Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Yay, December! OK, I’m outta here.
Just kidding. Hey, it’s the holiday season, right? Speaking of which, I was reminded, when they lit the tree at Rockefeller Center recently, of the day when I took a shortcut through there on my way to work one morning years ago. Crews were rigging electrical cables, etc., in preparation for the ceremony that evening, and as I walked down a side street off the main concourse (in front of the old AP building, if that rings a bell), I saw something remarkable. It was a real live reindeer, apparently awaiting its turn on some camera, tethered to a concrete block in the middle of the street. There was no one around, so I walked over, talked to it and petted it for a few minutes. Its antlers and its hooves were covered with soft, fuzzy fur. Who knew? It was perfectly friendly and seemed to appreciate the attention. It was awesome. It was like running into the real Santa Claus hanging out on the corner. I briefly considering absconding with the critter, but I was running late and so went on to my office. Twenty years later, that remains one of my most vivid memories of Christmas in New York. Reindeer are cool.
Elsewhere in holiday cheer, for some reason (probably because House Hunters seems to be on hiatus) we ended up watching The Polar Express on the Disney Channel the other night. I didn’t even know we got the Disney Channel, but we do, and boy howdy, what a weird, grim little movie this is. If that’s a holiday classic, count me out.
I was vaguely familiar with the children’s book on which it is based from seeing it in bookstores (you remember bookstores, right?), and I’m willing to accept that the book itself is charming. I also have a long-standing love of trains. But the book is all of 32 pages long and heavily illustrated. This movie is a 100-minute computer-generated bummer, the most relentlessly depressing kids’ movie I’ve ever seen.
The big problem is the “motion capture” computer animation technique used to transform live-action figures (e.g., Tom Hanks, who “plays” most of the roles) into affectless droids in a sort of ultra-realistic cartoon virtual reality. The result would probably work well in a zombie movie (Zombie Santa and the Elves from Hell, perhaps, or Rudolf the Undead Reindeer Goes to Uncanny Valley), but here the result is just plain creepy. It’s like watching an extended version of one of those cutesy and cloying animated pharmaceutical commercials. (It’s too bad; done with high-quality real animation (not CGI), this could have been a beautiful movie. The pure-animation parts, e.g., the wolves in the woods, are very evocative.)
Unfortunately, the color palette is muted and depressing, and padding the brief story out to movie length is done with painfully drawn-out and pointless scenes (e.g., the ten minutes of the flying ticket). The North Pole turns out to look like a cross between a Supermax prison and an Amazon warehouse, and the sweeping panoramas of grim and lifeless North Pole streets are notable for their vacant desolation. Not a creature is stirring in Santagrad.
Roger Ebert loved the movie, but some other reviewers strongly differed, and Manohla Dargis at the NYT, bless her soul, nailed it, noting that “Santa’s big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes … one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will.’” Did I mention that the elves — and Santa! — are also weirdly nasty?
The whole thing makes Olive Kitteridge look like Mary Poppins. Yeah, we watched that too. I’m trying hard to forget both these bundles of holiday joy, but so far it’s clearly not working.
Onward. CatCat abides, and is getting better at this “cat” thing. She still has problems lip-syncing her meows, which is a bit unsettling. She opens her mouth and there’s a half-second of no noise, then a weirdly loud mechanical maowrr that kinda sounds feline. Oh well, baby steps, baby steps. My current theory is that she’s from the North Pole.
So here we are at year’s end, and all of us here at Word Detective World Headquarters wish you a happy and healthy New Year. To that end (and because we are at whatever the stage beyond flat broke is), I’d like to remind y’all that subscriptions to TWD make excellent holiday gifts (just note the recipient’s email address in the PayPal form or in a separate email to firstname.lastname@example.org).
And now, on with the show….
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Alrighty, then. At the risk of turning this site into Weird Cat Blog, I have two new CatCat phenomena to report. I hope such details will eventually enable investigators to piece together exactly what this critter is and how (and why) she arrived on our planet.
Number One: CatCat is not afraid of vacuum cleaners. At all. All of our cats are at least a little afraid of vacuums, and even the most placid among them will walk in a dignified manner to the nearest exit when one starts. Most of them run for their lives, even though they’ve never had an actual scary experience with one. But you can run a vacuum cleaner right up to CatCat’s front paws and she won’t blink. That ain’t normal.
Artist's conception of space cat
Number Two: liquids. CatCat drinks lots of water from her bowl, and will sit sedately on the edge of the sink while you run the tap. She appears to be familiar with liquids. But last week I took her a plate of canned cat food with a little can-juice (whatever) on the plate. It was one of her favorite flavors. When I set the plate down in front of her on the floor (which slants slightly, as does the whole house), the liquid flowed around the edge of the plate, seeking the low point.
This is Life on Earth, Chapter 1, right?
CatCat was terrified. Completely flipped out. She stared at the liquid as if it were alive, crouched in alarm and backed away, stared some more, tracking the slowly-moving fluid in wide-eyed horror, and then ran out of the room.
Um, wow. This is not a kitten. The vet estimated that she’s at least four or five years old. And she’s never seen this before? Riiight.
Tell me more, Earthling.
And then there’s the fact that she likes to look at herself in the mirror (unusual in a grown cat), but she does it very intensely, like she’s checking her costume. She’s also a very deep sleeper, and you can tell when she’s running in her dream because her legs move. Maybe she’s just a very small, very strange dog. From Mars.
Onward. Until a month or so ago, Netflix Streaming offered the first nine years of Law & Order, Original Recipe, Lennie Briscoe Edition, which I think is absolutely the best cop show ever produced (apart from The Wire, which was a very different kind of show). Unfortunately, Netflix pulled it from their lineup before I made it to the end, but several basic cable channels are carrying reruns of the entire series, so there’s that. The fun of seeing Briscoe and Logan/Curtis/Green for me (apart from the plots “ripped from the headlines” and Jerry Orbach’s quips) is seeing Manhattan in the 1990s, when we lived there (having migrated from Brooklyn). In episodes centered on the Upper West Side (which is to say many of them), I got to revisit our old neighborhood and even caught a glimpse of the guys from Zingone’s, our favorite deli (@ 82nd & Columbus Avenue), standing on the sidewalk in the background of one long scene.
Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe is a classic performance, of course, but judging from a few retired NYPD detectives I knew, still in the ballpark of realism, including the sardonic humor. I actually have a “Certificate of Appreciation” around here somewhere from the NYPD Detectives’ Endowment Association (essentially the detectives’ union), but I can’t for the life of me remember what I did to deserve it. I probably wrote something for their magazine.
The notable difference between L&O in the 90s and cop shows now is the prevalence of sadistic violence and gore in current shows. I’ve never been able to take any of the L&O spinoffs and copycats (SVU, CSU, NCIS, et al.) for that reason, and even L&O itself veered sharply in that direction after 1999: more lingering shots of slashed throats, mutilated models, etc., ad nauseam, not to mention the rise of the ludicrous mannequin-cop (both male and female). The whole supercop/serial killer/autopsy shtick, as Lennie might say. I gotta say that I don’t understand the popular mania for serial killers in movies and TV, and I really don’t understand how anyone can voluntarily watch this insanely repetitive and moronic — and usually intensely misogynistic — drivel week after week. I sat through a full episode of SVU while trapped in a waiting room last year and it made me want to leave the country.
What else. Oh yeah, I have chronic optic neuritis, pretty much standard issue with MS, which produces blurred vision, transitory blind spots, pain in the eyes and flashes of light. Even on a good day it’s like watching an old TV with lousy reception, and I often see little white lights running up the edge of my field of vision, as if a film had jumped its sprockets in a projector. Very weird. Last week we were sitting on the couch, watching House Hunters on HGTV, and I noticed that there were suddenly strings of tiny colored lights running across my field of vision. Quite festive, actually. I guess my visual cortex was in the holiday mood. Anyway, there have been quite a few days lately when I couldn’t read much of anything, so there may be more than the usual delay in processing subscriptions, etc.
As always, your subscriptions and contributions keep this rickety boat afloat.
And now, on with the show…
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Special note: If you sent me a package at my PO Box in the past month, I didn’t get it. I got the notice in my box, but the PO droids only shrug when I ask where the actual prize is. I’m fairly certain this is not how it’s supposed to work, so if you did send me something, say the word (to email@example.com) and I’ll break out the torches and pitchforks. I know, I know, it was probably just a review copy of something, but sometimes people send me really neat stuff, and it must have been neat, because who steals books from a post office? Maybe it was a Thinkpad T-440, eh? That would figure.
Onward. Yeah, OK, there was no September issue. Keep in mind that most people hate September, so I was actually doing y’all a favor. It was a crummy month anyway, of which more in a moment.
Elsewhere in the news, Weird Cat is still weird. I mentioned last time (can’t really say “last month,” amirite?) that we had been followed home from a nocturnal walk by The Implacable Cat, a strange little creature of no discernible provenance who was apparently firmly convinced that she was fated to live with us. We fed her on the front porch for more than a month while we searched for her real keepers, with no success, and finally let her in when the weather changed and the only alternative was feline hypothermia. She doesn’t have a proper name because we’re still trying to find her a home, so we’ve been calling her CatCat. We seem to be having a problem with cat names around here; CatCat joins Little Girl Cat and Lady Cat in the pathetic name fails of our resident herd.
The strange part of this saga is that we’re not entirely sure that CatCat is, in fact, a cat. She looks like a cat dreamed up by Edward Gorey, mottled brown and gray with orange patches and strangely piercing eyes, a very Victorian-looking critter. But her demeanor is the weird part. As Kathy says, she behaves like something else that is taking the shape of a cat at the moment, but doesn’t have “catness” down quite right. She’s exceptionally placid; within a day of letting her inside we found her stretched out on the living room couch on her back, sound asleep, while several of the resident cats sat nearby staring at her. Sit down and she’s instantly in your lap for a nap, purring with a strange low hum. When dinnertime comes, she doesn’t mill around yowling in the kitchen with the mob, but zips into the other room and waits sedately by her plate. (If she decides to leave a room, she doesn’t walk or trot — she scurries in a weirdly robotic fashion, like a wind-up toy, moving very quickly with no apparent effort.)
Edward Gorey and cat (© Jill Krementz, 1972)
She never fights with the other cats — if they try to intimidate her, she looks at them calmly and hisses softly and they back off. She doesn’t even put her ears back or crouch in a fighting stance; she just sits there. I think it’s safe to say that the other cats are seriously weirded out. Even Marley, who regards himself as the guardian of my office and frequently chases his own brother out of the room, leaves and waits in the hall when CatCat wanders in. Anyhow, stay tuned. I can’t say more right now because she just walked in and I don’t wanna get wished into the cornfield so conveniently located right across the street.
Meanwhile, on the You-Call-This-a-Culture? beat, Homeland is apparently back on Showtime, taking a stab at rebooting after its ludicrous and repulsive third season. And at some point we’ll have another season of The Americans on FX. No one above the age of fifteen takes Homeland seriously (I hope), but I’m sure we’ll be treated to more glowing articles in the Washington Post and NY Times praising The Americans for its meticulous attention to detail in its portrayal of the struggle between Soviet spies and the FBI in the mid-1980s DC suburbs. That is, of course, insane, because the show is a bad joke, mixing wooden acting with absurd Tom Clancy-esque melodrama. Nearly every episode involves someone being tortured in one of the multitude of vacant warehouses that apparently dot the DC landscape. It’s a painfully stupid show, which is sad, because US/USSR espionage during the Cold War has produced some riveting stories (e.g., those by John le Carre).
The real Aldrich Ames in FBI mugshot
All of which brings me to an eight-part ABC TV miniseries called “The Assets,” now available on Netflix Streaming. It originally aired in January 2014, but was, get this, cancelled after two episodes. Ouch. ABC ran a few more parts last summer at odd hours, but ratings stank and the remaining episodes were never aired. This is a crime. The Assets is a truly fascinating “docudrama” about the detection and exposure of Aldrich Ames, a CIA counter-intelligence analyst who sold secrets (mostly the identities of CIA “assets” working inside the Soviet military and KGB) to the USSR in the 1980s. As for authenticity, it’s based on a book by the two female CIA analysts who actually led the effort to unmask Ames. This series is better than Homeland or The Americans by a country mile, and if it had been on a cable channel it probably would have gained the large audience it deserves. I honestly think the show went over the head of the average ABC viewer; it required a willingness to listen closely to dialogue. It lacks car chases, shoot-outs with automatic weapons, supermodels, bombs with big red countdown timers, and all the other cartoonish accoutrements of successful network TV. It does offer a strikingly realistic portrayal of the spycraft actually used in that period and a nuanced and humane view of the Soviets spying for the US who were betrayed by Ames. It’s a very well-made series. You should watch it.
OK, so why was September such a bad month? I’m not really up for explaining what happened yet, but the bottom line (literally) is that our income, already anemic due to my disability, has abruptly been cut by about 70%. We were strapped before; now we’re totally screwed.
And there are, it turns out, limits to how many lights you can turn off, both literally and metaphorically. One of the reasons we want to find a home for CatCat is that now we really can’t afford to feed another cat. And all the things were were working on fixing in the near future (car, my teeth, water softener, computer, etc.) are now in the column marked “maybe never.” So your subscriptions and support, in whatever amount you can afford, will be deeply appreciated.
And now, on with the show…