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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Silent Hitchcock
Browsing the discount DVD rack while doing a little last-minute shopping, I came across this collection of 9 Hitchcock films for a measly $8. I love Hitchcock, yet I haven't seen many of his films (and he was an extremely prolific director), so I picked it up. It turns out that all of the films on the DVDs are from Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood period, dating from the mid 1920s to the late 1930s. It even includes a 1927 silent film, among Hitchcock's first efforts, called The Lodger.

By today's standards (or even the standards set by Hitchcock's later work), it's not especially impressive, but I haven't seen much in the way of silent films, so this particular movie intrigued me. The conventions of silent films are different enough from what we're all familiar with that it almost seems like a different medium. The film moves at a very deliberate pace, revealing information slowly in many varied ways (though, it seems, rarely through dialogue). In fact, I even played around with watching the film at 2X speed and didn't have any problem keeping up with what was happening on screen. Not having any real experience with silent films, I don't know if this (or any other aspect of the movie) was unusual or not, but it seemed to work well enough.

Details, screenshots, sarcasm and more below the fold.

Also Spoilers, but if you're up for it, you can watch the movie at World Cinema Online... (Click images for a larger version)

The killer had a long nose and floppy ears.
The killer had a long nose and floppy ears.

From the Fog and the Constable, it's obvious London is under the grip of a Jack the Ripper style serial killer called "The Avenger." The film opens just after a murder with a lady describing our villain to the police.

Tall he was - and his face all wrapped up. ... A scarf covered the lower half of his face ... Another Avenger Crime.

Here we see a few of the varied ways in which the film communicates information about the murder to the audience. From these scenes (among others), we gather the following facts about the killer:
  • He is tall.
  • His lower face is covered by a scarf.
  • The murders have occurred on sever successive Tuesdays.
  • All of the victims were fair-haired women.
  • The killer leaves a calling card bearing his name (The Avenger) with each victim.
Sounds like a creepy guy, no? Anyway, the film then takes us to the Bunting household, where we're introduced to the family (a Landlady, her husband, and their fair-haired daughter Daisy, who is being courted by a policeman named Joe) which has a room available to rent. Naturally, someone comes to inquire about the room:

I'm not a murderer!
I'm not a murderer!

Excellent reveal of the Lodger. I think this is the most striking image in the film, and it immediately set off warning bells in my head.

No, really, I'm not a murderer!
No, really, I'm not the Avenger!

Still not a murderer.
See, without my hat and scarf, I'm much creepier. Woops, I mean less creepier. Yeah.

Be careful. I'll get you yet.
You gonna get it, woman!

The-man-who-is-clearly-not-The-Avenger is playing chess with the Landlady's fair-haired daughter Daisy, who has deftly outmaneuvered her non-murderous opponent. At this point, he literally says "Be careful. I'll get you yet." No foreshadowing here, move along...

Oh, and despite the fact that the Lodger is clearly a psychopath, Daisy is falling for him, much to the dismay of Joe, her policeman friend (who happens to be investigating some series of murders or something).

You're under arrest, weenie.
You're under arrest, weenie.

The characters in the film have finally figured out that the new lodger is The Avenger, and policeman Joe searches the premesis and finds a hidden bag in his room containing a map of all the killings, various newspaper clippings, and a photograph of the oddball with one of the victims. Our villain is handcuffed but promptly escapes with the help of Daisy (who thinks he's innocent, of course).


"My God, he is innocent! The real Avenger was taken red-handed ten minutes ago." Ah Ha! Hitchcock strikes again.

Rabble, Rablle, Rabble!
Rabble, Rablle, Rabble! Rabble!

Oh no, someone spotted the handcuffs! An angry mob has emerged and is chasing the now-exonerated Lodger. For a moment, I really wondered if the mob would take him out, but it seems that film noir hadn't yet emerged, as our beloved Lodger takes a beating, but ends up fine. And he gets the girl, too:

I love you, weenie.
I love you, weenie.

In case you can't tell from all the sarcasm, the "twist" at the end of the story wasn't exactly earth-shattering. These days, we're so zonked out on Lost and 24 that our minds immediately and cynically formulate all the ways the filmmakers are trying to trick us. Were audiences that cynical 80 years ago? Or did the ending truly surprise them? To be honest, there was a part of me that thought that he really could have been the killer. Also, as I hinted at above, this film seems to resemble film noir, and the angry mob scene was somewhat effective in that light.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the film greatly, even if much of my fascination has to do with the context and conventions of silent films. This was apparently the first film where Hitchcock really displayed his own style, and you really can see a lot of themes in this film that would later become Hitchcock staples (i.e. the wrongly accused man, voyeurism, etc...). More on the background of the film can be found at this Wikipedia entry.

So one film down, eight to go. I have to admit, part of the inspiration to get this set is that Cinecast is currently doing a Hitchcock marathon, though it seems that the only film on their list that is in this DVD set is The 39 Steps.
Posted by Mark on December 27, 2005 at 12:52 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas
Fry: "There's supposed to be some kind of, you know, pine tree."
Professor: "Pine trees have been extinct for eight hundred years, Fry. Gone the way of the poodle and your primitive notions of modesty." - (Listen to MP3)
In anticipation of the eventual extinction of Pine Trees, here's the traditional Kaedrin Christmas Cactus:

The Kaedrin Christmas Cactus

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night." (sound clip via Can't Get Enough Futurama)

Also regarding Christmas Trees, check out a post from a few years ago: Is the Christmas Tree Christian?
Posted by Mark on December 24, 2005 at 10:27 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Movies So Bad They're Good
A recent topic on Cinecast (the excellent Chicago-based podcast by Adam Kempenaar and Sam Hallgren) was movies that are so bad they're good. Depending on how you define such a movie, this could be quite difficult, and the Cinecast folks took one of the more difficult interpretations. They wanted movies that were actually transcendantly bad and they knew that was a difficult task, so they requested each listener to send in a pick.

Once I started thinking about it, I realized that most of the movies that came to mind were movies I liked despite the fact that they were bad, not movies that I liked because they were bad (i.e. Phantasm). Again, there's lots of room for interpretation with this type of film, but I was looking for a movie that I thought was good first, then after a moment's thought realized how foolish it was. After some thought, I finally settled on my number 1 movie that's so bad its good: Rocky IV. I sent my pick to the Cinecast folks along with a brief description of why I thought it qualified, and they actually read it on the air (in this show, if you're interested)! Here was my brief description:
My suggestion for the "So Bad It's Good" top 5 would have to be Rocky IV. Easily the most ludicrous film in the entire series - filled with horrible cliches, cardboard cutout characters, 80s montages (in fact, I think the film is primarily composed of a series of montages set to 80s music that would also qualify as "so bad they're good"), bad monosyllabic acting, laughable geo-political undertones, and the list goes on and on. Yet it's also probably the most entertaining of all the Rocky movies. It distills all of the superficial but enjoyable cliches of the first three movies into a film that has to be described as so bad it's good.
Rocky IV genuinely isn't a bad movie. If you were to objectively evaluate every individual component of the film, it would be a horrible film, but together, it is truly more than the sum of it's parts. Naturally, there are many specific bad things that I like about the film, but I was attempting brevity. However, as I'm sure my regular readers (all 4 of you) know, brevity usually isn't an issue on my blog, so here are some of my favorite things about Rocky IV:
  • In the course of Jonathan Morris's excellent post on the Rocky series, he references the excellent start of the film thusly: "James Brown performs 'Living In America,' and Drago—perhaps angered by the performance—kills Apollo in the ring." Classic start.
  • A commenter from the Rocky post above calls out another excellent moment in the film, right after Apollo's funeral:
    My favorite moment is, after Apollo dies, and Rocky decides to go for a soul-searching drive (while that song "There's No Easy Way Out" is playing), he looks in the rear-view mirror and thinks he sees Drago. Clearly the best use of the "I mistakenly thought I saw my nemesis in the reflection of a mirror/window" moment in movie history. What's the runner-up, you ask? That honor goes to Bloodsport, when Van Damme thinks he sees Chong Li in the reflection of a Hong Kong subway window.
    I considered bloodsport for a top 5 spot (see below), but it ultimately lost out...
  • Brilliant training montages cross-cut to contrast Drago's futuristic, ultra-high-tech regimen with Rocky's more wholistic, old-school program. Drago's constantly hooked up to machines which measure his performance, while Rocky likes to run around in deep snow (which, I'll grant, isn't as easy as it looks), lifting ox-carts and the like. My favorite part, when Rocky is in such great shape that he is able to lose his Soviet handlers while running up a mountain, and when he gets to the top, he screams "DRAGO!!!" at the top of his lungs.
  • After the fight with Drago, Rocky addresses the Soviet Union: "I guess what I'm trying to say is, if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change." And thus the Cold War was won...
I could probably go on and on, but I wanted to list out my Top 5 So Bad They're Good Movies. Some notes on criteria first. As previously mentioned, these are movies so bad they're good, not movies I like despite the fact that they're bad. As Cinecast put it, they're transcendantly bad. Also worth noting is that I'm not including campy movies or movies that are intentionally bad (ruling out the likes of Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, and Big Trouble in Little China)
  1. Rocky IV: For reasons I've already spoken too much about above.
  2. Commando: One of Schwarzenegger's best/worst films in which he plays a ex-military superman who is forced back into an action by an old colleague gone bad. The ending of the film, in which "Matrix" takes out an entire island of enemy troops is a gem.
  3. Red Dawn: A Soviet/Cuban invasion of America? You bet, and a band of high school students led by Patrick Swayze mount a guerilla campaign in resistance (using the name of their football team, the Wolverines, as their name). A classic.
  4. Cobra: Another Sly Stallone movie? Indeed. Similar to Commando, the ending sequence in which Stallone takes out an entire cult of axe-clanking maniacs while riding in the back of a pickup is brilliant...
  5. Point Break: Keanu Reeves plays FBI Special Agent Johnny Utah, need I say more? Ok, Gary Busey, Patrick Swayze (again!) playing someone named "Bodie," surfing, and much, much more... Worth watching just for Keanu's delivery of the line "I am an FBI agent."
Honorable Mention: Bloodsport, Breakin' 2 - Electric Boogaloo (mostly for the name), Tango & Cash (Stallone, again), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (which may be disqualified for its camp factor), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (Stallone fights communists again; he's such a champ in this category).

Interestingly enough, the grand majority of my choices are 80s movies (and they dominated the Cinecast choices as well), which is probably appropriate as the 80s were truly so bad they're good. There's probably a large element of nostalgia at work with my choices here as well, as these were all movies I loved to watch when I was growing up in the 80s...

Feel free to leave your picks in the comments. It's an interesting subject, and perhaps because of the nostalgia aspect, it seems to be strangely personal.

Update: A friend just chimed in with Varsity Blues. We're both a little unsure if it qualifies, but if it does, I think it could easily displace one of my top 5. Excellent choice...
Posted by Mark on December 18, 2005 at 02:26 PM .: Comments (1) | link :.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

More Trilemmas
Looking into the trilemma subject from last week's entry, I stumbled across Jason Kottke's post about what he calls a "Pick Two" system, using the "good, fast, or cheap, pick two" example to start, but then listing out a whole bunch more:
Elegant, documented, on time.
Privacy, accuracy, security.
Have fun, do good, stay out of trouble.
Study, socialize, sleep.
Diverse, free, equal.
Fast, efficient, useful.
Cheap, healthy, tasty.
Secure, usable, affordable.
Short, memorable, unique.
Cheap, light, strong.
I don't know if I agree with all of those, but regardless of their authenticity, Kottke is right to question why the "Pick Two" logic appears to be so attractive. Indeed, I even devised my own a while back when I was looking at my writing habits.
Why is "pick two out of three" the rule? Why not "one out of two" or "four out of six"? Or is "pick two out of three" just a cultural assumption?
He also wonders if there is some sort of underlying scientific or economic relationship at work, but was unable to find anything that fit really well. Personally, I found the triangle to be closest to what he was looking for. In a triangle, the sum of the interior angles is always 180 degrees. If you "pick two" of the angles, you know what the third will be. Since time and money are both discrete, quantifiable values, you should theoretically be able to control the quality of your project by playing with those variables.

In a more general sense, I tend to think of a system with three main components as being inherently stable. I think this is because such a system is simple, yet complex enough to allow for a lot of dynamism. As one of the commmenters on Kottke's post noted:
Seems like two out of three is the smallest tradeoff that's interesting. One out of two is boring. One out of three doesn't satisfy. Two out of three allows the chooser to feel like s/he is getting something out of the tradeoff (not just 50/50).
And once you start getting larger than three, the system begins to get too complex. Tweaking one part of the system has progressively less and less predictable results the bigger the system gets. The good thing about a system with three major components is that if one piece starts acting up, the other two can adjust to overcome the deficiency. In a larger system, the potential for deadlock and unintended consequences begins to increase.

I've written about this stability of three before. The steriotypical example of a triangular system is the U.S. Federal government:
One of the primary goals of the American Constitutional Convention was to devise a system that would be resistant to tyranny. The founders were clearly aware of the damage that an unrestrained government could do, so they tried to design the new system in such a way that it wouldn't become tyrannical. Democratic institions like mandatory periodic voting and direct accountability to the people played a large part in this, but the founders also did some interesting structural work as well.

Taking their cue from the English Parliament's relationship with the King of England, the founders decided to create a legislative branch separate from the executive. This, in turn, placed the two governing bodies in competition. However, this isn't a very robust system. If one of the governing bodies becomes more powerful than the other, they can leverage their advantage to accrue more power, thus increasing the imbalance.

A two-way balance of power is unstable, but a three-way balance turns out to be very stable. If any one body becomes more powerful than the other two, the two usually can and will temporarily unite, and their combined power will still exceed the third. So the founders added a third governing body, an independent judiciary.

The result was a bizarre sort of stable oscillation of power between the three major branches of the federal government. Major shifts in power (such as wars) disturbed the system, but it always fell back to a preferred state of flux. This stable oscillation turns out to be one of the key elements of Chaos theory, and is referred to as a strange attractor. These "triangular systems" are particularly good at this, and there are many other examples...
Another great example of how well a three part system works is a classic trilemma: "Rock, Paper, Scissors."
Posted by Mark on December 11, 2005 at 02:14 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Design Trilemma
I've been writing about design and usability recently, including a good example with the iPod and a case where a new elevator system could use some work. Naturally, there are many poorly designed systems out there, and they're easy to spot, but even in the case of the iPod, which I think is well designed and elegant, I was able to find some things that could use improvement. Furthermore, I'm not sure there's all that much that can really be done to improve the iPod design without removing something that detracts more from the experience. As I mentioned in that post, a common theme on this blog has always been the trade-offs inherent in technological advance: we don't so much solve problems as we trade one set of disadvantages for another, in the hopes that the new set is more favorable than the old.

When confronted with an obviously flawed system, most people's first thought is probably something along the lines of: What the hell were they thinking when they designed this thing? Its certainly an understandable lamentation, but after the initial shock of the poor experience, I often find myself wondering what held the designers back. I've been involved in the design of many web applications, and I sometimes find the end result is different from what I originally envisioned. Why? Its usually not that hard to design a workable system, but it can become problematic when you consider how the new system impacts existing systems (or, perhaps more importantly, how existing systems impact new ones). Of course, there are considerations completely outside the technical realm as well.

There's an old engineering aphorism that says Pick two: Fast, Cheap, Good. The idea is that when you're tackling a project, you can complete it quickly, you can do it cheaply, and you can create a good product, but you can't have all three. If you want to make a quality product in a short period of time, it's going to cost you. Similarly, if you need to do it on the cheap and also in a short period of time, you're not going to end up with a quality product. This is what's called a Trilemma, and it has applications ranging from international economics to theology (I even applied it to writing a while back).

Dealing with trilemmas like this can be frustrating when you're involved in designing a system. For example, a new feature that would produce a tangible but relatively minor enhancement to customer experience would also require a disproportionate amount of effort to implement. I've run into this often enough to empathize with those who design systems that turn out horribly. Not that this excuses design failures or that this is the only cause of problems, but it is worth noting that the designers aren't always devising crazy schemes to make your life harder...
Posted by Mark on December 04, 2005 at 07:55 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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