Sunday, October 31, 2004

Vaudeville Tyranny Ahoy

John Ford’s Mister Roberts(formally a hit Broadway play starring Henry Fonda, who returned to film for the first time after an 8 year absence to lead as its namesake)- is a comedy/drama about tedium and war. It’s one of those tiny but hugely consequential aspects of modern warfare that we don’t often see portrayed in film. In this story there’s never a bullet fired or even an enemy sighted- just the soul deadening impact of monotony and the morale sapping of diminutive commands. The film wants us to see that there were other battles taking place far removed from the traditional fronts.

From such tedium, the film posits, those in charge may become tyrants. That the Captain and reigning tyrant of the supply boat where almost all of the action takes place is James Cagney is fun enough, especially if you’ve seen him in Scarface- but there's also the nice bonus of watching James Cagney verbally spar with Henry Fonda for the wellbeing of the ship's crew. Fonda represents the good fight and is invested with the crew’s yearning for R & R (which translates into, as is par for such films, pent up sexual release and drunken adventure in exotic ports) while Cagney offers glaring contrast as the embodiment of all that is petty, selfishly singular and oppressive to the fighting spirit.

Fonda is the bulwark shielding the crew from Cagney’s authoritarianism and there’s never any doubt where your sympathies are to lie. Fonda’s Mister Roberts is all cool gravity and quiet, avuncular heroism (like Alan Alda’s Hawkeye in MASH but without the Groucho Marx shtick) while Cagney’s Captain Morion is theatrically exaggerated and cartoonishly animated. When they share a scene Cagney seems to be channeling the overemphasizing characteristics of vaudeville while Fonda exhibits a muted but heroic sagacity. Time and time again Fonda’s Mister Roberts challenges and transforms the outrageous and soul deadening commands of Cagney’s Captain Morion into something more palatable for the crew and they, of course, love him for it. He’s their true leader.

Jack Lemmon erupts around the edges of both Cagney and Fonda, showing up the two old pros in a role that won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1955. His Ensign Pulver is transformed from a conniving boy into a man with backbone. He’s an easy-going loafer and gets the biggest laughs and the most triumphant ending. He’s hammy and clownish but also down to earth and earnest. His scenes crackle with the piquant enthusiasm of an actor ascending and demonstrating his range.

Saturday, October 30, 2004


Inside the New Life compound, workers were finishing a new church that will seat 7,500 people and people wore buttons that said, "I voted." The headquarters office features pictures of the head pastor, Ted Haggard, with President Bush and Mel Gibson.

Mr. Haggard - or Pastor Ted, as everyone in the church calls him - is president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which says it represents 30 million people. He has been to the Oval Office twice since Mr. Bush has been president.

"We've been in regular contact with Karl Rove," said Mr. Brendle, referring to the president's chief political adviser. Though the church is officially nonpartisan, opposition to gay marriage and abortion have put it strongly in the Republican camp. To win this election, Mr. Rove has said, Republicans will need to turn out roughly four million evangelicals who did not vote in 2000. Mr. Brendle predicted an enormous Christian right turnout - at least 75 percent among the 11,000 members of the New Life Church.

"Our people don't need to be bused to the polls and given a sandwich," he said.

That last quote is really something, isn't it? Us against them. Black against white. Pastor Ted certainly knows whose side Jesus is on.

Friday, October 29, 2004

A Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On

The Washington Post had an article a few days ago on PEAD, or Pre-Election Anxiety Disorder. I know I've got it. I read so many polls, political blogs, newspaper articles, columns and e-mails that I feel vaguely exhausted by the too muchness of it all. It's an addiction. The more information I take in, the less I know what to do with it- the less control I feel like I have over the proceedings. I'm haunted by this phrase: statistical margin of error.

I'm looking for signs, synergies, indicators- manifestations of statistical assurances in apolitical situations . The Red Sox winning the World Series, for example. I'm eating my cereal, watching Matt and Katie interview a couple of blury eyed Red Sox players and I want it to be a sign. It must be. It has to be.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Birdie Num Nums

It would be downright cruel not to love The Party, Blake Edwards’s 1968 comedy starring Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, a bumbling but elegant Indian actor accidentally invited to a swanky party thrown by the very mogul who had earlier vowed to have him blacklisted (“He’ll never work in this town again!”) due to his gross incompetence on the set.

It’s one of the most goofy-ass films I’ve seen in a long time and I gotta admit I went in highly skeptical, forgetful of whatever it was I must have read that convinced me I should add it to my Netflix queue. The first few minutes didn’t bode well either, a perfunctory introduction that acts as a simple, obligatory setup for the ensuing mayhem- something that, in retrospect, I can acknowledge as being perfectly suitable if not entirely inspired.

Sellers’s Hrundi is sometimes conscious of the commotion his bumbling creates but entirely incapable of comprehending it as anything but the natural order of things. Tactical obliviousness is key. He’s a bumbling innocent whose actions continuously leave a wake of mayhem that he adapts to as though nothing were amiss. He's constantly trying to cover his trail of destruction which, of course, only leads to more.

There’s a screwball element to The Party, an upsetting of uppity WASP order in the Hollywood Hills. It begins simply enough, with Hrundi arriving to the party, invitation in hand and, much to his chagrin, mud on one of his shoes. In the process of cleaning the shoe it comes off and lands in a pool. While trying to fetch the shoe from the pool it lands on a catering trey making the rounds. Eventually there will be Cornish hens flying through the air, toilets overflowing, an elephant on parade and best of all, the repeated saying of the phrase, “Birdie num nums.” A trot becomes a gallop and order becomes chaos. It’s a finely calibrated trajectory of silliness and I found myself completely swept up in its delirium.

There’s a warm sweetness at its core, too- Sellers’s Hrundi is all good will turned fantastically calamitous. He’s a buffoon both stunned and amused by his actions- so innocent and benign that you’re left with no other option but to empathize with his bumbling ways. (And Sellers was one of the big screens all-time great bumblers.) A love interest, supplied by the adorable French chanteuse Claudine Longet (whose singing of the Henry Mancini penned Nothing To Lose is one of the films highlights) supplies a perfect compliment of tenderness to the sugar rush of zaniness.

The whole thing is slight but enchanted. It’s loose (much of it was improvised) and elegant (Mancini’s score)- unhinged and refined. It’s near perfect but not for everybody. I adored it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Yeah, But...

From today's Times.

Mr. Thompson said that more had been done to fight the flu by this administration than by any previous one. Echoing comments made in recent days by Vice President Dick Cheney, he said that tort reforms proposed by the administration were needed to help vaccine manufacturers even more.

But Congress in 1986 passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act that largely shields vaccine manufacturers from serious legal liability. Congress voted this year to add flu vaccines to the program, a bill that only awaits President Bush's signature, according to a spokesman for the program.

The Vaccine Injury Compensation system provides "no fault" awards to those injured by vaccines by tapping into a fund created through an excise tax. Mr. Thompson acknowledged those shields, but he said that tort reforms would also help.

So why didn't George sign this? Was he relying on one of those foreign pens with a major manufacturing defect?
The Presidential Brand

This is well worth spending some time checking out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Here Is A Strange and Bitter Crop

We went south this weekend, to a place where every other piece of luggage on the baggage carousal was a set of clubs. We were deep in Bush/Cheney territory, where their devotees plant signs in prickly crab grassed lawns and where those who desire it can fulfill what surely must be the ultimate in mammary indulgence by flying in for the weekend on Hooters Air.

The wedding we attended on Saturday took place on an old plantation and the actual ceremony was perhaps the most idyllic I’ve ever witnessed. It was held outdoors on a well- groomed lawn dotted with trees heavy with Spanish moss and a backdrop of tall grasses that rolled and sighed under the breath of a late afternoon breeze. And, shit, the sun was setting all fat and mellow and dappled by leaves and moss and casting everything in an amber hue like some visual representation of a sigh.

And I like that we all stood when the bride made her entrance. This is right. I can do without everything else- the obligatory biblical readings, the hosannas to Sky Gods, the holy ass sanctity of the marriage bond (which increasingly sounds like “Gays need not apply”) and the bowing of reverent heads. Oh, no. Fuck all that. When the bride walks in and we stand and the breeze is blowing in just such a way that the moment feels consummate of everything that wants to be harnessed and unleashed- that’s what I like.

The groom endeared himself to me by waxing about the wedding mix Cathy and I made and gave out to everybody who attended our own wedding. He tells us he listened to it on the drive down to his wedding just the other day. He turns to the person with us and says, “Now a lot of people getting married make these mixes and to tell you the truth, more often then not they fucking suck. But not this one. It’s fucking great!” And I want to hug him but I don’t. He does however shake my hand numerous times.

We wonder, Cathy and I as we walk the plantation grounds after dinner, how to reconcile the beauty of this place with its awful legacy. What magnitudes of suffering took place here? It’s an onerous anxiety, a low-grade hindrance to fully giving ourselves over to the beauty of the candles that hang from the trees and the sliver sickle of moon that rises and demands awe. I say something stupid about how I take solace in the grizzled bowing of the trees and their hermit-like beards of moss and how their beauty has nothing to do with this legacy. But Cathy wonders if they weren’t planted and kept up by those in bondage, which they probably were. Scratch the surface and there’s dreadfulness here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Swing, Baby!

We're holding our breath over Ohio, Colrado, Florida, Iowa, Michagan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Swing low and to the left, damnit! There's so much riding on this one, it's almost too much.
Pumpkin Lights

There’s just a smattering of them this October strung up in trees and draping over bushes. Orange tinted lights, mellow and cheesy and surprisingly effective. We adore this new movement in exterior d├ęcor. It’s both rustic and spooky, an ode to this special time of year that so exquisitely merges both Norman Rockwell and Bela Lugosi Americana.

Halloween has been one of the fastest growing holidays for retail spending, but it lags others that are linked to gift-giving. Here's how they stack up in consumer spending, according to the National Retail Federation:

Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa $219.9-billion

Valentine's Day $12.8-billion

Easter $10.5-billion

Mother's Day $10.4-billion

Father's Day $8-billion

Halloween $3-billion

Will you look at that? Father’s Day dads are hardly experiencing parity with Mother’s Day moms! It’s an outrage! And the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa tripartite is kicking some serious consuming ass. Each year we all take a little vacation through late December and spend roughly half the Pentagon’s yearly budget on trinkets, socks and holiday cheer. Me, all I need are some lights in the windows, a tree tastefully decorated, George Winston’s December and a vaporizer filled to capacity. Give me these and I guarantee I'll feel the spirit.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The President And His Accumulated Burden of Sucking Can’t Be Put Right By The Sun And Leaves Of An Autumn Afternoon In October

Just stepping out onto our front stoop this afternoon, stopping to sit on the steps and give my shoes a heartier tying while Cathy finished up a conversation she was having with Emily on the cell-phone, was enough to astound me into a better mood.

It was around 4:15 this afternoon. I had spent a better part of the day in the studio enjoying vocal compression work for like-the-first-time-ever! I was determinedly building dense vocal beds- using sound processors to create simple digital replications of acoustic environments and greedily dropping my voice into the presets of small churches and large concert halls. And I was sucking. Really sucking.

So what happens in these suck situations is I either walk away freely, readily acknowledging that I’m not feeling it- that vocals today aren’t going to come by way of curiosity or play (the best way) but rather from a sense of obligation (the worst way)- or I fight it and this causes a heavy burden of accumulated sucking.

Eventually a bass line came along, out of nowhere, and while it wasn’t perfect it was just enough a tonic to propel my ass out of the studio and upstairs and onto the front stoop where everything was ablaze with sunlight and effulgent leaves just days away from their most rustic moments of barn reds and flaxen yellows. This was enough to lift the accumulated burden of sucking.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Streaming To Bits

There was a moment yesterday morning while riding the train to work, brief but fierce, when I was bummed to realize I had forgotten my iPod. That sleek and delicious little white block of sonic generosity has thoroughly imprinted itself on me. I was experiencing the trepidations of separation anxiety.

Thankfully my concerns were quickly cast aside not long after I arrived to work and began streaming UC Berkeley’s KALX Radio, 90.7 FM. How fantastic! In the span of 8 hours 3 different students took shifts and each played the kind of heterogeneous mix I was hoping for- Albert Ayler tracks followed by Cab Calloway or Marcos Valle mixed into Sisters of Mercy. My only complaint would be the lack of any electronic music dropped into otherwise supremely eclectic mixes- an unfortunate habit of compartmentalizing such things to late night DJ shifts, I suppose. Why not The Incredible String Band followed up by Ricardo Villalobos?

A couple tracks bonked me over the head. I loved Queen Jane’s Nduraga Ngwetereire from The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya compilation and Keren Ann’s languorous Spanish Song Bird from her album Not Going Anywhere.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Hi there!

Now If We Could Just Have A Little Night Music

Hi there!
Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
Ah, that's better! We'll need to work on centering these pictures, but it's a start! This is from when we were out visiting Los Angeles in September of 2003. Behind my fat head was the Hollywood sign, which my father in law can be seen taking a picture of.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The New Normal

Do yourself a favor and check out Joan Didion's wonderful article over at the New York Review of Books.