Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Just a reminder that I will be taking the next few days off from posting. I'm a firm believer in occasionally recharging the batteries, and the time seems right. I will post again either Sunday or Monday.


Detail from Tuesday, by David Wiesner.

David Wiesner won the Caldecott Medal for this book in 1992. What is so interesting about his books isn't merely the stunning artwork, but the fact that Wiesner tells inventive, whimsical stories that are full of fantasy and charm without using any words at all. His work is visual storytelling in the purest sense of the word, and his clean pictures -- with their sense of motion, as well as their simultaneous realism and fantastic qualities -- make plain the events that are transpiring. He even conveys a sense of character, no mean feat for a person not using words to tell his stories. He is one of the finest authors of children's books today.

(The picture links to Wiesner's official website.)

My current screensaver is the SETI@Home program, which uses those ununsed CPU cycles -- the ones that would otherwise be drawing pictures of pipes or scrolling marquees or a Star Trek-like scrolling starfield -- to process data collected by radio telescope, in hopes of identifying possible signals from alien civilizations. I am a big fan of the SETI project, and I am thrilled to have this opportunity to help.

This kind of "distributed computing" project is not unique. There are many such projects out there, harnessing computer time donated by regular people to process data. Using a single computer to process these data would require a machine of enormous computing power, and many of these peojects do not have the funding to secure sufficient time on, say, a Cray mainframe or a Big Blue machine to do the work. Thus, they break it up into small chunks and farm it out to people with smaller machines like the Hewlett-Packard with 1.3 GHz Athlon processor sitting on my desk. It's a wonderfully fun way to participate in a cause in which I believe strongly.

SETI@Home may be the most famous distributed computing project, but it is by no means the only one. If looking for LGM's isn't your speed, you may find a more interesting project here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Did you know that the scene in Star Wars Episode II where Obi Wan eludes Jango Fett's ship in the midst of a dense asteroid field is scientifically impossible?

If you're in the mood to scientifically nitpick Star Wars Episode II or a number of other SF films and TV shows, check out Bad Astronomy. This site is fun (the author loves his subject, but doesn't take himself too seriously) and informative. Check it out.

(That scene is impossible because in a planetary ring system the "asteroids" would have long-since ground each other to dust particles.)

Last week I wrote about Buffalo wings. I should note the other great Buffalo delicacy: Beef on Weck.

At first glance, this is a roast-beef sandwich. However, the meet is generally sliced a bit thicker than what you'll find on the sandwiches at Arby's. It is also kept sitting in its own juices until the sandwich is made, when it is piled high on a Kummelweck roll (hence the "Weck"). A Kummelweck roll is a hard, Kaiser-style roll which has also been topped with caraway seeds and pretzel salt toward the end of baking. Then, the thing is slathered in fresh horseradish (again, the real thing, not that "Horsey sauce" from Arby's) and devoured -- preferably with a very cold beer.

I'm not sure how these compare, healthwise, with Buffalo-style chicken wings. There is no deep-frying involved, but the Weck rolls are very salty, and these sandwiches are generally stuffed very generously with meat. But the plus side is that the proper amount of horseradish will keep one's nasal passages wide open while eating the thing.

(An addendum to the earlier article on wings: True Buffalo-style chicken wings are NEVER breaded. Hooter's can call their wings Buffalo wings until the End of Time, but the breading means that they are NOT Buffalo wings.)

This article from The Buffalo News today reports that the City of Buffalo has been named the 9th best destination for the arts in the United States by American Style Magazine. The top ten, by ranking, are:

1. New York City
2. Santa Fe/Taos, NM
3. San Francisco/Berkeley
4. Pittsburgh
5. Chicago
6. Seattle
7. Washington, DC
8. Boston
9. Buffalo
10. Philadelphia

Buffalo's appearance on a list like this will come as no surprise to people familiar to the area, with its vibrant arts community that includes such facilities as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, and events like the annual Allentown Arts Festival. It's somewhat amazing to think that Buffalo, a city that has been experiencing economic hardships for nearly two decades and that is known nationwide for its weather and its football team's failure to win a Super Bowl, could nevertheless be a better arts destination than such cities as Los Angeles, Portland, Minneapolis, or Atlanta. And this recognition appears to be based mainly on the visual arts; Buffalo's performing arts scene is also fairly healthy: the Shea's Performing Arts Center has in the last few years been renovated and its stage expanded so as to be able to meet the demands of today's blockbuster touring productions (Phantom of the Opera, for example). The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the leadership of music director JoAnn Falletta, has in recent years overcome the kind of financial hardships that have plagued many of the nation's major orchestras (including such powerhouses as the Chicago and St. Louis Symphonies); the orchestra has even begun recording (for the Naxos label) and has had several concerts broadcast nationally on public radio. Add to all this artistic variety and life the fact that Buffalo is home to a large number of buildings that are considered to be architectural masterpieces, and one must conclude that the arts are what Buffalo does best, and that the arts are the key to Buffalo's future now that the days of the Erie Canal and the steel mills are over.

Sadly, the powers-that-be in Buffalo have apparently drawn a different conclusion. Budgetary mishaps of staggering proportion -- for example, the recent admission by City Controller Anthony Nanula that he is unable to account for the city's recent budget shortfall -- and the failure of the State of New York to ride to Buffalo's rescue (it seems that some other uses for the state's money cropped up unexpectedly, right around September 11) led to the elimination of all arts funding by the City. Of course, the City government managed to come up with a large set of incentives in order to keep a single K-MART location open after that company recently announced plans to close four local stores following its declaration of bankruptcy. Of course, the City and State governments rolled out the red carpets for Adelphia Cable to build a new office building downtown, insisting that this would create upwards of 1000 new jobs in the city. That project is now in serious jeopardy in the wake of Adelphia's "Enron"-style meltdown which also seems to be leading toward bankruptcy. And of course, the City and State are lurching toward casino gambling as the latest bit of ambrosia that will bring Buffalo back to life.

I remember exactly one thing that the guest speaker at my high school graduation said: "Figure out what it is that you do best, and then do it better than anybody else." It seems to me that Buffalo has just been told what it does best, and that except for a few exceptions Buffalo does it better than anybody else. Maybe Buffalo's leaders might realize it too.

Sunday, May 26, 2002

I've chaged my Archive frequency to monthly instead of weekly, now that I've generated enough material that the long roster of archive weeks at left to look cluttered.

Yesterday I finished Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman. This two-part graphic novel mostly tells the story of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, who along with his wife survived Auschwitz through both guile and luck -- probably more luck than guile. The book is also the story of Spiegelman's attempts to come to know his father, a seemingly bitter man who despite great business success has become so miserly that he will actually attempt to return partially-eaten groceries to the store for credit. Spiegelman seems to be trying to come to terms with his mother's suicide some years before, although this is never stated outright.

What makes the book so interesting is its metaphoric construction. Jews are not depicted as people, but as mice (hence the name, Maus). The Germans are portrayed as cats, the French as frogs, and so on -- the effect being a sort of Animal Farm construction, as well as a commentary on how so often people only seem to fill in "roles" rather than live distinct lives of their own. In several parts of the book, instead of actually showing the people of his book as mice, for example, he instead depicts them as humans wearing mouse masks -- suggesting not only the continuation of past antagonisms into the present, but also reinforcing the idea that so much human suffering is a result of a failure to look beneath our real masks and glimpse what lies beneath. It is worth noting that Vladek Spiegelman's bitterness, born in the depths of the worst of human atrocity, is passed on to a son who has grown up privileged and healthy in America. And yet the subtext is woven throughout the book, because of Anja Spiegelman's suicide, that great pain always exists beneath the outward calm of our lives. The overriding emotions of the book are fear and anger, with sadness only placing third, and the book's most angry moment comes not in one of the concentration camps but in the present, when Art learns that Vladek has long since destroyed his mother's diaries. "Goddamn you!" Spiegelman cries, and then he calls his father a murderer -- because what he has done is to kill the memories that his mother left behind.

Unlike, say, Schindler's List, Maus: A Survivor's Tale does not end on a hopeful note. It does not reassure us that heroism is possible even in times of greatest darkness, nor does it reaffirm that life goes on -- unless it concedes the point through its main message, that pain endures. Toward the end of the book, Vladek reacts with unbelievable anger because Art's girlfriend, Francoise, picks up a black hitch-hiker. Francoise is incensed, wondering how someone who has been through the horror of the Holocaust can still be a racist. Vladek fires back, "Do not even compare the blacks to the Jews." The point is not belabored, nor is it expanded. Spiegelman is not endorsing his father's disappointing racism, nor is he rejecting it; he only reports it, matter-of-factly, as if to say, "This is the world we have created." And the book does not end with any sense of closure or understanding; it simply ends. It's been a long time since I read a book that I would call "haunting", but that seems the best descriptor for this one.

Maus: A Survivor's Tale won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Art Spiegelman is currently a features editor for The New Yorker, and frequently produces covers for that magazine.

Saturday, May 25, 2002

Apparently not even death can stop some people from something stupid.

Now that May Sweeps are over, television is officially a wasteland of reruns, unsold pilots, unending NHL and NBA playoffs, and the like. This year's glut of nostalgic "reunion" shows was endearing at first, but by the time ABC decided to air a That's Incredible! reunion, whatever bloom the nostalgia rose had had was completely gone.

Anyhow, here are some thoughts on the season finales of shows I watch. (My thoughts on the series finale of The X-Files will appear in a separate article.)

:: ER. This season ended rather strangely, I thought. The whole "death of Dr. Greene" storyline really wasn't handled very well, in my estimation. The episode where the ER staff learns, via faxed letter, of Mark's passing was superb, and that really should have been the season finale. Dr. Greene's actual death episode felt limp to me; we had to endure forty-five minutes of tortured attempts to connect with the rebellious teenage daughter. The acting was fine, but this really wasn't anything we haven't seen in any number of other television dramas. The last portion of the episode, where Mark finally dies, was very well done indeed -- although I must admit that when I saw every cast member in attendance at Mark's funeral, I couldn't help thinking: "Who is running the ER right now? What if there's one of those multi-car pileups that floods the ER with patients at least once a season right now?" And then, the actual season finale -- in which the spectre of smallpox was raised -- felt perfunctory (although it was nice to see the show finally start to fulfill the chemistry that exists between Noah Wyle and Maura Tierney). The last few episodes of the season tried to emphasize that with only Wyle remaining from the show's first season -- Sherry Stringfield doesn't count, having departed for four years in the middle of the show's run -- a page has been turned and a new chapter begun. Unfortunately, the episode that best captured that feeling was the one that aired two weeks before the season actually ended.

:: Friends. The writing certainly isn't as sharp as it once was, being too willing to descend these days into farce. The character's carefree lifestyles are getting more unbelievable as time passes. It's probably a good thing that the coming season -- the show's ninth -- is set to be its last. But I still enjoy the show. It still delivers more laughs on a consistent basis than any other (The Simpsons has become very inconsistent lately, and FOX doesn't air Futurama enough to qualify), and the writers do still know how to deliver a nifty twist on a story -- if only NBC would ever stop with its incessant "You won't believe the last five minutes!!!"-style promos. (NOTE TO NBC: A great part of the pleasure of a surprise ending is that there is a surprise ending at all, not just the surprise event of the ending!!!) In the case of Friends, Ross is heading to Rachel's hospital room to propose marriage -- except that Rachel thinks that Joey has just proposed (and Joey, in true Joey fashion, has absolutely no idea what's going on). I'm looking forward to next season.

:: That 70s Show. This season ended in similar fashion to Friends: Eric is planning to tell Donna that he loves her, but before he can the possibility is raised that Donna may end up with Kelso. This show is still hilarious -- the addition of Tommy Chong to the cast as perpetually-stoned Leo was brilliant -- and the writing still sharp, although the show's 1970s focus has faded somewhat recently.

:: Ed. Yet another series that ended its season with an unresolved love triangle: Ed is in love with Carol Vessey, who is at this moment going to spend a summer with boyfriend Dennis Martino. Much of the season finale dealt with Ed's inability to tell Carol how he feels, though just before she leaves for her trip he surprises her with a passionate kiss. The tone of Ed, on the whole, tends toward the bittersweet, so I suspect that the show will acknowledge that when "love triangles" appear in real life, one of the three people involved usually ends up hurt. The show has been fairly unflinching on this point, refusing to make Dennis Martino a mere foil or plot-device designed to delay the moment when Ed and Carol will come together -- Dennis is a well-rounded character in his own right, and the show does not ignore his feelings whilst exploring Ed's and Carol's.

:: The West Wing. In the episodes leading up to the season finale, a known terrorist -- meant, probably, to be the Yasser Arafat in the show's world -- is coming to the United States to visit with the President, and President Bartlett must decide whether or not to have the man assassinated on his way home after a foiled plot to attack the Golden Gate Bridge is traced to this particular person. As a storyline, this was less involving by far than last year's plotline involving the President's disclosure of his multiple sclerosis, although its resolution was nicely done -- the assassination is carried out while the President attends a play about England's Wars of the Roses, a period where violence was more often than not the vehicle by which power was transfered from one King to another. Less well-done, though, was the storyline about CJ Cregg's stalker and the romance between her and the Secret Service agent assigned to protect her. The resolution to the stalker storyline is handled off-camera -- CJ's agent gets a call on his cell phone that the stalker has been arrested -- and then the Agent walks into an armed robbery in a New York City store, foils one of the robbers, fails to notice the other, and is shot and killed. The manner of the agent's death was surprising, even if the fact of it was not -- Mark Harmon was not announced as joining the show's cast for next season, so clearly something had to happen to him -- but we are left wondering what the whole reason for the storyline was in the first place. Is Aaron Sorkin merely illustrating the idea that "There but for the Grace of God go we"? Or will this serve as some kind of turning-point for CJ? As it is, the whole stalker story seems pointless. Two additional comments: Lily Tomlin's addition to the cast, as the replacement for Mrs. Landingham (the President's beloved secretary, who was killed last year in a car crash), is very welcome -- although her introduction, in this year's finale, felt odd -- why would a major new character be introduced in the last episode of the year? Nevertheless, I've always like Lily Tomlin and look forward to seeing her next year. Not so Mary Louise Parker, though. She's a lovely woman, but something about her voice has always bothered me -- no matter what I've seen her in, she seems to always deliver her lines in a flat monotone, and she doesn't enunciate very well. I'd rather see Jennifer Jason Leigh in this role.

:: CSI. It was a standard episode for the show, an effective mystery solved through science and deduction. There is the revelation that Grissom is losing his hearing, which ended the show on something of a down note, but this is still one of the most entertaining hours on television. (I'm looking forward to the spinoff next year, if only for a weekly dose of Emily Procter, whose West Wing appearances were too few.)

The recent history of Marvel Comics has not been rosy. Hopes are high that better times for Marvel may be in the offing, with the company's fortunes being jumpstarted by the resounding success of the Spiderman movie, the establishment of The X-Men as another cinematic franchise, and other Marvel silver-screen adaptations (The Hulk, The Punisher) in development. There is an interesting article on Slate today about Marvel's future and the pitfalls that may await.

I stopped reading comics on a regular basis about the same time I went to college; when my budget reached a point where a pizza from Domino's was an extravagance, I quickly realized that reading twenty or twenty-five comics titles on a monthly basis was simply out-of-the-question. I've started reading comics again in the last year, albeit in trade-paperback compilations as opposed to the monthlies, and I'm coming to appreciate comics as the most unfairly-castigated medium for storytelling currently in existence. If movies help Marvel to keep comics afloat, then more power to them. (These well-wishes of mine, though, are subject to withdrawal if Marvel should ever attempt a Power Pack movie.)

Thursday, May 23, 2002

My mother had a sneaky way of getting me to read when I was a kid. Whenever I did something that warranted being taken off television for a while (more often than I care to admit), she always had some book conveniently lying around which I would then be required to read in its entirety before I could watch any more television. (And more often than not, the books she chose were initial books in a series. She knew what she was doing, all right.) One of the authors to whom I was thus introduced was John Bellairs, a wonderful writer of gothic novels for children. Bellairs died in 1991, but an author named Brad Strickland has carried on his characters in new books. (Strickland also finished a couple of works Bellairs had going at the time of his untimely passing.) Bellairs had three main series: the Lewis Barnavelt books, the Johnny Dixon series, and the Anthony Monday series. The first books of each series, respectively, are: The House with a Clock In Its Walls, The Curse of the Blue Figurine, and The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn. All of Bellairs's books are wonderful, full of interesting detail and quirky, memorable characters. And some of these books are downright scary, but never violent or gory -- Bellairs is a master of atmosphere and creating a sense of malice. They are a great alternative to those Goosebumps books, and will also come in very handy now that it's looking like the fifth Harry Potter book will be longer in coming than originally thought.

For more information on Bellairs, check out The Compleat Bellairs.

Rick Norwood, a film and TV reviewer for SFSite, has written this review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. He likes the film, and says so in a lot less words than I did. Ah well....

(He also likes Spiderman, which I have yet to see -- despite the fact that Spidey has always been my favorite superhero. I probably spend too much time blogging....what a good thing I swore off newsgroups.)


"The Lady of Shallott". Oil on canvas, 1888, John William Waterhouse. (Click on image for enlargement)

In Victorian-era England there was a great resurgence of interest in the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, which was felt as high as England's great poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His Idylls of the King are one of the indispensible tellings of the Matter of Britain (along with Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and T.H. White's The Once and Future King), and his earlier poem "The Lady of Shalott" is also one of his most famous works.

The fascination with Arthurian legend was also felt by the visual artists of the time, including Edmund Blair Leighton and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). Biographical information on Waterhouse can be found here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2002


"The Ruins of Time", by Luis de Gongora (1561-1627)

This chapel that you gaze at, these stern tombs,
the pride of sculpture...Stop here, Passer-by,
diamonds were blunted on this porphyry,
the teeth of files wore smooth as ice. This vault
seals up the earth of those who never felt
the earth's oppression. Whose? If you would know,
stand back and study this inscription. Words
give marble meaning and a voice to bronze.
Piety made this chapel beautiful,
and generous devotion binds these urns
to the heroic dust of Sandoval,
who left his coat of arms, once five blue stars
on a gold field, to climb with surer step
through the blue sky, and scale the golden stars.

(translated from the Spanish by Robert Lowell. From the collection World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, edited by Katharine Washburn and John S. Major.)

I read this poem a week or two ago, skimming it fairly quickly. Since then I've kept coming back to it. There is something compelling in the way de Gongora directly addresses the reader and forces him to pay tribute to the one interred within the tomb on which these words are inscribed. The poem appears to be an epitaph for the Duke of Sandoval, a patron of de Gongora's. (I am not sure on this point; my attempts to locate information specific to this particular poem were not successful.) In any event, de Gongora uses the physical characteristics of the tomb itself to pay tribute to Sandoval's greatness. We are told nothing of Sandoval's deeds or acts or qualities as a person; all we know is that this is man who warranted the "blunting of diamonds" and the "wearing smooth of files" on the marble of his tomb. All this is done, de Gongora tells us, to give meaning to blank stone and voice to mute bronze. Also notable is the reversal of the color in the last portion of the poem. Sandoval has died, leaving behind his coat of arms -- blue stars in a gold sky -- to walk amongst the gold stars set in the blue firmament of Heaven. Luis de Gongora is one of the most important Spanish poets of the baroque era; his works were deemed praiseworthy by Cervantes. And to think, until a week or two ago I had never before heard of him.

NPR had a trio of stories about electronic gaming today on All Things Considered. First was this story about some colleges that are offering degree programs in game design. Second is a report on the Los Angeles Electronic Entertainment Expo, a big trade show where the big gaming companies (and some smaller ones) unveil their new wares. And third comes a profile of voice-over actor Charles Martinet, who is now the voice of the Super Mario Brothers.

Also, this week's TIME Magazine has an article about the new wave of "world-immersion" games -- EverQuest, Final Fantasy, The Sims -- that are more and more popular, branching out into online gameplay that can involve thousands of users at a time. Read the article online here.

Some of these games really look cool, but somehow I wonder if we're not missing out on the old magic of walking into the arcade with a pocketful of quarters and seeing that, by some miracle, there is no one playing Defender just now....

According to VH1, the greatest one-hit-wonder of all time is....(drumroll please)...."The Macarena".

Uh, sure.

Personally, I'd go with "99 Luftballoons" or "Come On Eileen". or maybe "Walkin' On Sunshine". or "Take On Me". Or....

(Sean found this one.)

The City of Buffalo, New York has given to the world one of the greatest of all indulgent foods: the Buffalo-style chicken wing. The problem is, Buffalo wings -- which retain the fatty skin, are deep-fried, and are then tossed in a sauce comprised of hot sauce and butter -- are, from a health standpoint, a disaster of a food item. (What makes them even worse is their amazingly addictive quality. Remember that old Dorito's slogan, "Betcha can't eat just one"? Well, try eating just one Buffalo wing.)

Many people have attempted to come up with a "healthier" version of the classic Buffalo wing. Most such attempts involve baking the wings instead of deep-frying. But today I read, courtesy The Buffalo News food critic Janice Okun, of a truly bizarre method of cooking the little morsels. Read about it here. (Okun is a longtime defender of the wings of Buffalo.) Wings encrusted in oatmeal? The mind boggles....if you suggested such a thing at The Anchor Bar, you'd probably be tossed out on your ear.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002


(The above appears courtesy of my daughter, who cannot resist the siren call of a keyboard left unattended whilst I fetch a bottle of water.)

Just in time for summer, Slate has an article up about a crucial issue that arises each and every summer, a question which divides the country into geographical camps where each is convinced of the absolute correctness of its own position and deeply suspicious of the folks from different parts who are muddled enough to think differently. Yes, it is an article about....

....which barbecue sauce is best.

In my post about Attack of the Clones below I mention the Knights Templar. Here are some books regarding those ill-fated Knights:

:: The Templars: The Dramatic History of the Knights Templar, the Most Powerful Military Order of the Crusades, by Piers Paul Read. This book has been firmly ensconced on my "To Read" pile for a long time now. I really should get to it....

:: Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, by John J. Robinson. This is one of my favorite history books. Robinson writes with a grand sweep of history, and he was a fine historical storyteller, able to make the actual events of history as rivetting as any of the sensational speculations that have gathered around the legendary Templars.

:: Born In Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry, by John J. Robinson. This book describes how some of the Templars escaped their ruthless purge and settled in Scotland, helping the Scots to break free of their Plantagenet rule and eventually form the basis for what became Freemasonry. A fascinating book.

:: The Temple and the Lodge, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. This book also deals with the Templars in Scotland and their role in the beginnings of Freemasonry.

The books named above are historical works, concerned with the actual history of the Knights Templar. The legends surrounding the Templars have grown through the years, and the Templars figure into a number of historically-based conspiracy theories. A few books in this vein are:

:: Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Now this is what all good conspiracy theories should be: large-scale, ambitious, and a little bit blasphemous. Here the Templars become stewards of a long-lost bloodline sired by Jesus.

:: The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. Another fine gonzo theory involving the Templars and Christ -- but not necessarily Jesus. Yes, you read that right.

:: The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar: Solving the Oak Island Mystery, by Steven Sora. Legend has it that when the Templars were purged, their vast hordes of treasure were placed aboard several ships which sailed and then were never seen again. And then, 200 years ago, an ancient vault was discovered on Oak Island, Nova Scotia....

And finally, a good novel involving the Templars:

:: Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. Not the easiest read, but this book involves a group of conspiracy researchers and the theories they create from all manner of medieval esoterica.

Random Thoughts on Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

The last two days I indulged a lengthy essay on the new Star Wars film, concentrating on its structure. Now I should like to discuss some other aspects of the film.

:: What a visual marvel this movie is! Take the very opening sequence, as Senator Amidala's ship arrives on Coruscant. Instead of just swooping down into the same cityscape that we saw in The Phantom Menace, this time the landing takes place on an overcast day on Coruscant -- but the buildings are so high, they tower above the clouds. The ships fly past the tops of buildings that look almost wraith-like as they rise from the cloud cover, before finally setting down on a landing platform. It's a brilliant piece of construction, and just the beginning as the film gives us more details in every shot than we could possibly take in at once. These visuals have been derided by some as overly busy, and George Lucas has been blamed for being more interested in visuals than in the story. I differ greatly on that point, but in any event the visual constructions of this film are staggering in the degree of their world-building. After Obi Wan dives through a window early in the film, would any other filmmaker think to show that window being replaced by a couple of mechanic droids? Or consider the air traffic on Coruscant. Many films like this which assume wide-spread aerial vehicles in their futuristic cities depict the skies as a free-for-all, with vehicles and ships and whatnot flitting every which way possible, like bees around a hive. Not so with the Coruscant that George Lucas and his ILM technicians have envisioned; the air traffic of Coruscant travels in very orderly fashion, with the vehicles remaining in specific lanes at specific altitudes. We even see vehicles peeling away from one lane and into another, much like a standard expressway interchange in the Real World. This orderliness conveys the sense of a real world going on beyond the confines of the Senate Chamber and the Jedi Palace.

:: If I could have one item from the Star Wars movies, of course it would be a lightsaber. But if I had to pick a non-weapon, I might well go for Obi Wan's pocket-sized holographic planetarium.

:: It seems to almost be an article of faith that the acting in Attack of the Clones is sub-par. I cannot agree. Just watch Hayden Christensen's eyes in this film, particularly when he and Padme are talking politics and he says that "Someone should make everyone agree." Before he relents with a sly grin, there is a look in his eyes that makes clear that on some level he is being perfectly serious. And the moment when he snaps and kills the Tuskens, as well as the moment when he confesses the deed to Padme, are absolutely chilling. As for Natalie Portman, she has a couple of stiff scenes early in the film, but then her acting is fine. Ewan McGregor commands the screen in all of his scenes, and of course Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, and Ian McDiarmid provide solid performances. Is Attack of the Clones a masterpiece of thespianship on par with Casablanca or Schindler's List? No. But neither is it inept, as many critics would have us believe.

:: The John Williams score to this film is a revelation. I reviewed the score CD here, but now I can say a few words about the score as used in the film. There are a number of new themes and motifs, most prominent being the new Love Theme, a supple and gorgeous melody that lends a tone of sadness to every scene in which it is heard, never more so than at the end when Anakin and Padme are wheeled into the arena. There is also a motif which I call the "conspiracy" motif; this is first heard when Obi Wan lands on Kamino. It is heard quite often in scenes involving water -- partly, even, during the lake scenes on Naboo. This is an unsettling motif, constantly churning. Williams also uses older themes from his previous Star Wars scores, including the Imperial March at the end as the Clone Army takes to the skies above Coruscant. We also hear the Imperial March -- Vader's Theme -- when Anakin tells Padme what he has done to the Tuskens. However, just before that we hear another theme: the Emperor's Theme, which for these films is being used for Darth Sidious. This only underscores the fact that everything that happens in the film has been orchestrated by Sidious. John Williams manages to both highlight a plot point and foreshadow what is to come with a single musical cue.

Oddly, the film's climactic scenes -- the battle, mostly -- are scored with battle music tracked from The Phantom Menace. The music used fits the scenes perfectly, but I still wonder why Williams did not write new battle music for this film, or why it was not used if in fact he did write new music. This choice struck me as odd, although not nearly as distracting as many film music afficionadoes have found.

:: Yoda's fight scene with Count Dooku was thrilling. Cheers went up in the theater when he hobbled into the landing bay, glared at the Count, and tossed his walking stick aside. I have to admit that I could not envision a Yoda fight scene when I learned that there was going to be one in the film. I'm glad that someone could.

And now, a few speculations and questions regarding Attack of the Clones and its implications for Episode III:

:: Consider the plight of the Jedi: an order of Knights, fairly monastic in nature, that is charged with keeping the peace and maintaining order. But gradually they become absorbed with their own concerns, and as the body they serve becomes more and more threatened by forces internal and external, they find themselves increasingly unable to perform their appointed duties. And even as this all transpires, they are unaware of forces conspiring against them from quarters that they believe to be beyond mistrust. They are betrayed completely and utterly, and in one horrible and violent event (or series of events) they are hunted down and ruthlessly exterminated or driven into hiding in the farthest reaches of the realm. This sounds very, very similar to the historical events surrounding the fall of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon -- the Knights Templar -- in the late 13th and early 14th centuries AD.

The Templars served the Catholic Church until Pope Clement V was convinced by King Philip IV of France that they had succumbed to evil and were undermining the power of the Papacy. The Templars were taken by surprise, and their slaughter was stunningly easy. Some of them eventually fled to Scotland, where the Church had little real power and where they were able to help Robert the Bruce in his struggles against the English throne. Now, we know that Yoda survives the Jedi holocaust, but does that leave Mace Windu to fill the role of Jacques de Molay, last of the Templar Grand Masters? (de Molay was burned at the stake.) Does the story of the Templars point the way toward what may come for the Jedi?

:: I like the idea that the villains found a way to conceal a planet from the Jedi, erasing it from the archives. I've been wondering for a long time why Yoda is allowed to live after the Jedi holocaust; surely the Emperor and Darth Vader, once ascendent, would not allow the greatest of the living Jedi to escape -- unless Yoda has taken a page from their playbook and gone hiding on a planet whose records he himself has deleted from the archives. Thus he will be able to use one of their own schemes against them.

:: As of this film, we have seen the traits in Anakin Skywalker's character that will lead him to the Dark Side, but we haven't seen his real temptation yet. We haven't seen him truly indulge his anger and fear and hatred, and I wonder what the event will be that will finally drive him away. Many think it will involve Obi Wan, and perhaps it will, but I rather suspect that Padme will be the one to do whatever it is that pushes him over the edge. Will it be lost love, or (even worse) love betrayed, that sends Anakin into Darth Sidious's waiting arms?

:: Was the fate of Shmi Skywalker an extremely unfortunate event, or were the Tuskens prompted to abduct this particular woman at this particular time?

:: How will C-3PO and R2-D2 come to forget the man they've served? Or do they at some point think that he is dead, and that it is Vader who doesn't remember them? In any event, it has to be explained why it is that, upon meeting Luke in A New Hope, Threepio doesn't say something like "I think I knew someone named Skywalker once...."

:: Will the Death Star plans prove to be a plot point in Episode III, or were they simply a nifty Easter egg in AOTC?

:: Will we see Mon Mothma and the beginnings of rebellion?

:: Will we get to meet any Correllians?

:: Will we get to see the enslavement of the Wookiees?

:: In Return of the Jedi, Leia says that her birth mother died when she was very young. So, in Episode III, will we see Padme die?

It's a long time to 2005....

Monday, May 20, 2002

Those who love science and knowledge have lost a keen mind, a wonderful writer, and a good friend.

Stephen Jay Gould has died.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones -- an Exercise in Structure, Part II.

(Read Part I here)

How does structure work in Attack of the Clones? The film begins with a fairly visceral event -- the assassination attempt on Senator Amidala -- and then proceeds into a mixture of mystery and political intrigue. Nearly every event along the film's main storyline exposes new levels of plotting and scheming. Obi Wan and Anakin identify Amidala's would-be assassin, but fail to learn exactly why she has been targeted. Obi Wan succeeds in identifying the weapon used to kill the assassin, and follows that trail to a planet called Kamino -- but not before he learns that all records of Kamino have been erased from the Jedi library archives, thus revealing a further facet of scheming and conspiracy. What started as a simple political assassination attempt is now taking on deeper and darker overtones, and this becomes even more pronounced when Obi Wan learns that the Kaminoans are constructing an army of clones at what they believe to be the behest of the Republic itself -- only, no one in the Republic knows anything about it. Here Obi Wan locates the bounty hunter responsible for the death of Amidala's would-be assassin, Jango Fett, but Fett escapes (with his son, Boba). Obi Wan tracks Fett to the planet Geonosis, where he discovers a gathering of the Republic's breakaway factions -- the Trade Federation, the Banking Clan, and others -- at the beck and call of Count Dooku, a renegade former Jedi. The puzzle is apparently solved.

All this is fairly straight-forward -- except that we know from The Phantom Menace that there is another Dark Lord behind the scenes, manipulating events. So it is that at nearly every key juncture in the story, we find the hand of Chancellor Palpatine -- who will eventually be the Emperor -- nudging things along. It is he who suggests that Obi Wan and Anakin be assigned to Amidala's security detail. He is aware, well aware, of Anakin's crush on Amidala. The suggestion is that he wishes to use his feelings to some end, although we don't know what. It could be that he is already planning to tempt Anakin toward the Dark Side of the Force, or it could be that he is trying to keep the Jedi off balance. It could be that he sees Anakin as a potential threat, as he even says that he sees Anakin becoming "the greatest of all the Jedi". Is he moving Anakin into position for his fall from grace, or is that merely a fortunate happenstance that arises later on? We don't know. But the structure of the film -- the scenes of Palpatine's clever manipulations juxtaposed with Obi Wan's investigations -- implies that even as the Jedi work to learn who is behind the dark events that are transpiring, they are being maneuvered unthinkingly into a position to be destroyed.

The film's main subplot is, of course, the blossoming love between Anakin Skywalker and Senator Amidala. (ASIDE: I need some clarification here. Is her first name "Padme", or "Amidala"? The film seems to imply "Padme", but I like "Amidala" better. Ah well....) This is the aspect of Attack of the Clones that has received the strongest attacks from the critics, mainly on the basis of dialogue. And if dialogue is all that we should expect from a screenplay, then perhaps they are right: Hayden Christensen has some very awkward lines to deliver, such as "I don't like sand; it's coarse and rough and irritating....not like you; you're everything smooth and soft." Or, "You are in my very soul, tormenting me." It is easy to hear lines like that and conclude that George Lucas has lost any skill as a screenwriter that he may have once had (and Lucas himself has admitted that dialogue has never been his strong suit). But when the love story is examined in the light of structure, the dialogue is easier to understand -- or at least, the reason for that dialogue becomes more clear. The key is that all of those overwrought, awkward lines are given to Anakin. These lines make the audience uncomfortable, but judging by Padme's reaction to having these things said to her, I can only assume that the discomfort of these lines is intentional.

Here is where Harry Knowles, in his AICN review of AOTC, calls the film's romance "teen love". And that is precisely what it is. Anakin is a teenager who has fallen desperately, hopelessly, in love with Padme. At the film's beginning, it is more like a schoolboy crush -- note how he awkwardly tries to praise her beauty, how he humbly approaches her when she finally recognizes him standing there behind Obi Wan -- but soon it grows, and it does so very quickly. (I'm wondering if Palpatine has a hand in this, partially engineering the fact that Anakin is sent off alone with her.) Anakin, in his immaturity, says things that he hopes and prays are poetic and beautiful, but they keep coming off as stiff and awkward and overwrought. He is at that point in life where love isn't a deep and delicate and beautiful thing; rather, it is a scary and terrifying and overwhelming force that can totally dominate every other emotion. This, I think, is what Lucas is trying to convey here. This is why the "love story" scenes seem awkward, and why they are not as emotionally involving as what comes later. It is no accident at all that the most emotional love scene in the film comes when Padme finally professes her love for Anakin, just before they are wheeled into the arena on Geonosis for their executions. It is then that she can finally express her love, because it isn't until then that she can be sure of her feelings. She is an adult, while Anakin is in many ways still a child, and as such her love needs to grow, to be nourished by the weight of shared experiences. She cannot truly love Anakin until she has been through harsh times with him -- and on Tatooine, she goes through a very harsh time indeed. The ride to the execution is the film's emotional high point, and here even John Williams's wonderful score gets into the act as his Love Theme -- the saddest, most poignant Love Theme in the entire Star Wars series -- swells while the camera pans across the crowds that have gathered to witness the Jedi and his love being put to death.

So the awkward and stiff dialogue in the early love scenes is explained by the structure they are assigned to serve. However, I must note that the love story is still the biggest weakness in Attack of the Clones precisely because of structure. Simply put, Lucas missed an opportunity to really put Anakin and Padme through an emotional wringer -- even moreso than what transpires with Anakin's mother. Anakin is being sent alone to provide for Padme's protection; surely the people who want her dead would rejoice at this -- instead of having to deal with a Jedi master and his capable Padawan, they would only have to overcome the Padawan alone. There should have been a brazen attack on Padme, which Anakin have to fight off alone. The attack could come on Naboo, revealing that Padme is really not safe there at all. Then, Anakin could seize the initiative and take her someplace where he thinks she could be safe: Tatooine. In so doing, though, he would be able to deceive Padme: his real reason for choosing Tatooine would be to investigate his increasing dreams of his mother's distress. As it is, in the film now, Anakin seems almost willing to abandon Padme utterly to go to his mother's side. This seems very contrived, and to my mind was the only truly false moment in Attack of the Clones. Here Lucas's structure partially failed him, and he attempted to cover it over by constructing the deus ex machina to resemble Luke's quandary in The Empire Strikes Back, when he too chooses to abandon duty in favor of an attempt to save his friends from a dark Force-vision he has experienced.

The rest of the film plays out fairly straight-forwardly, as the story gains momentum and plotlines come together for the climax. Lucas's skills as an editor are still with him, and he puts together a massive battle scene that genuinely ebbs and flows. The entire last half-hour of Attack of the Clones is exhilarating as first we see a riveting Gladiator-style fight in the arena, followed by something I have wished for ever since I saw Braveheart: a line of lightsaber-wielding Jedi charging into battle. All hell breaks loose, but then there is a momentary lapse into silence as Count Dooku offers to spare the lives of the remaining Jedi. There are a number of such silent moments sprinkled throughout the gigantic battle scene, which separate the action, allow the audience to momentarily relax, and keep the entire battle from becoming an overwhelming morass of over-the-top ILM-generated action. And the battle that starts small -- as two Jedi and a woman against three horrible monsters -- and grows to a massive assault then shrinks back to small again, as the Jedi confront the evil Count Dooku. This change of focus -- from narrow to wide and back to narrow -- is deftly and wonderfully handled, and the gigantic battle in the middle of it all is unlike anything ever seen in a Star Wars film before, dwarfing the Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back and possibly even the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. The film's climax is a triumph of structure. Even when things are at their most frenetic, the story is still perfectly clear. (Of course, as Steven Denbeste shows here, it probably helps if you're not something of an expert on military tactics....)

The film ends, as we might (and should, if we are intelligent viewers in any sense of the word) expect, with a non-resolution. The battle is won and the separatists who would divide the Republic are defeated -- but the Jedi have been greatly reduced in number and have been forced to adopt artificial means of keeping the peace. And it is then revealed that Count Dooku is actually in league with Darth Sidious (who is probably Chancellor Palpatine). The events of Attack of the Clones turn out to have been orchestrated from behind the scenes. Lucas has stated his belief that complacent democracies will eventually slide into totalitarianism by their own choices, and that is certainly what is happening here. A threat is created which devastates the Jedi and necessitates the creation of the clone army. The Republic is gradually deciding to become the Empire, and Lucas's structure confirms and reinforces the point.

Finally, a note on the film's "metastructure". By this I mean the fact that the current trilogy is clearly being conceived by Lucas as a single story told in three parts; these films (The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are less meant to be viewed as stand-alone stories than their antecedents, the original classic trilogy). Harry Knowles made the comment that AOTC makes TPM a better film, by illuminating aspects of that film's story and making the reasons for certain events and storytelling decisions more clear. I can only assume that the same will be true once Episode III arrives, when everything should be explained and clarified. I, for one, look forward to watching TPM, AOTC, and Episode III consecutively. It's all about the structure. (Lightsabers and neat spaceships don't hurt, though.)

Thank you, George Lucas, and see you in 2005.

(I will have some more things to say about Attack of the Clones tomorrow, in what will probably be a "random thoughts" type of article.)

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones -- An Exercise in Structure, Part I.

"A word here about movie dialogue: It is among the least important parts of a screenplay. Sure, intelligent talk is always better than dumb stuff. And sure, dialogue matters more in some kinds of movies -- wit comedies, such as As Good As It Gets, or intelligent dramas -- than in others. But for the most part, the public and critics have come to believe that screenplays are dialogue.

Wrong. If movies are story, and they are, then screenplays are structure."

-William Goldman, "Rocking the Boat", The Big Picture: "Who Killed Hollywood?" and Other Essays.


I saw Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones twice on opening day, and once more this afternoon. Now that I've seen it three times, I am wondering if I saw the same film that a lot of the critics saw -- because I love this movie.

I kept trying to spot the horrible dialogue, only to find occasionally clunky lines (Obi Wan does affix phrases like "my very young apprentice" to his sentences way too much when addressing Anakin Skywalker, for example) amidst some genuinely memorable lines (Jango Fett's "I'm just a simple man trying to make my way in the Universe" being a prime example). I kept on the lookout for wooden acting by Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen, but I kept discovering that while their line deliveries tend to the muted side, they emote fully with their eyes and body language. I searched in vain for the soul-less special effects, and kept running instead into stunning visuals that were amazing in their detail, the immense amounts of thought that went into the creation of this world being writ large on the screen for all to see. I keep wondering: why on Earth is this movie getting so much bad press? Is it because of lingering feelings from The Phantom Menace (which I do not share, having actually liked that film)? Is it a more jaded populace, now very accustomed to fantasy on the silver screen but still unacquainted for the most part with the history of fantasy and the tropes that drive it? (For how many people was Peter Jackson's film their first encounter with The Lord of the Rings?) Or is it that we've come to expect films to tell their story entirely through dialogue? I suspect the latter is at work here: dialogue is expected these days to carry the story, but George Lucas's movies have always been about structure. The William Goldman quote above holds the key.

Consider structure from the standpoint of a couple of classic films. Casablanca is filled to the brim with great dialogue; in fact, anyone who wants to learn about writing dialogue had damned well better know Casablanca. But structure is at its core. Note that we don't know at the film's beginning just why Rick Blaine is so bitter and cynical, and we still don't even when Ilsa Lund comes into his cafe. We only know that she is a part of it, a suspicion which is later borne out via flashback. Then the film returns to its present day and plays out straightforwardly. Simple construction, but it has the effect that Casablanca is a much better film after you've already seen it once. Only when we already know what Rick and Ilsa shared in pre-war Paris can we know just what a visceral blow it is to him when he sees her in the cafe; only then can we understand his anger at hearing "As Time Goes By" played on Sam's piano. The film practically demands a second viewing, and by then we are forever under its spell. We can never forget Casablanca, and it's all because of structure.

Or, take a more recent example, noted by Goldman in the quoted essay: Titanic. Here is a film that was also excoriated by critics for lousy dialogue, especially in its "love story" scenes (much like Attack of the Clones). But how does structure fit in? First, there is the story's framing device: it's not just a tale about two lovers on a doomed ship, but there is also the mystery of just what happened to the diamond -- a device that justifies the story's being told through flashback, and connects the long-ago story with the one playing out now. But secondly, there is James Cameron's masterstroke: early in the film he has a secondary character explain in some detail just what happened as the Titanic went down -- what physically happens to the ship from the moment it hits the iceberg. At the time, it appears to be just an excuse to show off some nifty digital animation of the ship's sinking -- but when that point is actually reached in the film and as the characters make their harrowing escape from the bowls of the liner, we know exactly what is going on and what the next threat to their lives will be, before they know it. Cameron has already done the heavy lifting of exposition, so there is never a moment where, say, Jack turns to Rose and says something like "Oh my God, the ship's hull can't withstand the pressure being put on it! The ship will break in two any minute now!" We already know this, so Cameron is able to keep the cords of tension humming. That's structure, and it is great storytelling, and it has nothing at all to do with dialogue.

By far the biggest knock on Attack of the Clones from the critics is its dialogue. Roger Ebert, for example, says that the film doesn't contain a single memorable line. (In this I think he's wrong. There is Jango Fett's line quoted above; the charming bit where Obi Wan turns aside a would-be drug pusher; Anakin's chilling "They're animals, and I slaughtered them like animals"; Obi Wan's sarcastic "Good job" after Anakin's failed rescue attempt. And there are more.) Of course, Star Wars films have never been known for their dialogue. It's worth noting that what is probably the best single line in the entire Star Wars saga, Han Solo's reply of "I know" to Princess Leia after she's professed her love for him just before he's carbon-frozen in The Empire Strikes Back, was actually an ad-lib by Harrison Ford because the line in the script -- "Remember that, 'cause I'll be back" -- just wasn't working. (And for those who point to The Empire Strikes Back with longing as an example of the Good Old Days when there was "great dialogue" in these films, I defy you to watch the scene in Luke's hospital room without cringing.) The Star Wars films work because of structure, and it is on that basis that we should judge Attack of the Clones.

(To be concluded tomorrow....)

Tonight while watching the series finale of The X-Files, I checked my e-mail during a commercial break and found the most amusing piece of Spam that I've ever seen. This thing is just priceless, and I've decided to reproduce it below. The fact that it showed up while I was watching TXF is kind of eerie....


If you are a time traveler or alien and or in procession of alien
or government technology I need your help! My case is truly
genuine! I seek to work with someone who is of a kind nature,
someone I can call my savior as well as a friend.

My life has been severely tampered with and cursed by evil beings!!
I have suffered tremendously and am now dying!

I need to be able to:

Travel back in time.

Rewind my life including my age back to 4.
I am in great danger and need this immediately!
I want to work with you in any way possible.

I am aware of two types of time travel one in physical form and
the other in energy form where a snapshot of your brain is taken using
either the dimensional warp or the brain snapshot device and then sends your
consciousness back through time to part with your younger self. I'm almost
certain the dimensional warp would be the safest and best
solution. Please explain how safe and what your method involves.

I have a time machine now, but it has limited abilities and is
useless without a vortex. If you can provide information on how to create vortex generator or where I can get some of the blue or red glowing moon crystals this would also be helpful. I am however concerned with the high level of
radiation these crystals give off, if you could provide a shielding this would be
helpful. I believe the vortex would have to be east-west polarized,
North-south polarized vortexes are used for cross-dimensional time
travel only. Also, I know about the three dimension 4 bit (CODE) our universe is written in. If you are one of the very few beings who can edit this code, or know the passwords which can be spoken over a vortex, please reply!


(WARNING: If you think you have the information that this person so desperately needs, please DO NOT send it to me!!!)

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later: George Lucas has been accused of employing racial stereotypes in Attack of the Clones. I didn't read the linked article all the way through (it's from The Detroit News), but I was struck by a couple of incredibly idiotic statements, both from the same person. First, that Jango Fett is obviously Latino. That's interesting, considering that the actor who plays him is a New Zealander -- which is unsurprising, given that Lucas made the movie in Australia. The casting of Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett is simply an example of using local talent. (The Empire Strikes Back was filmed in England, so take a wild guess as to what nationality was tapped when the character of Boba Fett was originally cast in 1980. And by the way, another person quoted in the article sees the Fetts as surrogate Arabs. I'm confused here. Are Arabs and Latinos the same thing?) The film's anti-Latino sentiments are apparently further revealed by one of the planet names used: Kamino, which is similar in sound to an actual Spanish word (camino, meaning "road" or "I walk"). Ummmmm....OK. The word also sounds like Tamino, which is the name of the hero in Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. Maybe Lucas is spreading anti-Mozartean propaganda. This charge is reminiscent of the flap a few years back when some people were offended by a Washington, DC government official who dared use the word "niggardly" in a sentence, despite the fact that the word does not mean anything remotely similar to the ugly epithet to which it sounds similar.

This same person, a woman named Martina Guzman who is apparently some kind of political operative in Michigan, isn't content to stop with an imagined slur against Latinos: "Jimmy Smits had all of two lines in the whole movie, and Samuel Jackson had like five. Then there's the bad guy." In the first place, Jimmy Smits played Senator Bail Organa, a character who is only introduced in this film and will have a larger role to play in Episode III when he becomes the adoptive father to Anakin and Amidala's daughter Leia. (And interestingly, Senator Organa was actually played by a white actor in The Phantom Menace, but those scenes were cut entirely and the role recast for Attack of the Clones.) As for Guzman's second statement, "Samuel Jackson had like five", this statement makes me wonder if she even saw the film at all. Jackson's character, Mace Windu, probably has the most screen time in the film after the leads (Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, and Natalie Portman). He's a high-profile character, and Guzman's utterance here is simply stupid and ignorant. And finally, she says "Then there's the bad guy". I wonder just what she is talking about here. Is she still referring to Jango Fett? He's not even the film's main villain; that honor belongs to Count Dooku, played by Christopher Lee -- a white man.

I'm amazed that the people quoted in this article actually view the world this way, and I'm further amazed that in a city the size of Detroit, the local newspaper couldn't come up with anything more newsworthy than this. A pox on the houses of all involved.

A couple of Star Wars related shortcuts: Sunday's Entertainment section in The Buffalo News featured an article on George Lucas and one on Hayden Christensen.

Friday, May 17, 2002

Here is a transcript of the conversation about Star Wars Episode II from the Ebert&Roeper TV show. Nothing against Roeper, but it's times like this that I really miss Gene Siskel.

Harry Knowles of AICN stunned a lot of people a few months back when he posted a review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, based on a secret screening of a work print that he managed to attend. Now he has written a full review of the finished film, which can be found here. It is a highly positive review, and it says a lot of things that I agree with. Knowles's analysis of the film in terms of the classic structure of the James Bond films is particularly interesting. Check it out.

(My own thoughts on the film will be appearing in this space sometime this weekend. Be warned, as I plan to indulge all of my instincts toward long-windedness.)

(UPDATE: AICN seems to be having server troubles the last day or two, making access to the site and its contents spotty. Keep trying.)

Thursday, May 16, 2002


'Nuff said.

The mid-May update of SFSite is up, with new reviews and columns.

On the recommendation of a friend, I read The Descent by Jeff Long. This novel concerns the discovery that the Earth is somewhat hollow, and living down there is an entire race of beings whose bodily features are frighteningly similar to those we assign to the classical image of demons. Many myths have some basis in some kind of historical fact; what Long has done here is to try to envision the historical fact that would have given rise to our religious ideas of Hell and its minions.

I found this novel to be one of the more amazing reads I've had in a while, but it took me all the way to the end to make that decision. Along the way, the book moves in a lot of different directions, and the resulting lack of focus is somewhat maddening. Examining the religious implications of such a discovery alone could make for an entire thick novel; so, too, could the story of the intrepid explorers who are sent to explore it. Ditto the war that breaks out briefly between the surface-dwellers and the hadals (the name given to the subterranean race, homo hadalis). Also throw in linguistic theory -- the book's main character is a nun who has spent her life searching for the lost "mother language" -- and Jules Verne homages and the standard not-all-that-benevolent-billionaire who drives most stories like this, and you have one of the densest books, in terms of things that are happening, that I've ever encountered.

All this plot, though, means that characterization takes a back seat. Of all the characters in the book, only two -- maybe three -- are really sharply drawn. The remainder are ciphers, basically filling in obligatory parts that must be played for the plot to work. This overdensity of plot combined with the broad-line characterization combines to make the book hard to really sink one's teeth into.

The book's ending, though, is nothing short of amazing. All of the various plotlines come together in the space of about one hundred twenty pages. This is one of those books where nothing makes sense until the reader is done with the entire work and able to sit back and see how it all fits together. This may be a book that improves on successive readings, when the events in the front portion of the work take on a different light given knowledge of what is to come.

The Descent is by turns horror, adventure novel, love story, philosophical novel, religious novel, and science fiction. It doesn't start out being a page-turner, but it becomes one.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

It is occasionally desirable to be able to non-verbally convey jaded boredom, such as that one might feel in one of those utterly useless, Dilbert-style staff meetings. What is needed in these cases is a way of saying, short of sleeping or notepad-doodling, "I'm here because I'm required to be, but I am well aware that nothing of great importance is being discussed." For those craving such a skill, check out this site, devoted to the fine art of pen-spinning. (Thanks to Sean, himself a noted pen-spinner, for this one.)

There are times when one must eschew poetic descriptors, and go instead straight for the onomatopoeia. That said:


I believe this to be the worst teaser for a film that I have ever seen. It's for the new Bond film, Die Another Day, and it does absolutely nothing to make me look forward to the movie. And I'm a longtime James Bond fan. It doesn't help that the thing is presented in a window that is roughly the size of a large postage stamp, but a Bond trailer should look like a BOND trailer, not just a generic espionage-thriller.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

In his review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Roger Ebert noted that he found many of the film's visual effects to be hazy and ill-defined, as he was seeing a film print taken from a digital master. Now he has seen the film in an actual digital projection, and he writes this article about the difference.

Many Star Wars fans were surprised by Ebert's lukewarm review of the new film, given his until-now unflagging support of the franchise -- he is the by far the most prominent film critic to give The Phantom Menace a positive review, for example. But to experienced readers of Ebert, his opinions now don't come as much of a surprise. Ebert has been fairly skeptical of digital cinema for several years now; he has written numerous articles detailing his belief that film is still preferable because the image is more organic. (The argument is reminiscent of the audiophiles who steadfastedly maintain that a pristine vinyl LP sounds better than a compact disc.) He has also been giving films that are not quite up to par passing marks for inventive visuals; it was on this basis that he gave probably the only positive review that Speed 2: Cruise Control received. It was on the basis of visuals that he recommended The Phantom Menace, saying: "As for the bad rap about the characters--hey, I've seen space operas that put their emphasis on human personalities and relationships. They're called Star Trek movies. Give me transparent underwater cities and vast hollow senatorial spheres any day." If he was truly disappointed by the look of Attack of the Clones, how could he give it any other review than the one he did?

(And he panned Spiderman for the EXACT same reason.)

Donn Esmonde, a regular columnist for The Buffalo New, wrote this article on today's vote by the Seneca Nation of Indians on whether to pursue casinos in downtown Buffalo and Niagara Falls. His article is a bit alarmist, but that's fine by me. I'd love to see the city figure out a plan for economic development that doesn't include gambling venues.

(UPDATE: The vote by the Seneca Nation approved the gambling pact with the State of New York, by approximately one hundred votes. Casinos, here we come....)

Newsweek has an interesting article online about the future of high-rise skyscrapers.

And thus did the Bash Brothers pass into baseball memory, there to dwell forever with the likes of the Gashouse Gang and "Tinker to Evers to Chance". Jose Canseco has retired. I always rather liked Canseco, with his "Yeah, I'm a big-time sports star and I'm just going to have fun with it". You have to like any ballplayer who, while playing outfield, goes to run down a deep fly ball at the warning track and has the ball bounce off his head and over the fence for a home run.

Canseco is one of those borderline players who will appear on many Hall of Fame ballots before he's eventually admitted, if at all. I suspect he'll eventually get in, but it may take him years into his "Veterans Committee" eligibility. Anyway, best of luck to him.

Monday, May 13, 2002

I supported the recording industry's legal fights against Napster and other such services, not so much for the good of the record companies but for the artists. No one will claim that the artists have been fairly treated by the record companies; in fact, their track record in that regard is two steps removed from indentured servitude. But I failed to see the logic, argued heatedly by Napster proponents, that since record companies so often treated the artists unfairly viz. the compensation they paid the artists for their efforts, it was therefore an improvement to switch to a system whereby there was no compensation whatsoever for the artists, whose work was distributed without their consent. I called this the "Robin Hood argument", and I never bought it; instead, I suspected ulterior motives on the part of the pro-Napsterites -- and my suspicions were in part born out by the tone many of them took in their argumentation. They usually ended up sounding like nothing so much as pale imitators of the Veruca Salt character from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "Daddy, I want my free music now!!!"

But now, just a year and a half later, the recording industry has shot itself in the foot with their clumsy attempts at copy-protecting CDs. They are terrified of piracy, which is made absurdly easy by the prevalence of CD-R drives. The problem, though, is that their copy-protection schemes frequently render CDs unplayable in some players, and in any event are easily circumvented. The whole enterprise is glaringly disrespectful of the idea of fair use, and is in all likelihood ridiculously futile anyway. The record companies need desperately to get on the bandwagon of new technology, or they will soon be extinct.

A good article on the quandaries facing the recording industry appears in the current issue of Time, and also appears online here. (ASIDE: for some unintentional hilarity, check out the article's accompanying photograph of Morpheus founder Steve Griffin. His picture is taken sitting down, and behind him is a wall-hanging hung in such a way that the picture makes it appear as if Griffin is wearing some kind of gonzo Ancient Egyptian headdress.) A sidebar article features a guy who created a site to let music consumers pay artists directly for the music they download, eliminating the record company as middle man entirely. That article is here.


George Lucas has been blamed for a lot of things. The most common charge against him, mainly by film critics, is that he paved the way for Hollywood's ever-increasing obsession with huge blockbusters at the expense of quality films. The road leading to Armageddon, Godzilla, and The Scorpion King begins, they say, with Star Wars. This may be partly true, but to blame Lucas for that seems harsh. After all, Lucas had absolutely no idea how Star Wars would be received when it opened, and in any event the first real huge blockbuster came two years earlier, with Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Additionally, one need only watch AMC for a week to see that the idea that cinema used to produce films the caliber of Casablanca on a regular basis is false. There have always been bad movies; we merely remember the hits and forget the misses. So George Lucas isn't totally to blame for the blockbuster mentality of Hollywood these days. But there is one thing that I will blame on George Lucas: the evolution of the lunatic fanboy. Witness this AICN review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

I have not yet seen the movie. I will be seeing it on opening day, three days from now. Thus, I do not challenge this person's view of the film, and even if after seeing it I disagree entirely, I still won't challenge it. Opinions are tricky things, not usually governed by reason (although reason can and should be brought to bear). A cut of meat one man wouldn't use to make shoe leather is another man's beef brisket, and we all would do well to remember that. This reviewer was decidedly unimpressed with Attack of the Clones. Fair enough.

But not fair enough is the vitriol with which he attacks the film and, both implicity and explicitly, George Lucas. It is no secret that many (if not most) filmgoers were disappointed with The Phantom Menace (I am one of the few who liked it; we are sufficiently low in number that we have petitioned EPA Administrator Christie Whitman for "Endangered Species" status). But the sheer hatred that film seems to engender is utterly mystifying to me. Consider the third paragraph of the review in question, and try while reading it to not hear in your innermost ear, as I did, the voice of William Shatner intoning "Get a's just a movie....". I find it somewhat disturbing that some people would form such angry hatred for a Star Wars movie, and I would be bothered enough by this review if that paragraph stopped just after the first sentence. But then the reviewer goes on to intone the single most repugnant phrase I've ever heard from any sector of fandom:

"George Lucas raped my childhood."

I barely know where to start. First, I am baffled by the idea of one's childhood as something that can be harmed retroactively, as if we didn't learn until we were thirty that Christopher Reeve was buoyed by wires in Superman. When I learned that Errol Flynn, star of many films that I watched and loved when I was a kid, was a drunk and a rascal to such a degree that he basically drank himself to death, did learning that somehow harm the experiences I had enjoyed years before? If a heretofore unknown JRR Tolkien manuscript, detailing the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, comes to light and turns out to be a complete dud, has Tolkien somehow done injury to my original experience of reading The Lord of the Rings? The reviewer says, "Something died in me -- and George Lucas killed it. Bastard." No, he didn't. He did nothing except fail to live up to one person's expectations, and to call Lucas a "bastard" on that basis makes me wonder what we would say if George Lucas eventually was revealed to be the Zodiac Killer. (And of course, encountering such name-calling just three paragraphs into a lengthy review doesn't bode well for what one would hope to be a piece of rational criticism.)

But in any event, the truly disgusting thing about the whole thing is the idea that one's childhood could be "raped" by something so trivial as a movie. Sorry, folks. If you don't like this Star Wars movie, the last one, or any of them, fine. But let's reserve the overwrought hyperbole for people who really have a right to use it -- the children of Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, or Bosnia, for example. Or how about all those children who lost one or both parents on 11 September 2001. Their childhoods were raped. Anyone who wishes to claim that their childhood was raped by a Star Wars movie should be aware: they are still in their childhood, and really should grow up.

Saturday, May 11, 2002

I am not certain if this is a joke or not. Either way, I find it rather depressing.

After my rant the other day on the City of Buffalo and its haphazard pursuit of casino gambling, there comes a bit of good news in the form of possible economic development that is real and not just one more example of a reeling metropolis grasping at whatever it can graze with its bony, weak fingers. Buffalo is trying to get in on what is supposed to be the Next Big High-Tech Thing: bioinformatics. (I'm not entirely sure what "bioinformatics" is, but I know it involves advanced biological research and supercomputing.) In their pursuit of this endeavor, city and state officials have come up with a lot of money to jumpstart the project, beginning a research center and, according to this article from The Buffalo News, getting the right guy to head the whole project. I'm still a bit wary that this will be the next "silver bullet"; Buffalo leaders tend to focus exclusively on one large-scale project at a time, ignoring nearly everything else (an attitude which, just for one example, very nearly led to the demolition of a Buffalo house that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). The Center for Excellence in Bioinformatics may be the first step on a long and properous road that could give Buffalo some much-needed credibility in the high-tech world, but there are so many other things that need to happen for this city to finally move out of the doldrums. Anyway, here's hoping.

A couple of book notes:

:: Neil Gaiman's American Gods is now available in mass-market paperback.

:: A few weeks ago I reviewed longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas's book Front Row at the White House. She has a new book out: Thanks For the Memories, Mr. President. This is a "wit-and-wisdom" book, with a chapter devoted to each President that Thomas has covered in her long tenure at the White House. It mostly presents presidential humor, but there are some sober moments as well. This book is a very quick read, being basically a collection of anecdotes -- I polished it off in a single evening. Nevertheless, it's quite entertaining.

Thursday, May 09, 2002

Is there anything wrong with getting misty-eyed over the death of a fictional character? I think not.

Godspeed, Dr. Greene.

The West Wing is ramping up toward the season finale, and is doing so very effectively. Last season's end-of-year build-up was dominated by a single storyline, President Bartlett's disclosure of the multiple sclerosis which he had carefully concealed during his first campaign. This year, though, Aaron Sorkin is weaving together a number of plots. The President's reelection campaign is heating up, there is increasing tension regarding a possible terrorist threat, and someone is stalking CJ Cregg. Sorkin is an amazing writer, and I'm sure he'll have this pot boiling quite nicely by the time the season finale airs.

My other favorite NBC show is on Wednesday nights. It's not Law and Order. It's Ed, a consistently smart and literate show about a former big-city lawyer who has returned to the small Ohio town where he grew up. With its quirky cast, Ed is reminiscent of Northern Exposure, without that show's flights of fantasy. The season finale of Ed is next week, and I'm a bit apprehensive. The show has been developing a love triangle of sorts between Ed, his dream-woman Carol Vescey, and high school principal Dennis Martino. The problem with this triangle is that Dennis, who should be the odd man out, is actually a very likable character, and his romance with Carol has been handled with aplomb by the show's writers. This should lead to a bittersweet ending, which is precisely the type of ending that can be really screwed up. Stay tuned.


Olmec Stone Head, Mexico. (Photograph by Santha Faiia)

One of my guilty pleasures (actually, sometimes I wonder if all of my pleasures are guilty, but that's for another post) is gonzo theories of human origins, the kind of theories that might be breathlessly expounded by Agent Mulder on The X-Files. Some of the most enjoyable such theories are currently found in the books of Graham Hancock, a British writer who has hypothesized that a great human civilization, technological in nature, flourished more than fifteen thousand years ago before the most recent Ice Age. This, needless to say, flies in the face of all established anthropological and archaeological theory. The Olmec stone head pictured above is one of many that can be found throughout Central America. What interests Hancock in this case is the stone head's Negroid features, when there is no evidence at all of any Negroid dispersion from Africa to the Americas (before they were helped along by Caucasian slave-traders). This is just one piece of "evidence" for Hancock's theories, which can be found in such books as Fingerprints of the Gods, The Message of the Sphinx, and Heaven's Mirror. An earlier book by Hancock, The Sign and the Seal, proposed an intriguing theory of where the Ark of the Covenant currently rests. The photograph links to Hancock's official website.

(I am actually very skeptical of theories such as Hancock's; my recommendation of his books should not be taken as an endorsement of his hypotheses. I will recommend some good books on skepticism in a future post.)

In possible violation of my "No Politics" policy, I'm going to rant a minute or two about my city of Buffalo, which has reached what I perceive to be a crossroads.

An upcoming vote by the Seneca Nation of Indians will decide if casinos are built in the downtown areas of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, NY, as well as a third in some as-yet undetermined location in Western New York outside of those two cities. The idea, of course, is that the new casinos will rejuvenate the moribund downtown sections of these two cities by drawing large numbers of people from the surrounding regions to spend (and lose) money. This will be just the latest in a long line of silver-bullet-style projects at which local politicians have grasped, each time promising that this is the one that will lift Buffalo out of the doldrums (the boom of the 90s completely bypassed Buffalo, a city that is still reeling from the losses of thousands of manufacturing jobs twenty years ago), each time lining up for state aid to get the job done (whilst teachers and school aides -- and never administrators -- are laid off and fire department precincts are closed), and each time chanting that wonderful mantra, "If we build it, they will come" (note to people who insist on using this cliche: It was a MOVIE, and the line is "If YOU build it, HE will come", and the "he" refers to the main character's father, not an unending flock of deep-pocketed tourists who theoretically could find nothing better to do than gamble). Casinos are a bad bet for any number of reasons. Of course there is the fear that gambling addiction will jump in this city, as well as prostitution; but what galls me are the claims that casinos will generate spinoff economic development as restaurants are opened nearby, shops move in, et cetera. Clearly people who say these kinds of things have never been in a real casino, where shops and restaurants and entertainment are all there under the same roof as the gambling machinery. The entire premise behind a casino operation is, "Get them in the door and then keep them here". The benefit to other local businesses is negligible, if not downright nonexistent.

In the last fifteen years, Buffalo has built new sports venues, each time insisting that they will stimulate downtown business development. The ballpark is lovely and I really am glad they built it, but how a minor-league baseball stadium that is only open at most ninety times a year is supposed to jumpstart local business investment is beyond me. Buffalo has also built a light rail system which did, in fact, seem like a good idea -- until they only built it along one street, and they stopped it virtually on the border of Amherst, Buffalo's richest suburb. There was a big ceremony last year announcing the construction of a big new office building in downtown Buffalo, but that project's other shoe dropped recently when the company behind that project -- Adelphia Cable -- suffered a calamitous drop in its stock value. And while cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Milwaukee have in the last ten years or so rebuilt their historical waterfront districts into exciting hubs of small business, entertainment, and residential activity, Buffalo's waterfront development is still mostly on the drawing board. One other weird thing about Buffalo that I have noticed: our tourist literature always seems to point out, as a "selling point", our proximity to places like Toronto, Montreal, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and NYC. You really have to wonder about a city that sells itself on the basis of how short a drive it is to someplace else.

There are hopeful signs on the horizon for Buffalo. The state has committed large amounts of money to help launch a state-of-the-art Center for Bioinformatics, which should -- if the cards are played right, which is by no means a lock -- help Buffalo get involved in what many say will be the next boom-sector in the high tech economy. Also, developers are currently renovating a number of buildings in downtown Buffalo into residential buildings, which seems to imply that the powers-that-be are at least starting to recognize that a city's vitality lies not in how many people come there for a few hours at a time, but in how vibrant a community actually lives there. The County Legislature, usually quite willing to let the City of Buffalo twist in the wind, is actually scrambling to find some money to at least partially restore the city's arts funding, which was cut off after the latest round of deficits. (Deficits are actually par for the course, but the State of New York is usually good to cover the difference -- at least in years when the State Government isn't preoccupied with other financial demands, such as rebuilding the state's other large city which was the unfortunate victim of a terrorist attack last September.) Buffalo has an arts community that is larger and more vibrant than one would expect in a city this size. It seems to me that if a "silver bullet" exists, it is far more likely to involve the arts than sports or casinos. One striking statistic that I recently read in Artvoice is that while the HSBC Arena, the home of the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL, is open perhaps 120 nights a year for various events, the Shea's Buffalo Theatre (the city's largest theatre, where the largest traveling Broadway productions are mounted) is open over 220 nights a year. And whereas the Arena is ringed by parking lots, Shea's is surrounded by restaurants and is within walking distance of Chippewa Street, downtown Buffalo's "party area". Any politician -- indeed, any person at all -- who can claim that the arts are a luxury to be dispensed with in times of fiscal hardship is simply unaware of reality.

From my perspective, the next five to ten years will make or break the City of Buffalo. At the end of that time it will either be a bustling community and a destination in its own right, or it will be a mere waystation on the way from Boston to Chicago on I-90.

Sunday, May 05, 2002


Randall Jarrell, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.


This poem has stuck in my mind for years, ever since a high school English teacher forced it on us. I suppose the most memorable thing about the poem, especially to a young reader, is the visceral image with which the poem closes. But what makes it more remarkable, upon rereading it, is the juxtaposition of fetal imagery ("From my mother's sleep I fell", "I hunched in its belly") with that of war ("I woke to black flak and nightmare fighters"). The poem's first line is the most interesting, with its implication that the narrator -- still a child, really -- exists for no other reason than to die in the belly of an airplane. "From my mother's sleep I fell into the State", Jarrell writes -- implying that we exist for the State, to live or die by its whims. The poem contrasts maternal instincts with cold, impersonal duty to Our Nation, and does so with a shocking image that is hard to dislodge. And all that in five lines.