Thursday, September 15, 2005

Random Thoughts of Harry Potter [Spoilerrific!]

I got into the Harry Potter series about three months ago, after catching one of the guys at work with his nose buried in HP and The Prisoner of Azkaban. I'd read the first two books in the series a couple of years back because most of my family was enthralled by them, and wasn't much impressed at the time. J.K. Rowling's whole wizarding universe just struck me as too damned silly for me to want to spend time immersed in it, and the wizarding business was basically the transparent varnish on a typical boarding school story, so I said adios and went on with my life.

Well, the enthusiasm of my co-worked spurred me to borrow PoA from him, and it was a pleasant surprise. There wasn't as much exposition on the Wizarding World for me to be Not Enchanted with, there wasn't any of the "OMG is Harry EVOL?!?" crap from the first half of Book Two in the series, and the plotting was... really deft. Everything fitted together so seamlessly that I was really impressed by PoA as a work of fiction. Still am-- after reading all six of the books to date, it's my fave.

My rankings so far:

1) Prizoner of Azkaban: great mystery wherein everything is necessary and wraps up beautifully. Characterization is pretty good, too-- the complex and nuanced Professor Lupin is an especially welcome addition to a series with so many broad caricatures.
2) Half-Blood Prince: A remarkably quick and gripping read for such a thick book, with some of the best individual chapters (Spinners' End, Sectumsempra) out of the series. While some of the content of this volume throws the alleged moral compass of Rowling's series spinning hopelessly in circles, it's a good book. The romance is the main flaw-- slapdash 'twoo wuv' and a load of teenage shenanigans.
3) Goblet of Fire: It probably could have used some editing, and I hatehatehate phonetic dialect, which this book is full of, but it's a fun read. Contains a great piece of misleading identity, an intriguing subplot (the Crouch family), and one of the best death scenes I've read in a while ('kill the spare'). OTOH, it could've used some editing, the central grand plot is really quite dumb if you step back and think about it, and the whole house-elf liberation front thing... yea.
4) Chamber of Secrets: Hated the entire first half of the book. Loved the Riddle-Diary subplot thing when that really got going. Should re-read again in light of its ties to HBP, but... god, the beginning to this one sucks.
5) Order of the Phoenix: Dude. I don't like this one. It's good, and it's bad, and the goodness and badness are wrapped up so tightly that I can't unravel them enough to analyze them. The Big Death scene is lame beyond words, though. I can't believe grown adults cried over it. This is the book where the morality of the series went into highly questionable territory... it almost begs to be read at a subversive "our heroes have gone to the dark side" level.
1) Sorceror's Stone. Dunno. I nearly gave up the series right here. It's all so damned goofy. Pointy hats. Broomsticks. Weird, unappetizing sounding food (pumpkin juice?)-- and I LIKE British food. I sure wouldn't want to be a part of the magical world, and six books later, I still don't. Minus points for the American publisher dumbing down the name, too.

Anyway, back to the Random Thoughts--

Spinner's End-- Prof. Snape's digs. I'm going to believe this crappy post-industrial wasteland is Manchester until told otherwise. Way cool-- I'm sure Professor Snape talks all proper like, but I'm going to think of teenaged!Snape belting out his insults and hexes in Liam Gallagher Mancunian now. "I don't need help from filthy little Mudbloods like her!"-- I can totally hear it. I'm sure his manners went over real well with well-bred snots like James Potter and Sirius Black.

Ron's Eyes: Six books in, and Harry never bothers to note what colour his best bud's eyes are. Some criticize JKR for not doing 'teenage boy' all that well, but in a world with so much bad fanfic wherein say, fifteen-year-old Gundam pilots ooh over one another's 'amethyst' and 'obsidian' eyes, this detail-of-omission is delightful. Guess Harry doesn't secretly lust for Won Won.

Twoo Wuv, continued: I agree with the people who say book seven ought to be called "Harry Potter and the Oedipus Complex"-- Harry sees his Saintly Mum as a red-haired spitfire in the Pensieve scene, and decides he needs one of those himself, given how he's a dead ringer for Daddy and all. It makes more sense than loving Ginny for her repellent personality. She has a few good moments in OOTP and HBP where she gives Harry the smackdown for forgetting that whole possession-by-Voldemort thing she went through, but otherwise... Christ, Harry, date Luna. Hell, date Neville.
Dunno, I liked the idea that Ron loved Hermione who loved Harry who loved both of them in a Platonic sense. And I despise a couple constantly sniping at one another as shorthand for "they're madly in love!" Piffle. The onscreen relationships in this series Do Not Satisfy.
[Note: Harry can't consistently remember that the Girl He Loves endured a year of possession by a demonic diary, a year wherein she alternately pined for Harry and unleashed a monster on the rest of the school. Mr. Sensitive, that boy is.]

Maggie: I want to read the Muggle Prime Minister at the beginning of HBP as John Major. Which makes his predecessor in office, the one who kicked the Minister of Magic out the window, Lady Thatcher. 'Cept that predecessor is referred with a male pronoun. I'm taking that as a joke at Maggie's expense and not JKR screwing with the timeline at random. Go, Maggie!

Little Tommy: Dude. dOOd. Rowling's insisted all through the series that choices define a person, not 'blood' or even prophecy. And so she goes and sketches the Ultimate Bad Guy, Harry's dark parallel, as the sociopathic scion of a long line of inbred sociopaths. Raised in a decent but fundamentally loveless orphanage. So... he's screwed by blood, and by society, and it's his own fault he couldn't overcome that? Or what? Something doesn't add up here. Book Seven: surprise, Harry! All that choices and free will stuff was bollocks, and you're the predestined Elect!
Newsflash-- Dumbledore's critical mistake wasn't trusting Snape, it was believing in free will. Hahahahah.

Blaming the Victim: Merope. Abused and terrorized by her father and brother. Abandoned by the husband she adored. Left pregnant and penniless on the streets of the Bad City, with no knowledge of Muggle medical care and not enough magic in her to help herself. And it's her fault that she died, 'cause she was weak and stuff. Damn, that's harsh.
Also, Merope *was* an ignorant, inbred screw-up who obviously didn't love herself, so the thought that she'd have been a good mommy to little Tommy-the-Rabbit-Killer is she *had* lived is a dubious proposition at best. The whole Voldemort backstory is fantastic to read but disturbing in its apparent implications.

Thoughts for Book Seven: HP fans have a real facile conception of 'redemption' and 'sacrifice,' as in the way whole sections of fandom prattled on about the need to 'redeem' Draco even though he never actually did anything soul-damning until book Six, which is more than one can say for Harry, Hermione, and Ron's thuggish siblings. Also, pre-HBP fan predictions about Who Would Bite it included stuff like "Character X will sacrifice himself for Harry." 'Scuse me, but isn't the death toll on Harry's account already high enough that we've hit the limit of diminishing returns on that manner of cacking it? I'll settle for nothing less than Ron's head at this point, as far as sacrifices-for-Harry goes.
And Dumbledore ends up essentially sacrificing himself for Draco! Bwahahah.
And as far as sacrifice goes, while I'm OK with Harry himself biting it in book Seven, if he sacrifices himself to redeem the Wizarding World, I will be pissed. The Wizarding World is so corrupt that it's hardly worth saving, and if it takes the blood of a seventeen year old to undo centuries of injustic and corruption... cheap. Real cheap.
OTOH, if the big 'sacrifice' ends up destroying the WW and making everyone live as Muggles, I will laugh and laugh and laugh. I usually hate that kind of an ending, but the WW is so messed up its practically warranted.

That's all for now!

PS-- I thought Hermione was a light-skinned black or maybe mixed-race until Emma Watson was cast in the movies. Browsing through LiveJournals, I find I wasn't the only one. Would've been intriguing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Go Pistons. Rah.

I've never given two thoughts about basketball (positive thoughts, anyway) before moving to my current digs. Basketball was a distant blip on the radar during my Bay Area childhood, and when I lived in Memphis TN it was a Big Issue without a Big Team to rally around. MSU (er,
'U of M') were all right, but Memphis didn't get the Grizzlies (hahahah) until after I skipped town, and the price tab for the Grizzlies was such that I wouldn't have cheered for them anyway.

But now... I kinda like the Pistons. Modern basketball with its multimedia 'heroes'-- Shaq and Kobe (thankfully now off the Nutella jars) and Citizen Jordan and creepy ickle Memphian Anfernee Hardaway-- can't stand it. But the Pistons, the defiant anti-team with its anti-stars and 'goin' to work' attitude-- sure, part of it is a crafted image, but they believe in the image for all they' ve got.

I have to smile at a team whose most notorious player has the phrase 'scruffy irritant' tacked to his tail like a Homeric epithet. I gotta cheer for the very idea of team cobbled together from other franchise's rejects that suddenly, somehow, synthesized into a giant-slayer. And it's just too darned funny to follow a team that plays to kill with its back against the wall but blanks when they're actually on a roll.

I don't want to read much about them as people, but I dig them as characters-- 'Sheed, Big Ben, Rip, freaky-armed Tayshaun Prince and the gang. The Bad News Bears they ain't, though-- that collective chip on the shoulder looks to be gin-u-wine. Rodney Dangerfield they ain't, either-- they really don't get any respect. It's clear to me now that the only reason the Pistons got the positive coverage they did last year was because everyone outside of the LA metropolitan area was dying to see the overpriced Lakers take a fall.

Take the Staples Center out of the picture, and suddenly everyone wants the Pistons gone. The hilarious "Apocalyptic Detroit" column out of the Miami Herald was intended to be funny (I think), but its tone comes awfully close to non-satirical pieces written about the Pistons of late. Stick 'Sheed and company against a team that isn't top-heavy with Hall of Famers and can actually play defense, and the press throws a grand old Pistons Grave Dancing Party, with 'Sheed as the guest of honour.

Then the boys subjected the Spurs to two consecutive maulings at the Palace of Malice and, as the SF Chronicle's writer pointed out, it was abruptly the Spurs who didn't deserve to be in the finals. I swear, sportswriters are as capricious as the British music press. Individually, some may be on crusades, but collectively they seem a fickle lot.

It doesn't matter now. Thanks to the hubris in San Antonio, the Pistons did what they appear to like best-- they sailed through an elimination game. Even if they lose tomorrow night, it's been a memorable ride that should shut some some (hypo)critical types up.

So, I echo the cutesy family diner on Allen Road-- "Go Pistons. Rah." Sounds lukewarm for a final Finals game with a 'dynasty' at stake? Maybe, but I said I'm new at this whole basketball thing. Carry on, scruffy guys. Cheers.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Thoughts in the aftermath of Mother's Day

I've been longing to finish dissecting my 'nominees' for the Golden Cymbeline, but current events keeps distracting me. I've been waiting to give a good mauling to the likes of Jewel, but first the Terri Schiavo circus, then the papal circus (Circus Pontifex Maximus?), and then sundry smaller tragedies (RIP, Tortie-kitty) keep forcing me to channel my energies elsewhere. Not that I blog about those things, mind, but they provide a spur toward cathartic fiction in a way that the pros and cons of Alanis Morrisette's career simply doesn't.

I almost blogged about the Runaway Bride, not because I gave a darn about her, but because the whole wedding spectacle ticked me off. I don't like the Cult of the Fantasy Wedding as practiced in this country, and the idea of a 600-guest freakshow centered around an unstable little girl in a woman's body struck me as wasteful and appalling. But I didn't go there either.

Then, the current 'murdered little kid' news streak picked up. The drowned toddlers in Georgia were one thing, but the double-feature horror show of Precious Doe and the two girls from Zion finally got me going-- because of the apparent facts of these cases, and not the idea of them.

The idea of these cases-- murdered kiddies-- is perfect fodder for the culture of outrage, just as the Runaway Bride was (She couldn't have just left! Her fiance must have done it! Oh, the horrors perpetrated against women in our culture...). Dear little best friends from quiet Illinois village with Biblical theme disappear while riding bikes together over Mother's Day Weekend.

I give you quotes from MSN-blog blowhard Joe Scarborough, out of his post "Innocence lost in Illinois":

Parents should no longer feel free to let their children ride bikes with friends, unless they are accompanied by a police escort. And those carefree summer days of jumping on a bike early in the morning and riding around town until dinner are long gone...
These days our children grow up in an exceedingly grim world where all strangers are evil and all grown ups are helpless to save them from the evil beasts lurking outside their door.

Except that the guy the police arrested was no beastly stranger outside the door. The guy they are charging is the father of one of the girls, a man who searched alongside the other girl's family for the missing twosome, and was the one who discovered their bodies in Beulah Park.


I realize that the cops could easily have the wrong guy. With two dead girls in a quiet town, no motives, no suspects, and intense fear and media attention goin' on, why not collar the ex-con with a nasty rap sheet who happened to 'find' the bodies?

It's hard to believe it when people kill their own kids, even when the headlines and police blotters throw ugly, incontrovertible evidence in our faces. Like say, the evidence from the other case playing out in the Heartland-- the murder of Erica "Precious Doe" Green. Erica was found decapitated four years ago, but was not publicly identified until last week (hence the posthumous nickname). The culprits in this case appear to be her own mother and stepfather, who kicked her senseless and left her to die. They didn't call for help because both of them were wanted criminals. Instead, once she was dead, they cut off her head and disposed of the body, then brazened it out for years.

The circumstances of Erica's death are bad enough, but the circumstances of her not-quite-four years of life are really the sick part. See, Erica was born when her mother was in prison, and for most of her life was cared for by others. She'd only been in the care of her mother and future stepfather for a couple of weeks before their inability to deal with a toddler (though mom allegedly has seven kids out there besides poor Erica) resulted in beatings followed by death. Neither the Oklahoma Department of Corrections nor the Department of Human Services monitored Erica or her mother... because they don't. Not their job. The two departments don't, as a rule, correspond with one another about what happens when prisoners have babies, much less follow up once ex-prisoners and their kids are reunited. They don't have the resources to do that unless they have specific threats or instances of neglect to monitor. And Erica's mother had done time for larceny, not, say, assault.

Let me refer back to Joe Scarborough:
They (the children) are used for sexual gratification by diseased old men. They are the objects of violent fantasies that are only satisfied by blood. They are victims of a system that keeps letting them down.

In this case, a system that allowed a toddler to go back to her biological mother-- and outcome our society generally holds up as an objective good. Not that 'the system' might have worked for Erica any better if her mother's rights had been terminated and Erica placed in foster care-- like Rilya Wilson, a girl who simply disappeared from Florida's foster care system. Long before "Precious Doe" was ID'd, thanks to a tip, as Erica Green, police checked to see if the remains belonged to Rilya. They didn't, of course, and Rilya's whereabouts are still unknown.

I think the Erica Green case riles me the most because of its similarities to the sad, sad death of Ariana Swinson, a Michigan girl murdered by her own parents. Like Erica, Ariana was raised to toddlerhood by other people because her parents were, at the time of her birth, judged unfit. Four and a half months after state child welfare officials decided Ariana's parents were clear to play mommy and daddy without supervision, they beat the malnourished two-year old to death.

Both the Ariana Swinson and the Rilya Wilson tragedies resulted in big changes to the state services that should have been looking out for them, but the bottom line is that the kids' own parents and guardians were the source of the problem. Mothers kill children, or facilitate the men in their lives who do the beating and killing. For both Erica Green and Ariana Swinson, the father/stepfather gave the fatal blow, but the mothers collaborated to hide or ignore the damage. "The system" doesn't work because it's underfunded, because case-workers have too many cases, because social workers are no less blind or stupid or lazy than the rest of the populace, and because foster and adoptive parents can be scum as bad or worse as 'unfit' biological parents. The system's true Achilles heel, though, is the basic impulse people have toward believing in a sacred bond between mother and child. Who would allocate money to a government agency, even one that worked, if it took a hard line in permanently removing children from their mommies and daddies, with no second chances like the one Ariana's parents received? This is America! We believe in mom, and in optimism. We believe that parents have some inborn inclination to do right by their children, despite the evidence that some people just couldn't care less about their offspring. And when mommie dearest does kill or abuse or outright neglect, we make excuses-- it's always some man's fault.

The system lets kids down. The government lets kids down. But the people who chose to have these kids let them down first. Society celebrates mothers who "choose life," but these people chose life and then wasted it.

I refer you back to Joe the Blowhard for some closing thoughts:

No one knows all the facts of this Illinois case.

Clearly. And Jerry Hobbs, despite his rap sheet for assault, despite his tendency to threaten people with chainsaws, might not have been the one to kill his daughter and her friend. Police do have a tendency to grab scapegoats in nasty, sensational cases like this. But I think it's a lot more likely that Dad, not a vicious, drooling, DangerStranger, killed the girls. Joe Scarborough here would rather foment outrage over a decaying society filled with unseen dangers than admit that the real danger to children might be members of the sacred nuclear family.

But we do know it will happen somewhere else soon.

This, alas, is true.

Happy Mother's Day, belated.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Pop Trash Smackdown, part one.

In the spirit of this year's ludicrous Grammy Awards, I would like to serve up a selection of my own nominees for my very own award, the Golden Cymbaline.

I allowed the spirit of Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell to guide me here, which is to say I've targeted the best of the worst, those artists who provide the greatest affront to the aspects of music I truly care about (ie, not hip-hop or country). No easy targets like Britney, J. Lo, or the Simpson brats here, folks, just those dear songbirds a with fair amount of credibility and/or talent who abuse whatever gifts they have so flagrantly that they deserve to be, well, flogged. And to keep things on a even footing, I'm limiting the first set to female singer-songwriters!

The winner will receive a charming statuette, suitable for use as a doorstop or paperweight, designed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dave Barry; it is a golden toaster with a flaming strawberry pop tart trapped inside. Forget Christo, this award is art, people!

Nominee: Sarah MacLachlan

Okay, so Lilith Fair was a good idea with a catchy name. And she's released a number of gorgeous, passionate pop songs that still move me the eighty-seventh time I hear them ("Possession" in particular, but "Building a Mystery" is still good, and some of her newest tracks have promise.)

She's also churned out track after track of slick, oversung, vaguely-spiritual "anthems" to I don't know what. A number of these terrible songs have appeared in equally terrible movies, which is only fitting. Examples: "Angel," from City of Angels (self-explanatory), "When She Loved Me" (the low point of the otherwise faultless Toy Story 2), and lesser tracks from I Am Sam, Anywhere But Here, and lousy tv shows. There's also a godawful choral version of her "I Will Remember You" in a funeral scene of some teen-death weeper I was forced to watch in college, and I was pretty sure that "Angel" turned up in another, similar teen-death weeper but I've yet to track that one down.

Suffice it to say that her music is the perfect accompaniment to a mawkish, insincere Hollywood funeral. This alone would grate on me, especially after having those awful movies foisted upon me by an uncaring roommate, but Sarah goes further into the Crappy Zone by writing lyrics that are alternately trite and opaque, and singing them all with the utmost passion.

What the heck is "Adia" about? How has Sarah failed Adia, and why is Sarah insisting that "we are all born innocent"? And what kind of name is "Adia," anyway?

What is really beneath the pseud0-religious imagery of "Building a Mystery"? Or the Precious Moments religious imagery of "Angel"? Or the sins-and-repentance imagery of "Fallen" and "World on Fire"? Why do these songs run together in a prettily orchestrated blur of meaninglessness?

Boy, she sure sounds deep, but for my money ol' Sarah has written about two and a half meaningful songs out of the dozen and a half that have been overexposed (the ones that haven't been don't bother me, 'cause I don't have to hear them). Those ones are "Possession," "Stupid" and the above-mentioned "Building a Mystery" (that's the half point).

And those are all clear-cut 'relationship' songs, with or without any crosses from a faith that died before Jesus came (!?!).

Sarah's songs can be converted to "praise music" for Intervarsity Fellowship with minimal rewriting, and that isn't a good thing. I indict her for this, and in doing so nominate her for the Golden Cymbaline.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Sunrise With the Power Plants

Winter mornings are great in the station. Cherry-red light reflects off the transformers at dawn. Rays of the rising sun tint the steam of Trenton Channel Power Plant peach and rose, and turn the glass insulators atop the transformers a glowing amber.

Trenton Channel, both the plant and the geographic location, are to the east. While sunrise would be pretty without that cute little power plant against the sky, Trenton Channel's twin candy-striped stacks add real charm to the picture. So do the tangle of transmission towers and other equipment, at least to my warped view. The 120kV towers from Trenton Channel are kind of cute in themselves; they have an almost comforting squareness. The 345kV lines coming from the other two plants that feed us are larger, a little menacing, with angular 'arms' and pointy 'ears' (or horns).

Fermi, the sole nuclear plant in the system, is to the south of the station. I can't see it from the station grounds, but I have a view of its cooling towers from an overpass near the station. Before dawn, it looks like Hell itself-- the two hourglass shapes, their tops rimmed with red light, pouring forth greyish vapor like volcanic calderae. Two of its transmission lines run parallel to the freeway as they head to my station; the towers are paired up like two columns of soldiers. With horns.

Inside the station grounds, all you see is the steam, and only then on a very cold day. Unlike the distinct plumes from Trenton Channel's stacks, Fermi steam doesn't look like much at that distance-- just an amorphous white wisp.

It's Monroe, to the southwest, that generates a steam-plume like a mushroom cloud. Monroe is twenty miles away, and while its own twin stacks are eight hundred feet high, I can't see them at all from the station. On a bitterly cold day, though, a white ball-shape rises up, right above the relay house that blocks off my view to the south.

Monroe and Fermi, like the 345kV lines that come from them, have less cheery personalities than Trenton Channel. Fermi is, after all, a nuke plant, and those places aren't cute. Even without its reputation as a money hole and regulatory nightmare, Fermi would look a more than a little ominous. Anyone who has watched The Simpsons or read Bloom County recognizes that hourglass shape for what it is; it's as automatic a signifier of "nukes" as a radiation-triangle symbol or the little Bohr-model whirly atom-thing.

Still, the two cooling towers have a serene, otherworldly beauty, especially when compared to Monroe. Monroe is neither beautiful nor serene, and it is not cute. It is pure industrial might, grey and sleek and incredibly huge, with those skyscraper-high stacks punctuated by white flashing light. Those stacks were the highest structures in the area, taller than any Detroit building, when they were constructed. Monroe, like its skeletal-monster towers marching across the landscape, is stark and scary. Its transmission lines veer to the west and then wheel back toward our station, entering it from the rear.

I'll take Trenton Channel any day. Don't get me wrong, I love being in proximity to all three generating plants, but I'm glad the one I have the best view of is the little cutie, the non-threatening plant with the cozy paint job. Looking out at a Monroe sunrise in the morning would be a lot less enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Kelley's Kids: reflections on Shattered Glass

If the events of Shattered Glass were an isolated event, a single case of an entertaining sociopath betraying his friends and profession, it would just be the stuff of a darned good movie. Given all the plagiarism/fabulism/moral halitosis scandals that have percolated up in the years since Glass' exposure in 1998, the film has a cultural context that is worth poking through.

One line at the end of Shattered Glass packs massive dramatic irony in retrospect: a despondent TeNR secretary laments that pictures, which TNR doesn't do, would have saved the magazine its trouble; after all, Glass couldn't have provided piccies of his nonexistent people, could he?

Nice thought. Too bad that didn't stop Jack Kelley. Kelley, the disgraced USA Today writer, a five-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, used pix to his own advantage-- like the time he illustrated a woeful tale of a Cuban refugee who died fleeing for American shores with a portrait of a hotel worker, who later resurfaced very much alive. Sadly, Kelley didn't have to provide graphic images of the infamous Jerusaleum pizza-parlor bombing he claimed to have witnessed; his account of three victims' heads rolling down the street in unison was very much at odds with plausibility, not to mention the actual forensic evidence of the scene.

If Glass was clever enough to concoct a fake newsletter for his fake hacker society (a much better stunt that that legendary "Jukt Micronics" site of his, which is as lame as any site I could have made in '98 using Netscape Navigator), photos would have given him little problem. He may have been exposed sooner than he was, but if TNR had required pix, I'm sure little Steve would have provided 'em.

Glass is also worth examining in context because of the intense racially-slanted analysis of Jayson Blair's journalistic crime spree at the New York Times. I'm not saying race wasn't at all a factor in Blair's rapid advancement and coddling by management, but the rogue's gallery of misbehaving journalists from the past decade cuts across racial, social, religious, and political boundaries.

Stephen Glass: white, well-off (parents from tony Chicago suburb, brother at Stanford, alleged social pressure from parents to practice law like a good boy), Jewish, ideologically unconstrained. Glass wrote for the Kennedy-owned George, for TNR, for the Heritage Foundation... anyone, really.

Ruth Shalit (TNR's other dirty little rotter, aka "La Plagiarista" and "That Darn Ruth"): white, well-off, Jewish, very much on the right side of the political spectrum.

Jack Kelley: white, a publicly devout Christian, allegedly called upon by God to 'proclaim the truth,' and a peddler of vicious stereotypes. Also a generation older than Glass, Blair, or Shalit.

Christopher Newton: nada. I know nothing of this guy, who fabricated bland and useless quotes for the AP. I don't want to look into him, because I cherish the belief he was getting revenge on his bosses at AP for requiring such filler quotes in the first place.

Jayson Blair: Black. Like you had to even ask.

Mike "the Piper" Barnicle: White. Wanted to be for Boston what Mike Royko was to Chicago. Ripped off Royko, and George Carlin, and just plain made stuff up. Recently peddling his tripe on MSNBC. Friend and guest of Don Imus and Chris Matthews-- and friend of the Kennedys and Robert Redford. I dunno what exactly you'd call his politics, but I sure couldn't stand the guy.

Patricia Smith: Black, and Barnicle's fellow columnist at the Boston Glob(e). Invented at least four of the people she quoted and profiled. Passionate about women, blacks, and the poor; also writes poetry.

Jay Forman: tarted up several articles for Slate. Male. Info beyond that is sketchy.

Jeff Jacoby: yet another alum of the Glob. Conservative.

Judith Miller, aka "Miss Suspicious": The center of the whole NYT/WMD fiasco. Most recently seen as a First Amendment martyr, which doesn't exactly compensate for her "wretched reporting" on such a critical story.

And those are just the major cases. We have whites and blacks, Christians and Jews, men and women, and a assortment of political affiliations. ,We have pure fabulists (Glass, Smith, Newton) and a mess of plagiarist/fabulist repeat offenders (Shalit, Blair Barnicle), plus the Very Special case of Miller and her 'sources.'

What do these critters have in common? In the case of Glass, Shalit, Barnicle, and Blair, a common factor is being cosseted by editors in the face of repeated missteps. Shalit was sheltered by Andrew Sullivan, Blair thrived in the climate created by Gerald Boyd and Howell Raines, and Barnicle was kept on at the Globe despite years of accusations against him. Glass was mentored (and enabled) by Michael Kelly, who wasn't corrupt so much as he was too trusting in his wunderbrat staff; Kelly's successor Chuck Lane finally got rid of both The Fabulist and La Plagiarista. As for Jack Kelley, McPaper's internal investigation cited a 'climate of fear' that kept the star journo safe.

Here's the real kicker: Sullivan launched a scathing attack on Raines for not twigging to Blair earlier, despite having gone through the same routine himself with Shalit. And Raines cried foul when Matt Storin at the Globe gave Patricia Smith (far) fewer second chances than he allowed Barnicle. Funny stuff, eh?

Conclusions? It's not about race, that's for sure. A less knee-jerk reaction would be to examine the culture in the newsrooms that produced these blots. That's not consistent, either, though. Sociopathic scribblers have thrived in the bad vibes of Raines' NYT and the USA Today of Kelley's era, and at the cosy Kelly-run New Republic. And what the heck has been going on at the Boston Globe?

And finally, which is the worst of these? Blair's run of deceptions at the NYT caused by far the biggest ruckus, but for my money Jack Kelley and Miller did the worst damage. Miller's badly-sourced columns were influential into leading the US into a messy war (this just in: the WMD search is over ). As for Kelley... a wide audience, critical accolades, and incendiary "issue" stories make for one damaging combination. Remember the one about the Red Crescent ambulance used for a suicide bombing? Remember the one about the Islamist youth pointing to a pic of the Sears Tower and claiming that one was "his" for the targeting? I remember both of those getting wide circulation, and also remember being outraged by the vigilante settlers Kelley profiled. Kelley, it seems, made them all up. In a hysterical, divisive political climate, Kelley manufactured graphic stories that played up to people's worst fears and suspicions. Maybe he thought he was being "objective" because he inflamed people on both sides of the Israel/Palestine issue.

All of them are scum, really (though I have a soft spot for my interpretation of Newton's AP fabrications). But Jack Kelley is in a different class from the slimy little kiddies who got so much attention.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Shattered Glass: the best movie of 2003 you didn't see

I finally watched Shattered Glass, which had been on my must-see list since its release in 2003, over the weekend. It's a gem of a film, one that did things right, and the things it did right are things Hollywood blockbusters (especially biopics) don't even aspire to. I watched The Aviator weekend before last, and while it was fun, it wasn't breathtaking in the way Shattered Glass was. I'm glad I did see it, and on the big screen at that, but I have no burning desire to see it again and will not be rushing out to by the DVD. Simply put, Mr. Scorsese and his all-star cast did not achieve the brilliant end result of SG's writer-director Billy Ray (who?) and his ensemble of low-key players, some of whom are best known for turns in very bad movies. It's not that I can single out Scorsese's film for major flaws, either-- it was long, but it didn't seem long, it was well-acted, it didn't descend into psychobabble-- it just wasn't a great movie, and I think Shattered Glass is one.

I also think Shattered Glass may be a better film than All the President's Men, which has always been one of my top fave films. It's shorter, tighter, less suffused with solemn import-- on one level, it's almost a black comedy. Now, a film about cracking the Watergate case may be permitted more self-importance than a film about busting a slimy little weasel of a "journalist," but a recent re-viewing of ATPM wasn't the thrill ride I remembered it being. Shattered Glass has the thrills: it's more suspense film than biopic, and it generates that suspense even when you know going into the film that the title character, disgraced journo Stephen Glass, is going to take a fall. That's a neat trick, and Ray and company pull off the even neater trick of making the protagonist (Glass) and antagonist (Glass' fellow reporter at The New Republic, Chuck Lane) switch roles halfway through the film. Kudos to Hayden Christensen (Glass) and Peter Sarsgaard (Lane) for pulling that one off.

As I mentioned above, the actors here are not big stars: none of that Dustin Hoffman/Robert Redford or Leo DiCaprio/Cate Blanchett jazz here, and no Jude Law turning up in a bit part either. Those who are 'names' are playing against type: dig Rosario Dawson as a businesslike writer for Forbes Digital Tool. The characters themselves are mostly confined to the 'real' people involved: TNR personnel Glass, Lane, plus editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) and owner Marty Peretz; Forbes people Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), Kambiz Foroohar (Cas Anvar), and Andie Fox (Dawson). Note that Foroohar's ethnicity isn't white-washed for filmic purposes; it makes for a refreshing touch of realism, and shows up the contrast between the lily-white world of TNR and that of Forbes' online mag.

Two characters are lightly fictionalized, though: Glass' real-life confidant Hanna Rosin is Americanized, Anglicized, and made blonde; her character "Caitlin Avey" is played by Chloe Sevigny, and you can read a bemused review of the film by Rosin's real life husband here. Another friend and sometime co-writer of Glass' receives a sex change, as Jonathan Chait becomes "Amy Brand" (played by Melanie Lynskey, who apparently looks just like Chait!). That one's creepy, given the way Glass kinda-sorta hits on Amy in the film while protesting his heterosexuality.

Outisde of the two composite characters mentioned above, Shattered Glass stays with the facts of the story; Ray's script was based off a (apparently definitive) Vanity Fair article. Ray didn't need to alter the timeline or radically alter characterization to make a successful film, which is another refreshing change from the fact-mangling one expects from a biopic. Even when the factual story is film-worthy in itself, filmmakers can rarely resist the opportunity to make mindboggling changes. I submit VH1's execrable Monkees flick Daydream Believers and the fun but flawed Beatle-pic Backbeat as examples of bizarre, unnecessary fictionalizing. Nor is SG saddled with a "message" more weighty than the basic story can bear. The message here is simple: journalism does not equal making stuff up. Editing a publication does not equal defending your errant writers at all cost. No excuses. That's a darned good message.

One reviewer compared watching this film to the experience of a good public stoning. I'd almost want to see a similar flogging of Ruth Shalit (TNR's other 'kiddie sociopath'), Jack Kelley, Mike Barnicle, Jayson Blair, and the rest of the plagiarist-fabulist hall of shame, but the Glass saga is probably the most cinematic of the lot. The gripping cat-and-mouse interplay between Forbes and TNR, between Glass and Lane, probably can't be duplicated elsewhere. Still, it'd be nice to see La Plagiarista and the rest flayed onscreen.