Overall a very good debate, and much more substantial than we’d been lead to expect. Some thoughts:
President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry face-off tomorrow in a prime-time debate that may determine the outcome of the hotly-contested 2004 election.
But analysts and pundits have expressed concern and irritation at the highly restrictive conditions the candidates have placed on the proceedings. According to debate guidelines, agreed upon by the two campaigns in accordance with the Commission on Presidential Debates, candidates cannot bring prepared notes or props, cannot move from their designated spots, and cannot ask one another questions. In a further effort to minimize any embarrassing "gaffes" that a rival campaign could seize upon, the candidates have also agreed to avoid speaking about any subjects that could be construed as "political." The sole activity that will take place during the five-minute debate is an exchange of mix CDs, wherein each candidate will give a collection of his favorite songs to his rival. The moderator will ensure that the two men hand their CDs to each other at the exactly the same time. The campaigns and the press are forbidden from divulging the track listings of the CDs, and the event will not be televised.
This will be the only presidential debate of the campaign, but the vice-presidential candidates will meet on October 5. According to the agreement, Dick Cheney and John Edwards will each be allowed to make one "your mama's so fat" joke at the other's expense, and then the two will make light chit-chat over a catered dinner.
The typical American zombie would find slim-pickings, brains-wise, behind the scenes of the typical American zombie movie. With the possible exception of the “underdog practices and practices and practices and eventually goes on to win the big championship” sports movie, no other category of film seems to have to have so little variation between individual entries. The undead are always slow, the heroines are always buxom, the protagonists always get picked off one by one. Not that I’m complaining — I like buxom heroines — but after seeing 28 days Later, the British “reinvention of the genre,” my interest in the typical American zombie movie pretty much evaporated. I mean, how sad is it when you can reinvent a whole genre just by realizing that zombies that run are scarier than zombies that mosey?
I therefore passed on the Dawn Of The Dead remake, and didn’t even consider going to see Resident Evil: Apocalypse. But when I heard that another Brit had “reinvented the genre” yet again, my interest was piqued. So I once again headed to the theater to see what new bottle they could pour this old wine into, and once again I loved the results.
Director and screenwriter Edgar Wright describes Shaun of The Dead as a “Zom Rom Com” — that’s “zombie romantic comedy” to the uninitiated. The premise is so commonplace that it hardly bears repeating: a virus is sweeping through the country, killing citizens and animating their mindless corpses. The undead stagger about the city in search of victims to eat or infect, and, within days, the bulk of the population has been converted, with small bands of survivors desperately trying to fend off the zombie hordes.
How can you cram a “romantic comedy” into such a bleak storyline, you might ask. As it turns out, it’s not as difficult as you might imagine — Wright certainly makes it look easy, at any rate. In essence, he just took the standard “guy strives to get his girl back” romance, plunked it into the middle of the standard “living dead are taking over the world” universe, and let the comedy take care of itself.
In fact, what’s impressive about Shaun is how little it deviates from the conventional romantic comedy or conventional zombie movie — if you were to divorce the plotlines you’d be left with two very mediocre films. What makes the movie shine is the skill with which Wright blends the disparate elements. He also has a knack for taking very routine “horror movie” scenes and changing their focus just enough to point out their absurdities, eliciting belly-laughs from moments that otherwise have otherwise produced winces (or yawns). And it doesn’t hurt that his sense of comedic timing is grand.
Which isn’t to say that Shaun isn’t scary — there are actually quite a few startling moments in there. In fact, there’s a enough of each of the components — zombies, romance, comedy — to satiate the viewer’s desire for each without letting any single motif overwhelm the rest. Shaun Of The Dead ain’t the best film I’ve seen all year, but it’s cquite possibly the most enjoyable.
September Tapes: “The most disingenuous film of the year. A sham. Pathetic. Embarrassing. The people behind this movie should be ashamed of themselves.” — Jonathan Curiel, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
The Forgotten: “Julianne Moore delivers a performance that has all the emotional commitment of a bored kid playing with a light switch.” — Manohla Dargis, NEW YORK TIMES (thanks, Jack)
Resident Evil: Apocalypse: “The undead astumble around in the dark, sometimes even in blurry slo-mo, making the many packs of them about as terrifying as the mobs waiting for Matt and Katie outside the Today studio.” — Gregory Kirschling, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
The Cookout: “There might have been a decent comedy here if someone had remembered to insert some humor.” — Luke Thompson, DALLAS OBSERVER
National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers: “So stupefyingly hideous that after watching it, you’ll need to bathe in 10 gallons of disinfectant, get a full-body scrub and shampoo with vinegar to remove the scummy residue that remains.” — Jen Chaney, WASHINGTON POST
The radio gameshow Just a Minute has been running on the BBC for over 35 years. The premise is simplicity incarnate: guests must speak on a given subject for 60 seconds straight. The trick is that they must do so without “hesitation, repetition or deviation.” A buzzer sounds if a player stammers, stalls, starts reiterating or resorts to filler, and another contestant gets a crack at the topic.
It’s hard to even fathom how much better the Presidential Debates would be if they adopted this format.
For starters, the ban on repetition would pretty much obviate 90% of what Bush would otherwise say. Just imagine if he was limited to using each of his talking points one time only:
Moderator: The next topic is taxes. Mr. President?
Bush: In my first term, I had a choice: do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I give massive tax breaks to the wealthy? Faced with that choice, I will give tax —
Moderator: I’m sorry, but you’ve used the ‘forget the lessons of September 11th slash take the word of a madman’ line seven times in the last 40 minutes. Would you like to try again?
Bush: Uh, “Stay the course?”
Kerry, meanwhile, would have to choose his words carefully, so as to not run afoul of the “deviation” restriction. This would entail disabling his Random Prepositional Phrase Generator that tacks four qualifying clauses onto every declarative statement, to the point where figuring out what answer (if any) he has given is like trying to solve the “Cryptic Crossword” in the back of Harpers. (In fact, here’s a great line you Republicans can use: “Some have grave doubts about whether Kerry is qualified to serve as commander-in-chief. But though Kerry may not be well-qualified, at least all his statements are.” Admittedly, this joke might go over the heads of much of the electorate, but it will probably cause Republican and Uber-grammar-nerd William Safire to snort English Breakfast Tea out his nose, and that’s worth something.)
Best of all, every answer would be no longer than a minute, and the whole debate could be shoehorned into half an hour . Some might argue that 60 seconds isn’t nearly enough time for a presidential candidate to fully explicate his position on complex issues, but let’s be honest: if you strip all the unnecessary verbiage and prepackaged catchphrases away from a seven minute debate answer, you’re pretty much looking at a 13 second reply; add a requirement that they have to keep talking for 47 seconds more, without hesitation, and who knows? Maybe we’d actually learn something.
That’s why I think “Just a Minute” would be the perfect gameshow format for the debates. Either that or the show where the participants have to eat scorpions and centipedes.
Do they still make Pee-Chees?: Last night I told this story to a group of friends:
When I was in elementary school I didn’t really listen to music, but I knew that liking all the cool bands was essential to popularity. So I used to secretly copy the band names other kids had written on their Pee-Chees onto my own.
One day I somehow wound up talking to this girl I liked, and at some point she zeroed in on one of the band names I had on my Pee-Chee. “Oh, do you like INXS?” she asked. Unfortunately, I had no idea who she was talking about, because she pronounced the band name correctly, as “In Excess.” So I tried to bluff. “Yeah, In Excess is okay,” I said, but then tapped the “INXS” on my Pee Chee and added, “But the band I really like is Inks.”
This story got plenty of laughs, but at all the wrong moments. It was supposed to be a charming illustration of what a dope I was as a kid, but judging from the way everyone burst into guffaws every time I said “Pee-Chee,” it was taken more as an illustration of what a dope I am now. Afterwards, everyone was all, like, “what the hell were you talking about?”
Here’s the thing: mention “Pee-Chee” to people of my generation who grew up in Seattle, and they immediately know what you’re referring to: those goldenrod folders with all the sports figures on them. In fact, at my school, we said “Pee-Chee” to mean any folder, in the same way that people say “Q-tip” or “Kleenex.” The Pee-Chee brand was so popular that it was even able to stave off encroachment of the cooler-than-cool “Trapper Keeper” for a while.
Anyhow, that got me to wondering if kids today still use Pee-Chees. And the answer appeared to be “no.” “The folders are no longer made today,” according to this article.
But I had a hunch this wasn’t true — after all, I imagine the entire Washington State education system would implode in a abscence of Pee-Chees. So I did some actual non-sitting-on-my-ass-using-Google research: I went to my local drug store and perused the stationary aisle. And sure enough, there were the Pee-Chee folders I remember from my childhood, shelved with all the other “essential school supplies.”
Incidentally, I took a very informal poll, and it seems that everyone who grew up on the West Coast knew what a “Pee-Chee” was, while those who grew up elsewhere did not. So although my friends were snickering at my usage of “Pee-Chee,” in truth I should have been laughing at them, because their unfamiliarity with the term was outing them as a bunch of non-natives, Pacific Northwest poseurs.
Why do bottles of carbonated drinks explode after you’ve shaken them: This is one of these things I’ve always taken as a given, without ever reflecting on it: you shake a Sprite, it blows all over your kitchen when you open the can. But only recently, after I had a two-liter bottle of Talking Rain go all a-bomb on me after it had rolled around in my trunk on the way home from the store, did it ever occur to me to wonder why. Obviously the contents are under pressure, but does agitating them somehow increase the pressure? I though the only way to could increase the pressure of something was to reduce its volume or raise its temperature.
According to Ask Science Theatre, the pressure in the bottle does not increase when you shake it, but is still to blame for the phenomonon. In an unshaken bottle, soda occupies the bottom nine-tenths of the container, with a pocket of gas siting on top; this gas escapes with a pfffffft when you open the bottle, leaving the soda undisturbed. When you shake up the bottle, though, some of that carbon dioxide is mixed into the liquid and forms tiny bubbles. The gas still wants to escape when you open the bottle, though, but now has to muscle its way up through the soda toward the spout. In doing so, it pushes the liquid upwards, causing it to gush out of the bottle. The more you shake the bottle, the more thoroughly the carbon dioxide mixes with the soda, the greater the subsequent explosion.
Update: A couple of readers are callin’ bullshit on this explanation. I did a little more research and came across this page which provides three answers to the question, all of which are different from the one cited above and, exasperatingly, subtly different from each other as well.
But Richard Shaffstall sent what I find to be the most believable of all the theories. “Soda is carbonated; it has dissolved gasses in the liquid. The bubbles in the liquid that get put there by shaking allow the dissolved carbonation to separate from the liquid [by virtue of being “nucleation sites”] and become a gas. Gasses take up more space then liquids, so suddenly, explosively, the soda/gas mixture takes up more room then the container can hold and boom …
“This is the same explanation for how gunpowder works. Burning the gunpowder causes gasses to form. The gasses take up more space then the gunpowder un-burnt takes up, pressure goes up, and if it doesn’t have anyplace to go (as in a bullet cartridge) it builds up until the container cannot hold it and boom.”
What was Encyclopedia Brown’s first name: Considering the sheer number of Encyclopedia Brown books I read as I kid, you’d think I’d know this off the top of my head. But when I tried to remember Encyclopedia’s real name the other day, all I could come up with was “Leroy Brown” — and I knew I was just confusing the pint-sized sleuth with Jim Croce’s classic song Bad Bad Leroy Brown. So I plugged “encyclopedia brown” into Google to see if I could find out.
Ironically, it was “Wikipedia,” the 21st century’s answer to the Encyclopedia that had my answer, and I’ll be pickled if I didn’t have it right the first time. “Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown lives in the fictional Idaville, Florida, where his father is chief of police. Whenever a case arises (often one that is stumping his father), Encyclopedia Brown swings into action, assisted in his investigations by his friend (and “muscle”) Sally Kimball.”
Wow, crazy. And check out the dates. The first Encyclopedia Brown book (“Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective”) was published in 1963, with “America’s Sherlock in sneakers” aged about 10 or so; “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” meanwhile, was released in 1974. So, conceivably, they could be about the same person. At some point in Encyclopedia’s teens, Bugs Meany might have convinced him to join The Tigers, and after that it would have he abandoned his career of do-gooding for the rough-and-tumble life on the streets. Maybe by the age of 21 he was six foot four, had moved to the ‘ole south side Chicago, carried a .32 gun in his pocket for fun, and was called “Treetop Lover” by all those downtown ladies.
It’s certainly possible. I mean, look at what happen to those kid actors from “Diff’rent Strokes.”
Was Encyclopedia Brown the basis for Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”? For the answer, turn to page 113.