The guests go to bed early; I creep into the family room and watch TV. I’ve had a few movies queued up, and so far so good: saw the original Scarface (1932 version) and it’s a corker: much more bizarre and imaginative than I’d expected. You get this silly thrill when you see the credits:

Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Ben Hecht
Starring Paul Muni - Boris Karloff

I mean, yowsah. Well, yowsah to me, anyway. Movies from the 30s seem to be hard for modern audiences to get. The silent stuff we can enjoy has an odd historical artifact, like a cave painting; the 40s stuff has that self-conscious hard-boiled style that modern audiences like, because it flatters us: we too are cynical and ironic, and we’ll wear fedoras just as soon as the Gap tells us to. But the 30s stuff just seems wierd - the sound sucks, everyone overacts if they act at all, the camera never moves, and the music sounds like Paul Whiteman’s sidemen practicing in a speakeasy toilet stall.

Maybe so. Maybe that’s because so many 30s movies were in terrible shape - when we saw them on TV they were dull, scratchy, cut up and mauled for broadcast. It’s always a surprise when you see them spiffed up and restored - then you marvel at how far and how fast movies actually came. The distance between “Scarface” and the movies of the latter teens is only 15 years by the calendar, but the movies breath and move in ways that make the old films look like flipbooks. (This has happened again recently - a movie from 1985 almost looks leisurely and sedate compared to today’s hyperkinetic products, and this isn’t necessarily good, but that’s another rant.) Anyway: “Scarface” is the archtypical mobster movie, but it has these bizarre expressionist flourishes - the opening scene tracks down from an obviously painted cityscape that looks like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and then tracks through the street, through a building, into a nightclub. To modern eyes: ho hum. At the time, it must have been the equivalent of Scorcese’s big tracking shot from Goodfellas. That’s the trick to enjoying these movies: context. Forget what you know; imagine what they knew, and how what you're seeing now plugged into their expectations, their world.

Here’s the cool part: whenever Scarface is about to rub someone out, there’s an X somewhere in the scene, just like the X on his face. Hokey? It sounds like it, and at some times you find yourself playing Spot the X to see what’s going to happen. But it’s like the anti-Batsign - when the fatal crossbars are thrown against the wall of a room, it juices up the scene with fear and foreboding. A smart film; a ripping yarn, and a great historical document.

You want to know about a culture? Don’t read its Serious Novels. Toss out the Important Books. Study the crime tales. Read the ghost stores. Steven King and Ann Rule are a better guide to America than Ward Just or Ann Tyler.

But not Truman Capote. I’m glad there’s no search function on this site, because I know I’ve discussed this before.

Of course, there is a search function on the computer . . . sigh. All right; let’s prove I’m repeating myself.

Hmm. Can’t find it. Well, I don’t know what’s worse: repeating yourself or thinking you’re repeating yourself. The former, after all, was the main reason I quit talk radio; I felt as if I’d exhausted everything I had to say. Pity if that wasn’t so. It’s surely not so now; the tank is topped and sloshing over. And of course, I’m not doing talk radio. Well, maybe this is just one of those eight-year hiatuses; many a host would be wise to take one. Sometimes it’s just good to quit and go away and prove yourself all over again; constant approval can do horrible things to a man.

Anyway. The other night “In Cold Blood” was on, widescreen. It’s one of the few movies I just have to watch when it’s on. It fascinates me. I’m not sure what its reputation is among the casual viewers - since it’s black and white, and involves crime, some people probably dismiss it as grim pulp. Well, it’s not. It contains grim pulp, most notably on the basment wall, but even that’s implied. It’s the least violent movie you’ll ever see, and one of those most horrifying. Moviemakers today could learn from it if they weren't all children with the attention spans of horny pomeranian dogs.

The book was one of the best pieces of writing in the 50s - hard to think it came out of that amusing little pot of chapeau’d nelly-jelly I saw slouched in his chair in the Tonight Show. Truman Capote may have been the only man who could mince while slouching; that takes exceptional skill. At the time, I thought he was just silly. (At the time, as a child, I also thought Elton John was straight. Outrageous costumes: check. Feather boas: check. Nine-foot platform heels: check. Absense of ex-wives: check. Conclusion: straight!) The book was one of the first “true crime” stories, and it set the standard; even though Capote performed a few authorial intercessions on behalf of the characters he liked, it’s still an extraordinary read, and it has the ring of truth.

The movie is completely different. It has none of Capote’s lyrical sense; it’s all black and white, all business, all flat right angles and harsh light. I doesn’t feel like a 1967 film - it feels plucked right out of 1959, a time when 1967’s cultural attributes seemed like fifty years away. After doing a little research today, I learned some extraordinary items about the film: the director was so intent on accuracy that he shot several scenes in their original locales - the hardware store where the killers bought the rope and gloves, the courthouse, and - gulp - the house where the murders occured.

If you don’t know the story, it’s simple: two losers broke into a farmhouse of the Clutter family, looking for a fabled safe; they found no money and killed the entire family. Mom, Dad, son, daughter. I remember the first time I saw the film, and how that farmhouse just looked so right; it had a certain plain, honest quality that reminded me of my grandparents’ house at the farm. The kitchen tap would have yielded a well-water taste I haven’t tasted since childhood, but can still recall. That house was one of the things that made the movie seem so horribly real. Without knowing it was the real house, you know it’s the real house.

Today I learned that several of the jury members in the movie were jury members at the actual trial. And the hangman in the movie . . . was the hangman who gave the boys the big drop.


Acting? Not really. No one seems to be acting at all. Robert Blake is damn good, but the camera gets a performance out of him that was better than the one he gave; he has one of those clumped-up faces that looks introspective when it’s in stupified repose. Perhaps the most showy trick in the film comes at the end, when he stands before a window and tells a story about his father; his face is impassive, even amused, but the rain on the window paints tears on his face. It’s as if the film does his crying for him.

And that’s where I have a problem with the movie, in the end - it goes a bit wobbly, and tries to make anti-death penalty noises. I vary on that issue - I tend to think that life in prison is bad enough, but really, if anyone deserved to swing for a crime it was Dick and Perry. The latter would actually have thrived in prison - fifty years to practice drawing and play his guitar. The crime wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t the heat of passion. Perry had to shoot two hog-tied men - then go up two flights of stairs on a bum leg so he could shoot two women, each of whom was trussed up and drowning in fear, hearing the shots downstairs, hearing the clump-clump of the killer coming up to finish the job.

I don’t know when I first saw this story; I know it’s never left me.

Today Quentin Tarantino would remake it with lots of cool music, and Dick and Perry would be clever guys we would admire for their savoir faire and fashion sense. We've come so far. We're oh, so, bad.
. .
If my job consisted of editing children’s birthday party footage, I’d slit my throat. I’m editing Gnat’s footage, and I can barely keep my sanity - and it’s my own child. The noise level makes splicing scenes impossible; everyone’s moving, jumping into the shot. I have a few tricks I use while shooting these things - I focus on one relevant symbol, like a balloon, and pan down to the action; now and then I pan back up, so there’s something I can edit around. In this batch I have one balloon shot and one shot of Jasper walking around with five balloons tied to his collar. Chaos. Absolute chaos.

Well, no doubt I’ll do better next time. Imposing order on a 2-year old’s party ought to be easy.


I’m starting to measure my life by what I would do if I had the time. I’d finish that Atlantic article on the horrors of modern lit; I might even start to read that Twain story. I’d read the papers at noon so I could read a novel at night; I’d finish all the scanning for the fall version of the site. I’d play Tropico. Yes, it’s a rich and varied life. Some people are not finishing People magazine stories, not reading cheap potboiler novels, not playing Deer Hunter. I’m so much better than they are.

Tropico is fun, but too complex to play - I haven’t the time to micromanage cannery worker productivity, let alone learn how to properly repress my people. But I’ve been enjoying the sandbox mode from time to time, gradually building an idyllic island with freedom and jobs for all. But my favorite part, to be honest, is the music - lots of Mexican ballads and pop-salsa numbers. This stuff used to set my teeth on edge, but then I went to Cozumel, and now it fills me with joy and longing which can only be satisfied by going downstairs and pouring myself a shot of tequila. Regrettably, tequila - good tequila, anyway - is in short supply these days, and terribly expensive. Even the stuff that’s “reposada.” I love that term: as a bartender explained, it means the tequila is “rested.” It hasn’t been slumbering in a cask for ten years. It took a nap. (The really good stuff is designated “old.”) Anyway, tequila is not meant to be slammed down in some loud sweaty bar while your equally hammered crab-fleshed playmates shout encouragement. It is meant to be sipped, slowly, while you plan revenge and repression.

Where was I? Right. The music for Tropico can be easily severed from the game, since it’s all Mp3 format. One of the tunes is Gnat’s favorite, or so I like to pretend; she does a little baby-dance when it comes on, jiggling up and down while I do a dance. She finds the dance amusing. In a few years it will mortify her. In 13 years if I do it in front of her friends, she will insist we move, because I’ve just RUINED EVERYTHING! But for now it’s fun. A good game has good music, and I can only cite a few - Dark Forces Jedi Knight had an actual orchestral score, and when it swelled swashbucklingly, it really gave the game an extra jolt. I’ll always love the music for the Indy Jones / Atlantis game, although I’ll be switched if I could hum a line of it. The timbre was tinkly, it lacked all dynamics, but that was the sound of gaming in the mid 90s. And of course there was the best score of all: the original Doom score. I’m serious. Crude, basic, and a perfect match for the visceral thrill of the game.

I’m still waiting for a game to provide the same fascination as the first few levels of Doom. So far no good. Everything since has been fun; it’s been better; it’s been worthwhile . . . but nothing has seemed as new as those crude pixelated hairball sprites flinging fireballs at my head.

D’oh: the reason I brought up “In Cold Blood” in yesterday’s interminable Bleat was completely forgotten. Perry, the aspirin-chomping murder played by Robert Blake, had a fascination with buried treasure; Capote tells us that his favorite movie was “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” - and the director aludes neatly to that movie, when Blake finds a collection of refundable pop bottles at a rest stop, and bitterly laughs that they’ve “found the treasure of the Sierra Madre” - it’s even windy, like the pivotal scene in that Bogart movie.

Robert Blake, of course, was in the “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” as a small child. Which means that Perry sat in the theater, watching this movie over and over, enjoying his fantasy of buried treasure, and every time he saw the movie he looked at the face of a boy who’d play him in a movie someday. Too damned odd for words.
.. ..
Temperature at 9:07 PM: 93.

Number of days we’ve had houseguests: 14

Mood: homicidal.

Everyone had errands in various cool locales today; I decided to drive around and take pictures. For a long time I’ve been meaning to do something on University Avenue. (The picture above is a bleatified version of the old Mack Truck showroom on U. Ave.) It’s a long straight road that runs from the U in Minneapolis to the Capitol in St. Paul - miles and miles of ordinary buildings made extraordinary by their mere survival. Examples from every style of the past century abound, as though the street had been conquered by a dozen nations, and each had erected an embassy. There are post-war commercial structures done over in 80s styles, a 1910 warehouse with a streamlined chrome-and-glass brick facade, a perfect International Style bank, an honest-to-God Googie drive-in. I took some shots Friday after work, and shot fifty more tomorrow. Most are horrible, but eventually I’ll put up the interesting ones.

I stopped at Midway Books (30s modern commercial structure mauled by bad signage). I’ve visited that store for three decades. It never seems to change. Row of comics, row of books, shameful cove of bagged porn, a room of books no one ever seems to visit, a row of old treasures behind the counter, and a stairway leading to the basement. I always go downstairs. That’s where the old magazines are kept, along with ancient art books, sci-fi mags from the 50s and 60s, as well as thousands of comic books from the 80s and 90s, a period that interests me not a whit. I expected to pick through the bones of the Life magazine collection, but to my delight, they’ve restocked - and what a bonny group of magazines they’ve found. All crisp, perfect, unwrinkled, ready for scanning. I bought five, each of which will yield some curiousity for site redesigns yet to come. Back in the Gallileo; down University Avenue to downtown St. Paul, where I took some shots of an abandoned Woolworths (prime early 50s design) and a sad, curious storefront - built in the teens, redesigned in the late 30s, perhaps, with black and while tile.

A bright summer day spent cataloguing exhaustion and decline: I couldn’t be happier.

As I said: mood. Homicidal.

Eventually I found myself on a corner, looking at a block from the teens - three commercial structures, entirely intact, alone in a sea of parking lots, looking like a gigantic chunk of ice that had cracked off a glacier and floated far away. On one side, an old painted sign: BUTWICK. Across the street, a construction project, with a sign for DOODY CONTRACTORS.

Butwick! Doody! That there wasn’t a seven-year old boy present to see this seemed a shame.

If signs say Butwick Doody in the city and there’s no little boy to giggle, are they still funny?

Of course they are. Of course.
.. ..
Temperature on the outside thermometer at 5:30 today: 110.

Days we’ve had houseguests: 15.

Sound of entire neighborhood losing power: TUNK.

Yes, TUNK. I was sitting in the family room, watching Gnat bash blocks on the cheap Pier One table (purchased for the basement back at Lileks Manor, now serving duty as the deformable end table in the family room) when the TV cut out, the fan stopped working, and the air conditioning - precious, lovely, life-giving air conditioning - sighed and faded away. A wail of despair went up from all concerned; a few minutes later I heard my wife come up the stairs, saying NOOOOO! She’d just gotten home, and had stowed the car in the batcave; when she hit the button to shut the door - the very door that had opened so willingly a minute before - nothing happened.

This was a double nightmare for me, since I have a column to write tonight, and I was quite sure the laptop was dead. It was. So after a nap - a sticky, restless, miserable nap - I drove to a coffeeshop on the other side of the outage zone, plugged into the wall, had several cups of coffee while the laptop recharged. I had nothing to read but MacAddict and Entertainment Weekly, which I hate to read in public; it’s like reading porn or a tabloid. I did however find another quote from my favorite boho reviewer, the one intent on making sure we all know that lazy depravity and chic stupidity are Bold Blows Against the Brittle Shield of Bourgeois Hypocrisy - dig, kats and kittens, a review of “Downtown 81,” a movie that follows drug-addled talentless hack Basquiat stagger through the pre-Guiliani demimonde, painting squiggles on walls: he “ . . .wanders through a lost work world of postpunk rock clubs, bombed-out Lower East side tenements, porn shops, strip joints, and Soho streets that appear almost spooky in their cavernous desertion.” So far, so typical, right down to “postpunk” and the holy trinity of tenements, porn shots and Soho, which summon up the Holy Wraith of Lou Reed, nodding approvingly (or just nodding off from excess horse in the blood, again) - but here come the priceless kicker: “If there’s a romance to this glam-grunge New York” - and how can there not? - “it’s that the city once looked like it was about something more mysterious than buying things.” Dingdingdingding! Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a winner! Empty streets, burned out buildings, spattered walls of moldy porn-store private booths, walls covered with the scribblings of untutored drifters - that has integrity, brother, that has a soul, and it’s far more “mysterious” than a horrible made-over Madison Square where a four-story Barnes and Noble has good coffee, clean restrooms and 150,000 books available for perusal until midnight. Buying stuff: ewwwww!

He never disappoints, this fellow.

Anyway - busy night, what with all the stuff I have to do now that the power’s back on. To work - more tomorrow.
.. ..
Temperature today at 3 PM: 100.

Guests are gone! And we miss them already. I don’t mean to suggest they weren’t good guests - you couldn’t ask for better guests. But after 15 days, it’s nice to have the house back. And they cleaned before they left, too. Farewell, au revoir . . . see you Friday, which is when they return from a trip up north.

One balloon survived from Gnat’s birthday party - a helium-filled mylar number with a picture of a duck. We tied it to the window pull by her chair, so she could see it while dining on mush and chs (she pronounces “Cheese” without employing any vowels) DUT, she would say when she saw the balloon. DUT became, for some reason, DUHDUH, which made me feel a little displaced. (I am now Dahdee, it seems.) Then the balloon was unmoored from its tether, and spent a few days in the kitchen; it managed to get inside one of the cabinets, and nearly scared me to death when it floated out one afternoon. Today I discovered it had exited the kitchen, made it up the stairs, and was stuck against a ventilation outflow fan. When the fan shut off, it must have drifted into my room. I didn’t see it. I turned on the ceiling fan, as usual.

Whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida!

The string managed to get caught in the fan while the blades kicked the krep out of DUT - then it spat out the balloon like a prizefighter knocking a palooka out of the ring, and the balloon faded down, down, down - then it channeled its inner Maya Angelou: still I rise, said DUT, up, up, bobbing on the ceiling . . . right back into the blades.

Whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida! whupida!

I put it in the closet for the night.

I usually don’t watch BBC America TV, and I’m not sure why; most of my favorite shows are British. “Singing Detective.” “Cracker” - there was a fine piece of work. I enjoyed Ab/Fab tremendously, at first; when it hit the states I’d just moved into Lileks Manor from the four-year DC stint; my wife hadn’t joined me yet, nor had the stereo. But I did have the TV, and when Comedy Central played that nifty little Pet Shop Boys Ab/Fab tune (which I’m listening to right now, as a matter of fact) I turned it alllll the way up; I was so - blitheringly - happy to be home, and every day at ten PM in the middle of hot perfect June, I just bounced around the house and sang along: English Vogue, American Vogue, French Vogue, Bloody Aby-bloody-synnian-bloody Vogue is still, in its own way, one of the best pieces of compounded invective of its time. Plus, all the characters drank and smoke. Same with Cracker. Same with Singing Detective. There must be something about socialized medicine that makes people feel at ease destroying their health.

There were a few other shows, but almost no other comedies. They left me stone dead cold. Most of the BBC comedies that end up on PBS here are wearying - with the exception of Fawlty Towers, perhaps the most perfect sitcom ever. I know many people praise Mr. Bean to the heavens, but he’s never done much for me; ditto the Blackadder series, which I never felt compelled to give a fair chance. I’m sure it’s fine. But life is short and if something doesn’t say hello, sailor the first few minutes, I’m off.

Which is why I was wary, the other night, when I found myself watching a sitcom on BBC America, and thinking: surely this can’t be as good as I think it is. It appeared to be a TV sitcom about people who are watching TV. That’s it: five people pasted to the sofa, watching TV, exchanging banalities. But it was just spot-on perfect, because it realized what makes for good comedy: characters. Five finely deliniated comedic characters sitting immobile watching TV can be much funnier than five banal archetypes doing OUTRAAAGEOUS things, duude (see also, or don’t, “Rat Race,” a movie I believe to be a remake of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” itself a star-flecked mile of dreck from the 60s.) Anyway - I watched, rapt, thinking: of course, why not a TV sitcom about the people who watch TV? The next episode (they ran five in a string) had nothing to do with TV, of course. It consisted of a Sunday dinner, and everything I had intuited about the characters was reaffirmed and amplified. Number of actual “jokes” in the entire hour: Zero.

Zero! A sitcom with no jokes, vast stretches of silence filled only by the sound of the TV in the background. If they transported the show to America - which is probably inevitable - they’ll all be wacky and Xtreme, and all the kids will be 10X more clever than the adults, and it will be a gruesome failure. American sitcoms have lost their ability to understand characters like Archie Bunker (this show feature a Bunkeresque character who, like Archie, you deplore and enjoy) or to savor the moment when sentiment goes horridly array. In the last episode I watched (I know, I know, nothing’s less compelling than a recap of something you haven’t seen) a character previously known for his utter lack of personality had a few drinks, and appropos of nothing began to sing a pedestrian Irish lullaby in a heartbreaking tenor voice. A moment of unexpected beauty, which eventually curdled into eye-averting buttock-shifting misery when it became clear he was going to sing every verse.

Compare this with “Third Rock from the Sun,” which follows the afternoon Simpsons block in this market. (Sometimes the TiVo turns itself on in the middle of 3rd Rock - it records the hour of Simpsons, and for some reason it goes to live TV after 20 minutes on the main menu.) I hate this show. Everything about it annoys me - the cool guitar theme, which seems unearned; John Lithgow’s hideous acting, the labored premise, the assumption that Wayne Knight is still amusing. It ran for, what, seven years? I think there’s two seasons of my new favorite show; it being British, that probably means a total of 26 episodes. If that. It’s called “The Royle Family,” and I’m going to miss it when I’ve chewed through all the stories.

Additional note: “The Royle Family” takes place in a house I presume is a typical working class urban dwelling, and as such it is absolutely indistinguishable from EVERY ENGLISH ROWHOUSE I’ve ever seen. The home of the poor kid in “Let Him Have It” - same house. The house in the Monty Python skit about the man who comes to read the poetry meter - same house. The house in the UB40 video of “Red Red Wine” - same house. Imagine if 83% of all American TV and movie sets looked like the Brady family house, and you see how peculiar this might seem to an outsider.