Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Man From Tallahassee...

Obligatory LOST post alert!

OK, so it's LOST eve and I thought I'd do a quick post on the upcoming season and what I think we may see.

Jack and Kate will have no fewer than 439 shouting matches/heartfelt conversations this season.

We will - God willing - meet no more "new" characters. Paulo and Nikki, thankfully, are dead.

It is still my sincerest hope that Sawyer be left alone in a room with Ben for 15 minutes.

How long before Claire and Jack discover their creepy Luke/Leia relationship?

What are the odds we see Charlie (in flashback or otherwise) within the first four episodes of season four?

Not so bold prediction: We won't know who was in the coffin until the season finale.

Speaking of which, the season finale may take place in July if the writer's strike isn't shored up soon.

The reduced episode format (16 instead of 24) will return the season to its season one form, where every episode had at least two genuine "What!?" moments.

Sayid will be revealed to be the distant cousin of Samir Nagheenanajar from Office Space.

When will we see Walt again? Will he be a grown-ass man at that point?

Locke will put the lives of no less than a dozen people into serious jeopardy at least eight times this season. Good ol' Locke, he's back to doing what he does best.

Hurley, after 90 days on the island, will still not lose any weight. This will be accounted for by a half-hearted cannibalism storyline.

It's a real shame Patrick Patterson couldn't have been on Oceanic Flight 815. If he had been, this whole mysterious black smoke problem would be solved and the others would all be dead. Wait, is it possible that Patterson is the black smoke? I hope for the castaways' sake that it is not.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Who watches the Watchers...

There is much in the air right now. Politics, sports, and entertainment are rife with any amount of topics which I could use as springboards for filling the space I'm starting to feel obligated to fill. I will instead take those helpful, obvious, interesting prompts and spit on them in the interest of addressing a more abstract and therefore more self-indulgent discussion about the nature of art.


OK. Those of you still with me, thanks. And I'm sorry.

On Friday night Sara and I made our weekly pilgrimage into the shared world, grabbing a bite to eat (hooray for cajun pork chops) and stopping off at Regal for a 9:30 showing of the newly-reintroduced-into-theaters Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton. First things first: go see Michael Clayton. Now. It will lose out big time at the Oscars, because as almost every critic would likely tell you, it's only a movie. I say this because when compared to staggering meditations on the American condition past and present such as There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton just looks like a movie. It's a fairly straightforward (although complex) narrative that takes the time to concern itself with the human soul and the damage that can be done to that soul when goodness is abandoned in favor of malicious corporate duty. It is superbly acted and directed and written (by the guy who wrote The Bourne Ultimatum, Tony Gilroy), and it achieves all these things without once appearing artsy, a real minus in the eyes of Academy voters. Anyway, it's awesome, so do yourself a favor and catch it while it's back in theaters for a limited time.

All that and I still haven't gotten to the point. Again, I'm sorry. Those of you still with me, however, will be treated to free peanuts and soda following the show.

Anyway, while waiting for 9:30 to roll around, my lovely wife and I made the requisite stop at Barnes & Noble, where she picked up a helpful guide on professional photography and I predictably spent more money that I reasonably should have (bye-bye lunch money). I made two purchases. The first was a book of rambling essays written by famed rock critic Lester Bangs I'd been looking for since I can't remember when and which no store ever had in stock - though I'm told they'd all be just ever so happy to order it for me - but which Barnes & Noble did. Score one for me. My second and final purchase was of another book I'd wanted for a while, though had through one or another gap in my conscious (and Christmas list) I had yet to pick up. This second book is called Watchmen, a graphic novel by V For Vendetta creator Alan Moore. Watchmen follows the saga of a group of aging "Superheroes," only one of which actually has any super-powers. These crime fighters have been outlawed in the wake of a police strike highlighting the public's fear of their particular brand of rogue vigilantism. The world is a different place than ours (we won Vietnam, for example, and Tricky Dick Nixon has just been elected to his fourth term in office), and nuclear terror still grips every inhabitant in the civilized world. I am about halfway through it and I have two conclusions. First, buy it now. Second, Watchmen is the third graphic novel I've read, the other two being V for Vendetta and The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller of 300 and Sin City fame.

I was, in my youth, never much of a comic book reader. I remember distinctly attempting to ingratiate myself into the comics world on more than one occasion, as all the fantasy-superhero-crimefighting stuff seemed like it would appeal to me. It may have, but comics were not a format which kept me interested for very long and my attempts to "get" them failed. I'm still not a comic book guy. I have never bought an individual issue of any comic although many people in the field of entertainment who I admire (Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino) rave about series this-that-or the other. However, my experience with graphic novels has been nothing but positive: I love all three I've read and I see no reason why I would stop now.

I think, at last, that I am able to pin down exactly why a medium once written off as a mind-wasting vacuum has trancended to the status of truly high art. Just like movies before them and the novel before them, comics started as a highly simple exercise in time-passage. Pure good vs. pure evil, no complications. As each form developed, however, characters became less clear cut and with their shady motives and behaviors and ideals came depth to the works they populated. Superman is flawless and will always fight for the perfect reason. That's why Batman is more interesting (although now both have been carried along on the wave of serious-minded work that has greeted us all in the age of the graphic novel and movie adaptations thereof). New comic artists and writers like Moore and Miller have added an adult depth to works previously populated only be caricatures of do-goodery. Every character in Watchmen is highly complex socially, psychologically, politically, sexually, and ethically. Real social problems are laid bare in this novel (which is what it is, having broken the elementary bonds of comic books), examined in different contexts under myriad focused lights that bring the faults of the characters and ourselves (what all great literature is meant to do) out in the form of thought and speech bubbles. If you've never considered yourself a "comics person," join the club. Then go buy and read Watchmen. Just as novels and movies were once considered trash mediums where true art could never survive, let alone thrive, comic books have, in the past twenty years, been transformed into a unique and powerful canvas for some of the great literature of our time.

The next evolutionary step in this chain seems obvious to anyone under the age of thirty, but there are still massive amounts of people who doubt that the next great medium - video games - will ever be anything more than a way to kill a few hours, valuable only in and of themselves. Some games have already crossed the threshold, and yet the industry continues to survive as the whipping boy of media pundits across the land. They will, of course, be proven fools in the end.

I know that a few people read these posts, but I have gathered that the only real way to garner response from those few is to pose some great question designed to spark debate and discussion. This is a dangerous practice, however, because if I do pose some deeply powerful, intrinsically fretful question fraught with all sorts of power and uncertainty, but no one leaves a response, it's likely to cause suicidal thoughts. Off the diving board I go.

Comments, questions, disagreements, hate-mongering name-calling, and philosophically unanswerable conundrums are, of course, welcome.

What, then, can we call art? Maybe you love video games or comic books or (probably) both, but don't think they're art. Maybe you hate them both but think they are art. Whatever the case, make your case for art. Where does it start? Where does it end? What criteria do you use to measure art? What are your thoughts on graphic novels and video games and pulp westerns and all the rest? Come up with 5 or 10 or 59 (lists always elicit discussion, right?) great works of art that aren't getting their proper due in wider society. Hell, come up with just one. Say something. Anything. Please.

Thanks for reading. To all (or perhaps none) of you still with me. I apologize, but Alan Moore ate all the peanuts and spit in all the soda, so you're out of luck. According to the back of my copy of Watchmen, Mr. Moore currently resides in Central England, so if you wish to hunt him down, there's your head start. I'll warn you, though, in this picture he looks like a cross between the unabomber and Gandalf, so, you know, it was nice knowing you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Few Words in Defense of Our Program...

They say the dynasty has fallen, that the University of Kentucky Men's Basketball team is the worst we've ever seen. They say expectations are down, that losing games has become OK. They say the hiring of our new coach was a bad decision and that his players have quit on him. They say our recruits just aren't good enough, that the talent on the floor doesn't match up with everyone else. They say that Rupp Arena, that fabled hall and home to so much tradition, is a hollow shell where shadows of the former fan base appear from time to time to hang their heads at what they see now and try vainly to remember what it was like in '48, in '49, in '51, in '58, in '78, in '96, and in '98. They say so many things and have said them so often, even a boy like me, a child of eleven at heart, has begun to believe some of them.

I can't begin to tell you if what they say is true. All I can say is that I've been to the mountain top, and the sun still shines there, the sky is still blue on the other side. I saw there a group of young men who had absorbed the identity of their coach, a hard nosed nail of a man from nowhere, Texas. They remembered what the eight letters on their chest meant, and what the seven banners hanging in the rafters meant, and what the untold numbers of cheering spectators meant. They grabbed each other and pulled with everything they had, making solid once again their hobbling and broken teammates, unwilling to stop bleeding for each other. I saw a Senior who could barely walk, who the masses have called a quitter, a showoff, a letdown, coaching his squad, looking into the sea of blue all around him and smiling because he remembered how it feels to wear the name Kentucky in that place in a moment like that. I saw a coach who has been written off, a has-been before he ever got to be, salute the reinvigorated throng, telling them with his eyes what they all wanted to hear: that this is what it will be like now and forever. I saw for one night the house that Rupp built transformed once again into irrepressible shrine that it ought always be, the greatest place there is to watch a basketball game, Cameron Indoor be damned.

I cannot prognosticate upon the future of this group, but I knew when the buzzer sounded at 23,000 stayed to sing "My Old Kentucky Home," that they had done something to win over so many of the people who have cursed them for more than two months. We are not a program of moral victories. Close losses are of no use to us. And so tonight we can remember what we may have forgotten.

Kentucky is the home of the greatest tradition in college basketball history, and as the late Al McGuire said, "They had it before you, they had it during you, and they'll have it after you."

As I stood behind the Kentucky bench tonight and marveled anew at the names of Hayden, Jones, Groza, Issel, Macy, and Mashburn, I could retrieve only one thought from my brain: This is still Rupp Arena, and we are still Kentucky.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Classy Black People...

It's probably a good thing there is no board to which I have to submit blog titles.

Today is, as I'm sure you are all aware, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Grateful children everywhere stay home from school while throughout the South there are grumblings of displeasure (They get out of school for this, but not for Presidents' Day!?). I'll admit that I don't understand what anyone anywhere could possibly have against MLK Jr. His book, Why We Can't Wait should be required reading for every U.S. Citizen and his speeches still induce cold chills more than forty years after his death. In fact, do yourself a favor and download the "I have a Dream" speech and listen to it in it's entirety; tell me it isn't moving.

King is probably the most important American never to be President, and his impact is tremendous, although most of us probably take for granted that the positive changes we have seen in race relations since the mid-sixties would have happened anyway. This is foolish. I'm glad that as a country we have a black Presidential candidate who has not just a chance at getting some votes, but a real shot at winning. I'm glad because it proves that there is some rational clarity present on the racial landscape of this country, removed from the misplaced fervor of the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world. This probably would not be possible without King. Obviously, racism and complications therein are not absent from America. They may never be entirely. But most of us see those complications in the negative light in which they deserve to wallow. That's really all I wanted to say. Respect MLK for what he was: A Godly man in a broken country attempting through peaceful communication and loving monologue to heal the wounds opened by the hateful attitudes present for so long in America.

This has nothing really to do with MLK day, but Tony Dungy is coming back to coach the Indianapolis Colts next season, which makes me happy. He seems like an upstanding guy and he's good for the NFL and pro sports in general. It made me happy to see him stand up at his press conference today and say that he would not have come back if he felt he didn't have the energy to devote himself fully to both his family and his team. Then he said, "I view my role as coach of this football team not just as a job, but as a ministry." How awesome is that? The players and staff of the Indianapolis Colts are lucky to be around a guy who interprets everything around him through the lens of his faith. It's great to see this in a public figure who has accomplished everything his profession has to offer, but is still humble enough to approach these decisions with his family and faith in mind before all else. Three cheers for Dungy.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Throw the bums out...

I have made a habit over the past six or seven years to see every film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. I don't always agree with the winners or even the nominations, but at least I guarantee myself an understanding of the films present in the broader popular consciousness. For example, my favorite films of the last two years (The Constant Gardener and Pan's Labyrinth) were not nominated for Best Picture by the Academy. Their loss.

Anyway, today I saw There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson's latest work and in doing so, pretty much guaranteed that I would have seen each Best Picture nominee before the Oscars on February 25th. It was a staggering work that demands Academy attention in some way, although I would give No Country for Old Men the Oscar if the awards were today. This post, however, is not to review these movies or handicap the Oscar race. Instead, I would like to mourn the loss of one of my favorite pastimes: going to the movies.

One of my favorite things to do is watch movies. I own well over 200 DVDs and so far this year I have seen six movies in theaters and watched nearly twenty overall. I love movies. No longer, however, do I enjoy going to a theater to watch a movie. More times than I care to count in the last few years have movie going experiences been ruined by the multitude of vapid fools that pepper cineplexes across the country. Cinderella Man, Babel, Atonement, Sideways. A laundry list of impeccable films. Also a list of movies which I was barely able to enjoy in theaters because of obnoxious talking during the showing. Just last night, while watching Atonement, I sat with a finger plugged in my right ear to block out the running commentary being provided to the rest of the moviegoers by a woman at the end of my row. This continued throughout the entire film. The woman went so far as to read the dates that appeared on screen, in the event that in addition to being blind, everyone present was also illiterate.

In addition to all the other exams we must take in this country to live everyday life, can there not also be a basic decency test administered to every person who desires to attend showings of movies in public theaters? Surely it is as necessary as the driver's test we all take at sixteen.


I have reached a point where the likelihood of being surrounded by competent, understanding people in a movie theater is so low that I actually dislike going to see movies. What a shame this is. Arrgh!

Finally, a few points about movies I've seen recently.

* The best movie I saw last year or this is No Country for Old Men. If you didn't get, or didn't like the ending, you're dumb.

* My best picture candidates would be No Country for Old Men, Atonement, There Will Be Blood, The Darjeeling Limited, and Once. Honorable mention to Juno, Eastern Promises, Gone Baby Gone, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Death Proof.

*Sweeney Todd was good, but would have been much better had it not been a musical.

* It's been a long time (think De Niro in Raging Bull) since someone has given an acting performance as powerful as Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

* Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favorite actors, has been in three movies this year, to sparkling reviews. I have seen none of them. I am less of a person for this.

*2007-2008 is proof that cinema is safe with the current generation of powerful film-makers. Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg, Tarantino, Tim Burton, and the Coen Brothers are to thank.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Get Well Soon...

As Presidential Primary season heats up (though not in Kentucky, where our primary is the equivalent of the last guy picked in the NFL draft: Mr. Irrelevant), my attention has been drawn to the six semi-legitimate candidates, three from each party, who have a shot at becoming our next president. I cannot and will not pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of each candidate's campaigns or their stances on the wide variety of hot-button issues being discussed across the airwaves and (presumably) in living rooms across America. However, I can and will speak here about the issue which concerns me most as a citizen of this country: Health Coverage.

More than 50 million Americans are currently without health insurance, roughly one sixth of our current population. I do not know what percentage within that 50 million are under the age of 18, but I would wager that it is unpleasantly high. If we cannot agree upon a health care plan which offers universal coverage (which is my preference), surely we can agree that every person under the age of legal adulthood deserves reliable, immediate medical care without consideration for their ability to pay. While it is true that hospitals cannot refuse to treat a patient in need, regardless of insurance status, they may, at their discretion, withhold certain treatments or procedures that, while proven effective, are too expensive or else are not covered by a patient's current insurance plan. The wealthy are, in many instances, able to provide themselves with better health care than others. This may seem normal in a capitalist society which extols personal ambition and gain as a high virtue. I will concede that working hard and investing intelligently are commendable; even that they give the wealthy the "right" to a more luxurious mid-size sedan, or a country club membership that most of us could not afford. Health coverage, however, is not a rolex, an Armani suit, or a Hawaiian vacation. It is a basic right. The first right, actually, described in the Declaration of Independence. Life. Not merely to live, but to live healthily, live well. Health care is for everybody.

I do not know which if any current presidential hopefuls can make a real difference on this front, though I know many plan to. Keep the uninsured in mind as you consider your vote for president in 2008. Along with the Iraq War and immigration, the decisions made by our next commander-in-chief on this issue will play a vital role in America's tangible future (as opposed to the mythical future which candidates seem to address in which everybody is smart, well-fed, wealthy and happy), for better or for worse. Do some research on the subject and the candidates and figure out early where you stand, so that as election day approaches, you don't end up voting for the guy with the prettiest sign.

Thanks for reading.