March 31, 2005

Is it already that time of year again? New York Press has published its annual list of the 50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers. I feel like they were more amusing last year, but it's still very much worth your time.

The paper is snappy in giving comeuppance to New York Times food critic Frank Bruni (Number 40): "The former political reporter has been doling out stars like the Lucky Charms leprechaun." And its takedown of the Olsen Twins (Number 34) is hilarious, but unprintable here.

The twins are only young women, but some of those on the list surely deserve their places. On Number 25:

Predatory Park Ave. cosmetic surgeon Steven Pearlman likes to give his business a lift by throwing plastic-surgery parties for teenagers at nightclubs, where he helps 13-year-old girls drinking mock cocktails discover how ugly they are. Sounding like a Dutch techie on a Thai sex vacation, Pearlman once told the New York Observer, "I can generally start on girls at 15."
And as usual, the paper skewers both left and right. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter (Number 8) "is, personality-wise, a clear exception to the monsters populating this list." But:
In his day job, Carter edits a magazine whose unabashed purpose is to make icons out of idiots; then, in his spare time, he turns around and wonders aloud for 300 earnest pages (that What We've Lost anti-Bush thing you saw sticking like a fridge magnet to the pile of Al Franken books at Barnes & Noble) how it could possibly have happened that America elected a dolt like George W. Bush. This is the business of the educated New York media creature with a society profile: Laugh at middle America for declaring itself a maggot for Jesus, but at the same time commission Annie Leibovitz to shoot Brad Pitt in the pose of Zeus or the angel Gabriel. At least Republicans only drop to their knees for God.
Topping the list is Mayor Michael Bloomberg for, among other things:
  • "punishing victims of crime instead of helping them (see his innovation of fining for graffiti-strewn newspaper boxes)";
  • "harassing innocent storeowners (for having extra information on their awnings)";
  • "pushing cops to harass people to meet ticket quotas";
  • "his 18 percent property tax hike"; and
  • "his complicity in abuse of eminent domain statutes."

Filmfest DC

For those in the Washington, DC, area, Filmfest DC tickets are now available. The website has a list of this year's films, many of which are from India, and information on how to purchase online. I saw two very good British films the last two years of the festival—The Heart of Me and Bright Young Things, the latter of which I reviewed for Brainwash.

March 30, 2005
On Books

In my latest American Enterprise Online column, I review Pope John Paul II's fifth book, whose publication was moved up a month, presumably because of his ill health.

The most engaging parts are those about his homeland, Poland. Many readers will be bored by some of the longer digressions on the country. But the Pope lived in one of the nations hardest hit by the twentieth century's twin totalitarian ideologies, Nazism and communism, and on this subject he is particularly eloquent: "Not even the insane storm of hate unleashed from East and West between 1939 and 1945 could destroy it..."
I also have some thoughts on Simon & Schuster's new conservative imprint, run by Mary Matalin.

Letter of the day

"Well, that does it. There is now, officially, nothing new left for women to complain about."

—Tom Porter, in a letter on a Salon piece on "wife shopping"

Van Google


Google is getting more and more creative. On major holidays, the site's familiar logo is modified to reflect the day. But lately, the logo has changed on non-major holidays, too. I recall about a week ago a special logo for World Water Day. Today, it's Vincent van Gogh's birthday.

March 29, 2005
In book-to-film news

More evidence that Kenneth Branagh plans to film all of Shakespeare—his next film will be a nineteenth-century adaptation of As You Like It. Produced for HBO Films, the movie will star Kevin Kline and Bryce Dallas Howard. Branagh may play Touchstone himself.

And on the other side of the cinematic continuum, Sean Lennon has lined up quite a bad-ass cast for his directorial debut. Vincent Gallo and Asia Argento are in negotiations to star alongside John Lennon's son in his adaptation of the Japanese novel Coin Locker Babies. Amazon provides the book's rather disturbing first sentence.

March 28, 2005
What constitution?

Say goodbye to The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The L Word. That's if Kevin Martin, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gets his way. Free speech supporters thought Michael Powell, the last chairman, was tough, with the fines levied because of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident. But the New York Times reports that Martin has suggested that cable and satellite television providers should also be subject to FCC rules, not just the broadcast networks. And he doesn't seem to care much about the laws he was sworn in to uphold:

"Certainly broadcasters and cable operators have significant First Amendment rights, but these rights are not without boundaries," he wrote. "They are limited by law. They also should be limited by good taste."
He wrote those words in a letter to L. Brent Bozell, conservative legend and founder and president of the Media Research Center and the Parents Television Council. It's amazing how much influence one man can have—the PTC is responsible for most of the complaints filed with the FCC, officials say.

The Times also notes that a bill currently before the Senate "would force the broadcasters to double the amount of children's programming they offer, to six hours rather than three." This strikes me as rather laughable, given what I was reading just today. I'm about to review Leo Bogart's Over the Edge: How the Pursuit of Youth by Marketers and the Media Has Changed American Culture. He gives some examples of what the networks offered as their mandatory educational programming: Saved by the Bell: The New Class, The Jetsons, some episodes of Geraldo, and a "Weird Al" Yankovic video.

Funny men

A story in yesterday's New York Times gives us the lowdown on "Hollywood's Funniest Clique": "Next-generation humor is 'smart-dumb comedy, as opposed to dumb-dumb comedy or smart-clever comedy,' Mr. Cornfeld said." And what is this "smart-dumb comedy"? The Times answers:

The humor is often character-based and owes a lot of its knowing silliness - think of Mr. Ferrell as an oversized Santa's helper, or Mr. Stiller as a vapid runway model - to "Saturday Night Live."
Other examples given, like Dodgeball and Anchorman, sound just as much like "dumb-dumb" comedy to me. As do these:
In the next several months, a new wave of films from the group will include New Line Cinema's "The Wedding Crashers," the summer's most buzzed-about comedy, starring Mr. Vaughn and Mr. Wilson as overgrown bachelors who prey on women at weddings, and Universal's "Kicking and Screaming," with Mr. Ferrell as a demented soccer dad.
One of the most interesting, but little explored, aspects of the story is how much clout these comedians—including stars like Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell—have. It's greater than that of the audience:
During the making of "Elf," Mr. Miller and Mr. Ferrell differed with the editing choices of the director, Jon Favreau, executives close to the production said. Both versions were tested with audiences, but the creative differences led to Mr. Favreau's not being involved in the sequel at New Line, executives in both camps said. Though Mr. Favreau's choices tested better with an audience and won out, he is considered creatively out of sync with Mr. Miller and Mr. Ferrell, and New Line has confirmed that he will not be part of the sequel.

Sad news

Another rock suicide. Paul Hester, drummer for Split Enz and Crowded House, hung himself in a park on the weekend. Hester, who was 46, left behind two daughters, aged 8 and 10. He had learned to play from his mother, Anne, a jazz drummer.

Almost as sad is that one Australian paper is already using the tragedy for political ends:

Hester's fame ensures his death does not become just another statistic, just one of 800,000 Australian adults and 100,000 children and teenagers who experience an episode of clinical depression each year. Like Hester, some of them, too, meet violent ends - at their hands or those of others. Some are marked by quickly forgotten headlines concerning police shootings of knife-wielding wild men and women; the vulnerable also fall victims to crimes of the street. Alcohol, the most frequently abused anti-depression medication, and illicit drugs kill many more.

And where are governments in all of this? They have been shifting the load to the private sector and blaming each other - states versus national - for shortcomings, demanding coherent integrated solutions and cooperation. Mercifully, the mentally ill have been largely deinstitutionalised, freed from a system accented as much on separation as treatment. Recklessly, there have been precious few concrete measures to safeguard them in society. And when help is sought, resources are too scarce.

March 25, 2005
A legacy gone

I wrote a piece for Doublethink magazine last year questioning whether the short story was dead. Some unfortunate news in that direction arrived this week. Folio reports that starting with its August issue, The Atlantic Monthly will no longer publish fiction. "Instead, the magazine plans to offer a newsstand only fiction issue."

March 23, 2005
Quote of the day

Dylan was still being called The Spokesman of His Generation in 1970 when he released an eagerly awaited album called "Self-Portrait."

[Greil] Marcus, who didn't like the album at all, began his review with one of the most widely-quoted leads in music-journalism history. He summed up listeners' shock and dismay in four words: "What is this s***?"

"It wasn't some brilliant stab by me," Marcus shrugged during our talk. "That was everyone's first reaction. I'd said what I thought."

Marcus paid a price, though, for his daring approach. "That piece got me fired from Rolling Stone," he said with a nostalgic smile.

—from Jon Friedman's latest MarketWatch column


Those small drawings providing relief in text-heavy pages of The New Yorker were recently changed for the first time since 1925, the New York Times reports:

Starting with the magazine's 80th anniversary issue last month, those quirky illustrations - known as spots to the magazine's staff - have been quietly unspooling through each issue like minimalist silent films, sharing a running theme or even telling microstories.
Even some of the magazine's editors hadn't noticed.

Word watch

"Young and old came together for the silent vigil sponsored by the Lancaster Coalition for Peace and Justice," reports the Lancaster Sunday News of an antiwar protest. How silent was this vigil? "Several drums kept time while the local marchers, mostly dressed in black, stretched three blocks as they made their way to the church to participate in a town meeting," the paper reports. "The march was marked by tooting horns from passing vehicles and outbreaks of clapping and cheering from the crowd. One protester started to yell as an counter-protester walked through the crowd holding a 'support our troops' poster."

March 22, 2005
No pressure

Lynne Truss, who scored a surprise blockbuster with the grammar guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves, will publish her second book in October. Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door is a book of etiquette, but not the "etiquette of forks," she says. The book was written for "anyone who is naturally too scared to confront the yobs."

Eats, Shoots & Leaves will finally be published in paperback the same day, with a bonus:

In what Profile considers to be a publishing first, it will contain a "punctuation repair kit", sets of adhesive stickers for sticklers to use to correct especially egregious punctuation errors. "Greengrocer's beware," the publisher has warned.
But one thing puzzles me. The Independent reports that Truss "is still writing the book." So how does she know that Talk to the Hand will be exactly 224 pages, the same as ESL?

Thought for the day

"Thou art to me a delicious torment."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

March 21, 2005
Thought for the day

"For a writer to spend much of his time in the company of authors is, you know, a form of masturbation."

—Graham Greene

Haven't I seen this somewhere before?

In my Brainwash column this month, I argue that remakes are polluting our airwaves. The solution? Apply the Electronic Waste Recycling Act to Hollywood.

March 17, 2005
Thought for the day

"Produce, produce, produce, for I tell you, the night is coming!"

—Matthew Arnold

March 16, 2005
Thought for the day

"Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one."

—Ancient Chinese Proverb

On Books

My latest American Enterprise Online books column looks at astrophysicist and novelist Alan Lightman's just-published collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit:

In the 1950s, C.P. Snow famously declared that the sciences and the humanities were "two cultures" that had trouble communicating with each other. Little seems to have changed since then...

March 15, 2005
Thought for the day

"Don't get me wrong: I enjoy all of these books. I don't mind the similarity in tone and theme--the aging, dying parents, the patchy, parched soil of the middle-aged marriages, the tone of wry regret or rage served with a side of irony. It's a question of taste and of timing. Some days you want to read about how a great pair of shoes can brighten a bad mood and how Mr. Right might actually be waiting right around the corner. Other days you want a postmodern take on Madame Bovary where one of the heroines has a suppurating hole in her face."

—"Chick Lit" novelist Jennifer Weiner on "The Gray Ladies"

March 14, 2005
Thought for the day

"Equations are more important to me, because politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity."

—Albert Einstein, born on this day in 1879

March 09, 2005
Thought for the day

"Only men are ever really tamed. No woman ever is."

Michael Dirda

About town

I caught the critic Terry Teachout at the American Enterprise Institute on Monday, speaking on "The Problem of Political Art." For my own purposes in wanting to write about the event, the charming TT did me no favors—I agreed with pretty much everything he said.

In summary: "Any work of art that seeks to persuade one to take some external action tends to be bad... The more specific its purpose, the greater the temptations to dishonesty for the artist." Terry Teachout is, among other things, a drama critic, which I suspect gives him more opportunity than most to discover the truth of that statement.

"A boring work of art can't convince anybody of anything," TT said. And there's nothing more boring than a one-sided story. Most political artists take your agreement with them as a given, and this is one reason why so many of them fail. They believe that they are "entitled to approval because they say the right thing—they don't have to be amusing or interesting."

I wish that more aspiring artists of the right had been at the event. So many of them seem to think that the solution to a Fahrenheit 9/11 is a Fahrenhype 9/11. Instead of learning from the mistakes of their brethren on the other side of the political fence, they make them themselves. Overtly conservative art is usually just as unconvincing as overtly liberal art. In both cases, they please no one but the choir. But why should they? They rarely put any effort into communicating with those who don't share their basis premises. Perhaps because they don't see those who disagree with them as real people. And I think that is why so much political art fails—it is about issues, not people.

TT quoted Henry Luce, who when asked why he employed liberals, famously declared, "'For some goddamn reason, Republicans can't write." As TT joked, "Now they can write, but for some goddamn reason, they don't write plays."

March 08, 2005

"A Royal typewriter dominates his desk, though he never uses it. It is there, he said, because 'it reminds me of what I aspire to be--I want to be a great reporter.'"

—from Ken Auletta's New Yorker profile of Dan Rather

The next Torrance blogger?

Congratulations to my favorite cousin, Melissa Armstrong, and her husband, Geoff. They are the proud parents, as of Sunday, of Elijah James. Mother and baby are doing great, and I look forward to my first visit to Denver soon.

March 03, 2005
Pay TV

Is this the future of television? The BBC reports, "A campaign to save Star Trek spin-off show Enterprise says it has received a $3m (£1.6m) donation from anonymous figures in the space flight industry." The last of the Star Trek spin-offs was cancelled by UPN last month, but fans quickly started a campaign to raise money for another season.

If only we'd had this idea when ABC cancelled Twin Peaks...

Thought for the day

"Waugh is so skillful and amusing a writer that it is very easy to satisfy oneself with the icing, while ignoring the cake altogether."

—Chilton Williamson, Jr. in The Conservative Bookshelf

March 02, 2005
On Books

In my latest American Enterprise Online column, I tackle 4,000 years of thought—Chilton Williamson, Jr.'s The Conservative Bookshelf:

Williamson admits from the outset that there is much disagreement as to what conservatism even is. He wagers his own definition: "man's willingness to discern for himself, and to accept from God, a fundamental, practical, just, human, and unchangeable plan for man--and to stick with it." But this is by no means a universal one. While conservatives might have been united during the Cold War against the communist threat, afterward, like any other group, they quickly split into factions. Now we have not just conservatives, but neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, conservative libertarians, crunchy conservatives....

"In all this, it is, indeed, difficult at times to discover anything like a coherent 'conservative' tradition at all, but only a confused cacophony of opposing voices..."

Thought for the day

"Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this only continued by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less him who died long ago."

Marcus Aurelius, quoted in The Conservative Bookshelf

March 01, 2005
Thought for the day

"Listening to it, one hears, easily and without any great interpretive consternation, a lost world of adult popular culture, a music for people who drink martinis without irony and without fruity, overpriced variation."

David Skinner on Madeleine Peyroux