Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 April, 2012

WFF 2012: Elena

My final film of this year's Wisconsin Film Festival was Andrei Zvyagintsev's Elena. I'd seen his 2003 film The Return was enjoyed it so I was looking forward to his latest.

The film opens with a lovely spilt-focus shot of the exterior of an apartment building. A branch with a bird populates the foreground while large living room windows are in the distance. It is early morning and a middle-aged woman stirs in her bed before rising to begin her morning routine. This is Elena. Every morning she awakes, opens the curtains, and cooks breakfast for her husband, Vladimir, who sleeps in a separate bed. Vladimir is a bit older than his wife. They met about ten years previously when he was a patient at a hospital and she was a nurse.

Elena is a woman of humble means while Vladimir is a man of wealth. They live in a spacious apartment or condo in a well-to-do neighborhood. Both have children from their previous marriages. Vladimir has a daughter named Katya with whom he is estranged. Elena's son Sergei lives on the other side of the tracks with his wife and family in a cramped apartment in a large tenement. They have two children, a toddler and a high school senior named Sasha, with a third on the way.

Upon graduation, Sasha is either going to be drafted into military service or go to university. Sergei and family prefer the latter option but the boy is a less than stellar student so gaining admission is going to require that some money exchange hands – money they don't have. Sergei leans on his mother to convince Vladimir to help out and Elena does so. At breakfast one day Elena asks him to finally decide whether or not he will donate the money to Sasha's illicit college fund. Vladimir says that he'll give a yes or no in a week. During the interim, he suffers a heart attack and is hospitalized. When finally back at home, Elena presses him again about the matter and he declines, reiterating what he said before, namely, that Sergei is a man and he should be the one supporting his family.

I will avoid giving everything away but will say that Zvyagintsev does not make this a heart-warming drama where both sides reconcile and everyone lives happily ever after.

What I read about the film emphasized the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, which is certainly present, but I suspect Russian audiences will relate more to the social commentary. My knowledge of contemporary Russia is very limited but I recently listened to a wonderful BBC documentary series called Russia: The Wild East and I can't help but feel that Elena and her family represent muzjiks or peasants. While I don't doubt the movie is commenting upon the Russia of today, I just can't help but think of how Russian peasants got the shaft many a time in the 20th century. The famine of the early 1920s and the effects of collectivization in the 1930s come to mind.

Zvyagintsev encourages a wider interpretation of the story beyond a suspenseful tale with various techniques. For starters, we never learn where movie takes place. The name of the city is never mentioned. Furthermore, Elena and Vladimir as well as their families are studies in contrast. As the opening of the film shows us, Elena sleeps in a separate and smaller bed than Vladimir. She wakes him up and cooks his breakfast – more like a maid than a spouse.

As I mentioned previously, Vladimir and his daughter, Katya, are estranged but she is not totally absent here as she visits him in the hospital after his heart attack. We meet an educated, urban woman who is something of a hedonist that indulges in food, sex, and drugs - the latter on weekends only, however. Beyond some verbal sparring with her father, Katya tries to remain aloof from her familial obligations. Elena, on the other hand, is intimately involved with Sergei and his family. They are poor so she helps them financially but giving them a portion of her pension each time she receives a payment. Katya has no interest in becoming a mother while Sergei seems to continue having children he can barely afford.

I suppose there are a myriad of ways of looking at the dichotomy of Vladimir and Elena with urban vs. rural, traditional vs. modern, and rich vs. poor being the obvious ones. Taking into account the families I think you can add old vs. young in as well. None of these are uniquely Russian so audiences needing subtitles should be able to find something in the characters to identify with or despise. Zvyagintsev sides with Elena, Sergei, and the rest of their family but perhaps only tentatively. Although they ostensibly prove victorious, Katya is not out of the picture and, since their victory was achieved through means that were ethically-challenged (to say the least), I got the impression that Zvyagintsev was leaving his audiences with a whole lot of ambivalence since neither side can lay claim to the moral high ground. Both Elena and Sergei are ugly in their own way.

|| Palmer, 3:25 PM || link || (0) comments |

26 April, 2012

Introducing DOGTV

In what is surely another another portent of The Horkening, there's a new cable channel called DOGTV. The thing is, it's not a channel for dog lovers with shows featuring brave St. Bernards rescuing snowbound skiers and Black Labs fetching sticks. Nope. It's actually a channel meant to be watched by dogs.

Come on, admit it. You always knew the day was coming when dogs would have their own television channel. Now, it’s a reality. Commercial and rerun-free DOGTV is currently offered to cable subscribers in San Diego, with a national launch planned in the near future. For about $4.99 a month, people gain access to content with visual and auditory aids that are tailor-made for dogs.

So people are supposed to leave their televisions on all day while they're at work to watch it. What happened to soup bones and destroying furniture?

|| Palmer, 4:15 PM || link || (2) comments |

Egyptian Parliament Considering Misogynistic Laws (And Legalizing Necrophilia Too)

Why does religion hate women? It looks like dark days for the fairer sex in Egypt.

Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) has appealed to the Islamist-dominated parliament not to approve two controversial laws on the minimum age of marriage and allowing a husband to have sex with his dead wife within six hours of her death according to a report in an Egyptian newspaper.

The appeal came in a message sent by Dr. Mervat al-Talawi, head of the NCW, to the Egyptian People’s Assembly Speaker, Dr. Saad al-Katatni, addressing the woes of Egyptian women, especially after the popular uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

She was referring to two laws: one that would legalize the marriage of girls starting from the age of 14 and the other that permits a husband to have sex with his dead wife within the six hours following her death.

According to Egyptian columnist Amro Abdul Samea in al-Ahram, Talawi’s message included an appeal to parliament to avoid the controversial legislations that rid women of their rights of getting education and employment, under alleged religious interpretations.

The controversy about a husband having sex with his dead wife came about after a Moroccan cleric spoke about the issue in May 2011.

Zamzami Abdul Bari said that marriage remains valid even after death adding that a woman also too had the same right to engage in sex with her dead husband.

Why would anyone want to have sex with their spouse's corpse? And how did they arrive at the six hour figure? Maybe some clerics got together and figured out that rigor mortis tightens the vaginal walls after some trial and error.

Let's see: men want to let 14-year old girls get carried off into marriage, deprive women of education and employment, and let themselves get off one last time with their wives' corpses. All under the guise of enforcing religious doctrine. Yep, religion truly is a wonderful source of morality.
|| Palmer, 3:08 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Fourth Estate at Its Finest

A kindergarten girl poops her pants and it becomes the top story. I guess it was a really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, slow news day. That girl must have been mortified to, not only have been embarrassed at school, but also to have her predicament broadcast on television. Didn't the producers at the TV station stop and think for a minute about this?

|| Palmer, 12:36 PM || link || (0) comments |

24 April, 2012

The Manual of Detection by Jedidiah Berry

I thought of Terry Gilliam's comment about the movie Inception while reading this book. He said, "With ’Inception,’ I wondered why all of the dreams were action movies. Don’t people have other dreams?" Jedidiah Berry's The Manual of Detection is every bit an oneiric adventure as Christopher Nolan's film but is much more subtle, more deliberate and thusly much more interesting and fun.

Truth be told, I thought of Gilliam's Brazil as I was reading the book as well because Berry's protagonist, Charles Unwin, works in a retro-bureaucracy just like Sam Lowry. Here it is an organization known only as the “Agency” and which solves mysteries. Unwin is a lowly clerk who transcribes the notes of Detective Travis T. Sivart. But he is not content that his work is good, it must be perfect. He has an obsession with order and routine. Indeed, every morning he heads down to the train station to watch a young woman in a plaid coat. One day this routine is thrown off when Unwin is approached by a Detective named Pith who informs the clerk that he has been promoted and hands him a copy of the titular book.

Confused, Unwin heads into work determined to correct what surely must be a mistake. He's happy and contented being a clerk and has no desire to do any sleuthing. He reports to his new boss, Edward Lamech, to sort out the mess and get back to his old job. Lamech is a watcher which is the title of the men who oversee the detectives in the Agency. Lamech is also dead, slumped in his chair. Every good noir needs a femme fatale and in this case it is Vera Truesdale who knocks on Lamech's door as Unwin is deciding what to do. He gets the corpse out of sight and poses as the watcher. At this point, Unwin realizes that, if he's to be a clerk again, he must find Sivart who can clear all of this up.

Unwin's search for the detective uncovers much more than a simple clerical error. To begin with, he finds out that Sivart's most celebrated cases were solved incorrectly. That mummy in the Municipal Museum isn't really an ancient artifact and Colonel Baker doesn't appear to be dead. Unwin also discovers that two of the most powerful men in the city had reached detente but that their uneasy truce has fallen apart with him in the thick of things. Miss Truesdale is not who she said she was and Unwin finds himself pursued by two heavies – separated Siamese twins, no less – who never seem to sleep and drive around town in a massive steam truck. And of course there is the matter of dreams.

Berry slowly introduces us to the concept. A janitor dry mopping the floor as he snores is our first hint but then Sivart appears in one of Unwin's dreams. Soon enough it is revealed that most of the people in the city are somnambulists as they rise in the middle of the night and wander to a very large mansion for a party. Still in the arms of Morpheus, some play music while others dance, drink, and be merry. Later the truth about Sivart's case known as “The Man Who Stole November Twelfth” comes out when Unwin again witnesses the sleepwalking masses all disposing of their alarm clocks. Since I don't want to give too much away, I shall only say that there is plenty more oneiric action.

The Manual of Detection is surreal and Kafka-esque but it's also a great noir detective story. Berry has got the genre's conventions down cold. The exception being Unwin. He's no Sam Spade. In fact, he's the anti-Sam Spade. He is not a detective and he is not interested in solving mysteries. He wants to leave that to the professionals but he finds himself with no choice. But the rest is there – the femme fatale, double crosses, etc.

Berry keeps the plot moving along at a good pace mixing his influences in equal proportions. I often wondered if the city itself was real and if I'd find out more about it but this never distracted from Unwin's investigation. There are also several little things which brought a smile to my face. For example, Unwin's umbrella. It rains constantly and, since he bicycles to work, he has devised an improbable mechanism for attaching his umbrella to the bike and keeping it open. No matter where he goes, he has it with him whether it be following a bunch of somnambulists or even in a dream.

Regardless of genre mixing and literary influences, Jedidiah Berry has written a book that was a helluva lot of fun to read.
|| Palmer, 7:03 PM || link || (0) comments |

23 April, 2012

WFF 2012 - Familiar Grounds

There's no doubt that Stéphane Lafleur's Familiar Grounds was the drollest offering at this year's film festival that I saw. Taking place in an anonymous suburb in Quebec, it features a sister and brother in their late 30s, Maryse and Benoit, who are each leading quiet lives of desperation. Maryse mans a desk in a box factory when not at home muddling through a failing marriage while Benoit seems to be unemployed and is trapped as a man-child at home with their father. His love life is no better than Maryse's as his relationship with a single mother named Nathalie is stuck in first gear.

An accident at the factory where a man loses an arm lodges itself in Maryse's brain and won't go away. She is obsessed with the thought of losing one of her own. In a typically deadpan scene, she is at a store putting her arm in a cooler to see if it would fit packed with ice ready to be sewn back on. This obsession leads to her demanding that the small backhoe that her husband has for sale in the front yard be moved. She is adamant about this and volunteers to do it herself. But this requires a trailer. Her father has a trailer but it's at his cottage and so she and Benoit plan a trek to retrieve it.

The problem is that a man from the future appears to Benoit warning him not to go on the trip because there is an accident and Maryse is killed. This man, however, is not some quixotic scientist bent on using his discovery to right the cruelties of fate. He has come from only 5 or 6 months in the future and is the proprietor of a local car rental business. You almost feel sorry for the guy as he seems embarrassed to be admonishing Benoit. We get no explanation of his remarkable ability.

Lafleur reminded me of the Coen Brothers here with the dry humor and all the snow on the ground. Nathalie's son hates Benoit and, in one scene, growls at him like a dog. Benoit can never get his snowmobile started though his old man has the touch. These are, in a sense, average jokes but the perpetual look ennui on actor Francis La Haye's face came across as a parody of many a French New Wave character. Plus Lafleur's use of longish takes and willingness to frame characters in long shots distances Benoit rather than endearing him to us so his little tragedies are all the funnier. He is pitiful but in a cute, harmless way so we don't feel guilty laughing at him.

|| Palmer, 9:08 PM || link || (0) comments |

22 April, 2012

New Restaurants and a Plea for Help

Potential good news for my friend Joe, an east side denizen, who was all bummed out when he heard that Antojitos el Toril had closed. A new Mexican restaurant is opening in the former space of Poppa Coronofoulos on Buckeye Road. It's the third location of Cuco’s Mexican Restaurant, the other two being in Verona and Waunakee.

I've never eaten at either of the Cuco's and apparently neither have Nichole & JM of Eating in Madison A to Z so I am not sure what to make of this development.

Like Antojitos el Toril, Lee's Asian Bistro on Monona Drive has gone the way of the dodo. But it's being replaced by a Vietnamese noodle shop called Kim Noodle.

Slightly closer to my home, there are also new restaurants opening on Willy Street as noted by Madison Magazine. Take Five is Greek, A Pig in a Fur Coat looks to be a porcine-centric fusion type of place, and the Underground Food folks are, last I heard, looking at opening a new venture on the 800 block of Willy.

Unfortunately for Linda Falkenstein, there seem to be no Bolivian restaurants on the horizon nor any Polish ones for me.

While I'm on the topic of food, does anyone know where to buy a wall-mounted spice rack in Madison? My cupboard is a disaster and the German in me requires order. Plus, since I never seem to find what I'm looking for and end up buying new jars, I have enough dill to last two lifetimes. Neither Target nor Shopko had them. I called The Kitchen Gallery and they didn't either. Perusing the websites of Orange Tree Imports, Pier 1, and Williams-Sonoma yielded nothing. Am I the only person lacking counter space? While I could just order one from Amazon, I'd rather see it beforehand up close and personal. I haven't been to West Towne or East Towne in years so I'm not sure what stores are there that may have them.

|| Palmer, 9:18 AM || link || (2) comments |

21 April, 2012

WFF 2012 - Jiro Dreams of Sushi

It was a family affair on Saturday morning as the kids, The Dulcinea, her mother, and I went to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi at the Orpheum.

Jiro is Jiro Ono who runs a small sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. Now in his 80s', he has been plying his trade for 75 years and his small restaurant is renowned around the world having been given the coveted three star rating by Michelin. The movie is a profile of a man who is dedicated to his job or, perhaps more accurately, obsessed with his craft. But it's also food porn with a look at how the sushi many people consider to be the best in the world is made.

Interviews with Jiro, his sons, employees, and a Japanese food critic all emphasize that this man has a Calvinist work ethic. The guy dreads taking a day off and would probably be lost if he was unable to practice his craft. Reclining in a seat on a train, he holds court and opines that telling children that they can always return home if they cannot make it on their own is stupid and leads to failure. It sounds harsh but we find out that he came from a poor family and left home at age nine. As a boy he was told “Failure is not an option” and he has kept that as his motto ever since.

Jiro's sons have followed him into the trade with the youngest having opened a second location while the oldest remains at his father's side. With all the talk of Jiro dedicating his life to sushi and his own admission that he was not around much for his children, the viewer can't be faulted for thinking that his sons perhaps harbor some resentment towards their old man. This would seem especially true for the eldest, Yoshikazu, who stands in the shadow of a culinary legend. But as they get more screen time, that feeling is dispelled. They love their father and can laugh about their younger days. They accept that he is who he is and are grateful for what he's done for them.

The movie deftly interweaves Jiro's story with that of sushi. I found myself jealous of the sharp knives used in the kitchen as I watched seafood sliced very thinly over and over. There were some nice slow motion shots that had a Philip Glass score in the background which brought Errol Morris to mind. We follow Yoshikazu as he wanders through a fish market seeking out the best catch of the day and learn about the various grades of tuna. Jiro notes that octopus is best served warm and boasts that they massage theirs for 40-50 minutes instead of the normal 20. (I now have a new punishment for times when the youngest kid screws up. “Massage that octopus and don't stop until I tell you to!”) The chefs all talk lovingly of their ingredients with Yoshikazu rhapsodizing that every food has a unique moment of maximum deliciousness.

David Gelb not only directed but was also the cinematographer here. I loved how the interviews felt offhanded, often times more of a BS session than a formal questioning that will be shown to audiences. There was the odd jump cut and an abrupt pan to catch someone off-screen talking to add to the casual rapport between subjects and interviewer. I also really liked Gelb's use of a short lens in the scenes at the fish market. (Not quite fish eye but still very short.) The image was slightly distorted at time but it opened up the space between the cramped stalls. For scenes at the restaurant Gelb used short lenses but longer ones as well. It's a small space – only 10 seats booked months in advance – but Gelb shot those scenes in a way that opens up that space but also retained a sense of intimacy. It was as if we were in a craftsman's workshop instead of a place of business.

The editing also deserves mention. There are trays in front of the seats where each piece of sushi is placed and Gelb used shots of the food being set on them effectively. They show the tasty end product but are also often used to mark an end to a line of questioning. Gelb managed to find a rhythm with those shots of a piece of sushi delicately being placed on those trays.

Walking out of the theatre we joked that the sushi joints on State Street would be doing a brisk lunch business. Indeed, there was a line out the door of T. Sushi. Jiro Dreams of Sushi opens at Sundance on the 27th and no doubt Sushi Muramoto will also be crowded in the coming weeks.

|| Palmer, 9:09 PM || link || (0) comments |

WFF 2012 - The Amateur Monster Movie

The kids and I went to see The Amateur Monster Movie on Friday night. The oldest is a big zombie fan so it seemed only appropriate. The movie is exactly what its title indicates – a micro-budget horror flick with zombies and a werewolf. Kyle Richards directed and, since he's from the Milwaukee area, that's where he shot it with a cast and crew of mostly Cheeseheads.

Charles Monroe-Kane of Wisconsin Public Television's Director's Cut gave the introduction and said that he's seen many low-budget horror flicks with most of them being atrocious. But, in his opinion, The Amateur Monster Movie, was one of the few that wasn't.

Things start off with a Boy Scout troupe on the ominously named Cadaverous Island. The scout master has gone missing and attempts to find him only get the scouts in trouble with a werewolf and a pack of zombies. Back on the mainland a high school student named Walter Romero becomes determined to find his friend who was a member of that ill-fated troupe. Teaming up with a stoner named Johnny Mason and his comely friend, Ashley. The trio make their way to the island where they meet up with a team of botanists. Also thrown in for good measure are some of the local constabulary who eventually make their way to the island as well.

The Amateur Monster Movie isn't a horror movie so bad it's funny but rather a comedy that involves monsters. The humor is hit or miss. They hyper-masculine Officer Larry Hopkins had the first few buttons of his shirt undone and went around barking orders using the f-bomb every other word. As a parody of b-movie cops he worked pretty well, if a bit excessive. There were also some sight gags that got pulled off successfully such as when Walter is roaming the stacks of his high school library and finds a book on werewolves on a shelf that also contains a sign saying “Book not found on shelves of a high school library.” I'll also mention the creepy guy who lived in a shed. He was amusing and he shared the same fate as Hallorann in The Shining - he comes to the island to rescue everyone and is done in just after setting his foot on the ground.

On the other hand, since the movie is populated by nothing but one-note characters, they tended to get old quickly. Mason is amusing at first but becomes boring as the story moves on. In addition, a lot of the humor is just not pulled off well enough to overcome its puerile nature. For instance, in one scene Walter bumps into Ashley in a hall at school knocking books out of her hands. Retrieving them, he finds a tampon and zips into the bathroom to jack off. This may be funny to a 9 year-old but I just found it stupid and unnecessary.

Lastly I'll say that I was disappointed at how well the stereotypes went over. One of the Boy Scouts was flaming which got a lot of laughs as did calling someone a “fag”. And in the establishing shot of the Boy Scout camp we see the gay kid and his companion who is overweight. Madison audiences must be easy to please because just seeing the fat kid drew a roar of laughter. I can't say that this particular casting choice was made to get those laughs so I have to reserve my disappointment for the audience. Lame. Very lame.

|| Palmer, 7:46 PM || link || (2) comments |

WFF 2012 - The Deadly Affair

Not having seen last year's Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson, I can't draw comparisons between it and this, its antecedent, The Deadly Affair which I suppose was one of the main reasons why this film screened at the festival this year. Instead I saw The Deadly Affair as sort of an anti-James Bond affair.

Director Sidney Lumet and his crew, which includes cinematographer Freddy Young, plant us in a drab and rather dingy London where intelligence officer Charles Dobbs plies his trade. He gives a routine interview to a fairly low-level functionary whose job requires higher security clearance. Things go well but the man is found dead shortly after his meeting with Dobbs. It is ruled a suicide but something isn't quite right.

James Mason plays our protagonist in an understated way. Mrs. Dobbs, played by Harriet Andersson, an Ingmar Bergman protégé, is much younger than him and their marriage is shaky, at best. She goes out to parties and sleeps with other men while all Dobbs can manage is to accept defeat and put on a happy face for others. The Dobbs' home is nothing special and just one of many such houses crammed together on an average block somewhere in London.

An interview with the dead man's wife, Elsa, who is a Holocaust survivor, reveals that she is lying. This is a wonderful scene with longish takes and a lot of silence as Dobbs sits in her living room silently waiting for her to make a cuppa tea and join him. Elsa is played by Simone Signoret and her eyes are piercing. Full of sadness for her loss and of contempt for Dobbs and his brethren who play the Cold War game. A snarky supervisor dubbed “Marlene Dietrich” by those in the Home Office and his refusal to see that there is more to this case than meets the eye prompts Dobbs to resign and pursue the case on his own. To that end he conscripts his old friend Mendel, a retired cop who still has connections on the street. Mendel provides some comic relief here with his tendency to nod off when the going gets slow. Their investigation leads them to uncover a typical case of Cold War espionage in which Elsa was passing along secrets to Dieter Frey, an old acquaintance of Dobbs' from World War II and with whom Mrs. Dobbs was having an affair.

The Deadly Affair was released in 1966 so, for modern audiences, the Cold War is either something read about in a history book or a fading memory. (And World War II is, perhaps, downright ancient.) And it's almost twee to watch a murder investigation done without computers and cell phones. The movie had a very different resonance for audiences in the late 60s but the feelings of drought and weariness and the theme of aging here stand the test of time. A sexless marriage, the recognition for the older gents that their salad days are over – there's this fatalistic aspect to the film that reminded me of The Wild Bunch. Amidst all the double crosses and betrayals, Dobbs laments at one point that everything was so much clearer during the war.

I appreciated the pace of the film. Aside from a car chase, there wasn't much action so the emphasis was squarely on the characters. Facial expressions and silences play a big role here. I'll have to check out Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy since it's still here in Madison to compare and contrast.
|| Palmer, 7:45 PM || link || (0) comments |

20 April, 2012

Dear H.P. Lovecraft

Author James Warner imagines H.P. Lovecraft dispensing tenebrous advice:

Dear Howie,

Last week I received a “you probably don’t remember me” note from a man I went to a school dance with nineteen years ago. He is married and has three kids, but states he is not happy. What should I do?

Concerned Lady

Dear Concerned Lady: –

Although humankind has a yearning toward whatever is redolent of mystery and allurement, it is well that certain lacunae in our knowledge should remain forever unfilled. Your shadowy correspondent’s mention of the ill-regarded numbers nineteen and three recalls an unutterable experiment performed on sticklebacks by the Swedish icthyologist Dalgaard. I dare not describe his observations, but he concluded that, the longer we can remain innocent of our place in the cosmos, the better it must augur for our mental integrity. He came to understand there was more meaning than is commonly supposed in the nebulous half-inscriptions found on abandoned wharves — while who knows what malign significance underlies the latest findings on the growth of angiosperms, or the cycle of the solar spots? What of the transgalactic pulsings that have cost more than one astronomer his powers of reasoning? I have heard it whispered that the imprints found on Dalgaard’s pillow, toward the end, resembled the fronds of a kind of bracken previously unknown to botany. The muffled clattering sounds from my roof impel me hastily to conclude,

Yrs most cordially & sincerely, – HPL.
|| Palmer, 8:38 AM || link || (0) comments |

Finally! Someone Invents a Real Sonic Screwdriver

Some hoopy froods at Dundee University have developed a real sonic screwdriver.

The Dundee University researchers have created a machine which uses ultrasound to lift and rotate a rubber disc floating in a cylinder of water.

It is said to be the first time ultrasound waves have been used to turn objects rather than simply push them.

And of course they had to mention Doctor Who:

"Like Doctor Who's own device, our sonic screwdriver is capable of much more than just spinning things around."

|| Palmer, 8:31 AM || link || (0) comments |

19 April, 2012

Wisconsin Film Festival 2012: Keyhole

While I know of Guy Maddin, last night's screening of Keyhole was my first experience with his work and it was a doozy.

While it was shot in color, the movie is in glorious black & white courtesy of cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke. This stylistic choice evokes the movies of yore but so do the characters - they are right out of a 1940s noir picture. A group of gangsters shoot their way into an abandoned house that is surrounded by police. They're in the employ of a gentleman curiously named Ulysses who wanders in through a back door soon after. With him is Denny, a pretty young woman that he apparently saved from drowning. Denny is blind making her the Tiresias of this Homeric tale.

The house is haunted. Some ghosts scream as they walk the halls or are silent as they scrub a floor for eternity. But it is the ghost of Ulysses' wife, Hyacinth, that is most important. She resides upstairs with her elderly father who is chained to the bed completely naked and is occasionally visited by Chang, her lover. Ulysses takes Denny and a young man bound to a chair and gagged on an odyssey through the house so he can get back to Hyacinth.

At the door of each room Ulysses looks through the keyhole and speaks to his dead wife. He pulls a lock of hair from the same before entering. Denny is able to see the ghosts and the sordid events of the past that echo within the walls and her vision allows Ulysses to see them as well. At the same time Hyacinth's father taunts Ulysses with exaggerated cries of “Remember, Ulysses. Remember!" that would be right at home in a Hammer film. As the trio meander from room to room, we discover that Denny wasn't exactly saved from drowning but rather she is still in media res, frequently losing her breath and needing to rest. At one point she dies and her naked body is lying on a table. Our hero and a doctor examine her pubic area intently. Ulysses reaches out to touch her pubic hair and finds that his fingers have gold dust on them. He remarks something along the lines of, "Just like the Greeks. They used lamb's wool to pan for gold."

And the young man in the chair turns out to be Manners, Ulysses' youngest son. Along with Hyacinth, the rest of Ulysses' children are only seen as ghosts or in flashbacks. Another son is masturbating underneath the stairs and the third, we find out, was killed by one of the gangsters in Ulysses' employ. It is worth noting that it is the daughter is shown in the only scene in color.

Why this is worth noting, I'm not totally sure because Keyhole is about as opaque as David Lynch's Inland Empire. I presume Maddin is interested in memory and remembering so I appreciated his use of black & white and his appropriation of old film noir. A Jungian would probably read a lot into this movie. As it stands, I found Keyhole to be a weird and wonderful oneiric odyssey.

|| Palmer, 3:49 PM || link || (0) comments |

Cosmopolis Trailer

More David Cronenberg goodness on the horizon.

COSMOPOLIS - TRAILER (VO) from Cosmopolis on Vimeo.

|| Palmer, 1:12 PM || link || (0) comments |

"Stop resisiting!" - Milwaukee Cop Pummels Handcuffed Man's Head

Milwaukee's finest in action. The guy is lying prone on the ground and handcuffed yet the officer yells "Stop resisting!" and punches him in the head. And then, to show how much class he's got, the cop spits on the guy.

|| Palmer, 8:48 AM || link || (0) comments |

18 April, 2012

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

What an extraordinary book.My Name Is Red is a murder mystery, a love story, a meditation on art, and an examination of Turkey's Janus-like existence as the crossroads of East and West. Plus I suppose one can also say that it is also about storytelling. Very meta.

The novel takes place in Istanbul. The year is 1591 and Sultan Murat III rules the Ottoman Empire. (There's a handy chronology at the back of the book.) To mark the 1000th anniversary of the Hijra, as measured by the lunar calendar, the sultan has commissioned Enishte Effendi to create a book. He, in turn, enlists four miniaturists or illuminators that go by the names Elegant, Stork, Olive, and Butterfly. At the time, Islamic art was being challenged by that of Western Europe – the Venetians or “Frankish art” as it is sometimes called in the book. Religious prohibitions in the Islamic world against imagery and idolatry led to the development of art that eschewed realism and perspective. Painting was to mimic how Allah saw the world from on high, not how men perceived it. Bihzad, who practiced his art in Herat (which is in Afghanistan today) is the old master of this form.

But the sultan has ordered that the book utilize Venetian techniques. Scenes use perspective and the leaves of trees are detailed. With the fundamentalist preacher Nusret Hoja of Erzurum stirring up the crowds, this stylistic glance to the infidels causes consternation among the miniaturists and leads to the death of Elegant. The book opens with his dead yet still ensouled body lying at the bottom of a well. He warns the reader, “My death conceals an appalling conspiracy against our religion, our traditions, and the way we see the world.”

Meanwhile Black has returned to Istanbul after some 12 years serving as secretary to one pasha or another. Enishte is his uncle and, back in his youth, Black fell in love with Enishte's daughter, Shekure. The uncle rejected his nephew as a suitor and so Black went into a self-imposed exile. These many years later Shekure is married with two small children but her husband went to fight in the army but has not been heard from in four years. She and her sons live with her father. When Black is enlisted by his uncle to help finish the book, the cousins meet again. Black's love for Shekure hasn't faded and, while she has feelings for him, she plays hard to get. Plus there's the matter of her still technically being married.

The story is told in the first person but from multiple points of view: Enishte and his miniaturists, the lovers and Esther, a clothier who acts as a messenger between them, and Master Osman, the miniaturists mentor. There are also tales told by a storyteller who practices his art at a coffeehouse. The miniaturists give him pictures and he improvises stories from the point of view of the image. And so a dog, a gold coin, a tree, Death, a horse, Satan, and two dervishes all get their turn upon the stage. The thing is, the reader doesn't actually learn that these tales are being told by the storyteller until late in the book when his identity is revealed as is that he is a transvestite enamored of the thought of being a woman. Furthermore the narrators often address the reader, as if he or she were telling us their story. Going back to Elegant in that well, he implores us to find his killer and offers a bargain: we find his murderer and then he'll reveal what the Afterlife is like. In another chapter, Shekure boasts that everyone who sees her thinks that she looks like a 16 year-old maiden instead of a 24 year-old mother of two. “Believe them,” she warns, “truly believe them, or I shan't tell you any more.”

I take this stylistic device to be a reflection of the debate in the book about Islamic vs. Frankish art. At the time, portraiture was strictly verboten in the Islamic world. Allah was the center of all things and portraits put us puny humans up front and perhaps even above Allah. Writing in the first person and from multiple perspectives draws the reader to this conflict with each character given his or her time in the limelight. Instead of being a puppet with Allah pulling the strings, characters are fleshed out in detail just as in European art. Another effect of this technique is that it obscures just who is the protagonist here. Ostensibly it is Black as he gets the most chances to tell his story (though not by much), it is he who is trying to get the girl, so to speak, and it is he who is attempting to find Elegant's murderer. But Shekure has several chances to give her narrative and she dictates the terms of her relationship For example, the murderer is shown to be one of the miniaturists and he kills Enishte after losing his temper. Shekure vows that she will not sleep with Black until he finds her father's killer. I suppose Black may claim the title of protagonist but only just.

I wasn't too far into the book before I realized that my comprehension would be greatly abetted if I were to learn more about the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire as well as modern day Turkey. While I have some very general, high level knowledge of the Ottoman Empire and understand that Turkey has historically been torn between East and West and remains so today as it struggles with being a secular state in the Western tradition, I still feel like a lot of My Name Is Red went way over my head. But in a good way.

What I did get out of the book was a lot of dualities. Nusret Hoja preaches the past and the East - fundamentalist Islam – while the sultan looks West and, in hindsight, to the future. Art. Should it be about submitting to the view of Allah or should it be about man's artistic desires and his point of view? Love is also a dual concept here. Black simply wants Shekure. He loves and lusts after her. He longs for her touch and gets an erection when embracing her. Shekure is more practical. She has feelings, yes, but she is also bound by the mores of her society which means there are very practical considerations for her to take into account. Plus her future and her children's future are of equal, if not more, importance than the affection she feels towards Black.

I feel like I have at least a tentative grasp of most of the book's themes but the one that really eludes me is the idea of storytelling. The tales of the dog and whatnot told by the storyteller at the coffeehouse comment upon some of the other themes but why was he killed? Shekure gets the last word in. One of her sons is named Orhan and she says that she wants him to write the story of the book. She tells us that she related it to him but warns the reader, “For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn't a lie Orhan wouldn't deign to tell.” What is Pamuk saying about himself here? Something of import or a post-modern gimmick?

Methinks a second reading is in order. With a highlighter.
|| Palmer, 1:23 PM || link || (2) comments |

R.I.P. Antojitos el Toril

I am sad. Antojitos el Toril has closed.

I really liked that place and alternated between it and Papa Bear's BBQ for lunch when I have business on that side of town during the lunching hour. Now where am I going to go for Mexican? I guess I'll be taking the family down to Park Street.

The silver lining here is that Madison now has a Dominican restaurant. The first in the state, supposedly.

|| Palmer, 12:05 PM || link || (0) comments |

America's Dangerous Game

America's Dangerous Game is a short documentary/long-form piece of journalism by Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill which examines the role of the United States in fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen - from a Yemeni point of view.

With all the innocent women and children our bombs kill and maim, we just don't seem to be making friends there. Indeed, we seem to only make more enemies.

|| Palmer, 10:48 AM || link || (0) comments |

Is Barrett (or Vinehout) Governor Yet?

What an embarrassment. Scott Walker can't be gone quick enough.

On Tuesday our majordomo was in Springfield, Illinois to give a speech touting his dubious accomplishments and essentially act like a five year-old saying, "Nyah, nyah! Our economy is better than yours!"

Walker used the opportunity to address and Illinois crowd to deride the state's financial health when compared to his own state's.

"Illinois and Wisconsin, like nearly every other state, had big deficits. We had a $3.7 billion deficit," Walker said, according to NBC Chicago. "A year later, after we balanced a $3.6 billion budget deficit, things haven’t gotten any better in Springfield. When you raise taxes on business and individuals, it drives away wealth."

Meanwhile, Walker's mandarin, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, was in Chicago rallying the Teabaggers and proudly proclaiming herself a poacher.

The day before federal income taxes are due, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch helped rile up 300 Tea Party faithful in Daley Plaza, pledging to keep “poaching” businesses from Illinois.

“I’m the lieutenant governor who cold-calls your companies, and I’m happy to poach more if Gov. Quinn continues to march down the path he’s on right now — it’s all fair in economic development,” Kleefisch said after the rally.

Kleefisch, who could be recalled by Wisconsin voters along with Gov. Scott Walker this summer, said she cold-called Rockton-based FatWallet.com after Illinois passed a tax on Internet sales and the company moved to Beloit, Wis.

Gee, you got a company to move about 10 miles from Rockton, IL to Beloit. This is economic development worth touting? Were any new jobs created? Or are the employees from Illinois now just stuck with a longer commute?

I sure hope my taxes did not go to pay for these trips. Why were they on soapboxes in Illinois instead of Wisconsin? I thought the elections were here and not to the south. Oh wait. I forgot. Walker likes to take a lot of personal time.

I'd like to have a governor who, instead of starting childish pissing matches with governors in neighboring states, goes to visit them and talk about forming partnerships. Perhaps Walker could rustle up a little comity with Illinois governor Pat Quinn and get down to brass tacks to try to think of ways that our two states can work together for mutual advantage. But no. That kind of forward thinking probably just doesn't occur to an authoritarian like Walker.

Illinois has Chicago, a global city that is a major transportation hub, a leader in the financial industry, has venture capital, etc. Kleefisch can boast about fatwallet.com moving to Beloit but Illinois can boast about Evraz Inc. North America, a $3 billion company, moving its headquarters there because of O'Hare. Boeing moved there and MillerCoors decided to put its headquarters in downtown Chicago too. Rather than trying to leverage our state's proximity to a global city via cooperation, Walker's plan for economic development with our neighbors to the south consists of widening the interstate highways and voila! Instant growth!

I am eyeing Tom Barrett for our next governor for these reasons. Kathleen Falk is a one-note candidate – all union, all the time. (Vinehout – I need to learn more.) Great, I get that. Southeastern Wisconsin accounts for something like a third of Wisconsin's economic output and Milwaukee is a struggling Rust Belt city. It's way past time the state government stops shitting on Wisconsin's largest city and starts helping to turn it around. Both Barrett and Walker know first-hand that Milwaukee is part of a larger economic unit centered in Chicago but it seems that Barrett is the only one willing to capitalize on it. He leads the M-7, a regional economic development group, which shows me that he understands the value of cooperation in building an economy whereas Walker and his cronies seem content to go it alone with their poaching act.
|| Palmer, 10:30 AM || link || (0) comments |

17 April, 2012

New Brewery Dedicated to the Shandy

Shandies are apparently so popular that Alan Newman decided to brew nothing but. The result is House of Shandy, a division of The Boston Beer Company.

They have a traditional shandy out now called Curious Traveler with another variety called Tenacious Traveler due later this year.

So what kind of winter seasonal would a shandy brewery have?
|| Palmer, 4:12 PM || link || (4) comments |

Attention All Taps of Tex Tubb's Taco Palace

House of Brews will assume control.

|| Palmer, 10:43 AM || link || (0) comments |

Holy Crap, Am I Behind the Times

Up at Slate a "journalist and critic in New York" named J. Bryan Lowder has a piece this morning called "Is Submissive Sex Anti-Feminist?". In it he writes:

Coming from a sexual culture in which “are you a top or bottom” (read: aggressive or passive) still constitutes a normal, if inelegant, question on a first date, I’ve long believed...

When did asking someone if he or she is a top or bottom on a first date become normal? I missed that paradigm shift in mating rituals and my last first date was even in this millennium. Now, I can see that, if you scored a date via alt.com or some such site, then such a question would probably be par for the course. But that kind of salacious query outside of a situation where the BDSM cards are already on the table is not just inelegant, it's rude and presumptuous.

Am I behind the times or is it truly common to ask someone whether they're a top or bottom on the first date? Perhaps this applies to New York but not here in flyover country. Or maybe it is normal for people in their 20s but not us aging GenXers.

|| Palmer, 9:11 AM || link || (2) comments |

16 April, 2012

TSA Waste

Bruce Schneier debated the former head of the TSA, Kip Hawley, on the proposition "This house believes that changes made to airport security since 9/11 have done more harm than good." And now Hawley is writing in the WSJ that airport security is broken.

TSA Waste
Created by: OnlineCriminalJusticeDegree.com
|| Palmer, 11:11 AM || link || (0) comments |

The Thing - Now with Katzen!

|| Palmer, 10:15 AM || link || (0) comments |

13 April, 2012

The Mysterious Sandwich

I had lunch at A8 China today and, just like the last time I ate there, there was a lone plate with what looked like a corned beef on pumpernickel sandwich sitting on the table by the counter with plasticware, napkins, &c. No one was sitting there and no one ever sat down at that table.

Why would they do this? To keep people from sitting there? Or perhaps this is the Chinese equivalent of the Polish unexpected guest tradition?
|| Palmer, 2:00 PM || link || (0) comments |

Dane County Population Boomed Last Year(?)

The Census Bureau has released its population estimates for counties and metro areas and Dane County looks like it's booming. Data can be found here.

Looking at them, I find that population of Dane County increased by 6,769 people in the 2011. Actually, I think that estimate is for the change between July 2010 and July 2011 as opposed to the calendar year. This brings the county's population up to 495,959 people - and bad things happen to Wisconsin counties when they reach the half million mark.

Those 6,769 people represent the largest jump of any Wisconsin county in sheer numbers and the second highest percentage-wise. (Menominee County placed first here by adding an estimated 86 people to its population of 4,262.)

The thing is, when I look at the data, they just seem inflated. There were 1,540 births in the 2010 data set yet 6,032 for 2011. 665 deaths in 2010 and 2,747 in 2011. And international migration brought 973 people here in 2011 which is 700 more than the previous year. It's like everything suddenly quadrupled. I don't get it. Are there any statisticians out there who can show me what I did wrong?
|| Palmer, 11:42 AM || link || (0) comments |

The Lovecraft Anthology – Volume I

This is a trailer for The Lovecraft Anthology – Volume I, a new collection of comic book adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories. Perhaps I'll pick this up for the kid. He's almost 13 so he can surely handle some daemonic bedtime stories from an accursed graphic novel.

(And isn't it weird that books now have trailers?)

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

11 April, 2012

The Feline French New Wave

Meet Henri. Henri is trying to deal with ennui.

|| Palmer, 4:33 PM || link || (0) comments |

Medieval Banquet

This looks hoopy. It's Medieval Banquet in London. I think someone should fly me there and take me out for a night on the town so we can party like it's 1399.

Aside from the potatoes, the banquet menu looks to be more period than you get at Medieval Times.

|| Palmer, 4:18 PM || link || (0) comments |

Public Market, Public Schmarket

Ex-mayor Dave Cieslewicz's latest blog post at The Daily Page reaffirms my decision of not having voted for him in the previous two mayoral elections. In his homily entitled "Idea of the week... use Madison College culinary school as catalyst for a public market", he once again channels Richard Florida:

My point is that progressive cities do certain things to stay competitive in the game to attract the creative talent that builds jobs in the new economy. They ban smoking in bars and restaurants. (We have.) They have bike sharing systems and aggressive bike commuting programs. (We do.) And they have public markets. (We don't and so we're falling behind.)

I get the feeling that Cieslewicz would rather that poverty and crime balloon than countenance no new bike trails be built. And what's with his hard-on for public markets? (He also mentioned them less than two weeks ago.) Where's the data showing that they're imperative to attract creative talent? Or any of his trifecta of progressiveness? (And what's "creative talent" anyway?) Milwaukee has a public market as do other Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati. Is creative talent flocking to these cities? Or perhaps they're just not progressive. Who knows. Perhaps if Cieslewicz would stop bandying about Floridian terms and pieties without defining them and actually demonstrate their efficacy, we could have a better conversation. But since he's content to merely assert, I can only assume that the kind of people Cieslewicz wants to recruit to populate his bikes paths and buy $6/pound asparagus at a public market don't care about crime, quality of schools, or taxes.

While I share an enthusiasm for cities with Ex-Mayor Dave, I find all this talk of creative talent and the Creative Class to be demeaning. You're not a thespian? You don't write code for a social networking site in your cubicle next to an indoor basketball court and company tattoo parlor while clad in shorts and barefoot? You simply wash dishes in those restaurants frequented by creative types? Well, sorry to inform you of this but you're just a pilgarlic. There doesn't seem to be much qualitative difference between Ayn Rand's fetishization of entrepreneurs and Cieslewicz's fetishization of "creative talent". I understand that what used to be called "skilled workers" are good for Madison. But do they only want public markets and to be able to rent a bicycle? Do their employers only choose cities that are hip enough for employees? Both Microsoft and Google opened offices here in Madison a few years ago despite an accursed lack of a public market. Perhaps the UW computer science department had something to do with this.

I welcome creative talent to Madison but this city can't survive on them alone. People who bus tables, plow streets, make salami at Oscar Meyer, and so on may not be creative in the sense that Cieslewicz fetishizes, but they pay taxes, they consume the products of the creative types, and they contribute to the ortgeist of Madison.

Cieslewicz was right when he wrote that cities matter but he seems to have this lilywhite vision of a Madison that is all about creative types. Well, non-creative types matter too. As poverty increases here Cieslewicz can seemingly only find it in himself to lobby for more bike paths and a public market.
|| Palmer, 11:43 AM || link || (2) comments |

06 April, 2012

Keep An Eye on Those Chicken Nuggets for Fecal Matter

Privatizing things done by public agencies isn't always a bad idea but it seems that regulation just isn't one of those things we want industry to do for itself. The SEC likes to let Wall Street police itself and we know how well that turned out. Now it looks like the USDA is about to let the meat packing industry be converted to the honor system.

Under the current rules, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for inspecting all chicken and turkey carcasses for things like bruises, bile, and yes, shit, before they’re sent for further processing. The proposed HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) would remove those USDA inspectors from the lines, leaving poultry plant employees, who already stand in a fast-moving, I-Love-Lucy-style line, to flag unsanitary or otherwise flawed birds.

USDA inspectors now are responsible for 35 birds per minute, but if HIMP moves ahead, lines could move more than 200 birds per minute, according to the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. “We only have a bit over a second and a half to inspect the carcass, which is too fast,” said Steven Clarke, a federal inspector for 26 years, on the advocacy site Let Them Eat Chicken.

Clarke describes the shift as “ plain and simply a job cutting measure.” And in the end, cutting jobs means cutting dollars. In an article from early March, Food Safety News dug up a study [PDF] showing the program is projected to save FSIS up to $95 million over three years, and to give a $250 million boost to poultry companies.

Rumor has it that the HIMP program could begin as early as October (the current comment period goes through April 26). And, according to Hitt, there’s already a similar pilot program in place for pork production.

|| Palmer, 4:10 PM || link || (0) comments |

More Fiscally-Minded Republicans

Republican Reps. Lorraine Quarberg and Kermit Brown of Wyoming are afraid of the disintegration of the Union so they want to take precautions to protect their state. One of those precautions may be to buy an aircraft carrier.

Wyoming House Bill 85 calls for the establishment of a state "continuity task force" that would study the possibility that the United States of America may disintegrate, leaving Wyoming to fend for itself. You may think that's not a healthy preoccupation, but Rep. Lorraine Quarberg is here to tell you what's healthy and what ain't:

"I don’t think there’s anyone in this room today what [sic] would come up here and say that this country is in good shape, that the world is stable and in good shape — because that is clearly not the case," state Rep. Lorraine Quarberg, R-Thermopolis, said. "To put your head in the sand and think that nothing bad’s going to happen, and that we have no obligation to the citizens of the state of Wyoming to at least have the discussion, is not healthy."

Rep. Kermit Brown offered an amendment (which was adopted) requiring the task force also to look into the "conditions under which the state of Wyoming should implement a draft, raise a standing army, marine corps, navy and air force and acquire strike aircraft and an aircraft carrier."
|| Palmer, 3:40 PM || link || (0) comments |

Crazy Horse

Although Frederick Wiseman is a pioneer of direct cinema, his latest movie, Crazy Horse, sure revels in illusion. Direct cinema is a form of documentary filmmaking that arose in the late 1950s. It took advantage of new portable camera and sound recorders to offer a look at subjects as never before, rejecting interviews, staged footage, etc. in favor of a fly-on-the-wall approach where the camera simply watches as events unfold. Wiseman has spent his career investigating institutions of various shades as the names of his films indicate: High School, Hospital, Public Housing, et al.

The subject here is the Crazy Horse, a legendary cabaret in Paris that features fully nude dancing. Illusion is usually lurking somewhere and the movie is bookended with footage of a man doing some shadow puppetry which was really quite neat. (Variety acts take the stage in between the erotic dances.) The second thing we witness is one of the dancers in a small recording studio moaning and sighing into a microphone as if she were in the throes of ecstasy. Those salacious sounds would go on to be featured in one of the dance numbers later in the movie. Both of these scenes serve to remind the viewer that, despite the promise of female flesh, what is to come is really all an act.

And there is plenty of female flesh with several routines being shown. Early on there's one called "Baby Buns" which features a cloying piece of music and the dancers giving the audience and the camera a lasting eyeful of callipygian delight. Indeed, the female bottom is a something of a motif here. More than one routine emphasizes it and Wiseman's camera is happy to go along. His lens is squarely focused on a pair of them in one dance involving two women writhing and dangling from a metal ring while what looks like photos of stained glass are projected onto their bodies. During an audition you can hear the judges whispering amongst themselves about the women's asses. The idea of illusion returns in another routine in which the dancers extend various parts of their body above and parallel to a mirror so that each part gracefully moves along with its image.

In addition to being erotic, the dances are very technical with props, lights, and patterns projected onto the stage. I was surprised that the French of all people disallowed labia as all the women wore these black pudenda pasties. It was also odd how the women had virtually identical bodies. They were all roughly the same height, had the same waists, and the same cup size. Their breasts were even all basically the same shape. It was like the Stepford dancers.

These erotic illusions are pulled off because of a lot of work behind the scenes. The dancers practice, technicians perfect their lighting cues and sync music, and so on. In one scene choreographer Philippe Decouflé argues with some of the other staff that the Crazy Horse must close temporarily so that the new production can be perfected. There are also some moments of levity backstage such as when a group of dancers are watching a ballet blooper reel and laughing as the dancers fall or get caught up in a curtain. In another a transsexual auditions but is rejected. Apparently the folks at the Crazy Horse only take illusion so far.

My main gripe is that the backstage scenes were haphazard and, perhaps, overly utilitarian. It was interesting – to a point – to see just how the marvelous performances are crafted but there wasn't much for me as a viewer to latch onto to carry me through the process. A new show is being mounted but there were no issues that we could witness being overcome nor any people that we could really follow. There was nothing to anchor those scenes for the viewer.

|| Palmer, 3:32 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Science of Beer Goggles

At last, science has begun to figure out how beer goggles work.

According to a new study published on April 4 in Addiction, alcohol can make the heart grow fonder - or at least make people look more attractive.

Lewis Halsey, a senior lecturer in comparative and eco physiology at the University of Roehampton in London, and his colleagues wanted to find out if perception of face symmetry change with alcohol consumption. Previous studies have shown facial symmetry to be a factor in judging attractiveness.

Female and male participants who had drank alcohol were both worse at detecting whether or not a face was symmetrical. Men were also found to have a lesser preference for symmetrical faces - or a lower standard for attractiveness - when under the influence of alcohol than women.

That last bit is shocking - SHOCKING!

|| Palmer, 10:28 AM || link || (0) comments |

Alien: The Easter Edition

|| Palmer, 9:49 AM || link || (0) comments |

05 April, 2012

Deadly Reminders Litter Gulf Coast Beaches

The Gulf oil spill happened nearly two years ago and for most of us it seems like out of sight, out of mind. But for residents of the coast, there are morbid reminders aplenty such as this:

This article details how some Mississippi residents are finding an abnormally large number of dead sea turtles and dolphins on beaches along with the corpses of many other Gulf creatures.

Since BP's catastrophic oil blowout nearly two years ago, Laurel Lockamy has gotten pretty good at photographing the dead. She's snapped images of dozens of lifeless turtles and dolphins, countless dead fish, birds, armadillos and nutria and pretty much anything that crawls, swims or flies near the white sandy Mississippi beaches of her Gulfport home.

Locals say this is far from normal. Laurel's pictures can be hard to believe; photos of large bottlenose dolphins, their mouths agape and their silvery bodies stretched out like aluminum mannequins on the tar ball-littered sand as children frolic nearby in the warm waters of the Gulf. She's taken shots of rotten, decaying endangered sea turtles wasting away on the shores, sprayed with orange paint by marine mammal experts for disposal by beach cleanup crews who sometimes take days to respond.

More gruesome evidence of the damage can be found at Aqaurius Nation and Bridge the Gulf.

There's just something odd about a family that would go for a dip next to a dead dolphin and, having had their fill, retreat to a sandy beach with tar balls.

I say build that Keystone pipeline extension. Let's start fracking everywhere. We Americans consume mass quantities of oil and other fossil fuels every day and it's about time we stop outsourcing the environmental disasters concomitant to our way of living to the South and other countries. Time to share some of Nigeria's pain.
|| Palmer, 4:36 PM || link || (0) comments |

Medieval History Professor Discovers Unicorn Cookbook

I didn't notice this until today but it's the best April Fool's Day joke I have seen this year. From the British Library comes "Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library".

After recipes for herring, tripe and codswallop (fish stew, a popular dish in the Middle Ages) comes that beginning "Taketh one unicorne". The recipe calls for the beast to be marinaded in cloves and garlic, and then roasted on a griddle. The cookbook's compiler, doubtless Geoffrey Fule himself, added pictures in its margins, depicting the unicorn being prepared and then served. Sarah J Biggs, a British Library expert on medieval decoration, commented that "the images are extraordinary, almost exactly as we'd expect them to be, if not better".

They even Photoshopped some wonderful illumination for the joke. Those medievalists are some hoopy froods.

|| Palmer, 3:19 PM || link || (0) comments |

Tales from Planet Earth Festival: Cooked

Cooked played at the Tales from Planet Earth festival last week and I managed to snag a seat. Director Judith Helfand was on-hand to talk about her work and hosted a discussion afterwards.

Helfand was introduced to us as an activist and she said before the screening that one of her intentions with Cooked was to inspire viewers to take action. The movie began as an adaptation of Eric Klinenberg's Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, a book about the July 1995 heat wave in Chicago which claimed over 700 lives. But as the project moved forward, she expanded her purview to include a look at the concept of the natural disaster itself instead of just the one that happened in Chicago. Having placed herself in the activist documentary tradition, I wondered whether she would take the Michael Moore route and have herself as the main protagonist going around and causing trouble or whether she'd do something more subtle a la Barbara Kopple. The movie we saw was a rough cut but it was pretty polished.

It begins in 2011 with the New York subways closing down in preparation for Hurricane Irene making landfall. Helfand is talking to a ticket agent who explains that the last subway train will be departing soon. The scene then shifts to Worcester, MA where she is visiting her brother who is also preparing for the storm's landfall. He shows us around his garage where flashlights are charging, a gas generator is ready to take over in the event the electric grid fails, and a plan to round up their mother via boat is also in place.

The scene then cuts to Chicago and the heat wave of 1995. One of Mayor Daley's press conferences provides a key insight into what happened that summer when he implores city residents to check in on their neighbors. This is juxtaposed against an interview with an older black woman who reluctantly tells the camera that the deaths from the heat wave and many of the problems of her south side community stem from a lack of compassion.

Helfand focuses on the Englewood neighborhood on the city's south side, which was also featured in The Interrupters. (It is obviously in bad shape when multiple documentarians are exposing it's troubles.) Most of the heat deaths in 1995 occurred in the south and west sides in neighborhoods which were predominantly black and stricken with poverty. The movie shows how Englewood used to be a safe, bustling area where residents would often sleep outside or in a park when summer nights were intolerably hot. Today, though, Englewood is populated by mostly by the poor. It's population has dwindled over the years and many buildings stand vacant while many other lots are just empty fields of grass. Multiple people describe the neighborhood as a "food desert" citing the lack of grocery stores.

In addition to the residents of Englewood, the movie features Klinenberg as well as Dr. Steven Whitman who was the city's epidemiologist in 1995. Klinenberg says something which Helfand jumps on: that we cannot talk about abandoned seniors and their deaths unless there's a disaster.

In a nutshell, his social autopsy revealed that most of the victims of the heat wave were black senior citizens in poor neighborhoods with a high crime rates. They couldn't afford air conditioners and were afraid to open their windows or leave their apartments out of fear. The sense of community in these communities had broken down and few of these isolated people had anyone check on them. In other words, poverty was to blame.

Helfand goes to a disaster preparedness conference and discovers that there's a lot of money to be made by selling generators, rations, etc. to people in preparation for a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake. The movie also goes behind the scenes of a disaster exercise in which authorities practice giving relief and coordinating rescue efforts after an earthquake emanating from the New Madrid fault line. Helfand proposes to change the definition of "disaster" to include extreme poverty and ponders what would happen if money were poured into poor neighborhoods so that they'd have better schools, job training, and access to healthier food.

The movie ends on a food note. We witness an old CTA bus converted into a mobile produce market to serve Englewood residents and current mayor Rahm Emmanuel at the grand opening of a grocery store in the neighborhood. He, perhaps like Helfand, is cautiously optimistic. He lauds the presence of the store but warns that he cannot force parents to shop there. It was, I think, a wonderfully ambivalent way to bring the movie to a close.

I've read Heat Wave and thought Helfand did a good job of explaining what happened in July 1995 and summarizing the results of Klinenberg's social autopsy. But I walked out of the theatre feeling like she'd missed the boat in terms of alleviating poverty. She shows us a still photograph of Englewood in 1955 with a street full of people, trolleys, and neon signs. What happened? Chicago is a Rust Belt city and my best guess is that Englewood suffered when factories, slaughterhouses, and steel mills left. A graphic featuring statistics about the neighborhood said that the unemployment rate was 25% or thereabouts. While she says that money should be used for job training as part of a disaster relief effort, I felt that this was a much more important tactic than the paucity of screen time it got suggested. But how do you emphasize this in a visual medium? How do you rally viewers to that cause? Not easy. Instead the movie emphasizes the lack of good, healthy food in the neighborhood.

When Helfand said that we should treat poverty as a disaster and spend money to alleviate it in the same way we spend money to prepare for earthquakes and whatnot, I said to myself that we'd tried this already. Remember Johnson's Great Society? While certain aspects of it were arguably a success, Chicago only recently finished demolishing emblems of some of its failures – housing projects. So, while I'm not totally unsympathetic to Helfand's solution, I am skeptical of the notion that the government throwing money at a problem is the only or best way to tackle it.

Having access to healthy food is important but it's certainly not sufficient to alleviate poverty and I'm not convinced that it's even necessary. I think that Englewood is suffering in much the same way that neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit are suffering. Manufacturing is gone and people who would have worked in a factory 60 years ago haven't found an alternative vocation that pays like those factory jobs. Building parks where kids from poor neighborhoods can go and have a swim when it's hot out instead of opening fire hydrants is nice and perhaps addresses the issue of fairness but, to me, it's a minor thing when confronting extreme poverty.

As I noted above, we saw a rough cut of Cooked so the following may or may not apply to the final cut. I found the movie to be inconsistent stylistically. The opening is very Michael Moorean with Helfand being on camera and interacting with the subjects. Then she fades into the background, adding voice-over narration periodically. Then she's back in front of the camera for the conference sequence and gone again. The narration was inconsistent as well. It felt like she ran out of ideas to get something across visually and defaulted to narration or simply had some statistics to impart. Her scheme just felt choppy to me. Does she want to be an active voice in this story or not? Hopefully she'll get it smoothed out.

I can't find an embeddable trailer for Cooked but I did find this interview with Orrin Williams, a community activist in the Englewood neighborhood, who is featured in the movie. I believe he was here in Madison to attend the Tales From Planet Earth festival a few years ago.

|| Palmer, 3:07 PM || link || (0) comments |

Video Artifacts Abound in Crazy Horse

I went to see Frederick Wiseman's Crazy Horse last night and am hoping that I did not witness the future of digital projection. I've read that Wiseman abandoned film for the shoot and instead shot it in HD. I don't know if the problem was with the "print" Sundance had, their projection system, the source material, or who but it was one of the worst looking movies I've seen in a long time. I expect a less than optimal picture at the cheap seats where the prints are worn, the projector's bulb is either the wrong wattage or is on its last legs, etc. I am paying $3 and I get what I pay for.

But this was at Sundance where I pay a premium price for admission and expect quality. For starters, the movie was filled with pixelation. the subjects of Crazy Horse are mostly women and yet many of their curves were jagged and blocky. Plus posterization was common as well when there were sources of red light. There was no gradation between them and objects. The color went from red to blotches of dark grey. It was like watching a VHS tape on an analog TV with its low contrast ratio. This was really annoying as there was a lot of red in the movie. Red lights on the stage, red LEDs on equipment, and the furniture for patrons was all red.

Again, I don't know if it was Sundance's digital projection system or the file that they received but it was just bad.

Did anyone else who saw it notice the artifacts?
|| Palmer, 12:05 PM || link || (0) comments |

02 April, 2012

Is This Really "Finely Textured Beef"?

I read today that beef processor AFA Foods is filing for bankruptcy due, in part, at least, due to the dust-up over pink slime.

Ground beef processor AFA Foods filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday and said it plans to sell some or all of its assets, citing the impact of media coverage related to a meat filler critics have dubbed "pink slime."

Whenever I've read anything about the "finely textured beef" that got stuck with the unfortunate moniker "pink slime" I've always seen this picture:

Until I read the above Yahoo News article, it's the only view of the stuff I've ever had. At the article you apparently see it in sheets and in what looks like Kibbles'n'Bits. This photo is ubiquitous and it's the only one that shows a slime. So is this stuff that looks like frozen yoghurt really "finely textured beef"?
|| Palmer, 12:16 PM || link || (0) comments |