Sunday, November 28, 2004

National Treasure

The biggest surprise about National Treasure (Jon Turteltaub 2004)--apart from having inexplicably become a commercial hit--is that it's so literal minded. In times like these you'd expect even the dumbest Hollywood hacks (and this film's writers are responsible for bottom-of-the-barrel concoctions like Snow Dogs, Bad Boys II and the blatantly racist Rush Hour) to find some kind of cultural resonance in the idea of national treasure. But no, treasure here is pretty much just treasure which may be just as well considering that there's nothing American about any of it. Not to mention that the historically incorrect Templar-Mason link is presented as fact.

Still, you might hope for some goofy B-movie entertainment but National Treasure is generally too pedestrian for that. Not that it's any worse than, say, a Boston Blackie or Charlie Chan film, just twice as long and ten times as loud. There's just enough character quirks and somewhat not-dull dialogue clearly grafted on to the hunt shenanigans that I'm willing to bet an uncredited script doctor was brought in to pump it up. Too bad he or she couldn't have been given the entire thing; certainly they couldn't have made a less implausible mess.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

another documentary

Even if you think it’s completely accurate and honest, Uncovered: The War on Iraq (Robert Greenwald 2004) is still likely to leave you feeling just the slightest bit dubious. Relying as it does on a lengthy parade of former CIA officers and analysts with a few diplomats thrown into the mix creates more an impression that they’re pleading their own case. “Hey, this debacle isn’t our fault. We gave the proper people or people connected to the proper people the properly dubious or well at least qualified statements that Iraq didn’t have any WMD. And oh yes, they’re lying but we didn’t.”

The thing is that it was perfectly clear at the time that the Bush administration was indeed fabricating a reason for war; just ask most of the civilized world starting with Canada and France. Uncovered instead presents technocrats discussing job details. Now certainly these are the people that have a good idea of how it worked and what happened but it tends--unlike oh say Fahrenheit 9/11--to leave out much of the context. Interviews with more journalists and politicians were certainly needed and perhaps even, gasp, an Iraqi or two.

There are other problems with Uncovered. I’m not sure what was the point to starting the film with a long stream of the witnesses identifying themselves--possibly to impress viewers?--but it did nothing except leave me wondering what, indeed, was the point. Are they going to sing “We Are the World”? Each person is always IDed later (except for a few voice overs) so this whole section should have been clipped. Then there’s the terrible choice in music. It sounds so much like the accompaniment to local TV news shows that I thought this was meant as a parody until it becomes obvious that it’s not.

The most troubling lapse is the portrayal of the war. Most of the film is somewhat haphazardly shot talking heads (complete with wildly varying audio quality) but come war time we get a series of crisp, elegantly done still photos. At best this is simply an astonishing aesthetic blunder but the overall tone is much worse. “The deliberate violation of moral and intellectual standards created staggering losses and harsh suffering for millions of people in both countries” instead becomes “Hey, look at the purty pitchers!” Most likely the point was to present striking images but when war becomes something of a minor inconvenience you have to wonder about the film overall.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Stone Reader

1. It’s great to see R.A. Lafferty mentioned, even if only in passing.

2. Odd that Moskowitz never really describes Stones of Summer though from the brief bits that pop up that might be just as well. Looks like it might be one of those overly literary quasi-autobiographical, slice-o-life tales but then again maybe not. Moskowitz does address this briefly when he notes that his friends couldn’t finish the book though he’s right that in a way it doesn’t matter what the book is in any “objective” sense. My library has a copy of the original 1972 edition so I’ll find out sometime (it’s checked out right now). By the way, the first hardcover, the reprint hardcover and reprint paperback all have slightly different text, supposedly done or approved by Mossman. I have no idea if the first paperback was a simple reprint.

3. I also read nearly all of Alistair Maclean’s novels when I was a kid (probably about 12-14 but almost certainly not much older than that). The Thin Red Line was also a book sale discovery. I picked it up for a quarter and am not sure why I started to read it but discovered it’s one of, if not the, great war novels. It also seemed completely unfilmable though I didn’t know that there had been an earlier movie and a few years later would be a second.

4. The film needed to lose about 20 minutes; you’d think somebody who makes commercials would be a bit more taut. The music is terrible.

5. I know Moskowitz needed to build some kind of suspense and story but really if he’s spending the money to make a movie then why not just hire a private investigator and be done with it? Considering how easy he finds Mossman the PI certainly could have done it very quickly. I also started to become curious how much of the film was actually made at the time of the events. Big chunks are clearly staged so perhaps much of the first quarter to third was done after he realized there was enough material then went back to film it. Of course that’s just a wild guess so don’t anybody come away thinking that’s what happened.

6. It’s a strange feeling to see bits of the literary life as I know it on the screen, from the various publishing aspects to the readers’ sharing of titles. Of course some of these people are the type of overbearing, NPR-listening, “intensity of language” nitwits that I avoid but many of the others are fascinating. There’s an entire film about Robert Gottlieb waiting to be made, maybe even John Seelye.

7. Why all the focus on the hardback publisher when it looks like the paperback was published by Avon? Did he think it so far removed from the author to be unpromising or was that just too much material for the movie?

8. Why are the Mossman segments so brief? Moskowitz seems a bit nonplussed during those scenes so maybe he wasn’t as impressed with Mossman as he had expected. Mossman initially comes off as a kind of blustery small-town intellectual but the more he talks the more interesting he becomes. Moskowitz may be on-screen for more or less two hours but he’s almost a non-entity; Mossman is much more vital and idiosyncratic.

9. Interesting that the focus is on such a narrow conception of literature as being predominantly novels and even those in realistic, psychologically complex conceptions. Mossman is different, talking up Casanova and Twain’s autobiographies among other things. Moskowitz’s shelves seem pruned for maximum impressive impact. He mentions a few science fiction writers and there’s a very brief glimpse of a few SF and mystery paperbacks but does he just read “serious” novels?

10. Doing a bit of background checking, I came across this nice line in Ebert’s review: “Surely P. G. Wodehouse is as great at what he does as Shakespeare was at what he did.”

Sunday, November 21, 2004


CrossGen started during the time I wasn't reading comics so by the time I got interested again it sounded like a good move. Non-traditional stories, innovative delivery formats, new business structuring: Just an all-round shake up. But then I started reading some of the actual work--primarily in the Forge and Edge compendia--and it became clear that all this fuss had very little result. Most of it was fairly bad with far-fetched premises, tedious explication, overly realistic and static art, bland dialogue, etc. And like almost all comics today, everything took too long, probably the result of thinking comics are movie storyboards. I remember liking bits of Mystic which seemed somewhat drily humorous and Negation which seemed promising in a mindless-action-film way. The rest was mostly useless, even the highly praised Ruse was like the pitch for a series rather than a fully worked out one. Even CrossGen's frequent claim that they had no superheroes was only true in the strictest sense, ie not really true at all but they could pretend. As for the rest, their differing delivery forms may or may not have been a good idea but didn't matter to me personally and the ideas behind their business model almost guaranteed the resulting work would be limited. Certainly things got better towards the end with things like The Crossovers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and especially Abadazad but that was pretty much in spite of everything else CrossGen had done.

Anyway, the Comics Reporter ran a piece that's accurate as far as I can see (didn't follow the bankruptcy that closely) and a good corrective for all the publicity coming in the wake of the Disney deal. It's great that Abadazad will keep going in some form though most of the other CrossGen work deserves quiet oblivion.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

another fragment

Nat Gertler et al The Factor (2004) - This collection of short pieces is intended to show how a superhero affects the lives of numerous people, all told without ever showing the hero. It’s an intriguing idea bolstered by a variety of art styles (from 17 different artists) but fatally undermined by clumsy writing and pointless stories. For instance, an elderly woman is mugged and calls on the hero for help; barely even a vignette, it’s weighed down by tedious exposition. Or an arrogant, money-grubbing movie star who becomes a nice guy when he plays the hero in a movie is like Harlan Ellison at his worst. You also have to wonder when a Japanese spy claims that they’re only good at air and sea combat because they live on an island; presumably the character should know a bit about Japanese history so the ignorance here would be Gertler’s. There are a couple of good stories--one about a low-level crook who may or may not running a protection scam, another cleverly told through websites and email--but mostly The Factor has nothing to say about people or comics or stories.


This is all that's left after I started to write about Mean Girls last summer:

Mean Girls is not Heathers, the most common comparison, but then it’s not trying to be. This is a lehrstuck for teenage girls and actually the most blatant aspect is the devotion to girlpower or at least girlypower. Guys hardly appear in any important role and they’re practically all clueless. (The dad reminds me of Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, probably more the result of stock characterization than anything else.) Oddly the Lohan character is so out of touch that she doesn’t know the most fundamental things about American schools but she’s picked up a completely conventional idea of male beauty, let alone the possibility of interracial romance hinted at (parodied?) in a flashback.

(And why was an indoor mall IDed as Skokie's Old Orchard when how many tens of thousands of people will spot the error? Was it in the original script and nobody thought to change it? Or maybe decided the specific name gave the film texture?)

on style

"The mere use of the concept of style is enough to make us think of given frameworks within which people work, achieving individuality thanks to the support which the framework offers. An obivious case is the Classical Style in music, as manifest from Haydn through Mozart and Beethoven, petering out at some indeterminate point. The constraints of the style were rigorous, but one cannot imagine any one of those three composers thriving without it. They were able to be themselves because so much was already given. It is in the tension between the style which was available to anyone at the time, and which we can see working perfectly satisfactorily without producing works of genius in the hands of, say, Hummel, who owes it entirely to the style available to him that he can be worthwhile at all, and the strongly defined individualities of its great masters that we locate its supreme achievements."

Michael Tanner Nietzsche (1994), p39

Friday, November 12, 2004

more stuff to read

deceiving with charts: election results same as slave vs free states?

Wanna watch all eight hours of Syberberg's Hitler in Quicktime?

nice piece on Homicide

beginning of the end for Tivo?

still more on blogs and politics

Diderot roolz

are corporations evil?

lots o' Liebling

James Ellroy profile

Is The 9/11 Commission Report anti-democratic?

"And the wariness is rooted, clearly, in a conception of the nature of citizen virtue that (1) strips the critical instinct of its standing as essential equipment for the competent democratic mind, and (2) finds merit in the consumer credulity that relishes pop culture and shrugs off buyer-beware warnings. The ideal readers of The 9/11 Commission Report are those who resemble the Commission itself in believing that a strong inclination to trust the word of highly placed others is evidence of personal moral distinction."

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Identity Crisis #6

Just a big "What?" I've got a piece coming on Identity Crisis when it's finished but one of the most interesting things is how closely it's followed the classical mystery, starting with a locked room murder and now the apparent revelation of the murderer as the person you least suspect. And since mystery readers are always looking at the least likely suspects this is a very clever structural twist.

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Half the country apologizes to the world

Now this makes me proud to be an American (and Canadian and French and Russian and Japanese and Kenyan and Argentine....).

Monday, November 8, 2004

are blogs journalism?

Well, it may not be a surprise that a retired CBS reporter doesn't think so but I don't think he's wrong or actually right either. As it happens I'm currently reading Dan Gillmor's We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (which is available for free; if you don't want to install Adobe Acrobat then just put the URLs into Google and it will translate them into HTML). Gillmor by contrast is almost shrilly positive about blogging being a paradigm shift and would be more convincing if the book wasn't so superficial, though to be fair I'm only a third through it. Still, he approvingly drags in McLuhan and Alvin Toffler which shows that he's one of those working journalists focused on finding and sorting facts, not in actually thinking about them or pretty much anything come to that.

What these guys and most of the other discussion (see for instance the SF Chronicle, Business Week, ZDNet or Boston Herald) has been about is hard news. And in that arena, bloggers for the most part aren't journalists, at least not in any meaningful sense. They aren't the ones talking to politicians, attending trials, uncovering corporate malfeasance, finding out where the literal bodies are buried and such; y'know the hard and often inexplicably romanticized grind of day to day journalism. These types of bloggers are generally commentators and sifters which isn't usually the same thing. Major "serious" journalism can be done in such a manner--I.F. Stone is a classic example--but if remarks aren't literature, they also aren't journalism.

Then again this is "journalism" in a strict sense. It's telling that both Gillmor and the CBS reporter (Eric Engberg, but I didn't name him earlier and it's stylistically clumsy to do so now) make distinctions between experts and the rest of humanity. Engberg does so as a barrier (even if he's right that exit polls require a lot of experience and training to interpret properly) and Gillmor simply because his worldview is so firmly based on experts vs. "laypeople" that he can't rethink that even when doing so is the entire point of his book.

So news bloggers aren't digging up the data and doing the interviews but maybe they have a more important function as synthesists (like one of the characters out of Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar), trawlers, hunters, webweavers and gadflies. Sure, some of them are careerists, idiots and worse but does anybody honestly think this should be left to CBS or the NYT? I recently read that Tokyo has three English-language daily newspapers, more than most American cities including the one where I live. News blogging is the most promising path to date out of media consolidation and corporate control and despite some obvious dangers can only be beneficial.

(I was planning to add more about how these journalism/blogging discussions only focus on a small portion of blogs and how cultural blogs are much more clearly making real changes, even in journalism of a different type. But that's for another day.)

Do you really want to move to Canada?

Sounds like if, say, a chunk of Ontario could stuck into Alabama we would have utopia.

The Incredibles

The Incredibles (Brad Bird 2004) - I read a claim that this is an attack on corporations and excessive legalism though it was hard to tell whether the writer was serious or ironic. In any case, that’s not remotely true. The Incredibles has very little goal other than entertainment and some by-the-numbers family unity which it handles quite pleasantly. It’s closer to a James Bond or maybe even True Lies or a Spy Kids film than a superhero story, even down to the music. In fact it’s surprising how little references there are to comics books. Violet is clearly based on Sue Richards and Frozone on Iceman but other than that there’s not much even though Pixar films generally feature intricately detailed backgrounds. On the other hand, this one mostly avoids the sad Pixar tradition of pushing women off to the side (or down the throat of a larger fish) so maybe that’s the trade-off. It was unexpected to see one voice credited to Sarah Vowell who it turns out is indeed the writer; I’ve read Radio On which was barely passable and a few other mediocre-to-bad essays but she apparently has another life as a public radio commentator which I’m proud to say I knew nothing about.

Sunday, November 7, 2004

where are the DIY documentaries?

Video the Vote: Ohio

This documentary about voting problems was apparently filmed on Tuesday, edited on a laptop during the week and made available by Saturday. For a couple of years I've wondered why there aren't more DIY/homegrown/whatever documentaries now that the entire process from taping to editing to distribution can easily be done on home computers. I'm sure there are more than I know about but still you'd think we'd be awash in the things. Perhaps it's just too much work or people think they should be making feature-length pieces or nobody really cares. While they can be distributed on burned CDs and DVDs or over the Internet there's still the problem about getting the word out.

While Video the Vote: Ohio is a good example of the sort of thing that wouldn't be covered otherwise it's not a good example in other ways. Though I do realize this was part of a larger Michael Moore-sponsored project it's still missing some important context. How many polling places are covered? Were the challengers actually operating inappropriately as implied? Jesse Jackson claims the challenges were racially motivated but were there similar numbers of challengers at other places? And the music is simply a bad choice. Using a song instead of an instrumental makes the piece too much like a music video and the song's overall upbeat tone conflicts with the rest. (I just looked up the lyrics which are a bit darker and more "desperate" to quote from them but none of that comes across in the video nor should it.) I don't think Video the Vote: Ohio is necessarily wrong--in fact expect it's probably fairly close to the truth--but like much of Moore's work tends to avoid the hard work of actual journalism.

stuff to read

The Observer's 10 Worst Cover Songs

I Was a Zombie Extra in Romania


The Nation praises new Eminem video (no, really)

more on Japanese baby names (turns out Spider-Man is not allowed; surely at some point somebody will write haiku based on the forbidden words)

Queen bootlegs itself

somebody analyzes the politics of Page 3 girls (again: no, really)

a celebration of Scottish gloom

Nobel laureate can't be published in the US

Graham Greene in the Age of Bush

210 channels and still a wasteland

and today's too-much-free-time sites are superhero blogs, not ones about but ones "by" superheroes: Hulk and Green Arrow (I'm waiting for Barbara Gordon's)

Friday, November 5, 2004

What the world loses

From Jean Edward Smith's biography of Lucius Clay, the U.S. military governor of occupied Germany from 1945 to 1949:

When World II ended, the United States Army became the custodian of what Clay described to Secretary Stinson as "the greatest single art collection in the world." This collection included not only the various masterpieces of Rembrandt, Rubens, Tintoretto, and El Greco (to name but a few) looted from Nazi-occupied Europe, but almost all of the really valuable German artworks that had been removed from their museums during the war and stored for safekeeping in that portion of western Germany liberated by U.S. forces.
Clay took an immediate personal interest in preserving the artworks the Americans captured. He expanded military government's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives branch to include some of America's most celebrated art historians and curators (including James Rorimer, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and instructed them "to identify, salvage, and restore everything worth saving." And Clay told Stinson he hoped to get immediate approval to return to their original owners the works the Nazis had looted throughout Europe, and to preserve the prewar German art collections in trust for the German people.
Stinson applauded Clay's plan and assured him of his support. To Stinson, the preservation of Europe's cultural treasures and of Germany's own important artworks bespoke the dignity of America's war aims....

Donald Rumsfeld, April 11, 2003:

The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times and you think, "My goodness, were there that many vases? [Laughter from press corps.] Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"

Thursday, November 4, 2004

unfortunately we probably know why

"When fans read Superman, they're reading it for the visceral fun of reading Superman. When I read Superman, I can't help but wonder why no black man has ever been assigned to write it."

Interview with Christopher Priest at Newsarama. Well worth reading if you want to know why mainstream comics aren't better than they are.

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Rabid review,,83915,00.html?

My review of Rabid is now up on the TCM website. Coming next are trips to the silent era....

Have we ever had a killer in the White House?

The Straight Dope answers (and in case you're impatient the answer is yes: three for sure and one maybe).

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

awwww he didn't like his job

There's an entire genre of pieces--certainly they can't be called "essays"--relating first-person accounts of the horrors of the working world. I'm not talking Down and Out in Paris and London but things exactly like this from a person who spent a year in a bookstore and was just astonished that he was expected to, well, work. Key features are a narrator who starts out idealistic, a range of weird employees and customers, one clueless manager, another overbearing manager, ways people avoided doing anything and then, finally, escape! Never the slightest inkling that at least part of the "problem" are those like this guy who is just shocked, shocked he tells you, to find everything's not warm 'n' fuzzy. Did you realize bookstores are intended to make money? Isn't that just madness?

As somebody who's spent almost 20 years working in bookstores ranging from a huge and prestigious independent to two large chains, I can tell you that he's either exaggerating to have a good story or he simply has no idea what he's talking about. His example of a "truly insane" customer clearly wasn't even close though I've had genuinely certified outpatients and street people who regularly passed through our stores, most quite harmless, a couple who required police intervention. I've had a customer throw a book at me, a few so furious they could hardly speak, several threaten lawsuits, assorted thieves, and other joys of working retail. But pretty much anybody who's ever worked in a store of any kind can match this with some stories of their own (and like veterans recounting war exploits we quickly learn that nobody else is the slightest bit interested). However unlike this writer I'm not blaming dumb customers or incompentant managers, though I've had my share of both.

Out of all this, the writer (an Anthony Bonanza though apparently that's a pseudonym) comes up with an anti-corporate truism that's likely to stroke the NPR crowd: "But a horrible commercial reality is what chain stores exist in and bow to. There is no time for inspiration, no time for dreams, just the endless shovelling of crap at a resistant public. This particular juggernaut takes advantage of its workforce and demeans its reputation as a serious bookshop with an increasingly moronic, centrally dictated stock."

Except that this is wrong. Just ask anybody who works at--or better yet owns--an independent book or record store how much they can avoid commercial reality, whether they live off dreams and inspiration. And though I admittedly feel odd defending chain stores at least Borders (where I worked for a year and a half) and Barnes & Noble do serve a purpose (something I wouldn't claim for, say, Best Buy or pretty much any large music retailer except possibly Tower). Without B&N my parents, for example, wouldn't have a regular chance to browse any store that stocks serious literature and history and while yes it does push a lot of moronic crap you can at least walk in and come out with Chekhov or Suetonius (actual examples). And while I was at Borders it would be hard for me to estimate how many customers I was able to convince that Confederacy of Dunces or William Gibson or American Sphinx were worthy purchases. (Not to whitewash the companies: B&N engages in some reprehensive corporate practices such as deliberate targeting of competition within a market and Borders went through a restructuring that only solidifies my contempt for MBAs.) Sure, more frequently I was helping customers find mysteries featuring cats or Kitty Kelley biographies but hey I've read enough Piers Anthony novels and rock star memoirs that I'm not about to cast first stones. And that's really what it boils down to: This writer wanted everybody to be pretty much like him and if his experiences were unpleasant it was not his fault.

gotta love comics fans

Note at Newsarama concerning an article on Spider-Man gaining organic webshooters:

Yes, this is going to be a hot topic. Please keep your comments civil and level-headed. Do not insult another poster because they don't share your opinion, and keep a cool head. If you're going to have a terrible fanboy moment that you may regret (or will keep you from running for public office) later - take a moment, step back from the keyboard, compose yourself, take a deep breath, and then post.