Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

A hell of a lot went on this year for me. I traveled overseas for the first time, I finished that goddamn book, attended three weddings, moved from one side of the city to the other, saw a lot of good movies and read a bunch of good books. Oh and my wife got her MBA and promptly landed a sweet job. Not too bad. I hope next year's at least as good as this one, but if it happens to be a bit less eventful, that'll be fine with me. Anyway, here's hoping all my readers (i.e. my friends and family) have an excellent 2008!

Time to watch the ball drop.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays Readers!

I'm coming down with something that promises to be just the most awesome sickness (right in time for Christmas!), but I still expect to enjoy me some food, presents, and family today and tomorrow. Hope everyone has a great Christmas and a Happy New Year!

(P.S. Go ahead and see "I Am Legend" if you're looking for something to do during the Christmas break. It's good times. And if you don't hate musicals, why not check out "Sweeney Todd"? True, they sing through almost the entire thing, but even with all that, it's still Tim Burton's best-made film since "Ed Wood" -- though I admit I never did see "Big Fish", so maybe it's only the best film since then. But remember, only see it if you like musicals.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Dark Knight" Trailer Hits

I've been waiting for this one for a long time. Here there be "Dark Knight" trailers.

And I can't help but think that the Joker/Batcycle standoff in the middle of a deserted Gotham street is intended to bring to mind a certain Joker/ Batwing standoff in a certain other film. Hmm. I know that's massively geeky, but, you know, this is Batman.

Anyway, it all looks great, and I can't wait to see it. What do ya'll think?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Michael Crichton's "Next"

A few days ago, I finished reading Michael Crichton’s latest novel “Next.” Originally published at the end of 2006, it's recently shown up on bookshelves in paperback. Being a longtime fan of Crichton's, I picked it up, expecting a quick, fun read -- a quick way to pad my 2007 reading list. Quick and fun, however, it was not.

Throughout my reading of it I often closed the book and stared, dumbstruck, at its cover, astonished that such unassuming covers could contain within them such awful trash. Though it sounds like the first line of a sulking fifth-grader's book report, I feel it needs to be said anyway: "Next" is one of the worst books I've ever read. There.

The copy I bought is one of those new tall mass-market paperbacks that are supposed to be easier to read than their stubbier brethren. The mass-market edition of “Next” was printed in a variety of lurid colors; I picked up the white version, not wanting to see a blazing lime green cove, for example, blaring out of my bookshelves for years to come. The logo, as pictured, is a monkey with a bar code over it. Quite graphic and interesting. There are a couple of blurbs at the bottom of the book. The first cites the Washington Post whose reviewer apparently called “Next” “chilling.” The Philadelphia Inquirer says “Next” is “spectacular.” Inside are pages and pages of positive reviews from a sampling of the nation's newspapers. Never before has the sense that I’ve read a book wholly different from the book the reviewers critiqued been so palpable.

I picked up “Next” thinking that, with his anti-global warming screed “State of Fear” out of his system, Crichton has returned to his techno-horror origins a la “Prey” or, even better, “Jurassic Park.” Not so. I never read “State of Fear” (one of the few Crichton novels I can say that about), because the “plot” was too ridiculous even for me. This from the New York Times review (an organization Crichton loathes, for the record) :

“Nicholas Drake, head of an environmental group called the National Environmental Resource Fund (NERF), who has conspired with radical eco-terrorists to trigger a series of climate-related catastrophes. Drake believes the disasters will convince the public that global warming is an imminent crisis that can be averted only by writing big fat checks to NERF.

That’s real, folks. Read the review here. You kind of have to read it to believe it.

In my view, the fact he wrote a book in which the above scenario was handled seriously is pretty embarrassing, which is why, out of deference to the old Crichton I grew up reading, I politely passed that book right on by. Sadly, his new novel "Next" suggests that the wild-eyed, crazy-haired right-wing zealot Crichton who wrote "State of Fear" is here to stay.

As screeds go, “Next” tweaks the lizard-brain as hard and as tastelessly as the best of them, but it is not nearly as targeted as “State of Fear”, a book that lasered in on environmentalists as its primary villain, and dangerous liberal-ness as their enabler. “Next” seems to target, with equal ferocity, human amorality in genetic engineering, and humanity itself. His view of humanity in “Next” is so dim in fact that the visceral reaction Crichton intends "Next" to evoke in the reader is less a feeling that the future is a frightening place, and more a general feeling that the only good human is a dead human. Once the lizard brain retreats, however, and the intellect re-emerges, the question that may come to mind is, "Who made Michael Crichton so mad?” There is, after all, a lot of anger in this book.

The plot, such as it is, doesn’t follow a single, or even a couple narrative lines, but rather a series of scenarios that all seek to expose injustices in the still nascent field of bioengineering. Written in his customary ultra-short chapters, the story bops from one outrage to another. In one story arc, a family in the suburbs has to adjust to life with a human/chimpanzee hybrid who acts like a precocious though unusually agile boy. (The geneticist father inadvertently created the "humanzee" at work.) In another plot thread we follow a gray parrot with human-like intelligence on a road trip of sorts. These are the most traditionally Crichton-esque of the stories and are, generally speaking, politically neutral and innocuous.

The novel’s other plotlines, however, deal with humans using and abusing genetic technology advancements for their own personal gain. These sections of the book are the most difficult to read because they are the most misanthropic. In these sections, all the characters are so one-dimensional as to be less than caricatures; Crichton uses them to make his political arguments with all the subtlety of a knife in the ribs. Crichton’s misogeny is on full display: his women are all either daft, spiteful, or plain old murderous. His male characters are all one of a dozen variants of unscrupulous bastard.

Notions that would make most people blanch and consult their consciences don’t phase these awful characters in the slightest. For example, a valuable cell line collected by the University of California from a patient as waste material is patented by the University, which they then sell to a private company for billions. An act of industrial sabotage contaminates the cell line, and the aggrieved company, with the help of the courts, sends a bounty hunter to track down the original patient (or one of his direct relatives if he’s not around) and forcibly confiscate the cell line. Detain, restrain, and extract tissue. The reason: the courts have decreed that the company owns the patient’s cell line, not the patient. Instead of dealing with the issue in an honest way, Crichton decides to play on our worst fears about the judicial system, painting it as a monolithic, dusty bureaucracy that will, if asked, come after regular folks and take their dignity, their money, and finally their body parts.

Or how about the divorce attorney who orders his client’s spouse to have a full genetic work up, the kind of test that often reveal the disease that will eventually kill a person. In order to escape the test, which may be administered against her will, she must flee and relinquish her children to her weaselly husband. Both the husband and the divorce attorney practically twist their mustaches as they hatch their plans. I think it'd be hard to find fiction this bad if you went out and looked for it.

According to the New York Times, these stories, or some variant of them, check out. Something like what Crichton describes in the book actually happened. But in the hands of Michael Crichton, cautionary tales like this come off more like the alarmist hack work of Sean Hannity doomsaying about the coming jihadist holocaust then the firm, wonky warnings sounded by Al Gore (who Crichton, no doubt, believes is himself a demagogue). The difference between the writers is in how they view their audience. Gore believes his audience can be persuaded by a clear presentation of facts; Crichton, on the other hand, believes his readers can only come around to his way of thinking by terrifying them into lockstep.

But not all of Crichton's caricatures are merely venal; when he really wants to score a political point, he creates ridiculous straw men, which become the villains Crichton happily knocks down. Take the hippie environmentalist character Mark Sanger, heartbroken at the thought of sea turtles being eaten by hungry jaguars on Costa Rica. Read how Crichton describes Sanger’s environmentalist credentials:

Back at home in Berkeley, Sanger sat in his loft and pondered what to do. Although Sanger told people he was a biologist, he had no formal training in the field. He had attended one year of college before dropping out to work briefly for a landscape architecture firm, Cather and Holly; the only biology he had taken was a course in high school. The son of a banker, Sanger possessed a substantial trust fund and did not need to work to support himself. He did, however, need a purpose in life. Wealth, in his experience, made the quest for self-identity even more difficult.

And then:

Recently, he had started to define himself as an artist, and artists did not need formal training. In fact, formal education interfered with a the artist’s ability to feel the zeitgeist, to ride the waves of change rolling through society, and to formulate a response to them. Sanger was very well informed in his opinion. He read the Berkeley papers, and sometimes magazines like Mother Jones, and several of the environmental magazines. Not every month, but sometimes. True, he often just looked at the pictures, skimming the stories. But that was all that was necessary to track the zeitgeist.

Can’t you just feel the curmudgeonly hatred radiating off of those words like heat? Is it ever pleasurable to read fiction by a writer who literally hates one of his characters? In John Irving’s “Cider House Rules”, Irving presents the character of the train station agent as an idiot unaware of his own idiocy, which is harmless in and of itself. But the way Irving writes him it’s clear he deeply dislikes the station agent. The pages featuring this character are uncomfortable reading and succeed only in pulling the reader out of the narrative. But imagine pages upon pages of writing like that, featuring one hateful character after another. That’s “Next.”

Crichton expresses his own intemperate hate for environmentalists by creating an illiterate, thoughtless, and reckless loser to stand in for all of them. Here’s another choice tidbit between Sanger and a Costa Rican naturalist (the italics are mine):

“No, Senor Sanger, this is always the way it has been since my father and grandfather, and grandfather before. They always spoke of the jaguar attacks in the night. It’s part of the cycle of life.”

“But there are more attacks now,” Sanger said. “Because of all the pollution . . .

In Crichton’s view Sanger, and by extension all environmentalists, are blithering idiots who are all heart and not an ounce of brain. I don’t know if this example demonstrates Crichton’s hate for environmentalists, or if it shows his complete inability to "get inside the head" of another human being. Though I think the latter's definitely a problem for him as a writer, I think the problem is more the former – Crichton is too keen to demonize them then to try and understand them, as is made quite clear in the next example:

"Ramon Valdez said, 'Jaguars must eat, too. I think better a turtle than to take a human baby.'

That, Mark Sanger thought, was a matter of opinion."

Absolutely poisonous. Sanger's not just thoughtless and stupid, he actually believes the life of a sea turtle matters more than a human baby's. Sounds like Sanger's almost as misanthropic as the guy who created him.

But it gets worse.

Chapter “045” begins this way:

"Alex Burnett was in the middle of the most difficult trial of her career, a rape case involving the sexual assault of a two-year old boy in Malibu. The defendant, thirty-year old Mick Crowley, was a Washington-based political columnist who was visiting his sister-in-law when he experienced an overwhelming urge to have anal sex with her young son, still in diapers."

Yes, apropos of nothing, halfway through the "novel," Crichton inserts an infant-rape vignette into his story about genetic research. And it’s just as extraneous to the plot as it sounds. But it gets worse.

This from the New York Times:

But one of ["Next"]'s minor characters — Mick Crowley, a Washington political columnist who rapes a baby — may be a literary dagger aimed at Michael Crowley, a Washington political reporter who wrote an unflattering article about Mr. Crichton this year. Certainly Mr. Crowley thinks so.

“In a “Washington Diarist” feature that was to be posted last night on The New Republic’s Web site, tnr.com, and published in the magazine’s Dec. 25 issue, Mr. Crowley says he is the victim of “a literary hit-and-run” because of a 3,700-word article in The New Republic in March.”

I’d say “literary hit-and-run” is putting it nicely. How does Crichton expect us to take him seriously as a novelist when he’s capable of such vile and transparently vindictive juvenilia? What’s sad about this is that, despite his terrible writing, there remains the vestiges of a serious mind chugging along in that ole Crichton noggin’.

At the end of "Next", in a section entitled, “Author’s Note," Crichton states in plain language five things that ought to be changed based on research he did for this book. And here’s the surprising thing: they seem to make sense. “Stop patenting genes,” is his first suggestion. He then lays out a concise case for why this ought to be done, and, wonder of wonders, he’s persuasive! When he isn't subjecting the weary reader to political opinion disguised (loosely) as bad fiction, Crichton is on firmer ground. But even here his he begins to fail.

The fourth conclusion/suggestion is strange because, prior to his making it, he’s appeared to come down strongly against it with the full weight of the preceding novel. “Avoid bans on research," he says. Right. We wouldn't want to discourage the future John Hammonds of the world from creating their "amusement parks," now would we?

In “Next”, unfettered, unrestricted research of the kind he says he supports, results in the creation of the aforementioned “humanzee.” In all the scenes relating to it, the humanzee is depicted as a kind of lovable abomination, pitiable in that he doesn’t belong in either the human world or the ape world. Crichton’s clear implication is that the humanzee shouldn’t exist, and that the experiments that brought him about ought not to have been done.

In other scenes, an unscrupulous researcher makes an inhalant that carries something called the “maturity gene” in it. The researcher’s brother, a drug addict, takes it and suddenly grows up: he quits drugs, cleans up, gets a good job, and matures all at once. Of course, one side effect is that recipients of the spray die inside of a year.

In Crichton’s hands, all of this is just so much pabulum, but the subtext of the entire book is that as research moves us further and further onto shaky moral ground in the field of genetic research, as scientists are able to do more and more things, humanity enters into a strange and frightening world. So maybe banning research would, as Crichton believes, be ineffectual, but why intentionally depict a world of unbanned research that is so frightening? Did Crichton forget which side of the argument he was on?

There are other examples where Crichton’s novel-length propaganda doesn’t quite line up with what he actually thinks (like the stem cell issue for one), but his appeals to the intellect at the finish of the book are too little too late. He’s already insulted the intelligence of his readers with the preceding dumb-as-shit book; even his right-wing readers should feel insulted, and probably do.

And lest anyone think that this is just another example of a diehard liberal coming down hard on a previously neutral author that's dared express conservative thoughts, I'd say that's untrue. Crichton has always skewed slightly right, and I read him anyway. A little slant is cool with me. But what's happened to Crichton is of a different order. It'd be as if Stephen King, who's always skewed a little left, suddenly wrote a novel in which a group of evil Pro-Life activists devised a scheme to abort thousands of babies to end, once and for all, the "abortion holocaust." Weird, right? Off-putting right? Even to his liberal-leaning readers.

I’d say with the publication of “Next” Crichton has moved full-bore into the realm of right-wing ideologues. Writing “State of Fear” to say that global warming was a giant scam was no fluke. Crichton now looks at the printed word the same way Hannity and Coulter and propagandists of that ilk do: just another way to disseminate their political views. The suggestion I have for readers and critics is this: don't look at Crichton the way you used to: the guy who told us about the future of technology before it arrived. Though a remnant of that Crichton still exists, that is no longer where he's at, which is, for me, a sad downturn for a once interesting writer.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Why Isn't Drew Doing All Movie Posters?


If the film ends up being half as awesome as this Drew Struzan poster, 2008's going to be an amazing year at the movies. Click here for the official site where you may download this poster for your desktop or somesuch. Looks like there'll be more posters coming down the pike; with any luck they'll all be done by Struzan.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"No Country for Old Men"

As you might recall, some days ago I went to the movies and saw "The Mist" and "No Country for Old Men" in one evening. You can read my long-winded take on "The Mist" here. That one was full of spoilers as I was itching to talk about the ending. No spoilers in this one, so read on without fear, O ye uninitiated!

The second billing in my double feature was, inarguably, the better film. Nothing against "The Mist", but "No Country for Old Men" was a return to form for the genius Coen Brothers, easily one of their top five films, and that's hard for any movie, even a Darabont movie, to top.

I read the eponymous Cormac McCarthy novel when it came out way back in 2005 and I was blown away by it. I'd never read anything that was so satisfyingly lurid, but written in such a spare, poetical way as to suggest literature. Or at least nearly that. And, along with Judge Holden, Anton Chigurh was the literary villain I most wished I'd thought of first. You can read that dusty post here.

Briefly, "No Country" is set in 1980, and concerns Llewellyn Moss, a welder who finds a big satchel filled with two million dollars out in the desert plains of West Texas. The owners of that money hire an uncontrollable but highly effective psychotic named Chigurh to retrieve that money, and his quest and his strange but oddly consistent ethics require him to leave a trail of bodies in his wake, most of them aerated by his trusty pneumatic cattle gun. But, as we come to find, the film really belongs to Ed Tom Bell, the county Sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones (who ought to get a Best Actor award for this film to go with his Best Supporting) who sees in Chigurh's senseless carnage the end of something essential in the world.

So why is this a "return to form" for the Coen brothers? In some form or another, nearly all of the Coens' films have dealt with crime, often focusing on desperate, but comical characters who feel driven to step afoul of the law. "No Country" is a return to form in that it's a crime movie and because, like "Fargo"(1996) takes itself and its characters seriously. But "No Country" also transcends that "form" because it represents a first for them: a straightforward crime movie adapted from a straightforward piece of crime fiction. Though there are funny moments in the film -- the humor almost always coming from the characters' sardonic wit -- the Coens never attempt to leaven the overall darkness of the film with scenes that display their signature sense of humor. They've put themselves aside for this movie, and in being so respectful of McCarthy's novel, the Coens may have made the film that, so far, best exemplifies their sensibilities as filmmakers. If "Vertigo" is Hitchcock's most Hitchockian film, and "Goodfellas" Scorsese's most Scorsesian film, then "No Country for Old Men" may prove to be the Coens' most Coensian movie. And if this turns out to be the best film they make, then it's due in large part to the work of the cast and crew they assembled.

Crew: I'd say Roger Deakins turns in Best Cinematography Award-level work here. Other DPs seem almost desperate to put their particular stamp on a film. Deakins' stamp is this: if a film seems perfectly shot, if every composition and every lighting choice seems thoughtful, if every frame is designed for maximum impact, then you're seeing a Roger Deakins movie. Another Coens stalwart, Carter Burwell, does great work here. I don't remember a note of it, but like we were told in film-school, a good film score's supposed to be unobtrusive. I'm sure the "No Country" score will prove to just as brilliant whenever I get a chance to listen to it by itself; or maybe the second time I watch the movie.

The cast: Josh Brolin, he of "Goonies" fame (he played Sean Astin's older brother), has grown up into the consummate alpha male film actor: big-shouldered, square-jawed and just as at home in a white hat as in a black. Maybe that's why he wears the grey-hat of this film so well. He's so good in this you forget he's Josh Brolin. Javier Bardem was not remotely who I imagined in the role of Chigurh when I read the novel, but he does very well in a role that would have been a homerun for nearly any serious dramatic actor. But it's Tommy Lee Jones and his character's sad arc that make me love this movie.

Jones' Ed Tom Bell is interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Ed Tom is the antithesis of Sam Gerard, the character he played so perfectly in "The Fugitive" (1993) and the role that made him famous. In some respect, these films could act as Tommy Lee Jones bookends. These characters, both lawmen, are antithetical to one another in that Ed Tom has allowed himself to absorb his work, to feel it on an emotional level, and all the horror and base human cruelty that entails. The mental hardship of that absorption has taken its toll on Ed Tom, a toll Jones makes subtly clear by the gentle way he speaks and his weary, perpetually astonished demeanor. By contrast, Sam Gerard seems largely unaffected by the terrors of his work. When Kimble points a gun at Gerard's face and tells him, "I didn't kill my wife!" Gerard replies without thinking, "I don't care!" And he means it. Later in the film, Gerard has to risk a deputy's life to get a bullet into another fugitive that's taken that deputy hostage. As if to underline Gerard's emotional indifference, he expresses no regret afterwards, saying to his deputy that he doesn't "bargain" with suspects. Though these lawmen's methods may not be antithetical, their psychological capacity is, and "No Country" seems to suggest that feeling human beings in law enforcement must cut out a part of themselves to do their job over the long-term without feeling tortured by it; furthermore, the film suggests that psychologically self-limited people are the only ones who can catch the psychologically limited on the other side of the law. Gerard managed, with great success, to limit his absorption of his work; Ed Tom did not, and the years have hollowed him out.

In some ways, this notion of incompleteness of the soul suggests that the purely good, the psychologically unlimited, like Ed Tom, aren't up to defeating pure evil. Chigurh represents that evil, or Chaos; even though he seems weirdly ordered in his thinking, and though he imitates order in how carefully he goes about his business, he is Chaos. Ed Tom is Order and though Order goes through the motions, Order is always overmatched. (McCarthy highlights this duality by making their first names, Ed Tom and Anton, phonetically identical.) So as Order succumbs to Chaos in the world of "No Country", the Coens have, more persuasively than in any of their other films, managed to succinctly express their pessimistic worldview; in fact, they do it so well, that it's tempting to hope that they abandon their quirky comedies forever and continue to make movies this stripped-down and unadorned.

I'd write more but it took me long enough to come up with this, such as it is, and I've already reached my daily fatuousness quota.

Anyway, reading through that old post I wrote after I first read the novel, I saw that I included a big chunk of a scene from that book that was probably my favorite from the novel. Reading it now I see that the Coens let it stand in the film adaptation word for word, only truncating it for time. I'm just going to repost that snippet of dialogue from the book right here right now. It's just too good.

[Bell says] Do you have any notion of how goddamned crazy you are?
[Chigurh says] The nature of this conversation?
The nature of you.
Chigurh leaned back. He studied Wells. Tell me something, he said.
What.
If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?
I don't know what you're talking about.
I'm talking about your life. In which now everything can be seen at once.
I'm not interested in your bullshit, Anton.
I thought you might want to explain yourself.
I don't have to explain myself to you.
Not to me. To yourself. I thought you might have something to say.
You go to hell.
You surprise me, that's all. I expected something different. It calls past events into question. Dont you think so?
You think I'd trade places with you?
Yes. I do. I'm here and you are there. In a few minutes I will still be here.
Wells looked out the darkened window. I know where the satchel is, he said.
If you knew where the satchel was you would have it.
I was going to have to wait until there was no one around. Till night. Two in the morning. Something like that.
You know where the satchel is.
Yes.
I know something better.
What's that.
I know where it's going to be.
And where is that.
It will be brought to me and placed at my feet.
Wells wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It wouldn't cost you anything. It's twenty minutes from here.
You know that's not going to happen. Don't you?
Wells didn't answer.
Dont you?
You go to hell.
You think you can put it off with your eyes.
What do you mean?
You think that as long as you keep looking at me you can put it off.
I don't think that.
Yes you do. You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it. I'm trying to help you.
You son of a bitch.
You think you wont close your eyes. But you will.

Damn but is that some great stuff.

Finally, I have a question for those who've already seen it.

[SPOILER BELOW!!]










[SPOILER!]

Q: On the night Ed Tom goes to the motel that was the scene of the big gun battle, Ed Tom goes into a hotel room. They cut to a shot of Chigurh in a sliver if light watching Ed Tom's shadow moving about outside. Ed Tom goes in and finds nothing. Where was Chigurh? Was he in the adjacent hotel room, or was in another part of the hotel room that Ed Tom didn't look in? Or did Chigurh just disappear?

So, you know, lemme know.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sherri Shepherd says, "Nothing predates Christ", King says "Make Mine Lindsay and Britney," and Bush says, "Only Last Week."

I was thinking just today, "What would be a good easy blog post for a lazy blogger like me?"

And then Sherri Shepherd of "The View" gave it to me.

You may remember her from this very blog back when she said she didn't "know" if the world was flat. After I got over my feelings of unctuous superiority, I let it go, figuring Shepherd, who seems amiable and not unduly stupid on the show, had just got into a defensive crouch on Christianity, and lost her way during the argument with a silly rhetorical dead-end. This, from Wikipedia, seems to confirm that: "The very next day, Shepherd explained that she never had to defend her religious beliefs before, and that she became overwhelmed with the many questions that were being thrown at her. By the time Goldberg added her question, Shepherd was nervous and did not fully comprehend what was being asked. She stated that she knows that the world is round."

This clip, however, seems to contradict the idea that Sherri really does know the world is round, or, for that matter, anything else other then Jesus is the Lord our God. In her defense, she was raised in the Jehovah's Witness cult before becoming a Born Again, so I have sympathy for her, but it's still a little worrying to see such a lightless worldview spoken aloud, and to know that others share it.

Click here for the clip, and tremble.

Also, Stephen King has cast his vote for who he thinks should be Time's Person of the Year. He nominates Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. He thinks they'd be a good choice because, "[they] symbolize the media's growing obsession with issues of personality over substance. People care more about the details of Spears' child-custody case than they do about where the billions the U.S. government has poured into Iraq have gone. It's time for a discussion about whether the news media have chucked their responsibilities and run off to Tabloid Disneyland."

This seems like a good idea. Since Time magazine has punted on choosing an actual person the last couple times, last year's choice goofy choice being "You", and a year or two before that the syrupy "the American Soldier", I think a protest Person of the Year might be good for us. Like King, I'd like the media to have a more serious discussion then they've been having about themselves, though I may be more pessimistic than Steve because I don't think that, ultimately, a new discussion on the current state of Infotainment would do anything to amp up the Info and diminish the 'Tainment.

Finally, the CIA released its NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) on Iran's nascent nuclear weapons program, and it states that the consensus among all 16 US intelligence agencies is that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Bush said in a press conference today that he only learned about the NIE findings "only last week," even though there's mounting evidence Bush knew about the NIE much earlier and, along with Vice President Cheney, had been working to quash and alter its findings. If this is the case, then Bush's comments in October of THIS YEAR about a nuclear-armed Iran posing a threat of "World War III", or Cheney's comments, also in October of THIS YEAR, in which he said that if Iran, "stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences," exposes these men, once again, as shameless liars. It may be that Bush's statement this morning that he only learned about the NIE "last week", may become a scandal all of its own. It's clearly a lie, but if any one comes up with hard proof of it, he may have to face the music. But then again, Bush has been confronted with so many of his lies and he's faced up to exactly none of them, so why would he face up to this one?

Oh, January 2009 seems so far away.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Glimpse Into Bizarro America and Martin's Seven Kingdoms Coming to the Small Screen

I DVR'd the Republican YouTube debate last night and watched it this morning while crunching my toast. Watching the debate was an odd experience, but only in retrospect. Afterwards I thought, "Wow. One half of those guys are out of their minds, and the other half are trying to seem crazy to get that all-important Crazy vote." But while I was in the midst of watching it, the craziness of what they were saying seemed obvious but irrelevant -- I was watching for the sheer enjoyment of the back and forth of men vying for supremacy in the fight of their political lives; I was watching like an unattached campaign consultant, happy for the candidates when they had good moments, even a little sad for the candidates who fumbled or never hit their stride. Yeah, I know. It was kind of weird.

I was talking about the debate with my wife this evening, and she shook her head and said, "I don't know how you can watch that stuff. I'd be screaming at the TV." And I'm not even sure why listening to these goofs didn't piss me off. Maybe I'm thinking that the Republicans don't have a serious shot at the White House in '08, and therefore no matter what they say on-stage, all these things will ultimately decide is which candidate is going to go down in flames saying what? And I really hope I'm not deluding myself. Surely, after what will by then have been 8 years of Bush, (8 years!) surely the country won't look to yet another Republican to take up where W. left off and lead the country. Surely not. (Yeah, I do sound deluded, don't I?)

Anyway, the debate. It was a good one, I thought, as Republican debates go. Lots of interesting back and forth, and even some genuine emotion from Romney-bot 2000 when Giuliani tried to call him out on his alleged use of undocumented workers at the governor's mansion. (They both came off looking bad after that exchange.) But what I came away from the event with was a frightening snapshot of just how weird the average Republican is. In the YouTube debates, people from all over the country send in their questions via YouTube, CNN plays them, and the candidate specifically asked answers them. I won't pretend that a handful of YouTube questions from voters (of which some were Democrats, which I don't think CNN should have done -- weren't there enough questions sent in by Republicans?) gives a true or useful picture of Republican America, but the white Floridian response to some of the answers the candidates gave does, I think, serve as an accurate gauge as to where the nation's conservatives currently reside.

And that place is Weirdsville.

It's a place where just owning handguns aren't good enough, but fully automatic assault rifles will do in a pinch. It's a place where benefits to illegal immigrants soak up almost all of their tax dollars, where terrorists loiter in every mall, where surrendering one's privacy is a small price to pay for protection from those aforementioned terrorists. It's also a place where life begins at conception and where gay men and women decide sometime in their 20's that they're going to a.) live a life of sin and b.) devote the rest of their time on Earth to taunting Christians. In other words, it's an awful and paranoid place to live, and it bothers me that half of the people that vote (or are allowed to vote) prefer to live there rather then in the real world in which I live.

For instance, during the panel-wide exchange on illegal immigration, the audience booed anyone who dared to suggest that deporting 13 million Mexicans back across the border wasn't a good idea (McCain), and cheered vociferously anyone who hinted that the first days of their administration would see convoys of Army trucks filled with Mexicans headed to Juarez (Tancredo, everyone else). After the debate, pundits spoke euphemistically about moments like that, saying immigration is "the issue Republican voters are most passionate about", and it's the "number one issue in the Republican primary", but what was clear from the debate is that, on this issue, the GOP thinks less like a political party and more like a lynch mob. Passion is one thing, rage is another. And counterintuitively, it is precisely this far-right anti-immigration constituency of the GOP that not only stands in the way of anything being done on the issue, but makes sure no one in their own party can have a sane discussion about the issue. I think some otherwise smart GOP candidates are having to dumb themselves way way down for voters in this primary and will thus make themselves completely laughable as general election candidates.

Anyway. Enough about the creepy half of America. Here's some good news.

In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, fantasy author George R.R. Martin says that he's sold the rights to his Song of Ice and Fire series of books to HBO. Their plan is to film each book as one season of a television series. Current hotshot screenwriter David Benioff (who scripted "Troy"among other things) turned in a script for the pilot just before the strike, so it sounds like post-strike, HBO's poised to get things going in a hurry with this project. Which is good news whether you've read the books or not, or even if you're into fantasy or not, because the first book in the series, "A Game of Thrones" is an inarguably fun, brilliantly-plotted novel with a searing shock ending that transcends the genre-heading its usually given. I think with this (and some other yet-to-be-produced half-hour comedies I've been hearing about) HBO may be sowing the seeds for a post-Sopranos comeback. Here's hoping.

And finally, the New York Times released their annual list of the Ten Best Books of the Year. I haven't read a one of them, but for me there was only one surprise: Jeffrey Toobin's book about the Supreme Court entitled "The Nine." I read his book about the Clinton impeachment, and while it was informative and well-researched, he managed to make a tawdry, page-turner of a story into something dull. I don't know if it's just that the Book Review editors like Toobin's point of view or perhaps Toobin's improved as a writer since then, but whatever the case, this book's inclusion on the list was a surprise.

All right. Now you may navigate to another webpage.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Watchmen" and "Indy 4" Photo Updates

Aintitcool.com posted up two sets of some pretty cool photos today. Each set answers a question. The first question is: Are the filmmakers behind the upcoming "Watchmen" movie on the right track to make a brilliant adaptation of Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel?

Answer: Yes. The evidence below.


































These photos seem to confirm a few things that weren't set in stone. Judging by the first photo of the newsstand, Zach Snyder, the director of the film, will be devoting some time to the Tales from the Crypt-style seafaring comic that serves as a kind of story within the story in "Watchmen." This device worked well in the comic, but there was some question as to whether it would work in a film. I'd heard Snyder was going to try, and these photos certainly point in that direction. If anyone can pull it off, I think Snyder's the guy. Also the weird alternate reality in which "Watchmen" is set will remain in the film, which is cool. I wonder if we'll get a Nixon cameo as we do in the original.

Second question: Is Harrison Ford too old to play Indiana Jones for a fourth time?

Answer: Yes, but somehow he makes old and grizzled Indy just as cool and interesting as he was in those other movies -- perhaps even more so. These photos put to rest any concerns I had with the movie. But Shia Lebeouf . . . (sigh). He tries so hard, doesn't he?

































Saturday, November 24, 2007

"The Mist" Dissected

Well, hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. I went to my in-laws' house for turkey, football and the Flying Schnauzer Show, and then went to my folks' house for a couple hours to say happy birthday to my brother who turned 25 on Thanksgiving Day. All in all, good times.

The day before, the wife and I went to the movies to take in not only the much and long-anticipated "The Mist", but also the much and long-anticipated "No Country for Old Men." I don't know when next the stars will align to provide so perfect a day of moviegoing, but my guess it will either be many years or never. 98% of "The Mist" was great, and 100% of "No Country" was genius. Let's get into it.

1.) "The Mist." I reread the original King novella a month ago to reacquaint myself with the story before the movie came out. I hadn't read it for years, but predictably it holds up. Aside from giving the movie a definitive ending and a few other odds and ends, Darabont's "Mist" is a beat for beat retelling of its source material, which, as Darabont knows well, is the best way to approach King's best material. (Not so much something like "Dreamcatcher." William Goldman who adapted that novel, would have done well to rework the hell out of that novel.)

Thomas Jane plays David Drayton, a movie poster artist in the mold of Drew Struzan, the king of hand-painted movie posters. ("In the mold of" is actually kind of weak, actually, as the film opens with Drayton putting the finishing touches on a movie poster painted by Drew Struzan. Drayton kind of IS Struzan.) A weird storm blows across the lake and damages Drayton's lakehouse, sending him, his young son and his jurist neighbor (played by the always interesting Andre Braugher) to the grocery store the following morning for some supplies. They aren't there for 10 minutes before Darabont-movie stalwart Jeffrey Demunn bursts into the store with a bloody nose and shouts, "There's something in the mist!" For the characters, hell is on the way. For the audience, the fun's about to start.

What follows is an intensely satisfying amalgam of 50's B-movie and and 70's disaster movie, all shot to reflect our current dark and fearful era. What is happening outside is, of course, crazy and implausible: in rural Maine, a secret military venture called the Arrowhead Project has managed to breach the barrier between the dimensions unleashing an all-encompassing mist into our world, filled with an assortment of of tentacled ghoulies and nasty flying bug-things. With the basic premise thusly laid out, it's the movie's job to make the implausible seem as real as, well, a trip to the grocery store. I think Darabont succeeds, but it's a high-wire act, with most of the balancing work being done by the actors. For me, part of the tension in the film comes from worrying whether or not the film was going to suddenly fall flat on its face because the director asked too much of its actors. Part of this is certainly a function of how fast Darabont shot this movie, and how far out of his directorial comfort zone he went to shoot "The Mist", which was filmed in a cinema verite style. Happily, everyone's up to the job, including Marcia Gay Harden as Ms. Carmody, the Old Testament-spouting shrew who turns out to be as dangerous as the beasties on the other side of the plate glass. I was worried about her being too over-the-top after seeing the trailer, but the way the script lets her transform from deluded zealot to full-bore inciter of religious violence is deftly executed.

The only problem I had with "The Mist", is the definitive ending Darabont added to the film.

[BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD!]

The novella originally had no hard ending. In a recent NYTimes article, King said, “I thought of ending ‘The Mist’ by having [the surviving characters] come out in the sunlight,” Mr. King said recently. “But I choked at that, and instead I wrote the kind of ending my mother used to hate. She called them Alfred Hitchcock endings: You make up the ending yourself.”

The new Darabontian ending, however, gets the Stephen King seal of approval. "After he read the screenplay, Mr. King sent [Darabont] an e-mail message saying that he would have ended the story this way himself if only he’d thought of it."

I have to say that I think King circa the late seventies had it closer to right then his 2007-self. So here it is; the new ending to "The Mist."

[LAST SPOILER ALERT! I AM SERIOUSLY ABOUT TO RUIN THE ENDING!]

David Drayton, his son, the pretty lady from the store, and two old folks make good their escape from the grocery store in Drayton's SUV. After many miles and many ghastly visions, they run out of gas. Drayton has a gun and four bullets. They are not within sight of a gas station. They can't go hunting for fuel because the beasties will quickly descend and hand out excruciatingly painful deaths to everyone. After an appropriate number of beats, Darabont cuts to a wide shot of the SUV. Four shots ring out. Everyone but Drayton is dead, shot by Drayton. Drayton is beyond inconsolable. He steps out into the mist and goads the creatures to come and tear him apart. None appear. Then: strange noises from the mist, getting closer. Drayton prepares for the end. And then a tank rolls out of the fog, followed by yet more tanks and soldiers wearing gas masks. Drayton watches as the soldiers use flamethrowers to burn the nests and webs left behind by the mist creatures as the mist begins to dissipate. Drayton falls to his knees and screams "no!" as the camera booms up and the film ends.

I think all of us horror nerds and Stephen King geeks who, every now and again, attempt something creative themselves, struggle with two warring impulses. On one hand, we want to do stuff that's excellent, that everyone will like and hail as worthy contributions to the culture. But there is also that impulse to say to hell with all those effete snobs who turn their noses up at horror, who dismiss all horror novels as "penny dreadfuls", all horror movies as "populist trash", the impulse that gives the artist permission to do pure, no-frills, no apologies horror. And by that I mean all the gratuitous gore, cheap thrills, and homage to earlier (and not always good) works by the late greats that "true horror" signifies. Sometimes these warring impulses work together to create something that is both excellent and also true to the conventions of the genre. But sometimes these warring impulses result in moments in a movie or novel or comic, that embrace, gleefully, pure bad taste, and are, in fact, bad. I think this new ending is an example of the latter. With this new ending Darabont makes a movie that works as a straight horror movie, an examination of the perils of group-think, and a parable of our current post-9/11 era into an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone."

It's funny because in writing about this ending, I find myself of two minds about it: the part of me that reads and enjoys so-called "literary fiction" scoffs at Darabont's ham-fisted ending. But the King-apologist, low-brow horror advocate, "Sicuani" part of me thinks that, in its way, Darabont's ending works. As a comment on humanity, Drayton's "mercy killing" of his son and the other three expands upon and deepens the broader indictment Darabont levels at humankind in the rest of the film. With this ending Darabont asserts that human beings are instinctually violent creatures, and that when faced with bad options, humans will always resort to violence, even against the people they love.

But, to completely strain any continuing interest in this post, I have to go on to say that my objections to this ending go beyond the borderline-silly way it was shot (did Drayton really have to scream "No!" into the heavens? Did the camera really have to boom up?), and to how well this ending fits conforms to the "rules" of the movie that Darabont himself laid out.

[SPOILERS CONTINUE TO ABOUND!]

Case in point. As the column of tanks roll by in the final scene, an open-air personnel carrier rolls by with glum-faced civilians riding in back. We recognize one of them as a woman who was the first to leave the grocery store after the mist had rolled in. She'd left her children unsupervised at home and couldn't bear to leave them to face the mist by themselves. She goes out and vanishes into the mist. But when she is revealed to the audience at the end as a survivor, accompanied by her two children who she clearly succeeded in saving, something feels off. The mist is teeming with creatures of all different species, all of them capable of taking human life. Time and time again, within seconds of a person stepping out of the grocery store into the mist, the mist-creatures swarm and devour that person. Within seconds. But here's this woman who not only survived her walk out of the parking lot, but survived the walk all the way back to her house? And then whatever journey she and her kids had to make to get to the military people? It breaks the rules.

But even more than this, the appearance of Order in the form of an organized military response, and the dissipation of the mist does not seem to jibe with the rest of the film.

In the scene directly preceding the end scene, Drayton and his cohorts watch in awe as a mist-monster as tall as a skyscraper lumbers across the road. (Incidentally, this was the scene I was most looking forward to in the film and Darabont and Co. nailed it.) But the unspoken implication of this behemoth's appearance is that the mist is no temporary calamity. The mist is the true End of the World. After something like that has walked the Earth, how are people supposed to return to their normal lives? If something as fundamentally wrong as that creature can exist on the same plane as regular Joes like Drayton, then the quotidian reality Drayton had known all his life was now a thing of the past. Along with the grandeur of the scene, I loved this moment in the novella because it was King placing a period at the end of humanity. Which is why I don't think King would have chosen Darabont's ending "if only he'd thought of it." It didn't fit with the story he'd written.

And so, in my view, the dissipation of the fog contradicts the implication of the behemoth and is, in this respect, a false ending. Though I greatly respect Darabont for going so dark with the ending, I think sacrificed a more "true" ending in order to make the parable aspects of "The Mist" more timely. By showing the audience that Drayton badly overreacted to the threat of the mist-creatures, Darabont is saying that the U.S. is similarly overreacting to the real, but not life-threatening threat posed by international terrorism. I agree with his point, but I don't think making it was necessary to the film, nor do I think making that point justified his breaking so many of his own rules.

This is going to sound goofy, but the new ending aside, "The Mist" is awesome. Definitely a new Top 5 Stephen King adaptation and an eventual DVD purchase for me. Though the ending is, in my view, wrong-headed, this fact shouldn't disqualify the rest of the movie, which is great fun to watch and, dare I say, thoughtful and disturbing. George Saunders wrote an essay on one of his favorite books, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", and called it one of the best books over written. But, he went on to write, the ending is absolutely terrible, and inarguably so. I don't think "The Mist" is one of the best films ever made, but, like "Huckleberry Finn", I also don't think the bad ending is reason enough for anyone to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So check it out before it slips out of theaters, which, judging by "The Mist"'s middling performance at the box office over the weekend, may be sooner than is merited.

I'll get to "No Country for Old Men" another day. I don't think anyone reading this needs me to provide them with reasons to see this one anyway.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A New "Ghostbusters" Game. Let the Cats and Dogs Living Together Commence



There are lots of important things happening in the world right now that deserve comment, like the taser death/execution of a Polish immigrant in Canada this week, for example, or the Democratic debate last week or the one last night, or the righteousness of the ongoing no-end-in-sight WGA strike, but instead of talking about any of those, today I'm posting up about a video game. These are, after all, inanities.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is some game footage of an in-development "Ghostbusters" video game. Word from on high is that the four stars and most of the supporting cast (including William Atherton, A.K.A. "Peck") are all on-board; they're going to do all the voice work, and Ramis and Aykroyd will do scripting duties as they did with the two films. Should be a lot of fun. In addition to being obsessed with the film when I was a kid (and still am), I played the 8-bit Nintendo "Ghostbusters" game into the ground, sitting in front of the TV while the entire computerized "Ghostbusters" theme played during the "Press Start" screen out of, you know, respect for the movie. And there was hours of driving my white EctoMobile rectangle up and down the streets of New York (which were rendered as gray bars with dotted white lines cutting through the middle). So with that in mind, getting a chance to one day play a next-gen "Ghostbusters" game is like a gift from the Geek gods (as well as the Cheap Childhood Nostalgia demigods). The game play looks awesome.

Anyway, enjoy your weekend.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Twin Musical Tesla Coils Playing the Super Mario Bros. Theme

I don't really get all the science behind it, but anything that manages to make me geek out on both Super Mario Bros. and The Prestige, is worth a blog post.

This is the text that came with the link: Twin Solid State Musical Tesla coils playing Mario Bros theme song at the 2007 Lightning on the Lawn Teslathon sponsored by DC Cox (Resonance Research Corp) in Baraboo WI. The music that you hear is coming from the sparks that these two identical high power solid state Tesla coils are generating. There are no speakers involved. The Tesla coils stand 7 feet tall and are each capable of putting out over 12 foot of spark. They are spaced about 18 feet apart. The coils are controlled over a fiber optic link by a single laptop computer. Each coil is assigned to a midi channel which it responds to by playing notes that are programed into the computer software.

Enjoy!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Yet Another Democratic Betrayal

There hasn't been a whole lot to get pissed about in recent days. Or else I haven't really been paying attention, which I fully concede is a possibility. But I did pay attention to this, which broke on CNN a few minutes ago. Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California are both voting "Yea" on the confirmation of Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey. The reason this is infuriating is because Mukasey won't say under oath (or not under oath as the case may be) that waterboarding is torture. Apparently in Schumer and Feinstein's book, that's A-OK.

Right about now, I'm thinking I don't what the hell's going on with Congressional Democrats.

Mukasey almost fooled everyone during his hearings. But near the end some smart Democrat asked Mukasey whether Mukasey considered waterboarding torture. Mukasey ducked and weaved but eventually said he didn't know, which means he doesn't care really whether the U.S. does it at all. (BTW: If you ever want to suss out whether or not someone's a fascist, ask them what they think about the U.S. using waterboarding during interrogations.) So here we have revealed yet another toadying water-carrier for an out-of-control and patently illegal Bush administration in the same tradition as Alberto "Fredo" Gonzales, and the Democratic-controlled Senate is going to pass the guy.

Accompanying Schumer's announcement of his plans to stab the ideals of American liberty in the back by continuing our current torture regime, Schumer said this:
"This is an extremely difficult decision," Schumer said in a statement, adding that Mukasey "is not my ideal choice."
My heart really goes out to you, Schumer. Who needs a Republican-controlled Congress when Bush has you, Chuck?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cormac McCarthy is Mr. Hollywood


If you're like me and enjoy both Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers, you might enjoy this interview featured in the upcoming edition of Time where these men talk about everything from the failed Coen adaptation "To The White Sea", to why Terrence Malick withdrew from Hollywood. It's short but interesting. McCarthy comes off as much less remote and reclusive than I thought he was. He even goes to see plays!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The 9/11 Conspiracy

As we've got a pretty interesting discussion going in the comments on the last post, I figured I'd bring it out into an actual post, and express my own opinion.

Let's start with this video I found through a Google search of "loose change, 9/11".

The two filmmakers who made the documentary "Loose Change" are at the forefront of the so-called "9/11 Truth Movement". They've made two editions of their film and are at work on a third which they're calling "The Final Cut". Recently I watched a documentary on one of the informational cable channels (A&E, Discover Channel, The History Channel, one of those), talking about the "myths" of 9/11. That documentary featured both the guys from "Loose Change", as well as the editors of Popular Mechanics, which so far, has been the only publication I know of that's taken a close hard look at the conspiracy theories that have grown in stature since September 11th, 2001. It is my opinion, having read the article, that Popular Mechanics debunks most, if not all, of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. And now, in this video, we have both the directors of "Loose Change" and the editors of Popular Mechanics at a very small table in a local library to talk about the various theories. It's 20 minutes, but if you have questions on either side of the issue, it's illuminating.

I think part of the reason people have a hard time believing there's an all-encompassing 9/11 theory is because the people that seek to disseminate those ideas (like the "Loose Change" guys) do stuff like this: when the host of the roundtable discussion brings up the American flight that crashed into the Pentagon, one of the directors talks about how no plane debris remained after the so-called crash. In their film the directors go through a whole thing about the melting points of various elements that comprised the plane, and how the melting point of jet fuel doesn't burn hot enough to "vaporize" a plane. The Popular Mechanics gamely talk about the experts they talked to (the "Loose Change" guys seemingly talked to no one), like crash experts, plane engineers, etc., and 100s of eyewitnesses who all backed up the idea that a plane crashed into the Pentagon, and no evidence of a missile.

Not liking the direction this conversation has taken, the directors of "Loose Change" say, "But nothing should have crashed into the Pentagon." And then he explains how Dick Cheney, in the bunker during the crisis, was told that the plane headed for Washington, that the plane that would eventually strike the Pentagon was "30 minutes away", then "20 minutes away" and Dick Cheney never issued a shoot down order. So it seems the directors of "Loose Change" have two, deeply held convictions: that no plane hit the Pentagon, and also that Cheney let a plane hit the Pentagon.

Oh, and one of the directors of "Loose Change" says this to the host before he begins to speak: "I'd just to like to thank you for the opportunity to take on the government's lies, and Popular Mechanics, which is a Hearst "Yellow Journalism" Publication's lies as well."

And this is not me going out like so many media outlets do, to fixate on the fringe-iest splinter of a given controversial group to paint the entire group in a negative way. These guys are at the heart of the "9/11 Truth" movement and, in my view, they are not credible. Popular Mechanics is part of the conspiracy too? The wacky science nerds who put a flying car on the cover every month? These guys are a mouthpiece for the murderers of 3000 people?

I am not in expert in any of the fields pertinent to discussing what did or did not happen on September 11th, 2001. So if I have two sets of guys saying two very different things, do I go with the guys in their mid-twenties who wear wrinkled shirts and no ties and laugh mockingly at their opponents and don't know which conspiracy theory they believe in, or the nerdy, soft-spoken, suitably-dressed journalists who are laying out, soberly, facts, and not insinuations and coincidences? It's not a hard call.

Most telling of all, I think, is that in that documentary on cable I watched, the "Loose Change" guys were interviewed while editing what must be the third and final version of their film. The biggest change from the second edition and the final edition, they said, is that the film has moved away from the theory they once held that the main towers were brought down by controlled demolition. They've conceded the evidence pointing towards that scenario is no longer persuasive to them and have shifted their attention towards the mystery surrounding the collapse of Building 7. On one hand, good for them for being brave enough to allow their minds to be changed publicly, on the other hand, before their change of heart, they had argued the towers had been brought down by controlled demolition so strenuously that it's not difficult for me to distrust their newfound passion for a Building 7 investigation. (BTW, the Popular Mechanics article addresses Building 7 quite well.)

Also, what does this new abandonment of the controlled demolition of the towers theory mean? Does it mean that the "Loose Change" guys, formerly Made It Happen On Purpose guys (MIHOPs) are now in the Let It Happen On Purpose camp, (or LIHOPs), and that the lease holder on the WTC complex merely took advantage of foreknowledge of the attack so that he could detonate WTC Building 7 and file a still more massive insurance claim? Does that mean that the lease holder of WTC was A-OK with the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans just so he could make a massive windfall? Who in the government told him, and why didn't his informant do any thing to stop the attack?

In the comments, Heath wrote:

"The problem with these questions is that people, by and large, immediately seek a result from the questioning of evidence, instead of viewing them individually in and of themselves. In other words, for someone to say "Hey, there's something fishy behind that crash site for United 93," and the immediate response to be, "What do you think happened, then? You think Bush crashed those planes into the trade center buildings, crazy person?" is just wrong. If that was an acceptable response, then we'd never have gotten a shred of scientific evidence admitted into any journals, because the second someone in our world's history said, "Isn't it funny how the sun moves almost as a curve across the domed sky," then it would be acceptable for someone to come back with, "What? You think the earth isn't flat, heretic?" Instead of immediately moving toward a steadfast opinion based on a need for a result, such as finger pointing at Bush's Administration, you must admit the individual evidence surrounding these "conspiracies" is worth investigating to prove or disprove doubt. If science beckons to question, who are we to ignore?"


This, for me, is the central trouble conspiracy theorists have when talking to the uninitiated about the fishiness of 9/11. Science and the purported weirdness of crash sites are easy to talk about soberly in an attempt to answer the "What?" questions. However, the question of "How?" is hugely problematic to 9/11 Truth-ers because talking about the inhumanity required by a massive group of motivated people never really seems to come together. Yes, humanity's had many monsters -- but to make a Unified 9/11 Theory work, we'd have to have dozens, if not hundreds of monsters working in all levels of the US government, and that doesn't seem to jibe with anything anyone's ever heard before. When getting to the bottom of various conspiracy theories, it doesn't take but a few seconds of supposition to get into seriously bizarre territory ("And how were the passengers disposed of do you think?") that makes all but the most passionate theorists retreat back to the relative comfort of "What?" and "How?" But just because the scenarios the conspiracists' theories imply are wholly unconvincing is not the fault of the incredulous, but is something the theorists' should take ownership of. If it sounds so crazy to you that you don't like talking about it, imagine how it sounds to those who haven't been convinced.

Now it's true that refuting any assertion made by someone with a new idea speaks to a closed mind, as in your comparison to Galileo. But Galileo was able to put forward evidence. So far, on the 9/11 conspiracists' side, they have loads of supposition, oddness, coincidence and circumstantial evidence. On the side of people who've more or less accepted that 9/11 happened more or less how we've come to understand it did, we have scores of scientific experts, reams of video evidence, thousands of eyewitness accounts, and thousands of talented journalists who would kill their mother to break the story of a 9/11 conspiracy who've so far turned up nothing. For me, that puts the burden of proof on the conspiracy theorists and, so far, they haven't done much other than muddy the waters enough so that the truth is harder to see.

This episode of "This American Life" changed the way I thought about how conspiracy theorists in general think. On July 7, 2005, terrorists bombed the London underground at the King's Cross station. One of the woman who survived the attack began to blog about it. Before long a British-borne conspiracy theory grew up which offended the woman because they were refuting things she knew to be true having lived through the attack. She started to comment on their messageboards and before long, they were calling her a liar and an employee of MI5 whose job it was to make the conspiracy theorists seem less credible. All the people that were on-board who died? she asked. "Hollywood-style special effects," they said. And the people who survived and were genuinely panicked? she asked. "Actors," they said. It goes on. Absolutely worth a listen. The story begins 9 minutes through.

I bring that story up because in that piece, the men who believed in the conspiracy were not noble questioners, blazing a trail through a jungle of lies to the hidden city of Truth; they had already made up their minds that a vast conspiracy was at work that day and was still at work to cover it up. Kind of like that guy on the Bill Maher's show. If you didn't believe their stories outright, you were either a sheep or, possibly, a criminal; and if, at the very least, you didn't state your approval of a continued investigation, then you were also a sheep or a criminal. Open minds had long since closed, though I suspect for most of the conspiracists described in this story, they went into their theories with closed minds.

If a new piece of evidence came up that debunked some long-held "fact" about 9/11, or a new esteemed expert chimed in saying he was no longer convinced 9/11 happened as we've all been told, I like to think I'd listen carefully and come to an open-minded conclusion based on the new evidence. I'd pose this question to conspiracy theorists: what piece (or pieces) of evidence could possibly come to light that would settle your questions about 9/11? Or are there too many questions that could ever be answered?

I put some of the blame for the widening belief in a 9/11 conspiracy at the feet of Bush and Cheney. Cheney's obsession with expanding executive power has been done in secret and with a willful disregard for the rights of Congress and the American people to know what he's doing or why he's doing it. That engenders, and rightfully so, doubt and suspicion. During the 9/11 Commission investigation Bush wouldn't testify alone -- he had to testify with Cheney, like two criminals trying to keep their stories straight. But I think all the secrecy and obvious lies were not meant to cover up the crime of millennium, but to cover up Bush's gross incompetence on that day and all the days leading up to September 11th, 2001.

This is already way long-winded. I could attempt another 3 or 4 feet of verbiage to counter Paul's, but it takes me much longer to write as cogently as Paul does. Okay, that's it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"I'll Be There Tomorrow"


This guy, Alexander Roy, drove from New York to Los Angeles in 31 hours.

During the Oklahoma stretch of the run, Roy and his co-driver heard a cop reporting their crazy fast driving on their scanner.

"Roy said he heard it shortly after he and his co-driver, David Maher, had been exceeding 150 miles an hour. As Maher scanned the prairie through binoculars for a place to hide, the car’s radar detectors lighted up. They decided to exit the highway and feign a bathroom break while a support team in a Cessna overhead searched for the speed trap that would inevitably materialize.

Having temporarily escaped, Roy eased back onto the highway. As he approached two state police vehicles waiting on the median, he ducked to the right of a tractor-trailer in a move he called “the cross-country racer’s ideal police line-of-sight blocking position.”

The maneuver, he said, enabled him to break a 23-year-old illegal endurance-driving record by navigating from New York to Los Angeles in 31 hours 4 minutes. He said he recorded an average speed of 90.1 m.p.h. over a mapped route of 2,794 miles."

The very idea of doing this, leaving aside all questions about the out-and-out recklessness of the operation, and the putting of people's lives in danger, etc.,, is completely awesome. And, because I'm a dork, the top reason for doing something like this is just so that the following conversation would be possible:

Crazy Driver in NY: (casual) "I was thinking of coming out to Los Angeles. We could hang out."

Person in L.A. Completely Unaware They're About to Have Their Mind Blown: "Yeah, that'd be cool. You should do that."

CDinNY: (now deadly serious) "I'll be there tomorrow."

PinLACUTAHTMB: (sputtering) "Wh-what? Uh, ok. Do you need me to pick you up at LAX?"

CDinNY: "No. I'm driving."

PinLACUTAHTMB: (like Moe Szylak) "WHAAAAAAA?!!" (promptly has brain aneurysm)

Anyway, there's a lot of great details in the article about all the anti-speed-detection equipment these guys had on board, and all the prep-work the guy did to make the run in record time. It's worth a read.

Monday, October 15, 2007

More Thoughts on "Mind Freak"; Also: the Sweet Insanity That is the Georgia State Fair

Thought I'd throw in a little more about that spinning dancer illusion/mind test. Blogger Andrew Sullivan posted the test up on his blog (he was clockwise), and not long after, readers started writing in on ways to force the direction to change. Here's the link, but I'll just write what the reader wrote here:

"Stare at her left heel, the one that "hits" the "floor". Now look at the reflection of the foot as it hits the floor. "Make" it change direction. Imagine it goes counter clockwise. Soon it will. There is some kind of "jerk" in the image...when the loop starts again or maybe it is on purpose. That's where I can reverse it.

Now, while still concentrating on the "reflection" of her left heel, bring your focus out a bit until you see her leg swinging counter clockwise. If it is still going clockwise, look at only the reflection of her foot again. Keeping trying that until you get the leg swinging counter clockwise."


This method didn't really work for me, but when I opened the page again with the spinning woman on it, it was counter-clockwise for me, and, for a little while, impossible for me to force her to change direction. (The method that does seem to work, is to start typing into the URL bar above the dancer, anything will do just so long as your attention is fixated there, and as you're typing, the dancer will switch back and forth down in your peripheral vision. That works really well for me.)

By now, I don't know at all what this test proves, if anything at all. On the face of it, it purports to show once again how "creative" people are right-brain dominant and will see the woman turning clockwise, and how "logical, analytical" people are left-brain and will see a counter-clockwise direction to the spinning. But the results so far, sent in by the folks who read this blog, don't seem to neatly conform to this standard. For example, my wife, who's very strong analytically, saw the dancer spin only clockwise, and never once counter-clockwise. A lot of you who I know to be quite strong creatively, saw it switch back and forth without either direction emerging dominant. And now I'm seeing it counter-clockwise. Does that mean that I'm having a left brain day today? Doubtful I've ever had a left-brain day. So maybe it means this test says a lot less about us then the test's makers had hoped. Maybe.

In other news, I went to the Georgia State Fair yesterday. Good times. Here are some pitchers.


















Just a wide shot of the fair. This was the section containing all the rides that I'd never ever go on. So, you know, kind of boring to me. But there's fair-food here too, so not a total waste of time.
























There were quite a few canopies covering a phenomenon I'd never seen nor heard of before: extravagantly souped-up golf carts. This seems like a deeply redneck thing to build, buy or covet, but the fact is I would really love to drive and/or ride around in one of these things. The way these things have been supercharged, they seem like the safe alternative to ATVs. Then again, the taller and faster they get, the likelihood of toppling seems greater, no?



















Here's another one. Check out the raised back seat. At a certain point, you do enough of this up-souping and they just become a Popemobile. And who wouldn't want to take the Popemobile for a spin?



















This is me just prior to experiencing the taste explosion that is the Deep-Fried Twinkie. At first: not so much. It just tastes like fried dough, which is good, but nothing to write home about. But then comes the cream filling and this is what cinches the deal: the cream is still cold. The outside of the package being so hot, the still-cool center is a shock, but a glorious shock of delight at that!



















Here are some people who have either a.) eaten nothing at the fair, or b.) want to bring what they've eaten quickly back up. I don't think even astronauts would ride this thing.



















The words 'Pork' and 'Butt' together are disgusting enough, especially in that they are meant to describe a food item, but the fact that it's 'on a stick', makes it somehow seem palatable. Oh what sweet madness the State Fair!
























This character seems to be the next evolution in sidewalk entertainment. First there were mimes and jugglers and caricature artists, then came the breakdancers, then the unconvincing statues that turn out to actually be people who move suddenly in order to scare small children, and in 2007 it is the 7-foot tall robot man with an outdated crew cut. While my father-in-law and I went to retrieve the car, my wife said she saw a child screaming for its life upon her first sighting of the metallic and oft-dancing robot freak, shouting, "I don't want to see the robot!" I think the true mark of a successful sidewalk novelty is whether or not they inspire a feeling of horror and/or loathing in small children. So this guy's got to be the next big thing. The person inside the suit is raised up on mega-platform shoes, and the flat-topped robot head is planted atop the person's actual head. The robot's elbows are actually the man-in-the-suit's arms. Pretty ingenious, and the effect is mesmerizing. It took me a minute to discern whether or not it was an actual robot. The second time we came across this guy, my wife and in-laws and I were all gawking appreciatively at him when the robot leaned down to my wife who was standing in front of me. It said in its synthesized robot-voice: "I don't want to alarm you, but although you're looking at a giant in front of you--" my wife started to laugh here, knowing where he was going with it, "--there is also one standing behind you." The crowd laughed with the synthetic freak at my own natural freakiness, suddenly the center of the group's attention. I saluted lamely to laughter. As the robot shifted his attention to another gape-mouthed child, he saw in his peripheral vision that I was leaving, turned and said, "Fe-fi-fo-fum, dude."

Anyway, don't be surprised if this thing appears on a promenade, boardwalk or Monster Truck rally near you.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

British Author Doris Lessing Reacts to Nobel Win

Her under-the-breath "Oh Christ" is worth checking out. For the cameras she's all world-weary and "seen it all before", sure, but once she goes inside I'm sure she does at least a tiny jig.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Life of Pi" Illustrated; Gore Wins; Lessing Wins; Bloom Pooh-Poohs

If any of you have read Yann Martel's "Life of Pi", this might be of interest to you. My wife and I read/listened to this book on our drive cross-country back in 2005 and liked it generally (though I remember tiring pretty quickly of the cheerful, Indian-accented narrator who read the book. A little bit of him went a long way). Aside from some problems I had with its vaguely evangelical ambition, I thought it was well-written and made its points elegantly.

I just found out that the publisher of "The Life of Pi" has decided to put out an illustrated edition of Martel's novel.

I just ran across this link on a favorite blog of mine, drawn.ca, (which, by the way, is a great place to see what's going on in the world of illustration). The publisher of Martel's novel ran a contest to find the best illustrator for the assignment, and decided a Croatian artist named Tomislav Torjanac was the best guy for the job. Judging by the example above, it's hard to argue. If you click on the first link there, you can find out more about Torjanac's process, which is to sketch first, then paint, then photograph, and finally run that photograph through Photoshop where he adjusts it, sexies it up, and creates the final image. Anyway, I thought this image was striking and made me wish I were a painter.

The illustrated edition just came out Oct. 1st, and in it there are 30 (count 'em 30!) illustrations; might be a worthwhile purchase, or at least fun to flip through next time you find yourself in a Barnes or a Borders. I wish publishers would do this sort of thing more often.

In other news, some notable Nobels were handed out this week.

First, my man Al Gore split the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Will this award push Gore to a presidential run, as Christopher Hitchens hopes it will?

At this point, I'm not sure I even hope he will run anymore. The odds seem stacked against him. Aside from tens of millions of Democratic voters (and maybe some independents these days), no one seems to be poised to jump into the fray and fight with him. The so-called "liberal media" who unfairly trashed him in 2000 might cast a favorable eye on him this time around, or they might just decide to trash him again in '08; the Supreme Court helped Bush steal the Presidency from him -- in a close election, what's to stop the Republican machine (and an even more radically conservative court) from stealing a second election?; the right-wing press continues to trash him and the volume level will only increase if he does run as they try and tear him down, which would be demoralizing; and Hillary's so entrenched right now as the frontrunner, you'd have to have a keener understanding of on-the-ground Democratic politics than I do to see how it's possible to wrench the necessary number of donors and fundraisers and endorsers away from the Hillary juggernaut and over to Gore. And if he did decide to run, there would be the unseemly but inevitable attempt by the Clinton campaign to trash Gore with snide insinuations and whispering campaigns; and Hillary would have no choice but to publicly attempt to define Gore with soft but damning adjectives (witness what she's done with Obama, calling him "inexperienced" and "naive", apparently to great effect). And as the weeks drew down closer to nomination time, the knives would really come out. None of that would be fun to watch.

But if he does decide to run, I will, of course, support him. He would be the best candidate.

One further interesting observation Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo made after hearing the news of the Nobel: "You know, with Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize for his environmental activism, it really makes the Nader voters look prescient, doesn't it?" Word.

And finally, novelist Doris Lessing won the Nobel for Literature this year, which makes her the oldest recipient ever awarded the prize. In response Lessing said, "Oh, Christ. I couldn't care less." I guess you have to be 3 years shy of 90 years old to understand why that could be so. Anyway, no sooner than the award's announced than that fat old gasbag Harold Bloom, who always seems to be on-hand immediately whenever one of these prizes is handed out, called the award "pure political correctness". I haven't read Lessing, so I don't know if it is or not, but why is it Bloom can't wait a week before he rains on an old lady's parade? Even one she doesn't care about? Anyway, what an asshole.

Enjoy your weekends, folks.