Monday, December 19, 2005

King of kings

No, not Jesus (although we should all wish Mr. C a very happy birthday this Sunday regardless). King Kong, of course, that majestic, 3-story tall tragic ape of a hero. I saw Peter Jackson's version of it last night, and was very happy I did. It's an excellent movie, the best epic I've seen since...well, The Lord of the Rings (also directed by Jackson; this is getting to be a habit).

Jackson could have easily gone the route of Cheesy, Expensive Blockbuster by doing a pale remake of the original. He could have loaded it with knowing references to the first movie, to show how hip he was that he knew it cold. With a 200+ million dollar budget, final cut rights and complete freedom to do whatever he wanted, nobody would have stopped him from packing the movie with big stars and lazily updating it to the present day (like in the bad 1976 remake).

He did none of these things; instead, he delivered a fun version of a great story, with enough character development and plot tweaks to make it fresh and interesting. Jackson wisely set the movie in 1933 New York, and the flavor and look of the city add a lot to the story, since Kong's fate is so strongly tied to the location of his final battle. Additionally, the urban maze that the big ape runs through at the end of the movie contrasts nicely with the jungle of his native habitat.

And the current version gets the trickiest element of the story right - the development of the relationship between Ann and Kong. It evolves sensibly, from terrified captive/angry guard, to grudging familiarity and finally genuine friendship and affection, without seeming forced, phony or abrupt. Every stage is believable, and their final scene together (where Kong holds Ann and playfully glides on a frozen Central Park lake) is a heartbreaker, since we all know what's about to happen to him.

Character development was obviously a priority for Jackson, which is one reason this version of the story is over three hours long (as compared to one and a half for the original). The New York opening gives us plenty of back story with director Denham and leading lady Ann, which makes it abundantly clear how they fall into their respective predicaments. Once on the Venture, we stay there for an hour or so and meet writer/hero Jack, captain Engelhorn, first mate Hayes and cabin boy Jimmy. The story bogs down in the leaky holds of the ship, since this is an epic and all we really want to see, after all, is the big ape. You can only develop the characters so far, and the ship scenes don't do much to get us to identify with them more. By the time all the principals get on board, we've already met and gotten to know the important ones - Denham, Ann, Jack, and for comic relief, Denham's vain leading man Rex. The sailors aren't particularly interesting, and getting acquainted with the crew (especially Jimmy) doesn't really move the story along or build sympathy in the right direction. Besides, when we return to New York for the final act, they're no longer part of the movie anyway.

But that's a quibble. The key characters are strong, sympathetic (even Denham) and well-acted - including, most critically, Kong, thanks to the magic of CGI and the skill of Andy Serkis, rapidly going down in history as the first and best CGI foundation actor in the business. Naomi Watts, in a difficult role, acts terrified without being over the top about it, and shows her growing affection for Kong convincingly.

Meanwhile, the key element we all expect from any King Kong - the action - is tense and exciting. Jackson puts a few imaginative and unexpected spins on the Kong set pieces we know and love. The ape's capture on Skull Island, for example, when he (temporarily) escapes the trap the sailors set for him. Or, especially, the final battle on top of the Empire State building, which is much longer and played out than the same scene in the original. It's an epic scene, fitting for the wider scope and longer length of Jackson's version.

One thing I rarely like in movies and TV is references, in-jokes that only the initiated get and the smug insert. Jackson admirably avoids this, but given the quality of this movie and his overall restraint we can forgive him and allow for a few in the final battle - the pilots and gunners of the Army Air Force planes are all moviemakers, most of whom are connected to Kong one way or another. Jackson himself plays a gunner, as does director Frank Darabont (maker of The Shawshank Redemption). Meanwhile, one of the pilots is played by makeup ace Rick Baker, who played Kong in a gorilla suit (!) in the 1976 version.

'Twas beauty killed the beast, as the famous line goes. And in this case, it's worth the time and effort to see how. King Kong is one of the best movies of this year, and a hell of a remake. Go take a look.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Call of the West

Well, it's been two weeks since the end of our California trip. Two weeks that seem like a year; the slate-gray skies and below-zero temperatures of December Prague are a planet away from Sunny C. We had the benefit of that most American of machines, a car, for our trip, which allowed us to see a lot of the state, from San Diego near the Mexican border to the more obscure corners of the wine country north of San Francisco. Between those two points, we also saw LA, Manhattan and Long Beaches, Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Carmel, Big Sur, Monterey, San Francisco, etc. etc. etc. Oh, and we made a what-the-hell road trip to Las Vegas for a quick overnight.

But that's a travelogue or three for another time. For the moment, it's best to offer a bite-sized initial impression of the West, a part of the US I had never previously experienced (the furthest I'd gotten in that direction was Champaign, Illinois). Typical for a New Yorker, huh? Many of us natives consider ourselves worldly if we make it to Boston.

Perhaps it comes from growing up in one of the Original Thirteen (American colonial states, that is). Or maybe it's a product of living for 11 years in an European capital older than a Millennium. But to me, it feels like much of the Western US was built yesterday. As if it sprang up in some crazy post-WWII migratory spread. Hey Frank, the war's over, let's go to Hollywood!

You feel this most strongly in Los Angeles. LA has a bad reputation for being phony and soulless. I didn't find it that way necessarily, but it does have that temporary, just-landed-on -this coast-impression. A lot of it seems improvised. Big, fancy houses dominate the lawns in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, but most of them look like they were built when I was in college. Downtown LA, the commercial center, is home to a cluster of skyscrapers, a showy Frank Gehry-designed concert hall and a newish sports arena with a corporate name tag. All this stuff is handsome, well-polished and pleasing to the eye...thing is, Downtown is far away and hard to reach from most other LA neighborhoods, so it feels like an island. It's as if someone decided that, what the hell, right HERE would be a fine place for the business district. Almost nothing about it feels natural or evolved.

And I couldn't escape the impression that a lot of the West is flimsier than it should be. San Francisco - conveniently located near a fault line - is home to possibly the world's largest collection of wooden buildings. It's as if the Gold Rush came, then a settlement was built and evolved only a little over time. You never quite escape the impression that the earth might crack open again and swallow the place whole.

And Las Vegas. Vegas! Only in America would somebody look at a small desert settlement and think of building casinos and hotels there. You have to admire the boundless optimism that sees such huge potential in a plot of sand...and the clever sales job that brings tourists in by the millions and money by the planeload. Driving into Vegas is a funny experience; after several hundred miles of scrub brush desert, broken by the occasional town or outlet mall, Vegas just...explodes...from the ground. They came out here, picked a place to build - and presto! new city.

What's interesting about all this - assuming you're not worried about San Francisco disappearing in the next big natural disaster - is the sense of visiting the result of an adventure. Once upon a time, Americans were imaginative, optimistic and just plain crazy enough to abandon their lives, come to the West and build something out of virtually nothing. A little recklessness once in a while is a good thing, it seems.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Back in Huntington, part XXIII

Another year, another visit to my home town. In the old days (circa 1995 or so), I tried to come back every November for an annual visit. The idea was to coincide the trip with good autumn weather and Thanksgiving, one of the better American holidays. Recent years have seen this skewed a bit, with my mom's death two years ago and the sale of our house the following September.

But now that there's no deep family tragedy or real estate sale to deal with, I seem to be getting back on schedule. We arrived in New York City this past Thursday, did two days of quick sightseeing, and are now in The Town Where It All Began For Our Friend Eric for another quickie, an overnight stay.

But now it's different. Huntington is no longer Home with a capital "H". The house is gone, sold to a yuppie couple with a nice car, a dog, and a tandem swing on the front yard (we passed by the place quickly in the rental car this afternoon). Mom's "not with us anymore", sis lives in Manhattan, Dad's on marriage #4 in Massachussetts and nearly all of my friends have moved away. I'm a visitor now, almost a tourist.

Like much of the US and the more developed chunks of Planet Earth, Huntington got rich while I was away. You don't see many wheezy old cars here anymore; everyone seems to be driving shiny new ones like the Tandem Swingers that bought our house. The buildings are clean and well-reconstructed, the streets lined with fresh red brick and nearly free of filth. The Huntington of my childhood was always a little gritty and worn down. Huntington 2005 looks like it won the lottery.

I'm not one of these boring people who moan about how The Old Days Were So Much Better. They weren't. My home town looks more attractive and feels more comfortable than it ever did. But it's funny and a little sad how the two of us have grown apart. Every block has some cutesy store selling little pottery things or frilly stationery or "native American artifacts." When did that start? Out of the hundreds of faces I see on the sidewalks and in the stores, only one or two look familiar. It might as well be Fairbanks, Alaska.

I'm glad I'm here, though. I like being in this place, whether as visitor, resident or conquering alien. In a way I can't explain and don't fully understand, it's good to be back and it feels right. I look forward to stopping in at least once a year, even if it is for just over a single calendar day. Tomorrow we leave again on the next stop of our American tour - back to Manhattan, then the following day (early! Dammit!) to Newark airport for our California flight. I'm looking forward to exploring a coast I've never seen...but I'm happy I could pass some time on the scrap of ground I know best.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

And now for a story

It's almost the end of the week, so how about a little entertainment? Below is "Diablo Time", a short story I wrote a few years ago for a writing contest in Britain. The theme was "Czech-British relations", and the sponsors were broad-minded enough to accept entries of any type of writing - essays, poetry, stories, etc. They weren't, however, broad-minded enough to give me a prize. Oh well. Enjoy, anyway...


Simon Farrow looked like he’d just seen combat. His eyes stared far into some imaginary distance, his hair was unkempt, he was dressed in clothes from last night, he smelled a bit. He rang the buzzer. Though it was the headquarters of a newspaper, the receptionists never bothered with what were supposed to be the proper security precautions - asking name of visitor and purpose of visit. They simply buzzed him in.
He’d been there a few times already, working, so the receptionist gave him a “Hello!” in that cheerful young receptionist kind of way.
Simon barely noticed, but he was English after all, and courtesy came almost automatically to him. “Right,” he managed to croak.
He lumbered down the hall. The Sentinel was billed as “Central Europe’s First English-Language Newspaper”, but it was dead last in terms of comfort and warmth. It was 1994 and the building was several years away from its Communist past as a state-run housing agency, but the office had never shed its dirty gray carpet, gray telephones and gray desks, all straight from central planning. The walls, last whitewashed during some forgotten five-year plan back in the 1960s, were taking on a somber, funereal shade of gray. It was as if every color in the place was degenerating towards that same hopeless shade.
If moods were colors, Simon would have been ash gray, perfect camouflage for the walls and desks. Or possibly even a dull shade of black, such was his state of mind.
He turned the corner of the L-shaped corridor.
This was Editorial, the section of the paper where the content was written and most of the interviewing done. At the end of the L was the largest space on the premises, the newsroom. Simon, had he been inclined to listen, might have heard the chattering of an editor, one or two reporters and the Sentinel’s translator as they phoned or wrote or scratched notes on pieces of paper.
Somehow, an obscure corner of his brain - possibly the one that moved his legs without him giving too much thought to the process, or made sure his food was chewed properly - guided him towards the lounge. This was a niche halfway up the long part of the L hosting an ugly brown couch.
Simon sat on the couch. He stared at the gray wall opposite. Suzy, Suzy...
There was a door across the hall from the niche, and from this little room, which served as the office for the paper’s business section, emerged a young woman. A.J. Martinelli was a small, dark-haired American, chatty and smart. A.J. was the second person Simon had met at the Sentinel. Actually, she was the second person, full stop, Simon had met in Prague since arriving six days ago. To be really technical about it, A.J. was only the second person he had ever had a conversation with outside of England.
She saw Simon and stopped.
“Simon?” she asked, as one would inquire of a man who appeared dead before checking for a pulse.
Simon didn’t answer. He was busy looking at the wall.
A.J. inched closer. “Simon? You all right?”
He nodded. Well, half-nodded. He sort of shook his head a little up, a little down, a little right, a little left. At least he was alive, thought A.J.
She wasn’t a shy girl, this American. She came over, stood in front of him. “Simon?”
Nod, shake. Up, down, left right. What the hell did that mean?
“Siiiiimon. Come in, Simon. This is Houston calling, do you copy?” A.J. waved her hand in front of his face.
This at least broke the silence. “Oh,” he answered, as if his cat had just wandered in. “Hullo, A.J.”
“Hullo yourself. Are you okay?”
“Er, ah...yeah. I’m ah...ah...” He drew a deep breath. “I’m...fine...” He nodded and shook some more. “How are you?”
“I’m okay, but you don’t look so hot, dude. Did something happen?”
Simon moved his head up and down. He was getting more consistent with the gestures, at least. “Ah,”
Heroin problem? Grandmother died? Car got towed? A.J. wondered what was coming next.
“...girlfriend Simon finally managed.
“Girlfriend?” A.J. asked back. “You mean she broke up with you?”
Simon continued nodding. In a voice as thin as paper, he answered, “yes.”
“Your girlfriend ditched you? Jesus, I thought it was something serious!” A.J. answered.
For the first time that day, Simon stared at something besides a wall. He looked, hard, at A.J.
Who backed down. “Sorry. Sorry, man, I just thought...ah, that’s pretty tough. I’m sorry.”
Their discussion was jarred by a booming American voice in the hallway. “...MONSTER tits, man. Like freakin' GODZILLA in a dress. Big ones, real pointy. DEFINITELY D cup territory.”
The owner of the voice strode down the long part of the L. He had been talking, or shouting, to someone in the newsroom. As he walked, he turned his head forwards and noticed A.J. And Simon.
“Yo Simon, my man. Happenin', buddy?” he asked.
Cutting off the beginnings of sentences was one of many odd habits possessed by Frank Conine. Frank was the newspaper's political reporter, a big, pot-bellied American whose 42 years made him nearly twice as old as much of the rest of the staff. A.J., for instance, was 24, while Frank's boss, news editor Josh Weinrib, was still several years shy of 30. Simon was all of 23. Chip Hathaway, the paper's largely absentee owner, had just turned 27.
Old Frank had met Simon only briefly, but he liked him. This was possibly because Frank had managed to mooch several cigarettes from him during that meeting.
“Look so good, man,” Frank said to Simon, chopping a perfectly good sentence nearly in half. “Something wrong?”
Simon sighed again, shook his head. He said nothing, so A.J. broke the news.
“His girlfriend broke up with him,” she said.
“Girlfriend? JESUS, THAT'S IT? Looked like something serious.”
Simon moaned. It wasn't even a good moan, more a low, hopeless “oooohhhhhh...” He dropped his head in his hands.
“He's pretty broken up about it, dude,” said A.J., stating the painfully obvious.
"I see," Frank said, nodding his head. He hoped Simon wouldn’t cry. Comforting weeping men was not something Frank could have done well.
Nevertheless, he tried to help. “You know, I got these guys, these Ukrainians, take care of her for ya. They got baseball bats, they got Uzis, they got rocket-propelled grenades...”
Simon lifted his head from his hands. Frank and A.J. looked at each other. A.J. shrugged.
Frank was being paged, which at the Sentinel meant that someone was desperately shouting at him from the newsroom. “Frankie! Hey Frankie!” barked Milan Vesely, the paper's translator. “We got the fax back from the ministry! I think you has to see it...where are you? ”
“Lounge, Milan,” came the answer.
Milan footed it down the hall. He was another one of the Sentinel's youth brigade, like Simon a fresh university graduate. With blond dreadlocks, Milan looked as if a mad scientist had blended Bob Marley’s DNA with that of a pale, skinny Eastern European student in a petrie dish and grown a person from it.
The Sentinel was Milan’s first job.
He was almost out of breath. He noticed Simon. “Hey, Simon. What is up?” Simon didn't notice. Not very much was headed up in his life just then, anyway.
“He okay?” Milan asked his co-workers. He looked concerned. “Simon, do you hear me? What is wrong?”
A.J. shook her head. Frank answered, “Girlfriend ditched him. Fuckin’ bitch.”
“Oh, that's it?” said Milan, relaxing a little. “I thought it was something ser...”
“Shhhh!” ordered A.J. and Frank at the same time.
Milan didn’t know quite what to say. To do something, anything, he handed the fax paper to Frank.
“This boy needs comforting,” said A.J. after a moment of thought. “Should we do the usual?”
She looked at Frank and Milan, raised her eyebrows a few times. After a few seconds, the two men got it.
Almost at once, A.J. and Frank announced, “Pizza Diablo!”

Along with revolution, democracy and free speech, the early 1990s brought pizza culture to Prague. At best an uncommon fast food during Communism, thanks to its low cost and ease of manufacture it was quickly becoming the Cool Thing in Czech restaurants in 1994.
The Sentinel was a beneficiary of this trend, as nearly across the street was the famous Pizza No Problem. The specialty of the house was Pizza Diablo, a hellish blend of red and green peppers, onions, garlic and spicy Hungarian salami. Some at the Sentinel had discovered that, when consumed the right way, the Diablo could be very therapeutic.
A third beer had been placed in front of Simon when he was near the halfway point of finishing his Diablo. A.J., Frank and Milan watched him, comforted by the fact that he was going through at least a few glasses of alcohol. That, after all, was the point of ordering a Pizza Diablo.
In another good sign, Simon had at least started to speak in complete sentences. Even though they all seemed to center on one topic:
Suzy. Suzy who had cruelly dumped him only two nights before. The very Suzy who, as the three had heard already when they first met Simon, was to move to Prague to study Slavic languages. The beloved woman whom Simon was to stay with during her studies, as he took a break following graduation from university to figure out what to do in life. The sweetheart who had been Simon’s first and thus far only serious girlfriend, for almost three years. The woman whose hand he was planning to ask in marriage in the immediate future. The bitch who decided to stay in England and build a full and satisfying life without him.
Perhaps due to his upbringing as the son of a policeman, Simon didn’t consume drugs and generally stayed away from booze.
Which meant that the beer went to his head alarmingly fast.
Simon drained his third mug, tilting his head back far. Recoiling from the swig, he realized his balance was unsteady.
“Er, I think I’m getting drunk,” he said to those assembled. All three smiled surreptitiously.
“Prosim vas! Prosim vas, pane!” cried Milan to a waiter, immediately after Simon slapped his empty mug down on the table. The beer waiter, a harried, sweaty fat man with a mustache, came over, already with several full mugs circling around a meaty fist. This was typical for Prague: pour the beer, walk around with it, and impose it on the customers before they even had a chance to order. “Jeste jedno, jenom pro pana,” ordered Milan, pointing to Simon as he did so. The fat man, grunting, grabbed the empty mug, replaced it with a full one, and with his free hand scratched another tick on the handwritten bill. He left as soon as he came.
Simon went through two more beers before the Diablo was finished. He left the crusts, which Frank quickly descended upon and ate.
“I don’ understand...whh...whyyy she did it. Din’t she love me? A.J., din’ she love me?” Simon asked, really sloshing his words around now.
“Sure, Simon, sure. Do you want another beer?” she asked.
Simon waved his hand, knocking over the empty pizza tin. It fell to the floor with a clang. “Wh-hoooops, I’m sorry,” he said, blearily staring at the tin on the ground. “What’s for dessert?”
They ordered Simon another mug, but by that point it wasn’t necessary. He finished a few sips, announced, “I’m jus’ going to have a bit – a bit – of a lie-down. Don’ mind me,” then folded his arms on the table, placed his head on them, and promptly fell asleep.
“Time is it, Milan?” Frank asked his young colleague.
“Time to get a watch, you big freeloader,” came the answer.
“His bedtime,” said A.J., pointing at the comatose Simon. “What are we going to do with him?”
She looked at Milan and he pointed to Frank, who was busy picking his way through the rest of the complimentary bread rolls. “Me? Why you looking at me?” Frank asked.
“You’re the one with the big apartment, the couch, and the absent fiancĂ©,” said A.J. “Looks like you’re the one’s gonna be hosting him this evening.”
“Awright, awright. Lemme just work on these rolls,” Frank said. “Milan, can you call a taxi?”
Milan nodded, and left the table for a pay phone. A.J. looked over at Simon, who was sleeping peacefully.
The peacefulness wouldn’t last. Tomorrow would bring sobriety, and the realization that he was still a bachelor.
But that pain would fade, as it always did, and in this city he would build an entirely new life, with new women. A.J. continued to look at Simon, passed out and oblivious.
Just like magic, she thought. Good old Pizza Diablo.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A shot of Moravia

A few hours ago, I got back from an overnighter in Lednice, a pleasant little agricultural town in the southeastern corner of the country. Myself and two Czech friends stayed with a Dutch/Czech couple we know; more precisely, we were guests at the vacation house of the Czech half's parents.

Lednice is a green, sleepy place and we did the usual weekend-at-the-cottage activities: walking around the woods, visiting the local attraction (in this case, a pretty old chateau) and, for the early risers this morning, engaging in low-impact exercise (i.e. ping-pong).

And drinking. Oh yeah, the drinking. To tank up during a weekend trip to the country is almost a requirement in a chata visit. Being a moderate, I limited myself to a pair of beers at the pub during the many hours we spent there last night, and only slowly drank the burcak (young, sweet wine) offered to me at the house before and after the pub trip.

But in the end, I couldn't escape what was waiting for me in the basement. In the afternoon, the three of us, packed and ready to leave, were standing on the small front yard of the house, several minutes away from saying goodbye and taking off in the car. Mr. Borov, our host, turned to me and asked, "so, do you want a shot of merunkovice"?

I didn't want a shot of anything. We were about to road-trip for two and a half hours back to Prague in a car. This is not usually a circumstance for which I need a few drinks.

But Mr. Borov was our host and he was proud of the various alcohols fermenting in his cellar. So an invitation like his was more of a summons. I probably didn't have much of a choice. He led me down into what he called - with an alarming chuckle - his "office." Basically the cellar belonged pretty much to him. The little rooms were either workplaces (he's a diesel mechanic) or storage spaces for food and drink.

Accent on the drink. There was a cluster of big glass vessels in one room, half-man sized jugs filled with various shades of red and white wine and burcak. The room was tiny, and those massive things nearly crowded out the two of us when he brought me in during the tour.

The merunkovice (literally, "apricot brandy") was across the hall in the pantry. The shelves, stocked with fruit compote and vegetables picked from the backyard garden, competed for floor space with yet more wine jugs, which looked to be threatening to take over the room.

Perhaps worried that there wasn't enough alcohol in the tiny space, Mr. Borov had stashed several bottles of brandy on the shelves as well. He produced a pair of shot glasses (what didn't he have on those shelves?), and poured drinks for he and I. "To your health!", went the usual Czech toast. Yeah, try telling that to my liver.

"52 percent!" he said proudly, reciting the alcohol content of what we just drank. "Do you want another one?"

Whew. Noooo.

"How about a little wine?"

Uhhhmmm. Again, that hospitality thing. This was the man's hobby, and he had just let us crash in his house overnight. Accepting offers of alcohol was a key task in the job of Good Guest, like rolling up the sleeping bag in the morning or not burping at the table.

"Sure," I said.

His jolly red Santa face glowed as he fetched a hose to siphon some liquid from one of the vessels. We went into the jug room. "Red or white?" he asked. Anything, pal, as long as it's not 104 proof brandy. I opted for white.

He filled a half-pint glass with the vino and gave it to me. He didn't take any himself. Instead, he told me stories of his life as an amateur vinter and his experiences building the chata I was getting plastered in. I noticed he was paying sly attention to my consumption of the wine, determining whether I genuinely liked it or not. I did, but I was worried that I'd end up cross-eyed by the time I finished it. That glass looked big, man.

Venda, our driver on this expedition, came down into the basement looking for me, perhaps worried that he'd have to drag my unconcious body upstairs into the car and somehow unload me in Prague. He needed to get back for a meeting with a friend in the city, and Mr. Borov and myself weren't helping matters with our little domestic pub crawl. "We have to go," said Venda accurately. I hurried with the rest of the wine, finishing it in a few clumsy gulps. Luckily, the stuff my host imposed on me was well made, fresh and natural. My buzz was surprisingly mild, I didn't feel dizzy or sick, and I was easy on my feet. I'd survived a round of Moravian homemade liquor sampling and didn't pass out. Yay!

We went outside, said our goodbyes, and took off. Mr. Borov said more farewells than the others. The last one, if I remember correctly (and it's very possible I don't) was something like, "come back some day. We'll drink more!". Whew, okay, but I think I'll stick to that two-drink limit next time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Czech reality

As I type this, the action is getting hotter on TV Prima. Bad guy Vladko, quite possibly the next person to be eliminated from "VyVoleni", is snapping at his roommates for various transgressions, real and imagined. They are giving it back to him just as hard. Vladko's bitchy mood is understandable - he's been selected for elimination in a vote conducted among the remaining residents of the VyVoleni house. He is now to go to the weekly "duel", the final stage of the elimination round, in which the selected victim chooses another resident to debate live on TV. The loser, elected by a phone-in vote among the viewership, is banished from the house and forfeits his/her chance at the big, 11 million crown prize.
Meanwhile, one channel away on TV Nova, tomorrow during the evening hours will feature the resiliently popular "Big Brother Uncensored", which lately has been dominated by heavy nudity n' sex among the closeted residents of the Big Brother House.

It's a little late, but the Czechs have finally, inevitably, gotten their first dose of reality TV. And a lot of it. The two private terrestrial channels, Prima and Nova, both introduced their respective shows at roughly the same time earlier this autumn. Both are wildly popular, as are the connected Web sites that let viewers peeping tom (for a price) throughout the two houses during non-broadcasting hours.

VyVoleni has generally been the more popular of the two, scoring the highest Czech TV viewership rating ever in a recent broadcast. Its edge seems to be blunting, though, as the Big Brother residence - more of a closeted hothouse than its counterpart - has been the scene of several small-scale orgies among the contestants late at night. TV Nova happily broadcasts the highlights of these adventures on its "Uncensored" broadcasts, the audiences for which, not surprisingly, have been growing.

On the surface, there is nothing particularly Czech about either show. "Big Brother", of course, is the latest franchise of the well-travelled Dutch export. VyVoleni basically sticks to the same successful formula; trap a group of people in a house, have them scheme and manipulate to be the last one remaining in order to claim the final prize, put elimination to a public vote, broadcast the results and watch the fun.

But the two have several enormous advantages in this country, which have helped move them out of the realm of simple TV to a common subject of office, tram and pub conversation. First of all, there are only four free TV stations in the country, two of which are state-owned and - theoretically - reserved for public-interest programming (CT 1 and 2 are based on BBC 1 and 2 in the UK). The broadcasts on both CTs aren't bad, but they can't compete with the marketing, flash and sex appeal of Prima and Nova, both of which are operated by deep-pocketed foreign companies.

Another great edge both shows have is the very relaxed attitude Czechs have towards flesh and sin in general. Nudity isn't that big a deal here. Families swim and sunbathe nude on lakes together, topless women serve beer on selected nights in "nahore bez" pubs. No one seems to mind. On a darker note, infidelity is more common and casual in this country than it is elsewhere. Both "VyVoleni" and "Big Brother" have gotten slap-on-the-wrist fines from the TV watchdog agency for "indecent" programming, but those amounts are a drop in the ocean compared to how much the broadcasters are raking in from the advertising.

I don't watch either of the two shows much, to be truthful. I don't call the 900 numbers to vote, either. I take a look once in a while, around elimination time, or, er, when "Big Brother" gets uncensored. But this reality wave, currently receding West of here, isn't close to cresting here yet. I have plenty of time to take a look.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Movin' on up

I was going to help a friend move today. Not to lug boxes around or to help clear a way for the new sofa or anything like that. Rather, Carron was to pick up the keys and take a look at the place, making sure what she was getting was what she signed for in the contract. I was there to communicate with her landlord-to-be, who apparently spoke no English. So during the 10-minute walk there, I rehearsed some likely Czech apartment-inspection phrases. "Prosim vas, kde je toaleta?" (excuse me, where is the toilet?), "To najem vcetne topeni a elektrina, ze jo?" (the rent includes heat and electricity, right?) and that old favorite, just in case, "jiste, platila zalohu" (of course she paid the deposit).

We rang the doorbell, and were told to come down to the basement. Uh-oh, the basement. Damp and dark, good place for a mugging...but no, this was respectable Vinohrady, so instead of a mugging we were shown the cramped offices of a real estate company. Eventually, we met the woman who would be handing Carron the keys and letting her in...a friendly young Italian who spoke servicable English. My assistance no longer required, I left Carron to be helped by the professionals and returned to my apartment.

Landladies who spoke English? Courtesy? Professionals in offices? This wasn't like the old days. When I first came to Prague in the mid-1990s, finding any of the above was a rare and beautiful thing. Apartments were usually in the hands of older Praguers, cranky and distrustful types who didn't like the idea of strangers - particularly of the foreign variety - occupying their living space. On top of that, most renting was done illegally, as the landlords usually either a) weren't owners in the first place, rather occupants of low-rent, state-owned flats, b) renters of the apartment themselves or c) owners who didn't much like the idea of paying taxes on their extra income. This meant that many of these people were skirting the law, which always makes one a little jumpy. On top of that, Prague society back then was fresh out of communism, so the general unease around People You Don't Know was still fresh in the air. After all, this was a country where around 10 percent of the population was estimated to have some kind of relationship with the StB, the beloved secret police. Given that, how could you ever know if Bob the Happy Foreigner was really a spy renting your place to bug the phones?

It was typical back in those dark days to suffer "visits" at least once in a while from landlords. They'd just, you know, uh, drop by to see...see if you had fresh milk in the refrigerator. Or maybe they were checking the fuses. Yeah, there was just...something...they needed to take a look at in your room. You don't mind, do you?

It was common for tenants to pay a lot of money for a place and be spied on in the process. My friend Tim's landlady felt the need to stop by occassionally to poke around in the kitchen and God knows where else. Another pal, Alex, would sometimes be greeted Saturday mornings by his landlord and the landlord's wife, who would let themselves in and inspect the living room while Alex was sleeping. My own landlord, Lubos, a skinny, scared middle-aged man, would once in a while find it necessary to go into my room "to do your laundry". At the time, I was in my mid-twenties, didn't have much money and had very little in Prague except for some clothes, a few cassette tapes and a couple of books. What in the world was he hoping to discover?

These days, my living situation is miles better and I don't have to deal with a guy like Lubos poking his way through my stuff anymore. Tim just bought a house on his own and Alex is in the US somewhere, undoubtedly having a properly distanced relationship with his renters, if he has any. And most of the foreign Praguers I know live (more or less) trouble-free in apartments with (more or less) absentee landlords, who usually show their face only when rent time comes around. I don't hear too many apartment horror stories these days, and the domestic spies seem to have melted away, replaced by a more professional class with better things to do than root around in refrigerators and underwear drawers.

This is undeniably a great development. But I have to admit, I kinda miss the days when Lubos did my laundry.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Baby steps on the blog floor

Eh. Ah. Hmmm. I didn't actually mean to post anything; what I simply wanted to do was arrange my settings for this site. So I chose a nice green frame, typed in a name for the optional part of the URL, wrote an introductory non-description of what this blog will be about...then I got dumped without warning into the "post" page. Well, you don't ride a bike the first time without getting pushed, so here goes.

I'm American, I'm 35, I'm male, I write and edit for a living, I occupy an 80-year old apartment with high ceilings and East German gas heating units. I live in a neighborhood in Prague called Vinohrady, which means "Vineyards" in Czech. I wish I was a more talented guitar player. I like movies, rock and roll, people who laugh easily, technology that works well, writing that reads smoothly and vegetable-free meals. I am unmarried. I was once in North Korea for five minutes. I used to live in the first house on a dead end street. I typically vote Democrat, but not always. I grew up in Long Island, New York, and spent a lot of time as a kid pretending to fight the Wehrmacht with my friends. I tried smoking when I was thirteen and didn't like it. I almost graduated from college.

My name is Eric Volkman, if you don't already know me. If you do, good to see you here. Either way, thanks for tuning in.

This blog won't be about anything in particular. I do want to talk a lot about music and movies, and this funny city I live in. I'll try not to be too heavy. I promise not to write much about politics.

And I'm serious about that money-back guarantee.