Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2005/ 29 Teves 5765


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Consumer Reports

Praise for the Times: Every Rat Has His Day | There's a growing trend, according to a Boston Globe article I've since discarded, for Americans to make their jam-packed lives a little easier by purchasing artificial Christmas trees. As I recall, the real vs. fake is hovering around 50-50, a minute reflection of the national culture that is, at least to this fair-weather traditionalist, an abomination equal to the birthdays of George Washington and Abe Lincoln no longer being celebrated on the actual February dates. The way things are going it won't be long before kids are given off school days in honor of the Ramadan holy season. And I thought the bogus introduction of Kwanzaa a decade or so ago was bad!

There's very little downside to buying a tree recently chopped down in some forest. The smell of the fir (or whatever variety) alone, wafting for a period of time in a small area of an apartment or house is worth the minor aggravation of taking the ornaments and lights down and hauling the prickly decoration out to the trash. A quick vacuum and stashing away of the glass or wood Santas, birdies, reindeer and Simpson characters in a closet or basement and the new year has begun.

In that spirit, there were a couple of articles in Sunday's New York Times that I found, completely without aid of intoxicants, a pleasure to read. The first was film critic A.O. Scott's Jan. 2 essay that dared to say that Sideways, the artsy movie starring sad-sack Paul Giamatti (Miles), is overrated. Scott even starts the piece with a jab at his own paper: "In the next few weeks you will surely read  —  perhaps even in the pages of this newspaper  —  a great many articles about the Oscar race, and about how this year, for various esoteric reasons, no clear front-runner has emerged in the major award categories."

Expecting zilch, I saw, and liked, Sideways a month or so ago with my son, mostly for the performances of Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen. But best film of the year? Scott, who may piss off the colleagues he gathers with several times a week at advance screenings, theorizes that the buzz over Sideways is due to critics empathizing with Giamatti's character. He writes: "This is not to suggest that white, middle-aged men with a taste for alcohol are disproportionately represented in the ranks of working movie reviewers; plausible as such a notion may be, I don't have the sociological data to support it just yet. But the self-pity and solipsism that are Miles's less attractive (and frequently most prominent) traits represent the underside of the critical temperament; his morbid sensitivity may be an occupational hazard we all face."

That's a gussied-up way of saying that Scott knows that he and fellow critics  —  the most snooty of whom write only for a circle of 100 people or so  —  are lucky schlubs who earn a living watching movies.

Not that I'd include New York Press' cinema god Armond White or freewheelin' Matt Seitz in that category, but more than a few reviewers whose copy came across my desk in years past might consider Scott's unusual candor.

I happen to read more books than see movies (snobby, but true), but with a 12-year-old in the house who aspires to be the Quentin Tarantino of 2025, my a-- is dragged to art houses and cineplexes here in Baltimore on a regular basis. So, for the record, my own list of 2004 favorites: Robert Redford's The Clearing, Team America, Shaun of the Dead, Kill Bill, Vol. 2 and, despite Leonardo DiCaprio's crummy Southern accent, The Aviator. It goes without saying that I laid down seven bucks for Fahrenheit 9/11 under protest, and it was predictably horrid; less politically offensive but still insufferable was Anchorman.

Also in Sunday's Times was a mostly readable piece by Rich Cohen, describing the day his son was born. The essay, adapted from an upcoming book, was a little touchy-feely but the sentiment seemed genuine and reminded me of similar experiences in the early 90s. Cohen's boy, after being delivered, was put in an incubator ("the nurse said he wasn't crying right or breathing right or something") and so the new father rushed to the Intensive Care Unit, where "nurses [sat] around as if it were no big deal, doing their nails and reading fashion magazines." That's pretty harsh, notwithstanding the shield that the medical community puts between itself and patients; after all, these days doctors are probably fretting about going out of business because of increasing liability insurance.

When Nicky was born in '92, at 10-plus lbs., my wife had contracted a fever during the 18-hour process and so he too was put into an incubator and transferred to the New York Hospital floor for premature babies. Once I was assured that our son was there for precautionary measures, it was heartbreaking to see other parents weeping and praying that their tiny boys or girls would somehow beat the odds.

Cohen also writes about the (now) obligatory Lamaze classes that prospective parents attend. I kind of enjoyed them  —  even though Melissa ditched all the breathing exercises in about 10 minutes and called out for drugs  —  since it was a way to meet people, from all parts of the city, who normally you'd never come in contact with. Cohen says of the experience: "We had to go around the room and in the manner of Alcoholics Anonymous each give our name and say something about ourselves. I said, 'Hello, my name is Richard, and my wife, Jessica, is having a baby.' This was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so a whole crowd of pregnant women jumped all over me and in voices than sang of Westchester and Long Island shouted, 'You're both having the baby!'"

Good heavens, is Cohen right on the money. The only phrase more objectionable  —  and might be out of vogue for all I know  —  is when a couple announces, "We're pregnant!"

Switching from broadsheet to tabloid, I'll leave it to the Post's Keith Kelly to sort out the labor troubles of the Daily News, but Mort Zuckerman's paper can be unpredictable. A tab that publishes conspiracy-driven Juan Gonzales and the superb Zev Chafets, as well as the politically challenged but excellent Yankees critic Mike Lupica, is worth a scan. In a Jan. 1 editorial, the paper said about 2004: "Speaking of jail, we learned that even maggots like Joel Steinberg get out sooner or later, obviously due to a fundamental flaw in the design of the cosmos… We learned, to our sadness and dismay, that 55 million Americans were perfectly willing to vote for a vice presidential candidate who publicly announced that it was George W. Bush's personal fault that Christopher Reeve would not arise from his wheelchair."

Finally, while I hope the Yanks have a disastrous 2005 season, it'd be swell if Jason Giambi not only returns to the team but also swats 57 homers and hits .310 while Gary Sheffield tanks.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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