You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Friday, April 30, 2010


(Please refer to other "disturbing" posts of 4/19, 3/25, and 2/9.)

By most people's standards I get up really early. Maybe for a couple of weeks during the height of summer, I open my eyes and see sunlight. For the other fifty or so weeks of the year, it is dark.

I like getting up early. I make coffee and when the weather permits, I put the coffee in a thermos and retire to the screened-in porch on the second story of my house. And I read. I drink coffee, and I read.

I also, several mornings a week, hear my elderly neighbor, Mr. Ball, standing at his back door and hacking up what might be his lungs. I hear a long rasp, like knuckles on a washboard, followed by a good forceful spit that I am sometimes a little jealous of. Since elementary school I have been a pitiful spitter. I used to think that possibly Mrs. Ball had issued a "no spitting in the house" edict, but one day this ritual took place shortly after dawn and I could see that Mr. Ball stood at the back door as their ancient, runty dog did her morning business in the back yard.

I always thought it was funny that the entire neighborhood, or any portion of it that happened to be up, possibly jogging or walking their own dogs, could hear this performance from at least a block away.

But one morning it hit me. Any of my other early-rising neighbors get not one but two shows. They have the pleasure of celebrating the sunrise scored to my own chorus of coughs, farts, and belches. The acoustics from my second-story perch are probably even better than those Mr. Ball enjoys from his back door.

Monday, April 26, 2010


I have received several requests on Facebook that I join a group seeking to ban from Facebook a group "praying for Barack Obama's death."

I have signed on to a variety of Facebook groups. I believe in evolution. I oppose the changes to the Texas school history books. I prefer the poodle in the foil hat to Glenn Beck. I am sure there are others, and my first inclination was to sign on again. It is, after all, appalling that there would be a group of people, outside of the Taliban, praying for the death of the President of the United States.

But then I thought of something. This one group wanted to keep this other group off of Facebook. They didn't just want to express their disapproval of the group, they wanted them gone. What possible right could they have to do that? If the group praying for death violated any Facebook guidelines, Facebook would block it. I know it's a federal offense to threaten the life of the president, but I wouldn't want to dignify these death prayers by considering them a creditable threat. It seems to me we're stuck with them.

It's that pesky First Amendment. It's cropped up one other time this past week.

I've heard people express disbelief and outrage that the Supreme Court has refused to ban "crush videos." If you have been spared a definition of "crush videos," prepare yourself. They apparently involve a woman in stiletto heels crushing to death a small animal. Anyone in his or her right mind, including the nine justices on the Supreme Court, finds this nauseating. But what the court struck down was an over-broad law criminalizing depictions of cruelty to animals for commercial purposes. The case, U.S. vs. Stevens, involved a dog-fighting video. But the law, as written, could be twisted to apply to foreign films made in countries that do not have our protections for animals, bull-fighting videos, or anything a particular group objected to. (It could not, as often claimed, have been applied to depictions of hunting, because hunting does not violate any state laws.) So the law, as is often the case when legislation comes about based on outrage, needs to be rewritten.

While I was in the book business, I had several run ins with individual or groups who did not grasp the meaning of the First Amendment. Christian groups objected to displays of Wicca material. One of our own employees wanted to remove a voodoo doll set because it mocked Vooduon, a major world religion. In one Midwestern city, employees wondered why in a single day several middle-aged women came in asking for Sado Psycho Surfers. I made that title up, but it turned out that a local minister had provided his flock with a list of material that if found could be prosecuted.

The longest running incident involved a book on the history of dogfighting. A woman approached the manager of one our of Midwest stores with the book in hand and threatened to bring in the police if it wasn't removed. This incident shot up the chain of command until it landed on my desk. I wrote the woman a letter explaining that while dogfighting is justifiably against the law in most states, writing a book about it is not. She was predictably unimpressed and next threatened to bring in camera crews and local journalists to witness her protest. The manager and I agreed that in such an eventuality, the manager should make sure that any video shot or photographs taken clearly showed the name of the store.

The incident came to an abrupt halt when the manager noticed that we had sold out of the book. There we only six copies, and the complainant herself had bought three of them.

By the way, the whole "pray for Barack Obama's death" thing turns out to be the punch line of a long and actually pretty good joke that has circulated on the internet for years. During its history, the joke has been directed to people ranging from the president of Iran, the spelling of whose name I don't want to stop to look up right now, to Perez Hilton. To my knowledge, there were no efforts to banish those sites from Facebook.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


When we arrived at Thebes, our sailors were drumming their darabukehs, the mate was playing his flute, Khalil was dancing with his castanets; they broke off to land.

It was then, as I was enjoying these things, and just as I was watching three wave-crests bending under the wind behind us, that I felt a surge of solemn happiness that reached out towards what I was seeing, and I thanked God in my heart for having made me capable of such joy. I felt fortunate at the thought, and yet it seemed to me that I was thinking of nothing; it was a sensuous pleasure that pervaded my entire being.

in Gustave Flaubert's travel notes from Egypt
4 March, 1850

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Pathology (2008, dir. Mark Scholermann) sat on my DVR for months before one evening when I was looking for something to watch that did not have subtitles and was well under two hours long. Pathology seemed to fill the bill.

When it was over I thought it the most immoral film I had ever seen.

Our hero is a hotshot pathologist who arrives at a new facility -- I never quite understood where the film was set -- for the last year of his residency. He is played by Milo Ventimiglia, an actor I had never seen but who is known from The Gilmore Girls and Heroes. According to IMDB his smile is his trademark. I found the smile a little smirky, and in this film his trademark could be the style of skin tight briefs he wears in several scenes, a style I did not know you could buy in this country.

His first day he meets the director of the lab; one nice, kind of nerdy guy; and, the core group of brilliant young pathologists. All four of this crowd bristles with aggression, and their leader, played by Michael Weston, is clearly a psychopath, a condition it seems that someone in a building full of medical professionals would have noticed.

Opened cadavers and lighthearted jokes with body parts provide the necessary yuck factor, but the plot centers around a game Milo is soon invited to join. The cool kids like to prematurely terminate terminally ill patients, but do so in such a devious fashion that, in the middle of the night (ooooh), in some kind of abandoned autopsy room in the basement of the hospital (ooooh), they can perform the autopsy and try to stump their friends on the exact cause of death. (This, by the way, is not the part of the film I found objectionable. It's just silly and implausible.) Milo enters the game with enthusiasm but begins to question things when some of the bodies appear a little too have hardly been at death's door when they met their end, while others are directly related to other incidents in the film.

What to do? What to do? Since he is into this shit up to his skinny neck, and the psychopathic team leader is planning to make him take the fall for their little game, Milo cleverly lures his coworkers into the secret autopsy room and arranges a gas explosion to wipe them out.

But dang! Guess who gets away? Not only does the Michael Weston character escape the massive explosion, he goes to Milo's apartment and murders his extremely wealthy girlfriend, using some of the skills he learned in med school to make it look like a heart attack.

Now Milo is really pissed, and this psycho is still on the loose. Their final confrontation takes place in the pathology lab -- why are there never other people around ?-- and just when the psycho is about to win again, the nerdy guy from the first of the movie, remember him?, sneaks up from behind and plunges into his neck a hypo filled with one of those paralyzing drugs they give patients going into certain kinds of surgery. Then Milo and the nerdy guy put the psycho, although by now these are relative terms, onto a table and explain that they will be eviscerating him as he remains conscious. Off-camera sound of bone saw. The End.

What's wrong with this picture?

Let's compare the end of Pathology with the final scene of the underrated and unjustly maligned Hostel: Part II (2007, dir. Eli Roth.) At the end of Roth's film, our heroine cuts off the genitalia of her would-be torturer, tosses said genitalia to the dogs, and uses her daddy's money to buy her way into the hierarchy of the corporation that runs the torture-for-pay enterprise. Granted this is ethically questionable behavior, but as a finale it is redeemed by comedy and a good final twist.

And what happens at the end of Pathology? The cool guy wins.

You don't have to be Cotton Mather to find that there is something profoundly immoral about this. The dreaded Hays Code mandated that all criminals must be brought to justice for their crimes, and that made for decades of namby-pamby Hollywood endings. But in Pathology, the little jerk bastard beats the big jerk bastard, and that's it. I'm not upset that some one gets away with murder, but this is a revenge fantasy straight off a junior high school playground. ("I'll get that guy!")

My real objection is that the movie just isn't clever enough. But clearly for its intended audience of 16 to 25 year old males, holding such a cool dude as Milo accountable for his actions would just be, face it dude, a downer.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


(Please refer to previous disturbing posts of March 25 and Feb 9.)

I am standing in the music book section of Half Price Books, looking for a copy of But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer.

A teenager holds out a book opened to a picture of John Lennon and says, "Is this one George? Oh, sorry, I thought you were my dad."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


And the winner is: Veronica Lario for Tenebre (1982), directed by Dario Argento.

Tenebre is an Italian giallo, that genre of ultra-violent, sex-filled romps named after the yellow (giallo) wrappers that grace similar paperback novels on Italian newsstands. Gialli have only two set-in-stone genre conventions. Many women, either naked or barely clothed, must die brutal, bloody deaths, preferably involving sharp objects, and the plots must make no sense. No sense whatsoever. When I first saw some of these films I thought that maybe if I were Italian I would be able to follow them, but no. What passes for plot is a convoluted string of red herrings, cornball psychology, and confusing flashbacks to horrible childhood traumas.

To make these films viable for the international market, an American star was usually brought on board. In Tenebre, Argento was lucky enough to secure the services of Anthony Franciosa. (Remember how we all rushed to theaters to see the latest Anthony Franciosa film in the 1980's?) John Saxon is also on hand, but that is almost a given. Tony plays an author of violent mystery novels on a book tour in Italy, and some one is slashing up -- never mind, it doesn't make any sense.

I want to talk about Veronica Lario. She's gorgeous, a voluptuous, raven-haired beauty with pale skin and pouty, red, pre-collagen-era lips. Her character's name is Jane McKerrow, which implies that she is not Italian, and I never really understood what she was doing hanging around this crowd. In one scene she receives an anonymous gift of cherry red high heels. They mean something. Then, about 90 minutes in to the films, she makes two fundamental mistakes.

1) She phones a "trusted friend" and says that she has important information about the killer.

2) She makes this phone call while sitting fully exposed beside a plate-glass window. (Jane McKerrow obviously doesn't see many of the type of film she has found herself in.)

Sure enough, within seconds an axe crashes through the glass and severs her right arm just above the wrist. In a bravura performance that outclasses anything else in Tenebre, Lario clutches her severed arm, sprays blood across a white wall with the aplomb of a second-generation, New York School painter, staggers into the kitchen, takes one more axe blow to the back, falls face up onto the floor, and takes two more blows to the sternum. (Due more, I suspect, to budget than any sense of restraint, those final two blows occur off camera. But Ms. Lario's head and neck jerk convincingly like those of an almost dead human being taking two axe blows to the sternum.)

When I watched this scene with the director's commentary playing -- Wait. I guess I have just revealed that I have seen this film more than once...Oh, well.--But anyway, when Dario Argento discusses this scene he makes two interesting comments. Apparently every distributor who handled this film anywhere in the world felt compelled to cut most of this scene. (It was a more innocent time.) But what is most revealing are his comments on Veronica Lario.

"She was a beautiful girl," he says, "but her acting career was very short. She married a big media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi."

I cannot recreate the effects those words had when I was looking at Lario's dismembered body on the kitchen floor. Here, I realized, lies the future first lady of Italy.

Lario did not marry Berlusconi until 1990, and by that time already had three of his children. Since his entry into politics, she has been something of a thorn in his side, speaking out publicly about his dissolute behavior. Supposedly divorce proceeding are in the works, but Silvio could hardly endure the scandal of a divorce. If it were the Renaissance, one would have poisoned the other by now. As it is, the opera buffa continues to play itself out in the press and on DVD.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


...and the spring, my gracious what a spring, all March we have been sitting out on the terrace without our coats and such masses of violets, primroses, jonquils and even birds...and the fields and the oxen and the sheep, only the cows are still confined, I begged the peasants to let them out to see the spring time, but they say they kick up their heels too much when they are first let out so they don't let them out until the spring fever is past, such is the life of cows...

--Gertrude Stein in a letter to Thornton Wilder, 24 March, 1940

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--

--Gerard Manley Hopkins

Monday, April 5, 2010


If you choose your home movie viewing extensively from the International Horror section of Netflix, sooner or later you are likely to find yourself watching some soft-core nun porn. At least that has been true at my house.

The proper name for this genre, produced mostly in Italy (big surprise) during the 1970's, is Nunsploitation. But I like the taste of "soft-core nun porn" when you say it.

These movies have titles like Nuns of St. Archangel, and Flavia the Heretic, (In Italian that last film's title appears to translate literally as Flavia the Muslim Nun.) The films tend to have historical settings, with the period of the Spanish Inquisition taking pride of place, and most fall back on the cowardly disclaimer "Based on a true incident." That is the thin excuse that justifies as many naked novitiates, flagellations, and lesbian scenes as can be worked into a ninety-minute feature film. Producers also sometimes bolstered their historical settings with literary pedigrees. I have seen films attributed to stories by Alexander Dumas and Stendhal, although I doubt these authors would recognize their material. For my money the best of the lot is also the only one with a contemporary setting. In Killer Nun, a forty-seven-year-old Anita Ekberg, already well into her second growth, stars as the morphine-addicted and homicidal Sister Gertrude, the terror of a Belgian Catholic hospital for the mentally infirm.

A generous view of the genre would link it to a rich tradition of anti-clerical satire dating back to The Decameron, but really it's just intermittently entertaining lurid trash. And you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to detect in this rich stew of guilt-fueled anger and outrage a certain amount of sweet revenge-taking for both the filmmakers and their target audience.

The genre soon made the leap to Japan, where it underwent an interesting transformation. Gone is any pretense of sadly necessary muckraking or the thrilling suspicion among those involved that they might be doing something that will send them to hell. Watching a film like I had the sense that perhaps all the girl's school uniforms that are usual to Japanese soft core were stuck at the dry cleaner's that week, and so the studio went with nun's habits instead. As costumes, they look just as good when ripped halfway off the young actresses. The Japanese filmmakers, with zero investment in the religious setting of their story, nonchalantly employ outrageous blasphemies as mildly titillating plot points. One novitiate is subjected to a trial by ordeal for witchcraft that would make Andres Serrano cringe.

Although these films survive today in deluxe, DVD box sets, their production faded with the decade that saw their birth. Which in a way is surprising. Given the ongoing horror show of sexual abuse within the Catholic church, and the repulsive spectacle of decrepit octogenarian clerics claiming that journalists who expose these crimes are doing the devil's work and comparing the treatment the church has received in the press with anti-Semitism, surely anger is mounting to a level where a new spate of soft-core nun porn might be in the offing.

But contemporary filmmakers have found a new, if less satisfying, means of goading the church. Today we get films like Priest or mature, sensitive explorations of clerics coming to grips with their own sexuality.

I wonder if Anita Ekberg might not be available for Killer Nun II?

Additional nunsploitation films come in these handy box sets:

Friday, April 2, 2010


Some things about Easter that I know have been explained to me in the past but that I can never keep straight.

1) Who decides when Easter falls every year? I assume it has something to do with the moon, but I am never clear what that is.

2) Why does the Easter Bunny deliver Easter Eggs?

3) If the crucifixion was on Friday and the tomb was empty by Sunday morning, how does that count as three days?

4) What's the story on Easter Monday?