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Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Year in Books
The Earth has once again completed its orbit around the Sun, which for some reason means that we should all take stock of what we did over the past orbital period. I just posted my recap of the year in beer (and yes, I'm recycling the opening of this post, heh) and in accordance with tradition, I'm still catching up on 2012 movies (look for movie recap stuff in mid-January, lasting up through February), but Books are pretty straightforward to recap. I've been keeping track of my book reading via Goodreads for a while now, so with their help, I can compare this year's reading to the past couple.

Let's start with overall books read:
Number of books I read from 2010-2012
So I've read 50 books in 2012, which is a significant step up from the 28 I read 2011 (30, if you split out an omnibus). How did I manage such a feat? Well, I cheated. There are a few short novellas and the like that are on the list, which seemingly reduces the accomplishment (but not really, because this was, more or less, my goal). You can see this a little better when you look at page numbers:
Number of pages I read from 2010-2012
So I certainly did significantly outpace myself in terms of page numbers, even if, proportionally, I didn't excel as much in page numbers as I did in simple quantity of titles. That being said, page numbers are notoriously variable in size and actual length. The are only 228 pages in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but the amount of words read probably equals one of them 700 page Harry Potter novels. The elastic relationship we have with book length is something that's been bugging me of late, and warrants a post of its own. For today's purposes, let's stipulate that such variability is relatively even across years, and again, I went for quantity of books this year, not quantity of pages read.

This is evidenced by the longest book I read all year, Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign, which clocks in at a paltry 544 pages. For reference, 2011's longest book was Neal Stephenson's Reamde, which was 1044 pages (or, about 10% of what I read that year).

Some more assorted stats about this year's reading:
  • 10 of the books were non-fiction, which is only slightly more than last year, but still probably a record for me.
  • The grand majority of the 40 fiction books were science fiction or fantasy novels, and my progress this year was definitely fueled by short, trashy reads.
  • 14 of the 50 books I read were written by women, a very slight increase and probably a record for me, but also something that could be more equitable.
Goodreads also provides a neat little gizmo that graphs publication dates, as such:
Graph of publication dates
If you click the image above, you should be able to get a more interactive version of the graph, though I do find it annoying that it only states the publication date, not what book it is!

Anyways, it's been a really good year for reading, and I got through a ton of stuff. Will I read through as much this year? Well, let's try and keep the page numbers equal, but I'm going to say that the overall number of books is going to come way down. Instead of quickly knocking down short novels, I plan to tackle lots of longer books this year, stuff that might take me a while to get through. I'm sure I'll read some shorter stuff too, but I'm probably going to shoot for 25 or so books overall. We'll see where that takes me. More details on that little project to come...
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2012 at 06:35 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Hobbit
So I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and I have no idea what to make of this movie. My thoughts on this movie have become a gigantic bundle of contradiction, and instead of eventually resolving itself in time, it's just getting bigger and bigger, like a snowball rolling downhill and turning into an avalanche. I've seen a lot of reactions to this film, and I've had the rather odd experience of agreeing with what everyone said about the film. Which is to say, I agree that the film is great, that it is horrible, that it's action packed, but boring, that 48 FPS in 3D is pretty cool, that it really sucks too, that somehow the first third of the story is overlong, yet I can't wait to see more. What the heck is going on here? Let's break it down a bit more.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room first. The Hobbit is the shortest book in the whole Lord of the Rings series, and it's a rather simplistic adventure tale written for children, yet Peter Jackson and crew have decided to split this up into three films. What's more, each film is looking to run close to 3 hours in length. The cynical response to this is to call it a simple money grab, and for sure, New Line certainly greenlit the project for exactly that reason, but I get the impression that Jackson genuinely believes in what he's doing here. I also get the impression that Jackson is being enabled by those around him, that few are telling him not to do something so extravagant. That is pure speculation, of course, but I feel like Jackson got a little carried away with this project and no one tried to stop him.

But how is it possible to do this? Well, technically, I suppose this isn't just a straight adaptation of The Hobbit. The story is certainly padded out, but not by making events in The Hobbit last longer, but by delving deeply into the supplemental materials of Tolkien's universe. Stuff like The Simarillion, of which there exists a ton of material to draw upon.

So rather than a Wizard and a bunch of dwarves dragging a hobbit along on an adventure, we get all these background sequences where we see historical digressions on dwarf culture, or Radagast the Brown riding a sleigh pulled by bunnies, or a mysterious necromancer mucking with the lands, or Gandalf speculating on the rise of Sauron with the elves, and so on. There is an interesting balance that Jackson is trying to go for here. The Hobbit is a really light story, which means that it could be a bit jarring when viewed in light of the more intense LotR trilogy films. These new scenes help integrate the movie with the rest of the series and give it more depth... but I'm not entirely sure that was needed. Again, I didn't find any of these things boring or poorly done, but then, they're just not necessary either.

Does this actually work? Damned if I know! If you're down with the whole Tolkien universe, and I suppose I am, then it's all good, I guess. I'm the type of person that appreciates details that hang together in the end, even if some things aren't strictly necessary. On the other hand, I can totally understand the complaints that this movie is overlong and boring. There's a lot of unnecessary stuff here, and while I appreciate detailed narratives and explanations, I'm also a fan of economical storytelling. While Jackson and Co. managed something rather spectacular with the original LotR trilogy, ruthlessly trimming parts of the story that were superfluous (I mean, is anyone really all that upset that Tom Bombadil didn't show up in Fellowship of the Ring?), they went in the complete opposite direction with The Hobbit, adding tons of extraneous stuff that wasn't even in the narrative to begin with. I can appreciate the skill with which this was done and I was never bored while watching the movie, but at the same time, I would probably have liked this better if there were only one movie that was tightly plotted.

I hold out hope that at the end of this whole process, instead of releasing even longer extended cuts on DVD/BD/Streaming, Jackson will buckle down and produce a 2-3 hour cut of the movie (which, again, is looking to be 9 hours or so long). Given the amount of extra stuff in this movie, I'm pretty sure that would be possible. I also doubt this will happen officially, but I can pretty much guarantee such a thing will show up on the internets, Phantom Edit style. It would probably be an insane amount of work, but I wouldn't put it past Tolkien fans, who certainly qualify as cult fans, despite the popularity of these movies.

Alright, next up is the presentation. I saw the movie in 48 FPS IMAX 3D (jeeze, that's a lot of acronyms). It was simultaneously interesting and terrible. I guess I can see where Jackson is coming from with this. 48 frames per second does impart more information to the viewer, and it makes fast camera movements appear smoother and more detailed. This is especially helpful when it comes to 3D, and I think this is the first time I saw a 3D movie in IMAX without emerging from the theater with a splitting headache. Should that be attributed to 48 FPS? I'm not sure, but from what I've seen, that might be a fair bet. On the other hand, I found the presentation lacking in many ways. One of the interesting things about it is that I don't really know how to describe it. I'm not alone, either. Everyone seems to be grappling with the problem of describing this presentation, whether they're proponents or detractors. Many have called it more realistic looking and smoother, which sounds nice, but then, detractors are saying it looks like an old, crappy TV show or a video game. There's also the notion that more realistic looking can also contribute to a sorta uncanny valley kinda experience, where the supposedly better experience of more FPS ends up feeling creepy or unnerving. From my perspective, while the movie clearly has great production design and special effects, the presentation detracts from the experience considerably. I suppose I fall down more on the detractors' side here. I found it distracting at first, but eventually got used to it. But the fact that it was no longer distracting doesn't mean that it looked good. Ultimately, I found the whole enterprise rather pointless. I didn't get anything extra out of it, except that this is yet another piece in the puzzle of my cognitive dissonance with this movie.

There's a part of me that wonders if my instinctual response to this is because I'm used to film and that I'm just being a luddite, but I've really grown to dislike 3D, and I don't think that 48 FPS has really changed my mind on that. There's just something so strange about the experience that it's really hard to get over it. This feels like more than just a simple change that I need to get used to. Besides, it's not like I've never seen higher frame rates. For example, I get why video games go for higher frame rates - it's an interactive experience, so faster feedback is always going to feel better - but I don't see the need in the world of film.

There are some things I'm not so conflicted about. Ian McKellen has always been fantastic as Gandalf, and this movie is no exception. Martin Freeman is a wonderful addition to the cast and comports himself rather well, especially in key scenes like the game of riddles with Gollum. Speaking of which, that scene with Freeman and mo-cap Andy Andy Serkis as Gollum is the highlight of the movie. While the beginning of the film felt meandering and overstuffed, the last third was pretty well done and delivered some satisfying arcs that I didn't realize were being set up earlier in the film. Oh and remember that first, horrible trailer with that dwarf song? Yeah, I hated that trailer, but the song actually felt much better integrated into the movie. I thought it was actually somewhat movie. If, like most of the film, a little unnecessary. But it was a good kind of unnecessary.

In the end, I really enjoyed this movie. I also kinda hated it. I... really don't know how to parse my response here. Ultimately, I think I would have rather had a single film that told the simple story with the normal 24 FPS 2D presentation. But I don't begrudge Jackson for trying something new either. Gah, I feel rather feckless when thinking about this movie. I keep throwing thoughts at it, but nothing seems to stick. It's like I'm stuck in some sort of quantum loop, both loving and hating it all at once. The cat is both alive and dead, the electron is a particle and a wave, it's all very paradoxical. But it is happening... so what do I say? I don't know. I do know that I'll try to watch the next movie in regular 2D. Assuming that will even be possible. And I do still hope that someone puts together a 3 hour (or shorter) edit of the entire series at some point. I suppose that says something.
Posted by Mark on December 26, 2012 at 01:52 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Holiday Link Dump
Things are getting festive around here, so here's a few quick links for your holiday enjoyment:
  • Arnold's Very Special Xmas Party - With very special guest... Mike Tyson!? I have no idea where it came from, but this video is astounding.
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas by Colin Nissan - A more detailed account of the infamous twelve gifts. Sample:
    On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me, two turtle doves. Wow, she’s really into the avian theme this year. Um, thank you? I guess I’ll just put them in the kitchen with the partridge and the pear tree, which suddenly seems a lot bigger than it did yesterday.
    Things get weirder and weirder as the 12 days continue. Heh.
  • Crazy Christmas Cards from 1955! - So this guy found a box filled with Christmas cards from his grandfather's failed attempt at starting a greeting card company a few years after WWII. It's an interesting story, but this card is just profoundly weird. Look at this thing:
    Weird Santa Card
    Yikes. Also kinda awesome. It's too late to order now, but he is selling them, which is pretty funny because while the whole project bankrupted his grandfather, it's probably selling pretty well these days.
  • Bing and Bowie: An Odd Story of Holiday Harmony - The backstory behind the improbable Bing Crosby and David Bowie duet "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" (which, because it's in a newspaper, doesn't actually have a link to the song, which you can watch on Youtube).
  • It's Beginning to Look Alot Like Fishmen - A Lovecraftian take on Christmas music, based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Heh.
That's all for now, hope you all have a happy holiday!
Posted by Mark on December 23, 2012 at 03:23 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The 2012 Egg Nog Tasting
Every year, on Thanksgiving, my family has an Egg Nog tasting. It's a tradition born by accident. One year, several of us mistakenly thought we were responsible for bringing egg nog, and thus we ended up with, like, 8 egg nogs and devised an impromptu tasting event. In subsequent years, the number of entries rose and our methodology grew stronger. Oh sure, it's still not perfect, but even the attempt at a double blind taste test seems pretty good for such an informal event.

In general, the egg nogs are judged for two awards: best and worst. Since the number of entries can get out of hand and you can only drink so much egg nog at once, we generally limit the competition to straight nogs, not those fancy flavored things (i.e. no pumpkin spice for us). This year, we added an additional restriction that last year's winner and loser should not be part of this competition. Since the same two brands seem to win every year, we thought this would yield some variety. So the field was a little smaller this year, but the tasting was as fun as ever:
Egg Nogs
For posterity, these are the eggnogs pictured (from left to right):
  • Southern Comfort Traditional Egg Nog
  • Giant Light Egg Nog
  • Freddy Hill Farms Creamy Egg Nog
  • Shop Rite Egg Nog
  • So Delicious Coconut Milk Nog
  • Upstate Farms Premium Egg Nog
  • Nice! Egg Nog
It wound up being a small list, to be sure, but a lot of "missing" brands were things we've had several times before. With the exception of SoCo and I believe Upstate, the others are all new. Funnily enough, the race for best egg nog did come down to Upstate Farms, Southern Comfort, and Freddy Hill Farms, with Upstate Farms narrowly edging the competition in a blind taste test for its first win.

The race for worst egg nog was also interesting. I expected the "So Delicious Coconut Milk Nog" to wipe up the competition, and there were definitely a few people who thought it was the worst thing evar. However, the Giant Light Egg Nog (70% less fat, 1/3 less calories!) won decisively in the voting. The Coconut Nog wasn't excessively bad in my opinion, though it didn't really taste like egg nog. It was like coconut milk with nutmeg, maybe a bit thicker. But the Giant brand Light Egg Nog was absolutely disgusting. A word of advice: if you're trying to watch your fat intake or calories, just don't drink egg nog. You'll be much happier.

All in all, another successful tasting. We'll have to coordinate better next year and get some better, high quality, more obscure options.
Posted by Mark on December 19, 2012 at 10:08 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Year End Movie Cram Session
With the end of the year approaching and most blogs and newspapers and other outlets already releasing their top 10 lists, I always find myself excitedly rushing to catch up with movies I missed throughout the year... while keeping up with the late-year prestige releases. Some might find this to be a chore, but I always end up having a lot of fun discovering movies I didn't know about or think I'd enjoy. Oh sure, there's the occasional tedious bore too, but that just makes the real surprises that much more enjoyable. As of this writing, I've seen 48 movies that would be considered a 2012 release, which is actually a little low compared to the past few years, perhaps because I didn't end up at any film festivals this year. So I've got some catching up to do, and fortunately, there are lots of good movies coming up or already available on streaming... Indeed, the latest episode of Filmspotting SVU has covered this very topic, and some of their streaming choices have an overlap with my choices below...

Current Releases or Coming Soon
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Duh. To be honest, I'm rather annoyed that this book, the shortest and simplest of all the LotR novels, is being dragged out to three movies... but on the other hand, it looks pretty good too. Seeing this tonight, actually.
  • Django Unchained - The "D" is silent. It also stands for "Duh".
  • Zero Dark Thirty - A movie that I was originally not that excited about, but more recent trailers are definitely more compelling and it's getting a lot of buzz too. Most feedback seems to indicate that it's a great movie, but there's some controversy over the portrayal of torture in the films. Not having seen the movie, I will refrain from any sort of judgement on that, but at the very least, I think it could provide for some interesting discussion.
  • Save the Date - Tiny indie romantic comedy. I've actually heard good things. Release looks to be limited, but I believe it will be showing up OnDemand.
  • Life of Pi - I originally dismissed this based on what I thought was a pretty awful looking trailer, and to be honest, I'm still not very enthused about this movie. That being said, I'm hearing good things from critics, so maybe it's worth a shot. Who knows if I'll actually get off my butt to see this, but it's possible...
  • Jack Reacher - Tom Cruise's shenanigans aside, I'm actually a big fan of Christopher McQuarrie as both a writer and director (even on films people hated, like The Tourist), so I'm interested to see what's up with this one.
  • John Dies at the End - A movie I've been looking forward to all year long will finally come out in a limited theater run and OnDemand. To be honest, while I enjoyed the book, I didn't totally love it... but director Don Coscarelli always intrigues me, and everything I've seen about the movie so far has been pretty great.
DVD/BD and Streaming
  • Killer Joe - This small thriller directed by William Friedkin and starring Matthew McConaughey (who is having a surprisingly good year) got some attention when it was released, but I was never able to find it in theaters. Comes out on DVD/BD this week.
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi - This documentary about the world's greatest Sushi chef comes highly recommended, and it's on Netflix Instant. Definitely need to catch up with this one.
  • FDR: American Badass! - Ah yes, one of Kaedrin's Weird Movie of the Week picks finally becomes available (not sure how long it's been on Netflix Instant, but now I definitely need to check this out).
  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - Lots of critics seem to love this movie, but they're also careful to call it deliberate and slow and difficult to get through... things that don't usually work for me. But again, it's on Netflix Instant, so I might give it a shot.
  • Lockout - AKA Spacejail! Honestly not expecting much out of this, but hey, it sounds fun in a so bad it's good kinda way.
  • Casa de mi Padre - I remember hearing about this Spanish language Will Ferrell movie when it came out and wondering what the heck was going on... Figured it might be worth giving this a shot.
  • Penumbra - A movie I missed out on at last year's Fantastic Fest, but which I do want to catch up with.
  • A Separation - I suppose it's technically a 2011 film, but I do really want to see this film at some point. Even if I can't count it towards 2012, there's always my best 2011 movie of 2012 award!
  • Silent Night - Ah, it just wouldn't be Christmas without a homicidal Santa movie.
And there are probably a dozen other lesser efforts that I'll probably check out as well, but the ones above seem to show the most promise. I'm probably missing some good stuff as well. With luck, I'll hit that magical 70-80 number of movies that it usually takes to actually compile a top 10.
Posted by Mark on December 16, 2012 at 07:06 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Link Dump
Recent discoveries by Kaedrin's chain-smoking monkey research squad: That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on December 12, 2012 at 10:36 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

SF Book Review, Part 12
I've fallen way behind on the SF Book Review train. I've done a few individual reviews, but I've been reading at a pretty fast pace this year. Perhaps part of the reason I haven't done a SF Book Review lately is that... I'm reading less science fiction. For various reasons, I've hit up a bunch of Fantasy, Horror, Crime, and Non-Fiction this year. SF remains my favorite genre, but others keep creeping in the queue, and even this roundup contains stuff that would likely be classified Fantasy. But whatever, here's some quick thoughts on some books I've read recently.
  • Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales - A short novella, the first in a series called the Apollo Quartet. The premise is fantastic. Nine Apollo-era astronauts establish a base on the Moon, only to see the Earth succumb to nuclear war. Stranded, they turn to their experimental "torsion field generator", a mysterious device stolen from the Nazis after WWII. Also referred to as the "Bell", it seems that it's able to transport the Moon base across alternate universes. They've got limited supplies, and so far, all attempts at ringing the Bell have only brought them to an alternate universe in which the Earth has still succumbed to nuclear war. Great setup, right? Unfortunately, while Sales does deliver on a lot of that potential, his characters aren't really too involving. Now, they've all been cooped up with each other on a tiny Moon base and their planet has just blown up, so you would expect some irritability from them... It makes sense that these characters would be annoying and short tempered and whatnot, but at the same time, that doesn't exactly do much to endear them to me either. I just didn't enjoy spending time with them. Stylistically, Sales knows what he's doing, though he makes some odd choices. For instance, his dialog does not use quotes or italics or anything that distinguishes dialog from prose. At first, I thought this was just a mistake, something got lost in the translation to ebook format or something, but it's apparently a deliberate choice on Sales' part. I'm also not quite sure what to make of the ending. It's got a bit of an ironic twist, one of those things where the character has no idea what he's done, but we the reader know things he doesn't... It's cleverly constructed, but I don't really like it. Strangely, I don't think I'm supposed to like it. So we've got some fantastic ideas here, but a narrative that isn't particularly satisfying. It is very short, so that makes it more palatable, and the ideas are interesting enough that I'm curious to see how the next novella in the series turns out, but I'm hoping for more approachable characters.
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King - When all is said and done, I think my favorite of the Dark Tower novels might be the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, which is funny in that it's also the story that is the least connected to everything else. It's mostly a flashback to an episode in Roland's past, a story that informs his character, but which is also pretty much a standalone. This is probably why I like it so much - it's able to tell a story in an interesting universe without being dependent on the narrative thrust of the series.

    Recently, King has revisited this universe and put together this book, which takes place between the 4th and 5th books in the series. It's basically another flashback, again mostly independent of the rest of the series. Actually, it's a really strangely structured book. The bookends are from the series proper, as Roland and his band of Gunslingers make their way across the desert, but as they hunker down in preparation for a big storm that's been a brewing, Roland tells his crew another story from his youth. However, this story isn't all that complicated in itself. Basically young Roland and one of his compatriots are sent out to a small town to deal with a little werewolf problem (it's not referred to directly as such, but that's what it is), and while he's there, he tells the titular story, The Wind Through the Keyhole, to a young boy. So it's a story wrapped in a flashback, bookended by some narrative glue that fits this into the rest of the Dark Tower story. Are all these framing narratives necessary? Probably not, but once you get to the meat of the story, it's quite good (and the bookends/flashbacks aren't bad either, just weird that King felt the need to go through all of it). I won't go into too much detail about the story, but it's got that strange blend of SF and Fantasy, a mythic bedtime-story quality that has always served the series well. It concerns a young boy and his quest to help his mother. It's exactly the sort of thing that King excels at, and it's populated with interesting characters (I particularly liked the tax collector guy, who is played as a sorta villain, but who could probably have his own series where he visits towns to collect taxes while also solving mysteries, or more likely, playing the trickster like he does here). In the end, it's a welcome addition to the Dark Tower series, if not particularly necessary. It adds some background to the series without really changing much, which I actually rather liked. The Dark Tower universe is an interesting place, so stories like this still work well.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. - I read this pretty shortly after Fahrenheit 451, which made for an interesting experience in that both books seemingly fear for the destruction of books and knowledge in general. In this case, though, we've got a post-apocalyptic setting where most of the books were destroyed immediately after the war. The book is essentially divided up into three sections, each told from the perspective of Catholic priests in a particular Monastery in the desert. The story actually spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself after nuclear war, with the priests being the early guardians of scientific knowledge. This is generally considered to be a classic novel, popular with SF fans but also the general literary community (a rare crossover), and I can see why (even if it hasn't quite joined the ranks of my favorite SF novels). It has an interesting treatment of religion and one of the themes of the book is about how the Church interacts with the State (especially in the final segment), though in a more general sense, there's a notion of recurrence and history repeating itself that's also highlighted. It's a deliberately paced novel, tackling big themes from small stories, and I'm not entirely sure how happy I am about the ending, but I'm still glad I finally read this. As a Neal Stephenson fan, it's an interesting read because you can see a lot of this book's DNA in Stephenson's Anathem (though that book is much longer and more action packed than this one). In the end, I'm really glad I read this, its very well written, and it has a lot of meaty themes to chew on.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - Another SF classic that has achieved crossover success with mainstream audiences, this is a story of a mentally disabled man named Charlie Gordon who submits to an experimental procedure intended to increase intelligence. The book is comprised entirely of "Progress Reports" written by Charlie, and you can see said progress very quickly as his intelligence improves. I suppose it's a bit of a spoiler, so read on at your own risk, but the story also contains a downward swing in intelligence, and it's a real heartbreaker when you start to see his grammar deteriorate to earlier levels. It's a thematically rich story, with much to say about intelligence and relationships, and it's the most emotionally involving of the books in this post. There's a sadness to the story that somehow doesn't lead to despair, which is a neat trick. There's sadness, but it doesn't wallow in it, and it's a great book. This novel is apparently an expanded version of an earlier short story, both winners of Hugo awards and both experiencing crossover success with mainsteeam audiences. Really happy I finally caught up with this one...
  • The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) - The Mongoliad began its life as a serialized story delivered via custom apps on various mobile phones and tablets. I downloaded the app on my phone and played around with it a bit, but I ultimately waited until they started publishing these books before I really read anything significant. It turns out that the story they're telling is a rather long one, though it's actually more involving and approachable than I expected from the initial descriptions. Written by a variety of authors, including Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, E.D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, the story is set in 1241 as the Mongol Horde was sweeping across Europe. I was expecting this to be something akin to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle novels, but this wound up being more of an adventurous tale, with more focus on action and intrigue than historical minutiae. It's actually a lot of fun, though it's only the first book in the series and it ends at a rather arbitrary place. I was a little disappointed by that, but it seems like the other editions are coming quickly, so I'll probably pick them up next year. I was surprised at how cohesive the book was considering how many different authors worked on it. A couple of the storylines bog down a bit at times though, which I wonder about. Would a single author have made some of those choices? Probably not. Still, entertaining and fun. I'm curious to see what the next book will hold.
So there you have it. I've still got a few books to cover before I'm totally caught up, but this gets me pretty close. I've got some extra reading to do here in the last few weeks of the year if I want to hit my goal of 50 books, but if all goes well, I'll have a end-of-year wrapup coming...
Posted by Mark on December 09, 2012 at 03:25 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Cult Movies in the Internet Age
Recently on Twitter, Dan McLaughlin asked: what would you regard as cult classic films made after 2000? As Sonny Bunch notes, this very much depends on how you define "cult" films. As it turns out, I've written about this before:
Cult films are (generally) commercially unsuccessful movies that have limited appeal, but nevertheless attract a fiercely loyal following among fans over time. They often exhibit very strange characters, surreal settings, bizzarre plotting, dark humor, and otherwise quirky and eccentric characteristics. These obscure films often cross genres (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc...) and are highly stylized, straying from conventional filmmaking techniques. Many are made by fiercely independent maverick filmmakers with a very low budget (read: cheesy), often showcasing the performance of talented newcomers.

Almost by definition, they're not popular at the time of their release, usually because they exist outside the box, eschewing typical narrative styles and other technical conventions. They achieve cult-film status later, developing a loyal fanbase over time, often through word-of-mouth recommendations (and, as we'll see, the actions of fans themselves). They elicit an eerie passion among their fans, who enthusiastically champion the films, leading to repeated public viewings (midnight movie showings are particularly prevalent in cult films), fan clubs, and active audience participation (i.e. dressing up as the oddball characters, mercilessly MST3King a film, or uh, jumping around in front of a camera with a broomstick). Cult movie followers often get together and argue over the mundane details and varied merits of their favorite films.

While these films are not broadly appealing, they are tremendously popular among certain narrow groups such as college students or independent film lovers. The internet has been immensely enabling in these respects, allowing movie geeks to locate one another and participate in the aforementioned laborious debates and arguments among other interactive fun.
Not a bad explanation, but the whole thing is still a bit subjective. Sonny observes that modern cult movies have an additional obstacle:
In our modern, hyperconnected age, however, a key component of "cult" is lost. If you've heard of a film, you can see it. It's on TV and if it's not on TV it's on a streaming service and if it's not on a streaming service it's on DVD and if it's not on DVD you can probably torrent it. That element of discovery, of being in on something no one else is in on, is lost.

In many ways, the cult classic has been replaced by what I like to call the cable classic: There is a certain class of film that was lightly attended in theaters and derided by critics only to find a huge audience on cable and DVD. Zoolander is probably my favorite example of this phenomenon: Zoolander has gone on to find a huge audience in home viewings, is highly quotable (a key component to any "cable classic"), and is constantly the subject of sequel rumors.
He's very right about how connectivity plays into this. A big part of why something would be considered cult was that you really had to work just to get a chance to see it. For example, nowadays everyone knows about the 80s and 90s Hong Kong action movie scene (and even if you haven't directly seen them, you've seen a million Hollywood movies influenced or just plain ripping off those movies). But back in the 90s, a buddy and I used to ride the train into Philly and skulk around Chinatown trying to find crappy bootleg VHS tapes of movies we were never quite sure what to make of... I mean, the internet existed and it didn't take long to figure out who John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat were, but who's this Tsui Hark guy? Ringo Lam? Johnny To? What the heck is Wu Xia Pian? It's not like we had iPhones and internet connections. We just saw a poorly labeled VHS with a title on it and took a chance. We ran into our fair share of duds that way, but more often than not, we found some fascinating stuff.

Nowadays? You just throw Full Contact into your Netflix Instant queue and marvel at the bullet-cam shots, all from the comfort of your couch.

Of course all the other elements of cult still apply. The quirky, non-mainstream sensibility, the passionately loyal fanbase, the obsessive analysis and debate on the internet. Of course, even that element has been eroded by our connected age. Lost fanatics were endlessly analyzing numerology or recording episodes and going over them frame by frame like they were the Zapruder film. These are cult movie tendencies gone mainstream.

And indeed, cult movies don't always stay cult. No one would consider It's a Wonderful Life a cult classic these days, but despite it's pedegree, it had a lackluster release and languished in obscurity for decades. It wasn't until some observant TV execs noticed that its copyright had expired without being renewed that it started to become mainstream (and how could it not - apparently multiple stations would air that thing repeatedly during the holiday season). This might give another clue as to why the internet is breaking down cult movies: on the interwebs, no one gives a crap about copyright!

Anywho, we should probably get to the meat of the question. As a working definition, I'll say that a movie must enjoy a certain degree of obscurity as well as a small but fiercely loyal and dedicated fanbase (as evidenced by large-scale public demonstrations, obsessive analyses, comprehensive wikis, etc...) I'll start with Sonny's first batch of suggested post-2000 cult movies:
  • Requiem for a Dream - This is a tough one. One reason it did so poorly at the box office was that Aronofsky refused to cut the film when the MPAA gave it an NC-17, instead releasing it as just an "unrated" movie (which would effectively doom any movie, as the big theater chains would never exhibit those movies). On the other hand, as Sonny notes, this movie is a mainstay on "brilliant films I never want to see again" lists that are constantly being compiled by internet nerds. To me, this is borderline cult. There's enough here that there are probably people watching it on a dare, which is kinda cultish, but on the other hand, you don't see a lot of people obsessing over this one film and going over it frame by frame like you do with some other movies...
  • Pootie Tang - This is an interesting choice. The only reason this is even known about is that it was written and directed by Louis C.K., whose star has been on the rise the past few years. Lots of people obsessed with his TV show are thus seeking this out. I think it still remains to be seen if this congeals into an enduring cult classic, but it's got potential.
  • Black Dynamite - I certainly do love this movie, and it ticks that obscurity card well enough. My question is just how obsessive its fans are. I really don't know the answer to that, though it's worth noting that there's an Adult Swim animated series that might be an indicator. Of what, I'm not sure!
  • Hard Candy - I'm really not sure about this one. I liked the movie enough to put it on my top 10 list that year, but is it really cult? It's certainly obscure, but I don't see a lot of passionate public discussion on this movie. But who knows? Maybe teen girls all put on their red hoodies and organize viewing parties on college campuses or something.
  • Idiocracy - This is definitely what Sonny calls a "cable classic". For whatever reason, the studio only did a half-hearted theatrical release, but people in love with Office Space sought this out on DVD, and it's gradually gained a big following, to the point where most people know what you're talking about. Perhaps not a cult classic due to the trappings of the information age, but pretty close.
  • Oldboy - As Sonny mentions, this is a bit of a cheat because it's foreign. However, in the film nerd community, there is a pretty slavish dedication to the Korean film scene in recent years. Unfortunately, the ease of access to this movie kinda deflates its cultish tendencies. You don't see college kids trolling around, er, Koreatown(?) looking for bootlegged copies anymore.
  • The Room - This is the only pure, undadulterated cult classic in this post. Along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this movie is the poster child of cult movies.
One of the things that's tough about this is that I feel like cult movies take a while to establish themselves, and these movies have only been around a few years. They need time for people to discover and subsequently obsess over them. That's why, even in the above list, most of the movies are from before 2005. With the exception of The Room, I don't think that any of them are sure bets, but they've all got a certain potential. Here's some others that have come up in this discussion, or that I just want to talk about:
  • Firefly (and I guess Serenity) - I'm not entirely sure this meets the "obscure" criteria, though I will say that it is almost definitely not appreciated by a mainstream audience, which kinda does earn it some cult cred. Plus, the fanbase that does exist for this is the very definition of cult. Small, passionate, and obsessed. Not only do the fans have a name for themselves (Browncoats), but they are still, a decade later, obsessing over the short-lived, 14 episode series. Even the original Star Trek had 3 (long, 25+ episode) seasons for fans to sink their teeth into. But these Browcoats almost make those Trekkers look like mainstream folk. To this day, there are multiple podcasts dedicated to the show that have been running for years. Think about that. A series that was cancelled after just 11 episodes (3 were unaired) has inspired multiple people to prattle on and on about the show for almost a decade now. What the heck are they still talking about? I don't really know, but this is pretty cultish! And that's before we get into the way they try to incorporate Firefly lingo into their speech ("Shiny!" or "'verse" and probably lots of others) or tediously transcribing and translating all the Chinese language lines in the episodes. The list goes on. Cult classic, right here.
  • Primer - This ultra-low budget, twisty time travel tale is obscure enough to qualify, and the lengths to which fans go to understand the narrative (and all its timelines) is impressively cultish. A solid choice.
There are a lot of other movies that I think have potential, but which haven't quite attracted the right level of obsessiveness to really qualify as cult (like Rian Johnson's Brick and The Brothers Bloom).

In the end, I agree that the internet is a bit of a game changer for cult movies. The internet trends towards the Long Tail and ever-smaller niches (not just in entertainment), which are traditionally the domain of things like cult movies or other underground scenes. Of course, none of this is going away, it's just changing. In accordance with Kaedrin law, I will end with an appropos Neal Stephenson quote from The System of the World:
"It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently ... have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive."
Posted by Mark on December 05, 2012 at 09:37 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Companies Don't Force You Into Piracy
But let's be honest with ourselves, that doesn't mean that all those same media companies don't suck. Let me back up a minute, as this is an old argument. Most recently, this article from The Guardian bemoans the release window system:
A couple of months ago, I purchased the first season of the TV series Homeland from the iTunes Store. I paid $32 for 12 episodes that all landed seamlessly in my iPad. I gulped them in a few days and was left in a state of withdrawal. Then, on 30 September, when season 2 started over, I would have had no alternative but to download free but illegal torrent files. Hundreds of thousands of people anxious to find out the whereabouts of the Marine turncoat pursued by the bi-polar CIA operative were in the same quandary
This is, of course, stupid. This guy does have a pretty simple alternative: wait a few months to watch the show. It's a shitty alternative, to be sure, but that doesn't excuse piracy. As Sonny Bunch notes:
Of course you have an alternative you ninny! It's not bread for your starving family. You're not going to die if you have to wait six months to watch a TV show. You're not morally justified in your thievery.
Others have also responded as such:
This argument is both ludicrous, and wrong. Ludicrous, because if piracy is actually wrong, it doesn't get less wrong simply because you can't have the product exactly when and where you want it at a price you wish to pay. You are not entitled to shoplift Birkin bags on the grounds that they are ludicrously overpriced, and you cannot say you had no alternative but to break into an the local ice cream parlor at 2 am because you are really craving some Rocky Road and the insensitive bastards refused to stay open 24/7 so that you could have your favorite sweet treat whenever you want. You are not forced into piracy because you can't get a television show at the exact moment when you want to see it; you are choosing piracy.
This is all well and good, and the original Guardian article has a poor premise... but that doesn't mean that the release window system isn't antiquated and doesn't suck. The original oped could easily be tweaked to omit the quasi-justification for piracy. Instead, the piracy is included and thus the article overreaches. On the flip side, the responses also tend to overstate their case, usually including something like this: "you can't have the product exactly when and where you want it at a price you wish to pay." This is true, of course, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating for consumers. And with respect to streaming, the media company stance is just as ludicrous as those defending piracy.

Here's a few examples I've run into:
  • HBOGO - This is a streaming service that HBO makes available to it's cable subscribers. It's got a deep back catalog of their original content, as well as much of their current movie lineup. Sounds great, right? What's my problem? I can't actually watch HBOGO on my TV. For some unfathomable reason, Comcast blocks HBOGO from working on most streaming devices. It works on my computer, and it was recently launched on XBOX 360 (but I have a PS3 and I'm not shelling out another couple hundred bucks just so I can gain this single ability), but is otherwise not available. I'd like to watch the (ten year old) second season of Deadwood, but I can't do so unless I sit at my desk to watch it. Now, yes, I'm whining here about the fact that I can't watch this content how and where I choose, but is it really so unreasonable to want to watch a television show... on my television? Is this entitlement, or just common sense? How many dedicated streaming devices do I have to own before I can claim exhaustion? 4? 6? 15? Of course, I've got other options. I could purchase or rent the DVDs... but why do that when I'm paying for this other service?
  • Books and Ebooks - So I'd like to read a book called Permutation City, by Greg Egan. It was originally published in 1994, frequents Best SF Novel lists, and has long since fallen out of print. This is actually understandable, as Egan is an author with a small, niche audience and limited mainstream appeal. None of his novels get big print runs to start with, and despite all the acclaim, I doubt even this book would sell a lot of copies here in 2012. Heck, I'd even understand it if the publisher claimed that this was low on their ebook conversion priority list. But it's not. The ebook is available in the UK, but I guess the publisher has not secured rights in the US? I get that these sorts of rights situations are complicated, but patronizing a library or purchasing a used copy isn't going to make the rights holders any money on this stuff.
  • DVD on Linux - I've got multiple computers and one runs linux (at various other times, I've only had linux PCs). One of the things I like to do for this blog is take a screenshot of a movie I'm writing about. However, it is illegal for me to even play my DVDs on my linux box. These are purchased DVDs, not pirated anything. To be sure, I'm capable of playing DVDs on my linux PCs, but I'm technically breaking the law when doing so. There are various complications in all sorts of digital formats that make this a touchy topic. Even something as simple as MP3s trip up various linux distros, not even getting into stuff like iTunes or DRMed formats.
  • Blu-Ray - A few months ago, I wrote about a movie called Detention. I loved it and wrote a glowing review. Wanting to include a few screenshots to really sell the movie to my (admittedly low in quantity) readers, but when I plopped the BD into my shiny new BD drive on my computer, the BD player (Cyberlink PowerDVD) informed me that I wasn't able to play the disc. I was admittedly lazy at the time and didn't try too hard to circumvent this restriction (something about reinstalling the software (which I'm not even sure I have access to) and downloading patches and purchasing some key or something?) and to this day, I don't even know if it was just an issue with that one disc, or if it's all BDs. But still, who wins here? I get that the IP owners don't want to encourage piracy... but I don't see how frustrating me (a paying customer) serves them in the end. It's not like this "protection" stops or even slows down pirates. All it does is frustrate paying customers.
  • iTunes - I don't even really know the answer to this, but if I don't have an AppleTV, is there a way to view iTunes stuff on my television? I don't have an iPad, but if I bought one, would I be able to plug the iPad into the TV and stream video that way? I think there is software I can buy on PC that will stream iTunes... but should I have to purchase extra software or hardware (above and beyond the 5-10 devices I have right now) just to make iTunes work? And the last time I toyed with this type of software (I believe it was called PlayOn), it didn't work very well. Constant interruptions and low quality video. The fact that there are even questions surrounding this at all is a failure. For the most part, I can avoid this because Amazon and Netflix have good selections and actually work on all of my devices (i.e. they actually care to have me as a customer, which is nice).
Now, this doesn't mean I'm going to go out and pirate season 2 of Deadwood or any of the other things I mentioned above. Frustration does not excuse piracy. No, I'm just going to play a game or read a different book or go out to a bar or something. I have no shortage of things to do, so while I do want to watch any number of HBO shows on HBOGO, I can just as easily occupy my time with other activities (though, as above, I've certainly run into issues with other stuff). Pretty soon, I may realize that I don't actually need cable, at which point I'll cancel that service and... no one wins. I don't get to watch the show I want, and HBO and Comcast are out a customer. Why? I really don't know. If someone can explain why Comcast won't let me stream HBOGO, I'm all ears. They don't have the content available ondemand, and they're not losing me as a customer by allowing me to watch the shows (again, you have to be an HBO subscriber to get HBOGO).

I get that these are all businesses and need to make money, but I don't understand the insistence on alienating their own customers, frequently and thoroughly. I'm not turning to piracy, I'm just a frustrated customer. I've already bought a bunch of devices and services so that I can watch this stuff, and yet I'm still not able to watch even a small fraction of what I want. Frustration doesn't excuse piracy, but I don't see why I should be excusing these companies for being so annoying about when and where and how I can consume their content. It's especially frustrating because so much of this is done in the name of piracy. I suppose this post is coming off petulant and whiny on my part, but if you think I'm bad, just try listening to the MPAA or similar institution talk about piracy and the things they do to their customers to combat it. In essence, these companies hurt their best customers to spite non-customers. So I don't pirate shows or movies or books, but then, I often don't get to watch or read the ones I want to either. In a world where media companies are constantly whining about declining sales, it's a wonder that they don't actually, you know, try to sell me stuff I can watch/read. I guess they find it easier to assume I'm a thief and treat me as such.
Posted by Mark on December 02, 2012 at 08:19 PM .: link :.

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