Thursday, July 26, 2012

Guns! Guns! Guns!

The last few days, for obvious reasons, have seen a lot of talk about guns.  Including some by me.  I have kind of unusual views on the subject, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to sound them out.

First thing I should say is, despite my (generally) liberal affiliation, I'm not an advocate for gun control.  This isn't a new position for me.  I've always held it (at least for as long as I've bothered to think about such things), which has resulted in a lot of arguments with my liberal friends.  I'll get to the whys of my opinion in a minute, but I need to qualify this position first.  See, I'm a liberal, so when I say I'm "anti-gun control" or "pro-Second Amendment" (you'll notice I avoided both of those phrases at the beginning of this paragraph), I'm saying that from a liberal point of view.  I think private citizens have the right to own handguns, hunting rifles and shotguns.  I don't see any reason why a private citizen should be allowed to own an automatic weapon, or hollow-tip bullets, or hand grenades, or a flamethrower, or a cruise missile.  I also have no problem with requiring handguns to be registered, or requiring a license to own a gun.  So from the point of view of a far-right NRA member, I'm probably a pro-gun control zealot.

My feelings toward guns, and the intersection of guns and the law, are complicated, but I'll start by saying this.  The NRA types basically have four arguments against gun control, and I agree with three of them.

The first argument is, "guns don't kill people, people kill people."  This phrase gets mocked quite a lot in liberal circles, but the inherent logic of it always seemed unassailable to me.  A gun is an inanimate object.  It has no morality.  Since millions of people own guns and never commit crimes, it makes no sense to ban them.

The second argument is "outlaw guns and only outlaws will have guns."  I think when right wingers say this, they mean something like "if we outlaw guns, how will we protect ourselves from the army of criminals coming to take our shit and rape our womenfolk?"  And I guess there's some logic there,  people have a right to protect themselves from crime.  (I know Bobbie owned a gun when she was on the road, and it made me feel a little better.)  But mostly, I interpret it to mean that, as with anything else, prohibition creates a black market, and thus more crime.

The third argument--maybe it should be first, I'm just doing this in the order they pop into my mind--is the Second Amendment.  I mean, it's there.  You can argue that it's purpose is only to maintain a militia, and so it shouldn't apply, but I think when you're looking at the Constitution as a nuisance to be worked around, you're on shaky ground.  At any rate, whatever your interpretation might be, the Supreme Court recently ruled that it does indeed confer an individual right onto the citizens, so legally, it does.  If you want to ban guns, you need to get two thirds of Congress (and the President) to repeal the Second Amendment.  Without being flippant, let me just say that that is politically impossible.

The fourth argument is that guns are a good thing, and they helped make America great.  This is where I get off.  Guns are a goddamn plague.  I don't think they're any more of a boon to us than heroin or meth.  If we could wave a magic wand and make them all disappear, that would be lovely.  Handguns serve NO PURPOSE other than killing people.  I mean, sure, you can use them to protect yourself--FROM OTHER PEOPLE WITH GUNS.  If we had no guns, we'd have no need to protect ourselves from them.

But of course, that is a fantasy.  We cannot just "get rid of guns."  Even if we could stop them from being legally manufactured, there are enough of them already out there to keep people supplied through a black market indefinitely.  So we need to deal with that reality.

Oh yeah, and some folks also say that guns are important as protection against the tyranny of the government.  Now, this probably was at least partially the Founding Fathers' idea of what the Second Amendment was about.  But we live in a different world than they live in.  Your handgun--or even your rocket launcher--is not going to protect you from the world's biggest and most well-armed military.  It's a fantasy.  I'm drifting into cliche territory here--I highly doubt anyone has not heard this argument before, but in the interest of covering my bases, there it is.

But the reality is, Americans like owning guns.  I don't own one, and don't want to.  I think, in most cases, they're a damn fool thing to have in your house.  Statistically, a gun is much more likely to accidentally shoot someone than it is to be used in self-defense.  But Americans like them.  I don't want anyone getting between me and the stuff I like.  It's been explained in irrefutable terms to me that I'm supporting immoral institutions when I smoke marijuana or eat meat.  I don't plan to stop either activity any time soon, and I sure don't feel comfortable demanding that someone else just give up the shit they like.  Come to think of it, you could, in all honesty, make the case that our collective diet of violent entertainment is a factor.  I'm sure as fuck not going to stop watching violent movies.  I feel about these things pretty much the same way I feel about freedom of speech: if it applies to me, it has to apply to everyone, even the worst.  And let's face it, nobody is worse than gun nuts.

So, now that I've mapped all this stuff that's been in my head for a long time, I can move onto the new idea that's been in my head for the last few days.  Because I do think this country has a problem with guns.  Or, more specifically, with our gun culture.  It's not a problem that can be solved with legislation, but it's a problem that should be addressed.  This country has a sickness, and guns are a central part of it.  And we seem incapable of talking about it.  Michael Moore actually made a good attempt to address it in Bowling for Columbine, but if you ask any right winger about that film, they'll tell you it's a 2-hour diatribe calling for the banning of all handguns, even though he explicitly states at the end that he no longer believes that's the solution.  Which points to the problem.  Americans just don't want to fucking talk about it.  So I don't know if I think guns are a problem, exactly.  Maybe it makes more sense to say that gun culture is a problem.

One thing I kept hearing--and I hear it every time one of these shootings breaks out--is that the solution is for more "good guys" to walk around armed.  My sarcastic response to this on Facebook was "Yeah, I know I'd feel a lot safer if I knew that I was standing in a crowd of twitchy George Zimmermans waiting for the chance to play Clint Eastwood."  Maybe guns don't kill people, but I do not buy the idea that MORE guns make us safer.  The statistics don't bear this out.  And at any rate, no matter how awesome you are, if you're sitting there enjoying a midnight movie and suddenly some guy comes in in full body armor, obscures your view with a smoke bomb and starts opening fire, the chances that you're going to be able to take them down are incredibly slim.  And that's even assuming you're an exceptional shot and know what the fuck you're doing.  I'm sorry, but this is simply not a realistic standard for the average citizen.  It's almost like the arguments for abstinence.  No matter how many statistics you show that demonstrate how ineffective it is, you get this argument that people who fail at abstinence are not REALLY being abstinent, so abstinence still has a 100% effective rate.  And gun defense is 100% effective among the truly awesome.

And this is part of the problem.  This delusion that we're all secretly Batman.  I don't know what to do about it, but I know that when you have a problem, the first step is to admit that you have a problem.  And I can't help but feel like this belief in Secret Batmanism is at the root of our problem.  It's why we're stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we're STILL talking about going into Iran.  It's why Treyvon Martin is dead.  And maybe it's part of why this guy shot up a movie theater.  And maybe part of the blame lies with the drive for anti-gun legislation, because it puts the gun nuts into a defensive stance, and thus makes it impossible to talk about this very real sickness we have. But we need to talk about it.  Maybe we don't need laws against guns, but we do need to change the way we think about them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Psychedelicatessen Radio,Episode 3.4: Deon Williams and Rawle Dee

Download it here!

In this episode, Chris and Bobbie sit down with comics Deon Williams and Rawle Dee.  We tried to avoid the topic of Mr. Tosh, and were mostly successful, but we do end up talking a bit about feminism and women in the comedy world.  Topics also include stalkers, bath salts, Chick-Fil-A, and working in the mail room.  And we all talk about our favorite comics. 

Housekeeping note: Psychedelicatessen Radio is now available for free on iTunes.  I don't think this episode is up yet, but...well, it should be soon.  I really have no idea what I'm doing. Also...I answered the question of who my favorite current comedians were with Louis CK and Maria Bamford. And as I was saying that, TiVo was recording this:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Very Special Psychedelicatessen Radio: Misogyny.0

Download it here!

This one is just Bobbie and me talking for about 70 minutes about issues relating to misogyny in the stand up comedy world.  It's an attempt to get our thoughts out and talk about these things.  We start out talking about the Daniel Tosh incident from last week, and later move on to recent comments by Adam Carolla, Eddie Brill and others who believe that women aren't funny.  We've been talking about this a lot over the last few days (and months) on Facebook, Twitter, etc., but it's a complex topic, and we felt it deserved a longform examination.  So it's probably not as funny as our usual podcasts, but we hope you'll listen and enjoy the conversation.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Lost it to the Revolution, by T.J. English

I have a continual fascination with the island of Cuba: the music, the history, the food, the way they keep vintage American cars running for 50 years.  It's a shame that the country has been run by a nasty dictator for decades now, but I'd love to visit the place.

In Havana Nocturne, T.J. English tells the rather lurid story of the empire the Mafia built in Havana, and the parallel story of Castro's revolution.  So you have three groups of glamorous murderers: the Mob, led by Meyer Lansky, the government of corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista, and the revolutionaries trudging through the jungle toward Havana under the leadership of Fidel Castro.  All three make for great stories,  but the most entertaining, of course, is the Mob. Lansky, wiseguy entrepreneur, is such a charismatic character that you can't help but root for him, even when he's clearly a rotten human being.

I do wish more attention had been paid to the nightclubs and performers, which is what I find most interesting.  The Havana nightlife, as English describes it, is laid out in concentric circles of respectability.  At the big casinos, Cuban artists like Xavier Cugat, Celia Cruz and Perez Prado perform alongside American stars like Sinatra and Dean Martin.  In smaller rooms, Cuban jazz greats perform "Cubop" (I've never heard anyone outside of this book use that term, but I like it) for the late-night crowd.  Outside the center of the city, you get strip clubs and fancy bordellos.  On the outskirts, in the barrio Colon, there were live sex shows.  The most famous was at the Shanghai Theater, where a performer they called "Superman" would jump on stage in a Superman cape and have sex with women.  The guy got his nickname from what was, by all accounts, an abormally enormous cock.  And even further off the beaten path were similar clubs specializing in homosexual sex acts. Sex is a recurring theme throughout the book: both Sinatra and JFK are alleged to have been having orgies in their hotel rooms (Sinatra has to interrupt his orgy for a visit from a troop of Girl Scouts, JFK is watched through a one-way mirror by a gangster who later regrets not videotaping the session). The problem--and this is just my personal preference--is that everything I just described takes up less than ten pages of the book.  I would have preferred coverage of the music and the sex clubs be the focus, and background the other stuff.

The other thing that sticks in my craw a bit is that these three groups of evil murderers--Lansky's mob, Batista's dictatorship, Castro's revolution--are presented a bit too positively for my comfort.  There's not a lot of detail about actual murders and oppression of people, at least not until the final chapters.  Lansky comes off as a loveable rogue, Castro as a Hemingwayesque tough guy.  I had fun reading these accounts, but it wasn't the most comfortable kind of fun.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Tosh Incident

So some interesting stuff happened at the Laugh Factory last week.  I'll let the eyewitness tell her story:

So [Daniel] Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape. 

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

Laugh Factory owner Jaime Masada disputes some of the details (and says some stuff that I find really fucking repugnant, but I don't want to get into right now).  This is normally the kind of thing I'd just blab about on Facebook, but I want to draw some distinctions here that require a little space.  I want to make it clear what I'm NOT saying.

First of all, I'm not saying Tosh shouldn't have been making rape jokes in the first place.  It's a free country, Jack, say what you want, and especially on the stage of a comedy club.  As far as I'm concerned, you're entitled to make jokes about whatever you want, from whatever angle you want.  But you are not entitled to the audience reaction you desire.  If you do material that people consider offensive, you don't have any right to expect the audience to go with you.  

So it's not the rape joke that crossed the line.  In fact, I draw the line pretty damn far to the edge of the map when it comes to offensive comedy.  What I think crosses the line is how he responded to the heckler.  The rape jokes may be in bad taste, and they may be unfunny, but those are very subjective notions, and I'm sure it wouldn't be too hard to find someone who disagreed with me on them.  So, to break it down to a pithy Facebook quote: It's OK to make jokes about rape.  It's not OK to single out an audience member with implied threats of physical violence.  THAT is where things really go wrong here.  At that point, whatever he was doing, it ceased to be stand up comedy.

The second thing I want to emphasize is that I don't want to start a campaign to have Comedy Central fire the guy, or have The Laugh Factory ban him, or otherwise end his career.  If people still want to see him, they're entitled to see him and he's entitled to get paid.  I have no interest in running the guy out of showbiz.  I just want this to be addressed.  Because what he did was fucked up.

I'm also not saying that Daniel Tosh is a horrible scumbag.  I bring this up because, whenever a controversy like this erupts, defenders of the offender will issue statements about what a loving, generous person the offender is.  I don't care, because I'm not saying Daniel Tosh is a rotten person.  I'm saying that this particular thing he did was wrong, and it needs to be addressed.

Do I think the heckler was right to respond to the rape jokes in the way she did?  I don't think the question is even relevant.  The fact is, she did respond that way.  How did the comic handle this?  Remember the comic is the one onstage, with the mic, doing his job, so I see no reason to even talk about what anyone else did.

What Tosh did was actually very similar to what Michael Richards did a few years ago.  Richards lost it on a heckler, and ended up making indirect threats of racialized violence to an individual in the crowd.  I don't think he expected it to be "taken seriously" by the audience, and I'm sure Tosh didn't either.  I'm sure neither one had considered what they were saying, acting on the spur of the moment in response to a heckler.  But that's the thing: the audience is a group of living, thinking people, and a comic, especially a comic who is pushing the bounds of taste, needs to be prepared for their reaction, so that they don't have an anger-fueled meltdown onstage when the inevitable happens.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll, by Preston Lauterbach

You've probably heard the term "the chitlin' circuit" before--the network of theaters and nightclubs throughout the South where black artists performed for black audiences.  It's rather surprising that only now (well, in 2011--I've been putting off writing this for way too long), we're getting the first book on the subject.

Preston Lauterbach originally set out to write about the modern-day chitlin' circuit, and post-hip hop blues artists like Marvin Sease and Bobbie Rush.  If you've seen Martin Scorsese's The Blues (the Road to Memphis chapter) from a few years back, you probably remember Bobbie Rush.  He's the Jerri-Curled bluesman who has a crew of big-booty strippers dancing on stage with him.  Hey, I'd still like to read that book if he ever gets around to it.  But, as he describes in the introduction, Lauterbach ended up telling a different story.  It's a story about the black neighborhoods in cities throughout the South.  The Strolls, as they are called by one of the main characters, Walter Barnes.  Barnes is a bandleader, and also a syndicated columnist for the black newspapers that are published in various Southern cities.  He uses one job to promote the other, and report on the great bands touring through these segregated strips, bands led by Jimmy Lunceford, Tiny Bradshaw and other road dogs who were barnstorming through the South while Duke Ellington was playing his cushy gig to all-white crowds at the Cotton Club in Harlem (not to be confused with the Cotton Clubs that were in half the strolls in the South). The descriptions of some of the acts, taken from press and flyers, are intriguing to say the least:  "Slick White 'The Colored Caruso,' Dorothy Jackson 'Rope and Acrobat Dancer,' Whistling Bruce 'A Real Novelty,' Ophelia Hoy 'Like Aged Whiskey Always Good,' and Sonny George 'The One Arm Dancing Sensation'...Funny Bone Ferebee, Aarzanya 'Queen of the Jungle Dancers,' Leroy Watts and Chocolate Jones, and The Lee Twins, a dance team...A fellow known as Iron Jaw, 'the man who not only dances with a table clasped in his teeth, but who seats a woman at the table."

The Strolls were hotbeds of capitalism, fueled by underground markets in booze, dope, gambling, pussy and numbers rackets, run by black kingpins who were making solid money and showing folks a hell of a time.  "Segregation and Prohibition: the laws and customs implemented to keep men like Sunbeam, Milt Barnes and Hardface [three of the nightclub kingpins in Mississippi] in line instead made them wealthy playboys."  So really, this book covers just about every subject that I find interesting: rock, jazz and blues, entrepreneurialism, underground vice economies, the culture of the South, and racial politics.  Lauterbach seems to have had as much fun researching all this as I had reading it.  He digs through the archives of old black newspapers, the advertisements and columns, and especially the carnival barker self-promotion of Walter Barnes.  By the time Barnes' story ends, on page 77, you will be hopelessly hooked.  Not to spoil anything, but if you listen to a lot of old blues records, you've probably already heard that story.

As The Big War heats up, big bands go out of style.  They're just too expensive, although you do get the great story of the all-girl big band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, who managed to fill a void left by male musicians off fighting the war (would be a great subject for a movie, that one).  But it's Louis Jordan who really sets things in a new direction, touring with a small band and putting on an energetic stage show and basically giving birth to the music known either as rhythm and blues or rock n roll.  I've always kind of felt like you could just as easily say that rock grew out of swing as out of the blues.  Not that the two concepts (blues players playing fast and loud vs. swing players stripping down to small bands) are mutually exclusive, and those definitions are slippery anyway, but Lauterbach's reporting bears out my theory.  Over the rest of the book, he describes the rise of first-generation rockers like Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Amos Milburn, T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown, Ike Turner, Jackie Breston, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (all too briefly), B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Little Richard and James Brown, as well as the promoters and producers they worked for, the clubs and communities they performed in, and the shifts in the market (from records being used to promote tours to tours being used to promote records) that they witnessed.  There are some cases where the most fun story maybe wins out over the most accurate.  For instance, Lauterbach recites Esquerita's stories of how Little Richard stole his act after the two cruised each other in a bust stop as if they were fact.  I believe Little Richard denies this story.  At any rate, the stories of Little Richard are the most entertaining in the book.  I'm sure you can get a lot of this stuff if you've read a standard Little Richard biography, but, never having done so, I was hooked, from the stories of his days performing in drag to his rivalry with James Brown.  In fact, my favorite concerns a tour with James Brown opening for Little Richard.  When "Tuttie Frutti" hit, Little Richard abandoned the tour for better-paying gigs out West, but the promoter booked the tour anyway--with James Brown performing as Little Richard, and Bobby Bird performing as James Brown.

(It seems to me you could get a pretty good book out of the thesis that rock n roll and be bop developed parallel to each other, but from the same cultural changes--they both represent the rush of urban life, both pared down to small bands to save money, etc.  I dunno, there's something there.)

Later in the book, we get stories of soul singers like O.V. Wright, and the founding of Stax Records in Memphis, but we also get the sad end of the Chitlin' Circuit, and of black communities in the South.  Actually, rather than sad, I should say "bittersweet."  It was, after all, desegregation that started the process.  Urban renewal and convenient police "morality" ("When Denver Ferguson introduced the numbers game in the mid-1920's, cops were satisfied to take bribes and look the other way.  A quarter-century later, police on the same beat hassled every Negro social function from craps games and private parties to double dates.") helped finish the job.  The subject of how segregation allowed black cultural communities to thrive despite exclusion from mainstream society is a complicated one.  In the documentary Order of Myths, about an area in Coastal Mississippi where Carnival celebrations were still segregated in the early 21st century, several people (all white, if I recall correctly) are heard to say that black folks prefer it that way, which is probably kinda bullshit, but also possibly kinda true, in that without that segregation, there would simply be no real place for blacks in Carnival celebrations.  So having exclusively black neighborhoods zoned out was a blow.  Urban renewal further crippled the circuit: "The idea was to replace blight with vibrancy, but urban renewal in practice often replaced functioning minority neighborhoods, initially with high-rise public housing and then, after the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, with interstate highways."  Man, you could go from the end of this book seamlessly into the beginning of Can't Stop Won't Stop.  

One complaint...well, not really a complaint, but the narrow focus on music leaves an awful lot of ground uncovered, as Lauterbach acknowledges in a tantalizing sentence: "The different threads of Chitlin' Circuit action have their stories too--the comedy Chitlin' Circuit that spanned from Butterbeans and Suzie to Redd Foxx, Dolemite and Richard Pryor, and the drama Chitlin' Circuit that August Wilson championed, where Tyler Perry got his start."  I would LOVE to read a book on those subjects.  Somebody write it, please!

One other oddity that I can't resist pointing out: in a discussion of Klan activity in Indianapolis: "In addition to their usual political strong-arming and intimidation tactics, the White Knights here dabbled in popular culture.  KKK records pressed titles such as "Daddy Stole Our Last Clean Bedsheet and Joined the Ku Klux Klan" and "The Bright Fiery Cross" (sung to the tune of "Old Rugged Cross"), both accompanied by "The 100% American Orchestra."  The blood-red label was stamped with the company's fiery cross logo, and the address--"Best in Klan Music, The American, P.O. Box 871, Indianapolis, Indiana."  Haven't found the song yet, but I did catch this image from an online auction site.  Of course, it was a gun auction site. 

Friday, July 06, 2012

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 8 (10-7)

10. Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)

On the surface, Y Tu Mama is a great summer film based on a seductive fantasy: two horny teenagers take a hot cougar on a roadtrip to the beach.  For two hours of vicarious vacation, it's hard to beat, especially when they end up sleeping on the beach and dancing at a homey little seafood shack.  In fact, I've done my best to recreate the feel of that scene in my backyard tiki bar.  But scratch the surface and there's more going on here.  Occasionally the screen freezes, and we receive little bits of information that don't really further the plot, but enrich the story.  Little bits about how the consciousness of class differences plays out between the two boys, for instance.  They poke little holes in the fantasy we're watching.  The fisherman living on the beach seems to have such a fantastic life.  Why are we told the tragic, depressing story of his move to the city?  Maybe its meant to remind us how little of the story we get when we hear a story, like those elipses at the end of chapters in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions

Suggested Double Feature: Jackass: The Movie.  Well, that's the double feature I ended up watching the first time I saw either.  Just one of those weird coincidences of movie viewing.  But taken together, the two films really do reveal a lot about the homoerotic nature of male bonding.

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

With all due respect to Spike Jonze (and Charlie Kaufman, who did great work directing Synecdoche, New York), Michel Gondry made the best Charlie Kaufman movie to date.  It's also Gondry's best work by a long shot.  Kaufman's sad script brought out a subdued melancholy in Gondry, avoiding the often cloying whimsy of The Science of Sleep and Be Kind, Rewind.  Jim Carrey delivers his career-best dramatic role, possibly the only one where Carrey doesn't mug up in a sub-Tom Hanks effort to be loveable, as the tortured Joel.  (Carrey's best comedy role is, of course, The Cable Guy.)  And Kate Winslet is great in her too-small role as Joel's ex, Clementine.

The script is hung on a great science fiction concept: a company that will remove your painful memories.  You can immediately see the paradox: we all want to rid ourselves of the things that cause pain in our lives, yet those are the things that make us who we are.  Kaufman runs with the gags inherent in this concept, with Carrey trying desperately to hold onto painful memories that are being erased, but even at its most wacky, the script keeps those emotions front and center, and Gondry zooms in on them.  There are scenes in this movie that struck me so hard that I'm afraid to even write about them.  Like the scene where Joel, as a kid, has collected a dead bird in his red wagon (it's possible that the bird is injured and he plans on healing it, but my impression was that it was dead, and I'm a bit squeamish about going back and checking).  Joel runs into a group of neighborhood kids, who peer-pressure him into smashing the bird with a hammer.  It's painfully traumatizing for Joel, but what gets me is that, the whole time, Joel is wearing a superman cape.  He left the house with an image of himself as a hero, and he returns with an image of himself as a bird-crushing coward.  It's the kind of moment that haunts you your whole life, and would drive you to want to rip the memories out of your head.

8. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen, 2007)

The Coen Bros. great memento mori, with death here depicted as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, with pale skin, a strange bowl cut that gives his head a skull-like shape, and a rictus grin stretched across his face), an unstoppable force always one step (at most) behind the protagonist.  That black cloud is always moving toward us across the prairie, that hellhound is swimming faster than you.  Think you can stop it? That's vanity. Think you can see it coming? Can't nobody see that. Think someone is there to light your way? Yeah, right..."And then I woke up."

7. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2007)

2007 was a fucked up time.  After the 2004 election, I (and I think a lot of people) were...I'm not even sure what the right word is.  Disillusioned, maybe.  I mean, here we had this awful, awful president, who had gotten us involved in these two awful wars, at least one of which was completely unnecessary, and was shredding the constitution in a paranoid fit of anti-terrorist terror.  Indefinite detentions, warrantless wiretaps, torture, secret prisons: it was not a healthy time for democracy.  (In regards to most of the things I just listed, it still isn't.)  And then, the American people voted this asshole in for a second term!  In my mind, democracy had failed.  What possible hope was there, if even the voters couldn't be trusted?

Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian adventure, Children of Men (yes, I've got two Cuaron flicks in my top 10), captures that hopelessness that permeated the air in those days.  It takes place in a world where a plague of some kind has rendered people unable to reproduce.  Then, a pregnant woman shows up, and Clive Owen's character takes on the responsibility of protecting her.  Suddenly, there is hope.  When, with his last breath, he delivers her to a ship called Tomorrow, it's a glimmer of hope for the world: humanity will continue.  Now, I want to be perfectly clear about this: I'm not trying to say that that hope represents Barack Obama or anything that lame.  But surely this deep well of frustration (if that's even a strong enough word) was why the campaign's "Hope and Change" jive resonated so effectively with voters.

Children of Men also contains some pretty snazzy action sequences, the best of which is a nearly 10-minute chase scene at the climax that is filmed as a single, continuous shot.  But mostly, I choose it because it captures the general zeitgeist of the time more than any other film I can think of (along with The 25th Hour, which, as I said, captured a similar feeling from a few years earlier, in the aftermath of 9/11).  Thus, I think this is a good place to stop for now.  The six remaining films on my list are all masterful genre films that manage to transcend their genres, to come out of left field and offer you more than you went in expecting.