04 April 2014

Top Ten David Letterman Guests

I'd been thinking about David Letterman lately anyway, so in the wake of his retirement announcement, it seems as good a time as any to run down his top ten guests from over the years. Most "Best of Letterman" lists will feature such infamous guests as Farrah Fawcett, Crispin Glover, and Joaquin Phoenix, but while those interviews are rightly legendary as novelties, that's not the focus of this list. Rather, these are the people who, when announced to be on the show, could always be counted on to bring out the best in Letterman's sensibilities as host and as entertainer.


10. Julia Roberts

There seems to be an inverse relationship between how glamorous a star is and how interested in them Letterman seems to be, but for whatever reasons, Julia Roberts is the exception. She's one of the biggest stars in the world, and he's one of its biggest cranks, yet their segments together are always warm and cozy. The palpable mutual respect and affection between them is all the more endearing because of how uncommon it is among the pantheon of prolific guests.


9. Howard Stern

Letterman was one of the few mainstream hosts who treated the shock jock as a legitimate interviewer, perhaps because they're kindred spirits in their lack of regard for status and airs. They both up their game when they're together, and it shows.


8. Harvey Pekar

You gotta go back to Late Night on NBC for the comic writer/artist Pekar's segments (dramatized in the biopic American Splendor), but they're amazing. Letterman's entire shtick has always been that he's unimpressed by pretty much everything...and Pekar was the repeat guest who was entirely unimpressed by being a guest on Letterman's show. It's like watching a game of apathy chicken between two kamikaze pilots.


7. Oprah Winfrey

The "feud" between Letterman and Oprah was the stuff of entertainment legend, and so when the daytime TV queen finally appeared on the late night TV king's show in 2005, there was a sense of historical triumph. Yet, as sometimes happens, the buildup was more satisfying than the payoff. Their interview on her show was more rewarding - particularly their audience-free post-show one-on-one - but not as entertaining as the running joke of the feud itself.


6. Jack Hanna

Critters are always funny, even when they're lethargic and sedentary. Johnny Carson understood the comedic value of having exotic animals on a late night variety show, and so does Letterman. These are the segments where Letterman's quick wit and presence of mind shine.



5. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

The famed critic duo was not only a lot of fun to watch on their own, but they triangulated with Dave with no one pulling any punches. Fun fact: Siskel and Ebert are the reason that there are two guest chairs on Letterman's set.


4. Madonna

Madonna was one of the very first guests on Late Show, and boy did she make a splash! She was inflammatory and vulgar, and reportedly banned from the show. Of course, she was also the guest that had us all talking for quite awhile. I remember vividly Madonna sharing that urinating on your foot in the shower is an effective treatment for athlete's foot. We were all captivated by Letterman squirming in his seat. She made nice and got to come back, and each time it was gold.


3. Dorothy Mengering (Dave's Mom)

I don't think Dave's Mom was ever a guest proper, but she's been a recurring guest by phone and video over the years, and has appeared in-studio on occasion. She looms large as part of Letterman's public persona as the one guest who has the most power to embarrass him, and the one he has the least power to treat with his full snark. Plus, she's a great sport and brings the funny all on her own.


2. Regis Philbin

Regis's hyperactivity makes him an easy target for Letterman, and his genuine enthusiasm has somehow made him impervious to the host's barbs. It can be hard to tell at times whether Regis doesn't really get being the butt of a joke, or whether he's some kind of meta-level master of counter-trolling. Make no mistake, though, of the high regard in which they hold one another: When Dave returned from his angioplasty, Regis was one of his substitute hosts and his first guest upon his return.


1. Richard Simmons

Richard Simmons has all the energy of Regis, but none of his deflective skill. No one was ever an easier target for Letterman's needling, but no one could put Letterman in the hot seat quite the way he could, either. An infamous prank with a fire extinguisher led to a six year rift between the two, and wouldn't you know that when Simmons finally acquiesced and returned, Dave was there with yet another prank.

23 March 2014

I Hate Being Unwise

I don't subscribe to the idea that bad things happen to us so that we can later use that experience to help others. That line of thinking combines martyrdom and a sort of glorification of misery, and it troubles me. However, I do believe that when bad things happen, when we can later apply that experience in a constructive way somehow, that we should try to do that. Lemons into lemonade and whatnot, you know.

Right now, a few of my dearest friends are facing some difficult times. Moreover, they're going through some things with which I have experience. Maddeningly, though, I haven't been able to find the right things to say or do to help these people I care about.

I define wisdom as being the product of knowledge, compassion, and humility. All three elements must be present. One must have an understanding of the facts, concern for how they affect people, and to be able to not make things about themselves. (Yes, I realize me complaining that I don't know how to use my knowledge technically makes my friends' situations about me, but only in the context that I'm trying to get to the wisdom I want to be able to offer them.)

Why can't I find the wisdom to help my friends?

I feel like I have all the pieces I need, but I can't figure out how to put them together and I don't understand why that is. I'm certain it isn't because I don't have enough compassion. That leaves knowledge and humility. Have I failed to really understand my own experiences? Am I blind to my own ego on these matters? What am I missing?

In case you happen to be one of my friends going through something right now, just know that I do care and I'm here for you (except on Monday nights from 9-10, when I watch Dallas). I know that's generic and not very helpful, but I promise that the moment I have something more specific, I'll offer it.

22 March 2014

Sixteen Years of AFI's "100 Years...100 Movies"

If you paid much attention to movies at all in 1998, one of the biggest things that year was that the American Film Institute (AFI) debuted their "100 Years...100 Movies" list. I was just a few years into paying attention to movies at that point. I was working at Cracker Barrel by then, though, and the thing about waiting tables is, you work weekends. That meant I fell out of step with movies. I was lousy about thinking about movies any time of the week other than Friday. It wasn't snobbery on my part. I just sort of forgot that you could go to a theater the other days of the week.

Anyway, AFI's inaugural "100 Years...100 Movies" list caught my attention the same as it caught most everyone else's. I had started to pay attention to what was coming out, but I had paid little heed to anything that had already come and gone. It was a big deal at the time, in large part because it was brilliantly marketed. Today, they'd just throw it up on the web, but there was more pomp and circumstance in those analog(-ish) days. The ranked list itself was presented in a live TV event that aired the night of 16 June 1998. Speculation and anticipation were paid off by the special, but that was far from the end of it.

Newsweek published a special tie-in issue dedicated exclusively to the list, broken into chapters organized by genre. The magazine featured editorials by such luminaries as Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Sidney Poitier, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg (whose Saving Private Ryan opened in theaters just eight days after the special aired, and went on to win that year's Best Picture award). I still have a copy of that issue. TNT aired a ten-part documentary series dedicated to exploring the films and their rich history. I didn't get to watch any of it, airing on work nights, but I heard it was well done.

Do you remember this? Good, 'cause we're gonna talk about it.
All the major studios got in on the action, making sure that all their titles that made the list were in print again and on shelves with a conspicuous sticker identifying the movie as one of the elite 100. This coincided with the dawn of DVD, it should be noted. What better way to imbue the release of catalog titles with enough prestige to drive demand for their DVD debuts?

This was perfect. I love lists. I learned to write by making lists, actually. My mom would sit me down with the back of a He-Man action figure package and have me write a list of which figures I didn't have that I wanted. I had to put them in order of which one I wanted the most on down to the one that I wanted more or less just because it existed. Lists are just part of how I process the world. And the AFI list? That was the scavenger hunt list that finally set me on a direction of becoming a bona fide cinephile.

One of the AFI partners was Target, which gave away free copies in-store of a 44-page brochure, AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies: The Essential Movie Guide. Today, of course, you can just download directly from AFI the list of all 400 nominated movies. Maybe you could do that in 1998. I don't know. In any event, The Essential Movie Guide does include quite a few of the nominees that failed to make it onto the ranked 100.

What interested me a little while ago when I stumbled upon my copy of it, though, is that its front page invites you to list your top ten picks, and to write down AFI's once revealed. Now, here you can see my Top 10 Movies ("no particular order") from when I was 19 years old:


Now, I was certainly not trying to guess along with the AFI panelists. After all, I knew precious little about film history at that point, and what's more, I knew I knew precious little about it. So don't think that I was under any mistaken impression that The Transformers: The Movie was, in fact, one of the ten greatest movies of all time. This was, instead, a snapshot of my personal taste at the time. Comparing it with my Flickchart is actually rather surprising.

Three of the movies I named in 1998 as my Top 10 are in my Flickchart Top 10 today: Lawrence of Arabia (#4), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (#6), and Glory (#9). Two more are in my Top 20: The Transformers: The Movie (#13), and Tombstone (#14). That's half of my 19 year-old self's Top 10, still satisfying me today. The Sting presently sits at a highly respectable #28 on my Flickchart.



On Her Majesty's Secret Service, criticisms of George Lazenby's on-screen woodenness and off-screen immaturity aside, is still one of the most satisfying Bond movies - and that's a franchise I still love dearly. In 1998, my second favorite Bond movie would have been From Russia with Love - which is presently #15 on my Flickchart. OHMSS has slipped to #61 on my Flickchart, but I think it's interesting that those two would have been neck-and-neck for me in '98 (and, really, they're right there together for me today, even if that isn't as clearly evident on my Flickchart), and that if I'd just written down From Russia with Love, that would have been the sixth of the ten to be in my current day Top 20.

The Empire Strikes Back is still the best Star Wars movie, but I've lost some of my enthusiasm for that franchise in recent years. It's currently at #64, though it's worth noting that the last time I recall watching it was a decade ago when the original trilogy was first released on DVD. I intend to revisit that series soon (my friend's son is old enough to want to watch them and my friend has invited me to be part of that, so they've been waiting on me, actually).

Braveheart is lower, at #69 (which, of course, makes my 19 year-old self giggle). That leaves just Face/Off, which stands presently at #380. Now, to be #380 out of 1629 features and shorts, the overwhelming majority of which I hadn't even heard of, much less seen, at that time? That ain't half-bad, as they say. By the numbers:
3/10 Still in My 2014 Top 10
5/10 Still in My 2014 Top 20
9/10 Still in My 2014 Top 100
What about the reverse, though? Since I didn't write down anything else in the rest of the booklet (just some underlining and check marks indicating movies I'd seen), I have to reconstruct this one on my own.

My Flickchart Top 10, Current as of 22 March 2014
  1. Batman
  2. The Wizard of Oz
  3. Schindler's List
  4. Lawrence of Arabia
  5. Casablanca
  6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  7. Amelie
  8. E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial
  9. Glory
  10. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Amelie, of course, still hadn't been made in 1998. Casablanca had, but I hadn't seen it, and wouldn't get around to it for another decade. Schindler's List, I had seen. I don't know why it didn't stand out to me as much at that point in my life, because it unquestionably made an instant impact on me.

The Wizard of Oz and E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, I really just think I thought I had "outgrown" them at that age. The Wizard of Oz isn't even a movie. It's an institution. E.T. was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I was 3. I can still remember the impression that the theater setting had on me. I didn't really understand the movie, though I did understand that we were all supposed to be quiet and watching it. I was more interested in the idea that there was a place where people went to all sit together quietly to watch a movie. That still fascinates me, if I'm being honest.


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a movie that even today kind of makes me self-conscious when I find myself ranking it so highly. The Sting, for instance, by all rights ought to be ranked above it on any list. (Even a ranked list of Star Trek movies; it features Ray Walston, and there's no reason that J.J. Singleton couldn't have become Boothby.) I freely concede that Star Trek VI benefits from external factors, such as being the movie responsible for me discovering Star Trek. It was my first Trek movie in a theater, my first new Trek movie. I re-watched it as recently as January and found it still thrills me and makes me wistful. Should I have had it in my 1998 Top 10? Should I really have it in my 2014 Top 10? I can't answer either of those questions. I just know that I've come to accept it's an important movie to me, and I love it dearly.

That, Dear Reader, leaves us wondering how it came to be that at age 19, I omitted my present day #1 movie of all-time, Batman. I've written about the effect that movie has had on me in a few different posts. If I could pick just one to direct you to it'd be this one about how it literally saved my life in 2011. All I can say is that this was in the wake of Batman & Robin, and I think I was down on Batman in general when I wrote that list. There's no doubt that Batman should have made my 1998 Top 10 in place of Face/Off.


Another thing I find curious is that of my 1998 Top 10, I had only seen three of them in a theater: The Empire Strikes BackFace/Off, and The Transformers: The Movie. Clearly, Face/Off benefited from that theatrical screening, though it's surprising that I didn't instead favor something like Twister, which was a more memorable viewing.

Since then, I've seen another four of that group on the big screen (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sting, and Tombstone). I still haven't seen BraveheartGlory, or On Her Majesty's Secret Service in their natural environment. Conversely, I have now seen eight of my 2014 Top 10 in a theater; the lone holdouts being Amelie, and the list-overlapping Glory.

In some ways, I'm actually kind of impressed at the inclusion of so many personal favorites on my 1998 Top 10 list. Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, is a nearly obligatory "Top 10" movie, but the God's honest truth is, I love that movie. Love it, love it, love it. I can replay whole sequences in my head. Sometimes someone will say or do something that will queue up a specific scene. Sometimes, though, I'm just daydreaming. Lately, I've been going back to the scene of Lawrence singing "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo". I adore the innocence and playfulness in that moment, when he discovers he can use the echoing effect to sing in harmony with himself.


I think I'm concerned that my taste hasn't evolved more dramatically over the last sixteen years. Paradoxically, I'm comforted that I've continued to find such satisfaction in so many movies over such a span of time. I mean, when you think about it, I was 3 when I saw E.T., so we can effectively date my movie awareness to that screening. If we throw out those first three, pre-E.T. years, then the remaining part of my life can be divided evenly into E.T. to AFI, and AFI to today.

I may find something new in all this upon further reflection, but for right now? I'm going to congratulate myself on having had such good taste in movies.

P.S. Since I know you're curious, here you go:

Movies in The Essential Movie Guide That Didn't Make it to AFI's "100 Years...100 Movies" List

Adam's Rib
Alien
All That Jazz
All the President's Men
The Awful Truth
Babe
Ben-Hur (1926)
The Big Chill
The Big Sleep
The Birds
Blade Runner
Blazing Saddles
Braveheart
Breakfast at Tiffany's
Cabaret
The Conversation
Cool Hand Luke
Deliverance
Dog Day Afternoon
Driving Miss Daisy
East of Eden
The English Patient
The Exorcist
Field of Dreams
Five Easy Pieces
42nd Street
The General
Gentleman's Agreement
Gigi
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Grease
Gunga Din
Hannah and Her Sisters
His Girl Friday
How Green Was My Valley
The Hustler
In the Heat of the Night
Intolerance
The Kid
The Killing Fields
The Last Picture Show
Laura
The Lion King
Lost Horizon
The Lost Weekend
The Magnificent Ambersons
A Man for All Seasons
Manhattan
Marty
Mary Poppins
Mean Streets
Meet Me in St. Louis
Miracle on 34th Street
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Moonstruck
My Darling Clementine
Nashville
A Night at the Opera
The Night of the Hunter
Ninotchka
On Golden Pond
Ordinary People
Out of Africa
The Ox-Bow Incident
Paths of Glory
Pinocchio
The Producers
The Public Enemy
The Quiet Man
Rain Man
Red River
Reds
The Right Stuff
Rosemary's Baby
Saturday Night Fever
The Shawshank Redemption
Spartacus
Stalag 17
A Star Is Born (1937)
A Star Is Born (1954)
The Sting
Strangers on a Train
Sullivan's Travels
Taxi Driver
The Ten Commandments
Terms of Endearment
Thelma & Louise
The Thin Man
To Have and Have Not
Top Hat
Touch of Evil
Toy Story
12 Angry Men
The Untouchables
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Witness

18 March 2014

Subservient Gods

Being a longtime comic book/superhero fan, I've of course heard countless times over the years about how superheroes are the modern equivalent of the mythological gods of old. Michael Uslan, executive producer of all the Batman movies of the last quarter century, taught an entire course on the subject of Comic Book Folklore, exploring the thematic ties between biblical parables and the caped figures of the funny books. Superman-as-Moses was the microcosm example he put forth to sell the University of Indiana on the course.

I'll confess: Despite having majored in history and planning to teach it, I never had any interest whatsoever in the gods of Antiquity. Zeus/Jupiter, whatever. I never really connected with Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel ("Shazam!") in part because of this antipathy, if I'm being honest. Maybe it goes back to the commandment of not having any other gods - not, of course, that I'm an especially good or pious Christian, but some of those things are still part of me to some degree or another.

Anyway, what has come to fascinate me lately the more I've thought about it is that unlike their predecessors, our contemporary mythological figures service mankind. Superman could conquer the world; instead, he seeks to assimilate into our world as one of us. It's that way with all of these characters (the heroic ones, anyway; obviously, the supervillains are all about conquest and domination). There's something empowering about that idea, that these characters our writers, artists, and editors have endowed with powers vastly superior to anything occurring in nature, should be so subservient to us. Not just to our elite rulers, but even to the weakest and meekest of us.

My single favorite Batman comic book story that I've ever read is "The Nobody" (Batman: Shadow of the Bat #13), by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle. In it, Batman has an altercation one night. He winds up being unmasked in an alley, unwittingly in the sight of a dying homeless man. The man sees his chance to rise above his circumstances and goes to sell the secret identity of Batman. He's betrayed and mortally wounded, but he survives long enough to realize he needs to make amends and tells Bruce what he's done.
"This city's steeped in evil -- rotten through and through!
"It's built on graft -- corruption -- greed. It'll never change, you must know that.
"So tell me, Batman -- why do you do what you do?
"Why do you do it, Batman?"
"I do it for the weak, and the scared, and the oppressed. I do it for the victims -- the innocent -- the abused.
"I do it to try to end the suffering...
"And I do it for the nobodies."

That's a far cry from the likes of the powerful beings who demanded homage and fealty from mortals centuries ago. It is this element above all else that I believe explains the wide appeal of superheroes today. We have always been fascinated with the idea of being more than we are; being able to fly, to move mountains with our bare hands, to be invincible. These things have driven the imagination since time immemorial. That imagination led the Wright brothers to Kitty Hawk, and sent Neil Armstrong to the moon.

But it is our sense of responsibility and compassion as a society that has made these characters our servants, rather than our paternalistic rulers. As much as we want to know that we can be more than we are today, we also want to know that with that "great power" will "come great responsibility."

Did I just argue that Stan Lee is a greater philosopher than Homer?

Yes. I think I did.

13 March 2014

Wizard World Louisville

Wizard World is finally doing a show here in Louisville. And guess what? (Chicken butt.) I'm going to moderate a panel there! I've had the idea for awhile now, but hadn't pitched it to any other convention. This time, though, I went for it and lo and behold, they liked it!

"That's great, but what's the concept?"

It's pretty simple, actually. Knowing that comic book fans like debating things, and knowing that movies have been mining comics for the last decade or so with increasing success, I thought it would be fun to use Flickchart to generate a series of head-to-head matches of movies based on comics to debate. It should wind up being something of a kangaroo court, I guess. Here's the official blurb (which I wrote):
In this unique panel, we will pit your favorite comic-based movies against one another using randomly generated head-to-head matches from the website Flickchart. What do we really love in a comic-based movie? When has Hollywood surpassed our hopes? Are they good comic-book movies, or are they good movies? Audience vote will decide the winner of each match, from which a ranked list will be created. (ROOM 210)
"Uh, but what about your, y'know, unpredictable health?"

Good question, and one that's been on my mind since before I even thought about pitching this idea. What makes Wizard World Louisville the perfect show for me to do this is that some of my friends live really close to the convention center. I won't say how close, for various reasons, but let's just say that I have little concern about winding up trapped in a bathroom downtown. If it comes down to it, I can hole up at their place the whole day, dash over to the convention center, do the panel, and go back to their place until I'm well enough to go back home.

Mornings are my roughest time of day, and luckily for me, my panel wound up being scheduled near the end of the day, at 5:30. That will help. Plus, the panel is only 45 minutes. That will keep us from getting very far with the discussions, of course, and I'm hopeful that my guts will cooperate and I'll feel great that day, but if not, I'd rather only have to get through 45 minutes than an hour. (Fifteen otherwise short minutes pass very differently during a flare.) And post-convention traffic isn't a concern for me, either, since I'm not going to try to compete with everyone to clear out at the end of the day. I can lay low as long as I need to until I feel confident getting out of Dodge.

If the panel had been scheduled earlier in the day, my plan was just to spend the night with him the night before, thereby getting the drive from my home to that area out of the way when it would be easier for me. You just don't even know how important the proximity of his place to the convention center is to reassuring me that, one way or another, I'll be able to tough it out and do this.

"Well, sure, but what about your anxiety issues that have spiraled out of hand the last year or so?"

Knowing I have some place nearby to retreat to if I need it alleviates a lot of anxiety. The hustle and bustle of the convention itself is still a concern, though. Strangely, I've always felt comfortable speaking in public so I'm more likely to be overwhelmed just being there than I am in leading a panel discussion. Plus, I can take an anti-anxiety pill without having to worry about driving home after the panel.

"You can get me in, right?"

Pfft. I wish! I'm afraid I can't help with your admission. I can't even get you a discount. Hell, I'm only even able to attend at all because I'll be singing for my supper with this panel.

So, if you've ever wanted to see me speak in public, this is your big chance. Come on out! It should be fun. Plus, it'll be at the end of the day, so you can scope out the rest of the show without having to stop what you're doing to come to my panel. I was looking at the rest of the programming and several of the other panels sound interesting, too. As long as my health doesn't interfere, there's a real good chance you'll find me attending "Batman at 75" earlier that afternoon.

My panel, "Movie Match-Up", is scheduled for Saturday, 29 March at 5:30 in Room 210 at the Kentucky International Convention Center. Among the celebrity guests that will be on-hand is actor Matt Smith (of Doctor Who fame). He's speaking at 6:15, and even though he'll be in a different room, I'm forever going to claim that I "opened" for him. Plus, my panel is the last one scheduled for Room 210, so I'm also going to claim that I was the headliner for that room.

For ticketing and other information, visit Wizard World Louisville.

23 February 2014

How I Flickchart

For various reasons, I thought it might be helpful for me to offer a microcosm display of how I use Flickchart. There are lots of approaches. Mine is what I've taken to calling "fluid Flickcharting", where the idea is to focus exclusively on the match at hand and pay no heed whatsoever to the results. [Admittedly, I do take note of the results if it's in the course of either adding or re-ranking a movie on my chart, just because I record that in my reviews. It's for archival purposes only and not because I care.] Some of my fellow Flickcharters have a hard time accepting a newcomer breaking into their top 100/50/20 groups. It doesn't faze me, because my objective is not to create a ranked list that looks right to me.

Instead, my only objective is to use the randomly generated head-to-head matches to prompt me to reflect on the respective merits of the two films at hand. It's that contemplation that interests me; not the generation of a ranked chart. Anyone can create a ranked list of things (see: 78% of the Internet), and without the Flickchart process, at that.

When I sit down to just rank movies, I normally choose to filter to just movies I've already ranked. I'm not interested in movies that I haven't ranked being presented to me, because I've almost certainly not seen them. Typically, I'll start with generating matches from my entire chart, and as I go on, I'll narrow the focus. Here's a walk-through of an ordinary Flickcharting session for me.



Descendant is a fairly routine, but mostly game, homage to Edgar Allan Poe. I've seen it once, last October, and while I thought it was an alright movie, I have little overall enthusiasm for it. Trail Mix-Up is a Roger Rabbit short film. A lot of people have a mental barrier that keeps them from even having short films go up against feature films, but this isn't a problem for me. I was more entertained overall by Trail Mix-Up than I was by Descendant (which, really, I think would have been stronger as a short film), and I care more about Roger Rabbit than I care about Poe (Ligeia notwithstanding). This one goes to Trail Mix-Up.



Another feature vs. short match. Of the three documentaries I've seen made by Michael Moore, Sicko is the one that got to me the most. After all, it came out just two years after I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and began to find out just how jacked up healthcare in America is. It's a sharper doc from Moore than is the better-known Fahrenheit 9/11. There's still some of his trademark, condescending snark and he doesn't connect all the dots as clearly as I'd like, but Sicko's role in reinvigorating the nature of healthcare debate in the U.S. should not be underestimated or dismissed lightly.

Acting for the Camera, on the other hand, stands as one of the most affecting shorts I've seen. I'm fascinated by actors - not movie stars; I've little interest in glamour - and how completely vulnerable they have to be at times. Mallory Zeilstra's performance in this short rattled me the first time I saw it. It rattled me after I saw it. It rattled me when I saw it again. Hell, it rattles me right now just thinking about it.

So, what do I do here? One intersects directly with my experiences as a Crohnie, the other grabbed me by my throat and hasn't let go. In truth, I could pick either of these and be simultaneously contented with my choice and disappointed in myself for not picking the other. I run into this kind of thing fairly often, actually. My tie-breakers vary. Here, what makes the difference is that President Obama has done a lot more for the cause of addressing healthcare reform than Michael Moore's film was able to do. That's no fault of Moore's; it's just that film does have its limits. It can prompt social action at times, but a film cannot directly make changes. Acting for the Camera, however, explores as its subject its own medium in as perfect a way as I've seen. I'm indebted to Sicko for asking questions no one in mainstream media could be bothered to ask at that time (and don't even try acting like you're outside the mainstream media, Fox News; certainly not on the matter of asking why our healthcare during the Bush years wasn't better than it was!), but Acting for the Camera squeaks by with the win.

Note: It took me so long to deliberate that match that my filter timed out. Now's as good a time as any to narrow the filter just a bit, to my Top 1000 (at present, I have 1617 titles ranked, so we're dropping the bottom third).



The only thing I really care about in Footloose is Bonnie Tyler's "Holding out for a Hero", which is much too cool to be reduced to playing in the background as two twits play chicken on tractors. Far more deserving uses of the song include being in a montage ad that played at the beginning of several Paramount action movies on VHS in the late 90's, and the cover performance by Jennifer Saunders in Shrek 2. On the other hand, I love everything about Hot Fuzz except the fact I've yet to see it in a theater. This is an easy choice for me to make.



Here's a case where I had previously drawn this match and commented on it:
Pierce Brosnan showdown! "After the Sunset" is something of a guilty pleasure of mine, but "The Matador" features my favorite Brosnan performance to date as the egocentric and eccentric Julian.
I stand by that. Someone else commented that After the Sunset is a guilty pleasure of theirs, too, but that they were underwhelmed by The Matador. Sometimes I respond to comments, especially if they're in direct connection with one of my own, but I really have nothing to say here. I could champion The Matador, but even if I had some kind of evangelical zeal to do so (which, right now, I don't), this other person may never even know about it because at present there's no comment notification system in place. I'll just let it go this time and sing the praises of The Matador elsewhere.




Horror Express has a lot going for it: A pervasive eerie mood, an engaging setting (a trans-Siberian train), and a mystery that draws into it no less than two Bond villains (Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas). A Beautiful Mind is interesting throughout, and yes, Russell Crowe's performance is more compelling than any performance in Horror Express. However, A Beautiful Mind is a once-and-done movie for me that I have no enthusiasm to revisit, whereas Horror Express is one that, even though I've yet to actually revisit, I want to see again - preferably with someone else who hasn't seen it before but that I suspect would enjoy it. The replay value wins this one for Horror Express.




I'm from the original Pee-wee generation, so his Big Adventure was part of my youth. I was thrilled to find that it holds up remarkably well when I finally sat down to watch it on DVD a few years ago. I'll always connect with The Ghost and the Darkness because I've seen the actual lions of Tsavo on display at the Field Museum in Chicago - as has Val Kilmer, who starred in that movie and whom I saw at C2E2 in Chicago in 2012. What hinders The Ghost and the Darkness here is simply that I've not seen it since the VHS era. I can still vividly recall different passages of the film, and how I felt watching it, but those recollections aren't quite as sharp as the ones for Pee-wee's Big Adventure. If/when I ever go back to re-watch The Ghost and the Darkness, however, there's a strong chance I could be more swayed to go with that in a future re-match.




I have a guideline that says Batman > No Batman, though obviously that's not a particularly reasonable rule to adhere to, if only for the existence of Batman & Robin. Year One is as faithful an adaptation of its source material as anyone could have expected or wanted, and the fact I'm a fan of that story certainly helps. And yet, I'd be lying if I said that it knocked my socks off or reached me the same way that the original comic book story did.

I respect The Godfather's greatness, but it too is a film that I don't really love; certainly not on the same level as many others. Like The Ghost and the Darkness, it's a film I've only seen once, back in the VHS era, but I can recall it far more vividly. (Its ubiquity in pop culture has something to do with that, I'm sure.) I should have a stronger positive feeling for a Batman movie than I have for Year One. That costs it against the objective strengths of The Godfather.




I wish more people would see The Minus Man just so that Owen Wilson could be given more opportunities to flex his acting chops, because his performance is captivating and, at times, outright upsetting. It's sort of what American Psycho would have been if conceived as a "quirky indie film". Every now and again, someone will bring up movies that should be considered for sequel, and I never think to mention The Minus Man so let it be known here and now that I'd love to see another story with this guy, all these years later.

Niagara Motel resonates with me for its portrayal of isolating, suicidal depression - an unsettling movie for me to have watched during my Year of Hell, I assure you - and I'm a fan of Craig Ferguson, too. I've yet to fall in love with any of his movie work that I've seen, but he's one of the finest late night talk show hosts I've ever seen, and his Between the Bridge and the River is the novel I wish I'd written.

In the final analysis, I'm going with The Minus Man, for being more consistently even from start to finish and for having more staying power.

At this point, I decided to modify my filter. Because this is already a lengthy blog post, I'll skip ranking my Top 500 and go directly to my Top 250. This level is, obviously, more challenging.




RED is vacuous fun, but fun all the same. It's basically Grumpy Old Spies, and any time you can use "Grumpy Old" anything as a shorthand, you've got my attention. Its dialog is sometimes tedious (clearly informed from spy movies instead of homework about actual spies), and while it may be unfair, I have to admit that its "meh" sequel costs it some standing with me.

Bringing out the Dead is something else. I can understand the complaints about it; the narrative feels to meander too much before expecting us to be impacted by events in the final act, and it's hard to understand the dearth of consequences for these characters (in real life, no one flips an ambulance and is back on the street the next shift). It's a shame that Martin Scorsese adapted Bringing out the Dead as a film when he did. Not only have movies been given greater rein to be self-indulgent today, but I think it would have worked even better as a mini-series on premium cable.

Catch me in a lighter mood, and I'll probably go with RED, but you didn't. You caught me in a different mood, where Nicolas Cage basking in grittiness appeals to me, and so Bringing out the Dead gets the nod.




I didn't originally fall in love with Zombieland. I left the theater feeling like it was alright, but that other people were going to love it a lot more than I did. Then I rented it to watch with my brother and it was more entertaining. I caught it on TV during a free weekend of Starz! and enjoyed it even more. Last year I watched it on Blu-ray by myself and found I dug it even more. Somewhere along the line it went from being an overachiever to a personal favorite. I think the reason for this is that each time I watched it, I was able to identify with different character relationships. Because the characters themselves make a point to stay one-dimensional, it's relatively easy to draw parallels between them and people in my life. I'm generally disapproving of that trend toward generic tropes using shorthand for actual character, but in the context of this specific story, I think it was a clever and wise narrative choice.

Knocked Up has largely fallen out of favor with me since 2007, though not necessarily because of anything in the film. Rather, it's because it was one of the movies that my wife would re-watch semi-regularly, and that connotation bothers me. (This is also true of both films in that last match, RED and Bringing out the Dead.) Still, I gotta say that scene in which Leslie Mann busts Paul Rudd at his fantasy baseball draft is absolutely brilliant and probably my favorite single scene in any of the movies directed by Judd Apatow so far. Fun fact: Rudd says he created an alibi so that the week before, he could go see Spider-Man 3; the only problem is, that movie opened an entire month after the baseball season started, so it was a terribly organized fantasy baseball league.

The near-concurrent rise of Zombieland and fall of Knocked Up make this choice obvious and easy for me.



What makes Sleepy Hollow such fun is that Tim Burton's brilliant sense of mise-en-scene is exactly how this story should look and feel. The ensemble cast is terrific, too. Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane has a lot more wherewithal than his literary counterpart, but that's okay. It works because he still infuses the macabre tale with some needed moments of levity.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is about as perfect an adaptation of a literary masterpiece as one could ever want. It nails the muted bleakness of John le Carre's world of spies (black and white cinematography was definitely the right choice for this picture), but where the novel's slow burn simmers throughout, the film is never quite as unsettling as it ought to be. The middle section of the film ought to evoke a sense of intrigue and dread similar to something like The 39 Steps, but instead feels more like going through the motions to get us from London to the trial in Germany. Le Carre's stories aren't about big events; they're about the undercurrents and eddies that take characters and threads alike in unpredictable directions. The film's coldness helps make it stand out next to the glamorized spy movies that dominate the espionage genre, but it also prevents it from delving as deeply into its story as it could have.

This one goes to Sleepy Hollow. It's solidly entertaining, and I love just looking at it. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is solid, but at the end of the day, I'd rather get someone to read le Carre's novel than to see the movie adaptation.

Here, again, I took so long deliberating that my filter timed out. That seems like my cue to wrap up this session. I can tell you that Sleepy Hollow jumped from #169 to #99, but only because as the last match I ranked, that result is on my screen right now. Otherwise, I have no idea what (if any) movement occurred on my Flickchart as a result of this ranking session, nor do I care.

This microcosm is by no means authoritative. For one thing, there are lots of other factors I consider that didn't even come up in these example matches. None of these matches really prompted me to scrutinize the objective merits of either film, primarily because I was able to make a choice without delving into that. I can be swayed by anything from narrative theme to theme song. In the interest of trying to make this somewhat readable, I also gave thought to some factors that I didn't bother to list in my write-up. Still, I hope you got a sense of some of the various things that I take into account when making a decision.

Do you Flickchart? If so, be sure to friend me here, and don't be shy about sharing how you approach using the site!
Also be sure to check out my pal Emil's blog posts: "Flickcharting" and "Flickcharting 2: Rocking my Top 100"
(I, too, Dear Reader, am disappointed that the sequel wasn't called "Flickcharting 2: Electric Boogaloo".)

17 February 2014

"The Movement" by Gail Simone Canceled

I'm greatly disappointed to learn that The Movement, has been canceled by DC Comics. Creator/writer Gail Simone broke the news today on her Tumblr. DC is going to allow the book to be published through its twelfth issue so at least it will have a proper finale instead of the next issue not seeing the light of day. Sales have apparently been too low for DC to continue justify supporting the book. It's one of just three comics I read each month (all three are on my holds list, something I never had until last year).


The temptation, of course, is always there to lash out at the bean counters who wield the hatchet. All things considered, honoring a twelve-issue commitment and issuing a collected edition is awfully good of DC Comics. Some fans will also be upset at their fellow readers for continuing to buy umpteen Bat- and X-books instead of taking a chance on The Movement. It does seem to be a systemic problem. The publishers put out all those comics starring the A-list characters, and fans buy them because they love the characters. But when they're finished buying all of that month's Batman or X-Men books, there's no room in their budget to try anything else. It's hard to tell a publisher to leave money on the table and not put out as many of those easy-to-sell books as possible, but I also have to wonder whether they've essentially tied their own hands by maxing out their readers' budgets.


I feel badly that I fell behind on reviewing it in this blog. I'm not influential enough that I think it would have made any difference, but it bothers me because next to actually buying the book each month, spreading word of mouth is the most important thing anyone can do to show support. In that, I failed The Movement. I've had a bit of a breakdown the last several months. Nothing catastrophic, mind you, but one key aspect is that I've lost my sense of belonging and purpose as a blogger. I feel like the world doesn't need me contributing to its white noise.


Going forward, I believe that The Movement has a future. It's already been added to the canon of the TV show, Arrow. The characters are interesting, as is the book's premise of marginalized super humans banding together not because they have powers, but because they're marginalized people. I adore Vengeance Moth and her fruit snacks. I think The Movement has potential to become one of the great cult comics. Perhaps once the trade paperback collected edition makes it available to casual readers, it will find its audience.

What matters right now is that these wonderful characters exist. They're out there now, and their initial story isn't finished being told.



I was going to use cover art from the book to illustrate this piece, but I've gotten such a kick out of Vengeance Moth's fruit snack offerings that I felt compelled to go with that motif instead. Art by Freddie Williams II from various issues. Scans not mine (they do link to the original sharers, though).

03 February 2014

Kenny Chesney "When the Sun Goes Down"

When the Sun Goes Down
Kenny Chesney

Produced by Buddy Cannon and Kenny Chesney
Date of Release: 3 February 2004

I've been fixated on the fact that this album, as of today, is now a full decade old. It wasn't Kenny Chesney's breakthrough album (that was 1998's Everywhere We Go) or even necessarily my personal favorite (that might be 2005's Be as You Are: Songs from an Old Blue Chair). I can't even say that this album established the paradigm for his discography; that was done in his previous album, 2002's No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems. Yet it's When the Sun Goes Down that perhaps best represents not just his music, but that phase in my own life.

"I Go Back", one of two songs penned solo by Chesney, is the album's thesis, which I'm not entirely sure registered with me at the time. I was 25 years old when this album dropped. I was then in the prime age demographic for mainstream country radio. These songs were written and recorded with me at least partly in mind. They addressed me, just as today's radio addresses today's 25 year old listeners. Chesney is known for Caribbean aesthetics, but also for introspective, reflective songs. I was still in the early part of forming the kinds of life experiences referenced throughout this album when it came out.

Despite being a commuter student who never partied a single night inside a college dorm room, I identified with "Keg in the Closet" (co-written by Chesney and Brett James). The title track and "Old Blue Chair" both took me back to my two weeks in Barbados in 2000. "Some People Change" (Michael Dulaney, Jason Sellers, Neil Thrasher)- later covered and released as a single by Montgomery Gentry - hit home for me, growing up in an area where prejudice even today sometimes doesn't bother to hide itself. "Outta Here" (Josh Leo) was an album cut that really caught my ear because in those days, I was taking a road trip each year, and the sporadic overnight/out-of-town getaway, too.

"Being Drunk's a Lot Like Loving You" (Chesney and Skip Ewing) was an instant favorite. I think the song is absolutely brilliant. I feel like I could live in "Anything but Mine" (Scooter Carusoe). I love the dichotomy of this guy acting like Mary should somehow be committed to him, despite his own confession that they both know it's not true when he said "I love you". Just reading the lyrics would make this guy seem like a total jerk, yet somehow Chesney's inflections tell us that it's more a matter of this guy romanticizing this obviously doomed summertime fling. He knows she's not his and that she'll move on with her life, just as he will. She's free to define it for herself however she wants, too, of course. It's not easy to be vulnerable and exposed while also being egocentric, but this song comes as close to nailing it as any I've ever heard.

There was a deluxe edition of this album that included three live recordings ("Live Those Songs", "What I Need to Do" and a cover of "Please Come to Boston"), but Target had an exclusive edition that added a second disc of five studio covers ("Marina Del Rey", "Come Monday", "I Wonder Do You Think of Me?", "I'm on Fire", and "I Always Get Lucky with You"). I've always accepted that the album proper ends with "Old Blue Chair", but I view these additional eight tracks as a hell of an encore.

For that reason, it actually kinda works that the live tracks come between the album proper and the Target bonus disc. (I know I could re-sequence the tracks in iTunes and move the live tracks to the end, but that doesn't feel right to me.) It feels like Chesney threw up his hands and said, "Alright, so that stuff will pay the bills. Here's what I wanna play now." I love that kind of thing in concert and it plays well here. Of the covers, my faves were always the live acoustic performance of Dave Loggins's "Please Come to Boston", Jimmy Buffett's "Come Monday" and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire". In truth, there are times when I prefer the "encore" eight to the album itself, though I dig the whole thing.

Ten years later, I find myself a bit wistful for that time in my life, but without the mess of wanting to relive it or fixating on it. It was a good time for me. I had a ball, even while Crohn's was beginning to manifest itself and went misdiagnosed until 2005. I don't need to be 25 again, though, and that's what makes When the Sun Goes Down a brilliant album for reflecting on that phase in my life: it was recorded by a guy who, himself, was reflecting on being that age. There's a perspective of hindsight to just about every song here that addresses me at this point in my life just as clearly as the activities described reflected where I was when it was released. I understood that duality existed in 2004, but as I listen to the album again tonight in 2014, I find myself appreciating it.

My favorite music video from the album remains "Anything but Mine":

19 January 2014

Rosanne Cash "The River & the Thread"

The River & the Thread
Rosanne Cash

Produced and arranged by John Leventhal
Co-produced by Rick DePofi

All songs written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal

Except “When The Master Calls The Roll” written by Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell, “Two Girls” written by Townes Van Zandt, “Biloxi” written by Jesse Winchester.

Date of Release: 14 January 2014
I grew up in a small town in a county adjacent to Louisville, which touts itself as being either the northernmost Southern city, or the southernmost Northern city, depending on your perspective. I've always been very much the cliche of the small town kid impatient with home, drawn by the idea of the hustle and bustle - and sophistication - of a large city. In my brief, healthy adulthood I got to do a bit of traveling and I loved it. My brother, on the other hand, insists that our small hometown has gotten too big for his liking. This is probably the chief reason I identify so closely with Rosanne Cash. My parents divorced when I was a young boy, but never lived more than two counties away from one another, and yet they may as well have been as far apart as Cash's mother in California was from her father in Tennessee.

The reason that mainstream radio targets young listeners is because they're the ones desperate to engage the world, but kept at arm's length. But the thing is, there's almost always about a decade age gap between the stars of radio and the listeners. Your radio heroes become your big brothers and big sisters, really. They're scouting the world for you, letting you know the inside dope on the things that you don't trust your parents to know about. And so here we are, at this point in our lives, where Rosanne Cash is still scouting ahead for me, but about very different things from when we were both younger.

Some have probably called The River & the Thread a "homecoming" album, given that it's all about Cash's Southern roots in Arkansas, Tennessee, and the Mississippi Delta. Sure, it is that, but it's something else. It's a reconciliation album. I hear on this album the phrasing of a woman who has learned to forgive herself for having once been impatient with these places and these parts of herself. If the album has a thesis song, it is surely "The Long Way Home", in which Cash waves off any attempted apology from the past. "You thought you left it all behind/You thought you'd up and gone/But all you did was figure out/How to take the long way home". It's not just acceptance and forgiveness; there's also self-validation to these lyrics. They're the kind of thing one can only write when one feels contented with the choices they've made.

No matter how self-assured everyone else ever thinks you are, you know when you up the ante that the stakes go up, too. Every act of rebellion, every time you roll your eyes, every fight you pick; they all cause some part of you to ask whether you're trying to burn a bridge. Sometimes you really aren't; you just can't go down the path in front of you for reasons you don't even understand. And sometimes, truth be told, you are trying to burn a bridge. Getting older is about passing judgment on yourself for all of those times, and assessing whether your little insurrections got you anywhere or if they were a tempest in a teacup. I hear on this album, and in "The Long Way Home" specifically, that Cash has acquitted herself. That's good to know, because it means that one day I might, too.

By definition, and pursuant to the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1850, all music about the South romanticizes. Yet, I don't hear romanticizing on The River & the Thread. (That's even more impressive when you account for the fact that "When the Master Calls the Roll" is about the Civil War.) For the most part, references to other people are either immediately specific (as in "Etta's Tune", perhaps my favorite song in the collection, a sweet and endearing tribute to Etta Marshall), or in a sort of universal "we" sense. There are no "all us Southerners" anthems to be found here; such a song would be too pedestrian. You can find those songs blaring down the highway. Cash is strolling down dirt roads here - actual, honest to God roads made of honest to God dirt. She doesn't even have to mention the honeysuckle or the humidity. They're just implied, and those are things that as a young boy I have to admit, I found I noticed them more when I was at my dad's. (Alright, fine; I enjoyed them more then, too. But I'll deny it if you say I said so.)

The River & the Thread isn't going to land any singles in the Billboard Top Country Airplay chart, and that's fine. The young people tuning into country radio aren't ready for this album. They're still itching to get on the highway to take them across the South, and out of it. This album is for listeners at a different place in their lives, who have gotten that out of their system. I wouldn't have truly appreciated or understood The River & the Thread 15 years ago, but the fun thing is, Rosanne Cash couldn't have written or recorded it then, either.

It's nice to have a scout looking ahead for you.

24 December 2013

2013 Christmas Cards

I enjoyed last year's Christmas card concept so much I brought it out again this year. I only managed to knock out eleven sketch cards this year, but I'm hopeful to do more than that next year. For the most part, I stuck to the idea of trying my hand at characters I'd never previously sketched. Another key element from last year that I repeated this year was blindly pairing each card with an envelop, so that I had no idea which card was being sent to which recipient. I didn't want to post these scans until I knew they'd all been received, but by now, one card sent to Germany has been received so I figure most of them should have been delivered. Only a few recipients have confirmed that they've gotten their cards, though I know at least two are out of town and may not have received theirs before departing.

Cheshire Cat
I initially tried to find an illustration by John Tenniel from the original publication of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland that I felt suitable for sketching, but I failed in that search. I elected instead to go with the Cheshire Cat design from Disney's animated movie. I added the dangling bell, which I found an amusing role reversal.

Cookie Monster
You already know of my love for Cookie Monster, Dear Reader, so it should be no surprise that he made it into the pool of subjects for this year's cards. I do feel that his jawline is too elliptical, though. As I look at it now, I also feel that I should have incorporated cookies into this sketch.

Eeyore
It's possible that I'd done another sketch of Eeyore once before, but I can't really say that I know of such an instance. I should have filled in the brim and ball on Eeyore's Santa cap, but otherwise I'm pretty pleased with how this one turned out.

Fone Bone
Fone Bone! I love how guilty he looks here. Like with Eeyore, I should have filled in the brim and ball of his cap to cover up the sketch lines of his head. I'm not sure whoever received this card will recognize Fone, but I adore the character and the design. This was, I think, my second sketch of him (the first being when I put him on my first ever illustrated comic book box in 2012).

Frankenstein's Monster
An unusual choice for a Christmas card, I'll grant you, but I absolutely love the character - specifically, the movie version in Universal's iconic series with Boris Karloff in the role of The Monster (or The Creature, as Karloff preferred). I thought it fun to put a Santa cap on the old boy. I'm not sure this one came out as well as I had hoped. Without the bolts on the neck, I'm afraid it's probably confusing who this is supposed to be since the cap obscures the most iconic part of the design (his flat head and distinctive hairstyle, plus the forehead scar).

Harry Potter
This one is taken from the cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I tried to think of something Christmas-y to do with it, but I'd already grown bored of throwing Santa caps on everyone and try as I might, I just could not think of a single thing to do with this one. That aside, I think he turned out fairly well.

Horton
Dr. Seuss is always good for sketch ideas, because his design work is instantly recognizable and usually fairly simple. I'd never sketched Horton before, and I really like this piece. Like Harry Potter, though, I wish I'd thought of something Christmas-y to add.

Ramona Quimby
I'm not gonna lie: this is my favorite. I adored the Ramona books as a young boy, and even named the youngest cat after the precocious character. I originally wanted to borrow from the cover of Ramona Quimby, Age 8 that I had in my youth, but they didn't have that version at the library. I instead lifted this from the cover of Ramona and Her Father, in which the two are down on their knees and elbows trying to stare down the other. I replaced Ramona's dad with a fireplace, and in the process transferred her frustration to impatience with Santa Claus.

Smurfette
I almost went with Papa Smurf, but I wanted to increase the number of female characters represented in this year's assortment of cards. This was taken from the DVD cover of the 2011 live action movie, which is why Smurfette doesn't look quite like her more familiar, original design. Still, I think she came out fairly cute and whimsical and I like this piece.

Snoopy
Like Dr. Seuss, Charles Schultz did some absolutely brilliant design work. I think I may have done a Snoopy sketch once upon a time, but I really can't say. I got a laugh out of this image when I came across it in a collection of Peanuts strips.

Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius
My favorite of the Looney Tunes bunch by far has always been Wile E. Coyote. Curiously, though, I'd never sketched him before this card. I regret not putting tangled Christmas lights in this sketch somewhere, but other than that I think he turned out nicely.

06 December 2013

Let's Talk About Rape Survivors

There's no shortage of reasons or prompts for starting such a discussion. We could pick a high profile case, such as the recently dismissed charges against Florida State University's star quarterback Jameis Winston. USA Network seems to run a weekly marathon of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. We have a seemingly endless parade of politicians saying something asinine, like Todd Akins's notorious "legitimate rape" remark last year.

But more likely, you or someone you know is the one in four women sexually assaulted each year in the United States.

Through social media, I have become connected with several such survivors in recent years. You might suspect that these women are man-hating militants calling for escalating acts of heinous violence in revenge, but you'd be entirely wrong. In fact, I have yet to encounter the revenge fantasy at all.
They want to heal.
Instead of those "they should all be castrated" champions rushing to their aid, they find themselves standing alone. Their situations are used as fodder for lazy storytelling; as the subject of despicable jokes; and perhaps worst of all, they find themselves under suspicion as liars. They become The Little Girl Who Cried "Rape", toxic to be around without trustworthy witnesses, because, you know, they have a "history" of attention-seeking.

What I have heard, time and again, is how crushing it was to speak up at all. This is true even of the most vocal activists I know. Even some of the most candid sharers have only been able to bring themselves to acknowledge that something happened, unable to go any farther into detail than that. It doesn't matter that philosophically, these survivors understand that it was not their fault. They face tremendous scrutiny and disbelief at every turn, and that is their ultimate battle.

Very rarely have I heard a survivor say much of anything at all about the actual assailant. Whenever a news report flashes across my Facebook wall reporting that someone was charged or convicted of sexual assault, there are often people quick to call for castration, the electric chair, etc. None of the survivors I know would bother to say such things. Not because they're altruistic, or possessed of zen master level big picture serenity, but because their real battle isn't with their assailant.
Their real battle is with the culture that puts the victim on trial instead of the assailant.
When the survivors I know have shared their stories, this is where their anger is directed: At the friends who chose to believe the assailant instead of them; at the police they could scarcely make themselves talk to in the first place who dragged their heels; at the ways in which total strangers rationalize defenses for why there's "no one to blame" but the victim for wearing a skirt or having a glass of wine, or for going to a party, or myriad other excuses.

It's even worse for women of color, and for the trans community - both of whom are marginalized inherently anyway. The statistics for either of these groups is staggering. Few believe a white woman who reports an assault; fewer even care when it's a woman of color or a trans woman. Women of color are still plagued by the "Jezebel" accusation dating to the era of slavery, and trans women are derided as not even being "real" women anyway, and since "a man can't be raped", they're obviously not trustworthy.

Sexual assault survivors want, need, and deserve to be believed. That's what they ask of our society. It's not hard to find survivors daring to tell their stories. They're all over Tumblr and Twitter. I won't embarrass anyone I know by citing or linking, but I invite you to take some time to seek out some of them. Read for yourself. Just knowing someone acknowledges and believes their account can help a little bit in their healing process.

21 November 2013

On Black Friday Eve (f.k.a. Thanksgiving)

It's been coming for the last few years, and this year, major retailers have essentially canceled Thanksgiving for their employees in order to bring Black Friday sales even earlier. Opponents have called for boycotts and protests. The Internet is all a-tizzy with condemnations about corporate greed, our enslavement to materialism, the disposable world of iGadgets, and the value of time with family above all. "It's disgusting to think there are people who would rather stand in line to buy an iPad than spend time with their family." (Personally, I exhaust my patience for being around my family about 20 minutes after we eat.)

A few years ago, I adopted something of an informal policy to refrain from discussing a lot of subjects. Following Craig Ferguson's advice, I began to ask myself, "Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me, now?" There's one thing in all the debating that I haven't heard discussed much that has prompted me to write this evening, and that's the importance to poor and working class families of those Black Friday deals, so here I am, saying something now.

The stereotype of the event, of course, is an angry mob of soccer moms trampling one another to fill their shopping carts with Tickle Me Elmo dolls and whatever the latest video game console is. We're sickened by the indulgence and extravagance, knowing that all this effort - and money - goes to buy things that kids will outgrow by New Year's Eve or will be obsolete by summer. Legit criticism, and I largely agree, but keep in mind that you're really criticizing the heart and soul of post-industrialist capitalism, which is all about peddling luxuries marketed as necessities. Fight that fight all year round, and don't just wait until November to get holier-than-thou about it.

But here's the thing: Not every Black Friday shopper is trying to keep alive a consecutive streak of spoiling their kids.
It isn't all about the fat cats at the top getting fatter because Little Johnny gets another iGadget for Christmas.
There are a whole lot of families out there who rely on these deals just to stretch their dollars far enough to buy coats and shoes that fit their kids. BFAds.net shows 24 pages of items in Black Friday ads for Kids' Apparel. There are eight pages of appliances. Nearly a quarter of those items are dryers. Really self-indulgent, those things.

I'm not saying that these items constitute the lion's share of Black Friday sales. They don't. But they do account for some of them, and the families who most rely on getting a break on these kinds of things have a very difficult time abstaining on principle. Here's a remark from something on Facebook tonight:
People are so stupid.Who cares about saving 100.00 on 1, 000.00 Tv or some other dumb shit.I just sleep on Black Friday.
Answer: A family who needs a $1000 item and only has $900 on hand. (I won't say TV, because setting aside the obnoxious debate about the extent to which anyone "needs" a TV, there are far better deals on TVs than $100 off a $1000 model to be found). Believe it or not, but there actually are families out there right now who are genuinely excited at the idea that they'll finally be able to wash and dry their clothes at home instead of going to a Laundro-mat, and all because a Black Friday deal is going to put a new machine within their financial reach. They're not "stupid". They're broke, just like an increasingly large number of us. It's not exciting. Dryers have none of the sex appeal of an Xbox One. But it really does bother me that, five years after the economic meltdown threw so many Americans down the ladder, that we still forget how hard a lot of families really do struggle.

I'm not suggesting that anyone reading this change their plans (whatever they may be). I didn't write this to guilt or to shame anyone, and neither did I write it to defend or excuse retail associates having to ring up thousands of people instead of enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with their families. But I think it's important for critics to remember that not everyone shares the same circumstances. It's as hard for a family trying to finally get hold of a dryer to abstain from these sales as it is for the worker who needs the job to refuse to work during those days.

Just try to remember, then, that just like the American economy itself, it might be the people burying themselves in luxury goods who make the magazine cover, but somewhere else you'll find a lot of people just trying to get by. For these people, showing up Thanksgiving evening to fight the crowds isn't about keeping up with the Joneses at Christmastime. It's about trying to do the best they can for their families, during a limited window established by people who have more power than they do.