Saturday, December 31, 2005

Hooters 2006 Calendar

Happy New Year from Hooters!

Hostage Situation

So I'm feeding my neighbor Daniel's piranha again and with that responsibility, comes the old anxiety. I refer, of course, to the fact that he houses this piranha in an aquarium packed with goldfish. If I miss feeding time, he snacks on a goldfish without batting a fishie eyelid. It's like this Piranha (name of Lefty, by the way) has taken the goldfish hostage and threatens to murder them if his demands are not met. If I don't supply him with a slice of fish fillet every third day, he executes one the goldfish. I wander into Daniel's apartment, make my way to the aquarium only to be greeted with the floating carcass of an innocent goldfish, whose only sin was that he was born in the wrong petshop.

There has to be another way..

Disgraced to be Egyptian: A Testimony

This stirring account was reproduced from Nora Younis' site because I am concerned it might be taken off (Nora lives in Egypt) and it deserves to be read by all. I'm providing a link to her entry here so you can read the feedback to it, as well, which is no less telling about people's feelings. Thanks to Waleed for putting me on to this.

I had learnt about the Sudanese refugees sit-in in Mohandeseen through my house helper Rousse. She is southern Christian Sudanese whose husband has disappeared during the civil war time and whom she knows nothing about. Rousse told me the story of her great escape to Cairo in a 10 days horror trip. She lives in a room in Ahmed Zaki district, a suburb of Maadi mostly inhabited by Sudanese refugees. At some times Rousse couldn’t work because of bone-pain and at many times she had to leave the room where she lives, unable to pay the rent.

At 10:00 pm, Thursday December 29th I received an sms saying Mohandesin area is turning to a military camp and Sudanese refugees who have been sitting in for 3 months may be disbursed by force.

I arrived campus at 11:00 pm to find State Security Trucks and plain cloth police filling and closing the roads of Batal Ahmed Abdel Aziz, Ahmed Orabi, and Gameet el Dewal streets.

Public white busses lined up all the way from Donuts House till Mustafa Mahmud square with a few number of state security soldiers sitting inside them. I was able to take down some of the public busses wagon numbers as I walked 4129, 3696, 4107, 4136, 4335, 3416, 3534, and 3416.

Few minutes and all streets leading to Mustafa Mahmud were totally blocked. Police forces started cornering then disbursing civilian pedestrians.

At 1:00 am, and it was really cold, security forced started flushing the Refugees with three water cannons from three different sides. First spray lasted for almost 6 minutes and was rather high. We could see the water reaching as high as the 4th balcony of the near-by building. Probably it aimed at destroying the top of their shelters.

Refugees met the water floods with cheer and dance. We won’t go was their message. A reaction no one at the other side could understand and it rather provoked the ‘they deserve whatever happens to them – they are crazy’ type of thinking.

The few civilians who gathered to observe the scene from far were mostly quiet amused. I painfully heard comments such “let them take a shower to become clean”, “Egypt has been more than patient with them”, “security forces should’ve got rid of them from day one. They (Sudanese) are disgusting”. Laughs interrupted such comments as the refugees were sprayed with water. Few stood silent with eyes wide open at the scene, while only one objected and explained that Sudanese have demands and rights to be met by UNHCR.

A police officer told a friend as he smiled that they badly needed a bath after three months sit in. “We have orders to finish this tonight and we will” he added.

We resorted to the 2nd floor of a Cilantro Café just across the park to be able to observe, take pictures, and make phone calls. Choosing the time to attack the Refugees was more than well planned. Midnight Thursday in the New Year’s weekend. All the media I contacted were out of town for vacation. A handful of political activists arrived but were totally helpless. A couple of human rights activists were with us on the phone all night, mainly Aida. One lawyer, Zyad, was able to break to the refugees themselves but then was roughed up and forced out.

The rest? Another shame

Almost an hour later another 5 minutes of continues water showered them. This time water was low, strong and direct straight at the people.

Water stopped and a negotiation round started with a Refugees delegated committee, an Egyptian official, and a UNHCR official. The Egyptian said “UNHCR will do nothing for you. We are authorized by the highest power in the state to disburse this sit in today”. Refugees’ reply was “we will die on the turf”.

I was able to step to the second security circle surrounding them. A public bus waiting in the area had five Refugees at the back seat while a sixth one was being brutally beaten by 5 state security soldiers. From my position next to the bus I could see and hear him screaming as they beat him on his head and back with hands and batons, kicked him, and twisted his arm and wrist behind his back as his screams went louder and louder. An officer standing next to us explained that he is trying to break the window and escape because he is drunk. At this point a man from the back seat opened the window holding a few months old baby girl as he cried “we are not drunk, I am not drunk, he is not drunk, and this baby is not drunk. Her mother died here in this park”. They beat him to silence as well and continued with the sixth guy. A young man videod the scene on his cell phone and later Bluetoothed it to me.

Reporters, observers and the few activists who were there started to leave the scene as time passed with no further developments. It was very cold and my hands and nose were freezing. It was unimaginable to imagine wet people!

At around 4 am we managed to get to the building of Al Watany Bank of Egypt and only then we had a full clear view of the situation from high. In Mustafa Mahmud square, the part I could see from Gamet el Dewal and Lebanon streets, and the side street of the mosque I could count 60 state security wagons, 6 ambulances, 10 armored cars and uncountable busses.

At 4:45 am the troops were lining up properly and the first circle of formations moved closer to surround the refugees. Their warm up exercise echoed in the empty city as they exchanged stepping on each foot at once saying ho- ho- ho- masr! and singing ‘ya ahla esm fel wegood yaa masr’ meaning To Egypt, who has the most beautiful name ever, whose name was created to be eternal, for Egypt we live.. and for Egypt we die.

Refugees lined up and started warming up too but saying ‘allah akbar’, ‘la ilaha ella allah’ and ‘hasbona allah wa neama al wakil’ meaning there is no god but allah and only him we delegate to handle our injustice. The Christians chanted Halleluiah. And this set identity for the war players. The few civilian audience started cheering for the Egyptian army against the dirty / black / Christian parasites. Yes, there was no humanity in the scene.

At 5 am sharp the 3 water cannons flushed them again and right beside the water line security forces timely attacked the Refugees campus with batons and shields. After 1 minute the water stopped. Soldiers destroyed the rest of their makeshift homes and pulled up their front line of luggage throwing it away as other soldiers made their way in.

Refugees fought back with wood sticks (that was keeping their shelters), plastic empty water jars and gallons, and their hands.

The left side (the side of Radwan Ogeil store) fought back very bravely and was able to force soldiers retreat out for three times throwing on them their helmets after kicking them away but the other two sides soldiers were breaking in. Sounds of sharp metal hits were heard loudly. I guess these were the wooden sticks on the metal shields. Also sounds of screams, mainly women and children, echoed.

In 10 minutes time, a whistle was heard and all forces pulled out of the garden. Lines were reorganized. Extra troops added to Al Ogeil store side and in couple of minutes signal was given and they lashed back in.

This time was fierce. The street lights were cut off. Screams never stopped; the most acute were children’s. My eyes couldn’t follow where or where to look. It was cold. It was dark. I am sure the garden was muddy after all this water. Soldiers were brutal. They were just beating anyone anywhere stepping over anyone and anything.

Every 2 or 3 seconds a Refugee would be dragged out of the horror circle, beaten all the way out, another 3 – 4 soldiers will take grip of the Refugee so the first soldier could go back hunt another one. The soldiers receiving the Refugee beat him more up with batons on his back, bringing him down to his knee, slapping the back of his head, dragging him to a bus where other soldiers take care of the next stage. All the way through, obscenities could be heard.

This happened to men and women equally. Sometimes when the victim was a woman I saw a child trying to hang to her leg as the soldiers drag the mother.

I saw four Refugees carried by soldiers from their arms and legs, oftenly dropping midway in total motionless and I could swear they were dead.

The most horrible was the EGYPTIANS! Civilians who cheered as if they are cheering for the “army forces” freeing Palestine! As forces advanced in battle; the audience cheered, whistled and clapped. They were amused!

Resistance was weakening on Al Ogeil side and soldiers breaking fully in when my host, standing beside me in the balcony said “we are entering from the left side”. I looked back at him in shock. This is not “we”. He said “I mean the Egyptians”. These are not Egyptians. He said “whatever”.

I started shaking.

As the Refugees were dragged out in bigger numbers they forced them to sit the ground on groups casually beating them till soldiers will come pick them and put them in busses.

A friend later told me he saw an officer spitting on a bus as it moved away with refugees!

Resistance fully collapsed. As fewer Refugees were left inside the garden facing at least 2500 soldiers the screams became sharper, louder and desperate.

Everything was over at 5:30 sharp.

When I took control over my body, I picked up my car and followed 6 of the white public transportation busses carrying almost fainting Refugees and state security forces to Dahshur State Security Camp in Fayoum road. They arrived there at exactly 7:15 am. The camp is almost 40 kms outside Cairo. Distance could be more or less, I was so tired and so not well. The wagon numbers were 3686, 4107, 6132, 4335, and 3696. I missed the numbers of the first bus.

Returning back to Cairo I went directly to the battlefield. Let the pictures speak.

Friday, December 30, 2005

More Griffin Pirates

Beyond the Multiplex: The best of 2005

It was the year of the penguin and the gay cowboy -- but don't forget the Chinese theme park and Syrian bride. Here are 10 brilliant but forgotten films you won't want to miss.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Dec. 30, 2005 | "Years ago, films were judged primarily on their artistic merits," says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, whose releases include the hit documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (and also theatrical flops like Rodrigo Garcia's "Nine Lives"). But in an overcrowded movie marketplace obsessed with business deals and insider details, he says, that has decisively changed.

"Films might be judged on their artistic merits the day they come out," he goes on, "but by Monday morning, they're being judged by what they did at the box office. Who knew what Fellini and Truffaut were earning at the box office? Nobody knew, and nobody cared." Bowles adds that he thinks there's no "cultural imperative" to experience "defining aesthetic films" right now, in the way an earlier generation ate up the cinematic experiments of the '60s and '70s art-house gods -- or, more recently, paradigm-shifting flicks like "Blue Velvet" or "Pulp Fiction" or "Being John Malkovich."

That may seem counterintuitive at this moment, given the impressive audiences turning out across the country for that movie about two cowboys in love (technically an independent production). But six years after the supposed indie revolution of 1999, the independent film universe is an amorphous realm where the water is deep and the rocks are jagged. It's internally divided between documentaries and dramatic features, between mini-major studios that produce safe, "Hollywood-lite" product and adventurous distributors who work out of P.O. boxes and can barely scrape up the funds for a newspaper ad. Some people I spoke to in the independent-film world were big fans and supporters of "Brokeback Mountain" -- the film that seems destined to define 2005 -- but even most of those saw its breakout success as more like a sociocultural happening or a news event than an aesthetic experience. As one cynical observer remarked, "Brokeback" takes an utterly familiar narrative (a story of doomed romance), puts it in a familiar setting (the cowboy West) and adds a button-pushing twist (oh my God, they're dudes!).

Fortuitous formula blend or not, no one could have promised in advance that Ang Lee's film would make a nickel at the box office. Movies don't come with guarantees, and as screenwriter William Goldman once observed about his business, nobody knows anything. But one thing the film's producers felt sure of was that "Brokeback Mountain" couldn't be ignored. As many people remarked to me, that gave it a marketplace advantage over most other movies that you can't buy at any price.

"I'm a passionate moviegoer," says Sasha Berman, a Los Angeles film publicist who works with a variety of independent distributors. "I'm in the business, so I see a lot of foreign films, a lot of independent films. But I also miss so many things these days, because they come and go so quickly. Movies show up and play for a week and get pushed out by something else. It's overwhelming. I think it's incredibly difficult for the consumer to figure out what to see right now, unless it's something that they already know about: It's the penguin movie, it's the gay-cowboy movie."

There you are, people. That's the year in independent film at a glance: It's the penguin movie. It's the gay-cowboy movie. Everything else pretty much went in the tank.

OK, I exaggerate, but not by much. Ryan Werner, the vice president for marketing at IFC Films, put it this way: "It was a very tough year, even though there were a lot of success stories." The success stories were largely unpredictable, and so were the failures. Who'd have guessed that a no-budget documentary about a mangy parrot flock in San Francisco, and the aging hippie who watched over them, would more than double the box-office return of "Thumbsucker," an indie drama loaded with stars and enthusiastically backed by a big studio? (Old showbiz maxim: Never share the stage with children or animals.)

With the cost of film production continuing to drop and new small-scale distributors entering the market, there seemed to be more independent and foreign films in 2005 than ever before. In some weeks, New York and Los Angeles saw 12 to 15 films opening on Friday, leading to what Berman calls a "lose-lose proposition" and Bowles calls "the tower of Babel." Interesting, risky, worthwhile movies from all over the world were fighting each other tooth and nail for reviews, advertising space and a tiny piece of filmgoer consciousness.

In most cases, these little movies hit a handful of theaters for a couple of weeks and then vanish entirely. A few venture away from the big coastal cities into "secondary markets," and a tiny handful become modest hits, à la "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" or "The Squid and the Whale" or "Junebug" or "Grizzly Man." ("March of the Penguins" belongs to another category entirely, that of the indie film turned fluke monster hit, in the vein of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" or "Bend It Like Beckham.")

"There are very few opportunities for an independent film to sit in a theater for a while until it builds an audience," says Nancy Gerstman, co-president of Zeitgeist Films, which currently has the documentaries "Ballets Russes" and "Zizek!" in theaters. And the days when distributors could get a broad "semi-theatrical" release by sending films to university film societies across the country, she says, "now seem like ancient history."

While some distributors, including Zeitgeist (says Gerstman), remain committed to theatrical release as the core of their business, and the moviegoing experience isn't going to disappear this year or next, the way movies get delivered to eyeballs is clearly changing, and changing fast. "There's no distribution company in the business that's making money off theatrical release," says IFC's Werner. "It's all publicity for the DVD."

Sasha Berman echoes him, saying, "You use theatrical release as a platform, and just write it off as marketing dollars for the DVD release. You need those [review] quotes and some word of mouth, some awareness of the title." Releasing a movie straight to DVD, without the review quotes or the New York/L.A. word of mouth, she adds, is "throwing your money away." But over the long haul (possibly as long as seven to 10 years), the DVD release gives independent distributors a fighting chance to turn a hit into a cult phenomenon, and a flop into a break-even proposition.

For the last year or so, people at all levels of the film business have been buzzing over a heretical new idea: Does it really make sense to release movies in a few big-city theaters, laboriously milk them across the country, and then spit them out on DVD months later, after whatever hype they've generated has long ago died down? Why shouldn't a retiree in Fargo, N.D., who wants to see Iranian art films or raunchy gay comedies be able to see them at the same time as a sideburned hipster in downtown Manhattan?

So 2006 will witness the birth of what's called "day-and-date" releasing, in which selected indie-type films will simultaneously appear in art-house theaters, become available on pay-per-view television, and (in some cases) be released on DVD. Magnolia, Bowles' company, will release Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble" on all three platforms on Jan. 27, and the entire industry is watching eagerly.

"That's really going to be an interesting experiment," says Bowles. In theory, he explains, you get the best of both worlds. The idea is that theatrical release "will still pique people's interest and generate good reviews" -- but then anyone, anywhere in the country, can see the film right away without leaving home.

As Werner of IFC adds, "Sixty percent of the New York Times' readership lives outside New York City. Why should they have to wait four months after they read a review to see that film?" Personally, I'm not convinced that "Bubble," a grim little working-class drama that makes Lars von Trier's films seem hilarious, is the best test case for this experiment. But whether that movie clicks or not, day-and-date release seems pretty much inevitable, at least for films at a certain modest market niche; most distributors I talked to have something similar either planned or on the drawing board.

Where does all this fascinating business news leave the art form of cinema, if that hasn't become an embarrassing expression? I have no idea. Can some new distribution model, where you can watch Tarantino's next film at home with a group of friends over gnarly rounds of bong hits, restore the lost sense of "cultural imperative," the aura of aesthetic and cultural definition that independent movies once possessed?

I don't think so, and it's probably not even the right question. New movies, even when they're as good as the 10 or 20 I'm about to list for you, have to compete not only with each other but with a vastly expanded entertainment universe. Are you really going to haul your ass off the couch and go pay 10 bucks to see an uncategorizable French film by an unknown director (like Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen") when you could stay home and watch anything and everything by Scorsese or Tarkovsky or Hitchcock or Dario Argento? How does one choose between Pirjo Honkasalo's demanding documentary about the Chechen war, "3 Rooms of Melancholia," and the fifth uproarious night in a row of viewing "Bubba Ho-Tep"?

There are no good answers to these questions. Nobody knows anything. What I do know is that this 10-best list self-consciously grades on a curve, and I'm not embarrassed about that. My first, second and third criteria were that I loved the film and thought I saw something significant in it. But after that I considered the cruel vicissitudes of fate and rooted for the underdog. I haven't spent much time summarizing these movies (that's what links are for, people!), but I've tried to shed a little light on what happened to them and why.

If the glass is half-empty, it's also half-full. Eamonn Bowles may sound like a skeptic about adventurous independent cinema, but he really isn't. "Look, everyone's bemoaning the fact that these films don't do well theatrically," he says. "But people can see almost anything they want to see, and that wasn't true 10 or 15 years ago. They just have vastly more choices, and that's not a bad thing."

In the fullness of time, in other words, really good movies like these will find the audience intended for them by the movie gods, even if they can't quite create a cultural moment, or define a collective aesthetic experience, the way "La Dolce Vita" or "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" or "Stranger Than Paradise" once did. I believe that, I think. Or anyway, it's what I tell myself.

1. "Kings and Queen"
A gripping melodrama of love and madness and murder and family turmoil, the most beautiful actress in France (Emmanuelle Devos), and a passionate filmmaking style redolent of both Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock. You couldn't have gotten better reviews if you'd bribed every critic in America with a bottomless table of hors d'oeuvres. So what went wrong?

According to Ryan Werner, who helped acquire "Kings and Queen" when he worked at Wellspring, nothing did. "When we bought the movie, we projected that it would make about $350,000 [in the U.S.], and it pretty much hit that," he says. Of course that's what Hollywood movies spend on decaf lattes and wig glue, but "Kings and Queen" is two and a half hours long, has an unknown director (Desplechin) and an unknown star, and a significant number of art-house proprietors saw it as a money-loser.

So "Kings and Queen" never played on more than nine screens at the same time, where even a modest indie success might hit 40 to 60. The New York Times review -- still the single most important indicator, by far, for indie film -- was positive but not a rave. Given all that, $350,000 starts to sound OK. Except that this was one of the best movies of the entire decade so far, dammit! "I have realistic expectations," says Werner. "But it's very depressing."

2. "Innocence"
No mystery here: Lucile Hadzihalilovic's debut feature creeped people out. A brooding allegory about a group of young girls being "educated" for unknown purposes in a Gothic, park-like compound, it's a memorable accomplishment that -- to my taste, anyway -- never crossed the line into prurience or manipulation. Does it challenge viewers, force them to acknowledge their own dark fantasies and confront their ambivalence about questions of girlhood, puberty and adolescent sexuality? You bet your ass. But I found it a haunting, effective and highly cathartic experience. As for the film's commercial prospects, well, they weren't many to begin with. Then Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote a mixed-to-negative review, suggesting that raincoat-clad men might draw the wrong sorts of gratification from "Innocence," and that was that. One weekend at the Cinema Village in New York followed, but whatever insulting sum of money resulted has not even been reported on IMDB. "When films fail in the marketplace these days, they fail abjectly," says Eamonn Bowles. "They don't make any money at all." Despite glowing European reviews, that's what happened here.

3. "My Summer of Love"
In a vain effort to convince you I'm not an unbearable snob, here's a movie in English. With this strange exploration of the glowing Yorkshire landscape, and the intense and unlikely bond that blossoms there between two bored teenage girls, Pawel Pawlikowski leaps to the front of the class of British filmmakers. And, hey, this one was a hit! At least in relative terms. "My Summer of Love" got great reviews and played for several months, garnering around $1.3 million in U.S. box office. Mel Gibson probably coughs that much money into his morning Kleenex, but together with its British and European releases and what should be decent DVD sales, this one will surely end up in the black.

4. "The Power of Nightmares"
This isn't really a theatrical film, or was never intended as one (although it's played as such in New York and a few other places). What it is, though, is a BBC television miniseries that essentially serves as the most provocative and visually memorable political documentary of the post-9/11 era. Director Adam Curtis (who also made "The Century of the Self") essentially argues that the whole "war on terror" is a game of smoke and mirrors, perpetrated by a neocon elite in pursuit of its largely imaginary nemesis, the many-tentacled terrorist network called al-Qaida. (The word, Curtis says, was never used by Osama bin Laden until after the FBI stuck it on him.) Whether you buy Curtis' total package or not, this is a devastating critique of contemporary political reality and a feat of cinematic derring-do. It has no distributor and will probably never appear on U.S. television or be released here on DVD, but I've been told that Curtis is making no effort to discourage gray-market downloaders. So, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, you know what to do.

5. "Saraband"
In what is presumably his last film, 87-year-old Ingmar Bergman shows the rest of the movie world how it's done. A lovely, gripping and compact family drama -- actually, a sequel of sorts to "Scenes From a Marriage" -- that wastes no time, crackles with distinctly ungeriatric vigor and refers discreetly to many of the master's themes. Of course the cast, which includes Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a divorced couple still hopelessly entangled in each others' consciousnesses, is magnificent. Of course there are moments of ravishing beauty. It's also a masterpiece of concision and precision, and one of the most magnificent films yet made on digital video. None of that should be surprising, really. Nor was it surprising that Sony Classics didn't quite know what to do with "Saraband" and pretty much dumped it in midsummer. I mean, hey, this dude is really old! Given that, I think returns of almost $650,000, from a maximum of 27 screens, is highly respectable. And it'll keep making them money on DVD long after Bergman is making movies for God (and the rest of us, if there is indeed a heaven, are watching them).

6. "The World"
This was supposed to be the breakthrough work from Jia Zhangke, the 35-year-old Chinese director lauded at film festivals around the world for his tales of provincial anomie. And hey, it was! A large-scale ensemble drama set in the surreal confines of the World theme park outside Beijing -- where the characters drift from the Eiffel Tower to the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Pyramids of Giza in an afternoon -- this was one of the most satisfying and multileveled flicks of the year. But as is par for the course with East Asian art film (i.e., lacking in kung fu, ghosts or monsters), it was beloved by critics and totally ignored by audiences. And I do mean totally. It played a handful of big cities -- never on more than three screens at a time -- and grossed a grand total of $63,662. Nancy Gerstman, who acquired it for Zeitgeist, remains unbowed. She fell in love with "The World" at the New York Film Festival, she says, but saw problems: "It was too long, it had several story lines going on at once, the filmmaker was a critics' favorite but his other films had not done well in the U.S. Our mandate was to put it out there and give it a profile, but not to expect much box office. I think the limited number of people who did go and see 'The World' fell in love with it as we did. We expect it to do very decently on DVD." That means you, people.

7. "Forty Shades of Blue"
OK, this one just bums me out. The American indie film of the year, as far as I could tell. This wrenching family drama of unexpected love blooming in unhelpful circumstances, set against the Memphis R&B music industry, would and should have been a smash art-house hit -- if this was, say, 1975. You know, there was nothing so bad about "Junebug" or "The Squid and the Whale" or whatever, and I pretty much liked "Thumbsucker." But Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue" has an emotional maturity, an artistic commitment and an almost symphonic scope, that those other flicks can only guess at. Rip Torn is brilliant as the aging music industry tyrant, but Dina Korzun gives the performance of the year as his Russian trophy fiancée, who falls hard and awkwardly for his son. But we're talking no name actors under 40 (or even 50) and a story about grown-ups set in an unhip social milieu. What does that mean? Well, on the one hand, this movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and got rave reviews from the New York Times and Newsweek (and, um, from Salon). That's great, right? Apparently not. It also cost about $1.5 million to make, and beyond a short run at New York's Film Forum, it's earned, hmm, let's see -- nothing. Zero. Nada. Bupkis. And that's for a better Robert Altman film than any actual Robert Altman film of the last 25 years.

8. "2046"
Wong Kar-wai's irrepressibly stylish follow-up to "In the Mood for Love" summarizes all that's amazing, and all that's maddening, about Wong as a filmmaker. This doesn't so much have a plot as a mood of persistent romantic melancholy, a prodigious sense of itself as an aesthetic creation, and a deliberate desire to overwhelm us with the visual splendor of its women in glamorous '60s clothes (most notably Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and a brief appearance by Maggie Cheung) and Tony Leung's decadent post-Bogart suavity. I'm not so sure all this languorous indulgence is healthy -- or that this movie is likely to be a good influence on aspiring young filmmakers -- but in this case, hell, who really cares? More than $1.4 million in U.S. box office, which is really extraordinary for an arty Chinese-language costume drama with no action scenes.

9. "The Syrian Bride"
Eran Riklis' tale of a wedding that goes awry along the disputed border between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights starts out as a typical village comedy and winds up as the gem amid this year's bumper crop of Israeli films. As the bride's indomitable sister stuck in a bad marriage, the proud and beautiful Hiam Abbass sails through "The Syrian Bride" like a ship breasting rough waters. While Riklis hits many of the expected comic beats, the cast is terrific and the film will keep on surprising you -- with its even-handed ridicule of all sides-- until it finally reveals itself as part feminist drama, part existential absurdism. This is a crowd-pleaser and button-pusher waiting to happen, and if, as Nancy Gerstman and Sasha Berman both told me, it's still possible to build an indie hit with grass-roots marketing campaigns, "The Syrian Bride" is a perfect candidate. It's fared well in New York, and if Koch Lorber Films can successfully promote it to both Jewish and Arab-American audiences around the country (along with gay audiences, those are among the most loyal of niche audiences), this one could be playing deep into 2006.

10. "Land of Plenty"
When I reviewed Wim Wenders' micro-budget post-9/11 drama a few weeks ago, I bitched out IFC for apparently screening it in New York and then abandoning it. Critics are told never to apologize, but this time I was just wrong. Apparently the wheels were moving behind the scenes, and Ryan Werner now says this will be rolled out to other markets in '06, prior to the DVD release. It's easily Wenders' best film since "Wings of Desire," with all the hopefulness and mysticism of his most potent work. I suspect that's because it was made fast and cheap, by someone who knows and loves America but is not American, and so it captured something essential about our national hangover in the wake of 2001. John Diehl plays a deranged right-wing vet roaming the streets of L.A., pursued by his lefty Christian niece (Michelle Williams). But no, it's not anti-American or even judgmental, or even, in the last analysis, very interested in politics. Is this a quick, messy, uneven movie? Yep, but it's got a dirty magic undreamed of in mainstream cinema.

Honorable mention: "3 Rooms of Melancholia," "A History of Violence," "Grizzly Man," "Downfall," "Mail Order Wife", "Paradise Now," "She's One of Us," "Turtles Can Fly," "Wall," "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."

Video Games Go Boom

Video games are about to go boom. It's inevitable, it's happened before, and it might get ugly. Some gamers know it and are already taking cover in their basement with stacks of old SNES games. Some industry employees see it coming and are taking their holiday pay as we speak. Everyone else just goes about their business, unaware that their lives are about to be invaded.

The first video games boom happened shortly after a big crash. Everyone knows about the horrible years in the early 80's that almost killed the industry. But Nintendo came along with the Nintendo Entertainment System and won over everyone, including non-gamers. A little video game mouth-to-mouth and boom, here come the games.
But now what? There are more games, more systems, more options -- but less gamers. Lots of companies hopped onto the video game bandwagon and immediately began pushing games out the door. Their target audience: the small group of loyal customers called gamers.

And for a time, all was good. Gamers had games, developers had money, and all marketers had to do was worship one demographic. If the gaming customers dwindle, so will the games. An audience of casual gamers is waiting to be enticed by an industry obsessed with increasingly complex devices. Here's a one word solution to everything: simplicity.

Video Games Go Boom
Video Games Go Boom is a series of articles examining the phenomenon of video games and where they fit in our society. We will look at video games from many perspectives, especially that of avid gamers and non-gamers. We will also take a look at the video games industry and the big players in that field: Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony.

This is an opinion article that will give one writer's insights into a growing world business. Patterns in the development of any field of knowledge emerge over time. Video games are a relatively undeveloped industry, allowing us to reference growth patterns from other fields to see where the games industry is going. Patterns are, after all, patterns.

You will learn a lot about the games you play, the people who don't play games, and why oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are so good.

Ok, maybe not that last one. But anyway, sit back, grab a drink and get ready for the impending boom.

Everybody likes games, right? As children we played hopscotch, football, basketball, Tic-Tac-Toe, checkers, Go Fish, etc. As we grow older our more developed brains crave sophisticated entertainment. Enter video games, the world's first scalable form of gaming that can meet the needs of both adults and children.

But wait a second. If video games can be for everyone, why does only a small percentage of the world seem interested? It's a one word answer: simplicity.

What Defines a Video Game
To know what a video game is means you must first know what a game is. Games involve several concepts, the most basic of which are rules, choices (which contains strategy, chance and randomness), and rewards. One of the simplest games around, Tic-Tac-Toe, uses all of these concepts:

Rules: One player is "X", the other "O". They take turns placing one of their shapes within the grid. The first one to have a row/column of three wins.
Choices: You can place your shape anywhere on the board.
Rewards: Drawing a line through your row of characters.
The same holds true for video games. Take Tetris for example:

Rules: Slide and rotate the game pieces to create horizontal rows.
Choices: Where on earth are you going to put that piece?
Rewards: Completing lines; points; advancing to more difficult levels.
It's an over-simplified way of looking at it, but it serves for the scope of this article.

Now take those ideas and fit them into a game like Halo or Final Fantasy 7. It's more difficult, as the principles aren't as clear-cut in these blockbusters. The rules, rewards and choices are constantly shifting. As you're carried through the story, your brain must keep track of more information in order to feel satisfied. As we will see below, most people don't want to bother with all that work. In fact, most people's brains aren't trained for these games.

Video Games and Our Brains
Playing games, taking chances and gaining rewards are all a part of the structure of the human brain. The risk-reward loop releases chemicals that we will simply refer to as "the good stuff". Playing a game -- any game, not just video games -- initiates this cycle and causes your brain to let loose these chemicals of goodness.

So why aren't video games mainstream if playing games is a normal activity? A simple answer to a simple question: complexity. Video games are a hybrid form of gaming/entertainment/media that's still very new to human development. We've been pushing rocks around with sticks since day one. But put a controller in our hands and something different occurs. Something is between the gamer and the game, adding one level of complexity to the cycle of getting the good stuff.

Today's breed of games are chock-full of visuals, complex storylines, strange control mechanisms and other barriers of entry to non-gamers. Anyone can pick up a stick and play baseball, but how many people can pick up a controller and play a baseball video game? For seasoned gamers whose brains are well-trained in the ways of video games, complicated methods are often necessary to stimulate yummy chemicals. For others who rarely play games, all that's necessary is a game of Tic-Tac-Toe. Why go to the trouble of learning how to play a strange, abstract game when you can just play checkers?

For every product on the market, dozens of people put their time into its design. Video games are incredibly complex products. Teams of graphics designers, gameplay designers, writers, programmers, level layout designers, producers and project managers, bug testers, localization teams, etc. work together to create that little shiny disk you pop into your gaming system. In all, thousands of people may be indirectly involved in the game you play. This means that video games are a big business. And it's growing fast. But can it keep growing forever?

Video Games Industry Swells
The video game industry is relatively young, barely over 20 years old. Most people have socks older than that. Just like a baby it grows faster than anyone can keep up with. And also like infants, video game developers (and consumers) love whatever is shiny and new. The "latest and greatest" in everything, now with more power and adrenaline to boot. The days of simple entertainment seem to be gone, swallowed by pixels, polygons and processing power.

As technology progresses, video games will continue to get more realistic and intricate. But is there an end to the advancements? There's no such thing as "more realistic than real life". At some point the bigger and better mentality has to cease. When that time will come is anyone's guess, but it will happen sooner or later. As the games we play become more complex, more people will be required to create them. People will flock to the video games market to fill these new jobs.

But here's the big question: Will the consumers, those people that fuel the industry with money, expand along with it?

If more consumers become gamers, the problem is solved. More money will be fed into the machine that will in turn churn out more games. However, if the percentages remain the same, game hardware and software prices can do only one thing: rise. Somehow more money must be brought into the industry to keep it running.

The video game industry caters to its clients: gamers. If it catered to non-gamers, well, that would be just plain stupid. Making products designed for avid gamers but marketing them to people who think a PlayStation is a sex toy is just asking for failure.

There is a way to reel in the non-gaming crowd. It involves that fun little word we've seen in the previous articles: simplicity. And it has a very real basis in the way we work as human beings.

Simple games do not have to be Pong, Frogger or Pac-Man. Simple does not mean simplistic. With a world so inundated with media, choices are all around us at every moment. Studies have proven that web users who see a host of menu options on a website will close their browser. But if you give them just a few choices, they'll stick around for more.

Our brain works in essentially the same way it always has. It must have a foundation on which to operate, and it grabs onto a few simple choices much more quickly than a dozen vague ones. After taking hold, it moves from there, always seeking something more interesting. Give the public simple games and simple gaming machines they can easily grasp. If they want complexity, give them that option. This caters to the largest possible crowd without alienating potential customers.

Future of Video Gamers
The rift between gamer and non-gamer will widen, but in the center will emerge "in-betweens", people who aren't quite gamers but who play video games. Casual gamers of today are the precursors to this, and they will become far more powerful in the eyes of the industry. These in-betweens take only what they like, aren't as susceptible to sequels and big-budget titles, and like their games accessible and inviting.

Hardcore gamers need something a little more than just moving a paddle to hit a ball, though, and their numbers will likely grow as well. The widening market will leave room for all of these groups and many more. And the industry will adapt in response.

In every field of knowledge, the progression of technology creates areas of specialty. Look at medicine, for example. In the past, one doctor per town was the expert in all things health related. Having a baby? He can help. Sore tooth? He can help. Now, if you have a problem with your feet, you can see one of a number of different specialists. Our knowledge in that field has grown deeper, unearthing too much for one person to master. The video gaming industry is still new, but it will follow the same pattern.

The future will hold something like this: more game companies, more hardware makers, more specialties. There may not be such a thing as "just" video games. Casual gamers, avid gamers, sometimes gamers, computer gamers, handheld gamers -- all will be real groups of people with real buying power.

Video gamers make up a small portion of the consumers in the world. But still they manage to spend millions of dollars each year on games, systems and accessories. The market is so lucrative that two giant corporations -- Microsoft and Sony -- couldn't resist tossing in their goods to see how much money could be wrung out. Video games guru Nintendo, who practically pioneered home video gaming, meanwhile sits quietly at the side. How will these three fare in the years to come? If you've read the first articles in Video Games Go Boom, the answer should be painfully clear.

Sony: My System is Bigger Than Your System
Sony was founded as an electronics manufacturer way back in 1946. It quickly became the largest and most popular distributer of electronic devices. Sony made itself a household name with the Walkman and continues to produce electronics of almost every kind.

The PlayStation console was originally intended as an add-on to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The deal didn't quite work out, however, and Sony instead released it as a stand-alone. Due to strong support from game developers and several exclusive titles, the PlayStation line took off and is still going strong today. Now, Sony is at the helm of the video games industry with more system sales in almost every region.

With an enormous bankroll and distribution/manufacturing plants across the globe, Sony is in a prime position to develop and produce video game hardware. Their systems are often touted as the most powerful on the market. This push for power is what has kept Sony on top for the past few years. But with a growing (and eventually dividing) market, this push could alienate it from the bulk of consumers.

Sony's Strategy
Sony's public strategy has been made very clear: out-muscle the competition and offer a system with more features, more power, and more choices. For most areas of electronics, this is a great business strategy. In video games it works almost just as well. Almost.

Hardcore gamers will very likely snatch up any Sony product the minute it comes out. Their systems offer the technological possibilities for developers to go wild. This encourages game makers to focus on the technology aspect of the games rather than the "game" aspect of them. There are wonderful exceptions, of course, but by and large this is the pattern. Sony caters to the avid gamer, the person who grew up playing video games and can do a speedrun of Metroid Prime in an hour and a half. For now, this is the group to chase after.

Sony's Future
As the great rift of gamers vs. non-gamers grows and the middle ground becomes fertile, Sony could be left out. With serious gamers being their target audience, only these people will continue to follow Sony's expensive hardware. The percentage of avid gamers will marginally increase over the next decades, but not nearly enough to support Sony's grand habits.

Other snags in Sony's plan center around the concept of an all-in-one entertainment console. The release of the PlayStation Portable (PSP) packaged movies, music, the web and a lot more into one sleek little handheld. Oh, and it plays video games too. Sony doesn't want to be king of the video game world, Sony wants to be king of the electronics world. The same group of people that buy electronic gadgets just happen to be avid video gamers as well. Sony knows this, which is why they entered the video games business.

If Sony wants to stick around, they'll need to soften their strategy a bit. Between themselves, Microsoft and Nintendo, Sony falls second in gross profit. They spend an enormous amount of money to make just a bit more. Sony is on the fast treadmill in the industry, but after some time of running at full-speed, they'll tire and flop to the ground. If Sony doesn't tweak their strategy and open their arms to a wider audience of gamers, they'll vanish from the top three very quickly.

If you've touched a computer in your lifetime, you know about Microsoft. It's the most recognizable name in computer software. Microsoft's entry into the video game world came with the Xbox and continues into the next-generation of systems with the Xbox 360. In its short time in video game hardware, Microsoft has made a snug place for its system and successfully muscled around developers to create exclusive games for its console. Their audience is only mid-sized, the company has yet to conquer Japan, but Microsoft isn't about to give up.

Microsoft's Plan
Microsoft had one goal in mind when releasing the Xbox: beat the competition no matter how much money it takes. Backed one of the largest budgets of any company in the world, Microsoft pushed the Xbox long and hard and won respectable sales.

But money alone won't cut it. Microsoft suffered heavy losses from Xbox. The launch of the Xbox 360 shows some promise, but not enough to break even. The company just grins and takes it, saying some losses are acceptable and that in the end it'll all pay off. You have to admire their persistence, if nothing else.

Microsoft wants to give users customizability along with superior technology. They use their extensive knowledge of the PC to develop the Xbox. It's a slightly different approach, scaling down a do-it-all machine to become a dedicated gaming device. But in essence they'll capture the same budding technologites that stare at a computer screen all day long.

The Xbox Systems
The Xbox series also offers remarkably PC-like functionality, making gamers and computer geeks feel quite at home. The controller is a huge clunky device with loads of buttons -- a forboding sight to many non-gamers. The system itself offers a load of options and customization. Good if you know what you're doing, bad if you just want to play a game. User friendliness -- or, non-gamer friendliness -- seems to have been less important in Microsoft's drive to appeal to the hardcore gamer.

Microsoft's Future

Microsoft has jumped the gun and released its next-gen system, the Xbox 360, before Sony and Nintendo pushed theirs out the door. The headstart could be a mistake, or it could be a great advantage. The Xbox 360 is reportedly quite powerful and has a relatively strong support from third-party developers, including more Japanese companies than before. Still, the Xbox 360 has a long way to go to catch up with the giant Sony and the veteran Nintendo.

In the years to come, Microsoft will likely have one of two extreme fates: king of the hill, or deflated and dead. If they push more of their money and keep pressing the Xbox onto consumers, Microsoft will definitely oust Sony. Without their constant efforts, though, the Xbox will probably go the way of the Dreamcast -- a financial flop but a fan-favorite for years to come.

With a little strategic tinkering, Microsoft could be in a prime position to capture the emerging power of casual gamers. These are the people who pay to play Bejeweled on the internet and are moderately comfortable with PC gaming. An Xbox system with scaled down features, a simplified interface and loads of simple flash-type games could be a huge draw for this group. Microsoft is perhaps in the best position to pull this off. But will they even think about the casual gamer? Are they too focused on nabbing the holy grail to notice?

The new Arcade feature on the Xbox 360 could be the key to capturing the casual gamers' market, but the initial high pice and low availability of the new console is a formidable roadblock to this type of consumer.

In recent years, Nintendo has come under heavy attack from veteran gamers for being "too kiddy", "not serious about video games", or "ignorant of their customers' desires". Everyone else thinks just the opposite. Nintendo was once the king of gaming; now they are the third in sales (though their profits are actually greater than those of Sony or Microsoft). With their forward-thinking strategy and intelligent business tactics, Nintendo is positioning themselves for a revolution in the gaming world. They've seen the future and are ready to pounce.

Nintendo's Ideas
Nintendo practically created the video game industry we see today. Most Nintendo innovations became industry standards -- the d-pad, analog sticks, shoulder buttons, etc. Nintendo's ideas are laced deeply within the gaming subconscious and they hold a fuzzy nostalgic corner of many gamers' hearts.

But it's this nostalgia that hurts Nintendo. It's a natural part of life to grow up and want to distance yourself from your parents, your crib, your favorite He-Man blanket. You want to become independent and shun all things related to your childhood. Nintendo games became one of those things. And the characteristic style of many Nintendo games -- simple, colorful, and let's face it, somewhat kiddy -- hasn't given them any leverage in the minds of maturing gamers.

Nintendo's Strategy

Nintendo has always maintained their target audience is everyone, not just gamers. Their first step toward this was the Nintendo DS, a device that begins to remove the gap between player and game. For the well-initiated gamer, moving an on-screen character and manipulating a virtual world with a d-pad is better than second nature. However, these skills must be learned just as we learn to play the piano or to eat burritos without making a mess. Many seasoned gamers take it for granted that they are quite skilled at using a control mechanism that has little to do with real-world movements.

Enter the Nintendo DS and Nintendo's latest slogan: "Touching is good". The touch screen interface allows gamers to touch the game and affect the world on-screen. In games such as Yoshi Touch and Go, players actually draw platforms, toss eggs and manipulate the world around Yoshi by touching the screen. An interesting twist: we now control the world around the character rather than the characters themselves. And by directly touching, not using a symbolic button for an action.

This is slightly odd for some gamers, but they adapt quite quickly to the new ideas. The biggest bonus for Nintendo is that even the most technologically incapable person can pick up a stylus and go. It's a natural way to play a game.

Nintendo's Future
Nintendo has played a smart move by stepping to the side and allowing Sony and Microsoft to play "my numbers are bigger than your numbers". As they battle for the same small market, Nintendo begins picking up new customers. The casual gamer and non-gamer who previously ignored video games as "geek food" turn an interested eye.

Before the NES, avid video gamers were almost non-existent. Nintendo turned them onto gaming with simplicity and style. Now, when video gaming hits its next phase of evolution, Nintendo is ready to do it again. There are as many skeptics as there are hecklers, but Nintendo knows gaming. It couldn't be any simpler than that.

Human beings love to play. It's only natural that computers, even in their early days, were used to make games. Entire machines were eventually made that were dedicated to video games alone.

From the inception of video games in the 1970's to the crash and resurrection of them in the 80's, video games have been a quiet part of the modern world. The future of video game entertainment is wildly different than today's picture. Yes, technology will increase to allow for more realistic games. Stories will get better, games will become more involving and intricate. But not everyone can handle that. The hardcore gamer of today grew up with simpler entertainment. Tossing something infinitely more complex in front of a new gamer's face will leave confused looks, grumpy gamers, and bankrupt companies.

The future of video games can be found in diversity. Two of the big three console makers are focusing on more complex technology with a bewildering amount of features. That's fine for anyone who cut their teeth on the Atari 2600. But for the casual gamer unfamiliar with the loads of precursor technology, they aren't going to want to put the time into learning HOW to game just to PLAY games. It's the result of rapidly advancing technology, and it's coming to a head.

A new video games boom is about to occur. With the market saturated in sequels, stamped-out clones and other filler titles, even veteran gamers are starting to scratch their heads and wonder what else is out there. Developers such as the industry veteran Nintendo, realizes that the market must open its arms to a wider audience in order to survive. And how to you invite more people in? By giving them something they can understand. By giving them a piece of technology that doesn't make them feel stupid. By giving them something they can have fun with.

Fun. That's how the industry began. That's what it is for most gamers today. But that's what it will be for all the n00b gamers of the future.

Thanks for reading Video Games Go Boom. Hopefully your head is filled with strange ideas and a new view on the world you call home. Now all you have to do is sit back and play some games and wait for the revolution.

Blog Heaven

I obviously lift a lot of stuff from a lot of different websites, as a sort of tribute to the things that I find interesting. But when a website consistently produces a high standard of quality output, I'm obliged to give them a well deserved mention and encourage you to visit them. Such is the case with Chick Yog, home of some the sharpest political/ civil commentary around, albeit British politics and civil liberties. Still a lot there for us US-bound folk to glean from and, thanks to the quality and wit of the observations, chuckle at.

Another funny website which tackles something I don't know that much about but is still pretty entertaining, is Go Fug Yourself. It takes celebrity fashion faux pas to task, especially since they're in a position to know better. Despite the esoteric subject matter, the writing is super-hilarious and aptly vicious. Thanks to Shereen for keying me into this website. Her own blog Unnecessary and not very Diverting Musings is no slouch which you can bank on to get better, as soon as she gets out of school and gets even more material.

Griffin Pirate Books

Anyone remember those? God, I loved them when I was a kid. The adventures of Roderick the Red, Gregory the Green and Benjamin the Blue. A little bit exciting, a little bit wistful, a little bit sad. The illustrations were absolutely amazing, rivalling the best of Pauline Baynes (the original illustrator for Narnia).

This is is an example of one of these books, the Island of the Mer People in it's original edition (not interested in any of the re-releases with all their marketing 'modernized for contemporary children' bullshit), written by Sheila McCullagh.

I'll post more of the original covers, as I find them. Incidentally, if anyone has them (1st Editions only!) and wants to sell them, get in touch with me please.

Florida teen skips school, sneaks to Iraq

This kid is my hero. I wish I had the balls to do stuff like this when I was growing up. Or even now. Truth is, I don't believe it anything that much, sadly enough..

16-year-old survives his experiment in 'immersion journalism'
Farris Hassan skipped a week of class to travel by himself to Iraq.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Maybe it was the time the taxi dumped him at the Iraq-Kuwait border, leaving him alone in the middle of the desert. Or when he drew a crowd at a Baghdad food stand after using an Arabic phrase book to order. Or the moment a Kuwaiti cab driver almost punched him in the face when he balked at the $100 fare.

But at some point, Farris Hassan, a 16-year-old from Florida, realized that traveling to Iraq by himself was not the safest thing he could have done with his Christmas vacation.

And he didn't even tell his parents.

Hassan's dangerous adventure winds down with the 101st Airborne delivering the Fort Lauderdale teen to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which had been on the lookout for him and promises to see him back to the United States this weekend.

It begins with a high school class on "immersion journalism" and one overly eager -- or naively idealistic -- student who's lucky to be alive after going way beyond what any teacher would ask.

As a junior this year at a Pine Crest School, a prep academy of about 700 students in Fort Lauderdale, Hassan studied writers like John McPhee in the book "The New Journalism," an introduction to immersion journalism -- a writer who lives the life of his subject in order to better understand it.

Diving headfirst into an assignment, Hassan, whose parents were born in Iraq but have lived in the United States for about 35 years, hung out at a local mosque. The teen, who says he has no religious affiliation, added that he even spent an entire night until 6 a.m. talking politics with a group of Muslim men, a level of "immersion" his teacher characterized as dangerous and irresponsible.

The next trimester his class was assigned to choose an international topic and write editorials about it, Hassan said. He chose the Iraq war and decided to practice immersion journalism there, too, though he knows his school in no way endorses his travels.

"I thought I'd go the extra mile for that, or rather, a few thousand miles," he told The Associated Press.

Using money his parents had given him at one point, he bought a $900 plane ticket and took off from school a week before Christmas vacation started, skipping classes and leaving the country on December 11.

His goal: Baghdad. Those privy to his plans: two high school buddies.

Given his heritage, Hassan could almost pass as Iraqi. His father's background helped him secure an entry visa, and native Arabs would see in his face Iraqi features and a familiar skin tone. His wispy beard was meant to help him blend in.

But underneath that Mideast veneer was full-blooded American teen, a born-and-bred Floridian sporting white Nike tennis shoes and trendy jeans. And as soon as the lanky, 6-foot teenager opened his mouth -- he speaks no Arabic -- his true nationality would have betrayed him.

Traveling on his own in a land where insurgents and jihadists have kidnapped more than 400 foreigners, killing at least 39 of them, Hassan walked straight into a death zone. On Monday, his first full day in Iraq, six vehicle bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing five people and wounding more than 40.

The State Department strongly advises U.S. citizens against traveling to Iraq, saying it "remains very dangerous." Forty American citizens have been kidnapped since the war started in March 2003, of which 10 have been killed, a U.S. official said. About 15 remain missing.

"Travel warnings are issued for countries that are considered especially dangerous for Americans, and one of the strongest warnings covers travel to Iraq," said Elizabeth Colton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Colton said the embassy's consular section can provide only limited help to Americans in Iraq, though once officials learn of a potentially dangerous situation every effort is made to assist.

Inside the safety of Baghdad's Green Zone, an Embassy official from the Hostage Working Group talked to Hassan about how risky travel is in Iraq.

"This place is incredibly dangerous to individual private American citizens, especially minors, and all of us, especially the military, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure this youth's safety, even if he doesn't acknowledge it or even understand it," a U.S. official who wasn't authorized to speak to the media said on condition of anonymity.

Hassan's extra-mile attitude took him east through eight time zones, from Fort Lauderdale to Kuwait City. His plan was to take a taxi across the border and ultimately to Baghdad -- an unconventional, expensive and utterly dangerous route.

It was in Kuwait City that he first called his parents to tell them of his plans -- and that he was now in the Middle East.

His mother, Shatha Atiya, a psychologist, said she was "shocked and terrified." She had told him she would take him to Iraq, but only after the country stabilizes.

"He thinks he can be an ambassador for democracy around the world. It's admirable but also agony for a parent," Atiya said.

Attempting to get into Iraq, Hassan took a taxi from Kuwait City to the border 55 miles away. He spoke English at the border and was soon surrounded by about 15 men, a scene he wanted no part of. On the drive back to Kuwait City, a taxi driver almost punched him when he balked at the fee.

"In one day I probably spent like $250 on taxis," he said. "And they're so evil too, because they ripped me off, and when I wouldn't pay the ripped-off price they started threatening me. It was bad."

It could have been worse -- the border could have been open.

As luck would have it, the teenager found himself at the Iraq-Kuwait line sometime on December 13, and the border security was extra tight because of Iraq's December 15 parliamentary elections. The timing saved him from a dangerous trip.

"If they'd let me in from Kuwait, I probably would have died," he acknowledged. "That would have been a bad idea."

He again called his father, who told him to come home. But the teen insisted on going to Baghdad. His father advised him to stay with family friends in Beirut, Lebanon, so he flew there, spending 10 days before flying to Baghdad on Christmas.

His ride at Baghdad International Airport, arranged by the family friends in Lebanon, dropped him off at an international hotel where Americans were staying.

He says he only strayed far from that hotel once, in search of food. He walked into a nearby shop and asked for a menu. When no menu appeared, he pulled out his Arabic phrase book, and after fumbling around found the word "menu." The stand didn't have one. Then a worker tried to read some of the English phrases.

"And I'm like, 'Well, I should probably be going.' It was not a safe place. The way they were looking at me kind of freaked me out," he said.

It was mid-afternoon on Tuesday, after his second night in Baghdad, that he sought out editors at The Associated Press and announced he was in Iraq to do research and humanitarian work. AP staffers had never seen an unaccompanied teenage American walk into their war zone office. ("I would have been less surprised if little green men had walked in," said editor Patrick Quinn.)

Wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt in addition to his jeans and sneakers, Hassan appeared eager and outgoing but slightly sheepish about his situation.

The AP quickly called the U.S. embassy.

Embassy officials had been on the lookout for Hassan, at the request of his parents, who still weren't sure exactly where he was. One U.S. military officer said he was shocked the teen was still alive. The 101st Airborne lieutenant who picked him up from the hotel said it was the wildest story he'd ever heard.

Hassan accepted being turned over to authorities as the safest thing to do, but seemed to accept the idea more readily over time.

Most of Hassan's wild tale could not be corroborated, but his larger story arc was in line with details provided by friends and family members back home.

Dangerous and dramatic, Hassan's trip has also been educational. He had tea with Kuwaitis under a tent in the middle of a desert. He says he interviewed Christians in south Lebanon. And he said he spoke with U.S. soldiers guarding his Baghdad hotel who told him they are treated better by Sunni Arabs -- the minority population that enjoyed a high standing under Saddam Hussein and are now thought to fuel the insurgency -- than by the majority Shiites.

His father, Redha Hassan, a doctor, said his son is an idealist, principled and moral. Aside from the research he wanted to accomplish, he also wrote in an essay saying he wanted to volunteer in Iraq.

He said he wrote half the essay while in the United States, half in Kuwait, and e-mailed it to his teachers December 15 while in the Kuwait City airport.

"There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil, between those striving for freedom and liberty and those striving for death and destruction," he wrote.

"Those terrorists are not human but pure evil. For their goals to be thwarted, decent individuals must answer justice's call for help. Unfortunately altruism is always in short supply. Not enough are willing to set aside the material ambitions of this transient world, put morality first, and risk their lives for the cause of humanity. So I will."

"I want to experience during my Christmas the same hardships ordinary Iraqis experience everyday, so that I may better empathize with their distress," he wrote.

Farris Hassan says he thinks a trip to the Middle East is a healthy vacation compared with a trip to Colorado for holiday skiing.

"You go to, like, the worst place in the world and things are terrible," he said. "When you go back home you have such a new appreciation for all the blessing you have there, and I'm just going to be, like, ecstatic for life."

His mother, however, sees things differently.

"I don't think I will ever leave him in the house alone again," she said. "He showed a lack of judgment."

Hassan may not mind, at least for a while. He now understands how dangerous his trip was, that he was only a whisker away from death.

His plans on his return to Florida: "Kiss the ground and hug everyone."

Hassan's travels
December 11 -- Departs Miami International Airport, cutting a week of school.
December 12 -- Gets connection in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
December 13 -- Lands in Kuwait City at 12:05 a.m. Tells parents for first time he plans to go to Baghdad. Reaches the Kuwait-Iraq border by taxi but cannot cross because of tight security before Iraq's parliamentary election.
December 15 -- Flies to Beirut, Lebanon, and stays with family friends. Spends time interviewing minority Christians.
December 25 -- Flies to Baghdad International Airport, where family contacts pick him up and drop him off at a hotel known to house Americans.
December 27 -- Walks into the offices of The Associated Press. AP contacts U.S. Embassy.
December 28 -- Members of 101st Airborne drive him to embassy, which takes custody of him.
This weekend -- Scheduled to fly from Baghdad to Beirut to Kuwait City to the United States, eventually landing in Miami.

Egyptian Police Kill 10 Sudanese in Cairo

By BEN CURTIS, Associated Press Writer

CAIRO, Egypt - Egyptian police turned water cannons on Sudanese war refugees and beat them with sticks Friday, brutally clearing out a squatters camp in a city park. At least 10 people were killed, the government said.

Hundreds of Sudanese have been living in the park since September to protest the U.N. refugee agency's refusal to consider them for refugee status. They want to be resettled in a third country, such as the United States or Britain, rather than go home after a peace deal ended the 21-year-long civil war in Sudan.

In Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, expressed his shock and sadness over the violence and deaths.

"Although we still do not have all of the details or a clear picture of what transpired, violence left several people dead and injured," Guterres said. "There is no justification for such violence and loss of life. This is a terrible tragedy and our condolences go to all the families of those who died and to the injured."

In a showdown played out during the first five hours of Friday, the protesters dismantled their plastic sheeting and cardboard, but most refused to leave on buses brought in to take them to camps elsewhere in Cairo.

Shortly before dawn, thousands of riot police encircled the camp, set up near the refugee agency to draw attention to the refugees' demands. Police fired water cannons at the protesters, then invaded the park when the Sudanese refused to leave.

Protesters could be seen fighting back with long sticks that appeared to be supports for makeshift tents.

Police beat the unarmed migrants with batons, continuing to hit them even as they were being dragged to the buses. One officer carried a girl of about 3 or 4 years old who was unconscious. An ambulance worker said the girl was dead.

A policeman clubbed a Sudanese man with a tree branch as two officers hauled the refugee away.

Authorities said 10 protesters were dead and 23 police wounded. Boutrous Deng, a protest leader, told The Associated Press that 15 Sudanese were killed, including two children.

Officials at the South Center, an independent Sudanese human rights group, said 1,280 refugees were taken by bus to three locations outside Cairo. In a statement faxed to AP in Cairo, the group described the police assault as "savage."

The Interior Ministry said the UNHCR had asked for protection "after receiving threats to attack the commision offices and its members." The ministry blamed the violence on the Sudanese and said the dead and injured were victims of a stampede.

"Attempts had been made to convince them to disperse, but to no avail," the ministry said in a statement. "The migrants' leaders resorted to incitement and attacks against the police."

The refugee agency said last week that it had reached a deal with some of the protest leaders, promising to resume hearing some migrants' cases and offering a one-time payment of up to $700 for housing in Egypt. But most of the migrants rejected the deal, saying they wanted promises of resettlement abroad.

"It is extremely sad that people had to die," said Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Cairo.

The agency stopped hearing the cases of Sudanese refugees after a January peace deal ended the war in their home country.

At times the Sudanese numbered up to 2,000 in the ramshackle camp, about the size of four tennis courts. At least three refugees have died in the camp, including a 4-year-old boy who succumbed to pneumonia earlier this month.

About 30,000 Sudanese are registered as refugees in Egypt, and estimates of Sudanese living in the country have ranged from 200,000 to several million.

But Egypt, which suffers from high unemployment and strained social services for its own population, offers the Sudanese little assistance, and the Sudanese complain of discrimination by Egyptians.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

2005 Resolutions Verdict: Pathetic

I didn't do that well. I never do that well yet somehow, I never get used to the shame of abject failure.

1. Pay off debts ($4,324).
Debts now stand at $6,240. I will never be rich. Or comfortable. Or the fourth member of Keane.

2. Sponsor child for one year.
Did slightly better there, paying for an Afghani kid throughout January, February...and I think a good portion of March. That's when I stopped sending money, despite the teary-eyed letters from young Ali...except for the last one which was a surprisingly lucid account of how he now steals pencils from his classmate, whose sponsor didn't cut off his funding.

3. Develop a meaningful relationship.
Another miss, I'm afraid and this one wasn't pretty. Had some flings, had a close call which didn't work out and countless drinks in the face from women in bars. Good news is if you keep your mouth open, you pay less for your own drinks. Considering how many got thrown my way, my debt should be a lot less..

4. Finish writing book about US invasion of Philippines.
The US invaded the Philippines in the late nineteenth century, in a manner that is eerily similar to the current INTERVENTION in Iraq (my citizenship exam is coming up and until then, I'm not taking any chances). Anyways, Dad promised me cash if I wrote the book for him. Obviously, with all my whoring and racking up bills and avoiding letters from starving Afghani toddlers, there was no time.

5. US Citizenship.
On track, so far but give me time and I'll fuck this one up too. Plus, the fact that I picked a revolution that pretty much handles itself is a new low in setting the bar low.

6. Driver's License.
Some success there. I have a learner's permit which is thankfully not apparent to bouncers outside of seedy clubs when they check my ID. They think it's a driver's license. Also, most girls I know don't know that it's a learner's permit, not a driver's license. Call me crazy but I have an inkling a learner's permit is not going to turn anyone on. Of course, the fact that I think a driver's license is going to turn anyone on tells its own story..

7. Move to the City.
Well, this year I learnt that New York City includes all the five boroughs (possible exception of Staten Island) in a sense, this is a resolution that I have already fulfilled. You'll understand if I don't bust out with the confetti and champagne.

8. Get Business License.
I don't know what happened with this. I got my Tax ID number but never bothered to register the name of my company with the proper authority. With tax time coming up, I am looking at a potential banana skin of Enron-like proportion. Regardless, of my financial savvy, you can't say anything about my hyperbole.

9. French/ Salsa/ Spanish.
Yup, putting three things in one resolution is VERY smart. Maybe I was giving myself a choice...I honestly can't remember. The fact that I'm asking myself this question on the 29th of December isn't a good sign. I did take two merengue lessons and I was BAD. Next year, my resolution will be to not subject the world to my dancing. Hmmm..I think I hear fireworks and applause.

10. Write Echo-nominated ad.
I wrote a few of them, actually but the Echos didn't see it that way. With the quality of assignments I'm getting, I'm not sure any of my ads would qualify for fish-and-chip wrapping paper. Still, there's always the posthumous awarding of the Echo. Very rare but it could happen. Which would be an achievement in itself...

The Year in W-Politics

Bush began 2005 celebrating his electoral victory and proclaiming a "turning point" in Iraq. But in every crisis he faced this year-from Terri Schiavo to Katrina to Iraq-the tide turned against him

By Sidney Blumenthal

Dec. 29, 2005 | In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush four times summoned the image of fire -- "a day of fire," "we have lit a fire," "fire in the minds of men," and "untamed fire." Over the course of the first year of his second term, all four of the ancient Greek elements have wreaked havoc: the fire of war and "fire in the minds of men" of culture war, the air and water of Hurricane Katrina, whirlwinds raging across the earth from Iraq to Florida, from Louisiana to Washington. Through obsession or obliviousness, rigidity or laziness, Bush got himself singed, tossed about, engulfed, and nearly buried.

He began the year proclaiming "a turning point" in Iraq. In every crisis he faced, he assumed that everything would turn his way as it always had in the past. He ended the year declaring "victory" within reach.

The first shift in his political fortunes came with his unprecedented intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, a woman who had lain in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, and whose husband’s effort to remove her feeding tube was upheld after 14 appeals in Florida courts, five federal law suits, and four refusals to accept the case by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bush had won the presidency in 2004 with an extraordinary outpouring of support from the religious right. So he rushed from his Texas ranch back to the White House in March to sign the bill transferring the case from state to federal courts. Throughout the month, the Republicans strutted and the Democrats cowered. Then, on March 21, the spell that had carried over from the election campaign was suddenly broken in a single stroke. The deus ex machina that descended onto this fervent scene was an awakening public. An ABC News poll found that 63 to 28 percent backed the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube and 67 to 19 percent believed that politicians urging that she be kept alive were demagogic and unprincipled.

By now, Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security was for all intents and purposes moribund. He languished over his long summer vacation besieged by a Gold Star mother, Cindy Sheehan, whose son had died in Iraq. She camped out beside the road leading to the president’s ranch, asking him to explain the "noble cause" for which her son had given his life. Bush refused to grant her an audience, his motorcade racing past her to a lunch with big party contributors.

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, Bush’s aides held a fraught debate about which one of them would have to tell the president he should cut short his vacation. Four days after the hurricane landed, Bush left his ranch and, on Air Force One, watched a custom DVD of television news coverage assembled by his staff. He had not bothered to see any of it on his own.

He praised his feckless chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown -- "Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job" -- and then nominated his former personal attorney and White House Legal Counsel Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Though friends offered testimony of her evangelical religiosity, conservatives did not trust her because she had once made gestures toward women’s and civil rights, and Bush pushed her to withdraw.

Bush hoped to erase the year’s infamies with the election in Iraq on December 15, his ultimate turning point. He delivered five major speeches crafted by his new adviser on the National Security Council, Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist and co-author of "Choosing Your Battles," based on his public opinion research showing that "the public is defeat phobic, not casualty phobic." In one speech, Bush mentioned "victory" 15 times, against a background embossed with the slogan "Plan for Victory," and the White House issued a document entitled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

On December 14, the president invited bipartisan groups of senators and representatives to White House briefings on the progress that would follow the election. Among those assembled in the Roosevelt Room were the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley -- and Peter Feaver, the polling expert. At the meeting with senators after the presentation, Bush called first on Senator John McCain, the Republican maverick, who gave an enthusiastic statement of support. A few more spoke. "Great, gotta go," said Bush. Afterwards, Feaver buttonholed senators to survey their opinions on the new approach.

Since the election of the Shiite slate that will hold power for four years, dedicated to an Islamic state allied with Iran, the president and his advisers have fallen eerily silent. As his annus horribilis draws to a close, Bush appears to have expended the turning points.

Welcome to victory.

"We are poor people and we have nothing else to protect but our honor."

Apparently, not even compassion..

MULTAN, Pakistan (AP) -- Nazir Ahmed appears calm and unrepentant as he recounts how he slit the throats of his three young daughters and their 25-year old stepsister to salvage his family's "honor" -- a crime that shocked Pakistan.

The 40-year old laborer, speaking to The Associated Press in police detention as he was being shifted to prison, confessed to just one regret -- that he didn't murder the stepsister's alleged lover, too.

Hundreds of girls and women are murdered by male relatives each year in this conservative Islamic nation, and rights groups said Wednesday such "honor killings" will only stop when authorities get serious about punishing perpetrators.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that in more than half of such cases that make it to court, most end with cash settlements paid by relatives to the victims' families, although under a law passed last year, the minimum penalty is 10 years, the maximum death by hanging.

Ahmed's apparent actions -- witnessed by his wife, Rehmat Bibi, as she cradled their 3-month-old son -- happened Friday night at their home in the village of Gago Mandi in eastern Punjab province.

It is the latest of more than 260 such honor killings documented by the rights commission, mostly from media reports, during the first 11 months of 2005.

Bibi recounted how she was awakened by a shriek as Ahmed put his hand to the mouth of his stepdaughter, Muqadas, and cut her throat with a machete. She said she looked on helplessly from the corner of the room as he then killed the 3 girls -- Bano, 8, Sumaira, 7, and Humaira, 4 -- pausing between slayings to brandish the knife at his wife, warning her not to intervene or raise alarm.

"I was shivering with fear. I did not know how to save my daughters," Bibi, sobbing, told AP by phone from the village. "I begged my husband to spare my daughters but he said, 'If you make a noise, I will kill you."'

"The whole night the bodies of my daughters lay in front of me."

The next morning, Ahmed was arrested.

Speaking to AP from the back of a police pickup truck late Tuesday as he was moved to a prison in the city of Multan, Ahmed showed no contrition. Appearing disheveled but composed, he said he killed Muqadas because she had committed adultery, and his daughters because he didn't want them to do the same when they grew up.

He said he bought a butcher knife and a machete after Friday prayers and hid them in the house where he carried out the killings.

"I thought the younger girls would do what their eldest sister had done, so they should be eliminated," he said, his hands cuffed, his face unshaven. "We are poor people and we have nothing else to protect but our honor."

Despite Ahmed's contention that Muqadas had committed adultery -- a claim made by her husband -- the rights commission reported that according to local people, Muqadas had fled her husband because he had abused her and forced her to work in a brick-making factory.

Police have said they do not know the identity or whereabouts of Muqadas' alleged lover.

Muqadas was Bibi's daughter by her first marriage to Ahmed's brother, who died 14 years ago. Ahmed married his brother's widow, as is customary under Islamic tradition.

"Women are treated as property and those committing crimes against them do not get punished," said the rights commission's director, Kamla Hyat. "The steps taken by our government have made no real difference."

Activists accuse President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a self-styled moderate Muslim, of reluctance to reform outdated Islamized laws that make it difficult to secure convictions in rape, acid attacks and other cases of violence against women. They say police are often reluctant to prosecute, regarding such crimes as family disputes.

Statistics on honor killings are confused and imprecise, but figures from the rights commission's Web site and its officials show a marked reduction in cases this year: 267 in the first 11 months of 2005, compared with 579 during all of 2004. The Ministry of Women's Development said it had no reliable figures.

Ijaz Elahi, the ministry's joint secretary, said the violence was decreasing and that increasing numbers of victims were reporting incidents to police or the media. Laws, including one passed last year to beef up penalties for honor killings, had been toughened, she said.

Police in Multan said they would complete their investigation into Ahmed's case in the next two weeks and that he faces the death sentence if he is convicted for the killings.

Ahmed, who did not resist arrest, was unrepentant.

"I told the police that I am an honorable father and I slaughtered my dishonored daughter and the three other girls," he said. "I wish that I get a chance to eliminate the boy she ran away with and set his home on fire."

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"Bloody Mary": South Park episode yanked?

Comedy Central might or might not have deleted the South Park episode "Bloody Mary" from tonight's schedule after protests from offended conservative Catholics.

In this episode, which first aired on December 7, a local statue of the Virgin Mary bleeds from its ass. Townsfolk think it's a miracle.

Emperor Palpatine Pope Benedict XVI visits to inspect the statue in person, determines that it is instead bleeding from its vagina, and declares: "A chick bleeding out her vagina is no miracle. Chicks bleed out their vaginas all the time."

From Reuter's Pictures of the Year

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Proust Said It

"Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind."

The Chronicles of Narnia Rap

This is a stupid article but I included it because it's about a great SNL skit. Hip Hop won't be saved by a parody of Hip Hop put together by two white guys and the rap isn't an example of how hip hop is supposed to be: it's a parody, pure and simple and the reason it's modelled on 80s rap (Run DMC, Beastie Boys etc.) is because the structure is much simpler and easier to construct. Stop being dorks and enjoy this for what it is--not everything has a deeper meaning!

It won't save Saturday Night Live, but it could save hip hop.
By Josh Levin

If you haven't seen Saturday Night Live's Chronicles of Narnia rap, then you don't have any friends. Or at least any friends with Internet access. The two-minute video, which debuted on SNL last Saturday before resurfacing as a much-forwarded "digital short," has accomplished what seemed impossible a week ago—making Saturday Night Live a cultural touchstone for the first time since Christopher Walken pleaded for "more cowbell." The popularity of the Narnia rap might augur a reawakening at SNL—in fact, there are already T-shirts that parrot the song's catchphrases. It's more significant, though, for what it says about the state of rap.

The video, officially titled "Lazy Sunday," depicts a day in the life of a pair of dorky New Yorkers. Andy Samberg (aka Samberg) calls up Chris Parnell (aka Parns) "just to see how he's doin'." Soon enough, they "mack on some cupcakes" from the West Village's Magnolia Bakery and debate which online map service will reveal the "dopest route" to an Upper West Side screening of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Then the chorus kicks in: "We love that Chronic—what?—cles of Narnia / Pass that Chronic—what?—cles of Narnia."

Some of the humor here derives from the fact that these whitebread guys—Samberg is wearing a John Muir T-shirt; Parnell looks like a 12-year-old accountant—are moonlighting in what's traditionally been a black medium. Sure, white rappers aren't a novelty anymore. But guys this white, rhyming about getting "taken to a dreamworld of magic"? It's the nerdy, white-boy version of Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day."

This racial switcheroo is the schtick behind Parnell's "Weekend Update" rap routines, in which he pines for hotties like Kirsten Dunst and Britney Spears while bragging about gangsta gunplay. But these earlier bits are funny only because of the racial juxtaposition therein. (Sample lyric: "Yo it's a west-side hit, I got my Mack-10 lit / Britney get down, you don't wanna see this ****.") The Narnia rap doesn't use the MCs' extraordinary whiteness as a comedy crutch. Rather than invite easy laughs by reciting a tired checklist of ghetto stereotypes, Samberg and Parnell ditch the bling and Cristal to riff enthusiastically about the stuff they like—Magnolia Bakery's "bomb frostings." Instead of clichéd images of cars and yachts, there's a pop-up graphic of the phrase "Double True" in the iconic Google font. The most conspicuous consumption is that of Mr. Pibb. (The one rap convention that does get mocked, to no great effect, is gunplay. When they answer a movie trivia question "so fast it was scary," there's machine gun fire in the background.)

Rather than lampoon today's artists, Samberg and Parnell evoke old-school rap. The whole presentation—the lyrics, the flow, and the aesthetic—owes more to New York rappers from the '80s than to anything that's getting made today. The way they trade rhymes and enunciate the end of each line—"You can call us Aaron Burr / From the way we're droppin' HAM-IL-TONS"—recalls the delivery of 1980s artists like Run-DMC. The production values, New York street scenes, and silly similes call to mind early Beastie Boys tracks. Really, is "I've got mad hits like I was Rod Carew" any less ridiculous than "I love those cupcakes like McAdams loves Gosling"?

Of course, part of what Samberg and Parnell are sending up is nerdy white nostalgia for the Beasties' heyday. Still, it's notable that these moments of goofiness and whimsy are what make "Lazy Sunday" work as a rap song, not just a comedy sketch. It's hard to think of a Top 40 hip-hop track that's similarly playful. Eminem's subgenre of silly songs ("The Real Slim Shady," "Ass Like That") all feel calculated—the references to MTV ensure that his videos get a ton of airplay on MTV. Sure, Ludacris co-starred in a video with Mini-Me. But for the most part, whimsy gets buried. The highlight of 50 Cent's oeuvre, for instance, is a sidelong lyric from "21 Questions": "I love you like a fat kid loves cake."

People aren't forwarding this video because it's a parody of what's bad about rap; they're sending it around because it's an ode to what can be great about it. Instead of auguring a new day for SNL, maybe it points up what's missing in mainstream rap—an awareness that it's OK to be goofy. Who needs Biz Markie and Tone-Loc? We've got Samberg and Parns.