Thursday, July 31, 2008

My own private Flavorpill

Last night I wrote about my travails trying to get event previews into Flavorpill.

Of course, no amount of advance planning will help when it simply never occurs to you to write up an event in the first place. That's the case with something I'm looking forward to tonight at Northwestern University's Block Museum, a screening of rare films from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Learn more about it here.

At least I can share it in this space with you, my literally tens of readers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

You gotta have faith

In early June in this very space, I recommended a comedic solo double feature playing at Second City, Nicky Margolis' Split! and Pat O'Brien's Shatter, which I wrote about for the culture guide Flavorpill here.

I hadn't seen it at the time, which is unusual. Flavorpill's mission statement is "filtered content," meaning each writer is personally vouching for the event in question. Generally we attend a preview, press night or early performance whenever possible, both to decide whether to recommend a show and to incorporate its content into the writeup.

A perfect example was last summer, when my then-editor asked me to see the first of two performances of the intelligent young comedian Kumail Nanjiani's new monologue show Unpronounceable at the Lakeshore Theater. I caught the show in July with no pressure to write anything, but with time enough to preview the August performance if I so chose.

I found Kumail's show moving, thought-provoking and hilarious, so it was my pleasure to recommend it. Happily, the August show sold out and it met with a huge response as it had in July. Soon after, Kumail moved to New York City, where he's burning a trail through the standup scene.

Sometimes, however, it's not possible or practical to see a show before writing about it. When a band is on the road, for example, playing one Chicago show three weeks hence, there's no easy way to catch the current tour before the night in question. It's too late to write about it after it's over since we don't write reviews, only previews. So we might recommend a band's local show if we think their body of work or their new album merits it.

Another example is a short theatrical run. Our editorial turnaround time can be a week or more, and our popular weekly email blast arrives up to a week before an event occurs. Thus we usually work several weeks ahead of events. When a show is only playing for a short time, its run might be half over if we wait until after seeing it to write it up, so for practical reasons we take the occasional educated guess.

I did this with Avenue Q, which only played here for a couple of weeks. Having loved it on Broadway, I felt confident that the touring version would be close enough to the original that I could recommend it without seeing the road company, so I chipped in a recommendation sight unseen. My faith was borne out when I saw the show ten days later; it was terrific.

I took another flier with Split! and Shatter, initially booked for a short six-week run. I know both Nicky and Pat from my years of performing at the iO Theater (née ImprovOlympic) and went through a year of improv classes and performed with Pat. They are elite improvisers, two of the top young comedic talents in Chicago and rising stars in the Second City family, so based on this personal knowledge I recommended their double feature.

Once again, my faith was completely justified. The double feature became a big hit and was extended to last night, when I finally saw it and learned why.

Both shows are outstanding. Pat and Nicky's writing proves to be as good as their improvisation. Their shows are funny, funny, funny. Good character work, top-notch sketches, original ideas, great jokes and concepts that pay off in spades.

Nicky shows her range, deftly weaving a variety of characters into a seamless, entertaining show, and it turns out she can sing too. She employs a "live backstage camera" so two of her characters can interact, and what starts as a standard pretaped bit gets a lot more interesting when she runs "backstage" and, like Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap, not one but two characters played by Nicky interact onscreen. Impressive as it is, the technical wizardry is merely in service of a big, funny closing musical number.

Pat offers up some really good sketches, including a couple that pay off hugely using the lyrics of trite Top 40 hits we hear all the time but never really notice. He opens with a loose, funny scene in which he attempts to break a series of randomly chosen Guinness world records live on stage. Each attempt, of course, fails miserably, but with his winning charm and amusing ad libs, the scene itself succeeds gloriously.

Apparently a fair number of other friends also waited until the last minute to see the show because the closing night crowd was packed with familiar faces from around the Chicago comedy scene. The 160-seat Second City e.t.c. was sold out on a Tuesday night (as Carlos Zambrano was facing fellow All-Star Ben Sheets, no less).

Pat's family made the trip in from Michigan and he managed to involve his mom, the nicest, politest mom you'll ever meet, in a hilarious bit. He claimed to have randomly preselected one seat in the audience to read some dialogue with him. The winning seat was his mom's, and she dutifully put on her reading glasses and read a few cringeworthy, sex-charged lines with him to roars of laughter. The dialogue was on every table in the house so the audience could read along (and read ahead). He cut it short just before she got to the dirty part.

Sure, I was there as a (p)reviewer, but on the personal side I'm really happy for both performers. They did a fantastic job and deserved the huge ovation they received. I'm proud of them.

I wish there were still time for you to catch the solo double feature, because it was pretty much what the Milwaukee Brewers hit against the Cubs on Monday night: back-to-back home runs. But it's over now, although Pat and Nicky may remount their shows elsewhere around town at some point. Pat's also taking Shatter to the D.C. Comedy Festival next week.

Congratulations to those of you who took my advice in early June and saw this excellent pair of shows. Readers of Ben Bass and Beyond, you gotta have faith too.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Quote of the week

"O.J.'s got a lot of nerve, complaining about how hard it is to be a single parent. He killed the mother!" —Chris Rock

Saturday, July 26, 2008

My peepz have skillz

As Bruce Springsteen shot to national prominence in October 1975, he appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

On a local level, my buds in the orchestral-pop band Canasta pulled off a reminiscent feat yesterday, earning nice articles in both the Chicago Tribune (here) and Chicago Sun-Times (here).

Vocalist-bassist Matt Priest is one of those dynamic people who seems to be everywhere at once. (It's entirely possible that the Flaming Lips' In A Priest-Driven Ambulance is about the night Matt ferried Wayne Coyne to the emergency room.) He's a born leader whose energy and enthusiasm are contagious. People follow happily along.

For example, Matt and some college classmates started a Friday evening restaurant club after they moved to Chicago. It soon became Priest's baby, a labor of love designed to keep a circle of friends together.

These things tend to fade out over time, but under Priest's charismatic stewardship, the club has convened at a different restaurant every Friday night for over eight years. It's not only persisted but expanded, bringing new friends into the fold. (As a member for only seven years, I'm one of the newbies.)

It's a drop-in deal; I make it out several times a year. Last night at I Monelli, already a contender for worst restaurant of 2008, I congratulated Priest on the nice newspaper article. He thanked me, mentioning the Sun-Times. I had no idea they'd been written up there, nor did Priest know about the Tribune article I was referring to.

Back to Canasta. Despite several lineup changes since they started in 2002, the chamber popsmiths have been consistently tuneful and engaging throughout their run. Their hard work has won them glowing press and some glamor gigs.

For example, Canasta was handpicked to open for Wilco at a fundraising concert for Barack Obama (see photo) and their signature song "Slow Down Chicago" appears in the movie trailer for Terry Kinney's upcoming comedy Diminished Capacity with Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick and Louis C.K.

Props are also due to fellow Canasta founder and FOBB&B Elizabeth "EL" Lindau, a good violin player and a good person. She's the one who brought me into the restaurant club.

We met as Bucktown neighbors on a sunny summer day neither of us is likely to forget. Some misguided soul had broken into a home, stolen a car and led police on a high-speed chase. The joyride ended when the offender smashed the car into a tree across the street from my house and fled on foot.

As the crime unfolded, a friend and I were walking back to my place and EL was out for a jog. We were all puzzled by the sirens piercing the air of our normally quiet neighborhood until we simultaneously happened upon the bizarre crime scene.

The stolen car was a crumpled wreck on the parkway and broken glass was everywhere. Dozens of neighbors were outside surveying the damage and sharing their versions of events. It was one of those weird moments in life.

It all ended well as the cops caught the bad guy and EL and I became friends. The Canasta kids and EL's eventual boyfriend (and now husband) Jeff Dunlap would later enrich the circle.

Neither of us lives in Bucktown anymore, but some traditions carry on; the restaurant club is going strong and so is Canasta. They're playing tonight at Schubas, a great band in a great room. Come on out.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Culture note

FOBB&B Hannibal Buress performs tonight on Comedy Central's standup comedy showcase "Live at Gotham." He's hilarious. Check it out.


On Fridays we post live performances.

A few weeks ago we presented a Beatles cover. Today, in a different sense, a Beatles cover:

...and for good measure, charming newsreel coverage of a 1963 Fab Four visit to Manchester:

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Jerome Holtzman 1926-2008

Today we acknowledge the passing of the greatest of baseball scribes, Jerome Holtzman, who covered the grand old game for decades as a beat writer and baseball columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times.

Nicknamed "The Dean" by Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams, Holtzman set the standard for baseball coverage, breaking big stories and regularly scooping reporters half his age. He is best known for inventing the pitching save, which baseball adopted as an official new statistic in 1966. It was the first major new baseball stat since the RBI in 1920.

Holtzman's book No Cheering in the Press Box is to sports reporting what Mike Royko's Boss is to politics: a seminal primer by a Chicago newspaperman that remains widely admired and taught on college campuses to this day.

After Holtzman retired from the Trib in 1998, commissioner Bud Selig immediately hired him as baseball's first official historian, in which capacity he had long unofficially served.

I exchanged a few hellos with Mr. Holtzman around the ballyard during my eight years as a vendor at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Parks old and new. I didn't know him personally but read him with great interest as so many others did.

The Dean was also a wise professor, and when you read a Jerome Holtzman column, class was in session. His clear writing explained the nuances of the game, bringing readers into the sport's inner circle with a healthy spadeful of inside dirt.

Jerry Holtzman was the sportswriter I made a point of reading when I was growing up. Even as a kid I could tell he was doing something good for the game.

The Tribune's obituary is here, the Sun-Times' is here, and fond remembrances such as this one are everywhere.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Going to the movies

As you know, it's easier than ever to see a movie without going to a theater. Your TiVo (DVR, Netflix, pay-per-view, houseboy) will provide movies in your living room to your heart's content. If you forget to TiVo your movie, HBO On Demand will serve it up. There's also usually a mediocre romantic comedy playing on TBS. After that's over, you might actually consider going outside.

Even brand-new theatrical releases are available at home, where any six-year-old with the inclination and hard drive space can illicitly download them. They're also available on DVD from a horse blanket on Canal Street if you're cool with your money going to Chinese pirates rather than Warner Bros.

Like most people I don't support these unofficial distributors, but volume is not an issue (or it is, but in the sense that we're bombarded with too much of it). At any given time there are eight or ten movies waiting forlornly on my TiVo box or DVR for some attention.

Will I get to them? Not likely. I also TiVo my favorite TV shows, plus the Howard Stern radio show plays on a 24-hour loop on Sirius. The Stern show is as addictive as a soap opera, plus unlike a movie I can half-listen to it while, for example, writing this.

Movies were the first casualty of my surfeit of entertainment options. I record them not because I'm intent on watching them but to provide a decent selection on the rare occasion I want to watch one.

In this climate, there's little incentive for someone like me to head to the local cinema. It's so much easier to kick back and watch a movie at home, where I've already paid for it. (Apparently I'm a hypocrite because I just paid a good nickel to see Chris Rock at the Chicago Theater on Sunday night performing what will surely end up as his next HBO special.)

Plus at my house we don't get too many morons bringing a screaming 18-month-old to a Saturday 9:30 p.m. show, which ruined Something's Gotta Give for three friends and me at the City North 14 on Western Avenue.

Who cares if the movies aren't brand new? I finally saw Harry Potter 5 on cable last week. Did it matter that I missed it in the theater? I'd already forgotten it five minutes after it ended.

For all of the above reasons, plus the fact that I'm a bad sleeper and I try to avoid being downtown after 11 p.m. on a school night, I passed on an admittedly cool event last week: the Dark Knight Gala at the IMAX Theater on Navy Pier (see right), a red-carpet preview screening and party with such dignitary guests as director Christopher Nolan.

After serving for years on the Associate Board of the Chicago International Film Festival, I remain a member and support the festival every October. They provide preview screenings throughout the year (most of my trips to movie theaters are for these) and occasional big-ticket glam fundraising events like the Batman party.

I'm happy to go to a new movie when someone else suggests it. Last year some buddies and I caught Sunday matinees of The Simpsons Movie (liked it) and The Bourne Ultimatum (loved it) and we had a great time. But I only went at their invitation; the idea of going literally never occurs to me.

Of course, there are still plenty of reasons to go to the movies: to catch the hot new release everyone's talking about; to lose yourself in the immersive environment of a large screen and surround sound; to share a communal experience with like-minded strangers; to see The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense before someone ruins it for you. Plus not everyone has Netflix or cable, and there will always be millions of kids looking for something fun to do in the summer.

It wasn't just the kids who came out to support the Batman movie, which set a new box office record for an opening weekend. With a slew of positive reviews and so much word of mouth I can hear the buzz coming through my window, it's looking like the movie of the year, as beloved as WALL-E, a thinking man's superhero movie in the vein of Iron Man.

Naturally I haven't seen any of these, but I look forward to catching them on HBO next year.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday live

In last week's installment of our Friday performance series, an Asian instrumentalist played a mesmerizing rendition of a familiar chestnut.

Why stop there?  Here's Zack Kim's take on a pair of ubiquitous pop culture standards:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Things I am over

1. The New Yorker's Obama cover. I have no problem with the cover, but I am over the world's overreaction to it.

2. National and American League All-Star jerseys. These are an utterly blah invention of recent vintage, expressly designed for the sole purpose of selling yet more merchandise to a fatuous public. I was over them the first time I saw them.

The players still wear them in the Home Run Derby, but at least baseball has gone back to letting each player wear his regular team's jersey in the All-Star Game itself. The varied uniforms on the field have long been one of the coolest things about the All-Star Game, as baseball temporarily forgot but has now happily remembered.

And on a related note:

3. Ever-changing sports team jerseys, colors and logos. See above in re "expressly designed for the sole purpose of selling yet more merchandise to a fatuous public." Over them.

It's bad enough that the players change teams and cities so often they also need their last names on their street clothes. At least leave the uniforms the same so they're recognizable to the casual fan. In my day... never mind.

4. The electoral college. I am so over this vestige of our agrarian past. Battleground states? Pshaw. Every voter should have a battleground vote.

Candidates for national office should conduct national campaigns. They should make their case for the presidency directly to the people of all 50 states, not 12.

Every vote should matter and count the same. Whoever gets the most votes should win. Isn't that the definition of an election?

5. "President" Bush. Neither I nor the country or world is close to over the massive hemorrhage of statesmanship that has been the Bush II presidency. Nor am I over the fact that every day this idiot remains in the White House is an affront to all Americans regardless of their political views. But him personally? Over him. Next.

6. The endless election season. If only it were just a season. It's been dragging on for what feels like eleven years. Over it. Can we have the election tomorrow?

We've known the names of both presumptive nominees for a month now. With their radically divergent worldviews, the average thinking adult should have little trouble deciding between them. Anyone still undecided should wake up, open a newspaper and make up their mind.

As my friend Goldie said, "Basically, I'm checking out until election day. Voting for Obama. And then hopefully checking out again." Hard to feel differently at this point.

7. The election process circa 2008. The need to amass a huge war chest two years before the election; the states' leapfrogging each other to ever-earlier caucus and primary dates; Super-Duper Tuesday, whose pernicious effects cannot be absolved by a cute nickname.

Enough already. The system badly needs an overhaul.

8. Bloggers. Angry loudmouths who rant about sports and politics on their websites as if anyone else cares. Over them.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A late great

Because most visitors to this site stop by Monday through Friday, I rarely write here on the weekend. (Ben Bass and Beyond: friend to bored cubicle dwellers everywhere.)

I make an exception today because my brother Justin has suggested that I write something acknowledging Milton Berle's 100th birthday. In gratitude for Justin's stalwart support of this site, not to mention his excellence in the brotherly arts, I do so.

I assume he knows Uncle Miltie's birthdate because the two of them hit it off when they met some years ago at a party in Los Angeles. He got a kick out of meeting a living legend. So did my brother.

And thus we wish a happy hundredth to the late Milton Berle, television pioneer, comedy icon, host of Texaco Star Theater, and a man renowned in the Friars Club locker room for his enormous, shall we say, career. Apparently he was a decent guy too. If my brother liked him, that's good enough for me.

Incidentally, his given name was Mendel Berlinger. Mr. Berle, that is. My brother's real name is Hyman Moskowitz.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Old school

Last week our Friday performance series took a break for Independence Day, but now that we're dependent again, we return this week to kick it old school.

I write event previews for Flavorpill, a popular culture guide (ambiguity intentional). It's kind of a big deal in its hometown of New York City, lower-profile but also respected here in Chicago.

Many of my Flavorpill writeups are about comedy and theater, but I also write about music, panels, readings, or what have you (sorry to boast but I'm equally ill-informed about everything).

Looking back, I seem to have unintentionally carved out a niche writing about events sponsored by a Chicago institution called the Old Town School of Folk Music, or as I affectionately call it, "Old School." For example, I wrote about it here and here, and way back before Flavorpill went from .net to .com, here.

That's a fair amount of coverage considering I've never taken a music lesson there in my life. I've only walked into their Lincoln Avenue headquarters a couple of times, first to see Gillian Welch and Steve Earle (a late substitution for a mourning Richard Thompson) on the grand opening weekend, and once for Red Red Meat and Califone.

But it's a beloved local institution with a rich history and excellent programming, so I support it in my humble fashion by helping to spread the word.

And thus, like Scorsese hiring De Niro for the umpteenth time to act in a movie about criminals, I return this week to my favorite muse, chipping in this writeup for the Old Town School's Folk and Roots Festival tomorrow and Sunday at Welles Park in Lincoln Square. If you're a music fan looking for some outdoor fun this weekend, you could do a lot worse.

As sometimes happens at Flavorpill, the above preview was edited within an inch of its life. One quip edited out was: "...for those who like a little old school in their Old Town School, expert cover bands playing Beatles, Kinks, and Wilco favorites."

But I edit this site, bitchez! So it's back! Ha ha! Boo-yaa! Sorry, my ad nauseam repetition of the term "old school" triggered some nostalgic 2003-style exuberance there.

To get us in the mood for the Beatles covers that the Old Town School's crack cover band will perform at Folk and Roots this weekend, here's the virtuosic Jake Shimabukuro's ukelele take on a Fab Four classic:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Household corner

Move over, Hints From Heloise. Today it's all about Grandpa Benjy's Old-Time Home Remedies up in this piece.

From my neighbor Nancy S., a retired college professor who knows everything:
Are you troubled by multiple mosquito bites this season?  A little dab of household ammonia applied right to the bite completely eliminates the itch/pain, and also the swelling.  Furthermore, the itch/pain and swelling do not return when you get around to washing it off, even if washed almost immediately.

Of course, the ammonia and water base evaporate almost immediately, but household ammonia also includes various mysterious ingredients that the manufacturers do not want to divulge to competitors----“anionic and nonionic surfactants”, and “small quantities of processing aids and perfume”.  Not knowing what these substances are, I prefer to wash them off as soon as I can get around to doing so.  But, remember, household ammonia is supposed to be reasonably safe, as approved by the FDA, or whatever.  The instructions say to flood with water if there is prolonged contact with skin.

Maybe you knew about this remedy already, but I know lots of people who didn’t.  It is truly more effective than anything else I’ve encountered to provide immediate, and complete, relief from mosquito bites.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I know it when I see it

A byproduct of the desktop publishing revolution is an increased awareness of and interest in print typefaces. The Microsoft Wordification of this planet has made the word "font" more than just an archaic synonym for fountain.

Heck, there's an entire documentary movie about Helvetica type, which I previewed for Flavorpill last year like so:
Developed in 1958 in a Swiss type foundry, the omnipresent typeface Helvetica takes its name from "Helvetia," Latin for Switzerland. Its clean lines and smooth curves, well, typified the advertising industry's no-nonsense '60s movement away from flowery postwar design excess. Thought to imply stability and efficiency in a time of social upheaval, Helvetica rapidly metastasized worldwide like a benign virus that lingers to this day in glossy ads, trendy signage and the brand logos of American Airlines, 3M, Lufthansa and Panasonic. Cementing its universality, the sans-serif juggernaut now has its own eponymous documentary. Though it explores the rarefied niche of font creators and kerning geeks, the film has widespread appeal, having broken Siskel Film Center box office records this summer.
I liked the movie though I know little about visual style and layout. As Justice Potter Stewart memorably opined about obscenity, I just know good design when I see it.

Take, for example, the New Yorker magazine, whose clean, smart appearance nicely counterpoints its crisp prose. The look is at once classic and timeless: although many of its visual elements date back to its February 1925 founding by Harold Ross, it's somehow not dated. Plus it's distinctive. Flip to any page of the New Yorker and you immediately know what magazine you're looking at.

Let's hear more about it from someone who knows plenty: New Yorker enthusiast and FOBB&B Emily Gordon, whose website Emdashes lovingly chronicles the magazine in exhaustive detail.

Unlike me, Emily's not merely a casual observer. Her day job is managing editor of PRINT magazine, where she recently chipped in this gem on Rea Irvin, the founding art editor who established the New Yorker's visual style. Among his many lasting touches are iconic swell and de facto mascot Eustace Tilley, pictured at right, and the New Yorker's signature font, which now appropriately bears his name.

Nice one, Emily!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On treason

The other day I argued that Anthony Lane's negative movie reviews are not attacks but counterpunches, righteously indignant responses to films that are themselves offensive.

Some counterpunches reply to offenses with considerably more at stake. Here's a keynote address E.L. Doctorow delivered to a joint meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Measured though his words are, Doctorow takes devastating aim at the Bush administration's assault on knowledge, an ongoing attack of gravest consequence to Americans (and others) of every political stripe.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal squared off today in the Wimbledon gentlemen's final at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

The winner was anyone who watched.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Literate insults (present day)

Yesterday I bemoaned the passing of the age of the literate insult. Happily, it's not quite over yet, as a hardy few practitioners are keeping the art form alive. The most obvious example, at least in the media, is New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane.

He's a vestige of the era of Tina Brown, the flamboyant young Englishwoman who had made her name in Manhattan publishing circles by reinvigorating a tired Vanity Fair with a mix of investigative journalism, literary writing and intelligent celebrity profiles (intelligent occasionally even modifying celebrity).

Condé Nast owner Si Newhouse installed her as editor of the venerable New Yorker with a mandate to blow it up, and that she did. For decades the New Yorker had been a sweetly aging dowager, a refuge from the passage of time and the hurlyburly of modern life. With its mild covers featuring quiet still lifes and wintry paintings of Central Park, it was not likely to set your pulse racing. It was polite and restrained, smart and sober, a place to find 20,000 writerly words on the honeybee and no photos, thank you.

Many saw Brown's ascension to the editorship as a threat to the New Yorker they loved, and in ways it was. (The first issue under the new editor featured the Edward Sorel cover at right, which deftly captured the sense that a punky British hellion had invaded a stately New York institution.)

Some New Yorker loyalists were appalled by Brown's focus on hot topics (breaking news, Hollywood stars, the media industry) from which the magazine had long stood at a remove. Others embraced her declared intention to bring the magazine into the modern era while honoring its longtime standards.

For someone seen by many as a vulgarian, a barbarian at the gate, Brown forged an impressive track record in the recruitment department. Even as she'd elevated Vanity Fair with serious reporting from the likes of her biggest hire, Dominick Dunne, so did she make the New Yorker current and vital by bringing in such talent as Malcolm Gladwell, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jeffrey Toobin, Simon Schama, and her own successor as editor, David Remnick. If she loved the sizzle, she didn't forget the steak.

She also broadened its visual horizons, hiring the late Richard Avedon as the first staff photographer, and fired writers whose style or productivity didn't fit into her vision for the magazine. She burned old bridges while building new ones.

There are those who lament the changes Tina Brown wrought, but others who appreciate the energy and excitement she brought to the New Yorker. She also significantly boosted its circulation as she had Vanity Fair's.

No recruit embodies Tina Brown's legacy better than Anthony Lane, whom she brought over from a London newspaper to review films for the New Yorker. Young and elegant, British and impatient, clever and cutting, informed and authoritative, opinionated and blunt, Lane is Tina Brown in a movie theater.

And so to the literate insult. Lane may be billed as a movie critic, but to me he is more like a mild-mannered office worker who moonlights as a professional assassin.

Many of his reviews are beige wallpaper, perfunctory takes on obscure foreign films that play the Angelika for a few weeks and quietly disappear. These writeups are generally sleepy, respectful, uninspiring and uninspired. As for the reviews of mainstream American cinema, Lane's colleague David Denby handles most of these.

But when Hollywood cranks out something big, loud, and dumb, a blockbuster with a huge budget, in-your-face ad campaign, expensive stars, and an idiotic script, David Remnick grabs his highbrow Batphone: it's Anthony Lane time! Thus called to duty, the dapper Englishman unsheaths his poison pen and proceeds methodically to disembowel everyone responsible.

Lane can write a devastating putdown with the best of them; in fact he is the best of them. When he pans, he is by turns sarcastic, cruel, sardonic, broad, snide and hilarious. His facility with language and playful sensibility make his writing fun to read, but no less acidic for its entertainment value. He leaves a trail of scorched earth in his wake without even wrinkling his own starched shirt.

Like many cineastes of the first rank, Anthony Lane is a self-appointed moral guardian of filmdom. His frequent negativity is fueled by a sense of personal disappointment. If he takes you apart it's out of love, driven by his hopeful desire for something better. (As the late George Carlin said, scratch a cynic and you'll find a frustrated idealist.)

Come now, Lane's really saying if you read between the lines, we both know you had a better movie in you than this. He's the teacher who doesn't just give you a D but takes you aside for a personal pep talk; he skewers because he cares. But his tough love is more tough than love. If you release a terrible movie, he'll smite you so hard your ancestors will feel it.

Just the other week, he spent two full pages systematically dismembering the Sex and the City movie and its creators. I would post highlights, but the entire thing is a highlight. (All right, one nugget: "All the film lacks is a subtitle: 'The Lying, the Bitch, and the Wardrobe.' ") The highly unflattering illustration by David Hughes depicting the four leading women as ghoulish harridans underscores the contemptuous Lane-ness of it all. The final twist of the knife is the title: "Carrie."

What makes Anthony Lane's takedowns satisfying is that they're counterpunches. The filmmakers in question have cast the first stone: there is an offense implicit in their insulting our intelligence and wasting our time. It is the Lanes who stand up with righteous indignation in defense of those who ponied up their money and hired a babysitter only to be condescended to. He's not attacking so much as fighting back.

In fairness, when he is so moved, Anthony Lane can write beautifully. When the Lord of the Rings movies were in theaters, Lane wrote a touching paean to the literary trilogy, explaining the books as J.R.R. Tolkien's elegy for England's dying pastoral age and describing their impact upon an impressionable generation of his countrymen. It was fine stuff.

But for every Roger Ebert, equally adept at writing an appreciation or a condemnation, there is an Anthony Lane who shines brightest when eviscerating a subpar movie. Having crossed paths with Mr. Lane several times, I once asked him whether he shared my sense that there are critics with a special flair for negative reviews, and that he was perhaps one of these.

He replied somewhat diffidently that he didn't see things that way. His demurral was understandable, but the available evidence does not help his case.

The Da Vinci Code? Transformers? Speed Racer? To some these are movies, but not to me. I have not seen them and will never see them. To me, these are reasons for Anthony Lane to exist.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

When insults were literate

We all have a few friends who constantly forward group emails. Some of these (the emails, that is) are more amusing than others. Depending upon the source, the subject line and my mood, I delete many such emails without even opening them.

Then there are the infrequent forwarders, whose discretion confers upon them a certain credibility. I do take a look at theirs.

The other day an occasional distributor sent me a group email that I actually liked. Since I look down my nose at so many of its brethren, it seems only fair to post it here, which I do today.

Does that make me a hypocrite, no better than the knee-jerk forwarders I often disdain? Mmm... I don't think so. I didn't email you anything; you came here. The fact that the content came by way of group email is incidental.

As for the thing itself, omitting all the "Fw: FWD:"s, it's called "When Insults Were Literate." The subject line says it all.

I love a good putdown, at least when it's deserved, but you hear one so rarely these days. A regrettable aspect of our inarticulate, coarse society is people's frequent use of profanity as an insult. Not only is this in poor taste, it's lazy, unoriginal and rarely descriptive.

A clever, pointed skewering is so much more satisfying. We would all do well to emulate the luminaries below the next time we need to put someone in their place.

Incidentally, I can't argue my way out of all hypocrisy. Thank you for overlooking (i) my prissy condemnation of the use of profanity despite the profane Jeremy Piven photo caption posted on this site for months now and (ii) my complaining about laziness and unoriginality while blog-posting a group email.

And now, without further ado...

When Insults Were Literate

Lady Astor: "If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your tea."
Winston Churchill: "If you were my wife, I'd drink it."

Member of Parliament to Benjamin Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease."
Disraeli: "That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

"He had delusions of adequacy."
—Walter Kerr

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
—Winston Churchill

"A modest little person, with much to be modest about."
—Winston Churchill

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."
—Clarence Darrow

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
—William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"

"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it."
—Moses Hadas
(This guy is less clever than he is rude, don't you think? Who insults someone for giving them a book they're not interested in? -bjb)

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know."
—Abraham Lincoln

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."
—Mark Twain

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends."
—Oscar Wilde

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one."
—George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

"Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second if there is one."
—Churchill's response

"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here."
—Stephen Bishop

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator."
—John Bright

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."
—Irvin S. Cobb

"He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others."
—Samuel Johnson

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up."
—Paul Keating

"There's nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won't cure."
—Jack E. Leonard

"He has the attention span of a lightning bolt."
—Robert Redford

"They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge."
—Thomas Brackett Reed

"In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily."
—Charles, Count Talleyrand

"He loves nature in spite of what it did to him."
—Forrest Tucker

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?"
—Mark Twain

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."
—Mae West

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."
—Oscar Wilde

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination."
—Andrew Lang

"He has Van Gogh's ear for music."
—Billy Wilder

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening but this wasn't it."
—Groucho Marx

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Decades of lobbying by the NRA, a neocon in the White House, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.—blame what you will, but it's come to this. The U.S. Supreme Court has found in the Constitution an individual right to own a gun for personal use.

The Second Amendment, lest we forget, reads as follows:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Once again selling out his so-called originalist approach to constitutional interpretation when it's politically expedient, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, rejected the widely held view that the Framers established arms rights as a matter of national security in wartime, despite their explicit words to that effect.

And thus are we, as a nation, a poorly regulated militia.

Sandra Day O'Connor, where are you?