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True things

I got in from Washington last night, and I’m happy to report that I still have the same number of children I had when I left on Friday.  Thanks to Nick for taking care of Jamie all weekend!  And also for taking care of Lucy the Dog, who needed (apart from her ordinary diurnal needs) twice-day pills and four-times-a-day eyedrops.  About the whole “keeping the house clean” thing, well, we will talk.  But not here!  Here’s not a good place.

As you may or may not know, I spent some of my time in D.C. giving a lunchtime talk at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors.  The slot was noon to 1:15 on Saturday, so I prepared a version of this talk on academic freedom (which, as you may or may not know, I delivered at Penn State back in January).  Around 10 that morning, I went to case the joint: maybe it’s just my former-musician thing, but whenever I have a speaking gig, I like to check out the room and the acoustics beforehand.  In the course of doing so, I chatted for a few minutes with an AAUP staffer, who asked me whether I would be eating before I spoke.  No, I said, that always crosses me up.  I get up to the podium and I’m convinced that there’s a piece of chicken wedged in between my teeth, usually because there’s a piece of chicken wedged in between my teeth.  But then I realized that the talk wouldn’t start until people were mostly done with lunch.  My stars!  I’d prepared a 40-minute lecture. “Um,” I said, “about how long are these talks supposed to run?”

“Oh, about twenty minutes,” said the staffer.  “And maybe there will be some questions afterward.  But we have to stop promptly at 1:15.”

“Okay!” I said, gathering up my stuff.  “I’ll just be in my room . . . ah . . . working.”

I got it down to 25 minutes, I’m glad to say, and I’ll post the transcript tomorrow.  It’s revised from January’s talk, not only for length but also to acknowledge the fact that one of our luncheon guests was none other than the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

But I don’t have the energy to post it today, because of a Curious Coincidence that befell me last night.

After I was done putting Jamie to bed and cleaning up the house, I was exhausted.  I got ready for bed around 11, badly needing the seven and a half hours of sleep before I would have to start the morning ritual and get Jamie off to school, but I made two critical mistakes.  The first was that I checked in on this very blog, and found Saltydog, in comment 59 on this thread, saying

I think in time, we will look upon Walken’s so-called ‘performances’ as one big seamless and extended performance stretched over many decades. The same could be said for Hopper, who is kind of his spiritual twin.

Then, fifteen minutes later, I made my second mistake: I turned on the TV as I turned off the light on the nighttable, and discovered that True Romance had just started on a cable channel even more obscure than the Outdoor Living Network.

Now, True Romance happens to be one of my guilty pleasures.  Directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, it’s basically (as I read it, ahem, ahem, this is a Theory by Me) a fantasy version of Tarantino’s own journey to fame and fortune, in which a geek who works in a comic-book store and watches Sonny Chiba movies gets caught up in a plot involving a call girl and a suitcase full of cocaine (Tarantino worked in a movie-rental joint, watched Sonny Chiba movies, and eventually sold the script of True Romance . . . you get the idea).  Christian Slater serves as Tarantino’s alter ego, chomping into cheeseburgers and immersing himself in Elvis and Japanese pop culture until he gets his big break in L.A.  Seriously:  when Clarence (Slater) tries to unload the coke on Hollywood producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), he pitches it as a film, telling Donowitz via car phone that he’s giving him a shot at the release of Doctor Zhivago.  Later, as the final scene unfolds, Donowitz initially rejects the deal, believing (with reason) that $200,000 for a suitcase of uncut coke is a bargain so good that something must be wrong with it.  He pulls Clarence aside and challenges him to prove he’s on the level.  Clarence replies with a bullshit story about how a bad cop has been keeping the coke after a bust and needs to unload it, and that Clarence is getting rid of it cheap because he doesn’t know what he’s doing.  So how come the cop gave it to you, Donowitz asks, if you’re such an amateur?  “I bullshitted him,” replies Clarence, in a cheeky meta- moment that seals the deal.  The entire movie is meta- by that point, though, because Donowitz’s assistant, Elliott (Bronson Pinchot), a struggling actor, has been picked up by the feds and is wearing a wire in the hope of ratting on his boss.  “Your motivation,” he tells himself before his big scene, “is to stay out of jail.” “You’re an actor!” yell the feds as Elliott appears to crack on the pressure.  “Act, dammit!” And as the actors act, Clarence bullshits his way through the film, armed only with his wit and his inspirational meetings with Elvis (Val Kilmer) in the bathroom.

So I told myself, look.  One of your commenters has just named Hopper as Walken’s spiritual twin, and here at 11:30 you’re watching a movie that includes the positively dangeral “Sicilian scene” featuring the twins themselves.  The scene is kind of moving, in its way: once Clarence’s estranged father (Hopper) realizes that he will not survive this interview with the Mafia boss (Walken) who’s chasing the cocaine Slater inadvertently stole from his new wife (Patricia Arquette)’s former pimp (Gary Oldman), he decides to insult Walken in the most graphic possible manner, hoping that he will be killed quickly and spared hours of torture (his gambit pays off when Walken shoots him repeatedly, remarking that he hadn’t killed someone since 1984).  And so he dies rather than give the mob any information on his son, even though he hadn’t seen his son in three years before the previous morning.  You really have to see it.  And if you’ve already seen it, you have to see it again.  “I’ll just stay awake until that scene,” I said.  “Just for Walken and Hopper.  Then I’ll sleep, I promise.”

Yes, well.  Two hours later, as the movie ended and I finally closed my eyes for the night, I knew I had shot my Monday to hell.  And so I have.  But not before enjoying yet again one of the most awesome supporting casts ever assembled in one place: Walken and Hopper and Oldman and Pinchot and Rubinek, of course, but also a very entertaining Brad Pitt as a stoner and a kind of svelte James Gandolfini as a brutal thug.  Even Samuel L. Jackson appears for about ten seconds.  (I don’t know what to make of Arquette’s performance.  I wonder whether Tony Scott specifically asked her to be unconvincing, and if he did, she was most convincingly unconvincing.) I have to say I deplore the violence at the end of the film, however, and I fear that it might have a terrible effect on our children, by making them want to try to sell a suitcase full of cocaine to a Hollywood producer despite the fact that the producer’s assistant is wearing a wire for the feds and the Mafia has learned (from Brad Pitt) where the sale will be taking place, and by leading them to believe that they can escape to Mexico with $200,000 and the girl in the end even though three FBI men, four Mafia goons, and two of the producer’s bodyguards are shooting each other to death across a hotel suite.  I don’t think that’s the kind of message Hollywood should be sending our kids, which is why, when I think of wholesome family entertainment, I recommend True Lies instead.

Posted by on 06/12 at 03:34 PM
  1. The only part of True Romance that is watchable is, in fact, the Hopper and Walken interaction.  It is just plain spellbindingly, if that is the word I want, good.  The rest is just horrid, from my perspective.  In part, I think, this arises from my conviction that Slater thinks or was told to think that he looks, sounds, and acts, if that is the word, like Jack N.  Some of which is true and all of which is unfortunate.

    Posted by  on  06/12  at  06:08 PM
  2. Yes, True Romance is a surprisingly entertaining garbage movie.  I had never thought of it as QT wish-fulfillment/alter ego.

    Note, however, that the film and its soundtrack appear also to be an homage to Terrence Malick’s Badlands.

    Posted by  on  06/12  at  06:31 PM
  3. You realize, Michael, that what Dennis Hopper’s character did, in committing suicide the way he did, could be considered an act of “asymmetrical warfare” in the eyes of the Gitmo commander? The General has a full report: http://tinyurl.com/s6kbt

    Posted by John Protevi  on  06/12  at  07:18 PM
  4. The rest is just horrid, from my perspective.
    Hmm. As an opponent of most things Arquette (save Rosanna, maybe, in 2 roles), I have to say she’s almost a deal breaker for me.
    But Pitt’s Floyd--brief appearance notwithstanding--is something else. I lose my shit when he utters the line about picking up cleaning products.

    Posted by  on  06/12  at  07:21 PM
  5. You check your blog on your way to bed, after you’ve already gotten ready for bed, when you’re exhausted, and it’s late, and you’ve cleaned up the house, and you just got back, and you need the sleep? Are you insane? Why don’t you just snort some coke and let it go at that?

    I need to stay away from the internets for hours before I go to sleep in order to give my electrolytes time to stop buzzing and settle down peacefully. But I guess that’s just me.

    Posted by Ophelia Benson  on  06/12  at  07:28 PM
  6. I’m slightly worried now. The fact that I had a small part in shooting your Monday to hell. I’m thinking you might have been bad tempered with a student due to lack of sleep - the one who is already at the tipping point and consequently changes courses, escaping your dangerous, evil liberal grip, switching to become a creationist economics major or something at David Duke University before going on to become the CEO of a giant all consuming corporation that exploits us all whilst destroying the environment, controlling the government and selling nuclear technology to whoever has the biggest wad.

    We may have to organise some robot thing from the future to come back and sort this whole fucking mess out, possibly by plugging some people.

    Posted by s'dog  on  06/12  at  07:33 PM
  7. Hi Michael:

    Hey, I just got back from my own weekend in D.C. Took my kids (now triplet five-year-olds) to the Space Museum (very cool), the Natural History Museum (pretty cool, but the dinosaur bones are a little too scary), and the National Zoo (pandas sleeping in trees are teh great).  Did you do any siteseeing, and if so, when?  I would have loved to introduce you to the crew.

    Posted by  on  06/12  at  08:12 PM
  8. this arises from my conviction that Slater thinks or was told to think that he looks, sounds, and acts, if that is the word, like Jack N.

    Completely understandable.  I recommend Heathers, the second half of which is utterly unwatchable for precisely that reason.  Once you have the Heathers inoculation, Slater’s performance in True Romance can be appreciated for the comparatively restrained thing it is.

    But Pitt’s Floyd—brief appearance notwithstanding—is something else. I lose my shit when he utters the line about picking up cleaning products.

    Among the great minor one-line deliveries in modern cinema, Catty, right up there with Alan Rickman’s transcendent “By Grapthar’s hammer, what a savings,” in Galaxy Quest.  Acting classes should study Rickman’s delivery of that one line for three weeks at least.

    Are you insane? Why don’t you just snort some coke and let it go at that?

    Well, that would be wrong, Ophelia.  Look at what happened to Elliot when he got pulled over by the highway cop and he had all that coke on his face!

    But you’re right.  I should have forsworn the Internets for the evening.  I blame one s’dog, myself.  And although I did not lose my temper with a student (and did make my important lunch meeting with various providers of disability services in the state), s’dog, I totally agree that in order to avoid the scenario you describe, we should get some robot thing from the future to come at us in a big truck carrying crude oil or liquid nitrogen so that we can crush it in a drill press or maybe shoot it and shatter it into a million pieces so that its metal forearm will survive and provide scientists with the basis for creating a whole new kind of artificial intelligence so that the future robots can make even more advanced liquid-metal robots that we’ll have to shoot with one of those huge exploding bullets so as to make it fall backwards into a vat of molten steel, so that we’ll have to send ourselves back into the past again (that is, the present) to protect ourselves from the robots who want to start a global thermonuclear war, but then it’ll turn out that the war happens anyway, which is kind of complicated, because we thought we’d avoided it when we shot the liquid-metal robot with the huge exploding bullet and he fell into the vat of molten steel.  Sounds like a plan!

    Posted by Michael  on  06/12  at  08:19 PM
  9. Hmmm. OK, cult studs. What does it say about QT’s wish fulfillment fantasy that in the original script Clarence dies at the end?

    Personally I really like this film, but I’m an Arquette fan. And apart from Walken and Hopper there’s also Gary Oldman’s piece of gourmet scenery-chewing as Drexl.

    It’s a testament to Tarantino’s script that it survives the superbowl-halftime-ad treatment Scott gives it directorially, plus the tacked-on happy ending and the linearised story, although the change to a more traditional structure does shift Clifford’s death deeper into the film where we have a better idea of why he’s not a fool for being willing to die for his son. The massacre at the end does live up to the dismissive phrase one critic threw at it ("screwball violence") but there’s a lot more there to like.

    Posted by  on  06/12  at  08:27 PM
  10. In one of those cruel nominalizations of the language, I belive it’s Outdoor Life Network, not Outdoor Living Network, even if it’s only referred to these days as OLN (as though it’s somehow dirty to admit that bicycling happens outdoors). But you have now put on tenterhooks those of us ne’er-do-wells who didn’t go to DC. So I’ll stay stretched in the damp Florida weather, not able to dry, until you post the story about Telling Truth to Anne D. Neal.

    Posted by Sherman Dorn  on  06/12  at  08:49 PM
  11. Woah, Michael, for a minute there I thought I’d accidentally landed on alt.fan.tarantino in the mid-90s, but then I realized Harry Knowles wasn’t around, realized where I was, and breathed a sigh of relief.

    Anywho, you missed a fine little detail in the Clarence=Quentin equation.  Like Clarence, QT used to live near an airport (when he lived in El Segundo, CA as a kid and teenager).  What’s more, Clarence recounts this biographical detail to Alabama while sitting on a trashed couch off the Imperial Highway near LAX.

    Posted by Dr. Virago  on  06/12  at  10:14 PM
  12. There’s no reason <I>True Romance</i> ought to be a guilty pleasure. It’s a decent script and a whole hell of a lot of fun. I’m certainly not ashamed to say I like it! Aside from <i>Jackie Brown</i>, I actually think it’s my favorite Tarantino-penned script. The scene with Walker and Hopper is brilliant - and is it just me or does Christian Slater remind one of a young Jack Nicholson?

    Posted by Bryan McKay  on  06/12  at  10:19 PM
  13. I think the term we’re looking for is: Mary Sue. As in, True Romance‘s protagonist is Tarantino’s Mary Sue.

    Posted by Bill Humphries  on  06/12  at  10:43 PM
  14. <i>Hmmm. OK, cult studs. What does it say about QT’s wish fulfillment fantasy that in the original script Clarence dies at the end? </i>

    Um, the same thing that Clarence says at the outset of the film, I think.  Something about living fast and dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse. . . .

    Woah, Michael, for a minute there I thought I’d accidentally landed on alt.fan.tarantino in the mid-90s

    OK, Dr. V., this blog can do the mid-90s, if that’s what you want.  You know, I hear that David Sentelle might appoint someone to replace Robert Fisk as independent counsel investigating Whitewater.  What do you think?

    is it just me or does Christian Slater remind one of a young Jack Nicholson?

    I believe it’s just you.

    Posted by Michael  on  06/12  at  11:22 PM
  15. Are there any videos or audio files online of you giving these talks, either on academic freedom or on critical theory/cultural studies?  Would be great—but I could find none.

    Posted by  on  06/12  at  11:43 PM
  16. You people are bad.  True Romance is a good movie, and Patricia Arquette is cute.  She’s also cute in Flirting With Disaster, which is another good movie.  So there.

    Posted by bitchphd  on  06/12  at  11:55 PM
  17. Since Michael mentioned the Outdoor Life Network, or at least meant to, I’ll ask if anyone saw “The Tournament”, a multipart mockumentary about Canadian youth hockey?  The overbearing father is convinced that his 10 year-old son is bound for stardom in the NHL.

    It played several times on that network during the NHL playoffs.  Needless to say, I recommend it.  It even has a cameo by #7 Phil Esposito.

    Posted by  on  06/13  at  12:53 AM
  18. Are there any videos or audio files online of you giving these talks, either on academic freedom or on critical theory/cultural studies?

    I’m afraid not.  A video of the academic freedom talk was available for 30 days via Penn State’s “Mediasite,” but that expired back in early March.  Currently, however, Mediasite does have a cool lecture on the Voyager missions for you outer-solar-system fans out there.  I recommend it.

    Posted by Michael  on  06/13  at  08:04 AM
  19. "is it just me or does Christian Slater remind one of a young Jack Nicholson? “

    That’s ridiculous.  Jack Nicholson was never young.  I believe he was born, already world-weary, at the age of 38.

    Interestingly, I believe Slater will prove incapable of aging beyond that point, either through natural or unnatural phenomenon.

    Posted by  on  06/13  at  01:49 PM
  20. Nick is still in college, isn’t he?  So he took care of his younger brother and a medically demanding dog for a weekend, and you want to talk to him about housecleaning?  No more than a gentle reproach is called for - “I would have appreciated it if you cleaned up the spaghetti sauce that sprayed on the ceiling when you were demonstrating the pressure cooker to Jamie.” He took care of the important stuff.

    Word: family

    Posted by  on  06/13  at  07:19 PM
  21. I agree, Buffalo Gal, and I praised him mightily—while merely asking (with a requisite modicum of genuine curiosity) why the vacuum cleaner extender and rug attachment were in the kitchen sink’s dish drain.

    Posted by  on  06/13  at  07:56 PM
  22. i tivo wishlisted nicholson which has turned up that he really was young once. he has a brief appearance in an andy griffith episode and one of the hammer house of horror flicks. he looks like a little dweeb. smile but the voice is unmistakeable.

    Posted by  on  06/14  at  09:02 AM
  23. One of the great meta-moments of Hollywood history was when Dennis Hopper’s lovable-dad character admonished “Just… calm… down.” Right up there with Clint Walker telling Rock Hudson “We always thought she’d end up with someone like Cary Grant.”

    Posted by Ray Davis  on  06/14  at  09:08 AM

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