Friday, September 30, 2005

I Couldn't Sleep At All Last Night

What a weird day. It's been hot as hell the last couple days, and fires are breaking out all over the place. Yesterday, it was way out in the Thousand Oaks area, this morning it was in Burbank, and around 11:00 we started seeing this huge plume of smoke that looks like it could be in Glendale (although it's probably the Burbank fire). It looked like a huge mushroom cloud, which is kinda disturbing.

Yesterday I had a checkup at the doctor's office. Got the prostate exam for the first time, which was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. I mean, it wasn't horrible. It didn't hurt, and it was over in 5 seconds, but it just wigged me out. I feel like I need counseling. As I was lying in bed last night, I kept involuntarily clenching. My wife had very little sympathy, having lived through several pap smears. Honestly, I don't know how women can stand the whole penetration thing.

She kept asking me if she had a fever, and I wasn't sure, but I think that's because I had one too. All I know is, it was dreadfully hot when I went to bed, but then I woke up around 11:30 freezing. I covered up, but I was having such chills that I decided I must have a fever, and got up to take some aspirin. As I walked to the bathroom, I began violently shivering. I mean, to the point where I could barely get the aspirin open because I was shaking so hard. So I put on sweat pants and socks, went back to bed, and of course woke up an hour later sweating.

I had one of those strange dreams where you dream that you're lying in bed awake, you know? I had the TV on with no sound, watching cartoons. I saw this very clearly, this cartoon coming on. The title card was a close-up of a cukoo clock, and the title read "In Der Nacht Closet," and then the cukoo came out and cukooed, and then an English translation. The cartoon was about owls, and looked much like "I love to sing-a." But the sound wasn't all the way off, so I got up to turn it off, and somehow changed the channel. Come to think of it, just before it changed, it wasn't the owl cartoon anymore, but Peter Pan. But now it was static, so I went to change it back, and the TV had an old-fashioned dial on it to change the channel. I flipped back, but couldn't find the cartoons. One channel had an old, black and white sign-off patern, like you used to see after stations stopped broadcasting, only it was a weird design--this big eye in the middle. I finally found an old 60's scifi movie, with theremin score, and decided that was even better. But I still couldn't get the sound all the way off. Meanwhile, my wife kept saying all these cryptic things. Like, at one point, she said "Six years..." "Six years what?" I asked her. "Nothing. Nevermind." wanna see something really scary?

The Tribune Corporation Knows What You Want

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam, 1988)

Writing about the Baky version of Munchausen got me to thinking about Gilliam's version, and I decided to do a little post on that. Just a few random thoughts.

Even though it's far from my favorite Gilliam film, I think it's one that goes a long way towards explaining why I consider him my favorite filmmaker. He's such an odd bird in the American film industry, which is generally divided sharply between big-budget film-as-spectacle productions and small, idiosyncratic films. Gilliam's films seem to stretch across this void, being both idiosyncratic (to say the least) and great spectacle. Which is exactly why he has so much trouble getting films made.

The first time I saw Munchausen was an interesting experience. I was in D.C., visiting my friend Tercio, and he had some extremely good pot. We got incredibly stoned and went to eat Ethiopian food. This was my first experience with Ethiopian cuisine, and it blew me away--I remember that meal more vividly than the movie. It was so intensely flavored, and so alien. You didn't even use silverware--just break off a piece of pita-like bread and scoop up one of the various piles of brightly-colored mush on the plate.

Then we went to see Munchausen, and smoked even more on the way. By the time we got seated, I was completely baked, and being in a strange city only intensified that experience. I remember that the theater was really nice, with a huge screen, and we got good seats in the center near the front. I was so stoned that I actually zoned out for maybe 15 minutes. Watching it later on video, I didn't recall the Hephastus scene at all. I just remember Tercio, who was watching it for the second time, nudging me and saying "watch this" during the great battle sequence at the end, and realizing that I hadn't really been watching the film for a while.
I believe the part he was pointing out to me was when Albrecht the strong man lifts up the anchor chains of the turkish ships and spins them around, hurling them into the distance, which is such a monumentally astounding Gilliam move (certainly not one unenhanced by the effects of marijuana). There's just such a try anything attitude in this movie.

I wasn't overwhelmingly positive about the movie on that first viewing. I thought it was a visual treat with a sloppy, uneven narrative that could have used a little discipline. In particular, the scenes of Munchausen being pursued by the angel of death seemed extraneous and distracting, and the meta reality-within-reality stuff seemed overplayed. Now, with the sophisitication that comes with age, this is the stuff I find most interesting about the film.

There is one aspect that does still grate on me just slightly. The film is set in "The Age of Reason," and one of the central themes is the conflict between The Dreamer, represented by Baron Munchausen, and the cold logic and utilitarianism of society, represented chiefly by Jonathan Pryce's character, The Right Ordinary Horation Jackson. Jackson is a beurocrat who believes only in logic and reason, and who denounces heroism and risk as well as fantasy (in an apocalyptic fantasy out of Ayn Rand, he sentences a military hero to death for being exceptional). Now, I lean pretty far towards the Dreamer side of this equation myself, but even I feel a little uncomfortable with how far Gilliam's ideology pushes this idea. When Munchausen demands, in the film's climax, that the city "Open the gates," despite there being no reason to believe (at least from the townspeople's point of view) that there is not a Turkish army on the other side waiting to kill them all, I can't help but think of that quote from the Bush aide snearing at the "reality-based community." Dreams are great and all, but when you throw Reason out the window, you leave the door open to any two-bit wannabe dictator that comes along to sell you your own doom disguised as a monorail.

MAD gets it right

Seriously, I do not understand the hype this show gets. Not that I think it's bad, but I think Family Guy is to The Simpsons as Friends is to Seinfeld: a reliable deliverer of laughs on a borrowed formula, but never anything transcendent. Although, obviously, it's funnier than The Simpsons has been for at least 5 years.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Munchausen (Josef Von Baky, 1943)

I've been wanting to see Josef Von Baky's film Munchausen (1943) ever since I saw Karel Zeman's 1961 version at The Egyptian a couple years ago, which made me go back and watch Terry Gilliam's version (much better than I had remembered it being), and in turn got me curious to see the other cinematic interpretations of the Munchausen stories, Baky's being the most well-known (aside from Gilliam's). Wow, I think I just succeeded in writing a sentence more convoluted than Gilliam's movie.

Baky's film is an extravigant fantasy filmed on opulent sets in the sort of painful technicolor that brings to mind The Wizard of Oz. While Baky is not nearly as imaginative a filmmaker as his successors, he does bring out a few cartoonish gags that no doubt served to attract Zeman to the character: Munchausen in a fencing duel goes into fast-motion, slicing up his opponent's clothes, for instance. Zeman's film is clearly more of an influence on Gilliam (and it's probable that an earlier Czech animated version was a greater influence on Zeman), but there are scenes that Gilliam directly lifted from Baky (the Baron's sharpshooter friend shooting an apple on to his runner's head as he naps under a tree on the way back with the bottle of wine for the Sultan), and others (the moon people with removable heads) that must have struck Gilliam with their unrealized comic potential. While Zeman's and Gilliam's Barons both are made up to resemble the classic illustrations as closely as possible, Baky's film stars Hans Albers, an odd actor who resembles George C. Scott with perpetually bulging eyes.

The film was made in Nazi Germany, commissioned by Josef Goebbels, who probably thought of it as one of the Fatherland's great stories. Patrick Ellis writes that "Despite its toxic provenance, Baky’s Munchausen is politically innocuous; indeed, the film would seem unobjectionable coming from Hollywood today, though perhaps this says more about Hollywood than Nazi films." This doesn't go far enough. There are elements in it that are rather surprising for it's time and place. In the first episode, Munchausen faces the villain Cagliostro, who tries to enlist him in a megalomaniacal plot to take over the world. Munchausen rejects such political ambitions, prefering his life of adventure. This seems odd, since Cagliostro's ideas sound very much like those of the Nazi Party. He even plans to start by taking over Poland! Although maybe German viewers interpret this differently, that he is planning to steal Poland from Germany--I don't really know enough European history to be sure. In a later chapter, Munchausen must protect his lover from The Inquisition. Could it really have been possible to make a movie about The Inquisition in Nazi Germany without people making the connection? You certainly couldn't make a movie about the McCarthy hearings in GWB's America without the connection being made, and Bush, as terrible as he is, is no Hitler. The commentary from the Turner Classic Movies host at the end helped clarify things (but easier to quote from their website). "The author of the screenplay, Erich Kaestner (1899-1974), was a poet, novelist and essayist best known today for his children's books. Emil and the Detectives in particular is regarded as a classic of children's literature and has been filmed several times. Another of his books, Lisa and Lottie/Das Doppelte Lottchen, was adapted into the 1961 Disney film The Parent Trap. During the Nazi era, Kaestner's writings were banned and publicly burned due to his opposition to the regime and he had to publish in Switzerland. Despite this, Goebbels agreed to let Kaestner write the screenplay under a pseudonym-thus early sources credited the script to 'Bertold Burger.' " Clearly, he managed to sneak some subtext past Goebbels.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


In jazz, improvisation is of the essence, but the trick is to cause what you're making up to sound fated and inevitable. In rock 'n' roll, the idea is to make what is actually totally predictable sound like a surprise.

-Dave Marsh, from Louie Louie

The Case Against George W. Bush (Fall 2005 Edition)

The Katrina disaster has served to highlight the incompetence and corruption of the Bush administration. Some of this dates back to long before the hurricane. Bush appointed Joe Allbaugh, a political crony with no disaster management experience to head up FEMA. In a prime example of the political spoils system as it exists today, he quit after two years, immediately taking a job as a lobbyist for corporations (including Halliburton) trying to score FEMA contracts, and tapped his college roommate, Michael Brown, to be his succesor. Despite Brown also having no relevant experience (and not much experience relevant to anything), Bush made the appointment. This, it is important to note, was after 9/11. The federal response unquestionably suffered from having an unqualified incompetent in the job, but Bush has still learned no lessons, as he is currently trying to appoint yet another unqualified crony to to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that is charged with hunting down money launderers, sanctions busters and human traffickers and that is the sole enforcer of U.S. immigration laws. Furthermore, instead of chosing a qualified, experienced leader of big operations to head up the rebuilding of Louisiana and Mississippi, he has appointed none other than Karl Rove. He is clearly not taking the releif effort seriously as anything other than a political image problem. Equally disturbing, Bush took the time, during the height of the hurricane disaster, to make a second recess appointment, picking Alice Fisher to head the Justice Dept.'s criminal division, circumventing accusations involving torture in Guatanamo.

In his speach last Thursday, Bush laid out a plan to help rebuild the region. What he didn't explain is how it would be payed for: not by rolling back the massive, wartime taxcuts for the wealthy made earlier in his presidency, not even by not going ahead with killing the estate tax, but by cutting spending. He hasn't laid out exactly what spending will be cut, but there's no reason to believe it would be anything other than the programs that help the poor. And Bush unquestionably knew he was not doing the right thing, because he consciously left it out of the speach, mentioning it only in a press release late Friday (when nobody is supposed to be paying attention). Bush plans, no doubt, to make this the same kind of money-making scheme for his rich benefactors and cronies as the Iraq reconstruction has been, with plenty of no-bid contracts for corporations like Halliburton. He has already signed a waiver allowing federal contractors rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to pay below the prevailing wage. But forget about modifying the bankruptcy bill to exempt Katrina victims! It is the poor of our country, once again, who will be expected to make sacrifices.

Congressional Democrats asked for an independent investigation. Republican leadership blocked it, instead prefering to let the White House investigate itself. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is searching for evidence that they could blame the levees failing on enviromental groups, and Republican congressmen are searching for Katrina casualties that could serve as arguments for repealing the estate tax. And speaking of poor priorities, the Justice Dept. has announced that it will be making prosecutions of pornography a top priority.

Certainly there are many Americans who back Bush's agenda of social conservatism and tax cuts. But there is also a huge block of voters who do not agree with this agenda, yet who held their nose and voted for Bush because they believed he would make their security a top priority, and would be a more efficient manager of homeland security than the Democrats. Bush has proven himself to be a complete failure in this department.

The case is clear. The Demcoratic leadership needs to stand up and make this case. And if they fail to do so, we, the voters, need to jettison them as quickly as possible. Come the primaries in 06, I won't hesitate to vote against Diane Feinstein or Barbara Boxer, if they can't show me some performance right now.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Tonight at 11pm, TCM is showing the 1943 German version of the adventures of Baron Munchausen. I must remember to tape it! This is the most famous version besides Terry Gilliam's. I saw Karel Zeman's 1961 version at The Egyptian a few years back, and it was clear that Gilliam had been hugely influenced by it (not just for his version of Munchausen: Zeman used the same animated cut art technique that Gilliam appropriated for Monty Python). Totally psyched to see this.

Also, IFC is showing this great documentary about Spaghetti Westerns. Very good stuff. And September 20, 9:45 am, they're showing Punk: Attitude again--best documentary on the history of punk yet made!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Season Penfinales

So I finally saw the season finale of Veronica Mars (spoilers ahead), which my VCR problems prevented me from seeing the first time around. I had been spoiled long ago, so maybe I just got used to the idea that the killer turned out to be someone really lame, but it worked for me in the episode. Definitely action-packed. I still think it would have been better to have someone closer to Veronica turn out to be the murderer (Duncan, Logan, Weevil, V's mother).

Still, it's the second-to-last episode that I'm going to remember from this season. The resolution of the mystery surrounding Veronica's rape was played out in such a great, complex way. I've started writing a longer entry discussing everything I love about this show, comparing and contrasting it to Buffy, but for now I'm just going to discuss this episode in that context. Because I think Rob Thomas achieved something that Joss Whedon always wanted to do, but just didn't have it in him: exploring truly gray morality. The expectation is that V is going to find out who it was that drugged and raped her that night, and exact delicious revenge. Instead we find out that nobody did anything terribly evil, but almost everyone did something pretty fucked up, stupid, even bad. And this terrible, evil thing happened, but nobody can really be blamed for it. I just love that.

In that last season of Angel, Joss set himself up to work with some seriously gray moral issues, with Angel and the gang's involvement with Wolfram and Hart. But the truth of the matter is, Joss just does not think in those truly gray terms. There is a persistent morality he cannot seperate himself from. In Whedon's universe, bad things happen because people do bad things, and if they do them, they must repent. He's just too idealist to be able to focus on the good that his heroes are acheiving through W&H, instead of the moral compromise they are making. And I don't mean by that that he should ignore, or even accept that compromise, but he should at least present it as a valid argument, which I don't think he ever succeeded in doing.

The other line of thinking this has me going on is that maybe this is a new trend, the second-last episode (the season penfinale?) being better than the last episode. Certainly that was the case for HBO's Entourage. The finale was basically a filler episode, tying up loose ends and positioning players for a 3rd season, but that penfinale was one of the most enjoyable half-hours of TV I've ever witnessed, with Jeremy Piven launching his coup, being defeated, going into full freak-out mode, and rising from the flames in a puff of manic triumph, while Lloyd, a character that up until then had been a springboard for racist/homophobic jokes, emerges in one monologue as a fully formed character. I'm betting money on a Piven Emmy after that performance.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Spittin' Wicked Randomness Vol. 4

I know the liberals are fucking everything up, but don't let it get you down! George W got everything under control.

Dude! Jeff McDonald (or is it Steve? I can't keep those two straight.) has some amaaaaazing podcasts going. Check out the latest, on early L.A. punk singles produced by Geza X.

And, in case you missed it, last week was hip hop week on Fresh Air. Terry G reran all her old interviews with DJ Kool Herc, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Russell Simmons, DMC, LL, Chuck D, Ice-T, Ice Cube, De La Soul, The Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah, ?uestlove, and The Rza.

And finally, y'all come out and see Bobbie and her fresh batch o' graduates at the Ice House Sunday.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Set Yr VCR!!!

Stuff you should catch on TCM tomorrow:


8:30am: The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960): "The noted 19th century wit risks social disgrace for the love of another man." Did they really make such a movie in 1960? Never heard of it before, but curiosity compells me to watch.
1:30pm: The Night of the Iguana (1964): Richard Burton and Ava Gardner (camping it up in an outrageous Cajun accent) spit out Tennessee Williams dialogue in a remote Mexican resort. Awesome flick.
5pm: Salt of the Earth (1954): Realistic story of striking Latino mineworkers, independently produced by blacklisted writers and directors.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Witchfinder General

Witchfinder General was the last film directed by Michael Reeves before his death by drug overdose at the age of 26. It is a fictional story of real-life witchhunter Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price, in his most purely evil role), who travels through 17th century England finding "witches," torturing confessions out of them, and executing them (or allowing them to live in return for sexual favors).

He is accompanied by the psychopathic rapist John Stearne (Robert Russell). It is a brutal, sadistic and mysoginistic film, not exactly horror but certainly horrifying.

So you're probably thinking to yourself, "how come nobody ever wrote a disco song about it?" But in fact, somebody did, and that somebody was none other than Carl "Kung Fu Fighting" Douglas, who, judging from the subject matter of his songs, must have spent a huge portion of his time in the grindhouse cinemas.

When released in America by AIP, the title was changed to The Conqueror Worm, with passages from the Poe poem of the same title read over the opening and closing credits in order to cash in on the success of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. Not that there's anything wrong with Poe, but it would have been so much cooler to have this song play over the credits.

Carl Douglas - Witchfinder General

The Conqueror Worm on VHS

Witchfinder General on DVD

Kung Fu Fighting: The Best of Carl Douglas

Friday, September 02, 2005

A History Lesson

History repeats.

Rising Tide tells the story of the greatest flood in American history. In June of 1927, after months of record-breaking rain across the entire country, thirty feet of water covered an area of the South "roughly equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined," Barry writes. There are no official figures for the death and destruction wreaked along the upper Mississippi valley and its tributaries, and there are great disparities among the reports from farther south. But as many as 1,000 people were killed, and one million - a little less than 8 percent of the country's total population at the time - were left homeless. Dollar estimates of the total damage ranged from $246 million to $1 billion - between $2 billion and $8.4 billion in today's dollars.

The flood was not an equal-opportunity catastrophe. Barry reminds us that in the United States, economic disaster almost always makes distinctions based on race. In Greenville, Mississippi, blacks and whites worked side by side to shore up sagging levees during the early stages of the flood. But as the waters rose higher, so did racial tensions. When food grew scarce, the local chapter of the Red Cross, under the direction of William Percy - son of former U.S. Senator Leroy Percy and a member of one of the South's most powerful family dynasties - initiated dicriminatory policies for the distribution of relief to flood victims. Percy also instructed the National Guard to begin rounding up black sharecroppers from the Mississippi Delta at gunpoint to rebuild the levees around Greenville as subsequent flood crests bore down on the city. Though the blacks' crops were under thirty feet of water, their livestock was gone, their homes were washed away, and many of their wives and children were drowned, Percy and his fellow landowners wanted to protect what little property they had left and ensure that when the waters receded, there would be a labor force to till the Delta's rich soil. Refugee camps became concentration camps; blacks were forbidden to leave.

Farther south, things were not much better. New Orleans, Barry writes, "perhaps more than any other city in America, was run by a cabal of insiders." Its leader, James Pierce Butler, was president of the Canal Bank and wielded more political and economic power than anyone else in the city. The flood threatened everything Butler and his rich white friends owned, but they hatched a scheme to ensure the security of their assets. They would dynamite a levee on the opposite side of the river, and the Mississippi would gush millions of gallons of water over Plaquemine and St. Bernard parishes (where bootlegging and gambling were the main industries). The affluent sections of New Orleans would remain unscathed.

Barry is at his best describing the backroom deals that led to the decision to flood the homes of 10,000 people in Plaquemine and St. Bernard. There was virtually no public debate on the matter, and since every newspaper in New Orleans was controlled by a member of the city's elite, the only details on record are from the deliberately misleading information circulated by Butler. In New Orleans on April 15, 1927, Barry writes, "those who did belong to the inner sanctum gathered at the Hibernia Bank. Smoke filled the room. The windows were opaque with condensation, isolating them from the world outside." The scene is palpable; Barry's words nudge us into place beside Butler and his cigar-smoking cronies.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Convocation 2005

The college's convocation was yesterday morning. I usually try to get out of these things, but everyone else in my department was going, so I acquiesced. The big deal was that Carlos Santana was going to be speaking, and possibly playing (no one was really sure on this point). As it turned out, his son's band, The Salvador Santana Band, was going to play. And as it turned out, I was glad I attended.

First, they had traditional Japanese drummers playing as the freshman entered the tent. Everyone stood up and clapped for the entire time the frosh were being seated, which I thought was a really neat welcoming into the community. I don't remember having any kind of "convocation" at my college, but I'd have probably tried to skip it if I had. But this ritual, this initiation, not only for the incoming frosh, but for myself, really conveyed this sense of community.

Rev. Diana D. Akiyama, the Director of Religous and Spiritual Life, gave the invocation. She read three quotes having to do with music and its relation to the spirit. The first two were possibly by Buddhist monks or something. The third was from Charlie Parker. I can't remember the whole thing, but it ended with "People try to put limits on music, but man, you can't put limits on art."

Next, the glee club came in and led everyone in the alma mater, then sang an amazing arrangement of Simon and Garfunkle's "America." Am I getting old, that I enjoy listening to a glee club? Well, these kids sounded great, and that's a great song anyway.

Now for the really interesting part. The Graham L. Sterling Memorial Award is presented every year to a professor for academic excellence. This year, it was presented to outgoing math professor Jennifer Quinn. Apparantly, she had been having some sort of ongoing problems with the board of regents (?), who refused tenure to her husband, and this same board presented her with the award. So she took the opportunity to go off on the college, and blast them for lack of fairness, transparency and integrity in the tenure process. She got a standing ovation. It was the punkest speach I've ever heard anyone deliver.

Carlos Santana's speach was pretty inspiring. My favorite part:

The biggest problems we face as a people are fear and anger. This is how we can overcome them. I was flying on a plane a few years ago, and suddenly the plane started shaking, the coffee hit the roof, everyone's knuckles turned white. You know your in trouble when you see the stewardess cross herself and strap herself in. Then the plane just dropped [he motioned with his hand indicating the plane dropping a few hundred feet through an air pocket]. And I heard someone say "wheeeee!" I looked behind me and there was this little girl, with the sweetest blue eyes, and a big smile on her face, saying "do it again!"

Santana's kid plays keyboard, and his band is made up of bass, drums, a rapper and a female r&b singer. They're pretty good. They play a funky mix of hip hop, latin, and funk. After two songs, they were joined by Carlos on stage. Let me tell ya, Carlos gets off like a mother on that guitar. Not that I'm "World's Biggest Santana Fan" or anything, but he's good. Like Neil Young, he's one of those guys that doesn't seem to be getting too old, but to be growing into his music. But when he reaches the peaks in his solos, he starts running up and down the frets like Dick Dale, making noise and flipping his left hand over and under the neck.

Before the set, Salvadore Santana asked for 20 seconds of silence for the victims of the hurricane. During this silence, the bells rang out for the quarter-hour. Listening to the echo of those churchbells slowly decaying in the holy silence was one of the most perfect moments I've ever experienced.