Friday, April 27, 2007

Old Dogs (and a new cat).

‘Round the dial here. Lots to cover. Bear with me.

Monday, April 16th was a bitch. First, of course, there was the Virginia Tech massacre. A horrible, horrible thing, to be sure. But a tragedy that the media completely and disgustingly exploited with its usual lack of tact, emphasis on the sensational and very un-journalistic editorializing. I mean, thank God the news networks used that sad music over the montages of the victims, otherwise I wouldn’t have known that it was a tragedy! As Homer Simpson once wisely pointed out, “The music tells us how to feel!”

And then I saw a CNN anchor tag a profile of Liviu Librescu, the professor who barricaded the door to his classroom before ultimately being killed, with the insightful and keen observation, “He’s as brilliant in death as he was in life.” What the fuck does that even MEAN? Are these people truly stupid? Isn’t there SOME kind of IQ test given to prospective anchors? (Yes, that was hypothetical).

Anyway, just when it seemed that the story was winding down and those poor VT students and faculty could start to heal away from the glare of the media spotlight, Cho’s package showed up at NBC News. And I guaran-damn-tee you, they were jumping up and down and high-fiving each other. But the moral indignation with which the other news outlets treated NBC (while simultaneously showing whatever video they could) was pure naked hypocrisy. Arguments as to Cho’s manifesto’s newsworthiness are irrelevant. Of COURSE it’s news. But its sheer existence, the fact of the action is enough. By showing it, they merely gave him exactly what he wanted. This was not journalism. It was sensationalism.

But maybe the worst thing about the news media coverage of the story was their seemingly pathological need to try to tell us WHY it happened and how we should feel about it. Aside from tagging the usual blame-suspects (our media, video games, Cocoa Puffs, whatever), these purported journalists took it upon themselves to get metaphysical. CNN went so far as to invite MD / spiritual guru Deepak Chopra to join them in a search for MEANING in the massacre. Why do bad things happen to good people? They actually had the balls to speak the words, “Where was God in all of this?” Wha--? Seriously?

Here’s a thought: After you’re done searching for meaning in this tragedy, might I suggest another valuable use of time: Flap your arms really fast, click your heels together and try to make the Earth spin backwards in time to stop Cho Seung Hui before he kills anyone.

I just don’t understand why people think that there has to be a REASON for not only good and bad things that happen in the world, but for our very existence. That things need to make sense, that there has to be some larger purpose, some cosmic balance, some explanation. I truly believe there’s not (a belief that I find frankly liberating). I simply feel we stupid humans are nothing more than a simple mathematical probability in the vast size of the universe. Something like us was bound to evolve. So here we are, dominating the planet for the time being, fucking it up big time with our destructive self-absorption and soon we’ll all be gone. With no ultimate punishment or reward. C’mon, join me, have a drink and let’s toast chance.

Anyway. On a more personal note, that same Monday I had another crisis to deal with. My Dad had a stroke. A minor one, thankfully, and he luckily had it in the confines of his doctor’s office, so he was immediately taken to the hospital and put on blood thinners. He stayed there for six days, at which point he was released and my brother Ken and I headed home for a visit.

But heading out was problematic. Earlier on Sunday, I wondered why my keychain lock fob was only eliciting a meager burp from the Jeep after I loaded up my bags. When Ken called to say that he had arrived at the Hoboken PATH station, I hopped in the car and turned the key… and nothing happened. My battery was dead. A few days earlier, right around dusk, I had glanced out my window and thought that it looked like there was a light on in the car, but did I go down and check? Nah. It was just the sunlight reflecting in the glass. Right.

Anyway, as luck would have it, my neighbor Ann was getting rid of some stuff at that very moment (I swear) including her jumper cables, for which, since she no longer owns a car, she has very little use. Her mother was there in her car to pick her up for brunch and so I had a battery to use as the boost for my dead juice. Considering it was a crappy situation, things were going pretty smoothly.

At first, anyway. For some reason at the age of 42, I still don’t feel grown up enough to be confident that I can jump start a car correctly. I always forget, is it positive to negative or positive to positive? That’s right, positive to positive. The thing about a congested town like Hoboken is that to jump a car, you have to close off a whole block. And so, we waited for my brother to arrive to help with the jump while Ann deflected traffic from turning onto my block.

But hooking up jumper cables should be a one man job. It’s simple enough, unless of course, you ignore the color of the clamps on the cables. I put the black clamp on the positive terminal and the red on the negative and then let the cables lie on the ground. Dumb, I know. Then Ken picked them up as I got into the car to rev the motor and hooked the other end of the cables to Ann’s Mom’s car. Red clamp on the positive and black on the negative, as is the norm… but not what I did on my end.

The car didn’t start, but smoke did come off of the battery. Ken quickly realized the mistake and corrected the placement of the jumper cables, after which my car promptly started up. Ann and her mother drove off and Ken climbed into the Liberty and all of a sudden we realized that the CD player was dead. And so were the locks. And the dome light. Ken checked a few key fuses, which seemed to be intact. No, this was something bigger. Oh, shit.

The usual three hour drive back to Lancaster was greatly extended, both literally (by the road work on the turnpike, which forced a two mile crawl to take an hour) and in perception, as the lack of music made the oh-so-common drive feel like an eternity. The anxiety was exacerbated by the thought that there was a good chance we had fried parts of the electrical system.

But there were bigger issues upon arrival home. Hey, Dad, how are you? Hugs. Relieved jokes. Small talk. And then dinner. Mom made turkey, green beans and mashed potatoes. As the food was placed on the table, Dad, having his first non-hospital meal in almost a week, asked the question: “Did you make any gravy?” after which he dumped salt on everything.

For well over a decade now, since my father’s quadruple bypass in 1994, Mom, Ken and I have been on him to take better care of himself. But truth be told, aside from quitting smoking, he hasn’t changed his habits at all (despite also being a borderline diabetic). He has an unrepentant sweet tooth and a German appetite for fat, salt and meat.

The very next morning, we caught him with chocolate smeared on his face, like a five year old boy with his hand in the cookie jar. And it happened again, the salt, the sugar, the candy, the meat, numerous more times over the mere forty hours we were home. He’s an old dog who will never learn new tricks, regardless of how much we wish otherwise. And no amount of begging, yelling, common sense talking, crying or anything is going to get him to change his ways.

But back to the Jeep. Monday morning, I awoke with the plan to drive to the Jeep dealership in Lancaster and beg them to squeeze me in and fix my poor sparky Liberty. I had talked to my cousin Andrew, a giant gearhead who’s flipped a Wrangler a few times in his life. He and Ken speculated that getting everything fixed could possibly cost around a grand.

But before I headed out, armed with a book to read while I waited, Ken and I gave another check to the fuses and discovered that one of the bigger ones was blown, a 15 amp fuse that controlled about a dozen things included all of the things that were not working. We hopped in the car and hit the AutoZone a couple of miles down the road and bought a new fuse, crossing fingers as we put it into the housing.

I turned the key in the ignition and the CD player sprung to life, Wild Cherry exhorting us to play that funky music, white boys. We jumped in the air and whooped with glee, relieved that our collective stupidity cost a mere five bucks to fix. Not a thousand. Which is better.

That night Pix, Tim, Andrew and Uncle Ken came over and we ordered subs (Dad suggested, “Hey, get a bag of potato chips!”) and ate on the breezeway and drank wine well into dark and it was lovely. Tuesday morning came, and after more drama at breakfast (Ham? Fried eggs? How about some chocolate afterwards?), Ken and I were on our way back to New York, musical accompaniment and coffee from PBM making the return trek far less stressful. The anxiety of the week wasn’t completely alleviated, but things were, for better or worse, back to normal (whatever THAT is).

At least for now.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Idiots Rule.

It’s been a rather depressing week if you’re someone who feels beaten down by the ever-branching stupidity of the American people. First, this whole ridiculous Don Imus controversy, which, based on the coverage it’s getting in the news, is tantamount to King Bush coming out and saying, “Y’know what? That colored fella, Kanye West hit the nail on the head!” It’s DON IMUS, fer cryin’ out loud!! Who's shocked and, moreso, who gives a shit? I’m sure that there were hundreds of other idiotic DJs spouting crap across the country’s airwaves that morning that was every bit as offensive and stupid as Cowboy Don’s “nappy haired hoes” remark. Did he deserve to be called out on it? Sure. But to turn it into the biggest news of the week and infer that the Rutgers Basketball Team (and ALL WOMEN AND AFRICAN- AMERICANS) are permanently scarred by the offhand comment is as insulting to women and African-Americans as the initial statement.

In lesser, but also depressing news, GRINDHOUSE came out over the weekend and flopped big time (coming in #4 behind BLADES OF GLORY (Ha, ha, Will Ferrell fall down!), MEET THE ROBINSONS (parents, just say no!) and ARE WE DONE YET? (God, I hope so). I saw the movie with Fraulein Opfer and have to admit that I was pretty disappointed. I appreciated the esthetic and the effort (and very much appreciated Rose McGowan), but walked out of the theater amazed at how much fun I DIDN’T have. It was just okay. I spent a good portion of the three hours fairly bored and sporadically annoyed. Surprisingly, Robert Rodriguez’ PLANET TERROR was the better of the two films, and far more in the spirit of the exploitation films the double feature claims to celebrate. Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF, on the other hand, has some nice moments, but is far too talky to be an exploitation film. On top of the that, the second half of his film (in which two bad-ass stunt women and Rosario Dawson turn the tables on the homicidal Kurt Russell) is pretty much unbearable, with annoyingly mannered performances (QT’s dialogue [for the first time ever] feels totally unbelievable coming out of the mouths of these women) and plot points big enough to drive a Dodge Charger through. And no, the fact that it’s a hot-rod-serial-killer film doesn’t excuse it.

It is interesting to note that Tarantino’s most pro-feminist work is his least successful, creatively. I appreciate the idea of turning the tables on the women-in-peril genre and having a group of tough chicks literally turn the scarred, manly villain into a whimpering, emasculated simp. But for whatever reason (I have to think it’s just poor casting, another anomaly for a QT film), it just doesn’t play.

I think GRINDHOUSE would’ve benefited from even MORE editing. If both films were cut down to just over an hour (which easily could’ve happened), the whole experience would’ve been more exhilarating.

But more depressing than my lack of total enthusiasm for GRINDHOUSE is the fact that the general public is just too stupid to even UNDERSTAND what the movie is. Notices posted at the box office (at a theater smack in the midst of Manhattan, mind you) had to explain that the scratches, missing reels and fluctuating print quality in GRINDHOUSE are intentional, that it’s attempting to recreate an esthetic (of course, I’m paraphrasing, they wouldn’t use the word “esthetic”). And now word comes that the movie is going to be re-released as two separate films, partially because some people, unaware that they had paid for a double feature, GOT UP AND LEFT THE THEATER AFTER PLANET TERROR WAS OVER!!!!

I don’t expect the grindhouse esthetic to be everyone’s cup of tea. I understand that most people, especially younger folks, even if they’ve heard of or seen films like SHAFT, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or SATAN’S SADISTS, might not grasp the bigger picture of the culture of exploitation films. But that still doesn’t explain or excuse walking into a movie being so completely ignorant of what you’re about to see that you complain to the manager about the scratchy film and then leave halfway through because you think it’s over!!! It’s nothing but sheer stupidity.

Y’know what, fuck it. I’m gonna go see GRINDHOUSE again. Just to show support. And look at Rose McGowan some more. Holy Hot Cleft, Batman!

Monday, April 09, 2007

You only trust FAMILY

As a group of us gathered last night to watch the half-season premiere of The Sopranos (dead soldiers: nine bottles of wine and about 5,000,000 brain cells), speculation was tossed around as to how the show’s going to wrap up. We’re hardly alone. Everything from Entertainment Weekly to Vanity Fair to the frickin’ NBC Nightly News has weighed in, with opinions heated and diverse.

There are those who think that the series needs to end with Tony either dead or in jail (I say no way to either). There are others who feel that Jersey somehow needs to “beat” New York in some way (which makes me scratch my head). And yet others predict that David Chase will end the series with another of his innocuous climaxes in which ennui trumps action and life continues on its merry gray march.

I kinda hope that there is SOME kind of bow tied on the package. Over the past month, I’ve rewatched every single episode and have come to feel that The Sopranos is (soon to be was) the greatest dramatic series in the history of television (as opposed to the inarguable “one of the greatest”). Its singular balance of drama and comedy, its ability to be alternately terrifying and touching, its wit and the amazing cast of perfectly balanced characters is something that’s simply never been matched in TV. And as the hub of the wheel, James Gandolfini managed to make Tony Soprano equal parts horrible and likeable (just ask Agent Harris, he’ll tell you… it’s hard to hate the guy, no matter how much you want him to go down).

So, what’s going to happen over the course of the next eight episodes? Well, I do have a guess. I don’t think anyone’s going to be punished in a traditional dramatic sense because (as John Hanlon reminded us all last night), Chase has always been adamant about The Sopranos not being a morality tale. He’s not judging these people, he’s merely telling their story. And a huge part of their story is the seeming inevitability of becoming part of (or at least affected by) the “family” if you’re born into the literal family. In the past ten years (or six seasons), AJ Soprano has gone from the innocent little kid who didn’t even know his dad was in the mafia to someone who resents his sometimes-distant father’s power and status while simultaneously trying to use it to his advantage. AJ’s arc has always been tragic, the poor kid never had a “good” season (unlike sister Meadow, whose issues with her family were the usual teen-into-adult trauma… and she seems to have found an identity for herself while finding some kind of peace with her family).

So, AJ. Some have speculated that AJ (or Meadow) is going to get killed, but I don’t think so (and not just because that would be too much like the conclusion of The Godfather Part III). I think the series is going to end with AJ becoming a part of his father’s other family, due to some event (will he kill someone?) that would make it impossible to keep him isolated anymore. Which would of course be a tragedy to Tony (and Carmela), and would bring AJ’s story arc to a close, while not giving the series a forced final chapter. If Christopher’s burgeoning movie career takes him away (or OUT), Tony would have no choice but to turn to his son. After all, “You can only really trust family.” And the entire series has been about the balance between Tony’s two families. It seems like the only logical conclusion.

Of course, I’m probably wrong, since one of the great things about the show has been its unpredictability. Regardless, it’s a sure bet that eight weeks from now, life will go on, the mob will go on, a mere stone’s throw from where I sit, the Sopranos will go on. Just not on TV anymore.