Sunday, October 30, 2005

Movie (Horror): The Call of Cthulhu

One of the most interesting things happening in film these days is the proliferation of independent films being made -- and I don't mean "independent" as in "made by a minor studio", but as in "made by a bunch of friends for the fun of it". You can find films ranging from Flash animated shorts (such as the Homestar Runner or Weebl toons) to full-length features with special effects, such as the recent shot-for-shot Indiana Jones remake or a number of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 fan movies.

One that caught my attention recently was the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's recently released DVD of The Call of Cthulhu.

Lovecraft hasn't ever been really faithfully translated into feature films. Several movies have been made from his stories, the most famous of which is probably Stuart Gordon's Re-animator. Lovecraft is rather hard to film because a lot of the effect of his writing depends not so much on descriptions as their lack -- creatures are often explicitly described as indescribable. How do you film something whose appearance drives people insane?

The HPLHS made their film knowing that they would not be able to create incredible, mind-searing special effects, so they did the smartest thing they could: they moved the goalposts. Instead of making a 2005 version of The Call of Cthulhu, they decided to film it as a 1926-style silent movie, using 1926-style techniques. That way, they could work within their limitations and have it all look right.

The first example in the film is the dream-scenes of the lost city of R'lyeh, which Cthulhu sleeps. Lovecraft describes the city as "cylopedian", full of buildings created with "non-Euclidean" geometry. In the HPLHS film, the city is created using cardboard and colour separation, with wonderfully lopsided structures towering over the matted-in characters. The whole thing is very reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The 1926 silent film format also allows them to follow Lovecraft's story more faithfully than a more modern approach would allow. Lovecraft's stories are heavy on narration and very light on dialogue, not to mention paced very slowly. The structure is a little convoluted as well: at one point we are listening to a character retelling his great-uncle's account of a police inspecter describing a backwoodsman telling him about seeing the Cthulhu cult in the bayou.

By the time we get to the protagonist's account of a sailor's account of reaching R'lyeh, we're right in the 1926 movie mindset, and the fact that the ocean is a bedsheet, R'lyeh is cardboard, and Cthulhu himself is a stop-motion figurine don't matter anymore. Sure, the Great Old One's animation isn't up to Ray Harryhausen standards, but that doesn't matter. The puppet's very well designed, with a cross between an octopus, a bat, an insect, and a skull.

The other advantage to the 1926 format is that, to be honest, HPL stories are not scary to modern audiences. To Lovecraft, the mere existence of such a creature as Cthulhu -- immensely powerful, but completely indifferent to us humans, representing an uncaring universe in which we have no importance at all -- was frightening enough. Nowadays, we're used to the idea of being insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, and modern horror doesn't even go for the cosmic dread angle at all anymore, preferring the much more personal horror you get from slasher films. When watching horror films like Nosferatu and Caligari these days, you aren't watching to get scared, you're watching to see what used to be scary, and The Call of Cthulhu deliberately makes use of that feeling. Read more!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Music: Friday Random Ten

Another run through to see what happens...

  1. All Of Us - Devo - Hardcore Devo 1974-1977
    I love Devo, but I'm not too fond of the Hardcore Devo collections. They collect live recordings that predate the band's first album, and the sound quality isn't great. A few of the songs which later showed up on albums are there, but mostly the songs just aren't that interesting yet.
  2. Bob - Primus - Pork Soda
    A nice bouncy, creepy little tune.
  3. Wanda Does Her Act - The Residents - Freak Show - 13th Anniversary Edition
    Freak Show was an interesting Residents album -- they made a comic book of it (with some big name artists), a CD-ROM game, a live show that ran several months in Prague, etc. This is a quick instrumental track from the live show.
  4. China Girl - A cover of the David Bowie song - Goth Oddity - A Tribute to David Bowie
    I enjoy covers of songs, so I grabbed this album from eMusic at one point. This isn't a particularly interesting cover, though. I didn't keep track of who's covering the song, either.
  5. Skat Radio - Terry S. Taylor - Neverhood Songs
    The Neverhood is a rather unusual computer game. The entire thing was animated in clay stop-motion instead of having computers do the work. It was a fun puzzle-adventure type game, and had a wonderfully nonsensical soundtrack.
  6. Minimum Wage - They Might Be Giants - Flood
    A very short (47 seconds) instrumental.
  7. Suburban Bathers - The Residents - The Commercial Album
    The Commercial Album is a disconcerting album, made up of forty one-minute-long songs. Putting it on as background music at a social gathering is pretty much guaranteed to confuse your guests.
  8. Small Voice (for speaker-in-mouth) - Laurie Anderson - United States Live
    One of Anderson's cute gimick-songs: she plays a recording of a short violin song through a pillow speaker (a small speaker meant to go under your pillow as you sleep to play soothing music), which she puts in her mouth. As she opens and closes her mouth, she changes the sound, with an effect like muting and unmuting a trumpet.
  9. In The Beginning - The Residents - Wormwood Live
    The Residents' Wormwood was a collection of songs about some of the more bizarre stories from the Bible, which they turned into a successful live tour.
  10. A Far Cry - Kanno Yoko - Escaflowne 2
    From the soundtrack to the anime series The Vision of Escaflowne (watch the DVDs, not the butchered US TV version!). Kanno's can write in just about any musical style, which makes for some enjoyable background listening.

Still heavy on the Residents. I've got to start getting some more non-Residents stuff onto the 'Pod. Read more!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Books (Comic Strip): The Compelte Peanuts (1957-1958)

Linus: [Running past Charlie Brown, pointing his finger] BANG BANG

Charlie Brown: [Follows Linus] Cops and Robbers?
Linus: Nope!

Charlie Brown: Cowboys and Indians?
Linus: Nope!

Linus: Liberals and conservatives!!

Two things struck me about this strip from The Complete Peanuts (1957-1958). The first was that, even though it was published in May, 1958, nothing much has changed (you can buy Liberal Hunting Permits online these days). The second is that one doesn't think of Peanuts as a political comic. But going back through the early strips, I can now see that there was more going on than I thought when I read the old paperback collections when I was 10.

In the last years of the strip, Charles Schultz was often criticized for coasting on his success. It didn't really bother me -- I figured he'd earned it, and I didn't really notice it that much. I still enjoyed the strip, after all. I still had all my dog-eared copies of the paperback collections that I'd read growing up, but I rarely went back to them, so I never compared the late strips to the early strips.

Now that Fantagraphics is putting out The Complete Peanuts, I'm going back to the beginning, and catching a lot of stuff I missed when I first read them. Everyone knows Charlie Brown as the lovable loser -- but it's really striking just how seriously depressed he often was (and how unloved he felt!). Consider this strip:

Charlie Brown: Tomorrow is our first game.

Charlie Brown: So far in practice we have a team batting average of .002 and a fielding average of .001.

Charlie Brown: [Throws away his stats sheet, staring off into the distance]

Charlie Brown: [Point of view jumps back until CB is a quarter is usual size, surrounded by an empty field] Suddenly my stomach hurts and I feel all alone.

That's a very depressing strip for a comics page -- especially for a comics page in the 50s! Even now, you'll rarely see any character truely depressed in a comic strip, let alone a child. That sort of thing only happens in the "serious" strips like Doonesbury or For Better or For Worse, and even those wouldn't use the character's depression as a punchline -- Doonesbury would throw in a zinger, and For Better or For Worse would have some words of wisdom or consolation. Calvin and Hobbes is the only other strip I can think of which would come close to doing this, and even then, Calvin's misery would often be the result of his own greed or misbehaviour.

The day after that last strip, Charlie Brown had made himself sick with worry and missed the first game. On the third day, the team comes running up to his sick bed to let them know that they'd won the game, and they didn't even miss him as a manager (this is the very first time the history of the strip that team wins any game). The last panel of this strip is probably the most miserable I've ever seen a comic strip character (Calvin included) look as depressed as Charlie Brown looks as he rolls onto his side, three sets of curvy "worry lines" on either side of his eyes, and says "I'm very happy" in small letters in a large, black word balloon.

Schultz is considered one of -- if not the -- all time greats of the comic strip world, and going back to the beginning really shows just why that is. If he coasted in the last few years of his 50 year run of writing and drawing the strip, I think he earned the right.

One more strip transcription, a Sunday strip:

Shermy: [As Charlie Brown walks by] Hi, Charlie Brown... How's the friend of all mankind?
Pig-Pen: HA HA HA

Charlie Brown: [Walking away] Good grief!
Shermy & Pig-Pen: HA HA HA HA!

Patty: Will, if it isn't Charlie Brown!

Violet: Good ol' wishy-washy Charlie Brown!

Patty & Violet: HA HA HA HA
Charlie Brown: [Clutches his chest]

Lucy: Hi, Charlie Brown... Is that your head or are you hiding behind a balloon?

Charlie Brown: [Grimaces]

Charlie Brown: [Goes home, takes off his coat]

Charlie Brown: [Turns on the radio]

Radio: "...And what in all this world, is more delightful than the gay wonderful laughter of little children?"

Charlie Brown: [Kicks the radio across the room]

You know, back before my teens I used to identify Charlie Brown. Being a proto-nerd, I was on the receiving end of a lot of "gay wonderful laughter". I can point out dozens of strips in this volume that strike home, which is probably why I loved Peanuts so much. But I don't think I ever had it as miserable as good ol' Charlie Brown. Read more!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Stuff: It's A Good Day

Just did a little lunchtime shopping. Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3 is out today, with some of my favourite cartoons:
  • Homeless Hare
    One of the great construction site cartoons
  • Hillbilly Hare
    With the famous square dancing scene
  • Duck! Rabbit! Duck!
    One of the two Rabbit Season cartoons
  • Robin Hood Daffy
    "Ho! Ha ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!"
  • Claws for Alarm
    I always liked the Porky & Sylvester ones better than the Tweety ones
  • Birds Anonymous
    Watch for the quick tribute to Un Chien Andalou
This volume contains sixty cartoons in all, plus a whole whack of extras, including some World War II vintage Private Snafu cartoons, documentaries, commentaries, and so on. I love DVDs.

On top of that, I finally found the fourth volume (1957-1958) in Fantagraphics's great The Complete Peanuts series. These are every bit as gorgeous as The Complete Far Side and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (both published by United Media), but instead of being huge boxed sets, they're coming out as separate hardcovers, two years in each, in a 6" x 8" format.

It's interesting that Fantagraphics is putting out The Complete Peanuts -- I just realized that United Media owns Peanuts as well as The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. I wonder why they aren't the ones doing The Complete Peanuts.

All I need now is a nice, hard bound The Complete Pogo, and I'll be set. Read more!

Games (MMORPG): City of Villains

Lori & I have been playing MMORPGs -- "Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games" -- for a little over a year now. Maybe we're enjoying them so much because we met in a Dungeons & Dragons group.

We'd avoided the MMORPGs for a long time. Mostly when we played computer games together, it would be locally-networked ones like Diablo/Diablo II or Dungeon Siege. We suspected that MMORPGs would be huge time sinks, and Lori wasn't too keen on being hit on by hordes of 16-year-old gamers (a not uncommon problem in online games).

We eventually gave in when one of Lori's colleagues injured his back and had to spend a couple of months away from work. He got her into City of Heroes, a super-hero RPG. We played CoH for few months, including a very fun Halloween weekend last year. It did turn into a time sink, but a managable one (especially over the winter, when Lori doesn't want to go out much anyway), and the 16-year-olds weren't too bad.

City of Heroes is a very well designed and executed game, but a little limited. Missions were of two basic types: "Go to X district and kill N bad guys of type Y" and "Go to X district and clear out a cave/warehouse/office building of bad guys of type Y and their boss". We also found that levelling your character up was very slow once you got past level 15 -- downright tedious when there's just two of you. A lot of CoH requires teams of at least four. When Lori's colleague maxed out his character at Level 50 -- we were still down around 20 -- he moved on to Everquest 2 and we followed. There, we teamed up with some friends of Lori's colleague in a guild, and played together for a few months, but eventually had to leave the game because one of the guild members started making life miserable for everyone.

So we moved to World of Warcraft. So far, this has been my favourite of the games. The game mechanics are simpler than EQ2's (especially in crafting -- making things out of material found in the game), but the game is more involving than CoH. It looks better, to my mind, as well. WoW has been criticized for the simple, cartoony character designs -- EQ2's designs are much more realistic looking -- but the animation is much better in WoW, and I think that makes all the difference. A photo-realistic rendering that moves like Mr. Roboto just isn't as convincing as a cartoon that moves naturally.

Lori & I have just passed Level 40 in WoW, the highest we've ever gotten any of our MMORPG characters (2/3 of the way to the limit), and we're still enjoying the game a lot, but we may be slowing down there soon because City of Villains is coming out next week.

While I was griping about CoH above, we did enjoy the game a lot, and probably would have enjoyed it more had we had a team to play with. (We both prefer playing with people we've known for a while, rather than any random player who happens by when we need a team.) Now that we have an established circle of gaming friends, we're thinking CoV could make the comic book adventures interesting again.

One of our WoW guildmates got us in on the beta, which finishes tomorrow, and we've had a fun couple of days playing around with it. One of the things that made CoH famous was its character design system -- it's so good at making superheroes that Marvel Comics sued over people making up heroes that look like Marvel characters. The CoV system adds a whole bunch of new elements, to the point that I was able to create the ultimate in web cliche super villainy: a Robot Ninja Pirate Zombie! Unfortunately, I couldn't work monkeys into him, but still, that's not bad!

So far the game is a lot like CoH. The original superheroes were divided into "Archtypes" (character classes), with each Archetype having a choice of Primary and Secondary powers suitable to that type. For example, "Scrappers" (think Wolverine or Batman) had things like "Claws" or "Martial Arts" for primaries and "Super Reflexes" or "Regeneration" as secondaries. Once players had gotten comfortable in the game, the various flavours of hero became known by the mix of powers they had: A Wolverine-like hero would be a Claw/Regen Scrapper; Superman would be an Invulnerability/Super Strength Tanker (tankers stand their ground and hold the bad guys' attention while the more fragile heroes take them out).

City of Villains stirs things up a bit by mixing and matching the sets available. The CoV "Brute" has access to primary sets similar to the CoH Tanker, but the secondary set choices are more like the CoH Scrappers.

For now, I'm mainly interested in the Mastermind, which lets you summon minions to do your fighting for you. My favourite so far are the robot drones, which drop out of the sky in steel packing crates when you call for them. Other choices include mercenaries, ninjas, and zombies.

Tomorrow is the big beta finale. With City of Heroes, they finished the beta with an alien invasion which set up several of the story lines for the released game. With CoV, the invasion will be by the (non-player) superheroes from CoH. I'm looking forward to watching the chaos unfold. Read more!

Books (Engineering): Pushing the Limits

I picked up Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering by Henry Petroski because I've enjoyed books like Why Buildings Fall Down and Why Buildings Stay Up by Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori or Why Things Break by Mark Eberhart. These books had fascinating stories of successes and failures in engineering, and some interesting insights into how the smallest mistake can have huge consequences.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get into Pushing the Limits. Petroski's early chapters have been fast and shallow surveys of structures in the US. Chapter 2 is an overview of bridges, and rarely dedicates more than a single paragraph to each bridge -- and with only one of them shown in any illustration (in fact, there's a serious lack of photographs for a book on famous structures!).

Later chapters get better, focusing on specific examples (I skipped ahead and read the one about the Confederation Bridge between Prince Edward Island and the mainland), but I'm just not finding Petroski's writing very engaging -- it reads like newspaper articles, rather than the engaging first-person stories Eberhart tells in Why Things Break or the detailed histories in Why Buildings Fall Down.

I've decided that I'm not going to read Pushing the Limits straight through. I am going to keep by my bed and read the chapters at random when I'm tired of comic strips. There are some chapters which I'm definitely interested in, in spite of not enjoying the writing: Petroski covers the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (which also appears on the cover), the collapse of the WTC, the Three Gorges Dam, etc. I may post more comments if I hit any particularly interesting bits. Read more!

Friday, October 21, 2005

Music: Friday Random Ten

Of all of the "memes" (not really the right word, but there it is) that have been floating around the weblogs, the two that I could best participate in would be Friday Cat Blogging (which seems to have faded) and the Friday Random Ten. I've been kind of curious as to how my iPod would randomize, because I tend to put my complete collections of anyone I'm interested in on mine, rather than just favourite selections. So let's see how it turns out.

1. Hello Skinny Medley - The Residents (covered by Primus) - Eyesore: A Stab At The Residents
2. Dead or Alive - Oingo Boingo - The Best of Oingo Boingo
3. Bruces' Philosophers Song - Monty Python - Monty Python Sings
4. Parking Spaces - Bob Rivers - More Twisted Christmas
5. Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out - Shel Silverstein - Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection
6. Creeping Dread - The Residents - The Census Taker
7. Cocoricci (Le Tango des Voleurs) - Men Without Hats - Rhythm of Youth
8. Round and Round - David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust (30th Anniversary release bonus track)
9. Peter and the Wolf - Serge Prokofiev
10. Make Me Moo - The Residents - Demons Dance Alone

Probably about a -5 on the Internet Music Snob's coolness scale, but that works for me. Lots of Residents -- no surprise, since I used to run the official Residents website and have about 850 Residents tunes on the iPod (6770 tracks total).

If I were just playing to listen to, I'd've probably skipped Parking Spaces (pretty nondescript as a Bob Rivers Christmas spoof song goes) and Round and Round (the sound quality isn't very good). Had I done that, that would have added:

11. Perpetual Motion - Philip Glass - Anima Mundi
12. Down in the Park (Piano Version) - Gary Numan - Telekon (Bonus Track) Read more!

Books (Science): Eclipse

I think I've commented before on the recent trend of popular science books that focus on one very narrow aspect of science (or science history), such as the quest for an accurate way to measure longitude, or the development of the magnetic compass, or the science of shadows. Duncan Steel's Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon Which Has Changed The Course of History is the latest one of these that I've picked up. After finishing Use of Weapons I wanted another non-fiction book, and Paul Davies' name on the Forward caught my eye. I picked up the paperback second edition, in which Steel updated text which had referred to the 2000 solar eclipse in the future to referring to it in the past.

The book isn't quite as narrowly focused as the title suggests: Steel actually covers not only solar and lunar eclipses, but occultations (eclipses of stars or planets by the Moon or nearer planets), transits (passages of Mercury, Venus, or various astroids in front of the sun), and other, more exotic sorts (Pluto and Charon eclipsing each other, binary star eclipses, etc).

Steel's main interest is on how the study of ecilpses has us knowledge far beyond just the ability to predict eclipses. The set of circumstances necessary for a solar or lunar eclipse to happen depends on the relative lengths of months and years as measured in several ways, and by studying eclipses to determine these lengths, people were able to discover the length of the equinox-to-equinox year very precisely -- precisely enough to know that a leap year every four years (as in the Julian calendar) is one too many every four hundred years, a problem that the current Gregorian calendar fixes.

The book also covers such eclipse-related science as the discovery of helium in the solar corona (only observable during a solar eclipse), the discovery of the Martian atmosphere and Uranian rings during occultations of stars, and of course Sir Arthur Eddington's famous expedition to photograph star displacement during the 1919 eclipse as evidence in support of General Relativity.

My enjoyment of the book was very slightly marred by having read Tony Rothman's Everything's Relative a few months back, though. Rothman's book takes on many traditional stories in science -- such as Eddington's expedition -- and demonstrates how the standard tellings are often very misleading, simplifying matters to the point of distortion and making science look much tidier than it really is.

In the case of the Eddington eclipse, the traditional story tells how Eddington photographed stars around the during the 1919 solar eclipse and measured their displacement against their normal positions, finding it to be 1.75 seconds of arc -- exactly as Einstein had predicted. In actual fact things weren't quite that clean: Eddington only got one or two usable photographs, not enough to be sure of the value. Newton's theory of gravity predicted a deflection as well, of about 0.8 seconds of arc, and Eddington's photographs were not good enough to exclude the possibility that the deflection was closer to Newton's value than Einsteins.

In Eclipse, Steel uses the traditional, simplified versions of a number of stories, and Rothman's book kept intruding in my mind, pointing out that it didn't really happen that way. Nevertheless, the book is fun and engaging, and pretty informative.

One odd thing that bothered me about the paperback edition was in the typesetting -- not something you usually bring up in a discussion of books, but ever since reading Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst I've paid a lot more attention to such things.

The book is set in a slightly antique-feeling font (I don't know the name), which is very nice to read, but the numbers were a problem. First of all, the fact that I noticed antyhing odd about them means that they weren't blending into the rest of the font properly!

The first problem was that the numbers were fixed-width -- the "1" took as much horizontal space as the "8", which means that all the "1"s looked like they were spaced away from the other digits. Fixed-width numbers are essential when typesetting columns of numbers, but there aren't any in the book. The "1"s also looked very similar to the "I"s -- instead of a single beak on the top left, they had serifs on each side, with only a slight lower-left to upper-right slope distinguishing them from the "I"s.

Lastly, the antique feel of the book font really suggests the use of lower-case numerals rather than full-height ones. This weblog uses lower-case numerals, which have ascenders and descenders and generally have the same visual weight as lower-case letters: 1234567890. When you have a page full of dates and measurements in the text, full-height numerals can be very distracting, like BLOCK CAPS scattered through the text; lower-case numerals help keep the overall colour of the page even.

Of cousre, the typesetting probably has very little to do with Steel, and doesn't matter to the quality of the book! It gave me another nice few days spent reading interesting stuff about the universe. Read more!

Web: 404 Fun

It's been a while since I've laughed out loud to a 404 error notice. I found this one while trying to download a stupid video game tricks video. Read more!

Photography: More New Flickr Uploads

Yet again more new photos are up on Flickr. Read more!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Live Music and Film: Nash the Slash Performs Caligari

Nash the Slash, for those who don't know him, is a Toronto-area musician who was most active in the early 80s, first in FM and then solo.

Most recently he's been teamed up with Toronto artist Robert Vanderhosrt for a series of shows setting Robert's paintings to Nash's music.

I've photographed Nash in concert several times.

For fans of classic German Expressionist silent film, Nash the Slash is doing two Halloween shows of his live soundtrack to the wonderful 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:

Friday October 28th
Camera Bar
1028 Queen St.W. Toronto
Midnight performance of Caligari
$10 admission
This is a VERY SMALL room (70 people)
for an intimate performance of Caligari.
Get there early.

Saturday October 29th
The Speakeasy
120 Church St. (s. of Queen)
Nash performs Caligari at 10 pm.
The Wet Spots perform from 11:30 until 12:30
Admission $10 Read more!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Photography: New Flickr uploads

I've just added some new cat photos to our Flickr account, JnL. Read more!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Movie (Animated): Wallace & Grommit -- Going to the Theatre

We really enjoyed Wallace and Grommit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, as I described in the previous post, but I did not enjoy the whole theatre-going experience that surrounded it. It was a very good reminder of just why we have 600-odd DVDs in the basement! If you don't mind, I'm going to rant a bit about it.

We left for the film about 30 minutes early -- 10 minutes to get there, 10 minutes to get tickets & popcorn, and 10 minutes to spare. It usually works.

We got the car parked an hour and a half later. The Toronto Marathon was in town, and it was between us an the theatre! We had to go back past our house, around the north edge of downtown (along with everyone else), and down the other side to get there. By which time, of course, the film was almost done -- we had decided, once we realized how bad things were, to catch the next showing.

So, a nice dinner at a Korean restaurant nearby and a stop at the bookstore, then off to the threatre with 20 minutes to go.

First problem: a gaggle of schoolgirls whose keepers were lining them up for counting across the base of the escalators! It was impossible to get past them until someone clued in and shuffled them off elsewhere.

Second problem: I got in line at the snack counter with 15 minutes to go. Unfortunately, all 15 minutes were taken up by the people in front of me -- so no snacks.

Third problem: The gaggle of schoolgirls ended up surrounding us in the theatre, constantly asking questions or reading on-screen text out loud.


Thanks for letting me vent. In any case, I'm thankful again for the setup in the basement. Sure, the screen isn't quite as big, but the parking is easier and the crowd is quieter! Read more!

Movie (Animated): Wallace & Grommit

We finally got a chance to get out to see Wallace & Grommit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. We'd been meaning to since the movie came out, but work kept interfering.

Unfortunately, today turned out not a good day for going. It was a great movie, but an awful movie-going experience. I'll cover the movie here, and the experience in the next post.

I've been a Nick Park / Aardman Animation fan since Creature Comforts hit the International Festival of Animation, sometime back around 1990. The Wallace & Grommit shorts which came after were amazing pieces of animation, and hilarious to boot. Park and Aardman did a great job with their first feature film, Chicken Run, so I was eager to see if they could do the same with their signature characters.

One of the problems with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is that every reviewer who enjoyed it insists on working Wallace's favourite compliment, "cracking", into a review, so I promise not to do that. But I did enjoy the film immensely. All the W&G stuff you'd expect is in there, starting (of course) with the Rube Goldberg-esque inventions down to the silly background gags (such as a photo of Grommit graduating from "Dogworts"). Moreover, Park & company have worked in a number of fun tributes to horror films -- and not just the old black-and-white standards you'd expect . For example, a were-rabbit transformation scene has a direct steal of the "stretching hand" bit from An American Werewolf in London; not a film any of the kids in the "intended" audience age range will have seen!

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit isn't quite as successful a feature-length film as Chicken Run was, though. The Wallace & Grommit gag rhythm works perfectly with a 30-minute run time, but stretches a little thin at three times that. By the end of the film even the characters in the film are rolling their eyes at the puns. Nevertheless, I have no doubts that Were-Rabbit will be many times better than either of the computer-animated films in the Coming Attractions lineup!

Before the film, we caught the trailers for Disney's upcoming Chicken Little -- the film they abandoned cell animation for -- and Dreamworks' Over the Hedge. So I'm going to take this opportunity to rant about them for a bit.

Disney's been an embarassment these last few years. Their most successful and most acclaimed animated releases have been films they've merely been distributing: the computer animated work of Pixar, and the North American releases of Miyasaki Hayao's Japanese films. Their own films have been tanking left and right.

Michael Eisner, in his brilliance, has decided that the thing that makes Pixar's films more successful than Disney's is the fact that Pixar animates their films with computers. Thus Home on the Range was Disney's last cell-animated film (and from what I hear, what a low note that was to go out on!). Never mind matters like storytelling, character creation, and so on.

But then, the fact that Disney has decided that their problem was in the superficial level of the animation techinque used tells us a great deal about how deep the real problem is...

I'm not planning on seeing Chicken Little, but then I haven't seen any Disney animated film since The Lion King. I've never really been a fan, and I'm rather annoyed that Disney seems to have completely ripped off their main character's design from Egghead Junior -- the brainy young chicken who was always perplexing Foghorn Leghorn in the old (and wonderful) Looney Tunes.

The Over the Hedge trailer was just unremarkable. There doesn't seem to be very much overlap between the movie and the comic strip it's based on. Even the characters in common between the two were only vaguely similar to their original forms in the movie trailer. The comic strip is largely about suburban life, the "disposable society", and the rediculousness of it all; the movie appears to be about burping your ABCs. Read more!

General: On Asimov

Over on We Move To Canada, L-Girl & I got into a discussion of Isaac Asimov's skills as a writer. The subject isn't quite right for her blog, but perfect for here, so I'm moving it over.

Here's a recap of the conversation (slightly edited). L-Girl's stuff is in blockquotes:

I grew up on Isaac Asimov's science essays from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which are amazing examples of how to write about science for a general audience.

Asimov was a great writer, and a great writer can write about anything.

I often think this when I read great music writing, or food writing, or travel writing, or sports writing. The really best writers transcend the subject matter.

Asimov is one of my personal heroes, but I'm not sure if I'd call him a great writer in an absolute sense. His fiction is very strong on ideas, but weak on more writerly things like characterization. And he was much better in short story form than with novels.

That said, he was a great generalist writer, who could write clearly and intelligently on anything he put his mind to.

You know, I haven't read him since I'm a teenager, so for all I know I wouldn't consider him great now, either. This --

His fiction is very strong on ideas, but weak on more writerly things like characterization.

-- is something I don't like. I admire writers who are able to weave the ideas seamlessly into the story - no small trick.

Asimov's not someone I'd recommend to a reader who's interested in deep characterization or psychological introspection. Only a handful of Asimov's characters stand out from the rest of them: Susan Calvin and R. Daneel Olivaw are the only ones that come to mind at the moment. He's definitely an ideas writer (which is one of the reasons he works better in short stories than novels). But that's no surprise, when you remember that he learned his trade in the pulp magazines of the 1930s.

Asimov himself was very aware of where his strengths and weaknesses were, and generally structured his writing to use the former and avoid the latter. In one of his F&SF essays, he says (paraphrased): "some writers can create great, complex stained-glass windows with their language, beautiful to see. My writing is like a plate-glass window: you can't actually see the window, but you have a clear view of what it opens out onto."

I value that a lot in Asimov, and any non-fiction writer. Fiction writers can get away with a little more stained glass and still read as clear. :)

But Asimov's not someone I'd recommend to a reader who's interested in deep characterization or psychological introspection.

Right. By this description, I would probably stay away. Although it would be interesting (to me) to see if I liked Asimov now, after thinking he was a great writer when I was much younger.

"Idea writers" usually don't work for me. DeLillo is an example of an important writer who I simply cannot read. Just cannot. His work feels to me like a writing exercise instead of a novel.

Whereas Saul Bellow (for example) is very much writing about ideas, but the characters are memorable, and deep, and he plumbs the depth of human motivation. DeLillo doesn't have characters as far as I can tell.

"My writing is like a plate-glass window: you can't actually see the window, but you have a clear view of what it opens out onto."

This describes great non-fiction writing in general. The more transparent, the better.

Now to pick up the conversation from there.

One point I didn't address properly is L-Girl's comment about writers who can weave ideas into the story seamlessly. I realized when moving things over that I was reading that a little differently than (I think) she was intending.

My characterization of Asimov as an "ideas writer" wasn't meant to suggest that his ideas get in the way of the story or aren't blended seamlessly; rather, that the ideas are the story. Probalby one of the best examples of this is The Last Question (the entire text is online). Asimov's weakness as a character writer is minimized because character and personality are (usually!) incidental to the story. Asimov always knew that character development was a weakness of his, and wrote accordingly.

In any case, Asimov's primary interest in his fiction was not so much individuals, but societies. He saw science fiction as a way to explore how scientific discoveries could affect social evolution. The Robot and Foundation stories are prime examples of these -- how would the existence of quasi- or fully-sentient artificial life forms affect society's attitudes towards life? How would the development of a science which could predict the evolution of socities ("psychohistory") affect those societies? (Though, of course, in Foundation he introduces the character of The Mule, an individual whose actions cannot be accounted for by psychohistory.)
Other science fiction authors -- especially after 1960 -- moved into more individually-oriented writing, exploring science's effect on society by examining the effects on individuals, but Asimov stuck to his strengths.

As I mentioned above, Asimov's focus on ideas over characters is one of the reasons his short stories work much better than his novels do: it's much harder to sustain an "idea story" for 200 pages than it is for 20. Even his best-known novels, the original Foundation series, are actually collections of short stories rather than true novels.

And, of course, writing around ideas instead of characters stood him in good stead for his non-fiction writing. A lot of his science essays are now seriously out of date -- some of them are fifty years old! -- but even so, they serve as a standard that other popular science writers should strive for. He is inevitably crystal-clear in getting his point across, but engaging and personable in his conversational style. It's no wonder that he was in high demand for lectures! It's too bad that his hatred of flying kept him almost entirely restricted to the US north-east. Read more!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Anime (Science Fiction): Last Exile [SPOILERS]

Some spoiler comments on character fates in Last Exile. See comment #1. Read more!

Books (Science Fiction): Use of Weapons [SPOILERS]

I've been wondering how to handle spoilers in these commentaries so that I can comment on plot points without giving them away to people who don't want to read them. I think I've struck on a solution: I'll post spoiler commments as comments to special spoiler posts like this one. So let's see how well this works. Read more!

Anime (Science Fiction): Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

One of the frustrating thing about collecting anime is the habit publishers have of releasing the first volume or two on DVD, then re-releasing the first volume with a fancy box (and maybe a soundtrack CD) to hold the set. I already have the first volume -- I can't justify re-buying it just to have a box! For not-quite-entirely compulsive collectors, it's a pain.

Manga Video did something smarter with the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: they released the box with the last volume of the set. Much nicer! And it's a lovely metal box with a t-shirt and everything. Great geek value.

Ghost in the Shell is best known in North America as a 1995 film by Oshii Mamoru, though it started as a manga (comic book) by Shirow Masamune. The film has a lot in common with Ridley Scott's Blad Runner, dealing with the question of just what makes an individual human, and whether artificial life forms qualify. The "ghost" in the title is essence of sentience that makes a human human -- more "mind" than "soul". The term was taken from Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine. The main character in Ghost in the Shell is a cyborg, Major Kusanagi, is a cyborg, a human mind transplanted into a prosthetic body (the shell, of course).

A couple of years ago a sequel movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence came out (which I haven't watched yet) as well as a new TV series, Stand Alone Complex.

I'd only collected volumes 1 & 3 of Stand Alone Complex up to now, and hadn't watched any of them, but with the release of the final volume box, I figured I'd start filling in the set. And since I was home sick, I figured I'd catch up a little. Yesterday I got through volume 1 (the first four episodes).

Ghost in the Shell pits Major Kusanagi and her security organization, Section 9, against a hacker named "The Puppet Master", who provides many opportunities for Kusanagi to ponder the meaning of sentience and so on. Translated to TV, Stand Alone Complex adopts a form that has been seen several times before, in shows like Dominion Tank Police or Patlabor: a casebook from a special police force that deals with out-of-control robots. (Again, very Blade Runner). So far, though, it has not lost its philosophical bent, and has added in some nice speculation about how the existence of things like prosthetic bodies and swapable brains could affect society, religion, and so on.

My favourite example -- or, at least, the most amusing example -- of how they work philosophy into the show comes after the credits. Section 9 uses spider-like AI tanks called Tachikoma. In order to make the Tachikoma more flexible and adaptable, Section 9 has removed a number of the controls and contraints on the AIs; as a result, the Tachikoma have very child-like personalities which (I'm guessing) are going to develop and differentiate over the course of the show.

At the end of every show there is a short whimsical cartoon called "Tachikoma Day", in which the Tachikoma argue about things and stuff. This isn't that uncommon in anime -- little slapstick toons featuring chibi ("cute") versions of the main characters are often attached to TV episodes. What struck me about the "Tachikoma Day" toons was how, in the first two, the little tanks spent the cartoons arguing about the function of language as a means of communication in a culture which allows the direct exchange of data from mind to mind. In the second cartoon, the lead Tachikoma argues that the benefit of language and wo5rds over direct data exchange is not in mere communication, but the self-programming nature of language which allows it to adapt to situations beyond the communication protocols it was established for.

I love that sort of stuff. Read more!

DVD (Comedy): Looks Like a Brown Trouser Job

One of the advantages in being sick is that I can make a dent in the vast array of unwatched DVDs in The Collection. This time, I took advantage of my forced stay at home to watch a new addition before it had a chance to sit on the shelf like so many other DVDs have.

A year before his death in 1989 of throat cancer, Graham Chapman, best known as one of the members of Monty Python's Flying Circus, went on a tour of US colleges to talk about his life and career. The video tapes have finally been dug up and released as Monty Python's Graham Chapman: Looks Like a Brown Trouser Job.

The title refers to an incident during Chapman's participation in the Dangerous Sports Club. He was at the top of a black diamond ski run in Switzerland, sitting in a gondola with a member of the British aristocracy and a bandaged dummy named Eric, ready to take the plunge, when the arisstocrat leaned over said, "Looks like a bit of a brown trouser job, Graham." Apparently Chapman thought that that phrase was appropriate for describing his life as well.

Chapman had a reputation as the most difficult Python to work with. Generally, he wrote with John Cleese who has often described how Chapman would contribute to the writing by sitting back, smoking his pipe and downing gin at an amazing rate, and simply throw out funny words like "silly walks" or "ex-parrot" while Cleese filled in all the other bits. By the time they were making Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Chapman was downing, by his own estimates, 60 oz of gin a day and could barely manage his lines.

In spite of how frustrating he must have been to work with, Chapman comes across in the lectures as a very affable fellow. After Holy Grail he sobered up -- which no doubt helped his personality a lot! -- and it's fascinating to hear him describe all this from his own point of view. Recent Python retrospectives have not had a lot of Chapman's input, being dead and all, so this DVD gives a great chance to correrct that lack. He covers his early inspiration by The Goon Show (the grandfather of absurd British comedy, and woefully under-appreciated in North America), going to Cambridge to read medicine so he could join the Footlights club, and so on. Not to mention that he has some great stories about hanging out with Kieth Moon (probably one of the few humans who could out-drink Chapman).

The video quality on the DVD is horrid -- it's transfered from 17-year-old VHS tapes that had been sitting in the bottom of a trunk since shortly after they were made. But then, there isn't that much visual to actually see, so it's not a huge problem. Apart from Chapman's gestures and expressions, which add to the talk but aren't necessary, about the only spot where you need to actually see what's happening to follow is his description of teaching Kieth Moon how to play "Shitties" (immortalized in Canada in the Bowser & Blue song, Bum Darts!), which involves clenching a coin between your thighs and trying to drop it into a cup on the floor.

And for Iron Maiden fans, the DVD includes the Can I Play With Madness video, which features Chapman as a school headmaster. I had never known he'd done any music video work -- you learn something every day. Read more!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Book (Science Fiction): Use of Weapons

I've been taking advantage of a day & a half off work sick to finish some reading, and I started off by finishing off Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks. This is the third novel in his "Culture" series, set in a future galaxy in which a very powerful offshoot of humanity -- The Culture -- interacts with other species and other branches of the human race, not always to everyone's benefit.

The Culture is a post-scarcity society -- thanks to matter- and force-field manipulation technology, there is no shortage of anything at all. The Culture regularly builds Nivenesque ringworlds (large habitable circular bands in orbit around a star), Dyson spheres (habitable spheres that totally enclose stars), and similar gigantic strutures.

In fact, the overall technological details of Banks's Culture books have a very strong Larry Niven flavour -- not just the megastructures, but the more personal-sized weapons, force-fields, transport pods, and so forth. About the only thing missing is any indestructable substances like the General Products Hull.

The other major influence on Banks seems to be Isaac Asimov's robots. Asimov broke with tradition when it came to writing science fiction about robots -- which focused almost exclusively on Frankenstein scenarios -- and wrote instead about robots designed to be beneficial, and safe, to human society (a rather major point missed out in the recent I, Robot movie, which apparently went for the Frankenstein approach).

In Banks's Culture, artificial intelligent entities are recognized as sentient members of society -- an approach definitely in line with Asimov's.

Use of Weapons follows the activities of an agent of the Culture, Zalakwi, whom the Culture employs to manipulate wars and battles to help move societies in directions to the Culture's liking (no Prime Directive here -- or, at least, none as absolute as the Star Trek one!). Between the chapters of this story are flashback chapters (numbered downward in Roman numerals, to distinguish them from the main story) which cover Zalakwi's backstory -- how he came to work for the Culture, some of his previous missions, and the origin of his fear of chairs.

The book ends with a bit of a twist, which makes going into detail about these a little problematic, so I won't. I will say that Zalakwi's the most interesting of the protagonists in the three Banks Culture novels I've read, and the book is the most engaging of the three. In Consider Phlebas, the shape-changing protagonist (who opposed the Culture and its agenda, with some good arguments on his side) was not a very sympathetic fellow, and the rest of the cast weren't much better. The game player in The Player of Games was easier to identify with, but a professional player of complicated board games isn't exactly someone to keep the pace exciting (though I did enjoy the book a lot).

In fact, I've enjoyed each Culture book more than the last, so I'm looking forward to grabbing the fourth one, Excession, once I find a copy in the shops. Read more!

Anime (Science Fiction): Last Exile

When we moved into our current place, we found a nice nitch to put the treadmill in, and got ourselves an LCD TV / monitor and stuck it on a wall mount in front of the thing. Combine that setup with DVDs of TV and anime series and you have a pretty nice workout setup.

Of course, we aren't very good about using it; we barely used it at all over the summer, but we're getting back at it. And, as it happened, the final DVD of a series I'd been collecting a while back finally came out: the last three episodes of Last Exile.

Last Exile caught my attention in trailers because of the style (as often happens with anime series), but held up pretty nicely on substance as well. It tells the story of battles between three power groups on an artificial world: Anatoray, Disith, and the Guild (the Guild controls all advanced technology) and their attempts to control some mysterious thing called "Exile". The bulk of the story is told (as is almost inevitable in anime) from the point of view of two teenage kids, Claus (a Vanship pilot) and Lavie (his friend and navigator).

The bulk of the story takes place in the air -- Vanships are sort of levitating WWII-flavour airplanes; Anatoray and Disith also have massive fleets of levitating airships, powered by engines lent them by the Guild.

The influence of one of my favourite film makers, Miyasaki Hayao, is quite obvious in the flight sequences. Claus & Lavie's home town looks almost identical to the mining town in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Unlike Miyasaki, Last Exile uses computer graphics extensively to render the vanships and airships, and does an excellent job of blending the computer rendering with the characters' cell animation (something many animated series that mix the two don't do very well at all).

I won't go over the whole story, but I do have a few comments on the finale...

Traditionally, one of the things North American anime fans will tell you they appreciate about the storytelling in Japanese animation is that the writers are not afraid of doing nasty things to characters you like. In North American animation, you might get one token sacrifice character for the big dramatic death scene that inspires the hero to finish his quest (and you can usually tell who it'll be early on), but in anime things aren't so predictable. Of course, this may just be because North American fans aren't as familiar with the formulas used in Japanese storytelling.

Last Exile, in the last several episodes, kills off a few characters the audience has become fond of -- I won't go into details, so as not to spoil things. But I will mention that it was a shock to see a favourite character not only killed off, but killed off in such a way that no-one else even knew it happened -- a stupid, pointless death. Which was probably the point, really: stupid, pointless deaths happen in wars.

The biggest problem with the finale, once you're over losing favourite characters, is the timing. This is a common problem with anime, which often runs long storylines over 26 episodes (in contrast to North American animated TV, which requires that each episode be self-contained). The big wrap-up has to happen in the last 20 minutes of an 8.5-hour series. In fact, in Last Exile, the revelation of what Exile is happens halfway through the last episode! With the entire resolution crammed into the last 10, it's rather hard to figure out what's happening. It was only on reading some of the liner notes and some web pages that I caught some of what was going on, for which either I'd missed the set-up, or the set-up just hadn't been there.

Still, that's not that major a problem overall; a series that's good 8.25 hours out of 8.5 is nothing to complain about! Read more!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Books (Science Fiction): Use of Weapons

Between bouts of reading from The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, I've just started my third Culture novel by Ian M. Banks, Use of Weapons. I'd already read two previous Culture novels, Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games, on recommendations from a friend, and enjoyed them, so I'm looking forward to this one. I'm only a couple of chapters in, but so far so good. Read more!

Books (Comic Strip): The Complete Calvin & Hobbes

Yesterday, I got a very nice birthday present (even though I bought it myself). Months ago, I had pre-ordered Bill Waterson's The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, and it finally arrived right on my birthday.

Two years ago, Gary Larson published The Complete Far Side, a very heavy two-volume hard-bound collection of all of the Far Side cartoons. The Complete Calvin & Hobbes is similar in concept: even heavier (I had to schlep it five blocks from the post office) and three volumes, it's another beautifully printed collection of one of my all-time favourite comic strips (up there with The Far Side, Pogo, and Peanuts).

I've only just started reading the books. They open with a nice little biography by the very reclusive Watterson, and then goes straight into the strips. It's going to take forever to get through them (just like it had with The Complete Far Side). They're just too big and heavy to read in bed, and they're so beautifully made that I don't dare read them over dinner.

Calvin & Hobbes is currently being re-syndicated on the web by United Media Comics. Read more!

Books (Science): Corpse

I finished Jessica Snyder Sachs's Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death the other day. Corpse covers a rather narrow subset of forensics: determining the time of death. Those who watch TV crime dramas will probably be surprised to learn just how inaccurate the process is: even when the body is fresh, the estimate will span hours. There are just too many variables in how bodies break down to be precise.

The bulk of the book covers longer-range determinations, for bodies which have been lying around for days, weeks, or years. Most of the developments in this kind of forensic science have been in the past 25 years, though the book goes back centuries to find early examples.

Sachs covers four major avenues of investigation: anthropology, entymology, botany, and chemistry, with lively portraits of many of the contemporary researchers working in the field -- most of whom were quite happy in their own academic world studying flies or shurbs or whatever when the police would come knocking, asking if they could identify this maggot or that semi-digested leaf.

Most engaging are the stories of Bill Bass, creator of the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, a four-acre plot at the University of Tennessee where Bass dumps human cadavers to observe their decomposition under different conditions. Patricia Cornwell nicknamed it The Body Farm in her book of that name.

When reading about Bill Bass's forensic adventures, I got a distinct impression that he was a major inspiration behind the character of Gil Grissom from the original CSI series, though Bass is an anthropologist, while Grissom is an entymologist. In particular, the story of Bass being lowered head-first through a crack in the lid of a freshly exhumed Civil War coffin that had a headless, tuxedo-wearing corpse on top seemed very CSIish. Corpse illustrates how a number of different disciplines are coming together to revolutionize forensics, which may be why shows like CSI have popped up in such great numbers recently.

Like Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Corpse is an example of my favourite sort of narrow-focus science book: Sachs has an enjoyable writing style, and rather than simply describing breakthroughs in chronological order (as too many books do), she gives you some great stories about the people who make (and are making) the breakthroughs. You don't usually expect to laugh out loud at a book about decomposing bodies, but I did with this one.

I wouldn't recommend reading it over lunch, though. A description of cracking open an old skull to be greeted by a shower of maggots doesn't go very well with a chicken rice bowl at the food court.

Addendum: One thing I meant to mention, but forgot, is my one major complaint about the book: the complete lack of illustrations. Not that I was keen on photos of decomposing corpses, but it would have been nice to, at the least, have had photos of Bill Bass and the other researchers discuessed. Photos illustrating the differences between the various forms of blow flies or the stages of fly development would have been nice, as well, since these were important points in the text. Read more!

Books (Comic Strip): Surfer Safari

I missed a few days in there, so it's time to catch up on the books. Back after my post on FoxTrot, I said I'd get to the latest (tenth) collection of Jim Toomey's Sherman's Lagoon, Surfer Safari.

Like the FoxTrot My Hot Dog Whent Out, Can I Have Another? collection, there's not much new in Surfer Safari, but it's still fun. The biggest change is the addition of Herman, Sherman & Meggan's new son, but like Filmore's adopted son Clayton, he's off-screen most of the time. The rest of the characters have been well-established for years now, but the strip still manages to keep the jokes fresh (most of the time -- there are a few rehashes here and there). Another good addition to the bedtime comics rotation. Read more!

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