Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Juan and Sofia's Great Circus of China

It’s good to see that the Pseudo-Sino Circus is being brought to justice. A front page article in today's SJ-R reports that the "Great Circus of China" that duped families in Springfield with their yellowface act, is now facing heat from the Texas Attorney General. Those Texans don’t cotton to swindlers. I’m sure they’ll take them for every last peanut and dragon-appliquéd silk blouse. But the victims of their ruse do bear some responsibility for having been taken in. Whenever the circus comes to town, a significant degree of caveat emptor needs to be exercised.

The disreputable business practices of your common big top types are well known. Wasn’t it P.T. Barnum who said that “there’s a sucker born every minute”? Well, actually it wasn’t. It seems that another shyster, a competitor, actually uttered the phrase that has been famously attributed to Barnum. Just one more reason not to trust circus folks, they’ll steal the words right out of your mouth.

Circus goers should also have been alerted to the wool being pulled over their eyes by the name of the circus. Going to see the Barnes and Bailey Circus is akin to getting your taxes done at R&H Brock, you have to assume that things may not be entirely on the up-and-up. So it wasn't surprising to learn that the brains behind the act, and the ones being charged in Texas, had the very un-Mandarin names of Juan and Sofia.

I’m not totally anti-circus. Cirque du Soleil is oddly compelling entertainment when viewed from the safety of one’s own home. I’ve never attended a live performance but I’m assuming that the bizarre imagery and trance-inducing music produces a state of suspended consciousness in audience members, allowing a syndicate of French-Canadian pick-pockets to work the crowd undetected.

The last circus I saw live was at the 2005 edition of First Night Springfield. It was a humble act whose performers seemed, as my wife observed, to be practicing to be a circus act. But they were genuine. It certainly was no Earl Derr Biggers production, attempting to lure audiences with the mystery of the Orient as interpreted by a band of round-eyed Caucasians.

The Pursuit of Trivial Excellence
Springfield trivia scene may have witnessed the dawn of a new dynasty this past weekend as Table 5 claimed its first outright Trivia Night championship in team history. After years of steady improvement and many near misses, they finally took home the big prize last Saturday night at the Firemen’s Club. Jumping out to an early lead and never trailing throughout the match, Table 5 tallied an impressive 78 out of 90 (a video category was scrapped due to technical difficulties) to claim the $300, first-place stake. Shortly after the match, the word “Dream Team” was being bandied about by those who witnessed the impressive showing. Unless the team implodes in a clash of egos or is befallen by petty disputes over penmanship, it looks poised to contend for many years to come.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Huff Puff, Bang Bang

The one thing that this blog is missing - besides spurious investigative reporting, partisan cheerleading,* and the salacious details of my personal life - is a regular feature. Other local blogs run weekly features, taking a break from the serious issues of the day to focus on lighter fare. Every Friday, Abelog talks up the Beatles and ELO, and The Eleventh Hour hits the libations. After an in-depth needs assessment and a careful review of current blog readership trends, the editorial board here at BlogFreeSpringfield has decided to follow suit and run a weekly movie review.

I don’t have any specific knowledge or insight that qualifies me to be a movie reviewer. I like to think that I have good taste in movies, but who doesn’t. What I do have, however, is a gimmick.

While Ebert and Roeper come to you from the balcony,** I’ll be critiquing the theatrical merits of dramatic productions while in a state of exertion as the result of elevated physical activity.

Three times a week, in the wee hours of the morning, I drag myself down into the basement and step on the treadmill for 40 minutes of intense cardio activity (actually, I ride an elliptical trainer but my publicist said that the word “elliptical” doesn’t play well with my target demographic.) To pass the time while running while the world stands still around me, I watch DVDs from our growing collection of movies.

Since the movies usually come from my personal collection, I’m seeing them for the second or third time. The difference in perspective when viewing them from a treadmill versus my customary position (plopped down on the couch with a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and a bowl of popcorn) is astounding. It could be that the increased endorphins being unleashed in my brain allow me to fathom hidden meaning buried beneath the subtext of the story. But most likely it results from the headphones.

Because I exercise while the rest of the house is asleep, I use headphones so that I can hear above the whirl of the treadmill without disturbing the slumbering souls above me. The combination of the piped-in sound and being affixed in one spot for 40 minutes immerses me into the movie and reveals subtleties that are lost when distracted by such things as swigging.

The most profound difference in watching a movie under these conditions is a more acute awareness of the acting craft. Case in point.

When Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown was released in 1999, critics raved about Sean Penn’s performance. After seeing it for myself, I felt that while Penn was entertaining in his role, the performance failed to live up to expectations. But after watching it again last year in “flagrante exerciso”, I picked-up on many nuances I had missed the first time. I became aware of Penn’s slight mannerisms and bumbling asides that revealed a deeper dimension to the character. It is, after strenuous review, an amazing performance.

This experience of uncovering an artful performance has repeated itself many times: Gene Hackman in the Royal Tenenbaums, Campbell Scott in Roger Dodger, the chemistry between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson in the opening scene of Lost in Translation. From the treadmill, these performances shine in a way that transcends that which can be observed during a sedentary viewing.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well.

After being convinced by a friend to watch the Color of Money, I witnessed in shocking detail the devastating effect that scientology has had on Tom Cruise. The undercurrent of delirium that pervades his character was too deep-seated to have been conjured up by using Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting techniques, it had to have been real. And it was alternately disturbing and nauseating. As for Iggy Pop’s brief appearance, despite his accomplishments on the rock stage, on film he makes even the reflexive act of blinking his eyes somehow look wooden and unbelievable. To summarize, it would have taken a lot more ale and popcorn than I’m accustomed to consuming to have enjoyed that abomination.***

But enough about that. I’ll return next week with my first review, an exhaustive look**** at Richard Linklater’s $36,000 classic: Slacker. Unless of course I decide to do an in-depth report on how those people who voted for that one guy are destroying society because they’re so stupid and mean.

*Rich Miller has an interesting post on a study that shows that the party faithful are delusional.

**What an obvious and pampered milieu from which to review a movie.

***This sentence may have crossed over into Rex Reed territory. I’ll try to curb the snarkiness in future reviews.

**** Get it? Exhaustive! Because I’ll be watching it while exercising.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

al-Bashir Takes Home Coveted "Worst Dictator" Award, Joan and Mellisa Dish on Qaddafi's Gown

Parade magazine lobbed up a softball to left-wing bloggers today with their cover story that asks the question: Who is the World's Worst Dictator?

I expect that before the day is through, the blogosphere will run heavy with posts suggesting, with varying degrees of facetiousness down to absolute zero, that President Bush should be appearing on the list somewhere between North Korea's Kim Jong-il and Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan.

The farkers, those PhotoShop wizards who like to doctor up pictures, are probably hard at work right now replacing Robert Mugabe's mug shot with an image of Bush flashing a diabolical smirk.

While Bush is probably the most likely target for this online assault, there are certainly other candidates as well. I'm not sure if Steve Riedl* of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association has a blog, but if he does he probably has a rant about how Seyed Ali Khamane'i seems downright Chomsky-esque compared to Bruce Strom.

It's all innocent fun for the most part. Articles such as this are tailor-made for eliciting commentary from political-minded bloggers. Maybe a little too tailor-made.

I'm not suggesting that the people at Parade put this list together for the sole purpose of stirring-up the blogosphere and generating a whole bunch of links to the online edition of the article on their Web site. I'm sure they've visited this topic before in the past, as much of their content seems to be recycled. But I can see how the mainstream media (MSM) might want to consider how some of their stories can be geared for maximum blog reaction.

The basic model for people seeking publicity is to get the attention of the MSM through a news release, a press conference, or jumping up and down on Oprah's couch. With ever increasing competition, news outlets are forced to fight for an audience and it seems that some free publicity from bloggers would help them with that mission.

I'm not referring to quaint little boutique blogs such as this one. Getting play here is the equivalent of appearing on the Bryon Allen Show. But getting a link on one of the heavy-traffic sites such as Daily Kos or kausfiles, one of my favorites, would certainly provide a significant boost to a news outlet's Web site. I'm sure even some of the local blogs such as Abelog or the Eleventh Hour can cause a jump to the SJ-R's Web traffic when they comment on one of their stories.

In the past, the MSM has generated the most publicity on blogs when they've published editorials or opinion pieces stating that bloggers are pajama-wearing zealots who operate in the nether regions of the lunatic fringe and are not beholden to truth and accuracy. This may be true in some cases, but as certain segments of the blogging world gain in legitimacy, the MSM should consider how they can share an audience.

*I agree with the letter writer in Saturday's SJ-R who feels that Riedl is coming across as a wee bit contemptuous towards those who supported the smoking ban, many of whom are consumers of licensed beverages themselves.

Friday, January 20, 2006

We Better Settle This One

How could the SJ-R run a story on Robert Vaughn and not mention his star turn as hard-ass spokesman pitching the local legal services of Ron Kanoski and Associates? Granted it was an AP story, and the headline did play off the “Tell them you mean business” tag line from the ad. Still, I expected at least a sidebar on how this Hollywood legend has been lighting up the small screen and billboards here in Springfield.

I haven’t been following the Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s career too closely lately, but assumed it must be in the toilet given the low-rent pitchman gig he took on. Not that celebrity endorsement deals are only for fallen stars desperate for some quick cash.

A-list celebrities are increasingly lending their voices and mugs to Madison Avenue productions. It used to be that they would only do commercials in foreign countries in an attempt to raise their Q rating abroad, while holding-on to their artistic integrity here in the States. But I suppose that any more, art is commerce, so Bob Dylan has no qualms about getting tangled up in bloomers and shilling for women’s undergarments.

Back to Vaughn, what makes these commercials seem as if he is struggling to stay in the spotlight is that he isn’t playing Robert Vaughn the respected thespian; he’s playing a lawyer who kind of reminds people of Robert Vaughn. It’s like if Catherine Zeta-Jones were to put on a sequin dress and reprise her role as Velma Kelly, belting out a song-and-dance number that extols the services of Cingular Wireless. Who knows, maybe when she’s 70 and her husband Michael Douglas is pushing one fifty, the royalties from the Streets of San Francisco will stop rolling in and she’ll be forced to see if those old gams can still kick up some endorsement deals.

Speaking of Michael Douglas and wireless technology. For me, the most enduring image of his career is of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko strolling along the beach and talking into a cordless phone the size of a shoebox. At the time, this use of cutting-edge technology and the freedom that it offered was meant to demonstrate the superiority of the super-rich over us plebeians who were lucky if our landline phone cord was long enough to reach out onto the patio.

Watching that scene in today’s flip-phone era, Gekko looks burdened by the cumbersome device, like a Depression-era tenement dweller lugging a 25lb. block of ice up ten flights of steps. The dated allusion is disruptive to a serious viewing of the movie today; although it does make it ideal fodder for Michael Ian Black commentary on I (Heart) the 80s.

But I digress.

For those who haven’t seen the Robert Vaughn commercials, they feature pasty litigants who quake at the very mention of Kanoski’s name as opposing counsel, and hastily decide to settle the claim against them. Then Vaughn appears, all litigious-like, and delivers the ad’s tag line, punctuating it with a forceful finger pointed at the camera.

They are obviously generically produced, (your name here) advertisements that are available to any ambulance chaser in the country who wants to shell out for some dramatic panache. This makes Vaughn appear not only desperate, but wanton as well.

Kanoski & Associates are getting their money’s worth from the endorsement deal. They have Vaughn’s picture plastered all over their Web site, giving potential clients the impression that he will be by their side when they face-off in court with the guy who rear-ended them in Shakey’s parking lot.

Many in the legal profession find the commercials and others like them distasteful.

The North Carolina State Bar prohibited two law firms from continuing to air the Vaughn ads, calling them unethical and misleading to consumers.

In Florida, law firms are not allowed to have actors or spokespeople appear in their commercials, a ruling that some find discriminatory on the grounds that good-looking, Billy Flynn-type lawyers will have an unfair advantage over their Raymond Burr-esque brethren. And if there are any attorneys in Florida who look like Catherine Zeta-Jones, they can all forget about it.

I’m not in a position as a consumer to judge if the Vaughn ads are deceptive, as I rarely have the need for legal representation. If the next time I find a dismembered finger in my Wendy’s chilli I subconsciously start to hum the theme from The Magnificent Seven, I’ll know I’ve been had.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What's Love Got To Do With It?

The issue of gay marriage is once again in the media and I find the debate troubling on two fronts. First, I can’t think of one reason why homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry. On the other hand, I don’t think that every person who opposes gay marriage is a bigot and don’t see what is gained by labeling them as such.

Almost every reason given to define marriage in such a way to exclude same-sex couples fails to persuade because usually the conditions given (the inability to procreate, increased divorce) can be applied to heterosexuals as well.

Yes, there are those who think that homosexuality is a scourge inflicted upon mankind for its sins and the only recourse is for the inflicted to reform and repent, or resign themselves to damnation.

But for every Rev. Fred Phelps there are probably 100 people whose opposition stems not from hatred, but by a strict observance to a tradition or ideal concerning marriage. It may be a short-sighted notion, but it isn’t necessarily a mean-spirited one. Nor is it a view only taken by those in the furthest reaches of the conservative right. Let’s not forget that our own Barack Obama voiced his opposition to gay marriage during his last campaign, although one would have to believe that he extended a finger to test the prevailing winds of public opinion before declaring his stance.

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom took the power invested in him to circumvent the law and pronounce couples husband and husband, one of the more interesting reactions came from parts of the gay community. There were those among them who thought that the illegal arrangements were detrimental to their cause. They believed that society had been slowly but surely moving towards greater acceptance of homosexuals, and eventually gay marriage, but that Newsome’s brazen act served only to shock a large portion of the populace who responded by retreating to a more traditional ground.

The current practice of spewing hate-filled rhetoric towards those who hold a “one man, one woman” model of marriage, but who otherwise harbor no ill will, does equal disservice. Perhaps I’m just not enough of an anarchist when it comes to seeking justice, but I think that this is one issue that will resolve itself best with patience and gradual assimilation.

I do think that the institute of marriage is important to our society, but find it odd that the government is involved in an issue that is based upon the presence of, or at least the pretense of, romantic love. This is why I believe that the state should stop dealing in marriage and instead focus on domestic partnerships.

In the eyes of government, two people desiring to become one should be treated pretty much the same as if they were forming a business partnership. There should be inducements and benefits for undertaking their venture, but risks should it fail. And it’s here where government should be encouraged to do what it does best - entangle the entire process in a web of red tape sufficient enough so that only the most determined couples will seek partnership and only the most desperate will seek divorce.

If love and affection are taken out of the equation, then even those who see homosexuality as unnatural could no more oppose the domestic union of Ellen and Portia than they could of Tom and Katy.

Removing the connubial bond from government oversight shouldn’t in any way diminish the sanctity of marriage. For most of us married folks, our commitment to our spouses was declared upon an altar or under a park gazebo, not in the county clerk’s office. That need not change. The declaration of love, the sacred and heartfelt vows, the blessings of a higher power, and the celebration among family and friends will still define matrimony for those who desire it.

If a given religious group wants to deny certain people the opportunity to marry under their auspices, that will be their right.

What happens after the wedding day, however, is up to each couple and no one else.

I’m not always on board when groups are singled out for special consideration under the law. I’m still not sure what a hate crime is, as if a beating is ever administered amicably. Special treatment isn’t really the issue here, however. This isn’t about accommodating gays so much as not discriminating against anyone over the age of consent who wishes to become betrothed.

Lest I come across as too open-minded, let me admit that I am uncomfortable with certain aspects of homosexuality, especially the male variety. I may watch Brokeback Mountain, but I'll probably close my eyes during certain scenes. But for the most part, I try not to concern myself with anyone else's sexuality besides my wife's and my own. Certainly not Elton John's, although I did hear that his wedding was absolutely fabulous.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Crime and Punishment

There is a principle in the field of marketing that maintains that customers will likely have a more favorable opinion of a business with which they’ve had a problem satisfactorily rectified, than they will of a business with which they’ve experienced nothing but fault-free transactions. The purpose of this principle isn’t to suggest that intentionally spilling soup on a customer and then offering to pick up the lunch tab is a desirable method for building a loyal clientele at your bistro. Rather, it is meant to illustrate how mindlessly mechanical commerce can operate when running smoothly and how the occasional stick in the cogs can be an opportunity to demonstrate your mettle in customer satisfaction. In a broader sense, it illustrates how a person’s character can be best judged when he is embroiled in turmoil or controversy.

I thought of this principle when reading a report in Sunday’s SJ-R about a bank robber, one George Landers, who was nabbed when a crisis of conscious led him back to the scene of the crime to return his plunders. I know little of this man Landers and if he hadn’t made the ill-fated decision to stickup the Prairie State Bank & Trust last Saturday I would know nothing at all. But he did, and because he also took the unusual step of reneging on his robbery, he’s gone from obscurity to being a paragon of virtue. Well, at least he could be.

The SJ-R didn’t provide any back story on Landers so we the readers were allowed to sketch in the details as we saw fit. I imagined him as an honest, hardworking man who was down on his luck and succumbed to an act of utter desperation. Perhaps he was recently laid off from his job and the bank was about to foreclose on the house that his grandfather had built with his bare hands. Perhaps contributing to his misfortune was a sick child whose mother abandoned their family, pilfering his life’s savings before leaving them all in the dirt. Yet despite the lowly circumstances in which he found himself, Landers knew that he simply must return the money and face punition because of a deep-rooted sense of right and wrong.

Of course, I could be wrong. Old George could have been strung out on crank and looking for some quick cash so he could score. Maybe he wandered back into the bank, only then remembering that he had already robbed it, and upon seeing the police decided he better make good with the loot and throw himself on their mercy by pretending it was an intentional act of contrition.

But I see no need to be cynical and will choose to believe the first story until proven otherwise.

It’s rare, but I do occasionally find myself admiring the work of the outlaw. And not just the fictional capers depicted on the silver screen such as the stylized heist in Ocean’s Eleven or the hold-up hijinks in Bottle Rocket.

One of my favorite real-life crooks of all time wasn’t a gentleman bandit or a criminal mastermind, but a humble scam artist whose work was characterized by its modesty. Coincidently enough, his scam not only took advantage of the marketing principle explained at the start of this article, but also employed spilled soup in his MO.

Operating in New York, this man devised what seemed like the perfect ruse. He would send letters to restaurants saying that he had recently enjoyed a wonderful meal there, very complimentary. But, he would hesitantly add, the experience was somewhat marred when the server spilled soup on his shirt. He explained that at the time he shrugged off the mishap, but after discovering that the resulting stain would require the services of a professional dry cleaner, he felt he must ask for compensation in the sum of $17. Many of the restaurateurs found the amount he asked a mere pittance and well worth it to maintain the good will of a customer.

And so this corresponding crook cleaned-up, as it were, fleecing many of the city’s eating establishments without them ever knowing about it. He was eventually caught because he had the checks sent to a PO Box and whatever monitoring methods the Post Office uses to detect mail fraud picked up the scent of his little scheme.

I don’t condone criminal behavior of any sort, but in a world of bumbling burglars and greedy grifters, it’s nice to see someone apply a little nuance and humility to their craft. And after reading stories about local bank executives getting caught skimming from the till and local charity organizers found pocketing donations, it’s nice to read about someone like good old George Landers who did the right thing and turned himself in.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Prognosis Positive

This is the time of year that reflective sorts who are given to public displays of punditry look back on the year that was and attempt to encapsulate events gone by. The more critically-minded and profusely partisan among us tend to focus exclusively on the bad, offering only the dimmest wish for better days ahead, when in reality, their entire raison d'etre is dependent on the continued failings of their rivals. Is there any doubt should George Bush pass from this mortal coil in the coming year that Molly Ivins’ brain will turn to dust within days, the absence of his bumbling existence denying it its sole source of sustenance.

Not wanting this blog to fall into a persistent state of negativity and criticism - and being a bit late to the game, all of the good bloggers have already posted their year-end musings - I will forego a review and instead focus on the possibilities for the year to come.

As Springfield attempts to rejuvenate itself through tourism, the new medical district, and other development efforts, it’s time that the city focus on improving its infrastructure to make it a more desirable destination for people and businesses. Free wireless broadband for the masses should be the rallying cry of our city leaders. Let us eat cake when it comes to accessing the Internet. Set the city proper ablaze in one giant hot spot. I’m speaking not as someone who has grown weary of plodding through iTunes downloads, but as a civic minded soul who wants only the best for his hometown.

Other cities are already blazing this trail, including Chicago, but it’s not too late for Springfield to set itself apart as a civic savant in the technology arena. It is, however, a journey not unencumbered by difficulties.

Insight Communications, SBC, and their marauding bands of cut-throat lobbyists will mount a spirited counterattack to any plans for free Wi-Fi. The free market senses of Libertarians will surely be offended at the prospects of a municipally operated broadband network. And government watchdog groups will drool with suspicion should Springfield follow San Francisco’s lead and get into bed with a company such as Google to subsidize the effort.

Their concerns are not without merit, but in the end, a progressive and forward-thinking agenda should prevail. The Digital Divide must be spanned and I should no longer be made to suffer the indignity of waiting 30 minutes to download an Arcade Fire song.

However the city decides to proceed in the quest to get completely wireless, it will need additional funds to develop the network. Who better to foot the bill for high speed Internet access than lead-footed, red light running libertines? One camera placed high above any Veteran’s Parkway intersection should generate enough revenue to connect the entire city and outfit each citizen with a Blackberry of their very own. Put a surveilling eye in the sky at all major intersections and we can provide free comprehensive healthcare to boot.

This too, however, will necessitate some start-up capital to purchase the cameras. Since our government leaders have found it unconscionable to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, it is incumbent upon them to demand their well-earned kickbacks from the tobacco and hospitality industries and use this ill-gained booty for the common good.

Once this is all accomplished, our government will then be able to pursue the Hooverian dream of a chicken in every pot. The aforementioned civic improvements will once again make Springfield a worthy home for that most respected of all franchises: the venerable Chick-Fil-A. I propose transforming all current and former Hardee’s locations into houses of poultric delight. Hardee’s, afterall, has always been rather bland; the only pizzazz coming from the highly-stylized, locally-produced TV ads that ran in the 90s (Platter! Platter! Platter!).

Whatever transpires in 2006, the key to having a good year is wrapping it up on a high note.

A Princeton psychologist has posited a theory that states that people tend to remember and judge events based on how they end, i.e., a vacation fraught with exorbitant expenses and abysmal accommodations will be remembered fondly if the return flight home departs on schedule. To prove his theory, he conducted an experiment on the most vulnerable of all of God’s creatures – men undergoing colonostomies*.

The control group in this experiment received the standard defilement, while the test group was subjected to a longer exam, but measures were taken to make the extra time less excruciatingly embarrassing. The article that I read didn’t say what these measures entailed, but safe to assume that it didn’t involve a private screening of Brokeback Mountain, not that there’s anything wrong with that movie.

Regardless, what was found was that members of the second group later recalled the experience with less terror and were more willing to attend to their regularly scheduled follow-ups. And if men can be duped into believing that that particular procedure, in hindsight, isn't too bad, then anything is possible when it comes to remembering history.

So no matter how badly the half-wit in the White House or the dimwits in congress screw up this year, no matter how insufferable or inherently idiotic those that persist on the other side of the political divide prove themselves to be, 2006 can still be a banner year. We need only to completely cut ourselves off from the outside world on New Year's Eve. Turn off the TV, the radio and the router. Leave the newspaper on the porch. And don't, under any circumstances, pick-up the telephone. Left to bathe in the utopia of our own, uncontested version of reality, the memory of 2006 will be cast forever in an idyllic glow. Who knows, under such circumstances, Molly might even think of something nice to say about George.

*The original post erroneously used the term colostomy. Thanks to PacoBlog for spotting the error.