Tuesday, February 26, 2002

One of the most memorable books I've read is A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes, a wonderful volume about book collectors and book collecting. This book is full of amazing stories about book collectors and the lengths to which they will go to acquire the objects of their passion (the most memorable of whom, especially to anyone from Iowa, is surely the infamous Stephen Blumberg). Well, apparently A Gentle Madness was the first in a projected trilogy about books, and the second volume -- Patience and Fortitude -- is out. I've already bought it and it has shot to the top of my "To Read" list.

After September 11, I kept wondering why Osama Bin Laden selected the targets that he did, and why he seems to have been particularly fascinated with the World Trade Center. As horrific as that day was, it seems to me that he had far more in mind than mere body count; had that been his goal and nothing else, he could have scheduled his attacks for September 9 -- a Sunday -- and targetted NFL stadiums that were full to capacity.

While searching the archives at Slate Magazine, I happened upon this article that suggests just such a reason for Bin Laden's apparent obsession with the WTC. It might not be that the buildings were to him symbolic of a decadent culture at odds with his own warped interpretation of Islamic tenets; the buildings themselves -- as physical artifacts -- may have been offensive to him because of a family connection to the WTC's main architect and the WTC's implementation of Islamic architectural styles. Scary stuff.

Sunday, February 24, 2002

You Only Live Twice was on last night on ABC. I still find it a far more enjoyable film than its successor, Thunderball, but this one is still not without its faults. It is one of the most blatantly sexist Bond films, with one male character informing Bond that "In Japan, men always come first and women come second" and Bond enthusiastically approving. It also has a plot that is highly improbable even by James Bond standards: would the world's superpowers stand down from nuclear alert after Bond has thwarted SPECTRE's plan with only seconds to spare? would a space launch from Japan really be completely undetectable by everybody? The sets are all very well-done, but some of the film's photographic effects are just-plain lazy. For a Russian spaceshot we are shown stock footage of a NASA rocket launch, complete with swaying palm trees in the foreground, ignoring the fact that the Russians launch their rockets from a vast plain in the middle of the country which is about as likely to have palm trees as the middle of Nebraska. Late in the film, when Blofeld's mountain base is blowing up, we are shown footage of an actual volcanic eruption complete with lava. I suppose it's not really fair to bust on a 1967 film for such things, but I'm doing it anyway. Another flaw is the film's two main women: one of them, named Aki, is the Bond film "sacrificial lamb"; after she dies another Japanese girl shows up whose name I don't think we ever even learn.

But the film is still a whole lot of fun; the producers seem to have learned from their pacing errors in Thunderball and constructed a Bond film that actually moves. The sense of fun is restored, and the score by John Barry -- with its nifty Asian influences -- is a gem.

An added bonus during last night's telecast was a Top Ten list, of the best Bond theme songs. This was hosted by Brandi, a person of whose existence I was almost completely unaware until last night. Ah well. Apparently the list was collated from the results of an ABC online pole, and it shows. That's the only way I can think that one of the worst songs I've ever heard in any setting was actually listed (Tina Turner's song for Goldeneye). I would have appreciated that ancillary feature more if Brandi had taken time to explain just what the hell the lyrics to Duran Duran's A View To A Kill song are about, but you can't have everything, I suppose.

Next week brings us Diamonds Are Forever, which began the trend of increasing goofiness in Bond films during the 1970s. For those who blame Roger Moore for taking Bond in a farcical direction, tune in next week for Connery's last Bond film. You might notice that Moore isn't so much to blame for that.

Saturday, February 23, 2002

Final thoughts on Figure Skating at the 2002 Olympics: I am really looking forward to seeing Timothy Goebel and Sasha Cohen grow and mature over the next four years. I wonder if Yagudin will stick around for amateur eligibility or go pro; I rather hope the latter because -- quite selfishly -- if he goes pro I might be able to go see him perform when one of those touring shows hits Buffalo. I'm still thrilled to have at last seen a Russian skater who wasn't, well, boring. And seeing the two Gold Medalist pairs on the ice at the Exhibition last night was great. I was hoping they would do something nifty like switch partners or something; and indeed, they offered a combined death-spiral that was amazing. And the most heartbreaking moment of the Olympics was not Michelle Kwan's slip on her triple in the long program; it was Todd Eldredge's in his short program, when you knew at that moment that his Olympic dream was over. He's one of those people who is simply active at the wrong time: had he been in his prime at, say, Albertville or Lillehammer he might be an Olympic champion. That's not a bad thing, though: Kurt Browning never won an Olympic medal either, and -- if I may mix my sports metaphors -- Jim Kelly is in the Hall of Fame.

Listening this week: a grab-bag of film music. First up is Deutsche Grammophon's new recording of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra). This includes suites from The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Captain Blood, and The Prince and the Pauper. I heard about this on the rec.music.movies newsgroup, and being something of a Korngold nut I had to get it, even though I've always found Previn's results to be of mixed quality. At times he tends to choose tempi that restrict the emotive power of whatever music he happens to be conducting (his Symphony #2 by Rachmaninov, on Telarc, leaps to mind), but when he gets the tempi right he can be as expressive a conductor as anyone (his wonderful recording of Gershwin's Piano Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue on Philips, with the Pittsburgh Symphony, are a testament here). Unfortunately, the new Korngold recording is an example of the former. The Sea Hawk is one of the most thrilling of film scores, with brazen fanfares, a muscular main theme, and a love theme that sweeps and soars in the grandest Romantic fashion. In Previn's hands on the present recording, though, the music seems to almost be chained in place, never really being able to engage the emotions because of the slowness of the proceedings. The disappointment is compounded by the fact that the men's chorus in the famous "Strike for the Shores of Dover" cue is omitted entirely. This is the emotional high point of the entire score, and this omission is inexplicable. The music, sans the chorus, simply sounds wrong. It is wonderful to see film music getting more respect from the classical world, instead of being viewed with suspicion as some kind of odd bastard-child genre. It's too bad the recording itself can't be more successful. For a better Korngold experience, seek out Charles Gerhard's amazing recordings with the National Philharmonic, which are still the best of this repertoire despite their having been recorded almost thirty years ago.

I've also listened several times to Howard Shore's increasingly amazing score to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. What an amazing work this is. In a recent interview in Film Score Monthly Shore talked at length about the operatic nature of his work, and it really is true. He uses the leitmotif style of composition to amazing effect, weaving motifs together in a tapestry that is thrilling, moving, and cohesive. My only quibble is that the CD, by necessity, omits much of the score. This work needs a release similar to the "Ultimate Edition" of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace that came out a few years back: every note, in film order. (A particularly nice touch is that on the CD, the track titles are -- for the most part -- the names of Tolkien's actual chapters. I like that kind of attention to detail.)

Friday, February 22, 2002

What a night of skating that was!! Congratulations to the new Gold Medalist, Sarah Hughes, whose free skate last night was absolutely perfect -- and what is more, it was completely electrifying in a way that I haven't seen anyone skate since Brian Boitano's unforgettable performance in Calgary in 1988. She owned the ice in a way that no other skater last night did -- and I have to think that she and Sasha Cohen will be strong favorites for 2006.

As for Michelle Kwan, she was lucky to even get the bronze in a performance shocking in its tightness. I had a feeling all week that she wouldn't end up taking Gold, but I didn't think it would be because she slipped on one jump entirely, two-footed the landings on others, and generally looked stiff. I figured she would simply be beaten by Irina Slutskaya, her athletic better, and in a way she was -- but Slutskaya's program, while slightly better executed than Kwan's (no outright slips), was still stiff and bloodless. Only one skater last night really took flight and glided across the ice with the same kind of charisma and skill that put one in mind of greats like Yamaguchi, Witt, Hamill and Fleming. That skater was Sarah Hughes.

(And ptoooooie!!! on the Russians for lodging a formal protest about the finish, apparently a sour-grapes bit of sniveling along the lines of "You gave two medals in Pairs, so we want one for the Ladies". This was simply not a case like the Pairs, where the lesser performance was awarded the Gold. And lest anyone think I'm simply a North American-biased observer, the Men's Gold was rightly awarded to Yagudin, who in my eyes was almost as electrifying as Hughes.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Spring training has begun, and with every year that goes by without a plan put in place for revenue sharing and a salary cap I care less and less. Major League Baseball is a complete and utter mess. (My team, the Pirates, opened a new stadium last year and then proceeded to lose 100 games.) This is the worst time of year for sports: football is over, baseball isn't going yet, the NBA and hockey are not interesting until the playoffs (if even then), and I've never liked March Madness. Thank God for the Winter Olympics.

Things that make me feel old, #453: Watching the Olympic athletes, in interviews, say things like "I decided I wanted to be a skater/skier/bobsledder/whatever when I was a little kid watching the Games in Albertville." I was 21 and in college during the Games in Albertville.....

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Parents: If you're looking for a movie to watch with the kids, and you're tired of Disney and the assorted non-Disney Disney clones that clog the video store shelves, here's a movie to find: My Neighbor Totoro. I watched this last night with my own daughter (she's two-and-a-half) and it met with her sign of approval: she demanded to watch it again today. This anime production is just wonderful. The story of a father and his two young daughters who move to a country house near some woods (the mother is in the hospital with an illness that is never disclosed) is told in wonderful, real touches. The film treats its characters with respect, children and adult alike; no one ever acts mean or stupid merely to advance the plot -- in fact, no one in the film is ever really mean or stupid at all. It is also loaded with wonderful touches. At one point, the girls are waiting out a rainstorm by huddling under a Shinto shrine when the boy next door -- whose only expression seems to be the faces he makes at the older of the two sisters -- comes by. He gives the girls his umbrella, allowing them to get home dry, and walks off through the rain back to his own house. Moments later we see him being yelled at by his mother for losing another umbrella, but like any boy his age he can't take the easy way out and tell his mother what he did with it, so he tells her he lost it and accepts the punishment. Ten-year-old boys really do act like that.

Of course, the film involves magical beings who live in the nearby woods; these beings are presented matter-of-factly, as another part of the landscape; they are neither horrors or mysteries that become the entire focus of the film. The Totoro is a wonderfully realized being, and the cat-bus has to be seen to be believed. The animation may seem rough to people accustomed to Disney smoothness, but the details of each frame are perfect and true. The music, by Joe Hisaishi, is by turns movingly beautiful and delightfully childlike. This is a movie that finds wonder in the sound made by rain dropping on an umbrella. If you know anyone who doesn't love My Neighbor Totoro, take their pulse or turn them toward the light.

I'm a bit concerned about Michelle Kwan's chances of winning the Gold in the long program. Yes, she is the best female skater in the world right now, but what's got me concerned is the degree to which skating has become jump-focused, which will play into Irina Slutskaya's strengths. She's the athletic jumper, whereas Kwan is the graceful skater with impeccable lines, flawless spins, and wonderful artistry. Here's hoping, though. Go Michelle!!!

(BTW, I would almost be willing to bet money that by the 2010 Winter Games some male skater will attempt a Quintuple jump in competition. That seems to be the natural evolution.)

Read this week: Harlan Ellison's classic SF story, "'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" (reprinted in Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century). Orson Scott Card's introductory note calls the story "a Kafkaesque parable about the dangers of individuality in a conformist society". I didn't read it that way; I saw the story as a cautionary tale about the futility of attempting to create a society where everything is controlled and where nothing is left to any kind of chance. The story's ending suggests to me that although the society's apparent cause for concern has been eliminated, a seed of sorts has been planted. A crack has been formed in the edifice of the story's world; now all that remains to happen is for water to get in there, freeze, and melt; water, freeze and melt; water, freeze and melt....

What to do with the gaping hole left in lower Manhattan following the 9-11 attacks has been a vigorous discussion since the initial shock wore off. Some have suggested rebuilding the towers, only this time adding height so they are again the tallest buildings in the world; some have suggested shorter towers; Roger Ebert suggested turning the whole site into green space with trees and grass and places for quiet contemplation. Just about everyone agrees that there needs to be some kind of monument to those lost on that horrible day. One particularly unique suggestion for a monument can be found here. It is two long piers that would be built out into New York Harbor; each would be the exact length of one of the towers, separated into sections demarking the corresponding floors, and the whole thing would bear the names of those who died. What I want to know is: would this design somehow inhibit boat traffic in New York Harbor? Sixteen hundred feet is a lot of pier.

Monday, February 18, 2002

Why I hate The Practice, reason number 342: Did the denouement of last night's episode, the so-called "shocking moment" at the end, really come as a surprise to anybody? This is the kind of plot twist that David E. Kelley has been spinning for years. I only watched the last ten minutes or so of the episode (since I can't stand the show and normally avoid it like the plague, but at that moment whatever was on the Olympics was boring so I channel-flipped a bit) and I saw the surprise event coming a mile away. I won't spoil it here, but in a Kelley series a disgraced person putting his/her briefcase on the conference table can mean only one thing....

Both King of the Hill and The Simpsons last night had gags that involved the Olympic Torch being accidentally extinguished, and both depicted the five Olympic rings upside down, probably for trademark reasons. I wonder if this was planned. Anyway, if the Futurama writers end up being let go as seems might very well happen (FOX doesn't like the series, for some reason, and insists on giving it shabby treatment) maybe they can just be brought over to The Simpsons, which could use some writing help. The show is still good, but nowhere near the pinacles it once hit (and it came perilously close to jumping the shark when Maud Flanders was bumped off). FOX's treatment of Futurama puts me in mind of something Jon Lovitz said on Letterman when his FOX show, The Critic, was canceled: "FOX. They should spell it with a 'u'."

Sunday, February 17, 2002

Why one should never go to Borders without extra pennies in one's pocket: Christopher Moore's new book, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, is out. And I didn't have enough on me to pick it up. Ah well....there is always next week.

Last week I saw Disney's Beauty and the Beast in its new IMAX version. I was a bit apprehensive, because I've read that IMAX films have to be edited differently because the images are so huge; compositions that are fine on a normal-sized screen become disorienting when expanded to occupy the entire visual range. Happily, this did not seem to be the case except in the action sequences at the end of the film. The final fight between the Beast and Gaston is a bit hard on the eyes with its quick cuts and jolts (it doesn't help that the sequence takes place outside in the middle of a violent thunderstorm). But other than that, the film is still wonderful and still loaded with the magic that made it the only animated feature ever nominated for Best Picture. I don't think that Disney has told a love story that was more tender or heartfelt before or since; the supporting characters are wonderfully realized; and the IMAX presentation makes the musical numbers -- already one of the film's towering strengths -- all the greater. Most notable are the "Be Our Guest" sequence with its Busby Berkley staging and the film's title number, sung movingly by Angela Lansbury and animated with romantic wonder. And there is a new number, apparently recorded for the original film but never animated until now: an ensemble piece called "Human Again", in which all of the castle-servants-turned-household-objects dream of that wonderful day when the castle's curse will finally be ended.

The most remarkable thing about the IMAX presentation of Beauty and the Beast, to me, was that the larger image allows the Monet-like construction of the backgrounds to be seen in all their glory, with landscapes dappled with color in the finest Impressionistic manner. This can even be seen in a comedic scene where Gaston falls into a mud puddle, the water of which turns out on closer examination to be delicately colored where lesser animators might have gone with uniform brown.

The film was preceded by a preview of next year's Disney IMAX release, The Lion King. (Actually, it wasn't a preview per se but rather that film's opening "Circle of Life" sequence in its entirety.) I will be interested to see how that film's African landscapes translate to the new format.

Roger Ebert's latest addition to his biweekly series, "The Great Movies", is a very good one indeed: "Say Anything", which is probably the greatest adolescent love story ever filmed. And now I remember that it's been years since I saw it....read what Ebert has to say about the film here.

As a longtime James Bond devotee, I've been enjoying ABC's broadcasts of the Bond films on Saturday nights lately. Tonight's entry was "Thunderball", a film about which I've always had mixed feelings. The opening act takes too long to develop, with Bond happening upon intrigue at some British health spa. Of course, the intrigue has to do with the eventual scheme being run by SPECTRE, and Bond is sent to the Bahamas to follow up on a lead (which happens to involve a beautiful woman, of course) and the plot finally gets moving. But even then the story takes its own sweet time in developing; for a plot that involves a countdown until two stolen nuclear bombs will be detonated in a major city, the film unfolds at an uncertain pace, and the sense of urgency never really takes hold. And then, we get to the third act where the thing finally grinds to a stop. We are then treated to thirty or forty minutes of Bond swimming around underwater, a big battle between the good guys and the SPECTRE forces, and finally a fight to the death with the villain on the bridge of a yacht that is speeding out of control through a series of reefs. All that sounds like it should move along at a brisk, tense pace -- but sadly it doesn't. The climax of a Bond film should never be boring, and this one is. John Barry's music can't even get things going, which is really saying something. Barry's music singlehandedly saved "Goldfinger", during the interminable sequence where Pussy Galore's pilots take to the air to disperse poison gas over Fort Knox. Sadly, in "Thunderball", the pace of the film was beyond Barry's considerable powers.

Interestingly, for legal reasons an associate of Ian Fleming's actually owned the rights to the plot of "Thunderball", and it was thus that "Never Say Never Again" -- which tells the same story -- was made in 1983. The interesting part is that the later film tells the same story much better than the original, which might make "Never Say Never Again" the only remake in history actually superior to its original.

Next week's ABC Bond film is "You Only Live Twice", which I'm looking forward to because I haven't seen it in years. I remember it being a pretty fun film, despite the fact that Donald Pleasance is by far the worst of the three Blofelds. We'll see.

Saturday, February 16, 2002

Current reading: A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing. This is a play that I saw performed way back when I was a freshman in college (1989, to be precise). The story involves two men, a Russian and an American, who are both arms negotiators in Geneva, Switzerland during the Cold War. When I saw the play performed, it was just a month or two before the Berlin Wall came down and the German Reunification began; at that time the Soviet Union still existed. I wondered, when I found a copy of the play in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, if the work would still seem relevant given the decade that has passed since the Cold War ended. Now that I've read it, I realize that while the specific issues referenced in the play no longer exist, the greater issues -- war and our sick fascination with it -- are still as present as ever, especially now that we are apparently at war with not even a nation but with a concept (terrorism).

In the play, the Russian (Botvinnik) is a glib man who seems to take nothing seriously, constantly ribbing his American counterpart (Honeyman) for his inability to talk about anything other than arms agreements and weapons levels and verification schemes and the like. The two men walk into the woods during a break one day and sit on a bench, whereupon Botvinnik launches one of many attempts to get Honeyman to talk about something frivolous. Honeyman (and, by extension, the audience) initially sees Botvinnik as unfocused, but as the play progresses it becomes clear that Botvinnik is actually deeply cynical about the degree to which either of the superpowers wants peace at all. Both countries, he says, claim to want peace but put pathetically little effort into the pursuit of peace -- because, "Without nuclear weapons our empires would no longer be empires. They would simply be countries among other countries....a rich, powerful Canada and an enormous, distended Poland." Honeyman, of course, is deeply idealistic and protests: "Mankind truly does hate war." Botvinnik's response to this statement is the single line from this play that has stuck with me in all the thirteen years since I saw it, and the line that most made me want to read it when I found it on those library stacks:

"If mankind hated war, there would be millions of us and only two soldiers."

Powerful stuff, that. It's a fine, fine play. Seek it out if you can. I'm fairly certain it is out of print, but then, that's what libraries are for.

As much as I love Buffalo, a major failing of the city is the lack of a Chinatown and a good dim sum restaurant. Dim sum, for those who haven't discovered it yet, is a kind of Chinese brunch where servers push carts around the dining room, stopping at each table to offer diners their choice of various delights -- steamed dumplings filled with all manner of things, small shrimp dishes, wonderful soups, and -- if you are brave -- chicken feet. (They're rather like a chicken wing with much smaller bones.) You sit at your table, drinking tea, awaiting the arrival of the next cart. When it arrives, you select an item or two -- or three or four -- and then your server marks your check accordingly, per item served. It's a beautiful way to try things you might normally be unwilling to tackle in the form of a larger entree at the local Chinese takeout (assuming they offer these delicacies at all), and -- even better -- dim sum tends to be cheap. Each time I've had dim sum (in Boston and Toronto), I've eaten until I was positively stuffed and at none of those meals did I spend more than twenty dollars. If you're the type of person who is unafraid to sample new things, then give dim sum a try. If, however, you're one of those people who eats four or five different things and only those, week in and week out, then dim sum probably isn't for you.

So, the Canadians have their gold medals. The sharing of the gold, between them and the Russians who were originally awarded it, seems to me to be the only tenable outcome of this whole affair -- at least as far as these participants go. It will be much more interesting to see what changes are made in the future regarding the judging of figure skating, which has for years been dominated by croneyism, log-rolling, and mutual-back-scratching. As for the actual skaters involved in this dispute, the Russians should not be stripped of their medals as they had nothing at all to do with the backroom-dealing that evidently resulted in their being awarded in the first place. It is bad enough that, for all time, when one looks up the results of the 2002 Winter Olympics competition in Pairs Figure Skating in some almanac, one will find two asterisked pairs. An accomplishment accompanied by an asterisk is somehow tainted, requiring as it does the inevitable explanation of the abnormal circumstances that give rise to the imposition of the asterisk in the first place. Sale and Pelletier are happy now, and they always will be, but I can't help but wonder if they won't always feel that on some level their medal experience isn't as special as it should be. They didn't get to hear "O Canada" whilst standing on the top level of the podium; instead they got five days of grueling interviews, statements, and finally a press conference. As for the Russians, they will forever endure the widespread belief that their medals weren't really earned. The asterisk next to the 2002 entry in the future World Almanacs will loom large. An asterisk is not an insignificant punctuation mark. Just ask Roger Maris.

Friday, February 15, 2002

Why "Byzantium's Shores"? Well, for one thing it just sounds exotic to my ear, five syllables which strike me as fairly melodious.

But more importantly, Byzantium was a place where east and west met along with new and old; it was a city which looked backward to the fallen glories of Rome and forward to the eventual rebirth of the continent that lay to its west. It seems a good fit, then, to cite such a place to name this space where I shall explore my own tastes -- tastes which range wildly from the techno music of Tangerine Dream to the symphonies of Mozart, from the abstracts of Jackson Pollack to the English pastorals of John Constable, from the magnificent verse of Shakespeare to the punching comedic prose of Christopher Moore. And then, of course, there is that wonderful poem by Yeats, as well as the wondrous fictional Byzantium that appears in Guy Gavriel Kay's The Sarantine Mosaic.

And then, the final word: "Shores". A journey can both begin and end at a shore, from either the land or the sea. No matter which direction one is traveling, a shore marks some kind of terminus.

(It helps, of course, that whilst grappling for a title for this place I glanced over at my bookshelf and spotted Stephen R. Lawhead's book Byzantium. Serendipity, as ever, plays such a crucial role in design.)
A screaming comes across the sky....

Somewhere, in strange light, a mind conceives....

In a hole in a ground, there lived a hobbit....

Call me Ishmael....

(....as I cannot think up my own wonderful starting sentence for this experiment in Net babble, the least I can do is pilfer some from the best. Let the wine flow and the words fly!)