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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #4: Are you not entertained?

Posted by kozemp on September 8, 2015


I see a lot of movies in the theatre.

There are movie people who don’t. I know a bunch of people who are super movie nerds, moreso even than I am, who hardly ever go to the theatre, or not at all. And I can sympathize with that, a bit, even if I don’t necessarily agree. The movie theatre experience can get pretty ragged anymore. Me, though, I’m still there. I’m still there all the time. I probably see… 20 movies a year in a theatre, give or take? 25 at the outside? Either way, it’s a lot. Way more than the average, which I believe is about 3 or 4 a year.

So yeah, I love going to the movie theatre. But here’s the thing: I almost never see a movie more than once in the theatre. I mean it almost NEVER happens. (I mean, aside from things like screenings of Casablanca or whatever, which I’ll go to any chance I can get.) The last new movie I twice in theaters was Guardians of the Galaxy. The last one before that, I am pretty sure, was Casino Royale, and that was almost ten years ago. It takes a LOT to get me to the theatre more than once.

The list of movies I’ve seen in theatres twice is very short. The list of movies I’ve seen in theatres three times is very, very short: It’s The Matrix and the first X-Men movie, which people I knew kept wanting to see and, sure, X-Men in a movie theatre, let’s go again!

The list of movies I’ve seen four times in the theatre is precisely one movie long, and that movie is Gladiator.

That is funny to me now, sitting here, because when I was watching it today in preparation for writing this, all I could see was what’s wrong with it. This isn’t a case where oh, I saw this thing in the theatre 15 years ago and loved it to death and haven’t had eyes on it since. I am pretty sure that Gladiator also holds the dubious honor of being the movie that I have purchased on various home video formats the most times. It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought and I definitely bought the DVD at least four times: twice for the bare bones, basic DVD (one “disappeared”), once for the slightly-upscaled DVD edition, and then once for the three-disc Super Tiger Dragon Edition. That’s just on DVD. I’ve also bought it at least once on Blu-Ray, and I have a nagging suspicion that I’ve actually bought the Blu-Ray twice. And that’s never minding the fact that it’s one of those movies I am physically incapable of turning off if I see it on TV. I have watched it at least once a year since the day it came out.

Today was no worse than the 20th time I’ve seen Gladiator, and like I said, the movies flaws were all I could see. And there are a lot of them. This is a deeply, deeply, DEE-HEE-PLEE flawed movie. Like Grand Canyon, Springfield Gorge, Doctor-Who-cracks-in-the-universe deep. It’s no small wonder the movie doesn’t simply crumble into bits trying to hold its own weight up against them.

My notes from today’s viewing consist almost entirely a series of incredulous rhetorical questions about the movie.  (I love the Socratic Method almost as much as Gladiator, apparently.) In what is almost certainly not a coincidence or accident, the vast majority of them revolve around Joaquin Phoenix because I am realizing that the central question of the film is quite possibly WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH COMMODUS?!

A few examples:

  • “Why does Commodus kill Maximus’ family? What does that accomplish?”
  • “How does Commodus not realize that his sister keeps him in line with drugs and the empty promise of icky sister sex?”
  • “Commodus has this weird need for love that makes him a lot more pathetic than most movies will let their villain be.”
  • “Seriously, what the fuck is Joaquin Phoenix doing?”

I used that last one, or a variation on it, four times in my notes, because the character and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance are just baffling. (Phoenix’? Not sure of the punctuation rules there.) Or rather they are as you go through the movie from start to finish, because at the end it all comes together in the “am I not merciful” bit, when you see for the first time what Commodus really is, just a barrelful of rage and hate and fear shoved inside a person suit.

The scene is amazing, and Phoenix is amazing in it, and it shows you that Phoenix has actually been, you know, doing something specific the whole movie, but the Commodus issue is the movie’s second biggest flaw: the action of the entire picture hinges on what Marcus Aurelius tells us at the beginning, that we have to go through all this shit because Commodus is unfit to rule. And, yeah, you get a vague sense of that at the time, with his weirdo thing for Lucilla and he’s kind of a preening jerk at the front and the whole killing his father bit, but all any of that really proves, or shows, is that Commodus is an ambitious dickhead and a pervert. I mean, those are more or less the basic REQUIREMENTS for being a Roman emperor; he should hardly be ruled out because of that. So as an outside observer you’re like, “okay, so what exactly is the problem with this dude,” and you have to wait almost three hours before he’s screaming at his sister, who he has promised to spend the rest of his life raping, about what a great guy he is and you realize, “oh, okay, he’s an insane fucking monster, which we grudgingly admit is just over the line for this particular job.”

But this here is one of the things I love about Gladiator, that its flaws are also secretly its strengths. Because here’s a really, really weird thing about this movie: so much of the plot – of what actually happens in the here-and-now of the movie – is deeply dependent on a ton of very complicated backstory that the movie makes absolutely no attempt to present. Or even let the viewer in on. The key players all have this long history together that all the action of the picture springs from and the movie’s attitude is “eh, people will figure it out.” The question of “is Maximus the father of Lucila’s son,” a lot of movies would have tried to milk that question for at least two or three reels. Gladiator just sort of leaves it hanging there, a big vague maybe that I don’t think I even picked up on the existence of until my third or fourth viewing. Think of every movie like this, where the characters have this kind of history. Then think of a movie that doesn’t explicitly tell you any of it – ANY of it! The lousy movies are the ones that go out of the way to just shove it in your face, full of those awful lines of expository dialogue that start with phrases like “of course you remember…” and “you know…” Then think of movies that don’t do that.

One of those is a batch of bad, or mediocre, movies. The other is a batch of great movies. Exposition is death. Character exposition is even worse, so Gladiator just says “fuck it” and dares the audience to keep up.

That dare to the audience, the Marty McFly-style “try and keep up” is the spine of the whole movie, in a weird way, and unfortunately that works both for and against it. To wit: I have seen this movie at least 20 times and still cannot tell you exactly what is going on in the opening battle scene. Forget “exactly,” I can’t tell you AT ALL what’s going on. There’s Romans, and there’s a bunch of barbarians, who knows how many, and they’re in a place with trees and dirt, and they fight, and that’s about all I know. The geography of the battle is completely incomprehensible. Where is Maximus leading the cavalry charge from? Behind the Germans? (Germanians? Whatever.) If he’s already flanked them with his cavalry why does the whole infantry battle even happen in the first place? If he can just pepper the Germanianianians with flaming arrows and giant Molotov cocktails from a mile away why is he hitting them with guys on horses? What the hell is that dog doing there? When Commodus shows up after it’s all over and the guy is like “the Emperor has been at the front for 19 days” he hops a horse and he’s there in a couple minutes. That’s like me saying my father has been at the WaWa on the corner for 19 days.  How and why does ANY of the opening 20 minutes happen the way it does?

I ask these questions but at the same time I kind of don’t care because Christ on a pogo stick those opening 20 minutes are awesome. I am not any kind of connoisseur of movie violence anymore but that scene – all the fight/battle scenes, really, but the opener in particular – have this intensely visceral quality that few other movies can match. I said on the podcast a few years back that no other filmmakers is as concerned with the interaction of life and death than Ridley Scott, and it really shows here. The scenes are graphic – like, yuck graphic – but not exploitative or gratuitous and everything has this frenetic, sort of lived-in, you-are-there feel that still makes my heart catch in my throat when I watch them. Maximus, in that second fight scene out in the provinces, dual-wielding. Oh my stars and garters. It’s brutal and vicious but at the same time it’s just so real and present that you can’t take your eyes off it.


Oh, by the way, there’s this guy in this movie, Russell Crowe? Yeah, you may have heard me talk about him and how stupid awesome he is. There are actors you can see working, and then there are actors you can’t see working, and then there are actors for whom it is just effortless, and then there’s Russell Crowe. He’s a lot of the reason you can’t take your eyes off this movie. Is there a big, epic-movie hero who talks less than Maximus? Crowe has to do so much with just his eyes and his face and his body and wordless or near-wordless shouting, and he DOES it, and he makes it look so easy, and I hate him for it. And the laughing. The fucking laughing. Maximus laughs, and that is SO GODDAMN IMPORTANT. In the hands of a lesser actor Maximus would be a brooding, dour caricature (the script does him no favors here) but just a couple times over the course of the movie Crowe knows to crack a smile, or laugh a little bit, and JUST BY DOING THAT he turns Maximus from an obsessive, single-minded revenge-bot into a real person and dear god you could cook a roast over the burning fires of my jealousy. That is such next-level shit I would add him to the list of people I plan to devour in order to gain their powers were I not certain Russell Crowe could kill me with his mind.

But then…

But then, Maximus is a bit of a cipher at times, isn’t he? Watching with my dad this morning the first fight scene in the Zucchabar arena is on, and my dad says, “so, what, practice is beneath Maximus but he shows up on game day? He just didn’t want to go to camp! He’s Brett Favre!*” And I tried to explain that, no, you see, Maximus wouldn’t do the practice bits because he was showing his contempt for the games, but when Proximo started talking about facing death he got up for it because he actually wanted to die and… I stopped myself before I got too deep into it because, just, ugh, even I didn’t believe any of that. Crowe does a ton of work without saying anything, but while Maximus’ overall revenge arc isn’t exactly difficult to parse, he says so little and gives away so little that his motivation in any given scene isn’t always easy to pick out (or, oftentimes, possible to).

The fact that I keep going back and forth between things I love and things I hate about this movie is a symptom of how deeply flawed the movie is, and it and all the other problems spring from what is the movie’s biggest flaw: the script is awful. Oh my GOD the script is awful. While filming Russell Crowe famously (and possibly apocryphally) refused to say whole sections of the dialogue, most of which ranges from simply bad to so terrible it will actually cause your skin to boil away if your sound system is turned up too loud. Connie Nielsen’s “prisoner of fear” speech, which is actually in the extended edition TWICE, for fuck’s sake, please save us O Lord from the prisoner of fear speech. And that’s just the actual spoken words. While Maximus’ revenge story is pretty simple and, let’s charitably say, reasonably clear, anything else that goes on in the movie is your classic “a bunch of shit that happens.”

Much like the opening battle scene, the third act of this movie makes basically no sense. There’s a plan, it involves Derek Jacobi in some way – side note, what movie is Derek Jacobi in, because it’s not the one everyone else is – and then everyone is in jail, and Maximus breaks out of his slave-prison-slash-rich-Roman-lady-fuck-palace, and is then captured nine seconds later when his Scottish buddy gets killed for no reason, and then, I dunno, a bunch of other shit happens. Derek Jacobi is in the last scene, because… the Roman jail is in the Colosseum? The extended edition – which Ridley Scott actually appears at the beginning of to pointedly tell you is NOT a director’s cut – tries to address some of this with a bunch of political scenes about Commodus selling grain, and… oh, god, it’s all just so goddamn tedious. It’s like someone had the idea “let’s do a movie set in Ancient Rome,” and then did some research on Rome and gladiators and shit, and wrote an outline, and then never looked at it again, and a week before shooting started a deaf chimpanzee with a drinking problem banged out the dialogue in one overnight typing bender before killing himself, and then Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe somehow convinced each other to shoot THAT.

The fact that this is still a great movie with such a godawful script is actually something of a miracle, since flaws like that are usually structural and, thus, insurmountable. Even when you get lots of super talented people together, making a great movie from a bad script is like trying to make a great meal from bad ingredients: a great cook can maybe salvage something edible, but it’s almost impossible to make something really delicious. Look at Skyfall, for example, or the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Tons of great people made those and the movies still never get there. Auteur theory people can wank all they like to “you can’t run a screenplay through a projector,” but a painter still needs paint.

And let’s not kid ourselves here: a lot of fantastically talented people did outstanding work on this movie. Ridley Scott. Russell Crowe. Here’s one you probably don’t think about too much: John Mathieson, the DP. This movie looks SPECTACULAR. I saw it last year at a revival screening, one of those show the remaster in digital cinemas when the Blu Ray comes out jobs, and seeing it on a huge screen for the first time in more than a decade, dear lord the movie’s look is just jaw-dropping. The landscapes and the sweeping shots of Rome and the Colosseum are all as gorgeous as the dirty, gritty closeups on the floor of the arena… I mean, honestly, if you can’t let yourself get taken away by stuff like that, what are we even doing here? Shit like that, transporting you to another world, that’s what movies are FOR. That’s the whole point.

I think, maybe, that’s why I like it so much. I try not to analyze these things TOO intently; analyzing the movie is one thing but trying to too finely dissect the whys and wherefores of why I like something seems like a fool’s errand. But looking at this list, this odd little enumeration of “these are things that I love,” it jumps out at me that with just a few exceptions it’s all period pieces and other worlds and things that are so far outside my experience that, well, I need movies to experience them. Gladiator has all these flaws but… it isn’t that I don’t care. Obviously I do care; I’ve spent 3,000-something words tearing apart one of my absolute mostest-favoritest movies of all time. But whether it’s because of them or despite them – and I have honestly been trying to figure out that difference all day and I simply cannot – even still, I put Gladiator on, and the people and the visuals and everything come together and just take me to this other place that is so real you can almost smell the dirt and the blood. It’s magic. That’s what Gladiator is, in the end: it’s movie magic. Whether I’m talking about movies or mathematics I am loathe ascribing any sort of result to a process I cannot accurately describe, but after 15 years, 20-plus viewings, and crying like a little girl at “honor him” every single time, I don’t have another answer.

You compare Gladiator to those other movies I mentioned a little bit ago, or any not good movie made by people who are. This is the same thing. The result should be the same. By all rights, in any sort of logical universe, when you take all the same pieces and put them together the same way you should get the same result. But every now and then, you don’t. Every now and then, magic happens, and it’s inexplicable. Magic happens and you end up in the theatre four times seeing the same movie.

It wouldn’t be any fun if magic never happened, would it?


* Yes, watching movies with my father is absolutely infuriating.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #5: You’ll never come to Dorset.

Posted by kozemp on July 10, 2015


I realize this is an odd choice, but I’m going to start talking about this movie by talking about another movie.

Years ago I watched and really, really liked the movie Atonement. It wasn’t exactly a threat to this list – I doubt it would make my top 100 if pressed – but I was extremely impressed with and very taken by it, even with the fact that, as I described at the time, the last five minutes of the movie hits you in the back of the head with the flat side of a 20 pound sledge.

I was describing how much I liked it to a friend of mine, and he said, “what did you expect? Jesus, look at you. Your favorite movies are [SPOILER.] [SPOILER.] The English Patient. And now you like Atonement so much. It’s like you’re sexually attracted to misery.”

We laughed for a second, but then I stopped laughing and said, “wait, now that I think about it that actually explains a lot.”

Watching The English Patient last night, I was reminded of that story. I was reminded of the story because about halfway through I was struck by two very clear and very explicit thoughts:

“This is my fifth-favorite movie. Out of every movie on earth, there are only four that I like more than this.”


“Dear God, WHY?!”

That question of why would plague me for the rest of the night. And all of today. And maybe, I’m starting to think, for a long time.

The answer isn’t just because it’s a good movie. It’s obviously good. Everything about it is… I don’t want to say “perfect,” because it’s not a perfect film, but somehow that… I dunno, sort of works in its favor? I imagine there is some sort of tortured metaphor to be made here about diamonds and flaws and similar horseshit; let’s pretend I made one and move on. It’s not perfect, but the stuff that is good is so, so, so good – i.e. almost everything – and the stuff that isn’t good is short, and isn’t even that bad to begin with – i.e. about five minutes towards the end – that on balance, yeah, your movie only being, what, 94% amazing, you know, we’ll just round up to a hundred. This is, in a purely objective sense, an incredible movie. Full stop.

So it’s not that. We haven’t broken into the All Time Top 5 on purely quantitative merit alone. There’s clearly something going on here beyond acting and writing and cinematography, and while I was sitting here watching it last night I started to really think about those things, in direct relation to the movie, for the first time.

As I said to a friend last night, this ended up involving some fairly uncomfortable revelations.

I went through a couple surface-level ideas and discarded them pretty quickly. Not even worth repeating. There were a few that seemed promising, though, and I explored them a little further. Eventually they all sort of petered out, but as these things go the exploration was valuable.

Is it the “sexually attracted to misery” joke? Nah. I mean, that’s funny, and there are some things in my life you can point at and say “huh? Huh?” while snickering and making your point. At the end of the day, though, I feel it’s important to state unequivocally that I am not some kind of… emotional sadist? Is that the term for it? I am not actually, literally attracted to unhappiness. That things have sort of ended up in such a way enough times that one can make the joke, well… I am a lot of things, but as I have repeatedly said, remember that above all else I am the plaything of an angry trickster god.


Is it because of Kristin Scott Thomas? Her and Emma Thompson sort of cohabitate this odd little space in my brain set aside for Slightly Older British Actresses I Have A Really Weird Thing For. She was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, a movie that no one should be surprised by now actually WAS a late threat to this list, probably somewhere in the 30-40ish range. She is the Epitome of Cool. Her Katherine is intelligent, beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking. But, no, don’t think that’s it either. I mean, I’m not swooning over the first Mission Impossible. (WHICH SHE WAS THE BEST PART OF.)

Is it the fact that this was the Big Time Prestige Movie right when I started really getting into movies? This was the theory I toyed with the longest, and I think of the ones that didn’t make the cut it has the most merit. Yes, this was around right when I entered my budding-cineaste period, and it coincides with the rise of Miramax and indies dominating awards season – this movie is more or less the highwater mark for Miramax – and all that other shit I have since learned to more or less disregard about movies. I know it wasn’t the first one to do so, but it was the first arthouse movie that I REMEMBER having real mainstream cred (it was the center of a classic Seinfeld episode, remember) and that probably gives the movie some gravity in my thoughts that it might not have had otherwise.

But this isn’t one of my mostest-bestest favorite movies because of any of those things. They were good ideas, sure, but they weren’t the answer.

Finally, though, I did hit on the answer, and I’m not going to lie to you: I didn’t really like what I found.

I love this movie – and I do, if nothing else last night also proved that I deeply, profoundly, unreservedly and unabashedly LOVE this movie – because I connect with it personally.

I love this movie because when I look at Laszlo Almasy I see myself.

That is not a good place to stand.

Okay, so, let’s get the snickering and the dirty looks out of the way. Obviously, I am not a Hungarian count. (That I am aware of.) I do not possess Ralph Fiennes’ matinee idol good looks or talent. I have not had a torrid affair with a British noblewoman in North Africa. (Again, that I am aware of, there was a time when I was REALLY drunk and a lot of it is hazy.)

I would say something like “I do not possess his charm,” but on balance I am frankly pretty sure that I actually possess MORE charm than Almasy. Charm is not exactly his strong suit.

No, that’s not what I mean. Here is what I mean.

When I decided that I really needed to answer the question of “WHY?!” I went back and actually started watching more closely than I normally would when I am planning to write about something.

I watched, thinking to myself, “the answer is here. The answer is right in front of you. You just have to see it.” And as the flashbacks start to unfold – and the flashbacks are the part of the movie I’m interested in, not to take anything away from Juliette Binoche just yet – I started to pay attention to Almasy, really, REALLY pay attention, to his behavior, and his scenes with Katherine…

I paid attention to his scenes with Katherine and I felt myself start to get overtaken by a creeping, unsettling deja vu. Not because I’ve seen the movie or those scenes before. I’ve seen them, by my estimate, eight or nine times over the years.

I started to get the sort of deja vu where I was watching the movie, and thinking, I did that.

I did that too.

I’ve done that.

I’ve acted like that.

There’s the scene where Almasy tries to get Clifton to take Katherine back with him to “Cairo” not because he is actually worried about her safety, or about the expedition, or the desert, or any of the other bullshit excuses he gives. He wants her to go back because he’s terrified of his own feelings, and of being alone with her, even when he’s surrounded by other people.

It was uncomfortably familiar.

Then comes the scene after the night in the sandstorm, when they get back to her hotel, and he refuses to go in with her. And I remember doing exactly that. Doing the exact same stupid shit he does. Standing at the bottom of the steps or outside the open door listening to that voice in my head, just like he is in that moment, that voice everyone hears at some point, telling you that what you want is right there, right in front of you, that you can have it and it’s waiting for you, and then refusing to go and get it because of the other voice in your head that makes up some bullshit reason why you can’t have it, or why you don’t deserve it, the voice that eventually makes you say, “nah, I should go.”

And then not much later they’re finally together – no thanks to him, also a popular theme in my biography* – and I see what he does, the mistakes he makes, and how twisted up his insides get by fear, by his fear of his feelings, of exposing himself, of opening up to someone else, of other people and the world in general. Because, folks, don’t misunderstand: from the second he first sees Katherine until he gets cooked in that plane, every single thing Laszlo Almasy does is driven by fear.

Trust me on this point.

Sting once sang that “those who fear are lost,” and good lord does that apply here. How many people die because of Laszlo Almasy’s fear? Never mind the thousands of people in Cairo that die – as Almasy correctly points out, thousands of people would have died either way, just different ones. No. Not war casualties, not statistics. How many individual people – people he knows, his friends – die because Almasy can’t deal with his fear? Katherine. Clifton. Maddox. Hell, even the German general who cuts off Caravaggio’s thumbs ends up getting it in the neck because of what Almasy did, though admittedly he probably deserved it.

Almasy, for his sins, gets to spend the entire war dying.

In trying to figure out why I love this movie so much – partially through sitting here typing this and partially through long periods pointedly NOT sitting here typing this – I did at least manage to come to a realization that was a lot more comfortable than my similarities with Count Dumbass: the movie, itself, is also asking the question “why?” The opening scenes are purposefully opaque: a man, a woman, a plane, and a fire. Then we go back, and for the first time the movie poses the question, “why is this happening?” All the major action in the movie more or less centers around the question of why. Katherine wants to know why Almasy writes about her in his book. Clifton wants to know why he wasn’t good enough for Katherine. (Shoulda gone for brooding, dude.) Caravaggio wants to know why he lost his thumbs. Hana…


Okay, here’s my sort-of apostasy about this movie: I don’t really get Hana’s story. I mean I functionally UNDERSTAND it, I comprehend the plot, but I don’t know… what purpose it serves? Laszlo and Katherine is the movie. Their story is Why We’re Here. We set Hana up with this tragic backstory about her blown up Canadian boyfriend, and her blown-up girlfriend, and then she tries to blow herself up, and then… she decides to ride out the war in a crumbling castle with a mummy? Is it supposed to be some sort of counterpoint to Almasy’s story? Because you can’t really touch that on the whole “tragic love” front. Oh, your boyfriend got blown up. (In a goddamn war, we might add.) And then your best girlfriend got blown up (in the same damn war). And then you meet a perfectly nice young lad who you break up with for never satisfactorily explained reasons which possibly have something to do with him pointedly NOT getting blown up, which considering your luck should be considered a sign from the universe that he’s The One.

Boo fucking hoo! Lemme tell you a little story about Laszlo Almasy and Katherine Clifton, and buckle your seatbelt cause this is the mother of all tragic love stories. Did your husband try to kill himself with a plane with you in it? Did you jump off a train to try and save someone you love (blown up or otherwise) from dying alone in a cave? I think not.

(It is worth noting in passing that the movie’s plot summary on Wikipedia omits Hana’s story entirely, and not wholly to its detriment.)

Hana’s story – it’s existence – is one of the very few flaws in the movie. The other is what heppens between when Almasy leaves Katherine and when he gets back to her. As I’ve said, I’ve seen this movie close to a dozen times, and every time we get the knobheaded British soldiers dragging Almasy to and fro across the desert, and strangling people with handcuff chains, and Nazi plane swaps, I just kind of shake my head and wonder what the hell was going through Minghella’s head for that stretch. Tonally, in terms of performance, in terms of staging, everything, that one reel is from some other movie that is certainly NOT in my top 5. Every time a British soldier says “Fritz” I want to travel back in time and whack Minghella upside the head with a newspaper and make him rewrite those parts. I get that you can’t have “tragic love story” without, you know, tragedy, but isn’t there SOME other way we can get to it?

Hang on, though. Is “tragic love story” it? Hell, tragic love story is no less autobiographical for me than Almasy’s cowardice, though again in fairness I have never been set on fire because of my doomed love for an unattainable woman**. Maybe my deep-seated love of the movie is just pure identification, on every level, character AND theme? God, that would be depressing, wouldn’t it? That would be more depressing than this movie, which is actually something of an accomplishment considering the underlying message of The English Patient – my fifth favorite movie of all time – is “no matter how hard you try you can’t escape the past, love is a poison, and both of them will kill you.”

Note to self: stop asking “why.”

Oh, and, next time?

Go up the damn steps.






* That motherfucker is ASLEEP when she shows up!







** YET.

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Make me a drink.

Posted by kozemp on May 1, 2015

I am kind of furiously banging away at this one on a self-imposed late night deadline, because I really need to get some sleep but I also need to get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind, before said sleep smears the edges of my recollection. Which means this may not be the most polished thing I’ve ever written, but by the end you’ll understand why that’s necessary.

So, then.

Just after I started my slow, cautious foray back into doing theater stuff however many weeks or months ago it was – it is one of those things that already I cannot remember precisely when it happened – I was looking at the Theater Philadelphia website and saw that Theatre Exile was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

I saw that and had a curious, strangled reaction, for a bunch of reasons.

I instantly bought a ticket all the same, and here’s why:

A little while later I was having lunch with an old theater friend and I mentioned the play, saying, “have you ever actually SEEN it?”

He scrunched up his face for a second and then said, “you know, I don’t think I have.”

“Me neither,” I said. “I mean, I’ve seen the movie, and read the script a bunch of times.”

“I’ve done scene work from it,” he said.

“Right. But have you ever actually seen it performed?”

I paused.

I will admit that back when I was actively doing theater stuff I would occasionally bang on Theatre Exile for tackling really interesting and really challenging material and then having a bad tendency to back away from the parts that made it really interesting and challenging – for metaphorically, and occasionally literally, turning down the lights at the important bits. However, I will also admit that when I would call Joe Canuso “my nemesis” and shake my fist at the mention of them – I literally used to do that, for Chrissakes, I’m cringing at the thought of it – the joke came out of a combination of burning jealousy and sincere admiration. Joe and Theatre Exile seemed to have tastes that ran very similar to mine, except they also had a relative abundance of things I lacked. Important things like experience, and money, and decorum, and good sense. They were doing the sorts of shows I wanted to do, only better.

You can see how that would drive me crazy.

At any rate, once I made the decision to slowly and cautiously start working my way back, and to start out by just seeing as many shows and as many people as I could, and once I saw that Theatre Exile was doing Virginia Woolf, my reaction to the whole thing was summed up in what I said next to my friend at lunch:

“I’m not about to miss THAT.”

This is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Straight off and for the record: I saw Theatre Exile’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Plays and Players tonight, and it. Is. ASTONISHING.

It’s not just that everyone in it is great. (They are.) It’s not just that the execution of the tech across the board is great. (It is.) And it’s certainly not that Joe Canuso’s direction perfectly – oh god so perfectly – avoids all the things I’ve been running into as I get back into this thing, all the artificial, presentational things about theater that I absolutely fucking loathe. The actors talk TO each other. They look at each other. They get in each other’s faces. They touch. They flirt. The characters and the performances are so real and the direction is so dead-on and so right that… I… I almost can’t describe it. It’s like you’re not there. The proscenium and the seats and the lights and the other people in the audience melt away and you’re just in this room with these four people and you wish you weren’t, because the performances of these wretched, horrible people are so transcendent, but at the same time you can’t look away for even an instant. When Honey stumbles around in a drunken stupor I literally had a second where I was freaking out that she was going to fall off the stage.

The sheer reality of the whole endeavor is terrifying.

The agility of the show, of the totality of acting and directing and design, just amazes me. Most plays – good ones, even great ones – are like an aircraft carrier. They’re powerful, but they’re tough, and lumbering. And that’s not surprising, or even bad. It takes a lot of work and more concentration than most folks can comprehend from a whole lot of people to put on a really good production. A lack of maneuverability, after a fashion, is okay. This? This is not that. Christ is it not that. This is like someone turned a Formula 1 car into an Edward Albee play. The show, the whole thing, it turns on a dime, and it changes gears faster than you can blink, and it goes from zero to a hundred and back again in seconds without breaking a sweat.

Believe me, were it not way past my bedtime on a school night I would rave on and on about every amazing thing in this production, even though I have neither metaphors nor superlatives enough to accurately describe it. The closest thing I’ve got is what I was able to say to Joe Canuso before I had to rush out and catch my train home so I could type this up and get to bed at a decent hour (which I have failed to do).

I found Joe, shook his hand, and just said, “it burns the paint off the walls.”

As a friend of mine put it: this is what theater is supposed to be.

It is extraordinary.

You must, must, must go see it.


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Life is not a paragraph, and death is no parenthesis.

Posted by kozemp on March 30, 2015

When I was growing up, my father, like I assume all fathers, taught me a lot of rules. Though I have internalized a lot of them over the years, there are a few that I still carry to this day word for word, and that I imagine I probably will my entire life.

Bear in mind that all of these were offered as broadly-applicable life lessons of extreme, and roughly similar, importance. They are, in the order that I remember being taught them in:

1) Once you start a book you have to give it 50 pages.

2) Be careful, for the Nine are abroad.

3) Never sit with your back to a door.

4) Never draw to an inside straight.

It is worth noting that I read Lord of the Rings at 8 and learned poker at 13, so you can do your own math and draw your own conclusions, there.

The one that I found myself thinking of today was the oldest: the 50 Pages Rule. This one has actually served me in good stead, for the most part. If the opening of a book is a little wobbly, and you aren’t sure about it, if it hasn’t really done anything for you by page 50 the odds are the rest of it isn’t going to do much for you either. While I’m certain there are exceptions – the 50 Pages Rule is why I haven’t read Anathem – the rule nicely dovetails with some of the guidance I’ve come up with for myself later in life. I’ve said time and again that I don’t have time to watch/read anything that isn’t awesome, and that is really just the spirit of the 50 Pages Rule blown out a little: don’t give a so-so book more than 50 pages because that’s time you could spend reading something better.

I am a big fan of the 50 Pages Rule. I evangelize it as much as anything. It works for me. Likely it will work for you. Try it and see how it goes.

The upshot of this is that there are times when the Rule actively protects you from doing harm to your precious brain cells (and, more importantly, me from doing harm to mine).

I once dated a woman who really liked the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. In an attempt to bring us closer together (which is the point of dating, after all) I made an effort to engage with and read the things she liked. I started out by one day picking up her copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Interlude, because internet people seem to find my conversations with my father hilarious:

A few years after the events I am about to describe, I saw the American film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Through a strange alchemy of circumstances involving midwestern travel and me obsessing about a woman I met at a party, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was one of the incredibly rare modern movies that my father saw before I did.

After I finally saw it, I called him up (he was, at the time, once again in the Midwest) and asked him what he thought about it.

He said, “I really liked it.”

I said, “yeah, I did too, for the most part. It was really interesting seeing Daniel Craig be a whiny little bitch.”

“That is correct,” my father said. This is how we talk about movies. One of us makes a subjective observation and the other deems it objectively correct or not. “Overall, it’s dark, and violent, and a little too long.”

I said, “you just described every David Fincher movie.”

My father paused for a second, then said, “that is also correct.”

End interlude

Some of my father’s rules I take more literally, or follow more strictly, than others. I have been known to sit with my back to a door when it is more or less impossible to do otherwise. There have been times when I have grudgingly stayed in a pot while on an inside draw, though only when I was getting odds on my call.

(I can only assume my father did not include the concept of pot odds in his life advice because he assumed that 13 Year Old Me would not have understood it. This is actually an appalling lapse in judgment. 13 Year Old Me could do calculus; he probably could have grasped “fold unless this number divided by this other number is more than this third number.”)

So, sitting in her apartment one day, I picked up my girlfriend’s copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

If you asked me what the worst book I’ve ever read was, odds are that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would not make the list. It would not make the list solely because I cannot, in good conscience, claim to have read it. I have only read 50 pages of it. In point of fact I have only read EXACTLY 50 pages of it.

I started reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and on about page 3 I started the clock.

At the bottom of page 50, literally in the middle of a sentence – I am not making this up – I shouted “THANK FUCKING CHRIST!” to the empty apartment and hurled the book across the room, and started muttering obscenities about time I would never get back.

To say that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is bad – or that the portion of it that I read is, at least – is an understatement. It is profoundly, unbelievably bad. I used to think it was just the translation, that maybe it was better in Swedish, but then I saw the movie and underneath some great performances and direction and cinematography there was a script that was still, at a very basic level, broken. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is bad. It is in-the-bones bad.

It is, in fact, so bad that the book doesn’t even deserve a thoughtful response, which brings me to The Girl on the Train, a book which very much does deserve one.

It took me a little bit, sitting here, to figure out how exactly how I ended up reading The Girl on the Train in the first place. I’m certainly not someone who is up on the latest “buzzworthy” books or anything like that, and a cursory glance at it reveals that subject-wise it isn’t really something I’ve ever read in the past. For years how I’ve simply read what I read and liked what I liked and when something broke through that, a new author or whatever, it was more or less a beautiful and unique snowflake.

That started to change for me last fall when I read an interview with Stephen King (whom I admire a great deal) and he mentioned how he was kinda pissed that The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, was a straight-up literary masterpiece that would get ignored by a lot of the book cognoscenti because it had science fiction elements in it.

I could not, at the time, remember a specific book recommendation from Stephen King, and decided that if it was good enough for him it was good enough for me, and when I finished Revival I went and grabbed The Bone Clocks and had a reaction that transcended positive. (There will, at some point in the future, be many glowing words in this space about David Mitchell.) My reaction was so transcendent, and branching out had proven so fruitful, that I decided I was going to actively expand my literary horizons, snowflakes be damned.

It goes without saying that the recommendations engine on Goodreads is… well, more or less the recommendations engine equivalent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Amazon’s recommendations, however, are usually frightening in their excellence, and every time I have read or looked up a new book since The Bone Clocks, I have added a bunch of Amazon’s suggestions to my “to-read” list, which now sits at a bloated 80 or so titles.

It will take me a while to get through the list. There are worse problems to have than “too many good books to read,” surely.


Here’s the thing about The Girl on the Train: after finishing it this morning I went and read a bunch of reviews of it, and so many of them mentioned Gone Girl it made me a little sad, and more than a little angry.

I must note at this point that I have not actually read Gone Girl (#45 on my to-read list), but that isn’t necessarily germane to my argument in this instance. Unless the book is vastly, VASTLY different from the movie – which I have seen, and nothing in my researches indicates the differences are in fact that vast – the similarities between the stories seem little more than superficial. A missing woman. An unreliable narrator. And… I dunno, that’s kinda all I’ve got. The “unreliable narrator” thing in Gone Girl isn’t even the same SORT of unreliable narrator in The Girl on the Train.

So what are we left with, then?

Don’t talk to me about genre. I do not give a flying fuck about genre. Genre is bullshit. It’s just another way to separate Us from Them, the intellectual haves from the have nots. All I care about anymore is theme and execution. All I care about is whether or not your book, or movie, or comic, or show or whatever is ABOUT something, and whether or not you can get that something across with some degree of skill. Gone Girl is about something. The Girl on the Train is about something. They are not, however, about the SAME thing, not remotely, and that makes the comparison wholly unfair.

Let me put it another way: are The Godfather and Miller’s Crossing the same sort of movie? Should every review of Miller’s Crossing reference The Godfather? Of course not. It’s unfair.

Would every review of The Girl on the Train reference Gone Girl if the books were called The Boy on the Train and Gone Boy, and if they were written by Paul Hawkins and George Flynn?

I’m just going to leave that there and move on.

Let’s get something out of the way straight off: I liked this book. I liked it a lot. I liked it enough that when I turned off my Kindle before getting off the train this morning (BA-DUM-BUMP!) I did a quick mental calculation of how much I had left in the book, how much I really wanted to finish it, and how much work I had to do at the office today, and decided I could safely sacrifice a good bit of the morning at work finishing the book rather than waiting to read it on the train home (BA-DUM-BUMP!).

I liked it for… well, all the usual reasons I like something, to be honest. It has clear themes, and themes that are favorites of mine to boot, foremost among them being an exploration of the lies we tell each other, and the lies we tell ourselves, and how one of those is much, much worse than the other. I admit that this is somewhat by necessity a function of the whole “unreliable narrator” thing, a literary notion I despise, as it drags me back to forced readings of Catcher in the Rye.

It works here, though, because each of the narrators is unreliable in her own way, and that kind of parallelism is that much more book-catnip for me. Oh my, yes, I looooooooove me some structural parallelism.

It’s really quite ingenious, when you get down to it. Rachel is unreliable because she literally has no memories of parts of the story she’s telling. Megan is deliberately obfuscatory, leaving out important parts of her story until it’s too late, for her and for us. And Anna…

Okay, I’ll admit, I’m honestly not sure what the Anna chapters are supposed to accomplish. The first one comes out of nowhere – I was listening to my synced audiobook when it came and the third voice made me shout “WHAT THE FUCK?” in my car – and while there are bits of narrative in the later instances (which we’ll get to shortly) I don’t know what thematic purpose the chapters serve as a whole, especially early on, other than to really hammer home the point of, “hey, isn’t Anna awful?”

Because don’t mistake – Anna, the new wife of main character Rachel’s ex-husband, is truly loathsome. (Not in the way Amy Dunne is loathsome, but nothing that doesn’t birth itself out of your chest cavity is.) Another, lesser book would have tried to soften her up, to make her a perfect mother, a victim of whim or circumstance. A lesser book would have tried to cast Anna as some sort of latter-day Mrs. de Winter; The Girl on the Train sticks to its guns and keeps her Rebecca, and god how I love that about it.

Anna ends up being unreliable simply because you hate her so much. Call it the Jimmy McNulty Effect. I can complain about the chapters’ existence, but not with how well they’re executed.

All of which is a roundabout, discursive way of saying* that this is a Book With Really Well Done Characters, and that alone is usually good enough. I’ve long said that I’ll suffer a comic with bad art for great writing. I’ll also suffer a silly/boring/nonsensical plot for great characters, and this book has them.

I was especially shocked doing my post-read research to learn that Paula Hawkins is not, in fact, a former alcoholic, since the parts of the book detailing Rachel’s battle with booze are some of the finest I’ve read. Imagine something that specific and that personal that you know nothing about, and then imagine trying to write about it convincingly. It’s no mean feat. Rachel’s struggles are real. Megan’s struggles, too, are also very real, though they are of a different sort and come from a different place.

Beyond character and theme, though, that’s the other thing that impressed me so much about the book: it is, at a technical level, executed with extraordinary skill. The story is told across three separate narrators and three overlapping timelines, and not only does it make sense – I mean in a purely “this happened, and then this happened, and because of that this other thing happened” sense, though it does also work in that respect – the story is clear enough to follow, yet leaves enough unspoken to increasingly tantalize the more of it you read.

The different narrators have different voices. It’s hard enough for a writer to have ONE voice, let alone three. There are scenes that mean one thing the first time you read them, and then when you possess new information you can go back and the scene has a completely different meaning, and both work with your understanding of the story as a whole. Hawkins was a journalist – possibly, one might say, the most trained sort of writer there is – and her commitment and her discipline really shine through. (I also looooooooooove me a disciplined writer.)

And, through all of this, she only loses her mind once.

I’m trying very hard to avoid outright spoilers here, because I am very much of the mind that this is a book you should read (I mean, unless you hate things that are interesting) and part of me feels that knowing “how it ends” may impact your enjoyment of it. So I’m going to try and describe the one bit where she loses her mind in the broadest way possible, so as to alert you to its existence without giving away what it actually contains.

The “end” of the book, such as it is, the last however many pages or paragraphs or whatever – the longer you read on a Kindle the tougher it gets to make distinctions like that – are fine. Actually, they’re rather perfect. I loved that last bit. And everything that leads up to the scene that comes before that last bit is, as I have been saying for a thousand words or so, also very, very excellent.

Unfortunately, between that last bit and everything that comes before it is the climax of the book, and it… ugh, I found it profoundly disappointing. Not because it’s bad, or doesn’t work within the confines of the book as a whole. It does. In a purely story-based sense it does. That penultimate scene ends the way it absolutely has to end. I have no argument with that.

What I have a problem with is how it gets TO that ending of that penultimate scene, which is out of that other, lesser book I mentioned earlier.

Hawkins spends the entire book crafting this story that relies very intensely on character, and observation, and psychology, and memory, and all these very cool, very ethereal, very heady things, and then the climax of the book is this violent action sequence out of a shitty Adrian Lyne movie, or something, and I sat there reading it muttering, “oh, no, no, what are you doing? Noooooooooo no no no no no.” It’s so bad, and so out of place, and so incongruous with the rest of the book that the showbiz part of my brain is intensely wondering if that whole bit isn’t in there solely because of editorial pressure to jazz up the ending, that somewhere out there there isn’t Hawkins’ original text for that climactic scene, where things happen the way things in this book happen instead of the way they happen in a book that has not spent 300 some odd pages being so careful to NOT do things in that junky, market-driven way.

I’m pretty sure that given enough time and effort I could come up with a decent scene that accomplishes the same things as the climax of The Girl on the Train but doesn’t happen the way it does in the book, and if -I- can come up with it then I’m pretty sure Paula Hawkins probably could have as well. Because aside from a publisher’s thumb pushing down on it the only other logical conclusion is… I dunno, first book jitters? Maybe? I guess it’s possible. The book doesn’t really show that anywhere else, but if you’re going to have them maybe it’s best to concentrate them in ten pages or so.

That is such a minor blemish, though. Ten pages that don’t quite work, compared against so much else that does. Almost everything else that does, really. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best book I’ve read the last year. (Still The Peripheral.) It’s not even the best book I’ve read in the last month. (Still Perfidia.) But it’s damn good. Good enough to give the first 50 pages a shot, at least.


* aka “what I do”

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I destroy those I cannot control.

Posted by kozemp on March 2, 2015

And so, we have reached the point in our narrative – or my narrative, at least, as though there were any other narrative I really cared about – where I make a direct artistic connection between James Ellroy and Bruce Springsteen, and stop at HP Lovecraft along the way, and the connections work, and I will heretofore be proclaimed as either genius, or madman, or both.

But we’re not quite there, not just yet.


Me and James Ellroy is a funny sort of story. I came to Ellroy through the movie version of LA Confidential. I distinctly remember, after seeing the movie, sitting in the food court at LaSalle with Tony Romero and talking about picking up the book it was based on and him saying – almost 20 years later I still remember his exact words – “I hear it’s a fucking tome.”

I had discovered crime fiction as a teenager with Andrew Vachss – which is a bit like discovering recreational drugs by drinking a shot glass of LSD – and became one of those people who gleefully dove into the black pit every chance I got because… you know, I don’t actually know why. It’s true that I did have a severe conservative/authoritarian streak when I was a teenager and early adult, but that got fixed a long time ago and I can still pick up Hammett or Chandler or Thompson or whoever and thoroughly enjoy myself. It’s weird, I suppose, but I can’t tell you why I like soccer either. So here we are with me as a… as a kid? A young adult? Is there a word for that 18-21ish age? Whatever you call that time when you’re 18-21ish, by then I was long since that kid who had a pathological need to read novels that movies I liked were based on. How many other kids my freshman year at Chestnut Hill do you think read Silence of the Lambs? I would hazard “not many.”

Fun fact: some internet sleuthing has revealed that LA Confidential was the second book I ever bought off Amazon – after Neuromancer, which surprises, I imagine, precisely no one.

Anyway, I bought and devoured LA Confidential, and again almost 20 years later it is still one of only two books where the last lines are seared into my brain forever. The others are the last lines of Gatsby, also surprising, I imagine, no one.

I was pretty blown away by the book, and who wouldn’t be? I was already head over heels in love with the movie, after all; moreso, possibly, than whatever demure, emotionally distant brunette I was also head over heels for at the time. (I legitimately cannot remember which one it was, but, yes, I am aware that I have a type.) The book is at once both this brutal distillation of the movie and a grandiose, exploded version of it. The core of the film and the book are still the same – Los Angeles as seductress, sunny exteriors and rotten insides at every turn, and good men doing bad things. There are some key differences, sure: the Ed Exley of the novel is a little more carefully drawn and deeply motivated (and much more a conniving schemer, if you can believe that). The story is a lot more expansive. The end is completely – and I mean COMPLETELY – different. And then there is the subplot in the book in which – I am not making this up – a thinly-veiled pastiche of Walt Disney is revealed as a serial child rapist and murderer.

Yeah. It’s James Ellroy. /shrug

Even with that – and in typical fashion for me I was so engrossed in the story I tended to blow through it to get the broad strokes as quickly as possible and I missed a lot of those details on the first read (aka A Song of Ice and Fire Syndrome) – once you get used to Ellroy’s… let’s charitably call it “unique” style, which doesn’t take long, the book has the same core strength that the movie does. The characters are so strong they practically leap off the page, and for all the weirdness of the language it is still incredibly evocative in an odd way. More than almost any writer I’ve ever come across Ellroy’s books have a FEEL to them that is practically indescribable and impossible to replicate. Ellroy’s books… they SEETHE in an almost Lovecraftian way, like dark, misshapen things you know are hideous but you can’t take your eyes off of.

So I read LA Confidential, and went gaga for it, and immediately said “OH SHIT MAN WHAT’S NEXT?!” and grabbed myself a copy of White Jazz and I was toast. Completely hooked. This despite the fact that in pure writing terms White Jazz is less a book and more a collection of frenzied ravings that make the complete works of Philip K. Dick look like a carefully-considered sermon. On a sentence for sentence level it is more or less unreadable, but somehow as it accumulates it still works as a whole, and it introduces Pete Bondurant, and it has what in deference to spoilers I will call “the thing Exley does at the end,” which fulfills the promise he makes at the end of LA Confidential (the book) in the most satisfying and reprehensible way possible.

I don’t mention Pete Bondurant in passing; he is one of the main characters in American Tabloid, which is one of my Top Five Favorite Books Ever*, so clearly the whole James Ellroy thing worked out pretty well for me.

The thing about Ellroy is that as he got older his books started to… is “change” the right word? Maybe “drift?” They are still recognizably James Ellroy, they couldn’t not be, but there was something more to them that became more pronounced as the Underworld trilogy rolled on. If you start with The Black Dahlia, a book that seems to be powered by nothing more than madness and sheer style, and then go through the Underworld books, you can see that there is this weirdly emotional core to them that gets stronger and stronger.

I’m not someone who will read books purely for style. If I were I would like… well, among other things, Philip K. Dick. But the books slowly undergo this metamorphosis until you get to the last twenty pages or so of Blood’s A Rover and find that you are reading this shockingly sentimental, almost maudlin ending. After years of books that run on a combination of anger and glee comes this thing that is about… regret? Deeply personal, private regret?

From James Ellroy?

The fuck?

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. But one gets to the end of a James Ellroy novel, or one did up until that point, and expects shocking, bloody denoument, not the book quietly reminding you that the real point of all of this is to not end up a sad old man who wasted his life. To get that instead of what Exley does, or instead of Pete Bondurant waiting for the screaming to start, is one of those literary moments that is jarring and wonderful.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Perfidia.

I had actually missed Perfidia when it first came out – I recall one of my last Facebook updates, in fact, to be a lament that Ellroy had a book out and that I had missed its release. These things come few and far between anymore; with the Underworld books coming out in 1995, 2001 and 2009, Ellroy is getting positively GRRM-esque in his old age. My outrageous to-read-pile, both digital and deadtree, wasn’t helping, but eventually I came to the conclusion that leaving James Ellroy unread for so long had become a crime of, one could say, Ellroyian proportions.

So I started Perfidia. And it started as one would expect. Bad cops. Loose women. Wall-to-wall decadence and villainy. One of the book’s main characters is Dudley Smith, which as one reviewer noted is basically like making one of your main characters the Devil. One-third of the book is a view from the inside of pure evil.

But then…

I don’t want to say something in the book turns, because there isn’t a page number you can point at (or a percentage count in my case, YMMV) and say, “aha! This is the paragraph where everything changes!” It isn’t a single paragraph or a chapter. I’m frankly not sure that it isn’t there from the start. But there came a point, maybe halfway through the book, where I read one chapter about Dudley and realized, “holy shit, this is so SAD.”

And once I twigged to that it was all I could see.

In classic James Ellroy fashion no one in this book is what they appear to be, but they’re not what they appear to be to the other characters. Ellroy here lets us into his characters’ heads more than I think he ever has, and we see exactly what they are from the start, and just JESUS I cannot get over the overwhelming sadness that permeates the whole thing. I mean, the book is called “Perfidia,” which ought to at least give some sort of clue what he’s after. And there is still plenty of the litany of horrors that forms the ground level of any Ellroy book. Alongside that, though, there is this deeply felt despair at the novel’s core that reaches out and touches so much of it, and is so artfully and powerfully rendered that you kind of wonder why Ellroy hasn’t always done it like this. Even Dudley Smith – fiendish, profoundly evil Dudley Smith – gets a backstory and an inner life that is almost sympathetic. Even the Devil, apparently, can have his heart broken.

And that’s what this book runs on. Instead of anger and glee, it’s melancholy and heartbreak. It’s still James Ellroy – there are murders and beatings and sleazy dealings enough to numb the most jaded crime reader – but now with the added bonus of making you kind of want to give the characters a hug and tell them everything will be okay. And the whole thing is part of this very odd sort of temporally-transcendent literary experience that is dependent on having consumed an entire oeuvre over a lot of years.

My old buddy Frans and I were once having a conversation about music, and I forget the exact beginning of the line of discussion but we somehow got onto Springsteen and he said, and I still also remember this one exactly, “I mostly like the more uplifting Bruce songs. You know, like The River.”

I said, I thought not unreasonably, “uh… what?”

Before he could begin another typically Frans-ish line of hilariously awful reasoning I interrupted him and said, “dude, do you seriously not know what that song’s about?”

“Sure I do,” he said. “It’s about – ”

“The guy in that song kills himself at the end,” I interrupted him again. “He goes to the dry riverbed to jump off the bridge and commit suicide in the last place he was ever happy. It’s, like, Springsteen’s least uplifting song ever.”

He gave me his preferred look of cautious disbelief. “Are you sure?”

“Trust me,” I said. “I’m sure.”

A few years later he listened to Live in New York City and told me, “well NOW I get what you were saying about The River, yeah.”

Reading Perfidia is a bit like hearing the version of The River that’s on Live in New York City. How it’s the same song, but it’s not. And how you kinda need the old song to appreciate the changes to the new one, but the new song is still amazing on its own.


Ellroy, Lovecraft, and Springsteen.

Told you I’d get there.


* The Great Gatsby and then in no particular order American Tabloid, Dune, Neuromancer, and Cryptonomicon.

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A Story for Christmas, 2014

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2014

Okay, so, yes: I did not write a Christmas letter last year. At least three of you have expressed some consternation at this fact, and in the event that more than three of you were in any way put out by that, consider this tale my official apology. Inasmuch as I am official in any way, which I have come to learn over the years is in fact not very much.

There were two primary reasons I did not write a letter last year.

The story of the first reason:

Last summer – summer 2013, I mean – I got word that a friend of mine had taken his own life.

There are jokes coming, I promise, just bear with me a second.

So I get this news, and as you can guess if you don’t know already, I was thrown for loop pretty hard by this. I did what I did, you know, processed the whole thing in my own stupid, ineffectual, mostly useless way, and more or less carried on with my life.

Around about October of last year, though, I found myself having a tough time with a whole bunch of other things that were very pointedly not related in any way to my friend’s recent suicide, and for the first time in many years I went to see a psychologist.

If you’ve never been, seeing a psychologist isn’t too different from seeing any other doctor for the first time. There’s a lot of paperwork. A LOT. The big difference is that the paperwork at the psychologist, instead of asking things like “have you had any major surgeries in the last 5 years” or “how many medications do you currently take,” says “have you thought about harming yourself recently?” (Though, now that I think about it, it also asks about medication.) So I dutifully filled out the paperwork. I’m awesome at doctor’s office paperwork; I do a lot of it and once you get some practice you can get a decent groove going.

After I finished it I sat down with the doctor and we went over it together. We talked about the times I’d previously seen shrinks, my general life situation, stuff like that.

At one point he looked at the paper, frowned, and then looked at me.

He said, “on the question about ‘recent major events,’ you wrote that a friend of yours committed suicide?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Over the summer. But that’s fine, it’s not why I’m here.”

My psychologist raised his eyebrows.

I literally made a dismissive wave with my hand.

“It’s not a big deal,” I said.

Spoiler: it was a big deal.

The thing of it, though, is that my late friend was one of those folks who make a point every year, for some reason, of telling me how much they enjoy my silly little Christmas letter. And when the time came last year… I wish I had a better answer than “I just didn’t have it in me,” but that’s what I’m going with. I thought a couple times over the 24th and 25th about sitting down and banging out a little something, but I never got past the thought of doing it. I’d try to think of something to write about and no worthy idea would ever come up; there was not, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, any there there.

However, I did say there were TWO reasons, and it is distinctly possible that some part of why I was unable to string five words together in an acceptable order was because I was bone tired, just absolutely wiped out last Christmas.

The story of the second reason:

In the midst of everything else that was going on at the time, my mother managed to catch the world’s worst case of food poisoning last year on about December 22nd. She is and was fine, of course, but at the time it was very serious. She was in the hospital for a couple days and we didn’t know if she’d be home in time for Christmas until they discharged her around noon on Christmas Eve.

I am vaguely ashamed to admit that at the time I was… not AS worried about maintaining the appropriate Christmas traditions as I was worried about my mother, you know, dying in the hospital, but I’m not going to lie to you and say I didn’t spend at least a few minutes contemplating the inequality.

In an effort to maintain as much of our traditional Christmas as I could, though, certain sacrifices had to be made, and the biggest of those was that I wasn’t able to get out of the house. Someone had to stay home, man the phones, keep the place decent, etc etc, while my father was at the hospital.

So I stayed home, which meant that I could not get to the charity wrapping station at Willow Grove.

I would have to wrap all my presents for folks myself. And wrap my parents’ presents for each other.

I was, to say the least, not good at wrapping presents.

I was, in point of fact, astoundingly bad at wrapping presents, and frankly that kinda pissed me off.

You may have heard – not from me, mind, but around – that I am not a stupid person. I know essential survival phrases in something like 6 languages.* I can perform multivariate calculus in my head. I read the Aeneid in Latin and there are, at this very moment, satellites orbiting this planet that literally have my name on them.

Taping paper to boxes? Sorry, Johnny, no can do.

So in addition to being wrung out from the ordeal with my mother and her inability to keep nutrients in her body, I spent hours – hours, people, hours – the two days before Christmas sitting at my dining room table with piles of presents and scraps of garish red and green paper shouting “WHY CAN’T I DO THIS?!” at volumes loud enough to get you kicked out of the Bellagio. (A decibel level I can now pinpoint with precision.) By the time the notion of writing the Christmas letter came around, in addition to my psychological issues with the whole endeavor, my brain was pretty much fried by tape and scissors and recurring daymares of Darth Vader wielding a cardboard wrapping paper tube instead of a lightsaber.

Which leads us to this year, and the fact that in addition to hearing around the water cooler that I am pretty smart, you have probably also heard that I may have a problem with what we will charitably call “hubris.”

On Monday I was at Willow Grove – Monday, not Sunday, that shit don’t fly no more – getting a gift for my mother. After my purchase was complete the very nice sales lady said, “would you like us to wrap that for you?” and my brain lit up and I said “YES! YES I WOULD!” far too intently.

The store would have people who are TRAINED in gift wrapping. Who were, most likely, experts at it.

I would watch them. I would study them. I would commit their every motion to memory. And then, when I got home, I would use my stolen knowledge to wrap my gifts myself this year. Not because I had to. No. Because I WANTED to. Because I COULD. I would steal their knowledge and use it to my own ends and become the gift-wrapping god that was my birthright – nay, my destiny.

And so I watched. I watched that woman practically without blinking. It’s a good thing she was concentrating very hard on wrapping my mother’s gift because I am fairly certain the way in which I was staring at her would not have been deemed polite, my excuses of “I was just watching your hands!” to the contrary. (Actually, as I read it now, “I was just watching your hands” is not really any less creepy.)

I watched. I studied.

When she handed me the box I said “thank you,” and meant it more than I’d meant a “thank you” in a long time.

I had studied her more intently than I’d studied anything since I had an Iranian chemistry professor who barely spoke English and I had to teach myself acid-base equilibria. I studied her carefully, and successfully. I had her secrets. I had her power. I was like Sauron with the One Ring in his grasp. I now had the ability to destroy all the gift-wrapping in my path.

I got home and took out one of my presents for my mother. I repeated what I had learned from the store wrapping person. I matched her movements exactly. I was her mirror image – she might as well have been there herself at my dining room table.

I smoothed out the last piece of tape, looked at my handiwork, and said, “oh what the FUCK?!”

My wrapping job looked like the thing from the transporter malfunction scene in the first Star Trek movie.

Now this is the part where what a normal person would do is look at the pile of presents on the table, then look at the epically atrocious job they’d done on the first, then look at their watch and say, “well, I’ve still got time, I can get this lot to Willow Grove and have the nice ladies wrap them for charity.”

This is the part where what I did was look at the pile of presents, then look at my epically atrocious wrapping job, then grit my teeth – literally grit my teeth – and say, “I can do this,” and pick up the scissors.

By this afternoon, the entire pile of my presents and those of my parents was wrapped and ready to go under the tree. I use the word “wrapped” in its loosest possible sense here, but still. The presents are ready to go under the tree, and yes, they are a mess of gaps and wrinkles and miles of tape that look like something the United Nations would issue sanctions for if a government dropped them on a civilian population.

Two years ago I wrote about how the important part of Christmas isn’t the present, but the time – the time you spend figuring out and getting that gift, whether it’s the “perfect gift” or just some little thing, that the gift is a physical distillation of time you spend thinking about someone else.

Staring at a pile of wrapping jobs that would make HP Lovecraft run screaming in terror I realized that I actually kind of liked having that extra bit of time thinking about other people. It is, after all, the thought that counts.

They don’t ever say what “the thought” actually IS, but I’m hoping “I AM WRAPPING THESE GODDAMN PRESENTS MYSELF NO MATTER WHAT” qualifies.

Merry Christmas, all.











* “I am an American,” “where is the train station,” and “I need water.”

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Everybody wonders. And sooner or later everybody gets to find out.

Posted by kozemp on July 29, 2014

I remember where I was when I got the call: I was in my car, pulling into the parking lot of Montgomery County Community College.

I was there to record the podcast, the episode about Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four. I was excited about the show, super-excited. I had pages and pages of notes. I’d been looking forward to that episode for months. I loved that book. I still do, though probably not in the same way, now.

I was happy. I was in a great mood. I was looking forward to a good night and a good show. I’d been having a good month. A good summer. Hell, a pretty good year all around.

My phone rang.

The phone rang, and I saw Scott’s name come up, and I was pretty happy about that too. I figured Scott was calling for one of the usual reasons. He’d gotten a part in a play, or his kids were heading to his parents’ for the weekend and he wanted to see if I was up for cards, or he wanted to ask for advice on buying a Blu-Ray player or something like that. There are some people where you’re just always happy to see their name pop up on your phone.

“Hey, what’s up?” I said.

There was a long silence, and as I pulled into a parking space I wondered if the cellular wilds of Blue Bell had dropped my call.

I remember, very specifically, yanking up the parking brake lever in that silence, waiting.

Scott finally said, “listen, I don’t know how else to say this.” There was another short pause, then, “Larry killed himself.”

I sat there in shock for a few seconds. I thought, this is a wind-up. This is a joke. But I knew it wasn’t. I could hear it in Scott’s voice.

A joke wouldn’t have had that awful silence ahead of it.

I sat there in my car in the MC3 parking lot, I realized that our friend was dead, and I started to quietly laugh.

Scott said, “what… why are you…”

I stopped laughing long enough to say, “no, no, Scotty, I’m sorry, it’s not funny, it’s just…” I laughed again, a little louder. “I’ve got a show in five minutes.”

That’s the last thing I remember until later that night, when I was at Scott’s with everyone else, wondering what the hell we were supposed to do now.



It is useful at this point to stop and talk a little bit about me and my family and our relationship with, well, death.

My mother is great at death. My mother is also a purebred Irish Catholic, and if you weren’t already aware of it those statements are, more or less, necessary corollaries of each other, if not equivalent outright. It is a cultural thing that, while I can understand the genesis of it in an analytical sense, at a purely historical or sociological level, the rest of me just doesn’t get it at all. It’s like they had second to last pick at the cultural super powers draft and after England had taken “stiff upper lip” and America had chosen “dangerously oblivious optimism” the Irish looked at the board, sighed, and said “well, I guess ‘good at death’ is better than ‘makes really good chocolate.’ You’re up, Belgium.”

Either way, my mother is great at this stuff. When somebody dies she is ON IT. Notify the appropriate parties, call a priest for the mass card, take the nice clothes to the dry cleaners, clear the schedule, make time to visit the family, all the way down the line. From phone call to weeks after the funeral her reaction hits with clockwork precision every time. When it comes to this sort of thing my mother Does Not Fuck Around. She manages to get everything done AND process her feelings at the same time. As cultural inheritances go it’s admittedly not, you know, the Renaissance, but the practical and emotional efficency of it is just astonishing.

My father is… let’s say, he’s not that. My father is the guy who doesn’t go to a funeral not because he is insensitive, or doesn’t want to, or doesn’t care, but because he can’t handle it. I am honestly not sure why this is – over the years I have eventually managed to figure out a lot of thing about my father, but not this one. A lifetime of observation has made it pretty clear, though: my mother is great at death. My father is terrible at it.

But this, also, has resulted in its own odd little efficiency.

My father is a firm believer in knowing when to “call the guy.” Raising a middle class family you learn to fix as much around the house as you can yourself – replacing a leaky faucet or a broken light fixture – but you have to know when you can’t fix something, and when you can’t you “call the guy.” The plumber, or electrician, or whatever. The expert. The person with the knowhow to take care of the problem.

So, when someone dies, my father knows he can’t deal with it, and he calls the guy: my mother. She does all the funeral stuff on both sides of the family. When my father’s relatives die – not something we deal with that often given our sporadic-at-best relations with my father’s family, but still – they actually call my mother. It’d be funny if it weren’t, you know, not.

As (I am often realizing) with a lot of things, when it comes to dealing with death I’ve landed smack in the middle of my parents.



I’ve talked a lot here over the years about my weird – nicely and positively so, but nonetheless weird – upbringing. My parents had an odd sort of division of labor. My mother was mostly responsible for things like right and wrong, morality, responsibility, the importance of family, etc etc, i.e. not coincidentally the prototypical Irish Catholic virtues. My father was mostly responsible for things like the importance of reading books, knowing lots of things about musical theatre, seeing every James Bond movie twelve times, etc etc, i.e. not coincidentally the protypical kid from Lawncrest hiding that he is smarter than everyone he knows virtues.

(Though “only sports and Star Trek allowed on TV” was DEFINITELY my mother’s rule.)

The upshot of this is that when you spend your childhood – indeed, your whole life, but most importantly your childhood – deeply entrenched in JRR Tolkein, Kurt Vonnegut, and the casual death-stoicism of the Irish, you end up pretty sanguine about the whole affair. Death is a thing. It happens, it happens to all of us, it is perfectly natural and though it is sad – oftentimes very, very sad – you recognize that the end of someone’s life is also a time to celebrate it, to mark not just their passing but their living.

This time, though, none of that was working. I could hear it in my mother’s voice when I called her the next day to tell her what had happened. I’ve heard my mother get The Phone Call enough times to know when she’s not responding the way she normally does. I heard in my mother’s voice that same awful pause I heard in Scott’s when the call first came, that silence that says, “I don’t know what to do.”

My mother didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do, because this time it was different. Death is natural. Suicide is not. A lifetime of Valinor and “so it goes” and “one less drunk” left me completely unprepared for it, and there was no guy to call.



After the Fantastic Four show – which I know I did even though I have no memory of doing so because I edited it later that week, a pretty bizarre experience in and of itself – I was at Scott’s place with a bunch of our friends and the mood was oddly upbeat. I mean it wasn’t exactly super-happy-dance-party, but you think about what gatherings like this are SUPPOSED to be like, and you picture wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and there just wasn’t any of that. It was just a bunch of us sitting around, talking, occasionally having a laugh.

I am not a psychiatrist – thank the old gods and the new for THAT – but if I had to guess I’d say that the mood that night was mostly because me and everyone else were working very hard to specifically be in that sort of mood. I wouldn’t call it classic “denial” necessarily. I went through that, and I mean literal denial. Like, I didn’t believe that what we were told happened actually happened, and I imagine I wasn’t the only one who briefly entertained notions like that. Larry was some sort of James Bond-type with the Army, after all. He did all that cloak and dagger shit. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that it was a fake-out, or a ploy, or some sort of setup for Larry to go off and do whatever the hell it was he did when he wasn’t here.

But that’s silly, of course, isn’t it? And thankfully I soon recognized it was silly, and the feeling passed. I got home from Scott’s that night, gave my old teddy bear a hug before bed, and laid in bed staring at the ceiling in the dark for a long time before I finally went to sleep.

I spent the next few days with my brain sort of spinning out of control. I kept getting weird ideas, things like deciding that I could upgrade a bunch of parts in my car, or grade my lawn, or refinish the floors in my house. The part of my brain that was still working properly recognized this as a bizarre defense mechanism, an attempt to protect myself from what I was feeling by trying to shift CPU cycles into things that I can control. Luckily for my house and my car I didn’t actually attempt to DO any of these things, I just spent that week moping about and feeling sad.

Then, a few days later, we had our wake, and I learned things, and I got angry.

Here’s something I’ve learned in the interim: being angry at a dead person is pretty fucking stupid. Being angry at a live person is, honestly, only marginally less stupid. But the notion of taking your mental energy – which is limited, even for me – and bending it to something so destructive and negative, at someone who isn’t even around anymore, is a criminal waste of human endeavor. Yoda teaches us “anger, fear, aggression, the Dark Side are they,” and I’ll tell you what: I believe in that ideal as much as I believe in anything.

But anyway.

A few days later we had our wake, and I learned things. I learned things about our friend, and what had transpired over the last few months of his life, and I got angry. I got angry at him, I got angry at myself, I got angry the world in general. I got angrier than I’ve ever been in my life, and I couldn’t stop being angry. I couldn’t stop getting angry. For weeks afterward I couldn’t feel anything else, and it seemed like every day it got worse and worse, and I got angrier and angrier.

For weeks after that night, I had to pretend. I had to pretend I felt things I didn’t because even with the anger I couldn’t shake I knew I couldn’t let people know how I was really feeling. They’d run away if I was lucky; they might have tossed me in a padded room if I wasn’t. So for weeks I pretended to be sad when people asked how I was, and pretended to be funny when we got together to commiserate, and pretended to be calm and professional at work, when through all of it the only coherent thoughts in my head were how much I hated the world and every person and every thing in it, and how I wanted to rip all of it apart with my bare hands, and how I wanted to spew vitriol and filth at everyone I met, but most of all how much I hated Larry for doing this to me.

Here’s an odd thing about the suicide of a friend that you might not know: it’s really hard not to take it personally.

That’s irrational, I know. While I suppose there are instances of a person taking their own life to make a point to someone else, outside of V.iii of Romeo and Juliet I have to think that the Fuck You Suicide is extraordinarily rare. But when it’s someone you care about, and it happens, that’s the thought: “how could you do this to me?” Or, rather, that insane thought is the result of any number of perfectly sane thoughts. You wonder why they didn’t call. You wonder what could have possibly been so bad that they thought they couldn’t ask you for help. You wonder how they could have possibly come to a decision like that. And that’s just thoughts about THEM. Once you run through all of those – and there is a great host more – you turn inward: why didn’t I notice something was wrong? HOW did I not notice? How could I not realize this was going to happen? How could I have been so careless with their feelings?

You take all those thoughts, and you spin them around faster and faster and faster, and you would scarcely believe how quickly it becomes personal, how quickly you get to “how could you do this to me?”

And you get angry. You get angry at a person who isn’t around anymore to apologize, or tell you how misplaced your anger is, or at how you’ve got them all wrong, it was actually this OTHER bit over here that set them off and made them do this terrible thing. You get angry, and there’s no target for your anger, so it builds and builds and builds.

I spent the better part of three weeks like that: angry, at everything, all the time, and doing all I could to hide it not just from anyone who cared about me, but from the only people who might understand.



The phrase Scott’s wife Ruth used to describe one part of the process we were going through as a group was “managing the breakdown.”

The reasoning – and this is so brilliant I was and am legitimately jealous – was that there was a large group of us who were all going through the same thing, who all felt the same way, and that eventually we were all going to hit the wall, and lose it, and not be able to deal with it anymore. But we couldn’t just let it all happen at once. People had kids, people had jobs that mattered a lot more than mine, people had responsibilites that needed to be taken care of. If everyone just lost their shit haphazardly – or, worse, at the same time – all of our lives might get totally fucked at a time when we needed each other.

So the breakdowns got managed. Scott picked one night. Ruth picked another. People picked a time, and gave in, and got reduced to a puddle of goo for a little while, and other people were there to help them through it.

The whole thing is so goddamn genius I really wish I could take credit for it.

I decided to wait a while, partially because the tiny part of my brain that was still rational recognized that other people probably needed it more than I did, and partially because I wasn’t sure I could control myself when it did happen, and I was hoping that some of the anger I was consumed by might subside.

But then the night did come, and I went over to Scott’s place, and we sat down in his basement and…

Nothing happened.

I don’t mean that literally nothing happened. Things happened. But I was worried that I would lose control, that my anger would finally blow up after all those weeks. It didn’t, though. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I wish I did; the ability to keep my temper in check would have been pretty goddamn useful any number of times since. But it didn’t.

We just sat there. Scott and I sat there and talked, for a long time. We talked about what had happened, and how we felt – mostly Scott, about that – and about what we were going to do going forward, how our lives would be different and how we’d deal with that.

Understand something – I am a pathological fixer. The need to take everything I see and hear and “make it better” is overwhelming. I can’t help it. (I have theories about where that comes from as well, but that’s another show.) I recognize it’s not my most endearing quality, but I’m pretty sure that night it saved me from losing my mind.

Scott and I talked for a long time, pretty deep into the night, and probably we could have talked a lot more, but once we got to the part of the conversation about how we were going to deal with things going forward, it was like somone shot off a flare in all the darkness my head.

I was broken.

I needed to be fixed.

That, I could do. Or at least I could try.

After Scott and I finished talking, I went home. I sat down in the chair at my desk in my room, and realized that while “I am going to fix myself” is a great idea in theory, I didn’t really have any idea how to actually accomplish that. I’d ridden out the rest of my talk with Scott and the ride home on the pure adrenaline of a good idea, but once I was there I realized that I was perilously close to the opposite of that, the despair that comes from realizing that the good idea was actually unworkable, and in this case I knew what was on the other side of that: what was usually a mild depression was, this time, that same black morass of anger I’d spent the last few weeks in.

As I sat there, my eyes glanced up and I saw my Absolute Sandman sitting up on a shelf, and I thought about Brief Lives.

The Sandman is my favorite comic ever – it is, in fact, my favorite anything ever – and Brief Lives is my favorite part of it. It’s about just what the title says: how all lives, ultimately, are too short, and what that means.

I thought, that’s as much of an omen as I’m going to get.

I walked over and pulled down Volume 3. I headed back to my desk, opened up to the first page of Brief Lives, and started reading.

As I read the story I’d read so many times before I felt the anger I’d been drowning in finally start to slip away and turn into something deeper and sadder, but hopeful all the same. When I read the last words of the story, I thought of my friend who was gone, and started to quietly cry.

“It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

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Why don’t you kill me with your love?

Posted by kozemp on June 30, 2014

Years ago I had this girlfriend.

Okay, yes, I realize that technically that covers a veritable multitude of sins, so let me clarify a little bit:

FOUR years ago I had this girlfriend. The relationship was, I suppose you could say, fraught. Someone else – a person more inclined towards factual accuracy than prosaic descriptors, perhaps – might say it was “doomed.”

Over the intervening years I have often joked that there were “signs.” Things that, had I been in my right mind instead of hopelessly in love and/or under the influence of some sort of hex or curse I would have noticed. (As a longtime lover of Supernatural I am ruling nothing out.) Things that should have made me say, “I don’t think this girl’s right for me.”

There were a lot of signs. I wish I could say I missed them all. I did miss some; there were absolutely things that I didn’t see until years later and go, “whoa, that was pretty obvious.”

Most of the signs, though… let’s just say I didn’t MISS them, Bob.

But I wasn’t the only one who missed, or chose to miss, signs.

This is the story of the US game against Ghana in the first knockout round of the 2010 World Cup.


“I got lucky with the order.” – Will Munny


There really is no better time or way to introduce someone to soccer than the World Cup. It’s piss easy. Everybody already has a built-in rooting interest. You can support your country (USA ain’t nothin’ to fuck with) or, if your country hasn’t qualified, you can hate Italy. You don’t have to worry about who owns what club or where they finished last year or whether their fans are ahistorical plastic glory hunters or the quality of the domestic league or any of the usual soccer bullshit. You wrap yourself in the national colors – or not, for some reason, thank you Italy – you do your best to learn the offside rule, and you yell your heart out for your national side. It’s cathartic. It builds bridges. It’s awesome.

Four years ago, I came to the surely witchcraft-driven decision that the US game against Ghana was the perfect way to not only introduce my girlfriend to soccer but to watching soccer games in an insanely crowded pub with shitloads of other people. Because, I mean, -I- loved those things, and those things were awesome, so she’d love them too, right?

So here’s a fun fact: for USMNT games in the World Cup – that’s US Men’s National Team to you, kid – if you’re going to watch them at a pub, you need to get there early. I mean EARL-LEE. Like hours early. We unfortunately only got to the Dark Horse (god rest her) about 90 minutes early, which meant that instead of getting seats in the crowded bar, we ended up standing just behind all the people who got seats.

Imagining that the old main bar at the Dark Horse was a clock with 12 facing north (that would be Pine Street), here’s how the seating and standing arrangements worked out:

My girlfriend and I were standing at 6 o’clock.

Sitting right in front of us were Ed and Jim. Ed and Jim were… not friends of mine, I would say, not exactly, but they were guys I saw at the pub every weekend for Premier League games and we were definitely friendly with each other. They were Manchester United fans, and Jim’s actually Irish, but today everyone was there for the US.

Well, not everyone: there were a small bunch of Ghanaian guys in one of the front corners of the bar, say around 10-11 o’clock. I made a point to head over there and say hi to them. I love talking to opposing soccer fans, do it every chance I get. It’s one of the things I love most about soccer in this country. You can walk up to a guy wearing the other shirt – any other shirt, really – say “hey, good luck,” shake hands, maybe take some pictures, and both walk away smiling. It’s a community like no other sport I know.

(Most of the time…)

My friend Mark and his wife Eileen were sitting in the dark corner near the jukebox at 2 o’clock. Mark’s from Ireland, a super-nice guy and now a newly minted US citizen, and his wife is this fantastic woman who I assume he somehow blackmailed into marrying him. 90 minutes before the game, Mark is already quietly drunk.

Paul, who ran the show behind the bar during Quizo for many years, was tending bar along with about five bar backs.

My girlfriend was standing to my right.

Sitting at roughly my 11 o’clock, next to Ed, was a small thin white woman with very frizzy hair. She did not appear outwardly drunk.

That was how things stood 90 minutes before kickoff. By the time the game actually started, the place was packed solid. You couldn’t move.

(Sign my ex-girlfriend missed #14.)

By the time kickoff rolled around, there was nowhere to go.


“Memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation. They’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” – Leonard Shelby


It’s funny – in retrospect I recall very little of the actual game itself. I remember Landycakes converting the penalty, and Gyan’s early goal in extra time, but precious little else.

Part of that is because I don’t have great “game memory” in general – I can remember a couple specific plays from games of years past but usually not much more than that. My memory of Landycakes’ goal in the Algeria game a few days prior to these events is fresh as though it were yesterday. I remember Jozy Altidore’s ridiculous goals against Brazil in the 2007 U-20 World Cup. I still remember David James stopping a screamer from Frank Lampard with nothing more than his thumb on the day the Eagles lost the Super Bowl in what is still the greatest 0-0 draw I have ever seen.

Another part of that is because of the insane shit that was going on around me during the game.

It was a World Cup game for starters, and the knockout stage to boot, so people were fired up more than usual. This wasn’t Chelsea v. Newcastle on a dreary Sunday morning in February. It’s the World Cup. It’s summer. It’s hot, even with the air conditioning – god, the Dark Horse used to get so hot when it got crowded in the summertime. All that, and pretty much everyone but me had been drinking for hours when the game started, never mind in the second half. So everyone was pumped. They were… not violent, no, but rowdy. There was shouting. There was jumping. There were obscene gestures. There was cursing. Oh my, the cursing. Cursing at the ref, at the opposing players, at Ricardo Clark, you name it. Dear gods above, the cursing.

Even still, for most of the game it was all good-natured. There were the Ghanaian guys at the one end of the bar, sure, but they were just cheering their side, and they were being positive about it – no, “USA sucks!” or whatever, and so long as you’re not being a total jackass about it no one is going to give you crap for cheering for your team.

Unfortunately – and four years later I can still scarcely believe this – they weren’t the only ones cheering for Ghana.

The woman sitting in front of me was ALSO cheering for Ghana.

Actually, no, let me rephrase that:

The clearly American woman sitting in front of me was cheering against the United States.

She wasn’t cheering for Ghana, not really. She was booing the US. Screaming at players to get up when they were fouled. Screaming at the ref to card US players after rough challenges. Telling defenders they sucked when they missed clearances.

Jesus, writing that down four years later it STILL doesn’t make any goddamn sense. But there it was.

This American woman was rooting against the United States.

For most of the match it was pretty silly – recall that Ghana scored early and we were fighting back for most of the next hour so, hey, whatever. She’s a front-runner. Fine. Stupid drunk-ass woman, let her do what she wants. We’re mounting our comeback.

When Landycakes equalized with the penalty, though, it got worse. She actually turned it up.

At one point, she literally booed a US player. Stood up on the footrail of her chair and shouted “BOOOOOOOOOOO!” at the television.

People who had been making snide comments under their breath and muttering to their friends started shouting at her. “Shut the fuck up!” was the most common. A lot of people shouted something like “what the fuck is your problem?” Her answer to that was to shout “I’m cheering for the best soccer!” which was, to say the least, not the smartest thing to say.

As the second half wore on and the clock got shorter and extra time became more and more likely, she got louder and meaner and stupider. At one point I looked at my girlfriend and saw a look on her face that would have melted butter. A look I would, over the next few months, become very well-acquainted with. Me and that look, we became REAL good pals.

She was, to say the least, not having a good time, largely because of this idiot woman.

I decided I had to say something.

After one play in which she lustily screeched at a US player for a tackle, I waited just the right number of seconds after she finished shouting until the bar was almost silent and said, loudly, “what part of Ghana are you from?”

She stared at me and didn’t say anything.

I swear to god the entire bar was looking at us, not saying a word.

I let her stare at me for about 8 seconds, then said, “God keeps a special place in hell for traitors.”

The bar went wild, everyone doing a strange combination of a scream and a laugh.

It was at once the most religious and the most patriotic thing I’d ever said.


“Because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.” – Ugarte


In the time between the end of regulation and the first extra time period Jim went to go to the bathroom and I talked to Ed, and tried to talk to my girlfriend.

“We got this,” I said. “Thirty more minutes? We’re fine.”

“We’re not all fucking fine,” Ed said, tilting his head at the crazy woman sitting next to him. He wasn’t far off. Already, with regulation over, there were things being muttered about this woman that were very, very unpleasant.

“It’s all right,” I said. “She’s gonna look pretty stupid by the time this is over.”

Ed just gave me a look that said “yeah, sure, right.”

I turned to look at my girlfriend. “This is fun, right?”

She stared at me and said nothing.

(Sign missed by me #47.)

Not too long after, extra time started, Gyan scored very quickly, and now the game degenerated into us desperately searching for an equalizer. Jim came back right after all this, but because of the way the crowd had shifted he couldn’t get back to his seat at the bar, so he ended up standing just behind me to my left.

Right around the middle of the second extra time period, Jim leaned into me and said, “this is great. You’re gonna love winning a World Cup game on penalties.”

I gave him a look that said, are you nuts? We were chasing the game and losing ground. Penalties certainly didn’t look like a sure thing.

About two minutes later, Jim shouted “oh fuck me, it’s 2-1?!”

Now, if you haven’t been there you won’t know this, but if you have you may remember that the TVs at the Dark Horse didn’t have great sight lines. The TV we were watching specifically – the one at 12 o’clock high, recall – especially had this problem, where if you weren’t sitting at the bar you lost the top quarter or so of the television. Where the banner with the clock and the score were.

Jim had been in the bathroom when Gyan scored.

“Oh, fuck, sorry mate,” he said. “I thought it was still 1-1. But don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Donovan will come through.”

At one point with a few minutes left in the game, a US player fouled a Ghana player again and the woman in front of me started her shit again, hurling anti-US invective at the television.

The dam broke.

Ed, who was already pretty lubed up and pretty depressed over the impending outcome, snapped and lunged at the woman, screaming, “SHUT THE FUCK UP! I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU! YOU BETTER SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

I jumped between them as quickly as I could and started to push Ed away from her, shouting, “ED! ED! Fuck her, man, forget her!”

Ed leaned over my shoulder, pushing against me, and was still shouting “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” at the woman.

Finally I pushed him a foot or so in front of me and shouted “ED! STOP!”

He looked at me for a split second, and I said, loud enough for others to hear, “we’re better than this.”

Ed looked at me and deflated a little bit. Then he clapped me on the shoulder and said, “you’re right.”

He sat back on his stool and looked at the woman and said, “and you’re lucky.”

I thought that she wasn’t going to be lucky for much longer.

When the second extra time period got into added time and she started loudly jeering the US again, and the other people in the bar started yelling “shut the fuck up!” or worse, I motioned Paul over, leaned over the bar, and shouted, “you’ve gotta get her out of here, man!”

Paul nodded and shouted something like “I’ll try!”

When the final whistle blew, the woman started cheering, and the bar went berserk.

No one actually DID anything, mind, but what they were screaming ranged from crude name-calling to things that were perilously close to specific threats of phyiscal violence.

There were only three people in the bar not actively engaged in pillorying this woman. One was Paul, behind the bar, who was trying to calm down the people he knew.

Another was my girlfriend, who even though I couldn’t see her I knew was staring daggers into my back.

The other was Mark, in the dark corner, who was asleep with his head on the bar. He’d had a long day drinking and cheering and had been peacefully passed out since the first period of extra time

The noise in the bar started to get louder and uglier.

I said to the woman, “you really need to get the hell outta here!”

She looked up at me and, in quite possibly the stupid single sentence I have ever heard a person utter, shouted, “I have a right to be here!”

I yelled, not out of temper but exasperation, “there’s five hundred of them and one of you, you’re about to get fucking killed!”

And over the din I heard Mark’s wife Eileen’s voice, as clear as church bells on a Sunday morning, scream, “I’M GONNA RIP OUT YOUR HEART!”

It is worth noting here that “heart” is not actually the word she used, though the word she did use was also biological and also ended with the letter “t.”

I looked over and while Mark was still sound asleep, she was drunkenly swaying off her bar stool and looking every bit like she was about to come over to where we were standing and perform the proposed surgery with her bare hands.

I looked back at the stupid woman and said, “your tab is paid! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.”

This, apparently, finally got through to her and she ducked out – literally, she ducked as she scrambled for the back door as people in the bar either laughed at her as she left or screamed for her blood.

Once she was out the door, the bar let out a cheer. Jim, who was back in his seat at the bar, turned to us and said, smiling, “football, eh? Good times!”

I turned to look at my girlfriend.

I wasn’t sure she appreciated how good a time we had.



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The future changes as we stand here, else we are the game pieces of the gods.

Posted by kozemp on February 28, 2014

A little while ago something flashed across my Twitter feed:

“Polls show that 92% of Afghans have never heard of 9/11.”

I read that and my immediate thought was, “you have got to be fucking kidding me.”

My second thought was, “I bet that came from Tumblr.”

Now, understand something, if you are not the sort of person who is all that terribly plugged in to the internet culture: Tumblr is basically the worst thing in human history. You thought the internet itself was bad? Tumblr is the internet’s evil transporter twin from The Enemy Within, only in addition to being made of carbon atoms and pure malice it’s also incredibly, unbelievably ignorant. Tumblr is where thought and reason and knowledge and meaning go to die. It is the gaping maw of the giant vagina monster Ozymandias drops on Manhattan: a mindless, insensate primordial annihilator.

Of course this idiotic horseshit came from Tumblr.

I eventually backtracked through the reblogs to find the original piece. I’m not going to link to it here, because the author is an intellectually dishonest asswipe to an extent I hadn’t previously thought possible and I’m not giving the site any more traffic. I found the “polls show that 92% of Afghans have never heard of 9/11” claim and – lo and behold! alas and alack! – there was neither source nor attribution of any kind.

That’s not the good part. Hell, that’s just Tumblr: the Mos Eisley of the internet.

No, the good part came in a follow-up piece I found where our brave author with no name says, and I quote:

“I do a lot of research on the information I post, but at the same time I avoid citations. My reason for this is that I find the common internet phrase ‘citation needed’ to be somewhat dismissive.”

That right there is your “intellectually dishonest asswipe” money shot.

You don’t want to put your name on your bullshit ravings? Fine. It’s cowardly, and hilariously melodramatic, and is just one more sign that you are not someone to be taken seriously, but fine. Write anonymously. But to willfully, purposefully refuse to cite your own sources because… why? Because you live in some sort of self-aggrandizing fantasy world where you think citing your sources is beneath you?

Do you know what that means?

That means you are a charlatan. That means you are a fraud. That is the final, overriding proof that you are not someone to be taken seriously.

Let me explain something here.

You say “polls show that 92% of Afghans have never heard of 9/11” and anyone with an ounce of fucking sense in their head is going to realize that statement as presented is almost certainly untrue. It’s not DEFINITELY untrue, but it is, to say the least, extraordinarily unlikely. To accept a statement like that on face value requires one of two scenarios:

1) You are profoundly ignorant of how polling is conducted, how polling data is generated, of statistics, logistics, simple geography and the last 35 years of world history, in which case you shouldn’t be throwing around statistics at all, much less statistics that purport to provide valuable insight into a complex and important issue.

2) You are willfully ignorant of all those things, and thus possess at best a casual relationship with the truth, in which case you are, as mentioned previous, a charlatan and a fraud.

You say “polls show that 92% of Afghans have never heard of 9/11.”

I say:

I want to see the sample size of the poll. I want to see how respondents were selected. I want to see the error. I want to see the response rate. I want to see the exact questions that were asked. I want to see the order they were asked in. I want to see how the integrity of the polling questions was verified. I want to see the exact methodology of how the poll was taken. Sweet zombie Jesus do I want to see the exact methodology, because the notion that a country where 92% of the population doesn’t know why the United States has been blowing them into smithereens for 12 years can somehow be polled accurately is so ludicrous it defies rational belief.

And if you can’t show me or point me at every single one of those things, YOU DON’T GET TO TOSS THAT NUMBER AROUND, because you are a charlatan, and a fraud. You are lying. What’s more, you know you’re lying, because you have already stated that from the start you weren’t interested in presenting the truth.

Extraordinary claims, jackass. Extraordinary claims.

You want to sit there and wax rhapsodic about the Oscars or LeBron or Game of Thrones or whatever, go for it. You want to write long, prosaic treatises about how awful our colonial misadventures make you feel, knock yourself out. They make me feel pretty awful too. Express your feelings however you like.

But you want to make claims of fact? You want to make an argument? You want to use numbers? You make sure they’re right. You make sure they’re solid all the way down to the bedrock. You make sure they’re unimpeachable and unassailable. You make sure they’re incontrovertible. You make sure, or you keep your mouth shut. Facts are for the big boys. Arguments are for grownups. Numbers are for the folks responsible enough to know how to use them right. We’re not screwing around here. This is the NFL, goddammit.

Why am I so angry about this? A couple reasons.

Partially because, broadly speaking, I agree with the politics behind it. Though I don’t have firsthand experience of it I am willing to believe the journalists and soldiers and diplomats and analysts who tell me that Afghanistan is in terrible shape, and that our continued presence there isn’t helping. I’m a pacifist, for Chrissakes. Of course I want us to not blow people up if we can possibly avoid it.

I’m angry because it makes the rest of us who share that viewpoint look bad. We’re not talking about the Phillies’ starting rotation. This is life and death. This is empire and history. This is the difference between wrong and right, and recognizing that, and working to make sure the right choices get made. This is the good fight, and it’s that much harder to fight it when Steve the Drunk is shouting obscenities from the back row.

The other reason, though, the big, major, roiling mad reason is that the person who wrote that is not stupid. They are, as I said previous, intellectually dishonest, incredibly so, made all the worse by the fact that they are so willingly and purposefully – but they’re not stupid. They are a charlatan: an intelligent person who uses their intelligence to prey on the fear and ignorance and hopes and desires of others. A person who uses their gifts solely to enrich and to advance themselves at the expense of people they should be elevating and ennobling. A person who takes the single greatest gift you can be given when you enter this world and corrupts it for nothing more than their own gain.

Like I said: a charlatan. I learned that word from Raistlin Majere when I was ten years old, it’s been burned into my brain ever since and it makes me angrier than anything on earth, because for unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required, motherfucker.

This is the NFL, and we hit.


Posted in Life | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

You don’t need a crystal ball to predict the obvious.

Posted by kozemp on July 12, 2013

Studio brass at 20th Century Fox are taking meetings with possible directors for their upcoming X-Force movie.

What follows is a transcript of every one of those meetings.

Director: So, I had some questions.

Fox: Sure, go ahead.

Director: This “Cable” person, who is he?

Fox: Ah, sure. See, Cable is Cyclops’ son.

Director: But he’s an old man.

Fox: Yes.

Director: And Cyclops isn’t in this movie.

Fox: No.

Director: So…

Fox: What happens is, Jean Grey dies. Kinda like she did in X-Men 2. Like that only, you know, again.

Director: Wait, she’s not in this either. Are we going to reuse the footage, or…

Fox: So Jean Grey dies. And then Mister Sinister –

Director: Who is THAT?

Fox: Mister Sinister creates a clone of Jean Grey called Maddie Pryor. And Scott falls in love with her. Maddie, I mean. For some reason.

Director: Again, none of this happens in this script –

Fox: Scott abandons Maddie and their baby to go off and form X-Factor –

Director: What the hell is X-Factor?!

Fox: And in her depressive state Maddie becomes possessed by a demon.

Director: <silence>

Fox: So when Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force finally manage to kill Maddie –

Director: But Jean Grey is dead. She died TWICE in the other movies! Never mind whatever the hell a Phoenix Force is.

Fox: Jean absorbs Maddie’s memories, or something.

Director: I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

Fox: And once Apocalypse learns that Cyclops and a clone of Jean Grey had a son –

Director: How does the apocalypse learn something? It’s a biblical event.

Fox: No, Apocalypse. With a capital “A.” The first mutant.

Director: With a captial “A.”

Fox: After Apocalypse lears about Scott and Maddie’s half-clone son, he infects it with the techno-organic virus –


Fox: And then Askani shows up.

Director: I don’t even care who that is.

Fox: Askani is Cyclops and Jean Grey’s daughter from an alternate dimension who lives 2,000 years in the future of THIS dimension.

Director: <begins loading handgun>

Fox: Askani shows up and says she can cure the baby by taking him into the future, only Scott and Jean will never see the baby again.

Director: Why would Jean, who is somehow alive, care about never seeing her clone’s baby?

Fox: So Askani takes the baby into the future, and then even though she said they’d never see it again, she takes Scott and Jean’s minds into the future and they raise the baby for twelve years under assumed names.

Director: I – I don’t –

Fox: And the baby grows up to be Cable. Who then travels BACK in time to kill Apocalypse, who rules the world 2,000 years in the future.

Director: Please stop.

Fox: Which, the whole traveling back to the present from the future to kill Apocalypse, who is 3,000 years old now and rules the world 2,000 years in the future, was why Mister Sinister –

Director: Still don’t know who that is.

Fox: Which is why Mister Sinister created Maddie Pryor in the first place. So she’d give birth to Cable. Who is an old man who leads a group of teenage mutant terrorists. Oh, and half of his body is made of metal and one of his eyes is a flashlight.

Director: Don’t ever fucking call me again.


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