Cheney Shooting Sparks New GOP Amusement Park

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[Entertainment Today, Feb. 4, 2006]

After shooting Austin millionaire attorney Harry Whittington while hunting, Vice President Dick Cheney declared it “the worst day of my life.” Nevertheless, Cheney has rebounded from his suffering by announcing the building of a Republican-themed amusement park to open in the ravaged area around New Orleans.

The park, which aides claim the Vice President has no financial interest in, will be called “Cheneyland.”

The idea for the park grew out of a G.O.P. think tank after the unrelenting scrutiny of Cheney when he shot Whittington in the face and chest, thinking he was an oversized quail in an orange shirt.

The land for the park has already been purchased from the state of Louisiana, for pennies on the dollar, after Hurricane Katrina flattened homes in the area.

The Halliburton Company, a former employer of Cheney, is in charge of the construction of Cheneyland. A Halliburton spokesperson insists the Vice President will receive no compensation for facilitating a non-competitive bid. Halliburton won the bidding with an estimate of 26 billion dollars four days ago. Due to cost overruns, it estimated today the price will be 34 billion dollars.

Halliburton has contended that price is reasonable, based on the fact that Cheneyland will be built completely underground and fortified to take direct hits from nuclear missiles.

Under a new statute, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been granted the right to take private land after a disaster and resell it at any price, in an effort to cheer up devastated victims and fight the war on terrorism.

FEMA’s sale of the New Orleans Cheneyland site will mean that those predominantly African-American victims will have to find other places to live, despite many of them never receiving insurance compensation due them for their destroyed homes and businesses. Those whose dead bodies were never recovered will, if they lived on land earmarked for the park, be noted on a plaque in the entrance of Cheneyland.

On a happier note, the amusement park will feature a “Hunter’s Blind,” where those with even no gun experience will be able to shoot birds with clipped wings, hogs with their hind legs tied together and other unnaturally handicapped creatures, much like the birds Cheney attempted to shoot in place of Whittington’s face, while being driven around the South Texas ranch on February 12.

Also scheduled for construction will be the “How Much Will It Cost Now?” pavillion, where participants will learn how to create cost overruns in construction and military supplies and make it look like it is natural.

Also featured will be the “Do-It-Yourself Body Armor” competition, where paintball enthusiasts will have to lash together a variety of household items on their bodies for protection, prior to engaging in a battle to shoot the enemy with paint pellets from a rifle. Exhibits for children will include “Find the WMDs,” “I Spy a Spy with my Little Eye” and a booth for tasting crude oils from around the world.

Cheney, who is noted for his obsessive secrecy and distrust of the media, refused to talk about Cheneyland He said he might grant an interview to Brit Hume of Fox News Channel but nobody else. Furthermore, no journalists will ever be allowed into Cheneyland to review it.

However, to show compassion for those whose lives were disrupted in the Gulf Coast, Cheneyland will extend a ten percent discount to anyone who can prove he or she lost a house due to Hurricane Katrina.

Whittington, who has apologized profusely for getting his face and chest in the way of Cheney’s shotgun during the ranch shooting, has been named CEO and general manager of Cheneyland.

Surviving the Democratic Convention

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[Entertainment Today, Sept. 1, 2000]

After living through the Democratic National Convention at the Staples Arena and hearing too much about the final episode of CBS-TV’s Survivor, I have come up with a plan to get Americans more involved in the political process.

It’s a reality show called Political Survivor. Nine people with no press credentials have to get into a convention in a strange city with hordes of police and demonstrators attempting to halt them.

Ah, hell, it will never work. It could only run in sweeps every four years.

Let us leave behind the manufactured wilderness of the network TV island that is Survivor for a convention which prepared for 50,000 protesters and never alleviated its police presence despite the no-shows.

I will admit that having the oh-so-appropriately-named Rage Against the Machine playing in a fenced-in concrete bowl right outside Staples is not the best in civic planning. MacArthur Park or Pershing Square would have been better choices. And the Black Bloc do not, uh, strike me as coherent political demonstrators. But come on: fourteen minutes to disperse a crowd of 8000 through a narrow gate and firing rubber bullets and pepper spray because of a couple dozen anrachists who want to smash the state and hate still living with their parents?

I’ve always felt policing is not just deployment, it is psychology. When Los Angeles spends nearly as much time psychologically training officers as paramilitarily doing so, we will all be better off.

Once inside Staples or the Media Center, you are struck by the conglomeration of delegates, press, VIPs and celebs. One can see anyone from Cokie Roberts to Jello Biafra to The Rock and some female wrestler named Chyna who looks like a transsexual who has still not made a decision.

It was Arash Markazi, though, who really impressed me. An Iranian-American journalist for the Web, he told me that those in his profession in Iran, when they are too critical of the government, are arrested and shot. No trial. No lawyer. Many journalists there have their families live at a secret location, so that the government will not be able to execute them as well. Arash can never go home.

I met Arash on Day One, when Bill Clinton held the Arena in thrall with what has to be one of the most powerful speeches of his career. Regardless of your politics, his oratory is remarkable, sometimes bringing his voice to a mesmerizing, amplified hush. A commanding performance, though he notably was circumspect in praising Al Gore. This may well have been a distancing strategy, considering the President’s detractors.

Other impressions:

The video of Clinton walking through a hallway toward the stage, with titles describing his accomplishments, shot looking up, brilliantly manipulative.

Tipper Gore dancing like a drunken Boris Yeltsin to “Turn the Beat Around.”

A touching video tribute to Jimmy Carter, in attendance, who, when asked what he’d like his legacy to be, simply stated, “Peace and human rights would be preferable.”

After the surreal yet beautifiul cascades of balloons and confetti, viewed from the Upper Concourse, I descended to the human river overflowing the banks of the lobby downstairs, trying to get out, limited by closed exits.

I looked to my left and there was Peter Jennings.

“Gosh, Peter,” I smiled, “I thought for sure they would provide you guys with a helicopter to get out of here.”

“Not even for the Vice President,” our finest news anchor smiled.

I told him when I was a boy, I once watched him reporting from Beirut during their civil war. While he was filing his story, a rocket exploded into the building behind him. He never turned or stopped, just continued filing.

Jennings’s eyes widened with memory. “My goodness,” he exclaimed. Then, self-effacingly, he admitted, “I was frightened out of my mind.”

“But you didn’t show it,” I complimented him. “And that’s what mattered.”

Outside, as I took my first gulp of tepid L.A. night air, I thought about fear, about showing it when appropriate. And when you fear for your country, you should show it by demonstrating. Demonstrating and voting. Oh, yes, and writing.

If He’s Harlan, Let Him Go

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The Writers Guild Foundation, on April 19, saluted the life and career of a world-class crank. Harlan Ellison has won a galaxy of awards, Hugo, Nebula, Writers Guild, Edgar Allen Poe, as well as Emmy and Grammy nominations, for his science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery writing.

Foundation Executive Director Angela Kirgo began the evening at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills by recalling her husband George’s biographical summary: “Characters like Harlan Ellison rarely come this way. This is a fact I sometimes contemplate with great relief.”

A work-in-progress DVD biography of Ellison began with his friend Robin Williams asking him true or false questions. Ellison confirmed it was true he leaped at an ABC exec who messed up a script of his for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and broke the guy’s hip. He confirmed he once sent a dead badger to a publishing house in New York. “I sent it fourth class,” he mused happily. “And it was summer.”

Despite his diminutive stature, Ellison is clearly a force to be reckoned with. The Ohio State professor who told him he had no writing talent received a copy of everything Ellison published when he began writing full time. The first year yielded around 100 stories.

With more than 75 books and 1400 stories under his belt, it is wonderful to see time has not mellowed Ellison very much. The doc yielded a marvelous rant toward Warner Brothers, when he was asked to provide a free interview for a DVD. As for those with less than critical faculties, Ellison told the packed WGA Theater, “No, you are not entitled to your opinion. You’re entitled to your informed opinion. Otherwise, you’re just babbling hot air, farts in the wind.”

For the man who was a nitroglycerine truck driver in North Carolina, a singer with the likes of Bill Evans and Charles Mingus, a guy who helped paint the Brooklyn Bridge upside down in a leather harness, his WGA tribute was well earned. His unfettered, brave and perhaps frightening imagination is to be cherished by those who subscribe to his motto: “You must never be afraid to go there.”

Prince Myshkins Ascend the Throne of Musical Satire

myshkins.jpg For 17 years Jeannine Frank has been booking an amazing array of stand-up and musical comedians, political satirists, cabaret, folk and jazz artists, historical shows, monologists and authors. Her Parlor Performances, called an “accidental performing arts series,” used to use the living rooms of people living in Los Angeles. She now books acts in Steinway Hall in West Los Angeles. And her recent pairing of the brilliant, unique musical duo The Prince Myshkins and comedian Betsy Salkind did not disappoint.

The Myshkins are singer/songwriters Rick Burkhardt on accordion and Andy Gricevich on guitar. It’s easy to explain the name of the band as a reference to a Doestoevsky character. But their songs? Dazzlingly fast, complex, socio-political songs with musical changes that would leave Kurt Weill smiling and shaking his head with jealousy. A song begins with a legalese disclaimer spoken aloud by Burkhardt and turns into a wild musical ride. “Nail Clippers” sends up the limitations to airline passengers. “Mimi LaValley and 100 Nuns” is the hilariously upbeat retelling of activist sisters marching onto a military base in protest and paralyzing the soldiers with confusion.

The Myshkins leave one’s mouth gaping with their rapid-fire hilarity but significantly, they also have penned what I consider to be the greatest anti-war song in the history of music, “Ministry of Oil.” As Burkhardt’s hypnotic, mournful accordion plays, Gricevich sings, in part, “How much do you suppose that artwork sold for/As their last remaining food began to spoil/The situation’s bad/ But no place in Baghdad/Is safer than the Ministry of Oil.”

Opening for the Magnificent Myshkins was Betsy Salkind, whose Julie Eisenhower outfit belied her salty and outrageous wit. She insisted that despite her Jewish heritage, she was now a Christian Scientist. “It’s the only health plan I can afford.” She admits to being too immature to raise kids. “I get up at 7 PM and work for fifteen minutes.” Despite all this, Salkind writes a blog in the voice of fifth grader Ethel Spiliotes. Well, as Salkind insisted at Steinway Hall, kids are important. They allow you to use the carpool lane on the freeway.

Living with the Dead

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[Entertainment Today, June 23, 2000]

To you, the Dead may be loved ones, relatives, friends.

To you, the Dead may be those who wronged you, and those you hope are charbroiling like chickens in Hell.

Whether a channeler of 10,000 year old men named Grak or cynical bastard, you can’t help but wonder what life would be like if you could receive messages from those who’ve passed from this realm. Would it be via a voice, a dream, waking symbology or, as in Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” segment of the film New York Stories, your not-so-dearly departed mother berating you across the skies of Manhattan?

When I first saw medium John Edward on CNN’s Larry King Show, I could not turn away, as he took call after call, validating the Dead friends and lovers of callers with specific details and passing along messages of hope and joy.

Edward is a clairaudient primarily, using mostly what he hears to connect two planes of existence. In talking to him prior to a recent Learning Annex appearance, I found a decidedly non-New Age figure, wearing a Casper (the Friendly Ghost) tee shirt and jeans, and talking straight talk like anybody who lives in Queens.

He came into the work as a disbeliever when, at the age of 16, his grandmother had a reading with a medium who heard her long-dead grandfather picking out a tune on a mandolin, an instrument he in fact had taught himself to play. He assumed she was a mind-reader, until predictions she made that day started coming true.

Working with a group of mediums (media?) at the University of Arizona, Edward has found the emotional need of those who have lost others to impact the ability to give readings. He’s currently working on a TV show to air later this year on the Sci-Fi Channel, entitled Crossing Over. One of the subjects had waited thirty years to get a message from his father. In another instance, the producers asked Edward to do a reading on a person brought in and instead, he received information for a member of the crew standing off to the side.

Edward has been given the nickname “The Terrier” because of his tenacity working with audiences, even when they do not recognize the information he receives. Sometimes, he will hear a name from a person’s past and get the sounds right and the name wrong. Other times, he will have startling clarity. He connected with the one woman in the ballroom of five hundred people whose daughter had been murdered, confirmed it via details and relayed a healing message.

There is a religiosity to this work, when you turn and look at the impact made on those people, knowing they will never be the same, that something has been healed.

“Someone in this area lost someone who fell through the ice and drowned,” Edward says, pointing to a part of the crowd.

Sure enough, a young woman is brought to tears, confirming Edward’s assertion the friend was an Indian and died not of drowning but hypothermia.

Edward refuses to disbelieve what he hears, even when his subjects are unsure in the moment as to a certain significance. “I have a rock on my desk,” he explained, “and it has one word on it: ‘TRUST.’”

Why I’m Glad “Cats” Finally Closed

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(Entertainment Today, Oct. 27, 2000)

The musical Cats closed on Broadway, September 10, 2000, now and, I sure as hell hope, forever.

Not to seem too curmudgeonly, but should any musical or play run just under 18 years, let alone one as insipid as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline abomination? Broadway has long-since ceased to be the showplace for significant American theatre, but it is nice to know, after 7485 performances of this unadulterated piffle, that children and tourists in Times Square will have to find other inane, overpriced stagecraft

Artistically banal, Cats tells a wafer-thin story about this aging hooker kitty who winds up dying and ascending to heaven on a tire. They could have had Firestone underwrite some of their costs.

People who have seen Cats can only remember one song, “Memory,” a dripping, cloying, relentlessly maudlin piece, written to approximate the piercing yowls of real cats.

No less than 50 million people have seen Cats and it has generated $2.5 billion in sales. It has played in Iceland, Korea and Belgium and has delivered folks worldwide a message that is immortal: You can still get into heaven if you charge for sex and it’s okay if women have facial hair.

Just as Spielberg and Lucas eviscerated the future of studio filmmaking with their blockbuster mentalities, so has Lloyd Webber cheerfully helped to disembowel both the popular musical and the variety and depth of material on the Great White Way. As far as I’m concerned, he should have quit after Jesus Christ Superstar and gone out a winner.

Think about eighteen years of Cats. Why the hell couldn’t they mix it up a little, maybe change animals every third year?

Imagine the marquee at the Winter Garden theatre: “From the Genius Who Brought You CatsWombats.” Consider the exciting challenges of the makeup, scenery and pyrotechnics when Lloyd Webber proudly presents Parakeets: The Musical.

I’m thrilled from top to toenail that Cats is gone. I know it is still playing in London. I know it will likely always infest some stage somewhere. There will always be people with disposable income who eschew donating to a worthy cause so they can tell their friends back home about the adorable actors in cat outfits, without ever having heard of T.S. Eliot and thinking “The Hollow Men” is a horror movie.

On behalf of all theatre artists, most of whom struggle to make a living doing what they love most, sometimes for nothing more than a mention in a paper or gas money, I dance a giddy jig on the grave of Cats.

Should We Believe in The Hoax?

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(Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) hands his editor (Hope Davis) a line as faux Howard Hughes biographer in The Hoax.)

The Hoax, screenplay by William Wheeler, based on the novel by Clifford Irving. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Released by Miramax.

With whom should we sympathize when a hoaxer who’s been imprisoned complains about the accuracy of a Hollywood film depicting his hoax? Lasse Hallstrom has made an entertaining film about acknowledged, accomplished, arrogant forger and author Clifford Irving (Richard Gere.) When he is turned down by his longstanding publisher McGraw-Hill and his editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) on his latest book, Irving daringly claims he has permission from reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to write his biography.

In real life, Irving claims he had four other books under contract and the ruse was not out of desperation but a sort of collegial prankster spirit. That may be but Hallstrom, who so pleased this writer and author John Irving with his elegiac film adaptation of The Cider House Rules, does get into Irving’s head impressively. A startling sequence when he must confront his marital infidelity in front of his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) shows the pathological level of self-deception in Irving.

It’s a terrific cast, including Stanley Tucci as icy McGraw-Hill publisher Shelton Fisher, who suspects the worst and while continually writing bigger checks to Irving, venomously promises to prosecute him if Fisher is duped. The always watchable Alfred Molina plays Irving co-conspirator Dick Susskind, weak and easily manipulated. One character flaw in Wheeler’s otherwise well-crafted work is the question why Susskind fell in with Irving and continued to be in thrall to him.

Still, it’s a delicious ride, as Gere as Irving “channels” the voice of Hughes for his devious purposes and bluffs his way deeper and deeper into literary trickery. The actual Irving may rightfully argue about the liberties taken with the supposed truth of the tale in the film, but Hallstrom ties it nicely into the 70s era, including a newly provided theory about the wily Hughes using Irving right back to serve his own political ends.

Critical Moment: Some major liberties with Irving’s circumstances. Fine performances. Very watchable cast. Satisfyingly captures pathology of a brilliant but delusional hoaxer.

A Thank You Note to Stanley Kubrick, Pt. 2

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Apparently, Kubrick set the record for takes of a single scene in The Shining. According to a documentary on the making of that film, Shelley Duvall was forced to swing a baseball bat at a psychotic Jack Nicholson while ascending a staircase backwards a grand total of 127 times.

We know the stories of Kubrick’s need for control. He used to go into West End movie theatres to check the balance of speakers and clarity of sound.

We know the stories of his relentless perfectionism. Ask Shelley Duvall.

And of course, there is his reclusiveness, which led to creating the battle of Hue at a deserted gas works in London for Full Metal Jacket.

But for each of these assertions, there are tales that fully counterbalance them. Steven Spielberg, who called 2001 nothing less than “…the Big Bang that led my generation’s race to space,” also told a wonderful story after Kubrick was gone. He used to call up filmmakers he didn’t know and compliment them on their movies after having just seen them.

Yes, Kubrick was an iconoclast but that is a byproduct of being a visionary.

Yes, he controlled his own marketing. Because he knew what he wanted. And he knew how to do so many things well. If his passing serves no other purpose, let it remind us that it is a purity of vision, a single-minded pursuit of an aesthetic, not test-marketing, that makes great art.

In a world bludgeoned in its ethics by the bottom line, we need more artists of Kubrick’s will. Consider that when the British press lambasted Clockwork as glorifying violence, a total misinterpretation, and when a young thug who beat up a vagrant tried to cite seeing Clockwork in his defense, and when the British tabloids attacked him, Kubrick in essence said they didn’t deserve to see the film and pulled every single print from distribution in England.

I am still feeling the effects of his loss. But I’m proud to say, the day he died, I was driving past the Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills and saw, on its marquee, about the best tribute I can think of.

After listing the three films at the theatre, the marquee simply said, “Thank you, Mr. Kubrick.”

A Thank You Note to Stanley Kubrick, Pt. 1

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(originally published April 9, 1999, Entertainment Today)

Once in a great while, a filmmaker creates a work that changes your perception of the world, of the possibilities of filmmaking and life itself.

Most directors aspire to make one movie with that kind of impact.

For me, Stanley Kubrick made three.

I had just moved to Southern California from suburban New York and wasn’t even in my teens, when my parents took my older sister Julie and me to a drive-in to see a movie promoted as an offbeat comedy.

It was called Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

I didn’t know at that point what black comedy was. I had never seen an actor play multiple roles before, as Peter Sellers brilliantly did. And perhaps what made the most impact on me in “Strangelove” was seeing Kubrick’s hand-held footage of Americans killing Americans at Burpleson Air Force Base. Grainy, powerful, reminiscent of a war being waged in Southeast Asia.

Again, I was with my family when we saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. The perfect melding of Richard Strauss waltzes and Gyorgi Ligeti’s 20th century music helped elevate 2001 to the greatest movie ever made about space travel and the limits of human knowledge.

Kubrick told Playboy magazine that with 2001 he “…tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content…just as music does.”

The film had such a profound impact on me that to this day, I still have the replica of the printed instructions for the “Zero Gravity Toilet” hanging on my bathroom wall.

In high school, my best friends and I immediately caught the first evening showing of A Clockwork Orange, a movie that constantly astonished and challenged the viewer with a potent mixture of fascination and revulsion.

On this subject, critic Pauline Kael once described Kubrick’s Lolita as “…black slapstick, and at times it’s so far out that you gasp as you laugh.”

Some people thought Stanley Kubrick was rather far out himself. Kirk Douglas, who starred in the epic Spartacus called him a “cold bastard.” Malcolm McDowell felt incapable of acting for a few years after Clockwork. Punch Magazine in Britain called him “insane,” prompting a libel suit that has sinced been dropped upon the passing of the master filmmaker.

Can I Have Your…Uh…Um…Oh, Yeah…Attention?

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(Rita Wilson and Johanna Day discuss why Johnny is a foul-mouthed rage-a-holic in Distracted.)

Distracted by Lisa Loomer, directed by Leonard Foglia at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles. March 15 - April 29.

Lisa Loomer gets style points for reaching beyond the usual commercial grasp. For Distracted grapples with the many societal accusations for the cause of Attention Defiicit Disorder (ADD, now ADHD for those not paying attention). Rita Wilson portrays a Mama whose son turns into a foul-mouthed vortex of rage. The diagnosis is ADHD but aging hippie Dad (Ray Porter) threatens Mama with divorce before agreeing to pump the kid full of Ritalin. Bronson Pinchot plays a variety of doctors with a panoply of dialects.

The real standouts here are Stephanie Berry, playing everything from a sullen waitress to effervescent, Jamaican nurse. Johanna Day is delightfully obsessive-compulsive as a driven but inevitably helpful neighbor who does not believe in small talk. Loomer argues that while diet, genetics and allergies may affect our kids, the culprit may also be media overstimulation. This concept is enabled by a triptych of screens upstage blasting images against our corneas, courtesy of Elaine McCarthy’s stunning projection design.

By play’s end, Loomer leans toward more attention toward children as a solution, which is lovely but rings false, as does her condemnation of George W. Bush as classically ADHD. Director Leonard Foglia pushes Pinchot to do broad shtik. Loomer exacerbates this by letting his characters break the fourth wall and talk about their own attention deficits. She also hands Porter the unenviable role of a father who won’t negotiate, cries out of frustration and then threatens divorce, a nasty tet-a-tet that is never addressed again. Still, this kind of multifaceted inquiry about our ability to focus is, if not on target, valuable for identifying the target’s periphery.

Critical Moment: Great video projection. Distracting “meta-theatre” gimmicks. Two female supporting players steal the show. Important play that has ironically not found its own focus.