Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Inanities' Year in Review: 2006

One hour and fifty-two minutes 'till 2007.

I've had my ass handed to me a few dozen times playing "Gears of War" with adolescents of varying vocal pitch on my XBox 360, and I figured instead of having my tiny head blown off with a Grub-wielded shotgun one more time, I'd write a lil' somethin' somethin' on the ole Inanities. (Not that this is interesting, but I did write about 3/4 of a blog post night before last, but Firefox died on me and it went away. Yes, a true loss for American letters.)

2006, huh? What a year. I had my car stolen, recovered, and finally repaired, I received an unhappy phone call from a certain actor featured in a certain 10-minute video project, an unhappy email from a certain production design teacher, an unhappy comment from a certain "power lit blogger" (all as a result of keeping this blog which I didn't know would be so exciting) ,hung out with Shawn and Gretch (and her friend Melissa) up in Asheville where I saw the Biltmore Estate (AKA the Mason Verger Estate), and late in the year, got back into storyboarding. My wife did her summer internship, finished the first year of business school and started the second, my in-laws got two Schnauzer puppies named Sam and Frodo, which they love, and my folks moved out of L'Ville and into their country house, which they love. My sister started her education as a hair stylist, and my brother got the big promotion he wanted. It's been an eventful year, and a pretty good one, all considered.

My favorite movie of 2006 was Scorsese's "The Departed". My inclination is to say that 2006 was a bad year for movies, but out of the 50 or so movies I saw in the theater this year, I did see three absolutely fantastic movies, "The Departed", "The Prestige", and "V for Vendetta". I don't think many years pass that see three movies released in theaters I'd term instant classics, but 2006 was one of them. Ninety-five, the year of "Pulp Fiction" and "Shawshank Redemption", seems to come closest in my mind to producing a comparable raft of great films. But maybe my disappointment this year stems from the stuff I saw that was bad -- there wasn't a lot of middle ground this year. It seems like the movies of 2006 were either brilliant or mediocre or all-out god awful, soulless trash. Not a lot in the way of just "good" movies. I think this may have to do with the decreased output of the major studios and the added pressure on these films to succeed which pushes studio execs to make them as appealing as possible to the lowest common denominator. Movie-wise, I've got my fingers crossed for a better 2007, but I've got no good reason to be optimistic.

The book I enjoyed most that I read this year was Christopher Priest's "The Prestige" (incidentally, the filmed adaptation was my second favorite movie of the year). The best book I read last year (and this is different from 'enjoyed most'), was Nabokov's "Lolita". A Russian by birth, English was his second language and he still wrote it better than almost anyone else before or since. Also, I read aloud the Humbert Humbert parts in the voice of James Mason, thus tripling my enjoyment of the book.

Best TV Show of 2006: "The Wire". Favorite news event of 2006: Democratic takeover of Congress. Saddest Departure from TV Job Due to Illness: Roger Ebert. I hope he comes back soon. Well, there's 63 minutes until the new year and I don't want to spend them learning how to write a coherent sentence, so I'll leave it at that.

Happy new year, everyone. See you in 2007.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas Loot, "Gears of War", and The Execution of Saddam Hussein

Hello, all. Hope everyone had some good holidays.

As for me, Christmas was great this year. In the days before Christmas, my wife had Best Buy install a CD player into my Crown Vic without my knowing (my being generally oblivious helps), my in-laws gave me an XBox360 among other things (like a pocketknife, a bag of peanut M&Ms, and a little book called "365 Thing Every Man Should Know", which I can't help but think was intended as a comment of some sort), and my folks, privy to the impending gifting of the XBox360, bought me a game, "Superman Returns", an additional wireless controller, and a wireless internet thingie so I can do the XBox Live thing. A nice haul for my 30th Christmas.

Peggy also started a free trial membership to a video-game rental service called So on Christmas morn I had not only the so-far disappointing "Superman Returns" to play, but also "Gears of War", "Call of Duty 3", and a swat/X-Files hybrid game called "F.E.A.R.". The clear winner out of this grouping is, hands down, "Gears of War".

My brother came over last night and we played a campaign of "Gears" in cooperative mode till the wee hours and I'd have to say that "Gears" is the most-clever, most intelligently-designed video game I've played since "Halo". There isn't anything lazy about this game. A lot of games, of which "F.E.A.R." is an excellent example, are content to set up an overarching storyline and then lead the player through level after level which all look numbingly alike, killing gun-wielding baddies who all wear the same uniform. In "Gears", the designers designed the game as though terrified of ever letting the player get bored. Each level is thoroughly unique, ranging from shelled cities to decaying mansions to a vast complex of mines. Even within each level, each section is wholly its own bit of geography; every inch of the landscape looks as though it was designed and built by a studio art department, and with the same attention to detail. Storywise, there's very little in the way of exposition, which gives the game a you-are-there feel. Though there is a lot of grabbing cover and popping up to exchange fire with enemies, the designers break it up by introducing new weapons (like the Hammer of Dawn, which directs a satellite-originating laser onto your unsuspecting foes), and punctuating the action with exciting side missions. Anyway, it's a great game, and I'm about ready to play me some in the next little while.

It's been a newsy last week of 2006. James Brown and Gerald Ford passed over the past few days. If famous deaths comes in threes, as they say, then Saddam Hussein may well be the third. NBC is reporting today that Saddam Hussein may well be remanded over to Iraqi authorities in the very near term, and he will be hanged shortly thereafter, perhaps as early as tomorrow, but definitely before Sunday. I'm anti-death penalty, even in cases like this where we know the bastard's guilty, and I think it's wrong to kill Hussein. I think banning state-sanctioned murder, as most of the first-world industrialized nations have done, is a hallmark of a civilized society. Iraq is anything but, but in a place like Iraq where so many have died, and often senselessly and at random, I think commuting Hussein's death sentence would make an important and persuasive statement that the Iraqi leaders were substantially different from the insurgents who are currently fomenting chaos in that country by killing those in opposition to them. Commuting Hussein's death sentence would send a message to the non-violent Iraqis who are either fleeing the country or cowering in their homes, that killing is not the answer to any problem, especially not to those entrusted with helping Iraq back to its feet. I'm not naive enough to think that any statement the so-weak-as-to-be-useless Iraqi government might make would have much of an impact on what's happening there (which seems intractable and unfixable), but hanging Hussein seems to be the least thoughtful option.

Anyway. It's time to administer the death penalty to swirling masses of pixels on my TV screen.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"The Proposition", "Strangers With Candy", "Talladega Nights, Uncut", and "The Oh in Ohio"

A couple of movie reviews. Since I've been castigated in the past for too much vitriol in my reviews, I'm going to do them the same way we used to do when discussing student work back in our film-school screenwriting classes: talk about what you like first, then talk about what you didn't like. So here we go.

1.) "The Proposition". I wanted to see this back when it was in theaters but for whatever reason, decided to wait for DVD. Well, that time is now. I watched this last night and I have mixed feelings about it. Set in the Austrailian outback circa the turn of the 20th century, the film stars Guy "Ed Exley" Pearce as Charlie Burns, a former member of the Burns Gang, a group he abandoned when its leader, his brother, went from run-of-the-mill violent to out-and-out sadistic. The film opens with Charlie and his little brother, Mike Burns, taking cover in a whorehouse being shot to bits by gunmen outside. The leader of the gunmen is Captain Stanley (played by Ray Winstone), an English policeman transplanted to the deserts of Austrailia with orders to "civilize" the land. He sits the manacled brothers at a table and gives Charlie the proposition: in order to save his little brother from a Christmas Day hanging, Charlie has to find and kill his older brother, Arthur. He has nine days to do it.

The good: This film, written by singer/songwriter/composer Nick Cave (with whom my only prior acquaintance had been a cool song on the "Scream" soundtrack, "Red Right Hand"), is ponderous and dark. I enjoyed that quality about it. The director, John Hillcoat, allowed time for scenes of bad men contemplating sunsets and saying ponderous things about them. I saw shades of Terrence Malick (and by extension DDG) in this, but I also saw quite a bit of Cormac McCarthy, specifically his novel, "Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West". In that novel, McCarthy describes a band of killers engaging in a kind of genocide as they murder whole settlements of native peoples. These scenes of horror are punctuated with scenes around the campfire depicting the uniquely psychotic leader of the crew, Judge Holden, having Socratic dialogues with his awed and blood-stained compatriots. There is a bit of "the Judge" in Charlie Burns's older brother, Arthur, who quotes high-falutin' poetry and seems possessed of a senstive soul even though he's buried it long since under the weight of his crimes, and I liked that Cave and Hillcoat made the effort here. All the performances were good and it kept me engaged throughout, if not exactly entertained. I liked that the man they set up as the ruthless baddie, Captain Stanley, is humanized more and more as the movie progresses until, by the end, you're actually rooting for him to survive. Points to the filmmakers for doing the unexpected.

The bad: I guess if I'm having trouble filling in this part, then maybe I ought to leave it blank, but the truth is the film was just missing something. The ending left me underwhelmed. I don't know if the feeling came from an overall lack of storytelling structure, or if it was because the film's payoff didn't feel well-earned, or if Guy Pearce's character was a little too opaque to really invest in, but the whole film was slightly off the mark. Noble effort, though.

The ugly: Guy Pearce. Just a weird-looking dude.

2.) "Strangers With Candy". Also rented this one on DVD. "Strangers" has some funny moments but doesn't offer big laughs with any consistency. The film follows Jerri Blank (played with a complete lack of vanity by Amy Sedaris) as she's released from prison and returns home to discover her real mom's dead, her father (Dan Hedaya) has remarried and is now in a coma. Her father's slightly wacky doctor (played by Ian Holm in a real casting forehead-slapper) suggests that Jerri's years of depraved living may have caused her father's coma, and that returning to high-school and doing something positive, like "making the honor roll" for example, may bring him out of it. The film's plot, which seems perfectly derived from the sitcoms and after-school specials the orginal Comedy Central show sent up, centers on Jerri's efforts to win the State Science Fair and thus bring her father out of his coma. Comedy ensues.

The good: I love Amy Sedaris's go-for-broke portrayal of Jerri Blank. Anyone this dedicated to getting a laugh deserves respect. Ordinarily, Sedaris is a cute, slightly middle-aged blonde woman who does excellent undersung work playing harried city girls in films like "Elf" and on a bunch of episodes of "Sex and the City". (I'm interested to see her in the upcoming DGG movie "Snow Angels".) But in "Strangers With Candy", she pads her unfashionable tights and turquoise shirts to make Blank even more ungainly, and then contorts her face so that she takes on the persona of someone who expects the worst, gets it, but still seems stupidly optimistic that her luck will change. It's a hideous expression, but it's funny, and she's funny. Like Will Farrell or Jim Carrey (circa the early nineties), Sedaris uses her everywoman body in unflattering ways to get a laugh, which makes her fairly unique among female comedians. The dance of seduction she uses to get with the captain of the "Varsity Squat-Thrust Team", for example, is goddamn hilarious. Usually, when the script calls for Sedaris to do some physical comedy, the movie works. Colbert's funny, and there's a lot of amusing cameos, so you know, that's fun.

The bad: Eh. Comedy's subjective. I may laugh nearly to the point of death watching scenes in "Talladega Nights", while others will merely yawn. I guess my main problem was that the ratio of joke misfires to joke hits was way too high. Overall, not classic comedy, but still miles funnier than, say, "Date Movie" or "Scary Movie 5" or whatever they're on now. Even funnier than "For Your Consideration".

The ugly: Principal Blackman in a Speedo.

Anyway, speaking of "Talledega Nights", I saw it again this weekend, this time on DVD. Verdict: the scenes in that movie that are funny, still kill me. The cougar scene especially. I cried again. The lulls, however, are somewhat more noticeable the second and third go-round. What I noticed more this time than when I saw it in the theater is that "Talladega Nights" is a flat out well-put together movie. Well-written and well-directed which is unusual for a lot of comedies that put their trust in the jokes rather than in telling a complete and satisfying story. One strange thing though: for the first time in my experience, a so-called "Uncut" DVD version of a film actually cut a scene that was in the theatrical release. In the theatrical "Talladega", when Ricky Bobby gets the old pit crew team back together for the big race, Ricky finds Michael Clarke Duncan running a car wash. In the DVD version of "Talladega", however, that scene is plum gone. The point, you ask? Screw you, I don't have one. I just thought it was weird. And also they shouldn't cut stuff that was in the movie when it was in theaters. Putting something out on DVD shouldn't be an opportunity to recut your movie.

Also saw "The Oh in Ohio". It's okay, I guess, but kind of depressing. Its plot approximates that of '05 Vaughniston movie, "The Break Up", but it's less concerned with the couple-ness of the couple (played in "Ohio" by Parker Posie and Paul Rudd), and more concerned with their respective searches for sexual fulfillment after they've separated. The movie doesn't really have positive things to say about staying in marriages that aren't explosive sexually. In essence, "The Oh in Ohio" seems to say that the grass really is greener on the other side, all you have to do is jump ship to find it; this is a sentiment that generally runs counter to the conventional wisdom on the subject. Anyway, downer ending, and a generally downer movie.

Those are the reviews. Enjoy your Tuesday evenings.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

At Long Last: Something I Really Like. My Latest Effort to Spread the Joy of HBO's "The Wire"

Just finished watching the fourth season of "The Wire" today. Most television shows get worse with age. Even "The Sopranos" managed just the three (maybe four) good seasons. "The Wire", however, gets better each time at bat. I've now seen three of the four seasons in their entirety and I can't say I remember another show that was as involving, as entertaining, or as relevant as this show has so consistently been. David Simon, the show's creator, has said he only ever wanted to film five seasons of "The Wire", and now that HBO's just greenlit that final season, not only do we have one last 13-hour batch of "Wire" goodness coming our way, but we'll have a complete and thoughtfully-considered long-form story in the can, just as its creator intended. A rare thing, if not unheard of, in the annals of television. Good news for me. Good news for you.

The first and excellent season was about the formation of a Special Crimes Unit in the Baltimore PD tasked with taking down local druglord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), which they did by tapping his and his minions' cell phones. I haven't seen the second season (though the first disk is sitting in its mailing sleeve on my TV this second), but I do know it's an in-depth look at life on the docks of Baltimore. The third season concerns the rise and fall of Barksdale's right-hand man Stringer Bell (played by the charismatic Idris Elba) as he attempts to reform the drug trade by aping the corporate top-down model; in addition, "Bunny" Colvin, a respected police-captain, attempts to lower the crime rate by legalizing drugs in Baltimore.

The fourth season, which just ended, focuses on four middle-school boys as they try and make it through the broken bureacracy of the city's school system that cannot teach them anything that has currency on the streets, a family structure broken down to nothing by the scourge of crack, and a vampiric drug trade that feeds on young black males for its very existence; their struggle's set against a backdrop of renewed civic hope as the newly-elected mayor and Great White Hope, Tom Carcetti, promises to fix some of the city's most glaring problems, but as David Simon said in a recent Slate interview, much of what the show's about is how people with good intentions try to reform systems that will not bear reform. People who come in to try and change things end up either fired or dead, depending on which system their working within. The way the show depicts the city's various problems, which seem so ingrained and intractable as to be a force of nature, the idea of "fixing" the problem, which a few characters seem compelled to do, seems almost delusional. The amoral, purely political animals, the folks without a scruple in their head who care nothing for their city and only for themselves, however, end up doing very well in the universe of "The Wire".

This point actually brings me to the central contradiction of the show's purpose. Simon intends for the show to shed light on what is an important national problem: dire poverty in American cities, especially among black Americans. He wants viewers to get as mad as he is about the current state of his native Baltimore, and by doing so change minds in the country; get the national will on his side. But because the tone of the show is so bleak, the cumulative effect of all that abjectness creates a feeling of helplessness in the viewer. Yes, it's bad, and Simon wants me to get angry about it, but my first impulse is to throw my hands in the air and say, "You're right! It's hopeless." And then, right after, "What can we do about it?" Through his characters, Simon does offer solutions: Police Captain Colvin's attempt to legalize drugs, the pilot program to socialize disruptive, "at-risk" kids, the reformed gangster's neighborhood boxing gym, are all examples. But, as Simon said, "the system does not bear reform". So which is it? Are the poor, minority-areas of our cities a depressing and inherently solutionless problem, or is it a problem that can be fixed if only our politicians (backed by a newly patient and civic-minded constituency) had the political will to fix them? The show does not make this clear.

Anyway. I'll say again what I said back in my February post about this show: it is truly a novel made for television, in the very best way possible. The show pays off at the end of 13 episodes in the same way a novel pays off in its closing pages; each season and, so far, the entire series has an identifiable arc, and, unlike some other shows I could mention, the writers know where they're going with the story: they know how it ends. "The Wire" is immersive, it's absorbing, and more than just getting the sense you've learned something about Baltimore (which you will), you get the sense you've learned something important about the way the world operates. Yeah, that's pretty grandiose for an hour-long drama on HBO, but the show's pretty persuasive like that. In addition to being entertained, you can't help but feel like you're doing your civic duty by watching the show.

Now, if my prior support for films like "The Relic" or my recent criticism of films like "Cars" and "For Your Consideration" have you doubting my critical opinion, you ought to read Jacob Weisberg's Slate article about why "The Wire" "is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America". He says what I'm trying (and failing) to say far more eloquently. Or read Stephen King's rave about the show. Yes, the fourth season about which they speak is now aired and gone, (until it emerges once again in the form of an $80 DVD box set), but the first, second, and third seasons are available for rent or purchase on DVD. My advice to you, oh loyal readers, is next time you're at Blockbuster, (or updating your Netflix que), pick up the first disk of season one. You will not be sad you did.

Finally, I was sad to hear that Peter Boyle died today. He was 71. His portrayal of "the Monster" in "Young Frankenstein" was genius -- his scene with Gene Wilder doing their demented rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz", is the kind of funny that's timeless, and my guess is it will be remembered (and laughed at) forever. Not a bad way to leave one's mark on the world. He was also great in "Everybody Loves Raymond", and I thought he did some good work as the heavy in the sci-fi "High Noon" remake, "Outland". Anyway, just wanted to say something to mark his passing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Here's One for the "Worst Of the Year" Lists. Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration" is Considered Herein

I saw "For Your Consideration" over the weekend. Sadly, not at all good. Terrible, in fact. I've enjoyed the Christopher Guest-directed movies less and less since "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show". Though "A Mighty Wind" wasn't at all directed at my demographic -- folk music was well before my time -- I didn't think it was particularly funny either. In that film, Guest seemed content to nudge a laugh out of a scene if he could replace it with a bit of sentiment instead. In my mind it flat out didn't work. "For Your Consideration", Guest and Co.'s latest, works even less well.

Unlike Guest's other films, "For Your Consideration" eschews the "mockumentary" format he made famous with "Spinal Tap" and "Guffman", and goes for a more traditional storytelling approach. This works just fine: I found that I didn't really miss the self-aware glances to the camera or the outside-of-the-action interviews. Changing format is not this movie's problem. The movie's set in Hollywood, and concerns the cast and crew of an absolutely awful awful movie called "Home for Purim" that, inexplicably, starts to get a little Oscar buzz for three of its four lead actors. "Purim", the film inside the film, is set just as World War II is ending, and tells the story of how a traditional midwestern Jewish family comes to grips with their servicewoman-daughter's homosexuality when she comes homes from the war. This would be a send up of what sort of film exactly? Guest has the chance here to skewer any number of contemporary film genres or Hollywood trends that are positively crying out for a completely mean-spirited parodic treatment, but instead he decides to leave them all alone and mine what little humor's still left in Yiddish words comically injected into conversation. Not too much, we find. The scenes Guest includes of "Home for Purim" (which is eventually changed to "Thanksgiving" by the studio to make the film more palatable for Gentile moviegoers) are execrable. Badly-written, badly-acted, with a premise that would thwart even the most talented screenwriter's earnest efforts. Ostensibly, Guest intends for these terrible scenes to be unintentionally funny, and thus revealing that much of the "Oscar buzz" phenomenon has very little to do with the quality of the films and a lot to do with irrational exuberance on the part of the media, but the unintentional badness that has been for so long a staple of the Guest oeuvre, just dies here. Watching a lot of people working on an awful film is depressing enough, but that the film within the film has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever makes those scenes doubly punishing. At least in "Guffman", which was about the staging of an awful small-town play, the play itself was so earnestly put-on, and enjoyably campy, that we didn't mind watching it even if it was essentially just a bad play. The same device fails miserably here.


So Guests satirizes the entertainment media, and then satirizes the credulous actors who believe the hype. There are three "Purim"/"Thanksgiving" actors who've got Oscar buzz: 1.) Catherine O'Hara's character, the kindly and pitiable Marilyn Hack, who disfigures herself with Botox and collagen injections to make herself look more like an A-list Hollywood actress, 2.) Victor Allen Miller (Harry Shearer), a struggling actor best known for his hot dog commercials, who starts dressing in sportcoats over t-shirts and making appearances on TRL (which, incidentally, provides the film's least funny and most embarrassing moment -- Harry Shearer dancing. Wow. I seriously had to look away. More awkward even than David Brent or Elaine Benis's tragic dance performances, except this one, I suspect, was probably pretty real.), and 3.) Callie Webb (Parker Posie), who upon news of her upcoming Oscar nominatuion, promptly dumps her boyfriend who no longer "understands" her. The big Oscar nom morning arrives: none of the three actors get one. Here's the film's big punchline.

The last few minutes consist of Fred Willard (who approximates an entertainment "reporter" in the Pat O'Brien mold), accosting the three actors, "Cheaters"-style, cruelly asking them questions designed to make them relive their failure to make the cut. There isn't a damn thing funny about it, and I doubt even that Guest wants the audience to laugh during this section. Guest's rage comes to the fore in this section most clearly; this angry, humorless denouement suggests a personal stake of some kind, as if someone close to him had endured something similar and he wants the world to share his anger at the vacuousness and maliciousness of the whole stupid process. The film ends with an incoherent O'Hara shuffling down her driveway to throw out what's left of some food she's been binging on since 5 that morning, disheveled and all over the place emotionally, hardly able to converse with Willard's character she's so distraught. Even Willard's character doesn't seem to find any amusement in her downfall. He steps out of frame and the film ends. Funny, huh?

Anyway, this thing was a real disappointment. I hope Guests raises his game for the next one, or, even better, gives it up for a few years, and takes a few acting gigs for a while. Anyone remember the Six-Fingered Man from "The Princess Bride"? Or the cold pathologist in "A Few Good Men"? He's a pretty good character actor in his own right; I'd like to see the guy do some more movies instead of grinding out another uninspired improv comedy every couple years.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Richard Ford Goes to the Margaret Mitchell House and Surveys the "Lay of the Land", and Also: An Email From Film-School Past

A couple interesting things. First off, Richard Ford.

Author of "The Sportswriter", the Pulitzer prize-winning"Independence Day", and most recently, "The Lay of the Land" (which was one of the New York Times' 10 best books of 2006), Richard Ford's considered one of the pre-eminent American novelists working today. He came down to the Margaret Mitchell House here in Atlanta and gave a great reading.

The wife and I drove into downtown Atlanta on a cold Monday night and parked right across from the Center for Southern Literature, which is where the MM House holds the readings. We walked up Peachtree Street a short ways to The Vortex, (which is easily the best burger chain in the city), had dinner, and then walked back to the event and found our seats. The interior space of the Center for Southern Literature is a split-level: the higher level is an L-shaped room where the business of the Center is done. This is where you buy memberships or the visiting authors' books, and it's also where you usually go to get those books signed after the reading and Q&A is finished. A short set of stairs descend from this level to the lower level, where the chairs are set up around a podium which has a plexiglass lectern set up on it from which the writer may address the crowd. We were sitting in our seats on the lower level when I looked up to the higher level and spotted Richard Ford.

In one of the photographs the New York Times took of Ford when they were writing about his new book, Ford looks gaunt, unwell, and a little frightening. In person, however, he looked much less like a horror show and more like a hale and friendly middle-aged novelist, complete with the tweed sportcoat and dark gray hair going a little long in the back. Because I kept glancing up to see what he was up to, I noticed that Ford didn't move from that one spot from the moment I first saw him to when the MC started her Ford introduction, which was about 20 minutes. From my low-angle vantage, I could see him receive his fans with warm smiles and gracious conversation. This wasn't exactly what I'd expected. A man that would shoot a novel written by a woman who'd given him a bad review, and someone who expactorated in the face of novelist Colson Whitehead because Colson reviewed one of Ford's books negatively, would certainly be a surly guy and brusque with questioners, or, at best, a quiet and standoffish guy who was just fulfilling an obligation to his publisher. But as it turned out he was neither of these guys, which surprised me. (I still plan to never write a bad review of one of his books however).

Anyway, I got up to go to the bathroom one last time before the proceedings began, and when I returned Ford was sitting behind my wife, chatting quietly with another guy in a tweed sportcoat. The Director of the Center for Southern Literature was introducing Ford and, when she got to the part about Ford's signing books afterwards, she said that he would only be able to sign one backlist title per person. But as to copies of his new book, "The Lay of the Land", he would sign -- and then behind me, I heard Ford say quietly and in jest, "As many as you can fucking carry." To me, this was hilarious.

He went up onto the podium and talked for a bit. He said he was glad to know there was an actual city in Atlanta, and not just an airport as he'd once thought, he related the story of his mom pointing out Eudora Welty to him at a lunch counter in Mississippi when he was 8 years old, and then he spoke a little about the various places he's lived, including New Orleans. Most of the writers that do readings like this aren't brilliant public speakers. Their business is writing and the talent of writing has very little to do with a talent for public speaking. But Ford's gifted in both aspects. He has a trick he does every now and again, of beginning a line in a conversational and offhand tone, and then, when he comes to the point he's been building to, he lowers his voice and changes his tone to that of a sage dispensing hard-earned wisdom. It was an effective device, and it helped that when he lowered his voice like that, what he had to say was actually wise, or at least seemed so. Contrasted with other writers who speak in what can only be described as a droning monotone, Ford came off like frickin' Cicero. It was a great talk, and a great reading. It's usually pretty easy to zone out during the reading part of these events, but with Ford it was actually easier to stay with him and listen to his story. I'm looking forward to reading it.

When I got up to the table to have Ford sign my copy of "The Lay of the Land" and "Wildlife", the first thing he said was, "Hi, what's your name?" I told him and he reached out his hand to shake mine. "Hi, I'm Richard Ford," he said, and then he signed my books, remarking that "Wildlife" was his favorite of his books. Barbara Ehrenreich, who said not a word to me while she deigned to sign my book, could take a lesson from this guy.

Anyway, it was nice to go to one of these things where the highlight wasn't exiting the building with a signed book.

On to the other interesting thing.

When we got home from the Ford signing on Monday night, I found an email from our old production design teacher in my AOL in-box. Apparently he (or someone he knew) Googled his name, and happened upon an old post on the Inanities. (It comes up 5 pages into the search results.) His email was a response to a blog post from way back in October 2005 in which I referred, briefly, to the circumstances surrounding his departure from school. You can read that post here. My old post is kind of embarrassing to read when you know he's read it too, but there it is. (You may note that I changed the names of the other teachers mentioned to less Google-able initials.) I'm a little skittish about going into depth about the email on what is essentially a public website, but I feel I can say that, in the email, CM related his version of events, named who he believed to be the true villains in the scandal, and defended his wife's choice to do what she did.

Anyway, thought I'd share that with you fine folks and fellow alumni. And I'm out.