Saturday, May 31, 2008

There's No Place Like (Someone Else's) Home

You think roaches are bad? How about about a 58-year-old woman? Excerpts from a Japanese news story:

The resident of the home installed security cameras that transmitted images to his mobile phone after becoming puzzled by food disappearing from his kitchen over the past several months.

One of the cameras captured someone moving inside his home Thursday after he had left, and he called police believing it was a burglar. However, when they arrived they found the door locked and all windows closed.

“We searched the house ... checking everywhere someone could possibly hide,” Itakura said. “When we slid open the shelf closet, there she was, nervously curled up on her side."

Police were investigating how she managed to go in and out of the house unnoticed, as well as details of her life inside the closet, and if she had taken anything else besides food.

She had moved a mattress into the small closet space and apparently even took showers, Itakura said, calling the woman "neat and clean."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Adventures In Rap #4: "The Message"


You know how it goes.

But what you may not know, or may not realize, is just how much of a pure quantum leap Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" must have been compared to most of the laughable contemporary rap of that time. I mean, here we have a genre that suddenly went from "These here breaks will rock your shoes" to "Broken glass everywhere, people pissin' on the stairs you know they just don't care" in the blink of an eye. One might have assumed that the first serious "social commentary" rap song would have been a little more hesitant or cautious, but no. Perhaps it was so inevitable that rap would eventually delve into explicit portrayals of ghetto life that everyone was simply sitting around waiting for someone to have the guts to do it, and then they knew that once someone did, it would be a free-for-all. Or maybe no one genuinely anticipated that rap would go the way of '70s soul and funk and tackle social concerns - although given the inherently linguistic focus of rap, it would seem to be (and indeed is) a natural fit. Still, I think at the time, "The Message" was probably seen as a freak oddity in a sea of silliness, and not the cornerstone of an entirely new mode of urban expression.

Compared to the other Grandmaster Flash singles, the song's genesis itself was a freak occurence. According to Wikipedia, "The song was written by Sugar Hill session musician Ed 'Duke Bootee' Fletcher and Furious Five MC Melle Mel. Flash and the other members of The Furious Five, although credited on the record, were uninterested in recording the song and are not found on the finished record." Such was the case with many a classic single, from "Yesterday" to "Kung Fu Fighting." Perhaps the others thought "The Message" was too controversial, or too uncommercial, or both. And, going by the standards of the day, they would have been absolutely right. But sometimes the masses, as idiotic as they tend to be, display impressive taste, and by golly the song was a hit.

Often with early rap, one has to charitable. "That's a pretty impressive song...for its time," I'll find myself saying. Not with "The Message." Although released in 1982, I think "The Message" would have been a hit in 1992, and it would have been a hit in 2002. The song simply has that indefinable "whatever-it-is." You know what I'm talking about. It's spare. It's cool. And unlike 99% of the rap from 1982, it is not...cheesy.

After having been exposed to later rap, I'll listen to the early stuff and think to myself, "Why aren't they rapping faster? Why aren't they rhyming better?" But on "The Message," Melle Mel sounds like he's giving it everything he's got. As with the best of later rap, the phrases and images fly by so fast here it's overwhelming. And that's only fitting, since the subject of the song is about how overwhelming ghetto life can be. At times he almost sounds like he's out of breath: "Midrange, migrained, cancered membrane/Sometimes I think I'm going insane, I swear I might hijack a plane!" It's not that the rhymes are so amazingly complicated or clever. It's just that nary a word is misplaced, and nary an observation rings false or feels forced. Melle Mel sounds like he intimately knows of what he speaks. Rather than tell a compact story, he simply spews for seven minutes, as if he thought this were the only chance he would ever have to say what he really felt (hell, it's called "The Message," for God's sake, as if rap couldn't have more than one "message" song?). Never does he suggest any possible solutions to these various ills, and never does he hint that life will even be better. But what's affirming is that although he may be "close to the edge," he has not gone over. And that alone is more real, and more inspiring, than any half-baked message about peace and justice Michael Jackson ever threw our way.

Also, it has that cool "wanka-wanka" synthesizer riff.

Monday, May 26, 2008

More Fun with Assassinations

Paul Krugman addresses some of what we were talking about in Zrbo's last post in today's column. I will respond.

Krugman laments the string of non-scandals that have embroiled Clinton during this primary. Then he writes, "Why does all this matter? Not for the nomination: Mr. Obama will be the Democratic nominee. But he has a problem: many grass-roots Clinton supporters feel that she has received unfair, even grotesque treatment. And the lingering bitterness from the primary campaign could cost Mr. Obama the White House." Grotesque? Do you remember the treatment the Clintons received during Bill's second term? Now that was grotesque! These gossipy reinterpretations do not rise to that level. Additionally, I don't remember Obama making a big deal of any of this. Newspapers and CNN/Fox need something to write and talk about. Most of the analysts they employ aren't particularly insightful and their producers aren't adventurous in the least. Thus we get this interminable merry-go-round of mediocrity. Like the old canard about the "liberal media" this has much more to do with the practical reality of newsrooms as places of business and the natural human desire to fit into a crowd and have something to talk about than the political beliefs of individual reporters.

I'd like to highlight one of Senator Clinton's remarks that I find more questionable than anything Krugman mentions. When Clinton remarked that Obama has a problem attracting white working class voters, she seemed to be simultaneously hinting to some voters that they should vote for her, while avoiding the scandal that would ensue if she just came out and said, "A black man cannot win the presidency." Hey, you know, maybe a black man can't win the presidency in the U.S.A. of 2008. If so, that sounds like something we as a nation should be talking about! The only one who came close was...Barack Obama in his speech following the Reverend Wright nonsense. Is there another way to interpret Clinton's remarks? Does it involve that Arugula beer-and-a-shot nonsense?

I don't find an argument over which ivy-league lawyer has more street cred more uplifting than some campaign flunky flashing the edge of a "race card" at me. I'm not interested in Clinton's analysis of Obama's experience or lack thereof without an explanation of how Clinton's experience is preferable. Maybe it has something to do with that Bosnian sniper fire? I have no time for Clinton supporters implying that all Obama supporters are wide-eyed idealists without the ability to form grown-up, mature political opinions. Regardless, I don't think, as Krugman does, that Clinton should be the vice-presidential nominee. Clinton's history, and the corrupt Democratic insiders that are running her campaign, would unnecessarily sidetrack Obama's impressively run campaign. I wish Obama would pick someone on the liberal side of the party to run with, but the rumored candidates don't really fit that bill. Oh well, the vice-presidency doesn't matter much under a functional president anyway. That's okay. Ms. Clinton doesn't have to be president. She, and we, will all be okay.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Dennis Richmond, longtime anchor for KTVU news, will be signing off for the last time tonight. Maybe it's silly to feel sentimental about your newsman, but this guy has been on the air for my entire life, 32 years as anchor. I enjoy watching the news every evening because Dennis has integrity. He doesn't try to be a personality the way so many reporters today try to be. He just delivers the news straight-up, in his baritone voice, with virtually no emphasis or subtle inflections in his words which could be interpreted as casting opinion on the story. He reminds me of newscasters from Germany, just facts - no opinions or banter between colleagues. I read somewhere that one of his role models growing up was Edward Murrow.

Apparently he can be pretty demanding too. The SJ Mercury says, "His style is devoutly old-school - the news delivered straight and clean, a no-nonsense nightly sacrament. The Bay Area's first black anchorman was regal, serious and often demanding of co-workers." Dennis himself says, "I demand a lot of other people. If I see mistakes that are clearly made because of carelessness, it really angers me. It damages the broadcast and damages me. If I have to edit someone on the air, I'm going to come looking for that person and try to convince them not to make that mistake anymore. And I might not be the nicest person in the world the way I do it."

Well, I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. I just wanted to wish Mr. Richmond well. Hope he enjoys retirement, but I feel the news won't be the same without him.

Tom Waits Explains Why He Isn't Coming to California

It's all in the stars...and the acronyms...

The Anti- site also has a nice interview up.
Highlight: Q: What is a gentleman?
A: A man who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

That Ghastly Astley

Rickrolling: best internet running gag ever? Looks like even Time magazine has finally caught on:

"You're innocently surfing the Web. Clicking on stuff. Sports scores, news stories. You know, normal things. Then it starts. A fusillade of electronic drums. A doinky synthesizer beat. A dude with a pompadour and a lot of sincerity. He's dancing--badly. He is 1980s pop star Rick Astley, and you have been RICKROLLED.

Rickrolling is an increasingly common online practical joke. The object is to trick people into clicking on a benign-looking link that takes them to the video for Astley's hit "Never Gonna Give You Up." By now millions of people have inadvertently watched the video, which came out in 1987, a more innocent time when people actually listened to generic soft-core pop on purpose--the song went to No. 1.

Astley, who is currently on a 1980s revival tour with Bananarama and Cutting Crew, is reportedly bemused by the whole phenomenon, which continues to escalate. In April pranksters hijacked an online poll held by the Mets, resulting in the song being played at a Major League Baseball game, thereby effectively rickrolling thousands of unsuspecting fans and players. If Moises Alou isn't safe, who is?"

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Dominik)

And I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford
I'm low as a paid assassin is
You know I'm cold as a hired sword
I'm so ashamed, can't we patch it up?
I can't think straight no more
You make me feel like a bullet, honey, in the gun of Robert Ford

- Elton John, "I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)"

Come on, it's all about the title. Just as it may be too lengthy and ambitious for its own good and yet still manages to stand out from the pack by sheer dint of its own atypicality, so the film itself fails to go gently into that dark night of the conventional. There are about four different movies here and it seems like the filmmakers didn't bother to decide which one of the four they wanted to make. But when most films are only half a movie, why complain?

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is like a strange cross between The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The King Of Comedy. In the first film, the titular character is perceived as a hero. In the second film, the protagonist is perceived as an obsessive creep. So what do we make of Robert Ford, then, with his recalcitrant eyes and solicitious demeanor? He's one of those people with low self-esteem, who knows he has low self-esteem, and who'll stand around and talk with you about why his self-esteem is so low, in the hopes that if he talks about it enough, somehow he'll find some self-esteem. Upon first meeting Bob, Jesse's brother Frank observes, "I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies." Casey Affleck gives a career-making performance as a cringe-worthy loner whose very presence reminds people of their inner Rupert Pupkin.

And yet what in the hell is so great about Jesse James? He's a back-stabbing, two-timing thief, murderer, and unrepentant Confederate rebel. In other words, he's a big piece of shit. And yet somehow or other, Jesse James has become a "hero" in our popular culture, and Robert Ford has become a "coward." Go figure. Again, it all comes back to the film's title. The most jarring word in that verbose appellation, of course, is "coward." It's a pretty harsh judgement to bestow upon a character before the movie has even begun, no? And yet, I think The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford calls into question the fairness of that particular label. If Bob Ford was a coward, then what the hell was Jesse James? A psychopath?

That is the movie at its best. But there is a lot of solemn and ponderous rambling in between. Several minor characters wander in and out of the story and I was barely for the life of me able to understand who these people were or what they had to do with Jesse James and Robert Ford. The film is two-and-a-half hours long, but in a way, the first two hours could have been edited down to one hour without much loss, and it would have saved more time for (what I thought of as) the best stuff: the exploration of why we idolize criminals and demonize assassins. Indeed, the film doesn't really take off until the last half hour, which for reviewing purposes is unfortunate because, although only the most dunderheaded would expect to see Jesse James avoid assassination, there are some delightful surprises I would be remiss to reveal. Let me just say that the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford may not be the only assassination in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Ultimately, I wanted to see more of that self-aware, revisionist tone and less of the wannabe Terrence Malick ambiance. Andrew Dominik, after debuting with the memorably schizoid Chopper, is creating a solid body of work for himself, but I can't help but wonder what a Tarantino or a P.T. Anderson would have done with this material. It needed to be more fun.

And yet even though I think the film is disappointing, that's only because it lays so much on the table. As soon as the film ended, I immediately began reading about Jesse James and Robert Ford on Wikipedia and it seemed to me that there were a number of fascinating aspects to this story that the film does not explore. The movie definitely underplays the unrepentant Confederate rebel business, for example. I mean, Brad Pitt is very good as Jesse James, but I get the impression that the real Jesse James was a smelly, sickly, repugnant son of a bitch. In fact, the more I learned about the real Jesse James, the higher Robert Ford rose in my estimation.

So although with a little pruning the film could have been a modern Wild Bunch or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as it is, it knocks 3:10 To Yuma out of the water. And at least now Bernie Taupin won't have to keep explaining to everybody what "I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)" is all about.

"Film critic" rating: **1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***1/2

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Untoward to a Quokka

This really puts our election to shame. The story starts with:

"Troy Buswell was groaning and writhing in sexual pleasure after lifting a chair above his head and sniffing the seat deeply, the woman at the centre of the sex scandal has revealed."

And then the plot thickens:

"West Australian Opposition leader Troy Buswell has admitted to chair-sniffing in the past but today he denied having done anything untoward to a quokka.

Mr Buswell, who has also admitted to snapping the bra of a Labor staffer, faced question at Parliament House after sacked frontbencher Paul Omodei had said “more stories” would emerge about Mr Buswell and that his leadership would “die the death of a thousand cuts”.

Asked if he had done anything inappropriate to a quokka, Mr Buswell replied: “No”.

Asked if he was aware of any rumours about actions involving the small marsupials, which are indigenous to Rottnest Island, Mr Buswell said: “I have absolutely no idea about these stories of quokkas on Rottnest.

“I'm not being backward in saying that I'm not a perfect individual and you know I've had a robust past and there may be elements of that that have proved offensive to people.

“I don't shy away away from that at all, but I'm not aware that I've caused any offence to a quokka.”

Asked how the rumours had started, Mr Buswell said: “I have no idea.

“I'm not going to comment on it. All I've heard is people use the word quokka and then smile and laugh.

“I'm just not interested to be honest with you.”

He said none of his MPs had come to him to report the rumour.

“Members of the press have in passing mentioned the word quokka and suggested to me that something inappropriate in the past may have happened,” he said.

“Nothing has, absolutely nothing.”

I found the story on CrookedTimber, a nice sociology/politics blog if you are so inclined.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

David Brooks is a Buddhist? AKA My Unknowable Total of All There Is Is Better Than Yours

"Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development."

Hmm, interesting lede. But with "cold machine" and "squishy" in there I think I know where this is going.

"Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment."

Any theory that failed to explain fairness, empathy, and attachment would be an incomplete theory, no?

"Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real."

If we find neuron activity tied to these emotions and "elevated spiritual states", whatever those are, doesn't that lead you to believe that they are in fact the result of physical processes within the body?

"In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism."

I don't know, this sounds like the same old debate to me. I'm not confident that David Brooks has a good understanding of Buddhism or neurology. Maybe he does but had to cut some explanation out to fit his column space. If we are finding physical manifestations of deep emotions and transcendent experience, doesn't that weigh in favor of materialism instead of against? And what does Buddhism have to do with all of this? Are all "elevated spiritual states" Buddhist? Am I a Buddhist when a pretty girl sits next to me? Maybe so.

Brooks lists the following arguments as flowing from new neurological discoveries:

"First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is."

David, these are incompatible with atheism at all until you throw God in there at the end. And if God is "the unknowable total of all there is" then what's the point of fighting about it?

Read the whole article here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Jimmy Fallon to Become Katie Couric of Late Night TV

Just read that they've decided to give Conan O'Brien's spot to Jimmy Fallon when O'Brien takes over for Jay Leno next year. Seriously, this guy is supposed to fill Conan O'Brien's spot?? I'm just utterly baffled. Does anyone like Jimmy Fallon? I just don't find him funny one single iota. Zip, zilch, do not pass Go. I thought they'd pick Jimmy Kimmel at least, or is he replacing Letterman? I'm not a big fan of Kimmel either, but goodness gracious he looks like Johnny Carson compared to Fallon.

I don't think anyone's going to watch Late Night anymore. Fallon will become the Katie Couric of late night TV. Zero audience. Go back to making farting noises during the SNL weekly update Fallon. I, for one, will not be watching.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Aesthetics Of Barf

A recent list from The A.V. Club, entitled "I'm trying to rape the viewer into independence": 17 Notorious Living, Working Cinematic Provocateurs," manages to name just about every single director whom I find artistically gifted and yet morally and spiritually misguided: Catherine Breillat, Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe, etc. etc. For me the point of cinema is not simply to be emotionally powerful; a good film also needs to add something of value to the viewer's life. Apparently Gaspar Noe's goal when filming Irreversible was "to make viewers feel like they were losing their minds." I have yet to see Irreversible. Unless I was gearing myself up to commit suicide, why would I? The A.V. Club writes that Haneke's films "are so starkly brilliant that they're difficult to dismiss." Can I dismiss them anyway? I mean, stark brilliance in the service of what?

Some of the directors listed here actually do make films with genuine soul and value, such as Werner Herzog, Oliver Stone, and Todd Solondz (although Solondz is possibly borderline). But no list can be perfect. Vincent Gallo's films are more entertaining for the attendant publicity than the actual movies, but at least he isn't laughing in your face. And even I must admit that I may need to see James Toback's Black And White, "a wholly improvised, wildly self-indulgent free-form essay on sex and race featuring a notorious scene where Robert Downey Jr. hits on Mike Tyson while Downey's turned-on wife (a cornrows-sporting Brooke Shields) tapes it all for posterity." Well I'll be damned!

Other highlights:

Michel Gondry Entertained For Days By New Cardboard Box

Economic Stimulus Check Burned For Warmth

Thursday, May 8, 2008


I'm a sucker for interesting looking graphical representations of information. The diagram of government spending above brings a smile to my face. This mosaic of consumer spending brings shivers to my spine. And you can zoom in!

Marvel at spending on cable exceeding child care or spending on "Clocks, Lamps, Decorations" exceeding books and supplies.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Adventures In Rap #3: "The Breaks"

A few years back a friend gave me a mix containing "The Breaks," and it was upon hearing "The Breaks" that I first began to wonder if a journey through the history of rap might be more worthwhile than I had otherwise assumed. "The Breaks" surprised me in two ways: 1) it sounded like disco, and 2) it was really, really corny.

I had heard of Kurtis Blow, and I believe I had heard of "The Breaks," and I believe I possessed a vague understanding of Kurtis Blow as a groundbreaking rap artist, and, based on a cursory impression of rap, I had assumed that even early rap was screamingly tough. So imagine my surprise when I encountered edgy, threatening lyrics such as these: "Brakes on a bus, brakes on a car/Breaks to make you a superstar/Breaks to win and breaks to lose/But these here breaks will rock your shoes." "Rock your shoes"? Not even New Kids On The Block had ever stooped that low. Or how about "If your woman steps out with another man/And she runs off with him to Japan/And the IRS says they want to chat/And you can't explain why you claimed your cat"? What was this, a breakfast cereal commercial? I mean, "Rapper's Delight" is pretty tame by modern standards, but "The Breaks" makes "Rapper's Delight" seem like "Straight Outta Compton." Ladies and Gentlemen, Kurtis Blow: the Godfather of PG Rap.

And yet, the endless barrage of hardships Blow catalogues over the course of the song somehow manages, in a way, to undercut the silly party-anthem vibe of the performance. It's like Roberto Benigni clowning and mugging his way through the Holocaust. On the surface "The Breaks" may appear to be one groovy dance tune, but dig a little deeper and it's a raging bummer. When Blow couples a rather outlandish misfortune with a rather mundane misfortune ("And you borrowed money from the mob/And yesterday you lost your job"), the effect is almost touching. Borrowing money from the mob? Oh, man, that's hysterical. Losing your job? All too realistic, and not funny at all. But, as the Buddha might say, life is suffering.

In some sense the "smile through the pain" attitude of "The Breaks" may have anticipated the darker turn rap would swiftly take. Perhaps this is the first crumbling rock in the avalanche of anger, resentment, and hostility that rap would arguably unleash. Or maybe Blow just wanted to rhyme "man" with "Japan."

P.S. It's worth noting that "breaks" in the song refers to both "tough luck" and actual musical breaks. Indeed, the song is quite truthful with its advertising, as there are several breaks of a danceable nature throughout. Sadly, breaks would not find a permanent place in the genre but that, of course, is the breaks.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Death, Taxes...And Online Music

Somebody at Slate is onto my Internet music tax idea. OK, so it wasn't my idea but it certainly felt like my idea. At any rate, as I read these paragraphs I could not contain my slow, affirmative nod:

Despite all the downsides, something like the music tax simply has to happen. Most of us don't want to steal music. But it takes a saintly person (like me) to jump through hoops to pay for something you can get for free. I use eMusic and, which both offer DRM-free MP3 downloads. Yet cheapskates galore still have their Limewire and BitTorrent and whatever future file-sharing tools savvy Web guerrillas haven't even dreamed up yet.

That's why piracy can't be stopped. Meanwhile, artists aren't being compensated in a sensible way. Sure, some musicians will make a living by playing live shows and selling T-shirts. A massively popular band like Radiohead can give away its music and still make millions. But plenty of other artists will no longer be able to make a living in the music business as royalties dry up, which will leave our culture a little less vital and a little less fun. What we need is a reward system, one that could eliminate middlemen and encourage a massive upsurge in creativity.

Yes, yes, and yes. But from the looks of it, I doubt the big music companies and iTunes will ever agree to such an arrangement. Why? Because it diminishes the opportunities for canny but lazy businessmen to make excessively vast amounts of profit. And that is what our country is founded upon. Reihan Salam writes: "What plan will work best for music lovers and artists? Instead of a fake music tax, the best solution might be—sorry, libertarians—for the government to step in with a real music tax." Ah, but the day the United States government regulates mass media to such an extent as that may not be a day you or I will live to see. Salam concludes:

When the costs of discovering new music are zero and artists are paid on the basis of how often songs are played, listeners are more adventurous and bands with dedicated followers can make as much scratch as bands that record big hits. Bands get paid, music lovers can listen to their hearts' delight, and the record companies will slowly turn to dust. What's not to like?

Well, from the record companies' point of view, plenty.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


Call and response drumming...keytar...synthesizer solo...does it get any better than this?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Montana Exposed (sort of)

Some of you may look at the above picture and see controversy. Others may look at it and see a young girl rushing out of bed, late for first period English. I look at it and honestly say, "So what?"

Is it because she's suppose to be this wholesome, innocent role model for our own teenage daughters? Lest we forget that we entrusted our children to Britney Spears just a few short years ago; was there not the same controversy when she went from innocent to indecent in just one album?

Did the moral fabric of the family unit get torn to shreds and stomped into the floor like a fiery bag of feces? No. Did terrorists really learn to fly planes because of it? Probably not. Did teen pregnancy spike because of it? Only if you lived in a Mormon Compound.

The truth is that this is a mild example of bad judgment on the part of Vanity Fair. In their defense, artistically the picture is pretty good, I mean Ann Leibovitz did the photo shoot, not Hustler. However, Vanity Fair is a magazine marketed to adults; maybe a fifteen year old girl shouldn't be posing in such a provocative position (she does look a little loved up).

At least wait until she's seventeen.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Persepolis (Paronnaud/Satrapi)

Now here's an animated feature I can get behind. No Pixar anthropormorphic rodents for this movie. Hell, in Iran, they catch you talking to a rodent and they'll chop off the arms of one of your uncles.

You know, I take that back. Because actually, I've always been surprised by what I hear about Iran. I have met people who claim to have family there, and who have even visited, and they insist that the vast majority of Iranians want to be young and have a good time and watch American movies and get drunk and live exactly like the rest of us. In fact, a couple of years ago I heard of a survey gauging the popularity of the United States throughout the Middle East. The only country with a strongly favorable opinion of the United States, this survey concluded, was Iran, because since Iranians automatically distrust every single piece of information their government provides them, they believe the United States is wonderful and that George W. Bush is the greatest leader of our time. I suppose no one's informed them of this whole "Axis of Evil" business, but hey, let's keep it between you and me.

At any rate, Marjane Satrapi hit the jackpot with her life story, because not only did she have a crazy childhood, but she had a crazy Iran! I mean, all she needed to do was to hit all the key points and not make anything up and inject just the right amount of humor in there, and presto: the funny Iran movie with heart. It seems so easy, but I suppose in the wrong hands it could have gone dangerously awry.

In his review of The Squid and the Whale, A.O. Scott wrote, "Coming of age, with its attendant thrills and traumas (generally summarized under the headings school, sex and parents), is an inexhaustible subject because no two people go through it in exactly the same way." And I often ask myself if I could ever truly tire of the genre. Sometimes I am of the persuasion that if every suitably intelligent person simply sat down and wrote about his or her own childhood in a way that was clear-eyed and honest and free of sentimentality, I would be up for it. In some ways it is a mystery why more artists refrain from doing so. Maybe instead of trying to stretch and contort in order to generate some mind-blowingly original storyline (which nine times out of ten is full of cliches anyway), filmmakers could stick to the storyline than never fails: their own. Most likely it is because it's about as fun to think about as giving Madeleine Albright an enema. But perhaps there is more to this coming of age gig than merely having the guts to write about it, i.e, it helps to be from Iran.

It also helps to be able to draw. Persepolis solves the visual problem by having lots of pretty pictures with clean lines and arresting shapes rolling across the screen. In this age of generic cinematography I don't know why more movies don't go for the animated option. It is an easy way to make a film visually pleasing. I guess optical originality is not high on the priority list of the producers. Or when they do go for animation, they go for high-budget Pixar cheese. But I like the look of Persepolis more than I like the look of Ratatouille. Why is that? Ratatouille must have cost a lot more money to make. But the animation in Persepolis has personality and character. It feels unique, harder to come by. Any studio with Pixar's money, I feel, could animate like Pixar. But not any studio could animate like Satrapi, Paronnaud & co. And it makes me like their movie more.

"Film critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: ****