Archive for October 2012

E.B. White on Hurricanes and Mass Media

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A day before Frankenstorm, one could practically see the mainstream media rubbing its fingers together in delight. "At last!" they cried in chorus, "Something to distract us from the electoral snooze-fest permeating the airwaves!" And thusly began 24/7 coverage of issues both related and tangential, like damage, cost, and "HOW WILL OHIO COPE???".

The anticipation was so feverish that, despite this being one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the country, poor Sandy still couldn't live up to expectations (for this one to live up to expectations, Sandy would have needed to produce a hurricane, a snowstorm, an alien invasion and a resurrected Osama Bin Laden).

Well, if it's any consolation, the mainstream media set impossible expectations long before cable news networks had 24 hours of programming to fill. One well-known writer produces the evidence.

E.B. White, known to many of you as "the guy who wrote that book about the pig becoming friends with a spider", was a prolific essayist, contributing regularly to The New Yorker and Harper's Monthly. I bought his book of essays after reading some particularly profound words about NYC (Here is New York) at a time when I still sought my place within this urban Wonderland.

In "The Eye of Edna", 1954, he documents one reporter's abject disappointment at the fact that Hurricane Edna did little more than moisten Long Island:

It became evident to me after a few fast rounds with the radio that the broadcasters had opened up on Edna awfully far in advance, before she had come out of her corner, and were spending themselves at a reckless rate. During the morning hours, they were having a tough time keeping Edna going at the velocity demanded of emergency broadcasting. I heard one fellow from, I think, Riverhead, Long Island, interviewing his out-of-doors man, who had been sent abroad in a car to look over conditions on the eastern end of the island.

‘How wet would you say the roads were?’ asked the tense voice.

‘They were wet,’ replied the reporter, who seemed to be in a sulk.

‘Would you say the spray from the puddles was dashing up around the mudguards?’ inquired the desperate radioman.

‘Yeah,’ replied the reporter.

It was one of those confused moments, emotionally, when the listener could not be quite sure what position radio was taking — for hurricanes or against them.

A few minutes later, I heard another baffling snatch of dialogue on the air, from another sector — I think it was Martha’s Vineyard.

‘Is it raining hard there?’ asked an eager voice.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘Fine!’ exclaimed the first voice, well pleased at having got a correct response…..

Tuesday Three: Fictional New York Weatherpocalypses

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As Hurricane Sandy (known to some of you as FRANKENSTORM and to the more pedantic of you as THE METEOROLOGIST'S MONSTER) swaddles the Eastern seaboard with an extremely wet blanket, my thoughts turn to fictional New York weatherpocalypses past. These are their stories. DUN DUN.

1. The Day After Tomorrow


My greatest Frankenstorm pleasure (apart from a couple of extra "work-from-home" PJ days) derives from a lingering memory of a bunch of Oxbridge holier-than-thous snickering through a screening of The Day After Tomorrow at an environmental agency I once worked at.

"New York city shalt not be graced by a hurricanous monstrosity in any reality!" they exhaled, along with hearty fumes of red wine and superiority.

Now I'm not going to pretend that The Day After Tomorrow offers a portrait of anything approaching reality, but complaining about a lack of verisimilitude in a Roland Emmerich film is a bit like complaining that an orange tastes of citrus. What The Day After Tomorrow DOES give us, in order of priority, is a shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal (at a time when he still belonged to the indie kids), and amazing special effects shots of the New York Public Library drowned in a snow-pocalypse (Brangelina aint got NOTHIN' on weather-related portmanteaus...).

2. AI: Artificial Intelligence

Screen shot 2012 10 29 at 3 04 49 PM

Because it's never quite obvious that the weatherpocalypse has already happened long before the start of the movie, AI's controversial coda hits you in the face like a sickly sweet rhubarb pie. When I first saw the movie, I was the classic "love the movie, hate the ending" viewer, until I watched it a second time and suddenly got it.

Setting plays an important role here, implying that Kubrick's overall intent was something closer to Tree of Life than to his usual bleakness. It's the the crisis of human existence boiled down to its most fundamental battle: the creations of man vs. the creations of nature. And the beauty of AI is that it's impossible to figure out exactly who's winning between those dueling spawns, though humankind clearly lost. Poor David clings to the last vestige of what once defined humanity, until even that's lost.

3. Planet of the Apes


Planet of the Apes was a great obsession of mine as a kid (that includes all the offshoots, even the tv show, which inspired my first fanfiction, written as a lonely 10 year old in Jakarta, Indonesia). I haven't revisited the classic films since my tweens (I watched them so many times I can still see every scene in head), and as my mind developed, I came to realize that the films are microcosms of mankind's worst tendencies, especially the first film.

Planet of the Apes basically amounts to a wet dream for xenophobes, operating on the premise that as white men become the minority, the new colored overlords are barbaric murderers, concerned only with the downfall of the white men. (I'll take this opportunity to point out that the human women left in this particular white supremacist nightmare fantasy land LITERALLY HAVE NO VOICE).

But none of that dulls the impact of the incredible reveal at the end of the film, the only scene left from Rod Serling's original script for the movie. Taylor and Nova finally make it to the Forbidden Zone, only to find out that the "alien planet" he's landed on is, in fact, post-apocalyptic Earth. We don't know the exact circumstances that led to our Great Lady's semi-burial, but it's a decent guess that the climate had a fair bit of impact in the 700 years since Taylor and his fellow astronauts left Earth.


Weatherpocalypses fast and slow have long been a Hollywood obsession, so there are FAR more films that I haven't even touched upon. What are your favorites, whether New York or not?

Gap's Totally Not-Racist "Manifest Destiny" T-Shirt

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About a month ago, Gap released a special series of GQxGap crossover designs by Mark Mcnairy, who GQ dubbed one of America's "Best New Designers." While it's concerning that a man who writes white letters on t-shirts can be consider a "best new" anything, we're not here to talk about design. We're here to talk about manifest destiny.

The charitable view suggests that Mr. McNairy does not know what the term means. Let's let the originator, one John L. O'Sullivan in 1845, explain his phrase:

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.

So what did this mean? The Belle Jar explains what this means better than I could (I would just sing a tune of GENOCIDE! GENOCIDE!):

Manifest Destiny and the philosophy behind it are responsible for a whole bunch of really terrible things. It was used to justify the Mexican-American War, the War of 1812, and, most appallingly, the Indian Removal Act. Manifest Destiny was used to vindicate the myriad abuses suffered by people of colour at the hands of white North Americans. It’s the philosophy that lead to our continent-wide reservation system , not to mention the residential schools created for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

The effects of Manifest Destiny can still be felt, in the poverty and degradation suffered by American and Canadian people of colour, and in the deplorable conditions found on many reserves, both here and south of the border. The ideas behind manifest destiny still exist in our white western consciousness, as much as we might be loathe to admit it; they come up every time our (largely white) government asserts that it knows best when it comes to First Nations issues, or every time someone complains about how much freaking money has already been spent on Attawapiskat only to have their community still be in a state of crisis. Manifest Destiny is apparent every time someone chooses to be bigoted and wilfully ignorant about non-white immigrants, or tries to deny the far-reaching effects of racism; it’s apparent in the mindset of all the people who never take a moment to wonder why or how so many white people ended up owning so much fucking land.

Unfortunately, social media proves that he's very much aware of the phrase's significance. After one student created a petition against the shirt, Mcnairy replied with a tastefully crafted tweet (now deleted, of course):


Yes, survival of the melanin-deficient folks with the big sticks that go boom.

Gap (and McNairy) probably aren't trying to start a race war; they probably think that "ooh! this is a phrase that someone cool once said, maybe even the sort of hipster who wears black t-shirts with white lettering!" Or even more charitably, "let's reclaim the phrase for capitalism! We're promoting the destiny of lawbooks!"

But Gap is one of the guiltiest parties in subverting human rights by using sweatshops overseas. Even in markets with rigid anti-sweatshop laws, like South India, the conditions are appalling - open sewage streaming out into unpaved streets in remote factories, 12 hour days even when the monsoon floods the workroom floor.

This is manifest destiny today. That it's ok for the "not-we" to suffer so Americans can have cheap clothes.

The lingering effects of manifest destiny, well, they linger.

Mark McNairy has issued an official apology. Gap has removed the shirts from the website, but they're still available in stores. Make of that what you will.

The Good Wife Season 2: "Two Girls, One Code"



It's a long time since Alicia ran out of the office with an expression screaming "DANGER WILL ROBINSON! NAUSEA! NAUSEA!". I admit, I kinda miss it. Julianna Margulies is at her best when Alicia's falling apart.

Last night, we saw Alicia drift on, borne ceaselessly into the past. Barely even touched by friction, she raced to a moment that's been building up for the past ten episodes or so: a temporary (and totally inevitable) reunion with Peter.

A variety of external forces attempted to fight against this - an intrepid reporter, an overzealous (and touched in the head) intern, and Alicia's own shenanigans. But none could stand in the way of the boulder rolling down the hill. You can fight gravity, but you'll always lose.

I'm not sure that Peter will be Alicia's last stop, but I'm happy for the show to explore this for a time. After all, when Alicia blips that she no longer cares what Peter does, Margulies' performance seems all too convincing. When she kisses Peter, one can easily believe it's driven by basic relief that she won't face a second round of public embarrassment.

The Case of the Week

You know those moments where you literally watch someone shrink before your eyes? A veil of worship lifts and the person you're looking out becomes small, perhaps even grotesque.

Well, this week's case was all about people trying to eye-shrink each other. Watching Will duke it out with gross Gross couldn't possibly have been more satisfying. The judge tore Viola and Ross to shreds, Ross tried (and failed) to tear Will to shreds, and somehow, even though the firm technically lost, we're left certain that they won. It's because Gross's "win" is so petty and, well, gross. Talk about a sore loser.

So of course our heroes laugh it off, and even Nathan Lane is forced to smile.

Kalinda and Horror-show: Let's just say, I have high hopes for Lemond Bishop's murderous instincts.

Play along in the comments! Thoughts on the ep?

Mark Twain's Presidential Stump Speech

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When the so-called silly season rounds the bend of silly and enters into a world that might kindly be described as completely absurd, I turn to the master of the absurd himself: one Samuel Clemens, née in your mind as Mark Twain.

As serendipity goes, I happened to be reading Penguin Books' collection of Marky Mark's "Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches," which features a little gem called "A Presidential Candidate", which ran in the New York Evening Post on June 9, 1879.

There's more than an element of Jonathan Swift here: "Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages!," he prescribes, as tasty a recipe for canned workingmen as can be found anywhere.

But I'll distract you no longer. Laugh/grimace away.

"A Presidential Candidate", by Mark Twain

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why -- let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun, and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon's mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: "Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages."

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don't want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man -- a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

The Good Wife: Season 4 Premiere


Unlike previous seasons of The Good Wife, we're not starting the new season with a large unanswered question. This time, we start with a bunch of smaller questions, and by the end, we have a few more.

As a result, the premiere feels slightly directionless, even as it hints at the major themes of the year (more on these shortly). I assume part of the reason for the lack of cohesiveness is Alicia's physical separation from the Lockhart Gardner troubles. Dealing with Zach's sass-induced arrest has no relation to the financial issues at LG.

In many ways, she's also emotionally separate: she's in a good place in her life, she doesn't need to have everything in her life neatly defined (this is HUGE character growth for her), and the events of the past three years have left her with numerous fallback options, professionally speaking.

All of a sudden, she's moving very easily from politics to parenting to lawyering. One can only assume this cometh before a fall, as the most common trait of the jacks (and jills) of all trades is taking shortcuts. We see her do this in every way possible: she leans on Cary to use his connections, she leans on Peter to use his connections, and at the end of the episode, she makes the false assumption that she can have all of that and still be everything to Will.

I'd like to think that her newfound confidence comes from having her trusty sidekick/best friend by her side.

But now sidekick's got her own story! And I'm not sure I like it. Part of it's my rampant hatred of Marc Warren, who bears the honor of starring in the worst episode of Doctor Who ever, new or old. Also he's just LAME, with his midnight sun tattoo and his muscle shirts and his silver chain. I trust the Kings to show why he's any kind of match for Kalinda, but its going to take some effort.

That said, I'm mostly excited for the New Normal. It seems like The Good Wife's a rehab clinic for actors who've long ago been typecast as hopelessly broad (Alan Cumming, hello), and I'm as shocked/pleased as anyone at Nathan Lane's restrained performance. And I hope Kristen Chenoweth returns to spoil Alicia's comfortable uncertainty about the state of her marriage and to spoil Eli Gold's piece of mind.

So where are we going this season? Here are my guesses at the major questions for the season:

  • How will Alicia be affected by no longer being the most important character in Kalinda's narrative?
  • Is Zach more of an Alicia or a Peter?
  • What is the state of the Florrick marriage? Does it even matter? Should we just be rooting for Alicia to make it on her own after all
  • What strange costume will David Lee wear to the office this year?
  • How will Grace top herself in the department of incredible yet entertaining lack of logic?
  • Will Chandler Bing's show please be cancelled so he can smarm his way through Chicago politics full-time?

And MOST IMPORTANTLY, will any scene this season top the pure ridiculous hilarity of this scene?:

Why You Need to Watch Scandal

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Unlike with many shows, I can actually name the moment I fell in love with Scandal. It's the most comfortably feminist show on television this side of The Good Wife, and one of the tightest, plottiest thrillers in recent memory. But that's not why I fell in love.

Scandal already earned a certain amount of goodwill from me for its African-American female showrunner and African-American female lead (seriously, when's the last time those conditions happened on their own, let alone in tandem).

But goodwill rarely translates to love. Goodwill's the annoying kid sister of love, or that boy who's so nice to you that you really want to like him, who treats you so superficially well that you stay faithful to him for months on end despite flavorless sex and a deep-seated yet ever-increasing disdain for his total obliviousness to how you really feel about him.

Luckily the show quickly surpassed my highest expectations. Scandal has a secret weapon, a character who reminds us in every appearance that this show is something else: Mellie, the President's not-really-suffering wife.

The first episode suitably introduces the show and the characters, but fail to tell us that the show will be anything more than a higher-stakes political simulacrum of Grey's Anatomy. We learn that our protagonist's one true love is the man she can never have (and by this point, really doesn't want to have). It's funny, it's witty, it's thrilling, etc.

Episode Two turns the show into a thriller (and what a magnificent ride it continues to be). Hints of conspiracy abound, and the audience soon realizes that the emotional stakes of our characters stand small against the stakes of the political mystery (and boy does that mystery build. Rhimes works in one of the most horrifying torture scenes I've ever seen. Like most horrors, what goes unseen is far more disturbing than what's seen).

In episode three, Shonda Rhimes mixes in the special sauce. We learn a little more about Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, whose career's about to explode between this and Django Unchained) and her past relationship with the President. Crucially, a throwaway line, one that whizzes by so quickly that you could easily miss it, reveals that Mellie not only knows about the love affair, but recognizes the role that relationship played in getting her husband elected to the highest office in the land.


There's a love triangle alright, but the President doesn't even figure into it: the unifying arc of the show's about Olivia, Mellie, and the Presidency, and the compromises and realignments they make to make sure that the highest office in the land stays intact, and dare I say it, respectable.

This setup allows Shonda Rhimes to wipe her ass with the Bechdel test over and over again. There's a wife and an ex-lover and they don't even talk about relationships. They talk about their roles in the world as they envision it; protecting Fitz, and by extension, their life's work. Their mutual respect and professional need for cooperation, supersede anything so quotidian as stereotypical female jealousy.

Because these woman are comfortable with who they are and what they want, they also have genuine friendships with the opposite sex. Genuinely platonic relationships, without telegraphed sexual tension, still feel sadly revolutionary in contemporary television.

The best thing of all about the show? It's thematic affirmation that in the real world, there are no white hats. No one really lives on the poles of good and evil. I haven't really talked about the other characters of the show, or the ongoing mystery, but I don't want to spoil you (it's twistier than Revenge).

I'm going to start regularly writing about the show, and I hope more of you give it a chance. The first season is streaming on Netflix, and I recommend it for a rainy day.

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