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12 posts categorized "Review"

September 24, 2006

Chasing Ghosts: Review

Paul Reickoff's Iraq war memoir Chasing Ghosts is worth reading just for his breathtakingly frank assessment of the credibility of embedded journalists:

We struggled constantly to deal with the meddlesome and judgmental press. They infested Baghdad like roaches. We almost universally despised them. As far as I was concerned, any journalist who agreed to be imbedded with the military surrendered all claims to professional impartiality. There's a good reason people called them "in-bedded" journalists. How could they possibly report freely and accurately when we guarded their asses? They were mobbed up. As the violence escalated and independent reporting became more dangerous, reporters were entirely dependent upon the Pentagon for access to the war--and to their story. They saw only what the military brass let them see. Their every step was guided by military chaperones. They depended on the military to protect their skins if a situation ever got dicey. And we grunts were not allowed to speak freely to them. Our Commanders censored and monitored us constantly. Speaking out, complaining, telling the truth could get a soldier into a whole world of trouble with his superiors. It was no wonder so much of the coverage of the war on the Internet or in articles my friends mailed me from home, was so weak and inaccurate. (p 216)*

The great thing about Chasing Ghosts is that the author is equally blunt about everything. He's not afraid to excoriate the government for fighting the war on the cheap, or senior officers for being callous and lazy, or civilians for being complacent and out of touch with the military.

Rieckhoff nearly dies riding into Baghdad when a rotted crossbeam on an ancient truck splinters under his weight. Every man has high-tech night vision goggles that fill Iraqis with awe, but the Army won't keep them in batteries. When Rieckhoff's team ran out of plastic handcuffs, he wrote his dad, a electrical worker, for a case of plastic ties used to bundle cables.

Rieckhoff doesn't romanticize his men, despite his affection and respect for them. He admits that many of his soldiers are shockingly ignorant. At one point, he observes that he's trying to fight an urban war with guys who've never lived in a city.

Despite their best intentions, many of Rieckhoff's men aren't the most culturally sensitive ambassadors. Some guys become enraged when they see Iraqi men holding hands on the street. A continual shortage of interpreters doesn't help.

Rieckhoff's platoon has a dual mission: To destroy the insurgency and to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Unfortunately, the two objectives are mutually exclusive. Rieckoff is acutely aware of the absurdity of trying to make friends with people after you kick down their doors and search their homes at gunpoint. But that's literally what he and his men do, day in and day out.

Rieckhoff and his men depend on local knowledge to differentiate between terrorists and civilians, but they are so isolated that they can't trust the information they get. Every time they search the wrong house and terrorize the wrong family, they lose a little more good will, and their intelligence gets a little worse. The terrorists kill more people, the civilians blame the troops, so the troops step up the hunt, but they alienate more Iraqis.

Rieckhoff discussion of his subsequent activism is disappointing. He doesn't argue for any particular policy. His main point is that veterans have to be involved in the decision-making process, because they're the only ones who really understand what it's like over there. Rieckhoff hopes for some some compromise between immediate withdrawal and indefinite commitment, but doesn't really explain what that might be, or why this intermediate stance would be better than immediate withdrawal.

Nevertheless, the story of one infantry platoon in Baghdad says more about why the US can't win than a thousand editorials.

Chasing Ghosts is an important addition to the literature on the Iraq war.

*I'm not as bitter as Rieckhoff about imbedded reporters. Some good ethical journalists are reluctantly agreeing to embedding because there's no other way to cover this war.

June 04, 2006

Citizen soldiers, citizen media: The War Tapes

On Friday, I attended the New York premiere of The War Tapes, the true story of National Guardsmen who filmed their own tour of duty in Iraq. (My original photos: here, here, and here.)

"The War Tapes" is a milestone in journalism. For the first time in this war, citizen soldiers became citizen journalists. The result is a movie unlike anything you've ever seen about the war in Iraq.

In 2004, Deborah Scranton got permission to become an embedded journalist in Iraq. However, instead of embedding herself with a unit, she distributed small digital video cameras to 10 soldiers in Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Infantry (MOUNTAIN) Regiment. As a director, Scranton's genius was to figure out how she could take herself out of the story and let the soldiers record the war as they experienced it. It's impressive that she directed the movie remotely, primarily through emails, instant messages, and uploaded Quicktime "dailies."

The film's principal subjects and cameramen are Sergeant Steve Pink, Sergeant Zack Bazzi, and Specialist Mike Moriarty. Pink joined the Guard for college money. Bazzi is a career soldier who joined the Guard to go to college after several years as a full-time soldier. Moriarty is a self-professed super-patriot who resolved to fight in Iraq to avenge the 9/11 attacks.

"The War Tapes" works because it honors the first rule of storytelling: show, don't tell. We see the war from the first-person perspectives of the soldiers fighting it. To supplement their hand-held cameras, the Guardsmen mounted tripods on their gun turrets and the dashboard of their Humvee. They also attached cameras to their own helmets and body armor. An embedded reporter would have gotten an observer's perspective on the fight. Whereas, "The War Tapes"' Iraq footage was captured by the participants as they worked, fought, and survived from day to day in a war zone. You can feel the difference.

The Guardsmen spend most of their tour protecting convoys of supplies for KBR, a private military contractor and subsidiary of Halliburton.

Some of the most powerful sequences are shot from vehicles moving at high speed. Steve James' editing makes you feel as if you're peering through the windshield of a fast-moving Humvee, dwarfed by a massive convoy of KBR trucks looming over you like white elephants. As the convoy hurtles down the road, "your" Humvee has to weave in and out of this juggernaut, passing oncoming cars on the two-lane desert highway, and swerving to avoid the Iraqi civilians in their subcompact cars (any of which could be a car bomb). There's no margin of error because IEDs are detonating left and right on the shoulders. The night missions, shot with infrared cameras, are even more terrifying--the same crazy driving, the ever-present IEDs, and all unruly civilian traffic (vehicular and pedestrian)--except that our guys are now sharing the dark road with a lot of people who can't see them.

Nor can our guys maintain radio contact with the trucks in the convoy they're trying to protect. Most of the drivers are so-called "third country nationals", guest workers imported from distant countries to risk their lives for a pittance. Most don't speak English.

The Guardsmen curse KBR's treatment of its TCN workforce. One night, they stop to treat a TCN with a leg full of shrapnel. We see that he has been driving a truck with no windows and no windshield. The soldier with the camera bitterly explains that the truck was like that when it left the depot. KBR doesn't care, his life is cheap.

So, what's in these marvelous trucks? Cheese, frequently. Sometimes septic waste. Or cheesecake. Occasionally, fuel. The soldiers start making jokes about the war for cheese. We see that KBR is doing very well on this operation. We see how US soldiers risk their lives to protect cheese and other sundries. Then we watch KBR selling it all back to them at exorbitant prices.

KBR sells the swag to the government (meals, haircuts, styrofoam plates for $20+ bucks a pop) and to the troops. There's a great scene of soldiers packed into KBR's amply stocked commissary after a hard day of escorting. They're there to buy DVDs, Pringles, Becks beer, and soft drinks from KBR. Suddenly, you realize that every copy of "Armageddon" and every bottle of Mountain Dew was trucked in through the same hellish corridor as the cheese. 

"The War Tapes" doesn't tell us how the war is going, or speculate about the probability of success. Instead, it shows us how much blood and treasure is spent to deliver a single convoy of cheese to an American camp just a few miles outside of Baghdad. The implication is clear but unspoken: The Americans don't control the main roads around key bases. The fight to keep Camp Anaconda supplied is a war unto itself. You find yourself wondering how the Americans could ever go on an offensive against the insurgents when they have to fight so hard to stay alive in their own base.

The subjects are smart and likeable. We readily identify with these guys, even as their war begins to seem ever more absurd and incomprehensible. Michael Atkinson of the Village Voice totally misses the point when he excoriates "The War Tapes" pro-war propaganda:

On a strictly experiential level, Deborah Scranton's The War Tapes is remarkable, tactile, and affecting; as a piece of sociopolitical culture with context and ramifications of its own, it's a worthless ration of war propaganda—ethnocentric, redneck, and enabling. [...]

In fact, for all of the firsthand, edge-of-battle immediacy, the upshot of Scranton's assemblage is concern for the feelings of tremendously sympathetic American grunts as they bulldoze through the Arab landscape and disdainfully observe the indigenous populace from a distance as if they were hyenas on the veld. It's no surprise that the soldiers are largely prone to mercenary self-regard and care only about getting home, not about where they've been, what they've done, or why.

I'm not sure what kind of attitude Atkinson expected from soldiers fighting an insurgency. Besides which, the soldiers are not unremittingly disdainful. Their relations with the Iraqi population are complex and ambivalent and "The War Tapes" does a good job of explaining why U.S. troops are so isolated from the people they're trying to help.

The language barrier is a major problem. You'd think that Bazzi is the only soldier at Camp Anaconda who speaks Arabic (and he may well be). Moreover, the Guardsmen are pinned down inside an armed camp when they're not enclosed in Humvees. Insurgents are constantly trying to kill them, and virtually any Iraqi they meet could be an insurgent. These conditions are hardly conducive to mutual regard and understanding.

Scranton doesn't mean for the viewer to endorse the troops' detached and ambivalent attitudes towards the Iraqis. Her goal is to document these attitudes and shed some light on the conditions that shape these Americans' view of Iraqis.

In fact, the soldiers express a range of emotions towards the Iraqis--wary affection for local kids, genuine camaraderie with Iraqi police recruits, selfless compassion for the civilian victim of a tragic accident... At one point the Guardsmen risk their own lives to recover a woman's mangled body from the road. Of course, they also want to kill insurgents close enough to watch them die. But what does Atkinson expect? These are soldiers who are trying to fight an enemy that's equally determined to kill them (not to mention Iraqi civilians).

Sgt. Bazzi even stresses his respect for the insurgents as warriors. As a career soldier, he understands that the enemy has its reasons, just as the Americans do. He notes that if Canada invaded the U.S. to save the country from George W. Bush, a lot of Bush-haters would still wage guerilla war against a Canadian occupation.

Motives are a major theme in "The War Tapes." In their own words, the subjects try over and over to explain themselves and the war. Interestingly, nobody ever mentions WMDs. Once they're in Iraq, nobody talks about Al Qaeda or Bin Laden, not even Moriarty who ostensibly joined up to fight the 9/11  attackers.

Over many months, and numerous conversations, the soldiers' settle on three main theories about why they're fighting: to do a job, to make money for KBR, and (a distant third) to make Iraq a self-sufficient democracy. You get the sense that nobody views any of the reasons as entirely satisfactory, but also that everyone is convinced in his gut that there's something deeply worthwhile about what they're doing (or that there had better be something worthwhile, because the alternative is just too horrible to contemplate). 

"The War Tapes" has its share of gore, including closeups of the faces of dead insurgents putrefying in the sun, and tracking shots of the ground where the cameraman explains that human flesh is squishing under his boots. The only footage that the military censors blocked was a sequence in which a US soldier started throwing up as a stray dog gorged itself on the bodies of dead insurgents.

Steve Pink later explained that the authorities told him he should have shot the dog. Pink said he'd never been briefed on shooting dogs, and that if the dog wanted to eat the insurgents, good for him. Watching Pink tell the story on his Massachusetts front porch, wearing a backwards Red Sox cap is probably more chilling than the lost footage.

By far the saddest part of the movie takes place after the subjects have returned home. Now that their tour is over, they are struggling to justify their role in a mission that often strikes them as hopeless, if not pointless.

Despite his misgivings, Zack Bazzi ultimately finds some solace in professionalism:

I see this deployment as another part of my job and not as this super patriotic struggle to protect “our freedom and our way of life.” Being a soldier is a fundamental part of my identity. It is something that I love and enjoy doing. Being deployed to go to war that is being questioned back home does not affect my passion for the job. I will do my professional duty regardless of the political context or my personal feelings on the matter. [...] I love being a soldier. The only bad thing about the Army is you can’t pick your war.*

In the end, gung-ho Moriarty, who left his beloved wife and kids to fight the 9/11 terrorists, insists that it was all worthwhile, and that his view of the war is unchanged. You get the sense that he is trying really hard to convince himself of what he's saying:

I’m so glad I went. I hated it with a God awful passion and I will not go back. I have done my part and I feel like it’s someone else’s turn. My views of the war haven’t changed. You’ve heard people say, you know, “We’re over there for the oil.” You know. “It’s the only reason we’re over there in Iraq. It’s oil, it’s oil, it’s oil.” Well listen, no. We’re not there for the oil. If it were for oil, would that not be enough reason to go to Iraq? You bet your ass it would be! If you took oil away from this country tomorrow, what do you think would happen to this country? It would be, it would be devastating. So let’s all stop crying about whether we had reason to go in there or not because we can fight about that forever. It’s a done deal. We’re in Iraq. Support what it takes to make this thing work, or shut-up!*

Steve Pink's final comment is perhaps the most heart-breaking of all. Of the three Guardsmen, Pink seems to bear the most visible emotional scars. His blue eyes flash with rage and bitterness as he struggles to reconcile the truth about the war as he understands it with his own ineffable conviction that his service was worth more that:

Why the fuck are we there? We better get that oil, right? The US Army is not the fucking Peace Corps. The Marines are not the Peace Corps. That’s not why we’re in Iraq. We’re in Iraq for money and oil. Look at any other war in the history of the world and tell me it’s not about money. This better be about money and if we don’t get that oil and that money then all the lives that are gone right now, what is it? 1800 it’s at, something around there? They’re all in vain. You don’t put 150,000 troops from all over the country in there and say we’re there to create democracy. We’re there to create money, you know? We’re there to make money for us, you know. Somebody other than Dick Cheney better be getting their hands on it pretty soon.*

I hope every American will see "The War Tapes", regardless of their position on the war. If you live in New York City, please consider taking in a show tonight. The movie needs a big opening weekend if it's going to open in more theaters around the country.

Quotes from the film reproduced from The Press Notes section of The War Tapes website.

March 14, 2006

Crashing the Gate


Everyone who cares about the impact of the blogosphere on American politics should read Crashing the Gate by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong. Therein, two of the most powerful figures in the liberal blogs explain what they think the netroots can do for the Democratic party. No doubt the specifics of their plan will surprise many of their liberal, blogging allies. Whether you share their vision or not, you can't fault Moulitsas and Armstrong for being less than forthright about their agenda.

Markos “Kos” Moulitsas created the biggest liberal blog in the world. His co-author Jerome Armstrong helped engineer Howard Dean's internet fundraising juggernaut and founded a successful blogging community of his own. Given the authors' pedigrees, Crashing the Gate says surprisingly little about blogs. I was expecting a crash course on the theory and practice of netroots democracy from two movement pioneers. I thought Kos and Armstrong were going to give concrete advice for ordinary people to increase their influence in the Democratic party through the internet.

The central insight of Crashing the Gate is that small donor internet fundraising can shift the balance of power within the Democratic party. The authors hope that Democratic candidates will be able to wean themselves from DC establishment money by appealing directly to rank-and-file Dems online.

It is ironic that these self-proclaimed populists' main suggestion for improving the electoral fortunes of the Democrats is to revitalize its consultant class. The authors’ all-out attack on the party’s corrupt and antiquated electoral machine is by far the strongest part of the book. Unfortunately, it often seems as if they regard the netroots primarily as a means to end the Democratic establishment’s stranglehold on campaigns rather than as an engine for social change in its own right. Most Democratic candidates rely heavily on the national party for election funds. The establisment's assistance doesn't come cheap. Candidates who take money from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) also have to accept the "assistance" of D.C.-based political consultants who fly in and take charge.

The authors don't hesitate to point out that these consultants tend to be careerist losers who don't play to win because they lack any structural incentive to do so. They maintain that Democratic campaigns have been hijacked by"an “incestuous” “old boy asshole network" of Democratic operatives whose primary allegiance is to the D.C. committees that will rehire them after their next defeat.

I was shocked to learn that most Democratic media consultants get commissions for advertising. In other words, these consultants pocket 7%-14% of the cost for all the ads they place. This potential conflict of interest should concern all Democrats. Members of the same inner circle also make decisions about how much a campaign spends on advertising, and which of a handful of DC political ad firms get the business. Perhaps the most alarming revelation in the chapter on the “beltway mafia” is the that most campaigns don’t even test their ads before they run them, because (you guessed it) the consultants seldom think it’s necessary.

Kos and Armstrong make a number of cogent suggestions for revitalizing Democratic campaigns: firing consultants who lose, treating political advertising more like consumer advertising, and using the latest information technology and marketing psychology to deliver narrowly tailored messages to targeted segments of the electorate (e.g., Democrats, Republicans, ethnic minorities, rural voters, unmarried women, blog readers, combinations and permutations of the above, etc.).

Despite the merits of these proposals, there’s something missing from Crashing the Gate, namely, the gate crashing. Markos and Armstrong are really selling the fund raising power of the netroots to other people who want to tweak Democratic inside baseball.

To the extent that the book has a larger vision, it’s about how to spend the small donor dollars raised online. The authors don’t seriously discuss the blogosphere as a source of ideas or as a nexus for activism. They seem more interested in the blogosphere as a medium for placing targeted ads than as a new engine for independent news or as a novel brake on the power of the mainstream media and politicians.

Kos and Armstrong devote several pages of a short book to the need for offline infrastructure. They envision a vast network of democratic organizations staffed by well-paid professionals recruited in college and nurtured throughout their careers. I agree that this infrastructure is vital to the success of the progressive movement. The conservative movement is sustained by a vertically integrated system of thinktanks (“idea factories"), right wing media, political strategists, lobbyists, fundraisers, and donors. The left clearly needs a counterpart to compete with Grover Norquist and his K Street cabal, FOX News, the American Enterprise Institute, PNAC, and their legions of allies.

The authors’ outright hostility towards so-called “special interest groups” within the Democratic party has already generated a great deal of discussion. Approximately one third of Crashing the Gate is an attempt to establish that environmental groups, Big Labor, and abortion rights activists are like gangrene on the Democratic party. The book doesn’t provide any real evidence that these groups are harming the party. Obviously the party is in bad shape and special interest groups exist, but we mustn’t confuse correlation and causation.

The authors complain that environmental movement is too focused on policy solutions and therefore ineffective against right wing partisans who are waging “ideological warfare.” Organized labor has rendered itself irrelevant by mindlessly shoveling money to the Democratic establishment while ignoring the need to organize new workers and reposition unions in a changing economy. The authors are right about Big Labor, but the obvious take home message is not that we should all be docile team players. The unions teach us that if you give money by rote without making substantive demands, you’ll get screwed.

Crashing the Gate singles out the reproductive rights movement for a special measure of hostility softened only by dripping condescension. The authors rightly criticize NARAL for endorsing the ostensibly pro-choice Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Islandover promising pro-life Democrat. James Langevin. There is no doubt that NARAL blundered by endorsing Chafee, especially before the Democratic primary and after it was clear that Langevin's candidacy was doomed. Even so, the authors don’t succeed in showing that NARAL’s behavior is systematic of the shortcomings of pro-choice movement.

On the contrary, pro-choice organizations are generally too coopeartive. They have to fight the (well-founded) suspicion that their organizations are extensions of the Democratic party. Basically, choice groups are fighting to prove their independence to the Democratic establishment. They can see as well as Kos and Armstrong that unions, gun control activists, and proponents of racial equality lost out by being consummate team players for a "team” that was more interested in wooing swing voters than standing with its own base.

After slagging the environmental movement for being too wonkish and the unions for being toadies, the authors have the nerve to accuse the pro-choice movement of being too enamored of principle to compromise on “reasonable” policy solutions like 24-hour waiting periods and parental notification. The authors complain that abortion rights activists put people off by marketing their agenda under the larger brand of freedom, choice, and equality. These are guys who never met a Big Brand or an Overarching Narrative they didn’t like. Yet, they deride defenders of reproductive freedom for ignoring the “moral dimension” and the “gray areas” of abortion. I used to think that Kos was a relatively indifferent pro-choicer who supported an empirically misguided but strategically motivated “compromise” on abortion. Having read Crashing the Gate, it’s uncomfortably clear to me that his main interest is on this issue is reverse-engineering his strategic arguments to mask his discomfort with abortion itself. What Kos doesn’t get is how condescending it is to disguise a moral objection to choice in strategic terms. He wonders why pro-choicers get so angry at him. It’s simple: If you think that abortion is wrong, or bad, then say so. Don’t pretend that we should sell out choice to save choice.

At first, it seems odd for Kos and Armstrong to devote so much time to blaming activist groups for the sorry state of the Democratic party. However, upon reflection, this activist-bashing fits well into their general vision for the netroots. Their goal is to overthrow the Democratic establishment and replace the old hacks with slick new consultants who can harness the fundraising power of small donors. Seen through this lens, activist groups present a two-fold threat.

First off, groups like NARAL and the ACLU are competitors for donations from progressives. For example, the money I sent to Paul Hackett was money I didn’t send to Planned Parenthood. Second, and perhaps more importantly, special interest groups are an obstacle to Kos' and Armstrong’s plans for the netroots as a political force.

The power of the netroots depends on large numbers of far flung people lining up behind a handful of carefully chosen candidates. Would-be netroots powerbrokers don’t want donors with litmus tests. They want people who will fall in behind the candidates they choose with their new hightech consulting metrics for electibility.

Often, progressives would be smart to take their advice. The Democratic party needs to start winning elections and the netroots can't help unless we get together. So, I’m willing to make compromises on a race-by-race basis. And if netroots proves its ability to deliver seats, its priorities will get more weight in the party at large. (At least that’s the theory.) I supported Paul Hackett because I thought he offered the best overall combination of electability and commitment to systemic change within the Democratic party. Hackett believed his own rhetoric about citizen legislators and the power of the blogosphere to foment and coordinate grass-roots activism. He inspired ordinary readers within the netroots by looking to them as more than an ATM (to repurpose a phrase).

Crashing the Gate contains a lot of valuable advice for Democrats. However, I was disappointed that Kos and Armstrong are primarily interested in professionalizing the party through think tanks, paid operatives, and a new breed of internet savvy media consultant. I wanted to hear about how new technology might enable ordinary citizens to assert unprecedented influence over politics and the media from the bottom up.

January 28, 2006

Hanco: Bahn mi on Bergen

A Vietnamese sandwich shop called "Hanco" just opened at 85 Bergen Street, just off of Smith, near the F and G subway stop.

So far, I've had two sandwiches from Hanco and they both been delicious. The first was the grilled pork Bahn Mi with shredded daikon and carrot vinaigrette, cilantro, mayo, and fresh jalepeno peppers. A few days later I went back for the grilled chicken version and found it equally good.

Hanco features the traditional Vietnamese sandwich: ground pork, Vietnamese ham, pate, and the usual veggie trimmings. You can also replace the ground pork with grilled chicken, pork chop, grilled pork, sardine, or a vegetarian filling. If you don't like sandwiches, you're pretty much out of luck. They're still using the first printing of the menu with spring rolls and salads, but those items have been crossed out. Hanco is sticking to the basics.

Unlike a lot of Bahn Mi places, Hanco uses french bread that is actually crispy and slightly chewy. One of my pet peeves about Bahn Mi's in Vancouver is that the bread is too soft and too doughy. Hanco takes pride in crisping its bread at the last minute. The counter girl politely but firmly refused to allow a customer to leave the store clutching her take-out back too tightly.

"I don't like to see you hold that so tight," she said. "Later, it won't be crispy."

The Vietnamese coffee is tasty, too. Not too sweet. You can taste hints of cereal and chocolate through the condensed milk. The overall effect is reminiscent of Coffee Crisp.

Looks like I'm not the only resident who's elated about this development: Twenty Bucks a Day.

Em in Carroll Gardens

Last night I discovered that the Thai restaurant at 278 Smith has become good (and Thai!).

The place used to be called "Three Bow Ties." The kitchen specialized in sweet coconut-milk based sauces in pastel hues.

Now, the restaurant has reinvented itself as "Em" and the food is dramatically better. We ordered takeout from Em last night.

We started with the Thai roti: a panfried pancake served with a souplike dipping sauce. I was impressed that the roti pancake came in an insulated envelope instead of the usual aluminum foil. The pancake was tasty, if slightly greasy. Roti dipping sauce surprised me. It was basically a tub of black bean sauce. I was expecting something more Thai-inflected for dipping, but Thad liked the sauce so much he poured it all on his rice and devoured it.

I ordered the cumin-smoked chicken. The order came with three pieces of chicken on a bed of lettuce and a nice green papaya side salad. The meat seemed to have been pre-cooked in aromatic smoke and then roasted to cook the skin. The results were very good. I couldn't really taste the cumin, but the meat was juicy and thoroughly permeated by smoky flavor.

Thad had the basil duck, which he enjoyed a lot. The fry cook at EM really knows what he's doing. The duck skin was perfectly crisp.

We shared an order of "Red Hot Green Beans" which turned out to be green beans stir fried with deep-fried tofu cubes and served in a chili sauce. Very satisfying, although I would have preferred fresh or pan-fried tofu.

I notice that the Brooklyn blogger 423 Smith gave EM a mixed review, and that many of his commenters also had mixed reactions. I encourage them to give Em another try.

December 03, 2005

Ring of Fire: The Johny Cash Reader

Right of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader
Michael Streissguth, editor
Da Capo Press, 2002

I found Ring of Fire on a remainder table in a bookstore in DC last week. I ended up reading in a single sitting on the bus ride home. It's primarily a compilation of music journalism with interspersed with excerpts from memoirs and biographies.

One of the strongest contributions is an excerpt from Christopher Wren's 1971 biography Winners got Scars: Too about Cash's hometown of Dyess, Arkansas. Dyess, originally Colonization Project Number One, was a WPA homesteading project to turn sharecroppers into farm owners. The WPA set up the original colony for 500 families. Colonists were issued a house, a barn, and rudimentary tools. In exchange, they cleared the surrounding land, farmed crops, and sold them through the town co-op. After a few years, the farmers had the opportunity to buy their farms from the government. Ray Cash brought his family to Dyess in 1935. By 1938 he bought his 20-acre farm from the government. Later in life, Cash would joke that he was raised under socialism.

Another great essay is a first-person account of Johnny Cash's concert at Leavenworth Prison, written by Billy Nussbaum, then an inmate doing time for bank robbery.

Ring of Fire spans Cash's entire life. The collection of articles about Rick Rubin and the American recording series is one of the strongest parts of the book.

The book strikes an excellent balance between the biographical details and the actual music. The essays are well-chosen to show how Cash's sound evolved over the course of his career. The only weak parts of the book are the very long mid-career interviews originally published in country music periodicals. As someone who unfamiliar with the industry during that period, I found it hard to put the interviews in context.

Ring of Fire would make a great stocking stuffer for a Johnny Cash fan.

November 22, 2005

"Walk The Line": Review

James Mangold's "Walk the Line" is a very good example of the music biopic genre. The screenplay, co-written by Mangold and Dennis Evans, is the standard-issue endoskeleton: early trauma, rebellion, struggle, alienation, success, addiction, love, recovery, and redemption. The story follows Johnny Cash from his rural boyhood to his engagement to June Carter. The script is relatively pedestrian, but it provides a sturdy frame for the acting and the cinematography.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. Mangold decided to let both leads actually sing instead of lip synching, a decision that some reviewers find distracting. Pheonix and Witherspoon are competent singers and credible mimics, but it's impossible to ignore the gap between the actors and the real thing. On the whole, I think Mangold made the right choice. The best scenes in "Walk the Line" are the close-ups of Johnny and June performing together. Those shots have an electric intimacy that's unmatched in their spoken exchanges. I doubt performances of the same caliber could have been achieved had the actors been overdubbed.

"I Walk the Line" had pretty good cinematography. Phedon Papamichael likes wide shots with a very sharp focus on foreground figures against a very large blurry background. When it works well, this style creates a sense of immediacy. The shallow depth of field is most effective in scenes based on classic concert footage. You feel as if you're suddenling in the midst of an event you've watched many times from a distance. Papamichael overuses this approach, however and the blur gets distracting in some daylight and well-lit indoor shots.

Reese Witherspoon delivers an excellent performance as June Carter. Witherspoon plays Carter as a strong, smart woman, and perhaps most importantly, as a seasoned entertainer and consummate professional.

Unfortunately, "Walk The Line" makes Johnny Cash's pursuit of June seem almost one-sided. A lot of people disagree with me, but I don't think the movie captures June Carter's lust or her ambivalence towards Cash. We see June writing "Ring of Fire," but the critical context is left out. "Ring of Fire" is about all-consuming sexual passion, written by someone who takes the prospect of eternal damnation very seriously. In a radio essay, Sarah Vowell quotes June as saying that she felt as if she was being burned alive when she wrote the song. For some reason, the movie has Carter writing "Ring of Fire" much later in her relationship with Cash. In fact, she wrote the song while she was still married to another man. "I Wallk the Line" doesn't come close to capturing the intensity of June Carter's feelings. (Listen to Sarah Vowell's Cash essay. The segment starts 47 minutes into the program.)

June is a very well-developed character, but she serves a very circumscribed role within the biopic framework. The story requires a good woman to save Johnny, and that's primarily what Carter's character is there for. This is disappointing because "Walk the Line" is first and foremost a love story. It would have been nice to explore the complexity of June's feelings for Jonhnny in more detail.

Phoenix plays a convincing Johnny Cash. He has the mannerisms down and his chemistry with Witherspoon is terrific. Unfortunately, his character is written as a generic maverick. Unfortunately, the film offers little insight into Cash as an artist. As for Cash's emotional life, the film assigns overwhelming significance to the death of Cash's brother and the disapproval of his father. For the most part, these themes come across as trite and unilluminating. The childhood issues seem more like shorthand for alienation than explanations for the character's motives.

Overall, I recommend "Walk the Line." It's not a great movie, but it's an excellent example of its type.

Other reviews: Scott Lemieux, Peter Travers, David Edelstein, A.O. Scott, David Denby.

August 21, 2005

Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog's documentary about Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist who spent 13 consecutive summers (1991 through 2003) living with grizzly bears in Katmai Park on the Alaskan peninsula.

Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by a grizzly in the fall of 2003.

During his last 5 summers in Katmai Park, Treadwell shot over 100 hours of video of his life among the grizzlies. This footage forms the core of Herzog's Grizzly Man. Treadwell was no casual videographer. It's obvious to the moviegoer that he was painstakingly shooting an autobiographical film, in which he would appear as the heroic grizzly protector.

At times it seems as if Herzog is straining to impose his own favorite themes on Treadwell's story. In voiceover, the director says that Treadwell rejected the human world and decamped for Alaska to fight his demons in "wild nature." Treadwell's own footage tells a different story. Frankly, he doesn't seem to be battling any demons to speak of. He sometimes angry or irritated. Informants who knew him assure us in interviews that Treadwell had a "dark side." But as far as we can see, he's seamlessly self-deluded.

As David Edelstein puts it:

The nutty thing about Treadwell is that—for all the talk of his "acting like a bear"—he's a dead ringer for Corky St. Clair, the gay theater director played by Christopher Guest in Guest's Waiting for Guffman. There is the same self-dramatization ("I am a samurai warrior when challenged!"), the same wounded petulance, the same overflowing sentimentality: "I love you! I love you!... He's a big bear, yes he is."

We only see Treadwell when he knows he's on camera, usually when he's filming himself in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, for all his overt preening and self-consciousness, he never really breaks character--even when he's wondering aloud between takes about whether his hair looks okay, chasing a fox that stole his hat, or whining into his hand-held cam about how he's a nice guy who can't get laid.

In between takes we see Treadwell addressing the camera less formally--but he's the same self-deluded narcissist throughout.

Herzog only gradually reveals the extent of Treadwell's self-delusion.   

Treadwell's central claim is that he's on a mission to protect the bears, but we eventually learn that Katmai Park is already a federally protected nature preserve patrolled by the Federal Parks Service. As a real bear biologist later explains, the grizzly population of Katmai isn't even endangered. Poaching isn't a major problem in Katmai, and when potential poachers turn up, the flighty, unarmed Treadwell proves a feeble deterrent.

For all his tearful statements of devotion, Treadwell's relationship with the grizzlies is remarkably shallow. He gives them cutesy names and addresses them in baby talk. He has no apparent scientific curiosity about the bears. The last thing he wants is a detached human perspective on his "animal friends."

Treadwell effectively domesticates the foxes in his camp. Blissed out pups lie against Treadwell as he strokes their fur. When he gets up, they follow him like dogs. Sometimes he spills his guts to the nice foxes about his problems with the glorious but unattainable bears.

More than anything Grizzly Man captures the paradox of narcissism. Treadwell can't relate to anyone or anything except as an extension of his own desires. He desperately wants to be liked and respected, but he can't step outside himself long enough to imagine how he's coming across to other people, or even to animals.

Herzog and his informants search for meaning in Treadwell's life and death, but what did he really accomplish? Very little, as it turns out. He didn't learn much about bears because he was overcome by his own gooey sentimentality. If the video record is any indication, he didn't learn anything about himself. You keep wondering when he's going to realize how absurd he looks. Instead, he spent his months of solitude constructing elaborate cinematic "proof" of his own heroism. Ironically, the record shows the exact opposite. 

August 19, 2005

Mr. Kabob Cafe

Mr. Kabob Cafe
35 W. 35th St. (between 5th and 6th Ave.)
Tel: 212-290-0040

I'm shocked, Mr. Kabob serves absolutely delicious tabbouleh. (Much better than either of my two favorite Middle Eastern places in Brooklyn, Zaytoons or Waterfalls.)

Frankly, I don't even like tabbouleh, but it came with the vegetarian platter. Mr. Kabob's tabbouleh is mostly parsley with diced tomatoes and cucumbers and a little chewy fine grained bulgar wheat as an accent. The dressing is probably just fresh lemon juice and olive oil. North American tabbouleh is usually a bulgar and tomato salad with a little parsley. The traditional way is better.

I was thoroughly impressed by the entire vegetarian platter, actually. The babaghanouj was smoky with a light, fluffy texture. Superior to Zaytoons' and comparable to Waterfalls. I also really liked the muhammara (a red pepper and walnut spread).

The falafel were a little cold, but nicely seasoned and crispy. Next time I'll wait for a fresh batch instead of getting the ones under the warming light.

Mr. Kabob's pita is the ultra-flat 2-ply variety from a package. They warm it up for you in the panini press, but it's still not great.

I want to try the moudardra (rice, lentils, and crispy fried onions) and the fried eggplant patties. The actual kabobs looked awfully good, too.

August 10, 2005

Szechuan Gourmet

Szechuan Gourmet
21 West 39th Street
New York, NY 10018

Outstanding spicy Szechuan cold noodles. These are the real deal: wheat-based noodles*, vinegar, red chili oil, sugar, bean sprouts and enough Szechuan pepper to be mildly psychoactive. Mediocre hot and sour soup.

I'd go back.

*In New York this dish always seems to be made with bright yellow wheat-based noodles. I prefer white noodles for this dish, but I don't know of a restaurant that uses un-dyed variety for its cold Szechuan cold noodles.