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Sunday, Aug 26, 2007

With the proliferation of New Media in politics it has become abundantly clear that in the 21st Century no President, pundit or policy wonk is immune to the intense scrutiny of their own statements—whether made 13 days or 13 years ago. This became all too clear, once again, when Vice President Dick Cheney’s unusually prescient outtake on the “quagmire” in Iraq became ubiquitous on YouTube and Google video, providing fodder for anti-war bloggers and mainstream “traditional” media types. The video, taken from an interview from April 15th, 1994, shows the former Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush explaining why invading Iraq after America’s victorious Operation Desert Storm would have been a terrible idea. Of course, we all have a right to change our minds, but what’s so striking about this clip is how every prediction Cheney makes is on the money (destabilizing factors contributed to Iranian and Syrian influence; Kurdish aspirations for autonomy; American casualties; power vacuum after Saddam’s fall). The Republican response to these self-incriminating statement by Cheney has been pretty much the Republican response to just about everything over the six years—9/11. According to the Republican Party the attacks of Sept. 11th changed everything and, therefore, justifies every single Republican policy disaster made from here to eternity (wiretapping, preemptive war, suspension of habeas corpus). Of course, there was one other minor detail in Cheney resume between 1994 and present which may have contributed to his change-of-heart: his controversial tenure as CEO for energy behemoth and military contractor Halliburton. Of course, Cheney denies any ties to the corporation who once paid him $20 million just to retire, but is there any reason why we should believe anything this guy says anymore. 


Vice President Dick Cheney on Iraq



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Sunday, Aug 26, 2007


We’re in New York now—well, Nyu Yawk as they say over here—but I’m still in the midst of reporting how that happened, so, here’s more o’ dat . . .


 



JetBlue—how we arrived—is a stripped down affair. No frills. Do everything on line – reservations, seat assignments, baggage check. Even so, we couldn’t get the carrier to pair the four of us into 2 equal groups. The reason (aside from the fact that we reserved too late) was apparently that the kids were deemed by the computer to be kids (!) Try telling that to the son of mine whose response to “you need a haircut” is “do not” and the rejoinder to “Zander, your hair is too long” is “is not”. Now, in the face of a will like that, how can anyone say that that belongs to a kid?


But try explaining that to a machine. And since that machine deemed my kids to be kids, they were not allowed to occupy the 2 seats currently open alongside the exit. As such—and since we wanted two sets of twos—we had to finalize that reservation by phone. This involved more than a simple reservations clerk (wouldn’t you guess); it required the intervention of a manager countermanding the system and instructing the clerk.


So much for stripped down service. Humans still requisite cogs in any bureaucratic machine.


 


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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece. It is also an aggravating avant-garde amalgamation of incomplete ideas. It’s a brilliant distillation of David Lynch’s career defining dream logic. It’s also a three hour exercise in excess and a brilliant argument for the switchover to digital filmmaking. As with most works by the artist/auteur, this fragmented take on “a woman in trouble” (to quote the film’s tagline) raises many more questions than it ever dares to answer, and squeezes more imagination and invention into three hours than most movie STUDIOS manage in a lifetime. Lynch is a largely lamented figure in post-modern cinema, an individual noted as being purposefully obtuse and painfully non-commercial. In fact, his last few films – Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. , and now this – have been castigated as being indirect, indulgent, and purposefully arcane. In truth, such screeds are probably badges of honor for the 61 year old provocateur.


None of these contradictory conceits make INLAND EMPIRE any less fascinating. It’s a narrative built on feeling, a storyline set inside a wildly evolving world of sound and images. Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who actually takes the language of this artform on its literal face value. For him, no movie can be too loud. In his world, no visual violates the mandate of plot continuity. Began as a series of scene sketches – experiments with his newfound camcorder – Lynch lucked into Laura Dern while in France. Soon, the two were collaborating, traveling around the world, working out sequences and suggestions, sometimes on the fly. Once the material began to speak to its inventor, an idea was born. As he points out as part of a mesmerizing 20 minute interview on the two disc DVD release of this title (new from Rhino), you can never tell when such inspiration strikes – and you can never tell where it’s going to take you. In either case, he was compelled to hop on.


To describe the storyline here would be like trying to explain color, or telling how one hears the yearnings of the human heart. This is by far the most bizarre narrative Lynch has ever come up with, and this is the guy who turned Bill Pullman into Balthazar Getty as part of a psychogenic fugue. We begin with a prostitute facing an abusive John. Within minutes, she is sitting in a dingy room, crying. On TV, a surreal sitcom starring humanoid rabbits unfolds. Suddenly, we’re in Los Angeles, at the home of struggling actress Nikki Grace. Hoping to land a new role, she is visited by a strange Slavic woman who predicts she will get the part. She also hints that there will be “murder” in this new movie. After accepting the lead, Nikki meets her costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). Together, they are informed by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) that the shoot may be cursed. Apparently, a previous production tried to helm this seedy storyline about an adulterous couple. Right before the final scenes were filmed, the performers were killed.


Things go along swimmingly at first. The history is forgotten as Nikki and Devon dive into their work. With his history of womanizing, our leading man is warned about staying away from his costar. Her husband will kill you, and then her, they state. Soon, fate steps in and it appears the pair is involved. During some late night pillow talk, however, Nikki begins to crack up. She starts seeing visions – of the film set, of her husband, of another quite different life. Running away from the pain, she is propelled into a parallel plotline. Now in Poland, Nikki is a nameless hooker hoping to hire someone to off her abusive spouse. As she spills the story to a sleazy hood, we see the entire enterprise unfold. As part of a group of girls (for sale? as strippers? as pay for love whores?), she is jaded by the lack of respect she’s given. Even worse, there’s a man called the Phantom who may or may not be hurting these wanton women. Eventually, our pained prostitute is betrayed, and revenge seems the only way to settle the score – or is it all just part of Nikki’s new movie.


Since narrative is not the most important aspect of INLAND EMPIRE, deciphering what everything means seems pointless. For those requiring a more intellectualized approach, there are two ways to interpret what happens here. Either the callgirl we see at the start of the movie is fantasizing about a life outside her flesh peddling profession (including a career as an actress which morphs into a vigilante-like pimp killer) or Laura Dern’s actress loses herself so completely in her part that the material she is using as internalized motivation (brutalized trollop, unhappy mistress) starts manifesting itself in her waking life. Anyway you look at it, we are standing firmly in standard Lynch land. Long a filmmaker who favored the feminine point of view in his films, we get a terrific tour de force performance from Dern, who’s obviously in sync with what her director is doing. Taking a production credit and appearing in almost every scene, we witness the kind of layered, dense characterization that makes this heralded actress one of the best still working in the business.


In fact, the rest of the cast is almost ancillary. Theroux, who excelled in Mulholland Dr. , is so distant he’s almost indistinct here. He’s playing aloof and lost, and said psychological suggestions come across loud and clear. Jeremy Irons, as Kingsley, is lovely in what can best be described as ‘on a lark’ mode. His interactions with sidekick Harry Dean Stanton are fantastic. Other Lynch notables include Grace Zabriskie as the sinister soothsayer, and Diane Ladd as a dirt dishing tabloid TV reporter (her single scene is marvelous). More intriguing are blink and you’ll miss them moments with William H. Macy, Julia Ormond, and an amazing turn by Mary Steenburgen. As a cast completely capable of infusing their scenes with the many moods Lynch requires, the players involved are absolutely flawless – and that includes the many participants from Poland. Having to translate his dialogue into their native tongue before they could contribute, they are seamlessly incorporated into the Tinsel Town talent pool – sometimes, even stealing scenes from them.


This results in a kind of motion picture mesmerism. Even without completely understanding everything that’s going on, INLAND EMPIRE sucks you in and holds every fiber of your being. Lynch is such a complete filmmaker – focusing on every aspect of production, from design and lightning to editing and scoring – that he provides maximum enjoyment out of a minimum of cinematic standards. We get caught up in the mystery, though we readily recognize that there will be more confusion than clues. When individuals speak in the standard Lynchian riddles, we sit back and soak in every non-sequitor. There are moments of mean spirited menace here, as well as segments of sly social commentary and justifiable gender politics. A sequence where the white slaves dance to Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” is as startling for how it arrives as for how abruptly it ends. Similarly, the big picture storyline suggests that all women are heroes, villains, whores, saints, lovers, adulterers, mothers and mistresses. While that may seem like a critical overreach, an in-depth dissection of INLAND EMPIRE’s many sequences surely backs up this appraisal.


Those hoping for insight via this new DVD will be rightly disappointed. Lynch is notoriously gun shy about clarifying his films, wanted them to be experienced, not explained. There is a wealth of deleted scenes – or as they are referred to here, “More Things That Happened”, and the aforementioned Q&A (entitled “Stories”) revolve around the production and his perspective on art. Heck, about the only solid thing we learn is that Lynch HATES most home video (watching any film on a phone or a computer is “sickening”, in his mind) and that he really enjoys a good batch of Quinoa. Other added features include a nine minute ballerina montage, a collection of trailers, a wealth of publicity and behind the scenes stills, and something referred to as “Lynch 2”. This humorous piece appears to be a backstage glimpse of the man in action, and let’s just say, he’s an ornery cuss at times.


Frankly, he has a right to be. All David Lynch really wants to do is make movies his way. He doesn’t want interference from bottom line loving studio suits, and doesn’t need to conform to the succinct scheduling a Tinsel Town supported effort would require. For him, the digital domain is the futuristic wave he’s been waiting to ride – and it has to be said, this is one amazing non-celluloid effort. Michael Mann may be the perceived reigning prince of this new motherboard medium, but INLAND EMPIRE puts the cinematography in Collateral/Miami Vice to shame. And since he can work at his own speed, spending less money while getting more “movie” in the process, this may mark a kind of renaissance for the mostly marginalized director. Indeed, it’s easy to forget how fascinating his oeuvre remains, even though he seems to take forever in between projects. Part of the problem is clearly financial. No one likes to throw dollars after indefinable art. They want sellable product, that’s all. David Lynch will always weigh the creative higher than the commercial. INLAND EMPIRE is a pristine example of these principles in action.



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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007

It makes sense that, two years on, we’re seeing more and more books about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It’s time for reflection, to make sense of an event author James Lee Burke calls a “watershed in the history of political cynicism”. Burke’s own The Tin Roof Blowdown centres on an investigation into the shooting of black looters at the time of the storm. His is one of the few fictional Katrina stories coming out. Others, according to USA Today, include Patty Friedmann’s A Little Bit Ruined, about an eccentric evacuee, and Anthony Dunbar’s Tubby Meets Katrina, about a prison escapee.


Read a short interview with James Lee Burke on his new book here.


The Alabama Press-Register, over the weekend, had a great piece on the new non-fiction Katrina-inspired books. The article’s main focus is Demaree Inglese’s No Ordinary Heroes: 8 Doctors, 30 Nurses, 7,000 Prisoners and a Category 5 Hurricane, which chronicles Inglese’s efforts to assist the hurt and the suffering with only the most basic of tools at the ready.


Heroism and survival against the odds become the great theme of Hurricane Katrina literature. Another book due at the end of the year is Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina by photographer Thomas Neff. Neff’s pictorial essays reveal the tenacity of NO residents determined to hold fort and weather the storm. Neff’s is another story that showcases the strength of everyday people.


Further reading on Hurricane Katrina:


* Story of a Storm: A Book About Hurricane Katrina by Reona Visser (Quail Ridge Press)

* Nice Try, Katrina! Trails of a Hurricane Katrina Evacuee by Kendra Marie Harris (Infinity Publishing)


* The Children Hurricane Katrina Left Behind: Schooling Context, Professional Preparation, and Community Politics by Sharon P. Robinson and M. Christopher Brown II (Peter Lang Publishing)


* The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley (Harper Perennial)


* Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City by Jed Horne (Random House)


* The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina—The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist by Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan (Penguin)


* Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Michael Eric Dyson (Basic Books)


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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


Physical comedy is officially dead, and Rowan Atkinson killed it. Well, not the actor himself, but with his inexcusable desire to keep destroying the reputation of his resplendent Mr. Bean with all manner of mediocre motion picture incarnations. That sunny British series, with its reverence for silent film funny business, was a class act of timing and treatment, using old school slapstick to illustrate an eccentric’s uneasy way in this button down, conformist cock-up called society. Now, on celluloid, he’s nothing more than crass kid fodder, a G-rated response to the parental cries of media inappropriateness. Once he was a mean spirited plank who saw the entire world as worthy of his slightly askew scorn – yes, even women and little children. But now he’s been transformed into a gangly, goofball Gamera, friend to everyone except the sideswiped member of the audience who didn’t see such a tiresome trainwreck coming.


Helmed by British TV director Steve Bendelack (proving that the UK boob tube can match its American counterpart in producing horrible hack auteurs) and written by actor Hamish McColl (with appropriate credit to Robin Driscoll for all the original series bits being stolen) Holiday offers very little that’s new. Bean – embodied by a rapidly aging Aktinson – repeats shtick from previous so-called ‘adventures’ while proving that new ideas are few and very, very far between. The story has our hapless hero winning a trip to the French Riviera. Along the way, he prevents an important Russian director from boarding a train to Cannes, befriends the man’s smart alecky son, and disrupts the set of American moviemaker Cason Clay’s (a lost Willem Dafoe) latest epic. He eventually makes it to the big time film festival, where more mindless hijinx (and a case of mistaken kidnapping) ensues.


Back in the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, broad farce founded on the fragility of the human body was a cheap and effective means of making audiences laugh. Without the ability to used words and sounds, the visual element was crucial. That’s why writers would spend hours working up elaborate gags, recognizing that the viewer was relying on said set up and pay off for their entertainment value. In the post-Jazz Singer era however, only The Three Stooges managed to carry on the tradition. In their case, they merged recognizable types (the bully, the mensch, the idiot) and accented the byplay with equally emblematic noises (watch one of their shorts with the sound off and see how successful it is). Aktinson and Bean have none of this. At first, he was a novelty for mining this vast untouched vein of humor’s history. We laughed not only at the pratfall, but the audacity to attempt it in a post-modern media.


Blown up on a big screen, our loveable lox loses that framework. Because of the immediacy of cinema, the larger than life facets of a 50 foot tall screen, Bean’s basic stumble bum approach is lifeless. It lacks energy and verve, scuttled by Bendelack’s complete disregard for comedy basics. Examples abound, as when Mr. Bean constantly undermines a film set. The various ‘jokes’ utilized to establish the characters complete lack of regard are telegraphed so far in advance that there’s more suspense in when they’ll start than snickers once they arrive. Even more frustrating, Bean borrows a great deal from its British betters. Snippets of the classic Goon Show wit (especially circa Peter Sellers) are wedged into elements borrowed from Monty Python (silly walks, anyone). Add in some sloppy satire, including the obviously aimed at adults lampoon of pseudo-serious Hollywood dramas (personified by Dafoe’s self indulgent film) and you’ve got a grab bag of gunk.


So little works here in fact that you can actually count the effective sequences on one hand – maybe even a single finger. When our inconsiderate dope derails the young boy’s reunion with his dad, they wind up with a telephone number missing the final two digits. Bean’s solution? Call every possible combination of numbers until they find his father. These quick cut moments, various archetypal individuals answering their phones in all manner of blackout buffoonery, have a nice, nonsensical randomness that actually gets us to giggle. But then Bendelack does nothing with it. A long sequence of our hero hitchhiking goes nowhere, and when Bean arrives in Cannes, he becomes a prop in a more and more preposterous chase. Even bubbly actress Emma de Caunes is wasted as the good natured Sabine. She’s saucy Parisian pulchritude, that’s about it.


Now there will be voices vehemently opposed to such a harsh stance, arguing that this is nothing but good, clean, wholesome fun. The rarity of fare that the whole family can enjoy – or at the very least, tolerate – apparently usurps all other artistic considerations to these supporters. It’s part and parcel of the new marketing mindset, a dynamic where watchability equals worth. But even under such a lax standard, Mr. Bean’s Holiday fails. Jacques Tati, a fairly obvious influence, managed to transform his bump and scrape situations into some manner of high art, using both the material and the method of its presentation in tandem to illustrate the chuckle. Here, Bendelack believes that frequent forays into handheld digital dreariness (our dithering dimwit carries around a camcorder) will emphasize the “you are there” feeling. Unfortunately, it merely muddies an already ambiguous ideal. 


As an avant-garde notion of throwback homage, Mr. Bean’s Holiday is awfully cute. But it’s not funny or fresh. Its mixed message ideal of all ages appropriateness (the vast majority of the movie’s subtitled, oddly enough) lashed to a character that’s no longer a loveable louse renders the entire enterprise pointless. Fans of the original series will shudder at how soulless this all is, while anyone coming from the first film deserves this kind of dead-eyed sequel. Gearing everything to kids may make sense in light of the one off Mr. Bean animated show, but even those offered more imagination and sophistication that what’s offered here. And then there is Aktinson, a truly talented man who deserves much, much better. Anyone who has seen his work in Black Adder, or The Thin Blue Line can attest to that. Mr. Bean appears to be the legacy he can’t live down, an international nudge like Baldy Man or Dame Edna.


Yet none of these criticisms will matter in the end. The previous Bean outing was a huge worldwide hit, and the DVD became another in a long line of digital babysitters disconnected parents could use to safely keep the wee ones at bay. Holiday will be no different. It dives directly underneath the lowest common denominator to look for primordial approval, and even then it fails to generate much gregarious goodwill. While it’s inoffensive (unless you’re French) and even tempered (unless you’re America) it’s also dull, lifeless, and slack. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that has we critics scratching our head in ‘who demanded this’ confusion. Mr. Bean’s UK run ended more than a decade ago, and the first film came and went way back when President Clinton was still in residence at the White House (1997 to be exact). A great deal of silent era slapstick has only grown better with age. The exploits of Mr. Bean have vinegared.



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