Monday, December 12, 2011


The Chanel 9 folks are at it again -- with their, er, distinctive version of a Nativity Play. Music is supplied by La Republica's greatest pop stars, Trudi and Mikki Disco (the latter is what must be the most painful flying harness is show-biz history), Mary and Joseph are played by Vassilos Bubo (star of some 5,000 episodes of El Amora y El Passione) and weather lady Paoula Fisch (Mary has the easiest delivery in history), and one of the Wise Men brings Holiday Cheezy Peas instead of Myrhh (they are made with brandy butter). The spirit of the season? Well, it certainly made me laugh, and that's always a good thing . . .

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Bunch of Creeps

The cover of Hal Vaughan's book Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War looks exactly like the cardboard boxes made to hold a bottle of Chanel no.5. Not a coincidence. The perfume, and control of it (and the profits) is one of the major stories in this book. It's not a pretty story, but then, very little about the life of Gabrielle Chanel was, except for the clothes . . .

And it should be said, the woman was very good at the whole dress-designing thing. A woman could don just about anything she made from, say, 1920 on and look fashionable and contemporary. She was one of the first designers to do women's sportswear, one of the first to get rid of the corset, and in the 1960's, when many of her younger colleagues were giving themselves hernias trying to cash in on the "youth" movement, she stuck to her guns and her little suits and came out of the whole business as one of the few designers whose clothes don't look like period pieces now.

About Chanel no. 5; it had Chanel's name on it, it was formulated at her request, and it was manufactured by a company called Parfums Chanel. But the majority stock-holders in the company were the Wertheimer family, owners of the largest and most prestigious perfume company in France, Bourjois (which made sense, since they put the money into the company that allowed for the mass production of Chanel's perfumes). Even with only 10% operating stock in the company and and a 2% royalty on every bottle sold, Chanel became a multi-millionaire, but she still steamed over the deal and complained that she had been "screwed" by the Wertheimers. And when the Nazis came rolling into Paris in 1940, she tried to steal the company out from under them.

It didn't work. The Wertheimers, well aware of the "aryanization" (i.e., theft) of Jewish businesses in the territories already conquered by Germany, had arranged with another French industrialist, Felix Amiot, to take control of Parfums Chanel, making it safely "Aryan" before they left for New York (after the war, it required a protracted court battle to get it back). Also, they sent an American lawyer who worked from them, H. Gregory Thomas, to Paris to get his hands on the secret formula for Chanel no. 5 and the ingredients necessary to make the stuff. Oh, and to rescue a family member who was being held as a POW. Thomas, who served in the OSS during WWII, passed around a lot of gold coins to the right parties (people in France were starting to starve under the German occupation) and accomplished what he was asked. (More successful at the "Aryanization" game was Eugene Schuller, the founder of L'Oreal Cosmetics, who stole the factories and supplies of several Jewish competitors, helping to make him one of the biggest players in the business. Having used the Nazis to get what he wanted, he then cozied up to the French Resistance as the war ground along and the occupiers lost ground, to make sure he could keep what he had stolen afterwards.)

One might also mention "Operation ModelHut" ("Operation Model Hat"). At the time, Chanel was involved with a German intelligence officer named Hans von Drinklage, who had been recruiting foreign operatives for Germany since the days of the Weimar Republic. In 1944, von Drinklage and Chanel traveled to Spain, where Chanel tried to use her connections to the British upper-crust, in particular Winston Churchill, who was a friend and the Duke of Westminster, who used to be a boyfriend, to open up talks about a "separate peace" between Germany and Great Britain. It went nowhere, but her willingness to do this, and her knowledge that there were people in the British Government that might be willing to listen, says a great deal about the circles that she traveled in.

To put it bluntly, Chanel's social circle was a bunch of creeps. Some of them were very talented, a lot of them had money and titles, but generally, they were a gang of bog-standard bigots and ignoramuses, and they had the kind of money and influence that meant that their bigoted ignorance held sway for far too long. And during the war, when people were starving in France and Poland and other occupied territories (and in Germany too, for that matter), when the ripples of death and misery radiating from the actions of the Axis powers seem to have swallowed up most of the earth, these people sat in the Ritz eating black-market goodies and sipping champagne.

And after the war, Chanel and a great many of them avoided serious consequences for their actions. In part, Chanel protected herself by paying off von Dinklage for the rest of his life to keep his mouth shut, as well as one of his SS superiors who made it known he was writing his memoirs, was in ill health, and was in need of financial assistance. She got the message -- when the memoirs appeared some years later, no mention was made of Operation ModelHut. Chanel was also protected by what she knew -- namely just how close the Duke of Windsor and his wife, Wallis Simpson, had been to Hitler and their association with various well-placed Nazi sympathizers, and also that the British government, in violation of wartime trade laws, had been paying off the German occupiers in Paris in order to keep them from laying waste to the Windsors' Paris apartment.

After the war, Chanel laid low in Switzerland for about nine years, then returned to Paris to re-open her salon as if nothing had ever happened. The Wertheimers, now back in control of Parfums Chanel and still making a fortune off of Chanel no. 5, advanced her the money for the comeback, and although the French press was hostile, there was much enthusiastic chatter from the American fashion magazines, particularly about the blue suit pictured here. When she launched herself full time back into designing the following year, The Suit became the foundation of her business. She sold them in job lots to American socialites and well-know actresses, they were ripped off from one end of Seventh Avenue to another, and yet again she was proclaimed to have Invented the Modern Woman. It was also the period when she sold her entire enterprise to the Wertheimer family, who made her a millionaire all over again in the nearly two decades that followed. The bilious anti-Semite kept getting saved by Jewish millionaires . . .

When I first started writing this, I kept looking for a good word to describe this woman. I thought of a few raw expletives, and such elevated terms as "monstrous" and "wretched. But "creep" seems a better word. It catches the playground-bully essence of the woman and her friends. I don't know if anyone of them ever stole another kid's lunch money or subjected them to a swirly, but it wouldn't surprise me . . .

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Buono Estente!

Welcome to La Republicca, where the weather is always Scorchio (45 degrees Celsius--113 degrees Fahrenheit) and El Presidente is always watching over you, whether you like it or not. And to the extent that there's any relief from life in this self-proclaimed Earthly Paradise, it would be television, specifically Chanel 9 . . .

The "Chanel 9" sketches on The Fast Show were like a sealed universe of their own. The basic premise was a parody of the sort of television that English tourists might encounter while vacationing in the Mediterranean. The setting, to the extent that it was ever established, was a country identified only as "La Republicca," (ruled over by "El Presidente," whose image only appears once--on a pair of pasties) and the made-up language of the country was a hilarious mash-up of Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, with a lot of nonsense phrases thrown in, not to mention frequent mentions of soccer player Chris Waddle (not just the name, but the man has some seriously big teeth, although he still comes in way behind members of the Royal Family, who could bite small children in two without much effort).

The first sketch introduces the core characters; newscasters Poutremos-Poutra-Poutremos (Paul Whitehouse) and Kolothos Apollonia (Paul Shearer) and weather-lady Poula Fisch (Caroline Aherne). We also see the first of the "Gizmo!" ads; a weird orange thingy thrown together by the prop department which is implied to have magical properties in every room of the house, not to mention the garden, your baby, and your love life . . .

Sunday, July 17, 2011

This Year's Murder of The Century

Early this morning, Casey Anthony walked out of the Orange County Jail. Hopefully into obscurity. Center of this spectacle she may have been, but a center that never really held; never truly aggrieved or scornful or much of anything beyond peeved. Even when she was acquitted of all but the most serious charges and found out that her hard time would consist of one more week in jail. There will, I suppose, be a Big Interview or two, but I am under no to watch, and I won't.

This case became a spectacle early on. I'm not quite sure when the case first appeared on local newscasts, but I first took serious notice around the time that a crowd of complete strangers descended on the Anthony's house in Orlando demanding that they be told what happened to Casey's daughter, Caylee. These sort of people have become ubiquitous in notorious criminal cases of late; they make a bit of sense in say, the case of Michael Jackson, who was known for something besides being an alleged child-fiddler. In the case of the people in front of the Anthony house, or the UK mob who attacked the police van the boys who killed two-year old James Bulger -- yes, it's horrifying that a child was killed and people have every right to be outraged, but don't these people have jobs?

The outraged mob appeared somewhere between the California skip-tracer bonding Ms. Anthony out of jail and the announcement by John Morgan, central Florida's premier ambulance-chaser, that he was filing a libel suit against her on behalf of one Zenaida Gonzalez, whose name had been tossed about during the days when Ms. Anthony was still claiming that her daughter had been kidnapped by a babysitter. (Morgan is as close to ubiquitous as a human being can get in this part of the world--even if you hit the mute button during every one of the six million TV commercials he runs a week, there are still the fridge magnets, the ads on the back of the Yellow Pages, and his moon face on the back rests of better bus-stop benches everywhere.) Morgan all but promised to solve the case in his chambers. He didn't. He was the first person to make such promises, but hardly the last. Still, the publicity was free.

Most of it supplied by the local TV stations, for whom The Case Against Casey was a lot more fun than drunken kids falling off of balconies during Spring Break, cyclists smashing themselves to bits during Biketoberfest, or local political officials taking bribes. Because the case was in Orlando, it got more coverage in the Sentinel than the News-Journal in Daytona Beach, but both papers treated the story as essentially "B" section crime news. For the TV folks, it was like a 10-pound rump roast being dangled in front of an underfed Rotweiler . . .

At this point, I should probably insert a rant about the coarsening of society and the declining values of the press, but the fact is, it could have been a lot worse. Paul Collins' engaging new book The Murder of The Century, about the 1897 murder of a New York Turkish-bath masseur named Willie Guldensuppe by his mistress Augusta Nack and her other lover Martin Thorn, is full of stories about reporters for the competing New York tabloids, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Hearst's New York Journal trampling over crime scenes, stealing letters and mementos and such from the families of victims and suspects alike, and generally getting in the way of an ongoing investigation (the fact that they did a better job of investigating the crime than some of the cops assigned to the case were doesn't really excuse things). And as anyone who has hovered in the general vicinity of a newspaper or the nightly news recently has heard, reporters working for various tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch hacked into the cell phones not only of movie stars and soccer players, but also one owned by a 13-year old girl named Milly Dowler, even eliminating messages from the phone's in-box, as well as those of her parents. Orlando-area TV stations were over the top in the coverage of the Anthony case, but even they seemed to realize that there are lines not to be crossed. Mind you, they got their foot as close to it as possible more than once.

As far as the trial itself, the prosecution over-charged the defendant considering how circumstantial the evidence was and introduced air-sample analysis evidence based on science that is probably far too new and unproven to be relied on. The defense spent most of its time trying to talk about how the defendant's father and brother molested her. And trying to say that Roy Kronk, the meter reader who found the body had moved it, or hidden it, or used it as a centerpiece on his dining-room table. Without saying it in so many words, of course. They proved that he probably embroidered his story a lot and was interested in the reward money for finding the little girl. Not nice, but not interfering with evidence either.

Two things about the trial impressed me. One was the long line of crime-scene technicians who took the stand during the trial; quiet, precise, and professional. Their lack of self-dramatization and concentration on what they found and when and where they found it gave the known facts of the case real weight it had never had before. At this point, the death of Caylee Anthony stopped being a media sensation and became a serious criminal case.

The other was the judge, Belvin Perry. In his overwrought but sometimes perceptive article about the trial, film critic David Thomson noted that Perry "seemed to see the horrid likelihood that he might become a TV personality and eroded that threat by being steadfast, professional, and bored." He was also wryly witty, did his best to keep the lawyers from playing stupid games (to the extent that this can be done), and fussed over the jury, transplanted from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area because it was impossible to get an impartial jury where the crime happened, like a mother hen. Like the crime-scene techs, he seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation and acted accordingly.

The dueling coroners were painful. Dr. Garavaglia, the Medical Examiner for Orlando, bounced into court with her big basic-cable-star smile and acted rather aggrieved when it was pointed out to her by the defense lawyers that she had declared the manner of death a homicide without being able to pinpoint a cause of death. Yes, there was duct tape on the skull, but no one was really able to say if the tape had been placed on the face before or after death, and although she went through the string of "red flags" that pointed to homicide, she didn't seem willing to concede that red flags and concrete evidence are not one and the same thing. Werner Spitz, the former Medical Examiner for Detroit and current hired-gun forensics expert, got up on the stand for the defense and called Gravaglia's work shoddy and when questioned about several pieces of inconvenient evidence found at the crime scene, implied that they had been planted. He was right that Garavaglia should have opened the skull when she examined the skeletal remains, but he made the point in such a crass and self-congratulatory manner that it lost a lot of its impact . . .

The lawyers? Linda Drane Burdick, one of the prosecutors, was the least annoying, until she gave the closing prosecution rebuttal and transformed herself from a quiet, thorough professional into an Avenging Angel, horrifying the jury with images of Casey Anthony wrapping duct tape around her daughter's face to suffocate her, even though there was no evidence to support it. It would have been much more effective simply to run through the most persuasive of the circumstantial evidence, particularly the blizzard of lies that the defendant told in the days after her daughter seemed to fall off the face of the earth and leave it at that. Facts speak simply and clearly.

Still, compared with her colleague, Jeff Ashton, she was a model of decorum. The spectacle of this man smirking, giggling down his cuffs, rolling his eyes, indeed doing everything but sticking his thumbs in his hears and waggling his fingers while sticking out his tongue during the defense's closing arguments made me despair for the state of Florida at times. And the human race the rest of it.

The defense lawyers? Jose Baez graduated from college and law school and passed the Bar Exam. It's a hell of a lot more than I can say for myself, frankly. And, pro bono, he gave his indigent client a rich man's defense. He also had little experience in criminal law, seemed scattered and disorganized more than once, and tried to conduct the defense like an episode of a TV courtroom drama, forever pulling a shocking plot twist out of his briefcase just before the commercial break. Judge Perry was often at his most amusing, not to mention withering, when confronting Baez in yet another attempt to play fast and loose with both the letter and the spirit of the laws that regulate trials. Baez's closing statement was dramatic, impassioned, and frequently close to incoherent. But he had one thing, one big thing, on his side--the other guys simply had not proven their case Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Which means that even though the last-minute testimony of his client's mother that she made the incriminating Internet searches that were a big part of the prosecution case was probably perjured, even though he had to trick the court into dragging his client in front of a shrink to scare her out of getting on the stand and probably sealing her fate, even though he never seemed to have his papers in order, he managed an acquittal. He may not be so lucky next time.

I suppose I should say something about Nancy Grace . . . Yuck. Done.

A headline on this week's National Enquirer announces that Ms. Anthony will be getting a "$50,000 makeover" and getting married. Seems unlikely. In the immediate wake of the acquittal, there was a lot of talk about book and movie deals for Ms. Anthony. Seems unlikely. The only person involved in a high-profile murder case who became anything approaching famous was Evelyn Nesbit, and she was the ex-wife of an acquitted murderer. And that fame didn't last long. In her later years, after struggling with depression and addiction, she became a ceramics teacher in California. As for her husband Harry Thaw, who did commit murder and got away with it, he wasted away the rest of his life, doing stretches in various mental institutions, getting arrested for assaulting (and probably raping) a teenaged boy, and finally drinking himself to death in Florida. And there was Dan White, who did five years for manslaughter after a San Francisco jury accepted his diminished capacity defense in the murder of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Less than two years after his release, he killed himself.

Anthony would be smart to take the Nesbit route (minus the drinking and the morphine addiction, mind you) and just disappear somewhere. As quickly as humanly possible.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gall Bladder

I knew I shouldn't have had pizza for dinner that night. Too greasy. I was tired, had just arrived home after we had driven home from Tennessee and a visit to my sister's split-level lunatic asylum on the hill, and frankly, it was a lot easier to stick a frozen pizza in the oven than cook something. And Publix makes a good Supreme pizza. Gallstones be damned . . .

I got what I deserved. Pain radiating from the exact center of my considerable gut with something approximating radioactive force. I really wasn't expecting to wake up at seven in the morning, but there I was, wide awake and in a state that's as close to agony as I care to get for the rest of my life. To be fair, the pain wasn't as bad as it had been when I suffered my first gall bladder attack some ten-plus years ago. That was vigorous enough to make me pass out--I only regained consciousness in the ER, when they stuck a catheter in me (very effective, I must say). At any rate, while other people were going to the beach, or school, or Mass, I was spending my Good Friday in the emergency room at Florida Hospital Fish Memorial. Oh, I folded up the laundry first. Like I said, the pain wasn't quite as bad this time. No catheter, either, although there was an endotracheal tube looming on the horizon . . .

The gall bladder, which is eight centimeters long and, when fully distended, about four centimeters wide, sits just to the right of the stomach and just below the liver. It's a reservoir for bile, with the bile duct emptying bile produced by the liver into the small intestine to aid in the digestion of fat. If some of the components of bile crystallize, or if there's too much cholesterol in your system--gallstones. They can be asymptomatic for many years (a decade-plus between attacks for me), but if and when they start blocking the bile duct-let's just say that you'll want to cancel any and all social plans you've made . . .

I was lucky in a lot of ways with the attack. I was seen quickly in the emergency room, given an ultrasound that located the stones, apparently, and then given morphine for the pain. More importantly, the stones must have shifted enough to let bile start draining out again. This is more important, because even with the morphine, I still would have suffered considerable pain. As it was, the morphine allowed me to drift off quietly to sleep for a few hours.

I awakened to the news that I was probably going to be let go by the ER doctor, but then I was told that a surgeon she had consulted wanted more tests done. So my trip home became a trip to the left half of a hospital room. By then, the pain from the stones had been superseded by the pain in my back from the narrow, squashy mattress . . .

Originally, they wanted an MRI of my abdomen. The technician warned me that this could be iffy, because men's shoulders were sometimes to broad to fit through the machine. In fact, she sent me through feet-first in an attempt to get around that. As it turns out, my shoulders weren't the problem--my gut was. So the MRI was terminated and it was decided that a CAT (computer-assisted tomography) scan would be the needle's eye through which this camel might pass (I still have doubts about getting into heaven, despite my lack of riches).

The announcement of the actual surgery was a welcome distraction. My roommate, a very nice fellow in general, was tuned in to the local God-bothering channel, which was running Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ, probably the only movie with subtitles that most Southern Baptists will ever see (they probably wouldn't like Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest--not enough hot, graphic Jesus-Beating action). I distracted myself as best I could by watching The Ten Commandments, which is more of a Passover movie than an Easter film, but since both are celebrated in the spring, it really isn't a problem. Basically, Commandments is like a live-action version of Uncle Arthur's Bible Book (available in better dentists' waiting rooms everywhere); rock-jawed men in loincloths and hotcha pin-up girls in skin-tight lame and chariots and guys in plumed helmets and Thou Shalt Not in the last reel, after just about everybody but Charlton Heston has been shalting all over the place for almost three hours (no wonder he looks so grumpy) -- it's the Biblical Spectacle that John Barrymore pitches to Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (her reaction; "Your're craaazzzyy"). Southern Baptists used to have better bad taste in Sunday-School movies . . .

At any rate, the surgery. The surgeon bopped into my room around 9:30 that Saturday night (he bops everywhere) and informs me that (a) he's going to remove my gall bladder the next morning and (b) I should really consider gastric-bypass surgery. I concentrate on (a), which should have been done ten years ago. The surgeon they consulted then was rather elderly and didn't bop at all . . .

At any rate, I found myself in surgery the next morning. Just before they sent me up, they gave me my daily medications, including a rather powerful diuretic, which means that I wind up wielding one of those hand-held urinals in the Recovery Room before I ever cross the starting line, while the nurses and the anesthesiologist look the other way and discuss the fact that my surgery has been bumped forward. And draw lots to determine who's going to inform the surgeon of this fact. And discuss the fact that somebody from the hospital called the anesthesiologist at five in the morning to tell him he had surgery at nine. Or later. At any rate, the surgeon arrived, discovered that his surgery had been delayed, and called to find out why nobody had bothered to call him with this information. At any rate, the time for surgery arrives, and the anesthesiologist announces, rather gleefully, "Time to get the drugs!"

There's a TV screen in the OR. The procedure is going to be done laproscopically. Fortunately, it's a wide screen. Probably high-def, and for all I know, 3-D. The operating table itself is rather disappointing by comparison--quite narrow. Little auxiliary tables are stationed to accommodate my arms. I think you can imagine what it must have looked like, though I assure you there was no crown of thorns. Just an oxygen mask. And the anesthesiologist informing me "Now it's Happy Time!"

I don't remember anything for the next, oh, 90 minutes or so. When I rejoin the living, I have a full bladder again. I am also in a certain amount of pain, hooked up to IV's, and not at my most nimble. It proved impossible, thanks to gravity, to empty my bladder while lying in bed. It will be necessary to help me get out and stand up. If anyone doubts that nurses earn their salary, simply tell them about the two wonderful women who helped support me while I did what was necessary.

And the very nice nurses and nurses aides who helped me back and forth to the bathroom God only knows how many times after I returned to my room. Finally, the doctors decided it would be alright to unhook me from the IV fluids and allow me to take fluids by mouth. It worked out nicely for everyone involved. At this point, I would also like to express profound gratitude to my mother, who wasted her Easter Sunday watching her large, groggy son being hauled back and forth to the bog. It can't have been much fun . . .

By that evening, to my great amazement, I was actually eating again. Well, everything but the "Roast Beef," which I put in quotation marks because it would better be described as sawdust held together with, well, I don't care to speculate what it was held together with. Two bites were enough to dissuade me from eating any more.

By the next morning, I was staggering up and down the halls with reasonable confidence, and by early that evening, I was home again. A pain medication was prescribed, a rather strong one, and on the morning after my return home, I took one to relieve the pain. Frankly, the side effects of the painkiller were more unpleasant than the pain itself. I decided to forgo any further doses.

Of much greater annoyance, frankly, was the gas situation. To perform the surgery, gas was used to partially inflate my abdomen so that the instruments could be inserted through the three tiny incisions that the surgeon made. Getting rid of the gas was quite a process--during the next week or so, I found myself wondering if it was possible to contract simethicone poisoning. Fortunately, I was confined to my home during the period. Well, fortunately for the public. Unfortunately for me, I was stuck at home during the run-up to the second most annoying news event of the past few months, namely the Royal Wedding. I was able to duck the event itself, but all of the blathering foreplay was on television every day and my mother, who is normally a very sensible person, watched a fair amount of it . . .

By the way, some of The Fatal Pizza was still in the fridge about a week after I returned home from the hospital and I split it with my mother. It was very nice.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Check it Out : "First in Friendship -- Fourth in Obesity"

As the sun sets on the mandatory work-retreat camping trip of the Pawnee, Indiana Parks Department, Deputy Director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) stands contemplating the horizon with her City Hall colleague Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), who is quite impressed:

"It's so beautiful."

"It's pollution from the Sweetums plant. It's gorgeous, but is it worth the asthma?"

Meanwhile, back at the campsite, Leslie's co-workers want to leave. And they would, except that Leslie's underling, Tom Haveford (Aziz Ansari) has drained the battery of the city van they arrived in to power the various gadgets in his luxury tent, which he has dubbed "The Thunderdome." (Said gadgets include a wide-screen TV, stereo system, soft ice-cream maker, and a panini grill--he expects a certain level of comfort. All items were purchased from the Sky Mall catalog, and will be returned immediately after the trip as defective--Tom's already over his head in debt as it is.) Still, at least Leslie's boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), got in some fishing. (It's like yoga--except that I still get to kill something.") Alas, Ron's assistant, April (Aubrey Plaza) is miserable; her boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt), who promised to come along on the trip, has managed to get lost in the park. Not surprising, really, and at least Andy made it to the campground proper . . .

Parks and Recreation has been renewed for a fourth season, which is pretty good for a show that barely survived its first. The show is the creation of Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, who are responsible for the American re-boot of The Office, and it faced a similar problem of tone in that first season that its sister show did; a cold mean-spiritedness that made it impossible to care about the characters. And just as they found ways to soften and deepen the characters in the other series, they did the same here.

Which is nice, because they had assembled one of the best sit-com casts imaginable. Amy Poehler had already established herself as a gifted sketch-comedy performer during her years on Saturday Night Live, and she brought the same sharp timing and sense of absurdity to her turn as Leslie, but also a sense of humanity. Leslie is one of those rare creatures who believes in the idea of Public Service; she isn't working in government because she couldn't hack it in the private sector, she's doing this because she wants to help people, if only by making sure that the swing sets are up to code and the sandboxes aren't full of chiggers . . .

And what a supporting cast. Most prominent is Nick Offerman as Leslie's boss, Ron Swanson. Ron is a classic American type--the government-bashing conservative who holds on for dear life to his government job, his government pension, and his government health benefits. Offerman makes incredible use of a deadpan face and a soft, measured voice. And eyes that shine with insanity every once in a while, usually when Ron has the bad luck to run into his ex-wife Tammy (Meagan Mullaly)--his second ex-wife named Tammy. His mom was named Tammy as well, and that's all the further I care to go down that particular line of inquiry . . .

Right behind Offerman are Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford, would-be fashion plate and big-time operator and Aubrey Plaza as Ron's assistant, April Ludgate, whose major asset in the job is that she can't stand it or the people she has to deal with (in Ron's words, she's both "aggressively mean and apathetic . . . She really is the whole package.") Tom is one of those people working in government because he can't hack it in the private sector, and his struggles to become the Kind of Man Who Reads Playboy are both very funny and quietly pathetic. When the show began, Tom had a very beautiful medical-student wife, but it transpired that he married her so she could get a green card, and their inevitable split in the wake of her becoming a doctor is both predictable and oddly poignant (and doesn't mean that Tom stops behaving like an idiot, as Thunderdome demonstrates). As for Plaza, she is one of the true masters of the slow, passive/aggressive burn and quite willing at times to be absolutely hateful onscreen in her character's less pleasant moments. And yet her slow defrosting in the presence of Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), who runs the shoe-shine stand at City Hall has been both convincing and believable. And rather touching.

As for Pratt, he's made Andy into something of a Holy Fool. Yes, Andy is out there and then some (let's face it, he lives in an Alternate Universe -- a very cheerful one), but he is also one of Nature's Gentlemen much of the time, and doesn't seem to have a devious bone in his body.
There are times when April and Andy are rather like Bottom and Titania, if Shakespeare had relocated the story from ancient Greece to southern Indiana.

The character of Lesley's best friend, Ann Perkins, is finally coming into focus this season, and proving to be almost as silly at times as everybody else. For much of the show's run, Ann has been stranded on the sidelines, quietly shaking her head as Lesley and her colleagues made idiots of themselves (but also had more fun). In the first season, she was dating Andy, a relationship I could never quite buy (Ann is rather more experienced that April) and that the writers never bothered to explain or develop so that its absurdity would carry you along. Mind you, Rashida Jones was always delightful and poised in the role, but so was Paul Schneider, who played Lesley's city-planner ex-boyfriend, Mark Brendanawicz, a character that was dropped at the end of the second season because the writers never figured out what to do with him. This season, Ann has become involved with Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), originally a rep from the State Budget Office (Pawnee had managed to go broke at the end of Season Two) and now the Acting City Manager (the regular City Manager suffered a massive heart attack in the middle of a press conference and managed to unintentionally grope Leslie as he collapsed--with the press getting lots of nice pictures). The contrast between sensible, grounded Ann and the relentlessly upbeat, oddly impersonal Chris (he tends to refer to everyone by their full name) is wonderfully goofy and Lowe is probably doing just about the best work of his career in this role (he's one of those actors who started in film but found their best work in television--a trend that started with Lucille Ball and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon). And Adam Scott is amusing as his more common-sense colleague, Ben Wyatt (although Ben has his unhinged side as well--elected mayor of his hometown at 18, he managed to nearly bankrupt the burg trying to build a winter-sports complex called Snow Town, which led to his impeachment. Or as the local paper phrased it--SNOW TOWN COSTS SNOW CLOWN TOWN CROWN "They were really in to rhymes.") Jim O'Heir and Retta, as two other members of the Parks Department staff, are starting to get more time in each episode, finally, which is nice because she packs a lot of dry sparkle into here scenes, and he has made his character, Jerry, into one of the great woobies in sit-com history.

One of the things that has helped the show find its way has been the fact that it ventures out of the Parks Department offices into the wilds of Pawnee itself. There's the Library Department, where the dreaded Tammy works (they get what they want through ruthlessness and political savvy--and shushing), the ghastly local media, personified by vicious, empty-headed talk-show host Joan Callamezzo (the wonderful Mo Collins) and idiot TV anchor Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson), The awful Newport family who run the Sweetums Candy factory (the patriarch, Nick Newport, Sr., is married to ex-beauty queen and full-time monster Trish Ianetta [April Marie Eden]) and their smarmy PR guy Randall (Don McManus), and local morality maven Marcia Langman (Darlene Hunt), who went ballistic when Leslie, at the beginning of Season Two, refused to annul the Penguin Marriage between two male penguins, which makes her a hero to all of the fellows at The Bulge (one of the 12 gay bars in Pawnee--it's the one right behind Ron's house). The result is probably the most surrealistic portrait of small-town life in a sit-com since Green Acres. And with the appearance of Lil' Sebastian during the Harvest Festival towards which most of the current season has been building, it even has its own version of Arnold Ziffel. Who knows, he might get drafted, too . . .

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tainted Love

A musical tribute to Ron and Tammy Swanson, the living, breathing reminder of why no-fault divorce was such a good idea . . .

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wisconsin And Other Unpleasant Places

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker isn't threatening to shoot his own people, as far as I know. For one thing, too many people are watching (mind you, that didn't stop Qaddafi). But, as he revealed as he was in the midst of giving a tongue-bath to the fellow he thought was one of the Koch Brothers, he had thought of sneaking spoilers into the peaceful protests and start something. Now, he's sending out the cops to arrest the AWOL Democratic legislators and Capitol Police claim to have discovered 40 pieces of .22 caliber ammunition scattered around the Capitol building and are using that as an excuse to expel the 100 protesters who have been staying there since the protests began. (actually, I don't doubt that the cops found the ammunition -- I just doubt that the protesters left if lying around). (By the way, it it just me, or does Walker look as if he were carved out of the same block of cream cheese as every one of those Bible-Belt dweebs who turn up on Dateline NBC and 48 Hours after they've done in their wives and sometimes their kids because they don't want to pay alimony or they've found a hot check-out girl at the local Wal-Mart? Just wondering.)

Actually, there's nothing particularly surprising about greedy billionaires and slimy, self-righteous politicians being in their pay. Human beings are weak, greedy creatures, prone to take a mile if given the proverbial inch. That's what government agencies are for; to regulate such behavior. And businessmen, being practical as well, will generally give in when they know that folks in Washington mean what they're saying. They made peace with the unions in the 40's and 50's, and Wall Street began to behave like adults, or at least like obedient children, after federal agencies began to seriously regulate the banks and stock-brokerage firms. Despite all of the claims that regulation would drive them out of business, all but a few idiots would keep going. Most of them actually like doing business.

Unfortunately, Washington hasn't been doing its job for years. It started with Ronald Reagan, who, as President of the Screen Actors Guild, sold out his own union to the talent agency who represented him in exchange for television work. It was under his administration that the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed, allowing banks and Wall Street firms to run amok and all but destroy our economy in 2008 (many of the scams with mortgages and such would have been illegal before the repeal). And in the years that followed, the regulatory agencies that weren't eliminated were essentially gutted of their power to control the worst behavior of businessmen in various sectors. On more than one occasion, the agency was delivered into the hands of the very predators they were supposed to be keeping an eye on. As a result, much of the public media is in the hands of a few huge corporations and income disparity in this country is soaring. The possibility of this country becoming as miserable as some of the African and Arab countries we now pity or revile is less remote than it used to be, and that is scary . . .

Among the other nasty places is Ohio, where Republican governor John Kasich and the GOP-dominated legislature are ramming through a bill even nastier than the one in Wisconsin, this one aiming to destroy ALL of the public-service unions in the state. (Walker was partially out for revenge on Wisonsin's teacher's unions for not supporting him in the November election). By the way, did you know that Toledo, Ohio is the second-largest center for human trafficking in the country? By your deeds you shall know them . . .

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"The beauty spot of Lower Herpes in Dorset . . ."

Speaking of Kenny Everett in drag, here he is as would-be inspiring religious-y Verity Treacle, who longs to bring a light shaft to your dark abyss . . .

"Kaboona have splitting headache . . ."

Some more Kovacs, this time as LEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE (Sheena's Borscht-belt cousin, apparently). Like Kenny Everett in later years, Kovacs was not about to let the necessity of drag get in the ways of some good facial hair. Or a cigar. As for the jungle, it proves a very dangerous place for NBC vice-presidents . . .

"They make more noise than a Hungary Wedding . . ."

The Howdy Doody Show, now hosted by a grumpy Hungarian with a drinking problem. It can only be counted as an improvement . . .

Meglio Stasera

The English title is It Had Better Be Tonight The Italian lyrics, which can be heard here, are by Franco Migliacci, and there were also English lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

On of the reasons I love this scene from The Pink Panther, a film that I otherwise think is a bit slow and lumbering (and centered on the wrong character) is that it's something they used to do in movies--just drop a nice song into the middle of a drama or comedy. The singer here, Fran Jeffires, is sexy, a bit imperious in a charming way, and very good at both singing and dancing. And Peter Sellers, as Clouseau, is genuinely charming, something he rarely was.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


In case you haven't noticed, Egypt is in something of a kerfuffle. People have gotten tired of Hosni Mubarak and the corruption and oppression that seem to follow him about like excessively-friendly cousins. They've gone out into the streets. It was a bit raucous but thoroughly civilized for the first few days, and then supporters of the President "spontaneously" invaded Tahrir Square and just happened to have knives, guns, Molotov cocktails and to be riding horses and camels. Things got nasty quickly and don't show any sign of getting better anytime soon.

A few random observations. As always, I should emphasize that my opinions are of no importance whatsoever, but hey, I've got some free time.

1. "As a matter of fact, it is all about me . . ."

Mubarak could have announced he was stepping down and then let the citizens of the country go about the very tricky task of selecting a leader who believes in things like free elections, women's rights, and doesn't regard it as a virtuous obligation to wage Holy War of some sort.
Instead he announced that he would leave in six months (the better to find a puppet to take his place) and when that didn't seem to impress the protesters, sent in the thugs and apparently sat back, quite willing to see the country go down in flames if he can't have things his way. Or assumes he can out-wait the protesters and assumes that everything will go back to normal. Mind you, Normal was what caused the problems in the first place . . .

If this were President Obama, or the leaders of France, Italy, Japan, etc., such behavior would be shocking. But Mubarak is a dictator, not a leader. Dictators couldn't care less about the stability or welfare of "their" country, except as it relates to their own power and the goodies that go with it. When the tide turned against Germany during WWII, Hitler drew up plans to completely destroy the country's infrastructure as "punishment" for having failed him. (Fortunately, he entrusted those plans to his lackey Albert Speer, who had no intention of swallowing poison or sticking a gun in his mouth, and so the country, though left in battered ruins, was at least spared the lunar-landscape option.)

2. "Actually, it's all about us."

In one of his "Observer" columns for the New York Times, Russel Baker wrote about internecine warfare at the New York Review of Books; Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone duel for the love of Olivia deHavilland, who precedes to row back to her boat and write a devastating 30-page evisceration of both of them, citing previous contradictory statements and evidence of bad faith-- extensively footnoted. (at least I think that's how it went; it's been a long time since I've read it).

The pundits have been inspired by events in Egypt; in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier has used the events to launch yet another of his Obama-is-a-mushy-gutless-glib-liberal screeds, which then inspired Jim Sleeper, who used to write for The New Republic until the inevitable fall-ut with either Wieseltier or Peretz, uses the occasion to launch a screed of his own, at Talking Points Memo, denouncing Wieseltier for denouncing Obama and for being a hypocrite. Sleeper might be right, but the piece is more about his feud with Wieseltier than about the matter at hand. And what is notable about both articles is the underlying assumption that somehow this feud is as important as the events on the ground. It isn't.

3. "Wow! Ordinary People!"

Could television reporters seem less amazed that people who don't live in America are normal human beings?

4. Piers Morgan

Could he be fired almost immediately? Rachel Maddow was talking with reporters on the ground in Cairo last night. Morgan was talking to Barbara Walters. Even Barbara Walters found this silly. Rudy Guiliani didn't, but Guiliani is barely human at times.

Will the Egyptian protesters prevail? It's quite possible that they won't; history is littered with stories of the Powers That Be crushing the hopes and aspirations of people who got in the way of their being the Powers That Be. Relatives of my mother arrived in the States in 1848 after being part of a failed attempt to free several European countries from the grip of absolute monarchies. Attempts by Hungary and Czechoslovakia to get out from under the Soviet yoke both failed. The thing is, the failures didn't finally crush those aspirations; the absolute monarchies went away, eventually the Soviet Union dissolved. Someday, maybe sooner than we think, the network of military dictatorships, kings, etc. that current run the Middle East will give way to something better. We can, at least, hope so.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Check it Out: THE BANK JOB

When you sit and think about it afterwards, the conspiracy theory at the center of the 2008 caper movie The Bank Job sort of falls apart, but while you're watching the thing, it seems at least moderately convincing. As someone who has giggled down my cuffs at stuff like The Parallax View for years, that's considerable praise.

For one thing, it's about a conspiracy that blows up in the faces of the clever little people who concocted it. History suggests that this is often what happens, either rather quickly (Watergate) or down the line. (In 1953, the CIA and MI-6 toppled the democratically-elected President of Iran and replaced him with their puppet, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi [aka The Shah] for fear of losing oil concessions to nationalization. They kept their concessions, but Pahlavi's brutal dictatorship led to revolution and, alas, Ayatollahs, Islamic rule, and Mohammed Abedinijad -- President Emeritus of the Subway Fondler's Club -- Oh, and they lost their oil concessions anyway.) The plot revolves around the 1971 robbery of the safe-deposit vault at the Baker Street branch of Lloyd's Bank (yes, that Baker Street). The men actually involved (Jason Statham, Daniel Mays, Stephen Campbell Moore) think they're just cashing in on a hot tip passed along to them by an old friend (Saffron Burrows). In fact, she's the go-between in a scheme cooked up by an old lover (Richard Lintern) who's an up-and-comer at MI-6 and has promised to rescue her from drug charges. It seems that a Notting Hill villain named Michael X (his actual name was Michael deFreitas, and he also went by the alias Michael Abdul Malik) has allegedly stashed photos of Princess Margaret, the Queen's sister, in a box in the vault, photos depicting the Princess Royal making like the star of an Elks Club smoker reel, and is using them to avoid dong serious jail time. Mr. X (Peter De Jersey) has just been arrested on serious charges and the government would like to deprive him of his bargaining chip. And maintain the status quo (let's face it, if release of the photos brought down the monarchy, they would make damn sure that the aristocracy found itself circling the same drain).

The robbery itself goes well (the thieves dig a 50-foot tunnel from the basement of a shop they rent--a tunnel that goes under an intervening restaurant--to the wall of the bank vault); it's the aftermath that's a mess. To begin with, once the thieves discover the existence of the photos and their importance, they decide to use them as their bargaining chip. Even worse, amidst the debris from the robbery is a pocket notebook that belongs to a Soho vice operator (David Suchet) that he's used to meticulously record his payoffs to the Metropolitan CID's "Dirty Squad." The government can be dealt with, but this fellow isn't nearly amenable -- when our minor-league villains can't return his notebook pronto, people start getting hurt. And killed.

The script has its roots in several real-life events and people. Most obviously, the robbery itself, which was carried out in the early hours of Saturday, September 11, 1971 (that is not a cheerful date) and netted, in contemporary money, close to 32 million pounds in cash and valuables. Titles at the end of the film state that no arrests were ever made in the robbery and that the government imposed a press blackout on stories about the case four days afterwards. In fact, six men were arrested and tried in connection with the robbery and the laundering of the proceeds (the thieves were convicted, the money launderers were acquitted), and all of this received full coverage in the press. (The closest thing to a press blackout the British government can issue is something called a "D-Notice," and it is a request to withhold information for national security reasons, not an order. To the extent that they are followed, I suspect it's because reporters have sources in the intelligence agencies--even reporters for leftish papers such as The Guardian and The Independent--and they would like to keep them friendly.)

The film also dramatizes, very loosely, the corruption scandal that exploded in the Metropolitan (London) CID in the early 1970's. While porn shops and strip joints spread through the city's Soho district like mushrooms after a rainstorm, the Obscene Publications Squad was busy raiding art galleries ("intimate, erotic" lithographs by John Lennon of himself in sexual congress with his wife, Yoko Ono. Ive seen them--undeniably intimate. Erotic? personally, I've always found "erotic" and "John and Yoko" to be mutually-exclusive concepts.) and the offices of the satirical magazine Oz (an issue written and edited mostly by teenagers and centered on topics sure to rile their parents--namely, sex and drugs). When Home Secretary Reginald Maulding inquired as to why the OPS wasn't rounding up actual Obscene Publications, he got lame excuses from George Fenwick, who ran the outfit. Maulding's response was to hire Robert Mark, the Chief Constable of Leicester, to be the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and set him to work digging up the corruption he strongly suspected. Marks delivered, as did a tabloid newspaper called Sunday People who broke a story in 1972 about a porn-shop/strip-joint owner named James Humphreys taking a lavish vacation to Cyprus in the company of Police Commander Kenneth Drury and their respective wives (Humphreys footed the bills). A subsequent raid at Humphreys' house led to a safe where he kept a notebook meticulously documenting his payoffs to Drury, Fenwick, and many others, including a senior police official who had supervision of all of the police "special squads." The dirt uncovered led to a rash of resignations, early retiremements, even to a few firings and criminal trials. Still, many outside observers believed that Marks' investigation was only able to scratch the surface of police corruption in the city.

Finally, there is the matter of Michael deFreitas (aka Michael X), supposedly the man in possession of Maggie's naughty holiday snaps. Born in Trinidad, he emigrated in Britain in the late 1950's and quickly became a drug-dealer, pimp, and free-lance knee-breaker for the slumlords who ran the Notting Hill district (in the days when it was a hardscrabble enclave for West Indian emigrants, not a gentrified yuppie hell). In the mid-60's he found it convenient to impose himself on Britain's emerging Black Power movement, using it mostly as a cover for his criminal enterprises and becoming a major attraction on the radical-chic cocktail circuit. A few of his canape friends helped him found an inner-city commune called Black House that quickly fell into chaos and disrepair and later burned to the ground. After he was arrested in 1971 in the wake of a failed extortion/kidnap plot against one of the slumlords he was associated with, he fled back to Trinidad, where he started another failed commune, which also burned down. When authorities went to investigate, they found a shallow grave containing the bodies of DeFreitas' cousin, Joseph Skerrit, and Gale Benson, the daughter of an MP and the long-time mistress of DeFreitas hanger-on Hakim Jamal (nee Alan Donaldson--mentally unstable, he had done time as a juvenile for murdering his mother, and was murdered himself in 1973 after he returned to his hometown of Boston). deFreitas was arrested and eventually charged with, and convicted of, Skerrit's murder. Although witnesses asserted that he had ordered, and participated in, the murder of Benson, he was never charged in her death. Despite several well-funded appeals, DeFreitas was executed in 1975

(Sorry for spending so long on the film's backstory, but I did read up on it, and it was seriously-interesting stuff. We now return to our regular programming already in progress.)

The screenplay is the work of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, veteran film and television writers who have worked both in comedy (the great 60's sit-com The Likely Lads, all of Tracy Ullman's various TV shows, the 1988 remake of Vice Versa), thrillers (1971's Villain, a very twisted little gangster film starring Richard Burton) and projects that had a bit of both (1967's The Jokers, where Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford steal the Crown Jewels from The Tower of London--basically for the hell of it). Their use of overlapping flashbacks at the beginning is somewhat confusing, but they still do a nice job of dramatizing how the ever-so-clever scheme comes together and how it proceeds to blow up in the faces of all concerned, leaving everybody badly burned.

The cast is nothing to sneeze at either. The gang of thieves here is led by Jason Statham, a good actor who rarely gets a chance to demonstrate the fact (it's amusing that his latest film is the remake of a Charles Bronson vehicle--Bronson often found himself in the same position). Statham does a good job by the character's quiet shrewdness, black amusement at the spiraling disaster that his life becomes in the wake of the robbery, and his love for his wife (the delightful Keeley Hawes) and kids and his fear of losing them or being lost to them. And for once, he is allowed to be human. Not one vicious one-liner over someone's dead body. He is nicely complemented by Daniel Mays and Stephen Campbell Moore as his accomplices, fellows who are even less dodgy than he is, and thus utterly out of their depth when things start to go wrong. The gang is nicely rounded out by cameos from James Faulkner, as a gentlemanly con-man who acts as the front when renting the shop from which they begin digging the tunnel, and Alki David as the contractor who lends them technical advice.

As the old girlfriend who gets everybody into this mess, Saffron Burrows is playing one of the great thriller/adventure-movie stereotypes, The Lady Without Passport, getting by on her looks, her brains, and her nerves. Burrows essays the role with brio and panache and a nice touch of pathos as well. As her other old boyfriend, the smart guy at MI-6, Richard Lintern nicely limns his character's ambition and flexible morals, but also the character's increasing panic and self-disgust as his little escapade collapses into grisly farce and people start dying. He is nicely complemented by Peter Bowles as his boss, an empty-suit bureaucrat whose only real talent is self-preservation.

As the more honest villains of the piece, David Suchet and Peter De Jersey are vivid and sometimes very frightening, the latter in a part that feels sadly underwritten. The great secret to Suchet's performance is its dry, matter-of-fact quality. This vice lord regards himself as a businessman and anything he does to protect that business, from paying bribes to committing torture and murder, is simply the cost of operating. De Jersey has a great early scene where he cynically reels off the sort of radical boilerplate his audience of slumming toffs expects (among them John and Yoko, who were sort of ubiquitous in those days), and he brings a poignant sense of frustrated dignity and intelligence to the character, one of those people who seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot pretty much from the day they were born (whatever conservatives say, poverty and racial discrimination tend to be factors in all of this). deFrietas' hanger-on Hakim Jamal is played by Colin Salmon, unrecognizable behind a thick beard and given almost nothing to do (anyone who's seen Salmon in such TV shows as Keen Eddie and Law and Order: UK know what a waste that is).

The director is Roger Donaldson, whose career began with serious films such as Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace, and The Bounty and alas degenerated mostly into genre nonsense after that. This is undeniably a genre film as well, but his work is lean, smart and engaged in the subject matter (the script probably helps). He not only does well by the story and the actors, but he creates something of the sad, angry atmosphere of early-70's Britain, rattled by recession and social chaos (women and racial minorities were expecting, you know, their rights) and what can only be described as a sense of hangover from the headier days of the 1960's. If nothing else, this movie is a wonderful antidote to nostalgia . . .

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Don't Let The Door Hit You on The Way Out . . .

The most annoying think about Keith Olbermann was that at heart I often agreed with him. Bush 43 was an awful president; Bill O'Reilly is a bullying jerk and his employers, Fox News, are a cynical propaganda operation. Rupert Murdoch is a dreadful man (although I suspect that Olbermann would be less outraged if Murdoch hadn't had him fired--for what ever reason).

In short, I got sick and tired of having my opinions expressed in such a smug, juvenile, and overheated manner. To his credit, Olbermann seems to have been more honest than such talk-radio goons as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, but he was otherwise very much a creature of their universe--incapable of tolerating disagreement, characterizing ideas he disagreed with as not just wrong but evil, and a streak of mean, adolescent humor that grows tiresome very quickly to anyone who is not an acolyte.

This firing/resignation/whatever doesn't seem to be particularly political, because MSNBC is simply shifting their schedule about a bit to cover Olbermann's departure. Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell are little different politically, and they seem capable of agreeing to disagree without steam coming out of their ears (and unlike Olbermann, they actually invite people on their show who disagree with them--and unlike O'Reilly and Hannity, they don't cut their microphones off or offer them up as some sort of virgin sacrifice to the Gods of The American Enterprise Institute).

I wouldn't worry too much about Olbermann; he has lots of money and a solid fan base. He'll probably land somewhere. For a while at any rate.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Man Who Would Be . . . ?

Very interesting article in New York Magazine about Martin Peretz, formerly a Harvard professor and owner of The New Republic and now a semi-reviled transcontinental crank. He's now former owner because his marriage to a much-richer second wife came apart a few years ago (it was her money that actually bought the publication) and he's had to sell off the TNR to a Canadian firm to pay the bills. He's semi-reviled because his blog for the magazine's website, portentously called The Spine, overran with so many bigoted generalizations about the Arabs and so much angry-old-man bile in general (including a swipe at Liza Minnelli, of all people) that even his old friends began to back away slowly and pretend not to notice when he was around. He now spends much of his time living in Tel Aviv. A few blocks of Tel Aviv, because Israel had the gall to be an actual country with actual people, and not the comforting, abstract fantasy that Peretz had built up in his mind over the years. (As the article makes clear, it was that fantasy that Peretz was defending more than the living, breathing country itself--with friends like these . . .)

I was a longtime subscriber to TNR, and you could always tell when Peretz' thumb was buried in the pie -- long articles about the necessity of supporting the Contras in Nicaragua (didn't that get George McGovern's panties in a twist!), fulsome essays about the Olympian qualities of Al Gore (this was truly one of the most obvious and pathetic man-crushes in media history), any story that seemed to come down against liberal orthodoxy for the sheer nylon hell of it (and probably because said article of orthodoxy was held by someone that Peretz was feuding with). And then there was his occasional piece in the "Diarist" section at the back of the magazine, full of name-dropping and self-promotion and the latest additions to The Enemies List. No doubt, Peretz was hoping that TNR would make him a ubiquitous public figure along the lines of William F. Buckley. Personally, as someone who always found Buckley profoundly annoying (and not just because of his politics), I'm glad that ownership of a magazine doesn't automatically entitle one to become an inescapable Talking Head. Still, he was a teacher at Harvard for many years, and during his tenure, the magazine mentored some very talented writers and helped them along to prominent national careers (it would have been nice if that hadn't all been Clever Little White Boys from Harvard) -- I mean, his contribution to the American media obviously outstrips that of say, Larry Flynt by several miles. Who knows, maybe he can even find peace somewhere--like an unoccupied stretch of desert.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ruining My Eyes

I don't have a life, but I do have a television. Mostly use it as a monitor for my video collection these days, but this Sunday, I actually watched some real programs. Some more reluctantly than others. At any rate, a run-down . . .

6:oo p.m. -- Bones: Brennan and Booth on a plane to China. A woman turns up barbecued in the galley's convection oven ("It smells a bit like roast pork"). While working their way to the real killer, we meet the pilot with an unreported drinking problem, a stewardess stealing credit-card numbers from the passengers, and a lawyer who was cheating on his dying wife with Miss Extra Crispy (before she became a pulled-pork sandwich in the making). Oh, and a comic-relief Little Old Lady who's read all of Brennan's mystery novels. As per usual, equal parts amusing and annoying. The folks who write this show do beautifully by the main characters (including all of the folks back in the lab), but everything else feels second-hand and rather lazy. At least they didn't resort to making The Help the killer this time (in one episode, The Butler did it). Emily Deschanel and David Boreanz have the kind of effortless appeal you used to see in movie stars. These days, we have to settle for Scarlett Johannson . . .

7:00 p.m. -- Golden Globes Pre-Show Thingy Something or Other: More annoying than having teeth drilled without Novocain, but my mom likes seeing the ladies' dresses, and there were pots and pans to be cleaned. Three people whom I wouldn't know from Adam (apparently they were "Entertainment Journalists") stood on the red carpet outside the Beverly Hilton, blocking access to the free booze until random celebrities told them Who They Were Wearing and How Exciting it All Was. Helena Bonham Carter turned up in fabric-sample dress and mis-matched shoes and still managed to look better than just about anyone else (for one thing, she wasn't falling out of the damn thing). Ricky Gervais turned up with a big smile (he knew what was coming) and looking more like an amiable vampire than ever (seriously, the man has terrifying canines). I'd hate to think this gig would be regarded as a plum assignment for an Entertainment Journalist; they must have drawn the shortest straws.

8:00-8:10 p.m. or so -- Golden Globe Awards: I did want to see Gervais' opening monologue, and he didn't disappoint. It should be said, I think, that in front of any other audience, jokes about Charlie Sheen's unregenerate degeneracy, Tom Cruise's probable homosexuality, and the infinite bribe-ability of Bulgarian expat show-biz stringers would seem rather mild, but this was a hotel ballroom packed with several hundred people who are still brooding over their ill-treatment in high school. And more than a few Bulgarian expat show-biz stringers. It was actually rather gutsy. The cameras captured many, many pursed lips, and a few people seemed so upset that their faces threatened to develop frown lines in defiance of Saturday's Botox injections. DeNiro, on the other hand, seemed to be having a wonderful time . . .

8:15 p.m. -- 60 Minutes: A story about Jared Loughner, the young man who shot up Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and a host of other unfortunates, six of whom died. For once, there was no mention of Sarah Palin or cross-hair graphics, just a smart, patient explication of how Loughner started going crazy and nobody did anything about it. Very little gets done about the mentally ill in this country, and even less gets done in Arizona, where they're even cutting funding for transplant patients (not that there's much of that, either--even in states that aren't Arizona). It turns out, the only people doing much to keep potential assassins from fulfilling their ambitions are the Secret Service, who keeps tabs on people who pop up on their radar, visiting with them, making sure that they get psychiatric help and take their medications. Also, most assassins show genuine remorse for the crimes they've committed--which puts them several steps ahead of, say, Dick Cheney . . .

9:30 p.m. -- Episodes: A show about what folks do in Hollywood when they aren't handing out year-end bowling trophies. There's a Courtesy Lunch with Matt LeBlanc, a ghastly dinner party with network boss Merc Lapidus (John Pankow, doing wonderful things with a crudely-written part) and an explosion of potty-mouth from Tamsin Grieg at the end that is both shocking and paralyzingly funny. Yet again, Daisy Haggard only got three or four lines and still managed to be hilarious. There's a serious danger that the American version of Lyman's Boys may be called Pucks. On an incidental note, all of the ladies in the dinner-party scene were better dressed than the cleavage brigade at the GG's.

10:00 p.m. -- The Best of Jack Benny: An episode with Bob Hope, which means that his gag team probably re-wrote most of what Benny's gag team came up with. Nothing epic, but there's something wonderful about watching two people who know exactly what they're doing and love doing it going through their paces. Alas, this was not the Hope I ever saw on TV -- that was the Hope who kept doing what he did because he had no other life. Jesse White turned up in one sketch as a theatrical manager. An unexpected joke dropped into the mix, and there followed an heroic struggle not to laugh that was truly beautiful to see . . .

11:00 p.m.(ish) -- The Golden Globes: Wandered out for a soda just as Ricky Gervais was thanking God for making him an atheist. Barely heard it, of course, because they all but turned off the sound and pulled the camera away. Via YouTube, found out I had missed him referring to Bruce Willis as Aston Kutcher's dad and to Sylvester Stallone's amazing range as an actor. For some reason, I found myself remembering the story about Boris Karloff giving the Grammy Award he won for his recording of How The Grinch Stole Christmas to his agent, who used the thing as a doorstop. These were gentlemen who had things in perspective.

Midnight -- Dark and Stormy Night: A Larry Blamire Thing, as he refers to it. DVD I got recently. Spoof of Old Dark House thrillers. Blamire's usual stock company of collaborators, including his wife Jennifer Blaire, Brian Howe, Faye Masterson, Dan Conroy, Susan McConnell, Andrew Parks, and Robert Deveau, as well as Daniel Roebuck off of Lost, James Karen, H.M. Wynant, and Betty Garrett and her pet gorilla. The script showcases Blamire's fondness for complicated, silly word-play (at which he is brilliant), and the cast reminds you just how much underutilized, under-appreciated talent is knocking around out there. Absolutely unpretentious and completely delightful. And likely to be remembered long after this year's crop of Oscar-Bait movies has been forgotten.