Friday, February 04, 2005

Nick 101

Returning yet again to fecundmellow's blog, I caught her swiping an idea she'd seen on someone else's blog: attempting a list of 101 things about yourself. When she says "Now you try!" after finishing her list, I decided to take her at her word...

  1. My middle name is "Keeling" - my Mom's maiden name.
  2. I was 12 when I took my first airplane flight.
  3. Math was my favorite subject till halfway through high school.
  4. I like milkshakes much better than ice cream cones.
  5. I have never gotten a driver's license.
  6. I have only driven for about 3-4 hours total in my life.
  7. In 2nd grade, I got in trouble for peeing on the playground, at recess.
  8. I wrote my college application essay about that incident.
  9. I got in.
  10. I wrote my first fan letter in 4th grade, to Whitney Houston.
  11. I lived in eight different places before I turned 18.
  12. I have never been skiing.
  13. I am weirdly flexible; in one admittedly strange instance, I tripped over my own head getting out of bed (8th grade, when everyone's more flexible).
  14. My first kiss wasn't until I was 20. It was very sweet.
  15. That first kiss sort of evolved into my first make-out session, which sort of led to sleeping with someone for the first time, all rolled up together. Talk about hitting all your milestones at once.
  16. But anyway... I love Hostess Fruit Pies, even though I'm sure they are straight-up toxic.
  17. I was Cyndi Lauper for Halloween in 2nd grade, and Madonna the next year.
  18. It was the same outfit. (Based around my Mom's jean skirt.)
  19. After seeing the first scene of Creepshow, I was a little afraid of the dark for much of my childhood.
  20. I think my first crush on a girl was in kindergarten; her name was Katie, and I would chase her around the playground trying to kiss her.
  21. I think my first crush on a boy was also in kindergarten; his name was Andy, and we walked together to and from school every day.
  22. I have a thing for red-heads, especially men. (Andy was a red-head.)
  23. I have a thing for Mountain Dew; I drink it all day, though I'm trying to trick myself into liking V-8 (it's so salty, though!!)
  24. My first memory is of watching Wonder Woman with my older brother. I would have been about 2.
  25. We lived in Waltham, MA, at that time, and I don't remember anything else about that entire two years.
  26. My next earliest memories are of cutting my thumb on the rusty part of a swingset and tasting my neighbor's coffee-flavored Dannon yogurt.
  27. I barely spoke for the first four years I was alive; I was so quiet, my parents once went looking for me outside, even though I was home, in my room.
  28. I was in my first play in 1st grade. I was King Leprechaun.
  29. Later the same year, I was President Ghost.
  30. Outside of my family, my first-grade teacher Rachel Simmons was probably the biggest influence on my whole life.
  31. My signature karaoke track is "All Around the World" by Lisa Stansfield.
  32. In the shower, my signature track is "Elijah Rock" by Mahalia Jackson.
  33. I am not religious in the slightest.
  34. I really hate biting into apples; whenever I eat them, I cut them into slices.
  35. When I make spaghetti, I tend to eat the sauce off the top and then all the pasta. I have always done this, and I have no idea why.
  36. All through high school and college, I couldn't wait to grow up so I could have kids; now, I'm not sure I want any.
  37. My first memory of politics was voting for Mondale in my elementary school's mock presidential election in '84. I was the only vote he got, out of hundreds. (It was a public school on a Marine Corps base.)
  38. I liked Mondale because his VP nominee was a woman, Geraldine Ferraro. I didn't trust Reagan. I was in 2nd grade. (That sort of counts as three things.)
  39. The first book I remember reading was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
  40. I love it when I lose my voice, because I sing Björk songs all day, even though it's probably a bad idea for my voice.
  41. My favorite painter is Picasso, by a long shot.
  42. I don't get TV reception or cable in my apartment.
  43. I watch about one movie per day.
  44. The most movies I've ever seen in a movie theater in one day is four.
  45. My favorite beer is Hoegaarden, which is a white beer from Belgium—sometimes available on draft in the States. I also like Heineken and Corona.
  46. I hate waxed dental floss.
  47. I never had pets growing up, because I prefered my stuffed animals.
  48. I still have the world's cutest, coolest, most badass Pooh Bear; he's gonna turn 21 next month. (Bust out the Hoegaarden!)
  49. My heroes growing up were Harriet Tubman, Katharine Hepburn, and Sojourner Truth. I would read books and encyclopedia entries about them over and over.
  50. I saw my first Oscar telecast in 1987, when I was not quite 10. I instantly crushed on Marlee Matlin (who won that year for Children of a Lesser God) and William Hurt (who was nominated as Matlin's co-star, and was her boyfriend at the time, and presented her Award).
  51. A week later, Blair made a reference to Children of a Lesser God on an episode of The Facts of Life, the one where the girls sneak out to see a rock concert. I was convinced that Children of a Lesser God must be the most important and amazing movie ever, and I convinced my parents to take me to see it. From that moment, I loved movies.
  52. I made a huge mess when I was little trying to make chocolate pudding out of chewed-up Hershey's kisses and milk. I got this shit all over my bedspread and the carpet in my room. How disgusting is that?
  53. I tried to go to a Christian youth group for a couple of months when I was in 9th grade. I just didn't get it.
  54. The first non-children's book I ever read was Carrie by Stephen King.
  55. The first non-children's book I ever read that wasn't by Stephen King was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read it for fun in 7th grade, and I loved it, but I didn't fully understand it. I was like, dang, these people sure hated single moms. When I read it again two years later, I was shocked to realize that Dimmesdale had actually slept with Hester.
  56. My best friend in third grade was an English boy named Charles Wheen; I was sooo jealous of his accent.
  57. I played Michael Banks in a school play of Mary Poppins when I was in elementary school, and I tried so hard to talk like Charles.
  58. When I was in 3rd grade, Kristin Edwards' Mom caught me leaving a secret, unsigned love note w/ a flower on their family's doorstep. They invited me with them to a figure skating show the next week. Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Torville & Dean, etc. We were out until midnight, on a school night. Kristin and I sat one row ahead of her parents. I was positive I had been on my first date.
  59. I find it incredibly hard to write short sentences.
  60. My favorite international foods are probably Ethiopian and Italian. But most of all, I love rare meat and anything fried.
  61. I met my partner, Derek, on the day of my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary.
  62. I would much rather be forty-five minutes early to something than ten minutes late.
  63. My favorite Star Wars figures were always the creatures: Squidhead, Hammerhead, Weequay, Bossk, Zuckuss, Snaggletooth, Greedo...
  64. My Mom taught me the capitals of all the countries in the world when I was in 1st grade. She knew I loved to memorize things, and she would show me where all the countries were on the globe.
  65. I learned about colonialism at the same time, because she had to explain why some of the countries had two names (Botswana/Rhodesia, etc.)
  66. Once, when I was little, I was in an awful mood for no good reason, and to let off steam, I called 411 and screamed at the operator. I have no idea why, and I am still hugely embarrassed when I remember that.
  67. I am not an incredibly organized person, but I do love to alphabetize.
  68. My first relationship was same-sex as well as interracial. When, on occasion, people would stare at us in public, I thought it was a homophobia thing, and Daniel thought it was a race thing. I think we both learned a lot (me especially, I think). Daniel was great: he could talk and laugh and listen and dance, he was generous, and he was cute, too. We're only kind of in touch now, every coupla years.
  69. The first person I ever came out to was my friend Kristin, who was a-ma-zing about it, as she is about everything.
  70. I am sheltered as a mo-fo, or else just lucky: it wasn't until last year, eight years after coming out, that a homophobic remark ever came my way. I'm not sure the deliverer of the remark, a longtime acquaintance, had any idea how nasty she was to say what she said.
  71. I have a big job interview next week, and I'm more nervous than I'm admitting.
  72. When I was in college, I got a job offer from a DJ to dance in a club for a summer—no, not in a cage or on a stage, just as a "plant" in the crowd to keep people dancing. I'd already made plans to go home (in a different state), so I couldn't do it.
  73. Y'all, I threw up right before going out on my first date, because I was sooo nervous and was sure I was doing/saying everything wrong. Then I threw up again while on the date, and I totally lied and said I had a flu. This was in college (not with Daniel).
  74. I won a prize in high school for writing a poem about being in love with a dancing gypsy woman. Where does shit like that come from? I didn't understand how problematic this poem was until like a year later.
  75. I can't even put into words the best quality of my partner, because I can't even decide. He is unbelievably smart and also totally silly, he is completely honest with me (to include calling me on my bullshit, in those moments when I come up with some), and he loves to talk and show affection and get people excited about things he loves.
  76. If I gave up my current job, I would want to be a counselor or a therapist.
  77. I hate the phrase "never knew," as in, "I never knew that!" I guess it isn't technically ungrammatical, but it just sounds awful to me, like "ain't" or "Where is your house at?"
  78. I let on that I have much better work habits than I really do.
  79. I had my first nightmare last week about a new civil war in America; it wasn't between two clear sides, it was a total balkanized free-for-all between all these various groups of people who just hated each other.
  80. I have been terrified of global warming since 1995, when I first read an article about how global warming can easily trigger an ice age. The Day After Tomorrow was a ridiculous movie but it totally freaked me out.
  81. Among the various scrapes that Indiana Jones gets into, I would have been most scared by the rats in the underground sewer in Last Crusade, and second most by the nasty bugs in Temple of Doom. For me, the snakes in Raiders run a distant third.
  82. My favorite vegetable is broccoli, unless it's asparagus.
  83. I will sit anywhere in a movie theater except the front row.
  84. I literally have no idea why people won't go to movies alone. I love it.
  85. I have this private, wholly unfounded idea that if I really worked at being an actor, I'd be really good at it. I've been prepping my audition monologue from Kiss of the Spider Woman for eleven years, just in case.
  86. I honestly can't remember ever feeling bored in my whole life.
  87. I have a bad habit of talking aloud while walking around in public. I wonder if people think I'm crazy. Sometimes I attempt an accent, badly.
  88. I tape the Oscar ceremony every year. As soon as it's over, I watch it again, and then I rewind it to all the actors' speeches. I still pop 'em in while dusting, cleaning, etc. I have them all since 1990.
  89. Famous people that I have met, long enough to exchange words with them, include Rosa Parks, Barbra Streisand, George Lucas, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton (but that was just a fly-by handshake thing), Martha Stewart, Patricia Cornwell, Tom Clancy, Naomi Judd, Frank Gehry, Joycelyn Elders, Quincy Jones, Tom Selleck, Robin Williams, Michael Bolton, Mike Krzyzewski, Chuck Yeager, Jean Auel, and the late June Carter Cash (wife of the late Johnny). I am not famous, rich, or well-connected; in virtually every case, it's a long story.
  90. All of these people were extremely kind, with the exceptions of Tom Clancy, who put on weird airs, and George Lucas, who was flat rude.
  91. The person who surprised me the most was Naomi Judd, who was not only incredibly talkative, friendly, and warm but was super well-informed in all kinds of far-flung subjects. For example, when I met her, she was passionate about recent research in particle physics. (I caught her in the middle of a two-way conversation with an actual particle physicist, who was working on accelerating electrons.)
  92. The harshest criticism I've ever gotten from a friend was in college, re: my tendency to gossip/criticize people but pretend that I don't. (Ironically, I know she said this because a mutual, much closer friend told me.) The source of the criticism doesn't know I know, much less that I think about her words at least once a week. One day, I should tell her, because she was absolutely right, and I've tried to work on that.
  93. One thing Derek has taught me is to be less competitive. When we play board games, we often start giving each other hints or throwing the rules out the window. Let's just say I wasn't always like that.
  94. The only sport I was ever a little bit good at was tennis. And really, I was marginally good at best.
  95. I used to be a better listener than I am now, and I used to have a much better memory. I don't know where that all went, since I'm only 27.
  96. The two most exquisite experiences in my life were seeing The Piano for the first time and standing in the third row of a sold-out PJ Harvey concert. On both occasions, I thought my head and heart were going to explode.
  97. Sometimes I worry/wonder why my memories of these two moments are so much clearer and dearer than so many of my memories of actual, interpersonal experiences. I have an outgoing personality, but I wonder if I'm secretly some kind of loner. (N.B.: Technically, PJ was interpersonal, since I went with my friend Kathy, but you see my point.)
  98. If I could visit any country in the world right now, it would be New Zealand, to see family (really, my partner's family). Close behind would be Ghana or Senegal, or somewhere in Eastern Europe.
  99. I used to read and write French really well, and I spoke it okay. Now I've lost almost all of it.
  100. Fecundmellow said this activity was harder than she expected; now I see why.
  101. I am extroverted enough to have written this, and to have a blog in the first place, but now I'm secretly nervous that I've said something I shouldn't have, and I'm considering not posting it. I lose hours of my life every week amidst totally circular, self-defeating, and frivolous inner debates just like this one. Oh, the hell with it.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Strange Bedfellows

So, from the files of Corporate Calumny, guess what company just nailed down a contract for gas and oil drilling in Iran? Even as ex-CEO and reigning Mephistopheles Dick Cheney shook his rhetorical spear at Iran and its nuclear aspirations on Inauguration Day, the company he built was carefully ensuring that all of Halliburton's on-the-ground activities in Iran would be executed by a sub-branch of the company that is conveniently based in the Cayman Islands. After all, since US/Iranian economic relations are still in such a deep-freeze that it's [ahem] illegal for American companies to conduct profitable business in that country, Halliburton has to figure out a way to be in bed with Iran without seeming to be there. I guess the Cayman Islands are like Dick Cheney's personal no-tell motel, where you conduct your most illicit affairs and then go, "Who? Me?" when people start asking for alibis. (Check out the so-so-savvy deflective move by Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall in the Post article linked above. It must be nice to live where Wendy Hall apparently does, where all the trees are lollipops and all the corporations are perfectly sweet and politically neutral.)

And now let me get this, so to speak, straight: Halliburton can sign a secretive, bald-faced, mercenary contract with Iran, despite explicit laws which forbid such a thing, but consenting same-sex couples in love can't sign a marriage contract, or a contract to do anything, despite no real reason whatsoever. Have I finally mastered the new golden rule of Republican contract law? Do I win the free toaster?

I mean, at what point... you, as the President, realize that in your State of the Union address, you have just given asbestos lawsuits higher billing than health-care reform, environmental discipline, the war, etc.?

(Not so much on the DL: Halliburton recently paid a huge out-of-court settlement on a bunch of asbestos suits. In case you were wondering how The Little Issue That Could came to enjoy its meteoric rise to the top of the Hill...)

And is there some moment where it occurs to you that supporting a constitional amendment to "protect" the institution of marriage sounds even more ridiculous and petty than it already does, when juxtaposed against issues like nuclear non-proliferation and ongoing war?

If I lived in Syria or Iran right now (or in, what was it, "parts of Lebanon"), exactly when should I start planning to be mortared and shelled?

The prize for most odious RoveSpeak goes to "the culture of life," which is presumably the new euphemism for the Bushie/fundie version of the country, where - to take one example - women in Virginia may be legally bound to report any miscarriages to a government office within 24 hours after the experience, or else be subject to a fine. I am not making this up, though the proposed bill has since been withdrawn; the State Congressman who drafted and submitted it now says that the "language is too confusing." Which is a little like agreeing to shut down a gas chamber or a sweat-shop because the utility bills are starting to irritate.

Meanwhile, at the receiving end of the New Compassionate Fascism, the University of Connecticut just released their findings in a poll of 100,000 high school students, which revealed that more than 1/3 American students think the First Amendment ought to be curbed; 32% even think that individual expression of unpopular opinions ought to be illegal. And check out how many of 'em think the government ought to exercise formal approval of what gets printed in newspapers, periodicals, and the Internet.

My advisor and friend, the illustrious Hortense Spillers, tipped me off to these poll results. It's one thing to be defending our academic jobs against government offices (not to mention parents) who increasingly want to patrol what goes on and gets said in our classrooms. What will it be like once it's our own students who are on a crusade to homogenize and censor opinions? Or has that crusade already begun? Who won't be nostalgic for Beavis and Butt-head once the new crop of high-school graduates reveal themselves to be Richard Nixons?

Monday, January 31, 2005

Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down

...and if that's the worst pun you've heard in your life, don't feel shy about telling me. I work hard at being this inane, and I never get any credit.

But moving on—the stars and planets finally aligned properly this week so that I might finally catch a glimpse of not one but two of the crowd-pleasing centerpieces of the recent New Wave of Thai cinema, both of them big and beautiful in 35mm. One really jazzed me, and one disappointed me a little: "up," "down" get the drift. Still, the excitement of seeing them both was a pleasure that exceeded the discrete merits of either film. It's fun to catch a wave of hype, but even more fun to touch down on what for me, and for many others on these shores, is a brand new playing-field of film aesthetics.

Granted, this is much more true of Blissfully Yours, easily the jewel in this pair. The film possesses the same combination of frisky charm and mournful undertows that you feel in a work like Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, even though on the surface these movies couldn't seem more different. Indeed, on the surface, it's hard to know what Blissfully Yours feels like, period. After an anxious opening sequence in a doctor's office, where two Thai women escort an obviously undocumented refugee through an appointment with a skeptical doctor, Blissfully Yours reveals a funnier, weirder side; the older of the two women now visits her husband at work, slyly treating him to a taste of a vegetable-and-cold-cream casserole she's just whipped up. From here, the refugee hitches a ride with the younger woman from the opening—his girlfriend, as it happens, and thus his companion on a long, unrushed, occasionally unclothed picnic/siesta in the deeps of the Thai jungle. Viewers made skittish by the long shots of desolate driving that carry us into the forest might start worrying that this is Twentynine Palms Redux, this time with real palms. Rest assured, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's temperament is too buoyant and too oddball for something so grim, although the very, very dark sides of fugitive living, sexual isolation, and encroaching middle-age will not go unremarked. Still, this is a fetching love story. With fire ants. And hand-painted Flintstone figurines, which you chuckle at until you realize the horrors they imply. No, really. Just check it out. Yes, the increasing abstraction of the final moments winds up sealing off the picture's emotions just when it should be ready to really let them breathe, but by that point you've had such a compelling experience that you're highly unlikely to care, or even notice.

It's a testament to the glorious eccentricity of Blissfully Yours that the strange-in-its-own-right Last Life in the Universe feels very nearly predictable. Much of the problem derives from the willingness of director-cowriter Pen-ek Ratanaruang to pilfer and retrace the well-known moods and motifs of so many cohorts. Baldly swiping Wong Kar-wai's food-for-love obsession, hiring d.p. Christopher Doyle to rig up his now-overfamiliar framings and color schemes, and ultimately ordering up a Faye Wong haircut for his pixie-ish female lead (when she's seen wiping tables at a diner, no less), Pen-ek is such a copycat that you might mistake him for one of Francis Ford Coppola's children. Casting Takashi Miike in a small part, inserting an Ichi the Killer poster, and slipping in a wink at his own 6ixtynin9 only makes the referentiality more self-serving and belabored...this guy even nicks something from the human xerox machine himself, stranding a hitman on the toilet at a truly inopportune moment. None of this would be as aggravating if Pen-ek did much of interest with his own story about a laconic Japanese librarian in Thailand and his impromptu connection with a gamin he meets via a traffic accident (fast becoming the meet-cute of 21st century world cinema). The film ably conjures one of those gossamer melancholic moods that Asian movies can do in their sleep, which is how much of Last Life seems to have been mounted (and also how I experienced it for about two minutes near the halfway mark; oops). It's all pretty easy to take and just as easy to forget. Doyle can't get away with neon-limned anomie forever, and the screenplay's tinkering with chronology and reality smacked more of Zhou Yu's Train than Chungking Express. Thankfully, this kind of movie has a pretty self-selecting audience, and it has enough wile and charm to reward the two hours we spend with it, but once the novelty of Thai cinema has waned a little for Western audiences, this curio of the moment will quickly look like the minor work that it truly is. Not so Blissfully Yours; that one has the gleam and the soft surge of something valuable and new.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Keeping It Real: The Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

Snoop Dogg, as usual, says it best: "It was about being real but also being real. You know what I'm saying? You gotta keep it real, but you gotta be real at the same time. Only the real will understand what I'm talkin' 'bout."

That off-the-cuff philosphy, which oughta keep Žižek busy for awhile, comes off the commentary track for Tupac: Resurrection, one of the five movies nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category at the upcoming Academy Awards. Snoop here is letting us in on his idea of how Tupac's albums combined the gangsta-ism of some of his tracks (like "I Get Around," which keeps it real) with the social and political truth-telling of other tracks (like "Brenda's Got a Baby," which is real—see, I'm one of the realest, so I get this stuff). Still, Snoop could just as well be diagnosing the peculiar, aestheticized reality of all documentaries, which have to start with fact but structure, assemble, and polish it up like a story. This year's crop of nominees all do pretty well by the form, even if I wished any one of them had really blown my socks off. (By far the best documentary released in the 9/1/03-8/31/04 qualifying period was the mysteriously unnominated The Corporation, which is a straight-up masterpiece.)

Tupac: Resurrection—like last year's winner, The Fog of War—ultimately limits its reach and effectivity by limiting itself to a single voice, and yet the decision to frame the whole movie through Tupac's own interviews and other recorded remarks also makes the film a special glimpse into one complex performer's strong, articulate, but troublingly paradoxical persona. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski's Born into Brothels offers a moving and detailed profile of eight children of prostitutes who live in Calcutta, India; though the movie is carelessly vague and unwittingly cruel in characterizing their beleaguered mothers, the children themselves are a fascinating study, especially as they learn to turn cameras on their own lives. Morgan Spurlock's breakout hit Super Size Me inflates its director in several senses: he sure can hog a spotlight, but the story he spins not just about the nefarious calorie-blobs being hawked at McDonalds but the sheer perversity of America's entire relationship to food is worth making a spectacle about. Then there's the Mongolian entry The Story of the Weeping Camel, which relies heavily on re-enactments and director-guided anecdotes to tell its admittedly winning story about a small family of herders who smartly conspire to save an adorable, all-white, newborn camel whose mother refuses to nurse or even acknowledge it.

The only nominee I haven't seen yet is Kirby Dick's Twist of Faith, about a man who was abused as a child by a Catholic priest but watches his life fall apart as he reveals this secret. Twist of Faith is bowing right now at the Sundance Film Festival, and based on how much I enjoyed two of Dick's other projects (Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist and Derrida), I'm intrigued to see Twist. For now, though, in an above-average field where all four movies would be satisfying winners, I'd have to give the edge to Super Size Me, which does the best job of probing the multiple dimensions of its premise: the detours into seeming sidebars like the school-lunch programs and the anti-obesity campaigns by the former heir to Baskin Robbins ultimately enrich our grasp of the more central material, whereas the other three docs all look a little fuzzy around the edges. Still, they're all real, and they keep it real, you feel me? Check this s**t out, man.