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

Saturday, August 30, 2003
THE LAST WORD ON BLACKOUTS: "The final object lesson of the blackout? The predictable, virtually automatic, responses of various members of society when confronted with a crisis: soldiers fall back on their weapons; clergymen fall back on their prayers; doctors fall back on their antibiotics; bureaucrats fall back on their desks; and politicians fall back on their asses. But people fall back on one another, and in that fact must remain all the hopes -- however minimal -- for the survival of the human race."

(from H.W. Morton's essay "Black Anarchy in New York," September 1966)

posted by Jesse 12:00 PM
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Thursday, August 28, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: One nifty thing about having your stuff reprinted: If an
article is out of date, you can always publish an updated version.

posted by Jesse 3:49 PM
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QUOTE OF THE WEEK (RECALL EDITION): "I didn't know there was a Kennedy named Jello." --Berkeley poli-sci prof and reporter-rolodex fixture
Bruce Cain, in the East Bay Express

posted by Jesse 3:16 PM
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Wednesday, August 27, 2003
NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH?: How come no one ever says a movie is for the squeamish? There's a lot of squeaming people out there, and critics are always telling them what flicks to avoid, but we offer no guidance at all as to what they might like. "Seabiscuit: A perfect film for the squeamish!" Or: "Gigli: The feel-squeamish movie of the summer!"

posted by Jesse 10:56 AM
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Tuesday, August 26, 2003
THE VANGUARDIST LOOKS BACK: I enjoyed Christopher Hitchens'
appreciation of Eric Hobsbawm in the Sunday New York Times. I've also enjoyed the anti-Hobsbawm commentary that's surfaced since then in other places. Obviously there's nothing to admire in the distinguished historian's pro-Soviet politics, but I like a lot of his work nonetheless, flaws and all.

Consider Primitive Rebels (1959). That book examines "archaic forms of social movement," by which the author means the sort of protest that mid-century Marxists usually wrote off as inarticulate, populist, "primitive," "anarchist," or "reactionary." It is, at once, a very interesting study of such movements and an inadvertently hilarious peek into the Stalinist mind. Hobsbawm doesn't just explore his subject: he gives us a running commentary on how the modern Leninist vanguard party is such a tremendous advance over these archaic forms of revolt.

And so we look at the social banditry of the world's Robin Hoods ("little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty"), the original Mafia ("a somewhat more complex development of social banditry"), and millenarian movements, which "differ from banditry and Mafia because they are revolutionary and not reformist, and because, for this reason, they are more easily modernized or absorbed into modern social movements. The interesting problem here is, how and how far this modernization takes place. I suggest that it does not take place, or takes place only very slowly and incompletely, if the matter is left to the peasants themselves....This is illustrated by the contrast between the Andalusian village anarchists and the Sicilian village Socialists and Communists; the former converted to a theory which virtually told the peasants that their spontaneous and archaic form of social agitation was good and adequate; the latter converted to a theory which transformed it." See what I mean?

But I'm getting sidetracked. His book also examines the city mob, radical religious sects, and proletarian secret societies. He uncovers a lot of interesting material, he subjects it to a sometimes brilliant analysis, and then, just when you've been nodding your head almost long enough to forget where the man is coming from, he coughs up some more Stalinism.

posted by Jesse 1:35 PM
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Monday, August 25, 2003
FROM OFF THE STREETS OF CLEVELAND: The key scene in American Splendor takes place close to the end of the film, after Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland file clerk who writes autobiographical comics, has staggered weakly to his wife and asked if he's a guy who writes comic books about himself or just a character in his own comic books. He passes out, and we jump sideways in time, to a tale neither in nor out of the narrative: it's about the other Harvey Pekars in the Cleveland telephone directory, and how their presence has always gnawed away at our Pekar's sense of identity.

This is in a film that's shown us the actors playing Pekar and his friend Toby Radloff watching the real Pekar and Radloff chatting; and the actors playing Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner watching two other actors playing actors playing Pekar and Brabner on stage, ineptly performing some scenes already enacted much more watchably for us onscreen. Perhaps more to the point, it's in a film that shows Pekar, who appeared on the David Letterman show a few times in the '80s, getting mistaken for an actor who plays a fictional character called "Harvey Pekar" on the David Letterman show.

Just to be clear: There really is a Harvey Pekar, he really writes a comic book about his life, he really did appear on Letterman, and his comics really inspired a play as well as a movie. But you can see how a man could lose track of all this, even without contending with a few extra Harveys in the phone book.

Pekar's comics aren't the sorts of stories that translate easily into a feature-length film. He usually writes character sketches, illustrated essays, and existential tales that culminate not in plot twists but in epiphanies; they do not add up to one long story arc that breaks easily into three acts. So writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have performed an impressive feat here, pulling together a movie that, in the absence of an ordinary plot, propels itself mostly by cutting away to documentary scenes of the real Pekar and his circle or by showing us panels from his actual comics. A story does emerge, though, and it centers around the issue Pekar raised while passed out and ruminating about the phone book: his identity. Over the course of this picture, we watch a very lonely man meet an equally lonely woman, and we watch the authentically messy, strife-ridden, and loving marriage that blooms. A little girl enters their life -- not in the conventional way -- and Pekar finds himself escaping anonymity not on paper, stage, or television, but in the formerly unlikely role of husband and father. Think of it as a Jimmy Stewart double feature: It's a Wonderful Life meets Harvey.

Two scenes in the film don't ring true for me. One comes early on, when Harvey shows a stick-figure comic book script to his old buddy Bob Crumb, who declares that it's great and asks if he can illustrate it. The filmmakers try to milk the sequence for suspense -- What will the great R. Crumb think of Pekar's comic? -- and instead it comes off as manipulative and contrived. The screenwriters are evidently better at adapting Pekar's episodic style than at grafting the occasional major plot development to it.

The other scene comes late in the movie, as Pekar walks his daughter to the school bus. This actually begins well, but it ends on a note of forced sentimentality. Our hero then tells us in a voice-over that his personal problems, contrary to appearances, haven't really gone away. For the real-life Harvey, that's surely true; movie-Harvey, though, seems to have settled into a happy ending. The disconnect between life and Hollywood must have seemed obvious even to the filmmakers, because they then tack on some documentary footage that warms the heart a bit more legitimately but doesn't quite wash away the feeling that the writers are cheating.

Did I mention that I liked the movie? I suppose I should, if only because the above comments sound more ambiguous than I feel: This film is one of the best I've seen this year. Paul Giamatti is excellent as Pekar, and Hope Davis is just as good as Brabner. And Berman and Pulcini have done a fine job adapting the style of a comic book -- actual panels and balloons -- to a live-action motion picture. Ang Lee's
Hulk did the same thing, which is kind of odd when you think about it -- that two movies so different in tone and flavor would attempt the same stylistic feat, simultaneously and independently of each other.

posted by Jesse 4:07 PM
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SUNDAY NIGHT TELEVISION REPORT: HBO broadcast the season finales of both The Wire and Project Greenlight last night. The former is a work of fiction; the latter is a documentary. So how come it's the first that was filled with ambiguity and open questions, while the second felt like a completely contrived infomercial?

posted by Jesse 7:48 AM
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Tuesday, August 19, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: I just published a
piece on the Reason site about the strange career of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel: '30s crooner, Texas governor, and precursor to the current California circus. If I had more space, I might've gotten into the career of another country balladeer turned politician, Gov. Jimmie "You Are My Sunshine" Davis of Louisiana -- and perhaps even cited the Robert Byrd fiddle album a fellow DJ showed me back in my college-radio days.

Speaking of Texas, a low-power radio station there interviewed me Sunday afternoon, mostly about the politics and economics of broadcasting. A recording of the interview is now online.

posted by Jesse 6:58 PM
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HE'S GOT THE CHARISMA, THE WOMEN, THE GERMANOPHILE DAD...: What does it say that the most successful Kennedy in American politics right now is Arnold Schwarzenegger?

posted by Jesse 3:09 PM
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Saturday, August 16, 2003
KEN MIND, BEGINNER'S MIND: Kenny Rogers is not the world's most talented singer. I know that. I'm not a fan of the man. Really. But if you grew up in a certain place and time, a series of Kenny Rogers songs have imprinted themselves on your brain, and there's no drugs or therapy that will remove them. Senility will come, and you'll forget your mother's name and your brother's face and how to use the toilet, but those mediocre hits will still be with you to the end.

Now, "The Gambler" is actually a pretty good song, so I don't feel particularly embarrassed that, prompted by R. while lollygagging in bed this morning, I was able to cough up at least 90% of the
lyrics. I'm not nonplussed that I was able to describe in considerable detail Rogers' performance of the song on The Muppet Show, where he was joined by a life-sized purple gambler muppet. I'm not even ashamed to have repeated the final chorus a few more times than was necessary, nor to have launched into the tale of how, after the gambler-muppet died, his ghost returned to sing along at the end of the sketch. I am the sum of my experiences, and watching this as a child obviously had a significant impact on me. Who knows what personal accomplishments would have been impossible if it hadn't been for Kenny and his purple puppet friend?

What embarrasses me is that, following further prompting, I was able to recall the entire chorus to "Islands in the Stream." What vitally important facts have I forgotten because the necessary brainspace was occupied by that?

posted by Jesse 11:20 AM
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Tuesday, August 12, 2003
BEYOND ARNOLD: Someone's got to squash this Reason-loves-Arnold
meme before it spreads too far. I can't speak for the whole staff, but if there's a shared position here I don't think it's pro-strongman so much as it's pro-circus. I'm happy to have Schwarzenegger in the race, but my own sympathies are torn between the guy from TSOL and Father Guido Sarducci.

Those two sentimental favorites aside, there's a sad-sack quality to the also-rans that's a little depressing, though it makes the contest all the more fun. Are there any minor celebrities in California who haven't entered the race? This is starting to turn into one of those events where people sign up thinking it'll be a boost to their fledgling or sagging careers, and then more has-beens and never-weres join in, and suddenly you look around and wonder how you got to be surrounded by all these losers. And then it hits you: You're a loser, too.

Unless, of course, you happen to have a shot at winning.

posted by Jesse 1:04 PM
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Wednesday, August 06, 2003
piece on the Reason site today about "smart growth" and regionalism. This is a topic I used to write about a lot, but I moved away from it after smart-growth booster Al Gore started giving speeches on the topic, prompting other reporters to realize that there was a story here. Now Gore's brief crusade is forgotten, and the subject isn't getting the national attention it received a few years ago. But the movement's still out there, even if it doesn't have a major presidential candidate carrying its water.

The regionalists like to claim that we're entering a new era, one in which power will simultaneously flow upwards, to the global level, and downwards, to the metropolitan region. But if we follow their prescriptions, power will only flow upwards. National power, as they suggest, would be restricted by multilateral agreements and international bodies. Municipal power, meanwhile, would be absorbed by cross-jurisdictional agreements and regional bodies. The two processes reflect each other, like a fractal pattern. As above, so below: both local and national sovereignty get the shaft.

The regionalists have got things exactly backwards. The cities don't need more centralization, but less. We shouldn't hand the suburbs to the same giant governments that have wrecked so many cities. We should allow urban neighborhoods the same self-determination that the suburbs already enjoy.

There are several ways to do this. One is simple secession -- allowing a neighborhood or group of neighborhoods to incorporate and take over the city's tasks. If it doesn't have enough resources to handle a service, let it privatize, or contract with its former municipal overlord. Or perhaps it won't secede outright. Perhaps it could score itself an exemption from the city's provision of some services (and the taxes that pay for them), which it could then either provide itself or turn over to competing private companies.

The city can privatize services too, of course, bypassing the neighborhoods. I don't mean contracting out to an independent company. I mean getting the government out of the service entirely. When this happens, the problem of jurisdictional boundaries -- bête noir to the regionalists -- just disappears. No one wonders at the fact that Taco Bell manages to operate stores in both Dallas and Fort Worth. No one is shocked when a shoe store in Tacoma buys stationary from a supplier in Seattle, or when businesses in Flint trade with their counterparts in Ypsilanti. Why not apply the same principle to public policy?

What these approaches have in common is that they require city planners to give up control. Not to streamline bureaucracies. Not to "steer, not row." To abdicate. To drop the Progressive Era notion that it is possible and desirable to turn government over to a class of neutral, professional philosopher-managers.

And that, alas, is not on the regionalist agenda.

posted by Jesse 5:03 PM
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IN MEMORIUM: Today's posts are dedicated to all the Japanese civilians killed on this date in 1945. If hell existed, they'd be the first 230,000 reasons why Harry Truman would be there now.

posted by Jesse 3:23 PM
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Tuesday, August 05, 2003
takes issue with my comment that "both sides were trying to steal an election" three years ago. I really don't want to get into this, because there are few topics I find as tiresome as the Florida recounts. I'll just repeat an syllogism I've spouted a few times before:

1. Petty theft goes on in virtually every election, on both sides.

2. In a statistical tie, petty theft is enough to swing an election.

3. Therefore, if a vote is close enough, whoever loses can make a good case that he was robbed. And whoever won could've make a good case, had he lost, that he was robbed.

I'm bored silly by Gore voters (and Nader voters) who claim that Bush didn't "really" win in 2000, as though there were some Platonic ideal winner out there on some parallel plane. Elections are power struggles, fought on far more levels than asking for votes. Bush won the power struggle, so he won the election. I'm not interested in refighting that battle, and not just because I didn't have a dog in the fight.

But I'm not going to pretend that it didn't get ugly along the way.

posted by Jesse 12:10 PM
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Monday, August 04, 2003
PEOPLE SEND ME E-MAIL: A woman named Maria writes:

Give me your honest opinions just tell me what you think of one of my ideas I have more but here is the one I want to change about Disney. The maximum height of Mickey mouse is 4'6-5'2 (and it is proven by Disney World); I think the height of Mickey Mouse should be from 4'6-5'6. It won't be possible for him to scare the kids cause Mickey is Mickey everyone's favorite mouse. Even though his head is bigger then the costume still Mickey is Mickey the cutest mouse I know millions of tall character with big costume heads and no one is afraid of them like chip and dale. But if they can't change the height ranges I have another idea, I just thought of another idea and I hope you like it. Do you think instead of them changing the height ranges for Mickey and Minnie do you think they could let the tall people let them play Mickey a once in a year type of thing or I had another idea do you think they could allow the tall people to be in shows and parades only? For example I think they should use a tall Mickey for the show Fantasmic. Admit it, if Mickey was 5'5 or 5'6 the people all the way in the back can see Mickey perfectly. And nobody will know the difference cause hey Mickey is Mickey you know. And everyone wants to be our beloved mouse so hey do you think this is a good idea? Do you agree just share your opinion.

Note to Maria: If I haven't written you back yet, it's because I'm still mulling what to do with an unexpected query received the day before:

My name is Robert, and I go by the film name Daddy Big Bucks. I am an amateur gay male adult porno actor, and I seek to audition for gay adult films.

Can you assist me, or barring that, can you send me to someone who can help me?

If you have a question,
send it in. I can't guarantee I'll reply to it, but if it displays a sufficiently low level of pertinence I just might post it here.

posted by Jesse 4:38 PM
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Sunday, August 03, 2003
THROW HIM OUT: I thought I was being clever Thursday when I
contrasted the Democrats' take on Florida 2000 (stopping an election is bad!) with their line on the California recall (stop this election!). Then I learned the recall-bashers hadn't forgotten Florida -- in fact, they're warning that we might see its worst moments repeated, with corrupt and/or incompetent election workers barring likely Democratic voters from the polls. As Matt Welch notes, this would be a lot more plausible if the coming contest wasn't to take place in a state run by Democrats.

My take on Florida 2000 was that both sides were trying to steal an election so close that any victory could be chalked up to theft. Bush won, so the Gore partisans get to grumble that their man was robbed; if Gore had come out on top, the die-hard Bushniks would have been just as entitled to bitch. The legal battle merely underscored how well distributed the rot was: a state Supreme Court dominated by Democrats bent the law to help Gore, and then a federal Supreme Court dominated by Republicans bent the law even further to reverse the earlier decision.

The recall, on the other hand, is a salutory burst of populism -- and with the Republican vote likely to be split among several candidates, it's hardly certain that it's going to end up pushing the state to the right. (This is one reason why the left's willingness to parrot the DNC's anti-recall line is so embarrassing. As Marcelo Rodriguez points out, this saga could conceivably end with California getting a Green governor.) Part of me doesn't care who get elected, partly because I don't live in the state anymore and thus don't have to face the consequences (nyah nyah), but also because just about anyone, left or right, would be an improvement over the sleazy bastard running things now. Yes, even Larry Flynt.

posted by Jesse 6:20 PM
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SELF-PROMOTION: I have no new articles to report, but the old ones are turning up again in various alternative weeklies. The Cleveland Free Times has
reprinted an essay -- now slightly out of date, alas -- on video games and moral panics, while the editors of Creative Loafing Charlotte have abridged my recent piece on customized religion and made it their cover story.

posted by Jesse 2:54 PM
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FILM CORNER: The Road to Bali (Hal Walker, 1952): I thought I'd seen all the Crosby/Hope/Lamour
road movies, but there this was, staring at me from the hastily assembled "Bob Hope, R.I.P." shelf at the video store. So I rented it. Turns out the Road to... formula was starting to wear a little thin by the '50s. Or maybe it's just my general preference for the pictures of the '40s over the pictures of the decade that followed. But the laugh-to-bomb ratio is out of kilter on this one, and it's only in the last half-hour that it really picks up.

Then again, once it picks up it gets pretty good. Fans of gay subtexts will enjoy the sequence in which Hope and Crosby are tricked into marrying each other, an act that offends the local volcano god and prompts a lava-flinging eruption. The Pope should thus be pleased that the film reflects his views on same-sex unions -- though not, I presume, his views on volcano gods.

Punch and Judy (Jan Svankmajer, 1966): One of the most accessible experimental filmmakers, Svankmajer is obsessed with sex, digestion, death, regurgitation, childhood anxieties, decaying old buildings, fetishes, rocks, and nails. You can watch this play out over the course of the wonderful Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, two DVDs that anyone even remotely interested in surreal cinema should watch.

I won't write a film-by-film review of the set, but I will single out Punch and Judy as one of the best entries in the package. The famous puppets battle each other in an environment akin to a Cornell box, their familiar fighting gradually evolving into something more like a ghost story. It's brilliant, funny, spooky, and weird.

CaddyShack (Harold Ramis, 1980): Not one of my favorite movies. Still, it was on TV last week, and I watched it just to see if it had improved since I was 13. It hadn't, though it's kind of engaging in a Holy shit, when did this flick become a period piece? way. The strangest thing about it: Is it just me, or does Rodney Dangerfield act and talk a lot like Mae West? Sure, their central schticks are different: Rodney Dangerfield does not pretend to be sexy, and Mae West knows how to command our respect. But so help me, they carry themselves the same way.

Or maybe I was just drunk.

posted by Jesse 2:48 PM
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Saturday, August 02, 2003
unpasteurized cheese. Is this what grown-ups do instead of smoking pot?

posted by Jesse 10:31 PM
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