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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Roof Is On Fire

As planned, I made it to Fahrenheit 9/11 this week. I didn't go over the weekend, but apparently I wasn't missed. Even without me, the movie made more money over the weekend than Michael Moore's previous film, Bowling for Columbine, did for its entire run. And Bowling was a huge hit, holding the documentary gross record for a non-concert film.

The movie is a brilliant piece of propaganda. Which is not to say that it's inaccurate. A movie can be propagandist and still true. And when dealing with a figure whose main means of discourse is propaganda (Mission Accomplished), it's only fit. Moore is out to inflame, and inflame he does, with interviews, archival video, a visit to Flint, and bits of the agit-prop theater (reading the Patriot Act over the speaker of a Tastee-Freeze truck) for which he's known.

There's little here that's news, at least to anyone who's been paying attention for the past four years. But Moore does a good job of laying out all the pieces in the proper order. In this way, the film is like a good Time magazine article, recapping a series of connected events in a way that helps make sense for the viewer.

Moore hates George Bush. Really, really hates George Bush. I don't like George Bush, but next to Michael Moore, I'm middle of the road. Here's George Bush stealing the 2000 election. Here's George Bush goofing off his first eight months in office. Here's George Bush reading with schoolkids while the World Trade Towers are being bombed. And on and on and on.

This is the major flaw of the film. Moore hates Bush so much, he tries to touch on everything that's wrong with this administration, rather than focusing on any one element for any length of time. His bit on the Patriot Act would be more effective if he gave the audience a better idea of what the Act is all about. It's no surprise that the section on Iraq is the most compelling, because he takes some time to cover various elements of his story, and focuses on the human story, rather than just the political one.

Moore has been accused, as he always will be, of being inaccurate. The Christopher Hitchens story in Slate does a better job than most in making its case without losing its cool. It's not that Moore lies, or even bends the truth (much): he's simply bitten off more than even a man of his gigantic size can chew.

At the same time, the story he does tell boils the blood. Beneath it all, once you strip away the Bush-baiting, is a story of haves versus have-nots, of the privileges enjoyed by people of privilege, and of the wage slaves that makes those privileges possible. It's not that Bush puts the needs of the Saudis above those of the American people; it's that the Bushes, like the Sauds, travel in circles that isolate them from the lives of the people they serve. (The same argument could be made of the Kerrys and Heinzes.) Bush is so unrepentant about catering to the desires of the wealthy ("Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.") that it makes me wonder why anyone making less than $200,000 a year (to be conservative) would even consider voting for him. By the time we got to the seminar for companies exploring ways to cash in on rebuilding Iraq, I understood the urges that prompted the French Revolution. I don't just want these people out of office; I want heads on pikes.

Early in the film, there is a scene that was a surprise to me. Congress has to certify the vote of the Electoral College in order for the newly elected president to take office. Ironically, Al Gore, as President of the Senate, has to preside over these proceedings. A challenge, in writing and signed by at least one senator and one representative, is enough to open the floor to debate. One by one, members of the Congressional Black Caucus take to the podium with their challenges, based on what they perceive as the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida and other places. Not one of the representatives has managed to secure the signature of a senator, however, and so one by one they are forced to leave the podium. The cowardice of the Senate is understandable: by this time, the election of George Bush is a fait accompli, and with only 100 members, the Senate is more of an old boy's club than the rambunctious House, with its 435. At one point, when a representative is asked if she has a senator's signature, she replies, "I don't care that it's not signed by a member of Senate!" Gore replies that Congress does care about the rules, which elicits some laughter and applause. In a greater sense, though, the scene underscores the difference between Gore and Bush. Whatever else you may think of him, Al Gore has always been guided by the rule of law, an inconvenience George Bush has never allowed to get in his way.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Homos, Baseball and Food. Oh My.

This is Gay Pride weekend here in Chicago, with the parade capping activities on Sunday afternoon. All of June is officially Pride Month, and you can just imagine the sort of revelry that leads to. You can't? To start, arts organizations, which tend to be fairly gay to begin with, schedule fundraisers and special events, such as Bailiwick's annual Pride Series, About Face Theatre's Wonka Ball and the retrospective of Terry Gaskins photography at Las Manos Gallery (on view through July 4!). There are the usual readings, discussions and book signings, such as David Sedaris' appearance at Unabridged Books on June 4th (yeah, I missed it too). It being an election year, there are a host of political events, including a seminar on gay marriage. But mostly it's parties, parties, parties, with many of the festivities (Pride Jam (mmm, tasty), All Girl Dance Party, Sultry As Sin) occurring this weekend. There's even the Annual Pride Cruise, which seems redundant. The whole weekend is the annual Pride cruise.

The parade, for those of you interested who don't already know, kicks off at noon from Belmont and Halsted (clap, clap, clap, clap, Deep in the heart of Boystown), sashays up Halsted to Grace and then continues down Broadway to Diversey. The parade used to start at 2 (or 2:30 or so), a much more reasonable hour for queers on a Sunday. But a few years ago they pushed the time back, and last year the parade was so organized that the beginning passed our viewing stand (early on the second leg) before we even got there. Generally, this is no great loss, as the first dozen floats or so (if by "float," you mean a guy in a car) are local politicos. This year, that number is closer to 40. Can you tell it's an election year? Da Mare (that would be Richard Daley) is scheduled to appear, alongside John Fritchey, an obscure but well connected politician who is running for Democratic committeeman in the 32nd Ward, which includes West Lakeview. Fritchey is thought to have his eye on the mayoralty in 2011, if Daley retires, a thought which is bolstered by their sharing a car. Barak Obama, the Democratic candidate for the Senate and front runner, since Jack Ryan's campaign imploded, is well placed behind the Gay and Lesbian Police float, always a crowd pleaser, and ward Alderman Tom Tunney, the city's first openly gay alderman. Obama is no doubt cognizant that Chicago's gay community was instrumental in electing his pre-predecessor, Carol Moseley Braun, and gladly turned their back on her the following election, after she had not lived up to her promises.

Absent from the parade is Obama's opponent for the Senate, Jack Ryan. Ryan's candidacy seems to be in flames following the disclosure, from his divorce proceedings, that he (allegedly) dragged his wife to sex clubs and attempted to coerce her to have sex with him in public. In skipping the parade, Ryan is ignoring the one segment of the electorate that is likely to feel more positively toward him since the revelations. John Kerry will not be present, but his "campaign" has its own contingent. The Bush campaign isn't bothering, which is not a surprise, although there will be a float from the Forest Park bar, Nutbush.

I plan to celebrate Pride Day by skipping the parade. It's one of those events that's 40% fun and 60% aggravation. When I lived at Broadway and Roscoe, right off the parade route, it was easy enough to go out to the parade for a while, go home and have a beer, watch the parade, go home and use the restroom, rinse and repeat. For the past few years, I've shared a hotel room in the area with a few friends, which cut down on travel but generally resulted in a poor night's sleep. No matter where you stand on the parade route, within a very short time a crowd has gathered in front of you, composed primarily of the young and the drunk, neither of whom are particularly well mannered. The only problem in skipping the parade is that sinking feeling that something fun is happening without you. I suppose the best thing to do is to get down to a local diner or watering hole at the crack of dawn and claim some ringside real estate, but that seems more trouble than it's worth.

The most accurate advice I've read for enjoying the day comes from "Figure out how much money you want to bring ... then double it."


An alternative (or complement) to the Gay Pride Parade is the Dyke March, which takes place tomorrow at 2 in Andersonville, my home sweet home. This parade marches up Clark Street from Foster to Bryan Mawr, and since it's two blocks from my apartment, I may check it out. I'd gladly supply more information if I could, but a visit to reveals this about the History of the event: " ". Similarly, the Mission statement is " ". The site shows the route of the March and reveals that T's Bar will donate a portion of all alcohol sales on Wednesday, June 30th and July 14th to the organization. And here I thought lesbians were so well organized.


For those of you of a different mind, this is the first weekend of the Crosstown Challenge, interleague baseball between the Cubs and the Sox. The first game starts this afternoon at 3:05, with following games on Saturday and Sunday at the same time. All three games will be played at Comiskey Park, that is, US Cellular Field. Ugh. I don't know if the Cubs got out of the way of the parade or the parade got out of the way of the Cubs, but it's a wise choice. Three follow-up games will be played at Wrigley Field over the July 4th weekend. I have enough sense to not try to go into further detail about this matchup, leaving that to those who have some knowledge of the affair. I will admit, though, that if I were to watch the game, I would of course be rooting for the Cubs. Also, a lack of knowledge does not preclude having an opinion, at least not in my family, so I will offer one insight. This interleague play is fine as long as it's all fun and games. But the notion that these games count toward league standings is shocking to me. It's like the designated hitter rule: it ain't real baseball.

Oh, by the way, you have less than six days left to vote for players for the All-Star Game, so if you haven't yet, go to and vote today.


Action packed as this weekend is, it's also the opening of Taste of Chicago, or as it is affectionately known, Eat Out Chicago. The foodfest opens today and continues through the 4th of July. The event is anchored at one end of Grant Park by the Art Institute and at the other by the United Airlines Ferris Wheel, where you can go up and down and 'round in circles, just like the financial fortunes of the sponsoring company. Food tickets are sold in packs of 11 for 7 bucks, reflecting, I suppose, the gambling nature of eating at the Taste. According to the Mayor's Office of Special Events, or "Mose," as it is affectionately referred to on its website, food items will sell for 1 to 3 tickets. If past experience is any barometer, I'd say 5 to 10 tickets is more in the ballpark.

In addition to the Petrillo Music Shell, which will host the major performers (Stephanie Mills? Peter (Still Alive) Frampton? They Might Be Giants?), acts will be on display at the Chicago Living Pavilion, the Comcast Fun Time Stage and the Illinois Lottery Taste Stage. I don't trust a performance space sponsored by a game of chance. And the Comcast Fun Time Stage reminds me too much of the Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour to take it seriously.

With all this local talent on display, it cheese me off that this band I know can't get their act together to perform in any of the festivals that play in Chicago all summer long.


Six Feet Under is back, and I planned to use some space to comment on that, but time's a wastin'. Let me just say that the Fishers are depressed as ever, and I'm getting ready to smack the hell out of the lot of them. On Deadwood, when a character started getting on your nerves, you could at least hope he would eventually be fed to Mr. Wu's pigs. On SFU, no such chance. Which is a pity, as death becomes these characters. Nate Fisher Sr., the patriarch of the clan who died in the first episode yet still appears semi-regularly, is the most lively character on the show. Nate Jr.'s wife and Claire's ex-boyfriend both seem better adjusted and more content in the afterlife than they ever were in this. Which is the point, I suppose, but making me wish everyone was dead should not necessarily be the intent of any television program.

Claire seems prepared - if I'm right about this, and I usually am; you don't need an oracle to see through the dramatic structure of SFU - for a Sapphic dalliance with Mena Suvari. Not that there's anything wrong with that. For Claire, it would be a step in the right direction: her first boyfriend was an abusive addict and her last boyfriend was emotionally dependent and morally uncentered. An angry performance artist seems just the cure for that.

More next week? We'll see.


Finally, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 opens today (at the Century Centre Cinema and Sony Esquire in Chicago, as well as the Cineplex Gardens in Old Orchard and the Century 12 in Evanston). I hope to see the flick this weekend. There are two reasons for this: 1) I want to see the movie, and 2) I want to contribute to the opening weekend's gross, since that's all that matters any more. So I may blather about that next week as well.


One more thing. (It's always one more thing.) Brothers, an art exhibit featuring the work of brothers Joeff and Muller Davis, is on display at the Leadway Bar and Gallery, 5233 N. Damen, through July 7. Check it out. The bar is fun, the gallery is cozy and the brothers are friends.

So don't blame me if you have nothing to do this weekend.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Over God

The US Supreme Court celebrated Flag Day by sidestepping the issue of whether or not God belongs in the Pledge of Allegiance. Here's what I had to say two years ago when this case first came to light. This article really vexed people. (Read on; I continue current comments at the end.)


Just in time for our nation's birthday, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the phrase "under God," in the Pledge of Allegiance, equates to government endorsement of religion and is in violation of the separation of church and state. Reciting the Pledge in school - and forcing a teacher to lead the Pledge - is therefore unconstitutional.

Oh, did that set their hair on fire in Washington. Ari Fleischer, speaking for President Bush (not ex cathedra, I might add), said, "The president's reaction was that this ruling is ridiculous." Not to be left out, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called the ruling "just nuts." House members gathered on the front steps of the Capitol - the same place they sang "God Bless America" the night of Sept. 11 - for a mass recitation of the Pledge. If Lawrence Welk was still on, these guys would rock! Virtually the entire Senate showed up for a morning prayer Thursday to affirm that the United States is "one nation, under God." This time Bush spoke for himself, and said that the court's decision ignored fundamental beliefs of American society. "America," he says, "is a nation that values our relationship with an Almighty." And with God.

Senator Kit Bond of Missouri was one of the first legislators to react to the ruling. "Our Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves," he announced. Well, if by Founding Fathers he's referring to the authors of the Constitution, of course they're not. Most of those boys, as anyone who's studied American history knows, were Deists. They believed God, if they believed in him at all, merely started the ball rolling, and then went back to his macramé. They did not believe in a God who took a personal interest in the lives of people or nations, and certainly did not believe the US was under him. John Adams believed that "The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." James Madison wrote, "Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty have found in the clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate liberty, does not need the clergy." And from Thomas Jefferson: "I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. … Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth."

If the Founding Fathers were spinning in their graves, it was back in 1954, when the words "under God" were added to the Pledge in the first place. Back then, the US was in the middle of the Cold War with the USSR, which, as a Communist nation, was officially atheist. Most of its people were members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and probably followed their religion much more strictly than the gadabout postwar Americans, but no matter. The Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic organization, no less, led a campaign to get the phrase inserted into the Pledge. President Eisenhower called for the change, and Congress agreed. When Ike signed the legislation, he declared: "Millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty." The Founding Fathers would just shit.

As would Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge. He composed it some 60 years earlier, for The Youth's Companion magazine, a family publication that was the Reader's Digest of its day. Bellamy was a Baptist minister and a Christian Socialist. He was hired as the magazine's circulation manager after being pressured into leaving his Boston church because of his political beliefs. The editor who hired him was a fan, and asked him to write a few words for schoolchildren to recite at the quadricentennial Columbus Day celebration in 1892. Bellamy initially included "equality" right before "liberty," but cut it because the state superintendents of education were against equality for women and blacks. God was never considered. Years later, when Bellamy retired to Florida, he stopped attending church altogether because of the racial bigotry he found there.

[Note that Bellamy omitted God from the Pledge for the same reason the Founding Fathers demanded a separation of Church and State: less to save government from religion than to save religion from government. When "under God" was added to the pledge, his family objected on his behalf. To no avail.]

Congress did not officially recognize the Pledge until 1942. The following year, the Supreme Court ruled that school children could not be forced to recite it. So when God wriggled His way into the Pledge, it was (officially) only a dozen years old, and by no means universally accepted. The appeals court noted the Supreme Court ruling, but said that even when the pledge is voluntary, "the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the pledge."

[For the past two years, I've taught a number of students have relatively moved here from Eastern Bloc nations. They have expressed their surprise, not that God is in the Pledge, but that schoolchildren are expected to recite a loyalty oath every day before classes. It strikes them as something that would exist under Communism.]

Is the Pledge unconstitutional? In the broadest sense, of course it is. It clashes with our accepted policy of separation of Church and State. It's not as bad a school prayer or posting the Ten Commandments in the classroom (remember that one?), but it does bring God - albeit a generic God - in where he doesn't belong. This is the sort of case that gets everyone's knickers in a twist, not just because it's a hot button, but because it serves as a "first straw." The Supreme Court has already said that printing "In God We Trust" on our cash is constitutional. (This motto wasn't added until 1955, about the same time God made it into the Pledge, and for the same reasons.) What about singing "God Bless America" at official events? Using "So help me God" in court or in the Presidential Oath of Office? ("God" is not in the Constitution, but George Washington added it, just for luck.) Opening sessions of the Supreme Court with the "God save the United States and this honorable court," or Congress with a prayer? Actually, the fact that Congress can do this and not be struck down by lightning seems to me proof of God's absence, rather than his presence. The 9th Court has set aside its ruling for the moment (school is out anyway), probably to keep the Supreme Court from getting involved.

It's hard for me to see this case as anything other than a nuisance suit, or perhaps a testing of the waters. The plaintiff is an atheist who didn't want his second grade daughter exposed to the Pledge. I'm sure he has her best interests in mind. Nothing says love like pointing out your daughter as the child of a freak. He says, "I don't see this as being problematic in any way except to offend the people who want to infuse the government with their religious beliefs." The only reason to bring such as case is to offend those people. A USC political science professor said, "Maybe they didn't expect so much of an outcry." What? Please pass the crack pipe. Still, this case amuses me because I'm so tired of cases involving school and religion coming from the religious right. I like to see someone else take an aggressive stance for a change, chasing the school prayer people out of the building, rather than just responding to their madness after the fact. But considering all the time and money that goes into such a court challenge, I can't help but wonder if those resources might be put to better use elsewhere. As for our helpful atheist, I have to ask, "Were your parents atheists? Or did you find this on your own? And do you really think a few years with God in the Pledge is going to destroy your daughter's ability to reason?"

Especially since most children can't make heads nor tails out of this nonsense anyway. They recite it without thinking about it, and what they can puzzle out makes little sense. Who, for example, is Richard Stans? Why is there one Asian under guard? And how did he get to be invisible? The only thing that makes sense, from a schoolchild's point of view, is injustice for all.

I'm all in favor of taking God out of the Pledge. Especially since he's such a Johnny-Come-Lately to the whole affair. But more than that, it will return my favorite line, one that's been missing for so long. That's the line about the one naked individual. For that, I'll gladly stand.


That said, I was tickled by the Court's decision. In this, as ever, I am somewhat alone.

The Supremes didn't rule whether or not the phrase was Constitutionally supported, merely that the atheist dad, who is divorced from his wife, did not have the right to bring the case on behalf of his daughter. The girl's mother has legal custody, and is a born-again Christian to boot. She has no problem with the Pledge as it is, and doesn't want her child getting tied up in all this legal malarkey. What the Justices said, in essence, was "maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but stop hiding behind your daughter's skirts and be a man."

Or words to that effect.

William Rehnquist wrote a separate opinion, supported by Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas, venturing that the Pledge does not violate the Constitution. But officially, the matter is still open to anyone who wants to bring another suit.

Off the record, I'm sure the Justice League breathed a collective sigh of relief. Last summer's opinion that folks ought to be able to have sex with whoever they wanted brought a firestorm of criticism and a barrage of Constitutional threats across the country. The last thing they, or we, need is some freak gunning for an "under God" or some similar nonsense. Deciding by not deciding still pissed both sides off, but freed up the judges' schedules for a summer of partying.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Happy Flag Day

You may ask, What exactly is Flag Day? Why do we have Flag Day, and what are we supposed to do about it, and isn't July 4th just around the corner anyway?

Well, once upon a time, Flag Day was actually called Flag Birthday. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the following resolution: "That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." A pretty boring constellation, perhaps, but a constellation nonetheless. One hundred and eight years later, schoolteacher BJ Cigrand arranged for the pupils in the Fredonia, Wisconsin Public Schools to observe June 14 as "Flag Birthday." (Hail, hail, Freedonia, land of the brave and free.) In the years following, Cigrand continued to stump for the observance of June 14 as "Flag Birthday," later shortened to "Flag Day." On June 14, 1891, the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia held a Flag Day celebration, and on June 14 of the following year, the New York Society of the Sons of the Revolution celebrated Flag Day. Meanwhile, BJ Cigrand organized the American Flag Day Association in Illinois, to promote the holding of Flag Day exercises. On June 14th, 1894, the first general public school children's celebration of Flag Day in Chicago was held in Douglas, Garfield, Humboldt, Lincoln, and Washington Parks, with more than 300,000 children participating. This was before celebrations in Humboldt Park invariably led to riots. Some twenty years later, on May 30, 1916, Woodrow Wilson officially established Flag Day by presidential proclamation. While Flag Day was celebrated in various communities for years after Wilson's proclamation, it was not until August 3, 1949, that President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14th of each year as National Flag Day.

It's good to know it's not just one of those Monday holidays. Although this year it was, indeed, on Monday.

This was an especially special Flag Day for the hundreds of people who filed past the newly interred Ronald Reagan at his Simi Valley tomb. On the 4th of July, the Reagan Library will open a new exhibit revisiting his recent funeral and tributes. The exhibit, in a case of spectacularly tasteless punning, will be called Mourning in America." (I can't make this stuff up.) Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, George Bush welcomed the Clintons back to the White House for the first time since they moved out. The occasion was the unveiling of the official presidential portrait of Clinton. Bush lavished praise on his old foe, even plugging his new autobiography. There's room in this flag for everybody!

If you weren't able to make it to California or DC but you still want to celebrate our heritage, you can learn how to make a perfect five pointed star with just one cut at When your friends ask how you developed this skill, you can say you're a vexillologist, an expert on flags and ensigns. This word comes from vexillum (plural vexilla), which is a military standard or flag used by ancient Roman troops.

I'm a vexologist, an expert on vexing people.

Friday, June 11, 2004

About the Weekend

If you try to reach me this weekend, you will be unlikely to succeed. Not only is Sunday the season finale of Deadwood and the season opener of Six Feet Under, but I just received the first season of SCTV on DVD. I'm hoping for the eventual release of subsequent seasons, but after my experience with Mary Tyler Moore and Larry Sanders, both of which saw only their first seasons released on DVD, I'm not holding my breath.

Lest you think I'll be doing nothing but watching TV all weekend, this is also Midsommarfest in Andersonville, where I live. (In contrast to the Civil War era prisoner of war camp in Georgia.) Those of you with calendars may find June 12 a bit early for midsummer, but the name traditionally refers to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. And yes, June 12 is a bit early for celebrating the summer solstice as well, but Chicago is packed with summer festivals, so you take what you can get. I have a special place in my heart for Midsommarfest, not only because it takes place two blocks from my home, and not only because it is one of the first festivals of summer, but because of my son in Sweden. And of course, the blue and gold margaritas. This week was uncomfortably warm here in Chicago (high 80s, hot for June) and now it's pouring rain, so we'll see how the weekend shakes out. I'm supposed to meet a friend at the accordion concert on Sunday. It's that kind of festival.

I'd like to offer a shout out to my brother, who has proved that he has a bigger heart than any of us, and has demonstrated the benefit of keeping in shape.

Thanks also to the friend who sent me the book, How to Good-bye Depression: If you constrict anus 100 times everyday. This may help solve two problems at once.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

In Other News ...

A new survey on drug use has found that June and July are the most popular times for teens to try marijuana for the first time. Wow, drug use goes up in the summertime? Imagine my surprise!

The survey also found that first-time use of cigarettes and alcohol also increases in the summer. First time alcohol use also peaks in December and January, during Christmas, New Year and the Super Bowl.

Your tax dollars at work.

Drug czar John Walters made the announcement at a news conference before a group of high school kids. This is nothing new, but I always felt a drug czar should be in charge of selling drugs to kids rather than keeping it away from them. From a news story, "None of the students were surprised by the findings." The story doesn't say how many of the kids were stoned at the time, but the survey indicates it could be as high as one third.

The government is responding to the findings by running a new ad campaign.

Meanwhile, a recent YMCA survey found that 14.3 million kids are unsupervised outside school, and that number triples in the summer. No new funds have been earmarked by the federal government for community centers or after school programs.


Speaking of your tax dollars: At the end of April, the State Department released its "Patterns of Global Terrorism Report," which indicated that terrorist attacks fell to 190 last year, their lowest since 1969, from 198 in 2002. It also stated that the number of deaths had dropped from 725, including 27 Americans, in 2002, to 307, with 35 US citizens, in 2003. The report was cited as evidence that Washington was winning its war on terror.

Yesterday, the Department announced that the number of attacks and resulting deaths were wrong and that both figures had in fact risen.

One would think the President was doing the math.


I was once told by a wise relation that some women don't care who they marry, they just want to get married.

Jennifer Lopez must be one of them.

After 18 months as a part of "Bennifer," the single state proved too much for her to handle. Last weekend she married Latin songster Marc Anthony.


Suddenly, everyone's mum. Anthony, who has two albums coming out, made the rounds of the talk show circuit earlier this week. He told Matt Lauer of Today that he refused to discuss his personal life and later told the hens of The View that he doesn't understand the "morbid fascination with celebrity." I love it when celebs play coy. As if the burden of fame is so difficult to dodge. On The Early Show, Anthony said he spent the weekend with his family.

The title of Anthony's newly released Latin album, "Amar Sin Mentiras," translates as "To Love Without Lies." There's a joke here somewhere.

Meanwhile, Lopez's manager, Simon Fields, says "We don't comment on her personal life." Since when? If you take away J. Lo's personal life, what career does she have left?

Not that I can't understand her concern. No matter how much Lopez loves to get married, she doesn't like to stay married. Her first marriage, in 1997, lasted just over a year; her second, in 2001, nine months. Anthony's not much better, having managed to squeeze in a divorce in the Dominican Republic last week, just in time for the wedding. He has a child from a previous relationship.

Third time's a charm?


Ray Charles died this morning at age 73. I can't stop loving him.

A Pepsi spokesman said, "First Pepsi Blue, then this!"

Not to be left out of the limelight, Britney Spears hurt her knee during the filming of a new music video.

Monday, June 07, 2004


In the musical A Chorus Line, one of the dancers sings about her clash with an acting teacher. Some time later, when the instructor dies, she tries to have an emotional response to the news and finds that she feels nothing.

This was my reaction Saturday afternoon when I learned Ronald Reagan had passed.

I realize this puts me in the minority. Even now, the television screens are filled with tributes to the fallen giant. Everyone from CNN to Fox News to E! wants their slice of the exquisite corpse. Over the past week, there has been more commentary on his achievements than there were achievements.

I was no Reagan fan. Indeed, I hold him responsible for much of what is wrong in American politics today. If nothing else, you can draw a direct line from Reagan to Bush 1 and Bush 2, and that alone should be worth a few years in purgatory.

At the same time, I find no joy in his passing. I know from personal experience that Alzheimer's disease is one of the cruelest fates a man can suffer. Because of his illness, Reagan lost any power he might wield - except as an icon - at least 10 years ago. So except for the bump in ratings, his death doesn't really mean anything. On this hand, my response to the news was, "It's about time."

But the sadness of the man's fate does not decrease my distaste for the President.

Ronald Reagan transformed me from an independent voter, raised by Republicans, to a staunch Democrat. Recent tributes have observed that Reagan "reshaped the Republican Party in his conservative image." (AP) This is offered without irony. This new image includes pandering to religious groups with such policies as the "war on drugs" and a rabid anti-abortion stance, deregulation for big business and tax cuts for the wealthy, and talking about smaller government while dramatically increasing spending, especially for the military. Over the course of his eight years in office, it became apparent that the Republican Party, at least on a national level, was not pursuing any policies that were to my benefit and actively opposed much of what I believe.

When Reagan tried for the presidency in 1976, I said that if he won I would move to Canada. He did not and neither did I. In 1980, the choice between Reagan and Carter so befuddled me that I joined nearly six million of my fellow Americans in voting for John Anderson, a Republican running as an Independent. I don't regret that vote. Though I find Jimmy Carter the greatest former president of my lifetime, his presidency was uninspiring. Since that time, I have unswervingly voted for the democratic candidates for national office. I held my nose and voted for Mondale and Dukakis - and even Clinton, the first time out - merely to vote against Reagan and Bush. (Note: I voted for Clinton the second time out, as well as for Gore, but did not hold my nose.) (Note 2: I rarely vote a straight Democratic ticket in state and local elections. On a local level, I find that candidates are more willing and able to support their individual beliefs, rather than hewing to the party line. Thus, so am I.)

The greatest myth of Reagan's presidency is that he brought an end to the Cold War. Giving Reagan credit for ending the Cold War is like saying George Washington is responsible for the French Revolution, simply because he happened to be in office at the time. In fact, this comparison is more apt than I intended. The success of the American Revolution did, I am sure, inspire both individuals and politicians in France to strive for a change in their system of government. In the same way, Reagan's rhetoric may have hastened changes in the Soviet Union that were already underway. But neither Washington nor Reagan made those changes happen. Crediting Reagan with ending the Cold War denies all recognition to those within Poland, Germany and the Eastern Bloc for determining their own end.

It is my contention that the Cold War, as such, was pretty much over by the time Reagan took office. (The Soviet Union was still intact, but that'll come later.) If any American president is to be credited with ending the Cold War as we knew it, it is probably Richard Nixon. (My readers may find this an unpopular stance.) His meetings with Brezhnev and Mao served to defuse much of the tensions that had existed between the nations, and led to reductions in nuclear arms. All three leaders apparently agreed that there was no point in fighting each other when each had his own nation to plunder. Had Reagan won the presidency in 1968, when he first ran and the Soviet Union was still strong, there's a good chance the Cold War would have heated up. As it is, by the time he took office in 1981, I doubt that anyone in this country still felt the threat of nuclear aggression.

Reagan's tactic for ending the Cold War was to escalate it. In general, engaging in saber rattling ("Evil Empire," "The bombing will start in 15 minutes") during a time of relative peace is not an effective strategy. In this case, though, the Soviet bear was so weakened that there was little fight left in it. Their economy was already in a state of crisis, and forcing the Soviets into an arms race was a sure ticket to collapse. In this way, Reagan played his part in the destruction of the Soviet Union, if not the end of the Cold War. That it also led to an international monetary crisis and an eventual bailout by the IMF that the US is still paying for is just frosting on the cake.

Reagan's single minded desire to destroy the Soviets led to a series of ill considered choices. One was the decision to provide money and artillery - 65,000 tons annually by 1987 - to the mujahideen "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan. We all know how well that turned out. The notion that he sold conventional and biological weapons to our ally, Saddam Hussein, is not completely accurate. In truth, the Reagan administration gave Iraq roughly $40 billion worth of arms, nearly all of it on credit. We also sent billions of dollars of food to keep Saddam from forming an alliance with the Soviets. Of course, we also sold arms to Iran, so it's all okay. The proceeds of that sale, as we all know, went to the Contra rebels fighting to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Nicaragua. That the Contras engaged in what would be considered terrorist acts today, often targeting civilians, or that the World Court in the Hague had forbidden the US to aid the Contras, is forgivable because the legally elected Sandinista government was perceived as Communist.

People defend these poor choices by saying things were done during the Reagan presidency that he didn't know about. And this is a good thing, how? This is the defense Kenneth Lay used to explain why he is not responsible for the financial shenanigans at Enron. I realize that if you are the CEO of a large corporation - and the President is the CEO of the huge corporation that is the federal government - you are not able to keep up with all the day to day operations of your organization. No one loves a micromanager. But you should have enough of a "broad strokes" feel for the place to sense when crimes are being committed. If nothing else, you should inspire you managers to not commit any legal or ethical transgressions without your approval. At the very least, you need to recognize that any such transgressions committed on your watch are your responsibility. The buck does stop here.

But while Reagan had no control over what was happening in the White House, he had complete control over what was happening in the rest of the world. Thus, no credit need be granted to Mikhail Gorbachev, who, with his lovely daughters Glasnost and Perestroika, radically transformed the Soviet Union from a weak socialist state to a weak capitalist one. Coca Cola had more to do with the death of Communism than Reagan. Gorbachev's policies led to the rest of the Eastern Bloc nations turning democratic throughout the late 80s. By the time Reagan famously announced in Berlin, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," Gorby had made so many changes that he might as well added, "while you're at it." People point out that Reagan made that statement in 1987 and two years later, the wall came down. Saying the first caused the second is akin to saying that people who voted Reagan would die in this year's Dead Pool brought about his eventual demise. In the same way, I suppose Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement, which was organized before Reagan's election, had nothing to do with the political changes in Poland. And Václav Havel, who spent five years in prison for his political activities, had nothing to do with bringing free elections to the Czech Republic.

It drives me crazy.

But this is more than left wing Reagan bashing. The idea that Reagan ended the Cold War single handed is the same US-centric notion that says we can transform the Middle East through military might. It supposes that we have the power to remake the rest of the world in our image. It further imagines that we know what is best for the rest of the world. I would say history refutes both points.

I understand why people took to Reagan. It's nice to hear it's morning in America. It's comforting to have grandpa in the White House. Especially when grandpa has a big gun.

Considering the timing, I expect the upcoming Republican National Convention will be "all Reagan, all the time." I'm not sure this is a wise strategy. The shadow cast by Reagan reveals just how tiny George Bush is. All his macho posturing is but a poor reflection of Reagan's natural confidence. Reagan got away with overblown platitudes because you knew no matter how crazy he was, he believed them. When Bush spouts platitudes, you wonder who scripted them. Bush may be a cowboy, but Reagan played one, and did it better.

Friday, June 04, 2004

The Good, the Bad and the Trailers

Since The Day After Tomorrow is an action flick, it is preceded by action trailers. Yay! Incomprehensible action! For now, I'll skip I, Robot except to mention that it takes place in Chicago, it stars Will Smith and the principal from "Boston Public" and the robots are made by U.S. Robotics. Aren't they 3Com now? The movie appears to have more to do with Karel Capek's 1920 play R.U.R. than the Isaac Asimov book. As a friend observed, "It's based on a title by Isaac Asimov."

I've seen the trailer for King Arthur several times now, and all I can say is, if you didn't hate Gladiator, you may not hate this. It's written by David Franzoni, who wrote the original screenplay for that Roman potboiler (before it was rescued by a host of other scribes), and purports to tell the tale of the "real" King Arthur. "Before there was a legend," we are told, "there was a man." That man, so far as I can tell from the trailer, was a Roman soldier sent to kick druid ass. To those invested in Arturian legend, this might be a little offensive. Not that anyone's going to take anything that passes for "history" in this thing seriously. Franzoni's next epic is Hannibal, produced by and starring Vin Deisel (Is that gasoline wine?), which I predict will be indistinguishable from either Gladiator or King Arthur.

King Arthur stars a bunch of people I wouldn't know if I didn't look them up. Arthur is played by Clive Owen, previously best known for playing "The Driver" in "The Hire" series of short films (i.e. long commercials) produced by BMW. He is attractively bland in that wedding cake groom sort of way. Despite being English born, his articulation skills fall somewhere short of Arnold Schwartzenegger. In the preview, he is confronted by a man who says of him, "Finally, a man worth killing." Only if you don't mind cleaning all that product off your sword when you're done. Keira Knightley (please tell me that's a made up name) plays Guinevere. I should know her, since she played the female lead in Pirates of the Caribbean, but between Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush and Jonathan Pryce, who was paying any attention to the girl? Here she looks like Helena Bonham Carter's little sister, but with the blue face paint so favored by warriors in these Britflick epics. Lancelot is played by Ioan Gruffudd (Welsh, maybe?), who you may know from the 42 Horatio Hornblower episodes on A&E, in which he played the eponymous hero. (On IMDb, his name is given the alternate spelling of Ioio Gruffoid. I hope that's a joke. Very funny, Mr. Snoid.) He has certainly been beaten about the head with the pretty stick, but there's too little of him in the trailer to have any idea why he's here. There is, however, enough sword play and massing armies and flaming arrows and charging through the snow to thrill the heart of any 14 year old boy. There's even a scene in which everyone seems to be gathered around the craft service truck, but I know that's unlikely. And Guinevere makes one of those 100 yard long arrow hits than we haven't seen since, oh, Troy.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the epic timeline, comes Alexander, starring Colin Farrell. Or should I say, "Colin Farrell IS Alexander!" Despite, or because of, the fact that it has an Oliver Stone pedigree, this looks to be a real dog.

The trailer opens with horses galloping across the sandy plain while Anthony Hopkins (a mark of quality no less than the UL label or the K for kosher foods) intones, "By the age of 25 ... he had conquered the known world ..." Meanwhile all I can think of is Dr. Scott in Rocky Horror singing, "From the day he was born ... he was trouble." And between Troy and now this thing, I just keep thinking, "Wasn't there any grass before Christ?" We've got rocky plains, we've got sandy plains. Aren't there any fruited plains? Especially in a story about Alexander the Great?

Oh, here's Colin Farrell. Talk about your fruited plains. He appears, following the rubric "Warrior," with his furrowed brow and pursed lips and shaggy blond wig, looking like nothing so much as Seann William Scott, of American Pie fame. Later, when we get a better look at his long flowing locks, the effect is more of Jaye Davidson in a touring company of the musical version of Stargate. Whoever created this trailer is stunningly literal. When the word "Seeker" comes up, we see Farrell on a snowy mountain top, seeking. Then comes "Conquerer" and we hear, "Conquer your fear ... and I promise you will conquer death." It's bad enough that we have to hear an Oprasm in a flick about Alexander, but Farrell's tiny voice, as he strains to inspire his army, brings to mind Linda Richman of "Coffee Talk" fame. Are you feeling a bit verklempt, Al? Nothing, however, prepares you for the moment when Farrell, eyes wide and mouth agape, charges a rearing elephant.

You may say, if you are of such a mind, that a horrible trailer needn't demand a horrible picture. And I will grant you this, in theory. But in this case I will reply with four words. Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie. This is the supporting cast. True, Kilmer has been trying to reacquaint himself with acting, with roles in The Salton Sea and Wonderland. And yes, Jolie looks possibly passable in the upcoming Sky Captain. Indeed, either one by him or herself might be acceptable. But together? And opposite Colin Farrell? Directed by Oliver Stone? I see an excuse for everyone to indulge themselves in the kind of behavior they find most enjoyable and we find most loathsome.

Those who missed any hint of the love that dare not speak its name in Troy are unlikely to find it here. Oliver Stone is not the most gay friendly director. (JFK anyone?) The film's official website refers only to "the rousing brotherly bonds with his closest companions and vast army." Now that could mean gangbang, but I doubt it. When the trailer flashes the word "Lover," Farrell ain't in the clinch with Kilmer. (Not that he would be, since Kilmer plays his father, but you get my point.) For that sort of thing, you'll have to wait for Baz Luhrman's version. If it ever gets made.

In any case, Stone's Alexander isn't due until November, just in time for, God help us, Oscar nominations. Let's see, one for the elephant, one for Colin Farrell's hair...

Note: If you haven't guessed by now, Troy is officially the benchmark by which other summer films will be judged. Day After Tomorrow? Not as bad as Troy. Alexander? Probably as bad as Troy. King Arthur? Much, much worse. As far as I'm concerned, the only good thing about that movie is the fact that I will never see it.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
- Robert Frost

Some say in alien invasion,
Some say in the attack of a giant Japanese sea monster.
- Roland Emmerich

Having ended the world in fire with Independence Day, Emmerich turns to ice in The Day After Tomorrow, with some assistance from tidal wave, giant hail and killer tornadoes. The flick is all about global annihilation for the attention deficit crowd. Dennis Quaid plays a paleoclimatologist - yes, it's a real word, believe it or not - who predicts that the earth may be facing a new Ice Age in as little as 100 years. Or maybe 6 to 8 weeks. I mean 48 hours. This is climate change for Americans, who want their catastrophe NOW. The spreading snow and ice destroy everything north of the Mason-Dixon line. Hmmm. Freeze to death, move to Alabama. Tough choice. The movie was inspired by the book, The Coming Global Superstorm, written by radio paranoiac Art Bell and multiple abduction victim Whitley Streiber, which might give you some idea of its scientific credibility.

But we're not here for science, we're here for action! And action abounds, at least action on a meteorological scale. If you've seen the trailers, you've seen the movie. The effects are astonishing, and used in scenes of both humor and shock, similar to the flying cow in Twister (reprised in Van Helsing). Both the ice storm in Tokyo and the tornadoes in LA involve some grisly deaths, but since we are not invested in the characters in any emotional way, they play as comedy rather than tragedy,. I won't go into more detail, because surprise is part of the fun, but if you want to see Mother Nature Smackdown, this is the flick for you. (If you've watched any television in the past month, you've probably seen the bulk of destruction and all of the effects, but I'll believe for a moment that some of my readers have not been spoiled.)

Other reviews have discussed the bad dialogue in the picture. I can't remember a single line. Take that as you will. I'm sure there's plenty of standard disaster movie boilerplate, but this isn't kind of movie you go to for the repartee. As testimony to this fact, there are no "memorable quotes" listed on the Internet Movie Database site. This must be a first. Even Troy has memorable quotes.

The worst thing about the movie - and with a film like this, just starting a sentence in such a manner is a dangerous proposition - is that it doesn't believe in brains. Dennis Quaid's character, Jack Hall, is a sort of weather historian (paleo + climatologist) who has just returned from a conference in India, which has experienced its coldest weather in history, including a snowstorm. Hail the size of toasters is falling in Japan. A major storm is building off the East Coast. His son Sam, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is flying to New York. Dad never thinks to say, "Son, this might not be a good weekend to travel."

Sam is afraid of flying. The train from Union Station in DC, where he lives, to Penn Station in NYC takes about 3 hours, and departs every half hour. A flight from Dulles to Newark takes about and hour and 15 minutes. Factor in picking up your luggage and catching the bus to Penn Station, and you're talking about another 45 minutes. Any rational human being would say, "Screw the hour, I'll take the train." But that means Sam wouldn't have the opportunity to have a complete emotional breakdown in front of the girl he has a crush on. Slick. Yes, I know, this is a disaster movie, and logical human behavior must take a back seat to action, but please. This is a movie where people in subzero temperatures take off their gloves to touch metal! What!!! Obviously, no one here has ever had their tongue stuck to an ice cube tray.

Sam and his pals are in New York as part of an academic decathlon team when the killer snowstorm hits. The would-be girlfriend despairs of all her studying, saying it was preparing her for a future that no longer exists. Isn't any of that knowledge useful in this situation? Even if they don't have the answers at their fingertips, they're holed up inside the New York Public Library - you'd think they'd be able to research some information. But no. Outside of the librarian who looks up blood poisoning and the kid who fixes the radio, no one uses their noggin. Eventually the kids are forced to burn books to stay warm. I've been to the Library, and it's probably 60% wood. The characters are shown lounging about on overstuffed chairs. No one thinks to bust 'em up for kindling. When Sam finally breaks up a chair, it's to use the wicker backs for snowshoes. Hasn't anyone ever built a fire before?

Whilst out and about on their snowshoes, Sam and company are chased by a pack of wolves. (This is a surprise only if you've never seen a movie before.) By this time, we've already seen survivors on the street, trying to get out of town. Shouldn't these wolves be stuffed full of New Yorkers by now? Apparently not. In the midst of being chased by hungry wolves, the super-cooled air from the troposphere puts in an appearance. All you need to know about super-cooled air is 1) it kills instantly, 2) you can tell it's coming because everything frosts over, and 3) it can only be stopped by ... a closed door! The kids run and run and run, being chased by killer frost (I kid you not) and make it back to safety just steps ahead of a nasty ice burn. Once the cold has passed, does anyone think that maybe it's a good time to go out and roast some frozen wolf? What do you think you're watching, Nanook of the North?

I understand that this sort of quibbling is pointless in a movie which is essentially a big dumb comic book. But wouldn't it be more fun if the characters were actually resourceful? The CGI artists brought incredible creativity to devising the effects shots in this flick. It would be nice if someone had expended a little on the script.

For me, the most shocking thing about the movie was the number of parents who brought their small children. Despite the PG-13 rating, this is not, NOT, a movie for kids. Granted, there's no sex or nudity (sorry Jake Gyllenhall fans), no foul language and no gore. There are some fairly explicit death scenes, though, some frozen corpses, one scary wolf attack and, oh yeah, the extermination of millions of people, including (presumably) the parents of the one small child who is a major character. The screening I attended was full of wailing and weeping. And for a change it wasn't me.