|MAY 1999 Part 4|
|ID4 was on TV tonight. Having not seen it since the obligatory trip to the theaters two years ago, I sat down to see if my initial impressions were correct. They were. Its a very good bad movie. Not so-bad-its-fun bad - it never tips completely into eye-rolling oh-come-ON badness, because youre carried along by the narrative momentum inherent in any end-of-the-world movie. It has the requisite cliches:
1. If youre drunk and get a good idea, you instantly sober up. Jeff Goldblum gets the idea for the virus while falling-over-drunk, but is able to write the code in minutes once he realizes what must be done.
2. Comic relief is essential in a movie about the destruction of the planet. Harvey Fierstein, who can both mince and waddle simultaneously, did not belong in this movie. Will Smith - seen at the start of a long and bulletproof career - should not have made a quip after subduing the alien foe; for Gods sake, hes just seen all his friends DIE, his city destroyed. Talk about a Close Encounter! Comic relief was the movies bane; it lacked gravitas in all the personal moments. At the end, when the bad guys are defeated, everyones so damn cheerful youd think the planet has just lost Omaha and a couple of the Canary Islands.
3. The aliens will subdue us by blowing up the cities. Why? Theyre here for the resources; why not deploy the big ultrasonic flesh-dissolving beam? Does the same job and leaves everything intact for recycling.
Watching on the small screen, I realized what made it work: Bill Pullman. Take his performance as the president out of the film, and its a Sci-Fi Channel movie of the week. In every scene he seems to be contending with fear, defeat, defiance, hope, horror and despair, and he never lets much of it show - its all whirling behind the presidential mask. I recall listening to talk-show hosts debate whether the character was Hollywoods attempt to burnish Bill Clinton; after all, some callers suggested, the movie president was a war hero, a devoted husband, and a bad liar - everything Clinton isnt! Therefore hes supposed to be Clinton! Uhhh. . . .right. I think Pullmans president was a Republican, based on Will Smiths girlfriends admission that she didnt vote for him. I dont want to make any stereotypical assertions here - there are many many Blacks who vote GOP - but she was also a single-mother exotic dancer, and as such I dont think she represents the general GOP demographic.
It was built in 1918, a tribute to Dark-Ages agrarian piety erected while Europe chewed itself up with mechanized warfare. Impressive as the structure was, it left me cold; I never have a spiritual moment in church. I can have ten dozen epiphanies sitting in the grass watching clouds with the dog at my side; in church, I feel the same old stifling hand of ritual & routine clamp over my face. Its the opposite for others, obviously; other people take comfort treading the same slow steps of the liturgy, the procession of the service moving over the well-worn path. But it does nothing for me. I dont like organ music. Its all wax and dust and songs that are never in my range.
But it works for some, and Im glad they like it; I dont share their enthusiasm, but I dont demean it. I do, however, bristle when told I have to go to church to have a spiritual life. To me, thats like saying you cant read books anywhere except a library.
Perhaps these historical dramas are so popular because no one knows history, and hence the audience doesnt know how its all going to come out. Will Elizabeth be murdered in the first year of her reign? Will she take a husband? Will she ever have problems with Spain? Who knows?
One of the kind benefits of Gates of Fire, the novel I just finished reading, was that it assured the reader up front that everyone involved in the battle died. So we were spared running up against our own ignorance of ancient Greek history. I finished that novel Friday night, sitting out back on the deck with a cup of coffee and the setting sun. Sara was pruning the bushes; the dog was rolling in the grass; I was blinking back Manly Tears as the novel concluded. No question: best book Ive read in a year, maybe two. It has about five climactic scenes at the end, each of which has less action than the last, and each of which packs a punch greater than the scene before it. Nice work.
Three. Thats as low as I go.
This will be very short. In fact it shouldnt be at all. Ive been at the machinery all night tonight - first working on a column, then participating in an online architecture forum, then back to the column. Im tired of sitting and tired of writing. The forum was fun, though - it was a discussion on the annual American Institute of Architects awards. God knows why I was invited; when it comes to architecture, I have no expertise, only opinions. Generally correct opinions, but still. The awards concentrated, as they often do, on Small and Precious projects of undeniable merit. I wished theyd have some great vast fist-shaking-at-the-heavens project, something loaded with gall and hubris, a building that said YES BY GOD we stride the planet and were damn happy about it. But no: sheds. Cottages. A HAY RACK, for Gods sake. It was a great hay rack, Ill give it that, but still: a hay rack? A HAY RACK?
-> transmission interrupted!
Better; closer. Getting there. Windy: if this was the age of hats, which it isnt, the sky would have been full of homburgs and fedoras. Pity its not the age of hats; I think a hat is one of those things that tells a man hes a man. Its not coincidence that men stopped wearing hats, and pop culture figure starting grabbing their crotches. If theyd had hats, they wouldnt need to gather their jewels in their fists. Just a theory. Doesnt explain Madonna doing the cojones-clutch in the Express Yourself video, though. No, it does: she was dressed in a mans suit, but was hatless. I rest my case.
Caps dont count. Nor do those ugly silly floppy crocheted things that had a brief vogue, which thank God is now over: I saw a rack of previously hip caps slumped in the 50% off shelf in a department store today, looking like sloughed-off skins of unfashionable caterpillars. Another ugly trend, dead: good.
I tried wearing a fedora in the early 90s; looked like a member of the Lollipop Guild going for a job interview. Too short to pull it off. And it looked out of place in the modern world, a strenuous affectation: Look at Me! Im wearing a hat like Bogart! The art is lost, and even if it was the style of the day, Id look stupid - so I should be glad the age of hats has passed. But Im not. It was a part of the Manly Art, the modus operandi of Guyhood - before Guyhood was defined as being a grunty grinning doofus with a riding lawn mower and a La-Z-Boy. What am I SAYING? I should be happy that age has passed, that the roles have been expanded; if Id grown up in the 30s or 20s, I would have been regularly beaten by kids who were on their way to earning their hats. Probably would have ended up wearing a beret and waiting for psychoanalysis to get popular.
Its just such an odd life. Tomorrow I have to go to a suburban hotel and pretend to be an employee of a company for which I do not work. Theyre having the annual meeting, and Im going to stand up in the middle of the speech and ask questions. And I volunteered for this. A friend of mine runs a business theater production company; they handle corporate meetings. He needed a ringer to bolt from the audience and fling softballs at the CEO, so Im the man.
Well, itll break up the routine, and the routine needs breaking. I havent done anything Different in a while; havent had any challenges, any variations from the beloved routine. This will qualify. Friday night I do the TV show, too - so at 7:10 PM Friday night I will be heading home howling & happy, ready for a long indolent weekend and the start of summer.
Hot again today. I was right: three straight days of sun and the memory of cold wet May evaporates. Grilled some chicken soaked in tandoori spices - which is a little like saying chicken soaked in an oven marinade, but thats what the package said; tandoori spices. I dont know if its because Minnesotans think tandoori is a spice, or the grocery store that packaged the food thought that WE thought tandoori was a spice, even though anyone whos going to buy it knows better. In any case, it was good. Made a batch of Basmati rice, imported from India; Im glad India no longer has trouble feeding its population, or Id wonder why they were exporting rice when famine stalked their land. Washed it all down with spring water, which was on sale today: two 6-packs for three bucks. Well. You cant beat that. Stock up for the Y2K panic! I actually stood there in the store, thinking, is it too soon to lay a little water aside just in case? Probably. On the other hand, what about those Nostradamus predictions? End of the World in July. In which case, Id better get four six packs. But who needs water if its the end of the world? Get two.
Took a brisk 10 minute nap, which recharged me completely, and then sat down to read on the porch. Im glad my porch faces the back yard. All these New Urbanist manifestos aside, front porches are bad for reading when the street is lively - all those kids and dogs and passersby. Who can concentrate? So I sit in the back, which is quiet, except for the planes passing overhead. Who can concentrate? So I went inside to sit out the nightly landings, and scanned a bunch of 20s clipart for next months web site. The 20s stuff wont fit with the 50s and 60s themes elsewhere, but, well, who cares. Its the last month for the 3.0 version of the site, anyway; the site is due for a stem-to-stern overhaul, and itll get it in July.
Last nights late-night TV: a documentary on Cleopatra, lushly illustrated with many baroque paintings of Cleopatra, all of which looked nothing like Cleopatra. Looked like big fleshy Roman-nosed well-marbled matrons. I flicked between that and a movie, The Mouse That Roared, which was strenuously unamusing. One of those gruesome 60s farces where the soundtrack constantly threatens mocking pratfall trumpets: wah-wah-wah-waaaaah. Weariness came down like a sledgehammer and I went to bed.
Tomorrow should be interesting. Different. A column, a corporate meeting, then the BBC interview, sleep, a column, TV, and the reward for it all: Pizza. Thats what I have to think about for the next two days: Your labors shall be rewarded with pizza, and staying up until three goofing off.
Good Lord. Im still in junior high.
A cliche, a cliche: my kingdom for a cliche! I need an ending for my Almanac monologue, and its not coming; its not there. And already the thing is too long with too many hairpin turns; I keep forgetting that you have to be DIRECT on television, straight, uncomplicated. I write these things late at night, and when I show up the next day and watch my baroque sentences scroll up on the teleprompter in the tech rehearsal, I want to cry: why I do I do this to myself? Tomorrow will be no different.
1. No one wants to be there.
So I pitched this to the CEO: let me be an arse-smooching dork. When he opens the floor for questions, let me say this:
Hi, Im new to the company, and Im still figuring out the corporate culture. Is this the kind of place where I can get ahead fast by asking you some softball questions that make you look good?
He gave a short sharp bark of approval. Ah: my kind of boss. I would then follow up by saying You know, its a beautiful day outside, and its almost the weekend, but I think I speak for everyone when I say Id love nothing more than an elaborate PowerPoint presentation on corporate communications.
So thats what I said. Sat in the auditorium with 400 other people, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for the cue, thinking: what the hell am I DOING here? But as ever, the waiting is the worst part; performing is easy. We did several exchanges, and the CEO - a dapper Scot - played along perfectly. At the end of his speech I ducked out the door and headed home, thinking: well, that was different, and different is good.
Then I drove to the same Subway sandwich place I visit every Thursday and bought the same sandwich and went to the same grocery store to get Frosty Paws for Jasper so he can have the same treat he always has ever night, and then I had supper reading the Wall Street Journal - as usual - and napped at the usual time.
Different is good, but routine has its comforts, too.
Dad didnt talk about the war. None of them did - not the uncles who came back, not the aunts and moms who stayed home and waited for the mail or the knock on the door, not the grandparents who puts stars in the window. The war was a black-and-white movie that played late at night after the kids went to bed; the war was a series of dusty books in the basement, a picture on the wall in the utility room, a harmonica, medals in the bedroom bureau. The war was a story he did not want to tell, not now, not yet.
At Christmas he played the harmonica. An occasion for rolled eyes and familiar jokes: Dads going to maul his the Marine Band harmonica, make it wheeze a discordant carol. We made gentle fun of him, as kids will, but we loved to hear him play - it was uncharacteristic for Dad to pick up any instrument and play it without clowning around for a laugh, and besides, he could play it just fine. But didnt all the dads play the harmonica? It was just another thing dads did.
He kept the harmonica in his bureau drawer. One day I went looking for it - cant remember why; I needed it for some project - and I found a small tray with some medals. What they represented, I had no idea. There were some bars as well, each color a codeword I didnt understand. When I asked Dad what they were, he said they were from the war, and that closed the discussion - gently, but firmly.
Only in the last few years has he opened up.
One night while down in the bowels of the ship - he was a machinists mate - they sounded general quarters, and closed the watertight doors. He heard them clank shut, one after the other, sealing him in, sealing him under the water in a cold iron room.
One day while up on the deck the Zeros came, and he went to his battle station. He manned the gun; one buddy fed the belt, the other cooled the barrel. A plane passed by; he etched a response in the big blue sky. When his gun fell quiet he looked left, and he looked right: on either side his friends lay dead.
One afternoon he swapped places with a guy, fixed it so the other guy would be on his ship, and hed be on the Block Island. Figured hed see more action. The ship he was supposed to be on went down, and took four brothers with it. All named Sullivan.
One Christmas he remembers well: water still as glass, sky blaring bright with unfamiliar stars. He took out his harmonica and played Silent Night for the rest of the boys.
Did they like it?
Oh, sure, cause, well, everyone was thinking of home. Thinking of Christmas.
It took me five years to get those stories out.
I know your Dad, he said. We were on the Block Island together.
They hadnt seen each other in decades, my dad and this guy, but I was Ralphs son, and that meant we had a bond, a history. I was in his debt. Christ, were all in their debt, every one of us. Our fathers saved the world.
Great Grandfather Charles Newton, GAR, wounded at Gettysburg.
Ralph James Lileks, U.S. Navy, World War Two.
We owe you this day, and every free day that follows.