Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"But it's wrong!"

Nothing is driving me up the wall more than the tut-tutting coming from the media moralists covering the New Orleans disaster. I watched some starched and quaffed reporter from KTRK last night trying his lily-white best to shame some shirtless black kid rummaging through the soaked remnants of a convenience store. "But it's wrong!" says the reporter. The kid just laughed. The reporter comes back to his tidy, well-appointed home in Garden Oaks the next day while that kid stays in his drowned city... at least until he and everyone else are forced out. What the hell does he come back to in a month or so? What's left? And I'm glad I'm not the only one who has noticed that the media depicts dirt-poor (and now homeless) blacks who take food, water, and beer from grocery stores as crazed thieves while white folk under the same circumstances are simply trying to "find provisions". In any case, there are far more important things to worry about right now, especially as it's becoming clear that the damage control situation has been botched. The Army Corp of Engineers dropped the ball on their attempt, or non-attempt as the case may be, to dam up the 17th Street Canal and the mayor is livid. Most of the LA National Guard and the equipment needed for rescue operations that would otherwise have been on the scene in a heartbeat are in Iraq. The number of out-of-state Guard in NO is dangerously inadequate. And what the fuck happened to FEMA? Even though experts have been warning about a potential disaster in the Big Easy for years, there seems to have been almost no plan whatsoever to deal with the situation when it did arise. The Coast Guard and Red Cross, OTOH, are doing their best to pick up the slack. The Superdome refugees are now to be relocated to the Astrodome. At this point, I don't see how this disaster can't trigger some kind of horrible economic domino effect.

Meanwhile, George "Disaster President" Bush was jamming Tuesday on a special presidential guitar presented to him by Mark Wills. I know it's hard work, but go, George, go!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Blogger Kathryn Cramer has some excellent coverage of the New Orleans levee breaks. Parts of New Orleans are descending into chaos as looters storm damaged businesses. And according to the Times-Picayune, cops are joining in the looting. The entire city is now to be completely evacuated.

"complete devastation."

Biloxi in ruins, New Orleans under Martial Law, $25 billion in damage, suicides at the Superdome, Lake Pontchartrain pouring into city, death toll climbing. The long-term impact of Katrina is going to be staggering.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Good night, Mrs. Calabash...

Even Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante got his own comic in the pages of the UK comic weekly Radio Fun. This one dates from 1952. Umbriago!

click de pic!

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Classic Comedy Alternate Reality #1: Charlie Chaplin at Columbia

In late 1928, Hollywood's most powerful studios conspired to destroy upstart distribution company United Artists. Taking advantage of the growing demand for talkies and the decline in output from UA stars Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, MGM, Paramount, and Universal used their distribution networks to almost completely choke UA's product from the nation's theaters. The loss of revenue, coupled with the Crash of 1929, forced UA to declare bankruptcy in early 1930. Chaplin, in particular, was hit hard, losing millions in the crash and the collapse of UA. Saddled with debt, Chaplin was forced to throw himself upon the mercies of the very studios which had contributed to his financial ruin. In no position to haggle over terms, Chaplin found himself at MGM in June 1930, hard at work on his first "All-Singing, All-Dancing" talkie, Everything's Swell, a rags-to-riches story in which the Tramp, a small town theater handyman, bungles his way to stardom. Distressed by a loss of creative control and frustrated by management's refusal to cast him in appropriate vehicles, Chaplin turned to drink and became increasingly unmanageable. By 1935, his critical reputation as a genius in tatters, Chaplin was cast out on his ear by studio head Louis B. Mayer (who publicly referred to Chaplin as a "baggy-pants prima donna"). Charlie Chaplin was quickly hired by comedy shorts producer Hal Roach who featured Chaplin in a new series. Although given a great deal of creative latitude and the opportunity to work alongside former Karno understudy Stan Laurel, the alcohol and disillusionment continued to take their toll on Chaplin's ability to perform. When Roach shifted production away from shorts in 1937, Chaplin found work at Columbia's comedy shorts department under producer/director Jules White (who had directed Chaplin twice at MGM). The resulting shorts, a total of thirty-nine made between 1938 and 1946, had a few highlights (especially in those directed by Charley Chase) but were generally poor. Nonetheless, the films were well-received by the public and represented a welcome and sizable paycheck for the comedian, the biggest star in Jules White's stable of comics. In 1944, following a series of slapstick service comedies featuring the Tramp as a harried Army private (and one, Blitz Dizzy (1942), which starred Chaplin in a brilliant turn as a Hitler-like dictator), Chaplin was callously teamed with Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel. The teaming was one of many forced comedy partnerships at the Columbia shorts department and was particularly humiliating for Chaplin, who hadn't had to share top billing since his earliest days at Keystone. The Chaplin and Brendel shorts were similarly well-liked by audiences, especially in rural America, but were among the worst films of Chaplin's career, featuring tired slapstick, awkward dialect humor, and downright narcoleptic performances from a severely depressed and frequently drunken Chaplin. Worst of all, many of the final shorts saw Chaplin playing resigned straightman to Brendel's madcap Swede, with Chaplin not even receiving billing in trade ads or publicity material. Chaplin quit Columbia and film altogether in 1946 and spent several years "drying out" in various clinics along the West Coast before making a genuine comeback on live television in 1949.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Police State

From Alterhouse, via Atrios, comes this tasty little slice of insanity in re: to the execution of Jean Charles De Menezes.

"Is it not true that yesterday's sad mistake has already solved the problem it represents? In fact, a further good has been created: as ordinary persons change their behavior and drop the bulky clothing and unnecessary running, the real terrorists will stand out more. Indeed, if anyone ever behaves like Jean Charles de Menezes again, the presumption that he is a terrorist will be so overwhelmingly strong that the police really must kill him."

In light of the new evidence, she has since issued this response, among others, to people accusing her of making excuses for extrajudicial executions of innocent people on subway trains:

"I don't appreciate having what I wrote mischaracterized in a way that makes me look bad and I know people are reading this post today because they've been sent here by a couple of websites that are badly mischaracterizing me."

In other words: Rethink my argument? Do I look like a flip-flopper?? Stop looking at me!! STOP LOOKING AT ME!!!!!!!!

This is how it starts. Alter your behavior just a little bit.. just to be safe. After all, you've done nothing wrong. And then, as the cycle of violence gains momentum, you're compelled to toe the line.. just to be safe. The cops kill a guy for wearing a bulky jacket. Better safe than sorry. Toss out the bulky jackets. He was carrying a backpack. Leave the backpack at home. He was running. Don't ever run. He was reading a book about politics. Don't bring your book out in public. Better yet, don't buy such books. He had been overheard saying he disagreed with the war. Keep your trap shut in public. He looked middle eastern...

Oh, wait.

I also love the idea that The Real Terrorists will "stand out more" if we all behave like automatons. Real Terrorists are clearly incapable of adjusting their behavioral patterns.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Infinite downward spiral...

So he wasn't even running from the London Metropolitan Police? It seems that the Met lied about essentially everything regarding their July 22nd murder of Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes in the Stockwell Tube station. According to leaked documents from the Independent Police Complaints Commission, De Menezes was wearing a denim jacket, not a potentially bomb-laden "winter-style coat", didn't run from the police, and was sitting down in the train when he was grabbed, forced to the ground, and shot eight times in the head. Just as alarming is the suggestion that this was a matter of mistaken identity, with De Menezes being "positively identified" by police as suspect "fifth bomber" Osman Hussain, aka Hamdi Issac, who has since been taken into custody in Rome without a struggle. Apparently the police in Rome don't have a shoot-to-kill/ask-questions later policy. Here's an easy prediction; we're going to be seeing a lot more of this as police on both sides of the Atlantic become increasingly comfortable with the notion of acceptable civilian losses in order to protect the greater good (and why not get comfortable with it if you can always blame your tragic mistakes on The Enemy?). Life just got that much cheaper.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

"Good morning starshine! The Earth says Hello!"

In a recent interview, Gene Wilder expressed confusion and sadness over the decision to "remake" Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. "It's all about money." says Wilder. "It's just some people sitting around thinking, How can we make some more money?' Why else would you remake Willy Wonka? I don't see the point of going back and doing it all over again." Wilder's assessment of Hollywood greed is perfectly understandable if largely misplaced in this instance. It's also downright ironic considering the origins of the 1971 movie whose very title was determined by the need for product tie-ins (namely Quaker Oats' new Wonka chocolate line). Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is in no way a remake of Mel Stuart's classic film and is, in many regards, truer both to the letter and the spirit of Roald Dahl's darkly comic morality tale. And while Warner Brothers undoubtedly greenlit CATCC because of its pre-sold status, the film is also a matter of creative kismet. Given the story's dark overtones, comedy, horror, and bent psychology, Tim Burton was born to film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Knowing full well the ubiquity of the Gene Wilder film, Burton and screenwriter John August play merciless games with expectations, giving us larger doses of genuine Dahl while also presenting some elaborate variations on a theme we've long since memorized.

Charlie Bucket, played here by the uncannily sincere Freddy Highmore, lives in desperate poverty in a ramshackle hovel (designed after a Burton doodle) positioned squarely, and poetically, at the end of a long street that leads directly to the imposing art-deco edifice that is the Wonka chocolate factory. Charlie's father (Noah Taylor) works for peanuts in a toothpaste factory, screwing plastic caps onto the ends of toothpaste tubes, while his mother (Helena Bonham-Carter wearing a pair of stained false teeth) cooks huge pots of boiled cabbage for the family, including all four grandparents. In shades of August and Burton's Big Fish, Grandpa Joe (David Kelly), a former Wonka employee, regales the Wonka-obsessed Charlie with anecdotes about the remarkable candyman and why he finally decided to close his factory to the outside world (as Charlie has never seen or heard Mr. Wonka, we're teased by obscure half-glimpses). "I was much younger in those days." says Grandpa Joe while Charlie's imagination shows him every bit as old as he is now. But while Charlie idolizes the mysterious Willy Wonka, the Bucket family, we learn, are Wonka's victims. Grandpa Joe lost his job when Wonka closed his factory (to defend his ego, rather than his business, from competitors) and later Mr. Bucket loses his position at the toothpaste factory when increased sales due to an increase of Wonka chocolate-induced cavities allows management to replace him with a machine. No one bears a grudge, however, even if Wonka's chocolate is now too expensive for the family to buy any more than once a year. In fact, the wistfully nostalgic Grandpa Joe wants nothing more than to get one last look at Willy Wonka and the inside of his remarkable chocolate factory, so Charlie's miraculous discovery of the last Golden Ticket is as much a fulfilled wish for Joe as it is for Charlie.

But expectations are made to be shattered and Mr. Wonka, if you hadn't guessed, is nothing he's cracked up to be. Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka is hardly Dahl's winsome elf. Burton's Wonka is a nightmare figure; both childlike and childish, pathologically self-absorbed, and hopelessly inept at human interaction after his years-long seclusion (I suspect that Wonka is a partial caricature of Tim Burton, who likewise suffers from severe social anxiety). He doesn't even remember Grandpa Joe, his former loyal employee. And as for the children who won his Golden Ticket contest, they're clearly pawns from the word go and Willy Wonka has nothing but contempt for them, even Charlie ("You're just lucky to be here, aren't you?"). Caricatures of vice though they may be, Burton and August invite the audience to at least pity the contest winners as victims (if self-made), a full reversal from the 1971 film. As in Dahl's book, the ruthless and poetic punishments meted out by Wonka's factory are, at least as sensitive Charlie is concerned, potentially lethal, and Burton treats each with an unnerving earnestness (Violet Beauregard's blueberryization in particular is given the full horror movie treatment). Charlie's worries seem justified given Wonka's scatterbrained and mercurial nature. After all, the factory is a manifestation of Wonka's childlike obsessions and his "genius" as a candymaker rests upon the fact that, inside his own world, things can happen simply because he wants them to. As cynical brat Mike Teevee says, "You all think he's some kind of genius, but he's an idiot!" In a world where the unstable Willy Wonka can bend reality to his will, you probably have just cause for worry.

Appropriately, Willy Wonka, too, is a victim. Willy's overprotective father, dentist Wilbur Wonka (played wonderfully by Christopher Lee), denied him a genuine childhood, tossing his Halloween candy into the fireplace and making him wear orthopedic gear that looks like a medieval torture device. This has left Wonka so emotionally shattered that he's literally incapable of saying the word "parents". So Willy Wonka, disgusted with the world, hides all too snugly inside his vast factory with the impersonal (and comfortably predictable) Oompa Loompas, losing not only his ability to communicate, but also rapidly losing touch with his own humanity. Even the seemingly magnanimous Golden Ticket contest is revealed to be another of Wonka's exercises in unthinking selfishness. Appropriately, in the end, it's not Willy Wonka who doles out the redemption, but the genuinely good-hearted Charlie. His name is in the title for a very good reason.

On one count, however, Burton and August's extremely clever psychological retooling of Roald Dahl's story will work against the film in the long run. Their version of Willy Wonka is so firmly wedded to the specifics of John August's storyline that it's impossible for him to stand on his own. While the 1971 film has its flaws, Gene Wilder's coolly mysterious Willy Wonka, the role of his life, is a triumph of characterization, in turns dangerous and genuinely loving. When the film falls flat in places, Wilder's charismatic Wonka simply picks it up and keeps going. But Johnny Depp's Wonka, although well performed and extremely funny, is almost as much a prop as Burton's spiral-ridden chocolate factory. It's little wonder that the clip Depp presented on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno fell as flat as it did. Without context, Depp's Willy Wonka is little more than an outline, and a singularly unattractive one at that. Point for point, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably both a better film and a better adaptation than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but it's every bit a world unto itself as Wonka's fantasy factory. It's a safe bet that, in another 34 years, the Willy Wonka most people remember will be Gene Wilder. So quit worrying, Gene.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The downward spiral continues...

Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian gunned down in a London subway for being suspected of being a potential terrorist and for wearing a bulky, potentially bomb-laden jacket, wasn't wearing a bulky jacket after all. Nor did he jump the turnstile as the London Metropolitan Police originally claimed. SURPRISE! The Met lied. It was a classic CYA maneuver, and now the only thing left to do is stick a dollar sign on the situation and try to move on. Fortunately, the UK, unlike the US of A, still has transparency in government so public outrage may help prevent such a thing from happening again. After all, the new "shoot to kill" policy is going to prove extremely costly if this becomes a habit.

"What is it? Is it terrorists?"

"Trash." says my friend. "Absolute trash."

She was referring to Steven Spielberg's The War of the Worlds. Those may not have been her exact words, but the sentiment was the same. Given my feelings about Spielberg's recent track record, I was inclined to take her at her word, but her assessment still wasn't going to deter me from seeing the new War of the Worlds, trash or no. I had been waiting far too long for it. Ever since the triple whammy of my childhood of being exposed to, all within two years, the 1938 Orson Welles/ Howard Koch Mercury Theater adaptation, the George Pal movie, and H. G. Wells' novel, I had been aching to see a big-screen version with a budget. In part because I felt that Wells' book had yet to be committed to film, but mostly because I had tripods on the brain. Tripods, dammit! Tripods looming ominously over neighborhoods, tripods swiftly striding through cities, tripods unleashing deadly heat rays. Pal's 1953 movie, as well-made and as frightening as it is, is still something of a disappointment to me after all these years. The oh-so 50s theological overtones are bad enough, but the total absence of tripods is unforgivable. Wah Chang's manta ray machines are as eerie and menacing as all get out, but they're flying machines (really), and unless you're still uncomfortable with the idea of airplanes, they aren't liable to scare on that level alone. Early drafts of the screenplay did, indeed, include tripods, but even Pal's tripods missed the mark. Instead of Wells' seemingly living machines, Pal's tripods were to have three stiff legs with a spiked tank tread at the base of each, allowing it to grind over houses, cars, people, etc.. Chang's final designs were far less silly and, more importantly, were cheaper to build and film. But the lack of Wells-style Martian war machines leaves a serious gap. Any old foreign menace can buzz you with planes, but to really make you feel inferior, it takes extraterrestrials in titanic walking machines (as I always say).

Well, I have to say that Spielberg has completely sated my lust for tripods, and for that, I'm eternally grateful. For the first time on any screen, we have true Wells tripods; lifelike, inscrutable, purposeful, and just plain creepy. Spielberg's eye for composition presents us with scene after scene that could have been lifted from any one of a thousand illustrations for Wells' novel, and could easily serve as the same in the future. The tripods' heat rays are, in the tradition of the memorable "mason-neutralizing" beams of the Pal movie, appreciably alien and spectacular (although mystifying in their peculiar aversion to human clothing). Mr. Spielberg's tripods are masterpieces.

And, happily, I don't have to include a "but" here. The War of the Worlds is, while not nearly his best, one of Spielberg's better films. Wells' original evolutionary subtext is mostly intact (if shuffled somewhat to the side), but Spielberg treats the Mercury Theater and George Pal versions with similar reverence, infusing the strengths of those two contemporary revisions into his own; in part a tribute, but also a canny utilization of test-driven, sure-fire story elements. TWOTW has been something of a narrative nesting doll over the years with each new adaptation referencing and drawing off the strengths of previous versions. The Pal movie included multiple references to and plot points from Koch and Welles' innovative radio adaptation while similarly making the story as relevant to audiences in 1953 as the Mercury version had been in 1938 (Paramount even hoped to entice Orson Welles himself to appear in the trailers as a panicked TV reporter). So Spielberg has included references to all of it, most notably several lines and a few scenes cut whole cloth from Pal's film (not to mention cameos by Ann Robinson and Gene Barry). The bare-bones outline of H. G. Wells' story is here, the largest changes to the narrative having been made to allow for Spielberg's signature Cute Children In Danger and to increase relevance and believability, such as the references to terrorism and Cruise's son's military deathwish. The narrator's quest for his wife also takes on new significance as they're estranged. The story has undergone a certain amount of narrative streamlining as well. For once, we have no knowitall scientists around to explain who the invaders are, where they're from, and how their heat rays work. In their place, we have military grunts and thousands of average people in blind panic. Wells' Artilleryman and Curate are here combined into one character, Harlan Ogilvy, played with paranoid gusto by Tim Robbins, but the sequence nicely encapsulates the underlying themes of the novel's corresponding chapters (as well as some new ones in our post-9/11 world). The vampiric alien invaders, too, for the sake of believability are no longer Martians per se (Mission Mars will probably turn out to be one of the last films featuring an alien presence on the red planet), and the means of their arrival has been revised to give humanity even less of a chance to muster a defense than in previous adaptations.

Tom Cruise as jerkoff Ray Ferrier may not be the world's most likely blue collar shmoe, but he makes a very effective focal point, escaping death by the narrowest of margins time and again, making the death and destruction of the alien invasion a backdrop of sorts.. and it's all the more disturbing for it. Some critics (and my friend) find Ray's invulnerability risible but as unlikely as it may be, it happens, as the events of 9-11 have shown. Devlin and Emmerich memorably took the opposite approach in Independence Day, picking off their ensemble cast one by one in classic disaster movie style thereby putting the audience repeatedly in the place of the victims. But Spielberg, staying true to the novel, sticks with a central, and extremely lucky, narrator. For Spielberg and Wells, the true horror of TWOTW is the suspense of waiting for your luck to run out. But, sadly, that's also where the movie ends up stumbling badly. The conclusion, and I'm not talking about Wells' bacteria, is insulting and absurd, especially following the ruthlessness of the rest of the film. Even luck for the sake of narrative has its limits. Wells' narrator, although he is finally reunited with his wife, is a changed man by the end of the novel; his tidy Edwardian world view irreparably shattered. In Steven Spielberg's version, the ill-considered ending recasts the alien invasion as a kind of elaborate form of family counseling for the dysfunctional Ray and Co., and there is little indication that Ray's narrow perceptions of the world and his place in it have changed one whit (even Pal managed that one). In the ending, I smell the stench of test audiences and producers with weak knees.

But who cares. It's a Summer Blockbuster. I'm just grateful for those tripods.