Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Month That Was - July 2007: Well, I finally got through the re-editing process on Business As Usual and it should be settled and available from the new publisher soon. It was quite a chore since I don't think the editor had a good grasp of the informal, idiomatic style I was going for, so I ended up reversing most of the edits. I also have some quirks that are at odds with most writers. For instance, I believe most contemporary American fiction is overloaded with unnecessary commas. I also think it's best to let dialogue flow without any "he saids" that aren't absolutely necessary. To an editor inclined to more prosaic prose (heh-heh), it must have looked in need of work.

The good news is that in the course of reading through the whole book under a close eye -- something I haven't done in years -- I came away very happy with it. I think it's a good bit of writing. Royalties have dwindled to virtually nothing and will likely remain that way forever, but I'm satisfied with it. That made me feel good.

First up this week are some comments, of a sort, on current events, which is uncharacteristic (and will remain so, I hope). Then a good bit of rambling about TV and movies. But first, we have a travel report on this year's trip Up North, all the way to the U.P., appropriately titled To Yooperville and Back. Do read it.

Gas Prices
Michael Vick
Tube Notes
Flick Notes
Green at Home
All Gassed Up: This month's Yooperville trip report features no travel industry complaints. The lodging arrangements worked out well and it was a road trip through Northern Michigan, so there was no interaction with the airline industry. Apart from the minor issue of a bit of construction now and then, the only real problem was gas prices.

Now I am not one to complain about gas prices, generally speaking. I don't believe that Big Oil executives sit in a board room lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills and twirling their mustaches like Snidely Whiplash while colluding to screw the honest working man out of his hard earned cash. Market forces set the price of gas, prices rise because demand is increasing faster than supply. Much of that increasing demand is coming from economic booms in China and India. Much of the lack of supply comes not because of the scarcity of oil, but the scarcity of refineries. Besides, the fact of the matter is that even at their current levels, gas prices have not kept up with long term inflation rates. If they did they would be well over $5.00/gal. No, sir: I am not at all exorcised by gas prices, generally speaking.

What I don't understand is why here in Michigan, where we are pretty much mired in constant recession, our gas prices should be higher than everywhere else. Other things equal, a lousy economy compared to the rest of the nation should reduce demand and therefore lead to relatively lower prices. Of course, other things are never equal. But I have not seen nor heard of a plausible explanation of what things are unequal. I am not asking why they are so high; I am asking why they are so high relative to the rest of the country.

As usual, everyone just gripes but no one bothers to understand and explain. Feh.

By the way, I don't think I have encountered a dumber idea in my life than a one-day boycott of gas purchases as a method of getting lower prices. That's not just garden-variety shoddy thinking. If you cannot see how totally useless such an undertaking is, you really need to take some time to evaluate whether your understanding of the world is not as shallow Paris Hilton.
Sick of Vick - Validated: He's been called Ron Mexico. He's been called Ookie. Now we can call him Toast. Barring some amazing turn of events wherein he is totally exonerated and every piece of speculation proves wrong, it is quite possible that Mike Vick will never be a serious football player again. Short of outright exoneration, what possible outcome would cause you to be a fan or go and cheer for him? What team would to sign him to a leading role, especially in this era of bad behavior crackdowns? Like I said: Toast.

His reputation, such as it was, is gone. And soon, his money will be gone, too. Needless to say, endorsements will not be forthcoming, probably not even for Valtrex. Nike has already dumped him and his product plans. There are reports that sporting goods stores like Dick's have his jersey on fire sale. So he will have little or no income, lots of legal bills, and just for good measure, if there is testimony about him dropping $10,000 bets on dog fights, I'm guessing the IRS is going to want to have a look at his checking account. To paraphrase the great Walter Sobchak: Ookie, you're entering a world of pain.

As a player, Vick was flashy and charismatic, but not all that great. Defenses can adapt to a running QB no matter how fast he is. A QB needs to pass to be a winner; and pass accurately and wisely. It is possible that this was the year we'd have found out that Vick could do that -- there was mention of letting him audible and giving him freer rein -- but kiss that goodbye. I envision approximately zero probability that he plays in 2007. Can you imagine how many renditions of "Who Let the Dogs Out" he will hear at opposing stadiums? Even the fans in Atlanta would probably boo him.

The best thing he can do is apologize, go on Oprah and cry, beg for forgiveness in the most mewling way possible, donate an enormous sum to the Humane Society, and play the sentimental public like a bass fiddle; plea bargain for a short sentence (I bet he could get away with a few months in a minimum security); accept a year suspension for the NFL and re-sign with some desperate team as a low profile back-up QB/receiver just to get back on the field. Then hope for a long term re-habilitation of his rep.

The thing is, I suspect Vick is not the type to play that game. Judging by the behavior of his equally distasteful brother Marcus, who once stomped on an opposing player in the middle of a college game badly enough to get kicked out of school, the Vicks are not ones to regret and apologize. They no doubt see it as a sign of weakness, or their arrogance simply won't allow it. Whatever bodies are left in their wake have no significance to them, they just step over them without a second thought.

Well, Michael is about to get his introduction to the concept of comeuppance. The next body to be stepped over is his own.
Up, Up and Away, with TSA: Longtime readers know that I have not been a TSA basher. It's very common among pundits and editorialists to mercilessly hammer TSA as anything from a useless annoyance to a pack of fascist lapdogs. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, folks I know who fly frequently seem less likely to be so negative. As for me, I simply don't know if TSA is effective or not. Certainly, there has been no major airline terrorism in the U.S. in the past few years; that should count for something. On the other hand, there's a reason Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc is referred to as a common fallacy.

Recently a TSA admin named Kip Hawley submitted to a five part interview with a fellow named Bruce Schneider, who is apparently a big critic of TSA. The interview was civil (although many of the comments from readers are not) and rather informative. My impressions:
  • The point of screening is not to catch everyone with a contraband item. That's acknowledged as impossible. So if someone sneaks something through, that is not indicative of a failure of the process. The point is to make it risky enough that it is not worthwhile to attempt anything.
  • Much is made of how the many of the current security policies are ineffective. Shoe removal and limiting carry-on liquids foremost among them. The TSA admin tries to justify them and doesn't do to well. I agree that those are pretty ineffective measures but the fact of the matter is that we have no one to blame for them but ourselves. When that bridge collapsed in Minneapolis they hadn't even pulled the bodies out before people were casting around for someone to blame, and by extension, someone to sue. Can you imagine if they stopped checking shoes and some plane got shoe bombed? How many people complaining about it being ineffective would change their tune and start casting around for someone to blame? How big would the lawsuits be? We'd need a tax increase just to cover the government payments to the survivor's families. This is the bed we've made with litigation. Not TSA's fault.
  • I didn't know this, but TSA does not maintain the no-fly list. No one is ever stopped at security because they are on the no-fly list. If you got a boarding pass you are not on the no-fly list. People are stopped at security either because an agent has a suspicion or they are selected by a mathematically random process for extra screening. Also, there are apparently some very reliable methods for identifying guilty parties through their behavior. (I'm should professional poker players have known this for years.) I'm curious as to what they are.
  • TSA abuses of authority do happen. Of course, anytime anyone has authority, there is the potential for abuse. A cop had a fight with his wife so he writes you up even though you were only going 7 mph over the limit. A health inspector wakes up constipated and so your restaurant is shut down for a week. That kind of thing happens all the time, the question is whether it is more common when TSA is involved. I don't know the answer and I don't know that anyone else does either.
Bottom line, as usual, is that there is more to the story than the knee-jerk rants you read.
Tube Notes: Well, I continue to hold faith with David Milch -- for the time being. I'm still twirling John from Cincinnati in my mind. Some things have become more clear. We now know that there is something religious -- even quasi-Christian -- going on. The upshot now seems to be that God has decided to speak to this exceedingly dysfunctional family of surfers and their circle. The title character (John from Cincinnati), presumably God's messenger, is a bizarre creature: cannot be harmed or feel pain; manifests to the other characters sometimes in reality, sometimes in hallucination; and speaks either in inscrutably cryptic comments or mocking parroting of what is said to him, or both. Slowly the other characters realize something freaky is going on. Now what? I don't know, but if Milch pulls it off -- the story of a modern day visitation by a prophet -- it will be amazing.

I will continue to watch John just because I so love the way Milch and his writers use the English language. To me it is refreshing to hear people speak in a florid colorful manner -- as opposed to naturalistic utilitarian dialog. I think it takes a lot of guts to do that on a TV show. A couple of the actors involved are taking quality turns, prime among them is Ed O'Neill who is perfect as a retired cop and a bit of a head case who is psychically connected to his pet bird. His comic timing is even better than when he was Al Bundy.

But, overall, I can't recommend John to the general public just yet. It is mesmerizing, but it still needs to find a clearer purpose. And it is not something that can be watched casually. I am pretty much committed to the season, so I'll be sure to let you know if it's worth your time once all is said and done. Then you can rent the DVD.

The other show that caught my eye is Mad Men on AMC. Essentially a period piece set in 1960 about the corporate and personal lives of execs at a high-powered ad agency. There are two keys to Mad Men. The lesser key is the reproduction of the style and substance of life in 1960: everyone smokes, women are mere supplicants, and so forth. Having been a sentient child at the tail end of this era (mid-'60s), I can verify that they hit the nail on the head with a lot of this stuff. The salarymen don't think twice about pouring each other a scotch on the rocks at work. Kids leap about in a moving car without seatbelts. Divorce, psychiatry, and birth control are taboo.

Some of this stuff is delightfully dramatized: parents don't mind if their kids play with plastic dry-cleaning bags over their heads; a black busboy garners suspicious looks when a white business man engages him in conversation at a nice restaurant; a fellow proclaiming "It's not like there is a magic machine that can make exact duplicates of documents"; a phone and intercom are scary high technology; children are given a swat for spilling their milk.

While this is fun, it must be tempered. It would be too easy to take the contrast in mores and taboos and use them to make fun of the poor savages of a bygone era while extolling our brave, new, progressive world. That would be lazy. And not entirely accurate. While I certainly wouldn't trade the contemporary world for 1960 I found myself looking at some of the lifestyle with a little twinge of nostalgia, specifically with respect to certain freedoms of behavior regarding children. Certainly it was a time before the safety Nazis sucked a lot of the fun out of childhood. But short of that, I can see very little that was preferable back then. Although there are plenty of times I would like to have liquor on hand at work, that's for sure.

Still, it's a work of drama and it needs to be about people. That's the greater of the two keys and on that front they are doing well. The lead character is utterly fascinating -- a seemingly perfect family man (for the '60s), but at his core cynical and negative, given to emotionally checking out. By extension his marriage is unfulfilling, his wife is clearly unhappy possibly due to her inability to keep connected to her husband. Of course, this being 1960, it is never discussed openly. In 2007 they would all be prattling on like Woody Allen in therapy and mainlining Xanax.

I think Mad Men is going to do fine. My guess is that they will use the retro environment wisely, as a highlight for the humanity of their characters instead of making it the point of the show. This show I can recommend you catch up on. (AMC seems to be running it about 8 times a day so it should be easy to catch.)

Lastly, under the heading of Man Does Not Live By Great Drama Alone, we have the USA Network that has been cranking our enjoyable, wispy police procedurals. These are based on wholly contrived situations and plots built around shallow, but eminently likeable, characters. The writers often have their tongues wedged firmly in their cheeks; they know how silly what they are doing is, and they don't pretend otherwise. This started with Monk and continued with Psych. The latest is Burn Notice which strikes me as potentially the new Magnum P.I. in the same way Monk is the new Columbo.

I wouldn't go out of my way to watch these, but if they are on and I'm vegging, I'll happily tune in for the distraction. That is not a backhanded compliment; these shows are excellent examples of their genre. I suspect they will all have a long and happy life in syndication for decades to come.
Flick Notes: Accidentally, I found myself having a little impromptu Mafia-fest due to some coincidental scheduling on the 937 movie channels I have on Comcast Digital. It offered some interesting contrasts so...

The first was The Godfather Saga, a recut of Godfather 1 and 2 into chronological order - the Boy Vito flashbacks comes first, followed by the remainder of Godfather 2, followed by the entirety of Godfather 1. In and of itself, that's no big deal, but they also add back a sizeable amount of footage that was cut from the originals, making them more of a "Director's Cut." The GFs are one of the few instances where re-adding cut sequences really makes for a better movie. In this case, the motivations of Fredo and Tom and much clearer, and a good bit of the new material fills in some blanks. I have always been of the opinion that, while undeniably great filmmaking, the Godfather movies are overrated by public opinion. The added footage makes me feel somewhat less strongly about that.

Ironically, I am of the belief that Godfather 3 is underrated. It is not the ham-fisted disaster it is often described as. There are some very effective scenes, and Pacino is vastly superior compared to his wooden portrayal of the young Michael C. It contains my single favorite scene in all three movies: Connie Corleone (Micheal's sister) convinces Michael he needs to do something drastic. Michael agrees and starts to walk away. She calls to him and says (homaging their father), "Now they will fear you." Michael replies ironically, "Maybe they should fear you." It perfectly sums up the change in Michael, and the world, since the end of the second movie.

Mean Streets might rightly be thought of as the launch pad of DeNiro and Scorcese. I had never seen it in its entirety before and whereas so many people herald it as a work of authentic genius, I'm not so sure (no surprise there, right?). Though, no one could fail to see the immeasurable potential of both DeNiro and Scorcese, the film also lacks polish and professionalism. It is all raw emotion, searing energy, and explosive talent -- it is, simply put, a movie possessed by its passion as opposed to the reverse.

In nearly perfect contrast to Godfathers, there is no idealizing anything. You have a two-bit thug (Harvey Keitel) hovering on the verge of entering the lowest echelon's on the proper mob. He maintains an unwarranted loyalty to another two-bit hood who lives entirely by impulse (DeNiro) and is obviously going to drive things to an ultimately violent end. No doubt it is an entirely realistic portrayal of folks living on the outskirts of organized crime. DeNiro is utterly riveting in his portrayal of a borderline sociopath whose friendship with the other hood is all that's keeping him alive and tethered to reality.

I recall seeing a TV interview with a guy who was once part of the FBI's organized crime unit. It seems that once a year he and his colleagues would get together for a movie night. They would vote on which movie to watch each year and virtually every year it was Mean Streets. In fact, he said there was only on year where something else was selected and that was Goodfellas. This was intended to highlight the realism of Mean Streets in the eyes of the guys who would know. Fair enough, but Mean Streets isn't anywhere near the movie Goodfellas is, which came about after Scorcese had mastered the craft and had upgraded from Harvey Keitel to Joe Pesci.

Lastly, I stumbled on Analyze This, a pointless but really quite funny movie where DeNiro got to parody himself. I laughed a lot. I bet DeNiro had a lot of fun with it. The in-jokes for mob movie watchers were fun. But it was also sad in a way because it was the final nail in the coffin of DeNiro as the paradigmatic mafia tough guy. Not surprisingly it arrived in the same time frame as The Sopranos, which was the last word in mob drama.

DeNiro has descended into shlock, or at least into throwaway farces. That's fair. He's put out a wonderful body of work and he deserves the right to coast a bit. Pacino isn't burning up the screen anymore, although he still does an interesting role now and then. He was excellent as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. Scorcese has been uneven in the past few years. I loved The Aviator, but Gangs of New York wasn't terribly good. I've heard mixed things about The Departed. Interestingly 1999's Bringing Out the Dead came and went so fast I don't even recall hearing of it, never mind seeing it. I suspect Scorcese still has his chops. He has three known projects that sound reasonably vital (a documentary on the Rolling Stones, a film about 17th century Jesuits who traveled to Japan, and a project concerning Teddy Roosevelt). But, there is also a rumor about a project he has with DeNiro about a retired hit man lured back by his old Don. I hope it's just a rumor. Mob flicks are dead. They were whacked by David Chase. Time to let 'em go.
The Green, Green Grass of Home: While I was trolling around Up North it occurred to me how nice it would be to live amidst all that outdoor goodness. Then I remembered, I already do, sort of. Early in the month I took and afternoon to stroll through Nichols Arboretum, a large wooded commons down by campus. It's no slouch when it comes to beauty and it's just about 20 minutes down the road from Dexter. People who have never been beyond the Detroit area simply cannot imagine how green and lush Michigan is (in the summer).

The standard green
More greenness
Even more greenness - zoom in real close you can see folks playing Frisbee. Gives you a good idea of the size of the place.
Take a seat. Enjoy the view - it's green.
Stairway into the dark unknown woods
Bridge over the river - the Arb is bounded by the Huron River. I include this pic because many, many years ago, I lived in that building on the other side of the river.
Apparently there is no kissing in the Arb - I hop the folks in that row boat under the railway bridge realize that.
Rocks looking like a Zen garden in the water - and single-word graffiti on the bridge. Is that a message.
Can you canoe?
Another river view - if I was better with Photoshop I would make this look like an impressionist painting.
This St. Bernard has the right idea