The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Thursday, July 31, 2003
THE SUN KING: Sam Phillips died yesterday. I don't doubt that men as talented as Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, and Johnny Cash would have found their way into the public eye without Phillips' help. But for one man at a tiny independent label to discover so many incredible musicians -- well, that suggests he had a certain talent of his own. And to record both black and white performers in the segregated south, and to actively encourage the interpenetration of their styles -- most famously with Presley, but perhaps most fruitfully with Rich: that suggests a real awareness of how to create great music, as opposed to merely making a successful record. Rest in peace, Sam. We owe you a lot.

posted by Jesse 6:38 PM
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THOSE DASTARDLY REPUBLICANS: I still get press releases saying the GOP pulled off a coup in 2000 by halting an election. Now I'm getting more spam from the same places, saying the California Republicans are trying to pull a coup by holding an election. Which is it, folks?

posted by Jesse 10:39 AM
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Saturday, July 26, 2003
artcars today. There's always a few of these parked around the American Visionary Art Museum, once-standard vehicles that have been pasted, painted, sculpted, and covered with stones, phones, toys, severed doll-arms, or anything else the driver fancies. But they congregated there today, some from Baltimore and some from far away: they parked there for an hour then paraded en masse to Artscape, an annual festival that I'd be visiting right now if it weren't so bloody hot outside.

Everyone's seen customized cars before, and some of them are amazing sights. But these are far madder than that. There's a van decorated with eerie sculptures, all of them made from melted buckets; a car covered with Finster-style portraits of soul, country, and early rock'n'roll stars, plus Jesus; a black auto coated with handwritten jokes and Discordian slogans, its Ford logo altered to say Fnord. One car has a note attached to it explaining why the driver decided to join the artcar movement. Another bears a note saying that artcars aren't a fucking movement, thank you, and he doesn't get any grants to do this, and no, he's not some damn hippie. It also asked for donations.

"People speed up when they drive past me, to get a better look at my car," one guy explains. "So I slow down, and then they slow down too. I can't shake them." He pauses. "I've missed so many exits that way."

This is what I like about Baltimore.

posted by Jesse 2:19 PM
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Thursday, July 24, 2003
short item about the BBC on the Reason website today.

posted by Jesse 7:15 PM
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IMAGINARY ESSAYS: Has it really been a week since I've posted anything here? To make up for lost time, here's the things I meant to write but haven't gotten around to:

* a glowing review of a wonderful DVD,
The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer;

* my response to the suddenly popular question, "Is Google God?";

* my take on the Niger-uranium scandal; and

* a rant about that self-promoting buffoon Dick Morris.

Stay tuned: I may yet produce any or all of those essays-in-potentia. Well, not the bit about Niger and uranium -- Josh Marshall ended up writing that one for me.

posted by Jesse 1:02 PM
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Thursday, July 17, 2003
IDIOTARIAN: (n) 1. (archaic) An idiot. 2. Someone who has offended an idiot.

posted by Jesse 1:39 PM
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Tuesday, July 15, 2003
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH PLAGIARISM: I've decided that Blair Hornstine is a genius. The infamously
litigious grade-grubber was just de-admitted from Harvard because, while writing columns for the Cherry Hill Courier-Post, she committed repeated acts of plagiarism. The targets of her larceny included a platitude-pumping speech by Bill Clinton and a sedate paper from the Nautilus Institute; they were not words that a woman of literary ambition would want to pass off as her own. I was prepared to declare that she deserves the worst just for her poor taste in prose, but then I actually read what she wrote. And lightening struck.

Here is the passage Hornstine lifted, more or less intact, from Clinton's Thanksgiving proclamation of 2000. I dare you to try to read the entire thing:
At Thanksgiving this year and every year, in worship services and family celebrations across our country, Americans carry on that tradition of giving, sharing not only with family and friends, but also with those in need throughout their communities.

Every generation of Americans has benefited from the generosity, talents, efforts and contributions of their fellow citizens. All of us have been enriched by the diverse cultures, traditions and beliefs of the millions of people who, by birth or choice, have come to call America their home. All of us are beneficiaries of our founders' wisdom and of the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. While Americans are an independent people, we are interdependent as well, and our greatest achievements are those we have accomplished together.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us remember with gratitude that despite our differences in background, age, politics or race, each of us is a member of our larger American family and that, working together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish in this promising new century.
Can't do it, can you? My mind was wandering before I got through the first sentence, and reading bad writing is part of my job. Hornstine's chief creative act was to make Clinton's words even worse: Where the president was satisfied to tell us that "there is nothing we cannot accomplish," Hornstine had the inspired mediocrity to add "in this promising new century."

If a writer's going to plagiarize, this is obviously the best way to escape detection. To catch her, you don't just have to stay awake through her alleged work; you have to remember hearing those exquisitely unmemorable words sometime before. And if you do remember hearing those words before, you'll still have to shrug off the obvious conclusion that that's because they're all clichés anyway.

Yes, I know: Our little Tracy Flick did get caught, so her method didn't work. But that's only because she got greedy and sued her school for the right to be its sole valedictorian, an act so egregiously petty that it launched an army of levelers itching to take her down. If she had left well enough alone, surely her thefts would have remained undetected. They would have served their purpose: not to delight or inform those who read them, but to let her add another extracurricular activity to her Harvard application.

posted by Jesse 5:11 PM
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Wednesday, July 09, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: Like most journalists, I'm actually a frustrated novelist. I occasionally produce short stories, and one of them -- titled "Aesop and the Tree" -- has just been published in the North Carolina magazine The Blotter. If you live in the right part of Tarheel country, you can pick up a copy at a newsstand; the rest of you will have to read it

posted by Jesse 1:16 PM
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THIS BLOG ENTRY DOES NOT EXIST: Remember that Iraqi "children's prison" that was "liberated" a few months back? Turns out it was actually an

Two predictions:

1. The majority of the people who trumpeted the "children's prison" story will not feel bad about circulating what turned out to be misinformation, on the grounds that Saddam's regime did a lot of other bad things and, besides, it says here that conditions at the orphanage were pretty lousy anyway.

2. Despite that, almost none of them will cease to bash us folks on the other side of the war debate when we cite stories that are believable when they first appear but then turn out to be untrue. That's the way these things work. Everyone makes mistakes; everyone focuses all their attention on the other crowd's mistakes; everyone gets all self-righteous and declares that they'll never believe anything they hear from The New York Times/the BBC/The Wall Street Journal editorial page/InstaPundit/whatever again; no one makes the same declarations about the erring organs on their own side.

I actually believed the children's prison story myself, and I'm a card-carrying dove. So what does that make me? Open-minded, or just a more catholic sap?

posted by Jesse 11:16 AM
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Monday, July 07, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: Today on the Reason site, a short
article on the pending occupation of Liberia.

posted by Jesse 4:24 PM
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PENNSYLVANIA TURNPIKE AFTERMATH: How come it's the least pleasant roads in America that charge admission?

posted by Jesse 1:34 PM
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Saturday, July 05, 2003
ANGRY GREEN GIANT: Why are so many people picking on Ang Lee's Hulk? They find the special effects unrealistic? Well, nothing here is as disappointing as the effects in Spider-Man, which basically turned into a video game whenever it was time for the action to begin; yet its reviews were glowing. They're annoyed that some of the fight scenes were filmed in the dark, so you can't quite tell what's going on? Lee did the same thing in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and no one complained but me. They don't like their superheroic action mixed with more "serious" themes? Then why did they flock to Crouching Tiger, whose chop-socky battles were interspersed with incredibly tedious ruminations on loyalty, honor, and other weighty matters? At least Hulk is actually about rage, repression, and distant father figures, rather than merely expounding the importance of such topics at soporific length.

Or is it, as some insist, because Lee is a middlebrow filmmaker, unable either to descend into pure pulp or raise it to high art? I hate to break it to you, but that's the Marvel formula. As Jonathan Lethem once pointed out, the classic Marvel comics of the '60s and '70s are mildly embarrassing to their now grown-up fans in a way their DC counterparts (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) are not. Like a Yes album or a Harlan Ellison story, they aspired to be more than they were capable of becoming -- and were aimed at an adolescent audience not yet able to recognize the difference. They demand more than simple nostalgia, but they can't quite deliver what they promise. Before you can appreciate just what was good about them, you have to get past everything that's bad.

In other words, they're middlebrow pulp. Ang Lee is thus the perfect director for the project, and he has made, in my view, the best of the Marvel films.

It helps that this is more a monster movie than a superhero movie, and thus belongs to a genre with a longer history of being done properly. (Lee obviously realizes this, since he's filled it with plagiarisms-cum-homages to King Kong, Frankenstein, and other precursors.) It is, as a bonus, one of the most visually inventive films of the year, shot and edited with more playful energy than most summer action epics.

If you want a serious, complex movie about familial dysfunction, watch Capturing the Friedmans. If you just want some mindless action fun, then hey, I hear there's a new Charlie's Angels flick. But if you want a film that gets across the rich but essentially adolescent flavor of an old Marvel comic, you couldn't do better than Hulk.

posted by Jesse 1:26 PM
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Tuesday, July 01, 2003
CHAN IS MISSING: The Fox Movie Channel
says that it "will discontinue the broadcast of the Charlie Chan mystery films. Originally restored to meet the requests of mystery fans and film preservation buffs, Fox Movie Channel scheduled these films in a showcase intended to illustrate the positive aspects of these movies such as the complex story lines/ characters and Charlie Chan's great intellect....However, Fox Movie Channel has been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers. Fox Movie Channel realizes that these historic films were produced at a time where racial sensitivities were not as they are today."

By contrast, my favorite cable channel, Turner Classic Movies, broadcasts these films frequently and without excisions. One of them actually had Charlie Chan onscreen with Steppin Fetchit, which I suppose is the racist's equivalent to teaming up Superman with Batman, Dracula with Frankenstein, or Domingo with Pavarotti.

Was it offensive? Yes, but it's also part of our history, and I'm glad it's available to those of us who happen to be interested in the past. Besides, one or two of those movies are actually pretty good, if you can get past the racial stereotyping. I recommend Charlie Chan on Broadway, a surprisingly well-crafted piece of pulp. Don't worry: It isn't the one with Steppin Fetchit.

posted by Jesse 6:20 PM
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