There’s a reason people don’t remember commencement speeches.

Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself by Alan Alda; narrated by the authorThings I Overheard While Talking to Myself
This book is one of the more up and down memoirs I’ve encountered. Alda tells stories well, and his anecdotes shine throughout the book. His stories about working with Osse Davis on Broadway or meeting his business manager crackle with detail and zip along nicely. At the same time, the organizing principle behind this book is a set of speeches he’s given to various groups and venues over the past thirty years or so. In most cases, the speeches themselves have kernels of truth but they weigh heavily like aphoristic speeches usually do, and they’re the least interesting part of the book.

  • I like his approach to autographing — namely that he offers to shake peoples’ hands instead of signing autographs. This tidbit comes from the chapter on celebrity, which is one of the most interesting.
  • I also really liked the story about giving a speech about Jefferson to a group of historians and trustees at Monticello. He decided that there was nothing he could say about Jefferson that would be news to them, so he used a very Ulmer-ian method to find his speech topic. He decided that someone on his upcoming trip to China would tell him something about Jefferson that he didn’t know. He ended up meeting and talking to a scientist who’d come up with a way of crossbreeding rice that resulted in higher yields around the world. This man, self-educated and fighting the establishment throughout his life, was one of the only people in China who knew Jefferson. Then Alda reveals that Jefferson also risked his life for rice, smuggling an Italian strain of rice out of Italy at a time when doing so carried a death penalty.
  • Another great story comes from his early theatre days, when Alda had to bring his infant daughter to rehearsal because his wife had the flu. His daughter started crying while he was on stage, stuck at the top of a telephone pole. The director–most of the time a total hard-ass–asked Alda if that was his daughter. When Alda affirmed that it was, he said “Why don’t you come down and attend to her, and we’ll work on something else?”

A Hole in Space

A Hole in Space by Larry Niven

A solid short story collection focused on the ramifications of teleportation technology. In particular, the amusing idea that ready access to teleporting would allow you to commit crimes from very far away–the police refer to the machine as the alibi box.

As usual, Niven does a great job building solid, believable characters and dancing them around the central conceit of the story. I particularly liked the final story with the visiting aliens. He does use an idea that I’ve read in the novel A MOTE IN GOD’S EYE, the laser-driven space ship.

Worth a read.

Chill out.

Chill Out

Brian found this image and posted it in his excellent analysis of the debate last Friday.  Here’s my favorite bit, in which Brian comments on the lamenting that the debate wasn’t more explosive:

I don’t think anyone would deny that Obama is facing off against some very bad people, and I’m not suggesting a Pollyanna naivete as a strategy (or is a tactic, Sen. McCain?). But I do think one of the truly striking things about Obama’s campaign is not just the racial or generational shifts it represents, but its desire to craft a different kind of narrative, one which seems to thwart the more standardized desires of both opponents and supporters. Obama and his people are smart enough to know that sometimes the most graceful move is the punch you don’t throw, especially when your opponent keeps hitting himself in the face.

Thanks, Brian.

The Boondock Opera

The Boondock Opera

Both of these films–A Night at the Opera and Boondock Saints–are, at their core, about justice and love. Boondock tells a story of two young men who’re devoted to God and, in a moment of fervor after killing two Russian mafiosos, become vigilantes ala The Punisher, only without the revenge motive to draw from. A Night at the Opera features similarly individualistic rogues working for the good of others, only they use mischeif instead of murder to accomplish their ends.

Both films raise challenging ethical questions. In A NIght at the Opera, the odious lead tenor is odious mostly because he’s pompous. We have no indication in the film that he’s necessarily bad. We just don’t like him as much as Zeppo.* When the Marxes sabotage his opening night in New York, tie him up, and force the odious theatre manager to put on Zeppo and his girlfriend, they’re essentially committing extortion. Yet we love Groucho’s dancing eyebrows and greasepaint moustache so we are happy when our young lovers get their moment on stage. Who cares what they did to get it? I acknowledge, though, that the broad sweeps of humor in the film hide this ethical question from most viewers and/or make it irrelevant.

The Boondock Saints shows its cards much more openly. The priest’s sermon about the lessons of Kitty Genovese and the FBI agent’s moral quandary in the confessional both bring the question of vigilante justice to the fore. Our heroes seem to have less reservation about their own murderous rampages–they’re Old Testament Christians, more than the forgiving-like-Jesus kind. The film’s finale and closing credit sequence brings these concerns to the fore. To refer to a Robert Ray quote that Brian posted a couple days ago, the closing credits turns the exposition knob way up.

  • Both films feature a carefully orchestrated and dicey “bonked on the head” sequence. While Boondock acknowledges that getting clobbered on the head with a toilet (or a toilet-tank top) would likely kill you, Opera seems to think a frying pan is really just the poor man’s blackjack.
  • Similarly, both films feature police officers being taken by surprise and being bonked on the head.
  • Opera defines greatness in both films. In Opera, Zeppo proves his worth to the opera company in a bold song as the film closes. Boondock features an FBI agent who channels his powers of deduction using opera music in his CD player.
  • beardsBoth films rock righteous beards (right).
  • Both films feature smartasses.  Groucho is the preeminent smartass, saying things like “I saw Mrs. Claypool first. Of course, her mother really saw her first but there’s no point in bringing the Civil War into this.”  FBI Agent Paul Smecker is equally caustic: “So Duffy, you got any theories to go with that… tie?”

In addition to these small things, both films engage in what Tom Gunning dubbed the “Cinema of Attractions.”  As Gunning originally meant it, the CoA was a way to understand why so many Classic Hollywood films bring their narratives to a crashing halt in order to feature dance numbers, musical numbers, fashion shows, and so on.  He posits that the cinema’s roots in vaudeville are the cause of this tendency.  In its very early days, films were but one of the things on display at the vaudeville house.  As they gained popularity, they took over the stage and slowly vaudeville houses converted into cinema palaces.  But people were used to the variety-show effect of a trip to the theatre, so the desire for things like dance numbers and songs stayed around long after the medium no longer needed them.  The Marx Brothers are a perfect example of this hybridity, as they were in fact vaudeville performers who took their act into film.  They toured with the bits from their films before they filmed them.  They also had lots of “CoA” moments, such as dance numbers, musical performances, and the inevitable Harpo Harp sequence.

But other scholars have picked up this idea as the influence behind modern plot-stallers like gunfights, car chases, and explosive action sequences of SF movies (c.f. Scott Bukatman).  Thus, one can look at the stylistic energy devoted to the gunfights in The Boondock Saints (especially the hit on the Russian mob boss) as a remnant of the Cinema of Attractions.

*I know it’s not Zeppo, but it’s basically a stand-in Zeppo.

The Big Lie

Protocols of Zion posterIs what filmmaker Mark Levin calls The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that claims a Jewish cabal has planned and executed a careful takeover of the world.  In his 2005 film, Protocols of Zion, Levin explores the rising anti-Semitism that seems to stem, in part, from conspiracy theories around 9/11.  One such theory, often repeated, is that 4,000 Jews received phone calls warning them not to go to work that day.

Levin visits a variety of places, from the streets of New York–where he encounters quite a bit of anti-Semitism among Palestinians (no surprise there) and among some African Americans.  These folks believe the Protocols to be true, despite Levin’s questions like “What about all the Evangelicals who’re in charge of the government right now?”  One particularly strange exchange went something like this:

Young man: Look at this city!  Jews are in charge of everything.  Mayor Bloomberg. Bloomberg.

Levin: But what about the years Giuliani was in charge?  What were things like then?

Young man: Just listen to yourself.  You just said it.  Jew-liani.  [Crowd laughs]

He also visits people who make it an active practice to hate Jews, such as the leader of a White Supremacy group and the person behind the “Jewwatch” website.  It’s an appalling glimpse into the cobwebbed mind of these people, but Levin does an amazing job staying even handed and even tempered in the face of such horrible feelings and sentiments.  A few more thoughts:

  • The clips of Arab television specials depicting the most outrageous of anti-Semitic propaganda are especially effective in underlining how big a problem this is.
  • I’m amazed by the amount of people who use shitty logic and stupid credulity to justify their own prejudices (such as the Holocaust deniers in the film, who say things like “I haven’t seen evidence that this happened.”)
  • I found Levin’s conversation with the Evangelicals on opening night of Passion of the Christ most interesting.  They basically dismissed his concerns, saying that “we can’t do anything about the past, we just have to move forward.”  He expressed surprise that they could be so sure of their convictions given that the past 1500 years had involved people being converted at knife point or slaughtered, and that the agents behind this trend had read the same text Evangelicals read.
  • One sequence that was pretty interesting was one in which Levin attended a Palestinian rally in New York, and spoke with the supporters of Palestine (who were, not surprisingly, anti-Israel).  He listened to their complaints that Israel killed their people, destroyed homes, bombed them, and so on.  Their anti-Semitism seemed ripe and vicious, but grounded in local politics.  Then, he cuts to a pro-Israel rally in which men nearly indistinguishable from those at the Palestinian rally rave with equal vigor about the Muslim anti-Semites, who’re raised to hate, taught to martyr themselves, and so on.  The juxtaposition of the two highlighted his recurring point about building bridges of communication, rather than chasms of violence.
  • The one bit of the film I didn’t like is Levin’s implication that 9/11 Consipracists (or perhaps, skeptics?) root that skepticism in anti-Semitism.  My brief contact with such theories suggests that most folks with these concerns are much more rational and libertarian than prejudice or religion-based.

His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday

In my continuing quest to see movies I should have seen a while ago, I “Watch It Now”‘d His Girl Friday this afternoon while I spent two hours trying to keep Finn from crying. (I had him at one point and then the doomed prisoner escaped and a gunfight broke out, sending Finn into hysterics again.)

I generally like screwball comedies. I like It Happened One Night, Bringing up Baby, and Adam’s Rib, for instance. But only the last of those three has as much spite-equals-comedy as this film. I suppose we’re supposed to see Bruce as a chump, and Hildy and Burns as heroic individualists, but mostly I just find myself feeling sorry for the insurance salesman. Hildy’s clearly trying to do what advice columnists everywhere encourage: examining the problems with her choice in men and trying to change by going against her instinct. Alas, Burns is right in that she’s just as much a newspaperman as he. I think Bruce dodged one there.

His Girl FridayThat makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the film, which I did. Here are a few bullets of stuff I liked:

  • The much vaunted fast talking sat really well with me. It gave me insight into how Aaron Sorkin writes his screenplays: the manic effect of multiple characters dealing with multiple conversations and the rapid-fire patter keep the pace up where very little is actually happening.
  • The mousey sadness of the murderer / death-row convict amused me quite a bit. His complaint that he’s “Just tired” and wants to “go back to my cell” was especially funny against the backdrop of the arguing Mayor and Sheriff.
  • I was glad to see Gene Lockhart, who portrayed the hangdog judge in Miracle on 34th Street, as the bumbling Sheriff. Also hangdog.
  • The macguffin of the criminal in the desk works really well; I suppose you might not call it a macguffin since the criminal gets found out, but there you are.
  • I liked any moment where a character was talking on two phones simultaneously. TEll me that isn’t always funny.
  • How can you dislike Cary Grant? I can’t.

Snarking the debate, no 1.

So as I watch the debate, I’m going to make snarky comments on it.

  • Obama: “Wall street to Main street.”  Clever!
  • My mom just noticed: Obama, flag pin; McCain, no flag pin.
  • McCain: “I believe in the power of the American worker.”   Well good, cuz the stockbrokers are gonna be unemployed.
  • Obama: 18 billion is bad, 300 billion is really bad.  McCain: ignores the 300 billion.
  • McCain: “Everybody would be surprised to know Obama’s definition of rich.”  Obama: “250,000 or more is rich.”
  • McCain: We can make a whole bunch of jobs by building 45 Nuclear plants in the next 20 years.  Me: Why can’t we build geothermal, water, wind plants?  Why Nuclear?  What the fuck?
  • God, McCain is a toad.
  • McCain: “I want families to choose their health care.”  Yeah John, they choose between medical bills and their rent.
  • Obama: “It was your President, whom you agree with 90% of the time, who presided over this orgy of spending.”
  • Explain this to me: “You cannot have a failing strategy that then causes you to lose the conflict.”  I don’t understand, John.
  • Whoa!  Obama said he’d launch military strikes in Pakistan?  McCain’s just a liar. LIAR.  What a jackass.
  • I tire of this debating about the war.
  • I believe watching debates is kinda like eating broccoli.  You don’t want to, but you know you should.  It would taste better with melted cheese though.  And McCain’s lame jokes aren’t cheesy enough.
  • Okay, that’s enough.  I’ll write a bit more later.

I Know My Rights

Riding the El home from work one autumn afternoon, a man walked into the car and sat behind me. I sat in bookish silence, staring down at the page without reading because the man behind me was talking on his cell phone. From his conversation, I gathered he was in his mid- or early-twenties.

“Oh Man! We went to this party last weekend and got so drunk. Shit. There were all these hot bitches there too.”

Having heard enough to suspect that the conversation would continue in that vein for some time, I turned away from vicarious Bacchanalia to my scholarly tome pondering new media. We rode the train together, the partier and I, through the West side of Chicago; he yammered on and on, a steady drone harmonizing with the muted roar of the train as it rumbled toward the sunset. I did my best to tune out his gruff timbre and swarthy syntax.

sunset_over_the_green_line

The familiar robotic voice announced that “This is Austin. Ridgeland is next,” so I closed my book and gathered my bag from between my feet. I tuned into his conversation and discovered that adventures in libido were no longer at issue–now we were discussing the vagaries and injustices of the U.S. legal system.

“I know all about my civil rights and my rights were violated five times.”

Five times? I thought. This guy can’t catch a break. My interest piqued and I sat up straight. My burning desire for justice and a juicy story kept me rapt.

“I served this country in Vietnam. I gave my time and put my life on the line and now my civil rights are being violated.”

Bastards, I thought.

“I know my rights and they were violated. Goddamn pigs.”

My companion wasn’t giving his conversation partner on the other end of the phone much opportunity to talk, but perhaps relieving himself of the burden was the goal today. We were moments from my stop, so I rose and made my way toward the door in front of me.

“I know my rights,” he repeated, “I know the Constitution. ‘We the People, of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union…’ ”

The train eased to a halt and I stepped toward the doors. I glanced at my companion, needing a glimpse of this bearer of woe. He was between forty and fifty, a white man with a shaved head. His well-worn leather jacket and haggard eyes reminded me of someone you’d see in a biker bar on television. His screen credit would be “local tough number 2,” and he’d answer the detective’s question about whether he’d seen anything with a flippant answer like, “I see lots of things.”

It was only as I left the train, the words of the Constitution wafting out after me, that I realized he didn’t have a phone.

Gaming Experiences

Game-ism reflected on the experience of new games, as opposed to games that repackage old experiences. After explaining why FPSes built on the traditional model no longer work for him, he writes:

I’ve already experienced those things, and I want to enjoy new experiences.

As designers, could we all agree to eschew the idea of “Genre with a _____?” I think the consumer has spoken through their wallet that they’re not really that interested in those concepts anymore.

Let’s no longer think in terms of selling them a game. Let’s instead think of selling them an experience. (link)

I guess that’s what appeals so much about the innovations at work in some Wii games. It’s as though the gimmicky new controller has urged designers to think about what new experiences can manifest themselves through this setup. My favorite Wii game is still Trauma Center. I haven’t been a surgeon in any other game, and the excitement of trying to stem the blood, massage the little girl’s heart when it stops, and replace her pacemakers is remarkably satisfying.

I would love for a game that let me use two wiimotes as hand-held pistols and the balance board as a steering mechanism. Imagine being the Green Goblin in a game, steering by leaning and shooting with abandon.

But his point holds as well regardless of nifty controllers. If they release Harvey Birdman, attorney at Law for the Wii, I’ll buy it. As he says, new experiences are at the center of good game design.

Maxed Out

Is a stark and unbelievably depressing movie about the American love affair with credit, the desperate situation our national debt will put us in (growing worse every year), and the rigged political system designed to prevent protective laws from being engineered.

It’s an important movie to watch, even if you finish it feeling stomped on.  A few more thoughts:

  • There’s a long sequence contrasting a group of Boiler Room debt collectors celebrating their conquests in a bar with two or three families discussing loved ones who got so far into credit card debt, and so harassed by creditors, that they ended up committing suicide.  It’s a harsh and damning contrast, but still kicks as slightly unfair in that the people who got into debt certainly put themselves there.
  • More worrying is the sequence talking with barely literate impoverished Southern African Americans who were tricked into signing up for deceptive loans.  These scenes are cross cut with congressional hearings in which government agencies declared that credit agencies are carefully screening the people they lend to.
  • I was most interested in the people who were depicted ambiguously.  The two most intriguing characters were a radio host who had a show about how to manage your money, but is shown scolding a woman who is considering bankruptcy about her responsibility to lenders.  The second is a pawn shop owner who sees his shop as a genuine service to people, and is concerned about the state of the economy that allows people to get into the trouble they have.

Very depressing, but valuable.

Murder of a Small-Town Honey

Murder of a Small-Town Honey (Scumble River Mystery, Book 1)

by Denise Swanson

rating: 2 of 5 stars
Swanson’s tale of a school psychologist forced into detection when her brother is accused of murder whisks along at a sprightly pace. The main character is interesting if a bit one-sided (a hair-trigger feminist from a small town, she’s angry with everyone).

The author does a decent job setting up the small town atmosphere of busy-body townsfolk and a character slinking home after burning her bridges. At the same time, there aren’t very many (if any?) likeable people in the town. Skye’s family and friends are only barely tolerable when they aren’t being blatantly rude, and her acquaintances are all nasty right from the get go. As a result I was pretty tense throughout the book: not cozy.

  • The writing that verges on the romantic felt quite authentic. Skye meets Simon, a suave man who may be a cad, and recognizes in him all the qualities (both good and bad) that attracted her to the fiance who’d jilted her just before she moved home.
  • There are a few poorly explained moments or gaps in common sense, but generally this book does better than most in avoiding the most egregious of these.
  • I dislike the name of the town: Scumble River. Really? Scumble?
  • Finally, the author does a solid job of creating a small town where everybody talks to everybody, albeit in a pretty aggressive way.

She’s the Samurai

She\'s the Samurai

Once again, two reviews in one.

She’s the Man was not terrible.  It’s surprising to write that about an Amanda Bynes movie, particularly one with such an egregious cover, but it holds up well.  The film updates Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by putting it into a private high school, and mixing in a healthy dose of Just One of the GuysSeven Samurai starts a genre, rather than continuing it.  As I watched it, I noticed a healthy dose not only of The Magnificent Seven (a direct translation) but also of The Three Amigos.

Both films had disappointments for me.  She’s the Man did have a character emulating my favorite self-righteous puritan, Malvolio, but it eschewed the public mockery of him, and in fact pretty much dodged Toby Belch and his besotted companions completely.  Seven Samurai avoided the American-ism of the down-and-out.  At no point are the Samurai losing; they never have to decide to stick around despite their defeat.

I was delighted most by the depth of the hothead former-farmer Samurai wannabe character.  He’s simultaneously hilarious and angry, brave and stupid.  I also laughed quite a bit at Viola’s attempts to mimic masculinities, and the effect such attempts had on the young men in the film (namely, that she was a doofus).

Some overlaps:

  • Both films have “getting ready” montages: Seven Samurai show us the villagers gearing up for war, learning to use spears, etc; She’s the Man features a “getting better at soccer” montage.
  • Both films have girls pretending to be boys.  In both cases, the girls fall in love with a boy they’re acquainted with, and the gender reveal is a shocker (though much more so in She’s the Man).  In both cases, the man finds out the woman is a woman because he sees her shirtless (though Seven Samurai makes this an accidental reveal).
  • Both films feature outsiders who have to play to stereotypes to get along.  In She’s the Man, the male characters fit a number of specific stereotypes and Viola must mimic characteristics of this masculinity to fit in.  In Seven Samurai, Kikuchiyo tries to mimic the Samurai mode of combat and life, while simultaneously despising it.
  • Both films have a climactic battle.  Except that in She’s the Man, it’s a soccer game.

I was most interested in Seven Samurai for its pacing and character development, which works really well despite the length of the film.  She’s the Man, on the other hand, brought to mind a conversation in James R. Kincaid’s book Erotic Innocence, in which he suggests that our culture’s delight in a certain set of young male attributes (full lips, lidded eyes, cherubic cheeks) is mimicked in the way we look at adult female stars.  Amanda Bynes fits both parts of that physiognomy.

Damn our careful budgeting!

Jenny and I have recently embarked on a button-down-our-spending crusade that feels good to do except when you see something you really want that’s not in the budget.  Here is the first one I’ve come across:

anathem

Stephenson is probably the top of a very small group of “read everything” authors I’ve encountered.  Seeing that he has a new SF novel makes me literally giddy.

Perhaps, to slake my thirst for it, I should finally crack open The System of the World, the giant third book in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which I’ve been holding off reading because it will mean there’s no new Stephenson to read.