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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Olaiya, in an heroic display of patience, came with me to see a impromptu double feature of Beowulf and No Country for Old Men last Monday night. O isn't known for having double-dip fortitude to begin with, and these were two heaping helpings of testosterone.

Beowulf isn't really worth commenting on except to say that 3D f/x have come a long way. It's fun to feel like you're being shot in the head with a volley of arrows when you're sitting in a darkened theater. No one can see you flinch.

The squirming got a lot worse with No Country for Old Men however. First off, Javier Bardem has made himself into one freaky mofo, and every time he's on the screen you cringe in dread waiting for something completely awful to happen. It's been a while since I've taken a joyride with a sociopath, and this is one of the most disturbing portrayals in cinematic history.

Creepiest haircut ever!

The film itself lives up to the hype, sort of. The cinematography and acting are uniformly excellent. The Coen Brothers render atmosphere masterfully. Everything is still and ominous Texas prairie... until it isn't... and then you wish it would go back to being still and ominous because the punctuation marks in NCFOM push the envelop of cold brutality. Bardem's character sees the human race as cattle, and appropriately uses a pneumatic bolt gun (among other weapons) to butcher whosoever he chooses.

Without giving out too many spoilers, I'll say that the film follows two parallel character arcs: Tommy Lee Jones as an old-fashioned lawman trying to make sense of the new breed of criminals, and Javier Bardem as a sociopathic bounty hunter inflicting his own skewed sense of honor on the world. The conclusion is very untypical of Hollywood films, and I'm glad no one tried to force a satisfying ending on this film.

I've only read one Cormac McCarthy book (All the Pretty Horses) but I figure him to be a man who cultivates his nostalgia for the old West, and feels that we've all lost something precious with its passing. All the Pretty Horses tells the story of an honorable man whose skills no longer fit the changing world... an anachronism. In this film, Tommy Lee Jones provides that same character type. While there are lots of unanswered questions, symbolism both cryptic and blatant, and empty spaces where the audience must fill in their own conclusions, it's the image of Jones riding off into the sunset that we're left with (even if we never actually see him riding off into any sunsets.)

This is where I have difficulty with the film. I'm open to being disproved (and I've heard some pretty far out interpretations about what this film "means") but it felt to me that McCarthy (and the Coen Bros) are mostly portraying the tragedy of change. They seem to be harping on the idea that traditions and honor cannot compete with the new nihilism. The problem I have with that is that alarmists have always (at least since the days of Plato) lamented about the next generation's descent into thuggery, lechery and moral decay. People who imagine that previous eras enjoyed a perfect world (e.g. the way some people feel about 1950's) are conveniently ignoring all the child abuse, rape and lack of civil rights that was rampant in those years. People who wish they could live in medieval times would all be dead before they were 30 from diseases, famine or war. That's just not a realistic view of the world. These "Chicken Littles" strike me like the evening news: sensationalistic ambulance chasers profiting off of our collective fear and fascination. I refuse to believe we've fallen off a cliff of nihilism, or feel sad that old cowboys no longer have a distinguished place at our societal table. Nor do I believe that the 80's (when NCFOM is set) produced more sociopaths than the 50's.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007


A few months ago, as an experiment in "random noise humor", I asked the posters over at Lookout Landing to indulge in a "non-sequitur only" conversation thread. There was a healthy response, and some fun reading that came out of it. You can see the results here.

A couple of things stood out to me... first: it's damn hard to make truly random responses. Most attempts at random thought generation are actually based on abstract (or hidden) neural connections. If I say "angry" and you reply "popsicle" it may sound random, but there's probably a connection in that grubby little mind of yours. Sometimes these hidden connections reveal something about the writer... sometimes they reveal something about how the reader fills in the gap. Either way can be entertaining from a psychological perspective. Sometimes the most humorous posts are the ones where a secret meaning emerges purely by accident. This can be entertaining in the same way that the Garfield Randomizer is. I wish there were more venues to continue this kind of experiment.

Secondly, I encountered this graphic, which was posted as a non-sequitur response to a previous post, but also includes an attempt at absurdist humor based on a non-sequitur within it. I've been ruminating on this cartoon far too much over the last month so I need to write about it.

This brought to mind an old routine by George Carlin. He once said that anything was funny, even rape. To prove his point he told his audience to picture Bugs Bunny raping Elmer Fudd. You were supposed to laugh. You were supposed to concede the point. The problem, for me, was that Carlin's routine wasn't actually funny. He didn't prove anything.

Now to my confession... When I first read this cartoon I contorted with laughter. In fact, I revisited it the next day and LOL again. How is it that this four panel cartoon succeeded where George Carlin failed? My conjecture is that the humor in this cartoon has nothing to do with actual rape (unlike the Carlin bit) but instead relies on shocking the reader with massive changes of tone. To begin with, Doug (a Nickelodeon cartoon about a sixth grader) should never be talking about date rape. This juxtaposition alone is like much of the humor found at the Garfield Randomizer site I linked to above (where Family Circus characters are made to quote HP Lovecraft.) But it's the final panel that hits hardest: when we are suddenly pulled back into the typically goofy cartoon world after reading through a scene involving serious emotional gravity. It may actually be the beads of sweat on Doug's brow that sells this cartoon more than anything else. It's those drops of sweat that reinforce that this isn't just a random panel mashup... Doug is still freaking out, but Doug's friend has suddenly reverted to 6th grade shenanigans.

So... is it funny? If it is, does that mean that rape can be funny? Or can I rest assured that rape is still unfunny, and this cartoon cracks me up for other reasons?

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Past Blasting

I got a mysterious RSVP for our last Full Belly event. A stranger named Jenny A said that she found us on Google and that "suffice it to say, we have mutual friends." She was enigmatic about who our connection was, which is a sure way to drive me completely bonkers trying to figure it out. I was wracking my brain, thinking about every Jen, Jennifer and Jenny I have ever known. I think there's about 600 of them.

Then she rang the doorbell and my past, as they say, was blasted. Jenny A, formerly Jen D, stood in my doorway laughing at my ridiculous expression. I hadn't seen her in a dozen years. And that time was a freak run-in. Before that it was probably the Summer after my senior year of high school since we'd last spent any time together. Lucky thing she still looks about the same. As it was, it took me a full heartbeat to reconnect all the neurons.

As I told Jenny that night, it was a wonderful feeling to see her again. I had pretty much written off everyone I knew in high school, save for the few friends that I still keep in touch with. I hadn't considered the possibility of reconnecting with anyone outside that sphere. When my ten year reunion came (and went) I barely noticed. I always assumed that revisiting that time in my life would only feel awkward or disappointing. Instead, I had to check myself from gossiping too much about our old mutual friends (and boring everyone else at the party.) It was delightful to see Jenny again and I hope she keeps supporting the Full Belly Project!


Monday, November 12, 2007

Birthday Party for Meems

O's mom, and her dear friend Bryan, came over for a birthday celebration dinner. Olaiya, as usual, cooked up a fine repast. The mash (made with celery root, potatoes and apple cider) complimented everything else on the plate perfectly. The other guests enjoyed Cornish game hens, whilst I supped on Brussels sprouts. May sound like a raw deal, but actually they were delicious. The birthday cake, a frozen tiramisu concoction, was amazing.

Much of the night's humor revolved around telling people that they were "cut off". As in, Cher tipped over a water glass and everyone muttered, "That's it... cut her off. She's out of control." But no one was more "cut off" than Bryan. Late in the night when Bryan was describing the difficulty of self-promotional marketing, Olaiya asked him in an ironic drawl, "Are you an AmeriCAN or an AmeriCAN'T?" His reply: "I'm an AmeriCUNT." After 10 minutes of falling out of our chairs laughing, Bryan was officially cut off for the rest of the night.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007


Next to Modified Big Boggle, Scrabble may be the best board game ever. I don't play much anymore however. Never enough time or willing participants. That's all changed thanks to Scrabulous.

Dan brought the first Scrabulous challenge. I got a simple email saying I had been invited to a game. I clicked on the link to bring up a webpage showing the board. The interface was refreshingly intuitive. The options (e.g. playing with or without challenges) are solid. The game has no time limits since you play over email. In short, it's everything I've been missing in life.

So I immediately challenged Debs, Dingo, Walaka and Soapy to head to head matches in addition to my game with Dan. Fortune was smiling upon me as I bingo-ed early against Dan with NEURONAL... on my first move against Walaka (I had BEANIES out of the gate) and crushed Soapy with a FAERIES seven letter play that also made PI, ALE and TRIBES. I opened against Debs with a double word score of EXHORT (dropping the X on a double letter square) and managed another double word score with PROLIX on the very next play. Life was one big can of whoopass and I had the only can opener. I felt invincible.

Then Dingo came out of nowhere, blasting me with a triple word TOXIC, vaulting into a late lead and fending me off by then stealing my next play spot. Well played... good show... yada yada... whatever. I WANT REVENGE. Scrabble is a blood sport and I won't settle for less than best two out of three.

So... anyone want a piece of me? Send me an email and I'll send you a Scrabulous challenge.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Will Shortz Blood Oath

My crossword was rejected.
I realize this is what happens when you try. You fail.


First you reread the rejection letter making sure you didn't misunderstand. Maybe you didn't get what "sending my regrets" meant the first time?

Then you fantasize about running your judge through with a broken wooden lance; splinters dipped in poisonous acid rend and burn his flesh. You imagine backing your horse up to step on his face, pealing his cheekflesh away from the skull and revealing the terminator grin of a man who obviously has a satanic black heart pumping ichor through his veins instead of blood. Ants and flesh-eating beetles swarm the open wounds on his face and, still screaming, he becomes a skeleton before your eyes. You sear the promise of his suffering into your brain. He will pay for this insult! Like so many others before you, you swear the Will Shortz Blood Oath. How could he fail to recognize the genius of your puzzle? How could he call it "themeless"? It so clearly had a theme... a cute and clever one at that. By the gods, just how cute and clever do you have to be for that bastard to notice?!

Then you start scheming about resubmitting it under a different name. Polishing it up a bit first. Put some zing in those clues. Or maybe there's another place to get it published? Surely there's a viable way out of this pit of rejection.

Then the waves of futility hit... Little cherubic voices, long dormant, start to sing the angelic chorus: "Your not smart enough to do this. Don't embarrass yourself further." The voices pull you down until your head slumps, your heart rate slows, your reddened eye lands upon a bottle of whisky across the room. The mental image of setting fire to a large office building suddenly seems like the only thing that might make you laugh... ever again.

And then finally, you take a deep breath. You remember that making crosswords isn't exactly your day job. You remember that rejection is part of growing and learning. You remember that famous Samuel Beckett quote: "Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

And that, my friends, is the cycle of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Or DABDA for those who remember this from their junior high health class curriculum. Oddly I didn't really recognize it until I was sitting down to write this blog post.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Appointment Television

I don't believe in it.
I don't have "my shows."
I used to think there were things I couldn't live without. For years I watched the Simpsons religiously. Now I can't remember the last time I watched a new Simpson's episode.
I used to make it a point to watch the Colbert Report and the Daily Show whenever I could. But now that I don't have extended basic cable any more, that sense of "I need to watch this" quickly evaporated (like an addiction) and I realize that I never really needed Stephen Colbert anymore than I needed Mexican soap operas.

Also, I'm less willing to put up with advertisements these days. Plus the long waits between episodes. It all adds up to the fact that I'd rather watch the occasional television series as a Netflix rental, than ever waste time actually nursing at "the glass tit." (Editor's note: election results and sports events are excluded from the rant above, since there's nothing like seeing them unfold live on TV.)

England's new Prime Minister

So then along comes The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard. This is a BBC drama being broadcast on PBS on Sunday nights at 9pm. No commercials. Smart script. It's a West Wing type political drama set in England. Relevant, fast-paced, and funny. Check it out, and see if it isn't refreshing to see a quality hour-long programme without commercial breaks. And the timing is perfect for someone working a Mon-Fri gig. It's that last little bit of entertainment to round out your weekend. Plus it's nice to see an engaging political drama with a largely female cast. Maybe it's conditioning us to better support a Hillary administration next year?

So maybe one hour in front of the boobtube each week isn't such a bad thing.