Friday, September 28, 2007

It's Free, It's 3, It's D!

Baltimore's Free Fall Films in 3-D Bonanza

These are the salad days for 3-D film fans.

On 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 3, the programming gods at the Maryland Film Festival are presenting a one-time free screening of Alfred Hitchcock's DIAL M FOR MURDER in dual-projector 3-D at the Charles Theatre!

Here's a capsule review (courtesy of Midnight Movies author J. Hoberman) from the Charles' website:
Dial M for Murder was by far the most visually compelling of studio stereoscopic movies— rivaled only by Jack Arnold's half-underwater Creature From the Black Lagoon. Taken from a hit Broadway play, Dial M is a genteel thriller. A reptilian ex tennis champ (Ray Milland) decides to eliminate his wealthy, unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly), and blackmails an old schoolmate to do the job; when Kelly unexpectedly dispatches her attacker with a pair of scissors, Milland shifts gears to have her framed. Perhaps 90 percent of the action is confined to the couple's cramped, incongruously dowdy living room, but Hitchcock made no attempt to open the piece up. While other 3-D productions assaulted audiences with hurtling tomahawks or Jane Russell's bosom, Hitchcock positioned his actors behind a fussy clutter of monumentalized bric-a-brac and made visual jokes out of rear-screen projection. The lone use of the proscenium-breaking projectile effect is reserved for the murder sequence.... Hitchcock's canny restraint allows the stereo image to assert its own uncanny characteristic.

The Charles promises more free 3-D films throughout October, including THE MAD MAGICIAN (10/10) and HOUSE OF WAX (10/17) - both starring the King of 3-D, Vincent Price (who made four 3-D films in his illustrious career), and previously presented by Sun film critic Chris Kaltenbach at Maryland Film Festivals past - and the 3-D musical KISS ME KATE(10/24). The latter was directed by George Sidney, one of the earliest experimenters with 3-D technique, having directed an MGM "Pete Smith Specialty" short called THIRD DIMENSIONAL MURDER back in 1941.

Of course, the "Warnercolor" HOUSE OF WAX is considered the quintessential stereoscopic film. Ironically, one-eyed director Alex de Toth couldn't see 3-D, but he overcame his monovision with an uncanny sense of framing and perspective. Meanwhile producer Jack Warner's insistence of filling the film with 3-D gags resulted in the famous paddle ball scene with Reggie Rymal. And the black and white print of THE MAD MAGICIAN (an obvious but enjoyable knock-off of HOUSE OF WAX) that the Maryland Film Festival screened two years ago is outstanding.

Not to be outdone, the Enoch Pratt Free Library will present two free 3-D films at the end of October and the first week of November at its Central Library location on 400 Cathedral Street. And why not? This past July, so many people showed up for Pratt's 3-D screening of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1953) - considered, along with HOUSE OF WAX, to be one of the greatest 3-D films of all-time - that they ran out of 3-D glasses. The people have spoken, and Pratt is answering their call (with extra supplies of 3-D specs this time around!).

On Saturday, October 27 at, the Pratt screens the 1961 Canadian cult horror rarity THE MASK for its Halloween treat. Here's the program description from the Pratt's online film events calendar:
THE MASK (1961) IN 3-D
(Directed by Julian Roffman, Canada, 1961, 83 minutes, b&w with color 3-D sequences)

Though it shares the same title as the 1994 Jim Carrey comedy, this little-known 1961 low-budget Canadian horror movie - parts of which were filmed in 3-D - is far from a comedy.

When a young archaeologist commits suicide after wearing a mask that causes weird hallucinations and possibly murder, the mask falls into the hands of his psychiatrist Dr. Barnes, who is soon plunged into the addictive nightmare world of the mask. Whenever the narrator instructs you to "Put the Mask on now!", put on the provided 3-D specs to see some truly eerie nightmare sequences.

This cult film provided the cover illustration of V. Juno's Incredibly Strange Films book and has been called a metaphor for drug experimentation, with the surrealistic color dream sequences anticipating such 60s drug culture films as The Trip and Psych-Out.

Then on Saturday, November 3 at 2 p.m., Pratt presents a free 3-D screening of Jack Arnold's IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953). Here's the description from Pratt's online events calendar:
(Directed by Jack Arnold, 1953, 81 minutes, b &w)

It Came From Outer Space is one of the classic 1950s sci-fi films. Based on a story by Ray Bradbury and directed by Universal Studios veteran Jack Arnold (The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), it was unusual among sci-fi films of its time because it portrayed alien invaders as non-threatening creatures – this at the height of '50s Cold War nuclear paranoia. And, despite being filmed in gimmicky 3-D, it was an "A" production with good special effects and a solid cast of Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Kathleen Hughes and a young Russell Johnson (who would go on to play The Professor in Gilligan’s Island). The film has been interpreted as a metaphorical refutation of the xenophobic attitudes and ideology of the Cold War.

So if you think Baltimore's a one-dimensional town, think again. And get a good center seat to enjoy these stereoscopic cinematic treats!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Just Another Manic Monday

Life IS Stranger Than Fiction

Observations from a busy Monday at work.

My boss had a seizure at work. It's not the first time it's happened, but it's always scary when it does. I really like my boss, so I volunteered to ride with the paramedics to Mercy Hospital and stay with her until her husband could meet her there. It's funny what you think about at dramatic times like this, when your senses are working overtime and seem to pick up every little nuance in the air. Sitting in the ambulance waiting for the driver to finish up in the back, I noticed the usual gaggle of unemployed loiterers hanging out in front of the library. Then an attractive Indian girl walked by (simulated at left), her buttocks rhythmically moving up and down like the bouncing ball in a singalong cartoon as she swayed down the street in her form-fitting jeans. With all due respect to my girlfriend, this young lady was a headturner - maybe not enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window to get a better look at her (as Raymond Chandler famously put it), but a headturner all the same. Enough to elicit wolf whistles from the Alpha Male Posse leaning against the book drop box.

Then I saw something even more alarming than my boss's seizure. Instead of blowing off the young men's overtures (as had the previous woman who had been ogled by them), she stopped, turned around and smiled (also simulated below).

"You talking to me homeboy?"

Encouraged, a runt-sized guy in a wife-beater and those droopy "shorts" that are so long they scrape the sidewalk raced over to her with a grin as big as Norbit's Rasputia. They walked down the block together, where I saw the young lady pull out her cell phone and press some buttons. I do believe she was punching in the lout's phone number! I was amazed. Whenever I see a construction worker whistle at an attractive woman passing by, I always think to myself, "Has that Cro-Mag approach ever worked with a babe?" and yet here my preconception about the futility of caveman courtship was just shot to hell. And the punk made it look so easy, so easy that even he looked surprised when he went back to high-five his mates.

Mercy Me

Later, I was at Mercy Hospital, where a nurse was rather short with me, banishing me to the world's noisiest waiting room. It was actually more like an amusement arcade.

Mercy Hospital's Waiting Room

You're supposed to listen up when they announce that visitors can visit whoever you came in with, but with three TV blaring full bore, it was hard to hear anything. I initially sat in the Scholar's Corner, where it was a slow news day on the CNN News Channel. The Iranian President was at Cornell to give his usual Jews Are Bad lecture to the students. Nothing new there, so I switched over to watch Ellen Degeneres talk to Wolf Blitzer about his facial hair and how much he reminds her of former Surgeon General C. Everett Hoop, followed by Oprah Winfrey talking to an soap opera actor who's portraying a real-life schizophrenic in a made-for-TV movie. Or something. A young girl and some intellectually-challenged adults sat in front of a third TV set, which was tuned to The Cartoon Network. There were lots of explosions on the screen.

Then a slacker-looking Abbie Hoffman-ish dude came in with his drowsy, but not all-together unattractive girlfriend. She staggered to the women's bathroom, where she remained for about half an hour, until the guy knocked on the door and asked if she was OK. Then he went into the bathroom with her. What are they doing in there, I wondered? Did she have diarrhea? Were they having sex? Was she shooting up? Later I heard him say he had gotten the woman registered and admitted. A hospital aide came out witha wheelchiar and wheeled her away. I think they were druggies. The girl looked fucked-up, and not in a three martini lunch way, either.

I eventually was let in to see my boss, who seemed much better than she was a few hours earlier. They were still doing tests on her, but she was OK and looking forward to going home as soon as her husband got there. She said her doctor allowed her to drink a glass of wine for special occasions. "Have a relaxing glass of wine tonight," I told her. "I think this definitely qualifies as a special occasion!"

Nothing left to do, I bid her adieu and headed home to get dinner. Stopping back at work, I remembered to finally take home a coveted kitsch artifact that a friend had given me: a discarded American Library Association poster featuring Michael Bolton in his full-on mullet glory days promoting reading. The poster was huge and, unfortunately, I had to lug it several blocks to get to my car, hurriedly power walking past onlookers. I mean, kitsch is all fun in the privacy of one's home, but walking down the street with a big picture of a mulleted Michael Bolton - like you're a fan - well, it's as bad as wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt (full disclosure: I gave mine to my girlfriend). Anyway, I got it to the car at last (it's now sitting in my living room, next to a picture of Beck, who would surely enjoy the irony, but I plan on giving it to a Bolton-hater to use as a dart board) and headed off for food.

Blue Monday
Stopping at Eddie's supermarket store, I immediately saw Richard Sher grocery shopping (the silver Jiffy Pop hair is unmistakeable!) - while wearing one of those hideous Bluetooth phones in his earlobe! I hate people who wear Bluetooths. I don't care what the technological benefits are of them, their reception, frequency, bandwidth, all that yada yada yada crap. They look dorky, period. They make you look like some Klingon creature from Star Trek. Anyway, this chance encounter at Eddie's was another chance Richard Sher had to win me over and like him. But he blew it. Or should I say, he "Blue" it? Sorry, I DO judge a book by the cover. There are certain bold truths that are non-arguable. If you drive an Oldsmobile, you are old and a Republican; if you drive an SUV, you are self-centered and arrogant; if you drive a Jetta, you are a young attractive, female who I would like to know better (that is, if I was single, which I'm not); and if you wear a Bluetooth, I am laughing at you along with the rest of the world because you look like a fool.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Came across the picture above of a blogger called Broadsheet and must admit that I'm obsessed with her Leg Show-worthy legs. Call it Claire's Knee Syndrome, after the film by French director Eric Rohmer (pictured below).

Can the sum be equal to the parts? I certainly hope so. Love the ankle bracelet, by the way, and the fact that she color coordinated her black pumps with the black laptop. Nice, very nice.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Two Koreas

Battle Lines Drawn at Baltimore's 20th Street Parallel

They are neighbors standing side by side, speaking the same language, eating the same food - yet they are pitted against one another in the court of world opinion, each claiming superiority. Is this the story of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of (South) Korea? No, actually I'm talking about a clash of culinary ideologies to see who will reign as Baltimore's Best Korean BBQ Restaurant, a battle whose lines have been clearly drawn on 20th Street where Joung Kak (18 W. 20th Street) and Nak Won (inexplicably listed as 12 W. 20th Street, though the two properties are on other sides of the same wall) sit shoulder to shoulder as Baltimore reigning (and only) downtown BBQ houses.

Joung Kak last won the Baltimore City Paper's "Best Korean Restaurant" award back in 2000 (for some reason the CP had a love affair for years with the so-so Nam Kang restaurant, up the street on Maryland Avenue and once referred to by the CP in a fit of hyperbole as "the benchmark by which all other Baltimore Korean restaurants are measured"). To my knowledge, Nak Won, which has only been around under its current ownership for a couple of years, has never won any accolades from the City Paper. That's a shame, because I love this place.

As a former City paper writer, I'm familiar with just how subjective their "Best of Baltimore" criterion is. Basically, when you're not writing up your friends or the paper's advertisers (ka-ching!), you're not exactly picking a spot after exhaustive research. Far from investigative journalism, the picks are often the result of serendipity. You went to a place one or two times, had a good experience, and there you go, it's the Best of Baltimore.

But surely this year these sort of journalistic excesses went too far when, in perhaps the CP's most ridiculous award yet, they named Joung Kak NOT as its Best Korean Restaurant but - get this - "Best Kid-Friendly Restaurant."

Here at City Paper, we're (usually) firm believers in the old adage "Children should be seen and not heard." Particularly when it comes to dining out. There's just something downright unsettling about attempting to enjoy an intimate meal surrounded by screaming hellions and whining brats. But we're not so insensitive that we don't realize that every now and then, long-suffering parents need a place where they can take their tots to eat, without drawing looks of cold hatred. Which is where Joung Kak comes in. The folks at this long-established midtown Korean joint practically fall over themselves to make kids feel welcome--not that they offer crayons or games to amuse your offspring like other "family friendly" establishments, it's just that they truly understand and embrace the concept of family dining. Plus kids love getting involved in the whole DIY aspect of tableside BBQ. Trust us, it's a winner, and it sure as shit beats Applebee's.

I guess just naming a place Best Korean Restaurant would have been too conservative, too much like Baltimore Magazine, or too helpful for City Paper readers interested in knowing where to eat. I mean, can one really say Joung Kak is the place to take kids over Chuck E. Cheese or Applebees - a restaurant with an open fire charcoal grill at each table (where, worse case scenario, a kid could stick his hand in the grill in the blink of an eye)? Don't get me wrong, I like the waitstaff there and the food, but there are also lots of Korean men getting drunk off their asses slamming down shots of Korean vodka (soju) - which is not exactly like having having clowns come around performing for children at their tables. Plus the place is open until 4 in the morning - not exactly kid-friendly hours and not exactly a parental crowd piling in there in the wee small hours after the bars are closed. And why the totally unnecessary use of the word "shit' in the review (I suspect it was written by potty-mouthed attention-craver Joe Macleod now), which taints any chance the restaurant owners would hang up the review or quote it in full? In other words, what a stupid and pointless award, one that serves neither parents nor the restaurant owners (whose expertise is in cuisine, not daycare). Which is a shame because, while in years past the CP's "Best Of" categories had become increasingly self-indulgent (e.g., this year's "Best Fabulous Nobody" nod for Carey Anderson, which reeks of drinking buddy cronyism), this year's ish was fairly restrained and actually useful.

In its 2007 Best of Baltimore issue, Baltimore Magazine at least gave an award to a Korean restaurant for its food, naming Nak Won's Beef Dumpling Soup (pictured below) Baltimore's "Best Cold Remedy":

Here's what BM had to say about Nok Won's soup:
According to every Earth Mother we know, both ginger and garlic are good for fighting a cold. And the beef dumpling soup, right, at Nak Won, 12 W. 20th Street, 410-244-5501, is chock full of both. The mild broth is soothing on a sore throat, and a quart of it is filling enough to see you through a couple of days of lying on the couch with a box of tissues. It almost (almost!) makes us look forward to getting sick.

I recall bringing my copy of this issue into Nak Won and showing it to the owner, who had not yet received a copy from Baltimore Magazine. She was so delighted when I gave her the review that she brought a plate of Korean dumplings (mandoo) to our table in return. This is why I love Nak Won.

If I were a food critic, I would say both restaurants are great, with efficient waitstaffs and BBQ grills available at tables.

Joung Kak has authentic table top charcoal grills and big booth seating and offers more BBQ variety - go here if you want grilled chicken or fish (versus Nak Won, which only offers beef, ribs and shrimp). They also have a big fish tank by the cash register where, the last time I went, there was an ugly Otto fish that didn't move the entire meal (either this was a meditating zen fish or old Otto was dead). The wait staff is friendly, but I've found that Nak Won's staff speaks better English, especially waitress Sun, who explains every minute detail of every dish if you express any interest at all in Korean cuisine. They also feature a menu that has English translations of most of the dishes.

No one bothered to mention the great vegetarian/seafood dishes available at both restaurants, particularly the spicy squid (designed to be served with soju or beer, which cool off its "bite") and seafood pancakes (pa jun). I prefer Nak Won's pancakes, which seems to have more green peppers mixed in with the squid (which is the dominant seafood in any Korean dish). Also unmentioned was the fact that Joung Kak has a sushi bar.

Sometimes Nak Won has a TV set up screening Korean TV shows or, last summer, the Republic of Korea's national soccer team playing in the World Cup - not to mention that security camera showing your car in the parking lot (the neighborhood is not the most relaxing, so I like this feature! In fact, one reviewer aptly put it this way: "The restaurant occupies a quintessentially Baltimore category of real estate - nice when approached from one direction, considerably less so when approached from another.").

But don't take my word for it. And please, don't take the CP's word for it either. Check out both and make your own decision.

Joung Kak 18 W. 20th St., (410) 837-5231

Nak Won, 12 W. 20th., (410) 244-5501

Related Reviews:
Nak Won (Karen Nitwin, Baltimore Sun, 11/5/2006)
Joung Kak (Areaguides review)
Joung Kak (Richard Gorelick, City Paper "Omnivore" review, 9/14/2005)

China Girls, Redux

Wong Kar-wai's Hua Yang De Nian Hua

A while back, I wrote about "China Girls," those anonymous women who appeared briefly alongside color strips in film countdown reels (as pictured above), an industry practice used to calibrate color balance and tone from 1928 to 1992 before the advent of digitalization made them unnecessary. (Why the term "China Girls" was used to describe them is anyone's guess; they were also sometimes referred to, in more politically correct language, as "projector girls" or "Kodak girls.")

I had first discovered them thanks to a short film by local filmmaker John Heyn (Heavy Metal Parking Lot, 1986), "Girls On Film," which remains the definitive celluloid collection of images of these women.

I thought about China Girls again last night as I was watching a short film by Wong Kar-wai that was included on the Criterion DVD release of his film In the Mood For Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa, 2000). This 2 1/2-minute film, "Hua Yang De Nian Hua" (2000) is, like Heyn's film, an edited collage of images of "China Girls," only in his case these really are women from China, being images of long-gone Hong Kong actresses preserved in the Hong Kong Film Archives. Wong Kar-wai said he made this short film, which was shown at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival, as the inspiration for his In the Mood For Love project, which is not just a story about unrequited love but a reflection on and a yearning for a bygone era: early 1960s Hong Kong. At this time there was a community of first generation, post-1949 refugees from the People's Republic of China, especially from Shanghai and the Cantonese provinces, who had relocated to the British colonial port city to star life anew. Whatever the reasons, this was also the most productive period in the history of Hong Kong cinema. According to the Hong Kong Film Archive, 2,200 feature films were made during this time, including some of the best in its long history. (It was also a time marred by several sensational movie suicides, including those of actresses Tu Chuan, Lin Dai, Kitty Ting Hao and Loh Ti.)

I don't know any of the actresses (I wonder if any of the suicide victims mentioned above appear) or the films these clips are taken from, but the film provides a good visual reference to what Wong Kar-wai was thinking about and where he got his source images and fashions for the look and feel of In the Mood For Love. DVD program notes state that it includes scenes from vintage Chinese films that were considered lost until some nitrate prints were discovered in a California warehouse during the 1990s. Wong Kar-wai then set his montage to a "goldie oldie" song by Zhou Xuan. This song is also included on the soundtrack to In the Mood for Love.

You can watch this short film on YouTube: Hua Yang De Nian Hua. See what you think.

Related Links:
"Countdown To Ecstasy: China Girls" (Accelerated Decrepitude blog)
Hua Yang de Nian Hua (Wikipedia)

Friday, September 21, 2007

In the Mood for Wong Kar-Wai

Moody cinematography from In the Mood for Love

Last night I watched In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa, 2000), Wong Kar-wai's celebrated film about unrequited love between Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk in 1962 Hong Kong. Having seen 2046 (2004), the sequel to this film, earlier this year, I figured it was time to back-pedal and finally get closure on the story. I wasn't disappointed. Though they are related (2046 is a hotel room where the two actors meet in In the Mood for Love), they are almost two completely different films (in fact, Zhang Ziyi replaces Maggie Cheung as the lead in 2046); you don't need to see both to appreciate either, but seeing one, you want to see both.

First all of, watching a Wong Kar-wei film is like visiting an art museum in which the paintings move. The cinematography - usually by his frequent gwailo collaborator Christopher Doyle (as well as Pin Bing Lee for In the Mood for Love) - makes each film a visual feast in terms of lighting, colors and framing.

Second, he gets the best in acting talent. At 43, Maggie Cheung is no longer the young babe who prances around in black leather catsuits like in Heroic Trio (Dung Fong Saam Hap, 1993) or Irma Vep (1996), but her work since the mid-'90s has grown in stature, especially in films like this, Wayne Wang's Chinese Box (1997), Zhang Yimou's Hero (Ying Xiong, 2002) and her amazing polyglot performance in Olivier Assayas' Clean (2004). And frequent Wong Kar-wai performer Tony Leung is, well, Hong Kong's best actor, period. No one else comes close.

Third, Wong Kar-wai is a non-narrative filmmaker who writes his own non-narrative "scripts." (In fact, filming for In the Mood For Love was shifted from Beijing to Macau after Chinese authorities demanded to see the completed script from this director who notoriously never uses scripts.) What this means is, his films are like zen koans whose meanings must be unearthed and deconstructed, like unfolding intricately layered origami. The surface is beautiful and elegant, yet restrained; it must be reflected on. He creates - as this film's English title suggests - moods rather than resolutions. Ultimately, this is much more rewarding than a simple "let X=X" narrative exposition.

But my words cannot do justice to In the Mood for Love. For that I turn to Roger Ebert, whose Chicago-Tribune review (below) got it just right, IMHO. I also suggest checking out Wong Kar-wai's DVD commentary, as he points out many things that are obvious to Chinese audiences (such as the food being consumed signifying what season it is) but not so to Westerners.

In The Mood For Love
BY ROGER EBERT / February 16, 2001

They are in the mood for love, but not in the time and place for it. They look at each other with big damp eyes of yearning and sweetness, and go home to sleep by themselves. Adultery has sullied their lives: his wife and her husband are having an affair. "For us to do the same thing," they agree, "would mean we are no better than they are." The key word there is "agree." The fact is, they do not agree. It is simply that neither one has the courage to disagree, and time is passing. He wants to sleep with her and she wants to sleep with him, but they are both bound by the moral stand that each believes the other has taken.

You may disagree with my analysis. You may think one is more reluctant than the other. There is room for speculation, because whole continents of emotions go unexplored in Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love," a lush story of unrequited love that looks the way its songs sound. Many of them are by Nat King Cole, but the instrumental "Green Eyes," suggesting jealousy, is playing when they figure out why her husband and his wife always seem to be away at the same times.

His name is Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). Hers is Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk). In the crowded Hong Kong of 1962, they have rented rooms in apartments next to each other. They are not poor; he's a newspaper reporter, she's an executive assistant, but there is no space in the crowded city and little room for secrets.

Cheung and Leung are two of the biggest stars in Asia. Their pairing here as unrequited lovers is ironic because of their images as the usual winners in such affairs. This is the kind of story that could be remade by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, although in the Hollywood version, there'd be a happy ending. That would kind of miss the point and release the tension, I think; the thrust of Wong's film is that paths cross but intentions rarely do. In his other films, like "Chungking Express," his characters sometimes just barely miss connecting, and here again key things are said in the wrong way at the wrong time. Instead of asking us to identify with this couple, as an American film would, Wong asks us to empathize with them; that is a higher and more complex assignment, with greater rewards.

The movie is physically lush. The deep colors of film noir saturate the scenes: Reds, yellows, browns, deep shadows. One scene opens with only a coil of cigarette smoke, and then reveals its characters. In the hallway outside the two apartments, the camera slides back and forth, emphasizing not their nearness but that there are two apartments, not one.

The most ingenious device in the story is the way Chow and Su play-act imaginary scenes between their cheating spouses. "Do you have a mistress?" she asks, and we think she is asking Chow, but actually she is asking her husband, as played by Chow. There is a slap, not as hard as it would be with a real spouse. They wound themselves with imaginary dialogue in which their cheating partners laugh about them. "I didn't expect it to hurt so much," Su says, after one of their imaginary scenarios.

Wong Kar-wai leaves the cheating couple offscreen. Movies about adultery are almost always about the adulterers, but the critic Elvis Mitchell observes that the heroes here are "the characters who are usually the victims in a James M. Cain story." Their spouses may sin in Singapore, Tokyo or a downtown love hotel, but they will never sin on the screen of this movie, because their adultery is boring and commonplace, while the reticence of Chow and Su elevates their love to a kind of noble perfection.

Their lives are as walled in as their cramped living quarters. They have more money than places to spend it. Still dressed for the office, she dashes out to a crowded alley to buy noodles. Sometimes they meet on the grotty staircase. Often it is raining. Sometimes they simply talk on the sidewalk. Lovers do not notice where they are, do not notice that they repeat themselves. It isn't repetition, anyway--it's reassurance. And when you're holding back and speaking in code, no conversation is boring, because the empty spaces are filled by your desires.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Marc Sober: King of Kino

A Mild-Mannered Librarian Solves the Saga of Anahatan

No matter how much I think I know about movies, I will never be the King of Kino. That distinction rests with my mentor and library colleague Marc Sober (pictured left), film sleuth and cinephile extraordinaire. He's Baltimore's version of Turner Classic Movies' cineaste Robert Osborne - a cinemaniac with mad skills (though I suspect Mr. Osbourne makes a bit more money than a Baltimore city librarian).

Case in point: for years I've been trying to track down a film I saw in college that really impressed me and whose images stayed with me for a long time. But all I remembered about it was that it was in black and white and about a lone woman on a tropical island with shipwrecked Japanese soldiers. I recalled that the jungle setting was a fake soundstage, and that there was a bee metaphor involved in which the lone woman was called "Queen Bee" and all the men on the island were referred to as her "drones." Due to the artifical set and the sexual tension dynamic, I had some inkling that it might be a Josef von Sternberg film. Or Von Stroheim. One of those von's - I always get them mixed up. My memory was iffy...I know I saw it at some arthouse revival place, but whether it was the old Playhouse Theatre on 25th street or the Baltimore Museum of Art or The Little Theatre before it went porno (and eventually became the Aegon Insurance company's parking lot), I dunno. Because I suspected it was a von Sternberg film, I somehow imagined the woman was Marlene Dietrich. Boy was I off! The woman in question wasn't Marlene but in fact the polar opposite of the blonde Venus, instead being none other than Japanese actress Akemi Negishi (pictured below).

Akemi Negishi: The Japanese Dietrich.

But I was right about the director. It then took Marc all of 5 minutes to solve the mystery. The film in question was Josef von Sternberg's last film, the 1953 curio The Saga of Anahatan (aka Anatahan, Fever Over Anahatan and The Only Woman on Earth). It was an all-Japanese affair that was directed, written, narrated and photographed by von Sternberg, produced by Kazuo Takimura, and with great Japanese folk music by Akira Ifukube. Von Sternberg shot the film in Japanese, but instead of using subtitles provided his own English translation voiceover running over the actors' dialogue, being perhaps a nod to the narrator tradition in Japanese theatre. The film starred Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganume, Ikio Sawamura, Jun Fujikawa and Hiroshi Kondo (picture below right with Akemi Negishi).

She's a Killer Queen: For Sternberg, Woman always reigns supreme..

I subsequently learned that Anahatan was based on a true story. In June of 1944, an air attack on a Japanese convoy stranded a group of Japanese sailors on the island of Anahatan, where they lived for the next seven years, refusing to believe that Japan had been defeated and, in the words of one writer, "waiting for the arrival of an enemy who no longer existed." The island was uninhabited except for a lone couple, and the men fought amongst themselves for her possession. Sternberg's film was based primarily on the published recollections of survivor Michiro Murayama, but he famously refused to interview Kazuko Higa - the real-life lone woman who was rescued from the island in 1950 and on whom Akemi Negishi's character Keiko is based - preferring to take poetic license with his mythic Queen Bee character. And why not? Though the The Saga of Anatahan was a commercial failure and a bizarre post-script to his career, it is also considered to be his most personal film, one in which he was given total autonomy one last time to present, in Herman G, Weinberg's words, "a study in behavorism on a universal scale." The all-Japanese production was also a fitting conclusion for a director whose fascination with the Orient had been previously expressed in The Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture.

The Buzz About Queen Bee
Marc having unlocked the Pandora's Box of my memories, I ran obsessively with the information he fed me. Like about the lead actress I had confused with Marlene Dietrich. Turns out she was quite the icon of Japanese cinema in the late '50s and early '60s. She even appeared in a Godzilla movie (1962's King Kong Vs. Godzilla)! And, I did find one book that called her the "Japanese Dietrich" (ha!). This is what IMBD's biography citation had to say about Ms. Negishi:
Akemi Negishi might never have become an actress but for Josef von Sternberg. The legendary director was in Japan looking for a woman to play the seductress who leads a bunch of soldiers astray in his upcoming (and as it turned out, last) movie Anatahan (1954). But Sternberg spotted Negishi one night, dancing on the cabaret stage, and chose her at once. This was the first in a long string of exotic roles, most unusual for the average Japanese actress, but which became her trademark, in films as various as Kingukongu tai Gojira (1962) and Dodesukaden (1970). She was a favorite actress of both Akira Kurosawa and Ishirô Honda, both directors seeing beyond the kind of role in which she was usually typecast, and thereby encouraging her to some of the best work any Japanese actress did in the 1950s and 1960s. Her most memorable roles are probably for Kurosawa, in Donzoko (1957) and Dodesukaden (1970); but she is probably best known outside Japan for playing the woman who leads the dance of tribute to Kong in Kingukongu tai Gojira (1962). Negishi was an unusual presence in Japanese film at that time, since her presence was so aggressively, obviously sensual. This militated against her becoming a major star in the conservative Japanese atmosphere of the time, but she was fortunate to be able to do excellent character work throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Following her arresting cameo as the beautiful lone housewife in Dodesukaden (1970), it appears that Negishi retired.

An intimate moment from von Sternberg's most personal film.

The Saga of Finding Reviews of Anahatan
There is truly a dearth of press about Sternberg's career-ending cinematic curioddity. I could only find a few online reviews. Even Josef von Sternberg himself had little to say about it in his (long out-of-print) 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. This book is a great read. Here's what von Sternberg had to say about his swan song film:
...I planned to picture the Japanese exactly as they were, not as they imagined themselves to be, and I wished to show them that they were no different from any other race of people, much as they would like to be considered apart from the rest of mankind.

Though on the surface the nature of the content was apparently sordid, showing as it did the distintegration of discipline, hastened by the presence on the island of an attractive female, I had chosen this readily understandable series of events to carry a not easily understood experiment in indirect mass psychoanalysis, to alert all of us, to put it simply, to the necessity of reinvestigating our emotions and the reliability of our controls under favorable conditions...

As it turned is most probably an error to assume that human beings will pay admission to inspect their own mistakes, rather than the mistakes of others.

And of casting his striking female lead, Akima Negishi, von Sternberg wrote:
The sole female was hauled out of a chorus line, after every geisha in Tokyo had been paraded before me...The family of the girl I had selected for the part of the jungle Lorelei made me personally responsible for her chastity, it apparently having survived the chorus line and a stretch in a chocolate factory.

Here are IMDB user Jonathan Beeb's comments:
This has to be one of the strangest films I have seen and its sheer oddity is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so immensely. "Anatahan" is based on the "true" story of Japanese soldiers who were shipwrecked during World War II and refused to believe that the war had ended until six years after Hiroshima. On the island with them, the soldiers find a man and woman who did not leave with the island's former inhabitants and the movie's intrigue centers around the soldiers' murderous lust towards the woman. What is so odd about the film is that the actors only speak Japanese and the viewer is led through the story by an English-speaking narrator (Sternberg, himself) who variously refers to himself as "I" and "we" but never clearly identifies who that "I" might be. The narrative is further complicated by the fact that at several crucial moments the narrator admits that no one knows what happened while we watch those events occur onscreen. These constantly shifting levels of "truth" make this film always compelling as we are overtly challenged to question what it is we are seeing and hearing. Like Orson Welles' "F for Fake," truth and artifice interact to create a complicated web of meanings which--at least in my one viewing--never provided easy answers. "Anatahan's" brand of "truth" is a precursor to more recent films like "Fargo," whose truths are meant to be taken ironically rather than as literal fact. Although this film is hard to find, try to get your hands on it if only to see the final piece in a genius director's long line of work.

Writing an overview of von Sternberg's filmography for Senses of Cinema, Tag Gallagher observed the following about The Saga of Anahatan:
In 1952 von Sternberg went to Japan, at his own expense, and made The Saga of Anatahan without pay, entirely in a make-shift studio, and in Japanese, with an actor giving a running commentary, as in the Kabuki theater (or the benshi during Japanese silent films). Some sailors, marooned on an island during the war, had just come home; for seven years they had refused to believe the war was over, and five had been killed fighting over the only woman on the island. As von Sternberg had tried to do all his career, he wrote the scenario, designed the sets, operated the camera, and manipulated his players like a puppet master. Von Sternberg was about as close to a “total auteur” as one can get. And now he replaced the Japanese commentary with his own voice in English. “Though language is not always the best way to communicate an idea, its use should not be ignored entirely,” he conceded. The picture made back its cost in Japan, despite subtitles and some nationalist resentment. But in America it was a disaster. Von Sternberg fiddled with it for years, changing the title five times and in 1957 having his cameraman shoot some nude scenes which he spliced into the prints. Nothing helped.

The Senses of Cinema site also provided some equally rare screen captures of scenes from the film:

Of the bathing scene depicted above Tag Gallager comments:
"When Keiko in Anatahan sees three sailors watching her bathe in a tub, she reacts first with embarrassment, then responds to the inner pleasure of power and exhibits her leg, rejecting civilized morality on impulse, and in that moment becomes Queen Bee of the island. But in so doing, she enslaves herself to power."

The Aggressively Sensual Akemi Negishi

But the best (and only full) online review on this cinema obscurity is Phil Hall's 2003 report for Film Threat magazine:

By the early 1950s, the great filmmaker Josef von Sternberg found his Hollywood career at a dead-end. Although hailed in the 1920s and 1930s for a series of artistically stunning features, many starring his glamourous protégé Marlene Dietrich, a string of expensive commercial failures and accusations of being difficult to work with derailed his viability. His last two American films, "Macao" and "Jet Pilot," were taken away from him during the course of filming by his producer, Howard Hughes, creating major embarrassments for him. Without an opportunity in the U.S., von Sternberg took an invitation to make a film in Japan. The result was a strange and baffling work called "The Saga of Anatahan," which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

"The Saga of Anatahan" is based on a true story about a Japanese fishing boat that was commissioned into the service of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. In 1944, the boat was destroyed by American bombers but the entire crew survived and managed to swim to Anatahan, an island in the Northern Marianas. Anatahan had been a thriving plantation island before the war, but nearly all of its inhabitants fled when the Pacific conflict began. The shipwreck survivors find two people: a surly man and a fairly sultry woman living together in a house over-decorated with seashells. It seems they are married, but later it is discovered that their union is adulterous as both have spouses who are elsewhere in Asia.

The men hold out hope for either a rescue by their Japanese comrades or a chance to fight the American enemy. Neither occurs, and as time drags on it seems the world has forgotten them. Their only contact with the outside world comes over a year after their shipwreck, when they hear the loudspeaker broadcast from a distant American warship announcing Japan's surrender and the end of the war. The men do not believe this news, as the goal of the Japanese war machine was victory without the possibility of surrender. Their island isolation stretches year after year, and in their island imprisonment they experience severe breakdowns in command...and they also begin to question the seriously lopsided gender ratio they are living with.

In creating "The Saga of Anatahan," von Sternberg faced a dilemma regarding its commercial value to American audiences. He could have filmed it in Japanese and added English subtitles, but that would have limited its release. He could have had the film dubbed into English, but chances are it would have looked and sounded awkward. And apparently there were not enough English-speaking Japanese actors to shoot the film in English. The result of this linguistically tricky situation was probably the weirdest solution: von Sternberg shot the film in Japanese and provided a complete English translation running over the actors' dialogue. This creates an obvious problem by diluting the effectiveness of the performances, as scenes go by when the actors speak considerable lines but the narrator (von Sternberg himself, doing a monotonous job) gives quickie summaries that clearly does not mirror what is being said. It also subtracts genuine personalities from the cast, as everyone is given a one-dimensional place in the story as the narrator gives sketchy descriptions of who is thinking what. There is also the confusion of just who is narrating the story: von Sternberg alternates between "I" and "we" in his narration, but we are clueless regarding which member of the fairly large cast is relating this tale.

But in a strange way, the constant and often mysterious narration gives "The Saga of Anatahan" a uniquely odd if we are eavesdropping into a bizarre parallel universe. And in many ways the film does present a parallel universe: this was among the first films to present wartime Japanese service members as genuine humans rather than cartoonish caricatures, and the film also includes very rare newsreel footage showing the defeated Japanese troops returning home to friends and family who try to put on a strong front despite the obvious failure of their mission. While this provided a genuine level of humanity not seen in films before, it also proved fairly risky considering the film was being aimed for American audiences and most Americans of the time were less than enthused about having the wartime Japanese seen in any positive light.

"The Saga of Anatahan" also provides other fascinating distractions, including an elaborate jungle set constructed entirely in a Kyoto soundstage (this was, at its time, the most expensive film shot in Japan), a haunting music score by Akira Ifukube that borrows brilliantly from the Japanese folk music traditions, and the sultry presence of Akemi Negishi as the lone woman on Anatahan (she is referred to as the "Queen Bee" while the rest of the men are dubbed "Drones"). Von Sternberg breaks down the stereotypes of Japanese femininity by making her a vibrant, often violent personality who doesn't think twice of bathing nude while the men watch or throwing a chair at her mock-husband when he grows jealous of the attention she is bringing herself.

"The Saga of Anatahan" came about at a time when Japanese films were beginning to find wide international favor. However, critics and audiences were embracing the productions of the Japanese filmmakers like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi (whose first international releases were historic samurai-themed films based in the safety of distant centuries, rather than wartime dramas which would not appeal to Americans). "The Saga of Anatahan" was seen as a hybrid production rather than a genuinely Japanese work, and von Sternberg's weakened reputation coupled with the film's problem plotline did not help sell the film. Its commercial failure permanently ended his life in films and for many years "The Saga of Anatahan" was viewed as career-killing experiment.

But seen 50 years later, "The Saga of Anatahan" is an intriguing curio that deserves to be considered again. It is clearly not a classic, by any measure, but it offers a fascinating view on the lengths that von Sternberg would travel (geographically as well as artistically) to continue creating films which were unique to his style and mindframe.

Though it seems no one has heard of this film or reviewed it, I did manage to find one company selling a video copy of it: Hollywood's Attic. Though it's not considered a classic, it is one of those unusual films that deserve to be seen and I'm glad at least one vendor provides this much appreciated service.

Addendum (9/25/07):
Subsequent to digging up this information about Anahatan, Marc Sober joggled his memory banks and recalled that he once screened The Saga of Anahatan as part of a film series he curated in the 1970s at Johns Hopkins University. Bingo! I'm sure that's where I saw it now, probably in 1974 or 1975. Not only that, but he had a complimentary Anahatan t-shirt from the film distributors, Twyman Films, Inc. All this time we've worked together and all I had to do was ask him from day one about this film and he not only would be a good source, he was thesource! Who knew?

And, as a self-professed pack rat who "never throws anything away," Marc dug out his archives and brought in three great books about the films of Josef von Sternberg: Herman G. Weinberg's Josef von Sternberg (1967), Peter Baxter's Sternberg(1980) and, best of all, Andrew Sarris' The Films of Josef von Sternberg (1966), which had an excellent review of Anahatan. Sarris concluded that Anahatan was about "the spectacle of man's dignity and honor crumbling before the assault of desire." He added, "Sternberg wants us to understand the origin of man's folly. To understand, but not to overcome. For Sternberg, Woman, in Truffaut's phrase, will always be supreme."

In Weinberg's book, Ado Kyrou comments, "This is one of those rare films in the history of cinema in which sexual desire is the only subject matter...," adding that the sailors all sing around her this ditty, "You and I, like an egg - you, egg yellow: I, egg white, I embrace you!" Yes, it's that strange!

While there may be only a few reviews of this film on the Internet, all of these rare books had detailed discussions, so I'm in his debt, once again. Below is a picture of von Sternberg on set from the Weinberg book.

The "Japanese Dietrich," Akemi Negishi, on the set with Sternberg and his Japanese interpreter.

And here's a great shot taken from Sarris' book of Akemi Negishi and Tadashi Suganuma (left) amidst the faux jungle set:

When asked why he traveled all the way across the ocean to create a bogus jungle (as pictured above) in a former aircraft hanger, von Sternberg famously replied, "Because I am a poet."

'Nuff said!

Related Links:
Marc Sober's MySpace Page

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hampden Idol 2007

Return of the Idol
Sing your life
Any fool can think of words that rhyme
Many others do, why dont you ?

- Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

And so they found he’d nothing left to say
Just another idol turned to clay

- Procol Harum, "The Idol"

Sept. 15, 2007
After being humiliated in my Saturday morning tennis match, I figured it was time to relax and unwind and hopefully forget that morning's shame by watching others make fools of themselves in public. In other words, I went to watch the grand finale musical performance at this year's (Atomic Books-hosted) Hampden Fest, "Hampden Idol III: Return of the Idol," emceed by the kharismatic Keyboard Man.

Keyboard Man emcees Hampden Idol III

Knowing my friend Scott Wallace Brown (a profile in courage, below) was on the bill to croon an unnamed song that he kept well shrouded in mystery (what could it be?), I stayed for all the performances at the center stage in the heart of Hampden's Avenue on 36th Street.

It was a hit or miss affair, but the audience was enthusiastic when warranted and supportive even when the performers faltered. Scott Wallace Brown didn't win - surely a Crime Against Humanity and a slap to the tender cheeks of My Fair Muses Euterpe and Terspichore - but then George W. Bush was elected twice (OK, the first time was a technicality), so what do the American Masses know?

Before seeing the karoake stars take the stage, the highlights of the day for me were:

A) Spotting this well-trampled rat on The Avenue:

The rat actually provided a good GPS marker (e.g., "You going to catch the Hampden Idol show? OK, let's meet up later by the dead rat near the sidewalk.")

B) Spotting this prime example of exposed female Muffin Top:

(I tried in vain to get a full frontal belly shot, but her boyfriend's peripheral vision made me nervous, as I had already been soundly beaten that morning. You do what you can.)


C) Watching this adorable tyke shake her booty to the rock bands performing onstage (I have a feeling she's a future Hampden Idol star in the making). This little exhibitionist (at times she undid her top, which her Mommy quickly reattached) was clearly the most confident and self-assured performer of the day:

I guess it's a sign of the times that I took pix of dead rodents, flabby waistlines and toddlers wherein in the past the Old Almosthipguy would have been documenting the day's best in butts and boobs. Either the thrill is gone or I must be getting old.

Anyway, Big Dave Cawley (King of Men) was there to watch The Oranges Band, The Jennifers and Impossible Hair ("I was really impressed - three good bands in a row!" he raved), the latter featuring personal fave Jim Glass (ex-Buttsteak) on guitar, though Dave thought their coiffs were more "Probable" than "Impossible." Dave was there without his girlfriend, meaning he was in free-range "hanging out with the boys" lad mode. In other words, Mr. Moderation was in his (Resurrection Ale) cups!

Here's Big Dave hoisting another with Big Benn of Atomic Books:

"Wow, this Resurrection Ale's not bad, Benn!" Big Dave says as he snatches Atomic Books impresario Benn Ray's brew away.

"Your shirt's minimalist aesthetic overwhelms me," a sour-faced Dave (right) seems to mutter as he is clearly peeved that his beloved "Godzilla, King of Monsters" t-shirt has been trumped in coolness by the black-and-white simplicity of the DEVO Dude.

"Don't touch this cup unless you fill it up" Big Dave says as he downs some more suds with his new BBBFF (Best Bearded Beer Friend Forever).

Linking arms with his drinking "partner," Big Dave gaily announces their civil marriage plans to the world whilst the couple sings along to the Pet Shop Boys "It's a Sin."

Time To Face the Music

At 5 o'clock the Hampden Idol competition began, with emcee Keyboard Man introducing the celebrity judges - including Kevin "The Pope of Baltimore" Perkins of Allied Pictures (pictured below)...

...and last year's winner Tony (below) belting out the first song, Billy Idol's "White Wedding."

Last year's winner, Tony, who is obviously too sexy for his (custom-fitted) shirt, opened the ceremonies before dashing off the the judges' box.

The day's contestants ranged from the good to the the bad to the ugly, but the crowd was consistently good-spirited. What I liked about this year's competition was that it felt really inclusive. That is, for every slumming musician and ironic hipster onstage, there were also a lot of working-class Hampden locals giving it a shot, from a Joe Schmoe guy in a basic James Dean ensemble of bluejeans and white undershirt belting out Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" to two shy Tweenagers nervously singing "Summer Nights" from Grease (it could have been worse - they could have sung something from High School Musical!). Following are some pix of Hampden's Great Unheard:

Some normal looking guy (pictured below) came on to bust some moves leading the fist-pumping crowd through a fun rendition of Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters." I heard a rumor that this might have been the notorious Neil Tobias - he of The Mobtown Shank's "Study Body" column fame - but then again he might just have been a normal looking guy singing "Ghostbusters."

Here Come the Regulars

Then I started to notice familiar faces. Erstwhile Vestal Vermin singer (and Baltimore Magazine scribe) Hannah Feldman, who is leaving Charm City, sang an appropriate swan song, Scandal's "Goodbye To You." Or was she singing "Goodbye To Yu" to her Asian-American fellow Idol contestant, as many in Hampden's non-existent Asian community believed:

Maggie of Atomic Books (below) belted out Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" to frenzied acclaim from the crowd. Some pipes on that girl (who knew?)!.

The zaftig wife of the Twin Six singer (below) got up onstage to play the Sex Card, moaning orgasmically to Led Zep's "Immigrant's Song" (or was it "Whole Lotta Love"? Another gal - Wendy Siegel? - who was clad in PETA-alert fur also sang a Led Zep tune rife with pelvic thrust implications that day, as well. Amidst all the riffing and that moaning, I admit I get a tad confused.)

While I'm no stranger to the sound of faked climaxes, I still found Mrs. Twin Sex's emoting to be predictably dumb and unimaginative, but her knee-high leather boots and curvy meat-and-potatoes semiotics went over well with the inebriated crowd.

The only thing dumber was later seeing her hubby (billed as "Jethro") strut about stage in his knee-high Doc Martens while screeching Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever." So bad it's good? Oh, the irony. (And such a stretch, given Twin Six's huge metrosexual fan base.)

Then there was this textbook hipster (replete with chrome dome, Van Dykian beard, ear piercings and designer nouveau nerd glasses) in the Bay City Roller slacks who sang some Journey power ballad. Much as he displeased me sartorially, orally he had some chops - I'll give him that - hitting Steve Perry's eardrum-piercing high octaves.

The Day the Music Died: Scott Wallace Brown Robbed!
The tension mounted as we waited for Scott Wallace Brown to come on. Finally, well over an hour into the competition, Scott Wallace Brown ascended the stage in a spiffy man-of-the-cloth kit (as pictured below) to commence communion with the audience and perform his mystery song...which turned out to be none other than Boudleaux & Felice Bryant's "Love Hurts"!

How perfect (and how funny)! Though originally recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1961, many have sung this tearjerker ballad, including Roy Orbison (it was the B-side to his 1961 #1 hit "Running Scared") and Nazareth (who took it to #8 on the pop charts in 1975), the band most people (unfortunately) associate the song with. Of course, I always associate it with the late great Gram Parsons, who made the song his when he sang it as a duet with Emmylou Harris on his 1974 farewell solo album, Grievous Angel.

Regardless, Scott Wallace Brown was a picture of concentration as he emoted the pain and catharsis of the kind of love whose course never does run smooth. Singing in a high-pitched octave that many thought was a woman's voice (high praise indeed, the kind Klaus Nomi or Wayne Newton wouldn't turn down!), SWB moved Big Dave Cawley enough not to elicit outright tears, but enough to put down his cup - yea, verily, without filling it up (as pictured below)!

But the Hampden Idol III crown fittingly went to the performer most full of hot air - quite literally as it turned out. That would be Lisa of Secret Crush Society (pictured below) who performed Nena's "99 Luftballoons" while showing up with a bunch of red balloons that she released one by one into the crowd. (Though I never took accounting in college, my rough visual count of her balloon stock came to 12, still 77 short of what would have been a truly spectacular stage prop.)

I would have preferred the German language original (as did Herr Cawley, who sang along to Nena's ditty in Deutsch), but this is America, after all (reminds me of that joke, Q: What do you call someone who speaks many languages? A: Polylingual. Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages? A: Bilingual. Q: OK, so what do you call a person who speaks only one language? A: An American!)

Anyway, it was an inspired choice and a good song. As Big Dave Cawley pointed out, there were a lot of good '80s songs. "Why sing all these crappy '80s songs to laugh at when you could sing a great song like '99 Red Balloons'?" he queried rhetorically. Why indeed. The Cawley Eighties Rock Doctrine holds water in my book.

Encore! All Together Now!

"We are the world, we are the Idols!" the contestants seem to chant as they join arms for a mass vocal outro.

And there you have it. I came, I saw, I shuttered (digitally).

By the end of the day, the dead rat in the middle of the road had disappeared, as had my GF, Amy.

"Hmmm, that rat tastes good with fried rice!" beams GF Amy, happily satisyfing her hunger pangs.