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Song of the Day (11/30/09) November 30, 2009

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With December only hours away, it seems like a good night for something mellow.  Tom McRae hit it big with his first two albums (his self-titled debut garnered him a Mercury Music Prize nomination in the U.K. in 2001), but he’s recently settled into semi-respected singer/songwriter territory, releasing an album of delicate pop songs every couple years to moderate acclaim and sales.  McRae has a soothing tenor, and it’s usually supported by piano, acoustic guitar, and understated strings.  Just the right thing for a chilly autumn night.  McRae’s second album, 2003’s Just Like Blood, is my favorite.  This song comes from that album, and it’s called “You Only Disappear.”

Rules of Disengagement November 30, 2009

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Cujo (1983) is an important movie in the Stephen King canon, mainly because it’s the first of his film adaptations to kind of suck.  His first three films (not counting the TV miniseries ‘Salem’s Lot) were directed by Brian de Palma, Stanley Kubrick, and George Romero.  For Cujo, the producers enlisted a guy named Lewis Teague, whose only claim to fame at that point was a horror spoof named Alligator (notable mainly for the fact that it was scripted by indie phenom John Sayles).  Post-Cujo, Teague went on to direct one more King adaptation (Cat’s Eye),  Jewel of the Nile (the crappy sequel to Romancing the Stone) and Navy Seals (starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn!), and then found himself relegated to episodic television.  Long story short: for the first time, King’s work was being directed by a guy who didn’t have an impressive track record, and whose name wouldn’t eventually be remembered as one of the leading lights of cinema.

Despite that, though, the movie isn’t entirely terrible.  I said it kind of sucks, and it kind of does.  But some of it is pretty great.  It stars Dee Wallace (fresh off her starring role in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial) as Donna Trenton, a housewife married to Vic (an ad executive), and mother to 6-year-old Tad (a shockingly believable Danny Pintauro, who’d go on to play adorable moppet Jonathan in Who’s the Boss?).  Unbeknownst to Vic, Donna is having an affair with the local carpenter, and this rot at the center of their marriage is what takes up most of the first half of the movie.  The hook of the film (and King’s book), of course, is that it’s about a killer St. Bernard, but one of the weird flaws of the movie is that the horror and suspense essentially play second fiddle to this domestic drama.

So where does the dog come in?  The titular St. Bernard is out frolicking at the start of the film, chasing a rabbit into a cave (but not rescuing a stranded skiier with the keg around his neck, which is what I was hoping he’d be doing ).  He barks, the bats living in the cave get angry, one scratches him across the snout, et voila! Rabies.  Cujo belongs to a mechanic who lives, conveniently enough, way the hell out in the middle of nowhere.  VIc Trenton leaves on a business trip (apparently a cereal for which he designed the ad campaign has started killing kids – which sounds like a pretty good horror movie by itself), and while he’s gone, Donna and Tad drive out to the mechanic’s home to try and get their car fixed.  Little do they know, the mechanic and his family are gone – but Cujo is very much there and very much foaming at the mouth.

The rest of the movie focuses on Donna and Tad, who are now trapped in the car.  Every time they try and set foot outside, Cujo comes barking, smashes himself against the door, nearly shatters the windshield, etc.  It’s all very tense.  And of course no one comes to their rescue because Vic is out of town and the mechanic put his mail on hold before leaving.  There’s a wholly unnecessary subplot wherein Donna’s jilted paramour (she decided to dump him shortly before Vic left town) decides he’s going to take a pair of scissors to every piece of upholstery in the Trentons’ home, and Vic, who has returned from his business trip, thinks the carpenter has abducted Donna and Tad.  Imagine if George Lucas had tried to insert a detective story in Star Wars – it works about as well here as it would there.

The movie works best when it remains on the drama unfolding for the trapped and increasingly desperate Donna and Tad.  One of Cujo‘s strengths is that Teague was working with cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would, of course, be the DP on Die Hard, and go on to direct, among other things, Speed and Twister), and he makes the most of the claustrophobic setting, shooting mother and son in a way that amplifies the cramped isolation of the car.  Mid-summer, windows rolled up, attacked by a vicious, blood-streaked dog – it’s pretty visceral, and both Wallace and Pintauro pull out all the stops in portraying their terror.  To their credit, neither actor plays it tongue in cheek, and one of the most effective parts of the movie is seeing Donna devolve to the point where she single-mindedly and animalistically protects her son.

The movie doesn’t entirely work for a couple reasons.  One is the uneasy balance between the two stories it seems to want to tell: 1) how a seemingly happy domestic family can rapidly disintegrate, and 2) how a rabid dog can terrorize a couple in a Datsun.  The two halves just don’t mesh.  The other problem, I think, is that King’s novel essentially takes the story in a different, much more interesting, direction, implying that Cujo is possessed by, or the reincarnation of, a murderer from his novel The Dead Zone. Teague, on the other hand, plays it as a straight case of rabies, like he wishes Tim Johnson (the rabid dog from To Kill a Mockingbird) had ripped out Atticus Finch’s throat instead of being shot dead in the street.  There just isn’t enough plot in the rabid dog story to warrant a feature-length film, and as a result we get the boring domestic stuff at the beginning, and a movie whose 91 minute running time feels longer than Roots.

I think it’s great that Teague didn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the book (although the Hollywood ending feels like a cop-out after the truly pitch-black conclusion of the novel), and it’s undeniably terrifying to see Cujo – fully gored up by the effects crew – attacking the mother and her son.  But the movie as a whole is strictly C-grade stuff, and marks the first (but definitely not the last) time when Stephen King’s work failed to make a smooth transition to the big screen.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Coming next: The Dead Zone (1983)

Current listening:

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (2009)

Song of the Day (11/29/09) November 29, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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Inexplicably lost in the late 90’s shuffle, Geneva is one of my favorite bands that no has ever heard of.  Andrew Montgomery’s frequently-falsetto vocals are the band’s most distinctive feature, but the other members churned out chiming, anthemic tunes at the drop of a hat.  Two albums into a promising career, the band broke up.  This is “Best Regrets,” from their outstanding 1997 debut, Further.

Good Morning Midnight November 29, 2009

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There’s something about excessive fandom that never fails to turn me off.  I can’t explain it, but the more excessively people love something, the less likely I am to give it the time of day.  This is why I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books, nor have I read The Da Vinci Code (despite this brilliant piece of advice from Roger Ebert: “Sometimes it’s good to read a book like The Da Vinci Code just to remind yourself that life is too short to read books like The Da Vinci Code“).  I have not, and will never, watch an episode of American Idol for this same reason – it’s just a hopped-up version of 80’s favorite Star Search, only instead of Ed McMahon you’ve got a surly Brit who likes wearing t-shirts so tight they display his flabby, middle-aged nipples.

This is also true of things I actually like (the obsession, not the nipples).  I love Radiohead, have seen them in concert on multiple occasions, and their Kid A album is definitely in my all-time Top Ten (and, considering what day you ask me, it might sneak into the Top Five).  But sometimes I get so tired of their fans obsessively fawning over them that I absolutely hate Radiohead (see also: Arcade Fire).  There are lots of great bands out there, and some of them – whisper it – are actually better than Radiohead.  But don’t tell their fans that.  They won’t listen.  And while they’re not listening, they’ll casually tell you your taste is lousy simply because you dare give another act the time of day.  The more people who love something – and the more ardent their fanaticism – the less likely it is that I’ll want anything to do with it.

And that brings me to Twilight. One thing I want to say right off the bat is that I wouldn’t even be writing this if the series had kept its fans isolated to its primary demographic: kids.  I have no problem with kids loving weird things, and loving them obsessively.  That’s part of what being a kid is all about: being undiscerning and just following your passion wherever it takes you.  You don’t know any better because your experience is limited.  As you get older, you develop a frame of reference, and you begin to realize that A) some of the things you love aren’t actually all that good, and B) it’s okay to maintain some affection for those things, but that affection is tempered by a recognition of their flaws.  Even though I’ve never read a single one of the Twilight books (nor have I seen either of the movies), I know enough about the series to see why it would be popular with young girls: mysterious creatures, forbidden and unconsummated love, hunky dudes fighting over a likable female character.  It’s a Harlequin romance, only with vampires instead of pirates.  I can even understand why older people would read (and like) the books.  The story is clearly engaging, and I’m not going to begrudge people their decision to read something trashy (I’m currently working my way through a collection of Stephen King short stories, so who am I to judge?).

There is, however, a difference between liking trash (which, again, I advocate) and becoming so wrapped up in it that you turn into the people above.  There’s a point where fandom crosses a line from respectable to creepy, and I think a lot of it is contingent upon A) age, and B) how that fandom manifests itself.  I’m almost tempted to give the people in the picture above a pass.  Despite their tacky, 9th-grade-English-class-quality sign, they probably just sneak in under the wire of acceptability.  But how about this motley assortment?

This was taken at a Twilight DVD release party back in March.  Finding someone under the age of 25 in this photo (and if that girl in the yellow jacket weren’t in the foreground, I’d raise that number to 40 – curse you, girl in the yellow jacket!) is as difficult as playing Where’s Waldo? To flip out over the mediocre movie version of a book series that is, after all, a Mormon abstinence parable is, frankly, weird, and these women should know better.

So should these.

One important thing to note is that I’m not, even for a second, impugning their taste.  It’s well-documented on here that I like plenty of stuff for which my hipper friends automatically deride me.  No, it’s more a question of decorum.  See, it’s one thing to like a movie or a book.  It’s another thing entirely to be a middle-aged woman sporting a Team Jacob shirt or brandishing a sign that reads, “Bite Me, Edward!” (although, to be fair, at least that person’s sign has correct comma placement – and that’s how I know it wasn’t designed by a 13-year-old).  This kind of behavior is unbecoming once you reach a certain age, and it’s even less appropriate when the object of your adoration was designed for someone young enough to be your daughter – or your granddaughter.

My initial thought was that maybe it has something to do with the actors playing the roles – maybe these women were simply responding to the attractiveness (using the term loosely) of actors Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.  Maybe this was just another version of middle-aged men going to the Transformers movies and losing their collective shit over Megan Fox.  But it’s not the same.  Not really.  It would be the same if these middle-aged men went to the movie premiere dressed as robots, or sported Team Mikaela shirts, or made signs that read, “You can shift my gears anytime, Mikaela!”  But no.  These men go to the movie, get their action fix, mentally drool over Fox’ vaguely greasy sexuality, and call it a day.

The Twilight fans’ obsession, on the other hand, transcends merely thinking these two actors are hot stuff.  Instead, they get overly wrapped up in the plot – displaying bizarre partisanship with their Team Edward and Team Jacob shirts – and seem instead to love what their characters represent.  For Pattinson’s Edward, I guess it’s the unrequited love aspect – that he has to love Kristen Stewart’s character chastely, romantically, and without giving into his baser instincts (essentially neutering everything that makes vampires even remotely interesting in the first place).  Lautner’s Jacob, by contrast, represents – what?  I don’t know the story well enough, to be honest.  The promise of protection?  Noble savagery?  He’s a werewolf who looks like he’s 12, so I’m not exactly sure what the attraction is.  But my point is that the fans have latched onto the characters in ways that have more to do with the story than with the actors portraying the characters.

It’s absolutely fine to relate to or find comfort in a novel or a movie.  That’s one of the reasons we read books and watch movies in the first place.  But again, it’s all in how that manifests itself.  Maybe these older Twilight fans are just doing it in the spirit of good fun, and they know it’s fairly ridiculous for them to be carrying on the way they are.  But to make that leap I have to be willing to bestow on them a level of self-awareness that I just don’t see in the screaming mob scenes and the t-shirts and the crying and the homemade signs.  That level of obsession just strikes me as weird and, again, when we’re talking about 40- and 50-year-old women, a little creepy.  What would we say about a 50-year-old man wearing a shirt with Megan Fox’ picture on it?  Exactly.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to dismiss art (using its broadest definition) based solely on its fans.  I admit that I could be missing out on some great stuff.  Maybe I should be watching Grey’s Anatomy, snatching up the books in Oprah’s club, and rushing out to catch Twilight: New Moon. A good rule of thumb for me, though, is that when something’s most ardent fans are people I generally wouldn’t want to associate with in other situations, it’s probably best that I stay away from that thing.  So: sorry, Twilight. You might be great.  But thanks to the middle-aged woman crying and screaming for Robert Pattinson’s attention, I’ll never know.


Current listening:

Fanfarlo – Reservoir (2009)

Intermission November 28, 2009

Posted by monty in movies, TV.
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Another reason why YouTube is occasionally magnificent.  Here, John Cleese delivers the eulogy at Graham Chapman’s funeral.  For those who don’t know how the Pythons did their writing, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were a team, Cleese and Chapman were a team, and Eric Idle wrote his stuff individually.  For this reason, no matter how long the troupe had been together, Cleese clearly knew Chapman best, and his farewell to his friend is both touching and brilliant.

Thanks, Graham.

As I watch this Python documentary on the Independent Film Channel, the sight of these aging geniuses is undeniably exciting, and it only reinforces why, collectively, they’ve been one of the biggest influences on my life, my sensibility, my personal philosophy of life, etc.  And even though the sight of them now reminds me too much of the passage of time – and that they won’t always be with us – it’s gratifying to hear Michel Palin talk about how, against all odds, he never really grew up; whatever it is that causes most people to become staid and boring as they reach and exceed middle age never happened to him.  And, watching the rest of the troupe in their interview segments (including Eric Idle singing a newly-penned song titled “Fuck Christmas”), it’s clear that Palin’s in good company.  We should all be so lucky.

Regularly scheduled programming should resume in a day or two.


Current listening:

The Trash Can Sinatras – In the Music (2009)

Last movie seen:

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009; Wes Anderson, dir.)

Song of the Day (11/26/09: Thanksgiving Edition) November 26, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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What are you thankful for?


Today, I’m thankful for R.E.M.

For Elbow.

For Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

And for Regina Spektor.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the little things.  But that doesn’t mean I ever forget.

The Art of Self Defense November 24, 2009

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Tomorrow, bright and early (or at least bright and earlyish), I head up I-75 to the wilds of Ohio.  It’ll be my first Thanksgiving with my family since 1995.  Weird, and I’m not entirely sure what to expect.  There’s always a little of the feeling of being an outsider when I return to the ol’ homestead, and I imagine that will only be compounded this year.  My brother and his wife have a three-week-old baby, my parents have just put the house up for sale, and I’ll be sauntering in after a two-year absence.  I’m not sure if there’s a point where home (even a metaphoric one) stops being home, but this might be it.

But hey.  It’s what you make of it, right?  So, no promises of content over the next few days (they haven’t invented the Internet in Ohio), and be sure to take some time out to relax, catch your breath, and enjoy the company of friends and family.


Current listening:

Nova Mob – The Last Days of Pompeii (1991)

The Ones We Managed to Win November 24, 2009

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I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to George Romero.  Giving us Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead earned the guy a free pass for the rest of his career, as far as I’m concerned.  And yet the argument could be made that if it weren’t for those two movies, we wouldn’t know who George Romero is.  His non-zombie output has been, shall we say, underwhelming.  Bruiser, anyone?  Knightriders? Just like Roland Emmerich (Independence Day; 2012) is only good at blowing up the world, Romero is primarily only good when it comes to the shambling undead.

Creepshow (1982; one of two Romero adaptations of Stephen King’s work – The Dark Half is the other), however, is a funny, affectionate anthology of King-penned tales, some previously published, some written expressly for the screen.  The first thing to note about the movie is that I used the word funny, and not the word scary. I also could have said it was clever and goofy; both of those adjectives would be more accurate than saying it’s frightening.  That might seem like a weird thing to say about a movie with Romero’s and King’s names attached to it, but there’s always a darkly comic undercurrent running through much of the author’s work, and as for Romero … well, let’s not forget that Dawn of the Dead includes a zombie-human pie fight.  They might primarily be known for their horror, but both artists are no stranger to humor.

The movie itself consists of five individual stories, with a shorter, wraparound story bookending the movie.  None of the stories are especially scary, choosing instead to mine a sort of middle ground between the grotesque and the droll, and for that reason the movie has always reminded me more of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits: it’s fantasy as much as it is horror, and dark humor as much as it is either of those other two things.  Some of the stories work; some don’t.  But they’re always interesting, and in their best moments, they’re terrific fun.  The easiest way to attack this movie is probably story by story, and I’ll try to avoid spoilers for people who haven’t seen it yet.

“Prologue”: Paired with the epilogue, this is the silliest of the bunch.  A father throws away his son’s scary comic book, uttering the immortal line, “That’s why God made fathers, babe. (Sips beer.)  That’s why God made fathers.”  The windswept comic book provides the individual stories that follow.

“Father’s Day”: Written by King for the movie, this story is, unfortunately, a dumb and inauspicious way to start.  A group of money-grubbing relatives gathers each year for the titular holiday, and the new member of the family (an in-law, played by a very young Ed Harris – hair intact) is introduced to the story of Aunt Bedelia.  Seven years prior, Bedelia killed her father, Nathan, by smashing in his head with an ashtray.  Three guesses as to who rises from the dead to kill his family members, and the first two don’t count.  Key line: “I want my cake!”

“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”: Did I say the prologue was the silliest story in this movie?  I misspoke.  Inexplicably starring King himself in the title role, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is an inconsequential sci-fi nothing, based on his short story, “Weeds.”  King plays a backwoods rube who stumbles across a meteor (key line: “I’ll be dipped in shit if that ain’t a meteor”) and has designs on delivering it to the local college for the king’s ransom of $200.  Unfortunately, when he touches it, something tragically agricultural happens to him.  This vignette is definitely funny (shots of King delivering the meteor to the university’s “Department of Meteors”), and the last section is unexpectedly poignant.  It works, despite its goofiness.

“Something to Tide You Over”: My favorite of the bunch.  Here, Harry (a pre-Cheers Ted Danson) is abducted by Richard (Leslie Nielsen, before he was forever typecast as the dimwitted cop by the Naked Gun movies) for canoodling with Richard’s wife.  He takes Harry to a remote beach and unveils the plot he’s devised to enact revenge on both Harry and his wife (hint: it involves burying both of them up to their necks in sand).  Of course, because this is a horror anthology, things ultimately don’t go as Richard planned.  (Key line: “I can hold my breath for a long, long time!”)  The real kick of this segment is seeing Nielsen in a dramatic role.  It’s easy to forget that he had a long career prior to Airplane! (according to IMDB, 236 roles dating back to 1950), and it’s a lot of fun seeing him act so convincingly as a cruel tough-guy here.  Danson, too, is entertaining to watch.  The gift of hindsight – getting to see him in a supporting role just as his career was about to skyrocket – can’t be underestimated.

“The Crate”: Originally published by King as a short story, this section of the movie stars Hal Holbrook (who most recently portrayed Chris McCandless’ elderly benefactor in Into the Wild) as a henpecked college professor who uses the discovery of a century-old crate (or, rather, its contents) to punish his shrewish wife.  As with the previous story, it’s a lot of fun to see an actor of Holbrook’s stature stoop to pulpy, B-movie fare.  This segment is an awful lot of fun: creepy, gory, clever, and a nearly-perfect melding of King’s and Romero’s sensibilities.  Key line: “Get out of my way, Henry, or you’ll be wearing your balls for earrings!”

“They’re Creeping Up on You!”: Written by King for the movie, this story involves a Howard Hughes-esque tycoon (played by venerable actor E.G. Marshall) who has sealed himself away in his apartment, but who still maintains a healthy fear of bugs.  Cockroaches, specifically.  (Key line: “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got this bug problem.”)  As the story progresses, we learn what a repellent figure this guy is, and are gratified when the bugs get their revenge.  I’m not sure this segment exists except to provide the viewer with the highly gratifying sight of roaches erupting from a person’s chest.  Entertaining, and Marshall – who is essentially the only actor in this segment – does a terrific job, but it’s kind of a nothing way to end the movie.

“Epilogue”: The other half of the silly story that bookends the film, it quickly shows how the kid from the beginning of the movie gets revenge on his dad.  The only upside is getting to see Romero’s longtime FX guru Tom Savini as a garbageman.

Creepshow is certainly not a great film.  It is, however, good, pulpy fun, and the trick is to go into it expecting something campy and silly, with a B-horror-movie sensibility.  If anything, it reminds me of the cinematic version of those schlocky horror and science fiction mags that published King’s first work (as well as Ray Bradbury’s, Kurt Vonnegut’s, and Harlan Ellison’s).  Pulp, which I used above, is probably the best adjective for the movie.   Creepshow has a low-budget, borderline ridiculous, Grindhouse feel to it.  And I absolutely mean that as a compliment.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Coming next: Cujo (1983)


Current listening:

Bear in Heaven – Red Bloom of the Boom (2007)

The Neighbors Can’t Breathe November 23, 2009

Posted by monty in politics.
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Okay, I know.  When someone shoots video of a politician’s fans at a rally or a speech or a book signing, it’s invariably slanted.  They chop it up and edit it so that only the most moronic or inflammatory or entertaining people make the final cut.  And I know that this is probably true of any politician.  I’m sure you could get a sample of stupidity at any political event … and yes, I’m including Barack Obama’s events in there, too.  Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on stupidity – they just seem to own more shares.

But, man.  A video taken during one of Palin’s book signings illustrates exactly why Sarah Palin’s fans are – yes, I’ll say it – dangerous.  Last week, Jon Stewart brilliantly and accurately called her a “conservative boilerplate mad lib,” her every speech peppered with  … oh, hell, just watch it for yourself:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Before I get to the video I actually wanted to show, it’s always interesting to see the GOP attempt to dissect exactly why the liberals don’t like Palin, and it’s always funny to see how wrong they get it.  They think it has something to do with her attractiveness or her religion or her outspokenness, when, as I’ve said here before, it has nothing to do with any of that, and everything to do with her being a vacuous, empty-headed twit.  Oh, I won’t deny that she’s a master of controlling her image, and in that respect she’s a savvy and brilliant entertainer.  But we should never mistake that for actual gravitas or intelligence.

Sarah Palin parrots exactly what her followers want to hear, and they parrot it right back to anyone who asks them about her.  As in this video.  It pains me that it was taken in my home state, but my consolation is that her fans would sound like this anywhere in the country.  Stupid knows no geographical boundaries.

One thing I believed following the 2004 election – and which I believe even more now – is that the red/blue divide in this country comes down to an ability to think critically.  Personally, it’s tiring to hear the all or nothing/love it or leave it/black and white rhetoric that consistently comes out of the GOP.  There’s never (or rarely, at least) an acknowledgment of the gray areas in an issue, or that ideology is often nuanced, or that it’s possible to support a politician without agreeing with his every issue.  You hear it in the responses in that video.  No knowledge of Palin’s specific policies or beliefs, no idea about what Obama or the incumbent Congress has actually done to steal their country from them – it’s just God and guns and drill, baby, drill.

And, I’m sorry to say it again, but that’s dangerous.  To so blindly support someone about whose beliefs you know nothing outside the empty platitudes she spews in her media appearances is irresponsible.  The Republicans harp consistently about not knowing Obama’s background.  Even if that were true – which it’s not, let’s go ahead and establish that right away – at least we know specifically what he believes in, and what kinds of policies he’d like to enact.  With Palin, we know everything about her past, but that still tells us nothing about the specifics of her ideology.

People are so enamored with Palin’s story (and I’ll admit, it’s a good one) that they completely ignore the crucial problem: she completely lacks substance.  And maybe that’s been the biggest failing of our schools: we haven’t properly taught people how to think critically.  We haven’t taught them how to look for substance, to dissect an argument, to look out for propaganda.  And I’m not going to deny that there isn’t an element of this same problem to Obama’s success.  He was a great speaker with a catchy message and a barrier-busting heritage – there were absolutely people who voted as blindly for him as there are those who would vote blindly for Palin.  Neither is right.  But Obama, at the very least, talked specifically about his beliefs and his policies, unlike the vice-presidential debate, where Palin simply ignored the moderator’s questions to mouth her talking points like the Stepford GOP automaton she is.  And it does seem, at least to this humble citizen, that, after eight years of Bush’s smirky arrogance, and with this current fascination with Palin, an inability to think critically often seems to be the province of the right wing.

But back on point: we need to better equip our students to think intelligently and critically.  Doing so goes some way toward ensuring that they won’t behave like the people in the video, who are apparently acting without any conscious thought whatsoever – like some bizarre Pavlovian GOP experiment, they begin salivating when Palin derisively utters the phrase “mainstream media.”  The final irony, of course, is that Obama’s current education policy – with its emphasis on standards and testing – will only breed more people who are unable to look beyond the rhetoric to the empty promises beneath.


Current listening:

Burning Airlines – Mission: Control! (1999)

The Gift That Keeps Giving November 22, 2009

Posted by monty in education.
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If there’s one thing I learned from this weekend’s debacle (and you can read about it here, if you’re so inclined), it’s that hitching yourself to a research topic is just as much a leap of faith as embarking on a novel-writing project or deciding to audition for a play or any number of other creative acts.  I know it’s not conventional to think of research as an act of creativity, but I think it is, especially when you’re working in a largely untraveled area.  To take up a research interest is to make a commitment, and when it doesn’t come to fruition – despite your best efforts – it’s every bit as disillusioning and disappointing as getting that rejection letter from a publishing house or not seeing your name on the cast list for that play.

For the last three years I’ve practically lived and breathed California’s educational content standards at the high school level.  I know these suckers inside and out.  I’ve examined them, analyzed them, unpacked them; looked at how they’re assessed by state tests; spent hours interviewing teachers about them, and more hours transcribing those interviews; compared them to the standards of another state, which meant immersing myself in those standards for a couple months; read dozens of books and articles about the development of standards at the state and national level; and then, at the end of it all, wrote a 350-page dissertation that I was led to believe was ground-breaking work.

Turns out that either it isn’t, or it is, and nobody cares.

That’s the biggest kick in the teeth about the weekend, really.  Yes, there were other disappointments, but there’s nothing quite like pouring your life into something and having it roundly dismissed.  And what’s worse, it’s something in which I strongly believe.  State departments of education around the country are doing their damnedest to reduce public education to its lowest common denominator, to dumb it down so that it can be easily assessed and quantified by multiple-choice tests.  One of the primary ways it does this is through curricular standards documents that represent jargon-filled, but ultimately meaningless, statements of instructional purpose, often written by people with minimal (or no) classroom experience.  And yet these statements dictate what gets taught, regardless of how nonsensical they might actually be.

My presentation this weekend was going to unveil a good chunk of this analysis, as well as some important data from my teacher interviews – data which reveals exactly what a group of teachers (the people most beholden to the standards) thinks of them.  I spent time developing research I believed in, and more time preparing a presentation that represented this research in what I hoped to be an engaging, provocative way.

And no one showed up.

It kinda hurts.

The big implication for me and my chosen career path (chosen for the moment, that is; we’ll see if it sticks), is that I don’t have the faith in my research, my writing, or myself to soldier on in the face of indifference.  I’d love to think I could be one of those guys who just hunkers down, puts on his blinders, and ignores the world outside in favor of something about which he’s passionate.

But I’m not one of those guys.  I don’t believe in a lot of things, and I put myself at the top of the list.

And I’m not sure what that means for my future in this profession.


Current listening:

Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind EP (2009)

Current reading:

Stephen King – Everything’s Eventual (2002)

Song of the Day (11/21/09: Double Shot of Teenage Fanclub) November 21, 2009

Posted by monty in music.
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Blessed with three genius-level singer/songwriters, Glasgow’s Teenage Fanclub has been churning out chiming, harmony-laden power pop for almost twenty years.  Spin magazine memorably named TC’s 1991 sophomore album, Bandwagonesque, their album of the year – beating out Nirvana’s Nevermind. The magazine caught a lot of flack for that decision, but – whisper it – they were right.  When you need music that will cheer you up without being relentlessly twee and shmaltzy, the Fanclub is one of the best places to go.

The first is song is called “I Need Direction,” and comes from their 2000 album, Howdy! The second song comes from their 1997 album, Songs from Northern Britain, and it’s called “Ain’t That Enough.”

An All-American National Sport November 21, 2009

Posted by monty in teaching.
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It’s sort of funny to realize the thing you thought were good at is probably something you’re not cut out for, after all.  Not ha-ha funny, but morbidly funny, like noticing the corpse at a wake has on too much makeup.  Such has been my weekend at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference in Philadelphia.  As is my goal for this blog, I don’t want this to be all about mopey ol’ me … but it is.

Figuring out what you’re meant to do with your life – or, if you’re not into language that evokes fate and destiny, figuring out what career will bring you both satisfaction and stimulating challenge until you’re ready to retire – is no easy task, to be sure.  Satisfaction is certainly important.  You want to do something for which you feel passion, and which meets some compulsion in your character – to help others, to problem solve, to work with technology, whatever.  And I enjoy teaching.  I do.  When it’s going well it’s uniquely satisfying, and it makes me feel like I’m maybe doing a little something to help people better their lives.

At the same time, however, I think the question of challenge is just as, if not more, crucial.  Feeling challenged means you don’t become complacent – you don’t have it all figured out, so you’re constantly working, striving, reaching, to become better equipped to do what you do.  The key, though, is that you occasionally have to feel capable of meeting and exceeding the challenges established by your job.  For me, the moments where I feel like things are going well are invariably accidental.  If something works, it’s not by design.  It’s like the monkey in the room that finally writes Hamlet. It had to happen sometime.  That’s the way I feel about my teaching.  The law of averages says I’ll do something right sometime, so when something goes right, it’s due to happenstance and not to any innate ability I possess.  More to the point, there hasn’t been a moment in the last four months when I haven’t felt like a bumbling incompetent.  My office should be treated like a zoo exhibit.  Curiosity-seekers can file slowly past and throw peanuts at the bald little homunculus busy revising an article that will surely go unpublished, or working on a lesson plan that will be met with stony silence by his students.  I’m not sure how I made it this far thinking I was actually good at this teaching gig.  I’ll be waiting for the results of my first set of student evaluations with the same kind of anticipation I imagine I’d feel waiting for the results of biopsy.

And then, oh yes, the NCTE conference where the following things happened: 1) I ran into one of my former professors, who, when I said hello, stared at me like I was some odd species of insect shipped in from an Amazonian rainforest, and then asked if I knew where he could get a bite to eat; 2) At my presentation this afternoon, I could count the number of attendees on exactly zero fingers; picture a donut hole – that’s the number of people in attendance for the session I spent hours preparing; 3) at a dinner thing this evening, I got blown off by a few people I was looking forward to seeing – and who had expressly encouraged me to attend – and ended up sitting at a table with total strangers; and 4) someone I worked with for a couple years in California didn’t even remember my name.  When you’re already feeling clueless and useless, the final insult doesn’t have to be a major slight – sometimes it’s just the tiniest nudge of a table leg that sends the whole mess toppling on its side.  For me, this weekend was that nudge.

So, not even one semester into my professorial career, and I’m left with the feeling that I wasted the last three years earning a Ph.D.  I’m not talented enough to teach at this level; my writing isn’t strong enough to meet the publication requirements I’ll inevitably have to meet; and, in the end, I’m not memorable enough (and neither is my work) to make much of a difference to people one way or the other.

Maybe the morning will bring a fresh, optimistic perspective, but it’s a bleak night in Philly.


Current listening:

Beth Orton – Daybreaker

Intermission November 19, 2009

Posted by monty in Nonsense.
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I should like air travel more than I do.  It’s (relatively) convenient, (relatively) fast, and (relatively) safe.  Those parentheticals, though, are a real kick in the bollocks.  Today’s a perfect case in point.  If you didn’t hear, there was some sort of nationwide glitch in the way flight plans are entered by air traffic control, which slowed flights down virtually everywhere.  My flight to Philadelphia was supposed to depart at 1:54.  I left at 11:30 for the airport and received a call on the way that my flight had been canceled.  I made a U-turn across the median* (not easy on I-75), sped home, and fortunately was able to reschedule for a new flight at 5:45.  I left home for the second time around 3:30, made it to the airport at 4:15, parked in the economy lot, and no sooner had I thrown my car into Park than I received a call from Delta.  My flight was now delayed until 8:00.  Awesome.

Air travel is fast and convenient when nonsense like this doesn’t happen, but more or less unbearable when it does.  It’s roughly a 12-hour drive from Atlanta to Philadelphia, which means I could have left in my car at 11:30 this morning, turned north to Philadelphia instead of south to the airport, and made it to my hotel at roughly the same time as I’ll be getting there after flying.

If the curious verb tense in the last sentence wasn’t a tipoff, I’m on one of those flights that offers wi-fi.  There’s something sort of fun about typing this at 35,000 feet while watching NBC’s Thursday night lineup, but it just doesn’t quite compensate for the stress and tedium of the rest of the day.  And it definitely doesn’t compensate if this flight makes an unscheduled landing in a cornfield.

* Didn’t actually happen

Accidents Will Happen November 18, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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The National Council of Teachers of English annual conference kicks off tomorrow, so I’m headed to Philadelphia for a few days.  That means two things: 1) Things will be slow (or absolutely silent) around here once I leave tomorrow afternoon until Sunday evening, and 2) I needed to write my weekly review of a Stephen King movie adaptation before I left.


Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) probably has the most impressive pedigree of any Stephen King adaptation.  Brian de Palma was still making his reputation when he gave us Carrie; David Cronenberg was (and, really, still is) a cult director at the time of The Dead Zone; ditto George A. Romero (Creepshow and The Dark Half); and Frank Darabont was primarily a screenwriter at the time he made his feature-film directorial debut with The Shawshank Redemption. The only adaptations comparable to Kubrick’s would probably be John Carpenter’s Christine, which came in the middle of a long run of early 80’s, post-Halloween hits (Escape from New York; The Thing; Starman), and Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery. (I know Reiner is also responsible for Stand by Me, but his two films previous to that – This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing – weren’t huge hits at the time.  Misery, on the other hand, was his William Goldman-penned follow-up to the enormously successful When Harry Met Sally…)

As much as I like Carpenter and Reiner, however, they’re no Kubrick.  When he directed The Shining, these were Kubrick’s previous four movies: Dr. Strangelove; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; and Barry Lyndon. Holy shit, indeed.  No other director of one of Stephen King’s books has that track record, and it really is sort of curious that a director of Kubrick’s stature would take on an adaptation of a pop horror novel.

For those who don’t know the story, it’s actually one of the simplest in King’s canon.  In a nutshell: Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson in what might be his most memorable role) takes a job as caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel during its closed winter season.  He brings his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall, who, to put it charitably, never quite finds her footing in this role), and young son, Danny, to spend the winter with him.  Madness and ax-murder ensues.

One of the benefits of this little adventure of mine is that I get to watch some movies that I haven’t actually sat all the way through in a long time.  The Shining is certainly one of those.  I’ve seen bits and pieces on television, but it’s been years since I’ve watched it in its entirety.  I’d forgotten, first of all, what a beautiful movie it is.  Those first, sweeping images of what’s supposed to be Colorado (but which is, in fact, Glacier National Park) are still breathtaking, but these opening shots are really just a prelude to Kubrick’s use of Steadicam in the Overlook Hotel, rolling us seamlessly through the hallways and stalking the characters as they move in and out of the hotel’s cavernous rooms.  Not just virtuosic from a technical standpoint, The Shining also contains a handful of iconic images that linger even after the movie is over: the twins in the hallway; the elevator pouring blood; the hedge maze; Danny tearing around the hallways on his Big Wheel; Jack sticking his head through the splintered bathroom door and uttering the line, “Here’s Johhny!”  Regardless of what you might think of the story (or of horror movies in general), it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

That said, the movie has some odd flaws.  Pacing is one.  It’s entirely possible that this was part of Kubrick’s grand design, but most of the conversations between the characters seem uncomfortable, stilted, wooden.  There are weird pauses and wonky reaction shots in the opening interview scene between Jack and the Overlook’s manager, and none of the scenes where we’re supposed to buy into Jack, Wendy, and Danny as a family really work.  Try as I might, I can’t see Nicholson as a family man, and this is only compounded by the off-putting scenes where I think he’s trying to convey fatherly love but actually seems more like a sarcastic SOB who’s just killing time with this family until he can clock out and head to the Playboy Mansion.  Nicholson’s descent into madness is one of the selling points of the movie; unfortunately, it’s only when he’s crazy that he’s actually believable.

But Shelly Duvall takes the Grand Prize for acting atrocities.  It’s a bizarre casting choice, to be sure, as there was nothing in her acting history to suggest she could play Wendy with any degree of credibility.  It’s a fairly demanding role – she fears for her son, watches her husband descend into madness, and has at least a couple confrontational scenes that a better-suited actress could have knocked out of the park.  Unfortunately, it looks for all intents and purposes like Duvall was already auditioning for the role of Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye. It’s a shrill, off-kilter performance that, amazingly, never hits one authentic note in the movie’s entire two hour and twenty minute running time.

Despite its flaws, the movie works.  It works because of the amazing visuals (and I’d be remiss not to at least mention cinematographer John Alcott), and the nearly-palpable sense of dread that infuses virtually every scene of the movie.  It’s far from perfect – and not nearly up to scratch with Kubrick’s earlier films – but when Nicholson’s performance finally jives with Kubrick’s direction and visual acuity, it’s a masterwork of tension.


Current listening:

Marillion – Holidays in Eden (1991)

The Wind is Blowing Like an Outlaw November 17, 2009

Posted by monty in news.
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A couple days ago I wrote briefly about being an optimist at heart.  Despite the pessimism that occasionally (often?) comes across in my writing, I genuinely believe in the good people can do.  I do believe that.  But sometimes I get a reality check.

There’s a story currently making the rounds about a 10-year-old boy in Arkansas who refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in school until gays and lesbians have equal rights.  My reaction to this is twofold.  First off, I think it’s a good and honorable thing this kid is doing, and I obviously commend him for taking a principled stand on the issue.  But my second reaction is this: I hope it’s his principled stand, and not his parents’.

I mean, think about it.  How concerned were you with social justice as a 10-year-old?  As for myself, not so much.  At that age, I spent my time daydreaming about Jo from The Facts of Life and flooding my mom’s garden so I could engage in swamp warfare with my G.I. Joe action figures.  Because we know that young children often just regurgitate whatever tenets they hear regularly in the home, my gut tells me this kid can’t be genuine.  Maybe he is.  I hope he is.  But the odds aren’t good.

But that’s all just the background for what I wanted to share here.  As I’m sure you can imagine, the right-wingers and homophobes are having a field day with this story, viewing it as just more evidence of how the commie pinko faggots have brainwashed America’s youth.  The Free Republic – a right-wing website that parrots all the predictable GOP talking points – ran a quick little story yesterday on the boy who refuses to say the pledge.  That’s all fine and good.  The troubling thing is the reader comments that followed.  Here’s a brief sample – and remember that they’re writing about a 10-year-old kid.

Wait till the kid undergoes his first prostate exam, that should change his opinion of gay sex! (AxelPaulsenJr)

Update: He’s now standing for the Pledge.  Some admiring gay men came to his town and had a party for him. Now, he can’t sit down. (Mac from Cleveland)
I think he should carry the protest even further, he should wear a plastic bag over his head until he gets his way! (SwampSniper)

Their tone might change when one of those “friends of the family” get the kid alone for a while. Then again, maybe they’ll be happy for him. (Republic of Texas)

Pledging allegiance to the Fag. (SpaceJunkie2001)

I’m just from the “old” school. In my day, this guy would have met up with his peers on his way home and had his mind changed. There have always been people that didn’t want to “get along”. They were kept in the minority or had missing teeth. (Chuckles)

Get the picture yet?  And these are just the comments that address the kid directly.  The rest of the comments are just as offensive – the usual stuff about gays already having equal rights, Obama indoctrinating America’s youth, etc.  It must be a bummer to be so full of hatred.

And, just as I wondered yesterday about the popularity of Sarah Palin’s particular brand of demagoguery, I can’t help but speculate how reflective these reader comments are of Republicans as a whole.  My optimistic streak urges me to believe that it’s just a tiny sliver of the party.  But then I remember California’s Prop 8, the recent overturning of gay marriage legislation in Maine, and all the other anti-gay laws on the books and I can’t help but feel that sometimes – and this is assuredly one of those times – my optimism is just a defense mechanism that prevents me from acknowledging the ugly reality of the situation.


Current listening:

Stereolab – Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements