Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saddam and Death

You could say that I am agnostic with respect to the death penalty. The absolute finality of the punishment, coupled with the fallen nature of man, casts a queasy pale on the symmetry of justice necessary to justify the act.

If my opposition to abortion fits any narrative, it is that we ought not give government the opportunity to select beginning and end times for human life. The essence of liberty is the protection of life, before we get to any questions of speech of religious expression. A governmentally imposed death sentence runs counter to this narrative, rather bluntly, it turns out.

There are those who argue that claims to innocence, at least in our country, are largely unfounded. Statistically, this claim is not without merit. However, in light of the egregious ethical transgressions surrounding the infamous Duke Lacrosse case, and considering that my own father sits in prison for a crime he did not commit, it would seem a courageous act of cognitive dissonance for me to embrace this kind of thinking.

In Christian circles, there are those who argue that God will impose His justice through (or in spite of) any governmentally imposed punishment. Of course, this argument could be used to justify drop-kicking toddlers off a cliff. This is the sort of thinking that leads to genocide.

So, in principle, I must object to the death penalty as a matter of policy. It seems to be going to way of the dod in our country, and that is probably a good thing...

But then there's Saddam.

There is no question in my mind that Saddam Hussein deserved to die. There is no question in my mind as to whether his hanging was just, or whether the earth is a better place with him beneath it. I wouldn't care if Saddam had crafted a compendium of coloring books, translated the Koran into Portuguese, or had a jailhouse conversion to Christianity. He needed to die. It's refereshing, frankly.

The death penalty works in the sense that it salves the wounds left by the most horrific crimes. Public ambivalence toward the practice dissipates in the face of the most grisly murder cases, a sure sign that there is, at minimum, a visceral morality at work in the act. If my wife were murdered, and I could readily identify the murderer, I am not sure I would wait for the state of Minnesota to mete out justice, if you know what I mean.

In a sense, then, the death penatly is a sort of impracticable fantasy. While it may be the "right" thing to do, it is wrong for our government to do it. Our nation has attempted to assuage the conflict by reserving the penalty for the most egregious cases. This is a cop-out. If a person is was murdered, they remian dead whether they were a man or child, whether they were raped first or not.

From an ethical standpoint, perhaps we must sacrifice the catharsis of eliminating a tyrant in exchange for the consonance that comes from keeping life and death decisions out of governmental hands. Liberty requires sacrifice, and perhaps deferring the ultimate justice to our Lord is a casualty of our fallen nature.

But I'm still glad the son of a bitch is dead, aren't you?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Anti-Semitism and the American Left

One of the more onerous elements of liberal political thought has been a trend, certainly abated by recent conflicts in the Middle East, toward a softening stance on anti-Semitism. The context of this recent wave of anti-Semitic ill will stems from a rejection of Zionism, although I believe it to be informed by traditional (and bigoted) archetypes of Jews.

The source of contention is Israel, and America's alliance therewith. Of course, to the Arab world, our alliance is seen as a means of propping up the enemy. Countries such as Iran and Syria have rallied around the cause of dismantling Israel under the guise of returning the "homeland" to the Palestinian people.

To this end, Palestinians and Arabs have forged a sort of revisionist history to justify recent violent attacks against the Israeli people. In this narrative, the Palestinians were just sitting there, minding their own business, when the United Nations arbitrarily decided to take their homeland away and give it to the Jews. Of course, this narrative ignores the role anti-Semitism played in the creation of Israel in the first place, or that the nation was created as a haven for a people who have been oppressed more consistently than any other.

In this narrative, Israel is the belligerent aggressor, annexing land and displacing refugees, even killing people in their own homes. This is all nonsense, a story manufactured whole cloth by Palestinian sympathizers, but it is gradually encroaching upon the mainstream of political thought. Why? Well, George W. Bush supports Israel, so that certainly has quite a bit to do with it.

As such, those who would ordinarily sympathize with Israel (or, at minimum, remain relatively indifferent) have attached themselves to the Palestinian cause. The traditional history of Israel (that it was forged out of absolute necessity) is now seen, by enemies of this administration, as a neo-conservative fiction inspired by (who else?) a cabal of influential Jews.

This was the finding of a recent Harvard University study. Academia, and in particular the Ivy League institutions, have been notoriously hostile to the state of Israel. Democratic politicians, cautious to avoid alienating a powerful political base, have kept their distance from these more radical viewpoints, but they are nonetheless finding a foothold within the party. One need look no further than the election of Keith Ellison, a Muslim with an anti-Semitic background who parlayed his religious views into votes among the Somali community in Minneapolis, to understand that anti-Semitism is, at minimum, negotiable as a moral disqualifier in the more liberal political regions.

Of course, reasonable people may disagree on the moral fortitude of certain Israeli actions. One needn't be an anti-Semite to be leery of the Zionist movement. Israel has, in the past, been noted for actions that, on their face, seem no different from those perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists today. However, the extent to which Israel is vilified by the left for actions such as rooting out Hezbollah in Lebanon is indicative of a mindset that will not allow for any goodwill toward that nation. One needn't demand moral purity from Israel to recognize that the nation ought to have the right to defend itself.

In the name of "understanding both sides", too many Americans are willing to conflate Israeli self-defense with Arab terrorism. As such, we are required to view the acts as equally wrong. This notion holds a certain appeal for those who pride themselves on nuance and a sense of fair play, but it is absurd on its face. To treat actions with differing motivations equally is to exhibit an imbalanced sense of morality. Combine this with the revisionist history, and rumors of an influential "Dark Force" of Jewish antagonists, and you have the recipe for a new wave of anti-Semitism.

Really, this shouldn't be a partisan issue. If any culture deserves the benefit of the doubt, for history's sake, it should be the Jews. Further, any lucid reading of the history of Israel suggests that this nation has made every reasonable effort to co-exist peacefully with its Arab neighbors (that's "co-exist with" not "be destroyed by"). No credible person can make the case that Israel would not return an offer of peace in kind. Those who wish to dismantle Israel wish for anything but peace.

To this end, Christians can be a powerful force for truth and justice. While many Christians apparently support Israel for eschatological reasons, this is not what I am talking about. We have the opportunity to provide understanding to an oppressed culture, and be a light in the face of a movement that seems to pride itself on ignorance of history. Israel as a small glimmer of light in a sea of oppression and violence that is spurred by an extremist form of a religion that is nothing more than a cruel hoax.

History has always looked kindly upon the Jews, and we read with horror the stories of their vicious oppression. This is our chance to stand on the right side of history.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Make me a sandwich?

Father? Father? Will you make me a sandwich? Yes, one with the choicest breads and cheeses. Oh, I do admire a well-formed, turkey sandwhich, brimming with muenster and swiss. I imagine that the mere scent of a classic sandwich might send my senses into a fury. Pray, father, prepare one at once.

Mustard? Why, naturally. Of course. You needn't ask whether to include mustard. Perhaps also some fresh herbs and seeds. their textures are pure delight.

Jams? Oh, father, surely you jest. The thought of jams! On a sandwich. Now you talk like mother! Ah yes, mother is a scurrilous whore, with her jams and tawdry scents, a popinjay of the lowest order. But you know that already, don't you father?

I am ravenous!

My sandwich! At once!

Friday, December 22, 2006

An Interview With Santa Claus

Every now and then, my blog affords me the opportunity to talk with important newsmakers and noteworthy celebrities across the globe. Today, I'd like to welcome Santa Claus, who is taking time out of his hectic schedule to answer some questions. Without any further adieu, Santa, welcome to TPWK.

Santa: HO! HO! HO!

TPWK: Alright, that's the Christmas spirit. How's Rudolph doing.

Santa: Well, ol' Rudolph broke his leg when he was playing touch football with some of the elves.

TPWK: Uh, oh. Talk about a bad break. Is he walking on glowing red crutches?

Santa: Actually, Mrs. Claus had to put him down.

TPWK: Oh, I...

Santa: Yep, soon as we found out, she took him behind the workshop, loaded her rifles, shot him right in the back of the head. You should've seen the blood. Almost made her cry.

TPWK: That's too bad... He certainly had some unique qualities.

Santa: Well, everyone's replacable. That's what I told Donner. Don't think that can't happen to you.

TPWK: Um... Shifting gears... I have to ask... Much has been made of the difficulty of the task of distirbuting presents to all the good little girls and boys. I have to ask, how do you do it?

Santa: I cut corners.

TPWK: Cut corners?

Santa: Yep, we're pretty much blowing off Michigan entirely.

TPWK: That seems cruel.

Santa: Oh, okay. Well... You get off yout ass and deliver some presents Mr. Hotshot. Have you ever been to Michigan? The whole state smells like stale beer.

TPWK: Agreed. Now, is it true that your house is made of candy canes?

Santa: What? Candy canes? No, that's ridiculous.

TPWK: Oh, well... I just thought...

Santa: Why does everyone think the North Pole is like some sort of Busby Berkeley number? I live in a split-entry.

TPWK: Well, there are elves.

Santa: Those are Eskimos. Damn good craftsman, the Eskimos.

TPWK: They exhibit an uncanny ability to keep with the latest trends.

Santa: Did you know they work for whale blubber? It's their currency. They will kill for it.

TPWK: Fascinating. Well, is there anything you'd like to say to the good boys and girls out there?

Santa: Don't get your hopes up.

TPWK: That's all the time we have for today. I'd like to thank Santa Claus for stopping by.

Santa: Merry Christmas!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Santa: ....

Santa: Um, you gonna wrap this thing up?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Spare the rod, or else?

The subject of spanking (or corporal punishment, as it is ominously titled in the media) has been generating a fair bit of controversy lately. Of course, parents have argued for decades about the relative merits of spanking kids. Of late, however, there seems to be a well-funded effort aimed at prohibiting the practice. Naturally, I think this is absurd.

Ordinarily, efforts such as this would fall under the category of eye-rolling absurdity. However, the tactics used by the anti-spanking crowd are cause for concern. They are attempting to frame this debate as a debate on the merits of spanking children. Armed with medical studies (more on those in a bit), they take on the Biblical verses in support of using the “rod” to discipline children.

In the court of public opinion, this could prove a very useful tact. Most people (about 2/3rds) spank their kids with some sort of regularity. It’s sort of an instinctive. However, if the act is seen as advocating Biblical authority over pediatric research, well, that could certainly serve to reduce its popularity.

There was a recent story about a woman who was in hot water over the death of her son. It was noted that she has been reading books from the “No Greater Joy” series, which advocates the use of a sort of plumbing line to discipline children. Apparently, this was causing some measure of controversy over the book. The child’s cause of death? Suffocation by blanket. I haven’t read “No Greater Joy”, but I’d bet the farm that suffocation is not a recommended form of discipline.

Which brings me to the studies that purport to indicate a link between spanking and undesirable behavior later in life. The theory goes that spanking reinforces violence as a solution to problems and, further, that spanking makes children mistrust their parents. The critical flaw in all of these studies is that they conflate spanking with child abuse. Thus, kids who are paddled on the behind are lumped in with kids who are punched in the face.

As a result, the preponderance of “evidence” suggests that spanking is bad for children. The studies are particularly effective in reaching mothers, who tend to be far more emotional about the issue of discipline. The notion that they might be abusing their children disturbs them to the core. This might explain why, while the majority of those who oppose legal corporal punishment are those who do not even have families, many of the most visible advocates of their cause are mothers.

We have, then, an interesting potential culture war developing. As opposed to the question of, say, gay marriage, we have a situation in which parents would not be able to follow Biblically prescribed methods of disciplining their own children. I have seen the difference between children whose parents spank them, and those who don’t. The act is biblically mandated for a very, very good reason.

In the early 1990’s, we saw a similar situation develop with a movement to ban homeschooling. Bogus studies (funded by teachers unions) lamented the intellectual, emotional and even physical consequences of homeschooling. The extremists squealed that Bill Clinton was going to take their kids away from God, and there were no shortage of oddly dressed Amish families populating the airwaves. But savvy Christians and conservatives formed coalitions that produced their own research. Even today, homeschooling associations, which seek to protect the rights of parents on a legislative level, exist in virtually every state.

As a result, people were able to read about the enormous academic benefits of homeschooling (and the deleterious effects of public school education) and homeschooling dramatically increased in popularity. A similar approach may be necessary in this case, with Christians again taking the lead in promoting an agenda of common sense, and relieving this issue of it's status as a hobbyhorse for culture warriors. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Making Fun of Daily Kos

I am not surprised by the existence of this T-shirt.

This alone sums up so much about what I think of the political left, but suffice to say if I see you wearing this shirt, I will assume that.

a) You have no class.
b) Neither do you have an imagination.
c) You could not defend the political principles implied by (or inferred from) your shirt in any meaningful way.
d) You like attention, and like being part of the "in" crowd.
e) Above item notwithstanding, you consider yourself a rebel who is sticking it to "the man".
f) You probably are "the man", or a son or daughter thereof.

Dailykos blogger JudgeH provides some illuminating commentary on the shirt's existence.

"When I saw this shirt I couldn't stop laughing."

Well, I hope you were able to simmer down. I remember the last time I couldn't stop myself from laughing. It was a scene from "Being John Malkovich", in which Malkovich enters his own perceptive existence, only to find it populated by hundreds of John Malkovich's who are only able to say "John Malkovich". At any rate, peas of a different pod, we are, on many levels, me and JudgeH.

"I have to admit it is pretty vulgar but I believe it does reflect many american's sentiments."

Does it need to be mentioned that the shirt is vulgar? Does mentioning the fact somehow soften JudgeH from criticism that he might, himself, be considered vulgar, considering the mention of the word "fuckface", judiciously applied to his least faovirte political leader, propelled him into fits of unstoppable laughter? I certainly agree that it does reflect "many american's (sic) sentiments", as do the phrases "The Olive Garden sure has some incredible food!" and "I like the smell of my own belly button." Sometimes American sentiment isn't the most compelling thing in the universe.

"T-shirts have become a way for people to communicate their deepest political, religious, moral, etc. convictions. "

That's not a sad commentary at all, now is it?

"Some of them are very humorous and others very serious."

An astute observation. Also, some of them are blue and others are green.

"From hilarious shirts that mock Bush to the tragic excution of Tookie Williams there is the whole gamut."

For those who don't know, Tookie Williams was a man who murdered people for the hell of it, and who was instrumental in the founding of the infamous Cryps gang. The only people who find his death tragic are those who, well, glean their political stances from t-shirts.

"This surge of opionionated shirts arises from the religious and political polarization of the country. People feel threatened so they feel that they must defend their beliefs by constantly reaffirming themselves and challenging others."

I, for one, feel extremely challenged.

"I think this trend will definately (sic) continue. I would have to attribute this polarization to 9/11."

Did JudgeH just insinuate a correlation between 9/11 and pithy t-shirt sales? The terrorists have won.

"Anyone else have anything to add? See any other outrageous shirts???

Um, this one came to mind...

WFAT - Gladiator

“Gladiator” took home Oscar gold.
“Gladiator” made a bankable star out of Russell Crowe.
“Gladiator” achieved box office and critical.
“Gladiator” is a sweeping epic….

“Gladiator” is an abysmal film.

“Gladiator”, Ridley Scott’s Roman testosterone jamboree, kicks off with a battle scene that very neatly encapsulates the movie’s faults. It is inexplicably murky, the combination of bad art direction and some of the worst special-effects this side of Ed Wood. Hans Zimmer’s score borrows from Gustav Holst’s “Mars” to the point where it is distracting for anyone familiar with the piece. Further, the film hasn’t established any real reason for us to care.

So, we get ten minutes of miscellaneous, fuzzy violence. At least I think it’s violence. It could be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory up there, for all I know. One of the squads seems to launch hot oil on the other squad. Ouchie! Alright, then…

The film’s story is well-known to anyone who has ever attended a contemporary church or a motivational seminar. Maximus (not to be confused with Optimus, or Conan the Barbarian, for that matter) leads one of the blurry squads to battle, and has won the affections of the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius, who names him protector of the Rome. Makes sense. Anyone who can defeat an army that is that difficult to discern from the landscape deserves to be the protector of something.

Tough luck ensues for Maximus. Aurelius’ son Commodus (not to he confused with commode) doesn’t like him, kills his own father, then Maximus’ family and sells him as a slave to a manager of gladiators. Commodus is not a good guy, we’ll come to find out later.

He seeks revenge, obviously. He also befriends Djimon Hounsou, who just wants to be free so he can provide for his family. I think… Actually, he doesn’t really say much in the movie, but Hounsou is always the “get me the hell out of this so I can provide for my family” guy, so let’s roll with that.

Commodus, meanwhile, turns out to be kind of a bad apple, so to speak. He is an incestuous pedophile (subtle) and has contentious, historically-accurate discussions with the Roman Senate. There’s a plague on, and they want to build a sewer system. Commodus reminds them that there’s something called a plot, and instead diverts his attentions to bringing back gladiator fighting, complete with digitized lions.

You can see where this is going. Unfortunately, it takes 154 minutes to get there, on account of the film’s pompous navel gazing. There is a particularly absurd scene in which Maximus is floating amongst some landscapes, with digitized cloud behind him. In fact, there are some 20 minutes of landscape shots in the film, which makes sense when you remember that this is a film about gladiators.

There are also some bumbling forays into parody, as the movie cannot take its own gladiator scenes remotely seriously. Why a film that seems so utterly delighted by it’s own existence would up and decided to mock itself is beyond me.

As Commodus, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is just awful. He finds one dramatic note (sniveling) and plays it over and over, as loudly as possible. Crowe has the thankless job of trying to stay in character while he pretends to stab lots of people, for which he was awarded an Oscar.

Most damning of all, however, is that the film looks like a cheap video game. The coliseum is huge and fake looking. The crowd scenes remind me of the old John Madden football games for the Genesis, where a twinkling effect suggest the uninhibited movement of thousands of spectators.

In a film whose sole calling card is epic splendor, it is curious to find no splendor whatsoever. It’s epic, I suppose, by virtue of its ponderous length. But the film reminds me of the goth kid in high school, who everyone thinks is artistically gifted because he draws ornate pictures of dragons. People make not of the “brilliant” cinematography, I sure sign that the cinematography is distracting from, rather than contributing to, the film’s purpose.

All of which brings me to the curious matter of the film’s acclaim. It won five academy awards in a year in which virtually none of the best films were recognized by the academy in any meaningful way (it scored more nominations than “Almost Famous”, “You Can Count on Me”, “Requiem for a Dream” and “High Fidelity” combined).

While some prominent critics (notably Roger Ebert and the New York Times) saw through the film’s pomposity and bombast, the film was heralded as a classic so frequently, I wonder if the critics were paying attention. This film pulled the wool over a tremendous number of eyes.

Further, it spawned a number of copycats, including “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Alexander”. 2000 was the year of the epic (the solid, but drastically overrated “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was released that year as well). “Gladiator” ushered a new era in which painstaking craftsmanship and spectacle could be easily replaced by digitized slop. It is one of the worst films of all time.

Friday, December 15, 2006

WHAT! New billboard no abortion are now.

What! The team at Prolife Across America, the well-intentioned but comically incapable team that bring you the infamous "What!" billboards, is back in action. Their latest is unlikely to generate any award-talk.

The color scheme here is downright incendiary. In fact, the whole billboard looks like a "Color Me Badd" album cover. My friend Peter has pointed out the absurd use of punctuation here, but I am not clear why the sentence "embryos are babies" does not begin with a capital letter. The organization seems to have a fairly laid-back attitude toward capitalizing in general. Very Hemingway.

I am confused by the "Heartbeat 18 days" caption. Is this to indicate that I am looking at a photo of a heartbeat at 18 days? Cause it looks more like a rather gruff baby. Is the baby's name Heartbeat 18 Days? He looks like he could be Indian, maybe that's his tribal name.

I am wondering if members of this group insist on using their own kids for these deals. Cause this is baby is empirically not cute or winsome, and it's forehead extends beyond the precipice of the ad. The message of this ad seems to be "embryos are babies! For better or worse."

I wonder if the "f" in PROLIfe is supposed to be tapping the e on the back. I could see the "e" turning around, and the "f" sort of looking around whistling. The "e" would probably say "Stop That!" and the "f" would be like "what?" And the "e" would be like "whatever, you probably like abortion, and the "f" would be like "what the hell kind of thing is that to say. Dude, I was just kidding around... Don't question my integrity like that, you bastard."

Then gruff baby would give them a look and they'd just chill.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Get up off Zach Braff

Okay, get up off Zach Braff.

When I watched Garden State with my (then girlfriend, now) wife, she said to me that she thought it was pretty good. I agreed. That was pretty good. As I recall, I think we both kinda liked it. I'm willing to bet that, after seeing the final cut, Zach Braff thought "you know what? This is pretty good." I'll bet the films co-stars thought the same. Hey Zach? That's a pretty good movie, they said, I bet.

Now, is it his fault that every critic in America decided this was the "it" movie? Is it his fault that dumb liberal college kids decided it was their favorite movie ever cause it's like so real and so true to life just like Bennington College? Noooo...

Garden State is not the worst movie ever made. It is slightly above average. It is not the worst film ever made. Damn it, if I can learn to like freaking Snow Patrol, i can learn to live with Zach Braff. I am officially off the "Zach Braff is Hitler" bandwagon.

I mean, if you are looking to mock pretentious garbage, direct your venom at one Cameron B. Crowe. Kathy, you want to know why your baby's feces was neon-green? Maybe it's because she was performing a blithe parody of the odd uber-stink that was Elizabethtown. Do you have any notion of how Godawful that film is??????? Lucy is a genius.

Seriously, get up off Zach Braff...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Frog's Gonna Gitcha

So I was telling Susan the other day that it doesn't matter so much that the reports weren't on time, it's just that when you have a client who...

Uh-oh. Uh-oh... Look at this guy.

Wow, look at that. What's he doin'? What's he doin' here? Crazy frog, all smiling like that. What's he doin'?

Whoa! There he is. All smiling and satisifed. You know what, he's gonna gitcha! Better watch out. Froggy here is gonna totally gitcha.

Well, there's one thing I can tell you for sure. That is one crazy frog. Go get 'em froggy. Goooooooo get 'em.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction (Part 2)

Ferrell falls in a long line of comedic auteur types, some more successful than others, who have parlayed a unique comic edge, a precise set of answers, into box office success. Martin did it first, followed by Dan Akroyd, Rick Moranis, Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Victoria Jackson, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Lisa Kudrow, Jamie Foxx and so on…

These actors have, like Martin, experienced uneven success with their big screen comedic endeavors. The grand irony is that the abilities that brought them to prominence are often compromised by Hollywood machine that wanted them in the first place. However, the majority of those mentioned have evinced an uncanny knack for drama. Relieved of their big-ticket caricatures, their comedic ticks, the constant necessity to provide the punch line, these men and women have made great use of the freedom that dramatic acting permits.

Martin translates his penchant for being in on the joke into a weary wisdom in films such as “The Spanish Prisoner”. While his early comedies were a meditation on the state of stand up comedy, his role as a middle-class dad in “Parenthood” demonstrates a wealth of observation on what it means to be an imperfect father. As such, his performance anchored what was to become one of the best films of its decade.

Akroyd dropped his cool persona of ironic confidence to garner an Oscar nomination as an understanding son in “Driving Miss Daisy”. In “54”, Mike Myers trades on his gift of impersonation to play a creepy, bisexual club owner, and reveals a remarkable ability to disappear seamlessly into his roles.

Jim Carrey, whose unfettered desperation for laughs was agonizing to watch in the poorly directed “Ace Ventura” films, has parlayed this desire into convincingly winsome leading men. His work carries films such as “The Majestic”, “The Truman Show”. In “Punch Drunk Love”, Paul Thomas Anderson literally reinvents an entire world around Adam Sandler’s disturbed comedic persona. Nonetheless, this film suggests that, even in his worst films (and there are many) Sandler know precisely what he is doing.

The pattern of metamorphosis has thusly been well established, so Ferrell’s success in “Stranger” should come as no surprise. But I did not anticipate the degree to which he would become such a necessity to the film. In the dramatic realm, actors such as Ferrell thrive in roles which require/permit them to engage their more bombastic instincts. In his role as an odd, neurotic claims adjuster, Ferrell is required to do pirouettes from awkward comedy to charming romance. These transitions would have fallen flat in the hands of a one-note character. Ferrell is uniquely suited to this role.

The performance, then, makes agile use of his comic persona. Like Martin in “Parenthood”, we see a measure of observation in his eyes. In his comedies, Ferrell always has the look of a Bobcat waiting to strike. His very presence builds comedic tension, as the audience anxiously awaits his next verbal non-sequitor.

It is this persona that changed the face of Saturday Night Live when he first appeared in 1995. The show was mired in long, dull skits that carried on endlessly, punctuated by cheap imitations and gross-out humor. The cast had become too famous, clearly using SNL as a way to keep their faces fresh in the eyes of their fan base. So SNL fired nearly all of them, and ushered in a host of new actors.

The gambit paid off, largely because of Ferrell’s odd persona. His approach to comedy was tactical. He was often loud, sometimes boorish, but evinced a tremendous timing. He understood his characters, preferring a loose, improvisational style to simply reading the cue cards (like Jimmy Fallon did). Odd as they were, his characters felt viscerally real.

In retrospect, his comedic performances almost never abandon their grounding in reality. Ferrell is always about two steps above normal, a formula that has generated comedies of remarkable quality and consistency. What other comedian in recent history has so consistently garnered critical praise?

Of course, his career has not been without missteps. He was panned for his first foray into drama, a thankless role in the indie “Winter Passing”, in which he played an utterly implausible character who was uninteresting to boot. “A Night at the Roxbury” needs no explanation. With some dozen movies in the hopper, the jury was out on Ferrell’s potential for extended cinematic success.

There is a scene in which Ferrell's character, having recently learned guitar, plays a song for the girl he is trying to romance. In the hands of a less instinctive actor, this becomes an opportunity for broad comedy (recall the grating scene in which Sandler plays a song for Drew Barrymore in "The Wedding Singer"). But Ferrell suppresses the instinct, and the song is, at once, funny, touching and romantic.

In “Stranger Than Fiction”, Ferrell holds his own among a supporting cast that includes Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhall and Dustin Hoffman. That the extraordinary talent surrounding him does not outclass him is testament to the fact that his work is no gimmick. The film needs him, and thrives on his gifts.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Stranger then Fiction (Part 1)

Editors Note - This is the first of two lengthy posts I drafted in response to the film "Stranger Than Fiction".

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a fine entertainment. Go see it. $8 worth, etc…

That’s not what I want to talk about. Rather I want to talk about Will Farrell, and the career trajectory of high profile cinematic comedians.

See, comedy is difficult. It is said that anyone who can write and perform comedy can write and perform drama, but that the converse does not apply. This is manifestly true. In comedy, there is always one right answer, and a plethora of (often painfully) wrong answers.

In drama, there are no wrong answers. Take for example, a scene depicting a child being pushed into the mud by his peers. If this is a drama, any number of things can happen without violating the mood. The other boys may call the kid names. The kid could fight back. We could see the boy, 40 years later, recounting the scenario to his wife. Or, the boy could simply lay there, with sad-sounding music accenting the malaise.

If this is comedy, the options are far more limited. The rules of comedic engagement require the unexpected to happen. The next scene must surprise us somehow, often with drastic results. If someone calls the kid a faggot, is that funny? Who is surprised by this? If the kid gets up and screams at the other kids, is that funny? No. If the kid simply farts, is that funny? No.

There is a single answer to this equation, and it is utterly dependent on that which has preceded the shoving of the kid into the ground. Further, it is dependent on the audience’s worldview at any given moment. 40 years ago, the child might fart to uproarious laughter. Today, that same action is meant with uncomfortable silence.

Comedy does not have permission to be dated or stilted. Anyone who has watched “The African Queen”, an undisputed classic in its day, can attest to this fact. “Citizen Kane” remains cinematic gold. Animal Crackers? Not so much.

In contemporary cinema, it might be considered edgily funny for the boy to shout at his tormentors “at least my father has the courtesy to kiss me after he beats me!” Such a gesture would have been gasp-inducingly offensive twenty years ago, and will assuredly seem hackneyed in another ten (or even offensive; I am not convinced that future generations won’t reflect poorly on the offenses that we presently perpetrate under the irony banner).

Of course, comedy can achieve staying power by appealing to universal truth, or simply being so forward thinking that it holds appeal across the generational spectrum, but such works are the exception (Shakespeare, Wilde, Marx Brothers), not the rule.

The cinematic world has, in the last 30 years or so, become enamored of films centered on the comedic gifts of one or two actors. These actors are given an essentially blank slate, unencumbered by the need to carry the emotional core of the film, or even advance the plot. In this context, the comedian has substantial latitude to make the right judgments (for better or worse).

While Jack Lemmon and Lily Tomlin (and certainly others that I am forgetting) hinted at this sort of comedic authority, Steve Martin brought what one might call the comedic auteur persona to the big screen in 1979, when he parlayed a career in comedy into a starring role in the mildly amusing “The Jerk”, which he also wrote.

“The Jerk” helped launch a new genre of cinema. Martin’s comedy was off-kilter, meditative, and exceedingly self-referential. His style helped inform the the monolithic Saturday Night Live, even though he was never a cast member on the show. He has won an Oscar, Emmy and a Grammy. He is a renowned author and playwright, a serious art collector, and has even dated Anne Heche.

And yet, his work ranges from the exquisitely funny (Parenthood) to middling (Father of the Bride) to awful (Three Amigos). Why? Cause comedy is hard, even for the most brilliant comedians.

The first human instinct, when it comes to comedy, is to be as broad and “comedic” as possible. Comedy has an uncanny ability to attract those who desperately need attention. Anyone who has watched a high school musical has seen this in full display. There is always (at least) one actor who insists on screaming and grating until he gets a laugh, no matter how small the role. His benchmark for success is to elicit a reaction. The heartier the laughter, the better.

A good comedian must actively counteract this desire, and focus on making the right decisions, finding the right answers. This requires a tremendous gift of self-control. This helps explain the paradox of an improvisational comedy groups holding rehearsals. Good improv relies upon a comfort with fellow actors, and a kinesis that helps suppress the “look at me” instinct.

Further, the comedian must have a studied knowledge of his time and place in the universe. This requires not only a keen sense of observation, but also healthy respect for history. Remember, what was funny then might not be funny now. Who laughs at an “Internets” joke these days?

Once all of these criteria are met, the comedian must chance upon a lucky opportunity, be it an invitation to appear on Saturday Night Live, or a sitcom, that gives them a national audience for their gifts. The must relentlessly market their gifts and abilities, finding different forums to express what amounts to the same several joke (what a standup will call his ‘A’ material).

As such, the successful comedians we see on the big (and small) screen tend to be superfluously gifted. We see in them a manic genius, a way of always thinking about a certain situations, finding ways to defy expectations.

Which brings me to Will Ferrell...


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Iraq Study Group Action!

So, the much-vaunted Iraq Study Group has issued its recommendations for how to deal with the Iraq crisis. This is it! Our call back to reality after years of denial, arrogance and wishful thinking. The long overdue rebuke to the “cowboy diplomacy” that has guided our foreign policy over the last few years. The counterproposal that we have even politically ambitious democrats were unable to provide.

So, what is it? What has this bi-partisan ensemble determined to be the best next step in the defining international conflict of our time? Oh, I can hardly wait. Wow, here it is:

We should bring Iran and Syria to the table to discuss a plan to “to stem the flood of funding, insurgents and terrorist in and out of Iraq” Ummm…

You remember the scene in “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie finally got his secret decoder pin, and was able to translate the urgent message from Little Orphan Annie? Cause the product of this bi-partisan commission sure seems a hell of a lot like “ be sure to drink your Ovaltine”. What was Ralphie’s response to this anticlimactic blow to the gut? “A crummy commercial? Son of a bitch.”

My own response was along the lines of “are you fudging kidding me?”

Only I didn’t say fudge.

Naturally, opponents of this war declared victory. True, this is a victory for their worldview. In an attempt to introduce Democracy (which, let’s face it, is a code word for civility and human decency) to an Arab nation, the United States is now having to ask Iran and Syria for guidance. As an added bonus, both nations are diametrically opposed to Israel’s national interest. Keith Ellison is clicking his heels.

The report, insofar as it is a pleasant diversion from a reality in which results are achieved through tangible action, also diverts attention away from the fact that the staunchest critics of this war haven’t the foggiest idea what we should do about the war on terror. We no longer have to make any attempt to achieve “victory” in Iraq. And what is, victory, anyway? All we can hope for now is that we can somehow save face after Bush’s failed war.

Of course, the report does not call for withdrawal of our troops, at least not per se. But one has to wonder what happens when the groups hypothesis turn into a vain search for Pollyanna? When Iran and Syria refuse to come to the table, or, more likely, ask for a free pass on developing nuclear bombs in exchange for a signature on some unenforceable treaty? Why, withdraw of course.

What the Iraq Study Group reveals is not that the members of the group are stupid, or that they do not care for America’s freedom, or even that they are politically motivated. Rather, it seems the exasperated result of a group that examined our scenario, examined our mission, understands that we must continue to fight the terrorist threat and, in the end, had no really good ideas. But “stay the course” was clearly not an option, so we get this arbitrary hoo-hah.

Nobody thinks this idea will work. I have yet to hear a defense of these conclusions that does not turn into a harangue about the Bush administration. This was never a plausible path for victory BEFORE the Iraq war, so it is impossible to see how it has become a viable option now. But hey, at least we can say we tried something else.

You see, contrary to the blind wailings of the conspiracy theorists, we had a reason to invade Iraq. We didn’t go to fetch oil. We didn’t go to make money for Halliburton. We certainly didn't to bolster Bush's approval ratings. We went to fight terrorists. So we went and, curiously enough, they are fighting back. Why? Because they don’t like our vision of the world.

These animals want a world that looks very much like Iran and Syria. They want government to enforce their voodoo religion with an iron fist (or stones, battery acid, and beheadings). They are the power brokers in that scenario. Our efforts at diplomacy failed because we are not dealing with diplomats. They demand concessions from us that we, by our nature, cannot abide. America cannot comprise with religious tyranny. There is no middle ground. That’s not cowboy diplomacy, that’s not arrogance or stubbornness, it’s absolute fact.

To give up in Iraq is to concede a major defeat in the war on terror. Perhaps Vietnam and other recent conflicts have taught us that the occasional defeat is acceptable, and that, in the end, the tides of history will ebb and flow without our interference. We have a curious assurance that everything will be okay, and we wantonly criticize anyone who would stand athwart that worldview.

9/11 ought to have instructed us of the folly of this way of thinking. A tragedy in and of itself, it was not the culmination of the movement of militant Islam it was but a warning shot in a war that is working its way from the ground up across myriad nations, and threatens our very existence.

We can argue, in fact we must argue, about the proper method for addressing this threat. But we lost that argument in a sea of partisan bickering, and an entire political party achieved victory by offering empty criticisms of the other party's chosen path. So to hail this series of impractical, thoughtless, lazy suggestions as the great next step proves to me that we are not taking this threat seriously at all.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Prager on Ellison

My friend Ochuk had a post regarding talk-show host Dennis Prager's questioning of whether Keith Ellison (the congressman from my district) ought to be able to take an oath on the Koran, his holy text. You can read it Here.

In summary, he suggests that Prager gives undue respect to the Bible's influence on the founding fathers, and that thinkers such as Locke and Montesquieu had just as much to do with our founding principles. He goes further to make the case that the Bible is given no special authority in a nation wherein religious freedoms are extolled. He then ends by asking the question "Could we tolerate a Catholic in the White House? Today, things have changed dramatically. Can we tolerate a Muslim in Congress?"

As opposed to blogging on his blog, my response is below.

Question: Are leaders required to take an oath on a holy text, or may they decline?

As I see it, it is inherently disrespectful of the Bible, and Ellison is committing a grave sin by taking an oath on his "holy" book. I think we agree on this point. Further, I'm not sure the concern as to whether this violates the forefather's intent can be assuaged with your Lockean trump card.

If a pastor reads "How to win friends and unfluence people," and its methods help the church to grow, shall we then be equally reverent of his text as we are of a holy text? Shall we take communion in the name of Dale Carnegie? Of course not.

As to the question of whether Ellison has a legal right to take an oath on the Koran, that depends. Clearly he does now, because he is doing it, but the question of whether we could mandate the congressmen take an oath on the Bible, if we were so inclined, is trickier.

To the extent to which a judge could mandate that Ellison has an absolute right to use the Koran, they could also mandate removal of God verbiage from the Declaration of Independence or our currency. If there is not tie whatsoever between God and country, then that represents a fundamental shift.

Of course, we are fundamentally shifting, and that is what Prager describes when he discusses a culture war in this country. While you are not a culture warrior, an neither am I, do we simply forget that the battle exists at all? Do Christians have no horse in this race? I'm not sure I agree with that, though I am certainly swayed by the argument that we have bigger fish to fry, so to speak.

But the question in not whether Prager should be up-in-arms. He is a talk-show host. Up-in-arms is his standard posture. The question is whether he may protest without advocating the wrong thing. Constitutionally protected or no, Ellison is disrespecting tradition, and he is disrespecting God. He is also an anti-semite (if you believe his little conversion story on this, I've got some land I could sell you). Prager sees a corollary there, as do I, and I cannot blame him for speaking out.

Further, I'm not sure Ochuk adequately addresses Prager's point that the teachings of the Koran run afoul not only of biblical principle, but of Constitutional principle. Insofar as our founding father were (as Ochuk concedes) profoundly influencd by the bible, we have then a holy text that rejects the American tradition of freedom outright. Again, Prager certainly sees an obvious corollary between the text and the way it has been, er, implemented throughout the Middle East and (increasingly) in Europe.

Ultimately, Ochuk is probably correct that Prager lacks the Constitutional grounding for his position. But to dismiss his arguments, or imply that they demonstrate a lack of tolerance for Muslims, is incorrect. We can undoubtedly stomach a Muslim congressman (though I cannot stomach an anti-Semite, reformed or no). But can we stomach a nation that has completely severed it's ties to God, tenuous as they may be?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Daily update

So many items to blog about, I can't pick just one, so here's a top ten.

1 Don't forget "28; A retrospective on love, life and God, with spiked eggnog" is this Saturday at 7:30. More information Here.

2. The new Rock TV (my church's video ministry is up on Youtube. I play the Rev. Bob Ramsey. the film also explains the Theological Ninja blog, in case any of you were wondering what the hell was going on there. Check it out.

3. Apparently, my wife is quite the aficionado of Christmas-related miscellany. The woman unleashed about 15 tupperware tubs worth of Christmas related fury in a bacchanlia worthy of Santa Clause. Of course, our decor is mid-century modern, so the entire house looks like a bourgeois culture war. But my God, the snowmen. I am walking in a winter wonderland of epic proportions.

4. The final BCS standings are in, and Florida will play Ohio St. for the championship. Hence, NCAA football is relegated to the dustbin of cultural curiosities, along with bowling, women's hockey, and jai lai. Maybe we can just settle next years championship with a @#$% dance-off.

5. Pseudo-christian Jim Wallis, who has made a living excoriating Christian leaders for their ties to partisan interests, delivered the radio address for the Democratic party this weekend. In related news, the pot issued a press release accusing the kettle of being black. In defense of his actions, Wallis said "Desmond Tutu, least of these."

6. John Bolton has announced he will step down from his position as ambassador to the United Nations. He was accused by his critics of having a gruff demeanor. Folks, when you're reading those two sentences back to back, you know the Democrats are in charge.

7. It snowed today! First snow! First snow! You know what's fun? Drinking an entire bottle of absinthe you smuggled from Thailand, and rubbing your face in the icy powder. All you can is burning! Sweet, sweet burning! Also, I had to brush some of it off of my car.

8. I am coining a phrase: "Obama smooth". Examples.

"Wow, you're looking Obama smooth in those retro Pumas."

"This drink is refreshing and Obama smooth."

or, ironically "Hey, nice crash. Smooth one Obama."

9. What the hell did Danny DeVito do to deserve to be in the Lincoln bedroom? Was this his thank you for "Death to Smoochy?" What does the director of "Patch Adams" get, an ambassadorship.

10. Can someone tell me when sweatshirts got so expensive? We went to Macy's (again, my wife absolutely ADORES Christmas) and I'm thinking "hell, I could use something warm" only to find a set of sweatshirts for $88 a piece. Has anyone reading this purchased an $88 sweatshirt? Can you please articulate for me the reasoning on that one? They also has a pair of corduroy pants for $240. Corduroy pants?

11. The Nativity movie came out, to less than enthusiastic responses. You mean Christians didn't all just pile our families of 14 children into our minivans and head to the theaters to watch tepid, second-rate drivel? Hey, surprise, we know the difference between a good film and manipulative schlock. Unbelievable. Until a director comes along who wants to treat our holy text with some artistic dignity, Hollywood may resume crafting Kate Hudson vehicles.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Now it is time to talk about Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant is SWWWWWEEEEEET!!!!

Kobe Bryant is a professional basketball player. Kobe Bryant shoots and scores. He is awesome because he scores so many points. Last night he had 52 points, which is a lot he only averages like 25 or 30. Koby Bryant is amazing and I want to be like him when I grow up, but not black.

One time, Kobe Bryant had the ball, and the other guy was like guarding him, and Kobe Bryant went to the hoop and dunked and the ball was like kssshhhhh..... Slam dunks are awesome they should be worth like a million points.

One time, I ran into the living room and pretended I was Kobe Bryant and broke the coffee table. Daddy told me it was time to get me some freakin' help.

Kobe Bryant makes so many shots, and it's because he awesome and he plays for the Lakers. Kobe Bryant also gets like lots of rebounds and assists, and he used to play with Shaquille O'Neal, but not anymore though, and Kobe Bryant's awesome.

Kobe Bryant plays in Los Angeles, which is like where movie stars are from, and he's handsome and he didn't rape that girl she wanted it, but Kobe's awesome cause he scores like a million points.

Mr. Johnson told us to write a paper on an important historical figure, and I wrote a paper on Kobe Bryant, and I used lots of pictures and even wrote a poem. Mr. Johnson gave me an F. He wrote, and I quote "Even by your standards, this is piffle." and added "your perpetual vacant stare is beginning to make a lot more sense." Mr. Johnson is dumb and he ate Stevie's diatetic candy after he died.

Kobe Bryant will probably score 1,000 points in a game because he's so awesome. I love him and he's my favorite player I like LeBron James too and he's sort of my favorite bt daddy says Cleveland is a hellhole and I don't like LeBron James but I kinda do but not as much as Kobe Bryant.

Kobe Bryant scores lots of points.