Saturday, November 22, 2003

Ski School, 1991. What more needs to be said other than the fact that bad 80s movies were being made until the early 90s?

The 80s ski movie genre has a long and occasionally distinguished history. Let's not forget that it produced one of The Greatest Movies Of All Time, Better Off Dead as well as the only ski movie that had a decent story, Aspen Extreme. (1993? I'll allow it.) South Park pretty much drove the final nail in the coffin with their episode 603 Asspen, which parodied the plots and cliches of just about every 80s ski movie.

Ski School sits somewhere in the middle of the genre. Not the best, not the worst, but safely ensconced in the middle, though since it includes EVERY SINGLE CLICHE of said genre, it is handily representative, though it should be noted that this is a Canadian movie, and while many Canadian actors have starred in American films of all stripes, I don't know of many dumb 80s Canadian movies (other than Strange Brew, which I am proud to own). This was largely filmed on location at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, with a few bits shot in the US. Ultimately, it was for the US market, and avoids the usual Canada-centric elements that you see in films destined primarly for Canadian viewers.

This movie does fall into the category of those films best suited to group viewing, preferably while drunk. The stupid stuff everyone can laugh at; during boring moments, somebody in the group can tell a relevant story from a ski trip he took in high school or college. Watched alone, it takes on a slightly pathetic quality, as you tend to zero in on the utterly horrible cinematography (though the outdoor shots are great, but they couldn't really screw those up).
Rum Smuggler Heroes
A new feature tonight... Personal heroes of Rum Smuggler. Speaking of which, I'm trying to get used to using that as a nom de plume among the blogosphere. I think it's a kickass name for a blog, but I've just started signing my name as "Rum Smuggler" when posting comments on other blogs. Eventually, I'll create an e-mail address based on the name.

While I have deep admiration for the bloggers who have gone fully public, I prefer to exist in peaceful anonymity. I try to keep my work life and home life separate; likewise, I prefer to keep my online and offline lives separate.

Anyway... My hero for tonight: Tony Kanal. Few people are going to recognize that name; those that do aren't going to understand why I'd consider him a hero. Now I've got to digress again for a moment.

For reasons that are directly related to the events of 1996, I've chosen not to relate the tales of my love life (or lack thereof) on this blog. There are plenty of those out there--some of which are excellent and I read daily. I've got different goals here. For instance, I'm also shying away from politics. I spend a few hours a day reading the news from all over the globe, and I comment on it in a few different fora, but I'm not focusing on that here. Rum Smuggler is slowly evolving as a snapshot of my tastes and interests on any given day, more useful to myself than to anyone else. And I'd never use this venue for attacking someone in my personal life.

So back to Tony Kanal. Who is he, and why is he a Rum Smuggler Hero™? He's the bass player for the band No Doubt. I'm a big fan of theirs, though I've never been to a concert or anything like that. (Frankly, I think Gwen Stefani's voice sounds terrible live--she does a punk/ska scream on stage, but is able to use a softer, sweeter voice in the studio.) I admire them for helping to usher the 90s out of the depression of the grunge era without having to completely sell out to bubblegum pop. And they've survived as long as they have because they're talented. They've demonstrated great ability in the genres of pop, ska, reggae, calypso, punk, and good old fashioned American metal. So why do I admire Tony Kanal? While I think that the rest of the band is much more talented than Stefani, I'm not in a position to judge Kanal's playing. No, I'm in awe of him because he dumped Stefani's ass in 1994.

They'd been dating since high school in the mid 80s when the band formed. In fact, the relationship was a secret for many years, partially because of an unwritten rule that nobody dates Gwen, and partially because her brother Eric was in the band (he would later go to work on The Simpsons as a layout artist). Things went public, everbody was cool, the band became famous, went big, and just as they became international superstars, he dumped her.

He was an East Indian kid, born in England, raised in California, dating one of the hottest women on the planet who--let's not forget this--was wealthy and successful enough on her own to not need to depend on him for anything. But he broke off the relationship because he felt they were both adults and needed to experience life with other people--he wasn't looking for someone else, but realized that it's ridiculous to stay with the same person from high school until old age. And the band has stuck together and made some great music around that split, such as "Don't Speak". If they'd remained together and things went to shit later on, the band would have likely fallen apart.

That decision was amazingly mature and insightful, and I'm sure he's proud of it every day of his life since. The only thing I can relate in terms of excercising principled self control is the obedience trials I've seen in which dogs have to fetch hot dogs. You can see the dogs struggling on the way back to their masters; held in their teeth is sweet greasy salty goodness, yet for a higher purpose, they're going to give it up. Ditto for Tony Kanal, and that's why he's a Rum Smuggler Hero™. We've all got something to learn from his example.
A second attempt here... 1996's Flirting With Disaster. I watched the first half of this about a month ago (before restarting the blog), but got distracted with household duties/boring domestic stuff/dogs/etc. Not that I wasn't interested, but after missing ten minutes in the middle, enough stuff had happened that I decided to wait until it came on again. It's a movie that I don't ever remember showing up at the theater. For reasons that aren't important, I spent most of 1996 watching a ton of movies on video that I had missed out on in the 80s and early 90s while I was in high school. During my formative years, the only R-rated movies I ever saw were action or sci-fi, so I was catching up on all of the comedies, dramas and romances of the era. In doing so, I missed out on a lot of the films that actually came out that year. Speaking of video, that's where I first found out about this one.

God knows how many times I've passed by this film at the video store. For some reason I could never bring myself to actually rent it--it was always my second or third choice and I always found something that appealed to me more. Also--and this wasn't preventing me from renting it--the picture of Patricia Arquette on the cover makes her look like Ellen DeGeneres.

Ben Stiller's one of those actors whose movies I almost universally love. Others include Jack Black, John Cusack, and Jake Gyllenhaal. They're all great actors but not the best actors, it's more that they choose scripts that tend to appeal to my own warped tastes in movies.

The movie concerns Stiller's character going on a trip all over the country in search of his birth parents, along with his wife (Patricia Arquette), newborn child, and a documentarian/psychologist played by Te� Leoni (best known for being married to David Duchovny). There's a lot of good actors in here, and almost every 1st and 2nd tier character is played by someone still recognizable from films today. The writing and cast are definitely representative of mid-90s quirky movies that aren't quite dramas or comedies and feature insignificant plots that leave room for more focus on dialogue (like Clerks or Swingers) but without being pretentious like a Woody Allen flick or some godawful French film.

One odd bit of trivia: There's a montage at the beginning where Stiller imagines what his real father might look like, and lots of pictures flash by. There's a quick image of Jerry Stiller, Ben's real life father, who played George Costanza's father on Seinfeld.

For the Joe Bob Briggs angle, I'd like to point out the role of the detective played by Richard Jenkins, who's a great character actor and has been in tons of films. Probably most easily recognized from his role as the dead father on Six Feet Under (who appears in lots of flashback and dream sequences) as well as prominent roles in the Farrelly Brothers movies Me, Myself & Irene and Say It Isn't So.

The second half of the movie is... interesting, but I'll refrain from talking about it in order to avoid any spoilers. Though I can say that I'll never be able to look at Lily Tomlin again without seeing that butterfly tattoo on her inside thigh. All I can say is that it's decidedly a 90s movie.

Minor Update: The music for the closing credits is "Camel Walk" by Southern Culture on the Skids. A damned good song, though I think at the time it would have had too much connection to Pulp Fiction to stand on its own OK. To further expound upon the statement I made above about 90s movies, one need look at the famous Seanbaby article about the "Ten Eightiest Movies". As part of his selection criteria, he says, "A true �80s movie is not about gagging people with spoons, Cabbage Patch Kids or A Flock of Seagulls. It�s about how incredibly insane you would look if you tried to remake it today." Ditto with 90s movies, though I've yet to nail down the exact characteristics of the "Ninetiest Movies". Suffice it to say that movies like Reality Bites would be in there; Batman and Robin would not. I may visit this topic again later...
Yesterday afternoon I finally completed Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. The first book of his I read was the utterly amazing Cryptonomicon--I'd never seen anything like it. Part historical fiction, part technothriller, part math textbook, it has since become the computer programming equivalent of Lord of the Rings. From there, I read Snow Crash, a slick cyberpunk novel that wasn't as annoying as all of the other Gibson-imitators in the 90s; The Diamond Age, an odd bit of science fiction that's difficult to explain briefly; and even a pirated copy of The Big U, his first novel that he tried to prevent from being republished for many years. But I loved all of them, and for different reasons. Each was unique, but all were well written and accessible. Not so with the latest one.

It's not a bad book, it's just long and has little or no plot. Mainly it's about the last few decades of the 17th century. I had thought it was mostly about science, but that's not the case--it's also about war and commerce and religion and politics and sex and a dozen other things. Whereas a novel like Dune could tie all of these things together brilliantly, the lack of a plot really hurts. It's like reading a history textbook, except that topics aren't logically broken down and you have to keep reminding yourself that it's fiction. I'm sure his research is exemplary, but it's still difficult to read. I heard someone refer to it as a "core dump" of everything interesting he learned about the period.

Somewhat depressing is the fact that this is the first of the "Baroque Trilogy", and the two remaining books are also expected to be in the 900-1000 page range. This one clocked in at around 920, and that was a painful 920 pages. I've read longer books, but not many, and those were all written in such a way to pull the reader along. This one was a chore to read, which is why it took almost a month. I had to force myself to read it, but could sometimes only stand a dozen pages at a time. If I made myself read a full 100 pages, then I wouldn't go near it for days.

I can't recommend it for anyone, because fans of Stephenson are going to be disappointed, and fans of the time period aren't going to learn anything new or find a story to engage them. But just so I can sleep at night, I'll probably read the next two books as well. He's built up enough goodwill with me based on his prior books that I'm willing to ride this out. I can only hope that his editor will work with him a bit better for the rest of the trilogy.
A new 120GB hard drive has been acquired here at Casa del Rum Smuggler, so I'm busy moving things around. There's a lot of housekeeping to attend to, so let's flip through the movie channels and pick something light, comedic, yet marginally interesting. One leaps out immediately: Big Fat Liar, a Frankie Muniz vehicle from 2002. I like his work as Malcolm on Malcolm in the Middle, and while he's made quite a few movies, he's just about too old to play a little kid for little kids, and will soon be a college-age actor playing high school seniors in adult-targeted teen comedies.

This is definitely a kids' movie, though I sometimes find these entertaining, because I think it's important to know what the kids are reading and watching in order to help understand what will influence their later creations. Look at how the movies of the 80s influenced the writers and directors of the 90s. Also, the better made kids' movies have lots of fun appearances by adult actors or former child stars. For instance, this one features:

The plot is pretty predictable, though if you've seen Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, you've seen a much more enjoyable version of a very similar story. Still, this one is far more appropriate for children.
I mentioned a minor factual error that I found in a Reason Online article back in this post, and today I got e-mail from the author apologizing for the error. Between this and and my recent Slashdot submission, I find myself performing the geek pride dance in front of the computer. Can I hear a "WOOT!" from the audience?
Too tired to post last night, but I caught three on Friday. First off was Raiders of the Lost Ark, recently released in glorious DVD. The transfer looks beautiful, but since everyone knows and loves this one, I'll not post much on it. However, it is #16 on the IMDB top 250 films. (The only other film on that list I've noted here on the blog was Clerks at #234.) Since I'm currently more interested in little known or outright bad movies, don't expect to see a lot of the golden 250 posted here, but if I do, I'll post the number as well.

Doing a little figuring, I've seen almost half of the 250 (120, and I own 7 of those on DVD). I might print out the remaining as a chart and keep it in handy when checking the schedule.

Second film was Kiki's Delivery Service, a delightful bit of anime that contains nothing weird or obscene. In fact, it's quite relaxing and enchanting--the backgrounds are visually stunning depicting an idealized non-specific European country in the 1930s but without war or fascism. It's also one of the only anime films that I've wanted to see with the English dubbing, mainly because the voices were done by the likes of Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, and Tress MacNeille, who does a lot of voices on The Simpsons. A really good movie, and well suited for small children without being annoying or repetitive like the Pokemon stuff. I'm surprised this didn't get a boost after the Harry Potter books and movies--there are enough similarities for a good marketing campaign. (But Harry Potter is a Warner Brothers property, and Disney handles the Miyazaki distribution in the US.)

The third and final selection was A Mighty Wind. Though I rented it a month ago and enjoyed it, it wasn't until I listened to the soundtrack several times that I wanted to see it again. Blockbuster had a dirt cheap used copy on sale yesterday, so I grabbed it. The second viewing was even better. Some of the best moments are captured in the facial expressions of actors that aren't speaking at that exact time--typically looking on in quiet resentment or embarassment towards their fellow musicians. I'm looking forward to watching the numerous extras and listening to the commentary. While I think anyone who enjoyed Best in Show would like the movie, you have to really enjoy folk music to really get into it. I've got a friend who plays mandolin in a bluegrass band, and I've been bugging him to see it for weeks.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Return of Berkeley Breathed
Salon carries a rare interview with Berkeley Breathed about his upcoming return to the comics page with Opus, his new Sunday-only strip. If my local fishwrapper carries it, I might check out a few of them, but it takes a lot for me to buy a newspaper these days and I'd be better off purchasing the compilation books later. (I've got all of the Bloom County and Outland books, even though I didn't really enjoy Outland--more on that coming up.) One nagging problem is that Breathed wants to use this as a forum for artistic experimentation. Fantastic! But the plates aren't always well aligned for 4-color newspaper publication, which really gets under my skin. Anyway, I prefer clean black and white comic strip art, but a lot of papers have started to colorize even the daily strips, run at small sizes, and with crappy plate alignment. To boot, the hair/clothes colors aren't always consistent with the color choices made by the artist for the Sunday strips. Rant, rant, rant...

Back to Breathed... His children's books are gorgeous, and a lot of fun to read. I don't have any of them, but always page through them at the bookstore when a new one comes out. I really loved the daily strips of Bloom County, the story lines that would go on for weeks or months. Great artwork, lots of creative text, all sorts of great things. Some of the Sunday strips were good, but I never enjoyed them as much. For that reason, I mostly ignored Outland until I was able to pick up discounted copies of the collections years later. (I think my local paper dropped it after something scandalous was pictured in the strip.)

I wish him luck, but given his temperament and the unfortunate realities of the newspaper industry, I don't see another golden 10 years of Opus on the horizon...
Hacker for the Mob
A story from Wired about a guy who does tech support for the mafia, primarily dealing with gambling. This is bound to show up on Slashdot sooner or later... Maybe I'll submit it. (Done!) Like I said in the hope-to-be-published Slashdot submission, it sounds like the premise for a good novel or a bad movie. While obviously many of the story's elements are appealing in a twisted way, the programmer in question is still very likely to end up in jail for a long time. Assuming he's not part of the family, he's expendable if somebody needs a scapegoat.

And his ethical compromise that he's just working on gambling isn't a valid defense; the profits he generates are used to fund all sorts of other activities that aren't as morally ambiguous.

Update: Accepted and posted on Slashdot!
Filling in gaps tonight... Beautiful Girls is one of those movies I heard recommended many times, but never really got around to seeing. It's got an amazing cast--just look at the top billing on the above link.

(Note: This post, like many of the Movieblogging posts, was written in pieces while watching the movie, and might be slightly disjointed.)

In yesterday's post about Clerks, I briefly touched on the angst-ridden young man genre, though that yang was tempered by the yin of the empowered young woman genre, which includes just about all of Parker Posey's early work. I've seen plenty of both, but I tend to prefer the guy stuff, for obvious reasons. Thus, I'd always assumed Beautiful Girls to be one of the latter. But I was obviously mistaken.

For some inexplicable reason, I've seen almost every movie that Rosie O'Donnell has been in--it's not intentional. I think the only one with her that I actively enjoyed was Harriet the Spy, but that might have been due to a love of the book, a gracious adaptation, and good acting by Michelle Trachtenberg. However, in this movie, O'Donnell is just shrill and annoying. Imagine that.

Hmmmm... Another movie set in New England in the winter. Gorgeous, but it's the middle of November and I'm sitting here in Memphis with the window open in order to cool off.

Noticeably absent in the female lineup is Janeane Garofalo. In fact, I had thought she was in it for years. However, it's pleasantly surprising to see a young Natalie Portman in something lighter than The Professional.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Freakin' Sweet!
Looks like there's a chance Family Guy might return to TV... If they do, I hope it's not on Fox--the show really belongs on Comedy Central or Cartoon Network, both of which have shown a strong commitment to late night "adult-themed" animation. The cost of each episode might be prohibitive ($1 million per episode for the shows that aired), but high ratings tend to attract decent advertisers, particularly if the show is in a later time slot aimed at 18-35 year olds, rather than in prime time.

The story doesn't make something clear; in blaming weak ratings on the series' demise, the article fails to note that Fox did everything in their power to kill the show. Not only was the show moved around all over the schedule (and the changes weren't advertised), Fox also didn't show it for nearly a year between August 2000 and July 2001.

I'm sure that legal rights to the show as well as existing contracts with the creators and talent will not permit it to air anywhere other than Fox, but we can all dream, cant we?

There's also a rumor of a Family Guy movie in production. Sounds spurious to me.
Pork-Infused Mutton: Fire up the grill!
A weird story from Australia via Tim Blair. Animal rights activists claim to have fed pig meat to sheep destined for the middle east, thus rendering them unfit for Muslim markets. (Eritrea accepted the shipment, so nothing went to waste.)

I'm going to go out on a limb and assume this was a hoax perpetrated by the animal rights folks, since it's going to be hard to prove one way or the other and the rumor is powerful enough to cause problems.

Reminds me a bit of the Sepoy Rebellion. Muslim and Hindu soldiers in the British Army during the occupation of India learned that their rifle cartridges (which had to be bitten first in order to be used) were greased with cow and pig fat, angering both groups. I've heard other accounts that only sheep fat was used, and that the whole mess was based on rumor and misunderstanding, but that the soldiers were already angry at the British and that the revolt would have happened sooner or later.

And while I'm throwing out trivia, let's not forget the extinct group of mammals known as oreodonts, which were related to pigs and sheep and could climb trees. While it would be cool if the nutjobs had classified this "Operation Oreodont", I think I'm really stretching things...
Site Information
I've been mulling over style guide ideas... There's a lot of different ones out there, though all related to print, and I don't know of any web- or blog-specific style guides, which probably means I should write my own. Some questions:

If I should come up with a comprehensive style guide, I'll make it look nice and pretty, list examples for every case, and post it here on the blog.
I'm feeling listless tonight, and don't feel like watching a new movie or anything that requires a lot of my attention. So a quick zip through the DVD collection leads me to... Clerks. In the mid-90s, there were a few great movies made about the 20-something listless male: Clerks, Swingers, Dazed and Confused and a handful of not so great ones that were still somewhat entertaining... If you happened to be a 20-something listless male.

I'm a big fan of Kevin Smith, though I don't think he's a genius or anything. I enjoy his stuff for much the same reason that old people like Matlock and Murder, She Wrote: I can relate to it at this point in my life. Clerks is the classic tale of being stuck in a dead-end job, working just hard enough to avoid getting fired, and getting royally screwed by the cosmos. It's a simple yet effective film, shot on a shoestring budget in black and white, and utterly unforgettable.

I've got all five Kevin Smith movies in the "Askewniverse", as well as the understandably short-lived Clerks animated series. All of the DVDs are beautifully well-produced, and the extras are spectacular. Clerks, for instance, includes an alternate ending in which Dante is shot and killed by a burglar. While it probably would have nipped Smith's moviemaking career in the bud, I still admire the "Life's a bitch and then you die" mentality that you don't see in many books or movies these days.

The movie also includes one of my favorite quotes of the angry young man genre. Randall is talking to Caitlin prior to her date with Dante. Caitlin was "the one" who ripped out Dante's heart and stomped it flat, and now is leading him on for a quick tryst. After a bit of friendly banter, Randall says, "Break his heart again this time and I'll kill you." That's a great summary of male friendships--broads come and go, guys can remain close friends for decades. We're hard to piss off and loyal like dogs.

I once spent a Saturday watching all five Smith movies in a row. It was a lot of fun--and educational, as I was able to see characters and little trends and inside jokes carried over all five. Like how every film has a Jaws reference. However, at the end of the day I was swearing like a sailor. And based on the content of the movies, it's not the kind of accomplishment that I go around telling people. I've still got to watch all five with the commentary tracks, which should be just as much fun.

The movie is full of memorable quotes, but I'll leave you with a snippet of Olaf's lyrics to "Berserker":

My love for you is like a truck, Berserker
Would you like some making fuck, Berserker

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

I've butchered the hindquarter of a deer. Two months ago I gapped and replaced the spark plugs on my roommate's truck. I sport a beard born mostly out of an apathetic attitude towards shaving. But damnit, I like Gilmore Girls.

Part of it is the lead, Lauren Graham. Don't know why, but she pushes all the right buttons. And the show was something of a milestone in that I realized I was sympathizing more with the parent characters than with the teenage characters. Which explains part of its charm--the plots are generally on two levels, one for adults and centered on the mother, one for teenagers and centered on the daughter. Here's why I like the show:

Now if you'll pardon me, it looks like a good part is coming up...
PC Madness
The county government of Los Angeles has decided that the technological usage of the words "master" and "slave" (as in hard drives) is offensive and should not be used in literature or documentation for tech vendors doing work with the county.

Coming next: an assault on male and female cable connectors...
DVD Madness
The New York Times reports that the new 9 disc "Alien Quadrilogy" DVD collection has a full 62 hours of material.

I picked up the extended edition of The Two Towers this morning, though it might be a little while before I watch it. Maybe over Thanksgiving weekend--I'll be working all weekend, but my roommate will be out of town and I've no desire to venture out into the world of frantic holiday shoppers on those couple of days.

I've got a pretty healthy DVD collection, though I've tried to be smart about catching sales, used copies, and waiting for definitive editions to come out. I'm not going to be getting the Alien set mentioned above, but it does appear to be a good final, authoritative release of the movies.

By the way, there's thousands of DVD review sites out there, but I've always been fond of the technical reviews at DVDMG. If I want a review of the movie, I'll go to IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, but if I want to know about the details about a certain DVD release (and there are sometimes multiples for a single film), then I go to DVDMG. It's also useful for seeing release dates of upcoming DVDs.
More Stats from London
The Guardian reports that despite the massive protests and hullaballoo going on during his current visit to England, his approval ratings are actually quite good--though the questions are different, I'm pretty sure these numbers are better than his approval rating here in the U.S. The mind reels. And it's in The Guardian.

Elsewhere in that paper, they print 60 short letters from various Brits and Americans, writing to Bush about his visit. There's a surprising range of viewpoints offered, though I loved this bit from Frederick Forsyth (author of The Day of the Jackal) about the protests:

I beg you to take no notice. The British left intermittently erupts like a pustule upon the buttock of a rather good country. Seventy years ago it opposed mobilisation against Adolf Hitler and worshipped the other genocide, Josef Stalin.

Something to Think About
Tacitus, recently back from a whirlwind tour of Africa, posted the following:

An armed populace is a sure defense against a government the people don't want. If you have a nation that's really into theocracy, or self-inflicted autocracy, well, that's what they'll shoot for, so to speak.

Read the whole post; it's short, but says volumes, and Tacitus certainly isn't a gun control supporter.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Directed by Tim Burton. Co-written by the legendary Phil Hartman. Score by Danny Elfman. No, I ain't talkin' about Shaft--I'm watching Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Frankly, it's been a long and rough day, and while a bottle of 2 year old Cruzan light rum has helped, I still haven't unwound yet. But lo and behold, one of the greatest movies of the 80s--yea verily, one of the greatest movies of all time--comes on.

Since I try to link my weird movie reviews, I should point out that E.G. Daily, whom I discussed at some length in the review of Valley Girl, plays the love interest Dottie in this fine film. Also, Phil Hartman has a brief cameo as a news reporter at the end of the movie. Hartman was a personal friend of Reubens and helped develop the character of Pee Wee Herman. Cassandra Peterson, of Elvira fame, also has a small cameo as one of the biker chicks.

I'm sure this film drove plenty of parents nuts when it came out, since almost every line is a catchphrase that can become quite annoying after hearing it for the hundredth time. However, it's odd to think of a time when parents adored Pee Wee Herman as a non-threatening, androgynous man-child clown. It's unfortunate that his career ended the way it did, but those who entertain children are held to higher standards...

A quick aside: it was around 1985 or 1986 when my beloved bike was stolen. At the time I was riding a lovely silver Murray. It wasn't as nice as the Huffys the other guys rode, but it was mine. OK, so it was a major participant in a bicycle wreck that fractured my skull and temporarily paralyzed me down one side of my body. But it was my bike, damnit, and in 1980s suburbia, no self respecting boy walked anywhere. I never went on any epic quest to retrieve the bike, but Mom and Dad got a near-identical replacement soon afterwards.

Back to the movie... It has so many great elements. It's basically a live action cartoon, though there is a segment that's animated (the eyes in the dark), as well as the famous "Large Marge" Claymation sequence. You can discern a few touches of Tim Burton, but none of his trademarks that you see in his later work.

"I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel."
Weird Dreams
Stephen den Beste reports on what happens when you watch several episodes of Good Eats followed by several episodes of an anime series.

I don't go in for dream interpretation, for a long list of reasons that aren't really all that important and won't sway any true believers. But it's often funny how repetitive events of the day can force their way into your dreams, like the above example. When I was in high school working on a production of Chess, the prop crew ran into an interesting problem. Since the design motif for the production was based off a black and white chessboard, the prop crew spent most of their time painting things in that pattern. Most of them complained that everything in their dreams--objects, backgrounds, people--were covered with the chessboard pattern.
African Union
It's an idea that's been thrown around for the past decade, to establish an African Union based off the European Union. This article from South Africa mentions that Senegal has signed on, providing the necessary minimum of votes to establish the Pan African Parliament.

This will replace the Organization of African Unity, which accomplished little or nothing for its entire existence. While I think a common market and a metacurrency could help Africa to some extent, the member states lack the tax base and political stability to make this work. Europe's having a rough time adapting to being a unified superstate, and they've been wealthy and at peace for the past fifty years. More importantly, I can't imagine that an African Union is going to allow for such things as open travel among the member states--that's going to fall apart in the first refugee crisis, and those happen frequently in Africa.
Old Tories
Here's one of those things I'm posting mainly because I might find it useful in a later discussion. According to this article in The Guardian from last year, the average age of a Conservative Party member in England is over 65. The Tories have been in a nose dive since the last days of Thatcher, and I don't think they're going to be able to pull out. The law of "adapt or die" applies to political parties just like everything else. A successful example of this has been the Chinese Communist party, which has been engaging in great market reforms over the past twenty years, and thus has avoided a Russian-style revolution or a North Korean-style collapse. Obviously I'm no fan of the Communists, but things are improving, even to the point that Castro feels they've sold out to capitalism.
New Group Blog
There's a new group blog out there called Obsidian Wings. It appears to be comprised of three former bloggers (or heavy commenters in other blogs), one from the left, one from the right, one from the center. Looks good so far, we'll see if it hangs in the daily rotation.

Crooked Timber is another communal blog that's getting a view this week. I'll shove them in the links list to the left if I find them useful.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

One of my quiet joys in life happens to be the silent films aired Sunday nights on Turner Classic Movies. Most of the films made were crap, but you can occasionally find some real gems. No offense, but the industry was still in its infancy and the majority of the work done was basically stage plays without the benefit of dialogue. A case in point is tonight's offering, the 1912 production of Cleopatra. (More information can be found at TCM's site.)

Some background... Helen Gardner plays the lead role of Cleopatra. I'm not sure if this was historical accuracy or whitewashing at work, but the real Cleopatra was from Macedonia (a region in northern Greece), and was certainly not black African, as some revisionists have portrayed her. Helen Gardner was white with long black hair, though I assume that the Greek resemblance was pure coincidence. She was a theatre star of the time, and was famous for a stage play based on the life of Cleopatra. Gardner wrote, produced, and starred in this film adaptation, which was filmed in the Hudson River area of New York (the Hudson River substituting for the Nile, obviously). That tells you pretty much everything you need to know: theatre folk from New York City filming a movie in the countryside during the summer when the theatres are closed (no air conditioning, remember).

Apparently this movie was assumed lost for many years, but a print was found in 2000 and restored by the George Eastmann company (of Kodak fame). It's presented in the tinted form shown to audiences at the time; meaning that it was all black and white, but sometimes developed with a colored tint for dramatic effect. (Some shots are yellow and black, some are green and black, blue and black, etc.) It's not utilized very well here, but I've seen it used to better effect in other movies, like in Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed. That was an early German silent film produced in silhouette animation, and the tinting really helped out. Here, it's just superfluous.

One jarring aspect of this showing is the music. With silent films, you have three choices: play the music of time period (preferably something that was chosen to be played during the showing of the film), play an unrelated score that's unobtrusive, or play a completely whacked out freaky score that would have sent audiences of the day running into the streets screaming about Armageddon. Turner Classic Movies, for some obscure reason, chose the last option. I'm not going to say that I dislike the music--far from it! I like techno, trip-hop, and ambient rhythms. But none of them make sense with ancient Egypt, much less a 1912 upstate New York production of a play about ancient Egypt. The first track is enough to send you scrambing for the mute button--some woman wailing with bongo drums in accompaniment. Not bad on its own, but it really doesn't make much sense with the film.

Griping aside, the costumes are quite good, and most of the sets are excellent. They make extensive use of background mattes, which is a little odd considering the gorgeous backgrounds available to them in the Hudson River Valley. Additionally, they have a couple of black actors as well as white actors in blackface. OK, so I'm back to griping. It's easy to criticize such early produtions, but the art form really hadn't been perfected by 1912.

I tend to break down silent films into two categories: elaborately staged productions and cheaply made productions. I prefer the latter, because you can learn so much from the backgrounds. The staged productions just look odd to today's eyes, but with the ones filmed in real cities or the scant few documentaries made in that era, you get a clear glimpse into the past. That, for me, is the real joy of such movies. Light struck the face of an actress, bounced off her cheek, and landed on the film of an early movie camera. And nearly a hundred years later, through the magic of film and video and cable, that same light finally hits my retinas. It really permits you to experience a sense of the past.
I rarely ever watch current TV shows, mainly because I work evenings. Some I catch years later on reruns, most I'm just oblivious towards. I can safely say that I've never seen a single episode of a single "reality TV" series. However, I make an exception for The Simpsons.

I've been watching from the very beginning--I'd even endure the dry wit and psychiatry jokes of The Tracy Ullman Show to see the original Simpsons shorts. I own the first three seasons on DVD, and I've got the remaining 250 episodes through... other means. While it's popular to bash the current seasons, I think the criticism is well-justified. This particularly comes through if you watch the early seasons, up to about season seven or eight. The quality was just so much better in those years.

It's the longest-running Fox series, and probably the only one that's been allowed to mature properly. However, it's really just coasting at this point. Most of the plots of recent episodes have been explored in previous seasons. Tonight's episode is no exception, as Lisa becomes school president. In episode 7F19, from season 2, Bart ran for class president. Unsuccessfully, but it's been done. (Most people will remember this episode as one of the most touching and poignant ever made, not because of the Bart subplot, but because of the main story surrounding Lisa's crush on her substitute teacher, voiced by Dustin Hoffman under the pseudonym Sam Etic.)

The whole "musical" approach to this episode was wholly unwarranted. While the music of The Simpsons has been wonderful, here it just fell flat. So it was a parody of Evita? So what. A cameo by Michael Moore? Meh. Yet I can't not watch every week. Curses!
Yet Another Book List
The libertarian group blog Samizdata discusses a BBC book list. The list mentioned is the top 21 out of the hundred favorite books chosen by viewers of a BBC television show. I've read 11 of the 21, though I'm familar with the rest. The discussion at the blog is a little amusing, though the list as a whole is fairly useless.

One thing that I desperately need to do before I shuffle off this mortal coil is create (or find) a list of all the books I need to read that I've neglected lo these many years. For instance, I know that I should read some Jane Austen, but I just never find myself thinking, "Man, I've got an itch and the only cure is Northanger Abbey!"

I like to think I'm pretty well read. I've never met anyone else who has read Thomas Love Peacock's 1817 satirical novel Melincourt, even though it pioneered the "orangutan living like a human, hilarity ensues" long before the likes of Every Which Way But Loose. And I've read 28 of Shakespeare's 37 plays. However, there are huge gaps in my lifetime reading list, and it's something that nags at me while I'm enjoying the simple pleasures of bad science fiction.
New Erin Brockovich Case
Never saw the movie with Julia Roberts, didn't care much. However, there's a big story at The New Republic about claims of cancer related to capped oil wells in Beverly Hills, and Brockovich is taking on the oil companies in the region.

For one thing, I never knew that Southern California had an oil industry, much less that strong wells were discovered in Beverly Hills. It's not the kind of thing you'd expect, and after a bit of thought you can figure out why it's not publicized widely. The article, which appears to be the cover story of the current issue, takes the position that the case is bunk is based on bad science. Should be interesting to watch what happens.

Note: That link may not work--I wasn't able to read the second page, and it looks like the entire article was supposed to be password protected. If it gathers steam you'll probably see it reprinted or excerpted elsewhere.
Should Democrats Give Up the South?
Thomas Schaller suggests in this Washington Post
article that the Democrats should abandon the south and focus on the southwest as a route to victory in 2004. It's an interesting strategy, and campaign managers on both sides should be paying attention. I love these kinds of articles--treating an election like a wargame, looking at the electoral map of the U.S. as a game of Risk, holding territory, fighting over contested regions... Particularly interesting in this piece is the information on page 2 about re-election rates of black candidates in gerrymandered districts, and how such districts actually help Republicans in statewide/nationwide races.

I live in Memphis, Tennessee. The state leans reliably Republican, though we have a Democrat governor right now (who's managed to balance the budget without raising taxes--something our Republican governor couldn't do for years). However, the city of Memphis (and to a great extent, the whole of Shelby County) tends to lean reliably Democrat. This is mainly a function of race, as there aren't enough labor votes or New England-style liberals. But the city is still heavily conservative, especially in areas like religion.

I think that the author fails to realize how much Hispanic immigration may shift things in the South. Traditionally the Hispanic vote is up for grabs, and right now there's very little political movement from within. However, I think that in the next 10-20 years you're going to start seeing more Hispanic candidates on ballots, which are going to seriously alter the usual equations for all political parties.

Here's something I haven't seen before: the website provides a transcript of an online discussion with the author, in which a few points are clarified.

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