The Theory of Chaos

Friday, September 29, 2006

Photo Clearinghouse: May '05 - Eastern Sierras, Part I

Full post behind the jump

This marks the official abandonment of a couple long-standing projects. It’s been so long now, and the handwriting on my notepads so diabolically chicken-scratchy, that the planned travel diaries from last year’s fishing trips will have to remain unexpanded. I may toss a few choice anecdotes of manliness your way from time to time, but the full chronicle will remain unchronicled.

I imagine most of you can live with that.

However, I do have a considerable horde of purtyness recorded from those trips, so here’s the first of a couple of picture posts to finally share that backlog with you. I’ll include a little context if it turns out to be necessary.

So here’s a few from back in May of last year, and our trip up and down the Eastern Sierras. I’ve previously blogged about it
here, and here, and now we can begin to complete the pictorial record:

Did I mention it was really fracking cold?

Even in the harshest of elements, Primitive Man will seek means of expressing himself. Meet Frothy the Snowman:

Topaz Lake, on the California/Nevada border:

When you’re the only joint around, who needs a fancy name?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, fishing ain’t always about landing fish. Here it is, on the 7th day, the first catch at last:

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It may not look like it, but this is an exultation

I have to squeeze myself, you know. When I’m not writing out of inspiration, I write out of guilt. I explore the vast and varied means by which I can point out to myself just what I haven’t gotten done lately; what scripts remain unfinished, what stories remain undeveloped, what producers wait by the phone for work I swore was still a priority. The reasoning is that, if words are coming out, it can’t be a bad method, which is the same rationale the medieval barbers used to explain leeching.

My latest technique has been the spreadsheet – a rolling chronicle of all significant projects fighting for the small and shrinking active space in my brain, which is addled and fuzzy on the best of days. Between screenplays that need finishing or revising, stage plays written and unwritten, short stories, short plays, and treatments for tomorrow’s screenplays, the list now presents 15 titles, with a 16th in a holding pattern while a couple of sales opportunities work themselves out.

I have color-coded them.

Of course, as anyone who ever drew a blueprint for a snow fort knows, if you spend too long at it, the planning can become its own end. Without execution, all of this examination amounts to little more than lashing myself with barbs before an uncaring Muse. Sooner or later, I must drown the hooey, hitch up my pants and goddamned
write something.

Yesterday I finished a treatment.

Six months ago I had this meeting with a manager and he put a bug in my ear about going back to teen comedy, already. It is what got me paid before, after all, and he wants me to get paid so he can get paid. In the aftermath of that meeting I ginned up about a half-dozen ideas for teen comedies, filtered them down to three good ones and expanded those into one-pagers. I sent those one-pagers to the junior manager in his office and he pegged his favorite one.

That all took about two months, during which time I was traveling to Hawaii, producing my 10-minute play, pressing ahead on the new screenplay I still haven’t finished, and watching my life in Hollywood detonate under my feet. Since then I’ve known that they eagerly await that next evolutionary phase: the treatment.

For those who don’t know – a treatment is a detailed prose telling of your movie’s story: the major turning points, the general makeup of the characters, the tone, the highlights, it’s the cinematic equivalent of the grocery store sample bite. It can range anywhere from three pages to seventy (James Cameron is famous for his background-drenched, technobabble-stuffed “scriptments”), but most come in around 5-6 pages.

The advantage to writing them is that you tend to work out a lot of your structural problems before you’ve even written FADE IN, and you have an intermediary document to share around if you’re making a play to have someone give you money before you’ve started writing the script. Successful writers can do that. I am not a successful writer at this point. But I do like proving to my agent and others in my circle that I’m working.

The disadvantage of writing treatments is that you do a queen bitch of a lot of work for five pages. I cannot dismiss one salient point, though: the last time I did a thorough treatment before starting a screenplay, I sold it.

This turned out to be the longest treatment I’ve ever written for an original story. I once condensed a mammoth 17-volume
manga series (which hadn’t even been translated) into a 30-page treatment and project breakdown, for which I had to combine or abandon 70 percent of the plot elements and characters. The Japanese intern who first showed us the project then took it and sold it to another company, and now I have to wait for a script or movie to appear to find out whether he used any of my story fixes and I have to sue him. I also wrote a 10,000-word treatment for a miniseries about the early history of the video game industry. I called it The Joystick Generation, which I thought was pretty cute. So far the cable channels haven’t agreed.

But for this raunchy little campus farce I dedicated 4,500 words, I had to edit to drop it from nine pages to eight. That’s worth a little celebrating. I’m well-armed now to write the script if that turns out to be the next step.

Of course, Jimmy, that would mean that the color-coded task list I mention above – thanks to my perseverance and nose-to-grindstone-ery – has now gotten longer. Ha-HAH!

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Secrets of Big-Time Professional Writers

There is likely something wrong with your frame of mind when you open up your own script and the first thing you read punches you in the face with its suckiness.

God-damn you, page 54. I'll get you for that.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Unexpected classical literature quote of the day

"Them Guineas always carries knives."
-The shy and lonely heroine of an
O. Henry short story

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Some pictures of Los Angeles

This happened a couple of years ago and I never got to see it, but I held on to the evidence. These sorts of shows are a pretty regular thing, actors need something to do between movie and TV gigs around here, and to any kid who grew up in the 80’s, this woman was a Comedy Legend:

If you park your car outside in LA you can usually expect to see some postcard advertising someone’s crappy club or someone else’s crappy band stuck under your wiper blades when you get back. But this one struck me as particularly novel:

Doc, please, can nothing cure me of this anxiety I feel?

This is the greatest band in the history of mankind:

I saw them last week at a bar I’m dearly hoping the odious hipster crowd never discovers – I want to keep its earnest tastelessness and cheap drinks all to myself. It’s like someone built the Bigfoot Lodge in Los Feliz, but without the snide self-consciousness.

Notice the woman in the lower left, the attractive one? She doesn’t actually play the guitar. She is in the band because she is hot and she has enough energy to shimmy in loose clothes for the entire performance. Here’s the instrumentation: one guy plays the drums, sings lead vocals, and manipulates the dials on their “band in a box” sequencer, which has keyboard and synth horns and the like programmed into it. Then there’s the guitar player on the lower right. The three other members of the band, all of them, are backup vocalists/tambourine players. That’s right, Redhead McHottie there is
the third tambourine in a five-person band.

They don’t even show the other tambourine player. He looks even more like a carny than the others. If I had been there longer I would have started dancing.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Off the cuff thoughts on script writing

A dear friend of mine is steeling herself to attempt her first ever stage play. In response to this news I dashed off the following advice, which may or may not be worth preserving. You tell me:

-DO NOT fall victim to the temptation to begin the plot after we've "gotten to know" the characters. Whatever dark fates are aligning, whatever tensions are building, whatever motivations are about to clash and conflagrate into that blossoming thing we know as a story, that stuff is already going on by the time the lights come up. The King is already dead, and something is rotten in the State of Denmark. It is likely the characters simply aren't aware of it yet.

-Characters are the sum of their actions, their inactions, and how the other characters' desires shape their perception of that person. Leave the full-plotting of the inner life to the actors - if they are good they will provide a rich, rounded psyche which doesn't resemble what you had in mind anyway, but it's better. This is that "collaboration" thing you're going to suddenly discover you have a hard time with. Focus on what the character does and, perhaps even more importantly, what they choose not to do. Those are your building blocks.

-Almost all of the interesting characters I've ever seen have one thing in common - they are utterly and completely WRONG about their own deepest motivations and desires. Henry Higgins sings "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face", but we all know that's not why he's grumpy. Characters who stand around describing their own and each others' emotions ACCURATELY belong on "Dawson's Creek" - they are shallow and dull. Let them be mysterious, and contradictory, and blind to their own flaws.

-Drama doesn't happen when a character wants something; it's when he wants two things and can't have both. An audience will pay attention to find out how he settles this.

-Dialogue is the icing on the cake - literally the last 8 percent of the experience that sits on top. It can be sweet, and fun, and can beguile us into thinking it's the reason we're having such a pleasurable experience, but without the foundation it is shapeless, and will give you a tummyache. Dialogue is, fundamentally, a TACTIC for a character to achieve an end. Think of it that way, and you might start seeing all the other, NON-VERBAL tactics they also have available. Non-Verbal, in theatre, means "saves you having to think up something clever to say".

-At some point, you will try and make a character do or say something necessary to the plot and they will resist you. Cherish that moment, because you're on your way to figuring out what this story's ACTUALLY all about. Plus - you've gone crazy. This is essential.

-It is never bourgeois to ask yourself how long an audience would seriously sit still for this.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - World Trade Center

Full review behind the jump

World Trade Center

: Oliver Stone
: Andrea Borloff, based on the true stories of John McLouglin, Donna McLouglin, William Jimeno and Allison Jimeno
: Oliver Stone, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Moritz Borman, Debra Hill
: Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Michael Shannon, Stephen Dorff, Frank Whaley, Viola Davis, Jay Hernandez

There’s a shot in
World Trade Center where Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose husband Will (Michael Peña) is missing and very likely dead, runs out of her house and stands in the dark and empty street of her suburban neighborhood. Up and down the street, the houses emanate the flickering glow of television sets.

September 11, 2001 was a tragedy that much of America experienced through the television. The terrifying images that reached out through our screen also bound us together for a moment. We were all there, fearful and confused, vulnerable; and then we were together, and with purpose. In the angry and divisive atmosphere that seems to pervade our culture now, that moment seems distant and forgotten; but part of the purpose of this movie, adapted from an inspiring true story and directed with near-invisible excellence by Oliver Stone, is to shine a spotlight not just on the fear of that day, but on the good that emerged from it. The emotional release that comes with the experience of this movie is in part a tribute to its restraint, providing Hollywood resources and polish without the accompanying treacle, but also in the sheer rightness of its message, that
this must be part of our memory of that day, too.

It starts with a husband who cares about his wife. John McLouglin (Nicolas Cage), a 20-year veteran of the Port Authority Police Department, is so used to his 3:30 a.m. wakeup time that he wakes up at 3:29 to shut off his alarm so it won’t disturb Donna (Maria Bello). Because that’s what you do when you’ve achieved a domestic routine, and don’t think that when you leave your wife sleeping in the bed it might be the last time you ever see her.

The movie submerges us in routines – in traffic, in the news reports on the radio, in filling out paperwork and punching your timeclock. Because today is just like every other day. It’s not “9-11”, as it’s been emblazoned in our minds. It’s Tuesday. And the screenplay by Andrea Borloff stays at ground level when the disaster hits – it’s not a shiny carnival cataclysm like Michael Bay made out of Pearl Harbor, just a distant rumble and a whole lot of confusion.

McLouglin has experience with the World Trade Center, and is familiar with security plans for it. But as his squad winds through traffic towards a column of smoke, as they see bodies on the sidewalk, he knows this is beyond anything they’ve imagined. Nobody knows the whole picture – some are saying planes hit both towers, some say the fire just crossed from one to the other. Someone heard a rumor Israel got nuked.

But McLouglin’s smart enough to stay calm – to maintain discipline, to not rush, to help better by being thorough. It is his blue-collar adherence to routine that probably saves his life, because while he never makes it into the tower to help with the evacuation, he has just enough time to note his surroundings, and shout one order about where to take shelter. And then their world comes crashing down in the most terrifyingly literal sense.

What follows is darkness, and a ghastly silence. McLouglin and young officer Will Pimeno are pinned beneath a blasted pile of concrete, metal and pipes, dozens of feet below the surface. Both are bleeding internally, bones broken – unable to escape, unable to move. Outside their wives seem similarly imprisoned, with only the knowledge that their husbands went in, but have not come out yet.

What’s most remarkable about the movie is how it doesn’t judge. It allows characters on all sides to be their full, flawed selves. It understands that a son who doesn’t know how to deal with his father’s disappearance will say cruel things he doesn’t mean. It understands that two men together on the precipice of death will not be full of profundities, but will fill the silence with talk about everything from movies to what they just hallucinated.

It has an unusual, and deeply moving, preoccupation with the means by which people find their way to goodness – tracking characters like an ex-Marine (Michael Shannon) who sees what’s happening on TV, feels a calling, gets a haircut, travels to New York and pretends to be on active duty so he can sneak onto the site. Or an ex-paramedic (Frank Whaley), who lost himself to drink and now doesn’t question his chance to find his way back. Or, in a tiny but devastating role, Viola Davis as a mother who’s standing next to Donna in a hospital, and without ever saying it out loud the two give each other permission to release.

The movie, too, provides a kind of permission to release, and every viewer will have to decide for themselves if they are ready for it. There is uplift to this story, and a kind of relief, but the movie never ignores that while some were rescued, many, many weren’t. Those who come out of the rubble will see a changed world.

Oliver Stone’s reputation as the fevered, media-mixing cinematic collage artist-cum-conspiracy-theorist goes unfulfilled here. What special effects are necessary are unobtrusive and outside of his interest. The photography, under the direction of Seamus McGarvey, stays rock-steady, almost too much so. This is storytelling, and a full compassion for character, an acknowledgement that fidelity is the highest form of service in this case.

There is a unity to World Trade Center – not just in the way the characters are shown to respond to unfathomable tragedy, but to how determined everyone, from the filmmakers to the actors, agrees to not stand in the way of its emotional message. Nicolas Cage, the movie star, submerges himself, his performance is of the kind of beer-at-the-end-of-the-day, been-meaning-to-fix-the-sink guy Hollywood doesn’t make movies about. Except for when they are thrust into the middle of the extraordinary.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Oh yes, Hank, I'm ready. You don't even need to ask.

Let “Hosanna” ring from the hills, let Beasts be Slain and Feasts be prepared from their Rich Flesh! The NFL is back!

Our Great National Advertising Vehicle has a long off-season so the players can recover from their various injuries. And every year it seems fans lust all the more desperately for the season to return so they can start getting injured all over again. And who can blame them? Baseball injuries are all of the hard-to-see-torn-muscle variety, or the two-outfielders-just-bonked-heads-and-isn’t-that-funny! stripe. Football is where, if you’re very lucky, you can see legs bending forward at the knee, a painful feat previously only achievable by
alien infiltrators or devil goat-men.

But football isn’t just about amateur surgeons across America learning the difference between the MCL and the ACL and why “turf toe” isn’t as cutesy and innocuous as it sounds. It’s also about Sport – one of the most fiendishly complicated and brutal Sports ever invented by non-Mayans. I think it’s distinctly American to celebrate a hideously-violent activity that’s bound up in an ever-shifting, impenetrable Mason-like ritual of rules that no one ever seems to understand all of.

Certainly Nick Saban, the coach of the Miami Dolphins, didn’t seem aware that it’s not the referee’s responsibility to actually, you know,
look for the challenge flag on a play that the entire stadium knows is bogus. Somewhere in a subheading of a subchapter of The Great Book of Rules, inked in blood during this year’s annual Rules Committee meeting – where leprechauns dance and virgin fauns are crushed with stones – not only did they take away the pager he could have used to buzz the ref, it was set down that he must run onto the field if necessary before the next play is snapped and point out his thrown flag to the refs, or else forever lose his ability to point out what everyone in the world except the refs already knew – Heath Miller was out of bounds on the two-yard line.

Now many a coach’s physique lies somewhere between The Michelin Man and Akeem, the African Dream, so we get to look forward to a long-season of Easter Egg-shaped Titans of Sport huffing their way onto the field to assure their challenge has been noted.

I think this is a secret plan to create more injuries.

Former Tag Team partner of The Big Boss Man, Akeem would have looked right at home wearing a coach’s headset

Last Thursday’s game was an excellent way to open the season. Both teams played a balanced game, showed off some trickery, and brought some drama onto the field packed into their playbook. It should scare everyone in the league how dominant Pittsburgh could be without their starting quarterback, but that’s what good teams do – survive the loss of a superstar. And Miami looked fine with quarterback Duante Culpepper at the helm. What an excellent wrinkle to the offense to allow him to audible stand-up-and-dump sideline throws when he sees his receivers with a healthy cushion. For a quarterback with his kind of field-general confidence, providing that option empowers them, it keeps the defense guessing, and it challenges corners to man up on their targets, which risks them getting juked for a deep gain. With Culpepper’s accuracy, that out shot is as steady as a running play.

It’s an amazing new season, where the Rams can win by kicking six field goals and quarterback controversies don’t even take two quarters of play to develop anymore. Here’s some other observations from around the league in the wake of Week 1:

Why Brett Favre should retire now

It is not fair to your team to spend months pondering whether or not you feel up for another year, when you know everything from the salary cap to the playbook to the personnel changes depends on your decision. If there’s that much to ponder, you don’t have the fire anymore – you can’t think your way into it.

It’s not that I think he’s too out-of-shape – he’s still got one of the strongest arms in the game and that devil-may-care improvisational “X”-factor. But I think his passion is gone, he’s trying to tape himself up with stubbornness and frustration and he’s making bad choices as a result. When you go from claiming that you’re on the “most talented” team you’ve ever been on, then do a 180 after your first loss and say maybe we just ain’t very good, that’s huge disrespect to teammates who are genuinely trying.

On the last play of their game, a hair-raising 26-0 curb sandwich delivered by the well-rounded Chicago Bears, Ahman Green was heaving, stretching, literally dragging tacklers an extra five yards down the field. Not because it would help them win – that was impossible. But because trying matters. To see that kind of heart matched up against Favre’s dismissive, lackadaisical shrugging makes me ill. The man was one of the greatest of all time – he’ll be enshrined in the Hall of Fame exactly five years after he retires and deservedly so. But let’s start that timer now, shall we? Green Bay deserves better.

What you can learn about offense from running a bed and breakfast

It turns out – absolutely nothing. Quelle surprise. New Raiders offensive coordinator Tom Walsh, who has spent the last 12 years in the Idaho vacation industry, a parallel career track if I’ve ever heard of one, called a dreadfully moribund game against the Chargers in his return to the league. Take a letter, Jimmy: “Dear Tom, when you move from preseason to the regular season, you’re supposed to switch to the playbook with more than five different plays in it.”

I might add something as well about how you shouldn’t be sending a jittery quarterback on seven step drops against the best defensive front in the AFC when you’ve got two rookies and a fat scarecrow manning your O-line, but I don’t want to overwhelm someone whose biggest problem six months ago was keeping the B&B stocked with morning sausage.

The Raiders looked dreadful against the Chargers, like they were moving at half speed. All the promising fundamentals, the lateral movement, the finishing of tackles I glimpsed in their 4-1 preseason, they all got chucked to the turf faster than ol’ “Haystacks” Gallery when Shaune Merriman blew by him for sack number 54. It’s going to take more than Art Shell’s Clipboard of Fire for this team to even be competitive against the newly McNair-energized Baltimore Ravens this Sunday.

Heisenberg’s Two-Team NFL Uncertainty Principle

Long-time readers know I follow two teams with a passion, the Raiders and the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s dawned on me in recent years that as a result, it can never come to pass that both teams will be good in any given year. The Raiders’ Gruden-Gannon glory years corresponded with the darkest ebb of Cincinnati Bungledom, and their turnaround coincided exactly with Oakland’s present nosedive.

I am convinced these events are somehow related and I’m determined to make the best of it. Cincinnati looked good against K.C. – damned good. Their defense has more starch now to go with their lethal turnover potential, and Carson Palmer is as sharp as he was last year. His maturation has given the Blue Chip City hope not just for a good year, but a good decade. Even with Chad Johnson blanketed and his sneaky #2 receiver T.J. Who’s-Your-Mama on the sidelines, Carson steered the offense to the end zone. With Pittsburgh and Baltimore both showing playoff potential, the AFC North is the division to watch this year and maybe next year, too.

Why the Patriots will not win the Super Bowl this year

Awhile back I wrote that when the Patriots stop winning Super Bowls, you’ll see a lot of the veterans cashing in on free agency. Team spirit only lasts as long as the rings keep appearing, then it’s time to go for the green. With a still fresh MVP award on his resume, Deion Branch did a pretty unsurprising thing by trying to get a big contract and leaving town in order to get it. Why the deal was so sloppy is a mystery, and uncharacteristic of the Patriots organization.

So the big question is obviously – who’s going to be catching passes for New England this year? They were already thin at the position, and the running game is re-building itself. And then I read an article which described how bullish and optimistic they were this year about revolving the passing offense around…Benjamin Watson.

Now, Watson is a solid young tight end who can catch. He’ll be an asset. But even with Tom Brady slinging the ball, if they think that having a tight end as the number one receiver is going to win games for them, they should call up the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs teams of the last five years and ask them, in the immortal words of Dr. Phil: how’s that been working out for ya?

Heck, even I know using a TE as your feature receiver is retarded!

Donovan McNabb is back and spiting the haters once again. Michael Vick is still terrifyingly unreliable. Reggie Bush ran 61 yards from scrimmage and they’re ready to put him in the Hall of Fame. Oh, Football, the fun you’ll be providing me this year.

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The first step is admitting you have a problem

It is obscene, Jimmy, it is absolutely against nature how happy it makes me that Dancing With the Stars is back on the air. You might remember how earlier this year I prostrated myself on the altar of low taste for you in honor of this cheesiest of all cheese-mongering celebrealityvarietygameshowtextvotingbadhairapalooza extravaganzas. And the truth is that my wait for the new season was painful, though not nearly as painful as my wait for the NFL season, which I’ll be blogging about in due time.

But the ballroom is once again open for C-List celebrities and the preening dance-ponies who must put some dip in their hip. The house band is warming up their bloated covers of indelicately-chosen pop standards. The producers are figuring out how to pad the damned results show into an hour.

Already I’m noticing changes, and I think it’s that the show has now figured out its basic shape. The tangents and time-killing montage vamps are more honed, the song selection less wacky – even the guest stars look like they were pre-screened. Last season we had the wheezy, plasticized remains of Barry Manilow and ex-Righteous Brother Bill Medley, who sounded like he’d had a stroke. Compare that to this year, where our first guest singer was the Sex Bomb himself, Sir Tom Jones. He seems to have lost a little of his wind since I saw him in Vegas a couple of years ago, but he’s still got gusto in his voice, plus he can still pretend to be excited about
It’s Not Unusual after singing it for four decades, and that’s no small skill.

But it was those accidental collisions of bad taste and celebrities not knowing how to react to it that made the show such a kick to me, and in that vein the “stars” are more disappointing this year. Gig-hunting celebrities are like The Borg – they absorb opportunities for attention with soulless efficiency and adapt with frightening speed to any potential avenues for embarrassment. They have learned the lessons of seasons past, and now know exactly the clichés to provide on command, and which previous celebrities to adopt as behavioral paradigms for maximum home-viewer love.

Joey Lawrence, who with his new bald head and bulging arms looks like someone got Howie Mandel angry until he Hulked out, is shamelessly striving to follow the path of last year’s winner Drew Lachey. The formula – let your cute little face be all intensely competitive, and keep showing the ladies the guns. When he stepped into the spotlight I could swear he’d slathered his biceps with Crisco. His head had veins throbbing in places I’d never imagined before.

But just like you should never fight the last war, you should never just ape the last winner. Mario Lopez, the mighty A.C. Slater himself, upped the ante and I like his chances to take the whole thing. See, not only did he do the “Wants Badly to Win, Wears Spandex” thing with effortless flair, he added, well, more than a soupçon of irrepressible ADHD kid. I think just enough people won’t find that irritating. Plus, the boy can move. Bruno Tonioli, the judge who’s always got that this-tuna-is-sour look on his face, has a gift for unfurling queeny non sequiters that might offend the values of Middle America if they could actually understand what he was talking about; he summed up Mario’s appeal with a very in-character “
Do you have extra batteries in your pants?

They also allow more time before the first show for training. This means that on the whole the Week One dancing is better, but the other edge of that sword is that there’s
less looking like a fool, which is what we tuned in for, precious.

Jerry Springer tried, but he actually projected a debonair sort of gawkiness, like your hip-nerd uncle. He should be entertaining as long as he doesn’t improve too much, and the zombie hordes that still chant his name know how to use e-mail. Harry Hamlin gave us a double shot of embarrassment. First because of his stiff and graceless flailing, he approaches dancing like a kid trying to master fractals. And second, because his wife Lisa Rinna, who admirably evolved further than any of the other contestants last season but punished us with her desperate camera-neediness, now gets to thrust her collagen pouches at every available lens from the crowd under the guise of rooting her man along. The twitchy, jonesing side of TV-induced narcissism makes for the best primetime, if you ask me.

No one represents this better than Shanna Moakler. I’d never heard of her before, but she was introduced as a former
professional rollerskater who became Miss America and then broadcast her marriage to current Paris Hilton chew-toy Travis Barker in a reality show. Because marriages that appear on basic cable have an amazing track record. In her very first interview on Dancing she shared with no prompting that she’s now going through a divorce, so in addition to scoring her foxtrot we get to Share In Her Recovery. She understands that this is how it’s done in Hollywood – the emotional transitions in life stages are worth bull plop without Our Viewers At Home to validate them. If her soon-to-be-ex shows up drunk in the ballroom and accuses her of whooring around with her dance partner, I will die with an erection.

But none of these candidates were willing to go for the GUSTO, to boldly provide us some
unforgettably awful dancing. My prayers were finally answered by “political journalist” Tucker Carlson. In a world where the line between newsman, pundit and celebrity/personality gets blurrier, when news is replaced by gossip, truth is replaced by truthiness and the press seems entirely too chummy with the power brokers they are supposed to question, this is exactly sort of the bold two-step that, say, Edward R. Murrow might have taken. Then again, since Tucker’s idea of being incisive about the issues is to accuse Jon Stewart of being John Kerry’s “butt boy”, he may have already taken his screaming leap off the dignity wagon.

This was everything you could ask for in a Week One flameout. This was the Doughy White Guy Sweat-Shimmy in all its glory, where communication between limbs has clearly short-circuited. He even made the honky “
Ooh, what a good time I’m having!” mouth “O”, and it looked like some of the bones in his legs and pelvis had fused together, causing him to sort of awkwardly shove his crotch all over the place. It reminded me of every time I’ve ever gotten drunk at a wedding reception, and I know there’s video evidence of this somewhere. He got voted off, and he earned it. Kudos, Tuck, what a fine use for any shred of credibility you had left!

Best Bizarre Song Choice
: Doing the cha-cha-cha to Smash Mouth’s pop grinder Walkin’ on the Sun

Best Expression of Rampaging Dancer Ego
: “I’m known as being the James Bond of the ballroom dancing world” – Nick Kosovich, who comes off more like Kevin Kline in a Vicodin fog.

Best Catty Judge Put-Down
: “It looked like you were sitting on a toilet!” – Bruno, not satisfied with merely dumping on Tucker Carlson’s dancing, goes after the way the man occupies a chair. That’s putting in overtime, people.

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I declare: all theatrical productions should end with 8-foot tall skeleton kings

Gone to the opera. Back late.

48 hours ago I would not have predicted ever needing to leave such a note. I’m not opposed to opera, but I’ve never taken in a complete one live and wasn’t sure how I’d react. I don’t doubt my butt endurance – I once watched the 220-minute no-intermission director’s cut of
The Last Emperor at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. In a broken chair. My lower back sure let me know how it felt about that later.

My concern has always been more in the area of connection – could I
access the damned thing? Since opera tends to be expensive, I’ve yet to make the gamble in order to find out.

But then I got a call from The Voluptuous Geek. Her husband is singing in a new production of Verdi’s
Don Carlo at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the swank old downtown LA cavern of culture where they used to hold the Academy Awards. She had two free tickets on short notice and asked if I’d like to escort her.

Being more of a Hollywood/Damnable Hipsters/Soju cocktail menu animal, the Downtown/Chamber of Commerce/Circle of Donors world is sort of alien to me, although I am no stranger to paying $6 for a cold pre-packaged sandwich. The captive audience food markup needs no introduction. Walking around that world for a night sounded fun. Seeing my first opera sounded fun. And taking out The Voluptuous Geek is always fun.

Don Carlo is a historical spectacle about the son of the recently-crowned King of Spain. He falls desperately in love with a French Princess, only to lose her when King Dad chooses her for a marriage of diplomatic advantage. So the love of his life becomes Mom, really the last person you should be slipping salacious notes to. Plus you’ve got Carlo’s best friend Rodrigo encouraging the Prince to join the uprising against the oppression of his people in Flanders, a bit of general rabble-rousing that’s also not going to make the King happy. Oh, and there’s a little thing happening in the background called “The Inquisition”, which you may have heard of. Typically, the bodies are littering the stage by the end.

This was a damned fine production. The set was tall arches under high walls that had paintings of bloody deeds splashed across them. Set at a strong diagonal to the proscenium, the arches could be shifted back and forth across their axis like puzzle pieces to change the shape of the playing space and channel the light for a sort of real-life chiaroscuro effect. Gorgeous stuff. And for what was essentially a flat playing space, the director showed remarkable versatility in creating layered tableaus when the Chorus (including the Voluptuous Geek’s husband) spilled onto the stage. Prisons, tombs, menacing monks and self-flagellating fanatics – it’s a good night out.

I felt absolutely relieved when I shared my reactions and was borne out by the people who, well, actually knew what they were talking about. Yes, the Princess did act beautifully but seemed to be holding back vocally. Yes, the Grand Inquisitor did cut a terrifying corpse-like figure and shudder our souls with his thundering bass. And above all, yes, Dolora Zajick (playing a Spanish Princess who gets the wrong idea and two show-stopping feature numbers to talk about it) has a miracle of a voice. My arms were tired from clapping at the end.

Opera is a means to express big feelings at maximum volume, and it worked on me. If they can make you believe in the depth of agony that resides in being scorned in love, or in being willing to lay down your life for a friend, or in being torn between lust and fear, then everything – the spectacle and the fifty-pound costumes and the storming orchestra and the wailing way the mezzo-soprano hits
that one note unifies and sweeps right over you. Or, in the words of The Voluptuous Geek’s Husband, “rocks your face off”.

Monkeygirl and I have an understanding about what we refer to as “the understudy boyfriend/girlfriend”. This is a friend of the opposite sex whom you enjoy one-on-one company with, and on occasions where your legitimate partner is not available you more often than not end up hanging out with them instead. And while it’s strictly Platonic good times, in another variant of the fickle quantum probabilities of the universe you would totally hit that.

We each have one, although I don’t think either knows they’ve been honored with the designation. After I got the invite to the opera, I called Monkeygirl up and said “
I think I just became someone’s understudy boyfriend.” And if it gets me into events like this, I am on board for that.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

No, my friends, I have not abandoned you...

I need to get a better pen if I'm going to keep this up:

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

I continue seeking ways to express myself

It's funny because he can't draw!

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Idiocracy

Full review behind the jump


: Mike Judge
: Story by Mike Judge, Screenplay by Mike Judge and Etan Cohen
: Mike Judge, Elysa Koplovitz
: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, Terry Crews, Stephen Root, Sara Rue

You’ll rarely see a movie with funnier backgrounds than
Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s long-delayed live-action follow up to his cult comedy Office Space. It has but one real gag to hang its running time on, and it’s a good one; but it does mean that the success or failure of the movie rests on his ingenuity when it comes to detailing the consequences of his premise.

Judge, creator of
Beavis and Butthead and co-creator of King of the Hill, certainly has a vast imagination for tweaking the banalities of American life, but he’s always walked a fine line – using lowbrow humor both as a means to laughter, and as a means to mock those whose appreciation of comedy stops at that level of sophistication. He’s often in a position of ridiculing his most ardent fans, whether they realize it or not. Big screen sci-fi films may not be the most lucrative place to insult teenagers and make delicate points about the proper orientation of toilet gags, you can see why 20th Century Fox doesn’t quite know what to do with this picture, and is essentially sneaking it into theatres and hoping nobody notices.

The movie is also littered with flaws and awkward spots – this is speculation on my part but it looks like Judge has been forced to work with a budget cripplingly smaller than he’d expected, and didn’t have time to re-configure the movie to work at this level. In spite of these issues, I took a lot of enjoyment away because of all he does get to express in his lovingly dim forecast for the future of America (or Uhhmerica, as it will come to be known).

Our hero is average guy Pvt. Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) of the United States Army. And I don’t just use “average” as a bland descriptor, the reason he’s chosen for a top secret artificial hibernation experiment is that he is, in IQ, physical makeup, and emotional temperament smack at the exact median of modern American society. The Army can’t find an “average female” within their ranks, so they hire prostitute Rita (Maya Rudolph) to fill the other hibernation chamber.

The intent is to keep them in cold storage for only a year, but a mishap leaves them buried and forgotten for centuries, and things are not going well outside. The heavy breeding of the lower-IQ segments of the population, and the endless cultural catering to their denominator, is having a cumulatively drastic effect. When Joe and Rita are jarred awake in 2505, they are by a wide margin the smartest human beings left on the planet.

People have degraded to hostile and almost totally-inarticulate attention-deficit whooping sex fiends, somewhere on the scale of comprehension between lab chimps and the contestants on MTV’s Next. Anyone who can speak in a complete sentence using entirely real words is looked on as “faggy”. Drinking water is a thing of the past, fountains now spew a sports drink called “Brawndo: The Thirst Mutilator”. The President (Terry Crews) is a professional wrestling champion who holds forth in “The House of Representin’”, and the most popular celebrity is named “Beef Supreme”. No one really understands how anything works anymore, so they’re dependant on malfunctioning contraptions that look like they were designed by an alliance of Playskool and whoever makes those new fast food ordering kiosks where all you have to do is point at the picture of what you want.

Civilization is essentially collapsed but no one really can pull away from their TV long enough to admit it – in the background you can see a teetering skyscraper has been anchored to its neighboring tower with thick ropes. When Joe takes an aptitude test, the results have him hustled swiftly to the highest corridors of power. The people think he can be their savior; he just wants to get home. Meanwhile, the streetwise Rita is learning that it can be a breeze to get by when your clients are this brainless.

Judge is having an old-fashioned Butthead chuckle over all this, but he’s also making some broad satirical points about what kinds of decisions get made in a society that replaces reason and the rule of law with the Applause-o-meter, and the logical outcome for businesses that compete to reach the basest instincts. This is what makes the backgrounds such a delight, as you’re always spotting some further evidence of the terrifying dim-wittedness of 26th century man, and wondering how he manages to survive. Judge is still an animator by instinct, and enjoys filling the frame with extra jokes – I like the restaurant called “T.J. O’Handjobs”.

But his vision is far wider than his resources – he uses extensive digital rendering to try and keep his scope large (I like the Costco, which is the size of a breakaway republic), and it makes the overall look of the movie at once shiny, scattered and cheap. He’s not able to reconcile the elaborately-costumed human actors, the shoddy practical sets and the grainy imaginary surroundings, and if I had to guess I’d say he didn’t get everything shot he wanted – several passages of the plot must be smoothed over by a voice narration, which is sometimes witty but still a flagrant storytelling Band-Aid.

The actors don’t have a lot of room to make an impression, they have to portray an attitude more than a person, and that’s slippery. Wilson is affably boring, as is his specialty, the task of keeping things lively falls to Dax Shepard as Frito, who is both a lisping dullard and a practicing public defender. He promises to lead Joe to an old time machine, and humor-wise he’s on target reliably enough.

Suffice to say Mike Judge is usually sharper than he is in Idiocracy. It’s got bigger laughs than a lot of what’s out there, but with considerable amateur trappings not everyone will be able to get around. Plus you’ve got to reconcile what it potentially says about you and the fate of your offspring that you find some of this stuff entertaining. Think about that if you can.

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