28 August 2005

Old dogs and new tricks

Well, I didn't want to do two movie posts in a row like this, but last night I caught the entirety of Man on Fire for the first time (I'd seen bits and pieces of it on pay-cable several times, though) and realized that I just had to put down a few thoughts about the flick. (Warning here: I'm going to reveal some plot details, so those who haven't seen it but plan to should probably back away now.)

First of all, it's got impeccable credentials on the acting side. Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken, Dakota Fanning, even Mark Anthony are great actors who are working at the top of their game here. (Tell you what, just check out the IMDB listing for the flick here for a detailed cast listing.) Washington in particular gives one of his best performances as a very human monster of an antihero, blunt and bloated at times, but sensitive and heartfelt at others. It's also got the great writer/and-sometimes-director Brian Helgeland (wrote and directed A Knight's Tale, best remembered by me as the writer of the utterly brilliant LA Confidential) on the screenplay side. Helgeland doesn't do his best work here; the film is very formulaic in its structure and relies heavily on overdone cliches (killer with a heart of gold, etc.), but for a genre flick it more-or-less gets the job done, and certain sequences (of both the action and character-based variety) are among the best I've seen of the type.

But the thing that really made me want to write about this movie was the direction. Tony Scott is probably best known as the guy who directed Top Gun and for his long-time partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (before the death of the latter), and given his career there was really no reason to ever think that he'd do anything really special with his life, other than make really good examples of high-octane action pictures. And there's nothing wrong with that -- Lord knows that really solid genre flicks are as hard to make as anything else, and action filmmakers in particular tend to reduce their flicks to overedited mush with a lack of anything cohesive to the story. Most action movies are just plain bad, and even if Tony Scott was producing mediocre product, it was still better than most of the junk out there.

But Man on Fire almost takes its basic source material (I haven't read the book, so I'm referring to the screenplay as-filmed here) and raises it to a whole other level. Scott uses the appearance of hand-cranked cameras, multiple exposures, and whiplash editing to build whole nuances of meaning and structure onto what is, really, a very trite and overdone story about murder and mayhem. I am always the most respectful of artists who, in whichever medium they choose, work to actively expand and redefine the very language of that medium -- in the filmmaking world, historical examples being many of the men I praised in my last post. There are only a handful of filmmakers today that I feel are honestly expanding the horizons of cinema in this way (Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, Oliver Stone, David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino to a lesser extent), and most of these filmmakers are working in the doldrums of the industry, working for peanuts to expand their art. Tony Scott, I must say, impresses me with the way he is working on just such a project, and in a major studio film, no-less.

I'm really excited at the prospect of seeing Scott's upcoming Domino now, for I believe that even if the film fails, that it will at least be an interesting failure.

Okay, no more movie posts for awhile. Hopefully in the next day or so I can get one out about the nature of scientific education and dissemination of information, and the way people misunderstand scientific progress by oversimplistic thinking. 'Til then.

27 August 2005


Wow... I guess I'm just really bad at this whole blogging thing. It's been a week since I've posted anything, not because I haven't been thinking about things or reading anything interesting, but just because I can't seem to get off my lazy ass and spend some time on it.

Hopefully I can get a fairly full post out later today.

20 August 2005

Filmmakers and Age

I was reading Brad Plumer's blogspot July 2005 archives today, and found a post that aroused some interest in me. Titled, "The Dismal Science Does Artistry" (scroll down to the July 25 entries), Plumer quotes a for-pay article by David Galenson and Joshua Kotin about the nature of innovation in the film industry. You can read Plumer's post for details, but here's the gist:
From the article:
"Conceptual directors, who use their films to express their ideas or emotions, mature early; thus such great conceptual innovators as D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Orson Welles made their major contributions early in their careers, and declined thereafter.
"In contrast experimental directors, whose films present convincing characters in realistic circumstances, improve their techniques with experience, so that such great experimental innovators as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Akira Kurosawa made their greatest films late in their lives."
Plumer goes on to basically agree with the premise, referencing an earlier paper by the same authors regarding paintings, and admitting at the end, "Not knowing much about movies, I have no idea if this theory is even remotely plausible." Full disclosure here, I am not in any sense a hardened professional here; I am merely am amateur fan of the filmic arts, but I suspect that the paper has little to no validity.

The abstract quoted above calls Griffith, Eisenstein, and Welles "conceptual artists", defined from the painting paper as those who define the work primarily during the planning stage, whereas experimental artists work with their chosen medium and work towards further perfection by examining the canvas in-progress. I would agree that the greatness of those three directors lies in their conceptual abilities, for they innovated many of the techniques that have been used in cinema ever since (or at least perfected their use from earlier experimental shorts), but it's also true that the artists, Welles in particular, did plenty of fine and innovative work later in life. Welles is best known as a filmmaker by his Citizen Kane (1941) and, to a lesser extent, The Magnificent Ambersons, made one year later, but a list of his greatest films must also include Touch of Evil in 1958. A fairly recent documentary, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, shows much of the later work of Welles, after the studio system had written him off, and the result is a man who, in short home-movies and the like, continued to innovate for his entire life. Certainly his acting skills did not deteriorate, and the brief glimpses of his final picture (The Other Side of the Wind), still uncompleted and unreleased, show a filmmaker still being boldly experimental, still pushing the envelope as much as ever, and using few if any of the cinematic techniques he perfected in Kane.

So far as the other side of the equation, I'm not sure that the "experimental" filmmakers listed in the paper make any more sense. Ford was a standby of the old studio system for decades, making film after film -- his greatest success is arguably The Searchers from 1956, but equally solid claims can be made for Stagecoach from 1939 or The Grapes of Wrath from 1940. Hitchcock was active in animation for years before getting the chance to direct his first features: he brought the standard animation technique of storyboarding over to live-action films, and is now a standard part of any filmmaker's process -- his greatest films were scattered throughout his life, with his greatest peak near the middle of his long career with Vertigo, Psycho, and others. Both men had their greatest successes at the end of their lives not because of their process, but because only towards the middle of their careers, when their box-office potential had been proven and the old studio system started to crumble, were they set free to do the work they had always been capable of doing.

Kurosawa is another odd one to add to that list. Arguing that his greatest works were at the end of his life is futile: is Ran (1985) superior to Rashomon (1950) or Ikiru (1952)? If the measure is innovation, I'd argue that Kurosawa would belong in the other category, of "conceptual" filmmakers, whose works speak of enormous ideas that are merely enacted on-screen -- Rashomon was so unique for its time that it has been imitated hundreds of times, and the word itself acts as an adjective universally recognized. The relative recognition he received late in his career was due to political problems in his native Japan, not a lack of innovation or a problem with his methodology.

In the end, I believe that this way of viewing innovation in film is more-or-less useless, except to the degree that it's obvious. Every student of cinema quickly learns that many of the medium's greatest innovators peaked early, but circumstances surrounding the lack of innovation in later years revolves as much around biography and politics as artistic merit. Scorsese's great films dot his resume; from Taxi Driver to Goodfellas to The Aviator, he continues to grow and adapt to new technologies and methods. Altman invented new technologies and methodologies for M.A.S.H. and Nashville, but he's still using them to great effect decades later in Short Cuts and Gosford Park. Steven Spielberg had great innovative work in the early days of his career, with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but who would argue that Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are not just as high-quality and innovative in their own way?

Innovators in film generally continue to innovate during their entire lives, unless personal circumstances deny them entry into their respective fields, those artists who start strong tend to continue doing so, and those who start in a lackluster way tend to work in the same area. The only counterexample I can think of is Woody Allen, who started off doing silly comedies like Bananas before moving on to more complex and sophisticated fare like Manhattan, but even then that seems to be a matter of personal choice than of lack of innovative method. I'll continue to try to think of a counterexample, but for now I can't really think of any.

14 August 2005

The Appearance of Reason

In the news lately has been George W.'s increasingly vocal support for so-called "intelligent design" to be taught in schools alongside the theory of evolution. As it happens, I have spent a lot of time discussing this issue on the talk.origins newsgroup, and feel like I know enough about the subject to discuss it here.

Creationists and their only-slightly-more-respectable younger cousins IDers are really engaging in a rhetorical battle, not a scientific one. The honest truth of the matter is that the theory of evolution has been shown to be true so many times, in so many different ways, with so many years of hard empirical evidence backing it up, that it is highly unlikely to ever be overturned by anything; in particular, the arguments put forward by so-called "doubters" of the theory are, in a word, bullshit.

See The Talk.Origins Archive for more details.

So if the arguments are nonsense (and they are), then what exactly are the advocates of ID and/or creationism really doing? Some of them, I feel, are simply honestly deluded; they are convinced that the arguments they espouse are correct, and either have not been exposed to their errors or are willfully ignoring responses from scientists. Others, however (and most of the "respectable" ID crowd like Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe fall into this crowd in my opinion) are seeking not so much a scientific advance, but a sociological one. The point isn't to make arguments that are, in and of themselves, valid and sound, but to make arguments that seem valid enough to the average nonscientist to force respectable men of learning to get down in the muck and argue with the creationist/IDer.

Let me put it this way: there is, quite simply, zero evidence that supports any form of intelligent design, in a scientific sense. (Whether the argument holds water theologically is another matter that I won't get into here.) When a certain class of fundamentalist Christian sees ideas contrary to a narrow reading of the Bible taught in schools, he or she is already incensed against that teaching, but can do nothing to overturn it from a religious viewpoint, due to the separation of church and state enshrined (and rightly so) in the U.S. Constitution. In order to get their voices heard, they must at least sound scientific -- if they do so well enough that real scientists feel the need to respond, if they can even stand on the same stage as a real scientist and be seen as roughly co-equal with them, their battle has been won; they can scream "teach the contreversy" at the top of their lungs.

It is for this reason that notable biological scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (now deceased) and Richard Dawkins have long had a policy of refusing to debate anti-evolutionists. But it seems that we have been pushed into a corner, rhetorically-speaking, anyway. The anti-evolutionists appear, to the uneducated eye, to simply be seeking academic freedom and to "let all voices be heard" -- there is nothing more basic to the ideals of liberal democracy than that. In the eyes of the disinterested observer without a grasp of the issues, they are the reasonable ones, they are the downtrodden minority seeking simple redress of grievances. The fact that their arguments were heard, given proponents as lofty as the greatest scientific minds of their time (see Louis Agassiz), and rejected based on evidenciary support, is not given a hearing in the minds of John Q. Public.

Make no mistake: evolution is true. But in order for evolutionary supporters to get their point across, they're simply going to have to get better at the rhetoric and, dare I suggest it, the politics of the situation. The Supreme Court is about to become 5-4 (or even 6-3 or 7-2) the other way; we can no longer rely on the courts, and the courts alone, to save liberal democracy and mainstream science as we know it.

I only wish that the ignorance of the persons we're trying to sway was not as astounding as it is. But the future of our country, and in many ways, the world at large depends on there being not just an appearance of reason, but the true gem of rationality itself. May God have mercy on us if we fail.

12 August 2005


I posted five new beer reviews within the last twenty-four hours, because I had been saving them for a couple of days instead of writing them up immediately. (Beer purists take note, though, for I did take notes during the tastings and used them virtually exclusively for the content of the review itself.) Among them was Firestone Double Barrel Ale, which I found that I actually enjoyed quite a bit.

Y'see, Firestone Double Barrel isn't exactly a fine Belgian Ale, or an Imperial Stout, or even a good IPA or hefeweizen. It's really just a simple-enough brew that goes down easy and has a nice malty, almost oaky taste to it. And on that level, it's a perfectly enjoyable beer. I'm looking forward to having it with a burger or a steak, or just as a nice finish to a long day at work.

And what it got me to thinking about was the context in which we beer geeks consume our favorite beverages. If I'm going to sit at home and just drink a beer while watching TV or enjoying some kick-back time on the computer and not really pay attention to it, this beer is a perfectly good experience. On the other hand, if I want to savor every drop and really get every bit of experience possible out of the beer, I'd much rather have something with a bit more complexity, like a Franziskaner Hefe-weiss, a Mackeson XXX Stout, or the aforementioned Belgian Ales.

And I think it's for that reason, as opposed to some "bias" against simple brews, that certain types of beers are reviewed so highly over at Beer Advocate. It's a sort of Uncertainty Principle of Beer, that whenever one pays attention to the attributes of a beer, that those attributes tend to shrink in context and what was once a perfectly fine lager ends up being a pale imitation of a drinkable beverage.

(Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending bad beer in the slightest. A Bud Light is at best mediocre even in the best circumstances, and many beers are quite a bit worse than that. But certain styles are consistently given less than due credit, and this is my --admittedly simple-- hypothesis to explain this behavior.)

I'm sure plenty of other posts that I write here will have to do with this phenomenon, but for now I'll just say that some beers are good, but just don't stand up to in-depth scrutiny, and for me that's perfectly okay.

08 August 2005


So here's the deal -- on Saturday the sixth, i.e. two days ago, the fiancee (Beth) and I drove up to Nashville. For a couple of reasons, actually, needing to get out of Huntsville and into somewhere with some actual, y'know, culture and stuff, wanting a simple change of scenery, wanting some time together. Et cetera. But mainly so I could pick up some really kickass beer that, due to bullshit post-Prohibition laws, are simply not available here in Alabama.

(Psst: Free Beer!)

We had a really nice time up in Nashville, even though I only had about two pints' worth of beer the whole time and Beth had a small glass of Lindemann's Framboise at the Beer Sellar, but on the way back we ran into some pretty heavy traffic. By which I mean that two lanes of southbound Nashville traffic (this was around mile marker 61 on I-65, if anyone cares) were backed up bumper-to-bumper for about three or four miles. Took us about forty-five minutes to get out of it.

Now, being a fairly intelligent and sophisticated guy (ha!), I tend to assume that when I'm on an interstate that's backed up for miles on a Saturday night, that we're seeing a current wreck (or possibly the longitudinal wave caused by the aftereffects of a wreck, amounting to the same thing over short time scales). So when I'm sitting in the car wishing that I wasn't stuck in traffic, at least I take heart in the fact that I'm not the unlucky son of a bitch who actually got into the accident, and whenever I'm with Beth, I can always be thankful that we're both safe and, y'know, still breathing and all.

So what happens when we get through the traffic and start seeing over the hill to the end of the jam? While there are several flashing police lights visible in the darkness, they're not exactly helping out with a wreck. Oh, no, they're simply directing traffic....

...towards the Williamson County Fair.

I mean, I understand that there's a certain segment of the population that really likes the sort of old-fashioned pleasures that can be found at a fair, like cotton candy and tilt-a-whirls and voluntary inbreeding, but we're talking about a county fair that's less than twenty miles from one of the most cosmopolitan and entertaining cities in the southeast. And is the country music capital of the world, if you'd rather drown some tears in your beers.

I just don't get it. Were they selling crack at the Williamson county fair? Was there some giant orgy about to take place that Beth and I missed? Or is a county fair really just that great of a draw? If anyone knows, please shoot me an email, because I'm honestly curious what would draw that kind of crowd at that hour on a Saturday night.

07 August 2005

Starting up

Just started a new blog. Hopefully I can do this every few days, keep the whole thing reasonably interesting to people who don't know me personally, and not get myself into any legal, moral, or spousal trouble. Be gentle, kind readership (at least at first) for while I have spent many years on this beast known as the Internet, I am new to the concept of blogging.

Thanks, and happy reading!