Friday, August 25, 2006

The Genesis and Progress of Genius or Orson Welles on the Road to Xanadu

By Lance Mannion

Genius has a shelf life.

In the arts, at any rate, geniuses blossom and thrive for a set number of years and then their powers begin to decline, gradually and over decades for the lucky, sharply and precipitously for the unlucky or those, like Hemingway, who wasted their energies and gifts.

For some, that period of genius in bloom lasts for a short time, ten years at most. Others are granted twenty years or more. The greatest geniuses seem to last longest, producing masterpiece upon masterpiece up until the brink of old age. A few, mostly composers and painters, have managed even in their old age to turn out work every bit as good and even better than things they did in their prime.

Artistic genius seems to come into its own later than scientific genius. Artists tend to find their way in their late twenties or early thirties, with a few not hitting their stride until their forties. If you were to graph the periods of artistic fecundity of the "average" genius, you'd get a parabola that begins climbing somewhere around the age of twenty-five and rises up to forty or fifty before beginning its downward arc.

Orson Welles' period of genius seems to have lasted about thirty years. Unfortunately for him, it began when he was ten.

If he'd begun to blossom in his mid to late twenties, he'd have been done when he was closing on sixty and would have had less time to turn himself into a joke and a self-parody.

Instead he was finished at about the time most great geniuses are just beginning to produce their best work.

It didn't help that Welles lost his ability to discipline himself at exactly the moment he most needed to focus, during the production of The Magnificent Ambersons.

Reviewing Orson Welles: Hello Americans, the second volume of Simon Callow's ambitious biography of Welles, in this month's Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz writes that Welles' tragic error was his "fateful decision to leave Ambersons without finishing the film’s all-important postproduction work, in order to fly to Rio to film the Carnival for a wartime documentary the government had asked him to direct in support of inter-American unity."

For Welles, the South America trip was equal parts patriotic gesture, serious attempt to make something like an anthropological art film, and sybaritic boondoggle. Indisputably, though, his adventure there destroyed his already-fragile relationship with RKO (the company was footing the bill) and led to the studio’s evisceration of Ambersons—RKO cut nearly an hour from the film, diminishing it from 131 minutes to eighty-eight, and the studio inserted new material that was neither written nor directed by Welles.

At the time, the “giant boy,” as Welles was often called, seems to have been too absorbed in his pleasures and projects to apprehend fully the ramifications of the destruction of Ambersons—and his own role in that destruction. Four decades later he would recognize, as his film archivist recounted, that it “was the worst thing that had happened to him in his life.”

(Sorry to report that the whole article appears to be available only to subsribers. I'll look for a way around that.)

The Magnificent Ambersons as Welles filmed it is thought to be the greatest film never seen.

A superhuman ability to focus and maintain self-discipline, at least while working, are as important qualities to genius as actual talent. Once they go the talent is practically useless.

Welles' talent continued to flicker and flare for many years---Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, not a bad tail-off---but after The Magnificent Ambersons he could never get the right people to take him seriously again, and one of those people was, apparently, himself.

Geniuses often seem to spring out of nowhere. They appear in the most average families like changelings. Welles, however, was born into a family of, if not geniuses, then exceptional and idiosyncratic talent. His father was an exceptionally talented accountant and business executive (althought not a particularly good man of business; his uncle, that is, Orson's great-uncle had that distinction, having founded two successful companies) who was also something of an inventor. His intellectual mother was a musician, a brilliant public speaker, a political activist, and a champion shot with a rifle.

But he was also born into a family of "characters." Selfish and self-indulgent characters, at that.

His father led a double-life, going back and forth between his respectable, upper-middle class life and the Chicago demimonde where he was a regular at the best whorehouses and "theaters" and notorious for his way with chorus girls and actresses.

His mother, Orson's grandmother, was smart, talented, and self-willed. In deifiance of her father, the local District Attorney, she left her home in Kenosha, Wisconsin one day, made her way to Missouri, apparently with the intention of finding a husband for herself, which she did, choosing a fellow best suited to give her father the most heartburn and herself the least trouble.

She was fourteen at the time.

She did not grow less independent or idiosyncratic, or self-centered, as she aged.

That husband, Orson's grandfather, did his bit and did not cause her trouble, drifting quietly out of her life after a few years of marriage. She had him declared legally dead and married again, this time choosing a steadier but just as self-effacing a husband.

In case you're wondering, I've been reading the first volume of Callow's biography, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. I started it last night and ate it up with a spoon. I read late into the night. I was furious with myself when I grew too tired to keep reading. I can't remember the last book I read that I just didn't want to put down.

Maud Newton can. It was Rupert Thomson's Air & Fire and Maud got so caught up while reading it at a bus stop that she let buses go by in order to finish:

...my God, is it a page-turner. You suspect early-on that a Frenchman’s efforts to build a metal church in the tropics will lead to disaster for everyone, but the characters and their desires are so fully-realized that you’re desperate to see exactly what form their tragedies will take. Or I was, anyway.

I had about fifty pages left to go when I met a friend for drinks on Thursday night. She and I parted ways at midnight, and I rushed over to the bus stop near Greenpoint Ave. It’s at most a ten-minute walk to my house from there. I couldn’t wait. I leaned against a pole, let the buses pass, and read until I finished.

Alone at a bus stop. At midnight. In New York City. Lost in a book.

That must be some book.

Ok, your turn again. What was the last book you read that you'd have kept reading alone at a bus stop at midnight while letting the buses go by?

Also, name some geniuses who were productive into their old age and others who burned out early.

Cross-posted at my place.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Awesome Possum Kicks Dr. Machino's Butt! Part 1

By HomefrontRadio

There’s a Part 2 to this that I’ll post next week, since I realise this is fairly
long as it is, and don’t want to take over the Blog.



‘Snakes On A Plane’, the paradigm-changing movie that was supposed to forever affect how movies were made and marketed, (due to an unprecedented 10 month pre-release Internet buzz), and such a sure thing that not only was Samuel Jackson already speaking of higher salary demands for the inevitable sequel, but the Direct-To-DVD rip-off ‘Snakes On A Train’ was both made and released in the interim before the real film opened to cash in on the hype, finally opened this weekend with all the fizz of a bottle of soft drink opened a week before you take your first taste.

The turnaround was quick. Once seen as a stroke of genius and the natural evolution of the idea of ‘the High Concept’, the title is now being singled out as a reason for its failure:

"The only problem was that the title so handily summed up the film's plot that there was little incentive to see it, said Brandon Gray, an analyst at boxofficemojo.com."

On one hand I’m not surprised, and was half-expecting this result. The self-perceived ‘Hipper-Than-Thou’ Internet Nerd, who knew about ‘Snakes’ last year, and that New Line was expecting to make this movie a runaway success, simply was the wrong horse to back.

Two of the major ‘SOAP’ mania websites were ‘Somethingawful.com’ and ‘Fark.com’, both humour websites for Computer Geeks with Online Forums, where discussion of the movie ran wild. This simply doesn’t translate into a unified fanbase – people rarely post on forums under their real names, since people count on the anonymous nature of the internet to be able to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal. These people aren’t usually friends: they’re voices in the wilderness, connecting to each other virtually. They can’t form a gang to go see a movie together. The majority wouldn’t be able to put a real face to a screenname.

If they won’t tear themselves away from playing ‘World Of Warcraft’ to go to work or school, then they’re not going to head out to a movie theatre.

(Seen and laughed over on a forum a while ago: “I’m a Hardcore WOW Player... I’m Korean LAN Party Hardcore! I don’t even stop to sh*t!”)

The more Hardcore Hacker types will simply download the movie so they can both voice their opinion of it and physically possess it before everyone else does. You can’t count on their girlfriend to drag them to a theatre – she’s a poster of Jeri Ryan as ‘Seven-Of-Nine’ on their bedroom wall, or Kitty Pryde in the X-Men Comic under their bed.



Think about this for a second: does it make sense to base a social phenomenon on people who have no social skills or social lives?

Hell, New Line, people on those forums *make those kind of jokes about themselves*. They’ll laugh about ‘SOAP’ for a while, but they also laugh over the Star Wars Kid, ‘Oh! Mikey’, Admiral Ackbar, ‘Let’s Sexy English!’ and Cliché Kitty, but no-one wants to see a movie about them. (If you’re trying to reach that market, make a Transformers movie and be done with it). (1)

A large problem for me was this: ‘SOAP’ supposed hilarity lay in its dumb title. People were screaming in hysterics how ‘The title is the plot!’

Well, hang on a minute. Isn’t ‘The Towering Inferno’ technically exactly the same thing? What about ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ or ‘Night Of The Living Dead’?

Explore the idea beyond simple plot. What about ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, Dorothy’s goal on which the movie hinges? What about a movie like ‘Rebecca’ which is the key to a mystery? Aren’t ‘Dracula’ and ‘the Blob’ both just descriptions of the antagonist? Try to sum up the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ in one word: can you think of anything better that the title they used?

Viewed in this fashion, the entire ‘SOAP’ conceit crumbles: It’s not actually that funny after all. If anything, the name seems perfectly sensible. Don’t get me started on Samuel Jackson’s big line – I’m more curious as to why people think it’s so hilarious, unless there’s some deeper level to it than the fact that Samuel Jackson swears a lot in his previous roles.

Anyway, the grand total after months of fuss: $13.85 Million. They were estimating at least 30. The studio went into damage control, requiring inflating the Weekend Box Office Take by including the Thursday Night Screenings, bringing things up to an unimpressive $15.25 Million.

As the Defamer Website rightly pointed out, the 1997 J. Lo / Ice Cube / Jon Voight / Eric Stoltz fang-fest 'Anaconda' broke $16.62 on its opening weekend. I never saw it – snakes make boring antagonists in films to me. It’s just a personal thing. As Samuel Jackson said, ‘Either you want to see that, or you don’t”. I’m definitely a Don’t.

Wondering if the fact that the Internet wasn’t in as widespread use back then could be used to discard any comparisons to the current failure of 'Snakes' , I checked the “Movie Connections” button to see if there were any similar-themed Snake movies released in the Internet Age, which is how I discovered there was apparently a *Sequel* to “Anaconda” released in 2004. I had no idea. No-one had ever mentioned it in passing. I’d never seen it at the DVD Store. No recommendations or off-hand comments by friends. It obviously flew right under my Radar.

I checked the Box Office Take. “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid”, a film I suppose I could accurately, (if somewhat cruelly), say stars absolutely no-one you’ve ever heard of…



… which went into general release with no marketing that successfully penetrated my bubble to even let me know it existed, (unlike 'SOAP' and the months of pre-release hype), still managed the sum total of $12.81 on its opening weekend.

So how much interest and hype from fans was there to add to the box office, really? Just a million dollars worth? And if the widely-reported Power Of The Internet, which the press trumpeted was now some kind of grass-roots movement powerful enough to influence Hollywood Filmmaking, really is, in reality, so impotent, then where does this leave *Blogging*?

All this seemed to be to me was further evidence in a unfortunate trend I’m noticing lately. We live in an age where what makes a good story, rather what actually is the truth, is what is repeated and presented as fact. The writer prints the story they ‘wish was’ true, rather than ‘what is’. These stories presented as truths of the sociology of modern life, such as ‘Meterosexuality’, ‘Gancing’ and ‘The Couple Name’.

Has anyone ever met a guy who describes himself as ‘Metrosexual’ other than men dodging questions about their masculinity? The term has been recently described as ‘officially dead’ by style-makers. Which makes me wonder: did it ever exist?

‘Gancing’, describing men dancing together to attract women, was created as a parody of metrosexuality, and widely reported as fact until the truth was discovered.

The rising trend of stories presenting the rise of ‘the Couple Name’ as Fact, (where a man and a woman combine their surnames into a meld of the two, such as Smith – Jones becoming ‘Smones’), were all based on the same two naming examples, leading to the strange Ouroboros situation of a rising trend of stories reporting on the rising trend of false stories describing the rise of the couple name.

When Wishful Thinking becomes taken as Truth, to when even people choose to ignore later evidence to the contrary, then we’re all in trouble.

"Mission Accomplished".

-----

Speaking of wishful thinking, I choose, whether rightly or wrongly, to see ‘SOAP’ as a triumph in the rejection of Irony by the population at large.

I was born in 1971, and sometimes in the 1990’s found myself labeled with the dreaded tag of being part of ‘Generation X’, the idea being that people of my age simply had no defining shared experience on the level of the Baby Boomers, such as Vietnam, The Civil Rights Movement, the Moon Landing, or the Beatles, and so what we watched on Television became our shared heritage.

As far as I could see it, the failure of the events of the Sixties supposedly meant we simply didn’t want to try to accomplish anything, knowing already it was doomed to failure, so cynicism was rampant. Rather than face the pressures of adulthood, we chose to become ‘Slackers’, and clung to the icons of our childhood like protective totems, but denied they meant anything to us on an emotional level. They were appreciated as ‘Irony’.

Yeah, yeah. Whatever.

Irony was the curse of Generation X. How I hated it. I never believed a word of it. The only evidence I saw of it happening was after the media had successfully sold and ingrained it into the psyche of those of my age. They wished it into existence by presenting is as 'how the cool kids thought'. Then the music of a few was singled out as ‘cool’ and sold the attitude to the kids. We were told that this is what we were supposed to be.

K-Mart started its own Grunge Line of Clothes.

I’ll hate Nirvana more than you’ll ever know. I detested my entire existence being summed up and dismissed by the media in the barely-comprehensible ramblings of a junkie. I hated even more being informed by the media that his death was going to be *the* common experience that we all remembered. We’re all so much more that a clever quote or a tossed-off byline.

I had hope. I had things I wanted to do and places I wanted to see. I had goals. My friends did. We didn’t always reach them, and some of us never did, but we still knew we had to *try*.

Maybe others didn’t. Maybe it was the realization that we had of a Real War in our own Lifetimes, not yet realizing that the Gulf War was a new kind of war entirely, and there was no threat of either conscription or losing our lives. Faced with fear, did others grow so scared that it was easier to affect Emotional Distance?

Like a blanket, the curse of Irony was spread far and wide. It polluted attitudes. It polluted music, and lead to my most hated style of song: The Ironic Cover Version.

Faith No More with ‘Easy’. The Lemonheads with ‘Mrs. Robinson’. Limp Bizkit with ‘Faith’. Turning up the guitars and thrashing through an old hit isn’t remotely amusing for anyone. It’s so, so tired, but it’s also a way of already having a built-in audience for the song and getting it played on the radio, but if you voiced that opinion, it was the one time being Cynical wasn’t worn as a badge of honour.

Artist's weren't career-orientated: They mean it, maaaan!

It was a strange time. On one hand you had over-earnest white boy whine-rock like Pearl Jam, models of sincerity. Then you had insincere rubbish like Sonic Youth, the Murmers and Crash Test Dummies.

Two albums signaled that grunge was dead as an artform, and perhaps had never lived, and were defining moments for me in my complete and utter rejection of any kind of Ironic Distance: “If I Were A Carpenter” and “Saturday Morning: Cartoon’s Greatest Hits”, (both various artists compilations of the ‘cool’ grunge bands singings the song of the Carpenters / 70’s Cartoon Themes).

Why would anyone sing a song they have contempt for? They wouldn’t, they’re faking the Ironic stance. Deep down, I’m sure they know that they’re unable to write a song that engages to the level, so it's easier to sneer at what they're secretly jealous of.

What would you prefer, Sonic Youth singing ‘Superstar’ but doing it shoddily enough to make it clear they’re winking at the listening audience, when it at least has a well-written melody (2), or them singing one of their own underwritten, unmemorable, hookless songs, any one of the hundreds where their melodies are just a doubling of their guitar riffs, in the cases where they actually even attempt to sing, rather than speak-sing, for risk of blowing their pose of cool detachment?

Yeah, I hate Sonic Youth too.

I’d gone to visit my mother, with a casual friend who’d had the Carpenters album in hand, and had put it on the stereo to enthuse about how cool it was. Funnily enough, my mother called it for what it was straight away, and said it "wasn’t very good".

My friend, patronisingly: “I understand it might be too heavy for you.”

My mother: “I used to be right at the front of the stage at Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs concerts." Which she was. "This album isn’t heavy.”

“They’re making fun of those old songs. It’s really funny”.

“They're just bad bands, and they're not trying. It’s all different artists and different songs, so why do they all chose to play them in the exact same way?”

That shut my friend up. If you’ve ever heard the album – she’s right.

It was obvious to me that people were using irony to cover up for when they genuinely liked something, and were worried as others would perceive the object of their affection as ‘uncool’.
I couldn’t stand this anymore. I wanted to *Feel*. Damn the risk.

And yeah, feeling things *hurt*, but eventually something is going to be too world-shattering and life-changing to be dismissed with a curled lip, a waved hand, and a ‘yeah, yeah, whatever’ anyway, so you might as well get a head-start in learning to deal with reality.

Passion and pain and joy and terror, the high and lows. They all let you know you’re alive.

Who wants to be a sad 18-25 year old Hipster who thinks they’re just Above It All? After all, in reality, you can't compete with the Unbridled Contempt your average teenage girl can dish out. Do you really want to be forced to realise you can be out-cooled and out-sneered by some who decorates their Myspace Page with images of Hello Kitty and songs by Lindsay Lohan? OMG!

Ch3k oUT mY n3W haWt PiczZz!!

-----

This leads back to ‘SOAP’.

In learning to feel, I learnt to strip away any preconceptions when I approached a Text with the intention of Reading it, and I came to a funny realization. I’ll use an example here.

In 1999, Beck, another ‘voice of Generation X’, and an artist I was naturally suspicious of, since he was by labeled with both the ‘Irony’ Tag, as well as carrying the ‘New Dylan’ banner by the lazy media, (almost as if writer’s believe we want to measure New Artists as Bad Cover Versions of Past Ones), put out an album called ‘Midnite Vultures’.



The critics raved. I kept wondering how whenever I’d come across him on the radio I didn’t hear anything they were describing. But, sick to death of reading about him in rapturous descriptions, I decided to simply bite the bullet, and buy the damn album.

After a few listens I was confused about what I was hearing. Why did it sound like an underwritten Prince album? Why was (then pre-comeback) Prince currently considered uncool, yet Beck was cool for doing much the same thing, without the chops?

I discarded everything I had read, and approached the text anew. And I learnt something important. If you strip away the Irony from a text, you can only read it for what it is. It sounds straight-forward enough. So why don’t people realise this? (3)

Disregard Beck’s ‘cool’ persona, and ignore the fact that ‘the Dust Brothers’ were the cool producers de jour. Listen to the music. Beck’s ‘Midnite Vultures’ is simply what it is: a bad-pastiche of a Bad Prince Album.

Strip away the intention. It suddenly doesn’t become better or worse because you think he’s obviously Not Being Serious and Making Fun Of A Musical Style. You simply just hear an underwritten record: A Prince album like ‘Come’ or ‘Chaos and Disorder’ where he hasn’t quite nailed the hooks, where you can see the song isn’t obviously Bad, per se, but there’s nothing that particularly jumps out at you either. It’s good, but workman-like good.

At the end of a day, he had a chance to record an album and it sounds like what it sounds like. Either you like it or you don’t: Snakes on a plane. Don’t try and tell me it’s any ‘cooler’ than Prince’s then-current badly-reviewed ‘Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic’. (Personally, if I was going to do a Prince pastiche, I’d rather ape top-of-his-game Prince, like ‘Parade’ or ‘Sign Of The Times’).

This obvious problem is the route of the failure of ‘Snakes On A Plane’ to my eyes, and studios should pay attention:

You’re an expecting an audience to pay for your art, why would you not want to try to deliver the best product you can give them? Do you honestly expect people to spend their hard-earned money, (and a night at the movies is an expensive proposition for a family compared to the price of a DVD), to go and see something that, when all is said and done, is simply A Bad Movie, when they also have the choice to go and see something sincere in its intentions and genuinely exciting?

Why would you think that?

My guess is simply this: you’re contemptuous of them. You think that’s all that they deserve, and because of that, you get exactly the kind of monetary return you deserve.

Let them eat Snake!

(1) I recommend Wikipedia should you be cultured enough to not understand any of these references.

(2) If you actually go back and look at the songs that were popular in the grunge years, they usually were by artists that actually had strong melodies. I also find it interesting that the majority of the big stars of the grunge era were unable to maintain their fame. Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Pearl Jam went back to cult status, drugs claimed Alice In Chains’ singer and Evan Dando’s career, and Smashing Pumpkins broke up. Even Liz Phair realised her songs were half-arsed demos and decided to aim for the over-produced teen market.

(3) Try this with the White Stripes. You’ll laugh.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Reptiles on a M#%!@#$F%$@&!%# Aircraft!


by Kevin Wolf

Has everybody by this point heard about Snakes on a Plane? May I assume so and consider the premise of this film and its internet buzz "as read"?

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe on Sunday had an idiotic article (click here to see link into the article [registration required]) about SoaP stating that Hollywood had "crossed a line" by soliciting fan input before the movie was finished and doing five days reshooting to incorporate fan-requested changes.

Burr's rather unnecessary quotes, pulled from Susan Sontag's "Notes On Camp" and sprinkled like jimmies across the page, would seem to indicate that the film shouldn't be taken too seriously. But his belabored article makes it clear that if Burr considers the movie a joke, he doesn't get the joke.

How can you write about movies and apparently not know that studios do test screenings and focus groups all the time - efforts which have resulted in movies having their endings changed, scenes redone to be more clear or more pleasing, and many other changes up to and including reshooting entire films?

It seems disingenuous to declare that fans can't have their say when the only change in the situation was a move from studio-controlled test marketing to an organic internet groundswell of interest. Burr's real complaint seems to be that those in elite positions - directors, actors, *ahem* movie critics - have had their authority usurped by mere proles.

If the movie's creators had some Grand Point to make or were struggling mightily to make Art, they'd have had only to ignore the opinions of anybody not directly involved and finish what they started.

When the project in question is Hollywood high concept of a low order, fan input can't possibly be the ominous development Burr intimates. I mean, come on. Snakes on a plane!

cross-posted to my bloggy blog

The Komedy of Korporate Kommunications

By XTCfan

I work in the corporate communications department of a large financial firm based in Washington, DC. Late last Thursday, we started to get questions about the recent liquid-based travel troubles, and how they might affect the company.

Though we have a company policy that limits business travel when the country as a whole is at an Orange alert, we don't have a policy that covers sector alerts. Because the troubles seemed mostly centered around travel from the UK (which didn't affect us), we decided that our travel policy did not need to change, and that managers could communicate this on an as-needed basis, so as not to monger any unnecessary fear. By Friday, however, the news was full of reports on travel delays throughout the US, and the questions had increased to the point where we knew we had to respond with a companywide message.

After spending all day Friday on this -- working with dozens of people around the firm, creating multiple drafts, changing plans and tactics several times, incorporating the (sometimes contradictory) comments of reviewers at all levels of the company -- the fruits of my labors were ready to reveal, via an e-mail message that went out to all company employees at 5:16 p.m. EDT:

Given recent travel-related events, employees have raised questions about business travel.

Though the Department of Homeland Security has raised the Threat Level for the aviation sector to Orange, the national Threat Level remains at Yellow. Consequently, [company name] will not restrict business travel, but asks that those traveling on company business use their best judgement. Employees should work with their managers to decide whether the benefits of a trip outweigh the possible adverse effects on productivity that travel delays may have.

For more information about the additional security measures at domestic airports, visit the Transportation Security Administration Web site.


Five sentences, 99 words. But they're the right 99 words.

Won't It Be Strange When We're All Fully Grown?

My sister had been talking up her Fifth Grade Teacher to me as ‘my most favourite teacher *ever*’ for a good two years, so when Fifth Grade finally rolled around for me, I was naturally pleased to be assigned the same man, and came home smugly singing of my luck to the gods above.

Of course by now my sister had entered High School, and was too busy trying to be ‘popular’ and looking ‘cool’ to worry about such matters, but there was still that tiny bit of her that seemed to be mourning the loss of the Innocent Times before Social Self-Awareness set in.

She just had to say *something* to rain on my parade, so did. What else are Big Sisters for?

“He won’t like you as much as he liked me. He said I was the best Creative Writing student he’d ever had”.

I frowned. “So? I can do better.”

Which I knew would be hard-going, since I still regularly snuck into her room to skim through her Fifth Grade Workbooks to guiltily read her recontexualisation of ‘Lassie’ for ‘the kids of today’: basically a good-sized helping of the ol’ ultraviolence, since Lassie had gone Completely Insane and was now terrorizing the entire forest by Eating People, and I’d shiver to myself with excitement at how there was no doubt in my mind that this concept was simply *the* coolest thing I’d ever read in my life, but would never, *ever* admit that to her in a million years.

Naturally, living up to this put an immense amount of pressure on me when he eventually gave us a writing assignment, especially with the added pressures of having a week’s deadline to write something, and being told that we would have to read it out loud in front of the entire class.

I thought it would be easy, since I loved writing, but when he explained the topic was to “Describe a day in your life in the Year 2000”, I realised I was in big trouble.
In all honesty, I couldn’t even begin to imagine it.

------------

I explained the assignment over the dinner table that night, hoping my sister would be jealous, but she just started at me blankly for a few seconds, until finally speaking. “You’ll be *so* old! You’ll be Twenty-Eight”.

I thought for a second. “You’ll be older! You’ll be Thirty-One. That’s worse!”

We started arguing about who was going to be more over-the-hill, until Dad just snorted into his forkful of food. “Boy, you won’t *live* to be Twenty-Eight. You’ll get yourself killed long before that.”

My mother meekly told him that he wasn’t encouraging me.

He shrugged. “Well, it’s true!” He pointed his fork at me to emphasise his point. “The boy doesn’t have an ounce of common sense in his body”, then turned his attention back to his peas.

I would have spoken up in my own defense, but couldn’t really argue with his logic.

------------

The simple fact of the matter was I knew I wouldn’t still be alive at Twenty-Nine. It was 1981, and all the signs from everything I heard and read pointed to the fact that there was No Future.

I was swinging on the swings in the school playground with Hot Gossip, (a girl from up the end of my street), when Whelan, (an equally-as-unpopular-as-me-boy), came clomping down with a bag of marbles, asking me if I wanted to play.

This seemed as good as time as any to broach the subject with them. “What do you think you’ll be doing in the Year 2000?”

"Wow... in the future?" Whelan was struggling with his leg brace to get down onto the ground and tapped it with his hand. “I know I won’t have this anymore!”

I figured he thought by then they’d have cured his leg, so was surprised when he added “I’ll have a new one… and it will hover!”

Hot Gossip butted in, too excited to have her say to wait any longer. “So will my roller skates. Except they'll be Rocket Skates."
I looked at her with a blank expression, so she added "They'll have rockets on them" by way of explanation.

I didn’t know what to say to any of this. They both obviously thought life would be like ‘the Jetsons’, and that seemed ridiculous to me, so I changed the subject.

--------------

Sure, there was always the (very remote) possibility of a Jetson’s-style future happening, but it always seemed to my eyes like a naïve dream of the future back from the dawn of the Jet Set Age – what people believed the future would be like in the 50’s and 60’s, and since we still weren’t having Sunday Picnics in bubble helmets on the moon 25 years later, (as our robot dog chased moon rabbits through craters in a flurry of sparks behind us), I didn’t see it happening any time soon.

Science fiction futures in movies weren’t much help to me either. From what they taught me I could only guess we'd all end up ruled by giant apes, (Planet Of The Apes), killed by strange vampiric viruses, (The Omega Man), put to death at age 21, which was a lot younger than 28, (Logan’s Run), find our entertainment turning deadly, (Westworld), eating each other, (Soylent Green), wearing some kind of space nappy as we’re hunted down in a way that made no kind of sense whatsoever, (Zardoz), or something so bad and unexplainable that I simply wasn’t allowed to see it, (A Clockwork Orange).
Obviously, whatever happened to Mankind in the future was going to be Very Bad, and to add insult to injury, we’d have to wear Unisex Jumpsuits as the Very Bad unfolded.

Admittedly, that idea of the future wasn’t as irritating to me as the Star Trek vision was – a world that made absolutely no sense to me whenever I tried to discuss it with my father, after they’d explained that Mankind had both abandoned any kind of monetary system, so there was no longer poverty, and also learnt the Futility of War, which no longer happened. Since these two things were pressing concerns in my young mind I’d wanted answers.

“But how did that happen?” I’d say, and tug his arm and he tried to watch, realizing that if they can realise that in the future, then maybe it was just a matter of someone pointing it out to everybody right now and things would be hunky-dory.

“They stopped fighting with each other,” he answered.

“But *why* don’t people hate each other any more?” (Perhaps my motives weren't entirely altruistic here, and I was wondering if there was some possible simple secret to a bully-free lifestyle for myself).

“They just don’t. They saw it was pointless to fight.”

I could see that *now*, but if I didn’t stand up for myself to bigger kids Dad would call me a wimp and would never intervene on my behalf, telling me I had to learn how to fight for myself. As such, I couldn’t quite vocalize my frustration over this, so just blurted out “But they’re fighting the Klingons!”

“The Klingon’s are different.”

“But they don’t look different. They don’t really look any more different than he does.” I pointed to Spock. “And they all like him.”

“That’s different. He’s a good guy.”

I pointed to Lt. Uhura. “So’s *she*, and people hate her *now*.”

He lost his patience and snapped at me. “Stop thinking for once and just watch the bloody show.”

I never understood why no-one would ever explain things to me as a Kid, though now I realise it was usually because there was no logical answer they could give me.

------------

I always hated seeing the Peace Bus parked outside of the school. Sure, it looked friendly enough - all peace signs, hand-painted rainbows and naïve approximations of Doves carrying Olive Branches. And yes, it was a Double-Decker Bus, which I was obsessed with the idea of owning and driving, since you never saw them in Australia in common usage until I was much older. And it even meant you’d get out of your usual boring classes and get to sit in a circle outside in the grass, singing ‘Kum By Yah’, which was equally dull, but at least there your obviously-bored expression was mistaken for some kind of inner peace meditation deal.

But on top of all this, the Peace Bus was the greatest source of terror I knew at that age.

They’d give lectures about nuclear war, and explain just how many weapons there were in the world, and just how many times over we could be killed by these devices. And they’d explain how Even If The Bombs Didn’t Kill Us The Radiation Would. Then they discussed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and would show us pictures of exactly what radiation had done to kids my own age, and then I’d think of Reagan on the television rattling his saber over the threat of communism, an Actor playing the part of a President, and wonder why it was we all thought we were the good guys when we done something as ghastly as that, and why we couldn’t just divide the world up into people who want to blow each other up, and the ones who just want to get on with their lives.

They explained the blast radius and I realised I’d have to be 50 kilometres away from where the bomb dropped to escape any kind of initial damage, so I checked out the city maps in the school library, thinking that the RAAF Base was a long way out of town, and surely the blast wouldn’t get me, only to discover that not only was the Base only 10 kilometres from town, that my house was well-within the ‘Completely Incinerated’ ring. (And I’d thought it was bad enough that I lived within five kilometers of a cemetery, though at least a nuclear blast would also incinerate any zombies after my then-ample-flesh).

I’d frequently awaken at night hearing strange sounds, and wonder if that was what a falling bomb would sound like.

To my eyes at that age, Punk seemed cartoonish to me, like it was all just about Dressing Up To Scare Old People. It was only years later I realised that they were obviously feeling exactly the same sense of hopelessness and lack of power as I was, the only difference was they had a way of actively displaying their disgust and frustration.

--------------

My sister believed in both Nostradamus and the Bible as a kid, and would tell me that we were all going to die in 1986 anyway, but the year came and went with nothing more horrifying than Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ entering popular culture.

I’d read Nostradamus occassionally, and it made no sense to me whatsoever. My sister explained that he’d have to write what he saw in code as to avoid heresy charges, and frequently wrote names in anagrams and that ‘this passage was about John Kennedy being assassinated’.

I’d roll my eyes. Why not name Kennedy? It’s not like he was going to still be around to see it happen anyway.

The quatrains supposedly describe the rise of an anti-christ in the middle east and the end of the world, and she felt justified in her stupid belief of it when the First Gulf War happened. Now Nostradamus scholars had decided the world was going to end during the 1990's.

She pointed out a passage. “See? The anti-christ is called ‘Mabus’. It’s kind of an Anagram of ‘Sadamn’”.

I pointed out that ‘Mabus’ shared just as many letters from with ‘Sadamn’ as it did with ‘Bush’.

This lead to a long argument about how she’d been a doomsayer about this stuff when she was a kid, and nothing had ever come to pass, my final points being a) you’re not going to live forever anyway; b) every culture since the dawn of time has been obsessed with the end of the world, and none of them ever came to pass; and c) if you can’t do anything to alter it, why spend your time worrying about 'what might be' instead of 'what is'?

Recently we found ‘the 1979 Book of Predictions’ she’d been given as a kid, and laughed through descriptions of Los Angeles falling into the sea by 1985, robotic sexual surrogates by 1992, and the first space Hotel by 1997. I mentioned Nostradamus, and she laughed about it being ‘such stupid rubbish’.

-----------

My grandmother had long lamented the dumbing down of popular culture, before the concept had a name. The only way she could describe it was how ‘unsophisticated’ things had become since she was a child.

I pointed out the obvious advances in our way of life and standard of living: electricity, medicine, satellites.

She shook her head. “That’s Technology. I was speaking of the Social Aspects of our life.”

And thinking about it now, I can see her point: Shakespeare to Dean Koontz, Michelangelo to Jeff Koons, Ties and Hats to Wife Beaters and Visible Underear, Marlene Deitrich to Paris Hilton, ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ to ‘My Humps’.

I wondered if I was onto something. Maybe as technological sophistication advances, we get used to not having to use our brains for more complex tasks, and so the grey matter becomes lazy, leading to a sharp decay in social sophistication.

I remember her final weeks, when she knew she was dying, and so eager to leave this world behind that I could almost understand her yearning for something more than this, and almost felt a twinge of jealousy that she was going to explore such a great mystery, and that I couldn’t follow and wouldn’t know what she knew.

I took her hand as she told me, “In my lifetime, they went from inventing a plane to a man walking on the moon...”

The statement seemed somehow profound.

Then she sighed. “…And yet we still know nothing as a society and just keep repeating the same mistakes”.

-----------

It was a minute to midnight, December 31st, 1999.

I was living in small country town in the mountains, where I’d recently moved to study at University. I knew no-one. I had no friends. All I did was go to classes at University and Study when I wasn’t in class. All the students were fresh out of high school, and wanted nothing to do with a Mature Age Student.

I was completely alone, and, thinking I should at least pretend to do something, drove up to the top of a nearby mountain to watch the fireworks that would inevitably be let off. I sat on the car bonnet, under the stars, looking out over the lights of the town and felt very sorry for myself.

And as I was sitting there, waiting for midnight, I remembered my fifth grade writing assignment, and how even physically making it to the Year 2000 had seemed to be a completely impossibilty at the time.

I realised that somehow, through all our obvious stupidity, we were all still here to see it.

I was so lost in the thought I missed the stroke of midnight and it was only the fireworks that shook me out of it.

A smile came to my face. Who would have ever thought we could make it?

All in all, it was a good night.

----------------

And the assignment? I did what every other kid in the class did: left it until the very last minute the night before it was due, then plagiarised ‘the Jetsons’ out of sheer desperation. Robot maids, personal jetpacks, flying cars, meals in pill form, transport by pneumatic tubes, school excursions to Saturn.

Check out ‘Futurama’ on the Cartoon Network sometime. It’s eerily similar.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence

By Neddie Jingo

You can see the wires, fer crissakes! I see a boom mike!

From the Grassy Knoll Desk here in beautiful Area 51 comes the reassuring news that NASA has "lost" the high-resolution video tapes taken of the first moon landing, which is alleged to have taken place in July of 1969 but, as every paranoid with two brains to rub together knows, were recorded on a sound-stage on good ol' Terra Firma by Stanley Kubrick, Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld.

My favorite part of the Independent article linked above is this priceless line: "[NASA] insist it is wrong to characterise the tapes as "missing". "They're not missing," Mr Lebar said, "we just haven't found them."
"We just haven't found them,"
The NASA man said
Setting bells of alarm
In this paranoid's head.

If absence of evidence
Is evidence missed
Ain't this proof that the evi-
Dence didn't exist?

"Call out a search party!
Unleash the hounds!"
While walking on thin evi-
Dentiary ground.

Call me a paranoid
Heck, I don't mind
I like it out here
Among my own kind!

Rational evidence:
Tools of a jerk!
Defending rank foolishness:
Mighty hard work!

How much simpler it is
In "delusion" employed!
They "lost" the tapes --
And I'm paranoid?
These people should be shot.

No Tee Vee

By Kevin Wolf

I made the decision and then took two weeks to follow through but it is now done:

I dumped cable TV.

I've still got my TV set. I'm retaining cable internet. But I've given back the cable box and said goodbye to cable television. No more Law & Order repeats, basically.

I was paying $102 and change to Comcast each month for cable TV and internet. They billed it out at about $60 for cable and $40 for internet access. I knew the internet charge was discounted because I had both; I was hoping it wouldn't go up much more than $10. But it went up $20. Still, monthly savings is about $40 on something that I simply didn't use much.

I'm downloading most of what I watch these days (hence the need to keep that all-important internet connection). I've been without TV before and survived and thrived. And there's always the Radio Shack TV antennea option for local stations (to get weather, mainly).

Still, this is something of an experiment. We'll see how it goes. Being unmediated in our society is the minority position, a conscious decision. I'll let you know if I have withdrawal pains or if the Media Police drag me in for a beating because I opted out.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I can feel it coming in the air tonight...

By Lance Mannion

Keith Uhlich's review of Miami Vice at the House Next Door just about had me convinced I wanted to see the movie, and then I read this dueling review of Vice by Uhlich's blogging colleague, Odienator, a few posts down the page:

Barry Shabaka Henley had the finest moment in Collateral, so it is dismaying that his Lt. Castillo (so grandly brought to life on TV by Edward James Olmos) is given little to do but threaten to take away Crockett and Tubbs' badges. Where Olmos' sour magnetism intimidated both his underlings and the viewer, Henley isn't given the opportunity to feel superior to the two detectives.

Miami Vice, the TV show, may have been unique in the history of television in having at its center two main characters who were almost completely irrelevent to the show's success.

It wasn't simply the case that Crockett and Tubbs weren't that interesting, together or separately, or that the actors who played them, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, were bad---Johnson was passable. Who knows about Thomas since he was given less to do than his closest television forebear, Tonto---it was the case that Vice's writers and producers had about zero commitment to developing them as characters.

Crockett and Tubbs were attitudes. Beyond that they were models on which to hang the Versace sports jackets and t-shirts. They existed mostly as targets for the cameras to focus on as the plots carried us through the Miami and Caribbean underworlds.

Miami Vice was about creating a style. The clothes, the shades, the unshaven chins, the music, and the breathtaking visuals of Miami Beach---the girls in bikinis and the flamingos were presented as decorative flourishes to the pastel architecture---were part of its look, but I mean the show’s cinematic style, the art of its visual storytelling.

It's this aspect of Miami Vice that Matt Zoller Seitz celebrates in his appreciation of the show, which is also up at The House Next Door---what a great blog!

Miami Vice was the first successful attempt to do movies on television, to tell stories with pictures rather than dialogue. That’s partly why Crockett and Tubbs seem neglected. They weren’t really designed to talk.

But to the extent that the show was about something other than its own artistry for artistry’s sake, it was about the attractiveness of corruption. The world Crockett pretended to be a part of and the world he and Tubbs were supposedly engaged in unmaking was beautiful and fun...to a point.

The other side of the law was where the good times were to found. This side of the law, life was gritty, humorless, and necessarily dull. The gray interior of the station, the ordinary prettiness of the female detectives, Gina and Trudi, the schlubby second bananas, Zito and Switek, and Castillo’s homely, scarred, frowning face---all of that was part of an essentially Puritan background scolding. Sensual delights were part of the devil's bait and switch. Goodness, decency, a moral life and the resulting civilized society Crockett and Tubbs were out protecting required sacrifices, including the sacrifice of easy pleasures.

Which, of course, was totally unpersuasive next to the blue and green water, the bouncing cigarette boats, the bouncing tanned bottoms of the girls in their thong bikinis. How could we resist?

Crockett was always drawn to the life. But he was just a stand-in for us. The show was a seduction. Like pornography with a social conscience, Look at all this, kids! Turns you on, doesn’t it? But remember it’s bad for you.

Crockett and Tubbs were bottles into which we poured ourselves. Then the cameras carried them into an erotically supercharged dream on our behalf. Beautiful, sunlit or starlit, easy, guiltless, unearned, unbilled pleasure.

And the only real argument against it, the only angel counselling resistance to the devil on our shoulder, was Castillo.

Castillo had been over to the other side and lost his soul there. Somehow he’d managed to come back and bring most of what was good in himself back with him. Most of it, not all of it.

None of this was in the writing. It was all in Edward James Olmos’ face.

He didn’t like Crockett. He saw too much of his young self in him, the kid Castillo who thought it was all a lark, who trusted too much in his own decency and integrity. He understood Crockett’s attraction to the rewards of corruption. He even saw a use for it. Crockett was a more persuasive narc because he wanted what the bad guys wanted. He could enjoy their company, up until the point where it was time to make the money that paid for the fun.

What Castillo disliked and distrusted in Crockett was his frivolousness about temptation. The sense of superiority Odienator describes Castillo as exhibiting towards his detectives came from self-knowledge. Castillo knew that young and foolish as he'd been when whatever had happened to him to steal his soul happened, he'd been a stronger, wiser, better man then than Crockett was now.

Castillo thought Crockett should have understood the difference and have been more careful. But Crockett didn't and he wasn't.

Crockett didn’t see how easy it would be for even a man stronger than himself—a Castillo, say—to give in and let himself go. And he didn’t see how that giving in and loss of self-control could take place while he was still on the right side of the law.

This is why the lightweight Johnson was actually perfect for the part. He had a bad boy rep that was really a naughty boy’s rep. Johnson looked like what he was, someone who could fool himself into thinking he was a meaner, badder dude than he actually was. This is why Colin Farrell, even though a much better actor---see Shakespeare's Sister's post on Farrell, a lament for a glory and a promise that's possibly been lost, Averting the End of the Affair---and talented enough to play the dangerous man Johnson’s Crockett thought he was, is also right for the part. His own reputation is a naughty boy’s rep. Swaggering, scowling, playacting the part of a hardcase, Farrell reveals his essential softness.

Without a strongly defined Castillo there to play it off of though, I don’t see how that side of Crockett—his weakness—can be made dynamic. It seems to me that it can only become a subject of interior monologue, which movies don’t do well. What we usually get instead are lots of shots of the hero brooding until the girl or the sidekick comes along to snap it him out of it.

Girl: Tell me what’s bothering you. Don’t shut me out, please.

Sidekick: What’s eating you, man?

Hero to either one: Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine. Let’s go.

But a Castillo could look right into Crockett’s soul.

Castillo, in so many words: Show me you’re not what I know you are. Prove to me you can keep from doing what I know you can’t help doing. Succeed where you are doomed to fail.
____________________________

Castillo, especially as embodied in Edward James Olmos, was the kind of writers’ temptation it would have been easy to overuse. But it seemed to me Miami Vice failed the other way and underused him. When I heard that Michael Mann was going to make the movie, I hoped that he would use the opportunity to rectify the show’s mistake. And, although I understand why Mann might have been reluctant to do it, I thought he could have cast Olmos as the movie’s Castillo, Olmos having enough weight and talent to overcome the gimickyness of it.

Barry Shabaka Henley might have been a good second choice but it sounds like we’ll never know because Mann pretty much threw away the character.

But the actor I think would have been best after Olmos is Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro has just the right mixture of sorrow and hauntedness in his eyes and the same harrowed face. In fact, if someone in Hollywood is ever crazy enough to remake Casablanca, Del Toro is my choice to play Rick.

If the movie had a good Castillo, though, I would have liked to see someone else as Crockett, someone who could have reacted to Castillo’s contempt with something like Don Johnson’s moral cluelessness. I have an actor in mind, but you’re going to think I’m kidding---someone who needs to do something radical to save himself from a different kind of corruption, artistic corruption, someone with his own naughty boy reputation who through laziness is in danger of becoming a self-parody before his time.

Owen Wilson.

(Cross-posted at my place.)

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Welcome To The Anecdotal Antidote

I had an idea for a team blog back in March. I wanted something that read more like a magazine, with feature articles. There are some great writers out there, and my vision was to bring some of them together to write about life in the 21st Century. The original concept was to stay away from controversial subjects, but as the idea evolved I decided to leave the content up to the authors, asking only that we keep the level of discourse high.

I handpicked the authors myself and was very fortunate that none of them turned me down. Some will no doubt be more prolific than others, but my hope is that we will hear from everyone at least twice per month. Please bear with us – I expect a slow start but my hope is that before too long The Anecdotal Antidote will be a place where people will come to read and enjoy some good old-fashioned writing.