erik lundegaard

Tuesday July 31, 2012

My Q&A with Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

Gore Vidal, one of the great American essayists, and one of the great traitors of the wealthy classes, died today from pneumonia. He was 86.

I met him once. In November 1999, on the heels of the publication of “The Smithsonian Institution,” a novel that in many ways oddly prefigures the Ben Stiller movie “Night at the Museum,” he visited Town Hall in Seattle to discuss his life and work. I talked with him briefly at the reception beforehand. I remember being surprised at how tall he was.

As the Vidal expert at The Seattle Times (freelance division), I got to interview him ... but on his terms. We did it by fax, me at my apartment in Seattle and he in his home on the Almafi coast in Italy. This set-up, unfortunately, precluded follow-ups. As a result, I tried to pack as much as I could into each question. Sometimes I obviously packed too much. Sometimes he misinterpreted what I'd packed. The last question, for example, was meant to be a compliment but I can see how it doesn't read as one. My favorite answer was to question No. 9.

We ran a profile rather than a straight Q&A but I like the straight Q&A better.

Vidal now joins his contemporaries: Capote, Baldwin, Updike, Mailer, Salinger. Doctorow and Roth live.

Here's the Q&A.

1. How often have you visited the Smithsonian Institute? Any memorable moments there?
As a schoolboy I--we--were often taken to the Smithsonian and I used to daydream that the life-like exhibits would come alive at night. My most memorable visit was a few years ago when The Discovery Channel was doing a piece on the early days of aviation which included newsreel footage of me at ten flying a Rammond “Flivver” plane. We found the plane in a line-up of old aircraft and I discussed my flight to the TV camera.

2) What made you begin The Smithsonian Institution? How did the novel--and your ideas for the novel--change during the course of the writing?
When I work on what I think of as my inventions (as opposed to meditations on history like Lincoln) I never know what is going to happen next in my invented universe whose laws must be carefully kept or the whole structure collapses. I also gave myself a crash course in quantum physics.

3) Was this a fun novel to write? It seems so. You get to turn Douglas MacArthur into a traitor, obliterate the entire Woodrow Wilson presidency, and send Henry Luce to jail. Did you laugh to yourself while writing such scenes? What other historical characters were you thinking about playing with? Do you think the world would have been a better place without the Wilson presidency?
The US would never have gone into WWI had it not been for Wilson. He was a compulsive interventionist; prior to the world war, he sent troops to Mexico, Haiti, Dominican republic. An unreconstructed southerner, he made Jim Crow law in Washington.

4) Is this version of Lincoln, bullet-stunned, Sandburg-quoting, who winds up as a waxwork in Disneyland (cf. “First Note on Abraham Lincoln”), your final thumb-nose at your Lincoln detractors in Academia?
Academe is always far from my thoughts. But I suppose, unconsciously, I was trying to be as inventive as they are but when it comes to fiction, history teachers are always in the vanguard.

5) Why does Grover Cleveland come out so well here? He seems down-to-earth and likeable compared to the pomposity of the other Presidents.
Cleveland was a wise and serious man. Unfortunately, he came during the lull between Lincoln and T. Roosevelt and so was lost.

6) How relevant is the gossip of history (McKinley as morphine-addict)? Does it help humanize those we’ve mythologized?
It is the essence of biography as everyone from Suetonius and Plutarch on has known. History can do without it--see Braudel and the annalistes.

7) Why “T.”?
T is the symbol for Time. The boy is a time traveller.

8) In Palimpsest you talk briefly about the themes of doubleness and duplicity in your work, and they obviously return in The Smithsonian Institution. Is T. some combination of yourself and Jimmie Trimble?
Perhaps. There is a possibility that the two are one. One resconstructs the one after death, which is a function of art if not yet of science.

9) You were part of the “America First” movement back in 1939-40 and in The Smithsonian Institution you prevent the European half of WW II from occurring. You saw your other half in Jimmie Trimble and in The Smithsonian Institution you prevent his death on Iwo Jima (which allowed him to marry happily and become a professional baseball player). Question: for all its knowledge of history, how much of The Smithsonian Institution is your ultimate adolescent wish?
Surely the wish is adult not adolescent.

10) How does it feel to have some of your views (the dangers of foreign adventures--in particular WW II) parroted back by Pat Buchanan in his book “A Republic, Not an Empire”?
Very peculiar. The same thing happened 8 years ago when Jerry Brown started giving my We the People speeches. Since I approved of Brown, I gave him more speeches to give. If B hadn't taken his stand for the foetus and the flag and against the Jew and the fag, he might be a useful formidable populist candidate. Our people are always anti-war unlike the bankers. Also, we have not had a major presidential candidate since Bryan. There is not one to represent the majority.

11) Is Squaw based on anyone?
Perhaps.

12) Over the years you’ve proven yourself to be a not poor prognosticator. Any predictions for the 2000 presidential race? You going to vote for your cousin? Are you close to Vice-President Gore?
Albert and I have carefully avoided one another. I did like his father personally. Since all the candidates now on offer represent the 1% that owns most of the country's wealth I wouldn't dream of voting for any of them. The system has broken down. I suspect a Pentagon committee in the offing.

13) You’ve implied that you’ve spent your life trying to escape the American aristocracy. So why do you always write about them?
Very few of the presidents that I write about are aristocrats. Our rulers, until recently, bought presidents and Congresses but did not themselves go into politics. Nelson Rockefeller broke the mould. Possibly because he was dyslexic.

Finally, you write about what you know.

14) I’ve often joked that I wish I could be as sure about one thing in life as Gore Vidal is about everything. Here’s your chance: what are you unsure of?
That is an old line always applied by right wingers to anyone who would like to change the system that they do well by. I am definitely unsure of our weird economy and how much longer over-priced equities can continue before someone wakes up to the fact that the Dow Jones is the latest avatar of the Wizard of Oz. Look up the word “avatar”. Good word that everyone misuses.

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal: 1925-2012

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Posted at 09:38 PM on Jul 31, 2012 in category From the Archives
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Dave Eggers' Review of Grant Peterson's 'Just Ride': Annotated

The following review of Grant Petersen's book, “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike,” by Dave Eggers, was published in The New York Times Book Review last Sunday. I objected when I read it then. Today, a Facebook friend posted it favorably. My objections now. 

Many a weekend bicycle rider has had the same unsettling experience: You ask a friend to ride with you along some scenic, low-impact route. You show up wearing shorts, Sambas and a T-shirt, and he shows up dressed for an Olympic time trial. Sambas? On his torso is a very tight shirt slashed with a half-dozen garish colors and logos irrelevant to him. His helmet, decorated with flames or stripes or both, is equipped with a rearview mirror. A rubber straw dangles around his neck like a fur stole, through which he can drink fluids from a container on his back. And then there are the spandex leg-­enclosures. These have patches of yellow on either flank, giving the impression that your friend is wearing chaps. Yellow-and-black spandex chaps.  

All this for a 10-mile ride on a bike path. Now that's one well-dressed straw man. (But I agree on the spandex chaps.)

BikeIf you can identify with the more casually dressed biker described above (what if you identify with neither?), or if you want to go biking but have been scared away by the sport’s cult of gear and equipment (or traffic?), then your bible has been written. Grant Petersen’s “Just Ride” is a wonderfully sane, down to earth and frequently funny guide to riding, maintaining, fixing and enjoying your bicycle. That so much common sense will be considered revelatory, even revolutionary, is a testament to how loony the bike world has become.

Petersen opens with this salvo: “My main goal with this book is to point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment and attitudes, and then undo it.” And he goes on to prove, conclusively, that most of what ails the world of cycling comes from nonprofessional riders pretending, or being bullied into pretending, that they’re professionals. The solution, he says, is to emulate kids and other “Unracers” — people who bike for fun and not profit. What if you bike for transportation? What if you bike commute? Is that dealt with at all? Aren't bike commuters, like, 90 percent of the cyclists most people see? (Or, more often, don't see.)

The accepted orthodoxies are upended, one after another.  Petersen is skeptical of special biking shoes. I felt the same until I ruined too many tennis shoes biking in the Seattle rain. Bike shoes are much more rain resistant. He is pro-kickstand, pro-mud-flap. Definitely pro-kickstand. Where did that go? Bring it back! He thinks a wide, comfortable saddle is O.K. Who doesn't? He doesn’t see why anyone needs more than eight gears. Well, he's a professional. Biking up some of Seattle's hills at the end of a long day, at the end of a long week, I don't mind having those extra low gears. He thinks fragile carbon-fiber bikes and ­super-narrow tires are impractical for just about everyone (“Getting paid to ride them is the only good reason I can think of to ride that kind of bike”). I guess. I have a hybrid. He has nuanced thoughts on helmets (he wears his at night but not during the day) and reminds us that biking is “lousy all-around exercise” and shouldn’t be considered a stand-alone regimen. I didn't wear a helmet until I took a header against a car's bumper in '94. Now I wear one all the time. Then again, I bike in traffic. But most satisfying is his takedown of the tight-shirt, ­spandex-shorts phenomenon. Does that include tight cotton shirts? Is it the tightness or the fabric of the shirt that we're objecting to here? I'm confused.

“In its need for special clothing,” he writes, “bicycle riding is less like scuba diving and more like a pickup basketball game.” A regular cotton T-shirt and a pair of shorts will ventilate better, he says, and if you’re not trying to shave seconds off a world record, the microscopic aerodynamic advantages of tight synthetic clothing just don’t apply to you. Again, I'm not a fan of spandex shorts--especially on guys. But shirts? You know how long it takes a cotton shirt to dry after biking with a backpack on a hot day? Too often I'd bike to work in the morning in a cotton T and by evening it was still damp. Ick.

Coming from just anyone, this kind of thinking wouldn’t carry much weight. But Petersen raced for six years, then worked at Bridgestone, Japan’s largest bike maker, as a designer and marketer.  When the company closed its American office, he opened his own shop, Rivendell Bicycle Works, in Walnut Creek, Calif. It would seem, then, that Petersen, as the ultimate insider, would be the first guy to push expensive racing gear on every would-be enthusiast to walk into his shop. And yet!

But with this book, he’s trying to bring biking back to a state of moderation and rationality. If you like the gear, he’s fine with that, and if you don’t agree with all his advice, no problem. But he makes the case that at its core, biking should be a simple, democratic, sometimes ludicrously enjoyable means of getting around. It should be. But what prevents that, more than cyclists who over-gear and somehow “shame” the rest of us, is this: traffic. It's that we've designed a society for automobiles rather than for cyclists and pedestrians. What keeps most people in their cars, I've found, is people in their cars.

“No matter how much your bike costs,” he says, “unless you use it to make a living (or unless you commute?) , it is a toy, and it should be fun.” I use my bike to commute. It's fun. But it's not a toy.

Amen. Ride safe.

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Posted at 02:21 PM on Jul 31, 2012 in category Biking
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N'allez pas trop vite avec Marcel Proust

Mais precisez, mon cher monsieur, n'allez pas trop vite.

--Marcel Proust, in 1919, when asking diplomat Harold Nicholson to explain his work. Proust wouldn't be put off by a general description; he wanted all the details: the sham cordiality; the handshakes; the maps; the rustle of the papers; the macaroons.

The quote is taken from the third chapter of Alain de Botton's “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” which is the book's most meaningful chapter to me. People complained about the 3,000-page length of “Remembrance of Things Past” even when it was published 100 years ago. “I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns before falling asleep,” wrote Albert Humblot, head of Ollendorf, a publishing house. Jacques Madeleine, a reader for another publishing house, Fasquelle, 700 pages in, complained, “...one doesn't have a single, but not a single clue of what this is about. What is the point of all this? What does it mean?” An American reader, 27, who spent years with the book, wrote Proust himself. “Just tell me in two lines,” she suggested, “what you really wanted to say.”

This is a battle, on a much smaller level, of course, that I've been fighting most of my writing life. Editors generally want shorter and shorter pieces—from 1,000 words, to 750, to 350, to 140 characters—for what they feel are shorter and shorter attention spans. The Internet, with its unlimited space, hasn't helped. The opposite. The pace of life speeds up, and it seems normal for every generation until it doesn't, until it speeds past them, and that becomes the norm for the next generation. That's partly why I write here, for nothing, rather than elsewhere, for something. Elsewhere, they're not interested in 3,500-word reviews of “Moneyball.” They want trash. And in such small portions, too.

De Botton juxtaposes the above complaints against Proust with Proust's own complaints about the newspapers of his day:

That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper, thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don't even care, into a morning treat, bleinding in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of cafe au lait.

But he kept reading the newspaper. He even turned one news-in-brief account of a young man killing his mother, and then, bumblingly, himself, into a five-page article with overtones of the Greek classics.

It's this kind of detail and precision, De Botton argues, which leads to understanding, and sympathy, and empathy, while abbreviation, which is what we mostly get, leads to the opposite. Generally the deeper you go into someone's story, the more you care. The more you skim, the more you tweet, the less you care. Speed things up enough and eventually you wind up with societies like ours.

Marcel Proust: N'allez pas trop vite

Proust, reflective.

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Posted at 07:22 AM on Jul 31, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday July 30, 2012

Quote of the Day: Vinny takes on Aaron Sorkin (and Neil deGrasse Tyson?)

“After watching this I've finally decided that I just don't like Aaron Sorkin. The clip pretends to rise above jingoism (but ends up falling hard for it), above a straw-man of liberalism, and instead presents a sentimental, white-washed version of US history. And it does so with the intent of rallying us all to 'remake' the US as the 'greatest country in the world'... a misguided, foolishly competitive errand if there ever was one. ...

”'If liberals are so smart, how come they lose all the time?' If you think this line is funny, enjoy it. Liberals look back at the last 100 years of politics and see huge, lasting victories: women's suffrage, major civil rights victories for blacks, winning the Cold War, creation and protection of Social Security/Medicare/ Medicaid, and the widespread acceptance of gay rights. What can conservatives be proud of in that time? Give me your list; 'destroying the power of unions' better be on it.

“I'm judging Sorkin on seeing plenty of 'West Wing' and 'The Social Network.' It's feel-good, self-important drama, not drama that has much to do with the real world. His writing is catchy, like eating a bucket full of Skittles. It's juicy and gives you a little high; when it's over you just feel gross.

”This bullshit about how America didn't use to be 'afraid,' and how we 'used' to make decisions based on facts, etc. is just nauseating. Look at the Japanese internment camps during WW2, look at the Sedition laws in WW1. Look at Joe McCarthy. Americans, throughout history, like every other country in the world, ever, have always had a wide streak of fear, paranoia and irrationality. Throwing pixie dust around about how we used to be soooo strong, and how that was based on the strength of our 'core values' that we've somehow drifted away from is ridiculous. The US was incredibly strong following WW2 because we'd devoted our entire nation to the purpose of building up our military. We entered the war long after it was over, and lost a tiny fraction of our materiel and men after the rest of the major powers had crushed each other. We were the only one left standing. And we were able to do that because we basically had the Western Hemisphere to ourselves. If you swap the American People with the Russian People circa 1938, there is nothing inherently Awesome about us that would have dealt with Hitler any better than the Russians did.

“We've also had the luxury of starting modern life in 1700 on a fantastically huge, undeveloped treasure trove of natural resources. Every other major nation was surrounded by competitors, and had been developing their natural environment for hundreds if not thousands of years. The exploitation (some good, some bad) of resources in our 300+ year history has given us a titanic 'head start' in the race to become 'the greatest.' For a time following WW2, we were probably 'the greatest'... not that I give a shit about which country is 'winning' that race, nor should anyone.

”So... do I think the media should switch to reporting facts, and encouraging rational debate? Of course. It would make us wiser, and lead to better policies. Do I think Aaron Fucking Sorkin is contributing to this cause in any way? Nope. He's selling Hallmark cards.“

--my friend Uncle Vinny in a Facebook rant against the five-minute open to Aaron Sorkin's HBO series ”The Newsroom,“ which he apparently saw via Neil deGrasse Tyson's Facebook page. For the record, Mr. deGrasse Tyson posted the video because ”One of the great forces of delusion is under-informed pride of country." Here's the clip:


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Posted at 02:21 PM on Jul 30, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Smashing Film Crit Hulk's Review of 'Dark Knight Rises'

My friend Tim directed me to Film Crit Hulk's review of “The Dark Knight Rises,” which I could barely get through. Hulk need editor. Hulk not use simple words but big college words. Hulk need to get to point. “BEFORE WE BEGIN” is bad way to begin. This made head hurt:

THE THING TO ALSO UNDERSTAND IS THAT MOST OF THESE THINGS ARE NOT THE KIND OF THINGS THAT PREVENT NOLAN FROM MAKING A BIG, ENTERTAINING MOVIE.

Hulk not rewrite Hulk's words? Hulk make plug for THING movie with so many THING words? Make Erik want to smash.

[Cough.]

But the review did make me realize what “The Dark Knight Rises” should've been.

Two options.

  1. In the first movie, Batman becomes a symbol of law and order in an anarchic world. In the second movie, the Joker represents an attack from the side of anarchy. So why not, in the third movie, have the villain, Bane or whomever, attack him from the side of law and order? Bane, or whomever, posits himself as a better vigilante and usurps Batman's role. Then he defeats Batman (who's wanted for murder, after all). Then he takes over Gotham to an unhealthy degree. 
  2. A better option is closer to what we actually have. Batman is a symbol of law and order but also a symbol of the status quo. The new villain, or vigilante, could be, like Bane in “DKR,” more of a Robin Hood, and presented as such to us the audience. I.e., there is no Talia. There is no nuke. If there is an ulterior motive we don't see it until later. In the last few years the great criticism from the left is how, give or take a Bernie Madoff, none of those responsible for the Global Financial Meltdown are in jail. That would be Bane's criticism of Batman, too. He's fighting the wrong crimes. He's attacking the victims. He's maintaining a corrupt status quo. He's keeping the system unfair. Then you go wherever you go.

2) is more interesting to me but 1) would've aligned better with the ending of “The Dark Knight.”

Either would've been better than what we got.

The Hulk vs. Batman, circa 1981

“THE THING TO ALSO UNDERSTAND IS THAT MOST OF THESE THINGS ARE NOT THE KIND OF THINGS...” Who knew Hulk verbose?

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Posted at 11:18 AM on Jul 30, 2012 in category Movie Reviews
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Movie Review: Ted (2012)

WAHNIN’: SPOILAHS

There are belly laughs in Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” but afterwards I felt depressed and unclean.

“Ted” is a movie about a miracle that gets usurped by the worst 1980s pop-culture crap. It’s about putting away childish things when the main character doesn’t. The two central characters, John Bennett and Lori Collins (Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis), are both nice, good-looking people but most everyone around them is a douchebag, a sap, creepy, or depressingly stupid. A nighttime chase scene winds up at Fenway Park and I thought, “Can’t we have one movie set in Boston that doesn’t wind up at Fenway Park?” Retahded.

But it’s mostly the pop-culture crap, and the waste it signifies, that got me down.

Movie poster for Seth MacFarlane's "Ted" (2012)The movie opens in a nice middle-class neighborhood. It’s Christmastime. Snow is falling gently on the ground, the kids are building snowmen, and it’s that time of year, we’re informed by the narrator (Patrick Stewart), when all the little children ... beat up on the Jewish kids. Little John Bennett is the nice kid in the neighborhood who leaves his house as it’s happening, as four gentiles are beating up on a curly-haired Jewish kid, and he asks, innocently, if anyone wants to play. Everyone pauses in the beating to tell him to get lost—including the Jewish kid. “Yeah, Bennett,” he says, “Get lost!” That’s the first time I belly laughed.

For Christmas John gets a teddy bear, and that night he wishes it could talk to him for real, that it could be his friend for real. A shooting star goes by. Next morning, this miracle has happened.

Initially we wonder if it’s going to be a “Mr. Ed” thing, where nobody will see Ted walking and talking but John. Nope. His parents see and freak. Next thing we know, Ted is on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He’s a hit. He’s a celebrity. Which is when Patrick Stewart informs us of the first rule of celebrity: “Eventually nobody gives a shit.” And that happens to Ted.

We cut to 2012 and John, now 35,  and Ted are hanging out on the couch, getting high, eating Sugar Pops cereal and watching Sam Jones in the 1980 camp classic “Flash Gordon.” Ted, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, talks about how ugly Boston girls are. He does a bit mocking the Boston girl mid-orgasm: “Hahdah, hahdah.” The two talk about how “Flash Gordon” is the all-American movie: a football quarterback goes into outer space to save the world. What could be better? They both agree Patriots QB Tom Brady could totally do that. Then John realizes it’s 9:30 and he’s already late for work at Liberty Rent-a-Car, where he’s hoping to hang on long enough to make a $37K a year job. Since he’s too high, Ted drives him there.

Can I pause for a moment? I just hate this kind of thing. I hate it when a movie gives us a transformative event but doesn’t recognize it as such. The filmmakers are so intent on their own metaphor, or have so little faith in humanity, that they assume we’ll see the transformative event as akin to, I don’t know, the iPad, or “Home Alone,” and, after a flurry of activity, we’ll forget about it.

So in “District 9,” the transformative event is aliens landing on Earth, the metaphor is “aliens as persecuted minority,” and that’s what they become, and that’s all they become. So in “Ted,” an inanimate object becomes a living, sentient being through prayer. In the real world, entire religions would be built around him. Thousands would descend upon John, demanding that he pray for them, too. The law would get involved (does Ted have civil rights?), as would science (exactly how is he alive?), and the military (can John animate other inanimate objects—like weapons?). But writer-director Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) would rather wallow in gags about ’80s pop culture. Ted, a true Christmas miracle, simply becomes a fuzzier version of Gary Coleman: a cute star in the 1980s who struggles to find his way in the 2000s.

MacFarlane steeps us in ’80s nostalgia. During John’s first date with Lori, four years earlier, they watch “Octopussy” together. When he recalls the party where they met on the dance floor, it’s an almost frame-by-frame remake of the “Saturday Night Fever” parody sequence in “Airplane.” “Flash Gordon” keeps getting referenced, and Sam Jones, its star, eventually shows up, and they all party and do coke together, which causes Lori to break up with John, who tries to win her back by crashing Norah Jones’ concert and singing “All Time High,” the theme from “Octopussy,” to Lori in the audience.

There are also references to Sinead O’Connor, Tom Skerrit, “Top Gun,” “T.J. Hooker,” and “Aliens,” while the villain, Donny (an incredibly creepy Giovanni Ribisi), who covets Ted, wants to buy him, and then kidnaps him, dances to Tiffany singing her mall-hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

Ick.

We see the conflict between Lori and Ted coming a mile off, and, to MacFarlane’s credit, he doesn’t draw it out. Lori wants Ted out, John is straightforward with him, Ted gets his own place and a job as a cashier at a supermarket, where he bangs the cute cashier, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth, who has an early Denise Richards thing going) on top of the produce in the back. For which he gets promoted.

There are funny bits. Ted tells off the grocery store manager, who admits he’s not used to being talked to that way. “That’s because everyone’s mouth is usually full of your wife’s box,” Ted replies.

There are sweet bits. Lori says, “I know I’m not a talking teddy bear but at least you didn’t have to make a wish to get me.” John replies, “How do you know?”

Wahlberg is, again, quite good as another sweet, laid-back dude who can throw a punch when he needs to. And the look of pure joy on his face when he first sees Sam Jones is adorable. But he’s playing a guy who eats Sugar Pops and gets high all the time and he still looks like Mark Wahlberg? Please. Plus I wouldn’t mind seeing him show the fire he showed in “The Departed” again. At least once. In a leading role.

Ultimately “Ted” is a celebration of stupid people liking stupid shit. One assumes that MacFarlane, as funny as he is, is one of these people. He has the chance to say something about miracles, or the emptiness of nostalgia, but we don’t even get the “putting away childish things” lesson. During a chase, Ted gets torn, and dies, but he’s brought back to life by Lori, who makes her own wish on a shooting star. Apparently this is the only wish God grants: Bringing Ted to life. So he can make pussy jokes. Plus jokes about Mexicans and the Chinese, who are, like, totally hilarious. The way they talk.

If it’s any consolation, I don’t like “Family Guy,” either.

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Posted at 07:02 AM on Jul 30, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Sunday July 29, 2012

Quotes of the Day: Ichiro and 'The Throw'

“It was going to take a perfect throw to get me. And it was a perfect throw.”
--Terrence Long, the A's outfielder who ran from first to third on a single to Mariners' right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, on April 11, 2001.

“I didn’t have to move my glove.”
--David Bell, the Mariners third baseman, who caught the throw from Ichiro.

“Terrence was a pretty fast runner, but Ichiro just came up with a hose. It was his ‘Here I am!’ moment as an outfielder.”
--Eric Chavez, the A's third baseman, and now Ichiro's teammate on the New York Yankees, watching from the dugout.

“The ball was hit right to me. Why did he run when I was going to throw him out?”
--Ichiro Suzuki, right fielder.

The quotes are all from Benjamin Hoffman's piece in today's New York Times, ”A Throw that Made a Phenomenon: Rookie Ichiro Suzuki's perfect peg in 2001 made Baseball take notice.“

I remember the throw (or The Throw) well. It's one of the most stunning I've seen. Not because of the distance—I've seen longer throws—but because there was almost no arc to it. It was a laser beam that seemed to defy gravity. It never had height; it just had sizzle.

You can see a clip of the throw on MLB.com. They show it a couple of times. Stick around for the last and best angle, the one that causes one announcer to say, ”Wow,“ and color announcer Dave Valle to say, ”...a strike down the middle, like David Bell was a catcher.“

Ichiro after "The Throw" against Terrence Long: April 11, 2001

”Why did he run when I was going to throw him out?”

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Posted at 05:29 PM on Jul 29, 2012 in category Seattle Mariners
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Movie Review: Casa de mi Padre (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I don’t think I’ve laughed less at anything Will Ferrell’s been in: any skit on “Saturday Night Live,” any cameo in a Ben Stiller film, any video on the “Funny or Die” site.

Once again, the trailer has all the best bits. By which I mean the muted, forced chuckle of Ferrell as he and his compadres, on horseback, watch the cattle graze. That made me laugh. Did anything else in this movie? poster for "Casa de mi Padre" (2012), starring Will FerrellI’m drawing a blank.

Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, the sweet, somewhat stupid, and somewhat cowardly son of land-rich patriarch Miguel Ernesto (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.), who favors his younger son, Raul (Diego Luna), who, unbeknownst, is a drug dealer in a festering rivalry with Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Raul has also returned with a bride-to-be, the beautiful Sonia (the beautiful Genesis Rodriguez), who may or may not favor Armando.

There are a lot of jokes based upon the poor production values of Mexican cinema. It’s not like these don’t translate; it’s that they’re not funny. They’re tepid. Either push the joke further or eliminate it. Here, they’re stuck in this bland middle ground. They almost feel tacked on.

I’m sure there are in-jokes about Mexican cinema that I just didn’t get. God, I certainly hope so. At the same time, I recall at least being charmed by another Mexican film parody from Hollywood, “Nacho Libre” (2006), starring Jack Black, and directed by Jared Hess of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame. It was sweet, and funny, and focused on that bizarre Mexican cinematic fixation with masked wrestlers.

There’s no similar charm in “Casa.” The girl is hot, Ferrell is amusing in a few scenes, and I liked the campire singalong, “Yo no se,” with his compadres. Basically I got five minutes of enjoyment out of an 85-minute film.

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Posted at 07:54 AM on Jul 29, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Saturday July 28, 2012

2012 Box Office Trivia Question

The highest-grossing movies of the year thus far, domestic, are no surprise—although I think we thought Spidey would do better. And the full ramifications of the Aurora shootings aren't in yet for “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Here are the top 5, as of Sunday morning:

  1. THE AVENGERS: $615 million
  2. THE HUNGER GAMES: $405 million
  3. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: $235 million
  4. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: $225 million
  5. THE LORAX: $214 million

By the end of the weekend, “Dark Knight” will surpass Spidey, and No. 6, Pixar's “Brave,” will surpass “The Lorax.” But that's not the question. Here's the question:

What is the highest-grossing live-action comedy of the year thus far?

Answer in the comments field.

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Posted at 07:46 AM on Jul 28, 2012 in category Movies - Box Office
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Lancelot Links

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Posted at 07:27 AM on Jul 28, 2012 in category Lancelot Links
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Friday July 27, 2012

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s too soon.

That’s the big problem with Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It’s been only 10 years since we last saw Peter Parker get bit by a spider and develop super-powers, and watch Uncle Ben die, and wrestle with issues of power and responsibility as he fights bad guys and gives up those he loves to protect them from those who hate. Just 10 years. And they pretty much got it right the first time. So what’s the point of “The Amazing Spider-Man”?

Sixteen years separated Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Chris Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” and during that time major innovations occurred in filmmaking and CGI and politics and superhero storytelling. We went from a Cold War world to a post-9/11 world. We went from mail to email, from daily newspapers to aggregate sites. We went from a world of DC moviemaking (“Batman”) to Marvel moviemaking (“X-Men”; “Spider-Man”). But from 2002 to 2012? What’s really happened? Obama. iStuff. Our phones got smarter as we got dumber. Otherwise?

Should we reboot the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy now? Harry Potter? Shrek? The Dark Knight? How infantile are we becoming?

Tell us that story again, Daddy.

Peter Parkour
At least director Marc Webb (thwip) and screenwriter James Vanderbilt do their best to tell the story in a new way. They give us Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), not poster for "The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012) starring Andrew GarfieldMary Jane Watson; Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary), not J. Jonah Jameson; the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), not the Green Goblin. They don’t graduate Peter from high school. They never have Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) utter the famous phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, he tells Peter, “Not choice, responsibility.” Hey, maybe they’re trying to prevent another disaster like “Spider-Man 3,” whose great lesson was, “We always have a choice.” And maybe that’s why they show us the cash-register thief (AKA, the Burglar) actually killing Uncle Ben, so no future director can give us retcon bullshit that undoes Spider-Man’s entire raison d’etre. Yeah, I’m still pissed off about it.

They make Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) sexy and cool. That’s new. Instead of a wide-eyed, sweet geek, which is what Tobey Maguire gave us, he’s practically James Dean here. He’s troubled, and slouchy, and conflicted, and his hair goes every which way. He wears a hoodie and rides a skateboard and when he first develops super-powers, and is being chased by punks, he bounces off the walls and over metal railings like Sebastian Foucan on steroids. He’s Peter Parkour. He should be in a Mountain Dew commercial.

This Peter Parker stands up to bullies like Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) before he even gets super powers. A good touch. I always thought it wrong that Peter never fought back until he had the overwhelming power to do so. If he can’t stand up to people whose strength is greater than his own as Peter Parker, how does he develop the courage to do so as Spider-Man?

Do they, in fact, make Peter too exemplary? Smart and sexy and courageous? There’s a scene halfway through where two science nerds debate the propensities of Spider-Man’s web, and Peter follows behind them with a kind of smirk on his face. He’s not them, he’s apart from them. But didn’t he used to be them? They’ve skipped the Steve Ditko version of Peter and gone straight to Johnny Romita. First, Clark Kent went model handsome in “Smallville”; now Peter here. We’re losing our secret-identity nerds, kids. Everyone’s cool now.

At the same time, Peter’s kind of a little shit, isn’t he? He steals into an Oscorp internship tour by taking the badge of Rodrigo Guevara (Milton Gonzalez), who probably worked hard all of this life to make it there. Adios, amigo. Then Peter plagarizes the cross-genetics work of his own father, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), in order to impress his father’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors of Oscorp. The formula is supposed to solve problems with the decay-rate algorithm, or whatever, and Dr. Connors thinks it works, but it doesn’t. The experimental mouse turn into a half-lizard and Dr. Connors turns into the Lizard. In this manner, the villain creates the hero (Peter gets bit at Oscorp) and the hero creates the villain (decay rate algorithm). Shades of Tim Burton’s “Batman.”

The Uncanny Valley
OK, something else happened in the last 10 years that affected this version of Spider-Man. “The Dark Knight” happened. It broke box-office records, grossed $533 million in the U.S., and became the first superhero movie to pass $1 billion worldwide. Ever since, studios have tried to duplicate its formula. Specifically, they’ve looked to “Batman Begins” to see how Chris Nolan set up “The Dark Knight.”

“The Amazing Spider-Man” does the same. It:

  1. goes dark, gritty, and realistic;
  2. keeps the costume off the hero for the first half of the movie;
  3. merely suggests the hero’s true nemesis (the Joker, the Green Goblin) at the end, to set up the sequel.

You could even say the spray-painted red spider on the alley wall is the low-rent, underground version of the bat signal at the end of “Batman Begins.”

Let’s look at the realism first. In terms of web-slinging through Manhattan, the first trilogy took its cue from the comic book and assumed there was always something above Spidey for his webbing to latch onto. That’s not the case. Like anything else in Manhattan, you have to work the angles and the sides of buildings. It’s not an amusement park ride, kids. Trucks get in the way. Spiders get squashed.

The costume is kind of real, too, in that it’s less cool. The Maguire version of Spider-Man was proportionately perfect, the suit impeccable. He was my Spidey brought to life. This one’s a bit tall and gangly ... and slouchy. Slouch is only cool in a jacket, preferably with the collar up, not in a skin-tight unitard. At times, I was even reminded of the 1970s TV-version of Spider-Man. That’s not good. And what’s with the sparkle? It’s Spidey does Vegas. It’s Peter and the technicolor spidersuit.

Realism only goes so far in superhero movies anyway. In fact, I wonder if superhero movies don’t suffer their own version of “the Uncanny Valley,” that theory from robotics and 3-D animation stating that the closer the product comes to seeming realistic, the less realistic, or at least more uncomfortable, it becomes.

Shouldn’t, for example, what happens to Dr. Connors freak out Peter? Just a little? Dr. Connors’ DNA is crossed with a lizard’s and he turns into a giant lizard. Peter’s DNA is crossed with a spider’s, so shouldn’t he, I don’t know, worry about turning into a giant spider? Shouldn’t he look in the mirror every two seconds for any evidence of bug eyes and extra limbs? I know I would.

And, really, in the long history of Oscorp, has no one else been bitten by these experimental spiders? And how do the guys chasing Peter Parkour keep up? Peter’s climbing walls, they’re climbing stairs, yet they meet him on the roof. Really?

And no one at Midtown High knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man? Did you see him dunk? Did you see him keep the ball from Flash Thompson? Like he had superglue on his hands? Like it was stuck there? With, like, spider stuff?

Becoming rather than being
At least they don’t rush the origin. Becoming is so much more interesting than being. When I was young, twentyish, I read Philip Norman’s book, “Shout: The Beatles in their Generation,” but the portion I read over and over was the part of the story from the launchpad (January 1963 and “Please Please Me”) to the burst of world-wide fame (February 1964 and “The Ed Sullivan Show”). That’s the sweet spot of becoming, the cresting of the wave, and it was fascinating to me. Still is. And that’s what Webb and company try to give us here.

In Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” after the spider-bite, Peter develops a fever, goes to sleep, and wakes up superstrong, and, it’s implied, with bigger testicles. That’s about it. In Amazing Fantasy #15, he just gets strong: “I crushed this steel pipe as though it were paper!” Here, every sense becomes super-attuned and he doesn’t know his own strength. He keeps yanking knobs off doors and breaking glass and mirrors. He stays Peter for a long, long time. Even after Uncle Ben dies, he has no idea what he’s doing. He needs Capt. Stacey’s dinner-table speech about heroism to finally see himself as a hero and act accordingly.

My favorite scene in the movie may be the first post-bite scene, when he falls asleep on the subway and some lout, for a gag, balances a beer can on his head. Then a drop of condensation trickles down the can and plops onto his forehead and he wakes with a start and jumps onto the ceiling of the subway car. Everyone stares in amazement for a second, or two, until, like Wile E. Coyote, he realizes that what he’s doing is impossible and falls back to earth. Oddly, even after this bizarre demonstration of power, they keep messing with him. The lout’s girl (Tia Texada) complains about the beer spilled on her blouse, and Peter, a clumsy gentleman, tries to help, and of course his hand, now as sticky as a spider’s, gets stuck. Eventually off comes the blouse, making louts of us all. What I particularly liked was how, throughout, Peter keeps apologizing. As the blouse is ripped off, as he takes down the lout and his loutish friends without trying, he keeps saying, “I’m sorry ... I’m really sorry!” That’s a good bit.

The distracted protagonist
I keep wondering how much I would’ve liked Webb’s version if Raimi’s trilogy had never existed. I’m sure I would’ve been impressed. But “The Amazing Spider-Man” doesn’t quite work not only because it’s too soon but because it’s a distracted movie and its hero is a distracted protagonist. What does the guy want and how does he get it? That’s the point of most of our stories. Not here. As the movie begins, Peter wants to find out about his parents. He never does. Then he wants to bring Uncle Ben’s killer to justice. He never does that, either. Then he wants a girl, particulary Gwen Stacey, and he gets her. But she has to do most of the heavy lifting. Plus he promises a dying Capt. Stacey to stay away from her. Which, it’s implied, he won’t do.

Of course it’s not his fault. The filmmakers are waiting to resolve these issues in the sequels. That’s the kind of movie culture we live in now. We’re back to the cliffhangers of movie serials. Instead of next week, it’s two or three years from now. Stay tuned. Don’t miss the next thrilling chapter, “My Dad worked for the CIA!” Summer 2015.

Including Peter’s parents was perhaps the biggest way Webb differentiated his movie from Raimi’s, but it's a mistake. Because nobody gives a shit. Parents in superhero stories are there to get out of the way and/or die. Think Thomas Wayne, Jor-El, Uncle Ben. Do we care who Reed Richards’ parents were? Ben Grimm’s? Bruce Banner’s? Ang Lee cared about Banner’s father and look where that got us. Stay away from the parents!

They’re not going to. Halfway through the credits, in perhaps the lamest teaser ever, we watch Curt Connors in prison talking with a shadowy, malevolent figure, most likely Norman Osborne, who will become The Green Goblin. “Did you tell the boy the truth about his father?” the shadowy figure asks. Ah, the truth. About his father. I’m on tenterhooks.

Dr. Connors, who regained his humanity by saving Peter’s life, responds with the movie’s final line. It’s an ironic line, given that this is a reboot of a 10-year-old product. He says this:

You should leave him alone!

Try telling that to Columbia Pictures.

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Posted at 07:32 AM on Jul 27, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Thursday July 26, 2012

The New York Yankees are the 1%

I went to the Mariners game yesterday afternoon against the New York Yankees. It was the game after the game A-Rod got hit by a pitch from Felix Hernandez and broke a bone in his hand (out 6-8 weeks), and two games after Ichiro switched sides, and the teams were 1-1 in the series. For the year, of course, the Yankees were 58-39, the best record in baseball, while the M's were 43-56, the second-worst in the AL. The Yankees had a squad of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers: Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Ichiro, A-Rod, Curtis Granderson, Mark “Paul Fist-in-Your-Face” Teixeira, Eric Chavez. The M's? A Triple-A squad, basically, with some potential future stars. One of them, Justin Smoak, was now back in Triple-A after sinking below .200 again. Sinking below .200 is generally not cause for dismissal on the M's this year—see: Carp, Peguero, Figgins, Ryan, Kawasaki and Olivo—so it must mean the M's have hope for Smoak. They think he's still worth fixing.

Anyway, I went to the game without much hope. I assumed the Yankees, facing a Japanese pitcher, Iwakuma, with all of three game-starts under his belt, would pull out the rubber game.

It began poorly, too. I'm not talking Derek Jeter's homerun in the first inning to put the Yankees up 1-0. I'm talking about walking around before the game even began. Everywhere you looked you saw Yankee fans, dressed in their JETER jerseys, or their MANTLE jerseys, or their A-ROD jerseys (OK, just one of those.). They overwhelmed Safeco Field. They strutted around like they owned the place.

I went with my friend Andy and his family. Andy's from Bremerton, Wash., but now lives in Hanoi, Vietnam, and he's visiting family for the summer. He thought the Mariners were family, too, which is why we all went, but he came not knowing one player on the team. The Yankees he knew.

One of my favorite stories about Yankee Stadium comes from Andy. He went, fairly innocently, to an M's-Yankees game in the mid-1990s, back when there was a real rivalry between the teams, and sat in the right-field bleachers wearing a Mariners cap. As the game progressed, as the abuse that rained down on Mariners right-fielder Jay Buhner got more scatalogical and homophobic (“Buhner takes it up the ass, no va-so-line!”), several leaders of the loudmouth crew began pointing out fans in the stands who were wearing the caps of other teams. Mets fan in particular were singled out. And whenever an apostate was found, the entire bleachers serenaded him with this chant: “Assss-hole, assss-hole, assss-hole.” Eventually Andy was discovered, got his chant, and turned and doffed his cap good-naturedly to the crowd. Then everyone went back to concerning themselves with Jay Buhner's rectum.

I've actually heard worse stories about the right-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium: caps being taken away and ripped apart. Fistfights. Playoff games being decided by fans turning flyouts into homeruns. You know.

I get the idea: Yankee Stadium is their home park and you enter it at your own risk. But increasingly Yankee fans have invaded other stadiums, with their JETER and MANTLE and GEHRIG jerseys, and take over. They're like Rome in the days of Caesar. They're like Nazi Germany circa 1941. They're like that table full of Nazis at Rick's Cafe Americain in “Casablanca,” singing German songs while everyone around them, all the Free French, sit in disgust and contempt and a pure, burning hatred.

I tried to ignore them during the game. We sat 300 level behind homeplate, and, besides Andy and me, we had grandparents, a mother, and three kids. Plus Patricia. It was no place to start an “asshole” chant.

Besides, for most of the game, the M's were winning. In the bottom of the first, with one out, the M's strung together a single, a single, two walks and a groundout to take the lead, 2-1. The Yankees had a man in scoring position every inning of Isukawa's five innings of work but plated no one besides Jeter, who plated himself. They went hitless in the sixth and seventh. So we were still up, 2-1.

But I kept reminding everybody. In the fourth: We haven't had a hit since the first. In the sixth: We haven't had a hit since the first. In the eighth: We haven't had a hit since the first.

By that point, in the top of the eighth, the Yankees had loaded the bases, and pinch-hitter and backup shortstop Jayson Nix cleared them with a double, and the Yankee fans around me and in the stadium, invaders all, the Nazis at the table in “Casablanca,” roared their approval. They began a “Let's go, Yan-kees!” chant, which M's fans, tepid on a normal day, tried to drown out. It worked. Kinda. Then with two outs, Russell Martin singled to plate Nix, and Maj. Strasser and the Nazis around the table roared some more and sang their songs and chanted their chants.

And that was my “All I can stands, I can't stands no more” moment.

I went to a nearby group of Yankee fans, no doubt from Idaho or Montana, and laid it out for them. “The game's already over,” I said. “You've already got a two-run lead. The M's aren't going to come back from that. Basically you're cheering to keep the game going longer.”

One of them, the near one, said something like, “Way to have faith in your team, dude.”

I looked at him. I told him I did have faith in my team. On the road. I said they could hit on the road. But they had trouble hitting at Safeco. Why ignore what was true?

It was a bad response. I should've responded this way:

Faith in my team? In this team of Triple-A kids playing that team of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers? My team with its $70 million payroll playing your team with its $200 million payroll? My team with its idiot management who just wants to remain competitive within its division, and can't even manage that, versus your team for whom losing the World Series is a bad season, and who then open up the coffers again because they can afford to? Faith in my team? Do you have any fucking idea what it's like for the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball, you douchebag, you fuckstick, you oblivious cunt? Your team wins a rigged game. Do you get that? They win a rigged game and then attribute their success to “hard work.” They're the 1% of Major League Baseball. They think they're winning the game but they're ruining the game as surely as the 1% is ruining democracy.

I know. Not exactly 'La Marseillaise.“

Either way, I should've said more, or less, because I carried all I didn't say, all of that hatred, with me from the game, and on the bikeride home, and into a tawdry dinner that tasted like ashes, and then into a restless, headachey sleep.

The New York Yankees, with their $200 million payroll, came into town, took our franchise player while holding their noses, and won two out of three games against a team of Triple-A kids, including the last game, 5-2. Their fans in the stands cheered like it meant something. Like it was news.

Safeco Field, July 25, 2012

”And here ya are. And it's a beautiful day."

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Posted at 09:11 AM on Jul 26, 2012 in category Yankees Suck
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Tuesday July 24, 2012

19,790 to 3,676

My friend Jim called me with the Ichiro news yesterday, and, as we began to talk it out, it occurred to me that the Yankees roster now included Derek Jeter with his 3,000+ hits, Alex Rodriguez with his 2,800+ hits, and Ichiro Suzuki with his 2,500+ hits. I wondered: Has any team in baseball history had more career hits on its active roster than this version of the 2012 New York Yankees?

I still don't know the answer to that. But the Stats & Info column on ESPN.com did include this interesting tid-bit in its Ichiro piece:

The Yankees have three players on their team with 2,500 or more hits-- Jeter, Rodriguez, and Ichiro.

The Elias Sports Bureau notes that this is the third time in major-league history that a team had three players with 2,500 or more hits play for them in the same season. The other two are the 1927 Philadelphia Athletics (Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Zack Wheat) and the 1928 Athletics (Cobb, Collins, and Tris Speaker).

The Yankees are playing the M's at Safeco Field this week--I'll be going to the game Wednesday afternoon--so I thought I'd compare career hits on the two active rosters.

Yankees vs. Mariners logo

NY Yankees Career Hits Seattle Mariners Career Hits
Derek Jeter 3,212 Chone Figgins 1,282
Alex Rodriguez 2,871 Miguel Olivo 854
Ichiro Suzuki 2,534 Brendan Ryan 468
Andruw Jones 1,921 Michael Saunders 194
Raul Ibanez 1,851 John Jaso 191
Mark Teixeira 1,556 Dustin Ackley 171
Robinson Cano 1,382 Kyle Seager 129
Eric Chavez 1,360 Casper Wells 123
Curtis Granderson 1,060 Mike Carp 117
Nick Swisher 1,017 Jesus Montero 100
Russell Martin 779 Carlos Peguero 33
Jayson Nix 181 Munenori Kawasaki 14
Chris Stewart 66





TOTAL 19,790
3,676

Not pretty. Ten of their 13 guys have more than 1,000 career hits. One of ours does. And he sucks. And he might be gone by the end of August: dropped if he can't be traded.

With those kinds of numbers I can see why the Yankees carry 13 position players and we carry 12. We need our extra man in the bullpen rather than the bench. If things get dicey, we'll just send up Kawasaki and his career 14 hits. Problem solved.

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Posted at 01:50 PM on Jul 24, 2012 in category Baseball
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Quote of the Day

“Mom, I'd rather die in New York than live in New Jersey.”

--Vito Russo, gay liberation activist in the 1970s, AIDS activist in the 1980s, and author of “The Celluloid Closet,” refusing his mother's offer to stay with her in New Jersey when he revealed to her he was dying of AIDS. It's part of Jeffrey Schwarz's documentary, “Vito,” which premiered last night on HBO. I only saw the second half—basically from Reagan on—which was powerful. I'll watch the first half later this week. 

Vito Russo, author of "The Celluloid Closet"

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Posted at 07:05 AM on Jul 24, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday July 23, 2012

Sayonara, Ichiro

I've known for a long time, at least since 2002, that Ichiro Suzuki's value at the plate would drop off when his singles dropped off. His secondary numbers were never great. He didn't draw many walks (season high: 68 in 2002) and he didn't hit for much power (season highs: 34 doubles in 2001; 12 triples in 2005; and 15 HRs in 2005). Despite his speed, he didn't steal many bases (season high: 56 in 2001). He just hit singles. Again and again and again.

The singles finally dropped off last year, and they didn't come back this year. Sure, at the time of his trade to the New York Yankees today, he was leading the Mariners in hits, with 105, and, more sadly, in batting average with a .261 mark; but he had a .288 OBP and .353 SLG, for a .642 OPS, which is 143rd out of 156 everyday players in the Major Leagues. Not good.

In fact, it's the worst OPS of every position player on the Yankees save for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Even Jayson Nix, backup SS, has an OPS near .700. So while many Seattlites are wringing their hands over the deal and the loss of the face of the franchise, asking themselves, “Why why why?,” the better question is: Why do the Yankees want him? As a No. 9 hitter? As a late-inning defensive replacement?

And why would he want to go there? According to The Seattle Times, it was Ichiro, 38, who requested the trade.

The immediate assumption is that he's nearing the end of his career and wants a World Series ring. That's why most aging superstars wind up in pinstripes. But I think the reason the Yankees want him is the same reason he requested the trade. I think it's the Safeco Field factor.

Historically, Ichiro's home and away splits are pretty similar: .320 at home, .324 on the road. His home OPS is .782 OPS, while his road OPS is .785. A wash.

But this split has grown over the last few years:

Year Home BA Road BA Home OPS Road OPS
2010 .313 .317 .725 .781
2011 .261 .283 .632 .658
2012 .214 .297 .544 .716

I'm guessing the Yankees are looking at those road numbers and thinking Ichiro still has something in the gas tank. And I'm betting Ichiro thinks the same. And with New York, he has a couple of months to prove it to the other 28 teams in Major League Baseball so that next year he can continue his march, unabated by the cold winds of Safeco, toward 3,000 hits.

Maybe. Or maybe it's as he says: the Mariners are in the midst of a youth movement and he doesn't want to get in the way.

Either way, I like the youth movement. Right now our oldest position players are Chone Figgins (34) and Miguel Olivo (33). Next in line is Brendan Ryan (30). Brings to mind the old hippie slogan, “Don't trust anyone over 30!” Which I don't. Not on the M's.

Still, it was sad tonight seeing Ichiro in Yankees attire with No. 31 on his back instead of the No. 51 he's worn his entire career. (Is this temporary, by the way? No one on the Yankees is No. 51 and it's not retired yet. Will he get 51 once they make NYC?)

But I'm glad M's fans sent him off with a standing o. I'm glad he responded the way he did, with a classy, classy bow. I'm glad he got a basehit up the middle his first time up. No. 2,534 and counting.

Arigatou gozaimasu, Ichiro. We shall not see your like again.

Ichiro Suzuki, in Yankee road gray, bows to the Safeco Field crowd before his first at-bat: July 23, 2012.

Ichiro Suzuki bows to the Safeco Field crowd before his first at-bat as a New York Yankee: July 23, 2012.

Ichiro Suzuki getting his first base hit as a New York Yankee

The familiar stance with the unfamiliar number: his first base hit as a New York Yankee.

Ichiro Suzuki, NY Yankee

Hit no. 2,534.

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Posted at 09:01 PM on Jul 23, 2012 in category Seattle Mariners
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Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

WARNING: BAT SPOILERS

Is Gotham City worth saving? One wonders if Batman ever wonders that.

Thomas Wayne tried saving the city in “Batman Begins,” but he and his wife were killed by a petty criminal, Joe Chill, in a back-alley mugging, and the city was overrun by organized crime and corrupt law enforcement. It took Wayne’s son, Bruce, alias Batman (Christian Bale), to save it from both the slow, sad death of corruption and a quick, mad death ordered by Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the League of Shadows. In this, there is one good police, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), and one good prosecutor, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and that’s about it.

In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker (Heath Ledger) tries to prove that the moral code of the citizens of Gotham is a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble, and does. He holds the city hostage by demanding that: 1) Batman unmask himself; 2) a petty functionary of Wayne Enterprises be killed; and 3) two ferry boats engage in a test of wills, or souls, to see which blows up the other. In this, the citizens of Gotham: 1) agree; 2) start shooting; 3) redeem themselves by not acting, which, given Gotham’s history, is less ferry-boat ending than fairy-tale ending. The good citizens, Lt. Gordon and Rachel Dawes (now Maggie Gyllenhaal), are joined by Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a white-knight district attorney whose face is eventually mangled into the grotesquerie of Two Face, and who goes mad from pain and loss. His crimes are then pinned on Batman, by Batman, who believes that Dent’s true, sad end would be too much for the delicate natures of Gothamites, who would lose all hope.

poster for "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)Now, in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the League of Shadows is back, in the form of Bane of the basso profundo (Tom Hardy), who, in a master stroke, blows up all but one of the bridges connecting Gotham to the rest of the world, and, with a nuclear device holding the city hostage, becomes its defacto warlord, urging “the people” to take back from “the rich” what is theirs. They do. In a flash, law and order crumbles, Gotham becomes Paris in 1789, and our old pal, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), becomes the sentencing/hanging judge. Chaos reigns.

So one can forgive Batman for thinking, “Really? Again? You can’t...? OK. But seriously, this is the last fucking time.”

Or maybe it’s the citizens of Gotham who should be doing the wondering. Specifically: Why does this always happen to us?

The answers as revealed in each movie in the Dark Knight trilogy: 1) because the League of Shadows wants to wipe out your city, which is hopelessly corrupt; 2) because the Joker wants to prove your city can be hopelessly corrupted; and, 3) because the League of Shadows wants to wipe out your city, which is hopelessly law-abiding.

One can forgive Gothamites for asking for a little consistency from its supervillains. Or its writer-director.

Needlessly complicated
That’s Gotham’s true problem—and ours. Christopher Nolan, the writer-director of the Dark Knight trilogy, loves, too much, the needlessly complicated schemes of his supervillains.

This is just part of Bane’s plan in “Dark Knight Rises”:

  1. Using Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) to lift a fingerprint of the now-reclusive Bruce Wayne, eight years after the events of “Dark Knight,” so it can be used to bankrupt him. In this manner, Wayne Enterprises, which includes a potential nuclear weapon in its basement, can be taken over.
  2. Defeating Batman and throwing his broken body into the horrific third-world, underground prison from which Bane emerged.
  3. Dozens, maybe hundreds of men, working in Gotham’s sewers for months, without anyone knowing, in order to create the explosives necessary for the takeover.
  4. Having all of these explosives go off at the exact moment that 99 percent of Gotham’s now squeaky-clean but fairly incompetent police force are searching the sewers for same, effectively trapping them below ground, and leaving Gotham ripe for 1789-style anarchy.

Let’s face it: a helluva lotta luck goes into 3) and 4), not to mention 2). Any of these go wrong—Batman beats Bane, some bum discovers the men in the sewer, the cops don’t go underground at that exact moment—and the plan goes bust.

But was 1) even necessary? Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) wind up blocking unethical corporate raider and Bane benefactor Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) from gaining control of the company, which winds up in the hands of rich socialite and super-hotty Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). But Bane takes the nuke anyway. So why the financial machinations when things can just be taken?

Don’t even get me started on the kidnapping of Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), supposedly the only man who can arm the device. It involves Bane pretending to be a CIA prisoner, and members of the League of Shadows rapelling from a bigger plane to the smaller CIA plane in order to blow it apart. Really? You can’t kidnap one Indian dude off the street? You have to wait until he’s in the sky?

Even so, for most of its 164-minute runtime, I was enjoying the dark opera that is “The Dark Knight Rises.” I felt pain, a kind of childish pain, watching Batman fall, and seeing his armory raided for the purpose of subjugating rather than liberating Gotham.

I continued to be impressed with Gary Oldman’s low-key performance as Gordon: the ordinary man caught in extraordinary events.

I liked Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s stolid police officer, Blake, who, despite an upbringing at St. Swithins orphanage, in which he talks about the masks one needs to wear to survive, is the most straightforward character in the movie. It feels like he gave up on bullshit long ago. He also figures out Bruce Wayne’s secret without breaking a sweat, which, yeah, seems a bit much.

And I loved Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, who doesn’t merely ride Batman’s motorcycle fetchingly (giving added meaning to the movie’s title), but plays whatever woman she needs to play—mousey, frightened, sexy—in order to get what she needs from the nearest man. She also has some of the movie’s best lines.

Lucius: Fox I like your girlfriend, Mr. Wayne.
Selina Kyle: He should be so lucky.

So I was enjoying myself. Then the 11th-hour reveals began.

All al Ghuls all the time
First, we find out that Bane’s master plan isn’t Bane’s at all. It’s Miranda Tate’s. Because she’s really Talia al Ghul, Ra’s’ daughter, getting revenge on Batman and Gotham in the name of her father.

As a result, Bane—a one-note villain, yes, but a pretty cool note—goes from mastermind to guard dog in a flash. His eyes dim and he stands around waiting for commands. A few moments later he’s shot and killed by Catwoman. Hey, how come no one tried that before? You know. When Bane was terrorizing everybody?

So Nolan undercuts the villain once again. He did it with Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) in “Batman Begins,” who, it turns out, was controlled by Dr. Crane, who, it turns out, was controlled by Ra’s al Ghul. The al Ghuls keep getting in the way. In the entire trilogy, only the Joker is Ghul-free.

Then we get the extended backstory. It was Talia, not Bane, who escaped that horrid third-world prison as a child. She’s the love child of Ra’s al Ghul, whose lover, unbeknownst to Ra’s, was placed pregnant into that third-world pit as part of a deal that allowed him to escape. There, the mother is killed, but Talia, with the help of Bane, survives, and, with the help of Bane, escapes; then she and her father return to rescue what’s left of Bane. But the father resents the benefactor and excommunicates him from the League of Shadows. Does Talia not resent this? Does she not resent her father for abandoning her and her mother? Apparently not. Apparently she’s still willing to risk everything to carry out his mad plans.

And what’s with that prison anyway? Why is the mother, the daughter, and Bane attacked, and Bruce not? Why do inmates chant “Rise” as Bruce attempts to escape? Did they chant “Rise” for Talia? If so, why attack Bane afterwards? Why aren’t they high-fiving each other?

And if it’s Talia who masterminded everything, when exactly was she going to reveal this to Batman? After she nuked Gotham? Via the TV hookup or in person? Did she have her “slow knife” line ready for such an encounter? Because surely she’d want Batman to know who brought him low.

And if she truly wanted to bring him low, shouldn’t she have done nothing at all? He was wasting his life, a gimpy recluse, before she and her plan made him interested in the world again. That’s quite a gift. He should’ve thanked her.

And she’s League of Shadows? She shows no stealth. What happened to that organization anyway? Its members are a little less shadowy these days. Bane and Batman, in particular, are bruisers. Their fights are like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in the 14th round. The promise of ninja-stealth from “Batman Begins” is long forgotten.

As is, by the way, summoning bats with the sonic device in Batman’s boot. Seriously, if I were Batman? I’d be doing that shit every time I showed up.

Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb
Anyway, that’s the first 11th-hour reveal. Talia is the mastermind; and Bane, reduced to functionary, is removed with a single bullet.

So now we follow her. She is helped into the passenger seat of the truck carrying the nuke, and when the driver is killed, and it crashes, and Batman and others arrive at the scene, she, like in some soap opera, ekes out the words, “My father’s work is done,” then does the head-tilt-to-the-side to indicate death. Lame.

But it sets up our dramatic end, the final sacrifice of the Batman. In the trailer and in the movie, Batman and Catwoman have this exchange:

Catwoman: You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything.
Batman: Not everything. Not yet.

So we go in expecting the death of Batman. And that’s what we get. Batman, in his batplane, hooks onto the ticking nuke and flies it over open waters, where it explodes far enough away to save Gotham and its citizens. (Look for future mash-ups with Adam West’s famous line from the 1966 “Batman” movie: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”)

The second 11th-hour reveal is that Officer Blake, who throws away his badge in disgust after the battle is over, has a seldom-used first name: Robin. After Bruce’s death, Wayne Manor is transformed into the Thomas and Martha Wayne Home for Orphans, and Blake, working there, discovers the batcave. The legend lives on.

At first I liked this. Gordon-Leavitt’s face and body type are almost perfect for the role. Plus, as played here, he’s cool, which means Robin would actually be cool for the first time in his long, sad history. But then I realized the folly. “Wait. Bruce Wayne trained for seven years for this. Dude’s a ninja. Robin’s not bad in a fight, but he ain’t no ninja. At the least, he has at least one Nepalese trek in his future or he won’t last long.”

The third and final reveal is that Batman isn’t really dead. Autopilot, remember?

This was immediately disappointing. I suppose I wanted the finality of his death. I suppose I wanted his earlier lines (“Not everything. Not yet”) to have meaning. I suppose I wanted to see something different in a blockbuster movie.

Besides, it means that Bruce Wayne at the end of the movie is in a predicament similar to Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the movie. Sure, he’s away from Gotham City, as Alfred long advised. Sure, he’s with Selina Kyle, who’s totally hot. Sure, it’s like he’s on vacation, sitting there at the outdoor cafe in ... is it Italy? But what is he going to do with his life? And what do these two, the bat and the cat, do all day? Have sex? Go to museums? Read books? Take a breath after the relentless pace of the last three movies? How long before they get bored with it? How long before they come up with a plan to do something?

Whatever that plan, I hope it isn’t needlessly complicated.

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Posted at 09:01 AM on Jul 23, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Saturday July 21, 2012

Batman: Year One, Day Two: Thoughts on the Murders in Aurora, Col.

I first heard about it yesterday morning from Amy K., who wrote on Facebook, “Waking up in America this morning did not feel good. Again.” For a second I wondered what she was talking about. Then I saw her previous status update: Colorado Shooting Suspect Identified. Oh, crap, I thought, not this again. Not Colorado again. Earlier this year, at my day job, we’d done an oral history of the legal ramifications of the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Col., 13 years ago This shooting took place in Aurora, Col. A half-hour away.

But it wasn’t until I went to the New York Times site and saw where in Aurora the shooting took place that I began to feel sick to my stomach.

I should've felt sick immediately, I know. But we have shootings all the time now, and deaths occur daily, hourly. How many occurred just as I was writing that sentence? I didn't know the people who died in Aurora, although I knew I would get to know them, through the usual media filter, in the coming days and weeks and months.

But I knew Batman.

He is a superhero and should be for children and often is. Throughout the day I kept thinking of that meme that made the rounds earlier this year: “Be yourself,” it says, in that great lesson of simplistic Hollywood storytelling; “unless you can be Batman,” it adds, which is the truer, fantasy lesson of Hollywood storytelling. We go to the movies, in the numbers we go to the movies, to watch someone better and cooler than us:

Be yourself ... unless you can be Batman

There's a great, laughable innocence to that picture, because the kid is so obviously not Batman. I have similar photos of me and my brother, more poorly outfitted, on the sidewalk out front of my parents' home in south Minneapolis in the late 1960s. I think we were still riding the Adam West/Batman TV series wave. I think Chris had a mask of some kind, I had a cape. He was on a tricycle, I was in a toy fire engine that I probably imagined to be the Batmobile. What kid doesn't want that? What kid doesn't want to climb up the walls of buildings? What kid doesn't want to be taller and stronger than all of those damned adults around him, who are currently taller and stronger than he is?

What kid doesn't want to be Batman?

Did James Holmes, besides killing 12 and wounding 70, kill this? Did he taint moviegoing? As my day developed, I found myself immersed in, and surrounded by, the fog of developments coming out of Aurora, and the sharp opinions coming off of the Internet, and at one point I wanted to just get away from it all, and thought, “OK, I'll just go see a ... Oh, right.” At one point I was at the drug store buying some medicine for Patricia, who's sick with a bad cold, and I saw this on the magazine rack:

Entertainment Weekly: Batman's Killer Finale

We got the usual details on the shooter. A loner. A little off. Seemed nice. He was from San Diego, a grad student in neuroscience, but he was failing and probably dropping out. At the movie theater, he'd been wearing black body armor and a gas mask, like the supervillain Bane in the movie, but he'd dyed his hair red “like the Joker,” we were told, when any Batman fan would tell you that the Joker's hair is green. There were rumors he told the cops that he was the Joker. When he was led into the police station in handcuffs, did he imagine himself to be like Heath Ledger's character in “The Dark Knight,” who, halfway through, is led into the police station in handcuffs even though he really holds the upper hand? That this temporary incarceration is all part of his master plan? At what point did the other shoe drop for James Holmes? Do other shoes drop for him?

Roger Ebert, in his New York Times Op-Ed, wrote the following about the murders:

That James Holmes is insane, few may doubt. Our gun laws are also insane, but many refuse to make the connection.

In the morning, while driving to Trader Joe's in a thunderstorm to get juice and soup for Patricia, I'd heard Pres. Obama deliver his eulogy. I liked these lines in particular:

I’m sure that many of you who are parents here had the same reaction that I did when I heard this news. My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater, as so many of our kids do every day? Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children.

I thought he should've ended there. But he kept going. He said this:

So, again, I am so grateful that all of you are here. I am so moved by your support. But there are going to be other days for politics. This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.

But I knew that wasn't going to last. You can't have reflection without getting into the “Why?” And getting into the “Why?” gets you into politics.

Everyone lined up as they usually line up. Me included.

Folks on the left, to whom the First Amendment is sacrosanct, blamed our lax gun laws. They brought up the qualifier, the first words in the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State...” and wondered how we'd all become so insane. Holmes, it turns out, bought more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet. Six thousand. Over the Internet. How is that possible? We got the usual firearm-related deaths in western countries per annum: double digits for Australia, Canada, etc., with the U.S. near or over 10,000. Everything is on the table in the U.S., usually at the latest gun show; and if not here then on the Internet. The NRA, which for most of its history was a gun safety organization, now traffics in gun danger. It makes the U.S. safer for guns, not people. One of its own, not cognizant of the events in Aurora, even tweeted this yesterday morning:

Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans? NRA 

It was quickly taken down. By the end of the day, “@NRA_Rifleman” ceased to exist. Happy Friday.

Folks on the right, to whom the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, and to whom those first words about well-regulated militia, etc., are just an unwanted appetizer before the meat entree of “...shall not be infringed,” seemed silent most of the morning but then began blaming their usual suspects: Hollywood, Pres. Obama, our lack of Judeo-Christian values, the First Amendment. Salman Rushdie, of all people, sparred with these people all day on Twitter. One wrote back: “Dear #Iran: Still want @SalmanRushdie? Let’s talk.” So the NRA and its supporters are now palling around with terrorists. The enemy of my enemy is my enemy.

But as the day went on smart voices kept emerging. It's amazing what a politician—in this case, Eliot Spitzer on Slate—can say when he's not worried about ever getting elected again:

So let's act, not just wring our hands. It is time to ban all military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, ban assault clips holding more than 10 rounds, and require that new guns have micro-stamping technology so bullets left at crime scenes can be traced. These are simple, moderate steps.

Meanwhile, Salon.com's movie critic, Andrew O'Hehir, under a headline that made me cringe (“Does Batman Have Blood on His Hands?”), writes:

Most efforts to associate killing sprees with some fictional source... are transparently ideological and lack solid evidence. Nonetheless, anytime defenders of free expression respond to such charges by arguing, in essence, that art and culture have no discernible psychological effects, my B.S. meter starts clanging. If that were true, we wouldn’t argue about them so much. We wouldn’t even be interested.

Everything affects everything. I've written about this before, more than six years ago, about my brother and Evel Knievel, and me and “Breaking Away,” and little kids and Dash from “The Incredibles.” What we create, matters. If Batman hadn't existed, James Holmes probably would've found a different path to destruction. But we don't know. We know he identified with villains rather than heroes. Not much Hollywood can do about that ... except, of course, create less absolutist, more nuanced stories of its heroes and villains. But of course it does. We just don't go see them in the numbers we go see “The Dark Knight Rises.” They give us Batman and Spider-Man and Iron Man because that's what we want. Because that's what makes money.

O'Hehir writes:

Part of our outrage at the Aurora shootings, as my colleague Mary Elizabeth Williams has suggested, stems from the fact that the shooter has poisoned the collective joy of the moviegoing experience, one of the last widespread group activities in our segmented society. And another part of our dismay comes from the realization that Holmes’ evil acts resemble a performance meant for mass consumption, a petty and despicable analogue to the movie itself, but nonetheless successful. It would be more decent, perhaps, to mourn the dead and ignore the killer, but we’re not made that way. James Holmes has become the latest villain in a long-running violent movie for which we are all responsible and from which we can’t turn away.

Is there irony in the fact that Batman, the fictional character, was borne of a senseless murder, his parents’, who were gunned down before his eyes when he was a child? And is there further irony in the fact that we asssume the murders in Aurora won't create any new heroes, a la Batman, but may create copycat villains, who also want their 15 minutes of infamy?

The superhero story is just that, a story, for children, but we've made it central to our culture. We feel the need to watch it over and over and over again, as if to reassure ourselves that that which isn't, is. Did James Holmes break that fever? Was he the nightmare who entered our long national daydream and woke us up? But to what? And for what?

I will go see “The Dark Knight Rises” today, as I'd intended. I won't go in the spirit I normally would. I'll go in the spirit of Daniel Isaacson at the end of E.L. Doctorow's novel, “The Book of Daniel.” I'll go to see what's going down.

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Posted at 09:27 AM on Jul 21, 2012 in category Batman
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Friday July 20, 2012

Quote of the Day

“That James Holmes is insane, few may doubt. Our gun laws are also insane, but many refuse to make the connection.”

Roger Ebert in his New York Times Op-Ed, “We've Seen This Movie Before,” on the gunman who opened fire on a movie-theater crowd at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” last night in Aurora, Colorado.

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Posted at 01:24 PM on Jul 20, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Thursday July 19, 2012

Quote of the Day

You’ve also been a big proponent of the legalization of marijuana.
Marijuana! Heavens, oh yeah. It’s just the stupidest law possible...

--Morgan Freeman, during a Q&A with Newsweek's Marlow Stern, on The Daily Beast site. My years-old piece on Morgan Freeman here. My years-older review of Dan Baum's critique of the War on Drugs, “Smoke & Mirrors,” here.

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Posted at 02:46 PM on Jul 19, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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The Gettysburg Address, Out of Context

I remember visiting the Lincoln Memorial with my friend Dean in 1989, looking up at the words of the Gettysburg Address engraved on the wall, and asking him, with the news-junkie question of the day: Where's the sound bite? What portion of this speech would modern news organizations focus on? I think we decided on this:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Today's question is actually worse. Today's question is: What portion of the speech would Lincoln's opponents take out of context? What would they focus on, and mangle, in the tradition of FOX-News, in order to demonize Lincoln?

My thoughts in bold:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

[1.] Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, [2.] can long endure. We are met on [1.] a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

[3.] But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that [4.] government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The talking points would be:

  1. Lincoln thinks the civil war is great. He thinks the battle of Gettysburg was great. Try telling that to the mothers and fathers of the young men who died, Mr. President!
  2. He doesn't believe this nation can endure.
  3. He refuses to give a blessing to the battlefield!
  4. Government of the people, by the people, for the people? Socialist! Abraham Lincoln hates America!

This post results, of course, from a recent speech by Pres. Obama, which was taken out of context by the usual suspects. Let it be noted--but not long remembered--that I agree with everything Pres. Obama said. Pres. Lincoln, too.

The Lincoln Memorial

Remember when Abraham Lincoln refused to bless the Gettysburg battlefield? He hates America!

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Posted at 09:46 AM on Jul 19, 2012 in category Politics
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Wednesday July 18, 2012

Ranking Every Batman Movie from the 1940s Serials to 'The Dark Knight'

“The Dark Knight Rises” rises in a few days. You may have heard. A word or two on the Internet, possibly. One of the 100 reviews that are already up. Anyway I thought a look back might be in order.

I reviewed most of these Batman movies in 2008, in anticipation of “The Dark Knight,” and all of that watching and scribbling led to two articles: “Dark Knight My Ass: Why Batman descends into camp” and “The Smart Knight,” about how Christopher Nolan ensures that, at least in this iteration, the caped crusader won't descend into camp. 

This is my list. Your results will surely vary. That's the fun.

Batman & Robin (1997)9. Batman & Robin (1997): Starring George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, and Alicia Silverstone. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. IMDb rating: 3.6

Yes, the costumes were awful in the 1949 serial, yes, the 1943 serial actually argues for what became our national shame, the interment of Japanese Americans. But ... plastic nipples? Alicia Silverstone? Oxbridge College? “Let's kick some ice”? Ick. Awful. This movie had a big budget, a future big star in Clooney, a future governor as the villain. But it was schlock and painful to watch. It had become a game by this point, for Hollywood and the actors rather than the characters, and the lack of seriousness seeps through every frame. The Adam West Batman movie was intentionally funny. Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” pulls off a neat trick: it turns Batman into a joke without being funny at all. It killed the franchise.

Review excerpt:

While George Clooney makes a good Bruce Wayne, playing him a little like George Clooney, he may be the worst Batman ever. Batman should be obsessed and slightly insane — why else dress up in a batsuit? — but Clooney is all ironic detachment. He’s too aware of the absurdity of this universe to live in it. When Commissioner Gordon tells him the name of the latest supervillain, he repeats the name with a kind of verbal shake of the head: “Mr. Freeze.” When Barbara bouncily introduces herself as Batgirl, he responds, “That’s not awfully PC. What about Batperson or Batwoman?” His subtext is basically How dumb is it that we wear these costumes and use these names? Michael Keaton’s Bruce could hardly wait to be Batman, whereas Clooney’s Batman, you get the feeling, can hardly wait to take off that silly costume and be Bruce Wayne.

Here’s the plot if you want it. Mr. Freeze needs diamonds to keep his cryo-suit cold, and himself alive, so he can cure his wife of her disease, Macgregor’s Syndrome, and Poison Ivy, a plant come to life, wants to rid the earth of humans, and thinks she and Freeze can do this together (“Adam and Evil,” he says), and Robin thinks Batman doesn’t trust him, and Alfred suffers from a lesser version of Macgregor’s Syndrome. During the final battle, in which Batman learns to trust Robin, Batman convinces Freeze (or Prof. Fries) to cure Alfred, and all ends well, and vaguely misogynistically, since Freeze is also put into the same Arkham Asylum cell as a scatterbrained Poison Ivy. “Surprise!” he tells her. “I’ve come to make your life a living hell!”

At the very end we get the Schumacher silhouette of Batman, Robin, and Batgirl all running toward the camera, promising new adventures that, because of the sheer stupid weight of this one, never came.

"Batman and Robin" (1949)8. Batman and Robin (1949): Starring Robert Lowery, Johnny Duncan, Jane Adams, and Lyle Talbot. Written by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole. Directed by Spencer  Gordon Bennet. IMDb rating: 6.3

I guess the lesson here is never name your Batman movie “Batman and Robin.” Or maybe the lesson is: never include Robin—unless he's Burt Ward coming at you with his holy holies and forever pounding his fist into his hand. “Batman and Robin” is the second movie serial, six years after the first, and poor Robert Lowery is given such a lousy costume that at times he has to tilt his head up just to see through the eye slots. He's basically a glorified cop here. On the plus side, a viewing of this at the Playboy Club led William Dozier to create the “Batman” TV series of the 1960s. And that brought us Julie Newmar in a black lurex Catwoman suit.

Review excerpt: 

It's six years after the first Batman serial and what’s happened? Well, the comic-relief Alfred has been replaced by the no-nonsense Alfred, and the comic-relief Capt. Arnold has been replaced by the no-nonsense Commissioner Gordon, and the no-nonsense girlfriend, Linda Page, has been replaced by Vicki Vale, who’s better for, yes, comic relief. We were more serious in the postwar world but women were still good for a laugh.

Remember when Batman used to terrorize crooks into confessing in his “bat’s cave”? No more. The batcave (possessive dropped) is now bigger, with computerish doo-dads and chemistry equipment and microscopes. It’s a workstation. Americans work, damnit. The Batmobile still isn’t parked there, though. The Cadillac he drove in ’43 has been traded in for a Mercury convertible that Bruce Wayne, living in the suburbs, parks on the street, and that Batman and Robin occassionally “borrow.” Vicki Vale confronts Batman about it in chapter 7 (“The Fatal Blast”):

Vicki: Does Bruce Wayne know you’re driving his car?
Batman: Of course.
Vicki: You know, if I didn’t know Bruce Wayne so well I’d almost think that you and he were the same man.
Batman: That’s absurd. Since you won’t tell me where you’re going I’ll tell you. You saw us on the way here, knew we were on a mission and followed us to get some pictures for your magazine.
Vicki: Any objections?
Batman: Not up until now. But this is as far as you go.

The racial stereotypes are gone. Race is gone. Everyone’s white now. Everyone’s bland. What did the Japanese spy, Prince Daka, have in ‘43? Zombies and an “atom-smasher gun” that prefigured our own atom bomb. What does the Wizard have? A “remote-control machine” that has the power to bring any moving vehicle within 50 miles under its control, and a “neutralizer” that neutralizes same. He also has the power to make himself invisible. It leads to one of the funniest police dispatch calls ever. From a bored, nasal voice: “All the cars in the vicinity of 616 Main Street. Invisible man, the Wizard, there now, in phone booth in lobby. That is all.“

"Batman Returns" (1992)7. Batman Returns (1992): Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken. Written by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm. Directed by Tim Burton. IMDb rating: 6.9

Batman returns? When? In the first 45 minutes of the film we get the long, drawn-out origins of both the Penguin and the Catwoman, plus the machinations of Max Shreck, and we see Bruce Wayne/Batman for, what, maybe five minutes? That’s a long time to ignore your superhero. That's why Tim Burton was the wrong guy to keep the franchise going. His entire oeuvre is about a love for the misfit — Pee Wee, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood — and by this point Batman is no longer a misfit (the boy who lost his parents/the vigilante called “The Bat”) but an institution (the guy the cops call when there’s trouble in town). The misfits here are the villains, particularly Oswald Cobblepot, alias the Penguin, played hammily by Danny Devito, and it’s to him that Burton showers attention and love.

Review excerpt:

In truth, this Penguin was never a good supervillain. None of them are. A good supervillain should have clear motivations, a great scheme, but you put three together and their schemes keep bumping into and sidetracking each other. So Max Shreck needs to install a puppet mayor for his faux power plant and chooses, for his candidate...the Penguin? If he could get this ugly, grunting, bloated creature elected, couldn’t he could get anyone elected? The Penguin, for his part, wants to murder every first-born son of Gotham, but allows his wishes to be sidetracked for a mayoral run that, of course, falls flat.

And what of the Catwoman? As Selina Kyle, mousy secretary, she’s both browbeaten and then killed by Max Shreck, so you’d think she’d want to get Shreck, and, yes, that eventually becomes her scheme, but getting him too quickly wouldn’t serve the two-hour film. So first she goes after men in general and then Batman in particular. Why Batman? Is it because, near the beginning of the film, after he saved her from a marauding member of the Circus Gang, he didn’t stop to talk to her? Here’s what’s worse: In that scene, he did pause, he did stand there, while chaos reigned, so she could utter her line: “Wow, the Batman. Or is it just ‘Batman’?” It’s a moment that only makes sense in our universe, where Keaton and Pfeifer are the stars of the film, rather than in their universe, where she’s just a mousy secretary and Batman still has villains to battle. But he pauses, then walks away, allowing Selina to feel sorry for herself: “Wow, that was very brief. Just like all the men in my life. What men?” Buck up, honey.

"Batman Forever" (1995)6. Batman Forever (1995): Starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell. Written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. IMDb rating: 5.4

At least we begin this thing in medias res. At least we get a bang-bang beginning: Batman and a guard locked in a bank vault that is slowly filling with acid and hoisted in the air by Two Face. Batman escapes that trap but finds himself being pulled around Gotham the way that Jackie Chan was pulled around Kuala Lumpur in Police Story III: Supercop.

Unfortunately, after all this, we get dialogue. Review excerpt:

Bruce Wayne is one effed-up dude. His parents were killed in front of him so he’s dedicated his life to dressing up in a bat suit and prowling the night in search of crime. But Batman Forever wants to clean him. It wants to psychoanalyze and cure him. And it does. By the end of the film his repressed memories are found, his split personality is tied together, and he changes from a Batman who must fight crime to one who chooses to fight crime. I’m OK, Batman’s OK.

Both supervillains go way over-the-top. They compete to see who can chew the most scene. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman reads half her lines like she’s in a 1-900 ad. At one point, the batsignal appears in the sky, but it’s not Commissioner Gordon waiting for Batman. Dr. Chase Meridian (Kidman), ever the professional, is wearing a low-cut dress over a long black coat:

Batman: The batsignal is not a beeper.
Chase: Well, I wish I could say my interest in you is...purely professional.
Batman: You trying to get under my cape, doctor?
Chase: A girl can’t live by psychoses alone.
Batman: The car, right? Chicks love the car.

Believe it or not, it gets worse:

Batman: We all wear masks.
Chase: My life’s an open book. You read?
Batman: I don’t blend in at a family picnic.
Chase: We could try. I’ll bring the wine... (removes coat, revealing bare shoulders)...you bring your scarred psyche.

"Batman" (1943)5. Batman (1943): Starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson. Written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry L. Fraser. Directed by Lambert Hillyer. IMDb rating: 6.8

This thing is archeology work. It's like finding a lost city. It's not only the first screen presentation of Batman but only the second live-action serial starring a Golden Age superhero (after Capt. Marvel). You watch in amazement as Batman and Robin tool around in a black Cadillac, with Robin driving, or Batman putting bat stickers on the foreheads of criminals, like some low-rent Zorro. There's also that vaguely British accent. We're a long way from Christian Bale's growl.

Review excerpt:

The chief problem with this 15-episode serial isn’t the low-budget effects (Columbia serials were notoriously cheap), nor its racism (the chief villain is a Japanese spy during WWII), but the form itself, the serial form, which requires cliffhangers. Since the lives of Batman and Robin hang by a thread at the end of every episode, and since the serial wasn’t budgeted for a lot of extras, “America’s greatest crimefighter,” as Batman is called in the narrative intro, ain’t that great a fighter. Among the cliffhangers:

  • Two crooks throw Batman, arms and legs thrashing, off a roof.
  • Three crooks toss Batman, arms and legs thrashing, down an elevator shaft.
  • A crook tosses a stick at Batman’s head, knocking him unconscious on a railroad trestle.
  • A gangplank is dropped on Batman.
  • He drives a car off a bridge.
  • He gets trapped in a fire he sets.

Worse, you see Batman getting outpunched by two guys. One time it was even one guy. I’m talking an ordinary guy in suit and fedora. You think: What’s the point of putting on cape and cowl if you can’t take one guy?

Tim Burton's Batman (1989)4. Batman (1989): Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl. Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. Directed by Tim Burton. IMDb rating: 7.6

I still remember how thrilling it was seeing that first ”Batman“ trailer in February 1989. I'd gone to ”Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,“ starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine (the future Alfred, interestingly), and suddenly I was watching this ”WHAT ARE YOU?“ ”I'm Batman“ thing. Wow wow wow. The sets, the costumes, the dark lighting, the ominous music — everything looked perfect. And suddenly I didn’t want to see ”Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.“ Suddenly I had a need, a visceral need, to see Tim Burton’s ”Batman.“ I’m not sure why. I hadn’t collected comics for 10 years. I was getting ready to go to grad school, but still, opening day, I dragged my girlfriend to the first performance at the St. Anthony Main theaters in Minneapolis. I had to be there. I had to see it.

And?

I was kind of disappointed. I still am. Review excerpt:

I love the way Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne. We usually see him as a socialite, a playboy, and I suppose you could say he is here, too (he beds Vicki Vale pretty quickly), but it’s a loose, complex take on Wayne. Keaton plays him as if he’s perpetually distracted, as if he’s always thinking about something else. When Vicki Vale joins him at Wayne Manor for dinner and asks whether he likes the room they’re in — which is cold and lifeless — he says, “Oh yeah,” then seems puzzled and looks around. “You know, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever been in this room before.” The ‘40s serials played Wayne a la Zorro — bored and fey — while Adam West, Val Kilmer and George Clooney played him as straight as they played Batman. Only Christian Bale, who spends most of Batman Begins as Bruce Wayne, and who then performs the role of drunk playboy for the people of Gotham, comes close to something as interesting as Keaton’s performance, but I’d still go with Keaton. It’s as if this Bruce Wayne is using all his intensity, all his concentration, for Batman, leaving none for himself. You could say he’s never really there as Bruce Wayne because he’s not Bruce Wayne. He’s Batman.

But the plot of the movie keeps fraying. In Vicki Vale's apartment, where Bruce almost tells Vicki his secret identity, he finally discovers that the Joker is Jack Napier who, as a young man, killed his parents. In other words, this is what his entire life has been building towards — revenge on this one man — but the film, rather than barreling forward, gets distracted. It gives us Vicki in the batcave. Alfred has brought her there without consultation. And rather than Vicki saying something like, “Oh my god, you’re Batman!” we get a spin on a conversation men and women have been having for-fucking-ever. Think about it. This is the first time we’ve ever seen a woman confronting Bruce Wayne in the batcave and these are the first words we hear her say: “Tell me if I’m crazy, but that wasn’t just another night for either of us, was it?”

Talk about a downer.

Batman Begins (2005)3. Batman Begins (2005): Starring Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman. Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. IMDb rating: 8.3

The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, plastic nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a cape crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s dark and moody and realistic. So why is it unsatisfying?

I blame the relentless direction of Nolan, who pushes the story along with the same speed and tone throughout. Every scene has the same weight, the same growling intensity: dining, talking, fighting, falling, fighting again. There are no peaks and valleys. It’s all arias. You want to take a breath.

There’s also a problem with the villains.

Review excerpt:

We don’t see Batman until an hour into the movie. The first hour is all about training to become Batman so Bruce can take on the Carmine Falcones of the world.

Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the Gotham underworld, is a nasty piece of work. He’s the one who has Joe Chill killed; and he’s the one who sends Bruce on his mission. He tells him:

You think because your mommy and your daddy got shot you know about the ugly side of life, but you don't. You've never tasted desperate. You're Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham. You'd have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn't know your name. So don't come down here with your anger, trying to prove something to yourself. This is a world you'll never understand. And you always fear what you don't understand.

That’s good. And it’s why Bruce goes on his seven-year trek: to find those who don’t know him; to understand the underworld; to face his fears. He does all of this with the help of Ra's al Ghul. And he brings it all back to Gotham to face Carmine Falcone ... who is dispatched in like two minutes of screentime.

Turns out Falcone, for whom we’ve waited an hour, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), AKA the Scarecrow, who, with his magic powder and scary mask, makes Falcone mad. But Crane, too, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with ... wait for it ... Ra’s al Ghul, the man who trained Bruce Wayne in the first place. The man who made him Batman.

So we wait an hour for an encounter with Carmine Falcone, and, poof, he’s gone. The problem? Falcone is more interesting than Ra’s al Ghul, too. That speech above is brilliant. It’s savvy. Ghul? He spews vaguely eastern nonsense.

  • “The training is nothing!” he tells Bruce Wayne ... as he trains him.
  • “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power.”

Can I answer that one? I’m not sure about Bruce, but the last thing I fear is my own power. Probably the last thing you fear, too.

The Dark Knight (2008)2. The Dark Knight (2008): Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine. Written by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, Jonathan Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. IMDb rating: 8.9

For most fanboys this is the pinnacle of not only Batman movies, and not only superhero movies, but all movies. It's got an 8.9 rating on IMDb.com, which makes it the 8th greatest movie of all time: just behind ”Schindler's List“ and five up from ”Seven Samurai.“ It's just not for me. It's good but.... Nolan's direction is as relentless here as in ”Batman Begins,“ and it bugs me. The Joker is impossibly everywhere in the second half of the movie, and it bugs me. The fact that Batman knew, truly knew, that the ferryboat battle would bring out the best in Gotham's citizens rather than, once again, their worst, bugs me. How did he develop such faith in Gotham? Isn't that why he's Batman in the first place? Because he knows people are no damn good? Isn't that why he's dark and brooding and wants to instill fear?

Review excerpt:

This is a tough movie to be Batman. In “Batman Begins,” he’s proactive, stalking crooks in the night. Here, he’s back on his heels. He’s reacting more than acting. He’s taking punches.

Is he slower in this one? He was such a ninja in the first movie that both criminals and moviegoers could barely see him. People complained. That last fight with Ra’s al Ghul on the train was like a battle of shadows, but, ninja-wise, it made sense. Here, Batman’s not only not a ninja, he’s as stolid as Rocky Balboa in the 11th round.

And what's with his friends? After Batman’s first encounter with the Joker, when Bruce Wayne says, “They crossed a line,” Alfred immediately pipes up, “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation.” Thanks, bro. After Rachel Dawes dies and and Bruce sits despondent over his role in all of this—in inspiring not good but madness—Alfred bucks him up by telling him, “You spat in the faces of Gotham's worse criminals. Didn’t you think there might be some casualties?” Thanks for the shoulder, bro.

Poor dude can’t have a conversation with anyone without it turning into some part of the film’s philosophical treatise. I love me some Michael Caine but almost everything Alfred says is in this vein. Harvey Dent, too. “You either die a hero,” he says during a casual dinner, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” When I first heard it, before I knew that Harvey would die a hero and Batman would endure as a villain, it felt false to me. It rang loudly and off key. It announced itself.

Adam West in "Batman" (1966)1. Batman (1966): Starring Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin. Written by Lorenzo Semples, Jr. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson. IMDb rating: 6.3.

In robotics and 3-D animation, they call it ”the uncanny valley.“ The closer robots and drawings come to looking like us the more uncomfortable we become with them. Maybe I have a similar problem with Batman movies. The more realistic they make them, the more absurd they seem. Because once you make Batman as real as possible, you're still left with a dude with no superpowers who prowls the night in search of crime ... dressed like a bat. That's a tough hump to come over.

Which is why, in the end, Adam West's ”Batman“ tops my list. It satrizes, and satrizes well, not only what's absurd about Batman but what's absurd about post-WWII America. To all the other Batman movies, particularly Chris Nolan's, and to all the fanboys out there who will surely object to this list, I have just one question: Why...so...SERIOUS???

Review excerpt:

You really don’t know how funny ”Batman: The Movie“ is until you watch it after watching the 1940s Batman serials. 

Batman, who started out as a vigilante, is here not only an establishment figure but the establishment figure. Cops put their hats over their hearts when the batcopter flies by. During a press conference Batman feeds the press misinformation as easily as any politician. The disappearing yacht? “Nonsense. How can a yacht simply disappear?” The exploding shark? “Doubtless an unfortunate animal who chanced to swallow a floating mine.” He and Robin are, according to Commissioner Gordon during that same press conference, “fully deputized agents of the law,” to which Robin responds, fist pounding palm, “Support your police! That’s our message!”

This Batman is almost terrifying. Enamored of a Miss Kitka (Catwoman in disguise), who is “threatened” by the Riddler, Robin asks what he’ll do if the Riddler makes a move, and he responds, lingering over each word, “I’ll bash him brutally.” He tells the movies’ four supervillains, “I swear if you’ve harmed that girl, I will kill you all. I will rend you limb from limb!” He’s so filled with his own self-importance he’s virtually a law unto himself.

The film satirizes everything: From the labels around the batcave (ACCESS TO BATCAVE VIA BATPOLE) to the facile way Batman and Robin solve the Riddler’s riddles. What has yellow skin and writes? “A ball-point banana!” Robin says. What people are always in a hurry? “Rushing? Russians!” Robin says, before figuring it out:

Robin: I’ve got it! Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!
Batman: Right, Robin! The only possible meaning.

But it’s our own cultural pomposity and self-importance that is skewered the most. At the end, after rehydrating the nine members of the U.N. Security Council, all of them are suddenly speaking a different language than their native language, and Batman says, “Who knows, Robin. This strange mixing of the minds may be” ... and here he lifts his eyes up toward the sky... “the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.”

Could you do a film like this today or do we take our superheroes, and ourselves, too seriously?

I'll post a review of “The Dark Knight Rises” this weekend. Same bat-time, same bat-blog.

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Posted at 08:17 AM on Jul 18, 2012 in category Batman
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Tuesday July 17, 2012

Gore Vidal on Ayn Rand

I came across this while re-reading Gore Vidal's book of essays, “Rocking the Boat,” from 1963. The review itself, “Two Immoralists Orville Prescott and Ayn Rand,” appeared in Esquire magazine in July 1961

Ayn Rand is a rhetorician who writes novels I have never been able to read. She has just published a book, For the New Intellectual, subtitled The Philosophy of Ayn Rand; it is a collection of pensées and arias from her novels and it must be read to be believed. Herewith, a few excerpts from the Rand collection.

  • “It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her.”
  • “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom…or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc.”
  • “I am done with the monster of ‘we,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.’”
  • “To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.”
  • “The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral….”

This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple Rocking the Boat by Gore Vidalpeople who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.

She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other’s money openly. She is in legitimate company here. There is a reactionary position which has many valid attractions, among them lean, sinewy, regular-guy Barry Goldwater. But it is Miss Rand’s second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which has figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race. We often fail. That predatory demon “I” is difficult to contain but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action. Now the dictionary definition of “moral” is: “concerned with the distinction between right and wrong” as in “moral law, the requirements to which right action must conform.” Though Miss Rand’s grasp of logic is uncertain, she does realize that to make even a modicum of sense she must change all the terms. Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others. In the one case, through a state which was to wither away, in the other through the private exercise of the moral sense. Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society...

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Posted at 06:16 PM on Jul 17, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday July 16, 2012

Movie Review: Men in Black 3 (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“I’m getting too old for this,” Agent J (Will Smith) says early in “Men in Black 3.” Yes, he is.

“The prerequisite for a joke is that it be funny,” he admonishes his fellow agents later in the movie. Indeed.

It’s been 15 years since the first “Men in Black,” 10 years since the second, and during that time Will Smith has gone from rising star to worldwide superstar to MIA could-be scientologist. He’s gone from playing an agent for a supersecret organization obsessed with aliens to possibly being an agent for a supersecret organization obsessed with aliens. He’s also gone from 28 to 43 and he’s lost his groove. “MIB 3,” his first movie in four years, doesn’t get it back.

poster for "Men in Black 3"The movie relies on the tired device of time travel, and there’s a moment after J travels back to July 1969 when both he and K (Josh Brolin, doing an inspired Tommy Lee Jones imitation) have to explain their situation, which is basically the plot of the movie, to doubting military officials. It gets them into further trouble: dropped on the pavement and handcuffed and such. Because no one believes them, it’s all too absurd, ha ha. Question: why does this never happen to whomever pitches the movie in the first place? How come director Barry Sonnenfeld, say, or writer Etan Coen (no relation), didn’t wind up decked and handcuffed on the Sony lot?

“MIB 3” opens with a woman (Nicole Scherzinger ), wearing FMBs, bustier, and sporting deep cleavage, bringing a cake, which jiggles even as her cleavage does not, into a maximum security prison for her boyfriend, Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement, of “Flight of the Concords,” another inspired casting move). He’s been locked up for 40 years but seems more dangerous than ever. Of course the jiggling cake contains a small creature, or weapon, that lives in Boris’ hand, and with this, and a few less-organic weapons, he blasts his way out of prison, which turns out to be on the moon. We see him bounding past the American flag planted there in July 1969. Cue credits.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, as they say, Agents J and K (Tommy Lee Jones) are going through the motions. K is as emotionless as ever, and J, after 14 years, is suddenly unaccepting of it. At the funeral of Agent Zed (Rip Torn), K offers almost nothing in his eulogy that’s personal or meaningful or emotional, and J reacts as if this is news, as if he hasn’t been working with the guy for 14 years. It’s not funny and Will Smith’s timing is way off. He seems sluggish. Did he have a cold during filming? The flu? Nothing clicks. “How did you get to be like you?” he asks K. Since we know where we’re heading, into the past, where we’ll meet a young K, we assume we’ll find out. Everything will be explained.

During an investigation into a restaurant in Chinatown, J and K battle Boris, and in this manner, and others, we discover the following:

  1. Boris lost his arm 40 years ago battling K, who put him in prison. K now regrets it. He thinks he should’ve killed him.
  2. Boris is the last of the Boglodytes, a violent race that subsumes other planets. Or something.
  3. Boris gets a hand-held time machine from a stoner at a guitar shop with the purpose of going back to July 1969 and killing K before K can incarcerate him and doom his planet.

So we know what Boris means when he tells K, “You’re already dead.” K doesn’t. He and J have a falling out—J in his apartment playing video games, K in his study talking on a landline—and then he gets ready for Boris with a spacegun. He’s got it aimed at his door when everything shimmers and warbles and he simply vanishes. Boris has gone back to July 16, 1969, the day of the moon launch, and killed Agent K. So little imagination here. Why not go back to his birth? Why not go back to his father or grandfather? And why pick on the poor Apollo program? Didn’t “Transformers 3” already do that?

J shimmers and warbles, too, but he still remembers K while everyone else has forgotten. The new head of the agency, however, Agent O (Emma Thompson, horribly wasted), who had a possible thing, or fling, with K back in the day, realizes something’s amiss, and directs J to the stoner in the guitar shop, where he gets a thingamajig, and, with the no-longer-extinct Whatchacallums now attacking Earth, jumps from the top of the Chrysler Building and back to July 15, 1969, to prevent Boris from killing K and changing the course of you-know-what.

A few things in the movie work. I like the fact that the filmmakers don’t ignore racial matters in 1969 (just in 2012). I like Brolin and Clement, and I particularly like Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”; “Boardwalk Empire”) as Griffin, an alien who perceives all of the different possibilities in any moment in time. As a result, he’s never sure which reality he’s in. Is it the reality where Boris bursts through that door and kills him? Whew, no. Is it the reality where the New York Mets, the perennial doormats of Major League Baseball in the 1960s, win the World Series in 1969? Maybe. He gives J and K a window into that October 1969 reality from an empty Shea Stadium in July. We, and they, see a sunny, packed, October Shea Stadium, where Jerry Koosman pitches to Davey Johnson, who pops up to Cleon Jones, and the 1969 “Miracle” Mets become the champions of baseball. Griffin waxes philosophic on this. He talks up the imperfections in that final baseball, because the woman who manufactured it in 1962 was having an affair, and thus wasn’t paying enough attention to her work, and thus the ball floated a few centimeters too high, allowing the pop-up to happen. He talks up how Davey Johnson became a baseball player rather than a football player because his father didn’t have the money for a football, and how Cleon Jones was nearly named something else. He calls it all a miracle.

“A miracle is what seems impossible,” Griffin says, “but happens anyway.”

All of which is nice but beside the point. Davey Johnson, or any player, flying out isn’t a miracle. It’s about as routine a play as you get in baseball. It would’ve been far more miraculous if, in that instant, he’d hit a homerun to tie the game, and the Orioles had fought back from a 5-3 deficit in Game 5, and a 3-1 deficit in overall games, to win the 1969 World Series over the upstart New York Mets. But the movie has its themes and goes with them. And we go to Cape Canaveral, the site of the first moon launch, and the battle with the two Borises.

Of course the small glowing device, which will become the Arcnet Shield that will save all of Earth from the Boglodyte attack, gets knocked out of K’s hand and dangles off the arm of the Apollo 11 launchpad, while K fights young Boris and J fights old Boris. Will they save themselves, and Earth, in time? (Psst. They will.)

J and K only get onto the launch pad in the first place because a colonel (Mike Colter), apparently the head of security for Apollo 11, is given a window into a possible reality by Griffin and so lets them in. Earlier, J made passing reference to his father—how he didn’t know him, how his father just disappeared and all that—and when I saw the Colonel, I thought, “This isn’t going to be J’s father, is it?” Of course it is. So J kills old Boris, K kills young Boris—seeming to disrupt the time continuum, but whatever—but not before young Boris kills the Colonel. Which is when a young boy pulls up in a car, a young J, and older J gets misty-eyed as he realizes, yes, this was him, and this was his father, whom he doesn’t remember because K uses the neuralizer to wipe the boy’s, or his, memory rather than have him deal with the trauma of a lost father, and the whole thing becomes a sappy, lost-father (Colonel)/found-father-figure (K) storyline in which J and K reconcile in present time.

Except ... how does this explain the way K is? Something traumatic was supposed to happen to him at Cape Canaveral. Is this it? That the Colonel was killed and the boy’s memory wiped, and K has carried this knowledge like a heavy stone all through his 14-year relationship with J? But why does this make him more distant and emotionless? And why, in present time, does J show him the watch, the watch that was the key to his relationship with his forgotten father, and thank him? Shouldn’t he be angry? Shouldn’t he say, “You took my father from me; you took from me what makes me me”? Instead, the movie shimmers and warbles to its happy end and the audience leaves the theater effectively neuralized. You will think you had a good time. You will tell your friends it’s an OK movie. If you’re a critic, you’ll give it a 69% on RottenTomatoes.com.

Yeah, I’m getting too old for this.

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Posted at 08:53 AM on Jul 16, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Sunday July 15, 2012

Making the Dish, and a Portrait of the Artist as a Stand-Up Comedian

Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Dish, linked to mine today, which is very, very cool, particularly considering how often I've read him and quoted him. I figure I still owe him about 499 posts to make up the difference. I'll get cracking.

Sullivan was interested in a post of mine from last week comparing American comedian Louis C.K. with French author Marcel Proust, both of whom, 100 years apart, talked about how technology that was once considered amazing (the phone and smartphone), each became, very quickly, a subject for complaint. For this, Proust called us “spoilt children.” Louis C.K. is a bit more florid, calling us “the shittiest generation of piece-of-shit assholes that ever fucking lived.” Proustian.

I came across the Proust quote in Alain de Botton's book, “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” which is particularly good in the early chapters, particularly Chapter 3, “How to Take Your Time.” That, of course, is another piece of advice from Louis C.K.: “Give it a second,” etc.

I'm not surprised, by the way, that there's this connection between the early 20th-century French author and the early 21st-century American stand-up comedian. In de Botton's book, Proust is quoted as saying that artists are...

...creatures who talk of precisely the things one shouldn't mention.

And that's what the best stand-up comedians are, too. They stand before us and tell us uncomfortable truths to make us laugh. If it's done poorly and without empathy, you get Daniel Tosh earlier this week or Michael Richards a few years back. If it's done well, you get Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor.

Marcel Proust and Louis C.K.

“Take your time” vs. “Give it a second”

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Posted at 12:34 PM on Jul 15, 2012 in category Culture
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Bastille Day, 2012

Yesterday we celebrated the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 by drinking and eating at the Corson Building in the Georgetown area of Seattle. There were many Chanel-inspired striped shirts and tri-colored scarves in attendance. Having neither, I just went the bleu (shirt) blanc (shorts) et rouge (T-shirt) route. I loved the '60s French pop being played there by a DJ named Darwin (yes), and last night bought a CD recommended by him, “Paris a Pop: Rock n' Roll and miniskirts,” which includes covers of some well-known U.S. rock songs: “Noir c'est noir,” par example. Dylan's “I Want You” is translated as “D'etre a vous,” while “Son of a Preacher Man” gets the bland title “Le grand amour.”  But all three are good covers.

Afterwards five of us, including Brio, the dog, went to the Betty Bowen overlook at the top of Queen Anne hill for a picnic and watched the sun set. We witnessed a lavish wedding in the nearby Parsons Garden. Nothing was stormed.

Patricia Bradbury, Bastille Day, 2014  Dylan, Bastille Day, 2012

Brio, ball, Betty Bowen overlook, Seattle  Patricia, Betty Bowen Overlook, 2012

Puget Sound sunset from the Betty Bowen Overlook in Queen Anne, Seattle

Sunset over Puget Sound, July 14, 2012

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Posted at 08:42 AM on Jul 15, 2012 in category Photo of the Day
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Saturday July 14, 2012

Adventures in Cycling: Yo Yos Apologizing

I nearly got killed on the way to work yesterday.

I shouldn't write that. Too many people already think it's too dangerous to bike in the city when it's not, really. Put it this way: If I drove, I might be dead already. At the least, I'd be fatter with higher blood pressure. Maybe I'd be dead from higher blood pressure.

So yesterday I was biking north on First Avenue in downtown Seattle, my usual route, and was about five blocks from crossing Denny. There are two north-bound lanes, and I was in the right lane, as usual, where four cars were moving slowly. They were moving so slowly that I caught up to them, and, since the left lane was clear, I decided to go around them. The second car in line had the same thought I did, about five seconds after I did, and just as I was pulling even with him. Thus, as he pulled out into the left lane, he began to push me into oncoming traffic.

YO! YO! YO!

That's my default yell. It worked here. He finally noticed. And he rolled down the window with a smile on his face and said kindly, “Didn't see you. Sorry.” Then he made the light, which was yellow, while I was stuck behind with the rest of the traffic, and with all of the mixed feelings such encounters tend to bring out.

For some reason, his mea culpa bugged me. “Didn't see you.” Of course he didn't see me. I didn't think he was pushing me into oncoming traffic on purpose.

But at least he was nice about it. At least he said “Sorry.” At least he smiled.

Then I realized this is what bugged me most of all.

A year or two ago, I had another YO! YO! YO! encounter, this time on Second Avenue, which has its own bike lane, heading south after work. A woman driving north apparently saw a parking space she wanted on the east or southbound side of the street and pulled a 180 to grab it. She nearly ran me over in the process. YO! YO! YO! Her windows were rolled up, and she kept them rolled up, but she did apologize. I could see her mouthing these words, angrily, with a scowl on her face: “I'm SORRY!” It was as if she were apologizing for the tenth time rather than the first. My immediate thought back then: You don't seem sorry.

The guy yesterday was the same, if opposite. He was just a little too happy in his apology. He seemed like someone who had realized long ago that you can disarm people with kindness, and that's what he was doing here, disarming me with his kindness, but he, too, didn't seem that sorry about nearly running me over. He seemed pretty happy about it. And then he made the light, while I was left behind with all of the mixed feelings such encounters tend to bring out.

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Posted at 08:39 AM on Jul 14, 2012 in category Biking
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Friday July 13, 2012

Really, Direct TV?

Here's an ad that Direct TV uses to promote its Extra Innings deal. It's located by the bus stop in front of the Uptown Cafe in lower Queen Anne in Seattle, Wash.:

Alex Rodriguez, Direct TV, Seattle

Favorite team? The Yankees? Favorite player? A-Rod? In Seattle?

Seriously, Direct TV. Do you use just one image for the entire country? Because I can't think of a worse way to appeal to baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest than a heroic image of the most hated former Mariner of them all. You might as well promote basketball packages in Cleveland with LeBron James. You might as well promote the safety of investment banking with Bernie Madoff.

No surprise that A-Rod's face in the ad has been defaced. Wouldn't be surprised if it got worse before it got better. Because, again, the ad is located by the bus stop in front of the Uptown Cafe in lower Queen Anne in Seattle, Wash.

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Posted at 08:44 AM on Jul 13, 2012 in category Yankees Suck
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Thursday July 12, 2012

Can't Wait to Get on the Road Again: The Offensive Numbers of the 2012 Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners start the second half of the 2012 season today with the worst record in the American League and as an afterthought in Major League Baseball.

More tellingly, or painfully, the team is once again in last place, or near last place, 29th or 30th, in key offensive categories: batting average (29th), slugging percentage (29th), OBP (30th) and OPS (30th). Fans are past the point of longing for the days of Griffey, A-Rod, Buhner and Edgar; we now long for the days of Randy Winn. My Kingdome for a player with a .350 on-base percentage.

Here are the offensive numbers of the first half of 2012:

  M's Totals MLB Rank
Runs 337 25th
Hits 667 28th
Doubles 135 24th
Triples 12 25th
HRs 73 24th
RBI 317 24th
Total Bases 1055 27th
BA .230 29th
OBP .291 30th
SLG .358 29th
OPS .649 30th

Warning: the counting numbers are a little skewed (upward), since the M's have played more games than any other team in baseball. They're tied with three other teams at 87. Yet despite this statistical advantage, they rank no higher than 24th in any major offensive category.

Here's the question: How much of this results from Safeco Field, which as a reputation as a pitchers' park? How much better do we hit on the road than at home?

As it turns out, much better:

  Home #s MLB Rank Away #s MLB Rank
Runs 117 30th 220 2nd
Hits 249 30th 428 2nd
Doubles 50 30th 85 7th
Triples 3 29th 9 4th
HRs 21 28th 52 3rd
RBI 111 30th 206 2nd
Total Bases 368 30th 687 2nd
BA .195 30th .256 12th
OBP .273 30th .305 19th
SLG .289 30th .410 8th
OPS .562 30th .715 11th

Warning: the counting numbers are skewed here, too, since the M's rank 26th in games played at home (41) and second in games played on the road (46). So our counting numbers are driven down at home and up on the road. Even so, what a surprise to find your 2012 Seattle Mariners second in all of Major League Baseball in road-game Total Bases.

But the percentage numbers are not skewed in this manner. They're skewed in the sense that we're a different ballclub at home and on the road. We're the Jeckyl and Hyde of teams. In slugging percentage, we're Alex Gordon on the road. At home, we turn into Dee Gordon.

But OPS is the true indicator of a team's offensive prowess, and the difference here is vast: .153. 11th to 30th. And not just 30th: 30th by a long shot. The second-worst home OPS belongs to San Diego, but theirs is .625 or 63 points above ours. The second-worst in the American League is Oakland's, but they're at .662. I'll let you do that math on that one.

Question: Has the discrepancy between the M's home and road numbers always been this bad? No, but...

Year Home OPS MLB Rank Away OPS MLB Rank OPS Diff.
2000 .760 23rd .842 1st -.082
2001 .791 5th .819 2nd -.028
2002 .743 19th .793 4th -.050
2003 .740 22nd .768 6th -.028
2004 .706 28th .747 18th -.041
2005 .713 28th .704 26th .009
2006 .737 29th .761 15th -.024
2007 .755 19th .769 9th -.014
2008 .720 26th .695 26th .025
2009 .712 29th .719 18th -.007
2010 .623 30th .651 29th -.028
2011 .623 30th .658 30th -.035
2012 .562 30th .715 11th -.153

The .153 difference between home and road OPS in 2012, if it holds, will be the biggest in the 13 full seasons the M's have played at Safeco. The previous biggest was .082 in 2000. Back then, the M's actually had the best road OPS in MLB. They ranked 23rd at home.

We've also had two seasons where we actually hit better at home than on the road, 2005 and 2008, but the difference there was marginal, and our MLB rank for each was more-or-less the same.

The column that most depresses me? Our MLB rank for OPS at home. In only one season, the 116-win season in 2001, did the M's finish top 15 in Home OPS rank. Every other year? We're second division. Bottom 15. Bottom feeders. We've finished 28th, 29th or 30th seven times in the last nine years. We've been dead last every year for the last three years.

And on the road? We've been dead last once, and 28th, 29th or 30th only twice in the last nine.

Of course these stats merely back up what most M's fans know intuitively. The major point is that never has the discrepancy between home and road numbers been so great as in 2012. The question is why. Statistical anomaly? The extra cold Seattle spring versus the super warm weather elsewhere? The idea that the doldrums of playing at Safeco is getting into the heads of these young players as surely as it gets into mine watching them?

One thing is certain: The team you're watching at Safeco is, year after year, and regardless of what they do on the road, one of the worst offensive teams in Major League Baseball. That's where the conversation begins.

Safeco Field, empty seats

Safeco 2012: As the runs have disappeared, so have the fans.

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Posted at 08:17 AM on Jul 12, 2012 in category Seattle Mariners
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Wednesday July 11, 2012

The Most Stunning Moment at 'Amazing Spider-Man'

I've been on vacation for a week, visiting family in Minneapolis, which is why the week-long silence. But before we get into everything else, I did want to share one incident.

Patrica and I were taking my nephews, Jordy, 11, and Ryan, 9, to see “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It was playing in about five different venues in Minneapolis, including the Mall of America, but I opted for the Southdale Theater since I have a tendency to get lost and disoriented at the MOA. Plus Southdale was playing an IMAX-3D version of the movie. Of course it turned out to be faux IMAX—a big flat screen rather than a huge, curved screen—but the movie was enjoyable enough. I'll have a more in-depth take later this week.

The most stunning thing about the movie, though, happened before it even started. It happened when I bought the tickets. My conversation with the ticket agent went something like this:

Me: Four, please.
He: That'll be $64.00

Gulp. Thwip.

Spider-man thwip

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Posted at 06:17 AM on Jul 11, 2012 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday July 09, 2012

Louis C.K. Isn't Updating Seinfeld; He's Updating Proust

Here's a quote from Marcel Proust, from around 1907. I came across it while reading Alain de Botton's, “How Proust Can Change Your Life”:

[The telephone is] a supernatural instrument before whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream. ...

Since we are children who play with divine forces without shuddering before their mystery, we only find the telephone 'convenient', or rather, as we are spoilt children, we find that 'it isn't convenient', and we fill Le Figaro with our complaints.

Here's Louis C.K.'s update 101 years later. Apologies that the audio is slightly out of sync with the video:

UPDATE: a portrait of the artist as a stand-up comedian.

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Posted at 04:53 PM on Jul 09, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Quote of the Day

“I'll never forget an extended interview I did with Kirk Douglas in Laredo, Texas, between takes of Eddie Macon's Run ('82). I was doing a set-visit piece for the N.Y. Post, and since Run wasn't much more than a servicable B-level programmer we mostly talked about his career hallmarks...

”I told him I half-loved the foyer freakout scene with Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful. And much of The Devil's Disciple. And almost all of Champion. And every frame of Paths of Glory and The Big Sky and Lonely Are The Brave. And then I made an attempt at quoting his “eight spindly trees in Rockefeller Center” speech from Ace in the Hole. Douglas was drinking a bourbon (or something fairly stiff), and I remember his leaning forward at this point and saying, 'You've really done your homework.'“

--Jeffrey Wells, ”Not By a Long Shot," on his Hollywood Elsewhere site.

Kirk Dougas in "Ace in the Hole"

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Posted at 01:39 PM on Jul 09, 2012 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday July 02, 2012

Movie Review: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

WARNING: UNFORGIVING SPOILERS

Has any final installment of a trilogy sucked as badly as this one? Has any third movie betrayed the legacy of its first two movies the way this one does?

Hell, forget the first two movies; how about the source material? Spider-Man is Spider-Man because of one horrible moment: His Uncle Ben is killed by a petty thief that Peter Parker, with all his powers, couldn’t be bothered to stop. It’s one of the great psychological motivations in superherodom. Spider-Man fights crime not because it’s right, like Superman, and not for revenge, like Batman, but from guilt. Because he didn’t bother to stop the guy who later killed Uncle Ben.

poster for Spider-Man 3“Spider-Man 3” undoes all of this. It pins Uncle Ben’s murder on the petty thief’s partner, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who later becomes the Sandman.

Did anyone on the set question this? Did anyone say, “Uh, dudes, if another guy is responsible for the death of Uncle Ben, what does this do to Spider-Man’s origin? His guilt? His raison d’etre?”

Undoing Spider-Man’s origin absolves Peter Parker of his original sin, the sin of doing nothing; of thinking that with great power comes a lot of kick-ass fun, bro. It turns him into someone else.

So, five years later, I went looking for a culprit for “Spider-Man 3”; and possibly, hopefully, a mea culpa.

Whodunit?
There are entire threads out there in which geeks and outsiders hash it out and bash each other’s theories about what went wrong with “Spider-Man 3.” Some blame producer Avi Arad for insisting that Venom be added to a storyline already weighed down with the New Green Goblin and Sandman and evil Spider-Man. Some blame fanboys who whined about wanting to see Venom in the first place. Some blame the actors for going through the motions. Some blame director Sam Raimi.

Me, I searched for cast/crew differences in the “Spider-Man” movies. Who worked on the third movie, which sucked, who didn’t work on the first two, which were great?

Director?

  • 1: Directed by Sam Raimi
  • 2: Directed by Sam Raimi
  • 3: Directed by Sam Raimi

Nope. Editor?

  • 1: Film Editing by Arthur Coburn and Bob Murawski
  • 2: Film Editing by Bob Murawski
  • 3: Film Editing by Bob Murawski

No. Writer?

  • 1: Screenplay: David Koepp
  • 2: Screenplay: Alvin Sargent. Story: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon
  • 3: Screenplay: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent. Story: Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi

Wait. Ivan Raimi?

Yes, Sam’s older brother. He’s an emergency room doctor with many screen credits ... on his younger brother’s movies. According to IMDb.com, he helped develop the stories for the first two “Spider-Man” movies, too.

But those are your culprits. Sam and Ivan. We know because they’ve already confessed. They confessed in the form of bragging.

Whydunit?
This is a part of an interview Sam Raimi did with Wizard Entertainment Group in 2007:

We felt that the most important thing Peter has to learn right now is that this whole concept of him as the avenger, or him as the hero… He wears this red and blue outfit. With each criminal he brings to justice, he’s trying to pay down his debt of guilt he feels about the death of Uncle Ben. And he considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains that he nabs. So we felt it would be a great thing for him to learn the less black-and-white view of life, and that he’s not above these people, that he’s not just a hero and they’re not just the villains. That we’re all human beings and we all have, that he himself might have, some sin within him, and that other human beings, the ones he calls the criminals, have humanity within them. And that the best we can do within this world is to not strive for vengeance but for forgiveness.

Look at the quote again. These words: “He considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains that he nabs.”

The whole point of Peter Parker is that he knows he’s sinned. He knows the fault lies within himself as with others. By making someone other than Spider-Man's origin in Amazing Fantasy #15: "All my fault!"the Burglar the killer of Uncle Ben, you actually remove his original sin, which is the greatest original sin in comic book history.

In other words, Sam and Ivan removed Spider-Man’s original sin in order to deliver the lesson that none of us are without sin.

Then there’s this line: “The best we can do within this world is to not strive for vengeance but for forgiveness.”

Vengeance? When does Spider-Man ever strive for revenge? In the first two movies, which Sam Raimi supposedly directed, when does he ever seethe with revenge?

Just one moment. It’s in the first movie, when he’s going after the petty thief who killed Uncle Ben. At this point, he’s this close to becoming Batman. But that’s before the realization that he could’ve prevented it all, the realization that makes him Spider-Man.

So why did Sam and Ivan insist Peter (Tobey Maguire) learn a lesson he’s already learned? More to the point, how do they do it? How do they make a character who isn’t naturally vengeful, vengeful?

Two ways. First, they undo the moment that makes him Spider-Man, by placing the blame for Uncle Ben’s death on Flint Marko. Then they infect him with symbiotic black space goo. It lands in Central Park from outer space (I know), adheres to Spider-Man’s uniform, and turns it, and his soul, black.

This goo makes him do crazy things. He styles his hair like a little Hitler, struts down the street like an ass, and takes advantage of his landlord’s daughter, Ursula (Mageina Tovah), by allowing her to bake cookies for him. That’s not a metaphor, by the way. She’s literally baking cookies for him. And he has the nerve to eat them in the hallway of his rundown building. With milk.

The goo also makes him web-sling after Flint Marko/Sandman with a vengeance. And he gets his revenge. He kills him, or thinks he kills him, and sneers this final bon mot: “Good riddance.”

Later in the movie, Aunt May will tell Peter that revenge is like a poison. “It can take you over,” she says. “Before you know it, it can turn us into something ugly.” That’s the grand lesson the Raimi brothers wish to impart. Unfortunately, it’s not the grand lesson the movie imparts. Because her words describe revenge less than the symbiotic black space goo. It has taken him over. It has turned him ugly. It has made him eat the cookies that Ursula baked for him. Peter Parker? He’s still a nice guy. So what’s the real grand lesson here? Don’t get infected with symbiotic black space goo?

Shedunit
Should I even get into the whole Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) subplot?

Peter and MJ come together at the end of “2” but at the beginning of “3” they already looked bored with it. Or she does anyway. Hanging in that web hammock in Central Park and looking at the stars? Again? How about we have sex for a change? Or once? How about I bake you some cookies?

Pete and MJ aren’t helped by the fact that he’s oblivious and she’s a bit of a bitch. He’s superhappy and the superhappy are always tough to hang around. He’s so superhappy he kisses Gwen Stacey in front of MJ and doesn’t think it’ll bother MJ.

But by this point her life has begun to turn. She’s on Broadway in a musical, “Manhattan Melodies,” singing some 1940s-era song while descending a long staircase in a long gown. (Wait, what year is it again?) The critics are merciless. Fro the first time in history, the producers listen to the critics and fire her. When she emerges from the theater in the middle of the day, it’s to applause, and for a second, being her, she actually thinks it’s for her—the third-billed, recently fired star of a tired musical. Her face darkens when she sees the applause is actually for Spider-Man, that lout of a boyfriend, who just, what, saves people’s lives? As if.

So she holds back. She’s actually in the process of leaving Peter, as she left Flash Thompson, and Harry Osborne, and as she left John Jameson standing at the altar like a schmuck. This is what she does. She runs away from one man and into the arms of another.

This time the arms belong to Harry (James Franco), who, because he bonks his head and develops amnesia like a character in a soap opera, doesn’t remember that his father was the Green Goblin, that his best friend is Spider-Man, and that he thinks his best friend killed his father. Instead he’s happy-go-lucky, and he and MJ make omelettes while listening to Chubby Checker and dancing the Twist. (Wait, what year is it again?) Then they kiss. She: “I didn’t mean to do that!” Me: Yes, you did.

Up to this point, the relationship of Pete and MJ is falling apart on its own. But for the rest of the movie, external forces will act upon them to break them up completely.

First, her kiss, like a reverse Prince Charming’s, awakens Harry’s memory, his inner Goblin, who counsels, vis a vis Peter, “Make him suffer. ... First, we attack his heart!” Which he does. Not by wooing MJ—that would be too simple—but by threatening her. We never find out what this threat is. Break up with Peter or I’ll kill you? Break up with Peter or I’ll kill Peter? How come she doesn’t say, “Dude, my boyfriend’s Spider-Man. Screw you and your sad-ass air-board. What, was Rocket Racer having a sale?”

Instead, threatened, she breaks up with Peter, who is already coming under the influence of the black space goo. So he shows up at MJ’s singing waitress gig and steals the show as a 1940s-era jive-talking asshole. (Wait, what year is it again?) Then he decks a bouncer. Then he decks her. Much later, per usual, she’s the bait in the final epic battle above Manhattan; and at the very end, with Harry dead and the black space goo gone, Peter and MJ get together for a final slow, sad dance. Are they a couple again? Are they saying good-bye? Who knows? Who knows if they’re even right for each other. They didn’t seem right for each other at the beginning, and so much has happened since then.

All of this is part of another grand lesson the Raimi brothers wish to impart: a man puts his woman before himself. The conflict they wanted was there, too, if they’d just looked hard enough. Every person, every situation, contains a paradox, and Peter’s is in the contradictory sayings of Uncle Ben. On the one hand: With great power comes great responsibility. On the other: A husband puts his wife before himself. So to whom is Peter ultimately responsible? I’d go with the woman in the burning building over MJ reading a scathing review, but that’s just me. But at least you have something for Peter to work through. At least you don’t have to turn Peter into what he is not in order to show us he should be what he is.

That final, sad, slow dance? It’s the last time we see these characters in this incarnation. I’d say “Good riddance” but that would be too vengeful.

Theydunit
I went looking for the culprits for “Spider-Man 3” and found them. I also went looking for a mea culpa. I found it, too. Kind of.

Here’s Sam Raimi in 2009, when it seemed he still might make “Spider-Man 4”:

I think having so many villains detracted from the experience. I would agree with the criticism… I think I’ve learned about the importance of getting to the point and the importance of having limitations, and I’m hoping to take that into a production where I’m actually allowed to explore with more of the tools to pull it off with a little more splendor.

Everyone thinks that’s the problem with “Spider-Man 3”: too many supervillains. But that’s not the real problem. You could actually do something cool with too many supervillains. I bet there’s a writer-director right now, maybe Joss Whedon, who is thinking of ways to turn this collective wisdom (too many supervillains ruin a movie) on its head.

No, the real problem is that Sam and Ivan had reductive lessons to impart and they imparted them in spite of their characters, not because of them. They imposed them from above. Their characters were A, and they changed them to F or Q, in order to show us that we should all be A.

To do this, they tore apart what is organic and meaningful in Spider-Man’s story (the Burglar; with great power comes great responsibility), then stuck it back together through artificial constructs and reductive lessons (space goo; forgiveness > vengeance). They’re like children who, having removed the wings of an insect, construct papier-mâché versions and stick them on and expect the poor thing to fly. It doesn’t. It fucking falls.

Here’s the final fall. It’s the big moment of forgiveness. Harry’s dead, Eddie Brock is gone with the space goo, and Spider-Man and Sandman square off. With words. Words written by Sam Raimi and his brother, Dr. Ivan Raimi:

Sandman: I didn't want this. But I had no choice.
Spider-Man: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you killed my uncle.
Sandman: My daughter was dying. I needed money.

[Flashback: Flint knocks on Uncle Ben’s car window with a gun]

Sandman: I was scared. I told your uncle all I wanted was the car. He said to me, “Why don't you just put down the gun and go home?” I realize now he was just trying to help me. Then I saw my partner running over with the cash... and the gun was in my hand...

[Flashback: the Burglar shakes Flint’s arm, causing him to shoot Uncle Ben.]

Sandman: I did a terrible thing to you. I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back. I'm not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand.
Spider-Man: I've done terrible things too.
Sandman: I didn't choose to be this. The only thing left of me now... is my daughter.

[There’s a pause. A long, long pause.]

Spider-Man: I forgive you.

My edit:

Sam Raimi: I didn't want this. But I had no choice.
Me: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you made Flint Marko responsible for the death of Uncle Ben.
Sam: I thought I was teaching a lesson about sin, and revenge, and forgiveness.
Me: Revenge? You think you’re telling Batman’s story here? Do you even know which character you’ve spent a decade filming?
Sam: I was scared. Then I saw my agent running over with the cash... and the pen was in my hand...

[Flashback: Sam and Ivan talk about the story while Ivan performs surgery.]

Sam: I did a terrible thing to you all. I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back.

[Flashback to the “Spider-Man 3” premiere and the horrified faces in the audience.]

Sam: I'm not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand.
Me: I've written terrible things, too...

[There’s a pause. A very short pause.]

Me: ...but not this terrible. Fucker.

Horizontal poster for Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Oh no! I'm about to turn into what I'm not so I can learn I should be what I am!

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Posted at 07:31 AM on Jul 02, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Sunday July 01, 2012

What's My Motivation? Batman, Spider-Man, and the Dictionary Definition of a Superhero

It’s July 1, 2012, and the latest incarnations of Spider-Man and Batman arrive on our screens this month. That’s appropriate. These guys have a lot in common.

We tend to think not. We tend to think of them as opposites. Batman is DC, Spider-Man Marvel. Batman is silent and dark, Spider-Man gabby and colorful. Bruce Wayne is rich, Peter Parker poor. Spidey has the proportional strength of a spider, Batman is just a strong dude, dude.

Moreover, neither can sustain the other's mood. When a Batman movie goes for lighter and gabbier, you wind up with crap like George Clooney in “Batman & Robin” (1998). When a Spider-Man movie turns dark and vengeful, you wind up with crap like the evil Spider-Man in “Spider-Man 3.”

They’re oil and water, these two. They don’t mix.

Our biggest box-office superheroes
But at the box office they’re our two most popular superheroes. They keep trading off bragging rights. Tim Burton’s “Batman” set the opening-weekend box-office record with $40 million in June 1989 and was the No. 1 movie that year. Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man’ set the opening-weekend box-office record with $114 million in May 2002 and was the No. 1 movie that year. Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man“Spider-Man 3” may have set a new opening record with $151 million in May 2007 (and was the No. 1 movie that year), but Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” took it back again with a $158 million opening in July 2008 (and was the No. 1 movie that year).

Here. These are the top five superhero-movies of all time:

  • The Avengers (2012): $606,298,000
  • The Dark Knight (2008): 533,345,358
  • Spider-Man (2002): $403,706,375
  • Spider-Man 2 (2004): $373,585,825
  • Spider-Man 3 (2007): $336,530,303

Adjust for inflation and you get more Batman:

  • The Avengers (2012): $606,298,000
  • The Dark Knight (2008): $588,314,100
  • Spider-Man (2002): $550,319,200
  • Batman (1989): $498,600,600
  • Spider-Man 2 (2004): $476,457,300
  • Superman (1978): $454,276,400
  • Spider-Man 3 (2002): $387,401,200
  • Iron Man (2008): $351,218,400
  • Batman Forever (1995): $335,063,500

So why are these guys so popular?

The dictionary definition of a superhero
Watch Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” again and notice how much he borrows from Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Both movies are scored by Danny Elfman. Both heroes battle grinning maniacs. Both movies give us city-wide celebrations, complete with parade balloons, in which, backed by the R&B singer of the day (Prince, Macy Gray), the supervillian attacks the populace. BatmanBoth Burton and Raimi come out of the horror genre (“Evil Dead”; “Beetlejuice”), and both include scenes in which the hero is seen as the horror by petty crooks: the opening rooftop scene of “Batman”; the warehouse/carjacker in “Spider-Man.”

What are you?” the petty crook asks in the beginning of Tim Burton’s “Batman.” “I’m Batman,” Batman replies.

“Who am I?” Peter Parker asks us at the end of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” “I’m Spider-Man.”

Beyond the movies themselves, both superheroes tend to fit what we think of as the dictionary defintion of a superhero: They 1) have secret identities, 2) prowl the night in search of crime, because 3) they’re attempting to cleanse themselves of a past tragedy.

We think of this as the dictionary definition but it really isn’t that common. Most of the superheroes of Batman’s “Golden Age” generation didn’t have a psychological motivation to fight crime; they did it because it was right (Superman), or because they’d been detectives (The Spirit), or because Hitler’s hordes were on the march (Captain America). Most of the superhero identities of Spider-Man’s “Silver Age” generation, meanwhile, were either known (The Fantastic Four, X-Men) or irrelevant (Hulk), and they rarely bothered with petty crime. They were too busy saving the world from Galactus.

But Spider-Man and Batman bothered. Because both are bothered.

Revenge vs. guilt
As a child, Bruce Wayne sees his parents murdered by a petty crook and burns with a desire to get the bastards. That’s why he’s Batman: he wants revenge.

The origin of Batman, Detective Comics #27

Batman: It's their fault.

As a teenager, Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is murdered and he burns with a desire to get the bastard; then he realizes he had the chance to stop the dude before the murder and didn’t. That’s why he’s Spider-Man: he’s overwhelmed by guilt.

The origin of Spider-Man, from Amazing Fantasy #15

Spider-Man: It's my fault.

But is such psychological motivation a key element to box-office success?

Let’s look at “Iron Man,” the No. 8 movie on the list above. Does Iron Man fit the dictionary definition of a superhero?

Pretty much. He may not fight street crime but he does fight war crimes, and he's psychologically motivated to do it. For the first part of the movie, he’s held hostage by terrorists, who kill his friend and savior, Yinsen, so he wants revenge on the bastards. At the same time, he’s been creating and supplying and getting rich off of weapons for years, so he’s guilty, too, and needs to cleanse himself. He's combines the motivations of both Batman and Spider-Man. Nice trick. Of course, at the end, he gives up his secret identity (in a totally cool move), and besides the box-office success of “Iron Man” certainly had more to do with the movie's kick-ass special effects and Robert Downey Jr.’s kick-ass wit and charm. But superhero motivation doesn’t hurt. At the least, it helps the movie make sense.

Let’s go the other route. Are there examples where the superhero fits the dictionary definition and his movie still bombs at the box office?

I can think of one: “Daredevil” (2003), starring Ben Affleck. Matt Murdock’s father is killed by mobsters, which gives Matt the motivation to fight crime, and in the end he confronts his father’s killer. “Daredevil” didn’t bomb, so to speak; it raked in $102 million. But it bombed by Batman and Spider-Man standards. It was the 27th biggest movie of the year, not the 10th or fifth or first. Psychological motivation for your superhero may help, in other words, but you still have to put something decent on the screen.

Superman: What’s my motivation?
How much does motivation help? Of the nine most popular superhero movies listed above, Batman has a motivation, Spider-Man, too, and Iron Man two. As for the Avengers? They’re psychologically unsuited to team up but supremely motivated to save the world. That's the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby twist. We fight in times of peace but unite in times of war. You could say it's the story of America. Or it's the story America likes to tell about itself.

I hope saving the world is part of Superman’s motivation in next year’s “Man of Steel." Superman was the first true superhero, and, back in 1938, he fought crime and injustice just cuz. But ultimately Superman’s origin isn’t much different from Batman’s. Both lost their parents. Batman lost his to crime, and that’s why he fights crime. Superman? He lost his parents, and his entire planet, because nobody could be bothered to listen to the apocalyptic warnings of its scientists. So shouldn't he fight ... that?

I know. A downer. Tough to dramatize. Preachy. At the same time, it might resonate a little. It might even give the popcorn-munching crowd a little psychological motivation of its own.

Superman (Brandon Routh), with Earth in the background, in "Superman Returns" (2006)

Superman: Is it your fault?

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Posted at 10:10 AM on Jul 01, 2012 in category Superheroes
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard

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