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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

MAYBE YOU'RE AMAZED

   
 
    Certain non-writers make the joy of writing into a real task, when it's an occupation which should be ecstasy. I refer not to editors, agents, publicists, proofreaders, art directors, research assistants, or anyone else employed in the mechanics of the process. Those people actually perform useful and often loving work, making it possible for writers to earn a living. The people who to all appearances go out of their way to frustrate the best intentions of many writers--myself included--are the very subjects of the pieces we write. (That isn't to say that we writers are entirely blameless. I once began what turned out to be an aborted interview with singer Lucinda Williams with the words, "My editor assures me you're crazy as a shithouse rat.") In the case of someone famous, I suppose the celebrity, or his or her handlers, assume the writer owes it to the process to write favorably or at worst in a neutral tone, lest the poor artist should get into a snit and smash up the hotel room, something he'd likely do anyway. And please do not think that I'm referring only to the puff-pieces one scans in People, US, or other tripe locales. In the case of what I'm about to get around to talking about, one would be hard pressed to find any type of critical response at all. It's just a guy with some more product--and old product at that. The implicit pull is that we should all buy it because it won't be around forever--even though it apparently has been--and besides, it just has to be oh so very good, even better than the first time.
    As you've no doubt guessed, the subject of tonight's vitriol is none other than Paul McCartney and the product in question is the Deluxe Edition of the Wings Over America recording experience. Retailing for $157 on Amazon, when this behemoth arrives in stores they'll only need to sell a couple dozen copies to make McCartney a double billionaire, a goal I know I speak for one and all as a dream we've shared since the stupid murder of John Lennon back in 1980.
   Around about the end of May of this year, Paul McCartney will be making available to the international gaggle of fans a box set to end all box sets. According to Guitar World (which approaches any repackaged McCartney release with the solemnity of a Pope's coronation), the package includes two remastered CDs of the original three-record-set, a "bonus" audio recording of Wings at the Cow Palace, a DVD of the television special of the tour, plus four books, if by books one means memorabilia, such as a bunch of tour drawings by "Humphrey Ocean " (here's his curious website, if you're interested), a Linda McCartney photo book, and a lot of writing and interviews by David Fricke. There's even the famous "Rockshow" video about which so many of us have heard next to nothing. 
   Sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn't it? I mean, no one's forcing you to buy it, right? That frigging Phil Mershon probably got his copy free from the record company, even though he's more uncomfortable with Starbucks than with guys who wear green on Thursdays, which it wouldn't surprise any of us too much if he made a habit of doing his own damned self!
   See what happens when you try to offer a bit of critical analysis toward a mega-super-duper star? You find yourself writing in a pejorative manner about yourself in the third person. That's power, McCartney. Don't abuse it. 
   I take no truck with the release of any of this merchandise itself, other than wondering perhaps why it all has to be so bloody expensive (Answer: the only people who'll want it are the die-hards, all of whom are my age or older and therefore presumably have jobs that will allow them to buy it). No, my only gripe--and it's a big-ass gripe--is why in God's name (sorry Paul) did they have to make a promotional video about the release of the recording? The implication is that the prospective purchaser will be getting so much stuff in this colossal investment that he or she will need an operations manual just to wade through it all. I know it wouldn't be fair to those of you who think I'm a hypocrite for me not to show you the video of which I'm ranting, so here you are. Go on. Watch it. I can wait.
   Maybe you're amazed. I know I am. If I thought for an instant the Deluxe Boxed Set would be one-tenth as impressive as that video, I'd hock my girlfriend's bras and buy a copy of my own. 
    
   I've been sitting here staring at the above words for a few minutes, a fact which I hope the otherwise unnecessary space between this paragraph and the last will amplify. I've been remembering the original sense of anticipation that preceded the release of the three record set back in late 1976. With the sole exception of the 1995 televised broadcast and multi-CD release of the exceptional Beatles Anthology, the release of Wings Over America was the last time the world experienced any grand expectation of a former Beatle product. Part of that can be attributed to the aging of the marketplace, but if that's all there was to it, then how can we explain the fact that all the really old Beatles albums are still in catalog, regularly re-released in "new, improved" editions? No, the real reason that late 76 was the end--or near end--was because the original Wings Over America just wasn't all that riveting. There are a couple good explanations as to why. First, everything on the live recording was available in better form on studio recordings, since live recordings, then as now, are inherently incapable of conveying the sensation of the live performance (Yes, I know there are exceptions, such as Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East, Cheap Trick at Budokan  and Warren Zevon's Stand in the Fire, but name another). Second, 1976 was precisely the time in British and American popular music when disco, punk and heavy metal came to dominate the market, transforming the music we hear to this very day into a far more rhythm-based and less melody-oriented listening affair. Finally, by that troubling year, it was virtually impossible for McCartney (admittedly now knighted and bestowed with the recognition as the most commercially successful performer of all time) to convince the music buying public that he was still relevant. Ask the average fifty-plus fan to name his or her three favorite McCartney or Wings albums and I'd be willing to bet all three would have been released before Wings Over America
    Here's the best comparison I can make: In 1976 Chrysler released its worst ever automobile, the Dodge Aspen. There's a reason you don't see very many of those at antique car shows. They were among the most rust-prone vehicles ever manufactured. You may draw your own conclusions. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

NOTHING BUT A HOUSE PARTY

    


   While my own experience suggests that a person can only do so much, I have also found that the amount any one person can do remains considerable. This situation holds true in particular when a person has recently recovered from being hungry. 
    Flash back to the year 2008, if you dare. I had just been released from a behavioral health hospital that I had been using as something of a full service hotel. (Already I notice that a brief digression is in order. Heck, if they gave hospital beds based on a person's tendency to digress, I'd be sleeping in one next to David Brenner. Which I'm not. Anyway, I do not intend to give the impression here that I did not necessarily belong in that psych facility. I do mean to suggest that my "depression," if that's what it was, was directly related to not having any other place to live or means by which to provide myself sustenance. I was, in a word, homeless. Being such, I grew increasingly despondent and each day offered less and less by way of reasonable hope. So I did a couple things--which I won't mention and which have no bearing on events [other than to say they were not illegal]--that I was pretty sure would gain admittance for me into the Aurora Behavioral Health Facility. As a result of this, for the first time in months I actually had regular access to a bed and to food. Neither of these were particularly outstanding, although at the time they felt wonderful.) A social worker named Amber picked me up at the gates and I rode off with her. When we were a mile or so down the road, she turned to me and said, "Where do you want to go?"
   I said, "If you don't mind taking me back to the park, that's where I've been staying."
   She said, "Is that where you want to go?"
   I looked at her in a way that I hope did not betray the frustration I felt. I said, "It isn't a matter of what I want. I don't have any place else to go. If you'd rather not take me, I've got my strength back. I can walk."
   She smiled and shook her head. She replied, "How do you feel about transitional housing?"
    I told her I didn't know what she was talking about, but that if it was better than the park, I was all for it.
   We arrived at a place in central downtown Phoenix. We walked into the first of what were about twelve independent living houses. The one we went into doubled as an office for Hilary and her employees. 
    Hilary, it turned out, ran the facility and did what I can only describe as one hell of a great job. She interviewed me for half an hour or so. Along with the director there was another young woman, this one named Danielle. She was to be responsible for me during my stay there. How long would I need to stay there, someone asked.
   I explained that I would begin teaching at Ottawa University in three weeks. It would take about another three weeks for me to get my first paycheck. I could leave once that arrived, I said, if that was acceptable. 
   All the time I was sitting there being questioned by these two extremely polite and personable women, I had the feeling that I was certainly going to be accepted there as a resident, which it turned out was correct. Having this feeling, it was all I could do to resist jumping up in the air and hugging everyone in sight. That would have worked against the impression of severe depression. It would also have required a lot more energy than I could have mustered. Even a depressed person, down on his luck and without much hope, generally has enough sense to recognize when his salvation is at hand. Mine was. I did. I felt terrific. 
    Danielle had to do another intake so she introduced me to Johanna, a recent transplant from the Carolinas. Johanna showed me into the house I would share with two other fellows. One was a heroin addict. The other was recovering from the psychiatric drugs he'd been given to treat his schizophrenia. Johanna took me to the pantry, which she unlocked, and suggested I take out a week's worth of food. She told me the prices of the various items and said that I could have the equivalent of five dollars food per day. I had just received a food stamp card that allotted me one hundred-eighty dollars a month in groceries. I have seldom felt so happy in the presence of food. 
    About three weeks into this excursion I began to feel three things: (a) better fed, (b) better rested, and (c) underutilized. Only one of these things was a problem and I'm assuming you can surmise which. In my travels throughout this particular facility, I had observed a couple of things. I noticed that most of the residents made no effort to so much as poke their heads out their doors. I also saw that the only two things that this group of guests shared was a fondness for eating regularly and for watching the TV show "House." Beyond that, I suppose the only commonality was that they had all been, to one degree or another, messed over by life, either at their own hands or at the hands of others. 
    Before I tell you what it was that I did which may perhaps validate the statement I made way back at the beginning about a person only being able to do so much, despite that amount being a great deal, I need to make it clear that what I did was not specifically intended to be nice. It turned out that way, I guess, but I did not do it for any other reason than to break up my own monotony. I was terribly bored, saw an opportunity to shatter the boredom, and shattered away. 
   What I did was I requested and received permission to buy a bunch of spaghetti and meat sauce, a bunch of Coca-Cola, and a few extra dishes. I strong-armed my two roommates into helping me host what turned out to be the first of several "House" parties. I bullied all twelve of the residents into attending our Monday night gala where they were served a decent meal that they didn't have to cook. The only rule was that everyone had to watch the television program, which was something they'd be doing anyway, only this time the shut-ins would be doing it together. 
   I finally had to throw everybody out a little after midnight. 
    The tradition continued for the remainder of my stay there, some Mondays at one of the other houses, often as not back at ours. 
   In the grand scheme of things, it sounds so insignificant. Yet, again, some of those guys never left their rooms at any other time. Maybe they just didn't want to leave. But I like to think that it helped some of them reconnect with the way their lives had been before they'd dropped beneath the awareness of the rest of society. And a few of the men and women there actually began to occasionally attend off-site group meetings. Others went on field trips to the nearby parks and recreation centers. One of them, a guy who had been in an industrial accident, had lost his family and had tried to kill himself at least twice that I know of, managed to make his way to the Social Security office where he filed for disability. His claim was approved. He got a nice chunk of back pay that allowed him to buy a new truck and his monthly payment went toward rent and groceries at an abode of his own. 
    I apologize if this all has a "Little House on the Prairie" aroma to it. Once in a while, however, it is good to recall that the things we do at any given time, be it a smile at a stranger or a genuine pat on the back for a friend, can be exactly what that person needs to get through an otherwise harrowing day. Just in the same way that my social worker asking me that ridiculous question helped saved my life, you might say.

   


Saturday, April 27, 2013

BOGART AT COLUMBIA

   

   Humphrey Bogart fared poorly with Columbia Pictures distribution of the films he made with his Santana Productions (Bogart had a fine looking boat called Santana; you can see it in Key Largo). If you want great Bogart pictures--and I think you do--stick with Warner Bros. You'll get instant class and classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Casablanca, The Big Sleep, and many more. Columbia felt so in awe of HDB--justifiably--that they let matters go to their heads and released some of the most over the top, sermon-dominated, bad acting films with major stars. Most of these films worked at some kind of social message angle, as with The Harder They Fall (1956), where Bogart plays a hack reporter who builds up the nonexistent reputation of a boxer in exchange for a piece of the kid's action, only to discover that the kid goes through two years of taking beatings to earn a measly forty-six dollars. Nice premise, lousy execution. 
   Far worse was Knock on Any Door (1949), starring Bogart and a young John Derek--yep, that John Derek. Here Bogart plays attorney Andy Morten, a do-gooder who has done wrong so many times he can no longer tell right from wrong. What he knows for sure is that the system has worked over his client Nicky (Derek). He tells a great flashback story that actually moves the hearts and minds, yet it turns out his plea falls on rigid cartilage. The problem is that John Derek couldn't act. But he sho do look hip, don't he, in those razor-edge suits and the hats that cost more than Italian shoes. Yes, he sho do. Dangerous, too. Unfortunately, the romantic interplay between Nicky and his good girl Emma wrings every melodramatic limb from limb until we're set to laugh our brains out at the only truly memorable exchange in the film: 
"If I was that cynical, I'd hang myself."
"Not me. I wouldn't trust the rope."
    There is one other line that rings memorable from the film. It's one that one hundred generations since have never tired of uttering: "I wanna live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse." 
    Nothing in this movie quite manages to point up the inexorable tragedy of that foolish plea. Besides, if it's great movie lines you're seeking, as I say, stick with Warners. They didn't become the biggest entertainment conglomerate based on their logo alone. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

FUTURE THOUGHT


Counselor: Thank you for calling Wisenhut Rehabilitation Services. How may I direct your call?
Adult Human Male: Oh, yes, hello? I received a letter from you people--
Counselor: Which letter was that?
Adult Human Male: The letter says--
Counselor: Don't tell me what it says. Tell me which letter it is.
Adult Human Male: Hmm. How would I be able to tell?
Counselor: There's a code at the top.
Adult Human Male: I'm sorry, I don't see any code.
Counselor: The code is located at the bottom right corner on the reverse side of the page.
Adult Human Male: Oh, yes. Sorry. I thought I heard you say it was at the top.
Counselor: Are you calling me a liar?
AHM: Of course not.
Counselor: We'll see about that. What is the code on your letter?
AHM: The code is--
Counselor: Just read me the code, sir. Do not precede the code with the words "The code is." Simply read me the code.
AHM: Rather officious process, isn't it?
Counselor: What did you say?
AHM: T H E C O D E I S.
Counselor: Let me see. Yes, yes. That is our office's mandatory compliance notification.
AHM: It says something here about--
Counselor: I know what it says. I can read, can't I? Well?
AHM: I imagine you can, certainly.
Counselor: The letter in question mandates that you attend our nine week drug and alcohol rehabilitation program beginning tomorrow morning at seven AM. There will be no excuses, no firearms, and no parking validation. Anything else?
AHM: Well, yes--
Counselor: It's not a problem, is it? We do not permit problems during your recovery.
AHM: That's just the thing, you see--I'm sorry. I neglected to get your name.
Counselor: Did you?
AHM: Yes, I did. May I have it, please?
Counselor: What's the matter? Planning on reporting me to my supervisor?
AHM: Not at all, I just--
Counselor: I'll have you know that I am the supervisor.
AHM: That's not the problem.
Counselor: What is the problem?
AHM: The problem is--
Counselor: As I told you at the outset, no problems are permitted during your recovery.
AHM: That's really the crux of it, you see. I do not have a drinking or drug problem.
Counselor: I see. Well, no one likes to admit that sort of thing.
AHM: But I really don't. I never drink and do not take drugs. I'm healthy as a horse. Eat right, exercise.
Counselor: Denial is an unattractive quality.
AHM: I'm not in denial, damn you, I simply do not drink.
Counselor: According to our records you were arrested on July 17th for public intoxication.
AHM: See! That never happened. I've never been arrested for anything.
Counselor: Never been arrested?
AHM: Never.
Counselor: Well, that certainly is a problem.
AHM: You almost got me to agree with you.
Counselor: Clever fellow, aren't you?
AHM: Possibly. 
Counselor: Do you still live at 2309 East Meadowview Parkway?
AHM: That's correct.
Counselor: They should be over in a few minutes.
AHM: Who? Who will be?
Counselor: The police, of course. We can't very well have you admitted to our rehabilitation facility if you haven't properly gone through due process.
AHM: Wait!
Counselor: What kind of operation do you think we're running here?
AHM: Someone's at the door.
Counselor: That would be the officers.
AHM: But I'm stone cold sober!
Counselor: We can't very well take the word of an inebriate for that, now can we?
AHM: What?!?
Counselor: You don't object to a painful enema, do you?
AHM: Enema? What ever happened to blood test? Urine?
Counselor: You people are all the same. You get wasted on your cheap pills and booze and expect to piss all over public servants. Good day, sir. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

LET'S ALL MOVE TO OREGON!


   

   We should all move to Oregon. Why? It's the best place to live. Sure, you might think that Hawaii is the best state, but I would disagree because I do not consider Hawaii to be a state. It's more of a possession. The District of Columbia? Now there's a state. You can drive to DC. Try driving to Honolulu some time. Let me know how it worked out. 
   We decided to look at several factors in determining the nicest place to live and love. One of the things that we initially considered and eventually changed our minds about was the relative stupidity of certain locales. This will involve an extended digression, but I think you'll enjoy it, so stick around. We've installed several signposts along the way to let you know how close to the end of the digression you are getting. Neat, huh?
   I bet people where you live are almost as stupid as elsewhere. Despite being certain that we are both correct in our respective ways, I decided to do some checking and as it happens, no two studies can agree on just where in the United States the stupidest people congregate. In the interest of fairness, I am going to share the results of two investigations into alleged stupidity and the varying criteria established to quantify dunce-hood. 
   The results of the first survey were measured by some folks at Boston College. Their criteria were average SAT math scores, percentage of citizens with high school diplomas, how many young people attend college and how many of those young people watch "too much" television. "Too much" in this instance means three or more hours each day. There are some serious biases built into this evaluation, so pay attention. It's possible we'll give extra credit. 

   Fifth-dumbest state in America: Mississippi.
The Magnolia State comes in virtually last place in two of the four factors we analyzed -- how many residents over 25 lack high-school educations and how many high-school students watch tons of TV.    Research shows that 44.9% of Mississippi high schoolers spend three hours a day or more in front of the tube--the worst ranking of any state measured. The 19% of adult Mississippians who lack high-school degrees represent the second-highest rate nationally, besting only Texas and California (which tied for last place). The Magnolia State also ranks ninth-worst for young people attending college, with just 52.7% of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in high education. Mississippi's only bright spot among the factors analyzed was its average SAT math scores. Students got a 544 mean score on the test in 2012 out of a possible 800 -- the 15th-best showing nationwide. Just 4% of Mississippi students generally take the SAT, though -- a low showing that can skew results. The College Board, which oversees the test, says low participation rates usually mean only the best students take the SAT, artificially inflating a state's average score.
    
    Fourth-dumbest state in America: Louisiana. The Bayou State ties Kentucky for the third-highest proportion of adults without high-school degrees (18.1%), and has the sixth-lowest percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college (50.4%). When it comes to television viewing, the 40.3% of Louisiana high schoolers who spend three hours or more a day watching TV trail only their Mississippi counterparts as the nation's highest ratio of budding sofa vegetables. On the other hand, Louisiana's 536 average SAT math score does tie Montana for 17th place nationwide. But only 9% of Louisiana students typically take the test -- and as noted previously, low participation rates can skew a state's average upward.    
    Third-dumbest state in America: TexasThe Lone Star State stands virtually alone when it comes to the proportion of an area's citizens who didn't finish high school. Texas ties California for dead last in terms of residents 25 or older without high-school educations--19.3% for both states. Texas also places 10th from the bottom in terms of young people attending college, with just 52.8% of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in post-secondary schools. Similarly, a 499 average SAT math score places Texas at a below-average 28th place nationwide, while 36.3% of the state's high schoolers watch three hours or more of TV daily. That's the 11th-highest rate nationwide.    
    Second-dumbest state in America: Georgia. The land of my beloved Coca-cola falls in the bottom quartile of performance in all four measures analyzed. Georgia gets particularly low grades in two areas studied: TV watching among high-school students and the percentage of young residents attending college. Just 50.2% of 18- to 24-year-old Georgians are enrolled in higher-education institutions, the fifth-lowest proportion for any state or the District of Columbia. Likewise, Georgia places fourth-worst for TV viewing by students, with 39.2% of high school attendees spending three or more hours a day in front of the idiot box. The Peach State's students also averaged just 489 on the SAT math test, placing them fifth from the bottom nationwide. And 15.7% of Georgians 25 or older lack high-school educations -- the 11th-highest ratio nationally.    
    Dumbest state in America: South Carolina. The Palmetto State finds itself at the bottom of the heap due to near-last-place results in all four measures studied. South Carolina did especially poorly in the area of television watching by high schoolers, with 39.7% of students watching at least three hours of TV per day. Only Louisiana and Mississippi rate worse. Similarly, the state comes in nearly last place in the percentage of young people enrolled in college. Just 49.9% of 18- to 24-year-old South Carolinians attend institutions of higher learning -- a level so low only Montana, Nevada and Alaska trail it. The state also places near last nationwide in terms of SAT math scores. South Carolina students scored 488 on average in 2012, the fourth-lowest showing among all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Lastly, 15.9% of South Carolinians never graduated high school -- the 10th-worst rate nationwide.
    For those of you clocking this at home, the digression is exactly one-half over. 
     Just rereading the above I get a bit disgusted. Even the use of the word "dumbest" sort of trivializes the subject and attaches itself to a propensity for cruelty with which I'm uncomfortable. I'm not easy with the idea that television viewing is necessarily a greater drain on the brain than attending high school. Unless things in mandated education have changed since I was of age, most of high school was a waste of my time, being largely just a rehash of everything I'd learned in Junior High, which in turn was repetitive of grades one through six. While it's probably a fine thing to graduate from high school, I've never been convinced that getting a decent job is necessarily any mark of higher intelligence.
   Besides all that, the other criteria are just as stupid as the targets at which the folks at Boston College take aim. For instance, have you ever seen the math questions that get asked on the SAT test? Here's one: What is the greatest of three consecutive integers whose sum is twenty-four? Hint: the answer is nine. Who talks/writes like that? The people who design these idiot tests, that's who. High school students never use expressions such as "consecutive integers whose sum," not even when they're trying to impress somebody. If you want to ask the question in a manner that will still be exact and clear, one might try this: Give me three positive whole numbers--and only three--that combine to equal twenty-four, and none of those numbers can be greater than the number nine. The answer to that question could only be 7, 8 and 9. No multiple choice. No showing your work for extra credit. Just a simple question that might even be a bit of fun to figure out. 
   The aforementioned digression, for those of you looking to race ahead, is now three-quarters complete. 
    Here are the results of a slightly older stupidity test, this one from 2006-2007, sponsored by Morgan Quitno Press and conducted by the Education State Rankings. Here the states were ranked based on twenty-one variables. These factors include student achievement and attendance, strong student-teacher relationships, school district efficiency, expenditures for instruction, student-teacher ratios, graduation rates, and reading/writing/math proficiencies. According to this study, the worst states are Arizona in last place, preceded by Nevada, Mississippi, California and Alaska. 
    Once again, certain biases are built into the criteria. If student-teacher ratios are such a strong indicator of smartness on the part of students, then why do so many universities pack their classrooms and lecture halls with hundreds of attendees? (Answer? Profit.) Likewise, I don't know what is meant by "school district efficiency," unless it's a clever euphemism for redistricting schools so that some kids have to travel an hour or more just to get to classes because the tax rates are so low in some areas that the local schools simply can't keep their doors opened. And as far as "achievement and attendance" are concerned, let's approach the latter first. Attendance is more an indication of the desperate need on the part of single parents to have a presumably safe place for their kids than it is of any inherent aptitude for learning. As far as achievement is concerned, here in Arizona they institute something called AIMS testing, which evaluates about half the students as to how well their teachers have been teaching to the test. There's a multiple-edges disadvantage in just that type of examination, given that "achieving" schools get rewarded with better funding than schools which could arguably benefit from the same thing. Private schools, of course, suffer from no such burdens. 
    This extended digression is now approaching seven-eighths completeness. 
    The whole idea of education having anything at all to do with intelligence is antithetical to the facts. What higher education does correlate with is getting a decent-paying job, although there are lots of well paid actors and strippers who make more than you and I do. 
    The digression--already in progress--is now fifteen-sixteenths of the way to completion. 
   Ahem. Well now.
    The digression is now complete, despite the fact that Zeno proved beyond all doubt that motion unexists and therefore the digression can never really be said to have an ending, or a beginning, for that matter. Aren't you glad you went to college?
    If you want to get a sense as to how much emphasis a given state places on education, that's one thing. But to assume, a priori, that college graduates such as myself necessarily know more (or have even read more, or are able to deduce better) than the rest of the population is absurd. Have you ever tried to talk with someone who has an MBA?   I would be far more interested in finding out how the states "rank," if that's even the appropriate word, in terms of personal satisfaction, willingness to contribute to the common good, engagement with public policy, that type of thing, rather than how many cars they own or how well they go about stepping on one another heads to get to the top of the corporate ladder. But let's look at something even simpler, say the states with the most progressive and regressive state income taxes, in the latter case meaning those states whose tax burdens unfairly weigh more heavily upon people who are not wealthy. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the state with the most progressive income tax is Oregon. The ten most regressive states are Washington, Florida, South Dakota, Texas, Illinois, Tennessee, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Indiana. The report goes on to say that "Five of the ten most regressive states derive roughly half to two thirds of their tax revenue from sales and excise taxes, compared to a national average of roughly one third. Five of these ten most regressive states do not levy a broad-based personal income tax (four do not have any taxes on personal income and one state only applies its personal income tax to interest and dividends) while the other five have a personal income tax rate that is flat or virtually flat." 
   Recognizing what I call the inherent unfairness of this economic reality might well be considered one measure of intelligence, just as failing to understand it might be equated with "dumbness." This same report, in fact, goes on to point out that "virtually every state’s tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from middle- and low-income families than from wealthy families. The absence of a graduated personal income tax and the over reliance on consumption taxes exacerbate this problem in many states. Combining all of the state and local income, property, sales and excise taxes state residents pay, the average overall effective tax rates by income group nationwide are 11.1 percent for the bottom 20 percent, 9.4 percent for the middle 20 percent and 5.6 percent for the top 1 percent." 
    Now let's turn to engagement in public policy. A good--if imperfect--way to gauge this would be to look at which states have the highest voter turn-out during national elections. The winners are: Oregon, South Dakota, Alaska, Wisconsin, Maine, and--at number one--Minnesota. Minnesota, incidentally, offers its citizens same-day registration. 
    Ultimately, the best measure of the satisfaction of a given people is the likelihood that those people own a pet. Once again, we have numbers to back up this assertion. While the miserable sods at Boston College try to besmirch the south, here's a list from the American Veterinary Medical Association that shows which states have the highest pet ownership. Granted, most of these states are not in the south, but a few are, which kind of stands out, even if it is only two states. Vermont leads with 70.8 percent of households owning a pet, New Mexico with 67.6 percent, South Dakota with 65.6 percent, Oregon with 63.6 percent, Maine with 62.9 percent, Washington with 62.7 percent, Arkansas with 62.4 percent, West Virginia with 62.1 percent, Idaho with 62 percent, and Wyoming with 61.8 percent. Oregon may not top this list, but you'll note it retains top ten status. 
    One last criteria might be the suicide rate of the people of the different states. Here's one area where Oregon does not fare all that well. It ranks 37th, probably because of the rainfall. The ten states with the lowest suicide rates (in descending order) are South Dakota, Hawaii, New Jersey, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Louisiana, Illinois, North Dakota, and Texas. 
   Okay. Now because we don't actually want all of you to move to Oregon insomuch as that would overcrowd the joint and thereby take away a lot of the fun of us living there, here's a bit of discouraging news. Oregon ranks 38th in unemployment with 8.2 percent. Oregon comes in 26th in terms of median income ($46,000 per year).  On the other hand, less people live in the entire state of Oregon than live in metropolitan Phoenix, where this article is being written. 
   Oh, but it's so rainy there, you scream. How could you stand it? I grew up in central Ohio. The annual rainfall in Columbus is 38 inches per year. You know what it is in Portland, Oregon? 36 inches per year. Guess how much rain we get in Phoenix. Less than eight inches. Hey, it's a desert. 
    Rest assured I'm not moving any time soon, if ever. But if I were to do so, right now Oregon looks pretty good indeed. Just don't tell anybody. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

DEAN AND SANDRA HOLD HANDS

   

   It's hard to imagine that any movie featuring Dean Stockwell in his first lead role along with both Ed Begley Sr and Sandra Dee in their final big screen performances could be anything short of either the most colossal firework-inducing blockbuster home on the range get down party of all time or else at the very least a mild bit of camp. But things here in that year of our Lord 1970 weren't always quite so simple as all that. Take tonight's flick, The Dunwich Horror. You could swallow a year's worth of vitamins, eat salami for a month, work on a construction site in Oklahoma with no shirt on all summer long and still you would be unprepared for just how downright annoying this motion picture turns out to be. I imagine somebody at American Pictures International--probably Roger Corman himself--got the idea in his head that what with Sandra Dee being the perennial video virgin, it might be fun to have Dean open up the gates of hell while thrusting his meager self into the heretofore unexplored nether regions of our Miss Dee while she roles about upon some kind of primitive alter out in the cotton woods of Massachusetts, half her face resisting while the other half seems to kind of dig it. Well, the reality is that it's not even sickly disturbing, as this description might suggest. Because of the craziness of the camera operators, all we in the audience get is annoyed. Come on! Either make us love you or make us hate you. Don't toy with us in a movie that only runs eighty-seven minutes yet feels as if it's longer than high school. 
   

Sunday, April 21, 2013

STAIN

    

   Watching the original version of The Andromeda Strain (1971) last evening, I was reminded of the first Star Trek movie. There my friends and I sat waiting for the story to unfold and there on the screen was what felt like more than an hour taking a tour of the new, refurbished Star Ship Enterprise. Granted, that space craft was a thing of technological beauty, Gene Roddenberry and crew pouring every effect they could muster into merging the possible with the imagination. This hour or so had obviously been intended as an homage to the patience of the die-hard fans who had waited so many years for the return of Kirk, Spock, Uhuha, McCoy, and the rest. The problem with this approach lay in the fact that most viewers--including my friends and I--had originally been enthralled with the characterizations far more than with whether Warp Factor Two left a comet trail or eclipsed nuclear explosions. The science had relevance, but it in no way was the thrust of the appeal of the original "Star Trek" television program. That appeal, as I say, hung on the interactions between extremely diverse and often fascinating characters. The relationship between James Kirk and Mr. Spock may have been timeless. The presumed glory of the special effects, it was understood even then, was ephemeral. 
   Director Robert Wise, in an attempt to stick with the relatively "hard" science fiction of the Michael Crichton novel, sacrificed the more timeless elements of the story, leading to the same kind of disappointment a tech-savvy teenager would feel if he woke up tomorrow to discover that his video game devices had all been turned into Atari over night. 
   That does not mean that in order for a science fiction film to have legs that all the equipment needs to be constructed from cardboard and magic markers. What it does mean is that--unless one is Stanley Kubrick and capable of building sets that will defy the future--then one has the responsibility to amplify what will last. And in the case of The Andromeda Strain, that should have been character development. 
    For that to work, the actors need to have something interesting to do and whatever that interesting thing is, it needs to be conveyed in a manner that is at least as believable as the surroundings of those characters. In this movie, the scientists and doctors are tasked with assessing the potential growth of Andromeda, a life form that has attached itself to a fallen satellite. The ticking clock device gets used nicely due to the discovery that any nuclear explosion within the research facility will in fact cause the "bacteria" to grow exponentially, thereby dooming humanity to become a sandwich for the strain to gobble. So we get a feisty female researcher named Ruth, who happens to have epilepsy. Her wisecracks are so consistent that they actually click the film along at a predictable pace. We get Arthur Hill as Jeremy Stone, the cheap cook and bottle washer of the operation, a character with about as much emotional commitment to the project of this film as a termite would bring to a water park. We get the tried and true David Wayne as Dutton, the cynical yet reliable colleague who predictably gets in a life and death problem that he should have been able to anticipate. And we get James Olson as Mark Hall, the physician who, being such, tries to save the day by being rational amidst a preponderance of scientific scatterings. If these characters sound fairly stock, well, they are. The most interesting person in the movie is the African American assistant Karen, played by Paula Kelly. Nope, I've never heard of her either, which is too bad because she adds some much needed humanity to this relatively sterile production. 
   But maybe what the film lacks in timelessness or characterization it compensates in verisimilitude? Well, not unless references to "space germs" are your idea of high science.
   Perhaps the film has an urgent message to bestow, the necessity of which eclipses the slipshod approach?
   The Andromeda Strain is not a message movie. Despite furtive references to the SDS, hippies and growing marijuana, this is very much an establishment film, one which, if anything, downplays the then-current concerns with unchecked technological growth. 
    In the end, it's a moderately entertaining way to spend an evening. The subject matter and the original Crichton writing deserved better. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

NOVOCAINE ALPHA WAVES

   

   The wonder of this week's events in Boston lies not so much with the execution of one brother and the capture of another. The five day wonder of the Boston Marathon Bombing case is the extent to which the television media facilitated the other authorities in perpetrating yet another fraud on the all-too-happy-to-be-gullible American public. I am not making any claims for the guilt or innocence of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two suspects in the crime. Just like you, I do not have enough information to know one way or another as to their culpability. What I do know is that--as usual in this type of constantly contrived scenario--very few news people asked any useful questions during this public ordeal and instead relied upon the "new journalism," which amounts to promising to toe the line and read the press releases while injecting Novocaine into the brains of the TV viewers. 
    Again, I want to be clear: these two men may very well have been solely and deliberately responsible for the murder of the three people at the marathon as well as of the MIT police officer. I certainly have no information to the contrary. The problem is that when a spectacle such as the five day dream festival that just wound down gets presented to the public, we all have a tendency to sort of assume that everything we hear is somehow ordained as approximately gospel, even when there is no good reason for us to come to that conclusion. 
    Were the people presented to us in the moving image released by the FBI showing two men at the marathon actually the two suspects? If so, what exactly did the images show? What precisely was in the backpack that the older brother apparently was carrying? 
   What is the connection between the shooting of the MIT officer and the suspects? How did the shooting of this policeman lead the investigators to the conclusion that the two brothers were also involved in the bombing? And here's a big question for anyone who cares to try: The authorities froze the bank accounts of the two suspects, which is why the brothers were forced to seek funds by other means--evidently a robbery. While this action by the FBI had the advantage of forcing the two men to show themselves, it also may have led to the shoot-out that immediately followed. Might it not have been more expeditious to have put a tracer on the suspects' ATM cards that would have instantly alerted the authorities to where those suspects' cards were being used?
    In most cases that receive the magnitude of attention this one has received, the people close to the suspects--friends, neighbors, relatives--always remark how surprised they are at the news because so-and-so was always such a nice guy. That fits this event as well. The glitch is that in most other cases, the people add that the guy was very quiet, stayed to himself, didn't socialize much. In this case, the younger brother in particular has universally been described as a leadership type guy, athletic, outgoing, charming and funny. Doesn't sound much like Columbine or Oklahoma City, does it? To my knowledge, no one ever said of the 9/11 hijackers, "They sure were a fun bunch of guys to hang with."
   One more time: I am not making a case for the innocence of these two men. I am simply suggesting that the media, as usual, operated as foot soldiers at the behest of the authorities. The result of this obedience was perhaps most frustratingly demonstrated at the end of the spectacle as the police cars crept through Watertown as they were flanked by suddenly-no-longer-terrified instant patriots who equated the "victory" of the police effort with Paul Revere's midnight ride. 
   More than a little motivation must have existed to prompt some kind of suspicion among the presumably college-educated TV reporters. On the one hand we have the uncle here in the U.S. claiming that even though he hadn't seen his nephews in somewhere between five months and five years--the time period apparently being flexible--while on the other hand the boys' aunt in Toronto and his mom and dad all sounded very outraged at the suggestion that these young men had committed a crime of this sort. Add to this skepticism the fact that the police and FBI were quite careful to have the television media as close as possible to the locations of the various searches even though the rest of the city of Boston had been locked down, with transit nonexistent and all schools and businesses closed. So while everyone who lived in town had to hide indoors, the merry media were brought right into the thick of things close enough that--had there been any bombs detonated--most of the press would have been wiped out within seconds. 
    I also wonder how much attention would have been paid to the city of Boston had this bombing taken place in the south side where most of the African Americans live. In other words, if this had not been a white persons event, would the news have been filled with details for five solid days?
    All of these points (as well as others, such as what happened to the third suspect who sort of dried up and went away) should have led a critically inclined news force to question the propriety of following orders. But it did not. And that is the other real story. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

HE NOT BUSY BEING BORN. . .

   

   About Schmidt (2002), I at first thought, is satire of a subtle order. Upon reflection I have realized it is more of an indictment. Against what? Well you might ask.
    Near where I live, the city government spends money to improve the quality of the street pavement so that the drug dealers who live nearby will not be unduly inconvenienced by flat tires, rusty nails and pot holes. The local government then spends other money to have that improved street smashed to smithereens in order to improve the quality of the water lines, the gas lines, and the electric lines. This improvement requires that the recently improved paving job on the street be undone in as severe a manner as possible. The ultimate--though not final--irony jumps up and taps us on the shoulder when it happens that the construction workers who come back around to re-repair the re-destroyed street are using their trucks for multiple purposes, including home construction. Since the construction of homes occasionally mandates the placement of nails, those nails bounce off the flat beds and end up in the tires of the drug dealers, the latter at least having the consolation of knowing that the guys who work at the local tire replacement store are very good customers. 
   The guys who install and maintain the sprinkler heads at our complex make sure that the spray hits the sidewalk, especially when it's raining.
   If you need credit to survive, you will be devoured. If you need credit to do the devouring, you will get all you need. 
  Someone working at CNN gets a Tweet from an occasionally reliable source saying that a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has been arrested. She mentions this information to her boss, adding that this data has not been confirmed. The boss is under tremendous pressure to get out in front of the story, so he tells his crew to go ahead with the unconfirmed story. Three anchors on that news network dutifully recite the story, leading hundreds of Bostonians to charge the police department, the site of which encourages other networks to repeat the false story. NBC decides to check out the reports, cannot confirm them, and makes a big point of denying the accuracy of the non-event. Another channel decides that the president of the United States is somehow linked to the crime. They lead with that fiction. No one watching at home has the slightest idea what's going on. The young lady at CNN is discharged with extreme prejudice. The whole thing smacks of what happened to poor Richard Jewel back in 1996 in Atlanta. 
    Life, in other words, is often a big fat Greek butt fucking. 
   Meanwhile, Warren Schmidt goes to a dinner to celebrate his retirement. Everyone there who speaks on his behalf lies. The whelp who takes Warren's place lies when he encourages Schmidt to stop by the office any time. Warren's longest and oldest friend lies when he talks about how loyal he feels toward Schmidt. The wives all sit and smile. No one brings any lubrication.
    This amazingly understated film was written and directed by Alexander Payne. The movie did well at Cannes. According to the Festival de Cannes website, Alexander Payne was raised in Omaha, Nebraska, where much of our story takes place. "[He] earned his MFA in Film at The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He made his feature film debut with Citizen Ruth (1996) and followed up with Election (1999), which won Best Screenplay from the Writers' Guild of America and the New York Film Critics Circle, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. About Schmidt (2002), premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and opened the New York Film Festival. Both Sideways (2004) and his latest film, The Descendants (2011), won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and were nominated for four others, including Best Picture and Best Director." 
   If you want the world to stop resembling the mess that it is, I suggest you make your own version of events and submit it to Cannes. This year the Festival will be happening from May 15 through the 26, so you'd better get a move on, especially considering that the deadline has already passed. The process isn't quite as taxing as you might think. 
   To submit a film, you need to:
1. Comply with the Preselection Conditions.
2. Fill out the online Entry Form.
3. Send in your film to the address indicated at the bottom of the Entry Form.
4. If your film is selected, you'll have to comply with the Rules and Regulations.
   Films can be selected for the The Official Selection: Competition (features and shorts), Out-of-Competition or Un Certain Regard. However, the Selection Committee decides which section a film can participate in.
   As I mentioned, submissions to this year's festival have already closed. But there's always next year, unless you happen to pass away in the meantime. 
   Warren Schmidt hasn't any interest in making a film. What he does want is to find meaning in his life, something that all the lies and recriminations do nothing to manifest. He's been married to the same woman forty-two years and has gained little more from it than a Winnebago that he doesn't especially want. Schmidt would sort of like to disentangle his relationship with his daughter, but since she's planning on marrying a schmuck, that doesn't appear too promising. 
    Most reviewers have quite properly written about the magnificence of Jack Nicholson's work in the title role. That's almost a disservice to the other actors in this extraordinary motion picture. Hope Davis plays Warren's daughter Jeannie, for instance. It's one thing to play a likable character. It's another to play a sympathetic villain. Jeannie is neither of these. She is simply unlikable altogether. Unlikable, stupid, and programmed to be precisely the way she is. Yet Davis brings this person to life to the extent that we are not at all surprised to find that we can anticipate her reactions, at least approximately. The same is true of Warren's future son-in-law, Randall Hertzel, played to understated perfection by Dermot Mulroney. Randall's a flake and the son of flakes, yet he is not without a certain underlying charm, mostly as a consequence of his cynical naivete. The parents in this case are played by Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman, two folks who play opposite ends of the self-absorbed spectrum--yet remain endearing throughout their screen time. 
   As a director working with such phenomenal talent, Payne should feel honored to have successfully evoked such terrific performances from these actors, any one of whom being more than capable of slipping over the edge into absurdity or mayhem. 
    About Schmidt is a marvelous film, right on a par with the best work of Orson Welles. See this movie.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SEVEN BOOKS YOU CAN'T READ ON TELEVISION

    
Lester Bangs

    You know the seven, right, that you never ever hear about on television, don't you? The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point by Philip Slater (1976), Beacon Press; Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs, Edited by Greil Marcus (1987), Vintage Books; Fortunate Son: The Best of Dave Marsh (1985), Random House; The Rolling Stone Record Guide edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson (1979), Random House; The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Revised Edition by Dave Marsh and John Swenson (1983), Random House; Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter (1979), Vintage Books; and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus (1989). Secker & Warburg.

    These seven books represent for me the essential nature of thought, at least as far as nonfiction works can be said to capture a particular brain wave sequence. In my case, that sequence is somewhat static, as a careful evaluation of the titles should make clear. After all, two of these seven books are an original and its revised sister, while six of the seven concern themselves to varying degrees with music. One could parse the limits of my intellect even farther by observing that while only one of these books' covers mentions the word "sociology," all seven of them would be at home in that section of the library. Each of these titles is followed by a masculine name, although two of them have contributions by both sexes. It may also be noteworthy that I have chosen to write about nonfiction books rather than novels or collections of short stories. The clue behind that observation could indicate another limitation of my imagination, that being that fiction writers relate reality through metaphor, simile, analogy and other devices. Nonfiction writers approach reality from a different vantage. I enjoy the view from the sea of fiction. My personal comfort terra firma is with non. 

     The Pursuit of Loneliness was the first of these books that I purchased and I suspect that all the others on the list inevitably followed along a natural course of emotional development--along with some rigidity. Philip Slater wrote the original book in 1970, then revised it six years later. A lot had changed during that six-tenths of a decade. What had not changed was an impulse on the part of our culture to emphasize individuality and the needs it frustrates and to de-emphasize an essential sense of cooperation. Slater runs at the usual suspects: Freud, Dr. Spock, the Vietnam War, multinationals. Each of these comes in for a fine analytic assault and each in turn deserves the aggravation. Ultimately, it is the writer's willingness to hop around like beads of water on a hot griddle and yet still bring the batter to a boil that makes the meal Slater serves up so satisfying. Probably the worst thing that can be said is Slater's tendency to misspeak when he generalizes expressions such as "Everyone knows" or "We all. . . " 
   All the same, Slater's book reconfigured my thinking at a time when the batteries had dried up and turned to rust. I even went so far as to compete in a Sociology essay writing contest citing Loneliness more frequently than any other source. As I recall, I came in fifth out of five. Nevertheless, that book was one of the two big things that got me thinking like a college student (which is what I supposedly was at the time, so that was entirely appropriate), the other big thing being my coterie of inspirational friends (Ruth Ann, Joyce, Sandy, Steve, Rick, John and the others). I also like the idea of being buried with this book in the coffin alongside me because the title would make the experience ironic. 

    The second big book for me has always been Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Though I've written of this book elsewhere at some considerable length and while I'm reluctant to repeat praise which falls short of being worthy of the inspiration that sparks it, I nevertheless must declare now and for all time that the writing of Lester Bangs collected in this book actually pulls off the amazing feat of showing genuine character development, something that's often reserved for fiction, yet here the process is completely natural, totally relaxed and effortless. In his early writing days at Creem, Lester seems to have felt the need to shock loose the cobwebs of rampant hipsterism with hostile invective and circumlocution. Round about the book's midpoint we feel the changes happening as Bangs gains an awareness of the power of language--the language to which he and his lesser rivals at the magazine rebirthed--to do more than offend. Those words, as he observed, can be lethal. 
I'm sure a lot of those guys were very happy to see this white kid drunk on his ass making a complete fool if not a human TV set out of himself, but to this day I wonder how many of them hated my guts right then. Because Lenny Bruce was wrong--maybe in a better world than this such parlor games would amount to cleansing jet offtakes, and between friends, where a certain bond of mutual trust has been firmly established, good natured racial tradeoffs can be part of the vocabulary of understood affections. But beyond that trouble begins--when you fail to realize that no matter how harmlesss your intentions are, there is no reason to think that any shit that comes out of your mouth is going to be understood or happily received. 

   Besides catching the lingo and rhythm of the subject matter, Lester also--as far as I know, unwittingly--dragged into the present a style that would have been entirely comfortable in the eighteenth century. Not only were his sentences frequently long, they often went so far afield that the reader had time to wonder over a cigarette and cup or two of coffee whether or not the writer would be able to cull together in a cogent form all the disparate elements before the pin point landing of the inevitable closing period. Yet everything came together, just as Lester knew all along that it would, just as with another Rambler, that being Samuel Johnson. You could go back through Lester's articles, capitalize the nouns, throw in a few references to Shakespeare and the Queen, and you'd give Boswell's idol a run for his money.
     
    Another founding father at Creem ("America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine") was Dave Marsh. This Pontiac, Michigan native has been among the most prolific writers of his generation, writing not only important but more importantly good-to-great books about Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles, Sam and Dave, Bruce Springsteen, Black Sabbath, Bruce Springsteen, and the Kingsmen, among others. His most influential book was the one about the 1001 best singles of all time. His greatest book for pleasure and pain is Fortunate Son, a collection of some of his finest writing through 1985. As with Bangs, Marsh gives the reader a lot more than a mere anthology. Fortunate Son takes as its task the job of explaining the author by writing about the writer's fascinations, in this case primarily musical ones. This is vital because everyone is impacted by his or her father, whether the man is around or not. Marsh's dad was an autoworker. So when I read Dave's review of the movie Blue Collar (a film I liked far more than did most other people), I was excited to see that he hit on one part of the motion picture that had also fascinated me but which I hadn't had the imagination to express. Here's Dave:
What got to me about Blue Collar wasn't the silly story or the poorly developed characters, but the theme song that runs over the opening credits. It's an updated version of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man," sung by Captain Beefheart. The lyrics are new, but this version is probably more significant for what Beefheart doesn't sing: the title itself. In an environment whose aural motif is the incessant banging of metal against metal at deafening volume, "I'm a man/Spell m-a-n" could never be the boast that Bo Diddley made it. This bludgeoning backbeat doesn't have that resilient sense of after-hours freedom and good humor anyway. It's a lockstep that makes maintaining a sense of humanity all but impossible.
     
    The Rolling Stone Record Guide--and its updated rival, The New Rolling Stone Record Guide--stood so completely opposed to what was by that time (1979 and 1983) a suck-ass attitude by the magazine that bore the name that one wondered if JW might have been considering an early retirement. That would not much matter, of course, were it not for the power of the writing between both covers. Among the best writers in all media appear here, including the aforementioned Dave Marsh, along with John Swenson, Billy Altman, Laura Fishinger, Chet Flippo, David Fricke, Debbie Geller, Mikal Gilmore, Wayne King, Greil Marcus, Joe McEwen, John Morthland, Paul NelsonIra Robbins, Ariel Swartley, Ken Tucker, Wayne Robins, and--though he is only credited with his initials (LB), Lester Bangs.
    These two volumes--more than any mass market books ever written about music--shaped and developed an aesthetic sensibility about popular music. This remains true today, even as more than a few people have gone out of their way to take issue with some of the remarks passed about, say, Chrissie Hynde, Black Sabbath and just about all of the midwestern faceless rock arena acts. One could think of that sensibility as lying somewhere between the more outrageous aspects of Creem and the more cerebral thought-work of Rock 'n' Roll Confidential. 



   Godel, Escher, Bach is in many ways the most difficult of the seven. Not only is it occasionally inaccessible, I would go so far as to wager a year's income that no one reading this review has--or even can--finish reading it. I have tried several times and have found completing the work impossible. Yet I love this thing so much that being without it for a few years damned near traumatized me into a sanitarium for frustrated readers. The essence of the book, so far as I can tell, is about the links between the playful thinking of the mathematician, artist and composer referenced in the title. But it is also about puzzles in thinking, sometimes known as dilemmas, or paradoxes, such as whether it is possible for motion to exist, or whether Zeno actually was God, and that type of thing. I will say that reading even half of this book will allow you to catch almost all the esoteric references in the works of The Firesign Theater. If all it did was that, the book would be worth discovering. Yet so much more awaits the reader who encounters the theorems of Godel, or the word games of J.S. Bach, or the multi-dimensional endeavors of Escher. If there is one book about which I feel permanently unfit to discuss, this is that book.


    Patterns in thinking--patterns which do not involve cause and effect, at least in the way we normally think of events--is the crux of Lipstick Traces. Again, the subject matter is something I have written about extensively elsewhere in these electronic pages. All the same, it behooves me to mention that connections between DeBord's Situationalism and the moment of punk provide links to getting certain things about contemporary Euro-American culture that we might otherwise miss. What is the role of the nihilist? What are the politics of boredom? Why does deformity fit in so well with punk whereas slick and uninteresting disco was so passe on arrival? Greil Marcus spend the first quarter of the book talking about "Anarchy in the UK" and the final Sex Pistols concert, only to switch (or not switch) into discussions of the perceived falsity of the very culture that gave birth to Johnny Rotten. This book is by turns obtuse and fascination, maddening and compelling, hilarious and deadly serious. It is also a model for the creation of modern history story telling. For instance:
In the SI Debord called this instant route to total change the reversible connecting factor; in the LI he named it the "Northwest Passage." The metaphor wasn't geographical, it was psychogeographical--it was psychogeography itself. It belonged to the history of the modern city and to the prehistory of the derive. . . "Guy thought the world was going to collapse on its own, and we were going to take over," Trocchi said in 1983. "I wanted to do that--to take over the world. But you can't take over the world by excluding people from it!"

 Each of these seven books is out of print, meaning that no one is making any more of them. You can still get them, of course. Amazon, eBay, your Uncle Ernie's Elvis Box, take your pick. There's no earthly reason why you should, any more than there is any sound reason to have you think about what I think about these books. Chances are these words represent the timid ravings of a man whose time has passed. It is even possible that a nineteen-year-old reading this may feel that time has passed him or her as well. That person may even feel ahead of the time in which he or she lives. The result--what Durkheim called anomie--is the same. One is either of ones time or not. There's no tertiary path. However, for those yet undecided about their ability or willingness to fit into a frequently unnatural set of shackles, any or all of these seven books--none of which are ever read on television--may help make the decision just a bit easier, or at least more reasonable.


    

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kix Just Keep Getting Harder to Find

    




   Kix cereal hit the stores in 1937. That would be of no interest to us but for the fact that Kix has long been my very favorite breakfast cereal. This is not an endorsement; neither is it logical. It is, however, the truth. While other kids were swallowing Frosted Flakes, Super Sugar Crisps, Crunch Berries, or King Vit-a-Man, I was spooning tasty puffs of golden corn meal into my mouth and loving every minute of it. General Mills hired an engineer to create a puffing gun that would blow air into grain pellets, thereby giving Kix a sphere-like shape, a surefire viable alternative to the less geometrically consistent flake. Sure, Cheerio's had already broken the mold with the hole in the center of the craft, but Cheerio's also sank once they met with milk. Kix floated. That was cool.
    Shirley Temple was the cereal's first spokesperson. The product was even marketed as "exciting corn bubbles." Look, if you're going to be in business, you might as well have a fun time doing it. 




   With no artificial colors or flavors and being mighty low in sugar, Kix should be at the top of every health-enthusiast's daily diet. But it seems that every day we see less and less of this glorious product of the General and Mrs. Mills. 



   From Alpha Bits and Apple Jacks to Zany Fruits, every gimick imaginable has been used to sell breakfast candy. None has ever bested Kix. Just a few months after the end of World War II, the manufacturer gave away a free mushroom cloud ring which they claimed could actually detect radiation, thereby giving new meaning to the concept of bad taste.



    I still love it, despite its diminishing share of the cereal market. Perhaps I always will. 





Thursday, April 11, 2013

S1m0ne

   

   Writer and director Andrew Niccol concerns himself with the nature of reality in his comedy S1m0ne (2002). This issue remains timely, despite the alleged technological advancements in the years since the film's tepid release. On a personal note, I've recently reacquired certain books that escaped my grasp over the years, in particular a cool one called Godel, Escher, Bach (1979) by Douglas Hofstadter, a book which--among other things--explores the nature of reality viz a vis Zeno's Paradoxes and computer programming. In any case, Niccol takes aim at the audience appetite for celebrity over substance in this occasionally humorous but mostly angry film that does not quite hold up and wouldn't even bear mentioning except for the decent performances of Al Pacino and a guy named Elias Koteas, respectively playing Viktor and Hank, the former a movie director, the latter a computer geek with an obsession for the former's films. 
    Pacino has never excelled in comedic roles, as anyone who remembers Author! Author! (1982) will attest. As one of the most emotionally expressive performers of our age, Pacino is too empathetic to be funny for an extended period of time. In other words, the audience seizes upon his humanity from the first line of dialogue and cannot help but hurt, even when Niccol wants us to experience satire. The best example of this comes in the final third of the movie. Viktor has created a virtual actress named Simone. His creation is so in keeping with the shallowness of the times that the public convinces itself that she is real. Once Viktor can no longer cope with the pressures his Frankenstein has made for him, he attempts to discredit her by having her come out in favor of wearing fur, smoking cigarettes and eating dolphin. Instead of being horrified, the public fawns for her because of her lack of pretension, Time magazine even naming her--ironically--Person of the Year. That is funny on the written page. However, it's only visually funny if you are the kind of person who thought that the townsfolk trying to kill the monster in Mary Shelley's novella was laughable. 
    The other big problem with the movie is that the most interesting character--Hank, the geek--gets killed off far too soon, even though it is his genius that starts the wheels spinning. To that end, most of the people who we want to fixate upon get far too little time on camera, especially Winona Ryder as an over-the-top diva with more ego than talent. Far too much time is given to Catherine Keener (as Viktor's ex-wife), an actor whose odds of captivating our emotions lies somewhere between slim and none--and Slim is on vacation. 
   The biggest problem of all is that we've seen all this before. Nothing gets added to the sense that our society is just a liquid turd. All we learn is that we like being conned, something that this movie does nothing to rectify. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

THE HOAX

    

   The Hoax (2006) has a lot going for it. First, it stars actor Richard Gere as writer Clifford Irving. Gere holds the look, arranges the quirks, and portrays himself as a more or less sophisticated con man without a cause. The actor's transformation into his character's metamorphosis into Howard Hughes jumps over the block of believability and lands squarely onto the precipice of sinister possession. Second, the movie gives us Stanley Tucci as Shelton Fisher, the chairman of the board of McGraw-Hill. Tucci pulls off the role of the outwardly relaxed and inwardly stressed out executive as well as anyone who ever lived. When we watch Fisher confront Irving, we get moved into the corner of Irving's soul and genuinely want the thief to wiggle his way out. 
    The movie has those two very strong elements, both of which save the film from the slagheap where it might otherwise have been more comfortable. 
    The real story itself is more than important. It is fascinating. In 1969 Clifford Irving wrote a good biography of famed art forger Elmyr de Hory, a painter whose forgeries were occasionally superior to the originals. Two years later he was up to his nose working on the autobiography of Howard Hughes, a book that did not quite meet the criteria of an autobiography in the sense that the subject not only did not authorize the book, he had nothing to do with the work and did not even know about it until news of the book's eventual release reached Las Vegas. Irving sold the idea that he had Hughes' cooperation to McGraw-Hill. 
    One of the many places in which this movie goes horribly wrong is with the treatment of investigative reporter James Phelan. This problem is complicated, so hang on tight. In the movie, Eli Wallach plays Noah Dietrich, a guy who has written a biography of Hughes. In the real world, the writer was Phelan. In the movie, Dietrich is a rich hack. In reality, Phelan was the farthest thing from a hack. He had a weird connection to the Jim Garrison investigation of the John Kennedy assassination--ultimately a successful effort to discredit the New Orleans District Attorney. He also had written a then-unpublished biography of Hughes, one which Irving evidently got hold of and used for research purposes in his fake book. The Dietrich character, in the film, provides a strange connection to a $205,000 loan Hughes made to Donald Nixon, brother of the future President. In the movie, this revelation is happening in real time. In reality, the details of the loan were made public by Phelan as far back as 1962, ten years before the events in our movie take place. Why is this important? It's important because the movie makes it sound as if Nixon's paranoia over the facts of the Hughes' loan was the basis for ordering the break-ins at the Watergate, the crimes that began the unraveling of Nixon's regime. As someone with more than a passing interest in the Watergate affair, I have, of course, heard the rumors that Nixon was worried that Hughes had turned incriminating information over to the Democratic National Committee as a way of forcing Nixon into using presidential influence to forge a favorable path for the reclusive billionaire on his way out of a mire with the Justice Department. The film, however, distorts the facts of this history more severely than Irving ever did. The title of the film threatens to become unhappily ironic. 
   Regardless of motives, the biggest drag this film produces is in its failure to even once confront the central issue that it half-heartedly initiates: the intoxicating lure of the illusion of the swindle. With all due respect to public fascination with computer animated mischief, the brilliance of fakery reached its zenith in the early 1970s, a point at which most people began to recognize that most of what they saw, heard or smelled was actually something else entirely. They could look upon the visage of a man like Nixon, know for a fact that he was evil beyond comparison, yet feel completely righteous in supporting the man all the way to the bridges of hell. How could it be possible that the sons and daughters of the Greatest Generation could be monstrous enough to destroy much of Southeast Asia? How could the country that had said NO to fascism turn around and jelly-burn innocent children? Answer: Nothing up my sleeve--presto! You have a new set of eyeballs, the kind that Little Red Riding Hood could've used to her own advantage. 
    That The Hoax doesn't even acknowledge the possibility that people want to be deluded as a way of easing their own cognitive dissonance is a far greater offense than anything Clifford Irving ever attempted.