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

Wednesday, November 27, 2002
DECODING KIKKOMAN: That Japanese "Kikkoman" cartoon that's been circulating so rapidly through the Net -- if you haven't
seen it, imagine a frantic sequel to "Fish Heads" -- has now been subtitled for English viewers. I don't speak Japanese, but my multilingual friend Debbie Shamoon informs me that the translation does correspond to the original lyrics, "if a bit ineptly." A lot's been left out, "including all the puns, which can't really be translated. For instance, 'Show You' is a pun on 'shoyu,' or soy sauce."

She also explains why one character is suddenly shown hanging dead from a tree: "The cat committed suicide over the shame of not knowing to put soy sauce on his omelet as well as his fried eggs." (Which is kind of a cliché, don't you think?)

All of this is nice to know, but I have to admit it lowers rather than boosts my appreciation for the film. I preferred it when it was completely incomprehensible -- an inscrutable Eastern mystery, if you will. I suppose that makes me an Orientalist.

Fortunately, my world faces no shortage of inscrutable mysteries, and not just from the Far East. In a couple of hours, we're supposed to catch a plane to Texas. I've studied our tickets good and hard, and I still don't see how we're going to get from Baltimore to Houston via Newark.

posted by Jesse 10:18 AM
. . .
Tuesday, November 26, 2002
TO HAVE TWO LEGS IS GLORIOUS: A stage adaptation of
Animal Farm is being performed in the People's Republic of China, with "changes to adapt it for Chinese audiences."

Political litmus test:

a) This is a sign of incredible social progress.
b) This is just the sort of thing Orwell was warning us about.
c) Er ... could you tell me more about these "changes"?

posted by Jesse 12:42 PM
. . .
Monday, November 25, 2002
Rob Fagerlund reports that when he saw Bob Dylan play in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago, the concert began with the same bizarre introduction I described on Saturday. In fact, though he isn't completely sure, Rob thinks it may have been a member of the band who read it.

Brian Doherty, who saw Dylan three nights in a row this year in Los Angeles, informs me that the intro has been "the standard one on this tour, used as a self-deprecating joke." It was apparently derived, perhaps verbatim, from something a rock critic wrote about the singer last year. He adds: "It's a recording, of course, and I don't think the voice is anyone in the band -- just some pro announcer type. I might be wrong."

I'm glad to hear it's probably a deliberate joke. I never bought the theory that Dylan has lost his sense of humor, and am happy to see more evidence for my opinion.

posted by Jesse 12:17 PM
. . .
Sunday, November 24, 2002
WHAT LIES BENEATH: Stephen "VodkaPundit" Green
doesn't care for something I wrote about Iraq. This is to be expected: If there's a great big issue that Green and I disagree about, it's the wisdom of this pending war. So he describes my little rant as "snide," which is accurate; as "willfully ignorant," which is not accurate (if nothing else, I wasn't being willful about it); and as "misleading," which may or may not be accurate. That is: I don't think it's misleading, and while I may be wrong about that, Stephen hasn't yet explained just what was screwy about what I wrote.

He goes off the deep end, though, when he says that my piece was "beneath" me. I'm a journalist, Steve. No writing is beneath me. Take away my salary and I'll write pretty much anything to pay the bills: porno scripts, Bazooka Joe comics, football players' English homework. I've got a friend in L.A. who once had a job writing little poems for the tags they stick on teddy bears. And you know what? I think that's cool.

Beneath me? Good God, man, I once wrote a country-western song about a bowel movement. It rhymed "profane intentions" with "propane intestines." And you think my squib about Iraq was low?

posted by Jesse 5:19 PM
. . .
INVISIBLE CITIES: This just in: Researchers have found the lost eastern terminus of the Erie Canal. "Once flowing with water," the Albany Times-Union
reports, "the Albany hub -- locks, the collector's house and the acre-sized Little Basin holding area -- became obsolete in 1918 with the opening of the New York State Barge Canal and a lock system that ended about 12 miles north of Waterford. Years later, the Albany site was drained, filled and forgotten. The entire canal fell out of use with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1955." Scholars had long assumed that the eastern portion of the canal was destroyed completely, but now the terminus has turned up in a vacant lot near the Hudson.

From urban archeology to urban ecology: In Saturday's New York Times, there's a fascinating article about botanists' and zoologists' newfound interest in city environments. "Until recently," writes reporter Alexander Stille, "the only real environments thought worth studying were in 'pristine' nature, remote areas as far as possible from the footprint of human beings. Cities, by contrast, were seen as unnatural, nonenvironments, whose parks and gardens, ornamental plants and scraggly sidewalk trees and weeds were of as little interest to ecologists as house cats and lap dogs are to big game hunters." In the last 25 years, though, those assumptions were shaken by the discovery that "virtually all 'pristine' environments bore clear signs of human intervention: fires, the hunting of animals, the harvesting of plants, herbs, nuts or fruits." Meanwhile, cities contain much more biodiversity than previously assumed, undermining the conventional wisdom on everything from urban planning to invasive species.

posted by Jesse 12:43 PM
. . .
I IMPERSONATE LEONARD MALTIN: Femme Fatale is the kind of Brian De Palma movie you think of when someone says the words "Brian De Palma movie": it is stylized to the point of surrealism, is riddled with references to other movies (notably Double Indemnity, Vertigo, and It's a Wonderful Life), is filled with severe plot twists, and centers around a pair of doppelgangers. Having seen plenty of De Palma pictures where all this comes off as overly manipulative and/or silly, I'm happy to report that this time he rises above that. In fact, I think this is his best movie since Blow Out.

Jesse Walker's Quick'n'Easy Guide to Brian De Palma:

Must-sees: Phantom of the Paradise; Blow Out; Femme Fatale

Fun diversions: Greetings; Hi, Mom! ; Sisters; Carrie; Mission: Impossible

Interesting failures: Get to Know Your Rabbit; Body Double; Raising Cain

Just plain bad: Dressed to Kill

Mainstream and decent: The Untouchables

Mainstream and half-decent: Carlito's Way; the video for "Dancing in the Dark"

Mainstream failures: Wise Guys; Casualties of War

Wondering why a movie isn't on the list? It's because I haven't seen it. The Leonard Maltin impersonation only goes so far.

posted by Jesse 10:43 AM
. . .
Saturday, November 23, 2002
LIVE 2002: I've been a devoted Dylan fan for nearly two decades, but I never managed to see him live until last night. It was a fine show. Midway through, apropos of nothing, I thought about yelling Judas!, but I managed to hold my tongue.

The high points: there were many, but I'll just list my three favorites. One was a mandolin-driven "Shelter from the Storm" that almost made me believe that his band was channeling the Band. Another was an intense, downright evil performance of "High Water." And then there was "Summer Days." That one began normally -- the boys were playing '40s-style jump blues instead of the 12-bar rock they'd brought to other blues numbers, but the song seemed otherwise unexceptional. Midway through, though, something seemed to catch fire, and soon we were listening to a mad swing rave-up that brought the entire hall to its feet.

The low point: the show's opener, a perfunctory and sloppy "Maggie's Farm." It took the musicians about three songs to find their groove, and this performance suffered the most in the meantime.

The strangest point: "Drifter's Escape" was so radically rearranged, it sounded like Sly Stone on speed. But even stranger than that was the concert's intro. I'm quoting from memory, but this is pretty close to what the man introducing Dylan said:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the poet laureate of rock'n'roll. A man closely identified with the '60s counterculture, who then disappeared into a haze of substance abuse in the '70s, only to find Jesus at the end of the decade. By the end of the '80s, most people wrote him off as a has-been, but in the late '90s he turned his career around with some of the strongest work of his career. Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia recording artist Mr. Bob Dylan!"

Did Dylan write that long and not so flattering speech himself? Or was an overzealous announcer fired as soon as he stepped down from the microphone?

posted by Jesse 12:16 PM
. . .
Thursday, November 21, 2002
SUCH A LOT OF FOOLS: It's possible that only hardcore radioheads will be interested in the ongoing flame war between the National Association of Broadcasters and the Future of Music Coalition. So I'll try to summarize it quickly.

The debate is over just how homogenous and consolidated
radio has become, with the NAB attacking a critical study by the Future of Music Coalition before the report was even released. Now the coalition is firing back, with a point-by-point response that leaves most of the broadcasters' case in tatters. For those of us who've seen our fill of industry proclamations that format diversity is at an all-time high, the coalition's most salient observation may be this: "All the studies cited by the NAB equate variety of formats with diversity of programming. This approach overlooks the major issue of format homogeneity -- the overlap between formats. These NAB-cited reports do not recognize that slicing and dicing the same songs over and over again does not increase diversity."

The debate has one drawback: both sides persist in describing the current radio landscape as "deregulated," as though the only rules that mattered were the limits on station ownership that have been lifted in the last decade. Seems to me there's a few more laws to be addressed. Real deregulation would take a scalpel to the legal entry barriers that protect the incumbent industry.

posted by Jesse 4:19 PM
. . .
SELF-PROMOTION: I wrote today's "Editors' Links"
column for Reason Online. It's on the arrest of Nizar Khazraji.

posted by Jesse 12:22 PM
. . .
WALKER'S BELIEVE-IT-OR-NOT: There is an officer in the Chinese army named
General Fu Quanyou.

posted by Jesse 11:49 AM
. . .
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
CAPITALISM, COWS, AND LSD: The things you find in weblogs! This week, my friend Sara Rimensnyder
writes about Bill Niman, a California rancher who converses with his cattle, then charges premium prices for the beef. "If that isn't shining evidence of so-called runaway capitalism, I don't know what is," she argues. "We're so rich we talk to our cows!"

I'm not sure if that's true, but it's one hell of a line. It sounds like something from The Night Johnny Carson Dropped Acid Before The Show:

Johnny: So yesterday ... um ... man, me and Ed are rich.


Johnny: We're so rich, we talk to our cows.

Crowd: (A few people laugh, one guy applauds. Much uneasy shuffling.)

Ed McMahon: Are you OK, Johnny?

Johnny: Holy shit, Ed. Now you look like a cow.

Doc: Number 23, boys -- and pronto.

(The band breaks into "Milk Cow Blues" as Johnny coerces Ed into a clumsy waltz. Curtain.)

Sara sampled Niman's beef, and reports that it "seemed pretty average to me." Kinda like Ed, come to think of it.

posted by Jesse 9:40 PM
. . .
THEOLOGICAL SPECULATION: Everyone's asking it:
What would Jesus drive? Me, I think he'd drive a motorboat. That way, he could park it on his lake and walk home.

posted by Jesse 6:38 PM
. . .
Tuesday, November 19, 2002
NOT IN DEFENSE OF HANSON: Now Gene Callahan is writing in, too. Since this
debate began with him, I'll give him the last word as well:

"Although I suppose my piece could be read as putting Hanson and Bellesiles on the 'same scale,' that wasn't what I meant. I don't think Hanson ever makes stuff up, but rather that he cherry picks.

"And sure, Thucydides made up the speeches. But when he says that Cleon is 'the most violent man in Athens,' it's hard for me to envision that is meant to be read as, 'So you should follow the advice I'm putting in his mouth.'"

posted by Jesse 5:23 PM
. . .
IN DEFENSE OF HANSON: Evan McElravy, whose binational
weblog is worth reading regularly, writes: "Although I would say that Callahan gets a few reasonable points in (like Hanson quoting from both the Spartan and Athenian position without making it altogether clear that he's doing so), to be fair to Hanson, that's not much of a distortion, let alone on a Bellesilian scale. Greek historians in fact tended to make up the speeches they attribute to others, and although Thucydides was probably less fanciful than Herodotus, the speeches substantially represent his own feelings on the events, his particular feelings for Pericles for instance. Hanson is a classicist, not a historian, and is no doubt used to referring simply to 'Thucydides' as all classicists (and ancient historians) tend to do."

I grant the point about the Bellesilian scale. I don't buy the idea, though, that Hanson was "referring simply to 'Thucydides'" in the classicists' manner. Hanson's article took the form of a mock interview with the Greek writer, in which his words were clearly assigned to the historian himself, not to "Thucydides" as a matrix of views embraced by the historian or as a shorthand term for a text. That's a distortion, and Callahan was right to call Hanson on it.

posted by Jesse 3:46 PM
. . .
ABUSING HISTORY: What does National Review's Victor Davis Hanson have in common with Michael Bellesiles, the disgraced author of
Arming America? According to Gene Callahan, they both alter the historical evidence to fit their preconceived political conclusions. In Hanson's case, "a little study of the original text reveals that on a number of occasions Hanson has excerpted from speeches that Thucydides is quoting, but treated them as if they were the wisdom of Thucydides himself."

posted by Jesse 12:48 PM
. . .
Monday, November 18, 2002
DOMESTIC PROCEDURAL: Last week in Slate, Michael Kinsley
revealed a fascinating discovery: Around the country, high-achieving women are tuning in to Law & Order reruns, at times watching them back-to-back, despite the sometimes substantial derision of their mates. I just described this as "fascinating," but a better word might be "reassuring": it tells me that my household is not unique. Apparently, R.'s strange fondness for this show, an affection which allows her to spend time unwinding even in front of episodes she's seen before, is not unique to her; and neither, apparently, is my general distaste for the series. At last I understand that I'm-not-alone feeling that other people must join 12-step programs or to enjoy.

Not that I hate the show, you understand. Indeed, having been forced to watch so many more episodes than I ever would have viewed on my own, I've been forced to concede that it has some things going for it. Oh, sure: the plots are formulaic (quarter past the hour -- time to arrest the red herring), Jerry Orbach's wisecracks are invariably dumb, the acting is somehow both too flat and too mannered, and the Ripped From The Headlines! conceit apparently derives from the belief that all it takes to explore the events of the day is to plagiarize them. But Fred Thompson is amusing as the new district attorney, Jesse Martin is occasionally allowed to shine in his sidekick role, and every now and then an episode will dispense with the formula and actually engage in some creative plotting. In the meantime, we've both grown fond of one of the L&O spinoffs, Special Victims Unit, which boasts both better writing and better acting, though it still has those annoying scenes in which every member of the cast crowds onto the screen and takes turns hyper-competently explaining the state of the investigation to their superior officer, who then chimes in with his own brief paragraph of information, leaving one to wonder just who was getting briefed.

But at bottom, I don't care for Law & Order, and she does. Each Wednesday night, we debate what to watch at 10, Sam Waterston or South Park, before returning to domestic comity when it comes time for The Daily Show. Until now, I thought this disagreement was unusual (unlike most of our recurring debates, such as the proper placement of used bathroom towels or the proper apportionment of blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I assume are rehearsed by couples everywhere). Now I learn that we're part of a social trend.

Footnote: R. asks me to add that she likes the show "because it engages you for an hour, and then you don't have to think about it anymore. Why are you blogging now, anyway? Law & Order is on."

posted by Jesse 10:01 PM
. . .
Cool and Strange Music -- the one with Les Paul on the cover -- includes a piece I wrote on "fake" Middle Eastern music. Unfortunately, due to some sort of editing snafu, the first two sentences of the article are missing. I offer the proper opening paragraph here, in hopes that it will move you to visit your local music-store newsstand and read the rest:

"There is a barely clad belly-dancer on the cover, her right arm raised as though beckoning the record-store browser, though on closer examination she appears merely to be playing a pair of finger-cymbals. Below the album's title -- The Music of Port Said -- we are promised 'Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East captured in High Fidelity.' The exotic rhythms are attributed to Mohammed El-Sulieman and his Oriental Ensemble, though on the record itself the artist's name has transmorphed into 'Hassan the Assassin.' The title, too, is different on the actual record: Port Said forgotten, it is now Music of the Middle East."

posted by Jesse 12:12 PM
. . .
column on the Reason website today about so-called "free speech zones," a threat to free assembly on college campuses and, more recently, at presidential appearances.

posted by Jesse 11:27 AM
. . .
MORAL EQUIVALENCE?: The headline to this Australian IT
article is misleading: to judge from the actual quotations in the piece, Star Wars producer Rick McCallum did not say that movie piracy is "like terrorism." He did, however, say that we need "as concentrated an international event as the war on terrorism" to fight media pirates, which I suppose means that China and Gnutella should be granted seats in the axis of evil.

You'll note, incidentally, that Al Qaeda doesn't seem to charge for those Osama tapes. I wonder what their business model is...

posted by Jesse 11:06 AM
. . .
Thursday, November 14, 2002
RAINBOW STEW: In his syndicated
column this week, Alexander Cockburn raises a familiar topic: an antiwar alliance of left and right. He brings it up in an unusual context, though: in the wake of his last Merle Haggard concert. Hag has been speaking disapprovingly of John Ashcroft and other dark Washington forces on this tour, and Cockburn thinks he sees a possibility of alliance. "Merle's political positions have evolved somewhat since the late Sixties," he writes. "There's a slab of the Right that's denouncing America's imperial wars. That wasn't happening in the early Sixties. If the Left could ever reach out to this Right, which it's almost constitutionally incapable of doing, we'd have something."

Has Merle really changed? Yes -- but he didn't have to change all that much. It's not so hard to imagine a bridge between at least some of the leftists who launched the '60s and the Haggard who sang "Okie from Muskogee." One link would be Woody Guthrie, who's up there with Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Lefty Frizzell in Hag's personal pantheon. It's no surprise that Haggard sang about an "Okie" from Muskogee, even if the message of that song was a little distant from Guthrie's "Talking Dust Bowl Blues." (These days fans argue over whether "Muskogee" was meant as a joke or as a serious bit of hippie-bashing. I've always taken it as a dramatic monologue, sung from the view of a character Haggard likes but who isn't necessarily himself. As he once told an interviewer, "Son, Muskogee's just about the only place I don't smoke it.")

As for "Fightin' Side of Me," the song says quite directly, "I don't mind them switchin' sides and standin' up for things that they believe in." What roused his ire was something else: "When they're runnin' down my country, hoss, they're walkin' on the fightin' side of me." Not a bad distinction, and one that a lot of people, left and right, don't seem able to learn. (Granted, the same song includes this bit: "I read about some squirrely guy who claims that he just don't believe in fightin'/And I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on bein' free.")

Guthrie's influence suffused Haggard's output during this period. His albums were filled with terrific songs about dust bowl refugees and their latter-day successors -- from "If We Make It Through December," about a laid-off worker who can't afford Christmas, to "Working Man Blues," which might have appealed to a Wallace voter in Michigan, to "Irma Jackson," an interracial love story that the Wallace voter would've liked somewhat less. In the last decade, he's chatted up interviewers with militia-style conspiracy theories about foreign troops on U.S. soil, even while happily posing on the cover of a hemp-oriented magazine. If Haggard embodies American crossover populism today, it's because he's been doing it all his life.

Not a bad credit for someone who's also the best bandleader in current country music, one of the finest singers in American pop, and, along with Bob Dylan and Ray Davies, one of the three greatest songwriters of the last century.

Footnote: Left-right cooperation still has a ways to go. A few months ago, Haggard posted a note on his website saying he'd like to host his own radio show. "Not everything can be set to music," he wrote. "If anyone cares to respond or help me in my endeavors, please email me." I passed this along to some friends at a certain leftist radio network, mentioning that "a Pacifica that gave Merle Haggard a talk show would be a Pacifica to be proud of." Never heard back about that.

posted by Jesse 10:37 PM
. . .
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
MORE MAIL: Rob Fagerlund of Ann Arbor, Michigan, writes: "I had a dream last night that I watched Green Acres. I remember the opening title sequence was different than it usually is. Oliver stumbled over something -- a rake? -- and went sprawling in a meadow by a stream. Then I saw you and I asked you if you like the show. You said, 'Back when I was in college I used to hang with a bunch of guys who thought it expressed the disparate array of human values and the lives of people who are a living anachronism.'

"Your quote I remember word for word -- I wrote it down during breakfast. I've never remembered actual dialogue from a dream before."

It's letters like these that make this weblog worthwhile.

posted by Jesse 4:03 PM
. . .
JUGGLE NO MORE: For out-of-towners, the most famous part of Baltimore may be Harborplace, a rather bland stretch of waterfront chain stores not far from the finest in generic hotels. There are tourists who never venture out of that part of town. Most of the natives, in turn, rarely visit it. It's sort of a social contract.

The zone was built by one of those public-private partnerships that increasingly litter the American municipal landscape, and is managed by the private side of the partnership, the Rouse corporation. Last month,
according to the Baltimore City Paper, Harborplace informed a juggler who had worked the waterfront that he was no longer welcome there. Apparently, he had offended some cops with a joke he'd told about the sniper investigation. "I was driving downtown this morning," he had said, "and on the radio I heard that they've finally come out with a composite of the sniper, so there should be an arrest forthcoming. Apparently, he's a white guy that speaks Spanish and looks like he's Arab."

According to the performer's dismissal letter, such comments "are not in keeping with our very clear standards for a first-class oriented environment." In academic economics, the technical term for this is corporate prissiness. I only hope we can keep it from infecting the rest of the city, lest we find ourselves living in some ugly combination of Canada and Singapore.

posted by Jesse 11:21 AM
. . .
commented that "a film shouldn't require an external annotation to have its effect." Now Little Fyodor writes to object. "Why not?" he asks. "I'd dare say it's rather arbitrary and constraining to insist that any work of art CANNOT be enhanced by information outsided the direct experience."

I agree. Indeed, I have a hard time thinking of a film that couldn't be "enhanced by information outside the direct experience." But it shouldn't require such information, and I think the work in question, Stan Brakhage's Self Song & Death Song, does just that. This film doesn't have any impact unless you know what you're looking at, and I didn't know what I was looking at until I read the program notes.

Fyodor goes on to relate an anecdote about the director. "Back in the '80s, I hung with a crowd that was in with Brakhage, and so I sometimes attended get togethers at his domicile where he would show films and accept the worship of his followers. One film of his that he showed he introduced by saying that it depicted the history of England. It turned out to be brief, blurry images of some castle or somesuch in England interspersed with periods of blackness that lasted longer than the blurry images. Now, I hate it when people dismiss something 'weird' out of hand, but suffice to say I found myself no more edified on the history of England after this viewing!

"Probably the best part of the experience was hearing Stan describe how people on the street in England where he shot this film came over to ask him if he were okay, due to the way he was leaning over at various angles while shooting. Now THAT was charming!"

posted by Jesse 10:54 AM
. . .
Monday, November 11, 2002
ARMISTACE DAY: In lieu of posting today, I'll turn the mike over to Eric Bogle, and to all the subsequent singers who recorded his most famous song, "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda":

When I was a young man I carried my pack,
and I lived the free life of a rover.
From the Mary's green basin to the dusty outback,
I waltzed my Matilda all over.

Then in 1915, my country said, "Son,
it's time you stopped rambling, there's work to be done."
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
and they marched me away to the war.

And the band played "Waltzing Matilda"
as the ship pulled away from the Key.
And amidst all the cheers,
flag-waving, and tears,
we sailed off for Gallipoli.

Oh and how I'll remember that terrible day,
when our blood stained the sand and the water;
and of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay,
we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.

Johnny Turk he was waiting, he'd primed himself well.
He showered us with bullets and he rained us with shells.
And in 10 minutes flat, he blew us all to hell,
nearly blew us right back to Australia.

And the band played "Waltzing Matilda"
as we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours,
and the Turks buried theirs,
then we started all over again.

And those that were left, well, we tried to survive,
amidst all that blood, death, and fire.
And for 10 weary weeks I kept myself alive,
while around me the corpses piled higher.

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me ass over head,
and when I woke up in me hospital bed,
and saw what it had done, then I wished I were dead.
Never knew there were worse things than dying.

For I'll go no more waltzing Matilda,
all around the green bush far and free.
To dance on his pegs,
a man needs both legs.
No more Waltzing Matilda for me.

Then they gathered the wounded, the crippled, the maimed,
and they shipped us all back to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane:
those proud, wounded heroes of Suvla.

And as our ship pulled into Circular Key,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be,
and thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
to grieve or to mourn or to pity.

And the band played "Waltzing Matilda"
as they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered,
they just stood and stared,
then they turned all their faces away.

So now every April I sit on my porch,
and I watch the parade pass before me.
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
reliving old dreams of past glory.

But the old men march slowly, their bones stiff and sore,
the tired old heroes from a forgotten war.
And the young people ask, "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays "Waltzing Matilda,"
and the old men still answer the call,
but as year follows year,
more old men disappear,
Someday no one will march there at all.

"Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"
And their ghosts may be heard
as they march by that billabong:
"Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"

posted by Jesse 3:23 PM
. . .
Sunday, November 10, 2002
COLD CINEMA: I can't find much fault with Auto Focus, Paul Schrader's softcore biopic about the sex-mad TV star Bob Crane, except this: After a while -- like, say, 25 years -- Schrader's obsessions get a little ... repetitious. Sometimes this is literally true: There is a scene in Bringing Out the Dead, directed by Martin Scorsese from a Schrader script, that is almost identical to a scene in Schrader's earlier Light Sleeper. But usually it's true in a broader, duller sense. It's fine to spend a career exploring the psychic residue of your youthful Dutch Calvinist repression, but you shouldn't expect the results to connect with more than a small audience most of the time. There are filmmakers I really love, and there are filmmakers I somewhat coldly respect. Schrader falls into the second category.

So does
Stan Brakhage, though I like him enough that I drove to Washington today to watch two back-to-back programs of his films. Just as I never really appreciated Peter Greenaway's movies until I stopped thinking of him as a storyteller and started regarding him as a painter, I never really understood Brakhage until I stopped regarding him as a painter -- even though he sometimes eschews photography altogether and paints directly onto the celluloid -- and started thinking of him as a documentarian. Sometimes the connection is obvious: The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, an unflinchingly graphic half-hour of autopsy footage, is clearly a documentary, though it eventually transcends that category, achieving a sort of snuff poetry. But even his purely abstract films are inspired by such familiar phenomena as the strange dance of light on the inside of one's eyelids. One of his life's obsessions is finding ways to present such universal yet rarely articulated visions on film. "Imagine an eye un-ruled by man-made laws of perspective," Brakhage wrote in a 1963 essay that is, conveniently, quoted on the cover of the afternoon's program notes: "an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure in perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'green'?"

Sometimes this works for me: I loved the dancing colors of Interpolations I–V, though I don't have the vocabulary to explain why. More often, I was diverted but not engaged: Abstract impressionism isn't usually my cup of tea, even when it's animated onscreen. Brakhage's photographed films also blow hot and cold for me: The Act of Seeing... is a difficult but rewarding experience, for example, while Self Song & Death Song simply mystified me until I read the program notes' explanation of what I was seeing. A film shouldn't require an external annotation to have its effect.

posted by Jesse 11:44 PM
. . .
Friday, November 08, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: I have a brief
essay today on the Reason website, about a referendum in Gibraltar.

posted by Jesse 12:29 PM
. . .
FROM THE RIGHT, I'M ROBERT PLANT: The new conventional wisdom is that if the Democrats want to recover from Tuesday's crushing blow -- that is, if they'd like to represent a staggering 51% of America rather than a measly 49% of it -- they need to offer a real alternative to the Republican vision. In other words, they must embrace liberalism again. This may well be true, but it begs the question: What the hell is a liberal these days?

There was a time when libertarians would complain that the Truman/Humphrey crowd had stolen the word "liberal" from them. But there are similarly giant gaps between the labor-left liberals of the '30s through the '60s, the post-New Left liberals of the '70s, and the Clintonite liberals of today. There are other definitions, too: In high school, when someone overheard me commenting that Led Zeppelin was overrated, he interrupted to say, "Jesse, I don't care what you think, because you are the most liberal person I know." So apparently, it can also refer to an unorthodox taste in pop music.

At this point, the Clintonites are more likely to call themselves moderates, the Naderites are more likely to call themselves progressives, and the folks who call themselves liberals just leave me confused. What kind of liberal, man? Do you dig the Wagner Act, the McGovern campaign, or Senator Hillary? Or are you just tired of hearing "Stairway to Heaven"?

posted by Jesse 10:40 AM
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Wednesday, November 06, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: For more electoral commentary from yours truly, visit Reason Online today, where I've published a
piece on political dirty tricks.

Meanwhile, December's print edition of Reason is now out. I don't have any feature-length articles in it, but I do have two short items in the "Citings" section, one on anarchistic parallel institutions in Argentina and one on the movement of private enterprise into outer space.

While I'm at it: I added a new post this afternoon to the antiwar weblog Stand Down. And one of my older columns has just been reprinted by the Atlanta weekly Creative Loafing.

posted by Jesse 7:24 PM
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ELECTION ROUNDUP: Every election there's at least one bit of news that makes me smile, however terrible everything else may appear. In 1998, it was the surreal victory of a pro wrestler running on a third-party ticket. In 2000, it was the sheer chaos of the Florida results. This year it was the defeat of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Bobby Kennedy and goddaughter of Joseph McCarthy, in her effort to capture Maryland's gubernatorial mansion.

Other good news? I was glad to see Gray Davis struggle so much in California; the fact that he ultimately won was a testament more to the awfulness of his opponent than to anything else. And I was perversely happy to see Jim "Jailbird" Traficant pull 15% of the vote in Ohio, a rare display of adventurousness from an electorate that seemed intent on avoiding anything remotely experimental.

Which leads us to the bad news. Decriminalization of marijuana lost in Arizona and Nevada. A measure to repeal the state income tax was defeated in Massachusetts. A jury-rights initiative failed in one of the Dakotas. The Ventura organization appears to be collapsing in Minnesota, where the Independence Party's gubernatorial nominee, Tim Penny, finished third. Those of us who hoped that party might become more than a support network for one charismatic man -- that it might take on a role comparable to the same state's old Farmer-Labor Party, or Wisconsin's old Progressive Party, or North Dakota's old Non-Partisan League -- should shelve our illusions. It's finished.

The worst news of all: The Republicans have taken the Senate. I'm no friend to the Democrats; indeed, I was glad the GOP held the House. But the prospect of one party controlling both houses of Congress plus the presidency is frightening, especially in a time of war. That aside, there's a strong chance that many of the creepier Republican initiatives, from the unvarnished Homeland Security proposal to subsidies for religious organizations to the suppression of stem-cell research, will now go through. Not to mention the implications for "preemptive" war with Iraq...

posted by Jesse 11:51 AM
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Tuesday, November 05, 2002
A SURREALIST VOTES IN BALTIMORE: I hadn't planned to support the Libertarian candidate for governor, but I did: He and his running mate looked so lonely, the only third-party ticket on the entire ballot, that I just had to give them my vote. Besides, my original plans for the gubernatorial race were in tatters. I had intended to write in a certain acquaintance of mine, but she refused the honor when I told her my plan, informing me that if I really wanted to help her I could clean one of the bathrooms before she gets home from the late shift.

A series of more successful write-ins followed. If Fred Savage lands in Congress, he can thank me for doing my part. Other votes went to such fine fellows as God, Popeye, and (tipping my hat to the summer movie crowd) Spider Man; for attorney general, I wrote in MY MOMMY, who I can't imagine sending her eldest boy to prison.

Then came the initiatives, the vast majority of which were bond issues. What a pleasure, to hit so many No keys. It's what voting's all about, at least for us anti-tax curmudgeons.

posted by Jesse 7:50 PM
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Monday, November 04, 2002
REJECTED MONDALE CAMPAIGN SLOGAN #23: "We know you'd rather vote for a dead man. This is the closest we could find."

posted by Jesse 11:50 PM
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MICROCINEFEST 2002: Baltimore's
MicroCineFest, held at the G-Spot this past weekend, is an annual showcase for ultra-low-budget film and video with a psychotronic edge. This year, alas, I made it to just one screening, but it was a good one: the Saturday night collection of 19 "experimiscellaneous" shorts.

I can't say that the program was entirely free of underground-film clichés or that every movie they showed was worth watching. But most of them had merit, and some of them were excellent; only one came close to violating my Screensaver Rule. ("In order to be taken seriously, an experimental film must show more craft, and be less predictable, than a screensaver.") I attribute this high batting average to the MicroCineFest's admirable aesthetic: They like films that challenge audiences, but not ones that ignore them.

Some highlights:

* Infomercial Aesthetics: My favorite film of the evening, directed by Daniel Martinico. From the program notes: "Built entirely from the eerie debris of late night television advertising, this piece takes multiple fragments from a week's worth of infomercials and pushes them together into a desperate video remix." Pointed, hilarious, and disturbingly catchy.

* Composition in Red & Yellow: My girlfriend's favorite film of the evening, directed by Roger Beebe. A Super 8 tribute to McDonald's, in road-film format, presented to the tune of "Hands Across America." Funny stuff, though I still can't forgive Beebe for getting that awful song stuck in my head for the next two days.

* Kinetic Sandwich: The crowd's favorite, from local filmmaker Eric Dyer. I'm sick of quoting the program notes, so I'll quote the Baltimore City Paper instead: "...rips the lid off the standard American midday meal, one layer at a time. The result makes visual poetry out of the same-old, same-old white bread, lettuce, tomato, and lunch meat. As Dyer's camera burrows through the ingredients, it catches folds of iceberg curling and unfurling with dancelike grace. Seedy tomato interiors come alive and writhe while Swiss cheese bubbles like a pot of boiling pea soup. In the less-than-three-minute video's most memorable sequence, Dyer even makes olive loaf sing."

* To Hug You and Squeeze You: Wago Kreider's short is a cinematic cut-up, splicing animal footage into a home movie of a wedding, while the audio track mixes two stories of -- to quote the program notes again -- "the doomed marriage of a Hollywood starlet and an African prince." It may sound like a dry formalist experiment, but it was actually one of the most compelling films of the night.

* Kerry May: Here's a rarity for you: an avant-garde feminist film with a sense of humor. And I mean actual wit, not just self-congratulatory jokebots. Made with considerable craft by one Christina Vantzos, on a very low budget of just $7.

I could spend time dissecting the films I liked the least, too, but for now, I prefer to praise.

posted by Jesse 11:33 PM
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AMOUR FOU: There's a species of movie -- think Serendipity -- whose ads promise a magical universe, romantic in more ways than one, and whose actual films deliver yet another tired rehash of an increasingly abrasive romantic-comedy formula. The great thing about Punch-Drunk Love -- one of the great things -- is that it eschews that formula to present a universe that is just as strange as a romantic fantasy ought to be: where musical instruments appear out of nowhere, pudding can take you around the world, and even a socially awkward and deeply disturbed man like Adam Sandler's character can find a woman willing to fall completely in love with him. It's a silly story, but this is silliness with grandeur.

I didn't have as much trouble as some people did in adjusting to the idea of a good Adam Sandler movie, since I actually enjoyed his early stand-up work and some of his roles on Saturday Night Live. It's true I didn't like any of his movies, but with this picture he's broken out of that pattern -- and not just by putting himself into the hands of a better writer-director. What separates this Sandler performance from its predecessors is that he gets through the entire film without mugging. On the strength of that alone, I hereby retract my earlier
description of his post-SNL career as "wretched."

posted by Jesse 11:35 AM
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Friday, November 01, 2002
LOVECRAFT IN NIGERIA: Spammers beware:
Cthulhu is after you.

posted by Jesse 10:16 AM
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SUBLIME: Not long ago, I picked up a nice Louis Armstrong
anthology drawn from the Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings of 1926-29. Michael Brooks' liner notes include this description of the song "King of the Zulus":

"This track starts off like a New Orleans funeral parade, but is interrupted by the bizarre West Indian, Clarence Babcock, who demands an order of chitlins, annoying Louis, who accuses him of interrupting his solo! Babcock's culinary needs satisfied, Louis goes on a rampage, cutting and dicing everything in his path, until he surrenders the last word to Babcock who, as far as I know, never appeared on another record."

posted by Jesse 10:06 AM
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