Friday, January 28, 2011

unconnected thoughts

1. A character flaw.
I'm self-employed at the moment and have no money-making work to do today (only, you know, the work that actually matters and defines me and gives meaning to my life), and I woke up after 10 a.m., and the place I was planning to go to today to write is closed, so—and there's the problem, the fact that this seems like a "so" to me—I'm in grave danger of doing nothing today. The combination of a plan derailed and a late wake-up (itself a kind of plan derailed: I don't really feel comfortable waking up after 9 a.m.) triggers some very unattractive part of my personality (related indirectly but not too distantly to my nuclear escape plan) that says, "See this towel? THROW IT IN." Anyway, a valued friend taught me to view blogging as writing (which, at least on the most basic level, it literally is), so doing this here right now is a good step toward turning this day into a day instead of a lost calendar square. (I was about to say something like, "Yeah, but, on the other hand, really the only reason I'm writing all this is to shove the last few shitty posts under the carpet or, more appropriately [metaphorwise], shove them down out of sight" [q.v.], but then that's another character flaw: the refusal to give myself credit for anything and instead to attribute all to selfish, impure, or embarrassing motives. Gee whiz, what a doofus.)

2. Appreciation fest (TV).
Here is a partial list, without commentary, of things I've been enjoying lately: (a) TiVo, (b) The Onion News Network on IFC, (c) Portlandia on IFC, and (d) Funny or Die Presents on HBO. It is not impossible that all four of these things will factor into my evening. It is impossible that any will factor in without the first. Well, nearly impossible. The world is wide and rich with possibility.

3. Appreciation fest (film).
I watched Jackie Brown last night, which I didn't remember, and it's good! Is it the last Tarantino movie set in a non-heightened reality? (Some writers I know have lately used the term "heightened reality" in my presence, but actually I'm not 100% sure where to fix the lower border of "heightening," so the above question may be supremely ignorant—or at least jargonistically off base.) Put it this way: Jackie Brown is more in the Reservoir Dogs vein than the Pulp Fiction vein, and I hadn't even quite thought about it enough to note that those were two separate veins. It's certainly in a different section of the bookstore from Kill Bill!
     I'll tell you one interesting thought I had* while watching it, and it's that on some level it was registering as a Coen Bros. film. Then I started thinking, "Huh, in a way True Grit was kind of weirdly a Tarantino film. And isn't Inglourious Basterds sort of Coensy?" (Boy was I stoned!)
     Anyway, I liked it. I think Tarantino makes good movies. SORRY.

4. A thought about Tarantino.
I think that, in a very different variation on my feelings about Sofia Coppola's movies (haven't seen the most recent one, not in a rush to), I like Tarantino's style and storytelling more than his philosophy? Like, specifically, I think he has what you might call (annoyingly) an amazing eye and an amazing ear, and he sees things about people and the world (and cinema) and puts those things into his movie really well, like a real artist, but the conclusions he seems to draw about them—his sense of the value of things, and the sense behind things, and the lessons to be drawn from things—are a little... well, are less to my liking. So just about any time a character says anything that appears to resemble a moral (and this goes double for Sofia, by the way), excluding obvious ironic morals, or any time you start to get a sense of an actual world view or something the movie actually seems to be saying...
     I haven't actually thought about this at all. I should think before shooting off my mouth. Is that the expression? "Shooting off one's mouth"? No I'm not going to look it up right now.

6. Relatedly, how I decided I needed to watch Sex and the City (if ever stuck watching it) in order to enjoy it.
In a Pierre Menard-y feat of creative interpretation, I need to assert to myself that Carrie Bradshaw is supposed to be a detestable idiot. As long as we're not supposed to treat her voiceover as the actual voice of the show—as long as we're not supposed to accept her and her insights as thoughtful, appealing, or valid—then I'm in. Have her be like a Kenny Powers figure, or a Humbert Humbert: lovable in important ways but essentially ridiculous, contemptible, and/or hateful.

5. ...
Maybe I'll go for a walk today.

* Interesting, eh? Well, that's presumptuous. –ed.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What's wrong with the New Yorker movie reviews (nutshell edition)

David Denby's finally taken off his human-being mask:
Well, I'm sorry to put it this way, but "The Green Hornet" is what you get when someone who dropped out of high school to do standup comedy, then spent a decade in movies and television, conceives a Hollywood "passion project."

Introducing a comment with, "Well, I'm sorry, but," functions, rhetorically, like a get-out-of-jail-free card (or one of those Super Mario stars): "I'm just being honest, here, saying what's what without worrying about what's polite or socially acceptable, so don't jump all over me!"—and generally I'm sympathetic to the kind of risky truth-speaking that often follows such an introduction and skeptical of the censorship it acknowledges and defies. (In fact, I'm very willing to accept that The Green Hornet is a piece of shit [haven't seen it], and honestly I'm even willing to imagine that Seth Rogen is a fucking idiot—although, to be clear, I don't actually assume that, and I like him in his movies and in Freaks & Geeks).

But you know what? What Denby's saying here is just pure, out-and-out snobbery, and snobbery at its worst. This is what people incorrectly and unfairly assume of The New Yorker and its readership, the kind of insufferable elitism that people imagine is going on (but isn't really going on, come on!!). But right here, in that moment, it is, isn't it? I mean, what else is David Denby talking about?

The Green Hornet is what you get when someone drops of out of high school to pursue stand-up comedy and then goes into movies and television? I'm sorry, David—what kind of person are you saying that is? A moron? Is that it? Someone somehow unsuited for making movies, as evidenced by his—what, his inadequate education? So, what, movies are to be made only by the right sort of person—i.e., college graduates? Look, I went to a good college, I'm in favor of higher education, I believe in "high art" and "high literature" and all that jazz [although I'm agnostic when it comes to actual jazz], but Jesus Christ, dude, do you really think you have to go to college to be able to make art? Are you (among other things) fucking insane?

That's the worst part. The worst is over. But the review does go on, illuminatingly, to say, "Doesn't it ever occur to filmmakers and studio executives that some people, even younger members of the audience, might want to leave adolescence behind, rather than endlessly repeat it?"

What kind of fucking movie do you fucking expect The Green fucking Hornet to be?!

Pardon me. But, I mean, seriously! The sheer contempt for the under-educated, for stand-up comedians, and for film and television (and this from a movie reviewer!) is matched only by the wholesale pig-headed rejection of an entire mode of entertainment and movie enjoyment (again: a movie reviewer!).

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, when the revolution comes, The New Yorker's film reviewers should be the first ones against the wall.*

Take a look at this lousy prole!

* IMPORTANT NOTE: Please do not kill The New Yorker's film reviewers.

"It's not like Wagner was making pottery." [UPDATED]

My "imaginary friend" read that last post, and we had the following discussion over e-mail (please note that he is both Jewish and a lover of Wagner):

G (11:34 a.m. PST): I don't remember that conversation at all.
  1. Sex and violence are linked. What are we going to do with that? (Not rhetorical.) (That said, I don't need an answer.)
  2. What's wrong with people who want to be humiliated, tied up, etc.? (Not rhetorical.) (Still don't need an answer.)
  3. What do you do with beautiful Nazi music?
R (11:41 a.m. PST): 
  1. I think the most (maybe only) important thing in this regard is action. It is bad if someone kills someone else, for example, and better if he does not. (The rest is relevant as a kind of predictor and interesting as an ethical-moral-intellectual issue but otherwise maybe more or less insignificant...?) Small doses of things that in larger doses can kill you can be harmless, enjoyable, or even healthy. You have to get cut open to have life-saving surgery. Etc.
  2. Depends what you mean by "wrong." I do believe that they'd probably be happier people if they worked out whatever issues are probably leading to these desires, and I do believe that happier is in a sense (maybe the only meaningful sense) "better." Oh, and it depends what you mean by "etc.": humiliated & tied up is fine, but carved up maybe not so fine? I realize that this only scratches the surface of an unsolicited answer to your nonrhetorical question.
  3. That I think is slightly different because no one is harmed or was harmed by the music itself or its composition or anything like that. Take child pornography: a picture taken years ago of an underage person maybe does not directly harm anyone in itself, but it's connected to a crime and to likely harm in the way that a poem written by a child molester is not...?
G (11:59 a.m. PST): Music that was used to rouse the masses to kill Jews or to inspire anti-Semitism (Wagner, whatever all those Nazi war songs are that are now every Ivy League college's school song).
     Maybe the people who want to be humiliated are doing "better" than those who have not yet come to terms with their repressed whatevers, which means they're having to sublimate in other (harmful) ways....

R (12:14 p.m. PST): Come on, was Wagner really "used" "to rouse the masses" "to kill Jews"? (In spite of the "Come on," that's not a rhetorical question, either.) Is that why Wagner wrote it?
     Totally agree with the other point. I meant that people who want it are probably worse off than people who don't want it.

G (12:41 p.m. PST): Some argue Wagner was a rabid anti-semite and that his works are way antiSemitic. Hitler LOVED them. In one famous performance the crowning scene of the ubermensch in the opera involved the crowning of Hitler in the audience. It's pretty politically charged art.

R (12:42 p.m. PST): Not the same as art designed with anti-Semitism specifically in mind. Pictures of mountains taken by a child-pornography afficionado who is known to have revered Roman Polanski are not themselves child pornography.

G (1:08 p.m. PST): It's not like Wagner was making pottery. He was (some argue) writing about a socio-political worldview that valued one race over the other. It's arguably specifically antiSemitic. Google Wagner Ring Cycle Jews Antisemitism or something like that.
     I think it's all up to the viewer. Though there is something uncomfortable about valuing the product of a bad guy, regardless.

R (1:12 p.m. PST): What, so anti-Semitic pottery would be OK?

[No reply. I WIN.]

G (Jan. 28, 4:03 p.m. PST): You did not win. You cannot win. It would be like a cat "winning" anything.

women, photography, pornography, and darkest reality [UPDATED]

I was going to include some pictures in this post and then got ethically conflicted and decided against it. Some of them are reasonably nice pictures of reasonably beautiful girls who look cool and relaxed, and the pictures have that '70s-'80s fetishism in them that American Apparel has helped turned into a very hip aesthetic—and since they seem "real," the pictures, they are in a lot of ways very appealing. But there's one problem: they were put online by the Orange County DA's office to help in the investigation and further prosecution of the man who took the pictures, Rodney Alcala, former Dating Game winner and convicted rapist and murderer of women (q.v.).

To make matters worse, part of the reason these pictures went public is that the DA has some reason to be concerned that Alcala may have murdered some of these very women. So, yes, the pictures are "real"—these are "real girls," just like in the early American Apparel ads and in amateur pornography, women who said to some guy, "Yeah, OK, you can take my picture"—but it's not impossible that what this "real guy" did after taking pictures of these "real girls" is sexually assault them, and just regular assault them, too.

Casts a whole new light on those American Apparel ads. Or but does it, really? That's why I'm writing.

Cute and just having fun. Or...?
[Photo credit: NOT Alcala, to be clear.]

I have at least two friends, both women,* who are in the pornography-is-inherently-violent-or-at-least-malignantly-exploitative camp, and I have always strongly disagreed, but this kind of thing makes me think twice. As I alluded to above (and discussed another side of here), the only kind of pornography I've ever gotten much enjoyment out of—or, say, the main way in which I've ever gotten much enjoyment out of any pornography—focuses on the reality of it, in one way or another: either (a) these aren't actors but are instead "real people," and, whether they're doing what they're doing because they're a couple who just decided to document their regular couple activities† or because they're getting a sexual kick out of a kind of kinky exhibitionism (or both), what we're looking at is "real sex" [not to be confused with HBO's Real Sex –ed.] and not some kind of tacky baloney, or, less often, (b) you remember that the performers performing are, themselves, "real people" actually ("really") engaging in "real sex" for a camera, for whatever reason. My feeling, in response to the porn-is-basically-rape philosophy, is that, no, obviously not: I'm willing to accept that there's some fucked-up shit out there, but some of it is self-evidently consensual and fun and, for want of a better words, kind of nice, or at least playful.

These pictures make me think twice because they remind me that you don't know the context, that you can't judge from a snapshot what was going on in a person's mind even at the moment, let alone surrounding that moment—let alone what was going on in the photographer's mind (which specific point, though, I'd still tend to say doesn't matter per se), or what was about to go on in physical reality due to the sociopathic photographer's actions. And let's forget murder for a second and stick with the less-extreme still-extremes: all of a sudden it's a little harder for me to insist that all's well in the American Apparel ads (particularly at least the early ads, which I'm given to understand were actually Dov Charney photographing girls he'd taken home with him, in his bed?) because the fact that the girls seem to be having a fine sexy time does not mean that they were not coerced or raped. I mean—duh, I guess.

Sexy pals just hanging around having a nice time....right?
[AGAIN: not Alcala.]

On the other hand, to be clear, it certainly doesn't mean that they were. My head was starting to go in the direction of saying, "Oh, my God, my friends were right: pornography is inherently violent!"—but then, no, I have a tendency to pendulum-swing sometimes and go too far. It's not that these pictures reveal anything evil in all similar pictures; it's that they take away a sense of confidence in the other pictures, that they remind you that we have no way of knowing that nothing evil is going on in them. There's a variety of porn that isn't up my alley, some pretty heavy BDSM‡ and "humiliation" stuff—women tied up, etc.—that seem always to include one "after" shot of the woman smiling in a bathrobe, just to let you know that this whole thing was a game. Putting aside the question of whether that proves anything (a valid question), what if the opposite is going on in other porn? What's the left-out picture at the end showing the woman who's seemed happy the whole time now clearly unhappy? What I'm saying is that this rapist-murderer's photography doesn't show that pornography is rape, but it does show that we don't know that rape isn't going on.

(I'm saying it doesn't show that there's rape going on in porn, but, to be totally intellectually honest, I have to at least note the possibility that there is some deep-seated psychological–aesthetic [or ethical–aesthetic–metaphysical] affinity involved, here: that maybe these kinds of pictures are inherently leering in a way that can be taken as evidence that— No, but even there I wind up in the same place [if only because plenty of women like to be leered at and objectified, in moderation and in the proper setting]: the problem with such a situation is not that it's evidence of rape, just that rape could be there, and that the women's seeming OK with it [and their enjoying being objectified, too, for that matter] in no way suggests that they're going to continue to be OK with it in the next [missing] slide.)

So back to the pictures in question. Here we know that the guy taking the pictures was a rapist and murderer of women, and there's even some fear that he might have been raping and murdering women after taking pictures of them, so we have every reason to believe that these pictures are, at least, pictures of women who, without knowing it, were in at least some degree of danger. The reason I didn't put them up is that I know (this part we know) that some people are going to specifically be turned on by that element of it—that some people don't want their "humiliation" porn to turn out to be consensual—and I don't want to be party to that. But the question, maybe, is: if you see a picture of an attractive woman in a relaxed and intimate setting, and knowledge of the context suddenly casts that picture in a terrible light—is it bad to still enjoy the picture?

I think the answer—or rather my answer—is that once you know something, you can't unknow it, and then you have to do with that knowledge, and with that picture, what (not to get all Obi-Wan Kenobi on you or anything) you feel is right. I guess what I want to do with that picture is acknowledge it, think about it, comment on it, not share it, and then let it sink back into the Internet depths where it belongs.

But would it be wrong for you to like it—morally wrong? I'm not talking about getting off on the rape-and-murder element (an interesting ethical question in itself, I suppose, but one I'm not interested in examining because, fair or unfair, I have a pretty strong emotional reaction to that and just feel like it's fucked up). I mean is it OK for you to like the picture in itself, out of context, once you've been filled in on the context—just to think, "That chick is hot"? If you like it, if you think that, does that make you a bad person in any way?

As one of my dearest, smartest friends would probably say,† I think you're all right.

(...although another thing that would be consistent with his character would be to add, with a shrug, "Or not.")

[UPDATE: The conversation continues here.]

* Women! Am I right?

† I recently had a conversation with my "imaginary friend," who gives advice that is (a) really good and (b) usually some variation on "It doesn't matter," and basically I expressed (at moderate length) the concern that almost all seemingly "real," homemade pornography must be either (a) fake and therefore manipulative or (b) real but probably stolen or leaked against the wishes of at least one person involved, probably the woman, and therefore essentially immoral; my friend said, "Huh...that's interesting. [brief pause] I think you're all right."

‡ Full-disclosure: I wrote this as "BSDM" and had to Google it to figure out what was wrong. Maybe an unfair Freudian slip?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

three quarters of the way there!


"Three quarters of the way there"? Creepy. What's "there"? At 1,000 posts, this blog just stops. Or maybe Alt85 is kind of an apocalypse egg timer, and you'll be reading the last post as the world crumbles and burns around you? Anyway, that last dumb post about the Pod F. Tompkast was my 750th, and I figure it's about time for another recap.

First, though, please note—
  • the new intro-to-Alt85 page, which I think does a good job of explaining what the hell is even going on here, here,
  • the new Facebook "like" buttons on all Alt85 blog posts (going back all the way to the very first)—so that if you have a Facebook account and you like something on here, you can click "like" to tell your friends (do it, tell your friends: I think they should know)—and
  • the new spin-off blogs, which you can find by checking out either my bare-bones "profile" or the intro-to-Alt85 page mentioned above.
And now, WITHOUT FURTHER ADO [a cliché]—your stats!

All-time top favorites, in descending order of popularity:

New favorites (since the last recap):

And might I give a shout-out to these blogs for sending readers my way?
Thank you thank you.

Headfoot is not dead. (It just smells bad.)

* You might want to skip the end of this with the videos-as-sound-files. Embarrassing.
† She's why people read "on not reading" (I forgot when I wrote the last recap).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Appreciation Fest: The Pod F. Tompkast

I've listened now to almost every episode of Paul F. Tompkins's podcast, and probably the first important thing to note is: first podcast I've ever listened to! Never had any interest in listening to a podcast until I figured, "Meh"—not exactly meh, more like maybe geh?—"odds are I'd enjoy a thing like this," because, as I believe I've mentioned, pretty much everything this guy says is funny. He just sits there talking and what comes out makes me laugh. So: first podcast, and maybe only podcast, unless Louis C.K. starts a podcast or someone I trust not only tells me but insists, repeatedly over time, that if I like The Pod F. Tompkast, I'll love the [some other podcast]. But basically: not interested. Not interested, because I'm not trying to be listening to no podcasts. I just want to hear Paul F. Tompkins ramble hilariously.

There is one downside to all of this, and it's that lately, since beginning to listen to this thing, I've started talking like him, and when I say "like him," I mean "like a poor man's him." Not just poor: conclusively impoverished. Not conclusively. Isn't there some grammatical distinction between having something done and having something finished being done? I mean impoverished like exhausted finally of all funds. Let's say deeply in debt. I hear myself sort of doing a Paul F. Tompkins thing and it hurts me because it's so bad. And I can't stop myself. I sit back and watch myself doing this thing, committing this crime, and it's how I sometimes imagine (surely incorrectly) violent criminals must feel as they're murdering people: very nearly an out-of-body experience, like a dream, in which you say (quietly, weakly), "No, wait, don't do that," but you might as well be talking to a movie. That can't be how it happens: I bet violent criminals in a very basic sense don't really care. I am the Head of the Psychology Department at Oxford University.

I say all of this to communicate and simultaneously illustrate this basic point: the horrible but uncontrollable imitation—like a 12th-generation copy of a tape cassette, horribly degraded. Remember all the failed Ripley clones in Alien: Resurrection (not actually sure whether there's a colon in there, not gonna check) or the increasingly grotesque time-travel reproductions of Quinn and whoever the other guy was in that time-travel episode of Sealab 2021 (might be a colon in there, actually)?

Anyway, he's funny, and everyone should listen to his podcast. And if you don't think he's funny, you really aren't going to think I'm funny. Because I'm less funny. Fuck you, he's a professional comedian, the comparison is unreasonable.

In conclusion, this entire blog post is shameful and humiliating, but IT GOES TO SHOW, is all I'm saying.

Paul F. Tompkins is gonna knock you out. Mama said knock you out.
Paul F. Tompkins is gonna knock you out. Mama said knock you out!

Friday, January 14, 2011

straight man, guy with Hitler mustache

Straight man
Guy with Hitler mustache

[Scene 1 – I don't know. Intelligentsia?]

STRAIGHT MAN: Dude, what the fuck? Is that a Hitler mustache?

GUY WITH HITLER MUSTACHE: No, dude, it's a Chaplin mustache! I'm takin' back the mustache!

STRAIGHT MAN: Oh, all right, I get it. Cool!

[Scene 2 – Intelligentsia again, let's say.]

STRAIGHT MAN: Wait a minute. You named your kid Adolf?

GUY WITH HITLER MUSTACHE: Yeah, man. After Adolph Marx! Harpo. Dude, think about it: it used to be just a name! We're gonna let that asshole ruin a name forever? Take back the name!

STRAIGHT MAN: Oh...OK, OK... I guess that's...OK...

[Scene 3 – Fuckin' Intelligentsia, why not.]

STRAIGHT MAN: What the hell, dude? What's this I hear about you committing genocide?

GUY WITH HITLER MUSTACHE: Ohhh, I see the— No, dude, not like Hitler. Like Pol Pot.

[music, bow, exit, return, bow, exit, curtains, lights]

Is this OK?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

on and of Twitter [UPDATED x3]

abstract representation of content (via)

On Sunday I was standing on the sidewalk—actually off the sidewalk, partway up the path to my building—checking my e-mail on my phone, and an old guy who was passing by angrily shouted, without looking at me but clearly for my benefit, "Oh, I'm so sorry I forgot mine at home! I can't go anywhere without it!"

Now, he was clearly demented, so in that sense "all bets are off," but his old-man rage about my being on a phone (not in his way and not talking at all, let alone loudly: guilty only of using a cell phone at all) struck me as not only crazy but also just fundamentally cranky—an obvious thing for me to say, sure, even to the point of being stupid, but I bring it up for a reason. And when I told this story soon afterwards to a friend—prefacing it, I think, with, "I was just satirized by an elderly lunatic"—she made the excellent point that his criticism was not only crazy and cranky but also woefully out of date: "about ten years too late," I think she said. We all have cell phones now. Believe me, I know that the mere fact of something's being universal doesn't make it right—but getting suddenly explosively outraged by a rather benign instance of something so thoroughly ubiquitous is a [UPDATE: Just realized, the next morning, that I've essentially set myself up here for someone to say, "What, you mean like this entire blog?" Anyway, just wanted to swoop in here and say it first so you can't.]

I intended to segue into a discussion about what's good about Twitter, but I've lost interest. Hate Twitter if you want to; I like it. But do ask yourself whether what you hate is Twitter itself or some regurgitated anti-Twitter sentiment you've been parroting since 2008. Pretty much everyone I "follow" is a comedian, some even professionally, and every time I go on there I am exposed to comedy, some of it even top notch, first rate, grade A, and/or state of the art. Because of that, somewhere along the line I got in the habit of using my own Twitter account to work on comedy writing, or a certain kind of comedy writing. I don't think I'm great at it, but I also don't think I'm godawful at it—and some of what I've done I'm pretty happy with.

Anyway, because the worst thing about Twitter is its search and browsing functions (or rather the total lack thereof), I thought I'd take a second here—at least as much for my own entertainment as for yours—to gather together a big handful of my own "tweets" that would otherwise probably never again be read by anyone. File this under "self-indulgence." Here goes, in no order:

Who invented the high five? I'd like to shake his hand.
Oct. 30

I was just trying to remember what we did before the Internet, and then I was like, "Oh, right: magnetic poetry."

Who would win in a fight, God or Mecha-God?
Dec. 10

"Life is for fags." #BigotedSuicideNotes
Jul. 5

Why are robots always like, "I AM A ROBOT"? Why do they always say that? It's like, dude, no offense, we know you're a robot.
Aug. 12

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more, braw. #JustAddBraw
Nov. 10

DID YOU KNOW...If you took a human being's blood vessels and straightened them out in a line on a flat surface, that guy would be so pissed!
Sep. 6

The Godfather Pt. II: The Legend of Curly's Gold #MakeEverySequelTheLegendOfCurlysGold
Nov. 4

Where was E.T. shitting? In the closet with the stuffed animals, I bet.
Jan. 7

Dear 12-year-old me: I am a famous writer and am married to the girl from French in Action. And yes, I have adamantium bones. #timetravelfun
Sep. 18

"Bung-hole." -William Shakespeare
Nov. 10

[UPDATE: see also, maybe]

If you like any of these, follow me. Think of my tweets as a kind of mini-Alt85. Or, if you don't like Alt85, don't think of them that way. But do please go fuck yourself.

secret moral (via)

humor and the limits of irony

(or, Why I Didn't Tweet This Tweet)

not available at

I thought this was sort of funny but then imagined a bereaved mother reading it and it got less funny. And I don't mean that theoretically: I mean that it would actually be not funny if an actual bereaved mother actually read it—because babies die all the time. A careless Google search yields a worldwide infant mortality rate of 41 deaths per 1,000 live births and a birth rate of 490,000 per day... So here's another good joke: "You know who loves dead-baby jokes? God. He makes them 20,090 times a day."

Of course—or I hope of course—what you might call the "informational content" of these jokes by no means makes light of infant mortality. Rather the opposite, in fact: the only reason any of it is funny (if indeed it is) is that infant mortality—and not just infant mortality, but mortality in general, most specifically the death of a person's child, at any age—is incredibly terrible, such that the joke is not a wordplay joke or a "Get it??" joke but rather a kind of maybe you could call it "character-driven humor," in which the horrible moral obliviousness of the speaker is itself the source of the comedy. Put it another way: for the joke to "work," the audience must all be in agreement that there are few things less funny than a bereaved mother.

But therein lies the problem, right? Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you agree with me that this joke is not actually poking fun of bereaved mothers. (It isn't.)  Even so, it still is a joke about bereaved mothers, right? I submit that the main reason not to poke fun at bereaved mothers (if we were for some reason called upon to provide a reason) is probably the negative effect such a thing might have upon the feelings of actual bereaved mothers (or fathers or people close to either), the pain it might inflict upon them, deliberately or not. And if a joke "incorrectly" has a such an effect or inflicts such pain—"incorrectly" the way niggardly (which is not a racist word and has even less to do with any racial slur than the word cigarette has to do with female Smurfs*) offended people in DC and got somebody fired ten years back or whenever that was—well, isn't that maybe just as bad? If you've upset someone, does your intent matter? Or let's say this, more to the point: does your intent matter if you're aware in advance of the discomfort or pain you might cause?

That's not a rhetorical question. I'm asking sincerely. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Or maybe it is but it's not really our responsibility. Part of me does thing that "insensitive" humor plays an important role in our society—even a little bit like the way apparently America's children are worse off for not eating dirt all the time (our precious immune systems all weak from underexposure to microorganisms, sick for being too sanitary).

How about rape jokes? Are all rape jokes—I mean all humor in any way addressing the concept of rape or even including the word rape—automatically unacceptable? I've tended to think, "No, of course not, as long as you're not actually in any way coming out pro-rape," but then I remember that a lot of people have been raped, and I get to imagining a rape joke's being told in front of someone who maybe was raped, unbeknownst to the comedian. Does that seem good to me? Does it seem comfortable? Am I OK with it? No. But then is that the proper way to judge whether the joke itself is OK? And what is "OK"? Is it maybe OK not to be OK?

Really I have no answer to any of this, except that I don't think there is a correct answer. I do know that I thought my joke was funny and didn't post it. But then I did post it, sort of, here. And fretted about it. And here we are.

[Q.v. super gay.]

[IMPORTANT NOTE: Let me underline that I am not saying that the repressed tweet was a good or particularly funny joke. I mean, my point here isn't the question of whether I should be keeping a piece of comic gold to myself for moral reasons: I'm talking much more generally about whether some things can be addressed comedically at all, regardless of success or the lack thereof. I wouldn't want you to reject this entire thought process out of hand just because you didn't think the joke was funny. Let's all try and keep our underpants on, OK?]

* Smurves? [No. –ed.]

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sometimes I can even remember her name.

I heard this morning that Barry Hannah died—a while ago, too. (I was busy last March. I forgive myself.) The person who told me is also the person who first told me about Barry Hannah, more than a decade ago—so it's like she brought him in and out of the world. Except that that's what's good about art, right? Immortal?

Anyway, this reminded me of a story I wrote in 2001 that was sheer Barry Hannah mimicry.
     Except then I pulled it up on my computer and realized that, no, it's sheer Denis Johnson mimicry, or, more specifically, Jesus' Son mimicry—the writing of a 23-year-old who wants to write like Jesus' Son (and never, ever rewrites: essentially improv-writes): put-on world-weariness and obliterated self-awareness. No, not put-on: aspirational. I wished I had this attitude—like Annie when she's pretending to be the Texan girl at the bar (sort of). Anyway, I think it's largely artificial, but it comes from a sincere place, in a roundabout way. The end is—let's just say, to be generous—a homage* to the end of "Emergency," the story that made me read Jesus' Son in the first place. I learned this morning that I thought mimicry had a K in it.

Hannah and Johnson go together, somewhat, in my mind, although they're also different. Hannah in my mind is maybe the missing link between Flannery O'Connor and Johnson, although if that implies an evolution or progression or hierarchy of talent or value, then no, not that.

Read Barry Hannah: Airships or Captain Maximus if you can get your hands on it. Make him immortal. Here's my bullshit, just for the fuck of it.

by young me

     That motherfucker Mick made a comment, and, next thing I knew, we were in a shack. A shack. I'm talking dirt ground—not dirt on the ground, but dirt ground—and this chorus of whimpering dogs on the other side of the wall. I blacked out, and then I was alone in the grass, and I couldn't open my eyes. They didn't hurt, my eyes, but they didn't want to open, as if I'd forgotten how to open them or the lids had gone AWOL. Of course if they'd gone AWOL I'd have had trouble closing them, not opening them. But anyway I couldn't see, and the grass was wet so I figured it had to be dawn or dog piss. There were other possibilities. The dogs had quit howling, if I was even in the same town anymore. I called out for Bobby and there was no answer. Then I called out for Alan, and nothing, so I lay there a second more and tried to gauge. In Platoon they tell Charlie Sheen, "If you get separated, don't call out; we'll find you." That might not be verbatim. So it occurred to me, shit, I just called out. I mean, I wasn't in Vietnam, but we did get beaten up and thrown in a shack: it's not as if we were tucked in safe in the nursery, either. I didn't call for Mick. I lay there with my cheek in the wet grass and my eyes closed and my legs heavy and somehow very comfortable, like when you're half-awake and not sure yet which half.
     Later on I was in a bar, still blind, heating like a kettle over the abuse from this fucker who had to have looked like Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film actor. I base that on his voice, although this guy didn't exactly sound like Philip Seymour Hoffman. He could have looked like anyone; I don't know. I saw with my arms—sometimes with the side of my face. I saw the bar. Hoffman poured beer in my mustache, sideways, so I swung at him spluttering and fell on the sawdust. There was sawdust on the floor. For some time after that I'd find some in my hair. Sawdust in my hair, in my mustache. Someone helped me up; it could have been the same guy. At that point I'd pretty much resigned myself to death. I picked at something on my arm and felt it in my side, so I stopped picking.
     Sex came in the form of Maddy Bodkin. I recognized the lips and the tongue on my earlobe before she said a word. She didn't ask about my eyes. She just led me to a mattress and climbed on me, and my lids came unstuck just as I let go inside her, a double miracle, triple. Her T-shirt was soggy—sweat, probably—and I could see most of a tit. It seemed sluttish. But I hadn't seen her in years and she still wanted to do me straight off, and that's flattering; it's the sort of thing that makes you feel good. I crawled out of that room with a smile where a face should be, spending so little on thought that it was news to me later when Bobby told me she's a whore. A room in a bar, my old college fuck-buddy. Who knew? I was just happy to see again.
     No one out there in the bar looked like the film actor, so I just broke a bottle and waved it around at everyone equal. That was mainly for kicks. The thing I was starting to think about was Alan and Bobby, and whether, where, and how.
     I've been told I look like an old photograph. Some say Civil War soldier. Some say Marcel Proust. Even before the mustache grew, I used to get that. It's why I grew the mustache. I sweat beer. When I was twelve I was mauled by a tiger. I lived. Now I was outside this bar, on the coast of a little island of electric light, dumb bugs popping in a deathtrap cage of glowing blue in my right peripheral, and me falling like the orbiting space shuttle: walking fast and going nowhere. There was darkness on all sides and darkness within. Even with my eyes working I could hardly see. For a quarter minute I thought about God. Then a pretty girl walked out of the bar and into the dark, and I thought about her. Her ass occupied another realm. It was an idea.
     I had to go somewhere. Moving was easier than thinking, so I stuck with that. I cut a path through the dark and didn't hear much more than I saw. I lapped the dregs, and it's then I realized: my brain was trying to shut down. I'd sensed it for days, months, weeks. I hadn't known it for what it was, but now I could see it, feel it, break under it. Someone had given up for me. I eked out, but at the same time undermined my eke. It was Maddy Bodkin. I'd given her too much. When I'd come, part of me must have said, "The End." Too much of me must have; part of everyone always does. This was before I knew she was a whore, remember. If I'd known that, it would have been all over right then. That "End" would have unfolded lazily in terminal cursive, spooling out like to overflow a petri dish. I'd have been startled awake too late. Hollering. "End" flowing into my maw till I quit. Quit.
     Car headlights cut up the dark real good. It was a C-section: Buster birthed me. How do you like that for a metaphor? I didn't know Buster's name till he told me.
     "I'm Buster. I'm with the U.S. Postal Service."
     We were in a U.S. Postal Service mail truck. The pretty girl with the ideal ass was in the back, sitting on the floor. Buster stared in front of him as he drove as if there were a road there.
     "Emma's in the back."
     "Emily," said the girl.
     "Emily. So, pal. Where can I take you?" A baseball bat rolled around on the floor of the thing. Photos scattered everywhere. We were in outer space.
     "Home," I said.
     "Hey-o," said Buster.
     "Hey-o," said I.
     "What about the mail?" said Emily.
     "It's there," said Buster.
     "I don't think Buster's a mailman anymore," I said, and I said it with confidence. I enjoyed saying it; no one in the mail truck knew who I was or how I talked. "Are you, Buster."
     Buster just smiled.
     "Fine," said Emily. "So then who's going to deliver all this mail? People sent this mail. They paid for it. Who's going to take it where it's supposed to go?"
     There was no road. There was indistinct movement under the headlights, but definitely no road. Outer space, it was outer space. I twisted around to look at the girl bouncing around in the back among the bags and boxes.
     "I will," I said.

* One of my favorite books, Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage, suggests that it is "a silly...pretension to omit the /h/ sound" in homage, but so now basically I'm not comfortable with either pronunciation and have to throw footnotes in when choosing between a and an.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Appreciation Fest: Blue Valentine

Oh, this looks like a nice little love story!

  • I saw this movie alone. Here's one love story that's better to watch that way—alone, single, the works—because then at the end of it you feel like you've come out ahead. I can't even imagine watching this while involved seriously with a woman; in fact I can nearly guarantee that this movie will speed the end of any number of relationships. People are breaking up right now, as you're reading this, because they went to go see this movie last night. [In conclusion, Blue Valentine would not, I should think, be an excellent date movie.]
  • You could almost treat this is a kind of post-bus Graduate sequel. Almost. If the make-out king had knocked Elaine up?
  • Is Grizzly Bear / Department of Eagles the world's very most perfectly suited doomed-tenderness soundtrack, or does it just feel so perfect because it was sort of the soundtrack to a particular doomed tenderness in my own history? Anybody?
  • I think the whole NC-17 rating thing has got to have been a Catfish-style marketing ploy to lure in audiences that otherwise wouldn't have come—because a sex movie this was not. (I don't actually think that. I think America's insane. All love stories should have sex scenes like this, and it's outrageous that they don't. Sex is huge. What is wrong with this culture that sex has been relegated to pornography?)
  • There were times during the course of the movie when I felt like I was in love (which calls to mind the subtly amazing dialogue near the beginning about feeling like you know someone and not actually knowing that person—because if the love I think I'm feeling is an illusion...*).
  • I started at one point to think that the movie's big failure was that we never saw quite how they got from (happy) point A to (miserable) point B, but then I came to view that as a deliberate and brilliant omission, to leave out the middle—and way more depressing that way, too, somehow.
  • Jumping back and forth between super happy scenes (somewhat counterintuitively,† I'm going to pick the scene in which he goes down on her or, more specifically, the moment right afterwards when they're done) and scenes of marital disintegration is a great way to make super happy scenes painful to watch. It's almost a little unfair.
  • Depressing is the wrong word. Maybe despairing. No: hopeless. I'm not sure it actually made me depressed, but it did sort of make me lose hope.
  • On the other hand: ice cream and orgasms.
I'm not sure that this was in the movie. Discuss.

* See also George Saunders's story in a recent New Yorker, the story about the love drugs. I had mixed feelings about the ending but otherwise dug it. I don't say "dug." Or, I don't know, do I, maybe?
† This is counterintuitive only because of our Puritanical blinders.

Rooster mistaken for the Judge

I complain a lot about The New Yorker's movie reviews. Example number umpty-ump* of their smug intellectual laziness comes in their recent review of True Grit: "The joke—the Coens' touch of sardonic black humor—is that, La Boeuf's scruples aside, the proper talk merely decorates the savage moral incoherence of the West. Here, if you want someone punished, you shoot him; if an Indian child is sitting anywhere in the vicinity, you kick him out of the way."

All well and good, except that the children Rooster kicks he kicks because he catches them torturing a mule: they have it tied so it can't get away and are poking it with sticks, and Rooster cuts the animal free and then kicks both kids off the porch they were torturing the thing from (in a way more humiliating than physically injurious, we might also note).
Rooster cut the rope with his dirk knife and the mule breathed easy again. The grateful beast wandered off shaking his head about. A cypress stump served for a step up to the porch. Rooster went up first and walked over to the two boys and kicked them off into the mud with the flat at his boot. "Call that sport, do you?" said he. They were two mighty surprised boys. 
[Yes, this is from the novel, and the novel and its adaptation are not one, but in this case, minus the dialogue, the adaptation is faithful and direct.†]

The difference between this—what actually happens in the movie—and Denby's idea that characters are just kicking Indian children they happen to come across, like something out of Blood's not only a glaring misreading (or at least misrepresentation), but also a relevant one, because it makes the crucial difference between "savage moral incoherence" (made worse by the evil coherence of racism) and a kind of untamed, impolite, rough-around-the-edges morality—the morality of a man who, when it comes down to it, won't let a Texas Ranger sadistically beat a little girl, for example. Rather like what I claimed about the drunken fight in Iron Man 2 [see second footnote here], The New Yorker treats as gratuitous a scene that actually establishes something, and something essential to the plot: in this case, Rooster Cogburn's foggy and tenuous but real relationship to questions of right and wrong. And that's the kind of reliably condescending inattention that drives me nuts about this supposedly high-caliber magazine's film reviews. Pay attention, Denby! Focus a little less on coming up with snide remarks and a little more on watching the movie, Lane!

In conclusion, this blog should be called Short Round's Cheers and Jeers, or, truer to the feel of the current name, Alternating Rants and Raves.

* Or would that be umpty-umpt?
† Also, the book identifies the boys as one white, one Indian—would have to see the movie again to verify how the Coens went on that.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ever wonder what she's thinking, fellas?

This might have fallen under "helpful citizens," in that I do have a soft spot for sophomoric graffiti, but the idea that this might, even conceivably, as a joke, be what Natalie Hershlag's character is thinking (and if you have no idea what the this refers to, then please click to enlarge) strikes me as very nearly sociopathic and probably sort of crypto-misogynistic. The counterargument might be that this woman is an actress (and that this is probably a photo shoot rather than a still and therefore even more artificial), so her smile of course isn't genuine—but still, the dialogue seems to me to show a total disregard for content-of-image and emotional cues (à la caption contest) at best, and very likely a deep-seated distrust of, or disregard for, a woman's internal life. And sophomoric graffiti is ruined for me by the sense that it's  motivated not by mischief but by nastiness and/or stupidity.

On the other hand (not to be confused with "the counterargument"), the idea that Ashton Kutcher's character's sort of happy–surprised look could be in response to his sort of understanding that she's smiling an "I wish he had a black dick" smile, if we're to accept that that's what she's smiling—well, that whimsical flight of fancy [redundant?] maybe flips the problem and makes the whole thing perfectly charming (and bizarre). Look at his face and assert to yourself that he's thinking, "Wait a minute: you're wishing I had a black dick!"—that that's what his expression is saying. Now that's [very slightly] funny!