Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Two positives = a negative?

Tom Waits was on The Daily Show last night. He's usually a great interview, but he didn't really get a chance to say much. I was thinking, "Jon Stewart seems a little sycophantic -- is he uncharacteristically nervous or something...?" and next thing I knew, Jon Stewart admitted to being nervous about the interview because he's such a fan.

So that was a bit lame, but there was still hope because Tom was actually going to play the show off the air. Is this the first time a musician has actually played music on the show? I'm thinking maybe so. Which would have been great except that he chose what I think is one of his lesser songs ("The Day After Tomorrow"), and it ran long, so it got cut off about two-thirds of the way through. All in all, not a great night for either The Daily Show or Our Hero.

My interview questions for Tom Waits:

1. Why "The Day After Tomorrow"?
2. Why the constant porkpie? Not that I'm against the porkpie. Just wondering about your concept of the porkpie.
3. Is that ice on the street out there?

OK, that's ice on the street out there. I'm going home.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tom Waits for No Altman

Robert Altman dies;

Tom Waits releases an enormous new album.

One door closes; another one (a garage door with a holiday wreath made of a smoke ring, car parts, and shrunken heads) opens. I haven't checked on the time of Altman's death, but I think these two events took place within mere hours of each other.

Tom Waits and Robert Altman intersected on Short Cuts, an uneven riff on the stories of Raymond Carver. Tom and Lily Tomlin were splendid as a couple of co-dependents you just knew were stuck together "till the wheels come off," (a line from the movie reprised in the glorious "Picture In A Frame" on Tom's Mule Variations). If there's an afterlife, it'd be nice if Robert Altman and Raymond Carver were hanging out about now. Maybe listening to the new Tom Waits album.

It's a 3-CD set called "Orphans." I must add: the two songs Tom wrote for Big Bad Love are on the second CD. This blows my mind, just as it blew my mind when Norah Jones covered one of them on her second album. Here's what really gets me: The songs allude to images and themes in the movie. And some of those images are in our script, but not in the Larry Brown book it's based on. So if the movie had been written differently, the songs would be different? Or if the movie had never been made, Tom's new album wouldn't have these songs on it? And Norah Jones would've put something else on her album, too? It's so strange. This little movie, which did so little box office, made these marks on other things. What must it be like to create something that has a huge cultural ripple effect? My mind would be in a continual state of blown-ness.

Robert Christgau mentions the Big Bad Love connection in his review of "Orphans" in this week's Rolling Stone.

Excerpts from Tom Wait's notes about the new album (which comes with a 92-page booklet):

"If a record really works at all, it should be made like a homemade doll with tinsel for hair and seashells for ears stuffed with candy and money. Or like a good woman’s purse with a Swiss army knife and a snake bite kit."

"On Orphans there is a mambo about a convict who breaks out of jail with a fishbone, a gospel train song about Charlie Whitman and John Wilkes Boothe, a delta blues about a disturbing neighbor, a spoken word piece about a woman who was struck by lightning, an 18th century Scottish madrigal about murderous sibling rivalry, an American backwoods a cappella about a hanging. Even a song by Jack Kerouac and a spiritual with my own personal petition to the Lord with prayer…There’s even a show tune about an old altar boy and a rockabilly song about a young man who’s begging to be lied to."

"I think you will find more singing and dancing here than usual. But I hope fans of more growling, more warbling, more barking, more screeching won’t be disappointed either."

Like Robert Altman, Tom Waits is a true American original -- visionary, uncompromising, wacky, inconsistent, ragged around the edges. He's an urban shaman and a suburban dad and often records songs in his car. A lot of his music will outlive him, but we should dig him while he's still around.

Monday, November 20, 2006

You Must Revise Your Life

I was looking through a big book about Buster Keaton this weekend, and had to come to grips with the fact that, although he's responsible for some of the most amazing, hilarious moments ever committed to film, there's not one film of his (including "Steamboat Bill, Jr." which, last time I rented it, I fast-forwarded to the climactic sequence at the end) that really belongs on my desert island top-five.

But I'm putting in his picture to compensate. I just hate to think of Buster Keaton being excluded from any list having to do with comedy. But it's time to buck up and be a man and push "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" up on my list.

I guess. I think I'll make it easier and do a top 25...

Meanwhile, following a comment on the Room w/ a View post, I want to mention "Babel":

I haven't seen a movie that describes more devastatingly the situation we 21st-century human beings find ourselves in. It's beautifully written, movingly acted, stunningly shot, and directed and cut with a respect for the audience that is all too rare. But I came away thinking there was something missing, some little thing here or there that would have made it a truly, historically great film instead of simply an amazing one.

At first I thought, it's a lack of levity. The mounting dread and grimness of it is not just hard work to sit through, it's unrealistic. Life isn't as relentlessly heavy as that, is it? But there are a couple of light moments. And you do forget for long stretches that you're watching a movie. It's realistic enough to draw you in.

I don't know what it is, exactly. Maybe it's that there's one story in the middle that touches the two others, but those two don't really meet, except through the middle story -- like a triptych, where the larger middle panel is hinged to two panels on either side.

If the movie's a tower, it's missing a wall. But maybe that's intentional. The tower it's named for was never quite finished.

Or maybe we're the wall.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Desert Island Five

Well, after that all-too-ponderous post (and generous comments from y'all, including my first from an unknown-er (thanks Reel Fanatic -- more on Babel/Inarritu/Arriaga, next post...), I pick up where last Sunday's New York Times left off. A top-five list. The magazine section was devoted to comedy, and they published a lot of top-five lists as answers to the question "Which comedies would you want on a desert island?"

Among those surveyed: Will Ferrell, Christopher Guest (nice articles on both of them, too), Ricky Gervais, Catherine O'Hara, Bernie Mac, a bunch of other performers, writers, and directors. The most frequently listed movie was "This Is Spinal Tap." I was surprised to see some brilliant comic minds with "Dumb & Dumber" and "Team America: World Police" on their top fives.

Surely some of that's due to physical comedy getting the big laughs. This subject is taken up in the magazine's lead-off article by A.O. Scott. He's never been one my fave film reviewers (even less so after his lukewarm, miss-the-point-entirely review of Big Bad Love), but it's a pretty good piece on why "Borat" works and why something like the VW microbus gag in "Little Miss Sunshine" keeps getting funnier as the movie goes.

I'm tempted to do a top ten. Top fives are too hard. And the desert island factor means each movie must reward repeated viewings. So uneven movies tend to fall out. I still laugh as hard at the funny stuff in Woody Allen's "Love and Death" as I do at anything, but it has moments I find so lame, it's embarrassing. I have to eliminate things like "Harold and Maude," which I probably saw a dozen times as an adolescent, in favor of what I'd be willing to see again and again now, as an incredibly sophisticated adult with laser-like, irony-clad perception...

I really would rather watch "Jackass Number Two" than "Room With A View" on a given day. But top five?

My first attempt will be chronological:

1. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton)
2. Sleeper (Woody Allen)
3. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (Cameron Crowe, Amy Heckerling)
4. Flirting With Disaster (David O. Russell)
5. High Fidelity (John Cusack, Stephen Frears)

That looks pretty close. I can't believe the Coen bros. aren't on there somewhere, but... "Raising Arizona"? "The Big Lebowski"? "O, Brother...?" and what would I take out? Maybe "Fast Times..." Or maybe I'd have to admit that stretches of "Steamboat Bill, Jr." are dull and not worth the great rewards of its high points. Maybe I'd have to include "Groundhog Day," a nearly perfect movie, especially for a desert island situation.

My friend Matt used to review films for a newspaper and says there are at least two John Cusack movies that are better and funnier than "High Fidelity." Them's fightin' words.

Man, this is hard to do. Each movie I love that I have to leave out is like a kick in the groin of my personal aesthetic. It hurts, man!

Go ahead. I dare ya.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Where You Live

What moves you? Ever had an ecstatic experience in a movie theater or listening to the radio? Think back to a signature moment of artistic expression that overwhelmed you or cracked you open or revealed you to yourself in some profound or salient way. What was it? Is there a movie or song or piece of writing or painting or speech or performance of some kind that seemed, at the time anyway, to change your life? Can you say why?

I’ve had a few, but I’ll pick just one. In 1986, my older brother was struggling with some personal demons and a mess of a first marriage. He was in England for several months, making a movie. I was here with a family and a job, and couldn’t really do anything to help besides listen and offer the occasional supportive word over the phone. So I did. He must have run up a staggering trans-Atlantic phone bill. We’d talk for hours. I also wrote him letters, mostly goofy stuff with little cartoons, jokes, fake articles about the movie he was making, that kind of thing.

That spring, I went to see “A Room With A View,” a Best Picture nominee for 1985 that had finally made it to Kansas City. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an adaptation of a literary novel by E.M. Forster, depicting a stiflingly mannered Edwardian English society (as well as a magnificently photogenic Florence, Italy), mostly from the POV of a young woman on the verge of marriage. It sounds dull. It’s not.

I saw the film at a small art-house theater just up the road from the Plaza area of The City of Fountains. (Not Rome; Kansas City. We have more fountains than Rome, you know.) I added to the municipal waterworks by crying like a hydrant as I came out of the theater. Something about the opening of this young woman’s eyes and heart, the triumph of true love over propriety and duplicity, the yearning honesty and soulfulness of the man she ends up marrying (and of his father, played by the splendid Denholm Elliott) — I don’t know, it just hit me with tremendous force. As I walked away from the theater, I was hyperventilating. I couldn’t move my mouth. My hands were numb and curling up into claws. I briefly wondered if I might be having a stroke or a heart attack, but I knew it was just a physical response to the emotion brought up by the film.

I got in my car, breathed slowly until I could open and close my hands, and then drove straight down to this big splashy Plaza fountain, parked illegally, jumped out of the car and into the fountain. I just stood there, letting a sculpted horse spray water on top of my head for a minute or two. And as I climbed out of the fountain, soaking wet, I said (aloud, I think), “I’m going to England to help my brother.”

And I did. Go to England, I mean. I don’t think I helped, really. I ended up spending a lot more time with another actor on the film than I did with my brother, who mostly wanted to brood and sleep when he wasn’t working. It felt absolutely right to be there, though. I didn’t really have the money or the time to make the trip, but I had the clarity and certainty, when I came out of that fountain, that it was more important to be with my brother than to worry about a credit card bill or lack of vacation time or anything else.

There are lots of movies I like more than “A Room With A View.” But where you are in life when you encounter a piece of art sort of guides the arrow as it leaves the bow and affects how close it hits to where you live. I don’t remember ever having such a visceral, life-changing response to a movie.

I mean, it’s no “Jackass 2.” But it’s worth renting.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Hallmark Writer By Day, Crimefighter By Night

One of my favorite Hallmark people just quit her job. I've only known her for about five of my 26+ years at Hallmark Cards, but she's a peach. Lydia Steinberg. My second-favorite petite Jewess. And the finest human being ever to work in PR.

Lydia's PR baby was the Hallmark Writers & Artists On Tour program, in which the company sends us scribbly creative types out to meet & greet the public. One year, I went with Bighead Needleman, forging a friendship that not even our fierce blogrivalry can tear asunder. Last time out, I was paired with one of my favorite humor artists, Eric Brace. We went to Sacramento (my birthplace) in August. We did TV, radio, and live events, heard people’s amazing stories about what cards have done in their lives, and came home inspired and exhausted.

Before all that, we had to do publicity photos, a session set up by Lydia with a staff photographer. Come the morning of the photo shoot, I’ve completely forgotten about it. When Eric calls and says, “Hey, don’t you know where you’re supposed to be?” I realize I’m wearing the kind of thermal underwear shirt you’d put on for a pickup softball game. My electric razor is on the fritz, so I look like I’ve been at sea for a week.

I dash down to the shoot, knowing exactly the look of disappointment that’s going to be on Lydia’s face. I’m dreading it. I mean, I’d rather disappoint just about anyone in the world than Lydia. She’s rock solid, dependable, caring, utterly competent, supremely professional, a joy to work with. To be anything less when she needs me to hold up my end, well, it’s mortifying.

She gives me The Look. And I start to make my whiny excuses, but there’s no point. Then I remember: I’ve got an old electric razor right in my office desk drawer, and it still works. And the men’s department at Halls is a mere two-minute run from where I’m standing. So I tell her I’ll be back in ten minutes and bolt back down the hallway.

Halls is a high-end department store, where designer jeans can run $500 and the fine Italian suits cost thousands. But once in awhile, they have a big sale, and as I sprint into the men’s department, lo, it is once in awhile. There’s a long sale rack of shirts and I start pawing through them, ignoring the dapper salesman who’s looking at me the way he’d look if a dog scampered into the place and started humping his leg.

Within seconds I’ve found an Armani shirt in my size marked down from $250 to $50. My employee discount makes it $40, plus tax. I payroll deduct it and bolt for my office, where I shave like a wolfman possessed. I come running back into the photo shoot, and the smile on Lydia’s face makes all the stress worthwhile. I’m breaking a sweat now and I need to lie down, balance my electrolytes, and maybe get a blood transfusion. But I have taken The Look off of Lydia's face. And I am filmworthy, insofar as I will ever be.

So, here’s a heroic shot of The Talent portion of Team Sacramento (Lydia actually, if wryly, calls us "The Talent")), ready to meet the public and defeat the forces of evil. I’m the one in Armani and eyeglasses. And that’s my partner in derring-do, Eric Brace, aka Bigfoot. We will not rest until the world is safe for social expression.

Shirt and shave, courtesy the great Lydia Steinberg, who shamed me into them that summer day. I miss ya, Lydia.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Spammies from Heaven

The money comes pouring in! Look at that comment on my last post! I'm rolling around naked on top of 800 fresh, crisp, lacerating dollar bills! And all I have to do to open the filthy lucre floodgates is click on a link posted by someone named "anonymous," who makes $800 every month and it's easy and I'm going to be slicing off so much cheddar, I'm already opening new lines of credit (or should I say "cheddit"?) and I'm going straight from here to The Territory Ahead website and order me some richly textured dobby-weave shirts! Everything from now on is going to be richly this or luxuriously that!

Just think, out of all the millions of blogs out there, anonymous picked mine. I knew it would pay off! If I just did what I love -- blogging -- the money would follow. If I just stayed true to my vision, blogging and bloviating relentlessly...

I'd like to thank Joren and Beth for making this possible. And I'd like to thank Bighead Needleman for challenging me and forcing me to be a better blogger. And lastly, to all the people, all four or five of them, who have read my blog and left comments -- to Dan, Lee Anne, and of course my wife and best friend...

Sorry. I didn't really have anything prepared, and I really should have worn a diaper.

Thanks. Thanks so much.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


So Bighead Needleman comes up and says, who's this Rumi and how come you don't fulfill the promise of your blog? Well, I have Valentines to write. But, since you ask...

Rumi is my 13th-century imaginary friend and the best-selling poet in America. He was a Sufi, the original whirling dervish, out of whose ceaselessy turning mind poured thousands of poems. He's a fountain and a mountain and a sweet-talking ladies' man (although he may have been gay). He's a carnival ride and a spiritual guide. He is timeless, rhymeless (in English, anyway) and he has more to say to us here in the 21st century than a thousand academics hunched over borrowed monkey typewriters.

The main reason for Rumi's popularity today is Coleman Barks, his greatest translator. Coleman played a Southern preacher in a movie I wrote called "Big Bad Love." He is a bona fide poet, madman, and vastly creative human being who sits on a porch in Georgia and keeps churning out the translations in addition to his own original work. He was born to do it, and his tireless, ego-less channeling of Rumi has enriched my existence beyond measure. Getting to meet him and work with him was a big deal for me. Hence, the link in my sidebar.

There you go, Bighead. And happy birthday to your little man.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


So, you go into the polling place and you find that it's filled with electronic voting machines made by Diebold, that nice Republican company whose CEO guaranteed Bush the state of Ohio back in '04. You get your little ballot card and stick it in the slot and do the touchscreen thing and then go to confirm your vote, but it comes up different than how you voted. So you call the ancient poll worker over and she ends up having to unplug your machine and plug it back in so you can vote again...

Meanwhile, the voter next to you is yelling to the poll workers that her touchscreen isn't working. So a brawny poll worker comes over and tests things out. Apparently he can't feel her touch, either. But he jiggles the cord on her voting machine and then it seems to work.

So you vote again, and this time the confirmation screen comes up with the lesser of two evils you voted for, rather than the greater one who showed up last time. So you pop out the ballot and hand it to the ancient poll worker, and neither one of you knows what's on it, or what happens when it gets carted off and put into another machine that adds up the tally.

But we do know that there's software on the ballot itself, and that this software can be hacked, and that the people at Diebold lied about that. How do we know? Because a few people were worried enough about it after the 2000 election to go out and do a documentary on electronic voting machines. If you have HBO, you too can get terribly depressed by watching "Hacking Democracy." This link is actually to a story about the documentary, with a clip or two.

When did this country become the Soviet Union? It's really hellish.

Anyway, vote! It may or may not count!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Ted Haggard, free at last

Of all the Haggards, my fave is Merl. But Ted runs a close second. Even before all this news of gay prostitutes and meth, I was entertained by that wacky persona. He always seemed on the verge of transcending his beady-eyed sanctimony and going completely batshit insane. I saw him interviewed once and thought, "Now that's a guy who really needs to get laid."

Apparently, that wasn't the problem. The batshit part is transparent, though. It's hard to be yourself when you're the head of a 30-million-member organization that just doesn't understand your needs. So he had to split off that whole part of his personality. But that never works. In Jungian terms, his shadow material just got too big for the bag he was carrying it in.

Anyway, he's free now. Free to do you and me. But maybe he'll pull a Swaggart, with a big weepy public apology, throwing some blame at Satan and pornography and childhood abuse. Plus the meth. Which he threw away. But still.

Hey, I wonder if Ted ever bumped into Jeff Gannon at a White House prayer breakfast or press conference (not to be redundant )...?

Why is it so deeply satisfying when this kind of hypocrisy is exposed? I don't think it's straight Schadenfreude, or however Bighead Needleman spells it. There's just nothing like a gay basher turning out to be gay. It's like redemption. God works in mysterious ways.

Surely someone has charted the history of scandals like this, from the Puritans through the 19th century through Elmer Gantry and right on up through this recent rash of right-wing hypocrites. It would make a pretty good book.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Hot Links, Get Your Hot Links

I now have five new links in my sidebar. Not to snub Bighead or anything, but allow me to draw attention to two of them. My daughter Emily and my friend Shane both have MySpace pages with their own songs on them. I've heard Emily's golden tones for most of my life, so I was happy to see her put a few tunes up. But I hadn't heard from Shane in years, so when he sent me a link to a new website that features his design, illustration, and photography, I wrote back asking if he was still doing any music (he sang at my wedding and is a brilliant musician), he sent me a link to his MySpace page.

Check 'em out. "Life without music would be a mistake." Can't remember who said that, but I wish I had.

I also added my high school friend Lee Anne, and of course, the peripatetic Basses, whose fault all this is.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Partly Witty With A Chance of Sacrilege

The last time I saw Katarina Witt skate was 1994—her farewell competitive event, I think. She dedicated her performance to the city of Sarajevo, where she won her first Olympic gold medal. The music was “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and she had everyone in tears, not least because of what the question meant to Sarajevo in 1994. She was soulful, elegant, with the most magnificent female body ever to wear ice skates -- but she fell once, and she'd been surpassed technically by the younger skaters. She took seventh place. She later spoke very movingly about her disappointment and what Sarajevo meant to her.

So I was thinking what a miracle it is that a woman like that ever becomes a world-class athlete. And a few years later, I had a rough draft of this very long three-part poem called "Messianica." It’s a mess, alright. A work in progress.

The first part is Jesus walking on the water. The second part is Katarina Witt skating on the ice. And the third part (really long, and nowhere near finished, so I won't inflict it on you) currently features Al Gore in a steam bath with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane respectively playing soprano, alto, and tenor over in the corner. So we have water, ice, and steam, with a kind of historical progression, and the jazz parts have strict rules about vowel sounds for the various saxes -- Ornette can only use long A's, long E's, and long I's -- and some other crap that's equally boring to describe (and, at present, to read). I'm thinking of replacing Al Gore with Bjork and setting the third section in some steamy, geothermal part of Iceland, but I've been working on this thing off and on for more than a decade and still don't know what it means. Hope to finish before Armageddon.

So here are the first two parts. If I knew how to load music, I’d put "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" on here. First in Hebrew, then in German.

from "Messianica"

A savior arrived,
walking over the sea, carefully placing his feet,
not yet pierced by iron spikes,
on the surface, through which he gazed
into the depths. He was drawn to depths,
would have to be pulled upward against his human will
in the tractor beam of myth. As seen from vantage points
on far shores, he moved across horizons
like a desert wanderer, which he also was.
Seen from underwater, he left only a mild, sucking swirl
for a footprint, the stirring of a shallow oar.
Scriptural mention is casual, as if the writer
(Matthew, let’s say), having fallen asleep
on the fourth watch, awoke to this sight,
but by now was used to such things.
“Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.”
This followed on the heels of other miracles—
the loaves and fishes cloned for multitudes,
the blind now dumb with light, the lame
running into the waves in his wake,
unable to follow, but willing to drown for him now,
to kiss and wash his feet, fresh from the surf,
come up into prophecy and Palestine.
The hem of his garment dripped
salt water and spit, the ancient broth
of earth kissing sky, tongue of lightning,
breath of vapors, ecstatic grunting from the dust,
the sprawl and din of devotee on devotee,
Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee.

A savior arrives,
moving slowly over the water as if it were frozen,
it is frozen, she skates over the still water
with the sound of sharpening knives
or of diamonds being cut, a sound we have heard
yet never quite like this—the blades of her last name
quick slices into the ice, the mind, Witt, Witt,
into the record book, the list of champions
that tells only the ending, never the story—
yet exactly like this. Born December, 1965,
to no known astronomical fanfare, now gliding
through the compulsory figures of the millennium,
retracing her own path. She is of the old school,
surpassed by progress, early training, extended
practice, tiny ice princesses laced up by five a.m.
to spin and jump and fall toward success—
but she arrives past success, always more artist
than athlete, more fire than ice, more gesture
than technique, which cannot save Sarajevo,
more woman than girl, who could not understand
Sarajevo, more Sarajevo than East Berlin,
more Berlin than any city without sorrow.
But what city has not wept for a savior?
By now we welcome the idea that he is a woman,
we do not care if she is a figure skater,
if she smiles naked in airbrushed soft-porn,
or endorses chocolate pudding. Or we do care,
but accept in a savior the missteps, the falls,
the faults that in skating we wince to witness,
“ohhhh...” our own indignities tumbling
ass over teakettle into our eyes—Witt, Witt,
up from the ice, having fallen,
having sought a perfection beyond our imagining,
or hers—not higher perfection, not spiraling
upward through numbers, but deeper, a laceration
into the world, her long wall of beauty rebuilt
of ice, flesh, and air for beloved Sarajevo, now
marred by the bullet-pock a toe’s errant fraction
of fractions leaves behind—that sad smile,
the one with no dazzle, where we see
that she feels she has let down not just an arena,
but a city already fallen, a nation already split,
a world where the stain of cleansing
will never come clean. A Muslim boy speaks
into a camera, pulls the stump of his arm out
the neck of his sweater, a small lever of flesh,
and smiles, “I can use it. I can work with it.”
He says, “A Serb shell does not have eyes.
It was not looking for me.” He is blond, freckled.
The camera is looking for a Muslim boy.
Eastern Europe is looking to the West.
The skater is looking for the space in the music
she can leap up through, into above beyond,
the double distilled to the single,
now the last circling figure,
Witt, Witt, saving us
in defeat, looking
through tears
she cannot