Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mainstream Media Violence And Women

Sometimes you see something so strange you think, heck, that must just be an isolated instance, a strange anomaly. But if what you saw took a lot of forethought and effort to create, it’s hard to dismiss it as passing weirdness. And if you see something very similar happen again, also the result of forethought and effort, it becomes harder still to ignore it as inconsequential weirdness.

However, some things are so strange that it’s difficult to imagine what else but random weirdness they can be.

Today’s post is about two such instances.

“The Faculty”

A long time ago—well, about ten years ago—a medium budget science fiction movie came out called “The Faculty.” It was an okay movie and the director, Robert Rodríguez, has become reasonably famous. Mostly I liked the movie because the young heroine was played by an actress named Jordana Brewster who at the time was my pick for the most beautiful young actress in Hollywood. I even mentioned her in a cartoon I drew.

But what stood out about the movie for me is the way the filmmakers decided to handle a couple of violent scenes.

The film is about evil aliens that look kind of like exotic goldfish. The aliens get into a human (somehow) and take control of that person’s mind and use the person as a human robot to further the alien invasion. Some high school kids discover what’s going on and decide to fight the aliens.

Toward the middle of the film, there’s a scene where the kids are gathered around the home laboratory one of the young kids has. They decide they’re going to let an alien infect a white rat and then dissect the rat to see what the aliens do inside a body. So they let an alien they’ve captured infect the kid’s pet white rat.

Then they have to kill the rat and dissect it.

When they kill the rat, the camera very discreetly pans away from the animal and does not show the animal being killed. Rather, the camera pans across the faces of the kids showing how disturbed they are at the creature’s death.

But toward the end of the movie the high school principal confronts the kids. The principal, an attractive middle-age woman, is played by the reasonably well-known actress Bebe Neuwirth. The kids suspect she is under the control of the aliens. So they shoot her in the head.

When the principal is killed, the camera not only doesn’t pan away, instead it holds the woman’s face in tight close up as the bullet hits her forehead and she falls over backward.

So, the filmmakers make the very conscious decision not to show a cute white rat getting killed. But they carefully frame a beautiful woman’s face in close up and show her getting killed.

What the hell?

Now, in this case it’s very easy to make a joke and say, well, it’s Bebe Neuwirth, all America wanted to see Lilith get shot in the head. That’s funny and it may be true but the larger question is still a good question: What they hell, they won’t show a rat getting killed but they will show a woman getting killed?


Just a couple of weeks ago, the TV show Smallville aired an unusually violent episode. The normally operatic violence was replaced by three scenes of dark, grotesque violence. First we see the villain, Lex Luthor, murder his own father. Then we see an unknown assassin murder Lex Luthor’s beautiful woman assistant. Then we see Lex Luthor murder an imaginary child that is the voice of his inner conscience.

Three deaths—an old man, a young woman and a child. Even before we look at the details of the deaths, it’s almost worth asking what the hell is going on, is the Manson Family taking script assignments nowadays? (Regular readers know Smallville may be my favorite TV show of all time. But since the third and fourth seasons the show has been a strange mixture of sometimes good episodes and sometimes awful episodes.)

The way Smallville handled the three death scenes was more interesting than the story of the episode.

When Lex killed his father by pushing him out of a forty-story window, the camera discreetly panned away from the falling body and showed the reflection of the body falling in Lex’s eyes so we could see Lex’s reaction rather than the actual death.

When Lex killed the young boy by dragging him down a flight of steps and throwing him into a fireplace (again, did the Manson Family consult on the scene?) the camera discreetly pulled back and showed the stairs with the boy struggling at a distance, then showed the fireplace from behind so we didn’t see the poor kid actually burning to death.

When the unknown assassin killed the beautiful young woman, however, the camera zoomed in for a tight close-up of the woman’s face as the assassin sprayed poison into her gasping mouth. Then the camera remained in tight close-up on the woman’s face as her eyes stayed wide and her breath slowed, stopped, and she eventually died.

What the hell?

They don’t show an old man dying. They don’t show a young boy dying. But a beautiful woman is shown in close up dying.

I don’t know what to make of stuff like this.

I don’t watch a lot of violent movies (other than monster films) and I watch almost no television so I don’t know how common such images are. But in Smallville discussions I’ve seen nobody even commented on the gruesome, grotesque handling of the murder of Lex’s assistant. Nobody seemed shocked so I’m guessing such images are fairly common.

This is pretty weird.

It’s not like this is fringe media that is selected for content built around violence against women. Smallville is the highest rated scripted show on the CW network and “The Faculty” was a medium budget film released to regular theaters.

I’ve wanted to do this post for a while, but I’ve hesitated because I don’t have any particular conclusion to draw.

I don’t believe there is some kind of coherent conspiracy at work. But I do believe there is a kind of generalized dehumanization at work, particularly regarding pop culture’s depictions of women. I’ll be writing more about this in the future, but for today I’m going to end simply with a link to an old post of mine:

The Other Way Of Making A Frankenstein’s Monster

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Short Ode To A Quick Sketch

Oh drawing of Lindsay Lohan
I’m going to do things to you.

Maybe I will apply oil paint
directly onto you without
treating your paper first. Although
I have clear acrylic gesso
I don’t like using it because
water-based goo would make you warp.

Or maybe I’ll use oil pastels.
I like oil pastels. They’re tactile.
I can stroke-in an area
of value, color and texture
and if I go too far pull back
by scrapping off stuff with a blade.

Or I have erasable pens
in three colors, red, blue and black.
Their line quality is rough but
they erase cleanly for fixes.
I may use them and a crow quill
to draw cool lines on top of them.

Oh drawing of Lindsay Lohan
I’m going to do things to you.

I think about another you.
I suspect I enjoy talking
to you more than I would enjoy
having speaks with the real Lindsay.
The real Lindsay. I wonder, too,
if you’re more fun to do things to?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Checking In With The Gods

This weekend, late Saturday night, I was up, out and about around 3 am.

I wasn’t thinking about astronomy, but astronomy is never far from my mind. When I saw the waning moon [the next new moon will be May 5th] half-full in the southern sky with a bright star just a few degrees north of the moon, I started thinking about astronomy.

I started thinking about astronomy because I couldn’t figure out what the bright star near the moon was.

There are only four “stars” near the ecliptic that are bright enough to be visible through moonlight.

The only “real” star bright enough to see when the moon is nearby is Sirius, in Canis Majoris. But Sirius is—famously—an evening star in the spring and by 3am evening stars will have moved far to the west, or even will have set below the western horizon.

The other “stars” bright enough to be seen through moonlight are the planets Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.

But Venus is an inner planet. That means from our perspective, from the Earth, Venus will sometimes be a morning star in the east and sometimes an evening star in the west but Venus never will rise too far above the horizon. We will never see Venus in the southern sky.

So the “star” I was seeing near the moon was either Jupiter or Saturn.

I hadn’t observed either Jupiter or Saturn for a couple of months, since the last lunar eclipse back in February. Back then, Saturn was an evening star in the east and Jupiter was an evening twilight star in the west. My general, off-the-cuff feeling late Saturday night was that at 3:30am Saturn would be too far west to be the bright star near the moon and Jupiter, now a morning star, would be too far to the east.

But I was wrong about something. Either I had somehow forgotten some obvious, bright star or my off-the-cuff thinking about Jupiter or Saturn was out-of-pace with the season.

The easiest and most fun way to figure out what was going on was simply to take a look at the bright “star” through a telescope!

So that’s what I did.

When I got home, a little before 4am, I set up my telescope—quickly, I only took out one eyepiece, an 18mm for 50x—and took a look.

After sighting the bright star in my finder scope, I took a look at rough focus through my telescope. I knew instantly I hadn’t forgotten any obvious, bright star. I was looking at a blurry, ochre-colored disk with a tiny point of light just off to one side. Obviously a planet and a moon.

For that quick instant, I thought I’d been wrong about Saturn and I assumed I was looking at Saturn and its brightest moon Titan.

But even as I brought the focus tighter I realized I wasn’t looking at Saturn. Saturn has two distinctive characteristics. The planet’s ring system—even now when the rings are almost on-edge from our perspective—always makes the planet look like a slight oval. And the planet, even in a small scope, is a beautiful ochre color, but ochre with a very definite golden cast to it.

I brought the image to sharp focus and I realized I was looking at Jupiter. No oval shape, and the beautiful ochre shade of Jupiter has more of an umber tint to it. And the equatorial cloud bands on Jupiter, even through a small scope, are much easier to see than on Saturn.

So I had been wrong about thinking Jupiter would be far to the east. The seasonal shift of the Earth around the Sun was bringing Jupiter farther west faster than I’d anticipated. By the end of summer Jupiter will be an evening star again.

But there was still that business of the single moon visible to the west of the planet.

Ever since Galileo first pointed his telescope toward Jupiter, everyone has known that Jupiter has four bright satellites. The four moons are relatively easy to see, even through modern binoculars. But I was seeing only one. What was up?

Well, the dynamics of Jupiter’s moons are well understood. Some amateurs study Jupiter’s moons every night. Both monthly astronomy magazines publish a chart that depicts the positions of Jupiter’s moons for every day of the month. I checked out an April chart. It turns out that Saturday night there was a reasonably rare (once a month or so) occurrence—two of Jupiter’s moons, Callisto and Europa, were either transiting the planet’s face or too close to its disk to be resolved by my small scope. A third moon, Io, was passing behind Jupiter, either eclipsed by the planet or too close to its disk to be resolved by my small scope. And that left Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon—in fact, the largest moon in the solar system—just west of the planet all by itself.

Although such configurations aren’t wildly rare, I’ve been observing Jupiter for almost thirty years and Saturday night was the first time I’d seen the planet with only one moon visible.

So I hadn’t been thinking about astronomy at all, but there I was just a little later looking at something I had never seen before.

Pretty cool night!

The moons of Jupiter aren’t very picturesque through a telescope, even a large scope. But it’s interesting thinking about the dynamics of the four moons. And, with a medium sized scope, it’s possible to take photographs of the shadows of the moons falling on Jupiter’s clouds when the moons transit the planet’s face. Again, it’s not very picturesque, but it’s pretty cool anyway.

What is very picturesque is the amazing, subtle colors you see when you look at Jupiter and Saturn through medium or high power, even with a small telescope. There’s something almost magical about the shimmering, simple ochre colors and the ever-so-subtle differences between the two gas giants.

It would be an interesting photographic project to try and capture the amazing hues that appear visually. It would be interesting, too, to try and capture the subtle colors and contrasts in paint. I’m not sure photography can duplicate the sensitivity of a human eye. And I’m pretty darn sure I don’t have the skill to do it with paint.

But I’m going to be giving both projects more thought. They’d both be fun and worth doing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

“Boat Names” And Pilate’s Question

Boat Names
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There’s a tradition among old-time salts
of picking a short name to name their boat.
The thinking is, as you travel the world
you constantly will be filling out forms
and writing your boat name on all of them.
If the name is long, even if it’s cool,
forms are a chore. You come to hate the name.
If the name is short, you do forms quicker
and you love the name for being easy.

I’d like to live on a boat. Sail the world.

I’m always making note of good, short names.
Mila Kunis plays ‘Meg’ on “Family Guy.”
‘Mila’—four letters—is a good boat name.
‘Dinner and a Motel’ is a bad name.
Filling out a dozen forms somewhere, say,
around Cape Town, by the Cape of Good Hope,
you can write ‘Mila’ again and again
easier than ‘Dinner and a Motel.’

It’s all about thinking of the future.

*         *         *

“What is truth?”

John 18:38

Regular readers of this blog [regular readers?] may have noticed that I began my last three posts with a kind of warning label that I’ve never used before.

That was taken from last Thursday’s post, One Degree Of Richard Brautigan.

Last Thursday I said that over the decades I’ve often wondered if Richard Brautigan’s autobiographical writing really is autobiographical or if it is just good creative writing or some combination of the two.

Here on the blog, from the very beginning, I’ve tried to keep the content of my posts reasonably plain.

Short stories here on the blog are stories—just like stories in a magazine or book they may be completely fictional.

Poetry can be anything. It might be fictional, might be completely true, might be some combination.

Blog posts that are presented as memories, however, are always just that: Real memories! I’ve never played fast and loose with my personal history. I’m not saying my memory is perfect, of course, and when I post dialogue from the past I’m just doing my best to re-create conversation. But the key is if I post something that I present as a real memory then I’m doing my best to re-create real events and real people.

However, thinking of Brautigan and thinking of Del Close’s warning about being careful when judging a writer based on stuff they write, I decided to have fun this week.

When I wonder about Brautigan, the three options I keep in mind are:

  1. Is this story what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day?

  2. Is it a piece of writing inspired by an actual day but then pleasantly embellished?

  3. Is it carefully crafted and completely fictional?

I decided to put up examples of my own of each kind of writing.

(But I put up a warning label just to alert people I was doing something different. Like I said, from the start of the blog it’s been important to me to keep my posts at least reasonably real. Even if I’m consciously doing something different, I couldn’t bring myself to do it without a warning label.)

So, for people who read my three posts this week, I wonder if anyone noticed anything different?

I wonder if people could figure out, if they tried, which post was real, which post was embellished and which post was completely made up?

If anyone is interested, here is some background on the three posts:

My ‘Driving Miss Shelly’ Story—This post is completely real. I could have run this without a warning label. Shelly was a real person, the events and conversations happened exactly as described. And this is my favorite kind of post because it never would have occurred to me to make up something like that. I never would have imagined a person—a reasonable person—could have thought “The Manchurian Candidate” was a comedy. But Shelly did!

My Eric Von Zipper Story—This post is embellished. I never would have posted this without a warning label. All the people are real. All the events are real. The Harvey Keitel/Harvey Lembeck stuff really happened. But in real life none of that stuff happened in the kind of linear, cohesive way it is described in the story. I might have posted this with some kind of disclaimer, saying that some of the content has been re-arranged or something like that.

My Litter Box Story—This is completely fictional. I made up this story. I never would have posted this in the form of a memory because none of the events happened. However, it is worth saying that even this fictional story isn’t too far from real life. My friend Joanne from the tennis club (I think she spelled her name JoAnn) really was the first girl to ever hit me. And when she slapped me it was in a bizarre freak out where she kept hitting me and yelling at me. And the conversations I made up with her, her word choices and reactions, are entirely consistent with the many conversations I did have with the real girl. But if I were really going to post something like this I would have changed the names and made it clear it was within the context of a story and not a real memory.

Next week: Everything’s back to normal. No more warning labels!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My ‘Driving Miss Shelly’ Story

Is this story what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day? Is it a piece of writing inspired by an actual day but then pleasantly embellished? Is it carefully crafted and completely fictional?

One Degree Of Richard Brautigan

In my Tuesday post [My Eric Von Zipper Story] I described how I met Shelby, Shelly and Jay-jay. I never got to know Jay-jay at all. Shelby and I became friends. I only went out with Shelly a couple of times but in hindsight I wish I had spent more time with her.

In terms of quality craziness, Shelly may be unique in my memory.

Shelly grew up in Evanston. If you look at the house she grew up in you think, wow, does Batman have his Batcave under that mansion? Does Professor Xavier teach mutant children in that mansion? Shelly received a degree in something or another from Northwestern and, right out of college, got a cool job for a big company in the Loop. But she always just shrugged about her job and said it was ‘something to do doing the day.’ After she got married I don’t think she returned to work.

I want to stress here at the start that these events happened back in the era that I bumped into Del Close at the bookstore. The events of today’s post happened right about the time Paris Hilton was being conceived.

What I’m getting at is that Shelly was Shelly long before Paris Hilton came up with her Paris Hilton schtick.

The afternoon of the evening I’m going to talk about began with me picking up Shelly after work. She was getting married in a couple of weeks and, for reasons that will be clear in a paragraph or two, she could only go out with people who were, umm, comfortable with odd times.

We went to a restaurant I had never heard of. I don’t remember the name of the place or exactly where it was. But it was pretty cool.

It was in one of the old, non-descript gray skyscrapers north of the river and between Michigan avenue and the lake. There was no sign out front. The lobby of the building looked like a normal lobby. There was a cigarette stand. A bank of elevators. In a far wall there was a plain wooden door and when you walked through that wooden door you found yourself in a beautiful restaurant all plush and steel, all deep shadows and bright lights. Big booths with lots of space between them. Everything very quiet.

I’m going to be quick about this part because basically I’m just setting up a conversation Shelly and I have in my car when I’m driving her home, but this stuff is good, too, and it is Shelly through-and-through.

We sat down in a big, plush booth and talked for a while and a waiter brought menus. When the waiter came back for our orders he looked at Shelly. She gestured to me to order first. The waiter looked at me.

I knew what was up.

I ordered cream of potato soup and Chicken Kiev. Couldn’t get wine or vodka because I was driving.

The waiter turned to Shelly.

She handed him her menu. “Nothing for me, thank you,” she said.

The waiter looked at Shelly, then back at me. It was the second time in my life I’d had a waiter give me that look. [I’ll get to the first time some other day.]

“Shelly is getting married in about a week and a half,” I explained to the waiter. “Even though she is very beautiful just the way she is,” I said, frowning at Shelly, “she is trying to go ten days without eating any real food because she wants to look even better in her wedding dress.”

The waiter smiled. “I understand. I’ll be back with your soup.”

“Can I have more water?” Shelly asked.

“Of course,” the waiter said.

When the waiter brought my soup, a second waiter brought a beautiful wooden tray with a wildly sparkling crystal pitcher full of water and a wildly sparkling crystal glass.

Putting the water in front of Shelly, our waiter said, “Our finest crystal, and our best wishes on your coming special day.”

It was a pretty cool restaurant.

Shelly gave the waiter a quick smile and let him pour her a glass of water.

Then the waiters left us alone with my soup and Shelly’s water.

“‘When we called out for another drink,’ I quoted, ‘The waiter brought a tray.’”

“‘Whiter Shade of Pale,’ Shelly said. “I always thought that song was just about falling asleep. I thought it was so cool that some musician wrote a whole song about his girl falling asleep. Did I ever tell you about the time I fell asleep during a police chase?”

Did you ever eat a full dinner while the person you were with just drank water? It’s a very strange experience. It’s almost something like a meditation exercise. It helps if the person you’re with is saying stuff that is almost as strange as the experience itself.

“You fell asleep during a police chase?” I repeated. “Were you riding in a police car as part of some school exercise?”

“No,” Shelly said, “I was in the car getting chased.”

“You had a crazy boyfriend and he drugged you and kidnapped you?”

“No, I was driving,” Shelly said. “I was drunk and the cops tried to pull me over for weaving all over the street. But I just didn’t feel like stopping. So I let them chase me for a while. But then I got tired and fell asleep and drove off the road. Luckily I didn’t hit a tree or a building or anything. Somehow I hit this big clump of bushes that cushioned the crash. The first cop who woke me up was very cute. That’s how I got my DUI conviction.”

I think at that point I told the story of how police and SWAT teams had closed off my block one night because a neighbor had seen me and my friend with our telescopes and thought we were snipers with fancy rifles. They had stormed down on us, guns drawn and pointed right at us.

“But I was never convicted of anything,” I said. “The cops—eventually—all just laughed and went home.”

Shelly smiled and sipped some water. “I was convicted,” she said.

So that’s kind of an introduction to Shelly.

Now here’s my favorite part of the evening. My favorite Shelly talk of all time. One of my favorite movie conversations of all time with anyone.

As I was driving Shelly home that night we passed a movie theater not far from my apartment. It was a cool, north side theater that sometimes showed new releases and sometimes showed special titles.

“I was here last week with my fiancé,” Shelly said. “There was some kind of charity thing going on. Did you go?”

I told her I hadn’t gone.

“Oh, you would have loved it,” Shelly said. “They showed some old Frank Sinatra comedy that was one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.”

“A Frank Sinatra comedy that was funny?” I said. “I’m not a big Sinatra fan, but I don’t even remember him making a great comedy. What film?”

“I don’t remember the title,” Shelly said.

“Well,” I said, “let’s see what Sinatra films I can remember. ‘High Society’ was okay. About a wedding.”

“No, it was something that had soldiers in it,” Shelly said.

“‘Von Ryan’s Express’ was cool, but I don’t remember it being all that funny,” I said. “About prisoners escaping an Italian prison camp on a train during World War Two.”

“No, I think this was supposed to be later than World War Two,” Shelly said.

“Was there singing in it?” I asked.

“No, no singing,” Shelly said.

“Black and white, or color?” I asked.

“Black and white,” Shelly said.

“And it was funny?” I asked.

“It was hilarious,” Shelly said. “I was laughing out loud.”

“Well, I think he made a film called ‘Assault on a Queen,’ about some ex-soldiers who try to rob the Queen Mary cruise ship.”

“No,” Shelly said. “There wasn’t a cruise ship. There were lots of strange scenes, I think, with Chinese soldiers.”

At that point I think my eyes went a little wide and I had to force myself to not stare at Shelly and put some of my attention on the traffic around us. Because at that point I was beginning to suspect what movie she was talking about.

I should have realized, earlier, maybe back in the restaurant when the waiter brought water in a crystal pitcher, that Shelly and I had crossed over into a magical world all her own. But I was beginning to catch on.

“You’re sure this is a comedy you’re talking about?” I asked.

“It was very funny,” Shelly said.

I picked my words carefully. “Was this movie about a friend of Sinatra’s who was also a former soldier and was his friend’s mother involved in politics?”

“Yes! Yes!” Shelly said. “Yes, part of the plot was about some politician about to get shot.”

“I think the film we’re talking about,” I said, “is ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ American prisoners of war in Korea are brainwashed by Chinese psychologists and one of the Americans is eventually programmed to kill a presidential candidate to help bring communist pawns into power in the US.”

“Yes! That was it!” Shelly said. She kissed me on the cheek. “I knew you would know it. It was really your kind of film. Wasn’t that a hilarious movie?”

I struggled not just for words but also to figure out what I wanted words to say.

“‘The Manchurian Candidate’ wasn’t a comedy, Shelly,” I said.

“Yes it was,” she said.

“No it wasn’t,” I said.

“Yes it was,” Shelly said. “Everyone in the theater was laughing.”

“Was your fiancé laughing?” I asked.

Shelly thought for a second. “No. But he never laughs at anything,” she said.

“It really wasn’t a comedy,” I said. “In fact, the film was so serious that for many years it couldn’t even get released.”

“It was a black comedy,” Shelly said. “You know, like ‘Dr. Strangelove.’”

“No,” I said. “It was just a drama.”

“You’re teasing me,” Shelly said.

“I wish I could have been sitting next to you in the theater,” I said. “Were you the only person laughing?”

Everyone was laughing,” Shelly said, again. “It was a comedy. You must have seen it when you were in a grumpy mood.”

“Maybe the whole world was in a grumpy mood when they saw it,” I said.

Shelly hit my arm with the back of her hand. “Oh, you’re just one of those people who can’t admit when you’re wrong.”

Okay, this conversation went on all the way to Evanston, but you get the gist of it. And this seems like a perfect place to end the story, with Shelly—convinced that ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ was a comedy [!!]—telling me that I couldn’t admit when I was wrong.

I can’t put into words how much I admire self-assurance. I mean, I am almost never certain about anything so when I meet people who are wildly confident about their beliefs—even when their beliefs are bizarre—I can’t look away.

Sometimes when you can’t look away you see things that are, at least, fun.

Shelly was nuts, but she was quality nuts. And fun.

I admired that combination a lot. I’ve tried to make it a goal for myself.

Quality nuts and fun.

I’m nowhere near as good at it as Shelly was, but, you know, I’m trying to get better at a lot of things and that stuff is high on my agenda.


Incidentally, this business of mistaking serious movies for comedies goes beyond just Shelly. Over the years, I’ve met quite a few young people—including a few who were cinema students—who believed passionately that Steven Spielberg secretly intended for ‘Schindler’s List’ [!!] to be viewed as a dark comedy, like ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ They even defend their stance, citing this or that aspect of the production design of the film.

The belief is so bizarre that I want to smile about it, but it’s so nuts—so low-quality nuts—that I can’t even take it seriously enough to be amused by it.

But I thought I’d mention it in passing since it’s on topic and I might want to come back to it someday.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Litter Box Story

Is this story what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day? Is it a piece of writing inspired by an actual day but then pleasantly embellished? Is it carefully crafted and completely fictional?

One Degree Of Richard Brautigan

Some years after Andy Warhol survived being shot by a young woman he worked with, he was asked if the shooting caused him to make any big changes to the way he lived. Warhol said the biggest change happened against his will and caused him quite a bit of trouble. He said that since the shooting whenever he finds himself talking to a woman with wild eyes he starts feeling nervous, suspicious, fearful. It’s a big problem for him, Warhol said, because women with wild eyes are the only women he enjoys talking to.

I’ve never been shot, but more than once I’ve had odd but seemingly innocuous—possibly even humorous—situations unexpectedly click (like a hammer falling against a cartridge) and explode around me (like gunpowder igniting) with an end result that left me feeling shell-shocked and something very much like wounded.

I’ve never given up on the wild eyed girls, though.

One of the first such situations—but by no means the first—happened in that same era when I met Del Close, but just before I moved into my north side apartment.

I took my friend Joanne from the McKinley Park tennis club to one of the parties my show biz wannabe friends threw every weekend.

This Friday it was at Martha’s house. [Martha In The Overall Scheme Of Things, Martha And The Alchemy Of Doors, Martha And The End Of The World Working, Dead Monkeys. Swimming Pools. Movie Stars.]

Martha lived with her parents in the entire first floor of a big, three-story old house up near Lincoln Park. Her parents were out of town for the weekend and had specifically told her no parties, but she had been planning the party since the previous weekend.

By typical party standards, the place was huge. There was a living room in front, a dining room, a big kitchen, a utility room, laundry room, a few bedrooms, a back porch and a back yard. Oddly, there was only one bathroom.

That damn one bathroom would be the downfall of my evening.

Joanne and I arrived a little early and helped set up everything, then we left and drove over to the Century shopping mall and walked around for a while. When we got back to Martha’s house the front doors were open and groups of people were already forming in the living room, the dining room and the back yard.

It seemed like the start of a cool night.

Now, I’d known Joanne for about three or four years, but we’d always gone out either together or as a threesome with our friend Mike. I knew she didn’t hang out with the girls her own age at the tennis club, but she’d always gotten along well with the adults in the club. The show biz wannabe parties were always like mini science fiction conventions—lots of people from just about every age group imaginable, but mostly young adults. If I remember right, Joanne and I were both twenty—she was on her first summer break from college and I had dropped out a few months before.

But Joanne couldn’t find anyone that she enjoyed talking to. We started the party together and whenever one of us drifted away for a soda or snack we always ended up drifting back together again. Every time I got into a conversation with someone else, from the corner of my eye I’d see Joanne nodding and ending a conversation with somebody and I’d drift back to her so she wouldn’t be standing alone.

It wasn’t a bad night because I liked Joanne a lot and I’m happy no matter who I’m talking to so long as I’m talking to someone. So I was very happy spending the party talking to Joanne.

At some point—I don’t remember exactly why—Joanne and I drifted apart for a few minutes and I sort of made the rounds of the house checking up on everything and everybody. When Joanne and I got back together she told me she really needed to use the bathroom.

“Oops,” I said. “You might have to wait a bit. A guy named Victor and a girl named Carly just went in there.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Joanne said. “I really need to use a bathroom. Now. What the hell are two people doing in the bathroom?”

I made a face and motioned with my head for us to move a little away from the dining room. “Some guy and girl are in the back bedroom,” I said. “Victor and Carly are in the bathroom in the tub.”

Joanne’s eyes went wide. “They’re taking a bath?!”

“No,” I said. “They’re in the bathtub doing the same thing the other guy and girl are doing in the bedroom. You know . . .”

Joanne frowned and shook her head. “Oh my God,” she said. “I can’t believe these people. Are these people retards? I need to use the bathroom! Is there another bathroom in the laundry room?”

Joanne walked past me and into the utility room to check the laundry room.

I followed her. “There’s just the one bathroom,” I said. I checked my watch. “I don’t imagine it will be more than, I don’t know, what, fifteen minutes?”

Joanne walked right up to me and for an instant I got the wild impression she was going to kiss me. Or punch me. She put her face up to mine and said, again, “I need to use a bathroom. Right now.”

I tried to think if there was a convenience store nearby. Or how fast we could drive back to the Century shopping mall. But then I didn’t remember offhand where the public restrooms were in the shopping mall . . .

Then, as I thought all that, my eyes were wandering around the laundry room and I got an idea.

“What do you have to do?” I asked Joanne.

“What?!” she asked.

“You know,” I said. “Number one or number two?”

“What difference does it make?” Joanne asked. “I’m not a guy. I’m not going to go in the alley against the garage.”

I took Joanne by the arm and walked her through the utility room and into the doorway of the laundry room.

“I know this is going to sound crazy,” I said. “But all these doors lock and I can stand outside and—”

“I am not going to go in the sink!” Joanne said.

“No,” I said. “No. Look. There’s a litter box and—”

“I am not going to go in a litter box!” Joanne said.

“No, look, there’s the litter box. There’s a fresh bag of litter. There’s a big garbage can. We can change it right away. Nobody will ever know. The litter is absorbent. That’s what it’s supposed to be used for. Look, there are paper towels and—”

Joanne held up a hand. She was frowning and staring at her feet. She looked around and her eyes were very narrow and her face was very red, either with anger or embarrassment or some combination of the two.

Without looking at me Joanne locked the back door of the utility room. I started to lock the front door but Joanne pointed to the kitchen. “You go out there,” she said.

“But you’ll be in the laundry room,” I said. “With the utility room locked nobody in the kitchen will know what’s going on.”

“I want you out of the utility room, too,” Joanne said. “I don’t want you, you know, hearing anything. And I don’t want anyone out there thinking the two of us are in here together like those people in the damn bathroom.”

I started to say something, but changed my mind. “Okay,” I said. “Whatever is best for you.”

So I went into the kitchen and closed the utility room door behind me. I heard Joanne lock it.

The kitchen was empty and I prayed nobody from the yard would start banging on the utility room back door. They could always get into the house through the porch and then come around to the kitchen if they wanted snacks or drinks.

I was mentally working out other contingencies when Martha came into the kitchen. She picked up a stack of paper plates.

It occurred to me that if I wanted to distract people from the utility room door then I shouldn’t stand in front of it because that just called attention to it. Unfortunately Martha was a smart and suspicious young lady and thought the same thing. She looked at me. She asked me, “What are you doing?”

I had worked out an answer to that. I’m not very good at lying so I had prepared a half lie. “My date’s in there,” I said. “She’s fixing her clothes. Something came undone and she’s re-doing it.”

I think, normally, Martha would have seen through me but she was so happy being the real hostess of a party that she just accepted what I’d said at face value. “That happens to everybody,” she said. “Let me know if you need pins or anything.”

I smiled and nodded and Martha left with the paper plates.

I heard the door unlock behind me.

“Okay,” Joanne said. “Now take me home.”

“Do you need me to dump the litter?” I asked.

“No, I did that already. Just drive me home. Now.”

“It’s only about nine o’clock,” I said.

“Listen,” Joanne said, putting her face right in mine again, “I’ve had enough of this party. I want to go home. Now. I want to forget this evening ever happened.”

“Okay,” I said.

We left, saying goodbye just to the people we happened to pass on the way out.

We didn’t talk much on the way home. Mostly Joanne stared out the passenger window.

I’m pretty good at rambling about random topics and that’s pretty much what the conversation was. Me rambling about random things.

“Listen,” Joanne said, interrupting whatever I was prattling on about as we headed south on I-55, “I don’t ever want to talk about this again, okay? What happened tonight, I mean. And I don’t ever want you to tell anyone about this, okay? Not even Mike. Especially Mike, okay?”

“I won’t tell anyone,” I said.

“Tell me you won’t even tell Mike,” Joanne said.

“I won’t even tell Mike,” I said.

Joanne looked at me. “Okay,” she said. Then she looked back out the passenger window and I went back to prattling about whatever came to me.

When we got to Joanne’s house, I parked in front.

“You don’t have to walk me to the door,” Joanne said.

“I always do,” I said.

Joanne sighed and sat back, letting me get out and hurry around and open the passenger side door.

I walked her up the front steps and on to her porch.

“Umm, I know this sounds crazy,” I said, “but, umm, a goodnight kiss?”

Joanne stared at me. In the darkness I couldn’t make out her expression. “No,” she said.

Then all by itself my brain sort of flipped a switch or made a connection or did something unconsciously or whatever because I didn’t think through at all what happened next. Even if I had thought it through I still would have done what I did. And I still would have been totally unprepared for the result.

I said, “Joanne, are you sure you don’t want to kiss me goodnight?”

Joanne said, “I’m sure.” She started to take out her keys to unlock the front door.

“Joanne?” I said.

She exhaled, exasperated. “What?!”

I pointed at her. I said, “You peed in a litter box.”

Even in the dark I could see her eyes go wide. “Shut up!” she yelled.

It is amazing how loud a yell sounds around ten o’clock at night in a quiet south side neighborhood.

Then Joanne yelled, again, “Shut up!” and she charged across the porch and kicked me in the ankle. “Shut up!” she said again, kicking my ankle again. And again. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” And she kicked me again and again and again like some crazy baseball manager attacking a home plate umpire.

She was wearing tennis shoes so it didn’t hurt very much but I’d never really been yelled at by a girl before and I’d never been hit by a girl before and the combination made me kind of dazed. Not just kind of dazed. Getting screamed at and kicked made me actually dazed.

I put my hands on her shoulders and tried to lean my right leg back and away, out of reach of her kicks.

Then the porch light came on and the front door opened up.

Joanne’s mother stood in the doorway. “Joanne? What’s going on out here? Are you okay?”

Joanne spun to her mother and instantly Joanne’s voice sounded perfectly level, perfectly under control, perfectly normal. “I’m okay, Mom. Everything’s fine. Mark and I are just talking.” Joanne turned back to me. With the porch light on I could see her expression clearly. Her eyes got narrow. Like slits. Looking at me but speaking to her mother, Joanne said, “Mark just told me a joke.”

Joanne’s mother stared at us, then turned and went inside. But she left the front door open.

Joanne continued to stare at me. She glanced over her shoulder, I’m guessing to make sure her mother had gone back inside, then looked back at me. I think her eyes got even more narrow. If her eyes had been magic lasers she would have sliced off the top of my head real clean. Then she hauled back and kicked me square in the shin on my left leg. Even from a sneaker that really hurt.

Joanne turned and walked to the doorway. With her back to me, she said, “Good night, Mark.” She went inside and closed the door. I heard the lock click.

I started back to my car. The porch light went off even before I got to the steps.

I hobbled down the steps (like the walking wounded) through the darkness (like gathering unconsciousness) back to my car and drove my shell-shocked self home.

Andy Warhol was shot when he was about to turn forty. I’ll turn forty-eight later this year. Maybe I’ve already lived through the most dangerous years.

Not that it would make any difference.

I am not giving up the wild eyed girls.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My Eric Von Zipper Story

Is this story what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day? Is it a piece of writing inspired by an actual day but then pleasantly embellished? Is it carefully crafted and completely fictional?

One Degree Of Richard Brautigan

In that same era from when I met Del Close, back when I was hanging out with show biz wannabes, one Friday night my friends threw a party in a borrowed apartment just off Sheridan road, right where Chicago turned into Evanston. The idea was to make it easy for both north side people and Northwestern students to come.

Mostly the same people came who always came—show biz wannabes, in my experience, mostly hang out with the same people all the time, commiserating about how hard it is to be “in the business” and compare notes about which part time jobs aren’t as bad as others.

But at this particular party there were three women nobody knew. Although I was only close friends with two or three of the people at the party, I was a wannabe novelist and I always paid attention to people as possible characters so I knew, in passing, who everybody was. But I didn’t know those three women.

They were beautiful. They weren’t just beautiful. They were the kind of really beautiful that normal beautiful women dreamed of being. They were super-model beautiful.

And they spent the party standing by themselves because even the guys with good hair, the wannabe actors, were intimidated by how beautiful the women were. Even the guys who thought they looked like Don Johnson—‘Miami Vice’ was big back then—were intimidated by how beautiful the women were.

I hatched a kind of plan to meet the women.

I worked my way to behind the bar. That got me close enough to the three women so that I could hear what they were saying. As I was passing out cans of beer or pouring vodka and orange juice into glasses, I listened to the women talk.

They were talking about who they thought was the sexiest man on the planet. They very quickly agreed that they thought the sexiest man on the planet was Harvey Keitel.

Now even back then I was a cinema buff so I knew who Harvey Keitel was. He was this guy. A Brooklyn guy who made a lot of European films. Gruff and quiet looking. Tough looking. Always plays cool characters. I knew who he was.

But you know how sometimes in our brain we get a wire crossed? You know how sometimes in our mind we connect one name with another person? You know how sometimes you mistake one person for someone else because something about their names is similar?

Well, that night at the party that happened to me.

When I heard the name “Harvey Keitel” I instantly connected the name with the person of actor “Harvey Lembeck.” The guy in the middle of this picture.

Now, they’re both ‘Harvey’ but that’s about all they in common.

The actor Harvey Lembeck is famous for playing the role of Eric Von Zipper in the old Beach Party movies, famously called the world’s oldest juvenile delinquent. He was a slapstick character who always spoke in a silly Brooklyn accent even though he was leading a motorcycle gang around the beaches of California.

So there I am behind the bar listening to these three magically beautiful women talking about who they think the sexiest guy in the world is and I think they say the actor who played Eric Von Zipper.

So I think to myself, wow, it’s true what they say, really beautiful women do have their own standards for judging men . . .

So I think to myself, well, I know I’m not Clark Gable, I’m not going to win any good looks contests, but I think I can live up to the physical standards set by Eric Von Zipper!

There’s this thing about me—if my thinking is clear about something then I don’t have a lot of worries. If I understand—or think I understand!—a situation then I am very comfortable diving in like an Olympic diver relaxing and testing out a new board.

And that’s what I did.

I just walked around the bar, walked up to the three beautiful women and smiled and said, “Hi. You know, those old beach party movies were pretty cool, weren’t they? They don’t make films like that any more. Fun films. Somebody should make fun films like those beach party movies.”

Then there was a moment. Like you drop a coin that lands on edge and sways as it rolls before deciding whether to fall heads or tails. There was one of those moments.

The three beautiful women looked at me and they kind of glanced at each other then they all smiled and nodded and said, kind of all together, “Yeah, those beach party movies were cool!”

And we all started talking about beaches and movies and vacations and surfing and California and just about any other topic we could derive from beach party movies.

Their names were Shelby, Shelly and Jay-jay. (Yes, I later used their names in the Green Sweater story [pt. 1 and pt. 2 and pt. 3]) Shelby and I would become friends. I got to know Shelly a little. I never got to know Jay-jay much at all.

This is what happened with the Harvey Keitel thing.

About two weeks after that party, Shelby and I were going to spend a Friday night in, renting a movie and making root beer floats. So Shelby and I went to a neighborhood movie rental store—this was in the days before Blockbuster—and as we were walking around looking at tapes, the TVs in the store were showing clips of up-coming releases. One of the clips was of a film starring Nastasha Kinski and Harvey Keitel. As I walked past the screen, I looked up and saw a freeze frame of Harvey Keitel with the text label of ‘Harvey Keitel’ under it.

‘Harvey Keitel,’ I thought.

And then it hit me.

Harvey Keitel was Harvey Keitel, not Harvey Lembeck.

In an instant—like some kind of movie visual effect—in my mind I flashbacked to the party and I realized the three beautiful women had said nothing at all about Harvey Lembeck, nothing at all about beach party movies, and I had walked up to them and started talking about beach party movies . . .

My stomach twisted up into a knot and for an instant I thought I was going to throw up.

But then Shelby walked over to me and took my arm and pulled me over to the new release wall and my brain—all by itself!—somehow said to my terrified, conscious self, “Hey, there’s no reason for the fox to be afraid of the guard dog when the fox is already inside the hen house!”

And instantly my stomach unknotted and don’t think I even thought about my bizarre mix-up again that night.

But I never forgot it, either. And I’ve never forgotten the bizarre, silly-ass farm metaphor [!?] my brain somehow came up with in the clutch to stop me from freaking out about my mix-up.

That night Shelby and I took home a movie called, “The Stunt Man.” It’s a very cool film about how sometimes even when things are exactly what they seem to be, sometimes they are, at the same time, too, nothing at all like what they seem to be.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Just Got Back From Feverville, Kansas

I was sick over the weekend.

I don’t get sick all that often. I have allergies and blood sugar issues, but the last time I remember getting actually ill was back in February, last year. [Why Catching A Cold Makes Some People Cuter ]

Early last week, however, I began to notice a scratchy, sore throat. I didn’t pay much attention to it because I felt okay. Up until late Friday afternoon.

At some point late Friday afternoon it was like—BLAM—it was as if a demented symphonic prog musician slammed me in the back of the head with a hammer and kidnapped me to Feverville, Kansas.

I don’t know what my temperature was Friday because at that time I didn’t have a thermometer, but I started to alternate between being freezing and being hot, with dizzy wrapped around both. So, just before sundown I put a towel around my neck, put on two shirts over that, and crawled under my blankets.

The whole night I tossed and turned, sometimes drifting off to sleep, mostly not, mostly just tossing and turning. And the whole night, in my mind’s ear, I was listening to Kansas, playing “Point of Know Return.”


A couple of weeks ago, I used the word ‘roundabout’ a lot, as in, ‘I sometimes talk in a roundabout way.’ That made me think of the cool old song, “Roundabout,” by Yes. So I looked around the net and I found a very cool site that streams, for free, a lot of old classic rock songs.

Technically, it’s a progressive rock site.” — You click on the letter of the band you’re looking for, scroll down and select the particular band, and then scroll down past the ads and the chatter to a selection of songs. You just click on the song you want to hear and the site plays it for you.

So, for much of the last couple of weeks I’ve found time every day to listen to “Roundabout” at some point or another.

Toward the end of last week—right before I got really sick—I noticed that the site considered Kansas to be progressive rock as well, and it considered “Point of Know Return” to be symphonic progressive just like “Roundabout.” I’m not sure I agree with either of those assessments, but I kind of like “Point of Know Return” so I listened to that a couple of times.

Then I got sick and the song was kind of, in my mind, stuck on play. So I had to listen to it in my mind’s ear all the time I had the fever.

Friday night was the worst.

Saturday morning I got up—eventually—feeling a little better but still kind of dizzy. I showered and walked to the local grocery story for a lot of fresh vegetables and chicken breasts. I also bought a thermometer.

Most of the day Saturday my temperature stayed around 99.7 and 99.9. I never broke a hundred on the thermometer, but I sure would have liked to have had the thing to measure my temperature during that weird Friday night.

Saturday night I slept more soundly.

Sunday morning I woke up feeling much better, feeling almost normal. I took my temperature and it was smack on 98.6.

So Sunday I took things easily and ate mostly healthy meals.

My temperature has stayed down and I’m feeling even better today. I’m still coughing now and then, still sneezing now and then, but no more chills or hot flashes, no more dizzy.

And, as I type this, I’m listening to “Roundabout,” not “Point of Know Return.” I am back from Kansas!

I feel like I’ve been away for a week!

Friday, April 18, 2008

If Beethoven Were A Fish

If Beethoven were a fish
and he lived in a fishbowl
would he play a piano
in a ceramic castle
by a plant in the gravel
at the bottom of the bowl?

If Beethoven were a cloud
drifting right above my house
would the thunder make music
and would I stop and listen
to the rumbling melody
the cloud was playing for me?

If Beethoven were my heart
would you lean against my chest,
press your ear against my skin,
and listen to the rhythm
of the symphony my blood
pumping through me played for you?

If Beethoven were us both
would our comings and goings,
our meeting and not meeting,
be the music he composed,
would we know we were dancing
to music he played for us?

If Beethoven were a fish
and he lived in a fishbowl
would he play a piano
in a ceramic castle
by a plant in the gravel
at the bottom of the bowl?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

One Degree Of Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan killed himself in 1984. I was twenty-four and had never met him. However, in a six degrees of Kevin Bacon way I did once get to one degree away from Brautigan.


When I was in my very early twenties I had a job doing general office work for a company on Wells street in Old Town.

One day at lunch I was standing in a bookstore (I think it was a Barbara’s bookstore, but I don’t think they’re there anymore ) reading a new release Richard Brautigan book. Yes, in those days not only could you find Brautigan books in bookstores but they were often stacked up in the front. I don’t remember which book I was reading, but I think it may have been the already released “The Tokyo-Montana Express.” (If it was, it fits today’s post nicely, but I have no memory at all of which book it was.)

The bell over the bookstore’s front door jangled and I glanced up without really caring and looked back to my reading. But then I looked up again. Del Close was walking into the bookstore.

I and all my friends were entertainment business wannabes so I recognized him instantly. My first thought was, “Whoa, I’m in the same bookstore as Del Close.”

I wanted to be a novelist so it wasn’t a big deal to me personally, but all my friends were performance types so for me to be in the same bookstore with Close gave me a story that would trump any of their stories for a while, even if my story didn’t have a hook or any content or a cool ending.

So I just went back to my reading.

A few moments later a shadow fell across what I was reading. I looked up and Del Close was standing in front of me pointing to the book in my hand.

“Richard Brautigan. Are you a fan?” Close asked.

I said I was.

“Did you ever meet him?” Close asked. “Do you know what he’s like in real life?”

I said I’d never met him, but from reading interviews with Brautigan and from what other writers have said about him, my impression was that Brautigan was pretty much exactly the way he portrays himself in his poetry and stories.

Close took a long pause and told me that it was dangerous to try and judge writers by what they write. He told me that anyone who is good with words can present any kind of image of themselves that they want, even in interviews.

“Have you ever met Brautigan?” I asked.

Close said he’d met Brautigan once, at a party in California.

“You’ve met him,” I said. “What’s he like in real life?”

Close took another long pause, then shrugged. “Brautigan was impossible to figure out,” Close said. He said he’d talked to him for quite a while, but said he couldn’t get any kind of handle on him at all. “Normally when you talk to someone at the very least you can get a feel for whether they’re straight or gay. But with Brautigan I couldn’t even get any indication of his sexuality.”

I pointed out that I didn’t think Brautigan had ever written a gay love scene and that even the odd heterosexual scenes in “Willard and His Bowling Trophies” were driven by the odd story and the characters themselves were uncomfortable in the scenes.

Close shrugged again and told me again that you can’t really judge anyone by anything they write.

“Well, you’ve met him,” I said, again. “If you had to guess, what would you guess Brautigan was like in real life? Like what he portrays, or different?”

Close took another long pause—he was a very satisfying person to talk to because he really seemed to be into the conversation. “If I had to guess,” Close said, “I’d guess Brautigan was exactly as he portrayed himself. But then I wouldn’t take my guess very seriously.”


Other people have said similar things about writers. John Gardner someplace or another explicitly told readers his writing voice was nothing like his real life persona. And Harlan Ellison was reasonably close friends with writer Philip K. Dick (they were close enough once or twice to go to a garbage dump together and shoot rats) but after Dick’s death Ellison said someplace or another that he’d never figured out if Dick’s esoteric personality was the real deal or a writer posturing.


In the decades since Brautigan’s death, I haven’t read of anybody “setting the record straight” and publishing any tell-all revealing Brautigan to be anything other than the way he described himself.

I assume Brautigan was pretty much the way he portrayed himself.

But every now and then I have some doubts.

For instance, the novel “Sombrero Fallout” never explicitly mentions chaos theory but the content could be construed to be quite allegorical. And Brautigan was once writer-in-residence at MIT when such research was getting talked about. [Correction: He spent some time at CalTech when such research was getting talked about. Sorry! -- Mark, 04/18/08] And although the novel never really explains its own title, a ‘sombrero filter’ is an engineering term for a type of transformation or processing that changes at a distance from a center, just as the violence did in the novel.

It is possible that Brautigan’s writing—which appears so simple, so minimal, so much like the literary equivalent of a Gwen John painting—may in fact have been carefully thought out and very carefully crafted.

I don’t know. But now and then over the decades I’ve wondered.


Today I’m going to post a whole story from “The Tokyo-Montana Express.”

Now, I first read this story something like twenty-five years ago. But hardly two or three days go by when I don’t think about one or another aspect of this story. Of all the things Brautigan has written, I’m not sure why this story has sort of taken up residence in my brain, but it has.

People who know me probably could come up with one or two reasons, but that would only be guessing!

I’m not going to analyze this story because that spoils the fun for people reading it for the first time. However, this story is interesting to read more than once in light of Del Close’s warning about judging writers based on their writing. The more times you read this story, the easier it is to suspect that there might be more going on than meets the eye.

Is this story what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day? Is it a piece of writing inspired by an actual day but then pleasantly embellished? Is it carefully crafted and completely fictional?

If I were guessing I’d say this story is exactly what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day. But I’m a writer, too. I don’t take my guess all that seriously.

Anyway, here is my favorite passage written by my favorite author:

No Hunting Without Permission
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

October 21, 1978: Yesterday I didn’t do anything. It was like a play written for a weedy vacant lot where a theater would be built one hundred years after I am dead performed by actors whose great grandparents haven’t even been born yet. If I were keeping a diary, yesterday’s entry would have gone something like this:

    Dear Diary: I put up a no hunting sign today because tomorrow is the first day of hunting season and I don’t want some out of state hunters driving a station wagon with Louisiana license plates to stop and shoot a moose in my back yard.

I also went to a party. I was in a shitty off-angle wrong mood and said the same five boring sentences to forty different, totally unsuspecting and innocent people. It took me three hours to get around to everybody and there were very long pauses between sentences.

One sentence was an incoherent comment about the State of the Union. I substituted an obscure California weather pattern in place of a traditional Montana weather pattern to use as a metaphor about inflation.

What I said made absolutely no sense whatsoever and when I finished nobody asked me to elaborate. A few people said that they needed some more wine and excused themselves to go get some, though I could see that they still had plenty of wine in their glasses.

I also told everybody that I had seen a moose in my back yard, right outside the kitchen window. Then I did not give any more details. I just stood there staring at them while they waited patiently for me to continue talking about the moose, but that was it.

A man I told my moose story to said, “Was that the same moose you told me about yesterday?” I looked a little shocked and then said, “Yes.” The shocked expression slowly changed into one of serene bewilderment.

I think my mind is going. It is changing into a cranial junkyard. I have a huge pile of rusty tin cans the size of Mount Everest and about a million old cars that are going nowhere except between my ears.

I stayed at the party for three hours, though it seemed closer to a light-year of one-sentence moose stories.

Then I went home and watched Fantasy Island on television. As a sort of last stand spiritual pickup, I called a friend in California on the telephone during a commercial. We had a very low-keyed conversation during the commercial. He was not really that interested in talking to me. He was more interested in doing something else.

As we struggled through the conversation, like quicksand, I wondered what the first thing he would do after I hung up. Maybe he would pour himself a stiff drink or he would call somebody interesting on the telephone and tell them how boring I had become.

At one point toward the end of our thousand-mile little chat, I said, “Well, I’ve just been fishing and writing. I’ve written seven little short stories this week.”

“Nobody cares,” my friend said. And he was right.

I started to tell him that I had seen a moose in my back yard but I changed my mind. I would save it for another time. I did not want to use up my best material right away. You’ve got to think of the future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Something Strange Here, Something Almost Magical

Today’s post and tomorrow’s post will make up a kind of free-form, disconnected diptych.

I say disconnected because I’ve been feeling kind of unhinged lately . . .

Today is the last day of my first two years of blogging. Tomorrow will be the first day of my next two years of blogging.

These two days will be long excerpts from writers I like a lot.

In fact, tomorrow will be my favorite passage from my favorite author. People who know me [‘People who know me’ ?! ] probably can guess what author appears tomorrow. But I bet they can’t guess what book my favorite passage comes from.

Today’s post will be an excerpt from an obscure novel by science fiction great Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke died last month. I wanted to do a post about Clarke last month, but back then I had Other Things on my mind. (I still have those same Other Things on my mind but I’m forcing myself to work around them.) I’m glad I waited because this post fits perfectly as my last post of two years of Impossible Kisses.

When I was very young, like in fifth or sixth grade, for a while I only read three fiction writers, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

Even back then I realized Heinlein was a little odd and wrote with a kind of restrained madness. Nobody who read a lot of Heinlein was shocked when the rumor got around that Charles Manson was a big fan of “Stranger in a Strange Land.”

Asimov in many ways was the opposite of Heinlein. Asimov wrote with an odd kind of detachment and his characters all lived with a strange kind of detachment. This made for a kind of warm, human sweetness in such novels as “The Robots of Dawn,” but it was still an odd way of writing about odd characters.

Arthur C. Clarke was always the most balanced of the three.

Clarke certainly had his own oddities. I think it was even clear to kids reading him that he wasn’t, so to speak, as fond of women as was, say, Robert Heinlein. Clarke’ (okay, the rumors always were that he lived in Sri Lanka because over there nobody cared if a grown man lived with young teenage boys) lead to some unusual novels written with an unusual combination of enthusiasm and cynicism.

The excerpt today comes from a science fiction novel that isn’t so much about science as it is about lost friendship, lost love and the bittersweet moments and bittersweet memories that shape a person’s whole life as that life goes on . . .

But today’s quote isn’t about any of that.

Today’s quote is Impossible Kisses material.

One of the young boys in the novel (this is Clarke writing, after all) begins a hobby with pentominoes. These are very real things and all the stuff Clarke writes about them is true.

I’ve never been a pentomino buff myself, but I’ve seen them and once I wrote some programs about them. People who know me [them again!] know I can sometimes be a little obsessive [okay, I’m going to pause for a second to let those people who know me roll their eyes and say ‘sometimes’? ‘a little’?] and pentominoes are things that people can get obsessive about so I was always on my guard.

But the young boy in the novel witnesses a bit of real world magic as a friend of his dives into the very deep waters of the amazing shapes:

For a long time, Duncan stared at the collection of twelve deceptively simply figures. As he slowly assimilated what Grandma had told him, he had the first genuine mathematical revelation of his life. What had at first seemed merely a childish game had opened endless vistas and horizons—though even the brightest of ten-year-olds could not begin to guess the full extent of the universe now opening up before him.

This moment of dawning wonder and awe was purely passive; a far more intense explosion of intellectual delight occurred when he found his first very own solution to the problem. For weeks he carried around with him the set of twelve pentominoes in their plastic box, playing with them at every odd moment. He got to know each of the dozen shapes as personal friends, calling them by the letters which they most resembled, though in some cases with a good deal of imaginative distortion: the odd group, F, I, L, P, N and the ultimate alphabetical sequence T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.

And once in a sort of geometrical trance or ecstasy which he was never able to repeat, he discovered five solutions in less than an hour. Newton and Einstein and Chen-tsu could have felt no greater kinship with the gods of mathematics in their own moments of truth.

It did not take him long to realize, without any prompting from Grandma, that it might also be possible to arrange the pieces in other shapes besides the six-by-ten rectangle. In theory, at least, the twelve pentominoes could exactly cover rectangles with sides of five-by-twelve units, four-by-fifteen units, and even the narrow strip only three units wide and twenty long.

Without too much effort, he found several examples of the five-by-twelve and four-by-fifteen rectangles. Then he spent a frustrating week, trying to align the dozen pieces into a perfect three-by-twenty strip. Again and again he produced shorter rectangles, but always there were a few pieces left over, and at last he decided that this shape was impossible.

Defeated, he went back to Grandma—and received another surprise.

“I’m glad you made the effort,” she said. “Generalizing—exploring every possibility—is what mathematics is all about. But you’re wrong. It can be done. There are just two solutions; and if you find one, you’ll also have the other.”

Encouraged, Duncan continued the hunt with renewed vigor. After another week, he began to realize the magnitude of the problem. The number of distinct ways in which a mere twelve objects could be laid out essentially in a straight line, when one also allowed for the fact that most of them could assume at least four different orientations, was staggering.

Once again, he appealed to Grandma, pointing out the unfairness of the odds. If there were only two solutions, how long would it take to find them?

“I’ll tell you,” she said. “If you were a brainless computer, and put down the pieces at a rate of one a second in every possible way, you could run through the whole set in”—she paused for effect—“rather more than six million, million years.”

Earth years or Titan years? thought the appalled Duncan. Not that it really mattered...

“But you aren’t a brainless computer,” continued Grandma. “You can see at a glance whole categories that won’t fit into the pattern, so you don’t have to bother about them. Try again.”

Duncan obeyed, although without much enthusiasm or success. And then he had a brilliant idea.

Karl was interested, and accepted the challenge at once. He took the set of pentominoes, and that was the last Duncan heard of him for several hours.

Then he called back, looking a little flustered.

“Are you sure it can be done?” he demanded.

“Absolutely. In fact, there are two solutions. Haven’t you found even one? I thought you were good at mathematics.”

“So I am. That’s why I know how tough the job is. There are over a quadrillion possible arrangements to be checked.”

“How do you work that out?” asked Duncan, delighted to discover something that had baffled his friend.

Karl looked at a piece of paper covered with sketches and numbers.

“Well, excluding forbidden positions, and allowing for symmetry and rotation, it comes to factorial twelve times two to the twenty-first—you wouldn’t understand why! That’s quite a number; here it is.”

He held up a sheet on which he had written, in large figures, the imposing array of digits:

      1 004 539 160 000 000

Duncan looked at the number with satisfaction; he did not doubt Karl’s arithmetic.

“So you’ve given up.”

NO! I’m just telling you how hard it is.” And Karl, looking grimly determined, switched off.

The next day, Duncan had one of the biggest surprises of his young life. A bleary-eyed Karl, who had obviously not slept since their last conversation, appeared on his screen.

“Here it is,” he said, exhaustion and triumph competing in his voice.

Duncan could hardly believe his eyes; he had been convinced that the odds against success were impossibly great. But there was the narrow rectangular strip, only three squares wide and twenty long, formed from the complete set of twelve pieces.

With fingers that trembled slightly from fatigue, Karl took the two end sections and switched them around, leaving the center portion of the puzzle untouched.

“And here’s the second solution,” he said. “Now I’m going to bed. Good night—or good morning, if that’s what it is.”

For a long time, a very chastened Duncan sat staring at the blank screen. He did not yet understand what had happened. He only knew that Karl had won against all reasonable expectations.

It was not that Duncan minded; he loved Karl too much to resent his little victory, and indeed was capable of rejoicing in his friend’s triumphs even when they were at his own expense. But there was something strange here, something almost magical.

It was Duncan’s first glimpse of the power of intuition, and the mind’s mysterious ability to go beyond the available facts and to short-circuit the process of logic. In a few hours, Karl had completed a search that should have required trillions of operations, and would have tied up the fastest computer in existence for an appreciable number of seconds.

One day, Duncan would realize all men had such powers, but might use them only once in a lifetime. In Karl, the gift was exceptionally well developed; from that moment onward, Duncan had learned to take seriously even his most outrageous speculations.

Arthur C. Clarke

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Alone In The Dark

“Did you have a nightmare? My mommy says that there’s nothing to be afraid of in the dark.”

“Your mother’s wrong, kid. Being afraid of the dark is what keeps most of us alive.”

So, maybe you’re thinking I’m an asshole, scaring that kid for no reason. But I’m just trying to protect him. You see, there’s a world around you that you’ve trained yourself not to see. Call it paranormal, supernatural, occult, whatever. But inside all of us is an uncontrollable fear of the dark. Kids are told it’s irrational but it’s not. Fear is what protects you from the things you don’t believe in. I learned the truth a long time ago. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it can’t kill you.

‘Edward Carnby’

I love stuff like that.

I love movies that have a premise that may be very silly but the filmmakers treat the premise very seriously. “Alone in the Dark” has a pretty darn silly premise but everyone making the movie took it pretty darn seriously—even the flubs and weird behind-the-scene bits. More on those later.

Alone in the Dark” is loosely based on a videogame. I’d never played the game—or even heard of it—when I saw the movie so I had no idea what to expect when I sat down in the theater.

Now, this movie often appears on lists of the worst movies ever made. And Wikipedia reports some net review site gives this movie the second worst rating ever. I wouldn’t argue with any of those negative reviews.

But I watch the movie two or three times a year and have fun. I’m not exactly sure why, but today I’m going to take a guess.

I think I enjoy this movie because of what it could have been . . .

Alone in the Dark” starts out as a kind of X-Files type thing. The hero is an agent or ex-agent for some government agency that investigates unusual happenings. Very quickly, however, the movie introduces its own kind of zombies. Then there’s a beautiful, smart woman scientist. Then there are monsters that look like fierce little dinosaurs. Then there’s an evil mad scientist. Then there are high-tech soldiers always rappelling down from helicopters and bursting in through ceilings with their guns blazing . . .

This movie—for a monster movie buff like me—is like one of those boxes of assorted chocolates where you lift the top and see a mixture of every kind of candy you like. This movie has it all.

The trouble, however, is that the movie doesn’t do much with any of what it has!

It’s got the building blocks of a great story, but no great story. And not a lot of great moments, even. There are almost no scenes of the mad scientist confronting people and engaging in monologues about his plan. The hero and the beautiful, smart woman scientist have only one quick love scene and then share almost no quiet moments looking longingly at each other. The monsters almost always appear in quick cuts killing minor characters.

Strangely, almost bizarrely, the movie is full of long, long scenes of guns blazing away with glow-in-the-dark bullets.

The net discussions I’ve seen resolved that the director built the movie around the long, long gunfight scenes because they give the film the ‘look and feel’ of a videogame.

Watching the DVD, I just fast-forward through the gun battles.

So, “Alone in the Dark” has lots of great elements, it has the building blocks of a movie I would love, but there’s no real pay-off. The building blocks are never built into anything.

But I think I enjoy watching the movie, still, because I can imagine cools scenes, I can imagine cool side stories that never appear but could have. The mad scientist scenes. The hero and the beautiful, smart woman scientist scenes. The hero confronting the monsters scenes.


Beyond the actual content of the film—or lack of content, as the case may be—“Alone in the Dark” is famous among monster movie fans for a couple of absurd production details.

The beautiful, smart woman scientist is played by actress Tara Reid. Now, in real life Tara Reid is not famous for being particularly bright or for being a particularly good actress. The production team on “Alone in the Dark” didn’t give Tara much help. For her role as a beautiful, smart scientist they just gave her a white lab coat and a pair of glasses and left her on her own.

Tara Reid goes through the film giving people what appear to be intended as ‘significant’ looks that come off as almost awesomely empty, blank stares. And, very noticeably, she is at one point supposed to say “Newfoundland” and instead of pronouncing it “new'funland” she pronounces it “new found' land.” Even though the director and editor didn’t catch it and re-dub it, Tara Reid gets all the blame.

Perhaps most bizarrely, on the director’s commentary track the director—a German guy named Uwe Boll—spends about five minutes ridiculing Tara Reid for not taking off her bra during the film’s love scene. He calls her an American prude and eventually gets around to saying she is ‘idiotic’ for taking off her clothes in bars but disappointing her fans by keeping on her clothes in the movie. Now, anyone who even glances at the celebrity news shows knows that not long before the movie went into production—if I have my celebrity gossip correct—Tara Reid suffered a horribly botched cosmetic surgery session that disfigured her breasts. So, this director had such poor relations with his cast, he was so disconnected during filming, that he never spoke with his lead actress enough to discover her serious, personal reason for wanting to not get naked on the big screen.


So, that’s my post about “Alone in the Dark.”

I can watch this film again again—regardless of how bad it is—because it has all the elements of a great film. For me it becomes a participatory movie experience—I imagine good scenes, good side stories, good moments . . .

That’s not much. But it’s better than nothing. And it’s better than most of the new films that come out these days!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Three Recent Monster Movies (Plus One)

Last Tuesday I rented the new remake of “Day of the Dead.” Random people bickering pointlessly and lots of high angle shots looking down on a small Colorado town being over-run by rampaging zombies. Last Friday I watched a pre-release DVD of “Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem.” Random people bickering pointlessly and lots of high angle shots looking down on a small Colorado town being over-run by rampaging monsters from outer space. Also last Friday one of the high, digital channels on our cable system was playing the movie, “30 Days of Night.” Random people bickering pointlessly and lots of high angle shots looking down on a small Alaska town being over-run by rampaging vampires.

Yech! Talk about cookie-cutter movie making. I suspect next week a movie called “Laundromat Shadows” will be opening up. It will be about random people bickering pointlessly and have lots of high angle shots looking down on a small Kansas town being over-run by rampaging mutant washing machines that can only complete their wash-rinse-spin cycle if their mechanisms are pumping fresh human blood . . .

Listening to the commentary track on “Day of the Dead” we learn there is a pre-existing (that is, already paid for!) set of a typical small US town available at some Bulgarian studio where production costs are very low. So, there you go, we get lots of movies filmed cheaply in Bulgaria and set in small town America . . .


I don’t recommend any of those three movies.

I only saw a few minutes of “30 Days of Night” but what I saw looked so dumb and ill-conceived that I switched off the TV and read a Crichton novel.

Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem” was also without any redeeming features. I did watch it all the way through, but I fast forwarded through a lot. No good monsters. No good characters. No good anything.

Steve Miner’s remake of “Day of the Dead,” however, did have some redeeming things about it. Some of the acting wasn’t too bad. Some of the action wasn’t too bad. But it had none of the interesting conflict and drama (and art?) of George Romero’s original. And it had none of the stunning visuals of Zack Snyder’s pretty good remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” Steve Miner has a long history of making reasonably stupid films that have odd, sometimes intriguing performances. “Lake Placid” was awful but the acting was weirdly interesting. And “Deepstar Six” had some of the stupidest scenes ever in an ocean monster film, but it had really great stuff from actor Miguel Ferrer slowly freaking out until his head, literally, blows up.


But all these bad movies got me thinking about bad movies in general and bad zombie films in particular and there is one really bad zombie film I want to recommend even though every other review I’ve seen says it is worthless.

After Zack Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead” made some money, some production company that owns the rights to Romero’s titles released an amazingly low budget movie called “Day of the Dead 2 – Contagium.” This movie has no connection to Romero and no connection to Romero’s “Day of the Dead” and no connection to the current remake of “Day of the Dead.” (Zombie movie titles and their sequences and relative worth can drive a monster movie buff batty.)

However, “Day of the Dead 2 – Contagium” has some redeeming things to it. Enough, in fact, to make me remember the movie fondly. The special effects were pretty awful, there was basically one set and almost no action, but the actors seemed to really put out a little effort to bring their characters—so to speak—alive.

The movie presents itself not really as a typical monster movie. The movie presents itself as telling the story of how the original zombie outbreak occurred within the classic Romero zombie mythos.

The whole movie takes place within a mental institution and the whole story is simply about half a dozen patients talking about why they’re there, what they’re thinking and feeling and what their hopes for the future are. One of the patients randomly finds a thermos that contains secret government gunk that turns people into zombies and, of course, the gunk gets out and slowly, one by one, the mental patients become zombies and start infecting others.

But the movie—as low budget and obscure as it was—gets a little ambitious and tries to add to the Romero zombie mythos, suggesting there is an ‘original generation’ of zombies, those first half dozen or so mental patients, who became zombies but retained their rationality and ability to speak. Some reacted to their new zombie state by, well, embracing it and becoming mad zombies while others tried to fight the ‘infection’ and may have come up with a treatment. The movie ends in classic zombie fashion with the infection getting out of hand and spreading before anybody can do anything about it.

In many ways, this is my favorite kind of movie. It was made with virtually no money. It was probably shot in just a few weeks. But someone on the production team cared enough about what they were doing to try and create something a little different, something with a little value to it mixed in with the low budget schlock.

It’s very easy to give up on movies completely and stop watching all of them. I know a lot of people who have done that. After watching the three movies that I mentioned at the top of this post—well, two movies plus a couple of scenes from a third—I was very tempted to swear off movies for a while. But then I remembered “Day of the Dead 2 – Contagium” and I sighed, and then I remembered another awful monster movie that didn’t even have the redeeming features of “Day of the Dead 2 – Contagium” but which I still had fun watching and I sighed again and I didn’t swear off all movies.

It would be easier to do that, to just give up on movies. But there are some oddly good things getting made, and there are some bad things getting made that are—almost magically—still fun to watch.

I’ll talk about that other movie, the one that is bad with no redeeming features but is still fun to watch, tomorrow or later in the week.