24 February 2009

States of Acceptance

Living on the right-hand side of the Atlantic, I find that all the big speechmaking occasions in the U.S. are starting to run together.

My fellow Americans, distinguished visitors, members of Congress, Madame First Lady of Hollywood Angelina Jolie, and most of all you, the little people out there in TV land — I really didn’t have anything prepared. I’m overwhelmed.

I’d like to thank the Academy for presenting me with the Presidency of the United States. Really, it was an honor just to be nominated. And to all of the other nominees — John McCain, Mickey Rourke — you’re the heroes here tonight. And let’s not forget Ron Paul! (Pause for laugh.) This is for you, too, guys.

I’d like to thank everyone who helped me to get here tonight. It’s not every day that you get to star in a war movie, an espionage thriller, a sci-fi horror picture and a disaster movie — but thanks to the amazing scenario that George Bush so carefully crafted for me, I got that chance. Thanks, man. Really, I couldn’t have done it without you.

And now, to help me explain the budget and the bailouts, I’d like to ask my newly appointed economic and musical advisers, the lovely Miss Beyoncé Knowles and Miss Anne Hathaway, to join me now at the podium. Maestro?

The State of the Union ain’t great!
Two wars! Failing makers of cars!
Markets crashed, though we’re doling out cash!
That’s a depression!

No jobs for the working-class slobs!
And doubts on the worth of your house!
No thanks to the big greedy banks!
That’s a depression!

The Union’s a mess!
The mess is depress’d!
And that is the State of the Depression!

Thank you, thank you. Aren’t they something, folks? Let’s have a big round of applause for them: Beyoncé Knowles and Anne Hathaway! I call them my Talent Czars.

I see I’m running out of time here, so let me wrap this up. But one last thing — you know, a lot of people say this is a petty, elitist, self-absorbed town that doesn’t really understand the problems and needs of the rest of the country. Wait a minute — am I in Washington or Hollywood right now? (Pause for laugh.)

But seriously, folks, it’s thanks to the great work that you do, that this is such a great country. Am I right?

Good night, everybody. God bless America! Jai ho!

FOOTNOTE FYI: A Nexis database search turns up, in the New York Times, 251 mentions of the phrase Academy Awards or the word Oscars since Jan. 1. That's more mentions in the Times than for the words Pakistan (186), Geithner (169), foreclosure (142), or Blagojevich (66).
Timothy Noah, SLATE.COM
18 February 2009

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21 February 2009

Field Guide: Yolande Moreau

Quite possibly the sexiest woman in cinema today

Belgian-born Yolande Moreau first caught my eye in Quand la mer monte, a bittersweet romance she wrote (and co-directed), based on her own experiences in a one-woman show touring the hinterlands. Along the way, she meets a fellow (Wim Willaert) whose sole occupation, if you can call it that, is creating gigantic Carnival costumes. That neither of them looks remotely like a movie star doesn’t stop their passion. Before the picture is finished, you will be smitten with Yolande, and as firmly convinced as her “poussin” is that she’s one of the most sensuous beings ever to grace the screen. Since that first encounter, I’ve looked forward to each new appearance onscreen, and she is never less than satisfying – albeit not always quite so sexy.

I’ve just seen her again in a new picture called Louise-Michel, and such is the angry tenor of the times, so resentful are Americans toward the wizards who wrecked the economy, that some smart producer in Hollywood doubtless has snapped up the adaptation rights already, to set the thing in Kentucky, perhaps, instead of Picardy. That producer will be hard-pressed, however, to find an American actress to fill Moreau’s sneakers.

In an extraordinary bit of physical acting that gets only more brilliant the longer you watch, Moreau plays the Louise of the title (though that is also an homage to the 19th-century anarchist Louise Michel): hulking, inarticulate, violent, and often very funny. Her illiteracy leads to some amusing complications, including a terrific sight-gag torn from the playbook of Buster Keaton. When she and her colleagues are laid off without warning from a little clothing factory, Louise suggests that they do something useful with their severance money: namely, hire a hit-man to kill the boss. It becomes increasingly clear that, in Michel (Bouli Lanners, also Belgian), Louise has chosen the wrong guy; ultimately, they join forces to see justice done. More or less.

Natural Born Killers? Lanners and Moreau in Louise-Michel

It’s one of the oddest films I’ve seen in years, yet every loony detail is just right. Apart from a joke at the expense of 9/11, it ought to succeed in U.S. release – and, as I say, it’s itching for an American remake.

Moreau is nominated for a Best Actress award at the Césars on Sunday, February 28, for her work in another film from last year, Séraphine. I wonder if it’s still plaing around town….

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15 February 2009

Vive la Pub’!

Oh, Marie! How do you get your dishes so sparkling clean?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a move I can’t quite figure out, has banned advertising from the state-owned television stations. Since he’s a conservative, and until recently quite committed to free markets and to more-or-less American privatization, this meddling with capitalism is dubious on several levels. His cronies in private television do stand to profit from the new policy, since they continue to make money from advertising, and advertisers have nowhere else to go. I’m sure that had nothing to do with Sarkozy’s move.

The most important ramification may be this: as of January 5, it has become much more difficult to see naked ladies on French television.

Americans may not appreciate that toplessness is a redeeming feature not only of French beaches and fashion magazines but also of television advertising, and that a bare balcon has until now been absolutely essential to the hawking of any commercial product you can think of. Not just bubble-bath or shampoo, oh no! We’re talking everything from floor polish to dessert topping.

Get whites their whitest!

My favorite ad, seen many years ago, was for a product the name of which I’ve forgotten, and featured a nubile young woman, viewed from the navel up or from behind as she wandered from room to room through a gorgeous home. “I care beaucoup about the quality of the food my children eat,” she told us.

With this, she arrived at the kitchen, reached into a cupboard, and produced a box of cookies.

“That’s why I buy Choco-biscuits,” she continued. “They’re made with only the most wholesome ingredients.” Ever so slightly, she caressed herself with the box, then added, “And real milk chocolate.”

Enter the kids in question, rambunctious from their afternoon games. She gave each a cookie. ”Merci, Maman!” they crowed.

And she glowed with that satisfaction that comes of fulfilling the needs of another.

I’m not making this up.

What do you take for a cold?

One thing seems clear: Sarkozy is out of step with the times. When television is losing viewers to the Internet, and when the global economy is in dire need of any stimulus it can get, the solution must not be resisted. We need more nudity in more advertising, not less.

NOTE: The “pub’” in the title of this piece is French slang for “publicité,” or advertising. Only days after posting did I realize that some readers might think I was talking about something pubic. Ooops.

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12 February 2009


She gave me the ooh-la-la.

Quite a lot has been going on, about which I would very much like to comment. However, such has been my schedule that I have no time to write, and such my level of distraction that I have little of interest to say. In the interest of timeliness, however, I make the following observations.

Blossom Dearie has died at the age of 82. I refer you to this blog entry, in which I attempt to describe the pleasure of hearing her at play.

Madeline Lee Gilford is mentioned in an article in The New York Times regarding the Greenwich Village restaurant Tortilla Flats and its annual Ernest Borgnine Look-Alike contest, which she proudly won on three occasions. If you look in the photo that accompanies the article, you can see her headshot, at center, on the wall behind the two rank impostors, and here I’ve provided you with this handy thumbnail, as well, so that you can admire her without all that distraction. Since the Times paid scant heed to Madeline’s passing, in April, it’s nice to see her getting a little extra recognition now, in the paper of record.

This is Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. Let me state, without equivocation, that I am very glad he was born.

For some days, I have been in a) an airplane, b) recovering from being in an airplane, 3) without Internet, or 4) on the Internet, but with only a French keyboard to use. This, how you say, suck.

I note that, upon my rentrée, my French hasn’t suffered as much as one might expect, after seven weeks in New York. My accent is remarkably unaffected, and the rapidity of my speech seems pretty good. I’m unable to find my vocabulary, however — in English or in French. I don’t know how to account for that.

That’s about it. Fascinating, no? So much for keeping current. Yet if I don’t post, will anyone visit my blog?

And remember, this Valentine’s, to reach out and touch the one you love.
(If you’re lucky, she might let you touch the other one, too.)

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08 February 2009

Ask Uncle Bill

Would you like to parent wholesome, well-adjusted children
like the ones you see here?

Over the past few years, my friends have reproduced at a rate usually seen only among characters in science-fiction films. This is alarming, but it affords me the opportunity to study at close range the state of parenthood today. Most young American parents believe themselves to be cut off by distance and divorce from the traditional structures that used to assist families: now there’s no more useful Aunt Fanny next-door to recall how she and her seventeen babies coped with the Great Colic Crisis of Aught-Nine. (That would be the previous Aught-Nine, not the present one.) Yet even when Aunt Fanny is nearby, contemporary life raises prospects she never had to consider: whether little Johnny should play computer games for sixteen straight hours, or listen to popular music, or download Internet porn, or know anything about Dick Cheney, ever.

With so little guidance, most parents I know are now nervous wrecks, utterly convinced that they’re in constant danger of doing everything wrong. (The exception is those parents who really are doing everything wrong: they’re utterly convinced they do everything right. But that’s another story.)

Typically for my generation, some of my friends are turning to drugs— for their kids, not for themselves— while blaming everything on their parents, or at least on their genetic makeup. But short of such extreme responses, almost all my friends have tried to recreate the traditional systems of elders and extended family that used to make child-rearing a close-knit community affair.

They do this mainly by reading books.

Uncle Bill can help!

As godfather to a dozen moppets, I’m expected to read the books, too, and I’m now in a position to help others. Because I’ve learned that, once you get past the window-dressing and the advanced degrees in kidolatry, all the advice books say almost exactly the same things — namely, just what parents want to hear.

Here are a few examples.

Dear Uncle Bill:
My little Lucretia refuses to eat her rhubarb. Is this normal?
Fretful in Fargo

Dear Fretful:
In many cultures it is not considered unusual to avoid rhubarb until a very advanced age. In South America, some children reach retirement age before eating a single bite. Some Eskimo tribes forbid their children even to look at rhubarb, much less eat any. In his great novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway never mentions rhubarb. Forcing your child to eat foods she doesn’t like could make her anxious, ill-tempered, and Presbyterian in later life. Your child is perfectly normal and perhaps exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
I work outside the home and worry that I’m not spending enough time with my children: Bobby (age 6 or so), Cindy (maybe 3), and the other one.
Jason Fliess,
Latchkey, NE

Dear Mr. Fliess:
If you didn’t work, you couldn’t earn money to feed your children or to buy expensive books on parenting. Surely you don’t want your children to grow up without food and advice! It’s a well-known fact that Admiral Dewey’s parents never bought a single advice book, and look what happened to him. In some societies, parents are encouraged to spend as much time as possible outside the home, so that children will develop such useful traits as independence, self-reliance, and autonomy. Your children are normal and perhaps exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
My little Murgatroyd is five years old but has not yet mastered the essentials of calculus or quantum physics; he speaks only five languages, not six like his friends in play group, and his handwriting in Cyrillic is so bad I’m embarrassed to post it on his website. Is Murgatroyd just “acting out” to get my attention? What can I do?
Humiliated in Serpent’s Tooth, AZ

Dear Humiliated:
It’s not unusual at all for some children to take a little more time in development. Everyone knows that Albert Einstein flunked math, that “Amadeus” Mozart didn’t write his first symphony until he was already five, and that Condoleezza Rice was well in her teens when she was named to the National Security Council, yet all these late bloomers compensated for their slow starts and are now widely perceived as geniuses. There’s no need to worry. Your child is perfectly normal, perhaps even exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
What is the right age for my little Ebola to stop sucking her thumb? I worry that the habit will make her teeth crooked and lead to unhealthy fixations as she grows older.
Audrey Didget,
Sheepstonsil, ID

Dear Ms. Didget:
You have nothing to worry about. It’s a well-known fact that, at the age of 65, Giuseppe Verdi composed his classic Aida without once taking his thumb out of his mouth. Children need to develop at their own pace. In many cultures, children don’t ever stop sucking their thumbs, and go on to lead healthy, productive lives. Among the cannibals of Borneo, children often suck other people’s thumbs, usually as a between-meal snack. Don’t pressure your child to conform to other people’s expectations. Your child is perfectly normal, and perhaps even exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
My little Roland, 19, is a sophomore at Dartmouth, yet he’s still wearing diapers. Is this normal? What is the right age for potty-training?
Foggy Bottom, DC

Dear Mr. Bottom:
There is no “right age” for potty-training. Children need to develop at their own pace. Florence Nightingale was 45 before she could tie her own shoes. Alfred, Lord Tennyson could not feed himself until he was 25. Anton van Leuwenhoek lived with his parents until he was 67 and they had been dead for 12 years. In some cultures, potty-training is considered immoral and indecent, and people who attempt it are flogged. In other cultures, only the very poor relieve themselves at all; the rich hire others to do it for them. Don’t let others decide what is “right” for your child. Your child is normal and perhaps even exceptional.
Uncle Bill

Dear Uncle Bill:
My little Adolph is a typical, noisy, active child. Yet his teachers complain that he seems hostile and likes to beat up his classmates. Yesterday, I caught him setting fire to the cat. Should I do something to stop him?
Signed, Mrs. Arthur Hitler (Gwendoline),
Vienna, VA.

Dear Mrs. Hitler:
Don’t suppress your child’s impulses! You don’t want to inhibit little Adolph’s sense of self-validity and free expression. Besides, the release of aggression and hostility is healthy and often productive. Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War, and yet he is remembered as our greatest president. Gustave Flaubert murdered 36 people before he reached his twenty-first birthday, yet went on to run a successful garment business. At 6, Elizabeth I disemboweled her Latin tutor. And in many American communities today, school-children begin each day by shooting each other. Your child is normal and perhaps even exceptional.
Uncle Bill

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06 February 2009

25 Random One-Word Things About Me

Jai ho! (But that’s two words.)
1. Yes
2. Facebook
3. Nubbin
4. Artillery
5. Congested
6. Semprini
7. Arduous
8. Underwear
9. Seven
10. No
11. London
12. Overworked
13. Elise
14. Mayonnaise
15. Woozy
16. Sandwich
17. Vodka
18. Furore
19. Lockbox
20. Mittens
21. Eponymous
22. Galvanizing
23. Proust
24. Untagged
25. Banana
26. Bonus

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03 February 2009

Augury and Inauguration

Photograph by Catherine Karnow© Used with permission.

The new presidential administration has been welcomed by the nation with open arms — prompting Groucho’s reply, “Is that so? How late do you stay open?” Suddenly, we are something more than American citizens, more than the people and the governed: we are Obama Fanatics. Even Pepsi has launched an advertising campaign blatantly ripping off Barack Obama’s graphics and spirit, almost as if the gentleman had been elected by 100 percent of the American people, and as if there were no Republicans at all.

A great deal of trust has been placed on the forthright, handsome, honest shoulders of our wise, capable, youthful, and superhuman new President. We are relieved of Bush, and certain of Obama’s ability to clean up the mess in which Bush placed us. Our hopes are high, and we tell pollsters that we intend to be patient with President Obama. We will allow him to dip a toe in the water before he walks on it, we say. Why, we’re willing to wait as long as two years for him to perform his miracles! We are models of patience!

My hope is that we’re telling the truth. We’re setting ourselves up for a mean disappointment, when it emerges that not even a demigod can rescue us overnight. And a backlash, if it arrives, could make Barack’s job even more difficult.

That’s why it will be important, in years to come, to look back on the Inauguration, and the way so many of us felt. We’ll find strength in those memories, I believe. Two friends of mine have gone on the record — sharing their observations of Inauguration Day with me — and with you.

Two Americans: A new friend greets Catherine Karnow
Photograph courtesy of Catherine Karnow© Used with permission.

My goddaughter played hooky from school* in order to ride, with a few friends and one parent, to Washington. “You won’t be able to see anything,” I warned her.

“I don’t care,” she said simply. “I just want to be a part of it.” She’d been inspired by Barack Obama pretty much on first sight; she’d invested a great deal of spiritual capital in his long campaign and in his victory. She wanted to see this thing through. If that meant missing a day of school — if that meant catching influenza on the Mall and missing several more days of school — if that meant flunking her History paper — so be it.

“Would you rather have me witness history or just write about it?” she asked of her teacher.

“Nice try,” he said. But she was undaunted.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow© Used with permission.

She drove into the snowy dawn on Sunday morning, arriving in Maryland sometime after lunch. I’m not sure how she passed the hours until Tuesday — but then, she says, “We woke up at 4a.m., and got to Washington Monument at 5:30. Got there by subway. We stood on the circular retaining wall outside the Washington Monument, until we got barricaded off. We tried to get on top of something, because then you’re above everyone else and you feel like you’re all by yourself. Then you could get a view of the Capitol Building. It made you feel like you could almost see what was happening.”

What do you remember most? “The cold!” Two weeks later, she’s still shivering at the thought.

Did you cry? “No,” she says. (That’s curious, because sitting here on the sofa, watching the Inauguration on television with her older brother, I cried, during Rev. Lowery’s prayer.)

Were you caught up in the moment? “Sometimes.”

Are you glad you went? “Yes!”

And that may be all we ever know of Camelot, she and I.

Catherine Karnow managed — somehow — not to run into my goddaughter, there on the Mall that day. But she took lots of pictures, and I’ve posted a few of them here. Look closely at these faces, and remember.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow© Used with permission.

The day came to an end. My goddaughter found it hard to get home — first, because the police “barricaded so many streets that it was hard to navigate.” Then came the long ride back to New York, the frantic attempt to write a coherent History paper in the bumpy backseat, interrupted only by a fitful nap. There would be a long night yet to come.

But she got a 90 on that paper.

*It’s because of her truancy that I’m not reminding you of her name. Though she says that every one of her teachers knows precisely where she was on January 20, in anonymity lies her safety; in my discretion, the just reward of her valor. And in keeping a secret, lies the healthy maintenance of my godfatherhood.

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