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Friday, October 28, 2005

D'ya hear about . . . ?

On Friday, 10/28/05, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Donald Trump was ticked when he saw an advanced copy of a biography about him by Timothy O’Brien. The paper reported, “The Donald gave the scribe considerable access to his boardroom, but it turns out O'Brien was more interested in the bedroom.” The paper said Trump was particularly annoyed about “a chapter claiming Trump had an affair with actress Robin Givens, the lantern-jawed ex-wife of heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.”

Billy Crystal recently appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to discuss his book 700 Sundays. Publishers Weekly reports, “Reading the book version of comedian Crystal’s Broadway solo show can be initially off-putting. The jokes he uses to warm up his audience (on why Jews eat Chinese food on Sunday nights, his complaints about his circumcision, the nasal pronunciation of Jewish names, etc.) are distinctly unfunny on the page. But once Crystal is finished with shtick and on to the story of his marvelous Long Island family, readers will be glad they can savor it at their own pace. There’s the story of Crystal’s uncle Milt Gabler, who started the Commodore music label and recorded Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” when no one else would. Then there’s the Sunday afternoon when Holiday takes young Crystal to see his first movie at what later became the Fillmore East. There’s even Louis Armstrong at the Crystal family seder, with Crystal’s grandma telling the gravelly-voiced singer, “Louis, have you tried just coughing it up?” At the heart of these tales is Crystal’s father, the man who bought his little boy a tape recorder when he announced he wanted to be a comedian and didn’t scold when he recycled off-color borscht belt routines for family gatherings. Crystal’s dad worked two jobs and died young, so they had maybe 700 Sundays together — but how dear they were.”

President Jimmy Carter recently appeared on Larry King Live to discuss his latest book, Our Endangered Values. Publishers Weekly reports, “After several books on spirituality and homespun values (most recently Sharing Good Times), President Carter turns his attention to the political arena. He is gravely concerned by recent trends in conservatism, many of which, he argues, stem from the religious right’s openly political agenda. Criticizing Christian fundamentalists for their “rigidity, domination and exclusion,” he suggests that their open hostility toward a range of sinners (including homosexuals and the federal judiciary) runs counter to America’s legacy of democratic freedom. Carter speaks eloquently of how his own faith has shaped his moral vision and of how he has
struggled to reconcile his own values with the Southern Baptist church’s transformation under increasingly conservative leadership. He also makes resonant connections between religion and political activism, as when he points out that the Lord's Prayer is a call for ‘an end to political and economic injustice within
worldly regimes.’ Too much of the book, however, is a scattershot catalogue of standard liberal gripes against the current administration. Throwing in everything from human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib to global warming, Carter spreads himself too thin over talking points that have already been covered extensively.”

As King Kong once again hits movie theaters, the 1933 version of what the Philadelphia Inquirer calls a “landmark film” has finally come out on DVD. The Inquirer reports: “Offered in both a standard and a more lavish collectors’ edition with extra bonuses, King Kong comes in a handsome restoration that does justice to its resourceful black-and-white photography.

Even though we are jaded by dazzling special effects today, the 1933 RKO movie, codirected by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, is still mighty impressive. You can still feel what must have absolutely stunned the audience at the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

A remarkable retelling of the fable of Beauty and the Beast, King Kong works because it creates sympathy for the great ape even while he is on the rampage. The erotic frisson that culminates with Kong clutching Fay Wray as he bats away biplanes from his perch on the Empire State Building is one of the most iconic scenes in all of movies.

The documentaries that accompany the film recount the immense labor and ingenuity that went into its creation, from the dreamlike production design to the breakthrough use of stop-motion photography.”

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Casual Critic — Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea

Writing a novel to espouse a literary line of theory or criticism doesn't seem like a very good idea to me. And while literary folks much more serious than I would no doubt scoff at my review of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, and probably rightly so, this book did little for me. That is with the possible exception of depressing me.

Antoine Roquentin is horrified by his own existence. The French writer keeps a diary of his life, depicting himself and those he encounters in such a way that literally makes him nauseous. He fails to find refuge in a lost love, and ultimately attempts to find a fresh start.

While Sartre plays with some interesting concepts, and the journal-style text has offered me pleasurable reads in other novels, this novel just never pulls the reader in. It can't. The first-person narrator is our eyes and ears through this world, and he pretty much hates everything and everyone — including himself.

There is an element of history that approaches interesting. Roquentin is attempting to write about Marquis de Rollebon, a French aristocrat who was involved in politics during and after the French Revolution. Like everything else, Roquentin begins to think working on the book is worthless, and begins to question whether or not Rollebon ceases to exist if everyone just forgets about him.

The problem is Sartre's attempt to offer up Existentialist thought presumably as worthwhile is far too prevalent in the story. I googled "existentialism," and I found the following at
Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. Unfortunately, life might be without inherent meaning (existential atheists) or it might be without a meaning we can understand (existential theists). Either way, the human desires for logic and immortality are futile. We are forced to define our own meanings, knowing they might be temporary.

I would imagine this theory lends itself to doomsayers more than upbeat, positive folks, eh? There, of course, is room for the latter, but Sartre rarely if ever glanced that way.

Then again, Nausea won the 1964 Noble Prize in Literature, so maybe I'm just an idiot. Read this one at your own peril. It may just broaden your horizons.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Casual Critic — Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle

Tillie Olsen writes in a style that reminds me of the camera direction of shows like NYPD Blue — jumping in and out of scenes, grabbing the heart of the scene, and moving on. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it leaves the reader a bit behind, in her short-story collection Tell Me a Riddle.

The opening story, "I Stand Here Ironing," is the best of the collection. A mother mulls over the request of her daughter's teacher to discuss the troubles her daughter is having in school. Of course the mother knows her daughter's struggles. The prose floats through the pages the way a real person remembers, and, sadly in this case, regrets the past.

"O Yes" shows its readers how early the realities of race relations impact us. Two young girls, once best friends, see themselves losing each other as the black family and white family head in different directions. As she does throughout the collection, Olsen never wavers from what are often harsh realities in this story.

"Hey Sailor, What Ship" examines the toll of alcoholism on the addicted and those around him. I definitely could have used a bit more explanation to understand the relationships here. There was just too much put on the reader.

"Tell Me a Riddle" looks at the fate of aging we all face. Overwhelmingly sad, the story is very strong. The cruel realities of becoming an elderly person are never shied away from here. Occasionally, the prose left me a touch lost, but nothing that hurt the story too much.

Olsen is a voice I'm guessing few casual readers like myself have come across before. Tell Me a Riddle isn't a page-turner, but at the very least will broaden your horizons.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Casual Critic — Live 8

It had been years since I had turned on MTv intentionally, let alone left it on. But, this summer I was compelled to check out Live 8, the 20-years-later sequel to Live Aid going on in my own hometown. Disappointed by annoying commentary of MTv (are they still called VJs?) hosts trying desperately to strike a balance between being hip-hop and career oriented, I went online and finally caught a glimpse of what the internet can be.

Jumping from Philly, to London, Tokyo, Beirut, and the four other concerts to catch live performances was, not to sound like a rapidly-aging geek, very cool. It kept me online for a couple hours, only taking a break under the assumption that concerts would be going on all that day. Not only was I disappointed to see it wind down early, I was shocked not to be able to return days later to watch any performance I wanted.

Yes, of course, I knew they'd be selling a DVD. Why do you think I wrote a review? But, c'mon! Leave the performances up for a while. I must admit I didn't look real hard when I checked the site on which I had watched the live performances, but . . . should I have really had to?

Anyway, here's what I did see that was worth mentioning:

· Bob Geldoff offered up a decent, but predictable, opening speech. The most memorable moment came when he introduced a now thriving young African woman that Live Aid saved, by his account, minutes before she starved to death.
· Seeing Jon Bon Jovi back in front of a band wasn't as strange as I thought it would be. I'm already used to seeing the guy in the owner's box at Philadelphia Soul games with the Arena Football League. They weren't bad at all.
· Madonna proved she's still Madonna, dropping the F-bomb for no particular reason. Her gesture to keep the young African woman on stage as she sang, while well-intended, quickly became awkward.
· UB40 and Destiny's child were enjoyable acts I happened to catch.
· Brian Wilson caught my attention because a Beach Boys' album, the name of which I don't recall, was the first I ever owned. His age showed, but he was ok.
· Will Smith, the Philly concert host, was the best of the I acts I saw. He ''does'' Philly better than anyone, and I just like his music.

Of course, despite the great cause, whether or not you would want to watch the DVD depends on how many of the acts you liked. Based only on what I saw online, I'll skip it.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

The Casual Critic — Hockey 2006

The dumbest sport in the world, or at least the one with the dumbest players in the world, returned this week. That's right, after a year of "labor strife" the National Hockey League decided to lace up their skates, work hard, work hard, work hard, and put the puck in the back of the net once again.

OK, so mocking those idiotic clich├ęs doesn't quite work without the special Canadian accent coming through a toothless hockey player's mouth.

The truth is, I'm not really a hockey hater. Hockey's a nice diversion on a cold winter night when the NBA is off and there's nothing good on TV. And playoff hockey can be great to watch even if West Wing's finally about to reveal Jed Bartlett's deep, dark secret. But that's all it is, and all it ever will be.

Die-hard hockey fans are the reason guys like me rip hockey every once in a while just to keep them in their place. They call up sports talk shows every spring when their team makes the playoffs, which is almost impossible not to do, and crow about how the rest of us are missing the best sport in the world.

This is still a sport in which every score seems to shock the hell out of the play-by-play guy. It just revamped their rule book, and most of us still don't get why 9 out of 10 penalties are called. I heard there's a tie-breaker shoot-out, but the loser still gets a point. Huh? A good fight still sends people home happy as much as a win.

But none of that is why hockey is the dumbest sport in the world. It garners that distinction for barely holding on to its less than lofty spot as the fourth major sport, and having players dumb enough to allow an entire season be cancelled because they didn't want a salary cap. Idiots like Jeremy Roenick actually got uppity about it!

He helped reduce the modicum of popularity his sport had, and went around babbling like he was going to educate fans on why we should like his sport. It was like WNBA players prattling on about what a great game they have. There's nothing more pathetic than an overpaid athlete whining because no one likes their sport, as if they have some God-given right to be popular.

Hopefully, NHL players have learned their lesson. Ironically, the hockey video game used to be the only thing on Sega to rival Madden football. It was a quick hit when you didn't have time for Madden, or good for three to four games in the time it took to play one game of Madden. Every once in a while it was worth making a point to play it even if you had time for football. Too bad watching hockey will never be as good.