Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

23 November, 2010

Madison Polish Film Festival 2010: Lullaby (Kołysanka)

The second and unfortunately last film I saw at this year's Polish Film Festival here in Madison was Juliusz Machulski's Lullaby (Kołysanka). Like War of Love, it starred Robert Więckiewicz. Here he is Michał, the head of the Makarewicz family who just happen to be vampires who merely seeking a home. He and his wife Bożena are parents to four small children with another on the way. Living with them is Michał's father. The family arrives at a farm one night which is occupied by a lone man who earns his living by making ceramics. The next thing we know it is the following day and our vampires are the new residents.

One by one people come to the house - a social worker, a postman, a priest and his acolyte, a German investor and his translator – and one by one these people disappear. Even a reporter and her cameraman sent out to the area to investigate the previous disappearances go missing. The local constabulary takes up the case but they're a bit on the Mayberry side of things. The police chief is an older gentleman who has a large model of the area populated by handmade figures of those missing. His female officer is a bit bumbling while the other officer, a man, is a real no-nonsense fellow.

While it all sounds like a typical horror film, Lullaby is a comedy. The family may be vampires but Michał has all the same problems as head of a household that we non-vampires do. His wife wants to move to the city and start a new life there. His eldest son doesn't look much like his father and so he falls into a depression thinking he's adopted. And there's the youngest who screams and cries unless the feet of the priest are available for getting a good drink of blood from. You see, all the victims are trapped in a root cellar their feet exposed so that the veins can be tapped.

Lullaby begins with some ominous overtones but it isn't long before the fact that it's a comedy is revealed. It's all a rather light-hearted affair. The authority figures are ruthlessly poked fun at, not unlike The Simpsons, and Michał is a fairly archetypal father on the hen-pecked side with a great dry sense of humor. Michał Lorenc's score is really fantastic with its gothic overtones rubbing elbows with classical and folk. You will think the music was by Danny Elfman.

Hopefully this will get a DVD release here in the States because I'd really like to see it again.

|| Palmer, 1:49 PM || link || (0) comments |

R.I.P. Hamann Charcuterie

A friend of mine who lives on the north side tells me that Hamann Charcuterie has closed its doors. It's just not been a good year for sausage makers.

Perhaps he'll reopen with a new business plan.

|| Palmer, 11:53 AM || link || (0) comments |

Happy 47th Birthday to Doctor Who!

It was 47 years ago today...

|| Palmer, 11:00 AM || link || (0) comments |

22 November, 2010

R.I.P. Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson has died. This obit does a nice job of summarizing his career. I never knew he was at the center of such a shitstorm regarding the Japanese economy. For me, he really opened my eyes to the extent of the American "empire", such as it is.

|| Palmer, 6:24 PM || link || (0) comments |

Polish Film Festival: War of Love (Śluby panieńskie)


The first film I saw at this year's Madison Polish Film Festival was Filip Bajon's War of Love (Śluby panieńskie). Bajon himself was to have been in attendance but fell ill at the last minute and so spent the evening at his hotel room. A real disappointment but kudos must still go out to Sebastian Jankowski and the rest of the crew who put the festival together for even getting a director to agree to come to Madison.

War of Love is based on Aleksander Fredro's 19th century comedic play Śluby panieńskie or Maiden's Vows. I have seen bits of Andrzej Wajda's Revenge which was also based on a work by Fredro so I kinda sorta knew what to expect.

As it turns out, War of Love is reminiscent of Shakespeare's Love’s Labor’s Lost. It's Poland in 1825 and two young women, Klara and Aniela are being spirited away by their families to seal their fates in marriage. Aniela looks out from her carriage joyously while her cousin Klara looks angry. A beautiful and somewhat retiring blonde, Aniela is bequeathed to Gustav while the headstrong and feisty Klara is promised to Albin who is a bit dimwitted but otherwise an earnest suitor. Klara inveigles Aniela into a blood oath to hate men and never be married.

Gustav is pretty blasé about the whole affair. He is bored with country life and isn't quite ready to give up his status as a libertine, much to his uncle Radost's chagrin. Albin is just the opposite. He longs for a wife and domesticity to temper his ways. (Luckily there always seems to be someone on hand to throw a bucket of water on him and provide a face for him to slap to calm him down.) When word of Klara and Aniela's pact reaches then, Gustav comes up with a bit of subterfuge to change the women's minds.

It is all rather standard romantic comedy stuff. Until you see a cell phone for the first time. Radost comes upon the ladies bathing naked in a local lake. He lies on the ground by their horses and we see that one of them has a tramp stamp, the first sign that something is amiss. Then Radost pulls out a cell phone and calls Klara. This odd scene is compounded by others showing the actors sitting around a table ostensibly between takes. There is this subplot which goes all meta about how Marta Żmuda-Trzebiatowska, the actress who plays Klara gets between Robert Więckiewicz (Radost) and his sweetie on the set.

This bit with the actors' lives intruding on the story of the film was absurdist-lite in a Monty Python kind of way. It was amusing in its own right and certainly not completely distracting but I suspect that if I knew a bit more about contemporary Polish cinema/actors, it would have made more sense.

|| Palmer, 2:55 PM || link || (0) comments |

Metropolitan Brewing and Other Chicago Beer News

A neat video about Metropolitan Brewing whose beer I find quite tasty. I think they go a bit hyperbolic by saying that they are the only craft brewery in the country that doesn't brew an IPA but their point is well taken. Metropolitan basically brews German-style beers, although they did do a small batch of India Pale Lager. And so I give them credit for going against the grain, so to speak. I had the chance to speak with co-owner Tracy Hurst at this year's Great Taste and she was really nice to talk to.

Also, Crain's Chicago Business has an interesting article about pay-to-play infecting Chicago's beer market. Craft brewers are getting the shaft by distributors who pay to have the beers they distribute carried at bars, restaurants, and stores.

Deb Carey of New Glarus is quoted in the article:

“Brewers call Chicago a whores' market,” says Deb Carey, co-owner of New Glarus Brewing Co., of New Glarus, Wis., which sold draft beer in Chicago for two years in the mid-1990s. New Glarus pulled out, Ms. Carey says, because it didn't want to participate in illegal business practices such as giving away beer to get bars to carry its products.

Ms. Carey says Illinoisans constantly are urging her to sell her Spotted Cow ale here again, but she's not interested. “Everyone has a hand out and everyone wants some cash, (free) beer or a discount,” she says. “As far as I'm concerned, it's not worth the graft and hassle.”

“Small brewers can't afford to pay to play,” she adds. “I really blame the big domestic brewers for creating this mess.”

I don't doubt that this happens in Wisconsin as well but surely not on anywhere near the scale of Chicagoland.

|| Palmer, 12:18 PM || link || (0) comments |

Waiting On a Train by James McCommons

With our governor-elect vowing to deny Madison intercity passenger rail service for the first time in decades, I thought I’d finally read James McCommons’ Waiting On a Train which I’d bought this past spring when he here in Madison speaking at the library.

While McCommons makes no bones about his desire to see passenger rail in this country flourish once again, the book isn’t a simple screed inveighing against the likes of Scott Walker. It is part travelogue and part investigation into exactly how Amtrak came to be what it is and what its future may hold.

Over the course of eight parts McCommons travels the rails to cover the entire country. Well, as much as Amtrak allows. Each journey begins with an overnight bus ride from his home in the UP down to Milwaukee where he catches a Hiawatha to Chicago’s Union Station. And from there he travels to a different part of the country. On board he meets the people who use Amtrak and those who serve the passengers. At his destinations McCommons interviews government officials, heads of citizen groups that promote rail, and the heads of some freight rail companies.

It is almost a mantra of the people McCommons talks to that Amtrak was created to fail. In 1971 the federal government came up with the service to relieve the railroad companies of the burden of passenger service which, for the most part, was a losing proposition in the post-war era. It has limped along ever since its inception struggling to get funding from Congress. At its birth Amtrak was seen by many as an intermediate step in ending passenger rail in this country completely burdened, as it was, by the mandate to become profitable, an albatross never hung around the necks of roads and airports which are government subsidized to nary a complaint.

For the most part, Amtrak’s trains run on rail owned by freight rail companies and we learn that the performance of any given route has a lot to do with Amtrak’s relationship with the freight carrier. In Longview, Texas McCommons meets up with an Amtrak employee named Griff Hubbard. They discuss why the Texas Eagle has such poor on-time performance. The train runs on track owned by Union Pacific and Hubbard relates a tale of speaking to a UP executive about cooperating to improve the train’s record. The exec said, “You know, Griff, you just don’t get it. And maybe you guys will never get it, but we just don’t care.” UP certainly comes across as the villain here. They wouldn’t even talk to McCommons.

Other freight carriers were more willing to both talk to McCommons and work with Amtrak and the states. D.J. Mitchell of Burlington Northern Santa Fe met McCommons and told him that his company cares. Passenger trains on his rails are customers just like someone paying to have tons of coal shipped by them. BNSF is a good partner with passenger rail in California and Washington because it’s good business for them. Such partnerships, especially in states willing to put money on the table, lead to routes with frequency of service as well as on-time performance.

Perhaps the saddest chapter for me was the one about Madison. McCommons detrained in Milwaukee and first stopped in Waukesha to chat with Matt Van Hattem, an editor of Trains magazine. (See, there are pro-rail people in the Republican stronghold of Waukesha.) From there he went to Madison. Here he spoke with state rail chief Randy Wade and, via conference call, Frank Busalacchi, Secretary of the DOT. They paint a very positive picture for passenger rail here in Wisconsin with plans to get service to Madison and, in general, resurrecting passenger rail in the country. But, with Scott Walker set to move into the Governor’s mansion, any plans to expand passenger rail here in Wisconsin are all but dead.

On his journeys McCommons meets and describes the people who use Amtrak. There's a student from Milwaukee who took the Hiawatha to Chicago for a job interview and a university professor from Japan heading from Denver to Boston to do research; there are commuters who ride the train instead of driving or flying as well as people who out on vacation or going to visit family. All kinds of people use Amtrak. In a few decades this country will have countless more people like those McCommons encounters and our current transportation infrastructure won't be able to handle them all. Instead of having the government subsidize the construction of ever more roads and airports, he suggests we invest in rail.

Waiting On a Train has many lessons for people who are serious about contemplating whether they want their tax money to be invested in rail. All too often anti-rail advocates refer to trains as "choo-choos" and say that no one will ride them. Such people might be surprised to see who does in fact ride them today and what Amtrak lines are successful and why. (Hint: frequency of service is very important in attracting ridership.) Plus there are stories of how passenger rail service has helped communities around the country. Pro-rail advocates would do well to read about the success stories in the book that are public-private partnerships. Everyone needs to come together to make rail work. Another take-away here is a quote from John Robert Smith, mayor of Meridian, Mississippi and a Republican: "Most politicians use the verb 'invest' when they discuss highways and airports, but when it comes to passenger rail, the verb of choice is 'subsidize'."

As I said above, Waiting On a Train is a good look at Amtrak's history and its present. No matter which side you're on in the rail debate, the book provides a lot of great information and dispels many rumors that are being bandied about today.
|| Palmer, 11:23 AM || link || (0) comments |

Westfield Comics Opens On Willy Street

My lady pointed out to me this weekend that Westfield Comics opened a new store recently in the Third Lake Market at Willy and Brearly. This saves me from having to drive out to the far west side to get the new issue of Powers.
|| Palmer, 11:04 AM || link || (0) comments |

More Stories from TSA Security Theatre

These kinds of stories will no doubt be reported for years to come.

"TSA forces cancer survivor to show prosthetic breast".

Cathy Bossi, who works for U.S. Airways, said she received the pat-down after declining to do the full-body scan because of radiation concerns.

The TSA screener "put her full hand on my breast and said, 'What is this?' " Bossi told the station. "And I said, 'It's my prosthesis because I've had breast cancer.' And she said, 'Well, you'll need to show me that.'"

And then we have "TSA pat-down leaves traveler covered in urine".

Sawyer is a bladder cancer survivor who now wears a urostomy bag, which collects his urine from a stoma, or opening in his stomach.

“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.”

I have a lot of empathy for the TSA screeners. They get a lot of crap for policies that they had no hand in making. But it is tested when they announce the arrival of an 18 year-old woman to be groped within earshot of her father. And how can anyone in the course of their job screw up someone's urostomy bag, see a man's clothes soak with urine, and just (ahem) wash their hands of it? If I had been responsible for that, I'd be worried that the guy is going to get an infection or something and die. But whoever it was that groped Mr. Sawyer apparently didn't give a rat's ass.

Perhaps when someone dies as a result of a groping at the hands of the TSA something will be done to ensure screeners treat people appropriately. Until such an incident we're stuck with "security theatre".

|| Palmer, 10:06 AM || link || (1) comments |

Doctor Who Christmas Special 2010 Trailer

|| Palmer, 9:12 AM || link || (0) comments |

21 November, 2010

Anthony Bourdain: Have Some Courtesy, Have Some Sympathy, And Some Taste

After a round of welcoming applause died down, the first thing Anthony Bourdain said was there was to be no Rachel Ray jokes. However Sandra Lee did come in for a drubbing as he described her as “pure evil” a few times. The first third or so of his routine consisted mostly of invective directed at various hosts of Food Network shows. However, he did offer some praise as well. Julia Child changed things for the better and people such as Ina Garten, who can actually cook in Bourdain’s estimation, make for good TV as viewers come away having seen honest to goodness skill on parade.

To be perfectly honest, most of this was lost on me as I don’t have cable and consequently don’t watch any Food Channel programming. I recognized some of the names but really have no idea what these people are known for or what their gimmicks are. To the question of whether Sandra Lee can cook or not, all I can say is: who is Sandra Lee?

Once he moved away from food celebrities I began to laugh more. He admitted to making fun of foodies but he’ll be damned if his daughter eats anything other than organic produce. Furthermore his wife is a co-conspirator in luring their daughter away from fast food by hook or by crook. One plot involves putting the girl to bed and two of them standing just outside her door talking just loudly enough to be heard on the other side. “Another boy who went to MacDonald’s disappeared tonight?” Despite this, Bourdain admitted to having an unseemly affection for the mac & cheese at KFC.

The final part of his 90-minute monologue was dedicated to his tips for traveling abroad. He repeated many times throughout the night that he felt incredibly lucky to be able to travel around the globe, eat food, meet people, and get paid for it. It’s a dream come true. Likewise, he said that, if we the audience members go abroad, we should feel lucky to have an American passport and a few grand to spend. So don’t drop all that money just to have your picture taken in front of a Starbucks thousands of miles from home.

And for God’s sake do your best to adhere to local customs. He described being at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul when he noticed some tourists including a teenaged girls wearing Daisy Duke shorts. Teenagers are teenagers but why would the parents allow her to dress that way? “Would dad wear a Speedo to the Vatican?” Bourdain talked about how he adores Japan but he’ll always be considered a gaijin, an outsider. Despite this, he at least tries to keep their customs and they appreciate his efforts.

Courtesy was also the reason he couldn’t abide vegetarians. He said he’d met many poor people in his travels yet they opened their home to him and fed him. While he didn’t care what vegetarians ate at their own homes, when someone opens their door to you and gives of themselves through food, you should eat what is put before you.

The Q&A was amusing although I admit that I was left in the dark fairly often as people made references to various episodes of No Reservations of which I’ve only seen a handful of episodes. One woman asked how he stayed so thin (“I eat shit that tastes good.”) while a former serviceman pleaded with Bourdain to do a show on military chow to shed light on how god-awful it is so that it can be improved. And of course someone had to solicit his opinion on a strictly local matter - the train. Why Madison audiences invariably feel compelled to drag visitors into local politics that they likely know nothing nor care nothing about is beyond me.

One thing that I did find amusing was that his next season is slated to include a trip to Congo where he will attempt to retrace the steps of Charles Marlow, he of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Bourdain had arrived here in Madison just a couple hours prior to show time and was off to Florida the next day so there was no camera crew scouring the food scene here. However, he did have a Point Special brew with him onstage.
|| Palmer, 6:33 PM || link || (0) comments |

17 November, 2010

Save the Train and Partner With the Neighbors

The Sierra Club is sponsoring a Save the Train Rally here in Madison on Saturday. There will be others around the state as well including La Crosse and Eau Claire. So why are western Wisconsin cities so interested?

Here's your answer:

A Commerce Department report suggesting that Minneapolis-St. Paul is poised to overtake Detroit as the Midwest's second-largest metro economy didn't get much attention when it was released a year ago, perhaps because it told more about Detroit's decline than MSP's rise.

Wisconsin is between the two (or what will soon be) largest urban economies in the Midwest – Chicago and the Twin Cities. Making Madison the new terminus on Amtrak's Hiawatha line is about providing an alternative to driving to reduce highway traffic, pollution, wear and tear on the roads, and whatnot but it's also about strengthening Wisconsin's ties to our regional neighbors economically (and otherwise). Yeah, there will be commuters and there will be vactioners and people going on day trips. Great. I may be one of those too. But what concerns me the most is that rail is also going to connect, say, the folks at the UW Solar Energy Lab to investors and capital in Chicago.

To my ears, Scott Walker is saying, "All we need to do is get rid of corporate taxes, defund the UW system, and build more roads. Then businesses will be beating down our door to move here. Well, except stem cell research companies because I want to rid ourselves of embryonic stem cell research." To me, that's not a great way to foster growth in a global information economy.

Richard Longworth of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs writes about the Midwest and its place in the global economy at his blog The Midwesterner. His latest post is called "The Election's Impact on the Midwest" . He lists several examples of negative impacts for the Midwest and the incoming Republicans look to fulfill his prophecies.

* Tax cuts, which means both higher deficits in states that already are wallowing in debt and less money for these states to do what needs to be done. In other words:

"A complete list of Walker's previously-promised $3.8 tax breaks"

* Less government, which means less government investment to towns and cities that have relied on state and federal funds to pay the bills. Somewhere, these localities are going to have to find the money themselves or see their quality of life crumble.

* Less government spending on education. Not that the electees are necessarily hostile to schools. But in any budget squeeze, schools -- especially universities -- are the first to get cut. The fact that university research is a key to reviving the Midwestern economy cuts no ice, especially since universities are seen as part of the "elite" which the Tea Party has vowed to punish.

"Do more with less, Gov.-elect Walker tells regents"

* Less spending on infrastructure, like high-speed rail -- an investment that could link the Midwest's isolated towns and cities and enable them to leverage each other's strengths.

"we have been exploring all legal options to stop the train from moving forward"

* Hostility to immigration. In much of the Midwest, immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are keeping declining populations afloat and injecting much-needed new ideas and money. No one denies that immigration reform is needed. But keeping immigrants out now could doom some declining areas.

"Republican in Wisconsin Assembly proposing iimmigration bill modeled after Arizona law"

* No help in fighting the recession. Federal government programs, like the stimulus, kept this recession from being worse than it is and literally rescued America's auto industry from bankruptcy. This help won't be available now if the recession dives into a second trough.

* Anti-globalization. The Midwest has always lived by trading. An open global economy is failing the region now, as industrial jobs get shipped overseas or are lost to labor-saving technology installed to meet global competition. The solution is a stronger safety net (plus stronger schools), not new trade barriers. But the anger at globalization, corporations and foreigners exhibited in the midterm election makes this balanced response unlikely or impossible.

At least we'll have some time before the Republicans hermetically seal Wisconsin in the 1950s. State Seantor Scott Fitzgerald's biggest concern at the moment is a bill mandating that voters show a photo ID at the polls. Only after that can we get down to the business of Walker paying back his donors in the road building industry.
|| Palmer, 3:45 PM || link || (0) comments |

Dharma For One: Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé

Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void will likely split its audience into those who find it interminably boring and overwrought and those who are able to sit back and experience the journey. It's like a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Tibetan Book of the Dead and is the best bit of mindfuck cinema since David Lynch's Inland Empire.

Oscar is a twenty-something American living in Tokyo with his sister, Linda. In the opening, they are out on the balcony of their cramped apartment as a plane flies overhead. The scene and, indeed, most of the rest of the film, is shot from Oscar's point-of-view with the camera acting as his eyes. The screen even goes black briefly at time to simulate his eye lids closing and opening. Oscar asks Linda whether she'd like to see the city from way high above. She wouldn't. She'd be scared of dying. In addition to the POV camerawork, Oscar's voice is a bit muffled while that of his sister is clear which adds to the weird sense of being inside the character.

Linda heads to work and this affords Oscar some time to smoke some DMT, a powerful hallucinogen. He sits on a couch and we see a pair of hands jut into view with one holding a lighter and the other a pipe. Oscar closes his eyes and the viewer is sent on a long journey through a world of colorful betentacled shapes that undulate in a hallucinogenic ballet. This is a long, gentle sequence – too long, no doubt for many – but one that lulls the audience into trance and prepares it for the rest of the film.

A phone call and a buzz at the door see Oscar leave with his friend Alex and head to a bar called The Void where our protagonist is meeting his buddy Victor to sell him some drugs. Alex has lent Oscar the Tibetan Book of the Dead and a lengthy descent down the stairs includes a conversation about the book. Out on street Alex warns Oscar, despite his protestations, that he has morphed into a drug dealer and that he ought to be careful. At The Void, Oscar sits down across from Victor and pulls out a bag of drugs which prompts the police to spring into action. Oscar runs into the bathroom and locks the door. He frantically tries to flush the drugs down the toilet. In his panic he warns the police that he's got a gun which prompts them to shoot him through the door. We hear mumbling incredulously as his body slumps to the floor.

This is when the real trip begins. Oscar's soul leaves his bodies and floats upwards. We see his corporeal remains curled around the toilet. It then wanders the city peeking in on his sister and friends with the camera looking straight down from above. Alex flees the scene once he discovers that Oscar has been shot. He calls Linda and leaves a voice mail telling her of the tragedy. Linda doesn't answer the phone because she is having sex with the owner of the club at which she works. But, once the coitus is over she hears the message and breaks down crying.

It helps in understanding the film to read a bit about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I looked it up at Wikipedia and it mentions the bardo or interval between death and being reincarnated. Enter the Void divides the bardo into three sections. First is the above wandering in the aftermath of death. This is followed by a lengthy series of flashbacks in which we learn that Oscar and Linda were orphaned at a young age when the car they were in with their parents rammed a truck in a head-on collision. The children made a pact to be together forever but were ripped apart when they were each put in separate foster homes. In addition to childhood memories, we also discover that Oscar arrived in Tokyo first and paid for Linda to come over. Past adventures with Alex and Victor are also explored as is an affair he had with Victor's mother.

This sequence is trippy in its own way. Instead of seeing everything from Oscar's POV we see events from over his shoulder. The back of his head is omnipresent in these scenes whether it is him as an adult or as a child. It is a bit disconcerting to see everything play out with the outline of his shoulders and head always front and center of the frame but it's also oddly comforting as well and it grounds the whole sequence stylistically.

The third bardo find Oscar's soul wandering again and we see more of the aftermath of his death. In one of the flashbacks we learn that Victor has a friend who has built a large scale model of a section of Tokyo. Fluorescent colors are all aglow under blacklight and the guy eagerly shows the crazy pattern of the wall of the Love Hotel. In the third bardo Linda and Alex make their way to a life-sized Love Hotel. Oscar's soul flies in and out of the rooms watching various couples having sex as their genitals pulse with bright light and emanates outwards in tentacles of procreative energy. This scene confused me until I read at Wikipedia that this period of the bardo "features karmically impelled hallucinations which eventually result in rebirth. (Typically imagery of men and women passionately entwined.)" Oscar eventually makes his way into a sperm…

I found myself sucked into the world of Enter the Void. It is absolutely hypnotic. The camera is almost always moving within long takes in graceful floating maneuvers. Bright colors assault the senses at nearly every turn. Using a solitary point-of-view keeps you focused on the scene instead of having your mind wander off into other areas of the story world. The film has a poetic and meditative quality to it that reminds of Andrei Tarkovsky. It's just that much of the meditation is done in cramped apartments, a strip club, and on the refulgent streets of Tokyo. Oscar's soul floats and observes until the camera descends into a hole or a light and emerges somewhere else. The screen goes black or to white and stays there for a while a number of times. There are Conversations about the Tibetan Book of the Dead don't serve as an exegesis but are instead signposts in the story. And the soundtrack is great as well. There are all the digetic sounds but I really appreciated the ambient sounds of the afterlife. As his soul wanders and acts the voyeur, there are stretches when there is just this hum on the soundtrack which works perfectly. People may be talking and cars honking in this realm but out in the void, there's just a little white noise.

Thematically the film is a very byzantine way of saying tempus fugit and lamenting the fragile nature of love, relationships, and existence. Oscar and/or his soul flashes back to the car accident which robbed him and Linda of their parents multiple times. So too with the scene of social workers tearing the children away from one another. Everything we love and cherish – our kith & kin and our lives – can be gone in a fleeting instant.

On the other hand, the film may be about these themes but in a less romantic way. Perhaps it is saying something about the absurdity of it all. Our lives and the people in them can be gone in a wink so why do we bother with such feelings and expend the energy to maintain them? The more I think about the film, the more uncertain I am about it. There is a good deal of nudity and sexuality here. Oscar and Linda's relationship is oddly tinted with the possibility of incestuous feelings. Their mother is shown several times breastfeeding, we see them as children together in the bath, and Linda nibbles at his neck and ear in one scene after they've been reunited in Tokyo. Shortly after dying, Oscar's soul enters Linda's vagina and watches a glans come and go. in the distance. Hell, maybe Oscar never died and his consciousness never roamed. Maybe the whole thing was just an oneiric flight of fancy.

|| Palmer, 11:17 AM || link || (0) comments |

16 November, 2010

The Terrorists Have Won

It's funny in a sad way that we've got a President who reserves the right to have American citizens assassinated without due process, the election which got him into office featured a paucity of talk about the two wars our country is engaged in, and we've been subject to warrantless wiretapping for years yet most people barely bat an eye at these things. But now some people are fighting back against the government's war on civil liberties, namely, the right of TSA agents to grope and take pictures of you and your children at the airport.

A lot of incidents are garnering national attention. First is this video, which I gather is a year or more old, of a TSA screener groping a three year-old girl.

A pilot named Michael Roberts refused to allow government lackeys take naked pictures of him or be groped. Now he's suing for breach of his Fourth Amendment rights.

The latest media story is about John Tyner who refused to be scanned and groped. But, when he tried to leave San Diego International Airport, he was told that he was not allowed to do so and threatened with a fine and jail time. You can read his version of the events and watch footage of his encounter with the TSA that he shot on his cell phone here.

I began to make my way to the stairs to exit the airport, when I was approached by another man in slacks and a sport coat. He was accompanied by the officer that had escorted me to the ticketing area and Mr. Silva. He informed me that I could not leave the airport. He said that once I start the screening in the secure area, I could not leave until it was completed. Having left the area, he stated, I would be subject to a civil suit and a $10,000 fine.

And to top it all off, there are worries about the safety of the scanners.

My money says that this wave of resentment will subside come the new year and most people will have come to accept being scanned and/or groped. And the same will happen when these scanners are on every street. I just don't see enough of a backlash for the scanners to go away. Besides, a lot of folks with influence in Washington are lobbying on behalf of the companies that make these things. Indeed, Bush's Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security is on the payroll of one of those companies.

Finally, check out this post by someone claiming to be a former TSA employee. A couple highlights:

The body scanners are just what they are called – body scanners. They will scan your entire body and produce a pretty detailed naked picture of you on the screen. Will some TSA employees point and laugh behind the scenes, YES! Will some call their buddies over for a really good looking or well-endowed male or female passenger they just screened, YES! Will some TSA employees make fun of any oddities they see, YES! Is it unprofessional, YES!

The new pat down procedure is nothing more than a tactic to get passengers to walk through the body scanner. It is not a necessity it is terror tactic. The majority of people do not want someone feeling all over them even for security purposes…I have talked to several current TSA employees and they are all in agreement that this new invasive technique has nothing to do with better detection and everything to do with making passengers walk through the full body scanner.
|| Palmer, 3:44 PM || link || (0) comments |

Coolest. Library (Parking Garage). Ever.

I don't care what design proposal for our Central Library remodel gets the green light, none will be as cool as this fascade for the parking lot at a library in Kansas City.

From Mental Floss:

"Parking garages are usually eyesores, but this one’s beautiful. The garage for Kansas City’s Library is cleverly concealed behind what look like the bindings of 22 giant books. What’s really terrific is that local residents got to help pick what books would get the nod for 25-foot renderings on the side of the garage. Some of the tiles that made the cut: Catch-22, Invisible Man, The Lord of the Rings, Silent Spring, and Charlotte’s Web."
|| Palmer, 12:46 PM || link || (0) comments |

14 November, 2010

A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop

In A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop director Zhang Yimou brings some of the ostentatious elements of his House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower to bear on a remake of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple.

The action has been transposed to a gorgeous striped Chinese desert in an unspecified time a few hundred years in the past where Wang’s Noodle House stands as a lone outpost. A band of traders led by a Persian man has stopped by to show off its wares. Wang’s wife, a hard-nosed woman, is enthralled with the flintlocks and buys ones. After her purchase she brags that she now owns the most powerful weapon in the world. The Persian laughs at this and demonstrates the power of a canon before heading on his way.

The canon blast draws the attention of the local constabulary. They arrive and we are treated to a wonderful choreographed scene of Wang’s wife, her secret lover Li, and their portly bucktoothed co-worker Zhao tossing noodle dough around.

In keeping with the source material, Wang decides to hire a police investigator to kill his wife after he learns from Zhao that she is cheating on him with cowardly Li who dresses all in pink. From here its double crosses and murder as everyone is running away from someone else or working at getting their hands on Wang’s fortune.

The big problem with the film is that the setup artful noodle making scene and some good humor but that’s all lost once Wang takes out the hit. The humor is drained away and we’re left with the steely-eyed assassin chasing three lame stooges. I didn’t mind, in fact I actually liked the fact that none of the characters are particularly likeable. Wang is an abusive old bastard with an annoying wife. Li is so cowardly it’s painful while Zhao is just pretty stupid and childish. But even unlikable characters can be funny. Instead about the only thing that passes for humor in the last two-thirds of the film is people falling down as they run. Characters seem to run away from one another more than they interact.

A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop starts off with promise. The costumes and scenery are colorful and the characters funny. But the humor dissipates and we’re left with situations that have their promise squandered. This isn’t a horrible movie but it wasted a lot of potential.

|| Palmer, 1:04 PM || link || (0) comments |

Bill Lueders' Silver Anniversary

Growing up in Chicago, I was raised in a media environment where there was lots of homegrown talent who were notable beyond the city. There were people like Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, and Clarence Page. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were on television and in print. These people and their words provided a lot of starting points for conversations with family and friends. When I moved to Madison I had to start over. There weren’t any nationally syndicated columns or TV shows originating here. The local media were, well, more local. I was attracted to Isthmus at first because it carried the column The Straight Dope - from Chicago. But it wasn’t long before I became familiar with the words of Bill Lueders. He was likely the first Madison media figure who lodged himself in my head as being part of the larger landscape. (Either him or Sly.)

I had no idea at the time who he was or that he’d moved to Madison just five years before I did. And so it made me feel a bit old reading his latest book, Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Rabblerousing. Have I really been reading Lueders for 20 years? I bought the book last month at his appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival but it was quickly relegated to the back of the to-read pile. But, for some reason, it got elevated and I finished reading it recently.

Watchdog is a literary triptych. It is divided into three parts and cull some of Lueders’ best work from Isthmus, Milwaukee Magazine, and various other outlets where his work has appeared.

The first part of the book is called “In My Opinion” and consists of several dozen short opinion pieces. In one he inveighs against hate crime laws while in another the his target is the cowardliness of citizens to fight for what they believe is right. “Surviving the New McCarthyism”, published less than a month after 9/11, drips with sarcasm as Lueders decries the pall of fear that fell over this country in the wake of the attacks on that day. In addition to sarcasm, there’s satire and perhaps the best example is “King Soglin: A Farce in One Act” which lampoons the then mayor in the form of a play. And there’s even a poem in this section to be had as well.

“Investigations” is the middle part of the book and it is comprised of longer pieces of investigative journalism. The nonfeasance, malfeasance, and misfeasance of the Florence County Department of Social Services comes under the microscope first. And it doesn’t get any better. Indian casino operators get ripped off, the SuperMax prison in Boscobel essentially mentally tortures inmates, Wisconsin’s clean government goes the way of the dodo, &c. There’s plenty of things in Madison and around the state that just ain’t pretty.

The book’s last section is “Getting Personal” where Lueders gives the reader some glimpses into his personal life. There’s an encomium, of sorts, for his departed father as well as a welcome letter (with plenty of advice) for his newborn son. Lueders skydives and kills his own Thanksgiving turkey. Some welcome distractions from the messes that he chronicles in the first two parts.

Reading the book brought back a lot of memories from the past two decades since I moved here. The great investigative pieces were yet another collective reminder of how important such reporting is and that we need even more of it. Hopefully the rise of the Internet and the corresponding decline of the newspaper industry can be reconciled lest we lose any more in-depth reporting.

If I have anything resembling a criticism, it can be embodied in the title of his piece about the embattled and embittered Eugene Parks: “A Time For Anger”. I’ve met Lueders a handful of times and I don’t doubt for a second that he’s passionate about journalism. But there were times when I was reading this book that I wished he’d get angry. Or, perhaps more correctly, let his anger loose rather than tempering it with sarcasm.

I wish he would have assumed the persona of H.L. Mencken’s normal man and given in to his temptation to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. But we’re talking about Bill Lueders here not Hunter S. Thompson.
|| Palmer, 12:11 PM || link || (0) comments |

10 November, 2010

Tentative New Glarus 2011 Release Schedule

It's up.

Uff-da and Snowshoe return. Back Forty and Cabin Fever live another year. I don't know if it's Dan Carey's preference or if NG got a lot of feedback but you'll be able to drink lots of New Glarus bocks next year. The schedule for 2011 only lists 5 year-round brews but they have six this year. I wonder if another will be added. While there are no major changes, I have to admit to being surprised by so many bocks and that Uff-da will be a summer release.

Hopefully the Unpluggeds next year have a zwickel or Grodziskie among them. I will have to make a sacrifice to Gambrinus.
|| Palmer, 3:58 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Knowledge Web by James Burke

What the cover to James Burke's book The Knowledge Web doesn't tell you is that it is essentially his Connections 3 TV series in book form. There's nothing wrong with this but, if you've watched the series already and then come to the book, you will surely, like me, be thinking that it all sounds very familiar.

Burke is a historian of science who, as the title of his TV series above indicates, likes to make connections between events and people in history to show how they produce scientific and technological advances. But it isn't all a dry lecture consisting purely of names and dates as Burke has a dry sense of humor and so linking, say an Englishman's development of DNA profiling to American spying balloons has all kinds of twists and turns. Tales general also involve a lot of conflict, both interpersonal and inter-territorial, love affairs, death, experiments gone seriously wrong, etc.

As an example, take Chapter 3 which is entitled "Drop the Apple". We begin with James Smithson (after whom The Smithsonian was named) and his description of calamine crystals. Rene-Just Hauy discovered that calamine crystals were piezo-electric. Pierre and Jacque Curie's work regarding piezoelectricity led Pierre and his wife Marie to the secrets of radium and radioactivity. Their physicist friend Paul Langevin would follow up their work and invent sonar which proved very handy in destroying German U-Boats and also as a plot device in movies such as Das Boot. Shipbuilding provides the stage for a discussion about welding and arclights, the latter of which would be introduced to theatres after much refinement. And some of that refinement was done by Leon Foucault. For his part, Foucault would create a big pendulum which proved Copernicus was right in addition to taking daguerreotypes of an eclipse.

The story continues with ash from kelp and opera but I'll stop here because I think you get the picture. If you're unfamiliar with Burke's work, The Knowledge Web certainly isn't a bad place to start. The trips through time are fascinating and funny.

For those already familiar with Burke's style, the book may be something of a departure for you. I've not read all of his stuff but the links here are often a bit more tenuous than in some of his earlier work. Previously links were made between people and events that, well, were directly or almost directly linked. Two people knew each other or one person read another's work and took the baton, taking research off on a tangent. Here just a common topic often provides the link. For example, take my description of chapter 3 above. The discussions about sonar and welding are linked because of the topic of ships but not because of two people who knew one another or because one person directly knew the work of another. Take this as good or bad at your pleasure.

Another element which The Knowledge Web is largely missing which at least some of his earlier works had is a sense of a larger, grander picture. Certain bits of his The Day the Universe Changed come to mind. In that program Burke talked about rationalism as a gift of the Greeks to Western civilization and how it underpins our views and expectations today. There is some of that here in the book's introduction but it's largely confined to a novel stylistic choice I'll note below. My problem is that the book has a lot of history in it but very little interpretation, very little assessment of what all of the stories mean or could mean to us. The Knowledge Web is still a great read but there were times when I found myself hoping that he'd talk about some of the broader impacts the discoveries he chronicled had made.

One thing we did get here was the printed equivalent of hyperlinks. The Knowledge Web was released in 2000 and it was clearly influenced by the Web. Certain subjects in the text will have a series of numbers in margin next to it. These numbers refer to other pages where this same subject is brought up. (I see that his previous book, The Pinball Effect has these "links" as well.) One can jump pages to follow the trajectory of a subject and discover all of its connections - something akin to a Choose Your Own Adventure book - or you can simply read straight through. This porting of HTML to the print realm works but I chose to mostly read straight through. While reading the first half of the book I would jump only occasionally and then only read the relevant bit about the subject and then go back from whence I came. For the second half I would jump back for a brief refresher when a topic reappeared.

The Knowledge Web then is an experiment. It mimics the hyperlinking capability of HTML in the print medium to demonstrate how computers are changing/have changed how knowledge is disseminated. Now, perhaps I'm just a meta kind of guy, but I think this already interesting book would have been more so had Burke actually discussed and made connections between events and people that have influenced how information was disseminated in the past. In the introduction written in 1999, Burke forecasts various problems that will arise as activities become virtualized and more and more things become available on the Internet. He describes his book as being an approach to knowledge for the 21st century and defends it against anyone thinking that such an approach is "dumbing down" by pointing to all the naysayers of ages past who said the same of the "first printing press, newspapers, calculators, and the removal of mandatory Latin from the curriculum". I wish that these stories and others were told in the book to illustrate the past in anticipation of the hyperlinked future Burke predicted.
|| Palmer, 1:30 PM || link || (0) comments |

08 November, 2010

Matt Taibbi in Madison

Journalist Matt Taibbi was in town last week and I availed myself to listen to him speak at the Memorial Union. I reviewed his previous book, The Great Derangement, here, and he was in town, in part, to promote his latest Griftopia.

(Photo by Matt Hintz of The Badger Herald.)

His talk was roughly divided into two parts. For the first he noted that he never intended to have a career in journalism and then proceeded to explain exactly how he ended up having one. His father was a journalist and Taibbi grew up around them. He harbored ambitions to be a comedic novelist but these dreams were abandoned when he found himself in the USSR at age 21 completely penniless. The young Taibbi decided to become a journalist and began by finding work with the wire services there. His experiences with the Western media in the USSR and the absurdities of the Russian government after the fall of Communism made a great impression on him.

He said that there's always a subtext in American journalism. As an example, he talked about his often futile attempts at pitching stories while he was over in Russia. Our media wanted to hear about Russia's move towards democracy and capitalism and give everything a positive spin. When Taibbi pitched stories about the rise in crime and drug use since the USSR split, he was rejected. However, when a gorilla in the St. Petersburg zoo was going to eat bananas for the first time, the wire service wanted him to cover that. The same for the opening of the first Russian KFC and Ikea.

Taibbi said he never noticed the ideological implications of journalism until he worked for the Moscow Times and covered the unveiling of a portrait of Boris Yeltsin. The paper called him "The Great Democrat". There were other great stories about Yeltsin. In one, Taibbi was present at an interview of a Russian general who had served under Yeltsin. When asked what the real Boris Yeltsin was like, he replied, "Boris Yeltsin no so much human being as undead entity." This impression was bolstered by the story of how the ailing president had to be shown to be in good health on TV so they showed some footage of the man riding a snowmobile. The problem was that Yeltsin was in such bad shape that his hands had to be taped to the handlebars.

Upon returning to the United States in 2002, Taibbi landed a gig covering the 2004 elections and was struck by how cliché-ridden the affair was and how much reporting was dedicated to the press releases given out by the campaigns. Journalists didn't seem interested in digging for answers but Taibbi did.

At this point in his lecture, Taibbi spoke about why gas prices were so high in the summer of 2008. He asked around was found out that the federal government gave a lot of exemptions to speculators in the oil market which drove the price up. But the presidential candidates never mentioned this. McCain took the price spike as a sign to drill more while Obama spoke in terms of conservation.

From here he began to speak about his current topic of interest – the Crash of 2008 and the mortgage industry. The whole affair is exceedingly complicated, he explained, but we were offered an analogy. It's like someone selling oregano as weed. People keep buying it so the dealers will keep selling. In the days of yore, lenders wouldn't lend to people with bad credit. The banks would own the loan for its lifetime. However, when loans started being converted into securities, a great demand rose for loans which could be parceled and sold off. Complicated formulae were developed to give AAA ratings to mortgage-backed securities to keep the scheme going.

When all of this went down the shitter, the financial sector appealed to the government to buy these junk securities. And so the state gave money to thieves and the thieves turn around and give money to politicians for such favors.

Taibbi ended his talk by admonishing the audience members to beware of people selling simple narratives.

The Q&A revealed some interesting bits. Regarding the perennial favorite of the Internet's impact on journalism, Taibbi said he still had hope. While investigative journos and fact-checkers were the first to go when cuts were made in newsrooms, the Net has seen a flowering of independent journalism. Someone asked whether there was a system to find out who the dishonest journalists were. Taibbi replied that most reporters he knows are good people. The problem is that they internalize the values of the company for whom they work. They begin to ask themselves not if something is a good story but rather if their editor will take it. Plus there are always financial pressures.

It was a very interesting night and I greatly appreciated how Taibbi explained the bubble in the oil market from a couple years back as well as his explanation for the mortgage crisis which is exceedingly complicated. I felt he did a good job of helping me, a layperson, understand what happened. I'm looking forward to reading Griftopia
|| Palmer, 2:50 PM || link || (0) comments |

Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin

Grave Goods is the third in Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death series featuring Adelia Aguilar who is the 12th century's CSI group unto herself. As with the
previous books in the series, Adelia finds herself bidden by King Henry II to undertake a little investigation. This time around she is sent to Glastonbury to prove whether or not remains found there belong to King Arthur and Guinevere. A more difficult task than her previous assignments for it is impossible to determine whether the sets of bones belonged to the legendary couple but there is no murder involved and so she is theoretically less imperiled by her investigation. However this turns out not to be the case.

The Glastonbury abbey had recently suffered a fire and it is up to Sir Rowley, who is now the Bishop of St. Albans and the father of Adelia's child, to investigate. To add Pelion upon Ossa, Emma, a girl from the previous book in the series, and her entourage have gone missing. Emma's former mother-in-law is Adelia's prime suspect. What begins as a relatively simple bit of forensics ends up being much more complicated.

I have to say that I really enjoyed Grave Goods and it's the best of the series so far. Franklin has a habit of withholding enough information from the reader to keep him or her from deducing the identity of the bad guy on their own. The same generally follows here but what I really like was how she filled the story with a large cast of characters and slowly revealed how they were intertwined and what roles they played in events. At the abbey you have the abbot and various monks; along the way we meet a few members of a frankpledge and a couple none-too-pleasant outlaws; plus there's Godwyn, the innkeeper who faints at first sight of Adelia and his wife Hilda. In their service is a deaf girl, Millie. Lastly there's the bard Rhys whose songs alternately amuse and annoy Adelia and company.

Franklin did a good job of juggling all the characters and keeping the reader guessing as to everyone's motivations.

Another thing I liked about the book was how Adelia's feelings towards and relationship with Rowley were put on the back burner. Her ambivalence is here but it's muted as Rowley is absent for most of the book. I'm ambivalent about their relationship because it exists only in fits and starts. It's the 12th century so there isn't really such a thing as a long-distance relationship. You can't call e-mail, text your love. And so the feelings that Adelia and Rowley share can only blossom when they're together which isn't often here. Their love story is fine by me but it advances at a snail's pace with the most common element being Adelia hating Rowley on the one hand and loving him on the other. The whole thing never gets too deep, however wide it may be.

While I knew from the get-go not to expect Franklin's books to be fraught with big ideas like Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, I thought she sprinkled some good food for thought in Grave Goods. The primary idea tossed around is that of the power of story. For Henry, having Adelia confirm the bones belong to Arthur and Guinevere strikes a blow against the Celtic rebels in Wales he's fighting as their morale would surely suffer if they knew that the Arthur would not be coming to rescue them. The abbey has a stake in their identity as well. If the bones really did belong to the legendary figures, that means the church has relics on their hands and people will pay to see them. And considering the loss incurred by the fire, some extra money would be quite nice.

Grave Goods isn't a treatise on symbolism or the role of stories in our lives but I give Franklin credit for giving them more than a passing mention. What Arthur and his legend mean is brought up a few times and by various characters of differing social statuses. Arthur means different things to different people.

The book ends on a rather forboding note which said to me that revenge or an attempt at it will be at the heart of the latest volume in the series, A Murderous Procession.
|| Palmer, 11:46 AM || link || (0) comments |

05 November, 2010


After I saw Micmacs I read the reviews by Rob Thomas in 77 Square and Kenneth Burns in Isthmus and was surprised to find that they both criticized the film on the same grounds. Indeed, it was almost as if they had called one another to make sure their critiques were the same. Burns chastises the film for "tastelessly combines whimsy and horror" while Thomas does the same with "quirkiness" and "serious". However, it should be noted that he uses "whimsy" as well in his first sentence: "If whimsy were a source of energy, the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet would keep Paris lit for decades."

Thomas liked the film more than Burns and I enjoyed more than either of them.

They both labor under the notion that, if you use landmines in your story, you are obligated to be dreadfully serious and denounce them at every turn. Indeed, for Burns, the movie's primary failing is that it proves not to be politically correct.

But many decades have passed since the heyday of the Little Tramp, and along with domestic violence, homelessness isn't something we laugh at in movies anymore.

Jeez. Does Burns want to just get rid of humor altogether?

I don't remember the film taking aim at the homeless but rather the humor is found in the antics of a man who happens to be homeless. Besides, human beings have this capacity to be able to laugh at a comedic character that is homeless on the one hand and be very concerned about homelessness in, you know, real life. One can laugh at a homeless character without subscribing to a bias against the homeless generally. Should I destroy DVDs of Trading Places, Blazing Saddles, and Bamboozled? Anything else the humor police want to admonish me against?

Furthermore he says of the home of some of the characters in the movie:

But there actually isn't anything remotely charming or funny about living in a trash heap, as the inhabitants of the Philippines' massive and dangerous Payatas dump would tell Jeunet, if he asked.

As Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." I don't understand Burns' insistence that bad things in the real world are off limits for comedy.

Micmacs opens with a French bomb squad in the Morocco of 1979. One of the men attempts to disarm a landmine but it explodes in his face killing him. We then jump to a video store clerk who rushes to the doorway of the store to check out the commotion outside. A gun is dropped and goes off after hitting the pavement and the clerk, named Bazil, takes a bullet to the head. At the hospital we find the bullet to be lodged in Bazil's cranium very deep. Removing it could be as harmful as leaving it in. The surgeon then flips a coin to determine the course of treatment.

Losing his job, Bazil is homeless and turns out that his father was the man killed by the mine. He wanders the streets until one day he finds himself between the corporate offices of two companies. One makes bullets, including the one that he was shot with, and the other made the landmine that killed his father. His attempts at confronting the CEOs directly end with him getting tossed out on the street.

Bazil then meets up with Placard who makes art out of junk. He lives in a scrap yard with a group of unusual friends including a mathematician, a human cannonball, and a contortionist who all take Bazil in and welcome him as family. This group of new-found friends is enlisted to help Bazil get revenge on the arms dealers whose products have so tormented his life. The ensuing shenanigans pit each company against the other with plots that get ever more complex.

Like much of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's work, Micmacs uses a lot of earth tones. It's not as dark as The City of Lost Children or Alien: Resurrection but it's nowhere near as bright and colorful as Amélie. The film takes place in a fantasy world that's rough around the edges. Not only do loveable misfits live in junkyard bunkers but an orchestra appears on the steps behind Bazil when he hears a burst of strings.

That's the key here for me. Micmacs is like a fairy tale – just not a Disney one. It appeals to the grimness of reality but it doesn’t dwell there. The film is satire and comedy but it occasionally lapses into the serious and I think it balances all these well. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a very serious film – it’s too fantastic and, dare I say, whimsical – but the shenanigans are punctuated with more serious bits. For instance, when Bazil is at a corporate rally and he hears the CEO talking about how good business has been and a tear runs down Bazil’s cheek. Jeunet keeps things on the light-hearted side but he gives the viewer reality checks.

|| Palmer, 7:09 PM || link || (11) comments |


While the audience at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art was watching Errol Morris' latest film, Tabloid, he was off at the Plaza having a burger and a Point beer. I think we got the better deal.

The movie sees Morris move away from politics, or perhaps more correctly, away from political figures and back to the garden variety weirdoes that roam free amongst us. It concerns one Joyce McKinney who was once crowned Miss Wyoming. She fell in love with a Mormon man, Kirk Anderson, and they were engaged. However, Anderson was sequestered or otherwise fled to England but she didn't let this inconvenience deter her. McKinney, convinced her fiancée had been brainwashed, assembled a crack squad of acquaintances to kidnap the man and have her true love returned to her. They abscond with Anderson to a country cottage where the deprogramming consists of chaining the man to a bad and McKinney "raping" him repeatedly in the hope that he remembers his love for her.

Or something like that.

Neither Anderson nor any Mormon brethren would sit before Morris and his Interrotron so we are left without their stories. But, as you can imagine, this tale made for great tabloid fodder and the movie includes interviews with a couple tabloid journalists who covered the story at the time. They come across as anything but disinterested observers with the photographer being especially gleeful at uncovering dirt. And even the tabloids couldn’t agree on exactly what McKinney was. Was she a whore or a victim of the tabloid press?

For her part, McKinney comes across as relentlessly cheerful as she questions the strange events of her youth. She acknowledges much of what the tabloids wrote about her but she contradicts other elements. She didn't rape Anderson, but rather the sex was consensual, for instance. Whatever the truth behind the matter, McKinney is a classic Morris subject. There's a crime involved and she is obsessive.

McKinney's friend and accomplice in the kidnapping died several years ago so we don't get his side of the story either. However, a pilot she hired and a former Mormon get some screen time. The former illuminates some of the story's background and highlights McKinney's obsessiveness while the latter bolsters the notion that Anderson was brainwashed by the Mormons. But what neither these two nor the reporters above and McKinney do is to really get at the truth of what happened. The film's subject is an unreliable narrator and the tabloid reporters come across as being just as obsessive as she is in pursuit of their own goals.

The events of 30 years ago are given a postlude where McKinney's dog Booger dies and she finds scientists in South Korea who clone the hound giving her five Boogers. During the Q&A after the screening, Morris described his subject as being like a child in need of constant attention. Showtime, which helped fund the movie's production, wanted him to drop the whole bit about the dog cloning but he kept it in. And the movie is better for it because it reinforces that McKinney is off her rocker. She is an even stranger person than we were led to believe as she cannot let anything go and will go to extremes to keep the things she loves in her life. It's adds a bit of tragedy to a story that has something akin to a happy ending.

The movie leans away from examining the elusiveness of truth and more towards the study of a character that exhibits all the traits that Morris finds interesting. Tabloid will likely be seen as one of Morris' lesser works but this is strictly because no political events or figures are involved. There's no major controversy such as Holocaust denial present and no one in authority to heap blame upon. But the film is funny and absurd and it's a tragedy to boot. What’s not to like?
|| Palmer, 3:03 PM || link || (0) comments |

Finally, A Fashion Trend I Can Support

Bavarian fashion is en vogue. In Germany, anyway.

Lederhosen for the ladies! Mini-dirndls! Hopefully this Teutonic trend will cross the ocean and take hold here.
|| Palmer, 8:55 AM || link || (0) comments |

Glenn Greenwald Here in Madison

Earlier this week blogger Glenn Greenwald was here in Madison and gave a talk at the UW about civil liberties and terrorism. Here's the highlight reel.

Glenn Greenwald on civil liberties and terrorism after Obama (highlights) from The Badger Herald on Vimeo.

Full speech is here while the Q&A session can be found here. Many thanks to The Badger Herald for taping and posting all of this.

I haven't watched it all yet but, from what I have seen & heard, he makes many good points on the erosion of civil liberties and points out a lot of hypocrisy in our foreign policy.
|| Palmer, 8:43 AM || link || (0) comments |

04 November, 2010

Goodbye Rail

Well, all those arguments about where to put Madison's rail station appear to be moot as rumor has it the extension of the Hiawatha line to Madison has been scrapped.

Meanwhile, an unnamed source said the Madison-Milwaukee high-speed rail project has been scrapped. The source, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she and several staffers were told the "project is done" and all were let go on Thursday morning.

On the other hand, Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi says that the suspension of construction was only something that would last a "few days".

I don't get it. Doyle rushed through the signing of the contracts to get the ink dry before Walker gets elected and now he's 86ing the deal. Does Walker have compromising photographs of Doyle with a midget and a dog or something?

Will Mayor Dave still go forward with the public market? Will Chris Berge still close Restaurant Magnus in favor of a Quaker Steak and Lube for the bicycle set? Now that the train looks dead can we at least have a Greyhound depot?
|| Palmer, 5:32 PM || link || (0) comments |

This Must Be Some New Definition of "Original" With Which I'm Not Familiar

Scarlett Johansson is set to play a sexy alien in the upcoming film Under the Skin:

“Johansson plays an alien on earth, disguised as the perfect aesthetic form of a mesmerizing woman. She scours remote highways and desolate scenery looking to use her greatest weapon to snare human prey -- her voracious sexuality.”

In a statement, FilmNation CEO Glen Basner said, “We’re so very excited to be working on this arrestingly original movie.

Wait a minute. Hottie alien snaring human prey with sex. This was done 15 years ago.

|| Palmer, 1:40 PM || link || (0) comments |

Honey Bee Bakery Getting Storefront

The Dulcinea pointed this out to me.

Honey Bee Bakery, a Community Supported Bakery that also does business at farmers markets, will be opening a store at 2302 Atwood. It's that small building which used to be an emporium of all things Jamaican. It's to be called Bea's Bonnet. According to this site, BB will offer "beverages, ice cream and snacks made from local and organic produce., and of course, Mary’s fabulous bakery products."
|| Palmer, 1:27 PM || link || (5) comments |

Obama Dumps Cap-And-Trade

President Obama has dumped his cap-and-trade plan for reducing greenhouse gases.

"Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way," Obama said at a news conference Wednesday, a day after Democrats lost control of the House. "I'm going to be looking for other means to address this problem."

Legislation putting a limit on heat-trapping greenhouse gases and then allowing companies to buy and sell pollution permits under that ceiling narrowly passed the House in 2009 as a centerpiece of Obama's domestic agenda, but it stalled in the Senate.

While he is surely right that there is more than one way of skinning this cat, I wouldn't be surprised if this part of his environmental agenda is as dead as a doornail considering Tuesday's election results.

While I'm on the subject, I found this over at Boing Boing. It's a video by science journalist Peter Hadfield laying waste to some climate change myths. There are more at his YouTube channel.

The funny part for me is that he dismantles the myth that global warming has stopped by tracing the claim back to this article by geologist Robert Carter and showing what Carter got wrong. At the end of the video Hadfield urges people to evaluate the evidence and trace claims to their source.

I was reminded of UW philosophy professor Lester Hunt who fell hook, line, and sinker for Carter's claim which was repeated by David Whitehouse and inspired the post "Has Global Warming Stopped?" linked to above. He repeated the myth again here. Hunt's skepticism apparently ends when a view he endorses begins.
|| Palmer, 12:19 PM || link || (0) comments |

03 November, 2010

Polish Film Festival Update

Yesterday I wrote about my hope that the Polish Film Festival here in Madison later this month would get Lullaby (Kołysanka) and I have found out that it will indeed by playing here. (Weird is good!)

In addition to it and the others mentioned in yesterday's post, the festival will also feature War of Love (Sluby Panienskie) with director Filip Bajon here in person, Animated History of Poland (Animowana Historia Polski), and Zero.
|| Palmer, 4:26 PM || link || (0) comments |

I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords

A blogger over at Daily Kos wrote in the wake of last night's election results: "Hey Wisconsin, go F**K yourself!" Emotions run high and he has since changed the post to read "I will not hate on Wisconsin today. I will not hate on Wisconsin today."

Whet Moser of the Chicago Reader has a great quote: From a liberal Wisconsin native, on the Feingold loss: "I wish I could believe that this is our Obi-Wan Kenobi '…strike me down…' moment"

Elsewhere Matt Rothschild of The Progressive magazine has posted his lament over Feingold's loss. Here's a part with which I disagree:

Feingold also has Barack Obama to thank for his defeat.

Obama failed to deliver the change he promised, failed to deliver the jobs he promised, and cozied up to Wall Street, so voters across the country took it out on Democrats with a vengeance.

For instance, the AP ran a story about a Wisconsinite opposing Feingold because she said he voted for the bank bailout. When the reporter informed her that Feingold actually voted against the bank bailout, that didn’t change her mind. She responded that the Democrats still spent too much.

Now, I haven't read that AP story but I don't get from what Rothschild wrote that this is an example of a failing of Obama's. Instead it seems that that woman doesn't know her ass from a hole in the ground. The assertion upon which her opinion was based was proven wrong and, when presented with the facts, she had this dizzying bout of cognitive dissonance which she reduced by finding another belief to fit the facts.

I just don't see this woman's refusal to reassess her views in light of new information as Obama's fault. Or Feingold's.

Alia iacta est.

Now we can look forward to a lieutenant governor who will probably use her office to lobby for a creation museum in Oconomowoc which she can tout as creating jobs and generating tourist revenue. Plus it's open season on gays, state employees, the poor, passenger rail, the UW system, &c.

Hopefully I'll at least get a tax cut.
|| Palmer, 11:25 AM || link || (0) comments |

02 November, 2010

Hallucinogenic Mindfuck Coming to Madison (And Other Movies Too)

There are some good films on tap this autumn here in Madison.

I'm probably most excited to see that Enter the Void opens at the Orpheum on the 12th of this month. I've seen director Gaspar Noé's Irreversible and, while disturbing, it was good to see that Noé played outside of convention. Enter the Void looks to continue the trend. Writing at Salon.com Andrew O'Hehir said of the film:

After many years of gestation and production, Noé is back with his first English-language film, "Enter the Void," and whether you like it or not, the dude has taken his game to the next level. This powerful, hallucinogenic journey will strike some viewers as a flat-out masterpiece and others as flatulent garbage. It actually has elements of both, so let me issue a completely weaselly, asterisk-laden recommendation: You have to see this! If (and only if) you're into this kind of thing!

Sundance has some good flicks coming soon as well.

A Woman, A Gun And a Noodle Shop is director Zhang Yimou's remake of Blood Simple by the Coen Brothers. Should be fun.

Opening the same day at Sundance is Lebanon. It's an Israeli film about a tank crew during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Perhaps it is treading some of the same territory as Waltz With Bashir but the catch here is that most of the film takes place inside the cramped quarters of the tank itself.

The final film in Stieg Larsson's trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, opens on the 12th. We will finally find out Lisbeth's fate.

On the same day two documentaries open. Inside Job about the economic crisis of 2008 and Last Train Home which documents the journeys taken by millions of Chinese migrant workers back home to their villages for New Year's. I believe this was shown at the Wisconsin Film Festival a couple years ago.

Madison's Polish Film Festival takes place in less than 3 weeks. Unfortunately their website hasn't been updated. The last I heard The Swing (Huśtawka) was going to be playing and Little Rose (Rózyczka) as well. There were plans for Tomasz Lewkowicz, the director of The Swing to be here but those fell through. Bummer. Here's the synopsis of his film:

Thirty five year old Michal has a beautiful wife, lovely daughter, and a passionate lover. When one of the women gives him an ultimatum, Michal must choose between desire and loyalty. His situation further complicates itself once he finds out that his wife is pregnant. Will Michal choose a lifetime with his loving wife, or opt for a fairytale with a mistress who's not really a wife material? The Swing addresses the issue of moral integrity in light of our own desires and the sacrifices we are willing to make in order to fulfill them.

And one for Little Rose:

Warsaw, 1967. Kamila is in love with Roman, a Secret Service Agent for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Roman asks her to get involved with a writer, Adam Warczewski, and deliver reports about his views and activities. SB suspects Adam of antisocialist agenda and is looking for proof. Under the pseudonym "Little Rose," Kamila begins her cooperation with the Secret Services. Soon her relationship with Warczewski grows stronger, her reports get more interesting, but also true emotions start to develop. Trapped in a love triangle, Kamila tries to escape the binds of political interests and move on with her life. But Roman won't let her go so easily.

There are still some slots open and I'm hoping they bring in Lullaby (Kołysanka).

The film's description is "Two policemen investigate mysterious disappearances in a small scenic town. People keep disappearing, but the investigation brings no results. The tension grows and step by step a dark mystery unravels..." but I don't know what these people are doing looking like the Polish Addams Family. Regardless it just looks weird and weird is good.

Lastly there is a film I recently heard about that I'm hoping make it here to Madison. In My Sleep sounds very interesting in a Hitchcockian way.

In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, Marcus (PHILIP WINCHESTER, Crusoe, Flyboys) struggles with parasomnia, a rare sleep disorder which makes him do things in his sleep which he cannot remember the next day.

His situation takes a startling turn when Marcus wakes up with blood on his hands and a knife at his side. That same morning, a close friend is found stabbed to death. Marcus frantically tries to put the pieces together - while sleepwalking, could he have murdered his friend to hide a dark secret between them?

It plays in Chicago and Milwaukee starting on the 12th so perhaps a print will make its way here as it's already in the neighborhood.
|| Palmer, 12:29 PM || link || (0) comments |

Scott Walker and Campaign Promises

Yesterday I was talking with a co-worker over lunch about today's election. A friend of his is an old duff who happens to be a big rail enthusiast. Well, the guy went to a Scott Walker campaign event and told Walker that he'd vote for him but was unhappy with his stance on Madison getting a stop on Amtrak's Hiawatha line.

According to my co-worker, his friend was told by Scott Walker that the rail line was a done deal and that all of his bluster and promises to 86 it were just campaign folderol to please a certain group of people. This pleased the trainspotter enough that he told the candidate that he had his vote.

No surprise here but still - what a maroon.

It'll be interesting to see what happens if he wins. I think at the first murmur of cutting state employee benefits and positions, workers will begin an exodus. And then everyone who voted for Walker will start bitching about the state not processing applications or whatever fast enough.
|| Palmer, 11:12 AM || link || (0) comments |

House of Brews in WSJ & New Brewery in Dells?

My buddy Page was featured in the State Journal last week regarding his new brewery, House of Brews. It's to be a Community Supported Brewery.

His plan calls for about 50 members who would pay about $180 for a half subscription or about $360 for a full subscription. Full subscribers would receive 12 bottles of beer each month, plus two educational events a year and an invitation to the brewery’s annual appreciation dinner.

Buchanan wants to use as many ingredients as he can get from Wisconsin. His flagship beer, brewed in a 10-barrel system, would be a medium-alcohol rye beer. But his 22-gallon brew kettles will allow him to experiment with a variety of beers and styles. Part of his plan is to create beers specifically for individual restaurants and bars.

I presume this "medium-alcohol rye beer" is Page's rye kolsch which I've had the past few summers at his place. Mmm....


A couple gentlemen are looking to open a brewery up in the Dells called Port Huron Brewing Company. They want to open in an industrial park but need zoning changes. One alderman at a hearing was concerned that the tasting room at the brewery would put the Dells onto a slippery slope and that a strip club would open in the park.(?!) Hopefully it will all go smoothly and we'll have another brewery here in Wisconsin.
|| Palmer, 8:51 AM || link || (2) comments |