In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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Friday, April 29, 2005

Philosophers are People, Too
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Rutgers University has one of the top-ranked philosophy departments in the country--it's up there with Princeton as #1 or #2 in the estimation of some. So it came as a surprise that one of Rutgers' senior faculty members in the department announced he was leaving for the University of Miami, a school where the philosophy department is hardly top-ranked--probably not even in the top 40. Surely the departing professor, Colin McGinn, had it in mind to devlelop the department's assets in the future under a long-term plan to bring national recognition to his new home. Not exactly. According to McGinn, "I suppose the main factor is the weather. The weather has a particular significance because I like water sports. Miami is a year-round water sports place. You can be out on the water all the time. . . . [Miami] is definitely not as good as Rutgers is. But I have to weigh how much that matters to my daily life." I find the honesty refreshing. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at April 29, 2005 | perma-link | (17) comments

Fact Attack
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Some facts that caught my attention from recent issues of The Economist: The computer game Halo 2 was launched in November of last year. It took in more than $100 million on its first day. This is a bigger first-day gross than any movie has ever managed. Gen Yers (people born between 1980 and 1994) are now old enough to be buying cars for themselves. "They make 40% more complaints than their parents do about the same car." 3/4 of people who show up in Ford showrooms have already done some car research online. 75% of American cellphone-buyers do their research online. Fewer than 5% actually make their cellphone purchase online, though. Digital video recorders (such as Tivos) have a dramatic effect on people's TV-watching habits. Owners of DVRs do more than 60% of their TV-watching off the hard drive, and skip 92% of the ads on the recorded programs they watch. In 1960, South Korea had only one telephone per 300 people. Today, more than 90% of Korean households have a fixed-line phone, and 3/4ths of South Koreans carry cellphones. America's national savings rate is at its lowest in 70 years. Americans now borrow from foreigners at a rate of more than 6% of GDP each year. 39% of Americans identify themselves as Independents. 31% call themselves Democrats, and 30% call themselves Republicans. The Economist's website is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 29, 2005 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've been drinking Volvic water a lot recently. Sometimes I think this is because Volvic is a really good-tasting bottled water. (Volvic is "drawn from deep inside the lush, green ancient volcanoes of the Auvergne in France.") I do seem to drink more water when the water in the fridge is Volvic. And The Wife, a fine cook with a sensitive and refined palate, likes calling Volvic "the vodka of bottled waters." So maybe Volvic really is a good water. At other times, though, I wonder if I'm fooling myself. Online I've run across an NRDC report indicating that Volvic has a little too much, ahem, arsenic in it. And The Observer's William Leith thinks the whole bottled-water thing might be a case of mass self-hypnosis anyway. Do you guys have favorite bottled waters? Do you ... believe in them? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 28, 2005 | perma-link | (38) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The mysterious and firstrate (if sporadic, darn it) J. Cassian is blogging again. He posts an excellent joke here, and thinks out loud about the mysterious Huns here and here. * One of the proudest accomplishments of the very accomplished Christopher Frayling -- Rector of Britain's Royal College of Art -- is making the spaghetti western films of Sergio Leone intellectually respectable. "I know this may sound vain," Frayling tells The Independent, "but I honestly think it's quite unusual to have almost single-handedly encouraged the world to take such a disreputable body of work seriously and to have pulled it off. Now it's a great cliché to say that Leone is a major director, but at the time I first made the case for him, everyone thought that I was quite mad, that these were just ersatz, and that Leone was utter crap." * Shouting Thomas has given his blog Harleys, Cars, Girls & Guitars a snazzy new look. He's dating again, and thinks he may have a thing for Filipinas. * Yahmdallah confesses to being that rarity: a computer geek who doesn't enjoy computer games. * John Emerson thinks the Swedes are to blame. * It doesn't seem all that long ago that chain bookstores were the latest blot on the face of literature. And the outrages kept coming: Chain superstores ... Books being sold in discount houses like Costco ... Edward Wyatt reports about the latest retail outlet to start aggressively selling new hardcover books: grocery stores, now responsible for sales of 3 percent of general-interest books. Ah, the dignity of literature -- what's become of it? * Razib wonders what role DNA might play in our food preferences. * Poynter Online notices that 26% of adults now prefer getting their news online. * Around a thousand new magazines are started up every year, writes Anne Field. Most will fail within twelve months. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 28, 2005 | perma-link | (11) comments

Moviegoing: "Sin City"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Wife and I just caught the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller movie "Sin City." MB quick verdict: I was perfectly happy to be in the theater watching the movie. I like what the movie represents: Xtreme punk noir, with thrills, sex, and violence pursued for the sheer, rip-it-up thrill of them all. The film is dirty-minded, semi-experimental, and up to no good whatsoever -- and I'm happy just to be around such a movie. That said, I didn't find the film itself thrilling. I enjoyed checking the film out 'way more than I enjoyed what I thought it actually accomplished. For one thing, I found Rodriguez's ambition bizarre. He seems to have been motivated by awe for the Frank Miller comic books. I'm with him on that, by the way. But he seems to feel such awe that he didn't do the sensible thing. He didn't try to find a way of translating the comic books' appeal and allure into movie terms. Instead, he simply tried to make a movie that is the comic book, up there on screen. You were maybe hoping for "Touch of Evil" plus a lot of nudity? Tough luck: "Sin City" the movie offers what "Sin City" the comic books do -- and not just in terms of the occasional comic-book touch, but pretty much frame-by-frame. I had no trouble accepting this as an interesting filmmaking experiment, by the way. What happens when you try to reproduce a great comic book on the screen? Like most experiments, though, it doesn't work out well. For one thing, there's the question of story. The stories Miller tells in his comic books are sodden, juvenile gloom-noir. But Miller's visuals are so eye-poppingly brilliant that the stories don't matter; they're just so much mood music. On screen, though, the lousiness of the stories does matter, and matter bigtime. Watching a movie, you can't flip around inside it, and you can't read it at your own pace either. You're stuck paying attention to the story you're given, in the order and at the pace the director and editor have determined. Sad fact of filmgoing life: feature films generally need halfway decent stories in order to draw you along and keep you alert. And, strange as it seems, even the film's visuals are a problem. They're amazingly close to the comic books' visuals, and it's a fantastic look. But Miller's comic books are like deranged impressions of movie frames, edited for maximum retina-searing impact. Move that strategy back into an actual movie and it seems beyond-stilted. The movie stops seeming like a movie; there's no flow, and not much room for the actors either. The movie starts to seem like a trailer for itself. You may blink in amazement at the visuals, but your soul waits and waits for something to get involved with. I watched the movie with curiosity and sympathy, the way I watched Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho." What a silly... posted by Michael at April 28, 2005 | perma-link | (22) comments

Friday, April 22, 2005

Architecture Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * John Massengale reports on an absurdly anti-urban new proposal for New York's West Side. Note that the proposal comes from a former Chairman of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard School of Design. I often find myself dreaming about what a happier and more pleasant place America would be if only Harvard disappeared off the face of the planet ... * Richard Meier is one of the starchitects whose sparkly new buildings are defacing Manhattan's beautiful old Greenwich Village. What a pleasure to learn that his glassy cages are poorly constructed, and leak. * At City Comforts recently, Laurence Aurbach blogged about a perfectly hideous Thom Mayne proposal for a new Alaska capitol building. Good news: plans to build the new capitol have been put on hold. Finances seem to be the main reason -- but public dislike of the proposal also played a role. Moral: let's keep rooting, louder and louder, against bad buildings and bad urbanism. * Catesby Leigh is a first-class architecture-and-urbanism critic, especially trustworthy and enlightening on the topic of the various new traditionalisms. His new piece is -- typically for Leigh -- a little prissy but 100% right as well. I hope there isn't a connection between prissy and right ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 22, 2005 | perma-link | (28) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * City Journal's Brian Anderson is always a lively and resourceful observer and commentator. I'm looking forward to his new book about how nonstandard p-o-v's are making themselves heard in the mediaverse. Here's a TechCentralStation appreciation of the book. A new issue of City Journal has just appeared online. * Even when she was at her most overexposed, I never tired of Camille Paglia. She seems as lively and brilliant as ever in this CBC interview with her about her new book. * One of the great things about the cultureblog-overse is the way people talk appreciatively and honestly about the art they really enjoy. Graham Lester reads Pearl Buck and finds her excellent. Deal with it, world. * Another great thing about cultureblogging is the way people are honest and funny about the art-things they don't enjoy too. Take-no-guff librarian Rachel of Tinkertytonk most emphatically does not enjoy herself at a new documentary about the world of wine. * England these days seems to be anything but the genteel place of Merchant-Ivory fantasies. Crime rates are high, and England's white working-class population is notoriously ill behaved. Steve Sailer puzzles out the whys and wherefores; Randall Parker contributes some thinking too. * Alex Tabarrok doesn't dispute that there are far more lefties than righties in academia, but he suspects this isn't because of discrimination. Steve Burton thinks David Horowitz's Intellectual Bill of Rights is exactly the wrong thing for righties to cheer for. * Business Week thinks blogs are big -- as in Gutenberg-big -- and makes blogging its cover story. The magazine has just started its own blog-tracking blog, called Blogspotting. * Thanks to visitor Philopundit, who points out this amazing story about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, a hoard of Greek and Roman writing that new technology is permitting to be read for the first time. Philopundit also reports that he's currently enjoying this Teaching Company course about the Foundations of Western Civ. At his own blog, Philopundit reviews a heart-stopping new McDonald's sandwich, and considers Libya's scheme to mine for water. * News flash: kids are swearing more than they used to. (Link thanks to SYAffolee.) * Women like Kodak; men prefer Canon. * Until a few minutes ago, I had no idea that Amazon sells lingerie. Good golly: 984 different styles of thong to choose from. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 22, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Movie Descriptions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was flipping through the discount DVD bin at a local video parlor. Clatter clatter clatter -- and I'd pull a movie out and give it a closer look-see. Then I'd repeat the sequence. What caught my attention was less the question of why some discs caught my attention than the question of how it was that I knew to give so many discs an instant pass. Flipping through the losers, I was moving much too fast to be making conscious decisions. Yet ignore them I did. What enabled me to do this? (And what an interesting state of mind you enter -- OK, I enter -- when flipping through possible-purchase books, CDs, and movies, no? Glazed-over but interested; purposeful yet daydreaming ...) I've got nothing interesting to report: sometimes the cover art puts me off, sometimes a general gestalt does. Usually the whole feel of a DVD package is what makes the decision for me. Funny/adorable suburban-papa comedies? (Bright colors, "hilarious" expressions -- Steve Martin in "Cheaper by the Dozen.") I don't have to think about it, I've got no interest. Goofy teens on a comic rampage? (Bright colors, "hilarious" expressions -- "Dodgeball.") On to the next disc. For all I know, my unconscious's rules of thumb may be making me overlook movies I'd enjoy. Maybe there's one dorky-dad comedy that would really speak to me. Perhaps there's a misbehaving mall-teen picaresque that would crack me up. I guess I'm OK living with that possbility. After observing myself at the DVD bin for a few more minutes, I came up with the one DVD-package element that turns me off a disc most conclusively. It's when the descriptive text on the back of the DVD box starts this way: "Four generations of the eccentric Baxter clan gather in Maine to bury their patriarch, and long-concealed resentments and unexpected family secrets begin to -- " Oh god, no, my unconscious seems to think: two hours of hashing-out-emotions! Plus tears, hugs, and moody walks on the beach! No, no: anything but that! The prospect of watching such a movie makes me want to plunge into a bath of utter sleaze. (Don't ask me why I'd be reading the back-cover copy of such a movie in the first place ...) I start to feel the need to buy entire stacks of sexy '60s splatter-exploitation movies. Wait, it occurs to me there's another flip-by-it-fast contender: the DVD package that goes with "middle-aged Boomer love story" -- plaid shirts, Lifetime-TV photography, autumnal colors, biking and walking ... Which DVD-package elements turn you off most quickly? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 22, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Donald Pittenger on Sociology 2
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Forgive me for keeping everyone in suspense about the continuation of Donald Pittenger's memories and reflections about sociology. I was enjoying a computer-free couple of days out of town. But I'm back in the Movable Type cockpit, refreshed and eager. Today, Donald concludes his memoir about studying sociology in the '60s, and takes a look at what has become of what was once his field. *** Sociology (cont.) By Donald Pittenger When I arrived at Dear Old Penn I had the chance to go into the new Ph.D. program in demography. A demography faculty member sat me by his desk and posed it this way: If you are interested in becoming a government statistician then get the demography Ph.D., but if you want an academic job then sociology is the better choice. I figured that teaching would be more fun than working for some government, so I opted to stay in the sociology program. The irony is that I never taught full-time and instead became a government statistician. Demography was my area of concentration, so I took a lot of demography courses. My first year there, almost all the students were foreigners. They formed a tight little group that I made no effort to join. For one thing, I had (and still have) serious problems understanding people with thick accents. (This goes for native English-speakers too. Yorkshire and certain Midlands accents can be very difficult for me to crack. There were several times in England when my then-wife had to interpret for me when I was attempting something as simple as ordering coffee and pastries for breakfast. Domestically, I have the most trouble with Arkansas accents.) My experience with thick accents is that whereas I can pick out most verbs and adjectives, nouns usually drop to the floor. All-in-all, conversing with most foreign students was a tedious task, and I finally simply kept pretty much to myself during seminar coffee breaks. We had one Israeli student (Moshe Sicron, who later headed Israel's census operations) and an Egyptian. In the fall of 1967, a few months after the Six Day War, they warily eyed each other during seminar sessions and almost never directly spoke to one another. Then there was an Iranian woman who dressed in drab-gray native attire. I bumped into her about 20 years later at a demography convention where she was dressed in western clothing and was trying to keep tabs on a couple of teen-aged daughters who seemed utterly American. By the way (sexism alert!!), it turns out that this Iranian woman had a pretty nifty figure: I never wudda guessed. My second year at Dear Old Penn the guard changed in the demography group -- a number of American students joined the program, some of them very attractive and interesting women from Seven Sisters colleges. Oh, did I mention that one reason I had for going to grad school after the army was to meet women? Besides demography, the other... posted by Michael at April 21, 2005 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Delta Documentary
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Best music in the world," I muttered happily as Mandy Stein's Delta blues documentary "You See Me Laughin'" began. While I have no desire to stand by that as a considered critical judgment, I do really, really love the Delta, and I do really, really love the Delta blues. Earthy, rhapsodic, trance-inducing, full of myths and legends, mud and whisky ... It's music that makes me want to sit in a mildewed sofa on a sagging porch, drink moonshine, watch dawgs and children whose names I can't remember run around, and spend a few lifetimes swapping stories and jokes. This is just a brief posting to alert anyone who might be interested in (or curious about) the Delta blues that Stein's 2002 documentary -- which I hadn't been aware of until I Tivo'd it off the Independent Film Channel -- is a good one. Stein appears to have spent years visiting the Delta and getting to know such homegrown giants as Johnny Farmer, Asie Payton, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside -- all of them artists who make me want to say: Anybody who claims that American art is short on genuine greatness can KISS MY ASS. (Incidentally, not a considered critical judgment either, just a direct expression of how this music makes me feel.) Stein assembles her movie from performances, archives, interviews, and just letting the camera run while she hangs around. Much of what she includes is priceless -- early footage of Burnside when he was a slim, handsome, sly dude with beautiful teeth; an informal solo performance by that exuberant oddball, Asie Payton; T-Model's matter-of-fact, you'd-have-done-it-too account of how he came to kill a man. Stein uses old footage, image processing, and some comic-book effects to give her film a homespun, sensual quality, but she does so in a way that doesn't overshadow her subject matter. Stein keeps the proceedings laid-back, rough-hewn, and casual -- and, given the ultra-organic nature of her material, this was a wise and appropriate choice. What a collection of titanic talents, each one with his own sound, and each one's sound capable of creating a distinctive emotional-acoustic universe. Newbies to the Delta, or to the Delta blues, can find it shocking how much a world unto itself the Delta is, how rich and fragrant Delta culture is, and how powerful a spell Delta life can cast. The accents, for one small example, can get unbelievably thick -- how is this possible in modern-day, TV-and-pop-culture-saturated America? Yet there it is: a living, poetic dialect that makes you want to whip out a Sony and hit the "record" button. Stein occasionally resorts to subtitles to make her interviewees comprehensible to those of us who don't speak Delta; I found myself wishing she'd used subtitles more often. Only an hour and a half from Memphis, the Delta seems like a world out of time, if with antennae, pickup trucks, and other bits and pieces of the... posted by Michael at April 19, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Guest Posting -- Donald Pittenger on Sociology I
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back in 1972, when Friedrich and I turned up at university, sociology was a happening thing. It seemed to be economics, urbanism, politics, history, and psychology -- and more! -- all rolled up in one. What could be more fun, or more important, than figuring out what kind of lives we were leading, what their dynamics were, and how they got that way? Organization men ... Tickytacky homes ... Mad housewives ... Leisure classes ... Sociology seemed like the Anthropology of Us. At the same time, though, sociology was well on it way to becoming a joke. I remember the school's humor revue, for instance, mocking sociology majors as work-avoiding pot-heads, and mocking sociology itself as a politicized bag of make-believe nonsense. Yet sociology had started with a bang, and had produced some classics. It had even -- with such books as Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" and Erving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Reality" -- played a major (and not altogether pernicious) role in popular culture. How did sociology-things get to this impasse? What's ... the sociology of sociology? 2Blowhards friend Donald Pittenger to the rescue. Donald was a serious sociology student in the field's heyday, and in this two-part memoir recalls what his experience was like. Here's part one of Donald's new reflections about sociology. *** Sociology by Donald Pittenger In the Introduction to Sociology class I took in 1959 at the University of Washington, the instructor took pains to show us that "common sense" truisms were not valid: sociologists had demonstrated so. Okay, I don't think he ever claimed that all common sense was false, but I'm pretty sure he never gave us an explicit example of where sociology had confirmed cases where it was true. (And I apologize that I cannot give any examples of disproving common sense: the class was more than 45 years ago.) The instructor was Otto Larsen, one of the authors (along with George Lundberg and Clarence Schrag) of a widely-used (at that time) introductory sociology textbook. And he was trying to justify sociology to us. As I write this, the idea "Just how many academic disciplines require justification?" seeps into my mind, followed quickly by "Why didn't I think of that 46 years ago?" Nowadays there are lots of disciplines requiring justification: just about anything ending with the word "Studies" will do. But back then?... Hmm. Neither Physics nor Math. Nor History nor English nor foreign languages. And in the "social sciences," not Economics or Psychology, Anthropology or maybe even Political Science; what they deal with is fairly clear to nearly everyone with college experience. Sociology is different. I think it was Auguste Comte who, early in the 19th Century, foresaw something called "sociology" as being the queen of sciences, the science of everything related to human behavior. So sociology was amorphous (and ambitious) from the git-go. The general idea when I studied it was that it was... posted by Michael at April 16, 2005 | perma-link | (25) comments

Friday, April 15, 2005

Variations on a Theme by Alan Sokal
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, You knew I worked in higher education, but you probably didn't know I was a hard-core science type, right? Now you know. Here is my latest paper, a little thing I tossed off just this morning. How was I able to toss this off with such ease, you ask? Truth be told, I did it with this scientific paper generator, placed on the web by several enterprising MIT students. The program generates gibberish. Wouldn't you know it, but the MIT students submitted one such gibberish paper to organizers of an academic conference, and it was accepted. The story has been written up here by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Shades of the Alan Sokal/Social Text controversy of a few years back. However, this story seems to have a slighltly different flavor. The Sokal affair was about how an apparently serious journal could not have spotted a pomo gibberish hoax. This story appears to be about a non-serious conference, in business to make money and to help academics pad their CVs. The obligation on the part of a farcical conference to spot a hoax is obviously less than that of a serious journal. Still, it is hardly a good thing that such conferences are in business in the first place. Best, Fenster... posted by Fenster at April 15, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * A new whatcha-ma-thingee that Google has just unveiled in Beta seems like it might prove to be a paradigm-buster. Here's a Poynter Online description of Google's new free video-hosting service. Here's the service itself. * Chloe Sevigne performed a film history-making act upon Vincent Gallo in "The Brown Bunny." (I blogged about this memorable scene here.) Asked about the film recently, she says, "I feel like we're in such conservative times and it's just atrocious. It's funny too because Vincent Gallo and I are two of the most conservative people I know and for us to make this movie, is very odd." She also tells the interviewer that she's hoping to get married soon. Actors: gotta love 'em, at least when you aren't feeling like killing 'em. * Thanks to visitor Matt Madsen, who turned up a New Scientist piece reporting that "Silver cars are much less likely to be involved in a serious crash than cars of other colours." * Yahmdallah wins -- hands-down -- this week's award for Gonzo Cultureblogging. First he delivers a daring posting in praise of John Denver and Phil Collins. He follows up with a damn-the-torpedoes screed explaining why he couldn't care less about sports. Great line: "Win what?" * Unlikely I'll be stealing too many dance moves from this guy. Some people are just too good. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 14, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

The Vault
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This week's award for Entrepreneurial Blogging goes to John Holbo. A regular at Crooked Timber and at John & Belle Have a Blog, John's a heckuva a writer with his own winning and distinctive tone -- a mixture of philosophical rigor and Californian whimsy. He has another key blogging gift too: he knows how to keep a discussion loose yet focused. And now John has kicked off a new group cultureblog. It's called The Valve: A Literary Organ, and it's already lookin' lively and good: freewheeling and open-minded, and eager to notice, say, and think the kinds of things that pro arts writers should but seldom do. So far, I've especially enjoyed Sean McCann's posting about the TV show "Deadwood", and a posting in which John dares to ask, Just how good is "The Great Gatsby" anyway? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 14, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

More Silver
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I noticed a while back that many -- and make that many -- of the cars featured in car ads these days are silver. Well, as far as I can tell, since my posting the trend has only continued to gather steam. In my never-ending quest to provide a little substance for my otherwise content-free blogging, I took it upon myself to do some actual research, thumbing through the ads in the current issue of The New Yorker. Final tally: Total number of car ads: 10. Number of cars in those ads that are silver: 6.5. (One of these silver cars has the faintest bit of brown mixed in with the silver.) Given the number of colors that a car in a car ad might be painted, what are the odds that 2/3 of the cars in a magazine issue's car ads would be the exact same color? Any theories about why we're seeing so much silver? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 13, 2005 | perma-link | (23) comments

Kelly Jane on Short Stories
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- If attention spans are growing shorter yet the appetite for fiction is remaining constant, then why aren't people reading more short fiction? Kelly Jane Torrance ponders this question as well as others in a good article for DoubleThink. I also enjoyed an observation-plus-musing from one of the commenters on Kelly Jane's piece. It goes like this: Part of the problem, I believe, is that there are fewer and fewer people reading, period -- but especially fewer who are reading so-called "literary" fiction. I work part-time in a municipal library and rarely does anyone under the age of 40 come in to borrow a book; most of our readers are in their fifties, sixties and seventies. The teens and twentysomethings who come in do so to use the Internet (and they're not accessing sites that feature writing). And the readers who come in are not looking to borrow "serious" fiction or poetry. It's romances and legal thrillers and pop nonfiction. In short, I see the demise of the short story as just an early symptom of the demise of recreational reading. In a generation, I'm not sure that anyone will be reading for enjoyment -- and if people do read, it probably won't be a traditional print book. I'm afraid I agree with this commenter: I can't see much reason to think that books -- or even reading-for-enjoyment in the way we currently understand the activity -- will play much of a role in the culture in 50 or 100 years. Can you? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 13, 2005 | perma-link | (16) comments

Debra Winger Reads "Karamazov"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of my biggest cultural blindspots has been the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Over the decades I've had a number of goes at his work, so I've at least been able to check some of the big books off my must-read list: "The Idiot," "Crime and Punishment," "Notes from Underground." But, generally speaking, his work washes over me, leaving me unmarked, bewildered, and mildly seasick. I think it's the unceasing storminess of his universe that overwhelms me. (My limitation, of course. I have no beef with Dostoevsky's ranking as one of the greats.) The carrying-on lurches from one sweaty, wild-eyed, emotional extreme to the next, and the action seems to be nothing but variations on groveling, loathing, pleading, raging, exulting, manipulating, sputtering, fuming, and yearning. The bestial transforms into the saintly, and then back again. I stare at Dostoevsky's fiction with near-complete incomprehension. His books portray a universe that's a total stranger to my own temperament: a churning, heaving place full of histrionic, religion-addled, epilepsy-plagued drunkards. But I'm making my way through the ultimate Dostoevsky challenge right now -- "The Brothers Karamazov" -- and am having a pretty good time of it. My secret: I'm listening to an abridged audiobook of the novel. (I blogged here about the advantages of audiobooks, and about how abridgments may not always be bad things.) A match made in heaven? The version I'm listening to is read by the actress Debra Winger, and I'm finding her a great help even though in some ways Winger's a not-ideal reader. She doesn't have a lot of vocal technique, for example, or control. But she does have something I'm finding very handy: an instant and intuitive understanding of these (to my mind) bizarro bedbug/angel Russkies -- the emotional shifts and ploys, the venting followed by the shame and neediness. I'm reminded of how turbulent, mercurial, and sexy Winger's own emotions seemed in her early movies. Winger seems to know where Dostoevsky's people really live; she flares right up with them, then falls apart with them. That little rasp in her voice is helping me stay interested too. What I'm starting to "get" -- finally -- about Dostoevsky is how shrewd and funny he was about his characters. He may have shared many of their manias, but he also looked at his people with amazement, and wanted to note down some of their behavior patterns and emotional patterns. So he was a great psychologist and sociologist after all. Hmm. I blogged here about great artworks I don't get. Lots of visitors pitched in with entertaining lists and observations of their own. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 13, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Bobby Fischer's Mom
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have no particular interest in chess, nor even a smidgen of a gift for board games. But last night I enjoyed watching TV documentary about chess great Bobby Fischer. What a genius! (IQ of 180.) What a talent! (At the time, he was the youngest grandmaster ever.) What a loon! (Check out Bobby's personal website to sample what a crackpot he's become.) What I found myself getting most fascinated by, though, was Bobby Fischer's mom. What kind of creature gives birth to a Bobby Fischer? What can it be like to raise such a prodigy? Who was this woman? What was she like? Google helped me turn up some of her story. She was born Regina Wender. Of Polish-Jewish origins, Regina was a Red Diaper baby who grew up in St. Louis. A brilliant woman, Regina spoke six languages fluently and became a doctor while in her 50s. Regina was an enormously driven person as well as a born protestor. She once went on a hunger strike; she studied medicine in the Soviet Union during the 1930s; she worked as a doctor in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Bobby broke with Regina in the 1950s, when he was still a teenager. A variety of factors seem to have played roles. For one thing, he was embarrassed by Regina. She'd encouraged his chess talent, going so far as to picket the White House to scare up funding for a chess tournament. (And I thought my mom was pushy!) But she'd also become alarmed by how obsessed he was getting with chess and sent him to a shrink for evaluation. Things got so tense between the brilliant/obsessive Bobby and the brilliant-bulldozer Regina that Regina moved out of the apartment while Bobby was still in his teens, leaving Bobby to fend for himself. Within weeks, the place was a filthy wreck. "They were so much alike," says a man who watched their struggle, "all drive and no give. Life in the Fischer household was trench warfare." But did Bobby and Regina really break off relations? One source claims that, despite their differences, Bobby stayed in almost daily touch with his mom. Regina was followed for years by the FBI. Because of her family background and her time in the Soviet Union, she was suspected of being a Communist sympathizer and perhaps a spy; eventually her FBI file totaled 750 pages. Although nothing was ever pinned on her, Regina was certainly drawn to left-wing causes, as well as to the Eastern bloc. When she returned to school in the 1960s to complete her medical degree, where did she go? To a university in East Germany. Who was Bobby Fischer's dad anyway? Regina never settled the question definitively, at least for public consumption; she may never have been entirely honest with Bobby about the matter either. The generally-accepted idea is that Bobby's dad was a man named Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist whom Regina met in the Soviet Union;... posted by Michael at April 12, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

Dr. Johnson on These Girls These Days
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The other day, I treated myself to a short trip to a nearby Borders. There I found a good deal on a 1970 Jess Franco psychedelic-horror Euro-exploitation film entitled "Vampyros Lesbos" (buyable; Netflixable). What caught my attention, though, was the woman behind the checkout counter to whom I handed the disc. She was a slim, young Asian-American. Her hair was multicolored; she had piercings and tattoos; she wore a hippie-Goth, cut-and-paste outfit; her expression was sweet and serene. She was a multicultural, cyber-generation cutie, in other words. The girl beamed -- beamed! -- when she saw the disk. "Wow, this looks like a really fun campfest!" she exclaimed. I muttered something not very witty and she laughed. Then she called out to the checkout girl next to her (who had neo-hippie hair). She showed her the DVD, and the neo-hippie beamed back. "Haw, haw, haw," they both laughed, much cheered up by the idea of a druggy, psycho-vampire, sex-alicious lesbian horror film. Off I went for the rest of the day on a chaotic inner monologue. It ran along these lines: Wow, not only has camp lost all its devilish charge, it's become mood-fodder for inane girls. And lesbianism -- or at least what hip young girls think of as lesbianism -- has become mainstream-ified too. Who'd have thought it would come to this? ... Cute girls ... With untroubled expressions ... Gaffawing at camp and lesbianism, both of which seem to strike them as kicky, silly fun ... It's really all out there, isn't it? ... And once it's all out there, the inner life comes to seem obsolete ... Funny that I find nothing sexy about these girls, happy though I'd be to see them naked ... Partly it's the tattoos and the piercings, which kill the vibrancy of the flesh ... I wonder if other guys my age find the tattoos and piercings offputting ... Is it a generational taste? ... Part of what's not-sexy about the new girls is the way the total lack of inhibition is crossed with a complete lack of depth ... Boomers thought that something good would come of uninhibiting people -- that problems would be solved, that health and happiness would finally prevail. But did they imagine that inanity and depthlessness would result too? ... Why a culture should set up "uninhibitedness" as a moral goal is beyond me ... The new girls lack poetry and allure, sweet though they probably are and attractive though they certainly are ... They're able to remain kids forever, endlessly playing, endlessly changing channels ... Life is about nothing but pleasing yourself ... Which is heaven -- but only in a happy-masturbator way ... So does that mean there's a connection between poetry and inhibitedness? I'd hate to think that's the case, but maybe I'm a sentimentalist ... OK: let's stare the question in the face: Does uninhibitedness have to mean lack of poetry? And a corollary: Does unihibitedness... posted by Michael at April 12, 2005 | perma-link | (46) comments

Saturday, April 9, 2005

Architecture Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * John Massengale spells out what's wrong with Christian de Portzamparc's proposed new co-op building on lower Park Ave. (Follow the links for more images and comments.) John gives Starbuck's a little what-for too. * The building I'm currently seething about is this flashy Gwathmey-Siegel atrocity, now nearing completion a few blocks from where I live. Where I live is Greenwich Village. Let me repeat that: Greenwich Village. Think low-lying brick buildings; mucho sidewalk life; a counterculture atmosphere; zig-zagging and leafy streets. (Check out the building behind the Gwathmey-Siegel, for instance.) The Village is one of the few homey -- cozy, quirky, human-scale -- neighborhoods in Manhattan. What kind of a developer (and what kind of an architect) would look at such a neighborhood and think: "Hey, you know what I think I'll put there? A tall, angular, gleaming, perfume bottle!" I have a word for people who think this way, and the word is "asshole." I can't help admiring the project's motto/tagline/whatever: "Sculpture for Living." To whom could such a tagline appeal? One possibility: the dumbest kind of fashion victim. * Thanks to visitor Kevin Hurley for pointing out this good Anchorage Daily News article. It concerns Thom Mayne's winning design for a new Alaska state capitol building. Surprise, surprise: some Alaskans don't like it. (It looks like a Photoshop 101 exercise to me.) Brief passage: "Many called the designs sci-fi, or simply ugly, and described Mayne's dome as a big egg or even a nuclear reactor." Mayne, who recently won the prestigious Pritzker Prize -- and about whom I blogged here -- seems to be doing his best to play beleaguered, forward-looking, eager to help, and not-backing-down. But he's unlikely -- to say the least -- to oblige with the kind of traditional-looking and traditional-feeling capitol building many people might prefer. What Mayne does is zigzags. Laurence Aurbach posts some observations and opinions here. * I recently walked down 54th St. in Manhattan for the first time in months and got a shock. The newly redone Museum of Modern Art faces 53rd St. but backs up on 54th St. And -- despite the care that has been lavished on the building's chic-minimalist design -- its relationship to 54th St. is appalling: one kindergarten-level urbanism mistake after another. A little searching turned up David Sucher providing a photo and many sensible criticisms, and a down-to-earth and eloquent Witold Rybczynski review in Slate. Nice Rybczynski quote about what it's like these days to walk down 54th St.: The effect of 196 unrelieved feet of corrugated aluminum is extremely unpleasant. It looks like the sort of temporary hoarding that is used to keep people from falling into an excavation at a building site, but without the posters and fliers. * Can buildings and developments in traditional styles stink too? DesignObserver's Lorraine Wild thinks that Southern Californian developers aren't just overdoing the "Tuscan" style, they're doing it badly. * James Kunstler's April Eyesore of the Month... posted by Michael at April 9, 2005 | perma-link | (14) comments

Friday, April 8, 2005

Peckinpah Moment
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Bloody Sam I just noticed that we're in the middle of a Sam Peckinpah moment. A new DVD of his much-maligned "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" has just been issued; it features commentary from the very classy Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons. When it came out in 1974, "Alfredo" struck me as an unredeemable disaster. It felt flatfooted, dead, and obvious. All Peckinpah's moviemaking magic -- his touch, his instinct -- seemed to have deserted him. But, while the film never did find an audience, it has also had its defenders, who make it out to be a modern film maudit -- filmbuffspeak for, more or less, "a movie the general audience hated when it was released, but we who know better think it's hot stuff and won't let go of it." I'm curious to check "Alfredo" out again. Is the film as much of a stinker as I remember it to be? I've certainly goofed on first viewings before, most notably with Jonathan Demme's almost-perfect "Melvin and Howard." The first time I saw "Melvin and Howard," it seemed like nothing at all; it just went right past me. Friends shamed me into seeing it again, and when I did I woke up to its wonders. Ever since, "Melvin and Howard" been one my very favorite movies. (I've also felt more modest about the infallibility of my first judgments.) Maybe I was wrong about "Alfredo" too. Perhaps it's something bitter, twisted, and brilliant, like a movie equivalent of one of Jim Thompson's novels. Meanwhile, New York City's Film Forum is currently showing a semi-restored version of Peckinpah's legendary "Major Dundee." The film -- a corrosive and epic cavalry Western starring Charlton Heston -- is famous for its many brilliant scenes and sequences, and for having been taken away from Peckinpah during editing. The version showing at Film Forum is said to restore all but a few minutes of what had been hacked from the film back in 1965. Back for seconds Even butchered, "Major Dundee" was one of my favorite Peckinpahs. Ferociously lyrical yet also absurdist, full of hilarious yet moving juxtapositions and dissonances, it put me in mind of one of Charles Ives' symphonies. It's interesting to read that Heston -- who has a reputation as a terrible square -- was, so far as the production of "Major Dundee" went, a good guy. He stood up for Peckinpah; he volunteered to forfeit his salary when the film went over budget; and -- when the studio took the film away from Peckinpah -- he tried to buy it back with his own money. Heston once said something about how he had no idea what Peckinpah was up to, but it felt exciting and worthwhile -- talk about being willing to go with your instincts and your feelings! And Heston is in fact amazing in the movie: grand, commanding, more than a little mad. Non-Manhattanites needn't despair: Sony will release a DVD of... posted by Michael at April 8, 2005 | perma-link | (10) comments

Beautiful Agony
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * The promo videos watchable on this Beautiful Agony page give new meaning to the word "teasers." NSFW. * The high point of a recent Jenna Bush night on the town was described as "Jenna on all fours doing 'the butt dance' — and doing it very well — as guys were ogling her thong." Jenna was dancing to "Da Butt." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 8, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Thanks once again to the brilliant Dave Lull, who forwards along a link to this entertaining Bookslut interview with Camille Paglia. Camille's new book about poetry can be bought here. UPDATE: Dave turns up another interview with Camille, this one in Salon, day pass required. Great quote: I'm a professor of media studies as well as humanities, and I'm an evangelist of popular culture. But when there's only media, then there's going to be a slow debasement of language, and that's what I think we're fighting. The blogs, for example, are becoming so self-referential. If people want to be better writers, they can't just read the blogs! You've got to look at something that's outside this rushing world of evanescent words. And another terrific passage: I'm saying to the left: Stop bad-mouthing your own civilization; get over it, you little twerps. I'm saying to the religious far right: If we are defending Western civilization, as you claimed in the incursion into Iraq, then you'd better realize it's much more than Judeo-Christianity and the Bible. You'd better get real and accept that we have a Greco-Roman tradition of literature and art that started in 700 BC. And yes, some of it deals, quite frankly, with sex and the body; you must deal with it and allow students to deal with it, because that is part of the brilliant strength of our arts. I'm demanding that conservatives support the arts and that liberals stop being so snobby about art and quit celebrating art that is simply cheap sacrilege of other people's beliefs. Artists have got to get back to studying art history and doing emotionally engaged art. Get over that tired postmodern cynical irony and hip posing, which is such an affliction in the downtown urban elite. We need an artistic and cultural revival. Back to basics! * Dave also mentioned that his favorite book about writing is Robert Pinckert's "The Truth about English." (It's out of print, but used copies can be bought here.) In light of our recent yakfest about the Whole Earth Catalog, it's fun to learn that Dave once pointed the book out to Stewart Brand, founder of the WEC. Brand liked the book too, and in 1983 recommended it to his readers in these terms: You can hear good writing. That's the surest test of it. It sounds like somebody telling the truth. Bad writing looks like somebody showing off. Pinckert's best and most radical service is teaching you how to punctuate by sound rather than by rule. You listen to your writing, and so does the reader. The rest of the book is a cheerful tour of all the ways to show off in writing. You learn how to identify each kind of lie and cut it away. What's left may be the truth. * George Wallace puts "Ozymandias" in list format. It makes for something that isn't a poem any longer, but is certainly still a remarkable reading... posted by Michael at April 6, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Derek Lowe writes a very moving posting about the death of his brother. It's also an informative and helpful meditation on the perils of alcohol, and the mysteries of alcoholism. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 6, 2005 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Fonda vs. Vadim
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A Pope's death ... Battles over Social Security... War in the Mideast ... Heavy days. But what this particular Blogger of Substance has been most deeply concerned about is Jane Fonda's tales about life with Roger Vadim. More specifically: did Vadim really force Fonda to organize and take part in group sex sessions or didn't he? And, in either case, why wasn't I invited? A short pause for the benefit of those whose grasp on '60s movie history is uncertain. Roger Vadim was a French filmmaker notorious for his sexy movies, which included the South-of-France romp "And God Created Woman", and a ski-chalet-set, modern-dress version of "Dangerous Liaisons." But Vadim was equally famous for his magic way with starlets and other beautiful women. In the 1950s, Vadim discovered Brigitte Bardot -- which means that he was responsible for creating and establishing a type that has been with us ever since, namely the tousled-hair, trampy blonde sex kitten. In the '60s, Vadim had an affair with and gave a boost to the career of another legendary beauty, Catherine Deneuve. Vadim was, in other words, a world-famous seducer and pop-era Svengali. First there was Brigitte ... In the middle-'60s Jane Fonda was in a rebelling-against-Hollywood mood and relocated to Paris. There she met Vadim. They soon moved in together, and Vadim cast Fonda in four movies, the most famous being the 1969 sci-fi spoof "Barbarella." In the early '70s, Fonda left Vadim as well as that period of her own life behind and became an Oscar-winning Very Serious Person -- actress, protestor, and feminist role-model. Vadim for his part continued seducing women and making arty softcore movies, but the larger world soon passed him by. As the sexual revolution percolated through to middle America, Vadim and his movies began to look as quaint as an early issue of Playboy magazine. When he made his final theatrical film, a 1988 semi-remake of "And God Created Woman" starring Rebecca de Mornay, it was laughed-at in the press and did virtually no business. I liked the film myself. Silly and out-of-date though it was, it still had some rare virtues. Vadim had a wonderfully suave way of appreciating women's many qualities -- he was like an experienced and loving horseman with an ability see a horse for what it really is. And De Mornay really puts it out there: with Vadim's encouragement and direction, she's sexy, she's dynamic, she's touching, she's scary. She's one all-American creature, that's for sure. "C'est come ca," you can imagine Vadim saying with a shrug and a smile. Sadly, the film's commercial failure seemed to kill De Mornay's brief bid to be a mainstream star. The current Fonda/Vadim tale is a little more complicated than most tacky newsbytes are. What's certain is that Fonda has an autobiography going on sale any minute now; that the British press has run items about forced group sex that are said to be based on an advance copy... posted by Michael at April 5, 2005 | perma-link | (18) comments

Monday, April 4, 2005

Razib on Wine-and-Cheesers
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I have more reservations about the legacy of the Englightenment (well, OK, the French Enlightenment) than he does. But Razib's recent burst of eloquence -- inspired as much by annoyance with wine-and-cheese liberals as by admiration for Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- may still be a posting for the blog-ages. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 4, 2005 | perma-link | (13) comments

Headline of the Week
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Although it's only Monday, we may already have a shoo-in for most-eyebrow-raising headline of the week. It's from Reuters: Turkey Shrugs Off Success of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" The article's lede is a humdinger too: "Turkey's government Monday played down soaring sales of Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic book "Mein Kampf" ("My Struggle") and said there were no racists in the large Muslim country." I'm eager to find out what the good and enlightened Euro-minds who are all for admitting Turkey into the European Union make of this article. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 4, 2005 | perma-link | (6) comments

Saturday, April 2, 2005

Guest Posting -- Leon Krier
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- About a week ago, we ran a Guest Posting by Laurence Aurbach about the great New Classicist architect and thinker Leon Krier. Not for the first time, Krier had been called a Nazi sympathizer by a self-righteous Modernist. Today we run a Guest Posting by Leon Krier himself. Thanks are again due to Laurence Aurbach, who has been in touch with Krier, and who has obtained permission for us to run a brief statement. A bit of background: Classical architecture -- the basic language of much Western building and town-making for a couple of thousand years -- has been reviled by many Modernists since the Second World War as complicit in Naziism. The thinking is that what a couple of thousand years of Western Civ led to were the horrors of WWII. Thus, everything associated with those couple of thousand years of Western Civ, including its architecture, needed to be thrown out. We needed to begin again from a blank slate. (Hence, in part anyway, the blankness of much Modernist architecture.) Classical architecture, from this point of view, was at the very least an enabler of Naziism, if not a straightforward expression of it. It sounds absurd, but this is how it was (and, by some, still is) seen: the good Modernist demonstrates his opposition to Naziism by thwarting Classical architecture. Sigh: this is the kind of thing that passes in the arts worlds for deep political thinking ... Much of Leon Krier's life has been devoted to rehabilitating Western Classical architecture as a living tradition and practice. Beautiful and humane buildings, neighborhoods, and towns ... Doesn't it make infinitely more sense to understand them as among the flowers of Western civ -- and to understand Naziism as an outbreak of barbarism, not civilization? Civilization is what's to be cherished; Classical architecture and Classical (and traditional) towns represent some of what's best in civilization. Besides, look at the havoc Modernists have inflicted on our cities, towns, and homes. Which is the truly destructive force: Classicism or Modernism? To rehabilitate Classicism, Krier and Maurice Culot wrote a book investigating the notorious Nazi architect Albert Speer, who designed many overblown Classical fantasias, and even built some. This was a courageous move on Krier and Culot's part, because Speer is the man Modernists love to point at: See! A Nazi! Who loved Classicism! See! Krier and Culot's book was clearly intended to pry apart the association between Classical building and Naziism. After all, the Nazis built in other styles too, and totalitarian regimes haven't exactly been shy about using Modernism. Given these facts, why pick on Classicism? Can a bad person choose a good style to work in? Answer: of course, it happens all the time, and it means nothing whatsoever about whether that style itself is good or bad, let alone whether it's being well or foolishly used. But aggressive and antagonistic idiots (who often don't seem to have looked at the book) like to believe... posted by Michael at April 2, 2005 | perma-link | (22) comments

Friday, April 1, 2005

Video Elsewhere
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It saddens this longtime film buff to say it, but I'm having a better time these days browsing video clips on the Web than I am watching most new movies. * An octopus walks on two legs. (Link thanks to Attu.) * Watching this Gumbyish break dancer made me feel like someone had slipped something funny into my drinking water. Perhaps human beings are merging with computer animation -- every person his own Pixar movie, or something like that. * As Snacknuts wrote in a comment on a recent posting, art in the digital age is all about the database. I found the break-dancer video above at this site -- essentially a database of clips, photos, jokes, etc. You'll find no shortage of car crashes, Webcam girls, skydiving disasters, TV embarassments, chickfights, skateboarder wipeouts, and teen girls stripping and/or kissing. (In the world of webclip-watchers, Hannah seems to be becoming a bit of a star -- for very good reason, IMHO.) Do today's teens experience a videoclip like this one with the same sense of ownership and excitement that previous generations felt watching "Rebel Without a Cause" or "Easy Rider"? There are many other sites like it: here, here, and here, for instance. Has anyone come up with a catchy name yet for this genre of website? And who runs these places anyway? Ambitious, clever fratboys? * Here's a serious, helpful version of the heap-o'-goodies-style website. At it, you can watch videos of car crashes. In fact, you can find the car you drive, and see how it (and you) will fare in a crash. * Here's a brilliantly straightfaced short satire of life at an ad agency. * And thanks to the Fredosphere for pointing out this Onion-worthy video parody of a Ken Burns documentary. Be forwarned: it's in very dicey taste. Which doesn't stop it from being hilarious, of course. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 1, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Brain Dead
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: I’ve been seeing what has been—for me—quite a few films lately. While my days of epic movie-going (which included sitting through Godfathers I and II back-to-back in a single evening) are decades in the past, I still occasionally play hooky from work by picking up a film. I did so the other day, hoping to have a few laughs. And I did…very few laughs. Standing at the ticket counter, I chose “Miss Congeniality 2” for reasons that seem rather unclear as I write this, although I think it was because several people had told me that the original was “kind of funny.” Now I’m hoping the studio makes twelve or thirteen more sequels so I can boycott them. I went in looking to change my mood, and I did; I staggered out of the theater 15 or 20 minutes before the closing credits (I would have left earlier but I fell asleep) feeling like I’d had a full frontal lobotomy performed without anesthetic. Then a few nights later I went to see an Israeli film, “Walk on Water.” While not a perfect piece of cinema—it suffers from a comparatively weak ending—it was obviously made by people who had a few thoughts in their head. (The film manages to sketch out analogies between the world-views of several embattled minorities, including Israelis, Palestinians and gays). The contrast in intellectual tone between the two films was, to coin a phrase, like night and day. Then in Sunday’s L.A. Times I saw an interesting piece by Edward Jay Epstein that may explain at least part of the utter vacuity of “Miss Congeniality 2” and the average American film. Mr. Epstein points out that movies, per se, have ceased being the main line of business for American movie studios: The numbers tell the story. Ticket sales from theaters provided all the studios’ revenues in 1948; in 2003, they accounted for less than 20% of the take. Instead, home entertainment provided 82% of the 2003 revenues. Further, print and advertising costs eat away at most if not all the theatrical revenues, but the studios retain most of the money they garner from home entertainment. All of this has transformed the way Hollywood operates. Theatrical releases, despite the blinding allure they hold for the media, now serve essentially as launching platforms for videos, DVDs, network TV, pay TV, games and a host of other products. I seem to remember a homily that claims your heart is likely to be found where your treasure is. I guess the same goes for your brains. Cheers, Friedrich P.S. If anyone thinks I am worshipping at the shrine of serious world-cinema here, I'm not; I really prefer light entertainment, a commodity that is commonly made in crassly commercial America. But successful light entertainment usually needs more smarts than serious world-cinema, not less.... posted by Friedrich at April 1, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments