Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives

January 2008 Archives

On novels and episodes.

Jean Hannah Edelstein of The Guardian asks an interesting question today: Can the novella save literature? In the microessay (which is itself fitting), she argues:

Readable in a couple of hours, a novella demands far less time than a full-length novel: you can get through them in the same amount of time it takes to watch a film or two reality television programmes. If you read one in bed you can actually finish it in one go, as opposed to reading the same few chapters repeatedly because you keep forgetting what you covered the night before.

And best all, an upswing in the publication of novellas would not confirm the prejudices of those who rail against the dumbing-down of literature: novellas require an intelligent author and an intelligent reader to appreciate the power of brevity. Without exacting quite the level of austerity presented by the task of writing a good short story, novellas challenge writers to use words like wartime rations: with care and thought and the extra level of creative gusto required to ensure that they stretch to make a miniature read that is just as satisfying as something more substantial. And the economics are right: they're cheaper to produce (less paper, naturally), can be sold at enticing low price points, and can more easily be stocked in non-traditional outlets - whereas I'd be loth to pick up a £20 first edition of a book at a newsagent, I'd much rather purchase a £5 novella than yet another soul-destroying glossy magazine to accompany me on an hour-long train trip.

This is in keeping with some of my own recent thinking about the nature of narrative and the role of books in a modern entertainment ecosystem. Last year I finished my first real novel, Bones of the Angel, but it's short, only about 200 pages or so. One of my best friends read it and remarked that it could comfortably be about a third again as long, and I've been mulling that over for a while now. What I think I'd rather do, one way or the other, is to publish it short and begin to adopt the short novel approach as a general philosophy because, dangit, I really do think Edelstein is right.

A few weeks ago I finally picked up John Maeda's new book, Simplicity, which is a beautifully done slim volume of about 100 pages. It's light, easy to consume and yet no less off for its nimbleness. I think that novels, or novellas, would probably benefit from the same approach. Jonathan Carroll, one of my literary heroes, uses a similar model and it's paid off very well for him. So much of my own research and media diet has been made up of serialized narratives – comics, TV, film franchises, video games – that I think that a series of short novels might be the way to go, and maybe sprinkle a mess of short stories about those characters or their world in between 'em to act as "Monster of the Week" episodes, to swipe a phrase from The X-Files.

What do you folks think? Also, what if these stories were made initially available as PDFs for free download, using the Cory Doctorow model, accompanied by the option to order slim hardcovers of each one?

Hensons prove value of niche media on iTunes.

Okay, this is a fantastic data point in my recent research into niche media groups – specifically, the Jim Henson Company. As of today, Fraggle Rock and Farscape are available on iTunes.

Why is this big news? Because Farscape is infamous for being a difficult show to collect. First, because it's been reissued in several different (and confusing) editions – the Starburst collections, which split each season up into multiple discs, are often found sitting side-by-side on the shelves of Borders or Barnes and Noble with the complete season collections. What the two editions have in common are the fact that they're both excruciatingly expensive: The Complete First Season is only available on Amazon used for a whopping $296.99, and the Complete Second Season is on sale for $79.49, marked down from a ludicrous $149.98. Jesus!

Unfortunately, this makes sense for a niche product like Farscape or Doctor Who because they don't have the same economy of scale as something like LOST – similar overhead and smaller budgets and smaller markets all translate into higher price tags – except when you start dealing with digital distribution, which chops out the costs of manufacturing, shipping and so on. On iTunes, Season One is a much more palatable $39.99. True, this wouldn't include all the extras as the DVDs, but the Amazon listing for Season Two doesn't seem to include any extras. Now, if only the iTunes store delivered each episode in a higher resolution...


AFI Update.

Since the last time I posted an update on this project, I've managed to watch A Clockwork Orange, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Unforgiven, and Raging Bull. If I weren't still feeling relatively laid low by the bug I caught last weekend (this sucker's a tenacious little SOB) I'd be writing up the kind of lengthy posts I've authored for some of the others. As it is, I just don't have the energy for much more than a couple fleeting high points: Butch and Sundance may be the best buddy movie I've ever seen, and I'm taking careful notes to improve the relationship between the two main characters in my novel; A Clockwork Orange was deservedly awesome for about the first half hour and then veered off into predictability land; Raging Bull is an interesting case study of violence but not as interesting as this year's There Will Be Blood, but it's really interesting to see that hot on the heels of On the Waterfront; and Unforgiven was, as I think Jonathan Gray pointed out in an earlier comment, pretty much Clint Eastwood proving that he can still make Westerns, although it was a decent Western at that.

I think the next couple on my hit list are Rocky and Network, with maybe One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest squeezing in there somewhere. Another thing I might do is lock myself in the house next Sunday while Laura's at work, TiVo the Super Bowl so's I can just watch the commercials, and watch nothing but war movies all day. I figure with enough tenacity, chips and beverages I could probably plow through Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Patton, The Bridge on the River Kwai, All Quiet on the Western Front and maybe even MASH by the end of the day. I'm dang near done with the Westerns after binging on those already – I think I only have Stagecoach and The Wild Bunch left to go there. I also need to do a comedy binge at some point, watching Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, The General, City Lights, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times. Ken, when's the next time you're going to be up this way?


I'm not sick, but I'm not well.

Bonus points to those in the audience who get the lyrical reference in the title to this post, but it sums up my current state of the universe pretty much perfectly. I began coming down with something on Monday, was down flat on Tuesday, was back up on my feet (but exactly one Red Bull down from feeling normal) on Wednesday and now, Thursday morning, I'm somewhere between ugh and enh. There should be a clinical name for the stage of a virus that is, essentially, the hangover.

That said, my transmedia lecture yesterday afternoon went amazingly well – I began with the disclaimer that since I wasn't feeling so hot I was struggling to bring my C game, much less my B game or A game, but once I got into the swing of things I was having a great time, bouncing ideas back and forth with the audience, and Henry showed up at the end of the show so I could deflect some of the questions about fanfic and areas I'm still shaky on over to him. Which was awesome, because as soon as I stepped out from behind the lectern I realized exactly how much energy I'd just spent on giving that talk. Woozy with a vengeance. Still, it's nice to have reaffirmation that yes, teaching and lecturing about this stuff is still very much the way I want to go. Bonus points: I've been invited to be one of the judges for this year's Sony Game Workshop, which is awesome since I myself have been somewhat involved in two of the things now, plus two of Chris Weaver's classes, so I'm tickled pink to be on the other side of the curtain for a change.

In other news, I've been looking around the old site here and contemplating what needs to change in order for it to more accurately reflect my current state of existence. I need somewhere to put my academic work, which I suppose should fall under 'writing', but I'm not 100% positive. I do know that my portfolio is way the heck out of date; I haven't even added the logo designs for C3, CMS, GAMBIT, NML... And the first of those was done in 2005. The CMS website isn't there, nor is the C3 site, the GAMBIT site, the 2007 CMS research fair concept design, the C3 white papers, the C3 HTML email, the GAMBIT promo posters, the 2008 research fair promos, the 2007 C3 Futures of Entertainment design, the 2008 C3 Futures of Entertainment design... And I have buckets of new photos I want to add in, I think, but all this illustrates that I've been spending more time on the corporate side of life and not enough on the actual artistic side. More work! More time! Go, man, go!

Hmm. If I wanted to include an area where people could download my slides from various talks and lectures, where do you folks think I should put that? A new top-level area called 'academia' or 'research' or...?


Oh, no.

I don't believe it – Heath Ledger has reportedly committed suicide. I'm stunned. It's possible that this is due to a relationship ending last year, but still... The man had so much going for him.


Critiques: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Last night Laura and I continued our trek through the AFI top 122 with Frank Capra's 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of the films I'd been most looking forward to for several reasons.

One, I'm a big Jimmy Stewart fan. Cary Grant and John Wayne are both awesome in their own ways, but I'm a sucker for Jimmy Stewart's aw-shucks delivery, and the through-and-through wholesomeness of his Jefferson Smith appeals to the anti-ironic optimist in me (which is almost constantly struggling for survival). This is amplified by the director, Frank Capra – the term Capraesque has come to mean a sort of overly saccharine, cheesy over-the-topness in Hollywood, but I'd argue that this is because so many other directors who have tried to emulate Capra have simply done it badly. The viewing public was subjected to a raft of Capra wannabes in the 1980s, which I suspect is largely to blame for the rise of irony and darkness in the 1990s. While I'm a big fan of dark entertainment, I'd also like to see a return to this kind of attitude. Innocence is the wrong word, but optimism might be the right one.

Two, I'm also a big fan of hopeful political movies and shows, as anyone who's read my ravings about Aaron Sorkin on this blog well knows. Academics and social critics cluck their tongues and note that the aforementioned dark, ironic flavor to the zeitgeist is reflective of the downfall of the American empire. I fell hard for Sorkin's The West Wing soon after I moved to Washington, DC in 2000, which is also one of the main reasons why I've railed so hard about the Bush administration for the last eight years – at the same time that I was listening to Sorkin's paeans to classic American ideology I was surrounded by evidence of corruption, cronyism and incompetence at the highest levels. The despair that I felt was driven largely by a sense that politics had become irretrievably corrupted in an age when someone could so blatantly steal an election, and that despair gave way to complete surrender and acceptance when he was re-elected. Watching Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, however, suggests to me that this is where Sorkin first learned the tune, and the fact that the American government was shot through with such corruption back in 1939, and the film's reminding me that Washington and Lincoln both had to deal with the same type of issue, reminds me that this so-called "downfall of the American Empire" is not a modern issue at all, but an eternal struggle inherent to any systemic ordering of power. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" has always been true, but by the same token there have always been people in office who genuinely, truly believe that they're doing the right thing. I've never once believed that George W. Bush is one of them – I have hope that someone like Barack Obama might be, but I'm also not that inspired by any of the candidates. Me, I miss Al Gore – good enough for a Nobel prize but not good enough to be awarded the Oval Office. Sheesh.

Getting back to the film, it's possible that only Capra can do Capra because any modern attempt to do the same thing will simply be written off as heavy-handed – but the film is worth seeing for much more than just the shots that we typically associate with Capra now. Sure, there are the lingering shots on parts of the Lincoln Memorial with the particular passages he wants us to read highlighted in an illuminated band in the middle of the screen, and yes, there's one shot where we're shown Jean Arthur's Clarissa Saunders falling in love with Senator Smith with all the subtlety of a megaton warhead, but at the same time there's one long shot where we're shown Senator Smith's awkward twitterpation for Astrid Allwyn's Susan Paine by tracking the way Stewart keeps fumbling with his hat. Allwyn isn't in the shot at all, and we only catch a glimpse of Stewart's face once or twice, because the camera tracks the hat in a moderate close-up as it twirls from hand to hand, falls to the floor, is scooped up, is brought hesitatingly up to his head, almost plunks down there, then is brought back to his side and dropped to the floor again. It's a brilliant shot, and one that I'll probably use to illustrate symbolism 101 in a classroom someday.

As restorations go, the Columbia Classics DVD is far from ideal. There are several scenes where there's very clearly a scratch in the film or a hair on the lens, something that could be fixed very easily given a $300 piece of software today. The sound is only so-so and the package itself held only the disc with no liner notes at all. All of this makes me cock an eyebrow at the $27 list price of the disc, but the quality of the film itself has me going back and forth. The film is a must-see, but I can't say that this particular disc is a must-own yet. If Columbia opts to do a high-def restoration and cleanup on this film, I'll be first in line to buy my copy on release day. Until then, I'll recommend that anyone pick up a copy at their library or through Netflix immediately, and to save their money until a better edition is released. Seeing the film can't wait, but owning it probably can.


NYT on Friday Night Lights.

Today's New York Times Magazine features a brilliant essay by Virginia Heffernan on Friday Night Lights and Art in the Age of Franchising:

The fault of “Friday Night Lights” is extrinsic: the program has steadfastly refused to become a franchise. It is not and will never be “Heroes,” “Project Runway,” “The Hills” or Harry Potter. It generates no tabloid features, cartoons, trading cards, board games, action figures or vibrating brooms. There will be no “Friday Night Lights: Origins,” and no “FNL Touchdown” for PlayStation.

This may sound like a blessing, but in a digital age a show cannot succeed without franchising. An author’s work can no longer exist in a vacuum, independent of hardy online extensions; indeed, a vascular system that pervades the Internet. Artists must now embrace the cultural theorists’ beloved model of the rhizome and think of their work as a horizontal stem for numberless roots and shoots — as many entry and exit points as fans can devise.

This is an enormous social shift that coincides with the changeover from analog to digital modes of communication, the rise of the Internet and the new raucousness of fans. It’s a mistake to see this imperative to branch out as a simple coarsening of culture. In fact, rhizome art is both lower-brow (“American Idol,” Derek Waters’s “Drunk History”) and more avant-garde (“Battlestar Galactica,” Ryan Trecartin’s “I-Be Area”) than linear, author-controlled narrative, which takes its cues from the middle-class form of the novel.

This is CMS through-and-through. Excellent, insightful stuff and a good introduction to the type of thing we've been researching in C3 for the last two years.


Critiques: On the Waterfront.

Something of a double feature today, with John Wayne in the morning and Marlon Brando in the afternoon – with a bit of shopping in between. One of the things I love about this project is that most of the top 122 AFI films are available on DVD for 10 bucks or less, if you know where to look. My favorite haunts in the Boston area are the three Newbury Comics stores that fall within my regular turf: one at Harvard Square, one near our apartment at Alewife, and another near Burlington Mall. Elia Kazan's 1954 On the Waterfront is one of the ones that I couldn't find for under ten bucks no matter where I looked, but I finally found a copy today for twelve and jumped at it without a moment's hesitation. Some of the films on the list are worth making exceptions for. (Others in that category so far have included Taxi Driver and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and will include Network the next time I place an Amazon order.)

On the Waterfront, for the uninitiated, is the story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), the pugilist kid brother of Charley 'the Gent' Malloy (Rod Steiger), who is the right-hand man of corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly, who rules the shipyards – wait for it – on the waterfront. Johnny's boys skim off a huge take, resulting in the dockworkers living in near poverty, and anyone that rises up against them winds up dead. Terry's been pressed into service as one of Johnny's boys after his boxing career tanked (which, we find out, happened deliberately as a favor to Charley and Johnny), but his role in the death of a would-be informant pushes him over the edge, with a little help from Karl Malden's Father Barry and Eva Marie Saint's Edie Doyle (the sister of the deceased). As Edie and Terry become romantically involved, and Edie and Father Barry convince Terry to help take down Johnny Friendly – which, of course, means turning on his own brother. This is where the famous "I coulda been a contender" scene comes in, and it really is as great as film scholars have been saying for the last fifty years.

Brando's Terry has taken too may shots to the head, hence the famous Brando slurring of words, but Brando delivers the character with a fascinating mix of sweetness and battered cynicism. Although perhaps not as remarkably as The Third Man, the film makes great use of shadows, camera angles and moody tones, and there are several moments of real cinematic brilliance. The "coulda been a contender" speech in the back of a taxi is the most famous (don't miss the featurette on the DVD with James Lipton going on at great length about this scene's testament to the value of method acting) but there's another scene that really played to my interest in negative capabilities: the scene where Terry finally confesses to Edie his role in her brother's death is almost completely illegible – and intentionally so. The scene is first shot from a distance (echoed, perhaps, in There Will Be Blood) but the dialogue is almost completely drowned out by the sounds of the nearby shipyards. We are instead left to discern how the conversation is going through watching their faces (now in close-up), attempting to read their lips, and pieced together with only a couple of snippets of audible speech. Even so, or perhaps because of this, the scene is absolutely heartbreaking.

I'd been looking forward to watching On the Waterfront for a long time, and as has happened repeatedly with this project so far, I wasn't disappointed. Totally worth the extra cash, and it would have been totally worth its full list price as well. Highly recommended.

Critiques: The Searchers.

As I'm going through the AFI Top 100 (top 122, once you combine the old list and the new list), I'm continually discovering things. One, that it's a terrible idea to watch classic films late at night when you're tired, and two, it's a much better idea to wake up early on a Saturday morning and put one on – this morning, for example, I woke up and put on John Ford's 1956 Western The Searchers. The result was a nostalgic flashback to when I was a kid and the networks would play old movies after the cartoons on Saturdays, and a personal resolution that this is something I'll do with my kids someday. Laura and I were talking about the list in the car last night and I found out that she's seen way more of these than I have, in large part to this being something her family would do together. We did this in my family too, somewhat, but we never watched as many classics. I remember going to see Return of the Jedi a second time with my Mom, the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future movies with both of my folks, and seeing Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in the theater when I was 9 and falling asleep just as the crew was about to go back in time and waking up just after they returned, which meant that for years I thought Star Trek IV was just a really short, really dark movie that took place inside a spaceship. Yeesh.

Watching The Searchers, though, makes me wish that the VCR had been invented sooner, or that it might have become more widespread much earlier, since I suspect that my Grandpa Alexander and I might have had a great time watching these John Wayne movies together. Instead, Grandma and Grandpa's TV never even had video in jacks, which I remember from being frustrated the first time I tried to hook up my original NES, and instead of us watching this kind of thing together I just know that Grandpa had piles and piles of old Louis L'amour Westerns around the house, and I was too young to really get into them. I was more interested in G. I. Joe and Masters of the Universe, and our bonding experiences tended to happen more on our regular trips to the malls in Akron and Canton and sharing fried fish and shrimp at Red Lobster. I believe that's why I like going shopping and eating out so much now, because of how much fun I had with them when I was a kid.

Missed opportunities aside, watching John Wayne movies is a great way to understand the culture of my Grandpa's generation; knowing that this actor was considered worth emulating for a large demographic of men helps to understand their ethics, their attitudes, and even their modes of communication. I wonder what I'd be like now if I'd watched more John Wayne as a kid and less Captain Kirk. More stiff upper lip, I'm sure, more "That'll be the day!" and more swagger. Which now makes me wonder who the modern John Waynes are – Russell Crowe? Hugh Jackman? I tend to agree with the popular assertion that George Clooney is our generation's Cary Grant, and that my folks' generation John Wayne was probably Clint Eastwood, but modern Westerns tend to feel more like gimmick movies instead of a real, heartfelt genre. I managed to catch the modern remake of The 3:10 to Yuma while I was in Austin for AGDC last year and I thought it was fun, but it didn't feel like a real Western – but why that is, that's more difficult to explain.

The Searchers is a fascinating time capsule, both of what the Wild West might have been like and of how Hollywood was selling the Wild West in the mid-1950s. The scenes of the the film feel like an old Viewmaster toy reel, with beautifully clear skies and towering buttes and mesas. Watching The Searchers in HD-DVD like I did is somewhat jarring; a crisp, clear Western doesn't feel as authentic as a scratchy, somewhat out-of-focus Western (although there are a few scenes in the HD-DVD version that remain fuzzy, due to an uneven restoration), but I'm not sure that's it. It might be the tinny music, or the sense of, if you'll pardon the cliché, sweeping grandeur of the shots that are harder to get now outside of a CGI film. When watching The Searchers there's no sense that if the camera were to go over just one more hill there'd be a Wal-Mart and a McDonald's squatting next to a six-lane freeway, which is hard to replicate in modern Westerns. Political correctness also stands in the way of a really good modern cowboys-and-Indians movie, I suspect, due to both a more popular contemporary notion of relative culture values and of fear of lawsuits from the descendants of "the Comanch". And, oddly enough, the modern desire for the dark and bloody means that films where the good guys simply fall down clutching their chests when shot without a glimpse of red are getting harder and harder to come by – although they might be ideally suited for the kind of low-budget filmmaking delivered on YouTube. Films like this demonstrate that you don't need huge budgets to make entertaining films, just a handful of fascinating characters, some great character actors (Hank Worden's Mose Harper was priceless) and some brilliant settings – all great lessons for modern cineastes, media scholars and filmmakers to relearn.


New free Counting Crows tunes!

I was feeling kind of down today for some inexplicable reason, but then I found this: a free Digital 45 from Adam Duritz and company. There's two songs, "1492" and "When I Dream of Michelangelo" (which, I believe, is actually a line from "Angels of the Silences" way back on their second album). I'm listening to "1492" now and it's a pretty heavy electric piece. Thanks for the pickup, guys!

Update: This is nuts. "When I Dream of Michelangelo" may be the first song sequel I've ever encountered – the line is indeed lifted straight from their earlier piece, but this is vintage Duritz right here. "1492" was kind of meh, but "When I Dream of Michelangelo" had me clicking to replay instantly. Wow. Just... Wow. It makes me think back to summers in the RV crisscrossing the country with my family and an old college girlfriend, sand in my sandals, a Jim Morrison t-shirt on my chest and cargo shorts flapping against my monkeyboy-white knees.

Man, winter can be over any day now.


A little me to take with you.

Anyone out there with an iPhone should add me to your home screen – because you'll literally be adding me to your home screen. :-) Yes, this is what happens after a long day – I wind up making iPhone icons for myself, for CMS, for GAMBIT, for C3...


Critiques: Spartacus.

As it turned out, the next film up on my project list was 1960's Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and a very young Tony Curtis. Again, this was a viewing experience that I'm really glad to have had – Spartacus is one of those cast-of-thousands movies with a very palpable sense of its time, caught in the interim stages between a "big studio" DeMille-type movie and a more modern-day blockbuster. Some of the sets are delightfully fake, some of the background paintings look like something out of a stage production, but the scale of the film is really and truly fantastic. The "I am Spartacus!" scene, while legendary, did not disappoint, and the way Kubrick made both sides of the conflict sympathetic and intriguing was, of course, brilliantly well done. The only thing I didn't like was the overtly operatic four-minute overture at the beginning of nothing but music, and a similar pause at the intermission point in the middle. Contemporary audiences like me may find themselves glancing at their watches and contemplating the fast-forward button. Aside from that, though, very highly recommended.


Critiques: Jaws and Goodfellas.

As I've mentioned here before, one of my main resolutions this year was to finish watching the AFI's top 100 (now 122) best films of all time. I've debated with myself as to whether or not I should include my reactions to these films, or even share which films I'm currently watching, as some of the gaps in my viewing experience are, shall we say, excruciatingly embarrassing. For example, the two I've knocked off the list so far this week: Jaws (1975) and Goodfellas.

I can hear you spluttering now: "Geoff! You're a giant media geek! You own hundreds of movies! How can you have never seen Jaws or Goodfellas?" To which I will respond, "Yes, that, that right there, is what I'm trying to fix by watching these... That, a sense of missing some of the classic references in popular culture for the last 20-odd years, and a desire to really be able to hold my own when I eventually do begin to teach classes on subjects like these."

So. Jaws and Goodfellas.

First off, I want to note that even in these great American cinema classics, some of the acting is absolute crap. Some of it is brilliant – I very much appreciated all the main characters in Jaws, and I really liked Pesci and DeNiro in Goodfellas... But I can't stand Ray Liotta. His laugh in particular is like nails on a chalkboard to me, both in its sound and in the way he pulls his head back and drops his jaw into his neck. It's not a laugh, it's a totally phony cackle. Ugh.

Second, both films were really compelling stories. Some people belittle Jaws with the rest of Spielberg's early work as pop schmaltz, especially given its status as the first American blockbuster film (first ever to surpass the $100M mark) but I really appreciated the way that he depicted life in Martha's Vineyard, where all the Amity Island business was shot. I totally bought that the mayor and the locals would be willing to gamble with people's lives because if they didn't, they themselves would be completely out of business for the rest of the year. Jaws depicts two levels of a life-or-death struggle: man versus nature in the water and man versus nature in a larger socioeconomic playing field. Similarly, I enjoyed how Goodfellas depicted both De Niro's and Liotta's characters as outsiders in the gangster culture, reflecting tensions between immigrants and 'natives', members of rival families, issues of honor, issues of compensation, issues of family... Very, very well done, and its spot on the list was very well-deserved indeed.

Third, like I noted at the beginning of this entry, I really enjoy being able to truly get some of the cultural references that these films spawned in the last 20, 30 years. The "dance!" scene in Goodfellas, the "you're going to need a bigger boat" line in Jaws, Pesci's "do I amuse you?" routine, and – of all things – Roy Scheider's "that's some bad hat, Harry" line that spawned the name of the production company behind House M.D..

So far this has been a great project. I'm not sure what's next on my list: A Clockwork Orange, Bull Durham, Unforgiven... I'll probably catch at least one more before the end of the weekend, but we'll see what happens.

Macworld 2008: Something in the Air?

Teh Apple Intarwebs are all aflutter over a handful of photos posted over at Ars Technica depicting the first Macworld banners up at Moscone Center. Written across them in Myriad Light is the phrase, "2008. There's something in the air."

Oooooooh. What could it be? What could it be? So far the smart money's been on the following:

  • New wireless networking tools. At CES, wireless was all the rage. This has been going on for a while now, actually, what with the widespread proliferation of high-speed wireless networking equipment in a range of tasty flavors. 802.11g! 802.11n! Yummy. However, Apple's AirPort line hasn't been refreshed in a little while, and their tiny AirPort Express stations are reportedly out of stock across the country. A safe bet would be a new type of AirPort Express station with either higher speeds or additional content – perhaps an AppleTV Express that is only a dumb streaming terminal from your primary computer?

  • New Apple subnotebook. This has been a rumormonger's favorite for months – the existence of a superslim MacBook with no optical drive and a hard drive consisting of only Flash memory, possibly called the MacBook Thin, the MacBook Touch, or (now) the MacBook Air has been bouncing around the rumor mills since 2006. Most definitely, c'est possible.

  • Extended partnership with AT&T. Last year's partnering with AT&T for the iPhone connectivity might have only been the tip of the iceberg, and the same might be said for the Starbucks iTunes special stores (which, I might add, are taking way too dang long to roll out if we still don't have it around MI freaking T). A 3G iPhone is pretty much a sure bet as well, as AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson pretty much confirmed it back in November, but what if that hardware chipset was extended to all MacBook portables? What if every MacBook came with the same unlimited data plan for AT&T subscribers? Even if it's only the subnotebook with that plan, that would be one pretty spiffy machine if the bandwidth is high enough.

  • Wireless movie rentals. The movie rentals thing is said to be a done deal as well, so if we take that as a given and add that to the new Apple TV, renting movies wirelessly from your living room is nifty, although Pay-Per-View has been doing this for years, so it's not that nifty. Sure be a dang nice thing to have, though.

  • Apple's own wireless network. Another rumor has been that Apple will turn its back on AT&T altogether and introduce its own cellular network service, something that they'd been talking about doing before but I don't see happening, or even being announced, until after the upcoming FCC auction. Further modding this idea down is the fact that as of the latest release Apple wasn't even on the list of 266 applicants.

  • Wireless monitor connections. Wireless monitor connections would be cool, although it would probably require the addition of some new wireless tech (802.11x?) with much hgher bandwidth. More likely is the introduction of a wireless Apple tablet that controls your primary Mac, or – again with the obvious – the addition of some type of Apple Remote Desktop that allows you to remote-control your Mac from your iPhone using some type of screen sharing. I'd be hosed in this setup, since my iPhone screen real estate is a far cry from the three screens I have wired up to my G5 at home, but still – definitely another nice-to-have.

  • Wireless iPod headphones. Better wireless headphones would be sweet, and fairly doable – it's so easy to imagine white wireless iPod headphones that Logitech did it back in 2005, but a set straight from the mothership itself would be pretty sweet. Added coolness would be a set of headphones that used proximity sensors to determine which room they were in, and fade in and out the volume of the source media depending on what it's nearest. That way you could have the radio playing silently in one room and the TV playing silently in another and have your smart headphones determine the source as you're walking around. Hmmm. Even if they don't introduce something like that, that sounds like it would be a neat project...

All that said, the one thing, the absolute least likely thing, that I would love to see Apple announce that I've been kicking around my own head for a while...

  • Apple Cloud Computing.

I'm going to jump out of my bullet-point format here because my thoughts on this last one get lengthy, complete with quoted references – but bear with me, as this possibility is really very cool.

Different geeks define the Cloud in different ways, but the main notion of cloud computing, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Cloud computing is a computing paradigm shift where computing is moved away from personal computers or an individual application server to a “cloud” of computers. Users of the cloud only need to be concerned with the computing service being asked for, as the underlying details of how it is achieved are hidden. This method of distributed computing is done through pooling all computer resources together and being managed by software rather than a human.

The services being requested of a cloud are not limited to using web applications, but can also be IT management tasks such as requesting of systems, a software stack or a specific web appliance.

This simplifies IT management as well as increases efficiencies of system resources. IT administrators no longer need to install software and manually setup all the systems, but instead they have management software do this. Resources are used more efficiently as computers can be consolidated to be used for more tasks. This ensures underutilized systems do not sit idle.

The New York Times' John Markoff discussed cloud computing in the Bits section back in August 2007 in a piece called "Why Can't We Compute in the Cloud?" In it, he writes:

What’s holding back computing-in-the-cloud?

The arrival of increasing powerful and standardized Web browsers has made it possible to think about moving computing and data away from the desktop and the portable PC and simply displaying the results of computing that takes place in a centralized location and is then transmitted via the Internet on the user’s screen...

...For all the activity, however, one thing seems to be inexplicably missing.

There have been almost no credible efforts to design stripped down mobile computer hardware to match the wealth of Web software. There are a number of efforts to design full-featured palm-sized computers complete with small disk drives. And there are a smattering of efforts, such as Zonbu, a maker of a subscription-based desktop computer, or the odd smartphone “peripheral” that will shortly be available from Palm, designed as a sleek ultra-portable Linux-based laptop, but shackled it as an accessory for a Treo handheld.

That said, nobody seems to be ready to really gamble on computing on the Web.

Is anyone else wondering why Palm got a mention here but not the iPhone?

Me, what I'd like to see is a further extension of the cloud computing idea to incorporate the legions of iPhones, cell phones and other devices using a SETI@home model of distributed computing – although it'd be a hell of a battery drain and would, I think, require a much-improved bandwidth scenario, imagine being able to do video editing on your iPhone by distributing the processor load to the swarm of unused mobile devices around you at any given time?

Or, similarly, imagine what would happen if Apple unleashed this distributed processing model by slapping high-powered processors into their AirPort Express wi-fi stations so that the speed of your computing experience was determined not by the number of processors in your computer, but inside of your network? This isn't a far-fetched notion at all – in fact, Apple has already been using distributed computing technology in its own QMaster Services in Compressor, one of the software packages included in the Final Cut Suite since 2005. From Apple's own support documentation:

Compressor 2 can accelerate processing by distributing the work to multiple computers. All you need is access to more than one computer and Compressor 2 installed with either DVD Studio Pro 4 or Final Cut Studio. In addition, Apple Qmaster Services needs to be installed. Apple Qmaster Services can be installed via the Apple QMaster Installer (go to the Custom Install window to install only Services), which is provided with Final Cut Studio 1.0, DVD Studio Pro 4.0.

Compressor 2 and its Apple Qmaster 2 distributed processing system handle all the work distribution and processing for you behind the scenes. They subdivide the work for speed, route the work to the computers with the most available computing power, and direct the processing. For more information on distributed processing, open Compressor and choose Help > Distributed Processing Setup.

The inclusion of these QMaster services at the system level would enable distributed computing power to other applications as well – and other companies might be just waiting to jump on this bandwagon. Adobe CS3 Extended already plays well with MATLAB 7.0+, which includes among its features support for the MATLAB distributed computing engine. While the current model requires full installs of the software on multiple computers, it's likely only a matter of time before we elect to install new software not on our computer, but on our entire computing environment – and with the advent of data standards and systems like XML, system-level integration might not require the installation of 'client' apps onto multiple nodes at all. (Kind of a scary notion, actually – it's extremely easy to imagine malware implementations at this level.)

But, oh, wait, it's already happening: ever since Mac OS 10.3 Panther, Apple's been working on a distributed processing system called Xgrid:

Apple’s Xgrid technology makes it easy to turn an ad hoc group of Mac systems into a low-cost supercomputer. Leveraging the power of Mac OS X Server, Xgrid is an ideal distributed computing platform for individual researchers, specialized collaborators, and application developers.

Plus, Xgrid is already built to support Bonjour, Apple's zero-configuration technology:

Since Xgrid is built into Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server, configuration is easy. Using Xgrid Admin (or the command line, if you prefer), just designate one system as controller, then enable additional systems to act as Xgrid agents. All agents use the zero-configuration Bonjour technology to find the controller and bind to it automatically — no need to manually enter a slew of IP addresses.

So it looks like, software-wise, the pieces are all pretty much in place. This direction would only be accelerated by the transformations of wi-fi extenders like the AirPort Express into small headless computing cluster nodes – and while the iPhone's current 620MHz ARM processor is pretty weak, in a generation or three, it's entirely possible to imagine the scenario I describe above: all of us walking around in a persistent, ever-operational, ever-present ad hoc cloud of data-crunching, art-making and future-building processing activity.

We're very rapidly entering the age of ubiquitous computing, what my SXSW friend Adam Greenfield describes in his book Everyware (which, by the way, is a steal at less than twenty bucks, one-click now, operators are standing by). Some might argue that we're already there – I count myself among them. If Steve Jobs happened to agree, Tuesday's speech could be a very jaw-dropping experience indeed.


Critique: The Orphanage.

Tonight after work a bunch of us – Mike and his wife, Matt and Clara, Pilar, Talieh, Lana and our newest addition to the lab family Jesper Juul – caught a free preview screening of Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage (or, in its original Spanish, El Orfanato). The film didn't disappoint, as it was as dark and creepy and poetic as I was hoping it would be. It's beautifully shot, and although I have some issues with the subtitles – while I don't speak Spanish I do recognize the repetition of syllables enough to realize when a character's saying something repeatedly when it's roughly summarized as "very" in the little white letters – I thought it was very well done. Fans of Pan's Labyrinth might mourn the lack of magic, but it's not a fairy tale, it's a ghost story, and a dang good one at that. It's also got an ending with a touch of the same ambiguity as Pan's Labyrinth, which had me wondering if that was a Spanish thing or a Del Toro & Friends thing. Matt suspects it's primarily European thing, although I'm not so sure. It's odd, because there is a little bit of a Hollywood sense to it, but painted in a more complex, nuanced light than something like Alejandro Amenábar's The Others.

One thing I really enjoyed about this film, though, was how it scratched an itch I'd had for a while: I'd been wondering where all the really good modern ghost stories had gone. Sure, we've had a couple good ones here and there, but I would have thought that our modern day and age would be more receptive to ghost stories. My favorite scene in the film is one that reminded me of shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State, two kinda-reality TV series dealing with the paranormal on cable: the frantic parents bring in a medium to connect with the ghosts haunting the orphanage, and she shows up with an entire entourage armed to the teeth with videocameras, microphones, and wireless headsets. The medium goes into a trance, and then the team (and the parents) follow her wanderings through the house from a control station downstairs. The result is something similar to the old Sega CD game Night Trap, with a touch of the same sense of voyeur-esque remote control. The team issues commands to the medium as she wanders through the house, interacting with a past spirit world that only she can see. The audience is as limited as the team, viewing the medium's progress in the grainy night vision tones and experiencing only the scratchy, ghostly whispers and cries picked up by the medium's microphone.

That's where I think the modern ghost story really has the most to offer – in its expressions of what happens when technology fails us, or ways in which technology can serve us in ways that we don't fully understand. McLuhan's understanding of media was as extensions of man, things that extended our senses in other forms of distance, physicality, or temporality. What happens, then, when our devices pick up things we don't understand? When they see things we can't? Like cats staring at the corner of a room with their hackles slowly raising, a radio crackling as it picks up a transmission that there's no way it possibly could... This is the stuff of B-movies, but also the stuff of great literature and cinema, depending on how it's handled. Back around Halloween I attended a screening of the Japanese film Kairo introduced by Alan Lightman, the author of Einstein's Dreams and a lecturer here at MIT. The film itself was grim, dark, realistic and utterly chilling – and, in true Hollywood fashion, it was largely lobotomized when translated into the Kristin Bell vehicle Pulse. The idea of the ghost in the machine can provide cheap thrills, as proven by Michael Keaton's White Noise, or even cheaper thrills, as proven by the direct-to-video White Noise 2: The Light, despite its having starred Whedon regular Nathan Fillion. Yet it certainly doesn't have to – what, after all, are extensions of man if not extrasensory perception? Media as ESP? "Unnatural" technology as supernatural tools?

This summer there's a conference in the Netherlands that I really want to attend called Uncanny Media; something tells me that there's definitely a paper in this line of reasoning. First the writing, then the submission, and then, if accepted, comes trying to scrape together airfare to Utrecht. Ah, the glamorous globetrotting life of the academic!

Long story short: The Orphanage was worth seeing. It might be the kind of thing better experienced in one's home theater, however, due to the ease with which a fat guy two rows back constantly scoffing and wheezing can spoil the delicious mood and suspense Bayona worked so hard to achieve. Still, the film is a creepy, extremely atmospheric piece with some truly interesting bits for fans of artful, techno-savvy ghost stories. Recommended.


HD on the cheap.

I know, I know – I've been harping on this whole home theater thing for over a week now. Only a few more posts, and hopefully I'll have this out of my system.

This evening I realized something interesting: I think I may have successfully constructed an entry-level 1080p HD home theater for well under $2000. The majority of the cash was dropped on the TV, a Vizio VU42LF that I acquired at Costco for around $1099. The HD-DVD player is an Xbox 360 ($350 at Amazon) with the HD-DVD add-on ($180 also at Amazon) with the Pioneer HTS-GS1 5.1 Surround Sound Speaker System ($100 at, although it's currently unavailable). Add onto that the Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 universal remote ($79.99 at Amazon), an XtremeHD TOSLink optical audio cable ($10.99 on Amazon) and the Xbox 360 VGA HD AV cable ($33.99 on Amazon) and the whole kit and caboodle comes to $1775 before taxes.

It's not the greatest system in the world – the sound is solid but not as jaw-dropping as you'd get in an Onkyo TrueHD setup, and the picture is crisp and beautiful in HD but the blacks aren't as rich and dark and solid as you'd find on a Samsung – but considering that the grand total is less than many people would pay on a TV, I'd say this is a great setup for someone just entering the world of home theater. I plan to upgrade the setup bit by bit over the next half-decade or so, of course – I'll probably start with a PS3 this summer so I can grudgingly follow the rest of the world to Blu-Ray, and maybe upgrade the TV in a couple of years, followed by the sound system – but for someone on a limited budget and trying to pay down their student loans and whatnot, this is a great, great system. New college grads, grad students, media scholars and creative professionals take heed!

In the name of full disclosure, I should add that I do have some extra components in my own setup that bump the final cost to over the two grand mark: the cable box, of course, as well as a Wii, an Apple TV and two HDMI cables running them to the TV. A second TOSLink optical audio cable is also required to wire these beasties into the speakers, and an XtremeHD HDMI switch will have to be added to the kit when a PS3 enters the scene because the TV I bought only has two HDMI ports in it – but since it does have a VGA cable and my Xbox 360 is old enough to not have an HDMI port, this setup is dang near perfect for me. Yesterday's unveiling of new Mac Pro towers without any high-def disc drives suggests that Apple is still holding off on the HD front, but hopefully they'll add HD content to the Apple Store so I can get it onto my Apple TV.

Whatever. I'm currently watching the third season of Lost in SD on this system and the scene where gunmen are tramping about overhead in the boat freaked me out so much in surround sound that I had to pause it and check there wasn't someone really banging around upstairs. Money well spent indeed!


A very odd battlefield.

So, in a turn of events that probably has all the politicos scratching their heads, McCain defeated Romney and Clinton is currently besting Obama in the New Hampshire primary. Adding further complexity to the matter, Huckabee, who took first in the Republican race in Iowa, came in a somewhat distant third – McCain took 37% of the vote, Romney took 31% and Huckabee snared a lowly 12%, only three percentage points better than Giuliani and four better than Ron Paul. Fred Thompson? 1%. Ouch.

Things weren't much clearer on the Democratic side of the ticket – as of this writing, Clinton has 39%, Obama has 36%, but Edwards, who dang near tied these two in Iowa, is trailing with a weak 17%.

But you know what's really awesome? What's genuinely, truly heartening to young people, intelligent people and people fed up with the crap we've been getting from Washington for the past God-knows-how-many years? From the same New York Times article:

Reflecting the intense statewide interest in the contest in both parties, turnout approached record levels and New Hampshire’s independent voters most likely were the ones who decided both parties’ races. Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain won the votes of independents by large margins over their closest competitors, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Romney, according to exit polls.

Roughly four in 10 voters who participated in each primary identified themselves as independents.

Rock the vote indeed! I tell you what, this is going to be a primary to watch.


Cooking: Maple Bacon Jalapeño Jack Cheeseburgers.

I think the secret to keeping one's New Year's resolutions is making the right resolutions. Yesterday Laura and I marched down to Whole Foods and dropped somewhere around $120 in groceries, but I'm willing to bet that we bought enough stuff to keep us in chow for a week or two. Tonight I finally got to try out a recipe I'd had my eye on for months in Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Dinners – his recipe for really good hamburgers.

In true chef fashion we futzed with it a bit, cutting the coriander and cumin and upping the amount of egg (he calls for one egg for eight burgers, and we used one egg for four), topped it with jalapeño jack cheese and some really amazing maple rub bacon, and served it up on toasted buns with buttered green beans and rosemary-and-olive-oil red potato wedges. Beer on the side – Killian's red for her and Samuel Adams for me. We just finished dinner and I'm absolutely stuffed, but if we get the munchies later we still have lemon crumble pie for dessert.

Living that well can not be good for you. I estimate that meal would've run us $40-$50 easy someplace like Applebee's... And it was so much better. Screw eating out – home cooking is so the way to go!

Also of note: for those of you who read this blog through RSS feeds, I've updated the collection of Flickr selections on the side of this page to get a little green back onto these parts. Nothing like the brown, dreary days after the holidays to send a man yearning for the next three months to go flying by... These pics were all grabbed at the Winston Flowers & Garden in Newton, Massachusetts the last time my folks were in town, which was back in September. Someday it'll be green around here again, right?


Life in the Future.

This is one of my favorite times of the year – the two-week period that contains both the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and MacWorld. As a future-loving son of a gun, I've been restlessly refreshing the newsfeeds at Electronista, Gizmodo and Engadget to stay on top of all the new announcements. So far, here are my favorite picks:

  • The PS3 is rapidly going from zero to hero (Hercules!) and Sony's long-term household media system strategy is beginning to coalesce into something potentially brilliant. Stuff magazine is reporting a rumored PS3-compatible AIBO robot dog, Sony is apparently bringing Skype to the PS3, and given Warner Bros.' recent Blu-Ray switch, things may finally be turning around for the beleaguered PS3 (especially if New Line's Blu-Ray commitment means Lord of the Rings in HD).

  • Two words: Stargate Worlds. Assuming Cheyenne Mountain doesn't drop the ball on this one, an SG-1/Atlantis MMO might be something I could really get behind.

  • From the what's-next-in-your-cellphone department: apparently 3M's mobile mini-projector is finally ready for prime time. Half an inch thick, able to project a 40-inch or larger image at VGA resolution... My main concern would be the power draw on something like this, but the option of whipping out my iPhone and projecting a movie onto the nearest wall is pretty thrilling.

  • Ever since first seeing frogdesign's redesigned concept Mac for Macworld magazine back in the 90s, I've been fascinated by concept machines – and Fujitsu is apparently showing off one of my new favorites. Imagine a "soft, pliable" fabric laptop. Also of note, an electronic card viewer, a salesclerk browser, and a customer browser. All of these are pretty dang sharp.

  • People are slowly coming around to the thing that I've been harping on for years: the LG watch phone is just a prototype for now, but it's a sign that hopefully the wrist-bound interface for calls is finally becoming more widespread. Couple this with improved, more ubiquitous wireless headphones and my proposed personal communications network (PCN) is almost here...

On the Mac side of things, the rumors are flying fast and furious now, with just enough actual news included in the froth to keep things interesting:

  • Erector, of all people, seems to be gunning for the LEGO Mindstorms market (kinda) with their Spykee Skype-enabled robots. Three new models include iPod and iPhone docks in their crotches, which is a little pervy but still an awesome idea. Imagine programming a 'bot to bring your phone to you when it rings...

  • ShowTime's demonstration of video recording on the iPhone demonstrates that this functionality is at least possible, if somewhat suboptimal; 6FPS is a long, long way from broadcast quality. Still, as a proof of concept it's encouraging that this might be one of the features Apple could unlock on the iPhone with a firmware upgrade.

  • One of the perks of being an Apple aficionado is the collective Photoshop prowess of the tribe – every year before Steve Jobs' big talk teh Intarwebs are flooded with mockups of possible new devices, and this year's no different – behold the shoulda-woulda-coulda wündercomps of the Apple MacBook Touch. There's all kinds of these rumors going around now, largely based off of recently-unveiled Apple patents for an iMac-like laptop dock and a dynamically-lit keyboard. The keyboard sounds an awful lot like Art. Lebedev's Optimus Maximus keyboard, although what has me really excited is Lebedev's Tactus concept. While 2008 might not be the year of the touchscreen, is sure looks like 2009 or 2010 will be.

  • If there's one thing that looks like a sure thing for the Stevenote, it's the addition of video rentals to the iTunes store. This has been in the wings for a while now, but a barrage of recent reports on the rumor sites sure seems to suggest that where there's smoke, there's fire: Variety says so, The New York Times says so, even The Financial Times says so.

  • This leads me to what I myself am personally hoping for, although I don't know if it'll happen: HD-quality video downloads from the Apple store. There's been talk that the Apple TV will be getting a shot in the arm at Macworld, and I'd say this would be the easiest way to do it – the Apple TV can support 720p playback but the Apple Store currently only offers videos at NTSC TV resolution, which is 640x480 or lower. 1080p would be ideal, but the files required for that sort of thing would be mammoth, so I suspect 720p will be the way to go. If Apple does rentals without the inclusion of HD, I suspect they'll be just as poorly received as the Apple TV has been so far because of an astonishingly uncharacteristic oversight on Apple's part – the massive chunk of the Venn diagram between Apple TV owners and HDTV owners. SD content looks like crap on an HDTV and the early-adopters who are the target market for devices like the Apple TV have said so loudly and repeatedly. Jobs previously referred to the Apple TV as a "hobby" for the company rather than an actual product line, which also didn't do the device any favors, but like my folks always taught me, anything worth doing is worth doing right. I suspect the Apple TV line will either get an upgrade to HD at Macworld or get dropped altogether in favor of something else, but I could be wrong.

  • New towers are also probably going to make an appearance, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they were accompanied by the long-overdue Cinema Displays with built-in iSight cameras. The standalone iSight was discontinued, what, a year and a half ago? For some reason the new displays with that included still haven't appeared, which I suspect may have to do with the company's reluctance to offer new displays without the HDCP required for eventual HD movie playback – and HDCP inclusion would require (I think) new hardware on the tower side as well, so I suspect we'll see this whole package show up at the Stevenote. And, I suspect, that will include a Blu-Ray drive as a BTO option, especially given the Warner defection. Yeah, yeah, I know – it sure looks like I backed the wrong horse on that race. Oh, well – mea culpa.

  • The two big buzzwords at CES this year are wireless and GPS, so I'm hoping we'll see similar trends at Macworld as well. Wireless TruHD speaker systems! Improved wireless headphones! True GPS functionality in the iPhone! Bring it on!

There have been a large number of times during my stint at MIT when I've found myself grinning from ear to ear and remarking at how much I love living in the future. It's true. The future is awesome. It's exceptionally gratifying to see things that I'd hoped for two or three years ago finally come to market, which means that if my predictions and mental sketches continue to stay accurate, the next 5-10-20 years are going to be amazing. Let's hope we don't wind up getting thrown into another Dark Age by war or climate collapse before we can get there, okay?


Critique: There Will Be Blood.

Last night my friends Matt and Clara and I went out after work to catch Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, There Will Be Blood. Matt's a huge Anderson fan, and when he found out the film was opening up in Harvard Square, we rocketed down there to catch the 6PM showing. I myself am a fair-to-middling Anderson fan, having enjoyed Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, but not a big enough Anderson fan to have ever dedicated too many brain cells to the actual analysis of one of his films.

Until now.

First, let me say that it's a darn good thing we went to the 6 o'clock showing, because at two hours and thirty-eight minutes it's a long, grueling ride – especially considering that the entire thing is pretty much the tragic life story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). I will defer to the IMDB for the further synopsis (warning, potential spoilers ahead):

There Will Be Blood is a movie " loosely " adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson from the 1927 novel OIL! by Upton Sinclair. The movie centers on a character Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who starts out as a simple silver miner, that happens upon oil in his silver efforts. Fast forward a few years and he's made himself a pretty rich man, a wise and shrewd business/oil man, that gets to the point to where he'll step over anyone to get what he wants. You see, Daniel Plainview is not a very decent person, who constantly wrestles with his demons. He is a borderline nihilist, who doesn't like people and thinks most humans are lazy and ignorant. You understand the only reason that he has people in his life is because he couldn't benefit financially if he didn't. Otherwise he could care less. It's all about finding new oil spots with him, and nothing will get in his way and derail his goals. He may not be a good man, but you cannot deny his desire and work ethic. He risks his life more than once setting up oil derricks. But, he almost meets his match in the form of a young man of the word of God in Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano. This is not a good relationship. You see, Plainview wants to drill for oil on the Sunday's property. And he wants to do so in a not so honest way, by chiseling them out of their share of money. He thinks the Sunday family are hicks. Ignorant with absolutely no business sense, which is somewhat true. But Eli knows they are in for more than Plainview tells them. Essentially, Plainview will be ripping off the Sunday family. Things start to happen that aren't good. Plainview seeths for Eli. You get the idea that if he could kill Eli, and get away with it then he would. Eli, for his own merit, is a blow hard, and Plainview knows this. But for all of the hard work Daniel has done over the years, little things begin to perculate mentally with him. The demons begin to really get to him as he tries to hide and ignore them. Though he becomes rich beyond his imagination, there is a price to pay. Nobody ends up the true winner. Almost every human emotion is displayed in TWBB. Love, hate, passion, greed, jealousy, pettiness, paranoia, trust and sadness. Morality really becomes the true issues in this story. As for the script, there is much material for the thesp Day Lewis to sink his teeth into as Plainview. In reading, you can relate to why he accepted the role. Any actor would have. It's a impressive script that should adapt well to the movie screen.

At the point the credits rolled, I honestly didn't know if I liked the film or not. Anderson and Day-Lewis created a character that is so completely and utterly dark that he's almost completely irredeemable; rather than sympathizing with his character, the audience is subjected to a sense of watching a predator at work. Robin Williams' character in One Hour Photo is a sad, lonely man driven over the edge when his fragile world is tipped on its ear, and Williams' portrayal of him is one that is almost completely sympathetic. Not here – Day-Lewis' Plainview is, to rip off a phrase, "more human than human." There is certainly something about him that reminds viewers of the starring critters from the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, but at the same time he's an evolved monstrosity, his sharpest teeth and claws coming as a result of purely human sins.

If you think about the majority of the Ten Commandments, a growing theme begins to emerge: thou shalt be human, by not engaging in animalistic behavior. "Thou shalt not covet they neighbor's wife" can be read as "thou shalt engage in social contract theory to maintain an exclusive mating relationship with only one other, previously uncommitted, individual". While there are other animals that maintain monogamous, lifelong relationships, the overwhelming attitude in the animal kingdom is to get what thou canst, as often as thou canst. Plainview is, in some ways, a saint of sinners – by the end of the movie, we've never once seen him engage in any mating relationships at all. He acquires his son by essentially adopting the offspring of one of his employees when the workman is killed in an on-site accident, and in a later scene we see him waiting in a brothel while another character does his business (on Plainview's nickel, no less), a distasteful look on his face. Plainview's sins are mostly "higher" sins – while he does lie to construct his empire, Plainview elevates this to the art form of manipulation. Greed is elevated to a frighteningly concentrated level of drive, a work ethic overgrown into full poisonous bloom. Murders are committed, yes – the title is certainly an appropriate one – but they are almost exclusively acts of revenge, and even these acts of vengeance are done not out of envy, greed or lust but out of deeply, deeply wounded pride.

Plainview's one sympathetic trait emerges in his dealings with family, although even this is twisted and tainted. When others question his parenting style, Plainview is reduced to a snarling, snapping feral creature, an artful blend of pride and chilling malice. At one point Plainview threatens another character who has dared to offer parenting advice that he will find where the offender lives, steal into his house in the middle of the night and murder him. Plainview is a deeply lonely man, and knows that he has truly screwed up relations with his adopted son, but God help the man who points this out to him. There is one scene where Plainview subjects to being brought low by the holier-than-thou preacher Eli Sunday in order to gain the land rights he needs to secure his empire, and Sunday proceeds to rub Plainview's nose in his failures as a parent in front of the entire congregation. There is a brief flicker of genuine repentance and true pain on Plainview's face as he makes the confessions that Sunday demands, but then Plainview's facade slams shut again and the audience knows that Sunday has just crossed the wrong man, if you'll pardon the pun.

In a rogue's gallery of psychopaths, Plainview rubs shoulders with Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter and Matt Damon's talented Mr. Ripley. Each of these characters achieves true monstrosity while also demonstrating mastery of traits that our culture typically glorifies – Plainview's rough-edged industriousness serves as a sort of protoform for the intellectual artisanship of Lecter and Ripley. Yet while Lecter and Ripley emerge as antiheroes of their own, anyone would be hard-pressed to create a franchise of films around Plainview. His character is a tragic one, compelling to watch but nowhere near sympathetic enough to leave viewers clamoring for more. But, of course, that's not the point of There Will Be Blood; this is art, to be sure, and Anderson succeeds brilliantly in creating a single standalone piece that serves as a conversation piece among critics and laypeople alike.

For example, I can easily imagine using this film in future comparative media classes to show what film can do that books can't. Anderson uses composition, contrasting color, and perhaps most stunningly, sound to create an artifact that really demonstrates what this media form has to offer. The opening scene of the film finds a young Plainview digging alone in a deep shaft for the silver that he will use to fund his eventual oil enterprises. The majority of these shots are tight close-ups of Day-Lweis' profile, sweat dripping from his filthy face, the cinematography almost as perfectly claustrophobic as the shaft itself. The shaft is bleak, cast in dark, cold blacks and blues, and when Plainview strikes a match the tiny flicker of red light against that backdrop is beautiful. The sound effects are equally stunning – the film is often punctuated by the sounds of Plainview breathing, a ragged rasp that stands in stark contrast to the smooth butterscotch tones of his speaking voice, which Day-Lewis delivers in an utterly mesmerizing smooth, rolling cantor that sounds like he's channelling Hugo Weaving. The score for the film is another bizarrely compelling piece of work, often consisting of dissonant swells and lulls with an odd, techno-industrial bent to it – which makes perfect sense when the composer is revealed to be none other than Radiohead's lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

There is one scene in particular that stands out as a textbook case of the art of cinema – when Plainview's son comes home after having been unwillingly sent away by Plainview for an unspecified amount of time, the reunion is captured in an extremely long shot. The camera keeps a huge amount of distance between us and Plainview, establishing a sense of disconnection in what would otherwise be a very intimate moment – which is exactly what's happening between Plainview and his son – but this is complicated by the sound at this point in the film, which was, I'm pretty sure, captured by a clip-on mic; the theater is filled with the rustling sound of the two embracing, with Plainview's breath, with the oilman's whispers of what would normally be love falling upon (literally) deaf ears, resulting in an overwhelming sense of false reunion, showing their connection to be both torn and probably an illusion, which may be what it was all along.

Overall, There Will Be Blood is an ultimately rewarding experience. In the hands of a lesser actor Plainview might have easily descended into melodramatic moustache-twirling, but Day-Lewis and Anderson shove the character right up to the precipice of stereotypical villainy while still staying just barely in the realm of art. (It was Matt's idea to imagine the role as played by William Shatner, which I hesitate to suggest here at the risk of having the film completely corrupted, but the mental image is howlingly funny.) It's a display of skill by both the actor and the director to keep the film teetering on that brink without falling off, and when coupled with brilliant cinematography and sound design the complete package is definitely something to see. Far, far from the feel-good movie of the year, but a must-see for the literature, film and media scholars in the crowd.


Aw, rats.

According to a new press release, "Warner Bros. Entertainment to Release its High-Definition DVD Titles Exclusively in the Blu-Ray Disc Format Beginning Later This Year". Rats. Well, it's like I've said from the get-go – I have a HD-DVD player, I will have a Blu-Ray player, and until my HD-DVD player dies and it's impossible to get another one, my current HD library will function just fine.

However, this might be a nudge in the butt to buy that PS3 sooner rather than later, before I buy any more HD movies...


Contemplating the Caucuses.

I'm trying not to get all worked up about next year's election, since the last time I was thoroughly excited about an election – ahem – things didn't go as I'd hoped. However, I've still got enough political interest left to have me keeping an eye on the Iowa caucuses tonight, which, for those of you who don't follow politics that much, often serve as a sort of canary in the coal mine for who's going to land the nomination for each party. Consider the previous winners of this particular contest:

2004 John Kerry2000 George W. Bush
2000 Al Gore1996 Bob Dole
1992 Tom Harkin1988 Bob Dole
1988 Richard A. Gephardt 
1984 Walter F. Mondale 

At this moment, ~9:20 PM EST, the Dems are reporting an Obama-Edwards-Clinton neck-and-neck-and-neck race, with results at 33.7%, 31.9% and 31.6% respectively. Total, that's 97.4%; Bill Richardson's weighing in with 1.7% and Biden's at 0.9%, leaving Dodd, Gravel, Ohio's local loon Kucinich and all others at 0.0%. I hadn't honestly expected Edwards to be making such a strong showing, but good for him!

What interests me even more than the Dems at the moment is the Republican race. Mike Huckabee's been declared the winner already with 35% of the votes, followed by Romney with 24, Thompson with 14.2, McCain with 11.8, Ron Paul with 10.9 and – this is where I cackle with glee – Giuliani with a paltry 3.7%. Why does this warm my heart? Because I've found Giuliani's campaign technique so far to be utterly deplorable, a despicable attempt to capitalize on the loss of American lives during 9/11. Up until I stopped keeping track, for the majority of his campaign every single one of his speeches included some sort of reference to 9/11. And, by God, I sure hope to high heaven that the next 4-8 years aren't going to be dictated by the events of 9/11 as the last 4-8 years.

God, I miss The West Wing. I loved Charlie Wilson's War – Aaron, buddy, where are you now that we need you? We're sorry we turned up our noses at Studio 60! Please tell us you got your snarking at the TV industry out of your system and are working on a new political series! We're dying out here in an arid wasteland of I Love New York and other reality dreck! Save us! Please!


Whither the classics on HD?

Following up on last night's post about Bob Rehak's movie-a-day project, one of my longstanding goals has been to watch the entirety of the AFI's Top 100 Movies list. Putting two and two together, it only makes sense that this would be a great place to start my own movie-a-day project (right after I finish Lost, I think).

This is complicated by the publication in 2007 of a "10th Anniversary 100 Greatest List", which is, of course, different from the one I'd been using. I've only seen an embarrassing 39% of the original list, and an even more embarrassing 33% of the new list. How many have you seen? The list is up on Wikipedia; check it out for yourself.

What surprises me, though, is how few of these classics are currently available in HD. Of the 100+ titles (of both lists combined), I think the only ones available on HD-DVD are as follows:

  • The Deer Hunter
  • Unforgiven
  • Spartacus
  • 2001
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • Goodfellas
  • Casablanca
  • Blade Runner

I just picked up the majority of these due to two whopping after-Christmas sales currently running at Amazon and Best Buy, and I'll even stake the following claim: when studios release these films in a high-definition format that I have access to (which is HD-DVD, until I invest in a PS3 sometime this summer), I'll plunk down the cash. I want to up those percentages I listed above, and I want to build up the 'classics' section of my film library – but I want to do it in a way that I won't wind up replacing the discs again in another two years. (Yeah, yeah, I know – if HD-DVD loses the HD war, yadda yadda yadda, but it's the hardware I already have, so I'm not too worried about it.)

Hopefully these discs will show up by the weekend, along with the speakers I ordered. Since Laura's working on Saturday (the drawbacks of working retail), I may have to take some time off my Lost-watching schedule to gorge myself on some classics.


Happy New Year!

After yesterday's lengthy status report, I was just going to make a quick "Auld Lang Syne" type of post here today, but I've decided instead to outsource the expressing of my sentiments to others.

"I am never sad to see a year go because, if I've done my job living wisely and well, it will have prepared me for the year to come and I have no regrets... I believe we are in fact offered this every day if we choose to take advantage of it. New Year's Eve is just the global reminder that such redemption exists, and belongs to each of us."
"May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself."

Sentiments in the form of beautiful visuals are provided by both Craig Thompson (of Blankets fame) and John Allison (of Scary Go Round fame). I love the idea of 2008 as "International Year of Mysteries", by the by.

Also of note, I'm currently utterly infatuated with my friend Bob Rehak's idea of a movie a day; I think this might be a resolution I could totally get behind. I've spent the last couple of days chewing through Lost, at long last; I'm through Season One and several discs into Season Two. I can now finally (finally!) speak with Ivan and Sam and Henry about the Others and the hatch and other such things, although I'm skeptical I'll be able to get all the way through the end of Season Three before the premiere on January 31st. Should be fun trying, though!

In any case, may all your new years be joyous, full of love and fun. May 2008 be the year that you rediscover something you've always loved, and discover something new that you'll always treasure. Happy New Year!