Sunday, October 07, 2007

I guess this is the end of the line. Two years of blogging has taken a toll, mainly in the fact that I've succeeded in boring everyone, especially myself. Opening your heart is very overrated in that it lends people the illusion that they're a part of your life, when they're not. I'm going to focus on fixing this life of mine and won't be pouring any more of my depleted energy levels into documenting the excruciating minutae of my tortured soul. Translation, I'm quitting the blog-life, or, as a wit once put it, "Before you get a Second Life, make sure you have a first one".

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye...adieu, yeu and yeu and yeu. It's been real, it's been fun, but it hasn't been real fun. And how fitting that most of this goodbye post represents plagiarised stuff from movies, articles, books and even a t-shirt. I guess when you're a serial cutter-and-paster, old habits die hard...

Ramblefish, out.

I can see clearly now

Friday, October 05, 2007

ThinkGeek Products

Clever? Certainly. Geeky? of course!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Perfect Halo 3 Review

Even if you don't like games, this is very funny.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The 9/11 backlash against women

A really good article about a very interesting angle of 9/11: how America blamed its women for feminizing it to the point where it became susceptible to attack.

Terror swept women back into the kitchen, argues Susan Faludi, and tore open the worst scar in American history. But it's Bruce Springsteen who makes the fear so real.

By Rebecca Traister

Oct. 3, 2007 | It may be pop culture heresy to rope together Susan Faludi's new book, "The Terror Dream," and Bruce Springsteen's new album, "Magic," both released this week. Faludi, author of 1991's "Backlash," is a diligent chronicler of the country's gender problems. Springsteen is a swaggering blue-collar cult hero whose critical thinking about American culture has made him an international rock star. Yet there is a neat perfection in the pairing of these two uniquely American storytellers, as if Mars and Venus had conveniently weighed in simultaneously, after six years of consideration, on what exactly has unfolded in this country, with which they are each so critically obsessed, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Springsteen, of course, has already made one contribution to the national artistic accounting of 9/11 with "The Rising," his 2002 album that Faludi might crankily write off (as she does movies like "United 93" and "World Trade Center") as a piece of art that "seemed to have no purpose but to repeat what we already knew." On it, Springsteen gave voice to those whose lives had been damaged by 9/11: a firefighter who died, one who survived, widows both American and Arab. Five years later, he and Faludi are on related missions: to step back from the firsthand experience of events and attempt to pick out the patterns in all that's gone down since.

Faludi is characteristically grim in her reading of the country's tea leaves; she is unsurprised to report that the cultural signifiers are, as always, oppressive. Springsteen's music has always been buoyed by American symbolism; he's never been shocked by its misuse, but on this record, his grief and anger over its twisted meanings are palpable. Both "The Terror Dream" and "Magic" employ images of surrealist dread to describe the post-9/11 manipulation -- by media and politicians -- that has left us warped and brainwashed, and both deploy terrifying visions to make their points. On the title track and throughout his record, Springsteen describes the creepy carnival tricksterism of the Bush administration and the sinuous ways it has distorted his vision of America, while Faludi sees a vast national conspiracy to put women back in the kitchen and alpha males like John Wayne (or perhaps Bruce Springsteen) back in their lost positions of power.

Before she can pursue the big picture, Faludi must start where everyone else in America did: her personal experience of Sept. 11. There is her prophetic dream on the night of Sept. 10, in which she is shot while on a plane, a bullet lodged in her throat; she wakes only to discover that the world is under attack. Before the end of the day she has received the phone call that provides her book with its foundation myth: A reporter asks for her reaction to the tragedies, crowing to Faludi, "Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!"

Not 24 hours out, and Faludi has been handed the key to how this plot will unfold: To her mind, Sept. 11 will give the nation, uneasy with the strides made by women in the decades leading up to the attacks, an excuse to stuff them back into traditional boxes. That first gleeful caller is soon joined by others, all anxious to know how quickly women will abandon their corner offices and get back to tweaking their meatloaf recipes.

Apparently, Faludi has spent the past six years writing down the license plate number of every drive-by offense against gender parity, and the first two-thirds of "The Terror Dream" is her obsessive catalog -- a simply staggering one.

There are the media stories promoting a never-realized post-9/11 baby boom and the "return of the cowboy/superhero" trend pieces. Here are the fawning portrayals of the macho Bush administration (she's looking at you, Graydon Carter), the newscasters heralding the death of the "girly-man," the breezily patronizing "We're at War, Sweetheart" headlines.

You'd almost forgotten the feeling of impotence provoked by 9/11? Faludi hasn't. Here's her recounting of the people lined up at the blood banks with no one to give blood to, the police faking "live saves" to cheer up rescue dogs on the pile, because even the canines were depressed. There's the adoration of the firefighters and of the "Let's Roll!" male heroes of Flight 93 -- remembered always for their college sports achievements and their regular-guy toughness -- while the stewardesses who boiled water to throw on the terrorists were written out of the myth.

Just when you think there can't be more, Faludi concludes Chapter 3 by asking, "If women were ineligible for hero status, for what would they be celebrated?" Well, see Chapter 4: "Perfect Virgins of Grief." From here on out you'll find the victimization of Jessica Lynch, and the tale of how widows -- especially stay-at-home-mom widows, and especially widows who were pregnant -- became the golden geese of the morning shows. She recalls articles about how lonely all those haughty, self-satisfied single career women were now that we'd been attacked by terrorists and they had no one to snuggle up with at night; the Bush administration's phony interest in women's rights in the Middle East; makeup tips on how to look like a pale, pure angel; the decrease in female bylines; the nesting obsession.

All the most shoot-yourself-now memories of 2001 (and 2002 and 2003 and 2004…) collected in one long slog through the jingoism and and overreaching proclamations made by anyone with a voice box. Each chapter makes you want to bang your head against the wall harder in the hopes that you may lose consciousness and forget all this stuff again.

It's a complaint that has been lodged against Faludi before: that she's a cherry-picker, rounding up the juiciest anecdotes that suit her argument and leaving the rest to languish. On the other hand: What a bumper crop of cherries! Like the blog entry about how "The phallic symbol of America has been cut off ... and at its base was a large smoldering vagina, the true symbol of the American culture." Oh. My. God. How about Frank McCourt's turgid ode to firemen: "They man a hose that could be a wild animal ... They hack and smash and isolate and drown that other wild animal, the old god fire."

Faludi faithfully records the outrageous assaults against female critics like Susan Sontag, Arundhati Roy, Barbara Kingsolver and Katha Pollitt, who dared to consider America's role in the attacks or express ambivalence about the ensuing patriotism. "Pollitt, honey, it's time to take your brain to the dry cleaners," went one headline, while the New York Post's Rod Dreher expressed his wish to "walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman's [Sontag's] apartment, grab her by the neck, [and] drag her down to ground zero."

She more than makes her point: 9/11 unleashed a torrent of pent-up rage against women and feminism. Kingsolver tells Faludi that while the accusations hurled at her and her peers were meant to be infantilizing and patronizing, "if we were so silly and moronic, why was it so important to bring us up and attack us again and again and again? The response was not the response you would expect toward a child. It was more like we were witches." Post-feminist women had become scary, and the fury directed at them was symptomatic not simply of relief at returning them to the domestic sphere, but of the fear that they might not be willingly contained.

This collection of media moments is an invaluable document. And yet. One can't help thinking that, as in an ugly fight between lovers, some of the things that were said in the heat of the moment -- about the goodness of Rudy Giuliani; about how the attacks were retribution against the pagans, abortionists, feminists and gays; about "the end of irony" -- are better left unpacked, because if we dredged them up again, we might never get past them.

And yet, I want to thank Faludi for going to the library while the rest of us gave into baser instincts, drank a six-pack, and passed out. I want to thank her for adding it all up and making shape and sense out of six years of history. When she writes about how the attacks provoked "the denigration of capable women, the magnification of manly men, the heightened call for domesticity, the search for and sanctification of helpless girls," it's almost a relief: Of course! I knew there had to be an explanation! This must also have led to the fetishization of parenting, the mommy wars, the obsession with celebrity baby bumps, and stupidly expensive baby strollers! Wheee! Thank you Susan Faludi, for drawing the map!

Except that she hasn't. She doesn't really get to any of those things. In fact, while she has pulled through a critical thread, "The Terror Dream" does not show the full tapestry of post-9/11 gender relations.

There are oddly blank spaces in her argument. In her estimable effort to diagnose the toxicity of attitudes toward women, she eliminates events that do not fit her argument, and thus fails to tell the whole story. In the discussion of the big-dicked alpha-male Bush administration, why doesn't Faludi examine the roles of Karen Hughes and Condoleezza Rice and Harriet Miers? Hughes is brought up when she quits to spend more time with her family -- a move that supports Faludi's argument and merits consideration. But why not complicate the issue by exploring why, exactly, Mr. Guns Blazing president has put more women in positions of power than any chief executive before him? Faludi's argument is strong enough to withstand complexity. That she rarely acknowledges it only serves to weaken her claims.

Faludi devotes part of the book to tallying the diminished number of female bylines in papers, the paltry number of girl guests on TV. She's not the first to do this, and she's not wrong. "The silencing of women took place largely in silence," she writes dramatically at the conclusion of her passage on the media.

Eh. Sure. For a while. But in the years Faludi is describing, Jill Abramson ascended to the top of the New York Times masthead and Katie Couric took over the nightly news, albeit to ill effect. Why not explore the unearthing of feminism as a beat by young women like Ariel Levy at New York magazine, Sheelah Kolhatkar, formerly of the New York Observer, by Meghan O'Rourke at Slate, Jessica Valenti at Feministing, and by several of us here at Salon? Levy is mentioned in "The Terror Dream," but only as a cog in New York magazine's dastardly scheme to tell free-loving New York women they should be getting married; Faludi does not credit her for writing one of the better-received feminist books of the past decade, "Female Chauvinist Pigs." What about Linda Hirshman's "Get to Work" or Leslie Bennetts' "The Feminine Mistake"? It's not as though these women are working in echo chambers: Levy was on Oprah; she, Valenti and Linda Hirshman have all appeared on Stephen Colbert ... To talk about feminism! ... On television!

None of these developments make Faludi's argument less true: There was, and is, a paucity of women in major newspapers, magazines, political blogs, and on the talk shows. But it is possible to make that point while also acknowledging a simultaneous increase of women, besides Faludi, who are rattling the chains and getting heard.

Can a book that alleges that the United States re-embraced a John Wayne model of male leadership post-9/11 really only contain three references to the woman who may be the first major-party female candidate for president? What about the first female president of Harvard, the first female speaker of the house?

The first two-thirds of "The Terror Dream" offers a compendium of the offenses against gender civility without extending itself to contemplate how they have evolved and what they have come to mean now, in 2007. Faludi lays it all out, gets the reader good and riled, and then ... nothing.

That's because she is far less interested in the present or the future than she is with the past. Her real thesis (more complicated than "9/11 pushed us back into traditional roles") is laid out in the preface, but does not get fully realized until the book's bizarre structure becomes apparent. Her central idea is that Ernst Haeckel's hypothesis that "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" -- or, as Faludi translates for us, that the development of an embryo repeats in compressed form the evolutionary stages of its species -- can be applied to American history.

Faludi wants to show how "the way we act, say, in response to a crisis can recapitulate in quick time the centuries-long evolution of our character as a society and of the mythologies we live by." But because Faludi does the recapitulation part -- the reactions to Sept. 11 -- before she gets to the evolution part more than halfway through the book, her point gets muddied, and readers may wonder, upon beginning the final section, whether they walked into a graduate thesis on America's founding conflicts.

It's a pity, because this last section -- the phylogeny -- is brilliant and exhilarating. Faludi examines with great gusto the popular captivity narratives of 18th and 19th century America, including those of Mary Rowlandson and Cynthia Ann Parker. The stories themselves are fascinating, like that of Hannah Duston, captured in 1697 by Abenaki Indians, five days after having given birth to her 12th child. Before her captors could take her to Canada, Duston took a hatchet to them (two men, two women, six children) and escaped, only to return to collect their scalps. This bravery earned her the attention of that famously easygoing Massachusetts Bay preacher Cotton Mather, who was concerned that nice, passive women might get the wrong idea about their own self-sufficiency from Duston's story.

Faludi's point is that our behaviors in the wake of the supposedly unprecedented terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 were in fact practically written into our national DNA. "Our foundational drama as a society was apposite, a profound exposure to just such assaults, murderous homeland incursions by dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants under the flag of no recognized nation," she writes. "September 11 was aimed at our cultural solar plexus precisely because it was an 'unthinkable' occurrence for a nation that once could think of little else. It was not, in fact, an inconceivable event; it was the characteristic and formative American ordeal, the primal injury of which we could not speak, the shard of memory stuck in our throats. Our ancestors had already found a war on terror, a very long war, and we have lived with its scars ever since."

This argument is fluid and thrilling to read. It just should have been its own book, perhaps with Faludi's collected contemporary gripes appended as evidence of how in the narratives of the country's founding we can find the dental records of nearly every one of our modern impulses to contain femininity.

Faludi leaves us with a list of kidnappings and witch hunts that provide a fascinating tableau against which we are free to measure -- without much direct guidance from her -- our modern gender impulses. But again, the book feels unfinished, the work of connecting the dots left to the reader; Faludi has laid down a good strong drumbeat, but little melody to carry us through.

Which brings us back to Bruce Springsteen, whose album catalogs the very stuff that "The Terror Dream" is concerned with: Here is the cowboy George Bush, showing up 'round sundown on Election Day, "boot heels clicking like the barrel of a pistol spinning round" in "Livin' in the Future." There is the image of perfect, angelic femininity in a barmaid 'round whose hair the sun lifts a halo. Where Faludi has prophetic nightmares, Springsteen imagines, in the title track, a world in which bodies hang from trees in a tableau of post-Katrina racial horror

I'm not sure that one line from Springsteen's song "Devil's Arcade" wasn't actually written by Faludi: "You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made," and that the two of them aren't making identical points about the manipulative power of terror when Springsteen's magician in "Magic" evilly cajoles, "leave everything you know/ Carry only what you fear."

In Faludi's concluding chapter, "What If?" she takes a stab at hope, wondering, "What if the nation had responded to 9/11 differently? What if we hadn't retreated into platitudes and compensatory fictions? What if we had taken the attack as an occasion to 'confront the truth?'" Or, as Springsteen puts it in "Livin' in the Future," a song in which he retroactively reimagines Election Day: "Don't worry, darlin', now baby don't you fret/ We're livin' in the future and none of this has happened yet."

Both Faludi and Springsteen have always specialized in seeing the personal in the political and vice versa. Faludi tends to see dysfunction, in ways that have been exceedingly useful in the past, as they are here. Her failure this time is in her refusal to acknowledge the upside. Springsteen, of course, has always been a hope peddler, if not an optimist. Laced throughout both these texts are frustration, bewilderment, a desire to shake the country by its shoulders. With Faludi, the sense is that none of this comes as a surprise, she is just Charlie Brown kicking the football, only to have it yanked out from under her by a country that is still, yup, sexist. So it was written by Cotton Mather, so it will be post 9/11.

For Springsteen, the realization that "this is what will be" is both more startling and more painful. He is, like Walt Whitman before him, pained at the vision of his beloved nation torn asunder.

Both writers are furious. And I sort of want to tell them: Have a little faith. But maybe this is a moment in which there is little to believe in, and a lot to fear.

Monday, October 01, 2007


The ElmoSapien project shows how to eviscerate an Elmo handpuppet and stretch its skin over a RoboSapien robot, load an Elmo "personality" into the robot and terrorize the neighborhood children.

Anything that scares kids is fine by me!

Indecision may or may not be a problem

So, things are generally better for me, here in England and as usual, the source of this much-needed improvement lies in the mundane: finally got effing BT to give me a phone line, Sky are installing cable TV service tomorrow and Internet by the end of the week. In addition, I've been out a few times and while I can't say I'm totally comfortable with the pace of this place, it's getting there.

Of course, all is not suddenly fresh in the state of Denmark; the core issues that I struggle with are still there and will probably continue to be, seeing as they're themes that have accompanied me throughout most of my adult life: I am almost pathologically inclined to be alone and while I harp on about company, it's always a strain to tolerate people camping in my sphere. In addition, I tend to veer from an almost manic exuberance to a near-paralyzing depression that makes me unable to trust my own reactions at any given time; I feel like my own mind betrays me, and is therefore not to be trusted. I also have discipline and severe trust issues that prohibit me from extending myself and embrace opportunities that come my way, and this in turn translates into a deeply-rooted diffidence that seems to be at odds with the rest of my personality.

But it's not all bad. I also have very good qualities that I tend to overlook, because you only remember the bad things or how lousy you feel. For instance, I'm a very sound thinker with excellent decision-making skills, once I've identified the problem; I seem to acquire friends very easily and combine loyalty with honesty and (some kind of) wit in all my dealings. I'm an individual, unswayed by the prejudices of the mob; I'm selfless to a fault and the things I care about, I care about deeply. I'm also hung like a Trojan horse.

If I were to be completely honest with myself, a lot of my current problems are self-inflicted, though even that isn't an accurate characterization. Eleven years ago, I made several pivotal decisions which have since gone on to shape my life. I've been, at various stages, well-rewarded for these decisions but I've also come to rue them for different reasons. And anytime you make some tough calls, you're always going to wonder about where you'd be if you made different calls.

I guess that's because despite what religion, parents and politicians tell you, there is no good or bad (there's evil, but that's a different discussion): there are choices and all good choices have plenty of bad in them and even appalling decisions aren't without their rewarding moments. I made some choices, foremost among them the decision to sell out and try and make it professionally and, while my success has been on a modest scale, it's been a success, according to the strictest definition of the word: setting objectives and meeting them.

Maybe, my problem isn't making wrong decisions at all. Perhaps, it's that I'm at a point where old objectives are no longer cutting it and new ones need to come in and freshen the place up. Out with the old and in with the new, and while it's at it, the new needs to be more carefully thought out than in the past: I was 25 when I made those decisions and had the luxury of 'all-the-time-in-the-world'. It's different at 36, the risk-analysis is different and, hell, even my priorities are different.

It's a new day.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Iguana post #2

This one sent me a rather attractive picture of herself, in black-and-white, looking very moody and somewhat quietl seductive. Oh, and I found the text of the ad and there doesn't seem to be a reference to English sheepdogs. I may have added that detail later and simply got my facts confused or, more likely, I wished I'd added it in to make it even funnier and then recalled it as fact. Either way, I'm a moron!

Hello, I am responding to your ad on craigslist for your apartment sublease. I am VERY interested!

About me:
I am a female photographer and Art Teacher. I am 25 and have lived in New York for 3 years now. I have a cat named Penelope who is as fat and lazy as can be. I would absolutely love to take care of Herman (hopefully he could forgive me for being a girl). I have attached a photo so that you can put a face with the name.

Here's my catch: My Aunt Linda is hoping to move home to New York (from Florida) because her husband passed away and misses family. I told her that she could stay with me for a year so that she could get on her feet. So basically.. I'm asking if its ok if we both live in the apartment.

Hope to hear from you soon!

All the Best,



$1200 / 1br - Beautiful 1BR brownstone on 46th street and 9th Avenue
Reply to:
Date: 2006-04-27, 12:45AM EDT

Kind of a unique situation: I'm moving to Italy for two years to study on a grant, in Rome, and I need someone to rent my apartment while I'm gone. I own it so there are no fees whatsoever. It's a beautiful apartment in a brownstone building, a first floor walk-up with living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. It's 880 square feet, sunny and very, very cosy. In short, it's a dream. I'm 44 year old attorney, originally from Boston looking for someone I can trust with the apartment and..'s the catch (and the reason I'm offering it at this very competitive price): I'm looking for someone who will be able to look after Herman, my 8 year old pet iguana. He's a smashing little fellow but I can't take him with me. All you have to do is feed him and make sure he gets enough water, sun and so forth. He's very quiet and requires very little maintenance. Since his food is mostly lettuce, it won't cost much and since I won't be charging a security deposit, the money you save on that can go to his upkeep. It's a good deal anyway you look at it.

I'd prefer a single guy (Iguanas prefer men), a professional with solid job references. I'll make my decision based on meeting you and if I get a good feeling about how you'll treat Herman (and my apartment), we'll sign the lease on the spot. I'm sure this apartment won't last long so hurry up-but make sure you're up for the responsibility and willing to sign a 2 year lease.

Dice Stacking Movie

I hear you: Huh? Well, watch this, doubters.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Elvis Duran punks an Egyptian in NY

Thanks to Portia for sending this.

Battle at Kruger

Carmen, remember we talked about this? It's just amazing.

A year of living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically is, in one word, fascinating. The guy who wrote The Know-It-All, a book about reading the entire Encyclopedia, recently spent a year trying to follow all 700 plus rules he found in the Bible. These rules ranged from the obvious Ten Commandments to the more obscure details of Old Testament laws, which ultra orthodox Jews might follow: leaving side hair uncut, dwelling in huts on certain holidays, strict dietary routines. To give some idea of the physical transformation he underwent, the book offers this photo.

There's a amusing interview with him at Newsweek online, that points to a couple of important things about anyone trying to literally (fundamentally) obey the many rules found in this very long book:

Q: Many women say some passages in the Bible can seem pretty misogynistic. Was that a problem for your relationship?

A: It was. Parts of the Bible say that the man is the head of the household and should make the decisions, which did not translate into reality in our household. She found that a disturbing part of religion. It was something I really had to wrestle with. One of the lessons of the book is, there is some picking and choosing in following the Bible, and I think that's OK. Some people call that cafeteria religion, which is supposed to be a disparaging term, but I think there's nothing wrong with cafeterias, I've had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I've also had some terrible meals in cafeterias. It's all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness -- instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance.

That has been my experience with both practicing religion and hanging around others practicing it in various degrees, including many who do it wholeheartedly. Everybody is picking and choosing parts they take literally and parts that they take metaphorically, but some admit this and others don't. Or rather some believe the distinction is obvious and necessary rather than arbitrary or personal. However the fact that very few people -- even those who are the most fundamental in any religion -- agree on which rules are fundamental is evidence of the personal nature of the decision.

Q: Once the experiment ends, you write about being feeling unanchored without your list of rules. Were you comforted by the restrictions of living Biblically? And do you think that's part of the attraction of organized religion for many people?

A: Oh, absolutely. We all talk about freedom of choice, but there's something very attractive about freedom from choice. Religion provides structure, mooring, anchoring. Should you covet? No. Should you give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. It really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I'm still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.

This too is profound. Many soldiers leaving the army (especially in peacetime) bemoan the loss of structure a well-regulated army life gave them. There is no doubt this escape from what Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, calls "the tyranny of choice" is a large attraction of religion. It's joy should not be scoffed at. For instance I find that implementing a strict Never Lie rule in my own life has freed me up from having to weigh the plus and minuses of whether to do so, or keep track of what I said, or manage the blowback from when a ruse slips. Lying is not an option, so I am released from that struggle.

Q: Are you a more religious person as a result of this experiment?

A: Well, I don't want to give away the ending, but let's say I started the year as an agnostic, and now I am a reverent agnostic. Whether or not there is a God, I believe in sacredness. Rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred however you choose to observe it.

My take on Burning Man, which I have attended about 10 times, is that it is 50% about supplying a ritual for the non-religious.

Q: Which is the greater learning tool, the Bible or the encyclopedia?

A: That's a tough question. The Bible project was a lot more difficult than the encyclopedia project. The Bible affected every single part of my life, it affected the way I walked, the way I dressed, the way I hugged my wife, the way I ate. The year was the most extreme makeover of my life. In terms of which is the better learning tool, the encyclopedia does contain a lot of biblical passages in the different books, so it might contain most of the Bible in it.

Q: It's been a little over a year since your experiment ended and you shaved your beard. How's the life of sin?

A: It's all right. I miss my sin-free life, but I guess I was never sin free. I was able to cut down on my coveting maybe 40 percent, but I was still a coveter. Flat-screen TVs, the front yard of my friend in the suburbs, a better cell phone, higher Amazon rankings.

Iguana Post #1


My husband and I are desperatly looking for an apartment in this area. And we would love to look after your iguana! We are in our late 20's- I work in retail and am a jewelry designer, and my husband works in movie and TV production.

My husband and I are free Sunday and would love to meet you and Herman. If we sound like the kind of tenants you are looking for, please give me a call at 917-XXX-XXXX.

Thank you,


Beyond the Multiplex

A startling tour of American apartheid; a delightful, ultra-indie tale of call-center love; and a stark look at sugar's not-so-sweet side.

By Andrew O'Hehir

A still from "Banished"

Sept. 27, 2007 | Whether it's an old-fashioned Indian summer or a newfangled Al Gore-fueled catastrophe, the Eastern seaboard is enjoying a glorious autumnal heat wave, just as maple leaves begin to drift into backyards and prestige films begin to drift into theaters. Even in 85-degree weather, nothing signals fall like the New York Film Festival, a semi-official marshaling of the season's "important" cinema events. This year's festival opens Sept. 28 with the premiere of Wes Anderson's new movie, "The Darjeeling Limited" (look for Stephanie Zacharek's review tomorrow), and will end Oct. 14 with Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's animated "Persepolis."

I've grumped sporadically over the years about the NYFF's slightly snooty, Manhattan-centric tone of cultural superiority, so it's time to confess to some warm and fuzzy feelings toward the grande dame of American film festivals (this year is its 45th). For one thing, as festival programmer Richard Peña observed in a recent interview with S.T. VanAirsdale of the Reeler, the NYFF is actively and aggressively curated. "The public really feels that this is a festival that is carefully selected," Peña said. "They might disagree violently with our selections, but they feel like somebody has selected these films -- that somebody has said, 'This film and not that film.'"

Peña is taking a none-too-subtle dig at his neighbors to the south, the programmers at the Tribeca Film Festival, who have jostled their way to some degree of global prominence (and/or notoriety) by seemingly screening any damn movie that's less than four hours long and pretty much in focus. There's a lot to be said for his approach. The NYFF is not trying to be a chaotic, grab-bag global marketplace like Berlin or Tribeca, nor is it trying to be an industry-insider trade show loaded with world premieres, like Cannes or Sundance. Unlike all those festivals, the NYFF is primarily aimed at the public -- a highly selective public composed of upper-end New York aesthetes and socialites, yes, but still the public.

It's no longer true that the NYFF can define the market for imported or independent film in any significant economic sense, but Peña's highly selective roster of titles -- almost all of which have already premiered elsewhere -- still captures a lot of media and audience attention. Some of this year's offerings, like Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" or Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" or Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" (starring Nicole Kidman), were almost foregone conclusions. Scheduling what the great Eric Rohmer claims will be his last movie, "The Romance of Astrée and Céladon," was also automatic. But every year, the NYFF committee comes up with some wild cards, like the post-Katrina documentary "The Axe in the Attic" or "Mr. Warmth," a film about the legendarily caustic comic Don Rickles. (That's right: Don Rickles. At the New York Film Festival.)

Even on a list of 29 features, there are some mystifying selections, like actress-director Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi's mediocre romantic comedy "Actresses," or B-movie god Abel Ferrara's incoherent "Go Go Tales," which plays like a spoof "Sopranos" episode. But I'll take the weird choices and the glitzy society parties, given that this year's festival is built around an extremely potent and diverse crop of foreign movies, of exactly the sort likely to play blink-and-you'll-miss-'em American engagements. These include Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or-winning "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flight of the Red Balloon," Carlos Reygadas' "Silent Light" and Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine," four movies likely to make my personal top 10 this year.

With the festival sucking up much of the media oxygen, this week's release calendar has a miscellaneous, potluck feeling. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to see. Marco Williams' extraordinary documentary "Banished" explores the buried but not-quite-forgotten history of various all-white communities in the South and Midwest (here's a hint: They weren't always that way), while Bill Haney's festival-fave documentary "The Price of Sugar" uncovers one of the Western Hemisphere's darkest secrets, the slavery-like exploitation of Haitian workers on the Dominican Republic's sugar plantations.

John Jeffcoat's "Outsourced" isn't a documentary, even though it addresses a hot-button contemporary issue. Instead, it's a highly enjoyable if lightweight romantic comedy, set in a call center outside Mumbai where Indian telephone workers sell patriotic kitsch to Middle American consumers. You can draw various conclusions from the fact that this skillful, sweet and engaging entertainment is being self-distributed, but none of them are encouraging. Let's see, what else have we got? Apparently some French dude named Truffaut made a movie about a juvenile delinquent in the late '50s. A lot of people thought it was worth seeing at the time. What does it look like now?

"Banished": American apartheid, long after the death of Jim Crow

When the aging retiree in Harrison, Ark., welcomes filmmaker Marco Williams into his home, it seems almost like the setup for a Hollywood comedy. With his mismatched outfit of high-water trousers and flannel shirt, crusty old Bob Scott seems like the irascible geezer who might just have a heart of gold; in his T-shirt, jeans and flowing dreadlocks, Williams seems every inch the big-city African-American intellectual. They sit down at Scott's table and have a pleasant conversation about life in Harrison. Scott likes living there because people are friendly, the cost of living is low and the Ozark scenery is lovely. But one factor was even more important to him and his fellow retirees, he says: "No blacks."

It is not just historical accident that Boone County, which includes Harrison, has only 40 or so African-Americans among its 34,000 residents. Nor that Forsyth County, Ga., Washington County, Ind., Pierce City, Mo., and dozens of other counties and municipalities in the Midwest and South are nearly or totally all-white today. From the end of the Civil War through the 1920s, many rural communities systematically purged their black residents, driving them out with implicit or explicit threats of violence. Sometimes these blacks were allowed to sell their land, albeit under duress and at discount prices. Often they were simply driven off, forced to abandon homes and land and flee for their lives.

Hardly anyone now living witnessed these events, but as Williams' film forcefully demonstrates, the wounds have nowhere near healed. Descendants of displaced African-Americans have passed the stories down as formative family legend, and while whites are far more eager to bury the past, many remain uncomfortably aware that something unsavory lingers at the farthest edges of community memory.

Williams focuses on three areas with distinct and disparate histories: Forsyth County today is a bedroom community on the outer suburban fringe of Atlanta, anxious to present itself as part of the tolerant New South, unshackled from the past. Yet Forsyth was the site of one of the most extensive ethnic cleansing campaigns anywhere in the country; as recently as 1987, a multiracial Martin Luther King Day march was viciously attacked by an angry white mob. Meanwhile, the descendants of black landowners driven out in 1912 have begun to seek restitution or reparations for land that was apparently stolen from them, a movement vigorously resisted by white legal and political authorities.

In Pierce City, Williams follows the painful quest of James and Charles Brown, two St. Louis brothers who discover that their great-grandparents were driven out of town in 1901, to find and remove ancestral remains from the local graveyard. Awkwardly and uncertainly, Pierce City's coroner and former mayor begin to help the Browns, and to approach their own sense of communal responsibility. But when the Browns demand that Pierce City pay for the exhumation and relocation, the tentative sense of brotherhood falls away. Why should we offer reparations, these well-meaning white citizens demand, for something we didn't do?

Back in Bob Scott's Arkansas town, the racism is more overt than in other communities. Williams has a surprisingly polite conversation with Thom Robb, head of the local Ku Klux Klan, who amiably tells him that cross burning is an ancient Scottish rite (not, of course, an act of racial hatred) but that on the whole he thinks Harrison is better off as a white town. At the same time, Harrison's white residents have done more to confront the problem than anyone in the other two areas: Local preachers have held days of prayer and atonement; volunteers helped renovate a black church in a neighboring county; a scholarship was established for African-American student-athletes from other towns.

"Banished" offers a startling tour into an unforgotten history that remains invisible to most Americans, with the erudite Williams, who is simultaneously polite and confrontational, as our host. It would be ludicrous to suggest that he doesn't take sides: Williams clearly believes that a major historical crime has been swept under the rug, and his film is loaded with moments of understated emotional power. When the black Strickland family of Atlanta find a neglected and overgrown family burial ground on white-owned land in Forsyth County, and kneel there in prayer not far from the current residents' Confederate-flag-bedecked pickup, all the legal questions and ethical quandaries fade into the background.

All the same, Williams never shies away from his film's unanswerable questions. Much as I longed for the Brown brothers and Pierce City officials to find some agreeable middle ground, both remain prisoners of history. James Brown springs his demand for reimbursement on the coroner who has befriended him, just after the latter has shipped and reinterred his great-grandfather's remains. In response, the town fathers retreat into specious and sentimental rhetoric (and refuse to answer Brown directly). Someday, perhaps, these century-old crimes will be forgotten and black people will move into places like Pierce City and Harrison, not knowing or caring about what happened there. But not yet, and not for a long time to come.

"Banished" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. Other engagements, and DVD release, will follow.

"Outsourced": Love in the fulfillment house, or the meta-outsourced indie comedy

Look, I'm not going to pretend that John Jeffcoat's romantic comedy "Outsourced" will change anybody's life, but it's an exceptionally likable film made on a shoestring -- hey, it's cheap to shoot in India! -- that couldn't find conventional distribution. If that's not a reason to root for it, what the hell is? Jeffcoat's sideways approach to a controversial social issue -- the relocation of customer-service jobs to India -- is fresh and never condescending, and the film is terrifically acted with above-average production values. Most Hollywood love stories cost 10 times as much and deliver half the juice, at best.

Actually, I wince to think what your average Hollywood director would have done with this setup: An American call-center manager is reassigned to a newly constructed building outside Mumbai, where he has to train his own replacement and ends up falling in love with -- well, with India, actually. Mind you, there is an awfully attractive Indian woman named Asha (the delightful Ayesha Dharker) involved, but acerbic Todd (Josh Hamilton) has to find out a lot about the country and its people -- and yes, about his own intelligence and conscience -- before he's ready for her.

Jeffcoat isn't afraid to make his characters both types and individuals, in the best comic tradition. Todd is likable, cynical and self-involved, while Puro (Asif Basra), the Indian manager who's going to get his job (at roughly one-eighth the salary), is hardworking, fast-talking and ambitious, with an unreadably sunny veneer. But from the beginning, we can see elements of emotional reserve and shifting intelligence in both these guys. They're always more than cultural stereotypes, and even the predictable power exchange between them -- Todd has to teach his call-center employees how to "sound American," while Puro and the other Indians have to teach him how to be a human being -- isn't as clichéd as that sounds.

Jeffcoat's depiction of the call-center world is funny, fascinating and almost anthropological; he never preaches at you on the morality, or lack thereof, of this distinct late-capitalist phenomenon. (As you may have discovered, it can be difficult to get call-center workers to admit they're not really in Chicago or Dallas.) As "Outsourced" gradually and gracefully moves Todd and the luminous Asha toward each other -- and toward the "Kama Sutra suite" of a sleazy tourist hotel -- it remains respectful of the tremendous distance between them. She, after all, has been engaged to a cousin since the age of 4, and he's on his way back to his Seattle condo as soon as the call center is down to six minutes per customer. I guess "Outsourced" is simply too bright and pleasant to become a huge hit, but it's a confident little genre film with near-classic charm.

"Outsourced" opens Sept. 28 in New York, Eugene, Ore., Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas; and Oct. 5 in Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif., with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: The true "Price of Sugar" in blood, sweat and tears; "The 400 Blows" after almost 50 years
As I write this, it's still difficult to find accurate information about where and when Bill Haney's profoundly disturbing documentary "The Price of Sugar" will be opening commercially in the United States. Partly this is because the Vicini family, sugar barons of the Dominican Republic, have hired Patton Boggs, a major Washington law firm, to try to halt the film's release, or at least paint it as slanted and defamatory. Narrated by Paul Newman, Haney's film follows an Anglo-Spanish missionary priest, Christopher Hartley, as he tries to bring some justice to the slavery-like conditions under which Haitian immigrants cut sugar cane in the Vicini fields.

As Hartley remarks in the film, Americans may be dismayed to learn the true cost of the sugar they put in their morning coffee: Haitian workers are routinely imprisoned by armed guards and underpaid (or go unpaid for long periods), and those who run away or try to insist on minimal legal rights frequently disappear. While Hartley and Haney have succeeded in focusing international attention on the Dominican sugar fields, both the Vicinis and the Dominican population continue to insist that nothing is wrong. Hartley has been reassigned to Ethiopia by his church superiors, and public screenings have reportedly been interrupted by counter-demonstrators. (Scheduled to open Sept. 28 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities.)

Every critic has their blind spots, and here's one I've never quite been able to explain to myself: I don't especially like the films of François Truffaut. I've often found them a little precious and self-congratulatory, a little too French in the most stereotypically winsome and fatalistic manner. Look, I agree that it's inexplicable, and on seeing Truffaut's prodigiously influential 1959 breakthrough, "The 400 Blows," for about the fifth time, I think I've come to terms with it.

Technically, the picture is superb, with its intimate technique, its many memorable shots -- especially that last one on the beach, when teenage runaway Antoine turns accusingly, or achingly, toward the audience -- and its simultaneously bleak and beautiful widescreen presentation of downscale street life in postwar Paris. For the first few viewings, I think I found Truffaut overly sympathetic to the delinquent hero (played so memorably by the young Jean-Pierre Léaud), and too ready to lapse into a romantic vision of a heartless, oppressive society bent on crushing the soul of the young.

Well, OK, "The 400 Blows" is about those things, but now I can see that Truffaut at least sometimes views Antoine from a dispassionate distance, about the same way he sees Antoine's maddeningly inconsistent, wounded and overworked parents. (I guess society has crushed them too.) I suspect I just didn't see this undisputed masterpiece when I was the right age for it to resound achingly in my soul or whatever. At the very least, "The 400 Blows" is a beautiful film that launched a major career and has shaped all cinematic depictions of rebellious adolescence ever since. Forget my curmudgeonly attitude and see it -- again, or for the first time -- for yourself. (Now playing in a new 35mm print at Film Forum in New York.)