Miles Davis, "Four"

>> Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I had high hopes of saying something clever about today being a leap year day and all, but things got busy at the office and all that, and now I find I have absolutely nothing clever to say at all.

In lieu of clever, please accept Mr. Miles Davis performing "Four", which seems thematically apt insofar as, you know, every four years we make up for losing three-fourths of a day the last three trips around the sun. (I find it hard, actually, to get my head around the year being around 365.25 days long--I sort of imagine the sun bobbing halfway up the sky then zipping back down like a yo-yo yo-ing, like a sun in a Terry Gilliam animation.)

Happy leap year, anyway. Let's do this again two years after the year after next. Make it a date?


You could have read a book instead...

>> Tuesday, February 28, 2012

If you're interested in videogames and/or art, there's a slightly interesting read (a little bit trolling, a little bit legitimate questioning) by Michael Thomsen over at Slate today: Thomsen (or whomever it is that writes the headlines over there) wants to know "Is a 100-hour video game ever worthwhile?" He points out--and he makes an inarguable point--that there are a lot of other things that you can do in a hundred hours or however long it takes you to play an epic game like Dark Souls, Skyrim, Star Wars: The Old Republic, et al. You could read War And Peace, he suggests, or learn a language, or train for (and run) a marathon.

Of course, just because a point is inarguable doesn't make it meaningful. At the risk of sounding snarkier than I'd like to be, especially this early in my comments, there's a lot of things you can do in the fifteen or twenty minutes it takes to read a Michael Thomsen videogame post in Slate. You could get online and schedule the payment of several bills, run out and check the mail (and leaf through it sufficiently to toss the junk mail before it lingers and multiplies wherever you stack mail when you come inside), you could respond to a social invitation, etc.

I mention that not because Thomsen's piece is a waste of your time, but because whether or not it's a waste of your time is really something you'd have to decide for yourself. I was interested enough to read it all the way through and to mention it here; I'm not terribly interested (I'm a little embarrassed to admit) in finally reading War And Peace (which I'm sure is a great book like everyone says, it's just increasingly unlikely I have the time for it against every other book I have stacked up in my living room) or in playing Dark Souls (which sounds like an interesting game though I don't think I'd heard of it until today). But why do we ever do anything? One of the facts I think we all end up facing in the ugly mug and inhaling the dire breath of is that we're never going to do everything we ever wanted to do, we are, in fact, never going to do almost all of the things we wanted to (conversely, if you were to manage to get through the list of everything you ever wanted to do, I'd have to pity your lack of aspiration). We hope we get through the really important stuff or come to terms with what we did pull off, and then fill in the rest of the time as best we can or as we must.

There's a good chance I won't get around to reading War And Peace. That could be a serious character defect on my part, though the truth is I don't think about War And Peace all that much. For better or worse, War And Peace isn't a part of the hundreds of hours of reading I have queued or stacked on devices or in front of my bookshelf, some of which is admittedly junk or, at best, the kind of quality ephemeral lit that briefly transcends genre or period to be raved about by an era's critics only to be mostly forgotten about in fifteen years or fifty. (It is instructive, sometimes, to look at the bestseller lists and/or book reviews of seventy years ago to see if you recognize the names of any of the authors, much less their works.)

I also won't be training for any marathons. (You would have me confused with a different VanNewkirk.) I have no idea whether I even could train for any kind of run, but I'm also not sure it matters insofar as it just isn't something I enjoy enough (read: "at all") to put in the patience that would allow me to put in enough time and work to make it worthwhile. Walking is fun, especially with a camera in the woods, but in my mind running is something you do to avoid a charging bear.

And yet I'm afraid I'll make time this week for Star Wars: The Old Republic.

There's no disparagement here of people who read Tolstoy or run marathons or whatever. We all have our thing. Or things. And this, I suppose, is where we hit the fallacy underlying Thomsen's entire piece. It may be that he or someone else (or many someones else) get all they can get out of the first five hours of Dark Souls or any other game, much as someone else might get everything they're going to ever get from a book out of its first fifty pages or everything they'll ever get from jogging from a half hour lap round the park. Foolish is the assumption that because this is all you get out of it, that's all there is to it. Also foolish is the assumption that someone's time is fungible, that if only they weren't playing Dark Souls they would be reading Russian literature or climbing Everest instead of picking their nose, surfing online porn, or mindlessly getting drunk while staring at the parade of limited-time-onlies on QVC. (A classic parental fallacy: "Get off your butt and go outside and play," the well-meaning parent says, apparently unaware their child may merely end up outside sitting on their butt. Or schools, acting in loco parentis, assuming that if they force kids to go to gym class, the nerds and misfits will be forced to play sports with the other kids rather than be forced to look for clever ways to shirk and skip.)

I actually find it interesting, too, that Thomsen seems more willing to entertain the idea of videogames as art than Roger Ebert, who did some well-played and infamous trolling of his own by making a bit of a tautological argument that they aren't. Personally, I have no idea whether videogames are or can be art; truthfully, I find the subject both interesting and pointless, an essentially academic and philosophical exercise that can be entertaining and enlightening, but not one that's resolvable. The biggest problem with Ebert's argument has always been that he's never been able to satisfactorily define "art", and the criteria he's tossed up here and there would not only disqualify as art videogames, but also (at various times) jazz, improvisational theatre, dance and--ironically enough--film.

Thomsen writes:

There is real beauty in Dark Souls. It reveals that life is more suffering than pleasure, more failure than success, and that even the momentary relief of achievement is wiped away by new levels of difficulty. It is also a testament to our persistence in the face of that suffering, and it offers the comfort of a community of other players all stuck in the same hellish quagmire. Those are good qualities. That is art. And you can get all of that from the first five hours of Dark Souls. The remaining 90 or so offer nothing but an increasingly nonsensical variation on that experience.

This is where I have to get snarky again and point out that I could take the above paragraph and replace "Dark Souls" with "Moby Dick by Herman Melville" and "other players" with "classmates"1 and it would describe my high school experience with that classic American novel to a T. I wouldn't presume to tell anybody else what they might have found in that unaccountably overrated, overlong, ridiculous book; I can only say that all I found there was good source material for a cromulent John Huston film starring Gregory Peck (screenplay adapted by a young Ray Bradbury). (Related tangent: I don't see why anyone puts up with John Steinbeck's prose, though I guess we're all obliged to give him credit for writing the source material for the amazingly good John Ford film starring Henry Fonda.)

Thomsen's undoubtedly right that many have felt empty and worn out having sunk time into a videogame only to wonder if it was a pointless experience. Where he's wrong is in ascribing this kind of disappointment especially or uniquely to videogames. I've felt the same way at the ends of books, movies, even at the end of a particularly hideous and soul-crushing November. I've felt that way coming home from a vacation, even a vacation I thought I had a pretty good time on. Finishing something is often less thrilling than starting it; not always, but often. I think that perhaps a better question is whether you're enjoying what you're doing right now more than anything else you could realistically be doing instead, and cope with any despair wrought by the gap between what you achieved and what you hoped it would be by reminding yourself: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

1The truth of this latter substitution is debatable, as my recollection is that only three of us out of the twenty-or-so students in that Advanced English class actually finished the damn thing. The other seventeen-or-so wisely abandoned the "hellish quagmire" and (I assume) resorted to Cliff's Notes or some other cheat to fake their way through the class. Now, I find Cliff's Notes despicable and vile; however, I imagine thirty years later not only does no one actually care who did or didn't read Moby Dick in tenth or eleventh grade (whenever it was), but the people who instead found better things to do with their time (they were probably all having recklessly irresponsible teenage sex on their parents' living room couches while their parents were out of town--oh, how I missed out because stubborn pride in my refusal to abandon a book once started drove me to finish Moby Dick...) probably all erroneously misremember actually reading it instead of blowing it off and reading the summary that gave them everything anyone ever needed to know about Moby Dick without having to suffer through the actual prose.


Dumb quote of the day--not this same tired shit edition

>> Monday, February 27, 2012

"While same sex couples may share love, they cannot create children, and therefore they don’t qualify, they don't fit the definition of marriage and that's why the Catholic Church is firmly for the marriage amendment, for traditional marriage."
-David Hains of the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, as quoted by NewsChannel 36 Staff,
"Same sex marriage debate heats up in Charlotte", MSNBC,
February 26th, 2012.

This one's a local item. As some of you may already know, and may or may not care, North Carolina's newly (2010)-Republican (as of the 2010 election) recently decided that in a state flirting with double-digit unemployment (we just recently got it under 10%), the biggest, most important, highest priority issue is a state constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, which is already illegal under state law.

This is what happens when you replace a scandalously corrupt legislature with one that is simply dumb. The former occupants of the state house here were, at least, sort of competent.

I cannot tell you just how sick I am of stupid arguments like Hains', quoted above. We all know, of course, that all sorts of couples can't produce children. Post-menopausal women can't produce kids, obviously, nor men with absurdly low sperm counts and/or defective sperm. Nor women who have undergone tubal ligation, men who have had vasectomies, women who have had hysterectomies, men who have suffered testicular damage or removal, et al. Hains' so-called "argument" isn't so much an argument for a same-sex-marriage ban as it is an argument for making fertility tests a prerequisite for issuance of a marriage license, which frankly sounds like the kind of thing an old-school unreconstructed eugenicist from the 1920s would have been perking his ears up at more than the kind of thing I presume the Church wants to associate with.

And we all know that, of course. The Church and other opponents of same-sex marriage aren't really up in arms over procreation (although it's obviously a pet issue of theirs, c.f. the ruckus over birth control and abortion): if they were, they'd be boycotting the weddings of every adorable elderly couple who met in a nursing home instead of agreeing with all the world that such events are "cute" and "romantic", etc.; per Hains' argument, a 90-year-old widower wedding a 91-year-old widow because they want to spend their last couple of years together isn't a charming story, it's an affront to God and spittle in Jesus' eye.

And naturally we can demolish the logic in the other direction: there's no physiological reason gay couples can't avail themselves of most of the same medical technology that's become commonplace for couples with fertility problems. Sperm donors, surrogate mothers, all of that. Nor are their rational (as opposed to arbitrary and capricious legal) objections to such couples adopting, which isn't procreation per se but is certainly something these conservatives are always saying they want to see more of.

You might think these fools would get sick of soundings stupid all the time.

Here's what I would like to hear Hains say: I would like him to honestly just admit that buttsex freaks him out and the idea of two dudes going at it squicks him out, even in the context of a loving monogamous, exclusive, loving relationship, and that the thought of it bestirs in him such an irrepressible, irrational and confessedly unjustifiable disgust and bigotry that even his ideas about Christian love and notions of others' privacy can't tamp down the bile that rises in his gorge over the whole thing. It would be a refreshing change to hear him and his ilk admit they're a lot of hateful prudes instead of regurgitating the same old ridiculous canards while demurring that they do, indeed, love the sinner while they hate the sin.

Oh, good grief: they don't even know if the sin is occurring. There are plenty of happily married couples who don't even have sex at all.

You know, I take it back. What I'd really like to hear Hains and the rest say is nothing. I'd like them all to shut the hell up if they don't have anything sensible to offer.

If you're a North Carolina resident and eligible to vote, this gay-bashing amendment is up for the vote on Tuesday, May 8th, 2012. Please get out to your polling place that day and help kill this wretched tumor before it attaches itself to our state laws. Thank you.


Santorum, college, and--look, kitty!

>> Sunday, February 26, 2012

I came thiiiis close (I'm holding my hand up with my index finger and thumb about half-an-inch away from completing an "okay" sign) to attempting a full-throttle rant about the latest idiocy coming from Rick Santorum and the teabaggers, this time over Santorum advancing the idea that making college more accessible is bad because, apparently, giving people the opportunity to be better-informed increases the odds they'll end up (shudder) liberals. I dunno, seems to me that this is the ultimate critique of Rick Santorum and the teabagger movement coming from the 'baggers themselves: basically, "You have to be ignorant to believe what we do," is what they're saying here.

You'd think that would be enough to settle it.

The thing is: sure, a liberal arts or bachelor of science degree isn't really for everyone and there's certainly an argument that America needs more diversity of skills. But that's not really the same as saying "college isn't for everyone"; it's complicated, but there are at least two problems with that statement: first, that there's just no logical reason someone who isn't BA/BS-bound can't learn a skilled trade at a two-year college; second, that the role of college has changed in American society, and it isn't just about an education, but also about keeping young adults out of a labor pool that no longer has room for them for an extra couple of years (i.e. college has in fact taken on a babysitting role and become an extension of high school; you don't have to like it, but until you're ready to bring back the private pension programs that allowed people to retire--even from blue collar jobs--in their 50s and/or expand Social Security, sorry, you're just gonna have to suck it up).

The above is sort of cogent and unelaborated on, because the problem with elaborating on it and the reason I don't want to write some kind of epic post on the subject is that at some point the rank anti-intellectualism of the 'baggers (not to mention the apparent hypocrisy of Santorum) ultimately leads down a rabbit hole of incoherence. The real, final, inevitable response to the 'baggers ends up being, "Whaaaaa--but whaaaaat the--gahhhhh--fubbleblaaaaaaaah" followed by having to use a tire jack to lift your lower jaw. (Proposal: assuming ethical waivers and NIH clearances can be secured, medical scientists doing research on strokes, epilepsy and similar cerebral electrochemical malfunctions could show interviews with teabaggers to healthy test subjects in order to trigger similar symptoms which might be cured with the latest promising treatment du jour.)

So we're just going to drop it there and close with a video of a cat teaching a human sign language. All'y'all try and have a good Sunday, okay?

(H/t io9 for the kitty clip.)


SMBC Theater, "Used Car Salesman"

>> Saturday, February 25, 2012

It's one of these days where it's bright, sunny and cold. Last weekend, the weather down here was in the sixties, springlike, the ScatterKat and I went for a walk around the park. Today--not so much: the day looks like last Saturday did, but feels different.

This has nothing to do with the above short from SMBC, I just didn't have a lot to say today, so I decided to talk about the weather.


Neil Young, "The Old Laughing Lady"

>> Friday, February 24, 2012

Neil Young, a banjo and harmonica, a Scottish street corner, 1976. Res ipsa loquitur, y'know?


Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks, "Senator"

>> Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nothing came to me today; I may not even get any kind of writing done at all, and it's all going so unwell, anyway. So, y'know, here's some... well, I guess it's not actually new, technically, but let's try recent Stephen Malkmus. "Senator", a video from The Jicks' last record, video starring Jack Black (who, I feel obligated to warn you, ends up in a bathtub naked and bleeding profusely from the nose; a scene more graphic than the one where he pokes himself in the groin with a cattle prod... so you've been warned) and featuring Gary Cole.


Dumb quote of the day--if only they were really that awesome edition

>> Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Woodstock is the great American orgy. This is who the Democratic Party has become. They have become the party of Woodstock. The prey upon our most basic primal lusts, and that’s sex. And the whole abortion culture, it's not about life. It's about sexual freedom. That's what it's about. Homosexuality. It's about sexual freedom.
-Rick Santorum, as quoted by Fatima Najiy,
"Santorum: The Democratic Party Is About 'Homosexuality'",
Talking Points Memo, February 21st, 2012

I'm an independent. Which probably doesn't mean what a lot of pundits and political consultants seem to think it means: it doesn't mean I sway, free and clear in the breeze, voting for whichever candidate's name I hear being whispered on the wind. What it means is that the United States doesn't have a viable Democratic Socialist party to throw my lot in with, else I'd happily cast in with them. No, we have two parties, Democrats and Republicans, and one of those is a center-right party with a few liberal outliers and the other is an increasingly dysfunctional tent embracing a motley rabble of fiscal conservatives, Randian objectivists, Christian mullahs, cryptofascists, reactionaries, un-self-aware white supremacists, libertarians, et al.; you know, I don't want to be too harsh on the GOP in this context, because, honestly, I have friends and probably family members who I think are pretty good people but still affiliate with the Republicans because somewhere in their heart they hope some kind of latter-day Dwight Eisenhower or Nelson Rockefeller will emerge as the voice of calm, reasonable, technocratic small government, responsible men in grey suits and all that, and they just can't face the ugly fact that the GOP has become a troop of apes and the latter-day Eisenhowers and Rockefellers are, in fact, pretty much the spine of the modern Democratic Party. (I think I've said it before, as quite a few others have, and I'll say it again: Obama, for better or worse, is more Ike--or even Nixon--than FDR.)

But the point I was trying to get at before I got diverted was: I'm an independent because the Democrats are too right-wing for my tastes, not because I'm some kind of ideologically-inchoate swing voter. I'm quite sure this isn't unique or rare on my part: I am pretty sure, speaking anecdotally here, that most "independents" in fact vote for one party or the other with nearly relentless and infallible consistency, they just don't want to be a member of that party for various reasons, the biggest probably being that the party they always vote for isn't really a match for their firmly-held views, but it will have to do yet again.

A year or two ago, I was taking stock one morning, and I wondered why I didn't just suck it up and change my registration to Democrat. And then the Dems fucked up something else again--one of these showdowns with the House teabaggers where the Dems just seemed to cave too quickly--and reminded me. "Ah, yes, that's why I'm not a Democrat." And so I remain an independent.

Except, you know, what's really funny is that there are so many Republicans out there making the Democrats' case better than they do, or, more often, caricaturing the Democrats in a way that makes them more appealing to an old leftie than they really are. Normally, it's when a Republican calls the President or some other rival a "socialist", and then my ears perk up--it's sad, really, that I still do this--and I say, "Really?" and I'm sure my eyes shine for a moment, but, no, it inevitably turns out that it's yet another person who doesn't know what the word "socialist" means, they just think it's a pejorative and if they had any imagination they would have said "subway molester" or "fart fetishist" instead, and I am let down. (Worse still, the punchline these days always seems to be that the Republican is referring to some "new" Democratic proposal that is, nearly inevitably, nothing less or more than a regrooved tire originally manufactured by the Nixon Administration.)

This time it's a little different: this time, it's an old (2008) line from Rick "Frothy Mix" Santorum where he accused the Democrats of being the sexy party. Which, you know, is awesome. Or would be, or could be. I mean, aside from Rick Santorum, who doesn't like sex? Sex rocks. Sex is win. Sex is the most fun one or more people can have without having to wait in line and pay ten-fifty, or close to twenty bucks for the version involving those uncomfortable plastic glasses. Sex is so awesome that almost every other awesome thing humans do or have done is or was related to an attempt to have more sex: the majority of human cultural attainment can be traced back to someone's attempt to get laid.

(Including Woodstock. Chicks really dig musicians, dude.)

Speaking of getting laid, my favorite Santorum line from the Q&A the above quote comes from is actually immediately after the quote. Santorum added:

All of the things are about sexual freedom, and they hate to be called on them. They try to somehow or other tie this to the Founding Father’s vision of liberty, which is bizarre. It’s ridiculous.

History students ought to get a good chortle out of that one. Benjamin Franklin was a notorious womanizer who fathered at least one illegitimate child. Thomas Jefferson had an extramarital relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, for nearly a quarter of a century, beginning when she was a teenager. Alexander Hamilton conducted an affair with Maria Reynolds (both were married to other people), resulting in the nation's first sex scandal. (The man who shot Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, may have fathered two illegitimate children with one of his servants.) That's just off the cuff, you know.

I wouldn't want to overstate the case; the Founding Fathers actually had a bit of a history of doing things they otherwise condemned--passing the Alien And Sedition Acts after writing the First Amendment, owning slaves while being troubled by the peculiar institution, etc. They obviously weren't saints, centuries of effort by various hacks to canonize them notwithstanding. That several of them might have been public prudes and private libertines wouldn't have been exceptionally or unusually hypocritical, it would have been pretty much on par. And they were a varied group of individuals, not the monolith described by the phrase "Founding Fathers": they argued, disagreed, fought (literally shooting at each other in one instance already alluded to). As far as free love and marital fidelity goes, George Washington and John Adams were (so far as we know) just as faithful to their wives as Jefferson and Hamilton weren't (and nobody got around as much as old Ben Franklin).

But there's something unintentionally funny about Santorum trying to implicitly whitewash the Founders and their "vision of liberty" by excluding the Clintonian and Kennedyesque sexual appetites, morals and behaviors of quite a lot of them. Whatever you want to say about Ben Franklin's "vision of liberty", if you at least go by what he practiced (regardless of what he may have preached) it includes the freedom to have a common-law marriage to the woman you're living with, a chance to knock up some other lady you just happen to know, and a great deal of hitting on Frenchwomen. Jefferson's practices included sleeping with his wife's marital property, and Hamilton's included stepping out on his wife and paying off his girlfriend's husband to keep his mouth shut about it. I was perhaps wrong to use the awkward neologisms "Clintonian" and "Kennedyesque": the Founders make Bill Clinton and JFK look like unserious happy hour amateurs hitting on women whose shifts just ended.

No, wait: I have to take that back, too: Ben Franklin never nailed Marilyn Monroe, so I guess JFK gets a technical victory. Still. Only just. And the minute someone invents a time machine, I think we can make it happen.


An open letter to Mr. Lee Chong

>> Tuesday, February 21, 2012


From: ATM Office (
Sent: Sun 2/19/12 9:21 PM


I want to inform you that your payment verification and confirmations is "OK".However, it is our pleasure to inform you that your ATM Card Number; 4048000473315386 has been approved and upgraded in your favour.

Meanwhile, your Secret Pin Number will be available as soon as you confirm to us the receipt of your ATM CARD. The ATM Card Value is $1.2 Million USD Only. You are advised that a maximum withdrawal value of US$500 is permitted daily. Here are the parcel registration numbers (008672) this was the registration numbers placed on the parcel take note of it.

I want to inform you that the agent responsible for the dispatching of the ATM card to you will leave Malaysia to get to your country as soon as the delivery fee of $120 has been received here in this office notice it's undermost you pay for this. Also the card will be packaged as a parcel including the documents that will back you up as the real owner of the said money.

Please kindly confirm to us the receipt of this email.

Best regards,
Mr Lee Chong

Dear Mr. Chong,

Hi. Boy, was I excited when I received your e-mail, I tell you what. 1.2 million dollars, I thought, wow, that is a lot of money! I was so excited, I was ready to check out the price of a monocle, tuxedo and tophat before typing up a resignation letter to my employer, when my eyes, looking back over your missive, hit upon this line:

You are advised that a maximum withdrawal value of US$500 is permitted daily.

Now, I'll admit, five hundred bucks is a lot of pocket change. But then I re-read your e-mail again:

The ATM Card Value is $1.2 Million USD Only.

And then I read that all together:

The ATM Card Value is $1.2 Million USD Only. You are advised that a maximum withdrawal value of US$500 is permitted daily.

And then I did this:

1,200,000 ÷ 500

And I got:


And then I did this:

2,400 ÷ 365.25

And I got:


...which is how many years it would take me to withdraw $1,200,000 from an ATM in $500.00 increments. And that isn't even dealing with usage or withdrawal fees. Or taxes, for that matter. So, that's, what? Something like, if I'm doing this right, six years, six months, twenty-one days, and I guess the hours don't matter? Again, that's assuming (just to keep things simple) that I don't report the money as income and my bank gives me unlimited withdrawals, either of which (taxes or fees) would certainly speed up the amount of time it took to get the money you're offering me out of the bank.

I realize, of course, that $500.00 a day is pretty good walking-around money. And I'm not Charlie Sheen or anything, so it's not like I'd burn through it and my mucous membranes, schnnorrrk, just like that. But that's really part of the problem, see? I'm sure what I'd want to do with 1.2 million is to try and sensibly invest the bulk of that, and it's just really hard to do that in $500.00 increments, or so I imagine.

And if I did want to blow it all? There's only so many XBoxes one can own, right? So I was curious and looked at yachts, because it seems like having a yacht would be kind of fun, and the first website I get to, the cheapest yacht I see is the Mistral and they're asking for $995,000.00 and that's the reduced rate. It turns out that these days, your ATM card would only buy me a percentage of a yacht, maybe around 20% of one if the average price is around five-and-a-half million. I'm no sailor, I'll admit, and would need to defer to more seasoned hands, but I'm mostly sure that twenty percent of a boat isn't seaworthy, even if you could get the present owners to slice off a chunk for you (and do these modern composites, etc., they use in hulls these days even sheer that cleanly). Plus we aren't even factoring the berthing costs, fuel, crew salaries or anything else.

But, assuming I was able to work out some sort of deal for the Mistral, I'm afraid it would take me around five years and three months to pay the boat off in $500.00/day installments.

I'm sorry if I sound ungrateful over your swell offer, Mr. Chong, but I think I'll have to take a pass. Sure, it's free money and all, but it seems to me that it's just more trouble than it's worth. What's the point of having dough like that if you can't even spend it unwisely without putting yourself out? I figure, maybe you can send your offer to some desperate drug addict, or maybe to Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign if you really want to throw it away, and I'm sure they'll find some kind of use for it. Me, I'm afraid I just have to turn you down. But good luck, and I hope your Malaysian agent has a nice flight or however he's traveling if and when you get a taker.

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


Yet another example of how the conqueror of the aether exclusively trusts his life to the fine products of Dr. Grordbort, weaponeer to the crown.

>> Monday, February 20, 2012

I cannot believe there is absolutely nothing I want to write about today. Not a damn thing. I looked at the usual rack of websites for inspiration: nothin'.

So, how about a little bit of miscellaneous fun. Via io9, here's a short film from film students at New Zealand's Media Design School, based on the wonderfully fun steampunk/pulp science props/collectibles from WETA's Dr. Grordbort-verse.

Phwew. That was a full sentence. To break it down a bit, WETA--the CGI and props studio that does stuff for Peter Jackson (e.g. the weapons for Jackson's Lord Of The Rings) has a really cool sideline selling Victorian weird science weaponry designed by Greg Broadmore. Wave Disruptor Pistols, Sub-Atomic Disintegrator Pistols, Infinity Beam Projectors, and assorted other devices from a past future that never was. Fins and bulbs and antennae all over these things. And the students at MDS got permission to an official short, seen above. It isn't perfect, but it's fun.

It puts me in the mood to referee a Space: 1889 campaign, but who has the time?


"One More Episode"

>> Sunday, February 19, 2012

Neither the ScatterKat nor I have cable. I think that's probably a good thing--you go without TV for a few years, only catching up on shows that seem really significant by way of DVD or the Internet, but every now and again it inevitably feels like you might be missing out on something. IFC's Portlandia, for instance.

Actually, it's kind of funny, but I actually had a bit of that with Battlestar Galactica. I watched the miniseries when it aired on SciFi, and then I watched most of the first season in real time, but it was at some point in the middle of the show's run that I moved and dropped cable in the process, and so I ultimately ended up waiting for seasons to arrive on DVD. Of course, all my friends were watching in real time, pretty much, so there would be lots of conversations I'd have to wander away from or try to ignore, because, dammit, people, I didn't see that, I'm waiting for the DVDs.

The other funny thing was, BSG, as many of you know, went off the rails in its last season-and-a-half (roughly). If there's a moment in the Portlandia clip above that doesn't ring true--and it's the only moment, frankly--it's the couple watching the last episode and going nuts for one more; most people, practically everybody, I think, watched the last episode and did some variation of "What the fuck?!" There are apologists who have made excuses for the finale--e.g. claiming that nerds don't like religion and philosophy in their science fiction, which is horseshit--but the sad fact is the finale was simply stupid and anticlimactic, not to mention the fact that the writers decided the series' major plot twist, revealed at the end of the finale, would be something that is considered one of the hoariest clichés in science fiction, stale back when pulps were published on papyrus; that's hyperbole, of course, but it's not hyperbole to point out, I kid you not, that BSG's big reveal is one with a long and ignoble history of being singled out in various present and past SF magazines' submissions for automatic, summary rejection no matter how well-written it is.

BSG spent a great deal of time towards its end running around in circles, backtracking on character development, introducing random-seeming twists that were clearly intended to resolve hanging plot threads (threads that in some cases should have never even started), and committing other sundry sins against the audience. Much of the show's eventual problem can actually be traced back, however, to an early bit of all-too-cleverness introduced early in the show, when the writers decided to add the tagline "And they have a plan" to the end of the pre-credits introduction, implying the antagonistic Cylons knew what they were doing when the show's writers clearly had no idea what that might be, exactly. Those five words probably ruined the show, since it led audiences (naturally) to pore over every scene and line of dialogue and mannerism for clues as to what the big plan might be (when, again, there actually wasn't one), which made the show addicting as hell but (since there wasn't actually a plan) meant there was no way the writers could ever deliver on the promise being made (the plan, when the writers finally got around to making one up to tie the billowing spidersilk strands of plot they'd loosed upon the breeze, turned out to be completely--and by that point, predictably--incoherent).

The obvious lesson for writers is: don't tell your audience that your characters are clever and conniving and know what they're doing when you have no idea what those people are doing; it's one thing to say "And they have a plan" when there really is a (hopefully clever as all get-out) plan, but suicide when you say you're building up to something when really you're just making it all up as you go along (gods help George R.R. Martin). A lesson for audiences is to be careful what you wish for: all the fans who rend their garments for the lost, never-to-be-seen later seasons of Joss Whedon's Firefly probably ought to brace themselves by soberly reminding themselves they could have ended up with the fourth season of Galactica, and find solace in never getting the chance to be really and truly disappointed like they might have been if Whedon had been allowed to make a mediocre and depressing movie to tie up some of his loose ends (fortunately this never happened, never).

The Portlandia clip is hysterical throughout, but the absolute best part for BSG fans starts around the six-minute mark. I don't want to spoil it if you haven't seen it yet--scroll up and watch the thing, dammit! It's a brilliant little coup for the show and some people are just too awesome for belief. I'd say more, but I shouldn't. Watch the damn clip.


Vangelis, "One More Kiss, Dear"

>> Saturday, February 18, 2012

Oh, what the hell. Earlier this week, Steve pointed out in the comments that I'd somehow mentioned Blade Runner in three different posts. Well, fuck it, we'll go for four. The end titles or "Blade Runner Blues" would be obvious choices, so we'll skip them for the oddest and least Vangelis-ey of Vangelis' compositions for the film, "One More Kiss, Dear". I'll be damned if I can ever remember what scene it actually appears in. I do like the song, though it's an odd one, at least in context.

I feel like you put me up to this, Steve.

Have a good weekend, everybody!


Bruce Springsteen, "The River"

>> Friday, February 17, 2012

I kinda hate it when this happens: I actually got ahead on the blog, only to realize as I'm finishing up at the office that I'm not actually ahead because I don't have an entry for today. What to do? I could move up the posts I have queued, but that may mean running around Sunday to get something posted when I'm distracted by other things. I could look and see what's happening in the news, but nothing inspires me enough to write about it; in fact, some of the things in the news triggering the strongest reactions are things that annoy me too much to bother thinking about them.

Hey, what's that on the shuffle play in the background? Bruce Springsteen? "The River"? Hello.

This has long been one of my favorite Boss songs. You have, I think, one of his best melodies, suitably somber and hopeful at the same time. And the payoff line, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true / Or is it something worse?" just slays me every time I hear it. The image I get in my head every time I hear the song is just so damn vivid, and perhaps ironically, it isn't the image of a river or a couple of kids beside it, but the image of this guy, the character in the song, sitting at a card table in the kitchen with one light on overhead, next to a failing refrigerator and surrounded by linoleum tile and scratched chrome, he's in his undershirt and he's wondering what the hell he's going to do with himself and how everything in his life has led to this dark moment.

The performance at the top of the clip caught my eye because it's obvious from the freeze frame preview that it's an early performance, and then when the clip starts, you have Jackson Browne and, if I'm not mistaken, Bonnie Raitt sitting at a table talking about MUSE: if you know your seventies pop history, your history of liberalism and/or you history of rock music, it isn't too hard to figure out the obvious: this is a clip from No Nukes.

My parents had the album, though an odd thing is that while I remember them playing lots and lots of Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and I think a fair bit of Bonnie Raitt, I don't actually remember them playing this album all that much, if ever. I'm not sure if that's a reflection of my shoddy memory thirty years after the fact or whether this was a record that just didn't hit their turntable too often for whatever reason.

Before getting on to the other interesting (I think) thing about the above performance, I feel like I need to offer a kind of preemptive disclaimer/brush off: I'm one of these technocratic pro nuclear liberals you occasionally hear about. I mean, I totally get how fucked up the nuclear industry appears and especially how fucked up it appeared in the wake of TMI, and I think anti-nukers have their hearts absolutely in the right place, along with legitimate health and environmental concerns. It's just that I'm also willing to consider the idea that there could be relatively safe, heavily regulated reactors that are, all-in-all, far less politically, medically and environmentally dangerous--not to mention more sustainable--than fossil fuels; which may not be saying much, I also realize. I also need to point out that I don't see this as being either-or: I mean, all things being equal in terms of generation, if it's a choice between uranium and oil, pick uranium, and its a choice between uranium and solar, gods know you go with solar. What I expect we're stuck with is some kind of mix of sources while we figure out how to transition into something safer and cleaner, and I don't think fission should be off the table.

That's a lot more than I really wanted to say about the topic, actually. Because what I'd prefer pointing out in a Friday afternoon post is that whether you agree with MUSE's goals or not, a concert that features Gil Scott-Heron, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Chaka Khan, Carly Simon and Ry Cooder is so full-of-win right there that it makes up for the fact that James Fucking Taylor (ugh!) is involved. The MUSE concerts featured awesome, awesome lineups, just sayin'.

Now, finally, for the other interesting (to me) thing I alluded to above. The original MUSE concerts were held at Madison Square Garden in September, 1979. The studio version of "The River" was recorded in July or August of 1979. This studio version made its first official appearance in October, 1980 (on an album called, The River--of course you knew that, right?).

So here's Bruce Springsteen, and he's making one of his first appearances in front of a really big, festival-sized, arena crowd, having mostly been playing clubs and auditoriums for the past decade, and he's performing a song which he isn't going to release for another thirteen months and which he only just recorded last month (though, as with much of his material in those days, I'm sure he'd been demoing earlier, alternate versions and/or bits and pieces of the song in front of his usual crowds even prior to that). I mean, how cool is that? I think it kind of goes back to one of the things raised in (and subsequently discussed under) the They Might Be Giants piece the other day, though, I guess, Springsteen didn't exactly have that many quote-unquote "hits" to trot out that night; well--he did have Born To Run, which had done very well, and while Darkness On The Edge Of Town hadn't produced any singles the album itself spent a good bit of time on the charts. Springsteen could have gone out there and done "Born To Run" or "Thunder Road" or "Jungleland", or even "Badlands" or "The Promised Land"; instead, he goes out and blows the crowd away with a song his band may barely know.

That, friends, is showmanship. And balls. Balls and showmanship, absolutely. And that's why he's The Boss.


Pink Floyd, "Seamus"

>> Thursday, February 16, 2012

I have to be honest and say I kind of have a headache right now and can't think of anything to write. So let's set you fine folks up today with a nice little tune and a dedication: this one goes out, naturally, to Governor Mitt Romney, a loyal friend of four-legged buddies everywhere.

The best part of being snarky about Romney is that I know he won't comment here. And the reason I know he won't comment here is that Google has started captioning their CAPTCHAs, "Please prove you're not a robot".

Which is sure to stump him.

On a related note, I was listening to NPR this morning, and they were talking about the upcoming Republican primaries in Michigan, and they spoke to this one woman who was waiting at a Romney event and said she had a question for him. And I immediately wondered if what she wanted to ask was:

You're in a desert, walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you look down and see a tortoise; you reach down and you flip the tortoise over on its back. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping. Why is that?

I mean, that's totally what I'd ask him if I had the chance.


They Might Be Giants, McGlohon Theater, February 14, 2011

>> Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My sister gave us the tickets. It was actually--I hate to admit I recently had a birthday--a really awesome birthday present sent via e-mail a month ago. Awesome because, (a) I've liked They Might Be Giants since Flood, admittedly late to the party (it was their third album and there were several already-classic tunes on the first two) and (b) because it was my first Valentine's Day with the ScatterKat, another TMBG fan from way-back-when (is there a nerd of my generation who isn't or wasn't a TMBG fan?) and spending the evening at such a concert with one's amour was the best gift a sister could have given her unworthy bro.

So this is hardly an objective evaluation. I would like to think any observations I might have on last night's show can be objectively verified (possibly with the help of expensive lasers, because that would be very exciting), but I admit I was in an excited state, very attuned and receptive to fun.

I'm trying to remember the last time I'd been to a show at the McGlohon, which is a tiny venue built inside an old converted church, complete with stained glass windows and everything. It isn't necessarily as sexy as a show in an actual unconverted church, though the acoustics have been tweaked. (Although this is where we have to acknowledge, deal with and move past the fact that they had bass problems--too much of it--throughout much of the show last night.) But it's still a damn fine place to see a concert.

Jonathan Coulton opened. Coulton's a former computer programmer turned nerd icon, probably best known for penning the really funny end credits theme from the video game Portal and the nerd-zombie-anthem "Re: Your Brains". But then I suspect you either knew that already or still don't care. Anyway, it was a fun time, and, yes, there was an audience singalong for "Re: Your Brains".

As for TMBG, even after seeing countless live clips (this was my first actual TMBG show), I'm still surprised at just how hard these guys actually rock which seems like a strange thing even writing it. TMBG's loopy, smart, surreal lyrics and poppy hooks have always made them a band one associates (in a good way) with children's songs, and kid-aimed/friendly records like NO! and Here Comes Science seemed like inevitable and appropriate steps. So much so, it's easy to forget that the Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell, the core and founding members of the band, which started as a duet and eventually has expanded to a quintet of regulars) really began their career in the early 1980s in Brooklyn as a branch off the art school scene Talking Heads and similarly-flavored New Wave acts had established in New York nearly ten years earlier. It's funny: I think to some degree, TMBG's affection for stage props, nerdy oddball lyrics about science and history, outré instrumentation, old songbook selections (e.g. "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", "Why Does The Sun Shine (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)"), and unusual arrangements can be confused with childishness (in a good way, I mean), when really it's childlike, not in an innocent way, but in a surrealist way; I'm not sure I'm getting the idea across, actually--this seems like the kind of thing where there's probably some really apt French word or phrase to describe what I'm trying to poke at, "naïve," in a very specific sense, comes to mind but still doesn't seem quite right, and "surreal" is a word that has become degraded.

Whatever. TMBG's show, promoting a new album, Join Us, that the band rightly considers a back-to-roots record, was very much a raucous rock show by an arthouse band with obvious punk and new wave influences. Even the puppet show parts, or possibly especially the puppet show parts, since one of the puppet show interludes that was sort of musically a break from TMBG's expected métier involved the Johns' sock-puppet avatars performing an extremely deadpan and by-the-book faithful cover of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid".

It was "Birdhouse In Your Soul", three songs into the set, that brought the crowd to their feet and they stayed there. I'm ambivalent about how much that's a good thing, to be honest: after all, it is very possibly my favorite TMBG song, at the same time, there's always something, I dunno how to put it except to say, something about a band getting more of a reaction off a twenty-year-old classic than out of the new stuff they might be leading off with.

This was something the ScatterKat and I actually had sort of an argument about on the way over to the show, actually. The ScatterKat takes the view that performers ought to give the people what they want and paid for, and that someone like David Bowie who pretty much says he's never playing a thirty-or-forty-year-old song ever again is, while she understands where he's coming from, sort of cheating his fans. I take the view that there's usually something sad about someone like the Violent Femmes doing a show where, even though they have a new record out and maybe it's pretty darn good, almost their entire setlist is made up of songs from their first album and Why Do Birds Sing? The ScatterKat would settle for a compromise, something around fifty/fifty old-stuff-everybody-loves/material-nobody's-ever-heard. I'm stubborn and feel like if a band wants to do a setlist of completely unreleased material, the audience ought to feel privileged just to be there and if they don't, fuck 'em. You don't have to agree with me, I totally get where ScatterKat is coming from even if she's wrong. (Written, do I even need to say, lovingly, teasingly, tongue-planted-in-cheek.)

TMBG went the ScatterKat-preferred route, and I don't blame them; indeed, they did a fine job mixing-and-matching thirty-something years worth of material, going back at least as far as Lincoln and hitting material from most of their albums over the course of a vivacious set. Most importantly, and this is really what I hope to see from an act, whatever they're playing, they seemed to have a pretty good time up there, and I hope we were a satisfactory audience. They gave us two encores, which I hope was a sign of approval and not obligation.

ScatterKat and I danced some, and kissed, and held hands, and did other ridiculously schmoopy things. This has nothing to do with the show, other than the fact that my evaluation of the good time to be had may have been colored a little by circumstances. You'll probably find it more useful to know that They Might Be Giants played fast, and loud, and they brought out the stylophones and puppets and played a long, full set covering the breadth of their career. Get out there if they swing by you, and, if you can, take someone you can kiss.


Valentine's Day, 2012

>> Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This is unfortunate. This is doubly unfortunate.

There are several things I'm in the habit of doing on February 14th. One is, I like to ignore it and do nothing at all. Another is, I like to be one of those assholes The Oatmeal complained about who goes around bitching about how Valentine's is a greeting-card-company holiday (in my dubious defense, I don't do this spontaneously, just when asked about Valentine's Day).

But the biggest thing I like to do is crack stale jokes about how this is the day we all get to celebrate a bunch of mobsters getting lined up against a wall and gunned down by their professional colleagues. Which, by the way, I still think would be an awesome holiday: people would celebrate by wearing fedoras and calling everyone they met "a doity rat" and mispronouncing "th"s and mid-word "r"s generally, and punctuating their sentences with "see?"; e.g. "Good moining, you doity rat, I need dat repoit by lunchtime, see?"

It would totally liven up de woikday, see?

Now, the primary problem with that this year, is suddenly I'm in love and have been seeing someone nearly a year, now. Which means I suddenly have to take Valentine's Day a little bit more seriously and be a little schmoopy about it. Love is awesome, love is real, the feeling of nausea you might be feeling is probably jealousy! It's true that the ScatterKat and I aren't doing flowers or candy today for assorted reasons (he wrote to stave off the inevitable question), but we are in wuv so it's a nice day and you should stop wasting time trying out that ludicrously fake gangster accent you learned from Bugs Bunny and plant a big, sloppy kiss on your lover.

What the ScatterKat and I are doing for Valentine's Day is: my sister recently gave me They Might Be Giants tickets for my birthday and the show is tonight. So we are doing something special, albeit something we might also do on, I dunno, Columbus Day, f'r'instance, if that was when the show was. The ScatterKat is taking today off while I'm stuck at work, and will be various places that would be hard for a florist to track down unless I hired one of those bounty florists you read about (that's totally a thing, right, and not something I'm totally making up? there's a reality show, isn't there?); when I get home, we go, we see the show, then we have a dinner contingent on how long the set is. I expect there will probably be some adoring looks and handholding and sloppy kisses you don't want to know about, but to hell with you, you're hearing about it anyway, see?

This isn't anything I would have expected this time last year, I gotta tell you. I mean, last year, my February 14th post was a Tolkien pastiche. The year before that, I acknowledge the holiday--by posting a squicky song about domestic violence. Funny how things work out.

I should wrap this up before this post can be tapped for syrup, if it's not too late for that. I hope you're having a happy Valentine's Day, or an acceptable February 14th, whatever floats your boat. Me, I'm going to hold my baby's hand and hope they play "Birdhouse In Your Soul".


Sharon Van Etten, "Serpents"

>> Monday, February 13, 2012

Well I don't even think I realized Van Etten had a new album out last week. Guess that's one more for the wishlist. Looks like it's an indie-all-star affair, with contributions from Julianna Barwick and members of The National, Walkmen, Wye Oak, and Beiruit. Which I think it's safe to say is either really cool or completely meaningless depending on what radio station and/or streaming Internet feed you listen to.

It was a real joy to see Van Etten play at SXSW last year. I'm still a little bummed about not getting out to Austin this year, but there's just no doubt in my mind that 2013 is going to be a repeat year for me. It's just the greatest thing ever if you have a really hardcore love of music--it's not just the concentration of acts, but that there are days full of seminars and panels and the gear tradeshows and everything else; it's like a sausage festival for people who actually do want to know how the sausage gets made, not to mention possessing an interest in the history of sausage, what innovations can be expected in the grinding and stuffing of sausages, etc. And, okay, maybe that metaphor just went off the rails because of the particular cliché that seemed apt when I started writing it. Who knew it would inadvertently stumble into some kind of unfortunate Freudian territory within a mere few words of the starting point? Aside from the seventh graders in the back row who started snickering at the words "sausage festival," I mean?


SXSW 2012 is next month, which pretty much means it's probably too late for you to get a hotel room. Not sure what your chances would be of getting a badge, if you thought you needed one; it's often easy enough to get in to see an act if the place isn't already full. The beauty of the badge is being able to waltz past everybody who's trying to get in without one and getting waved in as a VIP, basically. I guess what I'm getting at is, it's probably not too late for you to crash on someone's couch if you have friends in Austin. (Me? I've been spoiled.)


Johnny Rivers, "Secret Agent Man"

>> Sunday, February 12, 2012

The ScatterKat and I went to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy yesterday, and I thought about writing a review, or trying to, but it seemed a bit more of a challenge than I'm feeling up for, so here's Johnny Rivers miming "Secret Agent Man" on some '60s music show, instead.

Well; I'll say this about TTSS: I liked it a lot, and ScatterKat liked it. She found it enjoyable to watch though hard to follow; I can see that, as I found it enjoyable to watch and was able to follow it mainly because I just read the book a few weeks ago, and so could say to myself, "Oh, yeah, it's that guy!" a lot. TTSS is brilliantly acted and it's beautifully shot; the entire cast, led by Gary Oldman, really is magnificent, and director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In, one of the best vampire movies ever made) has a brilliant eye for the grittier side of the 1970s.

I think TTSS is absolutely worth seeing, but there is a sort of inevitable problem with it: John le Carré's novel is just brilliantly dense in its tense plotting, although much of the actual action in the book consists of an old fat man (George Smiley, played as an old thin man by an extraordinary Gary Oldman) sitting around interviewing people and reading files while reminiscing in his mind. ScatterKat and I will be watching the 1979 British miniseries soon (I recently bought it on DVD; I've heard Alec Guinness is incredible in it), and I imagine a six-hour version of the story has time to get into the plot's windings and the nuanced relationships between and among the various characters. The film version is stuck with a reasonable running time, though I sort of hope maybe they shot enough during production to do an epic-length director's cut for DVD, thus stickier bits of plot get smoothed out and some of the vital character interactions are reduced to shorthand and quick sketches. I don't think that makes the film easy to follow, unfortunately, and I suspect if you go in having read the book or seen the miniseries, you'll get a lot more out of it. And this is an unfortunate caveat if you haven't read the book or seen the miniseries, because Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and immersing yourself in a dark, silent theatre for (where all the fine details packed into every shot and scene can really register), and because, although it's early in the year, I have a suspicion TTSS will make any shortlist of the best movies you could have seen this year. Even if you have a hard time following it, and you might, it's just such a damn well-made movie.

Another thing re: the previous paragraph: saying the movie streamlines, simplifies or reduces is generally a criticism, but one of the impressive things about the TTSS screenplay is that, first of all, they actually did a stunningly good job of keeping all the major beats from the novel and even work in little details and scenes that I would have been certain they would have cut; and, second of all, that the changes they make largely work and/or aren't that troublesome (especially picky spycraft enthusiasts may wonder how Control, played by John Hurt, ever got away with taking so much of his work home with him, but it's a really good scene in the movie and it ticks along so well, you might not even scratch your head bemusedly over it until you're on your way home; I also can't mention it without also mentioning that having Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) cover his nose with a handkerchief in obvious disgust over god-only-knows what kind of musty old crank smell has infused the place is one of the best touches I've ever seen in a movie--given that people in movies tend to only have two senses, and often aren't even able to use those to see and hear what's on the same scene they're in).

Anyway... hm. I've possibly written a review of Tinker, Tailor after all. Well. Keep the video anyway. Cheers.


Dumb quote of the day--getting my nerd rage on edition

>> Saturday, February 11, 2012

Well, it's not a religious event. I hate to tell people that. It's a movie, just a movie. The controversy over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo, in Episode IV, what I did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously it upset people because they wanted Solo [who seemed to be the one who shot first in the original] to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn't. It had been done in all close-ups and it was confusing about who did what to whom. I put a little wider shot in there that made it clear that Greedo is the one who shot first, but everyone wanted to think that Han shot first, because they wanted to think that he actually just gunned him down.

It’s the same thing with Yoda. We tried to do Yoda in CGI in Episode I, but we just couldn't get it done in time. We couldn’t get the technology to work, so we had to use the puppet, but the puppet really wasn’t as good as the CGI. So when we did the reissue, we had to put the CGI back in, which was what it was meant to be.

If you look at Blade Runner, it's been cut sixteen ways from Sunday and there are all kinds of different versions of it. Star Wars, there's basically one version--it just keeps getting improved a little bit as we move forward. ... All art is technology and it improves every year. Whether it’s on the stage or in music or in painting, there are technological answers that happen, and because movies are so technological, the advances become more obvious.
George Lucas, as quoted by Alex Ben Block,
"5 Questions With George Lucas: Controversial
'Star Wars' Changes, SOPA and 'Indiana Jones 5'

The Hollywood Reporter, February, 9th, 2012

Yeah, um... no.

Look, a couple of things. The first and biggest, actually, is Lucas' disingenuous or clueless implication that he's somehow being mistreated because nobody, supposedly, cares about all the various cuts of Blade Runner. The problem with that comparison is actually twofold: (1) people actually do argue about which version is better, with some people very vocally favoring the original theatrical cut (which included voiceover narration and a happy ending) and the director's cut (which cuts the voiceover, restores several dream sequences, and has a purposely ambiguous ending); and, more importantly, (2) all of the several versions of Blade Runner have--unlike the original cuts of the original Star Wars films--remained available: in fact, a five disc collector's edition featuring a "final cut" version, the theatrical cut, the first "director's cut", and the "international version" was released in 2007, providing audiences with the chance to pick their favorite versions and giving film buffs/cinema geeks/Blade Runner fanatics the power to compare/contrast the assorted incarnations of the film. (By way of contrast, Lucas has maintained, at various times, that the original releases of Episodes IV-VI no longer exist, the only DVD release to feature the original versions is no longer in print and the originals were only presented as remasters from Laserdisc on "bonus" discs; the earlier Special Editions and previous cuts of the prequels have been superseded and have been "uncreated" as well.)

You know, I don't think it even occurs to Lucas that Star Wars geeks almost certainly wouldn't feel any nerd rage over his constant re-cutting if he actually went the Blade Runner route, which is what is so ironic and inappropriate about his comparison: if Lucas released a four-disc "super edition" of Episode IV featuring the original theatrical cut (if the negatives were in fact destroyed during the process of making the Special Editions, I'm sure fans would be satisfied by a digital remaster from a low-generation positive), the Special Edition version, an "ultimate" version and a disc of bonus features, I'm sure fans would be peeing themselves like a puppy whose owner just walked back in the front door. Lucas could, in fact, have his cake and eat it, too, even though that's supposedly impossible: he could insist that his latest tweaked version was the "real" movie while acknowledging that many fans will prefer the first version they saw in the theatre, and how releasing all these versions in one box will allow fans to better understand his evolving vision of the Star Wars universe, etc., blah-blah-blah.

This latter point being one of the other ironies about Lucas and Star Wars that really sticks in my craw: Lucas has spent a lot of money and time on movie preservation and restoration, and he and Lucasfilm deserve an enormous amount of credit for being at the forefront of salvaging old celluloid and guaranteeing that a number of movies that were literally disintegrating in storerooms will always be available for future generations of fans and historians alike. And yet, when it comes to his own work, his own movies fall on the punctum caecum, as if he simply cannot perceive that maybe somebody, sometime, maybe even somebody right now might actually want to see both versions of the original trilogy films, watching the original versions especially for the flaws and places where the effects pushed the technical limitations of the medium because the Star Wars films have historical value and have passed well beyond merely being pop culture ephemera.

The fact is, we don't just throw actual art out--or deface it--when it's technologically superseded. And, while there are a lot of reasons for this, one of the basic reasons for it is because new artists learn their craft from the old stuff. The saddest thing about Lucas replacing a puppet with CGI in The Phantom Menace or replacing practical effects with CGI in the original trilogy isn't that he triggers a whole new round of nerds whining about raped childhoods or some similar surge of hyperbole; the saddest thing about it is that he's inevitably denying future generations of filmmakers the opportunity to learn about film the same way Lucas did at USC: by watching a lot of old movies to see how their forebears used technology to tell stories.

All of this touches on what's become the most-irritating thing to me, personally, about the whole Han-shot-first business, too. At this point, it's almost less important that Lucas has decided, for some inexplicable reason, that Han Solo needs to be a less morally-ambiguous, shady, savvy, clever character and should be whitewashed and made more boring. What's gotten ridiculous is Lucas' perverse insistence that everybody who remembers things were any other way are confused, deluded or mistaken, that things were always the way he's recently edited them to be. I mean, I don't really agree with the idea that Lucas' films are his and he can do what he wants with them: once he shows a movie to even a single other person, that film becomes shared mental real estate, a communal experience in which the artist presents and the audience interprets, and the work becomes something else and more interesting; but even if I did agree with that premise, I have no idea where Lucas gets off thinking he can tell me I didn't see something I saw and in fact own on VHS and DVD (I have the previously-mentioned out-of-print original trilogy editions with the original movies as "bonus features") and can watch in slo-mo any time I'd like.

Last: whenever this subject boils up, someone inevitably suggests the complainant just not buy the latest version. Well, y'know, I won't. I have the editions of the movies I like, and I wish they would endure, but if they've gone down the memory hole as far as Lucas is concerned, that's that, then. I won't be buying the recent Blu-Ray box even if I get a Blu-Ray player separate from my laptop, and I have no intention of seeing the 3D releases coming to theatres over the next several years, starting this weekend with The Phantom Menace (given my druthers, I won't be seeing the 3D releases, but I won't completely rule out being dragged, grumbling, to any of them by friends if they really must; that's more about the social occasion than about the films at that point, you realize). I'm pretty much done with Lucas, I'm sad to say.

(H/t io9.)


Cloud Nothings, "Wasted Days"

>> Friday, February 10, 2012

I liked the first track anyone started playing from Cloud Nothings' new album, Attack On Memory, the Radiohead-esque "No Future/No Past" well enough; in fact, I thought for a moment or so that it was a new Radiohead cut and the boys were getting back to the basics. But as much as I liked it, I don't know it would have sold me on the album.

"Wasted Days" absolutely did, however. I hesitated about embedding it as a taste because it's a long taste, a nearly nine-minute song, which is a short forever in Internet terms. But this is just... this is just an amazing cut, starting out as it does with a kind of Green Day-ish sound (circa sometime) before morphing into a Pink Floyd-esque frenetic space jam (circa 1968; think "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" post-scream) and then winding back to something a little '90s-ish, Radiohead again, maybe (Pablo Honey era). The cliché "tour de force" comes unfortunately to mind, but there it is: it's just an utterly epic cut.

Although I also have to admit that there may be a personal echo that has me playing the track over and over again, and not just that it's a quality tune; this is another reason I was just a little hesitant about building a post around it, especially on a Friday. "I thought / I would / Be more / Than this" has felt like a sad summary, especially this week, of recently turning forty.

I don't know how much of this is a generational thing or not. Does everybody think they were going to be special or were Gen Xers unduly encouraged. There was also something very resonant in David Fincher's and Jim Uhls' adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club to the screen: "You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake," Tyler Durden rants at one point; the protagonist has a soul-killing job he just stumbled into and (briefly) a condo full of Ikea furniture and absolutely no reason to do anything; he certainly isn't anybody awesome, and it turns out the only way for him to feel anything at all is to actually, really, non-metaphorically get himself punched in the face a lot. He absolutely isn't anybody important (setting aside the implications of the movie's ending, assuming, for the sake of convenience, the ending of Fight Club is even happening).1

Part of the premise of Fight Club is that there's a generation of men who were brought up to feel like each and every one of us was supposed to be special and unique and wonderful in our own way, when the bitter truth is we're almost all chumps. And maybe the Millenials share that and feel much the same way about it: Cloud Nothings' main dude, Dylan Baldi, must be fifteen years younger than I am. I suppose I wonder how Boomers feel about themselves, and before them, did the Greatest Generation feel full of themselves only to find themselves let down--"Let down and hanging around / Crushed like a bug in the ground", as Radiohead once put it. (Typing that question, it almost seemed to answer itself: were the Greatest Generation full of themselves? Gee, d'ya think?)

Sorry. I'm not sure I wanted to get into a melodramatic, hair-yanking, clothes-rending, rolling around in the sackcloth and ashes and baring my breast, Job-like, to the universe kind of rant. Least of all on a Friday. I think the point was to share a song I'm really loving, while conceding that only part of the love comes from the inherent awesomeness of the song and a fair bit probably comes from feeling like I'm in a shadowy part of the vale right now, and with the buzzards circling to add a nice bit of color to the locale, to boot. I... hope you're having a nice day and hope you have a great weekend?

1By the way, if you've seen Fight Club and are a fan of one of the greatest newspaper comics of all time, you might want to take a look at the single greatest exegesis of Fight Club ever committed to the Internet (if you haven't seen Fight Club, I have to warn you that the entire article riffs on the film's central spoiler). I wholeheartedly endorse Galvin P. Chow's theory: it makes perfect sense and explains everything.


Dumb quote of the day--think inside the box edition

>> Thursday, February 09, 2012

We can all theorize why the intense desire for change has so far produced relatively few coherent recipes for change. Maybe people today are simply too deferential. Raised to get college recommendations, maybe they lack the oppositional mentality necessary for revolt. Maybe people are too distracted.

My own theory revolves around a single bad idea. For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition.
-David Brooks,
"How To Fight The Man",
The New York Times, February 2nd, 2012

So, Brooks goes on to say that leftists ought to crib from Marx (I'm pretty sure he means Karl, but Groucho would suit me fine), libertarians from the Austrian School (he specifies Hayek and von Mises, but I think they'd do better citing Gibson and Miller... oh, wait, that's the Australian school, my bad), and various spiritual movements riff from... various spiritual movements. Well, okay, then. I mean, none of that is per se stupid. Yeah, leftists ought to have some kind of appreciation of Marx and everybody should know and respect who runs Bartertown.

What's stupid about it is that Brooks seems to completely miscomprehend what "Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview" actually means and has always meant: it's never meant, "be an ignorant asshat and make it up as you go along," it's always been assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the independent thinker would actually assemble and correlate data, including what other people have thought about the subject.

I think I need to backtrack a little: Brooks actually starts his column talking about some kid named Jefferson Bethke who apparently made what is described as a silly, heartfelt, and wholly inaccurate YouTube video titled, "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus". I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on it. But Brooks recounts how Bethke posted this video, how he found himself bearing the brunt of forceful and thorough critiques from various parties, and how, as a result, he changed his mind.

Now, Brooks takes this story--and this is a big part of what makes his whole column one big dumb quotathon--and runs with the idea that if this kid had just rummaged through the past and regurgitated whatever he gobbled down, he would have never had to eat his words in public. Expanding on this, Brooks then... enh... well, uh... okay, here's another reason his whole column is a BDQ: he doesn't so much extrapolate from this one kid's theological evolution to a larger point so much as he hops from the kid getting schooled to some kind of point about how contemporary protest movements need to present some kind of alternative, not just griping (a point it's hard to disagree with and I think is so self-evident and obvious it hardly merits a Twitter comment anymore, much less a whole NYT op-ed).

Let's go back to the part before Brooks gets on his rocket-powered hog and ramps the Grand Canyon. Where were we? Ah, yes: Brooks "runs with the idea that if this kid had just rummaged through the past and regurgitated whatever he gobbled down, he would have never had to eat his words in public," is what I just wrote. Yes, well: I guess that's one way you can take in the whole affair. An alternative, of course, is that the kid did exactly what open-minded, independent thinkers ought to do; he presented an argument (granted, one he apparently hadn't put a lot of thought into), listened to new evidence submitted in rebuttal, and changed his mind.

What Brooks is saying might really be summed up as: "If the kid had been better indoctrinated in some kind of dogma to begin with, he wouldn't have had to think as much about what he was saying and wouldn't have had to retract his prior brain fartings." You would have to be a constipated thinker--perhaps that should be in quotes, "thinker", so-called--to conceive of this as a good thing. You'd have to be particularly and peculiarly twisted, as well, to go even further than that and extrapolate "what's wrong with kids these days" from an example of what sounds like somebody demonstrating that he possesses a receptive and flexible mind in a manner that is charming, gracious and humble. (To be fair, Brooks even describes him similarly--"Bethke responded in a way that was humble, earnest and gracious, and that generally spoke well of his character"--before adding, "He also basically folded," as if admitting you were wrong is ever a bad thing.)

You know, even when Brooks says something smart, he can't help saying something stupid. This penultimate paragraph would have been an excellent short blog or Facebook post:

If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label. If your college hasn’t provided you with a good knowledge of countercultural viewpoints — ranging from Thoreau to Maritain--then your college has failed you and you should try to remedy that ignorance.

Isn't that nice? And true? If only he'd stopped there; instead, his ultimate paragraph reads:

Effective rebellion isn't just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions. Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.

Wait, what? If Brooks meant to say, "Effective rebellion isn't just ranting about stuff that bugs you, it also means offering solutions," okay, we agree; but it's clear from the context that Brooks is saying rebels need their own substitute dogma, which is a ridiculously conservative thing to say in the most intellectually pejorative sense of the word. I.e., not "conservative" as in "ideologically right-wing", whatever that entails, or "conservative" in the sense of "traditional", but "conservative" in the sense of stubbornly rejecting innovation and refusing to consider novelty on the grounds that innovation and novelty are bad per se. As for authorities and institutions: Brooks is potentially right that they aren't inherently bad things; what authorities and institutions are, actually, are tools, to be evaluated, used and disposed of by craftsmen according to fitness and purpose. A good authority or institution is to be embraced, while one that is no longer good for a purpose is rejected, and the tool is never to be picked up at all merely for the sake of having it in one's hand so one can say, "Yes, but I have a tool."


Happy eightieth, Mr. Williams!

>> Wednesday, February 08, 2012

So I heard this on the clock radio when it went off this morning: today is John Williams' eightieth birthday. I'm not a major fan or expert in classical music, but if more than half a century writing the soundtrack for American pop cinema means anything (Williams has been scoring films since the mid-1950s), I'm wondering if we can't all agree this guy is the most important composer of the 20th Century (Fox?).

I may have mentioned it here: Williams' soundtrack for Star Wars was the first real album I ever owned. I asked for it for my sixth birthday, very insistent on getting just the music and not the picture-book record, and my parents felt like there was no way to refuse me. I don't want to belabor an old story. I guess I'm just bringing it up again because Williams' score was maybe the first time I was ever conscious at any level of the part music played in telling a story on film. The Star Wars soundtrack was methodically classical in its approach: taking a page from Wagner (an obvious influence on much of the composition itself), Williams more-or-less reintroduced the idea of leitmotif into film after several decades in which composers--even greats like Herrmann and Mancini frequently wrote cues for scenes; Star Wars had a bit of music that went with Luke and another bit that came up every time the Empire was on the screen, and a lovely little flourish that still sometimes moistens my eyes whenever Princess Leia was about, etc.

He's been, of course, Stephen Spielberg's and George Lucas' favorite composer, and that's meant he's written some of the best-known scores for some of the most successful films of all time. One hopes that familiarity hasn't bred contempt, though it's very possible Williams hasn't been taken as seriously as he deserves. Some of his scores are such an integral part of the collective unconscious they've almost, unfairly, become a sort of punchline.

The story is that the first time Williams played that ominous, repetitive duhn-duhn-duhn-duhn-duhnduhn riff on the piano for Spielberg, Spielberg asked him if he was kidding. But it's perfect, isn't it? And I may have miswritten a little about Star Wars, Williams, leitmotifs and first times: play the above clip from Jaws and dig how the "Out To Sea" theme is worked in as a playful tease that will show up at lighter moments throughout the movie. Here it is as a standalone piece:

In Jaws, the particular motif isn't necessarily tied to a character (though, if memory serves, the musical cue does associate with Chief Brody (Roy Scheider); primarily, it's a jaunty little, "Just going fishing with the boys" cue that serves brilliantly well as a counterpoint to the ominous shark theme. What it does, then, is underline the idea that these guys going out to kill this ginormous man-eating, boat-crushing white whale Carcharodon aren't really prepared for what they're getting into, are, in fact, getting in well over their heads.

I mean, think about this for a moment: if you were composing a score for Jaws (let's pretend you've been to a conservatory and are a capable symphonic composer), and you have a scene where this boat is leaving the shore to go and get destroyed by this beast that's been stalking and devouring men, women and children up and down the New England coast, what kind of music would you write for it? I think the temptation might be to write something ominous and imposing, something that says, "these guys are in danger, they might die". Something dire and portentous. And what did Williams actually do? He wrote something jaunty and precious--and that's fucking perfect, that is so much better that it's preposterously unbelievable. Writing an ominous foreshadow-ey number would be easy and obvious, and, yes, it would get the job done, but by writing something that is consciously ironic, Williams hammers home the point of the scene ten million times better. They're doomed because they're not taking it seriously, get ready to shit your pants when they see what you saw during the first five minutes of the film with that chick getting dragged under and dismembered.

I started with Star Wars because that's where I started with Williams, but, you know, Jaws may be the perfect score, right there. And yet I don't want to end with that. I'm trying to keep this post down, try not to get too ridiculous with clips (which, f'r'instance, is why I'm going to bypass Raiders and The Paper Chase, a score I've long harbored a perhaps-inordinate affection for). But here's a (long) clip of Williams and Spielberg running with the idea that music might be a universal language:

That. I get a little shivery watching that. I sometimes think Close Encounters Of The Third Kind doesn't get enough love, either as a Spielberg film (it sometimes seems weirdly eclipsed--as if every conversation about Spielberg now has to begin with Schindler's List, which is undeniably an awesome and serious movie) or as a science fiction film. CE3K is, I think, one of the best first contact movies ever made, and the only first contact movie scenes I can think of that can rival the above clip with the same kind of visceral thrill, the same sense of awe and mystery and fear and curiosity all mixed up at once, are any of the Monolith's appearances in 2001. The CE3K scene doesn't just share 2001's portrayal of a first contact as an epic-yet-oddly-abstract event (aliens might communicate with us through shapes, colors, and sounds), but also have in common the way they both set up the arrival of the whatsits largely through the audience's ears, perhaps even moreso than their eyes (in 2001, of course, the musical cue is Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, which is now perhaps better known as "the 2001 music" than it is as a classical composition in its own right, written in 1896).

But Williams isn't just capable of bombast. We may have already established that with the playful "Out To Sea" music and the playful human-alien jam session from CE3K. One of my relatively-more-recent favorite Williams soundtracks is yet another Spielberg score, Catch Me If You Can; I especially adore the main theme--

Obviously, I think, not Williams' first foray into something jazzy. But it utterly delighted me the first time I saw the movie (and still does). That coy, flirtatious four-note arpeggio on the clarinet slays me.

Happy birthday, Mr. Williams, and thank you, thank you, thank you for a half century of music. In a very real way, you've written the soundtrack to my dreams. Thank you.


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