Monday, December 10, 2007

Best of: Music

The top five albums I bought in 2007:

1. Boxer by The National: A late edition to my music collection, but something that has dominated my headphones more than any other record all year. The first two-thirds are as perfect as anything I’ve heard in a long time. And while the last quarter of the album begins to fray around the edges, it still recalls Nick Cave-esque musings circa The Boatman’s Call—not necessarily a bad thing. And, although comparisons to Cave and Cohen are apt, when they’re really rocking, lead vocalist Matt Berninger sounds more like an older, grimmer, Richard Butler (Psychedelic Furs), only without the all the psychedelic. Two songs to hear: Seriously, the first seven are required…but if I had to pick two: “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Brainy”

2. Because of the Times by Kings of Leon: This Nashville Band of preacher boys are the closest contemporary thing to Lynyrd Skynyrd—you know, if Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t, like, you know… suck. There’s music out there that takes me back to a time (Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Huey Lewis, etc.), but it’s not often an album takes me to a place: Knoxville, Northshore Drive and Kingston Pike, my mom’s 300Z—good times. Two songs to hear: “Black Thumbnail” and “Arizona

3. Datarock by Datarock: See my review here. The exact opposite of The National’s Boxer, which pretty much makes it the awesomnest party disk of the year. Two songs to hear: “See What I Care” and “Laurie”

4. Neon Bible by Arcade Fire: From the collapsed ashes: More band members! Even better music! The album Bruce Springsteen would have made if he were younger and hipper. Two songs to hear: “Antichrist Television Blues” and “No Cars Go”

5. The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter: See my review here. One of the few white male singer-songwriters who values metaphors rooted in concrete imagery without neglecting a good hook, as opposed to the usual solipsistic wank-offs. Why some of these songs haven’t blown up on the radio, I have no idea. Two songs to hear: “Open Doors” and “To the Dogs or Whoever”

Honorable Mention (in no particular order):
Arular by M.I.A., Because of You by Ne-Yo, Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady, Magic by Bruce Springsteen, Beauty & Crime by Suzanne Vega, Shock Value by Timbaland, The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance, Epiphany by T-Pain

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Hirshhorn Diaries--4

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"Sick Boy" by Medardo Rosso 1922

The lost art of figure sculpture. Some starved child finally warm in death and the ill omen of a century of war.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Hirshhorn Diaries -- 3

"Crouching Woman" by Auguste Rodin, 1881

I am always stunned when reminded the year Rodin died: 1917 (77 years old). His method of expression, as well as the importance of proportionality in his work (even given its slight exaggerations), always has me thinking he were the grandchild of Michaelangelo, and not an artist born more than 300 years later. The fact that there are actual photographs of him blows my mind. I definitely see something 19th century about his subject matter, yet the sinewy action and naked eroticism in much of his work is distinctly modern. For example, in this piece the woman's body is in such a primal position, yet there is that head-turn of a tortured abashment. Her legs spread implying a sexuality that could only exist so explicitly (and, largely, less artistically) in the 21st century.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tennessee: 14, LSU: 21

I remember saying to people, "I'd rather get blown out than have a chance to win it and lose". Well, I lied. I'd rather win. You would have thought holding LSU to one (that's right) offensive touchdown would have lead to a victory. Well, it didn't. And since it didn't, I feel nothing but resentment and anger at the two people responsible. Eric Ainge, for playing like a douche. And God, for making life like this (douche being already taken). Here's to setting up P.J. Hill's Heisman campaign for next year at the Outback bowl! On the plus side: The official name of my first born son will be Robert "Eric Berry" McConnell--that is assuming Berry doesn't blow out his knee in the pre-season next year. If that happens, it's back to my original idea: Robert "Mega Millions" McConnell.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tennesse: 34, Arkansas: 13

As far as I'm concerned, a miracle. I'd like to take this oppourtunity to thank two people instrumental in this victory. First off: A shout-out to Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who seemed unwilling to give the ball to Darren McFadden, despite his 22 carries for 126 yards and a porous Tennessee defense, resulting in, for the first time all year, the press not immediately anointing someone who has played against Tennessee for the Heisman (see: DeSean Jackson, DJ Hall, Tim Tebow, that quarterback from Southern Miss, etc.). Second: Major props to Casey Dick for playing like one, getting himself benched for an even worse back-up, and them promptly returning to the game and tossing up a gimmie interception to star freshman DB Eric Berry (one of my newest man-crushes)--we will not forget your contributions.

Why not praise John Chavis and the Vol coaching staff after such a dominating win? Because I'm a realist. I haven't been one of these people openly advocating for Fulmer to resign, but I've been painfully made aware over the last several weeks (who am I kidding--years) how he has been outcoached in big games. Still, this is a young team--our only senior leadership coming from the quarterback position--and I have been, despite the heart palpitations, gradually imagining how good this defense will be next year (and the year after). I'd be willing to forgive all if we made it to Atlanta and didn't get completely steamrolled by LSU. And wouldn't it be fitting if an underdog Tennessee team went in and upset the favorite LSU, thus costing them a shot at the national championship game, ala 2001? A man can dream... A man can dream...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Hirshhorn Diaries: October 25, 2007-3

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"Mountains and Sea" Helen Frankenthaler, 1952

The halos (resulting from the oil stains), as well as the largely abstract landscape, make it an ideal painting for some UCLA earth sorority (a compliment).

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Best Band Name Ever!


Props to my boy Landry. Those of you who have watched Friday Night Lights (the show) know exactly how hilarious this is.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Hirshhorn Diaries: October 25, 2007-2

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"Round Rainbow" Olafur Eliasson, 2005

Click here to see a grainy video of Eliasson's sculpture.

Like some Lynchian experiment, only through light. Simple and compellingly intricate: a crystal(?) ring spins in front of a framed spotlight, slowly bending unified streaks of refracted light and rainbow eclipses that never break or blink. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album cover if it could dance.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Hirshhorn Diaries: October 25, 2007-1

"Untitled" by Robert Irwin, 1960's

An acrylic disc, painted an opaque white, cast in surrounding overlapping shadows by two spotlights that negate the circle at the center--an effect that can only truly be appreciated in person, resulting in a negated 3-dimensional clover. Irwin's use of light and shape to influence color results in a powerful effect: a disappearing silver bar that bisects the disc across the middle as if cinching its center. Haunting, especially when listening to Death Cab for Cutie.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tennessee: 48, Arkansas State: 27

What do you want me to say, it was Arkansas State. Our offense looked great. Kudos to Ainge for, again, being the (literally) brightest player on a wildly erratic team. Most Valuable Player B would have to be Lucas Taylor, who, for the first time, looked like a real receiver, displaying, on two occasions, some serious sticky-fingers and an unrelenting desire to get the ball into the endzone, which was nice, seeing as how Austin Rogers, with the occasional easy drop, is quickly distancing himself from any further Steve Largent comparisons. Our offensive line—while efficient pass blockers—can’t seem to push people of the ball in the running game. Lamarcus Cocker’s 100+ yards were more a result of some crafty running and the overmatched personnel of Arkansas State, than any sign of dominance on the line of scrimmage. Florida’s near loss to Ole Miss was a perfect example of how our linemen have been unable to capitalize on these kinds of missed opportunities (Florida’s case being their inexperience). Our defense was…atrocious. Career advice to Jonathan Heffney: If you want to play ball on Sunday, you need to learn how to wrap-up. Spearing runners with your helmet and forearms isn’t working in college, what makes you think it will in the NFL? You are no Roy Williams, sir. (Oh, and a negative four yard average on punt-returns is…not good.) Our linebackers are so translucent that I have a hard time telling you their names (Mayo, maybe?). I am officially a fan of Eric Berry: He hits hard, wraps up, and occasionally picks the ball off (and he’s only a freshman…yay!). We have two weeks to prepare for an overrated Georgia team. My prediction: If Tennessee can hold Georgia to under thirty points, we might have a shot. If…

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter: Thoughts

Socially conscious white-boys with a guitar and a pad of paper are a dime a dozen nowadays. Luckily Bob Dylan came along and saved white America from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, reminding us that, while we might not have created rock and roll, we did invent modern poetry.

Idaho born Josh Ritter seems to be part of the same Mid-Western Review that includes such artists as Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and the ever sprawling Arcade Fire. While Bright Eyes has distinguished himself by focusing on his voice’s crackling desperation (and indulging in the occasional electric experiment); and Sufjan Stevens continues to do a lot of heavy lifting as he makes sure his experiments maintain their mid-western moderation (regardless of the state he’s in); and Arcade Fire has, well…continued to add members/instruments/layers with each album; Ritter has kept close to his roots (Dylan and Cohen) channeling their lyrical dexterity into a fusion of mid-western rock and indie-pop-pretension, which, on this, his third album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, serves him well. While never hard enough to call himself “working class”, Ritter manages to exude a confidence that seems to separate him from his contemporaries. Sure, Ritter can keep his voice down with the best of them on songs like, “Still Beating”, “Wait for Love”, and the elegant “Temptations for Adam”; but (perhaps channeling a bit of Mellancamp) Ritter knows when to kick the doors down. The rocking first track, “To the Dogs or Whoever”, an electric ode to calamity, is a dynamic burner in which Ritter weaves a cleaver tapestry of romantic quests and historical analogy. In “The Right Moves”, Ritter fulfills the promise of the album’s title and crafts a song that could have easily been a number one single in 1977. If there is one thing Ritter’s contemporaries could learn from this album, it would be its’ much needed brevity: no long discourses and aimless narratives here. Ritter gets in and gets out. Relationships are dissected with a sense of urgency. For example: “Open Doors” is a song so bitingly brisk it sounds like Springsteen circa Tunnel of Love and is a worthy sequel to that albums masterpiece “Brilliant Disguise”.

The few missteps on this album result from Ritter becoming possessed by his idol Leonard Cohen, the exercises in misery are a bit much (“Wildfires” and “Moons”). Yet, at its core, Conquests puts Ritter right up there with his contemporaries and effectively raises the bar. Here’s hoping they rise to the challenge.

(Two) Song(s) I advocate paying real money for it’s(they’re) that good: “To the Dogs or Whoever”, “Open Doors”

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Tennessee: 20, Florida: 59 (Ouch...)

Awful. Just plain misery. Take everything I said about the Cal game (here), subtract any optimism I may have had, and add: At least Eric Berry had a good game (well…with exception of that touchdown that was thrown just over his extended hand); and: Austin Rogers, instead of looking like Steve Largent, with his alligator arms and blatant chest-deflections at critical points during the game, looked like John "Hot Rod" Williams (just read it). Watching Tennessee fumble away another touchdown (like they did at Cal) after a momentum changing play; followed by Florida’s subsequent fumble and recovery on their own one-yard-line and a fifty-yard bomb on their first play from scrimmage, was like pouring salt on an open wound that has been festering for seventeen years—or, ever since Tennessee began playing Florida on a regular basis. Tim (Superman) Tebow’s completion to Percy Harvin was as much a result of two exceptional athletes making a great play, as it was another example of the by-their-finger-tip breaks that seem to always go Florida’s way. I’m resigned to the fact that Phillip Fulmer is not as good a coach as Urban Meyer (or Steve Spurrier… or Nick Saban), and I fully expected us to lose this game; but watching that a chain of events unfold, in the almost supernatural manner in which they did, was just another reminder that the only way Tennessee has a chance of beating Florida is if God has something else to do that day. Just awful. Go Vols…

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sky Blue Sky: Thoughts

In case you haven’t heard, allow me to be the millionth person to say (before discussing Wilco’s most recent album) that Jeff Tweedy, the long time maestro/face/ voice of the band has… given up prescription pain killers. I mention this simply because most people who decide to talk about Wilco’s newest (and mellowest) album, Sky Blue Sky, feel it relevant. Listening to the album, I couldn’t help but wonder what one had to do with the other since Sky Blue Sky is one of Wilco’s more trance-inducing albums, with songs fading lazily into one another (not quite, but similar, to a Jack Johnson album with better lyrics) in a subdued state that made me question how people would read this as a sign of Tweedy’s sobriety. Perhaps it’s because he is more lucid here, his lyrics more concrete and solid. Gone are the paranoid apparitions of, say, “Kid Smoke” (off of A Ghost is Born), as are the shards of noise and feedback of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that seemed to be scrapping behind Tweedy’s eyes and into his skull. On second thought, perhaps it’s worth mentioning again… Jeff Tweedy is off prescription painkillers!

I couldn’t offer an opinion either way as to whether or not this is a good thing since Wilco can always be counted on to make good music. But the quiet discipline of Sky Blue Sky, while making it the perfect album to listen to when you’re feeling particularly melancholy or numb (and 70’s AM rock just isn’t cutting it), lacks the devastating cacophonous beauty of previous albums (most notably on tracks: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “At Least That’s What You Said”), or the jaunty march of 1999’s Summerteeth, or, heck, any of the Mermaid Avenue albums. Still, there are gems here: “Impossible Germany” is an ideal track for the resolute stoner, and “Hate is Here” is Tweedy at his most Beatles-esque. The best song is, however, the powerful, “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)”, a quiet apology/plea (hence the parenthesis) to an absent lover to rescue the narrator from his addiction (by abandoning him). It is a song that, in any other hands, would sound self-pitying, but with Tweedy’s measured vocals, comes across as sincere and practical.

Jeff Tweedy may be off of prescription painkillers, but he hasn’t lost the ability to craft important music. Still, one hopes that the reconciliation phase of his sobriety has run its course and, on his next album, and that he can go back to kicking the television.

Song I advocate paying real money for it's so good: "Leave me (Like You Found Me)"

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Tennessee: 39, Southern Miss: 19

A rejuvenating performance by the Vols. Hopefully it was enough to fend off Appalachian State (thank you Ducks!) and keep us in the top 25. Erik Ainge looked like a mini-Manning (only much taller), distributing the ball across and (finally) down the field with fantastic accuracy and making sophomore Austin Rogers look like Steve Largent resurrected. Ainge’s stats would have been better if his young receivers hadn’t dropped some difficult (but not impossible) balls. Arian Foster was a beast, rushing for an efficient 125 yards on 23 carries. LaMarcus Coker was MIA, but true freshman Lennon Creer came in at the end and showed some serious moves and speed, something Tennessee will desperately need next weekend. Xavier Mitchell was (thankfully) back on the field, and it only took the entire first half for the defense to wake-up. Still, the sight of Southern Miss. Quarterback, Jeremy Young, running freely in the first half, coupled with a nearby TV highlighting the manner in which Florida dynamic-duo Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow were galloping over Troy, made me nauseous. With exception of 47-yard FG Special teams were (as usual) atrocious, but it was encouraging to see Jonathan Hefney returning punts. A Vol fan at the bar next to me was wise enough to opine: “I think we may just be bad enough to beat Florida.” Here, here, I say.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Datarock: Thougths

Who would have thought—despite debuting almost twenty years ago on the tail of punk music—that new wave would have outlasted grunge? Starting as far back 1978, with the evolution of Blondie and Elvis Costello and the debut of bands like Talking Heads and Joy Division, we’re still reaping the benefits; while grunge, although having birthed two of the most significant bands of the last twenty-five years (Nirvana and Pearl Jam), would be hijacked for MTV by a group of suburban white boys aching for hip-hop credibility (Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Lincoln Park) and dying a slow death as “nu-metal”. While never giving us quite an equivalent (although there are those—like me—who would claim that New Order and The Talking Heads weren’t too shabby), new wave gave us some of the best singles of the 80’s, songs and bands whose influence can be found all over the current indie-rock scene. Heck, one could argue that, until they found Springsteen, The Killers were the best retro-new-wave act around.

Anyone half-interested in listening to the bastard children of Devo and The Buggles would be wise to pick up the self-titled debut of the Norwegien group Datarock. Datarock is a typical example of your older sister’s geek-rock: lots of synthesizers, beats that fit in nicely at the whitest club while also serving as an awesome soundtrack to a Tetris tournament. What makes Datarock stand out isn’t their simple and excessively catchy shoulder-shakers, but the way they successfully blend their influences, most notably Devo and New Order, with a not so subtle splash of their Scandinavian neighbors ABBA. Of course, to attempt such a feat, one needs be aware of the inherent pitfalls, but, thankfully, if there is one thing Datarock has in spades its self-awareness. The first track on the album, “Bulldozer”, is either an elaborate joke, or a Tenacious D-like attempt at crafting—wait for it… the greatest new-wave song of all time! You decide. Here are a few lines form the first verse: Bulldozer, Bulldozer. Bulldozer, Bulldozer. Bulldozer, Bulldozer. Bulldozer, Bulldozer. BMX, IS BETTER THAN SEX. BMX, IS BETTER THAN SEX. Hilarious. If, of course, your like your funny danceable. If that is the case, feel free to enjoy tracks “I Used to Dance with My Daddy”, the best song to use backmasking since “Revolution 9”; or, “Fa-fa-fa” a hopping riff that veers dangerously close to Franz Ferdinand.

Datarock clearly enjoys playing with their influences. Occasionally they drift too far into the shadows of their elders, which can, at times, seem self-indulgent, but they are never boring. While songs like “Computer Camp Love” and “Ugly Primadonna” would hardly qualify as a Devo b-side, “Sex Me Up” and “New Song” could have easily been included on Devo's greatest hits. “The Most Beautiful Girl” is a pitch perfect Human League homage, while “I Will Always Remember” plays like an unrecorded ABBA track, a group whose influences can also be found on the track “Gaburo Girl”. Datarock’s ability to emulate and embellish their mentors is never more apparent than on tracks like “Laurie” and “See What I Care”, the later song being the best song on the album; a track so perfect that it manages to resurrect the melancholy of Joy Division’s (suicidal) Ian Curtis and eerily reunite him with his band-mate's spin-off, New Order. “See What I Care” is such a good song, it has a decent shot of making it onto the soundtrack of Sophia Coppola's next film (and I mean “appearing on the soundtrack” for a Sophia Coppola film as the highest compliment possible for any new wave act). Maybe Datarock’s shtick will get old. But if you’re still dancing, do you really care?

Song I advocate paying real money for it’s so good: “See What I care”

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Get ready for music. Oh, and an interlude concerning Tony Snow:
"Elvis Presley ain't got no soul.
Jimi Hendrix is rock and roll.
You may dig on the Rolling Stones,
but everything they did they stole.
Elvin Presley ain't got no soul.
Bo Diddley is rock and roll.
You may dig on the Rolling Stones,
but they ain't come up with that shit on they own.
Who am I... Who am I..."-Mos Def

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Tennessee: 31, Cal: 45

We lost. We could have won. But it could have been worse. Erik Ainge looked extremely competent, if not a little gimpy when throwing over fifteen yards. Arian Foster, at times, looked big and fast like the Lawrence Phillips of old Nebraska, but he seemed to run out of steam too quickly and too often, on two separate occasions when it seemed like he could have scored—something Cal never looked…slow, that is. Our receivers, mostly freshman and sophomores, were invisible and skittish; one play in particular in which a receiver pussy-footed his way across the middle (a no-no), thus missing probably one of the hardest and most accurate passes from Ainge all night, which he didn’t even see, was a prime example. Our line, with exception of that opening drive, kept Ainge off the turf. Our punter looked terrible, but Vol fans understand that it usually takes a Colquitt until his senior year to be any good. Whoever we have doing the kick-offs might as well boot it out-of-bounds every time because he clearly can’t kick it pass the thirty-yard line, as Cal seemed to start at least on the forty every series; adopting this strategy would guarantee that our opponents start no further than the thirty-five yard line. In order to keep our (suddenly) thin defense rested, our offense is going to have to score often and slowly, especially if they’re going to stick to this no-huddle business. By the end of the game, it was clear that they (the defense) could hardly muster the strength to tackle Justin Forsett (93 yards in the fourth quarter). The good news being that our defense proudly maintained its tradition of being one of the worst tackling teams in the NCAA, a longstanding Tennessee fault that I have stopped believing will ever change as long as John Chavis coaches defense. Seriously, watching our players make the (admittedly) talented Desean Jackson look like Reggie Bush was embarrassing. The loss of Xavier Mitchell is catastrophic. If we lose Jonathan Hefney to injury, we might as well offer opposing offenses 6-points and devote our time to becoming extra-point blocking machines since it is clear that Hefney and Mitchell (along with Jerod Mayo) are the only guys who can tackle. Freshman star recruit, Eric Berry, looked like a beast when he nailed Cal track phenom Jahvid Best, and he seemed to be the only player in the secondary who could keep step with Desean Jackson--here’s hoping he continues to get better and not arrested. Next week Southern Mississippi, followed by Florida. Not to be a homer, but we could win both of those games, but we could also lose them, which, I imagine, goes without saying.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Superbad: Thoughts

I dedicate this post to The Dropcloth and her dearly departed Augustus:

It is good advice, if one wishes to maintain their credibility, to avoid the dreaded “overstatement”, less one be thought simple, or worse, gullible. It is with such thoughts in mind that I can say, without equivocation, that Michael Cera is…the funniest man alive! Being aware that Cera is only 19 and hardly “manly” material, it is a bold claim, especially while Bill Murray lives. But I’ve come to realize that I prefer Cera’s turtleish concern over Murray’s drunken (and increasingly weird) buffoonery. Basically, there is nothing Michael Cera does that hasn’t make me laugh (here, here, or here). This may be due largely to the fact that I was indoctrinated early on by Cera’s performance as the earnest but clueless George Michael from Fox’s short lived Arrested Development (or the fact that every episode of his web-show, Clark and Michael, has been downloaded onto my X-Box 360).

In Superbad (produced by Judd Apatow), Cera plays Evan, an every-dude who just wants to get to know his childhood crush, Becca. Jonah Hill (no doubt reminding many in the theater of Jonah Hill’s Jonah from Apatow’s other film this summer, Knocked-Up) plays Evan’s best-bud Seth, a guy desperately willing to do whatever it takes to obtain your average blow job (the vagina being “not his thing”—a mysterious region too complicated to master in relation to the simple/expected high school blow job, "expected" because, well…the internet says so). If the internet is to be blamed for the sexual revolution/perversion of teenage youth, the one thing it has undoubtedly failed to do is provide answers regarding adolescent inadequacies and conflicted morality, instead serving up the illusion of false intimacy... and a blow job becomes just a blow job. But porn is very clearly not intimate, and what it offers is far beyond the purview of love, which is, after all, what most teenagers really crave in the companionship that will offset the growing existential angst of adulthood (in this case, Dartmouth). Well, at least Evan does… Towards the end of the film it’s heartening to see Evan, when confronted with his (or Seth’s) “ideal” moment to (as the immature cops played by writers Rogen and Goldberg) “engage”, can’t seem to access those downloaded vulgarities and instead falls back on old faithful…health class: Becca: I’m so wet right now. Evan: Yeah…they said that would happen in health class. Ha! And he means it! Cera is like Murray without the irony or arrogance. Apatow is wise to hitch his wagon to actors like Cera, Rudd, and Rogen, decent mopes who feel the withered pull of chivalry filtered through MTV, the internet, and 80’s comedies.

Of course Apatow and crew understand that such goodness can only stand out when contrasted with the most crass male stereotypes, which is why the addition of Hill as Cera’s partner makes them such a winning duo; both look like turtles (one in face, one in shape—neither in speed: “He’s… he’s, the fastest kid alive…”). Still, Apatow is canny enough to understand that a majority of the male audience coming to Superbad live immersed in the world of porn, completely detached from the real intimacy of oral sex, or the notion that reciprocation is indeed, in fact, simply that, and not intimacy. Those people will probably find Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s (McLovin) misadventures more humorous, and see Becca’s “sex-kitten” behavior as a great missed opportunity and not the confused attempt to connect that it is (as if women don’t watch porn and have to deal with its expectations). If a larger critique of youth sex-culture (a Hollywood film subject since Porky’s) goes unnoticed, what will not is the tired but true struggle of male fidelity, epitomized in Seth’s desperate rescue of BFF Evan from the cops; watching Seth use Evan’s head to clear a table of beer bottles says more about the adolescent effort to maintain our pseudo-sexual male relationships than an hour spent engaging in ethnic chop sokey in a Paris brothel (take that Brett Rattner and Rush Hour 3).

In short, it’s hard to declare Superbad the best film of the summer, but I wouldn’t rule out calling it the most decent. You know, if I were prone to overstatement…

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


"Act your age, not the size of those pants."
-Full Force

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Stardust: Thoughts

Matthew Vaughn’s long gestating fantasy epic, Stardust, would love to be elevated to the venerable heights of that other classic fantasy film full of expertly timed cameos—The Princess Bride (itself recently turned 20, huzzah!); and try as Stardust does to attain such sweet heights, it falls short…but just barely. Sadly, the energy propelling Stardust is far too reliant on the well timed appearance of Hollywood A-listers (Robert DeNiro, Peter O’Toole, Michele Pfeiffer, and, heck, Ricky Gervais), unlike The Princess Bride, which was propelled by the introduction of stable-boy Wesley and the subsequent wonderfully long-winded chase of the Dread Pirate Roberts and his quest to steal Princess Buttercup back from formidable Sicilian intellectual Vizzini (the iconic Wally Shawn), Wesley/Roberts and Buttercup were played by relative unknowns, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright (soon to be, Penn). Whereas The Princess Bride was a rare example of cinematic fusion—sweetness made manifest; Stardust is irony made corporal, a fact due, in large part, to the very existence of The Princess Bride, making it almost disingenuous to talk about Stardust as if it weren’t attempting to cast a direct shadow over the past (much the way Bay’s Transformers attempted to do with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park 2). If Stardust offers up something unique, it’s the film’s adoption of the liberal awakening currently being found in the childhood fantasy epic, something simplistically hinted at in the Harry Potter series, but attacked full-force in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. No longer is the literary fantasy epic dominated by the traditional biblical allegory, nor are such films still rooted in the conservative ethos of Regan-era Hollywood (something, regardless of its intent, The Princess Bride was). But all of this is just politics. In the end, Stardust’s attempt to become a pop-cultural, generational, phenomenon will be based solely on its contributions to the genre and what it gives us that we haven’t seen in fantasy.

Those contributions include the sporadic Claire Danes and Charlie Cox, who, before trading in his British bob-cut for a mane of virile locks, looks too much like Sam Rami on the floor of Comic-Con. The plot concerns Cox’s young adventurer, Tristan, and his quest to return a fallen star to his (temporary) “true love” Victoria (Sienna Miller—slumming it here). During his adventure, Tristan and Yvaine (the star: Danes), encounter the evil witch Lamia (Pfeiffer), a prince and the ghosts of his slain brothers (one of the more humorous bits in the film), and, being summer of ’07, instead of ’87—you guessed it… a gay pirate (DeNiro)! Along the way, Tristan (of course) learns what love is really all about (so liberal! so willing to learn!), unlike young Wesley, who from the opening moment of The Princess Bride, never had to learn (so conservative! so resolved!). It’s this paramount cliché that prevents Stardust—unlike the unwavering unapologetic decency of Bride—from elevating itself to the heights of Bride. In the end, despite all the fancy spells (read: CGI), there’s no such thing as magic as leaps of faith are prohibited and treated skeptically. It’s just Hollywood, baby. Hollywood.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Simpsons Movie: Thoughts

Fans of Fox’s The Simpsons will find much to like in The Simpsons Movie. Everyone—and I do mean everyone—is here, and how good a movie it is will largely depend on your relationship with the source material. I myself greatly enjoyed seeing my favorite animated show make the belated leap to celluloid following numerous other inferior cartoon staples (South Park, Bevis and Butt-Head… Jimmy Neutron). People who’ve never seen an episode (if that is possible) might leave the theater wondering if the show has always been that consistently funny (generally, yes—start at season 2 and go…). Fans of the show will, however, no doubt feel slightly less optimistic, for we understand that the best episodes are often the ones that feature the supporting characters (Pick one: Mr. Burns, Krusty the Clown, Ralph Wiggum, Sideshow Bob, Principal Skinner, Wayland Smithers, Grandpa Simpson, Groundskeeper Willie, Millhouse, Rainier Wolfcastle, Appu Nahasapeemapetilon, etc.). We can at least take solace in the fact that the movie’s delayed arrival allowed the Bart fad to wither (those episodes, while funny, are never classics), liberating us so that we could bask in the presence of the single greatest television character of the last fifteen years: Homer Jay Simpson. Sure, the movie would have been better if it had used the supporting cast better, but who will argue Homer’s moment in the sun as he has been the central character at the core of many of the show’s best moments and lines. With James L. Brooks (a creator) heavily involved, you knew the film would lean more towards a "cohesive" plot, rather than the scatological humor of later seasons. The film's plot follows Homer and the fallout over his role in an ecological disaster involving a new pet pig, thus relegating many of the fine bit characters to proportionately smaller parts (alas, poor Mr. Burns). Eventually the family is forced to flee Springfield, spending a disproportional amount of time in Alaska and leaving the rest of the town to survive the machinations of evil corporate environmentalist Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks: famous among Simpsons fans as the first Hollywood celebrity to actually allow his name to be shown in the credits—a fact that may have been shocking then, whereas now you it would be hard pressed to hurl a sex-tape at a celebrity who hasn’t appeared on the show). Like any random episode, the film is consistently hilarious and uncomfortably emotional. Marge’s video tapped confession to Homer, recorded over their wedding video, is particularly moving as it pulls off the amazing feat of making the audience complicit in her sadness—we, after all, do love Homer’s buffoonery. The film might not be the breakthrough the South Park film was, but it stands as a glorious tribute to a universe we’ll gladly re-visit, like Appu (even gut-shot) politely asks, again and again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix: Thoughts

Here is a list of the Harry Potter films from best to worst:

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

3. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Reasons why the fifth Harry Potter is better than the first two:

1. Chris Columbus didn’t direct it.

2. Radcliffe and friends are more buff, both physically and as actors. Radcliffe takes what is arguably the most annoying version of Harry and makes him more than a tantrum prone “teenager”.

3. Not so pretty in pink, Imelda Staunton, as Dolores Umbridge, is fantastic, and is the first true villain in a Harry Potter film. Sure Voldemort is the big bad, but often times Harry and his interactions result from their crossing paths during their own individual adventures. Umbridge is front and center and is directly in Potter’s face.

4. The showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore is even more spectacular than in the book, made more so by the fact that we now know it will be the only time they face off the entire series.

Reasons why the fifth Harry Potter is not as good as 3 and 4.

1. Alfonso Cuaron is one of the top three directors working today. His version of Harry Potter was one of the most beautiful films of 2004, and the first film to tap into the rich textures of Rowling’s universe.

2. As “serious” as 5 was, it lacked the action of 4 and involved one of the least surprising “twists” of the series. Not the movies fault per se, but it’s hard to compete with the twist of 3, or that final image of Voldemort and the dead Cedric Diggory in 4. This, as well as the increasingly limited input from Harry’s mates, is the possible result of filmmaker David Yates’ desire to make the longest book of the series the shortest film.

3. Seriously, not enough Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) or Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall).

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ratatouille: Thoughts

At some point the etymological root of the word “consume” (to eat/drink) evolved to include the desire accumulate (absorb) items; as if the catalyst to horde relics of our monetary means had somehow become a carnivorous task, an impulse as base and as intrinsic as our desire for sustenance, and a word, sprouting offspring with additional appendages, became “consumerism”. It is within this history that the geniuses of Pixar, and the heartfelt and fertile mind of animator Brad Bird, provide us with a perfect parable of our day.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a rat. More importantly, Remy is a rat with a refined pallet and who can hardly, like a good rat should, stomach the indiscriminate consumption of the traditional garbage and refuse, and would rather, using his unique abilities, create elaborate dishes, a problem that naturally results in a unique omnivore’s dilemma. It is a tribute to Brad Bird that Ratatouille is as much about food as it isn’t. The metaphor of the individual artist’s struggle amid the economic entity of his upbringing easily stretches beyond the most populist kitchen in Paris. The rat’s (lead by Remy’s father) goals are, as a plague, to feed and live—the more they eat the better their quality of life. The guilt Remy experiences, as his desire to create consumes him, is felt by any who have wished to express their own artistic impulses in something as simple as a peasant dish, or book, or painting, or song. Remy, as the boss’s son and inheritor of his system, has a responsibility to contribute to his society, like using his talent in less pedantry ways by sniffing out the poisoned bits of garbage. In Remy’s economic social system this is an essential task, one that ensures the safety and livelihood of not only his family (including his lumbering doofus brother) but his community. But it is Remy’s continued desire to engage in the art of gastronomy that makes him a pariah, and, for those of us who have tried to explain to parents and family why we’ve chosen to be nearer to poverty than a 401k in the pointless fantasy pursuit of art, Remy’s discussions with his father are eerily pertinent. I myself have had many discussions with my own father regarding the method in which I approach my desire to discuss film, books, and politics (he thinks I’m a bit long-winded and snotty). Of course, he is right. But, sadly, to do so in a different manner would betray my own refined (or mangled, depending) pallet. A sin if I ever believed in one.

Ratatouille is another triumph for Pixar, the latest link in an amazing chain, and I nervously fret over the day when I will go to the theater and not be moved. In Ratatouille, is was during vampiric-critic Anton Ego’s (the superb Peter O’Toole) review of the (Remy) revived Gusteau’s, and his sublime acceptance of his role as a responsible critic, obligated to truly reexamine, in every event, how one truly evaluates art, for what purpose, and how this purpose must be inextricably tied to the willingness to accept that great art can come from anywhere (for instance, a kiddie film with rats), that I was most shaken. Whether it was simply the old knight O’Toole’s voice—aged and serene like the most eloquent requiem—or Bird’s words concerning said art, I found myself wistful and melancholy at the notion that, assuming one maintains their principles and strives for artistic perfection in all things, even the most stringent classicist or hardened parent can be moved to acknowledge the wonderment of it all. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott claimed that Ratatouille was “…a nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film.” And, seeing as I cannot find fault with such a claim and would indeed applaud it, I would simply add that Ratatouille is, by far, a truly exquisite and wholly satisfying emotional experience. In short: a work of art of the most excellent flavour.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum: Thoughts

A bizarrely specific box office “report” recently asserted that—pound for pound—Matt Damon was the most profitable actor in Hollywood, a fact that, until The Bourne Ultimatum, I had refused to accept. Damon and his elfish good looks seemed too ordinary for such a title. Whereas Tom Hanks owns his askance geekness, and Tom Cruise his unbalanced and crooked face, or even the way Brad Pitt manipulates that Californian speech impediment (from Oklahoma!) to blur adonis beauty in a way that makes us question how much grey matter may have been lost in the creation of such a physical specimen, each of them, justly, earns their place as a legitimate Hollywood face. Damon was always too boy scout, a fact that has helped his career (for instance: making him the perfect bone to fetch in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan). If there was a trademarked flaw in his visage to be found, it was a slight bulbous mass at the end of his otherwise flawless nose, and he was unable to even retain the sliver of a Bostonian accent that Mark Whalberg has spent a career trying to ditch. In short, he was rather bland. Yet he kept making movies, and I kept watching.

As an actor, Damon was solid, whether it was memorably dismembering Harvard and MIT snots, or obsessively lusting after idyllic British “mates” to homicidal affect, he was a rock. And then, one summer: The Bourne Identity. And here was Damon, much like in Good Will Hunting, playing a supernaturally talented special ops agent, disarming Swedish policemen as quick and as rough as he did Ivy League cads. Jason Bourne wasn’t much of a stretch for Damon, a juiced up Will Hunting who, as if one his way to see that girl, decided to stop by the NSA and instead take that job his buddy Ben Affleck pissed away, soon finding himself, after a bit of mental rewiring, diagramming assassinations instead of Math proofs. In fact, the speech Bourne relays to Franka Potente’s Marie in The Bourne Identity is almost verbatim the speech he gives Minnie Driver’s Skylar back at Harvard in Good Will Hunting… only without the sugar. Damon’s performance in the first Bourne film was jittery, amazed, as if, for the entire film, he kept thinking: “Holy cow! I’m Matt Damon: action hero! No way!” Sadly, Matty, this was no joke. The Bourne Identity went on to make $120+-mil and a sequel was made (The Bourne Supremacy), this time with British filmmaker Paul Greengrass at the helm. Greengrass tackled the convoluted plot of secret Black Ops training and Russian oil barons with what seemed like a digital handheld and a can of Jolt. The effect was strange…nauseous, really… and… incredibly, awesome. Damon still seemed startled by the hubbub, and, by the end of the film, we couldn’t help but sense his bewilderment evidenced in many of Bourne’s growing ticks: the shifty eyes and hands, the quick furtive glances over his shoulders. Still, coupled with Damon's performance as eager rookie heistman in the Ocean films, we were mightily entertained, but wondered, like Damon himself, when we’d finally see that there was no way he could be super-agent Jason Bourne, and that to push it with a third film might risk venturing into self-parody: Austin Powers without the laughs. After all, Bourne was no Bond.

But something clicked with Damon the actor during the filming of The Bourne Ultimatum. Here he was, accepting and confident in his role as blockbuster super-spy, and, in re-teaming with Greengrass, successfully blows the lid off of the “Summer of Three’s”. Bourne has lost the ticks. His face is at once serene, while at the same time staunchly virile, soaked in espionage to the point it is hard to determine whether he is being cold, calculating, or both: the ultimate intimidating poker stare. Damon, at last, sits confidently in the role he now appears born (ugh!) to have played. Greengrass senses it too, and, more than ever, steadies the shaky camera on Damon’s suddenly lined visage, and we, knowing completely that this is a killer, more importantly a killer searching to understand his motive, must nervously look away. As for the plot, not much seems to have happened to advance the Bourne Universe. He’s still running. Covert heads of skulduggery (this time David Strathairn) still bark orders to computer techs in dour suits, while the constabulary bounce futilely off Bourne and his various modes of transportation. But who cares with talent like this, committed and confident. Here’s to hoping big brother never gives up the chase.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sunshine: Thoughts

There was a time when all men knew of God was The Sun. Bathed in God-light, mankind was warmed and invigorated, and, inspired with its restless energy, they traveled across the earth as God watched, sleeping as It slept. Man was a loyal disciple of the Sun until discovering fire, and, with the harnessed the power of light and heat, were free to more without God’s blessing and warm their children when It neglected them. And so the Sun’s dominion over man, although still powerful and always prevalent, dimmed, and man’s existential quest for knowledge and the power prescribed to God (lordship, knowledge) began.

It is the reawakening of this long rationalized awe that director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) attempt to tap into with their newest collaboration, the sci-fi meditation/thriller Sunshine. The earth is dying. Ra’s strength is feeble and diminishing rapidly, and it is the last ditch effort of a racially diverse group of space cowboys to rekindle his light by flying a giant metal umbrella, (nay!) shield, called Icarus II to his doorstep and leave him a Manhattan sized nuclear payload before ringing the bell and hotfooting it back home as heroes. Piece of cake. And, oddly enough, for the first part of the film, it is. That is of course until the crew picks up a distress beacon from earth’s first attempt to save itself, Icarus I (uh-oh!), and, like in any dutiful sci-fi film, make the decision to “investigate”, at which point things go… wrong. Credit crewman Mace (the increasingly compelling Chris Evans) with the understatement of the year, who, before venturing into the eerily quiet (and dusty…human skin we’re told) bowels of Icarus I, cracks wise to a nervous colleague who is against splitting up, “Why, because we might get picked off by aliens?” Ha! He wishes! What the crew uncovers is too fun and bizarre to spoil, but suffice it to say that the increasingly close proximity to our oldest God unleashes a wicked righteousness and runic spirituality not exclusive to Dr. Searle (Cliff Curtis), who, like any “doctor” in a sci-fi film, is looking a bit singed around edges. It’s no spoiler to say that eventually the cast is elaborately whittled down and we are left with physicist and nuclear engineer Capa’s (Cillian Murphy) marbelous blue eyes and big brain (seriously, the proportion of Cillian Murphy’s head to the rest of his small and frail body hints at some kind of alien relationship) to save the day (with some excellent help from Mace/brawn and Cassie/boobs).

What happens next is what happens in every Danny Boyle film: a calamity of genres energized with the technical skill and psychological brutality of a Jaeger Bomb. As the movie races to the climax, Boyle increasingly cuts and blurs the film, like sunspots, with overexposed frames that give cinematic form to both the bending of time and the warping effect of the gravity created by man’s desire to demand the attention of his all-father, even as he slowly wastes away and dies before him. Sunshine is a memorable film largely due to the talent of the creators and actors involved, but also for being what its peers this summer have not: A thinking man’s blockbuster with a passing awareness of the beauty of human endeavor.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Transformers: Thoughts

Say what you want about Michael Bay, but (by God!) don’t call him cheap. There is no denying that the man knows how to spend $100+ million dollars, and this time (in a film produced by Steven Spielberg) it’s Hasbro’s money that gets tossed into the blockbuster machine. What emerges from this meeting of the focus groups is probably one of the loudest, most colorful and clueless, movies of the aughts. Shia LaBeouf plays Peter Parker—I’m sorry (but...hmm...), I mean, Sam Whitwicky, an outcast dork too cool (it’s Bay!) to not have an innate aptitude for science or computers, and who’s superpower seems to be sarcasm, and even that is absent of irony, something that Michael Bay, with all his commercially honed wizardry, has, yet to understand. For a movie about robots that can change into machines (think, intergalactic shoppers), I found the film so earnest that it was difficult to find places in which I could add the appropriate ironic quotes (except for maybe John Turturro’s performance as agent Simmons, an agent of “S7”, who’s “crazy” eyes and underwear seem to suggest a none too subtle attack on his agent, who no doubt told him this was the kind of movie that would help pay for that vacation house in the Caribbean).

None of this is really a complaint mind you. Transformers has, at its rotten commercial core, the apple pie flavor that resides at the center of many a Spielberg picture. And, let’s be honest, irony is overrated and has ruined many a blockbuster this summer (Hello, Pirates! Good morning, Shrek!). However it is Bay’s own cluelessness as a filmmaker/human being that leads to many of the most stunning faux pas, particularly when he's making simplistic allusions to his idols (Spielberg and… himself): an homage to the most product heavy Spielberg picture (Jurassic Park…2, no less!), followed by the swirling camera shot Bay himself unveiled to much better and aesthetically pleasing effect in Bad Boys 2, an impulse that makes one wonder if Bay is simply parodying himself, or attempting to (pathetically) draw parallels between his elaborate commercials and Spielberg's honed nostalgia. Even more troubling is when this disconnect with reality is felt during a crucial plot point that has the Army, while attempting to hide the largest Rubik Cube in the universe from the Decepticons (bad guys, who've already demonstrated a willingness to engage in the mass slaughter of Army bases and Iraqi villages), decides (I kid you not) to take the cube to the nearest, most populated, area they can find, all of which leads to a scene in which Megatron (bad guy, who can change into a spiky space-jet) flies Optimus Prime (good guy, who can change into a semi-truck) into an office high-rise, bloodlessly killing hundreds of terrified and screaming computer people, a cinematic feat so shocking and blunt, it was only several hours later that my brain awoke to the implications post-Sept. 11th. Such daring do (or dunderheadedness) can only be the brainstorm of a man completely detached from humanity and human complexity, and who is completely immersed on the commercial viability of even the most heinous images. That Bay never considered, for a moment, the implications of such a scene, illustrates the great tragedy of Michael Bay the filmmaker: a technical wizard who never met a dolly shot he didn’t like (one wonders if the DVD will include outtakes of Tyrese Gibson and Shia dancing—or better, tripping—over the dolly tracks that litter the ground out of frame), and is a filmmaker who, while looking for his favorite open collared shirt, sold his soul to someone much more pathetic than the devil and thus lacks the faculties to ever be considered a true artist. I don’t care what that essay on my Criterion Edition of Armageddon says.

But Transformers is still a movie about robots, and, not surprising, it is the robots who steal the show (melancholy Bumble Bee, Prime, that persnickety CD Player/rat thingy), and it’s when they clash, metal on metal, and—yes—transform, that kids and fans of the toys and the old Marvel comics, young and old (present!), feel a tug inside our gut and find ourselves sucked back to the glory days, memories of Martha Quinn and Gorbechev are unearthed, and real sparks fly

Friday, July 20, 2007


15 Feet will be taking a much needed break from politics in the upcoming weeks, starting with movies, movies, movies, with thoughts on Transformers, Ratatouille, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Sicko, and, possibly, Sunshine. Followed by: music, music, music, and thoughts on Datarock, Wilco, Ryan Adams, The White Stripes, and Nick Cave. Plus an announcement regarding the first 15 Feet contest winner!

I’d also like to take a moment to direct you to this awesome preview of the Cohen brother’s new film No Country for Old Men (click here). If you like the preview, feel free to read my review of the book by clicking here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Wrangling the Angler: Part Four

Today concludes the four part examination of the various quandaries raised by the Washington Post (here) regarding Vice President Cheney’s involvement executive branch decision making;

  1. Regarding Cheney’s role in challenging the science protecting a group of endangered fish in the interest of farmers hit hard by drought in a swing- state that resulted in the death of over ten thousand salmon: A touchy issue. Do most Americans support the rights of fish over the potential livelihood of farmers? Unless they’re on the fringes of the far left, not likely, and, despite the environmental carnage, it is difficult to find fault in the impulse to do so. Difficult, not impossible.
  2. Regarding Cheney’s effort to pressure the EPA into easing air pollution controls: Why should the EPA care about air pollution? It’s not like air pollution is one of its charters? Seriously, have we not arrived at the point that air quality (and I’m not even talking about global warming) is something to remain vigilant about?
  3. Regarding statements from former Cheney staff members who explained their role in re-writing a Clinton-era land protection measure that put nearly a third of our national forests off limits to logging, mining, and most developments: I’ll never understand the conservative agenda against the environment (notice I say conservative not Republican, as I believe there are Republicans out there who have at least some interest in the environment). With a nation that’s national identity is so tied up in the works of Henry David Thoreau and William James, it seems like it should almost be un-American to pillage the land the way Cheney would attempt. There isn’t a Founding father (from Jefferson to Franklin) in which the American ecology wasn’t of significant import. Power clearly has its draws, and as Americans we seem to celebrate individuals who can accumulate it. But with the environment today it’s more and more about greed and money, and Cheney resembles, more and more, the lumbering arrogant evil (a harsh word but one Americans shouldn’t be afraid of—as if our society has never produced a figure bereft of morality) of Noah Cross from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, than the Henry Kissinger he imagines himself to be.
  4. Regarding deputy assistant interior secretary for fish and wildlife, Paul Hoffman’s, claim that the VP, an avid fisherman, was against listing the cutthroat trout because it would harm the recreational fishing industry in the VP’s home state of Wyoming: So it becomes clear: Attempt to interfere with anything the VP views as his—power, wealth, recreational activities—and risk drawing his ire. Most Americans, as part of adolescence, come to terms with the fact that we can’t always have what we want and that sacrifices constantly have to be made, for the “greater good”, or, less nobly, for “prudence’s sake”. Apparently, not the VP who reacts like a spoiled child when denied the things he craves—again: power, wealth, recreational hobby.
  5. Regarding Cheney’s attempt to remove snowmobiling restrictions in national parks, a tactic that involved attempting to fundamentally alter the way in which national parks were managed and attracted so much opposition from park managers and the public that the Interior Department withdrew it: Finally, the kind of off-radar political initiative we expect of our VPs! It would be more humorous if not for the way such an image seems to complete the disturbing portrait of a man who has attempted to remain unapproachable. And doesn’t immediately prompt one ask: Is there a single Cheney decision that has benefited Americans?
  6. Regarding Paul Hoffman’s assessment that Cheney’s “genius” is his ability to “put the right people in places… that comport with his overall vision”: Genius? Most people would call those people servants. And it hardly takes a “genius” to issue orders to a servant, no matter how many he may be directing.
  7. Regarding Cheney’s refusal to tap into the Cabinet officials (referred to as the “God Squad”) in his quest to help Ohio farmers, who’s job it is to decide if economic hardships outweigh the benefit of protecting endangered wildlife, and Cheney’s insistence that the had to “get the science on the side of the farmers”: Can we all at least agree on what a pathetic politician Cheney actually is, thereby explaining his utter lack of interest in the office of the presidency. We see here the seedlings of what will be another colossal failure (much like his dealing with enemy combatants) that, rather than benefiting anyone, works to hamstring both the executive branch and the agencies tasked to deal with such issues. The fact that there is a system in place to decide such issues, and the fact that Cheney sought to circumvent such channels, further illustrates his fear of confrontation and would avoid debate for fear of being exposed as the robber baron he is.
  8. Regarding former head of the EPA, Christine Todd Whittman’s, assessment that Cheney had called her personally to complain that she “hadn’t moved fast enough” regarding easing pollution rules for aging power and oil refinery plants: Ah, finally, a VP who is hands-on in environmental issues! Sigh…
  9. Regarding Whittman’s assessment of task force meetings with Cheney, in which Cheney argued that EPA regulations were to blame for keeping companies from building new power plants: So companies shouldn’t operate with a moral imperative and to expect them to do so is unacceptable? Companies shouldn’t be expected to make money in order to make it, particularly if it pertains to the future health of this nation (not to mention the world)? How have profits for oil refineries “suffered” as a result of environmental legislation? Didn’t Exxon pull in $25 billion last year? Not a penny of that can go to increased environmental protection? Didn’t they drive a tanker into Alaska? Have increased safety regulations in auto-manufacturing (seat belts, air bags) actually hurt auto-companies (like they claimed they would). Only the most self-deluded person would actually believe that those costs aren’t passed to the consumer. So either Cheney is a complete idiot, or he is deluded. The only other option would be to consider that he is completely aware and doesn’t care, which would make him someone completely bereft of moral character, traditionally the description reserved for people we like to think of as “evil”.
  10. Regarding the White House’s assessment of EPA reports that White House wanted “more pro-industry”: Sigh…
  11. Regarding the federal court of appeals who decided against Cheney backed legislation and their ruled that their attempts to redefine the law would only be valid in “a Humpty-Dumpty world”: But that’s the thing: When you don’t care about pushing Humpty of the wall and would attempt to prevent others from cleaning up the broken pieces, such laws make perfect sense.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Wrangling the Angler: Part Three

Today, part three of a series of posts pondering the recent philosophical, historical, and moral quandaries raised by the reportage of The Washington Post regarding the Vice President and his influence on the executive branch. Part One can be found here. Part Two can be found here. Today’s discussion relies largely on the VP’s role in shaping the economy:

  1. Regarding Cheney’s Feb. 6 2003 goal to sell the House and Senate leaders on a $674 billion tax cut, one month prior to the invasion of Iraq: With war on the horizon, it may have been prudent to consider the cost of such a cut, and that, perhaps a $674 billion dollar tax cut might possibly have been shelved for a later date, at least until certain assumptions about the war (greeted as liberators, etc.) could be reevaluated. To propose a plan suggests that perhaps the individuals involved in crafting it felt the impending war was akin to a business investment, providing enough “profit” to pay for itself. Back in the day they used to call this “war profiteering”, now apparently it’s just a budget proposal.
  2. Regarding Bush’s rejection of Cheney’s plan to provide deep reductions in the capital gains tax on investments as part of their plan to stimulate the sluggish economy, an act Bush felt would damage his goal of “compassionate conservatism” by slashing taxes on only the wealthiest of Americans, and Cheney’s domestic policy adviser, Cesar Conda’s, assertion that “it goes to show you: He wins and he loses, and he lost on that one.”: Proof positive that the President isn’t afraid to step in an restrain Cheney when he feels that the VP overreaches. So then should we be nervous that the VP, after “losing", began to hold closed door sessions at the Greenbrier resort, in which he actively sought to work his preferred tax cut into the proposal, even at the at the expense of the President’s own goals? Surely, not! By golly, the President put his foot down on this one!
  3. Regarding the President’s assertions that he is the “decider”, and the portrayal of the VP as the one who often serves up the President’s menu of choices: When did being a “decider” become a virtue for a President? If I’m in an Indian restaurant for the first time, etiquette suggests that eventually I will have to “decide” what I will order, but just because I’ve “decided” on an entrée has nothing to do with whether or not I am informed about Indian food or the quality of the selection. What Bush doesn’t seem to realize is that a menu crafted exclusive of him makes him a more of a “chooser”, something most presidents have rarely been celebrated for.
  4. Regarding Cheney’s view that the VP should be “the chief of staff in effect, that everything should run through his office” and the President’s willingness to “delegate” responsibilities: A seemingly noble idea that clearly speaks towards a lack on understanding about the history of VP’s, bringing up the age old question: Should Cheney be criticized for taking the leads and aiding the president, or should the president be criticized for being weak and unable to advance his own policy initiatives in he shadow of such an imposing Dick? Sensible people understand the difference between delegating and allowing someone else to do their job for them, as delegating involves setting up certain criteria or goals and allowing your subordinates to craft solutions that work to maximize those goals. It’s not delegating when your subordinates make all the decisions, or more importantly set the goals. Direction should always come from the top. Anyone who has worked where there is a clear chain of command can recognize the difference.
  5. Regarding the space shuttle Columbia’s disintegration over Texas on Feb. 1 2003 and Bush’s being “consumed with concern for the families”, which left Cheney to make the first critical decisions about the future of manned spaceflight: A perfect example where all the principles involved seemingly make the right decisions, and yet I can’t help but be unnerved by some of the particulars. Mainly the notion that Bush was “consumed” with concern for the families, thus forcing Cheney to step in and play foreign diplomat with Russia about our space program and figure out a way around space-related payments to Russia, something prohibited by Congress. Since Cheney and Bush assert that the President is the commander in chief, I find it problematic that accidental deaths, regardless of how tragic, could so consume the President that it would interfere with him doing his job. This is analogous to an army commander, so upset by the death of a group of young soldiers, that he can’t leave his tent to focus on the battle at hand, and thus a subordinate must make decisions that pertain to the life of the rest of the unit. If this is the case, and Bush can’t deal with human tragedy, than he has no business being the commander in chief of anything, and instead is another example of the his inability to lead, particularly in the most humanitarian of instances (see: Katrina), and casts a direct shadow regarding his subsequent decisions in the wake of Sept. 11th.
  6. Regarding files obtained by warrant in Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La) congressional office, and Cheney’s role in keeping those legally obtained Congressional files out of the hands of federal investigators by placing said files under seal for 45 days, thus allowing Bush to sign off on Cheney’s recommendation denying Justice Department access, which today has resulted in nearly half the files being “off-limits”: It’s good to know that $90,000 in cash, found in a freezer in Jefferson’s home, paid in order to influence congressional legislation, will get Cheney down to the Senate and inspire s him to put aside “petty party politics” for the greater good, even at the expense of the Justice Department, which would be troublesome if it didn’t fit Cheney’s pattern of marginalizing and thwarting the Justice Department’s ability to do anything (fight terrorism, prosecute corruption, etc.).
  7. Regarding the President’s establishment of a budget review board (in which Cheney is the chair) as a device to keep Bush from wasting time on “petty disagreements”, and former Bush budget director from 2001-2003 (and current governor of Indiana), Mitchell E. Daniels Jr’s claim that, during his tenure the number of time a Cabinet official made a direct appeal to Bush was “zero”, which former aides from previous administrations told him was “stunning”: Some of us, when discussing something as important as the Federal Budget, might call “petty disagreements” “healthy debate”, particularly when it involves a dialog between people the President hired—this isn’t Republicans and Democrats in a room, this is, after all, the President’s team. That Cabinet members could not get an audience with the President about the budget makes me want to move to Canada.
  8. Regarding Cheney’s steering clear of faith based/hot/buttoned issues, like stem-cell research and the funneling of federal money into religious groups: Does Cheney’s steering clear of these initiatives mean he is a.) uninterested in them, or b.) clearly the only two issues the VP doesn’t have to shape the President’s opinion on?
  9. Regarding former Texas Republican senator Phil Gramm’s claim that Cheney had told him that Bush was a “big-government conservative” (the sole item in the Washington Post’s article that is disputed by the Cheney’s office): Well, of course Bush is a “big government conservative”. He apparently needs a lot of people to do his job for him.
  10. Regarding Cheney’s assertion that Fed Chairmam Alan Greenspan’s analytical model about The White House’s proposed tax proposals (i.e. cuts) were flawed, and Cheney’s unwillingness to allow Greenspan private audience with the President; as well as former Treasure Secretary, Paul H. O’Neil, and Commerce Secretary, Donald Evans’, claims that a huge tax cut would undermine the GOP’s message of fiscal discipline and Cheney’s subsequent demand for O’Neil’s resignation: First: Greenspan has always needed to be taken down a peg or two, who cares if the plunging the country into a record deficit was the way to do it? As for O’Neil: what makes the VP, already enjoying unprecedented influence and power in the White House, think that he can dictate who should and shouldn’t resign form the President’s cabinet? I mean, it’s not like he hired O’Neil, right?... Right?
  11. Regarding Cheney’s casting the deciding vote in the Senate regarding his capital gain proposal at the sacrifice of one of Bush’s personal goals of abolishing the tax on stock dividends, an issue in which Cesar Conda, Cheney’s personal policy advisor, used as an example of the Vice President “losing”: D’oh!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Wrangling the Angler: Part Two

Today: Part two of my thoughts regarding the legacy of Vice Presidential power and Dick Cheney, focusing on the VP’s efforts to expand Presidential authority in dealing with “enemy combatants”:

  1. Regarding John C. Yoo’s assertion that the “CIA guys” were going to have real difficulties getting “actionable intelligence” from detainees: Welcome to war, Mr. Yoo. I’m sure if you took a poll of every military leader who has commanded troops during war, they would probably tell you that “actionable intelligence” is always difficult to come by, especially through direct questioning of POWs. It’s a wonder America ever won a war prior to contemplating Yoo’s (and Cheney’s) “robust” solution to the “intelligence problem”. The reality is that torturing a German colonel during WWII probably yielded more “actionable intelligence” than torturing some suspected terrorist plucked from some foreign city or mosque (pick a city! we’ve done it all over the world!), as such men followed a chain of command and thus followed something that resembled a paper trail. Is Yoo (or Cheney) aware that certain members of the September 11th terrorist troupe had no idea the plan was to fly the planes into the building? No, because clearly they haven’t read the 9/11 Commission Report. If they had, and were truly interested in preventing future terrorist acts, they might have learned that, unless you were willing to sequester and detain people who hadn’t even committed a crime yet, that “robust” methods could have hardly prevented such an act. The fact that America held to the Geneva Convention while battling the biggest bad of them all (Hitler), should be a lesson in and of itself.
  2. Regarding The Post’s assertion that “the VP’s office played a central role in shattering the limits on coercion of prisoners in US custody”: Cheney talks a lot about removing obstacles to the presidents power, but it is becoming abundantly clear that the only person in the executive office who seeks to actually wield those powers (much like the clumsy young King Arthur in the classic Disney epic The Sword and the Stone) is the VP himself, as many of Cheney’s “initiatives” seem to be implemented in “closed door” sessions. Closed door apparently meaning: lock the door to the Oval Office and say, ‘regardless of what he says don’t let Him out until we’re done here. If he gives you crap, give him this O’Douls.
  3. Regarding the assertion that Cheney has managed his office through “thoroughgoing secrecy, persistence of focus, tactical flexibility in service of fixed aims and close knowledge of the power map of government”: All aspects we hope a VP learns during their tenure as VP, which, in theory, would ideally, make him a better candidate for the presidency in the next election (ah… idealism). The fact that, from day one, Cheney has demonstrated such skills says more about what he wanted to do once in the White House to advance his own interests, as opposed to those of President Bush. Whether Bush had any ideas of his own about what he wanted to do as President, we may never know.
  4. Regarding James A. Baker III’s assessment that Cheney has been “pretty damn good at accumulating power, extraordinarily effective and adept at exercising power”: If by “effective” he means the implementation of policies detrimental to the international reputation of the United Stated…then, yes. Very effective. If he means “effective” as in advancing the ideals of America as (hopefully) a responsible super-power wary of bullying and hesitant to throw its weight around regarding issues that keep decent people up at night…then, no. It’s one thing to covet money in America, which is, after all, the American dream. It is another thing to covet power. History has never been kind to power mongers.
  5. Regarding Cheney’s claim last fall that we “don’t torture” and the opinion of Assistant Attorney General, Jay S. Bybee, that the definition of torture means “…suffering equivalent in intensity to the pain of organ failure…or even death”: Let’s look at that again. According to Cheney and his (few) allies in the Justice Department, torture is not torture unless it involves “organ failure” or “even death”. Generally, the consensus of your average upstanding citizen is that at that point (again, “organ failure…or even death”), it is, quite simply, murder. So, let me get this straight: It’s not “technically” torture unless we murder them? Got it.
  6. Regarding the VP’s lawyers claim that “the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it crosses the line into torture” and that “laws forbidding any person to commit torture do not apply to the commander in chief”, because Congress “may no more regulate the President’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield”: Who are we talking about here? Ulysses S. Grant? Eisenhower? We’re talking about (traditionally) Ivy League educated children of privilege who’ve run hard and fast from armed combat their entire lives. Bush senior was the last president who was actually in combat, and that was more than a generation ago. The chances that a future president might actually command men into battle, riding horseback while saber waving across a battle field, are about as likely as Haley’s Comet actually hitting earth its next go round—it could happen, but nobody seriously thinks it will happen during their lifetime. But this language is pretty specific. Torture is still a crime, and those in the armed services who would implement it run the risk of facing criminal prosecution (see: Abu Ghraib), however the President retains the right to use torture as a “intelligence gathering tool”. So, legally, we’re at the point that the President himself has the right to, personally, waterboard detainees, something phrat-boy Bush no doubt found…awesome. Okay, that was catty. Bush, to our knowledge, has yet to be seen in Eastern Europe or Guantanamo with a steel pail full of cold water. The President should be grateful Cheney took the lead regarding this executive privilege, a power Cheney apparently wields in service of a branch in which he claims he is not a member. Somewhere, a monkey jumps up and down on a musical box while clapping a tiny pair of cymbals.
  7. Regarding John C. Yoo’s, on Aug. 1 2002, signing off on a secret opinion approving waterboarding, a form of near drowning that the U.S. government has prosecuted as a war crime since at least 1901 as “lawful”, as well as a long list of approved interrogation techniques that, thankfully, drew the line at burying a prisoner alive: John C. Yoo… is a douche bag.
  8. Regarding John C. Yoo’s feelings that “only the CIA should do this” but that people at the White House and DOD (Rumsfield’s former right hand man) “felt differently”: John C. Yoo... is a huge douche bag.
  9. Regarding the fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice learned of the torture memo for the first time on June 8, 2004 by reading about it in The Washington Post, two years after its creation: History records Colin Powell’s previous response to news that detainees would be denied legal counsel as, “What the hell just happened?” There is no record of Powell’s exact words upon hearing about the two-year old torture memo, but one can hypothesize, so allow me to completely fabricate, “Fuck. Me. Thosemotherfuckers…” How should we regard the integrity of Bush staff members who were in powerful positions but clearly were unaware of events being played off-stage under their noses, ala Powell and Rice? Perhaps we should let history decide, and, in several years, ask ourselves this question: who stayed?
  10. Regarding the fact that, according to Powell, Rice vociferously admonished Alberto Gonzales (one of the architects) regarding the secret torture memo, insisting that there would be no other secret memos or she would be forced to take the matter “directly to the president”: Decrying that you intend to take executive matters concerning executive rights and powers directly to the executive himself if certain people don’t “straighten up”, is just… bizarre. Somewhere, a monkey, exhausted from banging his tiny cymbals, is fed a fresh banana and sucks spring water from a baby bottle.
  11. Regarding the fact that former deputy White House counsel, Timothy Flannigan, claimed that Cheney’s general counsel, David S. Addington, beat back proposals to allow detainees counsel because “that was the position of his client, the vice president”: The fact that Cheney would use his personal counsel, or that his lawyer would engage in lawyer speak while discussing issues outside of the courtroom, in essence, closed door debates with the Justice Department, illustrates disturbingly pathological behavior, as if the alleged suspects involvement with suspected terrorism were somehow a personal and legal affront against the VP, and that disagreements over the treatment of combatants should resemble the judge’s chamber of a civil suit. Only in this courtroom there is no judge to play arbitrator.
  12. Regarding Rumsfeld’s “emphatic” order to senior subordinates that “the VP had the lead on this issue” of interrogations: Really? I have my constitution right here and I’m pretty sure that the president should be the “lead” on these things, followed by the Secretary of Defense? Hmm, doesn’t say much about the VP… I guess it’s just another example of thinking along the lines of what you can get away with rather than where you’ll draw the line (see yesterday’s post) Besides, where is the precedent on the VP taking the “lead” on an issue as central to national security as the treatment of terrorists? Is this an example of the President being out to lunch and unable to handle such decision, thus making Cheney, the senior executive member the link to the President, the person reluctantly responsible for making these decisions? But, wait… According to Cheney, he’s not part of the executive branch! Are we in the midst of a historical revolution? Has the executive branch, like say, Verizon, begun to outsource executive powers to people willing to do the job for less money? Somewhere, a monkey poops into a green canvas bag and resumes banging his tiny cymbals.
  13. Regarding the numerous Supreme Court rulings against the President’s ability to detain detainees without counsel as well as attempts to extend presidential power, and Flannigan’s claim that “ironically” Cheney’s “crowd pushing the envelop on presidential power have resulted in the president having less powers than he would have had they made less extravagant, monarchial claims”: That loud cracking sound you hear is the sound of at least a dozen Justice Department lawyers and officials (including John Ashcroft), slamming their heads against solid oak. Ironically, a department fully prepared to take on terrorists in the courtroom finds themselves, as well as the executive, more restrained than ever. I hear the ACLU is planning a parade.
  14. Regarding a former White House ally who claims that nobody cares less about their image than Dick Cheney: While holding public office, care of one’s image is not a sign of weakness, but instead, a trait of humanity, in essence, a worry for ones soul. Martin Luther King Jr. (by way of St. Augustine) claimed that a “just law” elevated mankind and that an “unjust law” degraded and humiliated mankind. Thus mankind’s view of laws that would be enacted by politicians should always be considered. How the public views your job performance should absolutely be considered (maybe not the deciding factor, but an interest should be shown). We should applaud elected leaders who work against a slim majority view that is detrimental to our moral fabric (segregation), but fear those who would work against humanity by not considering them at all. If someone doesn’t care what people think about them, then they don’t care about people in general.
  15. Regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling rejecting the claim of “implicit legislative consent” that Bush was using to justify electronic surveillance without a warrant: The legislative being Congress, “implicit consent” sounding a lot like something you would hear bandied about during a rape trial. This not hyperbole. This is truth. The definitive example during the Bush administration of “checks and balances”, and the judicial branch stepping in a restraining an executive branch who would seek to bypass the legislate in establishing laws and at the same time put itself above and beyond the courts. Thank you, founding fathers!
  16. Regarding the confession of Australian citizen David Hicks (the second detainee brought to Guantanamo), who confessed to providing “material support” to terrorists after six years in jail without representation, and who, while in prison, was beaten regularly and sodomized by captors, in addition to experiencing sensory deprivation and forcibly fed disorientating drugs, and the governments reduction of its initial sentence of 20 years in prison (including time served) to 9 months, conditional only if Hicks agreed to affirm, on a legal document, that he had “never been illegally treated”: Hey, who hasn’t confessed to providing “material support” while being sodomized?
  17. Regarding Bush’s statement that he would like to “close Guantanamo”: If by “close” Bush meant “keep open until the very last days of my presidency” (i.e., when a new administration will have to deal with the fallout of denied trials and released detainees, both in political and in terrorist circles), the President is right on schedule.
  18. Regarding the Post’s claim that, more than a year after the McCain sponsored law placing restrictions on the questioning of terrorists, two officials cite the VP as deadlocking the debate regarding how far CIA interrogators can go during an interrogation: How does the President allow the VP to deadlock a debate that has made it way through Congress and the Supreme Court? Who, exactly, is in charge? Somewhere, a monkey puts down his tiny cymbals, reaches back into his green canvas bag for a handful of poop, and flings it at a young boy dressed in a sailor suit eating chocolate ice-cream on a waffle cone.
  19. Regarding former favorite Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson’s, assertion that Cheney views waterbording as a “no-brainer” and that the VP feels very strongly about these things, and it’s his great virtue and his weakness”: It’s such a relief that Cheney “feels strongly” about such things, especially considering how strongly Lenin felt about peasants.