Teller & Shade Rupe's 'Play Dead' premiere, December 1 in San Francisco

I’m thrilled to say that my good friend Shade Rupe co-directed the film Play Dead, which premieres December 1 at the legendary Roxie Theatre in San Francisco as part of Another Hole in the Head. Shade will be there for the screening. See it!

Here is the blurb:

Famed silent magician Teller of Penn amp; Teller and Coney Island showman Todd Robbins thrill and delight a live audience with gory ghastly spectacles surrounding real-life killers and psychic pranksters in this dramatic recording of their off-Broadway show PLAY DEAD, recorded live at The Players Theatre on Manhattans historic MacDougal street. Expect brutal onstage beatings, nubile nudity, and chunks of the show performed in absolute darkness. Even the exit signs go off! Be welcome, and BEWARE! Dir: Shade Rupe, 2012, USA, Digital, 75 mins., 7pm

Congratulations to Shade, Teller and all involved. I can’t wait to see it!

Another Hole in the Head Starts November 28 in San Francisco

A great hardcore cutting-edge horror film festival is returning to the Roxie in San Francisco. I’ve screened (and reviewed) many of their features in the past, and they have always been so far out there it’s just impossible to describe.

AHITH was where I first saw one of the most brilliant horror films of all time, the The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s B&W, silent “Call of Cthulhu.” While we’re talking great horror, if you haven’t seen that film, you should. It’s incomparable.

I haven’t looked at what’s playing this year, but I have no doubt that it is the jagged, bleeding edge of what is possible, conceivable and advisable in horror film.

Another Hole in the Head opens November 28 at the Roxie in San Francisco and runs through November 9. If you’re in the areaand you love cutting-edge horror, don’t miss it.

Got this via my good friend Shade Rupe.

Red November: Inside the Secret U.S.-Soviet Submarine War by W. Craig Reed

Red November

Craig Reed’s Red November: Inside the Secret U.S.-Soviet Submarine War is a hell of a book. Both the author and his father served as U.S. submariners, and he knows his stuff on the U.S. side. But the reason it’s so damned fascinating is the extensive coverage of Soviet operations during the Cold War, based on only recently declassified sources.

The politics is a bit thin, but that doesn’t hurt the book; it’s a periscope view of the field. It’s the science that is so fascinating to me — the many troubles involved in locating an enemy sub, for instance, and the way that technology has developed to make it possible. I found it utterly fascinating.

One thing I would have liked was more coverage of the nuclear technology involved in subs. That wasn’t really the author’s focus, but I would have liked to consider it more in the context of the other submarine technology as it developed throughout the Cold War.

Great book. I enjoyed it a lot.

Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert Kaplan

Monsoon

I finally read Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon after quite a while wanting to and never getting around it. I’m glad I did, but it wasn’t quite the work of genius that I thought it would be.

As far as I can tell, Kaplan is a fairly balanced moderate, politically speaking, when it comes to world affairs. More importantly, Kaplan seems to have traveled extensively around the area and many of his country portraits are utterly fascinating.

However, the book’s weakness is that format…it sort of starts with an argument, then jumps from country to country. I love that, but it inhibits the book’s coherency. In a sense, Kaplan fails to make a coherent series of arguments because there are so many competing influences to paint portraits of.

That said, it does make one convincing argument: American single-superpower global hegemony is eroding in favor of a more diffuse distribution of power.

I would add the observation, which Kaplan doesn’t make, that the ascendant nations of the Indian Ocean region have very different concerns and challenges than the U.S., but in many ways their expectations are framed by the U.S.’s largely unsustainable model of consumer behavior. Ooops. There’s no way to distribute resources with current technology and not engender disaster within the next fifty years. Without some revolution in sustainable energy, and a second revolution in the use of water, life on Earth is going to get… interesting.

That’s not Kaplan’s focus, however. His focus is geopolitics, and to a lesser extent culture. In that context, it’s an invigorating read.

Its central arguments are in pretty much the same territory as The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria. However, Zakaria was born in India, and strongly focuses on India in that book. This one, while professing a smaller focus, actually covers more ground.

Kaplan’s perspective doesn’t differ that much from Zakaria’s, but Kaplan goes deeper into the culture of the countries of the region other than India.

One of the most important points I get from all my reading on the region is that U.S. policy toward India during the Cold War was problematic. I also consider it tragically wrong-headed. Yeah, that could be said about a lot of places, but in the case of India it’s particularly disappointing.

I could write another 10,000 words on why that is, but I’ll give you the short version. The U.S., with its Cold War view, was pissed off by India’s insistence on remaining non-aligned. Successive U.S. administrations saw the developing flavor of socialism in India to be “pink.” The U.S. spent the next fifty years punishing India politically in various contexts.

It should also be added that Indian immigration to the U.S. was considerably less than it was from other countries, population-for-population.

However, India was NEVER in the Soviet orbit, so the Sino-U.S. Chinese relationship becomes that much more bizarre when compared to U.S.-Indian relations. Anyway…it’s all changing radically, and in fascinating ways. A book worth reading.

In Search of Michigan County

Now Entering Michigan County Resize

For years, I assumed Bruce Springsteen’s iconic song “Highway Patrolman” was set in Michigan.

I can’t tell you why, other than the fact that Joe Roberts, the protagonist, “musta done 110 through Michigan County that night” while pursing his brother Frankie on suspicion of murder toward the end of the song.

But there is no Michigan County in Michigan, I discovered. No problem, then…it’s probably Ohio. Hell, Joe feels like an Ohio guy, right? He reminds me a bit of Ted on “How I Met Your Mother.” Ohio it is!

Doh!! You can’t drive to Canada from Ohio. You can drive to Canada from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pensylvania, New York…but why would Pennsylvania, or New York, which don’t border Michigan, have a Michigan County? They don’t. Neither does Ohio. Michigan as a place name is based on a French pronunciation of a Native American word, so it is very unlikely that the name could exist in Pennsylvania or New York predating the state of Michigan.

Now, that’s not the end of the story, because county names in the U.S. aren’t quite as simple as all that. Many counties have historically changed their names, been incorporated into other counties, and even switched states. The song is set in the ’60s and possibly the early ’70s. So, hey, who knows, right? Maybe there wasone.

In fact, there isn’t a Michigan County anywhere inthe United States, there wasn’t in teh 1960s, and as far as I or any other obsessive Springsteen fan can tell, there never has been.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I felt silly when it finally occurred to me to look up the Wikipedia page on the song. Especially since I’d been using Wikipedia trying to find out if there was a historical Michigan County. To be fair, I think when the question first occured to me a while back, there was no page for ‘Highway Patrolman’ the song. But apparently others before me performed the same weird search that I did. Then one of them said, “I think I’ll start a page for ‘Highway Patrolman’ and mention that there is no Michigan County.” Thanks, guys. Obsessive Guy Time Wasters Task #133,675 completed, with honors. Now moving on to the ballistics pages to try to figure out if you could really kill ten people with a sawed-off .410.

Joe is also a sergeant out at Perrineville, which could have been “Perronville,” which is an unincorporated area in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula. But it’s not. I’d never really looked at the lyrics in print. Why would I? As with all the songs on Springsteen’s Nebraska, the lyrics clearly anunciated. Hell, it’s like listening to a damn audiobook. It’s one of the things I like most about the album — because on Nebraska, Springsteen pairs both narrative subtlety and thematic clarity to evoke my favorite part American landscape — the night side — in a way he hasn’t done before or since. I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to say that the album is American noir. There’s a cleanness to writing about real locations, even in noir fiction. Atlantic City, the New Jersey Turnpike…they’re real, sure, but there’s a different feeling, an atmospheric one, to writing about invented places. Gotham, Arkham, Metropolis, Sunnydale…maybe Michigan County is Springsteen’s Sin City, where you do 110 down the right back highway you can find anything…anything.

On Nebraska, nothing is what it seems. As in a Hitchcock movie or a Cornell Woolrich story, no word, phrase or gesture has only one potential meaning. On first listen, from some perspectives, the lyrics seem credulous, credible, almost boneheadedly simplistic. The stories they tell sound like soundbites from the nightly news if you don’t read them too deeply. But in fact, not a single line on Nebraska is meant at face value. Nor is the album laced with comic irony. Hey, Springsteen is a good-natured guy, I think. He’s mostly too nice to be snarky. And isn’t it always the nice ones who turn out to be serial killers? Springsteen’s irony, on Nebraska, has one intent, and that’s to fuck you up so bad you won’t know what hit you.

Oh, sure, Springsteen might be making a point about the American Dream, about family, about sin, redemption…whatever. That’s all the counter-text to a credulous subtext. It only works because it’s vicious. It’s meant to leave you bleeding. If you think Springsteen thinks it’s all right that Joe Roberts let a killer escape, you’re off your rocker. If you think he’s making a statement that Joe did the wrong thing, you’re equally whacked. To my reading of the song, Springsteen doesn’t know what the hell Joe Roberts should have done in Michigan County that night. He’s just glad he’s not Joe.

Except that he is, and we all are, and that’s why it works.

Bruce usually isn’t ironic. Oh, sure, he can be kinda funny at times. I get the sense he’s a good-natured guy. Having seen him twice in concert, I am glad he was never my toddler. I imagine he cracks jokes, siles a lot, slaps his friends on the back.

But he isn’t usually ironic in the way he is on Nebraska, where Even my favorite Springsteen song, “Thunder Road,” is mostly unironic throughout. There’s one exception, and I think it makes the song. I imagine the narrator smiling when he says “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right,” as if he were talking to a sisterly friend he grew up with, and used to tease because he liked her… and she just happens to have become the love of his life. He gives her shit because he likes to see her blush. Beyond that one line, I read “Thunder Road” as being desperately straightforward.

Anyway, “Highway Patrolman” is not desperately straightforward, and it’s not set in Michigan. It’s not set in Ohio. And as to what Joe should have done, well… all options sucked. That’s the point.

Here’s to you, Michigan county: Speed limit 110, no waiting to cross the border.

Fred Rogers' Titanium Huevos, Elvis, Warhol and the Duality of Nature

Fred and Koko

 

This picture, and its attendant heartwarming story, have been going around Facebook today. They appear to have originated at FilmmakerIQ.com’s Facebook feed:

Most people have heard of Koko, the gorilla who could speak about 1000 words in Sign Language, and understand about 2000 in English. What most people don’t know, however, is that Koko was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fan. When Fred Rogers took a trip out to meet Koko for his show, not only did she immediately wrap her arms around him and embrace him, she did what she’d always seen him do onscreen: she proceeded to take his shoes off.

If a gorilla tried to take my shoes off, I think I would kinda freak out. But then, Fred Rogers has balls of steel, right? Didn’t he storm Omaha Beach at Normandy? Didn’t he hump the boonies in Nam? Wasn’t he a Navy SEAL? Marine sniper? Gorilla wrestler on the novelty circuit? Cross-dressing Mossad assassin?

No…just a Presbyterian minister with balls of steel.

According to various rumors that occasionally go around (wait for it…) FACEBOOK, Fred Rogers was a Navy SEAL or a Marine sniper. In the time I’ve been using Facebook, I’ve seen the “Fred Rogers was a trained killer” meme do about three laps around the park.

He wasn’t. Or at least, that’s what they WANT you to believe. They also want you to believe he died in 2003. The powers that be don’t want you to think that Fred Rogers is kicking it with Koko and Elvis in a super-secret bunker smoking phatties of that medical-grade stuff they won’t let hit the street because one puff and you’d see the system for what it is, man.

As a fan of cultural psychoses of every stripe, I love the rumor that Fred Rogers is a killer. It speaks to our hunger for duality. Like Lou Reed’s portrayal of Andy Warhol in his Kazantzakis-inspired “Dime Store Mystery,” Rogers needs to be “fully human, fully divine and divided,” because otherwise his story’s just too damn perfect. As a species, we can’t stand that. We want to rip him down off his perch, because if he’s that good, then maybe we suck. Toppling the mighty is at the heart of comedy and tragedy both. On his show, we don’t see Rogers’ Gethsemanes.

Rogers, a devoted theology student who decided before graduation he had no desire to preach, would probably appreciate man’s need for duality. But there’s no secret killer lurking under the Rogers’ legend. His story, and those of many other educators, is far simpler than people want it to be. There’s duality everywhere, but not in educating children. There, the truths are simple, and most adults don’t give a shit about them. If they did, they’d stop what they were doing and bawl their eyes out.

Being a child is dangerous, because the kids don’t have the barriers adults erect to keep themselves stupid. Kids come at the world with a fresh set of eyes, by definition. In childhood, every moment is potentially a naked lunch, where everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork. It takes huevos of steel to handle that level of unpredictability on a daily basis.

As a culture we bleat constantly about protecting children, but when it comes time to cough up a sheckel? Well, then “I’m sorry, Jim, I love Big Bird, but…” And yet, if Fred Rogers was a trained killer, “lower-my-taxes conservatives” would be happy to fork out the big bucks to “further his work.”

Educating kids, though? Yeah. That’s just not an “essential.” Poor kids, who are disproportionately affected by cuts in public funding for things that are provided to the public free of charge, are draining the public coffers by getting something for free.

Maybe that’s why Romney “loves” Big Bird so much, because Big Bird likes poor kids exactly as much as he likes rich kids. That is a heinous crime in Milton Friedman’s America, where it’s bathtime for Democracy. And anything goes at bathtime, right?

Rogers did spend his life preaching. He preached moderation and kindness. And he also preached public sector support for education — to . the Senate, in support of public funding for PBS, where he reportedly gave one conservative Senator goosebumps. He’d give Mitt Romney goosebumps, too, if Mitt bothered to pay atention.

Even bringing up Mitt Romney’s ludicrous, ill-informed and somewhat pathetic attack on PBS during the debates. He lost, right? Romney is nothing more than a footnote in history, right? He’ll never run for office again, and Ryan is hamstrung by his poor performance in the campaign, right?

Actually, whatever Ryan’s future is in politics (and I’m pretty sure he’s cooked), Romney is LESS than a footnote in history. He was not a presidential candidate — he was a comprompose. He’s a wobble in the battle for the conservative soul. It’s a death match between those conservatives who genuinely believe that government should be smaller and those who believe government should allow a conservative Christian worldview to control every aspect of society. Unfortunately, those are the same people.

What interesting lives those people must lead. Their Gethsemanes must be self-satisfied reassurances that it’s all justified because making rich people richer is God’s work. Because, as I recall, Christ never shut up about how important that is, right?

Born-Again Christianity as a political movement no longer seriously worries me. It did in the ’80s and the ’90s, but I think the United States has shown its stripes. Our nation likes its secular lifestyle. Our citizens like our secular pleasures. And people espousing the most right wing forms of a born-again Christian view of politics tend to go stark-raving batty. Often enough to prove the trend, they say severely fucked-up things that no moderate conservative would ever stand by. And then, when challenged, they double down and plant their feet.

The truth is, Christian logic doesn’t hold up under rational scrutiny, because religious faith doesn’t hold up under rational scrutiny. That’s why it’s called faith. It doesn’t belong in the political arena. Allowing it there is not just counter to the Founders’ intentions…it’s dangerous.

Wanna know why? Because the U.S. is founded, partially, on religious freedom, which includes not just the right to join or not join particular sects, but to practice as you wish within those sects, at least as far as the government is concerned. If I, an atheist, interpret Jesus’s comment to “Love thy neighbor” as “provide public services for thy neighbor,” and a conservative anti-tax Christian interprets it to mean “don’t tax thy neighbor, but put thy neighbor in prison if she tries to get an abortion,” well, fine. We’re never going to get anywhere arguing the right and the wrong of it. Save that shit for the pulpit. It’s the job of policymakers to argue the public good, not theology. I believe that most Americans know that.

What does worry me is the conservative crusade, originating with Milton Friedman’s disciples, to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” in the words of Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who seems to think that the way to get lower taxes is to kill the government. Because if there’s one thing that history has taught it, it’s that countries without governments are awesome.

The society built by by people like Mister Rogers is built on moderation and kindness…values that do not come naturally to children any more than cruelty, brtuality, or selfishness.

If you think Big Bird is safe because Romney didn’t win — or because Romney, and whatever lower-my-taxes rich asshole comes after him, really does “love” Big Bird — then, fine, go ahead and sleep soundly.

But we shall know Romney’s kind again, and Grover Norquist’s, and Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s.

And there’ll never be another Fred Rogers.

Kinds of Negro y Azul

Bob Odenkirk

Like seeing old, weird and slightly unsavory friends… Bob Odenkirk plays a sleazy lawyer in Season 2 of Breaking Bad, making an Alastair MacLean reference, then later making a DB Cooper reference. DJ Qualls is a narcotics cop in the same episode. That’s the old comedy partner of David Cross (Tobias on Arrested Development) and the keyboardist from Hustle and Flow, respectively. I think Vince Gilligan and I have a few interests in common. Viva Heisenberg!