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

Friday, September 26, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: Pick up the October issue of Reader's Digest. Turn to page 115. There you'll find a very abridged version of a
post I made to this blog last year.

Reader's Digest. Wow. Between that and the piece in USA Today, I might finally impress my elderly relatives.


posted by Jesse 6:34 PM
. . .
FALL OFFENSIVE 2003: John Ritter, Edward Said, Robert Palmer, Johnny Cash, George Plimpton, Stanley "Whitey" Fafara, Edward Teller, Warren Zevon, that guy from WKRP...

Here may be conclusive proof that the country's getting back to normal: I have yet to see anyone
blame this wave of dead celebrities on Al Qaeda.


posted by Jesse 5:57 PM
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Thursday, September 25, 2003
DEAN VS. CLARK: So these are the frontrunners, eh? I was really hoping it would be Sharpton and Lieberman, just to liven up the New York primary.


posted by Jesse 10:52 AM
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Tuesday, September 23, 2003
NEW ON VIDEO: Michael Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, considered in four parts:

Section One

Moore, who first made a name for himself as a defender of the working class, spends about 30-40 minutes holding working-class gun culture up to ridicule. In homes and theaters across the country, gun-shy college-educated children of privilege giggle with delight.

Section Two

Suddenly, Moore turns his attention to U.S. foreign policy. Could there be a relationship between the violence of the American government and the violence of American civilians? It's hard to say -- he drops the issue almost as soon as he raises it, never bothering to sketch out an argument.

Section Three

Moore argues that Americans are prone to panic and excessive fear. He blames the media for this, saying they sensationalize violence and demonize certain social groups, such as black men. Astute viewers will note that this comes in the middle of a movie that rarely stops sensationalizing violence -- and spent around half an hour demonizing the rural working class.

Section Four

A jumble of other stuff. Apparently eager to prove that he's guilty of every sin he or anyone else has ever accused the media of committing, Moore:

1. Interviews the principal of a Michigan school where a little girl was murdered by another student, extracts little information, but includes the segment anyway so we can see his Montel-like efforts to comfort his interviewee when she starts to cry.

2. Attempts to interview Dick Clark, on the grounds that the mother of the boy who committed that school shooting worked at one of Clark's restaurants. I don't quite get the premise here.

3. Takes a couple of wounded Columbine survivors to K-Mart headquarters because they were shot with, in a phrase he uses repeatedly, "K-Mart bullets." Insists on showing their wounds to low-level K-Mart flunkies. After a day, K-Mart agrees to stop selling ammunition.

A side note: There were at least two incidents, neither mentioned in Moore's movie, in which school shootings were stopped several minutes before police arrived because one of the potential victims had a gun. I couldn't tell you whether those lifesaving firearms were loaded with K-Mart bullets, but if they were I guess they won't be anymore.

4. Interviews a semi-senile Charlton Heston about guns and violence, until Heston gets fed up and walks away. As Heston leaves, Moore tries to show him a picture of the dead Michigan girl. Then he leaves the picture near Heston's door.

Mawkish and obnoxious at the same time -- that's our Michael!

Summary

This movie took a lot of heat for its
carelessness with facts. But its argument is so confused, its style so hypocritical, and most of its jokes so unfunny that it would be a bad movie even if it were scrupulously honest, just as Moore's Roger & Me was a funny and riveting movie even though it took some liberties with the truth. I stopped being a fan of this filmmaker long ago, but even I was surprised at just how terrible Bowling for Columbine turned out to be.

Behold Michael Moore: here there once was a talented man.


posted by Jesse 6:43 PM
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Sunday, September 21, 2003
LOST IN TRANSLATION: The easy, lazy way to describe a Sofia Coppola movie is to compare it to a music video. That's not really right, though: videos usually put their images in the service of their music, while Coppola's films are visually driven, her poppy-ethereal soundtracks simply setting the mood for her montages. If you must make a musical metaphor, they're more like an extended DJ set, with unexpected songs dropped into the mix and transformed by their sudden new context. In The Virgin Suicides, Styx's "Come Sail Away" suddenly feels nothing like a rock-radio dinosaur. In Lost in Translation, the director works a similar witching on karaoke performances of the Sex Pistols and the Pretenders, Bryan Ferry and Elvis Costello. Few Hollywood films are as dreamlike as Coppola's, with her narratives that sometimes seem driven more by ambience than by plot, but where every step of the story somehow feels inevitable.

Lost in Translation stars Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, and I hope I'm not seen as giving short shrift to Johansson, who is excellent, if I say more here about Murray. Looking back on his career, it's striking how often he's given good performances even in lousy movies. Rent an otherwise forgettable flick like Meatballs or Scrooged, and just watch the way he works so hard to be funnier than the script. This hasn't stopped as he's taken less comic roles in more respectable pictures. I thought Cradle Will Rock was a confused and overpraised mash note to a bunch of Stalinist hacks, but there in the middle of the mess was an amazing dramatic performance from Murray; the one thing, really, that made the movie worth watching at all. Add in his genuinely good pictures -- from fun light fare like Stripes and Quick Change to modern classics like Groundhog Day and Rushmore -- and you have a body of work as excellent as any other actor's.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that Murray has never seemed interested in begging to be loved. Like Dabney Coleman or W.C. Fields, he's often likeable despite himself; the prototypical Bill Murray character is a charming asshole. Sometimes, as in Groundhog Day, he's redeemed by the close of the film; other times, as in Stripes, his essential nature remains unchanged to the end. As Murray moved into more dramatic work, he didn't look for the sort of crowd-pleasing sap embraced by so many other comedians eager for respect. (Hello, Robin Williams.) He kept taking on unappealing yet strangely sympathetic roles: the mobster in Mad Dog and Glory, the reactionary ventriloquist in Cradle Will Rock, the bitter old rich man in Rushmore. Between his natural charisma and his willingness to play rogues, his characters arrive already armed with more than one dimension.

And then his abilities as an actor add more flesh to the body. There's a scene early in Coppola's film where Murray is making a whiskey commercial. Everyone on the set but him speaks Japanese, and he has no idea what's going on. He tells us this with small movements of his jaw and eyes, and every one of those little facial ticks elicits an enormous laugh from the audience.

I'm not an actor, but I'm pretty sure of this: It can't be easy to make people laugh just by moving your pupils slightly to the left or right. Bill Murray is a remarkably good performer. And this is a remarkably good movie.


posted by Jesse 1:29 AM
. . .
SMITH ISLAND UPDATE: Remember those islanders who
refused to leave their homes when the government tried to evacuate them last week? The hurricane's come and gone, and all of them survived. Cheers.


posted by Jesse 1:03 AM
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Friday, September 19, 2003
PEACE IN OUR TIME: David Horowitz's webzine FrontPage has
reprinted our debate from the Reason site, which probably makes me the first person ever to be published in both CounterPunch and FrontPage in the same week. I've enjoyed the readers' comments on Horowitz's site -- especially the guy who called me "the Neville Chamberlain of academia."


posted by Jesse 3:39 PM
. . .
Thursday, September 18, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: Remember yesterday's
column on David Horowitz's new crusade? Today there's more: a response from Horowitz, and a rejoinder back from me.


posted by Jesse 6:09 PM
. . .
AN ISLAND OUT OF LUCK: God bless the ornery anarchists of
Smith Island. They're prime candidates to be swamped by Hurricane Isabel, and the state has ordered the island evacuated. But at least 50 of them are simply refusing to go.

This is, arguably, a very, very bad idea. But it's a sign of how much those folks distrust the authorities and are willing to defy their orders. In three centuries of continuous settlement, Smith Island hasn't ever had a local government; and the islanders don't care for taking orders from the statists on the shore. Even when it really probably is for their own good. I hope they all survive.


posted by Jesse 4:48 PM
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Wednesday, September 17, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: I've got a new
column on the Reason site dissing David Horowitz's latest campaign.

And CounterPunch has reprinted my farewell to Johnny Cash -- an essay already familiar to readers of this blog.


posted by Jesse 9:28 PM
. . .
OVERLOADED: So if the hurricane doesn't come, what am I gonna do with all these batteries?


posted by Jesse 5:33 PM
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Sunday, September 14, 2003
STEVE EARLE ON JOHNNY CASH:
In 1991 I dropped off the face of the earth, resurfacing in '95 by way of the Davidson County Criminal Justice Center. Later that year Ry Cooder asked me to play electric guitar on John's contribution to the Dead Man Walking soundtrack....I hadn't seen John since I went away and when I walked into the green room at 16th Avenue Sound, he was standing over the pool table with his hand in an old fashioned picnic basket. He looked up when I entered the room and said "Steve, would you like a piece of tenderloin on a biscuit that June made this mornin'?" I allowed how I would and he said "I knew that you would." Then we went in and made a record -- as if nothing bad had ever happened to either one of us.
(from the liner notes to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, expanded CD reissue, 1999)


posted by Jesse 11:44 AM
. . .
Friday, September 12, 2003
YOU WONDER WHY I ALWAYS DRESS IN BLACK: Everybody loved
Johnny Cash. I don't care how much someone swears he hates country music, how long he rants against cowboy hats and checkered shirts and the Grand Old Opry and Goo Goo Clusters. Just wait till he pauses to catch his breath, and then say, "What about Johnny Cash?"

"Oh," he'll tell you. "Johnny Cash is all right."

Cash was one of the great figures of modern popular music, but as I spend the day cycling through the dozen-plus albums of his that I've accumulated over the years, I'm thinking about more than how much I like his records. I'm pondering his iconic stature: his status as the one American that everybody loved. Once I saw a band from Zimbabwe play a concert, and we all laughed when they announced that they were going to play a song "written for us by Johnny Cash." But then they broke into an Afropop version of "Ring of Fire," and everyone looked kind of nonplussed for about a second -- and then we all started dancing. Because everybody loves that song. Everybody loves Johnny Cash.

It's part of the Cash legend that he "came out against the Vietnam War." That he did, but the way he did it is telling. The song in question, "Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues," relates how he and June Carter Cash went to play for the boys overseas, and how much they liked the soliders, and how rough things are over there; it ends with the declaration that they sure hope the boys can come home soon, "in peace." Even Ann Coulter would feel mighty churlish calling a man a traitor for that, or for this little speech he gave at a concert in 1969, right after singing a tribute to the men who died at the Alamo:
Everywhere we go these days, it seems like, all of a sudden, reporters and people will ask us questions -- ask us questions about things that they didn't use to ask. It seems like everyone's concerned about our national problems, about the war in Vietnam -- as we have long been. And they say things like, "How do you feel about the Vietnam situation, the war in Vietnam?"

I'll tell you exactly how I feel about it. This past January we took our entire show, along with my wife June, we went to Long Bien Air Force Base near Saigon. And--

(loud cheering from the crowd)

And a reporter friend of mine asked, said, "That makes you a hawk, doesn't it?" And I said, "No, that don't make me a hawk. No. No, that don't make me a hawk."

(more cheering, not as loud)

But I said, "If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."

(wild cheering)
And then he sings a peacenik folk song, "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."

I saw Cash play just once in my life. It was 1995, and he was riding high from the success of his American Recordings album; the concert was in Seattle, and he had just recorded a track with some local rockers, including Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and Sean Kinney of Alice in Chains. The crowd was a mosaic of the city: grunge kids and grandmas, hippies and cowboys, Christians and drunks.

Everybody seemed to love the show. Because everybody loves Johnny Cash.

(cross-posted to Hit & Run)


posted by Jesse 11:51 AM
. . .
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. BLOG: As of today, this weblog has been around for a year…and contains a few months' worth of posts. Funny how that works, eh?


posted by Jesse 6:31 PM
. . .
Monday, September 08, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: To mark the death of Charles Bronson and the rumored retirement of Clint Eastwood, I wrote a long
piece today for the Reason site about movie vigilantes.

Also: there's a new print edition of Reason, dated October. I don't have any substantial articles in it, but I did write a short item for the Citings section about yet another recent intellectual property fight.


posted by Jesse 4:22 PM
. . .
SEPARATION ANXIETY: So we saw the Orioles play yesterday, our first trip to Camden Yards this season. As we left we were greeted by a band called the Bacon Brothers, playing a free concert in front of a big Michelob banner. The decor was appropriate, since the music would best be described as beer-commercial rock. It was competent but bland, and we would have skipped it entirely were it not for the fact that one of the singers was
Kevin Bacon. So we stopped awhile, just to gape.

Behind us, a sixtysomething woman was dancing a dance far too sultry for a lady her age. Another woman kept yelling for "Footloose," which got funnier and funnier the more I thought about it. We were amused enough to stay for about a song and a half, then decided we'd had enough. As we left, R. commented: "Six degrees isn't enough."


posted by Jesse 1:01 PM
. . .
Friday, September 05, 2003
CALVINO ON FLYING:
To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration that is itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you vanished. Meanwhile, what do you do? How do you handle this absence of yourself from the world and the world from you? You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and the other, because beyond the page there is the void, the anonymity of stopovers, of the metallic uterus that contains you and nourishes you, of the passing crowd always different and always the same. You might as well stick with this other abstraction of travel, accomplished by the anonymous uniformity of typographical characters...
(from
If on a winter's night a traveler, 1979)


posted by Jesse 3:27 PM
. . .
BIRTHDAY CURRY: An excellent birthday dinner last night. Some background: Two years ago, R. took me to a restaurant that served, as one of its temporary specials, an East African Lamb Curry. This was one of the tastiest meals I'd ever eaten, and the restaurant quickly became a favorite -- but they haven't made the curry since then. So last weekend R. persuaded them to make the dish again for me on Thursday.

Or, at least, to make something like the dish: The cooks weren't using a recipe last time -- they had essentially improvised it from the ingredients at hand -- and they thus had no instructions to fall back on except their two-year-old memories. So I last night I ate this extremely tasty meal, basically a vindaloo with African spices, but I couldn't really tell you if I'd had it before. And neither could anyone else.

A very good present. A very kind woman. I'm a lucky man.


posted by Jesse 11:06 AM
. . .
Thursday, September 04, 2003
A THIRD OF A CENTURY, A LITANY OF MISTAKES: Today I finally matched one of the achievements of Jesus: I lived to be 33. If you're interested in marking the occasion by crucifying me, you have good cause: As Hit & Run readers know, Romesh Ponnuru of National Review has just caught me in a
stupid mistake. To make a long story short, when I wrote an article on moral panics and terrorism two years ago, I

1. read a piece claiming that the Patriot Act expands the definition of terrorism to include computer hacking.

2. checked the text of the Patriot Act and, sure enough, found language about perfectly non-lethal sorts of hacking, lodged under the header "cyberterrorism."

3. did not stop to consider that, while this indicated that my original source was not lying, it did not demonstrate that she knew what she was talking about. Turns out that much of that language was already on the books. It would be more accurate to say the act expanded the definition of hacking, along with the government's ability to surveil and prosecute hackers.

We all make mistakes, but it's especially unpleasant to make them in print. It's doubly annoying when the error is something you actually checked: There's sloppiness and there's diligence, but what are we to make of sloppy diligence?

The same thing happened a few years ago when, writing a short item about the sanctions against Iraq, I repeated a common mischaracterization of UNICEF's study of the issue -- that it "reports that the embargo has killed about half a million Iraqi children under the age of 5." In that case I had read several sources that misunderstood what UNICEF had said, dug up the UNICEF report, found a reference to half a million dead Iraqi kids, and not noticed that I had confirmed only the raw number, not the significance my informants had attached to it. (In fact, as Matt Welch later noted in "The Politics of Dead Children," the study did not intend to attribute all 500,000 deaths to the sanctions.) Later I repeated the same mistake in a humor piece for the L.A. Weekly -- when it came time to stick in the dead-babies statistic, I just dug up my older article and repeated the faulty figure from there.

Whoa -- is it error-confession time? OK, bring them on:

1. Earlier this year, as longtime blog-readers know, I made a careless misstatement in an newspaper op-ed.

2. Back in 2000, in a Reason piece called "Intolerant Alliance," I described Abingdon Press as a "religious right outfit." A letter to the editor informed me that I was wrong, in time for us to amend the online version but not in time for our print readers.

3. In 1999, in a feature for Reason on the future of radio, I mentioned in passing that the state of Michigan had called on the FCC to legalize low-power broadcasting. In fact, the resolution had passed the appropriate committee but the legislature itself never got a chance to vote on it. I was the victim of a sloppily written press release -- but that's no excuse, really; I should have picked up the phone and confirmed the story.

4. In 1998, the Alternative Press Review published a piece I'd written about the civil war raging within the Pacifica radio network. A year later, when I was incorporating parts of it into my book Rebels on the Air, I noticed a minor chronological error. I no longer remember what this mistake was -- just that it's there in the article and it isn't there in the book. (The APR report also appeared about a year after I'd written it, but I never got a chance to review the galleys before it finally went to press. As a result, it contained some statements that were grossly out of date. But that's not really my fault.)

5. In 1997, covering radio for The Seattle Scroll, I made two dumb mistakes in the same article: I mixed up two Seattle pirate stations that had similar names, and I mixed up two Colorado public stations that the same person had worked for. Making matters worse, my editor added a few mistakes of his own after the manuscript left my hands, including a reference to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the "Center" for Public Broadcasting.

That's the worst sort of error, isn't it? Yes, everyone makes mistakes; but why should someone else's mistep turn up under your byline?

It isn't just editors who can trip you up. A few years back, I co-wrote a piece about recycling for The American Enterprise. My collaborator was Pierre Desrochers, a very bright guy who'd done some really interesting scholarship in the area. There was just one problem: French was his first language, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with the nuances of English. And so when he was researching the piece, he didn't realize that one of the articles he was drawing on -- a piece I never saw -- was (cough) an April Fool's gag.

And so, in libraries across the nation and on the World Wide Web, there exists an article with my name on it that claims this: "The German paleontologist Oscar Todkopf has unearthed several 50,000-year-old musical instruments made from dead animals, from a mastodon tusk dotted with 16 carefully aligned holes (thus suggesting that Neanderthals used an octave scale) to an item that resembles a bagpipe. The 'bag' part disintegrated long ago, but it left a protein stain on the rock where it was found; it was probably fashioned from a large beast's bladder."

Can I really blame Pierre for that, though? I wanted it to be true. As the old saw goes, some stories are just too good to check.


posted by Jesse 2:24 PM
. . .
Tuesday, September 02, 2003
CHARLES BRONSON, R.I.P.: What's there to say about the late Charles Bronson? He wasn't a very good actor, really, but like many thespians of limited range he managed to find films well-suited to the few roles he could credibly play. The most famous of those is still Death Wish, a movie much derided for its ideological content, though even its opponents often admit that it's an effective thriller. Roger Ebert calls it "quasi-fascist," which is exactly wrong: the movie is populist and libertarian, urging not a strong government to defeat crime but an independent populace willing to defend itself. The picture's underlying theme is the rural suspicion of the urban, which it raises to the level of high-grade paranoia. It's not a realistic movie, but it's a minor masterpiece of terror and revenge.

It also spawned several sequels, all of which I've seen -- an impressive feat when you consider just how irredeemably rotten most of them are. I can recommend one of them: Death Wish 3, the installment in which the series started to veer into self-parody but had not yet been reduced to a fistful of boring and ridiculous shoot-em-ups. It's a pretty funny movie, and there's a good chance, maybe 60-40, that the humor was intentional. As the hero of DW 3 sets up one elaborate deathtrap after another, he starts to seem less like the vigilante of the earlier and later pictures and more like Wile E. Coyote -- except that Bronson's Acme equipment actually works.


posted by Jesse 5:46 PM
. . .
NOW THAT IT'S OVER, I MIGHT AS WELL MAKE A COMMENT: I tried and tried, but I just couldn't make myself care either that a judicial official erected a monument to the 10 commandments or that a higher court had it torn down. I'm more offended by the judge than by his granite display, and as of yet no one seems intent on dragging him out of the public square.


posted by Jesse 12:58 AM
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For past entries, click here.


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