Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 July, 2006

Friday Skin

|| Palmer, 7:00 AM || link || (0) comments |

27 July, 2006

Some LOST News

Fans like myself are counting the days until the first week of October when season 3 of LOST begins. Filming doesn't start until early August so there's not a helluva lot in the way of spoilers. However, there are some tidbits and a couple new cast members (at least) will be seen this fall.

First there's the announcement that the "Brazilian Tom Cruise", Rodrigo Santoro, will be joining the show. No clue as to his character yet. There's also this quote from Natasha Henstridge that she'll be joining the show. Yes, she was the hottie alien in the awful film Species but, she was a hoot in Ghosts of Mars. I've heard nothing official on this from ABC so this remains to be seen. Earlier this month a spoiler came out which mentioned a new character named Juliet.

Juliet, a woman in her mid-30s, will be added to the cast as a regular. Juliet is a natural leader and a smart and independant woman. One of her flashbacks (?) will involve her mother Amelia. During said flashback, the ladies will discuss burnt brownies and Juliet's love life. It seems that Juliet may be an Other. Jack is held alone in a room and Juliet looks at him, separated from him with a glass window. Jack tries to break the chains that are holding him. Juliet tries to convince a pissed off Jack to trust her.

Henstridge turns 32 next month. Sounds like she could very well be Juliet.

Perhaps the biggest news is that the meaning behind the infamous numbers in the show - 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 - will be revealed soon in The Lost Experience, which is the alternate reality game that the makers of LOST came up with to tide fans over during the summer slog of reruns. Their meaning is supposed to be revealed at the end of the third phase of the game and we're in that phase now.

EDIT: My hypothesizing was wrong. Elizabeth Mitchell has been tapped to play Juliet.
|| Palmer, 6:30 AM || link || (0) comments |

Has Hell Frozen Over?!

Right-wingers are just gushing over Oliver Stone's latest, World Trade Center. Check out this bit from the New York Daily News:

"It is one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see," Fox News pundit Cal Thomas wrote in his syndicated column.

"What? Oliver Stone, who indulges in conspiracy theories and is a dues-paying member of the Hollywood left?" Thomas asked. "Yes, THAT Oliver Stone."

The Washington Times also ate earlier criticism of Stone.

In an editorial on Monday, the conservative paper recalled that it expressed "the greatest regret" on learning last summer that "the conspiracy-addled director" would do "Hollywood's first major movie about that day of days." But after a screening, the paper said, "Mr. Stone has made a truly great movie."

Like most Hollywood products these days, the film is based on a true story. It's about John McLoughlin and William J. Jimeno, two Port Authority officers who were trapped in the rubble when the WTC towers collapsed. They were the last of the survivors to be found. Personally, read Cal Thomas' words makes me want to skip this film but, being an Oliver Stone fan, I feel obliged to see it. I suspect that the positive reviews from the right are indicative of a lack of a conspiracy theory, the heroes are manly, they have wives grieving for them at home, and, as was the case in New York at the time, there were American flags everywhere. I have to admit that I'm not really sure what "pro-male" means but, if you've ever read about Stone himself, you know that he is a "man's man", so to speak. I mean, he was a soldier who served in Vietnam; he parties hard; he works hard; he argues hard; and, looking at the films he's written and directed, it's hard to argue that he's done anything "anti-male". He writes and makes movies about men, for the most part. His male leads include professional football players, Alexander the Great, and Conan the Barbarian. Stone wrote the screenplay for Scarface. He's been "pro-male" his whole career.

In a certain sense, Stone shot his wad with Nixon. I thought U-Turn was OK when I saw it, but with Any Given Sunday and Alexander behind him, U-Turn now seems downright great. It's hard to say why but I will note that U-Turn marked the last film Stone made with cinematographyer Robert Richardson. Rodrigo Prieto did a great job on alexander, however, and the weakness of that film was the script. Since parting ways with Stone, Richardson has shot Errol Morris' documentary Cheap, Fast and Out of Control, Martin Scorcese's Bringing Out the Dead, and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill flicks. I don't care for Tarantino's work, as a rule, and Kill Bill was no different. But those two films were mighty pretty to look at! Watching them, I got the distinct impression that Richardson probably co-directed it. While the violence and 70s cliches are all Tarantino, that film's style was all Richardson. The colors, the angles, the camera movement - that's gotta be Richardson's doing.

For World Trade Center, Stone recruited Seamus McGarvey. Of the films he's shot that I've seen are High Fidelity, Enigma, and The Hours. Some good photography but nothing that really sticks out in my mind. Perhaps I just need to watch them again. It's just that I'm a fan of very (hyper-?) stylized films. If you've got the acting talent and story to go along with it, you can make great cinema. Stone and Richardson working as a pair created some of the greatest cinema ever, in my opinion. I loved the way they make a radio booth seem expansive in Talk Radio with the camera movement; their Rashomon-like look at the nature of truth in JFK with the use of various film stocks; the hallucinogenic style of The Doors. Some fantastic stuff. There's this false dichotomy today about American cinema: either it's an indie film or a Hollywood blockbuster. Either it's a complex character portrait or it's about a disaster or a superhero. I appreciated that Stone made big-budget films that were complex. They had complex characters and were technically complex as well. The films' styles created ambience, added to the story, and made the audience think about what they were seeing. (Or tried to, at least.)

The Trailer for WTC makes it look like a very straight-forward, stylistically. But I suspect that Stone is treading familiar territory when it comes to the story. It's about men - courageous men - who fight to survive. The characters and plot are very different from those of Platoon but the main themes are the same in each. There doesn't appear to be any politics here, however. Stone's oeuvre is generally viewed as a labyrinthe of conspiracies but I think it's about time we start viewing his work from other angles. Conspiracy is relevant to only two of his films but masculinity is dealt with in nearly all of them.

World Trade Center opens 9 August.
|| Palmer, 6:28 AM || link || (0) comments |

26 July, 2006

When Topps Was Tops

Yesterday, Slate posted an article called "Requiem for a Rookie Card". The author, Dave Jamieson, who sounds like he's just a bit younger than me, laments the transition in the early 1990s of baseball card collecting from a hobby to a business/investment scheme. He begins by saying that he went through his old stuff at his parents' home and came across thousands and thousands of baseball cards he had collecting during his youth in the 1980s.

So long, old friends, I thought. It's time for me to cash in on these long-held investments. I started calling the lucky card dealers who would soon be bidding on my trove.

First, I got a couple of disconnected numbers for now-defunct card shops. Not a good sign. Then I finally reached a human. "Those cards aren't worth anything," he told me, declining to look at them.

Card-trading was our pastime, and our issues of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly were our stock tickers. I considered myself a major player on the neighborhood trading circuit. It was hard work convincing a newbie collector that Steve Balboni would have a stronger career than Roger Clemens. If negotiations stalled, my favorite move was to sweeten the pot by throwing in a Phil Rizzuto card that only I knew had once sat in a pool of orange juice. After the deal went through, my buddy wouldn't know he'd been ripped off until his older brother told him. He always got over it, because he had no choice: Baseball cards were our common language.

In the early 1990s, pricier, more polished-looking cards hit the market. The industry started to cater almost exclusively to what Beckett's associate publisher described to me as "the hard-core collector," an "older male, 25 to 54, with discretionary income." That's marketing speak for the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Manufacturers multiplied prices, overwhelmed the market with scores of different sets, and tantalized buyers with rare, autographed, gold-foil-slathered cards. Baseball cards were no longer mementos of your favorite players—they were elaborate doubloons that happened to have ballplayers on them. I eventually left the hobby because it was getting too complicated and expensive. Plus, I hit puberty

His story about collecting cards is basically my own excepting that puberty wasn't a factor as I continued collecting until I was 14. I started collecting around 1980. There was a small grocery store that I'd go to after bowling on Saturdays at Montrose and Drake in Chicago. I think I also inherited some older cards from 1978 as well from someone whom I cannot recall. Like Jamieson, I did it for fun. At the time, I was a big fan of Nolan Ryan so I tried to get all of his cards. My friends and I loved to patrol the neighborhood alleys and poke through garbage cans to see what we could find. By sheer luck, we hit the trash of the folks who lived at the end of my block and I hit the motherlode. I guess Ted's mom was punishing him because there were thousands of baseball and football cards there that had been dumped. I rescued them all and found a Nolan Ryan rookie in excellent condition amongst them. By the time I got to high school, I had some different friends who collected sports cards. And, instead of just Topps cards, there was also Fleer and Donruss. We'd get together every once in a while and do some trading. I recall one session at my house in particular at which my friend Sang laughed so hard that he spit soda through his nose. I don't recall why but I believe it had something to do with a trade he and I were in the middle of involving 1986 Topps Floyd Youmans and Ryne Sandburg cards.

I got out of collecting in 1987 after an experience at a card shop across the street from my high school. A little mall had opened up across Addison and my friend Pete and I headed over there one day after school. We walked in and found the guy behind the counter at the back talking to a kind who must have been about 8 years old. We wandered around and looked at the shelves and in the cases. As we did so, we overheard the clerk ripping off this kid. I can't recall the exact card but either the clerk was trying to buy it for a fifth of it's value or selling the card for 5 times what it was worth. We just walked out disgusted. I'm not positive, but I'm fairly certain that the Wall Street Journal had published an article on baseball cards as investments by this time which sent people out trying to hoard Don Mattingly rookie cards with others waiting impatiently to find out which of the 3 card makers would get their Rafael Palmeiro rookie out first. Instead of collecting for fun, it became a futures market. And so people wouldn't actually have to watch games or research the players, the card makers themselves helped out by putting a star with the words "All-Star Rookie" or something like that onto the cards of various prospects. Everyone wanted in on the ground floor of the next Mickey Mantle rookie card.

And so my friends and I lost interest in collecting baseball cards. Trying to collect a complete set by buying wax packs became too expensive. You need that Wade Boggs card so that you've got all the Bosox players? Well, you could either spend a million dollars buy wax packs hoping that you'd get one or a million dollars at a card shop or card convention. Shortly after we lost interest, Score and Upper Deck entered the fray and the market was just glutted with baseball cards. Wax packs were replaced by foil packs and there wasn't a stale piece of bubble gum to be found. Then more cards were issued. Instead of just the yearly sets, at the end of the season special sets were released featuring players who had been traded or been brought up from the minors mid-season. Plus there were the limited edition mini-sets with glossy hologrammed cards featuring players who were on the DL for most of the previous season and batboys and club mascots - it never ended.

Jamieson indicates that there's a push now by MLB to get kids into collecting cards again. I can only wonder what kind of marketing ploy they're using to reach kids these days.
|| Palmer, 1:07 PM || link || (0) comments |

Mmm...Washington Island Doughnuts...

Many folks recognize Washington Island as a tourist destination or as the source of precious grains for Capital's Island Wheat. I personally have never been to Washington Island and so was surprised to receive a postcard recently from the Washington Hotel there. In addition to being in the hospitality industry, the folks there also have a culinary school. The next class right up Homer Simpson's alley - Doughnut Making. It's on 4 August. The 9th & 10th features The Art of Bread Making with an Artisan Cheese Seminar a few days later on the 15th. My personal favorite is the Chocolate & Spice Lovers' Weekend next year on 11 & 12 February for Valentine's Day.

Valentines Overnight Package for Two Includes one nights lodging with breakfast, curry cooking demonstration by Chef Leah Caplan, spice lovers' dinner in the hotel's historic dining room, fireside chocolate and wine tasting with John Verbeten of L'eft Bank Wine.

For more info, check out the class schedule.
|| Palmer, 9:20 AM || link || (0) comments |

Neko's First Visit

Before heading to the Hauk Buen performance, The Dulcinea and I met up with Miss Pamela and her hubby Bill. They were in town to show off their new progeny, Neko, and visit friends since the two of them have been scarce for a while now. We met down at the Angelic and it was the first time I'd been there in a long time and certainly the first time since the joint renounced its brewpub status. At least they carry a plethora of local microbrews, including a number of beers from the Ale Asylum, which was opened by the Angelic's former brewmaster. It was a nice day so we sat outside on the patio.

Neko is such a cutie! She seemed pretty tired, especially after mom fed her. Having known Pam since 1987, I felt a bit old as it doesn't seem that long ago that we were in high school together and there she was a new mother. Yikes! Mom & dad seemed to be doing well and I think Neko enjoyed her first visit to Madison. The Dulcinea and I will have to make a trek to Milwaukee soon for another visit. Here they are:

|| Palmer, 7:28 AM || link || (0) comments |

A Taste of Telemark

On Sunday night The Dulcinea and I took in some Nord musikk with a performance by Hauk Buen. Buen is a master of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. The Hardanger is a type of violin but has 8 or 9 strings. The melody is accompanied by a drone, which gives the Hardanger a very unique sound.

I admit ignorance when it comes to Nord musikk and Hauk Buen so let me quote from the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America:

Hauk Buen is regarded as one of the foremost Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele in Norwegian) players today in Norway.

Hauk was born in 1933 on the Buen farm in Jondalen. At that time the farm was in Telemark; the border has since changed and the farm is now in Buskerud county. He was surrounded by the music of Telemark all his life and comes from a family of outstanding Telemark folk musicians.

Hardanger fiddle tradition is to learn tunes in the style of a particular fiddler. Olav Løndal (1904-1986) marked Hauk’s playing style forever. Through Olav Løndal, Hauk became the particular bearer of the tradition of Lars Fykerud (1860-1902) and Svein Løndal (1864-1949). Hauk early on also came in contact with Rikard Gøytil in Rauland who gave him the original tradition of Myllarguten, transmitted through Tarjei Skinan, the grandson of the master. Through Hauk, the tunes of Myllarguten are known and learned by fiddlers today.

Last night's program was a tribute, of sorts, to Lars Fykerud who is mentioned above. Because of my ignorance, I really can't tell you much about how the songs displayed the hallmarks of Fykerud. What I can say is that I enjoyed the show very, very much. It was my introduction to the Hardanger as well as to traditional Norwegian dancing.

Buen sat in a chair for the performance and next to him was Andrea Een, a music professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. St. Olaf is the only place in the States where you can learn to play the Hardanger for credit. Since Buen did not speak any English, Een translated his introductions to the songs for the audience. There were, however, a smattering of folks who spoke Norwegian as, when he would smile at something he'd said, certain members of the audience would laugh along with him. No doubt something was lost in translation.

The introductions to the pieces varied quite a bit. For a couple, he talked briefly about the life of Lars Fykerud. Fykerud was a popular musician at the end of the 19th century and, odd as it seems now, was tremendously so here in the United States. He played many a concert here in the Madison area a little over a century ago and I presume that he made his way to Stoughton on most of those trips. Buen also commented on the origins of the songs themselves. I can't recall everything but I do remember him saying how a dream inspired one of the pieces he played. In addition, he would comment on the place of origin of a particular song, whether it be Telemark or another region. I recall Telemark well because of the Telemark Lodge up nort, near Cable, Wisconsin. I have to admit that, when he struck his first notes, a shiver ran down my spine. There's just something about folk culture with which I am unfamiliar - my introduction to it can sort of be overwhelming. I'm not sure what it is, exactly. Maybe it's being able to share in something that obviously means so much to those around me who are offering.

The last song of the first set involved the dancers accompanying him. There was Karin Brennesvik:

And Sigbjørn Rua:

Rua began learning the dance at the age of 7 and Brennesvik was his teacher. As you can see, they were decked out in traditional Norwegian garb. While some would say that I'm haberasherily-challenged, I want to say that Buen's vest and shirt with the funky collar and poofy sleeves was really neat. After a brief intermission, the show resumed.

In the picture above, the performers prepare themselves for another dance. As Buen played, Brennesvik stood on a chair and held out a pole which had a hat dangling from the end. Rua would dance in a circle a few times and then do a flip and kick the hat off of the pole. He missed the first time but nailed it on the second.

When the dancers were introduced, it was remarked that Brennesvik comes from a family who danced constantly. Every family gathering involved dancing - from birthdays to funerals and all holidays in between. I can't help but get a weird feeling when watching traditional dance such as I saw last night. It is just so unlike the dancing that permeates our mass culture today. There was the lack of eroticism, the difference in age between the dancers, the costumes - just the whole ball of wax.

Here's a couple video clips from last night. Each image is linked to a Quicktime video.

More info, check out the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America.
|| Palmer, 7:25 AM || link || (0) comments |

22 July, 2006

"Banned" Bugs Bunny 1: "Herr Meets Hare"

Like many people, I grew up watching Looney Toons. Saturday mornings were spent in front of the TV as Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, and Bugs Bunny did their shtick. While I noticed the differences between the earlier cartoons from the 1940s and 50s and those of a more recent vintage, I didn't know then that several of the cartoons were out of circulation. At the time, there were 11 Bugs Bunny episodes which had been resigned to the vaults. Uncle Cecil tells the story:

The reason for this dates back to 1968 when most Warner shorts were owned by United Artists, which created the "Censored 11" list of shorts it refused to air or, later, put on videotape or laserdisc. For the most part these shorts dealt in insulting racial stereotypes, mostly directed against blacks. The list includes:

"Hittin' the Trail to Hallelujah Land" (1931)
"Sunday Go to Meetin' Time" (1936)
"Clean Pastures" (1937)
"Uncle Tom's Bungalow" (1937)
"Jungle Jitters" (1938)
"The Isle Of Pingo Pongo" (1938)
"All This and Rabbit Stew" (1941)
"Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs" (1943)
"Tin Pan Alley Cats" (1943)
"Angel Puss" (1944)
"Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears" (1944)

And more would be added to the list:

In 2001 the people at Cartoon Network announced a "June Bugs" marathon in which they stated that every single Bugs Bunny short would be shown. They were wrong--they were asked to remove some shorts by Warner Bros. (AOL Time Warner is Cartoon Network's parent company.) The list of shorts you may never see again has been augmented by another 11 that the current owners refuse to show. They are:

"Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt" (1941)
"All This & Rabbit Stew" (1941)
"Any Bonds Today" (1942)
"What's Cookin' Doc" (1944)
"Herr Meets Hare" (1945)
"A Feather in his Hare" (1948)
"Mississippi Hare" (1949)
"Frigid Hare" (1949)
"Which is Witch?" (1949)
"Bushy Hare" (1950)
"Horse Hare" (1960)

These cartoons are often referred to as being the "banned" Bugs Bunny episodes but that's not strictly true. It is the owners of the cartoons that have voluntarily taken them out of circulation and not some government fiat. Still, these shorts, to the best of my knowledge, have never been released on DVD, laserdisc, or videotape and most are not broadcast on television, at least not American TV. (It seems like some of the less-offensive shorts, i.e. – those that don't traffic in racial stereotypes, do get an occasional airing.) I don't know anything about the creators of Looney Toons to say whether or not they were racists. While Tex Avery and Friz Freling may not have been card-carrying members of the KKK, their cartoons are, at the very least, products of their time. Jim Crow was still part of the fabric of American life at the time. In addition to the horrid stereotypes of black Americans, some of these cartoons also trade in offensive stereotypes of other racial groups such as the Eskimo and aboriginal Australians, for example. While I can understand their removal from general broadcast and being excluded from the ongoing issuance of Looney Toons on DVD, I do wish they'd be collected and released as cultural artefacts instead of just being swept under the carpet.

I've been trying to collect these "banned" Bugs Bunny shorts for the past couple months. Many of these cartoons were made during World War II and so there are offensive portrayals of Japanese people as well as fun being poked at the Nazis. And it is the latter that I want to look at today.

"Herr Meets Hare" was released on 13 January 1945, according to my sources. It opens with a shot of a radio antenna and a Walter Winchell-like voice pondering the fate of Germany at this late stage of the war and, in particular, that of Hermann Göring, commander of the German Luftwaffe and second in command of the Third Reich behind only Hitler himself. We then cut to the Black Forest and find that Göring is out hunting clad in his best lederhosen.

Bugs is furrowing beneath the ground and pops up to find himself not at his Las Vegas destination. (Another wrong turn at Albuquerque.) He is confronted by Göring and the usual chase ensues. In attempt to elude the hunter, Bugs does his best Hitler imitation.

He also dresses up as the heroine of a Wagnerian opera at one point which is quite humorous and also foreshadows the classic "What's Opera Doc?" episode which was 12 years down the line. Eventually Bugs is captured and Göring brings him to Hitler.

Hitler promises him rewards but, upon looking into the sack, he is scared scheisseless. Both he and Göring flee as Bugs Bunny emerges from the sack looking like Josef Stalin.

I'm not completely certain why this episode was "banned". Presumably this is because Göring and Hitler are not portrayed in the only way that is acceptable today – as monsters. (Remember some of the criticism which befell Der Untergang (Downfall) for daring to portray Hitler and the Nazi brass as (gasp!) people instead of mere icons of hate.) It is odd to me that this episode is almost verboten while South Park gets away with much worse stuff on a weekly basis. It is also interesting to note that the bits I've read about this short always refer to the presence of Nazis as the motivation for it being consigned to the vaults. But it is also considered to be one of the less offensive of the "banned" films and seems to get an occasional airing when there's a Looney Toons retrospective that places it in context. This despite the ethnic stereotyping. Ethnic caricatures of whites are more acceptable than those of non-whites in today's ethos, I guess.

"Herr Meets Hare" is quite funny. The scene where Bugs does Brunnhilde is great. (There's just something inherently humorous about Bugs in drag.) Plus his mangled German is good for a few laughs. When he dresses down Göring, you catch "sauerkraut" and "apple" in there. Plus Göring refers to Bugs as "Bugsenheimer Bunny" when presenting the sack to Hitler. You can watch "Herr Meets Hare" below.

|| Palmer, 9:13 AM || link || (0) comments |

21 July, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Another recent viewing was A Scanner Darkly. Being a big fan of Philip K. Dick, I've been awaiting the release of this film ever since I got wind that Richard Linklater was tackling it with his rotoscoping technique and all and it did not disappoint. At this point, Linklater's reimagining is the most faithful to the original story of any film based on a PKD story. Blade Runner deviated from the book dramatically but retained the PKD spirit. I'm ambivalent about Minority Report. There are times when I see it as having retained a lot of the PKD spirit with the most glaring exception being Tom Cruise's Anderton being too good, too macho, and virtually without flaw – nothing like the protagonists of Dick's stories. Dick's protagonists weren't exceptional men in exceptional circumstances, they were flawed average Joes in totally fucked up inversion of reality. Other times I view it as being just as crappy as most of the rest of Hollywood's adaptations but with great cinematography.

Dick's A Scanner Darkly begins with Jerry Fabin's memorable dealings with imaginary aphids. It's a scene that has stayed with me ever since I read the book for the first time. Although the film transfers this role to Charles Freck, the realization of this scene was fantastic.

The scene displays something that no other film version of Dick's stories has ever conveyed – his dry humor. Robert Downey, Jr. was an inspired casting choice as he is absolutely great as Barris with his paranoid logorrhea going 100MPH.

Kudos also to Woody Harrelson as Ernie Luckman. Those two have some hilarious Abbot & Costello-esque scenes together. The bit with the bicycle and its disappearing gears is just classic. I won't go into a lengthy summary but the basic plot concerns Bob Arctor as played by Keanu Reeves. He is a narc and is trying to stem the tide against the highly addictive Substance D. In order to maintain his cover, he adopts the persona of "Fred" and wears a scramble suit whenever he goes in to see his boss to give reports.

The scramble suit alters his voice and is like a movie screen in that it constantly displays a montage of people on the outside disguising the identity of the wearer. Barris, Luckman, and Freck are all addicts and friend of Arctor. Donna Hawthorne is Arctor's girl and a supplier of Substance D. Winona Ryder does a good job as Donna with her lines about not wanting to be touched because she does so much coke. The paranoia of these guys comes across pretty well though I miss the scene where they take apart the house looking for surveillance devices.

My main gripe about the film is that it didn't get across the actual split of Arctor into Fred & Arctor. In the book, Fred is unaware that he is Arctor and thusly spying and informing on himself while the film see Arctor going down that path, it never delves into the absurdity of the situation as does the book. It's a disappointment but not one that ruins the film because it offers so much else. Linklater originally used the rotoscoping technique in his Waking Life and it is used to great effect here. The animation is more clear and detailed here and, once you get used to it, it isn't ostentatious at all. It suits the surreal vision of the future and make the scramble suit fit right into the world instead of standing out. All at once the vision of the future is fake and surreal yet also extremely familiar. Plus it makes a perfect fit with a story that has identity as a theme. The actors look familiar but they're not as we've seen them before. We’re seeing our world through a glass darkly.

The biggest surprise was how good Keanu Reeves was in the film. I really, really, really don't like him as an actor. His presence in The Matrix made the film virtually unwatchable for me. But he is a great Bob Arctor. Reeves does a good job with the role because much of it is about him just being onscreen looking all scruffy. There's not a great amount of dialogue for him so he can't screw things up; his facial expression say much more than his dialogue and are so much more effective.

Go see A Scanner Darkly. Better yet, read the book and then go see it. If you're interested, you can watch the first 20-some-odd minutes of the film here.
|| Palmer, 9:33 PM || link || (0) comments |

Shaking Hands Yet Again

Regular readers know that I recently went through a spell of reading a couple books about the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The last was Shake Hands With the Devil by Romeo Dallaire who was Force Commander of the United Nations peacekeeping mission there during the genocide. As I mentioned, a documentary about Dallaire was made called Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire and I finally got to see it. Having read the book first, it was interesting to see actually the places mentioned in it as well as some of the people. The film follows Dallaire as he returns to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide. In his words, "it seemed like going back into hell".

There's an interview with the director as a bonus feature on the DVD and he talks about Dallaire's severe problems with depression. But Dallaire comes across in the film as if he's got his stuff together. He doesn't break down and he seems to be a really gentle, caring individual so it's all the more odd to watch scenes of him wandering around an area recalling how there was a pile of bodies here or how children were hacked to death with machetes there. The film has a few different strands running through it. The primary one is of Dallaire retreading the ground where a genocide had taken place 10 years previously. He points out the events that had occurred at various sites as well as him speaking to various survivors and players in the conflict. There's also the look back at the genocide and his mission with news footage, photos, and interviews with other individuals. Rwanda looks so beautiful, so peaceful – there are some remarkable juxtapositions of the scenery in 2004 with it in 1994 littered with bodies.

Viewers are given a hyper-brief look back in history to the roots of the Hutu-Tutsi hatred and it lays the blame as the feet of the Belgians, who were colonial occupiers, and the Catholic Church, whose schools taught generations of Rwandans that the Tutsi were inferior. I remarked in one of my book reviews about how the Hutu and Tutsi were distinguished by physical features and one can see these differences illustrated in the film. But it also makes one wonder how such superficial differences could play a part in genocide. The film is a highlight reel of the book. It goes over the main elements and events that Dallaire had written about – a brief overview of the situation that Dallaire found himself in, the prescient fax, the place crash which killed President Habyarimana, etc. The filmmakers obviously had many opportunities to insert grotesque footage of massacre but they were quite restrained. Perhaps the paucity of such footage served to make their rare appearances all the more moving and have a greater impact. Seeing a trio of Hutu men hacking a group of Tutsis just sitting on the ground helpless to death with machetes is haunting.

It was really weird to see the places that I had only known in my imagination from reading books. My brain had conjured up images that were brown and gray like a scene out of Se7en but the scenes of the genocide were really green. I envisioned Kigali as being less modern, less Western, and more cramped. But it looks lied a nice city. Fairly modern in many parts and wide open with beautiful, spacious vistas. I'm watching it as I type and there's a scene where the soldiers from a European country are evacuating its people. White soldiers helping white folk as the black Tutsis are pleading with them for help as the murderers are on their way. The scene is not as immediate and visceral as those showing people being hacked up with machetes but it is incredibly powerful. Plus, in a way, it summarizes the situation there in 1994.

Other revealing scenes include one in which Dallaire visits a technical school. Dallaire is talking with, among others, the mayor of the town and he discovers that the Belgian troops in the mission were given orders to pull out unbeknownst to him. He also finds out that people had taken shelter there and that they were killed. Dallaire says that, had he known that the Belgians were pulling out and that there were civilians there, he would have sent troops. In another scene, Dallaire and his wife visit the memorial to the 10 Belgian soldiers who were killed. And in yet another, they visit a memorial to the genocide. It's basically a large shack nestled in this lush, green valley. Walking in, we see these huge shelves lined with skulls and other bones.

Despite having saved thousands of people with barely any resources, Dallaire beats himself up quite a bit, ruing an action or inaction on his part. His wife and others that are interviewed say that he shouldn't blame himself for what happened and he shouldn't. But it's impossible for me to know how he feels. Watching him talk to a survivor who lost more than a dozen member of his family – I tried to imagine how he felt but I failed. Many of the Rwandans who survived come across as rather stoic. The genocide was just how it was and it's Dallaire who is emotional. I suppose the Rwandans have to move on – they have no choice. They can't stop and dwell on, say the scenes on my screen right now – of a church full of corpses, parishioner having killed parishioner and a river choked with the bodies of slaughtered innocents.

Over the course of reading two books about the genocide and seeing this film, I've increased my knowledge of Rwanda and the genocide from almost nothing to a working knowledge. But the story of the genocide involves a large cast including many non-Rwandans. After reading and watching, I have to say that I have virtually no faith in the Untied Nations' ability to mediate conflict. I trust that its humanitarian aid organization can do wonders. But I have no faith that it would ever be able to stop another African genocide. As long as people like Madeleine Albright can walk out of a U.N. meeting having done her best to stall any real help for peacekeeping missions, as long as our presidents like Bill Clinton can lie to us saying that they didn't know what was happening despite a constant stream of reports, and as long as we occupy ourselves with O.J. Simpson trials, genocides will happen again. It's not fair to say that the genocide is the fault of the United States and I'm not saying that. But the leaders of my country did their best to aid and abet U.N. bureaucracy and the leaders of other less-powerful nations in not acting. Would it have been that great of a burden to the richest, most powerful nation ever in the history of mankind to have given some armored personnel carriers to help stem the effects of a genocide instead of having to charge money for them and end up haggling over the price? I'm not advocating a situation of America as World Police but even small things can make a great difference. When our president talks, the world listens. But our president can say, "OK fellow nations, let's get our shit together and put a stop to the madness" or he can say, "There's genocidal acts happening but not a genocide, thusly we have no obligations."

In closing, I'd like to point out that a fictional film is being made from Dallaire's book. It too is called Shake Hands With the Devil. According to the Internet Movie Database, filming started last month so expect a release next year.
|| Palmer, 8:24 PM || link || (0) comments |

Friday Skin

|| Palmer, 6:55 PM || link || (1) comments |

Don't Come Knocking

I've been to the cinema a few times as of late but have neglected to write anything about my experiences there. And so I shall now remedy the situation.

The most recent film I saw was Don't Come Knocking which has now left Madison. The film is by German director Wim Wenders with a screenplay by Sam Shepard who also stars. It concerns an aging actor, Howard Spence (played by Shepard), who goes missing from the set of his latest Western still donning his cowboy costume. The Hollywood backers of the film send Sutter, played by Tim Roth, after him.

Perhaps in a weird oedipal way, the first person that Howard seeks out is his mother. There is a scene where Howard is driving down a highway at night speaking to her on a cell phone. We find out that he hasn't seen her in decades – since he became a movie star. Howard indicates that he wants to visit her and the phone's reception begins to fade and the connection becomes riddled with static. But I swear her voice was clear enough and I heard her saying that she didn't want to see him ever again. This is the first bit that relates to the film's title. Driving to the nearest bus stop, Howard buys a ticket and proceeds to destroy his credit cards and cell phone before boarding a bus.

His mother lives in Nevada and, when he steps off the bus, she is welcoming but not especially warm. She has many questions and is a bit hesitant in seeing her son but, being a mother, she can't say no. During these scenes we learn that Howard's career has been a mess of drugs and women and we also learn that a woman contacted his mother claiming to be the mother of his child. This prompts Howard to go want to go to Montana, where the woman was from and where he had shot a film earlier in his career. There's a scene where Howard and his mother are in a diner and a fellow patron keeps staring at Howard which angers him and he yells at the guy. Later on, Howard goes to a casino and encounters the guy there. We find out that they had starred in a film together decades ago. Despite this common ground, Howard shoves the guy and tells him to stay away. The drink gets the better of him and Howard is brought back to his mother's home by the police. Eventually Howard's mother gives him his father's old car and he sets off for Montana.

In Butte, Howard finds the woman with whom he had a tryst, Doreen, as well as his son, Earl, who appears to be in his mid-20s and the singer of the band playing in the bar where he meets Doreen. She is not especially pleased to see Howard but she does seem keen on him meeting Earl and resolving the questions/issues between them. All the while a blond woman in her early-20s follows Howard around while carrying an urn containing the ashes of her mother.

Howard spends a lot of time looking at the ground. Whenever he is asked why he has suddenly reappeared in the lives of these various people, he doesn't have a particularly good answer. When he is getting chewed out, he just looks down at the ground. He's spent most of his life telling others to not come knocking and he now finds himself being told the same thing. Earl can only feel anger towards Howard and it turns out to be more than justified. Towards the end, Howard confronts Doreen who chastises him for giving up on Earl after only a couple days. Howard then reveals that he's thought about the situation and realizes that he didn't come to Montana for him but for her. This gets him in deep doo-doo as she unleashes a torrent against him. In another scene, we find out that the blonde woman, whose name is Sky, is Howard's daughter and it is only her knock that Howard answers to. At the end of the film, Sutter finds Howard and drags him away to return him to the set in Utah.

Howard isn't a sympathetic protagonist by any means. But if, like me, you see something of your own father in his cold distance and his inability to really be open with people in his life, then he at least is familiar and, perhaps, understandable. The film has several layers which represent many dichotomies and conflicts, old and new. One of the newer ones is life vs. how Hollywood presents it. Howard has spent his career playing the heroes of Westerns who are typically loners yet he has a moment of revelation – he doesn't really want to be alone. There are also what literary critic George Steiner called the "constants of conflict in the condition of man". Steiner was referring to Antigone and Greek tragedy but they apply here as well: man vs. woman, old vs. young, and society vs. individual. Perhaps as a sub-conflict would be parent vs. child. These conflicts permeate the film. Howard vs. his mother; Howard vs. Doreen; Earl vs. Howard; Sky vs. Howard; Earl vs. his girlfriend; Howard vs. the Hollywood moguls; Howard vs. the societal expectation of settling down to be a husband & father. Howard loses the ultimate battle – he returns to his life as an actor and of being alone. He doesn't connect with his son and thusly doesn't really become a father. He doesn't establish a relationship with his mother nor does he find permanent female companionship. While Howard departs from Sky with a hug, they're bond was quite ephemeral.

At its core, Don't Come Knocking is about loneliness – the soul-wrenching kind. Howard felt it and tried to act upon these feelings to remedy them but, in the end, he proved impotent to change them. The film didn't come across as a heavy-handed morality play but more of an existential glimpse. I think my ambivalence here is a tribute to the film's strength. It's easy to say that the message of the film is an admonition against closing oneself off and becoming an island but that would be over-simplifying things. Why did Howard decide that he wanted Doreen back instead of fighting for some kind of détente with his son? Was he giving up too easily or was he being honest? Maybe he really didn't care about his son.

Personally, I found the film very lively, in its own way. I had stuffed myself at the Chinese buffet next door just prior to heading to the theater yet felt no post-prandial lethargy despite the film's style which was very slow and deliberate. I appreciated its open-endedness. Plus the cinematography was great with the wide-open vistas of the American West and the great use of widescreen with the composition of several shots featuring people at opposite ends of the screen. As I said above, the film has now left Madison so methinks that, if you missed it, you'll have to rent the DVD. I'm quite thankful that the folks at Hilldale Theaters brought it to town. For a while there, I thought that it wouldn't make it to town.
|| Palmer, 6:53 PM || link || (0) comments |

19 July, 2006

The French Festival Which Ignored the French

Last Saturday I spent some time at the La Fête de Marquette in Central Park. It was a celebration of Bastille Day in a park area which is to be expanded into Madison's own Central Park. Since Dogger was bringing Miss Regan with him, we headed down to the festivities in the evening when the temperature started to cool.

We towards the end of Tani Diakite & The Malian Blues Band's set. I liked what I heard and was pleasantly surprised to find that Hanah Jon Taylor was standing in with them on flute and sax.

Wandering around, it became quite apparent that there was a paucity of things French. The miniature Eiffel Tower was a glaring exception. But, looking for French food, I was confronted with Glass Nickel Pizza, a couple stands with Thai food, Jamerica, and a Cajun joint. Wine, cheese, foie gras, and crepes were nowhere to be seen. While I certainly wasn't expecting every offering to be strictly French, I did expect there to be at least some French cuisine to be had. Maybe the pizza was made on French bread or baguettes – I dunno. I didn't even see any cake!

Regan, however, couldn't care-a-less as she danced around to the wonderful music.

Dogger bought a lemonade and shared it with her as he bought himself some dinner. He turned around only to find that she'd downed the whole thing. She also took to the jerk pork. Regan loves rice & beans so she ate well. This proved energizing as she found friends to dance with and with whom to explore the wonders of dirt and rocks.

Around 7 o'clock, the aforementioned Lataye came onstage. They were excellent!

Ooh la la!

In classic Madison tradition, the festival ignored the French and instead gave the weekend over to the cultures of former French colonies. I presume the organizers realize that the Bastille was stormed by white Europeans and that Jacques Marquette was a white European male. Does everyone really hate the French that much that they'd have a weekend to celebrate Bastille Day and ignore France? How about a stand giving some info on Marquette's search for the Mississippi? Or perhaps explaining Bastille Day? Maybe someone could teach folks a few French phrases? That way you could have a bunch of kids running around yelling "Oui!" Someone told me that Saturday was the "international" portion of the festival with Sunday being more traditionally French. Admittedly, I did not go on Sunday but, looking at the musical line-ups, it hardly comes across as being French. Instead, the focus was merely on another former French colony – Louisiana. To be sure, the Franco influence is strong down on the bayou, but New Orleans isn't Paris. Only in Madison can you have a Franco-festival sans France. I don't understand why the organizers seem to be repulsed by the thought of actually celebrating the culture of France. If you're going to ignore the French in favor of "a global perspective of French culture through the language of music", then at least change the name of the festival - La Fête de anciennes colonies françaises**, perhaps.

**The Babel Fish translation.
|| Palmer, 7:48 AM || link || (1) comments |

Biertrinken ist Gesund

Last weekend I ventured to New Glarus. Being a huge fan of the precious beers brewed there, I wanted to visit the brewery and take some samples straight from the teat. It was a sweltering Saturday but my drive was made better by the fact that construction on Highway 69 was complete. It had been several years since I'd been to the brewery and, during the intervening time, their beer had grown immensely in popularity. How had the place changed? Would it be a mass of mechanization? Or would the small town Swiss feeling remain?

Walking in, one steps into the gift shop. A sly move. I, however, immediately made my way to the tasting center. For $3.50+ tax, I was treated to samples of three brews and even got to keep the glass.

There was Totally Naked, Fat Squirrel, and Belgian Red. While it was still morning, it's always noon somewhere. The woman pouring taps was extremely friendly and was very helpful in answering my queries about the future of the brewery. I asked about the expansion and was told that they hope to have the new joint up and running in about two years. She reiterated what the article linked above says – that it will resemble an Old World German village and triple the brewery's capacity. Despite the extra capacity, she assured me that they will not resume distribution in Illinois meaning that my ability to use NG in barter with friends in Chicago will be unhindered; Totally Naked will become a year-round beer; and the fruity beers – Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart – will continue to be produced at the old site while others will be brewed at the new one once it's up and running.

The tasting center had a display case with all the awards the brewery has garnered as well as various bit of beer memorabilia.

If I had not gone alone, my fellow drinkers and I would have no doubt holed-up in the seating area to savor our samples.

Tours are self-guided and you get this handset hoolie to help you through the joint with numbers posted on the walls at sites which the presentation explains. As an aspiring homebrewer, I eschewed the handsets and just wandered around on my own since I did not need an explanation of what I was seeing. With glass in hand, I went in reverse staring with the tasting area and then proceeding to the bottling area.

Now here's the lab where tests of all sorts happen. Miles of litmus paper are used, precious yeast spores are examined under a microscope, and gills of beer are given the centrifuge treatment all in pursuit of the perfect Spotted Cow. Quite a bit better than my lab which is basically my kitchen with beaker sitting next to the coffee maker.

In one hallway, there's a table with what looks like a setup from a science fair explaining the vital role of barley in our lives. Well, it's role in brewing, at least.

The hallway where the various offices are located had several ditties on the walls reflecting the brewing tradition.

Amonst the offices was that of Dan Carey, the brewmaster.

Finally I hit the copper kettles.

I rounded out the trip with a stop at the gift shop. Look for me out and about in my new Uff-Da Bock t-shirt. I can't recall the exact changes since my last visit but I do know that the self-guided tour now has an audio component. No doubt other things have changed in the 8 years since I was last there. I really dig the New Glarus Brewery. I mean, I feel at home in any brewery but what sets NG apart from others I've been to is the way the folks there deck the place out and reach back in brewing history and tradition. Not only does the brewery brew the beer using age-old methods, but the brewery itself looks like something hundreds of years old. Yeah, there's mechanization and modernity, but the Carey's go all-out in placing their operation in a long, glorious line of craftsmanship rather than just being an über-efficient assembly line. Perhaps part of the allure for me is that the place reminds me of the basement of my childhood home. The house was built in the 1920s or 30s by a German immigrant and he made the basement out to be a trinkhalle and the Carey's enjoy a similar aesthetic.

I was told that the new brewery was being built about 2 miles south of the current one, across from the state park. So I decided to go and find it.

I set out and found a couple different roads across from the park. Seeing a subdivided, vinyl-sided home on just the other side of a hill on one road, I opted to drive down the other. Driving around, I found no construction sites and instead saw only farms and trees and pastures. So I gave up. But I did find some nice scenery.

I then zipped back into town.

The town square had the obligatory gazebo. It being so hot, there was hardly anyone about and the area just seemed a bit bare with a few empty storefronts. I made my way to the New Glarus Primrose Winery where I was greeted with air conditioning and an array of wines. I chose the Summer Wine which is a wine infused with cherry juice. It was indeed a very refreshing drink.

With the early afternoon upon me, I started back to Madison to catch a matinee of A Scanner Darkly.
|| Palmer, 6:00 AM || link || (0) comments |

Scenes From the Lakes

A couple weeks ago I headed out on the lakes. Andy was already out on our pontoon boat with a couple friends and he picked Stevie and I up at the Tenney locks. They had been worked on but the only difference I could tell was that they were now brick red instead of sky blue.

As we waited to enter, I noticed a limp duck. One of its feet was mangled and it hobbled on the dock.

Once through the locks, we headed towards Lake Monona. Minutes away and a mile up a river that snaked through the isthmus like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Christy's Landing.

Along the way, I got to see the new additions to the Johnson Street bridge, including the street art graffiti.

What would boating be without beer? And so I brought with me a cache of my homebrew which was mighty refreshing in the baking sun.

Out on Monona, we kicked it into high gear. Well, as a high a gear as a 50HP engine can move a 24' pontoon boat. There was a hint of spray and some big, poofy clouds in the sky.

On the Yahara between Monona and Upper Mud, we came upon the new brat barge.

There was nothing new at Christy's Landing - the same tasty cheese curds, spicy Bloody Marys, and crisp gin and tonics. On the way back, I grabbed a snap of my compatriots.

What you can't see here are Andy's scars from having been thrown through a plate glass window. He has healed nicely.
|| Palmer, 4:59 AM || link || (0) comments |