Wednesday, February 29, 2012

the death of movies

I didn’t watch the Academy Awards.  Even if I had a TV, they would have been on at some ungodly hour, and even if I’d been awake, I still wouldn’t have given a shit.  This proved to be a mistake when I went to a pub quiz the following evening and half the questions were about the Oscars, but I digress.

I gather from this blog that a good deal of the ceremony was a pity party in which the stars and starlets lamented their shrinking profit margins, due (I guess) to digital pirating.

Strictly speaking, I’m not the biggest fan of illegal downloading.  I believe in paying artists for their work.  Since movies can be (and often are) valuable cultural assets, I think they’re worth supporting.  And contrary to popular belief, not everyone who works in the film industry is a billionaire living an extravagant private jet, coke-orgy lifestyle.  Believe me, I know.

But I think the studios are pointing their guns the wrong way.  Instead of guilt-tripping people for downloading tenth-rate copies of their movies, they should put pressure on the corporate theater chains to stop robbing the public blind.  As of now, a non-matinee ticket will run you $10 (if you’re lucky.)  Pick up an over-sized popcorn, Mr. Pibb, and box of Raisinets (‘cause hey, tradition is tradition), and that’ll be another $15.  Unfortunately a few minutes later you realize the popcorn tastes like Styrofoam, and the soda’s more than you could ever drink.  On top of that, if the movie sucks, you go home feeling like a complete chump.
If people don’t pay for movies, others won’t be able to make them.  That’s just a fact.  But if the production and distribution arms of the industry want to save them, they need to give people an incentive to come back to the theaters.  A good place to start would be lowering the ticket price so that a family of four can afford to go more than once a month.  When it comes to snacks, offer quality over quantity, and tag them at reasonable prices.  Small investments in the long run.

Think it over, Hollywood.  Now that you've been hustled, you know how the rest of us feel.

Monday, February 27, 2012

city of illusions

Well, you ask me why an American writer would want to live in Rome.  First of all, because I like the Romans.  They don't give a damn whether you're dead or alive.  They're neutral, like the cats!  Rome is the city of illusions.  Not by chance, you have here the government, the church, the cinema.  They each produce illusions, like you do and like I do.  We're getting closer and closer to the end of the world because of too many people, too many cars, poisons.  And what better city than Rome, which has been reborn so often?  What place could be more peaceful to wait for the end from pollution and overpopulation?  It's the ideal city for waiting to see if it really will come to an end or not.
                                                                                              ~  Gore Vidal
                                                                                                  Fellini's Roma

Sunday, February 26, 2012

nothing is sacred

Dear DC Comics,

I'm writing in regards to the series of Watchmen prequels you have slated for release this year.

When you came up with this brilliant idea, did you stop to think about those of us who have over-caffeinated comic book geeks with borderline personality disorder for friends?  Did you give a moment's consideration to the fact that our Facebook news feeds will be blowing up with their moral outrage the second these things hit the shelves?

I think I have the grounds for an infliction of emotional distress lawsuit, and possibly third-degree sexual assault as well.  You'll be hearing from my lawyer shortly.


Jonathan Balog

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dr. Gonzo: 1937-2005

Tuesday was the seven-year anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson blowing his brains out.  I was going to write about it then, but I've been in bed with the flu since the weekend.  I'm still in bed, but I'm now sitting up, and drinking a Chivas Regal on the rocks.

I first met Hunter in the summer of 2003.  At the time I was working ten to twelve hours a day at a fireworks tent in MD just off exit 100 on I-95.  The tent was pitched next to a liquor store, and right across the street from a gas station.  Among the stack of books I'd brought along to get me through the day was the Modern Library edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  I couldn't have asked for a better time or place to be introduced to Gonzo journalism: sitting at one point of a triangle of disaster, beer under the register, Dylan on the speakers, and the 227th anniversary of our nation's birth just around the corner.  We were smack-dab in the middle of the Bush nightmare, and I was spending my summer vacation selling dangerous explosives to rednecks.  It was the perfect moment to hop in a fire-apple red convertible with a renegade journalist and a fat Samoan lawyer for a drug-addled road trip to Vegas in search of the American Dream.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

curious incident on the dark side of the moon

At the recommendation of my aunt Cheryl and my second-cousin Maggie, I've been reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.  If you haven't already read this one, I strongly suggest you check it out.

The story is narrated by a 15-year-old autistic boy named Christopher.  Christopher loves prime numbers, the Apollo program, mystery novels, physics, high math, organization, and dogs.  He hates metaphors, being touched, the color yellow, and strangers.  He has a physical aversion to anything that isn't true (which is why, he assures us, everything he's written here actually happened.)

One night, he discovers the body of his neighbor's dog pinned to the ground with a gardening fork.  He takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of the dog's murder, and embarks on a carefully calculated investigation of his neighborhood.  As he navigates his way from clue to clue, he shares his observations of the outside world as filtered through the unique lens of his condition.  His style falls somewhere between The Sound and the Fury and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and it's a pleasure to read.

This trip through Christopher's mind has reminded me of something that happened to me in '07.  Back then I was working as a bellboy at the Hyatt Regency at Penn's Landing, Philadelphia.  One afternoon I was stationed at the front entrance, and a family of three pulled up to the door.  As the mother and father pulled their luggage out of the trunk, their 9-year-old boy stood quietly on the sidewalk.

I glanced at him, and noticed that the over-sized t-shirt he was wearing had the legendary prism-rainbow artwork from Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon'.  At the time, Roger Waters was in the middle of a world tour where he was playing the Dark Side album all the way through, and his date at the Wachovia Center was that night.

I said, "Hey buddy, didja get that shirt at a show?"

The boy scampered away and hid behind his mother's legs.  She put a reassuring hand on his head and told me that yes, they'd bought it for him at a show, and they had tickets to the Wachovia gig.  It was going to be their third date on the tour.

I was impressed.  "Do you always take him on tour with you?"

She explained to me that he was autistic, and had lost the ability to speak at the age of two.  However, by listening to Floyd records, he'd miraculously learned to speak again.  So, she explained, whenever Waters or Gilmour go on tour, they take him.

The purpose of art is to be a form of communication that transcends mere discourse, and I can't think of a more perfect example than that.  It's made even more appropriate by the fact that the name of the Dark Side album is a slang term for the subconscious.  Through chance or providence, the light hit the prism at just the right angle.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

soul poison for the soul singer

There is thy gold, worse poison to men's souls,
Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.
                                 ~ William Shakespeare
                                    Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene I

(For those of you who haven't read the play since high school, he was buying a drug that he'd later use to kill himself.)

Living in a time zone six hours ahead of EST, when things happen in the US, I’m often the last to hear.   I check Facebook in the morning and find my news feed exploding with commentary on the latest political debacle, football victory, or celebrity death, as most of my friends on the east coast have already had the whole evening to deal with the news.  That’s what happened this morning when I heard that Whitney Houstan had died.

Here in Rome, there’s a baroque fountain designed by Bernini called the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers.)  It’s a gorgeous sight—four men built like Greek gods prostrated before a massive Egyptian obelisk.  The men represent the four rivers of the world, submitting to the authority of the Catholic Church, as symbolized by the obelisk.

The figure who represents the Río de la Plata is shown holding his hand out defensively and averting his eyes.  There’s a popular myth that this was an inside joke by Bernini.  The story is that the Rio is shrinking away in horror from the façade of a nearby church, which was designed by Bernini’s arch-rival, Francesco Borromini.  Basically, he’s giving his enemy the finger for all eternity.

It’s a fun story, but it’s total bullshit.  The church, Sant'Agnese in Agone, was actually built several years later.  What the Rio is actually doing is trying to protect the bed of gold coins he’s lying on, while warding off a snake, bearing its vicious fangs on a nearby rock.  It's a comment on both the wealth that the Americas had in store for 17th century Europe, and the fear and paranoia that come with financial abundance.   When I heard the news about Whitney, this image came to mind, and it’s been in there all day.

I’ve never understood why people think celebrities are “too rich to be depressed.”  Wealth brings its own agonies.  The famous live their lives on display, and nine times out of ten they’re more fucked up than you and I could ever aspire to be.  Don’t get me wrong—I’ll take my First World Problems any day of the week.  But if you think money equals happiness, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

the story thus far

We are giving you a great heart, but if you drink wine you will begin to hate the world.  The moon is your sister, but if you take sleeping pills you will find yourself in the company of unhappy women.  Every time you grab at love, you will lose a snowflake of your memory.

                                                                                               ~ Leonard Cohen
                                          Book of Longing