Month: September 2014

Restaurant Does Hard Time For Making Light of the Death Penalty In UK


A website for a restaurant calling itself Death Row Dinners had a series of black-and-white images of death row inmates with menus around their necks. Alongside the photos, it said, “Eat like it’s your last meal on earth,” and asked, “What would your last meal be?”

The £50-per-head restaurant experience promised Londoners the enjoyment of dining on their very own last meal, “without the nasty execution bit.”

The pop-up restaurant was set to open in the hipster neighborhood of Hoxton, east London, at a place called The Penitentiary. The owners described the unique penal atmosphere thus:



A backlash against the restaurant ensued on Twitter soon after it was announced as people explained why the idea is so utterly terrible. One Tweet read, “You’re not sorry. You’re using people about to be murdered by the state as props. At least be honest. You’re bad people.” Another read, “…using pictures of people who were executed with “menus” round their necks, how on earth did you think that was okay?!” Finally, a third read: “…using capital punishment as a gimmick for a tatty restaurant and they’re based in Hoxton how’d I fucking guess?”

After the backlash reached a deafening peak, the restaurant broke its silence: “We’re shocked and saddened by the response to Death Row Dinners and are genuinely very sorry for any offence caused. The pop-up is intended to explore the concept of last meals; anyone who has ever been to a dinner party has probably had this conversation – what would they love their last meal to be. In light of the response to the idea we are considering our next steps and will update everyone with our decision.”

There has been no word since.

I came across this article on Buzzfeed, earlier today. What initially caught my interest about this news story was the silly and unconvincing premise of the restaurant. I thought the pictures of the ‘felons’ were reminiscent of those old timey photo sessions, where families would dress up in the clothing of the Old Wild West or in convict stripes with ball and chain and Keystone cops. Never for an instant did I think I was actually looking at convicted felons, or worse, men on death row. When I read about what the concept of the restaurant was, I thought it was a good marketing gimmick, and would probably do well. But I was not shocked or repulsed by the concept, because it’s the kind of thing we do in America EVERY SINGLE DAY. There are tour guides giving tours of old west saloons where dozens met their brutal ends; guided tours of bloody battlegrounds where indians and frontiersman fought; there are Civil War cafes and restaurants in and around Gettysburg that play up the bitter feud between North and South. In San Francisco Bay, tourists take tours of Alcatraz, and visit related giftshops and theme restaurants. In Chicago, there are tours of ’30s era gangster Chicago, with all the notorious haunts of Al Capone, and the site of the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In Boston, there are reenactments of fierce battles of the American Revolution. In most instances, the historical guides and educators are respectful and somber, but not always. In Salem, Massachusetts, the time around Halloween is a horror show of ghost tours and witch burnings, and the joyous delight in the macabre often overshadows the gruesome reality of the executions of innocent young women. The country is full of amusement parks that have themed sections, glorifying various battles and wars, and romanticizing America’s rough and tumble past. So if history and the present are any indication, a sensational, slightly tongue-in-cheek theme restaurant like Death Row Dinners would be very successful here. I can easily imagine it on the Las Vegas strip or in Atlantic City. Texas has a rich history of capital punishment, and a slightly twisted sense of humor, which might make it ideal. They might even argue its presence might help deter crime. Regardless, such a concept would likely thrive in the U.S.

And that became the very crux of this story. That I would look at such a restaurant, and ostensibly see no problem. I was viewing the concept through my American goggles, which appreciated the gallows humor of the ironic and glib scenario, the hyper-capitalist opportunity to seize on a unique business model, and the very grim reality that in many ways, the States were still untamed, and violent death was always all around us. The last execution here was only weeks ago, whereas there hasn’t been anyone hanged in the UK since 1964.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this story is the very fact that it’s been decades since England’s last execution, yet these concerned citizens are just as fired up as if it were yesterday. It’s more than evident that if this small swath of Londoners speaks for a larger sample, then the average citizen is firmly anti-death penalty. Perhaps even more surprising than their committed fervor and resistance to capital punishment, was the vitriol and scorn directed at the restauranteurs for their perceived injuries against a group that simply didn’t exist in England anymore – death row prisoners. They were chiding on behalf of theoretical prisoners, perhaps in other countries. I was struck by how personal their words were, as if their sons was facing their last meals. I’ve grown with British television, literature, music, etc. and yet I’m continually surprised. Of course, I believe in free speech, and fiercely support those businessmen’s right to open that restaurant if they choose, but if that toxic sentiment is any indictor of success, I don’t expect the UK was the place to open such an establishment.

The place to open such an ironic, irreverent, garish, ambitious, and macabre business would naturally be the United States. Death Row Dinners could exploit America for all her weaknesses and vice.

We live in a culture divided — where have the population vehemently believes in the death penalty and the other half steadfastly believe in sparing lives. Those who advocate for death, cite statistics that affirm the practice is a reliable and provable deterrent to crime. Some argue that it is cheaper to execute a prisoner than to incarcerate them for life.

I am unquestionably against the death penalty. A July 2009 study titled “DO EXECUTIONS LOWER HOMICIDE RATES?: THE VIEWS OF LEADING CRIMINOLOGISTS” by Michael L. Radelet and Traci L. LaCock, demonstrates an overwhelming consensus among criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment. A new study of the costs of the death penalty found that capital cases are more costly and take much more time to resolve than non-capital cases. One measure of death-penalty costs was reflected in the time spent by attorneys handling appeals. The study found that defense costs for death penalty trials averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought. The Department of Corrections said housing prisoners on death row cost more than twice as much per year ($49,380) as for prisoners in the general population ($24,690).

Another imperative reason to abolish the death penalty is the potential for wrongful execution — considered a miscarriage of justice –when an innocent person is put to death by capital punishment. Newly available DNA evidence has allowed the exoneration and release of more than 17 death row inmates since 1992 in the United States, but DNA evidence is available in only a fraction of capital cases. Others have been released on the basis of weak cases against them, sometimes involving prosecutorial misconduct; resulting in acquittal at retrial, charges dropped, or innocence-based pardons. The Death Penalty Information Center (U.S.) has published a list of 10 inmates “executed but possibly innocent”. At least 39 executions are claimed to have been carried out in the U.S. in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt. Even if just one inmate is innocent, that is too many to put to death. Lifelong sentences without parole ensure that would never happen.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter. Those who support capital punishment are not really that concerned with deterrents or the housing cost of prisoners. Not even prison overpopulation. They seek vengeance, masked as justice. This bloodthirsty hunt cannot be satisfied with rehabilitation, because they don’t seek redemption or the saving of men’s souls. Instead, they want the closest thing to suffering — death. As if a life sentence without parole wasn’t punishment enough. I’m afraid I can’t see the logic in murdering someone as a means of punishing murder. Some of us in this country still think we’re in the Wild West, and live by some cowboy code, but for the rest of us, we live in a civil society, and we invest in the principles of rehabilitation, forgiveness, redemption, and mercy. Why is it that we are one of the only countries left still practicing this outdated and barbaric practice?

It was right then that I remembered my own humanity, and that I did in fact feel very strongly about the death penalty. In fact, I have more of an urgent need, given its continued practice in this country. In truth, there is something cruel and inhumane about spoofing those on death row. We’ve somehow learned better than to depict concentration camp victims so scornfully, or African American slaves, and maybe even Native Americans. Yet, we view them as victims — often of our own avarice and aggression — whereas convicts got themselves there, and they deserve nothing in return. Sadly, this is how many feel.

I’m no prison reformer, nor in any position to judge anybody else. However, I cannot help but firmly believe that all men and women, no matter what their crime, deserve to be treated with humanity, dignity, and respect. Perhaps I am self-righteous, but I can’t see how any belief is virtuous that is rooted in hatred, vengeance, payback, or even justice. For those who believe in God, scripture is clear that justice only comes with the Judgement. Thou shall not kill. I can never understand how these people pick and choose what works for them. I believe in mercy and the hope that we all have the power to change. And I’ve changed my mind about Death Row Dinners. For all the lives that came before, and all those still on death row, may we one day spare a life, and save a soul.

‘Doctor Who’ Episode ‘Listen’ is Worth a Look


This turned out to be one of my favorite episodes in years. It started out so simply, but soon revealed how smart and complex it really was. It managed to be a tale of spooky folklore, cross-generational origin story, a compelling character study of the Doctor, and another development in the romance between Clara and Danny. It brilliantly reached backwards and forwards through time to weave a tricky narrative that constantly commented back on itself. Great episode!

Check out this recap:

Check out this review: 

Bad Boy Bourdain: The Culinary Gangsta


I’m not really a fan of reality television, but there are a few notable exceptions. The one man who has the power to get me to watch anything he does is former chef, and culinary bad boy, Anthony Bourdain. I mean, I like cooking shows okay, but what he does is something special and altogether different. Although he was known primarily as a chef, Bourdain no longer works as one, especially since the wild success of his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and his move to the Travel Channel in 2005 to begin hosting the culinary and cultural adventure programs Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and The Layover. In 2013, he joined CNN to host Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. I was introduced to him first through No Reservations, and then more significantly through Parts Unknown, which has become one of my favorite programs on television. His shows make me forget why I hate reality television, and reminds me of how powerful food is in understanding a culture, and how a meal can change lives, topple governments, forge alliances, or simply make for a lovely afternoon. Anthony Bourdain understands the power of a meal, and expertly exploits each moment for not only our enjoyment, but our enrichment as well.

In the show Parts Unknown, Bourdain creates a postmodern mashup of cooking show, history lesson, cultural anthropology, travel documentary, and food appreciation. In Parts he travels to countries all over the world, including some rather unstable parts of the world (Columbia, Congo, Myanmar, Lybia — just months after Arab Spring). And in each place, he manages to have the most intimate and authentic experience you can imagine. He meets, greets, and eats with local chefs, writers, musicians, and other natives. They take him to their favorite restaurants — whether it be a five-star affair, or a food cart along the side of the road. He makes sure to try as many of  the main dishes of the region, and stays several days, to help facilitate that. It also allows him to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in different parts of the city. Without fail, no matter where Bourdain goes, he is at least familiar enough with their cuisine to know what ingredients they favor, and how they prepare their food. If nothing else, he knows just enough to ask all the right questions. This is all shared with the audience, and we are doubly rewarded in seeing this world through his eyes, because we have access to his knowledge, but also are allowed the joy in discovering and trying new things. One of the most valuable aspects of the show is how brilliantly Bourdain is able to put it all into context. He pays attention to the history of a culture, how their food shaped them, and how their history shaped the food.

As a television personality, and host of the show, Anthony Bourdain is so laid back, and easy to be around, he disarms his companions, and puts them at ease. His slightly detached and confident demeanor is complimented by his eager enthusiasm for food, drink, and culture. He is genuinely curious and interested in finding out what goes into a dish, and what makes a culture tick. His charm is in his self-assurance, yet egoless interest in what you say and do. It allows people to feel that they are the only person in the world at that moment, and that what they say matters. It cannot be overstated how comfortable Bourdain is at making other people feel comfortable, and come off as smart and well-informed. He simply makes other people look good, while masterfully guiding conversations where it needs to go. Through his eyes, we see the joy and the wonder he takes at literally consuming another culture.

What is perhaps most surprising about Bourdain’s style is not only that he makes other people feel safe, important, and knowledgeable without losing face, but that he does it while continuing to ask them challenging and often provocative questions.  His charm lies in the ability to play the innocent, and ask questions that challenge people’s assertions, but delivered in non-threatening packaging. It’s all in the inquisitive — almost childlike — tone of his voice and the assumption that he’s a friend, and that there’s not a hint of accusation in his voice. After all, most of these interactions take place while enjoying a meal the host has prepared. Bourdain knows the sanctity of the meal and the symbolism of breaking bread with another. Our intrepid chef knows his limits, but expertly exploits the moment. In the  very powerful episode set in Jerusalem, Bourdain employed this technique numerous times. Despite being Jewish on his mother’s side, Anthony did not grow up with any religion. Regardless, he made it clear that he still considers himself culturally Jewish. With this in mind, it was remarkable how even-handed he was to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Indeed, he sat down to eat at Jewish and Muslim tables. All the while, he was respectful, praised their food, and showed deference in their homes. He also asked them all very challenging questions. He occasionally asked them to clarify certain answers, particularly the more intolerant ones. Even such a simplistic technique proved moderately effective, when people slowed down their answers and were forced to confront the intolerance of their words. It may not have changed anyone’s mind, but it shone a light on the reality that even though they may live in close proximity, these two ethnic groups are isolated from each other. Each side only hears the rhetoric and confirmation of its own people echo back from the wall, without ever really knowing what it must sound like on the other side. During one exchange, Bourdain questions his Jewish host at the dinner table as to why it was acceptable for a nearby Muslim house to have hateful graffiti scrawled all over it. The man intimated that it wasn’t him, but villains who had perpetrated it. He pressed back, and asked why the man had allowed it to stay there. In that fraction of a second, the Israeli felt the impact, and there was recognition somewhere deep inside. The man replied that he did not know, but that they really ought to paint over it. There was no harm done and the meal continued to be a pleasant one. Those are the kind of acrobatic linguistics Bourdain can do. He may look like an easy going burnout, but underneath it all, he’s cleverly unraveling a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, and inside an enigma. All for us.

Anthony Bourdain can have strong opinions, especially when it comes to food. However, he is very sweetly deferential when it comes to most people. He rarely injects his own argument or opinion, and sometimes the only way of knowing is in the content and tone of the questions he asks. When he does offer his opinion, it can sometimes be serious, and critical, but he offers it in the concern of a friend, and it reads as sincere and nonjudgmental. Examples of this can be found in his assessment of the challenges certain countries face. For instance, in Columbia, he witnessed the shells of buildings and the abject poverty left behind after the drug cartels retreated. He strongly pointed out the considerable work they still had left ahead, but praised them for their resiliency. He went on to say that if Columbia could recover from such dire adversity, imagine what a country with resources, like America, could do. In another episode, Bourdain traveled to Myanmar, not long after the country opened up. The infrastructure was archaic, and the country had withered with age and neglect under a military junta and dictatorship. The country had been plagued with fierce civil war, but in the years of military rule, there were countless instances of human rights abuse and harsh oppressive regime tactics. When Bourdain met with his various hosts, a few of them had been political dissidents, and had served time in prisons, under inhumane conditions. Bourdain listened and asked questions with ease and curiosity, even as they recounted their horrors. He’s not a sentimental man, nor is he prone to dramatics, and so when he heard of various atrocities, he didn’t feel the need to placate, comfort, pity, or encourage the speaker. He just listened. Although he has very clear opinions, we often only hear those in the voice over, not in his interaction with foreigners. (If you can call them that, in their own country!) It doesn’t take long to realize Anthony Bourdain’s about as sharp as they come. But he uses his intellect in interesting ways.  If he shows off or boasts, it’s never in a way that diminishes another person. He is very respectful of the people that play host and guide to him while he’s in country. Whether he honed his skills in the kitchen, or on air, Bourdain has come up with a television recipe that tastes great.

When our host went to Libya, it was only months after the fall of Gaddafi. At first, there was a contagious feeling of celebration in the air. Bourdain came across men and boys setting off fireworks in a large square, and the atmosphere was jubilant and joyful. He met with arab men that spoke of fighting in the resistance, and took pride in helping to overthrow the dictator. They spoke fondly of the bloodshed of Gaddafi, and wished they had held the knife themselves. Their words were brutal, but came across as those who have been victimized for far too long, and sought vengeance on their oppressor. Bourdain did not pass judgement, nor did he give them a pass and validate their words. Once again, he seemed to always know what to say. Whereas the first day or so was pleasant, and the he had met many gracious people, things took a turn for the worse soon thereafter. At the site of Gaddafi’s sacked and pillaged fortress, the camera crew was besieged by one of the many gangs that had formed in the vacuum of rule, and told to leave and surrender their film. They were a vigilante group, like many in the country, whose mission was to hunt down Gaddafi supporters. The irony of the whole thing is that the crew was hosted by rebels who had fought alongside the kind of men who made up this faction who was assaulting them. They had all fought on the same side, but already life was splintering all around Lybia. Chaos was scary, and Bourdain was now in fact shaken by what he had seen. The following days were equally tense and they faced challenges crossing checkpoints and traveling at night. The evening was a frightening time, and they were warned not to travel after dark. The episode ended warmly though, when Bourdain sat down for an outdoor meal on the beach, with several warm, but traditional Libyan men. They all ate from a large bowl of rice, with either freshly slaughtered goat or lamb on top. Naturally, they all ate with their right hand, and Bourdain effortlessly followed traditional Muslim custom. There was also a young woman there: a doctor from the village, who had been educated in America, and returned during the revolution to assist her people. She was a scholar and highly educated woman, and yet she was forced to sit at the kids table, removed from the men. It was their custom, and she did not question it. Bourdain mentions in his narration that he almost wished he could have said something, but what would he have said? It is their custom, and as always, Bourdain honored that.

In addition to learning about the food, drink, customs, and history of a country, the show functions as a compelling travelogue. Through his travels, we see a variety of the landmarks of each city, but more impressively, we see the underbelly and working class view of these cultures. That means that we often are taken into crowded and bustling farmer’s markets, into slaughterhouses, down thru wine cellars, into an ice house on a frozen lake, around ancient ruins, on a fishing boat down the Congo River, up a rocky narrow path to an orchard of Cacao trees, into a seedy hookah bar, and many more intimate, and uniquely cultural places. These are not the kind of locations you’re going to find in a Let’s Go Europe or similar travel guide. These are the gritty and unceremonious epicenters…the heartbeat of a city, if you will. By the time the show’s over, you can’t help but feel like you’d been there, and had tasted everything Bourdain had eaten, and felt the agony of each of his subsequent hangovers! You can’t help but feel like you got the insider tour and explored these cities like only the locals know how. Did I mention the show is less than an hour long? Yet somehow, Bourdain manages to fill that hour with meaningful and substantial material. This is not your typical travel show, where the camera moves at breakneck speed to make sure all the landmarks and significant neighborhoods are covered. Parts Unknown isn’t about showing you every tourist site there is to see. The name says it all. Bourdain is attempting to uncover parts or places unknown to us — even the cities we think we know well. He doesn’t just go to far flung exotic countries; there are episodes on New Mexico, Los Angeles, and Detroit, for example. The show is about immersing yourself in a culture, and meeting like-minded chefs and artists, who will show you the unseen hidden art, culture, and beauty of each place. It’s not surprising to learn that the true lessons in history and the fundamental knowledge of a people can’t be found where the tourists are, but must be earned in the streets, down the alleys, and in the cafes and bistros. We can’t help but come to the conclusion that the best way to know a people is to find what unites them. More often than not, a culture is identified with its food, and the act of preparing and consuming it. Food is what binds us together. Bourdain understands this better than anyone, and he uses the dinner table to question, savor, taste, smell, and comment on whatever place he happens to be. And he always knows how to speak the language, because he’s fluent in food, and that bridges all divides. When you sit down and break bread with a person, and allow them to share their food with you, you will learn more than you ever would on a ten day guided bus tour.

No discussion of Anthony Bourdain would be complete without mentioning his dry and acerbic wit and scathing sense of humor. As I’ve made abundantly clear, Bourdain is a very smart man and also exceedingly street savvy, as you would expect any native New Yorker to be. He grew up in suburban New Jersey though. His humor is an interesting mix of styles. He certainly has a wry Jewish wit, with the elements of intellect, irony, and sarcasm, and the historical timeline back to Vaudeville and Yiddish theatre. But it’s not only that. Although he grew up comfortable (Father worked for Columbia Records, mother for the New York Times, and he went to prep school and then on to Vassar.), Bourdain was drawn to the seedier underbelly. He ran with a fast crowd in the restaurant business, and began to abuse drugs. I mention this because I think his humor is also over-sexualized, crass, countercultural, anarchic, punk, and anti-authoritarian. So what this translates to is a smart and sometimes witty sense of humor, but sprinkled with a darkness, scathing sarcasm, goofy irony, and defiant streak. In the episode on New Mexico, he makes a sophomoric joke about a phallic shaped rock formation behind him. It becomes meta, when he comments on needing a 50-something year old sense of humor, and it was time to grow up. I cannot agree. His brand of humor is off-beat and refreshing, and serves the show well. Especially when paired with his more serious and hard-hitting style.

I’ve traveled across America, and been into Mexico and Canada a few times. I briefly lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, and in a 17th Century castle in the Netherlands. I made my way all over Europe. But I think what I am most proud of is how I made my way around. Like Bourdain, I suppose I’ve always had wanderlust, and was never just satisfied visiting a place. I wanted to know where I’d been. I always made an effort to go to the out-of-the-way bars and pubs, and I went to dance clubs and concert halls with no other English speakers present; I sat on bar stools and tried horse meat croquettes; drank Scotch whisky with bagpipers from a local tattoo; carried a journal to write down new Dutch words I learned in the village. Wherever I went, I asked what the locals were drinking and eating, and I was adventurous, perhaps to a fault. I made friends easily, and that’s part of what I admire about Anthony Bourdain so much. I see myself in him, and marvel at how easy and comfortable he is with new people and trying new things. He has such a remarkable confidence and command, while not boasting or using his ego to belittle others. But at the same time, Bourdain is no blushing flower. He can be rude and crass, and is renowned for his liberal use of profanity and sexual references, especially the use of double entendre to describe food. Furthermore, Anthony is no saint, and it quickly becomes clear that he has quite a colorful past. He is not shy about discussing his past drug abuse problems, and his struggles with staying clean. He also has a few tattoos that we can easily see, and the certain raggedness of a face that had seen some years. Ultimately, you get the feeling that this guy has lived life to the fullest, traveled extensively throughout the world, been in a few knife fights and gotten his ass kicked one too many times, been to bed with many different women, done far too many drugs, and tasted the most exquisite foods this planet has to offer. Although I am nowhere near his level of experience or debauchery, I have lived my life as if each day was my last, and tried to suck the marrow out of each precious moment. And as you might expect, that kind of commitment has led to many regrettable mistakes I wish I could take back. But just as assuredly, there have been even more sublime days of discovery and the bliss that can only come from those sweet moments you know are historic, and will never come again…except in your dreams. Anthony Bourdain lives life out loud, and his idea of adventure is not colonial or proprietorial, but respectful and sincere in moving amidst a people, and exploring their culture from the inside out. This ‘Chef-at-Large’ bears a confidence that comes from great sorrow and triumphant success, and has left him with the most impressive ability to put people at ease, and charm them into their own special greatness. All while never losing his cool or control. With Bourdain, we always know he’s steering the ship, we just don’t always know when and how. A man’s gotta have some parts unknown.

9/11’s Orphans: How to Remember with Purpose, Not Pageantry


As I was looking online for a picture or meme to honor the victims of 9/11, I came across this very disturbing picture. My initial reaction was one of shock and disgust. How tasteless was it to use children to trivialize such a somber day in American history?

However, the more I thought about it, the more I accepted its premise. After all, for decades since the American Revolution and the Civil War, we have been fascinated with its bloodshed, and reenactors reverently depict famous battles, with huge loss of life, nearly every day in this country. Long before 9/11, children played with toy soldiers and staged epic battles and honored those who had fallen. Our video games today depict famous military battles, and show gruesome death much more graphically than anything here.

What’s more, these children weren’t even alive on 9/11, and they are not touched by it in the same way as we are. In this picture, one child role plays the treacherous terrorist (as one might an “Indian” in a classic game of ‘cowboys & indians’), whereas the other plays the brave fireman, selflessly leading the charge into almost certain death to save as many lives as they could, while losing their own in the process.

But real life is never so cut and dry. These are binary games of black and white, good and evil, and are sometimes reckless and macabre ways to deal with history and real human misery. Would anyone approve of a game set during the Holocaust, where children play out the roles of Nazi prison guards, while others play camp prisoners? Most likely not.

And yet, that’s also how we learn. Young children can’t be expected to understand nuance, tolerance, taste, and decorum at that age, but must still be allowed to role play and play loose with facts and assumptions nonetheless. It is our job to correct, instruct, and contextualize events like 9/11 when the time is right. Far too many children walked away believing the ‘Indian’ was the bad guy, while actual history is far more complex than to cast ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ and that can sometimes be harder to teach.

Ultimately, I am not proposing parents play such morbid games with children, but rather, think about how we can all better teach and learn from our often violent, dark, and inconvenient history. The past is how we teach the future, in the present.

This photo is intentionally provocative and undoubtedly tasteless to some, but it serves its purpose. It generates thought and discussion, and how we deal with the legacy of 9/11 with ourselves, and with our kids. To that end, it is significant and worthwhile. You may find it tasteless, but it’s not without merit; it asks questions of its viewer, as all art should. I’ll take that over some sentimental picture of the towers superimposed on a flag, with the macho boast, “These colors don’t run.” As far as I’m concerned, I see little art in those overly simplified declarations of patriotism. We love our country best, when we love it honestly, and enough to believe we can all make it better.

In the end, I think I may stick with this fitting tribute. It’s not easy, sweet, or pretty, but neither was the day that inspired it.

“A Million Ways To Die in the West” Movie Review (no spoilers)



I have to say that for the first 20 minutes of this movie, I hated it. In fact, I found it completely unwatchable, and nearly walked away. I am a huge Family Guy fan, and a fan of Seth MacFarlane’s humor in general. However, I thought the entire opening of this movie was fatally flawed. As it turns out, it wasn’t dead on arrival after all. 

The first 20 minutes or so featured very little exposition, like you’d find in a traditional movie. There was very little in the way of a backstory, and characters were poorly connected and ostensibly shallow devices, rather than legitimate characters. Instead of building the story naturally, Seth MacFarlane’s character, Albert, launches into a diatribe about how brutally awful and backward the Old West is, and how there are countless ways to die. Naturally, throughout the course of the movie, we see many gruesome deaths, with varying levels of effectiveness and comical efficacy. Apart from robbing the viewer of valuable exposition, this schtick about the West was contrived, snarky, and superior, and it felt like MacFarlane was trying too hard. I was okay with the commentary being anachronistic and improbable. After all, Mel Brooks did similar gags in films like History of the World, Part I. The difference being, that Brooks’ commentary was always the causal result of motivated action. MacFarlane’s rant is unmotivated, and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Why does Albert feel it necessary to barrage his friends with how tragic their circumstances are, when unprovoked and unnecessary? Even though some of the complaints are mildly funny, the disjointed context and lack of discernible objective makes the whole gimmick tiresome and unsuccessful. Furthermore, the business actually makes Albert an unsympathetic character, as he comes across as superior, bitter, patronizing, and petty. As the uncontested protagonist of this movie, it was perilous to begin the film with such a severe and alienating device. I began to remember that although I liked Family Guy, I did not like American Dad, and for many of the same reasons. I decided that although I liked FG, I didn’t necessarily like Seth MacFarlane. This is the kind of visceral reaction I was having to the movie. To be fair, the routine might have worked as a cutaway on Family Guy, but as an incessant running monologue of one guy delivered to poor, mute, and unwitting listeners, it just didn’t work for me.

The significant problem with starting the movie with such a consciously clever rant is that the audience isn’t allowed the chance to get to know the character and his history, but rather, gets exposed to a self-indulgent laundry list of Western snubs. The language is glib and unbelievable. Therefore, the character is one-dimensional, and fails to earn the sympathy and trust of the audience. Perhaps he’ll turn his scorn and derision on them. People want to identify with characters, and see their humanity — their strengths and flaws and triumphs and failures. All I saw was a wise-cracking smart aleck who held himself higher than those he knew, and where and when he was. He didn’t seem like a three-dimensional character, but rather, a caricature. I would guess that MacFarlane thought he was being clever, and bringing his audience into the action through wit and carefully constructed observations. Sadly, he was doing just the opposite, and managed to alienate all but the stoutest few. My guess is that the majority of those who ultimately disliked this film, were put-off in those first few minutes, and perhaps never saw their way back into the movie. The die was cast, and first impressions can be bitter pills to swallow. Despite my strong urge to turn the film off, I determined that my affection for most of MacFarlane’s work compelled me to give it a chance, and trudge on. My patience paid off.

Whereas the whole beginning of the movie was fraught with contrived and unmotivated action and dialogue, the last 2/3 of the film delivered a much more nuanced and heartfelt story. I must say that everything changed as soon as Charlize Theron entered the movie. I thought she grounded the film in an impressive way. Suddenly, I found MacFarlane’s humor sweet, sarcastic, and sincere, and his character became real to me.  They had such a comfortable and moving relationship, and I credit Theron’s skills as an actor with pulling MacFarlane back to earth, and challenging his dialogue in meaningful ways. I thought their romance was one of the most compelling I’ve seen in a comedy of this kind. The relationship was tender and full, and what began as friendship, blossomed into a deeper kind of love and affection. In cadence with Theron’s arrival, we start to receive more exposition, and modest backstories are provided. As the treacherous villain, Clinch, Liam Neeson is undoubtedly a rather shallow caricature of a bad guy, but it parodies the typical ‘man in black’ and vilifies him as it should. His dark and static villainy are nicely contrasted with Theron’s Anna, who is surprisingly deep, complex, and emotionally resonant. We learn she was married to Clinch at the tender age of nine. This arranged marriage is clearly ridiculous, but consistent with the humorous observations that girls marry young, and everyone dies young too.  To me, the humor was that much funnier when I believed in the humanity of the characters. Observations were suddenly delivered meaningfully, and were character-driven, not the witty disses of a bad stand-up comic. 

Overall, the acting was solid, and I was honestly very impressed with the sincerity of Seth MacFarlane, and his ability to go to emotionally vulnerable places. Theron was remarkable throughout. As I stated above, her presence allowed MacFarlane the comfort to explore a wide and varied range of emotions, and to use his comedic skills in more effective and purposeful ways. Neeson was fine as the evil gunslinger Clinch, and it probably worked better for the sake of the film and its structure for Clinch to be a little flat and unquestionably archetypal. I did feel that Sarah Silverman and the enviously talented Giovanni Ribisi were woefully underused. Neil Patrick Harris was a delight, and played his character with foppish bravado. Amanda Seyfried was not given much to work with, but she was adequate in the role of Albert’s ex-love interest. I have to admit that I often find Seyfried okay in her roles, but she also leaves me a bit cold and unsatisfied. Perhaps it’s due to her often being cast as disagreeable or snobby and high-maintenance females. In that respect, she was quite perfectly cast in this role.

As for the production quality, it was quite impressive. I thought the locations and cinematography was gorgeous, and the costumes perfectly captured time, setting, status, and character. The music was felt, while not being overly obtrusive or burdensome. Despite its glaring flaws early on, the script improved as the film unfolded, and ended up being quite successfully structured and crafted. Although many of the jokes did not land properly, the humor settled down and became far richer and effective with time. The movie was far too long at nearly two hours, but the end was richly rewarding. I ended up walking away from this movie really satisfied. It started out rough, but it ended up being a charming, warm and funny film. This is not a film I probably would have recommended people go see in the theatre, but it’s perfectly suited for rental or streaming online. If nothing else, it’s worth it for the chemistry between Theron and MacFarlane!

Link & Learn: How to Click Your Way Thru History


So I was reading a chapter from my friend Sue’s autobiography, and it covers the summer of 1956, when she worked at a drive-in theater in Missouri. She kept mentioning ‘ramps’ and I had no idea what those were. (It’s been awhile since I’ve been to a drive-in!) So I ended up looking up ‘drive-in theater ramps’ and that took me to a page on the history of drive-in theaters. I soon learned that ramps were essentially what they sounded like — the graded dirt or paved spaces raked so that cars could drive their front wheels up, and arranged in a fan-shaped design to best see and hear a movie. It’s ground plan is similar to an amphitheater, where the seats are replaced with front-elevated cars. Simple enough. Of course, I couldn’t stop there. I read on, and half an hour later, I knew everything there was to know about drive-ins. Of course I also learned that drive-ins have all but disappeared in this country, and there are several theories as to why that is. One of the most popular reasons was the adoption of Daylight Savings Time (DST).

As you might expect, my curiosity did not stop there, and this led me to the Wikipedia page on the history of DST, and an introduction to each of the countries that use it, those that have abandoned it, and those that have never adopted it. I learned that most of the world doesn’t use DST, most prominently in the parts of the world on the Equator or with temperate climates. It makes sense that climates that experience very little change in the amount of sunlight during the day and with little variability between the seasons would not benefit from altering their clocks. Of course, this irregular time system from country to country wreaks havoc on scheduling, from flights to videoconferencing, and has led to much confusion over the last near-century.  In America, DST was briefly adopted during the two World Wars, repealed after both, until finally become law under the Uniform Time Act of 1966. DST became more widely accepted and supported during the energy crisis of the ’70s. However, it remains controversial to this day. Arizona doesn’t use it, but the Navajo Nation does on their reservations across Arizona, and three other states. That’s not confusing at all. I would have never imagined I could be so interested in Daylight Savings Time, but it was absolutely fascinating to compare the countries that adopted it and how controversial an issue it has been since its inception. As I often do, I consulted maps to help me understand the breadth of this issue, and the countries that failed to get on board. I was spiraling down the rabbit hole, and one click led to another, and my synapses were firing rapidly. The descent continued.

While reading about DST, I came across the British Prime Minister who was serving while an English member of Parliament first proposed the adoption in England. This led me to read about every Prime Minister between 1800 and 1916. Of course, this led to me to researching Parliament, and the division of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This brought me back to the history of the British Parliament, as well as a thorough reading about Torries and Whigs. By way of internal links throughout each article, I found myself reading entire Wikipedia articles about topics such as the Thirty Year War, the English Civil War, James II, Charles I & II, the Habsburg Dynasty, Roald Dahl, the Glorious Revolution, and somehow, two fascinating articles on TP – toilet roll orientation and the great toilet paper debate. This last one was so interesting, I had to post it on Facebook.

By the time I looked at the clock, I had read dozens of pages on global history, and on a wide variety of topics. I was shocked to realize I had lost six hours. It’s probably good that I don’t have kids. It’s remarkable how easy it is to surf the Net and lose all track of time.

I am no scholar on any of the topics I read tonight. However, I have demonstrated how easy the Internet makes it to know a little about a lot of things. Naturally, at some point, there needs to be more comprehensive and rigorous learning, but there’s also virtue in being able to lose six hours to learning a few new things. I certainly know more than I did a short while ago.