Monday, June 15, 2009

POLITICS- Rush Limbaugh hates America.

In case you had any doubt that the right wing has no love for this country except when they can control it, and in case you have any incredulity left as to how far the right wing is willing to fall into the depths of stupidity- get this: Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt are calling for a boycott of General Motors! Plainly their opinion is, “Screw America, Screw the elected government, screw our fellow American workers, and screw everybody who isn’t a mindless zombie follower of whatever we decide is conservative in this country.” Hard to believe that just a few short months ago these heinous trolls were calling anybody who didn’t pledge unconditional fealty to a president (who started two wars, sat numbly for minutes after being told of 9/11, instituted rules allowing the government to spy on and incarcerate American citizens without due process, and presided over the ruining of the economy) un-American and un-patriotic! Now JUST because the guy trying to save the American auto industry is on the other side politically they want to wreck the country. (Yeah, JUST. If you think Rush Limbaugh gives a damn about socialism for any reason other than that he backed the other horse then you believe it when fat, rich, white guys tell you that fat, rich, white guys aren’t the problem. Or that the Republican party cares anything about Christianity even though they did nothing but pay lip service to that constituency the whole time they were in power. The man, and obviously the party, has no scruples!)

It was OK when Bush handed out hundreds of billions to bankers with no strings attached even though they had ruined the economy, and millions of American's 401Ks in the process. But let Obama try to save GM by winding up with a controlling share for a few years in the hope that the company can pull itself out of their current troubles and that Americans might even be able to recoup their investment while keeping their jobs and Rush is ready to boycott an American company owned by the taxpayers to make sure it doesn't work. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! Face it Dittoheads, Rush would rather you all starve than see Obama do anything good for the country.

PERSONAL- The Vampyre Lifestyle

Working nights is the perfect schedule for someone who doesn’t mind sleeping all day, being up all night, and spending a lot of time entertaining themselves. Commonly referred to as people “with no life”, these independent souls tend toward careers in writing, art, the convenience store industry, and corporate security. My father was a night shift worker in the Colonial Bread bakery in Indianapolis when I was a kid. But he worked every night and was up every evening by the time I got home from school so it wasn’t so different than having a dad who worked in the daylight and slept at night. Except when I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear the voices of him and a couple of his friends in the kitchen- drinking and talking. On nights when he didn’t have friends over I have no idea how he entertained himself. Back then there was no Internet, no cable, and the three local TV networks signed off around midnight after playing the national anthem. (In fact, for years when I was a kid I thought that there was some kind of law that required playing the national anthem after every late night horror movie, since I only got to stay up that late on Saturday night to watch the weekly creature feature.) When I look back on it I suspect that most of dad’s time was spent drinking. But I don’t think he spent that many sleepless nights. Mostly because the drinking he did in the evenings on the days he didn’t work usually found him passed out by bedtime.

Anyway, if you don’t drink and you work nights then the Internet is a Godsend. Even nowadays television in the wee hours is a wasteland even by the typical wasteland standards of television. 300+ channels on DirecTV and by 2:00 AM most of them are showing infomercials for naked girl vids, miracle cures, exercise plans, or pee-pee lengthening pills. It makes me long for the days of slow fades from flags to jet planes to war memorials with the Star Spangled Banner playing in the background followed by a screen of calm, blessed static. But the Internet changes the game. It’s a true 24-hour business. Anything you can do online in the middle of the afternoon you can do 12 hours later with little or no difference. The Internet has no circadian rhythm, just like night shift workers! Finally an end to the disenfranchisement of the chronic insomniac!

So what have I been doing online for the last few weeks while working nights?

Watching television ONLINE!

See, the other thing that working nights does is leave most people chronically fatigued. Regular night shift workers either acclimate or get a day job. (Or die, I read somewhere that working nights takes 7 years off your life.) I could be writing, or playing videogames, or painting, or exercising, or even going down to the Wal-Mart (the only place open 24 hours in my small town) to watch the virtual circus side show of customers who wander in there in the middle of the night. But all those take a surprising amount of energy when you can’t sleep but have been up for 36 hours straight. Instead I find that mostly I read, listen to music, and watch television- basically anything that requires a minimal amount of concentration and a near non-existent amount of movement. Usually I’ve been too tired to even write reviews of the movies I’ve seen lately. When I do have a couple of days off I jump into the car and get the hell out of the house, snapping up as much sunshine, activity, and regular human contact as possible.

Anyway, spending a lot of time web-surfing isn’t all bad. As I hope to demonstrate by sharing some of the videos I’ve found online.

So lets start with one of JoCo's latest masterpieces, which is so appropriate that I've been playing it a lot. Go to his website to listen to (and buy) the fully arranged version which is better and has some wonderfully recorded bird sounds too.

PERSONAL- Roads Not (yet) Taken

Within the first few weeks after I moved to Colorado there was a story on the news of four people in a Jeep Cherokee going off a mountain road and falling 1500 feet. That's right. 1500 FEET! Nevertheless, our own Wrangler was destined to log thousands of miles off-road over the next several years. And although there were times I wasn't sure we had enough traction or even room for the wheels (once we followed a four-wheeler trail for over ten miles before we found out that it wasn't a road) there were only a few times when I was in actual fear for my life.

Can't wait to vacation in La Paz so I can travel this road.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Various Stuff

The newest thing in beauty treatments. Although at $250 a pop (heh-heh) it does seem overpriced. Anyone wishing to try this please contact me personally and I'm sure we can work something out.

Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the web when he put the first webserver on a neXT computer in the summer of 1991, has begun to study the web itself. He conserned with a host (heh-heh) of issues from how the web is changing the basic paradigm of human interaction to emergent properties that we may be unaware of. According to Tim, there are currently about as many web pages are their are neurons in the human brain. Although the comparison is basically apples/oranges it is interesting.

One thing he might study is the election of a representative of the Pirate Party to the European Union's Parliament. This may be the first time a political party based on an internet issue (in this case file sharing) has ever been elected to a governing body. Harbinger of things to come.

And on a connected note, when Tim Berners-Lee changed the internet forever with the hypertext transfer protocol he made this story inevetable. AT&T is shutting down their Usenet servers. For those of you too young or not geeky enough to know what Usenet is, that's one of the ways people communicated with each other over the net before webpages and webforums existed. Newsgroups were giant forums where people who shared a particular interest could discuss whatever they wanted to about that interest. If you were a fledgling bagpiper you could subscribe to rec.arts.bagpipes and get information from other bagpipers about which reeds lasted longest or such minutiae. There were thousands of newsgroups on virtually every subject from alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die where haters of purple singing dinosaurs could gather to where Michael J. Straczynski was perhaps the first SF television creator to communicate directly with his audience as the show was being aired (similar to what Ron D. Moore did with his Battlestar Galactica podcasts except a lot more interactive and with more typing). AT&T isn't the first big ISP to give up Usenet, Comcast and Time Warner did so almost a year ago, but it's another reminder that the time when the net was the domain (heh-heh) of techies and geeks is long since over. Viva la Endless September!

Unix is 40 this year. It would be almost impossible to state how important this little OS was in the development of the computing technologies we use today. And once again, written by a couple of geeks in their spare time. You have to wonder why more companies don't follow the lead of Bell Labs in the 1960s. Hire smart people and let them invent smart things! Put your management and marketing departments where they belong- in a subordinate role to the creators! I honestly think when the history of the last 20 years is written they will attribute the fall of the American empire to the shift from the way we did things in the 60s and 70s to the rising predominance of management and marketing based thinking. As Frank Herbert once said, "Any bureaucracy immediately establishes as its primary goal the administration of itself." I'm looking at you, Sony.

And a prime example of this is how businesses routinely ruin social networking on the web with their ubiquitous advertising.

Two months ago I gave up cable TV (actually it was satellite) so I thought this article on HULU and web video was interesting. The convergence of home video and the web seems just as inevitable as the death throws of Usenet. The bigger picture may be that the net will actually save mankind. When you consider the economies of scale derived from transitioning from atoms to bits (as Nicholas Negroponte explained so well in his 1995 book Being Digital) it's easy to imagine that the internet may wind up being the greenest technology of all. We already get most of our music over the net. Books are not far behind (I have two friends with Kindles and it is as cool a technology as I've ever seen. I was telling one of these friends about a book I was reading the other day and she pulled out her Kindle and downloaded it while we were talking! It's just a little too fresh in the early adopter phase on price and screen performance for me. ) When we finally figure out what a waste it is to make everybody come downtown every morning to sit at computers and do tasks they could just as easily do at home we will go a long way toward fixing both our dependence on oil and the traffic problem. (Not to mention going back to a family lifestyle that allows families to be together a lot more. The way our agrarian forbears had it for most of human history.) Ditto hi-def teleconferencing and jet travel. Education should be transformed in a similar fashion- no more carting kids back and forth every day. Maybe we'll even decide that the net's peer-to-peer paradigm is the way to generate energy and give up large centralized power generators for individual solar or wind or geothermal generation. Everyone could generate their own energy the same way most people used to grow their own food, using what they needed and selling the rest to the neighbors. The technolgy is coming or already here, the problem is political. People who crave power don't like decentralization. Big Brother likes all of us to drink from the same well (as long as he owns the well). But if we play our cards right the future is going to be more pastoral, local, social, and free-market than it ever has been.

Since 2007 the Japanese spacecraft Kaguya has been orbiting the moon gathering data to determine its origin, among other things. Yesterday it finally crashed into the surface. But as the probe's orbit has decayed it has sent back some extraordinary hi-def video of the moon from very low orbits. This is one such video. (Remember, this is not a computer simulation, this is actual video.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

MOVIES- Appaloosa

APPALOOSA is a pet project of actor Sam Harris and as pet projects of actors go, this one goes pretty well. The APPALOOSA of the title isn’t a horse, as you might expect, it’s a town. And this isn’t just a vanity project, it’s a real movie. It’s a character driven, ambiguous, suspenseful western which makes it three times unusual (four if you consider Westerns unusual in themselves nowadays, which I do). It has all the trappings of John Wayne westerns with good guys and bad guys, gunfights, horses, landscapes, and dripping in machismo. But in the end it’s driven by the characters and the dialogue, which adds a fifth and sixth unusual thing. Nowadays if you can find six unusual things in a movie then you should see it.

You should see this.

The veracity of the movie is wonderful. Viggo Mortenson wears the kind of facial hair that would have been verboten in earlier westerns. (There is one story of Gary Cooper showing up for the first day of shooting of HIGH NOON with a period mustache and being told that modern audiences wouldn’t accept him with such ridiculous facial hair so he had to shave it.) The eight-gauge shotgun doesn’t exist anymore but it plays such an important role that it’s almost another character. Everything from costuming to the saddles they use is authentic. That kind of veracity gives the movie a real grounding in reality that serves the story well and never pulls the viewer out of the story.

Hand in hand with that is another thing that sets APPALOOSA apart from so many modern westerns- it isn’t revisionist. It doesn’t plaster over its ideas with modern sensibilities. As a result, it is able to tackle some issues in a way only SF is usually able to. Women are considered different than men; strength is cherished; violence is unapologetic. It’s the story of hard men doing hard things in a hard land. Yet in spite of a lack of post-modernist angst, the story and characters are complex and nuanced. The tone is set in the first couple of scenes. Before the title has even rolled there is the first killing, in cold blood, without a moment’s hesitation. Then we get almost 10 minutes of the story being set up before the second, third and forth killings. Both times the violence is sudden. One minute two people are talking, the next a gun has been fired and someone is dead. This aesthetic carries over from the action to the dialogue. There are long periods when nothing is said between the two leads. When the dialogue comes it is short and to the point.

Make no mistake, this is a buddy picture. But not in the common mold of two smirking goofballs trying to one up each other with silly one-liners while vying for the same woman as if she were nothing more than the faux-Rolex in a mechanical claw machine. These are serious men who are professional killers and the movie never lets you forget that or cartoons the violence for easier consumption. Here the silences tell you as much about the characters played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen as the dialogue does. When they do talk, they talk like men- they say what they have to say and move on. Despite this brevity, you feel that you get to know these men and their affection for each other far better than you do in most “buddy” movies. And there is humor, but it’s genuine humor that grows out of character and situation. Nobody ever tells a “joke”, but there is a gentle ribbing inherent in the dialogue that is the kind of humor serious men use to bond. In one scene, after a gunfight between six men which in a lesser movie might have taken 20 minutes of screen time but here is over with in less than a half minute, the two leads are lying on the ground. Mortensen’s character, Everett Hitch, says, “That didn’t take long.” To which Harris’ Virgil Cole replies matter-of-factly, “Everybody could shoot.” Two lines of dialogue that cap the scene, explain it, release the tension, and make you laugh while also making you realize that most of the western gunfights you’ve ever seen in movies are overblown and tiring in comparison.

But don’t think that because the movie isn’t pretentious and overly modernized it doesn’t have anything to say. There are themes of the arbitrariness of legal justice, the effect of politics (both governmental and sexual), the penalties inherent in real love, and the cowardice of the business world when faced with a choice between principle and greed. But the main theme that anchors the story is the relationship of the two main characters. Men devoted to each other both professionally and personally. Who take the phrase “bros before hoes” out of the drunken fratboy lexicon and bring it back to the roots it must have come from. APALOOSA is a western that gives you all the set pieces you expect but turns your expectations upside-down by being more involved with character than action, more dedicated to truth than excitement.

So the script and acting are superb, but this is, after all, a western. And one of the expectations audiences have of the modern western is to be shown some beautiful photography (ironically). In addition to the usual challenges of shooting on location, having an actor-director is a special challenge for a Director of Photography. Since the director is in front of the camera it falls to the DP to be the ersatz director while filming commences. DANCES WITH WOLVES proved that Dean Semler was more than capable in this situation and here he shows that it wasn’t just a fluke. While this movie doesn’t have the kind of grandeur and outright beauty of DANCES, Semler’s keen eye and extraordinary ability to shoot incredible pictures of natural western locations makes the movie a visual treat. This wasn’t just a return to westerns for Semler, it was also a return to film. Like most DPs, Semler has been shooting on digital video of late. But for this film Harris’ decision was to shoot on, well, film. I can’t really tell how much effect it has on the look and feel of the film, but there is a sort of “old timey” western vibe to the whole thing that could be attributed to the widescreen anamorphic format as much as anything. In any case, there are numerous shots where both bright sunlight and dark shadow are in the same shot but the movie never hints at the difficulty of shooting such scenes. At least not in the Blu-Ray translation that I watched both on my front projection system and my 72” rear projector. Any shortcomings you find in the BD are probably a result of your home display technology rather than the film as shot or the transfer.

Like AUSTRALIA, this is a movie designed and shot to be seen on the widescreen. Few scenes show the kind of composition that was common in the 80s and 90s, where you could almost see the 4x3 aspect ratio intruding on the shots. While not as involved as AUSTRALIA with medium shots that show a full figure on screen, the movie is photographed like a western of the 1960s. Westerns were damaged by the need to shoot with a television aspect in mind and you might even go as far as to say that such limitations contributed to the death of the western. Perhaps big, bright, widescreen displays will contribute equally to its resurgence.

There was a time when the western was the quintessential genre for the American film industry. In the last several decades technological change, urbanization, and societal mores have caused it to be replaced by other genres such as SF. But those genres are not inherently American. (Perhaps SF should be but Japan’s brush with science-fictional technology in 1945 coupled with America’s prevalent anti-intellectualism has caused that not to be the case.) Perhaps more films like APALOOSA might change that, but considering how many films of any genre aren’t as good as APALOOSA I’m not betting on it.

AUSTRALIA has ambitions to be a grand epic in the mold of such films as LAURANCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. But where David Lean was able to take such larger-than-life stories and imbue them with such a sense of realism that the audience was able to get caught up in the drama while still enjoying the spectacle, Baz Luhrmann lets you know right away that it’s going to be hard to take this movie seriously. The first scenes jump back and forth, introducing the characters like the opening song of a musical where everyone steps up in front of the chorus and sings a few autobiographical lines. This kind of shorthand is fine when you are there to hear the songs and don’t expect much in the way of drama, but when the drama is the point it defeats the purpose.

Not that there is much drama here in the first place. AUSTRALIA is pure melodrama. The antagonists are evil, the protagonists are noble, the plot is simple, and the comedy is broad. For almost the first hour it seems like you are watching a movie from the 1930s remade with the same techniques but using modern technology. Characters frequently look straight into the camera. The acting consists of mugging and broadly histrionic gesturing. There is even one matte shot where someone is obviously running in place beside a stationary truck while a moving background scrolls behind them. All this artifice and eye bugging prevents you from taking anything seriously. Perhaps this is intentional, since the movie is set in that time period, but it is jarring for the audience. And one wonders if it is entirely intentional when the background goes in and out of focus from one shot to another, a common problem that often signals the transition from a live shot to a composited one.

Later, as the movie attempts to become more serious, the tone changes. The characters are placed in jeopardy and the beginnings of the Second World War enter the story. There are fewer instances where a scene is deliberately artificial. But even then there are shots where the foreground and background are so mismatched that you are reminded more of the special effects in WIZARD OF OZ (which is heavily referenced in the film) than what audiences are used to seeing in this age of modern computer special effects and digital compositing.

Again, I can’t help but think that this is intentional. But just like the references to THE WIZARD OF OZ, it lacks subtlety. (Get it? Oz- Oztrailia? Ozzyland? You will because you’re going to have been beaten severely over the head with it by the end of the movie.) But if you can get past your willing suspension of disbelief being constantly challenged there is much to like about AUSTRALIA in spite of all this. The movie is beautiful. Luhrmann has an eye for composition and the photography of the Australian outback is breathtaking. The advent of HD widescreen has freed directors from needing to compose shots for later reduction to a 4x3 aspect ratio and Luhrmann takes full advantage of this. He also backs the camera up to allow for more wide shots, allowing the viewer to feel the expansiveness of the environment. The performances also follow the arc from pure artifice and melodrama to ambitions of seriousness. Nichole Kidman is the most obvious in changing from clownish to charming as both the story and her character change. Hugh Jackman isn’t given much to do but play the standard leading-man part that this kind of film requires, but he does so with appropriate sensitive machismo and (as usual) looks so good while doing it that you forgive a lot. David Wenham (Faramir in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy) plays the main bad guy, Fletcher, and in one scene will either appall you or give you a vicarious thrill as he repeatedly slaps a child actor across the face in classic Simon Legree fashion. While there have been a few kid sidekicks in movies that I have wanted to slap myself, the actor who plays Nullah, Brandon Walters, never seems to be annoying. His beatific smile and spunky portrayal keep him from being tiresome. And it’s a good thing since he’s in the movie as much as Kidman or Jackman.

Perhaps the one unsung hero of the production is Director of Photography Mandy Walker. The integration of studio shooting and computer compositing leaves a lot to be desired, but her ability to film on location, sometimes directly into the sun, is astounding. Had the movie been shot entirely in camera, she surely would have garnered a nomination from the Academy. As it is, her abilities combined with Luhrman’s musical staging results in numerous scenes where a character is shown in full figure (as on a stage) and is able to interact with something on the other side of the screen. When viewed on a large enough screen the effect is mesmeric and satisfying.

In the end, AUSTRALIA is a mixed bag. If it wanted to be a grand epic (and there is every indication that was the intent) it was hobbled by it’s director’s self-conscious cleverness and overwrought stylistic sensibilities. If it was meant to just be an overblown western it was hurt by its length and simplicity. Is it a David Lean movie filmed by Yahoo Serious or a kinescope shot with modern production values? I couldn’t tell. By the end of the first hour I was ready to do a Rifftrax sound track for it but by the time the credits rolled I had been entertained and caught up in the grossly manipulative presentation in spite of myself. It is undoubtedly an auteur theory film. Luhrman and wife Catherine Martin share between them credits for writing, direction, production design, costume design, and producer. The movie stands or falls on their artistic sensibilities. Whether it stands on the strength of the performances and the beauty of the presentation or falls because of the distracting special effects or self-conscious presentation is up to the individual.