Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Big Christmas Announcement

You're not gonna believe how tonight's Rockefeller Center tree lighting ended: the lights WENT ON!!! Oh my God! I was watching and the suspense was just killing me. Would the lights go on? Would the tree fall over? Would Al Roker forget what the next number was in the countdown? Would this event be different from last year's tree lighting in any way at all?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I Ruin Two Perfectly Good Holiday Movies For You

It's the most wonderful time of the year again, even if global warming and El Niño conspire to turn this into not so much a white Christmas as a palm tree and mudslide Christmas. I love the season: the lights, the gift-getting (uh, I mean, gift-giving... exactly), the peace on earth and goodwill towards men, or at least those men who aren't standing between you and a brand-new Playstation 3 at Wal-Mart. But just one thing: you think we could back off with the novelty Christmas music just a little? The season's cheesy enough without The Waitresses putting their inane holiday story of missed connections to bubble-gum music. I might be a little more tolerant if we didn't also have incredibly tacky people putting giant inflatable snowglobes on their front lawns just like Jesus commanded in the Book of Christopher Lowell or fascist mass-marketed holiday cinema claiming to be about the "true spirit of the holidays."

No matter what, though, I feel like Klezmonauts' Oy To The World: A Klezmer Christmas has a certain eclectic charm to it, like I wouldn't play it at John Gibson's "War on Christmas" party, but it could be an interesting change of pace. Alan Jackson's adorable Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk on Christmas), is superfluous, no matter how much it might reflect the typical redneck holiday. Joe Pesci's Christmas album contains the f-word, a lot — because he's on a school bus with a bunch of fifth-graders? Maybe Joe can lighten up a bit with next album and stick with the classics, like "Batman Smells" and "Deck the Halls with Gasoline."

There are some common themes here: these established jazz and techno outlets re-interpret the classics in a loungey, semi-sophisticated way that's good for a month or so; the Jews have their self-deprecating songs of Christmas rejection; the pop stars pander; and the country singers tell stories of running over Donner and Blitzen with their pickup trucks, throwing the reindeer in back, and having the best, most drunken Christmas dinner ever.

And then there's the Christian pop group NewSong, and you can tell they're Christian because they think we're all just a little too happy with the whole Feliz Navidad attitude. (Also, the titles of their songs — Blessed Be Your Name, Arise My Love, and Wonderful Maker — sort of give them away.) Last year, our local pop radio station, which normally inundates my car with enough Creed to make me think they've got some sort of agenda, was playing NewSong's Christmas Shoes all the damn time. Check out the lyrics and... I know what they were going for, but tell me this is not the most awful, horrible Christmas song you've ever heard. It's like, imagine the alternate ending to It's A Wonderful Life where Mister Potter boils George Bailey alive and feeds his soup to the rest of Pottersville, and then try to think of that deleted scene from A Christmas Story where Santa's helpers molest Ralphie with the Red Ryder BB gun he was hoping for, and this Christmas Shoes song is about a thousand times worse. It's the heartburning story of a poor little boy on Christmas Eve who wants to buy a pair shoes for his sick mom so she, and I fucking quote, "will look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight."

Have a super-subtle Christmas, kids!

Really, how do you top that? Maybe some songs like "Satan Just Ate Santa Claus" or "That Tickle-Me-Elmo is Your Ticket to Hell, You Greedy Shit."

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Not to belittle anyone's faith, but...

..."Jedi" is not a real religion. On a list of retarded belief systems, Jedi falls somewhere between Scientology and those tracksuit-wearing weirdos who killed themselves so the aliens living behind the Hale-Bopp comet would be their friends. In the 2001 British census, about four-hundred thousand people put down "Jedi Knight" as their religion because they're either deluded enough to believe in the Force, or they enjoy fucking around with statistical data. Apparently being a Jedi Knight has its benefits over other, more established religions — like, whereas Muslims have to take time out of their day to pray, Jedi-ism has no such requirements and its practicioners have tons of free time, which some of them waste by fucking with the United Nations. Last week, "Umada" and "Yunyun," two self-proclaimed Jedi Knights whose parents probably pretend they don't know them petitioned the U.N. to rename its wildly successful International Day for Tolerance as the Interstellar Day for Tolerance because.... I don't know why. I guess this is what happens when your only friends are Wookiees.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

I was checking out the website of Promises, the famous "Residential Treatment Center" in Malibu, and damn.... I really need to start doing, and then stop doing, and then relapse into blow. That Flash animation they've got there is nicer than my entire meth-free house. I'm sorry, but I thought that rehab was supposed to be some institutionalized Scared Straight nightmare where there's nothing to do but group therapy sessions discussing your personal weaknesses and trying to smooth out the lumps in your cot mattress. But Promises is gorgeous — I mean, there aren't a lot of pictures of strung-out heroin addicts on their website, but still, no wonder so many "business executives, professionals, celebrities, [and] government officials" do drugs. They totally left this out of all those D.A.R.E. classes I had to take in elementary school.

Friday, November 17, 2006

I don't care how many of those post-modern self-righteous anti-smoking ads they put on TV, this Facebook group, Smoke Free Class of 2000, will never, ever be cool. Look, and I don't really like smokers, but the only thing more irritating than secondhand smoke in your face is a sanctimonious prick in your face reminding you how evil smoking is.

But you know what would make this Facebook group even more obnoxious? Anti-smoking pride poetry! With made up, politically correct words and a two-thirds correct rhyme scheme:

"We are the smoke free class of 2000,
two triple zero
everyone's a hero - or a she-ro
healthy lungs, healthy heart. we won't have to stop because we'll
never start
we are the smoke free class of 2000.
Two O O O ooooooh thats the way to go""We are the smoke free class of 2000,
two triple zero
everyone's a hero - or a she-ro
healthy lungs, healthy heart. we won't have to stop because we'll
never start
we are the smoke free class of 2000.
Two O O O ooooooh thats the way to go"
I'm sorry, but now I need to start smoking just to disassociate myself with these clowns. Anyone know what brand of cigarette is the coolest? Maybe something that goes well with a hacking cough and sputum?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

My Introduction to Takashi Miike (Spoiler Alert)

Since I rented Oldboy last year, I've become more and more fascinated with the Asia Extreme subgenre of film — everything about those two words, from their drawn-out vowel sounds to the mistranslation of the predictive adjective "Asia" instead of "Asian" is such a spot-on description of the genre — especially as the MPAA gives movie studios on this side of the Pacific relatively free reign to cram as much gratuitous violence on the screen as possible and American horror directors have essentially resurrected the exploitation genre, added some mindless plot twists, and sold it as "art" to idiot teenagers paying ten bucks to see pretty actors and actresses die in mildly clever and wholly implausible ways. Watching Asian film, the modern Hong Kong gangster film and the J-horror genre, you still get that visceral puerile thrill of knowing there's gonna be a ton of stage blood on screen and the only questions are when, where, and from whom, but you can also play the wine-drinking Film Forum cultural effete or the whiny, suicide-poetry writing goth chick dreaming about the erotic entanglements of on-screen sex and death.

It's not just a foreign film thing or an independent film thing, and the Asian cinema translates so well to dim-witted American studios and audiences because, like most of the horror genre, to be honest, they're fundamentally pretty inane. The Asian storytelling tradition tends to be more about the character of society and less about the character of, well, the characters, leaving room for all kinds of random ghosts or curses or deus ex machina hypnotists. We import them, we give them some pop psychobabble motive and suddenly there's The Grudge 2 playing at a multiplex near you. This frustrates me to no end, no matter where it originates, as if there aren't enough actually frightening things in the world, now someone's telling me I have to be afraid of a cursed videotape too. No, what redeems these Asian films is that unlike their unintentionally ugly American counterparts (and remakes), Asia's movies are intentionally beautiful, even in the midst of their grotesquerie. It's not merely the images that I've never seen before but also their juxtaposition with the story and the admittedly crudely-drawn characters.

I've been meaning to check out the work of Japanese gore-auteur Takashi Miike, although I was never totally sure whether I had the stomach for it. Among Asia's modern crop of violent movie directors, Miike, in particular, gets singled out for comparison when some American hack makes a movie like Hostel or Saw, where the only selling point is its myriad gratiutious, overdone death scenes. I figured that one's first taste of Miike should sort of be like one's first taste of wasabi or first taste of Pynchon: start off small and see how much you can tolerate. There's two options I saw: the Showtime Masters of Horror episode "Imprint" or the "Box" story in Three... Extremes. My video store doesn't have Three... Extremes, even though they've got like sixty copies of Stay Alive, so I went with the Masters of Horror series.

A comment about Masters of Horror: I've said this many times before, although not actually to anybody, but Masters of Horror is not scary. The series is the brainchild of Mick Garris, who directed a some horror movies with Roman numerals in their titles and also directed a bunch of Stephen King adaptations, but not any like Shawshank, or Misery, or the version of The Shining anyone actually remembers. The idea was to give so-called "masters" of horror carte blanche to make a short direct-to-DVD film in exchange for working on a small budget and tight schedule. Then Showtime came along, bought the shorts, imposed a couple of rules on the directors (which, at least for the rules I read about, probably didn't take too much away from the films), and showed them as a series without an episode-by-episode narrative but with a common theme.

The first twelve episodes, which I saw sort of as an unnecessary prelude to "Imprint," are generally pedestrian, although I did enjoy Joe Dante's political satire "Homecoming," if for no other reason than the Karl Rove character gets his head smashed to bits by a zombie. The problem is that when the horror story isn't scary, it just degenerates by default into a chance to see blood and gore, and frankly, there's not too much of that in Masters of Horror, either. "Imprint" is, supposedly, the exception, all the more tantalizing after Showtime decided it fell on the wrong side of their standards and practices line, even though Showtime doesn't have a standards and practices line. The DVD box proudly proclaims that it's "Banned from Cable Broadcast," and the Masters of Horror U.K. distributor goes a step further, saying (misleadingly) that it was "BANNED IN THE USA!" Garris said, in a New York Times interview, that "Imprint" is "definitely the most disturbing film I've ever seen," but I don't know how much of that is just posturing for the delight of horror fans and how much is Garris being a big pussy but now I've got to see this movie. (Let me say that "Imprint" is far from the most disturbing film I've ever seen; that title would go to Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, or, if we're not limiting ourselves to the land of fiction, maybe the video from the Superdome post-Katrina or the Twin Towers collapsing.)

Loosely, "Imprint" takes place in the nineteenth-century, on an unidentified Japanese island of brothels and syphilitic midgets. Billy Drago plays an American journalist searching for the prostitute he once loved... but I think a better way of describing the film is by listing the elements that Showtime found so opprobrious, and I'm sure you can piece together the story from there. So, we have:

  • Incest. Which isn't an uncommon trope in Asian storytelling, so I was pretty much prepared for this.
  • Child rape. I thought one of the scenes of child rape (and yes, there's more than one) was gratuitous, but at least Miike has a shred of sensibility to put these off-screen.
  • Aborted fetuses. Plenty of aborted fetuses to go around. I was aware of Miike's bizarre fetishes before watching "Imprint," so I was expecting them.
  • Man eating an aborted fetus. Not so much expecting this.
  • Torture. So you're about half an hour into the movie wondering why Showtime refused to air this. There's been some violence, but it's been tamer than some of the other Masters of Horror episodes. We see a prostitute with a deformed face, but we've seen worse in Dario Argento's "Jenifer" episode. And then, almost out of nowhere, there's this scene, which... eeek. It's (too) long, sadistic and explicit, but I don't think that's what makes it the grisly shock that it is. What makes the scene work so perfectly is that distinction between ugly American horror and beautiful Japanese horror that I was talking about before: the contrast between the close-up shots of the victim screaming and struggling and the gorgeous wide shots with overtones of kinbaku-bi and playful bondage, and how quickly the scene goes from disgusting to erotic when you can't make out on film the needles stuck under the poor girl's fingernails and inside her gumline.I cringed while I was watching the scene — "Oh, you're gonna show another finger? What is this, like, twelve so far?" — but I'm also a little annoyed at just how histrionic, and consequently a little condescending, it is. There's this thing called subtlety, and it's like the aftermath of a car crash. No matter how bug-eyed you are when it happens, eventually the experience gets lost in the filing cabinet of your mind. Frankly, I think a torture scene like the one in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, where the setup happens on-screen but the actual torture occurs off, will haunt me for a much longer time.
  • Conjoined fetal twin. Gotta say, did not see this one coming.
I don't know if I'm going to check out the rest of the Miike oevure because "Imprint" is just sort of a vehicle for watching stylized violence. I think the story itself got more street cred than it deserved simply through that trendy non-linear narration, and the characters in particular were flat. But again, it's horror, and they can't all be Se7en, can they? The real loser is Masters of Horror, because twelve more stories like "Imprint" are really what I was expecting from the premium cable series. I'm not saying it's great filmmaking (it's not), but at least here we've got something that challenges you to watch and eventually rewards you, both narratively and viscerally, and I'd like to see the Masters of Horror second season take a few more risks and be a bit more genuinely provocative.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It's about time we had some homophobic religious zealots who didn't give Jesus a bad name, even if we did have to go to the other side of the planet to draw them out. The gay community in Jerusalem had to scale back their annual pride parade under pressure and protests from what the L.A. Times calls "ultra-Orthodox" Jews, which I bet is also what God calls them. Really — I could have never predicted this, seeing as how the Middle East is always so full of reason and tolerance.

It's not a party in the Mideast unless someone's setting cars on fire and throwing rocks at the police, so guess what our ultra-Orthodox protesters were up to. You know, I've never really cared much about the Israeli-Arab conflict either way, but I have to say that both people who live in glass houses and people who live a few miles away from a heavily fortified West Bank border wall really shouldn't throw stones. Was Israel just a little too peaceful today? Anyhoodle, the whole gay-bashing rock-throwing protest had to break up a little early when the Palestinians decided they'd be lobbing rocks over the border, in revenge for the Israelis killing eighteen.... and holy shit, if anyone ever needed to decide a conflict once and for all through Mortal Kombat, it's these idiots. The Palestinians can be that green guy with six arms and the Israelis get to be the fire-breathing robot, and both groups get their choice of Asian kid to sit in front of the Playstation.

The thing that really impresses me about these Jewish homophobes is how dedicated they are to their cause of irrational bigotry. Catholic fundamentalists only hate openly gay people because it's easier to repress those naughty thoughts when everyone else around you is closeted too, but with these Orthodox Jews: you've got a rabbi in New York rallying against a pride parade fifty-seven hundred miles away. That's impressive. I wouldn't be surprised if he, like the rest of us, stepped over the homeless guy at the end of the block, but major props to this guy for persecuting loving relationships half a world away. I smell rapture coming for somebody soon!

Thursday, November 2, 2006

No offense to all of the brave men and women in the Customs department, protecting our borders from foreign meats and cheeses, but will you please stop giving me shit about my luggage at least until you start inspecting more than four percent of all cargo containers coming into Port Newark down the street. I'm proud to say that I did shove my way to the front of the plane like a jerk and power-walked out of the gate when the head Customs guy made an announcement on the P.A. Seven overseas flights were all landing late, they were expecting about a thousand people to come through Customs, and they were going to need everyone to put in some overtime.

Let me tell you, I'd been on my feet for the past sixteen days, but I fucking ran to the Customs officers, and guess who was number one?! Me! I was panting a bit, and the woman manning the line asked if I needed some water. I did.

So they stamped my passport and asked me where I was coming from, which I couldn't tell if Customs Guy really cared about my vacation or if he was just seeing if I was a terrorist. Whatever, I knew the right answer and it took about ten seconds, but let's do some math. Ten seconds times a thousand tourists equals two hours and forty-six tourist-minutes, and I wonder how many dirty bombs or sex slaves someone with a German shepherd could find in that time. Then at the baggage claim, another Customs guy comes and bothers me — I think because no one else made it there yet — with questions like, "Where were you coming from?" Again. In case I had the wrong answer and the first Customs guy missed it. And, "Where were you in Italy?" How the hell can this inane interrogation help us win the War on Terror (a.k.a. Struggle Against Global Extremism). I don't like our ability to catch terrorists based on the chance they'll make some super-obvious mistake: "I was in Italy, just sightseeing. You know, Venice, Florence, Khartoum.... Oh, shit, I meant Rome."

This is the home stretch, literally. I'm somewhere over Halifax, and in a few hours, I'll be back in America blogging about my usual inane crap. First let me say that I have mixed feelings about the whole trip, but I'll still miss Italy and I'm looking forward to coming back. I have to come back, because I still didn't see The Last Supper or an opera at La Scala, there's Carnevale in Venice sometime in the spring, and I don't really understand why but I sort of want to visit the town where my grandparents grew up. I genuinely like my relatives, even my uncle who regimented touring Milan so much and I'd like to know more about them and what their lives are like. (I know that's selfish and a little condescending, so you don't have to tell me that, but I'm curious nevertheless.)

It bears saying that my language worries prior to this trip were groundless, and I even think it would've been nice in a way if the people in Venice and Florence didn't make it quite so easy for me to communicate in English. It's the guidebook and illustrated map that gave me away as a tourist, and the fact that I'm in Florence in the first place that let people know I'm an American.... except for all the Italians who kept asking me for directions for some reason. But, and again, I know this is condescending, especially coming from a relatively well-off American who spent the trip meeting folks from Kansas City, Phoenix, Colorado, and California, but I sort of wanted to dump my Fanwood/New York daily life for a couple of weeks and live someone else's.

My worries about traveling by myself also didn't manifest too much, except there'd probably be a few more pictures of me if I had a friend to take them. (Also if my neck didn't magically disappear whenever I'm being photographed.) I had read on the web, which is notoriously accurate, that Florence is a great city for solo travelers, with its artwork, cafes, and shops around every corner, but I don't think I'd go back without a friend or five. Sure, it would've been tough dragging a buddy through the Boboli Gardens and Piazza Michelangelo in a two-day period, but there are just too many hours here in between when the seniors' tour groups go back to the hotel and when the city quiets down to do it alone. Venice, with lights-out at around ten, caters more to travellers going it alone in my opinion.

I'm going to miss being able to drink outside, which has a certain charm, at least when it's wine and you don't have to hide behind a paper bag. The thing is, you know if they got rid of the open bottle laws here in America, the streets would be littered with assholes walking in the middle of the street doing shots of J├Ągermeister because we're a nation of uncivilized boors. Maybe. But at least we're a nation of uncivilized boors where they give you water for free in the restaurants and a can of Coca-Cola costs less than five dollars. I've developed a tolerance for bitter, burny beverages over the past two weeks — wine and espresso — partly because of the whole "when in Rome" (or "when in Venice") thing and largely because they're cheaper in Italy than the, uh, tap water I usually drink.

I'll also be missing the SmartCar back in America. I don't know how whoever makes them isn't selling these things in America, because I'd be the first person in line to buy one. (Maybe the second, after Ed Begley, Jr.) I drive a Honda Civic and maybe refuel it once a month or so, but I'll never be able to look at it again without a little disdain: why can't you be three feet long and run on natural gas? I'm never parallel parking you again! Besides, the beauty of a SmartCar is — in Italy, anyway — you can just park the damn thing wherever the hell you feel like it. Turin was like some sort of creative-parking contest, where one guy would have his FIAT on the sidewalk and then someone else would one-up him by parking right in the middle lane of traffic. One of these days, someone's gonna be driving to the grocery store and wind up parking right inside the store, by the frozen foods or something.

Did the trip change me or anything? We'll see. Once I'm back in New York, I feel like I can drop this whole lackadaisical European attitude and push my way to the front of the plane rather than waiting for all these people to get their carry-on luggage down from the overhead bins. I'll do that passive-aggressive New York thing, where I politely excuse myself as I gently or not-so-gently nudge people out of my way. The trick, of course, is to be aggressive enough to get them to move, so... we'll see.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

I think I mentioned before that my cousin Simone has a dog, a big black lab named Maxton. I love city dogs in particular because they're so used to being around different people and other dogs that they're really well-behaved, but every now and then, Maxton gets a little too enthusiastic and someone needs to put him in his place. So there's my aunt, "Maxton, seduto!" And he won't listen… "Seduto! Maxton, rimouvuto tui zampi dalla tavola cena e ti prendi all'angolo! Andate!" I find this all very amusing because, silly, dogs can't speak Italian!

Here, let me try: "Maxton! Get down off the dinner table and sit in the corner! Go!"