Kitties!

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Hermes and Indy watch out the window.  A few minutes ago, we heard a cat (presumably in heat) yowling in the alley.  After perhaps 15 yowls, another cat showed up and a hissing, scratching, screeching followed, and then it was silence.

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Then we can go back to sleep.

Max Carrados, blind detective

I just finished these four Max Corrados stories, by Ernest Bramah (written in 1914). Corrados, an amateur detective unusual for his blindness, is amusing and clever. The reading, done by Andy Minter and offered by Librivox, was delightful.

Lego detective photo by Kaptain Kobold
Awesome syntax:

  • “But why? Why, why the colossal villainy, the unparalleled audacity!”
    Mr. Carlysle lost himself among incredulous superlatives, and could only stare.
  • His physiognomy was not displeasing, but his expression had a harsh, and supercilious tinge. In attire, he erred towards the immaculately spruce.
  • He was obviously an elderly German tourist of a pronounced type. Long-haired, spectacles, outrageously garbed and involved in the mental abstraction of his philosophical race. One hand was occupied with the manipulation of a pipe as markedly Tutonic as its owner….

Interesting moments from the stories (Spoilers ahead!):

  • In “The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem,” Max and his buddy are hired to solve the question about who erred: the train driver or the signalman. Both insisted the other erred and caused the deadly trainwreck. The driver hires Max to ferret out the answer, which he does. Strangely, when Max finds the villain, he convinces the villain that the best way to end the affair would be suicide. The story, at the end, makes no note about how Max will save his client’s reputation as a train driver. Huh.
  • Two of the stories cheat the readers in a conventional way, with the key clue to the story coming from the detective’s outside reading–in both “The Coin of Dionysus” and “The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor”, Max has already heard about the villain by reading the papers and/or the police alerts.

The Great Influenza

by John M. Barry; Narrated by Scott Brick

Stuff I learned:

  • World War I saw sauerkraut renamed “Victory Cabbage” or “Liberty Cabbage.”
  • Another pandemic of influenza is “probable” or “likely” in the near future.
  • The biggest hinderance to public health in pandemics is government cover-ups; when officials and journalists lie about the severity and nature of the disease, they kill people.  Good thing we’ve got a very open, up-front administration. :O

In short, influenza is frickin scary.

Notes on the new tv season II

Bones
I am glad Zach is back, but I felt bad for the interim Zach. I like the move toward a longer, multi-episode villain, and cannibalism is always a creepy way to start.

Reaper
was very funny and enjoyable. I liked the Kevin Smith-isms (as when the TV Jack Black suggested that our main character’s parents “still do it.” It looks like this show has potential.

Still haven’t watched Heroes.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang

“The difficulty with the information stage is that it can no longer be made critical or reflexive. The only thing” one can do is reject it or totally accept it, nothing else.”
– Jean Baudrillard, “The Murder of the Sign”

I’m never sure what to do, critically, with movies that are self-aware. A detective film that knows it’s a detective film defies my critical eye, in some ways, by being critical of itself. Add to that problem that the film is a comedy and I’m in BIG trouble.

Oh well, here’s an anecdote instead of critical evaluation. Come to think of it, perhaps this is right up your alley, Brian. Here, then, is my anecdotal criticism of Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

My sister-in-law (who grew up in Michigan, lived in Indiana, and now lives in Illinois) has narrow taste in movies. Films that are too weird, too slow, too old, or engage any of numerous traits exhaust her goodwill and make her reach for the remote. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is one such film. About one-third of the way through, she remembered why she didn’t like the film (too much swearing), and stopped watching it with us. At the end of the film, when Perry and Harry are telling us to go home, Perry says

And to you nice folks in the middle of the country, sorry we said fuck so much.

beat.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang takes several critical turns based on the “young starlet goes to Hollywood” motif. The first and most obvious is Harry, who has come to town to do a screen test (and, unbeknownst to him, scare Colin Farrel into dropping his price for a new film). Stumbling into the detective game, he finds that the private eye biz is exactly like the movies, Perry’s warnings aside. His improvisation betrays him, but only in the same way such bull-headedness ALWAYS betrays the detectives at the root of such films. Note the grin in Harry’s eyes above — it never stops being a game to him. The botched Russian Roulette game has the same problem. Harmony and her sister both bring middle America to the coast too, and their naivete shows in their unsuccessful search for fame and fathers.

Despite Harry’s gruff exterior and his faux-Hollywood attitude, his honorability defines the trope. The contrast with the sleazy skirt-peeker from the beginning of the film, the one who beats the shit out of Harry, marks the contrast in natures too. We never see Perry show regret or emotion about the men they encounter, though he clearly sees Harry’s pain about the deaths.

I don’t have a grand conclusion to draw, but the throwaway line about Middle America ties to several themes in the film. Voila.

Overheard while out walking with my daughter

The other day, while I was out walking with my daughter, I overheard two funny things:

We stopped for a short while by a baseball field to watch a few minutes of pee-wee baseball.  The boys were old enough to be pitching themselves, but underhand.  I would guess about 5th grade.  One team, clearly far better at hitting than the other, scored two runs in one play.  One of the boys who scored, in noticing that no-one in his team’s bleachers seemed to notice, hollered

We just scored two runs and nobody cares!

Later, Avery and I were at a playground where a group of about four sixth or seventh-grade girls were playing (hide-and-seek, oddly).  As Avery led me toward the group from the far side of the jungle gym (and thus out of sight of these girls), one of them muttered

PMS sucks monkey balls.

The Scar

(also called Hollow Triumph) Starring Paul Henreid.

A thoroughly enjoyable film, with excellent film noir twists and characters who betray one another. One key moment in the film revolves around Muller’s doppleganger, Dr. Bartok. The only difference between the two is that Bartok has a scar on his left cheek. Muller takes a photo and imitates the scar by cutting his own cheek. Alas, the man at the photo lab printed the image backward and his scar is on the wrong side. Ha ha!

Worth my thirty-eight cents:
When Muller decides to steal another man’s life and identity. He does so while looking out a window that, in classic noir fashion, faces a blinking neon sign. The shadows of the blinds across his face are lovely, as is most of the film.
paul henreid in the scar

Side note: It turns out Linux DVD players don’t have that pesky crap that keeps you from doing a screen capture. YES.

Notes on the new tv season I

We didn’t watch Heroes yet, but we did watch
Chuck

Enjoyable.  Funny.  Directed by McG.  Features Jane from Firefly.  Main guy works at “Buy More” for the Nerd Herd.  That’s just funny.

His sister’s boyfriend is called Captain Awesome.

His brain substitutes for a pattern-matching computer created by the gvt.  An interesting intersection of the notion of the brain as computer and the idea of emergent processes.  Also, since the information is transmitted entirely through image and works through pattern and recall, his thought processes might very well be called electrate.

Revenge of the Creature

Revenge of the Creature

I watched Revenge of the Creature last night on Svengoolie.  Jenny (pretends she) doesn’t like the cheesy format and jokes, but I love it.   I noticed a couple things about the movie:

1. One of the major subplots was the scientist-ness of the heroine.  As a woman working toward a career as a scientist, she faced major obstacles in 1955.  The characters often commented on her fitness as such.  Here are a couple of the comments I remember:

  • “Some scientist you are, getting squeamish about drugging a fish.” – Science aide when she shows fear about the plan to drug and then examine the gill man.
  • “I’m entirely too emotional to be a good scientist.” – Helen, on her sadness over the three-month separation she and her fiance are about to experience.

The film was also remarkably frank about the challenge career women of the 1950s faced.  Lying on the beach with Clete, Helen ponders the unfairness the choice she has to make between being a scientist and a mother.  When she asks Clete about it, he says “Well, I don’t have to make that choice.  I’m a man.  I don’t think that’s right, but that’s the way it is.”

2.  The police in Florida must deal with an awful lot of crazy stuff.  When the police on the patrol boat heard that “the gill man has attacked someone near pier 77,” they showed no emotion at all, and when alerted that their boat was needed to respond, they accelerated with all the interest a traffic cop shows for someone going 16 over the speed limit–enough to react, but not to get excited about.

3. Two lads finishing high school talk, as they drive in their car, about their post-h.s. plans.  One of them says he was supposed to go to college, but that he probably wasn’t going to.  His father did just fine without a college degree.  “I don’t know,” his buddy says, “my dad says that you need a degree to get a job.  College degrees are like high school degrees used to be.”  1955.  Jeez!

4. The gill man is frickin’ strong.  He can turn over a car (see above) and hurl people through the air.  His attack on the college boys (from point 3) was one of the most hilarious special effects I’ve ever seen.

Point Blank

Point Blank
Lee Marvin spends long stretches of this film, particularly at the beginning, silent.  In this, if nothing else, the film contrasts with the Mel Gibson remake (Payback) I’m so fond of.  This movie’s a lot more moody, too.  There’s hardly any room for the gleeful sadism Mel’s audience expects; Marvin’s Walker plans and executes viciously, but without the panache Gibson’s Porter shows.  Point Blank‘s violence also defies enjoyment.  Unlike the more stylized moments of violence we find in even the most mundane action movies today, Walker’s fights are brutal, awkward things involving kidney punches and various body-tossing moves.

The end of the film also denies viewers the pleasurable resolution we found in Payback.  Walker won’t find what he was looking for any more than Porter did.

One intriguing moment from the film, other than the still above that captured my attention, was the tacit acknowledgement of gay men, seen in the apartment Walker uses to spy on his quarry.  Most depiction of gays I’d seen in films of the late 60s were more on par with the creepy transexual from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, so these characters were a welcome relatively neutral couple.

Hot Hot Theramin Action

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mW0B1sipLBI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19RJEnNUg1I

A Perfect Storm of Apocalypses

Inadvertently, I found myself reading/ listening/ watching four apocalypse stories simultaneously. This catastrophe of sad stories occurred because I avoid sad stories. When I’m reading something grim that I don’t want to quit reading, I just slow down and read other things simultaneously. It had to happen that eventually I’d be reading one grim thing slowly and pick up another to avoid the first. This is one of those cases.

EDIT: (2008-01-01) When I first wrote this post, I included a photo called “Road to the Sea” from flickr.  I thought the photo was posted with a creative commons license, but the license on the photo now says “All rights reserved” so I’ve taken it down.

Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

John Walter recommended this book to me, and I’m excited to read it. At the same time, I’m terrified. Urban apocalypse scares me most of all, and this entire book, an epistolary novel written from the perspective of a young-teen girl, drips with it. It also features what 1970s horror movie makers knew was the worst thing: dread. We know bad things are coming–epidemics, continuous rioting, economic strife–but Womack keeps pushing them back a little further. At least Octavia Butler, in The Parable of the Sower, got the collapse of society started with haste. This book, not so much. (This is the only one of the four I haven’t finished now.)
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

My father-in-law insisted I should read this as an audiobook, since the narrator (Tom Stechschulte) does a fantastic job. I didn’t know it was a father-and-son road book about a post-apocalyptic landscape. Talk about dread: the characters shamble from one horror to another, running for their lives from cannibals and murderers. McCarthy makes a scavanged tin of peaches seem like heaven on earth, but I’m still quaking from the bit about the people being kept in the storm cellar as food.

Monster Island by David Wellington

Perhaps zombie novels don’t fit the same seriousness as the two books above, but this one is still creepy. The need to have the zombies be more than zombies makes sense. I’ll have to write something more sustained about why zombie novels can’t just be zombie films in novel form; at least the good ones can’t. The short answer is that zombies are a visual monster. They tap into the uncanny, and that fear works best as a visual, not language-based, one. The human-and-yet-not-human shape of the zombies, along with their dead eyes and lumbering walk, make them frightening. In books, this doesn’t translate the same way, and action becomes the way one interacts with them.

Thus, zombie novelists must come up with something else for the zombies to do. Some make it funny (Al’s All Fright Diner, The Stupidest Angel), some make it large scale (World War Z), and some give the zombies an unheimlich intelligence (Cell, Monster Island). My favorite twist with Wellington’s book was his decision to have the zombie epidemic be something other than a virus. That way, pigeons, horses, and mummies can all rise from the dead as well.

Children of Men

Good God! Why do all the beautiful movies (save Searching for Bobby Fischer) have to be do damn heartwrenching. There I sat, watching Cuaron’s brilliant film in my living room, my muscles clenched with tension, my stomach seizing. The moment arrives when Ki passes through a crowd with her baby and everyone stops shooting to listen to the baby cry. Then, as the baby’s crying died out I heard Avery crying in her bedroom. Scared the bejeezus out of me. And I think I over-comforted her, at that.

So having seen the film now, why did I think Ben Kingsley was in it?

That ain’t Santa!

From the Star Tribune, “Firefighters Rescue Drunk Man Trapped in Chimney”

“I told them to leave him in the chimney and let him die,” she said.

http://www.startribune.com/484/story/1434685.html

Who put the Alphabet…?

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Whenever I hear They Might Be Giants’ amusing and lyrical “Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order?”, from Here Come the ABCs, I can’t help but think of the Will Farrell / Ana Gasteyer singing sketches from SNL.

Back in ancient times, you know that things then weren’t that easy.
So many different tribes: so many different ways of writing.
I wonder, who put the alphabet in alphabetical order?

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