Monday, January 28, 2008

Dr. K on the Campaign Trail: The Hangover

Now that the South Carolina Primaries have been over for a couple of days, the reality is starting to sink in that, despite all their promises, the candidates won't be returning my calls, and I'm beginning to feel cheap and used. They didn't even have the common courtesy to leave taxi-fare on the dresser on their way out the door.

The phone has stopped ringing with robo-calls and surveys making us feel like we really matter, and our mailbox will no longer be full of flyers telling us just how many vicious murderers Huckabee had executed, or how John Edwards was born in a South Carolina mill town, or how change is coming. And we won't be able to go out to eat and see nationally recognized television reporters discussing the various qualities of other reporters' hair (something I actually witnessed last week). Today, I just feel ... common.

I didn't get the chance to go to many more campaign events last week, as most were scheduled at times that I had to teach or had other commitments. No candidates actually made it to my school, though the Other Dr. K got hit pretty hard with campaign events at her school, including one day in which Chelsea Clinton, America Ferarra, Amber Tamblyn, and Keyshawn Johnson were all campaigning for Chelsea's mom, and Chris Tucker (replacing a scheduled appearance by Usher) and Kerry Washington showed up for Obama. The ODK also got to go to a big Obama rally at the local civic center on Friday night, an event I sadly had to miss because of a prior commitment. Pictures of a couple of these events will be appearing in this post later.

And now it's on to Super Tuesday, or Tsunami Tuesday, as some reporters are calling it, with some not inconsiderable insensitivity to those who lost loved ones in such a natural disaster. Meanwhile, this blog will resume its regular content of movie and comics stuff shortly.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Who Needs Sleep?

I don't have much to add to the discussion of the death of Heath Ledger beyond what has been said already: a tragic loss of an actor whose best work was ahead of him.

However, some of the news reports are citing the grueling shoot for The Dark Knight, and the resulting exhaustion and sleep deprivation, as a factor. Ledger was apparently taking Ambien (among other things) to help return to regular sleep patterns.

Those reports reminded me of Haskell Wexler's interesting documentary about sleep deprivation and exhaustion in the film industry, Who Needs Sleep? (2006). Wexler, one of the great cinematographers of all time as well as an outstanding filmmaker in his own right (the groundbreaking Medium Cool)and labor activist, made this film after the tragic death of a crew member on the film Pleasantville, who fell asleep while driving home after several days of long shooting schedules. The film documents not only the dangers of sleep deprivation combined with long work days, but also the systemic causes of such onerous shooting schedules and the studios' resistance to changing the habits that lead to these problems.

From an aesthetic perspective, the film is not Wexler's best, and it spends a bit too much time repeatedly explaining the general health problems related to sleep deprivation and the history of labor issues related to long work days. However, it is interesting to see that there is still an industry in America where workers have to fight for a 14 hour work day. It also anticipates that the main way this cause might get attention is through the loss of a celebrity.

If you have Time Warner's OnDemand service, you can catch this documentary for the rest of the month in the Sundance Channel's free movies. The movie also shows up on Sundance from time to time, so you might check it out then as well.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dr. K on the Campaign Trail 4: Now I Feel Like a Real South Carolinian!

I have some left-over campaign stuff from last week to post, but that will have to wait a bit. Today, we got our first anti-Hillary robo-call. I felt left out last week when I didn't get to participate in the pro-Huckabee push-poll that was going on, but now a feel a little better. After 7 years of living in the state, and two election cycles, I finally feel like I've arrived in South Carolina. Here's a transcript I took of the message:

Hello. FBI agent Gary Aldrich said that Hillary, on Inauguration Day 1993, was in an uncontrolled and unbridled fury, yelling and screaming profanities, because she was not allowed to have Vice President Al Gore’s office in the White House. Hillary treats people like they’re invisible; can you trust her?

Hillary knew about and helped cover up Bill’s rape of Juanita Broderick. Hillary treats women like they’re invisible; can you trust her?

Hillary hired Jack Paladino to run a terror campaign on Kathleen Willey to keep her quiet about what Bill had done to her. They nailgunned her car tires and stole or killed her pet cat named "Bull’s-eye". Hillary thinks cats are expendable; can you trust her?

After Bill pulled down his britches and exposed himself to Paula Jones, Hillary’s friend James Carville said, “Drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” Hillary treats women like they’re invisible; can you trust her?

Hillary told Time magazine in June 1996 that she was thinking about adopting a child despite the fact that Bill was having an affair with Monica and Hillary knew he had a whole harem in the White House. Hillary was having her own affairs with Vince Foster, probably Webb Hubbell, and even others. Hillary makes up fairy tales about adopting an orphan child; can you trust her?

This message is from Robert Morrow, on behalf of everyone who has been violated or abused by Hillary and Bill, treated like they were invisible. Hillary sure does say a lot of things, doesn’t she? But can you trust her?

Much of this is the typical anti-Clinton conspiracy theories that have been trotted out for more than a decade now. But the message really goes off the rails when it accuses Hillary of killing a cat. I also think it's funny when "pants" are referred to as "britches."

When I first heard this message, I wondered why the guy from Northern Exposure hates the Clintons so much. According to the Washington Post, however, it's a different Robert Morrow: a Ron Paul supporter and anti-Clinton activist who has pulled this sort of thing before.

I wonder if things are going to heat up like this over the next three days.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cloverfield Breaks Dr. K; The Other Dr. K LOVES IT!

I'd been looking forward to seeing Cloverfield as a part of the birthday weekend celebration ever since I saw the original teaser attached to Transformers.

That being said, I can summarize my review of the film in three words:

I threw up.

As someone who can't play first-person shooter games without suffering motion sickness, I was worried about the film's use of a handheld camera for the entire running time. However, I didn't quite expect the experience to be so overwhelming. I started to get queasy very early in the movie, even before the monster attacks, and the rest of the movie was spent intermittently looking away from the screen for long periods, turning back only when it was clear that something important was happening or the camera was sitting still. I'm guessing that I probably only watched a little over half of the movie.

I was also concerned that the film's short running length--75 minutes--would seem like a rip off. But at the 45 minute mark, I was praying that the whole experience would be over. Then, at about the 50 minute point, the couple next to me just got up and left, the wife a little unsteady on her feet. Luckily, they left behind their popcorn tub, and I eyed it as a possible recepticle for the vomit that was surely coming. So, I spent the last half of the movie trying to determine the best exit strategy.

By the time the movie finally ended, I had only thrown up twice inside my mouth, but my nausea was getting much worse.

But, after the movie, we made it home, I took off my coat and shoes, walked into the bathroom, and threw up. Then I had to lie down for a couple of hours.

So, I'm turning things over to the Other Dr. K, who actually watched the whole movie, to give you a more substantive review. Meanwhile, I'm going to lie down some more.

OK--This is the Other Dr. K taking over for Dr. K, who had to go back to bed (he's looking a little pale still).

In short, Cloverfield is AWESOME!!! Think of it this way: something huge and destructive attacks your city and starts turning everything into rubble. What would you do? No, really, what would you do?!?

That's the question that Cloverfield poses to viewers. After you meet a group of Manhattan party-goers who must face the reality that NYC is suddenly and without explanation being destroyed, you--transported through the hand-held camera movements--must join them as you run through the city, trying to get out of "its" path. The hand-held camera movement--which Dr. K found so nauseating--is actually a brilliant feature of this film, visually providing viewers with the sense of chaos, fear, and despair that the characters in the film experience.

I don't want to provide any spoilers for you, but I definitely encourage you to see it. I found it a very compelling, digital-age narrative that transforms the monster-movie genre.

One tip for those who might be prone to travel sickness: Try focusing on the center of the screen and let your peripheral vision take over. Before seeing this film, I thought that I might be the one with my head in the trashcan, but once I started focusing on the middle of the screen, I was fine.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Other Dr. K on the Campaign Trail in South Carolina!

This is the Other Dr. K, and I’m delighted to make a “guest appearance” on Dr. K’s blog to tell you about one of my most recent experiences on the campaign trail. Michelle Obama made an appearance at my university on Monday, and I was lucky enough to be able to participate in the event.

In front of a crowd of approximately 300 people, Michelle Obama delivered an inspiring speech. She started by talking about her girls and how she would like to see a better world and a more promising future for them. As she put it, we are passing “garbage” along to the next generation, and in 2008, we should be able to do better. I do not disagree.

She spoke very eloquently and sincerely. Mrs. Obama pointed out several times that she is not campaigning for Barack Obama simply because he’s cute and she loves him (she married him for that, she said) but that she believes in his commitment and his character.

She did a good job of countering critiques regarding his perceived lack of experience, as made by the Clinton campaign. His experiences—she noted—have come from living abroad as a child, experiencing other cultures, succeeding at an Ivy League law school (leading the Harvard Law Review while there, which is a big deal), and then returning to urban neighborhoods in Chicago to make a difference for those in poverty and in need. She asked: “What would it mean to have a candidate in the White House with those kinds of experiences?” It is, indeed, a very good question. What kinds of “experience” should we value in a presidential candidate?

She also noted that our nation’s social climate is fairly “mean” these days, exemplified by the years of Republican AND Democratic greed (read: take that, Clintons!) that have resulted in so many negatives for middle-class workers just trying to get by and do the best they can for their families. She suggested that real change means getting out of that cyclical paradigm (read: Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton) and doing something different—leading in a way that will evince real change.

Afterwards (her talk lasted 45 minutes or so), I was able to shake her hand briefly and commend her for delivering such an inspiring speech. I noted how friendly she was to all of our college students, pausing to take pictures with them.

Michelle Obama started me thinking about feelings of hope for the future of this country—feelings that I have not had for a long time.

I think we have some good choices this year. Dr. K and I will keep you updated on the presidential excitement this week in SC! Has Seen into my Soul

The following message was in my inbox this morning:
Dear Customer,
As someone who has bought teen comedies on DVD, we thought you'd like to know that the teen comedy Bring It On: In It to Win It is airing Sunday, January 20th at 8/7c on ABC Family Channel.

And this is just to let everyone know that I will be unavailable during the Bring-It-On-A-Thon Sunday afternoon, so don't bother me.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Lordy, Lordy, Look Who's ... 39

So, what am I going to do on my birthday, you might ask?

Well, I'm going to listen to this:

(Today also happens to be the 60th birthday of Mick Taylor, a key ingredient in what makes this particular album fuckin' rock.)

And this:

And I'm going to watch this:

And I'm also going to load up on all the free desserts I can get my hands on.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dr. K on the Campaign Trail 2-Updated

Tonight, at the Other Dr. K's school, we got to see Mitt Romney, hot off his victory in Michigan.

The event was supposed to start at 4:30, but as tends to be par for the course with these things, the show started more than 45 minutes late.

Because of Romney's victory yesterday, the media were in full force, and the candidate's delay was attributed to a last minute CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer.

I was surprised how many people were there that I recognized from the Edwards event on Sunday. I guess that a lot of them are going to these things for the same reason I am, which is simply to see the different candidates.

Probably because of the media coverage, the Romney campaign had a pretty elaborate set-up, dominated by two big signs.

I thought this "To Do" list was kind of funny--you could pretty much generically apply this list to any candidate (though Romney and other Republicans use "Strengthen our Families" as a euphemism for something else). Personally, I prefer pulled pork over cut pork, but that just may be a Southern thing.

And I have no idea what the heck #11 means.

Feel free to fill in numbers 14 and 15.

As we were waiting for the event to start, one of the Other Dr. K's students came to her with an emergency: they needed some different music to pipe in through the speakers during the delay. The Other Dr. K happened to have her iPod with, so she and the student went back stage to set things up.

She then had to make some hard choices. She couldn't just hit "Shuffle," as the possibility of the iPod landing on some hardcore gangsta shit was too likely (This, by the way, is not true. But she does have a lot of Kanye West that some attendees might find "inappropriate".). She also didn't want to give Romney her U2, and, really, who needs to see another politician enter a rally to a U2 song?

Instead, she chose her Coldplay mix, which was innocuous and inoffensive enough for the event and crappy enough that no one would really care about associating their music with a Republican presidential candidate.

I started to imagine what I would do if it were my iPod used for this event. I would probably pop in my Clash mix, specifically focusing on London Calling. I think "Clampdown," "Guns of Brixton" ("When they kick at your front door, how're you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?"), and "Death or Glory" all would be tellingly appropriate here.

When Romney finally arrived, he was led in and introduced by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.

Romney also brought with him his youngest son, daughter-in-law, and their 20-month old toddler. And, in typical fashion, he pimped out that baby right away, having the kid shake hands with the crowd.

Romney's speech was heavily laden with personal stories and anecdotes. Because he doesn't have the compelling rags to riches story that Edwards has, he has to rely more on his father's life for that narrative. He began telling a story about how his father was born in Mexico. But then, to show that he's still tough on immigration, he explained that his grandparents were, in fact, Americans (maybe they were just there for a quick trip to interview some landscapers).

In an interesting move, he made no real references to his Republican opponents, but he did go on the attack against Democrats, which seems to indicate that he's changing his rhetoric to sound like he's the nominee running a national campaign. For example, when he tried to explain his "Health Insurance for Everyone" plan, he said more about how it wasn't like Hillary Clinton's plan than he did about what the plan actually was.
I did shake the candidate's hand on his way out, so now that's two handshakes I've received from presidential candidates so far.

Here's one last shot of Romney's campaign bus, "The Mitt Mobile." I point this out only because, coincidentally, that was also the nickname I gave my '72 Fury in college. Go figure.

The only other Republican I might get a chance to see this week is John McCain, who will be in town Friday morning. Ron Paul was scheduled to be here Friday afternoon, but he has since cancelled the event. Once Nevada is over, we'll get hit with the Democrats for the following week.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Favorite Things: Sweet Smell of Success

My favorite movie, hands down, is Sweet Smell of Success (1957), starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, photographed by James Wong Howe, and written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, based on a novella by Lehman.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is one of the few perfect movies ever made, mainly because it's a collaboration between a variety of talented creators at the tops of their respective games, as opposed to a true "auteur" film where a singular creative vision of a director is apparent. Alexander Mackendrick was a talented and underrated director, having made several great movies like The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, and A High Wind in Jamaica, but none achieve the quality of this film. The acting, the writing, the black and white cinematography, and the score (by Elmer Bernstein) are all just flat out perfect.

The movie, however, is bleak (it is often, but not always, categorized as film noir), which explains why it failed miserably in its initial release. Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a bottom-feeding press agent whose job it is to feed items about his clients to newspaper columnists. While Curtis's career certainly has its low points, he can be forgiven much for this movie and for Some Like It Hot--the two movies that truly tapped into the talent underlying his matinee idol image. Curtis's performance as Falco is manic without being over-the-top--Falco is often doing three or four things at once (dressing, talking on the phone, signalling his secretary, pacing), and he is constantly in a state of frenetic motion. Sidney is a hustler, dodging irate clients, tracking down new marks, and hatching new plans to move up "the golden ladder" where, as he says, "The best of everything is good enough for me." In every situation, you can see the wheels turning in Sidney's head, as he tries to find ways to turn it to his advantage. When Rita, a cigarette girl, asks Sidney for help getting her job back after she's fired because she won't put out for another columnist, Sidney first uses the information to try and blackmail the columnist, but when that doesn't work, he pimps out Rita to yet another columnist in return for a favor. And, when Rita resists, he accuses her of being ungrateful. (The columnist, Otis Elwell, is played by David White, best known as Larry Tate on Bewitched. It's flippin' crazy to see him play such a sleazy character, yet it's also easy to believe that 60's ad man Larry Tate would have been well familiar with such situations.)

When Sidney first appears in the movie, he is in crisis mode, as he has failed in a specific task assigned him by powerful newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, and Hunsecker is now "freezing him out" of his column. Lancaster is probably my favorite actor of all time, and he's amazing in this movie, with a haircut you could set a clock to and glasses that genuinely scare the shit out of me. He's best known for the physical quality of his performances, as in Elmer Gantry, From Here to Eternity, The Crimson Pirate, Jim Thorpe--All-American, and, one of my personal favorite, The Train, directed by John Frankenheimer. In Sweet Smell of Success, he uses that physicality in a much different way. While Falco is in a state of perpetual motion, Hunsecker is static, with deliberate movements that serve a specific purpose, usually to intimidate. Late in the movie, however, J. J. sends Sidney flying across the room with a series of open-handed slaps, a scene that confirms that the threat of potential violence in his intimidating posture is real. But even when he's unleashing this violence, his movements are still very controlled.

In Burt Lancaster: An American Life, biographer Kate Buford quotes Alexander Mackendrick on one off-screen incident between actor and star:
"We'd been drinking a little. Burt started shouting at me -- and he's scary. Then he came at me across the room with that coiled-spring animal energy, like a panther, and vaulted over a sofa in one of the most graceful movements I've ever seen, [as if] to attack me. I stood up and said, 'No, Burt,' and he stopped. That took every atom of performance possible. The reason I had the strength was that just as he came across the sofa I thought, 'He's beautiful!'"

The film apparently had a troubled shoot, much due to some typical volitile behavior on Lancaster's part, but I think that anecdote really encompasses what makes him perfect in this role: a physical grace combined with a constant threat of violence.

In the film, J. J. wants Sidney to break up the relationship between J. J.'s little sister(Susan Harrison) and her jazz-guitarist boyfriend, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). The reasons behind J. J.'s disapproval are unclear, but the movie, in all its bleakness, hints at an incestuous relationship between the brother and sister. Steve and Susie are the only truly "good" characters in the movie, and in this world all goodness does is mark them for a fall. When Sidney tries to describe Steve's "integrity," J. J. asks, "What does that mean, integrity?" Sidney responds, "It's a pocket full of firecrackers, looking for a match." Any kind of moral aspiration becomes something to exploit. And that, in essence, is what I really love about this movie: it creates a consistent amoral world without ever letting up or compromising. Characters have to either adapt to it and play the game or die, though playing the game is no guarantee of success, either.

While I most admire this movie for its uncompromising bleakness, it is probably best known for its sharp script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. The film follows the plot of Lehman's novella pretty faithfully, though Susie and Steve's relationship is even further along in the book, and Sidney has additional family problems to deal with. One of the sharpest differences, however, is in the characterization of Hunsecker. In the original story, Hunsecker is much more overtly sleazy and verbose, often referring to himself in the third person ("Hunsecker doesn't say thanks with the lips. ... Hunsecker likes to say thanks in a way that has meaning.") and referring to Sidney as "baby." While reading the book, which also contains two other stories featuring Falco and Hunsecker--"Hunsecker Fights the World" and "It's the Little Things that Count"--I envisioned J. J. more like John Turturro or Kevin Spacey (both of whom, by the way, do uncanny Lancaster impersonations).

Some dialogue in the film is lifted straight from the novella, as in the scam Sidney runs on Herbie Temple, and the rhythm and lingo are similar. However, much of the credit for the script's quality often goes to Odets, who wrote some of the film's best dialogue on the set, as the story goes, including such great lines as "the cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river" and "Sidney, I'd hate to take a bite out of you--you're a cookie full of arsenic" (which is probably my favorite line in movie history). Each line in this movie is like a punch in the gut. Though I don't wish that I lived in the moral cesspool that this film depicts, I do wish that I lived in a world where people talked like that all the time, saying things like, "Don't remove the gangplank--you might want to get back on board" or "this syrup you're giving out, you pour over waffles, not J. J. Hunsecker." I've also contemplated starting a smoking habit just so that I can hold out a cigarette and say to someone, "Match me."

I first came across this movie when I saw it heavily referenced as a significant influence on the Coen brothers, especially on Barton Fink. And if you see Sweet Smell of Success, the comparison to the Coens is very obvious (most obviously, the Hunsecker/Hudsucker connection). Barton Fink is based on Clifford Odets, and the Coen brothers' dialogue is clearly influenced by this movie.

Also, many years ago now, I saw an interview between Bill O'Reilly and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? "winner" Darva Conger. Conger happens to be the daughter of Susan Harrison, the actress who plays Susie Hunsecker. O'Reilly expressed that Sweet Smell of Success is one of his favorite movies. His admiration for this film makes perfect, though disturbing sense. O'Reilly has fashioned a Hunsecker-like persona for himself, complete with a fantasy that he can use his media power to destroy those who cross him. Watch the scene where Hunsecker prepares for his television show, or where he vows to destroy Steve because he not only defied him, but also defied the collective taste of the American people who who watch his show--these are all moments that O'Reilly has mimicked and even duplicated on his own show many times.

I have three traditions that I follow on my birthday every year:
1. I go on a five-day free birthday dessert binge at local restaurants.
2. I make sure that I listen to the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed.
3. I watch Sweet Smell of Success to guarantee that I watch the movie at least once a year.
Turner Classic Movies must have been trying to help me out with 3 by showing the movie on Sunday night, five days before my birthday. I'm also screening the movie for my film class on Thursday night, though this may backfire. I learned a lesson some time ago that I should never teach my favorite things in a class because I tend to take it a bit personally when students don't like them. This happened especially with my favorite novel, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which I'll blog about soon. However, that lesson has clearly not set in, as I decided this semester to teach both The Good Soldier and Sweet Smell of Success in separate classes. This could be bad.

I am, however, an evangelist for this movie, trying to expose people to it as much as possible. So, if you've seen it, let me know. And if this inspires you to check it out, let me know that too.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dr. K on the Campaign Trail

As a politics junky, I have to say that one of the benefits of living in South Carolina is that every four years, we get more than enough opportunities for face time with the presidential candidates. Lately, however, I've been one step behind in getting such opportunities, as I only hear about the local events after the fact.

For example, on Wednesday, I missed the opportunity to see Fred Thompson at a local diner, and I was really hoping to get the chance to have him autograph my copy of Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

So, this weekend the Other Dr. K and I decided to get proactive about this and find out when the various candidates were coming to our area. Helpfully, local newspaper websites have started to list candidate appearances in the state.

Not that any of that research mattered, as yesterday, we got several phone calls from the Edwards campaign, inviting us to a campaign stop at a local barbecue restaurant today.

We got to the restaurant about 45 minutes before the event was supposed to start, and the place was already packed. Turns out that the first 100 people who showed up for the event got a free meal. This information was not communicated to me in any of my contacts with the Edwards campaign, however. As anyone who knows me can attest, I don't pass up opportunities for free food, and there are few things I love more than barbecue.

Campaign staffers asked us and a few of our friends, some of whom are political science professors, if we would be interested in going outside to meet the bus, and we agreed to do it. This turned out to be a good decision because we not only got good handshake opportunities with the candidate, but we also got some good camera time with the local news and C-SPAN. Plus, my camera takes better pictures outside than inside.

I especially like this picture, not only because it shows what a darn handsome man John Edwards is, but also because the bus's open door obscures the first two letters of the last word in Edwards's campaign slogan, and I have the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old.

I would totally vote for a candidate who fought for America's middle ass.

We both got to shake the candidate's hand as he entered the restaurant, and then we went inside to hear the speech.

This particular campaign speech was not new to us--it mainly adhered to the same speech he gave following the Iowa caucuses, with references to individuals who have had problems with the current health care system, but also including his "born in South Carolina" spiel as well. It's a good speech, and despite the fact that he must be giving it a couple of times a day, he does so with sincerity and conviction.

One thing that struck me about the speech, however, is how it began, with a series of positive statements about Barack Obama. Several of us, including the poli-sci profs, wondered if this could be an early sign of Edwards jockeying for the VP spot on an Obama ticket.

Following the speech, we went back outside, hoping for an opportunity to get a picture with Edwards. As we waited, I spotted Joe Trippi, Edwards's campaign advisor and former advisor to Howard Dean, standing by the bus.

I approached Trippi and asked him how things were going. He shrugged and said, "Oh, okay"--not the kind of response that exactly inspires confidence. I then asked if I could get a picture with him, explaining that I really admired the work he did on the Howard Dean campaign.

Though he was a good sport about the picture, his reaction could best be described as nonplussed, or perhaps it was just the humility of someone who is used to being "the man behind the man..."

This picture will also be useful for spotting me in the crowd if you happen to be watching C-SPAN's coverage of the event.

That ended up being the best I would be able to get, as Edwards was pulled away to talk to the press just as I was about to get a picture with him. I also chatted up some of the campaign staff, who explained that this was their last stop for the day as they headed off to Myrtle Beach for more events tomorrow. This kind of surprised me, as it was still early in the afternoon, and Myrtle Beach isn't too far away.

We'll see what the coming weeks offer for more candidate visits. The Other Dr. K is going to get to see Michelle Obama tomorrow at her school, but there's nothing lined up so far at mine.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My Favorite Things: The Wire

The Wire is not just my current favorite TV show, it is my favorite TV show of all time.

Normally, I reserve my designation of "all-time favorite" for something that has stood the test of time, but The Wire, which has just begun its fifth and final season on HBO, has earned that position for a variety of reasons.

For a long time, my all-time favorite TV show was St. Elsewhere, a series that shares a lot with The Wire, including a sort of genealogical relationship. The quality I liked the most about St. Elsewhere, which is also reflected in The Wire, was the emotional and intellectual maturity with which the series treated its characters and, by extension, its audience. In short, characters you like very much could die or have something otherwise horrible happen to them, and the emotional impact on the audience would be genuine and visceral. I remember, for example, Mark Harmon's character, Dr. Bobby Caldwell, getting his face horribly cut by an anonymous one-night-stand who had a razor blade hidden in her mouth. This was especially surprising considering that Harmon had, that year, been named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, but it was also entirely consistent for a character who engaged in increasingly risky sexual behavior (culminating in Caldwell contracting AIDS in a pretty groundbreaking storyline). That single scene left me visibly shaken, and I may have even yelled at the TV at that point.

In contrast, a show like E.R. hypes every episode as the most shocking one yet, only to serve up more of the same without real genuine thrills, and the hype will often telegraph any major developments, especially cast changes.

St. Elsewhere also rewarded long-term viewers by referencing past plot and character developments without a lot of exposition. Much of St. Elsewhere's first season was taken up with a plot involving a mysterious rapist who was terrorising women in the hospital. Though the rapist, Dr. Peter White, was killed, the impact of that traumatic experience on surviving characters resonated throughout the rest of the series.

One of the writers on St. Elsewhere was Tom Fontana, who would adopt a similar approach to creating TV series with large ensemble casts in Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz. Fontana's co-creator on Homicide was David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and author of "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," which became the basis for that series as well as The Wire.

Bad shit happened to characters on Homicide all the time. In the final episode, Lt. Giardello, in a coma, sees all the regular characters who died on the show, and the number is considerable for a series that lasted 6 years.

Though Fontana is not involved in the creation of The Wire, his impact is still clear. The Wire balances a large cast, runs a complex narrative each season (one could also see all 5 seasons combining to form one long narrative), features little exposition, treats its characters with a kind of honest realism, and rewards its audience's intelligence and dedication.

Geoff Klock has a nice analysis of how The Wire rewards intelligent viewers, so rather than repeat his insights, I'll just link to them here. I especially like the point that one commentor makes about how The Wire is not a show during which one can multi-task.

One of the more frustrating things about The Wire, though, is that I don't know anyone else (besides the Other Dr. K, of course) who is currently up to date on the series. A requirement of this series is that one has to watch it from the very beginning--I can't imagine the reaction of someone, having heard the praise of this series, starting with the current season. This is good in the sense that the series is clearly building fans, and it should have a long life on DVD. However, it makes it difficult to talk about the series with others, as they all seem to be at different points in the series. So, that being said, if you aren't currently up to date with the series, I would advise you to tread lightly through the next few paragraphs, as their may be spoilers.

From the beginning of the series, the ostensible main character, if this series can be said to have one at all, is Detective Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West. McNulty is a compelling character because he can either be a good detective or a good human being, but he can't be both at the same time. When he's working on a case, he's passionate about finding the truth and seeking justice, and his detective skills are unparalleled. However, his personal relationships are a mess, and he descends into alcoholism and serial infidelity. His most destructive addiction, it seems, is detective work, and these other addictions are just symptomatic of that larger one. At the end of season 3, when he's demoted to beat cop in the wake of the Amsterdam scandal and starting a relationship with another former cop, Beadie, he is genuinely happy. It's to the show's credit and the strength of its cast that McNulty could virtually drop out of the show for season 4 without a decline in quality. For most of that season, we only get glimpses of McNulty's new happy life. But McNulty's passion for justice often places him at odds with the political and law enforcement bureaucracies that control his job, and he often takes dangerous risks to circumvent those systems. This especially seems to be the path he's following in the current season.

While McNulty left the spotlight in season 4, a relatively minor character from previous seasons moved to the center. Detective Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski was a relatively minor character in earlier seasons, whose primary job was manning electronic surveillance on the drug dealers. He did, however, have one shining moment in the first season that cemented my love for the series. The surveillance detail is listening to phone conversations between drug dealers, and only Prez can understand what they are saying. When McNulty asks Prez how he can make heads or tails out of these recordings, Prez responds, "Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in the market down in New Orleans," quoting the opening lines of "Brown Sugar." Prez then explains that he developed his sensitive hearing by decifering Rolling Stones lyrics. That was just flat-out great.

Prez, however, is terrible police, to use the parlance of the series, and after tragic events in season 3, he ends up taking a job as a public school math teacher in season 4, which moves him to the center of the series as it explores the Baltimore education bureaucracy. If The Wire is my all-time favorite series, season 4 is my all-time favorite season of a TV series, and I would argue that this is the best season of any television series ever. This season showed us how the educational system "leaves behind" countless young people who are eagerly picked up by another system in the city: the drug dealers and gangs. The season follows four of Prez's students, and we get to see just how the system makes drug dealers and how difficult it is to succeed and ultimately escape. Specifically, the season is a direct indictment of the No Child Left Behind program, which encourages diminished expectations, cooking the books, and teaching to the test in lieu of real educational innovations. When Prez sees the book cooking and ass covering that occurs at his new job, a look of recognition comes over his face as he realizes that this system is no different than the one he just left.

Over on Amazon's pages for The Wire, you can get a series of new short films that look back on key moments in some characters' lives. These are also available On Demand and elsewhere. I especially like the one about young Omar, who is another favorite character of mine to whom I could devote much more time here.

In the end, The Wire transcends the traditional moral binary of crime drama and instead presents an analysis of the failures of bureaucracy in various forms, whether it be police, politicians, drug dealers, educators, or journalists (the focus of the current season). I especially love it how the drug dealers mirror or emulate the structure, behaviors, and rules of the other systems, as the gang leaders meet in hotel conference rooms and Stringer Bell attempts to enforce Robert's Rules of Order in meetings with his corner dealers (I am praying for the day when I will be able to announce at a faculty meeting, "The chair does not recognize your ass!"). Another outcome of the series for me is a personal awareness of what I describe as "Wire moments"--times when I'm acutely aware of the problems within the academic bureaucracy in which I work. I see people whose ambition trumps their optimism and promise, like Carcetti; or ones who do an outstanding job (with little reward) despite the system rather than because of it, like Lester Freamon; or ones who take considerable pleasure in just being dicks, like DC Rawls; or incidences where pettiness, jealously, ass-covering, and ambition hinder good decisions and positive change.

Though I should be disappointed that season 5 is The Wire's last, I'm not, really. All indications in the first two episodes point to a continuation of the series's quality, and I admire Simon for ending on a high note, rather than running the risk of shark jumping, a fate that has befallen nearly all of my favorite TV shows that were not ended prematurely. It will end its five years as a groundbreaking, emotionally and intellectually satisfying series that demonstrates the full potential of serial television.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Pop Quiz

Okay, readers: clear off your desks and take out a pen and a piece of paper--it's time for a quiz to see if you've been paying attention to recent lessons.

Question 1 (Multiple Choice)
What is wrong with this picture?
a) Superman fails to use his extraordinary vision powers to spot the endangered Lois Lane floating just below the water's surface.
b) The Evinrude 50hp motor depicted here is too large for such a small boat.
c) Superman is passing up the opportunity to punch a shark, which is entirely inconsistent with his character.
d) In the story inside this cover, Lois Lane is never once threatened by a shark.

Question 2 (Short Answer)

Where exactly is that shark headed?

Question 3 (True or False)

This image--featuring Lois Lane trapped in a cave, gagged, chained to a target on which her genitalia serve as the bullseye, and threatened by dart-wielding Mexican banditos--was adapted directly from the dream journal of Sigmund Freud, in an entry written when the pioneer of psychoanalysis awoke from a troubled sleep after eating a Cheesy Gordita Crunch for his Fourth Meal.

Question 4 (Essay)

Discuss how this image fits firmly at the intersection of feminist and postcolonial theories.

Question 5 (Short Answer)

What is the white substance dripping off the end of Lois Lane's spear? (Hint: look where it's pointing!)

Question 6 (True or False)

In the time it takes Superman to utter those two sentences, he could have rescued Lucy Lane, stopped up a volcano in Venezuela, rescued a cat from a tree, foiled a bank robbery, and ordered a venti skinny vanilla latte at Starbucks, but he chooses not to save Lucy Lane's life as payback for all the times she screwed over Jimmy Olsen.

Please provide your answers in the comments, and remember: this will affect your final grade.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

My Favorite Things: Shark-Punching!

I've got a birthday coming up, and as a countdown to it, I'm going to cover some of my favorite things, Oprah-style (nothing, however, will be given away)!

Here's a Superman puzzle I got a few years ago from my pal Kevin, and this comprises many of my favorite things all in one image. First and foremost: shark-punching!

You have to admire Superman's priorities here, which clearly line up with mine. Given the opportunity to punch a shark, Superman takes it, despite the fact that Lois Lane is in serious need of rescue. Superman has a variety of outs here--heat vision, freeze breath, super-speed whirlpool--so it's clear that he chooses shark-punching out of sheer joy. So, in Superman's hierarchy of values, shark-punching comes in ahead of saving Lois, which probably means it beats out everything else in the world as well.

Which is as it should be.

Can you guess the other favorite things depicted in this puzzle?

Friday, January 4, 2008

It Takes 2 to Skidoo!

I haven't done this in a while, but I want to call attention to an important Turner Classic Movies programming note for tonight. At 2:00 a.m. Eastern time, TCM is showing Otto Preminger's 1968 comedy Skidoo.To attempt to summarize Skidoo would be futile, and it would probably take as long as the movie to do so. It stars Jackie Gleason as a retired hitman who is sent on one last job by a mob boss named "God" (played by Groucho Marx!) to infiltrate a prison and bump off Mickey Rooney. While in prison, Gleason drops LSD, trips out, and renounces violence. Lots of others trip out, too, and the trip footage is amazing (one includes the Green Bay Packers mooning a prison guard). I really don't want to say much more than that about the plot, but it should give you a sense of just how nuts this movie is.

The cast is also a big part of the appeal. In addition to Gleason, Marx, and Rooney, the film also stars Peter Lawford, Franky Avalon, Cesar Romero, Carol Channing, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, John Philip Law, Slim Pickins, Richard Kiel, and Harry Nilsson. And now that I look at that list, I'm thinking this film may have the highest concentration of Batman villains (including director Preminger).

The film was much maligned and died quickly in its initial release, but over the last 40 years, it's developed a well-earned cult status. On one level, it can be seen as an example of just how challenging it was for the Hollywood establishment to tap into the burgeoning youth market that had made Easy Rider such a surprise success. Preminger even experimented with LSD himself, with the help of Timothy Leary, as a preparation for this movie.

Skidoo is truly a hard movie to find, and I've only ever seen a third-generation bootleg copy of it. Set whatever recording device that kids are using these days for Skidoo--you won't be sorry.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

My Famous Life: Fargoan Sells Comics Collection

Recently, the Other Doctor K and I have been doing a purge of our closets and other storage areas, getting rid of boxes and boxes of paper that we seem to accumulate as teachers. In a box of random stuff, I found this article from The Fargo Forum, dated October 20, 1991.
(Click on image to read the article)

In 1991, I decided to sell part of my comic collection at a local Fargo sci-fi and comics convention called ValleyCon (which I'm glad to see is still going strong). I'm not sure, however, why this proved to be a newsworthy event, though it did give the writer the opportunity to trot out the ubiquitous "Wham! Bam!" that seems to have accompanied most comic-related news articles for decades. The article also features other biases common to reporting on fan cultures, as the writer takes pains to highlight my apparent "normalcy" in relation to the other convention-goers.

The article mentions that I was selling the collection to help pay for grad school and an upcoming wedding. Only one of those two events actually happened, but both worked out exactly as they should have. In the end, I also made much more than $20--the sale gave me enough money to make the deposit on an apartment and pay for moving expenses.

I did not keep track of everything I sold at that convention. I ended up getting rid of a big chunk of my Silver Age DC collection, something that I regreted years later, though now I see it as a good decision at the time.

I am, however, jealous of that skinny kid in the picture.

Also, from now on, I want to be called "The Fargoan."

Book Review: Ms. Tree in Deadly Beloved

One of the things I look forward to during the long holiday breaks that college teachers get is the opportunity to read stuff that either isn't on my syllabus or isn't being considered for a future class. Lately, I've been especially enjoying stuff that comes from the Hard Case Crime imprint, as was the case with the Mickey Spillane novel I recently reviewed. I've been impressed with the quality of the novels I've read from this publisher (though I was disappointed with Stephen King's contribution, The Colorado Kid), and I appreciate the way they have embraced the pulp fiction format and aesthetic: cheap, fast-paced thrillers (featuring lurid covers) that can be read in one or two sittings.

So, when I was on my recent trip to Wisconsin, I picked up a couple of the new volumes for the long drive. In addition to Spillane's Dead Street, I also grabbed Max Allen Collins's Deadly Beloved, the first novel featuring Ms. Tree, the comic book private detective that Collins created along with artist Terry Beatty in the early 80s.

I had scant experience reading the Ms. Tree comic--I picked up a few issues of the quarterly series that DC put out in the early 90s--but that inexperience did not hinder me from enjoying this novel. Collins "reboots" the character's origin in Deadly Beloved, updating the character for a more contemporary world.

Ms. Tree is Michael Tree, a former Chicago police officer turned private detective, who is the widow of a former Chicago police detective turned PI also named Michael Tree (and I thought it was confusing living in a house with two Doctors K). Her husband is murdered on their wedding night, and Ms. Tree then inherits his fledgling detective agency. The novel takes place a year after her husband's murder, when Ms. Tree discovers that the killer may have been set up by a mysterious mob enforcer known as "The Event Planner." The Event Planner is a kind of mythical figure who some police believe sets up various hits by manipulating other people into committing murder so he never pulls the trigger. Ms. Tree's police friend, Lt. Rafe Valer, is ridiculed by his colleagues for his theory about the Event Planner, but evidence soon mounts during the investigation of a schizophrenic wife's murder of her cheating husband to make the theory a likely reality.

Collins chooses an interesting narrative approach to this novel: the story is framed by a therapy session in which Ms. Tree tells the events of the investigation to her psychiatrist, Dr. Cassel. A similar conceit is often used on crime shows like Law and Order or CSI, but it works here as well, though the reader is meant to imagine that this is a particularly long therapy session.

As Collins acknowledges in his afterword, some of the character names in this novel are symbolically a bit too on-the-nose. Ms. Tree actually calls attention to her name, demanding that people call her "Ms." instead of "Mrs." and pointing out that she sees the name as a selling point for her detective agency. Other characters have names that also highlight their personality or morality: Rafe Valer, the Muerta crime family, and the groan-worthy Chic Steele, to name a few. This type of symbolic naming is certainly a holdover from the story's comic book origins. Also, Collins, in addition to being a prolific mystery writer, also wrote several comic series, including the Dick Tracy comic strip, a year or so of Batman stories in the 80s, and Wild Dog, a character he also created with his Ms. Tree collaborator, Terry Beatty.

Ms. Tree also has to deal with considerable animosity directed at her gender, as she has built her success in what is largely a man's world. In his afterword, Collins addresses the fact that there are more fictional female PIs now then there were in the early 80s, and a lot of the gender bias Ms. Tree receives does seem a bit dated. Collins does give his female protagonist enough amusingly witty retorts to the sexism that she faces, and her tough, often crude language is effective at putting her adversaries off-balance, though one shouldn't expect this novel to break new ground on gender equality.

This is not to say that the novel is overly simplistic. Collins also infuses the novel with enough noir overtones to give the plot some moral complexity. This is especially true in the intriguing concept of the Event Planner, who is able to manipulate relatively normal people into committing murder through an intimate awareness of what buttons to push. However, the novel does lose some credibility in the end by not playing fair with the audience regarding this particular mystery: we don't get much information on his or her identity, nor do we get a viable candidate for the role, until the very end of the novel. Still, the road leading up to that conclusion is entertaining and engaging enough to minimize the problems there.

Collins's afterword points to potential future developments for the Ms. Tree character, including a possible TV series. While I hope that works out, I also hope that Collins continues to produce more Ms. Tree novels for the Hard Case Crime imprint. The main character is particularly fun, with a versatility that can translate into different media.