Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

29 April, 2011

Chicks Dig Time Lords

Paul Wiesner, one of the chairs of OddCon, made me feel bad the other day for not reading enough geek-related stuff so I dutifully went home and started in on Chicks Dig Time Lords. The book is a collection of essays that celebrate Doctor Who and are written by "the women who love it".

The authors represent a range of talents. For instance, Helen Kang is feminist cultural studies scholar while Francesca Coppa is an Associate Professor of English. Others are sci-fi and/or fantasy authors like Jody Lynn Nye and K. Tempest Bradford. Actresses who have played roles in the DW universe also contribute here in either the form of an essay or interview. Sophie Aldred (Ace) and Lisa Bowerman (Bernice Summerfield) are among them. And there are plenty of women who have day jobs but find DW the focal point of their avocations.

Many of the essays begin with the author telling the tale of how she first encountered the beloved program. Those from England generally couldn't escape it while older Americans found it on their local PBS station. On a different note, Lynne M. Thomas married a DW fan who got her hooked. Carole Barrowman, who lives in Milwaukee, adds to the pattern by not only chronicling her ascent into fanhood but also describing what it's like to have a brother who is an actor on the show. That would be John Barrowman, a.k.a. – Captain Jack. Such stories make for fun reading because every fan of the show has a story about the time he or she first saw an episode and how they became a fan of whatever magnitude.

After learning how they got into the show, many explain to one degree or another just how DW affected them. Francesca Coppa names Nyssa as her favorite companion and a character with whom she identified. Nyssa provided a role model for her. She was a teenage girl who was a scientific genius and didn't spend all of her time gossiping about men. For Johanna Mead, DW played a big role in becoming addicted to her drug of choice: costuming. In a more prurient vein, Christa Dickson's fandom is driven by smutty fanfic.

In addition to the more personal tales of DW fandom, there are also the more academic which put the show under a lens to examine how it deals with gender, sexuality, and race. The tension between the new and classic series is evident in most of the essays but is especially prevalent in these because there are non-white companions and, well, the topic of sexuality is actually broached in the new series whereas it wasn't in the old.

K. Tempest Bradford (who has linked to this very blog in the past - squee!) writes about Martha in "Martha Jones: Fangirl Blues". She clearly appreciates that a black woman was cast as a (primary) companion for The Doctor and a smart one who had done well for herself at that. Bradford's problem is that, in the end, Martha is in the Mammy role. That is to say that Martha, however strong or capable she may be, is still powerless in many important ways and is there to aid and abet the white male figure.

While I take Bradford's point, I also think that it's like complaining about water being wet. Unless a companion is another Time Lord or the equivalent thereof, any companion, regardless of gender or skin color, will be subordinate to The Doctor. Companions can save The Doctor, console him, be his equal at verbal sparring, etc. but, at the end of the day, The Doctor is The Doctor. He's hundreds of years old, has seen everything and more, and is a member of one of the most powerful species in the whole of the universe. Unless the Rani teams up with The Doctor, no companion can be his equal and there will always be a sense that companions are inferior in certain ways.

Having said all that, I'll swing back to Bradford's side and say that companions can still be written in a way to minimize their subordinate role. In Martha's case a good start would have been to eliminate her unrequited love for The Doctor. Romantic feelings for the smart, charismatic temporal hobo shouldn't be off limits and can certainly lead to some great drama (see Rose and the Ninth Doctor) but, at the end of the day, the companion will lose. At least a human companion. The Doctor lives too long, is too unlike them for an ending that could be anything other than bittersweet. Remove the romance and let Martha do her thing, let her show the universe what she's made of.

An essay by Shoshana Magnet and Robert Smith? examines the new series through the lens of social equality. They make some good observations but they went way off the track with this from the section on Jack:

Jack's pansexuality is allowed on Doctor Who, but only because he's from the (very) distant future. People exactly like him exist in the 21st century – but you'd never know it from Rose's reactions in "The Doctor Dances." Here, the series uses a classic science fiction allegory to examine issues of today…except that it doesn't need to, because these aren't actually issues. Queerness and polyamoury aren't fantastical imaginings from the 51st century, they're something that happens every Friday down at Club Babylon.

Are Magnet and Smith? really that ignorant? Just because something exists in a given time it does not logically follow that any given person is aware of it much less approves. I don't know if the authors have looked around lately but there are plenty of people for whom queerness is most certainly an issue. And how many people even know what polyamoury is? I'll bet not many. So what if queerness and polyamoury happen at a particular club every Friday? How does that prove that everyone else who doesn't go there has a certain knowledge of and disposition towards these things? It doesn't. Magnet and Smith? are in need of reconsidering what "mainstream" means.

Chicks Dig Time Lords hints at the diversity in DW fandom and is especially welcome since it provides a voice for women who are not generally thought of as being fans of science fiction regardless of just how many female sci-fi fans there are out there today. The collection dips its toes into the pool of cultural criticism but doesn't jump in head first. This isn’t a point against the book, however. Most DW fans can read Chicks Dig Time Lords and find themselves nodding with at least one of the authors about a favorite Doctor or companion or sense of excitement at watching the show for the first time. As someone who does not frequent any kind of DW forum or board, I got a kick out of hearing the stories of other fans but this book has something for every fan, whether you lurk at fora or not.
|| Palmer, 4:28 PM || link || (3) comments |

Sex Ed With Mrs. Lovecraft

"My best friend Jimmy Pickman." hehe

|| Palmer, 3:39 PM || link || (0) comments |

Werner Herzog: The Voiceovers

In honor of Werner Herzog's latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Slate has posted "Great Moments in Werner Herzog Voiceovers".

There are some classics up there but the piece links to this great parody which I'd never heard before.

|| Palmer, 12:55 PM || link || (0) comments |

Dear Royal English People

Dear Royal English People,

Thanks for getting married today because it made my morning easier. You see, I got home last night to find a note from my stepson asking me to tweak the parental controls on his laptop so that he could use it at 3AM CST today while he was watching your wedding with his mother. Being the swell guy that I am, I complied with his request.

Sure as shit, I was awoken at 3 this morning by the kid entering our room to get his mom so they could plant their asses in front of the TV and start watching whatever you folks were doing at 9AM GMT. (Or are you 5 hours ahead of us?) I turned my head a bit and groggily said, "You know, we fought a war to get rid of monarchy" and then rolled over and resumed sleeping. I suspect that my antelucan praise of those brave men and women of 1775-1783 has been forgotten by my stepson who can rarely remember to bring his homework home.

When I awoke 2+ hours later they were there on the couch. So thanks for absolving me of my duty of trying to rustle an 11 year-old out of bed for school. (And his mom too.)

|| Palmer, 10:34 AM || link || (0) comments |

Monkey Girl by Edward Humes

When I began reading Edward Humes' Monkey Girl I was certain that it would be anti-climactic. The attempt of the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania to bring Christianity into the science classrooms there had had its day in court and I knew the outcome. While I didn't wait with bated breath to hear the verdict of Judge John E. Jones III, I found the book to be fascinating, anger-inducing, and enlightening at the same time. I knew the court ruling going in but I found that I learned a lot by the time I had finished reading the book.

Monkey Girl is about the events in Dover, PA in 2004-5 when the local school board made the Intelligent Design textbook Of Pandas and People available to students as a reference book and had the district administrators read a prepared statement to 9th grade biology students which claimed that the Theory of Evolution had "gaps" and that ID offers an alternative explanation for the origin of life on Earth.

Being a godless heathen keen on seeing state and church separated, I cringe when I hear about school boards bringing in ID, which is simply Christian creationism with new name and shiny new look. I immediately think of the board members who do such things as being a bunch of mindless Jebus lovers and there were definitely those types here. The board revolved around Bill Buckingham who closely adheres to the stereotype above. An ex-cop with a temper, this custos morum made his intentions plain when he said "Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Isn't someone going to take a stand for him?" His forthrightness would prove a liability when the school district found itself in Federal court. Buckingham was aided and abetted by Alan Bonsell, another board member who was not shy when it came to expressing a desire for Christianity to be injected into the biology classroom. These two guys were the ringleaders that pressured the school board into allowing ID into the high school.

Monkey Girl was the first time that I've read anything which moved me beyond the Bible thumping stereotype of pro-ID school boards and to actually learn more about members who want Jebus in the classroom. But it was cold comfort to read about Angie Yingling. Despite not understanding ID very well by her own admission (and evolution less so), she abdicated her responsibilities as a board member and joined the pro-ID voting wing out of fear - fear of being branded an atheist by other members. You don't need a school board brimming with Evangelicals to get ID into your classrooms, you just need a bully like Bill Buckingham to take advantage of human frailty and social stigma.

In addition to giving the reader a ground level view of how events unfolded in Dover, Humes also places the battles there in their larger context. He discusses the Scopes trial of 1925 in which a lawsuit was brought against the state of Tennessee and its law against teaching evolution. Science lost that battle but the Cold War brought a new push from the federal level for rigorous science education and evolution came back in a big way. Christian right-wingers then began pushing for "creation science" to be taught in schools but a 1987 Supreme Court decision outlawed the teaching of it in public schools. From this milieu Intelligent Design was born with the Discovery Institute in Seattle being its best organized promoter and defender. Humes dissects the ID movement and the DI's so-called "wedge strategy" which involves promoting ID as science and getting schools to "teach the controversy" or to have teachers essentially bad mouth proven biology so that their nonsense can get a foothold in classrooms.

Tammy Kitzmiller became the lead plaintiff of the court case. Kitzmiller was a Christian who simply felt that the school board had overstepped its bounds by bringing religion into biology classes. Indeed, many of the people who took exception to the board's actions were Christians. In fact, I don't think any of the people from Dover noted in the book as opposing Buckingham and company were described as atheists. Dover was in certain ways an intra-Christian conflict.

Humes' description of the trial itself is dramatic. Each side has a panoply of experts lined up, though the defendants' situation was a bit shaky owing to the Discovery Institute's wavering commitment to the Dover school board. Judge Jones disallowed TV cameras in his courtroom but he would later say he regretted that decision as there was some great science education on display over the six weeks that the trial lasted.

The plaintiffs brought in distinguished biologist Kenneth Miller from Brown University who explained what science was as an endeavor and how ID failed to meet the criteria to make it science. Philosophy professor Barbara Forrest must be quite a woman because she was the only witness that the defense tried to exclude from the case. She came in and crushed her ID enemies, saw them driven before her, and heard the lamentations of the Dover school board after she showed how ID is simply the creationism ruled inappropriate for public schools in 1987 in new clothes.

The most well-known defense witness was biochemistry professor Michael Behe who believes that certain elements of life are just too complicated to have evolved. Behe was pwned by Eric Rothschild, a lawyer for the plaintiff. He embarrassed Behe and his claim that his idea of "irreducible complexity" had been peer-reviewed was shot to ribbons. Rothschild even ran roughshod over a model of evolution that Behe had created with a physics professor named David Snoke. It was so bad that even I felt embarrassed for Behe. That is until Behe claimed that he had devised an experiment to prove ID a valid scientific theory and when asked why he's never carried out he could only say "It would not be fruitful." I thought Behe came off as being rather moderate (i.e. – not a religious nutcase) in Flock of Dodos but after his performance in Dover, I think he's just as big a douchebag as the rest of the Discovery Institute mandarins. I mean, a scientist saying that experiments would not be fruitful. What a maroon.

But the worst were Bill Buckingham and his fellow ID-loving board members. Most knew next to nothing about ID and even less about evolution. They lied about their intentions saying that they never mentioned creationism when considering bringing ID into the classroom. Buckingham was presented with video of him talking to a reporter and saying that very word. These people are just cretins who latched onto the first legitimate sounding Christian challenge to evolution they came upon. With their persecution complex to fore they completely ignored all other considerations including the advice and direction of the district's own teachers.

While ID was kept out of Dover's classrooms, Monkey Girl was, for me, ultimately a sad story. As Humes points out, evolution and the origin of life are topics that are all-too frequently glossed over or ignored completely by public school teachers today. Evolution may be great science and teachers may have a legal right to teach it if not a responsibility to do so, but for many it's like kryptonite. They're afraid of controversy and of people like Bill Buckingham. Until teachers aren't afraid of teaching evolution, pro-science advocates have a long row to hoe. Luckily there are people like Tammy Kitzmiller and the rest of the plaintiffs in the Dover case who stood up for the good guys despite knowing that they would be socially ostracized and that their daughters would be taunted with shouts of "Monkey girl!" They are the real heroes of this story.
|| Palmer, 10:12 AM || link || (0) comments |

28 April, 2011

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

I began blathering about Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought when I realized that I saw him speak at the UW in the fall of 2009. Looking back at the post, I seem to have already written a review of his book. But allow me to add a few thoughts now that I've read his work.

First, I think that Pinker writes well for a lay audience. He takes his time explaining concepts that most people wouldn't be familiar with and draws from the well of pop culture for many examples. For instance, in one section about whether words have meanings that exist outside of our minds, he refers to Doctor Who: "But suppose scientists made an amazing discovery: cats are really daleks, the mutated descendants of the Kaled people of the planet Skaro, a ruthless race bent on universal conquest and domination, who travel around in mechanical casings cleverly disguised as animals." Trivial I know, but it adds levity to a text which could have been dry and overly academic.

One of the chapters towards the end called "What's in a Name?" was one where I thought a lot about how I speak. Sections discussing politeness seemed especially relevant. I often asked myself if I talked in a way that he was describing. Do I ever say anything as indirect as "If you could pass the salt, that would be terrific."? Did, say, my grandparents ever go so incredibly overboard in the hyper-politeness department for salt?

I found myself nodding my head in agreement when he discussed formal titles and pronouns. When I studied German I learned the formal form of "you" which is Sie with the informal being du. So if I were to address a stranger or my boss or someone who is my social "superior", I'd use Sie. But if I were addressing a friend or family member, I'd use du. We don't differentiate that way in English although, as Pinker points out, we used to with "thou" and "ye". He also talks about how America has become more egalitarian in certain ways reflected in our speech. As a child, I was taught to address my parents' friends and my friends' parents as Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So and to never use their first names. That formality is long gone and it happened in my lifetime. When I worked at American Family Insurance I got in trouble many times for calling agents "sir" or "ma'am" or Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So. I was supposed to be calling everyone by their first name to "personalize" our calls. After all, these people were co-workers. To me, however, they were rank strangers. Some guy in Colorado may have technically been my co-worker but I didn't know him from Adam. It was rude to call him Fred instead of Mr. Smith or "sir" not ever having met him, much less having developed a relationship to be on a first name basis.

I've gotten many glares and even a few reprimands from waitresses for having said "Yes, ma'am." "Ma'am" apparently refers to old women these days instead of being a formal term for strangers. This is surely regional, though, as I never ran into any problems calling a young woman "ma'am" in the South.

Old habits die hard. I ate at a fast food place recently when I was on the road for work. Having paid with a debit card, my name ended up on the ticket showing my order. And so when the manager threw my food on a tray, he looked at the slip and said something to me using my first name while pushing the tray to me. Honestly, it bugged me a little bit. If I'd have had a problem, I would have said, "Excuse me sir but could I get some ketchup?" or some such thing. I wouldn't think of calling him by his first name. I guess I'm like the senior citizens that Pinker mentions who complain to hospitals about rudeness because the staff call them by their first names instead of using a more formal way of addressing them.

For more about the text of the book, read my post about his talk here in Madison back in 2009. That covers the main areas that he approached in the book and gives more examples. I do recommend reading The Stuff of Thought because Pinker is a good writer discoursing on an interesting topic. Plus it will probably make you very self-conscious about how you speak.
|| Palmer, 2:21 PM || link || (0) comments |

26 April, 2011

It Depends On What Your Definition of Capable Is

This week's Isthmus carries a letter by one Gregor Mieder in which he disputes the notion that Isthmus blogger David Blaska's Manichean view is somehow conservative and asks the paper to "Please choose a more intellectual or at least convincing writer to represent conservative viewpoints."

This follows on the heels of another letter to the editor by Louisa Emmett which asks if Blaska's blog is a put-on like The Colbert Report.

Unlike the most current criticism, Emmett's generated a response by Bill Lueders, Isthmus news editor, who offers something of a beau geste by saying that "in our opinion David Blaska is a capable writer and commentator."

Yeah, but capable of what?

This "defense", as it is, comes from the same man who accused Blaska of lying in an article last autumn. It is also the same Bill Lueders who bemoans the decline of print and the "shallow expression" perpetrated by bloggers.

I just don't understand why Isthmus publisher Vincent O'Hern and his majordomo Bill Lueders piss and moan about how awful bloggers are and then A) turn around and assemble a stable of bloggers and can B) defend one that lies as Lueders himself has pointed out.
|| Palmer, 12:18 PM || link || (0) comments |

25 April, 2011

Americans Love to Shop

Here are a couple interesting graphs I found at a blog post by Joe the Planner.

They come from a post about suburban sprawl and how we constantly fund infrastructure for suburbs that is costly to maintain and gives us less bang for our buck than infrastructure in more densely populated cities.

The proverbial elephant in the room is the amount of sprawling, redundant public and private infrastructure we’ve built since the end of World War II. This exodus to the suburbs quickly resulted in the hollowing-out of major parts of older cities and towns. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of this development is automobile-based. Places to live, work, shop, and play are intentionally separated by vast distances. Low-density, separated-use zoning has ensured that there is far more infrastructure to maintain per-person than in older village, town, or city neighborhoods.

For this suburban system to function, residents are required to own, operate, and maintain a car. Or two. Or three. Nobody knows this better than the typical suburban family. While car ownership is expensive enough, it is not simply a matter of gasoline and monthly payments. The automobile incurs another immense cost: cars can’t operate without lots of flat, smooth, publicly-funded road infrastructure (read: roads, highways, and the accompanying electric, gas, water, and sewer utilities).

All of this is stupefyingly expensive. These indirect costs constitute the majority of the expense, yet remain invisible to most people—spread-out in the form of local, state, and federal taxes, or camouflaged as municipal bond debt or various other forms of government debt. So in addition to being redundant, this means that suburbia is a doubly expensive living arrangement.

Regardless of which number is correct - holy crap! We Americans sure have shopping high on our list of priorities.
|| Palmer, 3:18 PM || link || (0) comments |

21 April, 2011

Cookie, The Ticklish Penguin

|| Palmer, 10:07 AM || link || (0) comments |

20 April, 2011

Goodbye Sarah Jane

R.I.P. Elisabeth Sladen, a.k.a. – Sarah Jane Smith.

First it was Nicholas Courtney and now Lis Sladen. The Doctor's companions of my childhood are getting fewer and fewer. I had something of a crush on Sarah Jane as a kid and it was a hoot to see her return to the new series. In certain ways she was the proto-Rose or, perhaps, the proto-Ace. Yeah, she did her fair share of screaming for The Doctor's help but she wasn't completely helpless and showed initiative. A sad day.

In brighter news, the new series of DW starts this weekend. The Beeb have a new trailer out for the first episode which is entitled "The Impossible Astronaut":

Unlike the rest of my household, I like Matt Smith. Despite being so young, he has the gravitas to portray someone who is 30 times his age. Neil Gaiman wrote a story for this season which should be fun.

I've been watching The Crimson Petal and the White and it's very good. Richard E. Grant plays Doctor Curlew and, while it's not a big role, it has reminded me that I think he was a good Doctor in Scream of the Shalka, an animated DW adventure from 2003.

In fact, if the show ever returns to an older actor playing The Doctor, I'd love it if Grant were given the role. I liked how his Doctor mixed the Sixth's irascibility with the darker elements of the Seventh from his last season and the Cartmel Masterplan.

Lastly I want to admit that I've started collecting DW books. The Virgin New and Missing Adventures and the BBC Past Doctor and Eighth Doctor Adventures. I've discovered a podcast called The Doctor Who Book Club devoted to them which is a hoot. I could kick myself because I remember the dark days of the 1990s and the first half of the aughts when these books were being published and not buying them. Now playing catch up is looking to be a more expensive proposition.

Most of the books can be had cheaply. Half Price Books here in Madison had a bunch about 3 weeks ago and I am kicking myself all over again for not just getting a basket and putting all of them on my credit card. Instead I had to go and be all fiscally responsible. Still, I got several books at half price, though none of them were the really rare ones that sell for 5 or 10 times the cover price. Lungbarrow, the final NA, goes for $50-100+. It wasn't there or was but someone got it before I did. It dishes the dirt on The Doctor and closes out the Seventh's storyline so I can see a demand for it but it's way overpriced. Did Virgin print less copies of it than the other titles in the series or are resellers just gouging?

|| Palmer, 12:21 PM || link || (0) comments |

11 April, 2011

Hamming It Up

Despite the imminent arrival of Easter, I am not going to be eating ham in the near future. I had my share of the stuff this past Saturday while being a judge at the annual convention of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors. By the end of the day, I had tasted 19 traditional boneless hams and 21 dried or smoked beefs.

We gathered at the judging command center and introduced ourselves. My qualifications consisted of having cooked for a living in the dim & distant past while most of my fellow judges worked in the meat processing business at some point. We had a lot of Oscar Meyer retirees in addition to a few folks who are still in the business at smaller plants.

Something like 1,015 products had been entered and 30 or so of us paired off for judging.

Man did I feel sorry for the people who got stuck with jerky, see above. Actually the grandson of the gentleman I was paired with ended up with the stuff. He said that he got the call only the day before so that explained it. I've judged jerky before and there is some really tasty stuff to be had. But, holy fuck, your jaw will be sore for three days afterwards. And some places submit product that you'd think had been lying around in an attic or something. It's like biting into a piece of dried oak. You can use it for flak jackets.

Our table seemed to be the collection point for hacksaws. The guys next to us had bone-in hams so they were cutting away all morning. I guess they ran out of room on their own table.

There were 4 or 5 categories of ham and I think this is the boneless commercial variety. I have gotten old and stupid and I have forgotten how to use my camera so all of my close-ups are out of focus because I can't get the stupid thing out of wide angle lens mode. Nor can I re-enable the flash. D'oh! On the bright side, you get to miss out on a photo of my chew cup overflowing.

Merlyn and I judged boneless traditional hams. This was my first time doing hams and it was a good learning experience. I knew going in that a traditional ham meant that it was made of whole muscles instead of pressed and formed bits and pieces. However, I learned that you can use a variety of muscles including the inside cushion, eye, and knuckle.

I was rather surprised at how many of the products had gelatin pockets, which got the ham docked a lot of points. And those little holes dotting the meat? The curing solution got injected with too much pressure. If you don't eat traditional hams a lot, then you probably don't think much about the texture of the meat. But as I was gnawing on nearly 20 different ones, I really noticed the differences. One was very mealy and mushy. Merlyn thought that they'd overdone it with the phosphates. I believe phosphates are used to help meat retain moisture and, in this case, it retained way too much of it. Other criteria included uniform color and bind. Since a ham is made up of 3+ muscles, you want them all to hang together well.

Overall the hams conformed to the Bell Curve. Most were just right in the middle with a handful of really bad ones and 2 or 3 really good ones. This was in contrast to my experiences in years past of judging jerky and sausages where there seemed to be a lot more bad ones and a lot less in the middle. I can't tell you how many samples of jerky I've tasted that were, once you got past biting into wood, nothing more than liquid smoke or teriyaki seasoning. The winner got low marks from us on external appearance because it hadn't been trimmed very well but the meat had great texture and flavor as well.

Someday I hope to judge bacon. There must have been 40 entrants in the two categories of bacon. I wish my close-ups had been in focus because there were some slabs that just had me drooling.

The other category that Merlyn and I judged was dried/smoked beef.

I think out of the 21 entrants here maybe 2 were smoked. And, like the hams, the majority were in the middle. A couple outstanding ones and a few clunkers, including one that hadn't fully cured so you had these spots on the meat. Just as with the hams again, the winner here was scored very low for appearance. Dried beef should have a nice mahogany red surface whereas the winner's was too dark and salt had leeched out and dried on it as well. But it had a great texture and flavor.

Afterwards I joined up with my sick bastard of a friend Ed who had judged wieners in a natural casing. Here he is holding his wiener.

Why is he a sick bastard? Well for one, he never let me forget that he had wieners in his mouth all day. Secondly he used to work in the meat processing industry (before heading into the public sector where he was personally chewed a new asshole by Tommy Thompson) and he relishes every opportunity to tell stories like how they remove the skin from foetuses that they pull from cows brought to the slaughterhouse. (It involves injecting air into the foetus until it puffs up like a balloon.)

We went over to the product show together. The product show is where you can get maps which show which cuts of meat come from what part of the animal, bowl choppers the size of a football field, and more spice blends and pre-mixed marinades that you can shake a stick at. We grabbed about 40lbs each of pre-mixed marinades and bags of seasoning. Excalibur Seasoning also had fish and chicken breading so I made sure to grab a couple bags of those. I also saw this commercial juicer which was pretty slick.

You put your oranges in the bin on the top, hit the switch, and BAM! – fresh OJ out of the tap. All of my photos of the juicing mechanism are for shite but what happens is that the orange falls in, gets cut in half, and then is slapped onto one of the rotating juicer hoolies. The de-juiced orange then falls into a basket underneath. A case of oranges makes about 22 8oz glasses and the sales guy said you can expect to make about $48 per case of oranges. Not bad.

Overall the 2011 WAMP Convention was a success. My jaws survived although I probably consumed about a month's worth of salt in one day. If I don't get to judge bacon next year, I'd love to do smoked poultry. And perhaps I'll to the banquet too. Perhaps I could glean some trade secrets from meat processors around the state.

Lastly I'll note that I spoke with the guys from UW Provisions and they said that they're expanding their site to be something like 3 times the current size. Plenty of room for meat goodness. I should get out there again and get me some rabbit or pheasant as I haven't had any game in a long time.
|| Palmer, 2:08 PM || link || (0) comments |

Melancholia trailer

Lars von Trier's latest film, Melancholia, now has a trailer. I am presuming that this afflicts Kirsten Dunst here. Now, WTF is with the orgone trails emanating from her fingertips?

|| Palmer, 11:28 AM || link || (0) comments |

Birds of a Feather

Thanks to 77 Square for a good laugh this morning. In her review of a new Chinese restaurant, Samara Kalk Derby quotes a friend of hers who had ordered braised vegetable with shiitake mushroom only to find that the dish featured the requisite fungus with but one vegetable, bok choy.

“When I think of vegetables, bok choy is the last vegetable I think of,” said my friend...

Why am I not surprised that Derby, who was shocked to find giardiniera on an Italian beef ordered "hot", has a friend that is flummoxed by being served bok choy in a Chinese restaurant? Did this person just fall off the turnip truck?

The "bottom line", Derby tells us, is that the place serves "authentic Sichuan food". I have to ask whose judgement this is because I don't trust Samara Kalk Derby to have the first inkling of an idea of the differences between Sichuan and, say, Cantonese cuisine. She notes that the chicken with spicy and sour garlic sauce has Bell peppers in it while the shrimp with black bean sauce features red peppers, broccoli, and zucchini. I'm certainly no expert in Sichuan cooking but my warning klaxon starts ringing when I am told that a bunch of vegetables, native to the Americas and Europe, are in some way authentically Chinese.

If reading about one person suffering the indignity of being served bok choy in a Chinese restaurant and another proffering the dubious claim that authentic Sichuan cuisine involves a medley of New World vegetables wasn't bad enough, the review says precious little about how any of the food at the establishment (called Ichiban, BTW) tastes.

Take that bok choy-laden disappointment. Derby uses exactly zero words to give the reader any idea of how it tasted. We know it had only mushrooms and bok choy and that it was, to her taste, "monotonous". So the reader gets a bunch of whining about quantity but nothing about quality. Did the did have a sauce? What kind of liquid was used in the braising? Am I expected to extrapolate every other flavor in this dish from the fact that it had a lot of bok choy in it?

The chicken with spicy and sour garlic sauce is the exception here with the sauce being described as "thin, orange sauce with a few pieces of hot red chili peppers and a welcome hint of ginger". More writing like this, please.

Now we can look forward to Derby reviewing a German restaurant and complaining that the Hackepeter is undercooked.
|| Palmer, 11:26 AM || link || (0) comments |

07 April, 2011

New Documentary About Wisconsin Beer Due This Autumn

Comeback is a movie about the resurgence of breweries here in Wisconsin. I believe it comes out this fall.

|| Palmer, 4:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

How Bad Are Things In Detroit?

Detroit's reputation was bad in the 1970s when I was growing up but now it is absolutely abysmal. Photographs such as this one of the decaying United Artists Theatre spring to mind for many when they hear someone say Detroit.

Indeed, there's a whole book of such photos called The Ruins of Detroit by French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. Looking at their pictures you'd think Detroit has already seen the zombie apocalypse. If you've been reading about the city the past few years, you've no doubt seen at least one of their snaps. The abandoned and dilapidated Central Station is now a symbol for the whole of Detroit it seems these days. There was even a meme going around the Detroit had no grocery stores (which I think I repeated) but that is simply a myth.

Of course empty buildings don't tell the whole story. There are still many nice neighborhoods in Detroit as well as grocery stores. NPR had a story about real estate investors looking to build luxury apartments and rehab homes for rent. And then there was the Chrysler commercial with Eminem which acknowledged that the city has been to hell and back but lauds it for the "hard work, conviction, know-how that runs deep".

But the people of Detroit have a lot of work to do and there's getting to be less and less of them by the day. The census says that the city lost a quarter of its population in the last 10 years. From a peak of nearly 2 million in the 1950s, it is now down to 713,777. Some of the statistics that Kevin Boyle digs up are startling.

Officially Detroit’s unemployment rate is 20 percent, but local officials fear that it might actually be twice as high. About 35 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, almost 50 percent of its children, 110,000 all together. By seventh grade 60 percent of kids in the public school system are reading below grade level, while the high school dropout rate hovers around 67 percent. On average ten percent of teenagers attempt suicide each year. More than half the children tested in their schools had some degree of lead poisoning. Thirty-eight percent of toddlers are under-immunized. Forty percent of expected mothers receive inadequate pre-natal care. So it’s hardly surprising that Detroit’s infant mortality rate is barely better than Gaza’s.

Boyle also notes that Governor Rick Snyder is looking to cut state aid to the city by $70 million dollars in addition to other austerity measures.

It's going to take a lot more than a car commercial with a douchebag like Eminem to revitalize Detroit's image. Folks there have a long row to hoe. Best of luck on what will no doubt be a process that takes a generation or two.

|| Palmer, 3:29 PM || link || (4) comments |

There Is No Reason for the 80s To Come Back And I Have the Pictures to Prove It

I've seen signs down on campus that the 80s are making a comeback, at least fashion-wise, and it is profoundly disturbing. So take heed all you youngsters - stop while you still can. If you won't listen I will have to scare you straight: check out these photos from shopping malls from 1990.
|| Palmer, 2:54 PM || link || (0) comments |

WI Film Festival 2011: Anita

When I read the description of Anita I thought it certain that I'd cry at the screening. I mean, a story of a woman with Down Syndrome left to wander Buenos Aires alone just didn't sound like a happy story. However Anita really isn't a tear-jerker and instead is really quite pick your cliché – touching, heart-warming, etc.

Because of her condition, Anita, an adult, still lives at home with her mother Dora. The Feldmans – the family is Jewish - have a set routine where Dora wakes Anita up, feeds her, and has little game to make sure that baths make for a thorough cleaning. Anita's brother Ariel puts in an appearance with his wife one Sunday. While Felix had promised to take Anita to the zoo, he reneges because the World Cup is on television, greatly upsetting his sister. On his way out, Ariel proudly shows off his new car to his mother.

Dora's apartment sits above her shop which stocks children's toys, books, and the like. The day after Ariel's visit Dora leaves Anita at the shop while she heads down to the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA in Spanish) building to pick up a disability check. She says it won't take long and that she'll be back when the big hand on the clock is at the top. As Anita delicately places a box on a shelf, an explosion rips through the street and into the store. The bombing here is a true event that happened on 18 July 1994 when the AMIA building when a car bomb detonated in front of it killing 85 people and injuring hundreds.

Anita makes her way out of the rubble and into the street where she is hustled into a bus which is evacuating people from the area. Her injuries aren't serious so no one takes much notice when she wanders out of the hospital.

Although an adult, Anita's disability means that she doesn't know her surname nor where she lives. While she knows about the utility of phones, she knows no one's number. But she waits by a pay phone anyway and meets up with Felix, a down and nearly out photographer who is more interested in alcohol than photography. Felix feels badly for her and takes her home. Although he is good-natured, Felix isn't sure how to help Anita. He fears that involving the police would only lead to her being locked away in an asylum.

However much he wants to help, Felix, who admits that he is lost too, just can't follow through and he abandons Anita on a bus. Her adventures continue with an Asian family who own a grocery store (Anita loves hot cocoa and vanilla wafers) and a nurse who takes her in as well. All the while Ariel contends with his own struggles. He buries his mother and loses hope that his sister will ever be found. But as I said above, this movie is heart-warming, etc. and so the brother and sister eventually find one another.

Anita could have easily been a darker story but director/writer Marcos Carnevale chose instead to do two things which keeps the story on the sunny side. First is that the people that Anita encounters are helpful. They want to help and even though they get frustrated at being in a situation that is new – caring for a person with Down Syndrome – they all eventually come around to realize that inviting Anita into their home is the right thing to do. (I'm not sure what it says about the police in Buenos Aires that the characters here are afraid to enlist their help.) Anita doesn't run into any predators.

The second thing Carnevale did was to make his lead character simple but very loveable. Anita is a very happy-go-lucky person. That she cannot even articulate what had happened to her and tells everyone she meets that her mother will be back when the big hand is on top attracts sympathy from the viewer. But to Carnevale's credit, he never goes overboard. Because Anita is never seriously imperiled, the audience can enjoy her unencumbered outlook on life and the pleasure she takes in simple things like a good vanilla wafer.

Simply put, Anita is a feel-good movie. It doesn't wrestle with moral ambiguities nor does it preach anything about the mentally disabled. The story sticks with very basic things like remaining hopeful, being kind to strangers, and seizing the day because life is short. Normally such films aren't my cup of tea but we all need to hear these things once in a while.

|| Palmer, 10:41 AM || link || (0) comments |

05 April, 2011

WI Film Festival 2011: Saturday Night Shorts @ The Chazen

Saturday night we took in a series of shorts at the Chazen which has a distinctly dark bent to them.

First up was Jeremy Hosterman's The Great Work of Dr. D. Volos Tinkerpaw. Looking like an avuncular Aleister Crowley, Tinkerpaw works away in his laboratory and summons a demon for an assistant. Then he concocts a potion to raise the dead. The first test subject is success and the reanimated man is happy to play his violin for the good Doctor. Tinkerpaw uses himself as the second test subject...

As the program notes, The Great Work of Dr. D. Volos Tinkerpaw is certainly Méliès-inspired. Most of the color has been bled out and the camera merely acts as the fourth wall for the beginning of the movie before finally moving into the action. The ragtime piano is the perfect accompaniment to this good-natured tribute to the genesis of motion pictures.

Next up was Love Me Tender. It begins innocently enough with a young girl named Emma making a Valentine's Day card for a boy on whom she has a crush. Emma lovingly eyes the boy across the playground when another girl sits down with him. After she leaves Emma presents the boy with her card and begins lecturing him on the role of the tongue in French kissing. They lock lips and young Emma comes away with a bloody mouth and the boy's tongue in her mouth.

Many years later Emma is in college and a brief encounter with a classmate, Ben, leaves her obsessed with him. They go out on a date where Emma discovers Ben is not at all the man she thought he was. This leads to a rather bloody end to their first date.

Although the fake blood flew here, Love Me Tender was pretty funny. For instance, in one scene Emma is livid that Ben hasn't yet called her. He's outside at night and Emma stealthily comes up behind him to exact her revenge just as he calls her. She is forced to scramble into hiding as her phone goes off. The cinematography was really nice with crisp images and good use of low-angle lighting to cast huge shadows.

Dark Ways followed. Unlike the first couple efforts, this one didn't try to have a light-hearted side or inject any humor into the proceedings.

As the movie opens Emma is in the back seat of her father's car and she is reading Frightening Fables. She and her dad are going to his brother's house to clean it out for Emma's uncle, an occult anthropologist, has died. While rummaging through boxes, Emma comes upon a Magic 8 Ball. That night she hears strange noises.

The next day her father finds some foul-smelling black goo on a heat register grate. Poking around the basement he discovers a room where is brother practiced black magic. For her part, Emma begins to sense a presence in the house that may very well be malicious...

Director William Q. Hartin builds methodically builds the suspense over the course of the movie's brief running time to a climax which had members of the audience gasping. To his credit, Hartin never opens the door and instead allows the imagination of the viewer abetted by some tense moments to do all the work. E.g. - Emma consults the Magic 8 Ball and so there is this repetition of suspenseful moments as we wait for the little triangle to appear and give the answer we were hoping it wouldn't.

Dark Ways is a loving homage to The Shining right down to the soundtrack which uses Ligeti's Lontano and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Bartók just like Kubrick did. While the movie is only 27 minutes long, Hartin used every second perfectly to build suspense and give us in the audience a good fright.

For some reason the guy sitting next to me at one point grabbed my attention and began whispering a numerology lesson into my ear. The house in the movie had the address of 1633. He pointed out that the sum of those numbers was 13 and that 1+3=4. It was day 4 in the movie so he just knew something bad was going to happen.

After such wonderful movie, SHC really had its work cut out for it.

Sweeney rushes home to his girlfriend in a panic. He went to a fortune teller earlier that day only to be told that he will undergo SHC – Spontaneous Human Combustion – that night at 7PM sharp. Cathy doesn't believe him but eventually comes round after another of the gypsy's predictions proves to be accurate.

SHC is fast-paced with lots of cuts. The conceit is that Sweeney gets home at quarter to seven and the movie is 15 minutes long so it more or less plays out in real time. The dialogue is rapid-fire which ratchets up the tension. I just wish there was a bit more of it. The movie fell just shy of critical mass for me. Still, it was a thrill to watch.

Greg likes to traipse through a cemetery on his way to the office each morning. Today he notices a new tombstone for an unknown soul that has the same birthdate as he does and that day's date for the poor person's demise.

So opens Rigor Mortis.

Greg falls asleep at his desk and awakens at night. Most of the office lights are off and there is seemingly nobody around until he hears screams and finds himself being chased before discovering his own body in a bathroom stall. Suddenly rigor mortis sets in and Greg is unable to move his fingers.

A fun little take on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.

The penultimate short that night was Pesticide. It concerns a nameless man who works for a pest control company and has a preternatural obsession with legs, specifically those of cockroaches. The camera closes in tight as we watch the man snip off the their legs and collect them in a jar. One evening he is watching the LA sunset from an overpass. Turning away he trips on the curb and falls over. Slowly he crawls over and inside his van where he proceeds to remove his baroque clockwork false leg.

While certainly creepy on its own, Pesticide's five minute running time would probably work better as an introduction to a longer narrative.

I have to admit feeling really old after having watched the last of the night's movies, Ellen. Embarrassing details to follow.

The young Ellen loses a tennis match and afterwards her mother expresses her disappointment. She gets up and leaves. We then hear a comforting male voice say “Hello there” and see a nondescript gentleman coming home to his lovely old home. He carries his bag of groceries into the kitchen and begins to heat a can of soup laced with some kind of powder.

And this is where I felt really old. The guy's house is this big, old place with lots of wood trim and vaulted ceilings. I noticed that the windows of his kitchen are enormous and feel embarrassed when I catch myself thinking, “Wow! That place must cost a fortune to heat.” Back to the story.

However harmless this guy looks, he is anything but. Upstairs poor Ellen is tied to a bed. But she recalls more of that conversation with her mother which involved the incredible disappearing soup can act. Luckily for Ellen, soup cans these days have pull tops and don't require a can opener. With the lid she is able to cut the rope securing her to the bed and effect an escape but not before leveling her kidnapper with a tennis racket to the head.

I really enjoyed Ellen as it did a great job of keeping me in suspense over the fate of our imperiled heroine.

But the night belonged to Dark Ways which was likely due to its longer running time which gave it more room to induce the creeps and, for me personally, some music which I already associated with another incredibly scary film.

Still, there wasn't a clunker to be had Saturday night.
|| Palmer, 8:31 PM || link || (0) comments |

Orpheum Bids Farewell to Movies(?)

I was really disappointed to read the following on (WI Film Fest director) Meg Hamel's Twitter page:

During #wifilmfest, an Orpheum staffer told me one of the owners (not Henry) was planning to end movies there. No films scheduled now.

Bummer. That leaves downtown without a commercial cinema and deprives cinephiles of another venue for art films.

In better news, a couple films I missed at the festival will be screening at Sundance in the near future.

The first is Lee Chang-dong's Poetry which opens on the 22nd of this month.

And then there's Meek's Cutoff which will arrive on 20 May.
|| Palmer, 3:06 PM || link || (0) comments |

WI Film Festival 2011: A Somewhat Gentle Man

One thing I like about Nordic comedies is how they nudge some Verfremdungseffekt at the audience by having so many characters with deadpan deliveries that we are forced to wonder if Scandinavians are really so inscrutable. So it goes with A Somewhat Gentle Man, Hans Petter Moland's dark comedy starring Stellan Skarsgård on whom I have a man-crush.

Skarsgård plays Ulrik who is being released from prison on an overcast day as the movie opens. In addition to a bottle of booze, the guard gives him some advice: don't look back. But he can't help himself and begins to reintroduce himself to the folks that populated his life before he ended up in the slammer. Foremost among them is Jensen, a mob boss who is never without his hapless sidekick Rolf. Ulrik is indebted to Jensen and the debt is extended as he finds Ulrik a room to bunk in and a job lead at an auto repair shop. Together they seek out the guy who ratted on Ulrik and landed him in prison.

This may sound all serious but it's far from it. Skarsgård is almost emotionless through much of the film with a blank expression and his tendency to answer questions with a simple "Okay." But he ends up being quite the ladies man. A visit to his ex-wife begins with him being chewed out and told that she has reared their son to forget his father but it ends with her offering him a quickie anyway. Back at his one room basement estate Ulrik's crotchety old landlady brings him a TV and then gets in the habit of cooking him dinner. Soon she demands a little something in return. These scenes are as funny as they are rote with Ulrik still chewing his food as he mounts her for sex that is best described as clinical, the woman's loud cries of ecstasy not withstanding.

When he's not out looking for the guy responsible for landing him in jail, Ulrik attempts to establish some kind of relationship with his son who is married and soon to be a father himself. While the son is open to the possibility, his wife is not keen on her child having an ex-con for a grandfather. Ulrik finds some solace in Merete, the woman who does the books at the shop. Initially she keeps her distance after hearing that Ulrik was fresh out of jail and says that people can't change but she comes around. In one scene they go dancing together and to say that he has two left feet is a dramatic understatement. But fate eventually offers Ulrik a chance to redeem himself when an attempt to talk with his son ends up with him driving his daughter-in-law to the hospital after her water breaks.

While Ulrik has arguably found redemption by the time the credits roll, I also felt that half of the pleasure of the film was watching this vaguely Fellinieque troupe of Oslovians do their thing. When we first meet Jensen, a woman backs her car into his repeatedly which causes the big bad mobster to finally pick her up and throw her into a dumpster. There's the owner of the shop who has a severe case of logorrhea and delivers stern lectures that go on for about 4 sentences too long. And to make the Fellini comparison complete, we have the gun dealer's crony who is a dwarf/midget/little person.

Despite his nearly expressionless visage and the dull, grey setting courtesy of cinematographer Philip Øgaard, you know there's a lot happening inside of Ulrik. The pleasure is in watching Skarsgård tease the turmoil out of his character slowly but surely.

|| Palmer, 2:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

WI Film Festival 2011: Viva Riva!

Viva Riva! is something of a rarity - a film from the Democratic Republic of Congo and it recently won many honors at the African equivalent of the Academy Awards.

It concerns Riva, a prodigal son who returns to his native Congo after 10 years of working for a gangster in neighboring Angola. In addition to any hard won wisdom and experience he also brings barrels and barrels of gasoline to Congo's petrol-starved capital, Kinshasa. Riva stashes the gas in a warehouse and then meets up with his old friend J.M. who has settled down in something akin to domestic bliss. Flush with cash, Riva brings his buddy out for a night on the town.

They come upon a large group of people dancing and Riva spies the sultry Nora, her sweat-covered midsection writhing to beat of the drums. Tired of village women with saggy breasts, he decides that he must have her. Although they do a little dirty dancing, Nora ultimately rejects Riva's advances which only heightens the thrill of the chase. Unfortunately she is a kept woman and she is kept by a local mobster named Azor.

While Riva pursues Nora, his old boss in Angola, Cesar, arrives on the scene to hunt down his former employee and the gasoline he stole. Cesar stands out with his white suit, white fedora, and scarf. He blackmails a local military commander by threatening to hurt her sister if she doesn't help him track Riva down.

Director Djo Tunda Wa Munga has created a very gritty genre picture here with the audience never left wanting for violence and sex. Despite being a bit player in the seedy underbelly of Kinshasa, Riva is a charismatic character and one has to admire the bravura in his single-minded pursuit of hedonism. But he is almost a one-note figure and the attempts to add more depth to him fail. The story notes that Riva had a brother but his death isn't elaborated upon until towards the end when Riva has it out with his parents. This scene feels like it comes out of nowhere since his brother's death isn't talked about much and the confrontation is the only sense we're given of how the loss has affected Riva. Along these same lines, J.M.'s family life basically bookends the film. We see his wife object to Riva taking him out at the beginning but we get nothing more until the end when he beats his wife. J.M. has been corrupted by the temptation of Riva's hedonistic lifestyle and of the chance to get his hands on the gasoline. But for the bulk of the film, J.M. is just there with Riva with his family seemingly gone AWOL. It would have been nice had these strands of story been given more screentime so that their ultimate resolutions didn't seem so isolated and unrelated to the rest of the events in the plot.

|| Palmer, 9:57 AM || link || (0) comments |

WI Film Festival 2011: Medal of Honor

Sadly Madison's Romanian Film Festival was merged into the Wisconsin Film Festival this year and so we got a few more films from that country at this year's WFF than we would normally. I saw one - Medal of Honor.

It tells the story of Ion I. Ion, an old man who lives in a fairly meager apartment with his wife Nina. It is December 1995 and as the film opens they are in bed where Nina pulls the covers off of Ion. This makes good shorthand for their relationship. The two barely seem to talk with one another. And we learn that they have a son, Cornel, who lives in Canada. Like his mom, Cornel is not particularly interested in speaking with his father. Indeed, Nina reads a letter from Cornel in which he asks if his father is still alive. One day Ion learns that he is to receive a medal of honor for his bravery during World War II. The problem is that he can't think of anything he did to merit such an award.

Ion sets out to discover why he's being awarded the medal and begins his quest by going to a veterans group. They don't have any information there but refer him to the Ministry of Defense. At the Ministry he is forced to traverses the gray halls of Romanian bureaucracy. Ion must deal with a surly pregnant woman who ignores all known laws of customer service. All she can tell him is that is following orders by giving medals to the names on a list. He also meets up with other former soldiers including a rather vulgar one who is symbolized by the nudie calendar hanging on his wall.

Despite not knowing exactly why he was given the medal, it makes Ion happy. People want to have their picture taken with him and a group of kids with toy guns ask him about the war. But the situation also warrants reflection. In the midst of struggling with memories of war that are 50+ years old, he also pulls out letters that he wrote to Nina at that time. What went wrong with his relationship with his wife and son?

Ion eventually learns that his medal was intended for another man with the same first and last name but different middle initial. Our Ion desperately tries to hang onto his newfound source of pride by visiting this other Ion and getting him to sign paperwork renouncing the medal. The correct recipient doesn't want it but, unlike our Ion, doesn't want to look back. The pair are polar opposites. One needs the medal as a focal point for understanding the past while the other views it as a symbol of times best forgotten. In the end, Ion is forced to buy another medal from a pawn shop.

I suspect that a lot of this film went over my head. Not having lived in an Eastern Bloc country, it's impossible for me to point out things which surely pertain to the legacy of the Cold War and Romania's attempts to move beyond it. The Romanian bureaucracy is surely being parodied here as we have the single-minded woman at the Ministry and the folks at Central Heating who ensure that Ion and Nina's apartment is either freezing cold or too hot. On a more personal level, Ion's story was touching. He views the bestowing of the medal as a chance to reconcile with his son and get to know his grandchild. Cornel and his family visit Ion and Nina around Christmas. The film closes with a wonderful long take at the dinner table that would have driven local blogger Michael Donnelly to tears for its Romanian "inefficiency". People out of focus at the edges of the foreground eat, talk, and laugh while Ion and Cornel sit in the back next to each other uncomfortably. Director Calin Peter Netzer forces us to watch their facial expression and their hands to get a sense of what is happening inside the characters which becomes obvious when Ion begins to sob.

Like I said above, I'm sure I missed a lot here not being familiar with Romania. The film takes place in 1995 which means that the memory of Communism and the bloody revolution of 1989 were still fresh in the minds of Romanians. My guess is that Ion represents something akin to how Romania deals with its past today. Even so, the film worked on a more personal level with an individual seeking to reconcile his own past.

|| Palmer, 8:59 AM || link || (0) comments |

04 April, 2011

WI Film Fest 2011: The Troll Hunter

My only reservation in going to see The Troll Hunter on Friday night was that the camera would never be still thusly recreating the annoyance that plagued The Blair Witch Project. Luckily director André Øvredal and his cinematographer Hallvard Bræin kept the camera from getting too wobbly. But like Blair Witch, The Troll Hunter is a found footage movie.

The footage, which supposedly came on two hard drives obtained by the filmmakers, was shot by three students - Kalle, Thomas, and Johanna - who are following a man believed to be poaching bear. The trio try to speak with him on camera but he rebuffs their. Much of the opening is the investigators following the enigmatic man, whom we learn is named Hans, as he drives his off-road vehicle towing a camper from campground to campground. The students learn that Hans mysteriously sets out each night only to return hours later. On one such occasion Thomas and friends decide to follow him.

They tail Hans and follow him down an old country lane but lose him. Eventually they park their car and head out on foot where they stumble upon Hans' truck. It is pitch black out as they wander into the forest. A massive roar emerges from beyond a hill in the distance as does a bright light. Everyone is confused and the camera struggles to focus on movement in the distance. Suddenly Hans appears. He barrels towards the camera and yells "Troll!"

It turns out that Hans is the lone game warden for the Troll Security Service and he is tasked with killing any trolls that wander out of deep of the forests into more inhabited areas. He is getting older and disenchanted with his job so he allows the students to follow him around and get a glimpse of things that the Norwegian government endeavors to keep hidden.

Hans takes them on various treks to seek out trolls which come in a variety of sizes and number of heads. He admonishes his new followers to douse themselves in troll scent so as not to betray their presence. In addition to wandering the forests, they also investigate an abandoned mine shaft and reenact the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale. This latter scene was highly amusing with Hans dressing in some Gilliam-esque padded armor before luring a troll out from underneath a bridge with some goats.

While the hunting scenes are scary, the movie as a whole is rather light-hearted. There's its send-up of conspiracy theories and the whole scientific background we are given. Besides field work, we meet a vet who explains troll physiology for us including why sunlight will make then either turn to stone or explode. Hans' deadpan delivery adds a certain droll humor to the proceedings as he maintains his yeoman work ethic in the face of being basically all that stands between civilization and deadly mythical creatures. Plus there's the odd sight gag such as the mega-hypodermic needle that he uses to draw blood samples and shots of Johanna, the boom operator, looking terrified which allude to those of Blair Witch without all the nostril.

The Troll Hunter was a hoot and the perfect way to spend a Friday night. Hopefully it will return to Madison as it gets wider distribution.

|| Palmer, 2:52 PM || link || (0) comments |

01 April, 2011

Only If

I'd pay good money to see this become reality.

Nichole, you are such a tease.
|| Palmer, 4:30 PM || link || (0) comments |

WI Film Fest 2011: Marwencol

When Meg Hamel introduced Marwencol last night she said that it was one of her favorites. It played at the Orpheum a few months ago and was also screened on campus. Yet here it is again, this time co-sponsored by the UW Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education which also did the same for a few other films in the festival.

It is about the life of Mark Hogancamp who was brutally beaten outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York. He lapsed into a coma for several days and remained in the hospital upon emerging for well over a month until Medicare stopped paying. Hogancamp found himself lacking both the funds for therapy and years of memories. So he decided to create his own therapeutic regimen which consisted of creating a section of a World War II era Belgian village to 1/6 scale and populating it with soldiers and townsfolk. Hogancamp used his camera and imagination to create stories within the village which he called Marwencol. You can hear the pride in his voice as he describes the all the work he's done to his creations right down to the most minute details. People from his life found that they had small-scale simulacra in Marwencol and were parts of the fantasies that he dreamt up.

It's almost like Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch has come true with its bored space colonists using Perky Pat dolls and a drug to shift into a hallucinogenic world.

Hogancamp is an eminently likable guy. Having been robbed of his memories, you can't help but sympathize with him as he struggles to, in essence, find himself by reading diaries to discover his past and immersing himself in Marwencol to act as a buffer between him and the outside world of the present. As my lady, The Dulcinea, remarked afterwards, it was fascinating to hear Hogancamp drift in an out of reality. There were times when you'd swear he would never return from Marwencol.

One thing I really enjoyed about the movie was that it left the viewer in an existential dilemma. Hogancamp described the world of Marwencol as being his self-imposed therapy. For instance, we see the attack outside the bar reenacted within the tiny town. Should we take it as a cathartic experience for him or not? Simply put, is this unconventional therapy working?

At one point we see his closet filled with women's shoes and the movie makes it out that Hogancamp has a bout of anamnesis wherein he recalls that he loves wearing them because he is a cross-dresser. Indeed, admitting as much was what got his attackers so riled up in the first place on that fateful night. This revelation coincides with a storyline about how a twist of fate leads to Hogancamp's photos ending up in an art magazine and eventually being put on display in a gallery in New York City.

While he musters the courage to attend the gallery opening and even wear a pair of high heels while he's there – something he would never do in Kingston – the movie, as best as I can recall, avoids explicitly saying that Hogancamp's submersion in the fantasy land of Marwencol had much of a palliative effect. To be sure, going to the big city was a big step but, at the end, Hogancamp still prefers the friendly confines of Marwencol. Back at home, his reality is still one where he can only work a few hours a week at a local restaurant and one that administers liberal doses of opprobrium and violence should he dare to put on women's clothing.

Ultimately Marwencol is a tragedy. There is humor to be had and even a glimmer or two of hope. I credit director Jeff Malmberg for taking about as light-hearted and non-judgmental an approach to his subject that he can, but Mark Hogancamp had his life brutally taken away from him when his memories were lost and now most of his solace is to be found in a 1/6 scale fantasy world in his front yard.

|| Palmer, 4:04 PM || link || (0) comments |

WI Film Fest 2011: Night Train to Terror

God and Satan sit at a table aboard an old train as the cosmos flies by in the window. They are engaged in a heady debate about free will, good vs. evil, and other metaphysical heavyweights. It may sound like a scene from a Jostein Gaarder novel but an adjacent car full of young people in garish 80s outfits singing a terrible pop song and break dancing means only one thing: I was on the Night Train to Terror at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Released in 1985, Night Train to Terror retrofits three even lesser-known horror flicks into one god-awful piece of schlock. As the kids are boppin' away in their parachute pants, oversized tops, and Swatches, God and Lucifer argue over good and evil by viewing the fates of three individuals. These sequences were culled from other films making the scenes on the train glorified bumper material.

The first story which follows Harry Billings into the sinister world of an insane asylum qua abattoir. Poor Harry is brainwashed into delivering pulchritudinous blonds to the sadistic doctors who run the joint and whose purpose is to look nice while topless and writhing on a gurney. After God and Satan ponder the implication of Billings' fate, we're off to witness the inner sanctum of a death club wherein members play ever more elaborate variations of Russian roulette. The variation of The Pit and the Pendulum involving everyone in their sleeping bags while a wrecking ball swings above them had some good skull crunch. The terminal story involves a cop investigating the death of an elderly Holocaust survivor. This naturally leads to a young man with expertly feathered hair who hasn't aged a day since the late 19th century and has spent most of the intervening time calling Germany home. Richard Moll played the heavy in the first story and he reappears here as a proto-Richard Dawkins spreading the good word of atheism. Ahem.

Night Train to Terror is a good lesson on the power of editing to take matters from bad to worst. And let's not forget the Claymation…

The film was prefaced with a couple trailers. One for Blood Hook which was shot up in Hayward and is also playing at the festival this year and the other for C.H.U.D.. Much to my shame, I recognized the latter right away having seen it multiple times on cable back in the mid-80s.

UPDATE: Speaking of C.H.U.D., I see that it's going to get a DVD and Blu-Ray release from Criterion. (Ahem.)
|| Palmer, 1:28 PM || link || (0) comments |

Plans For Wind Farm Bite the Dust Redux

Let's say goodbye to a $600 million investment in Wisconsin.

For the second time in two weeks, a developer of wind energy projects has decided to suspend its work in Wisconsin until regulations on building wind farms become more set in stone. The Chicago-based Midwest Wind Energy, LLC said it is halting its plans to develop a 98-megawatt project in Calumet County, as well as another project which had not yet been announced publicly.

Company President Stefan Noe says it no longer makes sense to invest significant development capital in a state that 'appears to be closed to the wind energy business,' citing the recent suspension of the state's proposed wind siting regulartions by the Wisconsin Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules.

"Our four projects alone represent more than $600 million of capital investment in Wisconsin and more than 400 construction jobs and 40 permanent high-tech jobs," Noe said.
|| Palmer, 12:07 PM || link || (0) comments |

Census Says Milwaukee Is #1 (In Segregation)

An article up at Salon.com shows that Milwaukee has won the ignominious title of being the most segregated city in America. Yes, even more segregated than Chicago which is #3 in the list behind New York City.

"Most of our history is very similar to Chicago, Cleveland or even Baltimore," says Marc Levine, professor of history and economic development at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. "Every place has had the zoning ordinances, then restrictive covenants, the practices of realtors. The standard history. What makes Milwaukee a little bit different than these other places, which explains why we're consistently in the top five and often No. 1, in segregation? We have the lowest rate of African-American suburbanization of any of these larger cities."

If you're wondering if this can somehow, some way, be blamed on union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the answer is yes. Walker took the lead in a campaign against public transit to connect the suburbs to the city during his time as county executive. He thought the funds would be better spent on highways.

"There is virulent opposition in these exurban counties to any kind of regional transit system, particularly a regional rail system. There have been proposals over the years, but they're always DOA," says Levine. "Governor Walker's big issue as state representative and county executive was 'Over my dead body light rail,' and he fought with Milwaukee's mayor over funds for regional rail. He very much represents that suburban and exurban base."

I say we nuke Waukesha County from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

This is really dispiriting news. The Chicago Reader had an article in February about racial segregation there that included this bit which applies equally well to Milwaukee:

But perhaps the greatest evil of racial segregation is how it concentrates the poverty of blacks, as Massey and others have shown. Because of historical—and some continuing—discrimination, blacks are more likely to be poor. When this is combined with segregation, it means blacks are far more likely than any other group to live in concentrated poverty. It's hard to be poor; it's much harder to be poor and surrounded by poverty and all the harmful cultural norms and behavior, such as crime, that accompany it. It's a kind of poverty whites rarely experience, and one tough to escape.

Remember: Last year Milwaukee was shown to be the 4th poorest city in the nation. How is it going to move beyond its Rust Belt status with such an albatross around its neck? When Milwaukee does well, our whole state benefits. When Milwaukee is in decline, the whole state suffers. The article above at the Chicago Reader is not only about segregation there but also about attempts to deal with it. Is anyone from Milwaukee reading this who could enlighten me about how much of an issue it is there? Do local politicos pay any lip service to it?

The poverty rate in Madison is increasing as well although we're a long way from Milwaukee in terms of segregation and sheer numbers of people.

There are times when it seems like our state's politicians and business leaders see Wisconsin's way forward as simply being more biotech jobs. That's our in to global economy. But they speak about the growth of poverty and all of its attendant issues all-too infrequently.

Since I mentioned Madison, I'll note that the census says we're up to 233,209 people. We're by no means a metropolis but that's about 42,000 more than when I moved here. And there's less of us white folks by percentage. I think that when I came here Madison was something like 84% white. Today it's 78.9%. Again, we're still very alabaster but we are much more brown than before. The largest minority is Asian at 7.4% followed by blacks at 7.3%. Latinos are right behind being 6.8% of our population.

And have you seen what happened to Detroit? The census is saying that the city's population stands at 713,777, a loss of over 237,000 from 2000. To add insult to injury, it was listed as the poorest city in America in those same rankings above that had Milwaukee at #4. That line from Kentucky Fried Movie is a lot more threatening these days.
|| Palmer, 11:42 AM || link || (2) comments |

The Voluminous Research DOA Did To Estimate Capitol Clean Up

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had an article yesterday which states that the estimate of $7.5 million to clean up the Capitol after the protests was based on, well, not very much.

State officials' controversial courtroom testimony that protesters did more than $7 million in damage to the Capitol was based on a single handwritten page.

On March 3, a state Department of Administration official said in Dane County Circuit Court that costs for a full cleanup and restoration at the Capitol could reach $7.5 million.

The day after the testimony, Walker administration officials sharply backpedaled from the damages figures amid widespread questions about their validity.

So rather than saying "We just don't know at this point", which seems like it would have been honest, DOA instead threw out a big number which was, at best, a wild-ass guess. I've spoken to or read comments by 5 conservationist types, including those by a former State Capitol conservator, and they all say the same thing – the initial figure of $7.5 million was a joke. Even the revised $350,000 estimate was on the high end according to some.

Wasn't DOA secretary Mike Huebsch Walker's sixth choice for that position?

Sometimes I think that conservatives run for office just to make a mockery of government so one of their brethren can come along and justify shrinking and drowning it in a bathtub.
|| Palmer, 9:37 AM || link || (0) comments |

My New Library in Full Panoramic Goodness

From Wired: A photographer named Jeffrey Martin has made a 360 panorama of my future library, er, the reading room at the Strahov monastery library in Prague.

Check out the view here.

I need a library like that. Half-Price Books recently came into a large cache of Doctor Who books and I bought a bunch so now I'm out of shelf space. And which one of you bastards bought all the Sixth Doctor books? Fess up!

While you're at it, go to Martin's website for more panorama goodness including this charnel house. Zoinks!

|| Palmer, 9:06 AM || link || (0) comments |