Sunday, November 28, 2010

Movie Sunday: Wilder Napalm

This is one of my favorite movies, and I doubt you've ever heard of it. The few people I know who have seen it -- usually at my recommendation -- either love it, or tend to think that the casting is interesting, and the rest is ... okay. A few have seen it as a total waste of time. Part of this difference of opinion may be because the offbeat romantic comedy on the surface acts mostly as a substrate for a form of art that I can't really describe, but that I find very appealing.

The cast is definitely interesting. It stars the guy (Arliss Howard) who reminds me of that guy (Scott Glenn) who I used to confuse with David Carradine. Howard and Dennis Quaid are cast as two estranged brothers who can start fires with their minds. Debra Winger plays Howard's wife, a budding pyromaniac under house arrest. Her husband is a firefighter, so when she gets bored, she starts small fires to get hubby and his co-workers to come for a visit.

The story, while quirky, is fairly predictable, but the story is not really the thing. I think what I like about Wilder Napalm is similar to what I like about Coen brothers films. It's the characters, and the golden moments, and some hard to define subtext that are the most memorable.  And there's singing, but only a little. It's a movie that you need to really watch, and listen to, and experience.

So if your Netflix recommendations tend towards "quirky indie films" you may want to try this one. At least now that Netflix carries it. If you prefer your fare more conventional, you should probably give it a miss.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Travel and terror

There is an excellent opinion piece by Roger Cohen in the New York Times this morning that mirrors many of my recent thoughts on the growth of Homeland Security and the TSA. If you are like 80% of Americans, then your attitude probably echoes most of my friends, somewhere along the lines of, "I'm willing to be scanned, and patted down, and all the rest, if it will keep terrorists off my plane." To some extent, I would agree.

There are only two problems with this attitude. First, it probably won't keep terrorists off your airplane. Mostly because there probably aren't going to be any terrorists on your plane. But also because each new layer of security is a response to the latest threat, and it's just added to all of the previous layers. At the same time, our enemies have already moved on to a new plan. They may be evil and/or crazy, but they are generally not stupid.

It is telling that security officials in Britain and Israel, arguably two of the best countries at securing transportation resources, have been critical of the TSA's approach. The idea that technology and procedures can be 100% effective against a suicidal human enemy is dangerously flawed, and creates a money pit into which billions upon billions of dollars will inevitably flow.

The second problem is more fundamental to the nature of the conflict. Life is 100% fatal. We can't choose whether to die, but we can choose how we live. And the United States was built on the idea that individual liberty is an "inalienable right" worth spending lives to defend.

Surrendering our liberties to protect our freedoms makes about as much sense as it sounds like it does. This is exactly what terrorists want. That's why they call them that. If they can disrupt our lives and make us afraid, then they have succeeded. It was never about how many people they could kill.

As Cohen writes, "America is a nation of openness, boldness and risk-taking. Close this nation, cow it, constrict it and you unravel its magic." Moreover, I personally believe that allowing a few wackos on the other side of the world to disrupt our lives and commerce in order to achieve some impossible guarantee of personal safety disrespects the sacrifices being made by our soldiers every day. The best way to support our troops is to be prepared to absorb a tiny bit of the risk they face. Have we really become so timid?

And is this really the best use of our shared resources? Terrorists on airplanes have killed around 3000 Americans in the past decade, depending on how one wants to count. About twice that many American soldiers have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that same period, around one hundred and fifty thousand people in the U.S. were victims of homicide. Should we expand our security procedures to the rest of our society? Would you be willing to submit to current TSA security procedures at the mall, your church, the local stadium, or your child's school?

I spent a good part of my career working with Federal bureaucracies, and I can see where this TSA thing is headed. I doubt if there is a silver bullet solution to this problem, but I know the way we're going will result mostly in more expense, more inconvenience, and very little increase in protection. And it's past time we started the conversation.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Movie Sunday: Cool Hand Luke

Picture from here

What we have here is failure ... to communicate.

This is undoubtedly the most famous line in this movie, delivered by one of the more memorable characters in movie history, but it is far from the best moment in this wonderful film. Cool Hand Luke has been one of my favorites since I first saw it as a teenager, and is still a great joy for me to watch, despite having seen it probably a dozen times.

First of all, we have a young Paul Newman playing an impossibly engaging anti-hero. If you've ever wondered why a whole generation of people have a thing for Paul Newman, watch this movie. Luke's confidence, humor, and indomitable spirit make this an unlikely feel-good movie, and sometimes makes women's pants fall down.

Also, the character actors do a wonderful job, especially George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Dragline. And of course, Strother Martin as the sadistic Captain. The memorable scenes are too numerous to, umm, remember them all. The fifty-egg bet and the one-day road project are probably my favorites.

Except for the sexiest car wash ever, that is. What Joy Harmon can do with a sponge and a bucket of soapy water is enough to make a young boy wish he were in prison. And the prisoners' reactions to it are priceless.

Picture from here

Cool Hand Luke is not all wet t-shirts and eating eggs, though. The film deals a lot with the darker side of humanity: brutality, sadism, and injustice, though most of the violence is pretty tame by today's standards. And in the end, it's a film about hope and the human spirit. At least that's what I get from it.

So if you haven't seen this one, stick it your queue or watch for it on TV. It's on every now and then. And if you have seen it, but it's been a while, watch it again. It's a treasure.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Movie Sunday: Meet Me in St. Louis

Image from here

I figured I had better do something light-hearted before Amy stops reading this altogether, so we're doing MGM's 1944 classic musical, Eat Meet Me in St. Louis. Actually, we can probably throw in Singin' in the Rain while we're at it, since I will probably never do this again.

I'm not really a big fan of musicals in general. My mother was all about them when I was a child, and many of the LP's that she played on our big console record player were soundtracks. It got worse when she got an Electra 225 with a cassette player. I thought if I heard about how the wind comes sweepin' down the plain in Oklahoma one more time, or how unsinkable Molly Brown was, I was going to pull out my hair.* My hatred of musicals peaked when I had to sit through my older brother's junior high school production of H.M.S. Pinafore, which I know is technically an opera, but whatever. Such distinctions were lost on me in fourth grade.

But high school boys will follow high school girls almost anywhere, so when Meet Me in St. Louis played on Sunday night at the Arts Center, I was there. And I have to confess that I was pleasantly surprised. It was a nice little family comedy, centered around a group of children and their misadventures. And the singing and dancing aren't quite so ridiculous as I had feared. Think Sound of Music, but with the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair instead of Nazis.

The most memorable part of the film today is probably Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Apparently, the song was originally supposed to be about the soldiers fighting in WWII or something. The fact that this movie was supposed to occur in 1904 really didn't enter into the decision to change the lyrics, such was the fantasy-land that was 1940's musicals. They decided to rewrite the lyrics because the original seemed too sad to sing to a little girl.

Singin' In the Rain came out almost a decade later, but is another opportunity to see the old people in laxative commercials when they were young and hot, sporting pointed breasts and pencil-thin mustaches.** The plot is more zany but just as predictable as Meet Me in St. Louis, and is really no different than a bomb shelter full of other musical comedies of the 1950's. This one is special because of the dancing.

If you're a fan of Dancing with the Stars -- which I definitely am not -- you owe it to yourself to see some of these old movies starring people who really knew how to dance. And before it became a competitive sport. Gene Kelly is almost unbelievable, and the cast is packed with first-rate dancers. The notable exception is Debbie Reynolds, who was apparently a gymnast with very little dance experience. Kelly was quite mean to her, and was surprised she would talk to him after the film. This led to Fred Astaire famously finding her "crying beneath a piano," and agreeing to help her with her dancing.

Of course, it's the title song dance sequence that has gotten most of the attention, but the whole movie is fun to watch. Especially with other people. Drunk. Maybe playing a game, or doing a puzzle or something at the same time.

*  I had hair then.

**Though hardly ever on the same person.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

And then this happened

So, Biscuit took the week off to paint the outside of our house this week. Because life is a constant party at our place. Normally, she's in the house when I leave for work, and I lock her in. Yesterday she was outside the house when I left, and -- you guessed it -- I locked her out. I'm really only about two percent conscious anymore, I think. Everything else I do happens without any real participation on my part.

Luckily, our neighbor was home, so at about lunchtime, when she realized that she was shut out of the house without keys or phone, she was able to call from his house. I was in meetings both times she called, and couldn't answer. And since it's a number I don't recognize, I wasn't going to just call it back. That's not a problem, of course, since she left messages both times she called. So, another thing I learned yesterday is that my phone hasn't been getting voicemail for ... well, I don't know how long. Thanks, [name of phone company withheld because I would like for my wife to continue working there.]

So, long story short, we realized we don't talk much during a normal day. I did e-mail her once to tell her that I would be late getting home, since my boss has this persistent belief that it's okay to schedule meetings at 4:30 in the afternoon. And I called on my way home to find out how the wine was holding out. I was on the verge of getting annoyed with her for ignoring me.

If anyone needs any further proof that this is the person I was destined to share my life with, look no further than the fact that, after a shower and a glass of wine, she was not really even mad. Or maybe she's just biding her time. Either way, this is a woman you have to respect.

Oh, and I'm taking suggestions on a good place to hide a key.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Movie Sunday: Boxing Helena is the sexiest movie you will ever want to turn off

Image from here

My last post reminded me of one of the most brilliantly disturbing movies I have ever seen: Boxing Helena. Not to say everyone will love this movie. I've had people get very angry with me for recommending it to them. It makes 9 1/2 Weeks look like Sleepless in Seattle, and can be extremely uncomfortable to watch. It also introduced me to the music of Enigma, which Biscuit has really never forgiven.

I don't want to say too much about it, because it would be easy to ruin. But it was the first film written and directed by Jennifer Lynch, David Lynch's daughter, which probably tells you something. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in the same year it won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Director.

Oh, and if you decide to try it, watch the whole thing. Quitting in the middle will just make it worse.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Can you see the real me?

Image from here

We've started watching this British TV series on DVD called Being Human.  It's about a vampire and a werewolf that live with a ghost. Sounds like the opening line of a joke, right? So far, we really like it. Perhaps even more than most stories of supernatural beings, the focus here is very much on the monster within.

I've had enough long drunken nights with enough different types of people to know that we all have a monster inside of us. Or at least people that will drink with me seem to have one. No matter how much we show to those around us, we hide a creature that we believe to be so vile that we cannot afford for even those closest to us to catch a glimpse of it. Or maybe the point is that we especially can't afford for those closest to us to see it.

I wonder about those perpetually perky types that hide their monsters beneath mountains of bunnies and flowers, or (somewhat ironically) the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Are they truly unaware of this primitive presence within themselves? Or are they ones working hardest to conceal it, lest someone catch wind of how the sight of a full moon makes them want to tear off their clothes and run howling into the forest, eviscerating those same bunnies that decorate their kitchens?

Or maybe it's not monsters for all of us. Perhaps, in what Arianna Huffington calls our "lee-zard brains," some of us are prey rather than predators, secretly longing for the fangs in our throats, and the sweet release from perpetual fear that only comes as we bleed out onto the snow. I suspect we all have a little of both. This is a theme that may get explored in this series, though it's too early to tell.

How did we get this way? Do chimpanzees hide their true motivations from their community?* Did secrets somehow evolve alongside language? I guess the ability to tell goes hand in hand with the option not to tell. But do we really need to believe that others lack the same primitive motivations as ourselves?

I suppose the answer to the last question is "yes." It is probably much easier to build civilization when we can believe that our wife has never had the urge to cuckold us with our boss, or that our children have never considered killing us in our sleep. And isn't that the whole point of civilization, after all? To allow us all to believe we live in a world of order and fairness and safety? Instead of the one we really inhabit, where a looming shadow could be the last thing we see, and the only thing keeping that moment in the future is our wits, and a great deal of luck.

*This is not to imply that I believe we are related in any way to chimpanzees.**

**But I do.