-Who ever knew Al Franken was such a biting comedic genius? Though he’s doubtlessly always had his following, I’ve really started to sit up and pay attention after reading his hysterically right-on smash hit Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. The only drawback is that these right-wingers are such transparently duplicitious, disingenuous fools (or, alternatively, so Machiavellian that they don’t care if they look like idiots as long as they get enough of an audience for the big moolah) that an entire book systematically dismantling their pennyweight ideologies seems a tad unnecessary. Like so many unnecessary things, though, it’s a sheer pleasure. I finished it much too quickly, pausing only when I was laughing too hard to concentrate- I immediately obtained a copy of his previous entry into his ongoing chronicle of conservative moronics, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, which is almost equally hilarious (I personally think Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity are even worse than Limbaugh because they try to put a fresh, young, sexy face on their decrepit, small-minded beliefs. Hence, the new book has the edge in my view).

I attended his very amusing, galvanizing talk/book-signing at The University of Washington in September, this time remembering to actually bring my copy of the book (unlike the Margaret Atwood appearance earlier this year, when I left empty-handed because I foolishly forgot to bring my freshly purchased copy of her latest). It would be very interesting to see if Franken becomes a part of the left-slanting talk-radio network rumored to be in the works; after listening to my mother listen to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk throughout my teen years, I’d have to tune in every day for years to achieve any sort of lifetime balance.

-Along similar lines, but more serious and urgent in tone: Joe Conason’s Big Lies (it’s about Bush and his supporters). A chapter-by-chapter excoriation of the falsehoods perpetrated by the right; Conason doesn’t stoop to name-calling like Coulter, et. al., but he does use heavy irony. A particularly astute observation: “Although political correctness is now mostly a dead issue, conservatives still appeal to those same fears and resentments. They can play both sides of any PC issue, depending on convenience.”

-From a time so remote from the current political climate as to seem (almost) anachronistic, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, a crude, ill-disciplined satire on the American Bourgeoisie circa 1920, when the book was published. The title character reminded me of the Jack Palance character in Contempt; he’s never met a self-serving platitude or bit of circular reasoning he didn’t like. Babbitt, however, suffers guilt and regret at every turn; he’s a spineless man incapable of thinking for himself, but even though he’s Lewis’s object of fun, his sweaty desperation to conform becomes by turns wearying and terrifying. The novel works, in fits and starts, as a thumbnail portrait of America’s expanding pre-Depression middle class and its discontents. Lewis’s broadness is a definite liability; he doesn’t have the style or control of perspective to justify the thinness of his characters and situations, though the mortification of eternal predictability- as distinct from eternal happiness or contentment- comes across. Lewis isn’t a social satirist- this is no Citizen Ruth- but he does manage the occasional Wildean quip. “A dinner two weeks off,” he writes of the predatory, social hierarchy-driven engagements of the Mr. and Mrs. Babbitt, “even a family dinner, never seems so appalling, till the two weeks have astoundingly disappeared and one comes dismayed to the ambushed hour.”

-It was a pleasure to dig into Joan Didion’s personal (and otherwise) history of the Golden State, Where I Was From. I love Didion’s drily observational, deadpan prose style, which she’s used to fine effect in previous musings on this same subject in Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album (both of which I consider essential and, more importantly, extremely rich reading). Didion’s personal and family history weave in and out of California’s geographic, political, and socioeconomic histories (which turn out to be inseparable, of course). The impression given, through Didion’s pointed observation, is that even aside from the fresh gubernatorial fiasco, California as a political and intellectual entity has always been exemplary of that horrid slice of human nature: Scapegoating. A state with a rather ignoble perrennial anti-government (or “independent,” as many prefer to think of it) streak turns out to have always been dependent on the government (in the form of land giveaways, in the form of water/agricultural subsidies, in the form of defense contracts) for its always dazzling and always duplicitous affluence.

Didion writes about convenient, destructive displacement of anxiety in California. In response to the allegations of wealthy friends in the real-estate business who complained that the 1992 riots had ruined the chances of selling a home in Los Angeles: “According to the Commission on State Finance in Sacramento... some 800,000 jobs were lost in California between 1988 and 1993. More than half the jobs lost were in Los Angeles County. The Bank of America... made an even more bleak projection: four to five hundred thousand more jobs lost, in the state’s “downsizing industries,” between 1993 and 1995. This is what people in Los Angeles were talking about when they talked about the 1992 riot.”

In response to the sensationalist but pointless coverage of the “Spur Posse”: “8,700 of the remaining employees at McDonnell Douglas’s Long Beach plant were working on the C-17. What those 8,700 employees would be doing the month or the year after that remained, at that time, an open question, since even as the Air Force was demonstrating support of its own program, discussions had begun about how best to dispose of it. There were a number of options under consideration... The last-ditch option, the A-12 solution, was to just pull the plug. The Long Beach plant was the plan on the Lakewood city line, the plant with the American flag whipping in the wind and the forward-slanted logo and the boarded-up motel with the marquee that still read ‘Welcome Douglas Happy Hour 4-7.’ This was what people in Lakewood were talking about when they talked about the Spur Posse.”

-Some capsule reviews of recent/current films. Most of these have been published under the banner “What’s Poppin’” in Just Out, with a five-”kernel”-based rating system which I’ve replaced here with the more mundane but graphically more attainable stars):

Lost in Translation (****)

Writer/director Sofia Coppola's sophomore effort stars Bill Murray as a down-on-his-luck American actor shooting TV commercials in Japan and Scarlett Johansson as a recently wed, ennui-ridden young American woman. The two, adrift against the backdrop of that country's (sometimes very) foreign culture, strike up an intense, ambiguous friendship. Coppola has the visual artistry and emotional subtlety to make Lost in Translation feel like a slightly less eccentric, slightly more platonic Harold and Maude. It's a terrific film.

Matchstick Men (***)

Supposedly a lighthearted departure for reliably craftsmanlike director Ridley Scott (Alien, Thelma & Louise, Hannibal), Matchstick Men stars Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, and Sam Rockwell in a story about a clinically obsessive-compulsive con man being redeemed by his newly discovered teenage daughter. The cutesy contrivances are glaring, but the film's emotional/moral displacements and Hitchcockian twists- clearly much truer to Scott's real thematic interests- have enough panache to render it debatably worthwhile.

Secondhand Lions (*)

Haley Joel Osment plays a bland, apparently hormone-free teenager left with his curmudgeonly uncles (the venerable but mostly wasted Robert Duvall and Michael Caine) by his frivolous mother (Kyra Sedgwick, in a much too broad Southern-gal performance that wouldn't have cut it on Designing Women). Charmless whimsy and folksy value lessons ensue. You know the kind of children's movie that's great because grownups can equally enjoy it? This is the other kind.

Sylvia (***)

Gwyneth Paltrow and director Christina Jeffs (who, like fellow New Zealander Jane Campion, has a muted, organic style) just manage to pull off this biopic about anguished, famously suicidal poet Sylvia Plath. As in The Royal Tenenbaums, Paltrow exploits her own brittle, neurasthenic presence to good effect, and Jeffs fills in John Brownlow's stingy script with some substantive cinematic texture. The film is a bit too pretty and polite for its raw, unstable subject, but Jeffs gives Paltrow some eerily spot-on Plath-channeling moments.

Duplex (**)

An unexpected queer twist (Harvey Fierstein's involved, but the twist is still unexpected) does little to aid this Danny DeVito-directed comedy about a couple (Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore) purchasing a dream apartment and eliminating its feisty, rent-controlled centenarian tenant. All-around clumsy vapidity sabotages the nasty laughs that should've been had from the intergenerational warfare. There are still some giggles, but you could do better with Simpsons reruns or even DeVito's own War of the Roses.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (****)

More pulp fiction from Quentin Tarantino. Uma Thurman is The Bride, and The Bride is out for revenge- an exceedingly simple plot into which Tarantino crams as much visual prowess, ultraviolence, trash iconography and movie-geekdom as he can. Tarantino’s saving grace is his overwhelming passion for cinema; there's a childlike joy in his gimmicks, and his movies get you high. Kill Bill is a feast for the senses- the anime sequence alone!- and generally deserving of most of its inevitable hype.

Mystic River (***)

This Clint Eastwood-directed murder mystery is more somber and intense than most- it's a whodunit with the shattering personal dimensions left in. Eastwood does well by the actors, including Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburn, Laura Linney, and Marcia Gay Harden (Sean Penn is a little too Method for this film; his "thing" works better in the upcoming 21 Grams). If Mystic River is not quite the powerhouse many critics are promising, it's still a fine example of solid, confident storytelling.

-I elaborated further on Kill Bill on Xixax.com:

“It 'rocked,' and I say that as both compliment and criticism. You won't be bored. Your eyes will pop with the camera and colors, your ears will hum with the noises and music . Geeks will be chortling and elbowing each other in the ribs on the half-second, what with all the wink-y little references crammed in. It's very, very impressive. I'm not quite sure if I truly like it (it seems designed to appeal to a type of person I'm not one of and not fond of, the type that makes a lot of noise in the theater and bellows, 'Oh! That's gotta hurt!' during the big fight-scene moments) but I know I'm high on it right now. It's so surefooted and alive, it's hard to imagine anyone not being riveted, even if they hated it.

The anime sequence, like everything else in the film, is cool. Trouble is, it's only there to be cool. Quentin Tarantino is the coolest of the cool, but there's an extreme limitation to that. The film feels like the work of an autistic savant- brilliant but dangerously narrow.

It's a real cliffhanger,too; we're definitely not talking about two discrete entities, here. It's unequivocally incomplete.”

-“Two Sisters” by The Kinks. Probably my favorite Kinks song, from Something Else. Get the album just for this one track; it’s a great little class-conscious kitchen-sink novel in two and a half minutes.

-Roseanne reruns. I didn't really care for the very beginning of this show, and I hated how it went down in "fuck-it" flames. The middle, though? Some of the best television ever.

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