Friday, June 29, 2007
One Friday A Month Is List Day
Apparently I only ever really find time to do a Friday is List Day post once a month. In any case, here you go:
Posted by Mark on June 29, 2007 at 08:09 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
The Dramatic Prairie Dog
I recently came across this silly video, and have since become interested in its evolution.
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2007 at 07:50 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Bad Movie Corner
The movie corner feature here at Kaedrin normally features at least a couple of good movies, but sometimes, well, I like to watch bad movies. Particularly ones from my youth. Something about being a youngin' made these movies a lot easier to swallow, I guess because I didn't know any better, and there's a sentimental element that draws me back to them even today. It's strange, but I was much more willing to sit around and watch whatever came on back then. I'm not sure if it's a good thing that I don't do so much anymore... In any case, here are three bad movies that I love. Perhaps you could say that they're so bad they're good...
Posted by Mark on June 24, 2007 at 06:44 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Towards the beginning of his career, Neal Stephenson used the pseudonym Stephen Bury to publish straightforward thrillers. In an old interview, he comments thusly:
''I was writing Snow Crash about the same time my uncle, George Jewsbury, and I started talking about doing collaborations. The rationale behind that was, clearly, I may be able to limp along indefinitely, writing these little books that get bought by 5,000 people, but really it would be smart to try to get some kind of serious career going. We had heard somewhere that Tom Clancy had made like $17 million in a year. So we thought, 'Let's give this a try.' The whole idea was that 'Stephen Bury' would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson. It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I've written them. It just goes to show there's no point in trying to plan your career."In any case, I've recently picked up both of the Bury books (which have now been published under Stephenson's real name) and I'm about halfway through the second one. They're actually better than I thought they would be, but not particularly great. Part of the reason I had low expectations for the books is that the little blurbs describing the stories on the back of the books sound stupid. So far, though, the execution of said absurd stories isn't so bad. I think this has something to do with uncommon settings and characters, something Stephenson has a knack for. Nothing really approaches Stephenson's popular works, but these are diverting enough thrillers.
As of right now, I prefer The Cobweb to Interface, though I'm only halfway through Interface. I actually quite enjoyed The Cobweb and would recommend it to Stephenson fans. The story follows a midwestern deputy sheriff named Clyde Banks who stumbles upon an Iraqi plot in his hometown to produce chemical weapons during the first Gulf War. Another plotline follows a low-level CIA analyst who "exceeds her task" and makes a lot of folks in Washington look bad by noticing some anomalies in funding. Both characters are somewhat unusual, as are the specifics of their arcs (one is running for sherrif, the other is constantly bewildered by bureaucratic excess, amateur wrestling is often brought up, etc...) - not your steriotypical thriller fare, which is precisely why it's interesting. I can see a lot of Stephenson in the story, though there's clearly something else here (these are collaborations, after all). For instance, the Dhont family bears a likeness to the Shaftoes from Stephenson's recent works and Stephenson's penchant for including actual historical figures into a fictional story comes into play (at one point, the CIA analyst ends up on a boat with George H.W. Bush in an encounter that very much resembles something out of Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Cycle).
Anyway, here's one quote regarding the aforementioned bureaucratic excess as a Washington insider talks to the deputy sheriff:
"You and I know that something is going on in Forks County, and we would like to do something about it," Hennessey said, "but between the two of us are about ten thousand of these people who are too busy looking down their noses at us to actually grasp the problem and take action. You must know that taking action is looked down upon, Clyde. This is the postmodern era. When events come to a cusp, we're supposed to screw our courage to the sticking place and launch a reanalysis of the eleventh draft of the working document. Actually going out and doing stuff in the physical world is simply beyond comprehension of these people. They're never going to do anything about the Iraqis in Forks. Never."Again, the story is a bit... unlikely... but it's entertaining and approached from a distinct angle that makes it feel fresh. Interface seems even more absurd, and so far it hasn't quite overcome that absurdity, but it's making a valiant effort and I'm enjoying it. Interface follows William Cozzano, a popular Illinois governor, and his run for President. That's not unlikely, but when they start talking about putting biochips into his brain and hooking them up to a computerized polling system, well, I was a little worried. It hasn't been as bad as it sounds so far, and they do a good job building up the technology behind this so that it perhaps doesn't seem so unlikely. They also do a reasonable job setting up why Cozzano would consent to such a risky procedure. Again, I'm only a bout halfway through, so the jury is still out, but so far, it's ok. Not as good as The Cobweb though, and it lacks the idiosyncratic bits that made me enjoy The Cobweb so much. Still, there are some interesting characters and concepts. For instance, the pollsters in the book are interesting. Here's a quote from one of the pollsters, who speculates on what drives politics.
"In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam." ...This seems appropriate, given the upcoming election. Interestingly, the same pollster speculates that HDTV will mark the next shift in politics, as people look different on HDTV than they do on regular TV. This may seem like a trivial point, but I guess the idea is that politics these days rely more on trivial stuff like how to position your eyes so that the whites don't make it look like your eyes are bulging out of your head on TV.
I'd say that The Cobweb is definitely worth checking out for Stephenson fans, and probably anyone who likes techno-thrillers like Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn's stuff (I'm not an authority on the genre though). So far, it seems like Interface would be worth reading for die hard Stephenson fans, and there might be a more limited mainstream audience for this one as well. They both seem a little better than your average thriller.
Posted by Mark on June 17, 2007 at 04:04 PM .: link :.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Over the next two weeks, I'll be travelling a lot. This week, I'll be attending UPA 2007 in Austin, TX. Next week, I'll be attending another conference in Boston (insert obligatory Road Trip joke here). I'll have internet access, so I'll be around, but the regularly scheduled Wednesday posts may suffer.
Anyway, in anticipation of Robot Chicken's Star Wars special, here's one of their previous episodes. Hilarious.
This one's pretty good too.
Posted by Mark on June 12, 2007 at 01:01 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how context matters when consuming art. As sometimes happens when writing an entry, that one got away from me and I never got around to the point I originally started with (that entry was originally entitled "Referential" but I changed it when I realized that I wasn't going to write anything about references), which was how much of our entertainment these days references its predecessors. This takes many forms, some overt (homages, parody), some a little more subtle.
I originally started thinking about this while watching an episode of Family Guy. The show is infamous for its random cutaway gags - little vignettes that have no connection to the story, but which often make some obscure reference to pop culture. For some reason, I started thinking about what it would be like to watch an episode of Family Guy with someone from, let's say, the 17th century. Let's further speculate that this person isn't a blithering idiot, but perhaps a member of the Royal Society or something (i.e. a bright fellow).
This would naturally be something of a challenge. There are some technical explanations that would be necessary. For example, we'd have to explain electricty, cable networks, signal processing and how the television works (which at least involves discussions on light and color). The concept of an animated show, at least, would probably be easy to explain (but it would involve a discussion of how the human eye works, to a degree).
There's more to it, of course, but moving past all that, once we start watching the show, we're going to have to explain why we're laughing at pretty much all of the jokes. Again, most of the jokes are simply references and parodies of other pieces of pop culture. Watching an episode of Family Guy with Isaac Newton (to pick a prominent Royal Society member) would necessitate a pause just about every minute to explain what each reference was from and why Family Guy's take on it made me laugh. Then there's the fact that Family Guy rarely has any sort of redeemable lesson and often deliberately skews towards actively encouraging evil (something along the lines of "I think the important thing to remember is that it's ok to lie, so long as you don't get caught." I don't think that exact line is in an episode, but it could be.) This works fine for us, as we're so steeped in popular culture that we get the fact that Family Guy is just lampooning of the notion that we could learn important life lessions via a half-hour sitcom. But I'm sure Isaac Newton would be appalled.
For some reason, I find this fascinating, and try to imagine how I would explain various jokes. For instance, the episode I was watching featured a joke concerning "cool side of the pillow." They cut to a scene in bed where Peter flips over the pillow and sees Billy Dee Williams' face, which proceeds to give a speech about how cool this side of the pillow is, ending with "Works every time." This joke alone would require a whole digression into Star Wars and how most of the stars of that series struggled to overcome their typecasting and couldn't find a lot of good work, so people like Billy Dee Williams ended up doing commercials for a malt liquor named Colt 45, which had these really cheesy commercials where Billy Dee talked like that. And so on. It could probably take an hour before my guest would even come close to understanding the context of the joke (I'm not even touching the tip of the iceberg with this post).
And the irony of this whole thing is that jokes that are explained simply aren't funny. To be honest, I'm not even sure why I find these simple gags funny (that, of course, is the joy of humor - you don't usually have to understand it or think about it, you just laugh). Seriously, why is it funny when Family Guy blatantly references some classic movie or show? Again, I'm not sure, but that sort of humor has been steadily growing over the past 30 years or so.
Not all comedies are that blatant about their referential humor though (indeed, Family Guy itself doesn't solely rely upon such references). A recent example of a good referential film is Shaun of the Dead, which somewhow manages to be both a parody and an example of a good zombie movie. It pays homage to all the classic zombie films and it also makes fun of other genres (notably the romantic comedy), but in doing so, the filmmakers have also made a good zombie movie in itself. The filmmakers have recently released a new film called Hot Fuzz, which attempts the same trick for action movies and buddy comedies. It is, perhaps, not as successful as Shaun, but the sheer number of references in the film is astounding. There are the obvious and explicit ones like Point Break and Bad Boys II, but there are also tons of subtle homages that I'd wager most people wouldn't get. For instance, when Simon Pegg yells in the movie, he's doing a pitch perfect impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. And when he chases after a criminal, he imitates the way Robert Patrick's T-1000 runs from Terminator 2.
References don't need to be part of a comedy either (though comedies seem to make the easiest examples). Hop on IMDB and go to just about any recent movie, and click on the "Movie Connections" link in the left navigation. For instance, did you know that the aformentioned T2 references The Wizard of Oz and The Killing, amongst dozens of other references? Most of the time, these references are really difficult to pick out, especially when you're viewing a foreign film or show that's pulling from a different cultural background. References don't have to be story or character based - they can be the way a scene is composed or the way the lighting is set (i.e. the Venetian blinds in Noir films).
Now, this doesn't just apply to art either. A lot of common knowledge in today's world is referential. Most formal writing includes references and bibliographies, for instance, and a non-fiction book will often assume basic familiarity with a subject. When I was in school, I was always annoyed at the amount of rote memorization they made us do. Why memorize it if I could just look it up? Shouldn't you be focusing on my critical thinking skills instead of making me memorize arbitrary lists of facts? Sometimes this complaining was probably warranted, but most of it wasn't. So much of what we do in today's world requires a well-rounded familiarity with a large number of subjects (including history, science, culture, amongst many other things). There simply isn't any substitute for actual knowledge. Though it was a pain at the time, I'm glad emphasis was put on memorization during my education. A while back, David Foster noted that schools are actually moving away from this, and makes several important distinctions. He takes an example of a song:
Jakob Dylan has a song that includes the following lines:As Foster notes, this doesn't mean that "thinking skills" are unimportant, just that knowledge is important too. You need to have a quality data set in order to use those "thinking skills" effectively.
Human beings tend to leverage knowledge to create new knowledge. This has a lot of implications, one of which is intellectual property law. Giving limited copyright to intellectual property is important, because the data in that property eventually becomes available for all to built upon. It's ironic that educators are considering less of a focus on memorization, as this requirement of referential knowledge has been increasing for some time. Students need a base of knowledge to both understand and compose new works. References help you avoid reinventing the wheel everytime you need to create something, which leads to my next point.
I think part of the reason references are becoming more and more common these days is that it makes entertainment a little less passive. Watching TV or a movie is, of course, a passive activity, but if you make lots of references and homages, the viewer is required to think through those references. If the viewer has the appropriate knowledge, such a TV show or movie becomes a little more cognitively engaging. It makes you think, it calls to mind previous work, and it forces you to contextualize what you're watching based on what you know about other works. References are part of the complexity of modern Television and film, and Steven Johnson spends a significant amout of time talking about this subject in his book Everything Bad is Good for You (from page 85 of my edition):
Nearly every extended sequence in Seinfeld or The Simpsons, however, will contain a joke that makes sense only if the viewer fills in the proper supplementary information -- information that is deliberately withheld from the viewer. If you haven't seen the "Mulva" episode, or if the name "Art Vandelay" means nothing to you, then the subsequent references -- many of them arriving years after their original appearance -- will pass on by unappreciated.I know some people who hate Family Guy and Seinfeld, but I realized a while ago that they don't hate those shows because of the contents of the shows or because they were offended (though some people certainly are), but rather becaues they simply don't get the references. They didn't grow up watching TV in the 80s and 90s, so many of the references are simply lost on them. Family Guy would be particularly vexing if you didn't have the pop culture knowledge of the writers of that show. These reference heavy shows are also a lot easier to watch and rewatch, over and over again. Why? Because each episode is not self-contained, you often find yourself noticing something new every time you watch. This also sometimes works in reverse. I remember the first time I saw Bill Shatner's campy rendition of Rocket Man, I suddenly understoood a bit on Family Guy which I thought was just a bit based on being random (but was really a reference).
Again, I seem to be focusing on comedy, but it's not necessarily limited to that genre. Eric S. Raymond has written a lot about how science fiction jargon has evolved into a sophisticated code that implicitely references various ideas, conventions and tropes of the genre:
In looking at an SF-jargon term like, say, "groundcar", or "warp drive" there is a spectrum of increasingly sophisticated possible decodings. The most naive is to see a meaningless, uninterpretable wordlike noise and stop there.While comedy makes for convenient examples, I think this better illustrates the cognitive demands of referential art. References require you to be grounded in various subjects, and they'll often require you to think through the implications of those subjects in a new context. References allow writers to pack incredible amounts of information into even the smallest space. This, of course, requires the consumer to decode that information (using available knowledge and critical thinking skills), making the experience less passive and more engaging. Use references will continue to flourish and accellerate in both art and scholarship, and new forms will emerge. One could even argue that aggregation in various weblogs are simply exercises in referential work. Just look at this post, in which I reference several books and movies, in many cases assuming familiarity. Indeed, the whole structure of the internet is based on the concept of links -- essentialy a way to reference other documents. Perhaps this is part of the cause of the rising complexity and information density of modern entertainment. We can cope with it now, because we have such systems to help us out.
Posted by Mark on June 10, 2007 at 03:08 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Link Dump: Flashy Edition
As per usual these days, time is short, so just some quick links to various flash oddities and games.
Posted by Mark on June 06, 2007 at 10:43 PM .: link :.
Monday, June 04, 2007
I of Newton
So yesterday's entry about obscure works being found via the internet, and specifically Jonathon Delacour's quest to figure out what TV show he was remembering, reminded me of several old TV episodes that I haven't seen since I was very young, but which I still remember vividly. I was curious if the internet could help me figure out which shows or episodes I was thinking of.
The first one had to do with a math teacher who idly mentions he'd sell his soul to complete a problem. The devil appears and they engage in a battle of wits, the stakes being the math teacher's soul. Some of the specifics here elude me, but I distinctly remember a few things. First, the devil had horns and sunglasses and his shirt had text on it that kept changing. Second, the challenge had something to do with the teacher trying to ask a question the devil couldn't answer (I remember the devil giving specific examples of how previous people tried and failed to do so). And finally, I remember the punchline (which I won't spoil).
Now, this could have been on any number of anthology shows. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, one of those old Hitchcock theater thingys... So I searched for "Twighlight Zone devil [punchline]" (where [punchline] represents the punchline I don't want to spoil).
Bingo, the second result in Google is a detailed recounting of the 8 minute episode (spoilers on that page, don't go until you've watched the episode below), which was apparently titled I of Newton. It starred Sherman Hemsley (of The Jeffersons fame) and Ron Glass (of Firefly fame) and there are apparently a bunch of neat references (Dante, for instance). The page also mentions what one of the devil's t-shirts says: "hell is a city much like Newark." Heh.
Update: Knowing the title, finding the episode on YouTube was easy. Enjoy:
We really need more of these anthology shows, but we seem to be moving in the opposite direction of huge, multi-season story arcs rather than anthologies with 8 minute stories (or short story magazines, for that matter). A shame, really, but I could see the format making a comeback someday.
Posted by Mark on June 04, 2007 at 10:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
The Long Tail of Forgotten Works
I'm currently reading Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail, and he relates a story about how some books find an audience long after they've been published.
In 1988, a British mountain climber named Joe Simpson wrote a book called Touching the Void, a harrowing account of near death in the Peruvian Andes. Though reviews for the book were good, it was only a modest success, and soon was largely forgotten. Then, a decade later, a strange thing happened. Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air, another book about a mountain-climbing tragedy, which became a publishing sensation. Suddenly Touching the Void started to sell again.There is something interesting going on here. I'm wondering how many great works of art are simply lost in obscurity. These days, we've got the internet and primitive tools to traverse the long tail, so it seems that a lot of obscure works find a new audience when a new, similar work is released. But what happened before the internet? How many works have simply gone out of print because they never found an audience - how many works suffered the fate Touching the Void narrowly avoided?
Of course, I have no idea (that's kinda the point), but one of the great things about the internet and the emerging infinite shelf space of online retailers is that some of these obscure works are rediscovered and new connections are made. For instance, I once came accross a blog post by Jonathon Delacour about this obscure Japanese horror film called Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People. The description of the film?
After a yacht is damaged in a storm and stranded on a deserted island, the passengers: a psychologist, his girlfriend, a wealthy businessman, a famous singer, a writer, a sailor and his skipper take refuge in a fungus covered boat. While using the mushrooms for sustenance, they find the ship's journal describing the mushrooms to be poisonous, however some members of the shipwrecked party continue to ingest the mysterious fungi transforming them into hideous fungal monsters.Sound familiar? As Delacour notes, a reviewer on Amazon.com sure thinks so:
Was this the Inspiration for Gilligan's Island? ...and that's a serious question. It predated the premier of Gillian's Island by several years. There's a millionaire who owns a yacht that looks like the Minnow. On board is a professor, the captain, a goofy (though somewhat sinster in the film) first mate, a pretty but shy country girl named Okiko, and a singer/movie star. There are seven castaways in all. "Lovey" is replaced by another male character, a writer named Roy. The boat crashes into an island where they are castaways... Course on Gilligan's Island they didn't all turn into mutated mushrooms monsters. Rent or buy the DVD (one of my favorite films in Japanese cinema, finally getting its due...) and you tell me if Gilligan's Island isn't a complete rip-off of this film.Several reviewers actually make the Gilligan's Island connection, and one even takes time to refute the claim that Gilligan ripped off Matango:
Actually as stated on this DVD's actor commentary Matango premiered in Japanese theaters in and around mid 1963. The Gilligan's Island first pilot (with different actors as The Professor and Ginger)was made in late 1963 thus the Japanese film does not predate Gilligan by a few years as another poster here thinks.Schwartz could have heard about a Japanese film made with seven castaways (as Hollywood and Tokoyo's Toho were in communication). But he definitely didn't see the Japanese film before he pitched gI to the networks in early 63.So perhaps this was just a happy coincidence... A commentor on Delacour's post mentions that the movie is loosely based on a 1907 short story by William Hope Hodgson called The Voice in the Night, but while it certainly was the inspiration behind Matango, it probably didn't inspire Gilligan's Island...
I seem to have veered off track here, but it was an interesting diversion: from obscure Japanese horror film to Gilligan's Island to William Hope Hodgson... would anyone have made these connections 20 years ago? It certainly would have been possible, but I doubt it would happen as quickly or efficiently as it did on the internet.
Posted by Mark on June 03, 2007 at 08:35 PM .: link :.
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in June 2007.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
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2006 Movie Awards
2007 Movie Awards
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6 Weeks of Halloween
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Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Philadelphia Film Festival 2006
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Security & Intelligence
The Dark Tower
Weird Book of the Week
Weird Movie of the Week
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