Saturday, February 16, 2008

Two Days After the Shooting

Stephen Kazmierczak was staying at the Travelodge across the street from me on Wednesday night. He went to a number of stores I shop at. He killed five people inside one of my old classrooms, at the college I graduated from a year and a half ago. I heard the news and emergency choppers go over my apartment before I knew what had happened a mere mile from where I'm sitting right now.

This doesn't seem like reality at the moment, but it is. Hard reality.

The guy was just a few years younger than me. He was apparently a bright guy, a graduate student. He was also bad-tempered and abusive towards his girlfriend. He had a history of mental illness and had stopped taking his medication. He used to cut himself. He'd been in the army back in 2001, but had been given a psychological discharge. But he seemed perfectly fine to family and friends in the week leading up to the shooting. He had four guns that he bought legally and had no criminal record.

The thing that scares us all so much at times like this is not being able to find an answer. Why did this happen? How? How can it be prevented from happening in the future? Can it be prevented from happening in the future? I haven't really processed all of it. I don't know if there will ever be a satisfying answer. No answer could really make much sense.

The scary reality is that something like this probably can't be prevented. How could it be? It can't be predicted, and if it can't be predicted, how can you prevent such an occurrence? People are too unpredictable. There aren't really any warning signs. Sadly, people think there are. Ever since Columbine (hardly the first school shooting in American history, but one of the most terrifying and most tragic), too many kids in school have been railroaded by their peers and their elders for wearing a trenchcoat or dressing in black or liking first person shooter video games or liking gory horror movies or being too artistic or too quiet. There are kids who've been singled out just for being a little moody or too solitary; there's not enough understanding that solitariness in high school or college is a result of being shunned by peers. How are kids supposed to be more social when they're being ridiculed by other kids for being different in the first place?

In high school, I was quiet and moody. I was overweight and teased mercilessly about it for years. When I was in second and third grade, I was popular; people liked my imagination, my creativity, my friendliness. In fourth grade I got fat, and friend after friend started to turn on me because that's what dumb kids do. Kids are stupid. They don't think other people have feelings. And if they do, they think hurting kids' feelings is a game. They enjoy it because, frankly, kids are 95% assholes. They live in fear of being too different, and that comes out by pushing someone who's more different in front of the social opinion train. That's what happened to me, and as a result, I became more and more withdrawn. I tried to be cheery. I tried to stick with people who remained my friends even with the name-calling. But in the sixth grade, even most of them had turned on me, too. One day, I walked home with almost every boy in the sixth grade forming a group around me. They tripped, shoved, punched, and verbally abused me the whole way home.

Did I want to bring a gun to school? You bet your ass I did. I probably only avoided violence because I was a scared, emotional kid and I couldn't find a gun. And my dad had a gun in the house! He had a shotgun that could only fire one shot before reloading. It was in the hall closet on the highest shelf; I could've put a chair over there and taken it down. But I wouldn't have dreamed of touching it. Something always held me back, no matter how angry I got.

By junior high, I was very sullen and angry. My parents got divorced, I had few friends, and of the friends I had, most didn't go to my school. I had always been creative--I was always drawing or writing something--and I liked to read. That's probably what got me through school. Junior high is the worst period of anyone's life, unless you're in a war or prison. Junior high is like prison--you're forced to stew in a building with people you'd never want to associate with if you had a choice, then you're told what to do and marched around all day. The major difference between prison and junior high is that you get to go home after a day of junior high.

I was angrier then than at any other point in my life. I shoplifted a lot; got arrested for it once. I fought with my sister and my parents a lot because I felt like I was the one who got ignored during everything. And I was. I was in seventh grade when my mom told me she and my dad were getting divorced. I started to cry because I was horrified and upset at the idea that my dad was leaving. My mom slapped me across the face because she felt the divorce was about her, not about me. I know this because she told me years later; she didn't want me co-opting her pain. But her marriage was breaking up after 14 or so years. The only life I'd ever been conscious of was being damaged, and that's what I felt my parents never once understood. I still think they don't. I got over it, sure, but not because of any help from them. My dad still has a problem being completely honest with me, and my mom doesn't like to talk about it.

I went through that whole thing every boy goes through of being deeply and dramatically in love with girls who didn't feel the same way. I was rejected all the time, but Christina Padgett, by Katie Kurcab (who at least had the decency to tell me to my face that she didn't like me), by Terri McGinnis. It made me feel more outside; even the nerds were getting dates, but never me. I didn't have a date with anyone until my senior year of high school. I didn't kiss a girl until my senior year of high school, either.

I know I'm not an attractive guy; I'm overweight and I'm kind of a CHUD. I just don't think it's that important anymore. Back then it drove me crazy. All throughout junior high I wanted to kill a bunch of people and then myself. In a conceptual way. I thought about it a lot. A lot. I wore black. I wore flannel shirts and jean jackets. But I never acted on it. I could never hurt someone. I don't know if it's because I'm empathetic or because I know what it's like to be hurt or what, but I didn't want to hurt anyone. At the same time, I know I'm this close to having a real rage problem. I remember seeing the movie The Hulk and really thinking a lot about what it must be like to live with someone who buries their anger so deep that it suddenly explodes in violence. Because I can be that person. I've suddenly, without warning, thrown things, punched holes in walls, kicked garbage cans so hard they've bent, beaten things with baseball bats or hockey sticks. I can't even stop myself from it sometimes. One time, way back in our relationship, I smacked Becca so hard on the ass she fell over. Just because I was frustrated. I once attacked my mom with the claw end of a hammer because she wouldn't stop screaming at me. That's the kind of person I am. And I couldn't bring myself to kill anyone.

When I was a freshman, another student named Aaron died from alcohol poisoning. In one class, they accidentally announced that I was dead. The class applauded.

Is it any wonder that I've never thought my life was worth very much?

This kind of stuff stays with you forever. It keeps you from making friends and it keeps you from interacting normally. I spent the majority of my life being self-conscious and quiet. I was sullen and angry but always polite on the outside. I tried not to whine too much about my problems, not even to counselors. I just hated being at school and I hated being at home and, except for weekends spent at Carl's house, I never had anywhere else to go. I haven't believed in God for a long, long time. But I was in my church youth group all through high school so I could go somewhere and not be home. Carl was in it, too, so we got to hang out. And we were the outsiders of the group, too. I only ever got along with adults and the occasional kid, like Matt Anderson, who was just nice to everyone because he was so outgoing.

I'm rambling now, but my point is that I had that kind of life that less-than-attentive counselors and school administrators think is a warning sign for future violence. I was an outcast, a loner. Sullen and angry, sometimes even mean. I was artistic and created. I wrote short stories, occasionally they were violent. I wrote poetry, too. I had crushes on girls who didn't like me, and at the time they seemed like the end of the world. I had and still have severe anger problems. And I never, ever brought myself to hurt anyone.

Actually, I did hurt a kid in second grade. Derek Yerges. One of the nicest kids in class. I was told the same information over and over again by my teacher and a couple of other people, and I just snapped, punched in the top of my pencil box, tore off a plastic shard and jabbed him in the arm. It didn't break the skin. I was immediately sorry for what I'd done. The teacher asked me why I'd done it. I honestly didn't know.

But I grew up. I graduated. And none of the stuff that happened in high school seemed remotely important. I still internalized a lot of things. I still fought with my mom and my sister all the time. My sister seemed to think it was perfectly okay to take my things and give them to other people as gifts (and now I won't let anyone borrow my stuff). I still felt worthless, but I didn't really care what Melissa Garth or that disease-ridden fucking bitch whore Heather Tautkus said about me anymore. I got over it. My first long-term girlfriend, Christy, emotionally abused me. I got over that, too, and the angry sex was amazing. I started to meet people who respected me because I was intelligent, polite, and creative. I started being more open and friendly. I moved out of the house and got away from my mom for a year; that made me feel much more like an adult.

I got over it.

I grew up.

I never hurt anyone.

I never brought guns to school and took out my frustration on other people.

I still haven't dusted myself, no matter how angry I get.

It's the little things in life. I always thought reading Spider-Man comics and seeing fantasy movies and listening to the complete Bowie, Kinks, Stones, Who, T. Rex, and Queen discography was more important to me than offing myself or someone else. Learning more. Meeting new people. Havin a lot more exciting and perverted sexual adventures. Completing my Muppet Show action figure collection or working on my many unfinished novels or furthering my quest to lose weight. Being alive and reading new books and seeing how many more dinosaur species they can uncover. The little, random beauties of life are so much better than dwelling on the anger and the rage and the slights that can be overcome.

So what's the answer? Maybe there isn't one. Last week's shooting at NIU wasn't the first school shooting this year; it wasn't even the third one that week. And I'm not saying that to minimize the tragedy at all. It's horrible what Kazmierczak did. People lost their lives. People lost their loved ones. And most of the people in DeKalb don't feel very safe right now. There is an undercurrent of violence in America that has never been addressed very well. Why? Where does it come from?

Some people have told me recently that they think it starts with the children of the Hippies and the Me Generation; that those two groups made their kids the center of the universe and lauded political correctness and self-esteem and damaged their kids by telling them they could be whatever they wanted to be if they believed in themselves. They should've been telling their kids they could be whatever they wanted if they worked hard enough. It's something I think has had its effect on society, but what about Charles Whitman? What about Charles Manson? What were they told as kids? What about Charles Starkweather?

I've heard others, of course, talk about the availability of guns, but I'm not sure that's much of an answer, either. Guns aren't available in shops in Britain, but there's still gun violence there. Anyone who wants to find a way to hurt someone bad enough will do it. They'll find a way. I caught Bowling for Columbine recently on IFC and hadn't seen it for years. Michael Moore points out very effectively that there are guns in other civilized countries--France, Germany, England, Canada, Australia, Japan--but that they don't kill each other in anywhere near the same numbers that we do. Is it, as Moore argues, the American culture of fear? The fear that is used to control us and manipulate us and, on occasion, turns us into animals.

Is that it?

What's the answer?

And is there one?

There's So Much Wrong in the World

The opportunity to inflict more of these on us is why the WGA caved in?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Throwdown 2/15

I've got a number of things to say about yesterday's shooting at NIU. Nearly all of this stuff was written down earlier in the week, so I'm not going to address it here. Today I'm going to blow off some steam and get a handle on it. So here are other random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week.

1. How come every time I see Lily Allen doing anything I get the Yogi Bear theme music going through my head?

2. According to a poll done in Scotland, 46% of Scottish students think their country was conquered by England. The great Western sickness of the 21st century. What are kids so fucking smug about today? They don’t know anything.

3. Wow, Hungry Man’s new “You Are What You Eat” campaign is the most sexist advertisement I’ve seen since Burger King appropriated “I Am Woman” to celebrate the most negative stereotypes of malehood (the one in which they called fine dining “chick food”). Now we have a guy calling other men “ladies” because they’re not gorging themselves on Hungry Man dinners. Since when did eating crappy food become a signifier of masculinity?

4. Why do advertisers think that constantly insulting my intelligence will make me want to buy what they’re selling? Kia can kiss my ass with their “unheard of President’s Day sale.” Millard Fillmore is not an unheard of president. You know how I know? I’ve heard of him before. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act making it legal for escaped slaves to seek government help. He also abolished slavery in the District of Columbia. Yeah, I know who he is. For the record, I know who Mallard Fillmore is, too. Now, I know from experience that Kia drivers are dumbasses, but I’m not a dumbass, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t buy your shitty cars. Thanks for the insult, though. Ass.

5. Frank Caliendo: you are a gifted impressionist. But you’re not funny. It’s getting embarrassing now. It’s sorry enough that you’re great at a talent that is about as relevant as playing the zither and making tintype photos. But you’re just not funny.

6. Three words guaranteed to put me in a theater: Rob Zombie’s Conan. I know it’s just a rumor and there’s no director (or script) in sight yet, but Rob Zombie is about the best person I can think of to take Conan and make it real as opposed to just an adventure. I think Zombie would understand the violence and the brutality of Robert E. Howard a lot better than other people have tried to (including major fans of his work, in my experience).

7. The Tolkien estate and HarperCollins are suing New Line over profits from The Lord of the Rings. According to the deal over the rights, the Tolkien’s heirs are entitled to 7.5% of the gross from the trilogy, which is something like, no kidding, $6 billion. They’re also seeking punitive damages and the right to terminate any other rights they’ve sold to New Line, including the deal to make The Hobbit. According to the lawsuit, New Line has not paid a penny. I’m kind of glad this happened, if only because it makes Peter Jackson look less like the greedhead many people accused him of being when he had to sue New Line for the share of profits he was entitled to by the terms of his contract. I hope they win, and I hope they take The Hobbit to another studio. That's what New Line gets for being sneaky and hiding money. And we spent the past few months hearing studios whine about how they just didn't have any more money to give to writers...

8. Rachel Weisz on WGN News this morning: “Since winning the Oscar I’ve definitely gotten a lot more great scripts by great directors.” And the best ones were Eragon, Definitely Maybe, and Fred Claus?

9. The Center for Public Integrity has found that more than half of the top 100 White House officials from the Clinton administration went on to work for or represent businesses in the field they were supposed to be regulating. Northwestern University professor Nikos Passas calls that “deferred bribery.” Remember, Enron happened under Clinton. It just fell apart under Bush.

10. It’s now being reported that Hillary Clinton has sold her campaign donor mailing lists to a direct mailer. I see why people think she really respects her supporters.

11. One last Hillary Clinton slam: she refused to debate on MSNBC because David Shuster asked if Hillary was pimping out Chelsea for votes. After all of the negative things that have been said on any other channel about the Clintons (like, say, on Fox News, where Hillary agreed to debate), she suddenly refuses MSNBC because of a legitimate question? She even refused to accept Shuster’s apology? So, using the comment he made for sympathy and a way to focus the media on her campaign (instead of on Obama’s sweep in the caucuses this week) isn’t pimping Chelsea? I wonder how much campaign money came in because of that little stand on a non-issue…

12. For once, someone in Hollywood made a political protest that actually matters. And to my surprise, it’s Steven Spielberg! He was asked to serve as artistic director at the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, but refused because China is selling weapons to Sudan and won’t address the crisis in Darfur. See, that’s how you use your name for a cause. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Spielberg should be praised for making that decision. He’s a high profile person who was asked to participate in something, and instead of just taking the money, he refused because he didn’t think it was right. I’ll bet there are a lot of people who wouldn’t have thought about the world situation. Good on Spielberg.

13. The Justice Department now not only says that waterboarding is torture, it’s also illegal. So where do we go next?

14. Westboro Baptist Church, the hate group that pickets funerals to get attention for their hatred of homosexuals, was protesting here in Illinois at the funeral of Sarah T. Szafranski. She was one of the victims of the execution-style killings at Lane Bryant over in Tinley Park. She was 22 and a recent graduate of my alma mater, Northern Illinois University. And Fred Phelps and his band of idiots were protesting her funeral because Lane Bryant sells clothes to transvestites and transsexuals. These are the same assholes who demonstrated their epic intolerance at Heath Ledger’s funeral (because he was in Brokeback Mountain) and the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq (because of “don’t ask, don’t tell”). These assholes, these hatemongers, disrupt one of the worst occasions in the lives of a human being—the sudden loss of a loved one—because they can’t stand the idea that something that is not illegal and not immoral and does not involve them in any way is “allowed” to happen in the land of the free. Fuck you, Fred Phelps, you and your little terrorist enclave. You need some serious deep dicking to calm you down. Because we all know why people hate homosexuality so damn much. It’s because they crave the cock. Just give in to it. It’s more fun on the outside of the closet.

15. The House Education and Labor Committee has approved HR 4137, the College Opportunity and Affordability Act. There is a clause in the act, section 494, the Campus-Based Digital Theft Prevention. This clause forces universities to offer eMusic and Rhapsody and other legal music paysites to curb the supposedly massive amount of students illegally downloading on campus computers. Compliance is monitored not by a committee, but by the entertainment industry itself, which also has the power to enforce this clause. They can submit lists of violators to the secretary of education, who then is authorized by the act to deny universities federal funding. Because a student downloaded a song. So, to sum up, Congress is going to protect business at the cost of federal education funding, because protecting the music industry is much more important than education.

Paul Sereno Unveils Two New Species of Dinosaurs

Two more unknown species of dinosaur were found in a 2000 dig in the Sahara and unveiled this week by University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno.

Eocarcharia dinopsEocarcharia was a carcharodontosaurid with sharp, shark-like teeth (its name means "dawn shark"); it's a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus and lived during the same period, though not in the same place (T. Rex never got below the equator). The bony brow may have been used to fight off rivals. It was defintely a predator, and probably a very brutal one.

Kryptops palaiosKryptops, "old hidden face," had this horny material covering its face which appears to be an armor used to protect itself while sticking its head into carcasses. It appears to be a scavenger. It's an abelisaurid.

Both animals measure about 8 meters (25 feet) and lived on the southern Cretacean landmass, Gondwanaland. Their main prey would have been the Nigersaurus Sereno presented last year. Niger has proven to be a very fertile ground for dinosaurs previously unknown.

New Disney Ads

I haven't been keeping up with these, to my surprise. Last year, I posted the first three ads in a series Annie Leibovitz is doing to generate tourism at the Disney theme parks. In the middle of 2007, three more were released.

Roger Federer

Julie Andrews and Abigail Breslin

Rachel Weisz

Now these new ads have come out.

Gisele Bundchen, Tina Fey and Mikhail Baryshnikov

Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez

Whoopi Goldberg

Jessica Biel

I don't know, I still like the general idea of these ads, but they've jumped the shark. Oliver Platt and Lyle Lovett as the Mad Hatter and the March Hare is interesting, Julie Andrews as the Blue Fairy is Disney tradition, but J. Lo and Marc is just too cutesy. And is there anyone who thinks Whoopi is fun anymore? Come on. This is another example of what happens when someone whose art is vital-but-commercial gets older and more insulated.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

School Shooting

Just over an hour ago, there was a shooting over at Cole Hall on the NIU campus. I live less than a mile from that building. When I attended NIU, I took one or two classes a semester in Cole Hall. It's a large lecture hall; it really only contains two auditoriums that seat at least four or five hundred students. There's confusion right now, but somewhere between 4 and 18 students were injured, according to what I heard. News reports keep coming in; I think it might be more. Apparently the shooter is dead and the immediate danger's over. But what the repurcussions will be, no one can say. What the lasting effects will be on the school and on DeKalb... I can't even imagine.

I called over to the NIU bookstore, which is where I worked back in September and October. I talked to my old boss, and she was shaken up. Cole Hall is not too far at all from the bookstore; she said that at least four injured students came to the bookstore. One couldn't stop crying; one asked if he was going to die. One didn't even know she'd been shot.

People are wondering if this has anything to do with the violence threat that put the school on lockdown back in November. I heard all of the helicopters flying low over my home; at that time, there was no report on whether the gunman was dead. I'm so close, all I could picture was someone making their way here and trying to hide. I wonder if my neighbors are okay.

This is fucking scary to even be close to. I'm having a hard time even processing it, and my head hurts over it. Why the hell does this sort of thing happen? Actually, I know why. I can understand the desire, as terrible as that may sound to some people. I've been close to doing the same thing. I understand. But to actually do it... There's no answer for this kind of thing. You can't prevent it. And that's the scariest part.

TV Report: Various and Strike Stuff

I haven't been watching much in the way of television because of the WGA strike. I'm not going to sit and watch repeats or reality shows (unlike certain people I'm related to) just because I'm used to having the box on and humming, so I've really only been watching a couple of things.

I did try to watch the second series of Torchwood on BBC America, but three episodes in and it already feels like homework. I tried twice to watch the first series; the first time, I only made it to the second episode. The second time, I skipped several episodes and caught some of the later ones, including the finale. The later episodes were better, but they were worse, too. It just takes itself so damn seriously. And these kinds of shows are hit or miss for me; if they take themselves too seriously and overdo the supposedly clever irony, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files, I just shut off. Torchwood is the same kind of show: it's incredibly dumb, but thinks it's smart. You can't take it as seriously as Scooby Doo; in fact, I keep waiting for one of the unimaginative aliens (they're worse than Star Trek: The Next Generation for low-tech, dull alien design--everything is a humanoid with an oddly-shaped head) to rip off his mask and be Vincent Price or Don Knotts underneath.

You certainly can't take the characters seriously, which is a real blow to making it enjoyable. Almost to a man, they're loathsome little toads that are impossible to feel sympathy for. They've had some decent moments on the show, true, but trying to turn everything into a serious romantic entanglement only gives each episode two things it can't be successful at: being a character/relationship drama and being a smart science fiction series. And the second series has only gotten worse, as the writers try to balance hollow characters and their ongoing relationship crisis with an episodic monster-of-the-week structure that is more suited to Saturday morning television.

Getting it worst of all is John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness. A great character on Doctor Who, here he's just shoddy and unlikeable, claiming at any moment it suits him to be in love with every one of his co-workers. I think the writers are trying to drive home the point that, as a man out of his time, he's very lonely and searching for something that gives his life meaning. But they're doing it in a very bad way. And Barrowman is too talented for that. Still, I did find out that he's a pretty capable Broadway and West End star, so I've got that to enjoy instead of watching Torchwood. Last week's episode just sat on my TiVo all week. I finally deleted it without watching it. Life's short, you know?

I also wanted to say something about Phineas & Ferb, the new 15-minute animated series that Disney Channel is so proud of. It's symbolic of everything that's wrong with animated television these days. (And as a side-note, Disney Channel needs to stop running its new animated series in primetime and late night; it's not really an appropriate time to run them if they want the audience they're after to see them.)

It's another show about kids who are much smarter than their ages would suggest. They have over-the-top adventures. Just like every other cartoon on television. They have an older sister they fight with. She's a sassy redhead, just like every girl character on television. They have a pet that, like on so many other shows, is an exotic pet that no one has (in this case, a platypus). Also, the platypus is secretly a government agent protecting the world from a mad scientist. Boy is it weird to think that a pet being a secret agent fighting a mad scientist is routine, but in 2008, it absolutely is. Phineas & Ferb is not only charmless and unfunny, it's built out of spare parts from every other cartoon that's been even a marginal hit in the last 10 years.

Can we just finally do something new, please?

Anyway, that aforementioned WGA strike is over now. I can finally stop hearing people say "so-and-so isn't on anymore, thanks to the writers' strike." How come it isn't "thanks to the studios not paying writers a fair wage that's even one-tenth of the people who do less work"? Give me a break. Anyway, I'm just glad to see that The Office, 30 Rock, and Ugly Betty will be coming back before the end of the season. I hope they bring Reaper back, but I guess if they don't it won't be any skin off my nose. I haven't seen it since the last new episode aired back in November or something, and I've forgotten about it, pretty much. I don't miss seeing it, let's put it that way.

To my mom's chagrin, I haven't been watching Lost, and my life doesn't feel any less without it. I'll wait until the DVD is in; the show takes far too much time spinning its wheels, and I didn't really like the direction they went in with the finale last season (I think it doesn't aid an already undramatic show to take the audience's fear of death away from Jack and Kate by showing us their future off the island). I've never enjoyed that show the way I enjoyed watching several episodes at a time on DVD, which is how I saw the first season. It's a show that needs to be serialized in a weekly format, which is not what they were doing before this season (which will have a hiatus anyway because they didn't finish the season pre-strike). There's just no direction, and instead of watching it meander for weeks I'll just catch it all on DVD.

You know what was a great science fiction series? The Prisoner. And if you watch The Prisoner, you can see a lot of it getting ripped off on Lost. Patrick McGoohan said everything he had to say in 17 episodes of The Prisoner, and even then 5 or 6 episodes feel like filler. The guys who do Lost can't get anything out in less than four years? No one knows how to edit themselves for clarity anymore.

A bunch of shows got cancelled, including the awful Bionic Woman. To no one's surprise, Cavemen and Carpoolers got cancelled too. So did Cane, Journeyman and K-Ville. Having tried to watch an episode of Moonlight, I hope that gets the axe too. I can't believe how many shows are on the bubble this year: apparently Big Shots, Boston Legal, Friday Night Lights, Las Vegas, Notes from the Underbelly, Rules of Engagement, Shark, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, The Unit, Welcome to the Captain (has that even aired yet?), and Women's Murder Club all have uncertain futures. I guess a lot will depend on what they can get up and running by the fall, some of that stuff might just be easier to keep in place. Of the shows I've seen on that list, I wouldn't miss a single one.

I also find it interesting that Lipstick Jungle is on the bubble, too. Doesn't that air tonight for the first time? So far the funniest thing about that show to me is that every time Brooke Shields goes on a chat show, she leads off trying to explain why her Sex and the City clone is not a clone of Sex and the City. She might as well just say "It's like Sex and the City but kind of different." It's really sad. Is there anything going for it?

ScarJo, Portman

Does this mean I'm getting that Valentine's Day present we were talking about?

Oh yeah, Happy Bullshit Greeting Card Company Excuse to Mainstream Yet Another Catholic Saint's Day, everyone.

Indiana Jones Trailer

It's out now and, after seeing it, I don't know what to think. I may have upgraded to cautious optimism. You can see it in high def here.

123...MEME!

Another meme from Jaquandor, but this time I got tagged.

1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.


Well, the closest book to me is Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Bablyon.

This is the kind of book that's fun to read because all the people mentioned in it are dead. It's not depressing, like gossip about Hollywood today.

Page 123, fifth sentence, check. Here are the next three:

"Impudent but not clever, with a broad face and low forehead, she was backward in school. Chaplin first laid eyes on Lolita when she was seven years old. The year was 1915, the place a popular tea room frequented by the movie folk, Kitty's Come-On Inn, where Mrs. McMurray (Nana) worked as a waitress."
Sordid!

I'm going to skip the tagging, because I'm not ever sure who I can tag anymore. Personally, I like being tagged.

An Open Letter to Pamela Anderson

Pamela,

I just caught this review on someone's website of a new movie you're in called Blonde and Blonder. And he had up some pictures of you in the movie. And I finally decided I need to ask you this question: what is the point of you? I mean, you're not pretty anymore, you're not funny anymore (and that was always tenuous), you can't act, and you're kind of a moron. And when I say "kind of," it's because I'm being nice. Who marries the guy from the Paris Hilton sex video because he paid her gambling debts and thinks it's going to work out? Are you fucking kidding me? Is it just that you think any attention is good attention? Are you that empty inside that the attention of Pat O'Brien and a bunch of horny guys who remember a long time ago when you were sexy feeds your ego? For God's sake, just stop. We stopped caring a long time ago.

I get it, you've got big boobs. There anything else going on in there?

Cordially,
SamuraiFrog

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

SYDNEY WHITE (2007)
What can I say? Charm, humor, sweetness, and MandyPants will always win out for me. Insubstantial as a cloud, but I enjoyed it. *** stars. I really would like to see Amanda Bynes do something with a little more meat and satire to it, but her ability to take not-so-good dialogue and make it sound off the cuff is intact.

THE GAME PLAN (2007)
For what it was--a silly Disney movie with an obvious ending given its premise--I enjoyed it. I like the Rock, I like the little girl from Corey in the House, I like stories about dads. And I like cute bulldogs, too. *** stars. I really can't defend my enjoyment of this movie, and it's not a strong enough movie to build a defense around, anyway. I just liked it. It was nice.

ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE (2007)
What a disappointment. The original Elizabeth is one of my favorite movies, a Shakespearean history of Elizabeth I's rise to and consolidation of power. It had riveting performances, real passion and drama, and a humanity that made it exciting and powerful. And people loved Shakespeare in Love more because it was anachronistic, lame, and oh so pretty-pretty. This second film about Elizabeth is probably as good as a picture can be without a beginning, middle, or end. No, scratch that--The New World doesn't really have a beginning, middle, or end, yet it's one of the best movies I've ever seen. The Golden Age is certainly colorful and handsome, with very good special effects. It has actors I nearly always like--Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Samantha Morton. It's just... well, like Dorothy Parker said, there's no there there. It looks wonderful, it has great actors, and yet there's absolutely nothing going on. The actors are at a loss because none of them have a character to play or any scenes to act. Situations and characters whiz by at such a fast pace that they barely have time to register. It's easy to forget that a great deal of the film hangs on the conspiracy of Mary, Queen of Scots, because it's barely dealt with at all. She's there, she gets upset, and then she's executed. None of the major plot components in this film--the romance of Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh, Mary, the love triangle that develops, the political situation with Spain, the conspiracy to assassinate the queen, the battle with the Spanish Armada--feels remotely connected to the other components, and none of them end satisfactually. Poor Geoffrey Rush, who had the biggest impact in the first film as Walsingham, is barely given any screen time and has nothing to do. The end is insensible. It's a crushing disappointment given the talent involved at all ends. ** stars, but it's al for technical reasons.

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (1979)
Absolutely the definitive documentary about the Who. Keith Moon was still alive, and instead of wasting a lot of time with the bullshit retrospective and placing everything in a social context to give it a larger meaning, like rock docs do now, this is just about the energy of one of rock's best bands and how it comes out. The interview clips are few and far between, and most of them are taken from television appearances. There is a generous wealth of concert footage from various outings (including TV appearances). It doesn't go in chronological order at all; songs seem to be put in one place or the other because they sound the best that way, making it a sort of chaotic mix tape with no larger point than "The Who Rocks!" And they do rock. It's a fucking joy to watch and to hear, and even resists the urge music critics and documentarians can't avoid today of deifying Tommy. This is the Who at the height of their perfection, denying they've done anything creative or important, and simply rocking out like no other band ever could, before or since. **** stars.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
Yes, I hate Paul Thomas Anderson. A lot. I loved Boogie Nights as much as I despised Magnolia. But I take every film on its own merits without letting my hatred of people involved color my appreciation or non-appreciation. I just wanted to get that out of the way. Now, as for the film itself, on its own terms and away from my negative opinion of PT: it's a masterpiece. An absolute masterpiece. Anderson takes the story of an oilman who exploits the land and communities to become rich, and turns it into a pastoral meditation on the birth of modern America. Without having to argue it, he makes the point for religion and industry as the driving forces behind the 20th century. I'm not sure I can explain this movie in a way that will do it justice, but it deals with an oilman who takes over a community to drill for oil, and a preacher who slickly demands an acknowledgment of his authority over that same community. Both men are cynical and lust for power, but they do it for different reasons and manifest it in different ways. Daniel Day-Lewis as oilman Daniel Plainview gives a performance that creates a man with the ability to charm and reason but who, for all that, breathes and eats utter contempt for every living thing. It's a powerful, complex performance of raw brutality barely concealed beneath the veneer of civilized man. Matching him as the preacher is Paul Dano, who also pretends to care but relishes his perceived power over others. They form two sides of a national character that can neither co-exist nor escape one another. The movie plays out in long sequences, muted passions, and a slow build-up that certainly pays off. There is always sound on the edges of this picture--the whistle of the wind, murmuring voices, and Daniel always appears to be listening to something he can't quite make out. It's like a teakettle, and it carries through the whole film, making everything more and more tense, until a final explosion at the end relieves it. It's an amazing film, one of the best I've ever seen. Anderson is pretty obviously influenced by Kubrick in this film, but only in some of the execution. This is one of the boldest, most original, and--dare I say--important movies of the post-Tarantino world. **** stars.

ATONEMENT (2007)
Wow, what an awful movie. It feels like the makers of this film never really got a good handle on what it was about. Things happen, but the movie's not really about any of those things. It pushes characters around, but it's not really about any of the characters. It all deals with this creepy little girl, an erotophobic, pushy little pervert who thinks the world revolves around her and who, through willful misunderstandings and a desire to be right, ruins the lives of her sister and the man she loves with false accusations. In her little god-complex mind, she's writing a story and not messing with reality. She lies over and over again to create an effect. She comes to realize what she did wrong, but so what? At the end of the movie, she's still playing mistress of the universe, writing the story as a book the way she would have ended it, saying of the two "I gave them their happiness." The god-complex doesn't fade, I guess. The actors have no characters to play and don't do much more than drift meaninglessly through abritrary scenes. It's a hateful little movie with no points to make, no characters to explore, and it's a relief when it's over. * star. Incidentally, a lot of people tell me it's unfair to rate a movie down because of an anachronism, but anachronisms show how much filmmakers aren't devoting attention to details. In this movie, one of the cyphers goes to see a filmstrip in which Queen Elizabeth II visits the British soldiers in 1939. Except that, in 1939, Elizabeth was not yet Queen of England, and she was 13 years old. The British monarch during World War II was her father, King George VI. Elizabeth became Queen when he died in 1952. Just needed to point that out. So much for verisimilitude.

MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007)
This is a perfect exercise in a genre I'd just about given up for dead: the intelligent legal thriller. It's not much more than that, really; it doesn't have anything to say about its lawyer characters or the corporate cynicism which they roam in. It doesn't make any moral points about the pollution that is its central MacGuffin, or about the mental deterioration that takes down the guy in possession of the damning evidence. It doesn't say a thing about society. But Michael Clayton is a strong movie with strong performances (George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton are all excellent) and a great script. It's about those characters, but not in a really deep way. I can't write about this film in a way that doesn't involve backhanded praise, apparently. What I'm trying to say is, it's a great, great film that's easy to get caught up in and enjoy. It's smart about its characters and doesn't turn them into puppets in an action movie. And that cuts a lot of ice for me. **** stars.

Masters of Animation: UPA

Preamble here.

United Productions of America was a semi-successful commercial and industrial film outlet that was pushed towards theatrical cartoons as much by their desire to create as by their sudden loss of all contracts after an FBI investigation of the company and its former communists (including John Hubley and Phil Eastman). Executive producer Stephen Bosustow, after breaking with co-founders Dave Hilberman and Zack Schwartz, had approached Columbia in 1948, whose failing Screen Gems animation division was practically begging to be put out of its mistery. Bosustow asked for a distribution deal. Uncertain, Columbia asked for a Fox and Crow short as a test run.

With UPA fully-formed and ready to forge ahead with a new kind of animation style, it may have been a small blow to get a deal for another Fox and Crow picture. John Hubley had already worked at Screen Gems on the Fox and Crow series, and having to go back seemed like an actual step back. He directed the 1948 short Robin Hoodlum, a cartoon featuring an design-heavy style that focused on character and wit instead of full backgrounds and details. The film was funny and sophisticated (some gags were donated by Chuck Jones, Mike Maltese, Tedd Pierce, and Friz Freleng), and Hubley had done the best he was willing to do, but Columbia didn't like it. They asked for another film, The Magic Fluke, which was also snappy and fast-paced, but it shows even more than in Robin Hoodlum that John Hubley pretty much considers Fox and Crow beneath him. There is no attention to detail or logic or story; Hubley seems to have just wanted to get the films finished. Whatever Columbia ended up thinking about Robin Hoodlum and The Magic Fluke, both films ended up getting Oscar nominations.

But UPA wanted to make a serious break from the animal characters, slapstick gags, fast pacing, and overbearing cuteness that had been mainstays of animation for years. Columbia was reluctant to let UPA break away from Fox and Crow, but agreed to let John Hubley create a human character. That character was Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted, obstinate old man. He was introduced in the 1949 cartoon The Ragtime Bear (which also featured the title bear, showing how nervous Columbia really was about breaking from the formula). The cartoon signaled an almost immediate change in the cartoon dynamic. Here, finally, was something fresh and different, but also a return to comedy based on character and not on gags (something that, arguably, only Chuck Jones was doing by 1949). The animation itself, some of it by Art Babbitt, is excellent and doesn't feel limited at all. Jim Backus was cast to play Magoo; during the recording, he was allowed to ad lib heavily, and his muttering became a key to making the character warm and funny. His obstinance was not off-putting or abrasive, but hilarious and inviting. The cartoon was good enough for Columbia; they signed UPA to a distribution deal and, after a third, ineffectual outing (Punchy de Leon), agreed to abandon Fox and Crow. The UPA cartoons would appear under the banner Jolly Frolics.

Hubley was reluctant to make Mr. Magoo a recurring character. He directed another Magoo short, Spellbound Hound, in 1950, before taking on his role as supervising director and getting assignments straight. He was fairly disorganized, and it took him some time. UPA was smart not to take on too much at once; they were limited to 7 cartoons a year, giving them time to make each one a real effort. But Hubley's Mr. Magoo cartoons were a breath of fresh air and became immediately popular; Columbia wanted more, and Steve Bosustow put Pete Burness in charge of the series (though Bungled Bungalow is my personal favorite of the non-Hubley cartoons, Trouble Indemnity was nominated for an Oscar). UPA went from not being able to pay its employees to a stable, prosperous studio.

Then, in 1950, UPA released the cartoon it is still best known for: Gerald McBoing Boing. It cemented the reputation of the studio with its brilliant simplicity. Based on a Dr. Seuss story about a boy who can only make sounds instead of speech, the film was hailed by critics as an animated film superior to all the other animation being produced. Critics tend to measure all animation against Disney, and many felt Gerald McBoing Boing had done the job of stripping away all of the Disney cuteness and artifice and pretension and getting at story and emotion the way no one else had. The cartoon is, in fact, one of the best American cartoons ever made. It is stylistic and unpretentious, with simplicity in its story, its editing, and its design. There is nothing there that is merely to produce an effect; it's design in service of a story, however slight it may be. Interestingly, there are no lines to define walls and floors; it's all suggested through the placement of objects. Best of all is a brilliant color scheme that reflects the emotions of the characters. There are flourishes, to be sure, but not in a showy way. Bobe Cannon directed the film; animators included Bill Melendez and former Disney animator Rudy Larriva.

The UPA cartoons, it could be argued, were as conventional as any other studio's in terms of storytelling. The difference was in the approach. The UPA artists eschewed the cuteness of Disney and the slapstick of Warners (in fact, they openly looked down on the cartoons of other studios). But rather than making cartoons that were earnest and sweet, they made cartoons that were funny and smart. They were critical darlings from here on out; Gerald McBoing Boing won an Oscar. From this point on, UPA would nominated for an Oscar almost every year (in 1956, all three nominated cartoons were from UPA).

The Oscar was, however, a source of resentment, especially between Bobe Cannon and John Hubley. Cannon hated working with Hubley so much on Brotherhood of Man in 1946 that, when it was completed, Cannon went to work at Disney. After less than a year, he was working for Tex Avery. By 1948, he'd returned to UPA to work on Robin Hoodlum. Cannon was a man who, though quick to anger, avoided confrontation. Hubley was, according to some, an insensitive bully who thrived on conflict. He liked instability and it fed his cartoons. Cannon, on the other hand, wanted to make cartoons that were simple and quiet--he was much more interested in design and movement than character. Hubley was interested in good aesthetics and advocated full animation. There were still hurt feelings over Brotherhood of Man; though Cannon was given sole director credit, he felt Hubley had stolen too much credit for himself.

To make matters worse, Hubley as supervising director was arguing with Bosustow about money. Though UPA had an adventurous and free atomsphere, it did have a budget. Columbia was putting up $27,500 per short, and the cartoons always came in overbudget. Hubley and Cannon could go through an entire cartoon budget just designing and redesigning layouts. Everything else was overage; Bosustow was forced to sell UPA's ownership of its own cartoons to Columbia. UPA went broke quickly and more layoffs ensued; weekly paychecks became a thing of the past. They didn't show a profit until they resumed commercial work, making a deal with Ford Motors for a series of eight Seuss-written ads. Thanks to returns from the early Magoo cartoons and Gerald McBoing Boing, Columbia increased the budget per short to $35,000. But Hubley and Cannon couldn't work together, and Hubley was demoted to director. The two were given their own units independent of one another; T. Hee, the former Disney story man, worked with Cannon, while Paul Julian worked with Hubley. Julian felt Cannon's films were too cutesy.

Hubley was finally able to return to directing cartoons. In 1951 he returned to Mr. Magoo (now a series) to direct Fuddy Duddy Buddy, the cartoon where Magoo's personality began to soften. Hubley here moved into direct sentimentality; he never directed another Magoo and lost control of the series. Magoo, though popular with audiences, would become more mechanical and formulaic, with less comedy from the character's obstinance. The gags became all about Magoo's nearsightedness, and he became more loveable. He became cute and, as a result, less funny. Cannon, meanwhile, was making cartoons like Georgie and the Dragon, The Oompahs, Christopher Crumpet, and Madeline (from the famous Ludwig Bemelmann book), which emphasized charm and imagination over gags and stories.

Hubley's next film, Rooty Toot Toot, is one of his best achievements at UPA. The film was a sort of stylized jazz ballet of sex, violence, jealousy, nastiness, and revenge. It was rough and gritty, but entertaining and stylized. The stylization is one of the highlights of the film, as the characters are revealed through design and movement, and mood is revealed by color changes and dance styles. Hubley even used live action film of dancer Olga Lunick as a reference point, although there couldn't be any rotoscoping with the strange character design. Animators on the film included Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, and former Lantz animator Pat Matthews. The jazz score by Phil Moore uses music styles to further define character; it was also the first onscreen credit to a black composer. Hubley's film was chaotic and utilized every style device he could think of, but it also told a story with interesting characters and is a highlight of American cartoons. In coupling strong design with strong animation and a strong story, Hubley made a cartoon that was the apex of UPA animation. And he also made a cartoon that nearly bankrupted the studio. It was nominated for an Oscar and many expected it to win. It didn't.

Hubley next did animated inserts for a film called The Four Posters which heavily influenced the Yugoslavian studio Zagreb Film. He would never direct another film for UPA. In 1951 and 1952, the House Un-American Activities Committee was again heavily involved in Hollywood, and most of the communists identified in the animation industry worked at UPA. Columbia began to purge UPA of employees with any sort of communist reputation, firing former party member Phil Eastman and his writing partner Bill Scott. Scott was not a communist. To Bosustow's credit, he refused to participate in the blacklisting; rather than cause the studio any harm because of his association and his past party membership, John Hubley resigned. Many feel that Hubley took all of UPA's promise with him.

Some more experimentation (at least with the format) occured in 1953. First, Bill Hurtz directed A Unicorn in the Garden, an adaptation of a James Thurber story that was animated in the style of Thurber's illustrations. The cartoon is witty and clever, and one of UPA's best. But it isn't charming, and charm had become UPA's stock-in-trade (as an example, they produced three more Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons that were charming, yes, but pale repeats of the superior original). Bosustow was openly hostile towards the film and refused to submit it for Oscar consideration. Hurtz quit UPA and went on to work in television commercials.

Also in 1953, Ted Parmelee directed The Tell-Tale Heart, a unique cartoon that uses several artistic styles (especially German expressionism) to adapt Poe. The film depends on excellent narration of the tale by James Mason. It's a very serious, dark piece that showed a willingness on the part of some UPA artists to move past charm and keep experimenting with new styles. It's atmospheric and artistic. But it's also, perhaps, too fast-paced for an audience conditioned to expect gags at certain beats. It was test-screened twice; both times the audience laughed. A card was added to the film reminding the audience that this was serious business, but even today, The Tell-Tale Heart is often dismissed. It was, however, nominated for an Oscar.

1953 was the year that Columbia renewed its contract with UPA. After strange cartoons like A Unicorn in the Garden and The Tell-Tale Heart, Columbia agreed to re-up with UPA only for Mr. Magoo cartoons. Any non-Magoo films would have to be approved. After 1956, UPA would make only Mr. Magoo cartoons. There were occasional bright spots (such as the two Oscar winners, When Magoo Flew--the first in Cinemascope--and Mr. Magoo's Puddle Jumper), but for the most part the series had become routine and soft and, sadly, just like anyone else's.

1956 was the year UPA made the move into television, commissioned by CBS to do the first weekly animated series made directly for a network: The Gerald McBoing Boing Show. By that time, Steve Bosustow and Jules Engel were the only original staffers left--John Hubley, Phil Eastman, Bill Scott, Bill Hurtz, Ted Parmelee, and Bill Melendez were all gone. UPA expanded and recruited more talent to meet the demands of a weekly series. One of the new animators was George Dunning, who went on to direct Yellow Submarine (and nearly The Lord of the Rings). It was a collection of cartoons that was very popular with TV critics and PTA groups, but not with kids. It only lasted two years. UPA also expanded to open a New York studio specifically for commercial films and advertisements. Gene Deitch worked there as a director. Mr. Magoo appeared in Stag Beer ads; UPA was also behind the original Bert and Harry Piel campaign, which featured the voices of Bob and Ray. Grim Natwick moved over to the New York staff.

By the end of the 1950s, UPA was a style unto itself, as Disney had been. And, like Disney, the creative spark had left it and gone elsewhere. It had become a reference point which other studios measured itself against or simply tried to emulate. Even Disney aped the flat animation style in cartoons like Pigs Is Pigs and Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom. It influenced so much cartoon work so quickly, especially in television, but it also cheapened itself and became a factory. Perhaps that's inevitable everywhere. Besides the blacklist and the financial problems, Steve Bosustow was hard to work with. Many colleagues felt he was quick to claim all the credit for UPA, and staffers dropped away quickly to pursue work elsewhere.

Columbia was pressing UPA to do a feature. Several stories were considered, including a Gilbert and Sullivan mini-opera and a collection of James Thurber stories which were actually optioned. But Columbia had been adamant in its demand of Magoo only and, with the exception of an attempted series of Ham and Hattie cartoons, they'd gotten Magoo only. They wanted a Magoo movie. Pete Burness wanted to do Don Quixote with Magoo as Quixote; Aldous Huxley wrote a treatment. But Columbia opted for a different story, and UPA ceased production of the shorts in order to concentrate on Mr. Magoo's feature debut, 1001 Arabian Nights. Burness, long the main Magoo director, got into a fight with Bosustow and walked out of the studio. He was replaced by Disney vet Jack Kinney, the best of the Goofy directors. The film, unfortunately, is dull. Magoo wanders in and out of a story he's not connected to at all, while dull heroes and villains go on with heroics and villainy that are a snooze to watch. The film, released in 1959, was hardly a box office sensation, and signaled the end of UPA.

Jules Engel finally left the company. The New York office closed because of the competition, and an attempted London office was never opened (but still cost the studio a lot of money). Animated theatrical shorts were rapidly becoming a thing of the past; most of the animation talent was moving to TV. Scott, Hurtz, Melendez, Burness, Parmelee, and Lew Keller were doing excellent work on Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle. Steve Bosustow finally sold out to producer Henry G. Saperstein, who immediately took UPA to television, doing 130 Mr. Magoo cartoons and 130 Dick Tracy cartoons that are uniformly awful. Abe Levitow directed a second UPA feature, Gay Purr-ee, a terrible vehicle for Judy Garland and Robert Goulet as cats falling in love in Paris (with a Harold Arlen score). Newsweek, feeling the film was both too sophisticated and too dumb to find an audience, quipped that it must have been made for "the fey four-year-old of recherche taste."

UPA's reputation was now diminished. But the studio had expanded the horizons of animation and influenced the medium in a way that only Walt Disney had done before. It's hard now convincing people that Mr. Magoo was ever funny, but he certainly was. And for a small, brief period of time, UPA was the finest animation studio around.