Saturday, December 30, 2006

What To Do With All Those Terrible Gifts

By Charlie ParsleyHow many of us did not bother to open the tin of Danish Sugar Cookies because we gave them that very same day to our brother whom we know just LOVES Danish Sugar Cookies? Confess! How many of you noticed that what you thought were Danish Sugar Cookies were actually Gabi Butter Cookies, or, Galletas Finas? They are Mexican counterfeits! There is too much coconut in them.

This year, this author attended not just one but two complete rounds of Dirty Santa. The game itself can be enjoyable, but generally the gifts are terrible. In light of this, the author declined participation in either one, citing religious disabilities. He sat in The Balcony, behind that cut-out in the living room wall unnecessarily supported with two colonial pillars which is supposed to help make the living room look bigger. He provided Muppets-style cheers and jeers as was appropriate.

After a long, long hour of undue contemplation around poorly gift-bagged presents in the first game, the author was mildly surprised to conclude that no single gift was desired by him, nor useful in any small capacity. Had an analysis of this situation been premeditated, notes would have taken. Instead, a jovially inebriated memory will have to suffice in order to list the numerous Lame Gifts.

Gift bag full of name branded holiday candies. Wow, more candy for Christmas. Thanks! I was hoping to become diabetic this year. When Hershey’sTM wraps all those mini candies in red and green I simply cannot resist them.

A hand-crank flashlight. Yes, it might possibly be useful when my old truck breaks down in the middle of the night and I have to go find someplace where a cop won’t catch me peeing. (In Oklahoma, public urination is a sexual assault) However, a cop is sure to stop and investigate this little pale blue light meandering along the roadside. The only time I would really need a hand crank flashlight is when I am looking for my jacket underneath all the barstools at the Sidecar Bar and it is very unlikely that I will be carrying it in the back pocket of my Versace jeans at that time.

A tiny little resin plaque with an inspirational poem written on it. It hangs from a thin chain dotted with tiny colored plastic beads. Its edges are decorated with little painted pansies and metallic butterflies. Hanging from the base of this thing are four tiny metal tubes which also makes it a windchime. So many terrible things in this one gift make it something that I might really keep so I can laugh at it from time to time.

A stuffed small white bear, patterned with red hearts which makes it look like a valentine gift. It is affixed to a plastic base, so it is a decoration and not a toy. Next to the bear sits a small plastic flowerpot of daisies and a miniature gardener’s shovel. Underneath the platform of the sculpture is an On/Off switch, because it plays a highly mechanized rendition of ‘Fur Elise’. Made in China.
Please note: I am not making this up. These are actual gifts.

Hershey’s Chocolate Lover’s Cookbook. Back to the candies and sweets. This one I might consider a good gift, but I am suspicious that most of the recipes will just tell you to chop up some Hershey’s candies and add it to some sort of typical recipe. Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cheesecake makers: you are not fooling anyone.

Starbucks’ Single-Breakfast Double-Mug Gift Box. It is opened by someone who does drink coffee, but they drink Folger’s. They have never tried Starbucks coffee but they are pretty sure they won’t like it. The little packet only has enough coffee for two cups, and the two mugs to put it in are the main part of the gift. The world really does not need any more mugs. The biscotti is already broken. The plastic wrap has greasy fingerprints.

Candle-in-a-jar that smells like lavender. That gift was almost good if only I were an elderly grandmother.

Burt’s Bees Mini-Tiny Things Sampler. Maybe I can wash my butt with that mini-bottle of body wash. Everything else smells kind of weird and even the girls who smelled it agreed.

A big pan of homemade peanut brittle. Usually I give a lot of credit towards anything that is homemade, but I notice chunks of unmelted butter/margarine among the peanuts with traces of white powder. The chef has overestimated her abilities as well as our appetites.

To conclude this sad parade, the Grand Marshall of 2006 appeared at both Dirty Santa games. It is a small toy animal designed to be filled with brown jellybeans. When its back is depressed, the candy is dispensed from beneath its tail. This treasure, which my grandmother carried home, wears the winning badge of distinction: its price tag. $6.99.

What to do with items such as these? Re-gifting is a risky and obvious maneuver. Thus, the author suggests Stealth Re-Gifting, that is, within the same season. Dust-collecting holdover re-gifts are sure to deliver only denigration and regret. The best solution is to simply place these items in the garbage. Keep America strong!

As it may concern so-called unwanted liquors or spirits, there is no excuse. A red wine that might not be to one’s liking can certainly be used in the marinara sauce. To say that one does not have a taste for gin is to admit to one’s white trash upbringing. Even the half-empty bottle of whisky must be enjoyed no matter whose spittle might be swimming around in it. Alcohol sterilizes things for Pete’s sake. Turn that frown upside down and drink your Christmas present.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Congratulations to the Iraqis....

...for getting that mad murderous monkey off their back.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas!

The Mystical Nativity by Sandro Bottichelli (1500)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

That War in Iraq

By Charles ParsleyWhat with the renewed interest in the War in Iraq, I myself have many questions about what is being said about the war and what to do about it. I'd like to hear some dialogue from the contributors at Liverputty, if we can keep a discussion from becoming an argument.

The main thing that I find very surprising about the War in Iraq are the numbers of troops that are being given. I have heard estimates that there are about 140,000 troops there now, with the possibility of sending 20,000 more. These numbers seem very low, especially when military commanders then say that they are 'stretched thin as it is', and that finding additional resources will be difficult.

How is it that the US would have difficulty sending troops someplace? Aren't we the world's military superpower, or am I mistaken? Does China have more troops on-call than we do? Surely the insurgents in Iraq cannot outnumber American troops.

Why does the US have difficulty with these wars, such as Vietnam? I am wondering, since World War Two, has the US been able to claim a clear victory in any war since? Even the war on drugs and the war on poverty and the war on christmas are being lost.

After reading through the numerous articles in Wikipedia, I discovered a few surprising things. Also, I discovered the first gratuitous vandalism I have come across in a wikipedia article: the page about George W. Bush himself. This article about GWB may be a good litmus test of the limitations of Wikipedia's open-sourceness. Can Wikipedia create an accurate and uncontested and unvandalized profile of George W? As long as the article is open to editing, surely it gets altered on an hourly basis.

Accepting these limitations in Wikipedia is what prompts my questioning. However, if Wikipedia cannot put forth reasonably accurate information with all of its contributors and references and cross-refernces, who is it that can verify 'facts' about the war?

In addition to the number of troops the US has available to utilize, I am surprised with these numbers:

The estimated expense of the Iraq War as of December 2006: 350 billion, and,

The miltary says it has lost forty percent of its equipment (ground vehicles and helicopters mostly) in Iraq, and it will take an additional 3 or 4 billion to replace it.

Should the war continue at its current pace, in a few months the military may say it has lost fifty percent of its equipment. I find this... unbelievable. Nearly half of the military's equipment has been damaged or destroyed in Iraq?

Another question which I find many others asking: Why didn't the US stop once Saddam was captured? Maybe the WMD claims were inaccurate, or maybe they were accurate but the weapons were stealthily removed. Yet it is undeniable that Hussein was captured and put on trial. Why wasn't that the victory?

I will admit that one opinion of mine has changed since the war started. At first, I was among those who thought that the invasion was mainly to secure American business interests as related to oil. Now, it seems like having access to the oil in the region is small potatoes.

However, I never expected that the Iraqis would really welcome the Americans as liberators. It seems like they really do want us to get out of there.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Youngest, the Oldest and the Longest

Excuse me while I gush. Watching Rumsfeld's briefings over the last six years and watching him irritate the right people has been a tremendous source of comfort to me. We've been exceedingly blessed to have him at the helm - faults and all. I'm not sure what to think of Bob Gates yet, his hearing before the Senate was troublesome & he seems, at first glance, to be cut from the wrong cloth to head a 21st century Pentagon, yet otherwise, the jury is still out. But I have faith in President Bush - that he knows what he's doing - and as sorry as I am to see Rumsfeld go, I tend to think he may now be expendable as he's already set the main longterm changes and strategies in motion. His successor should simply continue the work that Rumsfeld started.

Be sure to check out Jed Babbin for his take as well as Tony Blankley's take on our lonely President. View Rumsfeld's Farewell Ceremony.

Farewell, Secretary Rumsfeld. Thank you for your excellent service.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Present Pernicious--or--Why I hate the History Channel (in which we find inbred cats)

By Escutcheon BlotI was waiting in my hotel rooom on one of those interminable afternoons which lie between waking up in the morning and an evening performance, when I remembered a months-old promise to Liverputty International to provide an ad hominous discourse on the execrable practice of the use of the continuous present tense in narrative fiction and historical documentaries (also mainly fictional). I call this, humbly, the Present Pernicious.

While I have always condemned this particular story-telling gimmick (at least since I first consciously encountered it in the the mid-nineties on the History Channel), its unacceptable, recent contamination of light fiction has aroused my fighting blood (we Blots are possessed of fighting blood in sanguinary need only be present for Christmas Dinner down our way to be convinced of this [we don't gather for Thanksgiving...two holidays a year would decimate our already depleted ranks]).

I had purchased, with the expressed intent of enjoyment of a light fictional nature on the Berlin-Warsaw Express, the latest effort of that here-to-fore shining ornament to the crime-writers firmament, Patricia Cornwell. I can highly recommend, incidentally, earlier novels; particularly Southern Cross and Isle of Dogs. A significant portion of the action in Isle of Dogs takes place on the very real Tangier Island in the middle of the Virginia end of the Chesapeake Bay. (On a recent day-trip to the island, I had the pleasure of escorting a European friend through the island's three or four streets. Looking at tidy homes behind prim picket fences closing off front yards full of the tombstones (and presumably graves) of honored ancestors, we began to grow disquieted by a scruffy, mangy, disreputable tortoise-shell pussycat. Wherever we went, there would appear from behind picket and bush, tombstone and overturned skiff, the scrofulous feline. It would fix us with a bilious yellow glare...and melt away. Not until we crossed a narrow footbridge spanning a lobe of marsh, only to be met by the Cat on the other side, did we realize, contrary to our initial and continuing impression that we were pursued by a sort of Cat of the Baskervilles, that we were in fact meeting several members of the same Island family. Apparently (this is supposition, of course) a London cat, partaking of the loose morals of the Restoration court, got herself in the family way before boarding the ship to Virginia, providing the only genetic stock for 350 years of Tangerian Cattery. Why a stud-cat from a mainland plantation was never introduced, history does not relate. Perhaps the high-blooded Tom's services were indeed engaged, but he balked at the idea of a 10-mile boat trip, and could not be got aboard.) Cornwell's earlier books all adhere to the normal, post-Shakespearean modern English understanding and usage of verb tenses and temporal progression in written narrative. She wrote these books in a clear, orderly and logical time sense (if a bit blood-bedecked) that is both enjoyable and profitable to the delighted reader.

However, this new book, which I eagerly opened after having dealt with the Polish border guards (they board the train in the eastern German city of Frankfurt an der Oder...not to be confused with the much better known Frankfurt am Main, the former being less interesting to a staggering degree), expecting to only occasionally glance at the pleasant, but uninspiring scenery of the Polish bit of the Great Northern European Plain, was different.

I was unpleasantly startled to encounter on the first page a banal sequence of 'he says.., she says..., he is..., she is..., it is...'etc.; excrescences of the Pernicious School! I thought, shaken but initially confident, that it was merely a typesetter's error. I bravely soldiered on. On page 15, or so, burdened by a growing sense of incredulity and horror, I abandoned the story (such as it was), frantically flipping forward through the body of the book. All, all, all in the Present Pernicious! Feeling rather like King Alfred at the defeat of the other Saxon Kingdoms by the marauding Dane, I tossed the book aside and abandoned myself to 6 hours of moodily staring at the darkening landscape. Moody staring, as a pastime, has, at best, a 2 hour life-span---but I had naught else to read. Which, of course, made me moodier. Arrival in Warsaw's cavernous, if slightly tasteless Central Station, alleviated my boredom. My mood of bitter disappointment and disillusionment, on the other hand, lingered for several days, partially robbing me of that sweetness of disposition and urbane wit which my friends have come to expect of me...when I go a-visiting.

What is this vogue for an ever present...well...Present? The English language is blessed beyond most languages in the subtlety and variety of its verb tenses and moods. Past, Present, Future, Conditional, and many combinations thereof; they delight and instruct the well-ordered mind. In comparison with German, for example, the temporal riches are truly of an embarassing magnitude. In fact, next to its gigantic vocabulary (which I abuse mercilessly) the well-nigh-unto infinitely mutable expression of the passage of Time is the English language's greatest attribute.

Yet increasingly the talented as well as the omnipresent, un-talented writer is resorting to this crutch-"it makes the story so immediate!" Bah! This is but a damnably dumbed-down short-cut to narrative vitality.

Worst of all, however, is the insidious introduction of the Present Pernicious into the language of not only historical documentaries (which few take seriously) but in putatively serious histories of academic pretensions, and, most ominously, the textbooks of American schoolchildren.

"But why is this so bad, Scutch?" I hear bleatingly in the background. Just this: history is supposed to be the study not only of People(s), Places and Events, but of the inexorable, inescapable law of Cause and Effect. How can a child learn that every action has both its antecedents and the consequenses which then proceed forth? A History Channel documentary on the American Civil War will have Lincoln, Buchanan, and Johnson simultaneously as President. Lee will be victorious at Second Manassess and defeated at Appomatox as Grant besieges Vicksburg and St. Petersburg...simultaneously! The ordinality of normal language has been expunged from these 'histories'.

My 10-year-old niece's American History textbook is only partially written in the Present Pernicious (I will not detail the multitudinous factual errors...these are par for the course in the Modern Indoctrination of Children), but is guilty of another form of the Present Pernicious, that being Pictoral. Illustrating the Pueblo uprising in 17th century New Mexico (then under Spanish rule) is a late nineteenth century photograph of a mission church. In a vingette about the Plains Indians who met the 16th century Spanish explorers, the child is misinformed by early 20th century portraits of the survivors of Wounded Knee. Since the photos are obviously old, and to a child, anything that happened over 5 years ago is ancient history, the natural assumption is that the photos and the events described are contemporaries.

It is tempting to view this as merely a further example of the encroachment of the forces of vapidity. But there is a certain Orwellian overtone in an historical understanding which teaches that what is, is what is, is what is. The advantage of this linguistic method is that whenever something new occurs, it instantly achieves is linguistically the same age and has the same venerability as all that came before it in the Course of Human Events. In fact there is no more course of human events; merely a stagnant pool increasingly deprived of oxygen (rather like the gene pool of those poor cats).

How does one learn not only of the failures, but also the triumphs of the past? Without a coherent understanding of and ability to relate to others the temporal, logical flow of doesn't. Santayana Weeps.

Yours in perpetual ire,

Escutcheon Blot

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Finknottle has returned.....

...from his European length vacation. My paranoid advice columnist believes I'm trying to replace him with a machine that can do everything he can. And he's right. But I haven't been able to find a machine that will abscond from his post, trot off to the Pacific after gambling on the company's account. Oh well, the search will continue. Until then, the Finkster will be answering his bottles.

Monday, December 04, 2006

There's a massive post at the House Next Door

about film criticism - including lists from House contributors of specific reviews and film books that have had a big impact. Check it out.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Gift ideas for over thirty dollars

-Charlie ParsleyPeople love to go shopping during the holidays, and who can blame them? It is so much fun to buy things for other people. Things that you would never buy for yourself. Things you have long admired, but never dared to bring into your home. You can buy them, and secretly adore and revel in their magnificence for yourself before giving them away. Giving them simply for the joyous entertainment of the look of surprise from your loved ones when they unwrap what you’ve selected for them. Nearly every gift unwrapping is a Kodak/Canon/Sony moment and thank goodness for the digital ability to preserve each and every one.

If you happen to be lucky enough to know any newlyweds, you may take additional delight in the obligation the couple will feel in displaying and complimenting the object you have chosen for their home each and every time you come over to visit them. The author anxiously awaits the day a wedding invitation arrives, heralding a home for the unique handmade porcelain kitten shaped flower vase / teapot he has crafted for this very purpose.

The tedious work of handmade gifts is no longer necessary in our highly advanced technological material ports. Everyone loves to participate in the warm social conviviality of purchasing readymade consumer goods in the beautifully decorated surroundings of community malls and personalized boutiques. Gathering together in warm shopping centers is a tradition that no so-called politically correct special interest groups will never change. Certainly, no one can deny the personal fulfillment in locating that hard to find Hello Kitty accessory that will just light up Julie’s face when she sees it.

Shopping is an important holiday activity, yet the multiplying demands of the season force shoppers to make the best use of their valuable time. One-stop-shopping is more than a convenience. On the day of the office party, it is essential. The author is proud to set forth the most splendidly innovative yet simple solution to the needs of the holiday gift giving season.

Step into your local liquor retailer and you will find everything you need under one roof. There is something for everyone. Even that hard-to-shop-for Aunt Myrtle will appreciate a sweet, feminine chardonnay wrapped with a big pink bow. I can guarantee that you will not have to wait in line.

Who among us has not dreamed of spending hundreds of dollars at Tony’s Liquor and loading up the car with the makings of a full service bar. Permit yourself to select one of everything: whisky, vodka, gin, beers and wines, even tequila. All will makebeautiful presents without any giftwrapping necessary. Tanqueray’s Premium is in a lovely deep green bottle with bright red label. What more could say ‘chrastmas’? Perhaps the whimsical red wax of the Maker’s Mark bottle. With a sprig of holly, it’s just like a Christmas candle.

The author seeks nor expects praise and adoration for his insight, for it is the delight in spreading the holiday spirits that provides reward enough. May your cocktails be merry and bright, and may all your hangovers be light.

Friday, December 01, 2006

I always loved this sequence

from Stray Dog. The long black-market stuff is up there with Rossellini and De Sica + it has, in my opinion, about the best actor ever....

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Jezebel, Sassy Southern Bell Extraordinaire

Miss Julie (Bette Davis) is a spoiled young lady who gets entirely too much satisfaction crushing every single taboo she can get her hands on. Not only does she arrive late to a party held in her honor, but then she rides her pony directly up to the hall and enters the ballroom in her riding clothes. Later she attends another ball in a devilish red dress instead of the customary white dress (thus offending 99% of the crowd, particularly the other women). She breaks the “men’s only” rule and enters a bank un-chaperoned. Just about everything that Miss Julie does flies in the face of genteel Southern customs – as if she stepped directly out of a Virginia Slims ad into the antebellum aristocracy. This gal is a hellcat. A few more Julies strategically placed would have destroyed the land of Dixie before the Yanks would've ever been needed. As with Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, Julie must have her way all the time. Her central focus in the picture is her ex-fiancé, Preston (Henry Fonda). Unfortunately he went away on account of her sass and came back a year later married to a yankee. That is no concern for Julie, though, because she continues her scheming and plotting to get him back. When Preston is caught on the wrong side of the fever line with the contagious Yellow Jack (Yellow Fever, that is), Julie bravely sneaks down to New Orleans from her safe haven near Baton Rouge so that she may nurse Preston in his hour of need. His yankee wife shows up a little later. When it comes time for Preston to be shipped off to Lazarette Island (where the Yellow Fever victims are banished), Julie convinces Preston’s wife that she [Julie] should go with him instead of his wife. Despite the fact that this action means almost certain death for Julie, it is unclear whether her daring decision is the result of her maturation or whether it is another childish scheme to win Preston back, even in death.

The movie ends with Julie attending to Preston on the way to Lazarette Island, but it does not show the two on the island. That’s a curious omission since the entire film seems to lead Julie to encounter death, face to face. Had the film showed Julie facing the horrors of the island, then the audience could have determined whether or not Julie's character grew over the course of the story. This miscalculation in Jezebel is no fault of Betty Davis whose portrayal is inspired and magnificent. Whereas Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett is more unassuming in her audacity, Davis’s Julie is more exacting (even when her thinking is wrong).

Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Preston is not so wishy-washy as his counterpart in Gone with the Wind, Ashley Wilkes. At the beginning of Jezebel, when Preston is still engaged to Julie, he seems content on giving her a long leash. Despite her father’s encouragement for Preston to beat Julie into submission, Preston refrains. When Julie insists on wearing a devilishly red dress to the ball, however, Preston is pushed beyond his limits. In a brilliant courtship maneuver, Preston accompanies the red-clad Julie to the ball and then forces her to dance all night long. Julie breaks down at the immense consternation she receives on the dance floor and begs Preston to take her back home, but he refuses and continues to force her to dance (the rest of the dancers have long since cleared the floor). Preston manages her with a sure hand, quietly rubbing her nose in her own audacity as if it was a wet spot on the floor. Yet, mysteriously, Preston does not use this demonstration of his power as a tool for their future relationship. When he finally returns her home after the ball, Preston says goodbye. Off screen, Preston goes up north and comes back years later with a Yankee wife, proof that he is over Julie for good. There are moments when Julie’s efforts come close to jeopardizing his fidelity, but unlike Ashley Wilkes, Preston stands firm. It is love’s tragedy that someone as vivacious as Julie (with such an exquisite bossom) pined away all her time hoping to regain Preston’s hand in vain.

Jezebel has much to augment the character aspects of the story. Through the capable hands of the Warner Brothers set designers, New Orleans is brought to life with all its historic (and romantic) possibilities. Street scenes and barroom scenes are masterfully done. According to the movie, duels were still a common practice and speaking a woman’s name in a bar was grounds for a duel. There is a lot of discussion about the Yellow Fever and several old men talk about the horrible epidemic in 1836. Dialogue describing things off screen is very important for creating the world on the screen, and this movie does a wonderful job at it. Though the Yellow Fever is not seen, talk of draining the swamps and taking all the smart precautions to save New Orleans reinforces the sense that off camera there is a whole city. When the Yellow Fever approaches and the main characters retreat to the plantation north of the fever line, a sense of isolation steals over the audience.

Towards the end, the fever reveals itself. First, a runaway line-breaker is shot by some patrols near the plantation; then Preston is bit by a misquito; and finally Preston has to go to New Orleans to help the fever victims. The fever gradually gets closer to the events in the movie. When Julie arrives in New Orleans to care for Preston, the streets are lined with fires to ward off the insects, people are huddled in rooms trying to avoid the pandemic and everybody is near panic. But that is as close as the audience gets to the fever. Though much was said about Lazarette Island and it was naturally assumed that the story would go there, it cuts off, instead, on the way to the island. The pay-off scenes, with horrific images likened to a Gustav Dore print, never happen. Perhaps budget restraints interfered with the final production, but such a scene could have given this film an extra one and a half stars. As it stands, there is no resolution, no dramatic release and, subsequently, no four stars.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Monday, November 20, 2006

Check out Wagstaff's review of Casino Royale at the House Next Door

And then scroll down for his 5 for the Day on credit sequences. He's been a busy beaver.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Wagstaff's lumber room #3

From Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow:

For there was a lot of agony in Demmie. Some women wept softly as a watering can in the garden. Demmie cried passionately, as only a woman who believes in sin can cry. When she cried you not only pitied her, you respected her strength of soul.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Portrait of Hercules. Pen and ink illustration in navy cloth covered library book. The picture is accompanying an abridged version of his biography. He reclines luxuriously upon a bearskin rug, sitting before a fire. He wears a lion skin tunic of thick dark fur. His muscular arms and legs are left uncovered. His handsome smile wears a beard. Many women surround him and enchant him with dances. I believe there was wine available to him as well as fruits.

A portrait of power and strength. He is the iconic independent, self-made man who relishes meeting challenges. He is a role model unto the cult of the masculine. In Greek mythology, Hercules was a divine/super hero: the son of Zeus/Jupiter. He was the greatest of the Greek heroes and a paragon of masculinity. According to the generally accepted accounts of his life, he’s a lot like Superman: half mortal, half immortal. Seeking adventure and righting wrongs. However, his background has darker moments. His prime directive, kill or be killed, challenges him mentally as well as physically. In storytellings, these darker elements are usually passed over in favor of glorifying his heroic accomplishments and virtuous, masculine ways.

Steve Reeves does excellent work in a short tunic portraying the classic Greek hero in two Italian productions from the late fifties. Hercules (1958) directed by Pietro Francisci, became an international success due to Reeve’s commanding presence, good looks, mesmerizing physique and handsome smile. Francisci promptly followed it with Hercules Unchained in 1959.

Hercules’ script draws from the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. The role of Hercules is expanded, and elements of his twelve labors as well as his future wife Iole are included. It is worth noting that for the film, Hercules' youthful companion Hylas is replaced by the young Ulysses as a traveling comapnion/sidekick.

Both films are beautifully photographed in breathtaking Mediterranean landscapes. Crashing waves on windswept beaches provide dramatic background for the mythic characters. Chariots pulled by horses, boats with sails, open arenas and other outdoor environments recreate a sense of what it must have been like to have lived among a scantily clad peoples. The actors and actresses radiate a healthful tan from the long hours spent shooting out in full sun.

The interior scenes are subtly colorful and lightly mysterious, a pleasant counterpoint to the exterior scenes. The lighting is done well. The music is good. The opening titles are good. It’s all good, but truly, it is Steve that makes it great. He’s got the look. He’s got the arms. The glare reflecting from his oiled biceps can become overpowering at times. Polarized filters may be useless against their strength. They fill the screen with white flickering immortality. Steve Reeves is Hercules transmogrified. He is channeling Hercules. He has Hercules within him. He isn’t just acting.

Reeves probably was Hercules in a previous life. Just look at him. Reeves was in the army and fought in a war. Hercules joined an army, he fought in a war.

Hercules fought a lion. Steve Reeves could have fought a lion if he wanted to.

Reeves became half immortal through his work. Hercules’ work did become a movie. All coincidence?

Hercureeves can out-fight or out-wit any man. When strength alone is not enough to win the battle, he is not above using deceit or trickery, such as when he tricked Atlas to take the world back upon his shoulders. He will only do so in the best interests of all, to enact justice. He helps children cross streams. He kills animals with his hands. He wins Olympic competitions. He stops wild horses. He chases girls. And while he does it, he looks fabulous.

The costumes Reeves wears are to die for. His lion skin is scientifically cut to feature Reeve’s best assets: his well-defined v-shaped profile. His hemline is cut scandalously short. He wears his tunics one-shouldered, with robust pectorals. Belted at the waist with a thick leather WWF style championship belt. At his wrists, a pair of thick leather wristbands to match. At his feet, a strappy sandal: dark brown straps wrapped up to the mid-calf. With his dark hair and trimmed beard framing his handsome face, standing tall in his clean, well-pumped body, Hercureeves is devastating.

In a battle scene from Hercules Unchained, he wears a dynamic style of tighty-whities - something that might be a one piece of cloth wraparound trick, yet skillfully constructed in the costume department. In keeping with previous costumes, it is quite minimal. He wears this in a spectacular battle scene wherein he takes on many men and swords in a scene so gloriously triumphant it is beyond the power of words to relate.

When he’s out exercising with the local boys, he wears a comfortable style of active sport tunic miniskirt, split in the front for easy mobility during manly activities. All the boys are wearing one. Of course, these sport tunics are a contrivance of propriety, as historical accuracy information suggests that Athenian guys exercised unclothed. This lack of historical accuracy is the one lamentable travesty of the film, as in that it lacks any full frontal views of Steve Reeves.

When some of the secondary characters go swimming, the swimsuits seem so inappropriate. Greek gods and demigods and mortals didn’t wear swimsuits on summer afternoons. But for the purposes of film, the designs of the outfits are charming and do complement the actors. These discreet outfits dress the story with a prudish niceness to portray a tame rendition of the sometimes adult-situational instances.

According to legend it is said that in his early youth, Hercules killed his music tutor with a lyre. As punishment, he was sent to tend cattle on a mountainside. Here, he was visited by two nymphs: Pleasure and Virtue. They offered him a choice between a pleasant and easy life, or a severe but glorious life. He chose the latter. One of Hercules' first challenges was put to him by King Thespius who wished him to impregnate each of his 50 daughters. Accordingly, Hercules did this in one night.

The path to the Twelve Labors started when Hercules married King Creon's daughter, Megara. Angered with him, Hera drove Hercules into a fit of madness during which he killed his wife Megara and their children, as well as his brother’s children. Upon realizing what he had done, he fled to the Oracle of Delphi. Unbeknownst to him, the Oracle was guided by Hera. As punishment, he was directed to serve Eurystheus, who had become king in Hercules’ place, and perform any task Eurystheus required of him. These challenges became the Twelve Labors, a tale which achieved notoriety and infamy as Hercules was able to successfully complete them all. Particular tasks, such as the killing of the Nemean Lion, are closely associated and therefore frequently included in stories about Hercules.

Reeves wrestled that lion and wore the skin deliciously. For so many, appetites for musclemen with sword and sandal had increased. Fortunately, Italian film studios were productive throughout the mid-sixties. There are many, many enjoyable Hercules-oriented movies available, and they will always be there for you. Always and always.

An additional title for those interested in seeing more: Giant of Marathon, 1959. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and Mario Bava, featuring Steve Reeves as Phillipides. Pheidippides, hero of Ancient Greece, is sometimes written as Phidippides or Philippidesis. His myth is said to be the inspiration for the creation of the marathon as a sporting event. Pheidippides, an Athenian herald, ran thirty-four kilometers in two days from the battlefield by the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC. Upon delivering the message, it is said he then died on the spot.

Giant of Marathon opens at an Olympic Games ceremony, where we are introduced to Phillipireeves. Apparently he is the winner of everything. He is given a medal and laurel wreath and an appreciative audience. His admirers in the audience call for him to become a leader of politics or military endeavors of some type, and when he accepts, the storyline deviates heavily from the above-stated tale regarding Phidippides.

The most striking difference between Reeves as Hercules and Phillipides is that Hercules is bearded, whereas the Giant of Marathon was clean shaven. Unbearded.

Phillipireeves becomes enchanted by women and is exposed to situations similar to that of Hercules. Fires burn as fountains flow and women dance with lips upon flutes and strumming upon harps. Drinks are not love potions, the women joke. Wrestlers are brought in for entertainment, but Phillipireeves objects. “I do enjoy wrestling, but these are no wrestlers. These are killers, no better than animals.”

To prove his point, a struggle of Freudian proportions begins. Phillipireeves grapples with the killer-wrestler. As with the Nemean Lion, one must kill or be killed, in bare hand to hand combat. Muscles tighten, sweat drips. His arms wrapped around the huge belly, the muscleman dominates and subjectifies his opponent into submission. The agonizing contortions of exertion and release cross the face of the aggressor, his prey is left limp and akimbo upon the cold sticky ground. Phillipireeves slowly rises, finds his cape, and tosses it over his shoulder as he casually walks away. He would have smoked a cigarette if he had one.

Later, he’s at the gymnasium with the guys. We find out that most all of them wear these sport tighty-whities for these action shots. Their tunics are pretty short. Then they are recruited to become sailors and go with Jason to find the Golden Fleece, and again I am confused. They fight a sea-battle, and at the end of it I am ready to see Phillipireeves run his ass off and show up in Athens exhausted and spent. But instead, he ‘gets the girl’ and walks away into a sunset. The film fails to account for the story of the Giant of Marathon, but it excels on featuring the many fine points and curves of Steve Reeves.

For the completist, here is a short list of additional Herculeses:

Hercules, 1983, film starring Lou Ferrigno
Hercules, 1997, film the Disney movie
Hercules, 2005, an NBC television movie
Hercules in New York, 1969, Arnold Schwarzenegger's film debut
Hercules: The Animated Series, based on the Disney movie
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, TV-series
The Mighty Hercules, 1963 animated television series
The Sons of Hercules, 1970s television series from Italian films

And a tribute to the Hercules of today: Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, Henry Rollins, Hulk Hogan, Johnny Knoxville, Tony Hawk, Bruce Willis, Shaquille O’Neal, Mr. T, Barry Bonds, Bill Gates, police and firefighters everywhere.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

AnyTown, USA--Starboard side

Anytown, U.S.A. more than lives up to its title. This political documentary about a 2003 mayoral race in Bogota, New Jersey acts as a near perfect microcosm for our political climate; past and present, but mostly present. It could have been called “Any election in The United States of America, however big or small, at any time.” What makes it even more special alongside other political documentaries of our era is that it doesn’t have an axe to grind. It works as hard-nosed journalism and as a refreshing hymn about small town life. Director Kristian Fraga has a smart eye and ear for irony, but he never condescends. You get the sense that, like Sophocles, he sees life steadily and he sees it whole. He doesn’t kid himself about the ability of politics to solve problems, let alone a politician’s doomed attempt to curtail the populace’s constant grievances. He also has wide enough eyes that Anytown, U.S.A. becomes a celebration of American democracy.

The little borough of Bogota is upset with Republican incumbent Steven M. Lonegan. His financial policy threatens to defund the town’s beloved high school football team, the Bogota Buccaneers. Mayor Lonegan’s surly but blunt orneriness has driven many citizens over the edge into hating him. On top of that, he is also legally blind. The man has a lot of sharp edges, but frankly, I liked him. He seemed the most competent politician of the lot. He would probably get my vote.

Even a small town like Bogota can’t escape the technology of modern day politicking. Lonegan has a sizeable staff working for him, he pays for polls done over the phone, and he has an effective propaganda arm in The Bogotian, a broadsheet that is a knockoff of the town’s newspaper. It still comes down to nuts and bolts, though, and Lonegan loves the hustle of going door to door meeting his constituants. “The only handicap I have,” he says, “is that I’m a Republican in a Democrat district.”

The aggrieved citizens of Bogota recruit retired councilman Fred Pesce to run as the Democratic challenger. He hardly seems enthusiastic. He is a smart man with the mark of wisdom, but seems bored by the game. Most of the borough’s 7900 residents haven’t heard of him and he doesn’t seem very interested in helping them out. He is the size of a whale; he looks very uncomfortable going door to door. An AP reporter practically has to beg him for one or two central campaign issues to fill up his column space, and Pesce can’t do it. He’s not so much above the political fray as completely removed from it.

Enter the third contender, an independent write-in candidate named Dave Musikant. He is also legally blind, due to a tumor removed from his brain. He lives in the basement of his mother’s house. He was once team captain of the Bogota Buccaneers. Musikant immediately wins the audiences sympathy with a can-do optimism that verges on the naïve. But with no funding or experience Musikant is a long shot. He loves Bogota. He is still impressed that the cafeteria ladies from his highschool sent him get well cards while he was convalescing after his brain surgery.

Musikant is a likeable guy, but slightly flakey. There is a touching scene showing him going door to door on a quiet small town afternoon. There is very little action, few are at home, and he stops for a moment to gaze at an American flag in a store window. We feel what this town and America itself means to him.

Things get interesting when Doug Friedline, the hired gun who orchestrated Jessie Ventura’s successful gubernatorial run, decides to join his campaign. Musikant has almost nothing to work with, save the Bogota Bucs, now in the middle of a winning season, several of whom volunteer for Musikant, but Friedline appreciates a good challenge.

All of this is shown sans narration. It is a throwback style in the vein of the great early documentarian Robert Drew, albeit a style that is more contemporary and media savvy. The story keeps within a frame of 2 months till the election. It’s all very compelling and suspenseful. Fraga and company might say that the story told itself, that they just were there to capture it, but that’s too modest. Their gargantuan task of editing hundreds of hours of footage down to a mere 90 minutes is accomplished with much artistry. A lot happens during the brief running time, and it happens very cleanly and quickly.

To proceed to the main lesson that I took home from Anytown, U.S.A., I must give fair warning. ***Beyond here there be spoilers***

The filmmakers build suspense on election night by stretching and contracting the time before we hear the results. Cameras covering all three victory parties watch as they receive the tallies. Many viewers might be surprised at how the final vote breaks down. Lonegan wins with 1097. Pesce is second with 728. Musikant gets only 200 votes and can't hide the heartbreak written across his face. Now, I'm partisan enough to have been rooting for Lonegan the whole movie, but the final vote surprised me, especially for Pesce and Musikant, who added together couldn't have stopped Lonegan. Pesce ran a lackluster compaign, but even with a nonentity heading the ticket the democratic apparatus still made a strong showing. What did it mean?

So what is my take home lesson? Storytellers tell stories. They are naturally attracted to an interesting human narrative; but this can be deceptive. Even as an independent write-in candidate, I expected Musikant to do better. In the context of the film he seemed to be gaining a true momentum that was belied by political reality. Like much in Anytown, U.S.A., we can extrapolate a wider phenomenon. The media, after all, is full of storytellers. A quick round robin of interview clips on election eve elicits varied responses -- "Lonegan"-- "Musikaa.." -- "That Pesce guy" -- but one sideburned Bogotian says it best. It sounds like a poem, William Carlos Williams maybe:

I could tell you all day long
If that's what you want to hear.
Yeah, I'm voting for you.
I can go to Pesce and tell him
That's what you want to hear?
Yeah, I'm voting for you.
'Cause when I go in there
I close the curtain
Nobody knows who I voted for
You know?
That's when they count them up.
That's when they realize
Oh man,
Somebody lied to me.

My only quibbles with the movie are unanswered questions I had afterwards that maybe could have been included in the epilogue. How did the Bogota Bucs end their season? What happened to the school and how did a winning season affect it? Was Mayor Lonegan at all responsive to citizens disturbed by plans for moving the school? I suppose all these questions can be answered by investigating the public record, but it would be nice to know now. But that's small stuff.

Like all great documentaries, Anytown U.S.A. shows us things we might never had heard about or seen, even when they are the very familiar things all around us, and we are richer for it.

Read more about Anytown, U.S.A. at Edward Copeland on Film and at The House Next Door.

Friday, November 03, 2006

General Spanky

Was General Spanky as funny in 1936 as it is today? Time has twisted this picture from the wholesome boundaries of its intended domain to something that today’s social climate cannot tolerate. It runs counter to some very basic ideas we have about children, sex and race (and yet, it is not racy). No producer would touch General Spanky today because its very fiber is now offensive, and yet, ironically, its heart is so purely innocent and benign that it requires a sense of guilt in order to abhor it.

An orphaned drifter, Spanky (George McFarland), stows aboard a riverboat and meets with runaway slave Buckwheat (Billie Thomas). Buckwheat is in search of a master and adopts Spanky to fill that capacity. Initially Spanky rejects the offer, but is forced to accept it when Buckwheat, acting without consent, tries to help Spanky’s shoe shine business with an ill-conceived scam that involuntarily implicates Spanky. When Buckwheat's scam is discovered, a chase by grown-ups ensues and sends the pint sized pair headlong into the river (the film's funniest moment). Back on shore and in search of food, Spanky comes across an enlightened Confederate officer (whom he met at the very beginning of the movie. He will be referred to hereafter as ‘Gentleman Rebel’) who takes care of him. The Gentleman Rebel likes Spanky because of his moxy, but is not aware that Spanky has a hungry slave in tow since Buckwheat had remained just out of sight. Hilarity follows as Spanky and the Gentleman Rebel feast on a chicken dinner while a malnurished Buckwheat, still hidden, tries to partake in the meal without making his presence known. He is discovered, however, and far from becoming angry, the Gentleman Rebel assumes Buckwheat’s servitude.

When it is time for the Gentleman Rebel to go off to war (yes, the war started somewhere around this point) he lets Spanky and Buckwheat remain at his house. Spanky is adamant about defending the homefront and marches with Buckwheat, patrolling the estate. They run into another army of kids being commanded by Alfalfa. With his own brand of bravado, Spanky envelops and absorbs Alfalfa’s contingent into his army. When the real Yankee army comes to town, the kids have already fortified the place. Mistaking the kids for an actually army, the Yankees lay siege to the rascals. The two forces exchange volleys until the incompetent Yankee colonel calls his general for reinforcements. Overestimating his enemy’s strength, the Yankee colonel toots his own horn when the general arrives and Spanky reluctantly sends up a white flag. The Yankee colonel’s folly is revealed to the general, however, when the scaled down rebels emerge from their fort. Needless to say, Spanky and the incompetent Yankee colonel are instant enemies.

The incompetent colonel is stationed to occupy the town. The plot thickens when he lays eyes on the Gentleman Rebel’s lady. The colonel makes a monkey of himself on several occasions. Meanwhile, the Gentleman Rebel is wounded in a nearby battle and wanders back to his Yank controlled home. Spanky takes care of his guardian and hides him in a secret hideout. When the colonel learns the Gentleman Rebel is nearby, he doggedly, albeit ineptly, tracks him down. After the incompetent colonel manages to arrest the Gentleman Rebel, he wants to execute him because the kids had the Gentleman Rebel dressed in civilian clothes. All looks hopeless until Spanky goes to the Yankee general and pleads his case. The Yankee general sides with Spanky and saves his friend from the firing squad.

General Spanky was ably directed by Fred Newmeyer who is better known for his work on Harold Lloyd gems like The Freshman, Girl Shy, and Safety Last. He was a pioneer of comedy direction and this film profits from such experienced hands. The period scenery is surprisingly detailed and well done, looking like a mix between the Old South and the Depression. General Spanky also walked away with an Academy Award for best sound. Add to that the talent of the kids and you have the components for a solid comedy. However, that is not why it is funny.

General Spanky is funny because, whether it was intended to or not, it upholds these comedy truths: it challenges accepted social behavior; it confronts the rational world with irrationality; and it is surprising in its ignorant audacity. This movie will cause you to squirm more that you will laugh, but it is that very characteristic that makes it resonate long after the viewing. Moments that seemed trifling grow in the digestion. Buckwheat as a willing slave is an uncomfortable image. This movie is an archival crystal ball that gives a sense of how segregation affected racial comedy. It is to Buckwheat’s merit that he still can come across funny instead of tragically sad. When the gang engages the Union army and are fired upon, the intensity almost approaches a Private Ryan level, where real bullets are whizzing all around and General Spanky is acting like Stonewall Jackson. At one point it appeared like the next likely scene will be Alfalfa’s amputation, but alas, it did not go that far. The violence is offset by the villain’s ineptness.

If uniqueness is a claim to genius, then this odd little piece coming from the film factory has an argument.