Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Trivialities and Machiavelli

I haven't been thinking over any deep, dark issues lately.
Well, actually I have. But my thoughts are not concluded enough to be posted here yet.
So today I post a diversion I ran across last night:

You Are Somewhat Machiavellian

You're not going to mow over everyone to get ahead...
But you're also powerful enough to make things happen for yourself.
You understand how the world works, even when it's an ugly place.
You just don't get ugly yourself - unless you have to!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Restrained Optimism

Perhaps I am beating a subject to death but...
Caught "House" tonight. I enjoyed it quite a lot, actually. I think perhaps it really is settling back into its old form.

Then again, I'm enough of a realist (some would say pessimist) not to make some sweeping statement such as "House is back!" or "Nothing can go wrong now!"
Honestly, who wants to be categorically optimistic right before a (possible) fall?

Time will tell what I can't.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Ultimate Question

I just don't get it. It simply makes no sense to me. (I could write out a dozen more of these short sentences communicating bewilderment, but will leave it at that.)

I wrestled with it, laughed at it, and finally decided just to post it here as a question. Maybe you can answer.

But why, why would a book of blank pages need it's own ISBN?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Eyes Wide Open

When I first read about the then-upcoming Walk the Line, bio-pic on the late Johnny Cash, I was surprised by the lead casting. I mean, Joaquin Phoenix as Cash? It seemed somehow... impossible.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Phoenix actually had an almost perfect look to portray the man in black. But the sound? That voice was supposed to pass for Cash’s deep bass? And he wasn’t just expected to talk for the man, he was gonna be singing.

Well, he pulled it off. There’s no risk of mistaking Phoenix vocally for the real thing, but it works even so.
And the look is a whole other story. By the end of the picture, Phoenix handling the guitar as it’s strap slides along his shirt’s black shoulder… It was as though Cash were on the stage.
Then again, my Cash knowledge is at best superficial. A heavyweight Cash fan might have a lot more problems here than I do.

The film itself was beautiful. Better than I had expected.

The story is, probably, somewhat familiar to you. Cash savagely tears apart his life even as he builds a massive music career, then makes his way to a happy ending. Some might categorize it as a standard redemption story, but it happens to be true.
And the handling was magnificent. The timing, the development, the weaving together of hints at song lyrics—everywhere it could have fallen flatly on its face it managed to make something quality instead.

The story is put on the screen with a craftsmanship of deceptive simplicity. Which is exactly what is needed here.
And the scenes in Folsom: Magnificent all the way.

Wish List ‘05: The Original Guide


I have long been familiar with Douglas Adams’ work. Familiar. That is, I’ve never read any of it, but I know the central ideas behind Hitchhiker’s and a few of his other storylines. And I am acquainted with the philosophical wit of his universe.

So why have I never read Hitchhiker’s? Time is one reason. There a far too many books on my to-read list without it. But, more to the point, I am a fan of radio drama.

Good radio drama almost entirely left our hemisphere with the advent of television. In the old country, however, it still exists in the form of BBC Radio. And the British Broadcasting Company (Radio 4, more specifically) holds the origin of Adams’ tale of an earthling and his extra-terrestrial pal thumbing their way across a post-apocalyptic (to the human, anyway) galaxy.

Why settle for anything but the original? Yes, I could just sit down and read the books, but when the original medium is one so dear to my heart you can hardly blame me for wanting to go there first.

The first two series (Primary and Secondary Phases) of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are the ones Douglas Adams’ wrote himself. They are both available on CD. Over here you may have to scrounge, but in the UK they are fairly proliferated. An EBay user in London is currently offering the original series for £3.70p (about $7 here). Or you may go elsewhere and spend almost $140 on some imported MP3 discs.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Out of the Running

Two years back now, a girl made something of a case for Runaway Bride [1999] as the best chick-flick. It seemed ill-advisable to disagree with a girl (girls being, one would imagine, experts) on this particular subject, particularly as I had never bothered to watch the film in question. Even so, I felt fairly confident that You’ve Got Mail [1998], Sense and Sensibility [1995], or either Pride and Prejudice miniseries [1980 & 1995] would top it on any list I might create.

Today, having seen Runaway Bride, I confirm my suspicion. It pales in comparison to those well-adapted Austens and to that agreeable AOL-inspired romantic comedy.

But, while Runaway wouldn’t win any awards I might be asked to dispense, I certainly enjoyed the first half of it. Nothing great (and the second half dragged laboriously to this easily-bored male), but enough for an occasional grin (which is all the standard comedy can expect to receive from me).

I could not watch this movie, however, without drawing a few comparisons between Julia Robert’s character and a friend of mine. It was almost as though this friend was on the screen, trying to make life miserable for the Richard Gere dude. She, however, is much more stylish in apparel, make-up, and such than her fictitious equivalent (or is she simply haughtier?).

Also not as quiet, less of a smiler, and nowhere NEAR as sweet.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Two Front Teeth

Thanksgiving is passed. (Or is that “past”?) Time to think of Christmas.

With that in mind, I am providing on my sidebar a “wish list” of good gift ideas. If I have a long-lost uncle with a wad of a few million, this is his chance to make contact.
The rest you are invited to just sit back and enjoy what an eclectic weirdo I am.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

Some of us call the fourth Thursday in November “Thanksgiving (Day)” and consider it a day set aside for the pious duty of, well, thanks-giving. O.K, then.
Others, however, condense the day’s meaning to the simpler truths of football, gigantic balloons floating above has-been vocalists, and a slain bird. “Turkey Day.” Not an official holiday, but whatever.

For purists intent on the meaning of the rather large fowl sacrificed to gastronomical pleasures, I below present some marvelous truths about the lord of the meat-poultry.

The first turkeys eaten were of course hunted in the wild. These birds are hardly stupid. Then someone realized that wild turkeys, flying from place to place and dodging predators, developed rather tough muscles over the lifetime it took to grow a mealtime bulk. And the turkey farm was created.

These farmed birds were scientifically bred to produce meatier offspring. Meaning some guys in overalls went around saying, “That thar turkey rooster issun bit bigger than ‘tother, letsus marry him off to that-ther big gal o’ a turkey hen.” The farmer benefited by growing bigger, more profitable birds on less feed. But every silver lining has its cloud, and along with monetary blessing came the curse of having to deal with a really, REALLY brainless bird all day, every day, for years until either retiring or running oneself over with a tractor.

Yes, lots of tender meat and lots of yarn-for-brains are genetically connected in turkeys. Therefore, domesticated turkeys are dumb.

SO dumb that turkeys are known to starve while pacing back and forth in a feed trough, dragging their legs through almost a foot of prime turkey feed.

SO dumb that turkeys are known to drown in water troughs with less than a half-inch of water in which to die.

SO dumb that turkey hens drop eggs while standing up.

And yes, the egg tends to break in the fall. So, exactly why hasn’t the domesticated turkey died out yet? Survival of the fittest, right? I mean, if the turkey hen is so dumb as to destroy it’s own means of creating offspring…

Enter the pitiable turkey farmer and a charge on his credit card for rubber mats. That's right folks, turkey farms across the world are padded with rubber to prevent the destruction of all domestic turkey multiplication.
One problem, though…

For some unexplainable reason, turkeys like rubber. Not just like, crave. This is true. It’s the reason for home video of escaped turkeys eating away at the tires on parked cars.
What’s that? “You are what you eat”?
Hope you enjoyed your roasted rubber bird over the Holiday.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Wish List ‘05: Polka CD


I came away from my one and only theme park experience with several things: an even greater appreciation for moving water, an even greater hatred for long lines, a sunburn (probably), a fair case of dehydration (definitely), and a thirst for German music.

A lot of hatred and scorn is reserved for polka amongst those who have never actually listened to it, I notice. I had never thought about the genre at all. But having heard it in all its glory, I proceeded to collect some now long-gone cassettes--most notably one called “Non-Stop Polka” (20 songs from Brentwood, not that “23 Hits” version now circulating) which included a full-lyrics version of “Chicken Dance.” Priceless.

If you’ve ever listened to good Tejano while driving you know what a beautiful instrument the accordion is. And while I have nothing bad to say about Tejano, if you haven’t heard the preceding accordion stylings of old Poland and Germany, you have yet to taste it‘s full sound. (And, no it is not polka when the accordion part is arranged for trumpet. The trumpet is a magnificent instrument, but let’s try to confine it to it’s proper musical styles.)

I just don’t get the fact that polka is considered a fringe style. A mass of art loved by a minority and perceived as a joke by everyone else. A major retail website has over 100 polka titles, but has them randomly categorized as everything from classical, folk, and jazz to country, rock, and disco. I mean, come on! A little respect as an art form, hmm?

While this haphazard classification system fails to meet any logical standards, it is interesting to note how many musical genera have been successfully adapted to polka rhythms. A cursory glance at some current polka titles reveals songs originally by the likes of Irving Berlin, Louis Armstrong, and Johnny Cash.
And “Walk the Line” as a polka isn’t half as bad as it first sounds.

Some songs to look for: “Chicken Dance,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Too Fat Polka,” “Henrietta Polka,” and (especially) anything actually in Polish or German.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Disorder in the HOUSE

Well, I’ve seen it.

House’s character seems to have been granted back some of his inner being, perhaps, while in pursuit of an unworthy cause. (A cause he has been after from just before the season’s inception.)

The rest of the cast, however, still seem lost to the random stupidity from which uninteresting shows like “The O.C.” get immature viewership. Or, just maybe, the creative team in back of things are trying to lead the characters back to their rightful places. Maybe.

I admit, the writers may be trying for excellence again.

But, whatever the answer to that question, tonight’s episode lacked the same sense of fun the show had last year.

Back to the HOUSE

Hugh Laurie has always been a great actor relegated to insignificant roles. Especially here in the Colonies. So, when he got his own TV show I wasn’t sure what to expect. It looked good, though.

Season One of “House, M.D.” was a great enjoyment to me. It chronicles nephrologist/infectious-disease-guy Dr. Gregory House and his over-qualified young staff as they hunt down obscure ailments. “Saving New Jersey from leprosy,” as one detractor put it (Chi McBride as worthy villain Vogler).

Good concept. Better execution.

House is a seemingly misanthropic doctor who will do anything to help people while adequately hacking them off.
His team consists of ‘the sweet girl,’ ‘the preppy,’ and a less abrasive version of the brilliant House himself: a med school graduate with perfect scores who was hired for his criminal record instead.
House’s best friend is an oncologist with some veiled marital problems and his boss is Miss By-The-Numbers who is hated for making him do free clinic work--where he has to deal with patients.

That walk-in clinic duty provides the dexterous comic-relief to the sometimes nauseating main storyline. It, the character’s staggered back-stories, and the occasionally shocking diseases, make up a fairly satisfying formula episode after episode.

That’s Season One.
We are now in Season Two.

For all of this new season I’ve been filming a class entitled “Elementary Hebrew.” For this reason I’ve only seen two episodes so far. Neither impressed me enough to take the bother to see the others.

It seems all that is left of the original series (as the Britisher star would refer to it) is an enhanced attempt to shock the viewer in one way or another. No, folks, the disgusting was not the only charm “House” originally held for the audience.
Now, it seems, House is portrayed as only a rather two-dimensional grumpus, while the staff is only interested in who is going to date whom. Boring.

Well, my class is on Holiday hiatus, and I am going to watch “House” tonight. I’ve allowed a big enough gap for it to march its way back to quality writing and character development in my absence.
I will be posting my impressions/opinions after the broadcast.

It is time to get well or keel over. Maybe this is why Mr. Laurie’s friends at the BBC seldom plan on more than one ‘series’ of a show…

Monday, November 21, 2005

Watterson's (Seemingly) Simple Genius

It’s something of a tradition. I don’t know when it started, but every year when it finally gets chilly enough to have on a space heater to warm the body I turn something else on to warm my heart.
This year it’s “There’s Treasure Everywhere, same as last year.
The year before that it was Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat.
But every year I pull down some “Calvin and Hobbes” collected volume and read it in its entirety.

We’ve all known a kid like Calvin; some of us have even been Calvin. He hates school, authority, unrecognizable foods, girls (especially that Susie chick), and anything boring. He loves free stuff, playing outside, and causing trouble.
Did I mention his best friend? His own imagination incarnate in the form of a stuffed tiger named Hobbes.

Honestly, if you’ve missed this phenomenon you must now cut a trail to a quality bookstore and lay down the 15 dollari for one of these oversize bundles of juvenile joy.

Whether Calvin is trying to sell his folks’ car, get his superhero persona out of his locker, or sway his dad’s parenting policies (either through “approval ratings” or making the case that toy purchases boost the economy), Calvin always has something to accomplish.

Hobbes is Calvin’s intellectual side. He may frown on humans (apes with ridiculous pink skin, to his thinking) and believe that the ladies only like a male with fluffy whiskers, but don’t put down this tiger’s reasoning skills. He also happens to scare Calvin silly with his raw power.
It has always intrigued me to note that Calvin is such a creative genius that his imagination itself can terrorize him.
Sometimes Hobbes may be waiting to maul his buddy when he arrives home from school, other times his tiger rage explodes unexpectedly at some overly-insulting gibe. Whatever the case, Calvin ‘knows’ Hobbes can make him into human hamburger meat with one pounce.

The genius of these dual personalities is only part of the series’ indestructible charm. Author/Artist Bill Watterson’s proficiency with pen adds a whole other visual brilliance to Calvin’s world.
Calvin’s ‘grumpy face,’ Hobbes ‘sly face,’ soiled Calvin after rooting around for worms (or ticking off the tiger), the alternate worlds of a boy’s imagination, Calvin’s snowmen (each with its own artistic or intellectual message!), or just the snow itself. Everything Watterson inks seems unbound from the two-dimensional world of paper on which it was born.

And it achieves a single marvelous effect—to give one a potent taste of childhood once again.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Happy Holidays, all 15 of 'em

I was passing by in Wal-Mart and someone I was with pointed a DVD out. It was in the "Holiday Classics" section, a series of shelves I generally glance over before crossing to the other side of the aisle. Yes, there are some good Christmas movies, but most of what pass as such these days make me want to find Scrooge and shake his hand.

Anyway, I followed the line of the outstretched finger and found myself looking at bargain-priced copy of Holiday Inn [1942]. Suddenly, I was excited. Holiday Inn. I hadn't seen that since I was, oh, maybe 7 years old.

Holiday Inn had left it's mark on me, somehow. As a child I had studied the dissolves, the blocking, the character design as it for some reason sparked my interest in filmmaking. Oh, there were better directed films to study, but perhaps that was why they didn't engage me as much in that way. Perhaps it was simply that Holiday Inn's style felt more attainable.
No, it was more than that. The dozens of 30's John Wayne B-pictures I had seen felt just as attainable--Holiday Inn seemed attainable while at the same time infused with a specifically-designed style.

Viewing it again after these years was quite an experience. I was aware of things I hadn't been previously, such as the potboiler construction of Hollywood musicals (though, thankfully, this was released by Paramount before MGM got its mitts on the concept and infused it with flashy technicolor stupidity). But I was far from disappointed.

Most scenes played out exactly as I had remembered (and flashed back to at various times over the years), including the opening sequence, the farm-life montage, and the "White Christmas" performances (later to be the basis of another, less worthy film with that song's name). Other scenes I recalled only at seeing them again, such as the exploding peach preserves and the marvelous St. Valentine's Day number.

The concept is that of a singer/song-writer (Bing Crosby) founding a show venue open only on holidays, that he might be lazy the rest of the time. To listen to him, this utopian plan is admirable if you can get away with it for yourself. Following the shows planned for an entire calendar worked especially well when I was younger, as it almost felt that the year was going by on screen.

The great Irving Berlin wrote all the music, and the credits state that the film is "based on an idea by" him. I have to wonder if that "idea" is the one Crosby's character is given in the story. After all, Berlin was himself a singer/song-writer, and to listen to his outlook on "the bugler" he was also a respecter of leisure. This theory is sweetened by the fact that before it's all over Crosby's idea is left in the hands of Hollywood film-makers (who are somehow portrayed as dream-killers in this respect). Hmm...

Holiday Inn is generally considered a Christmas movie (after all, it opens with and ends with Christmas, with another Christmas between). But really you couldst watch it for almost any holiday. That's the point after all, isn't it? I heartily recommend it for Independence Day, if only because of Fred Astaire--in probably his most villainous role--throwing lit firecrackers at his feet in a tap dance number. A real gem, even if handled technically poorly at its conclusion.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Legend is Lamed

I was supposed to be busy. I had work to do. I had stayed home from a trip to do this work. And things went haywire. So I… went to a movie.

The Mask of Zorro [1998] was a highly entertaining film. Anthony Hopkins, hero reduced to prisoner, escapes. He shall become Zorro once more! Only that would be a lot easier if his joints weren’t so darn stiff. So he trains a zealous (read: rash) young man to take his place. Can the wise old man make something truly significant out of this inconsequential but well-meaning bandit? The audience, of course, assumes immediately the answer is 'yes.' (They already knew they were here to see Antonio Banderas play the Z, right?) Old enemies, deadly mistakes, and a person at stake who is treasured by both foxes old and new.

So, how ’bouts a worthy sequel?

The Legend of Zorro [2005] is not a worthy sequel. A plot designed to interest a child of 8 plays out to tongue-in-cheek action that would only work if performed by Abbott and Costello. No suspense, no character development. Instead some tired inanities and a lot of flag-waving historical miss-mash designed to reflect current events.

By the time the DVD rolls out, even the elementary kids will be tired of the latest Zorro.

The Evil Within

Chapters 6-9 of Long Goodbye deal with Marlowe in the paws of unfriendly civil servants.

Enjoy may not be the best word, but I like them if only for showcasing the stupidity of what has at another time has been called corruption. Albeit in very simplified ways.

Homicide head Capt. Gregorius is “a type of copper that is getting rarer but by no means extinct” in 1953. He has Marlowe handcuffed tightly enough to kill his hands, throws scalding coffee at him, punches him in the base of the neck hard enough to fill the man’s mouth with blood and bile, and spits in his face. We are allowed to know that under different circumstances (if there was actually reason to suspect Marlowe of having committed a crime, for instance) we could expect much worse from Gregorius. He is a man who believes he can get away with things.

A half-century later the Captain’s type hasn’t died out yet. Now they have such utter confidence that they actually videotape themselves—and those tapes getting on the local news is about the only thing that gets public opinion against them, sometimes. A roomful of cops laughing as they taser a man to death handcuffed to a chair is un ugly sight to anyone with either a heart or a brain.

But perhaps worse than such technically (and sometimes publicly) frowned-upon inversions of justice are the accepted and even lauded methods, if only because they are a standardized part of a machine originally set in place for the people’s protection.
Current methods of police interrogation administered to the guilty to elicit confessions are, by official policy, only to be used on those who are “guilty.” The utter stupidity of such action would be laughable if it were not so heinous.
In this way a person’s legal “guilt” may be in practice determined by an interrogating officer before any actual evidence has been gathered.

I have seen such an interrogation of a child. Almost immediately he had confessed to murdering his sister. When he said he didn’t know why he had done it, he meant that he hadn’t been told his motive yet. I didn’t see the cops lay a hand on the boy, or hook him up to a car battery, or anything else generally categorized as torture. But what they were doing to force this confession was most definitely wrong in every sense of the word. I knew he was innocent the first time I saw the tape. Even if I had been wrong, if he was guilty, this perversion of justice was no proof of it.

Almost ten years later, that grieving boy—that boy who had missed his baby sister’s funeral sitting in a jail cell—was cleared by a jury when DNA evidence proved his innocence. Two of the officers involved were reprimanded. Last I heard, none of them had lost their badges or been imprisoned as they should have.

When evil becomes part of a system, what is the system then to fight?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Some Simple Art of Chandler's

I have just received tonight a gift of the great Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye [1953].

The only other Philip Marlowe novel I have read is the first, The Big Sleep [1939]. It began better in my opinion, but chapters 4 and 5 of Goodbye are getting interesting. Heck, it's been interesting from page one, just feels a bit rushed in pace, perhaps.

Also, I generally read works in some chronological order. I am, for example, systematically making my way through all of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin fiction by date of original publication. So, this jump of three or four books and 14 years in the life of the greatest hard-boiled eye perturbs me slightly. But whatever. This one came to me, and I shall read it.

The edition is quite nice. Not an original, but a very adequate hardcover by Reader's Digest, year 2005. Who would have expected this brand-new volume to turn up at a library book sale for $0.75? O.K, yeah, the insipid metallic green embossed on the cover irks me, as does the fact that every chapter opens with the silhouettes of palm trees. But hey, this binding is quality. It's a really beautiful printing, man.

Of course, I currently have a dozen or so book being slowly read through... but thanks to the effortlessness of reading Chandler's marvelous prose (something he crafted not so effortlessly) I expect to have this one completed virtually instantaneously. The others can wait a day or two, right?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

“I like these. They're like MacArthur's.”

A great line (in context, anyway) from a superb movie from one of the greatest directors.
The subject, of course, is sunglasses. (A corn-cob pipe wouldn't have the plural form.)

Clearly, anyone who works in the sun (or drives a car regularly) should have a good pair of sunglasses. For those not satisfied with owning a good pair of shades, there is provided below a set of guidelines for sunspec selection.

Robert's Rules of Sun-Appropriate Eyewear
not by Robert

1. No “wrap-around” frames of any kind.
You want to retain some semblance of peripheral vision.

2. Color: Brown.
Find a pair as close in color to that perfect cup of coffee as possible. This reduces eye strain/fatigue, increases contrast, and nearly eliminates glare. Plus they look cool.

3. Style: MacArthur, Kojak, or those worthy of the 'Aviator' mark. Metal frames are a must.
Maybe get a slightly smaller version of Kojak's beakers, though. You want people to think you look totally cool--you just don't want them to think you want them to think you look totally cool.

4. For the fisherman: Polarized.
Reflected light is generally polarized by the surface it bounces off of. The special layer in glasses with this mark will screen that polarized light out so you see light coming from below, instead of at, the water's surface. See the fish, read the fish, catch the fish. Be sure to remind the kids that you have "x-ray" goggles.
Another note: That layer on the outside of the lens will eventually rub off inside the pair's case. If you care way too much about your sunglasses, you can spend some extra Cs to get this layer manufactured inside the lens itself for durability.

5. No one should see your eyes.
Come on, we all do it. We're sitting in the car, waiting for everybody in front of us to finally clear the four-way stop, and we let our eyes wander underneath their shield. I see you, you don't see that I see you. Feel like a kid feeling like a spy again. Another note: This one can be hard to find in combination with No. 2. Keep looking, though.

And really, for those of us not rich or actually pilots (where all of this truly does matter as much as some of us think it does), the final rule is the price tag: Please be under twenty bucks!
Or maybe I'm just cheap. . .