Thursday, March 15, 2007

Funny, this lack of memory. I started a post back in October by inserting several pictures from a trip to Colorado the previous April. Here is what I had:

The first picture is of my wife's sister getting married in Manitou Springs. Then there is the older boy sharing a hat with a horse at the ranch across the road from my parents' place. Then there is me and the boy at the wedding. Finally, we have some snow on my parents' driveway.

The point of all that? I don't have the first clue. Perhaps it was part of my planned long post on the summer of love 2006. Never got around to that post, and now the moment is gone. Sorry. If you are desperate, I'll give you the short version: we went to lots of weddings and other events (bachelor parties, reunions)all over the country last summer. Very exciting.

So, a little entertainment commentary. If only because I've been to the theater more times in the last three weeks than in the previous two years, and because we watched this year's Best Picture on Saturday night.

The first was Smokin' Aces. We didn't plan on seeing Smokin' Aces, but Smokin' Aces it was. The wife and I had a date, an honest to God date. We got a babysitter and everything. The plan, as it was a Friday during Lent, was to go to a nice Italian restaurant for some seafoody pasta, and then go see a movie. But not just any movie, we were going to see Amazing Grace. Indeed, Amazing Grace was the whole point of the affair, we had planned it all just to see that movie on the night it opened. Well, perhaps we did not quite plan it all. Rather, we got a babysitter, and that was about all the planning we managed.

As it was a Friday night in a busy area, we deftly made no reservations for the restaurant, and the hour wait would have made us late for the movie. We went to the theater to pick up the tickets and saw that the movie started 20 minutes earlier than the webpage had said two days before, so we were even more strapped for time to eat. We bought the tickets and hustled over to Panera (yep) for dinner, then got back to the theater in time for the movie. There we discovered that they had put the film that was opening that day in one of the smallest theaters out of the 24 in the multiplex. So there were about seven seats left in the place, and 6.5 of them were in the very front row, about six feet from the base of a rather large screen.

To review: Plan: Nice Italian restaurant and Amazing Grace. Reality: Panera and Smokin' Aces.

The movie? We weren't really in the mood, to put it mildly, but it was well-acted, very violent, occasionally funny, and mostly entertaining--like Tarantino before he got weird (a phrase that makes no sense, until you think about it). Plus Ben Affleck doesn't last long, so that was nice.

He does have a Boston accent though, which was a reminder that he was a welcome omission from the ensemble cast of The Departed. A quick detour to a review I wrote but never posted of last year's Best Picture:

On Crash. I know lots of people loved the movie, so you can take or leave this quick review. The dialogue was well-written and well-delivered. Ludacris was good (much to Bill O'Reilly's dismay), like everyone I love Don Cheadle, and I'll join the chorus in declaring that Terrence Howard is well on his way to becoming one of our great actors. Matt Dillon almost made me forget that he is Johnny Drama's brother, and Brendan Fraser has jettisoned the preening self-importance of his younger years. They even found a perfect role for the increasingly shrill and severe-looking Sandra Bullock (if she gets her eyes pulled back any further they are going to touch in the back of her head).

I'm no fan of Los Angeles. I don't speak from personal experience--I haven't spent any real time there--but how nice can a place be when the people who live there make a habit (and their careers) out of explaining how terrible it is? True, entertainment dwells on the fringes, but after so many Training Day's and Boyz in the Hood's and Grand Canyon's and Born in East LA's and LA Confidential's and LA Story's one has to wonder why anyone in their right mind would live there. At least New Yorkers assuage they're own misery from living in that over-populated-and-dangerous-yet-impersonal-and-expensive box with the myth of their collective toughness (see Spiderman and 25th Hour). Heck, New Yorkers even write love stories to their hometown--You've Got Mail is one of many recent examples.

That said, Crash takes the Angelino self-flagellation to levels that even this midwestern rube can't buy. I'm not saying the hatred and stereotyping portrayed in the movie is made up. Indeed, the brilliance of the film is that it tapped into a very real phenonmenon. People do not get along in big cities, especially those cities on those coasts. Traffic is terrible and dangerous, service is unfriendly and indifferent, and everything is crowded. People shiver from the chill of everyday social relations. Everyone sucks. But saying everyone sucks is nowhere near as satisfying a release of frustration as breaking down the aggregate suckitude into smaller groups of allegedly more specific qualities of suckiness.

Race is an obvious and disturbingly satisfying way to break down those groups. In contemporary America there is a naughty but very real release to racial jokes, because now everyone knows they are wrong even if they seem right. That's the genius of Dave Chapelle. He makes us laugh at our own stereotypes and stereotyping because his jokes remind us that they are not true. White people don't hate black people because black people do black things, just like black people don't hate Asian people because they do Asian things, just like, well, you get the idea. Everybody hates (loves) everyone because they do people things. Hating (loving) everyone isn't really racism, is it?

Crash has it exactly backwards—it is a throwback to a time when everyone was outwardly racist because they didn't know it is wrong.

It wasn’t the Best Picture, it was a Chapelle Show skit that didn’t get the joke.
If I had to pick between Best Pictures, The Departed wins by a mile. It gets what it is and doesn't go past that. It is a thriller, a drama, and a bit of mystery, but let's be honest, it's not particularly exceptional as a thriller, drama, or mystery. Even the acting was pretty mediocre, with the exceptions of Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, who were great. We all know the Oscars were lifetime achievement awards for Scorsese. That's fine, it was the perfect year for it, since 2006 was the single worst year for movies that I can remember. The best movie I saw was Casino Royale, which was also the highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes from last year.

I have not seen everything, not by a mile, but over the last two years there have been very few movies that have stood out as good or great. One was Batman Begins, which was haunting and exciting and finally captured what is gripping about that story. I love that movie, but I do not think it was the best picture of the last two years.

That honor belongs to Star Wars, Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. That's right, I said it, Revenge of the Sith was the best movie of 2005 and a better than anything released in 2006, too. George Lucas burned up so much goodwill with the kiddie themes, overreliance on computer animation, bulky dialogue, and creaky plots of first two movies that it was hard to see the episode III for what it was when it came out. Nor did the terrible acting in episode II help, especially from the hopelessly creepy Hayden Christensen and the bloodless Natalie Portman. But upon further review, and with more than a little detachment from the first two episodes, it is clear that episode III was something very near great. Some of the dialogue is still awful, and Portman is still out of her Garden State element, but those flaws are only evident if you are really watching for them, if the viewer is listening for bad dialogue and intent on finding bad performances.

Revenge of the Sith had all the hallmarks of a great tragedy, careening along to John Williams' masterful score toward the inevitiable conclusion, while all the while we are hoping it doesn't come to that. Watch that movie again as a stand alone prequel to the original trilogy--forget pod races and stupid aliens and creepy romances. Just watch. Then tell me that movie isn't better--more entertaining and more compelling--than Crash or Brokeback Mountain or Little Miss Sunshine or The Departed or anything else that has been released over the last two years. (Not incidentally, it is nearly impossible to find a movie over the last two years that in some way does not try to comment on current politics, which I think lies near the root of the terrible spate of films in that time. Even the few lines of bad dialogue in episode III are bad precisely because of this tendency.)

Which brings us to 300, another movie in my recent theater-going extravaganza. There are plenty of reviews out there, but I think this one and a couple of comments from Victor Davis Hanson are pretty much on target. I wouldn't call it a great movie, but it is very good, in large part because despite all the ridiculous efforts by critics to drag the present into the plot, 300 is clearly not about now. It is an escape, a glorious escape, from the grinding relentlessness of 24 hour opinion and news (in that order). That, it seems to me, is why the movie has proven so popular. It deserves the popularity. Hopefully, the rest of Hollywood will get the message.

(Oh yeah, I said three movies. The third was Bridge to Terebithia. The wife had a woman-gathering at the house on Tuesday, so I made an escape with the boys and Uncle Ren. I mistakenly thought Bridge to Terebitha was a fantasy movie, because that's how they advertised it. It's not. It is a movie about kids in school and bullies and all that stuff, kind of like one of the non-smutty Judy Blume books. It's also set in some kind of 1970s + Today world, which is odd. The best way to describe it is as My Girl with just the tiniest sprinkling of The Chronicles of Narnia. All that said, it's actually pretty good, if a little sad and not right at all for keeping the attention of a one year old.)

Have a nice weekend. Go watch a movie or two.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

No apologies for the long time off. I've been busy, and this is, after all, my diary, and I've been no better at keeping the online version than any of the others I have tried in the past. Plus, I've been waiting for Claremont to make my latest book review available online for an entry about my recent publications. When that happens, I will pass along the word. Plus, I'm still trying to track down that family information to tell my little story.

No apologies; lots of excuses. Sigh.

This book might cause some controversy. Note that the first chapter is available for preview. It might be good to read along with First Into Nagasaki, which sounds fascinating.

Something about which to think. Here is a new one for me: this article is too practical. John Fonte's idea about civic conservatism is a pretty radical one among American conservatives, and it needs more explaining as a theory, and should not be defined by specific, present-minded, and ultimately ephemeral policy prescriptions. But that is a common problem among conservatives today. It is astounding how modern conservatives refuse to recognize any direct intellectual heritage to Americans before 1945--except for some important nodding at the founding generation. After the founders they almost universally go straight to the Cold War, leaning, I think, on George Nash's work to explain it all.

The idea of civic conservatism, which in some way incorporates nationalism and Americanism, would be a very useful one for tracking American conservatism from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton to John Quincy Adams to Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses Grant to Theodore Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower and so on. I wish someone would do that. Maybe Stephen and me should give it a shot. Stephen?

Two more links. First, for everyone who complains about cities and suburbs and the demise of this and the growth of that, James Lileks makes clear that it is all so much more complicated and so much simpler. A sample:

Are we to believe the suburbs are different? I've been listening to the spoiled children of Levittown all my life, yammering about their ticky-tacky houses their fathers busted his butt to buy so they could live in a potato field instead of a crumble-down cold-water walk-up, and I'm tired of it. Boring people live everywhere. Interesting people live everywhere. People have reasons for wanting to live in certain places, and if someone wants to live in the city, it's his business. If he wants to live in the burbs, it's his business. I could argue that people who confine themselves to the city are removing themselves from the experience of suburbia, which is actually more germaine to understanding America's future than experiencing some of the lousy blocks I drive through daily. But I won't; as I said, I'm the amateur here.
That is just a small taste--read the whole thing.

And for Derek, kind of: Greg Gutfield wrote an article for The American Spectator called "Looking Stupid," the main point of which is that more and more Americans would rather play it safe and look cool than take risks and perhaps look stupid. Here is the money graf for DCAT, because it is something that could have been lifted directly from any number of conversations we've had over the years:

After a few years of blogging, I've hit on one essential truth: there are millions of cowards willing to say things about you online that they'd never say to you in a bar. That's the baseline definition of snark: catty words spewed on a screen but never uttered to a face. Blogging has created a chorus line of cowards -- coin-throwers who would never take the stage or put themselves in the line of fire. The World Wide Web has revealed, sadly, that as a country we're losing the will to fight real wars, preferring instead to be nonproductive wusses, incapable of delivering anything more than a snide aside to the outside world, via the "send" button.
The reason the article is only kind of for Derek is that Gutfield mistakenly makes the blanket assertion about the left being more concerned with looking cool than looking stupid. There is plenty of that sentiment going around, and it need not be too politicized. In fact, I think it's generational more than political.

Gutfield's article struck me this morning because last night I saw something very similar. We were in Lawrence for dinner with a friend, and the weather was nice enough that after the meal we strolled for a while along Massachusetts Avenue, the main street in town. We had the boys with us, and the three year old was eating a piece of fudge and we were feeding the one year old a little ice cream.

I don't think I'm being to biased when I say that they were both looking exceptionally cute--the three year old clearly trying to be neat with the fudge; the one year old doing that walk/stumble and having a blast the whole time. Yet all the college age girls who walked by in groups pretended, badly, that they did not notice. I've noticed this behavior before: they walk by, start to smile, stifle the smile, and then look out of the corner of their eyes at the kids and pretend they are not looking. It is bizarre. At any other age, they are all over those kids. High school girls stop and say, for all to hear, "Awww! They are sooo cute!" Adult women wave and give them a direct smile. Older women tell us how beautiful our children are, and then give us the details about their toddler grandchildren.

College girls would rather pretend they don't care about kids than fawn over the boys. They would rather look cool than risk looking stupid. Which is, of course, stupid.

That sentiment used to make sense to me. It used to be cool to me. I grew out of it. The baby boomers never have, and probably never will. They would all rather look cool--well, "cool" as political leaders look cool--than take great chances and risk looking stupid. History will not treat them well.

We can all feel it. We are standing over the edge of something huge, a great new discovery or a great new cataclysm, and we are flailing for a purchase, for something to hold us back--grasping at pretty cultural vessels like cool that are empty and weightless and will not halt our momentum. But it is coming. History does not stop.

I hope we grow up in time.