Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy Intercalary Day!

An astronomical year is actually 365.242 days long. That means that every four years, there is an extra day. We call the phenomena "Leap Year". Actually that's not entirely precise- there is an exception to the rule. Not many people are aware of it. Because a full year isn't quite 365.25 days, adding February 29th every fourth year would result in 3 extra days every four centuries. Therefore only the turn-of-the-century years that are divisible by four hundred contain an extra day. 2000 was a leap year, but 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not. Of course there has been no reason to learn this little fact during our lifetimes, as our pattern of Leap Years has remained unaffected by the rule. Still it's a good thing that we've recorded the information, as the oversight might otherwise throw the seasons out of whack in an almost imperceptible manner.

Civilization has been observing Leap Year since the time of Julius Caesar (44 BC). Back in his day, a 22 or 23-day month was added every second year to their standard 355-day calendar in order to keep the festivals seasonal. Still time kept on slipping. In 45 BC the great leader had to extend the year to 445 days, just to get the schedule completely back on track. Not surprisingly it was referred to as the Year of Confusion. Caesar decided that this was a bit laborious, and so he set his astronomer Sosigenes to working on a viable alternative for the future. In this instance he was following the example of the Egyptians, who were said to have been the first to realize the necessity of an adjustment. The 400-year corrective was instituted under the reign of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Thanks in part to him, we only have to worry about a divergence (between the Gregorian calendar and solar years) of about one day every eight thousand years . I'm sure someone's keeping track of that.

The timing of the intercalary (added) day is confounding. Hell... February is a notoriously unpleasant month (at least in the climate I live in), and I'd be happy with keeping it at 28 days for all of eternity. It appears that Caesar picked the time of year because of religious festivals that were held during the last five days of February. The added day was the ante diem bis sextum Kalendas Martii, which was basically a doubling of February 24th (making the added day the first Feb 24th, the sixth day before the Calends of March). The following day was the traditional Feast of St. Matthias.

Despite the rather complex reasoning for its timing, there are surprisingly few historical traditions associated with Leap Year. Reportedly there is a tradition in the English-speaking world that women can only propose during Leap Days. The "rule" is apocryphally attributed to Queen Margaret of Scotland in the Thirteenth Century. It is said that she levied a fine upon men who refused a marriage proposal from a woman. Some men were apparently aghast at the severity of the punishment, so a law was supposedly passed restricting women to offering betrothal only on February 24th. In Greece it is thought unlucky to marry during a leap year, and so it is claimed that many couples wait for it to pass.

Due to the proportion of "common years" to "leap years", your chance of being born on February 29th is approximately 1 in 1461. When I was a kid I remember one little boy who seriously insisted that those whose birthdays fell on February 29th would remain young forever. However such "leaplings" usually choose to celebrate 75% of their birthdays on either the day before, or on March 1st. One would expect many fewer celebrities to have been born on the 29th of February- but there are a surprising number throughout history, including Jah Rule, Simon Gagne, "Rocket Richard", Antonio Sabato, Jr., Tony Robbins, Dennis Farina, Senator William Hathaway, Dinah Shore, General Montcalm, Pope Paul III, and some German guy* that had a Christian name for every letter in the alphabet.

*Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenberdorft Sr.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why Do I Blog?

I have a friend who I can count on for his ability to argue with just about any point I make. It's not so much that we disagree about most things, but rather that we both enjoy the back-and-forth of a spirited debate. For me these discussions serve the purpose of helping me hone and articulate my beliefs and ideas. Usually the stakes are relatively low, and each conversation is put aside in turn to make room for the next one. But the other night we got on the subject of this blog, and he explained that he rapidly skims through the first few sentences of each post, and moves on quickly if it doesn't interest him. Generally I expect that most people do the same, and that it is a rare occasion when someone takes the time to read it carefully and consistently. Because I have this expectation, I don't spend much time worrying about what other people think of what I write.

Yet when confronted with the opportunity to get specific face-to-face feedback about someone's perceptions of my writings, I seized the chance. My friend has recently completed a degree in journalism, and so considers himself a bit of an authority on the topic. He had apparently given some thought to the matter and had some suggestions for me. His main offering was that I should use shorter paragraphs. His view is that the format I use can be excessively dense, and that my posts would be better served if I broke them up into smaller blurbs. He advised that I should read for style, and even employ word counts to determine what is most effective in conveying a series of points. In his opinion, the reader should be compelled to keep reading even if he/she has an initial lack of interest in the specific content of a piece.

While I appreciated his insights, I'm not certain what weight to apply to his advice. I don't consider myself a journalist, nor do I view blogs as inherently journalistic in their purposes. But if I don't think of these writings in those terms- then what are they? What's my point? Should I adapt the conventionally taught format and style of mainstream American journalism?

In the time that I have been keeping this blog, I've tried to veer away from being too self-referential. Yet I see the validity in addressing these concerns. Why and for whom do I write a daily blog? First and foremost I write for myself. I don't get paid to blog, so I'm not overly concerned with critical reaction or the size of my readership. Each and every day I decide to write on a topic that strikes me as particularly compelling. I write about what I am interested in, and I value my freedom more than thematic consistency. I believe that it's a beneficial exercise- somewhat like thinking aloud, but with a bit more structure. Obviously I intend to make it available to a generalized, anonymous audience. That's a key point of the entire blogging concept. But most critically, it's for me to be engaged in writing and organized thought everyday.

For some reason I am intuitively drawn to an essay structure. That's probably because I have spent so much time in academia, in one capacity or another. I am not personally compelled to choose reading material that is broken into many small paragraphs. I guess I prefer the density and involvement of having to commit to a piece of writing. It feels like a more substantive journey. Maybe it's the sign of an elitist mentality, but I'm not interested in pandering to the convention of keeping things short and directly-to-the-point. Perhaps that explains why I prefer William Faulkner over Ernest Hemingway. If I want to engage in minimalism, then I'll write poetry. However... having noted all of this, I don't want to react with an outright rejection of my friend's input. It might benefit me if I explored less rigid compositions on this blog. Some people might enjoy the consistency of my style, and others may find it monotonous.

I am aware that I am alone in being interested in 100% of the content of Serendipity. I am filling no specific niche in the mediasphere. Certainly time in our contemporary age is at a premium. If you take the time to read my blog regularly (or at all), then I appreciate it. If you respond with a comment online (or in person) I benefit even more from the feedback. There is a lot that I could do to make this an appealing destination to a set segment of society. I could identify a specific demographic, and tailor my style to it. I could even strive to build a wider audience, although I'm not sure that would improve my overall experience. Somehow I am not sure that I am providing any definable service to anyone. Still I perceive value in what I am doing. If others do as well, then I am grateful. But that's not why I continue to write.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jonathan Franzen, "The Corrections" (2001)

For a long time, the names of two contemporary American authors seemed to be intertwined in my consciousness. Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Franzen both found wider exposure for their writing in the last ten years. I knew that they were both vaguely hip, had received significant critical acclaim, and had connections to New York City. Beyond that, I couldn't distinguish them from any other name I had heard but knew little about. Several months ago I read Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, and I frankly recall very little about it. While I remember being moderately amused by portions of the book, I wasn't inspired to continue reading Lethem's work. Now I have read Franzen's The Corrections, and I'm not confident that much will stick from this read either.

The Corrections concerns a family that grew up together in the fictional Midwestern town of St. Jude. They are ruled over by Alfred, a manager of engineers for a regional railroad company. This patriarch represents old school family values, the absence of which are so grandly lamented by conservatives across the nation. Tellingly, at the time most of the book is set in, Alfred is gradually deteriorating due to Parkinson's diseases and an increasing dementia. His wife Enid is trying desperately to hold together their house and their family. She is struggling through the denial with which she has responded to her husband's condition. All she can really hope for is one last Christmas for her grown children in their hometown.

Chip is Alfred and Enid's middle son. He is the black sheep of the family, constantly searching for an alternative way to view himself. He's recently been fired from a secure teaching position at a small liberal arts college in New England. His field of study is cultural criticism, and his theories and lectures provide an opportunity for Franzen to lampoon the frivolously pretentious qualities of modern academia. Chip is holding strong to his appropriated anti-consumerism until he engages in an illicit affair with one of his students- a decision that causes his demise. Having been forced to reevaluate his world view, Chip is desperate and vulnerable. After a stint in Brooklyn, he is talked into moving to Lithuania to help a former ambassador set up a web page intended to facilitate a fraudulent investment scheme.

His older brother is Gary, the living embodiment of American capitalist success. Gary has a beautiful wife, three sons, and plenty of opportunity to explore whatever passions occur to him. As far as anyone should be concerned, Gary has it all within his exclusive urban enclave of Chestnut Hill. Unfortunately he is a man with very little imagination. His obsession with the idea of clinical depression is eroding his confidence and solidarity with his family. His mother is trying to convince him to bring the entire brood to St. Jude for the holidays. The problem with that prospect is a promise he has made to his wife never to commit his clan to such a trip. His own loyalties torn, he starts to feel like his wife is playing on his sons' feelings in order to sabotage the plans he feels obligated to make. Whether or not this perception is reality-based, it is eating away at what should be an ideal marriage.

Meanwhile little sister Denise is struggling to form a meaningful romantic relationship with a series of partners. She is the ultra-successful chef of the hippest restaurant in Philadelphia. This position garners her fame and wealth. But her workaholic attitudes threaten to forever stultify her emotional growth. Through one amorous misadventure after another, Denise stumbles through her mess of a personal life. Perhaps if she avoided adulterous affairs, she could find some happiness. Maybe if she decided whether or not she was gay, she could narrow the field. Either way, her resolve to offer strength to the dispersed members of her family distracts her from finding any real clarity.

Franzen ensures that none of his characters can find any lasting satisfactions, despite their wildly disparate strategies for living. He implies that no matter how much one works to find his/her own place in society, there are always corrections that need to be applied as circumstances change. This should be no great revelation to any reader who has attained even a minimal level of maturity. Still the reminders Franzen offers of this eternal truth are dropped like anchors in a tumultuous ocean, and plummet into the depths of the reader's consciousness. It's not a particularly light or enlightening read. It's therefore all the more remarkable that The Corrections was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club. On the other hand Franzen eventually resisted that honor, describing his discomfort with being saddled with the "logo of corporate ownership". Nonetheless, Robert Zemeckis and David Hare are currently working on a film adaptation, which should only reinforce Franzen's cynical posture.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An Enlightened People.

If you (like me) grew up in an urban area, you would be astonished to hear some of the things that come out of the mouths of 14-year-olds in Fringe City, USA. I work with kids in an area far enough out of the real city to display the ugliest aspects of American provincialism. I've been at this job for awhile, and so I've pretty much gotten used to wincing when these boys and girls start trumpeting their true beliefs. What's especially disconcerting is that they are part of a social class that allows them to take their ideas out into the larger world, where they will vote in national politics and be considered first when legislators consult "The People". Naturally this doesn't bode well for the future of our society, but the First Amendment guarantees the right to communicate freely, despite the yawning abyss in logic and rationality that characterizes many views.

The topic of today's discussion was race. After covering the material that I had scheduled for the session, I opened the conversation up to include pretty much whatever any kid wanted to talk about. There's one boy in this group who can be counted on to present the most extreme viewpoints on any controversial subject. In all fairness, he was provoked to comment today. Someone mentioned that February is Black History Month, and proceeded to provide a few factoids about inventions devised by African-Americans. This was followed by a rash of complaints about the lack of any "White History Month". As you've likely guessed, the group was wholly made up of Caucasian youth. Had there been even a single Black kid in the room, I am certain that the flow of the talk would have varied tremendously.

Here was a homogenized collection of privileged youths, unhindered by the petty concerns of the working class, whining about some imagined lack of celebration of the white race. Apparently the overwhelming sense of entitlement these boys and girls regularly display has been so assimilated that it precludes compassion for the plight of any human being not immediately related to them. Big surprise, right? But the justifications that they employ to defend their own selfishness can be mind-boggling. Fortunately there are two kids in that section (strangers in a strange land evidently) who tend to take a more nuanced view of the happenings of the world. It's to their credit that they feel enfranchised enough to confront some of the more outlandish propositions put forth by the rabble. And I'm often grateful that they relieve me of any urges to directly tackle the most ignorant statements. I like to remain an objective moderator in such exchanges, so that I can minimize any claims of personal bias.

It wasn't until my outspoken token-racist got started that things got truly out-of-hand. He happens to be unabashedly Christian, and seems to filter all of his politics through a mesh of distorted religious doctrine. He is typically undisturbed by the strictures of scientific thought, but for the purpose of discussing his beliefs on race he conveniently adopted a mockery of the "theory" of evolution. He suggested that Blacks were where they were in society because they are somehow "stuck within evolution". Then he followed by proposing that God had made Blacks as "just another class of animal" to be subject to the domain of Adam and Eve, who were (not coincidentally) white. In his eyes it naturally followed that African-Americans should accept their subjugation, because it was obviously God's Will.

I don't know exactly what the majority of the class thought about what this precociously grating boy had to say, yet I can tell you that quite a few of them were laughing and cheering for his reasoning. More tellingly perhaps, it was left up to the aforementioned pair of 'brainwashed rationalists' (believers-in-science) to fight the tide of sheep-like amusement emanating through the room as the "War on Political Correctness" was being valiantly waged. What struck me was the unquestioned assumption that Adam and Eve were White. It didn't seem to matter that Eden was commonly accepted to be located in the Middle East. When I asked this youthful white supremacist to explain this disparity, he replied that God had made Adam and Eve in His own image- and (obviously) God is White. Who can argue with that?

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 25, 2008

David Cronenberg, "Eastern Promises" (2007).

I'll freely admit to being an almost obsessive fan of film. When I first bought my digital camera, I did so because I couldn't afford the developing technology of digital video. I fully intended to eventually buy a video camera and start making my own little movies. But I figured that in the meantime I could learn about lighting and composition by taking still images. Well... I've gotten a bit sidetracked with exhibiting photos, yet I would like to think that one day I will follow through on my original plan. Until then I'm going to continue my habit of seeking out the best films on DVD, and appreciating them at home and at my leisure.

Many of my friends are aware of just how much energy I put into selecting what I watch. Fairly often they will ask me for recommendations. Once in awhile someone will ask me about my favorite director(s). While there are a bunch of filmmakers I respect, there are very few that I will consistently trust to make quality work every time they attempt it. I guess it's just so easy to fall into the trap of striving for mainstream Hollywood success. There have been many directors whose work I respected that ended up selling out and making flicks that appeal to the lowest common denominator. So when I assess my absolute favorites, I try to decide whose films I would plan to see regardless of the content, and without prejudice. One of the few names that comes to mind immediately is David Cronenberg.

I first became aware of Cronenberg as an auteur when the Carnegie Museum of Art had a retrospective of his films. I saw The Fly (1986) , Naked Lunch (1991), Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988), and The Dead Zone (1983) during that series. I was absolutely hooked, and since then I have watched almost everything he has ever released. In my experience there is very little in his oeuvre that isn't challenging, fascinating and memorable. Even titles that weren't entirely successful (like eXistenZ-1999, and Scanners-1981) held my interest. So I have made a commitment to continue seeing his work until I am fundamentally disappointed with something. I thought that maybe History of Violence (2005) might be the movie that failed to meet my expectations. But despite the fact that Cronenberg's usual themes were largely absent (there was no body modification, intense mental illness, and/or darkly surreal settings), I still found it wholly entertaining.

Given his amazing track record, I resolved to watch Eastern Promises (Cronenberg's latest film) despite the fact that it was said to be his most mainstream and "accessible" effort yet. Why should I let film snobbery rob me of a potentially entertaining viewing experience? Indeed EP is as close to a straightforward crime thriller as Cronenberg is likely to deliver. And that isn't a genre that I am particularly interested in. Still there is just enough in the look of the film to distinguish it as special. The grittiness in the environments I am used to seeing in Cronenberg films is present. There are certainly a couple of "Cronenberg-esque" segments of unflinchingly brutal violence. Finally, the performances by Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Viggo Mortensen are excellent. As usual Cronenberg brings us into a fascinating underground subculture that we are lucky in our ordinary lives never to be exposed to. In this case it's the Russian Mafia in London.

Watts plays a midwife who finds a diary on the person of a young mother who has just died. She has the document translated and is pulled into a criminal world that is distinguished by savagery and exploitation. Mortensen portrays a cold and calculating mobster who is strenuously seeking acceptance into the upper ranks of a human trafficking operation. His body is covered with tattoos that tell the history of his wrongdoings. Apparently Russian prisoners receive these markings while incarcerated in order to distinguish themselves in circles of thieves. They communicate where an individual has done time, as well as his status and resume. Mortensen himself traveled to Russia to visit his character's "birthplace", and research this phenomena in order to present an authenticity in his role.

Eastern Promises moves along at a brisk pace, but manages to convey enough characterization with subtle hints that allow us to care for the plights of the characters. With its approximately 90-minute running time, the story is briskly told and easily maintains one's attention. What makes it stand out most amongst Cronenberg's other films (along with its accessibility) is its remarkably hopeful undertones. Despite the darkness implicit in the subject matter, there is a lot of humanity in Eastern Promises. While some of the director's disciples may resent the absence of the relentlessly bleak mood he has become known for, Cronenberg is sure to expand his fan-base with this movie. That can't be all bad, can it? I guess it depends on what comes next.

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Breakin' the Law! Breakin' the Law!

There's something afoot in my little neighborhood on the banks of the Allegheny River. I've lived here for going on five years, and for the vast majority of that time I have managed not to run afoul of the local law enforcement professionals. It's true that I manage to rack up a stack of parking tickets every summer- who can keep those street cleaning days straight, after all? And I won't deny once being fined for not clearing my sidewalk of snow. It really didn't seem like much of a priority for my neighbors. It's also a fact that the po-po's once showed up at my door to tell me to quit playing the drums. I thought that was a bit melodramatic given it was only 8:30 in the evening. But still I've been a good neighbor, and stashed my kit in the coal cellar where it is (no doubt) gradually warping.

It's no secret among my friends and family that I've been periodically cited for lapses in my driving. There was even a three year period when I accumulated about 22 points for speeding. During that time I entered the byzantine files of the PA Department of Transportation. I had to go through a series of corrective measures that included showing up for a meeting to get lectured by a tired bureaucrat, and taking a rudimentary test to determine my knowledge of traffic laws. At the end of the ordeal I came out of the process with a ridiculously small sum of points that I was able to shed in two years. If you've never been told about how to deal with cops when they pull you over for minor traffic infractions- you need to know a couple of things. Of course you should be as cooperative as possible and never make excuses, even if they are valid. The officer is going to do whatever he feels like doing regardless of what you say. Secondly, you should always plead not guilty, and show up at the hearing. If you were reasonable when you were pulled over, they will usually cut you a break.

I was able to break my habit of speeding for awhile. I haven't had a ticket for that in years. But apparently I have entered a new cycle. Driving around town, I have taken things for granted. I've been making "rolling stops" without even thinking about it. A few days ago I was caught doing that very thing. In fact the guy that stopped me said I blew the sign off altogether. I didn't argue with him, and he let me off with a warning. He let me know that he had instructions to start pulling people over for going through the particular stop sign I had unthinkingly ignored. I was impressed at how cordial he was, and I resolved to pay more attention and break the lazy patterns I had adopted.

Unfortunately my pact with myself lasted for about 72 hours. I was on my way to get coffee this morning, and I evidently failed to come to a complete stop once again. I was surprised to see the flashing lights behind me. As you might expect, I wasn't very happy with myself. I was distraught enough that the officer actually asked me if I was "alright". He said I was "fidgety". It must not have occurred to him that this was a quite natural reaction to being snagged before noon, when all you really want is to continue peaceably on your way and get some damn caffeine in your system. He even asked me if I had something in the car that he should know about. For some reason that struck me as funny, since my back seat is covered with extraneous crap. I watched him make a face as he tried to peer through the window to make sense of all the mess laying about.

I guess I must have further aroused his suspicions when I gave him my documents. My registration wasn't signed and my insurance card was out-of-date. There were a bunch of miscellaneous papers jammed into the envelope I gave to look through. He seemed disgusted. I told him that I could go back to my house and get the updated information. He cited me and told me to bring the paper by the police station. Yeah, it was a pain in the ass. Still my patience eventually paid off. I arrived at the municipal building and wandered about until I had the good sense to ring the buzzer at the locked front door. When he answered, he let me know I had to "get organized". It was a bit emasculating being scolded by a uniformed young man who was obviously fifteen years younger that me. But he told me to plead "not guilty" and show up in front of the magistrate for the hearing. He said he'd see what he could do. I guess my haplessness finally took him off guard.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 22, 2008

Why Do I Support Barack Obama?

Once again I found myself (last Friday) discussing the presidential race of 2008. My friend and I had just concluded our viewing of a documentary, and we were now luxuriating in our speculations about our nation's future government. Perhaps an objective observer might say "How wonderful it must be to live in America, with it's inestimable freedoms... Where decidedly middle class citizens can sit around on a weekend night, and exchange their cynicisms regarding their country's political process." Or maybe that is just a typical example of conceit we all have about the extraordinary nature of the good ol' United Stated. It's a shining beacon of DEMOCRACY to the world, after all. Yet with all the skepticism I share with my friends, I am still grateful to be able to voice my opinions with some measure of confidence in the survival of our First Amendment rights.

Anyway the main topic of conversation the other night was our shared preference for Democratic nominee Barack Obama. A year ago I was almost convinced that the man actually had a chance to win his party's nomination for the highest federal office. Since then I've been on a bit of a roller coaster with steep declines of belief, and rather shocking periods of accelerated excitement. With the primary well under way, it looks increasibgly likely that Obama might actually prevail. This would be an incredible story in American politics for several obvious reasons, not the the least of which is his racial identity. The fact is that Obama is equally as white as he is black, but that's not the perception of the majority. Instead he presents the prospect of becoming the first "African-American" to become Commander-in-Chief. That, of course, is the most significant reason people have had to doubt his viability as a candidate. I wrote about that subject almost a year ago, and have no wish to revisit it in detail. Still it's obviously the "elephant in the room".

While I don't want to belabor the point about Obama's racial makeup, it has occurred to me that one of the main reasons I have always supported his candidacy is because of that very factor. Surely it's an example of my own perverse form of reverse racism, but I'm comfortable with my position on the matter. I would like to see a "black man" become president... even if he is half white. We've had enough time to see what the traditional establishment can do with the unlimited opportunities it has had. Even though Obama represents an upbringing consistent with that of previous presidents (a rather privileged background and the benefit of the best education that the Western World can offer), there's an undeniable value to be found in the symbolism of his mixed ancestry. The reality is that you must be connected to the leadership class to rise to the level he may attain. However his success so far suggests that there is at least one arbitrary distinction that no longer holds the same weight as it has in the past. A rich man of any genetic combination might grow to be POTUS.

Beyond race I have a hard time expressing why I am so drawn to Barack Obama. I suspect that my rather vague propensity to support him is echoed in the hearts and minds of many others that would like to see him prevail. I asked my friend if he knew about any specific ideas that Obama might have regarding an agenda for governance. I also wanted to know if my friend had any clue about what Obama would actually do if he does win. Frankly I didn't get any satisfying answers from our discussion. Even though he had read books written by the candidate, my friend couldn't really outline any policies that Obama might pursue. There was some nebulous reference to "universal healthcare", but no real points of distinction to use in comparison with the plan put forward by main rival Hillary Clinton. We also talked about Obama's steadfast opposition to the invasion of Iraq- although I pointed out that he was in an advantageous position to gain traction without losing anything by taking the stance. Obama wasn't in national office during the build-up to war. And since he has become senator, he has consistently voted to finance the continuing operations in the Middle East.

I think that Obama's main strength lies in public speaking. Regardless of his actual views and plans, he has convinced many of us that he means what he says. After seven years of obvious lies and dissimulation, the existence of apparent integrity and honesty in a politician is extremely refreshing. That is (in my opinion) the main source of his momentum as a candidate. People feel that they can trust this man. His critics will no doubt continue to emphasize his "lack of experience" while trying to bolster support for other candidates. But I think most Americans will get beyond those claims after the unfortunate example of George W. Bush. We have learned that the president is largely a front-man for a coterie of bureaucrats, analysts and advisers who actually form the executive branch. In that role, I think it's become quite clear that Obama can be extraordinarily effective... or at least much more so than the current president. His promises of "change" resonate with the hopes of many disenchanted citizens. It his ability to convince us that reform is possible that is most compelling.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Val Lewton's "Bedlam" (d. Mark Robson-1946)

I'm slowly working my way through the Val Lewton box set I bought in December. Of course nowadays it's become a lot more difficult to get through a feature length movie. Baby E. is still completely unpredictable in his sleeping patterns. But once in awhile I can outlast him, and reclaim my lair downstairs when he goes up to bed. Last night I decided to watch Bedlam (1946), which was directed by Mark Robson and starred Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, and Billy House. It's a period piece about the infamous British insane asylum, set in 1761. Perhaps you have seen William Hogarth's etchings of interior scenes taken straight from the historical Bedlam? From all accounts it seems like it was an extremely horrific place.

Technically the madhouse was named the Bethlem Royal Hospital, and was built in London in 1247 to be used as a priory. It became a hospital in 1330, but it wasn't until 1403 that it first admitted mentally ill patients. Conditions inside were notoriously poor. Although there were less than 30 sick inhabitants at any one time (for the first few hundred years), it was said that simply visiting the place could drive one insane. Even before it was expanded and relocated outside of the city (in 1675), it was known for the excessively cruel treatments keepers inflicted upon the unfortunates who were kept there. In the 18th Century, people were encouraged to go to Bedlam to see the "freaks". This was a popular amusement and visitors actually prodded the "patients" with sticks, inciting them to further paroxysms of madness. On the first Tuesday of every month, admission was free.

The prevailing notion of insanity in those days was that it was caused by "moral weakness". This was ironic given that sightseers were attracted to the spectacle of inmates having sex and engaging in other ferocious physical encounters. Eventually more compassionate minds concerned themselves with improving the plight of the mentally ill, and reforms were put into place to protect their rights. In 1815 Bedlam was moved to Lambeth, where conditions were said to be much improved. There was a great ballroom, a library, and a chapel for patients to enjoy. Those who were lucky enough to be released from the asylum were believed to be licensed as street beggars, although there were many more who claimed this distinction than were actually ever in residence at Bedlam.

Lewton's Bedlam is presided over by Karloff, who represents the type of externally-fawning and internally-raging administrator that must have been particularly hellish for those stuck with him. Ann Lee serves in the court of a nobleman who comes to see a theatrical production starring the patients. Their exploitation is meant for the amusement of the wealthy, and it is clear that the spectators view the performers as little more than animals. Lee finds herself commiserating with the exploited, and seeks a way to help them. She tries to talk her lord (Billy House) into ponying up some money for improvements, but Karloff resists her efforts and eventually finds a way to incarcerate her in Bedlam as a 'patient'. While in this dire predicament, Lee undergoes a radical personality transformation and works to alter the lives of her fellow prisoners.

The setting inside the asylum is shot with dismal lighting, and exudes a filthy menace that is made especially effective through the black-and-white film stock. The roles are all portrayed with competent professionalism, as one might expect in a Lewton film. There are a range of strange and eccentric bit players, and they add to the general atmosphere of the tale and its times. There is a strident message of anti-violence running throughout the movie, embodied in the character of a conscientious Quaker stone mason. It's an interesting story, made especially intriguing by the social commentary at its core. Society was still struggling to provide humane treatments for the mentally ill in 1946. The perspective at the core of Bedlam is that bringing normalization into the lives of those suffering from psychological disorders is the most effective way to stimulate a possible recovery.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hillary and Florida. Hillary and Michigan.

If you've been following the progression of the primaries, you are no doubt aware of the controversial situations in Florida and Michigan. These two states decided to move their elections up ahead of Super Tuesday, the traditional day of reckoning for each party's aspiring presidential nominees. Because these actions were explicitly forbidden by the Democratic Party leadership, it was decided that the delegates from these two states would be stripped from the Democratic National Convention. The three front-runners for the party's nomination (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards) agreed to help enforce this ruling by refusing to campaign in Michigan and Florida. Only candidate Mike Gravel continued to actively pursue the vote in these states.

At the time of the original ruling (last August) Hillary Clinton seemed to have no qualms about boycotting these two primaries. She went as far as to publicly state on public radio,"It's clear, this election they're having is not going to count for anything." This seems like a fairly unequivocal stance to me. In fact it is suggested that both Clinton and Obama did mount limited unofficial campaigns in Florida. And they both remained on the ballot in the "sunshine state". In Michigan Obama took his name off the ballot, while Clinton decided not to remove hers. It was clear that Clinton believed that she would triumph in Michigan, and she refused to cede the momentum that she thought the victory would bring her.

After Clinton won by handy margins in the disputed primaries, she seemed to hint at a fundamental change of attitude. After the victories, her campaign issued the following statement-"The people of Michigan and Florida have just as much of a right to have their voices heard as anyone else." Easy for her to say, of course... but the stance seemed to fall a bit short of calling for the delegates to be reinstated. Perhaps she had confidence that she would continue to pick up an overwhelming majority as the weeks passed. But that was not what fortune had in store for the Clinton camp. Now after losing in ten straight state elections, Clinton has changed her tune. There is talk that she will mount a lawsuit against the party if she doesn't get her way.

With the relative weakness of opposition coming from the GOP, this broiling conflict has the potential to sabotage Democratic efforts to win in November. Currently it appears that neither Obama nor Clinton will accumulate enough delegates to be automatically declared the victor before the Convention. Apparently the choice is going to come down to the "superdelegates"- those representatives of the party that are entrenched and therefore given the latitude to cast their votes as they choose, regardless of the preferences of the voters in the states. If Florida and Michigan delegates are allowed to participate in the convention, they could possibly muddle the process with unnecessary controversy.

The only outcome that will preclude such a controversy is a series of substantial Obama victories in the remaining primaries. If he is able to clear the difference that the inclusion of Florida and Michigan delegates would make for Clinton, then he is almost sure to be the unchallenged nominee at the Convention. On the other hand, if this isn't the case, then Michigan and Florida will have had undue influence in the ultimate outcome. In my opinion that would be a travesty of justice, since both the Democratic Party and the serious contenders for the presidency initially agreed that there should be no campaigns in those states. Democratic voters are already so disillusioned by the political process (after the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections) that any significant disagreement over procedural policy might be a fatal blow to a likely takeover of the executive branch.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jonathan Safran Foer, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2005).

There really wasn't much about Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that would compel me to read it. I was vaguely aware of the criticism surrounding his writing style. His first book Everything is Illuminated (2002) generated a flood of effusive praise, and the literary establishment embraced him as an immensely talented newcomer. His debut novel was adapted to film, and that sparked a marked increase in attention for the young writer (Foer was born in 1977). With his follow-up work, the naysayers got louder. Foer uses a variety of postmodern literary devices that many among the old guard look upon with disdain. There is a non-linear narrative, enigmatic photos, multiple voices, and even a 12-page picture-flip book at the end of ELaIC. With this type of invention, Foer has aligned himself with other contemporary authors that have likewise garnered a mixed bag of accolades and condescension (see Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Mark Danielewski, et al.).

While all of the pop culture analysis wouldn't have necessarily turned me off completely from exploring Foer's writings, the subject of ELaIC might have, had I not found a copy of it for $1 at a local library book sale. The novel concerns a son's struggles to come to grips with the death of his father at the World Trade Center on 9-11. At the risk of sounding flippant, I just never have been all that interested in engaging the type of melodramatic material that has flooded the market in the wake of the tragedy. It is such a loaded historical event that I am immediately wary of the prospect of a creator's political agenda. There is also the sense that the event has become "America's Tragedy", and politicians and the media seem to have prescribed a certain set of feelings and ideas that are somehow "appropriate" for divining its meaning. Without taking anything away from its importance in shaping our times, I simply feel like putting it aside for the time being.

But ELaIC employs 9-11 only as a background theme for one boy's evolving understanding of personal loss. The author's choice to use the building collapse as a launching pad for empathy is effective only because he doesn't force the reader to engage all of the typical conclusions and ramifications force-fed to the American public over the last half of a decade. The scope of the novel is limited to the suffering of one family, and this specific pain lends the book a particularly human scale. We understand the grief the child is experiencing, and his inability to come to terms with his transformed emotional life. At the same time, we encounter his grandparents' memories of the Dresden bombings during World War II. Still, the horrible devastation of those years is likewise a platform for understanding how the individual deals with great loss.

It doesn't hurt that the precociously insightful kid at the center of ELaIC is endearing. His wanderings through the boroughs of NYC are illuminated by his idiosyncratic approach to his surroundings and his extraordinarily open attitude toward the people he meets. He has found a strange key among his father's things, and has embarked on the task of searching for the lock that it opens. Along the way he unravels a series of mysteries about the inner lives of both strangers and those closest to him (his mother and grandmother). There is particular pleasure to be found in reading the dialog between the boy and the odd mix of personalities he encounters. When writing from the perspective of a nine-year-old, there's always the risk of straining credibility by investing too much mature insight into the voice. But Foer manages to keep that tendency in check. Little Oskar certainly has a uniquely charming worldview, but it's never so distracting that we lose the sense of his fundamental innocence and wonder.

I found a lot to like about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The radical shifts in tone between Oskar's evolving perspective, and the somewhat disjointed ruminations of his forebears was initially disconcerting. Yet Foer managed to dole out a string of connections that kept the separate narratives from veering off into altogether different directions. The pacing was brisk, and I never felt burdened by extraneous details and descriptions that might take me out of the story. At one point a character tries to convey a message via telephone touch pad, but I didn't feel any overwhelming need to sit and decode the lengthy string of numbers. I suppose if one wanted to delve deeper, he/she could have gotten even more out of it. But I finished the book satisfied and open to reading more of Foer in the future.

Labels: , ,

Monday, February 18, 2008

The National Debt.

Today I heard that the national debt of the United States is 9 trillion dollars. That's an almost inconceivable sum. When I was a kid I remember learning in class that my country owed one trillion bucks to investors, many of whom were foreigners. People were somewhat concerned about that fact back then. However Ronald Reagan was president, and he seemed to be able to hypnotize a large proportion of the population into thinking that he could do no wrong. As he wasted astronomical sums on worthless "defense" projects, he was somehow able to convince folks that he heralded a "new morning" in America. Little did they know how much Reagan had progressed as an actor since his early days of red-baiting and starring in movies opposite a monkey named "Bonzo". It's been a long day of senseless spending since then, with a break of only a few short hours during the Clinton presidency of the 90's. Still the Right insists on worshiping the "Gipper" as a saint.

What's especially ironic about all of this is the old chestnut that's continuously repeated by the GOP about Democrats- that they are irresponsible spenders. You can hear this on any given day by tuning into talk radio. You'd think that the spin doctors on the left could have reversed this perception by now. Unfortunately they don't seem as willing as their counterparts in the GOP to play hardball politics. For some reason they stare dumbly at the accusations that they are spending all our tax dollars on welfare programs. This despite the fact that they'd given up their "War on Poverty" when LBJ decided not to run for a second term. There is no class war in society. If there were, then the Left would have done something about Republican proposals to channel the short-lived budget surpluses of the 90's directly into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans.

I'm willing to give the first Bush some credit for raising taxes despite promising his constituency that he wouldn't. Of course he took a serious beating for his breach in loyalty. He is still excoriated by many "conservatives" for having done so. Anyway it helped pave the way for Bill Clinton to finally balance the budget. It's almost surreal, but it's true. As recently as a decade ago we were having discussions about what to do with this new windfall of cash. Everyone was trying to seize the credit for the "bipartisan" legislation that put us in the black, yet they weren't too distracted to make plans to grab some of that money for their respective supporters. The Dems suggested that it be used to shore up the Social Security balance, while the Republicans started promising tax cuts.

In my view the only appropriate thing to have done with any surplus was to start chipping away at the national debt. But Congress was controlled by a group of Republicans who were still smarting over the betrayals of George H. W. Bush, and they wanted corporate and investment tax relief immediately. George Dubya Bush was able to weasel his way into the executive office by promising rebates of $300 for working class stiffs, and tens of thousands for his wealthy buddies. Little did anyone expect that he would go on to sink 600 million dollars into an amorphous "War on Terrorism". Certainly no one could have possibly anticipated that all that money would only lead to a situation of increased threat. After investing scads of cash into a six-year occupation, all we have to show for it is a seemingly permanent Al Qaeda branch in Iraq. This week the regional terrorist commander announced his intentions to use his growing presence in Iraq as a staging area for direct attacks on Jerusalem.

Meanwhile back home, our "decider-in-chief" has proposed a 3 trillion dollar federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Where are the "fiscal conservatives" I hear so much about? We've gotten to the point that each and every American citizen owes over $30,000 as his/her personal share of the national debt. And this includes my new born son. How long do you think it takes a middle class worker to save up $30,000? If we take into account the huge sums that the average citizen needs to pay to bring his/her own finances in to the black, then the situation is indeed dire. This is our modern consumerist capitalist mentality. Perpetual spending is supposed to equal perpetual growth. Our "economic experts" are so fixated in attacking socialist concepts that they have blinded themselves to the tragic flaws in their own thinking. It's become quite clear that all the old models have proved themselves unsustainable and obsolete. Yet people are so obsessed with getting in on the scam that nothing is being done to challenge the prevailing perceptions.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Primary Exhaustion.

Every time I've been asked who I will vote for in the 2008 elections, I have to explain that I am not registered with any political party, and so therefore I can't vote in the primaries. I actually encounter a lot of resistance when I mention my lack of affiliation. For some reason this really bothers people. They want to know why I just don't pick a side so that I can fully participate in our electoral "democracy". Doesn't it bother me that I am shut out of the nomination process? No. It doesn't. Not at all. Because it's all a dog-and-pony-show anyway. Nothing has reinforced that belief more than the research I've been doing during this campaign cycle. Every state seems to have some archaic set of rules for choosing convention delegates. To keep track of all these variations would take days of intense study. Until this year I had never heard of "super-delegates", and I think in retrospect that I was happier in my ignorance.

All this preliminary drama seems rigged to me. I have a gnawing suspicion that the result is a foregone conclusion. Each party apparatus decided to back one (or maybe two) candidates, and everyone else gets shafted. The media picks up on the momentum of a few figures and ignores everything else. It certainly doesn't feel like an opportunity to get to know the political beliefs and agendas of those who have stepped forward to strive for the nation's highest office. More than anything else, it's reminiscent of a high school popularity contest. Perhaps that's the limit to the depth that can be presented to the American public. I wouldn't say that the populace is particularly sophisticated when it comes to choosing leaders. Maybe I'm just a cynic.

Frankly, if I were going to align myself with one of the two viable parties, it would probably be the Democrats. I can't seem to identify with many of the characteristics of those that call themselves modern Republicans. They mostly seem like warmongering, narrow-minded, corporate-owned tools that would like to impose their own morality on the rest of the nation. It's a shame because I think that I might identify with some of the old fashioned values represented by the GOP of 30 years ago. I am fairly isolationist when it comes to foreign policy. I am personally fiscally conservative, and would like to see the federal government reign in its spending (mostly in the military sphere). I do feel that citizens should strive to be personally responsible for their own well-being. I like the idea of accountable politicians whose integrity can be trusted. But that type of Republican has been extinct for decades.

Meanwhile the Democrats aren't much better. I can't see that they present much of an alternative. They are also beholden to corporate interests. They give lip service to certain progressive ideals, but I've never seen them put much effort into attaining such goals. For some reason, they don't even seem capable of articulating any achievable programs that would move the country in a positive direction. It's mostly bunker mentality among those on the "left". The whole spectrum has moved so far toward "conservative interests" (basically nothing more than an unquestioning fealty to global corporate free market politics), that there's really not much of a choice anymore. No one is willing to make the difficult proposals that would be necessary to stave off the ruins that we are heading toward. All the Dems seem willing to do is to try and hold the line on personal "freedoms" like gay marriage and abortion. But these issues are generally peripheral to my life.

Where are the challenging ideas that could lead us toward a brighter future. Barack Obama is promising "change", but what does that actually entail? How is he going to confront the business-as-usual approach that is plaguing the country? What is he going to do about the national debt? What specific measures will he take to address ecological issues, or oil dependence? What is anyone really going to do to ensure that all Americans have health care? How will the next president make sure that people who want to work have access to decent jobs, and that when they get older there will still be social security benefits? Aren't these the kinds of concerns that are at the forefront of most people's minds? I just want someone to step through the rhetoric and let me know what he/she intends to do to address the real problems. That's obviously not going to happen within the two-party system that we currently have. I'm going to vote in the general election, but I know that I'll be making a guess about who would be likely to do the least damage. I'm not sure that there's anyone in the field that can clean up the mess.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why I don't like birds.

Last Saturday I went to a benefit show at the Zombo Gallery in Lawrenceville. A large group of artists brought bird-themed artwork to hang on the walls. The response was impressive, and there was a nice crowd packed into the modestly-sized gallery for the opening. There were also real live birds as well, including an owl. To be honest with you, I'm not entirely sure what organization was featured at the event. I would have stopped by regardless, but my friend Bob Ziller had submitted a series of pieces and I wanted to make sure to show my face in support of him. I recognized a handful of names as I went around and looked at the other pieces. I'm always on the lookout for bargains at benefits, and there was a wide range of stuff ranging from cheap to outlandishly overpriced. The truth of the matter is that there was only a very small chance that I would have bought anything. Frankly, I don't like birds.

It even sounds strange coming out of my mouth. Is it really true? Don't I like birds? No. I really don't care for them. And of course I was socially maladapted enough to announce my distaste for these creatures, while surrounded by their likenesses on all sides. Then I had to explain my reasons for not liking what amounts to a large segment of the animal kingdom. This was a bit difficult at first because I hadn't ever really reflected on it too deeply. The first thoughts that came to my mind were abstract. I guess I don't like dinosaurs, and since the bird kingdom represents the direct legacy of those extinct creatures- it naturally follows that I wouldn't find space in my heart for these winged beasts. They're too alien. They poop all over the place and spread disease. I remembered a time when one shat on my lower lip. I wiped off the taint of that experience for days, and I got chapped and dry.

Perhaps I was just jealous of the freedom they have to fly away from any nasty environment they encounter. I couldn't really put my finger on it. And then it hit me. It all goes back to a weekend I spent on a farm one New Year's Eve with an ex-girlfriend. I was in my mid-twenties, and I had only very limited exposure to rural life beforehand. We were visiting her best friend, who had married a man much older than she was. He had jealousy issues, and had dragged her ass out to nowhere so that he could escape that distraction. No one really liked him. He had virtually no friends. He was a professor at a local university, and researched water quality as part of his job. But his true passion in life was avian in nature. He identified so closely with his "feathered-friends", that everyone called him "Phil, the Bird-man". Somehow his personality seemed to fit his nickname.

Anyway I made a real effort to get to know the guy. While my ex was running around with her friend, I had plenty of time to crack Phil's defenses. I found out that he loved falconry. This meant that he actually bred and trained these predators for the purpose of hunting furry little rodents for sport. I found the entire hobby a bit barbaric, yet I was willing to ingratiate myself for the sake of something I'd likely never get a chance to do again. He actually suggested we go on horseback, but I decided that this would be overkill. We went on foot. We walked out into the tall grass, looking for rabbits. I was kind of hoping that I could psychically will any woodland creature away from the killing grounds. Of course this was impossible, and eventually Phil spotted a blur in the near distance. The falcon seemed to sense the presence of warm-blooded prey, and launched itself from Phil's gloved arm. It flapped its great wings two or three times and landed on my ankle, its talons digging into tender flesh. Despite the sharp pain, I tried to stay still. Phil had to come over and somehow coax it to release its grip on me. That took several minutes, and ended our adventure prematurely.

Later, back in the farmhouse, I put my feet up on a long sofa and rested while the girls talked in the kitchen. I thought I'd sleep there on the couch until it was time to go upstairs to bed. I woke up late in the night. It was pitch black and I heard weird sounds. A phone was ringing intermittently and someone seemed to be answering it without any further conversation. This went on and on. And then I heard strange screams and eerie scoldings. The voices were coming from the cellar. As far as I could understand, everyone should have been in bed sleeping. I looked at my watch and it was around 4AM. There seemed to be multiple presences just out of reach of the room I was in. I didn't know what to think. Maybe my ankle was infected, and a fever was causing auditory hallucinations? I drifted in and out of sleep. I didn't think it was my place to do any investigating. The next thing I knew it was morning, and I asked if the farmhouse was thought to be haunted. I should have known- it tuns out that Phil had multiple young gray parrots in cages in the cellar. They were adolescents and just learning how to vocalize.

I related my account of that strange New Year's Eve to a circle of friends at the Zombo Gallery. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of it. Possibly they thought that it was all some elaborate setup for a joke. But dear reader- I wouldn't make up any of this stuff. Believe me when I say that I don't like birds, and spare me the task of repeating the story.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 15, 2008

What they do in the name of God.

If there is one thing that has become eminently clear during the last several decades of American politics, it is that there is a lot of traction to be gained by appealing to the Christian population of the nation. There used to be a tradition of attempting to keep religion and politics separate in the United States. Preachers and ministers once preferred to keep "worldly affairs" out of the houses of God. But after the confusion and disillusionment of the Watergate Era, society was aching for some moral clarity. A born-again peanut farmer was the surprising beneficiary of that change, and a new lesson was learned in the corridors of state power. Ronald Reagan discovered quickly that there was a large segment of the populace searching for linguistic cues indicating the presence of faith. His speech-writers carefully crafted his addresses to deliver the message.

George H. W. Bush stepped back from his predecessor's example, deciding instead to convey the image of a competent bureaucrat rather than a true believer. However his son (who desperately needed something to do that didn't involve drugs and alcohol) was tagged with the mission of connecting to the growing evangelical movement. Leaving this task up to his hapless offspring exposed the lack of importance Bush Sr. attributed to this demographic. He paid the price for that oversight during his re-election bid. His successor (Bill Clinton) conveyed the image that he was a God-faring Southerner and managed to sustain that impression until the GOP leadership got wise and attacked him as a spiritual hypocrite. The lines were drawn in an accelerated culture war that continues to this day.

When the younger Bush ran for the presidency, he set the tone for his campaign by trying to sell himself as a "compassionate conservative". It didn't matter that he had put to death more men and women than any governor in history. Nor did people care that he was mainly concerned with corporate interests and the burgeoning oil and weapons industries. What counted were his constant references to God. He employed veiled language that intentionally spoke to Millenarian Christians. He claimed that his favorite philosopher was Jesus. After 9-11 he kicked the strategy into full gear. He talked of his revelation that God had chosen him to fight a holy war against evil-doers. When he sent troops to the Middle East to invade Iraq he asked the troops to pray for him. He never missed a chance to align himself with divinity.

A new political constituency has arisen in our times. The Christian Right (led by men like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Gary Bauer) continues to cultivate its influence with Republican leaders. They have formed a holy (?) alliance with Neocons and free market radicals. Together this coalition has been capable of turning out numbers that have made it possible to fix national elections. As long as they march in lock-step accord they can have a substantial influence on the political agenda of our government. In unity, they must be taken seriously by every politician across the land. But what exactly do they have in common? Many observers have suspected for years that each one of the subgroups making up this coalition has a different set of ultimate goals.

Where is the Christian feeling in a never-ending war for the control of resources? What about the flagrant disregard for the more unfortunate among us? Is stewardship of the Earth part of the mandate that God bestowed upon Man? While fiscal conservatives may give lip service to the "protection of the sanctity of marriage" and the "pro-life" cause, what is their true agenda? There's been an almost invisible fissure slowly widening into a great schism for years. The vast disagreements among what used to be indivisible elements within a conservative front are becoming self-evident to every member of the GOP. Meanwhile Democrats like Barack Obama are starting to appropriate the revivalist-tinged stylings that have been the sole province of Christian Evangelicals for years.

We are entering unsettling times that foretell a struggle for the definitions of hope, morality and care. Who among our politicians has the right to invoke the name(s) of God(s)? Is the profession of faith sufficient in itself, or are "good works" necessary for true spirituality? For a long time now the Republicans have appropriated for themselves a trio of potent symbols- the cross, the dollar and the flag. Is it possible that the Democrats could wrest at least one of these from the hands of a dying party? Or are the terms of this war already set in stone?

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, February 14, 2008

So... Who Is Barack Obama?

After all the work I've put into researching the candidates I'm not going to vote for, I've decided to devote attention to the one person I likely will support. If nothing else, I'll be able to more rationally explain my choice. The very first fact I found out about Barack Obama is that we share the same birthday. Of course that doesn't address my purpose of examining his political beliefs, so I will try to put it aside and not become further biased by it. I've already written a bit about his upbringing and education, so I'll try to pick up the thread with his entry into adulthood.

After graduating high school, "Barry" (as he was then known) briefly attended Occidental College in L.A., and then transferred to Columbia University. He received his B.A. and took a job as a community organizer in Chicago. He worked with low-income residents at a public housing development. A few years later he went to Harvard for a law degree, and became the first African-American student president in its history. He then worked in organizing voter registration drives, and got a position in a law firm where he concentrated his efforts on representing community organizers, discrimination claims, and voting rights cases. He became a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago Law School in 1993, and stayed there until his election to the US Senate in 2004.

Obama served in the Illinois State Senate from 1996 to 2004, and was unsuccessful only in a primary run for the US Congress in 2000. He earned bipartisan respect for his work on ethics and health care legislation. He increased subsidies for childcare, negotiated welfare reform, and increased tax credits for low-income workers. Surprisingly, he earned the endorsement of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police for helping to enact death penalty reforms. While he disfavored late term abortion he worked against parental notification laws. As reward for his record, he was awarded the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His speech there earned him national acclaim and recognition, and helped propel him to his seat in the Senate.

Immediately after being elected to the Senate, Obama became very active. He served on Senate Committees for Foreign Relations; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Veterans' Affairs. He reached across the aisle to co-sponsor a bill on immigration with John McCain. He worked with Republican Tom Coburn to achieve greater transparency in government spending. Obama also traveled throughout the world in efforts to help control the supply of WMD's, conventional and biological weapons as a preventative measure against terrorist attacks. These activities kept him extraordinarily busy during his first year in national office.

Obama followed up these efforts by working with Russ Feingold to eliminate lobbyist gifts to Congress, and for greater disclosure of campaign contributions to Congressmen. He tackled the voting irregularities so endemic in recent elections with a proposal to criminalize deceptive practices. He drew mixed reaction from environmentalists by supporting legislation calling for reductions in greenhouse gases, and at the same time promoting liquefied coal production. To address the Iraqi War, he called for phased redeployment which would have withdrawn American forces from Iraq by 2008. Additionally he struggled to enact laws that would protect veterans and their families. In the foreign policy realm, he called for the divestiture of state funds from Iran's oil and gas industry. He also cooperated with Chuck Hagel to introduce a law that would reduce the risks of nuclear terrorism.

During his campaign for the presidency, Obama has focused his attentions on speaking out for the poor. He has lauded the New Deal and condemned the idea of privatizing Social Security as "Social Darwinism". He claims to be absolutely committed to providing universal health care. He's announced plans to invest billions of dollars into early education. On tax issues, he stresses the importance of restructuring the burden on to investors and corporations by closing tax loopholes. And by suggesting caps on carbon-based emissions and a formidable investment plan for new energy sources, he has attempted to strengthen his appeal to environmentalists.

Much of Obama's growing popularity can be traced to his early opposition to the Iraqi invasion and occupation. Still one shouldn't assume that he is anti-war. In his own words- he is "against dumb wars". Regarding Syria and Iran- he is on record as preferring aggressive diplomacy and international sanctions, but unwilling to take the option of "military action" off the table. He clearly seeks a continued role for the United States in the world arena. He has called for more assertive action against genocide in Darfur, and promises to renew America's global commitment to military, diplomatic and moral leadership.

While that last note resounds a bit ominously in my mind, I am encouraged by Obama's measured approach to governance and his refusal to see the world in absolute terms. I view him as a moderate who will be capable of forming broad coalitions in order to advance the nation in a more balanced direction. If nothing else I believe he acts according to some inner compass of conscience, and will inspire many to consider possibilities that haven't existed over the last seven years of incompetent executive leadership. Perhaps if he wins the presidency, I will be just a bit less cynical about the future. That in itself would be a formidable gift.

Labels: ,

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, "28 Weeks Later" (2007).

I wonder why people watch zombie movies. What is it that attracts people to stories of the walking dead? It's true that I make a point of including them in my broad exploration of the horror genre, but I was never really drawn to them in the first place. Yet they seem somehow indispensable once you have made you way through the haunted houses, ghosts, demonic possessions, slashers, witchcraft, monsters, and mental asylums of the classics. I must admit that since I started watching them, I have identified a select few as worthy recommendations. My favorite zombie movie of all time is Messiah of Evil. It's a lesser known gem with style to spare... call it the art-house zombie flick. I've also been moved by the new wave of fast-moving zombies depicted in the releases of the last few years. While it could arguably be defined as a "plague" or natural disaster film, I was particularly impressed by 28 Days Later.

Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland, 28 Days Later (2002) concerned an imaginary "Rage virus" that swept through England, turning ordinary citizens into crazed killers. A small band of survivors attempts to find sanctuary against overwhelming odds. What impressed me about the film was the cinematography and editing. It's pacing was cringe-inducing and the atmospheric panorama shots of a devastated London added a lot to the overall sense of dread. The "zombies" themselves were terrifying, as they appeared to be almost superhuman with reserves of adrenaline that never seemed to be exhausted. They passed on their sickness by overtaking their prey and spewing bodily fluids into any open orifice. Their vacant madness was portrayed so effectively that infection was immediately apparent.

As one might expect, the military eventually gets summoned to deal with the spreading contagion. A lot of difficult choices need to be made concerning who (and when) to kill. Scientists would like to have the opportunity to study a living victim, but having one in the midst of the uninfected is an extremely perilous proposition. By the end of the film, the disease has mostly taken its course, and we have confidence that it has been contained on the island of Great Britain. The methods employed to deal with the social unrest caused by the Rage plague added additional layers of social commentary to the story, and anyone fascinated by governmental responses to crises should be well satisfied by 28 Days later. I have no doubt that people will be watching it decades from now (if they are watching anything at all).

When I heard that there was a sequel in the works, I was immediately skeptical. These follow-ups are generally bleak affairs that merely capitalize on the popularity of their predecessors and introduce very little uniquely compelling material. I had even less interest when I heard that Boyle wouldn't be involved with the film. But then I read that Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (who had directed the promising-but-ultimately-flawed Intacto) was slated to take the helm. This was a good sign. In addition, I read several positive reviews (including one from the Onion A/V Club) that suggested it was worth watching. So I made a point of picking it up and sharing it with a friend who I knew would be interested in seeing it.

As we settled in for the duration, we were drawn in by an anxiety-inducing opening that flashed back to a grisly scene during the initial outbreak. That sets the stage for the premise of 28 Weeks Later. We are brought up to speed concerning the elapsed time between the end of the last movie, and the main setting of the new one. American troops have been installed in London to create and maintain order in an operation of repatriation for 15,000 brave citizens. An area of the city has been cordoned off, leaving a small island of civilization surrounded by acres of waste and destruction. Right off the bat there are obvious parallels to the continuing occupation of Iraq. The US military has every intention of creating a viable new society on the brink of complete and utter ruin.

As one might expect, despite the "best of intentions" there is no way to control all variables of a population with its own agenda. Before long we learn that a carrier has survived the first cycle of the Rage plague. When that individual is introduced into the healthy population, there's a whole new phase of horror ready to unfold. What we get as viewers is another dose of paranoid creeping depression, as we consider what it might be like to find ourselves in the midst of such a scenario. There are no overtly "good"or "bad" characters in this drama. Those types of easy categorizations tend to break down along with the normal conventions when conditions of imminent disaster confront us. Ultimately that might be the most compelling feature of zombie films. The threat is a horde of beings no longer able to make moral distinctions. And even the survivors, when faced with such a breakdown, must revisit their own conceptions of "right" and "wrong". The question is not one merely of survival... but also of the quality of life.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

45 Minutes with Quinn and Rose.

The local affiliate of NPR (90.5 DUQ) is having a pledge drive. These multi-day events are the bane of my commute. It's simply too masochistic to keep tuned in for the intermittent programming, and be continually reminded of my negligence regarding the support of the station. Certainly the easy answer would be to make a donation, but that still wouldn't solve the problem of what to listen to during these drives. Anyway I've been listening to even more talk radio than usual, and that means more raving "conservatives" with their hateful invective directed towards anyone that doesn't toe the party line. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the format- there is no progressive voice on talk radio. I keep hearing rumors of a mythic beast called Air America, but I've chalked up such reports to urban legend.

So on a recent morning I got my very first taste of a local hack-program called "Quinn and Rose". I have to say that I didn't know that the usual rhetoric could be amplified within the confines of the "minor leagues" of radio. These folks are eagerly trying to foment the new crusades. Almost everything I heard had to do with an imagined final conflict between Christians and Muslims. Jim Quinn apparently believes (I only know this because he said it outright) that Islam is the most fundamental threat to our nation's existence. He went as far as implying that anyone who did not accept the superiority of the Western World, and its contributions to the rest of the planet, are foolish and dangerous. In his own words, he can't understand how anyone could accept the teachings of a "seventh-century faith" formed in fire, blood, and the sword.

Today he was focusing on the new efforts to integrate respect for Sharia into Western court systems. He was bemoaning the Archduke of Canterbury's decision to set up separate provisions for the adjudication of Muslim social law in Great Britain. As if this weren't bad enough for this reactionary nut, he's also recently become aware of a Texas Court of Appeals ruling that provides for the consideration of Sharia law when it comes to cases involving matters of Muslim marriage. The specific ruling only suggests that the judgment of Imams should be taken into consideration in such instances of legal conflict, but somehow Quinn has decided that the United States will soon turn into a Muslim theocracy. And he demonstrates unintentional irony by repeatedly playing the novelty song "They're coming to take me away" to discount Muslims, their beliefs, and the liberals that "support" them.

Frankly I'd be a bit surprised if Quinn and Rose failed to convey their loony-toon War of Civilizations to the home front. They dedicated a significant portion of the 45 minutes I listened to their program to the assertion that both Democratic nominees for the presidency are anti-Christian. Rose actually said that Hillary Clinton has previously shown that she "hates Christians". When a skeptical caller responded by asking her why she thought that was so, Rose hung up on him. She expressed wonderment that the man was questioning her judgment, and repeatedly stated, "I don't have to explain myself to him. Why should I waste my time?" While this is the standard answer given by most political reactionaries when they have nothing backing their statements, it seemed a bit incongruous for a radio talk show. Still somehow I wasn't surprised by Rose's debate strategy. Though I am puzzled about the role she is supposed to be playing for Quinn. She's weaker than Alan Colmes was five years ago, and only parrots the convictions of her partner.

Meanwhile Quinn has it all figured out. The downfall of our nation had its roots in the social revolution of the 60's. According to Quinn, Hillary Clinton "was a co-conspirator" in the movement to undermine traditional Christian morality during that tumultuous period. Had he invested even minimal time into doing research to back up this ludicrous claim, he would have learned that Hillary was president of the Young Republican chapter at Wellesley college in the late 60's. But that fact doesn't fit the script, so why would Quinn bother with it? Of course he's got some choice words for"Hussein Obama" as well. Since the Democratic candidate is appropriating a "revivalist style" and including not-so-subtle references to his Christian faith in his stump speeches, Obama is obviously appropriating the methods of the Anti-Christ. Rose agrees, and finds this very creepy. I guess using Christian rhetoric to justify anything other than preemptive invasions of foreign nations and/or giving tax breaks to the rich is out-of-bounds. Oh well.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Night of Noir- "Crime Wave" (1954) and "Decoy" (1946)

It was refreshing to get the chance last night to sit down and watch a couple of Film Noir movies, back-to-back. These films are usually under an hour and a half in length, and so it's usually no problem to fit two within the space of three hours. I still had a few flicks from the Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 4 set to watch, and so I set in for an evening of easy entertainment. I've written at some length about my appreciation for the genre, but there's an entirely separate emotional component to watching these films that I haven't really touched on. It's a bit tough to communicate the feeling I get when I settle into the couch at night in preparation to take in some classic Noir. I read once about the concept of being nostalgic for a time you've never experienced, and I suppose this comes close to describing what I get from these films. There's more to it, but I'm going to keep it for myself for fear that I'd lose out if I analyzed it to deeply.

The first selection was Crime Wave (1954)- a flick directed by Andre De Toth, and starring Sterling Hayden, Ted de Corsia, a very young Charles Bronson, Phyllis Kirk, and the relatively unknown Gene Nelson. De Toth was a Hungarian immigrant who made the 3D House of Wax (1953), despite only having the use of one eye. He became known for delivering tough flicks with no-holds-barred violence. Of course that meant something radically more restrained than it does today, and so Crime Wave does not stand out for its brutality. But there is a certain cynicism in the role of the top cop (Hayden) that suggests that De Toth was no stranger to the rough-and-tumble tactics of law enforcement in 1940's Los Angeles. It should come as no surprise that Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of Crime Wave.

The studio in charge of production tried to convince De Toth to hire Humphrey Bogart for Hayden's role, but the director was set on his choice. He ultimately delivered the final reel after 13 days of shooting. Crime Wave is exceptional for its gritty atmosphere, as most of the scenes were shot in real locations rather than on a sound stage. The opening scene features three escaped convicts in a penny ante hold-up of a service station. The stick-up job doesn't go as planned, and sets the tone for the rest of the story. An ex-con named Steve Lacey (Nelson) is trying to live the "square john" life, but is interrupted by an appeal to the prisoner's code. Unfortunately his wife is caught up in the mess, and Lacey is forced to pick from a set of unpalatable options. The tale is standard fare, yet the presence of Bronson as a thug, and some of the other bit players make it adequately entertaining.

I followed up with Decoy (1946). Director John Bernhard made the film for a "Poverty Row" studio named Bernhard-Brandt Productions. Because of its low budget, there really aren't any recognizable actors on-screen. That's not to say that the performances are bad- in fact, the performers do pretty good work relative to the standards of the genre. Lead actress Jean Gillie may have been able to put together a high profile career had she not died three years after this film's release (at age 34). She certainly makes an impression as one of the most ruthless femme fatales in the history of Film Noir. Her character (named Margot Shelby) is so adept at manipulating adoring males that she is able to pull off some amazing schemes. The narrative is centered on Margo's quest for the dough stolen by her death-row-inmate-boyfriend. Unfortunately for her, he's not giving up the goods unless he walks out of prison alive, and so she has to put together a plan to make that happen.

When one guy outlives his usefulness to this dangerous dame, he is quickly thrown over for someone who can help her with her next set of objectives. It is for this reason that Margot begins to court an altruistic doctor named Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley). He is a particularly soft touch for the wily Ms. Shelby, and finds himself ultimately willing to sacrifice his scruples to keep his "love object" happy. It is her relationship with Dr. Craig that most clearly illuminates just how truly sociopathic Margot Shelby is. Her lust for the trappings of material success knows no bounds. And the director's portrayal of her appetites is similarly over-the-top. In fact there is a healthy strain of melodrama underlying the entire running length of Decoy. But rather than spoiling the film, that quality adds a strange hint of surrealism that ends up making the whole affair quite fascinating. That's why if you only have time for one of these movies, I suggest seeing the latter.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 11, 2008

Darcy O'Brien, "The Hillside Stranglers"

Despite the beacon of joy that has recently arrived in my life, I still find myself inexplicably drawn to darker materials. I've told myself that I'm going to lay off the true crime genre, but it's more difficult than I thought it might be. It is actually getting harder to explain why I like reading this type of book in the first place. I suppose I could offer some pretentious theory about the totemic nature of defending oneself with the artifacts of killers. Maybe in some small way I am de-fanging the fear that accounts of such extreme behavior invoke. Or alternatively, in some ugly but indisputable way, I find a perverse satisfaction in learning about what other human beings have been capable of throughout history. Perhaps it reinforces my own sense of internal restraint and humanity.

For whatever reason, I chose to read Darcy O'Brien's account of the "Hillside Stranglers". Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi were convicted of killing ten women in California in the late 70's. They were cousins of Italian-American descent, and seemed to have fueled one another's worst instincts. They shared a hatred for women, and an aggravated lack of compassion for other people. Before almost every incident of murder they perpetrated, they visited violent sex and torture upon their victims. Their crimes inflamed the entire city of Los Angeles with paranoia and panic, and they evaded justice for their actions for far too long. Unfortunately they both received life sentences instead of the death penalty. While Buono died in prison of a heart attack in 2002, Bianchi is currently incarcerated in Washington state.

What makes the case of the Hillside Stranglers so interesting is the interplay between the killers. It is widely thought that Buono was the dominant partner, yet Bianchi continued to kill on his own after being forced out of California by his cousin. Bianchi was actually caught first, after slaying two women in Bellingham, Washington. At first he tried to fake a multiple personality disorder under hypnosis, but he was eventually discredited in a dispute between psychiatrists. He only implicated Buono as part of a plea bargain that ended up saving his own life. Even though he had agreed to testify against Angelo Buono- he continued to lie through his court appearances, and almost sabotaged the trial with his unreliable participation. Fearing a jury's potential distrust of Bianchi's credibility, the District Attorney made a motion to dismiss the charges against Buono. If not for an unconventional decision by the presiding judge (an order to deny the prosecutor's motion), Buono would have walked on the charges of multiple murder.

Darcy O'Brien explains in his forward that he knew he needed to write The Hillside Stranglers in order to tell the stories of the traditionally ignored participants in the events- primarily the investigators, the victims and their family members. He does describe several of the murders in detail, and justifies this choice by explaining the necessity of portraying the horror of the crimes themselves, as well as the cruelty of Buono and Bianchi. Apparently he pieced together his accounts of these events from tapes that various parties made with Bianchi after his capture. I have no idea how O'Brien has reconstructed entire conversations that no one besides the accused men (and the victims) ever heard, or on what he based his analysis of the intricacies of their relationship. In fact the author doesn't include any endnotes, sources or references. This is a glaring omission, and makes me doubt the content of his book.

There seems to be a very specific agenda on O'Brien's mind. He is particularly laudatory of the detectives and sheriffs from Los Angeles. At every step he goes out of his way to praise their honor and integrity. We can only rely on our own perceptions about people, along with suspicions that some things are being left unsaid, to challenge O'Brien's idealistic depictions of these men. One officer in particular has left his family after undergoing a torrid affair with someone involved in the case, yet O'Brien still manages to portray him as completely compassionate and selfless in his drive to prosecute Bianchi and Buono. It is continuously suggested that this character considers "stepping over the line" into abuse and other forms of unprofessional conduct- and it seems like O'Brien regrets the fact that he didn't. The author repeatedly laughs over this same officer's repeated put-downs of women he doesn't like. At one point he publicly calls a defense attorney a "cunt"... and then explains his choice of words by suggesting that she "likes it". All of this while simultaneously focusing on the misogyny of the Stranglers.

O'Brien constantly pines for the "olden days"when things were simpler, and there weren't so many pesky protections for those accused of crimes. He is not mistaken in his assessment of Buono and Bianchi- they are/were complete scum. Yet O'Brien's habit of furnishing all the cops with white hats seems neither appropriate nor particularly convincing. This is not a black-and-white world. It never has been. It is a shame that a reasonably-skilled writer felt such a pressing need to deliver so much stilted moralizing.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, February 10, 2008

George Ratliff, "Hell House" (2001).

Last Friday I packed in an entire weekend's worth of going out, and so I was perfectly satisfied to go over to a friend's house and watch a movie on Saturday. I brought with me a selection of documentaries that I thought would be of interest to the people that I knew would be there. It's a lot of fun to share things with folks that they'd otherwise have little chance to see, and it fulfills my purpose of purchasing DVD's rather than renting them. After watching the first choice, I decided that I'd pick the follow-up movie. I hadn't seen Hell House in a long time, and I was looking forward to revisiting the story in like-minded company. No one else had even heard of it before. Given the particular makeup of our small crowd, I believed that this feature would be alternatively edifying, amusing, disturbing, and irritating.

Hell House (2001) , directed by George Ratliff, examines the phenomena of a haunted house constructed and operated by a Pentecostal Church. On its surface, the concept sounds completely bizarre. Most fundamentalist Christian sects condemn Halloween as a Pagan holiday meant to subvert morality. But instead of condemning the holiday, Trinity Church in Dallas has found a way to use it to its advantage. Every year a multitude of organizations offer walk-throughs which, in keeping with the spirit of the time of year, are meant to scare the crap out of anyone willing to pay the admission price. These attractions are particularly appealing to young folks, who are usually limited in the type of thrills they are offered. Trinity Church is well aware of this dynamic, and is perfectly willing to exploit it- in order to save souls.

This project requires months of preparation and a multitude of volunteers. George Ratliff documents every step along the way. It all starts with a brainstorming session among veterans of former productions. They work out several "scenes"- each of which represent some type of sinful behavior, and the kinds of extreme consequences that can result. These vary from a drunk-driving scene complete with gory fatalities, to a hospital room with an AIDS patient and an abortion gone horribly wrong. There are school shootings, drug deals turned violent, and rape scenes. These tableau often go so far over the top that they are emotionally disturbing. They are not meant to be "fun" in any way. They are supposed to serve as cautionary messages to those who would choose to break God's rules. Naturally they often reflect the simple stereotypes that many fundamentalist Christians are so fond of espousing.

In each of these vignettes, there are histrionic actors who have auditioned for the highly-coveted roles. Ratliff makes a point of including these auditions in the documentary. It is very surreal to watch these clean-cut, wholesome Bible-Belters assume the personalities of criminals and other ne'er-do-wells. Seeing their eyes light up with excitement as they speak about wanting to be the "rape girl" or "demon" in this year's Hell House is illuminating in a very strange way. Actually, a lot is conveyed through the depictions of the "fallen" that they hope to represent. They display a stream of unintentionally humorous misconceptions about what they politely refer to as "alternative" lifestyles (especially funny is the crimson-hued Star of David that some eager beaver mistakenly painted to convey a pentagram in the "occult scene"). The entire endeavor is fittingly ironic because Pentecostals themselves seem so alien to the uninitiated. Ratliff has included footage of their church services, in which they dance to their own version of contemporary "rock music", flail about, and speak in tongues.

The climax of the Hell House experience is being shepherded into a wood-paneled room, and being exposed to the hard sell of conversion. A drill-sergeant-like preacher is there to confront all the shocked patrons into re-examining their relationship with "God". Those who have not yet been "saved" are pressured to enter one last well-lit chamber, where they will meet church representatives anxious to bring them into the glory of faith. Others file out into the dark world of their doomed ordinary lives... their pockets $7 lighter than when they first entered. The apparent inconsistencies between the protests that fundamentalists direct toward violence and sex in media, and the explicit nature of their own attempts to scare people into Christ's arms, shine with a heavenly brightness. Aside from a few very subtle hints, the filmmakers of Hell House make a solid effort not to reveal their biases. If you watch it, I have a feeling you'll have difficulty containing your own.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nicolas Gessner, "The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane" (1976)

What was it about the 70's that helped produce such a startling quantity of compelling films? Perhaps it had something to do with the social revolutions of the 60's and the cynicism that resulted when the idealism of those times began to seem naive. A lot of people learned the lesson that absolute beliefs and the black-and-white mentality of the preceding decades were insufficient for a real understanding of modern life. There appears to be a greater sense of relativism in the narratives of the stories presented in the 1970's. This meant that there were very few easy answers to be found in the films of those years, and that there was very little subject matter that was off-limits. Looking back today, these qualities make some of the least known films of that era a lot more interesting than the majority of movies released over the last twenty-five years.

So it's really no surprise anymore when I run across a title from the 70's (that no one's ever heard of) and it ends up being both entertaining and thought-provoking. Such was the case with The little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane, starring a 13-year old Jody Foster. It's a twisted little thriller/mystery that presents an unflinching look at a teenager left completely to her own devices. Rynn (Foster) has moved to a quaintly charming New England town with her father, who has distinguished himself as a successful poet. The pair remains a mystery to the rest of the villagers, as they are rarely seen outside of their house. This suits Rynn just fine, as she is a precociously intelligent and cultured girl. Her poise and maturity belie her young age. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent to the viewer that Rynn is given an extraordinary amount of responsibility for herself and the household. She receives all visitors, and explains that her father is not to be disturbed.

Of course her apparent isolation concerns some "good"citizens and draws the attention of other "not-so-good" folks. She is an easy target for both altruism and exploitation, depending upon one's ability to relate to an adolescent who is clearly advanced beyond her years. The owner of the house Rynn lives in senses that something is amiss in the living arrangements, and resolves to discover the truth. This matronly lady immediately clashes with the spirited and willful girl who challenges her ideas of propriety. The landlady's son (played by Martin Sheen) also makes an appearance that presents its own difficulties. This pervert has his own unwholesome designs and a taste for vulnerable adolescence. Meanwhile there is the town cop and his nephew Mario (Scott Jacoby), who could end up being Rynn's only allies.

The viewer is drawn in by the immediate mysteries of Rynn's absentee father and his daughter's secrets. How has she developed her protective instincts and her ability to look after herself? To what extent is she truly self-reliant and independent? The introduction of Mario allows the audience to slowly get to know these answers, as the two kids develop a bond of trust and affection. But given the categorization of this film, it's easy to predict that there will be no idyllic existence for these young friends. The tension builds as the main threat is identified, and Rynn's back story is told. Director Nicolas Gessner doles out his answers gradually, and keeps his audience engaged. The performances are uniformly excellent and the pacing is lively without becoming harried.

Still the ultimate success of The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane is wholly dependent on Foster's ability to convincingly portray her character. Had Rynn been portrayed by a less competent child actor, then the movie may have been a complete disaster. Not surprisingly, considering her other barely-pubescent work (most notably Taxi Driver), Foster carries off her role with tremendous assurance and skill. And she is given a substantial assist by the creepily intense Martin Sheen, who (in my opinion) should have never quit playing villains. He is almost disturbingly effective as a nasty child-molester. He even commits atrocities on Rynn's pet hamster.

There are several astonishing moments in this film that I doubt one would see in today's cinema. Internet ramblings suggest that this is among Foster's least favorite celluloid memories. Evidently she was bothered by the notion that people would believe that she had actually appeared naked on-screen. In reality her character was briefly played by her real-life older sister Connie in that scene. However that fleeting image alone (which actually occurs during a scene of sweet innocence) would have been rewarded with a NC-17 rating today.

Labels: ,