The post-election New Yorker cover

The New Yorker is known for their arty covers, but every once in a while they produce something special. This week's issue, which I haven't received yet, is one such time. It's an elegant homage to the president-elect, Barack Obama. 



The president-elect: What comes to mind

Ever since the presidential election was called on Tuesday, I've been thinking of a piece of poetry by Seamus Heaney. The lines occur in "The Cure at Troy," Heaney's translation and adaptation of Sophocles' "Philoctetes," a play about the Trojan War, and they are much quoted (they're a favorite of Bill Clinton's): 

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

This seems like one of those times. Truly an amazing moment, one filled with hope and possibility. Congratulations, President-elect Obama.


Planet Money

The current economic meltdown is scary and confusing. A good source for information and understandable explanations is NRP's Planet Money blog and podcast

Four of NPR's best reporters are asking good questions and explaining what's going on in uncomplicated terms. Last week, Planet Money broke the story that the Congressional bailout bill would allow the government to purchase stock in troubled banks ("stock injections" ... see what I've learned already?). That's a big deal because Republicans in the House made a big stink over just such a move last week.

How things have changed!

Planet Money also helped produce last week's excellent edition of This American Life: "Another Frightening Show About the Economy." If you're wondering what "credit default swaps" are, this is the primer you've been looking for. This episode is free right now but will cost you $.95 after Sunday, I believe.

One silver lining to this disaster is that we're all going to know a hell of a lot more about the economy and Wall Street than we ever thought we would.


God hates fangs

Stephen Moyer as vampire Bill Compton in "True Blood."
Photo courtesy HBO

Vampires don't usually do too much for me, but I have to admit that I've gotten a bit hooked on HBO's new series, "True Blood." It's funny, creepy and unsettling and it's set in the South, so it pretty much hits the grand slam of oddball horror and cracked behavior.

The show (by "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball) is based on a series of Southern vampire novels by Charlaine Harris. The premise: A Japanese company has developed synthetic blood that provides all the vampires' basic nutritional needs, allowing them to make themselves known and to ask for the same rights that humans have.

Ball said in a radio interview that he sold this to HBO as "popcorn TV," which it mostly is. There's some subtle comment on anti-vampire discrimination and religious intolerance that has parallels to anti-gay sentiment, but mostly it's just weird and fascinating and bloody.

The best part of the show is the opening credits (below). Newsweek notes that opening credits are sort of a dying art, but Ball uses them to great effect to open "True Blood" with a sense of doom. Shot on film at various speeds and printed with some colors overly saturated and others muted, the credits are like a Southern Gothic fever dream brought to life, gators and religious hysterics included. And on the soundtrack, Jace Everett growls, "I wanna do bad things to you." Oh, yeah!

Too bad they didn't borrow this look for the series itself:


Thomas Friedman is damned angry

And for once, I agree with him. 

Friedman was on Fresh Air the other night, talking about his new book, "Hot, Flat and Crowded." In the book, Friedman challenges the conventional wisdom that the best way to break our dependence on foreign oil is to "Drill, baby, drill!" What we need to do, he says, is break free of oil altogether by developing new, eco-friendly and sustainable energy technologies.

As Friedman notes, the three people grinning at the chants of "Drill, drill, drill!" at the Republican National Convention were the observers from Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. They want us to stay hooked up to the oil company. They make billions off of it. And alot of that money is funneled to terrorism and despotic regimes.

What brought down the Soviet Union? Friedman argues convincingly it was $80 a barrel oil, which caused the Soviets to over-extend themselves, followed by $10 a barrel oil, which ruined their economy. Iran, he says, is a country in a similarly precarious spot. It funnels billions in oil revenue to radical causes. Should oil prices drop again, Iran would be in trouble.

We had a shot at developing alternative energy technologies, but the Reagan Administration cut off subsidies in the 1980s. Now, all the technology we developed has moved to other countries and all we have left is our dependence on oil. Friedman says, if we would use government regulations to shape the economy to make it favorable to green energy, we could create technology that would lead the world.

Friedman says the notion of drilling our way out of our dependence on foreign oil is "crazy." He's angry that the opportunity to get free of foreign oil has been squandered and that we keep digging ourselves in deeper and deeper to the oil economy.

He's right. We should all be angry. Check out the Fresh Air interview.


The real story about oil

On the Media is one of the best shows on NPR (and you can listen to it on a podcast if you can't catch it on the radio). The show asks tough questions about the media and shows how we often get played for suckers by politicians and big business.

On last week's show David Fiderer, a writer for the Huffington Post and a banker in the energy industry for 20 years, was the subject of a segment. Fiderer is ticked that reporters are so easily taken in by the energy industry and that they lack a basic understanding of how it works. Will drilling offshore lower gas prices? Nope, says Fiderer. Nuclear power as a way to energy independence and lower gas prices? It won't make a difference at the pump, he says.

Bob Garfield, reporter for the segment, asks about the possibility of energy independence:
GARFIELD: Like given the way petroleum deposits are distributed on Earth, is it reasonable to imagine the U.S. being fully independent of foreign oil, ever?

FIDERER: Not if we consume oil at anything close to the rate we have for the last 50 years. If we consumed oil at the rate we did in 1965, we would still be importing 40 percent of our oil.
Reporters shouldn't let politicians and energy industry leaders control the debate, Fiderer says. Amen.

Check it out. You can listen to the segment here:


'Generation Kill:' The view from inside the Humvee

"Gentlemen, from now on we're going to have to earn our stories."
                                              -- Sgt. Brad "Iceman" Colbert, "Generation Kill"

The best movie of the summer isn't on the screens of your local multiplex, it's on HBO. And it ends this Sunday.

"Generation Kill" is a miniseries based on Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's non-fiction account of his ride with a Marine reconnaissance patrol during the first 40 days of the Iraq war (produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, the guys behind "The Wire"). It's funny, profane and scary. It's at its best when it captures the simple tedium of war as the Marines drive and wait and drive some more and wonder if they will ever see action.

When I've tried to describe the series to friends, I tell them that the thing it does best is to put you inside that Humvee with those Marines. You listen to them talk and boast and chatter endlessly. The radio spits out bulletins and orders. The Marines talk about their fears and frustrations. They stop to take a shit beside the road (no flush toilets for these guys). And, every once in a while, bullets slash through the night or an explosion rips the calm of a village.

When Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" came out, William Arnold, our film critic at the Seattle P-I, said that he thought it was a new way of presenting a war, that the film simply put you in the middle of of the battle and let you experience it as the soldiers did. "Generation Kill" owes much to Spielberg (the first 20 minutes of "Private Ryan," I think, may be the most significant contribution to film he has made). No John Wayne heroics or plot lines here, just guys trying to do their job and stay alive (and sane) in a very bad place.

The episodes start quietly and move through the mundane until the fight begins. Handheld cameras put you in the middle of the action. It's confusing, just as I imagine a real battlefield is. And sometimes, mistakes are made, just as on a real battlefield. At the end, you're shaken and confused and profoundly moved.

The director Sam Fuller once said that the best way to make a war movie would be to take shots at the audience every once in a while to make them feel what it's like to be in the middle of the real thing (but he admitted that might be bad for business). "Generation Kill" comes surprisingly close to doing that. In the end, the guys in the Humvee are heroes not because they are Rambo or super patriots, but because they simply survive this badly managed invasion, are there for their buddies, and come out with their dignity intact.

It's an amazing series and I'm sad to see it end. If you don't have HBO, look for it on DVD in a few months.

Elvis Mitchell's radio show, The Treatment, has a great interview with Susanna White, the Brit who directed the first three episodes and the last one. 

UPDATE: The last episode just finished airing. I may write more about it later. Among the many things that struck me, one was that, like another great anti-war film, "M*A*S*H," "Generation Kill" ends with a football game. But where Robert Altman played that scene for laughs, the game in "Generation Kill" becomes a reflection of the Marines' anger and frustration with the war and with each other. Fists fly and finally someone says, "Maybe we shouldn't play football anymore." Amen.

And then the episode ends with a video (some of it actually shot by Marines in Iraq) set to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." As Star-Ledger blogger Alan Sepinwall notes, it's almost a cliche but you have to give "Generation Kill" a pass because the song is such a perfect fit.

Stay frosty.


Warmth, Giant Black Toobs

Seattle artist Susan Robb installed her artwork, "Warmth, Giant Black Toobs," at Volunteer Park today. She uses 50-foot polypropylene tubes that heat in the sun until they become buoyant and float.

The effect is amazing and, at first, a little unnerving. The tubes seem to come alive, moving and bumping in to each other, rising on the heat of the sun and a light breeze. When the sun goes behind a cloud, the tubes lay down on the grass but continue to move, nuzzling each other and competing for space.

At times, they reminded me of giant strands of hair; at others, like the water creature from "The Abyss." In the end, they are really their own thing, changing the space they inhabit and making us stop and look at the familiar in a new way. Everyone who came by, especially kids, loved them.

I produced a video of the piece for seattlepi.com.


Fading flowers

Saw my buddy Kim Carney yesterday. She does such cool flower photography on her blog. She inspired me to take a walk today and see what's growing (or starting to fade) in the neighborhood. More photos on my Flickr feed.


100 years: David Lean and Bette Davis

David Lean on the set.

The centenaries of two of the giants of the movies -- David Lean and Bette Davis -- are being marked this month. Reflecting on the careers of both serves to remind us of how small the movies have gotten these days.

Anthony Lane's piece in the New Yorker, "Master and Commander," gives a good, quick overview of Lean's career. He started as a film editor, learning his craft on "quota quickies," films made quickly to satisfy British law requiring a certain amount of English-produced content be shown on the nation's movie screens. He also worked on newsreels, rapidly trimming film as it came in to the studio so it could be shown in theaters when events were still fresh.

In a sense, Lean remained a cutter all his professional career. As Lane says, Lean didn't believe in editing just to be flashy. A good cut had to move the story forward (case in point: his "Lawrence of Arabia" cut from Peter O'Toole blowing out a match to a red-orange scene of sunrise over the desert is one of the most famous in movie history ... and it serves to thrust you directly into the heart of the story).

Lean's name became synonymous, in later years, with the epic film. "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago:" All were huge hits and took years to make. Then, tastes changed, Lean created a huge flop (his first box office dud) in "Ryan's Daughter" and didn't make another movie for 14 years ("A Passage to India").

In the end, the restoration of "Lawrence" also helped to restore his reputation as one of the great filmmakers.

Recommended: Just about anything he ever directed, including the epics mentioned above but also earlier, smaller films like "Brief Encounter."

In the New York Times today, Terrence Rafferty writes about Bette Davis. Davis is probably remembered by younger viewers for her later work (mock horror films like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?") or her loud appearances on David Letterman.

But, in her prime, in the 1930s and '40s, she was a major star and a force both on-screen and off. She confronted studio bosses, demanding better parts and, for the most part won, setting a precedent that has benefited all actors, particularly women, to this day. In the 1950s, with her career on the wane, she pushed again and landed one of her greatest roles, as aging Broadway star Margot Channing in "All About Eve."

Rafferty writes about her role in "Eve" and also her starring role in "Jezebel." Davis, he says, was never afraid to take on a tough role that might not be popular with an audience. He notes that her power on screen was so great, and her skill as an actor so keen, that even when she wasn't in closeup, all eyes would be on her. And that she could convey her characters' moods even in a wide shot.

My favorite Davis entrance is the opening of "The Letter," one of three brilliant films she made with director William Wyler (the others are "Jezebel" and "The Little Foxes"). The sleepy evening at a Singapore rubber plantation is broken when Davis charges onto the veranda, following her lover and emptying a pistol into him. She stands over him, firing the gun until the bullets are gone and all you hear is the click of an empty chamber.

"All About Eve" is an acting tour de force, but so, in their way, are her earlier three-hanky weepers like "Dark Victory" and "Now, Voyager." Only Davis could take such potentially sentimental roles (a dying, spoiled rich girl in the first; an emotionally destroyed rich girl in the second) and make them believable. And sexy: No one ever looked better sharing a cigarette than Bette Davis did with Paul Henreid in "Now, Voyager."

Recommended: "Dark Victory," "Jezebel," "Now, Voyager," "All About Eve," "The Little Foxes" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner."