Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 June, 2007

Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence)

It is a daunting task to write about a film which has no plot, virtually no dialogue, no narration, and no non-diagetic music. Having seen Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) a couple nights ago, I must try.

With many folks in town bitching about Sundance's pricing scheme, I for one was happy that the film played there. With a running time of nearly 3 hours, the extra leg room and comfy chairs were most welcome. Also welcome was the surprise I received upon punching the computer screen to select my reserved seat. I figured I'd be virtually alone but there were about 30 other folks at the showing. A pittance compared to the numbers that Michael Moore's latest will draw today but it was heartening to see that a small crowd of other folks were up for a cinematic challenge.

I recently whined about Hollywood blockbusters and actually watched a bit of the first Fantastic Four film last weekend. I am convinced that this mental malaise put me in the right frame of mind for Into Great Silence as it was the perfect antidote to the blockbusters and I just loved it. There were no scenes of monks outrunning a ball of flame nor any CGI sidekicks to disturb the calm, measured contemplation of the film. A quick & easy way to think about the movie is that it is akin to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick. Take Malick's The New World and then exorcise the music and the plot. This leaves only the settlers building and living in Jamestown and the beautiful nature shots. This is Into Great Silence.

The film features the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery which is located up in the French Alps. Director Philip Gröning follows the cinema verite approach by acting as a fly on the wall. He initially approached them in 1984 and was told "we'll get back to you". Sixteen years later they did and Gröning spent a total of six months living amongst the monks with his camera and sound equipment as he documented their quotidian routine of prayer, eating, chopping wood, and occasionally socializing. There is a complete absence of exposition – no history of the order or the monastery is given nor are there interviews allowing the monks to elaborate on their way of life. But when you find out that the order was founded in 1084, one assumes that life at the Grande Chartreuse monastery carries on in much the same way it has for centuries.

Gröning's subjects have taken a vow of virtual silence which allows them to speak only outside the monastery one day a week. At the film's opening, we see one of the monks kneeling in silent prayer with only the sounds of the creaky wooden floors emanating from the soundtrack. I don't think I was ever so aware of the normal sounds of my fellow moviegoers in my entire life. Every time someone moved in his/her seat or crunched on a snack, it pierced the silence. For my part, merely sipping on an orange soda became an act of extreme self-consciousness.

Seeing the man praying in the age-old monastery immediately brought one of my favorite films to mind - The Name of the Rose. I waited for someone to be murdered over a book but it was not to be. Having gotten over that, I then waited for some hint of explanation, some background on what and who I was watching. But that never came either. Eventually I was able to sit back and watch without much inquisitiveness nagging at me.

Time passes slowly when you lead an eremitical life but it does pass. In one scene a monk is shown measuring and cutting cloth and you can tell he is making a robe. It is only much later that we see two acolytes being welcomed into the fold and part of this involves the monk with the haberdashery skills giving one of the novices his robe. On a grander scale, the film begins in the winter as a blizzard rages, progresses through spring and summer, and then ends when there is snow on the ground once more. The gentle flow of the year is shown with exterior scenes. In one, a monk is seen digging out a couple trenches in the monastery's yard. When he's completed this task, he makes his way to a shed and begins thumbing through packets of seeds. Spring is anon. The passage of time is also shown by some incredibly beautiful shots where the camera appears to be on an adjacent hill or perhaps atop the monastery's wall. The buildings are in the foreground while the towering mountains and a vast sky lingers in the back. Using time-lapse cinematography, we watch as the stars hastily move across the firmament. These shots are simply sublime. On the one hand, the speeded-up footage runs counter to scenes inside the monastery where everything is slow & deliberate. On the other, they mirror the simplicity of the hermetic life.

One scene which sticks in my head is when the monks gather for what I presume to be the Midnight Office. The camera is up looking down as they line the walls of the darkened chapel. (I think it's the chapel, anyway.) a couple small overhead lights appear as prayer/songbooks are referenced. The lights go out one followed by the other and they begin their singing. The only light is a small candle in a red glass. The voices all singing in Latin are hauntingly beautiful and Gröning cuts to some extreme close-ups of the candle that were shot in grainy Super-8 that looked like something out of David Lynch's Inland Empire. I found this scene to be extremely moving for reasons I can't explain.

There are some light-hearted moments as well. I suspect everyone in the audience was surprised to see one of the monks at his desk surrounded by paperwork and pecking away on a laptop. While the general austerity of life in a monastery has remained the same over several centuries, modern life still makes demands of us, even monks sequestered in the Alps. In another scene we see that winter has returned. It is a gorgeous sunny day and the monks are out sledding. We seeing them sliding down a hill, often times with no sled. One of them even tries to push another into the snow.

One of the great virtues of Into Great Silence is that it doesn't try to prod the viewer into any great insights or explanations of why the inhabitants of the Grande Chartreuse have chosen the monastic life. One is forced to experience a simulacrum of it and to decide for oneself. Being an atheist, I can only surmise that, for the monks, the truest path to their god is to be found in their quotidian routine that is played out beneath the gentle sidereal rhythms which gives us day and night and passes winter into spring.

When I got home, I told my roommate Stevie a bit about the film and he asked if they were the same monks that make a certain liquor. I told him that I didn’t think so but later found out that, yes indeed, these same men do make that alcoholic beverage named after their monastery. Hopefully some footage of this will appear on the DVD.
|| Palmer, 1:58 PM || link || (1) comments |

Friday Skin (On Saturday)

|| Palmer, 11:57 AM || link || (0) comments |

As With All Good Evenings...

...yesterday's started off with bacon.

The Dulcinea and M were over for dinner and I had a 2lb. slab sitting in my refrigerator just waiting to be eaten. A couple pork chops and a chicken breast were thawed, seasoned, and then wrapped in bacon before being put on the grill. As dinner cooked, it was off to the backyard for more photography.

The cauliflower is coming in slowly but surely.

I spied the first chili of the year!

And there were, of course, lots of flowers.

When dinner was done, it looked like this:

For dessert it was grilled bananas. Just peel, give a douche of orange juice and Triple Sec and then grill. But not as long as I did.

It is going to be a busy late summer of canning. Dogger wants to learn how to can and, now that Old Man Standiford is a telecommuter instead of a regular commuter out of town, he's got grand designs for stocking his larder. Being home all day, he has had the time to get his garden in order. There's going to be tomato canning on a massive scale, I can tell you. This means I need to buy more quart jars. Plus Standiford's friend Kathy has vowed to turn his cucumber crop into pickles. Hot peppers will be in abundance which means I've gotta make a drying screen and get some pectin for jalapeno jelly. Plus I hope to convince Kath to make a small batch of peppery pickles. I should head to Goodwill or St. Vinnie's and invest in a pressure cooker as I'd like to can some japs as well. We've got habaneros this year so perhaps I'll whip up some jerk paste to help perk up those long winter nights. When cherries are available, I want to preserve some in bourbon or brandy again.

Yep, there's a lot of work ahead.
|| Palmer, 9:31 AM || link || (0) comments |

29 June, 2007

Another Brewer Speaks

Yesterday I wrote a couple pieces (here and here) about the Brewpub Tourism Development Act and its potential effect on the microbreweries here in Wisconsin. Thusly I was unsurprised to see that the Wisconsin State Journal has an article today called "Proposed law alarms Wisconsin vintners". I refrained from commenting on it because of time but now, after a phone call, I've got something to say about it and more on the Brewpub Tourism Development Act. Are regular readers tired of this issue yet?

Earlier I spoke with Jeff Hamilton who is the Vice President and General Manager of Sprecher Brewing. Mr. Hamilton is also on the governing board of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild and he said that he was speaking to me on behalf of his brewery and the Guild. Our conversation was extremely interesting as it clarified something that Russ Klisch from Lakefront mentioned to me yesterday as well as giving me some new information. Readers are strongly encouraged to go back and read my previous two posts on this matter that are linked above if you have not already done so.

Hamilton said that the Brewpub Tourism Development Act was introduced by lobbyists representing two brewpubs, one of which is the Great Dane, and not lobbyists representing the Wisconsin Brewers Guild. This is problematic as both microbrewers and brewpubs are members of the Guild. He reiterated what Mr. Klisch told me yesterday, namely, that the new law would prohibit brewers from having more than two locations if both didn't get 50% or more in sales from food. But he also explained where Costco fits into all of this.

As I noted yesterday, Costco is going around challenging the three-tier system to put themselves in a position to buy directly from producers. Hamilton explained that they do so by trying to exploit openings or loopholes in state laws which treat in-state and out-of-state producers differently. Does this sound familiar? If you read the WSJ article today, it would:

Under the proposal, Wisconsin wineries would also no longer be able to sell directly to state retailers because out-of-state wineries aren't allowed to -- an unfair advantage the Supreme Court decision forbids, Wittenwyler said. Without these changes, state law might be vulnerable to a court challenge, he said.

Like Klisch, Hamilton was quick to note that the beer distributors in Wisconsin are a powerful lobby. The Brewpub Tourism Development Act was a compromise in which the brewpubs got what they wanted but the distributors also got something they wanted. It was his opinion that the distributors want to make it so that beer producers in Wisconsin fit neatly into one of two groups: either one that sells their product onsite or in bottles only. With the craft brewing market doing well, brewpubs want to get into the bottling market – think the Ale Asylum here in Madison. With this act, the distributors are trying to get the brewpubs off in one corner and essentially give the microbreweries no option other than to use distributors to get their beer to retailers and consumers.

The proposed law which has vintners so alarmed would also effect some microbreweries. While on the phone, Hamilton perused an email he had received from a group representing the state's wineries. One of the perceived effects of the legislation would be to restrict the direct shipment of all alcohol. Hamilton said that the language is very restrictive and would prevent him from being able to sell alcohol at his brewery when people rent the facility for parties, weddings, and the like. And who is behind this law ostensibly aimed at vintners? The wine distributors.

That lobbyists came up so often in my conversations with brewers led me to look into just who these folks are. The Great Dane is represented by Timothy Hoven, Ryan Natzke, and Michael Welsh of Hoven Consulting, Inc. for which I can find no webpage. Curiously enough, according to an obviously outdated page up at brewersadvocate.org, Mr. Walsh used to represent the Wisconsin Brewers Guild although he is not currently listed as doing so for the 2007-2008 legislative session. Indeed, the Wisconsin Brewers Guild does not have a lobbyist lined up nor does it appear that any entity in the craft brewing industry of Wisconsin has one save the Great Dane.

Eric Jensen is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association which, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Board, has three lobbyists. One of them is Jensen himself in his capacity as member or employee of Jensen Government Relations LLC. Both the WBDA and Jensen Government Relations LLC have the same address here in Madison: 16 North Carroll St, Suite 950. Mr. Jensen also uses the same phone number in each capacity. I don't know why I feel like Jim Garrison in JFK discovering that Lee Harvey Oswald and Guy Bannister both had offices at the same address in New Orleans since this shouldn’t be at all surprising. The WBDA also enlists the services of Bryan Brooks of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek Government Affairs LLC and Peter Kammer of the Essie Kammer Group.

Did anyone watch last week's Bill Moyers Journal? I'm referring to the interview with Ken Silverstein in which he related how he posed "as the representative of a fictitious investment group with business interests in Turkmenistan, and approached several prominent Washington lobbying firms to see how they might bolster the image of Turkmenistan as a viable international economic and diplomatic partner." Hearing about the lobbyists behind the Brewpub Tourism Development Act reminded me of that.

"No bills were successful that were opposed by the liquor lobby or the tobacco lobby. I think both the tobacco and alcohol lobbyists, unfortunately, had considerable influence on the Legislature." These words were spoken by Sen. Fred Risser back in 1995. He is a sponsor of the Brewpub Tourism Development Act. At this point, the Wisconsin Brewers Guild is in the process of assessing the Brewpub Tourism Development Act to determine it's impact and a course of action. Hamilton told me that there is a possibility that a clause could be added to grandfather in the state's microbreweries and that the distributors are amenable to this. However, any future breweries would be out of luck. Exactly how this would affect would-be entrepreneurs can only be guessed at. The desire of the Wisconsin craft brew industry is to see the laws changed so that brewpubs can open up to 6 locations as well as small breweries, current and future, are given a chance to expand as well.

Folks on all sides will no doubt be scrambling this summer to get this bill modified and we'll probably see how it all pans out come the autumn. Now, I wonder if can get a lobbyist to talk to me…
|| Palmer, 3:22 PM || link || (2) comments |

28 June, 2007

Woe Betide the Wisconsin Microbrewer? (Follow-Up)

When I got home from work this evening, I found that my roommate had taken a message from Russ Klisch of Lakefront Brewery. I called him back only to find him at Summerfest. I offered to call him tomorrow but he was eager to chat.

Earlier today I wrote about the proposed Brewpub Tourism Development Act which Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, and Rep. Scott Newcomer, R-Delafield, are looking to introduce this year. Ostensibly the bill is to allow brewpubs to have more than two locations at which their beer is brewed and served. In this case the hubbub centers around the Great Dane Brewpub here in Madison which opened a third location out at Hilldale Mall which currently carries only imports and domestic craft beers instead of their own brews because of a 1933 law intended to prevent large breweries from monopolizing the retail end of the market. Over 70 years later, the law is outdated and in need of revision.

But the bill as it currently stands is drawing the ire of small brewers (as opposed to brewpubs). I noted earlier that I first caught wind of this from Rob Larson of Tyranena Brewing Company. He didn't have the time to help me understand the objections of the microbrewers but Russ Klisch who clarified things for me. Well, as much as he could via the phone while he was at Summerfest.

The crux of the matter is that the bill as it is now appears to prohibit expansion beyond two premises if the sales of food at both locations does not equal 50% or more. According to Klisch, the folks who would most immediately be affected by the passage of the bill are Gray's Brewing, Tyranena, the Milwaukee Ale House, and the Calumet Brewing Company up in Chilton. He illustrated his statements by noting the plight of Jim McCabe, the owner of the Milwaukee Ale House. McCabe is looking to open a restaurant in Grafton but, if the bill is passed as is, he'll find himself in the same position the Great Dane is today by being unable to sell his own beer. This is because there's the MAH and the new brewery and, since the brewery doesn’t get at least 50% of its sales from food, a third location would be verboten. Gray's is in a similar situation with their brewery in Janesville and the Tied House in Verona. The Great Dane is all brewpub with no site dedicated to brewing so they'd be allowed up to six locations.

Klisch clearly grew a bit angry as our conversation progressed and especially when he related how he contacted the Great Dane to talk things over and was directed to the brewpub's lobbyist who, he said, just blew him off. So why is all this happening?

Wisconsin has a three-tier system for beer – brewers, distributors, and retailers. (I like to think of myself, the drinker, as the fourth tier.) Laws passed immediately after Prohibition were designed to keep large brewers at bay. Admittedly, I'm not an expert on the laws, but, in general, retailers must buy their product from the middleman - the distributors. The issue here with the Brewpub Tourism Development Act is with the Wisconsin Wholesale Beer Distributors Association. Things get a little foggy here for me as they were for Klisch but it seems that distributors want to limit the ability of small breweries to sell their beer. The theory is that they are trying to mount a defense against Costco which is apparently lobbying in other states to buy directly from brewers instead of from distributors. The exact mechanism is unclear to me but I was told by Klisch that the distributors want a new classification for small breweries to keep distribution channels firmly in the hands of the members of the WWBDA. I highly recommend reading "Craft Beer Pipeline Opens as Wholesalers Scramble to Add Brands" up at Ale Street News. Now that the craft beer industry is growing again after a slump 6-7 years ago, companies are scrambling to become the sole distributors of microbrews and consolidation is occurring at a fast rate. So it seems this isn't an act of war by the WWBDA, but rather a shoring up of the defenses as Costco is looking to get a foothold in Milwaukee.

According to this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the WWBDA is "politically powerful" and is "a heavy source of campaign contributions for both Democrats and Republicans." (Some numbers can be gleaned from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.) Recall from my earlier post the surprise of the commenter at Beer Advocate that the WWBDA was on board here. The clout and the Costco Defense Theory would explain why they have given their stamp of approval to the proposal. Klisch said that liquor-related bills are generally introduced in the fall when the legislature is trying to formalize the state budget.

Saddest to me is that there's talk of trying to get a boycott of the Great Dane going. Until now, the notion of a rising tide lifting all boats seemed to prevail in the craft brew industry. Microbreweries and brewpubs were allies trying to enter a market dominated by Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and Coors. But now a fissure has appeared.
|| Palmer, 11:21 PM || link || (0) comments |

Creationist Museum Bumper Sticker

Thanks to Ed Brayton for pointing this out:

|| Palmer, 3:04 PM || link || (0) comments |

Woe Betide the Wisconsin Microbrewer?

The Wisconsin legislature is looking to modify an old law which disallows the Great Dane Brewpub from brewing and selling its own beer at its third location at Hilldale Mall. The law, which was passed in the wake of Prohibition, limits the Dane to two locations. Fred Risser, D-Madison, and Rep. Scott Newcomer, R-Delafield, are looking to modify the law so that brewpubs could work their zymurgical magic on up to 6 premises. The Wisconsin State Journal recently editorialized in favor of the proposal.

This morning I read some cautionary words from Rob Larson, the brewmaster out at Tyranena. He wrote:

The bill is also supported by the Wisconsin Wholesalers and the Dane County Tavern League. Unfortunately, the way the bill is currently written it is bad for the small brewing industry (although The Great Dane still achieves their goal of expanding locations).

I got on the horn to Senator Risser's office and left my contact info for the aide dealing with this bill. I've yet to hear from this person. I did, however, get a hold of Larson who sent me a copy of the bill. It's 28 pages and I'll need to sit down and parse it out later to figure out exactly why he feels it's bad for the small brewing industry. (Being a busy brewmaster, Rob didn't have time to explain. Hopefully next week.) However, one can probably get a good sense of what he's talking about from other sources.

Takes the following comments from a thread on the matter up at Beer Advocate:

After reading through the bill a few times, however, it seems to me to be a compromise that favors the brew pubs over the other interested parties (a good thing for us BAs). This bill also has a good shot of passing since the distributors are not only refraining from opposing the bill, they are actually lobbying in favor of it! Even the Dane County Tavern League has come out in favor of the legislation.

Note the surprise of the author as he or she comments that the distributors and DCTL are on board. While no expert, I do know that small breweries and distributors often times have an uneasy relationship. For a taste, check out Bye Bye Bell's from the Chicago Reader. While it pertains to Illinois law, I think you can get an idea of the relationship between brewers and distributors here in the Land of Cheese. Larson told me to pay attention to the fact that the bill is supported by the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association and the Great Dane yet no breweries have stepped up with their names in support. Indeed, the brewers he spoke with are not too keen on the bill as it currently stands.

While I wholeheartedly support the Great Dane and feel they should be able to open a third brewpub, I am saddened that it seems that achieving their goal might come at the expense of Wisconsin's small breweries. I am still awaiting a call from Risser's office and am trying to contact other small breweries around the state for their take on the bill. I hope to have more soon.
|| Palmer, 11:05 AM || link || (0) comments |

26 June, 2007

Would You Like Some Arsenic With That Kelp?

Finally! The FDA has taken some steps to further regulate herbal supplements.

Commissioner of Food and Drugs, Dr Andrew C. von Eschenbach said that:

"This rule helps to ensure the quality of dietary supplements so that consumers can be confident that the products they purchase contain what is on the label."

The regulations cover good practice in all stages of the product's life cycle from manufacturing through packaging and labelling to storage. It covers testing of the finished product and the handling and recording of consumer complaints. And, as well as ongoing operations, the ruling covers the design and construction of manufacturing plants.

Recent changes in the law also means that the industry will have to report adverse events to the FDA:

"In addition, as a result of recent amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, by the end of the year, industry will be required to report all serious dietary supplement related adverse events to FDA," said Eschenbach.

Unfortunately, the manufacturers aren't actually required to prove the safety or efficacy of their products so they can continue to put vague claims on their labels and, in general, bullshit the public.

Unsurprisingly, "independent journalists" like Mike Adams aren't taking it too well. When the FDA announced their intentions, he blogged all Stentorian-like: "It is the latest action item by the FDA / Big Pharma conspiracy that will not stop until health freedom has been abolished, drug companies rule the nation, and every citizen is diagnosied with a fictitious disease and drugged up on monopoly-priced pharmaceuticals…The FDA has declared war on natural medicine and the American people". To paraphrase Penn Jillette, what a reactionary asshole.

Someone slightly less hyperbolic but just as conspiracy-minded is "Big" Bill Bailey, PhD. Oh, and MH, ND, CNHP, and CTN. He asks, Why Would the FDA Ban, or Regulate, Supplements?" and follows the paranoid trail blazed by Adams by blaming it all on Big Pharma. Well, Big Bill, perhaps one reason might be to ensure that high levels of arsenic don't end up in your kelp supplements.

Janell Mayo Duncan of the Consumers Union said that "it is still a case of 'buyer beware for consumers of dietary supplements because manufacturers are not required to list known health risks for their products, or make sure that they are safe or effective'." All the FDA wants to do is make sure that, if a company claims a pill has a certain amount of an ingredient in it, then the pill has that amount and that there's no arsenic in your fucking kelp supplements. No one is making sure that the kelp pills actually have a salubrious effect (yet) or banning them. Here's a good summation from the article cited at the beginning of my rant:

The purpose is to protect consumers from products contaminated with toxins, bacteria, pesticides, glass, lead and other heavy metals and to prevent misleading labelling, improper packaging, inclusion of the wrong ingredients, or incorrect amounts of ingredients. The FDA says products have been recalled in the past for these reasons.

That's Big Pharma for ya. They're just a bunch of assholes conspiring at the highest levels of power to keep pesticides, arsenic, and glass out of your ginseng suppositories. Better run to the Willy Street Co-op or Community Pharmacy to stock up before the rules go into effect and all that natural, holistic glass is removed from the precious supplements.
|| Palmer, 3:55 PM || link || (2) comments |

25 June, 2007

Do As the Loving Heathen Do

After getting the blues down at Warner Park, The Dulcinea and I went to Pierce's for a wee snack. While she got some chips I hunted around for the habanero pickles that I'd had at Dogger's a couple weeks back. Unable to find them, I gave him a call and got directions to the appropriate shelf.

With that being done, we headed over to Olbrich Park for the Solstice bonfire. If I recall, it would have been more appropriate for them to have called it a Midsummer's Day festival or some such thing as the summer solstice was on Thursday. However, Midsummer celebrations are usually held on the 23rd or 24th due to Western civilization rehoolying its calendars a few hundred years ago. (Can any paganfolk confirm or deny this?) Activities on Saturday had started around four o'clock so we missed all the canoeing and eating. Instead we found a circle of folks massed around a bonfire.

If you look closely at the above photo, you can kinda sorta see the drummers behind the flames. Folks were writing things down on small sheets of paper and casting them into the flames. They must have been wishes that they wanted to come true because I'm fairly certain one traditionally writes things you want to say goodbye to and commit them to the fire on the winter solstice. Anyway, there were a couple large puppets there and one of them was helping turn kids who, no doubt, read Harry Potter, into Satan worshippers.

The Green Man was also present. I am rather partial to his foliated visage which must explain why I have a tattoo of him on my arm.

As I stood and watched the fire, a woman approached the person next to me as she clutched a small pine tree. She had apparently saved her Christmas tree and was finally disposing of it. I got the impression that she does this every year. Drier than the Sahara Desert, it made for some nice flames.

While I always enjoy a good fire, the celebration was a small reminder that we're going to be seeing less and less of our distant Sister Sun. Next month is my birthday and shortly after that it'll be harvest time. The next thing you know, it'll be snowing.

Next up – Lughnassadh, where we eat corn like it's 1999!
|| Palmer, 1:29 PM || link || (0) comments |

24 June, 2007

To Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

Today was a rather nice day. A bit on the hot side, but it's summer so what can you do? I took my camera out in the garden today to see how things were going. Most of the flowers were looking well. Very well indeed.

As far as the garden goes, the strawberries are done but there's oodles of chilies, cauliflower, and tomatoes on their way. August is going to be a busy month for canning. Here is a really bad picture of a couple nascent toms.

|| Palmer, 9:04 PM || link || (0) comments |

23 June, 2007

Sir Derek Jacobi Rocks!

The rumors had been floating around for weeks and there was much anticipation. "Utopia" would begin the push towards the end of series 3 with the return of an old friend and…

The Doctor lands the TARDIS in Cardiff – on The Rift – to recharge its batteries, so to speak. Out of the blue, a familiar face runs towards the TARDIS yelling "Doctor!". It's Captain Jack. Inside, The Doctor looks at a viewing screen of the exterior and sees him barreling at the blue box which causes of look of consternation to cross his face. He makes a hasty dematerialization but Jack leaps onto the TARDIS and is taken for a ride. By clinging onto the exterior, Jack causes a wee problem and the trio are hurdled forward 100 trillion years to the end of the universe.

They land on planet Malcassairo. Exiting, The Doctor and Martha find Jack lying on the ground. Being a medical student, Martha tries to revive him but to no avail. Suddenly he gasps a big breath and comes back to life. The Doctor seems none too thrilled to see Jack but the reunion takes on a happier tone when Jack asks about Rose and is told that, although she is stuck in a parallel universe, she is safe and with her mother and Mickey. Wandering about, they see a man being chased by a group of people called the Futurekind who look like they're right out of Mad Max. They are cannibals with sharpened teeth to match their bloodlust. Making a swift advance to the rear, they find safety at The Silo, a fenced-off compound where the last of human race shelters itself.

There they meet Professor Yana and his assistant Chantho who are desperately trying to prepare an arc which would take the remaining human to the far-off destination of Utopia. Unfortunately, Yana is unable to get the new-fangled propulsion system to work. Yana is masterfully played by Sir Derek Jacobi. In the Confidential interview with him, he said that he's wanted to be on Doctor Who for ages and that he was thrilled to finally get the chance. He plays the avuncular and slightly bumbling professor just perfectly. How can one not love him? But something is amiss as Yana has these flashes where he hears the sounds of drums and becomes disorientated.

The Doctor is able to get the propulsion system up and running and preparations for lift-off get underway. But a member of the Futurekind has infiltrated The Silo and she wreaks havoc with the power system. The only way to fix the problem is for Jack to enter a room flooded with deadly radiation and fiddle with these cylinder hoolies. With The Doctor standing outside, Jack and he have a heartfelt conversation. Jack relates how he came to know that he was immortal and The Doctor explains why he left him behind back on Satellite 5.

As the boys have their heart-to-heart while disaster looms, the drums in Yana's head get louder and Martha's description of the TARDIS triggers voices. He is obviously pained and very confused. Martha tries to lend comfort and he shows her a very familiar looking pocket watch that he's had since he was an orphaned boy. It is identical to that used by The Doctor in "Human Nature". She asks him if he's ever opened it and he tells her that he never has – it's been broken since he's had it. Martha, knowing something is terribly wrong, goes to fetch The Doctor. But the seed has been planted.

The drums and the voices in Yana's head beat ever louder. Back in a hallway, Martha pleads with The Doctor to listen to her but he and Jack are busy trying to get the rocket launched. Amidst the din, Martha pieces it all together. In the laboratory, Yana opens the watch and an amber vapor oozes out towards his face. The Doctor recalls the last words of the Face of Boe from "Gridlock" - "You are not alone." YANA.

With the rocket safely hurtling away, the Futurekind storm The Silo. The Doctor, Martha, and Jack begin to make their way back to the laboratory. Inside, the newly-transformed Yana reveals to Chantho that he is The Master and lurches towards her with a loose power cable.

With the Futurekind just behind them, our heroes arrive at the laboratory door only to find it locked. Inside, The Master prepares to TARDISjack The Doctor's transport. Chantho, however, is not quite dead and she musters enough energy to shoot The Master with her laser equivalent of a Saturday night special. Although wounded, The Master staggers into the TARDIS just as The Doctor, Jack, and Martha manage to break the door's lock mechanism and get into the lab. He seals the TARDIS so that The Doctor cannot open it from the outside. Wounded, The Master regenerates into a younger form. As Martha and Jack struggle to keep the Futurekind out of the laboratory, The Doctor is being taunted by The Master who bids farewell to his archenemy and the TARDIS dematerializes.

I can imagine that many children watching "Utopia" were a bit confused and wondered who exactly The Master was. Here's a handy picture someone put together with his various incarnations:

I started watching Doctor Who in 1982 or so when the PBS affiliate in Chicago was broadcasting the Fourth Doctor and thusly my first encounter with him was in "The Deadly Assassin" where the arch villain wasn't doing so hot. (That's him at the top center.) This run was followed by that of the Fifth Doctor so Anthony Ainley (upper right) was The Master that I grew up loving to hate. Unable to avoid spoilers, I knew that The Master was returning this season and so I was just giddy with anticipation while watching this story. Having been a fan of the show for 25 years plus the fact that he hadn't been seen in 18, there was almost no way I wouldn't love "Utopia". I felt like a kid again – "Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy! The Master is returning!"

Sir Derek Jacobi was so great here. As he his character slowly changes from avuncular professor to becoming The Master, his facial expressions change, the lighting gets moodier – the tension was so thick, you could cut it with the wrong side of knife. When you've been waiting 18 years for one of your favorite villains to reappear, how can you help but get fired up? "Blink" scared the crap out of me and "Utopia" made me nervous and anxious. Two fantastic episodes in a row. With his taunting from inside the TARDIS, John Simm looks like he'll be a great Master. The glee with which he readies the TARDIS to take off and abandon The Doctor is priceless. Simm remarked in the Confidential that his young son is a big fan of the show and that he just couldn't pass up the role. He loved the show as a boy too as did many of the writers, producers, and other actors and it must be quite a thrill for them all to do what they do. Their love for the program really comes through and I adore how they make little nods here and there to fans like me who grew up watching the classic series. For instance, as The Master taunts The Doctor, he says, "Why don't we stop and have a nice little chat while I tell you all my plans and you can work out a way to stop me? I don't think!"

I've heard folks say that, while they loved The Master, they were disappointed with much of the rest of the story. A common criticism was that the Futurekind were just too reminiscent of the characters in Mad Max. OK, but did that really distract you? (When I saw the piercings and teeth, I thought of Ghosts of Mars myself.) These people are long-time fans who knew The Master was going to return. How could they sit there and piss & moan about the Futurekind instead of biting their nails while watching Jacobi's fantastic performance? Plus they land in a quarry just like so many episodes from the classic series. And you get some back story on Jack and, to top things off, it's the first of a three-parter.

Aside from just the visceral thrill of The Master's return, the episode opened many a can of worms. How did he escape The Eye of Harmony? The Master ran out of regenerations long ago so how is he able to regenerate? Perhaps that gizmo that The Doctor used to make himself human and store his essence in a watch resets the regeneration count. Did The Master have one of those as well as The Doctor? How come the watch looks exactly the same? Last we saw, Tim Latimer had the watch used by The Doctor. Or it might be that The Doctor's hand was able to give him that power? Did I mention that Jack was able to find the TARDIS because he had The Doctor's hand which he had lost in a sword fight in the 2005 Christmas special?

There were a lot of converging elements in "Utopia". Jack was made immortal by Rose after she looked at the time vortex and assumed its massive power. He was somehow able to cling onto the exterior of the TARDIS which causes it to travel to the end of the universe where The Master just happens to be trapped in what appears to be The Doctor's watch/essence repository. Hmm…

Also, where do these events fit into the Torchwood timeline? Jack was much more sober in Torchwood – almost a taskmaster yet, when he appears in Doctor Who, he's much more easy-going and flirtatious. For instance, at the beginning when he is lying next to the TARDIS, Martha gives him CPR but to no avail. When he suddenly springs to life, Jacks asks, "Was someone kissing me?"

Martha's role here is pretty minimal. She is an able assistant and some of her dialogue precipitates background explanations from Jack and The Doctor. But, on the whole, she is pretty mute here. However, I have a feeling that this will change in the last two episodes of the season.

Another question is: what is Utopia? It is never revealed its exact nature. We do find out that it's far, far away and the a "Science Foundation" created a "Utopia Project" to preserve the human race so it can survive the "collapse of reality". Could it be an even newer New New York? Or just a bit of sci-fi mumbo-jumbo like reversing the neutron polarity?

And how did the Face of Bo know that The Master still lived? TFoB is described in "The End of the World" as having come from the "Silver Devastation" which is where Professor Yana says that he was found as a boy so there certainly appears to be some connection.

Regardless of all this, tonight is the penultimate episode of the season and I am getting fired up for it.

|| Palmer, 11:23 AM || link || (0) comments |

22 June, 2007

Blink and You're Dead

If the couch I was laying on while watching "Blink" weren't against the wall, I would have been hiding behind it because this was one of the creepiest and downright scariest Doctor Who stories ever.

The episode is one those Doctor Who-lite dealies like last season's "Love and Monsters" which features very little of The Doctor and his companion. From what I've heard, this is due to the program's shooting schedule which apparently finds the crews shooting 2 episodes at once. Instead a 2nd unit crew heads out and shoots the bulk of these stories with the lead characters thrown in for good measure. I personally liked "Love and Monsters" quite a bit so I wasn't like some fans who were just biding their time awaiting "Utopia".

"Blink" tells the story of Sally Sparrow, a young woman with an adventurous spirit. One night she hops over the gates of an old, dilapidated house. She wanders through taking photographs when she notices some writing behind a bit of wallpaper which is no longer attached. Pulling it back, she is startled to find a message addressing her specifically which admonishes to beware the weeping angels. Oh, and to duck too. She does as a projectile is thrown at her. The message is signed by The Doctor and dated 1969.

Sally goes to the home of her friend Kathy Nightingale where she notices a room full of televisions that are all in freeze frame with an image of The Doctor. As Sally makes coffee, she call Kathy, who is just in another room, to wake her. After she hangs up, Kathy's brother, Larry, walks by but isn't wearing any clothes. Kathy looks scared and, after asking her what's wrong, the scene shifts back to the old house with the two women hopping the fence. It is midday as they wander around and they notice that the statue of the weeping angel seems to be moving ever so slightly closer. Suddenly the doorbell (a manual one) rings. Sally answers while Kathy hides in an adjacent room. The man is delivering an old, yellowed envelope to Sally and claims it is from Kathy. Thinking that this is a prank, Sally discovers that Kathy has disappeared and the messenger claims to be her suddenly-missing friend's grandson.

Let me pause here and describe just what precedes Kathy's disappearance briefly. She is poking her head through a doorway and hears a noise. She turns around to and sees the statue out in the yard. She then directs her gaze towards Sally. As you can see in the photo above, Kathy will turn her head and open the door a bit to reveal the statue having moved ever so closer. Quite frankly, this scene scared the bejeezus outta me.

Getting back to the story, we see Kathy emerge in a field. A man sits on a nearby wall and she learns that she is in Hull in 1920. Meanwhile, Sally is unable to find Kathy so she opens the envelope and finds old photos of a woman who looks just like her friend along with a later dated 1987 from her. Throwing down the letter in disbelief, Sally runs upstairs into a room with three of the angel statues. One of them has a familiar looking key in it hand. She grabs the key and runs downstairs after the man who has just left. As she emerges outside, the Weeping Angels watch her from the upstairs windows.

It is now raining and Sally holes up in a café where she finishes the letter. In it, Kathy tells of her life and how it was the Weeping Angels who somehow had sent her back to 1920. She also asks her friend to tell Larry what happened to her. He works at a DVD store which is where Sally finds him. She tells Larry that his sister had to go away and that she loves him. Their conversation takes place next to a television with yet another freeze frame of The Doctor. Inquiring about it, Sally learns that 17 different DVDs have an easter egg with our hero having half a conversation. Taking the list of the afflicted DVDs, Sally goes to the police.

DI Billy Shipton is investigating disappearances at the old house. He takes her to a lower level of the parking lot and shows her a blue police box which was found there. No one can open it despite it having a seemingly ordinary lock. Shipton flirts with Sally and gets her phone number. She hastily walks away in embarrassment and up the stairs. The DI turns around to see 4 angels gathered around the police box. He walks up to them to investigate and blinks…

Sally is out in the street when she realizes that the key she has would fit in the lock. She returns only to find it gone. Shipton finds himself sitting against a brick wall in an alley when he is approached by The Doctor and Martha who explain what happened to him and that it's 1969. The Doctor enlists him to give a message to Sally so, when she calls him, she find the former DI in the hospital – an old man. The dying man tells her to check the list of DVDs that Larry gave her plus he reveals that he got into the video business and thusly he was responsible for the easter eggs on the DVDs.

Sally calls Larry and explains that all the DVDs on the list are ones she owns. The pair go to the old house and watch one of them on a laptop. Sally's reactions to The Doctor's comments are missing half of the conversation. The Doctor explains that he got a hold of a transcript of most of their conversation which is how he knows what she's going to say. He also warns her of the Weeping Angels which are really aliens that are "quantum locked". By this he means that they turn to stone when someone is watching them but move very swiftly when unobserved. Hence his warning not to blink when confronting them. The reason why they shield their eyes is that they cannot look upon one another.

As the DVD winds down, one of the Angels begins creeping into the room. Larry keeps his eyes wide open starring at it while Sally tries to find a door that will open. She eventually makes her way to the creepy cellar and discovers the TARDIS. Larry joins her only to find that the Angels are moving in. The lone light bulb begins to flicker and they move ever closer. Sally manages to open the TARDIS door just in the nick of time. The Angels surround the TARDIS and begin to shake it about. Inside, an automatic mechanism is activated which sends it back to The Doctor but leaves Sally and Larry behind. They suddenly find themselves surrounded by the Angels but they soon realize that they are all looking at one another and have been permanently transfixed in stone.

We cut to the epilogue which finds Sally and Larry running the DVD store together. A taxi pulls up in front of the store and out pours Martha followed by The Doctor and they are both donning bows and slings of arrows. Sally runs up to The Doctor and gives him the transcript of their conversation and they say goodbye.

Despite the paucity of The Doctor and Martha in "Blink", it was a killer episode. I never knew that statues could be so bloody scary. Of course, the tense, shrill violins on the soundtrack helped but lots of credit must go to director Hettie MacDonald and DP Ernest Vincze for their wonderful work as well. One would expect the scenes that take place at night to be horrifying but they also managed to make the sequence where Kathy disappears one in which I desperately wanted to hide behind the couch. No wonder the fear factor for this story went off the 1-5 scale to 5.5. Any chance to have a door move provided a chance for the statue to appear from behind it. I haven't been this scared watching Doctor Who since "The Empty Child" from Series 1. ("Are you my mommy?")

Carey Mulligan played Sally and I have to admit that I have developed a little crush on her. If Sally were to join the TARDIS crew, the threesome could have some incredible adventures.

Prurience aside, although Martha is almost wholly absent, this episode was spearheaded by women. A heroine is at the center of the adventure and a woman directed this story who is the first woman to do so since the mid-1980s. Doctor Who has changed quite a bit since the classic series ended. The teleplay was written by Stephen Moffat who also wrote "The Empty Child", mentioned above, and last season's "Girl in the Fireplace", another excellent story. He based it on a short story of his own which was published in a Doctor Who annual from a couple years back. The story was called "'What I Did On My Christmas Holidays' by Sally Sparrow".

Since The Doctor and Martha are all but absent and the story didn't advance this season's story arc with the enigmatic Mr. Saxon, I can't really blather on about character development or thematic material but I rate "Blink" as one of the best of the season. Indeed of the new series.

|| Palmer, 10:03 PM || link || (0) comments |

Friday Skin

|| Palmer, 6:34 PM || link || (0) comments |

Off to Yahweh's Dude Ranch

I must remember to renew my membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation as it expires in just over a week. I'll be happy to support them with their latest lawsuit which they just filed this week against North Dakota's subsidy of a religious ranch for all the young dudes. You can read the complaint in its entirety here (PDF).

Apparently the ND juvenile justice system remands some youthful offenders to the Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch which is an arm of the Lutheran church. Thusly the state is compelling kids to attend a religious institution and is using taxpayer money for this purpose to boot. I found this part of the complaint quite disturbing:

43. Children are disciplined for refusing to participate in the spiritual aspects of their therapeutic treatment plan, including suspension of privileges; prolongation of commitment at the Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch; compelled writing assignments to explain personal religious beliefs. Refusal to participate in religious activities is considered non-participation in a child's treatment plan.

Reminds me of my father, who was an atheist, being forced to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Speaking of religion and its attendant stupidity, some guy claims to have hacked Bloomsbury Publishing and grabbed a copy of the last Harry Potter book. Why did he/they do it?

"We did it by following the precious words of the great Pope Benedict XVI when he still was Cardinal Josepth (sic) Ratzinger.

"He explained why Harry Potter bring the youngs (sic) of our earth to Neo Paganism faith."

Well better that the youth be neo-pagans than be raped by a priest who is given cover by that scumbag Ratzinger.


Congratulations go out to Salman Rushdie who is now Sir Salman Rushdie.

I never knew he was married to a model many years his junior. Anyway, this provoked the now customary reaction of thousands of adherents of that peaceful religion, Islam, to turn into 10 year olds and burn flags and threaten to kill Rushdie. According to Pakistani premier Shaukat Aziz, the knighthood has "hurt the feelings" of Muslims. And what do Muslims like Aziz who get their feelings hurt want to do? Why kill, of course.
|| Palmer, 3:47 PM || link || (0) comments |


"The Family of Blood" picks up exactly where "Human Nature ended with The Family was holding guns to the heads of Martha and Ms. Redfern in order to get Smith to transform into a Time Lord once more. Tim Latimer, witnessing the scene from a corner of the room, opens the watch containing The Doctor's essence or whatever it is, which causes a distraction and allows Martha the chance to wiggle free and grab the gun from the possessed Jenny and take her hostage.

This is certainly one reason why people love Martha so much. Can you imagine Peri or Jo Grant doing this? Martha has a great weight on her shoulders in this story and she takes the bull by the horns. Getting back to the story, Martha's derring do allows everyone to escape back to the school. Undaunted, The Family make their way there except Clark who heads out to the woods where Martha has been known to go at times. Back at the school, Smith sounds the alarm and calls the students to arms. Martha protests but he notes that they are trained to defend King and country. The headmaster enters demanding to know what's happening and Smith and Ms. Redfern convince him that Baines & Co. have lost it and that they are preparing to attack the school. And so the headmaster and his sidekick, Phillips, head outside to confront the would-be attackers.

At this point, most thematic material regarding class and race are moved aside allowing war to be front and center. The headmaster confronts Baines who makes mention of the impending conflict and taunts him by asking just how much glory there will be when the boys of the school go off and die in battlefields of Northern France. The conversation ends with Phillips being zapped which prompts the headmaster to flee into the school. Inside preparations are being made for war. Guns are distributed and a line of defense is constructed which includes a machine gun nest. Meanwhile we see Clark find the TARDIS before Ms. Redfern once again represent the anti-war side, so to speak, by telling Smith that he knows it is wrong for the boys to fight. This comment is something of a bookend to Baines' remarks to the headmaster. Most viewers would agree with Ms. Redfern that war is bad but, given what we know about the situation, what choice is there but to fight? We may be repulsed by the headmaster's notion of war as a source of glory & honor but needs drive when the devil must.

The balloon girl is sent inside the school to reconnoiter and she finds Latimer who repulses her by opening the watch and giving her a dose of The Doctor's wrath. This also has the added effect of giving away the location of the watch so The Family send in its army of scarecrows who are promptly mowed down by machine gun and rifle fire but Smith is paralyzed with fear and doesn't let off a single round.

The girl appears and the headmaster moves to bring her to safety. He ignores all pleas to contrary and pays for doing the honorable thing with his life. Smith then orders the boys to make a hasty advance to the rear. Eventually the TARDIS is brought to the school where The Family taunt Smith as he crouches in the brush looking on helplessly. He, Ms. Redfern, and Martha take refuge in an empty cottage. Tim Latimer shows up with the watch in hand. This really forces Smith's hand. Martha reminds him of her love for The Doctor and that his Time Lord talents are needed as The Family have returned to their ship and have begun bombarding the local villages. However, Smith realizes that, if he becomes a Time Lord again, he will lose Ms. Redfern. Martha and Tim leave the pair alone. This was a very touching scene with flashes to what Smith and Joan might have together – marriage, children, etc. The agony on Smith's face was quite compelling.

Next we see Smith stumble in the The Family's ship. He nearly falls over himself as he pleads for The Family to just leave him alone. He submits to their will and hands over the watch. Upon opening it, they discover that it merely tells the time. Looking back up, Smith is bespectacled – The Doctor has returned. His Gerald Ford routine actually triggered a reaction which causes the ship to explode. The Family manage to escape the flames but not The Doctor's wrath. They wanted immortality so he gives it to them: Clark is chained up, Jenny is thrust into what looks like a collapsing star, the balloon girl becomes trapped in the mirrors of the world ("a mirror is a negative space with a frame…"), and Baines is paralyzed and dressed as a scarecrow overlooking a field. The Doctor learned his lesson in "The Five Doctors" – immortality is a curse, not a blessing.

Having disposed of the bad guys, The Doctor returns to Joan and invites her to travel with him. But she refuses saying that her lover is dead. She also asks him if the people who had died would have had he chosen to exile himself elsewhere. Then she tells him to leave. Back at the TARDIS, Martha awaits. Tim wanders up and The Doctor gives him the watch. The scene then cuts to the trenches of World War I with the scene that Latimer foresaw in "Human Nature". He saves the life of his fellow student Hutchinson. This is followed by a scene reminiscent of the ending of Saving Private Ryan. Tim is now an old man in a wheel chair. He is at an Armistice Day memorial ceremony and in one hand he clutches the watch. The Doctor and Martha are watching from a distance, each donning poppies. They trade glances and The Doctor and Martha give big grins.

Personally, I loved this story although there was one gaping plot hole: how did The Family know to come to Earth at that time to find The Doctor? This didn't ruin the story for me but I thought it odd that this wasn't explained. Whatever you make of this question, there was plenty else to love in this story. E.g. – seeing The Doctor as a bumbling human who gets all nervous when confronted with romance. Aside from such novelty as that, there's the triad of Smith, Martha, and Ms Redfern which features great acting and some genuinely touching moments. Of especial note is at the end when Redfern asks The Doctor, "If you hadn't just chosen us on a whim, would any of these people have died?" It reminded me of the accusations leveled at the Sixth Doctor in "Trial of a Time Lord". ("Terror of the Vervoids", methinks.) The new series delves more into the notion of The Doctor and his presence having some negative consequences. This was very evident in "School Days", for instance. And I think that the story at hand is served well by Redfern asking this of The Doctor and then rejecting him. This was totally appropriate given that Smith is such a nice guy and, from her point of view, The Doctor does nothing but bring death. Indeed, it wasn't just revenge he was after, it was a reckoning.

Why would our normally nice, kind, and forgiving Doctor act so incredibly cruelly? Perhaps the answer lies in his final conversation with Ms. Redfern. He says something like, "Smith is still inside me and I am able to do whatever he can." Having an angel on your shoulder yet also wearing horns is part of human nature. The headmaster reveled in the glory and honor of battle yet he also came to the aid of what he thought was an innocent girl. The everlasting rub is that people are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. And, if there's still a human inside The Doctor, then it seems that he is capable of both the best and worst of human nature. But one needn't even plead that Smith is still within him. One need only go back to "Trial of a Time Lord" and recall the Valeyard.

So how will The Doctor's dark side fit into the story arc of this season?

|| Palmer, 1:08 PM || link || (0) comments |

21 June, 2007

Word of the Week

aestival (est'-ih-val) adj. of or relating to the summer.
|| Palmer, 12:52 PM || link || (0) comments |

Happy Summer Solstice

Happy Summer Solstice! Now the days get shorter and shorter and winter will be here soon enough. Unfortunately I wasn't able to hang out with all the druids at Stonehenge today. However there are a couple solstice celebrations happening in Madtown.

Tonight there will be a shindig at James Madison Park from 19:00-22:00 presided over by the Reverend Father Scott Rassbach.

On Saturday the 23rd, the Friends of Starkweather Creek will be having their customary bonfire out at Olbrich Park. Festivities start @ 4PM. Look for canoes, kites, music, and a big blaze.
|| Palmer, 12:34 PM || link || (0) comments |

AAI Convention '07

Wow! The Four Musketeers all in one place. I wonder what security is going to be like. I mean, no doubt there will be some Christians who would be keen to execute their own faith-based initiative.
|| Palmer, 9:26 AM || link || (5) comments |

20 June, 2007

What I Want For My Birthday

My birthday is next month and thanks to PZ Myers, I've found what I what I want as my gift:

Nothing like a bit of Lovecraftian horror in a specimen jar. Failing that, I'll take the 18th century lycanthrope research case. It's like a chemistry kit - but for eldritch adults.
|| Palmer, 3:10 PM || link || (0) comments |