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Tiki Talk

tikigodIt’s not such a bad life, being a tiki god outside the Tahiti-Fa’aa International Airport in Papeete.


Nobody really worships me anymore, but the hepcat money just rolls in. And I get to watch the planes come in.


I wonder who’s president in America now. It’s probably not still that Kennedy. I don’t get to see the paper much except when one flutters past.


Still, almost all the people who get off the plane are white guys with expensive clothes, so I guess there can’t have been too much of a shakeup.


It gets kind of boring during the off season, but it could be worse.


Hapahala says that this place is a real dump compared to Sydney Airport in Australia, but I think he’s full of crap. I don’t think he’s ever even been to Australia. Unta-Tahiki says he’s never even seen him move from that rock over by the customs house.


One good thing is that I get to work close to my wife. She’s mounted over the baggage claim.


Of course that’s way over the hell on the other side of the building. But you don’t see me complaining! Women.


I wonder if today’s flight will have any Japanese dudes on it. They usually come off the plane totally ripped. That’s fun to watch.


No, it’s not such a bad life, being a tiki god outside the Tahiti-Fa’aa International Airport in Papeete.


Good Reads for Bad Seeds

Hello! My name is Jimmy. I used to be new in the neighborhood too, and it can be kind of scary. Will you be my friend? It’s good to have FRIENDS. I made a new friend when I moved here, and he helped me get used to things, so it wasn’t so scary. I like my friend. Let me show you around!


This is my house. It’s where I go after school and where I spend most of my time. Sometimes it’s not so much fun to be at home because of the TELEVISION. The television isn’t really a friend; it’s just a thing. But it acts like it’s my friend. It tells me what it thinks I should do, and tries to get me to trust it, and that’s what friends do. But I don’t know if it has my best interests at heart. Sometimes I think about taking my dad’s hammer and hitting the television. Do you ever think about that? It’s fun to daydream.


This is a BANK. It’s just around the corner and up the street from my house. People come to the bank all day to get money, and to give money to the bank. It’s funny, because I keep my toys in a toy chest, but the toy chest doesn’t charge me. I guess the bank does something magical with the money and that’s why they have such nice carpets. Anyway, my dad doesn’t like the bank. Once he drank a bottle of butterscotch and said that he’d like to rob the bank. It sounded very exciting! Do you like things that are exciting?


This is where I go to SCHOOL. I guess this fall you’ll be going here too! It will be nice to have a new friend at school. I like going to school, even though it sometimes is boring. Everyone says how important it is to stay in school, though, so it must be true, because everyone wouldn’t say it if it was all a lie. The other kids at school are nice, at least most of the time, and there’s a few teachers who seem really interested and not just tired. Maybe you’ll get lucky and wind up with them. I hear that sometimes, bad kids bring guns to school and shoot the place up, like it was one big video game! I like video games.


This is where my mommy works. It’s a BUSINESS. She’s the receptionist. That means that she answers the phone, and is always nice and smiling and happy, even though people call up and yell at her sometimes. She also writes letters to people because the boss is too busy and important to do it himself. My mommy makes less money than everyone else, and the people who make the most money spend all their time golfing and talking on the phone. Once someone wrote a swear word in the paint of the boss’ car with a key. It’s not nice to swear, but his face turned all sorts of funny colors. So I hear.


This is where my daddy works. It’s a factory. They make CARS!  The owners want to move the factory to Mexico and get people to do the work for less money than they pay now. I hope they don’t go, because I don’t want my daddy to go to Mexico! I like it here. If the factory burned down in the middle of the night with all the owners locked inside, maybe that would solve all the problems. But what are the odds of that happening?


That’s my neighborhood! It’s a fun place to live and play. I’m glad you moved here! We will be good friends and have all sorts of fun times together. Before you go home, try one of these! They’re special PILLS that I take every day, even though I don’t want one all the time. They’ll help you sleep and forget bad things that you might say to someone who would misunderstand. Misunderstanding is bad. The pills are very tasty, aren’t they? Now relax…and listen carefully to the sound of my voice.


It’s a Small World After All

Thank you for buying the Small World Guide to British Columbia!

Through the years, travel books have continually reinvented themselves in response to a changing audience. Once tailored to an elite, wealthy clientele of high-society travelers, they eventually discovered the tourism-minded middle class and, later, the budget traveler who’s always looking for bargains or seeking something a bit off the beaten path.

However, we at Small World think that there’s still farther to go. A few years ago, we asked ourselves this question: if travel books are no longer written for the well-traveled elite, or for the professional tourist, why should they be written by an entire class of jaded hacks? Why should travel writers be the same old people seeing the same old things they’ve seen a thousand times before? In short, why should you need to have actually visited a country in order to write about it?

This was our dream, our passion: to start a series of travel books for people who’ve never been there by people who’ve never been there. We don’t believe that travel books should be stuffy, ‘inside-baseball’ chronicles of people who have been there and back again so often that they no longer have any capacity for surprise. We don’t think that a group of insiders, a professional elite, can communicate the true joys of travel to you, the first-timer. That’s why we assmbled a crack staff of amateurs — novice travelers, just like you — who have never left their hometowns, let alone the United States, to assemble the Small World travel guides. They’ve put together a series of books doing research that’s casual, just like your trip. You won’t find smug know-it-alls or winking been-there-done-thats on our staff; you’ll find dedicate, intellectually curious travel writers who bring you all the expertise a 1954 World Book Encyclopedia and a 15-minute Google session at the local library can provide.

So who are the Small World writers? Knowing their thirst for knowledge, love of travel, and ability to work cheap and spell words correctly, we naturally chose college students. However, in order to avoid the sort of cynical elitism found in the Berkeley Go-Guides, and to maintain our commitment to choosing writers who have never been out of the lower 48, we culled our staff from the ranks of small community and junior colleges in landlocked states. Ranging from such diverse climes as Idaho, Iowa and Tennessee, our travel-anxious team is ready to use any resource, no matter how tenuous or dubious, to tell you what the tourist might conceivably encounter. Their prize-wanting journalism tells it like it is, or could possibly be for all you know, and their articles aren’t afraid to give you what other guides leave out: hearsay, innuendo, speculation, rumor, and half-truth.

And what kind of articles will you find in a Small World travel guide? Well, let’s just take a look at the table of contents of this very edition — the Small World Guide to British Columbia. Inside these pages, you’ll find, amongst innumerable theoretically valuable resources and factual data that’s just inaccurate enough that the World Book people don’t sue us, the following incisive articles: our senior travel writer’s overview of Seattle, Spokane, and other cities near British Columbia; our culture editor’s look at nomeansno, Kid Koala and other bands that he thinks are from Vancouver; a hotly debated point-counterpoint between two of our writers over whether the capital of British Columbia is London, because of the ‘British’ thing, or Washington, DC, because of the ‘Columbia’ thing; a special ‘Getting There’ section listing highways that look like they go to Canada and airlines that offer flights to Vancouver; our weather expert’s tips on how she heard it rains up there all the time; a lengthy and wide-ranging discussion of how, in Canada, they have free health care and, like, treat the Indians way better than here, and they don’t even have an army or fight wars or anything by our political correspondent; and a special section entitled ‘Vancouver, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia: Telling the Difference’.

It’s our commitment to fairness, understanding, and not telling you anything you couldn’t find out in half an hour by yourself that’s made Small World the ninth-biggest travel book publisher in community college bookstores nationwide. Enjoy your upcoming trip to the United States of Canada, and thanks for choosing Small World: travel books by and for people who haven’t been there, but would really like to check it out one of these days.


Between Impression and Expression: Ang Lee

In 1978, as I applied for film studies at the University of Illinois, my father expressed his disapproval. He quoted me a statistic: “Every year, 50,000 performers compete for 200 available roles on Broadway.” Still, I went against his advice and boarded a flight to the U.S. Since then, my father and I have had a strained relationship. In the last 20 years, we have spoken less than a hundred words to one another.

Some years later, when I graduated film school, I finally understood my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Taiwanese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as an editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.

That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: “At 30, one stands firm.” Yet I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support.

My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was very small. At the time, we already had our oldest son, Han, to raise. To appease my feelings of guilt, I took on all housework – cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son – in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with my son, telling him stories as we waited for his mother – the heroic huntress – to come home with our sustenance.

This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as startup capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant, hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I had to face reality.

Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered my schedule of classes. That night, she didn’t say anything.

The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, “Ang, don’t forget your dream.”

And that dream of mine – drowned by the demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces, and tossed it in the trash.

Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and started to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, “I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.”

And today, I’ve finally won that golden statue. I think my own perseverance and my wife’s immeasurable sacrifice have finally met their reward. And it’s made me more assured: I must continue making films.

(Ang Lee, on winning his first Academy Award in 2006)


You Make the Call


Stan! What on earth?

Uh…you pick.

Stan, I don’t want to play guessing games. Do you know what time it is?

In jail? What are you doing in jail?

Well, obviously. I didn’t think you just stopped there to use the phone. What did you do to get arrested?

No, I don’t still want to know what time it is. Tell me what you did.

Oh, my God. Stan, that’s a very serious crime. Whatever possessed you to…wait a minute. It’s 2:30 in the morning.

Well, I mean, what banks are open at 2:30 in the morning?

You broke in? Who was supposed to open the cash drawer for you?

It’s called forethought, Stanley.

I’m not yelling. I just want to know why you couldn’t have waited until the bank opened.

A craving? You had a craving to rob a bank?

Yes, of course I know…

Stan, this is nothing like when I get the urge for pickles.

No, it’s not. So what happened then? They just picked you up right then and there?

Oh, my God.

No, I’m not judging you. I just think that first, a crowbar isn’t going to open a safe; second, we already have a crowbar at home, and third, breaking into a hardware store is just piling trouble on top of trouble.

No, I didn’t expect you to drive all the way home from across town. Maybe you could have taken it with you, is all.

Of course I’m trying to be supportive.

It’s hard to think of an ‘up side’, Stanley. I’m sorry.

All right!

I know. I know. Anyway, it’s not like you killed anyone.

Oh, Stanley.  You didn’t.

Homeless people are human beings, Stan. That’s why they call them homeless people.

You wanted to see if the crowbar worked? I fail to see how…

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that it would have been able to pry open a locked metal safe!

I’m trying to look on the bright side, Stan. You’re not making it easy.

I don’t think it counts as self-defense if you hit him first. With a crowbar.

No, that’s struggling. It’s not the same thing.

Well, you’re not a lawyer either!

Yes, I guess the courts will have to decide, won’t they? Good grief, Stan. I don’t know why you get yourself into these things. At least you didn’t have any drugs on you.

You didn’t.

Stanley, you promised.

No, I know it’s not a secure phone. But theoretically, how much PCP could you fit in a gym bag?

Why half of a gym bag?

All right. All right. Theoretically, how much PCP could you fit in the half that wasn’t taken up by your sex toys?

Stan. Stan, Stan, Stan. I wonder about you sometimes.

No, I know. I know.

Yes, I love you too. Of course I do.

No, it’s fine.

All right. So what’s the bad news?


Big in Japan

Greetings, new recruit of the Japanese Defense Force’s Giant Radioactive Monster Battalion!

No doubt that you, as a citizen of our great nation, have been raised with many colorful tales of the heroic struggles your predecessors in the G.R.M.B. fought in the 1950s and 1960s.  Perhaps this even influenced your decision to join.  Well, believe us:  this is not your father’s defense force, nor yet, depending on your age, that of your grandfather!

Yes, much has changed since the founding of the Giant Radioactive Monster Battalion.  For example, we are now an official organized body of the Japanese Defense Force, and not a hastily-cobbled-together squadron of soldiers pulled from their duties of ensuring that communist China does not mistake us for Taiwan.  Significant upgrades in our budget thanks to an increasingly robust economy have ensured that our air units are not passenger airliners retrofitted with wing-mounted air rifles, and our tanks (some of which you will be driving, new recruit!) do more than simply throw colorful sparks.  And a cooperative training and public education program with the Ministry of Health has resulted in a populace that will take steps to assist in evacuation procedures during a giant radioactive monster attack, rather than standing around motionless, pointing at the sky and muttering the name of the monster over and over again.

But through it all, our mission has remained the same:  to protect our beloved homeland against attacks by giant radioactive monsters.

We live in a difficult and complex period in history; Japan is truly a citizen of the world, and the world’s problems are our problems.  This means that we face many serious challenges, from global climate change to terrorism to an unpredictable economy.  But did you know that the number one cause of premature death in cities such as Honshu, Osaka, and Yokohama is still giant radioactive monster attack?  Even the commitment of the major powers to refrain from atomic testing since the early 1970s has not led to an abatement in this phenomenon.  Given the slowing of nuclear proliferation and a decreased reliance on atomic energy, we are unsure why these monsters continue to be spawned, just as we are unsure why they do not attack any nation other than Japan.  But that’s a question for the brave men and women of the Giant Radioactive Monster Studies Division of the Ministry of Science!  Here at the Giant Radioactive Monster Battalion, we don’t pretend to understand them.  We just kill them.

And kill them we will!  This little pamphlet will get you started on the path to learning what giant radioactive monsters you are likely to encounter in the course of your enlistment, and what tactics you should use against them.  Contrary to popular belief, Japan is no longer in danger from such ancient enemies as Gojira (who died in 1979), Mosura (who retired to manage a beachfront hotel in Malaysia in 1983), or Gamera (who is now a lawmaker and popular television sportscaster in the Phillipines).   No, Japan faces a whole new generation of giant radioactive monsters, and this is where you, a whole new generation of giant radioactive monster killers, come in.  You’ll learn to predict the movements of Kosumi, the Living Oil Slick.  You’ll discover the most vulnerable areas on the gigantic body of Grojan, the Thing with Six Livers.  You’ll find out what smell alerts you to the coming of Septicus, the Radioactive Waste.  You’ll finally be told why Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, just won’t go away.  And you’ll be informed as to the best ways to ignore Zango, The Not-Very-Threatening Attention-Seeker.

As long as Japan is plagued by giant radioactive monsters, you, the Giant Radioactive Monster Battalion, will be a vital part of our defenses.  So turn to page one, and let’s learn about Cheapgar, the Man-Eating Knock-Off of the Korean Peninsula.


Two more hours of Idol tonight! I might literally die, and then I’d never know what eventual winner I will fail to buy any records from. Tonight is exactly the same set-up as last night, only with the boys, so let’s get right to it. Keith Urban is wearing a cheap brown leather coat (and here “cheap” means “crummy but still probably cost $8,000″); Nicki Minaj is wearing a floral top and blond wig with no jacket or hat, which has to be in violation of her contract; Randy Jackson has on a sweater with a big “R” on the front against the very real threat that he might forget what letter his name starts with; and Mariah Carey rocks the same dress as last night only in a different color, because she got babies, she got no time to think about her wardrobe and things. Let’s begin!

THE CONTESTANT: Dead-grandpa-having resident of Dumpytown Paul Jolley, who says this is his calling and that he has “so much more to give back”, because I guess he thinks singing at people is doing them a big favor.
THE SONG: “Tonight I Wanna Cry”, Keith Urban.
THE VERDICT: Paul puts on a sad face to sing this unconscionably wimpy ballad, becoming the first but not the last to suck up to Keith tonight. It’s okay, I guess, but I’ve heard better in honky-tonks all over this state and his voice breaks a few times early on, though he recovers decently. Keith is “honored” that he did the song but warns him not to over-perform; Nicki nots some strain in his voice and tells him not to be “too theatrical”. Randy starts a pattern by going ape over his mediocre performance: “I love the potentiality of you”. Mariah loves all the over-emoting, unlike “some of the other people on the panel” who “nitpick things here an there”. All is still not well between Nicki and Mariah, folks.

THE CONTESTANT: Johnny Keyser, the lug-faced clown they brought in to replace the guy who lied about being a war hero.
THE SONG: “I Won’t Give Up”, Jason Mraz.
THE VERDICT: Frankly, this guy isn’t very good — it’s easy to see why he got cut in the first place. His frat-bro crooning might cut it in the main drag bars, but it’s going nowhere on Idol. Keith blanks out for a mini-eternity before discovering the word “effortless”; Nicki is still thinking with her vag on this guy and wildly overpraises him. Randy likes him but says “there were not enough moments” and he played it too safe; Mariah says “I don’t want to get in trouble with my husband, but I love that you show your masculinity”. Mariah’s previous husband was, of course, 20 years older than her.

THE CONTESTANT: JDA (pr. “Jayda” for some reason), a.k.a. the Gayest Man in the World. JDA, explaining his occupation, says “I sell luxurious French” but then I blacked out so I don’t know what the next word was. Probably “boys”.
THE SONG: “Rumor Has It”, Adele.
THE VERDICT: JDA comes out wearing a black pantsuit from 1981 and enough glitter to choke a unicorn and sings an Adele song. Unlike Adele, he is not a terrific singer, but he is very, well, theatrical, and also I hate him. Keith says “You put on a show!”, which would be more impressive if the two of them were in a barn, but also accuses him of “counting steps”, once again adding credence to the shocking rumor that the judges this year actually know what they’re talking about. Nicki likes JDA but doesn’t like his vocals, and Randy provides the much-needed reminder that this is a singing competition. Mariah, a hag from way back, loves him and says “Your confidence level was major”, thus making him a frontrunner for American Confidence Projector.

THE CONTESTANT: Kevin Harris, nicknamed “Butta” by the never-out-of-step-with-the-times Randy Jackson. He’s a typical do-it-for-the-kids type.
THE SONG: “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)”, Bryan Adams.
THE VERDICT: I just haaaate this song, and worse, it doesn’t show off Kevin’s voice, which is otherwise pretty appealing, so it’s hard for me to like him tonight, even though he is endearingly wearing three bow ties. Keith has similarly mixed feelings, but Nicki, who’s once again all over the place, loved everything about it. Randy thinks it was a boring karaoke version of the song, and while Mariah says “You’re one of my favorites” and a “born singer”, she doesn’t think this was the right vehicle for him.

THE CONTESTANT: Chris Watson, he of the big cloudy ‘fro and the slightly ruffneck look. He a singing waiter who wants to stop waiting to be a singer and just be a singing singer…wait.
THE SONG: “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay”, Otis Redding.
THE VERDICT: This is a hard song to own; Chris gives it some sass that isn’t really thematically appropriate but shows off his personality and charisma like kray kray. I like it quite a bit despite my usual aversion to such gimmicky renditions. Keith thought it was great all around; Nicki: “You are the prettiest man I ever saw in my life” and “I want to marry your vibrato”. The rest of the panel almost has to hold her back from coming across the table. Randy: “I guess I should continue my trend of the evening”, which is being contrary for no reason. Mariah doesn’t like the song choice, but “I hear pain and triumph in your voice”; she once again apologizes for digging the good-looking guys, like Nick Cannon is gonna beat her ass or something.

THE CONTESTANT: Pointy-headed Chicago barista Devin Velez, who Keith said was “born to sing”. He’s wearing a Perry Como outfit but does not sing “Boom Ziggety” and then take a nap.
THE SONG: “Listen”, Beyoncé.
THE VERDICT: I haven’t really been sold on this kid up to this point, but tonight his vocal performance is very good — if not spectacular, at least a lot better than the snoozers we’ve seen so far. He switches to Spanish in the middle of the song, which wins him lots of points with the people who voted for Obama, if you know what racists mean. Keith loves his performance and plays up the difference between “performers who run around the stage and singers”, which, there you go, that’s the heart of it and always has been. Nicki says it was a smart choice as an artist to sing in Spanish, which I like because they don’t often talk about the business angle of what people are doing. Randy actually likes something for the first time all night, and even Mariah sounds insightful: “I heard you critique yourself in those last few notes there, but don’t do it!”. I have to admit, the judges, more often than not, seem to really have something to say this season.

THE CONTESTANT: Elijah Liu, a teenage Chi-Mex from the LB, who puts on a ladies’ man/adolescent capitalist/boy-band vibe that just really rubs me the wrong way.
THE SONG: “Talking to the Moon”, Bruno Mars.
THE VERDICT: I don’t like anything about this kid, from his ’90s teeny-bop jawn to his pleather jacket to his weird skunk spot. At first, his voice isn’t bad by any stretch (although he sounds like one of those guys who memorizes his part and doesn’t bother to do anything beyond that), but he goes really off-key at the end, especially during the falsetto part. But boy, the audience loves him! Keith says it was a perfect song choice, but a shaky performance; Nicki gushes from every pore and calls him a “super duper star”; and even the prickly Randy says “we’re all pulling for you”. Mariah says the song “gives me that feeling, it’s a nostalgic feeling”, and claims he had “good control on the falsetto”, which is just nuts. Everyone’s oddly protective of this average-talent kid; it’s almost as if they know that pre-teen girls make up their primary audience!

THE CONTESTANT: Charlie Askew, everyone’s favorite kid with Charlie Askew Syndrome, although despite riding all this socially-awkward hype, he sure is a smoothie on stage.
THE SONG: “Rocket Man”, Elton John.
THE VERDICT: America is having a love affair with autistic people these days, huh? Well, I like this guy, so let’s ignore his part in an increasingly disturbing and unappealing cultural trend and focus on his outfit (a swanky black affair inspired by JDA, trashy Hollywood thrift stores, and a curious passion for golf endemic to many white people) and performance (solid but not stunning, but if you want to talk about finding the emotional heart of the song, he’s got it over on everyone so far). He really wants to be a big star and is playing that to the hilt, but his voice is pretty limited, so it may not be enough! Singing competition! Keith: “I bet nobody left the room during your performance”; hormonal Nicki wants to “cradle you in my arms”. Mariah smartly notes that he should focus on vocal coaching, but can’t deny his charm, even though Randy gets all bitchy and says “Sure, forget singing, let’s all just perform!” Charlie just short-circuits all their criticism with sheer personality, though — and hey, he brought the hobbit with him!

THE CONTESTANT: Pretty-boy social worker (and how often do you get to hear those words together?) Jimmy Smith from Tennessee, the big country singer of the night.
THE SONG: “Raining on Sunday”, Keith Urban.
THE VERDICT: Jimmy doesn’t have a terrible voice, but he’s riding against a wave of anti-boring-white-guy sentiment this year, and he has a problem that was common before the Reign of the Dude-Bros: his voice is unremarkable enough that it threatens to get overwhelmed by the arrangement. Keith explains that it’s hard to criticize someone who does one of your songs (although the song is actually Radney Foster’s); Nicki says it was “an okay vocal, but I was bored”, brushing him off like he was a pigeon turd on the shoulder of her jacket. Randy calls him an “interesting mixed bag that didn’t come together tonight”, and Mariah says she’s fought for him but he hasn’t lived up to his early auditions.

THE CONTESTANT: Curtis Finch Jr., the St. Louis choir director and private school tutor and one of my favorites going into this season.
THE SONG: “Superstar”, Luther Vandross.
THE VERDICT: Curtis has a fantastic voice and an amazing blend of earthy soul and full-custom gospel, and let’s fucking face it: he absolutely crushes it tonight, spilling over with creamy liquid soul-man delivery, astonishing vocal control, and sex appeal coming out the wazoo. It may prove providential that he picked a song that went over big for Ruben Studdard; “Superstar” indeed. He just makes everyone else so far look like a rank amateur. Keith thought it was beautiful but ran the risk of being over-performed (honky says what?); Nicki says he raises the bar, takes the competition to another level, and shows more and more of what he’s capable of every week. Mariah says “I wouldn’t even begin to critique you”, again showing that she may not quite apprehend what her job on this show is, but urges him to “loosen your tie and relax”. Randy calls him one of the best singers in the competition, but so as to be pointlessly negative, says “keep it young — it was kinda dope but old-fashioned”. Whatever, Randy.

Unfortunately, tonight involved some close calls, which means that preternaturally aged kabillionaire Jimmy Iovine is resuscitated and dragged back before despised humanity. He emerges from his subterranean ice chamber to give Paul Jolley another chance even though he “sang like Keith Urban auditioning for Phantom of the Opera“, haw haw. Also making it to the next round are Elijah Liu, Charlie Askew, Devin Velez, and Curtis Finch (Nikki: “Don’t even front, you know damn well you’re going through”). But we have seen the last of half-assed country crooner Jimmy Smith, urban smoove-mover Kevin “Butta” Harris, unnecessary extra black guy Chris Watson, and replacement chunkhead Johnny Keyser. So long, chumps!  I can’t argue with too many of those choices, though I might have let Chris Watson stay on and dumped Elijah Liu.

Please join me next week for more of this. I can’t live without you.


At this point in my life, I have been watching American Idol for 12 years — a longer time than I have done practically anything else, including date a woman, hold a job, or refrain from taking narcotics. My primary concern is just trying to remember everyone’s name, which is why I am so happy when we get to the elimination rounds; but before that, Las Vegas will host over-long episodes of something Ryan Toothpaste claims they’ve never done before: sudden death! Yes, ten of the ladies will now have to sing for their lives in an entirely unprecedented development, as long as you don’t count last week and many other times before that. (Note:  ”sudden death” refers only to elimination from the singing competition; no one, unfortunately, will be sacrificially murdered.)

Keith Urban is wearing his usual douchey open shirt; Nicki Minaj looks as virginal as she probably has in 18 years or so; Mariah Carey is showing off her child- and/or surgery-enhanced décolletage; and Randy Jackson is wearing the jacket he won for lettering in bro-dawging at the J. Funkford Derpington School for Boys Who Like Journey. Ominously, we are threatened with the prospect of Jimmy Iovine emerging from his cave troll lair to be the tie-breaker, but ten will sing and five will go home, so let’s jump right in.

THE CONTESTANT: Teenage Kentuckian Jenny Beth Willis, one of the innumerable Country Crocks offered for our margarine-like semi-pleasure this year.
THE SONG: “Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love”, Trisha Yearwood.
THE VERDICT: Jenny is wearing boots and a poofy skirt to conceal her lack of pizzazz. She’s solid as a vocalist, but hasn’t got much else going for her; she belts it home at the very end, but at that point I was off making an Old-Fashioned. Keith didn’t like the song but said her singing was “effortless”; Nicki, who is Simon with better funny voices, agrees with me; Randy, an expert on jerkiness, says “it all felt a little jerky”, and Mariah says “If I were saying this…” (you are, Mariah) “If this was my critique…” (It is, Mariah).

THE CONTESTANT: Camp Mariah grad and Queens homegirl Tenna Torres, who gets two of the judges’ votes just for existing.
THE SONG: “Soulmate”, Natasha Bedingfield.
THE VERDICT: Tenna (inexplicably pronounced “Tina”) is 28, which means by this show’s standards, she ought to be getting laser-blasted by Roscoe Lee Browne from Logan’s Run. I haven’t been impressed with her thus far, but she tears it up here, delivering a technically strong and confident performance that’s also mature and emotionally right; she says she chose not to see her boyfriend at all before the show so she could project a sense of longing. Keith says she sang a beautiful and “deceptively big” song with a lot of control; Nicki gets back at her dumb fans for not supporting Tenna, and says she has a voice that invokes ’80s R&B, but warns her to get a younger haircut. Randy says she’s the first star of the night, and Mariah uses the word “effortless”, which is collecting a lot of royalties this evening.

THE CONTESTANT: 17-year-old Alaskan Adriana Latonio, who calls herself a “small town girl” even though she is from Anchorage, which has 300,000 people.
THE SONG: “Ain’t No Way”, Aretha Franklin.
THE VERDICT: This is one of my all-time favorite songs, and I feel like, while Adriana does it with skill and flair, it’s just too grown up for her; it’s got a depth of emotional intensity that she just can’t access. Keith disagrees, saying her performance “belied your age”; Nicki says she commands the stage with no fear; Mariah gives her an A+; and Randy says “That’s Aretha”. No, Randy, that is not Aretha. You have become confused.

THE CONTESTANT: Brandy Hotard, 26-year-old psychiatric nurse from Louisiana who prepared for the viscitudes of this show by caring for the deranged.
THE SONG: “Anymore”, Travis Tritt.
THE VERDICT: This song is way too slow for the kind of country blast-barrel that Brandy aspires to be, and the result is a very unengaging performance; even the band doesn’t seem like they’re that into it. She says she wants to show off her sass and popularity, but she sure doesn’t do that here, and her performance is just okay. Keith says it “lacks emotional consistency” and that she doesn’t seem to understand the song; Nicki agrees and calls it “a pageant performance”. Randy gives that tired rap about “you didn’t tell us about the kind of artist you want to be”; Mariah: “You look pretty”, always the kiss of death.

THE CONTESTANT: Shubha Vedula, a teenaged desi as we are once again reminded by the hilarious montage of no one being able to pronounce her name, because “Shubha Vedula” is apparently that fucking hard.
THE SONG: “Born This Way”, Lady Gaga.
THE VERDICT: Silver stretch pants aside, I actually enjoy Shubha’s performance here: she starts out accompanying herself on piano, doing a sort of torch-song version of the tune before jumping right into the vampy part halfway through. It was lots of fun, but the judges loathe anything where people push against the bars of their cages, so we get to hear Keith call it “confusing”, Mariah call it “forced”, Nicki say it “sounded like a mash-up”, and Randy allegedly come to her defense by repeating and agreeing with what everyone else has already said.

THE CONTESTANT: Kamaria Owsley, Oakland-based background singer who sneaks on wearing the dopiest outfit of the night.
THE SONG: “Mr. Know-It-All”, Kelly Clarkson.
THE VERDICT: Kamaria sells the hell out of this song, and gives it a lot of swagger and confidence, but her voice seems a bit flat and hesitant throughout; she says she had trouble hearing but is a champ about not using that as an excuse. Keith says she seemed lost; Nicki says she looked good but didn’t sound good; Randy didn’t like it at all and busts out his first “pitchy” comment of the season; and Mariah says it was the wrong song choice, but that she feels like Kamaria could step into any studio at any time.

THE CONTESTANT: Kree Harrison, whose name I have been spelling wrong all this time, and who is a “demo singer”, whatever that is.
THE SONG: “Up to the Mountain”, Patty Griffin.
THE VERDICT: Kree, who is wearing a voluminous tent of a blouse that makes her look pregnant and has that weird way a lot of untrained singers do of flapping their hands all over but not moving the rest of their bodies at all, is decent to good, but the song bores me. The fix is in for her, though: “authenticity, natural singer” (Keith); “the other girls should be very afraid of you” (Nicki); “natural singer” (Mariah); “lost in the song, organic, natural singer, blah blah, bring me some sliders” (Randy).

THE CONTESTANT: Angela Miller, who killed it last time with her hit-worthy original song, and is back in a perfectly tailored new outfit.
THE SONG: “Nobody’s Perfect”, Jessie J.
THE VERDICT: Angela is flawless, almost too good — not robotic, just so on the nose she almost sounds like a ringer. Keith talks about her huge talent, her great gift and her “ability to do it big or small”; Nicki says her only risk is not living up to her own original materia; Randy says we’re seeing “the building of a superstar”; and Mariah claims rather poetically to have been “clothed in goosebumps and bathed in tears”. We might be seeing the Kelly Clarkson Mark II treatment happening here, folks.

THE CONTESTANT: Isabelle of the vanishing last name, a 22-year-old Georgian who used to be fat and wants to prove to other girls that they can “overcome anything”, because I guess being fat is something that needs to be ‘overcome’.
THE SONG: “God Bless the Child”, Billie Holiday.
THE VERDICT: Sure, let’s just keep pretending that white people can sing this song, shall we? She’s just not suited to its jazzy, bluesy vibe, and instead shouts over it like she’s trying to beat it into submission. Almost everybody likes it except Mariah (who blames the crap arrangement) and Randy, who thinks it wasn’t the song for her, but who congratulates her for “getting your health under control”, because fat people are all diseased.

THE CONTESTANT: 18-year-old Houston teacher (?) Amber Holcomb.
THE SONG: “My Funny Valentine”, Chet Baker.
THE VERDICT: Amber, a leftover from last year, says she’s more confident and showy this year, and proceeds to prove it by singing the slowest, most turgid version of “My Funny Valentine” ever recorded. This is a bad way to showcase Amber’s dynamite voice; it’s too stodgy and plodding. But she’s in fine form and blows the judges away with her skill at singing, if not at picking songs: Keith calls her “technically flawless”, Nicki gives her an A++++, Randy tells her to believe in herself, and Mariah says “I want to slap you”, which I guess is a compliment in Glitterworld.

Thankfully, the judging is unanimous and there will be no need for Jimmy Iovine to rumble forth from the crypt — and thank God for it, that guy makes my head shrink. With the verdicts coming with 20 minutes left in the show there’s a ton of padding, but luckily if you’re reading this instead of watching the show I can cut right to the chase for you: sent home are Jenny Beth Willis and her amazing lack of personality; unfortunately named Brandy Hotard; Isabelle One-Name (to the boos of the audience); Kamaria Owlsey and her sassed-up outfit; and Shubha Vedula of some crazy country where the names are not like ours here on Earth. Tenna Torres, Angela Miller, Amber Holcomb, Adriana Latonio, and Kree Harrison (who earns a nice fakeout from Mariah: “You know I never liked you, right?”) all move on. I would have voted exactly the same way except I’d have hung on to Shubha and dropped Adriana, whose appeal so far escapes me. Ah well — nothing outrageous, no one truly incompetent gets a pass and no one spectacular gets sent home. Join me tomorrow when ten guys go through the same process, and hopefully there will be less crying, because if I wanted to hear teenage girls cry, I’d go back to selling speed out behind the scholars equipment shed.


According to Hell

Klansman. This game is no different from Amarillo, except that the center cards are laid out in the shape of a cross. The card in the center of the cross is then set on fire. Once the entire structure is burning, the players take turns stabbling, punching or kicking a member of the group who is an ethnic minority, a red or a Jew. If all players are white Christians, the first player to draw a low card is sent out to find a suitable neighbor at which to direct the other players’ abuse. Tens are wild.

Retard Henry. This game is the same as International Falls, except that the lowest exposed cards and all other cards of the same rank are wild. The first player to turn such a card is named Retard Henry and is locked into the host’s bedroom for the remainder of the evening. Occasionally he should be fed scraps of food which have gone off, and members of the group are encouraged to sexually interfere with him. An optional house rule involves Retard Henry being assigned commonplace tasks requiring low intelligence, such as cleaning toilets or disposing of refuse.

Mississippi Choke ‘Em. The same as Squaw-Tits, except that after the first betting interval, three of the center cards are turned up at the same time. There is a further betting interval at which anyone folding is strangled with a bent wire hanger. Then the fourth and fifth cards are turned over with a betting interval after each. At the end of the round, only the winning player should be left alive.

Sawed-Off Shotgun. The deal and draw are as in standard draw poker, except as follows: after each player has received three cards, the deal is suspended for a betting interval. Each player shall have been issued, before the initial deal, a sawed-off shotgun, which he should keep under the table. During the betting interval, players are encouraged to gutshoot any other player they feel is a significant threat. If the player to the immediate right of the deceased is able to guess who fired the fatal shot, he may discard a single card from his hand and draw a new one; if he guesses wrong, he must sit in the decedent’s chair without first moving the body.

Three-Card Monty. Each layer recieves three cards, all dealt face down, but the deal is interrupted after each round for a betting interval in which they must tell an anectdote from the life of the British general Bernard Law Montgomery. If they are unable to do so, they are offered, as was Montgomery’s archnemisis Erwin Rommel, a choice of suicide or execution. This game is also played high-low, with the ace ranking high in a high hand and low in a low hand. Usually, declarations are required, and losers are sent to the Eastern Front.

Two-Card Priscilla. Each player receives two cards, face down. There is one betting interval and a showdown, to be conducted at high noon in the main street of town. Players are to take ten paces and then draw (pistols as well as cards). Straights and flushes do not count, a pair being the highest hand, and players who are not fatally injured are allowed to stay in the game. This game is usually played with wild cards, either deuces or ‘one-eyes’ (the jacks and spades of hearts, the king of diamonds, and any players who have lost an eye in previous play). It is often played high-low, with high being rooftop snipers hired by winners of previous hands and low being the unmarked graves in which losers are buried.

Volcano. Two-card poker played at high-low, often with deuces wild, and with an exchange available for any player sacrificing a virgin directly before the first betting interval.

Black and Blue. In betting and settlement, Black and Blue is the same as Hell’s Half-Acre; but it is not the rank of poker hands which decides the result. All players must bring a significant other, who they then strike in the face after each card is dealt. All visible injuries have a “plus” value while all blows that leave no immediate mark have a “minus” value; however, if the partner loses consciousness or dies, the player forfeits the hand. The wearing of jewelry is highly encouraged, though not required, in this game. There is a deal of five cards and a betting interval as in Andy’s Viscera; then a draw followed by another round of punchings and another betting interval. This is followed by a showdown in which the highest and lowest hand divide the pot. At this point, the partners change and the punchers become the punched.

Serbian Horsefucker. There is no difference between this game and Macedonian Bloodspit, except for the presence of the horse, the method of determining a wild card, and the manner in which the blood is let.


One to Lie and One to Listen

Oh, lies. Lies are what make us human, what keep us from being bored to death; lies are the very foundation of our civilization. (Sure, when Pablo Picasso says stuff like this, you say he’s profound; when I say it, you roll your eyes at me.) Lies form the basis of our faiths (“There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”), our politics (“All men are created equal”), and our societies (“Anyone can grow up to be a millionaire”), and what’s more, they grant us nobility by allowing us excuses to fuck and kill each other, rather than doing it for no reason like some stupid animal.

And yet, why is there no taxonomy of lies? To lump them all together, to commingle through lack of effort the lies of Nixon with the lies of Swift, is to mock the great and wonderful human capacity for compartmentalization. Sure, every kid in Boogie Down has a poster of Linnaeus on the wall of his bedroom, and any hipster chick worth her Asthmatic Kitty baby tee can tell you the difference between an ignorantio elenchi and a dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter. But where is the man who will teach us to keep our crookedness straight, to show us the difference between a dirty lyin’ dog and a dissimulating son-of-a-bitch, to remind us that not only is A not always A, but that there’s more than one way of saying that A is in fact Q?

Ladies and gentlemen, I am that man. I bring you Initial Notes on a Taxonomy of Lies, with the formal names of each bogosity in cod-Japanese because Latin is played.

KYOGEN TAI-WAGAMI (The Lie Against Myself). This lie, known as “rationalization” in the Freudian idiom, is an extremely common sort of lie, commited on an almost minute-by-minute basis by almost everyone. Unlike the other-directed falsehoods that follow, the purpose of this lie is to forestall suicide by convincing yourself that your current path is really for the best, and that there’s no need to take particular notice of the festering gut-bag that you are in reality. It can take the form of simple self-deception (“This job isn’t so bad, and besides, I’m really making a difference”) to outright fabrication (“I don’t need to work out today, because I worked out harder than usual on Wednesday”). This is generally an extremely desirable type of lie, and even if it weren’t, it’s impossible to get rid of, like capitalism and groin comedy.

Example: instead of “I am unattractive and have a repellant personality”, say “I can’t relate to the women of today”.

KYOGEN I-DATSUROU (The Lie of Omission). This lie, a favorite of the elderly, convalescents, residents of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and other people leading a low-energy lifestyle, allows one to lie without actually saying anything. In more primitive times, before we learned that it was never appropriate to have unspoken thoughts, it was known as “tact”. It is still the lie of choice for many self-important people because they don’t consider it to actually be lying, and for some reason they think not lying is desirable. Note that this lie is not to be found on the internet.

Example: instead of “Thank you for reading your poetry to me; it was boring, pretentious, and horribly clumsy, and to call it sophomoric would be to unjustly slander many talented second-year college students”, say ” “.

KYOGEN TAI-HONMEI (The Lie Against Certainty). This lie is similar to the kyogen i-datsurou, especially insofar as  people who don’t like to be thought of as liars often employ it so that they may later congratulate themselves on not lying; but here, rather than not saying anything, one says something that can be interpreted as neutral, or even positive — anything but the mockery and disdain that usually lies behind it. Any time the word “interesting” is employed, a kyogen tai-honmei has been committed.

Example: instead of “That dress makes you look disgustingly fat, even for you”, say “That dress really emphasizes your figure”.

HIRUTAI KYOGEN (The Simple Lie). This lie is the most basic of other-directed lies, consisting of a statement contrary to actual events or opinions. It is easily mastered, low-maintainence, and useful in any number of situations — all the hallmarks of a classic. Unlike the more subtle and graceful sorts of lis, it can be used by anyone of any age or level of experience; indeed, children are often more adept at it than their adult counterparts. The downside of this type of falsehood is that its very democratic nature works against it: its commonality has rendered it the least socially acceptable kind of lie. When somone calls you a “lying fuckface”, it is usually in response to a hirutai kyogen. Nonetheless, it is a perennial favorite that is never out of style.

Example: instead of “I am fucking your girlfriend”, say “No, I am not fucking your girlfriend”.

KYOGEN AIRONIKARU (The Ironic Lie). This lie, while deceptively similar to the Simple Lie, is in fact a form of lying so subtle and profound that some people do not believe it to be lying at all. The Ironic Lie, which requires a lifetime to truly master and has been perfected by only a few extremely brilliant practicioners in New York, Paris, and parts of Ireland, consists of saying something that is, generally speaking, exactly the opposite of what you mean, and then — and here is where the devilish difficulty comes in — placing the burden on the listener to recognize that you are lying. Not only does this elevate it beyond the level of base and common lying, but it allows the liar to place the blame on his audience, rather than on himself, if he is ever caught in the lie. While incredibly effective and remarkably graceful, the Ironic Lie is fiendishly difficult, requiring not only sharply honed lying skills and a judicious use of language, but a significant financial investment in the quotation mark industry. Simply put, the kyogen aironikaru is the Cadillac of lies. (Note: rumors have been circulating since fall of 2001 that irony is, in fact, dead. Experts are said to be looking into the matter.)

Example: instead of “I am fucking your girlfriend”, say “Oh, yeah. I’m ‘fucking’ your girlfriend”.

KYOGEN I-SHOUHOU (The Lie of Commerce). This lie, which is well on its way to supplanting most of the other types of lies though a vigorous breeding rate, is the other-directed lie perfected. The art of it lies not so much in the nature of the lie itself, but rather in the liar’s ability to convince her audience that the lie is not only true, but in fact quite outstanding. While looked down upon by traditional practitioners of lying, the Lie of Commerce has attracted some of America’s best and brightest, who say that it’s pointing the way to the future and that other types of lying had better get on board for the big win. If you have no particular talent or skill, but are gifted at stringing together a lot of words and concepts that don’t really mean anything, the kyogen i-shouhou is probably for you.

Example: instead of “Give me $300 a month for the rest of your life”, say “You’re in good hands with Allstate”.

KYOGEN I-GESAKU (The Lie of Fiction). This lie, of which your author has reluctantly become a practitioner in the wake of rampant rumors about the death of irony, is unique among falsehoods in that it is not only acceptable, but actively encouraged. Some people even attribute a sort of nobility, a greatness to this form of systematized lying, which is amazing considering how complete its falsity; it’s quite simple for a skilled practitioner of kyogen i-gesaku to construct a standard English sentence in which every single word is a lie. The trick is to know when it is appropriate and when it is not; for instance, following a confession that you have stolen your friend’s car, used it to rob several convenience stores, and employed it in aid of the vehicular manslaughter of a handful of municipal law enforcement officers, it is usually improper to say it was just for a story you made up.

Example: instead of “I am a neurotic guilty Catholic with a variety of sexual dysfunctions”, say “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”


A dreamily short entry tonight, and thank God for it, since I feel like I’ve been recapping this show for twenty years now. I’m not sure what tonight is supposed to accomplish, but then I am reminded that (a) this is the final night of Hollywood Week, where Idol treats everyone like discarded Kleenex, and (b) it has indeed been six years since a woman won the competition. Will that be rectified tonight? Of course not, silly, there are still six billion episodes to go before they pick a winner. But we will lose a bunch of people, which is lucky for me, because I can barely even remember my parents’ names anymore.

Tonight, Mariah Carey is wearing a red dress from a 1980s low-budget comedy; Keith Urban is in his usual cheap ‘graphics’ tee; Nicki Minaj is a Private First Class stationed at Fort Bazonga; and Randy Jackson is wearing the same thing Randy always wears in my mind, which is a dunce cap reading “POTATO CHIPS”. Angela Miller is first up, and takes the big risk of choosing to sing her own material — a song about “being separated from your baggage”, which all of us who have flown commercial airlines can relate to. It’s really not that great a song, but it’s pretty damn amazing for a kid her age to have that kind of piano and compositional skills, so she earns a standing O from the judges. I wouldn’t buy the thing, but there’s a lot of people who would, so that makes her a contender. She’s also immediately the kid-or-animal that no one wants to follow, but Candice Glover buckles down and singles “This Girl is On Fire” like a girl who is actually on fire, and also has purple hair. She can’t help but fade a bit next to Angela, but she still absolutely smokes the vocal, and that counts for a lot. Finally, Janelle Arthur, the least annoying of the country-fried crooners, delivers pretty nicely, and all of them make it through.

So far, the most interesting contestant in season 12 is Zoanette Johnson, the human grenade, tearing people apart with shards of filthy charisma and inconsistent nail polish. Tonight, she goes into full Chaka Khan mode, drumming her way through a self-penned number with murderously bad lyrics; it’s an explosive mess, but she exudes that crazy James Brown force-of-nature charismatic insanity that just kills me. She makes it through, as does master of the power bomb Jet Hermano, but Kiara Lanier gets sent packing. Shubha Vedula sucks up to Mariah, but actually makes her cover slightly more interesting by adding some grit to the out-of-control melisma. Juliana Chahayed, who I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, baby-bops through a Fleetwood Mac song. Finally, Kez Ban sings an original song while prettied up in a hotcha outfit chosen for her by the all-purpose Zoanette, but her voice is still shot, she seems narcotized, and her guitar playing is kind of crap, probably from handling all that fire. She gets sent back home, but at the last minute, Ryan Toothpaste offers her a job as a boom mic operator, after which she is savagely beaten by union reps.

In the next round, we learn that Ashlee Feliciano has dragged her family along to watch her auditions, so it will be extra fun when she fails. Claiming illness, she starts out all loosey-goosey and then completely falls apart on the falsetto, crashing loudly on each note like a drunk falling off the end of your couch and onto your end table. So long, Ashlee. Randy is bummed out because everyone is so serious. Ha ha, it’s almost as if their entire careers are on the line because of the arbitrary judgment of an ex-Journey bass player! I guess he wants more songs about hot dogs or something, and he lets Melinda Adeni’s perky performance get a free pass even though she’s not very good. Cree Harrison: “sob story genuine authenticity sincerity performer heart superstar before our eyes”, according to Nicki Minaj. I may have fallen asleep at this point, because Cree’s alleged star power is still invisible to me. Serena-Joi Crowe and hyper-freaky human mood swing Janel Stinney also get their walking papers.

It turns out that Randy is bad at math, so in order to get to a fat 42 contestants for the actual competitive rounds, we have to lose a bunch more people. Lauren, Holly and Marie all get tossed for no reason; I’m not sure who any of them are, but now I never have to find out. There’s still one left to lose, so bottle-blonde Stephanie Schimel and trout-mushed Rachel Hale have to sing themselves on or off of the show. Stephanie does an unimpressive but competent version of that Phillip Phillips song they play when someone on a prime time soap opera is sad, and Rachel sounds exactly like she always has on every other song she’s done, but she’s the one who gets to stay. Back to selling discounted peignoirs at the mall for you, Stephanie. Next, the guys have to be winnowed down because Randy thinks twenty-four is the highest number; we lose Peter Garrett, the kid who looks like a lesbian who works at Pottery Barn, as well as Marvin Calderon, Devin Jones, Kenny Harrison, Will White, Tony Foster, David Leathers, and a bunch of other people I can’t remember hearing in the first place. In the end, it comes down to a showdown between Adam “Sings Like a Girl” Sanders and Josh “Nondescript” Holliday. Adam knows his shit musically, but he’s also a jerk, and he blows it by pulling a Kurt Hummel and requesting a song that, even dropped down an octave, is out of his vocal range. Josh wants to sing gospel songs to a God that has ill equipped him to do such a thing, but he still sounds better than hearing Adam’s voice crack, so he stays, and also splits his pants, which seems to excite Keith Urban a little more than it should.

Next week, we finally move on to the actual voting rounds and individual performances, so I better haul ass and figure out all these peoples’ names. Be there or grow hair!


It’s LADY WEEK in Hollywood! That means lots of crying, although let’s be honest, the guys were a pretty weepy lot this time around, too. After a boring recap of last week’s nonsense (lines of ten in single performance, followed by extra-brutal group round), we experience a strong push for the ladies; Idol seems determined to at least pretend they’re not going to just hand over the win to another honky dude with a Yamaha guitar. I’m not sure what good this assurance does, since they don’t have any control over how the votes go…do they? Anyway, we are also assured that there’s an overabundance of girls this year, so the cuts are going to be a total bloodbath except instead of being fed to lions everybody will just have to go home. Ryan Toothpaste assures us that we will have both “some of the greatest performances in Idol‘s history”, which turns out to be a rather titanic overstatement even for size queen Ryan, and “more drama that we’ve ever seen”. No, Idol! No more drama for you! You’ve had enough and we’re cutting you off before you start dancing on top of the bar.

As we kick off day one of the gals with a hilariously sexist montage of giggling and screaming, we are introduced once again to our panel of judges: Mariah Carey, in a semi-tasteful Little Black Dress variant; Nicki Minaj, done up beatnik-style; Randy Jackson, beamed down from Star Fleet’s Televised Singing Competition Division; and Keith Urban, who is once again showing off his pectoral tattoo and making me wish more and more that the chestburster from Alien would eat its way out of him. Ryan Toothpaste guarantees cat-fighting, but I think he means the boring TV kind and not the fun porn kind. The girls of Line One include Angela Miller, who makes it through despite overselling her GIRL POWER WHOO! shtick and San Antonio’s own mariachista Victoria Acosta; unfortunately, early-round anorexic sob story Mariah Pulice doesn’t move on, and must head home to continue not not eating. I wish I felt worse about it, but her outfit is terrible. We also lose some other women, including black-eyed blonde fruit salad Ashlee Smith, seal-clapping newlywed Ann Defani, someone named Sarah Reticchio who I can’t remember ever seeing before, and a bunch of other people so important that Idol can’t be bothered to tell us their names. I’m sure they’re all just wonderful.

In the next line, Idol, apparently hoping that the lightning that is Carrie Underwood will strike twice, pairs up giant-mouthed smiling machine Rachel Hale and blonde charmer Janelle Arthur. The latter blows the former away, but I hate them both, so of course they make it through. (Nicki thinks Rachel is “relatable” — she is not — and “accessible”, which I guess means “boring”.) The rest of their group washes out, except a few others who don’t have names because they aren’t country singers. The “females”, as Ryan calls them to distinguish them from his own species, are tense as can be considering that the stakes are so low. FOR ME! There’s another winner montage, none of whom are identified, so here is what I can report about them: nothing. They probably all have vaginas, but you never know about the Iron Curtain athl…wait, this isn’t the Olympics.

“It’s a tense scene backstage”, we are informed by Ryan over a montage of people clutching Jesus pieces. Candice Glover busts out another boffo pile of melisma and makes it through; Megan Miller, decked out in bike shorts and the puffy shirt from Seinfeld, is off the crutches, but she’s also off the show. Despite the claim that this is the greatest group of female singers ever, Idol doesn’t trust us much to find out; despite the absurdly overlong two-hour runtime, the line auditions are rushed through at a rapid clip, so we hardly get a chance to hear any of them. Isabelle, who lost her last name somewhere between New York and L.A., sings a version of “Summertime” that is all over the place — it seems like a train wreck to me, but the judges let her through, so what do I know? After years of being in lockstep with Simon Cowell, I find myself completely unable to predict exactly what the hell these judges want; even Nicki, who often seems to be voting the straight Contrarian ticket, baffles me at times. They allow teams that completely fuck up and forget all the lyrics to move on, while groups that were much better get eliminated. Fortunes have probably been lost betting on my advice, though, so if you’re a betting sort, stay football fields away from my instincts about this show.

Idol is making a big deal about how “quirky” and “eccentric” Kez Ban, the Carolingian carnival artist, is, because she likes to do wacky stuff like eat, sleep, and not sing garbage songs. She’s also got a cold or something and has been cheering for all the people she likes, and her voice is shot to shit, meaning she can’t hit any of the crystalline high notes in “Be My Baby”, so I’m pretty positive that she’s doomed, especially when the rest of her group fucks off to practice without her. Amazingly, though, they all get through, so they can make fun of Kez Ban another day. She also insists on having fun, which seems to infuriate all the people who work for Idol, for whom the show is unending drudgery. She’s accompanied by Brianna Oakley, who is the girl who was “bullied” for her superior fame and talent, which I think we can all relate to if we are insufferable nerds, as well as Melinda Ademi and Ashely Feliciano, whoever they are.

As group rounds begin, I am informed of the existence of an American Idol app, which, no thank you. I can just picture dying in the remote forest and that’s what’s on my fucking iPod instead of a compass. The group featuring Isabelle, Erin, Lauren and human tornado Zoanette (who is wearing a huge LOVE ME necklace that looks like it could cut ham slices) clash over song choice, as she is overwhelmed by the country-singing Caucasians; Brandy Neeley, Cree Harrison, and season 11 washout Britney Kellogg all fall under the wicked control-freak spell of the unstoppable Haley Davis. After much handwringing by the gay vocal coach, everyone grabs a half-hour of sleep and we’re treated to an adorable montage of how the gals all have to get made up and purty before leaving their hotel rooms. Oh, females! Ryan Toothpaste, who hires olive-skinned Mediterranean boys to do all that sort of thing for him, informs us that an unprecedented number of ladies are writing the lyrics to their songs on their arms, because these songs are just that complicated. I blame this on the absence of quality henna artists in small-town America.

The Swagettes are the first group to perform, consisting of Candice Glover, Kamaria Ousley (in an alarming pair of Loverboy tights), Melinda Ademi, and Denise Jackson. They “managed to avoid the drama” of group round by acting like normal human beings, and perform a deeply confused version of “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, which nonetheless gets them all through to the next round. Nicki has switched to her blonde wig and a tacky appliquéd ball cap; Mariah is in another of her Norma Desmond gowns; Keith is wearing a Six Dollar Tees rejected design; and Randy is missing in action. What else does Randy have to do? Clean out the fryers? Anyway, Raisin’ Cain (Morgan Leigh Boberg, Lauren Mink, Brandy Hotard, and someone else whose name I was too distracted by the thought of my own mortality to catch)is next, line-dancing through a song called “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” which is not by Kay Kyser and His Orchestra. They all make it through, because it’s just that kind of year, I guess, but they do prompt Nicki to do an amusing Southern accent.

Almost Famous (domineering gang boss Savannah “Emotion Lotion” Votion, Liza Weiss, Daysia Hall and the frighteningly named J’Leigh Chauvin) lives up to its name, wearing way too much fake leopard print and doing the first, but not the last, terrible version of Gotye’s overworked “Somebody I Used to Know”. When Daysia is the only one who makes it through, Savannah throws a hissy fit, blubbing that she did all the choreography and song choice and harmony while Daysia forgot the lyrics; it apparently has not occurred to her that Daysia moved on because she is talented and charismatic, and the other three are flavorless white girls with mediocre voices. Meanwhile, the Dramatics (Janel Stinney, Christable Clack, Kriss “Dope” Mincey, and someone who was not identified due to the fact that her neon pants had subsumed her identity) are hobbled by Janel throwing what I can only characterize as a hoovering diz-fit. (Kriss characterizes it far more kindly than I would, saying “Janel is overzealous to the point that she is compromising her vocal health”. Someone’s going to shine come peer review!) She melts down over nothing in particular, ignores everyone, and twice walks out on her group, setting a pretty solid precedent for Freak/Villain of S12, and caps it off by completely forgetting all the words to the song and making it through anyway, thanks to some bewildering lobbying by Nicki Minaj. She throws a pity party for herself saying “sometimes I feel like I don’t fit in”, but really, that’s just because she’s a selfish, neurotic egomaniac. Anyway, they all make it through, and something is definitely happening here. This could be the Gleiwitz Incident of Idol Season 12. Then there’s a parade of losers from which only Shubha Vedula, Sarina-Joi Crowe, and Aubrey Cleland emerge unscathed.

The next group up is Urban Hue, and I would like to talk about who names these groups. They’re so depressingly on-the-nose that I suspect the hands of the producers, but there is also the even worse possibility that the contestants think them up themselves. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Zoanette’s group is named “The Poo Snaps”. Anyway, Urban Hue is Kiara Lanier, Tenna Torres, Jet Hermano (who is surely stealing the name of a professional wrestler somewhere) and Seretha Guinn, the lady with the cute kid named London. This decision makes even less sense and Nicki’s decision-making is just bewildering; Seretha is perfectly fine and gets sent home, while Kiara, who was scattered and forgot the lyrics, stayed in. She has no choice but to go home and “continue to have a happy life”. After a commercial that implies that if you don’t buy a Subaru, you want your children to die in a horrible fiery crash, Randy returns from whatever food-related errand he was on, wearing a purple XXXXXL tee and…you know what? I don’t get paid for this so I refuse to have an opinion about whatever pleatherette abomination Randy Jackson is duded up in for group round. Let’s move on.

Zoanette Johnson, carnal monolith and star of the Poo Snaps, gets to be filmed snoring on a bus because, I don’t know, Idol is racist probably. The rest of the group is Erin Christine, Lauren Bettes, and Isabelle, but who cares? Can any of them hold the dirty clientele of a strip club in 1974 Kansas City spellbound in the palm of their hands? I think not. Lauren gets sent home and nobody cares. Handsome Women stars Courtney Calle, Liz Bills, Alisha Dixon and Israeli superstar Shira Gavrielov, and they’re a bloody wreck; Liz is the only one who makes it through after their demolition of that fucking Gotye song, and she honestly doesn’t deserve it either. Shira, on the other hand, decides to stomp back on the stage, occupying it like so much Palestine and demanding that the judges explain why they didn’t let her through even though she once had a #1 hit in Tel Aviv. This is all highly amusing.

4U (Alex Delaney, Kalli Therinae, Holly Miller, and platinum-damaged lingerie clerk Stephanie Schimel) switched their song at the last minute, going from “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to, you guessed it, fucking goddamn Gotye. He’s gonna be able to buy a new boat on tonight’s royalties alone. Following a night of inexplicable decisions, Stephanie, who was mediocre at best and forgot a bunch of the words, makes it through; even she can’t figure it out: “Why did they let me through? I totally botched that thing.” Oh, Idol. Are you at your worst when you make no sense, or your best? I really can’t tell anymore. But this segment does have Nicki raising another laugh by putting on a goofy face and mocking all the dipshits who wrote the lyrics on their hands. Can’t stay mad at no Nicki Minaj.  At some point “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” happens again and we haven’t seen the last of Brandy Neeley, but by then I’m riding the high of the show being almost over.

Tomorrow: more of the ladies, because this show has to be on all the time or else I might actually get something done.


For the Home Team

Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, and that can only mean one thing:  six months of manic-depressive obsessing over baseball!  But not everyone is like me, hardened like a Turk’s brass knuckle by years of following the sport.  How does a newcomer know what team to root for?  Luckily for you, I’ve compiled this guide to the 30 Major League Baseball teams, based on consultation with Ken Burns, ESPN, and several old white men with malfunctioning prostates who have written books on the subject.  Happy reading, and happy rooting!


  • Are they a New York team?  Yes!
  • Why should I care?  Greatest team ever, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, 9/11.
  • Avoid discussing:  Any Steinbrenner.


  • Are they a New York team?  They used to be.
  • Why should I care?  Greatest team ever, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Vin Scully, the warming sepia-toned glow of Ebbets Field .
  • Avoid discussing:  Events occurring after the 6th inning of any given game.


  • Are they a New York team?  Sort of.
  • Why should I care?  Greatest team ever, Ted Williams, Carl Yasztremski, Carlton Fisk, Green Monster.
  • Avoid discussing:  How the team used to lose all the time.


  • Are they a New York team?  They used to be.
  • Why should I care?  “The Giants win the pennant!”, the abomination that is the designated hitter rule, other pre-San Francisco events.
  • Avoid discussing:  Barry Bonds.


  • Are they a New York team?  Yes!
  • Why should I care?  “Miracle Mets”, “Subway Series”, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson probably.
  • Avoid discussing:  How the team is pretty terrible.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Shitty beer, ivy, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, not winning a World Series for 200 years is “lovable”.
  • Avoid discussing:  Sammy Sosa.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Greatest team ever, Stan Musial, the relentless enthusiasm of Bob Costas.
  • Avoid discussing:  Mark McGwire.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Oldest professional ball club, “Big Red Machine”, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan (the ballplayer).
  • Avoid discussing:  Pete Rose; Joe Morgan (the sportscaster).


  • Are they a New York team?  New York-adjacent.
  • Why should I care?  Earl Weaver, Cal Ripken Jr., various Robinsons.
  • Avoid discussing:  The last decade.


  • Are they a New York team?  No, but see Boston Red Sox.
  • Why should I care?  Greatest team ever, Hank Aaron, assortment of melvins in the 1990s with good pitching arms.
  • Avoid discussing:  The “tomahawk chop”; the word “choke”.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, disco, “We Are Family”.
  • Avoid discussing:  How the national media will never, ever pay attention to you.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  The 1970s, facial hair, SABRmetrics.
  • Avoid discussing:  Earthquakes.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Bob Feller, Major League, David Justice (maybe).
  • Avoid discussing:  How the logo is a racist cartoon.


  • Are they a New York team?  Strangely, yes.
  • Why should I care?  Your inside-the-Beltway connections will be impressed by your season tickets.
  • Avoid discussing:  Performance of previous Washington franchises.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Ichiro Suzuki, Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr., team is owned by creators of Super Mario Brothers.
  • Avoid discussing:  baseball.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Randy Johnson, Luis Gonzalez, Curt Schilling (though be careful with this one).
  • Avoid discussing:  Byung-Hyun Kim.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Ty Cobb.
  • Avoid discussing:  Ty Cobb.


  • Are they a New York team?  Absolutely not.
  • Why should I care?  you enjoy sausage races or are Bud Selig.
  • Avoid discussing:  the American League.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  Gene Autry, Disney, banging plastic sticks together,monkeys, waterfalls.
  • Avoid discussing:  the team’s ridiculous name.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  George Brett, Dan Quisenberry.
  • Avoid discussing:  victory.


  • Are they a New York team?  They are the opposite of a New York team.
  • Why should I care?  Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, being reminded that it is very cold in Minneapolis.
  • Avoid discussing:  how the old stadium had walls made out of plastic trash bags.


  • Are they a New York team?  Only for retirees.
  • Why should I care?  you are Cuban-American.
  • Avoid discussing:  Jeffrey Loria.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  you enjoy inspiring stories of people who stopped taking massive amounts of drugs.
  • Avoid discussing:  George W. Bush.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  astronauts are neat.
  • Avoid discussing:  Enron.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  you do not enjoy baseball.
  • Avoid discussing:  your team’s alleged ‘rivalry’ with the Miami Marlins.


  • Are they a New York team?  Surprisingly, they are New York-adjacent.
  • Why should I care?  information not available
  • Avoid discussing:  information not available


  • Are they a New York team?  They’re barely even a Chicago team.
  • Why should I care?  you should not, because they did a very bad thing 94 years ago and we can never forgive them.
  • Avoid discussing:  2005.


  • Are they a New York team?  No.
  • Why should I care?  you should not, because all the accomplishments of this team, even ones involving pitching or which take place during away games, are due to the altitude at Coors Field.
  • Avoid discussing:  the team’s garish uniforms.


  • Are they a New York team?  They are a team from the New York of Canada.
  • Why should I care?  you should not, because this team is from Canada.
  • Avoid discussing:  Canada.


  • Are they a New York team?  Technically, they are not even a Major League Baseball team.
  • Why should I care?  there is literally no reason for anyone to care about the San Diego Padres.
  • Avoid discussing:  the possibility of relegation.


(from the Irish Times‘ ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column)

You must keep this strictly under your hat but I received an invitation to be in attendance at 86 St Stephen’s Green last Thursday evening to hear a ‘paper’ on…guess?…’The Function and Scope of Criticism’.  It interests me as a scientist that there is to be found today in this humble island a young man who is anxious to explain this matter to me and it will be a regret to me, always, that a malignant destiny decreed that on that evening I should be elsewhere.  I feel rather tired but surely if one explains concisely the function of criticism, one has also defined its scope; if it be the function of the Slieve Gullion to draw passenger trains to Belfast, it it necessary to add that this engine should not sell race-cards in Dublin on Baldoyle days?

Again, I must ask you to regard what I say as private and confidential.  The document I have received says No Press References and one must not (if only out of deference to the distinguished Knight who is among the signatories) outrage this most understandable desire for secrecy.  You see, these bodies are about something far more hush-hush than jet-propulsion.  They are (this is quite incredible but I swear it so help me) — they are interested in…Art! (!!!!!!)

Well well.  Wasn’t it a shame, Paud, that they kept it from you until now, that they didn’t tel you about it, that you have to fly into back rooms in your hundreds to have it explained to you!  Poor poor Paud.  

These people, disdaining extraordinary water, call themselves ‘Common Ground’.  With gigantic presumption they begin by calling me ‘Dear Sir’ and then continue as follows:

‘As you are probably already aware, some few years ago, a group of persons interested in literature decided to meet about once a month to hear a paper read by one of their numbers.  A discussion followed each paper and much benefit and enjoyment was derived by those present.’

‘As you are probably already aware’ is surely effrontery of an unusual order.  As well say, ‘as you are probably already aware, my sister had a pimple on her nose four months ago’.  Why should it be assumed that a schoolgirl’s pimple is a matter necessarily within the public’s knowledge?  Why should anybody know about the rebel back-room conclaves of  ’a group of persons interested in literature’ — least of all My Most Equitable Gaelic Palatinity? (????)  And if they are s0 interested in literature, why don’t they learn to be literate?  How could one be aware of something without being already aware of it?  Could this ‘group’ be otherwise than a group ‘of persons’?  Could  a group of black-faced mountain sheep be interested in literature?  Could…could a group of asses be interested in literature?  Could the benefit and enjoyment (sic) that was derived (very eclectic word ‘derived’ in that context) be derived by those not present?  ’Literature’ how are you!

‘Arising out of the experience of those concerned with Common Ground in its early stage, it was thought advisable recently to widen its scope.  Henceforth Common Ground will be designed primarily to be of help to Catholics interested in literature, art, learning, and in social and political theory…’

Don’t go away — keep reading.  The English alone is marvellous.  (I feel awful.)

‘A series of lectures have been planned for the coming twelve months.  Widely different topics have been tentatively chosen for treatment.  The Function and Scope of Criticism; Political Thought in Ireland — Past and Future; The Irish Social Order; The Scope and Content of Irish Culture.  It was thought advisable to have three papers at successive meetings from different lecturers on each of these subjects, each dealing with a particular aspect of the matter.  The views put forward by the lecturers, together with the opinions expressed by the subsequent speakers, should prove stimulating and beneficial to all concerned.’

Wouldn’t it be terrible if a (subsequent) speaker put forward views instead of expressing opinions?  ’To all concerned’ is superb.

I cannot recall in recent months a more virulent eruption of paddyism. 


The Health of the Clear Sky

Suicide, as a tactic of war, seems to hold a particular horror for us.  Because it is so seemingly foreign to the West (although, really, it bears little distinction from the kind of hopeless charges entirely common to the era of modern warfare), we tend to cite it as a fundamental difference between forces.  The suicide bomber is a particularly egregious example of this, and leads some of our more hysterical observers to wonder how there can ever be peace with a people who seemingly do not value their own lives; in the Second World War, too, we seemed more able to understand the Germans, even though their hands controlled the horrendous machinery of genocide, than we did the Japanese, who threw themselves incautiously into the hail of certain death rather than be taken prisoner.  As recently as 2007, Ken Burns’ documentary The War reflected this view that Japan produced a culture of unthinkable aliens, men who were not quite men devoted to an ideal of robotic suicide in the name of honor.

The truth is rather more muddled.  It is no easy thing, even in the oppressive insanity of war, to convince men to engage in acts of mass suicide.  No culture has ever cultivated a generation so devoid of the basic instincts of self-preservation that they will voluntarily snuff out their own lives en mass; and it will come as no surprise to those who have made a closer study of the dynamics of class and power that arguing a man into an act of self-destruction requires the constant pressure of an authoritarian culture.  Regardless of the nobility and seeming hopelessness of their cause, suicide bombers are made, not born; it is not their blood, but deliberate and vicious calculation, selection and training — almost always by those who face no immediate risk themselves — that creates them.  And, too, in the case of the kamikaze pilots and banzai soldiers, it was a relentless and brutal process of manipulation, propaganda, and systematic distortion and cruelty that made so many Japanese men go to their inevitable death long after their country’s position in the Second World War became untenable.   And even then, it was no easy task to force these men to die.  The enlisted men who bore the horrible brunt of this policy no more wanted to die then than you or I do today.

This is the most valuable lesson contained in the grim, beautiful, terrible book Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, written and drawn by Shigeru Mizuki in 1973.  Mizuki is one of the most popular and beloved manga creators in Japan, but this is the first of his works to be given an English-language edition, in late 2011 by Drawn & Quarterly.  (It’s a mystery why it took so long for such a towering figure’s work to appear in America, but it’s a useful reminder that we will never exhaust the culture the world has to offer us.)  The story of a battalion of Japanese soldiers stationed on a remote island in what is now Papua New Guinea in the waning days of WWII, it is a book saturated with realism both horrific and banal, and Mizuki knows of what he speaks:  he was stationed on that very island, and its story — of the gradual disintegration of his outfit and its eventual destruction via a senseless and ineffective suicide charge — is his own story.  Though he survived the charge, he did so with the loss of one of his arms, and a case of malaria that almost killed him, depicted in the story with supreme irony:  after his company receives the order to charge to their inevitable death, the soldier Maruyama (a stand-in for Mizuki himself), thirsty and deprived, drinks water from a brackish pool.  Another soldier warns him that he’ll catch amoebic dysentery, to which he scornfully replies:  ”Who cares?”

The story follows Maruyama’s battalion from its surreally ordinary beginnings, as the men idle around a tropical island waiting to receive their marching orders, with nothing much to do but visit the single prostitute assigned to the entire company (a song she sings lamenting her cruel treatment and hopeless situation will later be sung by the men themselves as they prepare to die).  Once they are sent to the island of New Britain, we are treated to the everyday frustrations and joys of the under-equipped grunt:  a bit of extra pork one night, a chance to piss in the commander’s bath the next, and constant humiliation and abuse at the hands of the sergeant, a violent, unpredictable martinet.  Even before the enemy arrives, death is everywhere:  one soldier is crushed by a falling tree while helping build the army’s base; another dies overnight of dengue fever; a third falls off a boat and is chewed in half by alligators; a fourth, starving thanks to the meagre rations, chokes to death on a fish he’s caught.  But when the Americans and British arrive — in a reversal of the typical Western war story, they are enigmatic, distant shapes, whose faces we almost never see — death becomes much more immediate, and infinitely more terrifying.

While Sgt. Honda — eventually killed by accident by one of his own men while patrolling the perimeter of the camp — is shown as an abusive, petty tyrant, it is the men at the top of the chain of command who are truly monstrous.  We see immediately that none of the rank and file, from the grunts hobbling through the muck and constant rain to the field officers who have a first-hand appreciation of the costs of war — believe in the policy of gyokusai, or “honorable suicide”, where it is one’s duty to the country to become a “shattered jade”; it is, rather, a calculated policy by the generals and politicians to exert control over a military and populace who were beginning to see the warmongering of their leaders as the sham that it was.  Everyone in the lower ranks questions the wisdom of the suicide charge; the enlisted men, who are well aware that their homeland is being bombed daily by Allied forces, wonder what the point of throwing their lives away can be when the entire empire is on the verge of collapse, and the front-line officers make the more strategic argument that expending hundreds of lives in a pointless charge is far less effective than staying alive and harrying the enemy for months or years with guerrilla warfare.

But the die has been cast; the decision has been made; the big lie cannot be rescinded so late in the game.  The top men are shown to be cynically enforcing the idea of gyokusai for purely propagandistic reasons, while those in the middle — like the nervous and inexperienced Major Tadokoro, the battalion commander — are drunk on that same propaganda, insisting on expending the lives of their men like so much toilet paper in the name of emulating some long-ago legend of battle.  And so it is that Maruyama and his men are chewed up  and obliterated by the superior firepower of the Allies, and their commanders die a tawdry death on the nearby beach, tearfully gutting themselves before being shot in the back of the head by their seconds.  The result is one of the most devastating condemnations of warfare and its myriad abuses against human dignity ever crafted.  The whole notion of a “noble” suicide is portrayed as a sick joke played on the helpless by the powerful.  In another gut-wrenching irony, the most decent character in the story — the humane medic Dr. Ishiyama — also commits suicide:  after being abused and pilloried for protesting that the suicide charge is a grotesque waste of human potential, the gyokusai is a strategic disaster, and the Army is “the most diseased thing humanity has ever seen”, he takes his own life rather than be further beaten and insulted for his “stupid nonsense”.

It’s easy to see why Mizuki is such a highly praised cartoonist; he deploys visual imagery to a startling effect in Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths, shaping patterns that only become clear as the story develops.  It is not uncommon for manga artists to mix cartoonish figure drawing with photorealistic backgrounds, but I have seen few who use the technique with as much skill and effectiveness as Mizuki does here.  His American soldiers are phantoms, shadowy harbingers of death; the only time we clearly see one’s face is immediately before he kills Maruyama, the sole survivor of the suicide charge.  The Japanese are broadly drawn cartoons, with angular, caricatured faces and loping gaits, which makes it all the more devastating when they are ripped to pieces by the machines of war.  His beautiful realism he saves for two things:  the natural surroundings of the island jungles, still gorgeous to look at despite the idiotic intrusion of violent humanity; and the bodies of dead men, who, once robbed of life, can now no longer cause the world any harm, and thus become part of nature.   It works perfectly, and in conjunction with his deft use of lettering to project sounds and environmental factors, only enhances the power of the story.

Almost seventy years later, having reached the age of 91, Mizuki is still fresh with rage over the callous wasting of his comrades’ lives, underscoring how unnatural the goykusai philsophy truly was.  The massive casualties and complete lack of impact caused by the suicide charges never dissuaded the brass from using them; in fact, when the Battle of Peleliu was over, having cost the lives of over 10,000 Japanese troops, and with less than 20 surviving the constant banzai attacks, it was not condemned as a meaningless slaughter, but held up as the ideal for how all Japanese soldiers should be willing to die for the homeland.  From that point forward, even as the war situation deteriorated, the military dictatorship pushed the propaganda that it was shameful to live in the aftermath of a losing battle; this madness, strongly opposed both at home and in the field, doubtless edged the U.S. closer to using the atomic bomb.  ”In our military,” Mizuki says in his afterword, “soldiers and socks were consumables.  But when it came to death, it turns out we were humans after all…whenever I write a story about the war, I can’t help the blind rage that surges up in me.”  That rage resulted in the creation of one of the most simple, straightforward and effective condemnation of the waste of human potential by war that’s ever been crafted.


There Auteur Be a Law

Auteur theory has been taking it on the chin lately.

Never especially strong in this country — as opposed to Europe, where it has even been allowed to influence matters of copyright, in a shockingly communistic example of art being given primacy over commerce — it’s really taken a beating in the new New Hollywood, where franchising has taken precedence over storytelling, sequels are a built-in contract requirement, and even the remake has been superseded by the ‘re-imagining’.  Even in the glory days of the 1970s, when the rise of maverick filmmakers bucked against the studio system and managed to create movies that were both commercially and artistically successful to a degree hard to imagine today, restrictive costs and limited resources gave studios a degree of power that necessarily checked that of the visionary filmmaker; in the following decade, the overreaching ambition of the likes of Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola helped scuttle the small gains in the direction of auteurism that Hollywood ever managed to achieve, and now, 30 years on, you might as well wait for a silent movie than a film entirely under the control of its director.  The Coen Brothers are virtually the only big-picture practitioners of the approach, and for their troubles they are labeled chilly, remote stylists as often as not.

With studios ever mindful of cost and insistent on the constant reification of moneymaking properties, there is as little continuity of content in film today as there is in mainstream comic books — and therein lies a lesson.  After decades of being botched, mishandled and underestimated by Hollywood, comic book heroes finally appeared in film, in a number of skillfully executed vehicles in the late 1990s; the following decade was something of a golden age for the genre, followed by the inevitable overexposure and curdling.  The rise of ‘geek culture’ as a dominant expression in this decade has had any number of deleterious effects, from the proliferation of the sub-adult as the norm in storytelling to the replacement of analysis with enthusiasm as a measure of a film’s success, but it has also played up the increasing ambiguities of what we mean when we talk about who is the owner of a character, a story, a work of art.

This question, only now peeking its way into media like film and television, has been raging for decades in the world of comics.  (Even the one arena where the notion of an author should be clear-cut — the medium of literature — has been infected by big-money issues, as risk-averse publisher revivify old properties in new hands, exercise ruthless control of copyright, and encourage profitable authors to franchise their characters, their ideas, and even their names in the pursuit of ‘branding’.)  Comics — especially mainstream ones — are a study in the paradoxes of auteurism.  It cannot be denied that the big-name publishers have long engaged in brutal suppression of the very idea of creator’s rights; ever since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed away Superman in exchange for a handful of magic beans, writers and artists have been routinely getting rooked out of the fruits of their labors.  From an economic standpoint, the medium is as exploitative as it can get away with being.  Artistically, though, comics have also proven that the person who creates a character is not always the best person to tell that character’s story.  There are innumerable examples; had the right of refusal stayed with the creators of Superman and Batman, we might have been denied some of the most brilliant interpretations of those characters.  Comic heroes, with their long histories, collaborative nature, generational appeal, and iconic qualities, are vibrant proof that stories of great critical and popular appeal can be told by people who had nothing to do with creating the material on which they’re based.

Of course, this also plays into the muddle that exists between auteurism and ownership.  In Europe, as noted, these issues are intertwined, despite the collaborative nature of media like film and television; but in America, predictably, big-money interests have kept them separated by an iron curtain of law.  Even the small advances made in the arena of fair use are guarded by razor-sharp restrictions; we are entirely comfortable with the idea of generations of professional heirs, children and grandchildren who grow fat off the cash of artistic labor to which they have contributed not a drop of sweat or a flash of thought, but the idea that we might have the right to make art from a character so culturally ubiquitous that we have been exposed to it daily our entire lives is strictly verboten.  Being born with a certain name entitles you to make money as long as you live off an idea you had nothing to do with in some media, but creating a character in another that makes a corporations tens of millions of dollars doesn’t buy you the right to ever use that character again.  A combination of ignorance, short-sightedness, greed, indifference and deliberate obfuscation has left us with a terribly unfair and inconsistent concept both of who owns the rights and profits to an artistic creation, and who should be considered its author.  The result has been a financial and creative cluster-fuck of galactic proportions.

Only recently, this cluster-fuck has come to visit the world of television.  Always consumed by commercialism, and artistically disreputable almost on the level of comic books, television has never once been considered a medium where the hired guns who put together its programming have any rights whatsoever to their labor.  (They’re barely even considered creators on even the basest level, as we learned during the writer’s strike a few years back; indeed, on some types of ‘unscripted’ shows, writers are legally not treated as writers, even though the action on screen is guided by words that they write.)  But as we enter what many believe to be a golden age of quality drama and comedy on television, longtime assumptions about the rights and privileges of the creator are being challenged — and the bosses are once again responding by buying new rules and regulations that keep them firmly in control of someone else’s labor.

At every point where auteurs place their creative imprimatur on their work, owners — in the person of studios, production companies, and even advertisers — rush to erase it.  At a time when television shows of quality are much more often the product of an individual writer or director’s vision instead of the dashed-off high-concept idea of a producer, the ‘created by’ credit gains more and more respect; but the bosses have ensured that it means nothing more than money.  They have also introduced the concept of the ‘show-runner’, which seems to indicate what it really should be — the person whose artistic vision binds the disparate elements that make up the collaborative process of making a television show together — but in practical terms often means little more than the guy who wrangles the writers.  Some shows, of course, are more auteurish than others, but the process by which these titles are defined has nothing to do with creative control, and everything to do with money.

This, of course, brings us to our case in point:  the long-awaited return of beloved cult comedy Community, without the presence of its creator/former ‘show-runner’/beating heart, writer/director Dan Harmon.  According to conventional wisdom, which usually becomes conventional through the medium of money and the power of critical laziness, Harmon was unceremoniously jettisoned from the show he created for two reasons:  his inability to get along with a washed-up has-been universally reviled by the rest of Hollywood, and the fact that he was the first creative person in the history of art to have a difficult personality.  His real crime, unsurprisingly, was a financial one:  he created a brilliant television show with a fiercely loyal audience that was not popular enough to make a profit, but was just popular enough to allow it to creep towards the big-money goal of syndication.  For this failing, he got ousted in the shabbiest manner possible by the bosses, and had the further bad taste not to just shut up about it and collect his ‘creator’-credit payoff, but to point out publicly how shamefully he was treated. This won him few friends, because nobody likes to be reminded that ‘creative’ work is just as dominated by the money men as any other field, let alone their culpability in that process.

Community made its return this week after endless delays, in the hands of two new ‘show-runners’ the network felt would be able to sustain the tenor made possible by the efforts of a man who poured his entire being into the creation.  Advance copies of episodes made available to critics seem to indicate that, shockingly, that will not be the case, and that a quality television show is something a bit more than the aggregate of its individual talents.  I wouldn’t know, myself; I made a decision when I found out how badly Harmon was treated that the first three seasons — nicely culminated by Harmon himself, who was smart enough to read the writing on the wall — would be plenty for me, and that there was plenty of other good art in the world that would fill the void left by a show that intentionally let out its own blood.  Community actually did better in the ratings, a fact which can and will be made to do whatever trick people want it to do, but whatever happens to the show down the road in terms of commercial success, creatively, it’s likely to prove what that handful of people who cared in the first place said was going to happen.  Some art creates a template upon which all sorts of successful interpretations may be impressed; other art creates an outline so distinct and fully formed that only one person can fill it in.

Neither is more valid than the other.  But both prove one thing:  the notion of an auteur, the idea that a creator leaves an indelible mark on a creation, is one that is not always consistent but is always present, and it demands consideration on an artistic level, not just a financial one.  We’re unlikely to witness any sea change in this current era of blockbuster films, studio ‘properties’, and character brand-building; and even less so, as critics and journalists increasingly become publicists, and ordinary people habituate themselves into tolerating ‘where are they now’ articles on the stars of a franchise less than ten years old but which already suffers under a studio-mandated re-imagining. But if we want to keep what is vivid and alive from becoming stagnant and shallow, we might want to again look to Europe, and admit that a creator who is given a stake in his creation is the difference between a soldier who will die for what he believes and a mercenary who will leave the battlefield when the chance for profit starts to die out.


Because We Failed



As you know, you have been tried and found guilty by a jury of your peers on counts of breaking and entering, second-degree robbery, criminal fraud, and five counts of incitement to riot — rocking, shocking, screaming, shouting, and turning a party out.  The reign of food-related terror by the gang we once feared as the “Fat Boys” is over, and it falls to me to pronounce sentence.

Your attorney, Mr. Walker, has pled for leniency on a number of grounds, which I hope now to address.  Frankly, gentlemen, his plea is not without merit; there were, indeed, exigent circumstances, unusual factors, and simple bad luck involved in this case, and all of them worked against you.  However, it must also be said that were you not engaged in criminal acts — and, if I may be blunt, if you were more in control of your appetites — there would be no need for us all to be here today, and you would not now be dressed in striped jumpsuits, with your ankles chained to comically oversized iron balls.

Let us first take up your case, Mr. Morales.  You have expressed regret for your crime, but is your regret sincere?  To begin with, there is nothing wrong with wanting a midnight snack.  It has happened to all of us at one time or another.  But instead of heading for a nearby bodega, or simply phoning in an order for delivery, you found a pizza restaurant that was closed and broke down the door with a shotgun, like some kind of violent maniac.  Mr. Morales, your file indicates that you are a native New Yorker — surely you are aware that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of restaurants, including a number of fine pizzerias, that are open past midnight on the island of Manhattan!  Even if the food in this establishment was that good, surely you could have foregone armed entry and just found a different place to eat.  And while it may be so that you have sufficient table manners to have put your stolen goods on a plate before eating them, it scarcely does you credit that you literally fell asleep with a face full of cold pizza.  For shame, sir.

Mr. Wimbley, your case is particularly frustrating.  Your plea for sympathy, I must confess, fell on deaf ears; I do not consider simply being hungry at lunchtime to be “the worst case of any MC”.  While it is your bad luck that you happen to have chosen the only Burger King franchise in existence where you receive your food before your bill — and I agree with you that it is “kind of strange” – that is no excuse for refusing to pay.  It is, honestly, impossible to believe that you were “shocked” by the concept of being asked to pay for food you ate at a restaurant, especially given your weight; and your attempt to claim diplomatic immunity is particularly laughable, as “King of the Slops” is merely a self-granted title, and not an actual position of sovereignty.  Normally, the so-called ‘dine-and-dash’, or, in your case, dine, boast, and then slowly waddle out, is not actually a crime, but in light of your arrogance and the astounding fact that you ate seventeen Whoppers without even thinking about it, I am inclined to accept the verdict of guilt on the charge of criminal fraud.

Mr. Robinson.  Yes, you, standing in the middle.  It particularly pains me to pass sentence, as I know you to be a good boy from a good family — and beyond that, a talented boy who is very outstanding; I might even say unique.  But you knew that your time was through, and you rocked all these good people just the same, regardless of whether they were homeboys or innocent young homegirls.  So degraded were you that you became something less than a man and more like a machine, a sort of human beat box.  Tragic is the only word for it.

Now look at you, gentlemen: sitting here alone, looking at the wall.  You thought you were cool and slick, driving the streets in a big car, gainfully employed as hospital orderlies:  and now you stand on the verge of losing your freedom, your mothers crying because they felt you were better.  In light of these facts, I have no choice but to sentence you to jail, without no bail, at the Lincoln Correctional Facility, where you will break rocks with a big, heavy hammer.  Bailiff, stick ‘em.



American Idol keeps happening and I seem powerless to prevent it. It has become an eternal force of torment in my life, like gravity and speed humps. I try to extricate myself from its clutches but it drags me down again and again. It has happened for three hours so far this week. Think about that. The show is basically 90% commercials and it still manages to last longer than the First World War.

Anyway, apparently there is still another round of dude-winnowing yet to take place in this interminable Hollywood dystopia, so let’s go ahead and deal with it. After a montage of yesterday’s washouts (including Frankie Ford hollering “THEY WILL NOT DENY ME!” like he was gunning for the throne of Siluria), we are informed that the men will be singing a solo round to whittle them down from an army of 43 to to a still-bloated 28. Ryan Toothpaste emphasizes that this is the most important day yet, which he must be as sick as saying as I am hearing it. Paul Jolley is first and he is being a wimpy crybaby, which my darling heartless Nicki Minaj, dressed like she is headed to a P-Funk audition in 1979, zeros in on right away. (Mariah Carey is wearing another Glitter-gown, Randy Jackson is your headwaiter at the Too Much Lavender Café, and Keith Urban is oh who cares.) He says he wants it really bad, sings a mediocre song, and melts into a puddle of twitch-goo when Nicki tells him to man up and be a professional. Lazaro the Stutterer has finally eschewed pink and purple tops in favor of eye-cramping turquoise; Curtis Finch of the Churchy Inch kills it once again, and is becoming an early favorite in my eyes. They all make it through in Group 1, and I discover my neck hurts.

Everyone is emotional — sorry, “experiences a storm of anxiety”, thank you Ryan Toothpaste. Group 2 features preternaturally confident, pointy-headed Devin Velez, who sings a singing-school version of “What a Wonderful World”, I mean it’s all textbook. But it’s impressive compared to some of the other doo-dads, like the mile-a-minute Cortez. Gurpreet Singh Sarin kills it on “Georgia on My Mind”, establishing himself as this season’s Anoop with a little bit more swing. Mateo Fernandes, the beloved hobbit, gets a little too cutesy with his banter, and sings a way-too-obvious song with Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”, and Nicki performs her Lord High Executioner act by telling him he’s leaning a little too heavily on his bit. Another sob story bites the dust! So long, kid, see you in New Zealand. Unfortunately, snotty Andrew from SATX also cruises through, ensuring another week I have to deal with his trifling ass.

Big Nick Mathis wants to make a better life for his kids, so you know he’s doomed. He’s a little pitchy and off key; it’s not terrible, but it’s not worse than a lot of the guys who got through already; then again, the judges are being extremely harsh, and Keith “3 AM in the Morning” Urban says he was not “chasing the dream, but chasing the song”. Whatever you say, you dingus. The good news is that Papa Peachez is unbelievably awful! He sings a shitty song terribly, blames his group for his own failure to sing well, has no enthusiasm, calls the other Idol contestants “puppets”, and mopes around saying “I don’t like singing other peoples’ songs”, as if he didn’t know what the concept of the show was when he tried out. Nicki properly sprays venom all over him, and he gets sent home, thus ensuring that one of my greatest dreams will come true: I never have to type the words “Papa Peachez” ever again!

Nick Boddington is a leftover from season 11. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: fuck these washouts. There are 300 million people in this country; go be on The Voice or something. Charlie Askew Syndrome comes out after doing some jumping jacks (“It’s what Bono used to do”), and goddamn if he isn’t charming as hell. His vocals are only okay, but he puts loads of personality in his performance, makes the judges swoon, and even gets off a great line — Nicki says “I am obsessed with you”, and he immediately retorts “Baby, I could say the same thing.” Way to go, you freaky little kid! My man Burnell Taylor, who is making the most of his wardrobe budget, is really selling his soft smooth voice; he’s got legs, this one. Micah Johnson, the Navy man whose dentist whacked his mouth into Speech Impediment Town, surprisingly doesn’t make it; picking a Randy Travis song probably wasn’t the best move for him. Nate Tao, S’ani, and ROCKER GABE BROWN also don’t make it through, thus depriving me of the use of all-caps yelling. Then, just to twist the knife, the judges pull the remaining winners on stage to remind them that eight of them will get axed next week for no particular reason. You crazy heart-stabbing bastards.

Next week: GIRLS! To sing a pop song! GIRLS To cry and yell shit! GIRLS GIRLS! GIRLS!


Hello again, hopeless Idol junkies!

We’ve finally reached the brutal and systematic destruction of the human spirit that is the Hollywood round, which means that soon, praise be to Allah, I will only be recapping this show once per week. I know there’s the results show to contend with, but an hour per week of Ryan Toothpaste fakeouts, cheeseball top 40 cameos, dead-eyed odes to mid-size Ford sedans, and reminders that Taylor Hicks is still alive is far too much for my rickety constitution.

This week, it’s the fellas, who seem like a pretty fulsome bunch this time around. As standing rumor has it that Idol is attempting to foil another Guitar-Playing Caucasian Dreamboat victory, we might see a bit of diversity for once, or we might just see a bunch of no-talent clods who will wash away like so many “GO SPORTS TEAM” inscriptions by stick in sand. After a montage of how these lazy shits can’t wake up in time to get a free trip to Los Angeles, we get some illegal camera-phone footage while everyone else is obeying the sage advice of their stews. Ryan calls this round “guy vs. guy”; there but for the grace of “on” goes the show he really wants to star in. You wanted the golden ticket, you numb-nuts, now you’re going to get ironically punished by the donut-grease-soaked Willie Wonka that is Randy Jackson.

Speaking of our lovable panel of martinet tune-spinners, Mariah Carey has come wearing a turquoise evening gown she no doubt meant for the Best Actress acceptance speech for Glitter that never came; Keith Urban is decked out in his usual Millers-Outpost-body-model ensemble; Nicki Minaj has on a blonde wig and a dress made of magical gold dust that gives her fanny the ability to stick out for two feet; and Randy is channeling Michael Jackson in his “why bother to change clothes, everyone is just going to laugh at me anyway” phase. The initial round is “a cappella sudden death”, four words that should be paired together more often, and the contestants’ families are brought in for that extra touch of humiliation that makes Idol such a treat.

Micah Johnson, the guy whose shitty dentist gave him a speech impediment, is in the first round of guys; it’s revealed that he’s in the Navy, where I’m sure no one ever makes fun of him. They try to play up the drama with Micah, but he’s a mortal lock; also passing on to the next round are Nate Tao, Gurpreet Singh Sarin (a.k.a. “The Turbanator”), and, of course, ROCKER GABE BROWN. Impy-chimpy Karl Skinner arrives on set hyper-caffeinated to the point of vibrating himself to death, and he does a good job of promoting the Coca-Cola corporation and its fine line of products, but his James-Brown-with-a-spastic-colon act wears thinner every time I see it. Thankfully, the judges agree, and he is sent packing, as is Dustin Watts, the hunky firefighter that Nicki Minaj liked until she found a vibrator or something. Calvin Peters also washes out, but lucky for him, he is a fucking doctor.

Some zero named Cortez Shaw sings the famous Whitty Hutton song “I Will Always Sing At the Top of My Lungs” and makes the judges’ faces break from trying to maintain a polite smile. Nicki hates him (“I was disgusted”), as does Randy (“You ain’t Whitney”), but Mariah likes him because she has a vested interest in maintaining the preeminence of melisma, so he makes it through. Curtis Finch Jr. does a fine job because he has one of those religious sinecure gigs; I wish I still believed in God so I could sing well. Lazaro, the guy whose stutter is the Idol sob story of all time, makes it through until audiences get sick of hearing him try to muscle through words that start with L, as do a bunch of other guys I’ve never heard of. Nicki does the cruelest fakeout of all time, telling a Hawaiian kid who confessed to being tired that “we’re sending you home where you can really catch up on your sleep”, rendering him as stunned as a chicken whacked with a mallet until she says j/k. I’m not sure why Brian Rittenberry didn’t get through; maybe it was because of his driving cap, which he wore because why be different from every other fat guy who sings?

And now it’s time for GROUP ROUND! GROUP ROUND, where someone else’s shitty performance can sink you like a mephitic stone! GROUP ROUND, where if one person has a crap attitude, everyone’s dreams of a lifetime are washed down the sewer like so much rummy vom! And as if it weren’t all horrid enough, this time, corpselike producer Nigel Lythgoe forces everyone into arbitrary broad-comedy groups instead of letting people choose their own. Why not just hit everyone with machetes, Idol? Anyway, Lazaro makes a big hit with his group, because in addition to his stutter, he is Cuban and doesn’t speak English very well, and doesn’t know any of the songs. Your next American Idol, everyone! The groups are picked for maximum lowbrow hilarity: super-gay guys with big hulking dude-bros (including one group named “Country Queen”, are you fucking kidding me), ROCKER GABE BROWN with the hobbit guy, and so forth. Andy from San Antonio, who sings like a girl, seems pretty awful; the Army guy who’s stuck with the queeniest duo in the competition, resists their glitter-and-choreography wiles and threatens physical violence (“I’m gonna fuckin’ break someone”), but no one is broken, because I never get what I want.

ROCKER GABE BROWN and the hobbit (coming soon to the WB) kill it during their audition with Queen’s “Somebody to Love”, easily the highlight of the night so far. A nutritious breakfast is important, kids. A group of dudes I’ve never seen before make a slaughterhouse of “I’ll Be There”, but they let all but the guy who sang the flattest through. Who will sing flat now? Probably everyone! Charlie “Aspie” Askew is teamed up with a couple of big ol’ crooners who help him out when he has a case of the whim-whams; one of ‘em gets off a good line, saying he wants to be on “American Idol, not American Airlines”. They get through easy peasy Alyce Beasley. Has anyone noticed that Keith has a habit of singing out loud along with the contestants? This sort of defeats the purpose of being a judge, there, Aussie boy.

Micah Johnson is in a group called “The Four Tones”. Don’t strain anything thinking up a name, there, guys. Anyway, they sing “Hold On I’m Comin’” in straight-up old soul style and get though right away. A multi-culti aggregation called Young Love — Elijah Lau, Nate Tau, Cortez Shaw, and a Joey Ramone impersonator named Zach Birnbaum — also make it through doing “Some Kind of Wonderful”, but a group of five guys who look like they should be playing drums in a bad Quiet Riot cover band wash out, as do a gang of dude-bros who all fuck up the lyrics. “B-Side” includes the Turbanator, a kid who looks like a college lesbian, and someone with radial burst-grenade hair; they also forget the lyrics and are terrible, but Nicki bails them out, swayed by their charm and calling them “my favorite group”. I’m beginning to suspect that Nicki is just deliberately fucking with the system, which would be so great. Idol tries to play the ‘bad subtitle’ game in this segment, but they apparently don’t get that it’s supposed to be funny.

“Last Minute” does a One Direction song and does it horribly, prompting Nicki to say they were all equally bad, which, honestly, is over-generous. They all get sent home, which is fine with me, because I didn’t know any of their names and couldn’t tell them apart. Another group, consisting of two guys named Devin and two guys not named Devin, decides to go a cappella, and while they don’t seem particularly terrible, one of the non-Devins gets his walking papers. “Mo Flo” features my man Burnell Taylor, who’s on the nod and draws the ire of the vocal coach, but he still gets through. “Super 55″ is the group with Lazaro; Ryan Toothpaste, betraying a lack of understanding of what words mean, sys they are “hoping they do not become a statistic”. The other dudes think Lazaro is holding them back, even though he’s the best singer among them; they both wash out and clearly hate the fuck out of him, with one of them leaving him with the world’s most backhanded compliment and claiming credit for his success. I guess you’ll just have to settle for being white and not having a crippling speech disorder, pal.

The next group is “Queen Country”, which shuffles through the most weak-ass rendition of a song I’ve never heard of that I’ve ever heard. This is the group with ultra-queeny outer space man JDA and “Big Sarge” Trevor Blakney. After yelling at everybody else, he forgets the fucking lyrics, what a goddamn turd. He says he’s never failed at anything, although he has clearly failed to find a good barber and pass up the meatball buffet. “DKSK” consists of all the Idol tweeners, and they sing a Billy Joel song, so I don’t know what happened with them because I had a hate blackout. Ha ha, just kidding! What actually happens is that Caden, the dying kid, gets sent home to die in a blaze of non-glory, as a reminder of what a joke the sob story segments are. “Oz” features Frankie Ford, Andy Sanders, Papa Peachez, and Charles Allen, all of whom I hate and wish would die in some kind of gangland slaying. Frankie cries a lot, Andy is unpleasant, Charles lumbers around, and Papa Peachez acts like you would expect a guy named Papa Peachez would act; all of them suck on stage except for Charles, and even he is a lumbering oaf. Anyway, Frankie goes home and the guy whose name I am so tired of typing does not, and what time is it, does the sun still shine, has all molecular motion in the universe ceased.

Join us tomorrow when the ladies go through all this nonsense! It might be even more exciting and horrible because women are emotional and like to undermine and destroy each other, or wait hold on it turns out I am incredibly sexist!


I’m Sorry

So sorry.  Please accept my apology.

When I referred to myself as an “internet dreamboat”, I mean to say “internet steamboat”.  The reference was to my weight.

I am not the nephew of the Sultan of Krumnail.  That is not an actual location, but just a word I made up.

My service in the United States Marine Corps was exaggerated.  I actually worked for six months at Marine Land Jumbo Subs, which is located in the United States.

I do not actually own a car.  I have one of those motorized scooters with a shopping basket on the front that I call a car.

When I said “marriage is not that big a deal to me”, I should have said “the fact that I have repeatedly engaged in multiple” beforehand.

My income actually is in six figures, if you allow for a decimal point to indicate pocket change.

I was the governor of Colorado for several years, but only in a dream.  The dream took place in Illinois.

When I said “I fought my way up from the mean streets”, I was referring to Double Dragon.

I did not invent the compact disc, but to be fair, it was pretty stupid of you to believe that.

“I came over on the Mayflower” was mostly accurate, except for the word “over”.

That time we were taking the word association test, and you said “lion”, and I said “Detroit”, I lied.  The first word that actually came to my head was “delicious”.

My role in the downfall of the Soviet Union was largely limited to buying expensive tennis shoes.

I did not have a special kind of LASIK surgery called STAN STASIK surgery which gave me the power of the heart punch.

I was not, as I stated at various times, the fifth, seventh, ninth, or sixteenth Beatle.

In fact, many people other than me can prevent forest fires.

I actually do have a thirty-three-inch penis.  It just doesn’t belong to me.

The “Etc.” in “Mailboxes Etc.” does not stand for my initials.  Also, my initials are not ETC.

I cannot actually dance the Charleston, although I once danced the hokey-pokey in Charleston.

My nickname in high school was not “Radivarius”.

I cannot do the Japanese Tea Ceremony, the Balinese Dagger Dance, or the Kentucky Shuffle Fuck.  Some of those may not even be real things.

While I was a teenage communist, I was not the Prime Minister of the Supreme Soviet of Glendale, AZ.

I am not Eddie Van Halen’s “role model”.  In fact, I have been legally enjoined from making that claim.

The relationship I have with Bill Gates may be slightly different in my mind than it is in reality.

Every sentence I have ever spoken containing the word “piledriver” has been a lie.

I did not actually dance the hokey-pokey in Charleston.


It’s the last audition round before we move on to Hollywood, and thank God for it. Speaking of God, this evening’s show comes to us from Oklahoma City, where Texas goes to die; the hopefuls are lined up by 5:18 AM, because there is nothing else to do there. The episode leads in with a montage of people chasing their hats, but I think Miller’s Crossing taught us everything we need to know about that phenomenon. There’s the usual montage of the judges emerging from limousines with sour-faced security guards; I really wish they’d dispense with these. I mean, I get it — I know what this show is about. But for Christ’s sake, times are hard. Anyway, Mariah Carey is wearing a glitter disco top from Plato’s Retreat circa 1979; Randy Jackson sports one of those jackets they give you at a restaurant if you show up in something that doesn’t measure up to the dress code; Keith Urban has simply stopped trying; and Nicki Minaj is dressed like the world’s most stylish Foot Locker employee.

Karl Skinner of Joplin, Missouri is the first contestant, a DJ Qualls like-a-look who got in via the Small Town bus tour; he strongly resembles the kind of person you usually meat on buses or at bus stations. He is a “pizza chef”. At first he sings a James Brown song and it is some nonsense, but when he picks up his guitar and sings some of his own material, it sounds vastly better — actually, it’s a shocking turnaround that you almost never see in the early goings. The gang lets him through and suggests that he might be the new Ryan Seacrest, which is ridiculous, because everyone knows that when we need a new Ryan Seacrest, we just get one from the cloning vats where the original was developed. After a montage of me snoring, we get Nate Tao, whose parents are deaf; he makes the sensible observation that they were concerned about him auditioning, because if he sucks, they wouldn’t know enough to tell thin.

The next contestant is (a) named Hailie (b) a horse trainer and (c) a ventriloquist. That’s all that need to be said about her.

A montage informs us of how nice Oklahomans are, which might come as a surprise to anyone who knew Richard Lee McNair, Joe Schillaci or Donald Eugene Webb. This leads into the appearance of she-hulk Zoanette Johnson, a terrifying creature in a gold jacket and an Alley Oop vest who shakes her ass in front of the camera for ten minutes and then sings the national anthem, badly. Obama’s America, everybody. Zoanette is pretty great, though, in terms of being a crazy shook-up freakazoid; when the judges are deciding, she’s all “Hurry up, y’all, I gots a lunch date.” This makes me love her at once, but I’m also kind of afraid she might die.

Another crying montage. Grow up, people, it’s just a televised singing competition. This ends up in Anastacia Freeman, crying her over-mascara’d eyes out, boo hoo. The judges hate her, which is hard to figure; she’s not great, and she flips and howls all over the place, but she’s not substantially worse than several other people they let through. The real fun comes when she explains how God, through his servant Phillip Phillips, commanded her to go on American Idol; there’s a cheesy “dramatization” of this, which, I mean, I don’t even know what to think. Yeah, it’s dumb, but it’s not any less dumb than a bunch of other Jesus shit they let past on this show without a snotty comment. Anyway, who cares, she’s done, and on her way home she throws a fit in which she claims, among other things, that she’s heard Nicki Minaj worships the devil. Gosh, I wish that were true.

Caden Stevenson is a 16-year-old kid in a 12-year-old kid’s body. He’s the big sob story of the night: he is “inspiring” because he has cystic fibrosis. I wonder if he will get in, ha ha! His story depresses me beyond belief; at one point, when he gets on, he says “God put me in a position to make this happen. Yes, he did, Caden, by giving you a terminal disease when you were only a child! Thanks, God! Anyway, he is hella charming, I’ll be sad when he washes out which I guess is the point or something. To emphasize how seriously Idol takes these misery goats, immediately after Caden, we are treated to a drag act starring Steven Tyler in a dress and huge fake boobs that honk when he touches them. Time for suicide!

Join me next week, or don’t.


American Idol: Season 12, Episode 5

Oh, boy! Tonight is the San Antonio episode, and because I have psychic powers, I predict: (a) Alamo (b) Riverwalk (c) those giant boots at North Star Mall (d) cracks about how everything is bigger in Texas, possibly accompanying footage of a fat guy. Sure enough, all these things come true in five seconds! (The fat guy is Randy Jackson, eating a cinnamon roll the size of an ottoman. The auditions take place at the “legendary Sunset Station”, which is a good deal less legendary than they make it out to be. Let’s not waste any more time on the preliminaries; I have to live here, folks.

Randy’s outfit tonight is studded leather armor (+3 Armor Class, -1 check penalty, 15% arcane spell failure chance); Keith Urban has his usual man-whore shirt on; Mariah Carey sports a feathered vest she got at Björk’s moving sale; and Nicki Minaj looks terrifyingly normal in a white sweater and Marcia Brady hair. First up is Vince Powell, a “praise leader” who resembles Urkel with some kind of genetic damage. Being a “praise leader” is a job that people have now, I guess. He is another drooling Mariah Carey fan, and sings “Rock Me Baby” with a sort of mid-tier competence and too many runs. It’s hard enough to muster any interest in Vince, but when I find out that he’s another “returning contestant”, I go to the kitchen for a taquito, because seriously, fuck these guys. This show should be like the Marines: if you wash out, you have to go join the Coast Guard, a.k.a. The Voice.

Derek and David Bacerott are a couple of dude-bro knuckleheads who audition together, never a good idea. They think they are great, even though they are terrible enough to be a joke act, but the surprise comes when they actually start getting pissy with the judges, trying to get a pass to Hollywood through the sheer strength of their Axe-bathed douchebaggery. Can they actually argue their way onto Idol? Nope! But they do instigate a fun contest between Nicki and Mariah to see who can tell them to shut up in the most efficient manner. Their excuse for being cruddy is that “We gotta make money, and life gets in the way.” Back to being cologned-up San Antonio ballaz for you, D&D!

Savannah Votion (EMOTION LOTION!) is a single mom with mental issues and some clothes she stole from 1991 Courtney Love. “This means the word to me,” she says three hundred times. She keeps staring off in the distance, like she is expecting the mothership from Independence Day to appear on the horizon. Then we get a “Parade of Nonsense” montage of terrible singers, including Ricky Jo Garcia singing a permanently damaged version of “And I Am Telling You”, before Cristabel Clack arrives with a haircut from a late-’80s new wave dog food commercial with the purple stripey top to match. Guess what Cristabel is? That’s right: she’s a “worship leader”! What are these jobs? How do you get them? What has happened to America? Anyway, she sings an Alicia Keys song and is good if not great, but she’s got style, charisma and earrings that are going to come to life and devour us all. Keith makes a clever observation about her phrasing, but it is blotted out by Mariah, who does a little dance and appears to be drunk! Oh, Paula Abdul. We all miss you.

Ann Difani is a big-mouthed freakazoid whose identity is build around Arkansas Razorbacks football. Hey, at least she’s not out there serial-killing people or whatnot. She is a grad student in, I will bet two American dollars, either communications or sports medicine. I can’t really say why, but I have an instant dislike for Ani and her husband, who suffers from a blandular disorder; she is too thin, too enthusiastic, and she does that kind of clapping where you hold your hands about three feet apart and then slowly make your palms barely touch while you smile until it looks like your face will fall off. She sings Faith Hill in a very Faith Hill kind of way. Mariah does another of her “YOU WANT TO SING COUNTRY SONGS, RIGHT?” bits, but this time Nicki doesn’t set the building on fire; I just sit there and stew in my hate.

Nicki’s hair has become black, and she is wearing some of Prince’s leftovers. Next up is all-girl mariachi singer, thus marking the first time all season that I have had any musical interest in a contestant. Unfortunately, she sings “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Britney Spears, because good God why. She’s also wearing bike shorts. The judges make her sing something in Spanish (Randy: “Sing us a little marrotchey”), and she immediately lights up and her voice goes from good to great. Then there’s another montage of wash-outs: Stefan Jones is the second Urkel look-alike of the night; Ongela Clark Farouey is so bad I actually get a ringing in my ears from her pitchy howling; and then there is someone with a bad wig and a dirty face whose name I didn’t catch because I was crying.

Next up: Papa Peachez. “How did you get the name Papa Peachez?”, asks Ryan Toothpaste. “Well, I work with homeless people in Jackson, Mississippi,” he replies, instantly winning the 2013 Award for Not Actually Answering The Question. Papa Peachez is painfully gay with an emo haircut at least 17 years out of date, and describes himself with no concern for accuracy as “a little white boy, but inside I’m a big black woman”. He is “super quirky” and doesn’t “like” covers, so he sings an original song that is the worst thing I have ever heard. His voice is impressive if you have never heard an actual blues singer, even a white one, and when the judges let him through (with a caveat from Keith that he is, ahem, “so theatrical that I can’t find you in it”), I think I might die. Oh, well. Everybody loves a clown.

Sanni M’Mairura is a 16-year-old pan-African kid from Pearland who wears oversized clothes, and, in keeping with tonight’s theme of made-up religious occupations, is an “outreach choreographer”. I have been unemployed for two years. Anyway, Sanni is talented, charismatic and appealing as hell, and he’s got charm coming out my bleeding ulcer. Ryan speaks to his parents and calls him “your boy”. Good job there, Ryan. Nicki calls him a variety of snack foods, and he gets tons of praise from Randy, who has changed into a uniform held together by the Hero of the Beach medal he won from the People’s Republic of Brohams. I can’t deny Sanni’s appeal, but I’m just getting a little tired of the churchies. Let’s get some backwards Hill Country trash buckets up there.

The last contestant in San Antone is Adam Sanders, another Mariah-loving gaybro, pear-shaped, accompanied by a coterie of hags, and rocking Anton Chigur’s haircut from No Country for Old Men. He’s got a crazy good voice for a girl, but HE IS A MAN! There are hairs on his face! What is going on here, my perceptions have been shattered, what’s next a lady in trousers, etc., etc. He probably won’t last long, because America will go predictably hibbety-bibbety over a boy who sounds like a girl, but he does bring a moment of enjoyment when he forces Mariah to claim she is too young to remember Etta James. After him, it’s off to Long Beach, to board the Queen Mary, which, unfortunately, does not run aground, get attacked by pirates, or become boarded by British separatists from Orange County. It also kind of takes the edge off of “you’re going to Hollywood” when that means “drive a half-hour north”.

Ryan brags about being the first to arrive in his shiny new FORD!; Randy is wearing a carpet-salesman jacket; Keith is wearing a car-salesman jacket; Mariah Carey is late; and Nicki Minaj is at the American Music Awards, whatever that is. This segment of the show, in addition to some shitty animation and a movie parody even worse than the Western parody they did in San Antonio, features an overload of sob stories. So I must once again register my extreme dislike of how Idol tries to play it both ways: they pat themselves on the back for letting them through and wallow in their highly mediated misery, but don’t say a word when they get dumped in the Hollywood round or soon after. Bah, is what I have to say about that.

First up in the LB is teen desi Shubha Vedula, wearing a kameez top and some kind of scary ninja boots. She sings “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”, and her voice is all over the place, but in a good way, and I love everything she says. Damn pantheists. Randy makes fun of her name because he is awful. Next up is Brian Martinez, who instantly makes this the gayest episode of all time: he was discovered in a men’s bathroom by a self-identified “producer“. Whose name was JOHN. Brian is a nervous, tweaked-out mess who looks like he just accidentally murdered someone and is worried that the fuzz is waiting outside; he sings a Phil Collins song about mice or something and is very, very bad. “This wasn’t a good experience for me,” he says. What are you doing, Idol.

Matt Farmer has a daughter named Cadence, even though he got his nuts blown off in the war. Oh, no, wait! He had brain damage and it was supposed to make him sterile, but Cadence was born anyhow. We don’t get a look at Matt’s mailman. Everyone “appreciates your service”, Matt, even Keith Urban, who is a foreign national. I immediately hate Matt despite his cute kid, because he sings “A Change is Gonna Come”, which, as I have mentioned for the last 12 years, is not a song for white people to sing. Also, he shouts it. Of course, he gets through, because he is a handsome white war veteran with an adorable toddler, but I wish he would get hit by lighting. Then Stephanie Sanson, a purple-haired girl in a band called You Only Live Once, comes and does a deathcore scream at everyone while making unacceptable finger motions. Boo! Mariah implies that Stephanie is not a proper young lady.

Finally, Nicki arrives, accompanied by some hulking bodyguards and wearing an outfit composed of the skins of several endangered species. Jesaiah Baer, a teenager who stole Daryl Dragon’s hat, comes in to sing, but someone — I suspect that dirty purple-haired ragamuffin — trips the fire alarm and everyone has to go away so the QM‘s insurance rates don’t go up. It turns out that Randy’s busted Sodexo lunch burst into flames, thus ensuring he will be in a foul mood for the duration. Jesaiah gets to sing again, though, and she’s got some fun jazzy rhythms and cool phrasing, boatloads of charisma, and an accent I can’t pin down. Good for her. After that, there’s a montage of bad singers and a bit about how the Queen Mary is haunted or something; I can’t remember the details because I slipped into a hate coma.

Micah Johnson has been making music “ever since I came out of my mom”. If you say so, Micah. Some hack doctor gave him a speech impediment while taking his tonsils out, so he really doesn’t need to be on this show, since — I’m hoping at least — he got a massive payout from a medical malpractice suit. Anyway, he doesn’t have the impediment when he sings, which, as I have mentioned before, is perfectly normal, but it’s a miracle if you are dumb, which the panel is (Randy calls the phenomenon, with his usual tact, “a fakeout”. Still, Micah is pretty damn good; he says excitedly that “life as I know it is gonna be very different”. Maybe not! A ten-year-old sings “Valerie” and says she will be the winner of American Idol in five years; why not just give it to her now and free up my winter 2018 viewing schedule?

Then Kimberly Rachel Hale appears, singing “People Get Ready” exactly the way you would expect an extremely peppy white girl with three names from rural Arkansas would. She’s a total snooze, but there’s been a shortage of pretty white girls on this episode, so the judges goob all over her and give her a ticket up the I-10. Nicki: “You didn’t try to do too much”. And how! Mariah momentarily slips into her outer space persona: “I am really enjoying you as an entity.” Next up is Brianna Oakley, and her sob story is that she was bullied. This could be juicy, but it turns out that she was on the Maury Povich show as one of the “most talented kids of 2009″ (in other words, she’s a ringer), and after that people picked on her. Speaking as someone who was pretty severely bullied through most of high school, I don’t think “I got hassled because I am so talented and famous” quite resonates as much as Idol thinks it does, but she’s fine, good voice, pain is not a contest, whatever.  I guess having to be anywhere in the vicinity of Maury Povich is trauma enough.

Finally, there is Matheus Fernandes, who is a hobbit. What’s the big deal? People love hobbits! At least he makes a better case for having been bullied than Brianna Oakley. He has a tiny little cardigan and a great big bursting heart; I wonder if he can sing, gosh! If nothing else, it will stop him from saying the word “bro”. His song choice is “A Change is Gonna Come”, and you know what, fuck it, I’m done trying to argue about why this song should be hands off, but he also shouts it and makes up ‘special’ lyrics name-checking the judges. I feel zero guilt about making fun of this dude.

I think tomorrow night is Oklahoma City; I’m not sure, because my DVR switched over to The Americans, but nothing interesting has ever happened in the last few minutes of the audition episodes of Idol. But join me anyway, won’t you? I promise 100% fewer weeping hobbits!


The Most Beautiful Fraud: Stray Dog

Akira Kurosawa’s films have become something of a sticky wicket for me.  He’s obviously one of the greats of cinema, and at his best he’s nearly untouchable, but with some of his most lionized films, familiarity has bred, if not contempt, at least discomfort.  The more I watch them, the more I notice little patterns and habits, which analysis — or over-analysis — turns into flaws.  I’ve never really bought into the criticism, common in Japan, that he valorizes the elite; his focus on competent authority figures strikes me as more an obsession with professionalism, a la Howard Hawks, than it does any kind of statement on class or politics.  But other factors are harder to ignore.  His often glacial pace, with a few exceptions (particularly Ran) lack the weighty elegance of Yasujiro Ozu’s, and can come across less as someone attempting to set a contemplative mood and more someone in love with his own eye.  Likewise, his determination to emphasize his humanist message can often lead to underscoring scenes with an awfully heavy hand.

In an attempt to come to terms with these criticism, as well as to recapture what it is that I loved about the man in the first place, I recently decided to plunge into his early filmography, with which I was largely unfamiliar.  The only pre-Rashomon film I can recall seeing is a barely-remembered college screening of The Judo Saga.  So as a corrective, I decided to start with some of his ’40s material, and given my particular tastes, I thought Stray Dog would be a good place to start.  Set just a few years after the war, it stars a young, hatchet-faced Toshiro Mifune as a rookie murder police whose Colt pistol is lifted off of him on the subway, sending him on a manic chase to recover it as it is used in an escalating series of crimes.

Stray Dog was one of several attempts by Kurosawa to work in the noir idiom — or, more precisely here, the police procedural.  His self-identified model for the story was the work of Georges Simonon, and he also cited Jules Dassin’s The Naked City — a pure, straightforward cops-on-the-job number with fewer of Dassin’s usual bleak swaths of desperation and rudderless morality — but for me, it’s a film that plays more Italian than French.  It works in a more neo-realist mode than in the deeply humanist, borderline didactic style than his later films, abetted greatly by some solid, naturalistic performances and most especially by Asakazu Nakai’s unromantic cinematography.  Kurosawa, Nakai, and assistant director Ishiro Honda yank us headlong into a post-war Tokyo that is anything but the sprawling, gaudy, neon-lit metropolis of Seijun Suzuki; it’s a desolate, shabby, bombed-out wreck, with urban centers that look like desert villages, and busy streets that kick up dust under the director’s beloved weather-streaked skies.

This actually works strongly in the film’s favor; the lack of grandeur not only reduces the scope and prevents Kurosawa from getting carried away with historical conceits, but also allows him to narrow his focus onto the psychological tensions of the characters.  He’s usually at his best when he maintains his idol Dostoyevsky’s observant perceptions of human behavior, while avoiding flat-footed attempts to recreate Dostoyevsky’s grand narratives of redemption.  Here, the immediacy of the war and the tightened circumstances it inflicts on everyone are inescapable, not only in the landscape, but in the behavior of the primaries.  Mifune’s police detective is impossibly rigid, rulebound, stiff and obedient; his station as a recent military veteran is impossible to miss, while his superior, played by Takashi Shimura, gets a load of his yes-sir-right-away-sir rap and immediately admonishes him:  ”Lighten up.  This isn’t the army.”  Shimura’s exasperated realist and Mifune’s nervy, gung-ho idealist form two points of a pyramid that terminates with Isao Kimura, playing another thorny, desperate veteran, scrambling just like like Mifune but on the opposite side of the law.

At least one stereotype about Kurosawa is cut to ribbons here:  the knock that he can’t write interesting roles for women can’t survive a collision with the brassy, tough-talking showgirl played by Keiko Awaji.  Scornful of the police, protective of her own circle, and barking her hardboiled dialogue with maximum slangy contempt, she’s the equal of any contemporary femme fatale in Western crime drama.  She also hates to be dependent or obliged to anyone, and she’s ready to walk away at a moment’s notice.  It’s a terrific character, and instantly one of the most fascinating women in Kurosawa’s filmography.   Awaji, who’s still with us after appearing in a handful of Hollywood movies, has plenty of fun with it as well, decked out in scandalous outfits and throwing shade at Mifune every time he says something she perceives as patronizing or threatening.

For all its considerable strengths — and this will probably need repeat viewings, but for me, it surpasses The Bad Sleep Well and rivals High and Low among Kurosawa’s modern crime dramas – Stray Dog is far from perfect.  It’s tight, but not particularly lean; there’s a lot of padding in the scenes where Mifune, in barely-needed drag as a homeless casualty of war, wanders through low-life Tokyo.  (Another, where Mifune and Shimura pursue their prey to a baseball game, has so much goofy on-field footage that it seems like Kurosawa and his crew where just having a good time at the ballpark instead of working on a movie.)  Some of its imagery is a bit too on-the-nose, as well.  Kurosawa himself disliked the film; he seemed puzzled by its warm reception, and considered it a failed experiment.

Terrence Rafferty, the ex-New Yorker critic who penned the essay that appears in the Criterion edition of Stray Dog, thinks it’s a good thing that the movie failed in its attempt to emulate Simenon, as Kurosawa was (sniff) a maturing artist who was “outgrowing his influences”, and was “destined to become more than a reliable genre craftsman”.   I agree with Rafferty’s assessment that Stray Dog may be Kurosawa’s first great film, but not at his dismissive waving away of its structure and composition; surely history has taught us that a miniature masterpiece can contain just as many profound insights into human nature, if not more, than big sprawling epics that are statements instead of films.  Kurosawa’s reflection of Tokyo as a chaotic, sprawling reflection of the costs of war, and the slow disintegration of Mifune into a there-but-for-fortune-go-I perspective, are as powerful in Stray Dog‘s simple realism, if not more so, than any of the grand pronouncements of his later work.  He may not have been destined to create films like this, but it’s nice to know that he could, and did.


Expressing these class tentions, there was a tradition of plebeian anti-clericalism and irreligion.  To go no further back, the Lollards carried a popular version of John Wyclif’s heresies into the sixteenth century.  Lollard influence survived in a popular materialist skepticism which makes one feel appreciably nearer to the age of Voltaire than is normal in the 16th century.  A carpenter in 1491 rejected transubstantiation, baptism, confession, and said men would not be damed for sin; in 1512 a Wakefield man said ‘that if a calf were upon the altar, I would rather worship that than the holy sacrament.  The date was past that God determined him to be in form of bread.’  The clergy, an earlier Lollard had declared, were worse than Judas, who sold Christ for thirty pence, while priests sold masses for a halfpenny.  The commons, said another, ‘would never be until they had stricken off all the priests’ heads.’  There was a saying in the country, a north Yorkshireman pleaded in 1542, ‘that a man might lift up his heart and confess himself to God Almighty and needed not to be confessed at a priest’.  A shearman of Dewsbury elaborated on this point:  he would not confess is offenses with a woman to a priest, ‘for the priest would be as ready within two or three days after to use her as he’.  

Such men tended to be called Anabaptists or Familists by their enemies.  These names — familiar enough on the continent — were very loosely applied in England:  most of our evidence comes from hostile accounts in the church courts.  The essential doctrine of Anabaptism was that infants should not be baptized.  Acceptance of baptism — reception into the church — should be the voluntary act of an adult.  This clearly subverted the concept of a national church to which ever English man and woman belonged:  it envisaged instead the formation of voluntary congregations by those who believed themselves to be the elect.  An Anabaptist much logically object to the payment of tithes, the ten per cent of everyone’s earnings which, in theory at least, went to support the ministers of the state church.  Many Anabaptists refused to swear oaths, since they objected to a religious ceremony being used for secular judicial purposes; others rejected war and military service.  Still more were alleged to carry egalitarianism to the extent of denying a right to private property.  The name came to be used in a general pejorative sense to describe those who were believed to oppose the existing social and political order.

Familists, members of the Family of Love, can be defined a little more precisely.  They were followers of Henry Niclaes, born in Münster in 1502, who taught that heaven and hell were to be found in this world.  Niclaes was alleged to have been a collaborator of Thomas Münzer in insurrection at Amsterdam.  The Puritan divine John Knewstub said of him:  ’H.N. turns religion upside down.  He buildeth heaven here on earth; he maketh God man and man God.’  Like Francis Bacon, Familists believed that men and women might recapture on earth the state of innocence which existed before the Fall:  their enemies said they claimed to attain the perfection of Christ.  They held their property in common, believed that all things come in nature, and that only the spirit of God within the believer can properly understand Scripture.  They turned the Bible into allegories, even the Fall of Man, complained William Perkins.  Familism was spread in England by Christopher Vittels, an itinerant joiner of Dutch origin.  In the 1750s English Familists were noted to be wayfaring traders, or ‘cowherds, clothiers and such-like mean people’.  They believed in principle that ministers should be itinerants, like the Apostles.  They were increasing daily by1759, numerous in the dicese of ELy in 1584, also in East Anglia and the north of England.  They were particularly difficult for the ecclesiastical authorities to root out because — like many Lollards before them — they were ready to recant when caught, but not to give up their opinions.  The Family of the Mount held even more subversive views.  They were alleged to reject prayer, to deny the resurrection of the body.  They questioned whether any heaven or hell existed apart from this life:  heaven was when men laugh and are merry, hell was sorrow, grief, and pain.

The opening words of Bishop Cooper’s Admonition to the People of England (1589) speak of ‘the loathsome contempt, hatred and disdain that the most part of men in these days bear towards the ministers of the church of God’.  He attributed such views especially to the common people, who ‘have conceived an heathenish contempt of religion and a disdainful loathing of the ministers thereof’.  ’The ministers of the world,’ Archbishop Sandys confirmed, ‘are become contemptible in the eyes of the bases sort of people’.  In 1606 a man was presented to the church courts for saying that he would rather trust a thief than a priest, a lawyer or a Welshman.

‘If we maintain things that are established,’ complained Richard Hooker, ‘we have to strive with a number of heavy prejudices deeply rooted in the hearts of men, who think that herein we serve the time and seek the favor of the present state because thereby we either hold or seek preferment.’  Thomas Brightman in 1615 confirmed that hostility to the hierarchy ‘is now favored much of the people and multitude’.  We recall the oatmeal-maker who, on trial before the High Commission in April 1630, said that he would never take of his hat to bishops.  ’But you will to Privy Councillors’, he was urged.  ’Then as you are Privy Councillors,’ quoth he, ‘I put off my hat; but as you are the rags of the beast, lo!  I put it on again.’  Joan Hoby of Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire, said four years later that she ‘did not care a pin nor a fart for my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury, and she did hope that she should live long enough to see him hanged.’  (Laud was in fact executed eleven years later, but we do not know whether Joan Hoby was still alive then.)

(Christopher Hill, from The World Turned Upside Down:  Radical Ideas During the English Revolution.)


Mel Gibson Knows Kuh-Razee

Parker, the amoral and ultra-efficient criminal featured in 24 novels by Donald Westlake, has been kicked around Hollywood almost as much as he’s been kicked around in his books.  He was luckiest in his earliest and latest adaptations; Point Blank, the 1967 film that adapted Parker’s debut in The Hunter, was only the second and still the best on-screen version of the character, with a grim-faced portrayal by Lee Marvin and directed with a stark, chilly rhythm by John Boorman.  And recently, just before Westlake kicked the bucket, comics artist Darwyn Cooke completed the first of what would become an ongoing series of adaptations of the Parker novels, and they, too, nicely capture the cool noir grace notes of the source material.

In between, though, there were an awful lot of mediocrities cranked out of Hollywood purporting to bring us the stories of the determined, if unlucky, heist man.  Due to one of those innumerable legal niceties that keep Los Angeles entertainment lawyers in sports cars, the character had to be given a different name on screen, and in Brian Helgeland’s 1999 adaptation of The Hunter entitled Payback, Mel Gibson portrays him as “Porter”.  The plot follows a somewhat faithful read of the novel, with all the familiar names in place and a similar set-up, but the devil is in the details, and as with most second-rate thrillers adapted from good books, this one gets them mostly wrong.

The film has a promising start, with Parker undergoing back-alley surgery following a near-fatal shooting and slowly crawling his way back out of the gutter, gaining just enough respectability to begin his campaign of revenge after his wife and his partner in a heist betray him and leave him for dead.  This entire sequence has a tense energy we never really see again, and it’s also the only time Chris Boardman and Moe Jaffe’s score sounds like a legit piece of noir film music and not something that they couldn’t find a use for in the latest Law & Order:  SVU.  (It’s also a bit hard to tell when, exactly, the film is meant to take place; most cues, from the automobiles to the clothes to the by-the-numbers soundtrack, suggest a setting contemporary to Payback‘s 1999 release date, but no one has a computer, credit card technology seems stuck in the 1970s, and there are no cell phones — indeed, one major plot point at the end of the movie involves a car phone and an indoor land line, and both of them are rotary dials!)

Payback has tonal problems all over the place.  Helgeland, in the first place, doesn’t seem to know whether the thing is supposed to be a dark revenge thriller or an Elmore Leonard-esque mob comedy, populated with colorful characters with a sinister side; Gibson plays the scenes where he’s being beaten and tortured like he’s auditioning for an open slot with the Three Stooges, and James Coburn seems to have gotten hold of a script with “wacky” written extensively in the notes.  Other times, though, the film seems to be going for a straightforward adaptation of the source, and this uncertainty about how it wants us to react at any given moment really starts to hobble the film, especially when it gets really violent.

There isn’t much sense to be made of the plot, either.  The Hunter relies for its powerful effect on a straight-faced identification with the notion that Parker is a cold-blooded enough son of a bitch to lay waste to everything in his path just to get the (stolen) money that is owed him, and Boorman correctly figured that could only be accomplished by making him an existential cypher, a serpent who’d rather gorge himself on something that will choke him than go hungry.  Helgeland’s Porter, on the other hand, is so flippant and short, with a collection of sympathies and tics that stand in for a forceful personality, that his behavior in pursuit of $70,000 just seems ridiculous.  A subplot involving the Tong serves only as an excuse for the movie’s silliest action scene, a flashback early on fills in some story details but is as awkwardly wedged into the overall structure as the clumsy voice-overs, and another subplot with a pair of crooked cops not only wastes two decent character actors in Bill Duke and Jack Conley, but is also resolved so easily, and so stupidly, that it shouldn’t have been in the movie at all.  None of this accomplishes anything but pull focus away from Porter’s  singularity of purpose, and makes the whole movie seem scattered.

Wasting Duke and Conley seems like an even greater crime when you consider that good acting is at a premium in Payback.  Gibson, for all his hamming it up, isn’t bad enough to be a distraction, but almost the entire remainder of the cast is a disaster.  Kris Kristofferson appears late in the film to effectively balance out Coburn’s overbaked goofiness, but Gregg Henry is ridiculously over the top as Gibson’s ex-partner; Jon Glover isn’t on screen long enough to make any difference; William Devane is in full-blown TV movie mode; and Lucy Liu, playing a criminal dominatrix, delivers the most offensive yellowface this side of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Maria Bello plays the female lead/romantic interest, but she and Gibson have a charisma rating in the negative teens; they both seem bored with the whole arrangement and eager to move on to the next scene.  I can’t blame them.

The internet informs me that an alternate “director’s cut” of Payback exists, consisting of Helgeland’s ideal version of the film, which went unreleased due to him being fired late in the production and replaced with Paul Abascal.  Reading the summary, it sounds like a mild improvement, but I’m guessing it’s more mild than improvement.  This wasn’t really a movie that seemed to be suffering because of reshoots or a betrayal of the director’s vision; it just seemed like kind of a third-rate movie.  Nothing in Helgeland’s filmography suggests that he’s capable of genius, so I doubt a more improved version of Payback would be all that worthwhile, and replacing Kris Kristofferson, who delivers one of the only passable performances on screen with Sally Kellerman would be a mistake on the level of, well, replacing anyone with Sally Kellerman.

Seen as homework for the upcoming Parker, with Jason Statham as the title character, Payback may shine by comparison.  Parker is directed by the appropriately named Taylor Hackford, a perpetual underachiever who will be hugely overpraised when he dies because he directed a lot of moneymaking films in the ’80s and ’90s; and while it’s got a much better cast (including Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins Jr., Wendell Pierce, and Jennifer Lopez’s hiney), the trailers promise maximum stupidity as well as a profound misunderstanding of who Parker is and what he does.  Taken on its own, it seems like a curious attempt to bridge the action hero tropes of the ’80s and ’90s with the coming nihilistic revenge pictures of the 2010s — and a somewhat depressing reminder that we had this figured out as long ago as 1967.



flavored with age
Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator
Ludic Log


Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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