventional film (from HBO) about the man who, we’re told time and again, was “as stubborn as a Missouri mule.” Sample line from a speech during his 1948 whistle-stop tour. “I am for the people and against the special interests.” Hey, me too! In the end, too much life to be portrayed in too little time. And, sorry Gore Vidal, but no mention of the creation of the National Security State in 1947. Yeah, big shock.

2.    Jefferson in Paris (1995): One gets the feeling the filmmakers wanted to suggest the leisurely pace of 18th century society, as Stanley Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon, but here it just comes off as dull. Nolte’s Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, is a remarkably cold and hypocritical man.

3.    Wilson (1944): Another reluctant president. Another pure man. The only presidential biopic to be nominated for best picture. Also helped kill the presidential biopic since it bombed at the box office.

4.    The Reagans (2003): Before Josh Brolin played W., his father, James Brolin, played Reagan. All in the family. Good quote from Republican operatives in 1964 talking amongst themselves: “His lack of political knowledge, c’mon fellas, just makes him seem more a man of the people!” Republicans have been following that script ever since: Reagan, Quayle, W., Palin...

5.    Sunrise at Campobello (1960): Former Navy secretary and vice-presidential nominee FDR contracts polio but makes his political comeback at the 1924 Democratic Convention. From a popular play, but onscreen (sorry) it just sits there.

6.    Abraham Lincoln (1930): D.W. Griffith’s last film. Ponderous, folksy, monumental, dusty. Like Truman in Truman, Lincoln is portrayed as a man without ambition. Here’s an idea of what the film is like: At one point, late at night, Lincoln (Walter Huston) paces in the White House only to stop and proclaim: “I’ve got it, Mary! I’ve found the man to win the war! And his name is…GRANT!” And that, kids, is how presidential decisions are made.

7.    DC 9/11: Time of Crisis (2003): The worst.

Posted at 02:39 PM on Oct 15, 2008 in category Movies, Politics, Culture
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Two Minute Review: W. (2008)

Oliver Stone’s W. is like our 43rd president’s greatest hits. Here he is chug-a-lugging at Yale and here he is finding Jesus and here he is failing at oil rigs, and oil drilling, and running for Congress. Here he is choking on a pretzel.

Stone intercuts these familiar incidents with the familiar arguments, dramatized over presidential lunches and Oval Office meetings and cabinet meetings, that led us into Iraq. It’s straightforward storytelling — particularly for Stone. Hell, it’s almost breezy. The two hours go by like that, and Josh Brolin, in the lead, is amazing. He gives us a complex portrait of a very simple man.

It’s a father-son film. “You disappoint me, Junior,” Herbert Walker tells him early on. “Deeply disappoint me.” He tells him, “You only get one bite at the apple,” but W. keeps biting and missing. He drinks, carouses, goes after girls. He can’t find himself. Even after he finds Laura, and Jesus, and helps his father get elected the 41st president of the United States, he’s disappointed. Greatness escapes him. Hell, mediocrity escapes him. You go in wondering if Stone’s portrait of W. will be different from our own image of W. and it isn’t. What you see is what you get. Yes, he’s that thick, that muddled, and yet that certain. The film implies that certain Machiavellian types (Rove, Cheney) manipulate W. into going where he already wants to go (into politics, into Iraq), and it feels true, but it’s not like we’re learning anything here. I learned, or re-learned (did I ever know it?) that W. speaks Spanish but that’s the only time I remember being surprised by the title character.

Since so much of the story is familiar, since, like the subject, there’s not much there there, we might have to wait years before we figure out if the movie is any good. It really is too close to us to gauge. It’s a tragedy, certainly, and the tragedy is that in trying to win his father’s love, or outdo what his father did, or make up for his father’s great loss, W. — yes, aided and abetted by a motley crew — put us on a calamitous national and international path... and yet still can’t think of one thing he did wrong. That lack of introspection is his tragedy. The rest of it is ours.

Posted at 10:23 AM on Oct 15, 2008 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s, Politics
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Tuesday October 14, 2008

Two Minute Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

Burn After Reading may be the most depressing comedy I’ve ever seen. I left the theater in a daze. I wanted a shower. I wondered how the Coen Bros. could sleep at night. I wondered how they could keep from blowing their brains out with such a view of humanity.

It’s not that their characters are greedy, grasping, callous and stupid. It’s the smallness of what they’re greedy about and grasping after. Even tragedy elevates humanity because it implies a greatness from which we can fall. This thing? Smallness everywhere. Smallness overwhelms.

So Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) gets canned from the CIA for a minor breach and decides to write his memoirs, always pronounced with a self-important, nails-on-the-chalkboard lilt, and his wife, the coldest of pediatricians (Tilda Swinton), who’s having an affair with FBI man Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), refuses to understand, or care, and files for divorce. Through this process the unfinished memoir winds up in the hands of a pair of gym-club idiots: Linda Litzke (Francis McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda wants cosmetic surgery to stay in the dating game, doesn’t understand why her insurance won’t pay for it, and decides to blackmail Cox to get the money. Chad? What does he want? He’s such an idiot, such a beautiful idiot, he doesn’t even have a plan like everyone else. This makes him my favorite character in the film. At least he’s not grasping after smallness. He’s just gloriously stupid.

Contemplating what everyone else in the film is grasping after can only drive you into depression. Cox wants retribution against the CIA but doesn’t have the discipline to finish his book and winds up half-drunk and watching “Family Feud” each early afternoon. Litzke wants cosmetic surgery — a temporary salve for a not-pretty woman. Pfarrer uses Internet dating to sleep around on his wife, with women who aren’t even attractive, and then crumbles when his wife, with an affair of her own, files for divorce. He’s also happily building something secret in his basement. Turns out to be a laughably pornographic, sad little machine. It’s almost a relief when people begin dying.

Yes, Burn After Reading is well-made. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t have had the effect it had on me. But there’s no one in it with the smallest amount of grace. The Big Lebowski at least had the Dude, but here the Coens took him away, even the possibility of him, and left us bereft.

I’ve always considered myself a bit of a misanthrope but now I know: Next to the Coens I’m a freaking Pollyanna.

Posted at 07:18 AM on Oct 14, 2008 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday October 13, 2008

Canvassing for Obama in Youngstown, OH

My friend Andy Engelson, a father of two, an editor in Seattle, and one of the nicest people I know, spent the first weekend in October canvassing for Obama in Ohio. Here’s what he found…
 
After flying into Columbus and driving three hours east, I arrived in Youngstown in the early evening. This is a former steel town, and enormous empty steel mills fill the Mahoning River Valley. Most of the city is perched on the hills above the valley, and evidence of a broken economy is everywhere: boarded-up businesses, crumbling homes, a nearly empty downtown.
 
But the campaign office was a hub of activity—filled with local volunteers with union T-shirts, OSU Buckeye sweatshirts and Obama buttons. The volunteer coordinator (who works long, long hours) was a bubbly college student from Long Island. She quickly put me to work calling volunteers to set up door-to-door canvassing over the weekend.
 
You may have heard about the strength of Obama’s “ground game”—a vast grassroots network of volunteers. It is truly impressive. Both in Philadelphia (where I canvassed for Obama in April), and in Youngstown, everyone who volunteers is quickly trained, put to work and effusively thanked. Every person we call who is voting for Obama is asked to volunteer, and those who say yes get a follow-up call.
 
During the next afternoon, I headed out to the local Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target and other big-box stores to register voters. I had done this in Seattle, and in Youngstown I succeeded in signing up about a dozen new voters. Unfortunately, after a while, a cranky middle manager came out of Wal-Mart and told me “You can’t gather signatures here!” I told her I was simply registering voters but she wasn’t sympathetic. Too bad these companies, which profit so much from working people, don’t want them to exercise their right to vote.
 
The next day, it was into the neighborhoods to canvass. I was paired up with Beverly, a woman from Buffalo, who, like me, had arrived for the weekend to volunteer. She told me she has a 26-year old son, also named Andy, once ran for city council as a Republican, but is an avid supporter of Obama. She was particularly impressed with his leadership and speaking skills, and felt the need to convince others. She’d lost her own election, but it had given her experience going to door-to-door and talking to voters. A number of years ago, she was a Buffalo Bills cheerleader, and there’s still a bit of that spirit in her as we went door to door in Youngstown urging people to vote for Obama.
 
Youngstown is definitely in hard times. In many neighborhoods we visited, it seemed as if every other home was abandoned: broken windows, vines growing up the sides of the house or trees fallen in the yard from Hurricane Ike. There are still some jobs in Youngstown—GM has a plant not far from town—and you will find pockets of nice homes. But often, just across the street, you’ll see the burned-out shell of a school or a group of men sitting on a doorstep drinking beer from 20-ounce cans in paper sacks.
 
In Ohio, voters can go to any Board of Elections building and vote anytime between now and Nov. 4. The campaign was pushing this hard in order to get everyone eligible out to vote and reduce lines on election day. You may remember the news from 2004, when in parts of Ohio there were eight-hour lines at polling places.
 
What I enjoy most about canvassing is talking to undecided voters. The conversations we had were positive, instructive and encouraging. Generally, these undecided voters are white, working class and over 60. One woman and I talked a good 10 minutes about the economy, about people not getting medical care because they don’t have insurance, about the situation in Youngstown. People here are amazingly upbeat and friendly despite the circumstances.
 
Occasionally, I’d meet less-than-friendly people. I also had one very negative confrontation.
 
It was late in the day, and I knocked at the second-to-last house on my list. I heard a gruff “WHO IS IT?” from behind the door. I said I was a volunteer with the Obama campaign and inquired about a young voter on my list who lived there. Silence. So I said goodbye and left some campaign literature at the door. As I was walking back to the sidewalk, the man burst out a side door and literally came running at me, red in the face. A young black man was running up behind him, but unable to hold this guy back. Just inches from me, the man, a white man with a  beard and shirt with a motorcycle logo, shouted “Who the HELL are you?” He was shaking with rage. I told him again who I was and after a brief pause he yelled at me,“Just keep walking! NOW!” I did just that, moving slowly away. I met up with Beverly, who’d been working another street, and we drove back to the campaign office in the fading light.
 
It was scary to say the least. Had I flinched I think the guy would have struck me. What may have triggered the outburst was an incident in the neighborhood several days before. Two young African American men had posed as campaign workers just up the street, then robbed the home at gunpoint. So frustrating. Two stupid kids had hurt our efforts and inflamed racial tensions in this hard-hit town. Afterwards, we reported the encounter to the campaign office, and they agreed to stop canvassing in that immediate neighborhood.
 
But nothing was going to stop me from going out the next day.
 
On Sunday, I was invited by my hosts to attend a prayer breakfast at their church—the oldest African American church in Youngstown. Everyone was dressed in their finest, and the program featured members of churches talking about what had happened over the past year. There were presentations on what the church was doing in the community for children, for the elderly, and for those who were sick or homebound. A guest speaker joked about being riveted to CNN, and then talked about how many people in the community were worried about the future but were finding solace in the community of the church. There was plenty of singing, clapping, and a huge breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits, and grits. Afterwards, my host, Goldia, introduced me to the pastor, and, he shook my hand for at least a full minute. I was humbled to be so welcomed.
 
Then back to the neighborhoods. We visited 200 or more homes over the course of the weekend. We talked to many undecideds, most of whom were worried about the economy. Youngstown is already dealing with a recession, they’re already “ahead” of the country in that regard. In fact, many, of the voters on our lists had already moved away. Either they’d been unable to make payments or they’d left Youngstown for good.
 
It’s clear Youngstown’s problems will not be fixed overnight. Perhaps there’s not even much Obama can do outright. But I do think a fairer tax policy, some efforts to boost new energy industries, and getting more folks covered by health care is a start. The last eight years have not been good to this town. It reminded me how much is riding on this election.
 
After a day knocking on doors in brilliant sunshine, Beverly returned to Buffalo and I spent the evening training a new volunteer, Ann, who had driven to Ohio from Los Angeles and would be volunteering in Youngstown until election day. If only I had the time to do that! I can’t say enough about how people respond to one-on-one contact with volunteers. People are appreciative and want to talk about the issues and hear about your personal reasons for supporting Obama.

Even Republicans supporting McCain were appreciative. I talked to an older man named Jim while I was registering voters outside Walgreens. We had a friendly conversation. Even though he supported McCain, he thanked me for coming out from Seattle. It was those sorts of conversations that make me realize we are not as divided as the media portrays us. One of the things that draws me to Obama is that “agree to disagree” philosophy that has been missing from the national discourse for some time.
 
And there’s a real satisfaction when you make a connection. That happened back in Philadelphia, when an older woman took me into her home and confessed that she would vote for Obama (rather than Clinton) but didn’t want her neighbors to  know. She told me how, as a recently widowed woman, she was struggling to make ends meet. In tears, she told me how heating oil had cost her dearly the previous winter, and how she’d had to keep the thermostat below 60 to afford it. She’d voted for Reagan but was now more excited about the Obama campaign than any since Bobby Kennedy’s in ’68. She felt Obama actually gave a damn about people like her and was excited to see so many young people inspired by the campaign. And she was thankful, I think, that someone had taken the time to listen to her story.
 
More than anything, though, this campaign has helped me. Helped me see what people are going through in places less fortunate than my own. Helped me see what issues are truly important to people. It has shown me that even in difficult times, people maintain a sense of humor and a friendliness that is truly inspiring.
 
It also helped me meet people like Frank and his wife Mary. They are in their late 60s and have lived in Youngstown most of their lives. Frank suffered a stroke a few years ago so Mary asked if Beverly and I would come in and briefly talk to him: “It would mean so much to him. He can understand everything you say, but he can’t say anything.” We came into the home, and Mary introduced us as two volunteers working for the Obama campaign. “Frank, they’ve come here to visit you and ask if you’re going to support Obama. What do you think of Obama, Frank?”

Sitting at the kitchen table in a wheelchair with his head cocked to one side, he eyed us for a long moment. Then he slowly raised his hand and formed his shaking fingers into an OK sign.

Cheers,
Andy

Posted at 03:10 PM on Oct 13, 2008 in category Politics, Culture
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Sunday October 12, 2008

Norman Mailer and the 1964 Republican Convention

The excerpts of Norman Mailer’s letters in The New Yorker led me back to his piece, “In the Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964,” from Cannibals and Christians, which I first read over a decade ago. I remember I didn’t particularly like it. Norman went off on too many tangents, he reduced too many groups — “Goldwater girls ran to two varieties,” etc. Sometimes this stuff felt close to truth and sometimes it just felt hollow and mean. Parts of it still feel hollow and mean but most of the article feels shockingly contemporary. It makes the 1964 election feel like the first half of a bookend whose second half we may be fashioning.

So an Arizona senator is running for president by appealing to the worst elements of his party. The Midwestern and western elements of that party viciously attack the eastern establishment, the media, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “Indeed there was a general agreement that the basic war was between Main Street and Wall Street,” Norman writes. There’s a down-home folksiness in the candidate’s voice: “I think we’re going to give the Democrats a heck of a surprise,” he says. There’s a callback to Christianity: “The thing to remember is that America is a spiritual country, we’re founded on belief in God, we may wander a little as a country but we never get too far away,” he says.

At the convention, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco of all places, a senator from Colorado, Dominick, gives a speech in which he quotes a New York Times editorial from 1765 which rebuked Patrick Henry for his extreme ideas. Norman writes:

Delegates and gallery whooped it up. Next day Dominick confessed. He was only “spoofing.” He had known: there was no New York Times in 1765. Nor was there any editorial. An old debater’s trick. If there are no good facts, make them up. Be quick to write your own statistics. There was some umbilical tie between the Right Wing and the psychopathic liar.

Even so, for a time Norman considers voting for Goldwater. There are elements of LBJ and the Democratic party he can’t abide — its modern, clinical quality — and he thinks it may be worse to die a slow, suffocating death than to go out with Goldwater in a blaze of glory. But then:

One could not vote for a man who made a career by crying Communist—that was too easy: half the pigs, bullies and cowards of the twentieth century had made their fortune on that fear. I had a moment of rage at the swindle.

Cuba comes up, and Norman writes:

One could live with a country which was mad, one could even come to love her (for there was agony beneath the madness), but you could not share your life with a nation which was powerful, a coward, and righteously pleased because a foe one-hundredth our size had been destroyed.

Again and again, from a distance of 44 years, Norman hits you upside the head with the truth. 

Goldwater lost that election, he lost big, but in later years even the much-hated media would see that convention, and that loss, as the birth of the modern Republican party; they’d bend to Goldwater and see him through orange-colored glasses. Read this, though, and there’s no doubt about the elements he was stirring up.

So it feels like a bookend. Two Arizona senators. The first attacking the Civil Rights Act, the second attacking what may be the culmination of that Act. A friend of mine once said, “When I was a teenager I realized that you could either be successful or you could be right,” and in the early 1960s the Democratic party decided to be right, finally right, on the issue of civil rights and on the promise of the Declaration of Independence, and since then the Republican party has been successful largely on the back of that decision. But maybe not now. Maybe this period, in which I’ve lived my entire life, can finally be bookended. Ended. Maybe.

Posted at 12:44 PM on Oct 12, 2008 in category Politics, Books
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Saturday October 11, 2008

Letters from Norman

Finished reading the political excerpts of Norman Mailer's letters in the Oct. 6 New Yorker (apologies: I've been busy) and it reminded me all over again why I love that old left-conservative bastard. He's grandiose but self-effacing. He's far-sighted and non-doctrinaire. He's a late '40s Marxist who despised the Soviet Union, a man who admired both Fidel Castro and William F. Buckley, who even contributed to The National Review, but who, at the same time, or later (in '76), wrote, “But as for Ford, Reagan, Dole and the rest of that pirate ship — Mary, they're puke,” and who wrote, even later (in June '03):

Even if you're a deep-dyed conservative, and Republican, please disabuse yourself of the idea that Bush is a good guy. Please, Sal. It seems to me the best argument you can present is that he's a total, shallow, maniuplative shit, but that he's got the luck of the devil working for him and so his policy may not end up in total disaster...

Or how about this 1987 observation on the nature on Russians and Americans:

There is one difference between Russians and Americans that is crucial: in America we keep running ahead of our guilt. We stay ahead of it by technique, by every trendy step. We’re analyzed, tranquilized, and roboticized, nouvelle cuisine-ized, yuppified, we stay ahead of our anxiety and our great guilt and are able to avoid the issue. The Russians aren’t. They’re marooned in their guilt and there are very few Russians who don’t have a bad conscience because the history of that place for 30 years required one to turn on friends, not overly perhaps, but through acts of omission, not helping friends who run afoul of the authorities. And authority itself kept stalling in its own huge bad conscience. The Russians, I think, live closer to their souls than we do because they’re guilty, and I can’t tell you how moving it is that out of the top bureaucracy itself has come this recognition that they’ve got to change and have a more human government.

My favorite letter may be the one to Don DeLillo in 1988 congratulating him on Libra. Most people can't get past the size of Norman's ego but if they did they'd find a largeness of spirit that few people have:

What a terrific book. I have to tell you that I read it against the grain. I’ve got an awfully long novel going on the CIA, and of course it overlapped just enough that I kept saying, “this son of a bitch is playing my music,” but I was impressed, damned impressed, which I very rarely am. I think we keep ourselves writing by allowing the core of our vanity never to be scratched if we can help it, but I didn’t get away scot-free this time. Wonderful virtuoso stuff all over the place, and, what is more, I think you’re fulfilling the task we’ve just about all forgotten, which is that we’re here to change the American obsessions—those black holes in space—into mantras that we can live with. What you’ve given us is a comprehensible, believable, vision of what Oswald was like, and what Ruby was like, one that could conceivably have happened. ... It’s so rare when novel writing offers us this deep purpose and I swear, Don, I salute you for it.

Miss him.

Posted at 03:34 PM on Oct 11, 2008 in category Books, Culture
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Reporting the Forecast: Sports Illustrated's Baseball Preview Predictions

Since we’re on the subject of predictions...

I have SI’s March 31st issue, their baseball preview issue, and of course they include their predictions for the coming season. Not sure when this became de rigueur for publications. Growing up in the ‘70s, I don’t remember reading how the experts predicted the coming season in, say, the March issue of Baseball Digest. Were we more of a history-based culture then? This is where we’ve been, who knows where we’ll go? Now we ignore the past, are jittery in the present, pull the future towards us like Al Pacino pulling the fax out of the fax machine in The Insider. Haven’t seen it? See it.

Anyway, SI. Six divisions in baseball and they picked only two division winners correctly: Cubs and Angels. I know. Who knew the Rays would rise, the Tigers and Rockies would tank, the Mets would repeat last year’s September slide? They also correctly picked the bottom-dwellers only twice: Orioles and Pirates. They figured the Yankees would have the best record in baseball (94-68) while the O’s would have the worst (64-98), when it turned out to be Angels (100-62) and Nationals (59-102). They had the Mariners second-place in the West, five games out, rather than last place and 39 games out. They had the Twins in last place in the Central rather than playing the White Sox for the title in a one-game playoff.

None of the four teams remaining (Rays vs. Red Sox, Dodgers vs. Phillies) are the four teams they predicted (Tigers vs. Yankees, Cubs vs. Rockies). Their World Series is a classic matchup of Tigers vs. Cubs, with the Tigers winning. Reality? The Tigers finished the season in last place in the A.L. Central. Yeah, worse than the Royals.

But at least SI's predictions were from last March when 30 teams were in play. ESPN.com’s team of 18 experts made their postseason predictions on October 1 and after just one round only five World Series winners are left. Seven experts predicted the Angels would win it all while five gave it to the Cubs. Poof.

Yes, I know, predictions are fun, but we do too much of it. We predict and events play out, and we predict and events play out, and we never own up. I’m reminded — again — of Ron Suskind’s 2004 interview with an official in the Bush administration:
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.
Is it too easy to say, now, particularly now, that that's not the way things have sorted out?
Posted at 10:21 AM on Oct 11, 2008 in category Baseball, Culture
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Friday October 10, 2008

How to Predict: Follow the Numbers

I’m more historian than prognosticator — I tend to live life looking back rather than forwards (I know: it's not pretty) — so, for once, I thought I'd combine the two and check out two predictions from earlier this year.

The first, about baseball, from May. On the 21st, I said it was a good time to hate the Yankees. They were 20-25, in last place in the East, 7 1/2 back of the Rays, and, most importantly, “without the positive run differential they had last season that indicated they’d probably turn things around.” Five days later they were 25-25 but it was mostly on the backs of the hapless Mariners, whom, at that point, they’d beaten six out of six times, scoring 50 runs to the M’s 17. And they wouldn’t have the M’s to kick around much anymore.

How did it turn out? The Yankees did better than I thought they would. They finished 89-73, better than their record in, say, 1999, when they won it all. But it wasn’t good enough this year. For the first time in 14 years, they didn’t make the post-season. That’s how it appeared in May.

The second prediction, from early August, was about The Dark Knight. After its first week, MSNBC asked me to check out how it was doing, where it might be going, and could it unseat Titanic? I checked the numbers. I said in terms of worldwide box office, and Titanic’s $1.8 billion, no way. I said in terms of domestic box office, adjusted for inflation (and thus going up against Gone With the Wind’s $1.4 billion), no effin’ way. But domestic box office unadjusted for inflation? Titanic’s $600 million? I came up with a formula via a similar box office smash, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, and crunched the numbers. The numbers indicated a final take of $515 million. I wrote:
Other factors will come into play. “The Dark Knight” is better than “Pirates 2,” so it should have longer legs. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, singled out for high praise and Oscar buzz, may draw into theaters moviegoers who might not otherwise check out a superhero pic. And if Ledger, or the film itself, is nominated for an Oscar next January, that could boost its box office as well. Assuming it’s still in theaters. Even so, it would take a lot to make up $85 million.
The Dark Knight is still out there, plugging away, keeping us safe, and the movie has now reached $525 million. But it won’t get much higher. It made less than $1 million this past week, and that number, like all b.o. weekly totals, can only get lower. Probably won’t reach $530 million before it’s pulled.

So in both cases my predictions weren't far off. But neither was a true prediction. I didn’t predict how the Yankees would perform before the season began, and I didn’t predict how much money The Dark Knight would make when it hadn't opened yet. Both predictions occurred as things were progressing — when there were numbers available (run differential/weekly box office totals and drop-offs) with which to formulate answers. I just followed the relevant numbers.

Early August, when I wrote that Dark Knight piece, feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it? If only we had people in power who knew how to follow the relevant numbers.
Posted at 08:47 AM on Oct 10, 2008 in category Culture, Movies, Baseball
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Wednesday October 08, 2008

Musical Quote of the Day

Swimming like there's no tomorrow
Living like there's no regret
Looked up and saw the sorrow

Too far out
Too far out
This is what they said would happen
We were warned
We were warned
We were too far out

from the song "Too Far Out" by The Tropicals

Posted at 04:09 PM on Oct 08, 2008 in category Quote of the Day, Politics, Music
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Two Minute Review: Religulous (2008)

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, where a simplistic absolutism had once again beaten a more profound relativism, I began to wonder what I was truly certain about in this world. It was almost a childish lament. Man, everyone’s having fun with absolutism but me.

I lived in an age of fundamentalism and here I was, an agnostic, and what could an agnostic, who is basically giving the shrug of all shrugs, be certain about?

Slowly it hit me. I was a fundamentalist of sorts. I was a fundamentalist agnostic. Because not only did I know that I didn’t know, but I know that you didn’t know either. And Billy Graham didn’t know. And the Dali Lama didn’t know. And Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t know. None of us knew. We all had guesses. And for most of the history of the known world, we’ve been killing each other over these guesses.

All of which is lead-in to Bill Maher’s new documentary, Religulous.

Let me state right out that I don’t find Maher off-the-wall funny — the way that, say, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are off-the-wall funny. He’s hit-or-miss. He’s often too pleased with his own jokes, he’s a bit doctrinaire, particularly on the subject of religion, and his latest advice to Barack Obama — to punch more, to hit back mean and hard — may please Maher, and may even please me, and may even have helped win the 2004 election (which was more about the Iraq War and the War on Terror), but it’s bad advice on winning this election, which is more about the economy and extricating ourselves from the Thousand Crises of the Bush Administration.

So I didn’t expect much from Religulous. But man is it funny.

Maher is also a fundamentalist agnostic. He’s as dismissive of the certainty of atheists as he is of the certainty of fundamentalist Christians. He preaches the gospel of Doubt. That’s my kind of church.

Sure, some of his targets are easy. And he doesn’t really differentiate between the obvious charlatans of religion (a man who claims to be the second coming of Christ) and the people who appear to be fooling themselves (a homosexual who has gone straight and tries to straighten other homosexuals via Christianity) and the myriad true believers he meets. And he gets too certain and preachy in the end.

But the movie will make you laugh.

Posted at 08:59 AM on Oct 08, 2008 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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More Wrigley Blues

One of the nice things about my day job is that I get to have contact — phonically, internetally — with some good writers around the country, and one of the better ones, out of Chicago, is Will Wagner. Poor bastard's a Cubs fan. Wrote a book about them a few years back, and, following their ignominious trashing in this year's NLDS, he's got a good piece on Sports Illustrated's Web site.

All sports fans play games with themselves, and they, and I, go from being the most superstitious lot this side of Salem ("The Vikings scored a touchdown when I held my breath; I'll have to hold my breath from now on") to the most logical thinkers this side of Mr. Spock ("Really, how does this team's victory or loss affect me? My life's still the same. I've still got the same job, the same friends, the same problems. Really, it doesn't affect me at all.").

Will's piece is an example of why the latter almost never works.

Posted at 08:12 AM on Oct 08, 2008 in category Baseball
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Sunday October 05, 2008

Paul Newman: 1925-2008

An excerpt from William Goldman’s 1982 book Adventures in the Screen Trade. Goldman is writing about a crucial scene in the 1966 film, Harper, in which Newman plays a detective and Robert Wagner has something to hide:
Now it’s time for Wagner’s close-up. The camera is on him, and all Newman has to do is stand out of range with the script in his hands and read his string of insults. The camera rolls, Newman reads, and suddenly, as actors say, Wagner fills the moment —

—on camera, in close up, Robert Wagner starts to cry. This is, let me tell you, a bonus. And it’s genuinely exciting.

And no one is more excited than Newman. In fact, he’s so excited at what’s happening with Wagner that Newman begins fucking up the lines. All he has to do is stand there and read and he can’t get the goddam words out right.

It didn’t matter, thankfully. They got the shot. Wagner was so deep into what he was doing that the crying continued. After the shot was finished, everyone ran to Wagner and milled around, congratulating him; it was that thrilling.

Wagner said a moment like that had never happened to him before. He added one more thing: It was the first time in his experience that a major star had actually stayed around and stood there off camera, reading the lines with him, acting along, as it were. Usually, when the star is done with his shot, it’s off to the dressing room, and the remaining performer gets to act with the script girl reading the star’s lines. Script girls are very important on the set, they work like hell—but they are also noted for a certain woodenness when it comes to reciting dialog. No question that Newman’s presence helped Wagner fill the moment.
Posted at 11:07 AM on Oct 05, 2008 in category Movies
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Saturday October 04, 2008

The VEEP Debate: America's Cocktail Waitress

I'm glad people watched. 69.9 million viewers. I wish she'd done worse. I want her off the national stage. She doesn't belong there. She doesn't belong there even if everything is going right, and it sure as hell ain't. We're in the middle of a perfect storm of crises — Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, banking crisis, mortgage crisis, unemployment. Our national debt is surging past $10 trillion, which is twice the amount it was when George Bush took office. Remember that healthy surplus he inherited that he promptly gave away in Santy-Claus checks and tax breaks for the wealthy? $10 trillion! And that's before the bailout. And there's still 40-plus percent who think Sarah Palin should be vice president and possibly president of the United States? To add what? To offer what? A platitude while you lose your job? A wink and a smile while you lose your home? You listened to her hold onto her talking points for dear life and thought, "What kind of ego does it take to be so blinded to your complete lack of qualifications for a job? And not just any job but the job of leading our country through the greatest crises it's faced since the Great Depression and WW II? How dare she? How dare he?" I'll never forgive John McCain for putting her on that stage.

Here's what I don't get. Most of us have to suffer through unqualified bosses — the world is rife with them — and yet, given the chance, the American people keep electing unqualified bosses, someone who obviously isn't smart enough for the job. The Republicans keep giving us these people: Reagan, Quayle, W., now Palin. Just when you think it can't get worse, it does. Enough. Enough.

Remember when The National Review was run by smart people? Here's what its current editor, Rich Lowry, said about Palin's performance Thursday night:

I'm sure I'm not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, "Hey, I think she just winked at me." And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.

I can think of no better response than what one of Andrew Sullivan's readers wrote:

In reaction to Rich Lowry, I'm sure I'm not the only woman who, upon reading his words, sat up a little straighter and said, "Is he kidding?  Is he goddamn kidding me?"  Is this the kind of reaction the women in this country should want men to have to the possible first female Vice Presidential candidate in history?  Holy hell.

I thought Palin's performance at the debate was downright embarrassing and on top of that I have to read this clown's blog, stating more or less that Palin gave him an erection? Little starbursts my ass.  Here's what I thought when Palin "dropped" that first wink at us: "Did she just wink at us like she was America's cocktail waitress?" Rich Lowry is on the verge of slapping Sarah Palin on the ass and asking her for another of those fantastic whiskey sours. 

Please. Please. Please. Get her off the stage. Now. People are watching.

P.S. Joe Biden kicked ass.

Posted at 09:24 AM on Oct 04, 2008 in category Politics
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Friday October 03, 2008

The Real Joe Sixpack

I first saw this on Andrew Sullivan's site and teared up — particularly at the beginning when everyone starts standing. Oliver Willis calls Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO delivering the speech, his hero for the day. He is, and more. In facing up to our great national horror we may be finally overcoming it.

Posted at 06:06 PM on Oct 03, 2008 in category Politics
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Literary Quote of the Day

"George F. Will writes: 'Bush's terseness is Ernest Hemingway seasoned with John Wesley.'

"Well, one is hardly familiar with John Wesley's sermons, but I do know that to put George W. Bush's prose next to Hemingway's is equal to saying that Jackie Susann is right up there with Jane Austen. Did a sense of shame ever reside in our Republican toadies? You can't stop people who are never embarrassed by themselves."

Norman Mailer, in a letter to The Boston Globe, March 13, 2002, and reprinted in a section of the Oct. 6 New Yorker. The last sentence in particular made me wonder what Norman would've made of Sarah Palin.

Posted at 04:51 PM on Oct 03, 2008 in category Quote of the Day, Politics
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