Chinatown at the Michigan

Chinatown at the Michigan Theater's Noir SeriesLast night it was a pleasure to see, for my first time on the big screen, the bona fide classic Chinatown at the Michigan Theater. My date, for all intents and purposes a native of a Los Angeles, had never seen it in any form – can you believe it? (Of course, I have yet to see any of the Godfather movies, so I'll just shut up.)

Afterward we hit Bar Louie for a post-movie drink and discussion. She enjoyed it immensely (although covered her eyes for the famous nose-cutting scene), but I know it made her homesick, too, with its various shots in and around L.A., all of which she recognized.

John Huston as amiable psychopath Noah CrossThis amateur film geek has long been a fan of noir, neo- or otherwise, and seeing Roman Polanski's dark vision (he supposedly fought screenwriter Robert Towne over the unhappy ending) on the big screen allowed me to notice more things than I had before, giving me an enhanced appreciation for everything from the superior acting to the excellent cinematography. (Quick aside: John Huston's Noah Cross must rank in the upper echelon of all-time screen villains. He has little actual screen time, but his sociopathic malevolence touches every character in the film, one way or another, directly or indirectly.)

I'm also a fan of Polanski's work, especially his psychosexual tales of terror like Repulsion (criminally underrated and/or unknown), Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant. (Even his less successful films like Frantic and The Ninth Gate offer something to the viewer.)

As I recall, the little-known sequel, 1990's The Two Jakes, is considered something of a convoluted mush in the hands of Jack Nicholson as director, but both of us are now interested enough to finally check it out. Hello, Netflix...

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Red Pen Diaries: Any Which Way But Loose

Red Pen Diaries: Advice and Observations on Writing and the English LanguageWhenever I see the word "loose" misused, I am tempted to lose it...

Lose (say: looz) is a verb with a number of meanings, the main ones being "to misplace or fail to keep something," "to fail to win," or "to be deprived of something."

Loose (say: looss) can be an adjective, verb, or adverb; as an adjective it generally means "not securely fastened" or "not tight-fitting." In none of its forms or senses does it have anything to do with losing something.

Yet if I had a nickel for every time I saw someone write that their favorite team's opponent is "going to loose the game big time" or somesuch... well, you wouldn't be reading this because I'd be a millionaire living out my days on the beach of some tropical island, cold beer perpetually at my elbow.

Incorrect: "Did you loose your keys again?"

Correct: "You always lose your keys."

You don't want to be the kind of loser who mixes these two words up, do you?

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And the Smithee Goes To...

The 18th Annual Ann Arbor Smithee AwardsWhy should Los Angeles always get all the glamor and glitz of movie award ceremonies?

Saturday night was a momentous cinematic occasion in its own right as the University of Michigan campus played host to the highly acclaimed 18th Annual Ann Arbor Smithee Awards.

The awards – named after Alan Smithee, the nom-de-shame Hollywood directors have historically substituted for their own when they wanted to disassociate themselves from the finished product – took place in Room 1800 of the Chemistry Building and featured such prestigious categories as Most Ludicrous Premise, Stupidest-Looking Monster, Worst Science, and, of course, Worst Picture.

As the award categories suggest, the nominated films are heavily weighted toward awful science fiction and horror movies, but the year of release is irrelevant. This year's nominees included everything from 1951's Unknown World (for Worst Science) to 2003's 13 Seconds (for multiple categories, including Worst Picture).

Devil Girl from MarsHow it works is that the Smith-ka-teers (Bryan Cassidy and Greg Pearson, the two Michigan grad students who created the Smithees in 1991, and their associates) select five films for each category, clip the relevant parts of each, and show the clips to the auditorium full of B-movie lovers, oddballs, and masochists (over 200 of them this year!). The audience then votes for its favorites, using high-tech "voting packs" of recycled scraps of paper, pens, and plastic spiders provided to everyone.

I'm something of a crap film connoisseur myself, so I'm not ashamed to say I'd seen several of the nominees before in their entirety, including Devil Girl from Mars (1954), Troll 2 (1990), and PiƱata: Survival Island (2002).

Mmmm, cheeseballs!My date, who is an actual Hollywood veteran, got into the spirit, too, especially when we saw all of the swell snacks and beverages provided gratis – "food" such as Peeps, Pixy Sticks, cheeseballs, Oreo knockoffs, and other things too frightening to mention. I stuck mostly to the cheeseballs, but the pumpkin-flavored soda and bacon-flavored gumballs intrigued me as well. (Note to self: avoid pumpkin-flavored soda and bacon-flavored gumballs in the future.)

So which celluloid atrocity won Worst Picture? Unfortunately, we had another event to attend that evening, so we were forced to leave before the end of the ceremonies. I'm hoping to stay for the whole thing next year.

My small, poorly exposed gallery of Smithee is on Facebook.

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Ann Arbor Coworking

The Workantile ExchangeThe old Arcadian Antiques Too space at 118 S. Main St. is being turned into the Workantile Exchange, another "coworking" site in downtown Ann Arbor.

The obvious question is: What is coworking? And what is a coworking site?

A great article explaining the concept is here.


Red Pen Diaries: Tenets and Tenants

Red Pen Diaries: Advice and Observations on Writing and the English LanguageToday I'd like to describe the tenets underlying the use of the word "tenants."

A tenet is, according to our friends at Webster's, "a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true."

A tenant is someone who rents (and occupies) a dwelling from a landlord.

It's unfortunately fairly common for me to see people writing about the "tenants" of this or that religion or philosophy. Of course, this is a silly error easily avoided by keeping the words' definitions in mind.

(Bonus!: A tenement is a house used as a residence; an apartment or flat.)


"I don't care how crazy the tenets of my landlord's faith are to me, I'm happy being a tenant in his tenement."

Or, in other words, you can rent an apartment from Tom Cruise, but you can't be a tenant of Scientology!

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Out and About: Stairway to Springtime

A walk in Nichols Arboretum.

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Observing History

Caught a tour today of the University of Michigan's historic Detroit Observatory, the place where esteemed Victorian gentlemen went to gaze at the stars and other celestial bodies.

Fully restored to its 1854 grandeur, the Observatory boasts two relatively unaltered telescopes from back in the day, when they were among the largest and most state-of-the-art instruments in the field.

Our tour guide admitted that University president Tappan's desire to build the most advanced observatory of its kind in an effort to put U of M on the map, so to speak, was at odds with Michigan's often-cloudy skies.

Perhaps that is one reason there were no significant discoveries, apart from a comet and a few asteroids, made at this site (or so the guide told me when I asked).

On May 8-10 the Antique Telescope Society (yes, this group exists) will be putting the Observatory back into action for its annual meeting. Maybe they will have better luck.

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Ann Arbor at Night

A minute-long montage from Siege Media, "Ann Arbor at Night":

Clearly not an exhaustive depiction. And shots of the Fleetwood could arguably qualify for "Ann Arbor Really Early in the Morning."


Red Pen Diaries: I Can Get You a Toe

Red Pen Diaries: Advice and Observations on Writing and the English LanguageThe common usage error I'd like to discuss today is the phrase "toe the line."

The expression generally means "to strictly adhere to rules or standards; to conform," often with a connotation of servility. But it's frequently (and incorrectly) written as "tow the line," which would instead suggest somebody dragging a cable around.

It makes more sense if you think of sailors being ordered to stand at attention with their toes aligned against a particular deck plank, which is one common explanation for the phrase's origins.


"He always toes the party line."

"If they find you aren't toeing the company line, you could be fired."

"She toed the corporate line until she realized she wasn't getting that raise."

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Springing Forward

Yesterday was sunny with a cold wind, but it was still good enough weather to watch the Michigan football team in its final spring practice, which was open to the public. Even better (assuming you are a fan) was the chance to tour the locker room before the practice, to see where so many conqu'ring heroes have changed into their battle gear on the way to becoming the winningest team in D1 college football. (Yes, I got up early and waited in line for more than an hour to do this.) Only around 147 more days until the start of football season!

More pictures are here.


The Boy from IPAnema

Once again I volunteered to pour at Arbor Brewing Company's monthly beer tasting, the first I've been to since I gave up alcohol for Lent. Last night was a sold-out affair, as India pale ales (IPAs) are popular, and many thirsty beer lovers were on hand.

I was stationed at Arbor's own table, pouring out tastes of "Batch 2000," which, as the name implies, is the 2000th batch of beer brewed by ABC. I'm actually not sure what style to classify it as, but it was much more well balanced that many of the other XPAs (X-TREME IPAS!) there.

What else to say? A great time was had by all. Looking forward to next month's bock and Trappist ale tasting!



Today I had to cancel a planned vacation to New Orleans for next week's French Quarter Festival. This is a major bummer for me, as I have not been down to my spiritual hometown since my infamous 2006 trip – and I've never been down for the Fest. Unfortunately, with economic conditions being what they are, this cancellation was necessary.

But why write about it?

Photo credit: Colleen SienkiewiczBecause, first, I'll use any excuse to talk about that amazing, strange, exciting, frightening, weird, untamed, unapologetic, and not-quite-Americanized corner of the country.

Second and more importantly, New Orleans for me is not just a place. It is a place, of course, but it's also a state of mind, a way of being, a lost art of living. In New Orleans, things that Americans typically do not think about seriously, things like music and food and leisure, are given their proper due.

New Orleanians know what constitutes the good life, and it's not working 40 or more hours a week in a cubicle farm and taking two weeks off each year to poke your head up a bit to see some small, pre-defined touristy part of the world. That ain't living, no sir.

I'm here to say you haven't lived until you've done a second line down the streets of the Faubourg Marigny. Or the Quarter. Or Gentilly. Or anywhere else life happens in this city where life still happens.

Yes, life involves music, food, and leisure. Americans in general have – even though they might deny it – lost touch with all of these fundamentally human pursuits. The existence of New Orleans is a standing rebuke to this modern oversight, an oversight that approximately 299.5 million of us are guilty of. Shame on us.

Finally, although Ann Arbor is, of course, no New Orleans, what I really appreciate about this town is its open-endedness, its acceptance of the weird and different, its particularity. At a time when so many cities and towns of America are becoming exactly like every other city and town in America, Ann Arbor stubbornly maintains its own identity, just as New Orleans does.

I've spent my entire life in Michigan. I was born here and I grew up here. I know Ann Arbor is different enough from most other Michigan cities that Michiganders of a certain stripe seek it out, over the Detroit suburbs and the rural towns, for a taste of the "other."

It ain't New Orleans – not by a long shot. But it's what we got. And it's pretty damn good, all the same.

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My Acting Debut

My former employer, Borders, has produced a "sweded" movie version of Janet Evanovich's first Stephanie Plum book, One for the Money.I play two roles: Stephanie's would-be suitor, Bernie Kuntz, and would-be shooter, Jimmy Alpha.

Check it out on their site, BordersMedia.com.


Red Pen Diaries: Getting the Lead Out

Red Pen Diaries: Advice and Observations on Writing and the English LanguageOne usage error I often see is "lead" used in place of "led."

Incorrect: "He lead them down the garden path."

Correct: "He led them down the garden path."

The confusion arises from the fact that the past tense (and past participle) of the verb "lead" (say: leed) is pronounced the same as the noun "lead" (say: led).

When you are speaking of the soft, heavy metal, it is spelled "lead" but pronounced as "led."

When you are speaking of the past action of leading, it is spelled "led" and pronounced the same.

(Legendary rock bands notwithstanding, a dirigible made of heavy metal actually would be a "lead zeppelin" or even a "leaden zeppelin.")

More examples:

"The Detroit Lions led the game in the first half, but now the Little Sisters of the Poor have the lead."

"To judge by your boss's face, I'd say that proposal went over like a lead balloon."

Don't be led astray by this common mistake!

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April Fools

Every year on the first Sunday of April, art students and other volunteers put on the downtown "FestiFools" parade, which consists of many large, offbeat papier-mâché puppets as well as some strangely dressed folks (guilty as charged).

Despite the rain, there was a great turnout. My picture album of the event is on Facebook. (Non-Facebookers should be able to access this link, too.)


The Future of Traditional Journalism in Ann Arbor

"I have seen the future, and it works."

That's a paraphrase from Lincoln Steffens, an American journalist who, upon his return from a 1921 visit to the newly born Soviet Union, enthused over the efficiency of a society based upon state compulsion.

We now know how that all turned out.

But that Steffens quotation came to mind when I dropped in on an April 2 "community meeting" organized by the three principals of AnnArbor.com, the successor to the soon-to-be-defunct Ann Arbor News, which announced that it would cease publication in July.

In the same way traditional journalist Steffens misjudged the true nature of the Soviet regime, traditional journalism as a whole has misjudged the changing nature of the craft and the market for it.

Economic reality is now forcing the hands of many newspapers, not just the Ann Arbor News. The bottom line – and the average age of the audience at the AnnArbor.com forum supported this conclusion – is that almost nobody under the age of 40 really reads newspapers anymore. They still get news, but they've abandoned the local "fishwrapper" in droves.

Much to their credit, AnnArbor.com's principals, Matt Kraner, Tony Dearing, and Laurel Champion (pictured above), clearly understand that the old business model is unsustainable. The $64,000 question, of course, is: What model is sustainable? Or put another way: What do people want, how can we deliver it to them, and how can we make it profitable to do so?

Most of the audience questions at the forum were naturally posed by the older folks and seemed to focus on what I would consider peripheral issues. If I could loosely summarize them in a single pithy question, it would be something like "I understand there's this Internet thing you're moving to, and it's OK as far as it goes, but how will I get a daily newspaper?" The idea that the daily newspaper is dead did not and would not sink in.

My own opinion is that the popularity of the Internet with younger folks is not the only reason for the demise of newspapers; the previously alluded-to journalistic misjudgment plays a role as well. But that's a much longer subject for another day. For now, I think it's a positive step that Mr. Kraner, Mr. Dearing, and Ms. Champion are embracing the possibilities offered by the Internet and the reality of a market that has moved on from traditional newsprint, at least in its current form.

Their task of essentially marrying the old with the new will be a tough one, and I'm not sure yet they appreciate just how tough. But Ann Arbor has a great number of independent, community-minded writers and bloggers (including yours truly, natch) who will be pulling for AnnArbor.com to succeed – and would be happy to help it achieve that success.

Update: Former Ann Arbor News sportswriter Jim Carty keeps a blog, and he published some thoughts from another journalist who attended an AnnArbor.com forum. They are worth checking out.

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