Sunday, May 28, 2006


I'm corrupting my son with slapstick.

Every parent pushes something on their kids, some more benignly than others, and in my case it's comedians who hit each other and fall or spill in spectacular ways. It began innocently enough, years ago while watching a few Buster Keaton shorts. The boy, just past post-baby, walked into the room and stared at the black and white action from seven-plus decades before. Keaton has rarely made me laugh out loud -- I smile more than anything else -- but the boy found the great Stone Face hilarious, laughing and jumping about. One thing I can say about my son is that he doesn't stem or fake his joy and enthusiasm, so his happy discovery of Keaton inspired me to see what else he might like in that vein.

Though the silent comedians are a necessary primer to best understand and appreciate American slapstick, and the Three Stooges an absolute necessity, the Hollywood cartoons of the 1940s and '50s really bring this home, six/seven minute bursts of animated frenzy and immaculate timing. I've written about this before, when the boy and I were exposed to classic cartoons while bowling; but he and I have privately watched dozens and dozens of these shorts, from the unmatchable Warner Bros. output to the bargain-basement Terrytoons and Van Buren Studios, the latter of which featured as its main comic character Molly Moo Cow, who spoke no human language or had any special skill, but simply rollicked and mooed thru cheaply-drawn pastures, encountering minor dangers that Bugs Bunny would simply brush aside. But it's Tex Avery's toons that the boy really loves, which gladdens but doesn't surprise me.

Avery pushed American animation to its limits (for its time), and possessed some of the finest and sharpest comic timing I've ever seen, toon and human alike. When the boy first watched Avery's work, he said it reminded him a little of some Cartoon Network shows. As well it should -- Avery's influence is everywhere, so it's nice to show my son what the original looks like, and how much funnier Avery's shorts remain.

(One of my better-paying speaking gigs was at Villanova, where I talked about Avery's cartoons, their cultural significance and influence. But the real fun was simply showing a few of his better shorts -- nothing like getting paid to screen Daffy Duck and Droopy cartoons. My son was amazed when I told him of this gig, and he said in all seriousness, "Hey Dad, that would be a great job for you!" Tell me about it!)

All of this viewing has come in handy at his school's annual talent show, where the boy and I have performed brief physical skits to the delight of the assembled kids, but also to the consternation of a few parents who felt we were putting "unsuitable" ideas in the heads of the children. Our biggest crime came two years ago, when the lad played a strange, abusive magician and I his hapless assistant/victim. The visual punchline came when he was to pull a rabbit out of his hat, but instead produced a pair of men's underwear. I then began to shimmy and shake, reached into my pants and yanked out the missing stuffed rabbit, which brought the house down. The kids loved it; the teachers seemed split; some parents smiled, but others glared at me when I came off stage. Within days I heard from some teachers that they received several complaints about how kids were pulling stuffed animals out of their pants at home while referring to our act. This cast a mild pall over our talent show appearances since, with teachers telling us "no poop jokes, no references to butts, no hitting over the head, no kicking, and especially NO PULLING THINGS OUT OF YOUR PANTS." We still do well (I mean, the kid has a ringer for a partner -- and a director, a duty the wife handles), our most recent bit being a recreation of a simple handshake, crammed with all kinds of visual absurdity, ending with me getting creamed with a large Cool Whip pie. That old gag still works, at least with elementary school kids.

Here are a few of our fave cartoons for this extended weekend.

The first is a late Tex Avery short, when he finished his cinematic career at Walter Lantz's studios. This one really cracks us up, and is a streamlined version of some of Avery's earlier routines.

Here's the first Screwball Squirrel cartoon, Avery's violent reaction to all the cute and fuzzy animal characters that were popular at the time. My son loves Screwy, but Avery soon found the Squirrel so abrasive that he ditched the character after a few more outings.

And finally, an Avery MGM short that's the acme of extreme reaction shots.

Can't tell you how many times a week I feel like that wolf.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sweet Dixie

The first single from the new Dixie Chicks album, "Not Ready To Make Nice," has already pricked the shit kickin' faithful.

"It is, as one country radio programmer says [to Time magazine], 'a four-minute fuck you to the format and our listeners. I like the Chicks, and I won't play it.'"

Neither will a number of other country radio stations, it seems.

To quote some aging frat boy playing fighter pilot man -- Mission Accomplished.

The Chicks are back, gone the pop rock route, and have flushed that tepid, commercially-pressured apology for criticizing Dear Leader on the eve of his glorious war.

"I apologized for disrespecting the office of the President," says Natalie Maines in the same Time story. "But I don't feel that way anymore. I don't feel he is owed any respect whatsoever."

I'm not big on the Chicks sound, but the loud Fuck You to their erstwhile fans does make me smile. And while a good portion of the Chicks' renewed anger is market rebranding, you can sense that they truly mean what they say, especially Maines, who holds little nostalgia for their more acceptable, commercial persona.

"I never wrote anything from my point of view. Even if it was something that happened to me, I would write it like it was a character and I was telling someone else's story ... That's not very brave."

Martie Maguire adds, "I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do."

Considering how Keith, jingo cowboy supreme, crudely conflated the Chicks' mild dissent with a fondness for Saddam Hussein to the primal delight of his fans, Maguire's contempt is understandable. Music is the international language, but there are areas of contemporary country that are decidedly fenced-in and tone deaf to democratic debate, and acts like Keith profit shamelessly from this tribalism and ignorance. There are a lot of stupid, violent Americans who'll pay to have hacks shout their idiocy and aggressive fantasies back at them; and though the Chicks never took that twisted path, they did at one time play to these Americans, as the subsequent fallout (and death threats) showed. Small wonder, then, that they feel relieved to be away from this crowd.

By the way -- and please forgive my weakness here -- when looking at the above photo of the Chicks, I still cannot fathom what was going through Christopher Hitchens' fading mind when he called them "fucking fat slags." Perhaps, as with much of his public rhetoric, this was sheer projection. I've seen Hitchens naked -- trust me, not a pretty or healthy sight. Beauty may be relative, but I'll take the Dixie Chicks over that fat slag any time.

ENJOY: This segment from "Mr. Show," which parodies the type of Americans and country singers the Chicks have abandoned. And thanks to all those who showed my feeble tech ass how to post a vid clip.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Still Here

Apogs for the lack of posts. Busy in the offline world. But I'm happy to see that the Son's readership is rising, so I plan to post several times in the upcoming week in order to justify your visits. So come back Mon and I'll let 'er rip.

In the meantime, some visual filler from YouTube, to which I'm somewhat addicted.

I'm not terribly crazy about the mannequin show Paul McCartney's become, but I was impressed with this performance of "Helter Skelter" at the '06 Grammys. Not bad for a guy in his 60s, even though the song was his version of John Lennon's late-60s heavy-met style. The conventional wisdom is that Lennon pushed McCartney to have more of an edge, and judging from the lollipop tunes he cranked out with Wings, I'd say that was true.

But even McCartney admitted that Jimi Hendrix was better than The Beatles; and when you watch these prime performances by the late guitar wiz and his Experience (Mitch Mitchell is surely one of the most overlooked rock drummers ever), it's hard to deny McCartney's claim. And here's Hendrix on Dick Cavett's old show, from 1969. I plan to write soon about shows like Cavett's, many of which I've been watching for the first time since I was a kid, and about how, in those days, talk TV was much more intelligent, eclectic and interesting, as opposed to the shout & shill fests of our current time.

And speaking of old TV talk, if you haven't seen this intellectual dismantling of William F. Buckley by Noam Chomsky (also from 1969), then you're in for a treat -- unless, of course, you like Buckley. (Wonder why he never had Noam on again after this . . .) Noam's still bringing it, as last week's hysteria about him supposedly "hugging" Hezbollah proves.

A tech request: Does anyone know how to directly link videos to a blog page as is done at Crooks and Liars, where you simply click on the frozen image? This aging tapper would like to try it. Thanks.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


[T]he passion for vengeance is a terrifyingly strong one, very easily and probably inevitably wrought up by such evidence, even at our distance. But however well aware I am of its strength, and that in its full immediate force and expression it is in some respects irrelevant to moral inquiry, I doubt that it is ever to be honored, or regarded as other than evil and in every direction fatally degrading and destructive; even when it is obeyed in hot blood or in a crisis of prevention; far worse when it is obeyed in cold blood and in the illusion of carrying out justice.

I think it has taken such strong hold on so many of us most essentially because we suspect the passion itself, and know that even if the passion were a valid one to honor there would be no finding victims, or forms of vengeance, remotely sufficient to satisfy it. We cannot bear to face our knowledge that the satisfaction of our desire for justice, which we confuse with our desire for vengeance, is impossible. And so we invent as a victim the most comprehensive image which our reason, however deranged, will permit us: the whole of a people and the descendants of that people: and count ourselves incomparably their superiors if we stop short of the idea of annihilation. And we refuse to grant that this war has proved itself lost--if indeed it ever could have been won--as surely in our own raging vengefulness as in that of the mob in Milan square. Indeed, we are worse than they and worse, in some respects, than the Nazis. There can be no bestiality so discouraging to contemplate as that of the man of good-will when he is misusing his heart and his mind; and there can be no trusting him merely because, in the long run, he customarily comes part way to, and resumes his campaign for, what he likes to call human dignity.

James Agee
The Nation
May 19, 1945

So wrote Agee, doubtless under clouds of unfiltered smoke in the dead of night, about American attitudes toward the defeated Germans, though these penetrating thoughts would prove more apt a few months later in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Agee was somewhat on the journo-fringe of his time, yet widely respected by his peers. I cannot imagine a writer like him making it in today's market, especially with musings like the above. The irony, if it can be called such, is that right after the 20th century's most destructive conflict, there was room for critical explorations of the victorious mood -- in fact, it was expected, if not embraced by all.

In our Terror Age, where World War II comparisons are freely tossed around, such explorations are commonly viewed as slanderous treason. Even those who aren't completely war crazy feel the need to honor certain military symbols and polish what passes for American "pride." Agee blew past these restrictions on a regular basis, oftentimes in the pages of Time magazine, back when the reactionary Henry Luce was signing his paycheck. Imagine today's Time publishing anyone remotely like Agee. Ana Marie Cox would giggle nervously while rattling her prop martini glass, and Andrew Sullivan would snort with upturned nose about Time's back page Fifth Column.

But this is not Agee's age. Lucky him. Still, it would be fascinating to see what he thought of Spielberg's "Munich," which I finally watched over the weekend. The film deals exclusively with the concept of nationalist vengeance that Agee explored 60 years ago, and I suspect he'd conclude that very little has changed.

Since its theatrical release, "Munich" has inspired acres of extremely bad writing, tortured analysis, and moments of sheer racism. The suggestion that Palestinians and Israelis are at all equal rankles many domestic commentators, Sullivan included (who endorsed this idiotic review as, apparently, his take on the film); and that Spielberg, along with screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, doesn't show Palestinians crawling on all fours with dead Jewish children in their mouths is an outrage and clearly anti-Israel, if not anti-American, in intent and in practice.

Of course, thanks to "Schindler's List" and his work on remembering the European Jewish holocaust, Spielberg has received as many quizzical looks and remorseful sighs as he has direct assaults on his character. Tony Kushner, on the other hand, being gay, Jewish and decidedly left wing, has taken the brunt of angry, nasty reactions, which I'm sure he fully expected, given his history and the film's subject matter. I don't know how this personally affects him, if it affects him at all; but all I can say is, a Mazel on you, Tony. You've helped open the debate a little wider, and thus forced our domestic Phalange to become even more extreme in their public conduct. It's a disgusting sight, but it helps to clarify matters and show us just who-is-who in this dreadful time.

Not all attacks on "Munich" are from the war-loving right. I've heard some lefty carping about how the Palestinians in the film aren't shown debating their tactics and searching their souls as do the Israeli assassins, and that this reduces them to terrorist stereotypes. While it's true that the characters representing Black September (who carried out the slaughter of the Israeli athletes in Munich) and the PLO are not fully formed, the film really isn't about them -- it's about the dark side of what initially seems righteous and just retribution meted out by Israeli patriots, and the emerging realization that there's more going on than simple tribal tit-for-bloody-tat.

Like 9/11, the Munich massacre is used as political cover to take care of business unrelated to the original deed. And like 9/11, this other business ensures that more blood will spill and keep lubricated the cycle of vengeance. When Eric Bana's character Avner, the Israeli commando squad leader, tells his Mossad superior (played by the great Geoffrey Rush) that assassinating Black September members ensures that even more militant terrorists will replace them, his superior has really nothing of substance to say. Nor does he give Avner any evidence that the targets being eliminated had anything to do with Munich. Avner is a cog in a larger killing machine, and once he becomes aware of this, his patriotism and nationalism quickly wither. (And this was at a time when the Palestinian movement was largely secular -- imagine how Avner would feel if he knew that a few years down the road his bosses would be empowering militant Islamists.)

It is this type of introspection that pro-war critics of "Munich" violently object to, and for good reason: introspection is bad for their business. You cannot bomb cities, herd people into camps or torture centers, and demonize entire populations when the people chosen to enforce this hatred start thinking things through. Introspection means "moral equivalence" which leads to "national suicide," and the only way to stave this off is to kill, maim and torture without question. "Munich" asks questions and attempts to probe their possible meanings; and that a major Hollywood director put his name on this effort signals a possible shift in how the mainstream views the actual War On Terror, and not the sham version that continues to fall apart. It's a tentative step, but a positive one, and should be encouraged and expanded on whenever possible.

ALSO: If you haven't already, please pick up and watch "Paradise Now," which offers a Palestinian perspective on vengeance, nationalism and the idea of whether or not killing The Other is morally right or even tactically sound. I'm sure it surprises a fair number of racist assholes that, yes, Palestinians debate and deliberate about life and death issues as well. A perfect companion piece to "Munich."

Monday, May 15, 2006

Rock-A-Buy, Baby

Though I played outside more often than I stared at TV, some of my earliest memories are video drenched. It was a time of B&W shows, four channels to choose from, blurry images amid static and test patterns -- faded pencil stick figures compared to today's hi-def digital onslaught, so I cannot imagine what flashes thru a contemporary child's televised mind. And now with the debut of BabyFirst TV, the fragmentation and further commodification of young American minds receives an earlier kickstart.

Not to seem cynical, which is tough to avoid most days, but is this any real shock? Toddlers have long been left in front of TVs, and some of their first discernable images, apart from (one hopes) their parents, are usually commercial symbols and the jingles that sell them. This is simply a sad reality of our apolitical culture, and it carries long term negative effects if not altered or undermined by parents and educators. Americans in large part are becoming more clueless and uninformed, and one need only look at mainstream culture to understand why and how. We are consumers, not citizens, and nothing emphasizes this more than a pay network that is specifically aimed at 6 month old babies.

The good people at BabyFirst TV insist that their product will help, not hinder, a child's creative and intellectual growth. For one thing, it's commercial-free. Of course it is. That's why you pay for the network, and frankly, that's the least worry any parent should have, given the endless bombardment of ads that hit us every second of every day. The B-Firsters would be marketing idiots to add to this noise, which is why their pitch openly states that kids are gonna watch TV sooner than later, so why have yours exposed to the visual poison of the marketplace when you can purchase a safe video pocket for the children to nestle in. It's about the only way you can convince a new parent to buy into the concept, and I suspect a large number will, if the loitering crowds of parents holding their kids at the video store are any indication. Having grown up on the tube, most young parents will doubtless see nothing wrong with their toddlers watching "good" TV, prepping their developing brains for a lifetime of corporate penetration.

Now, lest I sound holier than thou on this topic, I must confess that both my kids watched TV while still in diapers and slobbering on teething rings. To date, this hasn't affected their ability to read and discuss books, stories and fables (and now with our teen daughter, political history), but then, both kids have grown up with two writers as parents, surrounded by mountains of books, newspapers and mags. I don't know if this type of environment is common in most American homes, but it wasn't where I grew up, and judging from some of my relatives' houses, there are more screens than books, so I'm guessing that TV and computers are the main venues for what passes as educational information.

I've known several militant parents who wouldn't let their kids watch any TV whatsoever (a position the wife shares, but to a lesser ideological degree), and while I see their blunt point, the fact remains that we live in a crushing audio-visual age which, save for some ecological disaster that wipes out a large portion of humanity, is only going to get heavier. I agree that kids should be limited in their screen exposure, and when they are exposed, that their fare not be strictly consumerist crap. But to completely quarantine them from a major part of the modern world is unrealistic, and dampens their ability to understand and subvert the propaganda thrown at them. Exposure allows a strong intellectual and critical immune system to emerge. I suppose my despair about targeting babies as a TV demographic is rooted in this inescapable fact. Kids aren't allowed to be kids any longer -- they're commercial game, hunted by marketers from birth. At least we can teach them how to turn the images around, and find truth in the maze of glittering lies.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Hitch Slapped

Juan Cole tears into Christopher Hitchens today, and I'm sorry he had to take the time to do it. There is no bigger waste of energy these days than responding to the sad drunken joke that Hitchens has become. But when you are a public historian with a large readership like Juan, I suppose you can't ignore slanderous attacks on your character, especially when they're launched by Hitchens, who's well-known for getting basic facts wrong when he simply isn't lying.

Juan's response begins:

"Christopher Hitchens owes me a big apology.

"I belong to a private email discussion group called Gulf2000. It has academics, journalists and policy makers on it. It has a strict rule that messages appearing there will not be forwarded off the list. It is run, edited and moderated by former National Security Council staffer for Carter and Reagan, Gary Sick, now a political scientist at Columbia University. The 'no-forwarding' rule is his, and is intended to allow the participants to converse about controversial matters without worrying about being in trouble. Also, in an informal email discussion, ideas evolve, you make mistakes and they get corrected, etc. It is a rough, rough draft.

"Hitchens somehow hacked into the site, or joined and lurked, or had a crony pass him things. And he has now made my private email messages the subject of an attack on me in Slate. (I am not linking to the article because it is highly unethical and Slate does not deserve any direct traffic from my site for it.) Moreover, he did not even have the decency to quote the final outcome of the discussions."

And gets better as Juan picks up steam. Check it out.

As you know, I no longer read Hitchens, and I haven't read his attack on Juan (who I'm sure knows that he'll receive no apology from Hitchens). Nor do I have any intention of doing so. The old wreck's a scratched CD at this point, and based on Juan's riposte, it appears that Hitchens is playing the same fractured tune. It's also clear that he'll do anything to get noticed, no matter how low he has to crawl. Again, my commiserations to Juan for having to spend time in Hitchens' gutter.