Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Inauguration

Venturing down into DC for the Inauguration required careful tactical planning.  There was no driving in.  Metro was running extra trains and buses, but there was no way of knowing how many people would be showing up to catch those extra trains and buses.  

I greeted the day armed with maps, snacks, cameras, pre-paid Metro card and, yes, a paperback book, just in case.  I woke up around 5 am and proceeded, for the next hour, to pester my Mom like a 5 year old at Christmas.  "Mom, the Post is reporting that tens of thousands of people spent the night on the mall....Mom, do you have any Advil...Mom...Mom..."

We left the house around 6:30 and swung by to pick up my Mom's friend who was also braving the insanity to go down.  My Mom chose the wiser course of valor and opted out of joining us.  

A key question on any one's mind who was venturing down was where to get off of the Metro once it got down into DC.  The challenge, for those of you unfamiliar with DC geography was this.  The National Mall runs east/west about 2 miles from the steps of the Capital Building to the Lincoln Memorial.  If you wanted to see the swearing in, this is where you needed to be.  

Most of the Metro stations in DC are located north of the Mall, with a scant few (two, to be exact) located to the south.  The catch is that the Inaugural Parade, which starts in the afternoon after the swearing in, runs from the Capital Building to the White House along Pennsylvania avenue, a major thoroughfare which runs parallel/diagonally (I don't know if it's possible to be both parallel and diagonal to a straight line but whatever) north of the National Mall.  

Essentially giving up on trying secure any but the locations closest to the Capital Building along the mall, police and security forces focused their efforts on securing the parade route.  Anyone who wanted to stand along the parade route had to go through security, and the secure corridor was set up in the days before the inauguration.  Pennsylvania Ave was completely shut down.  You could not cross it in a car.  You could not cross it on your feet.  You could not cross it on a Segue.  You could not cross Pennsylvania Avenue, Sam I Am.  

So, if you wanted to see the Inauguration on the Mall, you had to make darn sure that you didn't get off at a Metro station (most of them) which would require you to cross Pennsylvania.  

Adding to the excitement, they also had rolling street closures in effect.  So, even though I had a map which ostensively showed what streets were open and closed, in fact, when I got down there, Constitution, a major thoroughfare connecting to the Mall, was also completely cordoned off, along with lots of other random places.  

The mood on the train was pretty upbeat, except for the poor girl sitting near me who had apparently already had trauma catching the Metro and now, stuck on the Metro, desperately had to pee.  Initially, I had thought I would try to get off at L'Enfant Plaza, the major Metro station south of the Mall, but as we made our way into DC, the waits in the tunnels got longer and longer, and we began to get reports that some Metro stations were spontaneously closing because there were too many people in them.  

I really didn't want to risk spending the day in Maryland because the train wasn't allowed to stop, so I got off at Federal Triangle which is magically located north of the Mall, but south of Pennsylvania Ave.  This ended up being the ideal choice.  It let me out right at the middle of the Mall area with easy walking distance to the Washington Monument, which is where I decided to make my final stand.  I found out later that the streets around L'Enfant Plaza were so crowded and congested, many people found themselves trapped on side streets and unable to access the Mall at all.  

How can I explain the mood and the experience of being in that crowd?  It was joyous.  It was also a little bit scary.  Everyone was happy and kind and there was certainly a lot of excessive politeness, a distinct awareness that we were all in this together and there was no sense pushing or scrambling.  But I think it's human nature to be completely freaked out to be standing amongst 1.2 million people.  One's flight or fight mechanism fights to kick in, and one must soothe it, gently reminding it that it's ok.  We've chosen to be here. 

Nearby there was a man wearing an elaborate costume that involved tree branches on his head.  I never did figure out why.  Several feet away in front of me, the parent of a baby decided to settle him down by lifting him up and down over their head.  Seeing the baby flying up and down, the crowd began making sound effects: Whooooosh....Whooosh...Whooosh, and the baby became so excited it hardly knew what to do.  Every time his parent lifted him in the air, he could see a sea of a thousand faces smiling at him and going: Whooooosh!  I think his parents may have a hard time settling him down from now on.  

The Event itself began and I was so glad that I had decided to do this nutty thing.  The crowd definitely had a mood: cheering like crazy when the Obama girls and Michelle appeared (I LOVE YOU MICHELLE!!! was hollered out by more than one young gentleman.)  There was subdued booing when Dick and George made their appearances, some snickering at Cheney in his wheelchair, but mostly it was polite applause.  There was lots of cheering for Jimmy Carter, and cheers and befuddlement at the tottering old man who was, yes, George Bush senior.  Wow, is he really that old?  Bill and Hillary got cheers although it too seemed reserved, as if the crowd was unsure...are we happy to see them?

Rick Warren was also met with a kind of subdued applause, a far cry from the enthusiastic cheer I heard at the concert for Gene Robinson.  In the midst of his Invocation, a voice from behind me rang out "Gay Rights Now!", which was met with applause.  I listened to what he said, and thought it was ok.  I found myself wondering how closely he listens to his own words, and how much guidance he might take from them.  Faith means believing that people can always change, evolve and grow.  One thing I did know for certain, standing in that crowd of every creed, color, nation and gender, is that our country is evolving, and growing, and those who don't keep up will be left behind.  

The moment itself?  The Swearing In?  The Inaugural Address?  It was wonderful and overwhelming.  It was beautiful, and I cried.  I'm tearing up now.  It was worth it.  It was worth going down, and it was worth what came after trying to get the Hell out of DC.  We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, gathered in the cold, gathered around tv sets, gathered in the streets, gathered together, across the nation and said Yes We Can.  Yes We Did.  Yes We Will.  

Leaving DC was when the rolling street closures and Pennsylvania security corridor really began to take their toll.  I actually had an idea of trying to catch a bus, instead of trying to venture into a Metro station, the idea of which frankly scared me with that many people trying to pack in underground.  The bus stop I needed though, was located in a nice tight little triangle surrounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution.  I didn't know how to get there without going across the latter.  

My Mom's friend called me to say that she and her friend had managed to score a table in the food court at the Air and Space Museum.  Since I could see the Smithsonian from where I was standing, I thought what the hell.  I'll go sit inside in the warm for a few hours and let this jumble sort itself out.  The shock came when I tried to get down Independence Avenue, along with many thousands of other people.  It took me an hour to go three blocks.  Although the crowd remained peaceful and civil, by this time the cold, and the fatigue was wearing on everyone.  Some people were collapsing, and ambulances fought to drive through the crowds.  

Rumors would tear through the crowds like wildfire...they've blocked the intersection up there...somebody's dead up there...there's a lost child...all the Metro stations are closed.  Most of the rumors were completely untrue, but they added to a general feeling of Holy Shit.  

I gave up the heated indoor lunch plan, and, now having walked 2 miles in the wrong direction, decided to resume my original plan.  As I walked now in the opposite direction, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get to that bus stop, I stopped to ask a volunteer guide, standing patiently and kindly on the mall with a stack of tear away maps.  Looking at the map I could see a metro station, Arlington, which is located in Arlington National Cemetery across the bridge from DC.  I asked the guide if he thought it would be easier for me to go there and he said most definitely yes.  Those streets between me and the bus stop that aren't cordoned off, he told me, are completely mobbed with people.  

So a day that began amongst a mad throng of people ended with a long, quiet walk: past the World War II monument, along the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial.  Although I thought I'd run into barricades at the Memorial, a friendly park ranger told me to follow the fence to the end, where I could make a right turn not immediately visible from where I was standing.  I walked by the Korean War Memorial, possibly the most powerful war memorial in DC.  Statues of soldiers stand in a field, weighed down with their packs, their images reflected in a shiny black marble wall, engraved with still more images of our fallen soldiers.  

Walking across the bridge I felt almost alone.  There were maybe a dozen people, instead of thousands, wandering in the same direction.  A troop of soldiers were stationed along the bridge in order to, occasionally, run out and move the traffic barricades to let in the Marine Corps Band buses, or let out a dignitary.  The ice on the Potomac looked like broken green bottle glass, dangerous and beautiful.  It was so quiet.  

It felt like the perfect end to my day for as I took this walk, truly, how could I not be "mindful of the sacrifices born by our ancestors"?  With every fiber of my being, I felt Obama's words around me:

"America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations." 

Ok I am! Sunday Concert Report

I had this dream that I would live blog my Inauguration adventures via Twitter and then race back home and write everything up, immediately, if not sooner!  But I've learned some things over the last few days.  First, it's a bitch to text anything with gloves on.  Second, when you're actually standing there in the midst of crazy wonderful throngs of people, it's hard to think of anything to say except: Whoa!  Wheee!  Wow!  Yippie Skippy!  Zowie! 

Second, I learned that it's freakin exhausting to fight crowds in order to walk miles in order to stand in the cold for hours in order to fight more crowds to walk even more miles to public transportation to take one home.  I was officially zombified by the end of Tuesday, and then Wednesday I had to drag my ass up in order to drive back to NYC.  

So I'm back in NYC at my bro's abode and my flight doesn't leave until 8 pm, and I have officially nothing on the agenda for today.  I can't tell you how happy that makes me!  

So, where do I begin?  Let's start with the concert on Sunday.  When I first arrived in downtown DC, the signs of impending massive doings were already evident.  There was a strong military presence which might have been unnerving except that all of the soldiers looked so cheerful.  I followed the stream of people towards the Washington Monument, wondering where the massive crowds might be.  

When I got over the hill and could see the Mall, the crowds became evident, massed in front of the security tent.  A combination of friendly volunteers and very serious security forces were ordering people to "openyourcoatsremoveanythingaroundyournecktakeoutallelectronicdevices andTURNTHEMONc'monpeoplemovemovemove!"  It was crazier than airport security, but I will say the line moved very quickly.  

The Mall in winter has a bleak, frigid beauty to it, like walking through a Weyeth painting.  In the Northwest winter means different shades of green than the summer shades of green, but the Mall is a hundred different shades of brown and grey.  Ducks congregate on the ice, taking turns paddling in the unfrozen spots of ponds.  For some reason, every third person, and every child, walking by the icy ponds felt compelled to step a foot out on to the ice, to prove that it was indeed frozen.  

Despite dire warnings of bathroom related doom, there were porta potties everywhere.  There were more porta potties than I saw during the Breast Cancer 3 Day walk, which believe me is saying something.  Over the next few days, I became quite a conniseur of porta potties.  You learn to take your coat off before you enter (not enough room to take it off once inside without dragging it through something biological).  You learn to double check for TP.  I soon gave up trying to find ones with "clean" seats (there were none), relying instead on my yoga chair position to hover above the hole.  I even learned to prefer the honey buckets with the sliding lock, as opposed to the ones that flip around in a circle, as the flippy ones come open too easily.

My experience at the concert was the usual sort of outdoor concert experience, made more interesting by the fact that it was freezing cold, and in fact got colder as the day wore on.  I spent about an hour in line to buy a hotdog and some chips.  I joined the mad throng mobbing the hot chocolate vendor.  

I have mixed feelings about the concert itself.  I think that it was very "made for tv", and I understand a lot of people who watched it on tv thought it was awesome.  The pacing of the show (music, someone famous talking, music, politician talking, music, more famous people talking) was definately better suited for teevee than for the enjoyment of the thousands of people there in the cold.    

Having been to plenty of lalapalooza/bumbershoot type things, I recognize that it takes a certain pace and organization to keep a large crowd engaged.  You need to have music playing the whole time...before the show you play recordings of whatever gets people's moods up: Beatles or Snoop Dog or whatever.  At the "Presidential Committee Official Welcoming Event", they did show videos on the jumbo trons, very message oriented, hitting on the "We Are One" theme of the event, but they didn't show them continuously, leaving the crowd long periods of time of just milling about in the freezing, a mood killer if ever there was one.    

When the event started, with the invocation by Gene Robinson, the speakers didn't fully kick in, leaving those of us near the back aware that something was going on, but unable to fully hear.  

There were some high points, I will not argue that.  Watching the official United States of America helicopters zoom over head, knowing they contained Obama and Biden, was electrifying, especially when one (for the sake of me telling the story, it was Obama's) actually buzzed the crowd, circling the mall and flying straight over the reflecting pool.  

Knowing I was in the same square mile radius as Denzel Washington, whee!  I've been within the same square mile radius as Obama, U2 and Bruce Springsteen before, but now I can add Denzel AND Tom Hanks to the list.  Springsteen's The Rising was an amazing opening to the concert.  Despite it having been almost overplayed for a while there, it is a beautiful and poignant song and it brought home to me (oh, ok, I'll get cheesy) the resiliancy of our country, and how awesome, in the true meaning of the word, it is to be able to turn this page in our history.  

The best performer, aside from Bruce, was, suprising to me, Garth Brooks.  He sang a medley of American Pie and Shout which really got the crowd moving and jumping and singing along.  Whether it was the fact that the artists themselves were overawed by the experience they were having, or the tightly controlled pacing of the show, Brooks was the only one who really just reached out and rocked the crowd.  Even U2 was very somber and staid in their performance.  I understand their choice of 2nd song, after Pride they played City of Blinding Lights, was a request by the President Elect.  Lord knows, if Obama asks for it, play it, but boy the crowd sure would have liked a Beautiful Day or I Will Follow or something that rocked and which everyone knows the words!  (I actually love the song City of Blinding Lights, but for this occasion, it didn't feel right.)  

Getting home after the concert was an adventure, which I should have taken as a pre-lesson for Tuesday.  The Metro stations were mobbed.  I walked to the closest one and found a long line just to enter, so I decided to walk to one further down the line, only to find that one literally mobbed.  It was the first time of the day that I actually had an "oh Jesus I can't handle this" moment, so  I ended up walking back to the first station.  By that time the line had cleared some, and I only had to wait for 3 trains before I could get on to get back to Virginia.  

KMTT has posted some of my video from the concert that day, which you can find here    .  Check out the very last video, that's the Garth Brooks portion of the concert.  

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Soapbox du jour

My Mom and I have just spent an hour or so planning logistics for the next few crazy days ahead, which brings me to my soapbox of the day.

Most of the official agencies who have any level of responsibility of organizing this loopy do have, from the very beginning, taken a pretty gloom and doom stance about what to expect Tuesday. 
The city has adopted a seige mentality.  All the bridges from Virginia into DC will be closed on Tuesday, period.  There's no such thing as driving your personal vehicle into the city that day if you live in Virginia.  Metro will be closing the two stations most conveniently located to the Mall. The website for Metro all but says, flat out, for God sake people, just stay home.  What do you think we are: a MASS TRANSIT system?  This is a challenge not only for attendees of the Inauguration, but for the many thousands of people who actually, oh, you know, have jobs in DC, and don't have the day off.   

If the powers that be had had this level of security during the War of 1812, the British never would have been able to burn down the White House.   They would have to have been satisfied with starting bonfires at the Army/Navy Country Club, which was probably something else back then.   

I don't actually have a problem with the level of security and control that various official agencies are attempting, although I'm bothered by the negative tone.  From a pure CYA perspective it's pretty clear they're trying to lower expectations to the degree that anything better than mass pandamonium and death in the streets will be lauded as a success.

While I'll give the public service and gubment agencies a pass on this one, I'm more irked with some who should actually pretend to know better, like the Washington Post.  The Post should be a resource for people who are planning to attend and need to know things like, can I bring my camera?  Where will the security check points be?  When should I arrive?  The basics.

The Post's Inauguration Central is sporadically usefull.  It does have some practical information and maps available, if you dig.  But it is also infused with a tone, a "if you're stupid enough to try and come, or if you can't get out of it, you might want to know this" tone.  It also has far more information of a practical nature available for those personages who have tickets and/or those needing to know how to dress for their fancy ball.  

Although it extensively outlines the security check points of entry for those attending the Swearing In Ceremony who have tickets, the only line of instruction I found for those without, buried in small print at the bottom of a page, was they should "enter from the south end of the Mall".  Since the Mall runs East-West, and most of the public transit options into the city drop you off on the north side, as provided this is a shockingly useless, yet clearly potentially important piece of information.  

Frankly, based on conversations I've had with lots of people who are confused when I tell them I don't have tickets, I think the media has done a lousy job of making it clear that You Don't Have to Have A Ticket.  In fact, most of the area set aside for viewing the swearing in is open to the general public.  There are no seats.  It's standing room only.  It will be crowded and cold, but all are, and should be, welcome. 

I think the worm finally turned for me when I was looking through the Post's Weekender, trying to get some information on the concert at the Lincoln memorial tomorrow, so I could formulate my plan of attack.  Maybe you've heard about this concert which will feature some vaguely known, in some small circles, artists such as Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and U2, and will be broadcast around the world on HBO and probably every other channel?

The Post did feature a multi-page spread detailing the inaugurations of all the past Presidents, complete with an introduction which the word "pretentious" doesn't begin to cover: "Streams of people will flood the city of Washington to honor the man becoming the next president. And with every step, they will tread in the shadows of greatness.  Consciously or not, they will trace paths blazed long ago by Jefferson, Jackson and Adams..."  The article did not go on to say "and those ignorant, dirty tourists will trample our roses and spit gum on our streets", but it is clearly implied.  

It also has a nice review of a new Burmese restuarant, but info on the concert I could find no trace.  Disbelieving, I looked again, scanning the brief listing of events calendar.  I missed it the first time but eventually found it, squeezed in amongst infinite lists for expensive inaugural balls, a tiny wee entry under the heading "Presidential Inaugural Committee Official Welcoming Event," from which I was able to glean what I already knew.  It starts at 2:30.

The Post does seem to pride itself on its insider, too cool for school attitude, but it might behoove them to recollect, particularly in these uncertain times for newspapers, that on large scale national events like the one we are seeing unfold over the next few days, they are the national paper of record.  They ought to be providing information not just for themselves, but for, yes, the great unwashed masses who have taken time out of their lives and traveled many miles to be part of a once in a lifetime experience.  

Day 1- NY to DC

I spent 5 whole hours in NYC before I faced my first delightfully energizing crisis of the trip.  I took my glasses off to clean them and they just fell apart in my hands.  My brother was standing by me when it happened and said, wow, they didn't even make any kind of snapping sound.  The molecules simply gave up the ghost and disbanded, right accross the nose bridge.  

Now, this is officially the THIRD time in my life that I have had a glasses destruction crisis while on vacation.  The first time was in college druing a road trip when my specs found themselves underneath a friend's foot.  On that occasion, I learned that it's a challenge to find an optomotrist in Durango who is open on a Sunday.  The second time I was in LA being stupid, and the Pacific ocean punished me, by knocking me over, stealing my glasses and giving me a wedgie.  You would think that these experiences should have been at least 1 if not 2 more than I need to learn that, when one travels, one should really carry a backup pair of specs, or contacts or something. Ha!  How funny, to think I would learn from my experience.  

So after figuring out that neither tape, nor super glue, nor my brother attempting to melt the plastic and restick the pieces together, I had a minor freakout.  I should say here that I'm blind.  I'm blind as a deaf bat.  Well, ok, that's an exaggeration.  I can make out light and dark and colors and shapes.  I can tell the difference between a tree and a building at 10 paces (although at 20, all bets are off).  In days of yore, I would have had a career choice of saber tooth tiger lunch or blind oracle.  

After I stopped hyperventilating, I remembered that my perscription is with Pearl vision, which is a chain, and lo and behold NYC has a Pearl vision.  I called them to explain my trauma drama and they said, yeah sure, come on down.  You're in the system, and we have a pair of contacts in your Rx.  "Just please get here before 4:00", the lady tells me, in this tone suggesting that I would just be doing her the world's biggest favor if I would do them that kindness.  Of course, they closed at 4, so the kindness was all theirs really.  

They gave me the lenses, solution and a carring case...FOR FREE.  Just GAVE them to me.  I'm not usually one for plugging super national chains, but hey, Pearl Vision...customer for life here.

So I was able to continue with my plan to drive down to DC in my brother & sister-in-law's new Honda Fit.  I could tell they were pretty stressed about parting with it, especially when my brother spent 10 minutes showing me how to adjust the seat.  But eventually, and with the distraction of a neighbor walking by with a new puppy, I was able to scoot off.  

Since apparently I'm plugging products hither and yon in this episode, I'll throw in one more: I heart GPS navigation devices.  For the first time in my life I did not get lost trying to get to my Mom's abode in Northern Virginia.  I didn't spend hours wandering around Bethesda, MD.  I didn't accidentally get on the Dulles access road which forces you to drive 20 miles to the airport before letting you turn around.  At no point did I find myself accidentally driving by the White House which, though always lovely, is not on the route to my Mom's house.  Thank you giant satellite in the sky!  You're my hero.  

The Adventure Begins...

Wow!  After that maudlin intro down there I be you're just itching to check in on my Inaugural Travel Fantasia over the next few days.  It's going to be deep, man.  

Caught the red eye out and actually slept some on the plane!  I was next to a woman traveling to NYC w/ her son who had an audition at Julliard.  He plays the bassoon.  I used to play the bassoon, so we had ooodles to discuss.  

She was nice, except for her desire to discuss airline catastrophes during takeoff and landing.  She went for the obvious Hudson River plane ditch during takeoff, but during the landing at JFK, she actually went for the full 9/11 discussion.  I'm not particularly superstitious when it comes to flying, but I did worry about being overheard by a sensitive air marshall and being dragged off for questioning.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Populucious Goes to Washington

What have I been up to lately?  And why haven't I been blogging about it?  

These are questions all five or six of my loyal followers have been asking lately, and there's no short answer.  In September I walked in the Susan Koman Breast Cancer 3 Day.  I should follow that up by saying that it was an overwhelming, life changing experience which made me believe I could do anything, including fly!  

The truth is what I learned most about myself during the experience was 2 things:  First, I know some amazing, powerful, driven accomplished women who make me proud to know them.  Second, I hate walking.  Hate it.  Don't like it.  I walked about half of the expected 60 miles.  We wont call that a failure, because half of 60 is 30, and when was the last time you walked 30 miles over a weekend? 

My experience was complicated by the fact that the week before the walk, my dear stepfather Bill passed away.  He had been sick quite a while and the doctors had long given up on him, but he and my mother never stopped believing, and they never stopped fighting. 

There are people in this world who have an amazing life force.  They know how to live, why they live, and they do that to the fullest, every day.  Bill was one of those people.  So was my Uncle Tim, another incredibly special person who we lost last summer.  

It's very clear to anyone who knew either of these men that there were very valuable things to be learned from having them in our lives.  Live each day to the fullest.  Live each day as if it were your last.  Be kind to people. Be true to yourself.  Have faith in your inner compass.  Roll with the punches.  Suffer fools politely, but don't ever let them make you doubt what you know to be true, and right, and good. 

The example shown to me by these great good men seems so clear, in theory.  But to put it into practice, day after day.  Well, it's hard.  It certainly doesn't come naturally to me.  Especially when it leads me to do things like commit to a bazillion mile charity walk on the grounds that it will help me finally uncover my inner athelete only discover that I do not actually have an inner athelete, at all.  Never did have.  Not looking good for getting one any time soon.   

So Populucious has been struggling a bit over the last few months.  She signed up for a class, called Passion Search, which she hoped would provide some lightening bolts of guidance about what she ought to do when she grows up (any day now). Perhaps there'd be tests, and she take one, and they would tell her, WOW, you should so obviously become a certified accountant, and she would go out and do that thing.  The class has been cool, no question, but no life altering lightening bolts, and no test certified commands for the future.  

Meanwhile Populucious hasn't been going to see many movies, and those she does see, well, she hasn't always felt like she had much to say about them.  She's also been watching plenty of teevee, but again, not much to say.  Is it the movies, and the teevee, which are uninspiring?  Or is it something else?  Like so many things, Populucious just doesn't know.  

There has been one thing that's been getting this gal really excited lately.  Well, for quite some time, actually, and that is politics.  I suppose there's nothing particulaly unique about that. Doesn't matter what side you were on, that was one heck of an exciting election. 

Populucious discovered something in the last year of electoral madness, something she didn't realize she still had in her:  Faith in the political process.  An awe for this crazy, loopy country we call home.  Belief that people, plain ordinary people, can change things for the better.  

For a chick that has always prided herself on her pragmatic, cynical point of view, this year has been something of a mind fuck, to be honest.  My own life's a bit of a mess right now, but as far as this country goes?  I have (yeah, I'll say it) hope.  I am cautiously optimistic about our future. 

And so Populucious is going to Washington.  DC, that is.  Frozen puddles and nervous Metro drivers.  I'm going to the Inauguration.  I'm going to fight the crowds, and stand in the cold, and worry about the location of the nearest Porta Potty.  I have no tickets for bleachers, or passes to balls.  I will be standing on the Mall, likely so far away from the action that even my camera zoom lens wont be able to make out what's going on.  

But I'm going, because I want to be a part of this crazy, loopy madness.  I want to witness history.  I want to embrace this lovely, hopeful, cautiously optimistic person I've found inside me and reward her for her perserverence.  

So tune in for Inaugural coverage from Populucious next week!  I'll be Tweeting and blogging and whatever else I can come up with.

And thanks, my five or six loyal followers.  You're awesome.  


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Quantum of Solace

I didn't write a review of Quantum of Solace when it first came out, because I didn't get around to seeing it for a while and by the time I got to it, I thought the world might be a bit saturated with Quantum reviews.  But then stuff happened.  First, I went to see the film again over Christmas with my James Bond loving brother and enjoyed it, again.  Second, I read that Quantum of Solace topped Peter Traver's list of most disappointing films of 2008.  Now, finally, after re-watching Casino Royale last night on Showtime, I find I cannot keep silent anymore.  Quantum of Solace is a great movie.  Apologies to Travers and Roger Ebert who both gave Solace poor reviews, but you guys are dead wrong. 

Anyone who knows me knows I love James Bond, but that doesn't mean I don't recognize a bad movie when I see it.  There are many installments of the Bond oeuvre which aren't great and a few that flat out suck.  Most of them fall into the category of "fun".  A few of them actually qualify as "memorable" (as in, having a plot remarkable enough to distinguish them from the 22 others), including On Her Majesty's Secret ServiceThe Living Daylights and Die Another Day (I'm sorry but I really couldn't think of a memorable Roger Moore one, and I've seen them all, many times.  I think we could easily replace all of the Roger Moore episodes with a copy of Disney's The Incredibles and be as entertained, if not more.)  A select few are truly great films, in or out of the James Bond series, including Dr. NoGoldfinger and, I would argue, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.  

When the Broccoli family decided to do a reboot of the franchise after Die Another Day, they were taking a big risk.  Pierce Brosnan was a fine Bond, combining at least some of the sex appeal of Sean Connery along with the comedy chops of Roger Moore and absolutely nothing of Timothy Dalton.  Die Another Day was high note.  It was a turn towards a more serious Bond, with an actual plot with stakes that felt higher than usual (After being imprisoned and tortured by the Koreans, Bond escapes to find he's been sold out and his creds revoked).  Brosnan wasn't interested in retiring, and the Bond machine easily could have churned out several more episodes of "insert villain Slot A, gadget Tab B with a dash of women with dirty sounding names and shake well" with no one complaining. 

The problem, which the Broccolis recognized even if doubters (including myself) did not, was that the landscape for James Bond had radically changed.  Bond's signature had always been to combine action (which tended to schizo between cold war hi-jinks and science fiction), hot chicks, high tech gizmos and humor based on bad puns.  When the James Bond franchise began, Victoria's Secret models were not readily available on every tv station but, by 2005, the average teenage boy did not need to buy a movie ticket to see a really hot chick in a bikini.  The nifty gizmos that Bond hid in every shoe were now pretty much available to anyone with access to a Radio Shack.  

Elsewhere Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne were busily defining what it meant to be a lone wolf secret agent man in a post Cold War/9-11 century.  Most significantly, the biggest problem facing the Broccolis in the new millennium was the wild success of the Austin Powers franchise.  Double entendres about Christmas coming only once a year wilted in comparison to single entendres about flying penises.  The Bond films were in danger of becoming a pale imitation of themselves and completely irrelevant to new generations of potential fans. 

Casino Royale, which earned universally high acclaim, stripped the franchise down to its gears and rebuilt something familiar but also refreshingly new.  The one liners were gone, replaced with still present but very dry, lightly administered humor.  The action was dirty and raw.  When Daniel Craig chased bad guys through the jungle he actually sweat.  When Craig fought with villains, one got the impression that effort was being expended.  When he was hit, he bled.  The plot was set firmly in reality.  (Note to any of my mothers who are reading this: When I say "reality", rather than suggest that a high stakes poker game the funds from which, if not successfully intercepted, will go to fund terrorism is actually "likely", I mean to say it is plausible within the physical laws of time and space, as opposed to, say, a device which if not stopped will DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD, MWA HA HA HA!).  Bond had something approaching an adult romance with Vesper Lind, a woman whose name is not a double (or single) entendre for a part of her anatomy (and who does not once appear in a bikini), and he gets his heart, an organ which had made possibly one other appearance in the 20 previous episodes, completely trashed.

Quantum of Solace proves that the Broccolis were serious when they started this renovation of the Bond series.  It is, in many respects, even more stripped down than Casino Royale, which had a glitzy casino backdrop and running gags about martinis to lighten the blow for those overly attached to Bondian kitch.  It's true that Solace is essentially Casino Royale, Part 2.  If you haven't seen Casino Royale, you're missing necessary pieces of information to fully appreciate Quantum of Solace.  This is a huge departure from traditional Bond episodes which always existed completely detached from each other, for better or worse.  

Except for a nifty computer interface back at the office, which probably actually exists somewhere, Solace features no wacky space age bachelor pad technology.  We get cell phones, head sets, maybe some RFID readers while I wasn't paying attention.  Bond's Astin Martin, which is quickly disposed of in smashing fashion, features no rocket launching exhaust pipe.  Bond's pen, which he still might use to kill you, is just a pen.  These developments seem to upset some people.  Myself, I found them really entertaining. 

A lot of the negative reviews of Quantum of Solace seem to focus on the ways in which the film departs from traditional Bond boiler plate.  It's too serious.  It somehow is both boring and/or has too much action.  Bond doesn't wear a tux enough.  There are no bad puns.  There are no gadgets.  These quibbles, however, are confusing what have become some of the signatures of James Bond movies with the actual reason we find Bond so compelling in the first place.  The hook of Bond has never been the puns or the gadgets.  It's the duality of the character's nature.  He's the man who can mix with high society effortlessly, excuse himself to kill a villain, then return to the baccarat table none the worse for wear.  It is this improbable combination that makes him interesting, and separates him from the likes of a Jason Bourne or a Jack Bauer, neither of whom could crash an opera opening in Austria as effortlessly as Bond does in Quantum of Solace.       

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are nothing less than the origin tale of James Bond, just as Batman Begins/Dark Knight have been the origin tale of Batman.  No one minded that Christian Bale didn't wear a bat suit in the first half of Batman Begins, because we all knew a bat suit was coming.  What mattered was not the suit, but how he got to it.  Royale/Solace show us just how this dual natured devil, the suave gentleman and the killer, came into existence.  We see Bond transform as an agent from a loose cannon to an effective and loyal agent.  As a man, we see him transform from a callow Jack-the-lad, all too aware of his charm and good looks, to a man who recognizes the cost both he and the people around him pay when he relies on his magnetism rather than his sense.  By the end of Solace, Bond is the cool, calm and collected agent we have always known, but now we also know the cost of getting him there.  

There are clearly schools of thought that feel making James Bond experience character development is excessive and unnecessary, like putting lipstick on a pig, or making Superman wear a helmet.  Personally, as someone who has seen every single one of the James Bond films, I think it's safe to say that the well had run dry on all gizmo and action plots.  Adding a human element to Bond gives the story energy.  It gives Bond a purpose.  It gives the characters around him motivation, and meat to work with, especially in what may the best part of the new Bond-verse: the expanded role of M.  Judy Dench should earn her own movie franchise for her portrayal of Bond's exasperated boss, a woman who is experiencing her own evolution in learning how to deal with this conundrum of an agent.  

Quantum of Solace isn't perfect.  The lack of a giant dam explosion flooding the Bolivian desert is unforgivable, really (You'll just have to see it to know what I'm talking about.  Once you do I'm sure you'll agree with me).  But as an entertaining and exciting end to the journey started in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace delivers.  And now that we know where this International Man of Mystery is coming from, I suspect that further installments will be lighter.  There was never anything wrong with the double entendres, hot and cold running bikinis or martinis for everyone, but they were always the frosting, not the cake.