Thursday, October 20, 2005

Picture of the Day
Who knew the deserts of Las Vegas had so many mountains.

Monday, October 17, 2005

I wrote the following when I was trying to come up with a personal statement for grad school. With a limit of 500 words, this was one of the first paragraphs to go, but I feel it encapsulates how I feel about popular culture.

There is a feeling I sometimes get when I’m watching a great movie. Or, a great television show. It’s an almost paralysis that starts in my heart and works its way out to my lungs. A smile will come to my face, and even when the scene or movie is over, I’ll find myself unable to move because I’ll just keep replaying it over and over again. I don’t get that feeling often, but when I do, it’s an amazing experience. The idea that something I’m watching on celluloid or on video can affect me to such an extent is baffling. I know that what I’m watching is fake. I know that actors are being paid an awful lot of money to say words written by a writer who has also been paid an awful lot of money to make me feel that way. But, I’m never alone in my feelings. Other people who are watching that movie or that television show are experiencing similar emotions. And they know it’s a fake also and they don’t care. It’s a powerful thing to be able to make people feel. And when it's done on a mass scale? It's awesome.
Picture of the Day

The sun sets over a blacked out New York City. Taken from my sister's apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City on August 14, 2003

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Today, I went to see the United States women's national soccer team take on Australia. After 90 minutes of regulation play, plus five minutes of stoppage play, the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Sounds boring, right? Not hardly. This USA team is not the team of the 1991 and 1999 World Cup or the 2004 Gold medal. This is a great team, but that team played together for a decade and this team looks like it's still getting to know each other. The first half they played sloppy and they really do need to talk to each other more, but they're not afraid to mix it up, and I'm looking forward to the road to the World Cup. The Australian team is a team to watch. They are big, fast and aggressive. Prior to this match, the WUSA team had not lost a game in its previous seven matches, and to play this team to a 0-0 tie, is impressive. Keep in mind that this US team has not allowed a goal in 838 minutes. They are currently 7-0-1 on the road to the 2007 World Cup. As the players get more comfortable with each other and the team starts to gel, we could be look at a powerhouse which should get more people interested in women's soccer.

And now, for the reason I started this posting. Soccer is not a boring sport. A nil-nil score does not mean nothing happened in the game. If when you think of soccer, you're thinking of how you played when you were in fifth grade, when the game was kick the ball and run after it. Kick the ball and run after it, then yes, that is a woefully boring game. But, when played correctly, as the national team certainly does (once they learn to TALK to each other on the field), it's a graceful, beautiful game. Unlike, most popular sports today, soccer is played with very little stoppage. Sure, the clock stops when there is an injury or free kick, but we're talking seconds here and even then the players are constantly moving. Compare that to baseball and football where play completely stops for 2 1/2 minutes every five minutes or so. Even basketball, manages to find the time to cut to a commercial every seven minutes or so. But soccer is played straight through. And at the elite level, every player is moving constantly.

Soccer is a beautiful sport to see in person, but boring to watch on television because the directors don't know how to shoot the game. They should take a lesson from video game programmers and model their shots after them. Don't just rely on the overhead camera because you're afraid that you're going to miss the ball on a cross field kick. Use more medium shots when short kicks are used and put more cameras on the field so you can cut to more close ups on a breakaway. The action on the field is exciting, but the viewer at home misses it when they're forced to see the field as one long shot. Breaking up the visuals will not only add to the action, but will also personalize each player which will help the sport, as well. Right now, there is no face of American soccer, either for the men or the women. There is no Mia Hamm who inspired a legion of little girls to wear her number 9. Think of it this way, if EA Sports decided to come out with a Women's Soccer video game, who should they put on the cover? Coming up empty? That's the problem. And, it's not that there aren't players who are good enough to land the cover, it's that, right now, there is no one person who clearly holds that position. If they want this team to capture the imagination of the public, like the 1999 team did, they need to do two things: a) win b) personalize the team.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Giambi as comeback player of the year?

What are the baseball fans thinking? After what the sport has gone through on the steroids issue, including having a first or second ballot Hall of Famer perjure himself in front of Congress, only to be caught by random steroid testing, why would anyone consider giving any season award to a player who is suspected (with reason) of being juiced? The reason Jason Giambi was so bad last year was because the steroids made him sick. So, now that he's healthy because he's off the stuff, he should be rewarded? No, he should be lucky that MLB's testing policy has been so lax that he got away with it for so long.
Picture of the Day...

Back in February, New York City played host to Cristof's The Gates. Of course the day I managed to make it over to Central Park, the weather was lousy, so you kind of miss the effect of miles, upon miles of orange gates placed throughout the city's largest park.
No one has actually stumbled across this blog yet, but in case anyone does, I would be remiss if I didn't offer these links for people who have considered donating to the victims of the earthquake in Southeast Asia or the victims of Katrina/Rita. So, here goes... Oxfam, or Unicef, or The International Red Cross and Red Crescent. And for victims of Katrina/Rita here... Direct Donations.
After a job interview for a development position recently, the producer wanted to know if I shared her sensibility in films. (Apparently, I don't, but that's neither here nor there.) She gave me the following homework assignment:

Coverage of a script she would messenger to me - par for the course
A list of my favorite movies
A list of the movies I love (and why)
A list of movies I think are interesting (and why)
A list of movies I think are great (and why)
A list of my favorite all time directors
A list of my favorite current directors.

At the time, I thought it was a lot of work (and considering I didn't get the job) I still kind of feel that way, but on second thought, it was a great assignment. And, while I'm still very disappointed that I didn't get the job, I really appreciate that I now have a written list of my favorites. So, without further ado, here is my homework assignment for XXXXXXX XXXXXX.

Favorite movies (not necessarily in any particular order)

Nobody's Fool
Night of the Hunter
Searching for Bobby Fisher
October Sky
Night at the Opera
The Hours
Beauty and the Beast (Disney version)
Bend it Like Beckham
The Thin Man
King of the Hill
Destry Rides Again
Rebel without a Cause
Vanya on 42nd Street

Movies I love (and why)

Nobody's Fool
Films don't have to tell huge stories to get a reaction out of their audience. Nobody's Fool is a small story about a small man who realizes that even though he has rarely left the small town in which he was born, he has made a difference by both his actions and his inactions. The film makes you believe that it's never too late to start making amends for a lifetime time of mistakes, and that itís worth it when you do. It's not easy to produce a movie in which nothing grand happens, but the film perfectly encapsulates the hardships of flawed characters trying to make do in hard times. It makes you care about characters. They are sometimes unlikable, but they are always real. Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, I knew who these characters were and wanted them to succeed. Some did (Peter went back to his wife), some didn't (Carl lost his wife due to his many indiscretions) and some seemed to be on their way (Sully started to earn forgiveness from his son after a lifetime of neglect), but I always believed it and I always cared. In a 110-minute film, that's no mean feat.

Night of the Hunter
I first saw this movie on AMC and if I had known what it was about before the film started, I never would have given it a chance. But, it's an old story; I was going through a Robert Mitchum phase and I was babysitting for a family that had cable, and there was nothing else on, so I gave it a shot. I was blown away. Film noir at its darkest, it is a truly frightening movie that, at its essence, is the story of little Red Riding Hood. Mitchum plays a wolf in preacher's clothing who marries an executed bank robber's widow for the money he stashed and then killed her. Her kids, who know where the money is, take off down the river, with Mitchum hot on their trail. They find safety on the farm of Lilian Gish, as this G-d-fearing woman takes them in. It's a simple story, but first-time director Charles Laughton, along with Mitchum, makes his audience fear for the children's life. We believe, as the children do, that at any moment, Mitchum's preacher will find them. He does this with phenomenal acting from the lead actors to the character actors, at turns spooky and threatening music, and by manipulating shadows and light. In one scene when he wanted to show that Mitchum was close enough that the kids saw him, but he couldn't see them, he dressed a midget in preacher's clothing, put it on a donkey and shot it from the kid's POV to give the feeling of distance on a sound stage. Fifty years later, you can still find references in pop culture to this film, from Bruce Springsteen songs to Spike Lee movies. But, more importantly, even though I own it on DVD, if it happens to be on television, my TiVo is still ready to record it.

Pride and Prejudice is probably Jane Austen's best-known novel, and the BBC mini-series of that novel is one of the best adaptations out there. The recent feature film adaptation of Persuasion is not as well known, but remains one of my favorite films. In making the adaptation, they kept things close to the original source, and the actors did their part to bring Austen's words to life. Austen's characters are generally stereotypes of the landed gentry of the Victorian age. Women, especially, are prone to gossip and that's how they spend their days. In Persuasion, however, the main character Anne rarely speaks. Unmarried at the advanced age of 27, she is destined to remain a spinster. And, not meeting her father's stereotype of beauty, she is the daughter who is left behind. The filmmakers had the tough task of making us care for this character through actions, rather than words, as a woman in Anne's situation in the early 19th century would never think to speak her mind. Instead, she must live within her thoughts. Through glances and reaction shots, we see her pine for the life that might have been and gradually regain hope for a life that may still be. The filmmakers also manage to make such a character speak for the more modern audience of the early 21st century, showing that when it comes to relationships, some things never change. Audiences enjoy rooting for the overlooked ugly duckling, who is just waiting her chance to become a swan. While Ann did so within the confines of her place in society, that does not lessen the courage it took to take that chance. And, at its basest level, Persuasion has a great story and the movie kept that great story and expanded upon it using visual terms.

Searching for Bobby Fisher

The moment when your child surpasses your talent at anything is a difficult one for any parent, whether it's losing your first game of one-on-one in basketball or realizing that you can no longer help them with their math homework. But, what happens when that moment comes when your child is 10 years old, and not only is he better than you are at chess, but heís among the best in the country at playing this game. Your most likely response is to make sure that your child does not waste his gift. But, where is the line between your dream and your child's? Thatís the question that's at the base of Searching for Bobby Fisher. It's a movie with no real villains. The father thinks he has his child's best interest at heart, but how much of his son's desire to play chess is coming from him? Although at its heart, the film is the relationship between father and son, the filmmakers don't ignore the mother. She steps up to speak for her son and threatens to take him away if her husband tries to break what is good and innocent with the boy. It's a quiet scene, but Joan Allen as the mother, imbues it with a steely determination that she must be taken seriously. That type of relationship is all too rare in films today.

Movies I consider great (and why)

Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane is not one of my favorite films. Sometimes I feel that intellectually, it ought to be, but Iíve seen it several times, and while I appreciate the technical know-how evident onscreen, itís not a film I seek out. One reason for that might be because I find the story of a poor little rich boy who grows up to be a megalomaniac to be one I've seen too many times before. But, the use of shadows and lighting, Orson Welles' innovative use of sound, his use of deep focus, along with his use of flashbacks and non-linear story-telling makes the film very interesting to watch. While each of these techniques had been used in previous films, Welles was able to use them together to create a cohesive work of art. He was one of the first directors to realize that talking pictures had the capability to be something more than either silent pictures with sound or a filmed stage play. He realized it could be a work of art that used a variety of techniques to tell the story. Sixty years later, some people still have yet to see that you can make art with celluloid. That Welles realized it, when talkies were still relatively new, and put all the pieces together to give us Citizen Kane, is a great feat.

Godfather - Books 1 & 2
Where Citizen Kane makes my list due to the technical genius of Orson Welles, the Godfather films makes the list because of how well Francis Ford Coppola used the techniques of film to take what might have otherwise been an ordinary adaptation of a gangster film and turn it into an epic experience. Using superb acting and deep character studies, beautiful photography and choreography, authentic recreations of the period, a rich score and superbly-staged portrayals of gangster violence, the Godfather films elevated the genre. Thirty plus years later, it remains the touchstone by which other epic films and gangster films are measured.

Lord of the Rings: The Trilogy
Everyone knows how difficult it is to translate classic novels into really good movies. One only needs to look at the plethora of films that couldnít translate (any film based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel) to realize that. Peter Jackson took a great book trilogy and turned it into a fabulous film trilogy. I believe the main reason for that was because the film was made by people who truly cared about the material and were smart enough to stick to the central storyline. With painstaking detail, they remained true to the story, and combined that with the knowledge that they had to keep the story moving. Most importantly, they realized that there was a whole generation of readers who knew the story, so they didn't have to assume the audience was stupid and dumb everything down for them. It sounds simple, but far too many films seem to take their audience for granted. Yes, the enormous budget and outstanding technical know-how helped, but if they didn't know the story they wanted to tell, it could have been another big budgeted disaster.

Movies I consider interesting (and why)

Far From Heaven
Todd Haynes has never been one to shoot a traditional movie. He'll never be asked to film a blockbuster like King Kong, unlike Peter Jackson who was able to move easily from the indie success of Heavenly Creatures to the Lord of the Rings. But, Haynes does small, internal pictures that seem to insidiously attack middle class mores, and he does that very well. With Far From Heaven, he expanded on a theme he started with Safe, that deep sadness and pain exists in even the most seemingly perfect suburban families. But, other films have delved deep behind the suburban curtain, what makes Far From Heaven so unique? That Todd Haynes did it in the style of Douglas Sirk, the king of glossy, stylized, 50s Technicolor, melodramatic womenís weepies. Without falling into parody, Haynes used Sirk's style of lush music and bright, vibrant colors to bring to the screen a tale of forbidden love, racial tension, and other issues that are as valid today as they were in the 1950s. If you're a fan of films of that era, you realize that Far from Heaven goes beyond homage and is a film that not only works well as a movie today, but it fits in with movies from 50 years earlier. That is an amazing accomplishment.

Waking Life
The first time I saw this movie, I did not like it. One reason might have been the jet lag I was suffering, having just flown in from New York City. Another reason might have been that I was in the mood for a movie with a simple narrative structure. And a third was surely that in the weeks after September 11, I was still searching for movies with simple themes and happy endings ñ comfort food for the soul. But, this acid fueled volcano of animation? Not really what I was looking for in a 10:30 p.m. show in late October. But, my friends wanted to see it, so I saw it. And, I saw it again. And again. And one more time after that. There was always something that kept bringing me back. And then I realized that I was determined to get to the bottom of this movie that I clearly did not understand. Finally, I took a friends advice and decided to stop trying to find the story, and treat it as you do a dream and let it flow over you. I tried that, and was fascinated. I'm still not sure if I like this film, like I like my favorite movies, but it's definitely interesting. Linklater takes different styles of animation marries it to a soundtrack that includes snippets of conversations about life and dreams and a fabulous score, and it is odd and weird and it just works.

Vanya on 42nd Street

As a theater fan, I'm always hesitant to see movies that have been adapted from the stage. Unless they make changes that allow for the proper translation, something always seems to be lacking in the screen version. I think I'd rather have a camera filming a show from the middle of the orchestra pit than suffer through another pale imitation of the original. And so, it was with some trepidation that I sat down for this film. But, I was in a Julianne Moore is great phase, and it was on Showtime, so I watched it. What I saw was a fascinating exercise in theater and film. The movie starts off following the actors as they arrive at an empty theater for rehearsal of the play, Uncle Vanya. They're kissing each other hello, grabbing coffee and donuts, and going over notes with the director. And then, in this sparse space, they start running through the play. And, as much as I'm still not crazy about filmed plays, it's a great interpretation of a great play by Anton Chekhov. Once again, it leads me to believe that if you have a strong story, you can have a strong movie.

Favorite current directors
Cameron Crowe
Wes Anderson
Gillian Armstrong
Brad Bird
Ang Lee
John Sayles
Todd Haynes
Hayao Miyazaki
Sofia Coppola
Peter Jackson

Favorite all-time directors
Steven Spielberg
Joel and Ethan Coen
Frank Capra
Walt Disney
Sidney Lumet
Tim Burton
John Ford
Francis Ford Coppola
Howard Hawks
Douglas Sirk

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Alright, the Yankees won and now the series returns to Los Angeles. Or, Anaheim, more specifically. While I don't think that history actually proves my theory, I do believe that whatever team wins game four (in a five game series) or game six (in a seven game series) will win the series. And so, as much as it pains me, I do believe that the Yankees will win game five. But, let's hope I'm wrong.
Awww... the Yankee faithful are giving Bernie Williams a standing ovation as he comes to bat for the first time in this game. That's so sweet. He's DH-ing this game, and it could be the last time he appears in a Yankee uniform. He flied out to left field, but it was still a nice moment. And since he's not in the field, it's highly unlikely that he'll do something that will engender any boos. Good for them. I have a lot of respect for Yankee fans. Not all of them, of course. I've seen a number who have booed children who have the audacity to wear paraphenilia from the opposing teams. But, Yankee fans know their stuff and they are loyal. That said, I do enjoy the suicidal looks seen around the city when the Yankees lose two in a row and/or fail to make it to, let alone win the World Series.
Chris Who?

Chris Burke, that's who. A 25 year old rookie for the Houston Astros just ended the longest post season game in Major League history, hitting a home run in the bottom of the 18th inning. Crazy.

And the winning pitcher? One, Roger Clemens. Bah! See, I was in a tough position. I wanted Houston to win the series. I mean, they were playing the dreaded (to this Mets fan) Atlanta Braves. But, I wanted Clemens to do poorly. Clemens came in as a pinch hitter (yeah, you heard me) in the 15th inninng, and promptly laid down a fine sacrifice bunt, which went for naught. He pitched three scoreless innings, and came up one more time in the bottom of the 18th inning. He got out, but set the stage for the second unlikely hero of the day - Chris Burke. Cause, I do consider Clemens a hero, pitching three innings on basically one day's rest, and no one expected him to have to hit. Clemens was literally the last player in the bullpen, and I think the 'Stros had gone through their entire bench, as well. Crazy.

Tonight? The Yankees are on the ropes against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (and my disgust with that name is worthy of a whole new blog). And, in case you're worried about who I'm rooting for, then all I have to say is... Let's go Angels! ... ... .
Welcome to Exploring the Vast Wasteland. The genesis of this blog goes way back to September of 1996. I was the sports editor of the Justice (the independent student newspaper of Brandeis University), and I made a deal with Justin Kattan, the arts editor. He wanted to write a sports column for the paper, and I told him he could, IF he would let me create a television column. He agreed, and Exploring the Vast Wasteland was born. It ran as a weekly column until May. When I graduated, I tried to keep it going, but you know how it is when you're trying to start your life, things slide. And so it was with Exploring the Vast Wasteland. But, now in the new blog format, IT'S BACK! I'm changing it slightly, in that rather than being a blog that is all about television, it's going to revolve around what's on my Tivo. But, because it's my blog, it's not going to be strictly about television. When the mood takes me, I am giving myself carte blanche to talk about all of pop culture, including sports. And politics. Which, isn't really pop culture, but it's my blog, and my rules. Oh, I'm also going to start putting up random pictures I like. Why? Cause, I can.
So, the picture to the left is from a trip to visit my dad and his friends out in Vegas. My last afternoon there, we went on a short hike to the Red Rock Mountains. After the hike, I had one picture remaining on my digital camera. I thought it would be neat to take a picture of the mountains behind us through the rear view mirror. What I didn't count on was the pretty fortuitous framing that had the mirrored image in complete focus and everything else slightly blurry.