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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

More on Visual Literacy
In response to my post on Visual Literacy and Rembrandt's J'accuse, long-time Kaedrin friend Roy made some interesting comments about director Peter Greenaway's insistence that our ability to analyze visual art forms like paintings is ill-informed and impoverished.
It depends on what you mean by visually illiterate, I guess. Because I think that the majority of people are as visually literate as they are textually literate. What you seem to be comparing is the ability to read into a painting with the ability to read words, but that's not just reading, you're talking about analyzing and deconstructing at that point. I mean, most people can watch a movie or look at a picture and do some basic contextualizing. ... It's not for lack of literacy, it's for lack of training. You know how it is... there's reading, and then there's Reading. Most people in the United States know how to read, but that doesn't mean that they know how to Read. Likewise with visual materials--most people know how to view a painting, they just don't know how to View a Painting. I don't think we're visually illiterate morons, I just think we're only superficially trained.
I mostly agree with Roy, and I spent most of my post critiquing Greenaway's film for similar reasons. However, I find the subject of visual literacy interesting. First, as Roy mentions, it depends on how you define the phrase. When we hear the term literacy, we usually mean the ability to read and write, but there's also a more general definition of being educated or having knowledge within a particular subject or field (i.e. computer literacy or in our case, visual literacy). Greenaway is clearly emphasizing the more general definition. It's not that he thinks we can't see a painting, it's that we don't know enough about the context of the paintings we are viewing.

Roy is correct to point out that most people actually do have relatively sophisticated visual skills:
Even when people don't have the vocabulary or training, they still pick up on things, because I think we use symbols and visual language all the time. We read expressions and body language really well, for example. Almost all of our driving rules are encoded first and foremost as symbols, not words--red=stop, green=go, yellow=caution. You don't need "Stop" or "Yield" on the sign to know which it is--the shape of the sign tells you.
Those are great examples of visual encoding and conventions, but do they represent literacy? Why does a stop sign represent what it does? There are three main components to the stop sign: Stop
  1. Text - It literally says "Stop" on the sign. However, this is not universal. In Israel, for instance, there is no text. In it's place is an image of a hand in a "stop" gesture.
  2. Shape - The octagonal shape of the sign is unique, and so the sign is identifiable even if obscured. The shape also allows drivers facing the back of the sign to identify that oncoming drivers have a stop sign...
  3. Color - The sign is red, a "hot" color that stands out more than most colors. Blood and fire are red, and red is associated with sin, guilt, passion, and anger, among many other things. As such, red is often used to represent warnings, hence it's frequent use in traffic signals such as the stop sign.
Interestingly, these different components are overlapping and reinforcing. If one fails (for someone who is color-blind or someone who can't read, for example), another can still communicate the meaning of the sign. There's something similar going on with traffic lights, as the position of the light is just as important (if not more important) than the color of the light.

However, it's worth noting that the clear meaning of a stop sign is also due to the fact that it's a near universal convention used throughout the entire world. Not all traffic signals are as well defined. Case in point, what does a blinking green traffic light represent? Blinking red means to "stop, then proceed with caution" (kinda like a stop sign). Blinking yellow means to "slow down and proceed with caution." So what does a blinking green mean? James Grimmelmann tried to figure it out:
It turns out (courtesy of the ODP and rec.travel), perhaps unsurpsingly, that there is no uniform agreement on the meaning of a blinking green light. In a bunch of Canadian provinces, it has the same general meaning that a regular green light does, with the added modifier that you are the undisputed master of all you survey. All other traffic entering the intersection has a stop sign or a red light, and must bow down before your awesome cosmic powers. On the other hand, if you're in Massachusetts or British Columbia and you try a no-look Ontario-style left turn on a blinking green, you're liable to get into a smackup, since the blinking green means only that cross traffic is seeing red, with no guarantees about oncoming traffic.
Now, maybe it's just because we're starting to get obscure and complicated here, but the reason traffic signals work is because we've established a set of conventions that are similar most everywhere. But when we mess around with them or get too complicated, it could be a problem. Luckly, we don't do that sort of thing very often (even the blinking green example is probably vanishingly obscure - I've never seen or even heard of that happening until reading James' post). These conventions are learned, usually through simple observation, though we also regulate who can drive and require people to study the rules of driving (including signs and lights) before granting a license.

Another example, perhaps surprising because it is something primarily thought of as a textual medium, is newspapers. Take a look at this front page of a newspaper1 :

The Onion Newspaper

Newspapers use numerous techniques (such as prominence, grouping, and nesting) to establish a visual hierarchy, allowing readers to scan the page to find what stories they want to read. In the image above, the size of the headline (Victory!) as well as its placement on the page makes it clear at a glance that this is the most important story. The headline "Miami Police Department Unveils New Pastel Pink and Aqua Uniforms" spans three columns of text, making it obvious that they're all part of the same story. Furthermore, we know the picture of Crockett and Tubbs goes with the same story because both the picture and the text are spanned by the same headline. And so on.

Now I know what my younger readers2 are thinking: What the fuck is this "newspaper" thing you're babbling about? Well, it turns out that a lot of the same conventions apply to the web. There are, of course, new conventions on the web (for instance, links are usually represented by different colored text that is also underlined), but many of the same techniques are used to establish a visual hierarchy on the web.

What's more interesting about newspapers and the web is that we aren't really trained how to read them, but we figure it out anyway. In his excellent book on usability, Don't Make Me Think, Steve Krug writes:
At some point in our youth, without ever being taught, we all learned to read a newspaper. Not the words, but the conventions.

We learned, for instance, that a phrase in very large type is usually a headline that summarizes the story underneath it, and that the text underneath a picture is either a caption that tells me what it's a picture of, or - if it's in very small type - a photo credit that tells me who took the picture.

We learned that knowing the various conventions of page layout and formatting made it easier and faster to scan a newspaper and find the stories we were interested in. And when we started traveling to other cities, we learned that all newspapers used the same conventions (with slight variations), so knowing the conventions made it easy to read any newspaper.
The tricky part about this is that the learning seems to happen subconsciously. Large type is pretty obvious, but column spanning? Captions? Nesting? Some of this stuff gets pretty subtle, and for the most part, people don't care. They just scan the page, find what they want, and read the story. It's just intuitive.

But designing a layout is not quite as intuitive. Many of the lessons we have internalized in reading a newspaper (or a website) aren't really available to us in a situation where we're asked to design a layout. If you want a good example of this, look at web pages designed in the mid-90s. By now, we've got blogs and mini-CMS style systems that automate layouts and take design out of most people's hands.

So, does Greenaway have a valid point? Or is Roy right? Obviously, we all process visual information, and visual symbolism is frequently used to encode large amounts of information into a relatively small space. Does that make us visually literate? I guess it all comes down to your definition of literate. Roy seems to take the more specific definition of "able to read or write" while Greenaway seems to be more concerned with "education or knowledge in a specified field." The question then becomes, are we more textually literate than we are visually literate? Greenaway certainly seems to think so. Roy seems to think we're just about equal on both fronts. I think both positions are defensible, especially when you consider that Greenaway is talking specifically about art. Furthermore, his movie is about a classical painting that was created several centuries ago. For most young people today, art is more diffuse. When you think about it, almost anything can be art. I suspect Greenaway would be disgusted by that sort of attitude, which is perhaps another way to view his thoughts on visual literacy.

1 - Yeah, it's the Onion and not a real newspaper per say, but it's fun and it's representative of common newspaper conventions.

2 - Hahaha, as if I have more than 5 readers, let alone any young readers.
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2009 at 07:13 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Banner of the Stars II
In Crest of the Stars, we were introduced to Lafiel and Jinto (and they are introduced to each other), the main characters of this series. They are almost immediately embroiled in the outbreak of a major war and are very nearly trapped behind enemy lines. However, they manage to escape to safety and join the Imperial Star Forces (which is their duty, as Jinto is an Imperial noble and Lafiel is a member of the royal family). During the course of the story, Lafiel and Jinto become good friends and in Banner of the Stars, they are reunited on the Basroil, a rather small assault ship in the massive Imperial Navy. While Jinto and Lafiel are still key characters, that series takes a much broader view of the war, often focusing on the strategic decisions made by various Admirals (one of whom is Lafiel's father). Banner of the Stars is an excellent story of military combat, and part of the reason it works so well is that it focuses on both the strategic and tactical perspectives. You get a feel for the overall war in the scenes with various Admirals, while you get a good idea of what it's like on the front lines in the scenes with the Basroil.

With Banner of the Stars II, the series returns to its more personal roots. It is more like Crest of the Stars in that it is much more concerned with Lafiel and Jinto than the overall war effort. There are, of course, some establishing scenes featuring Admiral Bebaus and later in the story, Admiral Spoor pitches in, but the overall story is tightly wound around Lafiel and Jinto.


At the end of the first Banner, the Abh was victorious. In the sequel, Admiral Bebaus is leading the effort to reclaim the planets initially lost during the war with the United Mankind. His fleet is moving quickly, and as each new system is reclaimed, a Territorial Ambassador is left behind to manage the planets. Lafiel is assigned as Territorial Ambassador to the Lobnas system. This sort of duty is usually described as tedious and boring, but in this case, things become interesting when we find out that Lobnas was used as a giant prison, with millions of prisoners inhabiting the only island on the planet. There are guards, but things escalate quickly when some prisoners and guards request emigration.

I don't want to go into too much detail about the actual conflict, but I will say that I enjoy stories like this, where something seemingly simple turns out to be much more complex than initially thought. The characters who represent the various factions in the conflict are surprisingly well drawn considering how little screentime they have, and the relationship between Lafiel and Jinto is fleshed out more as a result. We also see more interaction between Lafiel and Admiral Spoor, and in an amusing turn, Admiral Abriel lays the smackdown on the Admiral Bebaus. There are less battle sequences here, but what battles do happen are pretty intense. It's also interesting to get a peek into the internal workings of the prison planet as well as the Abh government and how they treat conquered planets (just a small part of the impressive worldbuilding the series engages in). At one point, we also get a rather disturbing glimpse of how the Abh regard the faithful execution of revenge (something they attempt to use as a deterrent, which is an interesting conjecture).

My initial thought was that the series had seriously decreased the stakes, which was almost disappointing. Crest was the story of two characters escaping the enemy, while Banner raised the stakes considerably. The interstellar war portrayed in Banner was filled with tension and suspense. The outcome was by no means guaranteed, and the fate of the Abh empire hung in balance. So became a little confused when Banner II focused on such a seemingly insignificant planet of no strategic value. However, as the series progressed, I found myself drawn into the fate of those on the planet and more importantly, I realized that while the stakes were not on a galactic level, they were still high due to the emotional investment we have with the main characters of Lafiel and Jinto. Furthermore, the series is tightly plotted. There's no filler here, and while things may start a bit strangely, the tension builds steadily. Crest lagged a bit in the middle, but Banner and now Banner II are very well constructed.

In the end, I breezed through the 10 episode series rather quickly and very much enjoyed them. Each of the series tells a somewhat independent story, and Banner II is no exception, but I'm betting that some of the emotional impact is lost on someone who hasn't seen the previous two installments. And for the record, I also recommend watching Crest of the Stars before the first Banner. In any case, Banner II is a welcome addition to the series and well worth a watch if you enjoyed the first two series (especially Crest)...

Due to Netflix's semi-permanent "Very Long Wait" status on the last disc, I had to torrent the last three episodes, but it was easy to find and I even managed to use a media server to stream it to my PS3, which worked better than I expected. Next up is Banner of the Stars III, which to my knowledge has not been released in the US yet, but the torrent is available... As usual, more comments and screens below the fold (actually, not as many as usual, but a few). The Lobnas system is the big yellow circle. As you can see, it's firmly behind the front lines of the war. You'd think that would mean that the system is safe, but things are more complicated than they appear... You can also see Admiral Bebaus' advance to the left.

Lobnas System

These are the representatives of the four main factions on Lobnas. One of the first challenges Lafiel and Jinto face is deciding which one to trust.


As previously implied, there are 4 main factions on the planet, and they're all divided up as seen below. The territory on the rightmost side kicks up the most fuss, mostly to get to the territory on the leftmost side. The bottom section is where the guards and administrative officers are housed. Again, I don't want to go into too much detail here, but the seemingly simple situation gets out of hand pretty quickly.


Closed-Eyes Syndrome continues unabated!

Talking with their eyes closed

On the planet, there are these slug-like (or perhaps leech-like) creatures that are constantly crawling around. I'm not sure what the point of them is, but it's something I want to keep in mind during future rewatching.

What are these?
What are these?

While I wouldn't consider the series overly violent, it does get darker than in previous series. For example, one of the various factions kills this guard in cold blood, something we don't see often in the series (though we do see a fair amount of ships exploding, etc...)


On a lighter note, the series does feature some light fan service in the form of this character (interestingly, it almost makes sense in the context of the story that she be dressed this way, at least, from a symbolic standpoint):


The low angle of this shot of Admiral Spoor is used to either emphasize her powerful position... or it's an extremely mild form of fan service. Maybe both.

Admiral Spoor
Admiral Spoor

Well, that about wraps up Banner II...
Posted by Mark on December 27, 2009 at 05:20 PM .: link :.

Friday, December 25, 2009

12DC - Day 12: Merry Christmas
In 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon sent a letter to the New York Sun asking a simple question: is there a Santa Claus? You see, she had a bad father. He didn't want to answer the question, so he transferred his fatherly responsibilities to the newspaper, claiming that "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." An editor at the Sun, Francis Pharcellus Church, took the opportunity to answer Virginia's question and also addressed the deeper philosophical quandry. His now famous response can be summed up as "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

Is there a Santa Claus?

Merry Christmas, all!
Posted by Mark on December 25, 2009 at 01:38 AM .: link :.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

12DC - Day 11: The Night Before Christmas
This 1933 Disney short is a bit... unenlightened (check out that soot gag), but it was a different time then.

That's all for tonight. Merry Christmas Eve!
Posted by Mark on December 24, 2009 at 11:48 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

12DC - Day 10: Santa Slashers
Last year I checked out some holiday horror films and found myself enjoying them quite a bit. This year's crop turned out alright as well, though I wasn't able to get to Don't Open Till Christmas (very long wait on Netflix - the same fate that befell Silent Night, Deadly Night last year).
  • Santa's Slay: It's hard to believe that a film written and directed by a protégé of Brett Ratner could be entertaining at all, but then, here we are. Of course, it's not fine cinema or anything, but it's quite a bit of fun. Former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg plays Santa and does a reasonably menacing job in the role. Interestingly enough, the movie attempts to build in some history to the story of Santa and why he is the way he is... It turns out that Santa lost a bet with an angel around 1000 years ago, and thus he had to act nice and deliver presents to the world. But now that agreement has lapsed and Santa goes on a murderous rampage. The flashback that tells this part of the story in the film is done in a rather awesome stop-motion animation, reminiscent of the old Rankin/Bass stuff - a nice touch.

    Rankin/Bass Style Animation

    Indeed, there are a lot of little things that I really liked about this movie. Some of the jokes are actually funny and the pop culture references are present without being overbearing. I would have liked to have seen more Santa slayings, but ultimately, this film was a lot better than I expected. Again, it isn't especially brilliant, but it's rather well put together and worth a watch if you go in for this sort of thing. ***
  • Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out): I had no idea that this was a Troma film until I saw it during the opening credits. However, despite the Troma reputation, this film is much more deliberate and measured than you might expect (there's not even much in the way of gore). The story follows Harry Stadling, a guy who works at a toy factory and has an unhealthy obsession with Santa Claus. For instance, he observes neighborhood kids and makes naughty and nice lists, tabulating all their deeds into two giant books. Eventually, Harry snaps, dresses up like Santa, paints his van to look like a sleigh, and heads out on Christmas Eve to give presents to the nice kids... and punish the naughty ones. Unlike Santa's Slay, Harry actually makes a distinction between naughty and nice, and does not harm the nice people. The naughty, on the other hand, well, they get what's coming to them. Harry is portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic light, no doubt a result of a rather good lead performance by Brandon Maggart. The film was quite low budget, and it shows, but it's still a very interesting movie. Also, I rather loved the ending, despite the fact that it kinda comes out of nowhere and makes no sense. It's still fun. ***

    Santa the slasher

  • Dead End: Not sure where I heard of this, but it takes a familiar premise and... doesn't really do all that much with it. A family driving to Christmas Eve dinner takes a "shortcut" and find themselves on a mysterious road through a mysterious forest where they pick up a mysterious woman who mysteriously disappears, but then someone sees a mysterious car that looks almost like a hearse driving away with one of the kids and it's all very mysterious. This sort of thing could work if there was some sort of reasonable explanation for all the mystery... or if the dialogue were good or if the plot progressed in a fashion that made sense in some way. Some serious horror movie tropes here. Like people walking off by themselves or other seriously stupid stuff. For a low budget film, it looks pretty good, and they did manage to find some reasonably good actors, but some of the dumber plot points and the ending just left a bad taste in my mouth. *1/2
That's all for now. Coming down the home stretch, we've got the night before Christmas and the big day itself!
Posted by Mark on December 23, 2009 at 05:42 PM .: link :.

12DC - Day 9: Rantlers!
Sometimes brilliant moments in cinematic history appear in the most unlikely places. Case in point, Rocky V, where Rocky coins a new holiday term: Rantlers! Take a listen: A portmanteau of reindeer and anters, it's just another example of the genius of Rocky.
Posted by Mark on December 23, 2009 at 02:34 PM .: link :.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

12DC - Day 8: Eggnog!
Last year, I posted about my family's eggnog tradition. Every Thanksgiving, we all bring a few eggnogs and have a tasting. We're pretty bad about organizing it, but this year things went reasonably well, with 12 varieties and even a few new ones. I'm determined to do a true double blind taste test next year... Anyway, here's this year's lineup:


For reference, these are the eggnogs pictured (from left to right):
  • Wawa
  • Swiss Farms
  • Turkey Hill
  • Lucerne Farms
  • Southern Comfort (Traditional)
  • Hood (Golden)
  • Hood (Pumpkin)
  • Hood (Sugar Cookie)
  • Southern Comfort (Vanilla Spice)
  • Wawa (Pumpkin Spice)
  • Lactaid
  • Rice Dream Rice Nog
Just like last year, there wasn't particularly scientific or comprehensive about the process, but a general consensus arose. First, "flavored" eggnogs (like Vanilla Spice or Pumpkin, etc...), while tasty and a nice change of pace, were generally considered to be out of the running for the prize. For the most part, I don't think we'll be pursuing flavored brands in the future. This will lessen the quantity of egg nogs, but it will also make it easier to conduct a double blind taste test. Anyway, there was actually a tie when it came to decide the best eggnog. The winners:

Winners: Wawa and Swiss Farms

Wawa brand and Swiss Farms brand eggnogs came out on top, with 5 votes apiece. For those of you non-East-Coasters, Wawa is a popular convenience store (a la 7-Eleven, but better) and dairy farm, and their Eggnog is great. Swiss Farms is also a local dairy, and their stores are these strange drive through affairs... Their eggnog was a new addition this year, and obviously a successful one. It's quite good. On the other end of the spectrum, there was a unanimous decision to crown Rice Dream Rice Nog the most disgusting, though quite surprisingly, Lucerne eggnog did quite poorly. I'm not sure how Rice Nog would compare with Silk Soy Nog (last year's loser), but they're both pretty foul.

Losers: Lucerne and Rice Dream

One of the funniest things about Rice Dream was a little warning label that was on the side. I took a picture, but Kelson's is much better, and I won't ruin the surprise.

Anywho, it was a good year, and I'm looking forward to next year's tasting!
Posted by Mark on December 22, 2009 at 06:10 PM .: link :.

12DC - Day 7: Treevenge!
On Saturday, I posted a picture of the traditional Kaedrin Christmas Cactus. I've been delayed a bit due to some server host issues, but today we're going to see a reason not to have a tree (though honestly, in my case, it's more due to laziness than to what you're about to see). It's a short film made by Canadian filmmaker Jason Eisener (he also made this bit of insanity, which I may have posted during the 6WH last year), and a word of warning, it starts out pleasant enough, but it eventually gets very gory, so proceed at your own risk.

Of course, that's complete fiction. Everyone knows that our bloodthirsty lust for Christmas trees leads to the extinction of the pine tree.
Posted by Mark on December 22, 2009 at 05:13 PM .: link :.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

12DC - Day 6: The Christmas Cactus
Last year, the strand of lights I had on the cactus burnt out, so I had to replace it... And now I remember why I never took lights off the thing before. Taking them off and putting them on can make for a painful experience. In any case, I present you with the 2009 traditional Kaedrin Christmas Cactus:

Traditional Kaedrin Christmas Cactus

There you have it. Later in the 12DC, we'll go over some reasons not to have a tree (even though, hey, I love Christmas trees too).
Posted by Mark on December 19, 2009 at 06:00 PM .: link :.

Friday, December 18, 2009

12DC - Day 5: Friday is Holiday List Day
Even though it is infrequently observed, Friday is list day, so here's a couple lists...

Not So Random 10
Holiday music generally gets overplayed, but let's see what comes up:
  • Shostakovich - "Suite #2 For Jazz Orchestra - Waltz #2"
  • Vince Guaraldi - "Linus and Lucy"
  • Bobby Helms - "Jingle Bell Rock"
  • Weezer - "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"
  • John Lennon - "Happy Xmas"
  • Tchaikovsky - "The Nutcracker Suite"
  • Gary Hoey - "Carol of the Bells"
  • Bruce Springsteen - "Merry Christmas Baby"
  • Vince Guaraldi - "Christmas Time Is Here"
  • Sufjan Stevens - "Come on! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!"
Yeah, so some of those are reallly overplayed, but what the hey.

Holiday Link Dump Well, that's all for now. Stay tuned for what passes as a Christmas tree around here as well as Egg Nog madness.
Posted by Mark on December 18, 2009 at 07:57 PM .: link :.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

12DC - Day 4: Christmas Light Hero
Apparently only 1.1 million of you have seen this, so I better do my part:

That's a lot of lights. I'm disappointed that the kid is only playing on easy though!
Posted by Mark on December 17, 2009 at 12:24 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

12DC - Day 3: Incidental Christmas Movies
I'm a big fan of Christmas movies, but there's another sub-genre that consists of movies that take place during the holidays but aren't about the holidays. I posted a few last year and here's some more:
  • Lethal Weapon: I used to always watch this movie during the leadup to the holiday season, primarily because it started with Jingle Bell Rock playing. Plus it's a pretty great movie. One of the stereotypical examples of Hollywood 80s action. There's a lot of ridiculous, cliched moments, but somehow that's part of its charm. In any case, it's not much of a holiday film, but there's the aforementioned songs, the scene where Riggs is contemplating suicide whilst watching an animated Christmas special, and some Christmas trees and lights and whatnot.
  • Go: Perhaps even less of a holiday film than anything else, I hadn't seen this movie since it came out. I remember liking the interconnected nature of the three main plotlines - sorta like a teen version of Pulp Fiction. Of course, it's nowhere near as good as Pulp Fiction, but it holds up reasonably well. I always thought of this as an underrated film, and that probably still fits.
  • The Ice Harvest: Aside from a scene at a frozen lake, there's very little ice to be seen here, but hey, it takes place on Christmas eve as a couple of Mob employees seek to rip off their boss, who happens to run all the strip joints in Witchita. Of the three films in this post, this might be the darkest. It's a sorta neo-noir setup, but not quite that despairing and probably more fun to watch. There are some twists that you can see coming from a mile away, and it's not quite as wickedly funny or intelligent as it could be, but it's still a good ride.
That's all for now. Next up: fun with exterior illumination.
Posted by Mark on December 16, 2009 at 07:11 PM .: link :.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

12DC - Day 2: Peter's Christmas Album
I think one of the funny things about this clip is that it appeared in an episode that was aired in September (i.e. not even close to the Holidays). Typical Family Guy.

Stay tuned for this year's edition of Incidental Christmas Movies...
Posted by Mark on December 15, 2009 at 12:06 AM .: link :.

Monday, December 14, 2009

12 Days of Christmas: Day 1 - Tarzan, Tonto & Frankenstein
It's that time of year again, and in keeping with the tradition of seasonal posts (i.e. last year's 12DC and the 6 Weeks of Halloween), today marks the first of twelve holiday themed posts. As with last year, most will be short posts (usually just a pic or video), but Wednesday and Sunday posts will tend to be longer. And so we begin with a bit of a softball, but for some reason one of my favorite SNL holiday gags growing up. I give you: Season's Greetings from Tarzan, Tonto & Frankenstein!

I don't know why, but this seriously cracked me up. Another vid in the extended entry (unfortunately, the best part gets cut off at the end, but it's still awesome).

Posted by Mark on December 14, 2009 at 09:32 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Visual Literacy and Rembrandt's J'accuse
Perhaps the most fascinating film I saw at the 18½ Philadelphia Film Festival was Rembrandt's J'accuse. It's a documentary where British director Peter Greenaway deconstructs Rembrandt's most famous painting: Night Watch. It's arguably the 4th most celebrated painting in art history (preceded only by the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel...) and Greenaway believes it's also an accusation of murder. The movie plays like a forensic detective story as Greenaway analyzes the painting from top to bottom. It's an interesting topic for a documentary, though I think the film ultimately falters a bit in it's investigation (either that, or Greenaway is trying to do something completely different).

(Note, you can click on the images below for a higher resolution image.)

Night Watch
Night Watch

Greenaway began his career as a painter and he contends that most people are visually illiterate, which is an interesting point. We really do live in a text-based culture. Our education system encourages textual learning over visuals, from the alphabet to vocabulary and reading skills. The proportion of time spent "reading paintings as they do text" is minute (if it happens at all). As such, our ability to analyze visual art forms like paintings is ill-informed and impoverished. Greenaway even takes the opportunity to rag on the state of modern cinema (which is a whole other discussion, as sometimes even bad movies are visually well constructed, but I digress). In any case, I do think Greenaway has a point here. Our culture is awash in visual information - television, movies, photography, etc... - and yet, we spend very little time questioning the veracity of what we're shown. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, which is really just a way of saying that pictures can easily convey massive amounts of information. Pictures are inherently trustworthy and persuasive, but this can, in itself, cause issues. Malcolm Gladwell examined this in his essay, The Picture Problem:
You can build a high-tech camera, capable of taking pictures in the middle of the night, in other words, but the system works only if the camera is pointed in the right place, and even then the pictures are not self-explanatory. They need to be interpreted, and the human task of interpretation is often a bigger obstacle than the technical task of picture-taking. ... pictures promise to clarify but often confuse. ... Is it possible that we place too much faith in pictures?
Gladwell is, of course, casting suspicion on images, but he's actually making many of the same points as Greenaway. What Gladwell is really saying is that human beings are visually illiterate. As Greenaway notes towards the beginning of the film, is what we see really what we see? Or do we only see what we want to see? Both Gladwell and Greenaway seem to agree that interpretation is key (though Gladwell might be a bit more pessimistic about the feasibility of doing so). Though this concept is not explicitly referenced later in the film, I do believe it is essential to understanding the film.

One of the first clues that Greenaway examines is the public nature of Rembrandt's painting. For the most part, public museums didn't start appearing until the mid 19th century. The Night Watch, by contrast, was on public display from day one (1642). In a time where paintings were private luxuries, usually viewed only by the rich and those who commissioned the paintings, the Night Watch was viewed by all. In a lot of ways, the painting is unusual and prompts questions, most of which don't seem to have any sort of satisfactory answers. This leads to all sorts of speculation and theories about the motives behind the painting and what it really depicts. One way to look at it is to view it as an accusation. An indictment of conspiracy. Greenaway starts with this idea and proceeds to examine 34 interconnected mysteries about the painting. The mysteries all server to illuminate one thing: The content of the painting. What is it about? Who are the players? What is the accusation?

I will not go through all 34 mysteries, but as an example, the first mystery is about the Dutch Militia. At the time of the painting, there was a century-long Dutch tradition of the group military portrait. The Dutch had been involved in a long, drawn-out guerrilla war with the Spanish. Local militias were formed all throughout the country to protect their towns from their enemies. These local companies were comprised of regular citizens and volunteers, many of them important local figures, and they liked to have themselves painted, usually in uniform and in a powerful light to inspire solidarity and confidence. As the war wound down, these militias became less about the military and more about politics and power. It was a prestigious thing to be in a militia and they became more of a gentleman's club than a military organization. In the Night Watch, Rembrandt chose to break many of the traditions associated with the common Dutch military portrait. Many of the future mysteries examine these differences in great detail.

After seeing the movie I was struck by numerous things. First, for a filmmaker ostensibly crusading against visual illiteracy, I find it strange that Greenaway has chosen to present his argument as a gigantic wall of text. He narrates the entire film. Occasionally, he'll cut to a "reenactment", which are scenes from his previous film, a fictional retelling of Rembrandt's painting, but even those are comprised primarily of characters spouting dialogue (these scenes rarely provide insight, though it's nice to break up the narration with something a little more theatrical).

Indeed, the grand majority of the mysteries are concerned with context (i.e. the cultural and historical traditions, the timing of the painting, who commissioned the painting, etc...). There is a concept from communication theory called exformation that I think is relevant here.
Effective communication depends on a shared body of knowledge between the persons communicating. In using words, sounds and gestures the speaker has deliberately thrown away a huge body of information, though it remains implied. This shared context is called exformation.
Wikipedia also has an excellent anecdotal example of the concept in action:
In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Miserables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote “?” in his message, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate it was selling well. This exchange of messages would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. The amount of information (a single character) was extremely small, and yet because of exformation a meaning is clearly conveyed.
Similarly, when Rembrandt painted the Night Watch and it was put on display, most of the viewers knew the subjects in the painting and the circumstances in which it was painted. As modern viewers, we do not have any of that shared knowledge. In order to understand the visual of The Night Watch, one must first understand the context of the painting, something that is primarily established through text. For example, one of the mysteries of the painting has to do with the lighting. Rembrandt was one of the pioneers of artificial lighting in paintings, and this was the result of improvements to technology of the day. There were apparently big improvements in the use of candles and mirrors, and so Rembrandt enjoyed playing with lighting, making the painting seem almost theatrical. As modern viewers, this sort of playful use of lighting isn't special - it's something we've seen a million times before and in a million other contexts. In Rembrandt's time, it was different. It called attention to itself and caused much speculation. Modern audiences thus need to be informed of this, and again, Greenaway accomplishes this mostly through the use of text.

To be sure, there are some interesting visualization techniques that Greenaway employs when talking about specific aspects of the painting. For example, when discussing the aforementioned use of lighting, Greenaway does his own manipulation, exagerating the lighting in the painting to underline his point:

Lighting Effects

Unfortunately, these are not used as often as I would have hoped, nor are they always necessary or enlightening, and indeed there are numerous distractions throughout. For instance, the frame is often comprised of several overlapping and moving boxes. Sometimes this is used well, but it often feels visually overwhelming. Indeed, sometimes the audio is sometimes also overwhelming - with Greenaway's narration being overlaid on top of music and sometimes even a woman's voice which is saying the names of famous people who have seen Night Watch (the inclusion of which has always confused me). I'm sure it's challenging to make a movie about a painting without just putting up a static shot of the painting (and that's certainly not desirable), but does the screen need to be so busy? The visual components of the film seem to take a back seat to the textual elements... Interestingly, this is a film that seems to work a lot better on the small screen, as it's not nearly as overwhelming on the small screen as it was in the theater.

Visually Overwhelming
Visually Overwhelming

Furthermore, the text presented to us is so dense that it can be hard to follow at times. This at least partially due to the massive amount of exformation, unfamiliar European names, different cultural traditions, etc... There are 34 people depicted in the painting (plus a dog!), and it can be tough to keep track of who is who. I suppose I should not be surprised that someone obsessed with visual literacy is not a master writer, but perhaps there is something else going on here...

Next, I was struck by the inclusion of Greenaway's face, which is often positioned in a box right in the center of the frame. Why do that? Why is he calling so much attention to himself? My first inclination is that it's a breathtakingly arrogant strategy. Also, the sound of his voice (sometimes overly deliberate pronunciation mixed with stereotypical European accent) lends the impression of arrogance and pretentiousness. I think that may still be part of it, but again, there is more going on here.

Look at Me!
Look at me!

There are many types of documentary films. The most common form of documentary is referred to as Direct Address (also known as Expositional Mode). In such a documentary, the viewer is directly acknowledged, usually through narration and voice-overs. There is very little ambiguity and it is pretty obvious how you're expected to interpret these types of films. Many television and news programs use this style, to varying degrees of success. Ken Burns' infamous Civil War and Baseball series use this format eloquently, but most traditional propaganda films also fall into this category. The disembodied nature of a voice-over lends an air of authority and even omniscience to a film's subject matter (this type of voice-over is often referred to as "Voice of God" narration). As such, these films are open to abuse through manipulative rhetoric and social propaganda.

By contrast, Reflexive Documentaries use many devices to acknowledge the filmmaker's presence, perspective, and selectivity in constructing the film. It is thought that films like this are much more honest about their subjectivity, and thus provide a much greater service to the audience.

An excellent example of a Reflexive documentary is Errol Morris' brilliant film, The Thin Blue Line. The film examines the "truth" around the murder of a Dallas policeman. The use of colored lighting throughout the film eventually correlates with who is innocent or guilty, and Morris is also quite manipulative through his use of editing - deconstructing and reconstructing the case to demonstrate just how problematic finding the truth can be. His use of framing calls attention to itself, daring the audience to question the intents of the filmmakers. The use of interviews in conjunction with editing is carefully structured to demonstrate the subjectivity of the film and its subjects. As you watch the movie, it becomes quite clear that Morris is toying with you, the viewer, and that he wants you to be critical of the "truth" he is presenting.

Ironically, a documentary becomes more objective when it acknowledges its own biases and agenda. In other words, a documentary becomes more objective when it admits its own subjectivity.

Greenaway could easily have employed a direct address narration with this film, but he does not. Instead, he conspicuously inserts himself right into the middle of the frame. Indeed, later in the film, Greenaway appears dressed in a ridiculous getup more suited to appear within the painting than in the movie. It's almost like he's daring us to question this visual choice. Why?

Perhaps because of the third thing that struck me - Greenaway is the only narrator in the film. Most documentaries feature many talking heads, experts and historians, and even some contrary opinions, among other expositional techniques. This film does not. Why? Could it be that Greenaway's story is complete bullshit? After all, his story is delivered in textual form. With his visuals, Greenaway is emphasizing his own subjectivity. A cursory glance around the internet (hardly a comprehensive search, but still) reveals that Greenaway appears to be the only one who subscribes to this theory of murder and accusation.

So I'm left with something of a dilemma. This movie is an impressive bit of speculation and interpretation, but I have no idea if it's true or not. The visual elements of the film seem to emphasize that it is an emphatically subjective interpretation of the painting, but that this sort of speculation on the visual composition is still important, and that we should do more of this sort of thing (something I would agree with).

Or maybe I'm reading way too much into the movie and he employs so much text simply because he thinks we're visually illiterate morons. At this point, I really don't know how to rate this film. I'm having a lot of trouble gauging how much I enjoyed this film. Upon first viewing it, in the theater, I have to say that I didn't like it very much. And yet, it still fascinated me, to the point where I started writing this post and rewatching the film to make sure my interpretation fit. Indeed, as previously mentioned, I found it much more watchable on the small screen. If this post at all interests you, I suggest checking it out. It's actually available on Netflix's Watch Instantly feature (and thus can be viewed through a computer, a PS3 or XBox or any number of other Netflix streaming ready boxes).

More screenshots and comments in the extended entry...

Update: More on Visual Literacy (in response to comments in this post)

This is the title screen of the film, and it's one example of the sensory overload that Greenaway employs. The building in the background is where the Night Watch now resides (the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam). The shot is taken from far away, with many things in the foreground though, including a police car with flashing lights. Given the murder-mystery nature of the film, that part makes symbolic sense. Making less sense is the additional police car inset on the right of the screen (it's harder to see in a static screenshot, but that box is filmed separatel, and apparently during the day, so the lighting is different. In the movie, that box actually scrolls across the screen.). Inset on the right, is a miniature version of the title screen. I have no idea what purpose that serves. And scrolling from right to left across the bottom of the screen is a list of signatures. These names are the aforementioned famous people who have publicly visited the Night Watch, and they are also being read by a female voice (again, I have no real idea why this is being done, as it only serves to really add to the disorienting sensory experience).

Rembrandts j accuse

Interwoven within the documentary are scenes from Greenaway's earlier fictional retelling of the same story, Nightwatching. It stars Martin Freeman (who starred in the British Office show and a bunch of other stuff, including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). I found these scenes really strange at first. They seemed very out of place, at least until I found out that they were from an earlier Greenaway film. Then it made sense.

Rembrandt and friends

As previously mentioned, Greenaway does employ some visualization efforts to help call out certain features and structures within the painting. Some of the interesting ones are below. The first is one that silhouettes out the main actors in the drama of the painting. Then there's one that numbers all of the participants (you'll have to click on the image to get a good look at that one). There are a few that attempt to visualize the lines of sight of all the characters (only two are looking directly at the audience - this is one of the mysteries that Greenaway explores).


The players, all numbered

Lines of sight

More lines of sight

One of the things that interested me about the film was that many of the "mysteries" are probably things that most people would notice if you asked them to stare at the painting for an hour. They don't have the exformation to read the painting correctly, but they'd easily be able to pick out a lot of the most salient features. For instance, it's easy to question why the girl in the painting is so prominent. It's the brightest part of the painting, and your eyes go there almost immediately upon viewing it. If given some time, you can even see that there's another girl behind the first, and her face is obscured (it turns out that Rembrandt painted it this way because the girl had horrible burns on her face and was thus self-conscious about it). I think the grand majority of the mysteries that Greenaway examines would be found if only someone took the time to really study the painting. Of course, I suspect most people don't actually do that sort of thing, so Greenaway does have a point, but still.

Little Girls Obscured Face

Below is the aforementioned "ridiculous getup" that Greenaway puts on at one point. Again, I think this is how he is stressing his own subjective involvement in what we're seeing.

Greenaway and his ridiculous getup

Well, I think that just about wraps up my thoughts on Rembrandt's J'accuse. In closing, I'll give you one of the final shots of the film, which is a sorta reprise of the title screen. It's still cluttered and busy, but somehow not quite as pointless as the title screen.

More visually overwhelming stuff

It was an intriguing movie, I guess. It would be even more interesting if I could hear what other art historians and experts thought about it...
Posted by Mark on December 13, 2009 at 08:04 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Anime Future Series
A few years ago (has it really been that long), I asked for some recommendations for anime series to watch. While I haven't completely exhausted the list, I have seen a good portion of them and I've started to get other recommendations. It's getting hard to keep track of them all, so I figure I should create a list of future series (not unlike some other folks' lists). The idea will be to maintain this post going forward, unless a better way of maintaining the list becomes available later. Before I list the series, some general info about what I've seen and what I'm looking for:

What I've seen: The Anime category archive contains all my posts covering the grand majority of the anime that I've seen so far. If you want a more concise list, I created one on ANN here (it can be sorted, though I'm not used to their rating system so some of them might be a little different). I'd recommend looking at the sorted ranking and if you're curious about why I liked (or disliked) a given series, check out the category archive for full posts.

What I'm looking for: I want to watch a series, but not something too long. I don't want to have to wade through 18 DVDs or anything absurd like that. In fact, I tend to prefer 13 episode series, though I can accept 26 episode series as well (generally, I feel 26 episode series have too much filler. This isn't that bad when I like the characters, like in GitS, but it's really bad when I don't, like in Trigun). The series should contain a full story arc (i.e. no Twelve Kingdoms). In general, I prefer a good story to things like character studies or narrative wanking. In the past, I've asked for action packed and fun. While I certainly enjoy that, I'm not opposed to other genres. However, some things I'm not interested in at the moment: downer endings, post-apocalyptic settings, incomprehensible or severly obtuse plots (i.e. Serial Experiments Lain) and steampunk. Some things I do like: Science fiction, action, suspense, thrillers, horror, good stories and twists. Nothing comprehensive about my likes or dislikes, but I thought it might help. The series must be available via Netflix. Bonus points for a series available via Netflix Instant Streaming or Blu-Ray!

Currently on the list: Based on recommendations from my first Anime post as well as stuff I've picked up on later posts and elsewhere. Taking my cue from Steven's list, I'm labeling each one:

Yes - Means I'll probably watch it
No - Means I probably won't
Maybe - Means I'm unsure or not yet ready
Unsorted - Means I haven't looked into it at all

Obviously this is very subjective activity. I'm not as allergic to recommendations as some folks, but that doesn't mean I'll watch anything! Anyway, here's what's on the list right now.
  • Banner of the Stars II - Yes - I loved Crest and Banner of the Stars, so it makes sense to watch this. The only major problem right now is that disc 3 is on semi-permanent "Very Long Wait" status at Netflix. Perhaps I can find an... alternate... way of viewing those episodes.
  • Samurai 7 - Yes - I like the original Kurosawa movie (and some of the remakes and updates), and this got a recommendation in the last post. Also, it's one of the few Anime series available on BD.
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's - Yes - The big question here is whether or not I need to watch the first Nanoha series. Author asked the same question a while back and the consensus seemed to be to watch from the beginning (Ben also recommends starting with the first series). But then I've heard that the first few episodes of the first series are hard to watch and atypical of the series as a whole. Still, I tend to be a completist, so I'm leaning towards watching the whole thing (for the record, I'm in the camp that would recommend watching Crest before Banner, even though I did the opposite).
  • Someday's Dreamers - Yes - Based mostly on rave reviews and recommendations. Also, I could go for something "brain engaging" as someone put it.
  • Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars - Maybe - Based mostly on high ratings of everyone else, I need to look into this one a bit more.
  • Irresponsible Captain Tyler - Maybe - Recommended by my friend Roy, it seems like a bit of a farce. Not sure I'm in the mood for that right now, but the premise of the series does seem kinda fun.
  • Samurai Champloo - Maybe - Another earlier recommendation. It's made by the same folks who did Cowboy Bebop. Now, I enjoyed that series, but the ending was a bit sour for me (though it didn't hit me nearly as hard as SDB). This series also seems generally different than CB anyway, so I want to find out a bit more before committing to it.
  • Divergence Eve - Maybe - I have to admit that the fan service seems a bit strange, but I've heard it's got good story, so there's that.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion - Maybe - Supposedly a "classic" but I've been warned not to watch it until later, something that I'm inclined to agree with.
  • Excel Saga - Maybe - I get the same vibe from this that I get from NGE above... so perhaps too early to watch this one.
  • Great Teacher Onizuka - Unsorted
  • Darker than Black - Unsorted
  • Black Lagoon - Unsorted
  • Gantz - Unsorted
  • Elfin Lied - Unsorted
  • Gungrave - Unsorted
  • Texnolyze - No - Post apocalyptic
  • Ergo Proxy - No - Post apocalyptic
  • Last Exile - No - Bad reviews from Alex, Fledge and Shamus.
Well, that about covers it for now. Recommendations are welcome, as are comments about the movies on the list right now (particularly the Maybe and Unsorted ones).
Posted by Mark on December 09, 2009 at 09:01 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Professor Russell Johnson's "My ancestors came over on the Minnow" Thanksgiving/Christmas Movie Quiz
Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted yet another movie quiz. Previous installments answering questions from Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, and Professor Severus Snape are also available... Now, onwards to Professor Johnson's questions:

1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.

This is a tough one. It's either Miller's Crossing or Fargo, which are my two favorites. Fargo was a movie that I never really loved... until I watched it again recently, at which point it shot up to near the top of my Coen Brothers rankings. Miller's Crossing has long been at the top of that list, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I revisit that and Fargo at the same time, that Fargo will come out on top... but for now, it's at #2...

2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)

The movie that first comes to mind is Aliens, but after some considered thought, perhaps The Godfather. Or Ben-Hur. Or The Wizard of Oz. Jeeze, this is hard. I'll stick with Aliens though. Given the number of times I've seen that movie, it's a crime that I haven't seen it on a big screen.

3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)

Without a doubt, Japan. Two words: Akira Kurosawa. Ok, so France has some good stuff too, but I'm generally more into Japanese cinema than French cinema.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.

The first several things that came to mind were from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, most notably the ending Mexican standoff sequence. Then there's also this line: "When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk." Heh.

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?

The most important is obviously photography. As to what I value the most, well, it's probably not the photography, though I certainly love a well photographed movie. Recently, some one asked me what my hobbies were. I started with the typical answers, but then I came to realize that my hobby is consuming stories, whether they be movies, books, history, tv, anime, video games, or even the occasional music album/song. Nothing beats a good storyteller, no matter what medium they're working in... This also explains why some types of movies, the ones that eschew narrative or make no sense (I'm looking at you, David Lynch!), usually fail to grab me. It's not that they can't, just that I find it much harder to swallow a movie without a good story or characters I can relate to...

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).

It's hard to consider an answer to this question without distorting the premise to be "Movies I like even though no one else does." Because if I like it and you don't, you clearly don't understand the movie, right? But that's usually not true. So I am having a tough time with this one. Some interesting answers I've seen are Unbreakable and Intolerable Cruelty, both of which examine their respective genres from a unique perspective, adding (or perhaps subtracting) twists to familiar tropes. I suspect that Inglourious Basterds will grow into the misunderstood role (especially given the relatively craptastic rating of 69 on metacritic). Oddly, I had no trouble at all coming up with multiple misunderstood examples from the 90s. Go figure.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.

I'm not sure if this qualifies, since I still love the movies early in his career, but John Carpenter hasn't made a good movie in like 15 years, and even that movie was kinda alone in the late 80s and 90s (not to mention that it wasn't anywhere near Carpenter's earlier brilliance). I suppose he did a decent episode of Masters of Horror, but then, he also did one of the worst episodes of the series. I suppose there's a chance for a comeback in 2010, as there are some things on his plate, but I'm not terribly optimistic. Still, nothing beats that period in the late 70s and early 80s, when he just kept hitting homeruns, over and over. But some of the 80s stuff started to get a bit hokey and didn't age well, so there's that too.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?

I'm not terribly familiar with either, but I'll go with Patrick Magee, due mostly to his involvement in multiple Kubrick productions (Lom was in one, but not one of my favorites).

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)

Of the films I've seen, I'd say it would have to be Lost Highway, Eraserhead, or Dune. It's a tough call though, because even the worst Lynch is watcheable. But then, I have to be in the right mood, and I'm less willing to put up with Lynch's crap now than I have been in the past.

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

I'll have to go with Gordon Willis on this one. Not that Hall is bad, but it's hard to go against The Godfather ("...don't ever take sides with anyone against the Family...")

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.

Well I've only seen two, and Dirty Harry is one of my favorites of all time, so that leaves Invasion of the Body Snatchers...

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?

In theaters, I saw Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was excellent. Last week, I opined that I was intrigued to see Wes Anderson tackle something outside his usual "quirky" wheelhouse (which has been getting a bit stale of late). Interestingly, I think this was a near perfect melding of Anderson's quirky aesthetic with a classic children's story. This will most likely find its way onto my top 10 of 2009.

On DVD, I saw The Lady Vanishes, which is probably Hitchcock's best British film (of the 7 or 8 that I've seen from his pre-Hollywood days). On BD, I saw Franklyn, which is mostly an interminable bore (and not at all SF).

The Lady Vanishes
The Lady Vanishes

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

Well, I'll go with 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it's an amazing movie and because I don't want to answer The Godfather for every one of these questions (though it would certainly qualify here). Actually, I don't think I've replaced a single existing DVD with a BD yet. Everything I've bought has been new.

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?

Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Don't really have anything else to say about it, but Mintz-Plasse seems like he'll be around for a while.

15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.

I tend to be much more of a director person, meaning that I rarely go to see a movie for acting. That being said, there are some actors that fit the question's description, I guess. Some that come immediately to mind: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Ellen Page, and probably about a dozen others. Again, it's rare that an actor alone gets me to see a movie, but there are some folks who can do a lot with just a little...

16) Fight Club -- yes or no?

Yes! I haven't watched it in a while, so perhaps it doesn't age that well, but I still think of it as a great movie.

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?

I got nothing.

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.

The opening scene from The Killers. Two sketchy men walk down a street and enter a diner. Simple, but quintessentially noir.

The Killers
The Killers

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration.

I had a surprisingly hard time thinking of a scene involving an obvious dummy. Strange, when you consider how many bad horror movies I've seen. Anyway, while I wouldn't exactly call it unsuccessful, I'd say the exploding head from Dawn of the Dead fits the bill. It happens very quickly, so it works, and in any case it's kinda awesome, but still, slow it down and look at it closely, and yeah, it's an obvious dummy.

Exploding head from Dawn of the Dead
Dawn of the Dead

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly)

Does free count? I've totally seen lots of bad movies on TV. Also, I used to work at the campus movie theater in college, so I saw free movies all the time. Including some pretty bad ones (Wild Wild West anyone?)

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?

I guess Van Heflin, since I've actually seen some of his movies. Then again, Van Johnson was in a movie called Killer Crocodile, which sounds kinda awesome.

22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.

Well, the only movies I've seen on his IMDB page are actually Robert Altman movies, but I don't think those are what you're looking for.

23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.

The first two that came to mind were recent documentaries. First is Playing Columbine, a movie that has only really played on the festival circuit, but which I really enjoyed (anyone who likes video games should watch the movie). Unfortunately, it does not appear to be available on DVD yet. Second was Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which is kinda like a real life Spinal Tap. Finally, for a broader perspective or to show what the medium is capable of, perhaps something like The Thin Blue Line would be appropriate.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "stranded", but I'll go with Planet of the Apes.

25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.

The most embarrassed I get is when I'm filling out your quizes and I get to one of the questions where you ask me to choose between two people I've never heard of. I'm not very embarrassed by that though, as evidenced by the fact that I keep filling the damn things out. Speaking of this:

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette)


27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?

Honestly, no. I can't think of anything for this.

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?

In general, I tend to avoid bad movies or movies I know I won't like. So there's no specific movie I'm avoiding, and for the most part, I'll watch even a bad movie if someone else wants to...

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.

There are a couple of obvious choices here, but I'm using those movies for other answers in this quiz and don't want to repeat myself too much. So I'll go with A Christmas Story, which perfectly captures winter through the eyes of children. Another quick non-obvious choice: Groundhog Day.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?

Jeffrey Jones, hands down. I mean, I've seen a lot of his movies and I know who he is, which is something I can't say for Gerrit Graham (though maybe if you pointed him out, I'd know). Even beyond that, I generally like Jeffrey Jones as an actor, so there.

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).

This is tough, because movies tend to establish stereotypes more than explode them. That said, any movie that realistically portrays a character as a human being rather than as a label (i.e. their sex, political agenda, regional affiliation, etc...) would be good. Specific examples are difficult, though I find it interesting that the thread at SLIFR featured multiple examples of movies that demonstrated "that not all Christians are arrogant, selfish, sanctimonious hypocrites." However, it's a tough line to hug. How do you do this without establishing a counter-stereotype? Wouldn't that be just as bad? Again, the best you could hope for is to see someone as an individual, rather than a member of a race, political party, sex, etc... and even that would probably be subjective. Ironically, movies that set out to address this kind of thing probably don't succeed often because they're too direct and confrontational.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.

I haven't seen a ton of movies from his catalog, but I'll just go with Rio Bravo.

33) Favorite movie car chase.

This is quite difficult to narrow down. I have to admit that the first movie that leapt to mind was Ronin. That's obviously a movie that relies on past car chases (particularly To Live and Die in L.A.) for inspiration, but Ronin has several great car chases, and they are just about perfectly executed. They take place in Europe, so all the cars are revving high and the streets are narrow, which really does make things more interesting. The other recent movie that came to mind was Death Proof, which obviously also owes a lot to older films like Vanishing Point. Honorable mentions go to Mad Max and The Road Warrior (those Aussies really know how to film them a car chase).

Mad Max
Mad Max

Also The Blues Brothers. The Bourne movies all have decent car chases. The freeway sequence in The Matrix Reloaded is actually quite good. A random nostalgic choice from the 80s that I actually kinda like: Running Scared. Ok, fine, since I'm listing them all out, I might as well also mention the obvious Bullitt and The French Connection. So there, I gave you like 20 answers. For car race fans, the Fury Road episode of The Hollywood Saloon is pretty cool.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins)

This is an excellent question, but one which is probably doomed. The only thing I could think of is a remake of the Evil Dead movies. The reason I say it's doomed is that Bruce Campbell's performance in those movies is so perfect that anyone else, male or female, is bound to pale in comparison. A woman in that sorta role could shine, though. I have no idea who could fill this kinda role, but I feel like it would be an interesting fit. In fact, I can't think of any sorta female physical comedy experts. Hurm. Maybe this would be a good idea.

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?

I have no idea. Completely unrelated, but damn, this quiz is long. I feel like it's a lot longer than other previous quizes.

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.

I guess House of Wax, by default (i.e. I haven't seen any of his other films). Also of note, his IMDB picture qualifies him for a future question, but he won't win...

37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)

This type of question has come up a couple of times before, and I really can't bring myself to destroy films, even horrible films I hate. I guess I'm just not the censoring type.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.

I can't believe this is what I came up with, but here goes: This is probably the opposite of what you're looking for and, well, a little embarrassing, but I hated Road House when it came out, and even later when it became a sorta so-bad-it's-good movie in the 90s. It wasn't until a few years ago that I came to recognize the genius of that film.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)

He said who in the what now?

40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?

I guess Delta Tau Chi because I hate bicyclists and am not violent enough to make it in a gang. The Deltas seem like a fun-loving bunch, but then, I probably wouldn't cut it there either. I guess I'm just not cut out for groups.

41) Your favorite movie cliche.

There are a million of these, but I love how every time a computer is shown on screen, it has some sort of newfangled GUI that can render 3D simulations within minutes. Even better, whenever our heroes are attempting to "clean up" some photographic evidence, and end up with nearly perfect images. Heh.

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)

Difficult choice. I've seen more of Donen (and really, how do you beat Singin' in the Rain (and this from a guy who normally hates musicals)), but I want to see more of Minnelli. For now, it's Donen, but it seems like Minnelli has a broader, more well rounded filmography.

43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.

I never saw this until last year, but Black Christmas is a fantastic movie that any fan of the horror genre (especially slasher fans) absolutely must watch. This movie set the tone for all that came after it (incidentally, the film is directed by Bob Clarke, who also did the polar opposite A Christmas Story, which is probably a better movie, but still.)

Dreaming of a Black Christmas...
Black Christmas

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.

The obvious choice is the end of Casablanca, but I have to embrace my nerdy nature and go with Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)

Again with the censorship! Honestly, the world is big enough to contain movies I don't like (even cult movies with annoying followers).

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?

Definitely Caroline Munro. I mean, she's a Bond girl, and she's got some nice slashers under her belt too. Apparently she was in the Dr. Phibes movies too, though I can't picture her in those. Veronica Carlson appears to be in a bunch of Hammer horror films, but none that I've seen (and I have to say that I was disappointed by the Hammer horror films I did see...).

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)

Raoul Walsh. He looks like a Bond villain. Interestingly, this makes the third straight quiz where I've talked about Raoul Walsh. Pretty good considering I've only ever seen one of his films.

Raoul Walsh and his eyepatch

48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)

The Thing (the Carpenter remake) has an awesome ambiguous ending. I'll just leave it at that.

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?

I won't go into specific movies (that's what January is for, what with the awards and the top 10s, etc...), but I'll just say that I'm thankful for the accessibility of watching movies, whether that be through DVD/BR, Netflix (and their online streaming service which now actually works on my PS3), the theaters (Philadelphia isn't New York or LA or even Chicago or Austin, but as near as I can tell, it's still a pretty good movie town), or cable television. I've never watched so many movies in my life. This is also probably also thanks to great movie podcasts, most of which are now defunct, but still.

50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

George Kennedy. No contest really, even when comparing the two as Captain Ed Hocken:p
Posted by Mark on December 06, 2009 at 10:06 PM .: link :.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday is List Day When I Say It's List Day
This is probably the most uneven feature on the blog, but I like to make me some lists from time to time. It's just not predictable, I guess. Anyway, enjoy.

Not So Random Ten
I suppose an explanation is in order. Normally I start off a list day post with 10 random songs from my playlist. Lately, I've come to realize that my music selection has become rather stale. So I'm attempting to liven things up a bit, with some help, of course. Any musical recommendations are welcome, though I suppose I can't guarantee I'll listen to everything... Anyway, what this means is that the selection below isn't quite as random as normal. Some of it is new, some of it is old, some I've heard before, some I haven't.
  • Vendetta Red - "Shatterday"
  • Arcade Fire - "Intervention"
  • The Animals - "House of the Rising Sun"
  • The Mars Volta - "Aberinkula"
  • The Mars Volta - "Metatron"
  • Sufjan Stevens - "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!"
  • Sufjan Stevens - "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!"
  • Modest Mouse - "Paper Thin Walls"
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela - "Hanuman"
  • Sigur Ros - "Hoppípolla"
5 Annoying Things People Do When Playing NHL 10 Online
  • Abandon A Game - This happens all the time, and it's really annoying. Picture this: You're playing a game of hockey online, and for once, you're doing really well. The puck is bouncing your way, you're putting up a pretty good wall of defense, and you're actually getting scoring chances. You're about halfway through the game, and you've just taken a 4-1 lead when... your opponent quits the game. Now, it can be intensely frustrating to play this game against someone who is a lot better than you, so I can sympathize, but at the same time, this is a douchey thing to do. Indeed, some of the Trophies you can earn are dependent on actually finishing the game (this happened to me for the Century Play trophy, a gold-level trophy I've been slowly chipping away at for a few months now). Of course, there are accidents. People lose connectivity, etc... But those are rare. This happens way too often.
  • Watch All the Cut-Scenes/Highlights - Dude, come on, they're the same damn things every game. There's no reason to do this. None. It's a big waste of time. Sure, you want to watch a particular goal because you're amazed at how good I am (or you want to rub your talent in my face), fine, that's understandable. But that should be maybe once or twice a game, not during every goddamn whistle. Also related, but not a full-blown pet peeve, are the people who pause the game constantly for some reason. I'm assuming it's because they're fiddling with their lines or something, but that's still annoying. Real players can win with what they're given.
  • Play With The All-Star Team - Look, if you're really that bad, maybe you should put in some time playing the CPU on Hardcore Superstar until you get better or something. Choosing the All-Stars as your team just pisses me off. It's bad enough that most people seem to choose amazingly good hockey teams like Pittsburg or the Canadiens, but there's at least a reasonable chance that those people are legitimate fans. I play with the Flyers. A good team, but nowhere near the best.
  • Gratuitous Fight Picking - This is partly the game's fault for allowing so much shenanigans after the whistle and there is a place for fighting in the game (among other things, it boosts your lines energy, etc...), but that doesn't mean we need to take EA up on the offer every time gameplay stops.
  • Playing With A Slow Connection - Really? You want to play a game that's this choppy? Gimme a break. This is the one time I think it's acceptable to abandon a game (but you need to be sure you're not the offending party, in that case).
All that said, I am enjoying myself with the game. Now I just need to figure out the online league thing. I created a team and I have like 7 members on the team, but I can't figure out how to join a league or play a game. I guess some of my other members have to be online or something. Damnit.
Posted by Mark on December 04, 2009 at 11:02 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Recent Podcast Listening
Podcasts are strange beasts in that most of my favorites usually end up closing down (often right after I discover them!) This isn't really surprising. By all accounts, putting out a well produced podcast with regularity has got to be very time consuming. When you consider that most podcasters are doing it as a hobby, it's pretty easy to see that it would take a toll. I'm still amazed at Filmspotting's longevity, though they at least have some income and professional output (I believe their show airs on Chicago Public Radio). Anyway, some interesting stuff lately:
  • All Movie Talk - I knew I kept this in iTunes for a reason. Imagine my surprise when the long-defunct movie podcast suddenly sprouted a new episode last month. Of course, they're not planning on weekly podcasts like they used to do, but it's good to have them back. I'm hoping for maybe 1 a month. So far, they've recapped what's happened in their absence and also did an episode about accessible old and foreign movies, which turns out to be an interesting topic (and one which added about 10 movies to my Netflix queue).
  • A Life Well Wasted - Extremely well produced podcast about video games and the people that play them. It's put out by Robert Ashley, a freelance video game journalist and musician, and everything about the show, from the website design and posters (designed by the awesome Olly Moss), to the music and editing, to the actual interviews and subjects, is very well done. While ostensibly about video games, Ashley takes a broader view, often focusing on a more human element (examples include people who collect old video games and a guy that gave up playing video games for a year). The only real problem here is that the episodes are few and far between. But given the quality of the production, it's always worth the wait. I think he'd like to do one a month, but he has trouble finding subjects to interview and of course, editing the shows has to be a bear. Great stuff though, and well worth a listen.
  • My New Best Friend - I'll be honest. I haven't listened to this yet. But it sounds interesting. I won't even try to summarize the concept, but it appears to basically be an interview show (moderated by the hilarious Clown vs. Wolf blogger Greg Rice) where one actor interviews another actor. I'm not really sure what to make of it, but I will most definitely be checking it out.
  • 4 Guys, 1 Up - This one isn't technically new, but since the departure of Garnett Lee from 1 Up, David Ellis has taken over the show, renamed it, and retooled the format a bit. What they're going for is to have an industry guest every week, whether the guest be another journalist or an actual video game designer. So far, the shows have been good and I like the more structured format. Along with Filmspotting, this remains my only other "must listen" show every week.
I've actually toyed around with the concept of doing a podcast myself, but I have a feeling that it'll be a while before anything really comes of it. There's some groundwork I'd need to do first, and I'd also have to find a suitable cohost (I hate the way single person podcasts sound, and also, I'm just not articulate enough - I need someone to play off of...) Plus, the whole "time-consuming" thing won't make things very easy... I doubt I'd ever be able to do a weekly podcast, but then, I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, I'll have to be content with listening to podcasts...
Posted by Mark on December 02, 2009 at 09:29 PM .: link :.

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