I've got friends ready to check the new cinema out with me and The Dulcinea. We're setting up a date for Air Guitar Nation. Plus I am keen on seeing Paul Verhoeven's Black Book. While I can honestly say that these two films are the only ones that really interest me at this time, just knowing that shortly there will be a lot more non-mainstream films in town is comforting. Still, don't forget to patronize Westgate and the Orpheum. Hopefully the increased competition will get these theatres to counter-program. It'd be nice to have a screen in town dedicated or, at least, giving significant time to revivals, for instance.
I found out via an e-mail from the Wisconsin Film Festival that a Romanian film festival is in media res at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
One thing that was absent from the otherwise comprehensive missive was that the Monona Public Library kicks off their Great Films For Grown-Ups series tomorrow with the Canadian film A Simple Curve.
The handsome Lazlo is backstage with his dancing sweetie, Tallulah, as she prepares to go on for her performance. He gives her a white rose which she affixes to her outfit. It's showtime so Tallulah heads out leaving Lazlo alone. Hearing a sound, he starts poking around the room to find from where it came when he is attacked by a pig-man. This chimera has the body of a man and a porcine head with a very irate expression on its face. It lunges at him squealing mad.
Our heroes The Doctor and Martha land at the feet of the Statue of Liberty with the New York City skyline before them. The nearly-complete Empire State Building stands out. (And like one of Pavlov's dogs, I scanned the scene for the World Trade Center.) Martha finds a newspaper on a nearby bench which gives the date as November 1, 1930. The paper's headline reads "Hooverville Mystery Deepens". And so our intrepid investigators are off to Central Park where the Hooverville in question is located to find out what is happening there.
They arrive as a fight breaks out and is quickly broken up by Solomon, the de facto leader of the homeless folks who call the place home. The Doctor looks to him for information and it is revealed that people have been mysteriously disappearing at night. That Solomon is black as are others at the Hooverville is a great testament to Russell T. Davies. Add Martha into the mix and you can clearly see another aspect of the show that has changed dramatically with its new incarnation. I recently read an article in which Davies criticized another program for not having enough people of color in the cast. While Doctor Who is arguably still very white bread, non-whites (and women too) are being given much more prominent roles. Back in the 80s, you might see a black guy playing a guard or some such role but that was it.
The action shifts to an upper floor of the Empire State Building where Mr. Diagoras, a man of no humble sartorial taste, is unsuccessfully trying to persuade a foreman to hasten the completion of the building's mast. Upon refusing to do so, Diagoras lets the guy meet with his "master" whom is summoned via an elevator. When the doors open, Dalek Caan is there with two pig-men in tow. The foreman is taken away for "the final experiment". A short time later, Diagoras is at the Hooverville trying to recruit workers to clear a sewer tunnel that has collapsed. The Doctor, Martha, Solomon, and a young man, Frank, volunteer. The four of them now wander the sewers. The Doctor stumbles upon a green thing which resembles a jellyfish. Continuing, they reach the point where the collapse was supposed to have taken place but there's nothing wrong - with the sewers, at least. To the side, a lone pig-man sits quietly against a wall. As The Doctor tries to communicate with it, a large group of them appear which gets everyone running for their lives. The scenes in the sewers are perhaps not as dark and moody as similar ones in The X-Files, but, combined with the story taking place in the 1930s, there's a spooky, almost Lovecraftian bent here. Wandering around in the dark and encountering strange mutant creatures is be all-too familiar to Cthulhu fans.
Diagoras has found a crew to finish the mast. He informs them that they are to attach some oddly familiar metal plates to the base of the mast ASAP. The plates are from a Dalek – the lower bit with the gold spheres on it. Dalek Caan then engages Diagoras in a brief conversation in which the Judas to the human race finds out that the Daleks lost their planet in a war. Dalek Caan is almost envious as it gives the closest thing to an encomium that a Dalek can give to another species. It notes the ability of humans to survive and the rebuilding New York throughout time. Diagoras is then taken away to meet Dalek Sec (pictured above). Upon meeting Dalek Sec, it orders that Diagoras be held for use in The Final Experiment.
Back in the sewers, the gang of four find a manhole through which they can escape. Unfortunately, Frank is the last to ascend the ladder and is captured by the pig-men. Emerging from backstage in the theatre, they are greeted by Tallulah who is brandishing a pistol. She demands to know what happened to Lazlo. The Doctor gets her to calm down and she tells him how Lazlo has been missing a couple weeks. Solomon heads back to the Hooverville to let the others know what happened to Frank. Meanwhile The Doctor then begins to jury rig a device to analyze the DNA of the green thing he found below.
Back in the Dalek lair underneath the Empire State Building, Dalek Sec lectures his fellow pepperpots by saying that their race must evolve in order to survive despite Dalek ideology which holds that humans are inferior and several previous Doctor Who stories in which Daleks bleat about he purity of their race. Dalek Sec's case opens up to reveal the mutant Kaled within. Diagoras is thrust forward and is enveloped by one of Dalek Sec's tentacles which drags him into the case and shuts tightly.
Looking on from the wings of the stage, Martha watches Tallulah's dance routine when she spies a pig-man at the other end and gives chase. In another room, The Doctor has pieced together a contraption which identifies the creature's DNA as having come from Skaro. He then hastily tries to find Martha and only to discover that she's been captured by a pig-man. Going once more into the sewers, he cannot convince Tallulah to stay behind so she follows him. They stumble upon Lazlo whose transmogrification into a pig-man was not completed. Fully cognizant of his horrible fate, he agrees to help The Doctor.
Back in Mutant Central, Dalek Sec isn't doing too well as smoke cascades from underneath its black casing. Dalek Jast injects Sec with what is probably a final dose of catalyst.
Lazlo leads The Doctor and Tallulah to a group of captives, which includes Martha, who are being sorted out according to intelligence by Daleks Caan and Thay. They stick their plungers at the face of a specimen and thissomehow scans brainwaves. One wouldn't normally see a toilet plungers as being ominous but there's just something irksome about this scene. The Daleks were created back in the 1960s as a mirror image of the Nazis and seeing the captives here lined up is more than vaguely reminiscent of those lines of people in the concentration camps.
The Doctor and Lazlo convince Tallulah to go back to the theatre for her own safety. As the captives begin marching, The Doctor sneaks into line and soon enough the group is marched to the Dalek lab. They look on in horror as the Dalek evolution comes to fruition. Dalek Sec's casing opens to reveal this guy:
"I am a Human Dalek. I am your future..."
I believe that this is the first story that takes place in America in a long, long time. The English actors do entirely plausible American accents with Miranda Raison's Tallulah having a particularly grating and over the top New York accent ala Fran Drescher. A crew was sent to New York to shoot footage of the city for backgrounds and so many of the scenes, although CGI'd, feature the real deal.
The story will be continued today with "Evolution of the Daleks". Being a two-parter, the story is allowed to gradually unfold instead of revelations jumping out at us. And I was genuinely surprised to see the Daleks in a mode that's a bit less menacing than we're used to. They're in retreat as opposed to going around threatening everyone with extermination. The new series has really been kind to the Daleks in that they're no longer merely mindless automatons hellbent on destruction. True, they still seek to kill and subjugate, but they've been fleshed-out, so to speak. This story treads similar ground to that of "Dalek" from the first series with the fusion of Dalek with human DNA which creates a hybrid. In addition, that the Daleks fought the Timelords in the Time War means that Daleks in the new series are cognizant that they are the last of their kind and we get to see them contemplate this fate. When encountering the Daleks, The Doctor must confront his status as the last of the Timelords, the rest having been killed in the Time Wars. This gives writers the chance to dig into his psyche a bit more and to give nuance to the character who faces a vast chasm of loneliness being the last of his kind.
It seems unlikely that The Doctor is actually the last Timelord. The show has introduced rogue Gallifreyans before - witness the Meddling Monk, The Master, Rani, and Professor Chronotis. And remember the proclamation of The Face of Boe from the previous story, "Gridlock", in which he tells The Doctor he is not alone. As with the Bad Wolf thing in the first series, the season is building up for something big in the finale. The individual stories certainly stand on their own but each season has an arc to it with little clues being dropped along the way. Some characters return as well and all of these things combined leave hints at an even larger meta-story unfolding. This method of getting at something bigger over the course of a season is something that the classic series flirted with during the latter part of Sylvester McCoy's tenure as the 7th Doctor but it has really come to fruition with the new series.
I'm a week behind in viewing and two weeks behind in reviewing this season of Doctor Who. Let's look at episode 3 - "Gridlock".
We begin with a couple in a futuristic VW van that flies instead of rolls along. Something attacks their hippie bus but calls to the police go unanswered so the van and its passengers are torn apart.
In the TARDIS, The Doctor offers another trip to Martha so she can go into the future as well as into the past. She asks to be taken to his home planet. Rather dolefully, The Doctor reminisces about Gallifrey's beautiful orange sky and the Citadel before saying that he doesn't want to return to his home planet. Instead he takes Martha to New New York (or more properly, New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New York) on New Earth. If that sounds familiar, then it should. The Doctor has taken Martha back to a place where he'd also taken Rose. It's a rainy alley that is kind of like Android Row lite. Instead of food vendors and barkers hawking androids, there are shopkeepers proffering transdermal patches of mood-altering drugs.
We then cut to the Face of Boe who is being tended to by Novice Hame – two characters from last season's "New Earth". The Face intones, "He has arrived. Find him before it's too late." Hame grabs a gun and departs.
Back in that rain-soaked alley, a man and a woman waving pistols burst onto the scene and kidnap Martha. They slap a sleep patch onto her neck and put her inside their dingy VW van and take off. Returning to the alley, The Doctor finds out how to get to the expressway. He discovers that it's a vast cavern with rows and rows of thousands, if not millions, of those same vans just hovering there – stuck in gridlock.
Martha regains consciousness and finds out from her kidnappers, Milo and Cheen, that she was taken so that they could use the fast lane which requires 3 adult passengers. Their destination is now only 6 years away. Meanwhile The Doctor has taken to entering one a hover van and finds out from Brannigan, a cat person, that he and his human wife have traveled 5 miles in a dozen years. In a fun sequence, The Doctor jumps from van to van and lets himself into each one with his new sonic screwdriver. He encounters quite a few characters including a nudist couple. Reaching the van of a business man which hovers at the lowest level before the fast lanes begin, The Doctor sees that there are Macra down on the surface. These crab-like creatures were first seen in the series back in the 1960s and they feed off of gases deadly to humans. In this case, a giant cavern full of exhaust fumes. This is bad news because Milo is taking his Cheen and Martha down to the fast lane. They end up nearly getting killed by the massive pincers of the Macra.
Hame finds The Doctor and transports him to the room where she and the Face of Boe have been living. She explains that a virus from some of those patches – for bliss – killed everyone living on the surface of New Earth. The lower levels, including the expressway, were sealed off so as to save the folks down there. Boe is wired to the system and is able to keep the lower levels afloat but he is not powerful enough to open it up and free the people there. And so The Doctor jury rigs something which fails. Boe then expends the majority of his "life force" to get the system running. The giant doors atop the expressway open, the sunlight shines in, and everyone is free.
The Face of Boe is dying but it delivers the message it promised to in "New Earth". He tells The Doctor "You are not alone". This enigmatic phrase causes Martha to ask The Doctor to explain it. He refuses at first but then tells her about the Time War, that he's the last Time Lord, etc. Fin.
I enjoyed "Gridlock" quite a bit but it's one of those stories that suffers under the new series' format. Apart from having cheesy special effects, it would have benefited from the old format of three or four 25-minute episodes. As it stands, the revelation of what was tearing apart hover fans in the fast lane came too soon for me. In the classic series, this would have come much later allowing for the mystery to build up more. Similarly, the explanation of what happened to the surface dwellers came all at one. I think it would have been more effective for The Doctor to find everyone dead and been forced to find out what happened. Here, it all comes in one fell swoop which lessens the impact.
But, as I said above, it was still fun. The Doctor and Martha were separated for most of the episode and we got a chance to see The Doctor at his most intense. He is desperate not to lose Martha as he lost Rose. For her part, Martha has got spunk and is quite capable of taking care of herself. When the hover van she is in is being clawed at by the Macra, it is she who figures out that they are attracted to the movement of the van and that powering down would buy them some time. OK, so she proceeds to tell Milo and Cheen that The Doctor will save them. Nonetheless, she used her brains and showed some initiative. Just give her some time and she'll be more than capable of holding her own.
The specter of Rose still haunts The Doctor but it was played up less here than in the first two stories this season.
Did anyone notice in the first episode this season, "Smith and Jones", that, during a news clip, someone says, "All this just goes to prove Mr Saxon right"?
You know, I don't mind it when someone googles "demonic spell of priapism" and finds this blog but, when the search terms are "brenda konkel circumcision", I get worried. Come on. Whoever did this, fess up. You're in Madison. We know you're there.
Did anyone else watch Bill Moyer's Journal last night? Presumably some potential viewers were in the midst of TV Turn Off Week. The episode was "Buying the War" and it looked at the failure of the mainstream media to challenge the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq. Here's a clip from the program:
If/when you have more time, the program can be viewed in its entirety by going to this page.
Moyer interviews "Dan Rather, formerly of CBS; Tim Russert of MEET THE PRESS; Bob Simon of 60 MINUTES; Walter Isaacson, former president of CNN; and John Walcott, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder newspapers." And don’t forget about Phil Donahue. In addition, media critics such as Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post have their say as well. There's also plenty of footage from right-wing talk shows featuring pundits such as William Kristol & Charles Krauthammer and administration officials.
Bob Simon's beat was the Middle East and he gives some interesting comments about perception within vs. outside of the United States. Landay and Isaacson, who actually dug into the stories with healthy skepticism from their position outside of the Beltway, are two of a handful of MSM journalists who bothered to do so. Rather, Russert, etc. issue one mea culpa after another for not having done their jobs properly. Donahue recounts his days with a talk show on MSNBC. His face shows up less than the others but his comments are more chilling. Executives ordered the producers of his show to have 2 conservative pundits for every liberal one. Perhaps most damningly, his show was yanked off the air for reasons disclosed when an internal memo was leaked. Donahue was described as "a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace" and executives were worried that MSNCN might become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." In other words, it would be bad for the bottom line to have a show which attempted to give equal time to both sides.
Reporters and pundits on the right whose voices were heard loudly and clearly from the front pages either refused or were unable to be interviewed: Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, conservative pundit William Kristol of The Weekly Standard, president of Fox News and former Nixon and Reagan strategist Roger Ailes, Washington Post columnist and Fox news commentator Charles Krauthammer, New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and Times political columnist William Safire.
"Buying the War" had numerous salient points. One that stuck out for me was that it's quicker and cheaper for TV news to hire a pundit as opposed to someone who actually has direct knowledge and experience about the subject at hand. While Fox had Kristol and Krauthammer making a case for invasion by citing aluminum tubes, Bob Simon of 60 Minutes instead called scientists, called people who understood the process of enriching uranium to comment on the tubes.
Another disturbing bit comes when we watch several conservative commentators parrot the WMD line over and over again. Then Linday from Knight-Ridder shows how he went to the UN website where the progress of the weapons inspectors was posted for anyone in the world with Internet access to see. Linday read the daily reports of the inspectors which detailed how no WMDs were found.
Almost everyone interviewed mentioned the pressure they felt back in the period between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq from what Isaacson termed the "patriot police". Questioning the Bush administration and their war plans was deemed unpatriotic and doing so drew fire from viewers, advertisers, and others. There was a genuine fear in the press to tow the line. Amidst all the apologetics from the journalists, media critic Normon Solomon voiced his view that it is during exactly such times of frenzy that the public, the country needs journalists to be skeptical and critical the most.
One question that's important to me that the show didn't really try to answer was, given the MSM's performance in the run-up to the invasion, why should people trust them ever again? I mean, do you, dear reader, trust any of these people? Of those interviewed, I want to single out Tim Russert. To paraphrase Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, "Russert – you're a pussy!" He doesn't ask tough questions very often and, when he does, he lets his guests get away with sidestepping them or circumlocution. There's a classic scene in "Buying the War" where the Bush administration leaks info to the NY Times. The very next day Cheney is on Russert's show and Timmy boy looks all tough because he's drilling the VP on whatever it was in the Times that Cheney probably gave his personal approval to releasing. "Oh Tim, you've got me there."
That William Kristol and his ilk remain staples of the conservative talk show circuit speaks volumes about the human psyche. For months on end, they wrote column after column in favor of invasion; they went on TV and foretold doom because Hussein had WMDs. And now in 2007 none were ever found. Yet these people remain credible in the eyes of millions. Cognitive dissonance reduction is powerful indeed.
I looked at my cell phone for the first time in a few days today and saw that I had a voicemail. Checking the Received list, I saw that it was one that I'd left for myself. You see, last Friday I was testing my hoolie which records phone conversations in anticipation of my interview with Megan Hickey of The Last Town Chorus. So I call my voicemail intending to delete the message. I hit "1" to listen so I can then erase it but a funny thing happened. The message starts playing and I hear my name being said and my brain started to ponder who it was for half a second. "Ooh! A message for me! I wonder who this is from..."
It's two thousand and fucking seven and only this year did the students at Turner County High School have a racially integrated prom. And you can bet your ass that some white parents wouldn't let their kids go to it.
Dear southerners - when you hear Yanks saying that Sherman didn't finish the job, this is the kind of shit that precipitates such comments.
The federal Food and Drug Administration is proposing to redefine the very essence of chocolate and to allow big manufacturers such as Hershey to sell a bar devoid of a key ingredient — cocoa butter. The butter's natural texture could be replaced with inferior alternatives, such as vegetable fats. And consumers would never know.
It's been 13 years since we last saw an episode of Bill Moyers' Journal but the show begins anew this week. (Wednesday at 20:00 for my fellow Madisonians.) Whether or not it will be "devastating" as this article suggests remains to be seen. But it ought to be interesting to see Moyers examine the media coverage during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Among the few heroes of this devastating film are reporters with the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau in D.C. Tragically late, Walter Isaacson, who headed CNN, observes, "The people at Knight Ridder were calling the colonels and the lieutenants and the people in the CIA and finding out, you know, that the intelligence is not very good. We should've all been doing that."
At the close, Moyers mentions some of the chief proponents of the war who refused to speak to him for this program, including Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, and William Safire.
Be prepared for a lot of people accepting blame and then passing the buck.
Reading this article about a report which says that college students aren't getting enough Shakespeare reminded me of the wonderful Doctor Who episode, "The Shakespeare Code" which aired a couple weeks ago. In turn, this reminded me of the fact that I haven't really written much about the new season which is already a quarter over. To wit:
The first episode of the new season was "Smith and Jones". David Tennant is still The Doctor but Rose is gone so we are introduced to his new companion, Martha Jones, pictured above. That she is the first black companion in the show's history demonstrates just how far Doctor Who has come since its lilywhite inception back in 1963. Shedding thoughts about the color of her skin, Martha proves to be a classic companion in the mold of Sarah Jane Smith. She proves from the get-go that she isn't just an ignorant human needed to ask questions so The Doctor can give exposition. And neither does Martha simply scream when put in peril waiting to be rescued as so many previous companions in the show. She is smart & curious and helps move things forward instead of being swept along by the tide of events.
"Smith and Jones" introduces us to Martha as we see her walking to work while talking on her cell phone/mobile. Her parents are separated and she's caught in the middle of the planning for a family event between an angry mother and a father who is seeing a blonde woman many years his junior. While this is perhaps a rather hackneyed way of providing some motivation for Martha to join the TARDIS crew, the scene itself was fast-paced and funny and she has to constantly hang up with one person to accept an incoming call from someone else. In just a couple minutes, we are introduced to Martha, her family, and their dysfunction. This taut, compact method of storytelling serves the series well since most of the stories now have to be fit into 45 minutes.
Honestly, this is the only things that approaches a major gripe with me regarding the new incarnation of the show. For the majority of the classic series, most stories consisted of 3 or 4 parts that were about 25 minutes each. You had a cliffhanger most weeks and a total running time of 75-100 minutes. There are two-parters these days but "Genesis of the Daleks" had 6 parts and clocked in at about two and a half hours. I sometimes miss how plots could unfold slowly allowing for peripheral characters to take on something approaching a life of their own and for the subterfuges of the bad guys to build up. But so it goes.
The plot of "Smith and Jones" begins with, as I noted above, Martha heading to work. In this case, it's a hospital where she is a student doing her intern work. A doctor is leading her and other interns around to patients and having the students try to make diagnoses. When one of the curtain is pulled aside, our Doctor is lying there in the bed and it's Martha's turn to diagnose his illness. She applies her stethoscope and is befuddled by the fact that there are two heartbeats. The Doctor winks at her and smiles.
Then it gets dark & cloudy and begins raining. The next thing you know, the hospital has been transported to the moon. Patients and staff alike are screaming and crying but Martha keeps her cool. One nurse begins hysterically crying that they'll get sucked into the vacuum of space but our intrepid companion knows that, if that were to happen, they and the oxygen in the building would have been sucked out immediately. Soon tall rocket-like ships land nearby and an army begins marching towards the building. The figures are big and bulky and their outfits are these black spacesuits which no doubt caused older fans to think they were the Sontarans. However, when one takes off his helmet, we meet this guy:
The guy on the left, I mean – a Judoon. In a nice bit of misdirection, we learn that they are looking for a non-human alien amongst the hordes of patients and medical staff. They do this by scanning the faces of the people and marking the humans with a black X on their hands. The addition of a marker squeaking as they draw the Xs was a funny little touch. In yet another bit of misdirection, it is revealed that it's not The Doctor they're looking for, but rather a kindly old woman, Ms. Finnegan, who is in fact a plasmavore who drinks the blood of the hospital's head honcho by tapping an artery with a straw. She is wanted for murder. The Judoon turn out not to be the bad guys but rather these almost amoral gun for hire.
Of course The Doctor ends up saving the day but not before losing a bit of blood to the plasmavore and having his sonic screwdriver get fried. The hospital is returned to Earth and Martha makes it to her family outing. This turns out horribly and The Doctor is there waiting for her when she spills out of a pub with her parents and siblings. He promises her just one trip in the TARDIS as a reward, of sorts, for having saved his life after his run-in with the plasmavore. But this isn't just The Doctor getting a new companion. There are moments where he refers to Rose and, when he tells Martha that she can go for just one trip, it's obvious The Doctor has affection for and misses his former companion.
This is an area that the new series excels in. In the classic series, most companion changes involved a stoic handshake and then The Doctor got on with fighting evil in the universe. But, as "School Reunion" showed, there's more to it than that for both The Doctor and his companions. I would also mention that the audio dramas delve into this as well. Adric's death is brought up by Nyssa during an argument with the 5th Doctor while the friendship between the 6th Doctor and Evelyn is almost riven in twain by the events in "Project: Twilight".
Overall, "Smith and Jones" was a fun way to get the new season going and introduce fans to a new companion.
Martha's first trip with The Doctor brings me to why I started writing about Doctor Who today in the first place. The second episode of the season has sees our heroes travel to the London of 1599 in "The Shakespeare Code" This was a really fun episode which had great appeal to me as an Anglophile and as someone who's familiar with Shakespeare. It also stands in a long line of Doctor Who stories such as "The Visitation" which show historical events panning out as they do because of The Doctor's interventions in human history..
We open with a fair maiden, Lilith, who is atop her balcony and being serenaded by a suitor from below. Using her womanly wiles, she lures him up to what he supposes is her boudoir but the man finds the implements of witchcraft scattered about the room. She kisses him and, upon pulling back, we see that she has turned into a witch. Two other witches appear which Lilith describes as her mothers and they descend upon the hapless man.
The TARDIS lands in the middle of a street and, upon walking out, Martha barely misses having the contents of a bucket (chamber pot?) being dumped on her. She asks The Doctor if it's safe to wander about citing the Grandfather Paradox. "You're not planning on killing your grandfather, are you?" asks The Doctor. "No," she replies. The issue of race comes up when Martha asks how the sight of a black woman in the late 16th century will go over. The Doctor reassures her that it won't be a problem and we see two other black women walking down the street unmolested. He remarks that 16th century London isn't too different from the 21st century version by pointing out someone removing some horse manure – "See – they recycle!" Soon enough they're off to The Globe where they take in a performance of Love's Labours Lost. Shakespeare himself comes out at the end to thank the audience whereupon we see Lilith up in a balcony in the audience with a voodoo doll. She causes him to inform the audience that the sequel, Love's Labours Won would be performed the following night. This obviously piques The Doctors interest. While the play is mentioned in the historical record, no known copy of it exists. And so they seek out The Bard.
They find him at an inn where The Doctor introduces himself as "Sir Doctor of TARDIS". The Bard is smitten with Martha from the moment he sees her. Shakespeare flirts with her and calls her a "Blackamoor lady" and "Queen of Afric". The playwright is clearly being portrayed as a rock star of his time. While it was humorous, the scene also indicates that the issue of race has not been forgotten with just an assurance from The Doctor. Our hero also tries out his psychic paper on The Bard who is immune to its effect. This is proof for The Doctor of Shakespeare's genius. However, Martha is not immune and I laughed aloud when she pointed out that it had "Dr. Martha Jones" on it.
Humor is also provided by brief soliloquies, a.k.a. – The Doctor averting his gaze from everyone else and talking to himself. He quotes Shakespeare often and The Bard tells him that he likes the turn of phrase. At one point The Doctor quotes Dylan Thomas and, when approval was forthcoming, he tells Shakespeare that it belongs to someone else. And of course there are the witches.
Macbeth was probably written sometime between 1603-1606. In this case, the witches are Carrionites who seek to open a portal to allow the rest of their race through to the Earth. And how? The play's the thing! Lilith uses witchcraft to control Shakespeare and has him end Love's Labours Won with an incantation which would open a portal to where the rest of the Carrionites are trapped. The play is staged and the closing lines spoken. Then all hell breaks loose. The Doctor gets Shakespeare to use his gift of words to utter a counter-incantation. At the end, he struggles and Martha suggests "expelliarmus" (from Harry Potter) which does the trick. As the portal closes, all the Carrionites are sucked into it along with all copies of the play thusly sealing its fate as a "lost" work.
The story ends with The Bard once more flirting with Martha. He even begins reading a poem he has written for her: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" That's about as far as he gets because a couple actors anxiously burst into the scene saying the Queen herself has arrived. Elizabeth I enters and immediately recognizes The Doctor as her "sworn enemy". For his part, The Doctor is taken aback and claims he's never met her but is keen on finding out why she would have him dead. He and Martha dash back to the TARDIS just in the nick of time.
"The Shakespeare Code" is heavily-laden with CGI effects but perhaps the best visual is The Globe itself. The show was given permission to shoot at the modern reconstruction of the theatre which opened in 1997 and the scenes there look wonderful. Besides the visuals and just being a whole boatload of fun, the episode continued some of the character development of "Smith and Jones". There's a scene where The Doctor and Martha are given a room for the night which has but a single small bed. The Doctor lies down and pensive stares at the ceiling as he tries to get his brain around what's happening. Completely innocently, he invites Martha to share the bed with him. She takes this as meaning some amorous tidings are going to come her way but, when they are not forthcoming and The Doctor laments that Rose is not around to provide some insight, she angrily blows out the candle next to the bed. This whole I-miss-Rose thing was not overwrought, thankfully, and I can say having seen episode 3, that this will probably be coming to a close soon.
I know that there are fans out there who think that Martha is being modeled closely upon Rose. Perhaps a bit too closely for their tastes. I don't see this as being unfair but I prefer to give it a little time. Martha is a medical student whereas Rose, if I recall correctly, opted out of higher education. Rose has the street smarts whereas Martha is more educated. Leela vs. Romana, anyone? We'll just have to wait and see how it all pans out.
If you're not keen on downloading the series, then all you have to do is get cable and wait until July when series 3 begins airing on the Sci-Fi Channel.
While I will write something about the new season of Doctor Who later, I just have to say the watching it on our new 56" digital TV in surround stereo is fucking awesome! And tomorrow is a Dalek episode!!
The Doctor (to William Shakespeare): I'm Sir Doctor of TARDIS.
Shakespeare (referring to Martha): More to the point, who is your black-a-moor lady?
I must also admit that LOST looked really sweet on it too. We watched it on Wednesday night on ABC's digital channel. The panoramas of the island were absolutely gorgeous. The colors were so rich and the picture so sharp. For instance, Kate's freckles were much more visible. As soon as Becca chooses and hangs curtains, we'll screen our first porn.
I was taught the usual stuff in school about how World War I began. You know - it started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire, on 28 June 1914. While his death was ostensibly the cause of the war, after having done some reading and watching, it is perhaps better thought of as a catalyst. I mean, The Great War didn't just arise from a vacuum. Indeed, as we shall see, war didn't break out for a month afterwards.
The documentary I've been watching, The First World War, begins by looking at the state of affairs in Europe immediately prior to that fateful day in June that led Gavrilo Princips, a Bosnian Serb, to kill Ferdinand. It focuses on the tensions and downright hatred between the Hapsburgs and Serbia, which was an independent state at the time. But in his The First World War, historian John Keegan takes a broader view, both in time and space. So let's pull back from southeastern Europe for a moment.
In his first chapter, Keegan describes something I didn't expect – a virtual Pax Europa. Age-old tensions were present (Huns and Slavs had never gotten along too well), to be sure, but in the summer of 1914 the countries of Europe and Russia as well were in a state of economic interdependence that had never been seen previously. Populations were booming and the spread of empires in Africa and Asia meant that markets, both internal and external, were vastly increasing in size. The introduction of electricity and the automobile boosted industrialization. Steamship and rail were moving goods further and faster while the nascent telecommunications technology was, as we often hear about the Internet today, making the world smaller. The financial institutions and economies of European countries were dependent upon one another as never before.
This interdependence also led to cooperation. With the scale of international commerce ever increasing, bodies were established to standardize transactions. The gauge of rails for trains was standardized in Europe, for instance. (Though Russia, for some reason, just had to have a larger gauge.) Countries got together to allocate the newly-revealed airwaves so as not to interfere with each other's broadcasts. I mean, if you're a German, you don't want your broadcast of the Kaiser extolling bier und oompah music to suddenly cut out and be replaced with some French guy explaining how to make quiche. And the idea of stamped mail was born as well so all the new middle-class tourists could send postcards home.
Outside of commerce, countries got together to check the spread of disease and even regulate the sale of liquor and drugs. The countries of Europe also grew together culturally: "Europe's university graduates shared a corpus of thought and knowledge and, tiny minority though they were, their commonality of outlook preserved something recognizable as a single European culture." Perhaps most surprising to me was that in 1899, Tsar Nicholas II convened an international conference to limit armaments and to establish an international court at The Hague. My surprise is certainly born of ignorance but also of the knowledge of what was to come. A massive, bloody war is on the horizon yet countries are at peace and even talking about a neutral setting for settling disputes. What the hell happened?
Turning back to the political and that map above, let's start with Serbia. Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire starting in the mid-15th century until 1876 when the Serbs drove the Turks out. In 1978 the Treaty of Berlin gave international recognition to Serbian independence. While Bosnia was also freed from the Ottoman Empire at this time, the treaty ceded the country to Austro-Hungary. The Hapsburgs, Russia, and the Ottomans all wanted control of the Balkan peninsula. Add to this the fact that Germanic peoples looked down upon Slavs and second class human beings and you have a situation fraught with tension.
(Some Serbian gentlemen taking a stroll.)
Serbia wanted the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it encompassed many lands of Slavic peoples. Though a part of the empire, Slavs held almost no power within it. Many Serbs held as the ultimate goal a unification of Slavic countries into a single state – Yugoslavia. Ethnic kinship meant that Russia was sympathetic to the Serbian cause. Looking at the map, you'll see that Russia and Serbia are both purple. But so is France. This is because it and Russia began an alliance in 1882 and one upshot of this was that, should one country be attacked, the other would come to its aid. You can see where this is going.
(Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)
The German and A-H empires are green. The two had common interests, common racist assumptions, and common ethnicity. Along with Italy, they formed the Triple Alliance. Ignoring the map for a second, understand that Belgium and the UK were basically neutral prior to the war.
Moving back to Eastern Europe, racial tensions flared within the A-H Empire in the first part of the 20th century. There were nationalist demonstrations in Vienna in 1905 and riots in the streets of Budapest in 1912, for example.
(Quelling the riots.)
Sitting here in 2007, it's easy to look back and see this situation as one fated to lead to war. But this wasn't necessarily so at the time as nationalism and ethnic strife do not necessarily equate to war. Keegan notes Norman Angell and his book The Great Illusion in which the British author noted the futility of a war in Europe. (Jean Renoir's classic 1937 film, The Grand Illusion was named in tribute to the book.) Conflict would cause a massive disruption to international credit so the powers that be had plenty of motivation to avoid it. And, if war did break out, it would be short-lived to minimize economic damage for everyone. Keegan quotes a speech Angell gave on 17 January 1912 entitled "The Influence of Banking on International Relations":
…that there must be confidence in the due fulfillment of mutual obligation, or whole sections of the edifice crumble, is surely doing a great deal to demonstrate that morality after all is not founded upon self-sacrifice, but upon self-interest, a clearer and more complete understanding of all the ties that bind us the one to the other. And such clearer understanding is bound to improve, not merely the relationship of one group to another, but the relationship of all men to all other men, to create a consciousness which must make for more efficient human cooperation, a better human society.
Reading this I found myself rooting for peace. I guess my brain was somehow able to ignore the fact that the fate of the world in 1914 was sealed long ago.
Whether or not you agree with John McNamara's assertion that Willy Street Co-op members should vote no to a second site, you have to admit that he's right when it comes to what he labeled "propaganda". Here's what he wrote:
Lately, the uttering of management and the board seem like so much propaganda (keep in mind that they all get a significant discount for their food, so maybe they are guilty of not really knowing how much things cost). Recently I visited the 400 member People’s Grocery in Toledo, Ohio. The feel of the place was so incredibly different. It felt like a coop, not the mega-mart that Willy Street feels like. The General Manager ran the cash register. They only time that I see the Coop’s management staff is at the Crystal Corner (often with the GM holding court) after work or before a board meeting (not that there is anything wrong with that--in fact, I admire their choice of taverns). I have never seen the GM on the floor of the store! The ballot area only has positive statements about the second site. This, in my mind, is a violation of the Cooperative principle of Education and Democracy. How can members make an informed choice if they are only offered management’s talking points through the mouths of directors?
I think the last bit is the most relevant here. I have the ballot sitting here right in front of me and it seems like management considers the second site to be a foregone conclusion. Just as the ballot area at the store only has positive statements about a second site, so it goes with the ballot itself. General manager Anya Firszt and Opportunities Committee Member Ingrid Rothe both get considerable space in which to express their support for the measure but no arguments opposed are given room. Firszt writes, "I encourage you to become informed about the issue". Well, if McNamara is right and the ballot area in the store has nothing but comments in favor, what is the best way to become informed about the other side of the story? (Manufacturing consent, anyone?) If you do become informed and decide to vote against the second site, the ballot itself has space for you to explain your deviation from the management-approved position. Just don't make a go of trying to be nuanced like McNamara. The ballot gives but you a line about 3" long. (Which I now see that McNamara pointed out.)
Honestly, I don't shop at the co-op much anymore and this is for a multitude of reasons. One is that I no longer work downtown. When I did, the co-op was on the way home and so it was convenient. Now that I work on the far west side, it is less so. Another is that my tastes and cooking habits have changed. I found out that the co-op was not the optimal place to shop for exploring Polish and German cuisines nor for going about recreating medieval recipes from hundreds of years ago. To be sure, the co-op was great for certain ingredients – most vegetables, barley, butter, et al, but not for many others. A large aisle of potato chips and other organic junk food to the contrary, there seems to be an unwritten rule at the co-op which states that non-Western cuisines, medicine, and ways of living are, in general, better than those of the West. There's a distinct lack of ethnic foods that aren't from the East; countless herbal supplements from an industry that has neither to prove the safety or efficacy of their products which are purported to be ancient remedies from the mysterious past of some Eastern country; plus there's lectures and demonstrations on varieties of homeopathy.
Regarding the ethnic food selection, I take that as a matter of course. No big deal – they're just catering to members' preferences and I cannot begrudge them for this. As far as promoting homeopathy, I don't have that great of a problem with it but I do hope that people don't forsake Western medicine completely. The only time I really have a major problem with homeopathy is when it comes to herbal supplements. I think the co-op ought to be ashamed of its promotion of them. When Wal-Mart hawks the stuff, consumers can see that the motive is profit. But when the co-op sells it, there's an endorsement of a certain lifestyle and ideology behind it. And I view it as one that denigrates science and paints a false picture of the manufacturers of these supplements. For starters this is the area in which the co-op most heavily endorses the fallacy that because something is "natural", it therefore must be good. Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment but it is hardly good for human consumption. Secondly, I think it makes hypocrites of the co-op. For all the bitching about agricultural mega-corporations, herbal supplement makers are hardly different. Smaller than ADM? Of course. But these supplements are not made by mom-and-pop apothecaries. The makers are corporations that have lobbyists making sure that the FDA stays off their backs so that they do not have to prove the safety or efficacy of their products. They can slap whatever herbal concoction they want into a pill and sell it as long as they don't say it cures or is intended to treat a specific ailment. Thusly the labels on the bottles are almost pure puffery. If Kraft started marketing food with no FDA oversight, you can bet the co-op community would cry foul – and rightly so. But when it comes to "natural" products, companies get a pass.
Along similar lines is the co-op's campaign to instill fear into its patrons regarding genetically modified foods. This can best be seen best by the use of the term "frankenfoods" in the store and in the newsletter. Last year when E.O. Wilson gave a speech here in Madison, someone asked about such foods. When he replied that he thought they could be part of the solution to global hunger, there was an audible groan from the audience, many of whom were, no doubt, co-op members. Because the evil hand of humankind was involved, they are deemed "unnatural" and therefore are bad. This is not to say that we couldn't stand to learn more about these foods but using a derogatory name serves only to cease discussion & investigation. Hence the manager's comment noted by McNamara - folks will eat this "crappy food and get cancer".
I don't shop at the co-op much anymore out of lack of convenience but also out of ambivalence. On the one hand, they do have wonderful products and I appreciate the emphasis on organics and stuff from local growers and producers. Cooking classes, music – there is in fact much to be positive about. But, the co-op encourages consumers to look at the big picture when it comes to foods they eat. Where did it come from? How much gas was used getting it to the store? Were chemicals used during growing or processing? That there are many consumers who considering these questions is something the co-op can justifiably be proud of.
But when I look at the big picture I also see that shopping there means supporting Luddites, of a sort, who engage in fear/smear tactics. It also means giving tacit support to "alternative medicine" and the herbal supplement industry which, to me, means that I'm lending support to snake oil salesmen.
"State failing to properly manage costly computer upgrades"
Or so says or so says a report from the Legislative Audit Bureau. I bet no state IT worker saw this coming...
The state has failed to properly oversee several complex, troubled computer projects, which are expected to cost taxpayers some $292 million, a legislative audit has found.
Since late 2003, the state agency charged with monitoring these projects across state government hasn't done so because it was consumed with dealing with its own boondoggles, according to the report released today by the Legislative Audit Bureau. Those included an effort to consolidate backroom computers called servers that could run as much as six years past its original deadline of May 2006.
If spending hours and hours at the Wisconsin Film Festival last week wasn't enought, last night I watched Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo), a film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I'd read some very positive comments about it when it played in Chicago a few months ago and so I was eager to check it out for myself.
Battle in Heaven begins with a close-up of a man's scruffy face. His blank expression and the absence of any sound betrays nothing. The camera slowly moves down over his bare chest and plump belly. Soon the long locks of a woman's hair move into frame and we can see that she is performing oral sex. We stay locked in this shot for a brief time before the camera gracefully moves in and around to the right. It closes in on the area below the man's waist. Suddenly the scene cuts and our view is from behind the man. Again, the camera begins moving in and around until we see the beautiful young woman slowly fellating the man's penis. Her eyes are shut and the scene is almost solemn. Moving in further, the woman turns her face towards the camera until it fills the screen. Opening her eyes, she stares at us for several seconds. Then black.
Aside from the graphic oral sex, this opening prepares us for the rest of the film with its slow camera movement and lingering shots. We are also introduced to the main characters – Marcos and Ana. We next see Marcos with his also plump wife propped up against a bright blue wall in a sterile, noisy environ. An irritating beep drones in the background as chatting people walk by. They have a small area staked out to sell snacks and nick-knacks in a corridor of a subway stop. Both of their faces are blank as they follow the commuters walking by them. The dialogue is sparse but we learn that a woman named Viky has lost her baby. Soon Marcos must leave for the airport.
Marcos meets Ana there. She is from a wealthy family and he is her chauffeur. Despite (because of?) her family's standing, Ana works as a prostitute at a brothel. Marcos takes her there and she offers to set him up with one of the ladies. "Fatso can't get it up," one of the women says, "He is asking for you," meaning Ana. She goes upstairs to find Marcos removing the condom and getting dressed. Sitting down next to him and asks what's wrong. He tells her that he and his wife kidnapped a baby earlier in the day and that it died. Ana lays back on the bed and the camera glides over her flat belly up to her face and pauses on it. The camera loves Ana or her body, at least and this kind of shot is repeated later in the film when she and Marcos are walking down the sidewalk. A man in a wheelchair being pushed by a nurse unexpectedly appears in front of them and we get a shot from the man's point of view. The camera shows us Ana's belly once again and it slowly moves up to her face again. In these shots, it's as if the camera is caressing her.
Contrast this with how Marcos, man grappling with the pangs of guilt and interminably lost in thought, is treated. There are several scenes which resemble the end of The Passenger. Take the one after Ana and Marcos have sex upstairs in an anonymous apartment. We voyeuristically look at them through a window and then the camera turns towards the urban landscape of Mexico City. It does a full 360 and returns to the characters still in the same position they were in when the shot began. Just as with Marcos' thoughts, the camera wanders and he gets lost from view. But, just as he is found again as the camera movement brings him back into the frame, so too does his mind return.
Blood is shed near the end of the film but I felt that Marcos finally found himself. It wasn't a happy reclamation of his mind and heart, but at least his tragedy came to an end. The very end of the film is a mirror of how it began but with one crucial difference – he smiles.
Radio On from 1979 was recently restored by the British Film Institute. Directed by Christopher Petit but co-produced by Wim Wenders, the shadow of the latter's existential style looms large over the film. Taking place in late 1970s England, it wallows in the decaying landscape that birthed that bit of nihilism known as punk rock.
A marvelous handheld shot opens the black & white film with the camera creeping up and into an apartment. We catch a glimpse of a man's legs in the bathtub but the camera soon moves on and meanders throughout the flat. At one point it stops on a piece of paper affixed to the wall which has some writing on it. It begins: "We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun…" The shot returns to bathroom with the lifeless figure in the tub and the radio sitting on the ledge.
We finally meet the film's protagonist, Robert, who is a DJ. He's a silent and dour figure. When his wife (or girlfriend?) leaves him, it seems to barely register with him. His demeanor barely changes when he learns of his brother's death which sends him on a road trip to Bristol to find out what happened. Preparing for the journey involves having lots of road music and we see him open an envelope that contains a trio of tapes from Kraftwerk. Music is important in this movie. It has one life when there's tune playing on the car's stereo and other in its absence which usually means near-silence. There's a scene in which Robert is driving around and, when the camera is in the car, we hear the music cranking. When the scene cuts to a viewpoint outside, the silence is almost deafening. Music seems to be how Robert navigates his workaday world and adds color to its greys.
This is a road movie but one that most Americans will find odd. Robert picks up a hitchhiker. Without a job or hope, the man joined the army only to desert. And a young Sting plays an aspiring musician living in a trailer behind a gas station whose hopes of making a go at the music business seemed to have been dashed long ago. All of the encounters Robert has end up being dead ends. These people are like the abandoned factories that Robert drives by on his way to Bristol.
When Robert finally gets to his brother's apartment, he finds that he had been living with a woman and she is not the least bit interested in so much as talking to him. There are no remains, no items left behind for him to take home. His goal turns out to be just another dead end.
I enjoyed the cinematography and the film's slow, quiet pace even if I did get a bit bored with repeated shots of Robert brooding as he looks out the window. Being a big fan of music myself, I appreciated not only the soundtrack itself (David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Robert Fripp, Devo, et al) but the use of music in the film. It seemed to breathe life into the lifeless and give a sense that there's something beyond the dull, drab landscape of the film's visuals.
Although I think one can certainly get something out of Radio On without knowing anything about what was happening at the time in England, but I feel I got more out of it knowing about such things as the factory closings, IRA bombings, and the "Protect and Survive" pamphlets & films which instructed citizens on what to do in case of a nuclear attack which were produced at the time. Knowing about these things helped me understand not only the bleak terrain passing by through the car windows, but also the sullen landscape in Robert's head. While knowledge of modern English history helps in understanding Radio On, there are certainly enough universal ideas and feeling here for everyone to understand the ennui.
Film geeks and curious onlookers filled room 4070 of Vilas Hall yesterday for the showing of Cinematographer Style, a film which looks at, as the name implies, cinematographers and their craft. If you've read this blog before, then you know that I fall into the former camp. I get all excited thinking about the legend that Gregg Toland carried a strip of film in his pocket demonstrating a shot with a depth of field from one inch in front of the camera to infinity. And so I was really looking forward to this film. The Dulcinea accompanied me and, although she had taken an intro to film class at MATC last year, I think she was tagging along more to be with her geeky boyfriend than for any interest in film.
When a movie begins with a shot of long-time Bernardo Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro holding a light bulb, I know I'm going to like it. And I did. Interviews with one hundred and ten cinematographers were utilized to give viewers a sense of how they do their job which, as one of them noted, was both a craft and an art. Veterans such as Storaro and Haskell Wexler were along side of newcomers like Matthew Libatique, best-known to me through his work with Darren Aaronofsky.
The film begins with the directors of photography introducing themselves and one of them was from Eau Claire. There were funny anecdotes about how they got into the business and lots of nebulous takes on how these people create their own unique visual styles. Storaro chimed in with his customary metaphysics of light & energy while others remained a bit more pragmatic by describing how they read scripts repeatedly and looked to artists such as Monet for inspiration.
Intended for a wide audience, Cinematographer Style largely avoided technical terms but there was a nice sequence with Roger Deakins who extolled the virtues of wide angle lenses and their more "natural" perspectives. Part of the scene was shot with a very long (telephoto) lens while the other was done with a shorter (wide angle) lens and the audience could see the difference for themselves. Along similar lines, there was Storaro and his light bulb. He showed how mood was created depending on where the bulb was placed around his head. And his metaphysics of color was demonstrated onscreen as the shot had a blue tint when he spoke about his use of the color in The Conformist. Another highlight was hearing one of the interviewees give a brief encomium for focus pullers.
Perhaps the most important thing a non-film geek can get from the film is that cinematographers have a huge role in making what audiences see on the screens at their local mulitplex. The relationship between the director and cinematographer is described as a marriage by one person. DPs don't just point and click, they craft scenes very precisely. Not only do they do so on a technical level so that the film is exposed correctly, but they also create elements of scenes that help tell the story in ways that the dialogue cannot. For example, the angle at which a person is shot and the interplay of light & shadow all direct the viewer's feelings towards the characters. That filmmaking is a collaborative process was also illustrated by comments from a few of the DPs about how they get together with the production designer to make sure the sets and costumes are just right.
If I had any complaints it was that I would have liked to have seen more of the demonstrations that I mentioned above. Film is a visual medium so show us, don't just tell us. A decision had been made not to show any excerpts from the films these folks had shot so illustrating the comments as I described is helpful to a lay audience. I know that The Dulcinea appreciated them.
There was a Q&A session after the showing with a gent whose name I cannot recall (sorry!) and someone asked about the paucity of women who were interviewed. The answer was that this is an accurate representation of the membership of the American Society of Cinematographers. One woman's work that I am going to keep an eye out for is Amy Vincent. Knowing that she worked on Natural Born Killers and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events piques my interest. Her latest is Black Snake Moan.
Walking out of the theatre, The Dulcinea remarked that she enjoyed Cinematographer Style much more than she thought she would and that she learned quite a bit. And so the film accomplished what it set out to do on at least one person.
Aardman Features, the British studio behind my favorite turophiliac and his hound – "Wallace & Gromit" – has disassociated itself from DreamWorks Animation and inked a deal with Sony. Apparently Flushed Away didn't make enough money so the two studios parted ways.
DreamWorks pulled out of its five-picture deal with Aardman in January following a hugely disappointing performance for last fall’s "Flushed Away," a CG toon the two co-produced. Jeffrey Katzenberg-led studio had to take a writedown on the pic, which cost more than $130 million and grossed only $179 million worldwide.
I am genuinely surprised at this considering that The Dulcinea and her kids have each seen the film multiple times and now have it on DVD. So, how will this deal affect us fans?
Aardman co-founder and exec chairman David Sproxton said: "We know from experience that we create our best work when we do it from our home base here in Bristol, using first-class talent from the nation and around the world."
That’s a reference to Aardman’s less-than-satisfactory experience making "Flushed Away" in partnership with DWA in Los Angeles. Both sides were creatively frustrated even before the pic opened.
British studio made clear, however, that it expects to have less creative input and interference from Sony than it had from DreamWorks.
Sony and Aardman have not yet settled on their first movie, although Aardman execs say four scripts are already in advanced stages of development, including a "Wallace & Gromit" sequel from director Nick Park.
Immediately after work yesterday I headed downtown to begin the Wisconsin Film Festival. Things got off to a nostalgic start as I found myself in room 4070 of Vilas Hall where I'd spent many an hour in Comm Arts classes as a student at the UW. It got even more nostalgic when Jim Kreul, a former TA and co-founder of the festival, got up on stage to greet us and introduce the film we were to see. Kreul's sartorial sense has shifted since the mid-90s and he was clad in dress shirt, jacket, and slacks – a far cry from his jeans/grey hoodie days. Jim, leave the professorial get-up in North Carolina and bring back the hoodie!
Last night's showing was of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep. Shot in 1972-73 as a student project, it was not released until 1977. While it won awards and much acclaim, it never saw commercial distribution due to the fact he never secured the rights to use 22 songs on the soundtrack which were by some very well-known artists. In 2000, Dennis Doros of Milestone Films heard about the restoration of Killer of Sheep at the UCLA film archives and he set out, with a healthy donation by Steven Soderbergh, to secure the music rights so the film could be re-released. His quest was successful and Killer of Sheep is now making the rounds.
Burnett's aim was to portray the lives of black people in L.A. in a realistic manner; to show well-meaning but also comparatively well-off whites that their ideas for helping the poor black communities perhaps needed a bit of rethinking. He has stated that the film was meant to be shown to communities privately and not for commercial distribution. Killer of Sheep looks at the life of Stan, a family guy who lives in Watts, which still shows the scars of the riots there just 7 years previously. Stan works at a slaughterhouse and the sturm und drang is making him numb to his family and life, generally.
The film lacks a 3-act plot and is more akin to Italian neo-realism with it's slice-of-life story and use of non-actors. Scenes with Stan at work are set against those with him at home where he can only muster a thousand-yard stare in the face of his wife's sexual advances. She also notes that he never smiles anymore. Stan's lethargy is contrasted by the activities of the neighborhood kids. They seem ostensibly happy as we see them running around, having rock fights, and playing on the railroad tracks amidst the vacant lots and dilapidated buildings.
The pace here is slow and deliberate. A two-minute scene of Stan and his friend are carrying an engine down a couple flights of stairs would be a 3-second shot in your average Hollywood movie. I really loved the cinematography with its judicious use of wide angle lenses and a great tracking shot of two thieves hauling a stolen TV down an alley. The way I'm describing this probably sounds like the film is a very fractured view of a man, his family, and the neighborhood they live in and I suppose this is true, in a way. But Burnett keeps things together with scenes in Stan's home. It's a modest house but it's a home for the characters. The shot composition varies so it never seems like the many scenes that take place in the kitchen are the same. And the scene with the girl singing to Earth, Wind, and Fire was absolutely charming. It's not Stan's home life which is the problem, it's his job killing sheep.
The music, which kept the film from commercial release for 30 years, is also very important here. Songs by Paul Robeson, Scott Joplin, Elmore James, Dinah Washington, et al not only add commentary to the scene in which they appear, they also serve to remind the viewer that the situation in which the characters find themselves are historically contingent. The Watts ghettos didn't just arise out of a vacuum in the wake of the riots of 1965.
The shot that sticks with me is one in the slaughterhouse. Two Judas goats are in the foreground while a herd of sheep are in the back blissfully unaware of their collective fate. I found this is be a very potent picture and actually feared for Stan after seeing it.
Killer of Sheep was declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress and it was put into the National Film Registry and deservedly so. The film is an antidote to the Blaxploitation films fetishized by the Quentin Tarantinos of the world and stands as a great American film.
I am not sure how to say "bullshit" in German but the Pope's latest book seems to be full of it. His popeness has a new book out called Creation and Evolution in which the former Nazi-in-training spews his bullshit. Here's the best quote:
"But it is also true that the theory of evolution is not a complete, scientifically proven theory."
Bullshit there Fritzy von Scheiskopf! That's why it's "Theory of Evolution" with a capital T, not "theory of evolution". He continues.
Benedict added that the immense time span that evolution covers made it impossible to conduct experiments in a controlled environment to finally verify or disprove the theory.
"We cannot haul 10,000 generations into the laboratory," he said.
Puh-lease! What a tool. He has no problem believing in this weird deity that fights sea monsters, makes his children eat their own shit, and has an inexplicable vendetta against shellfish without a shred of proof but, when it comes to evolution, well, that's just something Darwin rode hard and put away wet.
Lefty types Laura Flanders and Greg Palast will be at the Barrymore here in Madison later this month. Click here for more info. Palast is out promoting the updated & expanded version of his last book, Armed Madhouse and he's bringing his friends along. From his latest missive:
The House Judiciary Committee just released two emails, dated February 5 and 7, from inside Karl Rove’s office, in which the Rove-bots gloat that no US media have picked up the investigations of “that British reporter Greg Palast” found in my book Armed Madhouse. I couldn’t make this up.
Moving away from politics we have:
In the heat of the summer, head over to Milwaukee to hear a debate about the merits of pornography with anti-porn crusader Craig Gross and The Hedgehog himself, Ron Jeremy. It's at the Pabst Theatre and there's more info here.
Geeks haven't just seen a variety of positions, kinks and fetishes in blue movies. They know (or are) people who enjoy those things, so they don't dismiss entire categories of sexual interests as the sole province of a bunch of weirdos in San Francisco.
A couple weekends ago the Polish Heritage Club of Madison had its annual Spring Festival. Being a member of the club, I thought it would be fun to go and, being a club officer, I had to. Having been a cook in a previous life, I was destined to help out in the kitchen.
The festival is ostensibly a prelude to Easter. Poles are very Catholic and even have this thing called Święconka in which the Easter food is blessed. And so every on Holy Saturday Poles throw a ham, kielbasa, cakes, eggs, etc. into a basket and bring it to their local priest. I guess this is a symbolic offering to Yahweh in hopes that the new year which is arising shall be healthy, happy, and prosperous.
Since Holy Saturday was still almost a week away, other we had to indulge ourselves in other traditions. One of these was the creation of Pisanki which are eggs decorated in the old Slavic way. Like a doofus, I didn't get any snaps of the eggs themselves so follow the link above. But I did grab one of this young lady following in the footsteps of her ancestors.
And I don't say that she followed in footsteps lightly. Slavs have been decorating eggs for centuries and it has traditionally been an activity done by women and girls. I believe that instrument she has in her hand is a Kistka. One alternately applies wax and dye to the egg shell and, when you've got enough layers of different colors, you melt patterns into it. Pretty slick, if you ask me.
As evidenced by Święconka, we Poles are a crafty folk. This extends into the realm of jewelry as well.
And we are all about amber which is to be found on the coast of the Baltic Sea. I'm not a huge fan of amber although I discovered that The Dulcinea is. (More on that later…)
Speaking of The Dulcinea, she and her youngest, M., showed up around 11:30. I found them looking at some really nice pottery.
I was tempted to purchase some as there were some great serving dishes and bowls but decided to wait until my raise came through before I invested in them. The stuff is imported from Poland by way of Chicago. I guess none of our members are potters although there were a few women there with whom I'd like to reenact that scene from Ghost. Being 7 years old, M. took to the coloring books and was drawn to the heraldry, especially those bits involving axes or other weapons. I can foresee anger management classes in his future.
I spent most of my time in the kitchen helping make sure there was enough kraut, kielbasa, and pierogi for everyone. At one point we ran out of ice so I made a trek to Woodman's and was given some money for beer which was a good thing because I had only brought 2 bottles along for myself. Upon getting back, 3 or 4 of us men-folk holed ourselves up in the back of the kitchen and had a few brews.
I have no idea where that Miller Light came from.
In addition to crafts, there was a country ton of baked goods for sale. Here's my friend Tekla hawking poppy seed rolls:
There was also music. My knowledge of Polish folk music is quite limited and but I can recognize a waltz when I hear one and they played a few. I'm not sure who these gents are, exactly, but one is Bob. The photo is an active link so you can download a 2' clip of them performing a song.
But the most important thing about the Spring Fest is this:
People getting together and enjoying one another's company. Wandering around I constantly saw people shaking hands, hugging, and remarking how they hadn't seen one another since last year's festival. The face of the PHC membership is generally older and many folks aren't able to get out of the house as often as they'd like. So PHC events provide good opportunities for folks to get out of the house and see friends. That's Leon there in the sharp gray suit on the right. I met him as he came into the hall and he had the biggest smile on his face. He is truly one of the nicest people I've ever met. I hope that I'm as cheerful as he when I'm his age.
When I was a boy and living in Chicago, my mother was in a Polish heritage club and I remember going to some of the events. (This whole turning into your parents thing is more than a bit disconcerting.) And so I felt old seeing the kids there running around and not knowing quite what to make of everything. The whole affair reminded me of dual role that the PHC has. It has an older membership to cater to and so a lot of things the club does appeals to their sense of nostalgia and attempts to recreate elements of their collective childhood in Polish-American families during the 1930-50s. While there is certainly nothing wrong with this, there are times when I wish the club was able to address the concerns & interests of us younger folk that are perhaps not shared by the older generations. For instance, aside from the last pope, the club doesn't really address what Poland is like today. What is life like in Poland now? How did things change after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Cultures aren't static and, in a way, the PHC focuses on particular traditions that relate to a certain time. It focuses on things that its aging membership remembers from its childhood. No doubt club members would have little interest in, say, Polish hip-hop. I have little interest in the music myself but I am interested in knowing more about how Polish culture has changed over the past 15 or so years. How are age-old traditions holding up against McDonalds and Wal-Mart?
I don't foresee any major changes in the PHC which will draw in younger members but I will say that Tekla is on the right track with her proposal for a Polish drinking club where we quaff Polish beer, wine, and vodka.
Towards the end of the festival as I was cleaning in the kitchen, Marie, who had been selling jewelry, approached me bearing a ring. She remarked that my girlfriend really, really liked it. I got the hard sell. Unlike her husband who is very laid back, Marie is not someone to mess with and so I immediately agreed to purchase the ring. The Dulcinea is no longer allowed at PHC functions.
A few months ago I was wandering a bookstore aimlessly and ducked into the history aisle. For some reason I turned to the shelf with books on World War I and ended up pulling John Keegan's The First World War from its spot and purchasing it. I'm not quite sure why I suddenly wanted to learn about WWI but I did. Keegan's text had all kinds of excerpts from positive reviews on it indicating that it was the best single-volume history of the conflict so I went with it. Plus it was from 1998 and so elements from modern scholarship would no doubt be included.
The book languished on a shelf of my own for some time until I cracked it open this past weekend. This was partly due to being in the middle of other books and wanted to finish them first and also due to the broadcast of the multi-part series The First World War on the Military Channel. I thought it would make a nice long-form bit of blogging to comment on the war as I read a book on it and watched a documentary as well. This would also afford me the chance to include pictures!
My dad was a big World War II buff (especially the Pacific Theatre) who had shelves and shelves of books on the conflict. Thusly it's no surprise that my brother and I became interested in the subject. But there were few, if any, texts on World War I. Books describing the genesis of WWII never failed to mention The Great War, especially how the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, made Germany fertile ground for the deadly nightshade of Nazism. I entered high school knowing all about Pearl Harbor, The Battle of Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, etc., but virtually nothing about WWI. My history teacher was a big Civil War buff so we spent weeks covering it. When the early 20th century came around, we spent maybe a day on WWI and got the usual lectures – the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which got the whole thing going; the introduction of new weapons such as the submarine & mustard gas; the Battle of Jutland and the trenches which set the scene for Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front; the United States entered the war largely due to the sinking of the Lusitania and so on. As I type, I'm 3 chapters in and have watched the first of ten episodes of the documentary. I can tell you that I've learned an extraordinary amount thus far. I have newly learned, for instance, that war didn’t break out until about a month after the assassination. So this should be a great learning experience. Also, I hope my girlfriend, who refuses to watch any of the documentary with me, reads the posts as I think there is much here to engage her.
Let me end with a couple technical notes and a song.
Firstly, the documentary is based on Prof. Hew Strachan's The First World War Volume I: To Arms. At 1250 pages, it is a lengthy tome and it is but the first of a planned trilogy which promises to be the most complete and the gold standard history of the conflict when finished, at least in English. His one-volume The First World War is said to stand along Keegan's work as a definitive book for the layreader. Considering that Strachan has devoted an entire book to how the war was financed and another to the overlooked campaigns in Africa, he is probably the English-language authority on the war. And so, I have some direction if I care to pursue the topic further.
Lastly, a song. Folks familiar with my podcast know that I love me some music and that I am a progressive rock geek. And while WWI is not exactly well-worn ground for prog bands, IQ did write a song about it. They had a live version recorded in 2004 up at their website until very recently. Since they were giving it away, I shall do the same.
On Tuesday night The Dulcinea and I saw The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen). Not since Children of Men have I watched a film that was so grey. I suspect that the color scheme was more than just a metaphor for the zeitgeist of East Germany in 1984. We are immediately introduced to Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent. Through intercutting, we see him alternately interrogating a man as well as teaching a class about interrogation to new Stasi recruits using a tape of his work in the other scenes. Wiesler is cold and all business. After what we presume to be several hours, the man being questioned, who's been forced to sit on his hands the whole time, is ready to pass out for lack of sleep. Wiesler eventually gets the man to reveal a name and tops off his victory by saving the seat cushion that the man sat on for future use when dogs may have to follow his scent.
When approached by his friend and boss, Anton Grubitz, Wiesler's workmanlike demeanor is pushed to its limits and he relents to an invitation to the theatre. There Grubitz gets to schmooze with Minister Bruno Hempf and Wiesler is given his next assignment: to investigate the man who wrote the play they just watched, Georg Dreyman, despite his clean record and nominal dedication to the state. In this scene, we find the minister is pure fat-cat while Grubitz is an opportunist looking to climb the ladder. Wiesler is ready to tow whatever party line is thrown at him while Dreyman, seen kissing his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland, is portrayed as the only one to display any positive human traits, as if he were the only one to feel anything as opposed to purely making calculated moves.
Dreyman's apartment is duly bugged and a command center is setup in the attic where Wiesler listens in on the playwright and his girlfriend, taking notes all the while. It was a rather unnerving watching as the Stasi crew placed the bugs in the apartment in the daylight, barely pretending that they were there for another purpose. When a neighbor across the hall sees what's happening through the peephole on her door, Wiesler approaches her and reminds the woman to stay quiet lest her daughter's position at the university be in jeopardy.
Clad in headphones as above, Wiesler listens in on the lives of others and our voyeur slowly becomes more emotionally involved with his prey. As the tape rolls and reports are written, we learn that Dreyman is a bit of a fence-sitter. On the one hand, he keeps company with radical artists, some of whom are not afraid to speak their minds. But, on the other, Dreyman himself is unwilling to speak critically of the state, at least not openly. He prefers a more apolitical stance. His own personal life is revealed to consist mostly of going home to a dull, drab apartment to be alone with this routine punctuated by visits from a prostitute who, upon being asked to stay a bit longer, tells him to schedule more time for the next visit. Wiesler proceeds to get the hots for Sieland and follows her to a tavern one night just to be in her presence. But she has no lack of men in her life for, in addition to Dreyman, Sieland succumbs to the sexual advances of Minister Hempf.
During the film it seemed like the main characters were simply trying to live their lives. Some just wanted to practice their art while others just did their job. While the ending of the film is not one where everyone lives happily ever after, it's still a happy one. By the time the credits roll, Wiesler, the man with the ever-stoic face which rarely betrays any emotion has gone from just trying to do his job to doing the right thing. We witness him undergo a change of heart. He helps Dreyman escape the wrath of the Stasi, but there's a price to be paid. I appreciated that the change was not like Ethan Edwards' in The Searchers where John Wayne's character has a sudden revelation that blood is thicker than Injun water. The conversion is slow and when our Stasi agent finally steps up and takes action, he doesn't do so in an ostentatious manner; he's not a hero who steps into the spotlight. Rather he does his good deed exactly how he committed his bad deeds – in secret and away from the eyes of others. He makes the journey from state automaton to person by helping out Dreyman who undergoes his own metamorphosis. He spent his time trying to be apolitical and avoid the prying gaze of the authorities which also means that he watched as close friends, who chose the side of freedom and stood up for something, fell victim to the Stasi's influence while he did and said nothing. Finally finding courage, he stands up by writing a piece for the West German media which draws the attention of the authorities.
I recently listened to an interview with Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who led the Standford Prison Experiment. He talked about good people can be set down a path to commit evil and how the social surroundings abet this process. Factors such as the status quo, the expectations of authority figures, dehumanization, et al. Zimbardo also talked about the evil of inaction. The Lives of Others was a nice illustration of this and, more importantly, of the inverse. Instead of merely documenting people taking on the roles expected of them by society and maintaining the status quo, we see rare individuals opting out of the evil encouraged by their society. Wiesler changes his actions while Dreyman overcomes his fear and decides to take action.
However hackneyed, The Lives of Others is a great tale about the human spirit and the ability of people to change for the better. But it's subtle and almost meek instead of being overwrought and flashy.