Archive for October, 2009


Jackson biopic receives mixed reviews

“This Is It” (not to be confused with The Strokes’ album “Is This It”), which apparently chronicles the storied career of late pop legend Michael Jackson, was released today.

When I first saw the trailers and posters pasted about on billboards and in shopping malls, I was fairly disgusted.

michael-jackson-this-is-it-movie-poster“Here we go again,” I thought, “Any way to make a buck.”

But perhaps the filmmakers’ goal was an admirable one— to recognize and honor the legacy of one of the great 20th-century entertainers.

I suppose we’ll never know for sure, but what we do know is that the film has received mixed reviews— perhaps appropriately, as the man himself had a polarizing effect on people, especially as his appearance changed and he was accused of child molestation.

One reviewer said the film “doesn’t have enough revelatory, caught-on-the-fly footage of Jackson to raise it above the level of a well-produced DVD extra.”

Another reviewer commented, “As an exercise in wringing every last penny from Jackson’s legacy, the movie may be a success. But if you’re looking for a tribute to the man who once took pop to its absolute zenith, this most certainly isn’t it.”

On the other hand, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers gave “This Is It” 3.5/4, writing, “… the film still feels vital and thrillingly alive. In this transcendent tribute to a performing artist flying without a safety net, death holds no sway over Michael Jackson. His soul is still dancing.”

One thing is certain: the film is more a tribute than a true documentary, as critics agree that it leaves out some of the more unsavory points in Jackson’s saga. They differ on whether that’s a good thing.

The film currently has an 80/100 on criticism aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and a 67/100 on Metacritic.

Don’t expect me to review it, though. I’m not sure I’d be able to listen to Jackson’s music while sitting still.


CN Column 10/9/09: The Spoils of the Internet Age

The otherworldly howling of killer aliens surrounds me. I reload my plasma cutter, a mining tool I have cleverly deemed a suitable weapon in the fight against intergalactic space zombies. I panic as a mutated form drops from the ceiling to the foreground of the screen, startling me out of my media-induced lull. I blindly fire the ten remaining rounds into the growing horde; eventually I’m relegated to using the futuristic tool as a bludgeon, and am quickly overwhelmed. The screen spatters with digitally-rendered blood, and the game returns me to my last checkpoint.

It’s okay, I have more lives—but I’m getting bored.

I sheathe my brother’s Xbox 360 controller and head back into my bedroom. I pick up my unsullied copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses—I’m in the midst of my third crack at the beast—and get through about a dozen pages before losing my concentration somewhere in the dense, allusive prose.

I wander upstairs to the fridge, pull out a wedge of processed cheese, and wince at the subtle, unsavory tinge of chemicals on the tongue. I swallow reluctantly. Even junk food, part and parcel to my 220-pound, BMI-of-32 existence, has lost much of its appeal.

I rummage again through my brother’s collection of a dozen or so gored-up, hyper-violent video games. Bioshock? Played it. Fallout 3? Played it. Gears of War? Copy that. With my experience, you’d expect me to be capable of taking on any brawny post-apocalyptic foe with the tenacity of a latter-day Rambo—provided I’d found myself a suitable weapon. In truth I’ve never fired anything other than my pneumatic .177 caliber pellet gun, and if I could kill a squirrel with the thing, I’d amaze even myself.

Einstein, Tesla, Edison, et al. would quail at the technological power contained within the quarter of a cubic foot of the modern video game console, and there I was, bored to tears with the whole affair. Maybe I’m outgrowing my love for interactive media here in my first post-university year, but I very much doubt it.

I, along with so many of my peers, suffer, I think, from a sort of Internet-induced ADD, a curtailing of attention span as computers and Blackberries introduce a new level of convenience into many aspects of life.

I can have Stop and Shop deliver groceries to my doorstep; I can do my Christmas shopping without so much as putting on an undershirt, God forbid; and semi-reliable information on just about anything, from quantum physics to the poetry of Pablo Neruda to the latest episode of Lost, is quite literally at my fingertips, just a couple clicks and a few keystrokes away (maybe I should look up some summaries of plot and theme for Ulysses—then again, I’m no cheater).

But I am not alone. Anyone who shells out the $40 or so per month it costs for high-speed Internet has this power, and all of us, in a way, suffer a little bit for it.

My youngest brother, who has literally grown up with the informative power of the Web, splits his free time between inane YouTube videos of tittering preteens and the less-visceral sports games.

Over the summer, I grew tired of passing through the living room and seeing him on the couch watching reruns or playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for hours on end. I approached him with battered old copies of three books I had read and enjoyed at his age—Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.”

He looked at the pictures on the front of each book—without so much as reading the plot summaries on the back—and handed them back to me, saying (and I wish I were making this up), “Take them away.” As Han Solo would say, “Yes, your righteousness.”

Mark Twain appeared to me in a dream later that night, imploring that I avenge the affront with a swift kick to my brother’s rear. OK, that part I made up.

It seems to me that this attention deficiency grows with each younger generation. I grew up on 56k dial-up Internet, when it took 20 minutes to download one song from Napster (remember Napster?) and instant-messaging was a breakthrough fad. I don’t have it that bad. I still prefer a paper over Internet news and music on vinyl over lo-fi mp3s.

But just as the last World War II veterans are mourned and the Vietnam generation renews their AARP memberships, Generation Z will have more and more access to more and more information, and it will only become harder to filter out the crap.

Neil Postman’s hypothesis in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” is that the future predicted by Aldous Huxley in “A Brave New World” is closer to experiential reality than Orwell’s forecast in “1984.” Postman’s hypothesis seems truer now than it may ever have been.

Orwell feared people who would ban books, Postman argues, but Huxley feared there would be no reason to ban books as no one would want to read them. Orwell feared we would be deprived of information; Huxley feared information would be “drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

“… In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us,” Postman wrote.

And Huxley couldn’t have been more right.

And here’s the inspiration for that column (no I never read the Postman book; I don’t even know how to read). All credit to Stuart McMillen and Recombinant Records.



CN Column 10/30/09: Violence Threatens Universities’ Didactic Goals

The recent stabbing death of starting UConn cornerback Jasper Howard is a testament to the violent tendencies of over-rowdy students and campus visitors who heinously threaten to destroy the notion of the university as a safe haven, a marketplace of ideas and a place of enlightenment.

Howard’s death hit home for me as a UConn alum; when I read the headline splayed above the fold in last Monday’s Republican-American, the cycle of my emotions was as follows: anger, more anger, and then a disheartening feeling of vague familiarity. Then I realized that I wasn’t surprised.

I spent two years of my UConn career living off campus, and one of those years was passed at Carriage House Apartments, unit 17D. The combined cost for me and my three roommates to rent the two-bedroom, townhouse-style apartment was a whopping $1,750 a month (since increased)—a hefty price tag when you consider that the complex resembles a housing slum more than the gated community the rent checks suggested.

In August 2006, three locals were stabbed (non-fatally) not 500 feet from the doorstep of the apartment I would move to a year later. It seems UConn students and area residents who stop by for the party are developing a penchant for stabbing one another.

Of course, by the time I moved in to the complex, the police presence had been stepped up on Carriage House Road, ostensibly to prevent future violence.

But that didn’t do much to change my living situation, other than to make me feel like I was a suspect under surveillance.

We had the good fortune of living next to the rugby team, a club team at UConn notorious for its hell-raising, no-holds-barred partying. A typical Monday night (hell, any night) consisted of lying awake until at least 2 a.m. as they practically brought the house down, blaring one of, oh, three songs in their impressive repertoire—AC/DC’s “She Shook Me All Night Long,” and Guns and Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Paradise City.”

During the day, they would drag their furniture into the front lawn and drink, regardless of date or time, and holler at passersby, occasionally with a megaphone. A friend of my roommate visited once and never came back, as they threatened him and teased him about his weight as he came and went. Occasionally their parties would deteriorate into fights on the lawn. Bottles were broken anew every day. Before long, their screen door was gone, and a panel from the solid front door was bashed in. All night long, and especially on weekends, we had to turn up the TV extra loud to compete with what sounded like heavy construction (or demolition) and raw, animalistic howling next door. I can’t imagine they saw their security deposit when their lease was up.

Most mornings I would wake to find what little lawn furniture we owned scattered across the yard, bent and twisted from the force of drunken abuse. We started bringing it in at night, as though we were expecting a storm.

On one occasion, one of our neighbors’ many frequent visitors knifed through one of our window screens and tossed in an industrial-strength sulfur bomb (sold in hardware stores and used to smoke rodents from their holes). Had we not been downstairs, we might have been killed. We reported him to management, and he was banned from the premises. But, of course, he came back—and assaulted one of my roommates.

To say nothing else of our neighbors, another of my roommates was jumped at one of the houses down the block—he accidentally (and, admittedly, drunkenly) wandered in to the wrong apartment and left moments later when he discovered his mistake—but he was still attacked by at least three men, kicked while he was down, beaten to a pulp.

But I suppose the incidents themselves mattered little except for their psychological effects. I’ll be the first to admit I was almost always afraid of being the next victim of some act of random violence. I spent the year in a haze of existential anxiety so potent I could barely sleep, even when the zoo next door had quieted down.

And that’s not the kind of community a university should tolerate, even if it is on its fringes.

I’ll admit that my experiences were relative cakewalks in light of Howard’s death, but I think these examples all are illustrative of a larger point—that we now live in a world where even our universities, which are supposed to nurture innovation and creativity, which should foster learning and uncommon ideas, are literally teeming with violent, sociopathic drunks and, as last Sunday’s killing suggests, outright murderers.

I normally hesitate to take this curmudgeonly, “its-all-going-to-hell-and-in-a-jiffy” tack, but sometimes I just can’t help it. To quote Sherriff Roscoe Giddins in the Coen brothers’ “No Country For Old Men,” “It’s the tide. It’s the dismal tide. It’s not the one thing.” Tommy Lee Jones, as Sherriff Ed Tom Bell, nods and answers, “Not the one thing. I used to think I could at least some way put things right. I don’t feel that way no more. … I don’t know what I do feel like.”


CN Column 10/23/09: Coming to Terms with “American Ennui”

On Columbus Day, I had the distinct displeasure of reading a syndicated op-ed entitled “Let’s Take Back Columbus Day” by Thomas A. Bowden, a legal analyst at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C. and author of “The Enemies of Christopher Columbus.”

In his essay, Bowden contends that the “modern view of Columbus represents an unjust attack upon our country and the civilization that made it possible.”

This so-called modern view is the factually-grounded (though, worded as such, unfairly melodramatic) conclusion that Columbus “opened the way for rapacious European settlers to unleash a stream of horrors on a virgin continent …”

First of all, to downplay the suffering inflicted upon the native peoples of the Americas is, quite frankly, nothing less than a travesty, and the first among many indications that Bowden is writing from a significantly ethnocentric point of view.

A sensible way, I think, for Bowden to have defended against this post-modern stance would have been to point out that before European settlers arrived in the Americas, Native Americans were continually embroiled in brutal wars with one another over land and precious resources—and settlers only followed their lead when they came and took that land by force and coercion.

But Bowden only mentions Native American warfare in the context of the unfathomable claim that America and the West, by demonstrating how “wealth can be created in abundance rather than stolen by armed force,” ahem, “supplied a moral alternative to the bloody tribal warfare of past eras.” In reality, the West’s “moral alternative” amounted to forced cultural assimilation, the wholesale theft of entire continents, and ironically, even more ruthless and deadly warfare. Our industriousness, our “creation of wealth in abundance,” came only after the subjugation of millions.

Bowden goes on to insult Native American cultures further by claiming that Westerners invented intellectual reason and “liberated humanity from mysticism’s grip.” This might be the most ironic claim of all.

Before the birth of Western civilization, Bowden writes, “people believed animistic spirits or capricious deities had supernatural powers to cure diseases, grow crops, and guide the hunter’s arrow toward his prey. To get the attention of these inscrutable spirits, people resorted to prayer, ritual, taboo and human sacrifices, relying always on the mystic insights of shamans and priests.” Sounds suspiciously like modern religion to me. Okay, maybe not the part about human sacrifice.

But what do Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. do when they want to get the attention of their respective supernatural deities? They pray. They pray for the abatement of disease, the well-being of loved ones and the success and longevity of their livelihoods. And they do so under the guidance of priests and other shamanistic religious leaders.

Ritual and taboo, as well, are part of our daily lives, irrespective of faith. Anyone conversant with elementary principles of anthropology and the social sciences know this point is indisputable.

Bowden’s suggestion that Western reliance on reason, technology, science, etc. somehow “liberated” the native peoples of the New World and the barbarian tribes of middle-history Europe is truly laughable. I would never contend that the Native Americans lived an idyllic life, as many apologists might. No culture ever enjoyed a utopia, and to suggest otherwise would be the real joke. But I do believe that indigenous peoples had a right to progress at their own pace and in their own manner. Instead, they were literally forced into a Western way of thinking (just research assimilation schools for Native American children in the 19th century) and herded like cattle into their own little quarantines where they could practice their fickle superstitions at leisure. We call them “reservations.”

But I have reservations of another kind about the blind patriotism fostered by the likes of Bowden and his camp. I am by no means unpatriotic—I take as much pride in this nation as anyone else—but I have come to terms with the faults of our forebears and, as a man American-born and -bred, accept it as part of what I’d call “American Ennui,” the collective melancholy we experience as we reflect upon the more unsavory points in our history. Slavery, warfare, botched diplomacy—these all contribute, and I’m willing to bet an analogous feeling exists in almost every culture humble enough to look back honestly on its mistakes.

Rather than recognizing the tragedies of the past and accepting them as an unfortunate part of his heritage, Bowden denies their gravity, and illogically insists that Columbus and the age of European exploration is somehow a historical proxy to the integrity and success of John Locke and the Founding Fathers, writing that as a result of Western civilization, which Columbus so nobly introduced to our hemisphere, “… individuals were recognized as possessing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—rights that made slavery indefensible and led to its eradication … these are the facts that we are no longer taught, and the measure of that educational failure is the disdain with which Columbus’s holiday is regarded” in the United States.

Funny, I remember spending a great deal of time learning about Locke, the Founding Fathers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and that truly earth-shattering idea of inalienable rights. My teachers were good enough not to try to connect these concepts to Columbus, an imperialist (and an Italian, at that!) who was arrested in 1500 for his barbaric torture of indigenous peoples.

Our children need to understand that those inalienable rights we justifiably hold so sacred were never extended to the original inhabitants of the Americas. And the missteps of our forefathers will always be a part of our national conscience, whether we choose to accept them as such or not.


CN Column 10/16/09: Obama’s Baptism by Fire

“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. It’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving…”

—Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz, “Apocalypse Now,” 1979

Years ago, when I first heard Brando’s deranged delivery of this iconic line in the second scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal, nightmarish vision of the Vietnam War, I shivered with fearful apprehension. Though Brando doesn’t appear onscreen until the final act, this line precipitates his delirious, hypnotic characterization of the rogue colonel in a palpable way.

The line comes to mind this week as President Barack Obama slithers along the edge of his own straight razor of partisan approval as he faces some of the gravest foreign policy decisions of his young administration.

When Obama emerged on the national stage at the start of his campaign in early 2007, many were won over quickly by his wit, elegance and charm—qualities which cater well to diplomacy and electioneering, but which have little to no bearing on whether a politician is capable of delivering real, measurable results.

And in these past few weeks, we may have been getting a glimpse of what Obama is really made of, as his administration struggles to reach a definitive decision about a troop increase in Afghanistan.

The decision of what to do about the conflict there needs to be made swiftly and confidently. Whether Obama and his advisors decide the Taliban and al Qaeda are not a sufficient threat to sustain further occupation or that the additional troops should be sent, they must act now. By delaying a conclusion over days or even weeks, the president is effectively selling our soldiers-in-country down the river—as indicated by last Sunday’s deadly attack on two remote U.S. outposts, in which eight Americans were killed. The violence really rang true when U.S. Army Capt. Benjamin Sklaver of Hamden, Conn. was killed during a patrol the previous Friday.

I’m not saying these or other attacks could necessarily have been prevented by a larger military presence. But I am saying the president needs to decide what real value the Afghanistan conflict has to Americans and act—and I do mean act—accordingly. Either give our servicemen and women the support their ground commanders say they need, or get them the hell out of harm’s way. It’s that simple.

And if Obama wants to be consistent, he should remember the decision he made in February when he allowed an influx of 17,000 additional troops to the region at the behest of Army Gens. David Petraeus and David McTiernan.

Obama and his advisors have been reported as saying the U.S. military needs to focus on training Afghan security forces and assassinating al Qaeda leaders. A skilled politician and diplomat Obama may be—but a keen military strategist? I think not. We should trust the commanders who are in the thick of the war and who have spent their careers in the military to know what exactly the best strategy is.

What’s really holding the administration back? I think the president is trying to salvage some of his declining approval ratings by withholding support for an unpopular war. But really, the only ones who suffer because of this decision are our troops on the ground in Afghanistan, who face decreasing odds as the death toll rises and an indecisive president sits on Capitol Hill, twiddling his thumbs.

Now, as any who knows me could attest, I am probably the direct opposite of a war hawk. But I believe common sense should reign, and this situation has reached a point where the president needs to take a big step back to reevaluate his purported objectives so he can reach a good-conscience conclusion that benefits Americans and, most importantly, protects the interests of our troops-in-country.

The conflict in Iraq has so disenchanted many of us that we easily forget that in Afghanistan, unlike in Iraq, we are fighting a clear enemy who aims for nothing less than global jihad. This enemy was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the diabolical murder of almost 3,000 innocent people that day, most of them Americans. Hundreds more were killed in al Qaeda attacks against Yemen and at a U.S. embassy in East Africa in the ‘90s. It’s only a matter of time before they orchestrate another deadly strike against the U.S—if they are left unchecked.

In the last scene of “Apocalypse Now,” Capt. Benjamin Willard, vividly portrayed by Martin Sheen, hacks Brando’s Kurtz to pieces, punishing him for his insidious crimes. The film, like the novel upon which it is based, is a study of man’s war within himself, a war we all wage day by day in our own hearts.

We should all hope the outcome in Obama’s heart is a conclusion that is strong and distinct—and one which protects the interests of our nation and the world at large by sustaining the fight against the coldblooded, senseless violence perpetrated by a lawless band of religious extremists.