Thursday, January 31, 2008

Kids Trash Robert Frost's House

Several days ago the Vermont home of Robert Frost was desecrated by a gaggle of teenagers. About thirty kids trudged up to the now historical Robert Frost home with lots of beer and lots of liquor. After several hours of partying they broke windows, smashed antique furniture, and urinated and vomited where they pleased. Eventually the kids were found out and prosecuted (apparently trying to get thirty teenagers to keep a secret is more difficult than getting a cat to take a bath).


Well, obviously they thought Ezra Pound was, like, soooooooooo much better and that Robert Frost was a total freak, ya know?

I don't pretend to be terribly knowledgeable about Frost. I've read a few poems and I've even liked a few. At times his reputation seems almost too quintessentially rural American. At one point this down home reputation had to be swept under the rug by critics who wanted to save Robert Frost. They argued that he was just as dark and neurotic as any Modern poet.

It was probably this fallacious belief in the myth of the wholesome Frost that made his home such a tempting target. Who doesn't go through a phase where you want to tear down symbols of virtue? Here's one of my favorite Frost poems "Birches." It's about kids "swinging" trees. I used to do the same thing when I was younger, but back then we called it "parachuting" trees.

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree~
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

I can't help but think that somehow the poem is relevant.

Here is a clip from one of my favorite video games of all time, Grim Fandango, which pays homage to one of America's most prestigious poets:

My favorite line from that game: "Run you pigeons, it's Robert Frost!"

Monday, January 28, 2008

Telecom Amnesty Again

Over the past several days the "Protect America Act" was the center of a contentious Senate debate. If you've been parsing through news sources you may have actually heard of this development (because most of the major news networks have essentially ignored the story; they're too worried about inaccurate polling to care about little things like The Constitution).

Here's an older story I wrote in 2007 and here's someone much smarter than myself explaining the outcome of the last several days. The following is a little overview.

As I mentioned before, attempts to update the purview of the FISA courts so that they can oversee new technological advances (e-mail, etc.) has been the subject of much back and forth over the past several months. Expanding the ability to monitor these new lines of communication with a court order is pretty uncontroversial in the Senate. Both Democrats and Republicans agree to updating the law to achieve this affect. The previous FISA bill that achieved monitoring of new technologies is about to expire in February which leaves the Senate with two options: 1) comprise on a bill now or 2) extend the previous FISA bill for another thirty days.

However, the Republicans have included in the bill telecom amnesty for those telephone companies who allowed Bush to spy on American citizens without a warrant. I have gone into the importance of denying phone companies telecom amnesty in my previous post on the subject.

For the past several days the Republicans have claimed that if the FISA bill is not updated then Al Qaeda will invade your home and sleep with your wife. Paradoxically, Bush has claimed that he will veto the FISA bill if it does not have telecom amnesty and will also veto a thirty day extension of the previous bill. What? So according to his own rhetoric, he would rather have Al Qaeda sleep with the wives of American citizens than wait another month for a compromise or let the courts decide (rather than the legislature) whether the telephone companies broke the law. Is that the kind of talk you would hear from someone who wants to protect America at all costs?

Thankfully, the Democrats decided to grow a vertebra and actually stood up to Bush. To prevent any amendments to the bill that would have potentially stripped the bill of telecom amnesty, the Republicans enacted a cloture vote. Cloture ends all debate and any potential amendments. In order to achieve cloture the Republicans would have had to get sixty votes. They lost by twelve votes. Even one of their own, Senator Arlen Specter, voted against cloture. In a tit-for-tat move the Republicans then prevented the Democrats from getting cloture on the thirty day extension.

Here is Chris Dodd arguing against cloture on the Senate floor:

So, where does this leave us? As far as I can tell, back at the beginning. The bill will expire in early February meaning that the new technology will be off limits to eavesdropping but regular phone communication will be fair game for FISA just like it has been since the FISA courts were created way back before September 11th 2001. Expect Republicans to take advantage of the confusing nature of this bill by claiming that we can no longer listen in on Al Qaeda. We can. We could before September 11th and we will be able to well into the future.

There's some real momentum against telecom amnesty. When the bill was introduced in 2007 Chris Dodd lead a successful campaign against it. Only about a dozen Democrats stood up with him. Now the vast majority of Democrats are at least ready to hear him out. In another month or so who knows, maybe we'll actually beat telecom amnesty. I'll close with another video of Dodd way back in 2007 when he placed a hold on the FISA bill that contained telecom amnesty. It's a great summation of how far gone the ideals of America have become over the last seven years.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Persepolis (5/5)

Persepolis is a kind of film rarely seen in America: an animated film for adults. When I say “adult” I’m not referring to the ultra-violent zaniness found in Japanese animation or the double entendres meant to go over children’s heads in movies like Shrek, I’m referring to a complicated protagonist attempting to simultaneously understand and manage overpowering change in the world around her. I don’t think Bugs Bunny had the same depth of problems that Marjane Satrapi has (of course, I supposed he was struggling with living in Hobbes’s nature during that whole rabbit season/duck season debacle). Even referencing Bugs seems a bit silly since animation has supposedly evolved to encompass many genres beyond children’s film. Or at least outside of the United States boarders it has, and I’m sure no one would be surprised to learn that Persepolis has French subtitles.

Persepolis is based on an autobiographical comic book by Marjane Satrapi about growing up in Iran, being sent to Europe during her adolescents, and returning as she transitions into an adult. Growing up during the Iranian revolution, Marjane has a sense of wonder about the chaos around her. She becomes particularly intrigued by her uncle, a communist who was jailed and was only recently released from prison. Fueled by her uncle’s stories and her parents political involvement she rallies a group of neighborhood kids to chase the son of an Iranian torturer so that they can gouge out his eyes with nails. They are stopped by an adult before the bloody deed is done. Marjane even begins talking back to her teacher in school, contradicting the Iranian status quo. After the Ayatollah comes to power Marjane’s family fears what will happen to their outspoken daughter and decide to send her with some friends in Europe.

Once in Europe Marjane wrestles with the travails of puberty while trying to reconcile her exotic Iranian heritage with her adolescent need to fit in. At first she stays at a Catholic boarding school, but when one of the nuns affronts Iranians Marjane makes the uncouth comment that all nuns were once prostitutes. This leads to her moving out into a series of living arrangements as well as a string of boyfriends. When she discovers one of her boyfriends in bed with another woman, Marjane becomes despondent and gets kicked out of her apartment and winds up living on the streets. It would be easy to shrug off Marjane’s self-destructive behavior as her being a self-involved teen. It would be easy except that when Marjane wakes up in a hospital from malnutrition she chastises herself for becoming upset over a relationship when her own uncle was subject to incarceration for merely speaking his mind. It’s this kind of self-reflection that prevents the film from falling into the kind of narcissism that plagues so many other coming of age stories. After her brush with death Marjane decides to return to Iran where she must confront the intolerance of a government run by a religion.

Like the comic book the animation is deceptively simple. The film is mostly black and white and the characters are drawn with thick lines. Anyone who’s read the comic book will wonder whether they fit in most of the original medium. While the filmmakers do a good job at referencing many of Marjane’s stories, many of the vignettes are necessarily truncated. However, this is hardly a downfall of the film which utilizes animation to communicate Marjane’s tale as succinctly as possible. When she falls in love with a boy, for example, we see her floating above the ground with him, which, for a teenage romance, is just about all the audience needs to know. Each moment of the film is, like the animation, told clearly and simply, but as the film moves forward the moments gather greater strength. It’s like the filmmakers are putting down one pebble after anther until, before you know it, they’ve constructed an entire wall.

The intellectual middle class nature of Marjane’s family seems so familiar that I often found myself wondering what I would do if suddenly transplanted in a country where you could be jailed for walking with someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t related to you and, worst of all, alcohol was banned. Persepolis is a needed reminder that small minded rulers too often rule over a more enlightened populace (it says something that the same sentence could describe the state of today’s America). For all the talk of cultural differences, it should be remembered that certain ideals can be disseminated by dialogue, even if they’re unsuccessfully translated through the barrel of a gun.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Someone Else's Headline, My Pictures

Gazans Knock Down Boarder, Flee to Egypt to Shop

Headline comes from the January 24th Issue of the Boston Metro Free Newspaper.

Photos of day after thanksgiving from the internets.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Times New Viking's Broken Van Story

The whole "broken van" story has become a rock and roll staple. Every band has to have a story where their van breaks down and they have to mix with the local populace. Usually the bands come from some major city so it's really a play on the fish out of water tale. In this case the band in question is Columbus's Times New Viking who wind up in Montana. It's probably my favorite "broken van" story in quite some time.

I'm particularly partial to the deaf mechanics and the David Lynch references.

Here's Times New Viking performing a song from their debut album "Dance Walhalla" live. Their live sound varies differently from their "studio" sound, but unlike most bands they sound clearer live.

Here's another video of some dude dancing to the studio version of "Little Amps" off their second album The Paisley Reich:

Their newest album, Rip it Off, is their debut on Matador Records and rears its ugly head in record stores everywhere on January 22nd.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Juno (4.5/5)

The first question of importance about Juno is, why doesn’t the main character get an abortion? The obvious answer is that an abortion would have simply ended the plot. Sober reality does not mesh with wacky hijinks. It’s important to pause and think about the abortion issue for a minute since it was similarly passed over in Knocked Up. Is this some kind of right to life conspiracy? Hardly, I think it is the simple fact that abortion doesn’t have a place in comedy, while pregnancy is a regular comedic staple even if it’s a pregnant sixteen year-old. Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, abortion is too complex an issue for a movie about a sardonic teenager. If you’re interested in that kind of a story it would be better to watch Lake of Fire or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days .

Juno is the title character of the film who winds up Knocked Up by the kid from Superbad, who under any other circumstances would have grown up to be a 40 Year-Old Virgin (where’s my check Judd Apatow!?). After a disastrous visit to a planned pregnancy agency (Juno decides to go to Women Now “because they help women now”) the sixteen year-old decides to carry the child to term. However, instead of keeping the child Juno decides to take responsibility by, conversely, giving the child away to a young yuppie couple who cannot have a child of their own. The issue of teenage pregnancy and premarital pregnancy is both all too common and at the same time commonly feared. Whether you know someone who has been in that situation, have children who could be in that situation, or could be in that situation yourself, it’s a pervasive problem at all levels of society, which in turn makes it perfectly suited for comedy. Too often these off-beat comedies with quirky characters come off as mean spirited or look down on their characters and by extension look down on their audience (*cough* Napoleon Dynamite *cough*). This is not the case with Juno which treats every character as simultaneously flawed and heroic. There is no villain, and even though Juno may fight with her stepmother, her stepmother is not the easy caricature of a joke she would have been in lesser hands, instead she too has her moment of heroics when she defends Juno from a snarky ultrasound technician.

Juno is also one of the few American films to include the subtext of economic class in America. Most movie jobs happen to be something ridiculously specific, like someone who's job is to provides seat fillers for celebrity weddings for when guests don't show up, and at the last minute the director decides a meta-cameo by Julia Roberts is the one thing the film really needs. By contrast Juno's father is an AC repairman. While Juno lives in a cluttered household somewhere in the lower range of middle class, the adopting couple lives in a pristine McMansion, complete with disgustingly cute pictures of themselves that line the staircase. Juno’s stepmother addresses this issue by claiming that the couple could actually be worse parents than Juno would be. There is something of a Brad and Angelina quality to a couple who would lift a child from its less well off roots into a life of means assuming that more money automatically means a better life, but at the same time it would be difficult to argue that a sixteen year old, without an education and whose family may not have the level of finances to provide for a grandchild, would necessarily be the best caretaker for her child. It would have been nice for these issues to be addressed directly by the script instead of quite literally being put into the background through set design, but they are nevertheless present in a film market where class is almost always invisible.

My one complaint is that of the soundtrack. While there are some nice selections like The Kinks, Buddy Holly, and in a pivotal scene Sonic Youth’s “Superstar,” the most common artist, Kimya Dawson, is a little too twee for my tastes. Supposedly Juno is a big fan of bands like The Runaways and The Stooges, but instead of a punk soundtrack we get self-consciously cute acoustic numbers. I will give credit to films like Juno that move beyond the cliché Forest Gump songs, which were obvious and too on the nose to be effective, and mine some previously uncovered gems from The KinksI will also give credit to films that highlight contemporary artists. At the same time, rock music did not die in 1969 and there is more to contemporary indie rock than middling acoustic pop.

Perhaps I’m being greedy, and the more that a filmmaker gives me the more I ask for. I suppose it should be enough to have a film with genuine characters, nuanced humor, and some good rather than great songs.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Song of the New Year

Almost everyone has a song of the Summer, and I'm no exception, but ever since college, and beyond, I've always had a song of the New Year. It's pretty much the song that defined my holiday break. I can still remember that during my Sophomore year of college it was The Clash's "Rudie Can't Fail." Well, during these holidays it was the inimitable "What's Up" by 4 Non Blondes.

Here are a few highlights of the music video: it's wildly out of sync and watch out for the people venting their frustration while spinning on a merry go round (which I think was the same advice I received from the last fortune cookie I ate).

Hmmmmmm, I didn't know Jamiroquai sang that song.

Or was it that guy from the Counting Crows?