Movie moments II
Part one is here.

90.Charles W. Kingsfield Jr’s first lecture in “The Paper Chase.” (1973) The brilliant, warmly menacing professor opens his classroom sheet, calls on a person at random, and asks him to state the facts of a case. He grills Timothy Bottoms so bad that he runs outside and pukes.

89.“We’re gonna need a bigger boat” from “Jaws.” (1976) “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

88.Peter learns to be a gangsta in “Office Space.” (1999) Peter (Ron Livingston), newly hypnotized, learns to dick around at work to the soundtrack of “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta” by Geto Boys. He finishes by gutting a fish. On his desk.

87.Nigel talks guitars in “Spinal Tap.” (1984) Yeah, this is the “goes up to 11” scene, but it also contains footage of Nigel (Christopher Guest) playing his guitar, and then a guitar with his feet, and then he plays the first guitar with a violin as a pick. And he SUCKS.


I’m a racist, part II
After my column was published I got some upset e-mails from people I quoted. One person, indeed, had her opinion misrepresented in the article. Apart from misquoting a source, this is the worst thing a reporter can do. And it was so unnecessary – the first draft of the column was correct, but to cut the word length a vital quote was extracted and bad information was introduced.

The resulting furor on the letters page reminds me why I much prefer reporting to opinion-writing. There is one comment about the error, then a whole bunch that basically denies me the right to have an opinion. The activists who disagree with me demphasize what I said (taken directly from the student government bill I was talking about), expand upon the stuff that makes them look reasonable, and then call me a liar.

I take lying really, really seriously. I sweat and rave about mistakes when they’d appear in articles I’d edited. But the impression I gave of a few protest-obsessed Asian American student groups and an administration that doesn’t like being mau-maued is completely true.

I expected as much from this little article, though. It’s the last thing I’ll write about NU’s student groups.


I’m a racist
I wrote a fairly deeply-researched column on a proposal to bulk up NU’s Asian American Studies program, and got one piece of mail that surprised me. Here was my lede:

They may be the only students fighting to take more classes. The activists working to expand the Asian American Studies program, who have lobbied the administration fiercely all year, are gathering tonight to support an Associated Student Government bill demanding more faculty and Asian-American courses in at least 13 disciplines. And students like me are wondering why.

Then I got this.

Your opening statement about Asian Americans fighting to take more classes reflects a stereotyped view of Asian Americans. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but realize you’ve offended almost 20% of the student population at NU. Please understand that your sarcastic and inaccurate judgments will not go unnoticed.

Honestly who reads that first sentence and says “he’s stereotyping Asian Americans”? Is it not strange that student activists would pour their energy into getting more classes? College students, who are better known for having keggers, playing frisbee, and protesting war?


More Specter
John Tabin has comments, paid and unpaid. I should add that I’m enormously pleased by the eventual results. 51-49 are as close an election as you can get without the other side demanding recounts or staging coups. And the portents are good:

– Specter overcome 11th hour expectations of defeat. Among conservatives – those most likely to hold a grudge against him – he seems like a winner again.

– That he won at all is thanks to the efforts of Bush and Santorum, two conservative favorites. It bodes pretty well for their electoral clout – not ideal, but it’s there.

– The Club for Growth has been losing the races that pit free-market social conservatives against social liberals. They got destroyed in Schwarzenegger-McClintock. They got pipped this time, in perhaps their most high-profile race. But when they throw cash toward more libertarian candidates, or throw it in the way of statists, they do well. As David Mark wrote in a prescient Campaigns and Elections profile, they turned Mark Kirk (IL-10), Scott Garrett (NJ-5), Mike Rogers (MI-8) and Ric Keller (FL-8) into congressmen, and John Sununu (NH) into a US senator. Kirk and Sununu would never pass the litmus test that NRO subjected Specter to. These are the candidates they should back – not wallpaper-dry cultists like Toomey.

– I’m reading John Farrell’s excellent Tip O’Neill biography at present, and there are some great chapters about how O’Neill’s politics slowly, cynically metamorphisized whenever there was enough pressure back home. Most notably, he went from pro-Vietnam War to anti- after constituents pressed him and defeated pro-war state senators in Massachusetts. There’s no direct comparison to make, since Specter would be serving a final 6-year term. But activists shouldn’t write themselves off because he’s their senator. They should use the Toomey organization (whatever it was) and form a conservative pain-in-the-ass group that hounds Specter on the Hill.

I spoke to other issues previously.


Virginia Heffernen’s view-from-the-top of South Park is equal parts informative and incorrect. To begin with, she says “The Passion of the Jew” (episode 8-03) “proved that the show’s still got it or that it’s made a comeback or that it’s better than ever.” I thought it sucked. But I didn’t know the scenes of Mel jumping around in underwear were from “Lethal Weapon.” I’ve never seen any of the Lethal Weapon movies. I sort of just quote them second-hand, like when I say “DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY!” I think that’s from the second one.

In any case, Heffernen is wrong. South Park has been on a steady upward bend since the third season in 1999 – the season which coincided with the beloved “Bigger, Longer and Uncut” movie. The season opener had the kids joining a choir (which actually sang along to tapes) called “Getting Gay with Kids,” and sent them to the South American rainforest. When the kids nearly die there, the episode turned into a public service demanding the destruction of the rainforest. The rainforest! The season’s pinnacle was episode 3-10, “Chinpokomon,” in which the kids of America get addicted to a familiar Japanese cartoon and game which happens to be subliminally recruiting them to join the Japanese army and bomb Pearl Harbor. This played on all of our latent stereotypes about Japanese (there’s a running gag about the Chinpokomon mastermind and his tiny penis) while bashing a truly hateworthy fad. The season ended with the introduction of South Park’s God – a short, ugly platapus creature. That’s brilliant enough to do without explaining.

The fourth season was another step up, opening with “Cartman’s Silly Hate Crime,” in which the fat kid goes to federal prison for hitting the town’s black kid – Token (!) – with a rock. Since the kids need Cartman to win a sledding competition, they present a commonsense case to the governor on how hate crime legislation is inherently wrong and prejudicial (after all, Cartman just pelted the kid because he’s an asshole). The next episodes saw a serious metamorphosis in the series, as the original character Pip got his own episode (narrated by Malcolm McDowell as “a British person”) and was written off the show. In his place came severely handicapped Timmy, a boy in an electric wheelchair who can only say one word – his own name. Naturally, he joins a metal band that threatens the popularity of Phil Collins (shown clutching an Oscar – he beat South Park’s “Blame Canada” with one of his treacly “Tarzan” songs in 2000). Then it was back to social commentary, as Cartman, seeking mature friends, joins NAMBLA (episode 4-06), holistic medicine nearly kills Stan (4-07), Chef demands the end of South Park’s racist flag (which depicts four white guys hanging a black guy), and Cartman starts a boyband named “Fingerbang.” The season climax, “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell? (410-411) showed the kids taking their parents’ bullshit defense of religion too seriously and becoming a revivalist, Billy Graham-style cult. The season closed with an episode called “The Wacky Molestation Adventure,” which should be self-explanatory.

Season five had higher highs and one very low low – the unfunny 9/11 episode “Osama bin Laden has Farty Pants,” the first attempt (to be copied by “The Passion of the Jew”) where a hated public figure is taken down with homages to old Looney Tunes skits. Beyond that, the series came back into the spotlight when Comedy Central allowed them to use the word “shit” 162 times. Naturally, the kids end up having an adventure where the curse word unleashes an ancient evil and they learn that curses are only funny in moderation. Most of the season’s highlights were more pop-culture friendly than political. “How to Eat With Your Butt” had two parents with butts for faces arriving to find their lost son, who turns out to be – Ben Affleck. “Towelie” was a high point in the show’s insanity, introducing a mascot for towels who was hopelessy addicted to pot (his catch phrase: “You wanna get high?”). Along with “Butters’ very own episode” (dedicated to a pathetic character who temporarily replaced Kenny), this ushered in the show’s meta period. They were very aware that insane, death-defying events were going on around them, but they didn’t care, and they just waited it out. In “Towelie,” the kids are constantly in danger, involved in a war between spies and aliens, but they sort of blow it off and try to get their video game system back. In the Butters episode, when O.J. Simpson, the Ramseys and Gary Condit appear to form a support group for Butters’ mom (who thinks she killed her son, then blamed it on “some Puerto Rican guy”), the episode ends with a speech by one of the repentent characters. Whenever he says that he felt like a “murderer! liar! lying murderer!” the focus cuts to one of those special guest stars. It was a nice companion piece for “Here Comes the Neighborhood,” in which rich black celebrities move into town and the white folks of South Park try to kick them out in vaguely offensive ways … like burning a giant lowercase T on their lawns (“For ‘time to leave!'”)

Season six got no media attention, which was too bad, because it deviated completely from the show’s origins. Kenny, who used to die in every episode, was now just dead. Butters replaced him, badly. The kids hated their new sidekick and made sure he knew so. In the premiere, they dress him up as “Chin-Ball Boy,” who has a scrotum on his chin, and send him to the Maury Povich show in order to win money for being a freak. In “Jared has Aides,” they make him obese in order to run a Subway-style ad campaign for Chinese restaurant “City Work” – he’ll lose weight on their food and become their star. After five episodes (including one in Aspen that becomes a parody of all 80s teen movies, complete with a montage and a song called “We’re Gonna Have a Montage”) they expel Butters from the group and he becomes a “supervillain” (actually just himself with a helmet and cape) called Professor Chaos. Thus begin some cute plays on the actual nature of childhood games and pranks which continue into this season. But they’re not the point of season six. “Jared has Aides” is all based on one homonym – the Subway poster boy admits to the boys that he had aides – assistants – help him lose weight. When he tells this to the world at large, he says “I lost weight because I got aides” – which sounds a lot like he has Acute Immo-Deficiency Syndrome. The following 15 minutes play remorsely on that, as he happily tells his girlfriend she’ll get aides (“When we have kids, they’ll get aides, too!”) and promises to give aides to “every child in the world!” Subsequent episodes deal with Catholic priesthood scandals, wrongheaded political activism (the boys accidentally get involved in a “Free Mumia”-style group), the beginnings of womanhood (“Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society”), 9/11 cash-ins (“Ladder to Heaven”), John Edward (“The Biggest Douche in the Universe”), and child abduction. But the crowning achievement of the season was “The Death Camp of Tolerance.” When the kids’ teacher Mr. Garrison (now out of the closet) realizes he can sue the school if he gets fired for being gay, he hires a teacher’s assistant named Mr. Slave, paddles him, and inserts a gerbil into his ass. For not accepting this, the kids are sent to “Tolerance Camp” – a forced labor facility bearing a very close resemblence to Auschwitz. While this unfolds, the gerbil – named Lemmiwinks – has a musical, Watership Down-style adventure in the leather man’s intestinal tract. The episode set new standards for televised filth and insanity.

The seventh season never reached these heights, but was probably funnier overall. It began (after Kenny rejoins the group with no explanation for his resurrection) with a multi-faceted sci-fi tribute in which the kids learn Earth was created as a reality show by strangely Jewish alien media moguls. Next, Christopher Reeve regains mobility thanks to fetuses (which he cracks open and drinks like juice boxes) and tries to destroy Gene Hackman. The sublime 100th episode portrayed the debate over the Iraq war as a big concert showdown between Donnie Osmond-style rock ‘n’ roll and Marie Osmond-style country. The rest of the season settled into a pattern of highly succesfuly pop culture and religion parodies, topping it off with the masterpiece “South Park is Gay,” in which the whole town becomes metrosexual before Kyle realizes the men behind it – the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy team – are actually members of a devious subterranean race, The Crab People. There was an amusing pro-smoking episode (which ends with the death of Rob Rainer) and Wizard of Oz-style journey to Canada, but the gay episode is the one people remember.

Basically, this was the show Heffernen shallowly attempted to sum up because she liked the Passion episode. It’s the best thing on TV and has been for a few years now.


I’ve been following the PA senate primary as a concerned Delawarean, and I’m surprised that the only great coverage to come from the entire affair was The American Spectator’s. Young reporter Shawn Macomber got into the race the way CNN, The NYT, and (especially) National Review never did, even with their greater resources. NR’s coverage was simply disgraceful, cooked-over press releases and wishful thinking with a dash of gut-clenching, horrific prose (I’m looking at you, Jack Fowler).

The conservative hand-wringing about this race has given me pause, too. It looks for all the world like a complacent conservative movement is trying to purify itself and root out the unfaithful in the Republican party. I don’t like that. It smacks too much of how Democrats frittered away their majorities in the late 1970s, engaging in stupid wrestling matches with an insufficiently liberal Jimmy Carter. Both of the parties have earned their majorities by including clusters of dissidents in their caucuses – see the Southern bloc that maintained the Dem majority in the 1950s and 1960s or the small number of moderates who keep up the GOP majorities today. It’s a good thing when our parties cast wide nets – it’s been proven good in the UK, when the Conservatives and Labour became governing parties by including elements from the far right and far left.

More specifically, I don’t like Toomey. My gut tells me he’s a dull, gnomish candidate who bores non-believers from the word “go.” I’ve watched him perform on C-Span, built up by glowing reviews in college newspapers and NRO, and seen a very doctrinaire conservative who is unable to explain how he came to his views. According to Michael Barone, Toomey actually has an interesting story to tell – he was born blue collar in Rhode Island, won a scholarship to Harvard, and made a fortune in investment banking which he parlayed into restaurant businesses. He COULD explain why a free-market policy works better than the Democratic alternative. Bob Ehrlich, a Republican with a similar background, did that successfully in Maryland. But Toomey doesn’t have the skill.

I’m guessing Arlen Specter will win a fairly close race by under 10 points.


The real world … dude
In the words of Greil Marcus: “What is this shit?”

The former executive of Dance Marathon, NU’s overpublicized yearly philanthropy, has some of the most banal, rich-white-guy observations I’ve read since I folded up the last Nation with a Jonathan Schell story.

In college the solution to social problems seemed so easy. But after working for food stamp reform for LA county, Rachel realized nothing is simple. I realized that myself after DM chose its first social charity. And it wasn’t just because the original charity we selected was linked to Opus Dei. [Ed: Who cares?]

By using private dollars to provide a good education for inner-city students, we were taking the pressure off the government to use public dollars. Educations should be a problem left to private charities.

We were accused of contributing to a complacent attitude that when government falls short, private charities will pick up the slack. One student gets the scholarship to a private high school, but the majority are still stuck with an inadequate school system. There are no easy answers. This was a theme from “The Fog of War” that we absorbed as we sat in the independent movie house in early February.
I often wonder if my number will be up, and I’ll be forced to return to my parents’ house on a midnight train to Georgia to wait tables. I remembered Rachel admitting she wasn’t sure if this life of public service would pay her bills. This realization hit her especially hard when she visited consultant friends in New York who made more in one day than she did in a week.

But then I remembered that look in her eyes as she stared down the humiliation of a starving homeless man on the sidewalk of Sunset Blvd. Her eyes reflected a mixture of compassion, conviction and disillusion. The fog of student groups was gone, and we will never stare down at our eggs again.

I’m thinking: You had to go to college for four years to realize there were problems in the real world, and solutions were tricky? Christ, I’m glad I did a useful major.


Best of 2003, revised
I’ve now seen all the 2003 releases I had hoped to and can revise the list I posted in December. Mystic River still sucks.

10. *Better Luck Tomorrow
Well, obviously the best movie ever made with help from MTV. A sickly relevant portrayal of rich kid ennui – a modern “Less Than Zero.”
9. Kill Bill Vol. 1
8. Bubba Ho-Tep
7. 28 Days Later
6. *The Fog of War
A really exciting documentary. It’s not good for all the reasons anti-war folks like it – it’s good because a smart and eloquent man, who’s responsible for millions of deaths, explains how and why men decide to wage war.
5. X2: X-Men United
4. A Mighty Wind
3. Lost in Translation
2. *Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Instant classic, terrific character study, beautiful visuals, perfect plotting and dialogue.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King