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banging on my drum

Thirty years ago today I saw Lou Reed at the Berkeley Community Theater. The stage was filled with TV sets ... playing static, as I recall, although I could be wrong. Lou was touring behind Rock and Roll Heart, and opened with a 9000-minute version of "Banging on My Drum." I went with a couple of friends ... Robin stayed home for that one ... one of those friends is the owner of a popular restaurant in Orinda these days. There's no point to this post, just another one of those "I am getting old" moments.

ice t, iggy pop, en vogue (sounds like a carnac question)

A few days ago I complained about Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, praising its stylistic flourishes but believing it added up to nothing more than that: style. Today I watched Tank Girl, which makes Mr. Vengeance look subtle. Tank Girl is a Kitchen Sink movie, and it certainly believes in itself … the movie is pretty fearless in an “if I want it in the movie, it goes in the movie” kind of way. It adds up to nothing … one could extract some basic feminist message, I suppose, and it wouldn’t be much work to do so (the movie piles that message on, like it piles on everything else), but that’s not really the point, the point is to spend 100 minutes saying “whoa, cool.” A nice way to spend 100 minutes, but nothing more.

Still, based on the movies I’ve watched this week, I can see why some people are starving for films like Mr. Vengeance and Tank Girl, films that are proudly “different.” I also watched Mr. 3000 this week, and it has its charms … Bernie Mac is excellent, for one thing … some critics liked it, most notably Stephanie Zacharek at Salon (Mac gives “one of the finest performances I’ve seen in any movie this year,” and the film is a “great work”). But while Mr. 3000 is a nice entertainment, it’s almost soul-crushingly ordinary. It is a good example of the jerk-who-is-saved-by-love sports movie, sure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t formulaic. If you can’t predict the end of this movie (or the beginning, or the middle), you haven’t seen many movies.

Mr. 3000 is probably a “better” movie than either Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Tank Girl, mostly because it takes fewer chances and thus has fewer screwups. But safe movies like Mr. 3000 are the reason people need movies like Tank Girl. Me, I’d give all three movies 6 on a scale of 10, and have different reasons for each of them. I don’t need movies like this, I need movies that are, you know, good. Funny thing is, I know people who are big fans of all three of those movies (I don’t know how many people are fans of all three, though) … and you can figure out a lot about their taste in movies, I bet, using these three as examples. There’s the Vengeance fan, the Tank fan, and the 3000 fan … tailor made for one of those “if you liked this, you’ll love this” thingies. So here’s a test. has “people who bought this also bought that,” and that should give an idea of similar films. Fans of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, did you see/like A Tale of Two Sisters? Tank Girl fans, did you like Cherry 2000? Mr. 3000 fans, did you like Ray?

don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone

As I’ve written here before, I spent the first 45 or so years of my life getting headaches. Bad ones. I don’t get them anymore, and I am extremely happy for that fact. Oh, once in awhile I’ll have a head cold, and I’ll get a teensy headache, enough to remind me how often and how severely I used to get them, but barely registering on the pain scale.

Yet, on rare occasion, I’ll actually feel nostalgic for those old headachy days. When I would get a really bad headache, Robin would do everything she could to make me feel better. Sometimes “everything” was just sitting with me, and to be honest, whatever she did, it rarely helped the pain (although it made me feel better in other ways). That’s the part I miss, the “Steven is center of the world and Robin will focus her energy on him” part. Doesn’t mean I want the headaches to return, but the memories are still there … in fact, I’d say my memories of those “good parts” are more clear in my mind today than are the feelings of pain.

The character of Gregory House on the show named after him is an asshole. It’s one of the pleasures of the show, in some ways the only pleasure of the show, which is high-quality but otherwise not  unique. What IS unique is having an asshole as the central character (and having the good fortune to get Hugh Laurie to play the part).

House seems to lack interpersonal skills, or rather, he doesn’t care about them. All he cares about is figuring out what’s wrong with a patient, and he will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of the problem, which means he can be a rude motherfucker. But in this week’s episode, House went places we hadn’t seen before. One reason is that he is a Vicodin addict and he’s not getting enough of his drugs, so he’s more on edge than usual. In any event, at one point, he said something extremely cruel to another character, to no real purpose. Later, she said to a friend and colleague that House had been rude to her a thousand times, and she always understood it as his way of getting to the nub of a problem, but now she understood something else: that House was actually holding back most of the time, that what seemed the rudest of behaviors was actually House on his best behavior, because now she’d seen him at his worst, and his worst went beyond rude, to hurtful.

I am a smart, quick-witted guy. I take pride in that. In my pre-Wellbutrin days, the combination of quick wits and pride would at times get me into trouble. No, that’s not it … I would BE trouble. Because I was usually on my best behavior, but once in awhile, I’d become not just a rapscallion but a truly hateful person, and I wouldn’t just say hurtful things, I was good at it, just like House is.

I hope those days are gone, because I don’t ever want to be hurtful in that way again. But watching House reminded me that this problem is a lot like my headache problem. I’m glad things are different (and those close to me are even more glad), but the truth is, once in awhile, I’ll actually feel nostalgic for those old mean-spirited days. Because a person isn’t good at too many things in their life, and unfortunately, one of the few things I was really good at was being hurtful to others.

Which leaves me in limbo regarding the character of House. Part of me, the larger part, finds his behavior in this episode reprehensible. But a small part of me was thinking “whoa, good one.”

sexual interlude

On his blog, Mick LaSalle is asking people to list their top five characters in movies that inspired lust. I didn’t think about it very hard, I’m sure if I did this again in an hour I’d have different choices, and I didn’t quite follow the rules as he laid them out (no pun intended). But here’s what I sent him, in alphabetical order:

Pam Grier … take your choice of any 70s movie.

Helen Mirren, at any stage of her career, but if I had to pick one, Savage Messiah.

Kristin Proctor, for ten seconds in an episode from Season Two of The Wire.

Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel. 

Kate Winslet in anything … not sure I could pick just one.

The one in the middle includes a tip of the cap in the direction of my buddy Hammond Eggs.

what if

What if The Wire was about Italians? Would more people watch it? Series creator David Simon has said quite plainly that he thinks the fact that The Wire is full of black characters means some people won't watch it. What if they were Italians?

This is basically just an excuse to post something about The Wire, since we watched the penultimate episode of the season tonight, but I can't talk about it until everyone else has seen it on Sunday.


I don't have time to get into this right now ... finishing up a batch of paper grading ... but at some point, I have to turn my critique of a certain kind of art back onto myself. I'm v.inconsistent ... I get pissed off at the showy excellence of a Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and talk as if I have a stick up my butt when it comes to attempts to be "arty," but then I like stuff like Orson Welles and John Woo and Kathryn Bigelow, all of whom have made a lot of films that rub the audience's nose in their technique. I'll get to this eventually ... it may be something as simple as my old theory that first we decide whether or not we like something, then we concoct reasons to justify how we feel ... but it's worth pursuing.

To put it another way, I have a handful of movies I'm hoping to watch this week, and Vengeance is the only one that is truly ambitious, which means I admire it in ways I won't with the other movies. So why am I so hard on it, compared to, say, Mr. 3000, which I also am going to try and see sometime this week? (Perhaps the mid-range between artsy ambition and box-office chasing is Tank Girl, which is also on my This Week list.)

sympathy for mr. vengeance (park chan-wook, 2002)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance shows clear evidence of an artist at work. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, even when it features cringe-inducing gore. It is full of artistic deconstructions of traditional narrative processes. In Breathless, Godard used jump cuts in part to excise everything except what really mattered; in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, director Park Chan-wook excises entire portions of the narrative, leaving the audience scratching its head, trying to figure out what is going on. Park’s excisions have the opposite effect of Godard’s … the French film leaves the viewer “out of breath,” but Park uses the time he’s gathered through his excisions to slow us down and give us pretty pictures, resulting in a film that even its champions (and there are many) admit is, if not boring, then at least slow.

Wesley Morris, who likes the movie, claims that “Park prizes craftsmanship over bargain-bin schlock,” suggesting that while Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance works within a schlocky genre, Park rises above those roots because he is up to something bigger. As a fan of genre works that are true to the genre yet also transcend, I would have to agree that ambition is often a good thing when a smart director takes on genre work.

The question becomes, does Park actually accomplish what his champions claim for him? Morris says the film has “a deftly handled sociopolitical bent,” and he may be right … the characters certainly come from various levels of Korean class society. But this is where Park’s disdain for traditional narrative gets in the way. The movie is often wildly incoherent … one of the most interesting things about the film is that the same thing that pisses off its detractors is what its fans enjoy most … throwing stuff on a wall and waiting to see what sticks is not deft handling of sociopolitics. The movie is an excuse for Park to show what a fine director he is. Everything serves that purpose. Thus, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is no better than Friday the 13th, Part III … in both cases, filler exists solely to get to the “good stuff,” which in Park’s hands is a lot more exquisite than in a cheapie horror sequel … but so what? One of my favorite movies, Run Lola Run, is a showy delight, but analysis of the film begins, and to some extent ends, with an examination of that delight … no one says Run Lola Run is about sociopolitics, it’s about running, and red hair, and cool music, and video-game narrative. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a joy to look at, and far less boring than you might think from the above. But it isn’t “about” sociopolitics.

What does the film tell us about violence? That it’s cool and pretty. A fine message, doesn’t bother me, I’m not one who needs a positive message out of every movie. But there isn’t any depth to the movie’s examination of violence … it just is. Same thing with class … one of the Mr. Vengeances is rich, one is poor, and the plot kicks off because of the poverty of the poorer Mr. And that’s it … the film isn’t constructed to help us understand class difference, it’s constructed to get to the part in the movie where both men are set on vengeance, and we come to realize they are really the same guy, when you come right down to it. Again, a fine plot, if not unique. But the meaning? It ain’t about class, it’s about the two Misters getting vengeance in gory fashion, using the most hoary of plot devices, the “they’re really the same, when you come right down it” thingie.

It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.

(For a fascinating and more positive look at Park, focusing on a later film in his “vengeance trilogy,” check out “KDD on Lady Vengeance.”)

old pix

Another blast from the past. Robin’s dad is moving, and Sara dug out some old photos. Here are two. I’m not sure when the first one was taken … after 1978 and before 1981 is the best I can do. The man behind Neal is Robin’s dad, the blond-headed guy is Robin’s stepbrother Daniel, and I can’t remember who the other guy is. Sara has her trademark suck-thumb-with-finger-on-top-of-nose trick going, while Neal has his Johnny Ramone hair-do … not sure he’s ever forgiven us for that. Hey Sara, I think the shirt I’m wearing was velveteen or something like that:

Early neal sara

The second is from August of 1984, and was taken at Robin’s sister Tami’s wedding. As you can see, Neal and Sara were in the ceremony … he was 9, she was 6:

Neal sara tami's wedding

thanksgiving 1970

It fell on November 26 that year, so it’s appropriate to write about it today. A bunch of us did mescaline and spent the holiday with friends at the local university. Thirty-six years ago, I did stuff like that without thinking about it for a second. Now, my drug of choice is Wellbutrin, and I worry that I shouldn’t admit to such events from my past on a public blog like this. I’d like to say that mescaline was legal back then, but I just looked it up, and the law making it illegal was signed on October 27 of that year, so I’m out of luck. Here is what the signee said about the law at the ceremony:

[I]t provides a very forward-looking program in the field of drug addiction. This is enormously important. That is one of the reasons that the Department of HEW is represented here, as well as other departments in this field, because once the individual who gets hooked on drugs is in that condition, he is one that we must have sympathy for. We must do everything that we can to cure his habit if it is possible to cure it. Some new cures are being developed, and this will mean that we will have a nationwide program and an effective one in this field where we have not had one before. But this is what the law can do.

The above was spoken by that raving liberal, Dick Nixon.