Monday, April 14, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD" (1934)

Let's test your knowledge of current events. Who spoke the following passionate words?

"The people must be told who their enemies are. The unseen foe who maneuver nations into war. They must know the duplicity of men who profit from human misery and death. [...] As long as munitions stay in the hands of private enterprises, war will always be around the corner."

Was this the keynote speaker at the Libertarian Party Convention? Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Senate floor? An anonymous protestor outside last year's G8 summit? No, no, and no. The correct answer: Claude Raines on a Universal Studios soundstage in 1934. Now do you remember?

Possessing one of the more freakish titles in moviedom, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is an uncompromising anti-war drama, resonating today as a startlingly contemporary attack on the hellish marriage of corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen who create war purely for their own financial gain. If the "Occupy" movement ever holds a film festival, this should be the closing night attraction. 

Paris, 1916. Paul Verin  has dedicated his life to promoting world peace. Always poor, Verin is given the chance to make money when hired to write anti-war editorials for newspaper publisher Henry Dumont-- editorials for which Dumont takes credit. But as the temptation for political power and monetary riches grows, Dumont eagerly sells out to the munitions manufacturers. When Verin is drafted at the outbreak of World War I, Dumont is able to keep him on the front lines, edging him closer to death -- all the while putting the moves on Verin's wife, Adele. Discovering the truth about his former friend, Verin goes AWOL and, in a fit of insanity, turns the movie's metaphoric title into shocking reality. (Hint: the thing he stuffs into a satchel used to rest on Dumont's shoulders.)


Never push a pacifist to the brink.
Told in flashback as Verin confesses to a lawyer, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head is a wonderful showcase for Claude Raines, only his second movie since his star-making turn in The Invisible Man. Blessed with a mellifluous voice and eyes that can register love, loathing or madness when called for, Raines gives his anti-war dialogue, as the one quoted above, a resonance that holds up even better today than it did in 1934. A committed pacifist, Verin proclaims, "Give me a child's mind for the first 12 years of his life and I'll sweep war from the face of the earth." As my daughter can affirm, my goals are a little different. Give me a child's mind and I'll fill it with old movies, unfunny jokes, and the collected writings of Charles Krauthammer. I think we know who'll turn out better.


"At least I'm taller than your husband."
As usual, nobody plays the slick villain like Lionel Atwill as the murderously duplicitous Henry Dumont. Bad enough he uses Adele to guilt-trip her husband in trying to sell out his beliefs for financial gain. Dumont then tries to get Verin killed on the battlefront so he can have his way with her. But what's really shocking is how easily Dumont, an expert at mob psychology, manipulates the idiot masses into following whatever line he happens to be peddling. Call it the Rush Limbaugh Syndrome.

Like Men Must Fight from a year earlier, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head blames cynical power brokers for wars. The difference is, however, here we actually see those madmen plotting their war aboard a luxury liner. One of them, the manufacturer of chemical gas, appears to have second thoughts:

BUSINESSMAN #1: I hate to think of all that blood being spilled. My dear countrymen -- I   wonder just what is the duty of patriotism?
BUSINESSMAN #2: And you're the man who makes liquid fire!
BUSINESSMAN #1: Well, what good is it? The peace conference banned it.
BUSINESSMAN #3: Oh, they'll forget all their silly scruples once the first shot's fired!
  
Chess game of the damned.
Their silly scruples. Things get uglier when we learn that these "patriotic" men are selling weapons to the enemy through a dummy corporation in Switzerland. To their disappointment, they realize this could lead to the destruction of their munitions plants with their own weapons -- and, unfortunately for them, end the war. It's up to Henry Dumont -- who has sold each of them them stock in his publishing company at 5,000 francs a share -- to give some sage advice regarding "a general understanding to conserve all our natural resources." In other words, he explains, corner the market on oil and drive up the price, creating a handsome profit for all concerned. No way this really happens, right?


I first saw The Man Who Reclaimed His Head when it was run as part of a horror movie show on local television. I'd never heard of it, but the title, cast, and year of production certainly sounded promising. Around the 20-minute mark, I realized I was watching something far different than what was promised. As the years passed, I looked out for it again, but it seemed to have disappeared into movie heaven. Only a week ago -- after roughly 40 years -- I discovered it on YouTube. Having become more cynically aware to the ways of the world, I was stunned to see how ruthlessly, depressingly honest a movie it was. And although there isn't a werewolf, invisible man or electrically-revived corpse in its 82-minute running time, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head truly is a horror movie -- one that continues to play out in real life every day.

                                                        ******************** 

To read about Men Must Fight, click here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

WARREN'S PIECE (OF THE PIE)

Anyone with cable knows that the news networks are chockful of important things to report. For CNN, it's an airplane that's still missing. For Fox, it's to let you know that despite the Tea Party's best efforts, President Obama hasn't been impeached -- yet. And as for MSNBC... well, they're just propping up the rotting corpse otherwise known as The Ronan Farrow Show.

So you'll excuse them for not finding time to tell you about the latest bold move by America's favorite billionaire, Warren Buffett. As Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader reported last week:

Clothing company Fruit of the Loom announced Thursday that it will permanently close its plant in Jamestown and lay off all 600 employees by the end of the year. [...]
State Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, confirmed the plant manager called him Thursday afternoon with the news.
"Terrible sad day for people in Russell County," Hoover said. There was no warning of the plant closing, he said. Layoffs will begin in June.

The company, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway but headquartered in Bowling Green, said the move is "part of the company's ongoing efforts to align its global supply chain" and will allow the company to better use its existing investments to provide products cheaper and faster. The company said it is moving the plant's textile operations to Honduras to save money.

Naturally the company -- or, rather, Warren Buffett -- needs to save money. I mean, this lousy economy hits everyone, poor and rich alike. Warren Buffett can't be immune, right?

Oh, wait. Let's take a gander at the stock market news as of today (April 10, 2014):

Shares in [Buffett's] investment company Berkshire Hathaway went up 1.7% from yesterday's opening whistle at 12:15 pm to this morning at 9:36 am. That slight change was enough to bump Buffett's net worth up $1.05 billion to $64 billion.

Warren and Jay-Z debate the merits of
raising the minimum wage for their
waitress. The waitress loses.
Hey now! Amazing what a 1.7% bump can do for a fellow. No doubt Buffett's Armand de Brignac Champagne-swilling buddy Jay-Z would approve of such a bold move. Jay-Z did his own share of thinning the herd back in the day when he was dealing smack in what is poetically referred to as the inner city. Still, what's 600 people in a country of 317-million?

"We have about 2,000 manufacturing jobs in Russell County, and this is going to be about a third of them," [said Russell County Judge-Executive Gary Robertson]. "It's going to be devastating to our local economy. Everybody's going to be involved. We in the county will lose revenues. ... We've got a lot of local banks where people who work there have house payments and car payments. It's going to affect everybody in our county and in counties around us."

Payments, shmayments! Warren can't let a measly 600 hard-working Americans get in the way of aligning his global chain, am I right?

In 1998, the company closed its 812-worker plant in Campbellsville, devastating the economy of the south-central Kentucky town; the company offered jobs at the Jamestown factory to 100 of the laid-off workers in Campbellsville.

 OK, so maybe it's a little more than 600 workers who were kicked to the curb over time. But look! Only 712 of those Campbellsville people had to go on the dole. And a quick study of Google Maps tells us there's only about 40 minutes distance between the two towns. That's your average subway commute in New York. (I know, there isn't a subway in Kentucky. But here's a good excuse to build one!) Now, 1998 was 16 years ago, so who the heck knows how many of those 100 transferred workers were still there anyway. I bet they retired to their second homes in Bora-Bora. You can do that when your salary is in the low five figures, can't you?

Still, how do we know that Honduran workers will come any cheaper than Americans? If Haiti is a barometer, I think we already know:

Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables.

Twenty-two cents an hour is quite enough for those ungrateful Haitians, thank you -- even the US embassy agreed! I'm sure our embassy in Honduras will be on the same page.
It's good to know that the Supreme Court was right when it decided that the super-rich aren't a corrupting influence in politics. 

Take a bow, Warren Buffett -- you're putting your $64-billion to good use. Next time you're sharing margaritas with your cousin Jimmy, have one on me. You've earned it the old-fashioned way.

                                                          *****************

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/04/03/3177378/fruit-of-the-loom-to-close-jamestown.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/04/03/3177378/fruit-of-the-loom-to-close-jamestown.html#storylink=cpyOOK, so maybe it's been a little more than 600 over the years.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE BIG SHAKEDOWN" (1934)

Sporting a title more appropriate for a '50s crime picture, The Big Shakedown asks the question: What happens to the bootleggers now that Prohibition's over? Gangster Dutch Barnes, impressed by pharmacist Jimmy Morrell's way with chemicals at the local drugstore, comes up with the brilliant idea of hiring him to manufacture bootleg toothpaste. Desperate times call for desperate measures -- like coming up with a movie that takes the concept of bootleg toothpaste seriously.
 
Soon, Dutch's goons are strong-arming local druggists to buy their product, just like the good ol' days. But perhaps realizing such a conceit would eventually make him the laughingstock of his fellow criminals, Dutch soon orders Jimmy to whip up cosmetic knock-offs. Naturally, the lipstick-happy dames can't tell the difference. Then, instead of making the logical move to, say, pseudo-Brioschi, Dutch decides to go into the medical-supply business, blackmailing Jimmy into creating bogus antiseptics and, eventually, digitalis -- a dose of which causes Jimmy's unsuspecting wife, Norma, to suffer a miscarriage. The moral of the story: toothpaste is a gateway drug.

She's a good actress, but not good enough
for those Bette Davis eyes to hide her contempt.
You just know that ingenue Bette Davis (Norma) was secretly praying for studio head Jack Warner to keel over with a shot of phony digitalis himself for forcing her into melodramatic hooey like The Big Shakedown, roughly her 20th movie in three years. Still a few years away from being treated like the royalty she always thought herself to be, Davis can't completely mask her disgust with the ridiculous script or her milquetoast leading man, Charles Farrell, the kind of actor she'd happily chew up and spit out before breakfast.


"...And next week I want you to make a vat of
interferon, or else!"
However, the ever-reliable Ricardo Cortez plays Dutch Barnes with his usual oily, clenched-teeth style. A well-dressed sociopath, Barnes has no problem flooding the city's hospitals with phony medicine if it means keeping the money rolling in. As Rand Paul would urge, let the marketplace decide what to do with him. 


"How can I be anti-
Semitic if I'm Jewish?"
Made near the end of the pre-code era, The Big Shakedown has plenty of little moments that would never have made it in a movie a year or two later. A dumpy housewife is humorously portrayed as a cough syrup addict. Sidney Miller, Warners' go-to whiny Jewish kid, is obsessed with keeping track of his money. The scientist who eventually shoots Dutch gets away with it because 1) Dutch stole his formula, and 2) Dutch had it coming. In order to further protect the killer, Jimmy dumps the murder weapon into the same vat of bubbling acid where Dutch's body falls. Very Shakespearean stuff.

One gag probably baffles most contemporary viewers. A mousy middle-aged guy enters Jimmy's store and asks for a druggist. When Bette Davis informs him that she's the druggist, the guy gulps and, thinking fast, asks for a bottle of aspirin. Davis smirks knowingly. Audiences in 1934 would have immediately caught the unspoken subtext: the guy had come in for condoms but didn't want to ask a woman for them. Now you can find them at any bodega next to the Milk Duds. I'm not certain we've made progress.


"And I ain't talkin' soda!"

Most unexpected of all is a line of dialogue spoken by the great Allen Jenkins. When informed that the gang is moving from beer to drugs -- pharmaceuticals, that is -- Jenkins misunderstands. "Not me," he replies. "I got a brother doing twenty years for going into the drug business and all they found on him was two decks of coke." There's nothing better than drug references in old movies. Except maybe sex references.

Bootleg toothpaste, Jewish stereotypes, a murderer getting off scot-free, drug humor, cough syrupholics -- it's just another day on the Warner Brothers lot. If not the best pre-code picture, The Big Shakedown is certainly one of the more entertainingly absurd. On the other hand, the next time you visit New York's Chinatown district, stay away from the exotic-looking toothpastes. Many contain diethylene glycol, a substance usually found in, among other things, heating fuel and brake fluid. As least Jimmy Morrell's stuff cleaned your teeth without killing you.

                                              **************

Friday, April 4, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: FT. HOOD EDITION

Responding to the latest fatal shooting at Ft. Hood, President Obama announced new action for handling military personnel in need of psychiatric care.

President Obama told reporters, "As has been noted, the gunman, Ivan Lopez, never saw combat during his four month in Iraq. Clearly, this was a man in need of shooting someone. Had he the chance to put his deranged behavior to good use, this tragedy never would have happened at Ft. Hood. Therefore, rather than spending money to give our troops the treatment they need, I am announcing an initiative to keep all soldiers in combat permanently. There's no point in bringing them home when they're only going to cause havoc here."

Noting that the U.S. was withdrawing from Iraq, President Obama said that troops would be sent to other hotspots throughout the world, suggesting, "Lebanon and Pakistan, for instance. East Africa, maybe Nigeria. And let's not forget Ukraine. Hell, there are at least a dozen countries ready to use the kind of government-sanctioned violence that the United States can provide better than anyone else. It's about time we leveled the playing field." 

In addition to the current troop surge, Mr. Obama announced a new initiative for civilians who have been unable to find work. "Those unfortunate people have been pushed to the point of returning to their previous places of employment and shooting up the place. Well, we're going to put that energy to good use by drafting them into combat as well. They want to go postal, let them do it somewhere else."

Responding to a reporter who reminded the president that the U.S. made a point of staying out of Syria and Libya, Mr. Obama bristled. "You ever hear the phrase 'fluid situation'? What I'm telling Americans now -- and I mean it this time -- if you like your endless wars, you can keep your endless wars."


Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) welcomed the president's remarks. "I'm glad that the president has finally taken my counsel seriously. After suffering years of torture by the North Vietnamese, I look forward to seeing other young men going through that same kind of hell in order to come out as bitter, angry, and near-psychotic as me. Nobody wants to be alone, right?"

                                               ****************

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: GENERAL MOTORS EDITION

On the heels of yet another massive recall by General Motors, Congress is now demanding to know why the automobile manufacturer took over a decade to publicly admit that its board of directors knew there was a problem with the ignition but refused to fix it.

GM spokesman Brad Lanes told reporters, "From the time that the ignition problem was discovered in 2001 until early this past January, there were four CEO's. By then, despite their best efforts, GM officials knew the shit was going to hit the fan. I mean, 13 preventable deaths if we had spent 57 cents per car to fix the damn thing? Who the hell wanted to cop to that? So it was decided by unanimous decision to name Mary Barra Chief Executive Officer. That way, her male predecessors would be vacationing somewhere in the South Pacific smoking Cuban cigars and drinking mojitos while a woman took the heat. Worked pretty well, too. Glad we kept her out of the loop all that time." 

Asked if this was fair of GM, Lanes replied, "Who said life was fair? Look, women are always bitching about 'glass ceilings' and not getting promoted. Well, here you go, gals, how do you like it?"

                                                      *************

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE OVER GENERATION



This week I’m celebrating (if that’s the right word) my birthday. As for my age, let’s say I’m several degrees north of 50. Not coincidentally, I’m also closing in on two years of unemployment, having been laid off from my job after almost a quarter-century of faithful service. My severance ended last August; my unemployment benefits, three months ago. Having been unable to find even part-time work, I look forward to going through the rest of my savings before tapping into my IRA – you know, the thing that was supposed to carry me into my alleged Golden Years — since I’m too young for Social Security. Call me one of those “discouraged” unemployed folks you hear about. Discouraged, angry and scared.
Like a lot of people, I really didn’t pay close attention to the unemployment situation until I was in the thick of it myself. It was only then I started reading the heartbreaking stories of perfectly good workers in their fifties who, like me, were shown the door by middle-managers all apparently sharing the title Executive Vice-President of Keeping My Own Job By Any Means Necessary. After decades as a right-of-center kind of guy, I was shocked to wake up one day thinking, “Oh my God, now I know what Michael Moore has been talking about all this time.”

I’ve known several other people my age in this same situation, only one of whom has found another job. As for the rest – well, one was a player in the advertising game until getting laid off seven years ago at age 55. The first year, he tried to get back into advertising. The second year, he looked for a managerial position. Since then, he’s been willing to do just about anything legal, from retail to stocking shelves at bookstores to working in a mailroom, for a steady paycheck. But employers would rather hire a fresh-faced high school graduate over someone who remembers, say, watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. 

People like us, you see, are “overqualified” – a nice way of saying "over the hill." If you don’t believe me, take a look at the workers at whatever business you walk into today. Very few wisps of grey hair are to be found, and that’s not because there’s been a sudden rush on henna. One woman I spoke to expressed shock that employers would reject me in favor of someone without my track record of reliability, experience and maturity. That she, like all doctors, hires only 20 year-olds as receptionists was an irony lost on her. 

Now, there are worse places to be unemployed than Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where my adman friend and I both live. And we’re luckier than many, being married to women who are gainfully employed with good salaries and who love us. Still, there are those 2:00 A.M. moments when we look at our spouses sleeping soundly that we think This is not what they signed up for.  And for all we know, they’re thinking the same thing when we go back to sleep. Had he been single, my friend most likely would have had to move back with his elderly mother in Atlanta. And I… Well, I don’t know. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a marijuana deliveryman.  It’s one profession where my age would actually work in my favor, since a skinny 58 year-old guy with thinning hair pretty much looks like the last guy you expect to find carrying weed in his backpack. Only by making the mistake of  bringing up the idea to my wife am I still gainfully unemployed.

Rand Paul, the man who would be President, recently came out against the idea of extending unemployment benefits because employers would rather hire someone who’s been out of work four weeks instead of ninety-nine. What the honorable Senator from Kentucky doesn’t take into account is that people my age aren’t getting hired period. Not that I’m asking for a lifetime of unemployment insurance. In fact, it was almost a relief when it ended so that highly-compensated Congressmen just returning from their free “fact-finding mission” in Acapulco could no longer accuse me of sponging off taxpayers. I guess they don’t like anyone else horning in on their act.

The state of New York can create as many tax-free zones as it wants, but it doesn’t change the fact that businesses have gotten used to making more money with a quarter of the workers doing five times the work at the same salary. And the most expensive employees – those who have been there longest – tend to be the first to get the axe. I’m no economist, but I predict if this trend keeps up – and, frankly, why shouldn’t it? -- the next decade is going to see a spike in older people moving in with their adult children, becoming homeless or even committing suicide because they will have no other options.
Meanwhile, members of Congress, more than half of whom are millionaires, will continue to get reelected until deciding to “spend more time with their family” (i.e., collect six-figure speaking fees) or become lobbyists. Now that’s job security.

What is to be done with the over 50’s? My adman friend broached the idea of the government reviving the NRA for us geezers, providing jobs at what we do best, or mentoring young people just getting into the workplace. If I were mentoring a college grad, my advice would be, “Forget your Art of the Middle Ages major. Become a plumber – everybody needs a plumber. They even get paid more than marijuana couriers.” 

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough often cites a poll where only 3% of Americans have a positive outlook on the future of the economy. Optimist that he is, Joe agrees wholeheartedly with the minority. Maybe if I were him, I’d be optimistic, too. Having his kind of salary -- $5,000,000 per annum, according to public court records -- is bound to give you a sunny outlook on life. So sunny, it blinds you to reality.

                                                       *****************

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: MISSING AIRPLANE EDITION

The investigation into the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 took a dramatic turn as investigators announced they were zeroing in a new suspect.

FBI spokesman Brad Lanes told reporters that previous theories, including terrorists hijacking the plane, catastrophic failure or the pilots deliberately going off-course for unknown reasons, have come to naught. "We have to ask ourselves who benefits most from this tragedy. And after eliminating all the usual suspects, only one person remains: Jeff Zucker."

When asked for clarification, Lanes said, "Look at the evidence. Since Zucker took over CNN, both he and the network have become the laughingstock of the industry. He's thrown everything at it but the Muppets to see
what will stick. And still -- nothing. But in the last week, CNN has been 'Airplane Mystery' 24/7. Turn it on any time of day or night and that's all you see. Even a serious Washington correspondent like Wolf Blitzer is engaging in useless speculation with so-called experts. And people are eating it up -- to the point where Anderson Cooper is getting better ratings than Bill O'Reilly. I mean -- what the...?"

Lanes then made the shocking announcement that FBI agents raiding Zucker's home found supporting evidence. "There in his rumpus room was a flight simulator identical to the one used by Malaysian Air's Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, along with a notepad with 'Don't forget the transponder' and '45,000 feet is the sweet spot' written in Mr. Zucker's handwriting."

Agents, Lanes explained, found further, seemingly unrelated clues including a pressure cooker and backpack similar to those used in the Boston Marathon bombing; chemicals used in cloud seeding that may have something to do with the stormy weather this winter; and even a map detailing Russian troop movements in Crimea and Ukraine. All of these news events, Lanes pointed out, boosted CNN's ratings temporarily. 

"It is therefore the FBI's belief," Lanes told stunned reporters, "that Jeff Zucker is behind every major 'breaking news' story of the last year, and will not rest until his network is number one permanently. We have to stop him before he keeps the world in an endless cycle of violence and, worse, tries to revive Katie Couric's television career once again."

                                              *************

UPPER UBER HIP


A newly-minted Upper East Sider
looking for ethically-sourced
coffee served with goat milk.
I can't remember when I was last accused of being hip -- probably because it's never happened -- but that's all about to change. The New York Times reports that the young hipsters are finding domiciles in the Lower East Side out of their reach, and have been forced to migrate to my area, the Upper East Side.  

Ha! After years of looking askance at me during my infrequent visits below 14th Street, suddenly they have no choice but to pack their belongings in their Whole Foods bags and, for the first time in their lives, take the #4 train uptown. In geopolitical terms, they're Crimeans who have been forced to live in Ukraine while yearning to be invaded by the Motherland -- in their case, Brooklyn.
   
The hipsters are already complaining about mothers pushing strollers in grocery stores and how their Lower East Side friends refuse to visit. As to the former, I remind them that this a family neighborhood, which means there are families. And as for the latter -- thank God. I don't want my pleasantly dull neighborhood being overrun by people in Warby Parker glasses, skinny jeans and porkpie hats while smoking Lucky Strikes and arguing over the merits of Infinite Jest vis-à-vis It's Kind of a Funny Story. These are the people who wait six hours in line to see the latest Wes Anderson release, gladly drop 40 bucks for high-grade vinyl LCD Soundsystem albums and secretly want to either date or be Zooey Deschanel. Guess what, kids -- we only get major studio releases up our way, our last record store closed about 15 years ago and Zooey Deschanel only plays a hipster on TV.



No. And don't call me "neighbor."
Then there's their ironic taste in beer. For a while, Pabst Blue Ribbon was all the rage. But recently, Narragansett has been giving it a run for its money. As a native Rhode Islander, I can assure you that Narragansett (or 'Gansett, as the locals called it) was what you bought when you couldn't afford panther piss like Schaefer. I never even tried it until last summer when I was given a sample at a bar. It can best be described watered-down water, possessing the kick of a one-legged mule with polio. If Narragansett Beer was a color, it would be "clear." If it was a movie, it would have been declared missing by the American Film Institute. A bottle of Sam Adams would probably put them in a coma.

Me, February 1984: I was a hipster before it
was hip, goddammit! Note the tres belle drapes
and the unidentified junk in the corner.
Pioneers like me paved the way for these zooey-come-latelys with their Arcade Fire tattoos. I lived on 1742 1st Avenue (between 89th & 90th), apartment 5S, from 1983 to 1989, when anything above 86th was less safe than Kabul is today. (When I told my mother that recording artist Marshall Crenshaw lived around the corner, she asked, "Don't his records sell?") The day my roommate and I moved in, the New York Times ran a front page article about our next-door bodega which doubled a marijuana sales outlet. Welcome to the neighborhood! One morning I went down for some orange juice when the cashier nervously told me the place was closed. Thinking that he meant he was out of weed, I said, "No, this is all I want." The burly gentleman next to me in front of the counter made the situation a little more clear by pulling back his jacket to reveal a holstered gun. Those "freelance graphic artists" moving to my neighborhood would pee in their Pendeltons if caught in a similar situation. For me, it was just another day at the office.


My old block, February 1985. The businesses have
been replaced by, among other things, a winebar,
an organic food store and a Peruvian chicken
restaurant. You're welcome.

As for entertainment, there were no post-modern burlesque shows or online memes to pass the time. All my roomie and I could do was sit on the fire escape on a summer's evening and watch the dealers, hookers and local lowlifes plying their trades. Like the kids who were stealing fruit from the bodega across the street. The woman who ran the place angrily chased them away. One of the junior thieves showed his displeasure by smashing her on the face with a long fluorescent light. That was almost as much fun as when my roommate spent a hot summer afternoon watching a mad dog, barking incessantly with foam dripping from his mouth, run around the block until it presumably either dropped dead or was shot by the police. I don't think the Wilco fans moving to my neighborhood would have known what to make of such a thing. By the way, the rent for our two-bedroom railroad apartment was roughly 800 bucks. Included were the junkies, criminals and winos who hung out in the vestibule, the hallways and the roof (which was littered with syringes). Now it's a steal at $2,395, presumably minus those colorful extras.

Anyone who knew us then would be stunned to learn
that this is the way our kitchen looks now.
Now the only drama you encounter in my neighborhood is trying to find a space during the alternate-side-of-the-street parking days. My daughter can walk back from the subway at one in the morning and feel perfectly safe. This is the kind of thing hipsters find repulsive. But maybe what all this will mean is that some day in the near future, the real estate values here will skyrocket and we can sell our place at a jumbo profit. Then the only people who will be able to move here will be bankers, investors and other assorted yuppies. And echoing from 79th to 96th, across Lexington to York Avenues, will be the hipsters plaintive wail, "Why don't they stay on the Lower East Side where they belong?"

                                                                    *****************

To read the original New York Times article regarding the bodega-cum-drug store where I lived, click here.

And just to prove that anyone is willing to do anything to make a buck, here's an old Narragansett Beer commercial featuring the voices of Mike Nichols & Elaine May:





 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

TIME ON MY SHOULDERS



I think it was caused by
reading the Daily Mail.
Britain's Daily Mail isn't the first new site of choice if you're looking for, well, news. For every legitimate piece of journalism, there are about 50, er, questionable items, often involving the supernatural, weird science and celebrity gossip rejected by the National Enquirer.  Yet once in awhile there comes an article so fascinating that it demands to be read, if not respected. It's almost legally impossible to pass by a headline reading: Could we condemn criminals to suffer for hundreds of years? Biotechnology could let us extend convicts' lives 'indefinitely'.

The first warning sign of any headline is a the question mark. That's the Daily Mail's way of saying, "We're not saying it's true. Somebody's just saying it could be." They could write something like, say, "Was the Grand Canyon a landing strip for ancient aliens?" because some crackpot with internet access put up the theory on a website that happens to be 2,500 links away from the New York Times. (I just made up that headline, but someone's gonna make the claim sooner or later.) But the source the current Daily Mail question-of-the-week is impeccable: 

Sentencing a criminal to 1,000 years in an artificial hell may one day become a reality. At least, that is the claim of scientists at Oxford University who have been exploring controversial technologies that could extend human life.

They say billions are being invested in techniques that could mean the cruellest criminals will be kept alive indefinitely in condition befitting the crime.

Oxford, you say? The institution that gave us smartypants like Stephen Hawking and telescope guy Edwin Hubble? That's good enough for me, even if other grads do include Hugh Grant, Bobby Jindal and Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of Bridget Jones' Dairy, one of the most insufferable movies I've ever sat through.

Now living 1,000 years might not be your idea of fun, although Clint Eastwood seems to be doing OK. But how about experiencing it artificiallyScientist Rebecca Roache, believing some crimes are so heinous that 30 years in the pen isn't enough, says that a psychoactive drug could be developed that would make a prisoner feel he's served 1,000 years in only eight and a half hours. The same effect could be also be created, she says, by uploading the prisoner's mind into computer and running it a million times faster than normal.

The future official song of
Sing-Sing.
Don't ask me how you upload someone's mind to a computer. I have enough trouble attaching pictures to emails. However,  how does releasing murderers from prison after eight-and-a-half hours serve society? If you really really really wanted to punish someone, wouldn't you keep locked up for life with this super-duper Windows system and make it seem like they've been there a kabillion years? (That's not the exact number, but I just spent 20 minutes trying to figure it out on my laptop calculator and gave up in tears.)

Ethics aside -- and isn't that always the case? -- there are far easier, less expensive ways to feel like you've lived 1,000 years. Off the top of my head, I can suggest listening to John Kerry talk about Crimea or waiting for my teenaged daughter to get out of the shower. (That last one might be cheating, however, since I think it really does take her eight-and-a-half hours.) I have no problem giving heinous criminals what-for, so if making them feel like they've lived ten centuries is possible, I can't say I have any objections. But once those Oxford geniuses have created their anti-wonder pill, would it be asking too much to spend billions on improving the lives of the rest of us?

                                                **********************

Thursday, March 13, 2014

GET ALONG, LITTLE BOSSY

Get the bonfire ready!
Until yesterday, I had no idea that the word "bossy" was so foul that there was currently a movement out to ban its use. In fact, I don't think I've heard anyone use the word in about 40 years. According to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, "When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a 'leader'. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded 'bossy'." While she has a point, there's an irony in Ms. Sandberg -- a best-selling author -- encouraging the banning of words.

Ms. Sandberg's movement didn't really take off until this week, when Beyonce jumped aboard the "Ban Bossy" train. The words "strong" and "self-confident" are often used to describe Beyonce; "bossy," on the other hand, would be considered by her friends as completely out of line. However, there are other words associated with her that could be banned "Singer," for one, since she's an unabashed lip-syncher, whether it's at President Obama's inaugural, the Grammy Awards or full-blown concerts. (This video is an excellent place to start, even if the person who posted it blames Beyonce's unborn child.) "Composer" is another word that Beyonce might want to reconsider, as this piece relates. And while we're at it, the New York Times believes "Choreographer" might be stretching things, too, as you can see here. But bossy? Never!

I'm not a believer in banning words because you never know where it's going to end. First they came for "bossy" and I said nothing. Then they came for "moron" and I said nothing. Finally they came for "wiseass," and there's was no one left to speak for me. Now banning certain phrases from the news -- that's different. Since the Russian invasion of Crimea, "saber-rattling" has been getting way too much airplay. I don't think sabers have been rattled since the Franco-Prussian War. And unless you're doing a piece about plastic surgery, can we please put a stop to lazy reporters intoning "eyebrows were raised"? Not only is it a cliche, it sounds like the eyebrows were raised by somebody else, maybe with fishhooks. 


I'd have changed my name, too, if I had
written the most boring novel in
history.

But individual words? Better to allow them to let them die of neglect rather than revive memories of Josef Stalin's old ways. Too, let's give parents a little leeway in choosing what words their kids are exposed to. My wife and I, for instance, have allowed our daughter to read countless words that have been banned by libraries and schools across America, in books like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird and, currently, A Clockwork Orange. Our kid has turned out OK -- strong, smart, confident. In high school, I was forced to read Silas Marner, Siddhartha and something or other by Jane Austen. Look how I turned out.

No, instead of "Ban Bossy," why not "Encourage Strength"? It isn't as punchy -- certainly nowhere near as alliterative -- but it puts a positive spin on the idea without censorship. Anyway, there are worse things to be called than "bossy." I bet $100 that, in private moments, Ms. Sandberg and all the women on her "Ban Bossy" team have used the word "bitch" to describe women who are equally competitive. You know, the same way powerful men refer to each other "assholes." Frankly, I'd rather be called "bossy."

                                         **********************

Monday, March 10, 2014

CABLE NETWORK OF THE DAMNED

Over the weekend, TCM ran Village of the Damned, a classic, black & white British thriller starring George Sanders. It tells the story of the little village of Midwich where, one day, all its living creatures suddenly drop unconscious for several hours. Two months later, every  Midwich woman of childbearing age, including virgins, are suddenly pregnant. Eventually, all give birth simultaneously to children who soon prove themselves to be super-intelligent telepaths, possessing glowing eyes that control the villagers' minds. It's never made quite clear how these children were created, but their true parentage is definitely not of this world.

It's a fine, creepy movie, all the better for its get-in-and-get-out 78-minute running time. But it was only later that evening, while pondering the deeper meaning of the story, I suddenly got a chill down my spine. One of these kids is among us today, using the same despicable powers. And his name is... Ronan Farrow!



It's all there for anyone to discover. The blonde hair and pale skin. The all-too perfect human facial features. The flat, emotionless voice. The inhuman gaze. No, friends, this so-called Ronan Farrow (and, remember, that isn't even his real name) is not of this earth. Probably not even of this galaxy. 

I'm mad, you say? Then consider this:

  • At age 11, Ronan Farrow enters Bard College at Simon's Rock. That means he skipped seven grades.
  • Upon graduation, he enters Yale Law and becomes a speechwriter for diplomat Richard Holbrooke. At 15. Just an ordinary human, hunh? Whatever you say, boss.
  • Farrow becomes a Rhodes scholar at 23. Most 23 year-olds can't even spell "scholar."
  • Twenty minutes after meeting him, MSNBC president Phil Griffin, offers Farrow -- a television neophyte -- a daily one-hour news program. Two days after the debut of said program, Farrow is presented the Cronkite Award for Exploration and Journalism. You really think there isn't any mind control going on here?
  • Nobody knows who his father really is.
  • Those eyes. Those eyes! Make it stop!
 
Like the tongue-twisting tagline on the poster says, BEWARE THE STARE THAT WILL PARALYZE THE WILL OF THE WORLD. One day, we were going about our business -- making ham sandwiches, Swiffering the floor, avoiding phone calls from relatives. Then suddenly we fell asleep and awoke to find ourselves looking at this Ronan Farrow creature in every newspaper and webpage in the world. Everybody started talking about him -- even though the day before we couldn't have picked him out of a police line-up. Unlike the guy on the left.

You'd think Ronan Farrow would be ashamed of such nakedly ambitious ladder-climbing. But as David -- the leader of the Village of the Damned children -- explains to George Sanders, the only thing that stops regular earthlings from becoming super-beings is their emotions. In other words, Ronan Farrow doesn't care what he does to anybody! Beware the stare that will paralyze the will of your television remote.

And yet there is hope for us. Learning that these terrifying kids can read the thoughts in the villagers' frontal lobes, George Sanders thinks of a brick wall as he readies their destruction... just as MSNBC boss Phil Griffin seems to believe that anybody immune to Master Farrow's ability to lodge himself in their brains must be a blockhead. 

That's the answer to this frightening turn of events. Whenever you come across Ronan Farrow on your TV, think of a brick wall. Or concrete slab, steel door, cement sidewalk. Five sheets of acrylic might even do the trick. But even if Farrow disappears from the airwaves tomorrow, be warned: there are more waiting to take his place. And they're the answer to Jeff Zucker's prayers.

This... is CNN.
                                               
                                             ******************************