Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Some researchers are casting more doubt upon the Big Bang theory, in favor of a kind of cyclical universe not unlike that envisioned by some Eastern cosmologies. Read the MSN article here.

Image: Creation

I have added a new permanent link to lileks.com, a fun site that is an interesting grab-bag of pop culture musings. The Daily Bleats there are particularly fun reading.

Blogger has been temperamental lately, hence the lack of fresh material. I'd complain, but then the service is free....

Saturday, April 27, 2002

I finished Dean Koontz's novel Watchers yesterday. This is the first Koontz novel I've read, and he seems to have a definite grasp on how to manipulate emotions in the reader so as to heighten the suspense. His characters are well-drawn; the central two -- Travis and Nora -- are people we care about, and thus as they move into situations of increasing danger our involvement in the story grows.

The plot could be described, very loosely, as "ET: The Extra-Terrestrial meets The X-Files". It is not purely a horror novel, nor is it science fiction; it is really an interstitial work that contains elements of both. While hiking in the woods, Travis encounters a golden retriever that seems to be fleeing....something. Travis helps the dog (and the dog helps Travis, a reciprocity that really fuels the novel) and the two escape whatever is in the woods. The book is really a series of escapes and pursuits, with Travis and the dog rescuing Nora from a sexual assailant, all three fleeing the something in the woods, the something in the woods fleeing the NSA agents assigned to find it, and everyone being unaware of the psychotic hit-man who is tracking everyone. Add to all this government labs that are dabbling in things they shouldn't, peripheral Mafia involvement, and even a dash of Soviet intrigue (apparently the book is set pre-1989), and you have quite the potboiler.

The book's main flaws are that the love story between Travis and Nora take over, relegating a lot of the interesting side action to secondary importance. Also, the book's ending comes as a bit of a let-down; the confrontation that one expects between all of the story's participants is over surprisingly quickly (and, quite frankly, I expected matters to be settled rather differently -- one shouldn't put down a book like this and immediately say to oneself, "It should have ended this way...."). These faults aside, Watchers is an impressive page-turner.

Friday, April 26, 2002


Noblemen and their servants playing chess -- Miniature, Al Andalus, 13th century.

I don't have any information about this image other than the title. I selected it because it reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Lions of Al-Rassan by the brilliant Canadian fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay. (See the permanent link at left for more on Kay.) The book is set in a fantasy realm based on medieval Espana during the period when the Moors were pushed out of their main European stronghold, and it is a magnificent and heartbreaking novel.

When the Lion at his pleasure comes
To the watering place to drink, ah see!
See the lesser beasts of Al-Rassan
Scatter like blown leaves in autumn,
Like air-borne seedlings in the spring,
Like grey clouds that part to let the first star
Of the god shine down upon the earth.

-Guy Gavriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan

(The picture links to a site of historical artworks.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Political books II: Jeff Greenfield's Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow! is a highly entertaining read about a political event that seems so incredibly distant now: the disputed election of 2000. I actually read this book last fall, immediately after the attacks -- a bit of timing that made the book's subject matter seem shallower, less consequential, than perhaps it should. Greenfield's book is a description of how all of our election day systems came crashing to a halt on November 7, 2000 -- the media included. I remember sitting up until three o'clock that morning, watching Tim Russert scrawling electoral scenarios on a greaseboard; I remember all the machinations in Florida with all the hypocrisy on both sides; and most of all I remember a dull fall campaign that year between (as Greenfield puts it) "a candidate who spoke English to us as if it were our second language and a candidate who spoke English as if it were his second language." Political junkies should definitely read this one.

I just finished reading Joe Klein's book The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. The book is billed as an important work of political history, being the primary chronicle of Clinton's eight years in the White House, but in reality it is neither. It is a slight volume -- barely 220 pages of primary material -- and many topics are glossed over. The book is really an expansion of several magazine articles Klein wrote (primarily for The New Yorker) about the Clinton Administration, and it reads as such -- not a whole lot of corroboration, little rigorous journalism, a lot of breezy narrative. Still, the book serves a purpose well: it at least provides the outlines, in broad strokes, of the 42nd President. Klein's take is that Clinton is a man of extraordinary gifts and talents who, while accomplishing a great deal, never was able to really mold his achievements into greatness and who allowed his own personal failings to nearly derail him completely. Klein tells us a lot about the President, but ultimately the book still leaves Clinton as a somewhat foggy figure. A criticism that dogged Clinton from the time he entered the 1992 Presidential campaign is that one never could be sure just what he really believed, and after reading Klein's book that charge still stands as fairly accurate. (Particularly frightening is the fact Klein cites that the Clinton Administration spent more on polling than every previous administration combined. Many conservatives used to complain that Clinton governed by the public opinion poll, a charge that was not entirely without merit.) Those interested in the political history of the 1990s will find a good starting point here; but the truly definitive work on that decade is still in the offing.

The Buffalo Bills had a superb draft this year, grabbing a likely superstar for their long-underachieving offensive line in Mike Williams as their headliner. They also helped themselves in a number of other positions, but the biggest splash was their trade for former Patriots star quarterback Drew Bledsoe. When I heard of the trade rumors last week, I was ambivalent; for all the movement the Bills have made this offseason (they will go into the 2002 season much improved, on paper, over the 2001 edition), they are still in my estimation a year or two away from being truly competitive at a high level. It seemed odd to me for them to try to land a star quarterback who is in the final three years of a long-term contract -- precisely the years which are the most expensive, because that is how NFL teams structure their contracts these days. (The idea being, of course, to unload the player or get him to renegotiate before the team actually finds itself in the position of having to pay those huge dollars on the back end of the contracts.) Also, Bledsoe comes to the team having suffered a fairly serious injury last year (delivered by Jets mercenary-LB Mo Lewis, of course), making his acquisition at least slightly nerve-wracking. But the Bledsoe deal is done, and he's the quarterback, so of course I will now root strongly for his success here. (For the record, my take on the mercifully-completed Rob Johnson-Doug Flutie saga is this: They both stunk.)

(The paranoid conspiracy theorist in me -- my inner Oliver Stone, if you will -- wonders just how much connection exists between the Bills' desire to get the Bledsoe trade done and the fact that the initial five-year leases of the four-year old "club seats" at Ralph Wilson Stadium are due to expire at the end of next year. News of the Bledsoe deal brought about the spike in Bills season-ticket orders that the team brass were no doubt praying for.)

Gregg Easterbrook, the former writer of Slate's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback" column, has apparently gone to ESPN. He has written a typically excellent article about the recently-completed NFL Draft. Read it here.

Saturday, April 20, 2002

Anyone who thinks that comics are a lightweight medium, best left to adolescent tales of absurdly-muscular heroes battling mutants or giant robots bent on destroying Earth or bald archvillains, need only look to Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned by Judd Winick to have that belief shattered. Winick, of course, first entered the public eye as a cast member on the third season of MTV's The Real World. This was the season set in San Francisco, and while it is mostly remembered for the fireworks involving that horrid roommate Puck, this book instead focuses on the friendship that developed between Winick and roommate Pedro Zamora, who already had AIDS during the show's filming and died from that disease's complications a short time after filming.

Winick writes about how, being a "bed-wetting liberal", he tried to put a brave face on the fact that he would be living with a person who was HIV-positive; and yet, when the time came he was still fearful of the prospect: "When I thought of living with someone who had HIV, I envisioned living with the AIDS virus walking around on two legs." This frank admission contains the theme of Winick's book: how he confronted those fears, dealt with those all-too-common stereotypes, and at the same time formed a deep and rewarding friendship. The book is not a collection of Real World anecdotes (although there are some of those), so those looking for an extension of the show's voyeuristic qualities will be disappointed. Winick's story begins before the show (and, he wisely informs us, so does Pedro's) and the story of their friendship goes on after the show was over -- and even well after Pedro Zamora's death. Pedro and Me is funny, sad, and moving. It is a testament to the potential of comics as a medium.

(Judd Winick is currently a writer and artist for DC Comics.)

At long, long last the Buffalo Bills have addressed the one area that has been their glaring weakness ever since the Super Bowl years ended: their offensive line. In today's NFL Draft, the Bills selected the gigantic Mike Williams (OT, University of Texas, 21 yrs old, 6' 5", 375 lbs) with the fourth pick overall. Williams should step right in and finally give the Bills someone who can block consistently, ending a frustrating pattern of rotating inadequate 4th-through-7th rounders that have been the mainstay of the Bills' line since Wil Wolford and Howard Ballard left. The Bills have made no effort to seriously upgrade their offensive line since 1994, when they selected Ruben Brown, despite their consistently disappointing running game and the alarming number of sacks given up each year (although this number dropped during Doug Flutie's two years as the starting QB, mainly because of his elusiveness and willingness to scramble). Of course, any draft pick can go belly up (Ryan Leaf, anyone?) but for now the Bills have done what they've needed to do. Now, hopefully they'll stop trying to get Drew Bledsoe and instead pick up a decent QB prospect in the second or third round; they also need to address a thin defensive line.

Friday, April 19, 2002

I have added two new permanent links: Alibris (a site for buying all those wonderful rare and out-of-print books that can't be found on Amazon), and Ralan.com (a very impressive site that lists just about every current market for SF, Fantasy, and Horror writing, along with rates and submission guidelines).

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Click here to hear a remembrance of recently-deceased SF author (and Grand Master) Damon Knight, broadcast yesterday on NPR's show All Things Considered.

Just in time for the demise of Oprah's Book Club, author Robert James Waller has penned A Thousand Country Roads, a sequel-of-sorts to his blockbuster The Bridges of Madison County.

(As a still-unpublished writer, I am occasionally tortured by the thought that the closest I will ever come to literary success will be the fact that I attended college twenty miles away from where Waller lived, while he was writing Bridges....)

Spring in Buffalo: temperatures in the 70s this week have inspired the flowering trees in the region to blossom -- just in time for this weekend's 40 degree forecasted highs. (Oh well, at least we'll still be able to laugh at the rest of the country in July when everyone else is in the high 90s and we're still only in the 80s. 'Tis small consolation, but....)


"Forest", by Alan Lee.

Alan Lee is one of the foremost fantasy artists of today. His most famous works are the paintings he did for the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Lord of the Rings. Lee's work formed the basis of some of the visual stylings used by director Peter Jackson in the current LOTR film trilogy. Lee has also done a lot of fine work that is not related to Tolkien; this is one example.

(Click on the picture for a biography of Lee, courtesy Terri Windling's Endicott Studio.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

An in-depth review of John Williams's score to Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones has appeared on Filmtracks, one of the better film music sites (and one of the oldest). They give the review high marks, although they do say that it isn't quite as good as Williams's scores for the original trilogy, which are now classics of film scoring. Read the review here.

I don't often agree with Jeff Simon, media critic with The Buffalo News, but in his regular Tuesday column this week he pretty much nailed the impending closing of the Oprah Book Club on the head:

A real book lover, that woman, don't you think?
No? Well, you're not alone.

Read the rest of Simon's comments here.

Monday, April 15, 2002

It is a sad day for science fiction: the great writer (and founder of the SFWA) Damon Knight has died. Details are available at LOCUS.

"The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve."
-Damon Knight

Sunday, April 14, 2002

Finished two books this weekend.

First was The Queen's Man: A Medieval Mystery by Sharon Kay Penman. I wanted to like this one more than I did. Penman is a noted writer of historical fiction, most (if not all) of which is set in the late Middle Ages during the time of the Plantagenets in England. Most of her books are quite long, which makes The Queen's Man something of a departure: it is actually quite brief, being a murder mystery set in and around London. Our hero, Justin de Quincy, witnesses the murder of a silversmith who just happens to be carrying a letter to the Queen (Eleanor of Aquitaine) about the whereabouts of King Richard, who has gone missing whilst on Crusade. Justin delivers the letter to the Queen, and she presses him into her service, charging him with identifying the silversmith's murderer and learning if he was killed for the contents of the letter.

This is an interesting set-up, and one expects a book filled with court politics and intrigue where people are never what they seem, and where the murder of a silversmith is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. We get some of that, but for the most part the book is more pedestrian. It is as if Penman couldn't quite decide which direction in which to go: was she telling that story of intrigue within House Plantagenet, or was she merely telling a traditional Agatha Christie-style murder mystery that happened to be set in medieval times? The book pulls in both directions, even at the end when the murderers and their motives are revealed. A resolution to a mystery like this should satisfy, and this one doesn't. Making matters slightly worse is that some of the intrigues uncovered are left unresolved, making clear that the book is intended to be the first in a series of Justin de Quincy's adventures (and, in fact, one sequel is already out: Cruel As The Grave).

Other plot threads are present for no apparent reason at all: at one point Justin acquires a stray dog as a companion, but the dog doesn't figure in the story at all, despite the pages Penman spends describing the episode. The silversmith's family, full of intrigues of its own, is delved into early in the novel but then left behind completely. And then there are certain aspects of the book that ring totally false: Penman is careful to use terms that were the vernacular of the time: phrases like "for certes" and words like "gaol" (instead of "jail"), but then she does things like have one character exclaim "That will be the day!" Maybe they really did use that phrase eight hundred years ago, but once a saying is used as a title for a Buddy Holly song, it probably shouldn't be employed in a historical novel. Also, I found it hard to believe that a baseborn commoner like Justin de Quincy could so easily gain audience with the Queen of England as he does early in the book. (I could be quite wrong on that point, however.) Reading The Queen's Man gave me a disjointed feeling; Penman's characters are well-drawn (especially Luke de Marston, an earthy undersheriff), but the details of the plot never come together into a cohesive whole.

The other book finished this week is Michael Moore's Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American. Moore, an author and filmmaker best known for the documentary Roger and Me, presents here a hodge-podge of angry liberalism. I expect that one's enjoyment of this will be largely dependent on the degree of sympathy to his viewpoints. I found it entertaining, although my main impression was in how odd it is to read political humor from six years ago. This was pre-Monica Lewinsky America, when Newt Gingrich was still a dominant figure in American politics, when George W. Bush was only a freshman governor less than halfway into his first term of office, and when Oklahoma City was still a fresh wound. There is even a chapter on the OJ Simpson trial, which had ended less than a year before the book came out. I did find a lot in Moore's book to agree with, but as per my avoidance-of-politics policy for this site, I will leave it at that.

Thursday, April 11, 2002


Kleinhan's Music Hall, Buffalo, NY

Kleinhans Music Hall is the home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Kleinhans is considered one of the finest concert halls in the country, with remarkable acoustics. The reflecting pool seen here was not present for many years, but was recently restored. The main concert hall is the larger section of the building, the lefthand portion of this picture; the smaller section to the right is the Mary Seaton Room where chamber music concerts are held. The current Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic is JoAnn Faletta; previous Music Directors include Lukas Foss, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Semyon Bychkov.

(The picture links to an organization dedicated to beautifying the Buffalo neighborhood in which Kleinhans resides.)

The University at Buffalo hosted former President Bill Clinton yesterday. His speech can be heard here, courtesy WBFO, Buffalo's NPR station.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Poetical Excursion #1:

"Blow, Bugle, Blow"
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

(How perfectly Tennyson uses alliterative effects and rhyming to suggest the echoing of a bugle call. More than that, his language implies things passing into memory -- repetitions of the word "dying", reference to "long light" which suggests sunset, and elegant phrasing implying distance: "farther going", "faintly blowing". The effect is masterful. This is a poem that begs to be read aloud. If pressed to name a favorite poet, I will generally name either Whitman or Tennyson -- depending on which I've read more recently.)

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

A funny article on the unwritten rules of sports conduct can be found here. Funny stuff, precisely because it is so accurate.

It's a good month for film score collectors. Not only will John Williams's score CD for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones arrive in stores on April 23, but one week earlier two of what have been the most eagerly sought-after scores of recent memory arrive. They are Alan Silvestri's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Bruce Broughton's The Rescuers Down Under. Wonderful news, on all three releases. I have already heard enough positive buzz on the new Star Wars score that I am almost as excited about it as I am the film itself.

Also, there is a new column on film music on AICN, written by Dan Goldwasser (the gent behind Soundtrack.net). This is to be a biweekly feature, although in the past regular features on AICN have turned out to not be so regular.

Finally, I have been listening to Miklos Rozsa's remarkable score to King of Kings for a little more than a week now (since it was delivered two days before Easter, a feat of timing that had me wondering if Divinity was involved). I'm not the biggest fan of those large-scale Biblical epics of the 50s and 60s, but they sported some of the most amazing film music ever created -- witness Ben Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and even The Ten Commandments (far from my favorite film). Rozsa was a towering genius, quite possibly the greatest composer of film music of all time, and King of Kings is first-rate Rozsa.

Monday, April 08, 2002

My intention is to keep my musings on politics and world affairs out of this place as much as humanly possible. That said, I've added a link to another blog -- the USS Clueless -- that is very well written and contains a lot of interesting thought about the current world situation. (This is not a blanket endorsement of all of his content, though. I don't agree with everything he says, but in keeping with my above-stated dictim I shall not explore my differences.)

It is now official: ABC has demonstrated its ongoing commitment to mediocrity and the pursuit of crap by cancelling its finest show, Once and Again. The last episode is next week, which will free up a timeslot for that Supreme Court show with -- gasp -- Sally Field.

And ABC also decided that it wasn't getting good enough ratings off the Bond films on Saturday nights, so they bagged that idea as well. This now means that, aside from NYPDBlue and (for half the year) Monday Night Football, there is no reason to tune into ABC. (Well, I hear good things about Alias, which I haven't watched due to my soon-to-be-completed commitment to The X-Files -- which, by the way, had a really fun and quirky episode last night with Burt Reynolds as....well, this one was so odd that I'm not sure who or what his character was.)

Sunday, April 07, 2002

Just finished: Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book PLaces, and Book Culture by Nicholas A. Basbanes. This is the follow-up to Basbanes's earlier book about book collecting, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books which has become something of a classic work about the phenomenon of book collecting and the lengths to which people will go to fuel their passion. In Patience and Fortitude, the focus moves from the "gentle madness" that formed the theme of the earlier volume to a more general overview of the entire culture that has evolved around the book world.

Basbanes first takes us on a tour of some of the oldest libraries in the world, some of which are still functioning in their original locations and serving the same purpose. He gives us a fine sense of what the libraries of the world used to be like, and how the lack of artifical lighting shaped the day led by the monks who worked in those libraries to create the very books that are now the core of the most valuable collections in the world. From there Basbanes gives a few more profiles of book collectors, the most notable being the Italian writer and semiotician Umberto Eco. The portraits of the ancient libraries and the collectors of today are fascinating; Basbanes has a gift for pictorial detail in his writing.

The best part of the book, though, comes when Basbanes delves into the "infrastructure" of the book world: booksellers and the great libraries of today. He profiles a number of prominent booksellers, many of whom have tracked down very rare volumes at the behest of private collectors and bought entire collections en bloc. In so doing, Basbanes also notes with sadness the passing of what was perhaps the Golden Age of bookselling, when the large number of active booksellers active in New York City at midcentury have dwindled down to a precious few. Admirably, Basbanes does not merely blame this phenomenon on the rise of "supergiant" stores like Borders and Barnes&Noble; in fact, to do so would be fallacious since the type of customer served by these kinds of stores are not entirely the same as those served by the legendary booksellers of the past.

The next section of the book deals with the libraries of today. Here Basbanes's theme begins to unfold: the viability of books in a digital age, and the problems faced by libraries as they are confronted with increasing costs for materials, space considerations for storage, how to deal with materials that are seldom (or in some cases never) used, and a sadly increasing view of libraries as luxuries that are not essential to the life of a vibrant community. Most telling is the chapter on the newly-built San Francisco Public Library, opened in 1996 with insufficient room to shelve the entire collection as it existed at that point. Librarians there tell of patrons walking into the new building and asking, "Where are the books?", and stories are circulated -- and later confirmed -- of truckloads of books taken quietly from the collection and put in the landfill. Issues like these are far from resolved, but Basbanes shows how a number of other facilities have attempted to avoid these pitfalls and retain their sense of cultural importance.

"Content" has become a buzzword as the World Wide Web has gained prominence; this book by Nicholas Basbanes reminds us, as his earlier volume did, that the physical artifact of the book is important in itself. Patience and Fortitude is highly recommended.

(The title refers to the unofficial names given to the two marble lions that guard the main entrance of the New York Public Library.)

It's always nice when the mainstream book review outlets decide to take a look at SF and Fantasy, two genres that are usually ignored completely. (It hardly helped when Oprah Winfrey, supposedly a lover of books, announced on her show that SF was not welcome in her Book Club, and it's irritating especially to see writers like Danielle Steele and Sydney Sheldon regularly reviewed in newspapers, but not Gene Wolfe, Vernor Vinge, or many other SF luminaries.) The Washington Post has done a section on SF and Fantasy this week, with a number of articles and reviews.

Friday, April 05, 2002

Like every other aspiring writer, I own several "how-to" books about writing. Some are good for mechanical advice on the process itself; others are good for inspirational purposes (writing is lonely, and kindred spirits are hard to find except in print); and still others are good for placing writing in one's life. Here are a few of my favorite writing books:

Writer's Market (2001 ed.): This book, published yearly, is basically a catalog of markets for various types of writing. It also contains a large number of articles pertaining to writing, including interviews with prominent writers from different genres. A yearly feature is a selection of query letters, some done well and some done (remarkably) badly. The badly-done ones are amazingly instructive.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This brief book is indispensible. It is part-handbook, part-hymn to clarity in writing, part-instruction manual. Its most famous admonition, "Omit needless words", will be (and should be) a mantra for writers.

How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. This is an excellent and concise introduction to the problems and pitfalls specific to these two genres. Card is one of the biggest names in SF and he brings all of his expertise to bear. The best part of the book is the section on world-building, a concern of particular (some would say paramount) importance to the SF and Fantasy writer.

Advice to Writers compiled and edited by Jon Winokur. Subtitled "A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights", this book is just that: a collection of thoughts on various topics from such people as Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov, Anton Chekhov, William Faulkner, E. B. White, Tennessee Williams....this is a fun book to dip into, for nuggets such as this by William Styron: "You write because you want to be read."

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Given the thickness of many of King's novels and his ability to churn them out at the rate of two per year, one might expect On Writing to be a veritable doorstop. Instead, King writes a fairly brief book that partly relates how writing has shaped his life (and, not unimportantly, how his life has shaped his writing) and partly doles out some of the more important advice from the many writing lessons King has absorbed through the years. The advice section contains nothing that you won't find anywhere else, but somehow the old chestnut "Show, don't tell" seems more vivid when illustrated by King. And you'll certainly never look at adverbs the same way again....but what makes the book so good is King's meditations on writing itself and its place in his life, especially as he describes his problems with alcohol and drug addiction. His life's lesson, learned very late, is this: "Life is not a support system for art. It's the other way around." King later describes, in rather harrowing detail, his recent life-threatening accident when he was struck by a van and his return to health and to writing. It's powerful stuff, and what shines through most is not King's love for writing but his love for his wife, whom he considers his "ideal reader".

I've finally figured out what has been bothering me about the Mark Greene storyline on ER: Anthony Edwards simply looks too healthy. I've been around people with terminal cancer before, and they do not look as healthy as Edwards did on last night's episode. Terminal cancer patients lose large amounts of weight very quickly and they generally take on a pallid look as death nears.

I'm also irritated a bit at NBC's rather cynical promotion of the whole thing. They ran ads all week touting Greene's "last night in the ER", clearly trying to imply that last night was his final appearance on the show. I may be proven wrong, but I doubt it: we will see him again during May sweeps, and there will be ads galore imploring us to "say goodbye to Dr. Greene".

Thursday, April 04, 2002

Image of the Week

"Viking/Mars Encounter" -- oil by Wilson Hurley.

A lot of fine artists have found inspiration for their work in the discoveries of astronomers. This lovely painting depicts the Viking Lander making its approach to the Red Planet.

(Click on the image to visit the NASA art gallery.)

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Something struck me last night when I saw the 20th Anniversary edition of ET: The Extra Terrestrial: how quiet the movie is in its first third. If this movie were to be made today, no doubt there would be a pounding rock soundtrack, especially during the scenes when the teenagers are playing "Dungeons and Dragons". There would be constant (and dull) underscore, and the camerawork itself would be quicker, with more cuts and less time for the actors to use their time in close-ups to actually act. The scene at the family dinner table plays softly, with gentle humor (juvenile insults like "penis-breath" notwithstanding), and then there is sudden tension when the topic of the children's absent father comes up. How easily the pain underneath what seems a perfectly normal scene -- a suburban family sitting down to dinner -- can be brought to the surface, through the matter-of-fact observation by Elliott that he can't call his father to talk about what he saw the night before because "he's in Mexico with Sally". Children don't mess around with the truth; when they state it they do so outright. That single line not only underscores the pain at the heart of this family (that ET will eventually heal), but it also establishes with certainty Elliott's central honesty as a character. What a brilliant piece of writing that is; what brilliant directing to let the silences ebb and flow; and what brilliant acting as young Henry Thomas delivers what might be the best performance by a child in cinematic history.

The 20th Anniversary edition has, of course, been "touched up" digitally; there is a new scene that couldn't be done convincingly before, and in all honesty it's not entirely convincing now. But it goes by very quickly. The rest of the "enhancements" mostly involve digitizing ET's facial expressions and giving a few new nifty lights to the spaceship. The worst decision is the one to remove the shot of the shotgun at the end of the picture; Spielberg has said that he really never wanted guns in his movie at all, which to me seems a bit disingenuous -- are we to believe that Universal Studios ordered him to stick a single shot of a gun into the picture? The original shot worked perfectly, and in the original the gun in question is never even aimed at the children -- it is merely pulled from the seat of a car. Just the sight of the gun heightened the tension to its highest point, and that point in the film seemed flat without it. But that's not much of a flaw in an otherwise nearly-perfect film. And the John Williams score is heard in all its magnificent glory, especially in the remarkable closing sequence where Spielberg edited the film the fit the music.

How amazing it is, really, to see a story that isn't drenched in irony; how refreshing to view a cinematic friendship that is based on mutual need and growing trust; how amazing to see a story of love and friendship that never, not once, involves contrived betrayals or manipulative misunderstandings based on selfish motives. And how depressing to see it in a virtually empty theater, even on a Monday night. Don't people realize that they need movies and stories like this?