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

Friday, February 28, 2003
column for Reason is about Dennis Kucinich.

posted by Jesse 2:01 PM
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BACK TO KANSAS: The last episode of
Oz aired earlier this week, and part of me is sad that my favorite TV drama is disappearing. Another part is happy that the show survived six years with its artistic integrity intact, and that it's ending things now rather than entering a long decline a la The X-Files or Ally McBeal. (Did I just compare Oz to Ally McBeal?) The final episode did its job well, drawing the series' themes and conflicts to a satisfactory conclusion. It did leave some narrative threads unresolved, but that was clearly intentional. Life's story arcs do not simultaneously resolve themselves in an hour, or even in a specially expanded installment of 110 minutes. Neither did the arcs of Oz.

They nearly did, though, in the program's first season -- eight episodes that, taken together, may constitute the best serial narrative in the history of television. It took a while, in the first couple of hours, even to see that a larger tale was being told. We simply seemed to be watching fragments of prison life, as characters took turns interacting with each other; the episodes were united by themes, not stories. Then key characters started to die, while others were transformed radically by changing circumstances. Power shifted constantly among the players and the tribes; the social web never stopped evolving. In a perfect climax, that web exploded into a riot, inverting, distorting, and dashing the prison's many hierarchies.

It would have been impossible for the subsequent seasons to match the quality of that first year, but they came close. Seasons two, three, and four were consistently excellent, marred only occasionally by an unbelievable plot twist or a too-loosely constructed episode. The final two years were more uneven, but still sometimes reached incredible heights.

Oz mixed gritty realism with giddy surrealism, storytelling with broadsides, soap opera with high art. It had more interesting things to say about power, liberty, responsibility, and tragedy than most of the films and novels of the last 30 years. I'll miss it. But I'm glad to see it end so gracefully.

posted by Jesse 12:38 AM
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Thursday, February 20, 2003
TV NOTES: Sara Rimensnyder has
outed me: I watched the final episode of Joe Millionaire, and I enjoyed it, too. Or, at least, I enjoyed the self-deconstructing first hour -- the second half was much duller, and eventually dissolved into tedious talk about miracles and fairy tales. As those of you who read my last Reason column will recognize, this means I watched America's favorite "reality" show back to back with Michael Jackson Unmasked. Some highbrow I turned out to be, eh? (I mean, I thought it was a Tarkovsky movie, but...)

The fact is, I think reality shows are the best thing to happen to network television since animation came back to prime time. Whatever else you might say about them, they're almost always more enjoyable than the sitcoms and dramas they're competing against. (Do any Joe Millionaire-bashers really think the show is more "toxic" than Friends or Providence?) The genre depends on constant novelty, a welcome contrast to scripted shows that depend on the constant reiteration of formulas. Of course there are reality formulas too, but it's fun to watch one species mutate into another so rapidly -- much more rapidly than TV's fiction genres do. (Joe Millionaire obviously began because Fox was trying to think of a way to imitate The Bachelor when somebody suddenly thunk, "Hey! Remember how the rich guy in Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? turned out to be a fraud? I bet we can turn that bug into a feature!")

The best thing about the shows: You don't actually have to watch them. The simple news that a program like This Surreal Life exists is enjoyable enough; actually viewing more than one episode is going an extra mile. Our time is spared, and the network suits are forced to devise yet more novelty for our amusement.

As some strikers once said, "Give us bread -- and circuses, too." Or something like that.

posted by Jesse 1:45 PM
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Tuesday, February 18, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: My new Reason Online
column is about Michael Jackson.

posted by Jesse 1:24 PM
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Jim Henley informs me that I should not wait to dig out my car. "If you let the snow half melt," he warns, "what's left will be heavy, wet, and crusty. What we got was powder -- you'll be a lot happier shoveling powder than half as much sludge."

Unfortunately, this makes sense. On the other hand, I don't want to shovel anything until the plow's gone by -- I'm half-convinced that if I dig out the car now, I'll have to do the work all over again once the snow from the road's been deposited atop everything adjacent to it.

On yet another hand, I'm starting to suspect that the plow simply isn't going to come.

The next problem: Actually figuring out which two car-lumps on the side of the road belong to my girlfriend and me. I have a feeling I'm going to spend my lunch hour digging out all the neighbors' remaining automobiles before I finally stumbled onto ours.

posted by Jesse 11:41 AM
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Monday, February 17, 2003
WHITEOUT: We have a couple feet of snow here in Baltimore, more or less -- I don't know the exact measurement, but it comes up a bit higher than my knees. The city has yet to plow our street, or any street within walking distance of here. "Walking distance," of course, isn't as far as it used to be. I'm sure I've owned winter boots at some point in the past, but they appear to have melted during my three years in snow-free Los Angeles.

The same storm hit nearby Washington as well. I'm told that their plows haven't been very prompt either. "Some years back,"
writes my D.C.-based friend Sam Smith of The Progressive Review, "I was asked by the paper to write an Outlook section piece about a recent storm. I decided to compare Washington's snow removal with that of another town I knew well, Freeport, Maine. As it turned out, Freeport had one percent of Washington's population but ten percent of its road mileage. If memory serves, Freeport did the job with five trucks while it took 150 in DC -- or three times as many per mile. In the most recent storm the figure for DC was up to 300 trucks with plows although the city's geography hasn't expanded in the interval."

The problem, Smith suggests, is D.C.'s native confidence in the bureaucratic approach to problem-solving. "There are certain jobs that do not lend themselves to the bureaucratic pyramid -- they are jobs in which employees carry most of the capacity for good or evil in their own skill, judgment and ethical standards. Jobs like teaching school, patrolling a beat, or plowing a street. Training makes them better; bureaucratic systems rarely do."

Fortunately, it's a holiday, and most of my neighbors don't seem intent on getting anywhere. Not that that's stopped anyone from devoting an hour or so to digging out a snowbound car. "It's better than doing it tomorrow morning," one woman told me. Depends on your point of view: Me, I work at home, and I'm gonna let my car sit until the white stuff's half melted.

posted by Jesse 5:07 PM
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Tuesday, February 11, 2003
picture of me up on Julian Sanchez's website. It was taken while my tongue was trying to dislodge something from between my teeth and my upper lip, and as a result I look a bit ... well, Cro-Magnon. Or perhaps like I'm blowing up an invisible balloon.

There's a silver lining, though: I'm standing across from Jim Henley in the photo, and he looks even goofier.

posted by Jesse 11:46 AM
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Monday, February 10, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: On the Reason site today, I
rant a bit about a forthcoming sequel to the USA Patriot Act. The article includes this sentence, which I'd like to apologize for:

"The White House claims that it hadn't seen the draft before the leak, though that is belied by the document's control sheet, which clearly shows that Vice President Dick Cheney received a copy in mid-January, along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert."

Just to clarify: This means that Cheney and Hastert both received copies of the document. It does not mean that Rep. Hastert and the document were stuffed into an envelope and routed to Cheney, though I must admit I enjoy that image.

posted by Jesse 7:50 PM
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RAMBO'S ILLUMINATIONS: National Review Online has just published an
excerpt from Mona Charen's Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First. The article isn't quite as asinine as you'd guess from that title, but it's still a remarkable tribute to one woman's tunnel vision: an essay on '80s attitudes toward the Cold War that never once mentions such pop artifacts as Red Dawn and Iron Eagle. Instead, Charen recalls the touchy-feely goop of the age, from Jonathan Schell's unreadable anti-nuke tome The Fate of the Earth to the sudden fame of Samantha Smith, an American fourth-grader who earned international acclaim for writing a can't-we-all-be-friends? letter to Yuri Andropov.

Well, that was part of the era too. But growing up in North Carolina, I have to say that the Iron Eagle stuff sure seemed culturally dominant to me. I lived in Chapel Hill, one of the few territories in the state where people like Schell were taken seriously, and even there we had plenty of Reaganite hawks to contend with. Venture out of the Chapel Hill/Durham/Raleigh triangle -- to Boy Scout camp, say -- and the bumperstickers urging the Pentagon to fund its bombers with bakesales would disappear. As for Samantha Smith: My foreign-policy views in high school were arguably to the left of Jesse Jackson's, and even I thought the media's obsession with Smith was inexplicable. I can't remember anyone I knew actually taking her micro-crusade seriously. (I also noticed that the Soviet propaganda magazine in my school library -- we got it for free, along with an equally risible rag from South Africa -- couldn't stop featuring her on the cover.)

Now, I spent the '80s opposing pretty much everything the U.S. did abroad, from the invasion of Grenada to the bombardment of Libya, so I recognize that, like Charen the perpetual hawk, I'm remembering the decade from a rather biased point of view. But I don't think I've just written anything as silly as Charen's declaration that "Reagan was up against an enormous headwind" in foreign affairs, given that her examples of this headwind consist of Helen Caldicott, Bill Moyers, Walter Mondale, Phil Donahue, and Vladimir Pozner. The only member of that group who ever had a popular following was Donahue, and that was left over from the much more liberal '70s -- in the age of Reagan, he was constantly lampooned as an exhibitionist and a sissy. Caldicott was a radical, Moyers a PBS phenomenon, Pozner a novelty sideshow, and Mondale -- well, we all know how much trouble Reagan faced when he ran into that particular headwind.

There was a grassroots sentiment for peace, nuclear and otherwise, in the '80s. Polls showed a majority consistently rejecting U.S. military involvement in Central America, and, as Charen notes, the national landscape included a fair number of "sister cities" and "nuclear-free zones." Meanwhile, even hawkish flicks like Rambo seemed to treat the U.S. government and the Communists with the same distrust and contempt. A complete picture of the '80s would include all this. But it would also include a lot that Charen seems to have forgotten.

posted by Jesse 7:32 PM
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Thursday, February 06, 2003
SELF-PROMOTION: The March issue of Reason was published this week. I have two articles in it: a piece on painter Joe Coleman, an earlier
version of which already appeared on Reason's website, and a brief contribution to the Citings section.

Also, while I don't usually link here to my Hit & Run posts, readers of this site might be interested in my exchange there with Michael Fumento. (To see his reply to my post, scroll down. To see my reply to his reply, scroll down further. To add your own two cents, scroll all the way to the bottom.)

posted by Jesse 5:44 PM
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CINEPLEX ROUNDUP: An assortment of films I've either seen recently or am just now getting around to reviewing:

Shallow Hal (Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, 2001): At their best, the Farrelly brothers walk the thin line between
John Waters and Ernst Lubitsch. This time, alas, it's more like the line between a second-rate teen gross-out movie and an After School Special.

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932): One of those Hollywood ur-movies that inspired a thousand imitations. At a luxury hotel in Berlin, lives intersect -- each possessed, conveniently, by a well-established Dream Factory stereotype. The suicidal diva! The oafish businessman! The working girl! The little guy! The cynical old man! The aristocratic thief with a heart of gold! Their paths cross, their tales crossbleed, a climactic crime is committed, lives are altered radically -- then these guests leave and another crop arrives. Constant change meets eternal recurrence, yadda yadda yadda.

Some of it is dreadful: Greta Garbo's oft-quoted performance (this is the source of "I vant to be a-lone") is a sustained exercise in carpet-chewing. Some of it is great: John Barrymore is charming as the roguish baron-thief, and the climax is terrific. But the movie as a whole is neither good nor bad -- more of a time-capsule entry, something to let us see what an all-star Hollywood spectacle looked like 70 years ago.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Philip Noyce, 2002): A chase movie posing as a political statement.

Chicken Real: The Story of Holly Farms Poultry Industries (Les Blank, 1970): In a career that has spanned more than 40 years, Blank has made dozens of documentaries and experimental shorts. Initially, this seems like a radical change of pace: an industrial film sponsored by its subject, the chicken company Holly Farms. Gradually, it becomes clear that something stranger is going on: Blank's alternately beautiful, ugly, and surreal footage of the mass production of poultry is attached to the sort of narration you'd expect in a classroom movie on the dangers of tooth decay. The contrast is deeply hilarious -- an effect that was probably intended, given that Blank wrote the narration himself. Highly recommended.

Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002): A solid science-fiction thriller, adapted from one of Philip K. Dick's weaker stories. It's better than most Spielberg movies, and better than several other Dick adaptations as well. It has two significant flaws, though, one of which might be called the Tom Cruise Problem; the other, the Steven Spielberg Problem.

Cruise is miscast, but still does a reasonably capable job in the lead role. The problem: Because he is Tom Cruise, the filmmakers felt the need to add three or so ridiculously implausible action sequences -- the kind of stuff that's a lot of fun in a Mission: Impossible movie but simply doesn't fit this character or story.

And Spielberg? He can't handle ambiguity or tragedy, and thus strains to produce a tidy ending. Much of this I can take: It's obvious from the start that it's foolish to expect a tale true to Dick's more open-ended style. (Spielberg himself has described Dick as an "old-fashioned 1950s futurist," which is kind of like describing Spielberg as an "old-fashioned 1970s shark enthusiast.") But there's one big problem: the trio of characters called the precogs. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that (a) as presented in the movie, they are an unsolvable tragedy, but (b) they nonetheless get "solved," in a way that defies both theme and plot.

The Bridge (Charles Vidor, 1931): This first attempt to film Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a respectable effort, but was supplanted in 1962 by Robert Enrico's perfect adaptation of the tale -- not to mention all the movies since then that have either ripped off Bierce's plot outright or fused it with the similar Carnival of Souls. If you've already read the story or seen Enrico's film, then you may want to give Vidor's short a try. But don't let it be your introduction to the tale.

(Spoiler alert. Here's the difference between "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and Carnival of Souls. In the first, the protagonist doesn't realize he's dead, and that the story is actually taking place in his imagination right before he expires. In the second, the protagonist doesn't realize she's dead -- but the story's really happening nonetheless.)

posted by Jesse 1:27 PM
. . .
Monday, February 03, 2003
ROCK HISTORY, APPENDIX 23: Some notes from the outer fringes of the Kinks' career as a live band:

Bruce's Havana Lounge, Reno, Nevada, April 17, 1974: Taking a breather from their grueling touring-opera schedule, the Kinks play an unannounced set in a dingy roadside casino. The concert includes such rarely-performed gems as "The Contenders" and "Uncle Son," as well as an impromptu cover of "Ode to Billie Joe." Dave Davies throws in a few verses from "a trucker song I've been working on," which he releases later under the pseudonym C.W. McCall.

The Sharptone, Belfast, Northern Ireland, November 16, 1980: On the third date of the Mike Cotton Sound's ill-fated reunion tour, surprise guest Ray Davies ascends the stage to sing a medley of "Maximum Consumption," "Oklahoma USA," and the Band's "Ophelia." He returns during the encore, announces that he's going to play something by "one of my heroes, a brilliant man, Sir Cliff Richards," then surprises everyone with a Meters-style brass-funk performance of "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" instead.

Nick's Bar and Grill, Culver City, California, March 2, 1971: After discovering that he and his bass-playing companion have both left their wallets at home, Dave Davies persuades proprietor Nick Martinico to let them "sing for their supper." With nothing but a battered ukelele and a washtub, the duo announces itself as "the John Dalton Experience" and launches into a set that includes "Mr. Reporter," "This Strange Effect," and an a cappella "Spotty Grotty Anna."

Chuck E. Cheese, West Bloomfield, Michigan, October 15, 1997: Dissatisfied with his solo show but unsure how to change it, Ray Davies tries some new material on an unprepared audience. The song "Storyteller" goes over well, and is eventually added to Ray's album-in-progress. A detailed story-behind-the-song explication of "Prince of the Punks" is less successful, with Davies' profanity-laden anecdote of a fistfight with Tom Robinson actually prompting several younger patrons to flee their birthday parties in terror.

Tony's Piano Bar, Manhattan, New York, July 17, 1977: At 11:47 p.m., a wasted Ray Davies commandeers the keyboard and plays a two-minute melange of "Brother," "Holiday Romance," "Did You See His Name?," "The Hard Way," "Send My Picture to Mother," "Der Fuehrer's Face," and "Just Checked in to See What Condition My Condition Was In" before security succeeds in ejecting him.

The Fit'n'Fiddle, Toronto, Ontario, December 7, 1988: Ray and Dave Davies, armed with nothing but two acoustic guitars and a rhythm section on loan from the jazz club down the street, play their band's entire catalog, in chronological sequence, until they get to
Soap Opera.

"I hate that album," says Dave.

"Tough titty," says Ray. "I'm playing it, and if you don't like it you can walk."

"I think I'll do just that," says Dave, and leaves.

The five listeners in attendence stare in befuddlement. Through the entire show, they've been convinced they were watching the Four Freshmen.

posted by Jesse 10:48 PM
. . .
Sunday, February 02, 2003
WHAT MAKES AMERICA GREAT: An e-mail from my brother: "I got my hair cut today by this really neat barber. He has a recording studio in his barbershop and fashions himself in the tradition of Bob Wills and Ray Charles. He has Elvis and lots of Tejano stars of regional significance (e.g. David Lee Garza, Gary Hobbs, Stephanie) posted around his little shop. He is half Hawaiian and likes the steel guitar. He says that a documentary is being filmed about him and that he is going to improve his
website soon."

posted by Jesse 10:35 AM
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Saturday, February 01, 2003

A probe launched into outer space
is to, we are informed, depart
the Solar System. This, they say,
will be a giant leap for man --
they quote Neil Armstrong, more or less,
while waiting for the craft to cross
Pluto's distant orbit.

The probe creeps toward the border while
the restless crowd awaits the great
event, prepared to celebrate
another human victory,
when BANG -- the probe has struck the edge,
a wide'ning crack spreads 'cross the sky,
and the water seeps in.

posted by Jesse 1:41 PM
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