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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Tainted Love

Last week was country night on American Idol and one of the finalists, Fantasia Barrino, sang one of my favorite country songs, “You Were Always On My Mind.” It’s odd to hear a female vocalist sing this song which is, essentially, one long excuse for being an asshole. If you need a refresher, here’s a sample of the lyric: “Maybe I didn't treat you quite as good as I should. Maybe I didn't love you quite as often as I could. Little things I should've said and done, I never took the time. But you were always on my mind. You were always on my mind.” These are the sort of excuses a man offers his woman for, oh, forgetting her birthday or anniversary or coming home drunk every night. It’s a Willie Nelson composition, and when Willie sings it, in his mournful style, it has trailer park resonance. “You know I love you, but I’m just a broke down ol’ hick an’ I don’t know how to show it.”

It was interesting to hear the song refashioned to fit a woman’s perspective. Fantasia recast the song as a torch ballad, with the long black dress to match. Unlike Willie, who seems to be singing outside the trailer or in a transients welcome hotel room, Fantasia is singing in a restaurant or club, after her man has walked out on her. It’s a song for the New Woman: smart, sophisticated and too busy to notice she’s leaving her loved ones behind.

I still prefer the version of the song assayed by the Pet Shop Boys back in 1987. This track doesn’t even bother with text and instead cuts straight to subtext: the song is all about insincerity. It’s a song from a young man to his sugar daddy, not even promising to change his ways, but offering up lame excuses for his bad behavior. “What? What did I do now? Sure, I party with other boys, but I’m thinking about *you*.” Especially on Discography, where it follows “Rent,” (“I love you, you pay my rent”), the song could easily be renamed, “I Am Lying Through My Teeth.” Here, the key lyric is, “give me one more chance to keep you satisfied.” There’s no doubt the singer is paying his way with sexual favors and knows he’s one more betrayal away from ending up on the street. At the same time, he’s been here before, and trusts he can worm his way out of the situation with the proper combination of words and attitude. Cynical? Sure, but it was the 80s, after all.

Things are so different now.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Las Vegas Makes Me Sick

Yes, this title is all but designed to get me in dutch with the in-laws. So let's just keep our panties on, and see where it goes.

As you know, I spent the weekend before last in Vegas, home of strippers, gambling and my sister. Except the strippers are escorts and gambling is "gaming." That's right, there is no more gambling in Las Vegas. There is simply the playing of games. The government organization which oversees the casinos is the Nevada Gaming Commission. Once you lose enough games, you are broke. I am put in mind of the W.C. Fields line: when asked if the poker he's playing is a game of chance, he replies, "Not the way I play it." Throughout the casinos, you'll see games named Yahtzee and Wheel of Fortune, but they all come down to the same thing - slot machines. But I get ahead of myself.

When I went to Vegas last summer (see the Reader of 7.11.03), I flew by myself, out of O'Hare, on Spirit Air. This time I flew out of Midway on ATA with friends. Radically different experiences. On the way to the airport, I told my companions to expect lots of kids and Asians. Imagine my surprise, then, when Midway was not only not busy, but fairly devoid of both social groups I had expected. Was this to be a much smoother trip?

Oh, foolish man.

The gambling - excuse me, gaming - began at the airport. We arrived early enough to check in with plenty of time for a drink or two before our flight. We repaired to what passed for a pub and ordered some beers, since the hard liquor we craved was not to be found. My traveling companion M decided to play some music, and put a buck in the jukebox in order to receive 3 plays. Michael Jackson's HIStory was the most recent release on the box. By far. M chose a selection. (Not from HIStory.) I chose a selection. M chose an additional selection, and then put in another dollar. His first selection played, my first selection played. The machine refused to give us any plays for the second dollar, and chose to play, quite on its own, random choices from the CD which included M's second selection. Is this a game of chance? Not the way I play it.

ATA, it turns out, is the airline of slim-hipped flight attendants. As soon as we boarded, I noticed the male employees were a bit … mannered. This is not unusual for this profession. But as I started down the aisle, I discovered why this particular version of this particular type worked for this particular airline. I am not slim-hipped. And the only way to make it down the aisle to my seat was a sort of sideways shuffle-ball-change crab step. As one of my companions later informed me, the aisle was not even wide enough to wheel a standard sized carry-on bag. I didn't discover this on my own because my means of locomotion involved taking a step and then having my bag swing back and hit me on the ass, thus prompting the next step. Sort of a perpetual motion device. The seats, by and by, didn't seem any narrower than I was used to, but every time the flight attendants moved the cart up and down the aisle (providing out snack of tiny pretzels and crackers in the shapes of crop circles), I thought I would lose a limb.

As you may know, traveling involves an inevitable letdown. You're looking forward to the trip, you have high expectations, and you are eventually disappointed. This trip, the letdown occurred as we hit the airport. Last summer, Spirit disgorged us into an airport awash in activity: the terminal was new and full of people, even at midnight, there was a vast atrium filled with clattering slot machines, I took a mysterious tram that whooshed me from one terminal to another, where there were shops and more slot machines and redcaps and even more people. ATA dropped us off in a far more manageable terminal, where we walked a short distance to baggage claim and then immediately out the door to ground transportation. It was certainly more convenient. But it felt like we snuck in through the back door. If not for the monitors advertising the 5 different Cirque du Soleil shows, we could have been in Duluth.

It was in the airport that Las Vegas began to make us sick.

One of my traveling companions discovered that his cell phone had gotten turned on while it was in his luggage, and had spent the entire 3 1/2 hour flight looking for service. Its batteries were none the better for wear. Astonishing to me, he had not packed a charger. The phone battery, he explained, generally holds a charge for 4 or 5 days. I don't understand people who are not paranoid. It's not that I always expect things to go wrong, it's just that … yes I do. Or at least believe in being prepared in case they go wrong. Because there's a god chance they will go wrong. I brought my PDA, which I barely used, and I still brought the charger. I brought Walprofen and Zantac 75s because I expected my body to attack me. True, in general I believe that as long as I have my wallet and my keys I'm okay. but that doesn't mean I don't pack one extra pair of socks and underwear, just in case.

The phone was not dead, but it was dying. And this was enough to trigger a meltdown. Not a full-blown meltdown. But the beginnings of one. Remember when Wile E. Coyote eats the entire jar of earthquake pills? And at first just his toe starts vibrating? Like that. Trying to catch a cab and not finding one made it worse. Being told, "It's the weekend, there aren't any cabs at the airport" didn't help. Sitting on a bus to the hotel and waiting for it to fill up as cabs came and went caused additional tremors. So that by the time the bus finally took off, taking 30 minutes to make a 5 minute trip, we were in trouble.

This sort of tension was symptomatic of the entire trip. When we finally got to the hotel, another of our little group discovered that his cell phone, which had worked fine at the airport, couldn't get a signal in our room … and he BLEW UP. Flying makes people so cranky. Any time I am the calmest person in a room, there's trouble, people.


It took the remake of "Dawn of the Dead" ("More Dawn, More Dead") to knock "The Passion of the Christ" out of the top box office spot. This is the summer of creatures returning from the dead to wreak havoc. Coming up next: Hugh Jackman slays vampires as Van Helsing! (Not Van Halen, as I almost wrote.) Al Gore must be kicking himself for not running for president.


Now the last thing I want to do is rail on my friends for their various shortcomings. After all, that won't allow me to focus on my own, which is what you came here for. So I won't discuss the companion who got hostile every day at mealtime because he was on MEDICATION and it had to be taken with FOOD so he had to eat RIGHT NOW. And I'll skip the friend who became so restless at the Liberace tribute show that he checked his watch five minutes in and continued to do so at the beginning and end of every song for the rest of the show. And I won't even go into my own actions at that same museum when I became intolerant (and intolerable) because You Have To Look At These Exhibits In The Right Order, People!

Vegas made us all sick.

But I do want to talk about gaming. There are two things I've learned about gambling, which is what I call it, no matter what Nevada says. Everyone has their own method of beating the house. And everyone else is wrong. A couple I met in the city had the following exchange back in their hotel room after too many cocktails and hours of playing blackjack. He: (as he is passing out in his shark skin suit) Don't me go back down there! She: (eating room service and watching Tony Robbins) Why would I make you go back down there, honey? He: Because I'm a gambling genius! In Vegas, everyone is a gambling genius.

M - of the airport bar jukebox mishap - when to Vegas saying he had no interest in gambling. He was going to drink martinis and see shows and smoke cigarettes indoors. But tickets to O proved impossible to get and you need to do something while you're smoking. He lost his cherry at the slots. M's method, as good as any I suppose, was to play the dumbest games he could find. Of such games there is no dearth. Vegas is following in Hollywood's footsteps by launching slot machines "based on" (which is to say, named after) TV shows. Thus, you have "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Munsters," "I Dream of Jeannie," and the big new hit - I saw it featured in a plethora of ads - "MASH." Each new game is rolled out by the casinos and the Chamber of Commerce with a major event, as if it isn't the same old slot with a brand new face. (No, I didn't visit any gentlemen's clubs while I was there. But a taxi driver did try to take me and two of my friends to one the first night we were there. At first I thought he was merely an idiot, but later I learned that cabbies get kickbacks for the johns the deliver. Interesting.) Game play has little, if anything, to do with the show. The wheels go round and round, and how the images line up or don't line up determines your payout or lack thereof. Gone are the old fashioned cherries and lemons and bars, to be replaced by lobsters and rhinos and Lily Munsters and chickens in G-strings. Yes, you read that right. One of the particularly stupid games M found was "Chickendales." You can imagine the rest. This complemented his other choices of "Cops and Donuts" and "Winning for Dummies," in the trademarked yellow and black. Gone, too, are the simple days of three in a row and you win. Now games pay out on double diamonds and triple diamonds and quintuple reverse grand poobahs, with lines zigging through payouts in ways that only a surveyor can figure out.

I don't like playing any game I can't understand. And many of the slots are incomprehensible at best. So I stick to video poker. I would play regular poker, but they don't have a quarter table. And I managed to win ten bucks playing a dime machine, so beat that.

I like video poker because I least feel like I am in some control over my destiny. I choose whether to keep cards or not, rather than just waiting to see what the wheels give me. (If you don't know, video poker is basically all five card draw.) My method is one I call "p*ssy play." I play the quarter games, and I play "max bet," which is five coins, or $1.25 per hand. I put in five or ten bucks and play until it's gone. It usually lasts a while. If I lose, I lose. If I win (and this is where the p*ssy part comes in), I immediately cash out. These days, many of the games print a payout ticket rather than giving you coins back. Cashing out right away keeps me from playing until it's all gone. Thus, playing 10 bucks on a bar top game, when I won $45, I cashed out immediately. I didn't really win 45, 'cause you've got to back out the 10 I put in to get it. Then you have to back out the 10 I played before that without winning, and the 5 I lost afterwards. But that's till 20 bucks free and clear, which I would easily have lost if I had let it ride. (Remember the paranoid part?) Not bad for one machine. If a machine takes my five or ten bucks and gives me nothing in return, I leave it. If a machine pays out - and this is my sick part - I also leave it. I figure, now that it has been lucky for me once, it must be done with me. Again - remember the paranoid part.

I left Las Vegas a few bucks up. M was not so lucky. Because he got sick. On Saturday, when I went to the pool and B went to the spa and D went out with his niece and J went to the Hoover Dam, M stayed in. And played. Obsessively. Vegas will do that to you. She shows you the good life, then slaps you down. Beeotch.

Well, this is getting long and I never did get around to telling you how Vegas really made me sick. For now, let's just say it had to do with eating a lot of meat and eggs and potatoes and not drinking nearly enough water. And to be a little more specific, that my GI tract is my Achilles heel, which is only one reason that Brad Pitt is playing that role in "Troy" instead of me, though you would think that after 10 years at war back when the life expectancy was 42, a lot of these guys were not feeling their freshest. In any case, after all that and a 4 hour plane trip back in seats that wouldn't even recline and getting in at 6 am on Tuesday, this past week held some horrible things in store for me. And for now we'll leave it at that.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Grapes of Dross

By the time you read this, “The Passion of the Christ” should be well on its way to a third record weekend. The flick has already brought in more than $200 million, probably with very little repeat business. Generally, blockbusters like “Lord of the Rings” make their money from audience members seeing the film again and again, and bringing their friends. “Passion” got off to a strong start through advance ticket sales to church groups, and has been bolstered by the controversy surrounding it. But I find it hard to imagine anyone but hard-core Christians or dedicated S&M fans seeing this movie more than once. It’s a long time between films that appeal equally to the College of Cardinals and leather worshippers.

Hollywood has certainly taken notice of the film’s success. CBS has already announced plans to rerun the made for TV movie, “Jesus,” which originally aired in 1999. Starring as Jesus is Jeremy Sisto, in the years between playing one of the shirtless boys in “White Squall” and Brenda’s crazy brother in “Six Feet Under.” In SFU, he carves a tattoo off the small of his back, in a scene that would certainly be at home in “Passion.” Jeremy’s mom in “Jesus” is played by Jacqueline Bisset, in what I assume is not one of her MILF roles. Joseph is played by Armin-Mueller Stahl, who you may remember as the patriarch in “Avalon,” or Jessica Lange’s secret Nazi father in “Music Box.” Last month he played the Israeli Prime Minister in “The West Wing,” which is typical of the roles he tends to play. In any case, by the time he did “Jesus” he was nearly 70 years old, which is probably twice as old as the historical Joseph ever managed. Debra Massing plays Mary Magdalene, just about the time she started playing Grace. Go figure. Gary Oldman plays Pontius Pilate, which is just about the only role he plays any more.

Any movie with the degree of success of “Passion” cries out for a sequel. Granted, the hero dies at the end, which is generally a difficult obstacle for any franchise in the making. But the beauty of the Christ story is the resurrection. Not only does the hero return to life, but he has special powers which allow him to travel through time and space, and render him invincible. He’s Superman without the Kryptonite.

So it should come as no surprise than Newmarket Films has announced plans for a follow up to “The Passion of the Christ,” tentatively titled “The Revenge of the Christ.” The story picks up where “Passion” leaves off, with Jesus teaming up with his disciples and the Romans to take vengeance on the evil Jews responsible for his death. The marketing strategy is already in place, built around the tag line, “He has loosed the fateful lighting of his terrible swift sword!”

As a Newmarket rep explains, ‘The problem with Jesus is that he’s all powerful. He’s the Son of God, with all of his dad’s strengths. Sure, he’s got the self-doubt, but that pretty much gets beaten out of him in “Passion,” y’know what I mean? So you’ve got this all powerful character who can’t be killed. Where’s the fun in that? We figured the one thing that could kill Jesus is if no one believes in him. But that was too Peter Pan. I mean, what are you gonna do, have Mary Magdalene call out to the audience, “If you believe in Jesus Christ, pray!” And what, we’re gonna have kneelers in all these movie theaters? No way.
“But Jesus has all these followers, and they’re human, see. So they can be killed. And I mean, they were killed all the time, right? And he comes with the disciples built right in, like Robin Hood. So even though he can’t be killed, his friends can. And what does he do? He weeps. Get it? Jesus weeps.

“Right off the top, you’ve got Mary Magdalene. Classic character. Hooker with a heart of gold – what could be better? Is she his girlfriend or is she just a whore? Girlfriend slash moral center slash kick-ass hottie. Electra in Daredevil. Is Julia too old for this?

“Then there’s the other Mary. His mom. Last thing we want is some stay-at-home worrywart like Ma Kent, or clueless Aunt May from “Spider-Man.” I’m thinking more along the lines of Kris Kristofferson in “Blade.” Mentor and weapons master. Maybe Joseph taught her how to make swords? Her love forges his terrible swift sword. I love it. This could be “Gloria, Part 2” for Gena Rowlands. I smell Oscar!

“We went back and forth on Pilate. Is he a villain? Is he a sidekick? I mean, he sentences Jesus to death, y’know? But he doesn’t want to, he does everything he can to avoid it. He’s conflicted. And you have Jesus chasing the Roman and the Jews, it gets too confusing. And besides which, the Romans eventually become the god guys, with the Pope and everything. And Pilate, geez, perfect second banana. Always washing his hands. Very OCD, very Tony Shalhoub in “Monk.” Powerful, yet weak. Great part for a young – and alive – Jack Lemmon. Shalhoub is too obvious. Is Roberto Benigni too far out?

“And anyway, for the villain, I mean super-villain, you’ve got Caiaphas. Crazy evil. Like Christopher Walken evil. Before he played that pussy in “Catch Me If You Can.” Or Willem Dafoe. Before he played that pussy in “Auto Focus.” Geez, who can play evil anymore? Maybe Harvey Keitel. Before he played that pussy in “Red Dragon.”

“And I love the whole costume drama thing, the whole desert thing. Not that Aramaic, of course, that bullshit’s got to go. But we could use accents. Not for Jesus, he’s straight up American. But otherwise, there’s tons of possibilities. It’s a cross between “Gladiator” and “The Scorpion King.” He’s not the Scorpion King, he’s the King of Kings! Write that down. I wonder if The Rock’s available?”

Needless to say, Mel Gibson will not be involved with the sequel. Neither will James Caviezel, who the producers feel is “too wimpy” to play the avenging Christ they envision. The Rock is just the latest name to be mentioned, along with Colin Farrell (“too short”), Matt Damon (“too pale”) and Ben Affleck (“that whole ‘Bennifer’ thing”). The producers feel somewhat constrained by the age requirement, and hope to find someone who can play mid-thirties throughout the length of a three-picture deal. “The last thing we want is some old codger playing our Lord. Arnold in T3 was bad enough.”