I Like to Watch

The disaster movie is back! So are LSD and the Maharaji-ji! Plus: Time to place your bets on Boston Rob, Fantasia and Wolfgang Puck.


Heather Havrilesky
April 20, 2004 1:16AM (UTC)

The ace of grace
"I feel like an advance guard who calls back to the baby boomers, and now I call back about aging. Because aging and things like stroke are going to be in their present much sooner than they think." -- Ram Dass

In 1997, psychology professor and spiritual leader Ram Dass suffered a stroke that left him with expressive aphasia and partial paralysis. The Independent Lens feature "Ram Dass: Fierce Grace" (Tuesday night on PBS; check local listings) begins with Ram Dass coping with the physical and emotional challenges of his stroke, but the film quickly expands into a wider examination of his life's work. While you might think you'd be nothing but amused by a documentary in which interviewees stare directly into the camera and say things like "You can't buy into someone else's trip," and "He brought me to my guru. How can you ever repay that?" in fact, this film is remarkably moving. From his pre-Maharaji days as Harvard professor Richard Alpert to his "Be Here Now"-era group meditations on his father's farm, each step of Ram Dass's journey is handled with such patience and compassion, it's impossible not to get caught up in the emotional momentum of the film. And when Ram Dass meets with the girlfriend of a murdered activist, their conversation is at once so devastating and so inspiring, you won't be able to get it out of your mind for days.

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Most of all, though, the film bears witness to the ego's struggle with aging. "This isn't who I expected to be," Ram Dass explains. "This is all new because my expectations of me didn't have this stroke in it." By humbly presenting us with his own challenges, Ram Dass does a great service in helping us prepare for those times when our plans get derailed and our lives suddenly don't live up to our expectations.

Nostradamus Broadcasting Co.
Speaking of not living up to expectations, "The Apprentice" finale turned out to be a real snoozer, but did you catch the teaser for "10.5," that NBC movie about an earthquake big enough to lop the West Coast clean off the continent? Let's see now: There's big trouble in the Middle East, the price of gas is skyrocketing, the economy is stumbling along, and movies about earthquakes are all the rage. Have we been beamed back to the '70s, and if so, where are all my toys and why am I so big and creepy?

"10.5" (airs Sunday, May 2 and Monday, May 3 at 9 p.m. on NBC) looks a little bit different than "Earthquake," which scared the living daylights out of me when I saw it in the theater at age 5. All I can remember is a bunch of people panicking on a soundstage with fake rocks falling all over the place, kind of like an amped-up episode of "Land of the Lost." I remember that the earthquake went on for a long, long time -- close to two hours, in fact -- and the people in the movie seemed intent on running away from the earthquake most of the time. They sure had their work cut out for them!

Thanks to the blessed gift of CGI effects, NBC's new, improved vision of widespread death and destruction includes shots of the Golden Gate Bridge breaking into pieces, and the Space Needle in Seattle smashing to the ground. "Nooo! Not the Space Needle!" It's funny how out-of-towners cling to the stupidest things about a city. Of course, destroying familiar sites has been a surefire bet since the premiere of "Independence Day." The best shot, though, had to be the one of all that dirt around the Hollywood sign sliding downhill. Doesn't the Hollywood sign always look like that? Every time I see it, I'm alarmed that it hasn't tumbled down the side of the hill and landed in a dusty heap in the middle of someone's swimming pool yet.

It's a great trailer, though -- you have to watch NBC just so you can see it, too. And it's fascinating, isn't it, how the worse things get in the world, the more we like to be scared out of our minds by disaster movies? In the '70s, when everyone was cowed by the Iran hostage crisis and a million other instances of unrest in the world, we had a steady stream of movies about tidal waves and planes crashing and meteors slamming into Phoenix. In the '80s, when we were all scared out of our minds about the Cold War, there was "The Day After" to depress the hell out of us. In the '90s, things were relatively quiet, so we watched feel-good comedies starring Robin Williams. Now that everything's going to hell in a handbasket again, we've got the West Coast tumbling into the sea, Nostradamus-style.

But no fate is worse than the one laid out in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which gave me post-traumatic stress syndrome when I saw it in the theater at age 8.

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Pop fiction
I still love my sadistic parents, though, which is probably why I speed through "American Idol" just to see the last 30 seconds of each performance, and then watch Simon beat each performer to a bloody pulp using words instead of his bare fists.

Alarmingly enough, Quentin Tarantino was a guest judge on "American Idol" last week. Quentin's a big geek, but he's a talented geek, and his comments were, thankfully, far less glowing than the pap that dribbles out of the mouths of other celebrity guests on "AI." Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Quentin might be the only person in the world with a hairstyle worse than The Donald's.

Meanwhile, isn't it remarkable how the white folks are slowly but surely getting eliminated from the competition, while the top four -- La Toya, George, Fantasia, Jennifer -- are all black? Not really. The lame-ass white performers on "American Idol" give white people everywhere a bad name. While John Stevens delivers one lackluster performance after another, Diane DeGarmo, aka "The Shouter," shows us her signature style of bellowing really predictable, crappy pop week after week, much to the audience's continued horror. Diane may be a pokey little puppy, but she's no pop star.

In fact, there's only one star here: Fantasia. La Toya is a highly trained professional, no doubt, but Fantasia is a star. She's original, she's a tremendous performer, she's got a unique voice and style, and she's actually an entertaining performer, which is much, much more than you can say for 96 percent of "American Idol" finalists, who are better suited to sing in the lounges of cruise ships or in those "Up With People" troupes that perform during halftime at pro football games. It's so obvious that Fantasia is the winner, they should just dismiss the others now instead of jacking up their hopes any longer.

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Getting eliminated from "American Idol" doesn't mean you have to give up your dreams, though. I think Diane would make a really great Snow White at Disney World, don't you?

Food fight
I know, I know, you don't even watch "American Idol." Who am I kidding? If my boyfriend weren't gay, I wouldn't watch it, either.

Just like I never would've started watching "Iron Chef" had I not lived with a stoner for several years in San Francisco. That was back when "Iron Chef" had a demographic made up, primarily, of stoners, the kinds of people who sit down on a couch with a bong and a remote control and wake up three days later, hungry and confused. That was ages ago, though, back before foodies with pizza stones and massive woks and pasta makers from Williams-Sonoma started throwing "Iron Chef" parties for their friends, many of whom bear more than a passing resemblance to Lisa and Dweezil.

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Anyway, stoners and chirpy one-hit-wonder vegans aside, I don't think I'm stepping out on a limb when I say that "Iron Chef" is one of the most entertaining cooking shows in the history of cooking shows. Sure, Julia Child's "The French Chef" and "Two Fat Ladies" are both timeless classics, and Emeril Lagasse's courage in combining cream, fatback, sausage, cheese, oil and butter certainly deserves a mention. But there's nothing quite like that moment when the secret ingredient is revealed ("Carp! Not for the faint of heart!" "Dried cuttlefish! The horror!") and the Iron Chef and his challenger scramble to concoct a menu out of thin air. The delight Julia Child takes in manhandling Cornish hens is nothing when compared to the panicked look on the face of the challenger when, clock winding down, he realizes that he and his assistants completely forgot about the shark fin soup.

For fans of "Iron Chef," a battle will soon be waged on domestic soil. In "Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters" (Friday, April 23 -- Sunday, April 25), Iron Chefs Masahuru Morimoto and Hiroyuki Sakai take on celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali.

In the episode I saw, Sakai and Flay go head-to-head over a big tank of trout. From the moment the two chefs start grabbing frantically to get the best fish in the tank, this contest was a classic. Sakai, who's actually nicknamed "Fish Sakai" because he's never lost an Iron Chef battle involving fish, goes nuts with all that trout, and emerges with soup, tartar, and trout ice cream, which the judges actually seem to enjoy. Flay's offerings are a little bit more, um, American. And so are the judges. Is that fair?

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Vexed Lex
Speaking of things that are totally no-fair, it's been pretty enjoyable to watch Lex pout and bitch as he tastes a little of his own medicine on "Survivor: All Stars," huh? Hearing him moan about how disloyal his good buddy Boston Rob was to vote him off the island is pretty entertaining, given the fact that Lex rode on Colby and Ethan's backs for weeks, then ruthlessly ditched both of them and somehow expected them not to take it personally. Gee, why in the world would Colby, who clearly should've won "Survivor: The Outback" but basically handed his victory to Tina instead, take it personally that Lex gave Jerry the opportunity to gloat over his dismissal? Why would Ethan, who's apparently a good friend of Lex's, find it odd that Lex would eliminate him so prematurely, claiming that he's a threat long before the tribes even merged? Go figure!

But one of the big faults of "Survivor: All Stars" so far is that it's absolutely unclear what relationships these players have with each other. Every now and then we get surprised with some new bit of information -- Big Tom and Lex are good friends? Lex and Boston Rob are close? -- but no one really explains exactly how close anyone is with anyone else. What kind of personal drama can viewers at home possibly get a handle on, when only the players themselves understand the relationships involved? Most of the time we're treated to conversations that don't make any sense. Because we're not privy to any of the details or the background behind what they're saying, there's no way for us to discern the subtext.

So -- surprise! -- not only is "Survivor" far less interesting when the players have been through it before, but returning players seem to be even worse at the game than they were the first time around. The fact that no one is cutting away at Boston Rob's power base is a huge mistake -- might as well just give him the million-dollar prize right now and recruit some new blood before we're all lulled into a trance. And as nice as it is to see Sweetums (Rupert) make it this far, it's going to take a miracle for that guy to conjure up the lying and manipulations necessary to bring home the money.

Plus, I think "Amba" might be buying into Boston Rob's trip, don't you? Someone send her a copy of "Be Here Now" before she wanders down the path to the Dark Side, never to return.

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Scene stealing
Finally, a little something for all you aspiring filmmakers out there. Sundance's "Anatomy of a Scene" breaks down the filmmakers' process in putting together a scene, from the sound design to the editing techniques that are used. Upcoming episodes focus on "The United States of Leland" and "Saved!" and air about once a day (check the Web site for listings). My favorite episode has to be the one on "28 Days Later," in which director Danny Boyle talks about the challenges of making a zombie movie without resorting to visual clichés. Instead of filming a herd of slow-moving corpses with their arms out in front of them, Boyle creates a manic, possessed demon that's far more original -- and far more frightening -- than those bloody robots from "Dawn of the Dead." Plus, now I don't have to see this scary movie at all. Thanks, Sundance Channel!

But, more importantly, I can't think of a more informative show for aspiring filmmakers. Since you guys make up roughly one third of the population in this country, it's pretty clear Sundance has a potential hit on its hands.

Next week: A reality version of "Six Feet Under"? Sounds great, as long as the family is just as smart as the Fishers and the corpses still talk to the camera.


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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