31 January 2008

RSS Link Dump

I've only recently started using an RSS reader (because I'm an old fogie stuck in the twentieth century) but I've instantly come to love it. There's something about just having all of my blogs and comics and everything jumbled together on my Google Reader page that just seems... fitting. All of life on one little page.

That said, there are a lot of links that I've been saving up to talk about, and unfortunately don't have time to do a full post on. So let me just link them here and just give them a line or two.

How to Recognize a Good Programmer, via Slashdot. It's really just a list of "stereotypes about super-kewl-d00ds who become hawt hackers" that assumes that any really good programmer will spend all of his (never her, keep that in mind) time dreaming about technology is general and code specifically. Do we expect accountants -- even the brilliant ones who would go to work for a start-up -- to have started dreaming about numbers and line items in the fifth grade? There are plenty of great programmers that have lives that take them away from the computer screen once in awhile.

Mark Thoma of the Economist's View links to a Michael Kinsley essay entitled "Libertarians Deserve a Listen". He says, in part:
Extreme libertarians believe [government-mandated income redistribution] is immoral or even unconstitutional, and even moderate libertarians disapprove of social welfare programs as an infringement on the freedom of taxpayers. But freedom is only one of the two core values our nation was built on. The other is equality. Defining equality, libertarians tend to take a narrow view, believing that it means only political equality with no financial aspects. Defining freedom, by contrast, they take a broad view, and see a violation in every nickel a citizen is forced to spend.

It's an interesting essay, and it highlights a lot of the strengths and weaknesses of the libertarian position. Of course, one of the weaknesses of the libertarian position is that they never seem to realize that there are weaknesses in the libertarian position, but I digress....

Orcinus linked to a 1941 essay by Dorothy Thompson entitled "Who Goes Nazi?" It's brilliant and insightful, and scarily apropos of today's political realities.
.... Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes–you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success–they would all go Nazi in a crisis.

Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them.

Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t-whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi. It’s an amusing game. Try it at the next big party you go to.

Read the whole thing. It's remarkable.

Sandefur linked to this bit from the Objective Standard that excoriates universal health care. It's useful for being a place where nearly all of the arguments against UHC are collected in one place (I even agree with most of it), but it's notable also for what's not said. The word "France" is to be found nowhere in the essay. I wonder why that is....

That's it for now. I'll keep posting these a few at a time until I get everything cleared out.

Awesome find!

I was wandering around Booklegger yesterday waiting on a friend I was meeting for lunch, and look what I found:

This is a hardcover copy of Thomas Pynchon's V., albeit a second edition, and it only cost me four bucks. How awesome is that?

This is the book in its new home on my Pynchon shelf. (Not pictured: my trade paper of Crying of Lot 49, my hardcover and trade paper editions of Against the Day. Erroneously placed, my hardcover edition of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, a series that I'm sure I'm going to get around to finishing Any Day Now....

Movielog, Stray Dog

Stray Dog, 1949
Written by Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
122 minutes

This is a bit of an embarassing thing for a movie geek to admit to, but until now, I'd never actually seen a Kurosawa film. That's right, no Ikiru, no Seven Samurai, no Ran, no nothing. There are two upsides here: 1.)I'm working on it, by spreading them around in my Netflix queue and 2.)since I've never seen them, I get to see (and write about) each one as if it were new.

Which brings us to Stray Dog, widely considered to be Kurosawa's first great film. It's a police procedural that follows a rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) after his gun is stolen from him on a densely-packed bus, and he attempts to get it back. The movie opens in full-speed mode, as he stands in front of his superior's desk admitting to his failure to keep ahold of the gun, and we see an action-packed flashback to the loss. "Stop calling me sir," the superior says, "You're not in the army." He sighs, and says he'll file the paperwork.

And at least for the first half, that's one of the hallmarks of the film. It's one of the most laid-back police procedurals ever. The detectives Murakami approaches for help finding the gun spend their time leaning against walls, slowly giving Murakami the information he needs. They are more experienced, and have learned to replace style and intelligent observation where Murakami can only see the need for confrontation and direct action.

This is best-shown in the introduction of Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), who becomes Murakami's mentor in the last half of the film. Murakami has heard that he is interrogating a woman who may know where the gun is, and he enters the interrogation room hurriedly, intent on demanding whatever information he can as fast as possible. Instead, as he enters the woman and the older officer are laughing, sharing a cigarette. Over time, she will reveal the truth to Sato, and his eyes are warm but sharp, never missing a pertinent detail.

Eventually Murakami learns that his gun is in the possession of a man named Yusa (Isao Kimura), who has used it to commit a robbery and the murder of a young girl. The clock is ticking, as Sato notes, because Yusa is a "stray dog" that will become rabid as he continues on his murderous rampage. Investigating the man, Sato and Murakami learn that he and Murakami have much in common, both being veterans of WWII whose knapsacks were stolen on the train back to their homes. And before you are reminded of Charlie's Kauffman's comments to his brother Donald about cop movies, it's important to note that Kurosawa emphasizes the characters' differences far more than their similarities. For Kurosawa, the important thing is that Murakami accepted the loss of his backpack and moved on, deciding to become a police officer and protect the public, while Yusa has succumbed to despair and turned to crime as a way of getting ahead.

The movie builds and builds as the pair of cops get closer to Yusa, until there is a sequence in a hotel that is among the most perfectly-constructed and riveting I've ever seen, worthy of the best of Hitchcock. Later, there will be a chase scene that is stunning in its brutality and suffering, in which the criminal is brought to justice and forced to confront the reality of the suffering he has caused.

I got the Criterion DVD from Netflix, and it includes a wonderful full-length commentary by Stephen Prince which gives the historical context for the film. Kurosawa wasn't just making a crime film, but was grounding his characters and metaphors into the society of then-modern-day Japan. The commentary is a bit repetitive at times, and perhaps overly dry and pedantic, but it's pretty much required viewing for those wanting to really appreciate the film, at least unless one is already familiar with the postwar context of the movie.

This is a great film, widely called Kurosawa's fist masterpiece, and I have no complaints on that regard. Onward into the filmography I will go, for this really is a fantastic way to spend two hours.

30 January 2008

For All You Pyromaniacs Out There

So I had about two or three pounds of potatoes, see, that had gone bad, see? And since they weren't doing anyone any good, I took them out to the backyard, through them on the grill, and burned them.

Don't the flames flicker so prettily? Let the madness overtake you, my sweet....

(You might ask what possessed me to do such a thing? Well, because I had lighter fluid and I was bored. Why else?)

The Future of Fuels?

Via Slashdot, I ran across this article about a start-up pioneering a new method of producing ethanol.
A biofuel startup in Illinois can make ethanol from just about anything organic for less than $1 per gallon, and it wouldn't interfere with food supplies, company officials said.

Coskata, which is backed by General Motors and other investors, uses bacteria to convert almost any organic material, from corn husks (but not the corn itself) to municipal trash, into ethanol.

"It's not five years away, it's not 10 years away. It's affordable, and it's now," said Wes Bolsen, the company's vice president of business development.


Besides cutting production costs to fire sale prices, the process avoids some key drawbacks of making ethanol from corn, company officials said. It wouldn't impact the food supply, and its net energy balance is high because the technique works almost anywhere using almost anything with great efficiency. The end result will be E85 sold at the pump for about a dollar cheaper per gallon than gasoline, according to the company.


Coskata uses existing gasification technology to convert almost any organic material into synthesis gas, which is a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Rather than fermenting that gas or using thermo-chemical catalysts to produce ethanol, Coskata pumps it into a reactor containing bacteria that consume the gas and excrete ethanol. Richard Tobey, Coskata's vice president of engineering, says the process yields 99.7 percent pure ethanol.

Gasification and bacterial conversion are common methods of producing ethanol, but biofuel experts said Coskata is the first to combine them. Doing so, they said, merges the feedstock flexibility of gasification with the relatively low cost of bacterial conversion.


"You're not bound by location," he said. "If you're in Orange County, you can use municipal waste. If you're in the Pacific Northwest, you can use wood waste. Florida has sugar. The Midwest has corn. Each region has been blessed with the ability to grow its own biomass."

This is very good news, if it pans out. The history of startups that promised huge changes in how energy in produced in the US is long, and the results of those promises in real existence is very short. I wouldn't exactly be shocked if some technical glitch causes a scale-up of this process to be unfeasible.

There are plusses and minuses involved with this company being backed by GM. If the car companies are pushing this technology, it means that they will have some incentive to make cars that run efficiently on their ethanol, and that kind of venture capital allows for reasonably quick expansion of the method of it does pan out. On the other hand, running future technologies through the same massive corporations might end up with a similar strangehold on production and therefore price that we see today.

I don't know how large the equipment needed to run this technology are, but it's not hard to envision a future in which most people have a sort of high-tech compost heap where they place their organic trash, which is then converted using some chemical/microbiological method into fuel. There's a lot of energy in carbon chains that isn't directly convertible into energy by the biochemistry in our bodies, and it'd be nice to stop throwing all that energy away.

I've always thought that the solution to the fuel crisis would come at least in part from microbiology. Advances in artifical life forms are also promising -- it's possible that we'll one day see custom-made organisms that turn eat garbage and produce fuel as a waste product. There are obvious issues with controllability, but I'd hazard to guess that this century will be a century of microbiological and biochemical advance, a prediction that I am the absolute first person to ever make .

Call me cautiously optimistic on this one.

Movielog, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974
Written by Sam Peckinpah and Gordon T. Dawson
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
112 minutes

Some movies become great by direction and writing. Some by editing, by effects, by a single great scene or a wonderful sequence.

And some become great because of performance. A central, amazing performance that becomes iconic, that gives the film life. That is the case here in Warren Oates' performance in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Not that the movie is otherwise bad -- Peckinpah is a good director and a good writer, and that's a fair percentage of even the best performance. But... well, let me explain.

The film opens with a young girl, pregnant, sitting upon the side of a river. She is taken by armed men and brought inside, before an angry-looking man. This is her father, and he demands to know who the father is. He forces the words, "Alfredo Garcia," from her, and declares, "Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia." An army of people is shown leaving, all seeking vengeance against this man who sullied his daughter's honor.

Cut to a bartender who plays piano in a Mexican dive bar. He is approached by two men, asked if he knows where to find the eponymous character. Nope, he says, but promises to let them know if he gets any info (they leave him a business card). Because he knows something they don't -- his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) is a prostitute who has been seen with Garcia. Oates queries Elita, discovers that Garcia has recently been killed in a car accident, and goes to the hotel on the card. There he offers to bring them the head, for $10,000.

And that's it. The rest of the film will follow Oates and Vega as they drive across Mexico to Garcia's grave, dig him up, and carry the head back to the men seeking the cranium of the man with the wandering affections for the rich man's daughter. Peckinpah is masterful at evoking the gritty realism of the poorest parts of the country these characters travel through -- in many ways, this reminded me of Y Tu Mama Tambien in its visuals of driving through poor rural Mexico. This being a Peckinpah film, though, things aren't quite that simple, and the idyllic drive to the grave is interrupted first by two men seeking to rape the woman, and then, at the grave, the tragedy that strikes when professional bounty hunters want what Oates has discovered.

And this is where the performance comes in. Oates's character is not a professional tough guy. He's a bartender. He plays piano. But he's desperate to get out of the stinking rathole he's in, to marry his girlfriend and to build a life somewhere else, and he allows his need to escape to override his emotions and his sense. The professionals follow Oates openly, and in his alcohol-fueled daze he never even knows they're there until it's too late.

The film's final third follows Oates into madness, as he responds to the tragedy with an obsessiveness that borders on mania, then crosses that line, then goes even further than that. If the first half of the film is idyllic, the second half is the exact opposite, gritty, real, deadly. Bodies fall, blood squirts, and innocent and guilty die alike. Oates gives us a portrait of a man who is consumed by his grief, and channels it into the kind of actions that can only lead to his self-destruction.

Oates's performance is stellar, mindblowing. He consumes huge quantities of alcohol, seems to exist so organically in this gritty universe that he nearly grows from the walls. In one particularly telling moment, the first time he sleeps with his prostitute girlfriend he finds himself picking lice from his groin. It's an explosive, amazing performance, and at the end of the film you know it realistically couldn't have ended any other way.

A Not-So-Hypothetical Dialogue

Vern reviews a direct-to-video Day of the Dead remake. As someone who is just now discovering the brilliant Romero zombie flicks, this truck a particular nerve with me:
But this stuff does kind of matter, because Romero's movies have longevity, they stick around, and have been introduced to multiple generations. And we don't want to have to explain this shit to innocent kids who are just trying to catch up on the classics. "Okay, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is great, but be sure not to get the 30th Anniversary edition, or the 3-D one, or the colorized one. The remake that's in color is okay, you can watch that, but only after you watch the original a bunch of times. DAWN OF THE DEAD go ahead and get any of the cuts, I like the theatrical but they're all good. The remake is fun but the original is required viewing. DAY OF THE DEAD, be sure not to get the one with the puking on the cover..." I mean, do we really have to further complicate this situation?

A note to makers of zombie movies: from now on, come up with your own damned titles and stop trying to rob Romero's grave. (Oh, wait, Romero's not dead yet? That's what They Want You to Think...)

29 January 2008

Ledger's Last Performance?

Aside from just having finished The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger was in the midst of shooting Terry Gilliam's new movie. Now AICN has a report of a rumor about what will happen in the movie with Ledger's character:
The rumor is that at certain points during the film the main character, which was played by Ledger, fell through magic mirrors and, I would assume, into different realities or fantasy lands. The word is that each time this happens (3 or 4 times in the movie) the character will be played by a different actor and Depp would be one of those actors (which makes sense why he can fit this into his schedule), the other two being actors just as well known as Depp.

Depending on how this is handled, it could be a cheat, or it could be a great way to handle the situation with having the film half-completed. Maybe The Dark Knight won't be Ledger's last performance after all.

Apples and apple trees

Sandefur has a little piece up where he quotes from a libertarian magazine article about Canada's economy. This is the section he quotes:
Canadian dependence on the United States is particularly true in health care, the most eminent Canadian idea looming in the American context. That is, public health care in Canada depends on private health care in the U.S. A small news story from last month illustrates this:

A Canadian woman has given birth to extremely rare identical quadruplets. The four girls were born at a U.S. hospital because there was no space available at Canadian neonatal intensive care units. Autumn, Brook, Calissa, and Dahlia are in good condition at Benefice Hospital in Great Falls, Montana. Health officials said they checked every other neonatal intensive care unit in Canada, but none had space. The Jepps, a nurse and a respiratory technician were flown 500 kilometers to the Montana hospital, the closest in the U.S., where the quadruplets were born on Sunday.

There you have Canadian health care in a nutshell. After all, you can’t expect a G-7 economy of only 30 million people to be able to offer the same level of neonatal intensive care coverage as a town of 50,000 in remote, rural Montana. And let’s face it, there’s nothing an expectant mom likes more on the day of delivery than 300 miles in a bumpy twin prop over the Rockies. Everyone knows that socialized health care means you wait and wait and wait—six months for an MRI, a year for a hip replacement, and so on. But here is the absolute logical reductio of a government monopoly in health care: the ten month waiting list for the maternity ward. Boldface added for emphasis -- DEH

I just love the total lack of references here. (And yes, I read the original article, and there's no reference there, either.) Every system is going to have shortfalls occasionally, and the birth of identical quadruplets is (as the original notes) extremely rare. Since we don't have any references at all to the original article, we have no idea exactly where this Canadian family was from -- they might have even found some way of being from an ever smaller town than that tiny little wooden shack in the woods of Great Falls, Montana.

Even aside from the anecdotal nature of this little tidbit, even aside from methodological errors, even aside from a complete and total disregard for references, let's please try to compare like with like. Somebody needs to go back to Sesame Street. "One of these things is not like the other..."

28 January 2008

Technical Accuracy in Movies?

I turns out that the new Diane Lane vehicle Untraceable is actually pretty technically accurate. Who woulda thought?

(And no, I'm still not planning to go see it.)

Ninjas and healthcare

Amanda Marcotte has a post up about abstinence-only education, and she links to this somewhat-unrelated post, which contains this little bit of imagery.
Those two factors seem completely unrelated, but broad-spectrum antibiotics and the pill also seem unrelated. Should a teacher assign such a nonsensical lab? No.

In like manner, should a method of birth control as complex and as susceptible to arcane medication interactions as the pill is be taught? No.

Arcane? Drug interactions are arcane? Like latin or alchemy? That explains why I have to hire Sherpa guides for the arduous journey to see my pharmacist every month. He studies his cryptic craft in a remote monastery at the top of a dangerous mountain, and only those who prove themselves worthy are allowed a glimpse of his precious knowledge. And if you think I have it bad, you should talk to my dad - he’s medicated for high blood pressure and has mild diabetes; he has to fight over a dozen men trained in 4 different, obscure styles of Kung-Fu and solve an ancient riddle every time he needs his meds tweeked. If we had nationalized health care, he’d only have to fight 5 guys, but that’s just creeping socialism so forget I said anything.

Ah-ha! No wonder we can't get decent health care in this country, if Pai Mei is standing in the way!

"I dodge the blade of your socialist health care package, pathetic slug-woman-who-wants-to-be-president! Ha ha!"

Pynchon and Anderson

Ever since drawing the parallel between Thomas Pynchon and Paul Thomas Anderson in my review of There Will Be Blood, I've been considering the connections between their works. Here's a lighthearted little bit.

Hard Eight, Anderson's first film, is like the stories in Slow Learner. Shows promise, but still existing within genre, and without the dizzying complexity that characterize the later works of both artists.

Boogie Nights is V., the first major work by both narrative artists. Hugely promising of things to come, both works shot their respective authors to a level of stardom in their respective communities.

Magnolia is Against the Day. Both are huge, long, masterful works that have been criticized as overindulgent, but which are embraced by fans nonetheless.

Punch-Drunk Love is Crying of Lot 49. Both are the shortest works of the respective artists, and represent a sort of "diddling play" with the tools of their medium.

There Will Be Blood is Gravity's Rainbow. It's tempting to call this Mason & Dixon, as both works deal with long-past historical fiction, but I suspect that in both cases the works in question will be considered to be the best works the artists ever create. Of course, Anderson is still young, and he may have an ever greater masterpiece in him, but right now I think it's fair to connect the two.

Okay, now I'm going to shut up about There Will Be Blood for awhile.

27 January 2008

Movielog, There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair
158 minutes

(You can read my review of the Upton Sinclair novel here.)

If you are the type of person who has ever tried to rate movies, or to rank them in any sort of "best of" list, whether by year, decade, whatever, then perhaps you'll understand a certain thing I've noticed. Every so often, there comes a film that is so strange, bold, audacious, brilliant, that it clearly belongs at the top of any such list, and yet to bestow upon it only the top spot on a best-of list seems somehow to diminish it. Examples of such films (to my mind, anyway) are My Dinner with Andre, the astounding documentary Hoop Dreams, and Todd Solondz's darkly funny and disturbing Happiness. Are these films better than Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pulp Fiction, and Pleasantville, each my personal pick for the "best of" that particular year? Well, yes and no, for while the former list is made up of undeniably brilliant films, they are strange, generally made outside of a genre or studio system, and are only diminished when compared to the other fare being made at that time. In a sense, they are timeless masterpieces, moving in directions unknown to other films, and with the kind of strange quirkiness that oftentimes puts off audiences.

I preface this review this way because I believe Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is just that kind of film. Is it necessarily better than something like No Country for Old Men? Depends on your criteria, of course, but while No Country exists within a genre and is understandable in those terms (even while it overflows the constraints of that genre and becomes the kind of philosophical piece rightly called genius), There Will Be Blood stands alone, stretching what it is possible to do with celluloid and light, inventing a new language of cinema, and placing its writer/director as quite possibly the single greatest living filmmaker. And yes, I mean exactly what I said there.

This film comes "based on" a novel by Upton Sinclair, but it's fairer to say that it was merely "inspired by" Sinclair's work. Sinclair's work is about a boy with a rich father who is tempted into socialism, but Anderson's film drops the entire socialism angle, keeps the boy as a child (until the very end), and focuses instead on the father. And while Sinclair's J. Albert Ross Sr. is a basically decent man who allows his greed to influence his humanity, Anderson's Daniel Plainview is all greed, all force, all malevolence -- the soliloquy he delivers in the trailer (which is also showcased about halfway through the movie) is very much the way he thinks. He hates people, wants no one but himself to succeed. J. Albert Ross was consumed by money, but Daniel Plainview is consumed by a hateful competition that descends into madness.

Plainview is played amazingly by Daniel Day-Lewis, and one of the triumphs of the performance is how now that I've seen Day-Lewis in this role, I can't imagine it being played by anyone else. Day-Lewis hasn't worked a lot recently, having appeared in only eight movies since 1990, but his reputation as one of the finest of all actors is well-deserved. Here he plays a character always on a knife-edge of greed and corruption, of hate and impudence, of need and avarice, but always compelling, and (strangely) always sympathetic, even towards the end when his behavior becomes monstrous. Large sections of this film are played without dialogue, or with simple dialogue that does not directly hint of his character's emotional state. Watch how Day-Lewis embues a simple "No" with shades of meaning that illuminate the horrors of his soul during a night scene involving a fire. Watch how his face contorts during a scene in a church, as he goes through emotional states unknown to those around him. Watch how he manipulates the townsfolk around him, convincing them that he has their best interests at heart.

A teaser poster for the film has the tagline, "When Ambition Meets Faith," and in this case the "faith" is represented by Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who plays a faith-healing preacher of a tiny church who also happens to be the son of the man from whom Plainview buys the land he builds his oil wells upon. It is a mark of Dano's skills as a performer that even though he has much less screen time than Day-Lews (who is in very nearly every shot of the film), he exists as a reliable counterweight, and his performance does not suffer in comparison with the much more experienced Day-Lewis. And while Anderson doesn't imbue Eli with quite the same level of hucksterism that Sinclair did in his novel, Eli is himself not quite what he seems -- he is savvy, self-promoting, and uses his appearance of naivete to manipulate those around him. In a real sense, he and Plainview are dopplegangers, not opposites, and while the poster simplifies the conflict, the film is much more nuanced in terms of its view of what these two characters are really trying to do, and what they mean both to one another and to the society around them.

I can't let this entry end without discussing the score. Anderson has dropped longtime collaborator Jon Brion for Johnny Greenwood, the guitarist for Radiohead, and his work here is strange, dissonant, thematically off-putting for a period piece, and yet somehow perfect for the film. The music in Punch-Drunk Love was like a wave of sound encompassing the theater, oppressive and destructive in the way it represented the lead character's emotional trauma, and here Greenwood continues in the vein that Brion started, giving us a score that seems to encompass the complex personality of Plainview, and which prefigures and foreshadows the unimaginable future that Plainview has ahead of him. AMPAS rules prevented this score from being considered for an Oscar, and that's shameful -- this is among the best scores ever composed, and while I love Brion's work in Anderson's other films, I'd love to hear what Greenwood could do when teamed with PTA's sensibilities again.

I haven't even touched on many of the amazing things in this film. Partly because it would give away spoilers, but partly because this film is astonishing and genius from beginning to end, with nearly every shot, every moment, every camera move, providing the audience with yet another amazing sight, yet another revealation, yet another bit of character development. And yet this is not the brash young filmmaker whose work seemed insular and whose camerawork seemed flashy -- gone are the swish-pans that were so effective in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, gone are the huge casts of characters, the stylized dialogue, the smash-cuts. Anderson's work here is just as bold, but he has matured as an artist, and uses his techniques more sparingly, with a greater eye for composition, and without as great a need to show off what he can do with a camera.

This film starts as a study of prospecting around the turn of the 20th century, moves on to a tale of greed, and becomes a character study (two character studies!), then eventually ends on notes of jet-black comedy masked as in-depth character study (or is it the other way around?). Many viewers will be put off by this film, by its running-time, by its freedom from convention and ordinary narrative, by its long takes, by the madness of its central character. And yet the film will endure, will, I am sure, build up a reputation as one of the greatest of all films, will serve as a study of how good films can be.

Anderson is the cinematic equivalent of Thomas Pynchon, whose books are widely regarded as the height of genius but whose difficulty and density scare away readers, and whose works need multiple read-throughs to properly absorb. But in both cases the works are worth the trouble to study, and ultimately will likely last as long as people read and/or watch movies. There Will Be Blood is strange, long, diffcult to understand, with obsessive characters and obscure meanings. But it is worth the effort, worth the viewing, and if you see it theatrically it is worth the experience, which envelopes the screen like few other films I've ever seen. It's amazing, astonishing, brilliant, and one of the greatest films ever made.

Movielog, Children of Men

Children of Men, 2006
Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Timothy J. Sexton
based on the novel by P. D. James
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
109 minutes

What if the world had no future? What if the entire human race became infertile, and the current population became the Last Generation? Alfonso Cuaron's utterly absorbing dystopia (based on the unread-by-me novel by P. D. James) answers that question: a growing loss of everyday values, looting, destruction, nuclear war, and increasing bigotry as people scrambled for the last dregs of what was left before the final Lights Out on humanity.

It is the year 2027, and there have been no babies since 2009. Thematically, the film sets its stage in the very first shot, in which Theo Faron (Clive Owen) enters a coffee shop, buys a cup of coffee, steps outside, and boom, the coffeeshop explodes. Owen doesn't do the action movie thing, doesn't run inside to help the victims, doesn't try to find the bombers, but turns away, screams, terrified by the blast. In a moment, we realize that this film isn't like other films, that this would-be James Bond isn't James Bond at all, but the kind of everyday person who might end up as one of the casualties in someone else's story.

Soon after the bombing Owen is abducted by members of a militant organization dedicated to equal rights for immigrants. Britain in this imagined future is using the immigrant population as scapegoats, caging them and deporting them. In the edges of the frame as Owen walks down the street, we see people trapped like sardines in cages, awaiting their eventual punishment. Later, through the windows of a bus, we will see the imprisonment camps, the sight of which will show anyone that Abu Ghraib was more than just a bunch of fratboy pranks.

The organization is led by Faron's ex-wife Julian (played by Julianne Moore), and she tasks Faron with having transit papers forged so that she can sneak someone out of the country and to "The Human Project", a (mythical) organization that seeks to find a cure for the infertility that has destroyed civilization. The someone that is being sneaked out (and I would not give this away if it was not given away by every ad campaign and description of the movie) is Kee (Claire-Hope Ashley, only 19 when the film was released, and brilliant), who is carrying the first child the world has seen in nearly two decades.

The plot, more of which I will not reveal, concerns the attempts to get Kee to safety outside of Britain. She is an immigrant, and knows that if her child is discovered by the government, they will take it, give it to a rich native woman, and she (Kee) will be killed. Along the way, we meet a variety of fascinating characters, the best of whom is Michael Caine's aging hippie, who is an old friend of Faron and Julian's. We are taken through this crumbling world, shown the effects of the encroaching totalitarian state, and are given astonishing action sequences shot with a single take, using state-of-the-art robotic cameras and brilliant direction.

The best of these is towards the end, in which Clive Owen is in a refugee camp for immigrants. It's a war zone, literally and figuratively, and in a shot that goes on and on he is shot at, nearly blown up, navigates rubble, avoids an execution, and so on and so on. It's the kind of sequence that earns top ranks as one of the single greatest action sequences ever put on film, and by itself would earn the film a hearty recommendation from me.

But this film is more than just its action sequences. It has incredible characters, amazing production design, great writing, absolutely brilliant direction, remarkable performances, et cetera, et cetera. It is not only one of the great films I've seen recently (and I've seen a number of great films recently), but one of the greatest films of the last decade, and one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. It deserves placement with Blade Runner, 2001, Strange Days, Metropolis, and lest you think I set the bar too high, just see it for yourself and tell me what you think. It places Alfonso Cuaron as one of the top ranks of filmmakers working today (as it Y Tu Mama Tambien did not!), and is a must-see for any serious movie fan, and for any fan of the genre.

26 January 2008

Movielog, Renaissance

Renaissance, 2006
Written by Alexandre de La Patellière and Mathieu Delaporte
Directed by Christian Volckman
105 minutes

Paris, 2054. In a world clearly modelled on Blade Runner, Ilona Tasuiev (voiced by Romona Garai), an employee working in the medical research departments of the monolithic Avalon corporation, is kidnapped. A police foce led by Lt. Barthelemy Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig) is tasked with finding her. Along the way he meets Ilona's sister, Bislane (voiced by Catherine McCormack), who also works for Avalon, and who may be keeping secrets of her own...

Yes, it's pretty much pure sci-fi noir, mixed with liberal doses of American action-movie. But instead of being live-action, this story is told through a modern version of rotoscoping, in which motion-captured actors are placed into completely CGI environments that are pure black-and-white, with no shades of gray. The result is unique and honestly offputting at first -- it seems like such an extreme stylistic choice that it actually detracts from the story.

But the director and the set designers have done their job, and as the story unfolds there appear images of such striking beauty that the story almost seems superfluous. One scene between Karas and Bislane takes place in her apartment, "shot" against the half-ghosted images in the full-length windows while rain streams down outside. Another takes place in an office like no other I've seen in cinema -- placed in a glass box that serves as the capstone of a giant arch. Probably not a great place to work for the vertiginous, but the camera pull-back at the end of the scene is amazing.

The action is well-done, especially one particularly invigorating chase scene that ends in a park. Karas is a believable action hero who owes equal parts to John McClaine and Dirty Harry, but who also has the kind of noirish presence needed for the slower-paced dramatic sequences. Several action scenes use invisibility suits like the kinds used in Ghost in the Shell, and despite the technical difficulties in animating such sequences, the action scenes are always visually understandable, and the geography is always clear.

The story is intruiging, if not quite as clever as it thinks it is (a crucial element of the scheme to kidnap Ilona was a lot more obvious to me than the writers thought it would be, which makes their attempts to hammer it home, well, all noise with no result). It's pretty much straight neo-noir, although it manages to keep a few surprises until the end. In particular, the film's one and only use of color is in service of a character and a plot point that is at once astonishing and heartbreaking.

Ultimately, this film is very derivative of other films like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. If it had been made in a more conventional way, this would be a lot harder to forgive. Here the technology and the artistry somehow speak for themselves, and make elements that have otherwise been very familiar seem new again. The voice acting is superb, the direction solid, and the look of the film is like a cross between Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels and William Gibson's Neuromancer. The story works for what it does, and left me wondering what these filmmakers have in store for the world next. It's not the greatest film ever, but it comes well-recommended for fans of the genre.

Booklog, Oil!

Upton Sinclair
560 pages (trade paperback)

This book opens in the early years of the 20th century, sometime around 1910, with a young boy and his father on the open road in California. The man is an oilman, an independent prospector named J. Albert Ross, and the son is J. Albert Ross Jr., known as "Bunny" to all. They are heading toward a small town in which oil has recently been discovered, towards townspeople who do nothing but bicker and fight over the agreement that had or had not been reached regarding how the profits for the oil wells to be dug on their property were to be split up.

And it is here in the opening pages that we encounter many of the themes of the book. The townspeople bicker and dicker, all consumed with the need to both ensure that they receive as much money as possible for "their share" of the oil, and yet also all concerned with making sure that their share be as large as possible. Legal wranglings over the exact meaning of the agreement only make their bickering worse. And into this steps J. Arnold Ross (and his son, whose viewpoint we will basically follow through the whole novel), who listens for a bit and tells them, basically, that he is a busy man who is trying to drill for oil, and that their petty differences will keep them from making anything out of the discovery, i.e. that they will lose more by not making some sort of agreement now than they would lose by taking a deal that might not give them the absolute most they could possibly get.

Well, J. Arnold Ross eventually leaves the meeting in a huff, saying that he will instead drill on "the North Slope", with prospects at least as bright, but not before Bunny befriends another young boy, Paul Watkins, the cousin of one of the ladies bickering about how to best satiate her greed. Paul is poor but proud, intelligent, resourceful, and not overly concerned with the letter of the law. Bunny finds much to admire in young Paul, eventually cajoling his father into visiting Paradise, CA, where Paul lives, to shoot quail and possibly unearth an oil field that he himself will own, instead of leasing land from more fighting landowners.

And now I have gone on for three paragraphs glossing over the details of what is really only the first few dozen pages of this long book, a book that will over time reveal themes of greed, technology, sociology, education, politics, corruption, love, sex, racism, classism, spiritualism, the motion picture industry, religion, and so on and so forth. The novel takes place over the course of some fifteen years, over which Bunny will cease being an innocent child and become an innocent adult, insulated by the luxury afforded by his father from the pains of the world outside. And yet Bunny is essentially good at heart, moved by the plights of the workers in the oil fields and in factories and the men who die and suffer on the fields of battle in World War I, and often imploring his father to give money to those who register most severely on his moral compass.

It is a mark of greatness that the father goes along with most of these gifts, partly because they are for him small enough to pass without much discomfort, but mostly because he loves Bunny so and tries to give him everything he could want. J. Albert Ross is greedy, yes, conniving to trick people out of their money, corrupting public officials, but he belives in what he does as the best for himself and for his country and for the oil itself, and he is never portrayed heartlessly or as without conscience. When the workers strike on his oil wells, he is portrayed as sympathetic to their cause and at first agrees not to use scabs, until the larger oil companies and their association of interests forces his hand. He bribes public officials, but through his efforts improvements are made to the bleak rural areas in which his oil wells are built, and needed oil is able to be supplied to the US Army during the War.

I've been reading Oil! for the last couple of weeks, and it was this book that inspired my thoughts about political art in this post about Good Night, and Good Luck:
Art represents life. Most artists who try to use their art to promote their politics do it badly, simplistically, magnanimously. If you portray those opposed to you as simplistic villains, you make a simplistic political point, and erode the complexity of the real world until it is an unrealistic black and white. Reflecting the real world by portraying your political opposition is not just good art, but good politics -- in great political art your opposition should see themselves represented accurately, even if the point of the piece is that they should be wrong.A

(And yes, I am aware that quoting myself is essentially masturbation.)

Sinclair had a clear political agenda in this book, although I'm not sure it's quite as clear as some might simplistically believe. He was a Socialist (at a time when the capital S meant something), and believed in the rights of workers, the power of the proletariat, all that. But he is clear-eyed enough (and honest enough) to paint his opponents in Big Oil as human, to understand their own quirks and points of view, and to even give them moments of quiet dignity and heroism when the events of the novel warrant it. This is not a work of demogaugery, but of informed political discourse, and I believe it is possible to come out of this work totally disagreeing with the points Sinclair made, yet respecting the way he made them. Sinclair represents the complexity of real life in such a way as to make different viewpoints on the events in the novel not just possible, but almost required -- certainly I myself finished the book unsure as to how I felt precisely about the protagonists' actions.

It's astonishing how much of this book could be written about our own time period. The sections of the book dealing with Hollywood, for instance, are as incisive and insightful as modern commentary on Tinseltown, despite the nature and technology of the films being made there changing as much as they have over the past eight decades or so. The arguments of the wealthy characters against the workers, also, have much in common with commentary you might see today, arguing that paying workers more or improving conditions will impact overall profits, and it's again one of the strengths of the book that this argument is shown as having some level of validity.

It's also interesting how much political discourse has changed over the decades. In Sinclair's time, socialism was considered a sort of "middle ground" between capitalism and communism, and the root of capitalism as a political ideology founded on the needs of economic capital instead of human interests gradually became clear to me. The novel was published in 1927, and of course whenever the book begins to wax poetic over the workers in Russia it's easy to look forward to Stalin and see where the workers' revolution ended. But Sinclair is wise enough to see the difference between the people and their leaders and has a fair bit to say about (among many other things) corrupt union representatives selling out and exploiting their workers. A corrupt national leadership that subverts the very meaning of the ideology of socialism taking control of the world's largest country and ruling with an iron fist was likely not very surprising to Sinclair, his knowledge of human nature being what it was, and I doubt it changed a lot of his ideas regarding social structures.

(And, to be fair, our own capitalist system had a whole lot of pain still in the future in 1927, as well. I'm of course not arguing that the stock market crash and Great Depression were equal to the formation of a totalitarian state and massive purges and gulags, but the hands of the capitalist state were not then, and did not ever become, as clean as many apologists would like them to be.)

Nowadays, of course, even out most left-wing politicians endorse the values of capitalism, "socialism" is an incredibly dirty word that will swing elections, and "communism" is so filthy that it cannot even be uttered in polite company. If there really is a war between capital and labor, then capital won the war long ago, crushing labor into the dust and so far into memory that we can't even imagine it today.

Lest one think that this novel is all about politics and ignores the people involved, and their individual dramas, nothing could be further from the truth. This book is filled with human stories, with tragedy and heartache, with suffering and triumph, with heroism is places small and large, with corruption, vice, and destruction coming from sometimes unexpected places. It is a story of personal awakening, of political strugge, and sexual advance. No character ever becomes a caricature; everyone is fully alive and breathing at all times, and events surprise them (and we the readers!) with great regularity. It is an epic tale told in personal stories, a novel about history and society told in the tiny details of interpersonal interaction, and it is if nothing else a masterpiece of tightly-drawn character. Which is probably a large part of what drew the writer/director of Magnolia and Boogie Nights to adapt it into a film, although Anderson apparently takes great liberty with the material here. (I'll be seeing the film today or tomorrow, it just having opened in my city yesterday.)

There's so much more I could say about this book, with its richness of character, theme, and mood, but I'll stop here. It's a great novel that I will be returning to with some regularity, and definitely makes me want to approach The Jungle again with a more adult eye. This comes highly recommended for anyone with the patience required of a long novel.

25 January 2008

Fundie Friday: Religious and Political Conservatives

I've been a bit flummoxed as to what to write about on today's entry of Fundie Friday. I was tempted to write a fairly in-depth analysis of the history of the Fundamentalist movement, but that's a fairly big project (actually, doing it properly would probably earn me a PhD) and a bit more effort than I wanted to go through today.

And then I stumbled across this article, by Brannon Howse of the Christian Worldview Network.
On my live radio program, Thursday afternoon, I asked my audience to grade the Presidency of George W. Bush as an A, B, C, D, or F. Not one caller gave him an A. In fact, he averaged the grade of a C.


The bottom line is this; true conservatives are extremely disappointed in President Bush. Without Reagan conservatives, he would not have been elected and re-elected and they feel like their worldview was not strongly and consistently represented.

Two of the greatest failures of President Bush was squandering two historic opportunities. After eight long years of putting up with the antics of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and their big government, the American people were hungry to follow a leader that was moral, convicted and conservative. After 9-11, he again was given a great opportunity to lead like no other president in modern time. On both accounts, President Bush squandered his opportunities.

Which made me think about the ways that modern political conservatism is intertwined with religious conservatism, in ways that don't have an immediate cause. If you keep reading, this becomes more apparent, as Howse gives a whole litany of reasons why Bush deserves a no greater grade than "C". (Actually, I agree that Bush is an awful president, but of course for wildly different reasons.) The list, with my commentary, below:

Under his “compassionate conservatism”, which means massive, liberal social spending programs, we have seen the government grow beyond the growth rates of Bill Clinton, even when you take out military spending.

Under the Bush Administration, the Department of Education grew. This happened with such legislation as “No Child Left Behind” that President Bush passed by partnering with Senator Ted Kennedy.

These are both "small government" conservatism, which so far as I know is not a biblical principle. Jesus never told us to help the poor, so long as we don't create a government entitlement program, after all.
Bush pushed for the amnesty of 20 million illegal aliens when he knew that it was not what the American people desired.

Yeah, Christ would've been all about kicking out the darkies, wouldn't he?
The Solicitor General of President Bush has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court against the 2nd Amendment and in favor of depriving the citizens of D.C. the right to bear arms. If the Court agrees with the Solicitor General, this could be chilling for the 2nd Amendment.

Another Jesus quote: "Always go armed."
In January 2008, President Bush traveled to Israel to urge Israel to give up their land to terrorists. President Bush turned on Israel by telling them to stop occupying the land.

This one is legitimately religious, so long as one equates "the government of Israel" with "the Israeli people and religious traditions which are important to the Christian faith." Then again, Israel has a big role to play in the fundie versions of the apocalypse (which I will not go into here!), so that plays into a large part of the reasoning here.
Bush pushed through his big government prescription drug program.

Again with the big government rhetoric. And of course our Savior would let his magic powers cure all disease, rather than try to give the old and needy medicine that would help them live longer, more productive, and happier lives. Then again, maybe Howse just endorses the Gospel of Suffering like Mother Theresa.
The Bush administration has been teeming with radical homosexuals like Mark Dybul at the State Department.

Okay, admittedly, God does hate the gays...
His administration has introduced and promoted the North American Union.

..and apparently also hates supranational organizations. This is part of that whole odious "End Times" theology thing.
An executive order by President Bush allowed for an estimated 100 Mexican trucking companies to travel over our borders. This is not only dangerous but drives down the wages of American truckers and makes the trafficking of drugs more likely.

President Bush refused to fund and build a wall to keep out illegal aliens. President Bush signed a bill to fund and build the wall before the last election and then his administration put so much red tape in the way that its construction was halted.

More with the hatred of brown people. Geez, Howse, couldn't you keep your bigotry all together so I can comment on it all at one time?
President Bush has celebrated the Muslim holiday Ramadan inside the White House.

For the leader of a secular nation to pay homage to the faith of a large minority of the residents of that country is perfectly fine. Of course, when the leader of our Christian Nation (tm) does it, hell's (literally) to pay!
President Bush has refused to pardon two border patrol agents that shot a convicted drug dealer in the side of the butt. These two men now sit in prison and one was assaulted while in prison.

Because when cops shoot people, they shouldn't have to pay for that crime. And of course President Bush is responsible for the misdeeds of the criminals in the prison where they are housed...
The administration of President Bush has built a U.S. Embassy in Bagdad that cost nearly one billion dollars.

It's okay, Brannon, just think of it as a big church....
President Bush was slow on defending traditional marriage once in office. Months of meetings and arm twisting by the Arlington Group was required to finally get the President to give a speech in defense of a Constitutional Amendment to defend marriage.

Wow, they're criticacl of him for being "slow on defending" their version of "traditional marriage." But this is, in their eyes, a legitimate "faith issue", so I'll let it pass.
There are reports from former White House insiders that major players inside the White House would regularly mock evangelical conservatives.

Because it's totally Bush's fault if some of the employees of the administration exercised their rights to free speech. Totally affects Bush's overall job performance, too.
President Bush could have quickly signed legislation to make the cross in San Diego a national memorial and shut-up the liberal ACLU that wanted the cross removed. President Bush waited months before responding.

Ooh, the first dig against the ACLU. Again, note that Bush eventually did something about their concerns, but not fast enough to suit them.
President Bush has failed to defend his policies and administration in a well crafted and executed public relations campaign. He failed to use the “bully pulpit” to sell his agenda to the American people. For instance, why did he not introduce former, top Iraqi air force general Georges Sada to the American people in a major press conference? General Sada spent months in the US speaking and promoting his book, Saddam’s Secrets. General Sada said that Saddam Hussein smuggled biological and chemical weapons into Syria, using civilian airliners acting under cover of a humanitarian mission.

Actually, failure to communicate with the American people is one of the things that I'm most upset with Bush about. But as a uniquely religious thing? And their example is just ludicrous, how about, "lied and got us into a war with no end?" A bit like blaming Charles Manson for jaywalking.
President Bush has allowed the globalist at the State Department to set his foreign policy agenda.

Again with the whole End Times-infused hatred of mulitlateral policy and the UN. God damn it, I'm going to have to talk about it one of these days....

Now, I'm not making any comments about the correctness or incorrectness of the claims above. But note how many of them are not really biblical or even religious in nature, but are based in a particular type of movement conservatism. It's possible, for instance, to be a hard-core conservative fundamentalist who belives in a literal Adam and Eve and still think that something like a prescription drug benefit is a good thing. The reasons for this kind of intertwining is complex, as I said, but largely comes from the rise of the Religious Right movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

It's this immediate connection with religion and Republican politics (right-wing Republican politics, at that!) that makes the fundies most dangerous. That a large number of people believe that evolution isn't true is one thing, that that same number of people have an organized movement to force their opinions on science educators is quite another.

I'll be dealing with these issues throughout the life of this blog, but this is just one example of this strange connection, and to my mind it's a signifier of why understanding the nature of the fundie mindset (and hence why I started this feature) is so important. By understanding what fundies believe and why they believe it, we can begin to understand how to combat the misconceptions present in their view of the world.

Movielog, Baby Face, Uncensored Version

Baby Face
Written by Gene Markey
Directed by Alfred E. Green
1933, 76 minutes

The more things change... Before there was an MPAA, there was the Hayes Code. And before the Code, you could make and release motion pictures that were... dirty. Undeniably filthy. Such as this delightful little gem, in which Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) shows a great deal of back, quite a bit of leg, and kisses (on-camera!) several men whom she is not shown being even romantically interested in, much less married to...

Oh, wait. None of that is very shocking to us, today. What might still be shocking, though, is her reasoning for doing so: she is the simplest kind of gold-digger, manipulating and sleeping with the men in her life simply so she can get ahead. She has been given a volume of Neitzsche by a cobbler she knows, and after her father's speakeasy where she and her "colored" friend Chico (Theresa Harris) works burns down, she makes her way to the big city with the explicitly-stated desire to crush all of her sentimentality and to use her wiles and her feminine power to gain the things that she needs to improve her status in life.

Oh, and it's stated on-screen that her father has been pimping her our since she was fourteen. Not bad for 1933, eh?

At just over an hour and fifteen minutes, this film covers a lot of ground. There's no fat here, and Lily's several "love affairs" are dealt with quickly. Along the way her manipulations break hearts, destroy lives, and overall make the people around her miserable, but so long as she always has another step up Lily takes it all in stride. In the end, Lily finds love and repents her wicked ways, but this seems an afterthought after her behavior through the film -- clearly, there was only so far filmmakers and movie audiences were expected to go.

What's interesting is the unspoken assumptions of movie audiences at the time. Lily is shown as being more racially-conscious than those around her, but the movie leaves her friend Chico behind whenever she is inconvenient, and Chico seems perfectly content to be her friend's maid. (Ironic, isn't it, that eighty-two years later Sandra Bullock's character in Crash would be considered brave for having much the same relationship as Lily has here....) While the sexual content of the film is now considered tame and expected, the unspoken racial and social constructions are more apparent than they would have been at the time of the film's release.

Today, no one would consider this to be daring or breakthrough material. But seen in context it was revolutionary, incendiary. Anyone looking for insight into the sexual politics of the first half of the twentieth century in motion pictures would be well advised to give this a look.

An aside: with this film and Following, I find myself liking the seventyish-minute-long movie format. Not quite the length of a modern feature, but longer than a short film -- it might be interesting to see a modern revival of the double-feature concept, with two hourlong films (which are forced to be lean and straightforward) separated by a short. But I'm probably just dreaming here....

24 January 2008

John Gibson Mocks Heath Ledger's Death

Fox News host/correspondent John Gibson had this to say about Heath Ledger's death:
Opening his radio show with funeral music yesterday, Fox News host John Gibson callously mocked the death of actor Heath Ledger, calling him a “weirdo” with a “serious drug problem.”

Playing an audio clip of the iconic quote, “I wish I knew how to quit you” from Ledger’s gay romance movie Brokeback Mountain, Gibson disdainfully quipped, “Well, he found out how to quit you.” Laughing, Gibson then played another clip from Brokeback Mountain in which Ledger said, “We’re dead,” followed by his own, mocking “We’re dead” before playing the clip again.

What an asshole. Then, again, I knew he was an asshole way back in May of 2006, when he made his infamous "make more babies" comments:

Wouldn't it be nice if the nice people on TV were to take the medication they so desperately need?

Truth is Sometimes Stranger than Fiction

And you say, if that was in a movie I wouldn't believe it...

Snopes isn't letting me cut and paste right now, but it's a real natural phenomenon, caused by chemicals and organic detritus off of the coast of Australia, near Sydney. This is why I read Snopes, 'cause sometimes the stories have a "can't make that up" quality that's really fascinating.

23 January 2008

Edwards As the Safe-Looking Gay Guy at the End of the Bar?

Boy, do I love the Rude Pundit. He's always got a, well, interesting take on the day's news. Like this post which make the metaphor I put in the title bar of this post.
You shoot some tequila for confidence and limb looseness and head out to dance as that awesome Rihanna remix kicks in. The secret truth is, though, that looks are deceiving. For, you see, what you fail to realize is that the one whose cock is gonna rock your rectum and have you begging for more is Mr. Ordinary-Looking at the end of the bar. He's sitting there, toasting away, waiting for someone to sit down next to him so he can order that lucky dude a mixed drink and tell him all the hot shit he's gonna do. But no one notices him. And chances are, Mr. Ordinary's gonna go home alone. It's sad, really, that the thirst for symbolic difference makes us overlook the obvious.

So it was, speaking of obvious, that the winner of last night's Democratic debate was John Edwards, the odd average man out. While Obama and Clinton went at each other in an entertaining slap fight, there was Edwards, calmly speaking for the vast majority of Americans, even if that majority won't ever get to hear him. The only candidate to mention New Orleans during a Martin Luther King Day debate hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus, Edwards articulated again and again the vision of economic justice and empowerment that eluded his rivals. And he had to fuckin' beg for air time while the other two squabbled over who hates Republicans more.

I don't think Edwards is the greatest thing ever. But he's more honest and has more balls (metaphorically or literally) than either Obama or Hillary, and he recognizes the simple fact that the only way to fight for any form of universal health care is to take on the entrenched interests of the insurance companies. Liberals should cut him a lot more slack, and I'd rather he was the nominee than the other two, but it looks like I'm going to have to hold my nose and vote for either Obama or Hillary...

Heath Ledger

I'm not the hugest fan of Heath Ledger, but reports of his death yesterday are somewhat saddening anyway. The trailer for The Dark Knight makes it look like his career was finally about to explode, and he always seemed to be a talented and reasonable guy.

In honor of him, here's the trailer for the new Batman flick. I'm worried that Ledger might be taking a few too many plays from the Jack Nicholson playbook, but overall it looks like a really great, nuanced perforance.

Blogging will be very slow today, as looking over my RSS feeds there's just not a lot I want to talk about, plus I'm in Chattanooga on Shana's laptop, and I hate typing on laptop keyboards.

22 January 2008

You Can't Even Satirize This Guy Anymore

What is it with Mike Huckabee? First he comes up with this ad where he's endorsed by fucking Chuck Norris...

And now he's apparently afraid of drug dealers who look like Don Johnson as a porn star.

You just cannot make this shit up.

Movielog, Cloverfield (Part II)

Cloverfield, 2008.

Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves
84 minutes

Part II: Why Cloverfield isn't nearly the movie it could have (and should have) been. (Part I here.)

One of the first things that you learn when you start looking at movie criticism in any kind of serious way is that one should review the movie that the filmmakers made, not the one that you wish they had made. This is sometimes tricky, sometimes impossible, but Part I of this review follows that guideline as well as I could, talking about what Cloverfield was, rather than what I wanted it to be.

Part II is a lot more about the issues and problems I had with the film. (And will have spoilers aplenty.) I've also added a "Writers and Writing" tag, because I think a lot of the criticism that can be leveled on the film come from the script. The film is flawlessly executed, beautifully conceived, perfectly designed and well-directed (with one caveat, which I will mention below), but the worldbuilding is lacking and I wish the film had felt more free to be what it was trying to be.

One thing at a time. The direction is very well-handled, but I did wish the shakycam wasn't quite as prevalent. A quick line of dialogue saying that Hud is a cameraman who's done work in Iraq, or even works for a local NYC news agency or production company, would allow for a lot more steady shots, and at least give the audience's stomachs a break from the constant shakiness of the film.

That's really a minor complaint, though. More serious (at least in my mind) is the way the movie is structured . The main "through line" of the film is Rob's decision to go back and get Beth, to save her. It gives the whole thing a structure that, well... feels like a movie. What makes other disaster/horror movies like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later work as well as they do is that they are basically plotless, and so anything feels like it could happen at any time. With Cloverfield, Rob decides to go after Beth, and all his friends... follow him without too much complaint.

As Rob is saying he's going to find Beth, Hud says from behind the camera, "I'll tackle you, dude." Well, why doesn't he? Why does this group (one of whom, Marlena, isn't even that good of a friend with the others) blindly follow Rob into certain doom? At least, why isn't there more of a fight over it? Exploring the inter-group dynamics would reveal character, increase tension, and make the whole thing so much more real. As is, these spoiled rich kids just act like movie characters following their leader because, well, that's what the plot demands.

Also, where are all the people? Once you get past the first half-hour or so, our characters are basically walking around in a deserted New York City. It takes a hell of a lot longer than a couple of hours to evacuate eight million people, and every scene in the movie (excepting possibly the ones underground) should have a mass of panicking people engaging in every sort of behavior that panicking people engage in.

Imagine a panicked New York. Where are the people trampling other people? Where are the people (as in Dawn of the Dead) who use the disaster as an excuse to take out age-old hatreds on their fellow man? Where are the people engaging in one last lay before the monster destroys them? For that matter, how about all of the old people, the infirm, the babies, the small children, people in hospitals and nursing homes? People who just can't live with the loss of their homes, their loved ones, people who collapse in tears or go psychotic and start destroying all around them? We get a bit of looting (which becomes a plot point), but where is the world that would be collapsing physically and socially around these characters?

I know that the response to a lot of this is that it happens, but it's just not on-screen. But without the artificial structure of the "rescue mission", you could have these characters essentially running into a lot of this simply by trying to escape the city.

Let me tell you Daniel's version of a monster movie. The idea here is good, but instead of using a "found footage" concept, why not do it as a documentary incorporating said footage from all over the city? How many cell phone videos, digital camera videos, et cetera, would exist in the aftermath of this kind of event?

Give us an Errol Morris-style documentarian, clinically detached, standing in front of the ruins of the city, years or decades after the events. He talks on-screen about the events, then cuts to some of the opening footage. Telling the stories (major and minor) of dozens of individuals in the process. Stories of heroism, of cowardice, of selfishness, selflessness, greed, et cetera et cetera. Some good people, some evil people, some in between... but always human.

And that's what's missing in Cloverfield. Despite the ground's-eye view, it's missing the humanity. That spark of something that makes us recognize ourselves on screen. Despite the thrills and the amazing sights, we're always aware we're just watching a really glossy example of a Dead Teenager Movie. And that makes Cloverfield something less than the Timeless Classic some would like to anoint it.

Update: Amelie Gillette over at The Onion AV Club has a cute little list of things not to think about while watching Cloverfield. You could pretty much read that and just ignore what I wrote above.

21 January 2008

Today's xkcd...

...isn't the best one ever, but it's one of the most true ever... (xkcd)

But then again, I'm one of them thar godless materialists, so what would I know?

Movielog, Cloverfield

Cloverfield, 2008
Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves
84 minutes

Part I: Why You Should Get Your Ass to Go See Cloverfield, if You Haven't Already Done So.

If you haven't seen the ads for Cloverfield (and if you haven't, you probably don't have an internet connection, so how are you reading this?), here's the quick summary: a bunch of rich twentysomethings in New York are hanging out at a party, doing the things that rich kids at a party do, when something happens. A rumble. Then the power flickers. An earthquake? Someone turns on CNN (isn't that what we'd all do?) and it turns out there's an overturned oil tanker in the harbor. Explosions happen outside, everyone rushes downstairs and...

Well, okay, it's a monster movie. Something giant, mean, and angry invades New York City, and we see the whole thing from the ground-level, through the eyes of a single videocamera found in Central Park.

Let me back up. The rich twentysomethings are all played by nobodies. The main character is Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who just got a job in Japan (!!!) and is the reason everybody's together in the first place is to give him a going-away party. There's also Beth (Odette Yustman), who's his maybe-girlfriend, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), who's in love with Lily (Jessica Lucas), and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who just showed up at the party on the way to meet some other friends of hers. This is all established through the first-person perspective of Hud (T.J. Miller), who carries a videocamera at Lily's insistence to do "testimonials" at the party, and who seems to be a basic do-nothing layabout, but who is also Rob's best friend.

And those are the people who will be our protagonists through the film. When the monster hits, some of them will be killed, some will survive, and everything will be seen through Hud's camera. The conceit of the film is that the camera was discovered in the wreckage of Central Park, a fact which does not bode well for our heroes. The first rumblings occur at approximately eighteen minutes into the film, and for the rest of the eighty-four minute running time the film is terrifying, tightly-woven and desperately-paced. When this film works, it works, and there were quite a few moments in which I realized by fingers were numb, my body reacting as pure adrenaline coursed through me.

My body also unfortunatey reacted by getting nauseated, as the "shaky-cam" conceit began to wear on me after a while. It's a good thing this film is short, because while it is compelling throughout, around the hour-mark I was starting to check the time to make sure I could make it through the whole thing. I'm usually pretty sturdy, but this flick definitely made me wish for a bit of a steadier hand from the cameraman.

There were some rumors early on that you'd never get to see the monster in the flick, which isn't true. After an hour or so of destruction, you start to get clearer looks at the monster, and at the very end you get an actual clean, wide shot. "Lovecraftian" is one of the adjectives I've seen the describe it, and that's pretty apt. It's a nightmare, unlike anything else we've seen in this kind of movie, and very difficult to describe.

(Of course, the biologist in me pipes up to say that this kind of creature is also pretty much completely impossible, given the blood-flow requirements, but that's just a detail....)

The monster's path of destruction is impressive, and it even has smaller lice-like creatures that leave its body and scurry about causing even more havoc, but two of the best moments are quiet ones. In one scene about twenty minutes after the creature is sighted, the heroes are in a subway station, catching their breath and deciding on their next course of action. A cell ringtone is heard. It's Rob's. He picks it up, steps away from the camera... "Hey mom, yeah, I'm okay..." and then gives her the kind of news no son should ever have to give to his mother.

The other is more subtle, and may reflect my own perspective on seeing the film more than anything directly on screen. The "plot" of the film, besides the simple fact of the monster attack, is Rob's desire to go find Beth and get her to safety. She left the party early, the two of them were upset at each other, and she calls Rob sobbing, obviously in pain, dying. Rob has a choice -- he can either follow the crowd being led by the army out of the city and to safety, or he can go back into the area where the monster is and save the woman he loves.

The reason this was effective for me is the performance. Stahl-David somehow made me question whether Rob's desire to save Beth was for the stated reason, i.e. in the wake of disaster and tragedy seeing what was really important to him, or the flipside: in the wake of the terrifying reality of the monster, was he simply denying the reality of the situation and heading into certain doom out of abject terror? In short, was he realizing what was really important in his life, or was he denying the importance of his life in the pursuit of a fantasy of being the hero to someone who almost certainly wouldn't even be alive to be heroically rescued?

At this point I'm going to stop with this review. There's a lot more to say, but I'll put it up in another post tomorrow or the next day. It'll talk about some of the details of the structure of the film, where I think it stands in regards to other films, and will contain more spoilers than this review has. This is a very good film, and I think it should make plenty of money, but some of the execution deserves further comment, so I'll post some more tomorrow.

20 January 2008

Ooh, Sign Me Up!

I happened across this T-shirt a minute ago.

Can I get one that says, "I'd rather be using the Water Torture" instead. Or even, "I'd Rather Be Using a Pair of Pliers on the Fingernails of Those Dirty, Dirty Brown People Who Believe in the Wrong God and Who Live Where God Put All Our Oil" instead.

Silly me. The last is way too long to fit on a T-shirt...

Movielog, Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck, 2005
Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Directed by George Clooney
93 minutes

One of the things I'm going to be doing with these movielog entries is to use the film itself as a sort of jumping-off point for discussions of issues raised (at least in my mind) relating to other issues. So I won't be doing a real review here, and will be giving away some spoilers. Consider Yourself Warned.

Firstly (and this is minor), one of the consequences of having a Netflix account and using it to catch up on a bunch of classic movies is that I watch so many brilliant, classic films that the merely excellent seem, well, merely excellent. Good Night, and Good Luck is one of the latter. It is well-acted, well-directed, the cinematography is excellent, etc. etc. etc., but compared to Children of Men or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia or Ghostbusters it's really not that special.

That said, Clooney deserved his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the direction is competent, the script well-written and giving insight into character, the structure of the movie gives us a great deal of insight into the television business of the 50s (something Clooney, growing up with parents in the industry, knows a lot about), yadda yadda yadda. It's a good flick, worth seeing, all of that. But.

The film got me thinking about the nature of political films/TV shows/books/whatever. Clooney's film is largely a sort of parable of a hero, however true the events of the film (and, not being a historian, I cannot comment), Clooney is really making a statement to his fellow artists and to reporters today, making direct comparisons to the way that the Bush administration is covered by the media. And while Clooney has made the film he wanted to make, it sits somewhat roughly with me.

Why? Well, consider a scene towards the very end of the film, in which William Paley, the chief executive of CBS* (played excellently by Frank Langella) is speaking to Murrow and Fred Friendly about cutbacks in Murrow's program. Murrow is taking the high road, arguing that Paley's attempts to destroy the show are based on political cowardice on Paley's (and, by extension, CBS's) part. Paley replies by questioning Murrow's reasoning for not defending Alger Hiss. "Because you didn't want to be seen defending a known communist," Paley intones. "Everybody makes compromises, even you." To which Murrow has no reply.

Now, of course there are pragmatic reasons why Murrow didn't want to defend Hiss -- it wasn't directly related to the story he was telling, defending Hiss would only muddy the waters, etc. But this moment shows the humanity in both Murrow and Paley; it shows that the decisions made by both characters are not black-and-white, and while Murrow's actions were undoubtedly heroic, even he had points he would not cross. (This is also shown in the character of Don Hollenbeck, who is attacked in the media and eventually commits suicide, whom Murrow left hanging in the wind.)

None of this reduces the quality of the heroism which Murrow actually performed, but a greater emphasis on these elements might help to give the story more dramatic tension. What was it like for Paley, having to defend Murrow's actions even as far as he did, having to cajole sponsors into continuing to support the controversial news program, making decisions about the health of the television network he loved against the rightness of the cause his reporters were fighting for? In this film, he is mostly a villain, but in another film he might be a sort of tragic hero.

One of my favorite films about politics is Oliver Stone's Nixon. (Scratch that, it's one of my favorite films on any topic, ever.) Nixon is a reviled figure in modern-day politics, and a viewer would feel justified approaching the film for the first time assuming that Stone would demolish Nixon's character, running roughshod over his accomplishments, showing the former President as unremittingly evil. Yet Stone provides a sympathetic portrait of Richard Nixon, putting his triumphs and his losses in their proper context, and when Nixon commits evils like bombing Cambodia, the viewer is left wondering if they, in that situation, would really have behaved differently.

Art represents life. Most artists who try to use their art to promote their politics do it badly, simplistically, magnanimously. If you portray those opposed to you as simplistic villains, you make a simplistic political point, and erode the complexity of the real world until it is an unrealistic black and white. Reflecting the real world by portraying your political opposition is not just good art, but good politics -- in great political art your opposition should see themselves represented accurately, even if the point of the piece is that they should be wrong.

Else how are you to convince anyone?

*Although I always think of this William Paley, due to my background in history of biology.

Benny Hinn and Upton Sinclair

Saw this via Pam Spaulding this morning.

Coincidentally, I was glancing over this bit from Upton Sinclair's The Profits of Religion last night.

It is a vision I have seen: upon a vast plain, men and women are
gathered in dense throngs, crouched in uncomfortable and
distressing positions, their fingers hooked in the straps of
their boots. They are engaged in lifting themselves; tugging and
straining until they grow red in the face, exhausted. The
perspiration streams from their foreheads, they show every
symptom of distress; the eyes of all are fixed, not upon each
other, nor upon their boot-straps, but upon the sky above. There
is a look of rapture upon their faces, and now and then, amid
grunts and groans, they cry out with excitement and triumph.

I approach one and say to him, "Friend, what is this you are

He answers, without pausing to glance at me, "I am performing
spiritual exercises. See how I rise?"

"But," I say, "you are not rising at all!"

Whereat he becomes instantly angry. "You are one of the

"But, friend," I protest, "don't you feel the earth under your

"You are a materialist!"

"But, friend, I can see--"

"You are without spiritual vision!"

And so I move on among the sweating and groaning hordes. Being of
a sympathetic turn of mind, I cannot help being distressed by the
prevalence of this singular practice among so large a portion of
the human race. How is it possible that none of them should
suspect the futility of their procedure? Or can it really be that
I am uncomprehending? That in some way they are actually getting
off the ground, or about to get off the ground?

Then I observe a new phenomenon: a man gliding here and there
among the bootstrap-lifters, approaching from the rear and
slipping his hands into their pockets. The position of the
spiritual exercisers greatly facilitates his work; their eyes
being cast up to heaven, they do not see him, their thoughts
being occupied, they do not heed him; he goes through their
pockets at leisure, and transfers the contents to a bag he
carries, and then moves on to the next victim. I watch him for a
while, and finally approach and ask, "What are you doing, sir?"

He answers, "I am picking pockets."

"Oh," I say, puzzled by his matter-of-course tone. "But--I beg
pardon--are you a thief?"

"Oh, no," hie answers, smilingly, "I am the agent of the
Wholesale Pickpockets' Association. This is Prosperity."

"I see," I reply. "And these people let you--"

"It is the law," he says. "It is also the gospel."

I turn, following his glance, and observe another person
approaching--a stately figure, clad in scarlet and purple robes,
moving with slow dignity. He gazes about at the sweating and
grunting hordes; now and then he stops and lifts his hands in a
gesture of benediction, and proclaims in rolling tones, "Blessed
are the Bootstrap-lifters, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven."
He moves on, and after a bit stops and announces again, "Man doth
not live by bread alone, but by every word that cometh out of the
mouth of the prophets and priests of Bootstrap-lifting."

Watching a while longer, I see this majestic one approach the
agent of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association. The agent greets
him as a friend, and proceeds to transfer to the pockets of his
capacious robes a generous share of the loot which he has
collected. The majestic one does not cringe, nor does he make any
effort to hide what is going on. On the contrary he cries aloud,
"It is more blessed to give than to receive!" And again he cries,
"The laborer is worthy of his hire!" And a third time he cries,
yet more sternly, "Render unto Caesar the things which are
Caesar's!" And the Bootstrap-lifters pause long enough to answer:
"Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this
law!" Then they renew their straining and tugging.

I step up, and in timid tones begin, "Reverend sir, will you tell
me by what right you take this wealth?"

Instantly a frown comes upon his face, and he cries in a voice of
thunder, "Blasphemer!" And all the Bootstrap-lifters desist from
their lifting, and menace me with furious looks. There is a
general call for a policeman of the Wholesale Pickpockets'
Association; and so I fall silent, and slink away in the throng,
and thereafter keep my thoughts to myself.


Excepting possibly the last-mentioned group, the priests of all
these cults, the singers, shouters, prayers and exhorters of
Bootstrap-lifting have as their distinguishing characteristic
that they do very little lifting at their own bootstraps, and
less at any other man's. Now and then you may see one bend and
give a delicate tug, of a purely symbolical character: as when
the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Bootstrap-lifters comes once a
year to wash the feet of the poor; or when the Sunday-school
Superintendent of the Baptist Bootstrap-lifters shakes the hand
of one of his Colorado mine-slaves. But for the most part the
priests and preachers of Bootstrap-lifting walk haughtily erect,
many of them being so swollen with prosperity that they could not
reach their bootstraps if they wanted to. Their role in life is
to exhort other men to more vigorous efforts at self-elevation,
that the agents of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association may ply
their immemorial role with less chance of interference.

I haven't, as they say, Read The Whole Thing, but that's a pretty marvelous little bit of writing, even if I did trim it down a tad. I'm reading Sinclair's Oil! right now, and will do a full booklog on it soon, but it's full of the kind of perspective you see here.

(A historical note, apropos of nothing here: Libertarian hero Robert Heinlein was deeply involved in Upton Sinclair's 1934 campaign for governor of California. Granted, this is before Heinlein became a science fiction author and before he turned more right-wing during World War II, but it's an interesting little factoid, isn't it?)

19 January 2008

Umm, maybe there's some subtlety I'm missing...

I found this link over at Slashdot (where the discussion seems to be pretty much on-par with the kinds of ignorant rantings you see at Slashdot whenever evolution -- actually, science in general -- comes up). Here's the post in total.

ScienceDaily (Jan. 18, 2008) — According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, individuals in a species pass successful traits onto their offspring through a process called “deterministic inheritance.” Over multiple generations, advantageous developmental trends – such as the lengthening of the giraffe’s neck – occur.

An opposing theory says evolution takes place through randomly inherited and not necessarily advantageous changes. Using the giraffe example, there would not be a common neck-lengthening trend; some would develop long necks, while others would develop short ones.

Now, the findings of an international team of biologists demonstrate that evolution is not a random process, but rather occurs through the natural selection of successful traits. The collaborative study by researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Israel, the U.S, France and Germany is published in the November 2007 issue of Current Biology (vol. 17, pp. 1925-1937).

To settle the question about whether evolution is deterministic or random, the researchers used various tools – including DNA strand analysis and electronic microscopy – to study female sexual organ development in 51 species of nematode, a type of worm commonly used to better understand evolutionary processes.

When the researchers measured changes in 40 defined characteristics of the nematodes’ sexual organs (including cell division patterns and the formation of specific cells), they found that most were uniform in direction, with the main mechanism for the development favoring a natural selection of successful traits, the researchers said.

“Since random development would not create such unifying trends, we concluded that the observed development was deterministic, not random,” said Professor Benjamin Podbilewicz from the Technion Faculty of Biology.

The findings, which constitute a significant milestone in establishing and reaffirming the mechanism of Darwin’s theory, will help in understanding how evolution works in all living creatures, said Podbilewicz.

And, in other news, water is wet? I mean, a science publication saying that new experiments have proven the Theory of Evolution correct is a bit like one with the banner headline: "Newton vindicated: larger objects have more gravitational pull than smaller ones!" It's an obvious nonresult, because no one's arguing that smaller objects have gravity equal to or greater than larger objects.

Likewise, so far as I know, no biologist argues that evolution is a _completely_ random process, but that randomness allows for mutations and selection occurs on those populations. Either this is a totally trivial result, or there's some evo-devo controversy buried in here that is completely steamrolled over by the article, 'cause otherwise this is a total "dog bites man" result.