Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ten Observations

I've been dealing with stuff breaking down all week, so I'm gonna be lazy tonight.

1) Doing a buttload of data entry in order to open a video store hasn't gotten any easier since the first time I did it several years ago. In fact, I'm reasonably sure that the movie companies have invented new and interesting ways to hide release dates, screen formats, ratings, and other important information.

2) Speaking of release dates, a lot of movies I still think of as reasonably new are actually rather old. It's part of the whole "time running together thing" that I've noticed for the past, oh, 15 years or so. I blame it on two things that happens once you leave school: (1) No summer break; (2) Years at your job don't have convenient names like years at school.

3) I can think of a million smart-ass remarks to make about Hellboy (involving puppets, Elric, monsters with the "Unable to attack a major character" Weakness, and a bunch of other things). Ultimately, though, it's a fun movie so I won't make fun of it.

4) Step Brothers is just as funny as you think it will be. What some people might not expect is the percentage of the funny that's contributed entirely by Richard Jenkins.

5) I didn't give a rat's ass about the new X-Files movie to begin with. Now that I've spent way too many minutes of this week waiting for its ad to load on MySpace (which a few of my friends still insist on using) before my login would go through, I actively hate the new X-Files movie.

6) To the city of Lexington: Letting a vibrant and historic downtown block be destroyed to make way for a gigantic phallic symbol that nobody wants despite huge pubic outcry and the fact that the developers are openly dishonest and have a terrible track record when it comes to their grand schemes is really fucking stupid. When Cock & Balls tower stands empty and tumbleweeds roll through downtown while the Webb Brothers giggle about the amount of tax money they stole, maybe you'll understand.

7)To the city of Paducah: Your attempt to bring the creative class into your downtown area is admirable, especially compared to Lexington's apparent attempt to drive them out. Unfortunately, your program isn't really bringing in the creative class. It's bringing in people who briefly considered creative endeavors, realized that they don't pay terribly well, and got day jobs. Any creative energy these wannabe Bohemians may have had has been sucked out by years in the straight world. The real creative types were the ones who lived in the downtown area (because it was run-down and chaep) before you started your "artist relocation" program.

8) To Barack Obama: Every time you pander to swing voters, you undermine everything that made us vote for you in the primaries. Quit it. This kind of pandering is the reason the Democrats can't win an election and the definition of "far-left liberal" is now somewhere to the right of Nixon. If you stick to your guns, you've got this election tied up. If you fuck it up, you destroy a lot more than just your own political aspirations.

9) To the family in the Mexican restaurant on Broadway last week: I immediately disliked all 20 or so of you from the moment I walked in, all for different reasons (with special distaste for the couple who changed their baby on a table in the middle of the restaurant). I liked you even less when I heard one of the gentlemen actually bragging about leaving the server a 15% tip after he'd spent at least an hour (probably more) making sure your entire table was happy. But you really proved yourselves to be truly awful people when two members of your family actually had a conversation across MY table without even seeming to realize that you were doing something incredibly rude. I hope you all die in spectacular and embarrassing ways.

10) To whoever decided to remake Death Race with Jason Statham: You rock! The first time I saw the trailer, I tried to convince myself that it didn't look awesome. Now that I've seen it a few more times, I can't keep deceiving myself.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dark Knight

Looks like Sunday is the new Monday and Thursday. For the time being, I'll try to regularly post sometime Sunday night, with mid-week posts if I get time. Tonight, I'll join what I'm assuming is the rest of the world in talking about Dark Knight. There will probably be some spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie be warned.

An appearance by Oliver Queen would have made this the Batman movie I've been waiting to see my entire adult life. I was really impressed with the Nolan's first Bats flick, and this one managed to surpass it in every way. The previous Batman series included one great movie, one pretty good one, one that was more or less watchable, and one that made my eyes bleed. Based on that math, if Warner cuts this series off before at least five movies (assuming the primaries, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, are still willing), a terrible crime will have been committed.

I'm sure everyone's talked about Heath Ledger's performance, and he did in fact play a hell of a Joker. Borrowing a little twitchiness from his own performance in Brothers Grimm, obviously paying attention to Mark Hamil's voice work as the Joker, and generally just being creepy as hell, Ledger's Joker was dark and, more importantly, completely mad. While I'm glad Ledger didn't go out like Raul Julia (whose last role was Street Fighter), it really sucks that he's not going to be around for the good stuff I hope is coming (we'll get to that in a minute).

I knew they were at least setting up Two-Face in this one, and loved the idea of Aaron Eckhart in the role, but wasn't sure if we'd get to see Two-Face as a major villain or not. In a way I was hoping not, since the "more villains each movie" thing helped to kill the last set. We pretty much got the whole Two-Face arc in this movie, but fortunately the writers studied their Sam Raimi and made sure that the extra bad guys dovetailed nicely into the main plot.

I'm a big fan of supporting characters in comics, so Nolan won me over in the first movie by making Alfred, Fox, and (most importantly) Gordon actual characters. To me, Jim Gordon's relationship with Batman makes him one of the most fascinating characters in comics, but all too often (especially in the last series of movies) he's portrayed as some bureaucrat who hangs out on the roof. In Batman Begins and Dark Knight, Gary Oldman's Gordon is what he's supposed to be: a good cop stuck in a corrupt system.

The Gordon thing is why I want a bunch of these movies and wish Heath Ledger were still around to play the Joker. Gordon's major role in the films, combined with Nolan's obvious familiarity with the darker corners of Bat-lore make me believe that he's the man to bring one of the most gut-wrenching Batman story arcs to life: The death of Robin and the crippling of Barbara Gordon. It could just be wishful thinking on my part, but young Barb has shown up (at least as a reference) in both movies. Assuming the casting directors can find someone to pick up where Ledger left off, there's a chance that around the fourth movie we might see some serious shit.

Of course, since Hollywood rarely listens to me, the next Batman movie will probably be directed by Brian DePalma (the Chuck Dixon of Film) and star Shia LeBouf as Bats, Vern Troyer as Bat-Mite, and Carrot Top as the Mad Hatter. Still, it would probably be better than Batman & Robin.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Southern Culture on the Skids, Part II

Late again--lots of overtime on the new job. Since unlike my last job I actually get paid for the hours I work, this is a good thing financially, but a bad thing when it comes to blogging. Anyway, now that I've gotten my personal feelings on the Confederate battle flag out of the way, let's discuss the articles I linked to last time.

We'll start with Morgan Brooke Wilkins's post, because, to be honest, I don't have a lot to say about it. While Morgan makes a few good points (and more than a few factual errors), she misses the main reason why a lot of people (myself included) assume that anyone waving the flag publicly is an ill-informed racist. Namely, that ill-informed racist have rallied around the flag and given it the negative connotations that it carries today. No matter what it meant 150 years ago, today most people see the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism.

The swastika is another good example of a symbol whose meaning has changed drastically over time. Originally it was a sun symbol, and therefore a symbol of life, and in some religious traditions it still carries that meaning. However, even people who practice these traditions would be unlikely to publicly display the symbol because the average person on the street associates it with the Hitler, just as the average person associates the Confederate battle flag with David Duke.

Now lets move on to TTP's response to Morgan's article over on the Barefoot and Progressive blog, which you should all probably be reading. TTP's first response is to the following paragraph from Moran's article, which reads:

"Social equality should not mean that blacks can take pride in any part of history they choose (even if their self-proclaimed leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X were murderers), whereas whites can only honor those parts of history which minorities and the Left deem politically correct."

TTP then talks about Nelson Mandela and the Right's "pissing and moaning" about politically correct language, but is suspiciously silent on the subject of Malcolm X. While Malcolm X was not a "murderer," he was a criminal and, more importantly, a separatist and a racist. His symbol (the stylized "X" popularized by Spike Lee's movie) is just as much a symbol of hate as the Confederate flag, but it's rare that anyone criticizes those who wear it. Exposing this double standard is, I believe, Morgan's point, and TTP sort of throws the baby out with the bath water by focusing on an obviously incorrect parenthetical statement.

After a brief tirade over semantics, we arrive at the issue of state buildings flying the flag, and TTP opines;

"What Morgan is here suggesting is that any part of history which has even one person (or in this case, one region) that reveres it, it should be made not only a part of the socially accepted canon of expression, but furthermore should be officially sanctioned by the state (ie, the confederate flag should be flown at state capitol buildings)."

No, she's not. She's saying that states who choose to do so have the right to fly whatever flag they want in front of their state buildings, even if if may offend someone. California doesn't have to remove the bear from its flag for fear of offending Stephen Colbert and Georgia doesn't have to remove its stars and bars for fear of offending most people who aren't from Georgia (and many who are). They just have to accept the consequences of continuing to display a symbol that some people find offensive.

TTP goes on to say:

"The suggestion, made in both her article and in our later discussions about it, is that just because millions of black Americans (and here we get to the elephant in the room) see the confederate battle flag as a symbol of institutionalized racism (which, as a matter of fact, it is), that doesn't mean that people like Morgan and her ilk shouldn't be allowed to fly the flag as a matter of Southern pride (even thought Kentucky was neither a confederate nor a union state) or as a celebration of "states' rights", a buzzword that is well-known to refer to slavery and Jim Crow."

TTP seems to be suggesting here that an individual's right to freedom of expression can be trumped by majority opinion. If that were the case, those of us who knew Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks would have been silenced in the lead-up to the Iraq war simply because the majority of Americans believed W's lie to be true. I'm pretty sure TTP knows better than that, so I'll move on to the final part of the paragraph.

While Kentucky was in fact officially neutral during the Civil War, that does not mean that it was "neither a confederate or union state." While the state government did not take sides, its citizens did, volunteering for both armies in droves. All of the "brother against brother" cliches about the civil war were especially true of our state. Because of this, many Kentuckians (especially those in the western part of the state, who went so far as to set up their own Confederate state capitol in Bowling Green) have just as much claim to Confederate heritage as the people of Alabama or Mississippi.

TTP is correct that in the Jim Crow era "states' rights" became code for institutionalized racism, but assuming that this has always been the case reveals a misunderstanding of history and the way our ancestors viewed the states and the federal government. In the early days of America, states were states in "sovereign nation" sense of the word, with the federal government serving a role more akin to the United Nations. The sovereignty of the state in the early days of America was such that it was not unusual for people to refer to Rhode Island or Pennsylvania or any other state as "my country."

Realizing that the people (especially in the South, an area who generally fell into the Anti-Federalist camp) identified more strongly as citizens of their state than as citizens of the United States helps to answer TTP's question, "What right of the states other than the right to possess slaves was being infringed upon by the North leading up to the Civil War?" Quite simply, the people of the South were defending their right to self-determination and self-rule.

While slavery was in fact the primary right of concern to the slave-holders who actually governed in the South, that does not mean that the average Confederate soldier was fighting in defense of slavery (most did not and could not reasonably expect to own slaves). The Confederate battle flag was a soldier's flag, and the average rebel soldier was fighting for patriotism and to defend his homeland (Robert E. Lee's letter regarding his decision to resign from the Union army makes this point well). Accusing the typical Confederate soldier of fighting in defense of slavery would be like accusing the average American soldier in Iraq of fighting in defense of war profiteering. As Steve Earle would say, the average Johnny Reb was "just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war."

The Confederate battle flag has become a symbol of hate, but it didn't necessarily start out that way. While the vast majority of people who rally around the flag do so out of ignorance and intolerance, it can be a legitimate expression of heritage. Ultimately, however, a person's reasons for displaying the flag are not important. The First Amendment protects everyone's right to freedom of expression, and I for one believe that being exposed to unpleasant speech and symbols is a small price to pay for being able to speak my mind.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Southern Culture On The Skids, Part I

Apologies and Excuses
I'm not doing very well on keeping up with my Monday and Thursday schedule so far. My first two posts went up after midnight, one of them was a reprint of an article I'd posted elsewhere, and I missed my last posting date entirely. You're probably not interested in excuses, especially excuses that include shameless self promotion, but I'll give them anyway. In the past week, I've put the finishing touches on the Hex Games web site, helped oversee the release and marketing for Weird Times at Charles Fort High, started a new job, and helped prepare for the big 4th of July celebration that my parents host every year. I'm already posting Monday's blog earlier than normal, and I've got a feeling it will be long enough to make up for the missed post on Thursday, so hopefully that's a sign I'll do better in the future. Now on with the show.

My Confederate Flag
When I was in college, I helped a friend of mine (a Chinese American named Joseph Yeh, sadly no longer with us) move. At some point during the process, Joseph picked up a box, pulled a Confederate battle flag out of it, and handed it to me. "Here, you're a redneck. You should take this," he said. Joseph considered me a redneck (in a more or less joking way, I hope) because I was from a small town, liked country music, and (at that time) still spoke with a bit of a twang from time to time.

I'm not really sure where, why, or how Joseph got the flag, but I took it back to my dorm room and hung it on the wall, and it's stayed a constant part of my home decor ever since. At first I hung the flag was mostly ironic, but at some point I started to self-identify as a Southerner and the flag actually became a symbol of heritage for me. This was a little weird, since I'd spent high school dreaming of escaping my rural hometown and most of college trying to hide my redneck roots.

I'm not exactly sure where my inexplicable Southern pride came from, but I have a few theories. I think it really got started with a Civil War history class whose reading list included Michael Shaara's book,The Killer Angels. This book (which, from what I understand, is also the inspiration of my favorite TV show, Firefly) presents the battle of Gettysburg from the viewpoint of the men who fought there and is based heavily on person diaries, letters, and other primary source materials.

Of all the great men whose stories are told in The Killer Angels, none fascinated me more than Robert E. Lee. Although Lee did not own slaves or even agree with succession, he chose to resign from the Union army (which he had been offered command of) and fight for (and in fact lead, in a way Jefferson Davis never could) the Confederacy because he was first and foremost a Virginian. This very Jeffersonian reasoning appealed to me immediately, and as I learned more about Lee I began to realize (or perhaps more correctly, finally accept) that there was a lot more to the South than stupidity and hate.

Another thing that helped me "come out of the closet" as a Southerner was actually spending time in northern cities and began to notice the subtle difference in culture and behavior. A friend of mine verbalized this perfectly when he wrote about how many of the things that people in Columbus, Ohio (where he lived for several years) considered "Southern food" were things he had grown up thinking of merely as "food." In the same vein, Yankees just don't have the proper respect for Elvis. While those of us from the South enjoy poking fun at Elvis and his fans as much as anyone, at the end of the day we realize that he's still The King. Northerners just don't seem to get it.

Despite my burgeoning Southern pride and the Confederate battle flag I've carried around for a decade and a half, you'll never see wearing a rebel flag on a T-shirt, getting it tattooed on my body, or sticking it in bumper sticker form on my car. I realize that many people see the flag as a symbol of hate and bigotry, and in fact my usual assumption when I see the flag displayed in public is that the person displaying it is probably an ignorant racist redneck. That may seem strange, but it's true.

Speaking of Rednecks...
There is a well-worn white trash migration route that runs from Kentucky to Florida. Not surprisingly, many members of may family have traveled it at one time or another. The most recent was my cousin's son, Josh, who arrived back in Kentucky about two weeks after I (quite involuntarily) moved back to Mayberry (as I like to call this little corner of Western Ky.). When he got to town, he had a Confederate battle flag flying from the back of his truck.

Ever since he got here, various family members have been telling Josh that he needs to get rid of the flag before he gets his ass kicked, but so far he hasn't listened. I'd never met Josh before he moved back, and haven't really talked to him about why he was driving around with the Confederate Flag hanging planted in his truck bed, but I assumed that it had more to do with being young, misguided, and somewhat uneducated (he dropped out of high school) than active racism. That is, until today.

My brother, who is a volunteer fireman and former ambulance service director, usually keeps the scanner at his house turned on, and last night he heard the police commenting about a truck that kept cruising a particular apartment complex (where many of the town's few African-American residents happen to live). When one of the officers said "He doesn't have the flag this time," my brother knew it had to be Josh. Eventually, the officer commented that "he's learned the error of his ways." We assume that Josh was ticked for disturbing the peace or something similar, but have yet to confirm the actual charge.

Normally I'd be defending Josh's right to freedom of expression, but in this case I think I have to side with the police. I'm not sure if driving through a black neighborhood (or at least the closest thing we have to one) flying a Confederate battle flag is the same as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, but there seem to be some similarities. Josh wasn't expressing anything, just causing trouble.

For Further Reading
As those of you who've read some of my old Death Cookie stuff known, synchronicity has a tendency of rearing it's ugly head whenever I start ruminating on all things Southern. So I wasn't terribly surprised to see this article (responding to this article) as I went through the archives of a blog I've been reading lately. I've got things to say about both articles, but I think it's best to save them for next time.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Rose Colored Glasses

My parents gamble on the riverboat in Metropolis, Illinois quite a bit, and as a result they regularly get comped concert tickets. A few weeks ago, they asked if I'd be interested in going along to see John Conlee. While I'd lived within 40 miles or so of Mr. Conlee for the last 17 years (until I moved a couple months ago), I'd never seen him perform, so I took them up on the offer. I wasn't expecting a lot, but thought that it would at least be nice to see "Common Man" and "Rose Colored Glasses" performed live.

I got a lot more than I expected. Conlee started the show with a cover of "Let the Good Times Roll" that was incredibly energetic for a guy in his 60s. Except for one other cover (which we'll get to in a minute), everything else was a John Conlee original, and I'd forgotten how many great songs the man had recorded: "Backside of 30," "Friday Night Blues," "I Don't Remember Loving You," "Miss Emily's Picture," "Old School," and many others. Out of just over an hour's worth of songs, there were only a couple I didn't recognize immediately, and even those sounded kind of familiar.

The other song Conlee covered, "Busted" deserves special mention. As he was singing, someone came up and handed him a wad of cash. This was kind of funny, but got a little weird when several others followed suit. After the song, I found out that these were people who were familiar with Conlee's show. At some show in the past this had happened, and by the end of the song he'd made about $60. Ever since, this has become a tradition, with the proceeds going to Feed The Children. This year, the money is being split between Feed The Children and Wounded Warriors (an organization that's picking up some of the slack from the Bush administration's veterans' benefits cuts). Conlee set out a bucket and shook the hand of every single person who dropped in money for the rest of the show (barely missing a note the whole time).

Overall, I was very impressed with the show. Conlee's voice is as strong as ever, his stage banner was quite entertaining, and the band sounded great (when Conlee took a break, they tore into several classic rock tunes and then ended with an awesome version of the Star Wars theme). It was a far cry from the aging, moderately successful old school country act I expected to see. If you get a chance to see John Conlee, take it (and make sure to toss him some cash during "Busted"--it helps some great causes).