Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Amazing Race Season 21: Episode 1 Who's Ready to Get Paddled

The first thing you learn on the Amazing Race is Don't Tell Anyone Where the Clue Is, You Dumb Fuck! In the very first episode of the 21st season (debuted Sept. 30), the team with the woman with the metal legs was all nicey-nicey and told another team--this season's heterosexual couple with the hot girl and guy--the location of the clue that led them to the pit stop. Now, normally this would not be that big of a deal. The winning team of the first leg usually gets a pass so they can skip a road block in a future episode. That's helpful, but not crucial. But this time coming in first on Leg One  was a big deal. The twist this season, as host Phil Koeghan announced at the top of the show, was that if you win both the first AND the last leg, you win not one but two million dollars. So it matters a great deal who won in the first leg.

Amy and Daniel were in the lead, Amy is a snowboarder with artificial legs, and like a pair of idiots they told their nearest competitor the location of the clue in Shanghai that led to the pitstop and potentially $2 million dollars. Naturally, the second couple didn't think twice about passing Amy and Daniel and I don't blame them. I would run past the physically challenged person who helped me out to win $2 million. Amy and Daniel have no one but themselves to blame. Other teams--like the substitute teachers and the Sri Lankan twins--had the right idea and not helping their competitors by not revealing where the clue was. I particularly loved the attitude of Mutt and Jeff, the substitute teachers, who said the other teams were standing between them and $2 million dollars and they would screw them without blinking an eye. You see Mutt and Jeff--not their real names,but one is really tall and the other short, like a comic strip of the previous century--are huge fans of the show. They've auditioned 7 times and finally got on, so they know how to play the game and they ain't gonna lend a hand to nobody. Particularly not to the team right behind them, two Chippendale dancers, who almost got eliminated in spite of their physical prowess, handsome features, and gorgeous pecs.

But let's go back to the beginning. The show opened with the usual suspense of teams arriving at the starting point--this time Pasadena, Calif. They've obviously hired a new director and editing team. The introductions of the contestants were full of quick cuts and artsy shots. On first impression, I hated Abbie and Ryan because of Ryan's macho attitude ("I insist on world domination" Gimme a break!), sorta love-hated the Chippendale dancers (both hot and cute, not arrogant, but I don't like it when physically powerful teams always win), and naturally adored the gay goat farmers. I also was drawn to the rock guys--even though celebrities who had played with Megadeath should not be competing with John and Jane Doe--and the substitute teachers.

The producers wisely pumped up the adrenaline right away by making the announcement about the $2 million and then having everyone repel off a high bridge to get the first clue rather than just running for it in their luggage. They also cut down the time at the airport which is always boring. Seven teams got on the first flight to Shanghai and the bottom four had to take a later flight putting them about 90 minutes behind.

Having recently taken a 14-hour flight from Johannesburg to NYC, I don't see how anyone can run a race after all that jet lag, but the teams raced to a ping pong challenge where they had to score a point against a 10-year-old national champion. "Who's ready to be paddled?," asked the Chippendale guys and I was ready to volunteer my services. I was worried the gay goat farmers--stuck on the second flight--were in trouble, but they surged ahead to 7th place. The following challenge was the traditional gross food chowdown in a restaurant full of cheering diners. This time it was frog fallopian tubes. Aside from the usual eeewwww factor, the only drama was provided by the monster-trucker guy with green-golden beard who broke the rules and used his hands rather than chopsticks and had to eat the tasty treat twice.

After the food roadblock, the next location was the Bund in Shanghai where stupid Amy and Daniel gave the location of the lady with the abacus, the holder of the pitstop clue, away to Abbie and Ryan. Abbie and Ryan now have a huge target on their backs and Amy and Daniel will spend the rest of their lives thinking "I ain't never helping anybody again." "That's just the kind of people we are," they lamely offered Phil at the finish line in explanation for their stupidity.

Amy and Daniel and Abbie and Ryan will be the teams to beat. The Chippendales could figure prominently due to their charm and muscle, and the substitutes are savvy. I see the goat farmers, the monster truckers, and the twins as cute and fun, but falling by the wayside early.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The 47 Percent Solution

"Start rearranging the deck chairs, damnit!:
Republican rats are deserting the sinking ship called the Romney campaign or as Peggy Noonan labeled it, the Rolling Calamity. Following the infamous "47 percent" tape, the premature press release on the Libyan tragedy, and now the call for limited political contributions made by teachers (see cause they're not people like corporations are), Mittens couldn't get elected dog catcher in a one-dog town. Well, that's an exaggeration. But what is happening is a cold, calculated move on the part of Republicans to blame the individual candidate for their failure to retake the White House. They're ignoring the possibility that it's the current sharp right turn the brand has taken that is turning independent voters off.

When the Tea Party surged to power in 2010, the GOP thought "Hey this is the way to go. This is what the people want." So states with Republican legislatures overreached on abortion, gay, and immigration stuff. Forced ultrasounds, personhood amendments, slashing voting rights and cutting public assistance were the order of the day. What they forgot is Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes were at least somewhat moderate, talked a good game of inclusiveness, and downplayed the social issues.If you go too far to the right, you lose the middle which is what is happening right now.

Up until the time of the tape being released by Mother Jones, the middle was still unsure about Mittens. They were actually listening to his argument, "I'm not Barack Obama, I got people jobs at Staples, that's all you need to know. Don't worry about these pesky social issues." It didn't bother them too much that he was stiff and about as sincere as a bad community theater actor. (Those blank eyes, that phony used-car salesman smile.) But then the video showed us the real Mittens. In the tape he sounds like he really believes what he's saying. Listen to the way he says "entitlement" with dripping, intense contempt.

Of course the most damning sentence was the one about the 47 percent who don't pay federal income taxes and I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on part of it. When he said  "I can't worry about those people," he could have meant "I can't worry about getting those people to vote for me." But then when he said "I can't get them to take responsibility for their lives," he was very clearly making a value judgment on almost half of the population. That's what killed him and probably cost him the election. And he has not expressed regret or explained what he meant in an adequate fashion.

In his hastily called late night press conference, you could see the rubber mask back in place and his only explanation was that his statements were "inelegant." He never said "Of course I don't think every single one of those people--retirees, military people, working class people--are moochers. That was a misstatement." In the days since, he's tried to gloss over it by saying he's for the 100 percent, but that 47 number will haunt him.

To be fair, Obama did have his "guns and religion" moment in a similar, unguarded setting in 2008. But Obama went on to say in spite of these people's clinging to their fears, you have to reach out to them. After insulting the 47 percenters and lumping them all together, Mittens was prepared to write off half the country. Given his record and statements, you know that is how he would govern.

Not everyone is a business owner or an entrepreneur and people who work at unskilled jobs and have no ambition to become millionaires deserve a president who will treat them with the same importance as they would the Koch Brothers and that Las Vegas casino owner who went over to Mitt when Newt lost.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Race and Social Conflict in That Jingos Commercial

Have you seen that commercial for a snack food called Jingos? Not only is it an effective advertisement, it's also a fascinating examination of racial and social mores in contemporary America. The scene is a convenience store. Slacker white dude is behind the counter munching on the product Jingos. An African-American male enters and asks for directions. The white guy screams back at the customer and offers him some Jingos. Evidently Jingos are so flavorful, they make you shout. The African-American guy raises his volume in reaction to the delicousness of the product.

Then it gets interesting. The lost gentleman's young daughter enters and asks her father if he found the right directions. Dad answers enthusiastically, "WE'RE LOST!" His stunned offspring partakes of the miraculous snack and speaks in capital letters as well. The clerk introduces himself to the daughter, the girl flirtatiously says her name to the clerk and the father happily adds "NOT GONNA HAPPEN!" It was pretty funny and the actors were all very good at expressing the mindless, loud joy Jingos is supposed to create. But the interaction raises several issues. Is the father objecting to his daugther's being involved in an interracial romance, or is he just being a typical dad who is concerned because she's so young or that he doesn't want her dating someone who can only pull down a minimum-wage job?

There's also the added socio-economic significance of the snack's name--Jingos as in jingoism, the kind of super-patriotism which proclaimed white, upper-crust America as the best country in the whole freaking world and don't you dare say a word against it.

I'm actually treating this in a satiric way, but I did enjoy that fact the commercial introduced the idea of interracial dating and then treated it as no big thing. I can't imagine such casting ten years ago. Will the Million Moms call for a Jingos boycott?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"The Misfits" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"

I recently viewed two old movies on cheap DVD, both revealing aspects of well-known authors. "The Misfits" was bought for $3 in the discount bin at a FYI video chain in an Albany mall while "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was part of a multi-disc set called Great Cinema purchased for about $5 at Wal-Mart. The latter was a collection of film and TV specials whose copyrights must have run out. The same film, obviously a second or third generation copy, is also part of another cheap package called 100 Great Hollywood Films.

"The Misfits" was viewed mostly while on vacation in St. Martin. I had seen it in bits and pieces but never all the way through. It's a fascinating failure--the last complete film of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, one of the last films of a deteriorating Montgomery Clift, with a screenplay by Monroe's husband Arthur Miller, who may have been trying to save their crumbling marriage by offering his insecure wife a rare dramatic role. The story is sad and touching--a circle of loose-living cowboys and roustabouts crave the love of Rosalyn, a stunningly beautiful divorcee who's at a loose end in Reno after her break-up. She sets up housekeeping with the much older Gaylord, played by Gable. When the group rounds up a herd of wild mustangs to be sold for dog food, the tenderhearted Rosalyn has a hysterical fit. But in the end, Gaylord decides to set the horses free, seeing that their plight is similar to that of his own and the other human misfits.

Miller's symbolism is heavy-handed but John Huston's direction keeps the reality strong. What's really interesting is the parallels between the stars and their roles. Monroe is ill-equipped to express the complexities of Rosalyn's emotions, . She's described as a life force, a child-woman. Rosalyn was neglected by her parents and feels insecure about her amazing beauty, just as Monroe did.

Gable symbolizes the glamour of Old Hollywood and the romanticism of the Old West, now a dried up and more than a bit tired. He died not long after the filming finished. Clift who plays the punchdrunk rodeo rider Perch was on his last legs after a car crash ruined his exquisite good looks (see A Place in the Sun) and years of drug and alcohol abuse.

Supporting players Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter did not have tragic personal histories reflected in the stories of their characters. Wallach's Guido yearns for love after his wife died, but basically has given up on finding iot until he meets Rosalyn. You can see the lustful fire in Wallach's eyes when he looks at Monroe during the scene when they dance together.  I think I felt sorriest for Ritter's Isabel, a woman with six clocks in her house, none of which work.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is based on Ernest Hemingway's short story. In addition to the plot of that brief vignette I read in high school, the filmmakers cram in every other element from the macho author's canon including the Spanish Civil War ("For Whom the Bell Tolls"), Spanish bullfights ("Death in the Afternoon," "The Sun Also Rises"), struggling young writers in Paris ("A Moveable Feast"), African big game hunting (several short stories, "The Garden of Eden," "True at First Light"). Peck stars as a Hemingway stand-in ruminating on his eventful, thrilling Technicolor past as he suffers feverishly from an infection while on a big game hunt. Susan Hayward is his current wife, Ava Gardner his dead true love, and Hildegarde Neil a bitchy European countess he almost marries. The melodrama is ridiculous and the chronology absurd. At one point Hayward bumps into a drunken Peck in Paris and says "Aren't you the author Mr. Harry Street I met near the Verdonne a couple of scenes ago?" Their previous meeting was only about 30 seconds and the whole Spanish Civil War took place since then. (He also runs into Gardner during that fracas as she is dying in a ambulance crash; what a coinky-dink as they used to say on "Laugh-In").

Of course he marries Hayward and that brings us up to date in Africa where a witch doctor arrives to help out. They don't even say which country in Africa they're supposed to be in. I can imagine the attraction of this 1952 feature was taking John and Jane Doe away from their humdrum grey little lives to the huge, color-saturated world of what they thought Hemingway represented. It presents the ridiculous notion that in order to be an author you have to travel the world, go big game hunting, attend bullfights, and  serve on the front lines of wars. Never mind about authors who examine the everyday as Miller did in many of his plays.The real Hemingway wrote about personal courage (which is an honest concern) and what I think of as false masculinity. I've read most of his work and that of Miller and I think Willie Loman is a more truthful depiction of humanity than Jake Barnes, the mangled hero of "The Sun Also Rises." Lady Brett Ashley always annoyed me, BTW. What a selfish woman.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

St. Martin Trip

After our African vacation, we decided to spend the week before Labor Day in St. Martin. Jerry has a cousin with a house there and it happened to be available for us to use. Compared to Africa, it was not as exciting. The most challenging event was arriving to find the power in the studio apartment off and searching for the fuse box. We were so jet lagged from the 15-hour flight from Johannesburg we didn’t feel like doing anything and the mission to get the electricity going was very draining. We had to call Jerry’s cousin by Skype—We didn’t bring my cellphone because it was broken. After a short drive in our rented car and grocery shopping, we basically just fell asleep. I left a bottle of wine in the freezer thinking I would be have a drink that cocktail hour. I forgot about it; the next day the wine was frozen solid and the cork had burst out of the bottle. I left it in the sink to thaw out and had a very cold drink.

It’s a very beautiful island and we just relaxed, went to beaches, and had drinks.It's divided between a French and a Dutch side, a holdover from colonial days. All of the residents in the complex where we stayed were French, it seemed we were the only Americans. The picture is me at Cupcoy beach, a narrow strip of sand with warm water and nude bathers. The dog in the photo belonged to the people who were selling umbrellas and beach chairs. 

The main town on the Dutch side was Philipsburg. We drove there on a blazingly hot day and had cool drinks as we watched the people from the cruise ships slowly wander back to their huge boat. On the French side, there was a picturesque village called Grand Case where the main drag was covered with beautiful restaurants. There we had a dinner of tapas at the Love Bar which overlooked the beach. 

Almost every morning, I would put on my bathing suit and jump into the ocean on the little stretches of beach that lined the complex. Then we'd eat lunch and maybe drive to Philipsburg or Marigot, the closer town with the shopping and marina. By the time we got back it was cocktail hour. Then dinner out and maybe a DVD. The Republican National Convention was going on at this time and Clint Eastwood was at least a funny distraction. (More on politics in a later blog.) It was difficult to return to cloudy, rainy NYC. We were lucky enough to miss the hurricane and enjoyed fantastic weather for almost the entire five days. It felt as if we had been gone a long time and had been around the world.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Namibian Vacation: Lion Feeding

Saturday, we drove to Mt. Etjo lodge which took all morning. This is a game preserve created by conservationist Jan Oelofse, known for supplying and training the animals for the Hollywood film Hatari (1960) starring John Wayne as a hunter capturing animals for zoos. I remember watching the first hour on TV when I was little. (Come to think of it we used to watch a lot of movies on the CBS and NBC Night at the Movies, but only the first hour and they were all pretty bad, mostly starring George Hamilton.) Red Buttons was Wayne’s funny sidekick and Elsa Martinelli the love interest. I’ll have to find it on Netflix or Amazon Prime sometime. There were flamingos in the fountain and African ducks.

We swam in the hotel pool and met a German gay couple, chatting with them briefly. Tea was served on the verandah, then a three-hour game drive—much tamer and touristy than the ones in Etosha. We did see an elephant and two rhinos up close, and a baby giraffe with its mother. Hella said it was only a day only because we could see its umbilical cord.

After dinner of kudu sausage and oryx Bolognese, there was an extra attraction of a lion feeinding for $100 Namibian dollars ($20 US).  Jerry was not interested, but a show’s a show, so I went. Interestingly, the event was like a piece of theater.  Several of the guests drove in two buses about five minutes to a small building. The entrance led to a tunnel at the end of which were two concrete walls at right angles forming an L. There were two long padded benches in front of a ten-inch tall slit in the walls, covered with bars.

We sat down and could make out the corpse of an antelope on the other side of the wall. The lights on our side snapped off and were illuminated on the other side. Almost immediately a pride, consisting of one male and nine females, loudly pounced on the cadaver, loudly devouring it. The male was in the mating mood and mounted one of the females three times during the course of the meal. The sex was quick (about 30 seconds) and the partners growled a lot during the act. The male and his lover left the repast first. Slowly the other females stalked off after they had their fill. Once or twice the male looked right at me and it was scary.

Sunday, we were taken to a crafts market. It was very unpleasant because we had to bargain hard to get a fair price. Nothing was marked and the vendor would take a twig or letter opener and scratch a price on their forearm. Then you haggled. Hella said offer half the first figure. When I saw a nice carved elephant—which I collect from various trips—I offered half the vendor’s price and he replied “Oh no this is a good price. I give you a Sunday price” and the write down a figure much more than I was willing to pay. I hate bargaining and prefer it when something is labeled and you and take it or leave it. Imagine haggling in Barnes and Noble.

Then if you did buy something, the vendor would have another vendor take it to have wrapped and you would have to look at their store and the cycle would start all over again. I bought a few things, and probably paid too much for them.

We were going back to NYC the next day. Hella and Crystal dropped us off at our guest house back in Windhoek which was next to the Namibian president’s residence on Robert Mugabe Avenue. We had dinner at Joe’s Beerhouse on Nelson Mendela Avenue with all foreign tourists. The food was delicious, a seafood cocktail, fillet with peppercorn and bamboo shoot sauce, and for desert a pastry stuffed with raisins and apples, accompanied by ice cream and cherries.  

Then we flew to Johannesburg for our flight to NYC, 15 hours. Plus we had about nine hours in Johannesburg and were so tired we didn’t feel like doing anything. There is only airport where I would want to spend an entire day—Paris. There’s nothing distinctive about Johannesburg airport. Anyway, we finally got on the flight and I finished watching The Avengers. I’m sorry but the Hulk doesn’t help anybody. Otherwise, I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t as directly thrilling as the lion feeding.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Namibian Vacation: Game Drives in Etosha

Between our package tours to the desert and Etosha National Park in Namibia, we stayed one day in Windhoek at the same guest house where we were earlier in the week. While seeking the crafts fair during this free day, I found Uncle Spike’s Book Exchange, a used-book store with hundreds of paperbacks in English, German, and some Namibian. He actually had a stack of tattered comic books, none from the Silver Age, but I bought one for 5 Namibian dollars—which is about 60 cents US. It was a ragged copy of Captain Atom, a Charleton Comic drawn by Steve Ditko in 1967. The most interesting element was a full page house ad for Charlton, a second-rate house which trailed behind DC and Marvel. The ad read “Action Super Heroes? We Got ‘em! And they’re not half bad.” Not a very ringing self-endorsement.  We also learned of the death of Phyllis Diller which made me sad because when I was a kid, she was on TV all the time. Her braying laugh, bizarre outfits, and mile-long cigarette holder always made me giggle.

Our four-day excursion to Etosha started the next day. Our guide was Hella, a Namibian-born woman of German descent in her 70s who had a thick German-African accent. The only other person on the tour was Crystal from Austria, a pharmacist who spoke very little English and had been to Africa over 20 times previously. We drove to the park in a large 4x4 vehicle (pronounced by Hella as “beetle”) equipped to drive on the rough roads and afford views of the animals. The drive to Etosha was just as long as the one to the desert.

We stayed in four different lodges and took several exciting game drives, sighting all kinds of wildlife. The most striking images were at the watering holes when almost all the animals—giraffes, elephants, zebras, springbok, etc.—were not moving because they are afraid of a single lion.  Cars surrounded the scene as if they were at a drive-in movie. The elephants actually were not afraid of the lions and did move, two shook trunks with each other in greeting. But all the rest were standing perfectly still as if posing for a picture.

The first lodge was commercial and upscale, full of German and South Africans, with very few Americans. We got up at 6AM the next morning looking for lions since we had spotted that one at the watering hole the previous evening. We were one of the first ones out of the lodge and were rewarded with viewing of a pride of lions consisting of two males, and several females and cubs. The head male was obviously hooked up with the female who was currently in heat. He followed her around as the pride crossed in front of our car, allowing us to get several close-ups. Later we saw elephants washing each other and zebras having sex.
That evening’s lodge was more rustic than the previous one and not as nicely kept. The public toilet in the men’s room was blocked and had been for a week—according to an angry letter written on the toilet door by a tour guide. There was a watering hole at the lodge where we saw a rhino during sunset and a matriarchal herd of elephants after dinner. There was no internet and the only TV was tuned to European soccer and South African rugby, but we didn't need any other entertainment.

The next day Friday was spent driving to the Etosha Pan, previously a huge lake, but now a dry stretch of salt. Later we encountered secretary birds and khory bustards, two species of cartoonish birds which looked like crosses between the Roadrunner and Franklin Pangborn. I had always thought secretary birds were so called because they looked like they should have dictation pads and were ready to follow you around and make travel arrangements. More elephants, zebras, giraffes. We stopped for a swim at a tourist center then drove out of the park to a lovely private lodge. At cocktails, we learned that there was a shooting outside the Empire State Building that morning and that the US political world was still in an uproar over Missouri Congressman Todd Akins’ stupid comment about rape not leading to pregnancy so it should not be an exception for abortion.

There were about ten guests including us. Hella explained there was a surplus of accommodations nearer to Etosha so this place, which was done up in a mining motif, was relatively vacant. The rooms were luxuriously safari style and the dinner was more game like oryx and springbok.