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Friday, February 06, 2009

ABF Friday:  Barely Tolerable Edition!

Winter in central Pennsylvania!  You know what that means for us mountain folk—lots of snow days with the one kid who still lives at home, arctic temperatures that make everyone forget we’re actually about one degree of latitude south of Rome (yes, Rome in Italy), and (therefore) lots of moviegoing on the weekends!  Sometimes Janet takes Jamie while I work—they saw High School Musical 3, for instance—but most of the time I take him, because (as you know) I have no standards whatsoever.  After Janet took Jamie to see Cats and Dogs years ago, she vowed never to take him to see a movie that terrible again, and she has kept her word.  I matched Cats and Dogs for sheer terribleness that year by acceding to Jamie’s request to see Hard Ball, which for some reason he thought was going to be a movie about sports.  But unlike Janet, I have continued—however unwittingly—to take Jamie to see movies that suck.

This year, he tricked me into seeing The Spirit, which surely deserves an award of some kind for being even worse than Craptastic 4: Rise of the Silver Sucker, a movie that (as regular readers of this humble blog are aware) leads people to say, “I didn’t know they could make movies that bad.” Jamie was puzzled by it, because he thought that it would be something like Dark Knight, which he loves (and has seen three times).  And I was puzzled too, until I realized that it was something like The Haunting, that is, a devious Hollywood experiment whose purpose it is to see if talented and respected actors (no, not Eva Mendes) can be humiliated into sucking worse than Keanu Reeves and Demi Moore. (And hey, why haven’t those two teamed up yet?  a breathless world awaits!) Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson—don’t you two have agents who are supposed to steer you clear of debacles like this? This is my city—it makes snow so that I can throw snowballs at bad guys. O-kay.

But that’s not what I’m blogging about today.  I’m tired of ABF Fridays that are all about the best this and the most godawful that.  It’s time for an Arbitrary But Fun Friday in which we celebrate the barely tolerable

Film: After the debacle that was The Spirit, I warned Jamie that in the future, I would consult Rotten Tomatoes before agreeing to any more of his cabin-fever-in-the-tundra weekend movie requests.  (This is a major departure for me.  I usually insist on knowing nothing about a film before I see it, whereas Janet reads every English-language review she can find before seeing a film.  How pure am I?  Folks, I saw Slumdog Millionaire last week and didn’t even know it was set in India until the movie started.  That’s because I do a lot of sticking my fingers in my ears and singing “la la la la la la” when people talk about movies I haven’t seen.) So when Jamie tried to rally by suggesting Yes Man, I was duly skeptical.  As one wag put it, “Jim Carrey? Starring in a new high-concept studio comedy? As a zany everyman? Surely not, I hear you cry!” But it got a 43 on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas The Spirit earned itself a record-low 15, so I said, “ahhhh, what the hell.  Jamie will probably like it, and it’s got to be better than sitting around watching the permafrost surround my house.” And it was!  It was genuinely funny in places!  The romantic-comedy angle with Zooey Deschanel did not make me want to tear my own head off!  Rhys Darby is hilarious!  Jamie loved the Harry Potter party scene!  And at one point, there’s a big wedding shower over which the soundtrack is playing . . . Trouble Funk’s “Let’s Get Small!” Well, holy mother of Moloch, that’s way more than tolerable!  That’s actually good!  (Serious aside: why the hell don’t filmmakers use more Trouble Funk in their dang soundtracks?  That’s some toe-tapping, finger-snapping music right there!  Also one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, way back in 1987.)

So Yes Man, much to my surprise and frozen delight, cleared the bar of the Barely Tolerable.

Music: This is harder, because the determination of whether a song is Barely Tolerable is usually a spur-of-the-moment thing, and it almost always involves the question of whether to fiddle with the car radio.  (I assume you all are not making party mixes and iPod playlists with barely tolerable songs on them, or buying or downloading barely tolerable CDs.) And that determination, in turn, depends in part on the question of whether there is Anything Better On.  For me, the line in these shifting sands is probably best drawn by the Rob Thomas / Carlos Santana “Smooth” thing that appears every three to four days on your Drive at Five or Morning Roadblock or Lunchtime Request shows.  On the one hand, you have to listen to Rob Thomas singing, Rob Thomas singing through that filter, and Rob Thomas singing a “Latin”-tinged tune.  On the other hand, the geetar-playing is quite good, and that makes the song average out to Barely Tolerable.  When you combine that with the realization that the classic-rock station is most likely playing Foghat’s “Fool for the City,” the soft-rock-for-the-workplace station is offering Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home,” the best mix of yesterday and today is playing Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” the college / alternative station is doing its Grateful Dead show, and the “contemporary” station is playing Britney, you wind up shrugging and keeping your hands on the wheel.  It’s only three minutes, after all, and it’s Barely Tolerable.  Just over that line: Pink’s “Who Knew” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Completely acceptable mainstream radio fare, not worth turning off and flipping through the dial lest one be subjected to two or three seconds of “Fly Like an Eagle” or “With Arms Wide Open.”

And you?  Where’s your Barely Tolerable line?


Relentless Winter Weather Addendum: I have been joking with some of my Internet friends—Chris Robinson chief among them—about trying to come up with some scam for which we all can get fellowships that involve “working” in Tuscany for a year.  Chris’s case is especially urgent, because even though it was two degrees here yesterday morning as I ventured out for my last round of physical therapy at 8 am (torn elbow ligament, story for another time), Chris lives in northern New York where the temperature has not gone above eleventy-eight Kelvin in the past two months.  Some time ago, we proposed writing a book-length analysis of the history of the New York Rangers, a project that obviously would require a spacious villa just outside Siena and a full complement of research assistants.  Unfortunately, in the current economic climate, few granting agencies are willing to support international research on professional ice hockey, not to mention the amount of calamari and pinot grigio necessary for this project.  However, I have since learned that certain new-media consortiums are willing to fund a year-long symposium, to be housed just outside Florence, on the role of blog comment sections in the transmission of knowledge.  So if you have any ideas for this critical research initiative, now’s the time!

Posted by Michael on 02/06 at 10:00 AM
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Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Hey American Airspacepeople, do we have a treat for you today!  This humble but insanely ambitious blog has scored the very first blog interview with Michael Steele, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee!

MB:  Mr. Chairman, welcome to American Airspace.  Thanks so much for joining us.

MS:  Thanks for having me!

MB:  Mr. Chairman, you’re the first African-American to serve as RNC chair.  Congratulations!  What should we make of this historic moment?

MS:  Michael, I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust my party has bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.  This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed—why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration of this magnificent party, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you as the leader of the party of Lincoln.

MB:  Wow!  Stirring words, Mr. Chairman.  But isn’t it true that some people are unhappy that you’re taking the helm of the party?  How will you work to keep white supremacists in the big tent that is the modern GOP?

MS:  Well, you’re talking about a few outliers there, you know.  You’ll find those people everywhere on the political spectrum.  Take for example the time I was pelted with Oreo cookies by a bunch of bra-burning women’s libbers who were spitting on our servicemen returning from the war.  You’ll find I tend to get it from all sides, which probably suggests I’m doing something right.

MB:  Good point, Mr. Chairman.  So can you say a few words about the new Republican agenda?  You must be very excited about kicking it off.

MS:  I am indeed very excited.  This year we’re going to take a bold new approach to governing:  we’re going to vote “no” on whatever Barack Hussein Obama and the Democrat party proposes.  Then we’re going to complain that Obama’s attempts at bipartisanship have failed.  We’re pretty sure we’ll have the media with us on this—they’ve certainly played ball so far.

MB:  Um—and that’s it?  Just voting no all the time and then making disingenuous complaints?  Really?

MS [laughing]:  No, that’s not it.  Those are just temporizing measures.  We’re actually just biding our time and messing up his stuff until we can impeach him.

MB:  Impeach him? For what?  I mean, don’t you have to have a reason?

MS:  Not necessarily.  But don’t worry, we’ll think of something.  Look at what we’ve got already: between Daschle and Blagojevich, Obama’s administration is the most corrupt government in American history.

MB:  Uh, I don’t think Blagojevich was actually. . . .

MS:  Doesn’t matter.  The verdict is in, and the Obama presidency has failed.  He came in here promising to change the tone, and he trashed the place, and it wasn’t his place.  He promised to reach across the aisle, and look what he’s done so far:  nothing but vicious attacks on Rush Limbaugh and foot-dragging on the tax cuts Americans need.  It’s altogether disgraceful, really, and we’re about to lose our patience with him.  We can only take so much, you know.

MB:  You’re kidding, right?  Tell me you’re kidding.

MS:  Hey, don’t take it from me—ask David Broder and Chuck Todd.  They’ll tell it to you straight.

MB:  But don’t you realize the country is in a terrible financial crisis, a crisis brought about largely by deregulation of the financial sector and free-market extremism?

MS:  Yes, yes I do realize this.  That’s why we’re calling for sweeping tax cuts to stimulate the economy, instead of the failed pork-barrel spending programs the Democrat party wants to foist on the nation.

MB:  Tax cuts?  Again?  Didn’t you all say eight years ago that we needed tax cuts because we had a budget surplus?  And then we needed tax cuts because we were at war?  And then we needed tax cuts because the earth was continuing to revolve around the sun?

MS:  That’s about right, yes.  But see, before you go off with your Democrat talking points, you have to understand that government never created a job.  Government never built a mass transit system.  Government never passed a law or ran a school or inspected a piece of meat.  So this spending bill can’t really be called a “stimulus” bill.  It’s just more of the same tired policies that caused FDR to plunge the country into the Great Depression, as the historian Amity Shlaes has pointed out.

MB:  OK, uh, what does government do if it doesn’t do any of those things?

MS:  You asked so I’ll tell you.  Government piles a stack of dollar bills very high.  How high?  Very.  Very high.

MB:  Well, this has been a most enlightening conversation, Mr. Chairman.  Thank you.  But I have to wonder—it sounds as if the GOP really is at a turning point here.  It sounds as if you’re talking about the complete and total Palinization of the party.

MS:  Oh, definitely!  It’s what the people want.  Look.  This is a real crisis for America.  The liberal elites of the Democrat party want to bring in a bunch of “experts” who “know stuff” and are going to try to “fix things.” If they succeed, we’re basically done.  Kaput.  We’ve built this party on a firm foundation: mocking Obama for telling people to keep their tires inflated, giving creationists and flat-earthers control over U.S. science policy, and reminding hardworking men and women that Al Gore is fat.  Hey, we’ve even got Joe the Plumber working as a war correspondent, political analyst, and economic advisor.  We can’t have voters turning to knowledgeable people in times like these—we’ve got to win back the hearts and minds of Americans, and make them willing to believe, once again, that Sarah Palin knows more about energy than anyone in the United States; that Rush Limbaugh should have control over 46 percent of the federal budget; and that we had to fight the terrorists over there so as not to fight them over here.  And that’s what we’ll be trying to do.

MB:  Bring the stupid?

MS:  Not precisely.  Bring the stupid higher.

MB:  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MS:  No, thank you.

Posted by Michael on 02/04 at 05:41 AM
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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Snark and sprezzatura

Last night, just before turning in, I decided to check Snark Alert, the amazing space-age Internets device that keeps me informed about the State of Snark in today’s society today.  You know, because I have a professional interest in this.  So the first thing that came up, naturally, was this post by TBogg, founder and grandmaster of the West Coast school of snark.  Here, Mr. Bogg snarks away at David Denby’s latest book, Snark, which I haven’t read.  I did, however, read this review, in which I encountered this paragraph of austere beauty:

Take this small example from Denby’s book: In pining for the tough-talking wit of Rosalind Russell and her ilk, he writes, “Whatever its miseries, the country in the thirties and forties was at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat.” Now, you could calmly point out Denby’s lazy generalization as he reimagines a time of widespread inequality as an idyllic epoch of snappy-pattered togetherness. Or you could respond, “Denby, you dumbass, not only were we not all in the same boat, we weren’t even at the same water fountains.” Sometimes the snarky response is the correct response.

Now, I read and reviewed and mostly liked Denby’s Great Books (my very-first-ever assignment for Dissent, way back in 1996), but you probably know that I am bored silly by people who pine for the golden age that passed from this earth right around the time they were born.  And the boat/ water fountains bit is a bon mot, no?  I wish I had written that.  Because it seems as if Denby’s latest book is like a stream of bat’s piss.  And now that I’ve gotten the sense that Snark is a little bit like Lee Siegel’s magnum opus, Against the Blogofascist Machine:  How Internet Anonymity and Meanness are Destroying Our Culture and Bringing Me Down to the Level of the Immature, Abusive Sheep Who Criticize Me Because They Are Jealous of My Prodigious Talent, I think I’ll probably pass on the piss.

But that’s not what I came to talk about.  I came to talk about the metonymic skid that led me from TBogg to this post by the young women of the blog “Wonkette,” who patiently, if snarkily, respond to Denby by explaining a couple of the jokes he didn’t get and by pointing out that Wonkette is not, in fact, written by young women.  In the ensuing comment thread (which is, as you might imagine, chock full of extra extra snark), someone with the unlikely name of “Slavoj Zizek” appears and says,

Well, Snark currently gets three stars from the fourteen customer reviewers on Amazon. Which seems a bit high. Just twenty or so 1 star reviews and that rating will start to sink. Of course, to be really amusing, you should probably know something about the book in question, which is way to much work. Maybe a bunch of five star reviews?

“Uh oh,” I said to myself upon reading that, “I know what happens next.” And sure enough, when I clicked over to Amazon, there were a bunch of mostly one-star reviews dating from January 31 to yesterday—eighteen fresh ones, all of which appear to be Wonkette-inspired.

But that’s not what I came to talk about.  I came to talk about the fact that as I surveyed the damage, thinking poor Denby—there but for the grace of Moloch go I, I noticed that all the reviews had earned comments, even the most recent ones.  Upon closer inspection, I discovered that at some point yesterday afternoon and evening, some dear soul, looking upon the wreckage of the dogpile, took it upon himself to respond to every single one of those thirty-two reviews, chastising the one-stars and applauding mightily the perspicacity of those who had the good sense to give Snark the favorable hearing it deserves.  His name, I learned, is G. Charles Steiner.  About a bad review, he writes,

You write in harsh generalities and make serious negative assertions, neither of which do you support because you believe a review is no different from stating your political bias or opinion, and that’s simply not the way book reviews are done or what a reader comes to book reviewer to find. F+ for your review.

About a good one, he writes,

Nice review, Douglas! You’re another one of three reviewers I’ve found (out of 32!) that can write a good summary of the book and be somewhat objective about it.

And about a pretty-obviously-kidding five star review, one that begins, “It was a difficult book for me to read because my IQ is pretty much that of a Q-Tip. I had to read it a couple of times to understand how brilliant it is,” Steiner writes,

LOVELY, LOVELY, LOVELY, LOVELY REVIEW! The book found its audience in you! Thank you so much for writing a wholly appreciative review.

Well, I had planned to get into bed by 11, as part of my new I-just-finished-my-book healthy clean living lifestyle, but by that point it was half past and Janet’s asking, “are you coming to bed?” and I’m saying, “I can’t.  This is important.  Someone is really weird on the Internet.”

Now, despite the title of this here post, I don’t really think for a moment that Mr. Steiner is David Denby’s sockpuppet.  That would be sad.  Besides, Amazon says he’s using his real name.  But I do think his dedication to combating snarkmeisters and Wonkette-readers at Amazon.com is truly remarkable, and worthy of our sustained attention.  Indeed, the perseverance and earnestness displayed in these thirty-two Amazon review comments may very well turn the tide and serve as a watershed moment that will lift all boats and water fountains alike.  Because if our culture is ever going to be cleansed of snark, the fight will start in the trenches—in blog comment sections, in Amazon reviews, and in Photoshops around the globe where unscrupulous snark peddlers take the hard work of print-media culture critics and make parodic “graphic novels” of them.

Only you can help!  For as Gandhi said in his five-star review of Against the Machine, we must be the Internet commenters we want to see in the world.

Posted by Michael on 02/03 at 10:41 AM
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Monday, February 02, 2009

Monday morning QB

Well, I had the outcome right, but those Arizonas gave us all a shudder, didn’t they?  I should have realized that the new Very Angry Cardinal logo would be good for more than 13 points.  Still, as you can see from this comment on my dummy blog, “Future Search,” I had a few tiny details right.

In other news, remember when I said I was writing an essay on retaking the English-lit GRE for the first time since 1981?  Well, that essay is finally out, and available in a Chronicle of Higher Ed near you.  It’s sub-only, apparently, so you have to sub.  Which is odd, because, as all my internet friends know, love and information want only to be free.

[Update:  I am like totally wrong!  The essay is free as a bird, right here.  Oh, and while I’m updating:  “Glory Days”?  Really?  The very worst Bruce Springsteen song ever, and he has to close the halftime show with it?  Why?  In order to remind everyone that the joys of youth and athletic fame are ephemeral?  And that he once wrote a song that includes the phrase “throw that speedball by you”?]

And I’ve already received two emails informing me that the awful test question involving an awful parody of Marxist criticism is actually from David Lodge’s Small World.  Since one of my complaints about the test is that its “theory” questions are hideous beyond measure, I have to marvel at the fact that the GRE-maker-uppers actually ask people to identify Marxist theory via a David Lodge parody.  But then there’s the embarrassing bit about how I took the GRE in English literature and then wrote an essay invoking David Lodge in my fourth sentence but missed the David Lodge passage in the test itself.  I kind of have to love that.

Posted by Michael on 02/02 at 11:25 AM
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