Tuesday, December 07, 2004

An Opt-Out Wind Energy Fee

Last year, a group of students at Harvard’s Kennedy School got wind of what millions of students, consumers, businesses, governments and various organizations had been doing for years: paying a little extra money to get some clean, renewable energy. They lobbied the student government and the administration and encouraged their peers to vote on a referendum that would add a small fee to students’ term bills. The reasons for doing so were clear enough to the majority of the school’s public policy students: the planet’s energy supply, weakened by the bombing of oil pipelines and the explosive jitters of investors, seemed as unstable as the planet’s environment and health. Today, all of the Kennedy School’s energy comes from the wind.

This week, Harvard undergraduates have an opportunity that students at hundreds of schools, including the Kennedy School, Duke, the University of North Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania, have already taken: the chance to bring healthy, clean renewable energy to the College.

At particular issue is whether a $10 fee to pay the premium for such energy—mandatory or optional—should be placed on students’ term bills, and whether, if optional, such a fee should be one that students pay only by checking a box on their bill (“opt-in”), or pay by default with the opportunity not to pay, again by checking a box (“opt-out”).

Of course, some wonder why students, and not Harvard, should foot the bill for renewable energy. The answer is two-fold. First, the administration isn’t prepared to do so at this point, so it’s up to the students to get started, with the expectation that the administration will recognize how important this is to students. Second, we students are the ones using energy in the dorms, the ones whose energy use impacts the environment for better or worse. An optional fee isn’t a burden on students, but an opportunity.

If you’re in support of optional renewable energy, an “opt-out” fee is superior to an “opt-in” fee: it avoids the problem of having to “revote” when you (or your parents) pay the term bill, and it ensures that enough money will be secured for a renewable energy purchase even if people forget to tick a box on their term bill. Since students, and not parents, are the ones using energy in the dorms, making the fee “opt-out” will extend the power of students’ decision from the ballot to the term bill, while still allowing for the veto power of students and parents at the time of payment.

The money collected would be handled by a new committee of students and faculty who will be dedicated to making the best purchasing decision at the time and to deciding what portion of the money, if any, should go toward on-campus renewable energy projects. The idea comes with the endorsement of a bevy of student groups, including this newspaper, and all of the candidates for Undergraduate Council president. And a little over a year ago, when undergraduates were polled about paying an extra $25 per year for renewable energy, 69 percent of respondents said they would (17 percent said they weren’t sure). Those results and a wealth of other information can be found at www.greencrimson.com/energy.

Currently, each Harvard undergrad produces roughly 3,340 lbs. of pollutants per year; if each student were to pay $10 to purchase 25 percent of our dorms’ energy from a regional wind farm, the improvement would be equivalent to taking 2,200 cars off the road every year, or planting 260,000 trees.

At a time when the school’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 40 percent over the past 12 years, a vote for a small optional renewable energy fee offers us Harvard students the opportunity to play a greater role in an environment each of us already affect. Think of a fee as paying a premium cost for a better product, or investing in an economically and politically stable resource that will lead to a healthier environment, all at the cost of a movie ticket. Ben Affleck movies never looked so bad.

The reasons for paying an extra $10 are blowing in the wind. Today scientists—most recently an eight nation group called the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment—mostly agree that the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere has caused a greenhouse effect like never before, resulting in not only increased temperatures, but also in increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts.

But whether or not one believes that our current energy supply is detrimental to the weather, the effects of burning coal and oil are felt at home, and in our lungs, every day. The stuff that comes out of power plant smokestacks has contributed to make asthma one of the fastest growing childhood ailments in industrial and developing countries alike, and has also recently been linked to lung cancer. Here in Massachusetts, where five power plants burn thousands of tons of coal every year, the effects on surrounding communities are significant. A 2000 study by the Harvard School of Public Health Professors Jack Spengler and Jonathan Levy concluded that two local coal-fired power plants, one in Salem and one in Somerset, led directly to a combined 1,710 emergency room visits, 43,300 asthma attacks, and 298,000 daily incidents of upper respiratory symptoms per year.

Harvard’s purchase of wind energy will not only fuel interest in renewable energy by invigorating its ever-growing market, thus making coal plants increasingly obsolete: a purchase will also send a strong message that the thoughtful, intelligent students of the best school in the world understand and care about the impact we as Harvard students have on the local and global environments about which we spend our days learning.

Importantly, that influential message will be felt not just far and wide, but around the Yard—to the administrators and trustees who decide how to lead Harvard—and to the current and future students—who decide how to lead the world.

We think a small step like this is commensurate with the kind of world-shaping Harvard students hope to do when they leave the gates: that is, work not just for oneself, or for a particular cause, or even for one’s school, but for the greater good—to actually make a world of difference.

Alex L. Pasternack ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House, and is also a Crimson editor. Matthew W. Mahan ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. He is also the president of the Undergraduate Council.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Sufjan Stevens Profile

Published on Friday, November 19, 2004
Biblically minded folkie shares faith in song—just don’t call it Christian rock

Crimson Staff Writer Even if your only religion involves band t-shirts and b-side vinyl, consider for a moment an afternoon organ recital at your local cathedral as a perfect, albeit unlikely, refuge from today’s folk-pop play list: a salvation, if not from evil, then from present day independent music’s fuzzy instruments, vague lyrics and disaffected warbles, so often praised by the disaffected critics at that God of indie webzines, known, perhaps fittingly, as Pitchforkmedia.com.

Listening to Sufjan Stevens, 29-year-old songwriter and rising folk darling (even Pitchfork loves him), is one such sanctuary, a slightly dark, unabashedly earnest and hopeful experience. With the delicate voice of a young man who’s just losing his world-weary reticence, Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yan), whether in conversation or in song, perpetually sounds as if he’s making his transcendent re-entrance to a simpler place with a sweet, happy calmness.

If the sight of the cherub-faced troubadour serenely strumming alongside his troupe of happy horn players, bell-ringers and la-la-laaing singers (all of them friends, and all of them shockingly gorgeous) isn’t one of the most convincing displays of transcendence-by-banjo, just check out the congregation. At the Middle East club last Sunday, there was none of that self-conscious swaying-and-chanting stuff, but there was ample staring and a lot of smiling. The cynical, pierced ears of all the emo kids were melting.

That feat is even more impressive considering his favorite topics of late. First, there is his home state of Michigan, to which his 2003 album Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State is a tribute (he has a plan to do the other 49 too, and will continue with Illinois—“I’ve been reading a lot about Lincoln, poetry by Carl Sandberg, doing research,” he says). And then there’s his other favorite topic: his Father.

Yep, that Father.

You can call Sufjan good—he is very, very good, in a few senses of the word—but don’t call him a Christian musician. “My music is just about story telling,” he offers. “I don’t have much to say, and I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind.” On the phone from California, where he’s rehearsing for indie-rock’s prestigious All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, Sufjan sounds just as polite and delicate as he does on record. “I’m just singing through conviction about what I love and what I care about, starting with the very small.”

Sufjan’s interest in the small carries over into a perfectionist precision in his music and voice. His poetry grows universal through its vivid specificity and his concerns, whether bathed in joy or pathos, are important to us because every syllable and every note is important to him, a result of years pouring over the ornaments of Bach, the flourishes of Debussey, and the complexities of Philip Glass—“Although I’m not going to pretend I’m on that level of sophistication.”

But both technically and emotionally, it’s hard not to be love-struck by the dancing patterns, shimmering percussive explosions and pin-pricked arpeggios that animate his vivid meditations, which may be on fraying familial relationships, the unemployed of Flint, Michigan, or, to take an example from his latest album, the story of Abraham.

Of course, singing about things like that in the world of popular music verges on the sacrilegious. Despite being the bedrock for much of our civilization’s greatest artists, from Michelangelo to Joyce, God hasn’t fared too well on stereos in recent decades. Like protest or political anthems, “praise” songs are relegated to the farthest possible margins of coolness, not just because of their pedantic (and un-cosmopolitan) message, but because their preaching and passion doesn’t make for very good music. In the case of the ever-demonized field of Christian rock, top-40-hood isn’t totally out of the question—that is, until listeners realize what over-the-top trash they’re singing along to.

There are of course notable exceptions: Kanye West has brought God back to mainstream rap (“Well if this take away from my spins / which will probably take away from my ends / then I hope it take away from my sins” is his approach to the popular/religious music divide) while good singer-songwriters like Joseph Arthur and Pedro the Lion have been doing the same in indie music. If the folk and emo sensibilities of rap and indie-pop make these genres friendlier to religion than usual, these genres also tend to be more self-conscious, making the music itself better but making the audience harder to please at the same time.

If Sufjan is pleasing them it is not just despite of, but also because of his particular spin on praising the Lord. While his Christian leanings remained largely invisible for last year’s folk-rock revelation, Greetings from Michigan, they aren’t hiding at all on his newest and just-as-lovely record, Seven Swans. But forget the apparent flag-waving of titles like “Abraham,” or “The Transfiguration” or “In the Devil’s Territory;” Sufjan never eats the apple of triteness, excess, or pedantry. He always dignifies his audience and his subject matter by directing his adoration into an occasionally unearthly music that nonetheless never leaves human ground, never falling into the preachy.

This is how Sufjan can get even the most secular of listeners not only to appreciate his tributes to his One Love but also to partake in their beauty too. In the album’s title song, when he sings, atop a melodious mountain of voices and bells and old piano, “He will take you / If you run / He will chase you / ’Cause he is the Lord!” his most potentially melodramatic moment becomes his most transporting.

Among his audience, it is debatable whether beautiful love songs like “To Be Alone With You,” which could as easily be addressed to a “she” as to a “He,” deserve to be pigeonholed as “Christian music” at all. Sufjan certainly doesn’t think so. His only interest is making songs about his own private love, and hopes that people can remember to love, something, anyone, in the midst of a troubled world.

Speaking of which—and considering his obsessions with the fifty states and God Himself—not asking Sufjan about America’s peculiar mixture of religion and politics is like not asking John Kerry if he supported the war in Iraq.

“Christianity is a faith that has no interest in power or no meaning in an environment of power or wealth,” he explains, his lilt turning slightly urgent but remaining delicate. “The moral imperative is a delusion, and [in terms of the election] I think it’s a distraction; [Christianity] is not a faith of morals or principles; it’s about a relationship, service in love to God and other people. If it were about morals and virtues, I don’t think Jesus would have pissed off so many Jews; he was doing things that were considered obscene. He was doing work on the Sabbath, he was a messy angry person. He definitely wasn’t guided by principles.”

Sufjan’s religious upbringing, he says, was a mix of untraditional Midwestern beliefs encouraged by his hippie parents: “Amway, self-realization training, methods camp, Catholic school, macrobiotic diets, yoga—we jumped from thing to thing.” He landed on protestant Christianity because he found it grounding, “so simple and stable.”

What he sees in the Christianity of “red state” American politics however, of the moral standards of “the religious right” and the Christian Coalition, is something else entirely, amounting to nothing more than “a political lobbying group.”

“Morals, principles and laws are when faith is reduced to standards and those standards basically just bind us, and we become prejudicial, racist, self-serving when we’re guided by these laws... When a developed country uses Christianity in its policies, in government, in maintaining corporate wealth, that’s a bastardized rendering of a faith.”

For his part, Sufjan is keeping the faith by remaining faithful to the music he’s been making since the oboe in middle school, since the dog days of “Readers Digest renderings of famous classical works.” If he’s not writing arrangements for his new album on the piano, he’s tuning his banjo or tapping a beat on the computer, an instrument he learned could be “really musical.” Evidence can be found on his electro-acoustic opus, “Enjoy Your Rabbit,” which he recorded while getting his masters in writing at the New School of Social Research in New York. And like most artists who live in Brooklyn, he practices freelance graphic design on the side.

And then there’s Sufjan’s new record label, called Asthmatic Kitty. While he’s doing “a lot right now” for the label, he’s definitely looking forward to doing less organizational work and more finding new bands with his friends. “It’s not quite a cooperative situation, but everyone has a certain stock in the label. It’s a very social thing.”

The social aspect is part of his whole vision too, what gives his music humanity—and humaneness. Despite the size of his ideas or his concerns or his devotion, Sufjan always wanders back to the local level.

“This election was about big issues which have no impact on our day-to-day lives,” he says on Nov. 5, “but we’re about the small things. We should care about caring for each other; TV is ruining us; sometimes I get depressed and feel like this is the decline of civilization. Politicians aren’t interested in what the people want: they’re interested in their careers.”

Even though Sufjan’s own career is pretty well established, you’d be hard pressed to say that’s all he was interested in, if he is at all. “If there’s anything to say, if there’s anything to do,” he sings on the Michigan album, “If there’s any other way, I’ll do anything for you.” His real interest is in what his God wants, and what a lot of people in Michigan and all the other states want too: some beautiful home-grown harmonious love.

—Staff writer Alex L. Pasternack can be reached at apastern@fas.harvard.edu.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Matt and Ben at Winthrop House (my house!)

Originally published on Monday, November 01, 2004 in the News section of The Harvard Crimson.

Theater Review: Dynamic Duo Humors with Past
On Theater

Writing a hit script is about as hard as finding a parking space in the Square (or so goes one playwright’s saying, I think). When the producers of the hit play Matt and Ben couldn’t find a venue in the area that would suit their playful fiction-based-on-fact one-act about the younger travails of Messrs. Damon and Affleck, they opted for a space as unlikely, and as good, as any: the Winthrop House Junior Common Room. This is where, Harvardwood lore has it, the illustrious Mr. Damon emoted his last emotion as a babyfaced undergrad actor, just before leaving to begin a now fabled campaign to write and sell Good Will Hunting, a script he began in an English department playwriting class (reportedly).
That stage (which is actually a temporary assemblage of whatever plywood happens to be on hand), and its set, a straightforward gathering of dorm room furniture and the staple Red Sox banners and Rock Bottom beer handles, may be the only piece of vérité (or Veritas, if you will) the play has in common with its historical inspiration: how in 1995, the Harvard perfectionist and his fun-loving high school buddy wrote the screenplay that launched a thousand People magazine covers. Indeed, the folklore that surrounds these two Cantabridgians is the subtext for Matt and Ben, which, with a bevy of gossipy pop-cultured winks, doesn’t even aim for accuracy. One of the play’s biggest jokes is clear as soon as the lights go up: not only do the actors bear no resemblance to their real-life counterparts, but neither are men, and the one playing Ben Affleck is black. If we did not know this trick ahead of time, not even the J.Lo-Affleck phenomenon commonly known as Bennifer (defined at urbandictionary.com as “A horrible combination that may ultimately bring about the apocalypse”) could prepare us for this surprise.

In any other play, this conceit could be part of the message that our beloved famous people aren’t actually who they appear to be, or something about identity construction etc., but fortunately Matt and Ben has lighter interests. In a turn of meta-theatrical cheekiness—and out of economic necessity—playwrights and Dartmouth grads Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers took up the acting ropes when the play first opened at P.S. 122 in New York, to rave reviews that culminated in top honors at the city’s Fringe Festival in 2002. The actor-character gimmick, embodied in the current production by the very talented Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Ben and Jennifer R. Morris as Matt, might have more to say about how scripts are turned into full-on productions, or how stars are born, than anything else. As the play tells us, accurately I should add, the real Matt and Ben demanded that their movie would not be made unless they had featured roles in it.

The single-minded drive of these two characters is evident from the start, as they flounder around Ben’s Somerville apartment trying mindlessly to adapt J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye for the big screen. Bernstine’s knuckleheaded take on Affleck as a needy and whiny dilettante who can’t get an audition, complements Morris’s nerdy portrayal of the bossy, perfectionist Damon, edging both into the pathetic—if only we can forget the Academy Award and subsequent millions of dollars. Thankfully, we can. That these wimpy characters are both totally absurd and credible is a testament to the comic virtuosity of the writers and actors, and the lively but un-adorned direction of David Warren. The performance plays on the audience’s pre-established relationship with the real life Matt and Ben, dropping references to their past, contemporary and future lives, while managing to suspend the disbelief that comes with watching their over-the-top stage versions (not to mention their real-life “versions”). The impersonations—including additional riotous send-ups of Salinger and Gwyneth Paltrow—rely only partly on an impressionistic array of Matt and Ben-esque gestures, mannerisms and speech rhythms: hence the characters’ delightful confusion over which is the highest form of flattery, “imitation” or “adaptation.”

The other big joke is also dropped on our heads, and on Ben’s coffee table, as the lights go up: the script for Good Will Hunting was not the product of late-night improv sessions but a gift from the heavens. As much as this confirms our most delectable suspicion that even the real Matt and Ben can’t be for real (ok, I’m speaking for myself here), it is also the deus ex machina that sets in motion a test of friendship that jumps from one joke to the next, happily with little room for sentimentality.

Watching the two fret like babies over the script miracle is as funny as watching them fret like babies over who gets more credit, over whether Catcher in the Rye is a better idea, over whether to work together. The friendship’s defining moment is a talent show in high school (Cambridge’s Ringe and Latin) when Ben’s goofy dancing turns Matt’s serious Simon and Garfunkel rendition into a shtick. The incident defines the characters too, who haven’t much outlived that immaturity, and the play itself, whose humor could be likened to that of a very good TV sitcom: not brilliant, not incredibly sophisticated, but—considering the big gimmicks here, this is significant—not the kind that depends on cheap tricks either. And, Matt and Ben aside, perhaps the same should be said for the real Matt and Ben too.

But, then again, where’s the fun in that?

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Review: Hellboy, Special Edition DVD

The Harvard Crimson, October 29, 2004

Directed by Guilermo Del Toro

Columbia Pictures

If, to the purist, movie adaptations of novels are the equivalent of glorified book jackets, adaptations of comic books might be no-brainers: with the visuals already on paper, Hollywood writers and directors get to bypass the harder and, often, more imaginative steps of screen translation. But shortcutting is too often to the detriment of the films, not to mention unfair to their parent comics—the X-Men and Spiderman movies being among the rare exceptions. Hellboy, is another dark horse in this inked-up Hollywood universe, a steam-train of an adaptation that stays vividly faithful to the comic book engine underneath, even as it accommodates those whose only experience with a “graphic novel” film is Dangerous Liaisons.

The ways Hellboy manages to balance these audiences, like its special effects, are a sight to behold. Director and writer Guillermo Del Toro takes Mike Mignola’s cult-fave comic to new depths, adding meat to the hero and villains, expanding the back-story, and throwing in a crucial monster-human love story that the books lacked. But Del Toro’s adoration for the off-kilter miasma of Mignola’s world and the monster-fighting monster is also evident in his attention to the bizarre detail and playful spirit of the comic.

Everything from the gothic scenery to the story’s vaudevillian tone seeps through Guillermo Navarro’s vibrant photography and Del Toro’s script, as full of thrills as it is of an anti-formulaic, self-aware logic. Ron Perlman, of TV’s Beauty and the Beast fame, has the chops (and the eyebrows and the jawbones) to deliver Hellboy’s throwaway one-liners and punches with the appropriate devil-may-care élan: he’s Dirty Harry with a penchant for beer and pancakes, a superhero-everyman less detached than Batman and much cooler than Spiderman.

And, with a bad temper, a troubled relationship with a sultry firestarter (Selma Blair), and dark beginnings (some Nazis and Rasputin—stay with me here—invited him over from Hell through an inter-dimensional portal, before he was raised by the U.S. government), he makes Superman look like Al Gore. If that makes the tempestuous and down-to-earth Hellboy a more popular superhero version of our president, well, some may not argue with that. (Just as an FBI agent wonders if “we should go back and request a special permit, type 2—,” Hellboy punches through the brick wall. BRRRAM! “You guys comin’ or what?” he asks with a wink.)

Considering Del Toro’s deft exposition of the backstory, deepening Hellboy’s craggy recesses is probably unnecessary; but, in an era when films are shot with the DVD in mind, necessity takes a back-seat to the three disc special edition, complete with collector’s booklet of arcane diagrams and vulgar Latin. Character bios, conceptual art and hours of behind-the-scenes commentary abound; one feature even allows the viewer to jump from the movie into comic book expositions at crucial moments. The trigger-happy viewer will quickly dissolve into Hellboy nerd-dom, muttering “I did not know that” as he is apprised of the items on Hellboy’s utility belt.

While such extras may verge on the excessive, having background footage and extra features is far nicer than just silly screen-saver animations, especially when DVDs have so much space for extras anyway, and when the films themselves are as fun as Hellboy. Only a few recent DVDs, including the special editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, can, with justification, rival Hellboy’s encyclopedic treatment of the imaginaries and pools of ink that gave rise to its film version. Of course, only the devil knows what kind of tome we’ll get after the inevitable Hellboy sequels.

—Alex L. Pasternack

Friday, October 22, 2004

Sounds of Silence: New albums that know when to shut up

Review: Adem, Homesongs, and Kings of Convenience, Riot on an Empty Street

Harvard Independent, October 21, 2004

By Alex Pasternack

These days it’s hard to find records, even “folk” ones, that aren’t laced up with some slick production team, some ambient hum, or even the thick click of a drum machine somewhere in the background, lest there be a moment of silence. The slight twinkle that opens Adem Ilhan’s debut, Homesongs, could easily signal another attempt at folk-tronica, but it’s actually a sendoff. As his wistful, distortionless voice and guitar spread over the song, accompanied by a rattling autoharp, Mr. Ilhan reveals the song’s most important feature: a ponderous quiet. “Let this be a moment that you won’t forget,” he sings delicately.

This is no minor feat, but it seems even grander, in its own understated way, after a glance at his resume. Since high school he’s been the bassist and guitarist for a post-rock outfit called Fridge, which weaned him on the 1s and 0s, bleeps and pedals that bandmate Kieran Hebden skillfully wields in his own electronic solo act as Four Tet.

Instead of relying on laptop accoutrements however, Mr. Ilhan determinedly stuck with his trusty six-string and, over a few years of bedroom recording sessions, discovered he had another old-fashioned instrument lying around: a dark, personable tenor that can ably wind through hymns (“Long Drive Home”) and unlikely pop songs (“These Are Your Friends”), without losing its valuable sense of wobbliness, an uncertainty that floats between desperation and distance. When he sings, almost moaning, “It’s alright, everything will be alright,” on “Gone Away,” he is talking to himself as much as to a former lover.

But his intimacy doesn’t prevent an occasional intensity, appearing in the album’s warmer, more symphonic moments and pieced together from instruments exotic and accidental. Amidst the lonesome harmony of glockenspiel or harmonium, Adem allows the spindly rattle of guitar strings, the sound of lips opening and the sprinkle of indistinct background noises to spill in, creating a soundscape that is sparse but still expansive and inviting. That combination is fitting for an album of heartsick lost-love letters that relish the quiet of loneliness while still reaching out to the listener with compassion. “There will always be room at my table for you,” is his last beautiful refrain.

The divide between happy isolation and lovelorn wistfulness also drives a set of even quieter ballads on Riot on an Empty Street, the new album by the Norwegian duo of Erlend Oye and Eirik Glambek Boe, who go by the moniker Kings of Convenience. While the disquiet of that title—and that of their debut, Quiet is the New Loud, and Mr. Oye’s solo album, Unrest—is hardly evident in the Kings’ placid tenors, their lyrics capture the contradiction of moving forward while looking back. “Stay out of trouble, stay in touch / Try not to think about me too much,” is their mantra on one song, sounding as effortless as it is heartbreaking.

As with their lyricism, the Kings are firmly stuck in the past, not so much the founders of a “New Acoustic movement,” as the British press once dubbed it, as they are the inheritors of a pop-folk crown. Alongside lonely British troubadours like Damien Gough (Badly Drawn Boy) and Andy Votel, the Kings hardly stray far from the meandering footsteps of Elliot Smith, Nick Drake, and especially Simon and Garfunkel. But unlike their 60’s counterparts (of whom they do as impressive an imitation in their harmonies as on their cover photography), the Kings don’t want to be alone. On both Kings covers, a girl sits coyly in between them, a symbol of reticent sexuality that Simon and Garfunkel all but abandoned for the solitude of “I Am A Rock.”

The Kings attempt to step out of their progenitors’ shadow with the cutesy, upbeat, “I’d Rather Dance With You,” won’t rouse many listeners out of their hammocks. But the bossa-nova experiments on some songs (the guitar and trombone song “Live Long,” and the lovely, piano-sprinkled “Misread”) along with the introduction of a female vocalist, the tidal-voiced Leslie Feist, signals a still-growing, promising sound, with a lyricism less cloying and twee than before. Any lingering doubts about their preciousness are washed away in “Gold in the Air of Summer,” the Kings’ best song to date, in which guitar, piano and an effulgent, swelling trombone give way to a hard-won but decisive dismissal of what’s come before: “I’ve brought everything we need/ don’t look back, don’t think of the/ other places you should have been/ It’s a good thing you came along with me.” Yes, it is.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

I Don’t Heart Huckabees

Review: I Heart Huckabees, opens October 1
Appeared in The Harvard Independent

There’s a lot of sizing-up staring in I Heart Huckabees. You know, a slightly turned head with narrow eyes looking warily at someone who, in this case, is usually doing likewise. The existential detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (played exhaustively by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) do it with a feverish intensity, perhaps because this is the only way they can size up their inscrutable subjects, like the protagonist and environmental activist Albert Markovski (Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman). He is prone to fits of cosmic frustration over the true relevance of saving trees or how best to organize against the corporate conglomerate Huckabees, which is threatening to build on a precious swamp. But his real problem, naturally, is the gangly seven-foot Sudanese refugee he keeps encountering around town.

To the detectives, this is no mere coincidence. “Everything is connected and everything matters,” is Dustin Hoffman’s mantra, (or at other times, “everything is the same even if it’s different”, etc.) ideas he forces on his subjects through repetition, meditation sessions in a body bag, demonstrations with a white blanket. In writer-director David O. Russell’s logic, the sophistry is meant to be funny, but Mr. Hoffman’s quirky, happy-go-lucky idealism, like the nihilism of his sultry Sartreist archrival Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), manages to imbue them with some profundity too.

Russell has already proved capable of combining the heavy and light, the intelligent and the playful, to create films that fudge the line between surreal and documentary. 1996’s semi-slapstick Flirting with Disaster, which channeled Woody Allen through acid, is the finest and most thoughtful of those Ben Stiller “oh my god, why is this happening to me!?” movies. And then there’s Russell’s inspired and beautiful 1999 buddy action-comedy Three Kings turned the wasteland of post-Desert Storm Iraq into a fiery playground for meditations on American cultural influence, foreign policy, and an oil-seeped, image-driven war machine. Any questions about Russell’s commitment to the serious might be settled by his forthcoming documentary, Soldiers Pay, culled from a series of provocative interviews with American soldiers and some of the actors from Three Kings, who are actual Iraqi refugees.

Global concerns underlie I Heart Huckabees too: corporate conglomeration, the environment, personal responsibility, the aftermath of 9/11, marriage and family are all given shout-outs here. But amidst the film’s simultaneous spiritual obsessions and quirky situation comedy, shout-outs are all these topics get. Russell’s approach is surrealist, calling the viewer’s attention to unlikely combinations of thoughts and images that do not match and can just barely be sustained. But here the effect is only amusing for so long; unlike the Magritte painting that hangs in Albert’s office, the more you stare at the mix, the more exhausting it becomes. In the movie’s flawed surreality, hilarious one-liners, smart philosophical questions and powerful performances (especially from Jude Law and Naomi Watts, who play the golden boy Huckabees executive and his model girlfriend) might give us a refreshing Hollywood product, but they don’t add up to anything very emotional or intelligent. And in the case of a recent screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, they do add up to more than a few audience goers stumbling for the exit, a near-sacrilege at preview screenings, especially when the director and star are present (they were).

Decoding what a clever movie is trying to do and how it does it is always part of the fun, but with a movie only half-clever it’s more often a waste of time, a job we ought to leave to movie critics if they are so bored. My idea: the movie about the absurdity and enormity of life, but also about the absurdity of trying to make sense of that absurdity, and also about the absurdity of trying not to care about that absurdity too. With such scattered intent, scenes can be both protracted and empty, and the film isn’t quite sure not to know how to be serious when it is trying to be, or how to be very funny either. Ultimately, it feels like one of those overly drawn out jokes, almost funnier for its persistence and tedium than its content, and even then not that funny. The movie’s ultimate irony of course is that life itself is the joke, but that perhaps by telling the joke we can assert some order over life’s absurdity.

In a sense then, the movie operates the way some modernist poets wrote: in a world in which subjectivity is washed over by industrialization, corporations, and environmental destruction, the poem balances ideals with cynicism and, in so doing, leaves the audience both stunned and lost, searching for more personal meanings if any can be found at all. But it’s the postmodern influence—the non-reaction reaction to the hypnotic power of globalization and contemporary affairs, (a time in which “everything’s the same even if its different”)—that’s ultimately louder amidst all the philosophical bricolage and surrealist imagery. In the film’s self-canceling metaphysical calculus, the only thing lamentable about life is lament itself. The rest of living, like I Heart Huckabees, is a lot of confusion that, after we’re done staring at, trying to size up and figure out, we might simply, somehow, find a way to enjoy. Or at least ignore, and go back to our own more compelling, more surreal lives.

Monday, August 30, 2004


Young and Republican — and Proud of It


    Zara Kozlov, a sprightly 24-yearold from New Jersey, cuts an image of suburban wholesomeness, rounded out with old-fashioned manners. At 5’4”, wearing a pink tank top and waves of short brunette hair, she meets her interviewer exactly when she says she will (“I can guarantee 2:15”) — not a minute later or earlier.
    She’s been diligently preparing for her final year Cordoza School of Law in the Village, where she helps edit its law journal. Yet, when classes start, she’ll be playing hooky — opting to attend one big party. Ms. Kozlov is New Jersey’s youngest delegate to the Republican National Convention, and one of the youngest in the country.
    “The phone’s been ringing off the hook,” she said, standing amidst the bustle outside Madison Square Garden. “I’m so not used to being the center of attention.”
    At a time when the youngest political participants in the upcoming election are expected to be rallying behind barricades, Ms. Kozlov is a rare example of the Republican party brushing off its sometimes stodgy image. Spokesmen tout this convention’s delegates as the Party’s most diverse, with 17% representing ethnic minorities, and 44% women.
    Ms. Kozlov is another exception to the Republican stereotype: a young Jewish twenty-something who reads William Bennett and lights up at the mention of RNC chairman Ed Gillespie’s name (“He’s great!”).
    Ms. Kozlov sat in a café in Penn Station, beneath the floor where she’ll stand next week, describing her role in the convention with carefully chosen words.
    “Being a young, Jewish adult is kind of an anomaly for the Republicans,” she says, “but I think it’s a good one because it allows people to see that Republican politics in 2004 isn’t as one-dimensional as people think it is. That’s what I’m here to say.”
    Being a delegate is a kind of activism in itself, she suggests, an opportunity to debate with those who would pigeonhole conservative ideals, or think Republicans are “a small group of people…Christian fundamentalists or wealthy, non-Jewish 45-year-old men.”
    “If anything that” — the Republican stereotype — “would propel me to get involved more rather than dissuade me from getting involved.”
    Ms. Kozlov was raised in a happy reform Jewish household in Cherry Hill, N.J., with weekends at their beach house in Longport. She says she loves to party; but Jenna Bush she is not. “I never did anything that my parents would yell at me for; the most I ever did was push to see how far I could go.”
    Her first foray into politics came when she was a college junior, during an internship on Capitol Hill for her congressman, Republican representative James Saxton. She says she first recognized her Republican leanings at the end of President Clinton’s first term. “It was a gradual, evolving perspective that I gained, listening to candidates and balancing their views.”
    She describes her opinion-making as well considered. She rarely needed to convince conservative classmates at her alma mater, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, or at the family dinner table — her father, attorney Hersh Kozlov, is one of the president’s big fund-raisers. But most of her friends are liberal.
    “It compels me to get involved more,” she says of her casual debates with classmates at law school. “I don’t stand up on a platform and state my views, but,” she says excitedly, “I’ll go at it with my roommate quite often.”
    And then there is her new fiance, Evan, a registered Democrat who she’s hoping to convert by Election Day. “We don’t agree on most political issues…but I don’t think he’s made up his mind yet on who he’s gonna vote for,” she says with a slightly devious smile.
    Her views on women’s reproductive rights and civil unions are moderate — though “marriage in the eyes of the law is more an issue of religion” she says after much internal deliberation.
    Still, the war and the economy are no-brainers for Ms. Kozlov, and so is her biggest issue: restoring dignity and unity to America.
    “Sandy Berger was caught stuffing confidential documents into his socks, and not one Democrat could stand up and denounce what he had done. I think that 20 years ago you wouldn’t have found that,” she says disdainfully. Her fervent defense of President Bush ultimately hinges on the fact that he has managed to keep the White House free of Whitewaters and Lewinskys. “Whether you agree with his politics or not…he’s been on the whole a tremendous example for the United States, especially for young people.”
    Still, Mr. Bush can’t elicit the kind of smile from Ms. Kozlov that her hero, President Reagan, can. “I think he was very fair in his ability to see both sides. He wasn’t too left or too right, and I think he did a fantastic job of bringing Americans together.”
    Clearly, Ms. Kozlov won’t be completely satisfied with just a symbolic role for the party. Probed for information about her own future, she mentions a law firm, legal aid work, and the standard response about her definite political plans: “I don’t know in what capacity. I haven’t ruled anything out yet.”
    For now though, it’s banner-waving and schmoozing, and excitement at the prospect of shaking hands with Mayor Giuliani and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (a cocktail hour with Mr. Bush is already on her schedule).
    “Actually, as excited as I am,” she says of her turn at the convention, “I don’t want to consider this a once-ina-lifetime opportunity. Because I hope it’s not.”

U.S. Open Draws an Apolitical Crowd

By ALEX PASTERNACK Special to The Sun

    As activists and conventioneers from around the country converged at Madison Square Garden, another excited — though more reserved — group of outof-towners assembled in Flushing. The only rally they were interested in was a quiet one between players on a court at the USTA National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open tournament starts today.
    Hundreds of tourists trickled onto the grounds in Flushing to watch players practice free of charge — a tradition for tennis enthusiasts and a reminder that the convention isn’t the only big show in town.
    While the Brazilian champion Gustavo Kuerten warmed up with his coach in the Louis Armstrong stadium, Steven Echsner of Gulf Breeze, Fla., said he and his wife came to the Open despite some concerns about security and inconvenience. But, sounding like a seasoned New Yorker, Mr. Echsner said they weren’t about to change their schedules just because of possible dangers — or even 500,000 delegates, guests, and protesters, who would be amassing not far from their (heavily protected) Rockefeller Center hotel.
    “The president’s security might be jeopardized but we don’t feel any more or less of a threat than we did when we were here last year or the year before,” he said. “If you analyze it too much you get this analysis paralysis. It’s the 21stcentury challenge: You have to be aware of these problems but you can’t alter your life.”
    “If something had happened we probably wouldn’t have come,” his wife, Rebecca added from her courtside seat. But we wanted to be here, at least for the qualifiers.”
    She said that coming the day before the tournament “gives you more of an opportunity to see everybody; if you go later in the week, during the semifinals and finals, you miss people, plus the crowds get worse.”
    Overcrowding, considering the amount of people in town, was a concern on the minds of others in Flushing yesterday. Charles Waters, who drove from Philadelphia with friends, said he was thankful that Manhattan was not on their route to the tournament. They drove through Staten Island.
    “It’s scary. Having the U.S. Open, the Republican convention, the protestors all at the same time, it’s too many people in one area,” he said.“If we had had to come through Manhattan, we might not have come.”
    But Mr. Waters was focused more on tennis than terrorism. He agreed that the free practice-watching was one of the city’s best bargains. “Problem is you have to ask people to find out who’s practicing. If they had their names up, it would be more fun.”
    Among those spotted hitting balls yesterday were Mary Pierce, Gustavo Kuerten, and the Bryan brothers, who played a small rock concert before conducting a tennis clinic.
    Terry Marquardt, a guest of delegates at the convention, came to Flushing for a Mets game and decided to stop by the Open. He and his boss, Michigan state Senator Judd Gilbert, happened upon a practice match between Jennifer Capriati and Wimbleon winner Maria Sharapova. “It was kinda neat. We walked in and they were hitting back and forth,” he said.
    What will they be doing for the rest of the week?
    “We’ll be going to a lot of the receptions and the convention sessions.” He added with a satisfied chuckle,“I think we’re going to a Yankees game later in the week.”

Friday, August 27, 2004

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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Miramax Rejects RNC Anti-Kerry Film

By ALEX PASTERNACK Special to the Sun

A proposal by the Republican National Committee to put a short documentary attacking John Kerry in theaters around the country was rejected by film distributor Miramax, RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie said yesterday.
   The film, a bare-bones collection of video clips of Senator Kerry making apparently contradictory statements on Iraq and entitled “Kerry Iraq Documentary,” was released at the end of July and has since been distributed on the Internet, by mail, at state fairs, and during Republican events.
   In a press conference yesterday, following a speech by Senator Kerry at Cooper Union, Mr. Gillespie acknowledged that he had asked Miramax,“the folks that distributed ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,’” to distribute the film, but “they denied that request.”
   “We’ll continue to find other creative ways to make sure that the public gets a chance to see this,” he told reporters gathered at RNC headquarters near Madison Square Garden.
   Mr. Gillespie seems to be promoting the film as the Republican answer to the successful “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
   Mr. Gillespie said the Web site that offers free downloads of the RNC film, www.kerryoniraq.com, has received 5 million hits and had more viewers “in its first week online than ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ had in its opening weekend.”
   After debuting “Kerry Iraq Documentary ” in Boston during the Democratic convention to acclaim from Republicans like Mayor Giuliani and Governor Huckabee of Arizona, Mr. Gillespie reportedly tried to contact Miramax’s chairman, Harvey Weinstein, to propose that his company distribute the film.
   Days later, Miramax rejected the request in a letter. Instead, the company offered to arrange a screening for delegates to the Republican National Convention of “Paper Clips,” its new documentary about Tennessee middle school students who learn about the Holocaust.
   “We thanked Mr.Gillespie for his submission,” said a Miramax spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik. “But we’re not doing any political films for either side now.”
   Mr. Hiltzik pointed out that Mr. Weinstein, and not Miramax itself, distributed “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Scarcity of Anti-Kerry Book on Shelves Raises Questions

Some Posit That Liberal Conspiracy Keeps It Out of Stores
By ALEX PASTERNACK Special to the Sun

While a best-selling book has brought questions about Senator Kerry’sVietnam record to the front burner, some New Yorkers are asking another question: Where is the book?
“Unfit for Command,” the centerpiece of the critique of the Democratic presidential candidate’s war experience that has played out in the press recently, rose to the top of best-seller lists this week, but shoppers say they have had a hard time finding it at New York bookstores, where it’s either sold out or given minimal promotion.
Some wonder if booksellers around this heavily Democrat city are choosing not to carry it at all,as supporters of Mr. Kerry have attempted to pull the book from shelves.
“When any political book by a celebrity author has appeared, Borders, particularly, provides prominent displays,” said Bob D’Agostino, a teacher in the Bronx who has been unable to find the book at his local bookstores.
Borders and a competitor chain, Barnes & Noble, along with a number of independent bookshops, have denied any political bias, blaming high demand and a limited first pressing of the book by its publisher, Regnery, for the book’s absence from store shelves.
The publisher “couldn’t keep up with public demand for the title. The demand was not anticipated by the publisher nor the retailers,” said a Barnes & Noble spokeswoman, Mary Ellen Keating.
At least one local bookstore, Book-Court in Cobble Hill, was reluctant to carry “Unfit for Command,” ordering the book only after some customers demanded it.
“I definitely don’t want to sell it,” one of the store’s owners, Henry Zook, said. “From an objective, business point of view, we should have one or two copies just because some inquiring minds might be interested in it, or, for instance, if somebody wants to examine it for flaws.”
Chris Finan, a spokesman for the American Booksellers Association for Free Expression, an anti-censorship group, said it was uncommon for booksellers to choose not to carry books for political reasons, adding that it was unlikely that many were refusing to carry “Unfit for Command.”
“There are probably some booksellers who aren’t selling it on principle, and they have that right by the First Amendment,” he said. “From time to time, booksellers make decisions on what they’re going to sell, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.”
Since Regnery pushed up the book’s release date, to mid-August from September 1, political talk shows and Web logs have been buzzing with fervent debate about the claims made by authors John O’Neil and Jerome Corsi, who challenge the validity of Mr. Kerry’s war medals. But discussions by TV and armchair pundits have also veered to the difficulty of finding the book, with some crying liberal conspiracy.
On Friday, for instance, conservative radio talk show host Kevin McCullough reported on his Web site that Borders was “undergoing a ‘recall’ of the book and stopping sales.”
But at Borders and most other city booksellers, managers say that business trumps politics and that they would eagerly sell the book if only they could get their hands on it.
Peggy Zieran, the manager at a Borders store on Long Island, said many would-be customers suspected the store of suppressing the book.
“We are a retailer, we don’t censor,” she said. “If we had that book we’d be making a lot of money.”
While most bookstores await new shipments from the publisher, which will have printed half a million copies of the book by next week, visits to a number of local Barnes & Noble stores found the book in ample supply and selling well.
Nonetheless, a handful of store managers say they are still receiving complaints that the book has not been given the same prominent display as bestselling books by liberal authors like filmmaker Michael Moore and columnist Maureen Dowd.
“A few weeks ago we heard people complaining about our displays of left-wing books, and now people are upset that we’re not promoting this book enough,” said an employee at the Barnes & Noble on West 66th Street.
Only three of the store’s two-dozen copies of the book were on display on the first floor, next to a large stack of copies of President Clinton’s biography, “My Life.”

Monday, August 23, 2004

New Collegians Prepare for Convention Clogging


On top of the usual uncertainties that surround the first week of college — roommates, classes, and how to find the dining hall — the thousands of freshmen arriving in New York at the end of August are facing an additional unknown: sharing their new hometown with a 300,000-person political convention.
“I’m actually really frustrated about it. It’s really hard going away to college anyway; it’s going to be so busy, and this just makes things more difficult,” said Gillian Berrow, an 18-year-old from Concord, Calif., and incoming freshman at NYU. Like most new college students around the city, Ms. Berrow’s orientation program happens to fall on the same week as the Republican National Convention.
“Everybody I’ve talked to is pretty stressed out about it,” she said.
When her parents tried to book a room at the nearby Gramercy Park hotel, where they stayed on their first visit to the college, she said they found only “astronomical” rates. “We couldn’t afford that, and it was really hard to find another hotel room.”
Parents “are finding it very, very difficult” to find accommodations, said Carol Merles, a Long Island travel agent who typically helps NYU parents book hotels. Unless they opt to stay in Westchester or New Jersey, she said, “they’re paying a lot of money for a dump in the city.”
    Ms. Berrow’s family eventually found cheap beds at the school’s student-run hotel, but concerns still remained, fueled in part by chatter on online bulletin boards for new students. “I’ve heard cabs are going to charge people more because there are so many people coming in,” Ms. Berrow said.
    In recent weeks, administrators at colleges such as NYU and Columbia  have begun planning for convention-week headaches by inviting students to move in a day earlier than usual,sending letters home warning about delays, and setting up telephone hotlines for worried parents — all the while reiterating the famous post-9/11 New York mantra: “business as usual.”
    But such provisions are doing little to shift students’ and parents’ feelings about the potential convention chaos, feelings that range from concern to excitement to ambivalence.
    Among the many parents not looking forward to the move-in is Kim Fogarty of Bay Shore, who will be helping her son Ryan move in to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts on the Saturday before the convention. The ongoing threat of terrorism is not a major concern, she said, but the inevitable traffic congestion, parking regulations, and security stops are.
    “Moving somebody into college, you know what our truck will look like,”Ms.Fogarty said.“If they try to inspect us,I’m going to make them pack us back up.”
    Instead of taking the Holland Tunnel, she and her husband will drive through Brooklyn to get to NYU.“Very honestly it’s a nightmare. I wish I could do it another weekend, but what are you gonna do?”
    Kathleen Kan, an incoming freshman at Columbia  who will be driving in with her parents from Connecticut, said she was mostly unconcerned about interruptions due to the convention, especially since her school is located 100 blocks from the convention.
    “Actually, I am excited the more I think about it.At least I’ll be there and I can actually go,” she said, expressing an interest in joining anti-GOP demonstrations. Protest organizers from other schools had invited her and other incoming freshmen by e-mail to join anti-GOP demonstrations, she said.
    Students hoping to take part in the convention will also be juggling a busy schedule of unpacking and orienteering. “During orientation we have them fully booked, 9 to 5,” said Jason Caroll, an orientation organizer at NYU. “We won’t be encouraging [protesting] or telling them about protests, so it’s up to the students to find out about them.”
    As usual, some orientation programs will be geared toward making out-of-town students feel comfortable in the city, especially during the convention. “We want to make sure they’re advised, informed, and given the proper information, that they are aware of the neighborhoods,” said NYU spokesperson Richard Pierce of the students who will be exploring the city during the week of the Convention.
    Nonetheless, the convention and its protests promise to provide ample distraction from schools’ orientation programs.The protests,including the largest one, are planned for the Sunday before the convention, when many schools begin their orientations.
    But “in a place like Columbia  you kind of feel like you should be involved in the protest,” Atossa Abrahamian, a new Columbia  freshman, wrote in an e-mail.
    Despite students’ desires to acclimate to college life in the big city, Michael Gould-Wartofsky, a student organizer for the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, an activist group, said he expected many students to rally.“From what I’ve been hearing, a lot of freshmen would rather miss a few days of orientation to take part in protests,” he said
    He said he also knew of freshmen and other early-arrival students who would be offering valuable dorm room floor space to out-of-town protestors looking for a place to unroll their sleeping bags.
    While most schools aren’t near the convention site at Madison Square Garden, Yeshiva University’s Beren women’s campus and CUNY’s Graduate Center are both located two blocks to the east of the Garden. Spokesmen said that despite high security precautions, both buildings will remain open.
    Peter Ferrara, a spokesman for Yeshiva, said that moving in would be a challenge for the 1,000 women moving into the dorms that week.“Orientation and registration is already fairly challenging for students and parents; this ramps it up,” he said. The school’s orientation program of baseball games and city tours will go ahead, with an expectation for delays. “It will be a bit more challenging,” he said.
    A spokesman from the NYC Host Committee said: “The city has a plan to ensure that businesses, residents, commuters, students, and visitors can go about their lives during the convention.”
    Emma Poltrack, an incoming NYU freshman, said she didn’t think the convention would affect her week significantly, but was still nervous about the possibility of terrorism.
    “It’s silly to change your actions because of some unfounded idea of a threat, but on the other hand, if anything were to happen, it makes sense that it would happen that week/weekend,” Ms. Poltrack wrote in an e-mail.
    Meanwhile,Michael Arena,a CUNY spokesman,said that the CUNY system has planned no changes to its routine, and that the most common concern he’s heard from the largely commuter student body was over subway delays.
    “Believe me, we’re used to it,” he said.“Those kinds of things people live with day in and day out in this city.”

Thursday, August 19, 2004


As many as 875 New York City retailers have been selling cigarettes without licenses, according to an audit report released yesterday by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s office, which pushes for improved coordination of tobacco licensing by state and city agencies.

Cigarette vendors and wholesalers in New York City must obtain licenses from the state and city. The Comptroller’s audit, conducted between January 2001 and October 2003, found little coordination between the two city agencies and the state agency over the licensing of cigarette sellers, even though more than half of the state’s retailers and wholesalers are located in the city.

The state’s finance department and the Department of Consumer Affairs “do not compare their records to ensure that retailers applying for a NYC license have the required [state license] and that the information for all retailers is correctly entered in each database,” the report concludes.

Comparing state and city records, auditors discovered 3,583 retailers with a state license but no city license. After investigating a random sampling of 85 of these resellers, they estimated that between 8 and 20 percent of retailers were selling cigarettes without a city license. Auditors also discovered that as many as 148 of the 764 retailers with a revoked or suspended NYC license were selling cigarettes.

A spokesperson for the state tax department, Tom Bergin, said the problems are significant. “It’s a very important issue, and we’re concerned about it,” he said. “We have to make sure we capture the revenue we’re losing,

Thursday, August 12, 2004

To Flee or Not To Flee Is N.Y. Question

By ALEX PASTERNACK Special to the Sun

Conventional city wisdom dictates there is no better time to flee the city than the last week in August — especially when that happens to be the week of the Republican National Convention.
On top of terror concerns, add some of New Yorkers’ biggest nuisances to this year’s end-of-summer boil — Republicans (roughly 30,000), journalists (15,000), protesters (500,000), and street closings (more than 30 blocks), and the notion of staying in the city seems ridiculous.
But then there’s the other branch of New York wisdom that says life goes on. For every resident leaving the city because of the convention, scores of others are shrugging their shoulders and staying put, either to work or because they see no reason to go.
“I think many people will view it as another work week,”said Neil Kleiman, the director of the Center for an Urban Future, a local think tank, who plans to stay in town.“There’s more of a sense in New York that people want to put their head down, do their work, and wait until this blows over.”
Unlike the mayor of Boston, who encouraged people around his commuter city to leave during the Democratic convention, Mayor Bloomberg has urged residents to stick around, highlighting ways to avoid inconvenience, and singing his now-famous mantra: Go about your daily business.
Ed Koch, the former Democrat mayor and supporter of President Bush, even tells New Yorkers in a TV spot to help the delegates “find shopping, a schmeer, a schwarma, a shoe shine, a shuttle, a show,” a tall order for a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1.
But while New Yorkers may not roll out the red carpet for conventioneers, they’re not skipping town on them, either.
Carlynn Houghton, 27, a Democrat who works as an assistant at an Upper East Side girls school, recently backed off the idea of going to Canada during the convention. “If you just up and go then you’re giving up and you’re saying,‘You can have this.’ No political party can have the place you live, certainly if its not my political party.”
It turns out that even among the scores of New Yorkers scrambling to rent out their apartments during the convention, worry is not much of a motivating factor, either.
“I’m just trying to sneak in a side pocket and make some extra cash,” said Michael Weiner, an actor who advertised his Murray Hill apartment on the online bulletin board Craigslist as suited to “both conventioneers and protesters.”
Those here for the convention will be giving city tourism a healthy shot in the arm during its slowest week of the year, at the end of what Cristyne L. Nicholas, the president of visitor bureau NYC and Company, said was a “recordbreaking summer” for tourism.
As for tourism unconnected to the convention, Ms. Nicholas said she did not expect it to drop, and said it might even rise.“Even those hotels [not housing delegates] are seeing the same type of business as they have in the past.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Open, which starts on the same day as the convention, said attendance was expected to be higher than last year, with 40% of the attendees to come from out of town.
Aside from the tennis tournament, which will draw 30,000 spectators a day, the Mets and Yankees are both expecting high attendance for their home games throughout Convention Week.
“Also, Restaurant Week will be extended, sales are going on, and Tax Free Week is happening, too,” Ms. Nicholas added. “And there will be real live Republicans walking around, which should be kind of fun.”

Monday, August 09, 2004


Conservative Will Need To Establish Residency

By ALEX PASTERNACK Special to the Sun

    A two-time presidential candidate and black conservative commentator, Alan Keyes, entered the campaign fray in Illinois yesterday, ending a month of Republican anxiety over who would face rising star Barack Obama in an uphill battle for the state’s Republican Senate seat.
    State GOP leaders last week asked Mr. Keyes, who has a handful of failed campaigns behind him, to run for office, and yesterday he formally accepted the nomination.Although Mr. Keyes is a Maryland resident with no Illinois ties, state law allows candidates to run for public office as long as they live in the state by Election Day.
    Six months ago, Jack Ryan dropped out of the race following embarrassing sex allegations that emerged from his divorce papers.
    The election will be the first Senate race to feature two blacks from major parties, and it means Illinois will produce the fifth black senator in American history.
    At his acceptance speech yesterday, Mr. Keyes promised a fight but not necessarily a victory against favored Democratic state Senator Obama. He also discussed his decision to run after other high-profile state Republicans declined, including a former Chicago Bears football coach, Mike Ditka.
    “I will spend a good deal of my time listening to the people of this state,” he told cheering supporters in a Chicago suburb. “I might not know the streets yet and the neighborhoods and all the things that go to make up the everyday life of the people.…but if in fact the people of Illinois still stand together on the American creed, still assert their right of self-government, still have the sense of responsible citizenship, then I believe I know their spirit and their conscience and their heart.”
    Mr. Keyes, 54, who last week questioned the notion of running for office in a state he had never lived in, joins the ranks of two other famous “carpetbaggers:” Robert Kennedy and Senator Clinton, who Mr. Keyes once criticized for moving to New York to win her Senate seat.
    To the local political establishment, the issue of Mr. Keyes’ parachuting in on the Illinois race,not to mention questions about debts and taxes owed, will be the least of the candidate’s worries. Some say Mr. Keyes’s staunch conservatism will prove hard to swallow in a state that has a long history of centrism and a strong fan base for Mr. Obama, who has achieved celebrity status since his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
    Widely considered to be the nation’s most prominent black conservative,Mr. Keyes opposes abortion and gay rights, has proposed replacing the income tax with a national sales tax, and calls affirmative action a “government patronage program.”
    The interim director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and a moderate Republican, Mike Lawrence, said Mr. Keyes’s political stance and his previous failures to capture the Senate seat in Maryland could mean more frustration and division for local Republican officials.
    “I think his candidacy will generate enthusiasm among the most conservative elements of the Republican Party here, but I don’t think he’s going to do well in Illinois,” Mr. Lawrence said. “The moderates of both parties are the ones who’ve tended to be successful on a statewide basis.”
    Mr. Keyes’s supporters are banking on the candidate’s strengths to burnish the party’s image: name recognition, a compelling speaking style, and a mastery of issues honed on the campaign trail, in the state department and at his alma mater, Harvard.
    After learning of his opponent in the Senate race, Mr. Obama said: “Illinoisans want a Senate candidate who will attack the problems they and their families face rather than spending time attacking each other.”
    The co-chairman of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee, Stephen McGlynn, said the eloquent Mr.Keyes would pose a challenge to Mr. Obama in debates, where the up-andcomer might be pushed to shed his friendly, centrist image for a harder, more liberal stance.
    “We think voters will say, ‘We didn’t know this about Barack,we thought that he was a rock star, but he’s extreme,’” Mr. McGlynn said. “He’s going to have a tough time defending his record. He has to hope that this race doesn’t turn into a contest of ideas.We can win that.”

Sunday, August 08, 2004

xiu xiu, knitting factory, 8/7/04

HE takes many minutes to set up his instruments. To tune. To tinker with knobs that are only innocent-looking. Lately I've been thinking that musicians ought to do more setting up during their sets instead of beforehand, a way to add some aural spice to the set, some instrument groaning in the throes of birth and making the too long time between sets shorter.
This is not what he is doing. He is preparing himself for the song, the song which could end all songs. The song that soars and thumps and screams and runs and points fingers and kills itself in the most pathetic and dramatic electocution method: third rail, when the train is coming in. Fine, he is setting up, he is tuning. But he is taking a breath, and in so doing, in being completely silent, while his friend stands by blithely looking over the percussion she will bang, he allows the audience some respite, some time to digest, some time to get ready for whatever the hell will be thrown at it next, not knowing, a bit nervous, but eager like a nymphomaniacal sex torture victim but with drum machines and gamelans in place of whips and knives. And whips and knives.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Sole Example of Architect’s Work in America Is Destroyed

By ALEX PASTERNACK Special to the Sun

A death knell is clanging for an Upper East Side townhouse considered to be one of New York’s finest Modernist buildings, as its new owner finishes extensive changes to its façade despite protests from neighbors and preservation groups.
Since early June some of the building’s major elements, including its iconic stainless steel column, have disappeared amidst the stir of local irritation and underneath a shroud of black scaffolding. The revered two-story townhouse at 27 E. 79th St. is the only building in the United States designed by the acclaimed Viennese architect Hans Hollein.
Located across the street from Mayor Bloomberg’s townhouse, the building had been under informal protection since high-powered art dealer Richard Feigen, who once used it as his gallery, sold it to fashion designer Hanae Mori in 1973.
Following the bankruptcy of her store, Ms. Mori sold the building to Thomas Reynolds in 2002 without making a similar agreement, according to a representative for Ms. Mori who participated in the sale.
“I was absolutely astonished that this architectural landmark, which many have called the finest ’60s modernist building in New York by a great architect, could be altered like this,” said Mr. Feigen, who lobbied the owner and notified local groups after noticing construction in April.“Now it’s too late; they’ve ruined the façade.”
While architectural groups say they informally brought the building to the attention of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1999 — the earliest the building could have been designated as a landmark — the groups did not petition to protect it until June, said Landmarks officials, when renovation had already begun.
The formal petition came days after Mr. Feigen first noticed construction work on the building. He enlisted the help of a local preservation group, the Friends of the Upper East Side Historical District, and the architectural consortium Docomomo to help him certify the building as a landmark, and attempted to make an agreement with the new owner, to no avail.
Mr. Hollein told The New York Sun he was devastated at the alteration of one of his early works, what architect Robert AM Stern once called “one of the pioneering gestures…that would characterize architecture in the 1970s and 1980s.”
“I considered it a very important small building, important in the development at that time for architecture in the U.S. and New York,” Mr. Hollein said. “It was a new approach to the relation between art and architecture. I felt terrible when I heard about it.”
Mr. Hollein and Mr. Feigen said they were most concerned by the removal of the building’s signature double-barreled stainless steel column, which was fashioned using steel originally intended for the World Trade Center. Positioned in the middle of the façade and rising up two stories, the shiny column has lately given way to its structural pier, a tower of roughshod red-brick.
Because the building was not given landmark status and lies just outside the Upper East Side Historic District, any renovations are legal, said a spokesperson at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission,Diane Jackier.
Though the agency will occasionally expedite the lengthy landmark certification process for endangered buildings, a petition to protect the Feigen Gallery arrived months after a building permit had been issued in April.
“Sometimes things happen unexpectedly and in a faster time frame, and we react as quickly as we can,” Ms. Jackier said. “In this case, there was nothing we could do. The landmarks commission designation would not override a validly issued Department of Buildings permit.”
While Mr. Reynolds and his lawyers did not return repeated calls for comment about the purpose of the renovations, workers at the site said that the new building was being renovated for future gallery use. They said construction, mostly the replacement of the exterior slab with a tiled design, along with minor alterations to the chrometrimmed interior, is scheduled to be done next week.
Preservationists said the situation bespeaks a common threat to modern architecture in the city, where older buildings tend to monopolize the attention of the public and often fall outside the purview of an overburdened Landmarks Commission.
A co-chairwoman of the preservation group Docomomo, Nina Rappaport, said the responsibility to protect modern buildings in the city lies with groups like hers, and especially with the Landmarks Commission.
“We need to have the commission really pay attention to more recent buildings,” she said. “One idea is to do more surveys, to identify where these buildings are, at least to say in some way, if they review a building, ‘we’ve looked at this building, we don’t like it, and here’s why.’”
She added that the destruction of the Hollein building was “in a way faultless.” By the time they tried to negotiate the building’s protection with the owner, “it was just too late, and the owner wasn’t interested at all.”

Google Turns Up Credit Card Numbers

By ALEX PASTERNACK Special to the Sun

Amid growing concerns about the proliferation of personal data on the Internet, a Web site reported yesterday that a simple search on the popular Google search engine can easily be used to find individuals’ credit card information.
Using a feature that allows queries for particular number ranges — a tool meant to find consumer goods at particular price levels, for instance — people can easily find pages that contain thousands of credit card numbers and expiration dates along with their holders’ names and addresses, CNET.com reported. The problem raises further alarm about the availability of personal data on the Internet.
While much of the information listed online may be outdated, calls by The New York Sun to a handful of the people listed verified the numbers were authentic; some said they had been the victim of credit card fraud in recent months.
The powerful tools and indexing technologies that have made Google popular among everyone from researchers to online shoppers have also made it a top choice among “google hackers” who have used the search engine to manipulate Web searches or gather personal information like Social Security numbers.
In this case,Web users that search for ranges of numbers beginning with particular four-digit prefixes will find Web sites that contain any number within that range. A search for “mastercard 5424000000000000..5424999999999999” yields hundreds of credit card numbers on dozens of Web pages, most in Russian and Arabic.
Jeffery Marchand, an antiques dealer from upstate New York whose credit card information was listed on a Russian website, said that while he appreciated Google’s usefulness, its search index should be censored in some extreme cases.
“I can’t understand why Google would allow that on the system,” he said. “Something that’s clearly illegal shouldn’t be allowed on there.”
Citing the quiet period surrounding their upcoming initial public offering, Google declined to comment, though a company official stressed that the problem lay with the Web sites offering the information,not the search engine itself.
Recently, the company has offered to remove sites that contain credit card and Social Security numbers, as long as users file complaints with help@google.com.
Ernest Lali, an Albany resident, said he was “stunned and irritated” to learn that his credit card information was easily found on a French-language message board.
“I had no idea whatsoever. This shouldn’t be happening,” he said. Because he rarely uses the Internet to make credit card purchases, he said it was especially surprising.
But according to Richard M. Smith, an Internet security consultant, the underground exchange of credit card numbers isn’t just the work of hackers who steal transaction information. He said that such fraud was increasingly committed by e-mail spammers selling fake products, or “phishers,” who use the Internet to gather information from consumers by posing as credit card administrators.
“Clearly Google’s the biggest privacy invader out there,” Mr. Smith said. “Once a piece of information gets out there, its available on the Internet. The trouble is once the stuff gets out, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.”
Consumer protection rules stipulate that credit card holders are typically not responsible for unauthorized charges, which make up 1% of all credit card uses, according to a spokesman for Mastercard, David Collett.
Preventing search engines like Google from listing such sites would be nearly impossible, Mr. Collett said.
“This is just the unintended consequence of their search technology. We can’t fault them, and we’d be happy to work with them if they want to,” he said, adding that Mastercard’s investigators were apprised of the Google trick. “We’re doing everything we can to find these sites ourselves and shut them down.”

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Pro-Bush Jewish Group Starts Blog

An non-partisan Jewish group calling for the re-election of President Bush because he is “best for Israel” took their message to the internet yesterday, opening a website with essays and a weblog documenting the presidential candidates’ “stark differences” over the current Palestinian crisis.

Jeff Steier, the New York non-profit executive who started the website, said he got the idea during conversations with friends who said that Israel was their biggest priority in electing a president. He says the site is meant to contrast President Bush’s defense of Israel with Sen. John Kerry’s “lack of leadership and poor judgment.”

“Senators Schumer and Clinton have been saying that Kerry is ‘also good’ for Israel,” Mr. Steier said, referring to New York’s Democratic senators. “We need someone in the White House who is better than “also good.’”

In recent months, Sen. Kerry has been backtracking from a slew of statements that have put him in hot water with pro-Israel groups. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in December, he attacked Bush’s Israeli support for "jeopardizing the security of Israel [and] encouraging Palestinian extremists," and last year called Israel’s security fence a “barrier to peace.”

Former Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who famously supports Mr. Bush and who is mentioned on the site, said he was less concerned about Israel than about the issue of terrorism everywhere.

“I don’t think Israel itself is the issue; I happen to be very supportive of Israel. The issue for me is America standing up to international terrorists when other countries are running away,” he said.

Ira Foreman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, questioned the validity of the site’s support for Bush and doubted its relevance to Jewish voters, most of whom are interested in a range of political topics, not just Israel.

“The antipathy towards Bush in the Jewish community is palpable,” he said. “People say, ‘I’m fine with Kerry’s policies on Israel; and then I have all my other issues, and I can’t agree with bush on any of that.”

Monday, August 02, 2004

Computer Malfunction Grounds US Airways, American Flights for Several Hours

By ALEX PASTERNACK Special to the Sun

A computer malfunction forced the groundings of all American Airlines and US Airways flights in the country for three hours yesterday morning, delaying hundreds of passengers at New York’s three major airports through the evening.
The cause of the groundings “wasn’t a safety or security issue,” said a spokesperson for US Airways, Amy Kudwa. Instead, a malfunction in the flight operations database used by US Airways and American led the airlines to keep their planes on the ground.
A spokesperson for the company that maintains the computer system, Electronic Data Systems, said operators noticed a computer glitch, caused by human error,at around 7 a.m.To contain the malfunction, they shut down the entire system,which is used to manage the scheduling of flights and crews, monitor the weather, and coordinate catering.
An official at the Federal Aviation Administration said such malfunctions are rare, and that because such problems affect airlines’ internal systems, it is up to the airlines to decide to ground planes, not the FAA.
When notified of the problem, the airlines contacted the FAA, which helped ground planes at airports from coast to coast. Flights in the air at the time of the problem were “processed manually,” Ms. Kudwa said.
American, which grounded about 150 flights, had its planes back in the air after two hours, while US Airways, which kept 100 planes on the ground, resumed flights after three hours.
A Port Authority spokesperson,Tony Ciavolella, said that because of its heavy early-morning schedule, La-Guardia had the most delays in the New York area. No other air carriers were affected, he said.
An investigation into the cause of the error is underway at the airlines and EDS, according to the company’s spokesman, Sean Healy. “But safety was never an issue.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Midler, Disney Team To Make East Harlem a Bit Greener

    Actress Bette Midler and Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, got their hands dirty in a run-down East Harlem lot yesterday, helping local leaders and volunteers transform the vacant space into a garden and playground for their community.
    The project, the culmination of work by the 8th District council member, Eric Reed; Ms. Midler’s nonprofit New York Restoration Project, and Disney’s outreach program, will revitalize the 18,000-square-foot parcel at 103rd Street and Park Avenue, which has sat dormant and dilapidated for more than a decade.
    “I see whole neighborhoods change, I see whole blocks completely come alive from this kind of work,” Ms. Midler said, explaining her interest in the development. “People see there’s something beautiful outside their doors, people come out and meet each other, property values go up, it’s just common sense.”
    Founded in 1994, her organization has rebuilt 15 gardens around the city and is restoring dozens more that have fallen into dilapidation since their heyday in the 1970s.
    In 1999, Ms. Midler’s organization helped block the city’s attempt to auction 114 lots and community gardens, spending $4.2 million to acquire half that number, while helping another nonprofit, the Trust for Public Land, buy the rest.
    For a decade, the East Harlem lot, which was not included in that sale, had languished in the hands of a failed local trust, attracting weeds, rusted car parts, drug dealers, and the occasional block party.
    In recent years, an activist, Manny Rodriguez, had sought protection for the space, enlisting Mr. Reed and eventually Ms. Midler, who asked for Mr. Eisner’s assistance.
    Standing beneath the mural he helped paint as a boy and that he will soon help restore, Mr. Rodriguez beamed. “This is probably the biggest moment of my life,” he said.“To actually see big names here like Reed’s and Disney assures me that there’s going to be an available presence behind my efforts to keep it as a playground, a garden for the kids.”
    Mr. Eisner, who carried a shovel and wore a yellow Disney T-shirt and khakis, said he was always ready to help Ms. Midler, who used to be under contract with the studio. Disney, which gave financial support and contributed dozens of volunteers for the garden project, is “very involved” in outreach programs in the area, he said.
    “It’s easy to give financial support, writing checks, but actually having your cast of people get involved, get committed in their own communities, that’s important,” said Mr. Eisner, who grew up seven blocks away.
    Elaine Hall,who has lived in the area for 39 years, said she was relieved and delighted at the community’s effort.
    “I have grandchildren and I used to tell them,‘Don’t go over there,stay away from there.’” The new garden, she said, “will bring the people out together.”

GARDEN GROWTH Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, and actress Bette Midler yesterday at the kick-off event for the restoration of a long-neglected community garden and neighborhood park on 103rd Street in East Harlem. ROB BENNETT

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

‘Does Anyone Here Like Chocolate?’

Sweet Day for Young Plaza Ambassadors

    Cooking class in the Plaza’s Le Trianon Suite yesterday had all the trappings of grandeur to be expected at the famous hotel.
    Men in navy vests stood at the ready like U.S. Open ball boys, dutifully waiting to wipe down any errant foods. A swath of protective saran wrap covered the ornate carpet. When the worldclass chef arrived, his class was seated in gold-trimmed chairs, attentive and composed.
    Then the ingredient of the day came up.
    “Does anyone here like chocolate?”Chef Marc Felix demanded in a thick French accent.
    Hands shot up, and some of the students even bounced out of their chairs.
    Their parents, faces beaming too, were helpless to stop them.
    They were there as part of the Young Plaza Ambassadors, a program of etiquette, ballroom dancing, and occasionally veterinary clinics for tri-statearea children and their parents.Yesterday’s scene was the first cooking one, and it was all about indulgence, a sort of anti-Chocoholics Anonymous session for young addicts.
    “I love to cook it,” admitted Yoela Koplow, an 8-year-old from Manhattan, who was staring into a bowl of chocolate butter waiting on one of the 12 tables arranged in the center of the ballroom. “But I really, really love to taste it!”
    Mr. Felix began with a short history lesson on the cacao, the brown, coconut-like plant from which chocolate comes, while he passed one around.
    “Feel it, enjoy it, shake it, hear it, understand it,smell it — this is what we’re dealing with today, people, so we need to know it well,” he said, sounding like a Zen practitioner, albeit with a bit more sugar in his bloodstream.
    Mr. Felix, who occasionally appears on a cooking show on Nickelodeon as “The Mad Chef,” knew his crowd wouldn’t settle for just words. Before long, he was circulating energetically around the room, directing his eager disciples to makeshift cacao nuts by dipping small balloons into white and dark chocolate.
    There was a bit of cheating here and there — mothers helping beat the heavy cream — and sneaky finger-dipping into the bowls of chocolate soup.
    “I really like this stuff too,” the chef whispered to one of his young apprentices, who was caught brown-handed. “Just make sure no one sees you.”
    “The reason we’re successful with the kids is because we’re hands on,” said Mr. Felix, who tries to get the parents involved.
    “I want them to go back home and entertain with the kids,” he said. “A lot of parents just want to cook and get it on the table.”
TOUGH JOB William Brahin, 8, of Cherry Hill, N.J., samples his ‘Chocolate Coconut With Banana Cloud’ recipe after a cooking lesson with Nickelodeon’s ‘Mad Chef,’ Marc Felix, at the Plaza Hotel yesterday. HIROKO MASUIKE

Friday, July 23, 2004

Living Between the Exits

Movie Review: Garden State
from the Harvard Crimson

In the era of hype and summer blockbusters, it seems easy to feel impressed by a movie well before one stumbles into the freezing dimness of the theater. If the multiplex happens to be in one of countless depressing shopping malls or on the side of the oppressive expressway, the build-up is even bigger. And if the trailer is any good—these days they’re often very, very good—nothing can increase your enthusiasm, not even cheap popcorn.

Garden State is one of those movies for which the trailer—one of the most lyrical, intriguing and hypnotic short films I’ve ever seen—threatened to outdo the whole thing from the start. But the movie is also graced with another presence that recommends it, and perhaps also endangers it at the same time: the triple threat of New Jerseyite Zach Braff, who wrote, directs and stars.

New York’s veteran auteur Woody Allen can hardly get away with that trick very well, at least lately, and when you bear more resemblance to Woody Allen than Keanu Reeves, with about as much chutzpah as the latter, it’s a mammoth challenge. Not that Braff’s character, Andrew Largeman, requires anything resembling chutzpah: He plays a medicated, reluctant Jew, an aspiring actor returning home for his mother’s funeral. But if his style were any remoter, Braff could almost dissolve into the background of his strangely familiar, familiarly strange scenery. And, in one of his many pictorial feats, Braff as Largeman, wearing a shirt made from the same silk pattern lining the wall behind him, literally does.

The humdrum, confused life of mid-twentysomethings has a ready accomplice in the sprawling shopping malls and freeway-bound office parks of New Jersey, the stuff that nightmares and dreams are made of for the expanse of anonymous, white-housed suburbia that hums between the on-ramps. The staples of quiet, middle-class Garden State living are all here, sans the last PATH train back from the city. Like those who’ve never been, Largeman (we can imagine him telling his L.A. friends he grew up in New York) has no inclination to go back, only an obligation to go, and for no longer than he has to. As his early airplane nightmare and cache of prescription bottles suggests, this is not an easy return, but it’s made easier by that age-old re-encounter with childhood friends, who also happen to be working as grave diggers at his mother’s funeral. They waste no time in inviting him to a party that night.

The writer Braff’s surreal mix of dark and occasionally cheeky humor with generation-lost profundity is perfect for setting the scene, a mood that often feels more real than that of most still-coming-of-age films. And, while Braff the actor manages to justify and even enrich his numb character the more he weaves his way through a maze of “how old are we” house parties, fluorescent-lighting and tentative moments with a new girl, Sam (Natalie Portman ’03), there’s something awkward that still shouldn’t be. The sense that he is playing this exactly right—Braff, as his biography suggests (he was a waiter and, until now, a minor actor), is largely playing himself—can’t be overcome by the feeling that exactly right isn’t exactly convincing.

Good actors they are, and Portman’s astounding ability to cry aside, the main characters aren’t given much room to breathe, and the heat that grows between Sam and Large couldn’t be called chemistry by any stretch. What one wants most of all is for Large to bare his soul, to show how a kid coping with the “emotional problems” diagnosed and brought on by his psychiatrist father can evolve into someone who is simultaneously awkward and seemingly well-adjusted. Instead he offers sedate monosyllables and musings about house not being home anymore. The template for such characters was established in The Graduate’s Benjamin by the time Wes Anderson pulled it off with Rushmore’s Max, and maybe taken in a new direction by Donnie Darko. Surely there’s no troubled, learning-to-grow-up mold, but in the writing Braff’s protagonist isn’t fully mature.

Largeman’s underdevelopment might be chalked up to the medicated world in which Garden State is set as much to the aspirations of Braff the director. His eye for plaintive, sublime imagery is as impressive as his ear for awkward, funny situations, and smartly, the 27-year-old has used his big shot at Hollywood auteur-dom as an excuse not just to include great music (Iron and Wine, The Shins, Simon and Garfunkel), but to sew it tightly into the film. Indeed, his movie feels like a mix tape writ large, addressed to the thousands of kids like him who want to follow their heart, if they only knew where it was. Apparently, surprisingly, he left his in Trenton, or one of its infinite suburbs.

You gotta go there to know there, the anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, an imperative never truer than in the case of weird, distant New Jersey and its modern day film paean. Like the place itself, Garden State’s reputation precedes it, the impressive talent of Braff and his beautiful trailer circling coolly underneath the hot summer air. But of course that reputation shouldn’t be a substitute for actually seeing it—and at least it deserves to be seen.

Thursday, July 22, 2004


President Clinton’s sprawling memoir is chock-full of personal revelations and political musings, but perhaps none is more surprising than his effusive admiration for Communist Party leader Mao Zedong.
When readers in China opened newly-minted copies of “My Life” this week, they discovered that the American president once blamed for the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade also has a strong penchant for Chinese culture and is given to frequently quoting Chairman Mao.
“I very much appreciated the famous sentence of Mao Zedong, ‘You want to know the taste of the pear, then you have to eat it yourself,’ ” Mr. Clinton writes in the Chinese version. He also recalls that Monica Lewinsky was “very fat. I can never trust my own judgment” and says the affair with Ms. Lewinsky “did not affect” his marriage. Meanwhile, the criticisms of China that Clinton makes in the American version of the book, as well as an account of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, have been excised.
Mr. Clinton’s million-selling memoir isn’t just the victim of liberal translation. It’s one of the latest Western books to become the target of counterfeiters, who are known for taking excessive liberties and fabricating content to make texts more appealing. Mr. Clinton’s representatives said they are in talks to release a legitimate Chinese version of the book next year, as long as it is uncensored.
Other “new” passages include an episode in which a young Clinton begs his uncle to take him to “mysterious and unique” China. In another episode, Mr. Clinton tells his wife to “shut up.” Upon first meeting his wife Hillary, Mr. Clinton says, “She was as beautiful as a princess. I told her my name is Big Watermelon.”
Mr. Clinton’s Chinese fixation is evident from the first sentence of the Mandarin edition: “The town of Hope, where I was born, has very good feng shui.”
A spokesman for the publisher,Alfred Knopf, did not indicate if they would take legal action, but said they take “all necessary steps” to fight piracy.
Beijing has denied any involvement, despite its reputation for censorship and authoritarian control, particularly over Western press. In April, officials cut out references to Taiwan and North Korea, and mentions of “political freedom” from transcripts of a speech delivered by Vice President Cheney in Shanghai.
The first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Jianhua Li, said he didn’t think his government played a role in revising “My Life.”
“The government wouldn’t do that,” said Mr. Jianhua, the first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “Probably the publishing houses want to make money, make the story more sensational and interesting to all the readers.”
Last year, the publisher of Hillary Clinton’s memoir “Living History” cancelled a distribution deal with a Chinese publisher after it cut out references to politically sensitive issues in the Chinese version, including material on Harry Wu, a Chinese-American human rights activist, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
A lawyer for the Clintons, Robert Bennett, distinguished between the unauthorized censorship of Senator Clinton’s book by a legitimate publisher and the unauthorized publication of President Clinton’s memoirs, which he called “unacceptable.”
“The president’s book will only be published in the People’s Republic of China if it is completely and accurately translated and we have an opportunity to review and approve the translation before the book is published,” he said.
Pirating of CDs and books,with occasional alterations, is a pervasive phenomenon in China, Mr. Jianhua acknowledged. “People want to make money, so they make up stories. It happens everywhere,” he said. The paperback, with Mr. Clinton’s name and photo on the cover, purports to be printed by Yilin Press, the publishing house that printed the censored version of Senator Clinton’s book. The dean of the school of journalism at Berkeley and an expert on Chinese culture, Orville Schell, said that the changes to the book seemed more like the work of a “quasi-official” publisher who had purchased a requisite book registration number, than just a pirate. “Maybe some pirate would have nice Mao sensitivities, but the fact they have edited and censored it and put it out so quickly makes me think it’s not a pirated version,” he said. “If it’s pirated, [the counterfeiters] would get shut down for having no copyright, so what’s the point of censoring it?” Publishers, even illegitimate ones, one expert noted, often self-censor in order to prevent crackdowns by the Communist Party, often making it hard to measure the extent of the government’s censorship role. “Most people in China like Bill Clinton, and he has been there several times,” Mr. Jianhua said.“When he was in power,everything went very well,the economy did very well.” All references to Mr. Clinton’s visits to China, as well as his musing that “China would be forced by the imperatives of modern society to become more open,” are missing from the new edition.